“Thank you,” Trissiny said weakly, trying not to dwell on what was under her feet, and what wasn’t. “Did you say…upper room?”
Janis clucked her tongue, practically radiating sympathy. “You poor dear; I know, I know! More stairs, right after that awful hike up the mountain. And you wearing armor! But it’s almost over, I promise, and this’ll be much easier on your feet. We’ve got just the best carpeting on these steps. C’mon, I’ll show you!”
She led an unresisting Trissiny across the room, where two doorways occupied a corner. One, into which Janis immediately climbed, led to a spiraling staircase, twisting upward into shadows. As she passed by, Trissiny glanced into the other; it led into a short hallway, in which all that was visible was a closed door and another arched doorway that didn’t appear to have one.
“It’s a bit cozy here, but with only six girls Clarke Tower’s just the right size,” Janis nattered on as they climbed. “You saw the parlor, of course. On the bottom floor there’s also the kitchen. Here’s my door!” she said as they arrived at a small landing. “The tower narrows a bit after the first floor, so it’s only one room per level from here on up. Now, you can knock on my door any old time you need anything, dear, I’m here to help with whatever problems you may have. Don’t be a stranger!”
Trissiny kept silent, following her hostess. Janis had been right about the stairs; they were covered in the thickest carpet she’d ever seen or imagined. It was like walking on dense moss. Aside from being easier on her tired feet, her steps were completely silent and even the thumping of her trunk against the stairs was muted, and didn’t seem to vibrate her arm as much. A dour corner of her battle-trained mind noted that anyone sneaking up to her room for any nefarious purpose would have the advantage of complete stealth; she’d never hear it coming. She shut that paranoid thought down as the voice of disgruntlement and fatigue. At least the staircase was well-lit. They passed a window every story or so and wall sconces gleamed with a steady light that had to be some manner of magic.
Janis kept up her cheery babble for the entire climb. Trissiny tried to pay polite attention but after a few sentences about the weather and fashion and how exciting the school year was going to be, her attention wandered. Apparently the woman just felt the need to talk, and wouldn’t stop just because she lacked anything relevant to say. They passed two more doors on their climb, at which Trissiny learned that her housemates assigned to the third floor had not arrived yet, and that one of the fourth-floor girls had come in that morning, much earlier than expected, and had already departed to explore the campus a bit.
“Of course I’ve got everyone’s travel schedule, dear, I like to be as prepared as possible. I’m so sorry you had to come in alone! It’s ever so much nicer to meet new friends as you’re moving in. But there’ll be two more Rail arrivals just after yours and the rest of the girls are supposed to be on them. They’re probably on the way up the mountain right now! So it’s about to get rather hectic, I’d imagine, but that’s just as well! A full house is a happy house, I always say. Ooh, and did I tell you about the attic? Well, it’s not exactly an attic, more of a study. Or music room. There’s a pianoforte on the top level, under the roof, and our little library; not much in the way of textbooks, but I like to keep a stock of some lighter reading. It can’t be all study, all the time, or we’d all go mad! And here we are, Trissiny dear: your new room!”
Stopping in front of the next door they came to, Janis opened the heavy wooden door and ushered her inside. Trissiny paused in the doorway, taking stock.
The staircase occupied its own little turret on the back side of the tower, leaving the main building open. Her room was much larger than she’d expected, almost circular and perfectly symmetrical. A straight wall across the side opposite the door interrupted the curve of the outer walls, with another door set in its center. On either side of that, two beds in heavy oak frames were flat against the straight sections of the wall; marching along the rest of the perimeter were two heavy wooden desks and two towering wardrobes, both elaborately carved and apparently ancient, to judge by their dark finish and numerous dents and pockmarks. Four narrow windows were spaced evenly along the walls, admitting the golden light of late afternoon. A line between the two doors could have been a mirror, both sides of the room so perfectly reflected each other.
Janis bustled past her and opened the opposite door. “Bathroom’s in here, dear; the Tower’s only about twenty years old, so it’s fully rigged up with plumbing. Imagine that! Cold and hot running water, all the way to the top! Oh, it’s common enough now, I suppose, but when all this was put in it was unheard of. Professor Tellwyrn’s always on top of the newest trends, which you really don’t see often in the really old elves. Omnu’s breath, don’t tell her I called her old!” She laughed heartily, making her bulging cleavage bounce alarmingly. “I know it’s not much, but of course you’re welcome to decorate it however you like. Small, yes, but cozy! I’m sure you’ll be very comfortable.”
