Despite the minor injuries I received each day from training with Hugh, by the time we reached Handoleren I was feeling better than I had since leaving the hospital. My ribs felt alright, my head wasn’t hurting anymore, and the stab wound seemed totally healed – the remains of the healing salve had crumbled away leaving a thick, lumpy scar.
The city had a much more intentional look than Yallowsben, with stone walls rising up in a perfect hexagon. A shorter but still intimidating wall of logs standing on end circled farmland, this time with actual fields rather than the strange vertical farms. We rode past what looked a lot like corn on one side, and gorgeous rippling fields of purple wheat on the other.
Once again, we were able to enter without any kind of paperwork or anything. The guards looked a little more alert and a little better equipped but paid us no more attention. The architecture was similar to Yallowsben with the pagoda-like layered roofs, but overall the place was cleaner and the streets were laid out in a more organized way. Between that and the nice walls, it felt like Yallowsben had grown over time and Handoleren had been built all at once.
The inn that Hugh chose was clearly one he already knew, because he took us directly there despite it being hidden way back in a dead end against one of the outer walls. It was slightly crooked, with the third floor looking particularly unsafe, but it was strung with paper lanterns and a cheerful tune drifted from the open front door. It was the first time I'd heard music since arriving, and it made me think once again about the massive library of songs stuck forever on my dead phone.
The sign on the inn showed a smiling cartoony boar, with an axe in its back. It didn't seem bothered, but there was a huge pool of blood under it. Katrin gave the sign a funny look, but it wasn't like I was going to question Hugh. Someone came out and helped us get the moskar stabled and then we went in and Hugh argued with the innkeeper for a few minutes in a language my bracelet didn't translate. Argument or not there was a friendly undercurrent, like that time I watched Bill argue with an old woman at the grocery store over whether or not he could pay for her food since she had left her purse at home. When would that have been? Why had I been at the grocery store with my case worker? It didn't matter anymore.
After a moment they smiled and shook hands, and Hugh led us upstairs to the third floor. From the inside it didn't seem as precarious as it had from out front, although I could still tell that the floor had a distinct lean. Our room was large but had only two beds, and Hugh made it clear he expected to get one of them. Errod volunteered to sleep on the floor, and it didn't even occur to me to suggest otherwise - the beds looked extremely comfortable.
"Hugh. You told me that Lord Protector Hammersmith gave you the letter and the bracelet and told you about my dog. What else did she give you?"
He pulled his boots off and sighed. "What are you getting at, Calliope Smith?"
"Did she give you money for my clothes? Or was that your money? Do I owe you?"
"Ah. You do not need to worry, yes? I have money enough, and can be reimbursed for any reasonable expenses."
"I was hoping you'd say that."
Hugh sighed again, deeply, and closed his eyes as he laid back on the bed. "And so the true motives are revealed. Reasonable expenses, Calliope. And we have already picked up two stray children that are costing us money."
"Katrin says there's someone that can measure my mana capacity. Please."
"I can tell you for free. Your capacity is low, because you have not used magic. It is low because you have come here from a place where there is no magic at all. Over time, you will use more and it will increase. Paying to have it tested now is a waste of money."
"I need to. Hugh. Come on. I'll even pay you back, once I have money. The letter said they'd be giving me money when I got there, but that's days from now. I need to know so I can figure out what's keeping me from casting spells. It's getting in the way of my training."
Hugh had some very condescending things to say about the quality of training I could expect from someone so young and who could only reliably cast three spells, but he liked Katrin and respected people wanting to improve themselves and so in the end with the help of some puppy-dog eyes I was able to secure some coin. Katrin and I headed out into the city and she found the right part of the market without difficulty, but I almost wished she'd had trouble because I realized when the time came that I was dreading it. What if it was all bad news?
The proprietor was an old woman with elaborate ornaments in her silver hair, intertwined rings with all sorts of stars and birds dangling from them. She sat me down and took my head in her hands, and I felt a warmth flowing through me.
"You have been doing magic?"
"Trying. I haven't managed to cast a spell yet."
"Hmm. There is strain here, the type caused by using more mana than you can handle. Be careful, you could do permanent damage."
Katrin looked thoughtful, but I was pretty sure it was just whatever had happened when I was pulled from Earth. Even if it hadn't been my doing, surely that would have been traumatic to my system somehow. I certainly hadn't cast any spells. "But you do think I can cast spells?"
