Paper crackled under my feet as I paced up and down the room. Kylie sat cross-legged on her bed, hugging her tablet to her chest, watching.
“It has to be a coincidence, right? Prophecy, evocation – those are pretty common words.”
“You really believe that?”
“We’d know, otherwise! It would have come up! Somebody would have told us!”
“Kayden, nobody here tells us anything!”
“Not here! Out there, in the world! My doctor’s been trying to help me get rid of the curse in my heart my whole life; I’m sure he would’ve mentioned at some point, ‘oh by the way, that’s a spell and you’re actually a mage like me!’”
“I think we’re still not technically mages unless we graduate – ”
“You know what I mean!”
“Do I? Do you? Stand still and think. What do we know about magic so far? Mages get spells, usually one spell per mage, that are directed through effort of will. Different spells do different kinds of things. They have to be used carefully, or they’re a danger to others, and the power can also flare up and kill the host. That sounds quite a lot like a curse to me!”
“It sounds like a lot of things,” I snapped. “You could describe being a pilot in the same way.” My face was hot, and I realised I was breathing too fast. I felt dizzy. I had to calm down. If I didn’t calm down, I might wake up the curse.
But what did it matter now, if Kylie was right? And of course she was right. Why else would we be here, at a mage school, learning alongside future mages? It all made sense now.
It mostly made sense now.
I’d stopped pacing, I realised. Not by choice; Kylie was in front of me, hands on my wrists, holding me still.
“Kayden,” she said.
“They would have told us,” I insisted.
“Max would have told us.”
She let go. Stepped back. “Yeah. I thought so, too. I think… I think we gotta talk with Max.”
I nodded. “We’ll be right back. Wait here.”
“Don’t forget your tab – ” But the door slamming behind me cut her off.
I strode right back to the party, which was still in full swing, by which I mean handfuls of students were still standing around trading sly remarks on each others’ families. Scandalously clad in my normal shirt and jeans, I marched through the sea of monochromatic robes and grabbed Max’s wrist. He jumped, his easy smile faltering.
“Kayden, what – ?”
“Sorry, everyone, we have an urgent room matter that we need to straighten out with Max right now,” I said, hoisting a smile onto my face that made a couple of students lean back. “Lovely party by the way, Magista, thanks for the invite.”
Then I dragged him from the room.
As soon as we were out of sight, Max’s charade dropped. He tried to pull his hand out of my grip, but I yanked him forward; instead of fighting me, he followed along and scowled. “Kayden, what the hell? Do you have any idea the scene you just caused? The whole night’s work could be undone by that absolutely ludicrous, crass – ”
“Shut up,” I said.
“If you think this is – ”
“Max, for your own health and safety, kindly shut the fuck up. There is nothing that I want to say to or hear from you without Kylie present, because there’s no way in hell I’m having this conversation twice.” I kept my voice ice calm. I had to; I could feel the thing crawling in my chest, and if I gave an inch by yelling, it might get out. It might get Max.
Max, for his part, did shut up. His face was a mask of apprehension as we completed the journey back to the dorm. I pushed him inside and slammed the door.
“Did you know?” I asked.
“Kylie, what is he talking – ”
“Answer the question,” Kylie said. “Did you know?”
“Did I know what?”
“About the curses. What they are.” I jabbed at the witch mark on my chest. “Did you know that this was a spell in here?”
“Well, technically speaking, a spell is a subset of a curse, being domest – ” Max caught my expression. His face paled. “You didn’t know?”
“Don’t. Don’t even fucking try to pull that again. You know perfectly well that we don’t know anything.”
“But surely they explained, when they told you about the scholarship?”
Kylie shook her head. “You know nobody explains nothing.”
“But that’s why you came here, yes? To learn to control your magic? Why else did you think they would send you to a – ”
“Don’t,” I repeated. “Do not try that one. I’m getting sick of it. ‘Oh, we assumed you knew this important information; it’s not our fault you were too stupid to figure it out. We didn’t realise we’d have to tone things down for you; so sorry you’re not clever’. I’ve been putting up with this blame-shifting, innocent ignorance bullshit from every single fucking mage since I got here and I’m not doing it any more. ‘Cause, you know what? That kind of flew with the whole dangerous lake monster thing, and it was even believable with the whole becoming-a-mage thing, but there is absolutely no fucking way you thought we just already knew that curses were spells. No way in hell.”
