After Fen wiped her face clean, the balancing evaluator accompanied her towards the reception, stating that Fen had been her last evaluatee. Along the way, she explained that there were some conditions to the Full Scholarship. As the Akademia was paying her tuition, Fen had to ‘pay back’ by working for the Akademia. This ranged from giving classes in some courses to working in the Industrial District. She still had time and could begin in a couple of weeks. And, she could choose where and what to work in, as long as she completed a number of monthly hours. Fen sniffed agreement to the things she said.
“By the way,” the evaluator said as they reached the reception, “my name is Alazana. If you need any help, feel free to ask me.”
The receptionist gave Fen her things back, then gave her the directions to her rooms. They were two blocks away. Alazana accompanied her to the entrance of the building then bid her farewell and good luck. Fen thanked her deeply for everything.
Two stories tall and about half a block long, the building blended itself with the rest of Phoelles. Fen opened the door to some sort of common room. There were some people around, making conversation in groups. Mostly women, but she saw a man by the end of the room. Some sat by a long wooden table or on a couch by an unlit fireplace, while others were already donning their student greys. The smell of tea, coffee, and toasted bread filled the air. Fen took a deep breath, the smells reminded her of her home. She suppressed a tear, then realized this would be her new home. At least for a while. She hoped it would become a home to her.
One of the women approached Fen, asking if she was new. She told her that her room was on an upper floor.
The woman turned to the rest of the room. “Everyone, welcome Fen! She’s the new girl here!”
Everyone in the room welcomed Fen aloud and congratulated her on passing the exam. Some even clapped, others raised their cups as if cheering. Fen tried to contain her blush, failed, then tried to hide her face. Hurriedly, she thanked everyone and darted to her new room.
Fen struggled with the lock on the door. Between everything she was carrying, she couldn’t position the key in the keyhole, but kept trying to fidget it inside. The door opened though, and a mass of curls stood on the other side. Wait, there was a face underneath. “Hmm…?”
“I…” Fen began. “I’ve been told this is my new room–"
A smile beamed beneath the curls. “You must be my new roommate!” enthused the host in a strong Andaaran accent. “Come in!” She swung the door wide open.
Fen stepped inside the dark and disarrayed room. The Andaaran girl began lifting clothes from the ground and from the bed that remained unused. “Sorry about the mess, this room was mine alone for the last three weeks.” She cleared the curtains and opened the single window by the end of the room, letting light and a soft breeze in.
“I’m…” Fen tried to say, “I’m sorry if I awoke you–"
“Ah! Feels great to have a new roommate!” She took Fen’s hand in both of hers, joy shining through her golden eyes. “What is your name?”
“Fen.” She couldn’t help but smile back at her enthusiastic roommate.
“Great to meet you Fen! I’m Elle. Now sit while I do some order out of my mess.”
The room was small, but it didn’t feel cramped. The two beds were against the walls on opposite sides, between them a table just beneath the window. At the feet of each bed was a wooden chest for their belongings, and to one side was a washbasin and mirror. Despite its current state of disorder, to Fen it felt… cozy. Maybe it wasn’t the room but the company. First, everyone in the common room. Now Elle, who acted as if Fen arriving had been the best thing to have happened to her in a long while. With the way things had been for the last months, Fen couldn’t remember the last time she had been welcomed so warmly.
“Ah you have your student coat. I remember when I got mine.” Elle hugged herself. “I looked like a bayet but I felt so proud when I finally passed…”
‘Bayet’? “I haven’t tried mine yet,” Fen said.
“Well? What are you waiting for?”
Elle hurried Fen on while she moved the mirror to a more comfortable position. The wool was thick and roughly spunned, but overall, it was comfortable to wear. Fen raised her head to look at the mirror. The coat was too long. Too wide at the shoulders, and it didn’t slim at all at the waist. The sleeves were over by a whole hand, and the length reached past her knees.
Elle burst into laughter. “Was that the smallest they had?”
Fen blushed. “I… I–"
“Don’t worry, they never fit anyone. The men mostly don’t care, or they grow into it. Us, we have to manage. Let’s go to Lis, she’s the best with this.”
Elle grabbed Fen by the hand, dragging her back to the common room. Lis… Why did it sound familiar? Oh, it was the name of a crystal. ‘Strength’, Fen remembered its meaning.
“Lis!” Elle greeted her energetically. “I have a new roommate!”
Lis lounged on a couch, a book in one hand, a cup of tea in the other. She had strawberry blonde hair that reached past her elbows. As Elle called her name, she smiled at both of them.
“I thought that would be the case when the new girl walked through the door. Fen, right?”
