Unlucky Sixteen 1-2

It seems like no time at all has passed before I wake to the sounds of the shower going again. Maia must be in there again. A glance at the small nightstand by the bed shows that it is now seven in the morning. I stretch, then grimace in distaste as I can smell myself. Twelve hours in that transport with fifteen other people has left me feeling rather unpleasant. I stand, retrieving my backpack and began sorting through it for the clothes that I keep in there. Lacking anything other than what was provided when the government claimed me as their ward, my belongings are few. Soon enough, I hear the shower switch off and I wait until I hear the other bedroom door closing before I dart in, occupying the shower myself.

“Don’t take too long,” I hear Maia say, audible over the pounding of the water as I stand under it, scrubbing myself fervently. “We’ll be gathering downstairs before breakfast and I would like to introduce you to everyone.”

I still under the shower, remembering the way some of the people my age had behaved toward me at the center. None of them were on the transport with me, but the treatment prior to Maia sitting down beside was not the kindest. I remember the conversation later, though, and that casts their behavior in a different light.

“Alright,” I reply, hoping my words carry over the pounding of the water. The shower curtain is not particularly concealing and I can see her moving near the sink as I look to my right. I wonder why this does not bother me, but she does not appear to be doing anything but tending to her hair in the mirror so I resume my washing.

When I emerge, Maia is nowhere in evidence and I towel myself dry before dressing. Maia is waiting in the main room as I exit, stumbling awkwardly as I pull on my shoes. She smiles as I balance myself, then inspects me with a critical look.

“We’ll have to see what we can do about getting you some nicer clothes, Irina,” she says. “They just gave you whatever they happened to have lying around, didn’t they?”

I fidget in place, then nod. “That’s true. There was a box and they told me to pick stuff from it.” Not all of it had fit, and none of the undergarments were the appropriate size. The people running the center had given me money and sent me to a clothing store nearby for that. It was an odd experience, having never been shopping before. The attendants were helpful though and I was measured so I learned my sizes. I left with a modest assortment of undergarments, though, judging from Maia’s look, she would probably find them plain.

“Well, at least you chose colors that look good on you,” she finally announces, smiling again. “We’ll see about expanding your wardrobe. Those are functional, but hardly flattering.”

“I liked them,” I reply with a shrug. Her casting aspersions about my choices is irritating and she picks up on that.

“I didn’t mean-” she stops, then nods. “Sorry, habit of mine. I tend to get fixated on improving things. I will make you more clothes, though. I like doing that.”

I nod, not trusting myself to speak. “Breakfast?”

“Absolutely,” she is back to smiling again, offering her hand. I take it and like the previous evening after arriving, she pulls me along behind her. It’s rather like being caught up in a whirlwind and before you know it, you’re someplace else.

As she had mentioned, the others from the transport were already waiting in the room where we first met the Headmaster and his assistants. As if they were expecting her, they all turned in our direction. Or rather, in Maia’s direction, as she seemed to dominate the room when she was present. In comparison, I felt insignificant, obscured by her shadow. It wasn’t an unpleasant feeling, though, it allowed me to observe the other fourteen students from the transport. This lasts until Maia pulls me forward and begins introductions.

“Everyone, this is Irina,” she says. “Irina, this is everyone.”

“Oi!” the loud one from last night speaks up. “We are individuals, not some vague collective!”

“In your case, Alex, your individuality is defined by being known as a pervert.” Maia replied.

“And not ashamed of this fact,” he replies, grinning good-naturedly as he moves forward. He is slightly taller than me, with brown hair that frames athletic features. Blue eyes meet mine and he bows extravagantly. “Alexander Jackson, it is a pleasure. Call me Alex, everyone does.”

“Irina Denkov,” I reply, unsure what to make of his behavior. He straightens, his eyes shifting in Maia’s direction as he grins.

“Don’t believe a word she tells you about me,” he says, putting a hand on his chest. “All lies. I am the very soul of good behavior.”

“Save it for someone who didn’t attend primary with you,” Maia says, laughing as she looks around. “Let’s see. Oh, Christopher, come here.”

“Do I have to?” a grumpy voice asks.

“Yes,” Maia chides. “Stop playing with your toys for a moment and let me introduce you next.”

“Fine,” the speaker weaves through the group and I find a dark-haired girl standing there She’s wearing a hooded sweater and is picking apart some mechanical device absently.. I blink, confused, then look between her and Maia.

