The chill winter breeze played across Emray's cheeks, turning them a ruddy red color and forcing her to pull her scarf close to her face. Everyone else on the street was similarly dressed, garbed with thick winter coats and hats as they bustled to and fro, going about their business in the biting wind. With a curious gaze she turned down the street to her own business.
The Allied Tower of Learning wasn't an especially grand compound, at least compared the the Tower of Skill and the Tower of Secrets to the south. Where the mages at Ostela's other towers were concerned with building up the air of mystique about the arcane arts in addition to their studies, the Tower of Learning focused on the practical study of the arcane. Not much room for flash and glamour when you’re trying to keep young arcanists from blowing themselves up at every opportunity.
Moving past the creaking wrought iron gate, Emray made her way up the polished stone steps, taking care not to slip on the slick ice. Her parcel was quite heavy and quite delicate, and if mishandled or dropped. the consequences could be disastrous. With a last ruffle of her coat to throw the snow off she opened up the old oak doors, meeting with the warmth of hearth-fire as she crossed the threshold.
The foyer of the Tower of Learning was the only part of it not marred by errant scorch marks or hastily cleaned up reagents and alchemical compounds, with its polished marble floor and comfortable sitting area playing host to a study group. They were hunched over their books and passing around a bottle of mead, no doubt studying for their practical exams next week. Emray had studied enough that she felt comfortable about the test, and her professor had asked her specifically for help in his latest experiment.
"Hey Emray, you got time for a quick cram session?" Luxom, a draconic student, asked. His copper-toned scales glinted and glittered in the fire light, giving them an iridescent hue.
"I'd love to, but I need to get this up to Professor Marigold," Emray replied, holding up the parcel that was turning her muscles to jelly with its weight. "I spent about three hours at the market trying to find this much raw oriculum, I think I've kept him waiting long enough."
"Alright, but I expect to see you for the Winter's Night party this weekend. Elifas put in way too much work for you to duck out like you did at the Harvest Festival."
"Tell her to save me some mulled wine," Emray said with a warm, if disingenuous, smile. Giving a quick nod she walked over to the spiraling staircase in the center of the foyer as Luxom turned his attention back to the study group.
The stone steps were unforgiving to her already tired feet as Emray trudged her way up. If the elevator weren't on the fritz due to the lack of maintenance then she would've taken that, but in wartime everything starts to get on short supply. The ten pounds of raw oriculum she had purchased had come from five different stores and had cost her a total of four-hundred and thirty-eight gold pieces, nearly double of what it had been when she first joined the Tower just three years prior. It was only because Professor Marigold had given her the money from the Tower coffers that she'd even been able to afford it.
After an interminable amount of time spent climbing stairs, Emray finally got to the sixth floor, thighs on fire and breath coming out of her in ragged huffs and puffs. With a shaky hand she knocked on the door to Professor Marigold's private office.
"Who is it?" a high-pitched, wizened voice asked. "I'm quite busy, I'll have you know!"
"Professor, open the door before my legs give out from under me and I blow the entire Tower up," Emray gasped out.
The door swung open after a frantic shuffling of feet from the other side, with a tiny and practically ancient gnomish man waving a hand at Emray's knees to invite her in.
"Please, come in, come in young Emray!" Professor Marigold exclaimed. "Set it right there on my desk, you know where."
As quickly and as gently as she could Emray laid the large package down on his comparatively small desk before collapsing into one of the elvish sized chairs set in front of it. Despite the biting cold outside, she found that she had actually worked up a sweat.
"Did you get everything I asked for?" Marigold asked as he examined the package with his critical eyes.
"Down to the letter," Emray replied, curtly as her breath was still returning to her. "Ten pounds of raw oriculum, a set of jeweler's scales, and three twelve-ounce bottles of oriculum reagent."
There was a long and awkward silence as Marigold unfolded the rough burlap of the packaging. His tiny, gnarled fingers went over every inch with the sort of finesse and attention to detail reserved for watch-makers, but it gave Emray all the more time to recover from the sojourn. The faint teal glow of the oriculum reflected off of his glasses and the thin shiny skin of his balding head, and he carefully examined each bottle before setting it gently to the side.
After another interminable amount of time Marigold had finally parsed everything out and into its own discrete spots on his desk before looking up to Emray with a wide smile.
"You've done quite a big favor for me today, Emray Alvurshi," he said as he shuffled over to her chair. He placed one of his hands onto her own, giving it a gentle squeeze and a pat.
"Oh, it was nothing Professor, just a bit of shopping," Emray replied. "Plenty of girls go shopping as a hobby, after all."
"But you are not one of those girls, Ms. Alvurshi," Marigold cut in, "and I know for fact that you despise shopping more than anyone I have ever had the pleasure of coming across, especially in this sort of weather and in the company of everyone who goes to that market on a daily basis. You have sacrificed a great deal of your own comfort in order to do a service for me, and for this I am thankful."
