Alzadt, Nubik. The Daerzan Residence, off Cubitt Street.
Elya sat in front of her looking glass and plaited her hair off to the side. Her finest blue dress sat on her shoulders like the sky itself had decided to wrap itself around her. In front of her sat a small tray of make-up, ready for use once her deft fingers was finished wrapping a ribbon at the base of the braid. It was a big day, and her hopes and dreams depended greatly on making a good first impression.
Just as she was tying the ribbon tight, Elya heard a knock on her door. “Come in,” she called out.
The door swung open, and Elya’s older brother leaned against the door frame. He was decked out in his usual guard uniform, all blue and silver, a short sword on his hip.
Elya grinned, and rose to her feet. “Rosin. Aren’t you supposed to have left by now?”
“I can still make it if I run, but I couldn’t leave without wishing my little sister luck.” He stepped towards her, and they embraced. “You’ll sweep them off their feet, I know it.”
His words were enough to kindle pride and sweep some of her fear away. “Thank you, Ros.”
“What time is the appointment?”
“The recruiter wanted to meet with me at ten bells. If they think I have what it takes, they’ll give me a tour of the university not long after. I should still be home before you.”
Rosin shrugged. “Be safe, and good luck. I will see you at dinner.”
“You as well, brother,” Elya told him. Then he gave her a mock-gentleman’s bow, and left.
Elya returned to her desk, and skillfully dabbed a modest amount of make-up on her face. Kalye, a close neighbor who’d made it into university, had explained the rationale of it all as best as she could when she’d been over. University was for learning, and preparing for the business world. And in business, it was always finding a happy medium between looking so unkempt as to not be trusted and looking so done-up so as to look unwilling to do real work.
That was the theory, anyway, but as Elya finished getting ready, she knew she’d do whatever it took, silly or serious, to get to university. This was the dream, the real dream. Her mother owned a very small fabrics shop that she was very passionate about, but she’d been denied university. If Elya could finish schooling, though, she could request funds from the Merchant Council on her mother’s behalf in order to build their family business. That was how Starset had been raised to such popularity, but Starset would have nothing on their business by the time Elya was done.
Royalty would come to them, and no one else. They’d be rich.
They might even have the kind of pull it took to get Rosin off city watch and in a position as a castle guard. Elya’s younger brother might even get to do his training there.
Elya scanned over her face in the looking glass. She hoped it would suffice, but it was certainly a lot of pressure. Her gaze drifted upwards, to the little metal sun pinned to her bedroom wall. “I’m sorry to bother you, Holy Goddess,” she whispered, “But today is a terribly important day for my family. I am not arrogant enough to make demands about my future. You have a Great Plan, and I shall trust it. All I ask is the chance to do well by my family, to be allowed the chance to help my family rise in the world. I will be married and have children soon enough, and nothing would make me happier than to have a little sort of empire established for them to rule when they come of age. What I ask for is not for me, but for my family and for them. Please… please, just help me be good today.”
The Holy Goddess, of course, did not bother answering, but Elya was not important enough for all of that. All she could do was hope that the Great Diety who influenced her fate had heard her prayers and would reach out.
Elya rose out of her chair and straightened her dress as a single bell clanged, alerting Alzadt of the half-hour mark.
The young woman then opened her door and slipped through the quiet house. All the noise was in the shop where her mother and her two younger siblings were flitting around the store, drawing a customer’s attention to this fabric and that. She interrupted them only long enough to say goodbye. The customer eyed her discreetly, but Elya still noticed.
When Elya left the store, she smirked. Sometimes nosy customers were an annoyance, but the mention of schooling may have just boosted her mother’s chance at a sale. Nothing made a customer prouder than to be with a business before it was popular. And, Holy Goddess willing, they were about to be popular.
The university was about a half dozen blocks from her house, but spring had already been kissed by the beginnings of summer, and she had no qualms about walking.
As she neared the nicer neighborhoods surrounding the university, the streets became a little more crowded with male servants as they assisted their employers with heavy lifting. It was a sign of the wealthy; her own family couldn’t afford to pay an indentured servant. Not yet.
The university itself was a monster of a building, tall as a cathedral and far larger. Several separate buildings were situated around it. One, Elya knew, was a library. As for the others… she didn’t know for sure, but she remembered Kalye saying something about dormitories.
Elya could appreciate their beauty, but she only had fifteen minutes to find out where the recruiter would be, and this place was so big.
She found a path heading towards the big building at the center, and had to side-step older women as they traveled across the grounds. Many of them were talking about professors and classes, but Elya heard more than a few talking about Alzair and Garizal as if they were the only other two countries in the world. Elya shook her head. One of these days, this war would end, and Nubik could find something else to gossip about.
Elya trotted up the white marble steps and nearly dropped her jaw when she saw what the university looked like inside. It was all towering ceilings and bustling people and thick tomes just propped up on benches and at windowsills. It was amazing. It was beautiful.
She heard a kind laugh at her elbow and turned around to find its source. A woman, at least a few years older than Elya, glided over to her. “First time inside?”
