Upon their return to her family’s manor, Amara is surprised by how quickly Ginger takes charge of the kitchen. The heretofore shy and quiet red-haired girl takes to the kitchen like a Turboshark to water, moving from cupboard to cupboard with resolute efficiency to assemble the necessary pots, pans, measuring cups and whisks.
By the end, the stack of cookware she has assembled is almost taller than she is.
Granted, Ginger is not particularly tall to begin with, but, as far as Amara is concerned, it remains a quite impressive tower of cookware.
“I’ll get the eggs!” Dunstana eagerly volunteers.
Ginger immediately grabs Dunstana by the sleeve to stop the little pirate, her stack of cookware swaying precariously as she does. She looks up at Amara. “Could you get the eggs?” she asks.
Theoretically, yes, Amara could get the eggs. The obvious practical problem is that Amara has never actually had to use the manor’s kitchen for herself. She doesn’t actually know where anything is. Amara diplomatically decides to keep this to herself, and instead smiles and nods down at the girl.
“I can help!” Dunstana insists. “What about the sugar? We need sugar, right? I can get that!”
“Dunstana,” Ginger sternly warns her friend. “I have a spoon, and I’m not afraid to use it. So please, just sit still and wait until I have a job for you.”
Dunstana cautiously eyes the large wooden mixing spoon in Ginger’s hand and begins creeping safely out of its reach.
“But if you want to help, you can help me set up the mixing bowls,” Ginger offers.
Kat’s journey through the Valley of Appraisal is off to an inauspicious start. Waiting behind a seemingly-endless line of other applicants trapped between two velvet ropes, Kat feels like she’s waiting in line for the front desk of the Guild Authority offices once again. That particular memory does not inspire confidence.
She still has nightmares about the long, strange odyssey she had been forced to undertake in order to submit Form 27-A to Room 221-B, so she’d be authorised to take Written Test 3.2: Flora and Fauna of Realmgard — Small Woodland Creatures, Part 2 of 4.
She spends most of her time waiting in line frantically checking and double-checking, then double-double-checking that all the necessary paperwork is still in her pocket. By about the twenty-seventh time she checks, she convinces herself that it’s not going anywhere at this point.
When it’s finally Kat’s turn to approach the desk, she reaches into her pocket and slides all the forms across to the little man sitting at the other side of the desk.
In a dry, humourless tone indicating that he has recited this information countless times before, the little man behind the desk informs Kat:
“The Guild Authority of Porthaven hereby advises Applicant
that in the event of Applicant knowingly providing
fraudulent information to the agents of the Guild Authority
of Porthaven, Applicant shall be prosecuted to the fullest
and most severe extent of the laws of Porthaven —
including, but not limited to, hard labour, keelhauling,
He looks up at Kat.
“Do you therefore attest that the information provided is, to the best of your knowledge, accurate and complete?”
“Uh, yeah,” Kat answers.
“Is your legal name, in fact, Katherine Hortensia Darkstone?” the little man asks, consulting Kat’s forms.
Kat heaves a heavy sigh. “Yes,” she mutters, idly wondering if he could have spoken her dreaded middle name any louder.
Scarlet William Mendez gives her a sympathetic smile.
“And do you have any chronic medical conditions which may impede your abilities as a licensed adventurer, thereby endangering your own life or the lives of other licensed adventurers in your company?”
“No,” Kat answers.
“Very good,” the little man says, marking Kat’s paperwork with the large stamp resting beside him. “Please proceed to the designated waiting area. Thank you, next.”
“But, where do I —”
“Thank you, next,” the man repeats.
“Thank you,” the little man says one last time. “Next.”
Kat recognises she’s fighting a losing battle and steps away from the desk. Thankfully, it isn’t that hard to find the designated waiting area, as it is designated both clearly and rather unnecessarily with a little signpost bearing the words Designated Waiting Area.
The waiting area is a large square marked off by yet more velvet ropes. Kat steps into the area with a few wordless nods to the other aspiring adventurers assembled within the velvet ropes. None of them seem too eager to talk.
If they’re as anxious as Kat herself feels, she hardly blames them.
Kat paces restlessly back and forth across the waiting area, occasionally glancing up to Scarlet to see her smiling reassuringly. She loses track of time; she could have been waiting for five hours, or maybe only five minutes. It’s hard to tell when you’re this nervous.
She nearly jumps at the sudden sound of somebody calling her name.
“It’s Kat, but, yeah, that’s me,” Kat says.
She looks up to see a woman with dark hair looking expectantly at Kat from over the rims of her glasses.
“This way, please,” the woman says, adjusting her glasses and beckoning Kat out of the waiting area.
With a nod, Kat follows the woman and Scarlet follows Kat.
