Aram hurried to collect his money and put them into his pocket. It was less than he had hoped, but still better than nothing. He was about to walk through the arch, when a gate lamp lit up on top of it, then turnpikes on both sides of the arch lowered down, closing the entrance. Aram stood in front of the turnpike, looking curiously into the arch. The walls facing each other were made of bricks, painted in black. He was about to stretch his neck farther and glance into the arched passage, when a train passed before his eyes at a high speed, coming out from one wall and rushing into the other. Aram jumped back, terrified. The train came to a halt, the turnpike rose, the doors opened, and people came out, some with luggage, other looking into newspapers in their hands. The turnpike lowered down again, and the train rushed on.
“The portal train,” Theodore explained, while Aram stared uncomprehendingly from one wall to the other. “One of the ways to get home.”
“It moves through walls?”
Theodore laughed. “Through portals. You can get a train schedule from the stores on the Square and see if it passes through your town. Let’s go in there,” he said, jerking his head toward the Square.
It turned out to be bigger than Aram had expected, and more beautiful than he could imagine. Shops and stores rose around the Square carpeted with emerald grass; iron lamp poles flanked the store entrances and the two-tiered fountains with sparkling water. A bricked belfry was erected between two buildings, tall and narrow, the bell’s enormous waist peeping through the window bars.
“In here hangs the bell which rung out the alarm on the Wicked Day,” said the plaque above the belfry door.
The Square was full of people, but due to its great size it didn't seem crowded at all. Aram loved the attires of the Amonshire dwellers, which differed so much from the jeans and the T-shirt he was wearing. Obviously the town had its own fashion, which was a mix of long-trailed 19th century gowns and formal suits worn by the grow-ups, light silken dresses, pants and jackets preferred by the youth, and had a touch of common magician preferences, like star-dotted mantles and pointy hats worn mostly by the elderly, long robes with silver embroidery that seemed to be the favorite of the elves and dryads, and the richly made clothing of the dwarves, the sleeves and collars of their colorful shirts trimmed with gold, their boots made of finest leather, and their hats adorned with gems.
A marble-carved statue stood on a high pedestal in the center of the Square, of a man whose decency and nobleness were palpable even through the cold stone. There was something written across the pedestal. Aram couldn’t read runes, but he knew one when he saw it. The name of the man carved from stone was written in runes and he turned to Theodore for help.
Theodore and Nick stared up at the tall statue on the pedestal. “Feamir the Wise,” Theodore said, “the founder of Amonshire and its first burgomaster. A most incredible person, a half-breed, born in times when half-breeding was outlawed, unlike today. His mother was a witch, the daughter of a wizard and a sorceress, and his father was the son of an elven woman and a goblin warrior. Amonshire was one of the towns founded for half-breeds, like Bìnàn suǒ in China, or Hollow in Ireland, the so-called crossroad towns. You’ll learn more of him during the History class.” While speaking, Theodore had reached Bathsheba's Atelier, where large pointy hats and mantles embroidered with gleaming half-moons were hung behind the glass window. Theodore pushed the door open and all three entered a bright store crammed with shelves and headless mannequins whose unfinished clothing was held together by needle pins sticking out of their bodies. Another mannequin stood in the center, wearing a long blue mantle, and an old witch was pocking needles into the fabric. Seeing the new customers, she snorted, then mumbled, “Another pack of Academy softies. Come here, let me take your measurements.”
The old witch looked so displeased and angry Aram wished he didn’t have to get a robe from her. Too big and menacing looked the needle pins in her hand. A young girl came into the store through another door, holding packs of fabric in her hands, looked at the three boys, and said with a smile:
“Let me help you, Grandmother. Come here, dearie, stand under the light.”
It was certainly better that a pretty young girl would be taking his measurements instead of a grumpy old witch, Aram thought, walking into the brightest part of the store. The girl took a tape measure out of the pocket of her apron, measured Aram's height, the distance between his shoulders, his waist, chest and hands, while a quill on the desk near the window wrote down all the measurements she dictated on an old yellowed parchment. Finishing, the young seamstress approached the desk and scanned the parchment.
“11th column, 5th row, blue and white,” she said to someone invisible, looking at the wall clustered with tall shelves reaching the ceiling. Immediately, one of the drawers opened and folded clothing sprang right into her hands. Smiling, she handed it to Aram, then performed the same trick for Nick and Theodore.
“Thank you,” they said, all smiles and grins, handing her the coupons. The young witch winked and saw them off.
“I can see the bookstore,” Theodore said once they were outside. “Hurry up.”
