Once again, she landed in chaos.
Trissiny’s mental picture of a frontier town admittedly came from comics and cheap novels (what few had slipped past the Abbey’s defenses); she should hardly have been surprised to find that Last Rock was not a single dusty street lined with wooden buildings. Cobblestone streets fanned out from the Rail platform, framing solid and quite elegant structures of well-dressed stone that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a medieval village. Really, that only made sense, positioned as the town was at the base of a mountain with no trees in sight.
She barely had a chance to appreciate the town, however, as a roar of pandemonium went up as soon as she stepped off the caravan. The streets and the edges of the platform were thronged with townsfolk apparently in their churchday best, cheering and applauding as though greeting victorious soldiers just back from the trenches. Somewhere nearby, barely visible through gaps in the crowd, an enthusiastic but clearly unpracticed brass band struck up a sprightly tune. Colorful streamers and buntings were draped everywhere, wreaths hung from darkened streetlamps, and strung across the main avenue directly ahead of her was a huge banner reading:
And below that, a slightly larger one:
WELCOME BACK, ASSHOLES!
Before she’d decided how to react to all this, a door was flung open two cars behind her and a boy came staggering out. Trissiny gathered only an impression of dark, tousled hair and a long black coat before he stumbled to his knees and was loudly, violently sick. At this, the cheering on all sides intensified and a few catcalls rang out.
She scowled, letting go of her trunk and turning toward the poor boy. Riding the Rails the first time without the benefit of a lot of physical training must have been a nightmarish experience; even she would have come out of the Belt bruised at the least if not for Mr. Paxton’s warnings. And it was not right for people to treat someone’s misfortunes as entertainment.
A second young man, casually dressed and with a very dark complexion, had emerged from the same car and now knelt by his fallen companion, ignoring the crowd. Trissiny hesitated; if it were herself, she’d rather people gave her space and didn’t acknowledge her discomfort so publicly, but that was just her. Besides, Avei expected her to render aid wherever it was needed, and though she wasn’t a healer by calling, just channeling raw holy power at someone would soothe a lot of ailments.
“You there! You, girl, in the armor!”
Warily, she twisted back the other way, in time to see an old woman in a black gown nearly a century out of fashion swat a grinning boy of about twelve out of the way with one of the two canes on which she dragged herself along.
“You’re that paladin, right?” The old woman grinned broadly, and Trissiny forced herself not to flinch; her teeth, those that remained, were as brown as old wood. “Paladin of Avei. Finally the gods are sending us a message again, yeah? Finally the paladins are coming back, and they’re both coming here! That’s you, right?”
“I am a Hand of Avei,” Trissiny said carefully, having to pitch her voice a little louder than she liked to be audible over the crowd. Several of the closest bystanders immediately cheered even more loudly at her; nobody offered up any of the rude commentary they’d thrown at the boy who’d lost his lunch. She glanced over at him; he was standing, weakly, with his friend’s arm about his shoulders, and the pair were being pressed in upon by several of the locals carrying small trays. More detail than that she didn’t manage to catch before the old woman in front of her let out a loud crow like a cockerel.
“I knew it!” she chortled, thumping one of her canes against the stone platform. “It’s about time, is all! Yes, time for the gods to send someone to straighten out that nest of iniquity and vice up there on the hill. Elves and wizards and perverts, the lot of ’em! You’ll fix ’em good, won’t ya, paladin? Eh?”
“Ah…” Trissiny glanced around again. Over a dozen pairs of eager eyes were upon her; she was surrounded by grins. By all the Pantheon, did these people think this was street theater?
“Oh, Mabel, give the poor girl a moment to get her boots on the ground before you start preaching,” said a new voice in a throaty purr that really seemed too soft to carry as well as it did over the noise. Trissiny spun again and found herself almost nose-to-nose with a strikingly pretty black-haired woman. Only as an afterthought did she realize it was an elf.
Dark hair was supposed to be rare among the elvish tribes, so she’d heard. Trissiny had rarely met elves and never been this close to one; the differences from humans weren’t so glaring. This woman was of slender build, but not abnormally so; her eyes were on the large side and her features rather pointed, but not enough to seem out of place on a human face. Trissiny herself had some of those traits. Only the long, tapered ears poking up through her hair marked the elf for certain.
