Sable hissed as Acacia pulled the gargoyle's hair into a tight, short braid. Kallima rolled her eyes and chuckled.
"Now you'll be able to see," she told Sable. "You look good."
"I look like a harlot," Sable said, blushing beneath the soft pink dust Kallima had brushed onto her face.
"No, you don't. She barely put anything on you," Acacia said.
Kallima nodded, and she and Acacia pushed Sable out of the musky locker room and into the gymnasium. Kallima had decorated the skinny girl's face with light blush, pale lip gloss, mascara, and a blue eye shadow that matched her bright irises. She seemed awkward in the white tee and blue shorts of the gym uniform. As late as they were from dressing up Sable, though, Kallima quickly realized that Coach Drummer, the gym teacher, remained absent, though he may have been behind the large white curtain that divided the room in half. Shay jogged to the girls, his still-growing hair falling in waves over his eyes until he tossed them back again.
"Hey, Drummer's doing some sort of gauntlet again. Just to see where we stand. At least it's inside this... Sable?"
Without hair to hide her face, Sable held a hand to her brow like a shade and blushed feverishly. One strand pulled free and fell along her cheek, but Shay tucked it back behind her ear again.
"Did you braid this, Case?" he asked. The dryad nodded, so he added, "It looks good. I can see your face, Sable."
Sable whimpered and nodded as Shay turned his attention to Kallima.
"He's going strictly alphabetically. Long time for the three of us to wait," he said.
"Four of us," Sable said. "Orion, de'Parsia, Quarry, and Satudotter."
Shay hesitantly corrected, "He- he put you with the Ds. There are only two more people in front of you."
As though on cue, Drummer poked his head around the curtain, allowing a thick dryad boy to exit.
"Colson!" he called out.
Shay winced as Kallima and Sable's former roommate, Jasmine Colson, bounced behind the heavy veil. Acacia crossed her arms and muttered "one more" to the lion-like boy. Sable sighed and sat near the wall.
"Can't be helped," she told Kallima softly when the redhead approached. "I'll just do my, like, worst and hope I improve."
"You mean your best, right?"
"My best is the worst."
Kallima swatted the girl's hands away from her braid. Sable pouted, pulling her knees to her chest. Kallima crouched down to Sable's level.
"You're going to be all right," she assured the gargoyle. "And Shay said he likes your hair like that. Don't take it out."
"He said Case did a good job."
"And that it looked good!"
Sable faked a smirk and glanced up at Kallima. Then her smile vanished as she caught sight of something behind the dream fae.
"My, my. If it isn't Satudotter and her little brick," a familiar voice chortled.
Growling, Kallima stood and turned around to see the leering speaker, Crown Prince Reginald Noble. His twin sister stood at his elbow, holding a violet box tied in gold ribbon and grinning sadistically. To everyone's surprise, Kallima curtsied at the duo.
"My crown prince Reginald, Princess Marian," she seethed, "what an honor it is to receive your attention. I don't suppose you will be informing me of the release of a certain prisoner? After all, there is no reason for the poor man to be locked up still."
Marian tipped her head in confusion as her brother snarled at Kallima.
"Father has plenty reason," he said. "Dragon affiliation is no joke, stupid girl."
"Perhaps not, to those without such a guardian. Still, when you play with fire, you will burn," Kallima hinted. "With any luck, my Blaze will see to that."
Kallima chuckled as Marian grew more and more lost at her words. Prince Reginald, though, narrowed his eyes.
"Your riddles do not fool me. You are the daughter of Satu, after all," he said. "Mother warned me of her cleverness, too."
"You would call Mum clever, my crown prince? Such flattery! You surely joke."
"Not much will be flatter than you in a moment."
"What sharp wit from my crown prince! You must keep a dagger in your mind."
"A deadly wit, really, yet you would take on my dagger."
"Oh, my," Kallima said, "I fear I would blunt it with my own words."
"Enough of this!" the prince spat, his blond hair flying around his face. "One of our servants found this old thing, and Mother said to get rid of it. We figured that you might want it. You are the keeper of the garbage, after all."
