A holiday, a gap year really, before throwing one's self into the long years of university study, was such a thing really so much to ask? The desire to travel, to see the sights, smell the scents and taste the flavours of a world so rich and vibrant, was it so selfish?
Nina Sterling, just past eighteen, had finished with her compulsory education, but barely a month out from her school graduation ceremony and her dream already felt out of reach.
No sooner had she returned home from the boarding school she had been attending, than her mother had plied her with a veritable mountain of academic brochures, insisting she make a selection and then return to studying in order to prepare for the required entrance exams.
The late night cramming sessions for her, admittedly quite prestigious, boarding school's stringent graduation tests were still haunting the back of her mind. The exams themselves, the stress, the exhaustion and then final relief at passing, she knew would dog her dreams for months to come. The thought of going straight back to it with it seemed, not a moment's pause, was too much.
"I want to take a gap year," Nina had said to her mother. "I want to see the world and travel a little before deciding on an academy."
Her mother, unfortunately, had not been pleased to hear such a request.
"Don't be ridiculous," the older woman had replied. "What will gallivanting around the continents get you exactly? It won't get you a job that's for sure. You already wasted most of your final year doing cultural studies, of all the useless things."
"It was my passion," Nina protested. "The world, its people…"
"What rot," snapped her mother. "Passion doesn't pay the bills. Do you think your father and I are going to support you for the rest of your life? You think because we've managed to do alright for ourselves, then you can sit on your laurels?"
"I didn't say that!"
"You need to get back on the right track, with proper academic studies. Finance, business! You think your father will have you at his company just because you're his daughter? If you want that apprenticeship you had better show him that you've earned it."
"I do want it," stressed Nina. "I just…"
"You just what?"
"I just don't know if I'm ready yet," said Nina. "It felt so far away when I started high school, and now that it's here, I'm not prepared. More school isn't enough, I want life experience."
"Work is life experience," said her mother. "You won't experience anything worthwhile sunbathing on a beach somewhere."
"I don't want to go for that," said Nina. "Daddy trades with people from all over the world, from different countries and cultures. How can I go out and meet with people, makes deals with them, if I don't understand them? I want to travel to learn, so when I do go to work, I can bring something worthwhile to table."
"And you expect everything to just wait around for you until you get back do you?" asked her mother. "You may be our eldest child but you aren't our only one. Your father is not going to break his company, which he put his blood and sweat into, into pieces just to suit you. It's all or nothing and if your brothers are ready to start working, they will, and you will be the one playing catch up."
"Then that's the risk I have to take," said Nina. "If I'm really an adult now then have to be able to make decisions for myself."
"Fine!" snapped her mother throwing her hands up. "I'm obviously not getting through to you. But if you think we're going to pay for this you are sourly mistaken. You can waste your life on your own money. Feel free to return when you've come to your senses."
Nina sighed as she walked the wide paved streets of her home city of Pheras. What money? She had none of her own, not a single copper crown. Her parents, though they had never hesitated to meet all her needs growing up, had never been the kind to indulge their children with pocket money.
The bank was the obvious first thought. A small personal loan for the initial travel expenses, perhaps she could odd-job her way from there, earning herself enough in each stop on her journey to pay for the next leg. It was certainly possible. But what about the repayments? Interest for personal loans was always high. Did she really want her first steps into adulthood to be paved with debt? And what if she couldn't get approved in the first place? She had no collateral after all, and her travel was hardly going to turn some kind of profit to begin with, it wasn't an entrepreneurial business trip.
As she walked, thinking about her dismal prospects, her feet took her to the place she always seemed to wind up at when feeling down, the Phersian Museum of Natural History.
It had barely changed in the year since her last holiday trip home. The same set of six massive columns holding up the second floor balcony. The same white stone steps leading to the imposing double doors, their similar material carved with the images of fantastical creatures. Pegasus in flight, dragons breathing fire, the great hydra spitting lighting from its mouth.
As a child Nina had stood outside the building staring at those carvings, wondering if perhaps one day, she would get to lay eyes on such breathtaking creatures. The skeletons on display inside just could not capture her imagination in the same way as these images had.
Even now, so many years later, while the specimens inside took much more to her fancy, there was still something about those images of such fearsome, mystical beasts that filled her with awe. Oh how she still wished she could see them in the flesh.
Today though there was a small addition. Just outside the open front doors there was a sandwich board, painted a brilliant purple with shiny gold lettering.
New Addition: The Giantess Butterfly
Nina had never heard of such a thing, was it a newly discovered species or a fossil that had been found? She couldn't wait to find out.
