Six years. It had been six long years since Victoria's arrival, full of nothing but grueling studies and seemingly endless preparation for this very day. She smiled at herself in the mirror as she tidied up her appearance, nervously triple-checking her outfit. It wasn't even as if she was particularly dressed up for the event. In fact, her clothing was very simple; a form-fitting gray blouse and a knee-length, lacy white skirt. She wasn't aiming for anything glamorous or dressy - that wasn't the point. She wanted clothes that would fit well underneath the Alchemist's Coat she would be receiving soon.
Because now, at the age of sixteen, she was finally going to begin attending the Academy for real. Six years ago she had first stepped foot in the building, but after that day she had only had glimpses of the interior. Instead, she and the other children who had been brought in had resided in the surrounding city of Valic, the capital. Since that day they had been told that they were destined to become Alchemists, but the years since had only built up suspense; it was forbidden to practice or even learn anything about Alchemy prior to the year they turned sixteen. It was such an awful shame, in her mind. So much time wasted - she could have at least been learning ingredients or basic practices. But instead they had continued normal studies - studies of things that weren't nearly as useful, such as arithmetic and writing.
But still, she chided herself, she had no right to complain. The education she had received for the last few years, though it stood nowhere close to Alchemy, had still granted her far more knowledge that she would have gained back in her home village. And of course, that was the reason they brought in the future Alchemists so early - to have a better education, and a safer environment to grow up in as well. Her village had been lucky enough to survive the years, but many of her peers had told horror stories about their homes being wrought with disease or destroyed by monsters after their departure. The Academy wouldn't risk the lives of the children they wanted to recruit; after all, they worked hard to find and bring in only the brightest and most capable students.
"Victoria!" A name called out, accompanied by a series of short, quick knocks on the door. She ran her fingers through her hair a final time, searching for any knots in the straight, dark tresses. Finding none, she hurried over to the door and opened it.
Her face immediately crinkled into a smile upon the sight of him, one arm resting on the doorway and wearing his perpetual, lazy grin.
"Are you ready yet?" he asked. "Women, I swear. Spending hours getting all dolled up..."
"I did not!" she protested, color rising in her pale face. "I-I... It's just, today is special, so-"
"Relax, dear, I'm kidding." He reached over and grabbed her arm, pulling her out of the room. "But really, we should go. We don't want to be late to one of these big ceremonies again."
She tried to relax, offering up a slightly tense smile and nodding. She allowed herself to be half-dragged down the hall by him. He stopped near the front door, glancing over at the woman seated at the nearby table.
"Goodbye, Mrs. Barnett," Archer said, his voice holding the unusually polite, formal tone he only ever used when addressing adults. The woman looked up and smiled.
"Bye, Archer. And goodbye, Victoria." A glimpse of sadness passed over her face. "I know you'll do well."
"Mrs. Barnett," Victoria started, not quite sure what to say. This was the woman who had sheltered her for the last six years, served as guardian, practically a mother. The Academy set up foster families like that for every student; the normal denizens of Valic - and the rest of the world - had awful superstitions about witchcraft when it came to Alchemists, and so they tried to blend them in with everyone else to prevent prejudice. Despite how set-up the relationship had been, and how awkward and artificial for the first year or so, Victoria had grown used to the Barnetts and their young daughter. Grown to love them, even. She opened her mouth, intending to pour out six years' worth of affection and gratitude, but her tongue felt too thick to speak with. As usual, she couldn't find the right words. So she swallowed hard, blinked back tears, and said the only thing she could think of. "Goodbye." I love you. I'll miss you. Thank you. She hoped her foster mother understood that she meant those things.
But before she could say anything else, Archer was once again propelling her forward, dragging her out the door. She sighed but didn't protest, deciding it was for the better.
Outside, his heavy black boots and her pointed white shoes both clattered noisily across the stones. The sun was high in the sky and the streets were bustling with people, chattering amongst themselves or bartering at the street stalls. But the closer they went to the Academy, the emptier and emptier the streets became. The street leading up to the front gates were entirely deserted; not even the beggars dared to draw too close to its walls. The tall stone gates did look foreboding, but still, Victoria welcomed them. Rather than fear the Academy, she had always been looking forward to living and studying there.
The gates were left open for the occasion, as were the massive entrance doors leading into the Academy. Just as Archer was about to pull her through them she dug her heels into the ground, holding back until she managed to bring the larger boy to a stop. He turned around, raising an eyebrow in a silent question.
