I was trying to figure out where I was.
I mean, I knew where I was. I’d been working in the Institute Administrator’s private study—a suite of three stone-walled, windowless rooms packed to the gills with arcane tomes and magical artifacts—for several hours. But I was trying to determine where the study itself was, and it had proven weirdly difficult.
As usual, I had entered the study through a peregrine gate, a truly remarkable bit of magic that created a big, circular doorway of translucent blue light. It connected the Administrator’s office at the Sorcery Institute to her private residence, and even though I’d been through it dozens of times, the sheer wonder of stepping through an enchanted hole carved into thin air hadn’t worn off. As far as I knew, I was the only student on campus with access to the study in the Administrator’s private residence. Which, since she always arrived at work through the portal, could theoretically be anywhere. Everyone assumed she simply lived in one of Dredgehaven’s nicer neighborhoods and kept the location secret to prevent random students from showing up uninvited.
A weeks-long research rabbit hole, however, had led me to a very different conclusion.
It had all started with a set of magic orbs from the Administrator’s collection, each containing a pinpoint of mysterious light. The lights pressed against the edge of the glass and pointed in a fixed direction no matter how I spun them—southeast from the Sorcery Institute but, curiously, north from the study. The Administrator’s records included very little about them (her cataloging system could accurately be described as “a big list,”) so I had taken the orbs on as an idle research project. For three weeks, I pored through tomes, compared maps, and even hitched a ride on an oxcart out to Oldbridge and as far south as Burt, using the light inside one of the orbs to triangulate.
I had finally discovered what they were and where they pointed. And it was big. Like, ‘priceless relic hidden beneath an ancient temple for centuries’ big. If my calculations were correct, every time I stepped through that portal I was leaving Dredgehaven entirely and teleporting miles away to a very specific location in the middle of Gluumwilde forest.
Before I got too excited about the magical discovery of a lifetime, though, I was going to make certain that the Administrator truly lived where I thought she did. And it wasn’t like I could just pop my head out to check—I only had access to the study, and the door leading to the rest of her home was quite sturdy and extremely locked. Fortunately, I had come up with an alternate means of verification.
This part was going to be fun.
Before I could get started, the peregrine gate opened with a muffled vorp, and I stiffened in my chair. Although I was explicitly permitted to be there, digging into the Administrator’s secrets was surely crossing some kind of line, and even after three years at the Institute I was still medium-terrified of her. Rather than the Administrator, though, a single sheet of parchment came through the gate and floated haphazardly to the floor. That would be Uyando, the Administrator’s student assistant, passing a note since he wasn’t allowed to step through the gate to pester me in person. He was the latest in a string of assistants who I’d seen come and go—the truth was, most of my fellow students didn’t spend more than six months at their studies before rushing out to seek their fortunes. The Sorcery Institute was, if I’m entirely honest, kind of a terrible school. But it was the only one in all the Conquered Lands that would allow a “student of significant potential” to defer tuition on the promise of future payment, which made it my only option.
Uyando and I had been close, briefly. It was a whole thing. But I was in busy at the moment, and this wouldn’t be the first time he called me back to school for some inconsequential matter just to get under my skin. Whatever he needed could wait.
I pulled out my map and put my finger on a blank spot in the northeastern quadrant. I had drawn a little “x” on it to mark the spot where the Administrator’s residence should be. Curiously, however, every time I walked through the portal that mark disappeared, only to reappear when I returned to the Institute. There was magic at play here, and I was going to find out what kind.
I took a notebook from my bag, opened it to the spell I needed, and set it on the table beside the map. Then I took a pinch of dried mistletoe from a pouch on my belt, breathed deeply, and cleared my mind. The incantation was in the ancient language of the tortoise mages, but fortunately, I spoke tortoise mage pretty well.
“Mmmguv lub qhov gnov tusmmm temmkab temmmnung.”
I tossed the mistletoe into the air, where it was consumed in a flash of light. There were many branches of magic, but this was sorcery, which meant the magic itself was stored in a spellbook (or, in my case, a mishmash of notebooks and journals that I enchanted myself). Then a unique ritual—usually involving an incantation or hand gesture, and always including some physical component like mistletoe—would release that magic into the world. I took the briefest moment to savor it as it passed through me, flowing like a river, if that river were made entirely of very gentle, pleasant bees—
And suddenly, my nostrils exploded in pain.
Okay, I should have anticipated that. The spell was called Smell Magic, and it was used to sense the presence of magic and determine its particular nature. Every type of magic had a unique scent if you knew how to smell it—sorcery, for the record, smelled a little like dried fish. The problem was, I had cast the spell in a room stuffed with magical artifacts of every description, and now it felt as if someone had smashed the entire contents of a perfumery on my face.
Squinting through the tears, I clamped my nose shut and snatched my map off the table, bolting into an adjoining room (and smacking my shoulder squarely against the door frame in the process). Pressing my body into the emptiest corner, I managed to get most of the offending magic outside the range of my spell, but there was no time to wait for the burning to stop. I jammed the blank spot on my map up against my nose and sniffed as hard as I could. It was pungent, like overripe oranges with maybe a hint of wet dog. It was unlike any magic I’d ever smelled. Now I just needed something to compare it to.