"Very few humans have so little that they cannot cast at all, and even they can increase their ability over time. Uldrati are the only race that cannot use magic in any way."
She opened a wooden chest and pulled out what looked like an enormous vertebra carved with runes like the ones from Katrin's book. "There is no perfect way to measure mana. When you become more experienced and can feel its flow, you will be able to estimate it. But for convenience’s sake, we do sometimes try to put numbers on it." Placing the vertebra on a small table next to me, she reached into the center and twisted something. "This will cast a specific very well-known spell most often called 'Herrod's Beacon'. In its unmodified state it uses a consistent amount of mana, so by timing how long it lasts you can track your progression."
Once again she held my head in her hands, and I felt that warmth increase until it was an uncomfortable heat, then back off again. "There. We have found your natural limit. Place your hand here… good, and then begin sending your mana into it."
"I don't know how."
"You should feel it pulling at you, trying to access your mana. You need only let it in."
I've never been the sort to meditate, but for magic there was nothing I wouldn't try. I closed my eyes and tried to feel what she was describing. I could smell some kind of incense, and even though she'd taken her hands away I could faintly sense where they had been touching my head. I could feel my clothes brushing against my skin as I breathed in and out, and hear sounds of the city outside. And... there was something else. It was like when you were in a pool and you stood near the water intake for the filter. A slight... current. As I mentally probed at it, it felt like putting my hand on the end of a vacuum cleaner hose. Something gave way.
I opened my eyes, and a glowing cube of light was hovering in the air next to me. It rotated slowly and seemed to glimmer like a star. I knew that I wasn't really casting a spell, just letting some magical device borrow my energy - but it was still my energy, and it was still doing something magic. That was already amazing. It didn't last long, though. The cube winked out, and the woman moved my hand and lifted the vertebra away, tilting it at an angle and squinting at the center - it looked hollow to me, but whatever she saw there seemed to satisfy her.
"A typical person with no experience would read as one and a half to two using this method. A student of the arts might show as nine, one who has been casting professionally for years in a limited way could reach as much as fifty-four, and those who dedicate themselves to self-improvement might be at ninety or more. You are at roughly... seven. Quite high, for someone who claims to not know any spells yet. For an additional charge, I can attempt to expand this - my Dumine covers both mana and enhancement magic."
Katrin had warned me ahead of time that the woman would offer, and had said it wasn't a great use of money unless I had an unusually low capacity - the change would be temporary, and so while it could in theory help me to expand my permanent capacity a little it probably wasn't worth it. I considered the numbers she'd used as examples - yet again, they were nice round numbers if you thought in sets of six - and it felt like a seven was something I should be pleased with. I just needed to figure out how to use it.
After thanking the woman and paying her, we headed back towards the main gate so that we could find the inn. Katrin was hoping that powering that spell had kickstarted something inside me, and was eager to make me practice while also warning me that the test probably drained all of my mana for now. I was in high spirits, but something caught my eye that made me hesitate.
"Katrin I... want some time alone for a bit. Let me wander, I'll be back in an hour. Okay?"
If she suspected something I couldn't tell. She just smiled and hurried off, and I turned to follow the men I'd spotted. They were accompanied by guards, and one was holding a rolled-up carpet or something. I'd seen it before. When the soldiers in that camp had packed up, it was the only thing they'd taken out of the big tent. Were these two the same that had been keeping guard at that tent? They weren't in uniform anymore, and I hadn't gotten a good enough look at them to be sure.
I kept telling myself I was being silly - I was new to this world, and for all I knew this type of carpet was a normal thing that everyone had. It could be a religious item, or some common magical device. There was no reason to believe it was the same one from that camp. And anyway, there was a war going on - if these guys were enemy troops the town's guards wouldn't be letting them in and escorting them somewhere.
I was still a little shaky on the specific politics, but I knew that Handoleren belonged to the Patic Empire which was fighting the bat-riding assholes I'd delt with. Theramas, our final destination, was in the Eldred Empire despite being not very far away - there didn't seem to be any actual borders, it was all about which cities belonged to who and the land in-between was ignored unless there was a mine or something - and they were fighting the bat guys too.
