Naturally, I couldn’t concentrate at all in the Fiore’s next lesson. Fortunately it was just about translocation spells (spells dealing with space, like teleportation, or enchanted bags that were bigger on the inside, that kind of thing), which I didn’t need to know about. All I could do was stare at him idly scratching his cat’s chin, thinking, This is a teacher who used his nephew to try to kill another teacher.
Also, it didn’t help that I could practically feel said nephew’s eyes boring into the back of my skull all lesson, like he was trying to liquefy my brain through sheer willpower.
Kylie looked just as distracted as I was, but Max, somehow, managed to act like we weren’t in the middle of a sinister death plot and started a discussion with the Fiore on whether sensory prophecies (that allowed people to magically scan objects or view things at a distance) should actually be considered a type of translocation spell, and whether even future telling prophecies should count as translocation because something Einstein something something. It was probably the most pointless conversation I’d ever heard in my life, but it did carry us neatly to the end of the lesson without having to do any work, and isn’t that the most useful kind of conversation of all?
As we filed out, I couldn’t help but notice Simon had stopped wearing the fake ring. And I shouldn’t have said anything, I really shouldn’t, but I couldn’t help but mumble under my breath as we passed, “Given up the pretense, have we?”
Before Max or Kylie could react, Simon grabbed my arm and yanked me down a side passage. By the time I thought to pull away, we were out of the flow of students. Dorm Australia and Dorm Magistae folowed, but didn’t physically intervene as Simon let me go and jammed a finger against my chest. “You think you’re so clever, don’t you?” he hissed. “Do you have any idea how badly you’ve screwed yourself over with that stupid little stunt?”
“Oh, I’ve screwed myself over? I’m not the one who tried to kill Miratova. I’m not – ”
“Yes! You are! And now, you stupid idiot, I have proof. You had me fooled at first, you know; I thought you were interfering with spells unintentionally. I thought you were dangerous, but I didn’t think it was your fault.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“The ring! You were so eager to come gloat about how you broke my ring that you gave yourself away. You marched right in and hit me. You knew your curse had broken the ring, which meant you did it on purpose. If you think the amount of trouble I’m going to get into over that ring is bad, just wait and see what the law does to you.”
“Oh, that’s the defense you’re going with? Really? The ring didn’t work because my big, bad curse broke it? That ring didn’t work because it’s a fake, because you dropped the real one in Miratova’s cauldron to blow it up and try to kill her. We found the ring, Simon!”
“Oh, yeah? Show us, then.”
I hesitated. Saying we’d already handed it over to the authorities didn’t seem like a great move.
“That’s what I thought. Next time, have your fake ready before you accuse me of using a fake. Acanthos, you can help with that part, right? I’m given to understand Octavia knows a lot of jewellers and forgers.” Then he swanned off down the hall.
“That was a pretty smart play on Simon’s part,” Max noted when the three of us were alone. “But if I were him, I wouldn’t have said anything. He was working to convince his roommates, not us, so snarking about you in private would’ve made the same point without telling us what explanation he was going for, and without giving you a chance to defend yourself.”
“I just want to hit him again,” I said.
“If you hadn’t hit him in the first place, he wouldn’t know we were onto him.”
We headed back towards our dorm.
“So,” Kylie asked, “just how much trouble is this going to be?”
“That depends,” Max said. “If Simon decides to accuse Kayden publically…”
I shook my head. “He won’t. If he did that, people would want to look at his ring to make sure it was the right one, and then they’d find out it was a fake. He doesn’t know what we’ve done with the real one, so he can’t exactly steal it back; he’s going to want as little heat on this whole thing as possible until he figures out how to sound innocent after they’ve analysed that ring, right?”
“Yes, quite probably. We should keep the investigation to ourselves for now. If he finds out about it, he will panic, and that will be dangerous.”
“He’s already dangerous,” Kylie pointed out.
“He will be more dangerous. All we can do now is wait, and not engage.”
“But they will be able to verify the ring, right?”
“I think so.”
“You think so?”
“Instruktanto Miratova said she’d investigate it thoroughly.”
I watched Max’s face carefully. He looked decidedly uncomfortable.
“And what does that involve, exactly?” I asked.
“Well, you know. They’ll get forensic experts to look at it. Make sure it’s the real thing.”
“But what does that involve?” I asked. “You said they’d check to make sure it wasn’t a forgery. How? It’s an absurdly simple design, wouldn’t it be easy to forge?”