I hurried into the third room—quickly, before the spell faded—and found what I was looking for. On a display case, inside an ornate iron cage, was what looked like a dismembered hand made of clockwork and bronze, all that remained of an ancient gnomish automaton from the Eighteenth Age. I stuck my nose in between the ironwork and inhaled. Stinky citrus dog, exactly like whatever had erased the mark from my map. I pressed my face against the rough, black stone of the chamber wall, and got a faint whiff of the same scent. That gnomish magic was in the very walls of the study.
As far as I was concerned, that proved it. The Administrator’s study was, however improbably, exactly where I suspected: the legendary hidden gnomish city of Jülskegnom. I mean, the city wasn’t that big of a secret—it appeared on several of the older maps in the Institute library. But it was surrounded by miles of dense forest, and enchanted so that it would disappear from any map that came near it, which made it pretty hard to locate unless you knew exactly where to look.
This meant that I was standing somewhere in a legendary, hidden city at that very moment. And what’s more, it verified the rest of my research, which meant that nearby, buried beneath an ancient, forbidden temple—
I heard the subtle, familiar vorp from the other room and poked my head out the door (my spell had faded, sparing my nasal passages further assault). The gate had already closed, but another note was settling on the floor. In fact, it was a third note, the second having come at some point during my olfactory adventure. I gathered them up to find that they all carried the same message, written in Uyando’s increasingly irritated hand:
Your presence is required in the office of the Institute Administrator.
The gate opened yet again, and closed immediately after a much smaller scrap of parchment popped out of it. I could read the single word inscribed on it as it floated to the floor.
Then, in a steady rhythm, came four more portals and four more messages. Vorp. Vorp. Vorp. Vorp. NOW. NOW. NOW. NOW—
On the fourth vorp, I stuck my arm directly into the gate, holding it open, and stepped through. “WHAT!?”
Uyando stumbled out of my way, a stack of parchment scraps still in his hand. To my surprise, he looked more upset than smug. In the doorway behind him stood Kuminik, the imperial watchman assigned to the Institute to deal with any nefarious activity that surpassed the scope of school discipline.
“Frinzil the Sorcery Student,” he said formally. The tone was odd since we knew each other fairly well (I probably spent more time socializing with Institute staff than I did with other students, but in my defense, they were far more interesting). “I am to escort you from the premises immediately for failure to pay tuition for the past,” he glanced down at the written order in his hand, “thirty-four months?”
“I… it… but…” I was so shocked that my mouth could barely form sentences. This was all a mistake! It had to be! “I have a deferred tuition!”
“If you needed money,” Uyando said, “you could have asked.”
I had no idea what about our relationship made him think that was true. Uyando was a high elf, and class distinctions between assorted varieties of humans eluded him, so he had treated me (initially, anyway) the same way he treated any other non-elf on campus. He was also one of the few students who actually seemed to care about learning, and we had become fast friends the previous summer when he first arrived. Alas, it was barely a week before he decided our friendship could be something more than that, which immediately and permanently ruined everything.
The Sorcery Institute drew in aspiring spellcasters of all ages, but the bulk of the students were in their late teens and early twenties, which made the school a hotbed of budding sexuality. Frankly, I was baffled by all of it—the raw, physical attraction and jittery sexual energy that seemed to consume so much of my classmates’ attention had always eluded me. All I knew was that if a friendship threatened to turn romantic, all the parts that were important to me—camaraderie, shared interests, conversations long into the night about obscure bits of academia—were swept aside in favor of satisfying some primal urge that I didn’t even seem to have. It had happened to me more than once, although the first time was partly my own fault for wondering if I might find something with another girl that I had never found with boys.
It didn’t matter. None of it mattered. The other students all came and went anyway, while I was here—
To stay. My attention snapped back to the matter at hand. “This is all a misunderstanding—Kuminik, you have to believe me.”
“The law is clear,” he said, holding up the written order. It had the word “EVICTION” emblazoned across the top, and “Frinzil Sorcery Student” scrawled into what appeared to be a standard form (imperial paperwork generally required more than one name—they had used “Frinzil Cooksdaughter” while I was growing up). Suddenly I had to fight off involuntary tears because I recognized the handwriting.
The Institute Administrator had written up the order herself.
“But that’s not—” I blinked determinedly. “Just let me talk to the Administrator first! You’re the one who’s always saying there’s a difference between law and justice—if this is all a big mistake, how can that be justice?”
Kuminik was from Tanneghede, a country far from the shores of the Conquered Lands. Although my complexion wasn’t as dark as his, and my curls wilder, I clearly shared some heritage with him, which I think is why he had always taken a liking to me. Also, I’d learned from our conversations that he worshiped Tafikuweli, the Tanneghede goddess of justice, which was why I was laying it on so thick.
