"Good evening," he says. "May I have your attention for just a few minutes?" The guests fall quiet as they turn toward him. Ever comfortable speaking to a room full of people, he smiles broadly and continues. "Friends and colleagues, citizens and patriots, I thank you most graciously for being here this evening. It's not every day that we have the opportunity to celebrate a milestone like this one—a sixteenth birthday, a coming of age, a step into life as a true citizen of the Spire." The guests applaud, and my father turns to me. "Vaela, your mother and I could not be more proud of the young woman you have become. I hope these three gifts will demonstrate our admiration, our respect, and most of all, our love."
He extends an arm and I step forward, trembling a bit as I realize that all eyes in the room are now on me. By God, by the Maker, I am incredibly uncomfortable. My father reaches for a tiny rectangular box and places it in my hands. "Go ahead," he says.
I turn the box over and gently tear open the paper, while guests begin calling out guesses as to what might be inside.
"A bicycle!" says Evangeline Day, my closest and dearest friend, and the crowd laughs. Evangeline claps her hands demurely, but I see the giggle in her eyes. She's the picture of societal grace, but I know her, and she is wicked—in all the best ways, of course. She'd kiss a boy before he made any declaration of intention, and she'd tell you all about it. I adore her.
A heavyset woman at the edge of the dance floor—a friend of my mother's, I believe—says, "A great stuffed bear!" The guests titter appreciatively and the woman grins.
I smile and lift the lid from the box. Inside, suspended from a delicate golden chain, is the most spectacular ruby pendant I've ever seen; it's cut like an emerald, but mirrors the color of a deep red rose. The facets catch the light, glittering beneath the warm glow of the chandeliers. I look up at my father. "It's beautiful."
"See what's written on the back," my mother whispers.
I turn the pendant over to find a single word inscribed in tiny print: ansana. It's an old word, from a language now mostly lost to the Spire, but a word still known and with many meanings: family, love, forever. My eyes fill with tears. "Thank you," I say. "Thank you so much, both of you."
My mother takes the pendant and fixes it around my neck, and the guests applaud once again. My father hands me a second box; this one is wide and flat, and quite heavy. I set it on the table and begin to unwrap it. When I see what's inside, I draw in my breath.
It's a map of the Continent, framed in ebony wood, with a crimson mat set inside to bring out the color of the red and black pens with which the map was drawn. But it's not just any map. It's one of mine.
I drew this map over the course of a year during countless visits to the Astor Library, which is easily the greatest source of information about the Continent in the whole of the Spire. I spent hundreds of hours poring over aerial phototypes, studying the existing cartography, and imagining the features of that vast and foreign land. This map earned me an apprenticeship with Otto Sussenfaal himself, the curator of the library and perhaps the most brilliant cartographer our Nation has borne in centuries. This map is the culmination of my study; it is my greatest achievement so far.
And now, here it is, framed like a work of art, beautiful enough to draw hushed whispers from the guests gathered around the stage. I have no words.
"This map," my father says, "was completed by Vaela herself." A surprised murmur rises from the crowd. "Her passion and her talent enabled her to create this stunning—and, I have no doubt, highly accurate—representation of the Continent. It is because of this map, because of the hours of work Vaela put into creating it, that her mother and I were inspired to choose this final gift."
He hands me the last box. It's no more than six inches wide and half an inch thick, and feels as though it contains nothing at all. I remove the paper and lift the lid; inside is a certificate of travel, embossed with the Spire's official seal and marked with my name. I look up at my father, confused.
"Turn it over," he says.
On the other side of the paper, I find the following words printed on the form:
Traveler: Vaela Sun
Depart from: Spire East
Tour: The Continent
My mouth falls open and I look up at him in wonder. "We're going to the Continent?"
The crowd, hearing this, erupts in thunderous applause. My father beams at me as my mother puts an arm around my shoulders. Her excitement is palpable.
"We leave in three days," she says.