The final part of the Guild Authority’s stupidly-named testing process is the just-as-stupidly-named Valley of Appraisal. As Dunstana understands it, the Valley of Appraisal is designed to replicate all the hazards you might have to face on any given adventure. Which means it’s basically just an obstacle course.
Stupidly-named though it may be, Dunstana can’t help but think it actually sounds kind of fun.
She’s almost jealous of Kat’s opportunity to go through the Valley, but that’s really the only part of the Adventure Test that sounds interesting. Dunstana would hate to have to write actual tests every day for a month.
Even thinking about it makes her shiver and makes a bad taste rise in the back of her throat.
Just like she has throughout the year, Dunstana spends most of the next week helping Kat get ready for her test. Right now, that help consists of strapping Kat into her brand-new armour.
Their grandfather, Erasmus Winfield, runs one of the best-known and most successful adventuring goods shops in Porthaven, outfitting the city’s adventurers for longer than many of those adventurers have even been alive. The armour is a gift from him for Kat’s journey into the Valley of Appraisal.
Unfortunately, that gift does not include instructions for how to get Kat into the armour, so Kat and Dunstana have been left tugging on straps, buckling and unbuckling buckles, tying things to other things and hoping for the best.
Dunstana tugs on one of the straps.
“Too tight,” Kat gasps, her face turning purple.
Dunstana promptly un-tugs the strap. “Better?” she asks.
“Better,” Kat says, taking several deep breaths.
Dunstana gives several other straps and buckles a few experimental tugs and un-tugs. Satisfied that Kat is not turning purple, Dunstana nods to herself.
“I think we got it,” she declares, circling Kat to make sure all of the pieces of armour are connected properly and in the right place.
Kat turns to her mirror. “Not bad,” she says, studying her appearance.
“Kat, honey,” Estelle calls from downstairs. “Scarlet’s here.”
“Okay,” Kat answers. “I’ll be right down.”
Kat hurries down the stairs to the front door of Darkstone Manor.
“Good luck!” Dunstana calls after her.
Everyone running the Valley of Appraisal gets to choose a previously-licensed adventurer to help them through the course. It took Kat about five seconds to decide on Scarlet. Kat has known Scarlet long enough that she’s less of a friend and more of a big sister.
Scarlet and Kat are metaphorically sisters, and they narrowly missed out on being actual sisters. Years ago, Scarlet’s mother and Kat’s father used to date. It didn’t work out, and the Admiral eventually settled down with Kat’s mother, but he and Scarlet’s mother remain friends and trusted colleagues as senior members of the Brotherhood of the Coasts, the major association of pirates operating in Realmgard.
Kat and Scarlet share a bond created by both being non-pirate daughters of pirates. For her part, being the daughter of a pirate inspired Kat to aim for her Adventuring Licence in order to pursue a career in literally anything but piracy. The intelligent, hard-working, and magically-inclined Scarlet, meanwhile, is a graduate of the Magological Academy and is currently working towards a Doctorate of Magic at the University of Porthaven.
Usually, the explanation of what Scarlet actually does goes miles over Kat’s head. She just knows that it usually leads to weird explosions that make Kat taste sounds, smell colours, hear textures, and have weird dreams at night if she’s standing too close to Scarlet’s lab.
Over the years, they’ve also had plenty of time to bond over the fact that their parents gave them both truly terrible middle names. Kat got Hortensia.
Scarlet got William.
It’s a little better than it sounds, though.
Scarlet’s mother named her for the famous Scarlet William Fitzpatrick, who was himself named for his equally-famous bright red outfits. When Scarlet’s mother was still a fledgling pirate, Scarlet William was her mentor in the profession, and she repaid his years of mentorship by naming Scarlet in his honour.
“Hey, Kitty-Kat,” Scarlet says with a smile as Kat comes to the front door. “How are you feeling?”
Kat can’t remember Scarlet ever calling her anything other than Kitty-Kat. After fifteen years, it’s starting to get annoying, but still Scarlet adamantly refuses to stop, probably because she knows how much it annoys Kat.