"Hold on," she instructed simply. He rolled his eyes and waited obediently, and she quickly straightened up his vest, fixing the top button that was on the verge of becoming undone. She tidied his blond waves of hair, smoothing the golden strands against his forehead. He grudgingly tolerated the motherly tending for a few short moments and then jerked away, laughing.
"Alright, alright, that's enough!"
"No, wait, just this-" she argued, stepping closer and going to fix one clump of hair that was standing irritatingly out of place. Before she could reach, something bumped into her from behind and sent her crashing into Archer instead. He stumbled for a moment and caught her before they could fall, holding her close in an almost protective manner. His brown eyes flickered behind her, expression first surprised and then quickly shifting to distaste.
Victoria detached herself from Archer and turned around, shooting a dark glare towards the lanky figure that was sauntering onwards towards the main hall. He was the beginning of a thin stream of newcomers. They were all around her age, and their foreignness and elegant clothing helped clue her in that they were the nobles, the privileged group that hadn't spent the last several years in Valic, away from their families. The nobles were wealthy and lucky enough to live in the more fortified cities that could provide the protection and quality of education that so many others had to travel to the capital for.
"You would think a noble could at least learn some manners," she called out to the boy who had bumped into her. He didn't even turn around, but she could hear him laugh. Letting out an irritated huff, she turned to look at Archer. "Shame how such a proper upbringing can go to waste."
"Well, try not to let it bother you too much," was all he could offer to sate her anger. She nodded a little, letting the angry flush fade from her cheeks, and went on with him to join the procession moving down the front hallway.
The Academy was a huge, sprawling, mansion-like building, three floors tall and with a seemingly endless amount of rooms. At the moment, they were headed down the hallway and out the door at the end. This door in particular lead to a courtyard. Rather than be outside of the Academy, it was actually within the architecture, a small outdoor area where the sky was visible above but the walls and windows of the building rose on every side, like a roofless, interior garden.
Currently, the grassy turf was occupied by a growing collection of quietly murmuring young adults. The entire group of Alchemy apprentices totaled around fifty. The nobles made up a dozen of them at most, and the rest Victoria was at least fairly familiar with. But her attention was entirely off of them at the moment, instead focused on the headmaster. He was standing at the far end of the courtyard, hands clasped behind his back and friendly face beaming at the future students. Near him was a long, thin table on which heaps of dark fabric were spread out. Victoria felt her heart speed up at the sight; she couldn't take her eyes off of the table as she and Archer joined the cluster of other apprentices.
Once the steady stream of newcomers had slowed to a trickle and then finally ended, the headmaster began to speak.
"For those of you who don't know me, my name is Jedediah Baines," he said. His voice was powerful, booming so that it filled up the entire courtyard with ease. "The resident master of omnichemy, and, as is traditional, also the headmaster of this Academy." He clasped his hands in front of his rather round stomach. To Victoria, he appeared to be more of a good-natured, grandfatherly type – though in truth he couldn't have been older than his early fifties - not a scholar. His near-constant smile and stout, rounded figure had her skeptical about how truly learned he was, but she still clung to his every word, eagerly drinking up the new knowledge.
"Your schooling and, for some of you, your relocation years ago have been leading up to this moment. Some of you have seem perturbed that you couldn't start earlier than this, but I assure you, it is for good reason." His voice turned somber. "Even if we happened upon a child who was far wiser than I or the other masters, he would be required to wait until the age of sixteen. Putting this task into the hands of anyone younger than that is… dangerous. In fact, even starting you at this age is dangerous. I beseech you, take as much caution as possible during your studies here."
He abruptly brightened up again, dropping the subject so swiftly that it rattled Victoria a little.
"But, never mind that for now. Your classes will start soon enough, and Master Faulkner and Mistress Halpine will surely explain the proper precautions to you. For now, I will offer you your Alchemists' coats. Consider them as much a part of you as the skin on your back. All Alchemists, ranging from apprentices to masters, are required to wear them. They are a uniform, a symbol, a banner to rally under. Wearing this, the people will recognize their saviors," Victoria inwardly scoffed at that; if only it were true, an Alchemist's job would be of far higher esteem. "and the Alchemists will recognize their brethren. Wear it proudly, and hope that someday your coat will have the markings of mastery."
He gestured to his own coat, which was elegantly stitched with graceful, silver swirls and archaic symbols. Apprentices' coats had none of that; they were plain black, simple things.
