Verona sat back, taking it all in, as students reacted. Chattering, leaning over benches in a loose violation of Raymond’s request to stay in their seats- their butts were clearly not in contact with wood as they leaned forward.
Durocher strode down the length of the room, to the rear of the classroom. The stage area had an offshoot area to the right where there were more shelves and, maybe more importantly, an exit to the rear of the school.
The rest of the senior students and faculty -maybe better to say apprentice senior students and faculty- were hanging out at the back, in a loose organization that barred the exit through the front door or side hallways.
Not that it mattered much. Was there really any way that anyone gathered here would run for it? They’d make it about three steps before being bound five ways from Sunday, eaten by a Durocher summon, and sent to Brownie Hell.
Or, again, correcting herself, was there any way that the people who knew how Alexander had died, herself and Lucy, could run away?
No escape. That- that really sucked. She’d woken up that morning with a headache buzzing at the back of her head, maybe a consequence of not eating breakfast and then throwing up lunch, and then eating a pretty small dinner so she wouldn’t upset her sensitive stomach. And that headache had worsened with a morning class that had covered precious little new information, frustration making the dark cloud at the back of her head that much worse and harder to ignore.
Now she had a stomachache and a headache, and the fact that these were both things that were like, exactly how her dad physically reacted to stress, it annoyed-
No, it ate at her.
She hated that in the span of one minute of feeling and thinking she was second-guessing herself and needing to clarify. This situation, the fact they were being asked to stay put, that there had to be questions while the teachers and apprentices had them rounded up, it needed her to be one thousand percent on the ball with what she was good at.
And she was already messing up, making herself suspicious of her own words and meaning.
“They’re talking about Fernanda and America right now,” Lucy whispered.
Verona looked at her friend.
“Because Fernanda jumped to the conclusion it was about Alexander, and America went straight to a question about-”
“America, Liberty. A word?” Raymond asked.
Lucy pursed her lips.
“About Alexander maybe being dead?” Verona asked. “Or forsworn?”
Assume someone can hear anything we say.
“It’s hard to concentrate on everything, because there’s so much chatter, but I think everyone’s a little freaked out,” Lucy whispered. “I think everyone blames themselves a little, for not supporting him more, or pushing him out, or they’re upset, or they’re worried about consequences. Some have families that will be upset.”
“What does that mean, though?”
“It means this is a mess, I don’t envy Mr. Sunshine and the others if they have to sort through all of this.”
Verona got what Lucy was really saying with that. That they had a bit of cover. Which didn’t mean a lot but it meant something.
“Um, they’re really grilling America, though,” Lucy whispered.
Verona glanced back.
America looked angry, and Liberty and America looked like they, as a pair, were really good at playing off one another, picking up where the other left off.
“I wish we had the mood glasses, remember those?” Lucy asked.
The mood glasses they’d confiscated from Brie. When they’d released Brie they’d negotiated to keep the items they confiscated. They’d gotten the red button, the crying cold tears tape, the centipede keycard, and other stuff. The glasses were a weird multi-hued, sunset tint, and they made it easy to read a crowd’s mood, and see individual moods standing out inside that crowd. They were also very dorky and…
“Tried them on for a few days to see if I could do anything too interesting with it.”
“Yeah,” Lucy replied. “But I bet they’d show some interesting stuff.”
“Like any culprits?”
“Maybe,” Lucy said, absently.
“What about your Sight? You see shades of watercolor and blades-”
“It’s a mess.”
“I don’t think my Sight is good for much here,” Verona commented. She turned it on just to see and the room was wrapped in film and fibers, everything under a transparent or translucent veil, hiding things beneath. A lot of those things were crimson and wriggly. Magic items on the shelf at the back of the room, some things the students carried or wore…
What other stuff did they have? Avery was carrying the enter key, as well as the glasses. The enter key was another confiscated item that could have been a quick, if dangerous, way to escape. Something for if the crowd turned on them. It was dangerous, it electrocuted the person using it, but that had to be better than whatever this crowd would do to them.
Summoning John was the opposite of a good idea.
No, no items really stood out as good answers. She had glamour but whatshisname Vanderwerf was among the students. Estrella’s little brother. Risky.
“Raymond is asking if America or Liberty have any idea what happened to Alexander, beyond what was said here. America answers that he probably died old-guy-hot.”
Verona nodded. Tough questions.
“Wye isn’t letting her get away with ‘probably’.”
Verona nodded again.
“America concedes she doesn’t know what happened. Liberty says the same. Raymond is now asking if they took any action, used any item, or performed a practice that would confound their answers or actions about Alexander.”