I followed them to a very nice building that was set apart from the ones around it by long skinny flower beds overflowing with orange blossoms. I circled around and tried to decide if there was an easy way to get a peek inside. I didn't want to get arrested or anything, especially since it was probably nothing, but I also refused to walk away. The flower beds meant the sides were too exposed, and when I checked the back there was a guard lounging against the only door. It was a narrow alley, so I couldn't hang around without being obvious. Instead I hurried past and to the next street, where I got a closer look at the building whose rear shared that alley.
It was a shop, with stairs leading up to the second floor blocked by a sign that said "private residence". I could see, looking up, that it led to a balcony landing with a door leading inside. It was perfect. I slipped past and up the stairs without any difficulty since nobody seemed to be paying attention, and then at the balcony I stepped over onto the roof. The buildings were close in the back, and the alley was narrow - it wouldn't be a big jump. I wasn't certain how loud it would be, though, and it also seemed a bit too obvious; in a city with big overhanging roofs surely the guards would be trained to look for this kind of approach.
I carefully walked to the edge, making sure my shadow wasn't going to give me away. The windows in the building I was headed towards all had curtains except for one, and that one looked dark and empty. The biggest risk seemed to be the sound it would make when I landed - it was hard to say how loud it would be to the guard below. To be safe I went as far to the side as possible and pulled my boots off. After one last glance around, I ran a few steps and launched myself across the gap.
It was a perfect landing, and as far as I could tell a quiet one. I stalked up to that one dark window and peeked in, and found it to be an empty room with just a desk and chair. I climbed in, pulled my boots back on, and then cautiously listened at the door. When I was satisfied there was nobody there, I opened it and snuck out into the hall, feeling increasingly stupid. This was not the first time I had done something impulsive for no good reason.
Once, I had become convinced the staff at my group home were using the kids as drug mules to smuggle heroin across state lines. When we were told someone had been relocated or gone back to their parents it just meant they'd gotten caught and possibly killed. They found me in the office after I pried the filing cabinet open with a hammer and scattered papers everywhere while looking for "a pattern". In my defense, I was eleven and had been reading some age-inappropriate books.
Now I was closer to nineteen than eighteen and I was doing something that was, if anything, dumber. I didn't know the laws; it was possible that breaking and entering was punished by death. I was risking execution to see why some people had a carpet I was pretty sure I'd seen before. Thinking of it that way, I very nearly turned and headed back the way I had come. But I didn't. I was going to head downstairs, but I heard someone coming up and had to scramble to get out of sight. The first room I picked had the carpet.
It was all rolled out, and was covered in those runes. It was also the only thing in the room other than a huge potted plant, and I wasn't sure if the people that had been coming up the stairs were about to walk in. I ran to the potted plant and squeezed behind it, certain that I would be in plain view from the doorway but without a better hiding spot. I pulled the hood of my cloak up and contorted myself to be as squished down as possible just as the door opened.
The two that had been carrying the carpet before came in, and then stood at attention. That was it, they just... stood there. I waited, desperately hoping they would leave or at least say something interesting, and I could feel my muscles seizing up. It felt like an hour, though I had to admit it was probably only ten or fifteen minutes before something happened.
General Telen, in his sinister plate mail armor, appeared in the center of the carpet.
The soldiers saluted, and then one opened the door and headed out. Telen followed, and the other rolled the carpet up and brought up the rear - closing the door behind him. I unfolded noisily, shoving against the potted plant and generally being as un-stealthy as I've ever been. I had pins and needles all over and a full-on cramp in one leg from staying in that position too long, and it took me at least a minute to stand up. I went to slide the potted plant back into position and heard something through the wall.
There was a gap at the very top of the wall, where the ceiling beams were. The beams continued from one room to the next, but the wall itself stopped when it hit them. That meant that between each beam there was a small gap. I stood on the pot and hopped up, grabbing the top of the wall and pulling myself a little higher - I still couldn't see, but I could actually make out words now.
"- appreciate your discretion in this matter." I didn't recognize the voice.
"Yes," Telen said, "I understand how precarious your position is. With your soldiers occupied, and increased taxation to support the war... I know that your people are not pleased."
"The Eldred Empire spreads propaganda, hoping that we will switch allegiance. But any fool knows they are taxing their own people just as badly. What they are not suggesting, General, is that we transfer allegiance to your mad king."