“Hussy!” screeched the old woman, clobbering the elf with a cane, to no effect. Apparently there wasn’t much strength in those bony arms. “Freak! Harlot! Painted trollop! I know what you get up to, over in the taverns! Sub-human thing from Elilial’s bosom! You get away from that girl. She’s a good girl, she is! And you!” Trissiny jerked back as a cane was pointed directly into her face. “You smite this heathen slattern! She’s of the Black Lady’s own stock, she is! Do yer duty, girl!”
“I see you’ve met my fan club,” said the elf airily, ignoring repeated blows from the cane. “It’s such a pleasure to meet you at last, Trissiny. Welcome to Last Rock. I have something here I think you’ll like.” Smiling disarmingly, she produced a small, flattish wooden box from within her coat and opened it; a golden pendant formed in the eagle symbol of Avei rested upon black velvet within.
“Do I know you?” Trissiny asked loudly, resisting the urge to grip her sword. Symbol of her faith or no, something about this woman set her on edge; she smiled the way that oily man who sold the Abbey produce did. Mother Narny had to supervise him very closely.
“I know you, my dear, which will do for a start. Everyone knows about the new paladins joining the student body this year. I’m just a simple enchanter and purveyor of magical trinkets, and purely honored to make your acquaintance. I’d like you to have this as a gift, from me, at no charge.” Smiling broadly, she pressed the box forward again, then had to jerk it back as the crone tried to swat it out of her hands.
Even the band faltered. Townspeople who’d been pressing ever closer to her scuttled back, revealing a man in denim and flannel, with a wand pointed skyward and a silver gryphon pinned to his shirt. In the confusion she hadn’t even seen the lightning bolt, but the tip of his wand still smoked faintly.
“Okay, folks, that’ll do. Show’s over. Let’s all take a step back before I have to feel disappointed in somebody.”
“Sheriff,” Trissiny said desperately, cocking a head at her two admirers. Tugging the broad brim of his hat to her, he ambled over.
“Omnu’s breath, you two, were you raised in a barn? Do we have to go through this every year?”
“I was raised in a tree,” said the elf with a grin. “And unless it’s suddenly illegal to talk to paladins, nobody’s doing anything wrong here. Ms. Avelea, here. Please take this.”
“Don’t you pull that attitude on me, master Samuel Sanders!” squawked the old woman, brandishing a cane. “Just because you’ve got a big fancy badge now doesn’t mean you don’t have to respect your elders! And taking a god’s name in vain, for shame! I know your poor mother, Omnu rest her soul, raised you better than that.”
“Well, you’ve caught me dead to rights, Miz Cratchley,” the sheriff said easily. “It’d serve me right if you went and wrote a letter to the editor about my deplorable behavior right this minute.”
“You see if I don’t, you young hellion!” She waved the cane at him once more, then began the complicated process of turning around and ambling off, still shrilly complaining. “Young people these days. No respect. None! In my day, we knew how to pay respect to the gods, yes sir. And to our elders!”
“Welp, that takes care of the one I’d feel bad about shootin’.” He raised an eyebrow at the elf, who fluttered her eyelashes at him.
“All right, all right, keep it in your pants, Sam. Trissiny, if you’d just—”
“No, thank you,” she said firmly. “I don’t need jewelry. Of any kind.”
“Oh, but I know what a young adventurer needs! Trust me, I deal only in the most magical of—”
“That will do, Sippy,” said the Sheriff, all humor gone from his voice. “She’ll be here all year. You can bide your time and make a pest of yourself when the poor girl’s had a chance to settle in. Move along.”
The elf closed her box with a loud snap. For just a moment she glared daggers at Sanders, then turned an amiable grin on Trissiny. “Well, the man’s not wrong. It’s wonderful to have you in town, Trissiny. I look forward to seeing you again.” Bowing, she backed away into the crowd.
“Thank you,” she said with feeling. The sheriff smiled at her.
“Not at all, ma’am, that’s why they pay me the big bucks. Can I offer you an escort past the town?”
“I appreciate your help,” she said a little stiffly, “but I don’t require any man’s protection.”
“I am well aware that you don’t, miss, but there’s more to life than what a body requires. I thought you might like a little protection anyway. See that?” He cocked a finger at the crowd where the two boys had been moments ago. There was no sign of them now; apparently they’d managed to escape. In their place stood half a dozen well-dressed people carrying trays of snacks, toys and baubles, all eying her hungrily. “My beloved constituency. Good folks, as a rule, but you should know up front that they view you and the rest of the students as walking coin purses. They’ll leave you alone if you’re with me, but if you’d rather not…” He shrugged. “You can always beat ’em back with your sword, I guess, but the we’ll have to have an entirely different kind of conversation.”
