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Alinore Valmont. Venday, Oph. 26, 5:05 AM. 2344 AA. Arroyo Athenaeum (Girl’s Dorm – Yew).

“I have until 4:30. Then it’s a full two weeks with my mom,” Lin said, miserable.

When Lin woke, Pensey was packing to go home, and Lin decided to start doing the same. Hearing her complain however, made Pensey giggle. Lin glared at her. Pensey lost it. Lin jabbed her in the side with sorcery. Then Pensey lunged at Lin, trying to half-tackle and half-tickle her. Lin took the hit, worried Pensey would hurt herself otherwise, and the two of them went down on the hardwood, Pensey still laughing, Lin pissed.

“Jeez! Lighten up, Scrooge! You are the only person I know who hates Christmas break,” Pensey said, when she could draw breath again.

“You live a charmed life,” Lin snapped. “And coming from me, that’s saying something.”

“I know the holidays are hell for lots of people for lots of reasons,” Pensey said seriously. “But the break from school is nice at least! Sleeping in? Doing what you want? Seeing old friends? Presents? Come on, everybody likes presents.”

“Presents are nice,” Lin conceded. “But do you know how many Christmas family photo ops and public appearances we will be making over the next two weeks?”

Pensey’s smile sank.

“A lot?”

Lin nodded and said:

“And all the while, I will be directly under my mother’s thumb.”

Pensey winced.

“Your brother will be there too, right?”

“Yeah. Athren’s the only one who will be keeping me sane.”

“So, are you going to be out of Arroyo? If not, maybe you could visit me one day. Meet some of my old friends I’ve told you about.”

“Solday morning, we leave for a grand tour of the rest of Ericia and Western Europa. Mom and dad call it a vacation, but it’s really a press tour. We don’t come back until the morning of Christmas Eve, which is private, at my mother’s insistence, and always… a concentrated dose of family. And Christmas Day… Well, I’m sure you have plans.”

Pensey was quiet a long moment before speaking.

“I was actually hoping I could stop by and give you your present. I’d give it to you now, but it isn’t ready yet.”

“Pen, you don’t—”

“Yes, I do. I need to. For me. Okay?”

Lin was surprised. Classmates had given her presents before, but never one that would need to be ‘prepared.’ And nobody had ever asked to visit her so casually before. One of Pensey’s many gifts was the ability to make people feel comfortable, even when she was being insistent. It’s like she’s helping you into a coat, even though you don’t think you’re cold. And then you end up feeling warm and dumb for doubting her.

“I’d… I would like that. A lot. I just have to tell them you’re coming ahead of time,” the thought sparked another possibility in her head. “Actually, Pen, what are you doing tomorrow night?”

“Watching the Muppet version of A Christmas Carol and drinking hot cocoa with mom and dad, probably?”

“Would you like to attend a fancy, storybook party instead?” Lin asked, trying to phrase it in terms that would appeal to Pensey. Sure enough, she stared at Lin with huge, awed eyes. Lin laughed. You should have been born the princess, Pen. Not me.

“Oh my god,” Pensey said. “I forgot. Your family—you host the Amagium’s Winter Ball! But I thought only students who’ve declared their discipline are allowed to attend?” Pensey asked.

“Well, since I’m hosting the damn thing, I think I can snag you an invite. Hell, I could tell my mother you’re my date.”

Pensey laughed, but her expression was apprehensive.

“Won’t that freak her out?”

“Dear God, I hope so,” Lin said wickedly. “Now I really want to do it.”

“Lin, I… I don’t have anything to wear. Well. I have maybe… one dress that is nice enough, but I’m not sure it still fits! I don’t want to go looking like a pretender. Even if I am pretending.”

Lin was slightly taller than Pensey, but their builds were similar otherwise. And as a spoiled little brat with a mother who loves to play dress up, I am sure I have something that Pensey would enjoy wearing.

“I’m sure I can take care of that. Call your parents now. I’ll tell my mom I have a date.”

—Hace Matthews. 4:26 PM. Arroyo Athenaeum (Underground Quad)—

Fitz dismissed Hace and Cyphira earlier than usual that evening. At their insistence, she had assigned them some visualization exercises and reading on akratic theory over the break, but emphasized that they should try to enjoy themselves.