“Bring your needles,” Elle said, “the bastards gave her drapes instead of a coat.”
“As expected,” Lis sighed then smiled. She gulped her tea and left.
While they waited, Elle asked her about her time in Phoelles. How long had she been here? Today would be her third day. She had spent two full nights preparing for her exam. How hard was the exam? Not too hard, but the balancing evaluation had been a bit tricky.
“Balancing evaluation?” Elle asked.
“Yes… Alazana said it was a requirement for the Full Scholarship as a second-year student.”
Elle stared at her, mouth opened wide.
One of the other girls turned her way and, “Second-year?”
Another stood to look at her. “Full Scholarship?”
All eyes gazed at her. Then, the questions rained in. What did they evaluate you on? Who were the teachers? Was Alazana too rough on you? Was it hard? What did they say afterwards? All the questions made Fen dizzy, and she couldn’t finish answering one before another one popped in. Her face was burning. How many times had that happened today already?
“I couldn’t stop crying when they told me I passed,” Fen said.
“I would’ve been screaming in joy,” one girl in the back said.
“Oh, shut up Narita,” another replied, “you cried for an entire day when you passed higher calculus.”
Everyone in the room laughed. Even Fen felt amused.
“So, our new girl got a Full Scholarship on her first try,” Lis said as she walked into the room. “This is cause for celebration. We have to show her off to the rest.”
Everyone jumped into action. Some started discussing which musicians to bring, others argued over which inn was better. Hart had to come with his drums, and Will had to bring his lute. ‘The Brass Tankard’ had better drinks, but ‘The Railway Cart’ had a bigger common room. With time, people started leaving the room, off to do their duties for the day. And to get the ball rolling for the celebration.
Elle and Lis were free today, so they accompanied Fen. As the people in the common room diminished, they moved to Elle’s –and Fen’s– room. They helped order the chaos that remained, as well as arrange Fen’s things. Her chest was still mostly empty, so Lis suggested getting more clothes. Fen made some mental calculations taking into account how much coin she still had. All things considered, she could afford more clothes, so she saw no reason to deny.
A while later, Lis finished with her coat. It no longer sagged at the shoulder, and the sleeve length was on point. The cut now fitted her waist better, and it no longer reached past her knees. It felt good. Fen felt good.
“Wait,” Elle said, “somethings missing.”
To Fen, nothing was missing. The coat was a perfect fit.
Elle rummaged through her belongings, dumping a variety of colorful garments on her bed, before lifting a long red kerchief. She tied it at Fen’s waist, twisting it around her twice then knotting it at the side. She fingered the kerchief. It was incredibly soft. What was it made of? Silk?
“Now, that’s stellar,” Elle said. Lis nodded in agreement beside her.
It… did make a difference. Most of the clothes she wore were rather colorless or mild. And with the grey coat, she looked even more dull. But the red kerchief broke that monotone.
“But it is yours.” Fen began to undo the knot.
Elle stopped her. “Keep it, it looks great on you. Think of it as a welcoming gift!”
“I… Thank you.”
Elle grinned back.
“The kerchief is nice and all, but, let’s get you a nice dress for tonight,” Lis said with a wink.
They dragged Fen towards a Brass Railstation. Apparently, if they wanted to go to the Bazaar District, they had to take the Second Line.
“What, you’ve spent two full days here and never left your room?” They were crossing over the city, over thirty feet above the streets. Lis couldn’t believe Fen had only ridden the Rails once, and had never visited the markets.
“Uhm… Yes?” Fen answered.
Lis’ slanted brow looked more surprised than mocking. “Huh. No wonder you got that Full Scholarship.”
“It’s not only that, Lis,” Elle said with a lecturing tone. “I saw the njardhuk in her eyes.”
“You’re the only Andaaran here, Elle. Neither Fen nor I know what you mean.”
They descended from the Rail Line, Lis taking charge, leading the way through various shops.
“I know njard means star,” Fen said, “though I have no idea what the rest is.”
“You speak Njulgha?” Elle’s eyes shone like stars, arms wrapped around Fen’s.
“I only know three words,” Fen answered, prying her arm from Elle’s grip. “Ma, sah’ri and njard. That’s all.”
“Water, sand, and star. Not bad.” Elle stroked her chin. “Dhuk means bright, or light. But njardhuk is more like… Intelligence. No, something more than that. Like a gift, a blessing.”
Fen’s face blushed again. What was it, the fifth time that happened today? “I did spend two days shut in studying though. And I was lucky.”
“Elle’s right though,” Lis said, eying Fen through different dresses, as if seeing which would look better on her. “It takes something special to get that Full Scholarship on the first try. And as a second year… Even more impressive.”
