I’ve got us a map!” Nick cried, barging into their room.
Aram looked at the cuckoo clock on the wall. It was so early that the witch hadn’t yet come out of the house.
“What map?” Aram asked.
Theodore mumbled something under his breath and pulled the blanket over his head.
“The map of the Academy grounds.” Nick sat on Aram’s bed and almost shoved the map into his face. Rubbing his left eye, which stubbornly didn’t want to open yet, Aram took the map and began unfolding it. The map was thick and consisted of many layers bended over each other, but each time Aram managed to unwrap the map’s four folds, the last two would somehow wrap up beneath the remaining layers.
“It doesn’t work that way,” Nick explained. He took the map from Aram and unfolded just one layer, so that the size of the map didn’t exceed a small rectangle. “This is where we are,” he said, pointing at the page. At the very top of it, in beautiful letters, was written:
You Are Here
“The grounds are very big, and if you try to unfold the whole map, we might drown beneath it,” Nick laughed, “that’s why you should open a fold at a time.”
“But that way I won’t know where things are,” Aram protested.
“Yeah, you won’t. That’s why there are direction signs everywhere. This map is showing you just the closest things, but I still thought it might be useful.”
“Where did you get it from?” Theodore asked, peeping his head from under the blanket.
“From a fifth-year elf. He was reading in an arbor near the bakery. We got into a talk, and he offered me one of his three maps. I wanted to buy all three for the three of us, but the greedy magus wanted one Unicorn for each map. I talked him into fifteen Basilisks. Not bad, huh!” Nick waved the map happily in the air.
“Hate to break it to you, but it seems you’ve been conned,” Theodore said, sitting up in his bed. “One Unicorn equals to ten Basilisks, not twenty, as you’ve mistakenly assumed.”
Nick’s jaw hang open.
“So you’ve actually paid more than one Unicorn,” Theodore continued. “Sorry.”
“Damn that greedy elf,” Nick muttered, then said something in Russian under his breath that made Aram chuckle.
“Let’s go find him,” he told Nick, “and get your money back.”
“Huh?” Theodore smirked. “You won’t get anything back from an elf. Never trade with them, they are greedier than dwarves.”
Aram patted Nick on the shoulder. “Was that all you had with you?”
“Not all. But fifteen Basilisks, Chernobog take him!”
Aram smiled again. “Basilisks and Unicorns, what’s that?” he asked. “Is that what the money’s called here?”
“Amonshire uses the old currency,” Theodore said, then stretched his hand to his pants and from its pocket pulled out a few coins. “I don’t have golden Dragons with me, they have the biggest value. Then comes silver Unicorn, then bronze Basilisk.” He showed Aram one silver coin with a rearing unicorn emblazoned in its center, and one bronze coin with a coiling basilisk engraved over its surface.
“In Koldograd we use other currency,” Nick said. “Guess I should be more careful here.”
Aram took the Unicorn from Theodore and looked closely at it, then rubbed the coin with his thumb. “So, one of these silver coins with the unicorn equals to…”
“Ten bronze Basilisks,” Theodore said. “And ten silver Unicorns equal to one golden Dragon. The Dragons are slightly bigger but also much flatter, forged from gold.”
Aram turned the coin over and squinted at the inscription on its back circling around an engraved hourglass:
Pecunia, si uti scis, ancilla est; si nescis, domina.
“Anything else?” he asked, returning the coin to Theodore.
“Copper Pixies. They have the smallest value. Ten Pixies for one Basilisk.” Theodore found a copper coin in his pocket and tossed it at Aram, who caught it midair and deftly turned it over in-between his fingers.
“Adprime in vita esse utile, ut ne quid nimis,” said the inscription around the hourglass. A thin-limbed, pointy-eared creature gleamed on the other side of the coin.
“Is there something like an international bank here, where I could exchange money?” Aram asked, and tossed the copper coin back to Theodore.
“Not sure about a bank, but there should be exchange booths, you can get a few Basilisks and maybe a couple of Unicorns for what you’ve got with you.”
Aram thought of the little money he had in his backpack. He wouldn’t have taken more from Grandpa Kevork, who was hardly making both ends meet. Two to three Basilisks and maybe as many Pixies were probably all he could get. He thought about what Grandpa Kevork was up to now.
“How do I get back home?” Aram asked. “I’m not sure I remember the exact location of the tunnel I crept through.”
Nick grinned. “You can’t go back that same way. Moreover, once you leave, you won’t be coming back to the Academy that same way. It’s a onetime road.”
“And?” Aram stared at Nick, expectant.
“There are other ways to get back home,” Theodore said, glancing at the cuckoo clock. “Time for breakfast is approaching. Afterwards, we’re going to town after stationery and books. You’ll see the transportation means all by yourself,” he said, smiling cunningly. That was the glance people gave you when they were going to show you something extraordinary, Aram thought. After breakfast they crossed the castle grounds and walked to the gates. Nick kept looking into his map, as if trying to justify his pointless (as Theodore called it) purchase, but the direction arrows rising high on the grounds gave them enough information to reach the gates in less than twenty minutes.
