“I’m worried about Kat,” Annie tells her dad as they sit on the bench across the square from the Guild Authority office, watching the people and the pigeons go by.
“Oh?” he answers, looking down at her from the shadow of his wide-brimmed hat.
“I read that fifty-three-point-two percent of applications fail the licence test at least once,” Annie notes, frowning. “That’s most people.”
Jonas chuckles. “Your cousin isn’t most people,” he answers.
“I know that,” Annie insists. “But still.”
Peri puts an arm around her daughter and pulls her close. “You’re worried about someone you love.” she says. “You don’t want to see Kat fail. That’s normal.” She smiles. “But instead of worrying about all the ways it could go wrong, why not think about all the ways it could go right. What if Kat sets the record for highest-ever grade on the licence test?”
“I didn’t think of that,” Annie admits. “That would be pretty great.”
“Worrying won’t help anyone,” Jonas adds. “If Kat passes the test, she’s going to want you to celebrate with her. And if she fails, she’s going to need you help her feel better.”
“Yeah,” Annie agrees.
“What is it?” Peri asks, noticing her daughter staring up at her. “Has our wisdom left you speechless?”
Annie shakes her head. “No. It’s not that. There’s a pigeon on your head.”
“So there is,” Peri notes, reaching up to pat the chubby little bird on the head. “I must have a way with taming wild beasts.” She smiles mischievously. “I did marry your father, after all.”
“But he’s a person,” Annie notes.
Frankly, she doesn’t understand how her mother could ever make such an obvious mistake.
Standing at the foot of a massive wall does not give Kat much cause for optimism. The climb alone is going to be a pain, and the lesson she learned from the ambush in the corn maze is that she’s going to have to contend with more than just the wall. Probably, somebody at the top is going to be dropping anvils on her, or somebody at the bottom is doing to be trying to knock her off with a big stick.
“Hail, applicant!” a voice calls from above. The man standing on top of the tall, and seeming very small at such a height, looks over to Carlotta and politely bows his head. “Miss Stonehelm.”
Carlotta glances up from her clipboard and favours the man at the top of the wall with a wave.
“Your current task is to climb this wall.” He briefly disappears from view, returning to throw down a length of rope. “This rope is provided for your use and benefit. Any questions?”
“Just climb the wall? That’s it?” Kat asks.
“Actually, no,” the man at the top of the wall answers. He stoops and picks up a large basket. He reaches into the basket and picks up a red ball “As an additional test of your capabilities, I am required to throw these at you as you scale the wall. And, if you look to your left, you will see my brother Bjorn, who will be assisting me in assessing your abilities.”
Kat obliges, locating a man carrying a long wooden pole over his shoulder. She shudders at the sight. She hates being right all the time.
He emphasises his point by gently tossing one of the balls down the wall. It lands near Kat and bounces past her. As Kat watches the ball go bouncing away, she groans and decides that she really hates being right.
“Well, we could just take the stairs,” Scarlet offers, pointing the stairs ascending the side of the wall.
Kat’s heart momentarily leaps.
“Unfortunately, those stairs are for use by agents of the Guild Authority only,” Carlotta interjects. “You two have to do this the hard way.”
Kat’s heart promptly sinks back down.
Scaling the wall is an unpleasant experience. Climbing a rope, of all things, is a chore at the best of times and Kat can feel the rope burns forming on her palms as she climbs. The task is made infinitely more difficult by the presence of her two adversaries, the one at the top of the wall launching an endless cannonade at her, and the one at the bottom of the wall swatting her with a big stick.
Scarlet’s magic is managing to deflect some of the balls raining down on her, but the man at the top of the wall can throw them faster than Scarlet can throw her magic, and his aim in proving impeccable. More than a few of the balls have painfully collided with the top of Kat’s head, making a loud doink! sound as they go bouncing away.
Scarlet can’t be in two places at once, so even when she manages to deflect the cascade of balls, Kat still has to worry about the guy with the big stick, which makes a loud thwack! whenever it hits her.
Under this onslaught, Kat soon feels her grip slipping from the rope and she comes crashing down to the ground.
“Ow,” she mutters through a mouthful of grass. “Ow!” she exclaims when she further realises she bit her tongue.
“I can do this,” Kat tells herself, reaching for the rope.
“Let’s try this again,” Kat mutters.
Kat lies on the grass for a long moment, staring up at the clouds trailing across the sky
“How far was that?” she asks, rising unsteadily back to her feet.
“About a third of the way up,” Scarlet says.
Kat bites back a curse.
“I’m going to get it this time,” Kat tells Scarlet.
After the misadventure with the Ray of Frosting and impromptu haircut, Amara has decided to take a supervisory role in the final steps of baking Kat’s cake. Isla has stepped in to take over the delicate work while Dunstana helps and Ginger offers instruction. Amara stands at a safe distance, ready to offer moral support. And shield herself with a nearby frying pan should the need arise.
