Leo’s mother saw him sitting in the earth. Surrounded by pieces of pottery and uprooted flowers. She put her fists on her hips and looked with a bemused grin down. “What did my little Troublemaker do now?”
Before little Leo written words of light appeared. His chubby little hands reached out. Those lights looked pretty after all.
“No. Don’t! Not again!”
Leo woke with a start. Another nightmare. Nothing new. He shook off the last remains of his dream. He didn’t know how much of it was the dream by now and what had been real once. The only thing he knew was that this had been the day he got his title. It haunted him to this day.
It wasn’t just another title. It was a linked one. Connecting the person to the surrounding magic. In Leo’s case, it leads to a fate of trouble. Either for him or those around him. As he got older the title evolved. If he wanted to or not.
He gathered his meager possessions and his bedroll. Checked if all his bandages were in place. Assured that his disguise was intact Leo, the "Legendary Troublemaker" set out to survive another day.
Leo had carefully selected his spot. Close to the sick beggars, but far enough to not get sick himself. He surveyed his surrounding. Trouble could wait for him everywhere. He was a magnet for it. No matter where he’d go or how much he tried to avoid it. It always found him.
Was that guard strolling into his direction? Did that merchant eye him warily? Leo tried to calm himself down. Falling prey to his own paranoia was just another way to land in a pile of trouble.
Again he checked the wooden bowl before him. A few copper pieces. Barely enough to buy a meal. His stomach grumbled even thinking about food. Today he had to eat. Yesterday he skipped it to save the money.
Like every fool, he had a dream. With enough money, he could buy another linked title. That title would offset his Troublemaker title. Not by much, but even that was better than nothing.
Shuffling feet caught his suspicion. They belonged to a beggar walking past Leo. Something was wrong. Leo couldn’t put his finger on it, but he knew the signs when he saw one. With haste, he put away the few copper coins and stowed his wooden bowl.
“Watch where you are walking you filthy scum,” came a loud shout.
The beggar had collided with a wealthy looking man. Quickly apologizing the beggar rushed back to the group of the sick.
Leo’s neck hairs stood up. Time to get away.
“My purse! That beggar stole my purse!”
Leo took up speed and tried to distance himself as fast as he could without looking suspicious.
“There he is!”
Leo risked a glance behind him. The merchant pointed directly at him. Of course, he would be mistaken for the thief. Worse was the guard that heard and followed the accusation.
Leo took off and ran with all his might. He knew too well that pleading his innocence wouldn’t help. Besides, he was known in these parts for past misdeeds. Most of them misunderstandings or consequences of bad luck. Not that anyone cared. Courtesy of his title.
“Stop! In the name of the king. Stop!”
Leo rounded a corner and nearly ran into a horse. The startled beast backed away and the connected cart behind it rammed the corner of a market stall. As Leo ran past the tent broke down and buried merchant and spectators alike.
Despite the chaos, the yelling of the guard didn’t stop or fell behind. Worse. More joined in. Leo needed a way out. Off to the side, he saw a wooden ladder dangling from a fire escape balcony. Maybe he could reach it.
With a full sprint, he used some chicken cages as a ramp to launch himself into the air. His hand burned in pain as he barely managed to catch the lowest rung of the latter. He grunted as he lifted himself up.
The roof was Leo’s best bet to escape. As he climbed up one of his legs suddenly caught only air. The rung of the ladder had broken off and now flew through the air. Hitting a caravan guard on the head.
Turning around the guard mistook a bystander for the culprit. A first punch was thrown and the man stumbled into a group of young nobles. Moments later a brawl of forty men broke out.
Not that Leo cared. He was on the roof and sprinted to the next one.
“There he is! Leo the Troublemaker! Today I will catch you!”
Leo flinched while running. He knew that voice. It belonged to Ernesto. The captain of the city guard. Also known as Leo’s worst nightmare. Well, at least in this city.
He needed to get away. As long as he had the high ground he could use much of his speed. Still, the guards would keep up in the streets. Unless he found a congestion.
Luck would have it that there was a crowd around St. Claire's school for girls. Though Leo and the rest of the folks around here called it “the cult of the ladies”. It was eerie. Girls or young women enter the school and three years they emerged as beautiful ladies.
Right now another crop of young would-be students gathered there to be led in. Surrounded by family and friends, they made the street flow thicker than honey. If Leo could traverse the school's roof he would lose the guards for sure.
He adjusted his course and came closer fast. Nearly there he lost his footing. A shingle got loose and flew down. Landing in a sack of corn that burst open. A flock of pigeons was on it a second later. Leo’s curse of a title had struck again.
Not fazed by it anymore Leo stood up and continued his run over the roofs. As the street flow got thicker the yells of the guards got farther and farther away. When he reached the school’s roof he was certain to be free of pursuers.
Leo decided to catch his breath for now. Who knew when his title of Legendary Troublemaker would cause the next mischief. From high up the roof, he could see the new students. Most didn’t look special or even pretty. Yet he knew in three years they would emerge as gorgeous women. Ready to be wives, ladies, and princesses. Witchcraft he reasoned. What else might explain such change?
Distracted he nearly missed a worrisome sound. Was that cracking? Suddenly he saw splinters of wood all around him as he broke through the roof.
