A/N: Hey, guys. So I just realized that the ethnicities in this story could be pretty confusing to anybody who doesn't live inside my head. Allow me to clarify: this story is set in a country called Pharisee. Pheobe is from a country called Canduca (not sure if I already mentioned that, sorry for spoilers.) "Cawla" is not a person from any one particular country; it's a term for any one who doesn't have magic (a genetic trait, for the record.) Sorcerers are, well, sorcerers. They can be from any country. Hope that helped, and thank you so much for reading!
When Wish and Leava returned, they brought Phoebe with them.
Ariel had to admit, while he didn't think Wish's whole face theory had any merit, she looked a lot better after all that time in the bathroom than when she arrived the previous night. Granted, he'd only gotten a glimpse of her, and Canduca was at least a day away by carriage-she must have been tired.
She was a slight little thing, wispy, and she was only about a foot taller than Leava. Her blonde hair was cut shockingly short; it curled in little tuffs around her ears. The rest of her was distinctly more feminine, though: though tiny, her frame was quite filled out, the loose fit of her navy dress in an unintentional short of way; it was cut in a fashion Ariel couldn't remember ever seeing before-the waist was high, without a hoop and causing her to look taller than she really was and adding a kind of billowy appearance of grace when she moved. As an added accent, her skin tone was tinted with bronze, giving her a pleasant, glow-y look. If there were any tangible evidence they were real, Ariel would have sworn she was a pixie: small, foreign-
Persephanie openly gawked as the three of them entered the kitchen, the look on her face not unlike the one she wore when Leava spilt that cocoa on her fur coat. Her jaw was so low Winnie reminded her pointedly that it in between chewing and swallowing it was not necessary to put on a burlesque show of her breakfast.
"Who are you?" Sephie inquired, ignoring Winnie's remark.
Phoebe gave Ariel a blank look. "You didn't tell them I was coming?" she asked, sounding a little hurt.
He shrugged, "I mentioned it to Winnie, I suppose she wasn't courteous enough to pass on the message."
"Oh look, I'm attempting to set the record for slowest-eaten breakfast, won't our teachers be fascinated?" Winnie responded brightly.
The sad thing was, they probably would be, but that was hearsay at the moment. Introductions were made, and Cissia, always the hostess, quickly ushered her into a chair (Ariel visibly winced) and asked her if she wanted anything. Phoebe replied that toast would be fine.
Cissy curtseyed and hurried back into the kitchen.
"Who was the last person to see Mother?" she called, scrounging around in the cupboard.
"Me," Winnie replied, not seeming enthusiastic about it.
"Could you come in here for a minute?"
Scowling, Winnie got up from the table and went inside the walk-in cupboard.
"We're out of bread," Cissy informed her in a low voice.
"So?" Winnie spoke at her normal volume. "I'll pick up a loaf on the way home."
"No, no, no," Cissia said impatiently, her eyes darting about. "I'll drop by the market later, I meant-is Mother going to be hungry? When she wakes up, I mean?"
"How the devil should I know?"
"You know. You saw her last."
"If you're trying to ask if she's hung over, just say so."
"What are you looking so scandalized for? It's not like she's a drunkard, or something shameful, she just nips in to take the edge off every once in awhile, says so herself-"
Since Cissia's powers did not include having her eyes jut out of her head like they were doing now, Winnie said blandly, "Don't call me that and go ahead and give the damn girl her toast, Mother won't want it."
Relieved, Cissy grabbed the jam off the shelf and led the two of them out of the pantry.
"Here we are," she said brightly, while behind her Winnie rolled her eyes.
Pheobe thanked her, accepting the plate and beginning to slather its contents with jam. Persephanie watched her as a hungry peasant stares at a feasting princess, cruelly divided by a stain glass window. It was clear from the way she fingered her hair—strawberry blonde, always a sore point—her green eyes alert and appraising that this foreigner, this Phoebe, was not a welcome presence; moreover, she was deemed a threatening one.
Whether Phoebe was aware of this it was difficult to say, for her eyes were downcast. It wasn't lack of comprehension that made her shy, for Canduca and Pharisee were bordered against each other and shared a common tongue. The problem was she'd convinced herself before she came she'd try to immerse her hosts in her culture as possible (it seemed like it was only fair) but that plan didn't seem so gallant and generous in a group of strangers who looked so distinctly different from her.
After what was hours to Ariel and about fifteen minutes to everyone else, the lot of them left the house and started to walk to school. The snow beneath their feet was soggy, and more than once Leava complained her toes feeling frost bitten. Winnie suggested she wrap her hat around her feet.