“My parents were dumb,” she says, shrugging. “Wanted a boy and put it down even before they knew. Father refused to change it.”

“Christopher,” Maia said, resuming speaking, “is who you go to if you need anything fixed. She’s amazing at that. Knows more about technical stuff and how to make it work than anyone I have ever seen.”

“It’s just a hobby,” she grumbles, then looks at me. “Christopher Tristam. Call me Chris, please. Only Maia gets away with calling me Christopher.”

I nod, giving my own name and she moves off. My head starts to spin with the names being thrown at me. Eleanor is another girl, nearly as tall as Maia, but closer in complexion to me. Despite the coloring, they look like they could be sisters. Then there is Mikhail and Stacey, siblings who greet me with a smile. The introductions continue and Maia guides them flawlessly, offering amusing commentary as she does. By the time she is done, everyone seems to be at ease and there is conversation going between various people. Though I don’t know any of them from before getting on that transport, I feel like part of the group and it is a feeling that I greatly enjoy.

“If you will all follow me,” Miriam, the young woman from the previous evening, comes down the stairs, accompanied by her counterpoint. I believe the Headmaster called him Dante. “Breakfast is served for everyone in Navarre Hall, at eight each morning, even on weekends. As you’ve seen, though, each of the dormitories in your section do have a small kitchen. If you would prefer, you can request items for your dorm and prepare your own meals. Some of our students have had special dietary requirements, so this option was implemented for this semester that is about to begin.”

Dante takes over from here. “If you choose that option, you’ll need to obtain the forms from either Miriam or I and fill them out, along with a list of what you need. Once those are filled out and on file, you’ll only need to update your list if you require something else.”

“Please note,” Miriam resumes, rolling her eyes at him. “The things supplied for your kitchen are intended to be prepared as food. Attempting to create explosions or bizarre alchemical projects in the bathroom will result in disciplinary action.” All of us stopped moving, many staring at her, some in disbelief, others in amusement, thinking she was joking.

“On a safety note,” Dante adds, ignoring her huff of irritation at his interruption. “If any of you are alone at any time and happen to see something oozing out of the walls, or faucets or anywhere, really, run and find the nearest teacher. Especially if you are female.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” someone, I think her name was Danielle, asks.

Miriam looks uncomfortable, then sighs, ignoring Dante’s snickering. “A student last semester was experimenting with chemistry and their abilities at the same time. The result took on a life of its own. We’ve stamped it out a few times, but it keeps resurfacing. If you do see any of the signs Dante described, run as fast as you can. It won’t hurt you, but it has been known to be severely embarrassing to get caught by it.”

“You would know,” Dante chuckles. “That was-”

“Yes, thank you, Dante,” she interrupts, looking annoyed and embarrassed, judging from the blush staining her cheeks. “Once breakfast is done, we’ll be joining you for an escort around the Academy grounds. The Headmaster does try to meet with all new students personally, so don’t be alarmed if you’re called to his office. Strictly part of procedure.” She stops before an archway, turning to face us. “Lastly, enjoy breakfast and don’t be afraid to come to us with any concerns you might have. Dante or myself are always available.” With that, she turned, proceeding through the archway. After a moment, our group followed.

Navarre Hall was quite large, and, judging from the architecture, much older than the parts of the academy that our dormitories were located in. The ceiling stretched high above, the wooden framework that supports it fading into darkness. Tables were scattered throughout, round, with five chairs circling each one. On one side, there is a buffet set up, kitchen staff bustling back and forth checking to make sure each warmer is working properly and loading the ones that are not filled yet. Surprisingly, despite the immense size, the hall is not cold. At the far end of the room, is what I assume to be the staff table. There are few people there at the moment, due to the semester not having officially begun. The Headmaster, who is engaged in quiet conversation with a pale haired man to his right, along with Dante and Miriam, who take seats at one end.

“I am starving,” Maia announces as we form a line, helping ourselves to the food at the buffet. As we approach the tables, though, she frowns, her lips moving as if she is counting. “This will not do.” She sets her tray down, then begins pulling chairs out of the way. “Alex, Mikhail, would you move two of those tables closer? I think three should do it, for us to all sit around.” Not just the two boys, but all of us respond, moving chairs out of the way so that the tables can be pushed together. Shortly, we are all seated, enjoying breakfast.  Maia sits to my right, with Eleanor and Chris on either side of us. Past Eleanor sit Mikhail, Stacey, Alex and Danielle,  to Chris’ right is Anna, Justin, Taylor and Samuel. The four remaining boys,  Jonathon, Andrew, Sirius and Will, sit opposite us, engaged in some sort of card game while eating.

