Maureen felt a little bad about leaving the other newly-arrived students to contend with the throngs of townspeople, but then, one had to play to one’s strengths. Slipping through tight places and escaping notice weren’t strategies in which the gnomish people took particular pride, but they were unquestionably good at them. Really, in other situations, she might have wanted to stay and explore Last Rock a bit; the festival atmosphere which greeted the students stepping off the Rail was actually pretty enticing.
On the other hand, she was already feeling out of her element, and remembered her Aphorisms. When adventuring in a new and possibly dangerous area where you will remain for some time, first secure a base. Presumably the University provided students with housing. That should be her first goal. So telling herself, she gave the feisty crowds the slip, heading for the edge of town.
Forgoing the tempting main avenue, lined as it was with more stands and eager-looking townie merchants, she slipped through the back alleys. Last Rock had few such, just barely enough to keep out of sight of the town’s one important-looking street. There simply wasn’t enough space to get lost, not that that would be possible anyway, with the inescapable mountain itself rearing up from the edge of town.
It was fairly quiet when she slipped out of the gap between two outbuildings, finding herself at the base of the mountain. For a moment, Maureen simply stood, leaning her head back to gaze upward at its heights. The thing was just colossal. A peak like this would be impressive anywhere, but occurring as it did right in the middle of the world’s flattest country, the mountain of Last Rock could be positively dizzying if one allowed oneself to dwell on it.
There were paths provided—two of them, both carved of white marble and standing out against the green of the low grass which covered the roughly forty-five degree slope. A flight of stairs ran straight upward, toward the gates of the University high above, while a flatter path zigzagged widely back and forth across them, providing a gentler slope but a walk that would be many times longer.
The stairs, of course, were sized for tall people.
Maureen glanced back at the town, where she could see the crowd through gaps between buildings, then set her jaw, double-checked the straps on her Pack, and set off up the mountain, walking through the grass just to the left of the stairs. Some of her new classmates had legs nearly as long as she was tall, but if she got a good enough head start, maybe she could beat them to the campus anyway.
Beat them at what, or why, she couldn’t have said. But gnomish pride was at stake, regardless.
No matter how the others back home might have thought her reclusive, lazy or just odd, she had done more than enough training that even this excessively vertical hike didn’t strain her legs unduly. However, as she climbed onward and the prairie sun beat down, she reached back, fishing in her Pack without stopping, and pulled out a conveniently placed towel, which she wound around her head into a turban-like cover. All the while she composed a mental apology to Mum for all her complaints about drilling desert-condition survival skills in the middle of the Stalrange.
Her ears twitched alertly as notes of music drifted down to her. Someone up ahead was singing. Maureen paused to peer up at the University gates, but she was too far distant to make anything out clearly. She tucked her head down and resumed plowing up the slope.
The words grew steadily louder as she climbed. It was a cheerful little ditty, that much she could tell from the melody, sung by a woman with a somewhat husky voice, though she couldn’t make out the lyrics quite yet. Despite their longer ears, gnomes didn’t hear much better than humans, certainly not as well as elves. Just when she thought she was starting to catch a few words here and there, the music stopped.
She paused to look up again—the slope being what it was, she couldn’t really gaze forward while moving unless she wanted to risk taking a very long fall. The gates of the University were visible now. And…someone was sitting atop them.
Maureen continued on, and after a minute, the singer resumed, or began again. This time, she could hear clearly enough to discern the words.
“Ol’ Sally’s on the docks again, an’ she ain’t gettin’ far
She’s dressed in moldy sailcloth an’ smells of rust and tar,
What can sag has, or fallen off, no winsome lass is she
But I swear I still would hit that, for I’ve been a year at sea!”
In spite of herself, Maureen’s cheeks colored and the tufted tips of her ears began twitching furiously. Well, it was no worse than she’d heard in the pubs back home, right before Pop or one of her uncles spotted her lurking about and sent her packing. If anything, she was self-conscious about feeling self-conscious. What kind of impression would this make?
