“Welcome to Welton”
In the course of working on Lies and Prophecy, I put a fair bit of thought into how the characters met. I wound up turning those thoughts into a series of scenes, which I posted at the Book View Cafe blog as a run-up to the publication of Lies and Prophecy.
In length, they amount to a novelette, but they aren’t a conventional story from the standpoint of plot; instead they’re an introduction to the characters and setting of the book, showing how they all met at the beginning of their freshman year. Consider it a DVD extra, a sort of behind-the-scenes look at the story.
If you would like to download it to your e-reader instead, you can purchase an ebook copy from the menu to your left, or for free from Book View Cafe.
“Welcome to Welton”
“So,” I said, “how different does it look?”
My mother surveyed the campus of Welton University and smiled. “This is my cue to say it seems smaller than I remember — but the truth is, it’s much bigger. It used to be all open field over there, behind Cavendish. We had epic snowball wars after second-quarter midterms.”
Her happy reminiscence made me shudder, thinking of the frozen doom that awaited me in a few months. My mother saw it and shook her head. “You’re the one who decided to go to college in Minnesota, Kimberly. It could have been Georgia Psi instead.”
It would never have been Georgia Psi. That was my safety school, in case Welton and every other college rejected me. Which was never going to happen, not with my grades, and my mother a Welton alumna. But okay, sure, in theory I could have chosen one of the other schools that accepted me — if I wanted to live with her disappointment forever.
But it was my choice. Welton had Divya Madison, Adam la Roche, Aonghus Bradley; it was the best psychic sciences university in North America, and its divination faculty was almost unmatched in the world. I’d been dreaming about coming here since I was twelve. I never could have chosen anything other than Welton.
Even if it did come with Minnesota winters attached. I didn’t much want to think about that part, though, so instead I studied the map in my hands. “Looks like that new building’s Adler — CM.”
Oh, yes, ceremonial magic was a much better topic than the weather. But to her credit, my mother only said, “Ah, that’s right. I remember an article about that in the alumni magazine. A big endowment from Gawain Fontaine. He was a year ahead of me, and always talking about how he was going to strike it rich. We all thought he was full of hot air, of course; back then, technomagic was still mostly the fever dream of a few CM geeks.” She snorted. “I’m sure he wishes Welton let donors name buildings after themselves, just to put the last flashing lights on his ‘I Told You So’ sign.”
I held back a sigh. She’d been reminiscing the whole way up here. And while it was nice to learn more about the place I’d be spending the next four years, I wanted to approach it on my own terms, not filter everything through the lens of my mother’s undergrad experiences. She’d insisted on accompanying me for move-in weekend, though, and nothing short of a major work crisis could have stopped her. Like, say, a Category 5 hurricane or a major urban riot — and it wasn’t nice to hope for one of those.
At least it would only be for a few days. And up ahead, I saw our destination. Silently thanking whatever god had saved me from being put in my mother’s own freshman dorm, I said, “Looks like the boxes have started to arrive.”
Actually, it looked like every box within five hundred miles had arrived. I only knew it wasn’t true because we’d passed three other dorms on our way from the car, all with equally large piles out front. Freshmen and accompanying parents bustled in and out the front doors like a brigade of handcart-equipped ants, while frazzled upperclass volunteers tried to sort an incoming load. Stationed a safe distance away was a long table overshadowed by a banner proclaiming, “CHECK-IN FOR SHUSHUNOVA.”
I headed for the left end of the table and told the skinny black student behind it, “Argant-Dubois. Kim.” I just barely avoided adding, “I’m a freshman.” Of course I was. Upperclassmen wouldn’t show up until the weekend, except for the ones helping field the new arrivals.
She gave me a huge and dazzlingly bright smile. “Welcome! I’m Akila. Let’s see, Argant-Dubois . . . ah! Here you go. Your key will open both your room and the closet at the end of the hall, where the cleaning supplies are kept. Orientation packet and course catalogue should have been sent to you already; let me know if the hard copy isn’t in your room, or if you accidentally deleted the files and need them sent again. Boxes are being sorted by room number, not name, but please don’t grab any of your roommate’s stuff for her if she’s not here yet; it just ends up confusing everybody. The elevator is unlocked for today, and we stole a few extra handcarts from Kinfield; there’s a waiting list over there if you want to use one. And if you have any other questions, just ask your RA — the name and room number are in your orientation packet. Welcome to Welton!”
Akila stopped at last, like a clockwork that had run down. Grinning, I asked her, “How many times have you given that speech already?”
“Too many,” she said, with a smile less practiced but more real than her first one. “And the day’s not over yet.”
“Good luck keeping your sanity,” I told her and, turning to my mother, nodded toward the piles of boxes. “Do we want to put ourselves on the waiting list?”
She shook her head, as I’d known she would. “No, we can manage. Let’s take a load up with us; we might as well get started.”
We found the fifth-floor pile, and pointed out the first box of mine we could find — a large one at the bottom of a stack, of course. But the weedy guy with blue-dyed hair manning that station just grinned and waved his hands in a grand and unnecessary gesture. The top crates floated up, and my box slid out from underneath.
“Nice,” I said wryly. “I don’t suppose we could bribe you to float it upstairs?”
He shook his head cheerfully. “Nope. Can’t work where I can’t see, and I’m the only thing keeping half these stacks from collapsing. Gotta stay down here. Good luck, though!”
Neither my mother nor I had much telekinetic ability, but she, remembering her own college days, hit upon the notion of giving the crate just a bit of a nudge as we lifted it. Then we hauled it across the sunny grass into the building, where we were able to cram ourselves into the elevator and rest it briefly on top of someone else’s handcart. During the year the elevator would be locked, the better to encourage us out of our sedentary habits; only people with mobility problems got cards. But making us carry all our worldly possessions up the stairs would just be cruel.
We arrived at 509 and dropped the box on the floor while I dug out my room key. The iron lock was stiff; I really had to apply force to make it turn. Then the door was open, and I saw my home for the next nine months.
It looked pretty much like every other dorm suite in the United States. A bit less cinderblock-y than some, and not too small; we had two rooms and a private bath, which was nice. Depending on how my roommate and I got along, we could both sleep in the smaller room and leave the other for studying or hanging out, or swap off who got the larger but more public space.
Deciding that would have to wait for her arrival. My mother shoved the box into a corner by one of the standard-issue bookcases and said, “Shall we go get the next?”
It was peculiarly exhausting work, tiring out not just my hands and arms and back but what little telekinetic gift I had, as I tried to take some of the strain from my body. One enthusiastic guy on my floor was showing off, floating boxes straight up from the depot and through his window, but we all became a lot less impressed when he dropped one at the fourth floor, spraying its contents across the ground. Taking a break to catch my breath at my own window, I said to my mother, “I told you we should bring a golem.”
“And have you miss out on one of the classic experiences of college? Not to mention the hassle of bringing a golem on an airplane.” She went into the bathroom to splash water on her face. Even I, born and raised in Georgia, felt drained by the heat and humidity. It was one thing to endure this kind of weather while lounging on your porch swing, and another entirely when you were doing heavy lifting.
She came back in blotting her face dry on her sleeve. I hadn’t opened any boxes, so we didn’t even have towels yet. “I’m not saying you should aspire to build golems yourself, Kimberly,” she said, “but will you at least promise me one thing? Think about taking a CM course this term, or next. Even just a lecture course, without a lab component.”
It caught me off guard. I’d been waiting for her to bring the subject up again for weeks now, but the excitement and effort of moving in had distracted me. And a small, resentful part of me thought my mother knew that, and had waited for her moment to strike.
“I’ll get to it soon enough,” I said, as temperately as I could. No choice on that front; distribution requirements meant that, whatever major we undergraduates chose, we all had to take at least two courses apiece in the other departments. The telekinetics would be fine, even if I wasn’t that great at them. Ceremonial magic was another matter.
“Better to get it out of the way sooner,” my mother advised me. Which was a sentiment I would normally agree with . . . except that wasn’t her real reason. She hoped, against all evidence, that I would miraculously develop a talent for the rituals and external power of CM, and go on to major in it after all. Like she had.
I was tired enough for my temper to fray. Holding that in as best I could, I told her, “I am getting requirements out of the way. French, pre-Manifestation history, phys ed –”
“I mean your psychic studies.”
“Should I put off the requirements for my major, just to cover my entire distribution in one go?”