"Could I?" the child asked incredulously. When Winnie confirmed her approval, the little girl bent over to do so, holding the precession up.
"Commit your own folly, Miss Molly?" the ice sprite whispered to Ariel. He took a swat at her.
Persephanie rolled her eyes. "Honestly," she muttered, and stopped Leava from ruining the hat. "Is this beaver?" she asked incredulously.
Had Winnie been able to whistle, she would have done so innocently. As it was, she shot Ariel an impish grin and continued walking.
Chenda Schoolhouse was actually four buildings, made of marble, laid out in the shape of a square. House One held students age four to six, House Two ages to six to eight, House Three ages eight to twelve, and House Four twelve to eighteen. There were various other buildings as well, such as the stables for older students apprenticing in equestrian practices. In the center of the campus was a large clock tower, set upon a low platform to make it easier for a janitorial worker to reset it when need be.
Unfortunately, about six weeks after the school had been founded, the janitorial staff formed a union and refused to perform their duties until they were given descent wages and sufficient respect as a members of the school faculty. However, since Chenda's first principal had been cheaper than a water-damaged privy, he just forced the teaching staff to sweep their classrooms after each lesson and hired a scab sorcerer to throw out a hygienic spell every once in a while when a kid threw up or a rat suck on campus from a nearby field. As such, the clock tower had been stuck at 9:04 am for over ten years.
Still, the clock did provide some use. In the mornings, no one was allowed to enter their respective buildings until the hall mistress of each structure rang the bell hung before the main entrance. Until then, students had to mill aimlessly about the courtyard.
While there were benches scattered about, and quite a few tables for people who preferred to have lunch outside, there was hardly enough for the entire school to sit. Generally, seats went on a first-come-first-serve basis, but not at the clock tower. The steps of the clock tower were specifically reserved for people who the majority of the student body viewed as social oddities. This didn't mean school marms or physically-defective boys; no, these were people who flaunted their freakishness: boys with long hair; girls who wore enough makeup to be mistaken for courtesans; quite a few were aspiring musicians, a lowly profession, and played their instruments mockingly at passersby. Being highly creative, the student body dubbed these persons the moniker of "Clock Tower Kids."
However, that did not mean that all who were referred to as a "Clock Tower Kid" actually lounged at the Clock Tower; far from it, in fact. Generally, anyone who fit into the above categories or flaunted any sort of bohemian ideals was accused of being a Clock Tower Kid.
In the same vein, there were also many students who did sit on the steps of the Clock Tower but never picked up the title. These were mainly older students who did not have a good deal many friends to socialize with before school, and therefore killed time by reading or studying. Unlike other places where they could have sat, they could sit in relative peace. No one really heckled the bookish unless provoked, but it was less likely they were to overhear a conversation they'd wish to take part in sitting around the din of the Clock Tower; in a way it made them less lonely, even if the "Clock Tower Kids" rarely spoke to them.
Dorcas Sinclair was one of these non-Clock Tower Kids. She had a descent face, though people rarely saw it through the book pressed to her nose. Dorcas wasn't really plain either, but her father was a minister and very strict. He made Dorcas wear pinafores, a garment that hadn't been in vogue since her mother was a child, and refused to let her put her hair in anything but braids. It was a good thing she was a mild complexion, because it was doubtful her father would let her wear face powder if she sprouted freckles.
Many girls, mostly classmates who didn't have anything better to discuss in the last minutes of the period, asked Dorcas why she simply didn't change once she got to school. Her father would never know, and they'd be willing to loan her their makeup and help fix her hair up—she'd look lovely in blue, with her eyes. But each time Dorcas refused, and so each morning Dorcas sat at the Clock Tower with her book and her dull brown dress.
When the group walked through the gates of Chenda School House, Phoebe's gaze landed on Dorcas. The feverish act of searching for an open niche at a new school is a universal one, and Phoebe sensed she might have found one with this girl. She too wore a strange, rounded skirt that appeared to be the fashion of this new land, but she at least she didn't look too comfortable in it; she kept shifting around as if she couldn't decide whether to try to stand and read or risk looking un-ladylike by sitting cross-legged.
Just as Phoebe started towards her, though, Ariel grabbed her by the arm. "Come on," he said, pulling her, "We have to check you in at the administrative office."
"You seriously think it's going to be unlocked?" Winnie asked skeptically.
"There's always a chance," he retorted stubbornly.