"Over the next few years, you will learn as much about the art as Alchemy as possible. It is not something that can be taught so easily, as you will learn soon; it is something you need to discover on your own. But we," two others moved to join him, standing on either side; one was Master Faulkner, who Victoria was acquainted with. The other was a small, dark-skinned woman who she was unfamiliar with, but assumed to be Mistress Halpine. "We will acquaint you with the basics. We will present you with ingredients and their uses, with methods, with some useful already-discovered potions. But after that, much of your learning will be self-taught. Of course, us masters and the head alchemists, who you will meet later, will be here to offer advice. You will also have access to the Academy's vast storage of ingredients for your use. But otherwise," he opened his arms wide, palms extended towards the crowd. "It is all up to you, my students."
He gestured and the apprentices dutifully lined up, one by one approaching the table and choosing a coat that would fit their size and gender. As Victoria impatiently waited on the slow-crawling procession, Headmaster Baines continued to speak.
"My children, the art of Alchemy is more important than any of you can even comprehend. Before you have graduated into the position of a full-fledged Alchemist, I can assure you, you will have either saved or taken numerous lives, all depending on which path you choose." He paused a moment, letting the gravity of that sink in, and then went on. "Furthermore, we are the guardians of civilization. As you well know, much of our land is overrun with beasts at the moment - horrible creatures, vicious monsters, all ready and able to rip apart any man who wanders beyond the walls of his city. We are the ones who can defeat them. Already, we Alchemists have made so many important advances. We have discovered gunpowder, explosives, the wonders of which will be demonstrated to you during your time here. And imagine the irony," she was just a few feet away, so close, "that we have turned their own parts against them. For Alchemy, as you have heard, mainly deals with the components of monsters. Imp's blood, fairy's essence, phoenix feathers - these are our tools, among many others."
After what seemed like an eternity, she was finally there. Victoria's hands trembled slightly out of sheer excitement as she reached out, sifting through the pile of fresh, crisp coats. She drew out one that seemed around the right size, held it up to herself to make sure, and then put it on. The long, dark sleeves covered up her shirt and skin, with black lace cuffs that fell just to the first knuckles on her hands. The fabric hugged her slim torso slightly and then widened at the waist into a full skirt. The front buttoned all the way up to her neck, with a collar. She buttoned it up and looked down, admiring the look of it. Only when someone behind her coughed did she realize that she was holding up the line and move on, blushing.
Archer was waiting at the end, looking striking in the boys' version of the coat. It was similar, a button-up overcoat, but fell straight to the knees and had stronger, more pronounced shoulders. He grinned at her, and she marveled at how much older he instantly looked wearing it.
"You look like a ghost," he told her in a low whisper, taking one of her wrists and observing the stark contrast of her pale skin against the black lace. She mock-frowned and pulled her wrist away as if ashamed. When she tuned into the voice of the headmaster again, she turned rather guiltily back towards him, paying attention.
"...But until then, you are free to become acquainted with your new quarters and roommates. Your assigned room should not be too hard to find," he finished. Victoria bit her lower lip lightly, hoping she hadn't missed anything important while she daydreamed.
The crowd began to seep out of the sunlight and back into the building, a mass of darkness now that they were all dressed uniformly. Victoria and Archer held back, waiting until the stampede of students was over before heading in themselves.
"I'm afraid the boys' quarters are in the other wing of the school," Archer said once they were inside, his voice mockingly remorseful. "So until dinner, we'll have to part."
"Until dinner," Victoria agreed.
"No need to fret, love. It'll only be a few short hours."
"Now, don't go spewing that sort of thing about the Headmaster - I'm sure the separation of the sexes is very reasonable. To prevent any unnecessary and scandalous shenanigans, no doubt."
"But if you really insist, I can try to sneak-"
"You idiot," Victoria butted in before he could finish, lightly smacking him in the head. Luckily for her, he wasn't as tall as most of the other boys, so she didn't have to go through the degradation of standing on her tip-toes. "Shut up, would you? I have to meet my roommate."
"Ask her if she minds me sneaking in on the occasional night."
"No!" Victoria's cheeks flamed, which she knew was exactly the reaction Archer was looking for. He was far too entertained by teasing her. "And I feel very sorry for whoever gets stuck with you."
He stuck his tongue out between his teeth, playful, and she rolled her eyes and quickly walked away before he could continue being obnoxious. Just inside and to the left of the main entrance were the female apprentices' rooms. She walked down the hallway slowly, ignoring the small mobs of excitedly chattering girls. Her eyes grazed over the nameplates attached to each door, many of them familiar. Finally, her own name caught her eye: Alardice, engraved in curling, fancy script on a silver plate hung on the door. She smiled slightly, reaching out one hand and lightly touching the metal surface. That, and her recently received Alchemist's coat, marked her as a true student at the Academy. She was really, finally on her way to becoming an Alchemist.