"The pleasure was all mine, you daft old fool," Emray replied with a smile.
"As it should be, you smart-mouthed whippersnapper," Marigold sniped back with a wink. "Tell me, will I be seeing you at the Winter's Night party this weekend? I plan on having many a story to tell for the event, and from what I hear Professor Goldhands will be bringing some of the finest dwarvish brandy all the way from Azurys."
"Luxom was badgering me about that as well," Emray answered as she slumped into the chair. "I honestly don't know. I mean, it seems fun, but we do have the practicals coming up and we're all going to need to study for that."
"Such a shame, that; Elifas has really gone all out this time. She's been working tirelessly for weeks setting up the event, getting the entertainment booked, caterers and the like. Doesn't seem like the sort of thing one misses unless they absolutely have to."
"Well, I'm pretty sure I'll have to," Emray curtly replied as she stood up. "I'll leave you to your work, Professor."
A small cough rang from Marigold’s lips as Emray put her hand onto the knob of his door. She knew that cough, as it was the cough that meant she was about to get a lecture on something she had done wrong.
"Emray, I understand how you feel about Elifas, what with her being infernal and all that, but she really is a sweet girl."
"Marigold, we've had this discussion before, and I've made my point clear; I don't hate her because she's infernal, I just don't trust her. She got into this school as a charity case, and I don't appreciate the hard work that everyone else puts in to apply and be accepted here being trivialized by her getting to skate in on her charm and her race."
"Emray," Marigold continued as Emray turned back around to face him, "we gnomes have a saying; 'a hand refused is an enemy assured.'
"That may work for gnomes, but elves have higher standards when it comes to friend-making, Professor."
"Such as half-blind old codgers that give advice when its not wanted to recalcitrant youths who refuse to listen?" Marigold asked.
Emray gave a snort of derision, both from how easily she had been set up and how infallible Marigold's logic was in comparison to her own.
"So what would you have me do, hmm?" Emray asked.
"Go to the party, have a few drinks, see where the night takes you. You're young, now is the perfect opportunity for you to make some mistakes and do some things you may regret now but will look back on with fondness when you get to be my age. Time is fleeting, and it's the only thing you can never get back."
Gritting her teeth and without another word, Emray left the Professor to his work. She barely noticed the climb up to the ninth floor to her dormitory, letting indignant anger course through her like a sickness. Philosophical and moral conundrums always danced through her brain like a goat was jumping on it, and this one was no different.
The way Emray saw it, she was being presented with an ultimatum; either waste valuable time attending a stupid party being hosted by a girl she has an intense displeasure for, or risk upsetting her position with the Professor and her fellow students. On the one hand their was the potential for social embarrassment as well the loss of valuable time spent on her personal projects, and on the other was the losing of contacts that could eventually be counted on to provide her aid on said projects.
A solid mass thwacking into her face and chest sent Emray sprawling across the floor as she approached her dormitory, nearly sending her tumbling down the stairs and thoroughly dispelling any thoughts of loopholes in her logic.
“Oh my goodness, are you alright?” a shrill, lilting, and all too recognizable voice asked as Emray drew herself to a sitting position.
Standing above Emray, six-fingered hand outstretched and staring at her with pale orange eyes leering out from a cherry red face, was Elifas.
“I’m fine, thanks,” Emray answered, try to maintain some cordiality as she hoisted herself to her feet. “Maybe try not throwing doors open with complete disregard for the potential people on the other side next time.”
“A thousand pardons Emray, I’m just so busy that I find myself rushing everywhere,” Elifas apologized, deeply bowing and nearly whacking Emray with her horns as she did. “The party is this weekend, and I’ve been cramming in all the studying that I can between the organizing and everything else.”
“Then perhaps you shouldn’t overload yourself with frivolous projects and focus on passing your practicals. What are you doing, transmutations?”
“Actually, its divination,” Elifas answered. “My mother was a gifted medium, you know.”
“Right, right, an effervescent field for an effervescent person,” Emray replied. “Anyway, if you’re finished trying to kill me, I have some work to do.”
Emray stalked past the devil-blooded girl, shutting the door behind her with a resounding thud. She squeezed her eyes shut in frustration when she heard it open up again.
“I don’t mean to trouble you any more, but will you be coming to the party on Saturday?” Elifas asked from the doorway. “There’s going to be good food and games, and I even booked a local trio of minstrels that perform music from Biasta for the entertainment. I know that you were too busy to come the Harvest Festival, but it would mean a lot to me if you could make the time for this.”
Upset at being asked for the third time in an hour about her plans for the weekend, and doubly upset at being presented with a binary decision that she didn’t like either option to, Emray stalked upstairs to her room.
“We’ll see”, she groused before disappearing from Elifas’ view.