Talboa Forest, Northern Argoth, 10000 ft above the Aeryth Ocean, Year of the Minaret’s Horn, 1722 CE
It would be three days before the constable could retrieve me, during which time this most unlikely of friendships solidified. Ari Jeffersson became many things to me- a friend when I needed one most, a teacher, bond-family in spirit. I hesitate to label him ‘bond-father’. Our relationship was more akin to cousins removed, or possibly an uncle. He filled the void my father’s passing had left and for the first time since that crushing loss it felt as though I had family again.
I would go on to spend many a day in the comfortable cabin in the woods. Irascible though he could be, Ari patiently began teaching me the craft of molding wood, clay, and stone to my whims. He taught me other things as well. I drank in the opportunities for learning, and, finding me a willing and eager student, Ari provided a firm grounding in mathematics, science, country and world history, cultural studies, and literature. I often went home laden with assignments that I delighted in tackling.
They say winter is a time for rest and rejuvenation. The winter I met Ari Jeffersson certainly rejuvenated the stagnant and dormant parts of me. The companionship and banter between us seemed to enliven Ari as well, something later confirmed by a visiting friend of Ari’s I knew only as Myles. Myles visited every other month, bringing in supplies and staying for a day or so. He was charming, easy-going man, with a calm temperament that balanced Ari’s nicely.
I daresay, Ari and I might both have continued to stagnate. He hid in the woods, keeping to himself, yet I had the feeling this wasn’t quite the life that interested him. More than once I wondered how he had ended up where he was. I never dared ask though. I figured when he was good and ready, if he was good and ready, then he would share that story with me. My health certainly improved. Ari loved to cook, and always made sure I was well fed. I gained weight enough that I felt attractive for once, rather than an overgrown stork.
My stepmother railed at me at first, for having the indecency to visit this solitary man living in the middle of the forest.
“What will people say,” she’d snapped, lips curled in disgust. I was pretty sure she was more concerned with her own reputation than with mine, or with my safety for that matter. People did start though, after I bloomed under Ari’s care… talking about how healthy and happy I looked, how beautiful I’d grown. My stepmother began to get inquiries on my behalf, from parents’ seeking to make a match for their sons. I placated her by having first meetings with a few of the young men, but truth be told, my heart wasn’t in it. I didn’t want to be fettered with a husband, with children. What I really wanted was to go to one of the Universities, and to find a job that thrilled me to be doing.
Winter months passed to summer and I met Ari’s elder sister, who came to spend several weeks with him during the spring and summer. If Myles also became like an uncle, Tessa became like a beloved aunt. Ari would grumble good-naturedly about his house being taken over by women, and go on off into the woods for fishing, trapping, or to listen to the trees speak, a skill I would eventually master. Myles and Tessa had their own airships, which they chose to land in a nearby forest clearing, rather than deal with the bother of docking in Tribeca’s small airship paddocks.
As summer edged into autumn, Ari’s teachings expanded to include tasks that at times almost seemed as games. I learnt to move stealthily, and track quarry through elaborate hide and seek games in the forest. I learnt strategy through mastering the game of chigali, and, as an early solstice gift, Ari provided me with my very own personal set of pieces, crafted from mossy agate. There were lessons in acting, and we would dress up in elaborate disguises, and wander the village of Tribeca with none the wiser. Playing pranks on Elaine and Cecile became a favourite past-time during these excursions. Eventually, the games became cat and mouse between us, with first one, then the other being quarry to the tracker. These games involved all of the lessons that had gone before, and the only place off-limits was the deep forest.
I began to sell my own wares in the market. The profits were kept with Ari’s account, lest my stepmother believe herself entitled to them. My father had thought ahead for me. From an account held in trust for me, a certain amount was dispensed each month to be used on my behalf. From another, a certain amount was dispensed for Elaine and Cecile. I know he did this to ensure we were all taken care of in the event something happened to him. My da was quite well acquainted with how rapidly Elaine could go through funds if left unchecked. When I married, or else, by the time I turned twenty-four, my account would be turned over to me, and I would finally be free of my stepmother and stepsister.
I secretly counted down the days til my twenty-fourth birthday. Though I would be among the older students, I would finally be allowed to attend University if I chose. Elaine thought it a frivolous endeavour and refused to even consider allowing me to go now. So, I worked at the trade Ari had taught me, drank in what he had to teach me, and bided my time, saving my funds towards my eventual goal.
I was to be pleasantly surprised when, the summer of my eighteenth year, Ari and Tessa presented me with a full scholarship to Proctor-Severn, the most prestigious of the academics institutes. I was beside myself with delight. However they had managed to snag such a thing on my behalf, I didn’t know, though I would learn many years later that they, and Myles, had simply paid for it themselves. All I knew then was that it meant early freedom from my false family. Without the excuse that it was ‘too expensive’, Elaine could no longer reasonably keep me from attending. It was with ill grace that she conceded the defeat.
When fall rolled around, it was Ari and Tessa who took me to the academy in Tessa’s ship. They had brought me a few days early, and Tessa spent the time taking me around to various clothiers and tailors for proper attire. Ari acquired my books and practical supplies.
“Check your pack,” Ari had whispered, as he hugged me farewell. I managed to hold back my tears til after they’d departed. It was hard, those first few days, not seeing Ari even once. He’d left me with credit chips towards comm calls, and made me promise to check in each Endday. It was a promise happily made and happily kept.