As they started making their way back across campus, they started strategizing about how they could pull ahead over the break. Simply staying abreast of the Amagium’s curriculum was a challenge. But we want to go further than that. And two weeks without any kind of guidance or instruction is a recipe to get sloppy.

Things had been fine between them since their fight at Live. After Cyphira enraged Steinbeck, they were talking like nothing happened by the next period. So why do I feel my ribs clench whenever we’re alone? Things should be fine. I should be fine. But I don’t want to pretend that fight didn’t happen. I want to apologize. I want to know if you’ve forgiven me. I want to know if you meant what you said, and hate the fact that I like you. I want to clear the air so I can breathe again.

“You staying here for the entire holiday?” Hace asked. He assumed as much, since Cyphira hadn’t mentioned any other plans, and most international students, adult aspirants, and orphans stayed on campus during holidays.

Cyphira smiled.

“Yeah. Nowhere else to go. Say ‘hey’ to Sera and your mom for me!”

Cyphira had met his aunt Sera a couple times when she came to visit after work, and they immediately bonded over their mutual delight in teasing Hace.

“I was actually wondering if you wanted to have Christmas dinner with us.” Hace said slowly, then quickly added: “No pressure. Just figured it might be more fun than sticking around an empty dorm. I’m actually visiting Glem’s family on Christmas Day, and he said he would love to have you over too.”

Cyphira looked stunned.

“I… Thanks, Hace. But I think I’m gonna stay here. I’d feel bad showing up empty-handed, and… I don’t want to intrude, you know?”

Hace wanted to press her, but before their conversation, he swore that he would take her at her word. He nodded.

“The offer stands if you change your mind. But since I won’t see you until I get back…”

He reached into his satchel and pulled out Cyphira’s present. The wrapping—green metallic trees against a field of white snowflakes—had been beat to shit by the other stuff in his bag, and it wasn’t a brilliant job to begin with. But he extended it to her. Cyphira reluctantly accepted the gift with an anguished expression.

She stared at it a moment before scoffing and shaking her head.

“You ass. I just told you I didn’t have anything for you.”

“It’s a gift, Cy,” he said, testing out Fitz’s nickname for her for the first time. “Not a transaction. And it really isn’t much.”

She stared at the package and then looked back up at him.

“Should I open it?”

“Eventually,” he said shrugging.

She punched him in the shoulder, shook her head, and tore off the paper.

A crisp copy of Invisible Cities greeted her.

“This sounds stupid, but I don’t know much about books. Is this a famous one?”

Hace grabbed the back of his neck.

“Not especially? I just really enjoyed it. Figured you would too. It’s… I’m not sure how to describe it? It’s not exactly a fantasy story, but it’s speculative fiction. Like, Marcana Polo is the main character.”

“The Silk Road explorer?” Cyphira asked.

“Yeah! Except… She’s a fictional character here, and she talks about exploring these impossible places. Sort of like pocket dimensions and the Faed. So, lots of people think it’s about akrasia. But I always read it differently. It’s bigger than that. It’s one of those stories about stories—”

Cyphira hugged him. He froze at first, his heart quivering rather than beating. He returned the hug gently at first, worried about her broken rib.

“No more spoilers,” she chided. “I’m gonna read it over break.”

Her breath was warm against his ear, and her hunter green hair smelled like Christmas. Fresh garlands. Clove, cinnamon, and anise. It was natural too. A quirk of her fae heritage. He heard her offhandedly mention it in frustration, because it always overpowered other scents, so she could never wear perfume. But it intoxicated Hace.

He was first to let go, afraid of holding her too tight, too long, or some other wrong way. He worried the feelings in his heart would bleed through his wyrd. When she let go, she wore a different expression than he had seen before: a conflicted smile. It’s like she’s in pain, but she is trying so hard to be happy.

“What’s wrong?” Hace asked.

“You’re my best friend,” she said at last. “And I don’t think I’ve thanked you for that yet. Even once. I didn’t even thank you after you saved my ass at Live. I was a total bitch.”

The tension in Hace’s chest broke instantly.

