Alinore Valmont. Solday. Libra 8th, 2344 AA. 9:07 PM. Arroyo Athenaeum (Girls Dorm – Yew).
Is she crying? Oh. Good. God.
Lin rolled her eyes and turned her body to face the wall. She didn’t want her roommate to find her glaring at her with disgust.
Really? Are we seriously sobbing now? How are you not happy? We got in. We are aspirants. We can study magic. It’s not like your parents can pressgang you into joining the Athenaeum. I thought you said you wanted to be a leximancer! Do you think they let you cry in court?
It was supposed to be one of those inescapably boring and meaningless meetings. Their families ran into each other as they were moving into their shared dorm room, inevitably complicated by the fact that, oh look, it’s your father. From the news. And the papers. And the magazines. Pensey Hayes’ parents played it cooler than most. They weren’t obsequious, or hostile, or flustered. Lin guessed them to be politically liberal, mildly religious, and amagiate moderates.
Her first impression of Pensey, after assessments had ended, was one of pity. She was scared, even after she discovered she made the cut. Then again, they paired her with Steinbeck, and nobody wants to be stuck with that mean old bastard. Once they met face to face, speaking voice, gesture, and emanation, the girl was still extremely nervous, but Lin saw that she was beautiful as well. A very cynical part of Lin wondered if the faculty paired them because they would be photogenic together. Ultimately, she decided it unlikely though. She overwhelms me. She looks like the kind of girl that makes people smell flowers when she smiles.
Her assessment of Pensey Hayes hardly improved as they attended orientation together. The girl was squeaky. Smiley. And still so damn nervous! Occasionally she would flit over to Lin with some inane question, or bit of nonsense, only to seem sad—or possibly afraid—when Lin didn’t reciprocate like some sort of cartoon chipmunk.
And now she’s here. With me. Crying.
Behind her, Pensey got up and opened the door to the hallway, still sniffling. Lin could hear her muffled, nasal impacted voice asking a proctor for directions to the bathroom. She knit her brows shut.
It’s going to be a long eleven years.
— Lunday, Libra 9th. 6AM. Arroyo —
Boys and girls gathered outside their respective dorms for a half mile run around the school’s track, followed by a mix of calisthenic exercises and Pilates. Breakfast followed their work out in the central dining complex—a cavernous, multi-story building filled with a number of symvision screens tuned to various news networks and morning shows.
While Lin was getting cereal, she felt a hand grab her hair bun. She wheeled around, ready for murder, only to see her older brother smirking at her as he walked away. She smiled at Athren, then stuck her tongue out. I would seriously kill anybody else for that. I wish we could sit together. But Lin had heard that it was impertinent for junior aspirants—those who had yet to pass their discipline declaration—to sit with senior aspirants.
Instead, Lin made her way to the back of the second-floor dining room, where she noticed a number of other newly minted aspirants were sitting. There was an inviting, empty stretch of a long table, and Lin started to approach it.
“Hey, Quiet Girl!” A voice called. “Quiet Girl, come sit with us!”
Lin paid no attention until the girl repeated herself. It was the chatty, green-haired, golden-eyed half-fae from Assessments. ‘Quiet Girl?’ That’s my name now? Just because I shushed her? Lin approached cautiously, unsure if this was some kind of challenge or joke at her expense. There were three others seated next to her already, wearing smiles that might be pleasant or predatory. Two Hispanic girls who looked like they might be twins, and a Black girl wearing glasses. Lin remembered the sisters had been called into Hemingway’s mentor group. Aspiring Keepers then. She approached the table somewhat cautiously.
“My name’s Lin,” she said, taking a seat on the bench. “You are?”
“Cyphira,” the girl said, smiling. “This is Esana, that’s Milana, and that’s Senice,” she said, pointing at the other girls in sequence, who nodded, gestured greetings, or waved.
“Nice to meet you,” Lin said, though even to her it sounded like a question. “Did you want something from me?”
Cyphira looked vaguely confused and shook her head.
