Double checking the gilt card listing the tower, floor and room number of her accommodation, Idira turned the key in the lock of the blue door and walked into her dormitory room. Apart from two narrow beds with bare mattresses on plain wooden frames, a pair of bedside cabinets and two slim wardrobes standing just inside the entrance, the room was completely empty; no rugs, no curtains, no paintings on the wall. Above the bedside cabinets, a high, thin window stretched up to the cornice, tapering to a point. Idira wrinkled her nose, the walls must have recently been painted; the acrid tang of resin still lingered, faint, in the air.
The furnishings had been laid out in the small rectangular room in perfect symmetry, one side the mirror image of the other. Setting aside the box containing her new dress, a fine linen the same colour as her eyes, she sank on one of the beds' mattresses and looked around, shivering a little in the room's oppressive austerity. After the endless opulence she had observed as she followed the guard through the Academy's campus to the dormitories, she rather thought her living circumstances would be a little more luxurious and colourful. But no, it seemed for the apprentices at least, no such comforts would be provided. She leaned over the bedside cabinet, set under the ledge of the window, to find herself looking down a sheer drop from an incomprehensible height. She pulled back, trembling with vertigo. A soft laugh came from the open doorway.
‘It takes ages to get used to that,’ a young woman—a little plump and quite a bit shorter than Idira—said. From her pretty, dark eyes, she regarded Idira, her expression open and frank, her face framed by thick, dark hair, falling in loose waves around her face and down her back. She moved into the room, holding out her hand in greeting. Idira took it, and let the other woman pump her hand up and down.
‘First time I saw that, I puked,’ she said, laughing, her cheeks dimpling, the warm, infectious sound of her laughter filling the sterile room; her smile so warm and engaging, Idira couldn't help but smile back.
‘I'm Wynn, and you are?’ she asked, letting Idira's hand go and looking Idira over, curious and not the least bit shy.
‘Idira Northshire, from Westfall,’ Idira answered.
‘Westfall?’ Wynn replied, pursing her lips and screwing one eye tight as she looked up at the ceiling, far above. ‘Isn't that the notorious place of villains and gangsters?’
Idira blushed. ‘You could say that.’
‘Oh, how exciting!’ Wynn plopped herself down beside Idira. ‘I would love to meet a villain or a gangster, so romantic! You must tell me all about them, are they all handsome and roguish, with battle scars and big, hard muscles everywhere inside their leather jerkins and breeches?’
Idira was so taken aback by Wynn's enthusiastic description she burst out laughing. Wynn raised her eyebrows, waiting, expectant.
‘Some of them are, I suppose,’ she said, thinking of Kip, and even grudgingly of VanCleef.
Wynn screeched, throwing her head back and clasping her hands against her chest. ‘I knew it!’ she exulted, gleeful, kicking her satin-slippered feet. ‘Father always said it was nonsense, just stories, but I always had a feeling that all the really interesting men ended up in Westfall.’
‘Oh, they were interesting all right,’ Idira admitted, shaking her head, incredulous anyone could find criminals, mercenaries, or thugs appealing. Seeing the naïve look of pleasure on Wynn's face, she decided not to tell her how bad they smelled most of the time. It seemed wrong to ruin her fantasy, and anyway, VanCleef hadn't smelled bad, or at least up until Myra died, he hadn't. Afterwards he only smelled of cheap rum.
She glanced at Wynn's dark green dress, the hem, cuffs and neckline had been embroidered with pretty golden flowers. Despite the neck being a little low and the bodice cut a little tight, it worked without looking indecent, accentuating her full figure to a very pleasing effect. Unlike all the other apprentices Idira had passed as she trailed after the guard to the dorm, Wynn's dress didn't look expensive, at least no more expensive than the dresses Idira had seen the women wearing in Stormwind. A tendril of hope ignited in her as she sensed in Wynn a kindred spirit, offering the tantalising possibility that perhaps not everyone in this intimidating, hierarchical place was, as Vanessa so scathingly called them, 'a societal inbred'.
‘So did you ever get busy with any of them?’ Wynn blurted, her eyes dancing with mischief. ‘Don't worry you can tell me, I won't ever tell anyone, cross my heart.’ And she did, so solemnly that Idira burst out laughing.
‘Oh please, tell me something. Anything!’ Wynn begged, taking hold of Idira's hands and continuing in a mournful voice. ‘Nothing interesting has ever happened to me, my father kept me at home my whole life, tucked away at the back of the manor where no one but the servants, my mother, and boring sisters were, and they only wanted to spend all their time in contemplation and praying to the Light.’ She rolled her eyes.
‘I think I can see why he did,’ Idira said, wry, still smiling, imagining someone like Wynn around VanCleef's men. It certainly would have been a lot more lively around the house. ‘Well,’ Idira said, when Wynn jiggled her hands, urging her to continue, ‘I suppose some of the men could be considered handsome, in a rough and rugged way, and they were real fighters, even if they were drunk, they could sober up in an instant and fight like seasoned warriors.’
At this, Wynn let out a ecstatic sigh, her shoulders scrunching up high around her neck in delight.