“I’m used to sleeping in a barracks with eleven other girls,” Trissiny said slowly, still blinking in the doorway.
“Good heavens! This must seem like the lap of luxury, then!”
She nodded, keeping silent. It did seem luxurious to her, and that wasn’t necessarily a positive thing. Avei’s followers were not to indulge themselves in excessive comfort, nor take more than they needed. Truthfully, indoor plumbing was something she’d only heard of before, but she wasn’t about to say that and look like an unschooled hick.
“Now, you take your time getting settled in, Trissiny dear. We’re going to have a little get-together in a bit down in the parlor, but not till everyone else has arrived, of course! Forgive me for leaving you so soon but I had best go man the door and make sure to greet everyone as they get here. Dear me, I may not have the chance to show everyone else around individually…ah, but here I am still blathering on! Sorry to rush out…”
She hurried over and swept Trissiny into an impromptu hug. “Oof! Goodness, that armor isn’t joking around, is it? Now don’t you worry about a thing, dear, and remember, don’t hesitate to come find me if there’s anything you need, anything at all. Ta ta for now! We’ll all see you later at the meeting!”
“Thank you,” Trissiny said belatedly as the house mother bustled back out; she couldn’t make out words from the cheery reply, as Janis was already out of sight down the stairs. For such a stout woman, she certainly moved energetically.
After glancing back and forth a couple of times, Trissiny wheeled her trunk over and set it down by the bed on the right. The choice of sides made no difference that she could see.
She took a bit of time to investigate the bathroom and its fixtures. They were mostly self-explanatory, though there was a faucet above head height in the bathtub, which, though its purpose was apparent, struck her as incredibly indulgent. Another window provided illumination, but there was also one of those glass bulbs she’d seen in the stairwell, currently darkened. After a little experimentation, she learned to handle the light, too; it could be turned on or off by pulling a small lever attached to the wall by the door. There was another of these in the main room. Good to know.
The view out the windows was breathtaking, until she made the mistake of poking her head out to look down. Apparently Clarke Tower had a small outdoor terrace on the bottom level; it would have been a lovely little spot if it weren’t hanging terrifyingly in midair. Trissiny gulped and ducked back inside, then went quickly around the room pulling the curtains closed. They were flimsy things of pale blue lacework, not much of a barrier, but it was something.
Unpacking helped distract her. She owned little, having few personal needs, and all of it was within her trunk, plus a bit extra. Her spare clothing was quickly tucked away in the wardrobe; from this she learned that it lacked the proper accoutrements to store armor correctly. There had to be somewhere in Last Rock she could buy an armor stand, which really was little more than a few pieces of wood. In the meantime she could make do arranging it carefully on the floor by her bed, as per camping procedure. It did have drawers, as well, as space and hangers for clothes; her few toiletries filled only half of one.
The books she stacked carefully on her desk. Trissiny had been assured that the University library would provide the necessary textbooks, but Mother Narny and several of the other sisters had made her gifts of additional volumes, mostly of history and theology, which they feared her education might otherwise be lacking. Trissiny wasn’t much of a reader but felt an obligation to at least make an attempt…but not tonight, she reflected, studying the neat stack of battered old tomes.
Her other gift from Mother Narny was far more practical and immediately useful. The wooden fixtures for her sword and shield were enchanted to adhere to any surface, which was a lucky thing as there would be no question of driving nails into the stone walls of Clarke Tower. In short order, she had them both displayed above her bed.
Trissiny was standing back, studying her handiwork with some satisfaction, when the door to her room burst open with a bang. She spun, dropping into a fighting crouch and reaching fruitlessly at her waist for the sword she’d just put on the wall.
“PREPARE TO BE BOARDED!” roared the new arrival, then swaggered in, grinning at her. “Whoah with the fists, girl. Naphthene’s tits, I’m kidding! Let’s not start off with a scrap, eh, roomie? Maybe you need to work off a little tension but after dragging my ass up this mountain and then this crazy damn tower, I sure as hell don’t.”
“Sorry.” She straightened slowly, unclenching her hands. “I’m a little on edge. That was…quite an entrance.”