Meanwhile, the “music” carried gamely on.
“Ol’ Sally’s got no teeth left, which helps for suckin’ wood
Her nugs start at her navel, an’ hang down where she’s stood
Her right eye looks the wrong way and the left one’s merely odd
But I’d hit that like the hammer of a dark avenging god!”
Well, that would teach her to think it couldn’t get worse.
Once again, the serenade came to a stop, this time because of her arrival on the small plaza before the University’s open gates. The singer, a young human woman who was perched improbably atop one of the columns supporting the gates, grinned and waved a bottle of rum at Maureen.
“Ahoy, traveler! Welcome to the jungle! I’ve not seen you before. Frosh?”
“Excuse me?” Maureen demanded, affronted.
The girl’s grin widened. “Freshman. First year student. New to the campus, yeah?”
“Oh! Aye—I mean, yes, that’s me. I mean, I am.” Belatedly, she pulled off her head covering, then immediately wished she hadn’t; her embarrassed blush had to be painfully visible now.
“Glad to have you!” the girl said cheerfully, and Maureen had the odd feeling she meant it. The woman was Punaji, obviously, and just as obviously rich. Her greatcoat was of a much finer material than the traditional sailcloth, her hat bristled with brightly colored feathers, and the blue dot between her eyebrows appeared to be an inset sapphire, rather than a tattoo. “Head on through the gates, and follow the ostentatiously floating blue flags. This year’s freshman girls are housed in the Well—the marked path’ll lead you right there. Tell ya what, though,” she added, straightening up and leaning forward, grinning conspiratorially. “Wanna know a secret?”
“I suppose, sure,” Maureen said warily.
“The path’s a load of bullshit, in terms of actually getting anywhere. I fell for that my first day here. It leads you all over the damn place so you can get a look at the campus from all angles. The campus is worth lookin’ at, make no mistake, but you don’t strictly have to indulge Tellwyrn’s showin’ off. You wanna get to your bunk efficient-like, head straight up through the grass just past the gates, cross the little lawn there, and there’ll be a big gothic-looking monster of a building. You go left to the edge of that, head into the little alley there and follow the stairs all the way up, then turn right and follow the cobblestone path till you re-connect with the flagged path. Follow that north an’ you’ll come right to a round building. That’s your new digs.”
“I… Thank you very much,” Maureen said, politely but uncertainly.
“No sweat,” the Punaji girl replied, winking. “And hey, go whichever way suits you best. Like I said, the scenic route’s worth scenicizing, but you’ve got plenty of time for that later if you want. See ya ’round campus!”
“Yes. Um, see you. Thanks again!”
The woman lifted her bottle of rum in toast, then tipped it back and took a long drink. Maureen had been certain this was supposed to be a dry campus… As she had apparently been dismissed, though, she put that aside to wonder about later, and stepped forward through the gates.
Another small plaza beyond mimicked the one outside. As described, rows of floating flags marked paths leading off in both directions, blue to the right, red to the left. Maureen stood there, glancing back and forth, and then at the grassy incline leading straight forward and up through a small stand of bushes.
Here was a dilemma. The Aphorisms chanted in her head to find and secure a living space before sightseeing. On the other hand, the path had clearly been set the way it was for a reason. On the third hand, not all reasons were good ones, especially when it came to administrative bodies—run by a the legendary Arachne Tellwyrn or no, the University was a bureaucracy, and the Folk knew very well how those were about rules for rules’ sake. But…could the pirate’s directions be trusted? Pranking new students—new arrivals anywhere, really—was a time-honored tradition that spanned all cultures and peoples. It would be really nice to get herself settled in without having to meet and deal with her fellow students, though… Maureen had been raised to be polite, and friendly when the occasion called for it, but she could not call herself a people person. Even among people she knew, liked and trusted, to say nothing of strangers. To say nothing of these strangers.
