Every eye in the dining hall is on me. I lift my tray of food a little higher and meet each gaze in turn, daring my watchers to keep staring. Most don't. I memorize each of their faces anyway, just in case they decide to cause trouble later, as I'm sure they will.
I was told to expect this. Iâ€™m new here. I've yet to earn their respect. Worse, I'm old. Fourteen and just arriving at the University. It's unheard of. Everyone else has been here since they were eight. Some came even younger. Barely out of the womb and thrown to the pack of wolves known as wizards.
|The Witch and the University (The Box book 4) By Christina G. Gaudet|
Looking around, I can't believe anyone could have survived here for so long. The place is clean enough. Not sure what poor soul they have enslaved to keep it so spotless, but they've done a good job. The black marble floors shine, reflecting the light of the magical lamps hovering above.
Two long wooden tables take up the majority of this room, but in every other room I've seen so far, the space has always been mostly empty. Maybe a few dark stained desks and simple wooden chairs set up in a corner, but nothing more. No decorations. No sign people actually live here.
I suppose that's what bothers me so much. It's too clean to be a home for boys. It feels fake.
Of course it does. This is a wizardâ€™s base after all.
And now I'm trapped here as though I'm one of them. The boys staring at me have no idea where Iâ€™ve come from. Though I've overheard a few of their theories already.
Raised by chimeras in the woods is my favourite. I think I'll encourage that one while I'm here. Might make a few of them think twice before trying to pick a fight with me.
If any of them knew the truth, well, I wouldn't be walking across this room right now.
Females cannot be students at the University.
Oh good. A spot. And the boy sitting next to it isn't staring at me with as much confusion, disgust or outright hatred as the others. He glances at me once out of curiosity and then returns to his meal.
I place my tray on the table next to him and sit down.
â€œSpotâ€™s taken,â€ he says once Iâ€™ve settled.
I freeze, my hand hovering over my spoon. He had to wait until I sat. Couldn't have said anything when I put my tray down.
Well, too bad. I'm not moving.
â€œI donâ€™t see anyone.â€ I make my voice as deep as I can manage. I want to come off as strong as possible. Not some squeaky, startled child.
â€œStill getting his food.â€ He munches on a piece of bread thoughtfully. â€œProbably won't be too happy about some new kid stealing his seat.â€
I stare at the boy to figure out if this is test. Is there really someone else? How would a proper wizard act in this situation?
He gives no hints. His expression is neutral and his bright green eyes tell me nothing more than heâ€™s concentrating very hard on his bowl. Strange. Usually I can read people better than this.
Itâ€™s easy to understand what people are thinking if you know what to watch for. Every muscle twitch, every blink, every shift in their expression is like a word on a page to me. Itâ€™s not mind reading, just being observant. However, the trick is to have something to observe. This boy is giving me nothing.
â€œWhere should I sit, then?â€ I ask. â€œMaybe I should push one of the smaller kids out of their seat? Is that how things work around here?â€
He looks me directly in the eye before giving me a once over. I canâ€™t even tell what he thinks of me. Apparently Iâ€™m not as good at understanding people as I thought. A slight shrug and then he's back to slowly chewing as though he's mulling over every squeeze of his jaw.
â€œCould do,â€ he says when he finally swallows. â€œThough, from the look of you, a toddler would probably win in a fight. Or you could always move over there.â€
He nods to an open seat directly across from him at the table. Admittedly, I hadn't noticed it before. Even if I had, it would be a pain to walk all the way around to reach the other side.
â€œAnd what if I donâ€™t move?â€ I try to make myself look as tough as possible. Not exactly easy since Iâ€™m thin, lanky and have no visible muscles to speak of. But Iâ€™m told I can do a decent intimidating glare. â€œWhat will you do then?â€
â€œMe?â€ His eyebrows rise as he looks at me. â€œNothing. Him on the other hand...â€
I follow his gaze to the biggest boy Iâ€™ve ever seen. The width of one of his arms is roughly the size of my waist. His paws, er, hands, are the perfect size for crushing my skull. No youth should be capable of growing as much hair as he has both on his head and face. He looks more like a bear than a boy.
I shove my tray directly across to the opposite seat and slip straight down under the table and back up on the other side. I do my best to look as unshaken as possible as I straighten into my new place.
â€œBetter?â€ I ask.
The normal-sized boyâ€™s blank expression slips for a moment, causing his eyes to brighten and come alive.
â€œMuch,â€ he says.
As the bear drops into my old seat with a thud loud enough to echo throughout the entire room, I put my hand out as an offering. Neither shakes it.