The receptionists greeted her like an old friend, so used to her visits they were by this point. Nina smiled in return and gave them a wave. She swore up and down those two women had always been behind that desk, for as long as she had been visiting. That they had just come with the building whenever it had been built and had, over time, become a part of the furniture.
"Is the Professor in?" she asked as she approached.
"Sir Linesley?" asked one of the ladies. "I would think so. He's probably up in the archives. He had some mail this morning and I haven't seen him leave again."
"Would you like me to send a message up in the tube?" asked the other woman, already moving her hands to her typewriter.
"Oh no, don't trouble yourself," said Nina. "I'll probably have a wander before I go up."
The Museum of Natural History was separated into three wings on the ground floor. The west wing held the history part. Rows of mannequins in preserved clothing dating back hundreds of years, royal coinage throughout the ages, walls of paintings and tapestries, and one of the world's largest collections of historic weapons and armour. 80% of the collection was from the kingdoms of the central continent but even so it was fascinating. From the entrance one could zig-zag their way through the exhibit in chronological order and see the human world grow and change before their eyes.
If one got tired of the history lesson it was only a short walk across the main atrium, under the empty eyes of the towering skeleton of a long extinct predator, and you would enter the east wing and the natural part of the museum.
Nina felt she could while away her entire life in this exhibit. Skeletons and detailed taxidermy of creators, both live and extinct, from all over the world were set up in dioramas that as closely as possible resembled their natural habitat.
Cases of preserved plants, flowers and leaves of all shapes and sizes, dried and mounted for study. A collection of mineral specimens from the mysterious silver dust of the northern waste mountains, to the brilliantly coloured gemstones dredged up from deep within the planets crust.
And there are the back of the east wing was the insect display. Moths, dragonflies and shiny shelled beetles of all kinds were carefully pinned up in cases. In the centre a new case had been added, specifically for the exhibits new addition.
It was the size of a house cat, with sapphire wings patterned with tessellating diamond shapes. Nina had never seen anything like it before in her life. It was breathtaking. What she wouldn't give to have seen it in flight, in its natural habitat.
Nina left the exhibits and headed to the north wing which contained an impressive library. Not in the mood to read she headed to the stairs at the back. Stepping around the barrier rope and ignoring the sign that read 'Staff Only' she went up to the second floor where the museum's offices were located. She walked the halls with purpose and familiarity, passed rows of dark wood doors with shiny brass nameplates until she reached her destination.
Just below a nameplate that read "Professor Linesley: Department of Sociocultural Xenthropology" there was a white buzzer, which she didn't hesitate to press. Only the feel of the vibration under her finger let her know the device was working.
The walls of the old museum building were the sturdy kind, making for quite effective sound proofing if you didn't have your ear pressed right up against a door, so the only warning Nina had before the door flew open, was the muffled clunk of it being unlocked.
The man who answered was somewhat ruffled, his hair greying about his temple and a furrowing in his brow suggesting he wasn't in the mood for disturbances. His expression cleared almost immediately though when he saw who his visitor was.
"Ah," he greeted with a smile, throwing both arms out in welcome. "Lady Nina, always a delight, always."
"Is there any point anymore in reminding you that I am not a Lady?" asked Nina, letting herself be invited inside.
"Your Uncle's a Lord," said the professor, waving away her objection. "And that's good enough for me."
The professor's study was at the same time both unnaturally ordered and a frightful mess. No surface was clear of books or papers, and yet everything had found themselves into neat stacks. The right wall was in its entirety a bookcase, filled to the brim but only partially with books alone. Loose papers, rolled scrolls and maps, folders, and groups of what looked like archaeological artefacts filled the shelves. At a glance it looked a nightmare, but further examination showed, that everything indeed had its place to be, and was in it.
The opposite wall carried an enormous map of the world, each of the six continents outlined in a different colour and a rainbow of pins dotted about, some of them connected with string.
Underneath the map was the professor's desk, a massive carved oak behemoth of an antique. Nina remembered the day he had gotten it. She couldn't have been more than seven or eight and had visited the museum for the first time with her uncle. Lord Sterling had presented the desk to the professor, who had just been made director of the department, a gift for his new office.
Today all the usual books and letters had been pushed to the back of the desk, six manila folders now occupying the emptied space. Nina just barely caught a few names and photographs from the opened one on top, before Professor Linesley brought her attention back to him.
"School's been out almost a moth already," he said, making the way he moved between Nina and the desk to sit against the edge of it look natural. "And this is the first time you've come to visit me? Should I be worried my girl is losing interest in the natural sciences?"