“Classes start in a week, yes?” Eleanor asks, inspecting a croissant before severing it and eating part of it.

“Ten days,” Chris replies. “First year students are brought in anywhere from two weeks to a week early, so they can familiarise themselves with the grounds.” When she notices some of us staring at her, she hunches forward over her breakfast. “What? I read the manual.”

“So we’ll have other first years arriving?” I ask, finishing my sampling of the scrambled eggs.

“Undoubtedly,” Maia answers. “Miriam mentioned that the dorm situation would change, since there were only seven of us girls right now. Probably coming from a different region.” I absorb this without comment, wondering what the additional students will be like and trying to dismiss my trepidation over more new people. Maia notices, she seems to be able to read my moods with ease. I wonder how, since I was taught to guard against such from an early age. “We’ll look after you, Irina, don’t worry.”

“So, what can you do?” Eleanor asks, ignoring the looks she gets from Chris and Maia. “I mean, they only send demis out here and we all know each other from before. You’re the new kid, so what are your abilities?”

“What are yours?” I reply, nettled by her probing.

“Healer,” she shrugs, seemingly unfazed by the question.

“Pyro,” Mikhail chimes in it. Soon it is a list of abilities from each. Though Maia only gives a smile when her turn comes and whispers a promise to show me later in my ear. That leaves just me, and the others have all turned to regard me, fifteen sets of curious eyes on me. Worse, I can feel the attention of the Headmaster and his staff at their table focusing in our direction.

I consider for a moment, going over what the government officials told me in my head and what they did not want me to share. “The test they gave me said I was completely normal. But, I can do things, still.”

“Like what?” Alex asks, having turned around in his chair and leaning his arms on the back of it.

“Things,” I reply vaguely, waving a hand at my empty cup. The words flow through my head, but I don’t speak them aloud. The cup shimmers, and becomes a blue songbird that lifts off and circles our tables, its voice a vibrant sound that has everyone staring in amazement.

“Inanimate to animate transformation?” Anna asks, tracking the bird as it comes and lands on my palm before reverting back to a cup. “That’s a rare one.”

I fidget in my chair for a moment, then shrug. “They weren’t sure how to categorise me at the center. I am able to do multiple things, rather than a specific ability.”

“That’s not too unusual,” Chris says, looking across the table. “Alex is a dual elementalist, after all.”

“Not like that,” I say, feeling uncertain with everyone staring at me. “His still are the same basic ability, just affecting two aspects. That’s how they explained it to me,anyway. They… didn’t have an explanation for what I can do.” Well, I gave them one, they just didn’t want to believe it. I cause the cup to lift into the air, independent of any movement, turning slowly above my hand. There’s some staring, but nothing I have demonstrated is anything that isn’t known among demi’s, so none of that lasts long. I guide the cup back to its place on the table, then stand, heading for more juice.

The rest of breakfast passes mostly quietly, with conversation and banter, until the Headmaster stands. Everyone notices immediately, he has that sort of presence, and our talking dies out.

“Good morning,” he says, smiling. “I trust everyone slept comfortably?” He pauses for a moment, then continues. “As Miriam and Dante have explained, this is Navarre Hall. If you have further questions about it, there is more information to be found in the Academy’s library.” He walks away from the table, arms clasped behind his back as he approaches. I am more alert now and I look him over. I thought last night that his hair was similar to Maia’s. But now, with daylight coming in through the window behind him, I realise that the only thing they really have in common is being having darker hair. Maia’s is like a starless night and the headmaster’s is just a dark color. His eyes, though, are a shade of blue-green — Aqua? — with what appears to be flecks of gold in them. He’s tall, too, broad-shouldered and powerful looking in physical appearance. He doesn’t look old, though, which I find odd, as the information I was given access to said he had been running the Academy for close to sixty years.