â€œIâ€™m Tristan,â€ I say anyway. â€œNice to meet you.â€
The bear gives his friend an amused look to which he gets no response. A shift of his shoulders tells me heâ€™s not bothered by the smaller boyâ€™s lack of greeting. The speed he shoves his spoon into his mouth is a sign heâ€™s too hungry to waste time speaking to me.
Itâ€™s so simple to read him, so why canâ€™t I understand the green eyed one?
â€œCole.â€ Still no expression, but at least now I know his name. â€œAnd this is Dean.â€
â€œNew kid, huh,â€ Dean says. â€œWhat do you think of the University so far?â€
I hesitate for a moment. I think many things. Most I have no plans of sharing with these people any time soon. â€œItâ€™s big.â€
Dean laughs and slaps the table with his hand. For a minute I wonder if the table will crack from the pressure, but I guess theyâ€™re made pretty sturdy. Possibly the wizards used some magic to protect them from this kind of abuse.
â€œDonâ€™t worry,â€ he says. â€œYouâ€™ll get used to it. Me? I find it cramped here.â€ He leans in as though telling me a secret so I cautiously lean forward as well. â€œFind every chance we can to get out of here, donâ€™t we, Cole?â€
â€œYes.â€ Cole sets his spoon down and leans back. â€œI'm definitely done with this conversation.â€
He stands up, grabs his tray and walks to the back of the room. I notice a number of the boys nod to him as he passes, though he doesnâ€™t speak to any of them.
â€œDon't worry about him.â€ It's only after he speaks I realize while I've been watching Cole, Dean's been watching me. â€œHe's like that with everyone.â€
Observe. Do not engage any more than necessary.
But damn it, I'm curious.
â€œYou two are friends?â€
Physically they seem like complete opposites. Cole is all limbs while Dean is pure muscle. Also, the expressions. I can read everything this boy's thinking. He's trying to get a feel for me. He'll probably say something insulting to force a reaction from me. When I don't give one, he'll leave it for now. He's too hungry to focus too much attention on me. The fresh stain on his tunic tells me it's only because this is his second supper he's willing to spend any time on me at all.
And yet I got nothing from Cole.
â€œCourse we are,â€ he says. â€œGuess you really are as stupid as you look.â€
Sad. I was hoping for something a little more original.
He stares me down as I avoid eye contact and take a long sip of my stew. Not bad. They weren't lying when they told me even the students eat well. Lots of meat and vegetables in this. I haven't had much more than broth and overly hard bread for days now.
Finally he gives up and takes his own sip. It's all it takes. With his attention on his food, I'm free to let my focus drift back to the door Cole walked out of.
Observe. Do not engage.
Curiosity over an individual is pointless. There's no pressing need to know anything more about him, at least not for now. He was obviously fooled by my disguise, as everyone else has been. The rest, not being able to read him to a minute level as I can the others is just my ego being bruised.
But just to be safe, I should keep as far from him as possible from now on. Not knowing what he's thinking makes dealing with him dangerous and I need to be careful.
My life is on the line.
The others funnel out of the dining hall in pairs or small clusters. I make sure to remember as many of the groupings as I can. If I'm going to survive here, I'll need to know who's connect to whom. Tomorrow I'll be starting classes with some of these people. Knowing who to fight and who to avoid will be critical.
I already made a big mistake sitting where I did. If Cole decided not to warn me...
I would have figured something out. No need to feel like I owe him.
I'd love to wait until the room is completely empty, just so I can see every alliance, but someone will notice. I play it safe and leave shortly after Dean and a few others who are almost as big walk away. The area's almost half full still. I feel a bit better when I notice most of those left are the younger ones. I should be able to avoid them, at least for the next day or two until I can figure them out as well.
After tossing my bowl and tray onto two separate stacks as I'd seen everyone else do, I make my way out into the winding corridor. I know how big the castle is from what I'd been shown earlier. The structure had been built in many sections over generations. If planned out properly from the start, things would be a lot less confusing. I already experienced two occasions where I had to first travel downstairs in order to go up.
Annoying, but manageable.
As similar as each corridor and stairway appears at first glance with the lack of statues or paintings, there are still slight differences I can use as guides. Such as a deep scratch in one of the stones someone tried to buff away, and a slight discolouration on the floor which looks suspiciously like it might be old blood. At one turn thereâ€™s a section of wall entirely a different color and cut of stone. Probably placed there to either fill in an old door, window, or possibly a hole caused in battle.
As quiet as things appear now with only a few boys wandering around, I know the history of this building. Itâ€™s been the center of three major battles, the last ending when the sorcerers who held the castle for ten generations were betrayed and slaughtered by the wizards who live here now.
The Sword. The name they took for themselves feels appropriate in here. Once a small coven of male witches, they grew to be the most power hungry, blood soaked beings in the world. They control everyone by force and fear and have since they killed their way to the top over a hundred years ago.