In Kat’s opinion, it is a cheap shot coming from a woman whose middle name is William.
“I’m as ready as I’m ever going to be,” Kat answers.
“You’ll do fine,” Scarlet assures her. “You’ve already nailed every other test. You’ve got this in the bag, Kitty-Kat. Besides, you’ll have me watching your back. I won’t let you down.” She smiles up at Kat.
Scarlet is six years older than Kat, but she’s been the shorter of the two since Kat was twelve. It’s less that Scarlet is short. She is, in fact, a perfectly average height. The issue is that Kat has been growing like a weed more or less for as long as she’s been alive. By now, Kat makes people even of perfectly-average height seem downright miniscule.
“Lunch is ready, Kat,” Estelle announces. “Scarlet, honey, you should eat something, too.”
Estelle has made her opinion known that Kat shouldn’t attempt the Hero Test on an empty stomach. As far as Kat is concerned, though, she went too far in the other direction. Normally, Kat wouldn’t object to being sat down in front of a stack of lunch approximately the size of Dunstana, but today Kat is finding herself too nervous to eat much. She just wants to get the test over with. She can eat once she’s got her licence.
Even so, Kat can’t help but smile at the fact that her mom arranged pieces to bacon to spell out Good luck, Kat!
She gets that her parents are just trying to help, but she decides it would be better if maybe, just maybe, they decided to stop helping quite so much. As Kat picks idly at the mountain of food, Admiral Dorian Darkstone stares steadily at her from across the table.
“So, Kat? Do you think you’re ready?” the Admiral asks.
Kat nods. “Yeah. I think so. I read the handbook twice more since yesterday. I think I know what to expect.”
As she says this, the Admiral smiles in a mischievous manner that does nothing for Kat’s confidence. Clearly, he knows something about the Hero Test that she doesn’t. “And you’re not nervous?” he asks.
“Not until I saw you smiling like that,” Kat mutters.
The Admiral leans back in his chair. “So,” he muses. “You’d know how to act if, for example, you happened upon a Dire Roach?”
“Hit it with a rock,” Kat answers instantly, recalling the information from the handbook. “A big one,” she adds.
“And if you meet a Goblin at the crossroads at midnight,” the Admiral continues, “should you trust him?”
Kat doesn’t remember anything about the crossroads or midnight in the handbook, but she knows her father well enough to know that he is a particularly tricksy individual.
She’s sure the Admiral is just playing another of his tricks on her.
“I don’t know anything about the crossroads,” Kat answers, “but I do know that Goblins always take their hats off to people they respect and that a Goblin would never lie to someone they respect.”
The Admiral nods gravely. “Clever girl,” he mutters.
“Leave Kat alone, Dorian,” Estelle chides her husband. “She needs to eat.”
Kat turns away from lunch when there’s another knock on the door. “That’s probably Amara,” she says, moving to rise from the table. “She said she’d come by before I went to take the test.”
“Sit down and eat your lunch,” Estelle says. “I’ll get the door.”
Estelle momentarily disappears from the kitchen, reappearing with Kat’s best friend following close behind.
“Hey, Amara,” Kat says.
“Hey yourself, Katherine,” Amara replies indignantly. “Really, Katherine, is that any way to talk to your best friend?”
Technically, her name is Katherine, but as far as Kat is concerned, it’s Kat.
It’s the only thing she has ever called herself, and is what she’s always introduced herself as. She finds it a little strange that the only people in Realmgard who refuse to refer to her properly are her two closest friends.
As Amara steps into the kitchen, she gravely studies Kat’s face. Her long, pointed Elf-ears promptly droop with disapproval. Kat can’t help but wonder what she’s done wrong now. Given Amara’s place at the very highest point of high society, it could be anything. Or everything.
Amara picks up a napkin from the table and heads straight for Kat.
“Goodness, Katherine. There are crumbs all over your face. What will the guild officers think if you show up looking like a slob?” she asks, heaving a put-upon sigh and promptly, as far as Kat can tell, using the napkin to try to scrub her face off.