“Would you know if you did?” Verona asked. “Should we have been asking-”
“Maybe,” Lucy interrupted. “They say no to all of the above. Apparent-”
“Shh. Let me listen. Apparently… cheating the system to alter your mind or force a lie is something the spirits don’t like all that much. Chase says that if America and Liberty pulled that, then they’d know.”
So that wasn’t a thing. Right. “Know how?”
“I don’t know, Verona,” Lucy said, surprisingly intense, startling Verona a bit. “I’m listening and trying to figure out what’s going on. Shh.”
Verona nodded. The nod reminded her of the burgeoning headache and upset stomach.
They weren’t even being interrogated yet. What the heck? She considered herself okay at hiding her emotions and emotionally deadening herself, but she had no confidence right now, and she could remember messing that up when talking to Yadira and Kass, back when they’d been trying to sell themselves as tough and too scary to mess with. She’d tried to go emotionally dead and she’d just gone, what… sad?
What if they got directly questioned and she puked like yesterday?
“They’re asking about movements, when they’ve seen Alexander… Chase and Tanner are taking notes. I think they’re going to split up and ask additional questions. Chase is suggesting a question, asking… feelings toward Alexander. Okay, that’s vague.”
If they ask us those questions we’re doomed, no way to dodge it.
So we can’t let them ask on their terms. But they’re going to be on the lookout for that.
Need a second to think. Need-
Lucy’s hand brushed Verona’s as her head turned.
The bench behind them had the host brothers, sitting at the far left, while Verona and Lucy sat at the far right of their bench. Both brothers were focused entirely on the huddle of apprentices near Ray.
One of those ‘apprentices’, for lack of a better way of putting it, was Nicolette, breaking away from the group to walk over.
Lucy raised her hand in a wave of greeting.
Verona could see Nicolette’s face as Nicolette walked around the rear bench to where they sat. Nicolette had an earpiece above and behind her ear, hooked into her hair and over her ear, like a petrified lizard or something, with a glass orb in its mouth, right-front claw, right-back claw, and the end of the tail. Her eyes were normal until viewed through her glasses, which were thicker glass and magnified her eyes a bit. Through the glass, Nicolette’s eyes showed something red and nugget-like swimming in a filmy pool within her eye sockets. She adjusted her glasses, and the image the glass showed changed, to a crimson coil where the whites should be, orbiting a deeper darkness.
“Being good?” Nicolette asked.
“Are you?” Lucy asked her. “What’s going on?”
“We’re using America as a starting point. We may pull students aside to ask and try to get a fuller picture.”
“You might want to do more to control the room and take care of the students here,” Lucy said. “I can see a lot of pain and agitation.”
“What practitioners do is big, we touch on a lot of bases, go to a lot of different worlds,” Nicolette replied, looking out over the room, the coiling redness twisting, adjusting, and condensing as she focused on more distant subjects. “But it’s a small, interconnected world at the same time.”
“People know people,” Verona suggested.
“Like you guys and me, or you guys and Zed. At odds one day, friendly-ish a few weeks later.”
“I kind of thought that might be us.”
“It isn’t, and it makes for some interesting arranged marriages and things. Families trying to force that kind of adjustment by sacrificing sons and daughters, basically. But I’m getting off track. The way Alexander works- or worked, as the case may be, he liked being a part of well-coordinated systems. Like Jessica’s diagram, for that ritual that was sabotaged.”
“I remember,” Verona said.
“He earned a reputation as someone who did good work, which led to people starting projects with him, and with each other. Some small families positioned their success and failure on work they were doing with him, or things he was facilitating. I know a lot of students are aware of that. It’s not just losing a teacher and wondering what the future holds. It’s also knowing your parents might lose everything.”
“He wasn’t that reliable or doing good work when he forswore Seth, was he?” Lucy asked.
“No. Maybe, I don’t know. I think… it goes back to what I just said, about how grudges can become uneasy friendships, and vice-versa. Stuff doesn’t die and this world has a long, long memory. Unless you kill it.”
“Unless you very deliberately ensure those things don’t follow you or weigh you down,” Nicolette said, watching Mrs. Durocher talking to Mrs. Ferguson at the end of the stage. “Removing burdens and threats in a surgical way.”
That felt… chillingly on-target.
Verona’s headache ground at the back of her head, stomach tense.
Nicolette’s eyes fell on her, dark centers ringed by deep red coils of veins. Which would normally be cool but was only a four out of ten on the cool scale, now.
Had Nicolette been hinting at knowing they were involved? Or alluding to why Alexander was gone? Or just talking about other stuff?
Verona wanted to shake Nicolette and get clearer answers on what she was doing but there was no way she actually could. They had no power here.
Nicolette went on, “Alexander was never one for the arranged marriages, not for himself, even though it would have been a good play to rise in status. He’d arrange them for others- I know he was looking into options for me. Connecting me deeper to the Belanger family if I turned out to be a true asset. Trading me to someone else in another family if I didn’t.”