Her eyes shifted to the surname beneath her, and she frowned: Foxell. She didn't recognize it, which meant her roommate had to be a newly arrived noble. She forced down a frustrated sigh and grabbed the doorknob, opening it.
The room was small, rudimentary, just basic living quarters without anything frivolous and unnecessary. Two mattresses with thin blankets and a sparse handful of pillows fit neatly into the space provided, with just a few feet of emptiness in between. To her right, just in front of the beds, there was a dresser shoved against the wall. There was a mirror mounted on it, and the surface was already filled with a pile of belongings that didn't belong to her.
On the bed to the right was her roommate. Even if she hadn't known from her surname, her social stature would have been obvious. Her Alchemist's coat was already pulled off and discarded, banished to the foot of the bed, revealing her normal clothing. She wore a lacy, puffy, frilly sort of dress colored a pale pink. The fabric fell just beyond her knees, and the neckline swooped low, revealing an awful lot of olive-colored skin. She was small but not petite - rather curvy, actually, and plump. Victoria's eyes travelled upward of her outfit and found tiny, delicate, pixie-like features, and a pair of big, wide set brown eyes like a doe's. Her hair was wavy, brown, and fell to her shoulders.
Upon sight of Victoria, the girl's already-wide eyes seemed to grow even bigger, and a delighted smile jumped to her face.
"Hello!" she cried out, her over-excitement making Victoria inwardly cringe a little. "Miss... Alarce, is it?"
"Alardice," she pronounced, speaking slowly and a little patronizingly without meaning to. Fortunately, the other girl didn't seem to notice her tone at all.
"Right! I'm Florence. Florence Foxell. Since we're going to be living together, I'm sure we'll make the best of friends."
I already have a best friend, Victoria commented silently. Outwardly, she only made a noncommittal "mmm" noise.
"Some servants already dropped off our belongings. I sorted them. You didn't have very much clothing, so I fit it all into the two lower drawers on the right side of the dresser. The others have my clothes."
"Aah, thanks," Victoria mumbled, unconvincing even to herself. Trying to fight back the growing wave of annoyance towards the girl and despair over the fact that they would be rooming together for at least a year, she went and sat down on the bed that had been left for her. She stared down at her shoes for a few moments, and when she looked up again Florence was still looking at her with a hideously bright smile.
"So, what should I call you?"
"Victoria," she answered, a little discomfited. She wasn't used to having to socialize quite so much with strangers. Conversation wasn't exactly her strong point, and trying to speak with this girl in particular was even more difficult than the norm.
"Victoria," Florence repeated, and nodded once to herself, as if deeming it acceptable. "Victoria. Right."
Victoria silently laid back on her bed, letting her eyes wander the ceiling. She could only hope that Archer would quickly be situated and come to rescue her, figure out something that they could do until dinner. There had to be something more productive (and less tortorous) than hours spent along with this little nit.
"The room is very... small, isn't it?" the girl sighed, as if to prove Victoria's point.
"It's larger than the room I had before," she commented.
"Oh, well, that's a shame. Mine was much bigger than this. There was twice as much space, at least."
"I guess the academics are more important than comfort," she said. As well they should be.
"Oh, yes, I'm sure the classes are top-notch. Although I'm not sure how I'll do in them." Victoria glanced over and Florence's face was turned towards her, her childish features pinched into a distressed expression. "I tend to struggle a little in school. If I have trouble, you'll help me, won't you?"
"I..." Victoria was intending to lie, make some excuse so that she wouldn't be trapped by that responsibility, but then she resigned herself. What could it hurt, anyway? "Sure. Whatever you need. We can study together." Being friendly, now that was a change for her. She figured it was worth trying on occasion.
"Oh, that's just wonderful!" Florence squealed, making Victoria's eardrums sting a bit. Or maybe not worth trying, if she makes that sound every time.
"Umm, yeah, well," she sat up suddenly. "I don't have anything to do here, so I'm going to go and take a look around the Academy."
"Oh!" Florence stood up along with her, practically bubbling over with joy. "I don't suppose I can accompany you?"
"Err..." Victoria started, but she found herself unable to come up with any unreasonable excuse. Her mind raced, but found nothing. She weighed her options, and decided that she would rather put up with the girl for a few hours than make an enemy out of her for a year. "Sure."
With resignation and a steadily growing feeling of regret, Victoria left the room, Florence tagging doggedly after her.
I know this resembles Harry Potter right now, and I'm sorry about that! But I can assure you that the similarity will change as soon as the plot gets underway. The world, story, and nature of the "magic" they're learning is much different (and darker) than the Potterverse. So, bear with me, please!