“You’re a Keeper Aspirant too, right? I just figured we could—oh. Hello!”
Something behind Lin snagged Cyphira’s attention. Lin turned to find Pensey standing there, timid and hopeful. Was she shadowing me?
“Is it alright if I join you?” Pensey asked.
“Yeah, more the merrier!” Cyphira said.
“I’m Pensey. Lin’s roommate,” she said, smiling.
“Ah! Senice is my roommate,” Cyphira said, then jerked a thumb at the other girls. “And these two are together as well.”
Milana rolled her eyes.
“I can’t believe they did us like that, just because we’re twins. I want to meet new people.”
“We’re meeting new people right now,” Esana said, dry. “Besides, I’m the one who should be complaining. I have to put up with your snoring for another eleven years.”
Milana wadded up her napkin and shot it at Esana with sorcery. The other girls laughed. Lin didn’t see how it was particularly funny, but she tried to smile like she was in on the joke.
“What are you declaring, Pensey?” Senice asked.
“Oh! Um. I want to be a leximancer,” Pensey said.
“Really? Same!” Senice said, smiling brightly.
“Nice,” Cyphira said. “Looks like we’re the law-and-order table then.
A tone sounded, and all the monitors suddenly switched from their various news networks to show a fatherly, bespectacled amagia who introduced himself as Headmaster Falkner. At orientation, they had informed aspirants that breakfast would double as a morning assembly, and after announcements were over, students were free to talk amongst themselves or leave for their classes. The announcements were mostly self-evident; the sort of common-sense stuff that schools always covered on first days.
“Is it true that you’re Athenon Valmont’s daughter?” Senice whispered, even though Falkner was still giving his welcome speech.
Lin nearly shushed her, but caught herself. I don’t want to be stuck with ‘Quiet Girl.’
“Yes, I am,” Lin said.
“No shit!” Cyphira exclaimed.
Lin smiled weakly. The conversation was a waking nightmare that would haunt her for the rest of her life. What’s it like? What’s your dad like? Have you also met this other person since they are also famous? Is it true that…? And so on until Lin wanted to cave her own head in. She had found that it was best to be humble, lest people assume she was stuck up from the start, and avoid long answers. The truth was never that exciting, and even though people always seemed disappointed by what she had to say, the more she spoke, the more stupid questions they would ask.
Fortunately, the girls waited for Falkner to finish his speech before the girls started bombarding her with inquiries. Lin answered most of them automatically, providing practiced responses between bites of food. As soon as she finished eating, she moved to excuse herself.
“I’m sorry. I’d like to review some material before class.”
Cyphira looked confused again and chuckled.
“We don’t even have an assignment yet.”
“I know. But I like to read ahead. See what we’ll be covering before we cover it,” Lin said as she rose from the table with her tray.
“Suit yourself, Quiet Girl,” Cyphira said, casually.
Lin froze. What the hell is your problem?
“I’m not quiet,” Lin said. “I just don’t like talking when there’s no point.”
The air at the table changed. Everyone’s wyrd withdrew slightly, as if Lin had slapped Cyphira. She couldn’t understand anyone’s expression, except for Pensey, who was very clearly nervous or scared. Lin bobbed her head slightly, and excused herself to drop off her tray.
The first academic class of their matriculation was geometry. Lin found math to be hopelessly dry. Algebra came to her easily enough, and she had studied some trigonometry in preparation for the assessment exams, determined to pass them on her first try. English Literature followed, which Lin found slightly more engaging than math, though most of the rules of composition struck her as common sense. She looked forward to declaring her discipline at fifteen, at which point magical studies would completely supplant academic subjects.
Just before lunch, they had another brief bout of physical training. An eighth-year Aspirant, Cerinna Schweizer, showed them the most fundamental forms of erudensis—the Amagium’s signature fighting style, which was a mix of martial arts and quick bursts of sorcery. A wyrd was an incredibly flexible resource, allowing combatants to buffer incoming hits, enhance their muscular strength, or launch invisible blows that an opponent could only sense and defend with sorcery of their own.
