The warship carried twenty good men and two cannons.
“Bit of an overkill, isn’t it?” Captain Pasker said. The sun was to his back, casting a long, imposing shadow over the deck.
Captain Pasker was from the mainland; his ship had accompanied the Emperor on the short voyage across the Azure Sea to the small province of Lunar Island. Pasker had been in three wars already, “skirmishes,” he called them, bloody little inconveniences that were necessary to remind the people of the might of the Emperor.
The sailor beside him was a local boy, a new conscript. He’d been raised with the old legends.
He wasn’t sure that one warship was enough.
The sleek, red-lacquered vessel cut through the bay toward a small island that bore only one building. A hospital, its brick façade illuminated by the rising sun, the clockface built into the tower so bright the captain could not look at it directly.
“Get the horn,” Captain Pasker told the boy. The sailor went running. By the time he returned with the large vocal horn, the warship was just a few meters away from the stone steps that disappeared into the blue-green waters of the bay. He tried to count them—fifty or so, leading up to a stone plaza and the massive doors of the hospital.
The captain raised the horn to his lips. “By order of Emperor Auguste, you must surrender your person for trial.” His voice boomed up the steps, and he was certain that those who lurked inside the large brick building had heard.
The doors, however, did not open.
“This is your last chance,” Captain Pasker shouted through the horn. “You are hereby ordered by the Emperor’s Guard to present yourself for arrest on the grounds of treason.”
“And trespassing,” the first mate added.
Captain Pasker set the vocal horn down. “Treason’s quite enough. Can’t hang the girl twice.”
“All right, boys, get ready.”
The sailors used oars to bring the warship closer to the steps, then lashed it portside to the posts.
“I’ll take five,” the captain said, one foot on the gangway. The first mate selected five additional sailors to accompany him, and they followed his long strides onto the small island, swords at their hips and muzzle-loaded smoothbore muskets in their hands.
“Blasted sun gets in the way,” Captain Pasker grumbled as he looked back at the ship. “Try the horn once more,” he called.
The first mate repeated the captain’s message, the words amplified and echoing over the calm waters of the bay. The captain and his five were already halfway up the stairs when the heavy door of the hospital creaked open.
A girl stepped into the light.
She was average in height and build, her hair black and neatly braided, shining in the sun as if it were still damp after being washed. Her deep olive skin was typical of people from Lunar Island. She wore alchemist robes that seemed a touch too big for her; likely she’d stolen the clothing from the hospital closets. The only remarkable thing about her was that she was missing her left arm from a point just above where her elbow should have been, but even that detail wasn’t too strange. Many on Lunar Island had lost a limb or two from the plague.
Still, she was young enough to be Captain Pasker’s daughter. Seventeen, eighteen maybe. He could feel the doubt welling in his men, the hesitation. The captain gazed up the long stone stairs toward her.
“We’re here to arrest you,” Captain Pasker called. “Best come quiet now.”
The girl smiled.
“Girl,” Captain Pasker said in a warning tone, as if even her gender was cause for offense.
The doors behind her opened wider.
The people who poured out behind the girl seemed unarmed. Most wore hospital dressing gowns; a few wore peasants’ clothing. All of them showed some deformity of the plague—withered and blackened hands or feet, an inky stain rising up their necks, under their skin.
And they were quiet.
They did not speak or even look to the girl as they descended the stairs as if by pre-agreed formation. They showed no fear.
They showed no emotion at all.
Captain Pasker’s stomach churned.
The rifles in his men’s hands shook.
“Steady,” Captain Pasker warned, but it did no good. One of the sailors popped off a shot, the bullet aimed true despite the man’s nerves. A woman in the front, about twenty steps away, staggered, her shoulder snapping back, the force of the blow causing her to stumble and fall on the steps. Her head smashed against the stone, an audible crack of her skull followed by the crunching sound of broken teeth.
The others around her kept moving, completely ignoring her body broken on the steps.
And then she stood back up.
The woman showed no pain. She opened her mouth and let the splintered teeth clatter to the ground. She ignored the skin that dangled over her broken skull. No blood poured from her wounds.