There was a pause, and a clink as if someone had put a cup down on a saucer.
"And yet you meet with me. A risky move. Halenvar is an old and proud kingdom, but you are of course correct - none are looking to align with us. The king is not mad, as you think, but I did not come here to convince you of that. I came to appeal to you as an individual."
"Everything I do, I do for Handoleren."
My arms were going numb - it was the same problem as hiding behind the potted plant, I just couldn't keep it up for long without my muscles getting wrecked.
"Yes, yes, of course. I respect that, Gerand. I do. But you will not be the governor of this city much longer, one way or another. They clamor for change, and they will get it. Either the Empire will blame you for everything and replace you in order to buy some goodwill, or the people will revolt and become part of Eldred in which case you will still be replaced. There is no path forward that keeps you in power."
"Oh, I don't know about that. My problems would all go away if the war ended."
"Ah, is that why you poisoned my tea? I must say, it's an interesting flavor."
"I don't know what you mean. You are a guest, and I would never -"
"Oh, stop. It's fine, I assumed you would try to kill me. You're a smart man, and you saw an opportunity. I'm not angry. But I will get what I came for. The sigil sequence for the teleportation room in Patic Keep. I know you know it."
"I won't, then."
"In addition to the two soldiers that you're aware of, I also have the loyalty of one of your guards. As we speak, they are rounding up everyone in this building. In a moment I'm going to order the young man just outside this door to give the signal, and they'll begin killing everyone. One at a time. I hear your oldest daughter just accepted a position as scribe under your guidance. What a pity."
I dropped down as quietly as I could, massaging my arms. They hadn't looked in the room - was that because they weren't really rounding everyone up, or because they assumed it was still empty? He said someone was just outside, that would mean they'd have been watching the hallway and would have good reason to think nobody was in this room. It also meant that I couldn't leave. There was no window in this room to climb out of to safety. Only the one door. No magic, no chance of fighting my way out. I would have to just wait and hide until they were done murdering everyone.
I looked up at the oil lantern hanging in the middle of the ceiling. I had a very, very stupid idea.
I didn't want to kill myself or give away my position, so after carefully sliding the potted plant over to the far wall I began pouring the lamp oil through the gap at the top. I wasn't sure what room was on the other side, but I didn't hear anyone in there and from the quality of the light I was sure there was a window. The plan, if it could be called that, was to start a fire such that smoke would billow out and alert people. If the citizens rushed to help it might disrupt the plan to murder everyone, and then they would hopefully get the fire put out before I burned to death. At the very least I could make a run for it once the fire was going.
The fire lit right away, but I couldn't see how fast it was spreading. Some of the smoke was channeled by the ceiling beams right into the room with me, but there was a slight angle towards the center of the building which meant a lot of it headed elsewhere. I heard a soft “whumph” sound, and flames jumped into view in a spot further along the wall - something very flammable had just lit. A lot of smoke was starting to get in, and the paint on the wall was turning black. I heard boots stomping past in the hallway, and then the flames leapt up again – presumably due to a door being thrown open.
"The sigils, Gerand!" Telen's voice was coming from the room I'd lit on fire, and he was yelling over the crackling flames.
"Careful, the edges of your clothes are looking singed."
"Put me down!"
"No. I'm going to hold you here, like roasting a sausage over a campfire. This stunt likely saved your people for now, but if you don't tell me what I want to know I will hunt down your children. Not just your oldest daughter. I will kill all of them, Gerand. How old is Sela now? Is she two, yet?"
I needed magic. I needed to know how to fight. I needed to be able to do something useful. The world had always been a scary place, so I didn't care about the asshole in armor that looked like it was right out of a cheap fantasy movie. In fact, in a lot of ways it was an upgrade - on Earth the things that made my life harder were a lot of normal people with shitty attitudes, or the government as a whole, or apathy. Having a clearly evil guy was an improvement because it meant you could just stab him.
Except I couldn't.
The heat was too much, and the smoke was getting there too. I slipped out the door, and when I looked to see if Telen was watching I saw he wasn't there at all. A man - Gerand, presumably - was laying on the floor in the hallway. Without his head. I ran into another room, climbed out the window, and dropped down from the edge of the roof. Some people tried to stop me, but I slipped between them and sprinted off into the crowd.