“We have a bit of time before classes begin, so I want to make sure all of you are familiar with the grounds and where classes are so that you settle in smoothly,” he continues, looking at each of us in turn. Again, I get the feeling that he looks at myself and Maia more closely than everyone else, but it passes quickly. “To that end, in addition to showing you around the grounds, the rest of the staff will be returning in the next few days and you’ll get to meet with them. I’ve taken the liberty of having all available information on our courses left in your dorms. Your luggage that was on the transport has been identified according to the tags you left and placed in your rooms as well.”

He comes to stand before the staff table, leaning back it against it so his elbows rest on the edge. “The only staff here at the moment, as you can see, are myself, my Deputy, Artemere Navarre. No, before you ask, the naming of the hall has nothing to do with him. If I am unavailable, he handles my responsibilities. In addition, he has other duties and typically will be your primary contact if you have concerns that your instructors are unable to handle.”

“You’ve already met Miriam and Dante,” he gestures to where they are sitting. “They are recent graduates who have chosen a career here. Their tasks involve managing the dormitories for each gender. Now, any issues that arise within the dormitories, personal conflicts and the like, refer to them. Your instructors will handle any that occur within the classroom, but it is not their place to be burdened with issues outside of that. Miriam and Dante are who you will go to for those.” He pauses, then glances to his Deputy. “Did I leave anything out?”

Artemere shakes his head silently and then the Headmaster continues. “Now, if you’re all done with breakfast, please follow us and we’ll begin showing you around.” Everyone appears done eating, so we begin to rise from our seats and follow after the Headmaster and his staff. Time for our tour of Pelhaime Academy.

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Unlucky Sixteen 1-1

The rain is pouring down as I stare out the window, obscuring anything when combined with the darkened skies above. The only sounds are of the steady repetition of the vehicle’s tires on the road, the conversations going on around me. We have been traveling for a few hours now and I haven’t felt comfortable the whole time. The others on the transport seem to all know each other and have been quietly conversing amongst themselves. Being the odd one out, I have been ignored, for the most part.

Not unexpected, though at least being ignored is better than the treatment I got from the people my age at the government center before being sent here. I would say that no one can be a cruel as your peers, but I know that to be false. Still, it was not the friendliest environment there, as a ward of the state, along with others who had been cast aside by their families for a variety of reasons. Being different, being a disappointment, just unwanted. Lacking an outlet for their anger, they had chosen one. Me.

That was past now, though, but it had colored my behavior since getting on this transport. I kept to my window seat, trying to be as unobtrusive as possible and avoid notice. Reflexively, I find myself reaching to my neck and drawing the locket there out. I hold it in my hand for a moment, then shake my head and drop it back down my shirt, where it settles between my breasts, a constant reminder of the past eight years. I hear conversation pick up around me, but I settle against the side of the window, my blonde hair shrouding the side of my face from view as I stare out at the rain.

Our destination is Pelhaime Academy, located in southern France. It is one of several institutions that were put in place after the Reforms. The Academies were a project established over a century ago, by a married couple who had been pivotal in the Reforms. Both were demis, the information they had given me at the center said, but it did not name either of them. The goal, it said, had been to create better treatment for Demis, those with abilities outside the scope of normal people. Prior to the Reforms, the government’s treatment of Demi’s was very abusive, forcing them to comply with what the government wanted through threats and coercion.

None of this had been anything I knew of, prior to being picked up three months ago for using my abilities to obtain a meal and a place to sleep. After being told my options and unwilling to go back to try and talk to my parents again, I ended up here, on the way to Pelhaime Academy with a group of other people my age who also possess abilities.  I spent as much time as I could researching the place I was going, though there was little in the information on hand that gave me a real feel for the place.

“Is this seat taken?” I hear someone ask, the first person to actually approach me since the trip began, in fact. I turn from the window, feeling my breath catch in my throat as I see the person standing there. She is taller than I am, if we were both standing and her hair is a black that seems to shimmer, it is so dark. Her face is expressive and friendly, smiling at me even as she waits for my response. I know this will not help the rumors any, but I cannot keep myself from staring. When I do not reply, her smile dims and she murmurs an apology, turning away.

“It is now,” I say, catching her hand. She looks startled for a moment, but I give her hand a tug and she seats herself beside me. “I’m sorry for staring like that.”

She smiles again, waving a hand in dismissal. “It’s fine. You looked like you could use some company, is all. I’m Maia. Maia Sterling.”

“Maia,” I repeat, liking the sound of it, then offer my own. “Irina Denkov.”