She spread her hands in the gesture that meant she was getting frustrated, and trying not to show it. “I’m just saying –”
I never found out what she was just saying, because someone tapped on the door. A tall, extremely blonde someone, with just the faintest trace of a German accent when she spoke. “This is room 509, yes?”
My roommate had arrived.
The dark-haired girl leaning against the window sill straightened in a rush. “Yeah, this is 509. You must be Liesel.”
“And you’re Kimberly.”
“Kim.” She stuck her hand out toward Liesel, with easy confidence. Liesel guessed she spent a lot of time around adults. Her grip was firm, but not a challenge.”This is my mother, Dr. Argant.”
Her hair was lighter than her daughter’s, but the cornflower-blue eyes were the same, and so was the handshake. “Hello, Liesel. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“Wow,” Liesel said, spotting the boxes in the corner. “You’ve been hard at work.”
Kim shrugged. “As much as we can; I don’t think all my crates are here yet. I saw some of yours down there, though, so we can give you a hand.”
“Let me take a look around first.” Not that there was much to look at, but Liesel surveyed the rooms and closet, the furniture provided by the college, arranging things in her mind. It wasn’t quite like the floor plan had made her envision, but close enough. “If you don’t snore, I don’t mind sharing a bedroom.”
It put a smile on her roommate’s face, with a hint of relief. “That’s what I was thinking, too. I know the college tried to match up people who keep similar hours, but gods only know what our class schedules will turn out to be. This way neither of us will wake up the other tramping through on our way to the bathroom.”
“Or studying late at night.” Liesel had left her carry-on bag by the door; she fetched out a rubber band and tied her hair back. “Dr. Argant, why don’t you take a rest, and we’ll see what’s in the pile outside.”
It was more than just courtesy. As they went down the stairs, Liesel said, “Sorry for barging in like that, but I got the sense you might not mind the interruption.”
Kim slowed, groaning. “Oh, gods. I was probably leaking all over the hall, wasn’t I.”
“Not that anybody would notice,” Liesel assured her. “Really. I only did because . . . well, because I was nervous, and sniffing ahead. And it’s what I do.”
They’d had one brief exchange of messages before coming here, enough to establish their respective majors — or rather, the majors they would choose, once the university let them make it official. “Right,” Kim said, nodding. “Empath. I promise, I’ll do my best not to overload you.”
“I appreciate that,” Liesel said. Students with strong empathic gifts usually went for private rooms as soon as they could, to reduce the strain. She’d even heard a rumour that the college gave them some preference on that front. But Welton’s administration insisted on making freshmen socialize with one another, so she’d have to endure at least one year in close living quarters. The big question, then, was what kind of roommate Kim would be.
She clearly had some kind of frustration with her mother, but she’d been holding it pretty well under control when Liesel arrived. Dr. Argant likely hadn’t felt anything past Kim’s shields — though the argument sounded old enough that she probably didn’t have to. Would it erupt later, though?
They went out through the front doors, into the growing chaos of the box piles, and soon found one of her crates. Then there wasn’t much breath to spare for conversation, as they began lugging things up the stairs. Kim had a bit more telekinesis than Liesel herself did, but not much, and it was tiring work.
She was a strong telepath, though. On the fourth trip, while they were levering a huge box into the elevator, she brushed politely against Liesel’s senses. If you don’t mind . . . .
Not at all, Liesel said. It’s easier than trying to spare breath for talking. I’m not very used to mindspeaking in English, though.
Sorry, I don’t speak German, Kim said apologetically. My ritual language is French.
She had a ritual language already? She must be more into CM than Liesel had guessed. I speak a bit of French, but it’s not as good as my English. Liesel allowed laughter to creep into her thoughts. I could give a Parisian einen Herzanfall.
The German words slipped out before she could catch them. Kim’s shields were good enough that nothing leaked out psychically, but her expression was less controlled; Liesel caught the tightening at the corners of her mouth. She rolled her eyes. Go ahead and laugh. I deserve it.
I’ve never tried telepathy in a foreign language, Kim admitted, amusement coloring the thought. I can barely manage conversation. Thinking in another language . . . ça semble très difficile.
The French words carried no accent, mind-to-mind, but the English hovered behind them like an echo. By then they were at the room, and dropped the box on the floor; Kim shook her hands and her head both. “Wow. That’s even harder than doing a close link.”
Dr. Argant was on the phone in the inner room, in a low-voiced conversation she clearly didn’t want to be overheard. Kim caught Liesel’s eye and murmured, “Work. Theoretically she’s on vacation, but . . . .”
“What does she do?” Liesel asked, once they’d shoved the box into a corner and gone back out into the hall.
“Ring Anchor. For the southern U.S. — eight states. There’s always something blowing up.”
Liesel’s lips shaped a soundless whistle. “Wow. I had no idea your mother was such a sorceress.”
Kim shrugged. “Yeah, well. It’s as much bureaucracy as it is CM, most of the time.”
Assuming Rings here were anything like they were in Germany, Kim was underselling her mother’s work. Bureaucracy, yes — but Ring Anchors did high-end ceremonial magic, rituals big and abstract enough that even most CM specialists couldn’t wrap their brains around it.
Under other circumstances, Liesel might have wondered whether Kim and Dr. Argant didn’t get along. Given what she’d caught from the tail end of their conversation, though, the pieces weren’t hard to put together. Kim had chosen a ritual language already, but didn’t seem very enthusiastic about CM. She might like her mother just fine . . . but she didn’t want to follow in the woman’s footsteps.
Liesel knew what she, personally, would say to that. It was way too early to offer advice, though; they were practically strangers to each other, and being too pushy wouldn’t be a good way to start the year. It was something she might be able to work on later, though, if Kim’s issues became a problem for her. “What about your father?”
“Healer,” Kim said, pressing herself against the wall to let a trio of students with boxes past. “Body, not mind. You’d probably like him.”
A Ring Anchor and a physical healer. Kim clearly came from a high-blood family, and probably a rich one to boot. Liesel’s own parents were reasonably well-off — they couldn’t afford to send her to Welton if they weren’t — but she would have bet her first month’s spending money that Kim’s family moved in higher circles than she was used to. Especially with that handshake.
If Kim was a snob, though, she hid it well. Liesel’s divination skills were middling at best, but trusted her empathy, and it gave her a good feeling about this pairing. One college hurdle down, she thought wryly, eight hundred to go.
I shouldn’t have felt grateful that a work crisis forced my mother to fly home a day early. Not only was that bad news, but I’d been glad of her help as I settled in. Apart from that one interrupted conversation, she’d refrained from saying anything about CM, and got along well with Liesel.
But in the end, I was still a college freshman, and ready to get out from under the parental wing.
Liesel and I headed off to orientation, which someone with a sense of the dramatic had decided to hold at the campus monument. As memorials to First Manifestation went, it was tasteful: a circular plaza of dark green marble, edged with three grey arches for the three branches of the psychic sciences. No lists of the dead, or of cities burned; just the seals of the countries that had signed onto the Cairo Accords after the chaos died down. It should have been bakingly hot, but a pleasant breeze blew steadily — so steadily that I wondered if it had magical help.
Even with the breeze, it was tempting to nod off in the warm sunlight. But near the end, Dean Seong made an announcement that woke everybody up.
“And this year,” she said, speakers carrying her voice across the ranks of folding chairs, “Welton will again lead the way in psychic sciences education, by opening the student body to new diversity. We have made arrangements with the Bureau for Special Psychic Affairs to admit a wilder as part of the freshman class.”
I didn’t hear what she said after that. It was lost in the sudden murmurs around me, a chorus of “What did she just say?,” and then repetitions as dozing students sat up and got the story from their neighbors. Liesel and I exchanged startled looks. She whispered, “Aren’t they raised by the government here?”
“Yeah,” I whispered back, confused. “Same as in Germany.” It was part of the Cairo Accords. Dealing with an adolescent during manifestation was chaotic enough; gifts were always out of control at first, before the initial rush faded. That was why First Manifestation had been so bad. But at least adolescents understood what was going on, and could try to manage it. An infant with gifts — powerful ones — was a hazard to himself and everybody around him. Ergo, government responsibility, until he became a legal adult.