“Only kind I make, babe!” Her apparent roommate was a somewhat plump girl a head shorter than herself with nut-brown skin; she was dressed in an ankle-length coat of brown leather, over a midriff-baring shirt that seemed made of ruffles, baggy trousers and knee-high boots. A sword was belted on over her coat, an ostentatious rapier with an extravagantly bejeweled gold handle. Topping off this ensemble was a wide-brimmed hat bristling with a spray of colorful feathers. Striding into the room, she swept this off and executed an elaborate bow, revealing black hair in a tight braid, and a tiny blue gemstone somehow affixed between her eyebrows. “Princess Zaruda Carmelita Xingyu Sameera Meredith Punaji, commander of all I survey and your new bunkmate. My friends call me Ruda, those of them I let live.” She straightened, replacing her hat, and grinned.
“I’m Trissiny Avelea.” She extended a hand, hoping her growing dismay didn’t show on her face. “You’re a princess?”
“And you’re a paladin!” Zaruda crossed the room in three long strides and clasped Trissiny’s wrist in a warrior’s handshake, still wearing that faintly maniacal grin. “I guess we should both be honored, eh? Should be an interesting semester.”
“I…suppose. Didn’t you pack anything?”
“Course I did, you think I’m an idiot?” Releasing Trissiny’s hand, she tugged on her lapels. “Got everything I need here in my pockets. But unpacking later—tonight, we party! Last chance before we gotta waste time studying and shit, right?” She nudged Trissiny with her elbow, winking broadly. “The nice lady with the rack said we’re having some kind of get-together down in the front room. Sounds about as exciting as tea with the Emperor’s granny, but we might as well put in an appearance, eh? Check out the competition, at least. TO ARMS!”
With this bellow, she pointed at the door as though commanding a charge, and swaggered back out. Trissiny tried to swallow the sudden sinking feeling that she wasn’t going to be getting much sleep this semester. She elected to leave the cumbersome shield behind, but grabbed her sword before following. There wasn’t likely to be much danger here, but its weight at her side comforted her. Besides, Zaruda wore hers around.
There was something new in the spiraling stairwell: music. The soft sounds of a harp echoed off the curving walls, a gentle melody that made Trissiny think of the small mountain streams back home. Ahead, Zaruda half-turned to give her a thoughtful look, but didn’t speak. Trissiny didn’t want to make any sounds to cover the music, either; it was a relief to learn her new roommate wasn’t completely infatuated with the sound of her own voice after all. Their boots silent on the plush carpet, they followed the steps down, soft chords growing louder with every step.
At the next landing down, the door was now flung wide open, revealing a scene of chaos. Posters had been somehow tacked up on the stone walls, showing a variety of magical carriages, the new kind that needed no animals to pull them; Trissiny had seen a few of those over the years, but the ones depicted in the room’s artwork were much more extravagant, fancifully shaped and lavishly painted. A music stand stood in the middle of the floor, laden with pages, a large floor harp under a window, and two cases appropriately sized to hold a guitar and violin sat beside one of the beds. Clothes were strewn everywhere: draped over the desk chairs, scattered on the bed, hanging from the open doors of a wardrobe, piled on the floor.
Sitting on a heap of coats on the edge of her bed, a girl bent over a gilded lap harp, her fingers gliding deftly across its strings, seeming to caress them and producing that otherworldly music. She had brown hair cropped boyishly short and was dressed in the height of men’s fashion, with crisply-pressed slacks and a sharp coat over a waistcoat and white shirt, its collar hanging open where a necktie would ordinarily go. Though Trissiny wasn’t well-versed in clothes, especially men’s clothes, she could tell these had been tailored to their owner; they hugged her figure in such a way that despite the hair and the suit she would never be mistaken for a boy.
Zaruda and Trissiny both stopped just outside the open door; the girl with the harp played on, apparently oblivious to them. Trissiny felt an urge to close her eyes, which she resisted, but she let the music flow over her, bringing a sense of serenity that she’d never realized music could. The notes glided by, golden as the harp, feeling very much like the streams of Viridill used to when she let them wash away the weariness in feet tired from a day of drilling. Even Zaruda stared, sightly slack-jawed, making no comment.
