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Chapter 3

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Four guards stood in front of a large archway made of pale stone and decorated with flowery Creshen carvings. It was part of a high wall that stretched off to either side of the docks, cutting off the wooden boardwalk. The guards seemed to let most people through, but when Yenni's turn came, one of them put out a gloved hand and stopped her.

"Hold. Your business?" he demanded, a wiry beard parting to reveal his mouth.

"Hello! I am here to apply for admission to Prevan Academy for Battle and Magical Arts!" said Yenni.

Another guard, younger, with big ears that stuck out from either side of his head, like those of a rodent, glanced between Yenni and a sheet of paper, scribbling furiously with what looked like a bird's feather even as the two others continued to wave people through. Her interrogator turned and spit whatever he was chewing on the grass. "Where are you from, en? Dressed like that. One of the Islands?"

"The Sha Isl—I mean the Moonrise Isles," said Yenni, pleased she'd remembered the Creshen name for her home in time. All four sets of eyebrows went up.

"Huh," said the bearded guard. "Well then, welcome to Imperium Centre. We accept any and all. You'll hardly find a more sophisticated city in all the world."

"Name?" asked the man as he scribbled her portrait.

"I am Yenni Aja-Nifemi ka Yirba."

"Right. You want to repeat that?"

Eventually the scribe took down her name. "Your writ of passage," he said, handing her one roll of paper. "And a map of the academy," he said, holding out another. "It's just there, you can't miss it." He gestured with the paper at a collection of towers and outbuildings that looked like the Creshens' version of a palace—tall, gray, and stately. "Can you read?"

"Yes, why would you think otherwise?"

He shrugged. "It's true your Creshen is good for an Islander. And from the Moonrise Isles at that, en?"

"I see. Thank you." Yenni knew he was trying to compliment her, but something about his statement made her uncomfortable.

He opened the map. "Right then. I'm an alumnus of Prevan myself, you know. Registration is at Bertrand's East, it's right next to the bell tower here." He drew a circle on the map and handed it to her.

The bearded guard pointed at her weapons. "Arms are allowed in the city, but don't go making trouble, or the peacekeepers will be on you in half a second."

"I . . . do I seem like the type to cause trouble?" Yenni asked, confused.

"Just a warning," he said. "That's it, then—you're free to go."

Yenni nodded and stepped through the arch. She soon found herself caught up in the crowd moving north from the docks, and the sights of the city around her drove all thoughts of the uncomfortable encounter with the guards from her mind. Cresh was so different from home. So much of everything was columns and rows. Rows of pastel houses—tall, skinny, and pointed. Rows of intersecting streets paved in slick, smooth stone. Rows of people, rows of carts. Rows of trees planted just so. Yenni longed to wander down the lanes and alleys, to peek into every glass window, to discover the source of that syrupy scent teasing her nose, but she had a mission. She fixed her gaze firmly on the tall, sprawling compound in the distance and soldiered on.

Δ

Excitement and nerves fluttered like bottleflies in Yenni's chest. Creshen architecture soared around her, all height and pillars and hard, sharp angles. The Creshens had a curious habit of letting leaves grow on the surface of the stone, like animal fur, but it was pretty and exotic.

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