He. I’d caught that much, that this wilder was a guy. If Seong had given his name, though, I missed it. Why the hell would one of them come to a school like Welton? No matter how tough the curriculum here was, it would be like sending a Navy SEAL to aerobics class. I didn’t know much about wilder training, but it was hard-core enough that most of them hit the age of majority and became Guardians on the spot, without the usual advanced education.
Maybe they were sending a ten-year-old. Or was he really a teenager, like the rest of us? Was he a guinea pig, a test attempt at mainstreaming wilders?
If so, it was going to be an interesting ride. The rest of the Dean’s speech was half-buried beneath other conversations, and students twisted this way and that in their seats, as if we could have somehow missed a wilder among us. He clearly wasn’t at orientation — probably on purpose, I thought. In his shoes, I wouldn’t want to be stared at by the entire freshman class, either.
We scattered when the Dean’s speech ended, most people heading for dinner. Liesel and I walked in silence for a while. Then she asked, “Have you ever met one?”
“A couple,” I admitted. “Through my mother’s work.” Not that wilders got invited to society parties. But sometimes her Ring dealt with Guardians.
“What are they like?”
My steps slowed across the grass. “Pretty much like the stories.” Which was a polite way of saying, weird. Baselines — people without gifts — often found bloods like us a little off-putting. Not because of anything we said or did, but just because of what we were. Wilders had that effect, magnified.
And yet the BSPA had decided to stick a wilder here. In college. Was he going to be in a dorm? With a roommate and everything?
It would be easy enough to find out. My port was in my back pocket; I could call up the student directory. He’d be listed under Fiain, the Irish word for “wild,” the last name specified by the Accords.
I stopped abruptly and flung my hands up in an emphatic gesture. “No. I am not going to do this.”
Liesel hadn’t known me for long, but she could already read me well enough to translate my words. “You mean, act like the zoo has come to Welton?”
“Exactly,” I said. “I’m not going to look up where he lives, or try to find out his class schedule, or lurk around hoping to catch sight of him. He’ll have half the student body doing that anyway; he doesn’t need one more. The guy deserves some privacy.” Which the other half of the student body would be only too glad to give him, in spades. But I’d rather join them than the crowd of stalkers.
Judging by Liesel’s expression, she’d gone through the same arc I had: curiosity squashed by virtuous determination. She offered her hand to me. “Me neither. And that’s a promise. If we come across him in class or wherever, that’s fine, but no snooping.”
“No snooping,” I agreed, shaking her hand. “No gossip. We’ll give the guy his space.”
The chaotic arrangement of boxes — “arrangement” was too kind a word for it, really — made pacing damnably hard. Every time Robert went to shift them into a more useful formation, though, he was halted by doubts. It made no sense to pile them along the wall next to the window; what if they ended up putting a desk there? It all depended on the furniture. And that depended on how this suite was to be divided.
He’d been waiting since yesterday, which didn’t help. All the freshmen were moved in, and the upperclassmen — those not helping with the process — would arrive tomorrow; everyone other than Robert himself was at orientation or supper. They’d timed it well, he had to allow: the grand arrival would occur when no one was looking.
All the better to postpone the inevitable.
Two rooms. Two options for configuration. Friendly roommates, Robert imagined, would place both beds in the inner chamber, the smaller chamber, so that if one were to go to sleep early, the other could stay up and work, or stumble in drunken from a party, without disturbing his fellow’s rest. But only if they were friendly, and could abide such closeness.
In his case, it was likely to be the other option: one roommate in the inner room, bed, desk, and all; and the other in the outer. Which likely meant him in the outer room, since it was the less private of the two. Little as Robert knew of his companion for the next nine months, he could at least guess one thing: privacy would be important.
Footsteps on the stairs; voices in the hall. Robert fidgeted next to a stack of boxes, staring at the door — but it proved to be two girls, arguing about the bookshelf they carried. Sophomores, he presumed, whose luck had not given them better than Earle, where the suites did not allow for the privacy of both. What sadist had chosen this as a suitable location for their experiment, when there were more congenial options, he did not know. Robert began pacing again. When would his roommate arrive?
Now, it seemed. Robert heard no sound, but the hackles on the back of his neck rose. He turned, and found a young man hesitating on the threshold.
Though braced for the reaction, Robert still found himself shivering. That hair-raising presence, an unsettling breath of Otherworldly air. The entryway light gave the stranger a faint nimbus, gilding his pale hair, casting his eyes into shadow. Robert instinctively looked away from them.
But no, this would never do. For the love of little fairies, the two of them were to live together. Summoning up a friendly smile, Robert came forward with one hand outstretched. “Greetings! I am Robert Ó Conchúir. You, I presume, are Julian?”
And then he halted, as the stranger looked blankly at the proffered hand.
I, Robert thought, am a gods-damned ass.
“Yes,” Julian said, as Robert dropped his arm. “I’m Julian Fiain.”
A test? To see if Robert would flinch? Gods knew he did not need to provide his surname, and not only because it was included in the housing information sent to Robert a month ago. Welton University had been in touch well before that, in their desperate search for someone who would agree to share his living quarters with a wilder. Upon being asked how many had refused before they called Robert, the housing representative had admitted to five. Five students who could not endure the thought of co-existing with a wilder in such close quarters. But Welton was determined to treat this one like any other freshman, and so they persisted. They tried Robert on the hope that, being Irish, he might have more tolerance. The same laws governed the Fiain in Ireland as elsewhere, but the high population of bloods there mitigated some of the tension — some.
Julian turned and picked up the two suitcases that sat in the hall, carrying them into the room. Robert jumped out of the way and nearly tripped over a box. He also nearly tripped over his tongue, rushing to fill the silence. “The boxes not yet claimed have been moved to the gymnasium, but it should still be open. If you’d like, I can help you carry your things over.”
“Thank you, but I can manage,” Julian said. The courtesy had the sound of a foreign language, long practiced, little used. But no, that was not fair; surely wilders said “please” and “thank you” amongst themselves. Assuming they spoke at all, and didn’t just exist in a state of constant telepathic communion.
Behind Julian’s back, Robert let his face collapse into a grimace at his own continuing idiocy. I was the best they could find for him? “It’s no problem, really. With two people, it will go twice as fast.”
Julian shook his head. “There’s only one box.”
One box. Robert’s eyes went to the suitcases. One crate — books, perhaps, if Julian was the sort who liked to read an object that could retain psychic traces; likely also his screen and such — and two suitcases, for clothes and toiletries. Either they would be shipping more soon, or his roommate lived the most spartan existence known to man.
He feared it was the latter. “This will never do,” Robert said, and gestured at his own crates. “My things will drown you; I’m a terrible packrat. If I promise to maintain a clear path to the bathroom, will you be all right with the second room? It’s smaller, but then you’ll be able to arrange it your own liking.”
Julian nodded. “That makes sense. I don’t mind a small room.”
And then another awkward silence. If this continued, Robert was going to plant his foot so firmly in his mouth, it would leave a shoeprint on his liver. He elected to head that off at the pass. “Look,” he said, and whatever Julian heard in that word, it made the young man put down his suitcases inside the bedroom door and turn to face him.
Now the pitiless dorm light caught his face, highlighting all the wilder strangeness. It was nothing easy to pinpoint; they looked human. They were human — just less so than the average person. But even that slight difference was enough to stand one’s nerves on end.
“Look,” Robert said again, trying to remember what he had been going to say. Ah, yes. “I am not renowned for my social agility. It is entirely probable that during the months we live together — presuming I don’t give you cause to murder me — I will say one or more boneheaded things regarding your nature. I beg you, not to forgive me for them in advance, but to smack me as I deserve when they occur. Like a daft but well-intentioned dog, I can be taught, and I will do my best to learn. Should I fail . . . well, on average, slightly less than three percent of the freshman class drops out of Welton in the first semester. If I become intolerable to you, say so, and I will move into the place vacated by one of the fallen; and you may have this suite to yourself.”
The most unnerving thing about wilders, he decided while his mouth delivered these words, was not their inhuman air. It was the control they had been taught: control that extended to everything about them, including their facial expressions. Throughout Robert’s speech, Julian stood — not blankly, for that would imply a lack of intelligence or understanding — intently would be a better description. Listening, but showing nothing of what he thought.
Julian’s reply wasn’t much more informative. “I’m sure we’ll be fine,” he said. Then he seemed to consider this and find it wanting. “I’m not easily offended.”