I doubt any of them takes a second look at the damage their people caused. Blood stains mean nothing to them.
An exposed wooden beam high above me, blackened from a fire sometime in the past, is my indicator I've found the right door. My room. I'd been shown it earlier when I dropped off my few belongings. It was about as stark as every other room I'd seen. Two double beds meant to room four boys and a single desk set against a slim window which once served as an arrow slot are the only features of the room. At least there's glass over it now to keep the worst of the cold out. Our clothes, and anything else we might own, are to be kept in boxes beneath the beds. From the items I managed to get a look at in the five minutes I'd been allowed to drop off my stuff, there are two other boys already living here.
I suppose I should be grateful it's not a full room. Though any number of roommates will make things difficult.
Might as well see what I'm up against. I can only hope if they aren't complete idiots they're at least unobservant.
Clear green eyes. They're the first thing I notice when I step into the room, and they cause me to freeze.
I stare at Cole for longer than I should in some vain hope I'm imagining him.
â€œIf it isn't Tristan the idiot.â€ Of course. Who else would be Cole's roommate but the bear, Dean? No wonder they're friends when they seem so different. â€œCan't even find your way to your own room? Maybe next time you should paint some arrows on the walls.â€
Both boys lie back on either bed with a book in their hands. Dean is doing a better job of taking over the entire mattress than Cole, though not by much. Neither looks like they're ready to move an inch to let a new roommate have his space.
Cole lowers his book and groans. â€œYou've got to be kidding.â€
I wish he hadn't caught on so quickly. Dealing with someone who's both unreadable and clever is going to be next to impossible. Maybe I should leave now. Give up.
But we might never get a chance like this again. Everyone is counting on me.
â€œWhat?â€ Dean says while looking back and forth between Cole and myself. More angrily he repeats â€œWhat?â€ when neither of us says anything.
If I'm going to stay, then I'm going to have to make my move quickly. Establish that I'm not some kid they can push around to their own amusement. I'm not going to spend the next however long sleeping on the floor because I let a couple of wizards force me down. Not this time.
I walk over to the far side of the bed Cole lies on with as much confidence as I can muster and then stare down at him.
â€œShove over.â€ I don't sound nearly as tough as Iâ€™d hoped.
He's not as impossible to read now as he was in the dining hall. It's clear he's not happy about this and he's going to resist as much as he can.
â€œCan you not ruin my life entirely?â€ He nods over to Dean's bed. â€œThere's a perfectly good space over there as well.â€
â€œNope,â€ Dean says.
I guess heâ€™s figured out whatâ€™s going on.
Both Cole and I turn to look at him. He's twisting the book in his hands as though trying to study it from a different angle. There must be some sort of illustration he's looking at.
He peels his eyes from the page when we continue to stare.
â€œNot a chance,â€ he says. â€œI'm not sharing my space. The kid's all yours.â€
I wait. All I can see on Cole is anger. I don't have a clue what I can say in order to smooth things over, so I say nothing. Safer that way.
Cole slaps his book closed and stands up.
â€œI'm going to the library,â€ he says in the same dismissive tone he used when making his exit from the dining hall.
Nothing else. No 'do what you like,' or 'touch my bed and I'll kill you.' Nothing. I have to decide what to do next with no idea how he'll handle it.
After the door closes behind him, I sit on the edge of the bed.
Too timid. I can feel Dean watching me, and I really don't want him to think I'm afraid.
I claim one of the pillows at random, and drop back on top of it, stretching to take over a good portion of the bed.
â€œI think he likes you,â€ Dean says.
My stare back at him is one of disbelief. He only smiles and flips the page. Color catches my eye from the book, surprising me a little. Illustrated books are expensive. I've only seen a couple in my life.
â€œI'm serious,â€ Dean says. â€œHe's spoken more to you than he has to me in weeks. This could actually be good for him.â€
He flips the page again, this time making a satisfied grunting sound.
â€œAre you looking at drawings of naked women?â€ The words spill out of my mouth a second after I realize what he's doing, which also happens to be a second before I realize how insulted I sound. I snap my mouth shut as he wiggles his eyebrows at me.
â€œOh yeah.â€ His smile fades into a scowl as he looks at me. â€œHands off my books,â€ he says. â€œIn fact, no touching any of my stuff. You paw at my things, I'll break your arms. We clear?â€
â€œPerfectly.â€ He's still glaring at me as though my answer isnâ€™t good enough. I give him my most sincere look and say, â€œTrust me, I prefer not having all my bones snapped. I won't touch your stuff.â€
He seems satisfied enough as he turns back to his pictures, so I roll onto my side with my back to him and close my eyes. It's been a long day and tomorrow's going to be even longer. Might as well try and get some sleep.
