“Last week, I asked you all to read 3 short stories and contrast their writing styles,” said Instruktanto Ahuja. “Now we are going a step further. I have sent each of you three of your classmates’ reports, with the names removed, and your job is to compare and contrast those, and how effective they were at conveying their messages about the three stories.” He looked around the room. “Once again, you may use any report style you like, but you will be graded on the thoroughness and insight of your work. Your previous reports will be graded partly using the opinions and insights that your classmates give in this report.”
I looked around the room. About half the students were wearing the expected ‘I should have worked harder on that report’ expression. I probably should’ve looked the same, but I had things on my mind other than English grades.
Like how nobody except Kylie looked too comfortable about being anywhere near me. I glanced at Clara, down the back of the room; she looked away. Was she frightened? Of me?
I wished that Max took English. It’d nice to have somebody on my side that wasn’t in the same boat.
Max was on my side, right? I couldn’t help thinking of our fight, how he’d flinched away from my curse. He couldn’t really think I’d hurt anyone. That couldn’t be why I hadn’t seen him all morning; he was just busy.
I needed to stop being so paranoid.
In fact any questions I’d had about Max were resolved almost immediately. After my classes I finally braved the cafeteria (hunger will drive a man to desperate acts), and almost immediately ran into the Magistae’s group of mage kids, Max included.
“Kayden!” Magista hugged me tightly, and I tried not to let on how much her bony arms hurt my bruised shoulder. “I haven’t seen you for ages!”
“We had magical theory together yesterday,” I pointed out, trying to extricate myself without moving my arm in any way that hurt.
“Classes don’t count.”
“I was at your party less than a week ago.”
“Almost a whole week! You’d hardly even think we were at the same school!”
“You’re hurting him, sis,” Magistus said, gently unwrapping his twin from my torso. “What’d you do to yourself?”
“Nothing that won’t heal.”
He nodded, eyes flicking across the small patches of Malas’ blue visible on my hands. “That happen in the lab thing?”
“Magistus, don’t be rude!” Magista snapped.
Simon rolled his eyes. “What, are we not supposed to talk about it? We all knew something like this was going to happen sooner or later. There’s no point in pretending to be surprised. Nobody died, everyone will heal up, let’s move on.”
“He didn’t mean to do anything!” Clara said.
“I didn’t do anything!”
“Sure you didn’t.”
“Everyone, please. Can we talk about – ”
“No, no, Magista; I want to hear what Simon has to say. What exactly are you accusing me of?”
Simon sighed. “I wasn’t accusing you of anything. I’m simply stating the facts. It happened, there’s no reason to pretend it didn’t. But nobody’s dead and there’s no reason to be dramatic or awkward about it.”
“There’s no reason to be coy. Dramatic or awkward about what?”
“About you putting one of the greatest mages of our time in hospital.”
I barked a laugh. “The rumour mill is one thing, but do you seriously think I attacked Instruktanto Miratova?”
“Intentionally? No. But this is my entire point, Kayden. This is exactly why people like you shouldn’t be in places like this.”
“I’m sorry, people like me?”
“Yes. People like you. Witches. I’m all for teaching responsible magic, but that thing inside you is dangerous. Curses are unstable and unpredictable. They can react to things and interact with spells in ways that nobody expects. Alania Miratova is famed for her unbelievable level of thermal control, even aside from her characteristic caution, and the first thing she does when casting in front of you and Kylie is nearly burn her hand off. Okay, fine, everyone makes mistakes. But then a fiery explosion? Alania Miratova, making two near-fatal mistakes like that within one week? That doesn’t happen, Kayden. Not without something powerful and dangerous and unpredictable getting involved, and the only things present both times that could do that were the things in your heart and your friend’s eye. Either of you could’ve put her in hospital, although I’m betting on the evocation rather than the prophecy; that makes more sense.”
“It’s not his fault! Calm down!”
“I am calm, Clara. I’m just explaining the facts.”
“Dude, you weren’t there. You have no idea what happened. And you want to blame me for this?”
“I don’t blame you at all. Commonfolk never teach their children anything, so you weren’t to know. I blame your surveyanto, who thought it was a good idea to throw both of you into a dangerous and serious place like this and risk everyone else’s lives over it. Every couple of years, somebody uses that scholarship to throw a wild card in and put everyone in danger, and nobody ever listens. This is exactly why I said you shouldn’t be here.”