Aram took his backpack off his back and began shoving the Academy robes into it, keeping a close watch on Theodore's and Nick's backs. Finishing, he stood up and almost stumbled upon an old woman in front of Bathsheba's Atelier. He could swear she hadn’t been there just a second ago. She was small, almost tiny, but not a dwarf. Her delicate frame was the cause of her old age; it seemed that every lived year had made her shrink a bit, and nearing eighty (or maybe ninety?), she had become almost as small as the green toad in her hands. She wasn’t wearing rags, but her clothing looked as old as her, and her broad pointy hat was dusty and patched up. Pressing her pet closely to her chest she was staring at the brand new forest-green hat behind the shop window. Her wrinkly face was sad, her eyes full of unhappiness. And the toad in her hands looked as unhappy as its mistress.
“Aram!” Nick’s voice boomed in the street. Aram turned around. Nick and Theodore were standing in front of the bookstore, waiting for him. Throwing a final glance at the old woman, Aram ran to his friends.
“Scientia potentia est,” was carved over the heavy wooden door. After the bright square the dimly illuminated bookstore seemed too dull, and all three stumbled first over the threshold, then over the chairs left in the middle. A woman was sitting behind a desk in the corner, with square-shaped spectacles on her nose, which enlarged her eyes so much she resembled an owl in the night. She didn’t pay attention to the boys who were stumbling over the chairs and hitting against the bookcases, but continued to stare at the paperwork on her table and mumble something under her breath. She crossed a line with a big quail in her hand, moved her palm up, and the mountain of books in similarly colored bindings lying on the chair nearby rose into the air and soared to the closest bookcase, squeezing into the last empty spaces on the fourth shelf.
Theodore approached the witch, holding up his book coupon, but before he managed to open his mouth, the woman, without taking her large bespectacled eyes from her paperwork, pointed at the tallest bookcase standing against the opposite wall.
“Academy, 1st Year,” was inscribed on top of the bookcase.
All three waddled clumsily to the bookcase with rows of shelves and the same fourteen books in colorful bindings. Some of the shelves were already empty, with the Academy coupons left in the books’ places.
“These are ours,” Theodore said. He gathered all fourteen books from one of the shelves, then began shoving them into his backpack. He succeeded with just the first six, and had to carry the other eight under his armpits. Aram and Nick gathered their books, and all three left the bookstore, this time trying not to stumble over anything so as not to drop the books they had barely managed to tuck under their armpits.
The last store was Mr. Filliby’s Stationery. A young magician was interning at the store, and trying to impress his elderly employer who was silently watching him from the corner of his eye, the young magician accepted the coupons, then diligently packed quills and dip pens, inkpots, ink bottles, copy-books in beautiful bindings, metallic rulers, a set of pencils, erasers, small scales and vials, and a pack of embroidered tassels into three wooden cases and handed them to Theodore, Nick, and Aram, who managed to somehow squeeze the cases under their armpits with all the books already there.
“You need a bottomless sack,” the young magician suggested, opening the door for them.
“You know, he’s right,” Theodore said, trying hard to hold the books and the stationery case under his armpits. “We need the sack, and as soon as possible.”
“Should’ve thought of that before,” Nick said, struggling with his own books.
“There’s a magical items' store over there,” Theodore said, “let’s go get one.”
Just as they were crossing the street Aram spotted the beautiful girl with golden hair coming out from one of the stores. The store’s front window was brilliant, with beautiful dresses hanging behind the glass, all glitters and rich fabric. Of all the stores around the Square this one had the most beautiful door—silver bars and glowing blue glass, its top bedecked with crystal pendants chiming in the wind.
I R I S
gleamed the owner’s name across the door.
Aram stared at the girl. She had a girlfriend with her, both of them carrying blue paper bags and seeming delighted with their purchases. She was closer now and even more beautiful. So beautiful that Aram’s hands went weak and all the books and the wooden case crashed onto the ground. He hurried to collect them. Nick and Theodore had already entered the store, so he had to manage it all alone. By the time he finished, the beautiful girl and her friend had passed the street and were walking toward the arched passage.
Aram entered Leroy’s Magic Empire. This shop was even darker than the bookstore, illuminated by just a dozen of candles standing so high on the shelves their light didn’t manage to reach the floor. Nick and Theodore were nowhere to be found.
The narrow foyer ended with a steep staircase flanked with wooden gargoyles. Aram walked across the foyer to the staircase, all the while staring at the items for sale. What were those jars with colored liquids, he wondered, and those sealed cans with something small bouncing inside them?
Leroy’s Magic Empire, Aram mouthed. Everything inside the shop had to be magical, and he longed to know the secret of anything sold there: what was inside those japanned boxes, what kind of magical power possessed those thick candles that were sold together with those skull-shaped candlesticks, what happened when you put on those golden-framed goggles, what were those thick books about, and who just whispered his name from that locked chest under the wall?