Or at least not easily provoked into showing offense. None of them were. Otherwise there would be more buildings lacking in roofs, and more people hopping about as toads. If anyone could actually transform a human into a toad, Robert thought, it would be Julian Fiain.
“I promise not to take that as a challenge,” he said, and then tugged his shirt straight. “Well. Let us float the furniture into position, so that you may unpack as you choose, and then I for one will be seeking out dinner. You are welcome to join me if you wish.”
Julian refused, of course. But the politeness of the refusal was less stiff than it might have been, and Robert dared hope this might work out after all.
“There are three kinds of lies,” Professor Madison said on the first day of class, right after introducing herself and making sure everyone was in the correct lecture hall. “Lies, damned lies, and prophecy.”
My eyebrows rose. That wasn’t the sort of thing you expected to hear out of the woman teaching your intro divination course.
“Prophecy seems popular,” she went on, drifting across the hall’s stage. Clearly this was a performance she’d given countless times, but she still seemed to enjoy it. “Even before First Manifestation, people went to palm-readers and card-readers and crystal ball-gazers, newspaper horoscopes — you name it. But most of them didn’t do it because they wanted to know what the future really held. They did it because they wanted to be told that the future was going to be all right. Or to have someone read, not their stars, but the unspoken cues they were giving off, and tell them what they couldn’t quite tell themselves. Divination as therapy.
“For many of them, it worked just fine. But First Manifestation came and went, and suddenly the world had an abundance of psychics with scientifically-verifiable abilities. One woman — she went by the name Madame Blavatsky, but legally she was Melinda Blake — assumed the fortune-telling industry was about to take off in an enormous way, and made quite a clever bid to be its impresario. But what happened?”
I’d done a book report on Madame Blavatsky 2.0 for a biography project in sixth grade. I was already grinning before Professor Madison said, “The bottom fell out — and how. Oh, charlatans could stay in business; they went on as they always had. But either there’s some truth to the theory that Krauss rating and a talent for lying are inversely related, or these new seers, still overwhelmed by their abilities, didn’t want to lie. They told what they saw — which was not what people wanted to hear — and Ms. Blake’s grand scheme crashed before it went anywhere.”
That led Madison into the ethics of professional divinatory work, and from there to an overview of the different categories within the field. I didn’t bother taking notes. Divination had always been my strongest gift, ever since my own manifestation, and I’d devoured everything I could read or watch on the subject. I was only in this class because it was a requirement, and Welton didn’t let people test out of it. The real meat was going to be in the upper-level courses, the ones for which this was a prerequisite — and in the work I did on my own time.
Madison apparently had the same thought on her mind. Near the end of class, she unclipped the microphone from her collar and beckoned a student forward to take it. I recognized the girl: it was Akila, the one who’d given me my key when I arrived at Shushunova. She’d slipped into the lecture hall while I wasn’t looking.
“Thanks, professor,” Akila said, and faced the room. “I just wanted to take a moment to let you all know about the Divination Club. It’s one of a few student organizations sponsored by the various departments, to give you a safe space to practice your skills outside of class.” She grinned. “Well, we’re not as dangerous as the pyros, but it’s still a fun social group. We run demos of divination systems you may not be familiar with, and if you’re interested, you can get somebody to show you the basics. So it’s a good way to test the waters before you decide to take a whole class on the subject. And it’s great for finding somebody to do a reading for you. Our intro meeting is tomorrow night, 8 p.m. in Linwood; I hope to see a lot of you there. I’ll stick around for a few minutes after class, if you have any questions.”
Professor Madison took the microphone back and nodded her thanks to Akila. “Whether you intend to go on in this field or not, I recommend taking advantage of the Divination Club’s readers for any question that touches on matters personal to you. Even an experienced psychic has difficulty reading clearly for herself; your own feelings and preconceptions cloud your interpretation.
“And that brings us back to the words I said at the beginning of class. Lies, damned lies, and prophecy. Who can tell me why I said that?”
So it hadn’t just been a clever line, something memorable to get our attention in the first lecture. Several of raised our hands. Madison pointed at someone behind me. “Because we might be wrong about the meaning of what we’ve seen,” a guy said.
“True, but incomplete. What else?”
Some of the hands went down. I kept mine up. A girl off to my left was called on, and said, “Because there are still fakers out there.”
“Also true, but not what I meant — and we’ll be discussing ways to minimize that danger.” Madison scanned the room. “Any more guesses?”
Was I the only person here who recognized the line, and knew what it meant? She was paraphrasing Mark Twain, who supposedly was quoting Benjamin Disraeli. There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.
Madison pointed at me. I cleared my throat and said, “Because prophecy is rarely specific, so you can twist it around to support lots of different arguments — just like statistics. Whether you’re doing it on purpose or not. And besides, nothing’s carved in stone. Just because you see it doesn’t mean it will happen.”
The professor nodded. “Contrary to what most non-specialists think, the point of divination is not to find some fixed truth. The point is to open your eyes to possibility, and to help yourself think ahead. Think on that, and I’ll see you Wednesday.”
I was sitting near the middle of the row, and had to wait for the flood to clear before I could get out and head for the doors at the top of the lecture hall. Akila was still there, fielding one last question. I caught her eye and smiled. By her return grin, she remembered me. “8 p.m. in Linwood?” I said. “I’ll see you there. Can’t wait to see what’s in store for me this year.”
“So, have any of you managed to spot him yet?” Carmen asked, sliding into the last chair at the lunch table.
Liesel shoved a forkful of salad in her mouth to keep from sighing. She liked Michele, a French student she’d met through the International Students’ Union. She liked one of Michele’s two roommates, Sara, who was sitting next to her. But Carmen . . . .
“Spot who?” Sara asked.
Carmen rolled her eyes. “Jesus, of course.” Liesel cringed. Carmen was an atheist, and tolerated Michele’s Wiccan faith — and Liesel’s — because at least it was suitably “magical,” but she kept needling Sara over being Catholic. “The wilder.”
“I haven’t been looking,” Liesel said, laying as much stress as she dared on the pronoun. Unlike some people.
She might as well have said it. Carmen snorted. “You’re just about the only one. Even the professors are out for his blood.”
Her choice of words drew a sharp look from Michele. “What do you mean?”
Carmen waved her concern away with a careless hand. “Not like that; nothing bad. Well, I heard some guys on the cross-country team were planning to jump him — but that’s students, not professors, and besides, they’re probably too scared to try anything. And the total bigot teaching my Latin class keeps threatening to leave if the changeling stays, but whatever.”
Her words made Liesel’s skin jump as if she’d been shocked. “You shouldn’t call him that.”
“What? Changeling? My Latin professor said that, not me. I told you she’s a bigot.” Carmen went on before Liesel could find a response to that. It wasn’t just her insensitive behavior that made Liesel dislike her; the girl had a bulldozer quality that made her almost impossible to influence, short of the kind of empathic intervention that was totally inexusable outside of therapy or crisis work. “But no, the professors are all being scientific. Studying him, you know? Not with actual blood — though I dunno; maybe some of them are running the Krauss test on him, just so they can drool over his rating — but they’re all tripping over themselves to see what he can do. I heard that iron bitch Grayson kept him for three hours after class last week.”
“Poor guy,” Michele said. “I’ve heard some scary things about Grayson. But she used to be a Guardian, didn’t she? They were probably just talking shop.”
Liesel had expected the student body to lose its collective good sense over the wilder among them. After all, very few had ever met a wilder, unless they were like Kim and their parents’ work brought them into contact with Guardians. And college was supposed to be about new experiences. But professors? She had expected better from them.
A vain hope, apparently. Professors were human beings, too. Academic ones, no less, who made their living from studying things. Of course they wanted to study the wilder.
Her own thoughts made her frown. It didn’t seem right, just thinking of him as “the wilder.” But she’d kept the vow she’d made with Kim, not even going so far as to look up his name in the directory. Until Carmen started talking, she’d managed to avoid almost all the gossip about him.
Now that Carmen had opened her mouth, though . . . Liesel almost wanted to take that vow back. It sounded like the guy could use a simple friend. Somebody who didn’t care about his Krauss rating, in a bad way or a good one.
Liesel stopped just short of rolling her eyes. Carmen would see it, and assume the gesture was aimed at her, rather than at Liesel’s own foolish thoughts. She’d never so much as laid eyes on the guy. Who knew what he was really like? Deciding she should be his friend just because he was a wilder, and ostracized, was as big of an insult in its own way as any of the other stupid things people were doing. In fact, Liesel probably wasn’t the first person to think of it. And she doubted he would welcome yet another stranger treating him like a charitable cause.