To Lin’s surprise, the combat lecture was far duller than math and lit. Her father and brother had shown her several techniques that were well-beyond the proctor’s introductory lesson. But after half an hour, Schweizer told the girls to partner up and start practicing what they learned.
“Take it slow and easy, okay?” Schweizer said. “We’re just getting used to the movements and the principles.”
A serious-looking blonde girl approached Lin immediately.
“Miss Valmont, will you partner with me?”
The blonde girl also knew what she was doing, moving with a degree of ease and surety that spoke of prior experience. She had drawn Lin’s eye while they practiced Schweizer’s example. Good. I think we can get some real practice in.
“Uh, I’d be honored. But please, call me Lin,” she said, extending her hand.
“Kimiss Knight,” the girl said, taking her hand. Her expression was respectful, but all business.
They stepped opposite of each other, bowed, and fell into a quick exchange of blows. Both of them knew how to moderate their strength, and Lin was pleased to find herself breathing heavily after only a couple minutes practice.
Lin turned to find Pensey squared off against an extremely tall, athletic girl, six feet even if nothing. She was one of the girls who had been drafted into Hawthorne’s keeping group. Lin thought she heard somebody call her Vetha. And she was showing no mercy.
Pensey managed to defend her head with her hands, and buffered the blows coming into her chest with her wyrd. But the blows were still landing, and to Lin’s eye, they were coming in hard enough to leave bruises. Vetha fought like a boxer with solid, but unrefined technique. All she had was overwhelming offense; no idea how to use her wyrd beyond making her muscles hit harder, and her guard was virtually non-existent.
Do not suffer bullies in your cohort. Carroll had warned Lin in one of their early amail correspondences. Bullies seize authority without contributing anything to those who follow them, and crush the esteem of those they deem unworthy. Unfortunately, the Athenaeum often mistakes such meanspirited hazing for productive rivalry. A way to weed the weak from the herd. If you want to be as sharp as you can, you must keep your friends and rivals sharp as well.
Pensey coughed as the girl landed a nasty kidney shot. Lin winced, but before she could look away, she felt a swell of anger and desperation from her roommate’s wyrd. Pensey cried out, shoved her palm forward, and launched a wild, telekinetic blow that struck Vetha directly in the nose. It was a solid hit too, strong enough to stagger the taller girl backwards. Lin found herself grinning. Now that was magical.
Pensey drew her hands to her mouth, horrified, and approached to apologize.
“I’m so sorry! Are you alri—”
Vetha backhanded Pensey savagely as she approached, knocking her to the ground in a spin. A nasal gagging noise escaped her throat before she hocked a bloody glob of saliva on the grass.
Okay. I’ve seen enough. Lin gestured to her partner to pause for a moment, and Kimiss nodded.
“Vetha, right?” Lin asked, approaching the taller girl.
Vetha looked at Lin skeptically and asked:
“Is there a problem?”
“No, I’d say you’re a nuisance at best,” Lin said, mildly.
Vetha’s eyebrows jumped.
“I’ll excuse you. As soon as you apologize.”
“She sucker-punched me!” Vetha said, scoffing. “I just got her back.”
Lin snickered and folded her arms.
“You were beating her stupid and she landed an honest hit. I could have driven a truck through the gap in your guard. When she tried to extend you a courtesy, you exploited it.”
Vetha looked over to see if their proctor was watching, but she was at the other end of the field, coaching two girls on how to throw proper punches. Lin raised an eyebrow at Vetha. Teacher isn’t watching hot stuff. You going to step up or not? Vetha drew her head back, sneering, and gestured for Lin to put up her guard.
The two girls squared off. Her form was decent, but again, she had almost no urdic control. And I got under her skin. Which means she’ll be impulsive. All I need to do is wait for her attack.