“I don’t know, okay?” Max snapped. “I’m not an expert on the guardian ring! Or forgery detection! Or, as I’ve said multiple times, enchantments! But it’s in the hands of the experts now, and they’ll do expert things, and sort everything out. It’s a signet ring. The whole point of them is to identify to owner. So they have to be hard to forge. Stands to reason.”
“Okay, okay, sorry. Just asking. I’m sure the experts will be able to tell that it’s the real thing and had an enchantment inside it and everything will be fine. It’s okay if you don’t know the details, I was just curious.”
“Yeah, well. Sorry. I just don’t know everything.”
“Yet,” I said, with a grin.
But the grin I got in return looked strained.
“Speaking of knowing everything, I have some homework to catch up on,” Max said, increasing his pace. Kylie and I let him outstrip us.
“What the hell was that outburst about?” I asked Kylie.
“Has he said anything weird to you about – ”
“Why are you always trying to turn other people’s business into my business?” Kylie asked.
I had homework, too, but I wasn’t about to spend the next half an hour calmly listing different effects of translocation spells when I was so worked up. How could Simon have so much nerve?! We had him, red-handed, and he was out there still pretending everything was my fault, somehow?And now he’d upgraded his story from ‘Kayden’s curse is causing a bit of random disruption’ to ‘Kayden is intentionally breaking spells with his unexpectedly powerful and controllable curse’? Please. How did he expect to convince anyone that I’d intentionally hurt Instruktanto Miratova?
Ugh, I needed to burn off this energy.
And I had just the activity to do it.
Fifteen minutes later, I was at the gym, staring up at the rock wall I’d been too afraid to climb for the past week. But there was no reason to worry now; if I fell, the safety spell would scoop me up like always. My curse wouldn’t break it.
I grabbed a handhold and started to edge away from the balcony. And then, completely focused on my task, I started to climb.
“Oh good,” a familiar voice called out, breaking my concentration. “You’re finally healed.”
Magistus was standing at the edge of the balcony, arms crossed, squinting up at me. I rolled my eyes and made my way down, careful to pick a route that looked impressively difficult but was easy enough to avoid falling and looking stupid.
“Let me guess,” I said as I leapt an impressive distance over to the balcony, landing gracefully and effortlessly, “you want a climbing rematch?”
“Oh, not today. I have to rest my muscles, they’ve been through a lot.”
I cocked an eyebrow. “We got out of class less than half an hour ago. You haven’t had time to work them out yet.”
“Okay, fine. I was trying to spare you the pain of being absolutely demolished on that rock wall. You know I’m stronger than you.”
“You know I’m a better climber than you.”
“Oh, you can keep telling yourself that.”
“You wanna go?”
“Nah. I actually do have to go do my routine. I just saw you come through here and came to see if you wanted to do any real exercise today.”
“You need a spotter, huh?”
Magistus glanced at the heavy curtain separating us from the rest of the gym, bit his lip, and casually strolled off in the opposite direction, to the very front of the balcony. Against my better judgement, I followed him.
“We need to talk,” he said quietly.
“That’s a very conspiratorial voice you’re doing there, so no, we don’t. I told you I’m not doing that political shit.”
“You sure? Because it’s all I’ve seen you do since we got here.”
“Yeah, well, right now, I’m rock climbing. So unless you came out here to scale this cliff with me – ”
“Kayden, you know perfectly well I’m not going to do that.”
“Why wou – oh. Oh. You don’t think it’s safe. Because of my curse. I should’ve known you’d be on Simon’s side.”
“I’m not on anyone’s ‘side’.”
“Oh yeah? Then climb the cliff. Prove it.”
“You are on his side.”
“If I were on his side, I’d be perfectly happy climbing that cliff because he’s been ranting about how you’re intentionally disrupting spells so anything you don’t want to destroy would be safe, you dimwitted, naive little – ugh!”
“But you don’t believe that.”
“No. I don’t believe you’d try to hurt anyone with magic. I don’t believe you’d break a priceless family heirloom to get back at someone you didn’t like. But I am refusing to climb that cliff. And I just watched you climb that cliff. Do you understand?”
“Is that some kind of code?”
Magistus rolled his eyes and turned away. “Why do I bother?”
“Bother talking in circles instead of having a conversation like a normal human being? I don’t know. If you want to say something to me, just say it.”
“Do you play chess, Kayden?”
“Not if I can help it.”
“Do you know how pawns stay safe in chess?”
