Thmp. Thmp. Thmp.
Three bags landed on the floor.
The door to the apartment closed and locked.
“We’re finally here!” Alex pumped his fists. “We did it!”
The apartment was a fine place, just as Hobb had described it. The central area was narrow but long, leaving enough room for a circular dining table, desk, small bookshelf, and small pantry. The hardwood floors had been freshly polished and the doors to two bedrooms lay open. Through the curtains on the balcony doors, Alex could see that the rain had finally stopped.
Groaning, Theresa slumped toward one of the chairs at the dining table and suddenly paused. She cautiously bent down, examining it from every angle—including poking at the chair’s legs with suspicion—before collapsing into it and letting her head loll back. Her eyes stared at the ceiling. “Yeah, we’re here.” She pulled off her boots and massaged her feet. “And I guess we’re all students now?”
“Yep, all in a big fancy school at the centre of the world.” Alex smiled contentedly, watching Brutus sprawl on the floor near the balcony. Selina sprinted to the pantry and tore it open.
“Empty.” She made a face before going to explore more of their new home.
“It won’t be for long,” Alex promised.
“So…” Theresa continued to stare at the ceiling. “The benches move.”
“Yeah, what was that?” he said.
“I don’t know. The bench just shook when Brutus laid down beside it, then started crawling away...and then it talked…and…” She shook her head like she was in a daze. “And boats fly and carpets fly and stones fly and…” She trailed off again. “I don’t know. In the last two days we’ve seen monsters and-” She looked around before mouthing the word ‘dungeon core’ to him. “-but I dunno, right now, my head is pounding. Did you know the benches move? Does everything move?”
Alex shrugged. “Probably not? Lucia said that magic items can be expensive, right? That’s why the gondolas have to be made cheap.”
“Yeah, those flying boats.” She pinched the bridge of her nose.
Alex took her waterskin from beside her bag, dug through the cupboards and poured water into a copper cup. He slid it over to her across the table.
“Thanks.” She gave him a pained smile and drained the cup, before glancing at Selina who had stepped onto the balcony with a tired Brutus. Theresa leaned closer.
“Are…are we going to be okay?” she whispered, making a motion like she was rubbing two coins between her fingers.
He sat down beside her. “For awhile,” he whispered. “About two years maybe. The program is four, though. At minimum, but we should have our own place long before that.”
A part of him felt sick at the idea that the entire material wealth of his parents’ lives would barely amount to two years at the university, and even then, they had the two years only on account of his partial scholarship. If he had to pay the full amount, they’d be out in the street in about a year. He put that thought from his mind.
The larger issue was if the university was this expensive, then what would buying a place in the city be like?
They’d need more coin. What options did that leave? Selling the fire-gems?
No. Not unless they got desperate: each one was so powerful, that giving them up would be a big mistake, one they should try to avoid if they could. He wouldn’t want to run into something as deadly as the hive-queen without them.
“There might be opportunities here,” he suggested. “We just need to keep our eyes open and look around.”
“Alex! Theresa! Come out here!” Selina called.
They looked at each other and—groaning like they were five times their age—stepped through the curtains onto the balcony.
The southern insula—the complex of student apartments—was somewhat empty. A few pieces of clothing hanging over balcony rails revealed that some students were in residence, while other balconies had one or two students seated on the same chairs as their dining chairs, bent over books.
Except for one. One was studying while seated cross-legged.
Theresa groaned beside him. Selina laughed.
The courtyard below had multiple benches, stone tables and chairs for dining and socializing. A few more students were gathered below—eating from a variety of colourful and interesting looking dishes. A pair of older students with books piled high on a table, had young children playing with blocks beside them. A warm breeze floated into the windows and balcony door. Alex sighed in contentment, though a hint of nervousness remained as he remembered The Mark’s presence and the secret of The Ravener. He wondered how differently he’d be feeling if he’d never been branded and had simply arrived with Selina and nothing hanging over him.
A beat of wings startled him from his thoughts.
From the sky swooped a huge bird with a black feathered body and white speckled wings. Its wingspan must have been at least ten feet across and it carried a dead rabbit in its claws. Fluttering, it landed on a balcony on the opposite side of the courtyard, on the top floor—same level as their room—and let out a fierce, triumphant cry.
“Look at that!” Selina pointed. “What a big, pretty bird!”
Pretty? More like terrifying.
Brutus was watching it with all three heads and his ears perked up.
The curtain on the balcony parted and a muscular young man—who was almost as tall as Alex—stepped through. He was very dark-skinned—similar in complexion to the griot that had passed through Alric—and his long hair was plaited and fell to mid back. A sculpted, imposing beard covered his chin, and he was built more like a metalsmith than a wizard.
The giant eagle cooed as its master approached, then stepped onto the young man’s outstretched leather gauntlet. He took the rabbit from the bird, petting the raptor with his free hand and stroking its head toward the beak. He said something loudly in a language Alex had never heard, then looked up, seeing them across the way.
He watched them for a moment before giving a polite nod.
Selina waved as Alex and Theresa returned his nod, and the young man stepped back through the curtain.