With no particular enthusiasm, Phoebe allowed herself to be led away, eyes darting about in search of people she seemed compatible with. Ariel, she noted as he dragged her bodily towards a marble structure draped with obnoxiously colorful leaflets and tacky inspirational posters, might not be high on that list.
"Why don't you go with them, Wish?" Cissia suggested. Pointedly.
"No, that's alright, Miss Cissy," he said happily. "Want to see a magic trick?"
"You don't have magic, Wish," Cissy reminded him gently, sounding tired.
"Do too!" he insisted, and gestured Leava over to where he stood. "Have you had a bath recently?"
She furrowed her brow. "Why, do I smell bad?"
While the three eldest Skadingtons fought to suppress laughter, Wish told the fourth, "No, but you might want to wash behind your ears more," and produced a peppermint candy from behind her head.
Enchanted, Leava squealed and tackled Wish in a hug, clearly not the reaction the ten-year-old boy was looking for; Winnie turned several new shades of blue trying not to laugh, and Persephanie had to pretend her giggles were a sneezing fit brought on by the cold. The smile slid off Cissy's face as Wish insisted on re-demonstrating the trick—with her as his lovely assistant, naturally.
Eventually Wish attracted an audience of his peers to watch the illusion, even some sorcerers; after all, not everyone is magical, but everyone loves free candy. Cissia wandered over toward her friend Puck, who worked as a library aid (and therefore had the keys to the library, and could get her fiery self out of the snowy chill). Persephanie, in anticipation of meeting her friends, wandered over to the playground between Houses One and Two, hoping to use one of the trick mirrors to fix her face; she thought some of her rouge might have smudged after eating breakfast.
The place was crawling with brats, and of course, all of them seemed to be fascinated with their reflections that day. Extracting them in the most polite manner she could think of (offering to push them down the slide and then pushing them a smidge too hard) she bent down, careful not to muss her skirts.
Well, the rouge was alright—a little too red for her coloring, perhaps. She dabbed it off with her handkerchief until it dulled to an appropriate shade. Yes, that was alright. It was too cold for sun blemishes, so her powder ought to hold out. Her hair, though: the blossoms were pretty enough, true, but they'd probably wilt with the chill of the day, especially if the snow turned thick enough to stick. Well, she wouldn't have to worry about it all that much if the snow stuck, since school would be let out, but then again Winnie said it wouldn't, so…eh. No, they just wouldn't do. The yellow barely went with her ensemble anyhow. Oh, but her bun would be ruined if she took them out; maybe just a couple of hairpins, she was halfway certain she had some in her clutch—
"Look, if you like the damn things, just wear them."
Persephanie jumped. Winnie had followed her, and, as usual, held to her nonexistent values about cursing in front of children.
"What are you talking about?"
Winnie scowled at her. "The flowers, Sephie. To hades if Charlotte or whoever doesn't think it's all fashion forward, if you want to keep them in your hair just leave them there."
"I don't know what you're talking about," Sephie said flatly. "Wish just put them in my hair as a joke, and I didn't want to get his attention set on Cissy again."
Her sister just looked at her. "You used to pick them yourself when you were little," she said after a beat.
"You used to pick dandelions when we were little. I remember, you used to run around the back yard and then try to re-plant them in shapes, that way you'd get a flower-heart or something."
"I was never stupid enough to try to grow up-rooted weeds, Winifred."
"You were too," Winnie said, and folded her arms. "I remember, because you ran up to show me one and I froze it by accident. You got all mad, and then Mama told you it didn't really matter because it would have died anyway once you took it out of the ground. That's when you started trying to plant them in shapes instead of bringing them into the house."
Persephanie snorted. "And how did that work out?"
"Well you tore half the yard apart, of course," Winnie said, rolling her eyes. She squinted towards their schoolhouse, trying to see if the door was open yet by standing on her toes.
"Don't do that, you look like a trained monkey. And I meant did anything grow?"
"You wouldn't be able to see a trained monkey in this place; your idiotic friends would be clamoring around trying to pet me, not to mention the children. And how am I supposed to know, I was only around four myself-"
"You remembered everything else," Sephie grumbled.
"It was the first time I'd ever frozen anything." Winnie's expression was oddly distant. "I don't know why it happened, I just thought it was really pretty, I wanted to touch it…I felt so tired afterwards, and it scared the crock out of me when it happened…" She seemed to come to herself. "I didn't even laugh at the look on your face when the thing shattered."
