Ten minutes later, we were sitting by the waterfall, watching water rush and bubble down the stream.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“Yeah. You okay?”
We were silent for a bit.
“I guess I’m used to the idea now,” I said. “I mean… it shouldn’t really matter, should it? We know what we have. We know what these curses can do. The whole spell and mage thing shouldn’t matter – it doesn’t change anything about us.”
“It shouldn’t matter, but it does,” Kylie said. “Has it got you thinking? It got me thinking.”
“About how this whole place, this whole system – it must have been built by people like us. Right? Mages must have been invented by witches. When they explained this place to us, it was like we didn’t really belong, like they were trying to do us a favour, but it’s the other way around. Our people built this, and that changes everything. You know?”
I shook my head. “I know it’s different for you, but I don’t feel that at all. I’ve spent all my life trying not to be cursed. I still don’t like calling myself a witch, really. I think it’d be kind of underhanded for someone like me to suddenly claim kinship with the builders of something like this, just because they also happened to be witches.”
“So you haven’t changed your mind about staying, then?”
I looked at her in surprise. “You’re staying?”
“I asked you first.”
“I’ve spent my whole life trying to lock up and get rid of this curse.”
“That’s not an answer. I asked what you’re planning now, not what you’ve done in the past.”
“I… haven’t thought about it, actually.”
“You haven’t thought about it? How can you not think about it?”
“I was kind of grappling with the central curse-and-spell thing. I guess… I should think about it. But I don’t see myself being that great a mage.”
“Why not? You’re more qualified than any of these other initiates.”
I shook my head. “These kids either grew up with this, or have the drive to fight their way in. You and I ended up here by accident. Did you see Max working on that magical classification essay? It was like, four pages.”
“They’re just facts. We can learn facts. That’s why we’re at a school. I meant because a spell, or a curse at least, chose you. You didn’t have to buy your way in, like some rich kid getting into a fancy school because his grandpa bought them a new swimming pool.”
“I don’t think being unlucky enough to have a curse latch on counts as qualified. Curses latch onto people for all kinds of dumb reasons.”
“But a few days ago, you thought it made you less qualified, didn’t you? Admit it. If it made you less qualified then, it makes you more qualified now. Same logic – something about you attracted it, something these guys have to buy.”
“I don’t know,” I said again. “I need to think about it. But from the way you’re talking, I guess you’re staying, right?”
“I… also don’t know. But it’s an option now, I guess.”
“It was an option before.”
“This is different.”
There was no point in arguing. I stared silently at the water until she spoke again.
“You were wrong, when you said all that stuff about my family,” she said. “But I do want to help them, and I’ve always done that with this… spell. I came here because I didn’t trust it, because it was lying and getting people killed. But Max and the Magistae and all them, they think they can use magic to help their families, They’ve been doing it for generations. So why can’t I?”
“This makes you like a legacy mage, then?”
“Ugh, no. But them being here means it’s possible to control these things and use them for good. You could help your people with yours, too.”
I shook my head. “My curse isn’t like yours. You can just decide whether or not to listen; with mine…”
“Yeah. I know.”
But there was more than one way to help my family with a spell. Even if the curse itself was dangerous, being the parents of a mage had to be a lot easier, socially, than being the parents of a cursed kid. And mages could get into lucrative jobs; I could make a lot of money, help pay off their mortgage…
Maybe it was worth thinking about. A bit later.
“We have months to figure all that out,” I said. “Right now, we have…” I looked up the walls of the valley, and high to the blue sky above. A thought occurred.
“You were saying about how we need to learn to control these curses before we can really decide if being mages is a good idea?”
“I was? Uh, yeah, I guess I was.”
Kylie stood up. “Instruktanto Miratova’s office is a little way beyond our Magical Theory classroom. I’ll see if I can find out when she’s free.”
“Actually, can you come with me? I need your help.”
“I need you to open the door to Dorm Australia for me. Just let me go get my stuff.”
“Don’t go thinking I’ve forgiven Max, though.”
“That’s not really any of my business.”
“You shouldn’t forgive him so easily either.”
“That’s not really any of your business.”
“I just think it makes sense for me and you to stick together for now. And he might know something useful. And I haven’t quite gotten around to making other friends yet.”
“But if he’s keeping anything else from us…”
“You talk a lot, do you know that?”
Dorm Australia was pretty much how I’d left it, except that Max’s butcher’s paper had been moved from the floor to the wall, pinned up in perfectly straight rows. The only walls of any decent space in the main room were the front and back and they were almost entirely covered in paper, except for the doors. Push-pins and yarn had also been added, like some TV conspiracy theorist’s bunker.