“What do you want from me?”
“I want you to explain why you thought it was a good idea to keep this from us! What was the point? And how long did you think you’d be able to keep it up?”
“I never kept anything from you! It just never came up in conversation! I assumed our surveyanto had explained when – ”
“Bullshit. We had a whole conversation about the possibility that I could go on to be a mage, where you explained that ‘magical blood’ wasn’t a thing. It should’ve been incredibly obvious through that whole conversation that I had no clue! None of that would have happened if I’d known! Or did you conveniently forget for a few minutes?”
“I didn’t realise that your concern was about not having magic at all! I thought you were just concerned that you had the wrong kind! I thought you thought Refujeyo would only teach students with proper domesticated spells, not feral curses! Of course your curse makes it extremely dangerous for you to get a spell, so I assumed that was your concern!”
Kylie frowned. “How do you domesticate a spell?”
“He’s trying to sidetrack you,” I said. “Trying to change the subject so we buy this bullshit. But I’m not buying it. You want me to believe that since we’ve been here, this little detail has just happened to not come up in conversation? With anyone? No.”
“It’s not the sort of thing that’s ever going to just ‘come up in conversation,’” Max said tersely. “There are things that everyone knows that don’t come up like that.”
“Bullshit,” I said. “There’s a whole world out there with mages openly walking the streets and witches hiding their marks under clothes and makeup. You want me to believe that’s just a coincidental misunderstanding?”
“Out there, of course it’s like that. But I was sure Cooper would have told – ”
“You didn’t think to check?”
“It’s not something we talk about, okay?” Max snapped. “There are certain things in this world that people just don’t mention in polite company. This is one of them. We just don’t talk about it.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“There are things commonfolk don’t openly talk about. Did you think we’d be different?”
“For this, though?”
Kylie nodded. “I think I get it. We’re magekind’s dirty little secret, right? Oh, yeah, yeah; we’re not secret, you just don’t talk about it. But we are a secret, really, aren’t we. At least in commonfolk society. This isn’t something that stays unknown by accident. The mages don’t talk about it because they don’t want the commonfolk to know. You don’t want everyone else to know that your big, special, prestigious skills that take years to master and make you sooo much better than everyone else aren’t all that special at all. They just make you the same as some homeless man who’s cursed to make anyone who gives him money sick. That’s what this is about, isn’t it? Prestige.”
“It’s a lot more complicated than that,” Max mumbled.
“Which means I’m right.”
“It means it’s more complicated than that! Neither of you have any idea! You just strode on into this place, completely ignorant of its history, of our history as mages, and start throwing around accusations of pride – do you have any idea of where we came from? Of the wars, the centuries of persecution? It’s your history, too, you know! The investigators who’d march through towns, inspecting everyone for spells on the holiest day of the year, and drown any they found. The people burned alive, the salt runs – hell, they still hang holly and mistletoe on the doors in this day and age! You can’t go for a walk down the average Australian street without being assaulted by the wreaths on all sides! Why do you think that is? Where do you think that comes from? The hate and fear the commonfolk have for your curses; that applied to all magic. That would be all of us. But our predecessors did something about it; they banded together as many allies as they could and worked to show magic was useful and powerful and safe. Mage society was built on that image for the good of us all, so don’t sit there and sneer at me about dirty secrets and prestige.”
“For the good of us all?” I asked. “So I just imagined the first fourteen years of my life, did I? ‘The good of us all’ wouldn’t have involved abandoning cursed people to cater to rich kids looking for cushy jobs.”
“You weren’t abandoned. You’re here.”
“Now, sure. By social force, because your safe little haven – ooh, Haven, I get it – left us out in the cold, in a world that hated us.”
“A few years ago, there was a cursed man who turned people inside out when he touched them,” Max said. “Normal one day, cursed the next – four people dead before he managed to commit suicide. You want us to go about telling the world that that guy was a mage? How easily would we be able to protect anyone then?”