She just kept walking.
She was ten steps away now. Five.
“Fire!” Captain Pasker screamed. “Fire! Fire!”
The guns blossomed in flame and smoke around him as his men fired shot after shot. Many in the crowd staggered, but none cried out.
The dead could not die.
Six Months Ago
I opened my eyes at the exact same moment my sister did. A grin spread across her face, followed by a flash of sadness.
“It’s going to be okay,” I told her, sitting up in bed.
Ernesta flopped over in her own bed, staring up at the ceiling. “I’m happy for you, Nedra.” I raised an eyebrow. “I am,” she insisted. “It’s just going to be strange here without you.”
I swung my legs over the side of my bed, my knee brushing the edge of my trunk, packed with almost all my clothing and the mementos I couldn’t leave behind. I took off my nightshirt and threw it at Nessie—it was one of hers, after all—then slipped into the tunic and leggings I’d set aside to wear today.
“Ugh, how can you move so fast?” Ernesta groaned. She melted out of bed and let her head thunk on the doorframe as she rooted around in our wardrobe, now much emptier without my clothes taking up space. She withdrew a dark blouse and an olive skirt, a combination that would make me look drab. Ernesta never looked anything less than glowing, even with her hair mussed from sleep and her eyes half-closed.
I glanced down at my own clothes. We were twins, and yet somehow we never looked the same.
I left Nessie to finish getting ready and followed the scent of bacon into the kitchen, where my mother stood over the stove.
“Nedra!” Mama exclaimed, sidling around the table and hugging me with the arm that still held a spatula. “Are you excited?”
Through the window, I could see Papa loading up the cart he used to sell books, but which today would carry me away.
“I think so?” I said. My stomach churned, but even though Mama slid a plate of fried eggs, a biscuit, and three strips of bacon over to me, I realized that it wasn’t hunger that ached me.
Mama made Nessie’s plate—no biscuit and extra bacon— and placed it beside black coffee already poured and cooling. She squeezed my shoulder, her hand slipping around my neck to readjust my necklace. “You’ll be fine,” she whispered. I couldn’t help but doubt her.
Ernesta came in, stealing a piece of my bacon before turning to Mama and chatting excitedly about plans to meet Kava, the shoemaker’s apprentice.
As Nessie rattled on, I watched our father through the window. Papa stood outside, checking the straps on the mule and inspecting the cart, going over the same old routine but with a scowl on his face, his eyes blazing.
He didn’t want me to go.
Mama noticed my gaze and wrapped an arm around me. “It’s going to be okay,” she said.
“Of course it is.” Nessie rolled her eyes. “They obviously want you.”
“They didn’t last year,” I said, staring at my fork. Yūgen Academy rarely accepted students who weren’t funneled through the private schools and the alchemical tutors hired by the elite. Last year, I’d applied to join the program and was soundly denied.
“Well, they’re paying you this year,” Nessie said. “Quit pretending to be humble.”
I wasn’t pretending. The scholarship that would take care of my room, board, and tuition at Yūgen this year was astounding, even more so since such scholarships were rarely awarded. But somehow the pride of it—of having my dreams not only come true, but also be financed—was buried under the fear and worry of leaving behind the only home I’d ever known . . . especially if Papa didn’t want me to go.
“Besides, what would you do if you stayed here?” Nessie asked.
“Steal Kava from you,” I shot back, smiling as Nessie pretended to
have been pierced in the heart by my betrayal.
But my focus drifted away as breakfast wore on. I’d thought I wanted normal on my last day at home, but normal made me sad.
The next time I came here, it would be as a guest. After I walked through that door, this would no longer be home.
“You’re meant to do this,” Nessie said in an exaggerated whisper.
“I am,” I replied immediately, and was somewhat surprised that it
felt true, despite my reservations.
“So humble,” Nessie mocked, but Mama gazed at me with pride. My eyes slid away from her beaming smile.
“You’ll do important things,” Mama promised.