But after nearly full five seconds of posturing, Lin got bored and swatted Vetha in the ear with sorcery. The literal slap in the face was enough to goad the big girl into action. She rushed forward, telegraphing a thuggish, sorcery-assisted punch. Lin easily dodged, and torqued Vetha’s body off balance with sorcery. It was a perfect opening for a follow-up attack, and Lin pointedly ignored it.
Vetha turned, launched a sloppy feint with her wyrd, followed by a reckless stream of punches, like the ones she had initially battered Pensey with. Lin deflected each blow with her wyrd or her hands, stepping back steadily until Vetha tired herself out. Then Lin reached out with her hand and slapped her full in the face. Harder this time.
Vetha growled, emitting an impressive, but impractical telekinetic shockwave to drive Lin back. Again, Lin answered the force with a swell of energy from her own wyrd, and stepped to the side. Now that the difference in their skills were evident, Vetha was getting more cautious. But she’s pissed enough that if she lands a hit with her wyrd, it will really hurt. Just like the shot Pensey scored. Their fight had also drawn a crowd of onlookers, which was sure to attract the proctor. I need to end this quickly.
The next time Vetha took a step forward, Lin coiled her wyrd around Vetha’s supporting ankle and yanked it backwards with all her power. As the girl pitched forward, eyes wide with panic, Lin considered kicking her in the jaw, but decided that would be a bit much for the first day. Instead, Lin let Vetha fall on her chest, and planted her shoe on the girl’s head before she could get up.
Lin slowly, but steadily applied weight to Vetha’s jaw as she spoke:
“When somebody scores an honest hit, you either take it in stride, or yield until you can cool off,” Lin said, as if admonishing a small child. “Pensey thought she broke your nose. Abuse her kindness again, and I’ll show you what a real sucker punch looks like. Do you understand?”
Vetha, who had been winded by the fall, slapped the grass twice in surrender. Lin immediately released her foot, but kept her guard up. When Vetha sat up to catch her breath, Lin extended a hand, but was still prepared for some sort of reprisal. Vetha was red in the face and still breathing heavily, but she accepted Lin’s help.
“What’s going on over here?” the proctor asked, finally having noticing the disruption in the training ranks.
“I’m sorry, Miss Schweizer,” Lin said, bowing to the upperclassman. “Things got a little heated and I lost control.”
The proctor raised an eyebrow and then looked to Vetha for confirmation.
“It was my fault. I didn’t keep my guard up,” Vetha said.
“Funny. Looked to me like she had her foot on your head,” Schweizer said, gesturing to Lin.
Lin felt herself flush, ever-so-slightly, but tried to maintain a neutral expression. She definitely smells the rat. Not much I can say to talk my way out of it though. Again, Schweizer studied the crowd of onlookers and her eyes lingered on Pensey, whose cheek was still red and smarting from Vetha’s backhand. Finally, she sighed and waved them off.
“Alright. Accidents happen, I guess, but please try not to kill each other on the first day.”
— Lunday, Libra, 9th. 9:02 PM. Arroyo —
“I’m sorry,” Pensey whispered.
Lin turned to face her roommate. Pensey lay on her back in the bunk on the opposite side of the room. The dorm proctor called lights out a few minutes ago. At least she isn’t crying yet.
“What for?” Lin asked.
“Lots of things, really, but I meant about last night.”
Oof. Now I feel like a bitch.
“It’s fine,” Lin said, for lack of any other option. “Uh. Why were you crying?”
“It’s dumb. I just… missed my mom and dad. This is my first time away from my parents and I won’t see them again until the end of Scorpio…”
Pensey turned to face Lin. Her eyes were red again. Ah shit. I can’t even remotely relate. This is bliss. I’m not under my mother’s thumb, and every second here is a second spiting her. And dad. Well. He’s home rare enough that it’s a commodity. But even then, it’s only really enjoyable when it isn’t for the papers or business. Ugh. I should probably just change the subject.
“How did you know I was awake?” Lin asked.
“Just a guess. You tossed and turned a lot but you always had your back to me.”
