On her third day in Phoelles, Fen left her study cave. Her room had become that, a cave. She had shut all openings, lighting her room with Quo crystals so little shadows remained. And all the time she spent there, she studied. Fen had eaten plenty, slept irregularly, and went outside rarely. But she was prepared. She was getting the Full Scholarship.
After checking out from The Lumbering Akademic, Fen made her way to the Central Office. Morning light bathed the city of Phoelles, and few students and akademics walked in its streets. Soon they would be full again, but at the moment, there was a lull in the Akademic District. Fen took advantage of it, taking deep breaths and calming her heart for the evaluation that was expecting her. She checked her pocket watch. She still had almost an hour left for the exam, and the walk from the inn to the Central Office was a short one. But she wanted to be there early. To get used to the place. And the nerves.
Fen arrived at the Central Office, announced herself at the reception, and waited for her turn.
Doubt struck her like a Railway cart.
Was she prepared enough? Were the books she brought enough? Her metallurgy felt shabby, and she couldn’t remember the optics equations no matter how hard she thought about them. Calm down, Fen, she told herself. You studied enough. You’re ready. If only she could believe more in what she told herself.
The receptionist called for her, telling her to leave her belongings in the reception. They would be kept in a secure place, and she could retrieve them later. Initially, Fen didn’t want to, but after the receptionist insisted and showed they would be behind closed doors, she had no choice but to leave them. She could only hope nobody snooped her things. She could only hope nobody found her father’s notebook. After guiding Fen through some black-stoned hallways, the receptionist left her by a large wooden door at the end of the corridor. Fen went through.
The room was not large, with a single window and another door. In the middle, lay a table; a spectacled man in akademic white robes sat behind it, with a stack of papers in hand. The wall behind the akademic was made of black slate.
“So, you must be... Fen Drake, right?”
Fen nodded in return.
“Full Scholarship…” he read from the papers, “second year… no recommendation letter?”
She nodded again.
“Alright. I’ll be evaluating your knowledge in the subject of physics.” He handed her a piece of chalk. “Please, proceed to the slate wall.”
Chalk ready in hand, she walked to the back end of the room. Physics. What was he going to ask? The akademic limped closer to Fen, facing the slate wall. Now that he was closer, she could get a better view of him. He was rather young in Fen’s eyes, and perhaps even good looking, in a messy kind of way. Hands in his pockets beneath his robes, his clothes seemed a bit rumpled, as if he had slept in them. He slouched a bit, as if tired. Fen couldn’t feel tired. She didn’t know what was pumping in her veins, but it kept her alert.
“I will be asking you to solve some problems, while I ask you some questions regarding the subject in general, perhaps.” He adjusted his glasses before beginning.
Fen solved problems and answered questions from a variety of branches. From statics and rigid body dynamics, to kinematics and mechanical oscillations. Luckily for Fen, the only question regarding optics had been simple. The akademic made no comment regarding Fen’s answers or solutions, but only took notes in his papers. It nerved her a bit, but she felt confident she was giving the right answers.
“Now,” he said after Fen finished a problem on the slate wall, “find a general solution for Farier’s bidimentional heat dissipation equation.”
Fen didn't expect that sort of question. At least not from physics, perhaps in calculus or balancing even. Regardless, her father had taught her Farier’s heat equation. Fen began to write it in the slate but the akademic stopped her.
“I was just playing with you,” he chuckled a bit. “That’s third year territory, perhaps.” He adjusted his glasses and sat by the desk. “That will be all from me, you can go on to the next room.”
Fen left the piece of chalk on the table and thanked the akademic. He nodded a sort of farewell, eyes on the papers he had been holding onto before. Fen left through the other door.
The rest rooms were similar, and followed the same mode of operation; with only a desk, a slate wall, and an akademic who would evaluate her on each subject. For calculus, she was asked to calculate infinite sums and differential equations. In algebra, she had to solve a few systems of equations and had to answer some questions on set theory. In crystallography, she was asked to identify ten different crystals the akademic had on the table. Fen had to explain the process for reading each rune, some characteristic equations of their effects, and give examples of applications. Thanks to the practical knowledge her father had given her, she could answer with little to no problem. For metallurgy, the akademic had various metals on the table, and asked Fen to identify their composition, as well as list some properties of each metal. This is where Fen had her biggest doubts. Was gold soluble in oil of vitriol? Had she given the correct fusion point of bronze? She hoped she had been correct. As in her physics evaluation, none of the akademics made any comment regarding her answers but only took notes, so she had no way of knowing if she had answered correctly.
Fen crossed the door from the metallurgy evaluation to the next room. By process of elimination, the balancing test awaited her. As the rest, the room was empty, except for the table and the akademic. However, the akademic was in front of the table, covering whatever lay on top of it. She stood tall and straight, arms crossed, chin raised, and a slight smile on her face. Her hair was a shade too red to be brown, and had a bit of grey at the temples. When she spoke, the Helician accent was clear in her tongue.