“Gross,” Lucy said.
“I wasn’t a fan. Either way, given the option of either maintaining those connections to people who might end up being enemies or burdens, or cutting them loose, he preferred the latter. Doing surgery and staying free, independent and alone, and sometimes that surgery was a brutal amputation. That was the last few days in his confrontation with Bristow.”
“Seth,” Lucy said.
“Yeah,” Nicolette said.
“How is he?”
“I put him in a protective circle after something got at him, last night. Spiritual parasites. Purged them, moved the bed, set up the circle. He was catatonic, even before the parasites, but I got it so he’s at least watching television. It’s a step toward showing interest in the world again.”
“That’s, um… good?” Verona guessed.
“It’s something. Even if the television won’t stay on for long if I’m not there. The power shorts just long enough for it to turn off, or the internet connection hangs.”
“Do you have a plan?” Lucy asked.
“Taking it day by day. I loathed him before. Now I pity him… and loathe him. And I don’t know how much of that is the forswearing letting connections around him fall away.”
“We know someone forsworn. He made a deal for protection,” Lucy told Nicolette.
“Yeah. But I took responsibility for Seth, and I don’t know if I could turn him over to someone or a group of someones like that without being absolutely sure it was okay and safe.”
“Yeah,” Lucy said.
“I told you what happened, that made me Aware. I’ve been… awfully close to where Seth is now. The catatonia, the world not cooperating, the hopelessness. Being so close to Seth right now is giving me nightmares. Flashbacks back to where I was, then. Not your nightmare, don’t worry.”
“That’s good,” Lucy said.
“I have too many protections for Seth’s benefit, for something like that to get into the room. And the school is secure. Regular old mundane nightmares.”
“Can we help?” Lucy asked.
Nicolette shook her head.
Verona desperately wanted a free moment to think and plan, and Nicolette being here made that impossible. This entire thing was far from being Verona’s style. The crowd, the moods that Lucy was noticing- that wasn’t something Verona was any good at wrangling.
“Was Bristow the same? Interconnected?”
“Some. Different. He was more of a builder-”
“Fernanda,” Raymond called out.
“Oh,” Nicolette said. “I’m going to go look in for this interview with Fernanda. I think she’s not doing great, and I like her. Good kid in a bad situation.”
“Not doing great?”
“Her family fortunes are her fortunes, they put all chips on Alexander, with Chase, then Chase thought they should bet on Bristow, instead. If just Bristow had fallen, I think she could have navigated to Alexander’s side again, even if Chase didn’t, but with both gone…”
“She has nothing,” Lucy said.
“Except me, maybe,” Nicolette said.
“You’re looking out for a lot of people,” Verona noted.
“You included, I guess. But I know from experience how I can help those at rock bottom, I don’t know about your case…”
Nicolette looked down at them, adjusted her glasses, and her eyes became normal. She glanced over as Fernanda navigated past America and Liberty, who were walking down the same aisle. Liberty growled at Fernanda, who didn’t flinch.
“What are we?” Verona asked.
“If rock bottom is broad, dangerously freeing, and an awful kind of safe, then you might be at the opposite, or on the road to the opposite. Maybe if I’d spent more time around Alexander, I’d know what to say or how to warn you about what’s coming.”
“A precipice?” Verona asked.
“A narrow path, maybe. From Awakening to whatever lies ahead. And whatever lies past that.”
“That’s more Avery’s thing,” Lucy said. “Paths and stuff.”
“You’re interconnected, aren’t you? All tied together?”
“Yeah. Guess so.”
“I wasn’t really talking about paths in that sense.”
“Yeah,” Lucy agreed. There was a pause where it felt like someone should say something. Nicolette looked at Verona, and Verona shrugged.
Which seemed to fill that silent pause.
Nicolette knocked twice on the backrest of the bench, then walked over to where Fernanda was joining Ray, the Belangers, Amine, and Ulysse. Fernanda sat on a storage box by one of the bookshelves, seemingly not caring that it situated her lower, so she was looking up at all those people. Nicolette found a seat on the box next to Fernanda, and put an arm around her shoulders.
“Given the circumstances Nicolette talked about, probably not Fernanda,” Verona mused.
“It’s kind of weird, being in this situation, what with the other investigative work we’ve been doing. We don’t have to solve this mystery.”
“Yep,” Verona agreed, meeting Lucy’s eyes.
“Yeah. Um, not to make too big a point of things, but you look a little green around the gills. Again. Might be the lunch we just ate, as much as you were bragging.”
It wasn’t the lunch and Lucy knew that.