“Oi, Sterling,” someone calls from the back. “Why are you sitting with the weirdo?” I try to hide it, but my flinch is noticed by the girl sitting next to me.

“For your information, Jackson,” Maia says, her voice carrying despite making no effort to raise it. “She is perfectly nice and not at all a ‘weirdo’. If there is anyone who is a weirdo, it would be you. I heard about you getting caught in the library reading those books. Florence was ranting about your unnatural behavior for weeks. She was most unhappy over having to sterilise the tables and shelves.” There is a round of snickers and the one she called Jackson subsides, now the recipient of derision from others.

“Ignore him,” she is saying, giving me another smile and leaning closer to speak solely to me. I feel my cheeks heat up as she does so and I hope she does not notice. The look in her eyes tells me she does, however. “He decided that having some personal time with his hand was perfectly acceptable while in the library.”

I blink. “Personal time? With his hand?” My voice sounds confused and Maia blinks as well, then peers at me for a moment. “Is there something on my face?”

Maia continues to stare for another moment before shaking her head. “You know…” She pauses, looking around for a moment before lowering her voice further. “Masturbation.”

I look at her, then shake my head. The word is not one I am familiar with and the arch of her eyebrow tells me she realises my lack of knowledge quite well. I feel my cheeks redden again and a feeling I do not know flutter in my stomach. “I don’t know what that means, I’m sorry.”

She drops her head, and I think I hear something about self-control under her breath before she leans over so we are even closer. The feeling in my stomach intensifies as she whispers, her breath warm over my ear. “When you’re laying down, have you ever made yourself feel really good?”

I blink, then think for a moment. “Well, yes, I mean… Oh.”

“Yes, oh,” Maia draws back, looking amused, but her smile is still present. “He got caught doing that, in public. Well, not that, specifically, but what guys do.”

“Masturbation?” I repeat the word in a question, my voice a little high. There is immediate silence around us as several others turn to stare. Maia merely gives them a smile quite different from what she had given me.

“Just telling her about Jackson’s misbehaving,” she says, her voice mischievous. There are more snickers and the others turn away, resuming their conversations. Once they do, Maia turns her attention back to me and I feel uncertain at the look she is giving me. It is different from her friendly smile, somehow and makes me feel even stranger. “So, tell me about Irina Denkov. Where are you from?”

“Vostochnyy,” I say. “Near there, anyway. My parents have…” I stop myself, swallow, then continue. “Had a farm there.” It was just ‘home’ until a few weeks ago, when I had been in the center’s library, reading and looking over anything I could lay my hands on, I had found the maps section and discovered the name of the region I spent the first half of my life in.

“Oh,” Maia lays a hand on my shoulder. “I’m sorry for your loss.”

I shake my head. “They aren’t… dead.” I look out the window, watching the rain come down the glass. “It’s a long story.”

“I can guess,” Maia says, an odd note in her voice. “Didn’t want you when, one day, you were suddenly different?”

I look at her, paling. How does she… “Something like that. It’s complicated.”

“Nothing that we haven’t heard before,” Maia says, giving my shoulder a squeeze. “All of us know that story well. Except for Jackson. He’s just a pervert that they sent off to protect the school library.”

“I heard that!” Jackson calls from the back, sounding offended.

“I know you did,”  Maia retorts. “Can I borrow The Lady and the Highlander sometime? If you can bear to part with it, I mean.” More laughter from those who heard as he sits back down, grumbling.

“Everyone?” I ask, looking around with wide eyes at the others on the transport that I can see.

“Mmmhmm,” Maia agrees. “We’re… well, we were the unlucky fifteen, but with you, I suppose we’re the unlucky sixteen now.” She gives me another smile. “I know it’s hard to deal with, but it will work out. Trust me.”

“I do,” I say and as the words leave my mouth, I realise they are true. Just being around her puts me at ease, though the habit she has of leaning close to me often makes the fluttering in my stomach never quite go away. Still, knowing that the others in here with us aren’t accepted by their parents, even if the reasons are a bit different, eases my uncertainty. Perhaps I will even be able to make friends. As I glance at Maia and feel my cheeks burn once again as she meets my gaze, I decide I already have one.

“Now, tell me more about Irina Denkov,” Maia instructs, getting me to turn and fishing out a brush from somewhere. She carefully undoes the tie holding my hair back in a ponytail and begins brushing it. “Something happy this time.”