“So, Fen Drake. You have to be bold to ask for a Full Scholarship without a letter of recommendation.”
Fen gulped and nodded.
The akademic chuckled, baring her teeth. “I like that boldness. Anyway, usually the Akademia wouldn’t evaluate newcomers on balancing, but if you insist that you are qualified as a second year student, and if you’re asking for a Full Scholarship, you have no choice but to prove you’re capable.”
She moved, revealing the contents atop the table. There were two familiar crystals, Thell and Maht, resting on a small brass pedestal, a piece of chalk, and a large squared glass beaker filled with water.
“Freeze the water,” the akademic said, “then cut it in four equal pieces.”
Thermodynamic pull and two single-plane division pushes, Fen recognized as the shifts. Not the most basic, but neither too complicated. And, she knew how to solve the equations in her head. By instinct, Fen reached towards the crystals on the table, but stopped. She had caught a slight motion in the edge of her vision. The akademic had made a brief movement. Perhaps it was just a lowering of her chin, or a narrowing of her eyes, but it made Fen stop and reconsider her actions. She felt like prey, being stalked by a wild beast. Her back felt drenched. She swallowed. Instead of taking hold of the crystals, Fen reached for the piece of chalk. She took careful steps towards the slate wall, her evaluator’s eyes seemed to bore holes in her skull. Fen proceeded to write and solve the equations, taking note of the volume of water in the container. She knew water’s heat capacity and freezing point by memory, and as she was capable of solving them in her head, writing the process wouldn’t take her too long.
Once she had everything ready, Fen returned to the crystals. She placed her hand over them and focused. But nothing happened. The akademic smirked. What was the problem? The volume she had taken note of was correct, so that wasn’t it. Fen dipped her finger in the water and tasted it. Her father had once done a test like this to her, adding either salt or sugar in different amounts to change the properties of the liquid. She wrinkled her nose in response to the taste. It was saltier than the sea.
Fen returned to the slate wall and wrote the system of equations she needed. In order to find the new constants, she had to do another shift in a different direction. Once she had everything in order, she returned to the table.
Again, she placed her hands on the crystals, focused, and waited. Once Maht gave a scarlet glow, Fen began counting. When the mixture began to bubble, she stopped, and returned to the slate wall. After finishing the equations with the new data, Fen returned to the table.
Once again, she placed her hand on the crystals. Ultramarine and scarlet light glowed through her fingers, and despite the heat it had maintained from the previous shift, the mixture froze in the blink of an eye. And with a crack, split in four equal pieces.
With her fingernails, the akademic evaluator worked a block of salt-ice from the container. She analyzed the clean cuts. “Impressive…” She turned her head to Fen. “That will be all for now. Wait beyond that door until someone calls your name.”
Closing the door behind her, Fen walked into a large hallway with a number of people waiting. Some paced back and forth, others sat on some benches by the wall, legs bouncing, biting their nails. Five more came after Fen from different doors, and about half an hour later, names began being called.
At first, Fen didn’t feel nervous. But as people stepped from the room with tears and horror in their eyes, her heart began to tremble. One by one, the number of people in the hallway shrunk. It should’ve been logical, she had been one of the last out, it would take longer for her name to be called. But she couldn’t help it. If she sat, the way her leg bounced made the bench tremble. So, she began to pace. Fen tried going over every answer she had given, but couldn’t remember everything she had said. Pocket watch in hand, she tried to keep track of time, but it seemed to stand still, then jump forwards whenever a name was called. She wiped sweat from her palms, but nothing seemed to dry them.
Her heart skipped a beat and shivers ran through her entire body. Her heart felt about to burst. Fen turned; the balancing evaluator waited by the door. “Come in,” she said.
One heavy step after the other, Fen entered the room. All six evaluators waited inside behind the table. There were two grey coats folded on top of it. One by one, the evaluators gave their thoughts on Fen’s results.
“Everything was fine on my end,” said the physics evaluator while reading some notes he had written. “I was surprised even. She knew about Farier’s heat equation despite not being part of the evaluation.”
She also received positive reviews from the calculus, algebra, and crystallography evaluators. The metallurgy evaluator gave some positive comments, while correcting her on a few things, remarking that gold was in fact not soluble in oil of vitriol. But regardless, her answers had been mostly right.
“She displayed adeptness in balancing,” said the Helician akademic. “She managed to pass the balancing evaluation quickly, perhaps even in record time.”
She paused for a moment, lifting one of the grey coats. “Fen Drake, step forward.”
Fen took a step, or tried to. Her knees wobbled and she almost stumbled, but she managed to regain her composure.
Fen stretched her arms in front of her. She couldn’t keep them from trembling.
The balancing evaluator placed the rough woolen coat on her arms. “Welcome to the Akademia, girl.”
Fen tried to stand straight, but failed, as tears streamed from her eyes.