“I’ll try,” I mumbled. I was going to Yūgen to become a medical alchemist, and once I’d mastered my craft, I would return here, to the north, to help the sick. I wanted to learn everything—not just about the everyday ills and injuries that needed healing, but also cures and treatments for the more obscure diseases, like the Wasting Death.
My stomach twisted. Despite the scholarship and my family’s faith, I still wasn’t sure I was good enough to go toe-to-toe with the other students at Yūgen.
Mama kissed the top of my head. “You’re like your father,” she said gently. “You never know what to do with your emotions.”
Papa strode to the doorway, stomping the mud off his boots on the large flat stone in front of the back door. “Ready?” he said, his voice gruff.
I nodded silently.
“No!” Ernesta cried in overexaggerated anguish. She threw her arms around me, dramatic as always, but it was Mama’s soft farewell that broke my heart. I gently pried myself away from them as Papa turned silently back to the mule cart. He already had the reins in his hands as I climbed up to sit beside him, and before I was settled, he clucked his tongue, and our mule, Jojo, lumbered toward the road.
My hand moved nervously to my hip bag. I fingered the cloth, identifying each item by its feel through the coarse material. My pen set, a gift from Nessie. Wrapped bread, from Mama. An old alchemy book, the binding cracked. I’d found it on one of Papa’s many bookshelves. It was handwritten, part journal, part guide. My great-grandmother had died when I was less than a year old, but she’d been a potion maker for the village and kept all her notes inside this book. She passed it on to my grandmother, who’d given it to my father, who’d tucked it on a shelf and forgotten about it. I’d come across it three years ago, and soon after, I started dreaming of becoming an alchemist, using the herbs and techniques my great-grandmother detailed in order to help heal others.
There was only one main road in the north, curving around the center of Lunar Island’s top arm, with dozens of little villages blossoming along the edge. Our village was beyond the carmellina gate. When we passed the church hall, Papa touched the three-knotted cord he wore around his neck. After a moment, I did the same.
Papa made his living traveling up and down this main road, stopping in every small village to distribute books and messages. When I was little, I thought I might join his trade, eventually getting a book cart of my own. Like him, I’d journey from village to village, passing out stories for others to read and meeting new and interesting people. Nessie never wanted anything more than to stay in our village and flirt with the same people we’d gone to school with, but I knew I wanted more. I wanted something bigger. I’d told myself that just going past the carmellina gate, just following in my father’s footsteps would be enough. I’d tried to believe that.
It was Papa who told me I should read the books instead of sell them; it was he who first encouraged me to apply to Yūgen Academy, saying I’d taught myself more than that school could anyway, so I might as well show up and take the alchemical robes.
But it was Papa who now glowered at the road, disappointment evident on his face.
“I’m sorry,” I said as Jojo plodded down the road.
Papa’s eyes widened. “For what?” He turned his gaze from me quickly and clucked his tongue at the mule.
“For going,” I answered in a small voice. My scholarship would pay my way, but it wouldn’t give my father help when the cart needed unloading, or pay the butcher when Mama ran out of meat, or help Nessie with the chores I was leaving behind. The cost of an education like the one I’d get at Yūgen was far more than any scholarship could cover, and it was my family who would sacrifice for me.
Papa yanked the reins, pulling Jojo up short. The mule didn’t care; she ambled to the side of the road and started munching on a lowhanging branch of tigga leaves.
Papa turned to me. “Nedra,” he said, his voice softer and kinder than it had been all day, “I’m not mad at you for going.”
“Disappointed then,” I said, sliding my eyes away.
“I’m proud of you, my love,” he said, turning to me, the intensity of his words palpable. “I’m happy for you. I’m mad at myself.” He sighed heavily. “I’m sorry. I didn’t want to worry you, and instead I made it all worse. But . . .”
“Why are you mad at yourself ?”
“Because I’m selfish, Ned.” He laughed bitterly. “I want to keep you with me always. But I know I have to let you go.” He glanced back at the book cart, heavy and dusty, the wooden shelves unable to fully protect the texts from the dirt road. “You think I want this for you? You think I want you to marry a farmer or a butcher or a fisherman, that I want you to always wonder if you’ll have enough to feed your own babes?”
