Chapter Five: Nedra

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Sometime past midnight, I heard the sounds of other students re-entering the building. Master Ostrum had told me no boys were allowed in the female dormitory after curfew, but I could hear deeper voices accompanying feminine giggles.

My room was spacious—twice the size of the bedroom I'd shared with Ernesta back home. It was furnished as well—a bed, a small couch against the wall, a desk, and a bookshelf. The attached bathroom had been a surprise; I'd expected to share a lavatory.

My trunk had seemed so heavy and huge as Papa and Carso lugged it onto the boat, and even larger when I wrestled with it on my own at Yūgen's gates. But now, in this enormous room, the box seemed tiny. Unpacking was ridiculously easy. My winter cloak hung in the closet, while my tunics, skirts, and wide-legged trousers fit neatly in a single drawer. My great-grandmother's book and a few old texts on alchemy that Papa had found for me were the lone occupants on a bookshelf taller than I was. I had unpacked everything I owned, and the room still felt empty. The school did not provide linens, though, and I'd not thought to bring my own, so I dried off with a shirt, then lined my bed with the quilt Mama had packed in my trunk. A couch cushion served as my pillow.

The room was mostly dark, but the thin curtains hanging in front of the windows let in the light reflecting from the gas lamps outside.

What must the other girls' rooms look like? Nearly every student at Yūgen started attending the academy after years of being privately tutored, after parents and brothers and sisters attended, with the knowledge of what to expect and the preparations not just for studies but for life here. I pulled my quilt over my head as a group of students outside my room started joking loudly. Something slammed violently against my wooden door, and I jumped.

I had never felt more alone. On the other side of that door were people who knew one another, who were already friends. And they didn't even know I existed, hiding under this blanket, too stupid to have even brought sheets with me.

I'd spent the last few years reading every book Papa had on alchemy, experimenting in Mama's kitchen, begging any traveling alchemist who came through our village to let me see his crucible.

When I'd left this morning, I'd envisioned a thrilling new adventure. I swallowed down my nerves. I could step into that hallway, introduce myself, try to be one of them.

But before I could unravel the quilt from around my legs, doors slammed up and down the halls. The students had already dispersed, each going into their separate rooms, together or alone, but without me.

***

I woke at dawn the next morning, my thin curtains no match for the rising sun. I dressed quickly, throwing on clean clothes but rewrapping my old braid to save time. Before I left, though, my eyes fell on the gift Papa had given me. With trembling fingers, I pulled the top off the tube, letting it dangle from the leather thong attached to the side.

A rolled-up piece of parchment lay in the center, and I shook it out, spreading it across the surface of my empty desk, my hands smoothing down the inked-in shapes of the continents. The map showed most of the explored world. The Allyrian Empire dominated the left side of the parchment. Long and wide, like an egg on its side, the continent was crisscrossed with rivers and mountain ranges. Mostly straight lines marked where the new rail system had been added across the mainland, and major cities were indicated with stars.

Lunar Island was a tiny fingernail near the middle of the map, the pointed ends of the crescent facing the Allyrian continent, like a moon orbiting the Empire. Small circles of other islands trailed back to the mainland on one side and across the ocean on the other. The Stellar Chain created a convenient series of stops for ships traveling across the Azure Sea, but the Empire's reach stopped at Lunar Island.

I traced along the rest of the Stellar Chain to the other continents: Dormia and Euris and Choade. Even the smaller countries, like the southern island nation of Doisha, were marked.

Most maps showed only the Empire, but this one reminded me that the world was larger than the land within our borders.

A small note card was clipped to the top corner of the map, over the compass rose. I unfolded it carefully, revealing Papa's writing—so measured, as if he feared its meaning would evaporate if the letters were sloppy. The world is vast, and it is all yours.

Last night, I'd felt like nothing. I wished I'd thought to look at Papa's gift then.

My stomach ached with hunger so much that I felt as if I'd be sick, but fortunately, the cafeteria was easier to find in the light of day—it connected the male and female dormitories. Unfortunately, it was closed.

"Don't get many students up this early," one of the cafeteria workers said as he hefted a large coffee urn onto a table.

My stomach roared in protest. "Is there anything I can eat?"

"Bread," he said, pointing to a table against the wall. "And apples."

I hurried toward the loaf. It was a bit stale, obviously intended to be turned into toast, but I didn't care. I grabbed a few slices and an apple.

"Can't eat here," the worker added, a note of sympathy in his voice. "We have to set up for the rest of the students."

I headed outside wordlessly. It seemed as good a time as any to explore campus.

The square courtyard was empty. As I swallowed the dry bread, my stomach twisted. I came to campus too late; I arrived at the cafeteria too early. Everything I'd done since arriving in Northface Harbor had been just a little off. I longed to fit seamlessly into a world with no openings.

I shook my head, biting back an unbidden smile. Nessie would call me ridiculous and laugh at my doubts. I always did wrap myself up too tightly in my own thoughts.

The dormitories occupied most of the buildings behind me. The clock tower and the administration building lined the south end of the quad, and across from me were most of the lecture halls. And in the center was . . .

I wandered closer. I'd thought it was an odd statue last night, and in the daylight, it was odder still. The base was clearly stone, but it had been covered in iron, black streaked with red rust, towering above me as I approached.

I noticed a small sign at the bottom. It said only one word, but it told me all I needed to know.

WELLEBOURNE

My grandmother had taught me the story of Bennum Wellebourne. He was one of the founding fathers of Lunar Island, part of the first colony that left the mainland and struck out for the crescent-shaped rock in the middle of the Azure Sea. He faced harsh weather, sickness, and near annihilation of the original colony before using alchemy to save a few survivors, who eventually grew to take control of the land.

He was, at one point, the greatest hero of our history. They built a statue in his honor—this statue—using a stone that jutted straight up from the land.

But then Bennum Wellebourne turned traitor, choosing to rebel against the very Empire that had supported him in a bid for the island's independence. He'd resorted to the dark arts, twisting alchemy to raise an army of the undead. After he was captured and hung for his crimes, the citizens of Lunar Island tried to remove the stone statue, but it was wedged too deep in the earth. So they melted down iron and dumped it over the top, leaving nothing but a lumpy black monstrosity behind.

According to my grandmother, every single woman in the colony contributed her frying pan to the cause of covering up Bennum Wellebourne's stony face. But Grammy always laughed when she told the story, and cracked another egg in the sizzling cast-iron pan on the stove.

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