Flowerton was known for two things among ordinary people: for its Cathedral of Saint William, with its tall spires and its wide stained glass windows and its legends of love that conquers all against all odds, and for its flower market, with its dizzying mixture of perfumes and bright colors and its cheerful flower girls braiding flower garlands for their customers. To witches and wizards, it was also known for its hidden market, deep below the city, where all sorts of things magical could be found, from stalls overflowing with rare potion ingredients, to peddlers hauling rare books and fresh periodicals with the latest spells and potion recipes invented by witchkind. There were stalls with stacks of wands, sold in bundles by old hags yelling their prices at the passers-by, and there were lines of elegant shops where rare wands, kept in elegantly engraved cases, would be sold for twice their weight in gold. There were tents where fortunetellers would sell the tools of their trade, from tarot cards to crystal balls, to potions meant to heighten a witch's perception of the future. There were old wizards standing at crossroads, surrounded by a small menagerie of strange hatchlings, offering to sell the strangest cross-breed familiars at the lowest prices on the market. And there was one empty space on the side, with no shop windows and no walls, and only a trap door with the shop's name engraved on it: The Arc.
Toadmila had promised herself that she would only look at the dragon eggs they had. Just one quick look, to see what breeds might be available later, much later, when she could afford one. And maybe one quick look at the prices, just to remind herself that she only had ten gold coins, and she was in need of a crystal ball, now that the safety of a prince depended on her. And, of course, she needed books. She'd studied all the books that could interest her in the Academy's library, but she'd been out of the Academy for over half a year, and on her way to The Arc, she'd spotted at least half a dozen books of spells that had been published in that half a year, two books of potions recipes, and one very old-looking tome of dark magic that had probably been considered too dangerous for the Academy library, yet seemed to be harmless enough to be tossed around in the back of the cart of a used-books salesman. No, she could not afford to buy a dragon now. But she could have a look.
The trap door opened to a spiral staircase, so narrow that even Toadmila found it difficult to squeeze through. It went down and round and round, in cold darkness, until Toadmila lost track of how deep it was. Then, at the very bottom of the stairs, there was a wall of solid rock. Toadmila raised her wand and summoned enough light to see which way to go. But there was no way to go, no door, no passageway, only one star-shaped engraving on the wall, and a line of ancient runes glowing faintly in the darkness. This time, she didn't struggle to understand them, but looked for the translation on the walls, and sure enough, there it was, in more languages than she could count, covering the wall with the same simple message: place wand tip here.
Toadmila touched the center of the star with the tip of her wand, and a bright light burst from the wall, engulfing her, blinding her. When the light faded and she could see again, she found that she was someplace else entirely.
Stone pillars supported a tall ceiling that shimmered in waves of light. Between the pillars, tall, wide windows showed glimpses into different worlds. One, to her left, opened onto a peaceful meadow, with brightly colored pixies flying industriously from flower to flower. Further on, another window opened onto an endless sea of golden dunes, where three jinn played a game of cards. And the window to her right showed the depths of an ocean, with colorful schools of fish floating by, chased by a playful mermaid covered in silver scales.
“First time to The Arc?” a voice asked from the other end of the room.
Toadmila looked for the source of the voice and saw a simple desk at the other end of the room, and behind it an old man with a long white beard and bushy white eyebrows that hung low over his gray eyes.
“I just wanted to have a look,” she answered, trying to seem unimpressed.
“And is there any particular type of familiar that you just wanted to have a look at?” the man asked.
“A dragon,” Toadmila answered quickly. She'd held the words inside her for so long that they burst free on their own. “I'd like to have a dragon.”