Suddenly, above and behind her, the ballad resumed. Ol’ Sally, despite her various flaws, proved to have a multi-talented tongue, and Maureen shot into forward motion before she had to hear any more about it. Then, once up the incline, there was nothing else for it but to follow the pirate girl’s directions, since she’d already lost the marked path.
It was hardly her first time following directions; she had carefully memorized them as the girl spoke, and the landmarks were all exactly where they were indicated. She saw other people, but only distantly and on the periphery, and always ducked back into the shadows whenever this happened. Maureen felt a little bad about it, but there was no shame in seeking some comfort in invisibility and anonymity, she told herself. The campus really was impressive, what she could see of it, but that should hardly be surprising.
The path she’d been directed to take didn’t bring her past the entrance of the famous Crawl. She wondered if the officially sanctioned route did.
Quite soon, though, it turned up exactly where the pirate had said it would: at a compact, circular building constructed of golden marble which so resembled a miniature Omnist temple in design that it had to have been done deliberately. There was a single door, facing the path. It was sized for tall people, obviously, but Maureen had no trouble reaching and turning the latch. There was a keyhole, but it wasn’t locked.
Inside, the building was one wide-open space. Very wide open. The roof was a skylight, a single featureless sheet of circular glass, and there was no floor, just a railed spiral staircase descending down into a round shaft. Maureen stared glumly at this from the relative safety of the small landing inside the door. Stairs… Countless stairs, descending into dark oblivion. Stairs designed for tall people.
It was going to be a very, very long semester.
She sighed heavily and cinched up her Pack. The family hadn’t sent her this far to be turned back by stairs. The Folk were well used to making do with facilities sized for tall people; this was hardly her first time using their stairs. She knew the best way to move up and down them to minimize the difficulty. It was just… There were so many of them.
Then she stepped down onto the first one, and had to stop, grinning in delight. The moment her foot came to rest on the top step, the descending spiral before her was suddenly sized perfectly for the length of her legs. It was well worth remembering, she decided, that this University had been built by possibly the greatest wizard in existence.
Even better, while the staircase appeared to spiral endlessly down into darkness, the actual descent seemed to be only about two stories worth of steps, as best she could reckon it, and the whole was well-lit by the skylight above. There were also wall sconces with currently inert fairy lamps. Then, suddenly, without having seen it approach, she was at the bottom. It occurred to Maureen that considering the obviously magical nature of that stairwell, there was absolutely no telling how deep she actually was into the mountain now.
Such concerns fled her mind, though, as she stepped forward into the Well and got her first look at her new home for the next four years.
It was a round chamber of clearly natural origin; fairy lamps were cleverly worked into the stalactites hanging from the ceiling in a way that emphasized their shapes while providing adequate illumination for the area. The floor had been smoothed flat, in places clearly filled in with stonework. To the left was an irregular section of missing wall paneled over with light-stained wood, in which was set a single door. Another, larger such segment lined the right side of the chamber, this one with a door at either end. In the back, opposite the stairs, was an obvious living area, with a sofa and chairs, a low table, and a small kitchen consisting of little more than a modern enchanted stove, sink, upright cold box and one cabinet.
All this was around the rim of the chamber, however. It formed a walkway secured behind a metal rail that would have been roughly chest-high for the tall people and which was just above Maureen’s head. Beyond that, in the middle, was a deep pit from which the Well evidently took its name. A particularly long cluster of stalactites hung down into it, the tip of the largest extending below the level of the floor, and the entire formation bristling with tiny, multicolored fairy lights like a very peculiar chandelier.
Immediately before her, though, was another person, sitting in a ladder back chair and reading a heavy book whose cover was printed in elvish, from which she looked up on Maureen’s arrival. The woman’s age was hard to guess; she was a human of Tiraan stock, with black hair, bronze skin and rather angular features. Her attire was either very old-fashioned or very avant garde, consisting of plain but dramatic black robes. She waited for Maureen to take in the whole scene before speaking.
“And you must be Miss Willowick.”