Carmen was still going on about him. Liesel resorted to a brief tap on Michele’s thoughts. Can you help me change the topic? She’s really starting to make me uncomfortable.
Michele slid her a smile while Carmen was distracted by a message on her port. I’m glad to know it isn’t just me. Do you think it would distract her if I started flirting with you?
It certainly distracted Liesel. Her face heated; she tried and failed to hide the blush behind her water glass. Michele took it as encouragement, and Liesel couldn’t find it in her to complain at all.
Several dozen of my fellow freshmen had shown up to the first meeting of the Div Club. A month and a half into the quarter, that number had dropped sharply. We might not be as dangerous as the pyros, but we weren’t as exciting, either.
At least, to anybody who wasn’t a hard-core divination geek. People still showed to the occasional meeting, and Akila told me they got lots of messages from students wanting to set up individual readings, but when it came to regular attendance, there were only maybe thirty of us — freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors.
When I mentioned that to Liesel, she just grinned and said, “Thirty of you, eh?”
All right, so I already counted myself as one of the regulars. And it might be true that I’d tried to argue my advisor into letting me squeeze in a seminar on Shang oracle bones alongside Introduction to Divination and a sortilege practicum. Apparently Welton had a policy against freshmen taking six courses in their first term, though — and besides, the seminar was meant for upperclassmen.
The seminar was being taught by a visiting professor, though, and I was still annoyed that I wouldn’t get another chance to take it. Div Club might be a good place to find out about obscure prophetic methods, but even for them — us — scapulimancy was out there.
Akila had promised to introduce me to a new kind of deck, though, one that wasn’t tarot-based. After the co-presidents had dealt with organizational business, she and I went off to the side for her to show me the cards.
“They’re mythological,” she said, spreading them out for me, “but rather than each one representing a single cluster of concepts, they’re intended to connect to other cards in the deck. So if you draw Amaterasu, she resonates with Susano-o and Tsukiyomi, because they share myths — but she also resonates with Apollo and Ra and Tonatiuh, because of the solar connection, and with gods who reflect other aspects of Amaterasu’s nature. So you have to consider the spread as a whole, even more than usual, to pull out where the connections are.”
I thought it through, chewing on my lower lip. “You mean, if Amaterasu shows up with Apollo, it might suggest something about the moon, or maybe a brother or sister, because both of them are paired with a lunar sibling. But if Ra shows up instead, it’s more likely to be something about — oh, leadership or nationalism or something, because of the connection with the emperors on one hand and the pharaohs on the other.”
“Right,” Akila said. “If you’ve got a question you want answered, I can walk you through it.”
I definitely wanted a demonstration. All the card systems I knew were like Akila had said, with each card representing a more or less coherent set of ideas, rather the assortment attributed to gods. The cards always modified each other, of course, but this sounded a lot more interconnected than I was used to.
The question was, well, what question to ask. “Just do a general reading for me,” I said at last. Everything I could think of was either too trivial, or too personal for me to share it with Akila. “My birthday is tomorrow; might as well do the reading for that tonight.”
“Happy birthday in advance, then,” she said with a smile, before taking a deep breath and closing her eyes to center herself.
Once we had shuffled and cut the deck, she began to lay out the cards in a circle. Six of them, with space for a final card in the center. “I like to use the seventh as the capstone,” she said, when she saw me looking puzzled. “Sort of a final thought for the reading.”
“Ah, I get it. Usually I put a signifier there, and I do it first.”
“A lot of people do,” Akila said. “You might try this approach, though, and see what it gets you. Anyway, what do we have here?”
What we had was Hermes reversed, Ganesha reversed, Loki, Brigit, Thoth, and Papa Legba. Akila and I both frowned over the cards, thinking them through.
“Well,” Akila said at last. “Ganesha is the one who removes obstacles, and he’s reversed. That part is clear: whatever’s in your way is going to stay there, at least for the near future. And the obstacle in question is Hermes reversed. Are you having trouble communicating with someone, or are there money problems?”
I shook my head, eyes unfocusing slightly as I stared at the cards. “No, but I know what it means. I’m supposed to consider the whole spread, right?” My hand hovered over Thoth, not touching. These were Akila’s cards; she wouldn’t want me contaminating them. “Hermes Trismegistus. A syncretization of these two, and the origin of hermetic magic. My mother wants me to study CM, but I’m going to major in divination.”
If Akila was any good, her gift would tell her there was more to it than that. I wasn’t about to explain, though. We didn’t know each other well enough, and besides, the rest of the Div Club was ten feet away, busy with their own readings and conversations. But Akila was experienced enough with divination to also know that pressing the client rarely helped. She only said, “That’s an issue you’re not going to be able to resolve yet. But Loki follows Ganesha. In another context, it could mean trouble, but you’ve got other tricksters in here. I think it’s suggesting that you should just route around the problem, at least for now.”
“And get to Brigit,” I said, nodding. “She’s prophecy-related, but it might be wishful thinking on my part to read her as validating my choice of major.” After all, the whole point of having Akila read for me was that my own interpretation might be biased.
She drew another deep breath. It seemed to be part of how she focused on the hints from her gift. “I don’t think it is, actually — wishful thinking, that is. She’s not the only one in here that’s prophecy-related. I’m getting an echo of that from Thoth, and Papa Legba has associations with Orunmila, who’s the one who brought Ifá to the world.”
I squelched the urge to ask about Ifá. There was controversy about teaching it at universities, and I didn’t know where Akila stood on that issue. Besides, I had to focus on this reading, not all the other divinatory methods I wanted to be learning. “So I should put my energy into divination, and Thoth’s presence means my studies will go well.”
She grinned at me. “Which one of us is doing this reading, me or you?”
“Sorry,” I said, putting my hands up. “I didn’t mean to horn in.”
“No, not at all. You’re doing really well. Most people would have more trouble with cards they don’t know, especially on a reading for themselves.” Akila laughed and gestured at the spread. “Even if this was telling you not to major in divination, I’d probably encourage you to do it.”
“Well, it isn’t like what they forecast is fixed anyway.” I cocked my head and considered Papa Legba. “Crossroads. A choice of paths.” Divination or CM? I’d made that choice already, though.
“Mmmm.” Akila frowned, then drew in another deep breath. “Connection to the world of spirits, too. He resonates with Hermes on that front. Let’s see what the final card says.” She drew it from her deck and laid it in the center.
Lugh of the Long Hand. Another Irish god, like Brigit. Not particularly prophetic, but he was associated with the Otherworld, which might connect to Papa Legba. The problem was, Lugh was one of those gods with enough built-up associations that in divinatory terms, he could represent damn near anything.
I sighed, defeated. Whatever meaning was in that card, my gift couldn’t tease it out. So much for interpreting for myself.
When I looked up at Akila, though, her mouth twisted in wry apology. “Sorry. Lugh’s a hard one to read, and I’m really not sure what he means here. Something to do with the Otherworld — so, with magic in any form, whether CM or divination or whatever — and I guess there’s a choice for you to make, or at least something that might fall out in different ways. I can’t tell what it is, though.” She swept the cards up and returned them to her deck. “We could try again, if you like. Use Lugh as the significator, and see what else we get.”
My stomach growled, and she laughed. “Yeah, not right now,” I said. “I think food needs to come first. But thanks for showing me the cards; I’m really tempted to get my own deck.”
“You totally should,” Akila said, getting up from the floor. “And there’s a class Bradley teaches every other year, on alternative cartomancy. That’s where I heard about this deck, actually. I bet you’d like it.”
One more for the list. Twelve terms at Welton were not going to be enough for me to take all the divination classes I wanted, not if I also wanted to fill out my requirements and get my diploma.
But there was always graduate school. Smiling to myself, I went to find dinner.
Everyone knew the urban legends, of course. The freshman empath who snapped under the pressure of her roommate’s stress and, depending on the narrative variant, either drove the offender mad in a sudden burst of telepathic fury, or bashed her head in with a paperweight. According to the empath who sat next to Robert in their class on the Cairo Accords, there was no true historical incident behind the tales . . . but college was trying enough, and the psychic control of most eighteen-year-olds still imperfect enough, that breakdowns of a less violent sort did indeed occur.