"Oh never," said Nina. "You start off trying to recover from all the exam stress and the next thing you know the weeks are flying by."
"Just the same after we've published a new article," said Linesley. "Everything winds down and you think you've got the rest of time to relax and wait to move on and before you know it people are asking you about the next one before you've even started it." He let out a bark of laughter. "I suppose the next thing on your ticket will be academy applications, am I right?"
Nina sighed and let herself sit down heavily on the couch in the centre of the room.
"That's what mother wants," she said. "She's already come home with brochures and wants me to start studying again, but I don't know if I'm ready. I can see the rest of my life stretched ahead of me as one long line of standardised tests."
"Yes it can feel like that sometimes," said Linesley, moving away from his desk. He went over to a trolley in the corner and poured them both a cup of tea. "You finish your compulsory, you attend an academy, get an intern or apprenticeship which is basically hands-on study, then you finally get your papers, and well what do you know, you have to study more for every paper you work on, it's never ending. But that doesn't mean it's not worthwhile. What subject were you planning on following? Were you still planning on following up with archaeology or did you want to stick with Xenozoology? You seemed to be really enthusiastic about your classes in the other races."
Nina sighed again.
"Mother wants me to study business," she said. "So I can work with father. She thinks cultural academics are soft options."
"Ah she would, wouldn't she," said Linesley solemnly. "Katherine was always quite the industrious woman. I always said she suited your father more than James."
"Uncle and my mother?" asked Nina, eyes wide.
"Only in the early days," said Linesley. "They were at Oaksfield together. But James was a flighty one even back then, and after your grandfather passed away, he inherited the Sterling Lordship. Your father of course had to make his own name, and for his business ventures I don't think he could have done any better than Katherine."
"I remember uncle visiting when I was young," said Nina. "He would bring me here, and to the galleries. He was always buying me books. I haven't seen him since my thirteenth."
"As someone who knew him almost all his life," said Linesley. "I'm surprised he was able to stay in one place for that long. He was a traveller, an explorer, the things he'd bring home from his trips, entire books were written about some of them. I think he saw that kind of wonder at the world in you as well. Maybe he hoped you'd follow in his footsteps."
"Studying for my culture classes never did feel like work," said Nina. "If I could continue with it, I'm sure it would make me happy, but I'd have to give up on father's company."
"Well these aren't decisions I can make for you," said Linesley.
"I know," said Nina. "All I want is more time to think things through. But mother wants me to start now. I asked her about taking a gap year, and she wasn't happy with the idea."
"What did you want to do with a gap year?"
"Travel," said Nina. "Whether or not I end up joining father's company I want to see the world and its people, and if I do join father then knowing more about the world can only help a company that is in the business of trading with that world."
"You've clearly thought about it," said Linesley. "And I see exactly where you're coming from."
"Mother didn't agree," said Nina. "If I want to take it, I'll have to fund it myself."
"Do you have any savings?"
"Not a copper."
The conversation lapsed into silence, broken only by the professor getting up to refill their cups. As he waited for the water to boil his gaze slid sideways to the files on his desk, then to Nina. Something needed to be done regardless, could he really get the girl involved?
"So," he said slowly, as though he was merely trying to start up the conversation again. "How did you last report card work out? I hope the stress ended up being worth it."
"Well, the compulsory maths wasn't the best, it was a pass but, it could have been a lot better. I've never had a head for numbers and the final year's set comprehension book had a story that flowed like molasses, it really did, and I love to read. I was able to put something together for the subject essay, but I still feel like I don't quite get what Miss Barrington was trying to impart onto us."
"What about your cultural studies?" asked Linesley in a casual sort of tone as he returned with the fresh cups.
"Good," said Nina cheerfully. "Great even, much better than I could have dreamed when I first started. I was in the top ten percent for Xenozoology, Xenthropology, and Religious Studies. More than that I somehow scraped my way into the top five percent in World History and World Culture."
"And how did you find the material for history and culture?" asked Linesley. "The textbooks I mean."
"Limited," replied Nina honestly. "We spent an entire year on the human kingdoms. We had an entire section on each of the twelve, their rise, their kings, their treaties, everything. We spent another year on our closest allies, the fae'rn, dwarves and goblins. And then the third year was, everyone else. All the giants, the bestial races, the rest of the elemental races and then maybe a paragraph on the dragon clans. It was so frustrating, I would bombard my teachers after every class and it felt like a dice roll as to whether they'd know anything more than the textbooks."
"That's because the textbooks haven't been updated in decades," said Linesley.
