Chapter Three: Nedra

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"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 facades 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?

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