Persephanie's face at the moment looked unimpressed. She removed the daisy from her hair and walked back to the courtyard without another word, leaving Winnie to sit indifferently on the swings till the bell rang.
Predictably, the door to the administrative building had, in fact, been locked. It always was whenever matters where urgent or the temperature unforgiving. Fortunately, Ariel had the presence of mind to abandon the lost cause and take Pheobe to his class, that way Harper would just send him back to register her with a slight reprimand—and an excused hall pass.
When he and Phoebe walked in, the place was in its usual chaos, increased slightly by the buzz of returning from break. The rowdiest, as always, were the sorcerer boys, Helios, Shino, Loki, and Galdon.
Helios, as always, was flirting, this time with Galdon's twin sister, Gabrielle. Twins were a common occurrence in sorcerer families; generally, the parent's magic shaped the baby into their gender preference. If they agreed on a sex or if they had no opinion, the baby was a single birth. If both had a strong preference to different sexes, fraternal twins were born.
Gabrielle had her hair cut over break, Ariel noticed. It now was about Phoebe's length, although that wasn't shocking for a sorceress as it was for a Cawla; she looked as though she'd conjured it into very tight blonde ringlets. She tossed her curls as she laughed at what Helios said, indulging him with attention but giving him no indication that she'd actually be interested in what he suggested. She admonished him jokingly as he tried to touch her knee, but pointedly moved her leg; behind her, Galdon slid off the desktop he'd been sitting on, giving him a reproving look while Loki snickered.
A few rows behind them (they were all assigned the very front seats, though sometimes they moved when they felt like it) Winnie sat with her satchel in her lap, leaning forward with her head touching the desk as if she were sleeping. Since technically she couldn't get in trouble for napping until the bell marm gave the second ring, this was her usual method for getting her work done right before class so that Harper wouldn't see; in his classroom, homework was specifically meant for home, even if you finished early in class, and certainly it wasn't to be done just before class began—if not completed in between school days, the effort to complete work was just sloth looking to earn bonus points; undeserving of a real grade.
Seeing that her lips were both pursed and chewed in frustration, Ariel decided it not to alert Winnie to his presence by setting his bag down. Instead he gestured the quietly-anticipating Phoebe over to the oak desk towards the back of the room.
"Mr. Harper?" Ariel prompted nervously.
Harper raised his balding head from the papers he was marking. "Mr. Enola?" he asked gruffly, quirking an eyebrow. He was always doing this, unconsciously; it always came off as somewhat comical and yet off-putting.
"Um, I'm sponsoring an exchange student—" he gestured at Pheobe, who curtseyed behind him. "And I need to go to the office to register her, so—"
Harper nodded. Ariel got his work done, and therefore he was more often to afford him things. "After announcements," he said levelly. "Remind me."
Ariel didn't bother to press the point and gestured Phoebe into the only free seat in the room; thankfully there was only desk in between them. The girl looked about as enthusiastic as a rat dripping with arsenic; Ariel suddenly felt a pang of pity for her and made a mental note to try to be nicer to her. It couldn't be easy for her to come all this way without knowing anyone.
"I'm sure your schedule won't be a problem," he assured her. "We're all grouped by age, and this is a co-gender class, so there's no doubt this is where you're supposed to be this hour. Announcements will be on in a minute, so you don't have to worry about where you're going next."
Phoebe looked at him curiously, her mouth turned down somewhat. "You won't be with me the whole day?" she asked, her voice squeaking a bit.
Aw blast, he'd made it worse. "Well, no," he said tentatively, "Didn't they separate they have gender-required courses at your old school?"
She shook her head. "I'm nobility back home," she explained, fingering the emerald brooch around her neck. "All I learned was penmanship from my nanny; girls aren't required to have schooling in my country."
"Well they aren't here either," Ariel offered feebly, sinking into his seat.
"But they're encouraged not to," Phoebe said anxiously, looking around at all the girls loitering about the room. "That's why my mother signed me up for this—she thought I should see a bit more of the world before I got married. And of course Father was all for an opportunity for me to meet more beaus. But how am I going to attract any? I'm so dreadfully behind; everyone shall think I'm a simpleton!"
Winnie, seated behind Ariel, looked up from her paper and rolled her eyes. "Trust me, honey, none of the boys here care if you're the least bit intelligent," she said blithely, jerking her head at Robin Scottsworth, who was feigning interest in some insipid story Annie Montgomery and her padded bosom were telling.
"Don't you have an essay to write?" Ariel asked her irritably.
