School for Adventurers: The Girls’ Bath

Did you ever play the ‘Assassins’ game in college? When you have magic, the rules are a little different…

That night, it seemed winter came all at once to Eastridge. Suddenly, there was a sharpness to the air, a coldness. Students, caught by surprise at the sudden turn in the weather, huddled indoors and around the fireplaces when there was space. In the baths, the cold air made the rooms thick with steam gliding off the heated water.

Each of these baths was sized to comfortably accommodate dozens of students at a time. The baths in Drop Tower in particular had white marble flooring that led straight to sunken pools of various sizes and temperatures scattered throughout the room. Intricately carved pillars rose up from the ground, as much to provide separation between the pools as to support the cavernous ceiling. The sound of water falling on water quietly permeated the room, as fresh water circulated into the pools.

“I’m no Thief major, but I get the distinct impression you’re following me.” Wisteria’s words echoed through the deserted rooms.

“Oh? What gave you that idea?” Averi asked, keeping her voice down and casting suspicious glances around the pillars.

Wisteria gave her a look. “Well, you were holding your towel and watching me for the last half hour. Then when I decided to bathe, you just happened to come to the same decision. But, what pushes it over the edge is that when I doubled back to the room to lock the door, you nearly tripped over yourself trying to follow me.”

“Alright, fine, you’re right,” Averi admitted, making her way to one of the smaller pools meant for individual bathing. Most of the noble girls were accustomed to bathing alone, so the baths offered several pools to accommodate such privacy.

In fact, the baths at Eastridge were some of the finest that Averi had ever seen. Unfortunately, once The Game started, they were also far too cavernous for Averi’s liking. She hardly intended to risk an attack by going there without a witness whose watchful eye would invalidate any assassination attempts.

Unfortunately, the only girl in Averi’s hall still on speaking terms with her was Wisteria.

“Don’t I have enough people following me around?” Wisteria complained. “Really, you’re getting to be worse than Rakam.”

“I’m sorry,” Averi said, and she meant it. “I didn’t think you’d mind… too much. I’m at a dead end in The Game. My target is proving to be… elusive. And I’m not sure who’s after me now.” Averi wasn’t fond of Lyre Cross, but she had to admit that he was a good Thief. She hadn’t been able to catch him alone for the past week, and though she had set half a dozen traps for him, he constantly changed the routes he took, making it impossible to predict where he would be. All she could do now was stay alive and wait for him to slip up.

Averi slipped out of her gown and folded it neatly on one of the tables. Her ribbon still tightly tied around her waist, she quickly waded into one of the warmer pools, eager to get out of the cold air. She dipped her head back in the water, watching the steam skim across the surface of the water.

With a resigned sigh, Wisteria followed her lead, pulling off her Nornese tunic and skirt and leaving them in a heap just out of the water’s reach. On top of them, she tossed a neatly-folded, fresh change of clothing. She stepped into a larger pool with colder water. Wisteria normally would have chosen an individual pool, not this massive bath that was meant for groups of ten or less. But the baths were deserted, and Wisteria didn’t see any reason she shouldn’t take advantage of it.

From where she was, Wisteria could just see the edge of the pool Averi had chosen. She watched the steam rolling off the Princess’s bath.

“I don’t see how you can boil yourself alive so frequently,” she said.

“I don’t see how you can bathe in ice water,” Averi retorted, sending a splash of water towards her roommate’s pool.

“Careful, Princess,” Wisteria said archly, “or else I might just decide to close my eyes if an assassin comes.”

“You wouldn’t do that,” Averi said, grabbing a handful of the soapstones from the nearest basin and working them into a lather. “I know where you sleep.”

Wisteria snorted. “And in what realm am I afraid of you?”

“Oh, come on. I’m not that bad a Thief,” Averi said.

“I’ll give you that,” Wisteria agreed, thinking of what she knew of Rai’s pathetic record as a Thief major as she scrubbed soap into her hair. “But at rune casting…?” Wisteria trailed off delicately, as she realized she wasn’t talking to one of her male competitors.

“Yes? At rune casting?” Averi challenged. “What about rune casting?” Her pride stung.

“You… have excellent technical knowledge,” Wisteria finished, fumbling over the words.

Averi couldn’t help smiling. “Are you actually learning some diplomacy?”

Wisteria’s response was to dip under the water to rinse the suds out of her hair. When she resurfaced, she floated on her back thoughtfully. “I mean it. I wish I knew as many runes as— Hold on, did you hear that? I’m going to cast a Reveal Rune.”

Averi turned to reply, but instead froze. Right there, in the middle of the girls’ baths, the air rippled under Wisteria’s Reveal, and an assassin all clad in black and sprinting toward her appeared.

“Wisteria!” Averi interrupted sharply, her voice filled with panic.

Quickly, Wisteria swam towards the end of her pool where it bordered Averi’s. She reached the edge just in time to see an assassin turn towards her. Wisteria fumbled in the water, trying to get her hands up to write a rune, but the assassin hurled an Ice Rune at her bath. It splattered across the water in her pool, freezing it solid.

Wisteria gasped as the cold ice sealed in around her legs, waist, all the way up to her shoulders.

Luckily, Wisteria’s right hand had been gripping the ledge, just out of the water. She scowled and immediately began to trace the Fire Rune on the ice, muttering half a dozen Nornese curses under her breath while trying to keep her hand from shaking from the cold.

Glancing up, she was able to see the black-clad assassin closing in on Averi—a distinctly male assassin, by his build. Wisteria’s outrage was matched only by her shock that a boy had finally managed to maneuver his way past the protective runes guarding the baths.