The hair on his neck bristled. Aram stood still, listened. The chest was silent. Could have been his imagination playing tricks inside that murky shop with dust-covered windows and windowpanes littered with scrolls and parchments.
“Nick?” he called, looking up at the staircase, “Teo?”
No one answered.
Ultimately getting angry with the heavy books under his armpits, Aram placed them on the floor and went up the stairs. The store was apparently big, if he couldn’t spot his friends anywhere, but it was also too dimly illuminated for Aram to be able to learn its exact size. He heard a voice and followed it. It surely didn’t belong to Nick or Theodore, as it was thin and gentle, but at least the voice’s host might help him find his friends. Aram looked around. There were mirrors everywhere, big and small, wide and narrow, round and rectangular, framed with silver or wood or even bones. The last mirror gave him shudders. Who in their right mind decorates a mirror frame with bones? He touched the mirror glass, felt its warmth against his palm, then saw the price tag and pulled his hand back immediately. One thousand and five hundred golden Dragons! If he accidently broke that mirror, even selling his grandfather’s house wouldn’t take them out of dept.
“The wind blows strong,
the night follows noon,
the souls rise up by the light of the moon.”
The gentle croon was coming from the corner, somewhere behind one of the bookcases, but as Aram peeked behind it, the crooning stopped. A crystal ball was twinkling on the table, and mesmerized, Aram bowed down over it. The crystal ball had seemed empty at first, but gradually, distorted colors began shimmering inside it: deep red, then deep blue, then two big gray dots that winked a few times.
Aram jumped back with a gasp.
“Sorry.” A girl in a blue jacket peeked out from behind the crystal ball and rose to her feet. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”
Aram stared at her.
“I was trying to… Never mind.” She laughed, drawing a hand through her auburn hair that barely reached her shoulders, going in all directions but down. “Come on, don’t look at me like that, I really didn’t know I wasn’t alone in here.” She smiled with her gray eyes that in the semidarkness seemed abnormally bright.
“Are you alone in here?” she asked.
“I was looking for my friends,” Aram said.
“Is one of them tall and red-haired like me?”
“And the other a bit shorter and blond?”
Aram nodded again.
“They went to the other side of the shop, let’s go find them.”
Wordlessly, Aram followed her. She seemed to know the shop better than him and after a few turns in-between the bookcases, Aram spotted Theodore and Nick by a dusty window, examining a brown sack.
“Your friends?” the girl asked Aram.
“There you are!” Nick cried upon seeing Aram. “Look, we’ve found a bottomless sack, now we can put all our books inside it.”
“Good to know,” Aram said, then saw two girls next to Nick and Theodore, surveying a similar sack.
“You sure it won’t get ripped apart?” one of the girls asked, “We’ve got fourteen books each.”
“It won’t,” Theodore assured her, then turned to Aram. “This is Karishma,” he said, pointing at the girl with long black hair and narrow glasses. “And this is Meilin. Both first-years."
A short girl with shiny black hair and a face flat and gentle like the full moon, smiled sweetly to Aram.
"Girls, this is Aram, the third part of our company,” Theodore said.
“Hey,” Karishma smiled, “where are you from?”
“Armenia,” Aram said.
“I’m from India,” Karishma said, “Meilin’s from China.”
“From Bìnàn suǒ?” Nick asked knowingly, and Meilin nodded.
“And who’s your friend?” Theodore said jokingly, looking at the redhead standing next to Aram.
“Actually, she’s our friend,” Meilin said.
“Gwenlian,” the red-haired girl answered. “From Ireland.”
Paying for the two bottomless sacks, all six finally came out of the dark shop and for the first minute had to squint and hide their eyes, so piercing seemed the sunlight after darkness. And because the dinner time was approaching, all six decided to leave sightseeing for another day and took the road to the arched passage. They were passing by Bathsheba's Atelier, when Aram saw the old woman with the toad walking away from the shop-window.
“I’ll catch up with you in a moment,” he told Theodore, and ran back to the store.
“Don't go anywhere!” he told the old woman on his way, rushed into the store, paid one Basilisk and seven Pixies for the green hat with a gleaming gemstone, came out and hurried to the old woman, who was staring at him with a mix of confusion and bewilderment on her ancient face.
“There you go,” Aram said, handing her the hat.
Without saying a word, the old woman took the hat from his hands. Her toad croaked loudly.
His company was nearing the arched passage, so Aram hurried away without hearing the old woman’s words of gratitude. The turnpikes were raised, and they hurried to cross the road, then headed up the hill, to take a cable car and get back to the Academy.