Abruptly, the fine hairs along Trissiny’s arms stood on end; her scalp tingled distractingly. Then, with an earsplitting crack of arcane energy, the caravan behind her began moving. Its acceleration was a frightening thing to behold; it was over the horizon in seconds. How had she survived riding that wretched thing? How did anyone?
“When you put it that way,” she said carefully, bending to grasp the handle of her trunk, “I think I would appreciate an escort.”
“I live to serve. Shall we?”
He was as good as his word. The cheering had begun to fade as soon as the caravan departed, people drifting away to tend to their own business; though she remained the center of attention, nobody else pressed forward or tried to intercept her with the Sheriff by her side. He led her at an easy pace away from the Rail platform and down what appeared to be the main avenue of the tiny town.
“Is it like this every year?” she asked cautiously. Stands and stalls, most looking rather cobbled-together, occupied the edges of the street, displaying a wide variety of goods and obstructing the actual storefronts. Bright banners, pennants and bunting were hung everywhere, including several with text welcoming the students to Last Rock. None after the big one across the road referred to them as assholes, which was a positive sign.
“We’re a college town,” he said with an amiable grin. “Last Rock is probably the most cosmopolitan village of its size in the whole Empire. We’ve got entertainment and specialty goods such as you’d expect to see in the capital itself, including more taverns than we need. Students bring money from all over the place, and the population has mostly adjusted to suit their needs. Pretty open-minded folks, as a rule, at least compared to most frontier stock, despite a few holdouts like Miz Cratchley. Of course, the downside of being so dependent on the University is the summers around here are a dry season, and I don’t just mean the weather. So yeah, the kids coming back is a pretty big deal.”
“I don’t have much in the way of spending money,” she said carefully. “Or want any. My needs are few.”
He nodded. “I can spread that around, if you’d like. Might spare you a certain amount of harassment next time you visit.”
“Is there much trouble between townspeople and students?”
“Oh, rarely. You can’t have those two groups in one spot without some butting of heads, but Professor Tellwyrn’s a good neighbor. You cause trouble in my town and I’ll have to wait for her to finish scraping and smoking your hide for embarrassing her University before I even get to toss you in a cell. Not exactly a boon to my manhood, but I can’t argue with the results.”
“I have no intention of causing any trouble,” she said frostily.
“My apologies, ma’am, didn’t mean to imply that. It was a general ‘you.’ I end up having to have this talk with most of the kids at one point or another; force of habit. And to speak the plan truth, it’s not you I’m worried about. It was a right breath of fresh air to learn we’d be getting two paladins this year. Actually…if I’m not mistaken, Principia was actually trying to give you something, which is downright weird; usually when she’s around it’s wise to keep a hand on your wallet. I guess everybody loves a paladin.”
“Hm.” She didn’t know what to say to that. Trissiny hadn’t been offered much detail on the other students, but she had been told there was a Hand of Omnu her own age who’d be starting school alongside her. Hopefully they could compare notes. But it was hard to know what was expected of her, here. The citizens of Last Rock clearly saw her as a person of action, much as she wanted to see herself, but Avei seemed to have different plans. Why else would she be here and not someplace like Sarasio, where a sword of the Goddess would actually be useful?
“And this is as far as my authority extends,” he announced, coming to a halt. Indeed, they had reached the edge of the town; directly ahead, even with the walls of the last buildings, the cobbled street abruptly became stairs of white marble, which marched the entire way up the mountain. Above, the University loomed, offering her only a vague impression of towers and walls from this angle. She could also see two dark figures who had to be those boys from her caravan, climbing the stone stairs.
It was an awe-inspiring sight, especially compared to the gray stone of the town and the rusty gold plains that stretched in every direction. The grass climbing the slope was lushly green, and the marble steps almost blinding under the bright sun. She saw, now, that in addition to the stairs marching directly upward, a broad, flatter path zigzagged back and forth all the way to the University, probably for wheeled conveyances that couldn’t navigate the stairs. It had a much gentler slope, obviously, and would be easier in terms of pulling her trunk…but it’d also take about ten times as long. This was going to be quite the hike, whichever path she chose.
