Chapter One: The University of Melcena

Her Imperial Highness, Crown Princess Sithli of Mallorea, only child of Emperor Zakath and Empress Cyradis of the Empire of Mallorea, arrived at the gates of the University of Melcena on the same day that winder did. It was late afternoon, just as the gray daylight began to fade into blue twilight. Behind her brougham, hired in Peldane to bear her the last stage of her journey, the even lanes that led back to the town curved downward over the peak of dim green hill that led down to the town. Before the carriage and pair was the high wooden gate of the university, and in it the gatekeepers grille with its little red shutter, tightly latched.

As Sithli watched from the carriage window, General Atesca got stiffly down from the box to knock at the red shutter. Atesca was not an old man, not yet, but there was gray brindled in his hair, and the marks of long journeys were plain in his bearing.

The offshore wind blew steadily, an edge of frost in it. The coach horses shifted in harness, heads down against the cold. Daylight was failing fast and soon the red shutter would lose its color and fade into the grays of sea, sky, and stone.

Atesca grimaced at the chill and knocked again. As he dropped his hand, the shutter snapped open and a face appeared at the grille. It was a round face, chapped with red, its owner grim at the call out into the weather.

"It's after hours! Who goes there?"

"The Imperial Princess of Mallorea and her escort."

The gatekeeper regarded Atesca for a moment, then looked past him at the brougham and its shifting horses. He eyed Daktor, the weary driver, who had remained on the box, and sneered at Sithli, the only passenger. His face folded into satisfaction. "We have no use for titles here," and closed the shutter.

Atesca let out an irritated breath and knocked again. No answer.

Sithli opened the carriage door. "Let me." She got down from the brougham and joined Atesca at the gate before he could protest.

After a moment the shutter snapped open. "Well."

"My friends I request entrance."

"Your name and business?"

"Too trivial to concern you. I am but a humble acolyte, come to apply for a place at the Melcena University. My imperial father thinks I will prove an apt student."

The gatekeeper regarded her with someone bordering upon amusement for an instant, then clapped the shutter closed. There was a hasty scrape and the wooden gate swung open. Sithli, imperial princess of Mallorea, nodded to Atesca. He looked faintly annoyed as he took her elbow, helped her back into the brougham, and took the seat beside her. Daktor drove the carriage through the university gates.

"If it pleases your highness," Atesca said as the carriage carried them across the expansive lawns of the college. "don't Ido/I that."

"Do what, General?"

General Atesca turned and looked very hard at the Mallorean princess. She was a slender girl with honey gold eyes that had a tendency to lighten when she was angry. The majority of the princess hair was dark mink brown but mixed in were hundreds of strands that were snowy white, which gave the overall mass the strangest frosted look that could barely be described. She'd plaited it and the glossy braid, which he knew would hang all the way to her ankles when unbound, was as thick as his wrist and coiled up into a commoner's knot at the back of her head. She wore a dress of dark blue velvet, belted at the waist, but plain despite its quality make. She looked nothing like an imperial princess and it set Atesca's teeth on edge.


From the quiet shadows of her side of the brougham the princess smiled at him with barely veiled amusement. "There's a good chance that my title will be all both worthless while I'm a student here. It's terribly hard to be a teacher or tutor if you must constantly 'highness' and 'lady' your pupil. No doubt they dispense with such formality all together. I imagine 'Imperial Highness' will have gone rusty by the time I graduate." Her smile turned a bit more wry. "If I graduate."

"Your highness?" The two little words were spoken like a question, but meant in caution.

"Oh, don't. Let's forget I said anything." She smiled at him winsomely. "Let us pretend I was the enthusiastic song bird. Chirp. Tweet."

In short order Sithli arrived at the main building of the university. Just inside the door, lay a long hall that ended in a flight of stone stairs that ascended upwards into a great hall, furnished only with the simplicity of its design and the fine gray stone of its construction, illuminated by burning torches along the walls. Mindful of the tales of the University of Melcena, Sithli did not try to find another door, nor leave the room. Scholarship at the university concerned not only philosophy and social ingenuity, but the workings of sorcery. It didn't seem wise to meddle beyond the precincts the proctors opened to her willingly.