I had a room all to myself, tiny though it was. The bed was comfortable enough, and I had my own desk, wardrobe, and bookshelf. The room had two glowlamps, one on the low table beside the bed, and the second on the desk. It also had a single window graced with an amazing view of the Palatrith Mountains. I suspected the hand of my benefactors in arranging such a room.
My pack contained a special gift from Ari- my very own crafting kit, and several raw materials, along with a note admonishing me to ask for more when I needed, and he would send them. The tears came then, and a flood of warmth towards my unlikely friend and his sister. Turned out, I didn’t have much time to miss them, so busy was I kept with my studies. I was thankful then for all of Ari’s lessons, for without them I would have been lost in some areas.
I was shy at first, and kept to myself the first few weeks. Save classes, and the calls to Ari, I interacted with no-one. Rather, I chose to spend my free time in crafting. I made my first friends quite by accident. I happened to overhear one of the younger female students lamenting to her friends that the bullies that had been plaguing her since term start had stolen a locket from her. It wasn’t worth much money, but it held deep sentimental value for her.
“I don’t know how I’m going to get it back!” The young lady wrung her hands together, as her friends murmured condolences.
To my surprise, I found myself responding. “I can get it back.”
The girls all turned to look at me, where I sat studying.
“Really?” The girl’s face brightened somewhat. “Oh, my name’s Lessy. What’s yours?”
“Mai, and yes. Give me a day or two, and you’ll have it back.”
I don’t rightly know what made me propose such a task, except perhaps that part of me was bored. Learning galore I had here, but none of the puzzles and games that challenged the parts of my mind Ari had. It was a simple enough matter to track my quarry and lay in a plan to retrieve the locket. Two days later, I returned it to a thrilled Lessy.
The bully never realised it was me that liberated the locket. Her story was that a strange, hooded man had entered her room late in the night and demanded she strip to her small clothes, jewellery included (she’d taken to proudly wearing the locket as evidence of her prowess in intimidating those smaller and shyer than her). I’d bound her and gagged her, taken all of the jewellery, and slipped quietly away. The locket I kept, the rest I threw away with a rather vindictive pleasure. Lessy had been overjoyed at my success. I warned her to keep the locket hidden for now, so as not to be blamed for the attack.
I found other friends, and other opportunities for mischief. I was crawling around on the library floor one morning, searching the lower shelves for an elusive book, when I was interrupted by a distinctly masculine voice.
I sat up, and adjusted my specs, allowing my eyes to focus on the figure standing nearby- a lanky boy with disheveled, curly black hair, and rather unkempt clothing.
“Yes. I mean, no. I didn’t lose it, but someone seems to have. I’m looking for History of the Khans by Banyama Miko. It’s marked as being in, but it’s not here. I looked under ‘M’ as well, in case it was misfiled under the given name.” The irritation in my voice didn’t seem to faze him.
“Ah! That’ll be filed under the meta-clan name. Hmmm… Banyama belong to the Inabayama.” His fingers skimmed the shelves next to me. “Aha! Here you go!”
He slid the book off the shelf and proffered it to me. By this time I was standing, brushing my long skirts off. I took the book and thanked him. As I started to walk away, grumbling to myself over the inefficiency of the filing, he settled in step beside me.
“Saa, it’s rather confusing if you don’t know to look for the meta-clan, or don’t know what it is,” he agreed. “Name’s Jaysin. Do you have an interest in Arkaddia?”
“Mai.” My reply was automatic. “Just doing some research.”
“I can help, if you like. I’ve spent a lot of time there with my family. My father’s a culturalist whose specialty is Arkaddia.”
I didn’t want to share with Jaysin that my true interest lay in learning to disguise myself as an Arkaddian. It was one of the few disguises I still had trouble with. I wanted to surprise Ari when I returned home on break. I accepted Jaysin’s assistance though, and by the end of the term I had succeeded in ‘visiting’ many places in the nearby town of Libernaath with none the wiser.
I did tell Jaysin my goal. I think he’d have figured it out on his own anyway. Beneath the deceptively disheveled and absentminded appearance lay a mind nearly as keen as Ari’s. Jaysin became my closest friend at university. His time was divided between study at Proctor-Severn and at the Technomancer Academy a few miles distant. He wasn’t a Technomancer in training, nor was he a soldier. Jaysin confided in me that he had started at Proctor-Severn, and his marks brought him to the attention of the Technomancers, recruiting for Quaestor assistants. I had never heard of the Quaestors, but I wasn’t overly familiar with the hierarchy of the Empire’s magick users, who existed solely as a branch of the military.
Two years passed thus. I flourished in the academic environment. Winter breaks and summer holidays were spent back in Tribeca, with Ari and Tessa rather than my stepmother and stepsister. It was increasingly difficult to think of them as any sort of family at all. We no longer had anything in common. I found their company banal and boring. The things that interested me were far above their comprehension. Frivolous gossip never interested me, though Ari had taught me to listen and file information away in such a way as to retrieve it later. His little trick enabled me to study different subjects while in a lecture.
I had just turned twenty, the tail-end of my second summer break. When I returned to Proctor-Severn in the fall, it would be to begin my advanced training. My primary focus would be as a culturalist. This was to be my first term without Jaysin around. He’d passed his tests and been assigned to Bavrin Lab, many miles south. We still talked often, but it wasn’t the same. These studies also passed swiftly and winter break of my fourth year at school arrived quite before I knew it. It was to be a winter break unlike any I had had thus far.