“Who are you protecting right now?” I asked. “No one. This place is selling curses for a fee! It’s not a haven, it’s a business!”
“Who are we protecting now? You, for one.”
“Oh, yes; this whole magical society which hoards untold wealth and power is fully dedicated to protecting an average of one cursed student every few years. So dedicated that it almost let Kylie and me both get eaten by a lake monster and half the students here want us to leave. Excuse me if I don’t buy that absolutely terrible excuse.”
“You want excuses, go find them yourself. You should be grateful that this place even exists to pick you up and give you a free education.”
“I’m sorry, what?!” I pointed at him. “You are an abso – ”
I froze, heart thundering in my ears. Max had flinched back, his face a mask of terror. He looked like he thought I was going to hit him. But he wasn’t within striking range, and I hadn’t lifted my hand to hit – I was just pointing at him.
He didn’t think I was going to hit him. He thought I was going to curse him. Like I’d brought my twisted, ‘feral’ parody of a spell into his sanctuary and I was going to use it against him.
It was a reasonable fear, wasn’t it? I could feel the curse swelling, pressing against my spine and lungs with every heartbeat. Ready to be flung out at my enemy with a single command, just like last time.
I let my hand drop.
“I can’t have this conversation right now,” I said. “I can’t be around you right now.”
Then I snatched up my tablet and strode out.
Had I been about to do it? It was already hard to keep things straight in my head. I wasn’t used to this kind of rage; normally I would defuse flashes of irritation or anger long before they got this far. I wasn’t used to an emotion that sickened me and tangled up my thoughts and memories as I was making them.
I wouldn’t have attacked him, I was sure. I’d just pointed at him while yelling; I hadn’t even been thinking of the curse. I wouldn’t do that, not over some stupid argument. I wasn’t the sort of person who’d attack someone like that just because I was angry.
Except I was that sort of person, wasn’t I? I wouldn’t be at the Haven if I hadn’t done exactly that.
The Haven; a haven for magic users. It was in the name, and not just the nickname. I’d looked the name up a while ago. Skolala Refujeyo – Educational Refuge. Not ‘safe school’ – the safety was in the noun, the education in the adjective. A Haven, that just so happened to be educational; not the other way around. Maybe I should have thought more about that when I’d looked up the name.
So people came here to be mages; safe magic-users, unlike us dangerous, back-alley witches. They picked up ‘domesticated’ magic, whatever that meant, and learned to use it constructively to give themselves, their society, and the commonfolk they worked for power. Not like us poor sods who just picked up feral ones at apparent random and used them, untrained, to cause death and destruction – so very bad for PR. So the mages, the wise, responsible mages who were so very different from us in the eyes of the commonfolk, claimed it was their duty to protect the world from destructive magic and went and dealt with such problems. There were rumours about extreme measures in extreme cases, but for people like Kylie and me, that meant removing the danger – absorbing us into their fold. It probably looked noble to most people; those who entered a tradition of magic taking responsibility for more dangerous, evil magics. To me, with all the stories and warnings about what mages might do to me if my curse ever got out of control, it had seemed terrifying, but with new perspective, I could see it for what it was – housekeeping. The fewer dangerous curses out there, the more useful and important mage society looked in their duty protecting the commonfolk – and the less dangerous it was if anyone should make the connection between spells and curses. And people had to make the connection sometimes, right? It seemed pretty obvious to me, now that I understood it.
Actually, maybe that was partly why commonfolk had no clue how magic worked. Why our first magic lesson had to explain what a spell was. Why mages demonstrating their craft to commonfolk just used little tricks.
I was tired, but I didn’t want to go back to the room. I pushed on room doors at random until I found an unlocked, unoccupied one, and claimed a bed in it. I’d go get my stuff from Dorm Australia in the morning. If I timed it right, I could catch a window where Kylie would be there to let me in, but Max wouldn’t.
If I was careful not to sit near him in any classes, I might never have to speak to him again.
I threw myself face-down on the bed, and willed myself to calm down.
It took a long time to fall asleep.