I can only hope Iâ€™m a bit luckier in the morning.
I've always been an early riser, but never this early. The sun is nowhere in sight and the boys are still snoring peacefully. Hopefully they will stay that way until I finish what I need to do.
As quietly as possible, I pull out the box holding everything I brought with me. I don't have much. My classroom uniform and workout clothing which were tossed at me when I arrived. Apparently, they've got a bit of magic on them to make them fit. Either that or the wizard who gave them to me has an incredible eye for sizes.
I have some paper, ink, a feather pen thatâ€™s lost most of its feather qualities, a couple of extra-long bandage wraps, and two large flasks containing a potion I need to drink every morning. The flasks will last a few months, but then Iâ€™ll have to figure out a way to get the materials to create more. Luckily the ingredients are simple. I shouldnâ€™t have too much trouble finding them, even trapped in the castle.
A single gulp of the potion should be enough, but I better find a mirror to be sure. And a safe place to clean up and change. It's why I'm up so early after all.
Everything is quiet in the castle other than the soft thud of my footsteps. Even so, I keep my senses alert. Trying to explain why I'm looking for a private place to change could cause problems. Better to avoid notice if I can.
Opening doors at random could be disastrous. Then again, what am I here for but to open doors and peek inside? From what I gather from my brief tour yesterday, this wing of the castle is residence for the students. Teachers have another wing with extra rooms for visiting wizards. The headmaster, Victor, has an entire tower to himself with an office on the main floor, where he meets with select students and wizards, and private rooms on the top three levels.
Getting a look inside those rooms would be a dream. One that would most likely end with me lying in a puddle of my own blood. I was told under no circumstances to enter those rooms. Too dangerous. Still, I can't help being curious. I'm sure all of the best secrets must be kept in his rooms.
A small scuffing sound is my only warning that someone is coming up the corridor in the opposite direction. My hand reaches for the closest door handle and I slip behind the door just as a boy a few years older than me comes around a corner. I don't get a close look at him, but I know for sure I didnâ€™t see him in the dining room yesterday. I would remember someone with green hair.
I wait next to the door, listening for him to pass. Even with how quiet the castle is at this hour, I can barely hear his footsteps. He walks even lighter than I do. I wonder why he's sneaking around so early. What secret does he have?
While I wait for him to pass, I take a look at the room I've found myself in. Stairs. It's all I can make out in the dark. They go up into black nothingness. Unlike every other section I've been in so far, these stairs are not made of stone, but instead of rough wood with open gaps between each step.
I lean forward and touch the closest step, getting a good whiff of mildew in the process. It's the first time I've smelled anything in this building other than the herbs used to clean and polish, and a few other smells I recognize as being elements of spells.
I guess this isn't a commonly used section of the castle, wherever the stairs lead to.
The boy must have passed by now, but curiosity is getting the better of me. Why would this area be abandoned, and whatâ€™s at the top of the stairs? I'm no good with mysteries. I need to solve them as quickly as possible or else I start to go insane. Besides, maybe there's some hint about wizards up those stairs that I would never find out by staying down here. The coven would never forgive me if I told them I didn't explore every corner I could while living here.
After taking a few steps, I start to regret my decision. The wood is in worse shape than I thought. There are several rotting steps that are almost impossible to find in the dark, and even worse, there have been two steps that simply werenâ€™t there. It's only because I have quick reflexes I was able to catch myself from falling who knows how far down.
I keep climbing.
I've gone too far to turn back. Besides, I need to know what's at the top. Even if there's nothing, its better I know for certain than guess and be wrong.
A cool breeze hits me about five minutes up. It's not quite as cold as it would be if it was coming directly from outside. Summer ended early this year.
The air does seem fresher somehow and I find myself lifting my head to sniff out the scent of apples and fallen leaves.
As I reach the top, a dim light strobes on in the corner of the wooden rafters. The remnants of an old spell that probably would have lit the entire room as though it was day at one time. The walls rise as high as my hips and then thick beams go up another seven feet or so to hold a rickety looking roof.
Even though it appears like I should be exposed to the elements from all sides, it's actually quite cozy. Another old spell I'm sure. The occasional waft of fresh air is a sign of how the spell is wearing thin.
There isn't much room up here. Between the opening for the stairs and the holes where floorboards once laid, about the only safe place to walk is around the edge.
Lights from the surrounding village are visible from here, and I'm sure if it was brighter out, I'd have a great view of the castle and far beyond. This must be one of the highest sections of the castle. Why would they ever abandon something so wonderful?