“If not for this bushy maze, we could’ve reached the town much earlier,” Theodore said in dismay.
But Aram loved the garden maze, even though it slowed down their pace and hid most of the view. Still, the garden was too beautiful to complain, blooming with big-budded flowers Aram had never seen before, teeming with curved trees with golden-colored fruits hanging down their low branches, and filled with mazing paths that threatened to take them to the other side of the grounds if they misread the direction arrows. They were almost by the big bronze fountain with the spinning witches when Aram saw the gardener who was trimming the flourishing bushes nearby. It was an old woman with gray hair collected into a bun on the top of her head, wearing a checkered skirt and an apron dotted with multiple pockets. The clippers in her hand seemed too big and heavy for a small-framed woman like her, but she used them with much agility, never once stopping to take a breath during the whole time Aram was passing behind her back.
“This way.” Theodore pointed to the right as they came out of the open gates.
Aram looked around. The only thing familiar outside of the castle wall was the narrow path he had taken the other day to reach the gate. But there were other roads too, stretching down across the hill, or moving up into the mountains on the left. There was a forest spreading around the castle, thick and gloomy, overgrown with trees taller and thicker than the castle pillars, but no paved road stretched to the forest and no soul that walked out of the gates neared the old oaks and their tangled branches.
The road that Theodore took stretched down the hill and after a few more steps a colorful town enclosed inside a chain of mountains opened before their eyes.
“Is that…?” Aram asked.
“Amonshire,” Theodore said. “One of the most beautiful magical towns in the world. Follow me.”
He led them to the top of the closest hill, to a small hut painted in light blue and covered with golden thatch, surrounded by a wooden fence. A narrow strip of snow-white smoke was curling out of the hut's long chimney, and judging by the sounds coming out of the hut, there were gears working at full speed. An elderly man with a long white beard wrapped around his neck and a short pointy hat on his round head was standing on the other side of the fence, once in a while glancing at the pocket-watch in his hand. A group of Academy students was crowding the entrance to the hut, and while Theodore was stretching up to see how many people in the line were before them, Aram was staring at the small pieces of clouds soaring above the hill and down to the town. What seemed strange to him was that all the clouds were of the same size and similarly shaped, as if they had been neatly cut out of the largest cloud above their heads that was shielding the sun now.
“Aren’t we supposed to go down the hill?” Aram asked Nick.
“I guess so,” Nick said, stretching up just like Theodore and trying to see why everyone was queuing by the hut.
“We’ll be taking an aerial tramway,” Theodore told them, making Aram and Nick look up into the sky.
“I don’t see any ropeway,” Nick said.
Aram looked around, searching for any kind of towers that might support the tramway cables. He didn’t see any ropes or lines, but fixed his eyes on a girl in the line, with emerald eyes and hair shining like gold. She was surrounded by other girls, as pretty as her, but there was something different about her. It could have been the sound of her laughter, or just the smile in her eyes, or maybe the way the cool breeze played with her hair, but Aram could swear he hadn’t seen anyone more beautiful in all of his thirteen years.
“Is everyone here from the Academy?” he whispered to Theodore.
“Most of them, yes. This tramway’s usually used by the Academy students for reaching the town, but other people can use it too.”
“I still don’t see any ropeway or a cable car,” Nick complained, putting his weight from one foot to the other. “Are you sure we’re at the right place?”
Aram was to ask the same thing when one of the car-sized clouds gently descended on the other side of the fence. The pocket watch in the old man’s hand let out a loud clink and he hurried to the thick white vapor that was now soaring obediently over the ground. The old man, who turned out to be the tramway conductor, reached out to the cloud and, to Aram’s total bewilderment, opened a door. Three people came out of the cloud and walked to the other side of the fence, then came out of an open gate and went down the hill. Aram saw them off with his eyes, turned to look back at the conductor and the car-sized cloud.
"Students?" the conductor asked the blond girl Aram had been watching. She and her girlfriends nodded all at the same time and one after the other slid into the cloud. The conductor shut the door which Aram still could not see but heard it cling, then stepped back and glanced at his pocket watch. The cloud gently soared into the air and began descending over the hills toward the town as if supported by an invisible cable.
“We are going to ride on a cloud?” Aram asked, gawking at the cloud that was now far over the mountains. He felt weak in the knees but said nothing about that.
“It’s not a cloud, but a cabin inside white vapor. If someone outside Amonshire sees it, he’ll take it for a cloud. An aerial tramway without cables would rise a lot of unnecessary questions, don’t you think so?” Theodore said.
It would, Aram had to agree. They were the last in the line, and when the conductor opened the gate for them, Aram once again felt weak in the knees. He braced himself up and tried to look as calm as possible, so that Nick and Theodore would not see his shaking palms.
The conductor’s clock clank, he opened the cabin door, a few people came out, and then Theodore bent down and calmly stepped right into the thick cloud. Nick followed him, though not as confidently. It was his first time too.
“We have something else in Koldograd for short distance travels,” he said, getting in, “and I like it more.”