“No, I’ve actually been wanting… Well, I’ve waiting for the right time to apologize. Like, I nearly got Fitz killed, I left you alone when you were injured, and I was a dick after. I just didn’t know if you ever wanted to talk about it again.”

Cyphira snickered.

“I didn’t really. Usually, I just pretend things like that never happened. Move along with my life. People put up with me or they don’t. But like… Every time my rib hurts, I think about what I said to you and that hurts worse. You didn’t deserve that. At all.”

Hace gestured no worries and started to answer, but Cyphira held up a hand to stop him.

“I’m just… not very good at this. Like, actual friendship. I can get along with people just fine. Unlike Valmont, I know how to behave and talk like a human being, but I’m not used to…this.” She held up the book, wearing another tormented smile.

“Well, get used to it,” Hace said, and grinned.

Cyphira rolled her eyes and laughed. Hace felt his cheeks go hot, and realized that she was also flushed. It’s cold tonight. At least, by Southern California’s standards. Don’t let it go to your head. Don’t try to convince yourself it means something.

The usual bell signaling the end of the day’s classes went off, heralding the official start of winter break.

“I guess that means we’re free,” Cyphira said. “Sera picking you up?”

“Uh, yeah,” Hace said.

“Well, don’t keep her waiting.”

Hace reshouldered his satchel. He couldn’t wait to escape. He wanted to stay there forever. He felt compelled to say something else. Some cool guy goodbye. Nothing romantic. But like. Nothing unromantic either. Instead, he simply said:

“Merry Christmas, Cyphira.”

She smiled again, guarded but sincere.

“Merry Christmas, Hace.”

— Lin. Satday, Ophiuchus 27, 12:24 AM. Arroyo (Valmont Estate) —

Lin and Athren sat in their dimmed home theater, an emptied bowl of popcorn between them, and their mutual favorite Christmas movie on the big screen. It was an ironic modern classic that drove both Mirian and Athenon huffing mad. But it was a fun sibling ritual. Athren first showed it to Lin when she turned nine, and they had watched it the first day of break ever since. If this was the sum total of Christmas, it would be great. This is what Christmas should be. This is the Christmas that everybody else seems to have.

On the big screen, Fronz Gruber sneered:

“You know my name but who are you? Just another Erician who saw too many movies as a child? Another orphan of a bankrupt culture who thinks he’s Jost Kennedy?”

Lin smiled and said:

“I love that line. Like, it’s a great villain taunt by itself, but it’s also this backhanded compliment that builds up McClain. Because he just owns it, you know? Han McClain is Jost Kennedy! I mean, I would love it for a bad guy to compare me to Ericia’s greatest cowboy.”

Athren grinned and studied his sister for a moment.

“Yeah. I used to think the same thing. Now… I dunno. I still want to be a hero. But I like to think I’m a little more level-headed than a wild west gunslinger. I hope I never have to kill anybody, you know? Let alone a whole building full of terrorists. Those odds aren’t great.”

“Yeah, of course,” Lin acknowledged, wary of a lecture. “But you know what I mean, right? I want that kind of heroic presence.”

“Pretty sure you’ve already got it,” Athren said, smirking.

Lin grinned. They watched Die Hard for another brief interlude, and Athren spoke up:

“How are you liking the Athenaeum?”

Lin blinked and took a deep breath. Where do I start?

“I’ve been so busy I haven’t really had time to consider it, you know? Like, I love it. It’s definitely what I want to do. And I’m good at it! I’ve already set a couple records.”

“I know. Word travels quick. And if you think the schedule is intense now? Wait until you’ve declared your discipline. I’ve just started proctoring third years. My life is a nightmare,” he groaned.

“Yes. How do you find the time to date a different model, princess, or actress every Venday?” Lin asked, snottily.

“I have a very enthusiastic matchmaker,” Athren muttered testily.

Lin gestured deepest condolences, and emanated something to the effect of ‘there, there, big brother.’ Athren swatted her with a pillow and she cackled. It will be my turn to deal with mom soon enough. I have to get my kicks in now.