I glanced over my old bed. The curtains were still open; on the far side I could see my stuff. The pile of clothes I’d left on the floor. The picture of my parents smiling out of a chunky yellow picture frame I’d made in primary school. I reached for the panel to reclaim the bed.
“What is it now?” Kylie asked.
“This bed layout is really stupid.”
“Yes, you’ve said.”
“The logical thing to do would be to push the bed against the back wall and put in a door or something, or just a forcefield over the gap, so we’re not having to climb over the beds all the time.”
“Okay. So the portals leading to outside are in the tunnel mouths. You can dig around them. Right?”
“What are you talking about?”
“But these enchantments, I’m pretty sure, are on the beds. That’s why they’re wedged into the openings like this. Maybe certain enchantments only work for certain materials, I dunno. But I wonder how thorough they are?”
“Kayden, nobody knows what you’re talking about when you – what are you doing?”
I’d dropped to the floor. The beds were raised, as most beds were, a little way off the floor. Now, if the enchantment was over the bedcurtain part…
I stuck my feet under the bed. No barrier. Victory!
I grinned goofily at Kylie. “My feet are under the bed!”
She just stared, shaking her head.
I grabbed the bedframe with both hands and slid myself under. It was a tight fit, but I’m pretty skinny. I managed to get myself under the bed and, with relatively few scrapes, out the other side.
“Ha! I can’t get through the forcefield, but I can still get in! Take that, stupid forcefield design!”
“Ah. Well, this definitely makes me feel safe about sharing a room with you.”
“What, worried I’m going to break in and steal your stuff?”
“Nah, I’ll just put a bunch of bricks under my bed.”
I went to climb back over the bed and smacked my face square against the force field. Right… I hadn’t claimed it yet. Ignoring Kylie’s attempts to hide her laugh, I scrambled back under the bed and began sliding my way out.
Ugh, it was dusty under there! Who was supposed to –
Oh, right. Me.
My head and shoulders emerged. I brushed some dust our of my hair and looked up at Max.
“Hello, Max,” I said, trying to sound dignified.
“Um. Hello, Kayden.” He opened his mouth to say something else, but I cut him off.
“I don’t have time for you right now. I’m doing something very important.” I finished wriggling my way out from under the bed, pressed my hand to the panel to claim it and, with as much dignity as I could muster, brushed any visible fluff off my clothes. “You ready, Kylie?”
Kylie didn’t answer, but she did follow me out.
“You’ve got a rip in your sleeve,” she said as we walked down the hall.
“I’ll survive.” I fumbled for the map on my tablet, but Kylie already had it up on hers.
“Just past the classroom, like I said,” she said.
“Why aren’t all the teaching offices just together like a normal school?”
“Maybe they technically are. Who knows with how these hallways work? Anyway, I think her labs are further down that corridor, so maybe she’s just where she can get to everything easily.”
We found Instruktanto Miratova’s office quite easily, but my attention was caught by something further down the corridor. Light.
Well, there was light everywhere. But a little way beyond the office, the tunnel lights turned from cool blue to murky green.
“What do the green lights mean?” I asked Kylie.
“Have you still not read the – ”
“You know perfectly well I haven’t.”
“They’re for mages and mage students. People with spells, basically. It’s off-limits for initiates.”
“Technically we have – ”
“Don’t even think about it.”
I looked at her in surprise. “You’re telling me the rest of the school is right over there and you’re not even a little curious?”
“I’m telling you that the last time you went wandering out-of-bounds we both nearly died, remember?”
“Ugh. Yeah, good point.” I made a mental note to come back later without Kylie. I didn’t want to go out of bounds, just have a quick look at the rest of the school. That should be safe enough.
But for now, we turned to the office door. It was a plain wooden door, like most of the doors in the school, without any signs or nameplates or unfunny joke posters on it. Only the intranet map distinguished it from a random dorm or classroom.
I exchanged a look with Kylie, then knocked.
The door swung open to reveal Instruktanto Miratova. I stared. It had been less than an hour since we’d had a class with her, but this woman wasn’t standing tall in dramatic robes with severely plaited hair and a staff at her side; she was swathed in a fluffy nightgown, holding a mug of something hot, her hair wrapped in a towel.
“Ah,” I said, “sorry to disturb you.”
“You’re early,” she said.
Kylie and I looked at each other. “We are?”
“Usually, cursed children don’t come to my door for at least a month,” she said. She pulled the door open wider and stepped aside. “You’d better come in. We have a lot to talk about.”