There's no point trying to understand why wizards do what they do. How is much more important. And more important still is how to stop them.
If this place is really as abandoned as it seems, it will be a perfect spot for me. A pile of broken stone and rotten wood will do as a hidden compartment for my paper and ink. I'll bring up a candle as well to give me better light. It will be a perfect place to write my reports to the coven. There's enough magic up here already no one should notice a little more when I use it to send the letters to Rilla. No, Mariah. She's still our coven leader, whatever Rilla may want people to believe. Being a sorceress doesnâ€™t automatically put you in charge, or at least it shouldnâ€™t. I'll make sure my information gets to Mariah first, and she can share it with the others as she sees fit.
This might actually work. I've already made it inside the castle, the first witch in generations, and now I have my own private area to work. If it wasn't for the unknown of my roommate, I'd say things are going pretty well so far.
I just wish I had a mirror so I could know for sure the potion worked. I'll just have to trust Mariah's skills. It seemed to work well enough yesterday. I'd caught a quick glance at my reflection in a couple of windows and I seemed to look fairly boyish. More than usual, for sure.
Too bad Mariah couldnâ€™t have come up with a potion so I don't have to wrap my breasts down all of the time. This is definitely going to get uncomfortable fast. Maybe I can use my time up here to be a little more comfortable as well. After a few days I should know for sure if this location is safe or not.
All I need to do in the meantime is keep my eyes open and my head down. The Sword will never know what hit them.
The days are slow, and yet weeks keep slipping by. After my first few days reporting the names and visual descriptions of all of the training wizards within the castle, as well as all of the teachers and guards and everyone else I meet, my messages to the coven start to become stale.
I should be pleased. The names alone are more than anything weâ€™ve managed to get from the wizards in years. If Mariah can spread that information around, then maybe my being here will have helped save a few of the remaining sorceresses out there from trusting the wrong person.
The problem is, when I imagined infiltrating a wizard base, I never thought it could be so boring. Mornings are filled with the droning of one old man after another explaining the importance of magic and how it is the right of wizards to control it all. The few spells we've been taught are basics I learned years ago. Illusions and protection spells. Not even very high class ones. Anyone with half a brain could see through those spells if they tried. The coven would have never survived if we relied on anything so rudimentary.
The afternoons are spent running and jumping and fighting. I wouldn't mind this as much if it weren't for some of the boys. It seems the smaller you are, the more likely you'll get beaten to a pulp in dark corners, just out of the teachersâ€™ gaze. Not that they would do anything if they did see fighting. As far as I can tell, these types of beating are practically encouraged. Makes the weak want to work harder, or similar horrific thinking.
I'm not quite the smallest, but I am the newest. Which seems to mean I need more punches to the gut to make up for the ones I've missed by not being here for so many years. I've gotten better at protecting my more vulnerable spots, and I've yet to have anything broken. Still, it gets tiring always looking for the best place to hide and calculating who is going to make the first move today.
The only time I feel any sense of safety is during sword practice. It's everyone's favourite class and they all swarm to wizard Hankin as he demonstrates different moves and then breaks everyone up depending on their level of ability.
Heâ€™s a strange man, Hankin. His long, thin, hunched body made me assume he was more of a book person at first. Then I saw him fight. He executes every move skillfully, and has never lost a bout. Though that in itself makes me uneasy. Not that he doesnâ€™t lose, but that he tries so hard when practicing against students.
Everyone is absorbed in every word he says as he pulls back his long black hair into a ponytail and then draws his sword to show off a few moves. The boys love it. While learning how to wield a sword, they forget all about picking on me. Even Hankin seems to forget I exist. Which is better than him getting mad at me for having no abilities with a sword as he did my first day.
I've never had a wizard angry with me before. I never want to experience it again. It's the eyes that get me. So empty of compassion or empathy. They really aren't human.
I got another note from Mariah this morning.
If the paper wasn't so valuable because of the magic on it that transfers my messages to her and vise-versa, I probably would have crumpled it up and thrown it out the window.
I'm doing the best I can. What more does she want? She was the one to tell me to stay as invisible as possible, and that means doing what I'm told and never making a fuss. I can't exactly raise my hand and ask, â€œWhat are wizardsâ€™ greatest weaknesses and how might a coven of witches exploit that?â€ Nor can I do any real exploring. Students aren't exactly given freedom to wander around where they like. Everywhere that might be interesting has at least two guards on it at all times.
I make my way to breakfast with my head racing with insults I'd love to throw at her. If she thinks it's so easy to find information, why doesn't she just do it? It's not like I'm risking my life or anything.
It's because I'm so caught up in my anger that I don't see the foot stretch out in front of me until it's too late.
I sprawl on the floor, food spread out around me as boys stop to point and laugh with their friends.