A great cheer went out abruptly amongst the sorcerer boys, which quickly turned to wolf whistles and catcalls. Annie's face fell as Loki too started to joined in the rumpus.
A scheming smile flashed over Winnie's face. "Maybe not," she said, and swiveled in her seat.
Grinning from ear to ear, a willowy girl leaned alluringly against the doorway, her foot propped up against the frame so that her skirts were hiked up a shocking amount; her dress, covered in tawdry beadwork, was a deep shade of violet that was striking against her blatantly emerald skin. Black spirals tumbled down her back as she shifted to a new pose and asked coyly, "Miss me, boys?"
They hooted their assent, to the point where half-deaf Harper raised his head from his paperwork and bellowed, "Settle down! This is not a brothel, Miss Sallee!"
"Damn," the girl—Miss Sallee- said, "This place would be way less boring if it was."
Ariel was fairly certain he wasn't imagining things when nearly every girl in class scowled stonily at Miss Sallee as she sauntered to the desk across from Winnie.
"Elvira, do you really have to make a fuss before school even starts?" he asked, frowning himself.
"Of course, darling, how else could I get you to turn that darling magenta color?" replied Elvira, pausing to clasp his normally pinkish face in her hands before she sat down. "And who's our new friend?"
Phoebe looked simply terrified, for which Ariel couldn't blame her in the least. "Ellie, this is Phoebe Eriks, she's an exchange student from Canduca. Phoebe, this is the ever subtle and chaste Elvira Sallee."
"Oh, charmed, I'm sure," Elvira swarmed, extending a hand to the girl seated in front of her. "I'm from Islia myself, as you can see," she added, waving a green arm in her face.
"Really?" Phoebe asked, interested. "You don't have any trace of an accent."
Ellie giggled. "Oh, well I've been in the country ever since I was ten or so," she said conversationally.
"Enough of this," Winnie cut in impatiently. "Have you got your fairy tale?"
Elvira sighed dramatically. "What are you talking about, Freddie?"
"Don't call me that." And it was said in such a harsh voice even for Winnie that Elvira complied:
"Of course I have, darling, but don't spread it around; I have my reputation to consider. Why?"
While Phoebe looked positively baffled by this exchange, Winnie said blithely: "If I don't turn one in, Harper will fail me first term. Give it here, you've got top marks, you can afford the zero."
Elvira pouted. "Tsk, tsk, Winifred," she said sulkily, curling a black ringlet around her index finger, "I truly expected better from you—you've surely been more dedicated to the historical arts in this class, particularly debates—"
"—when everyone else exhibits that they have the brains of nanny goats, yes, not when some idiotic assignment is draining time better occupied in other ways."
"Such as glowering moodily at your ceiling?" Elvira suggested.
"Such as dying all my fabrics lavender," Winnie shot back.
Ariel felt that he should intervene before the girls got truly catty, but he couldn't help being amused by the scandalized look on Phoebe's face at the children's antics.
"Could we come to a deal here, ladies?" he asked soothingly.
Elvira perked up immediately, a wicked smile spreading across her face. Ariel instantly wished he hadn't said anything. He also wished he had the ability to melt into wooden fibers, such as his desk, with the ability to stay there unchanging for ten or twenty years.
"Alright, a deal," she purred, and stood up to drape her arms alluringly around Ariel's neck (not to mention he was fairly certain that, yes, those were her bosoms he felt pressing into the back of his head. Lovely.) "I let you have the paper, you let me borrow Ariel—just for a weekend." She flashed her teeth mischievously.
Winnie swatted her hands off Ariel's neck. "No."
"Not even a-?"
Ellie pouted again. "You are no fun," she informed Winnie. The sprite continued to look unimpressed.
"Oh, fine," Elvira said exasperatedly, perching herself atop Ariel's desk. "No sharing, spoilsport; a trade."
"I give you my story, you write your own by the end of the semester so that I can get half-credit."
Winnie eyed her suspiciously. "Harper never gives partial credit to anyone he doesn't like," she reminded her.
Ellie shrugged. "I'm sure I could make a donation to change his mind," she said, winking.
Winnie raised one eyebrow slightly, which was saying something, as both Phoebe and Ariel were gawking at the green girl as if she'd murder the man if she didn't accept the late work.
"You seriously think Mr. Anti-Establishment would accept a bribe?" she asked skeptically.