“You always took care of Nessie and me—” I started, but he was having none of my words.
“I got this cart from my father, and he from his.”
“I can still work with you on the book cart when I come back,” I said quickly.
“No!” The words burst from him. “I don’t want you to. That’s my point, love. You can leave.”
I watched the red-and-yellow-striped leaves Jojo hadn’t eaten yet. “I’m not going to be gone forever.” My voice was barely a whisper.
“I hope you are,” Papa said, a fervent tone underlying his voice. I looked up at him, startled. “Or,” he added, a small smile peeking from behind his mustache, “not forever. But Neddie, my love, your path has always been longer than this little road. You’re meant for the city streets, for ships across the sea, for places where there are no roads. I don’t want you to take my book cart. Maybe whoever Nessie marries will, but it won’t be you. I’d never fold you up into books sold to strangers. You’re going to live your own story.”
Tears stung my eyes. “I thought—”
“Who do you think wrote the Emperor?” Papa said, and I heard the note of pride in his voice.
“You wrote the Emperor?” I laughed.
“Him, the governor before he died, the new governor after, that headmistress of the school, the chancellor of the city—”
“How many letters did you send?”
“When they rejected you that first time, I was a bit angry,” Papa conceded. “I wrote everyone I could think of. I guess someone eventually noticed.”
“Aye, I’ve been upset,” Papa said, switching the reins across Jojo’s side and getting her back on the road. “But not at you. I don’t like being reminded that you’re not my little girl anymore.”
I dropped my head on his shoulder and closed my eyes. “I always will be,” I promised.
It was getting late by the time we reached the dock at Hart. Papa waved to someone on a flatbed cargo boat as Jojo plodded down the path. Two people—a girl about my age and a boy probably a few years older but quite a bit larger—were lifting crates onto the boat. They stopped and waved back when they saw us coming.
“You’ve heard me talk about Oslow and Mae,” Papa said, his eyes on Jojo. “Their kids took over the farm. Carso—the oldest one—he makes weekly runs to Northface Harbor. He agreed to take you over.”
I tried to recall them. Papa traveled every week across the northern part of Lunar Island—from the tip to the forest—and he knew someone from every village, but it was hard to keep up when all I ever heard were stories about strangers.
“Room for her trunk right here!” the boy said cheerily as he and my father hauled my belongings off the cart, and I hopped down.
The girl stuck her hand out. “I’m Dilada.” I noticed the dirt making crescent moons under her fingernails. She pointed to her brother. “Carso.”
“Hi. I’m Nedra,” I replied.
Papa and Carso wedged my trunk between two crates of turnips, clumpy red clay still clinging to the purple skins. Carso put a basket of carrots on top of it.
And then it was time to go. Papa looked at me, his eyes a little too watery, his hands on his hips until I threw my arms tightly around him. He dropped his chin to the top of my head. “Write us,” he said, his voice a little choked. “And don’t forget about us.”
I squeezed tighter.
Dilada and Carso climbed into the boat. They weren’t rushing us exactly, but it was time to go.
“You ready?” Papa asked.
“Yes,” I lied.
“One last thing.” He went back to the cart and withdrew a tube about as long as my arm, the kind used for carrying documents or maps. “This is for you,” he said.
I peered at the package.
“Don’t open it yet,” Papa continued. “You’re going to a new city, all by yourself. It won’t be easy, and we won’t be there to help you.” His voice dropped low, just for me. “Open this when you need us, and remember that we’re never too far away.”
I wanted to thank him, but my throat was tight with emotion. Papa hugged me once more, then held my hand to steady me as I stepped from the dock onto the boat. It dipped under my weight, and I struggled to find balance as I wove between the crates of vegetables and sat down on a box behind Dilada. I settled my hip bag beside me and clutched the carrying tube in both hands, too nervous to let it rest on the wooden floor of the boat.
Carso stood, using a long rod to push off from the dock and point the boat south while Dilada set the sails. I tried to be as small and out of the way as possible, stuffing my shirt into my waistband so the wind wouldn’t blow it around. Behind us, Papa had moved Jojo back up the hill and sat on the cart, shading his eyes with his arm, watching us until we were out of sight.