I pick myself up in time to see Dean and Cole walk by. Dean's laughing merrily with the others while Cole, well he's being Cole. If I had to guess, the look he gives me as he passes is probably one of disgust or complete disinterest. Or maybe that's his version of laughing. It's impossible to tell, and in that moment I hate him more than ever for being so good at hiding his thoughts.
The best part about the whole thing is when the wizard in charge of the kitchen comes out to see what the fuss is about and then yells at me for making a mess. As though it was my intention to cover myself and the floor in food first thing in the morning.
Three weeks of kitchen duty. What little free time I might have had to find out anything more about the wizards is gone. I'll have to spend it scrubbing dishes and floors and walls and who knows what else.
I figured out how they kept the castle so spotless. Not with magic or slaves, but with the sweat and tears of students who get in trouble.
No breakfast for me. I discovered that a while ago as well. Dean and a couple of others seem to be the only ones able to talk their way into getting a second meal. The rest of us have to be happy with what we get, no matter how hungry we might be at the end of a long day. Or the start of one.
By the time I finish cleaning up, I'm late for class. More extra duty. This time cleaning classrooms. When I'll have time, I'm not sure, but apparently that's my problem and I'll have to figure it out or face more extra duties.
The morning speech from wizard Jenkins is particularly grating today. I want to plug my ears and tell him to shut up, not take notes on the multiple uses of fire-paper.
â€œAnd of course, the most common use of fire-paper,â€ he says in his slow, lumbering way, â€œis to light candles or torches.â€
I snort and say â€œif you're stupid,â€ under my breath.
But when I look up from my notes I notice every head has swivelled around to stare at me, including Jenkins, who looks particularly displeased.
â€œYou don't agree, Tristan?â€ He raises a single thick eyebrow as the corners of his thin lips sink ever lower. â€œPlease, inform the class what uses you'd have for fire-paper, since obviously my opinion on the matter is 'stupid.'â€
Bugger and piss. This is exactly the sort of attention I'm supposed to be avoiding. And yet, there's just something about this day that makes my mouth move when I should just apologize and take the punishment.
I stand as the others do when Jenkins asks them a question and look him directly in the eye.
â€œI wouldn't use fire-paper at all,â€ I say. The others begin to snicker while Jenkins shifts as though he's ready to dismiss me for being ignorant. But my mouth keeps going. â€œThe cost of materials alone makes the item completely useless. Fairy dust and chimera's breath? Please. No one in their right mind would bother with fire-paper when a spark spell works just as well. All it needs is a splinter of charred wood, a drop of salt water, and wizard with a lick of sense.â€
Okay, so possibly the over emphasis on the wizard part was not particularly smart.
Really, the entire thing was dumb on my part. I let my ego get the better of me, and I can see in Jenkinsâ€™s eyes I'm going to pay for my mistake. My stomach is in knots and I'm too afraid to sit down again, though I know I should so people will stop staring.
However, itâ€™s not Jenkins whoâ€™s the first to speak.
Itâ€™s Cole. Heâ€™s at the back of the room, sitting alone as usual, and says in a dull but loud voice, â€œHe's right.â€
The entire room turns in their chairs to stare at him, freeing me from the attention. I turn too, but only after carefully taking my seat.
â€œIt's a much easier and more cost effective option,â€ he continues, â€œand provides you with double the power.â€
A rustling sound follows as everyone once again turns back to Jenkins to wait for his reply. I continue staring at Cole for a little longer. His gaze shifts from Jenkins to me for a brief second before returning to his book.
For the first time I notice he's reading something completely different than everyone else. He doesn't appear to be taking notes either.
â€œThat may be,â€ Jenkins says. His face is tight with anger, but he's not letting it explode as I know he was about to before Cole spoke up. â€œHowever, today I am teaching fire-paper. Perhaps we will learn more about alternative methods to this spell in the future. Now if there are no more interruptions, I'll continue on.â€
Interesting. Very interesting.
I set my tray down carefully so not a drop of my porridge spills. I've been looking forward to this food all day.
â€œTell me,â€ I say to Cole as I take my seat. â€œWhy's everyone afraid of you?â€
He's good. Really good. Most people would have been surprised by my accusation. Or at least confused by the fact Iâ€™m sitting with them for the first time since the day I arrived. He doesnâ€™t even blink. Completely collected.
Dean, on the other hand, starts coughing up his last spoonful.
I ignore the commotion he's making and keep my eyes firmly planted on Cole.
Cole continues to eat until Dean's got his coughing fit under control and then rests his spoon inside his bowl.
