Though Scarlet has been frustratingly vague about what to expect in the Valley of Appraisal, smiling a smug, knowing smile at her whenever she asked, Kat has convinced herself to remain cautiously optimistic about what lies before her. It’s just a practice adventure.
That doesn’t sound too bad, Kat tells herself — before promptly reminding herself that if she fails, it will be her only adventure.
The Guild Authority built its Valley of Appraisal outside the city, on land generously donated by the Prince of Porthaven. Kat and Scarlet begin their journey at the landward gates of Porthaven. Kat can’t help but smile when she sees how many people have come to see her off.
Dunstana and Amara have disappeared, promising to be back in time for Kat’s return from her test. It’s clear they’re up to something, though Kat can’t quite decide what. Her parents accompanied her from Darkstone Manor, and her aunt, uncle and cousin are already waiting for her.
Her uncle Jonas is the Admiral’s younger brother. Along with Kat, he is one of the few Darkstones in history with no piratical ambitions, working instead as a Professor of Archaeology at the University of Porthaven. In all likelihood, that also makes him probably the best-educated Darkstone in history. As a family of pirates, most of Kat’s relatives and ancestors have tended to prefer cannons to textbooks.
Even so, the smartest Darkstone in history is probably Jonas’ daughter Annie. Despite being only ten, Annie seems to have every fact about everything crammed into her pink-haired head. Annie gets her pink hair and pointy ears from her mother, a statuesque Elf named Peregrina, more commonly known by her family as Peri.
“So,” Jonas says, taking Kat aside. “This is it.”
“I’m ready,” Kat tells him. She isn’t sure she feels ready, though.
“Of course you are,” he answers. “You remember what we talked about?”
“About suplexing things?”
“Well, not just that,” he mutters.
“I remember,” she assures him
Jonas has helped Kat before every part of the Guild Authority tests. For the written tests, he helped her study. A university professor knows a thing or two about tests, after all. It’s Jonas’ job to give tests now, and he had to study for years’ worth of tests to become qualified to be a professor in the first place. Some days, he took her to the University of Porthaven’s library and helped her find the most useful books.
Other days, he gave her advice about how not to get sick from nerves the night before taking a test. That particular advice has been especially useful during the last few days.
And to help Kat prepare to face the Valley of Appraisal, he passed on to Kat his full knowledge of the ancient and noble sport of wrestling. Mostly, that involved finding new ways to fling around a burlap sack full of straw with angry face drawn on it. He also gave her a training regimen to help with fitness and conditioning. That involved running up the front steps of the Porthaven Opera House every morning, and then promptly running back down as the ushers chased them away.
“Thanks for everything, Uncle Jonas.”
“It’s no problem,” Jonas answers, smiling and pulling Kat in for a tight hug.
Kat turns to Annie as she feels her cousin tugging on her shirt. “So, um, I made a graph,” Annie announces, pulling a piece of paper out of her pocket. “To show that I’m cheering for you. I hope it helps.” She smiles, and then promptly starts looking anywhere but Kat’s face.
She smooths out the piece of paper and holds it up for Kat. There are two overlapping circles on the page. The left one is labelled People Who Pass Licensing Tests and the one on the right is labelled People Who Are Awesome.
The section where the two overlap is simply labelled Kat.
Only Annie would try to help with Math. Kat may not care much for Math, but she still appreciates her cousin’s support.
“Thanks, Annie,” she says.
Peri steps towards Kat and puts her hands on her shoulders. “Vade vince,” her aunt tells Kat, smiling warmly.
“Va-day… vin-kay?” Kat repeats quizzically, her non-Elven tongue struggling to fit itself around the Elven words.
Which one is vade? she asks herself, trying to remember the Elven lessons she’s had from both her aunt and Amara.
“It means go and win,” Annie interjects, in a typical display of everything-knowing. “More or less.”
“Thanks,” Kat says, putting her hand on top of Annie’s pink head. “And thank you, too, Aunt Peri.”
Peri smiles at her niece. She actually has to look down to do it, being one of the few people Kat has yet encountered who is taller than she is. Most Elves are tall. Peri is tall, even for an Elf.
“How does it feel?” Estelle asks, tugging on Kat’s shoulders and making some other quick adjustments to the straps and buckles of her outfit. “Does everything fit alright?”
“It’s a little late to do anything about it now,” Kat notes. “But, yeah, it’s all great. Thank Grandpa for me.”
This is the first time Kat has ever worn armour. It’s nothing too impressive — not like she’s heading into the Valley of Appraisal covered head-to-toe in burnished metal like some kind of heroic knight — just a leather vest strapped over her regular clothes and a set of armguards and shinpads. Everyone she has asked about it has assured her that the armour from her grandfather will be more than enough for the challenges awaiting her in the Valley of Appraisal.