Aram clenched his shaking palms and got inside the cloud. As Theodore had told, it wasn’t actually a cloud, but a glass cabin sporting comfortable seats with seatbelts. The cloud was thick around the walls and above the roof, but was thinner beneath the cabin floor, offering a full sight of the view below.
“The Woodland looks even creepier from this height, and does it even have an end?” Theodore was musing out loud, while neither Aram nor Nick dared look down. “Look at the sea, it’s calm today.”
Aram forced himself to look down at the sea. His breath clogged in his throat. It was beautiful, but also vast, an endless layer of blue stretching into the horizon. The mere idea of falling into those waves was terrifying.
Unlike Aram, Nick was still not daring to look down. Moreover, he was sitting with his eyes closed and taking slow breaths.
“Nick, you alright?” Aram asked him.
“Yeah, sure. It’s just taking longer than I thought.”
“We’re almost there,” Theodore assured him. “Two minutes the most.”
Now Aram could see Amonshire, its old-styled thoroughfares and narrow roads, the tall buildings with pillars at their fronts and the smaller ones with conical roofs; the long river snaking through the town and the bridges hanging over its blue waters, the sea port with wooden ships and white sails, and the big stadium covered with green grass; a colored tent that could be a circus and an airport for dirigible balloons, one of which was rising into the sky.
“Unbelievable,” Aram whispered, watching the ship-sized dirigible float into the air and take a course to the west.
“I told you there are other means of transportation,” Theodore said.
Nick still didn’t open his eyes.
The cabin came to a halt and the conductor opened the door. This one was younger, with a long brown beard coiling around his neck. The moment they stepped on the ground, Nick and Aram let out a heavy sigh of relief. Theodore grinned.
“You’ll get used to it.”
“Let’s hope he’s right,” Nick whispered to Aram as they walked to the open gate, where a pillar with direction arrows rose on the ground.
“Town Council, Museum of Magic, Public Library, Prefecture, Square, Stadium, which way are we supposed to go?” Aram asked.
“The shops we need are around the Square,” Theodore said. “I’ve been only once to Amonshire, so if we have time, we can have a bit of sightseeing. When the classes begin, I don’t think any of us will be thinking about visiting the town after some fun.”
Aram and Nick exchanged curious glances. Surely, the classes couldn’t be as hard as Theodore kept telling them. Aram thought of the three coupons in his backpack. The first was to be used for the textbooks they had to get from a bookstore called Witches Read. The other two were for Mr. Filliby’s Stationery and Bathsheba’s Atelier. If he needed anything else, Aram had to buy it on his own.
“So where’s the exchange booth?” he asked.
Theodore looked around. “I'm almost positive there’ll be one by the square.”
Following direction arrows they soon stepped on the cobbled alley leading to the town square. It was mostly Theodore who was looking at the arrows and searching for the way. Aram and Nick were constantly distracted by the unknown town's thoroughfares, the fountains that were even more wondrous than the big one on the Academy grounds, the colorful buildings with sculpted facades, the stone bridges hanging over the river that babbled through the whole town. It seemed at first that the old-fashioned carriages passing across the cobbled streets were the only means of transportation, until Aram didn’t jump up from a sudden whoosh whistling above his head. It wasn’t a bird, nor a broom with a witch, but a flying carpet, rectangular in its form, woven from colorful threads and carrying two passengers. Next second the long-awaited brooms came into view. From a closer sight it turned out they had saddles (sometimes even two) and some of them even had commodities like a steering wheel shaped in a form of a slingshot. The whooshing stopped the moment they stepped on a mosaic pavement, where there stood a round sign with a pair of wings that was crossed with red. It wasn’t hard to guess that the street wasn’t intended for flying. The buildings flanking the street were connected to each other with arched bridges, and flying through them could be dangerous for both the fliers and the people crossing those bridges.
“Did you see those witches on green brooms?” Theodore asked Aram and Nick. “Those were the postwitches. They carry letters everywhere.”
Aram glanced back at the street where flying wasn’t prohibited, hoping to catch a glimpse of a postwitch. “Will they take a letter to my Grandpa?” he asked.
“To anyone whose address is correctly spelled on the envelope,” Theodore said. “But if you’re not ready to write a letter now, you can do that at the Academy. Will says there’s a post box by the gates and a postwitch collects the letters every day.”
The mosaic street led them to an arched passage with curvy letters engraved over its entrance:
The Square of Feamir the Wise
A narrow booth stood nearby, with a strangely shaped roof that resembled a sack of coins. A small man in a greenish hat was sitting behind the window, looking like a mix of a dwarf and a garden gnome.
“A leprechaun,” Nick said, as they went closer to the booth. “The greediest of all.”
Aram took all the money he had from his back pocket, counted them and placed them on the stand in front of the leprechaun. The leprechaun had such a disgruntled look Aram expected him to push the money away and shut the window, but he rubbed the coins between his fingers, held the few banknotes against the light, grunted and hid away Aram’s money, then placed coins on the stand.
“Six Basilisks and nine Pixies,” he said.