“He’s a good man,” Dilada said, plopping down beside me. I nodded silently.
“Helped us out after . . .” Her eyes shifted.
After. Suddenly, the memory burst inside me. Papa talking about the farmer in the village beyond the chryssmum gate, his wife who baked better than Mama, their two children . . . a boy and a girl, left as orphans after the parents fell ill with the Wasting Death and died.
The ride to Northface Harbor wasn’t unpleasant. The water was clear and blue, the waves gentle. Carso made one stop—dropping his sister off at the forest in the center of the island, where she had a job waiting for her to help cut timber. Carso and I lunched aboard the boat, snacking on produce from the crates and dropping the carrot stems into the water when we were done. I shared the bread Mama had packed for me.
“Is that where the governor lives?” I asked, pointing to a castle on a small island close to the shore. Gray stone steps dipped straight into the water, leading up to a tall brick building with spires on each corner and a giant clockface on a tower in the center.
Carso shook his head. “Nah, that’s the quarantine hospital.”
I stared up at the ornate building. It was a good idea, I thought, to put the hospital in the bay, using the water to separate the sick from the healthy.
Carso grew quieter as we approached Blackdocks at the base of Northface Harbor. He had to wait for the dock master to clear him a spot, and then he hopped down, waving over a man with a cart. The two clearly knew each other, and they started talking as I carefully made my way off the low boat and onto the dock.
“Your pa gave me coin to make sure your trunk got to Yūgen,” Carso said, nodding to the other man. “You can ride with him while he delivers the produce. It’ll put you at the school a little later. Or you can walk up on your own, and he’ll bring the trunk tonight.”
I looked up the hill. Everything about Northface Harbor was built on an incline; the streets wound their way higher and higher. Blackdocks bustled with activity, and the factories and mills that sprouted along the water spat out smoke that obscured my vision. But it seemed as if the houses grew nicer the farther uphill I looked, and I wanted to see my new city on my own terms.
“I’ll walk,” I said. I adjusted my hip bag and repositioned the tube from Papa—I wasn’t willing to entrust those for delivery.
Carso grunted in a way that made it clear he thought I’d made the right choice. “Take that street,” he said, pointing. “Go up—you’ll run right into that school of yours.”
“I make deliveries every week.” His eyes searched mine. “You need to come home, just meet me here. I’ll take you.”
“Did Papa . . . ?” I asked, patting my pockets, looking for my coin purse.
“You go on,” Carso said, nodding toward the street.
“Thank you,” I said again.
“Hurry it up!” the dock master shouted. “We need the ports!”
Carso and his friend turned back to unloading the boat, and I headed toward the street that would take me to my new home.
“Flowers for the governor!” a young female voice called. I watched as a girl with cropped hair and an apron full of red poppy-buds dashed up to a couple standing on the corner. They were well dressed; a hunter green suit for the man, a tailored dress with a sweeping skirt for the lady.
“Just two coppers,” the girl insisted, thrusting the flower under the lady’s nose. When she ignored her, the girl turned to the man. “Buy a bud for your lady,” she insisted. “The governor’s own flower, sure to bring luck tonight.”
“Go away,” the man said, not even deigning to look at her. He bore an accent I wasn’t familiar with, and I wondered which of the fine ships in the bay he’d come from.
The girl turned, eyes hopeful, as she heard me approach from the dock. But I was clearly not a lady from the mainland waiting for a carriage. She gave me one glance from head to toe, taking in my rustic braids and homespun tunic, and turned her back on me, not even bothering to offer to sell me a flower.
Overhead, the globes of the streetlamps had been slathered with shining mercury paint to display the new governor’s silhouette, and green-and-black bunting decorated the posts and many of the windows. In the bay, a ship with three masts stood proudly, the Emperor’s flag flapping in the wind. Several other ships bore the insignias of nearby lands.