Alex briefly wondered if the young man was a first-year student who had arrived for school even earlier than him, or an upper-year summer student.
“Okay. I think it’s time to get some stuff done.” He said, thinking out what he wanted to get done and stepping back into the room. The others followed him.
Theresa slipped back into the chair.
“Anyone want to come to the library?” he asked.
He could see that Selina had already jumped into one of the beds.
In the bigger room, he noticed. That little goblin.
“Alright, I’ll be back in time for lunch.”
Theresa groaned again as he headed to the door.
“See you later, and look out for angry benches,” Theresa said.
He heard Selina laughing from the bedroom.
Walking to the library was pleasant. The southern insula was very close to the library building, and the path leading there passed through sculpted parklands and past great, old buildings of white and grey stone. Gargoyles and other winged figures holding staves and books stood in silent vigil at the top of the buildings. Students walked by—speaking in multiple languages—and Alex paid attention to their words.
Using The Mark, Rhinean had started to become more familiar to him; he was picking out at least one word every few sentences now. Not bad for a couple of days practice. By the time he was ready to graduate, he planned on being able to speak as many languages as possible.
Maybe one of them would help him translate The Traveller’s book, and he was hoping the library would have something on that too. He was getting more and more excited as he made his way there.
Several of the conversations were in the Common tongue, though, and most were about the explosion earlier.
“I heard it was some sort of transmutation gone wrong,” a squat young man in spectacles was saying, walking along with two others. “Someone tried to transform into a fire elemental, misaligned the spell array, and just turned into a fireball.”
“That’s not what I heard. I heard it was a magic item that someone caused a mana reversal with,” one of his companions said: a lanky, redheaded girl clutching a long glass flask in her hand. Inside the flask was a glowing ball of light, which flitted about like an insect. “The whole thing blew up in their face, literally.”
“That doesn’t seem right to me. It’s gremlins,” said their third, his frizzy brown hair bouncing as he walked. He had at least five books in his hands. “Gremlins sabotaging a potion.”
“Well, whatever it was, whoever did it is completely done for,” the first young man said. “Definitely expelled.”
Alex glanced at them as they passed.
Raised voices burst from a garden on his right. He jumped as two students—maybe only a little older than him—emerged from the hedges.
“Isolde, will you stop!” a man chased after a woman, in a mix of anger and desperation. His long red hair was disheveled and his face flushed. “You’re not listening to me!”
An unusually tall woman—maybe only a few inches shorter than Alex—walked away from the man as though he wasn’t even there. Her long black hair billowed behind her. “I don’t listen to trash rolling along the ground.”
“That’s not fair!” he snapped, running in front of her. “It was a one time thing!”
“No it was not,” she stepped around him without even giving him a second glance. “We’re done. Keep it civil. I walk my path and you walk yours. Separately.”
“But you’re not giving me another chance!” he shouted.
Heads whirled from all around the greenspace and path.
“Derek…” Isolde’s blue eyes hardened. “You need to quiet down, now.”
“And you need to listen to m-”
“No.” Her voice suddenly boomed. “You want to do this, then fine. We’re done, Derek. Finished.”
“Because you’re a cheater, and I don’t mean just on me—which you have, as I’ve found out—several times. You’re a cheater in everything.” She began listing things off with her fingers. “You cheated on me. You cheat in dice and cards-”
“That’s not a-”
“-you cheat on your exams.”
The colour drained from his face.
“What?” She glared at him. “You didn’t think I’d find out? Professor Jules posted the announcement in the potions department this morning that someone cheated, which you would have known if you didn’t skip class. Again.”
“Wha-wha-” Derek stuttered, backing away from her.
“Of course, I knew earlier than that, when she called me into her office because our potion analysis write-ups were word-for-word the same. I had to spend an hour showing her my rough notes and analysis logs to show Iwasn’t the one who had copied. You would have been at the meeting if you didn’t skip class. Again.”
“I wanted this quiet, but you wanted to make a scene. There. Scene made. Now, you’d better stop wasting time with me and go explain to her why you should remain a student here.”
With a low cry, Derek sprinted away toward the main castle.
Isolde watched him go, then drew a long, steadying breath. Her teeth were grinding as she turned. Everyone quickly looked away, including Alex.
In a dignified but angry silence, she walked away.
Alex let out a sigh when she’d passed. The problems of young love—apparently maniacal levels of cheating—was downright pleasant compared to nests of silent death bugs.
He continued toward the library.
His eyes rose to find the squat, windowless structure just ahead. Hobb had said that the building had no windows so the temperature would be more even, and the books would be protected from sunlight. He hoped that wouldn’t mean it’d be dark like a cave. He’d had enough of caves to last him a lifetime. In front of the library stood a fountain with a hooded figure holding two books and stone scrolls hanging from its robes. Water poured from the space in its hood where its head should have been.
Curious, he glanced over to see if any coins had been tossed into it.
He might add a few more later.
The doors to the library’s welcome area were open, but on the other side, the room was sealed shut. Alex could see green, glowing writing surrounding the doorway.
He took a deep breath.
Ahead of him lay the accumulated knowledge of the greatest institution of wizardry in the world.
It was almost intimidating.