The woman makes a note on the little clipboard she’s holding. “Welcome to your guild exam,” the woman says. “I’ll be assessing your performance. My name is —”
“Carlotta Stonehelm!” Kat exclaims in an awed whispered. “You’re Carlotta Stonehelm!”
Carlotta Stonehelm is one of the most famous female guild captains in Realmgard. Part of her reputation is the fact that she is the first woman in Porthaven to run her own guild. The rest of it is the fact that she’s one of the city’s best guild captains — man or woman. Kat can’t properly put into words the extent to which Carlotta Stonehelm is her childhood hero.
Dunstana has Princess Moonflower, Kat has Carlotta Stonehelm. In fact, a younger Kat went dressed as up her for four consecutive Heroes’ Eves.
It wasn’t hard for Kat to make herself into a passable Carlotta Stonehelm. Their hair is the same colour, though Carlotta tends to wear hers in a businesslike bun, rather than a ponytail. Kat has never needed glasses, though, so the only extra accessory she needed for her costume was a pair of empty frames.
Kat is disgusted with herself for not recognising Carlotta sooner. She just never thought a hero as legendary as Carlotta Stonehelm would ever be slumming it up supervising Adventuring Licence tests.
“It’s, uh,” Kat mumbles, feeling herself blushing deeply. “it’s an honour. Ma’am. You’ve always been my hero. Ma’am.”
“That’s sweet,” Carlotta says with a smile. “But that doesn’t mean I can go easy on grading you.”
“No. Of course not,” Kat murmurs, still overawed by the presence of her idol. “Ma’am.”
“Anyway,” Carlotta continues, regaining her previous professionalism. “Please follow me to weapon rack. Let’s get you outfitted. I see you’ve already got your own armour. Even with armour, you don’t need worry too much about getting hurt. All the weapons we use here are blunted, and our wizards have set up Life Wards all around the Valley. If things go badly, you might break a leg, but you’re not going to lose one.”
“Ah,” Kat says, not feeling especially reassured by this revelation.
A broken leg strikes her as something to get very worried about.
“I can feel the Wards from here,” Scarlet notes. “They must be strong.” She turns to Kat. “Besides, I’ll be looking after you, Kitty-Kat. I won’t let anything happen to you.”
Kat nods. “Yeah. I know, Scarlet,” she says. Scarlet’s words are reassuring.
“You’re entitled to pick up to two weapons for use during the exam,” Carlotta explains as Kat surveys the staggeringly comprehensive assortment of weaponry on offer.
“And feel free to let loose,” she adds. “Like I said, our weapons are blunted, the Life Wards will protect against the worst of it, and your examiners have excellent medical benefits thanks to the Guild Authority.”
Kat grabs a bow and quiver down from the rack. She started learning to shoot from her grandfather a few years ago, and feels pretty good about her skills, especially after nearly a year of training in preparation for her Licence test.
“Ready,” she declares, strapping the quiver onto her shoulder.
Carlotta nods, reaches into her pocket, and takes a step towards Kat. Her hand comes out of her pocket clutching three small sticks. “Pick one,” she instructs.
“Why?” Kat asks cautiously.
“It’s part of the exam,” Carlotta says.
“Is there a right answer?” Kat asks.
“No. Not like that,” Carlotta explains. “It’s to determine which path through the Valley you’ll be taking for your exam. The different routes involve different tests.”
“Ah,” Kat says, plucking one of the sticks from Carlotta’s hand.
Kat holds up the stick and Scarlet peers over her shoulder to get a look for herself. The end of the stick is painted dark blue.
“Oh,” Carlotta says. “The Blue Route. That’s a fun one.”
“Fun for me? Or fun for you?” Kat asks.
Carlotta shrugs. “You’ll see,” she answers.
“I’m bored,” Dunstana moans, not for the first time, gazing forlornly at the oven.
“It’ll be done baking soon,” Ginger promises. “And then we can start decorating the cake. That’s the fun part, I promise.”
“Let’s just make the oven hotter,” Dunstana offers. “If we make it twice as hot, it’ll bake twice as fast!”
“That’s not how it works, Dunstana,” Ginger informs her.
“But what if —”
After being so thoroughly stonewalled by her friend, Dunstana decides that she needs to try a new approach to fixing the problem of the seemingly-unending wait for the cake.
Good pirates are adaptable, after all.
“Hey, Amara, you can do magic, right?” she notes, looking hopefully up at the Elf. “Can’t you just, like, make time go faster, or something?”
“Yes,” Amara answers. “Why don’t I just go ahead and alter the fundamental fabric of reality, tear apart the very substance of the universe, shatter causality itself, and rearrange the essential nature of the cosmos for the sake of sparing us half an hour?”
“Really? Dunstana exclaims. “Awesome!”
“No, Dunstana,” Amara answers, wearily rubbing her forehead. “Not really.”
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