Robert — who knew quite well that he had the empathic sensitivity of a whelk — did not expect to have any such difficulties himself.
But as it transpired, empathy was unnecessary, when living with a highly-stressed wilder.
Not that Julian showed stress in the ordinary ways. No breakdowns for him, no shouting or fits of tears; indeed, he hardly seemed capable of such a thing. Robert was just as glad. Strong emotion played merry hell with psychic abilities — one reason why manifestation in adolescence was such a volatile affair — and a wilder in a snit could be expected to wreak truly epic havoc. Which was, no doubt, why they were forbidden to have snits.
But control of the usual signs of stress did not equate to a lack of stress itself. And Robert very soon came to recognize the signs peculiar to Julian: speech increasingly terse and opaque. Fanatical tidiness of person and surroundings. A general impression of rigidity — rather like an antique boiler, whose cast-iron sides only barely contained the mounting pressure within.
One did not have to be a trained psychologist to guess why. A variety of students had already pestered Robert to introduce them to his roommate; two were persistent enough that he had to offer to introduce them to his fist instead. The rest plagued him with questions instead, about everything from what Julian ate to whether he ate at all.
The belief that wilders did not need to eat came about because Julian was, as near as Robert could tell, avoiding the dining halls as if they were infested with cockroaches. He could not blame the fellow. Far easier to take one of the campus’ many portable options and eat somewhere that offered a modicum of privacy. But such practices did not solve the basic problem, which was that Julian had no discernible life outside of class and studying, and sooner or later the lack was going to make him explode.
What god had a sufficiently perverse sense of humour to assign the duty of prevention to Robert, he did not know. Perhaps he had only himself to blame, accepting this assignment of roommate, without asking whether amateur counseling services were part of the package. But the task was before him, and so he set about it as best he could.
“Bah,” he said one evening, when Julian came home from wherever it was he had been. Not class — not at this hour — and certainly not any extracurricular activity. “If I have to read one more word of this patronizing twaddle, I think I will go mad.”
He looked up from the article he was reading, and could not entirely control a flinch. Julian was, for reasons Robert did not want to guess at, dressed all in black. Jeans and a long-sleeved shirt — perfectly ordinary clothing — except that on him, the lack of color was just this side of terrifying. His hair was far too light, his skin far too pale; he looked like a ghost. One that did not want to have a conversation right now.
But Robert had planned this gambit, and having started it, his mouth went blithely on, before his common sense could sound the retreat. “There is a late-night movie being shown in Carson Commons. The Ides of North; I thought I might go. Would you have any interest, yourself?”
Julian had bent to unlace his boots, hiding his expression. Now he stepped out of them and shook his head, still without looking at Robert. That, too, seemed to be a sign of stress, as if he did not want to engage with anyone. Including his roommate. “No, thank you.”
He should drop it; he knew he should. And yet he went on. “Is it class reading that calls you away, or a lack of interest in the movie? Or a lack of interest in movies more generally, I suppose.”
“I have work I should do,” Julian said. Which only answered part of Robert’s question.
Hanged for a fleece, hanged for the mother of all sheep. “But that does not tell me what you think of movies, and whether I should offer such invitations in the future. Surely you must have some hobbies, man.”
“Not movies.” Julian picked up his bag.
“Very well — but what takes their place? What do you like to do in your leisure time?”
Julian drew breath as if to answer; Robert found he was holding his own. Then Julian shook his head, a curt gesture, cutting off whatever he’d been about to say, replacing it with something else. “Do you remember what you said to me on the first day?”
He had said so very many things, his tongue running free out of sheer nerves. Like it was trying to do now. “Er.”
“You asked me to tell you if you said something wrong.”
Robert had not, in a month and a half of living with a wilder, ever looked Julian in the eye. He knew well enough what would happen if he did. But even without looking, he could feel the weight of that gaze on him. It should have shut him up — but he could not help asking. “This offends you? My asking about your hobbies?” He floundered for understanding, as Julian turned to go, and came up empty-handed. “For the love of all the gods, why? It’s a simple question.”
The words pursued Julian to his bedroom door, and there the wilder stopped. Robert saw, with the sudden clarity of adrenaline, his roommate’s hand on the door frame, and the tensing of his fingertips against the wood. He had time enough to note, treat black clothing as a warning sign in future, before Julian dropped the bag and pivoted sharply to face him.
“I have had enough,” he said, in an uninflected voice that sent Robert’s adrenaline spiking, “with being questioned about everything in my life, and the answers being treated like some kind of report from another planet.”
It wasn’t that he was angry — though Robert had no doubt he was, under that frigid self-control. It was the way humanity almost seemed to drop away from him. In that clothing, with that expression and that voice, he might have been something out of the Otherworld. Wilders in the ordinary way of things were unnerving enough . . . but that, Robert now realized, was what they looked like when they were trying to be normal.
His mouth opened, but all his conversational gambits lay in pieces on the floor. “I –”
The tendons in Julian’s neck leapt into relief as he clenched his jaw. “I am not an insect under the microscope. I am not a performing dog. I’m not here to entertain you, or anybody else. My life is none of your business. Get that through your head, and leave me in peace.”
He bit the last words off and turned to go into his room. Before he could close the door, though, Robert was on his feet, and hot from head to toe. “Wait. We aren’t done yet.”
Julian didn’t look back, but he did stop.
“You bloody pillock,” Robert said, furious. “Do you think I don’t know how everybody’s been treating you? They chase after me, too, because they know better than to come after you — some of them. It’s a three-ring circus out there, with you as the main attraction. I get that. But you know, not everybody who asks you a civil question is doing it because they want to run and gossip to their friends. Some of them are doing it because they’re your roommate, and they’d like to go on being your roommate, rather than letting you drive yourself off a cliff in the first quarter of your freshman year. Which is what you’re on track to do, unless you find some kind of life outside of class, studying, and dodging the bastards that want you to dance for their amusement.”
Silence. Robert couldn’t tell what Julian thought of his tirade; he was still in the doorway, one hand on the knob. His roommate might have been about to slam the door, break down crying, or transform Robert into a toad.
He did none of the three. He turned — the other direction, so that Robert could only glimpse the hard edge of his expression — and went to shove his feet into his boots again.
“Give us a chance, at least,” Robert said. “Not everybody here sees you as an insect or a dog.” But he got no chance to say anything more. Julian was out into the hallway, sliding past a fellow who leapt to clear his path, and the door swung shut behind him.
A bout of shivering seized me, and my jaw ached as I clenched it to keep my teeth from chattering. Minnesota was not Georgia: I knew that, and yet here I was, soaking wet and outside late on a windy and none-too-warm night. All because I couldn’t let go of tradition.
It started when I was twelve. My gifts had manifested about a month earlier, and were still volatile enough that, although I’d enjoyed my birthday party, I felt twitchy and less than fully in control of myself. After my friends left, I went for a swim in our backyard pool, and ended up floating there for a good hour, thinking about everything in my life: manifestation, how I’d changed, where I was going. The next year, although I didn’t need the calming, I decided to to do it again. And every year since then, the same.
Unfortunately, the swimming pool here was indoors, and striped with lane ropes. Really not what I was looking for. The creek that ran through the Arboretum was deep enough for swimming . . . but it was also freezing by comparison. I hadn’t meditated for very long.
If only I lived somewhere closer, like Wolfstone. Shushunova lay practically on the other side of campus from the Arboretum. I had to cut through the middle, passing administrative buildings and classrooms, not to mention several dorms that made me think of those ads on apartment buildings: If you lived here, you would be home now. Next year I was going to have to find a better place to dunk myself. Maybe the pool wasn’t so bad. Or a bathtub.
Up ahead lay the First Manifestation monument, my halfway point to home. I wrapped my arms more firmly around my body as I crossed it, wishing I’d worn my winter coat, and never mind that it was only the end of September.
Then every hair on my body rose, in a way that had nothing to do with the cold wind. I wasn’t the only one passing through the monument. I looked up at the other person, and froze where I stood.
Grey eyes. They drew me in and trapped me, windows to something not quite human. I was sidhe-blooded, like everyone with psychic gifts, but his eyes . . . they held all the numinous wonder and terror of the sidhe themselves. Every muscle in my body shuddered. I was a mouse transfixed by the gaze of a hawk, a moth flying too close to the flame, and I couldn’t look away.