â€œWhat makes you think they're afraid of me?â€
Neither of us speaks for a long moment. Heâ€™s as frustratingly impossible to read as usual. All I can tell is heâ€™s trying to figure me out as well. I refuse to give him any more than he gives me. A stalemate.
â€œEveryone's terrified of you,â€ Dean says so I don't have to. â€œOf course they are. They sit as far from you as possible at all times, avoid fighting you in the afternoons even though youâ€™re not very strong, and even the teachers are too scared to give you punishment when they'd be throwing monthsâ€™ worth at anyone else.â€
I nod toward Dean and smile. He's actually not as dumb as he sometimes acts. Though he has been here longer than me to notice all of these things. Still, not bad.
â€œLike he said,â€ I say.
Was that almost a smile? Actually, I think he might have done the same the first day as well, before Dean showed up and Cole ran off. Not much more than a twitch at the corners of his mouth, but it's definitely a start.
â€œWhat makes you think itâ€™s fear?â€ he says. â€œMaybe it's respect.â€
â€œCould be,â€ I say. â€œBut Dean's got respect. People surround him trying to get his attention and his favour. When you're not around, that is. With you, itâ€™s more.â€
â€œLet me make sure I understand you,â€ he says. â€œYou think people are afraid of me, and yet you come at me demanding answers. Aren't you worried I'll do whatever frightens them, but to you?â€
I'm not. I'm really not. And I probably should be. He is a wizard after all, even if he's still in training. A wizard other wizards are afraid of.
I'm too intrigued to be scared.
I take a few hungry spoonfuls of my meal, my eyes never leaving Cole's face. He's stalling. That's fine. I can wait him out.
After a few minutes of silence, Dean's throat clearing seems particularly loud.
â€œAnyone want some more?â€ He wiggles his thumb in the vague direction of the serving area. â€œI'm just going to go...â€
â€œAre you not fully human?â€ I speak over Dean. Normally that wouldn't be possible, but right now he's acting strange. Quiet. â€œIs that it? Oh! Are you a vampire? Everyone's afraid you'll bite them?â€
Another twitch of his lips. This one bigger than the first.
â€œNo, you sleep too well at night.â€ I tap my spoon against my mouth as I think. â€œCould be some other creature, though. What else can look human? Ogre, giant, centaur. Well half human anyway.â€
And then an idea hits me. One that makes me feel sick to my stomach. There have been rumors the Sword somehow managed to capture a dragon. But he couldn't possibly...could he?
â€œYou're not a dragon, are you?â€
A laugh. It was small and stifled very quickly. More of a snort really. Dean, on the other hand, doesn't hold back his laughter. It booms through the entire room, grabbing the attention of even those sitting at the far end of the table. When they see the commotion's coming from us, most turn and pretend not to stare, but the unusual quiet of the room is a good indication everyone's attention is still on us, long after Dean calms down.
Cole notices too. I don't know how I know, but I do.
After a few more minutes of silence, which I take to gobble up as much of my meal as I can, he nods to my bowl.
â€œFinish up and come with me.â€
Again, I know I should be afraid, but the fluttering in my chest is caused by excitement instead.
I shove the last morsels into my mouth as fast as I can and follow Cole out of the dining hall. Dean stays behind. When I glance back to see if he's coming, he mouths the words 'Good luck' to me.
My excitement grows.
Cole says nothing while leading me through the castle and into a section I only once set foot in. It's close to the main entrance, in a huge open space with large stone pillars reaching high to the elegantly decorated arched ceiling. The space is darker than anywhere else in the castle, and the pillars cast shadows so black it's impossible to see within them, even during daylight.
This was an important room once. I'm sure of it. It might even have been the throne room from back when we had a king and queen, though there are no signs of thrones now. Only empty space and an eerie feeling.
It only occurs to me when I realize how close the main classrooms are that I've been avoiding this area. I have no idea why, but it's clear I have been. There's no reason why I wouldn't walk straight through here after class to reach the dining hall. It's the fastest route, and it would avoid all of those silly stairs. And yet, I have no intention of changing my routine any time soon.
â€œWhere are you taking me?â€ I try to keep my voice even though fear is starting to clutch at my throat, making it difficult to speak.
He doesn't say a word. Simply stops walking and looks up as though he's trying to see something in the shadows.
I follow his gaze, and, as I do, something drops to the ground in front of us.
A boy. Almost a man, really. Tall and slim with remarkable green coloured hair. I've seen him before. A glimpse of him here or there, but I've never been face to face with him. Never had his sparkling emerald eyes fall on me. Never smelled the heat and power radiating off him.
Moving is impossible, though my first reaction is to run. My knees are firmly locked. The only place I'm going is down if I don't manage to hold back the faint I feel building within me.