I sigh, closing my eyes for a long moment as I feel her combing out my hair with her fingers before taking the brush through it. “There isn’t really a lot of happy.”

“Nothing at all?” Maia asks, a frown evident through the distorted reflection on the window. “Surely not. Hold this, would you?” One of her arms reaches forward, dropping the thin leather cord that I had used for my hair into my hands.

My thoughts drift as she continues to brush out my hair, waiting patiently for me to speak. Nothing that I can think of really qualifies as happy. And even though I told my story to the men from the government, they did not believe me. They even brought in someone to look me over, concerned for my ‘mental health’. He did not seem to do much, merely stared into my eyes for a long time, then backed away, looking frightened. After that, they told me not to speak about any of that, that it would not be believed and make things difficult for me.

“When I was ten,” I begin, pulling something that I was happy for. “I had been staying with my teacher as he undertook his own studies while instructing me. It was a remote place, so there wasn’t anyone but the two of us. But it was close to my birthday and though he was strict, he did always have something for me on that day.” I smile for a moment, then continue. “He was a bit odd, though. I don’t think it really registered to him that I was growing and he still saw me as the six-year-old I was when he first began teaching me.”

“Six?” Maia’s voice is sharp and I can tell something about that bothers her. “You were six when he took you off alone?”

I nod, unsure of what is producing that reaction from her even as I continue. “So, there were sweets and cake. And a pony. But since he had not realised I was growing, the pony is the tiniest thing ever and there is no way I could possibly ride it around.” I pause. “I still don’t know where he found a pony that small. They usually aren’t smaller than a ten-year old girl.”

Maia is quiet for a moment, her hands still against my hair. She starts speaking as she resumes brushing it. “Irina, he didn’t do anything to you, did he? Touch you in a way he shouldn’t have?”

I try to turn my head, but she straightens it back and continues brushing. “He would punish me if I was disobedient, but otherwise, he kept to himself and his studies when he wasn’t teaching me.” I wonder why she is asking this.

She seems to relax at that, but there’s still tension in her. I can feel it, like the air is humming around me. She’s worried about something concerning me. “What did he teach you?”

I shift now, remembering the words of the men before I got on this transport. “They told me not to talk about it at the center, I’m sorry.” Maia leans forward, so her hair is falling around me and all I can breathe is her scent.

“No apologies, Irina,” she says quietly. “You did nothing wrong.”

“I know,” I answer, confused over her sudden mood. “They just told me that it was something I couldn’t talk about, that’s all.” This does not appear to ease her worry, but she draws back, her hair trailing over me and across my neck. It is different from mine, heavy where mine is light. I did not know it was possible for hair to be different like that. It is not unpleasant though and I release a sigh.

“So, what happened with the pony?” she asks after a moment. “He found a pony sized for a six-year-old and you were ten?”

I nod. “I would only get things from him on my birthdays, so I didn’t laugh. Led it around, played with it, but didn’t ride it. It really was smaller than I was then. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings since he had gone to the trouble of finding a pony, though.” I smile a bit, thinking of that day. That was the last birthday party I had, as she came not longer after that. Maia picks up on my sudden mood shift and makes an inquisitive sound.

“More stuff I can’t talk about,” I answer apologetically. She makes a sound of discontent, then turns her head as the boy in the back, Jackson, speaks up again.

“Oi, Sterling!” he calls. “If you’re done trying to play with the cherry, come back here and help me with a little problem.”

Her voice cracks back, amused. “I’m glad you have no issues admitting your shortcomings, Alex. But why are you telling me this? You seemed more than capable of handling your problems alone when Florence caught you in the library.”

“She got you there, Jackson,” one of the other boys says. “Just stop while you’re ahead.”

“It was one time!” he protests. “I’m never going to live it down, am I?”

“The problem is,” Maia says, her voice once again sounding out to everyone without her raising it, “that you got caught. You could have kept doing it, if not for that. Discretion, Alex. Learn it.” More laughter follows and Maia turns back to finish with my hair, reaching around to take the leather tie from me.

I frown, turning my head to face her once she is done. “Why did he call me cherry?”

Maia gives me a smile. “I’ll tell you later, Irina.” I nod, yawning before I lean to the side, my head resting on her shoulder as I doze off.