“I’m not anybody’s pawn, if that’s what you’re implying.”
“Remarkably, Kayden, pawns generally don’t get to decide their status, or whether they’re playing at all. They get put in the game, and used for blocking and positioning bigger pieces, and very often they get eliminated, unless they can make it across the board and become something with a lot more mobility. But whether a pawn wants to be queened or just survive the game, its best bet is to not attract attention and not put itself in a position that allows it to be eliminated. Do you understand me?”
I rolled my eyes again. “I’ll be very careful and not let Simon ‘eliminate’ me, then,” I said. “Happy?”
“Simon? Who the hell cares about Simon?”
“What are we talking about, then?”
“Kayden.” Magistus put his hands on my shoulders and looked at me very seriously, ensuring he had my full attention. “When people are learning to play chess, a pawn has a lot to fear from an opponent. But for experienced players, if a pawn is eliminated, it’s not because an opponent saw an opportunity to take them out. It’s because their own player made the decision to sacrifice them.”
“You can’t possibly be accusing – ”
But I didn’t get to finish, because Magistus had pulled me close and pressed his mouth to mine.
When he released me an eternity later, he just said, “You’re a very hard person to look out for, did you know that?”, and left.
I stared after him and, after a few seconds, rubbed at my lips. Trying to stop them from tingling. Trying to erase the memory of pressure.
It didn’t work.
Where the hell had that come from? I couldn’t wrap my head around it. Not my reaction – I generally liked girls, but Magistus was hardly the first cute boy to catch my eye – but the idea that Magistus would want to kiss me at all. I’d never exactly been high on anyone’s list of romantic prospects, why would the cute, rich, high-status boy be interested?
Although – and maybe this was just Max’s analytical habits getting into my head – I had no evidence that I wasn’t anyone’s romantic prospect, really. I’d never gone out of my way to make a lot of friends; anyone I spent time with was endangered by my spell, and anyone I got close to was in danger of learning about it. So I’d stuck with Chelsea and Melissa most of the time, and there was no potential romance there. I didn’t even get to have proper relationship fantasies, because nothing made sense once the shirts came off. At that point, a partner would see my curse, and the relationship – and probably my entire life – would be ruined. I’d always kind of accepted that I was never going to be able to have that kind of relationship.
Magistus knew about the curse, of course, and he’d kissed me anyway. Because things were different here. Because here I could… well, no. Nothing could happen here, either. If things ever got that far – and I wasn’t, you know, in a hurry – they were still going to grind to a halt as soon as the clothes came off. Magistus might know about the curse, but he didn’t know I was trans.
The trans thing had never been a barrier before. Not because my hometown was all perfect and miraculously accepting – there were bigots everywhere – but because everyone there already knew. Anyone who’d still want a relationship with me was, almost by definition, fine with me being trans. Here, nobody knew except a couple of the staff.
I hadn’t had to explain my gender to anyone since I was about six years old. I wasn’t sure I knew how. How does one start that conversation?
Well, it hardly mattered, because I was behaving like a six year old, letting my imagination run away with me over one kiss. Pathetic. What was next, I’d see a pretty girl smile at me in the hall and start planning our wedding? Just because he’d kissed me didn’t mean he wanted anything to happen. Someone who dressed and acted like he did probably didn’t think anything of kissing whoever he wanted, all the time. He probably hadn’t even wanted to kiss me. Why would he? He was tall, and rich, and funny, and social, and had great hair, and was going to be hot his whole life. I was a cursed kid from a commonfolk family with barely any friends and a tendency to start trouble wherever I went. We weren’t in the same league; we weren’t even playing the same sport.
And he knew that, the dick. He knew who he was. He’d probably done it to throw me off balance. To manipulate me. He was clearly trying to turn me against Max using the lamest reasoning possible and wanted to cloud my head with confusing emotions so I couldn’t think about how dumb it all was. The dick.
Because of course he’d want to break up Dorm Australia. He and Simon were good friends, right? They wouldn’t keep rooming together if they hated each other. Simon was the one who kept making my life hard, but Magistus wanted me to believe that Max was playing a game with me, which was stupid because Max hadn’t pulled us into anything political since Magista’s welcome party. So he’d kissed me to confuse me. To trick me into thinking he cared about me, so I’d trust him, and turn against Max.
That was the most logical explanation.
I walked back to the cliff. I edged my way out, and started to climb. But it was slow going. The rocks were difficult to grip.
My hands wouldn’t stop shaking, for some reason.