“I… Aye. I mean, yes, that’s me.” Maureen smiled feebly. “I, eh, gather y’don’t have too many gnomish students…”
“Well, you’re the only one this year,” the woman said with a smile, setting aside her book, “but there’s also a process of elimination involved. You’re the last to arrive.”
“Oh,” she said weakly. “Sorry.”
“Nothing to be sorry about!” the woman assured her. “The Rail schedule is what it is. I’m Afritia Morvana, the house mother. I live just over there.” She pointed to the smaller walled-off area to the left of the door. “You girls are housed in the one opposite. Since you’re here, we’ll be having a little house get-together in a few minutes, in the lounge area in the back. But there’s no rush, Maureen. You take whatever time you need to get settled in and greet your roommates. They’re all unpacking.”
“I, ah… Thanks. Thank you! I’ll do that.” She smiled awkwardly. “Um, bye!”
“See you soon,” Afritia replied with a more serene smile, picking up her book again.
Maureen ducked past her, making for the nearest of the two doors indicated. She sighed softly at the need to reach up for the knob; best she start getting used to that. With Afritia right there, she did not indulge in a moment to compose herself, but set her jaw, turned the knob and pulled open the door to her new living quarters.
She was instantly blinded by a burst of white light.
“Ack!” Maureen yelped, clapping a hand over her eyes and staggering backward.
“Oh, for—do you have to do that?” a voice exclaimed. “Now look what you’ve done!”
“I am sorry,” another girl’s voice said, closer. “Are you quite all right, miss?”
Maureen peeked between her fingers, blinking to clear her vision. Right before her, just inside the doorway, stood a blonde human girl who was scarcely a foot taller than she, and so dainty of build as to be almost boyish. She was holding a device like a heavily augmented telescope, bristling with dials and socketed crystals.
Immediately her confusion cleared and she leaned forward, fascinated. “Ooh! That’s one of the new lightcappers, isn’t it? A handheld model! And is that… Why, there’s no sheetroll! Are those data storage crystals? Wherever did you find them?!”
“Oh, gods, another one,” said the voice which had spoken first.
The blonde girl, meanwhile, beamed at Maureen. “A fellow enthusiast! How lovely! Again, I do apologize for startling you. It’s my hobby, you see—I find there is no substitute for a candid shot. When people know they are being capped, they pose and preen as if sitting for a portrait. One must take one’s subjects unaware to capture the truth of them, do you not think so?”
“Oh, I, ah, never really had much interesting in the actual art,” Maureen admitted. “But the device is fascinating, don’t you think? There’s basically nothing else that marries dwarven technology and Tiraan enchanting work so seamlessly!”
“It would probably help if you turned down the light-flashy thing,” said the other voice. “I’m still seeing spots. That thing’s liable to get broken if you keep doing that to people.”
“Oh, but you can’t!” Maureen protested, turning to the speaker. “It’s precious! There are hardly any devices like that yet built, it must have cost a fortune!”
The other girl was also human, and also of a slender build, but there the resemblance to the first ended. She was of dark Western heritage, with curly black hair gathered up into a high ponytail. She wore a striking white dress that contrasted starkly with her skin and made her seem almost to glow in the warm light of the room.
“And you must be Miss Maureen,” the blonde girl said, smiling benignly at her over the lightcapper, which she still held at the ready as if to take another shot at any moment.
“Aye, that I am,” Maureen replied with a smile, feeling already more at ease than she’d imagined would be possible. “Maureen Willowick of the Shadow Falls, and glad t’know ye.” She slipped a little light Patter reflexively into her speech, which the humans of course completely missed.
“The Shadow Falls?” said the dark-skinned girl, her eyes widening. “The dungeon? You lived there?”
“That is not so uncommon, for gnomes,” said the blonde, smiling. “I am Ravana Madouri, and very pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss Willowick.”
“It’s just Maureen t’me friends,” she said with a slightly bashful smile.