â€œAh.â€ His voice is a catâ€™s rumbling purr, smooth and dangerous. â€œThey sent me lunch. How kind.â€
â€œWe're going to the library,â€ Cole says. I have no idea how he can speak. Does he not feel what I do? Is he not terrified? â€œLet us pass.â€
â€œWhat's the password?â€
The boy grins and I find myself swallowing bile. I'm going to die. This is how I'm going to die.
â€œLet us pass,â€ Cole says again more firmly. â€œOr do you want Headmaster Victor to know you've been threatening his students again?â€
The boy shoves his hands into his pockets and laughs.
â€œOh, Cole,â€ he says. â€œYou never fail to amuse me.â€
I wish I felt better when he takes several casual steps backwards, but I don't. If anything, his ease and natural grace makes me feel so very much worse.
â€œCome back again soon,â€ he says to Cole. And then his eyes fall on me and I can no longer breathe. â€œAnd bring your little friend. I'm always looking for a snack.â€
Cole's hand grips my arm painfully hard and he forces me to move toward a door I never noticed before. It's only once I'm inside and the way is firmly shut behind us that I can begin to catch my breath.
â€œWhat...â€ Inhale. â€œWas that?â€ Exhale.
Cole hasn't dropped his grip on my arm. If I didn't know better, I'd say heâ€™s almost as shaken up as me.
Some more heavy breathing and he finally releases me.
â€œThat,â€ he says in a perfectly calm voice, â€œwas a dragon. And now you can rest assured knowing that I am not one.â€
â€œSeriously?â€ I stare at him, feeling disbelief and anger replace my fear. â€œYou made me deal with that just to prove a point? No wonder no one likes you.â€
Another twitch. I want to hit him. Just smile already, would you?
â€œI also wanted to show you this.â€
He waves a hand out to indicate the rest of the room.
Once again the ceiling stretches high above any other section of the castle I've seen. But unlike in the previous space, every inch of this room is filled with shelves and ladders reaching all of the way up to the ceiling. Each shelf is packed tight with books. Hundreds of thousands of volumes of various size and age. I've never seen anything like it.
â€œThis is amazing,â€ I whisper.
I step into the room to take a look at the wall behind us. Surrounding the door both beside and above are more shelves covered with ever more books. It's beautiful. And exactly the sort of thing the coven would love to get their hands on. You want me to dig, Mariah? Well you might be about to get more information than you can possibly handle.
â€œThis is why they're afraid of me,â€ Cole says.
He's studying me. Watching me the same way I watch everyone else. It's unnerving.
â€œThey're afraid of a library?â€ I say. â€œSeems unlikely.â€
â€œNot the books.â€ I can feel him stare at me even as I turn my back to take another look at the room. â€œWhat they contain. They're afraid of knowledge.â€
His words catch me by surprise. Hadn't I been thinking something similar for months? The way they teach, what they teach, it's all as though they're afraid of the magic that comes naturally to them.
â€œI don't understand,â€ I say carefully.
â€œDon't you?â€ He walks in front of me, his focus turned to the books rather than me. A small relief. â€œToday you gave an example of a simple spell to start a fire. How did Jenkins react?â€
He knows how. But obviously he wants me to say it out loud.
â€œHe got angry.â€ I cross my arms over my chest. â€œNot particularly surprising for him.â€
â€œLast week he told the class the only way to trap a wizard is using the bones of a dragon and the power from a lightning bolt. But you don't believe him.â€
He spins to face me and I take a quick step back. I don't like this. What is he getting at? How much does he know?
â€œHow many other ways do you know?â€
The words come so fast I donâ€™t have time to stop myself from reacting.
Three. The spells flash through my mind in an instant. Ever since the sorceress Rilla started living with us, spells like those have become more important to us than ever.
Even though I keep my mouth shut, I know my thoughts are clear to him because of the satisfied look he gives me.
â€œSmart,â€ he says. â€œSmarter than me.â€ He sighs and looks up at the books once again. â€œIt's when you blurt out a handful of other spells and how easy they'd be for even the most basic of magic users to prepare, people start to get afraid.â€
I can almost imagine it. Jenkins or someone else blabbing on about how safe wizards are because spells to imprison or hurt them are nearly impossible. I wonder how many spells Cole blurted out on that day. How did the students react to learning how vulnerable they really are?
â€œThey're afraid of you because you know magic?â€ I laugh. â€œA little ironic in a school for wizards isn't it?â€
â€œThe wrong kind of magic,â€ he corrects me. â€œIf I stuck to the overly complicated and stolen types, no one would blink an eye. Instead I read, and I learn, and it terrifies them.â€
I look around at the overwhelming number of books.
â€œHow many have you read?â€ I ask.
* * *