"Why not?" asked Nina. "With modern ships the world is connected better now that it has ever been. We travel, we trade, we immigrate. Certainly now more than ever we should be in the golden age of world cultural study."
"You would think so wouldn't you," said Linesley. "But remember that all our history books are being written by humans for humans. You may have heard the saying that history is written by the winners and it more or less applies here as well.
"The printing press was a human invention that spread like wildfire in the central kingdoms, and while some of the larger foreign cultures have taken it on board, it makes sense they would not only be printing books in their own languages, but would not feel the need to waste resources on human focused explanatory textbooks.
"As far as much of the academic community back home in concerned humans are still the only ones printing real literature. Or more accurately, 'They haven't written a textbook I can read which will answer all my questions yet, so until then I'm not interested. Gods forbid I have to talk to someone.' You know Sam was saying…"
Professor Linesley trailed off and was quiet for some time staring down at the soggy tea leaves at the bottom of his cup.
"What was Doctor Ebon saying?" prompted Nina gently.
The professor got up and went back over to his desk. He sighed, placing his hands flat on the table and looking down at the files he'd been sent. He'd only just sat down to read through the reports when Nina had arrived, but already he knew well what he would discover in them.
"My colleagues and I," he began slowly. "We'd started, perhaps the most ambitious project ever undertaken at the Pheras Museum, or in fact anywhere in the kingdoms. We were going to put together an encyclopaedia, a comprehensive collection, many volumes long, on the history and culture of every race on Alvis. We would publish in the common tongue and make it available in every educational institution who would take it. Then, most importantly, it was to be a constantly evolving process. So as more people around the world read it and contacted us about potential corrections or improvements, we would update and release new volumes."
"It sounds wonderful," said Nina. "Who were you working on it with?"
"Everyone in the department," said Linesley. "Joint effort, everyone sharing the credit."
"I'd love to work on something like that," said Nina. "Traveling the world, writing about what I saw and the people I met."
"Would you be interested in joining the project then?" asked Linesley. "You could start an internship with the department, your travel and necessities would be paid for by our grant budget. A paid working vacation, what do you think? Take your gap year through us?"
"It sounds amazing," said Nina her face lighting up, before falling again. "But surely there are better candidates. Your colleagues are all well-educated already, aren't they already out in the field?"
"Yeah," said Linesley, reaching up to scratch the back of his neck. "We've been working on it for about six months now, though it feels like we've barely scratched the surface of it all. I'm supposed to be coordinating their efforts and cataloguing their reports, but…"
"What's happened?" asked Nina.
The professor looked between her and the documents on his desk before shaking his head and smiling.
"Turns out a project of this magnitude takes a lot of work," said Linesley. "Quite a bit more than our small department could handle. We've been collaborating with some other academic institutions but it all comes down to getting bodies in the field. People who really care about the project and what it could mean to the future of cultural study."
"You're having trouble getting more field researchers?" asked Nina.
"There have been some incidents," said Linesley vaguely. "I mean well, the world is a dangerous place in general and most of the people in our kinds of fields seem to prefer to work behind desks than exploring uncharted regions of the continents."
"Not me," said Nina. "That's the kind of adventure I've been dreaming of."
"Well you certainly have the grades for the internship," said Linesley. "I'll still have to process the request of course, but with my recommendation I don't see why they would reject your application."
"I can write one right now if you've got some paper," said Nina.
"Ah, sure," said Linesley looking lost for a moment in his own office as he tried to find where his typewriter had gone amongst his paper piles. "There's no advertised position right now but I can tell you what they're looking for."
So Nina spent the next hour at the museum with the professor carefully crafting an internship request, talking up her academic achievements and even subtly mentioning the fact she was a physically fit young woman.
"Remember its field work," the professor had said. "They're going to want to know you can handle it."
"I'm not going to lie to them though," said Nina. "I'm not going to pretend I'm some—"
"No, no," assured Linesley. "Honesty is best. They'll be focusing on your test scores, the fitness is just a bonus."
When they were done and satisfied with the result, the professor quickly typed a recommendation letter to go with Nina's application.
"That should be everything," said the professor.
"Very well," said Nina. "Should I come back tomorrow?"
"No, not tomorrow," said Linesley. "I'll submit it straight away of course, but it's good to give them a couple of days."
"I'll see you at weeksend then," said Nina standing and making herself ready to go.
"That should be fine," said Linesley. "I'll send you a telegram if something goes wrong, or they want to speak with you. Otherwise assume it all went well."
"Like I said," said Nina with a smile. "I'll see you at weeksend."