Night had descended fully when the outer door opened and a young woman of about her own age climbed the stairs to join her. Sithli paused in the pacing she'd begun during the second hour of waiting to inspect the newcomer, who returned her scrutiny with interest.

"You aren't the proctor, are you?" asked the newcomer.

Even in the dim light, Sithli could see the young woman was barefoot and wore a shabby dress, soaked at the hem with melted snow. She was very thin. Her black hair was pulled back and tied at the nape of her neck and her hands were chapped red from the cold. At her wrists blue veins showed through milk pale skin. Despite her apparent poverty, she bore herself with straight backed grace, head high and gaze direct.

"No, I'm Sithli."

"I'm Odile. Are you a student here?"

"No. Are you?"

"Not yet." Odile came towards her across the stone flags. She left bare footprints but seemed untouched by the cold. "I hope to be." She looked around the great room, filled with ruddy orange light. "I was to come this summer but harvest delayed me. I couldn't leave until the crops were in. I hope the proctors understand that."

"They should. Crops are important. Did you have to travel far?"

"From Dal Amba. I walked."

"Oh." Sithli felt a bolt of inferiority. She had come hundred of miles, by horse, by boat, and carriage. There didn't seem to be much virtue in that. Odile had come almost as far, on foot. And why not? This girl wanted to attend the university. Sithli did not. The proctors could hardly honor an agreement with her father if she didn't give them a chance to do so. All se had to do was leave and let Odile have her place at the college. If Atesca insisted she could return the next day when Odile was safely accepted. There was not an unlimited supply of openings for applicants.

Sithli eyed the stairs. As she did, the outer door opened again. This time the newcomer climbed the steps, lantern in hand. With a sweep of velvet the color of the sky outside the great windows, a golden-haired girl of their own age joined Faris and Odile. She wore slippers of the same deep velvet and stepped prudishly around the prints left by Odile's feet. She ignored Sithli and Odile too, and walked straight across the hall to an open door, where firelight shone against the night.

Sithli and Odile exchanged looks.

"Was that door there a moment ago?" asked Odile.

"It's probably been there all along." Sithli sighed glumly.

They followed the girl in the velvet down into the next room, which was full of warmth and golden light, aged tapestries, and a marquetry table with a chair behind it. In the chair sat a plump woman with mouse-gray hair and tired eyes.

"You're the proctor," said the girl in the velvet gown. Her voice was melodius but her intonation made the words an accusation. She put out the lantern and placed it on the floor in front of the table. "I'm Menary Cacoelle."

The proctor put her chin in her hand and gestured at Sithli to close the door. "Stand over there, all three of you. That's better. Winter's just here and I'm already sick to death of drafts."

Unwillingly Menary fell back to stand between Sithli and Odile. Next to Menary's elegance, Odile's provery was manifest, but she did not appear to notice it. She stood with the same proud carriage Menary displayed. Beside them, Sithli stood relaxed but observant. She was well aware that, next to Menary's determination and Odile's dedication, her presence was rather…lesser.

The proctor sighed. "You know there's only one opening left, don't you? Officially, admission closed in the fall."

"My family arranged for me to attend the University of Melcena when I was four years old." Menary spoke with cool superiority.

"Then if I were to ask you to recommend someone for this single opening," said the proctor, "you would choose yourself?"

"Well, of course." Menary glanced at Odile, then at Sithli, then back to the proctor. Her beautiful gray eyes, the exact shade of her velvet gown, narrowed. "Unless it's a trick question."

The proctor stifled a sigh and turned her attention to Odile. "And you?"

Odile's eyes fell. She clasped her hands in front of her, twisting her fingers. "I know I'm late. I couldn't help it. My family needed me."

The proctor inclined her head graciously. "One opening. How would you have us fill it?"