A few impacts later he found himself in a big room surrounded by luggage. Cursing he stood up. Of course, the roof would break. Why not? It fit perfectly into Leo’s messed up day. Today his title clearly worked overtime.
The creaking of an opening door broke his string of curses. If he was caught it might end up badly for him. The school was for women only. Looking around he saw no other exit. He was truly stuck.
Thinking quickly he grabbed a nearby cape to hide his appearance. Sometimes deception got him out of such sticky situation. He hoped today was one of those times.
A woman entered the chamber. Time had left its marks on her. Still, she was a beauty few women could match at their height of youth.
At once she spotted Leo cowering in a corner.
“What do we have here?” she inquired in a weathered yet melody voice.
Leo took a deep breath. His cursed title got him into this mess. It might as well get him out of it. One of the talents bestowed by it was the ability to change one's voice. Leo imagined a higher pitch than his own. Quickly and in more panic than he felt he explain.
“I am so sorry. I fell through the roof. I am nothing but a girl from the streets. I mean no harm. I heard rumors about this school for years and today my curiosity got the best of me. I beg for your forgiveness.”
“So. So. An admirer you are? Did you dream of joining this school?” the gray-haired lady inquired.
“My lady. I am nothing but a street dog. Not worthy of your presence. Below my robes I am unsightly. Bearing the hardship of my youth on my skin. Please, I beg you to let me leave in peace,” Leo pleaded.
“And who asks for it, my girl?”
“Leo...na,” came Leo’s stammered reply. It wasn’t working and slowly he lost ground to back away.
Steadily the old woman came closer.
“Leona. Well. Let me satisfy one curiosity of yours. Who is worthy of this school decides only one person. That is me. Don’t be afraid. Let me see. I am sure under your hood you are quite the beauty. Leona the Young Maiden. Don’t be afraid.”
Leo was stunned. Not because she had nearly reached him or that he could feel the wall in his back. Lines of light formed in his vision. They illuminated nothing but slowly forming letters. He had dreamed about them hundreds of time. Yet they had never been so slow to appear.
A title. He was about to be asked if we would accept another linked title. The last decade he had hunted for one and now here of all places he was about to get one. No matter what title and what consequence. He needed it. Without much thought, he accepted before the letters could form completely.
A sudden rush filled him. A feeling, unlike anything, ever felt. It was as if he was a hole in the ground and waterfalls all around him tried to fill him. It felt oh so strange and it made him stagger.
A strong hand grabbed and steadied him.
“Careful dear. Now let me see.”
She pushed the cloak out of Leo’s face.
“Ah. I knew it. What a pretty Young Maiden you are.”
Leo’s thoughts were in tumult. He was exposed, yet what was she saying. Dazed he looked down and saw things he never dreamed of seeing. There, beneath cloak and bandages, the mounds of young pubescent flesh peeked through. Breasts. He had breasts and who knew what else.
Unable to comprehend it all his mind chose a drastic measure. Leo fainted on the spot.
Leo couldn’t exactly explain how he had ended up here. In a big hall with a hundred other young women. There was no denying it. He was one of them. Or rather she was.
After coming to himself he had been dressed and ushered here. Waiting now for something to happen. The murmurs of whispers slowly ebbed away as a women made her way to a podium on a stage. Leo knew her. It was the same old women who had found him.
“Welcome Young Maidens,” she opened her speech. “My name is headmistress Alia and this institution has cared, taught, and trained Young Maidens like yourself for centuries. It is no random happenstance that I call you like that. If you are here, then you have received the linked title Young Maiden.”
Leo quickly checked and sure enough, he found two titles linked to him. Etched into the magic around him. Legendary Troublemaker and Young Maiden. A female title. What had he been thinking? Of course, he knew the answer to well. He hadn’t. Thinking that is. Now he was stuck as a girl. Was he now cursed twofold? Could the title even be counteracted?
“This school is built upon the foundation of the title Young Maiden and the titles that evolve from it. For decades we have explored every path to take. Every title it could evolve into. If you work hard you can reach heights in this title that others need decades for.”
Leo listened with an intensity that surprised himself. It was if she was talking to him directly. Her words beckoned him. A strong second title would weaken the first. But in order to gain its strength, he had too…
“Dedicate yourself and you will leave this school as paragons of the female gender. But, we offer more. With time we cultivated other linked titles. Work hard and you might earn the right to have one bestowed to you.”
The headmistress took a short break and let her gaze wander through the ranks of new students. “Be warned,” she finally continued. “Who you were before entering this school does not matter. Be it a beggar or noble, merchant or thief, peasant or farmer. You are all equal here. The only way to stand out is to earn it by dedication. That being said. Welcome again.”
The gray-haired lady stepped down and at once the whispers returned.
“I am Thelma,” a girl to the left said. “Who are you?”
“Leona,” came the surprisingly confident reply.
“Nice to meet you. That was a great speech, right?”
“Very. You could say it opened my eyes to a few things,” Leona said with a grin.
“She mentioned other titles. Do you want any of these?” Thelma asked.
For a moment a feral grin broke through Leona’s calm demeanor. All titles drew their strength from the same pool. The more titles and the stronger they are the less influential was her Troublemaker curse.
She didn’t know how long she could hide her first title, but she was sure that she wouldn’t stop fighting tooth and nails to remain here.
“All of them,” replied Leona. “I need all of them! I will earn them all.”
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