Marian passed the box to Kallima, who accepted it and clutched it to her chest. Like a drifting snow, silence gripped the small crowd as Drummer called for the next student. The only sound was the boy’s footsteps. Once he left, Reginald tapped an impatient foot with a sneer.
"Aren't you going to open it?"
Kallima narrowed her eyes and said, "Of the two gifts I have seen you give, neither was pleasant."
"There she is!" Marian laughed, clapping. "There's that snide orphan we remember. Go on, orphan. Open your present!"
Hushing the nervous, warbling gargoyle behind her, Kallima untied the box and removed the lid. She ground her teeth at the contents. She ran one finger along the painted face of a young Satu until it ran into a long gash. The slit in the canvas seemed to behead the woman's image as she stared nervously at the painter. Her hands rested on the black side of chess board, two white pawns approaching her troops. Kallima flicked her eyes up to the grinning Noble twins.
"I suppose," she said, feigning indifference, "that this is a threat?"
Reginald crossed his arms and said, "We found it like that. I couldn't say anything about it's condition before Mother got at it."
"In that case, thank you. I will be sure to treasure it," Kallima lied.
"Do not think yourself special to receive so much attention. You should know by now that it is not good news," Marian said.
"You know nothing of this world, Satudotter," her brother added. "You would do well to keep your head closer to our feet."
Kallima could not hold back a laugh at that, saying, "Oh, my dear, stupid prince..."
"You know nothing of me or what I am. If you did," she said, "you would know that you just made a grave mistake."
"And what, Satudotter, is that?"
"De'Parsia!" Drummer called across the room.
Sable took advantage of the summons to drag Kallima behind her.
"Kali, are you stupid?" she hissed. "You, like, almost told them what you are."
Kallima waved the box and said, "Well, they threatened me!"
"Like, no one can know about your power, Kali. It's scary enough that Gabe is out there somewhere, like, with the knowledge..."
"Hey, Fucker can't say anything. He swore an oath."
"Just a blinding oath."
"He's a lord's kid. He won't risk going blind. Good luck in there, Say."
Sable bit her lip and said, "Please don't, like, pick any more fights. You'll be one of the last to go in."
With that, Sable ducked into the isolated half of the gym. Kallima listened to the muffled sounds of her and Drummer discussing something, though she could not make out the words themselves. Then a hand tapped her shoulder, drawing her attention away from Sable and towards Acacia and Shay.
"W-what happened?" Acacia asked.
Kallima showed them the portrait, still inside the lower box. Shay took it out and tipped his head quizzically at the image while Acacia covered her mouth.
"Is that a- a threat?" she asked.
Kallima shook her head, whispering, "I think so. I just want to throw them off. How do you think Say will do?"
Acacia shrugged. Shay gasped and tapped the picture.
"I know this image!" he declared.
Kallima laughed and said, "Are you sure you don't know the painter?"
"No, Father took Andrew, Jason, and me to the palace once. I saw the other half! It's- oh. Oh, shit..."
Shay lowered his voice and asked, "Kali, last semester, did you ever alter either of their dreams?"
"I never went into them, no."
"But did you mess with them?"
"I might have," Kallima admitted.
Shay began swearing under his breath, then asked, "Did you ever leave campus?"
"I took Iggy to court a few times."
Shay sighed and said, "So somewhere in the king's castle, there is a recording of you off campus on a school day when no one would have taken you there?"
Kallima paled quickly.
"That's...," she stammered, "that's not good, is it?"
"It's possible that they know you're a dream fae," Shay whispered. "And, if they do know, it's not a far jump to the same conclusion Iggy and I came to."
"What conclusion?" Kallima and Acacia both asked.
"One you're safer not knowing. Damn it! You're going to get yourself killed, Kali."
Kallima retreated to a corner and sat silently, just as she had seen Sable do. Acacia and Shay flanked her, and the boy handed her decapitated painting back. Kallima expressed her gratitude and sulked until Sable reappeared. Several hairs had escaped confinement, and a red bump marked her forehead. She stood in front of her roommate and wrung her hands.
"What?" the redhead snapped.