“Thanks, Mom,” Kat jokes as Amara steps back to survey her handiwork. “I’m sure that — muh!” Kat is cut off by Amara once again setting to work with the napkin.
“Perfect!” Amara declares, finally setting down the napkin. “You look much more suitably heroic, now.”
Despite her friend’s words, Kat can’t help but nervously gaze back and forth between the napkin and Amara. She cautiously backs away, aiming to keep her face as far away from any further scouring as possible.
Kat watches in a brief moment of panic as Amara surges forward; thankfully, though, her only intention is to wrap Kat in a tight hug. “Good luck today, Katherine,” she says. “I’m certain you’ll do wonderfully. And once this is all over, we’ll have to let our hair down and celebrate.”
“Yeah. Thanks, Amara,” Kat answers.
“I’ll be cheering you on, Katherine,” Amara continues. “Do not let me down.” She frowns dramatically. “I don’t think I could bear it. One shudders at the thought.”
Kat can’t tell if Amara is joking or not. Still, they’ve been best friends for fifteen years, so she’s sure they’ll still be friends even if Kat somehow completely fails the test. Not that she’s going to.
Amara turns to Estelle. “Mrs. Darkstone, would you terribly mind if I borrowed Dunstana for the day?”
“Borrowed for what?” Dunstana asks, emerging from around the corner.
Amara leads Dunstana just out of earshot and looks gravely down at the little pirate.
“Now,” she declares. “What I have in mind is simple. There is no doubt in my mind that Katherine will pass this test with flying colours. She will be in need of congratulations. Thus, I propose that we bake her a cake.”
“Okay,” Dunstana says with a nod. “But I didn’t know you knew how to bake, Amara.”
“Of course, I know how to bake,” Amara insists indignantly. “Goodness, what kind of helpless fool do you think I am?’
“It’s just that if we’re going to be baking, we should get Ginger to help us,” Dunstana notes.
Granted, Amara has never actually baked anything, but she is confident that she has a more than adequate grasp of the theory behind the process. After all, she spent days in the kitchens, observing the cooks at work and feverishly taking notes about every conceivable act of cookery and bakery.
One single cake can’t possibly be some great feat. Besides, she will, of course, be giving her utmost effort for the sake of her best friend. Amara Valda absolutely, resolutely, unequivocally refuses to be made a fool of by a mere cake.
Even so, Amara is well aware that Dunstana’s best friend is the youngest child of a family of bakers. Loathe as she is to admit it, she probably knows more about bakery than Amara does, despite being only half as old.
Since Amara’s long years of etiquette school have trained her to be magnanimous and gracious. She tells herself that it would be utter foolishness to turn down an offer of such assistance.
“I suppose we should take all the help we can get,” Amara concedes. “Lead on.”
Amara knows the Breadman family only by reputation. They are regarded as some of the finest bakers in Porthaven, and she has heard that their pastries have made it all the way to the Prince’s dining room. She has never met any of the Breadmans personally, rather surprising given that the family’s youngest daughter is the best friend of her own best friend’s sister.
As it happens, Amara’s first introduction to Ginger Breadman is a flash of red hair tumbling to the floor with a yelp as Dunstana bursts through the bakery door.
“Ow,” the girl says, readjusting her glasses. “Hi, Dunstana. Did you need — hey!”
“Ginger!” Dunstana exclaims, eagerly pulling the other girl up to her feet. “Come on, we need your help!”
“Let the poor thing catch her breath, Dunstana,” Amara says.
She takes a step forward and smiles gently down at the girl.
“My name is Amara. I’m a friend of Katherine’s,” she tells Ginger. “I want to bake her a cake to celebrate her completion of the Guild Authority test.”
“Oh. O-okay,” Ginger stammers. “I can help with that.”
“Do you have everything you need, Miss?” Mr. Breadman asks from behind the bakery counter.
“Yes, thank you,” Amara answers. “I’ve made sure that I am quite prepared. Katherine deserves but the best.”
“Well, in that case,” he says proudly. “Ginger’s the perfect person to help you.”