They watched another moment of the movie, followed by another question from Athren:

“What about you? I’m guessing your ‘date’ tomorrow isn’t an actual date?”

“She’s my best friend,” Lin said proudly. “And my roommate.”

Athren made a great show of looking surprised.

“You’ve never had one of those before. At least, nobody you’ve told me about.”

“I always said you were my best friend,” Lin said. “Like, in interviews and stuff.”

“Did mom tell you to say that?” Athren asked.

“No!” Lin said, offended.

“Aww,” Athren said, gesturing affection, followed by compassion. “But you know how sad that is? I shouldn’t count. Like, if that’s true, I’m honestly happy to be replaced. You deserve somebody you get to choose for yourself, you know?”

Lin smiled and nodded.

“I have other friends too. Vetha and I got off on the wrong foot, but we’re pretty close now! Also, there’s Esana and Milana—you may have noticed them. The twins?”

Athren smiled broadly.

“I think I’ve seen them around. Hispanic girls, right?” Lin nodded and Athren answered in kind. “Glad to hear you’ve hit your stride. I knew you’d be a natural.”

“Still, I’m sad I don’t get to see you much on campus,” Lin said. “I think we talked more often when I was at home.”

“Like I said: my schedule is a nightmare,” Athren said, and gestured a finger-gun to his head. “Your time will come, believe me.”

They watched the rest of the movie without interruption. Hantz Gruber stained the bottom of the Nakatomi Plaza, McClain tipped his hat at Powell, Ms. McClain punched the scumbag reporter in his stupid face, and Argyle drove everybody off into the Christmas sunrise. All was right with the world.

“Want to watch something else?” Lin asked eagerly.

“I don’t have that kind of energy, kid,” Athren said, chuckling. “But I’m down to chat a little bit more before bed. What else is new in your life? Any guy friends?” He bounced his eyebrows.

Cyphira’s words echoed in her ears: “I forgot you’re still allergic to boy cooties.” Lin grimaced internally and shrugged noncommittally.

“There are some decent looking guys in my cohort,” she said, trying to sound casual. “But nobody ‘special,’ if that’s what you mean. What about you? Any of your dates memorable?

“Keep talking about my thoroughly-artificial love-life and I’m going to sleep.”

Lin laughed, and wondered what else to ask. There has to be something else I can bug him with…But then she remembered something she had almost completely slipped from her mind. The essay Carroll let me read.

“I read your essay,” she said. “On dad’s policies in the Middle East.”

“Oh. Yeah, Master Carroll asked for my permission first. Was surprised you wanted to read it. What’d you think?”

Lin opened her mouth and shrugged again. It was a complex report analyzing the lack of Amagiate intervention in the storm of wars caused by the Islamic Triumvirate of Syria, Iraq, and the Levant. ITSIL was a radical, theocratic Sunni state, steadily expanding throughout the middle east. During their father’s tenure as Archon, he repeatedly voted against “getting involved” with the region, even though their unregulated magical warfare was becoming increasingly common, complex, and violent.

“It’s still a little bit beyond me to be honest. The whole situation with ITSIL is…complicated to say the least. I think that we, as a culture, don’t know enough about it to offer a solution that won’t be more destructive than the current problem. So I think dad made the right call to vote against intervention. But like. I think I get your point. It is hypocritical. Sometimes I think that’s… unavoidable though.”

Athenon was famously hard on crime and conservative as Amagiate leaders went. He had drawn criticism for vetoing many proposed exemptions in medicine and artifice due to their potential for malefaction. In his essay, Athren had pointed out that the bizarre flip side of the ongoing, unregulated wars was a localized renaissance in healing magic. Medithurges in the region were performing operations thought to be impossible. There was even a market for black market medical tourism. Wealthy Ericians were actually flying into warzones to receive breakthrough treatments in nerve damage.

“Look, I’m not one of those bleeding hearts who claims dad’s a fascist. But he is okay with some pretty draconian policies at home in the name of preventing magical crime. Yet our bloody shirt—the thing we use to justify our existence, as an institution—is preventing magical war. Cataclysms specifically. And he refused to lift a finger to prevent the greatest magical conflicts since the Great Wars. We can do better. We should do better.’