Sable flinched and said, "He's t-testing skills w-w-with, like, weapons."
"What do we do?" Shay asked.
"You have to throw knives at some targets, and one, like, moves. Then you have to fight an construct. You start with nothing. You have to get past him, like, to get a weapon. Plenty of options: swords, staffs, maces. Once you beat him, you have to shoot arrows, like, with a hand-drawn bow. Same as with the knives, you have to try hitting the targets, and one moves."
"How was it?" Kallima said, realizing that her roommate was tearing up.
Sable wiped her eyes and muttered, "It was okay. The construct hit me pretty hard, and I missed, like, all the targets. Well, one of the knives hit, but then it bounced off."
"You tried your best," Acacia assured her.
"I- I took down the construct, but I think he was, like, built to be weak."
"You did well, Say," Kallima said, beckoning the gargoyle to sit, but Sable refused.
"I'm going to, like, shower and change. Good luck, guys."
It felt to Kallima like hours before Drummer called Shay's name, though it was really only twenty minutes or so. The boy strode confidently into the secluded side of the room. After a moment, his laugh rang out across the gym, and Acacia whispered that he had probably already dispatched the construct. Sure enough, Shay left the hidden area with a smile.
"Missed some arrows. Couldn't hit the moving targets. But I think I got good scores," he reported.
He waited with them until Acacia was called up and tested. Then the couple left the gym giggling over the simplicity of the construct. One by one, students vanished until Kallima remained with seven other freshmen.
"Satudotter," Drummer shouted.
Kallima sighed, rolled out her shoulders, and jogged under the white curtain. Two sets of targets had, indeed, been erected to test her, one for knives and one for arrows. Between them, a strange contraption that seemed to be a suit of armor with an extra set of limbs wielding four nightsticks guarded a weapons rack. Drummer's neck stretched to watch over Kallima while he kept his body at a safe distance.
"Take your time, Satudotter. Have you ever handled any of these?"
Yet she picked up the first of six knives and flung it, lodging it deep in the yellow center of one of the stationary targets. With a hum of interest, she repeated the motion with the next knife, landing it millimeters from the first. She tried it again with her left hand. Though it did not come remotely close to the center, it did stick deep into the outer ring of the second target. The fourth knife, again thrown with her off hand, hit the inner ring close to the center. Drummer gaped as she threw one left-handed knife at the moving target and hit the edge of its outer ring before making a bulls-eye with her right-hand throw. The teenager chuckled at herself, wondering how she had done so well, then glanced over to the teacher.
"Should I...?" she asked.
Drummer nodded and waved her on to the construct, which jolted silently to life as she approached. She deflected its strikes with her forearms until she could back into the weapon rack. It was quite weak, she giggled as she kicked it in the chest and made it stumble backwards. She lifted the surprisingly light mace and struck the metal man's face with it, making the head spin in place. The thing dropped. Kallima pointed to the archery range, and Drummer ushered her on. With a little more care than she had used throwing the knives, she pulled the taut bow and launched an arrow straight into the center of each still target. On the moving one, she hit the outer ring once, the inner ring twice, and the yellow eye another time. She shook out her right hand, proud of her work, as Drummer drew close to her.
"Satudotter," he breathed, not at all his usual pushy self, "are you familiar with the term 'jack?'"
"I've heard of it. Means you're gifted at something, right?"
"Yes. Jacks show a great deal of talent across a range of their area. But," he said, "they can never master any of them. We loaned this phrase to the Mortal Realm: Jack of all trades, master of none."
"You don't have a weapon of choice, do you, Satudotter?"
"You never will. You," Drummer said, scribbling in his notes, "are a weapon jack."
Kallima laughed and rolled her eyes.
Drummer shook his head and said, "You've never trained with any of these before, yet you've delivered the best performance today. I would bet anything that every piece here would feel equally light and natural in your hands, but you would never master any of them."
Kallima nodded slowly and said, "So... I can't get better?"
"Of course you can. You'll just never do anything amazing with them. Train hard, Kallima. Your progress will likely be slow, but I think you'll do well."
Kallima left the gymnasium, surprised that the coach had used her first name.