Already, I was composing a letter home in my mind. The Emperor was in the city when I arrived, I would tell Nessie. The new governor’s inauguration meant that the streets were decorated, and people from all different lands came to visit. I would leave out how the rich couple awaiting their carriage were so rude, just as I wouldn’t mention the stench of the docks, the hazy air from the smokestacks in the factories, the crowded throng of people that overwhelmed me.
I readjusted my bag and headed uphill.
“Out o’ the way, out o’ the way!” a man with a deep voice shouted, his wagon thumping on the cobblestones. I stepped off the main street. The man’s cargo was draped in white canvas. He drew his horses up short in front of a whitewashed building a block away. Curious, I drew closer.
“Hey!” the wagoner shouted, clanging his bell in the direction of the building’s door.
People rushed out, and the man turned, whipping the canvas cloth aside to reveal his cargo. About a dozen people sat in the cart. Their backs were hunched as if their heads were too heavy to bear, and two children lay on the floor of the cart, their eyes open but their expressions blank, as if they weren’t aware of their surroundings at all. A man about Papa’s age sat near the back of the wagon, weeping.
“We have no room here,” one of the women who’d come from the building said.
“Whitesides has always taken care of Mackrimmik’s workers,” the man driving the cart said, frowning.
I peered closer, noting the clammy sheen on the people’s faces, the hollowed shadows in their cheeks, the hopelessness in their eyes. The blackened limbs they tried to hide in their shirtsleeves and beneath the hems of their pants.
“The Wasting Death,” a bystander on the street hissed, his accent like my own. My hand flew to the knotted cord at my neck, and I instinctively took a step back.
“We’re full,” the woman snapped at the cart driver. She didn’t wear the dark blue robes of an alchemist, but she did have a crucible in the crook of her arm. “Take them to the quarantine hospital,” she ordered, pointing down to the bay and the hospital on the island. The man grumbled but clucked at his horses and turned the cart back down the road.
By the time I arrived at Yūgen, I was exhausted from the uphill climb, and sweat had made my hair stringy. I noticed the school’s gate first. It wasn’t like the village gates in the north. Its wrought-iron doors had three runes running down the side, one in gold, one in silver, and one in copper, with the words yūgen alchemical academy etched across the top. Through the iron bars of the gate, I could see a group of brick buildings forming a square with a grassy courtyard in the middle.
My battered trunk sat on the sidewalk, skewed and scratched on one side. Carso’s friend had delivered my belongings sooner than expected, but he had merely dumped them on the ground and left.
I dragged my trunk to the gate. “Hello?” I called.
No one answered.
I tried the handle.
“Hello?” I said again, the word coming out as a question. Surely someone would open the gate. I had been told to arrive today, but not given a precise hour.
My coin purse held sixteen silvers, the result of more than a year of saving. Would it be enough for a room at an inn for the night? I didn’t have to eat . . .
My stomach rumbled at the thought of food.
And what would I do with my trunk? It was too heavy to carry for long, and it would be too awkward to juggle it with the tube from Papa.
A wagon clattered on the cobblestones and I jumped, recognizing the driver from earlier, when his cart was filled with the sick and dying. Now, though, his bell was silent. The cart was empty of everything but a single child-size shoe, bumping along the floor of the wagon.
“Hello?” I called again, more urgency in my voice.
“What’re you doing out there?” A gruff-looking man emerged from a small cubby built into the gate on the other side of the bars.
“I’m a student,” I said, sighing in relief.
“No, you’re not. I know all the students that go here. Go on with ya.” The guard started to turn away.
“I’m new!” I said, taking a step forward so my body pressed against the iron gate.
The guard narrowed his eyes.
“I am,” I insisted, aware of how childish and overdone my tone sounded.
“All students were supposed to be at the inauguration,” the guard said.
“I just arrived.” I indicated my trunk.
The guard looked at it with an expression that seemed to imply I held illegal contraband within my luggage. Then, without another word, he turned on his heel and strode back into the small gatehouse.
“Wait,” I said weakly, but then I heard the man’s indistinct voice as he spoke with someone I couldn’t hear. He emerged a moment later.
“Right. You Nedra Brustin?”
“Brysstain,” I corrected.
The guard rolled his eyes, then unlocked the gate. “Come in.”