“Thank you, Sheriff, for everything.”
“My pleasure, Ms. Avelea. And please, it’s Sam, so long as you’re on my good side.” He winked. “Welcome to Last Rock. I truly hope you enjoy your stay.” With one more tip of his hat, he turned and strolled back into his town, leaving her to face the rest of her journey alone.
Trissiny drew a deep breath, tightened her grip on her trunk, and started up the steps. The sturdy wheels were big enough to climb each step without too much banging, but the repeated bumps quickly began to jar her arm even worse than sword practice. Well, back home, she started her day with a run up and down the steep hills of Viridill, in full armor, on ancient stone steps far more treacherous than these. Granted, the sun at home was never quite this oppressively hot, but Trissiny wasn’t about to admit defeat this early in her journey.
She glanced back. About…twenty feet up. Gritting her teeth, she focused on her breathing, on the mechanical motions of her legs. One step at a time.
Fifteen minutes later, Trissiny had developed a theory that between the Rail rides and this infernal staircase, Professor Tellwyrn was attempting to weed out the weak and unworthy from even approaching her precious University. She was in excellent physical shape and bore the strain of the climb without complaint, though her arm was already aching something fierce. She considered switching the trunk to her other side, but instinct compelled her to keep her sword arm limber and free. The heat was worse than the exercise, really. Those poor boys…she was pretty sure one had been in a long black coat. There was no sign of them ahead now.
A thin, reedy sound of music had begun to grow as she’d climbed, becoming more and more distinct with each step. The tune was a cheerful one she didn’t recognize; it helped, a bit, in distracting her from the rigors of the climb. Now, as she finally approached the gates of the University itself, she discovered the source.
Though the dark stone walls weren’t battlemented, she was impressed by their height. This was clearly a defensible structure. There was only one gate, positioned in the center of the slope and with the broad marble steps leading directly to it; a small plaza had been carved from the mountain and paved in matching white marble to accommodate the two huge, iron-bound wooden gates, which presently stood open. An arch of decorative wrought metal spanned the gap between them, and upon this perched what she assumed was a student, playing an ocarina.
He had thick, black hair tied back in a long tail, and the mahogany complexion common in the western provinces. All he wore were loose canvas trousers and an open-fronted leather vest decorated with bits of bones and tusks. At Trissiny’s approach, he broke off his playing and grinned down at her.
“Freshman,” he clarified.
“Um…” She’d seen that word on the banners below. Apparently it was the opposite of asshole?
“You’re a first-year student?” the young man clarified further, his grin broadening. It was a friendly expression, though; she didn’t feel mocked or belittled.
“Oh! Yes. Yes, I am.”
“Welcome to the University!” He had a deep voice, and sounded like he was laughing even when he merely spoke. “You’ll like it here. Probably. At the very least you won’t be bored. This year’s freshman girls are living in Clarke Tower. Just follow the blue flags along the path, and you’ll head right there. And don’t worry, it hardly ever falls.”
With that and a final grin, he lifted the ocarina back to his lips and resumed playing.
“Oh. Uh, thank you,” she said weakly. He didn’t stop, but blew a high trill, wiggling his fingers at her, and winked. Trissiny ducked her head and strode forward, passing under him and into the University itself.
Three paths branched off from the gates; a wide one that seemed to continue directly on from the stairs, and one meandering away to each side. The path on her left was marked with a small blue pennant. Drawing closer, she noted that the slim pole to which it was tied was not stuck in the ground; it floated, immobile, about a foot off the grass. Opposite that, a red one hovered by the other side. She drew another deep breath and set off down the marked path.
Here, the slope of the mountain had been re-shaped into terraces, and Trissiny’s route, marked with more floating blue flags every few feet, took her along a meandering course down broad thoroughfares, through narrow alleys and across a few patches of open lawn. There was an amazing variety of scenery, and Trissiny quickly came to the conclusion that the path she was directed to take was designed to show off the campus rather than get her anywhere efficiently. Not that it wasn’t pretty, or that she wouldn’t appreciate knowing where things were, but after her hike up the mountain she didn’t enjoy it as much as she otherwise might.