It was the cold that saved me. Not all of my shivering was because I’d just met a wilder’s eyes. I shuddered hard enough to break the deadlock, and wrenched my gaze down.
Never look them in the eye. My mother had taught me that when I was a child. Avoid skin contact; avoid eye contact. The presence of a wilder was enough on its own: a reminder that the sidhe had been more than simply a species with different abilities. They were the source of our gifts, and alien in a way that did not belong to this world. Wilders, having more of their blood than most, gave off that skin-crawling feel wherever they went.
Like, for example, the campus monument on a late September night. How long had I been standing there, frozen? It could have been five seconds or five minutes, but either way, “frozen” was becoming less and less of a metaphor. Okay, so I’d found our resident wilder. Good for me. But he probably didn’t appreciate me gawking at him like that — or had he met my gaze on purpose? To see what I would do?
What I should do was act normally. The way I would if he were any other person. Now if only I could remember how that went.
Just keep on walking.
So I did. Across the marble of the monument, its polished green surface black and reflective in the moonlight. His dark clothes blended into that background, against which his skin and hair stood out shockingly pale. We’d been about twenty feet apart when I looked up, and he’d stopped when I did. Now he started again, along the same course he’d been following — which was to say, straight toward me. As we drew near, I avoided his eyes, but smiled and gave him a nod. As if he were just another student, passing in the night.
“Are you all right?”
It jerked me to a halt again. But the weirdness of his voice was just an echo from all the stone around us; beneath that, his tone mingled curiosity and concern.
“You’re shivering,” he added. “And wet.”
I hadn’t expected him to say anything, not after that appallingly rude staring match — whoever’s fault it had been. I touched my dripping hair and blushed. “Oh. It’s my birthday.” As if that were any kind of answer to his question. “I do this every year — it’s a tradition. I think back over the past year — kind of a meditation — and, well, go swimming. So I jumped into the Copper Creek.”
He nodded, as if I had said something perfectly reasonable. Was I breaking the promise Liesel and I had made? No; he was the one who started this conversation. The polite thing would be to find something sane to say, but between my incipient hypothermia and the disorientation of meeting his gaze, my brain was in no state to help.
Glancing down, I saw he had a fistful of late roses. “CM assignment,” he said, when he noticed me looking. Then, after a brief hesitation that seemed almost like he was arguing with himself, he handed me one of them. “I’m Julian. I’m sorry to have startled you.”
I took the rose, dumbly, and stared at it. “What’s this for?”
“Your birthday?” he said, as if he’d heard somewhere that normal people gave each other gifts on such days. “And an apology. I shouldn’t have done that.”
Shouldn’t have met my eye. Maybe he had done it on purpose, though I couldn’t guess why. He spoke politely but stiffly, like he was edging his way out onto thin ice, waiting to fall through. Afraid of how I would react, maybe.
I was afraid of the same thing. What I could say that wouldn’t sound weird? When in doubt, be polite. “Thanks,” I said, and stopped the twitch of my arm before it could turn into an offered handshake. Skin contact would only paralyze me again, and we’d had enough of that for one night. “I’m Kim. Freshman; I live over in Shushunova. What — ”
I was about to ask what dorm he was in, but a giant shiver cut the words off. My laugh was equal parts embarrassment and chattering teeth. “Sorry. I’m freezing to death.”
“You should get home, then,” Julian said. Still with that wary courtesy, but I thought I detected a hint of relief underneath it. Maybe he wasn’t any more sure than I was where this conversation should go.
“Yeah. I’ll see you around,” I said, wondering if I would. We’d missed each other so far. Possibly we just moved in totally different circles, but from the gossip I’d heard, my money was on him playing hermit. I couldn’t really blame him. Not when people like me turned into twitching idiots at the mere sight of him.
Julian hesitated, then walked onward. I glanced over my shoulder, once, trying to guess where he was headed. Earle, maybe. I could look it up easily enough. But I wouldn’t do that to him.
With the rose clutched in one icy hand, I hurried back to my dorm.
Liesel could tell, even before she settled into her seat for the Cairo Accords lecture, that the guy who always sat next to her had something he wanted to say. No empathy needed; she could read it in his posture, much more upright than his usual slouch, and the way he kept looking at her sidelong. But she’d been delayed on her way to class by a call from her mother, and there was no time for him to say anything before Professor Banerjee brought up the display and began lecturing.
She hoped he wasn’t going to ask her out. Robert wasn’t the type of guy who interested her — and besides, Michele’s flirting had continued well after Carmen stopped eating lunch with them. They’d gotten together the previous night to talk about the possibility of forming a Wiccan circle, if they could find enough other students they wanted to include, but the conversation had continued for a good hour and a half after that, long after Liesel should have gone home.
Well, if he did, she would do her best to let him down gently. So she made a point, when the lecture was over, of packing up her things slowly enough that he wouldn’t feel rushed to get the words out before she walked away.
“Er,” Robert said, and cleared his throat. His eyes were on the students in the row in front of them, plainly waiting for them to move and give him a bit of privacy.
Liesel did her best to seem neutrally pleasant, not too encouraging. “Yes?”
They’d spoken enough before and after this class that she knew the uncertainty he showed now wasn’t usual for him. “I . . . have a favor to ask,” Robert said, with the tone of one placing a heavy weight very carefully on a table, and waiting for the legs to break.
It piqued Liesel’s curiosity. This didn’t sound like the start of a proposition. “I’ll help if I can,” she said cautiously.
Robert let his breath out in a gust. “It’s my roommate who needs the help. No — wait — that doesn’t sound right at all.” He caught Liesel’s expression, and threw his hands up to fend off the conclusion he probably assumed she was drawing. “This is a friendly favor, nothing more! Only dinner. Gods and sidhe — that still sounds wrong.”
Liesel suppressed a laugh; it wouldn’t help Robert any. “Deep breath. Start at the beginning.”
He took her advice literally, at least where the breathing was concerned. “My roommate. I am attempting to broaden his social horizons, and he — after a certain degree of, shall we say, resistance — has agreed. I wondered if you might join us in Earle tonight.”
“Just me?” Liesel asked.
“I thought to start small,” Robert admitted. “Though if you have another you’d like to bring along, I defer to your judgment.”
She clipped her bag shut, thinking. Three could be awkward; if they didn’t hit it off, there might be too much silence. Or she and Robert would spend the entire time talking, leaving the other guy out. “I could invite my own roommate.”
The fall quarter was young enough that a lot of freshmen were still sitting down to meals with random people, hoping to make new friends. Kim had made some connections through the Divination Club, but she probably wouldn’t object to this experiment. Robert asked, “What’s she like?”
“Mature,” Liesel said. “Her parents are kind of high society, so she’s used to making small talk with strangers. It sounds like that might help.”
Robert’s sigh of relief told her she’d hit the mark. She doubted she was the only person he knew well enough to invite to dinner; it therefore followed that he had a reason for choosing her. And the most likely reason was her empathy. She could smooth over any rough spots in the conversation — and Kim, she thought, could do the same.
“That sounds excellent,” Robert said. “Shall I see you both at seven, then? Splendid.” He grabbed his bag, gifted Liesel with a florid bow, and fled.
Earle’s dining hall was a low and sprawling place, claustrophobic enough that I’d avoided it until now. I preferred Hurst, whose floor-to-ceiling windows made it feel more open and pleasant. But Liesel had recruited me for a social project tonight, and it wouldn’t kill me to eat here once, before I swore off it for the rest of my undergraduate life.
The space didn’t make it easy to find people, though. Liesel rose up on her toes to scan the room, then dropped down and shrugged. “I don’t see him. Let’s get food, then try to grab a table.”
That would be easier said than done. The tables here were mostly small affairs, seating four or six people at best, and most of them were full. It looked like there were a few empty places off in the corner, though, where the room bent around into an L shape. I joined Liesel in the serving line, collecting a plate of lasagna and a slice of cake from the dessert table. “What’s your friend’s major? Or his name, for that matter?”
“CM,” she said, and I grimaced behind her back. So much for having things to talk about. “And his name’s Robert Ó Conchúir.”
Nobody I’d heard of, but if he was a CM major, that didn’t surprise me. “Freshman?” I’d assumed so, but hadn’t asked. Liesel nodded. “And the roommate is . . . .”
“Awkward, apparently. He didn’t say more.”