“That’s a nice speech, but every part of it was wrong. Whatever paranoid little curse-hating fantasies you’ve come up with, you weren’t there, and you didn’t see what happened. Instruktanto Miratova’s experiment just blew up; Kylie and I were nowhere near it.”
“And you’re telling me there’s no way your curse interfered with it? How can you be sure?”
“I may not have a fancy mage family, but I know what my own curse feels like. I activated it after the explosion, to pull her out. If it hadn’t done anything, the whole thing would’ve been a lot worse.”
“Really? Raise it against me now. Go on.”
I raised an eyebrow. “You want me to attack you with my curse? That sounds really, really tempting, but I think it might cause a bit of a scene.”
“You can’t do it, can you? You can’t call it up that quick.”
“Don’t tempt me.”
“But you want me to believe you could, then? To pull her out?”
“It was a desperate situation.”
“Maybe that’d help. Or maybe you could do it quickly because the curse was already awake, messing everything up, and you felt it when you brought it under your control.”
“I’m sorry, what makes you think you know how my curse works?”
“What makes you think you know how any magic works?”
“You don’t need to be so openly jealous,” Max cut in. “It’s not a good look on you, Simon.”
This statement was out of left field enough to derail both our trains of thought.
“What?” Simon asked.
“Of the curses. You’re always so fixated on the fact that two of your classmates can cast magic and you can’t. It’s like the curses are all you care about. Calm down. It won’t be that long before you have your own spell, and it might even be better than theirs.”
Simon looked at him like he was crazy. “I’m not jealous of a bargain-bin accidental curse,” he said. “That’s ridiculous. We’re here to do proper magic.”
“Is that why you’re still wearing that signet ring?”
I glanced down. Simon was, indeed, still wearing the heavy iron ring, with the unmistakeable stylised flower inside a diamond on it.
“Or are you reluctant to let go of a tiny shred of magic, now that you’ve got it on your hand?” Max pressed. “There’s no reason to keep carrying it around, unless it comforts you to pretend you can – ”
“I wear this,” Simon hissed with sudden fury, “out of family loyalty.” He shoved his hand in his pocket, his cheeks red. “Something I wouldn’t expect somebody like you to understand, Acanthos!”
Something, some kind of pain or anger or fear, flashed across Max’s face. In an instant, it was gone, replaced by perfect composure, and I wasn’t looking at the Max I knew any more. I was looking at the Max who was exceptionally fun at parties.
“I’m sorry?” he said.
“Everyone knows that Octavia Acanthos won’t live more than two or three years,” Simon said. “Unless you intend to be the fastest student in the history of the school, that’s not enough time to graduate. Your family is going to be without a mage for years, and then they’ll have an inexperienced mage with no mentor. This could have been avoided if they’d sent your cousin four years ago, but they decided to take a risk on you. They’re making a huge sacrifice, taking a huge risk, for you. And what are you doing to repay them? Are you setting up strong ties and a good, stable basis for your family to pull them back up after their mageless years? No! You’re just wasting time, messing about with – ” he gestured to me – “and learning pointless nonsense in the library! Your whole family’s future is riding on you, and you’re not taking it seriously at all! We’re all here because we all have a very important job to do. We get one chance to learn how to do it right, one chance to set up our futures properly, and this is it. And you’re just messing about! You think I have time to worry about petty things like who’s got magic early and whether I should be jealous? How petty are you? And what would Octavia say if she saw you like this?”
Max listened to this calmly. He stepped forward. Instinctively, the Magistae, Clara and I all stepped back.
“You’re right,” Max said, his voice unnervingly calm. “My family did sacrifice a lot for me to be here. They had a perfectly good heir lined up with perfect timing, and decided to take a gamble on me instead. You want to know what Octavia Acanthos would say? I’ll tell you what she said. She said, ‘Maximillian will be the Nonus.’ She knew the risk she was taking better than you do. She knows me and she knows the family business better than you do.” He stepped towards Simon again, putting them almost nose-to-nose (although with the height difference it was more like nose-to-eyebrow). “So if you’re so concerned about my family situation, little Polline, then perhaps you should worry less about my choice of friends and hobbies, and more about the fact that Octavia saw something in me worth that sacrifice. Maybe you should think carefully about what that might be before you question my loyalties again.”
After several tense seconds, Magista managed to force her way between the boys. “O-kaaay! Well, I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m getting hungry. Simon, where’s that fish you were talking up earlier?”