“That’s all right. Who are you looking for? Are you here hoping to be recruited?”
Elya nodded again, then let out a breath. “Yes. I’m supposed to meet… Ayebin Montral, I think her name is.”
The young woman smiled. “Montral? Good luck with that one, kid. I hear she’s tough to impress. Follow me. A good first step to making a good impression is to always be on time.”
Elya smiled a little. “A friend of mine said something much the same.”
“A good friend you have, then.”
The young woman led Elya past the entrance and down a hall. People around Elya’s age sat in patient lines along the walls by each door. Some lines were longer than others. They all glanced at her as she passed, more out of boredom than anything else.
Elya glanced into the rooms that they passed, looking for anything to stare at besides the awkwardness waiting on the floor. The doors were cracked open, some wider than others, and in the rooms that weren’t empty, some older woman sat behind a desk while a nervous young girl answered questions before. She heard one ask about schooling.
So this was the recruiter’s hallway, then. Elya wondered how long a line she’d have to wait in, and if she’d made a mistake in waiting so late to make the journey over. But the door that her guide stopped in front of had no one sitting at the door, and no one in the room except for a severe-looking woman with steel-gray hair, sharp glasses, and a soft purple dress that matched her tones even if it didn’t match the rest of her sharpness.
“Best of luck,” the young woman said, and then patted her on the shoulder before slipping away.
Elya hesitated. If this was the woman she had to impress, she doubted it would be an easy thing to do. Even if it was only this woman standing between her and her family’s rise to power — if Elya was able to pass by the actual schooling and the Merchant Council request and the fight to earn popular public opinion — Elya wasn’t very hopeful. But this was what you did if you wanted to become a someone in this country. Go to university, get backed by the Merchant Council, and grow.
Elya took a deep breath, and knocked on the half-closed door.
Ayebin Montral looked up from her work, blue eyes scanning over Elya. The young girl was tempted to flatten her dress again, worried she hadn’t dressed appropriately. She cast her memory back to the other girls in the hall, and what they’d been wearing. Then Ayebin’s gaze fell onto the clock at her desk, and Elya’s heart began to pound. Perhaps she was late. She hadn’t heard ten bells, but maybe she just had been too focused on her surroundings to notice them.
“Sit,” Montral said finally, motioning towards the chair in front of her desk.
Elya resisted the urge to scurry in. Instead, she tried to be as confident as she could as she strode across the room and fell into the chair.
Montral shuffled through the pages at her desk, and then pulled out a paper full of small, cramped handwriting. “Elya Daerzan, correct?”
“Your mother was denied university?”
Elya didn’t like the stern, condescending look that Montral was giving her for that. “Yes Ma’am.”
Montral grunted. “Tell me about your schooling. This paper says you were a very good student.”
“I tried to be, ma’am. Everyone knows that good schooling gives way to success, and I want to be successful.”
Montral’s eyes scanned the paper. “Compared to many of your fellow students, you did not spend much time in the library.” Her eyes darted off the page and froze right on Elya. “Do you abhor libraries, Miss Daerzan?”
“Of course not. Libraries are a place of learning. But libraries can only teach you so much. Learning is a foundation for success, but it is not the entire building. I wanted to know people, and to get hands-on training with the trade I’m interested in. You can’t really get those from libraries.”
For a moment, Montral seemed frozen like a viper ready to strike. And then she quirked one eyebrow up. “An interesting philosophy, Miss Daerzan. Who taught you that?”
“My mother,” Elya said gravely. “She might have lacked the intellect required by this university, but she certainly wasn’t lacking in wisdom.”
Montral exhaled. “Your mother, I see, owns a small clothing shop off Cubitt Street. What of your father? What does he do?”
“He’s a soldier in the Queen’s army. He might even march against Garizal if the rumors are true and the Garizal heir is looking for a marriage here. He sends what little he earns, and my mother uses it to help run the business. My father sent me a letter recently and said that he might have no business in deciding where my future rests, but he hopes I make it too.”
“And you, Miss Daerzan? You speak of your mother and your father, but what is it you want?” Her chair creaked as the old woman leaned forward. “Why are you here?”
Elya grinned. At last, an answer that Montral didn’t already have an answer to, but one Elya already knew. “I want to become a businesswoman. I want to pull my family’s small clothing shop off Cubitt Street and put it somewhere important.”
Montral blinked, her frozen blue eyes glancing over Elya again as if she hadn’t been thorough enough the first time. She set the paper down back on its stack, and smoothed the edges. “Then I will tell you this: your prospects are nowhere near certain at this point, but they are better than many of those girls in the hall. We’ll be in touch, Miss Daerzan.”
Elya’s mind recognized the woman’s words as a dismissal, but she rose in a daze. She curtsied, just to be thorough, and hardly paid attention to where she was walking as she slipped down the hall and out of the building. Somehow, Elya managed to wait until she was off university grounds before she started sprinting home, eager to give her mother the news.