"Pssh, no," Elvira said, waving the question away. "I'll see if I can see if I can charm one of Daddy's historian friends will let me snag a rock used in the great 'Battle of the Cattle Slingshots' or something the next time he drags us to some benefit, either that or I'll just kiss up the two weeks before the semester ends, he won't notice the difference if I gradually slip into it."
Winnie's gaze was stony. "You can keep from public acts of promiscuity for two weeks?" she asked.
Ellie rolled her eyes. "If I have a cigarette before first period; Mother won't notice the difference."
Despite the fact that he wanted to attract Elvira's attention as much as he wanted a venomous spider crawling up his trousers, Ariel thought that he'd better explain before un-clued-in Phoebe's head exploded from the scandal. "Miss Elvira," he said tiredly, "Views it her mission in life to antagonize her mother as much as physically possible."
"And mentally, don't forget mentally!" Elvira chimed in.
Phoebe stared at her. "In the Divine's name, why?!" she cried.
Shrugging, Elvira said carelessly, "
She returns the favor quite nicely." She turned her attention towards Winnie again. "Do we have an agreement, my pet?"
"Only if you never, ever, refer to me as 'your pet' again," said Winnie, giving a venom-coated smile.
Elvira sighed. "It's in my bag," she said indifferently, twist a strand of hair about her green fingers. Without further invitation Winnie all but lunged herself at Elvira's satchel, pawing through it rapidly.
Phoebe watched them silently as they went through this bickering match, drawing back into herself until she realized she was hugging herself. Maj, what had she gotten herself into? She wanted to go home. Every little annoying thing she could think of about her life in Canduca seemed more bearable in that moment, and every questionable aspect of what she saw around her was viewed in its worst light. Even her dress seemed tighter here, and not just because of the taken-in waistline; she felt constricted. As if to comfort herself that at least she was materially ready for the day ahead (okay—unlikely, but still) Phoebe started rummaging through her own bag, sorting through her materials. Right, four notebooks, some quills, inkwell—yes, well, everything required by the school list they'd sent her was present and accounted for, perhaps she could at least present the illusion that she was prepared for—
"You're in my seat."
Phoebe started, feeling herself turn red. Curse Ariel, why hadn't he told her? "Sorry," she mumbled, and of course all her things were scattered across the top of her desk by now. The impatient boy's face seemed to loom over her, his haughty boredom worse than if he had outright shouted, "Hey! Look at the dim-witted oddity! Who's got a projectile handy?"
Quickly as she could, Phoebe shoved her things into her satchel and stood aside so that the boy could take his seat. Around them, the rest of the class was starting to settle in as well, scuffling around and toning down their voices from a dull roar to a loud chatter. Phoebe glanced around anxiously, but Ariel and the lot were too busy sniping at each other to see her dangling out. After awhile, she felt a sharp jab in between her shoulder blades.
"Ow!" she cried, whirling around.
"Sorry," said the girl standing before her, blinking. "But there's a place there."
"Oh," Phoebe looked where the young woman was pointing. "Thanks."
The girl gave her a smile; it spread across her face from the middle of her lips up her left dimple, and looked both welcoming and a little bit mischievous. Not the same sort mischief Elvira's smile implied Phoebe dearly hoped as she slid herself into her new seat.
It was close to the board. Really, really close to the board. Phoebe wished profusely that the boy hadn't been making up the assigned seating, otherwise she'd look like such a class pet. She took in her surroundings cautiously: the girl who told her where to sit was right behind her, talking to a friend. They didn't appear to notice her, no doubt discussing what fun they'd had over the holiday. Disappointed, Phoebe faced front again. A girl sat in front of her, too, though all she could see of her was the long black braid down her back. Phoebe half-wondered if it was the same person she glimpsed that morning at the clock tower. Wondering if it might be weird to randomly start talking to her, Phoebe deliberately dropped her quill.
"Um, excuse me?"
Dorcas swiveled around. "Yes?" she prompted. Her voice was somewhat disgruntled. She had gotten to a good part of her book, and it was bad enough she was going to have to sneak the novel under her desk once class started.
"Uh," Phoebe wondered if the landscape of this country provided any appropriately-sized rocks for her to crawl under. "I dropped my… by your foot…"
Phoebe realized she was muttering. "My quill…it slipped under your desk, I can't quite reach…"
Unbothered, Dorcas bent over and retrieved it.
"Thanks." Dorcas had already half-turned around when the other girl added, "I'm Phoebe."
Dorcas moved as if she was going to reply, but then the bell rang, forcing her to turn ahead attentively.