“Maureen, then,” her new acquaintance replied with a smile in return. She had a very graceful way about her, a knack of conveying layers of goodwill with only a few words. “And you have met Miss Domingue.”
“This one likes her formalities,” the girl in white said with a cheerful wave. “I’m Iris, good to meet you!”
The human blinked, her expression perplexed. “Uh…wha?”
“And of course,” Ravana interjected smoothly, half-turning, “this is our remaining roommate. May I present Szith nar Szarain dal An’sadarr.”
Maureen turned and barely managed not to leap backward out of the room in shock; she didn’t quite succeed in repressing a gasp.
The drow bowed politely, seeming not to notice her gaffe. “It is my honor. Welcome to our shared home, Maureen Willowick. You may address me by given name, if you wish. It is my hope that we shall all call one another friend.” She smiled, a formal little expression that held no real meaning.
“I, um, a’course,” Maureen said hesitantly. “Good t’meet you, too. Uh… I’m sorry, but… Sssszzzith?”
“The consonant does not occur in Tanglish,” Szith said, still with that aloof little smile. “I will answer to Sith or Zith without offense. Whichever is easiest for you.”
“Oh, now, that doesn’t seem right,” Maureen said hurriedly. “It’s your home too, aye? I’d want ye t’feel as welcome as any of us. I’ll work on me pronunciation, if y’don’t mind bein’ pestered a bit about it here an’ there.”
At that, the drow’s smile actually widened and developed the merest hint of real warmth. “I do not mind in the slightest. Please, come in, be comfortable.”
“Oh…aye, I ought to do that, I s’pose,” Maureen said ruefully. She had been too busy staring at the dark elf to even get a look at her surroundings. It was just that, of all the creatures gnomes encountered, fought and bested, the drow were the most relentless and formidable. Of course, a mere moment’s thought told her that Szith had to be a Themynrite from Tar’naris, not one of the savage Scyllithenes who occasionally bored into gnomish dungeons; Maureen was left embarrassed by her instinctive aversion. In her defense, Szith was obviously a fighter. Her hair was cut short, the better to keep it out of her eyes and provide no handhold for an enemy, and her sleek garment of dark lizard scales, while shaped like a simple wraparound tunic, was obviously stiff and thick enough to serve as light armor.
Now, finally, she examined the room itself. It was a long gallery containing four beds, three obviously claimed. Szith had taken the one on the far right, or at least was standing next to it. A compact backpack sat next to the head of the bed; apart from that, the only identifying feature was a flag hung on the wall behind it, a black thing with a diagonal bar of blood red so dark it did not stand out well against the black, and a spiky elvish glyph in white in its center.
Ravana’s chosen bed was obvious for the sepia-tinted lightcaps hung all over the wall behind it, surrounding a huge silver coat of arms. She also had a hefty cedar chest at the foot of her bed, and Maureen had to wonder how she’d gotten the thing down the stairs. It was substantially larger than its wispy human owner.
Iris was seated on her own bed; aside from a quilt thrown over it, she’d done nothing to customize the space.
Maureen examined the chamber itself as she clambered up onto the only remaining bed, setting her Pack possessively on the pillow. She would unpack properly later; it would be an undertaking climbing around the tall people-sized furnishings to get everything set up just so. Luckily the mattress was firm, so she wouldn’t have to worry about drowning in it, though the huge bed might pose some difficulties getting in and out of. The room itself, though, was oddly cozy. It was obviously a natural formation, irregular in shape, but had been improved with thick carpets in cheerful colors, abundant fairy lamps and comfortable furniture. In addition to the beds, each of them got a padded chair and a nightstand.
“What’s behind there?” Maureen asked, nodding at a closed door on the far wall, which did not open onto the central area of the Well.
Iris sniffed disdainfully. “The early bird who got the worm.”
“A small private room,” Ravana explained, tenderly setting her lightcapper into the cedar chest at the foot of her bed. “The sleeping arrangements were clearly first come, first served. Our final roommate was the first to come, and claimed it.”