It doesn’t seem like any time at all that I hear Maia speaking to me, urging me to wake up. I shift, looking up wearily to see her face.

“We’re here, sleepy,” she says, looking as if she hasn’t been bothered at all by the uncomfortable ride. It is almost irritating that someone could look so fresh after hours in this transport. From the looks I see some of the other girls giving her, I am not the only one thinks this.

“Mrgl,” Whatever I had been trying to say emerges as a sound that I think would better suit some amphibious creature as it rushes at you. Maia merely laughs, the sound musical and light as I sit up, noting that it is still dark, but the rain has stopped and I can see the lights of a building ahead

“Pelhaime Academy,” Maia says. “Where people like us go to learn.”

“You mean where jerk parents send the kids they don’t want!” someone shouts. The mood collectively drops and Maia scowls in the direction of the speaker.

“Yes, thank you for depressing everyone, Christopher,” she says. “We should see it as something positive. Here, we can learn how to use our gifts and become important members of society.” She pauses for a moment, then her lips stretch in a grin. “And then go rub how successful we are in the faces of the people who dumped us like yesterday’s trash.” This statement sends up a round of cheers and the mood of the transport’s interior improves.

The vehicle halts in short order and we disembark and file inside, where three people are waiting, I assume they are staff of some sort. The tallest is a man and I cannot determine his age at all. His hair is a similar color to Maia’s, and tied back in a ponytail like mine. His eyes are a light blue, which is odd, given the rest of his coloring, but it seems to suit him, even so. The other two are a young woman with brown hair and a man with red hair, they both stand respectfully to either side of the tall man, making it clear they defer to him.

“Welcome,” he says, stepping forward. “I am Professor Jaysen Witchelo, Headmaster here at Pelhaime.” He begins looking us over and for a moment, he pauses, staring at me and Maia who is just to my left. He looks puzzled for a moment, then moves his survey onward. “I realise it is rather late for all of you, so we’ll keep this short for now. I wanted to welcome you all. I realise that, for most of you, the circumstances of you coming here are not ideal. In spite of that, I expect you all to thrive here.”

He looks us over again, and this time, I am certain that something bothers him when he looks at me and Maia. Whatever it is, though, I cannot say for certain as he just appears confused for a moment when he stares at us. “Now, it is late, so Dante and Miriam will show you to the sleeping quarters. You are the first students to arrive for your year, so you will have the pick of your class’ dormitories. Tomorrow, after breakfast, gather here and we’ll proceed with the formal introduction.”

“Girls with me,” Miriam says. “Boys with Dante. Follow us, please.” We separate into two groups, the seven girls following her while the boys head after the one called Dante. I fall into step with Maia and glance at her as we walk.

“Did you notice?” I ask quietly.

She looks in my direction. “When he was looking at us? Yes. He was confused, like he kept expecting us to be someone else.”

“Maybe we look like someone he knows or knew?” I ask, musing over this.

“Perhaps,” Maia shrugs, her attention shifting as Miriam begins to speak.

“First year dormitories are along this hallway,” she says. “Arrangements are two to a room. I realise that will leave one of you alone, but be assured that will only be a temporary state of affairs. Breakfast is at eight, so, decide quickly and get some sleep.”

“You’re with me,” Maia says, taking my hand and pulling me along as the other girls pair off as well and before long, we have chosen our rooms. The space is larger than I was expecting, from what I had read about typical dormitories. A main sitting room with two desks facing each other in a windowed alcove, and two bedrooms that are apparently connected to the bathroom, I must assume, as there is no sign of one from where I stand. There is, however, a small kitchen area, which makes me wonder about breakfast being served if we have the means to prepare our own meals.

“Right or left?” Maia asks, yawning as she sets her small bag on a counter. The driver had said the rest of our belongings would be brought to our rooms when we had chosen. I hope that is true. I look at her, then the two bedrooms.

“Left,” I decide. Maia nods and heads for the other one. A few moments later and I hear the sound of the shower going. I enter my room and look around. There’s an empty bookcase on one wall by the window and a bed that, to me, looks huge. I set my backpack down and flop onto the mattress. I use my right foot and push-off my left shoe, then repeat the process with my left foot, leaving both where they fall. I should get up and wait for her to be out of the shower so I can take one as well, but I fall asleep while making lists in my head of things to look up as soon as I can find the library here.

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