His expression softened, and he turned to Uyando. “Very well. Can you summon the Administrator?”
“I, uh… of course,” Uyando said. We were explicitly never to summon her unless it was a matter of utmost importance, so at least Uyando had decided this qualified. He took a ring from a wooden box on the desk, placed it on his finger, and muttered an incantation to it. What must have been only a few seconds felt like a full hour, and I realized I was holding my breath just as I heard the vorp of the peregrine gate opening. She was coming through the gate from her study, and my first thought, for some reason, was trying to remember how much of a mess I had left there.
“Leave us,” the Administrator said, not bothering to make eye contact with Kuminik or Uyando. Or me. She dropped a stack of books on her desk. “I imagine you’re here to plead your case?”
Mildly terrifying or not, I admired the Institute Administrator as much as anyone I’d ever met. She was human—Westerhelmian, to be specific—and had built the Sorcery Institute from the ground up almost single-handedly. I suppose the way she carried herself reminded me of my mother—they both exuded confidence and authority. Which explained why part of me always yearned for that moment at the end of the day when all the formality would melt away and she’d shower me with unconditional love. I mean, the Institute Administrator wasn’t my mom, so of course that moment never came. The office door closed, leaving us alone, and her gaze finally turned to meet mine.
“Did I do something wrong?” It was all I could muster.
“Frinzil, do you know why we offer deferred tuition to promising students without the means to pay?” She didn’t wait for a response. “It’s not because we enjoy their company. It’s because powerful sorcerers tend to accrue wealth. It’s because, generally speaking, they’re good for it.” Her tone wasn’t castigating. It was simply the matter-of-fact way she explained things when she didn’t particularly care if the person understood or not, and hearing her use it on me was devastating.
“And yet we’re coming up on three years, and it appears that you haven’t formed any plan whatsoever to pay us back.”
I had formed a plan. It was to make myself so useful that I practically became part of the staff, and when an official position opened up maybe they’d hire me for it, and then I could continue studying magic forever. I mean, it wasn’t a great plan. And maybe I had been a fool for thinking it was working, but this was the first time since my admission interview almost three years ago that anyone had even mentioned tuition. Part of the reason I was so hurt was that I was blindsided, as if the Administrator didn’t even care enough to warn me ahead of time that it might come to this.
“I… I do so much to help out—” I started.
“Which has not gone unnoticed,” she said, cutting me off as she slid into her chair and began leafing through a tome. “Professor Grimgaffler, in particular, has grown quite accustomed to foisting his duties upon you. He’s gone so far as to call you ‘indispensable,’ which is why I allowed this to go on as long as it has. And yet when I asked him if I could take your tuition out of his salary,” she raised her eyes to meet mine, “suddenly your dispensability was reassessed.”
“What if…” The tears were coming back. “What if I start paying now?”
“Frinzil, I could have had five students come and go in the time you’ve been here,” she said cooly. “Do you have five full tuitions at your disposal?” She knew I didn’t. The very idea of me coming up with that kind of money was absurd.
“I can get it!” I insisted.
Maybe, just maybe, I saw the tiniest hint of a reassuring smile touch the corner of her mouth. “Very well,” she said. “You have a week.”
I knew better than to push back. So for some reason I bowed—bowing was not something I’d seen anyone do during my time there and I regretted it instantly—and left her office in a daze. My entire world was crumbling. Without my studies, what was left? I had come to the Institute when I was nineteen, and my time working in the manor alongside my parents before that had already established that life as a domestic servant would make me miserable. But short of stumbling across literal buried treasure, how could I possibly—
Wait. Literal. Buried. Treasure.
I knew what I had to do.
NOTES FROM HENK THE BARD:
The Institute Administrator’s actual name was Argath Carnethoine, but you don’t have to worry about the pronunciation because Frinzil never heard a single person use it and wasn’t sure how to pronounce it herself.
The official purpose of Frinzil’s visits to the study were to convert the Administrator’s list into a functional catalog system, but it was taking longer than anticipated because she kept getting distracted by all the neat stuff. Also, several items on the list appeared to be missing entirely, which made her less than eager to finish the work and report her findings.
“Mmmmguv lub qhov gnov tusmmm temmkab temmmnung” translates literally into “my nostril slits inhale the mysteries of the universe,” which sounds more impressive in the original tortoise mage. The tortoise mages straight-up invented sorcery so all of the incantations were in their language (which means there’s plenty more impenetrable gobbledygook on the way. Just to warn you in advance).
Since this text has been translated from imperial common, you may wonder why I use phrases and speech patterns that are not native to that tongue. To which I reply: A) The familiar idioms I’ve chosen more accurately reflect authorial intent than a literal translation would, B) Unless you spend a lot of time conversing in imperial common, the way you expect the language to sound is just as made-up anyway, and C) when YOU have to share your body with an immortal smoke monster who taps into residual magic and gives you flashes of a writer’s ACTUAL THOUGHTS then you can be in charge of translation, but until then MAYBE JUST SHUT UP ABOUT IT.