Never hesitating, the assassin jumped into the steaming pool that Averi had been bathing in. Wisteria saw that Averi, near the edge of her pool, had been able to wrap a towel around her.

Wisteria made a mental note to impress upon her roommate the fact that modesty might, in the event of a real assassination attempt, need to be forsaken in favor of a Shield Rune.

Wisteria was nearly done with the Fire Rune, but the magic flickered and failed with her concentration, as the door to the girls' bath exploded into the room, followed by a very irate Rakam. Wisteria began to rethink her feelings on modesty.

Rakam glanced from Wisteria to the assassin, his sword clenched in his hand. With a twist of his wrist, the sword began to glow.

Rakam gave Wisteria an irritating smile. “Need help?”

Wisteria dimly recognized the familiar shape of the Blast Rune on Rakam’s sword, seconds before Rakam flicked the sword in her direction, and the rune slammed into the solid pool of ice. The ice cracked and splintered under the force of the Blast Rune, sending chunks of ice flying through the air.

“Are you trying to help me or kill me?” Wisteria sputtered, standing shoulder-deep in a slush of ice chips. “You could’ve hit me!”

Rakam tilted his head. “You look fine to me.”

“I—” Wisteria blushed and grabbed her towel. “You could’ve hit me!” she repeated.

On the other side of the room, Averi’s attacker had decided to flee. With so many witnesses, the ‘kill’ wouldn’t count, so escape was his only option. Averi was fumbling with a Hold Rune, but Wisteria could see that her roommate wouldn’t finish in time.

Wisteria pushed past Rakam. “Let’s see how you like it,” she muttered, writing the Water Rune and the Orb Rune, and hurling them both towards the assassin.

As they flew through the air, the two runes combined and, in a flash of magic, became a giant sphere of water that continued to speed towards the assassin. Just as the Water Orb hit him, Wisteria wrote out the Ice Rune and cast it, freezing the water around the boy.

Completely immobilized, he toppled to the ground.

“Nice,” Rakam observed.

In a huff, Wisteria pulled on her clothes and, stepping over the boy, fixed him with an irate glare.

“Thanks,” Averi said wearily. “It’s a good thing you and…” Averi hesitated, “…er, Rakam were watching.”

Averi put on her gown and turned her attention to her attacker. First, she pulled away the black wraps that hid his face. Still partially frozen, they cracked off in icy chunks.

“Cai,” she said, naming him. “How did a Thief minor and a Warrior major ever learn enough rune casting to get into the girls’ baths? You’ve been practicing, haven’t you? Or else…” her eyes narrowed. “Someone helped you.”

Questions were useless as Cai’s mouth was still frozen over, but that didn’t stop Rakam from prodding the Thief with his foot. Averi gave him a warning look and searched Cai quickly. She found his ribbon tied around his ankle. Using the hot water from a nearby bath, Averi melted the ice around his foot. Once the fabric was pliable, she untied the knots that held it in place.

Cai made a protesting sound as Averi pulled the ribbon away, earning himself an arch look from both girls.

“Really, you’re in no position to complain,” Averi said dryly.

“What should we do with him?” Wisteria asked.

“Yes,” Rakam added eagerly, “what should we do with him?”

Cai gulped.

“He went through so much trouble to get here,” Averi said. “It would be a shame to remove him so quickly.”

When they left Cai, he was suspended waist-deep in a frozen pool of water, his hands soundly encased in the ice. Most of the girls in Drop Tower showered directly after dinner, and nothing would embarrass the brazen assassin more than being discovered so obviously trapped.

“Besides,” Averi had said as they left a chattering Cai behind them, “he won’t freeze. Whoever he was working with will know he’s trapped. They’ll try to get him out before too long.”

“You’re sure he had help?” Wisteria asked.

“Cai isn’t that good,” Averi said bluntly. “Someone is backing him. Not that I’m really one to complain about getting help,” she added, casting a glance at Wisteria. “Thanks. I’d be dead without you. And, to a lesser extent, you.” She looked at Rakam.

“I was just keeping an eye on her,” Rakam said with a nod towards Wisteria. Wisteria scowled, and Rakam grinned innocently.

“Well.” Averi rolled her eyes and turned to Wisteria, “I mean it. Thank you.”

Wisteria shrugged uncomfortably. “You were fine.”

Averi tried to look her roommate in the eye. “You’re being nice. It’s scaring me.”

Wisteria looked away with a shrug.

Rakam laughed. “What? Wisteria Ling has friends?”

“You know what worries me the most?” Averi asked as they ignored him. “I’ve been raised with the possibility of a real assassination attempt at any moment, particularly with tensions running high with Serath these days. And I’ve always thought… well, hoped… that I’d be able to stop it or run, or do something.”

There was an awkward pause.

“I might be a better combat caster,” Wisteria said abruptly, “but you know twice as many runes as I do, and you’re decent at putting them to use.”

Averi shrugged. “I can pull something together if I have time to plan and no pressure. But I won’t have either in a real assassination attempt. And all of the rune theory in the world won’t do much good if I can’t survive an attack.”

“No, it can’t. Maybe your parents should’ve hired a bodyguard,” Rakam said helpfully.

“Not everyone can be so lucky,” Wisteria said sarcastically, glaring at Rakam. And, to Averi, “You’ll just have to get better. Until then, I suppose I have to look out for you. You’re lucky we’re roommates,” Wisteria added with more of her familiar dry tone.

But Averi was all seriousness when she replied, “I am.”

This is an excerpt from School for Adventurers, a fantasy-novel-in-progress.