From the back of the room, Mr. Harper stood up from his desk and strolled to the front of the classroom, his tawny mustache twitching in a disgruntled manner, as if it hadn't brushed against the side of a coffee mug enough that morning. He walked up to the podium that evenly divided the four rows of desks and announced boomingly, "Alright, class, I've only got about three papers here, I want the rest of your essays before announcements are over!"
Instantly, anarchy broke out.
"Whatcha talkin' about, Harp?" Loki squawked from the front of the second row.
"We never received any essay, sir," Helios piped up, a row over from him.
Harper scowled at them. "Why does that not surprise me?"
"It's true!" Luna Featherstone, a sorceress, chimed in from the back. "Maybe you gave it to one of your other classes?" she suggested.
The presence of a feminine voice seemed to lull Harper out of his suspicions slightly; at any rate, none of the other students looked very concerned. In fact, they had pulled this little charade repeatedly since the start of the school year that none of the scholars seemed the least bit afraid of receiving a reproving grade. Not even the actors in this little drama—who had both known about and blatantly ignored the assignment—possessed the slightest bit of anxiety; while sometimes the players rotated, this little act had been reprised so frequently that the pretenders seemed amused at their own jilted roles.
"It's written right here in my lesson plan," Harper growled. "You wanna come up and see?"
"Uh, no sir, that will not be necessary," Helios answered. Luna's work was done—an average student who kept quiet most of the time, her comment was only meant to instill their teacher with reasonable doubt. Loki and Helios worked as a team to agitate the man till he was so flustered he no longer cared about the work, just getting them to shut up.
"You see, sir, I think what happened was, you wrote it down in your lesson planner, fully intending to give us the assignment, which, no doubt, was both instructional and thought provoking," Helios continued in a voice that mocked its own ass-kissing, "but in the throws of our pre-break high jinks became distracted by our shenanigans and neglected to bestow us with the paper in question."
"We's real sorry for them shenanigans too, sir." Though somewhat hindered by his "jester" accent, Loki could put up a descent imitation of Helios' paper-thin excuses wrapped in unabashed flattery.
Harper was clearly unimpressed. "Right," he growled. "Except if that's true, buddy boy, then why do I have three papers already in here?!"
Meant to sound menacing, the phrase "buddy boys" caused several students to snicker openly, though Harper was too angry to notice. Winnie rolled her eyes at the display, while Ariel looked rather frightened.
"Look at the way that vein in his head is twitching," he whispered.
"It always does that," Winnie muttered back dismissively.
Helios looked completely unfazed at his teacher's outburst. "I can see that sir," he said slowly. "But may I inquire—most respectfully, of course—who turned in their papers?"
"All assignments are written clearly on the board!" Harper snarled, ignoring the question. "Unless you somehow made it this far in your educational career without learning to read, there is no excuse for you not to KEEP TRACK OF ALL ASSIGNMENTS, AT ALL TIMES!"
The class jumped in unison at Harper's booming voice. Still, it was clear Harper did not understand that he looked more ridiculous than intimidating, letting a smart-mouthed school boy provoke him so thoroughly.
By contrast, while Helios was condescending little git, he was also smart enough to know not to yell back during these confrontations. "What I mean is, sir," he said calmly (though his lips twitched) "is it not possible that some of the students who take other classes from you saw the essay written in your clear and—if I may say so, sir—very attractive hand later in the day? I mean, you're a busy man, sir, keeping all us riff-raff in check; you probably meant to write it on the board during the day before break, forgot to during our class, and decided during a later period that you'd give it to us once you got back, and wrote it there to remind yourself. Naturally, come of the guys in your topography course who take this class might have seen it and did the essay early. Make sense?"
It didn't make sense. There was probably a semi-logical argument in their somewhere, but he had talked so much that it was hard to remember what it was in all that jumbled-up wording. And that was exactly how he'd intended it—slightly more plausible deniability, lots more vexation for Harper.
Fortunately for all involved, the announcements came on just then:
"Good morning, good morning, good morning!" a deep, cheerful voice rang out from conceivably nowhere. "It blustery day out there but in here it's all about the bolstering of knowledge."
"Dear Maj," Harper said loudly, rolling his eyes at the ceiling.
"Now I know you people have been on holiday," the voice continued, "But education never takes a vacation! So I expect you to have returned well rested and excited for your scholarly duties for the rest of the school year."
"Oh, completely," Winnie murmured with all the enthusiasm of someone having a caterpillar shoved up their nose.