Odile's gaze flew up and hold the proctor's. "Choose me." Her voice was soft but ardent. "Oh, please. Choose me."

Sithli altered her stance so that the toe of her left shoe was visible beneath the hem of her dress. She studied it for a long moment, until the quality of silence in the room told her the proctor had finished staring at Odile and hat started staring at her.

"And you, Sithli of Mallorea?" The proctor sounded very tired. "What have you to say?"

"Good afternoon. I didn't get your name."

The proctor sniffed. "We have one opening. How would you have us fill it?"

Sithli sighed softly. "Choose Menary Cacoelle. Let Odile stay on and scrub floors or something until Menary loses interest and goes home to marry someone better dressed than she it. Then let Odile take the vacancy."

"And what will you do, Sithli?"

"I will go home." Sithli had begun to inspect the toe of her shoe again. "And study from the imperial libraries."

The proctor looked interested. "You'd give your position at the university up, but you profess that your intention is scholastic?"

Sithli smiled some. "My intention…my Ipreference/I is independent study. I have nothing against academics, I simply dislike rigid structure assigned to my education. What I can do here doesn't seem to be much more than I can do in Mallorea—become jaded."

The proctor made no effort to conceal her amusement. "Menary shall have the opening. What do you say to that?"

Sithli's eyes widened as her thoughts raced. If her father could be persuaded to believe in her failure without consulting the proctor himself, she could leave in the morning. She could be home before the turn of the year. She looked from the proctor to Menary, who was triumphant, then to Odile.

"Will you take my advice about Odile?"

"What do you say to her advice, Odile?" asked the proctor.

Odile unclasped her hands and took a step closer to the marquetry table. "A fine idea. But what matters is what you say. Is Sithli accepted?"

The proctor looked more amused. "Despite her best efforts, she is."

"Wait—" Sithli looked from Odile to the proctor and back. "I'm accepted? What about you?"

"What about me?" Menary gave Sithli a look of dislike.

"Oh fear not," said the proctor. "You're both accepted. Along with the students who came on time. Allow me to introduce you to Odile Braneis. She is in her second year here."

"I'm glad that's settled." Menary remarked.

Sithli slanted Odile a cool stare and spaced her words out deliberately. "Oh, please. Choose me."

"Contemptable, isn't it." Odile replied affably. "I did walk here though, a year ago."

"Did they make you scrub the floors?"

"They made me wear shoes." She pulled the ribbon from her hair, shook her head, and let her black hair go free around her shoulders. "I humored them. Don't worry, you'll learn to humor them too."

"Do they make you relive your dramatic past for every applicant?"

Odile shook her head. "I volunteered. Your father's efforts to assure your admission made you sound fairly odious. Your arrival, however, disproved the impression—your imperial highness."

"I knew that would rankle."

Menary looked bored.

Sithli sighed deeply. "My father is going to be very pleased about this."

"He should be," said the proctor. "He was extremely resilient on the matter of your attendance. Perhaps he fondly remembers his time here."

"Perhaps." Sithli turned to the proctor. "I'd like to send words to my traveling companions. I don't have much baggage but I need to collect it from them before they return to Mallorea."

"Your bodyguards will be notified." Said the proctor. "Perhaps they can also convey your father's letter of credit back to Mallorea."

"Oh the bribe—" Sithli shook her head. "Don't do that."

The proctor's brow lifted. "Aren't they trustworthy?"

"General Atesca and Goodman Daktor are some of my father's most trusted men. All the same, you should really keep the money."

"Hardly," exclaimed the proctor. "The University of Melcena would be perceived as having taken a bribe."

Sithli smiled gently. "The damage is done. You've accepted me. No one will think for an instant I got in on merit alone. This way, if my father is ever late paying school fees, the university needn't be inconvenienced."

"We could hold it in escrow, I suppose." The proctor looked amused. "Merely a formality, of course."

"Of course." It was a small thing, probably something her father wouldn't even notice, but it made her feel a bit better.