He didn’t offer to help me with my trunk, so I dragged it behind me, the wood clattering on the uneven paving stones. As soon as I was through, the guard slammed the gate shut and relocked it. “You’re to go to the administration building.”
I looked at the tall brick buildings that towered over the grassy courtyard, my eyes skimming the façades for some indication of which was the administration building.
“That one,” the guard added impatiently, pointing. “The one with the clock tower.”
The clockface shone brilliantly. When I looked behind me, I could see the clock of the quarantine hospital was positioned directly across from the school’s. They were a matching set, just like Ernesta and me.
“I’ll take care of that,” the guard added as I struggled to lift my trunk again.
“Thank you,” I said, relieved, and that at least earned a bit of a smile from him. He offered to take my hip bag and the carrying tube from Papa, but I kept those with me.
The sun had fallen more quickly than I’d expected, most of the stars obscured by clouds. The courtyard was cut into four smaller squares by gravel paths lined with gas lamps. My feet crunched over the tiny stones, and I was grateful for my thick-soled boots.
In the center of the courtyard stood a statue or . . . I squinted up at it. Some form of art. It didn’t look like much of anything but a lump of coal, so black I almost ran into it despite the glow from the lamps.
As I neared the administration building, I saw a man standing by the door.
“Nedra Brysstain?” he asked as I approached. When I nodded, he immediately turned and headed into the building. I followed him into a grand foyer, the walls covered in gilded paper and decorated by larger-than-life portraits of people I could only assume were the past headmasters of Yūgen Academy. The man turned sharply toward a door that led to a staircase and descended. I raced to follow him.
I watched his head as we went downstairs, my stomach a mess of nerves. This man was even more abrupt than the guard; was everyone in the city this rude?
When we reached the basement, the man opened a door with a brass plaque on the front and stepped inside, clearly expecting me to follow. The plaque was engraved with a name: professor phillious ostrum, chair of medicinal alchemy.
“The headmistress should have been here to greet a new student,” the professor said, waving a hand impatiently at the chair across from his desk for me to sit. I did. “But,” he continued, turning his back to me and going behind his desk, “the school was given a special invitation to the governor’s inauguration, so . . .” He lifted his hands as if he were baffled that anyone would choose a sparkling party for the new governor over staying in a cramped office in the poorly lit basement of the administration building.
“It’s okay,” I said. Exhaustion had set in, and I just wanted a bed. And maybe a meal.
“Well, it’ll have to be,” Professor Ostrum snapped back.
My eyes scanned the office. Books and papers were crammed into every available space—the shelves were at least double stacked, with piles of leather-bound tomes littering the floor. I tried to read some of the embossed titles.
Professor Ostrum abruptly stood up and slammed shut a door behind the desk that I’d not noticed before, partially hidden by a bookcase. A closet, I assumed.
He reclaimed his seat and lifted a folder with my name on the front. “You’re focusing on medicinal alchemy?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said. “Sir.”
“Transactional alchemy is easier,” he said, almost to himself. “And transformational alchemy has more job openings. Medicinal is a competitive field.”
Not in the north, I thought. Traveling alchemists went from village to village as they could, but one could never be certain to get a good one, if one at all. I remembered the fate of Dilada and Carso’s parents. No alchemist had come to their village until two weeks after they were in the ground.
“Medicinal alchemy,” I said with conviction. “That’s what I want to study.”
Professor Ostrum didn’t look up at me. “So. A scholarship student.”
I didn’t respond. He didn’t seem to want me to.
“That’s rare.” Professor Ostrum peered at me over the folder. “The benefactor isn’t listed. You have a rich relative somewhere?”
I almost laughed at the absurdity of that idea, but I bit my tongue. I explained about Papa’s letters.
Professor Ostrum tossed the folder on his desk, ignoring the way the papers inside slid out in disarray. “Probably the governor,” he said. “It’s not like the Emperor cares about anyone on Lunar Island.”
The professor’s decision not to attend the inauguration suddenly made more sense. I’d never met anyone who had any type of passionate feelings for the Emperor one way or another, but Professor Ostrum’s hatred was palpable.