“And there she remains,” Iris said, folding her arms huffily. “Too good to talk with the likes of us.”
“She is certainly able to hear you,” Szith said.
“Well,” Maureen noted, “if that door’s as thick as this wall…”
“The fifth member of our party is an elf,” Ravana explained. “And yes, this conversation is well within the range of her hearing. I will point out that we are all of us out of our element, and people respond to change in different ways. Some are simply shy. Let us not be too quick to judge; I feel certain we shall all get along swimmingly with a little time and exposure.”
“She looked at Szith like at—sorry,” Iris interrupted herself. “I just… She was rude.”
“There is an ethnic tension present which you perhaps underestimate,” the drow said calmly. “I, for my part, wish firmly to have peace with all my classmates. Hopefully matters will improve in time.”
“That’s the spirit!” Ravana said brightly, turning from her chest and holding up several crystal wineglasses and a bottle with an extremely fancy label. “This occasion calls for a celebratory toast!”
“Um,” Iris said warily, “I’m positive alcohol is prohibited on this campus.”
“The woman stationed at the gate was clearly drinking,” Szith pointed out.
“Princess Zaruda has an exemption,” Ravana said smoothly, setting the glasses on her nightstand and pouring wine into one. “You’re correct, Iris, this is a dry campus. That is precisely why it is necessary to have a drink now.”
“That’s…that’s not logic,” Iris said. “That’s the opposite of logic.”
“Wait a tick,” Maureen said. “Did you say princess?”
Ravana laughed, a light, well-bred sound that seemed almost to have been rehearsed. “There are rules which matter, ladies, and rules which exist simply for the sake of having rules. A prohibition on alcohol is clearly one of the latter; after all, a good wine is a basic necessity of life.”
“My Tanglish may be imperfect,” Szith said, deadpan. “The definitions I was taught of ‘basic’ and ‘necessity’ do not fit this context.”
“I’d much rather not start off by getting’ on the wrong side of the law, as it were,” Maureen said nervously, sitting in the center of her bed as if its width were a moat protecting her from rule-breaking.
“One must probe at the boundaries of the law,” Ravana explained brightly. “There is no other way to learn the true extent of one’s freedoms. After all, one cannot go through life accepting the boundaries laid down by authority as absolute. The true bounds are never set where they are alleged to be by those who proclaim them. Are you sure none of you wish to join me? It truly is a lovely vintage, one of my favorites.”
“Very well, the offer stands.” She lifted the one glass she had filled to them in toast. “To our health, to new friendships and many adventures to come.” Ravana, smiling contentedly, took a long sip.
Her expression abruptly changed to one of shock.
She set the wineglass down so hard it sloshed, almost spilling, and pressed a hand to her mouth.
“What’s wrong?” Iris demanded, jerking upright in alarm.
Ravana finally forced herself to swallow, and immediately began coughing. “I…ah! Gah. Fleh!”
“Are ye hurt?” Maureen asked worriedly, clenching her fingers in her skirts.
“No, thank you for your concern,” Ravana said hoarsely. “I’ve simply had a swallow of…” She gave the wine bottle a long look. “…very expensive vinegar. Well played, Professor Tellwyrn. Well played indeed.”
“It would seem this was not a wasted experience,” Szith noted dryly. “You have discovered what appears to be a solid boundary.”
Iris stepped out into the Well’s central room to fetch Ravana some water, and Maureen felt herself relaxing onto her oversized bed, grinning at her roommate’s misfortune. Despite what had to have been quite a nasty shock, the blonde girl took it in stride, professing rueful amusement at her comeuppance.
The gnome let the chatter wash over her, content for the moment with her own silence. It wasn’t home; they weren’t her familiar people. They weren’t even Folk, of course. But in that moment, she finally began to have the feeling that something of life as she knew it would continue here at the University. No telling how far that little sliver of familiarity would take her, of course, but it was something.
It was a start.