“I’m not sure it’s our problem to solve,” Lin said, a touch timid.

“I’m not saying we march in there and play world police. But we should be trying to help them solve their issues. We should be sending delegates. At least studying the issues instead of hoping they go away, while ITSIL gets closer and closer to blowing another hole in the planet.”

“I know,” Lin admitted.

“Anyway. Difficult stuff. Scary stuff. Not the right way to end a good night. I suppose I have one more movie in me.”

“Really?! What do you want to watch!?” Lin asked.

There was a wicked gleam in Athren’s eyes.

“Have I shown you the heart-warming holiday classic, Reindeer Games, yet?”

Lin’s brow furrowed.

“Is that like… a Rudolph movie?”

“Not exactly,” Athren chuckled.

— Lin. Satday, Ophiuchus 27, 1:20 PM. Arroyo (Valmont Estate) —

Reindeer Games was tawdry, violent, and almost—but not entirely—bereft of good will towards men. It also cemented Lin’s opinion that more Christmas movies should feature machine guns and pyromancy. Athren fell asleep halfway through, but Lin devoured the whole thing, staying up as late as she had ever been. When she woke at nine thirty the following morning, her father teased her for her late rising, and her mother said that skipping sleep was bad for her skin.

After eating, she spent most of the morning pacing her room, anxiously awaiting Pensey’s arrival. She cleaned her room, unnecessarily, since it had not been occupied since Libra, and the family staff had regularly dusted and vacuumed since.

God. I look like I live in a dollhouse. Pensey had put up posters in their dorm room, as well as pictures of her family and pets, and a few prints of cartoon and anime characters. Lin’s mother, Mirian, had conditioned her to find such things distasteful. But now she worried that her room felt impossibly dry and stuffy in comparison.

Her room’s furniture was all matched mahogany, hardwood floors covered by Persian rugs. She had a four-poster queen sized bed, and the far wall held a window with stained glass margins, looking out over the northern reach of the Grand arroyo.

What if she hates it? No. There’s no chance of that. She loves this princess crap. But it might make her treat me differently. Pensey always expressed awe when Lin’s family was brought up, but she usually forgot about it entirely. This might make it harder for her to forget. Lin bit her lower lip. She doesn’t treat me like a dignitary, and I don’t want that to change, ever.

“Yo,” a voice came from the door. “Found this enchanting aspirant wandering around outside. Says she’s your date for tonight?”

Lin turned to find Athren escorting Pensey into her room, a wry smile on his face. Pensey’s cheeks glowed and her posture was starched straight. She wore a sort of deer in the headlights smile. Finally, she gave Lin a little wordless wave at waist height—a silly greeting that had worked its way into the private language of their friendship.

Lin raced across her room to hug her. Pensey yelped and laughed as she returned her embrace.

“We saw each other yesterday!” Pensey protested.

“Yeah. You know how bored I’ve been since?” Lin asked.

“Ouch!” Athren said, wounded. “I show you my finest holiday films, and this is the thanks I get! Guess I’ll leave you two to your girl stuff.”

“No! Wait, Athren, I didn’t mean it like that. Besides, you haven’t met Pensey.”

“I literally met her at the front gate,” he said, winking and sticking his tongue out.

“Ugh. You don’t know her though. She deserves more than a walk upstairs!”

“I can tell. But mom wants me to help set up for tonight.”

“Now there are two reasons for you to stay up here.”

Athren grabbed his chin and seriously considered it. Pensey looked back and forth throughout their exchange, and waved her arms fecklessly, emanating apologies for reasons Lin couldn’t fathom.

“I guess I wouldn’t mind having an excuse to disappear for a few minutes,” Athren said. “If you don’t object, Pensey?”

“Nope!” she practically yelped.

Athren chuckled, charmed.

“Relax. Mom’s really the only one who bites aside from Lin.”

“Hey!” Lin snapped and Pensey laughed.

“So, I assume Lin’s told you all about our holiday dog and pony show. What are your family’s plans?” Athren asked, leaning against Lin’s dresser.

“Uh, we’re pretty traditional, I guess?” Pensey was practically stammering.