It ended rather suddenly, the soft arpeggios slowing and terminating in a single chord that swept all the way across the harp’s strings. For a moment, silence reigned, then the harpist drew in a soft breath and let it out in a sigh.
“Woo!” Zaruda ruined the moment by hooting and applauding; the harpist started violently, clutching her instrument, then just as quickly relaxed when she saw them in the doorway. “That’s amazing! Do you do parties?”
“I guess? Is there going to be one?” Carefully laying the harp down on her pillow, she rose, straightening her slacks, and walked over to them with a smile. “You must be the upstairs girls. I’m Teal. Teal Falconer. Let’s see…you’ve gotta be Trissiny.” She turned a warm grin on the paladin, who smiled back, then turned to Zaruda. “And… I’m sorry, I didn’t get everyone’s name yet.”
“Oh, I see how it’s gonna be. There’s a paladin on campus, so I’m gonna be upstaged everywhere.” Zaruda grinned amiably as she spoke, though, taking any bitterness out of the words, and grasped Teal’s hand, rattling off her long string of names again. Trissiny listened closely, though it might take a few more repetitions before she got them all down.
Her attention was caught, however, by a glitter of light from Teal’s lapel. Pinned to her coat was a trapezoidal silver badge carrying the emblems of the three principal gods of the Pantheon—Omnu’s sunburst, Avei’s eagle and the mask-and-scythe of Vidius—in a cartouche surmounted by the ankh symbol of the Universal Church, all inlaid in some kind of pure white metal.
“Is that—that’s a Talisman of Absolution!” she exclaimed.
“Oh…” Teal winced. “Hah, yeah…I guess you of all people would recognize that. Most folks just think it’s a decoration.”
“Then it’s authentic?”
“Well, yes. I don’t think the Church would let somebody wear a fake one around.” She laughed nervously. Trissiny was bursting with questions, but restrained herself in light of Teal’s obvious discomfort. Given what the Talisman signified, the poor girl probably had excellent reason for not wanting to talk about it. Zaruda looked back and forth between them, bemused, then cleared her throat loudly.
“Okay then! We’re headin’ down to the house meeting that’s supposed to be…I dunno, about nowish. Wanna come with?”
“Oh, yeah. Sure, I’ll just…” Teal turned to look around her messy room. “I’ll just finish this later, I guess. No sign of my roommate yet…she may as well learn up front I’m not the neatest person alive.”
Zaruda let out a boisterous guffaw and clapped Teal on the shoulder as she pulled her door shut. Trissiny only forced a smile and moved ahead to continue down the stairs, the others a step behind her. The staircase was too narrow for three to walk abreast, anyway, and not having Teal right in front of her helped her to keep a lid on her curiosity. She was going to have to get answers sooner or later, and not just out of idle nosiness. She was a paladin, a servant of Avei and by default an agent of the Church. Whatever circumstances had led to a teenage girl having a Talisman of Absolution were her business, especially if she was going to share a residence with said girl.
This time the footfalls were not so silent; a loud slapping noise accompanied each of Teal’s steps. Glancing back, Trissiny noticed for the first time that she was wearing cheap rubber sandals in a garish shade of blue. What an odd thing to pair with her obviously expensive clothes…
Occupied with her ruminations, she turned out the chitchat of the two behind her—which was mostly Zaruda, really—barely paying attention to where she put her feet, until they reached the third floor landing and met another person coming up. Trissiny had only a moment to gather an impression of slate-gray skin, white hair and elfin features before a burst of adrenaline flooded through her.
“Drow!” she shouted, whipping out her sword and falling into a ready stance. A blaze of golden light sprang up around her, filling the dim staircase with an almost physical force. Behind, Teal let out a yelp.
“Whoah, whoah, whoah! Put that thing up, you loon!” Zaruda exclaimed. “We’re not gonna be invaded here of all places. That’s another student!”
“Yeah, I can see that. Use your head, Triss, an assassin wouldn’t be strolling up the stairs like she owned the place, and if we were under attack there’d be more than one. Anyway, there’s no Underworld entrances anywhere in this province. What would a drow be doing here if she wasn’t attached to the school?”
“One of the drow city-states is allied to the Empire, y’know,” added Teal. “Can you…maybe turn that light down a little?”
“I…suppose,” Trissiny said reluctantly, lowering her sword a faction. “Is that the case?”