"As a reminder, there will be no Paging, Mirrors, or any sort of magic used outside of the Sorcery barn."
"Except, you know, using a talisman to deliver the announcements," Shino clarified from the back.
"Quiet, Master Meloner!" Harper barked; Shino put his hands up in a surrender pose, his face amused.
The announcements droned on, each as boisterous and meaningless as the last. Loki and Helios exchanged smug looks under Harper's bristling mustache; Winnie pulled Elvira's essay out and began copying it furiously in her own hand. Across from her, Ariel chewed the top of his pencil, silently repeating his father's advice not to get so flummoxed about everything. Phoebe, unsure of what to do, played nervously with her broach.
"That's pretty," a feminine voice whispered from behind her.
Phoebe turned; it was the blonde girl who had shown her to her seat.
"Oh," she murmured back, blushing. "Thank you. It was a gift my father brought back for me after a business trip."
"Your father does business in emeralds?" the blonde asked, fascinated.
"Not really," Phoebe assured her; though she did not notice, the other girl's face fell. "Business is more of my brother Alfred's forte; Father mostly just goes along to sign things whenever they decide to buy a mine."
The blonde's eyes were wide as a lake. "I'm Charlotte," she introduced herself hastily. "This is Mayella," she added, giving the raven-haired maiden beside her a sharp poke.
"My name is Phoebe." And I'm ecstatic that someone thinks enough of me to even offer their name to me.
"Phoebe," Charlotte smiled warmly. "Do let us show you around, won't you? It must be dreadful enough to be new; it'd be downright atrocious to get lost on your very first day."
"Oh," Phoebe said, flushing. It wouldn't do to snub the one person who'd taken the initiative to talk to her but… "Unfortunately the student from my host family is supposed to show me about. Do you know Ariel Enola?"
Charlotte's lips pressed thin. "Ah yes, yes I do," she said politely—too politely.
Phoebe giggled nervously. "He is rather pushy, isn't he?"
Charlotte's smile returned. "That's one word for it," she agreed, winking.
The principal's disembodied voice continued rambling, having moved on to the subject of school unity. Apparently, the students of Chenda Schoolhouse were lacking it to an unacceptable degree. Phoebe didn't understand how they were supposed to be "unified" when the buildings weren't attached to each other and the classes segregated by age. She consulted Charlotte in a whisper, but the blonde girl just shook her head.
"I believe Mr. Habance just likes to hear himself talk, truthfully," she murmured.
"Oh, come," Phoebe whispered dubiously. "Why would he waste everyone's time yapping if he didn't have anything important to say?"
Charlotte blinked. "I don't know," she admitted quietly. "Didn't your old principal carry on like this?"
"We had a governess," Phoebe whispered. "She just picked out what underlings would tutor us individually after her main lesson."
"Individual sessions?" Mayella interjected, in a normal tone of voice. Harper gave her a stern look, though still muted by the announcements, and all three girls briefly looked to attention before continuing with their conversation.
"Sorry," Mayella muttered. "But having your own tutor during school? That sounds ghastly. When did you ever have time to socialize?"
"Girls don't go to big schools like this in my country," Phoebe explained in a hushed voice. "The daughter's of the upper class just get some grammar lessons, a bit of history; they all sit in one room, mostly only six or seven of them, usually at the governess's house. We watch her pen letters on the blackboard, and then get out our notebooks to practice while the tutors watch."
"They stare at you all day?" Charlotte inquired incredulously.
Phoebe laughed softly. "Of course not, silly! That part only lasts for about an hour altogether; then we break for luncheon, and then the rest is just etiquette lessons."
"Well that sounds divine," Mayella said wistfully. "They've got the stupidest ideas floating about for girl's classes here."
"They're making us take mathematics this year," Charlotte added. "It's ludicrous. Not as difficult as the boy's level, of course, but it's absolutely absurd. When am I ever going to use that in real life? Figuring out how many invitations to send out, I suppose, but I mean really. My family owns a farm about five miles from here; we have two carriages, and our water faucet is inside the house—enough status to secure us some real wealth if I could make a good match. I have a sister a fefw years older than I, and Maj help me if I don't love her dearly, but she's far too... eccentric to clinch a proper gentlemen. I need to marry an aristocrat if we're ever going to get out of this dunghill county—how is arithmetic going to help me do that?"
I'm sure I don't know, Miss Oleson," And Charlotte tensed, for the announcements had ended, and Harper was glaring at her, "But I certainly can't see how sharing your life story during class time is going to help you much either."