“A little to the left,” Isla tells Dunstana, who is serving as an extra pair of hands, holding a magnifying glass for her as she puts the final decorative flourishes on the cake with a run-of-the-mill, non-magical icing gun. “Perfect,” she declares, using a delicate application of frosting to complete the ring of intricate swirls running around the edge of the cake.
“Good work, Isla,” Ginger says, surveying her handiwork. “Now, we just need to decide what we’re going to make it say.”
“We’re gonna make it talk?” Dunstana exclaims. “Awesome!”
“That’s not what I meant,” Ginger replies. “We should write a message on it. Something like Congratulations, or You’re the Best. That sort of thing.”
On the one hand, Amara is quite pleased that the cake is shaping up so well. On the other hand, she is even more pleased that there have been no further frosting-related mishaps. So as not to tempt fate any further, she cautiously takes a few more steps back away from the table.
“Ow,” Kat mutters as something strikes the top of her head. She glances back up to the top of the wall, where the guild agent is peering over the edge of the wall with an armful of balls.
He smiles down at her and reaches for another ball.
“Ow! Ow! Ow! Stop doing —” Kat mutters as the man with stick once again starts trying to knock her off the wall. She tries to avoid his strikes, but only has so much room to work with due to the rope being her only way up the wall.
“You!” Scarlet shouts. “Leave Kat alone!”
The man with the stick ignores Scarlet and beings to angle his stick for the next strike.
“I’m talking to you!” Scarlet continues. She raises her hand and magic flashes from her fingers, smashing the stick to splinters and sending the man tumbling through the air.
“Nice work!” Kat calls from the wall. “That was really — ow!”
She glances back up at the top of the wall, where the Guild Authority agent is peering over the edge with an armful of balls and an insufferable smile on his face.
“Ow! Ow! Ow!” Kat exclaims as the bombardment continues. “Scarlet! Help!” She feels herself slipping from the rope.
“Kitty-Kat!” she hears Scarlet urge. “Jump! I’ve got a plan.”
“Jump?” Kat repeats. So far, she does not like this plan.
“Just do it!” Scarlet calls back. “I promise not to drop you.”
“You’d better not,” Kat mutters to herself, setting her feet against the wall, tensing herself and preparing to jump, barely able to believe she’s going to do it.
“Jump!” Scarlet says.
Kat jumps. She feels herself going up, then slowing, then stopping. Then her heart starts to sink as the rest of her starts to sink in the air, beginning to come crashing down. She’s about to open her mouth, either to scream, or curse, or yell at Scarlet, or all of the above when she feels herself being pushed back up into the sky.
She can see the magic swirling around her as she hangs suspended in the air.
“Oh,” Kat says. “Oh.” She feels herself smiling as she begins to understand Scarlet’s plan.
She feels another magic push move her through the air towards the top of the wall, where the Guild Authority agent at the top of the wall looks on in amazement. Unfortunately, push soon turns to fling, and Kat finds herself launched through the air like one of the rubber balls that were raining down on her.
She comes crashing down on the top of the wall, bounces a few times and knocks over one of the baskets of balls before skidding to a stop.
Groaning and picking herself off, Kat promptly reconsiders her evaluation of Scarlet’s plan. When Scarlet gets up here, she decides, she’s going to get an earful.
“Well done,” the Guild Authority agent, who had just moments earlier been making her life miserable, amicably tells Kat. He even offers her a hand to get back to her feet.
“Yeah, thanks,” Kat says, before immediately finding herself distracted as she espies her unexpected next adversary. “You,” she hisses, eyes narrowing harshly beneath their thick, dark brows.
The face to which Kat has come face-to-face is, in fact, a chicken’s face. The face of the very same chicken with which Kat has already played two games of checkers. A chicken which Kat was not expecting to encounter in the Valley of Appraisal, or — being entirely honest — either of the previous two times.
“Bawk,” says the checkers-playing chicken, gazing at her from across its checkerboard with a startlingly steely gaze.
“Yeah, yeah,” Kat says. “Let’s just get this over with.”
“Bawk,” agrees the chicken, pecking its first piece to begin the game.
“You talk a big game for a barnyard animal,” Kat says, making her own move.
“Five marks on the chicken,” the Guild Authority agent offers as he settles in beside Carlotta to watch the game.
“Hey!” Kat exclaims, glowering angrily over her shoulder.
“Oh. I apologise,” the Guild Authority agent mutters. “Three marks.”
“Done,” Scarlet says.
And so it begins, Kat and the chicken, contending on the board, move for move and piece for piece. As ridiculous as it is — especially being the third time this has happened — Kat can’t help but feel a little grateful for the reprieve from being punched and kicked and catapulted up a giant wall.
“King me,” Kat tells the chicken. Something she never expected to do before beginning her Guild Authority tests, but has now done no less than five times in the testing process.
“Bawk,” says the chicken, pecking at the checkerboard to make its move.
It goes on like this, until the unstoppable march of Kat’s pieces across the board are finally enough to secure her victory.
“I win,” Kat declares.
“Bawk?” exclaims the chicken, before fluttering down from the board to start pecking around the ground.
“Pay up,” Scarlet tells the Guild Authority agent.