The University made the best possible use of the space available to it. Many of the walled terraces had doors leading into subterranean chambers, and the stepped architecture meant there was shade everywhere. There were plants in every available space; shrubs, flowers, vines climbing stone walls and even several trees, where room existed for them to grow. Three levels up from the gates she passed along the edge of a broad, flat area carpeted with lush grass, with a gazebo near the front, perched on the edge of the terrace.
She passed few other people, all of them clearly students. Some nodded or called out greetings, which she returned politely, and all gave her long considering looks; nobody offered to engage her in conversation, for which Trissiny was actually grateful. She wanted to get settled in before having to deal with any more people, especially if they were all going to be as weird as those she’d already met in the town. Humans predominated the student body, what little she saw of it, but there were a handful of elves as well, and she actually spotted two dwarves, both women. On the flat lawn by the gazebo, a lizardfolk person in a nice suit fenced with a human girl, the clash of blades intermingling with cheerful taunts and laughter in a way that made her homesick for the Abbey and her sisters-in-training.
Eventually her path brought her to the very edge of the mountain, and a nasty surprise.
A wall surrounded the perimeter of the University, where buildings weren’t perched right on the edge, to keep people from accidentally wandering off the cliff. The blue flags led Trissiny directly to a gate in this wall, which opened onto a stone footbridge bordered by tall iron railings; a plaque right by the gate proclaimed this the way to Clarke Tower. She had to stop at the foot of the bridge and stare in horror.
The bridge was gently arched and about thirty feet long, and terminated at the top of a colossal stalactite at least four stories tall. It tapered to a jagged point aiming downward, and had a flat top upon which was built a thick round tower with a conical roof that had a huge clock face inset. And the whole island just…floated in midair, above a nauseating drop to the prairie far below.
Hesitantly, she crept across the bridge. It certainly felt solid. In her rational mind, Trissiny knew this all had to be perfectly fine. This was a University run by the most famous former adventurer still living, a woman who was a formidable wizard in her own right. Magic was ancient and well-understood. Furthermore, they wouldn’t have built a building on this and housed students in it if it weren’t entirely safe.
But all that was merely cognitive. She was stepping on a thin bridge to an island in the sky on which they apparently expected her to sleep. In her heart of hearts, Trissiny knew she was about to plunge to her horrible death.
Only by keeping her eyes firmly fixed on the door to Clarke Tower did she make it across the bridge, and that despite the strong breeze that seemed to perpetually flow across it. The door was actually quite lovely, made of old iron-bound wood with stained glass panels inset. Coming to a stop before it, she had to pause and take a few deep breaths. This was good; nothing in her vision but the door and stonework. She could almost forget she was standing on ground that was floating on nothing.
Trissiny decided she was beginning to hate this place.
She raised her hand to knock, then shook her head. If they expected her to live here, she wasn’t going to mince around. Grasping the handle, she pulled the door open and dragged her trunk inside.
“Oh! Hi there!”
Blinking, she surveyed her new surroundings. It was a comfortably furnished living room lined with overstuffed chairs surrounding a coffee table, with a battered couch along one wall; a grandfather clock ticked away in one corner. There were no windows, Avei be praised.
Upon her entrance, a woman rose quickly from one of the chairs and bustled toward her, beaming. She was a head shorter than Trissiny and at least twice as broad, her plump frame squeezed into a very fancy corseted gown of black and purple silk that displayed a dizzying expanse of cleavage. She wore a heavy layer of makeup that made her lips and eyes seem almost to pop off her rouged face; Trissiny was aware of cosmetics in theory but had seldom seen them used, and couldn’t help staring. Waves of glossy ebon hair were wound around her head in an elaborate bun, decorated with sprays of purple feathers.
“And you must be Trissiny!” the woman gushed. “Oh, it’s so good to meet you at last! Imagine, a paladin staying under my roof. Arach—that is, Professor Tellwyrn’s told me all about you. You’re one of the first to arrive, dear.”
“Uh. Thank you?”
“I’m Janis Van Richter, the house mother. Please, just call me Jan! I’m here to look after the place and you girls, make sure everyone’s comfy and right at home. Any problems you have, just come to me and we’ll get it all sorted, okay? Oooh, this is going to be such a good year! C’mon, I’ve put you in the upper room, so let’s not waste any time getting you settled in.”
Janis seized Trissiny’s free hand in both of her own—they were plump and bedecked with far too many rings—and beamed up at her.
“Welcome to the University, Trissiny. Welcome to Clarke Tower. Welcome home!”