Lin had never seen her so nervous. Or so red in the cheeks…Oh. Oh! Athren was very handsome. He had their father’s masculine jawline, high cheekbones, and generally strong and muscular build, but the severity of his appearance was tempered by their mother’s slender features. He was also seven years their senior, but looked younger, especially with his hair shorter than usual. Lin understood all that objectively, but had not considered how it might affect her romance-obsessed, boy-crazy best friend.

“Christmas day we have friends and local family over, open presents in the morning,” Pensey said, racing past any details. “On Christmas Eve we do a family dinner, and usually go to church for a midnight service.”

“Is your family very religious?” Athren asked.

“I guess by today’s standards?” Pensey replied bashfully.

“She’s presbyterian,” Lin said. “A little more Jesus-y than you, me, and mom, but a lot less than dad.”

Pen considered Lin with an amused expression.

“I didn’t realize you had assigned me a Jesus rating.”

“We’re Paxigratian Episcopalians. Descended from paladins, lest our father ever forget to remind us,” Athren said dryly. “We give everybody a Jesus rating.”

“What’s Lin’s Jesus rating?” Pensey asked.

Athren stroked his chin in consideration.

“When she was little? I’d give her about seven out of ten Jesus Points. Good little Sunday school girl. Now? Less than half that. Learning about egregores kind of screws with your faith. The metaphysical evidence proves gods are real, but as for who created who, or one pantheon being truer than others…” Athren shrugged.

“I’d give Athren one Jesus Point,” Lin said. “Just enough to stay out of hell.”

“I wouldn’t place any serious wagers on that,” Athren chuckled. “It takes some weird mental gymnastics to keep the faith as an amagia. My father is convinced the Abrahamic God created us all, and the Amagium has His approval, while other gods and pantheons are just garden variety egregores. Which is just… strange to me. Like, from what little scripture I’ve read, I think it’s pretty clear Jesus would be an Anticordance activist today. Christianity is what led to the collapse of the first Amagium.”

“Wow, that is a lot of oversimplifications in very few sentences,” Lin said wryly. “Especially for our athenaeum’s projected valedictorian for the cohort of 37.”

“Okay, yes. In our meticulously groomed Bibles, Jesus very conveniently teaches that it is wrong to repress wyrds in a way that interfere with religious worship. In reality? I imagine what he said was more direct. Something along the lines of ‘to hell with anybody and anything that imposes restrictions on a person’s wyrd.’ Really, Chaucer is the one who reconciled Christianity and the Amagium with magic licenses, yet she’s widely regarded as a tyrant while we sing carols for Jesus every year, even though I bet he’d despise us.”

“And you thought I was a Scrooge,” Lin said to Pensey, then started teasing her brother. “Way to get all political, Athren. You’re making Pensey uncomfortable!”

Pensey’s eyes got huge again, and she tried to object. Athren straightened up, reached for her hand, and knelt to gently kiss it in one fluid sequence of movements. She made a squeaking noise that reminded Lin of the human equivalent of an incanter error.

“Forgive me,” Athren said emanating sincerity. Pensey made another squeaking noise. Lin was worried her brain broke. “Thank you for putting up with my sister.”

“Yeah, feel free to leave now!” Lin said.

“And here we were having such a lovely time,” Athren said wistfully, then strolled out of Lin’s room, humming Jingle Bell Rock.

“So. Yeah. That’s my brother. Charming when he isn’t being a broody dickhead,” Lin said.

“Charming? He’s straight out of a storybook! Gorgeous. I mean. I’ve seen him around campus, and in magazines, but up close…” she seemed at a loss for words.

“Well, I give you my blessing and wish you luck,” Lin said, laughing.

“Yeah, right,” Pen said, rolling her eyes. She turned her attention back to Lin’s room. “Your room is huge! I mean, poster bed? Private bathroom? And this view of the arroyo!”

Lin lowered her eyes to the opulent rugs, not knowing what to say.

“I’m pretty spoiled.”  

I am pretty spoiled,” Pensey corrected, crossing her arms. “But I try not to beat myself up over it, and you shouldn’t either. From the sound of things, all this,” she gestured at Lin’s room, “Comes with some serious baggage. You put up with a lot. So own what you have.”