As she let him lead her to the buffet tables, Max visibly calmed down. Magistus caught my eye, and gave a little grin and an eyeroll. Clara bit her lip and looked away.
“For the record,” I said, “my curse didn’t do anything to Instruktanto Miratova, or to her spell. Accidents are accidents. I had nothing to do with either.”
“I believe you,” Clara said, unconvincingly.
“Don’t mind Simon, he’s a bit high strung,” Magistus said. “Kind of like your Max, here. Maybe it’s a good thing he isn’t in our room; everyone would be dead within the week. These two are way too alike.”
“We’re nothing alike!” Max snapped.
“Sure you aren’t, Acanthos. My sister can only pretend to care about fish for so long, so if you’ve got some way to de-escalate that little scene…”
“Your sister’s right; we came here to eat,” Max snapped, and stalked off to the opposite side of the buffet tables to Magista and Simon. I rushed after him.
“I didn’t know the thing with your family was such a big deal,” I said. “But I’m sure you’ll make them proud.”
“What?” Max glanced at me, puzzled. “My family are fine.”
“But Simon said that without a mage – ”
“Simon doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Do you know what my Meemaw’s spell actually does?”
I shook my head.
“It allows her to detect the presence and type of rocks and metals in her immediate environment.”
“That sounds… useful.”
“For a coal miner, maybe. I’ve only ever seen her use it to appraise the jewellery of her guests, as a party trick. A mage family’s in a pretty sorry state if they actually have to use magic for anything.”
“Then… then why…?”
“Politics.” Max wrinkled his nose. “When Meemaw dies, the family’s going to have to endure the horrible danger of some people talking badly about them and not getting invited to some parties until I graduate. Oh, the horror. it’s all nonsense.” He contemplated a platter of vol-au-vents and started loading some onto his plate.
“Kylie said that the mage kids remind her of baby peacocks, practicing presenting tailfeathers they don’t have yet.”
“Ha! Yeah, that’s a good analogy. That’s exactly what they are.”
“If you don’t care, then why – ?”
“Because he pisses me off!” A vol-au-vent broke in his hand. He dropped the mess onto his plate and sucked tuna off his fingers. “Talking about you two that way. I have no idea what the Madja method of selecting heirs is, but he’s clearly never done a lick of work in his life, and he’s out there spreading lies about the two most courageous people he’s probably ever met! If he wasn’t wearing that damn ring, I would’ve hit him.”
“That’s probably why he’s wearing the ring,” I said, eyeing Max’s noodly arms doubtfully. “He’s so damn punchable. But I don’t think me or Kylie are brave, necessarily. Just, y’know, surviving.”
“You know what I mean! And because of his family, he’s going to be oh so smug when we have a substitute for Magical Theory, especially if Miratova takes a long time to recover. Ugh, I hope it’s somebody good.”
“It’s going to be the Fiore, actually.”
“Malas confirmed it.”
“Ugh! Of course it is. Of course it is.”
“I like him,” I shrugged. “I mean, I’ve only seen him once, so I might be wrong. And his heir might be kind of a dick, but hey, he’s got a cute cat.”
“Okay, yes, granted; he does have a cute cat.” Max, apparently deciding his plate was sufficiently vol-au-vented, moved on. I grabbed a couple for my plate. “And it might be refreshing to have a lesson that isn’t entirely themed on ‘this will probably kill you’, which is very important information but does get a little repetitive. And it probably won’t be for long.”
“Hey, you’ve got your entire magical education to nerd out with Instruktanto Miratova about Barney reactions or whatever.”
“Do you mean Berthold reactions?”
“Probably. Who cares?”
“Ugh. I guess we’d better get back to the group.”
“Why? Are you contractually obligated to sit with them?”
“No. But the one thing more awkward than having lunch with them would be having lunch across the other side of the room from them, everyone being there and pretending not to avoid each other the entire time.”
“Then don’t. We’ve both got mostly finger food here, so let’s grab another plate, fill it up, and go.”
“You, me, Kylie. Dorm picnic. What do you say?”
Max grinned. “You know, Kayden, once every now and then you have an idea that isn’t completely terrible.”
“That’s my motto in life. Once every now and then, one of my ideas isn’t completely terrible.”
“A wise and inspiring motto.”
“Hey, everyone’s gotta have something to strive for.”