The dark elf had stopped at the other edge of the landing, squinting, with one hand raised to shade her eyes. She was short and slight, Trissiny saw, unlike the tall, lanky elves she’d seen before now. Odd; drow were supposed to be more muscular than their surface cousins.
“I am a student, yes.” Her voice was a cultured alto. “You may call me Shaeine. I believe this is meant to be my room?”
“Oh. I…” Trissiny swallowed, sheathing her sword. The glow faded from her; Shaeine lowered her hand and Teal breathed a faint sigh of relief. “I’m so sorry. I just…reacted. That was unforgivable of me.”
“Few humans seem so willing to express contrition.” the dark elf replied with a small, polite smile. “I have experienced numerous such misunderstandings since coming to the surface, and expect many more. May they all be so quickly resolved.”
“There, see?” Zaruda clapped her on the back, nearly earning herself a backhand from the still-twitchy paladin. “We’re all friends here. Is the sword your default reaction to everything?”
“Not everything,” Trissiny said tersely. “I’m sorry, Sheen. I’ll just get out of your way…”
“Shaeine,” she enunciated carefully, “but that was a good try.”
“Sha-ayne,” Teal said, drawing it out.
“Very good! Shorter, though. It is one vowel which changes pronunciation midway through. My language is counterintuitive to most humans, and vice versa.”
“Yeah,” said Teal, scratching her head. “There seems to be a fundamental disagreement concerning what a vowel is, for one thing.”
At this, Shaeine’s smile broadened to almost genuine proportions. “Are the three of you going to the house meeting?”
“That was the plan, yeah,” replied Zaruda, “before the littlest crusader here got all wand-happy.” Trissiny gritted her teeth, but said nothing.
“Splendid. Our remaining two housemates are already below, speaking with Miss Van Richter. As my belongings have not yet been delivered anyway, I believe I shall postpone examining my room till afterward, since everyone else is ready.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Zaruda said cheerily, then prodded Trissiny in the back. “Well, you heard the wicked child of the underworld, sparkles. We can’t walk with you in the way.”
Trissiny started moving, to get away from Zaruda if nothing else. Shaeine stepped in beside her, walking somehow even more silently than the rest of them on the thick carpet, and she fell to studying the elf sidelong. Her skin had an oddly matte texture that seemed to absorb the dim light in a way that human skin did not, but her straight white hair, which fell to her waist, was almost luminous. She wore a modest robe of green silk so dark it was almost black, trimmed in black, with patterns of spiderwebs in a different shade of black. Trissiny had never thought that black came in shades before.
Shaeine tilted her head slightly, catching her looking, and Trissiny flushed in spite of herself. “I really am sorry about that,” she said lamely.
“You are a protector, and have the instincts of such,” the elf replied smoothly with another of those purely polite smiles. “And your reflexes are certainly impressive. No harm was done.”
Nobody else found anything to say until they reached the parlor on the bottom floor. Passing through, Trissiny noticed for the first time that the staircase also continued downward from here. The tower had a basement, then? It would have to have been carved into the rock of the floating stalactite itself. Somehow, that was even more horrifying.
“Ooh, everyone’s here!” squealed Janis from near the front door, clapping her hands. “My, aren’t you girls punctual! Most years I have to go around gathering everybody up. Everyone, this is Juniper and Fross, our last two arrivals. Fross, Juniper, these are…” she pointed to each of them in turn. “Shaeine, Teal, Zaruda and Trissiny. I know, that’s not everybody’s full name, I’m sorry. But! Since we’re all here and ready, why don’t you girls each find a seat and then we’ll go about introducing ourselves! Go on, go on, get comfy! I’ll be right back with a little something to nibble.”
She bustled away down the hall to the kitchen, leaving the five girls alone. Five; to her confusion, Trissiny could only see one additional person in the room, but it was a person who made her blink to clear her vision, and then stare.
“I’m Juniper,” she clarified, waving. “Good to meet everybody! Teal, wasn’t it? Looks like we’ll be sharing a room.”