‘I have never 'gotten busy' with any of them,’ Idira continued, warming to Wynn's rapt attention, ‘but I did see a few things, from time to time.’ Wynn leaned closer, her eyes widening, hungry to hear. Idira glanced out the open door and lowered her voice, recounting the time Myra had destroyed her room and VanCleef had barged through the broken door and tossed Myra on the bed, detailing how Myra had at first resisted but not for very long once he started kissing her, his eyes so hot, they looked like they were on fire.
Wynn shivered, a beatific smile spreading on her face, her hands holding Idira's so tight, it was starting to hurt.
‘I want that,’ she exhaled. ‘So much.’ After a beat, she let go of Idira's hands and jumped up, agitated. ‘I mean I know you have only just arrived,’ she said as she paced back and forth in front of Idira, ‘but just wait until you see what the talent is like here.’ She made a face, gagging. ‘They are all Mama's boys, all pampered and soft, with their chubby, well-fed cheeks and not a muscle to be seen anywhere. And their hands! Ugh!’ She shuddered. ‘Girl hands. Bleuch! There is literally nothing worse, especially when their fingernails are longer than mine! Disgusting!’
Idira lifted her eyebrows, disturbed by the thought of men with long, taloned fingernails, when she realised Wynn's were cut almost to the quick.
‘Well, I guess being a mage doesn't really require much in the way of physical prowess or strong hands,’ Idira answered, suppressing a smile, though her thoughts strayed, rebellious, to Khadgar, and how solid he had felt when she'd stumbled into him at the flower seller's cart.
‘Huh!’ Wynn scoffed. ‘You wait and see, it's depressing. I have literally left one wasteland of men and landed in another. My father sure did know what he was doing sending me here from boring old Redridge, where nothing ever happens, literally. We have rabbits and boars, and that's it.’ She plunked back down beside Idira and put her head on Idira's shoulder. ‘I'm never going to meet a real man. Ever. I'm going to die a virgin, I just know it. It's all so unfair!’
Idira had no idea what to say to such a confession so she just sat still, trying not to laugh, waiting to see what would happen next. As she expected, she didn't have to wait long. Wynn roused herself from her thoughts and looked up at Idira.
‘You must think I'm a crazy person,’ she said, moving back into her own space and looking a little shame-faced, ‘the way I just barged in here like that, asking you all sorts of personal questions.’ She sighed and stood up, smoothing down the folds of her dress. ‘My father always told me I talked too much, that I have boundary issues.’
‘Maybe a little,’ Idira admitted, smiling, ‘but I honestly didn't mind. I find you a refreshing change to the kind of people I have met here so far.’
‘Oh that!’ Wynn groaned, rolling her eyes as she turned and sat down on the bed opposite Idira. ‘Bunch of peacocks, full of themselves, rich kids, and I mean really rich kids, they can spend more gold in one day than my father earns on his manor in a whole year. They don't care one bit about us 'low-lives' as they like to call us, both to our faces and behind our backs. You'll get used to it.’
‘How long have you been here?’ Idira asked, her curiosity getting the better of her.
‘Just over a week,’ Wynn nodded at the door across the hall, standing slightly ajar. ‘That's my room, I have it all to myself. There's loads of empty rooms up here because this is the—’ she made quotation marks in the air ‘—'low-life floor'. Even though I met lots of other people on the gryphon landing who intended to join the Kirin Tor, it seems not so many of them have found the place to apply considering how empty our floor is. I got lucky, though, some woman in black found me outside the Pet Menagerie and led me right to the spot. For a hefty price, mind.’ She leaned back onto her elbow and crossed her leg over her knee, kicking her foot in the air. ‘Guess that's how you got in too, huh?’
‘Um, yeah, a woman in black,’ Idira answered, vague. ‘So how many of us are there up here?’ she asked, changing the subject.
Wynn smiled, her eyes lighting up. ‘Twelve now altogether, you, me, and ten others, four girls and six guys stuck right up here at the top of the dormitory tower, out of sight and out of mind, as my mother would say. Good thing for portals, would be a long climb otherwise.’ She waggled her foot for awhile, subsiding into her thoughts, then looked up, abrupt. ‘What did you think of Margot?’
‘Margot?’ Idira asked, perplexed.
‘Yeah, the one who is taking the applications, all la-di-dah and condescension,’ Wynn scoffed, waving her hand in the air, pretending to be high and mighty. ‘Dark hair,’ Wynn continued as she lay on her side, her head propped against her hand, ‘smells like jasmine, angular face, arrogant, dripping with money?’
‘Oh her,’ Idira muttered. ‘I hope I never have to see her again.’
‘Ha! Chance would be a fine thing!’ Wynn said, scornful. ‘I heard from one of the rich kids once Dalaran moves to the Broken Isles, she's going to be our tutor, assigned by the Archmage Modera herself with instructions to weed us out by making things so difficult for us we can't fulfil our obligations. And you know what that means? Expulsion.’
‘She can't do that, can she?’ Idira asked, astonished. ‘Not after we have paid our fee and earned the right to learn alongside the others?’
‘We'll see,’ Wynn said, dark, lifting her eyes to the window to watch the clouds drifting past, wispy and ephemeral, ‘we'll see.’