Elle sighed, head back, backhand to her forehead. “And here I thought I would be a nice senior to you… Turns out we are in the same year.”
“I actually think she might be more advanced than you,” Lis said with a chuckle. “You still have to take Advanced Algebra, right?”
“Shut up, it doesn’t count.” Elle crossed her arms and pouted. Lis laughed, and Fen couldn’t help but chuckle.
“You might be smart, Fen, but I still have more experience in the Akademia than you,” Elle said, finger pointing at Fen. Though she then looked down, then sideways, and her cheeks took a red tint. “Though I’d appreciate it if you helped me study sometimes…”
Fen smiled back. “Sure.”
They spent some time reviewing other dresses, before Fen picked one. Actually, Lis picked it, but Fen liked it. Fen left the changing booth, and her companions approved of the choice. A while later, the three were on their way back to the dorm, already planning their lunch.
“Is Alazana really as rough as the other girls said? She seemed nice to me.”
“Some students call her the ‘red lion,’” Elle said, hands like claws. “She’s fierce in her lectures, and unforgiving in examinations.”
Fen remembered her balancing evaluation and felt shivers run down her spine. Perhaps she understood why she had that nickname very well.
As the three entered the dorms, Fen yawned.
“You must be beat,” Lis said. “After the entrance exam and everything. That was pretty early today, right?” Fen managed to mumble in agreement after yawning.
“Take a nap, I’m sure you need it.” Fen saw no reason to decline.
The bed was not bad. It was nothing like The Lumbering Akademic or The Misplaced Poet, but it was pretty comfortable. Not even five minutes in, she was fast asleep.
* * *
“Come on Fen,” Elle said, dragging her by the arm. “Everyone’s already there!”
It was a pleasant summer night, and the moon and stars shone unperturbed. But The Railway Cart shone even brighter. And louder. Did stars make any noise? Fen shook her head. It didn’t matter. What mattered was that there were a multitude of people inside.
Fen fidgeted with her hair. Lis and Elle had helped her get ready, but Fen still felt like a physics textbook in the poetry aisle. The last time she had gone to something like this had been Summer’s Eve back in Northod, and that happened almost three months ago. And a lot had changed since then.
“Come on Fen, you look stellar. Everyone’s here waiting for you.”
“Is… is everyone really here for me?”
“I think they wanted a get-together for a while now,” Lis said beside her. “But you’re a great excuse.”
Elle opened the door, and the music poured out; flutes, drums and lutes, and the sound of feet kicking the floor to the beat. Someone shoved a cup into her hand before being presented to the crowd. The common room was large. Larger than any she had been to before. Yet it was still filled to bursting.
“To Fen!” And everyone cheered, before resuming their dancing and chatting.
“I can’t see Taaron,” Elle told Lis. “I thought he’d come.”
Lis sighed, looking down. “He has work tomorrow morning, so he couldn’t.”
“He could’ve shown his face at least for a little while…”
Lis shrugged in return.
“Who’s Taaron?” Fen whispered to Elle.
“He’s Lis’ guy,” she whispered back. “Oh, Henry is here,” she said. She raised her arm and started waving at him. “Henry! Hi! I haven’t seen him in ages. Let me introduce him to you, Fen.”
He was tall with black wavy hair. Stepping outside from a large group of people, he did a small wave back at Elle before greeting them. “Let’s move a bit further away,” he said. “I can barely hear you speak.”
The four of them sat on a table to the side. Often while they talked, someone else stepped closer to say a word or two. Mostly to Fen, congratulating her, or giving her some tips, or suggesting showing her around the city. She would thank them, but so many came that Fen wished her drink would swallow her instead.
“Autumn’s Eve is next week,” Elle said. “Let’s go to the audience together.”
“That’s next week already?” Henry sighed and slouched. “I wished I could rest a bit longer.”
“What is happening next week?” Fen asked.
“So-Phell’s giving a public speech for the holiday, and to signal the beginning of the term,” Lis said. “He always says the same things, but it is always a shocker to see him.”
Fen took a sip of her drink. She would finally see So-Phell, the king of Phoelles. The living God.
The night moved on. Fen met new people, and talked till her throat ached. She hadn’t talked that much in months. She enjoyed talking with the people she met, and she realized that perhaps she had drank a bit more than she should have. With time, the number of people dwindled, and Lis, Elle and Fen made a stumbling return to the dorms, exchanging few words and many giggles. By the time she was in her bed, few stars remained in the sky. Fen smiled into her pillow.
And she had thought she would be alone.