“Sorry,” Lin said. “I just… I didn’t know what to say. And I didn’t want to… Interrupt, I guess.”
Pensey shook her head.
“I’m grateful, really,” Pensey said. “Especially about last night. But I was wondering… why did you stick your neck out for me today? During sparring. Vetha probably hates you now. And other girls might come after you as well.”
“If she wants to carry a grudge, that’s on her,” Lin huffed. “And if other girls come for me… better sooner than later.”
“What do you mean?” Pensey asked.
“Bullies are human cancers,” Lin said. “If somebody doesn’t put them in place straight away, they only get worse. They inspire otherwise decent people to act the same. And on a personal level, I can’t stand people who prey on weakness to feel better about themselves.”
“I guess I am pretty weak.”
Lin winced and gestured an apology.
“Being weak isn’t a bad thing. By itself, at least.”
Pensey tilted her head to the side and emanated curiosity at Lin.
“My father always says there are two ways to look at weakness. Justification and motivation,” Lin started. “If you use your weakness as an excuse to not apply yourself, you’ll stay weak or get even weaker. But if you use the frustration of being weak as fuel, make it a reason to become strong… you don’t stay weak for very long.”
Pensey sat up in bed, peering at Lin.
“So, what do you use as motivation? I mean, you’re already strong.” Lin barked a laugh and Pensey puffed her cheeks in annoyance, then insisted: “You are! People are already talking about this afternoon. Not just our cohort. I heard two third year aspirants talking about this girl prodigy who took out a girl two feet taller than her.”
“I am five foot one!” She protested. Pensey giggled, which made her even madder. “It’s not funny! I’m not that short. I am taller than you!”
Pensey cocked her head to the side, trying not to laugh more.
“I really hope you know that’s not what I was trying to say.”
Lin assured Pensey they were on the same page, even though she had misunderstood, apparently. Pensey continued:
“That kind of proves my point. You’re so strong people are already screwing up the details. Your legend is larger than life.”
Lin emanated gratitude at Pensey with a faint smile.
“I do like having that kind of reputation. But it comes with a cost: everybody actually hates you. And I’ve just… decided to lean into it. Because I don’t really have a choice. I’m already Athenon Valmont’s daughter. I’m automatically this cold, stuck up bitch. So, when there is a fight that somebody should pick, I’m happy to volunteer.”
Lin nearly told Pensey to give up and go to bed, but rolled on her back and continued with the first thing that popped into her head:
“It’s like there are these rules that everybody else understands automatically. I hate the game and have no idea how to play it. Whenever I try, people assume I’m being sarcastic or… whatever.”
There was a long pause, then Pensey asked:
“So… what are you doing to turn that weakness into strength?”
The question was like a needle in Lin’s neck. She had never thought of it that way before. In her head, other people were something that happened to you. After all, how the hell can you ‘train’ yourself to become more social if nobody is willing to give you a chance?
“Other than studying,” Pensey continued, “Getting along with people is like, the one thing I’m good at. If anything, I’m too nice for my own good. But if you teach me how to fight, I’ll teach you how to people.”
“‘How to people?’” Lin snorted. “I don’t know. I appreciate the offer, Pensey, but….”
“Please.” Her roommate’s emanations changed, suddenly serious and almost painfully earnest. Her eyes, a delicate shade of lavender, seemed clear of the redness that clouded them earlier. “I’m so out of my depth. I wanted this for my entire life, but now that I’m here, I feel useless. And I’ve been racking my brain, trying to think of a way to thank you since this afternoon. If you need my help half as much as I need yours… well. I’d feel a lot better about myself.”
“How can you possibly teach something like that?”
“Well. Okay. You remember breakfast this morning?”
Lin nodded, her mind automatically going back to the moment she excused herself. The sudden shift in mood.
“When everybody was asking you questions, you just sort of… shut us down—”
“I answered everything you asked me!” Lin protested.
“…And before you left, you kinda implied that we weren’t worth talking to.”