Around the bend of the L and near the windows, a tall, lanky student with a shock of red-gold hair stood up, one hand hovering in the air, not quite waving. He looked our age, and that hair could belong to somebody named Ó Conchúir. “Is that your guy?”
Liesel turned to look, and the hovering became a full-blown wave. “Yes! They must have a table already.” She wove through the crowd, balancing her tray, heading for Robert and his companion.
They not only had a table, they had what looked like every empty seat in the dining hall forming a ragged half-circle around them. And as I came into that buffer zone, I understood why.
“Good evening, Liesel, my lady,” Robert said, with a distinct Irish accent and an honest-to-gods bow to us both. “May I present my roommate, Julian?”
The wilder half-stood as well, but I didn’t think it was because he had the same old-fashioned habits of etiquette as Robert. He stood as if it was reflex, putting himself on his feet so he had more options for movement as Liesel and I drew near. As if some part of him was perpetually ready for trouble, and didn’t want to be sitting when it came.
Were we trouble? No more so, I hoped, than your average pair of freshman girls, and nowhere near enough to concern a wilder.
The sunset coming through the windows painted him with false color, transforming him from the silver statue I’d met last week. It helped that he was wearing blue, not black, and the light gilded his fair hair gold. But nothing dented the shiver of his presence, and Liesel hitched a half-step in front of me, so that I almost ran into her.
“And you are?” Robert asked me with that same antique courtesy, as Liesel set her tray down across from him.
“Kim,” I said. Nothing for it but to take the chair across from Julian. And why shouldn’t I? He was just another freshman guy. Okay, one with a Krauss rating through the roof, but that was no reason to be rude.
Like everybody else in the dining hall was being, treating this like a plague zone. No wonder Robert was soliciting dinner companions.
Liesel had recovered from her own surprise, and was going into full seelie mode, smoothing over the awkward pause. “Robert’s in my history class,” she said to me, using the reminder to get the conversation started. “CM major. Julian, are you –”
She didn’t finish the question. Julian wasn’t staring at me; that was a mistake we weren’t going to repeat. But for all his impassive demeanor and impeccable shields, he couldn’t hide everything from my perceptive roommate. “Have you two met before?” she asked, startled for a second time.
“Last week,” I said, while Robert gaped openly. “I had no idea Julian was Robert’s roommate, though.”
“We ran into each other on Wednesday,” Julian said. His voice didn’t raise the hairs on the back of my neck this time, maybe because it had to compete with the racket of the dining hall. No marble to echo off, and no moonlight to set the stage. “At the monument.”
After a beat, Robert said, “Well. We have fewer strangers at this table than I thought.” Then, stabbing his fork with great concentration into his fried chicken, he sent what was all too obviously supposed to have been a tightly-shielded telepathic whisper — that came through loud and clear to us all. A rendezvous with a girl in the night-time, and you said not a word? There is more to you than I thought!
Liesel turned scarlet. For my own part, I choked on a laugh. Julian glared pure murder at his roommate, and for all I would not have want it directed at me, the reaction humanized him. He wasn’t a statue, nor a walking pillar of sidhe blood; he was an eighteen-year-old guy who’d just been embarrassed at the dinner table, and I hoped for Robert’s sake that the control they drilled into wilders meant Julian wouldn’t go for suitable revenge.
“To be fair,” I said, doing my own seelie best to gloss over the conversational implosion, “all Julian knows of me is that I’m a lunatic who goes diving into the Copper Creek on my birthday, then wanders around campus with wet hair in search of some pneumonia to catch. Hardly the basis for saying we know one another. Are you a CM major, too?”
That was what Liesel had started to ask. Robert said, “You have been questioned, sir,” and nodded his head toward me, in an attempt to redirect his roommate’s attention. I watched Julian swallow down his glare with remarkable speed. Either it had been more of an pretense than I thought, or this was that legendary self-control in action.
“Yes,” he said, “though not officially, of course.”
None of us could formally declare our majors until spring term, on the theory that we should explore our options before we settled down. But it sounded like all four of us had chosen our paths already. “No love for the telekinetic sciences at this table,” I observed. “Liesel and I are both in the telepathics — she does empathy, I do divination.”
Robert put on an expression of horror. Did he always act like this, or was it a device to cover for his roommate’s stiffness? No reason it couldn’t be both, I supposed. “Oh no — I fear this means war, the sorcerers against the psychics. Unless we could persuade you to the dark side?”
“Of ceremonial magic? I don’t think so.” I’d been happily ignoring that ever since Akila’s reading. “Way too much showy ritual and unnecessary pageantry.”
“Unnecessary!” He clapped one hand over his heart as if wounded. “My lady, I will have you know that ritual and pageantry is the lifeblood of any self-respecting magician.”
“Or at least any self-respecting Irish magician who fell in love with tales of Fernando Covas de la Vega as a child,” Julian said.
Robert pulled back in surprise. “When did I tell you that?”
The reply came in the same unruffled tone as everything else Julian said, but its very blandness carried unexpected humour. After a startled silence, Robert laughed and made a seated bow. “I am that obvious, it seems. Very well; I confess. De la Vega is, indeed, a mighty star in my heavens. Self-respecting magicians of another sort may choose to do their sorcery without all the pomp — but where is the fun in that?”
While Liesel answered him, I began cutting up my lasagna, thinking about that reading. Lugh of the Long Hand, the final card. Associated with the Otherworld . . . I didn’t know Julian’s exact Krauss rating, but wilders had far more sidhe blood than ordinary psychics like the three of us. And the Otherworld — long since departed, known to us only through myth — was the home of the sidhe.
No, it went further than that. One of the main stories about Lugh was how the Tuatha Dé Danann almost didn’t let him among them because every skill he could offer, they already had from somebody else. They finally welcomed him in when he pointed out that nobody among them had all those skills. Wilders might not be the best at any one aspect of the psychic sciences, not when compared against the true experts — but unlike ordinary bloods, they were good at everything.
Liesel had brought me here to be social, not to poke at my lasagna and get lost in my own thoughts. She and Robert were talking about classes; I joined in, and after a moment, Julian did, too. But I couldn’t stop watching him in my peripheral vision, still stuck on the reading.
Papa Legba had come before Lugh. Both Akila and I had read a crossroads out of that, a choice of paths. Our meeting at the monument, no doubt. But what choice had I made?
Clarity came in a flash, from the depths of my gift. It wasn’t that clear-cut of a situation: door A or door B, thumbs up or thumbs down. These were paths, and I could backtrack if I changed my mind . . . but the farther I went, the harder it would become.
And this was the start of a path, right here. Julian, making wary conversation, but less wary than he’d been at the monument. Robert, playing up his ridiculousness enough that Liesel nearly choked on her iced tea. The four of us, at the start of something that could turn, over time, into friendship.
It would have consequences. Julian was never going to be just another student; he would always be the wilder, subject to prejudice and curiosity and a lot of arrant stupidity. Being friends with him would limit my options elsewhere. But backing off would have consequences, too, and I didn’t like the look of those half so much.
Julian was saying something about taking a shielding theory class on Tuesdays and Thursdays. “Where is that held, in Morrison?” I said. It would be that or Cavendish; those were the main CM lecture buildings, with most of the labs in Adler.
He nodded. I almost stalled, buying time to check in with my roommate, but it was impolite to have telepathic conversations in front of other people — and besides, I had no doubt what her answer would be. “Liesel and I have lunch in Kinfield on those days, since we’ve both got classes nearby. You’re welcome to join us, if you want.”
He went still. His self-control was good enough that I couldn’t read his reaction, but not good enough to hide that he was having one. Too soon? I wondered. I didn’t want to seem intrusive, but on the other hand, I did want to give him an opening to be social again, if he felt so inclined.
“Possibly,” he said, after a brief pause. “I don’t usually take much time for lunch.”
“With your course load, I’m not surprised.” They’d let him take six classes, I’d noticed. And not lightweight ones, either. “Well, feel free to join us for a break whenever you can. I’m reliably informed that too much studying makes your brain explode.”
Another moment of stillness. Then he exhaled in a quick, voiceless laugh, and smiled. “All right.”
Robert slouched back in his chair, not even bothering to hide his grin. By the self-satisfaction in it, we were all lucky he didn’t simply crow “Victory!”
But it was. He’d engineered this dinner, and it had worked — not just between Julian and me, but all four of us. I suspected Liesel and I would be seeing a lot more of both of them from here on out.
I looked forward to finding out where that path led.