Juniper looked like the kind of woman dreamed up by lonely men, then drawn and printed on the covers of the sort of tawdry magazines Trissiny wasn’t supposed to know existed. Her close-fitting, sheer dress did nothing to obscure a figure that was almost improbably curvaceous; an inch more bosom or less waist and she’d look like a caricature. Even that and her startlingly lovely face weren’t her most eye-catching features. She had long, luxurious hair of a vivid green, and skin a shade of green-tinged gold that reminded Trissiny of new leaves in the early spring. Her eyes, incongruously, were an ordinary brown.
“Well,” Zaruda said resignedly, “looks like I’m not gonna be the hot one after all.”
“Oh, uh, hi,” said Teal, who had to keep jerking her eyes back up toward Juniper’s face. “It’s, uh, good to meet you too. Wow, you’re…unusual.”
“Thanks! You have a very interesting fashion sense.” Juniper smiled earnestly at her. “Anyway, just so there’s no confusion, I think that we shouldn’t be more than friends, since we’re going to be rooming together. I don’t understand human relational politics very well yet and I’d hate to blunder into a situation where somebody’s feelings get hurt.”
“W-what?” Teal flushed scarlet, then took a step back, waving her hands in front of her. “No, no, that’s perfectly—I mean, of course, I wouldn’t…that is, I don’t…” She groaned and clapped a hand over her face. “Y’know what, I’m just gonna crawl under the rug here. Talk amongst yourselves.”
A streak of light shot past Trissiny’s face, making her jump backward, and came to a stop right in front of Shaeine, who again had to squint against the glare.
“Hi hi hi!” it chimed. “I’m Fross, I’ll be rooming with you! Good to meet you! Wow, you’re pretty. Can I touch your hair?”
“I would rather you did not.”
“Oh! Right, personal space, sorry, I forget about that.” The little ball of light fluttered backward with a faint buzzing of nearly-invisible wings. “How’s that? Better? Haven’t got a feel yet for how close is okay. Big people are all different about it and it’s tricky with me being so much smaller, y’know? But I’ll get it down! There’s a lot of rules to remember, I’m working on it.”
“You’re a fairy,” Trissiny said dumbly.
“Yup! Well, we’re both fairies, but I’m a pixie.”
“Great seas, you’re tiny,” Zaruda said in awe. “Why’s a pixie need a room? Wouldn’t you be fine with, like, a lily pad?”
Fross seemed confused by the question; she drifted sideways in midair, as though her concentration on her flight had slipped. “Students are supposed to have rooms. All students are required to live on-campus, and the University provides housing. It’s in the student handbook.”
“You’ve read that? Mine’s propping up an uneven chair back home.”
“Of course I read it! All the rules are in there! How are you supposed to know the rules if you don’t read it?”
“Easy, Fross,” Juniper soothed, but the pixie began bouncing up and down in agitation, her voice growing shriller and more rapid with each word.
“What’s the point of having rules if people aren’t even going to know them? I’m still trying to wrap my feelers around the whole business and I can’t be the only responsible person here and please tell me I’m not the only one who read the handbook!”
“I read it!” four voices immediately piped up.
Fross visibly calmed, her flight steadying. “Oh. Oh, good, okay. That’s good.” She zoomed forward directly into Zaruda’s face; the princess jerked her head back, grabbing the hilt of her sword. “It’s just you, then! Don’t worry, I’m still got my copy. We’ll go over it later and I’ll make sure you know all the rules, all right?”
“Great. Thanks. Sounds like fun.”
At that moment, Janis returned, carrying a tray laden with a full tea set as well as piles of tiny cookies and finger sandwiches. “Goodness me, are you girls all still standing around? Sit, sit, get comfortable! We’ll just go over a few important facts and then we’ll all introduce ourselves and learn a bit about each other! Won’t that be fun?”
Trissiny glanced around the room; the only comfort she found was that everyone looked as nervous and out of place as she did, with the exception of Fross, whose body language (if she even had any) was unreadable, and Shaeine, who wore serenity like a cloud of perfume. In eighteen years she’d lived with the same faces at the Abbey; new arrivals had come all the time, but there’d been plenty of time to get to know them individually, one by one, and besides, that was on her home ground where she was comfortable and knew the way of things. Here, she’d had a bunch of strangers dumped on her in a handful of minutes and would be doing well not to call any of them by each other’s names. Not to mention that her mind kept jerking back to the appalling stretch of nothing a few yards under their feet.
“Yeah,” she said weakly, edging toward a chair. “Fun.”