Lin paused. Is that what they thought? I didn’t mean it as a reflection on them. I just had no idea what they wanted from me. Agh! What a mess.
“I didn’t mean it like that. I just… I didn’t see the reason behind the conversation. People talk like kids splashing around in a pool. If I’m swimming, I want to know where I’m going.”
“Splashing is how most of us get to know each other,” Pensey said, smiling. “I figured you didn’t mean to snub us, but I think that’s what the other girls thought.”
“They said something after I left, didn’t they?” Lin asked, eyes narrowed.
Pensey gave her an uneasy smile and shrugged.
“I think they were intimidated. Cyphira figured she pissed you off calling you Quiet Girl—”
“She did!” Lin said, annoyed at the memory.
“Okay, but like you didn’t mean to insult us, she didn’t mean to insult you.”
“How? Who likes being called quiet? Being quiet isn’t even a bad thing, but people always say it as a criticism,” Lin said.
“Well, when we were asking you questions, it’s like you were trying to be as brief as possible. Like you wanted to check the box without actually saying anything about yourself.”
“People only ever care about me because of my father. They picture my life being amazing because he was an Arch Commissioner, but whenever I give them detailed answers, people get bored or disappointed because what I have to say doesn’t live up to their expectations.”
“Okay!” Pensey said, excited. “See, that? That’s good. Tell us stuff like that. That not only tells me something about you, but it’s something that helps make the conversation more productive.”
“Productive how?” Lin demanded.
Pensey pursed her lips and thought for a moment.
“Think of it like… building bridges. The more connections you create… the more help you can give and receive. It makes people closer. It also makes talking easier in the future, so when you do have something specific to talk about, it’s easier to get things done. If things start to make you uncomfortable, just let us know. It’s okay to say some stuff is off-limits.”
Lin furrowed her brow further. That seemed like cheating somehow. Or rather, how was she supposed to even know that? ‘You’re making me uncomfortable,’ seems just as rude as admitting you don’t see the point of a conversation. You are essentially telling people they are being rude, but you’re doing it in a way that makes you look weak. It’s utter stupidity.
“I just don’t get it,” Lin said. “My dad tells me I should always be honest. My mom says I should always be polite. But it’s like… I always do one when I should to the other. Or if I try to do them at the same time, I get them both wrong.”
“We’ll have nightly lessons then. I’ll help you pick apart the day’s conversations before we go to sleep. You like having clear goals, right? This is something you can work on safely, with me. And if we’re having a conversation and you get confused, or uncomfortable… give me a sign. Nudge me with your wyrd or something, and I will step into translate.”
“Isn’t that strange?” Lin asked derisively.
“Maybe a little,” Pensey said dismissively. “Who cares?”
Lin fell onto her back and waited a long time before answering.
“What if I turn you into an outcast?”
“Then we’ll find other outcasts to join us. Because that’s the big trick. You don’t need to be liked by everybody. You just need to find the people who are right for you.”
“And if I’m not right for anybody?” Lin asked, but even to her, the question sounded like an excuse. A reason to stay weak.
“Too late. We’re friends,” Pensey said decisively, and laid down. Then she thrust an arm into the air, declaring: “I am unilaterally declaring a mutual bond of sisterhood, camaraderie, and fellowship, effective immediately.”
“I’m pretty sure it doesn’t work like that,” Lin said, laughing.
“You don’t know how it works!” Pensey corrected her. “You just said so yourself.”
Lin was at a loss for words. She’s got you there, Valmont. Maybe she’ll make a good leximancer after all. Pensey rolled over in her bed, looking at Lin with an enchanting smile on her face.
“Trust me. And I’ll trust you,” Pensey said. “That’s all there is to it.”
Something in Lin’s chest cracked. The sudden draft in her heart made her shiver. But warmth followed in its wake. Excitement. This was one of the longest conversations she had with somebody her own age in… years. And it had not been comfortable, or easy, but it was easily the most pleasant.
“Alright,” Lin said. “You have my trust.”