Not having the advantage of being a businessman’s granddaughter, Scarlet had to buy her own armour, though Erasmus sold it at a generous discount for Kat’s sake. The sight of Scarlet dressed in armour is a weird experience for Kat. As a graduate student of Magicology, Scarlet spends most of her time at the University, where there isn’t much need for armour.
Despite the strange novelty of the rest of her clothes, the presence of Scarlet’s favourite hat on her head provides a certain level of familiarity. Scarlet has worn the same purple hat for has long as Kat can remember, though by now its faded to a sort of bluish-grey colour. With its wide brim, it looks almost like a witch’s hat, but not as pointy. Kat has wondered if that’s the look Scarlet is going for on purpose; she’s going to be a Professor of Magicology, after all. That’s sort of like being a professional witch.
But according to Scarlet, she only wears the hat because it’s the best at keeping the sun and the rain out of her face.
Estelle smiles at her daughter. “We’ll be waiting, dear. Once this is all over, we’ll all go celebrate.”
Kat frowns. “What if there’s nothing to celebrate?” she mutters.
The Admiral steps forward and raises her chin to look her in the eye.
“Don’t you start thinking like that,” he tells her. “Don’t even think about thinking like that. If you go in thinking you’re going to lose, why even bother? Just go home.”
He bites back a curse when he sees Kat’s frown deepen and realises she doesn’t get what he’s trying to say.
He pulls her close into a fatherly hug. “All I mean is that you can’t give up before you even start. Aim low, and you’re going to land even lower. So, what you do is aim as high as you possibly can, and then either you win, or at least you go down swinging. And if you have to go down swinging,” he adds, like a true pirate, “Always be sure to work in a couple cheap shots on the way down.”
He finishes with a reassuring wink.
That’s finally enough to get Kat smiling. “Thanks, Dad,” she says. He must have said something right, because Kat follows that up by giving him a rare kiss on the cheek.
Dorian smiles at his daughter. “Hey, listen,” he says. “I don’t think I say this enough, but I’m proud of you, Kat. And I love you. No matter what happens.”
That earns him a kiss on the other cheek, and sends Kat striding confidently towards the city gate.
“You know, there are times when you’re a very good father, Dorian Darkstone,” Estelle tells her husband.
“The best,” Dorian agrees, smiling broadly and feeling immensely proud of himself.
Estelle slips her arm through her husband’s. “Come on. I have an idea for how you can prove it,” she says, beginning to steer him towards the many shops of Porthaven’s bustling Outfitting District.
Growing up helping her parents run the Winfield and Sons Emporium — despite Erasmus Winfield’s manifest lack of sons and abundance of daughters — Estelle has learned that any adventurer is only as good as her equipment. A broken sword, or a snapped bowstring, or a ripped belt, or a shoddily-cobbled boot is always going to be trouble.
She explains all this to Dorian as they navigate the Outfitting District, soon reaching the conclusion that the best gift they could buy Kat to celebrate her licence is a good, durable adventuring belt, which is, in Estelle’s opinion the most crucial, or at least the most pants-retaining, piece of any adventurer’s equipment.
Finding the right one is proving rather difficult. The challenge facing Estelle and Dorian is finding a belt not only durable enough to see Kat through her adventures, but also one she’ll actually be willing to wear.
“What about this one, dear?” Estelle asks, pointing to one of the many, many belts on display at the Porthaven Leatherworks.
Dorian scrutinises the belt, thoughtfully scratching his beard. “Well, for one thing, it’s real pretty,” he muses. “Just look at all those beads and colours. And look at that, it’s got sparkly unicorns on it. It’s just about the girliest belt I’ve ever seen.”
Estelle frowns. “You’re right. Kat would hate it.”
“What about this one?” Dorian asks, rummaging through a nearby rack and emerging with a potential belt in hand.
The belt is plain leather, simple but, as far as Estelle can tell, expertly stitched together, with a solid but unassuming buckle. Unlike the ostentatious, brightly-coloured belts they’ve seen previously, this belt is devoid of any decoration beyond a few simple shapes and patterns stitched into the leather.
The best thing about it, though, is the sheer number of pockets sewn onto it. There are more pockets than Estelle can count, including pockets inside some of the pockets.
It’s the perfect adventuring belt for Kat.
“I like it,” Estelle declares.
“So do —” Dorian begins, his voice trailing off when he catches sight of the price tag. If they’re paying for quality, this must be the best belt in history.
“She’s lucky we love her,” he mumbles, reaching for his wallet, which is about to get a whole lot lighter.