Lin smiled.

“Alright. Want to try on some dresses?”

— 5:20 PM. Arroyo (Valmont Estate) —

Lin enjoyed playing dress up as a child, but she had never shared her clothes with a friend before. Or talked about style in any meaningful way. She and Pensey spent two hours in her room, trying on various articles from her extensive wardrobe. Lin had hit a growth spurt shortly before enrolling in the Athenaeum, and grew out of a number of blouses and dresses. Fortunately, a few of them still fit Pensey, including a scarab green velvet dress. It was a V-neck, tea length dress, with three-quarter sleeves. And it looks tailor made for her. After a great deal of haggling, Lin convinced Pensey to accept it as a Christmas present, explaining—truthfully—that it looked better on her anyway.

The next two hours were occupied with hair and make-up, domains Lin usually despised, though Pensey’s eagerness to learn made the process fun. They put Pensey’s hair into a half ponytail with ringlets framing her face. For her own part, Lin wore a French twist with two long side bangs and a black silk qipao with a golden gingko leaf pattern. It was a little too big for her last New Year’s, but now it fit like a glove. This will have to do.

Lin wished she was just three years older, so she could don an aspirant’s dress uniform instead, which was awarded once aspirants declared their discipline. Male students were expected to wear their dress attire, while women had the choice of formal asfalis attire or their dress uniforms. There was no doubt in Lin’s mind which she would choose.

When they came downstairs together, Mirian cooed, clucked, and gushed about how pretty they looked. But when Pensey wandered out of earshot, her mother whispered in Japanese:

“She looks lovely. You did a wonderful job with her makeup. But that dress is old, Lin,” she said, gesturing at her qipao. “You wore it to New Year’s Eve last year.”

Lin wanted to shrug off the comment. She told herself she didn’t give a fuck. But it still hurt. She dared to feel pretty on her own terms, and apparently, she had done it wrong. According to her mother, at least. Last year I nearly tripped over the damn hem every time I took a step. But now that I can walk comfortably, and have an inch of ground clearance, it’s ‘old.’ Great. Awesome.

“Thanks mom,” Lin said hoarsely.

Her mother kissed her on her forehead and shooed her away. Pensey was waiting with a rare expression on her face. Curious, concerned, but also wary and protective.

“What did she say to you?” Pensey asked.

“Doesn’t matter,” Lin said, forcing a smile.

“She picked on you again, didn’t she?”

Lin nodded, holding her smile. Pensey shot Mirian a naked glare, but her mother was distracted by a symphone call and mercifully didn’t seem to notice. Lin tugged Pensey’s wrist, pulling her away.

“Don’t give her the satisfaction,” Lin said.

Pensey acquiesced but her cheeks were puffed with anger again.


Guests started trickling in at 5:50, and the Valmont Estate was ready to accommodate them. Appetizers were always Lin’s favorite part of the ball, and this year they outdid themselves—smoked trout and gouda on toasted bread, fried artichoke hearts with creole seasonings, bite-sized pastries housing beef tartare and quail egg. The buffet that followed boasted a carving station serving prime rib, turkey, ham, salmon, and a curious, pepper-crusted soy-derived product produced via a new alchemical process that was only recently exempted.

Aspirants of age—and those mistaken as such—enjoyed the open bar, which was the single greatest source of blackmail material in the Southern Californian region of the Amagium. Mirian was a notorious enabler, refilling half-drained glasses, and inviting younger aspirants to ‘help’ her finish her own drinks. And it always amused Lin. She liked that side of her mother. The festive, mischievous hostess. But it was a side that seemed to exist solely for strangers.

As dessert was being served, Athenon gave a brief speech that was refreshingly apolitical, festive, and congratulatory to the term’s new graduates. After that, he turned over the microphone to an MC who started playing dance music.

As much as Lin found it embarrassing, she enjoyed dancing. It was another decent Christmas tradition. A taste of what the season should be like. She and Pensey danced together at first. Then Athren cut in, nearly giving Pensey a stroke, while Athren’s best friend, Vith, danced with Lin. They danced with at least a dozen partners apiece, though most were older aspirants who had become family friends over the years.