“You only went to village school?” Professor Ostrum asked, changing the topic.
I nodded. “But I read a lot, both Imperial and some ancient, as well as runes. Sir,” I added. “My father is a bookseller, and—”
He cut me off. “There’s only so much you can do with books.”
This seemed disingenuous coming from a man whose office was littered with books. My fingers outlined the hard edge of my great-grandmother’s text. Professor Ostrum’s eyes followed the movement, and my hand froze. I felt my cheeks warming as I pulled the book out of the bag.
“This is a family heirloom,” I told him, opening the pages. “I, um, have been studying it.” I struggled to find the words that would prove I was worthy to be at Yūgen. “It has medicines, potions. Some basic practices.”
“Alchemy is a science,” Professor Ostrum said sharply. “Somewhat more advanced than knowing bowroot is good for headaches.”
“I know.” My voice betrayed my impatience and irritation, and I bit my lip before continuing. “That’s why I want to be an alchemist. This,” I said, clutching the book, “isn’t enough. But I’ve also read some of the alchemy textbooks my father sells. There’s not much overlap. For example,” I continued, feeling as if I had to prove myself. “I’m sure you’ve heard of the Wasting Death?”
Professor Ostrum steepled his fingers. “I assume you mean that disease among unhygienic people, where their limbs rot?”
“It’s been spreading in the north,” I said, biting back my retort that Carso and Dilada’s parents were not unhygienic by any means. “It’s hard to get alchemists to come to rural areas. But we use tincture of blue ivy . . .” I clutched my great-grandmother’s book, but Professor Ostrum’s eyes were already dismissing my words.
“Blue ivy is in use throughoutthe hospitals here,” he said derisively.
My stomach sank. “Well,” I snapped, “that’s why I’ve come here. So I can learn and find new methods to help. From Yūgen and my village.”
For the first time since I arrived, Professor Ostrum looked interested. “You’re saying you want to study modern alchemy and compare it to more traditional methods?”
I nodded. “There’s value here,” I said, tapping my great-grandmother’s book. “And there’s value in alchemy.”
“Homeopathic cures in conjunction with alchemy certainly isn’t unheard of,” he pointed out, “but I like the way you think. We can learn a lot from our ancestors.” He contemplated me for several moments. I grew uncomfortable under his gaze, but he didn’t look away. “Right. Classes here are not like your village school,” Professor Ostrum continued, his voice sharper now. “Grades are reliant upon two essays, one at midterm, one at final. You are assigned a master. You will report to your master in a group class at the start of each day, then it is up to you to attend whatever lectures are being given throughout the day. This will include lab work or on-site training at the hospitals in the area. You are expected to report back at the end of the day to your master, where you will be tested on whether or not you have adequately learned that day.” He squared his shoulders, his gaze unwavering. “Your master will decide if you pass or fail, if you stay at this academy or not. Your entire fate is in his hands.”
I had a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.
“You’re a late addition to this semester,” Professor Ostrum said. “I’m not making another appointment hour just for you. You’ll have to share your end-of-day session with another student.”
I closed my eyes and breathed deeply. So. This gruff, grumpy man was my master. The holder of my fate. And I was both an afterthought and an inconvenience to him.
This was going so very well.
“Greggori Astor.” Professor Ostrum looked up from his folder. “You know him?”
I shook my head.
“You wouldn’t,” he said, dropping the papers on his desk again. “Anyway, you’ll come to me during his session. Seven chimes sharp. Don’t be late.”
“And when does the morning session begin?” “An hour after breakfast.”
When I looked at him blankly, unsure of when—or even where— breakfast was, he added, “Nine chimes.”
He spoke quickly, rattling off a building and room number for the morning session and then giving me a different building and room number for my dormitory, tossing me a long iron key for my room.
“Don’t be late tomorrow,” he said, standing—a clear dismissal.
“I won’t, Professor Ostrum,” I said.
“Master Ostrum,” he corrected, subtly emphasizing the word.
“Master,” I said, bowing my head and leaving as fast as I could.