But around nine o’clock, Pensey made the mistake of pointing out a blonde third year, a freshly minted aspiring animatheurge. By ten o’clock, Lin worked up the courage to approach him and direct his attention to Pensey. As he approached her, bashful and slightly confused, Pensey stared slack-jawed at Lin, eyes wide and desperate. She frantically gestured ‘traitor!’ as Lin gave her a twinkly-fingered wave, and retreated up the stairs leading to the floor above the ballroom.

I need a break. This is fun, but I don’t know how Pensey isn’t exhausted. The second floor was the perfect place for a brief repose. She could listen to the music, watch Pensey dance with herthird year, and enjoy the party while standing apart from it. Athren seemed to have vanished, possibly drunk. On the terrace outside, Athenon was enjoying an annual cigar with several of the new graduates, laughing and providing sage advice.

Then Mirian glided over, wearing a glazed smile and holding a wineglass. She squeezed Lin’s shoulder affectionately before taking up a spot next to her on the railing.

“It’s so nice to see you getting along with Pensey,” Mirian said thickly. She seemed borderline delirious.

She’s definitely more than a little drunk. Mom can hold her liquor frighteningly well, but volume always overcomes her tolerance at these parties. Something about her comment bothered Lin though, aside from the mild slurring. Something in the phrasing or tone of the statement tugged at her.

“What do you mean?” Lin asked.

“What I said. It’s just nice to see you enjoying each other’s company.” Mirian said, matter-of-factly, and took a sip of wine. After a brief pause, she added: “I knew she would be perfect.”

Cold cored Lin’s stomach. Mirian continued in Japanese, and the cold deepened, gripping her by spine. Lin’s mother had insisted that she, Athren, and even Athenon, learn Japanese. So far as Lin could tell, it wasn’t out of any kind of cultural affection for her heritage. She simply wanted a convenient, relatively safe way to backchannel with her family in public.

“As a security measure, your father and I were permitted to review your cohort’s assessment scores and profiles. I read all the girl’s essays. Saw their interview answers. And I just knew she was the one right away.” She turned her gaze to Pensey below, twirling on the dance floor. “Isn’t she pretty? So smart. So nice. Just a little vulnerable. And you two look lovely together. Like the sun and moon.”

“You… set us up?” Lin asked.

There was a fleeting flash of horror, where Lin was worried that her mother had somehow influenced Pensey. She has a saint’s patience with me. She persistently tried to befriend me, even when I shut her out. If she had been bribed, or pressured somehow… No. I trust her more than that. And I trust myself enough now to know the difference. Lin’s fists clenched involuntarily.

“Are you seriously considering taking her as a lover?” Mirian asked blithely, still speaking Japanese.


A ghost of a smile flickered across Mirian’s lips.

“You were the one who said she was your ‘date,’” she said innocently, and took another sip of wine before continuing, and nodding at her below: “But judging from her essay questions, I got the sense that she prefers men. For her life goals, she said she wants to be a leximancer and start a family. You never know though. Put in a lot of effort early on and you may persuade her.”

“And how would that fit into your grand plan?” Lin answered, also in Japanese. “I thought you want me to take a husband and start pumping out children as soon as my body permits it.”

“All the more reason to fool around with girls instead of boys when you are young,” Mirian said, smirking. She continued, drunk yet deadly serious: “I don’t want to deny you happiness, Alinore. But you must learn to pursue it responsibly. You must learn cunning and discretion. You must be discerning, even when it comes to mistresses.”

The full scope of her mother’s meddling short-circuited Lin’s brain. Her mouth fell open and she could only scoff. You honestly think I’m gay. You are giving me permission—no, encouraging me—to seduce my best friend as a mistress, without even consulting her. Without even meeting her.

“Pensey Hayes has been a better sister in three months than you have been a mother for twelve years,” Lin said in Japanese, emanating menace. “She is my precious friend. Not my ‘mistress.’ Not my property. And definitely not your chess piece.” Lin finished in English, speaking in blunt: “Stay away from her, you awful bitch.”

As Lin stormed away, her mother giggled, and called after her:

“Merry Christmas, Alinore!”

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