“Stupid human bodies. Stop telling me I’m not feeling great, body, I know I’m not feeling great.”
Lucy reached into her bag and got a bottle of pills in a nondescript container. She held it out for Verona, then hesitated.
“What is it?”
“Stuff for upset stomachs.”
“It’s from the Brownies.”
Verona hesitated. “Gimme.”
Lucy handed it over. Verona tilted out two pills and swallowed them with some water. “I just need less distractions, I know we don’t have to solve this mystery, but I do want to go into this smart, aware of what’s going on, with a plan. I don’t want to get blindsided.”
“Me too, and…”
Zachariah and Salvador, sitting a few benches down, glanced back, then snuck their way up to a seat on the bench just in front of Verona and Lucy. Don’t no no no no don’t you assholes, you literal goblins!
Verona kept her expression flat, eyebrows going up.
“Stay seated!” Ray warned, looking over.
Salvador made a pleading gesture as he settled in. He didn’t go back to his old seat.
You assholes, you jerks. Verona fumed.
Zachariah was the undefined sort of guy, hair shorn short, features a bit doughy. The hot girl totemist. Salvador was the spider breathing shaman, which apparently meant he stored an awful lot of free, minor spider spirits within a hallow in his throat and upper chest. Not to host them, but as ammunition, the kind of thirteen year old who’d lurched into puberty with wiry hair on his arms and face, pimples, and gangly limbs.
“What was Nicolette talking about?” Zachariah asked.
“Seth, people at rock bottom, people on precarious paths,” Lucy answered. “Why are you so interested?”
“Because we have no idea what’s happening. You guys really threw yourselves into that whole thing, and we were like… very background.”
“Wasn’t about Alexander so much. More about how we approach all of this,” Lucy said.
“Generally,” Verona said, watching them warily, wishing they would go away or leave her alone to think.
“I mean, you guys have your approach, for sure. My approach is probably going to be like my mom and dad, stressing out over the mortgage, money, sales sheets, and hoping my kid figures out something a little bit better than carving, uh, hot girls out of wood and stone.”
“I can’t think of anything better for you than carving hot girls, except maybe marrying one,” Salvador said.
Salvador hooked his arm over the back of the bench, facing them. “My friend, ladies, is a very eligible bachelor, he’s clean, smart, way more sensitive than you’d think…”
“Don’t do that.”
“I think if you’re starting with ‘clean’ you’re damning with faint praise,” Lucy noted.
Verona sat there, silent, mentally banging her head against the wall. Why were they here? Why were they talking to her? Each mental bang made her headache worse.
“Or am I recognizing that a lot of girls our age say ‘gross’ when faced with a guy they aren’t into? Gotta head that off. This gentleman is actively un-gross, he’s nice to his parents, he’s good to his friends, he has hobbies, he even has a workshop he spends time in for fun, when he’s not doing it for work.”
Lucy glanced at Verona.
“I saw that. Why’d you look at your friend? Is the workshop a selling point?”
“Not really,” Verona said.
“I think it would be if Verona was looking for a future husband, but I don’t think you are, are you?” Lucy asked.
“Nope, not into guys that way.”
“Girls?” Sal asked.
If it wasn’t the vaguely girl-obsessed guy saying that in that tone, it would have gone over a lot better. As it was, Verona frowned at him. “Not girls either. Don’t get me wrong, boys are cute, they can be hot, but… no.”
Verona shrugged. Would they just go away? This was distracting and she hadn’t been thinking straight when there weren’t distractions. Stress was mounting and she felt like this was an out of control train, speeding violently toward her saying something regrettable and making them enemies instead of friends… or her puking again from stress and tipping everyone off that she was freaked. Which would mess up their image pretty bad, if it didn’t bring the full focus of the investigation straight to her.
“No interest in boyfriends or marriage?” Zachariah asked.
“Nah,” she said. She met his eyes and she momentarily imagined a scene, domestic, her and a sorta muscular, sorta plain woodcarver boyfriend, a house filled with art, bills on the table, rugrats running around. Having to get up early every morning to send kids to school, scraping by to find free time for herself as an individual. Having to worry about fifty birthdays and anniversaries and date nights and stressing about all of it, because if she missed one then the kid or husband or family member she slighted would be upset. Where she had no big aspirations except maybe teaching a few days of class at the Blue Heron once in a blue moon, which would mean the kids would have to be juggled and stuff shuffled around. She’d heard her dad and mom talking about how life had to be managed just to make things possible, like coming into town for dress shopping or getting a week off. It would be like that.
The scene only lasted in her mind’s eyes for a moment, but it was vivid. It was an existence of piled up stresses and life-clutter that got in the way of what she’d really want to do and be. All inescapable, burdening, slowing her down and occupying her head. This headache and stomachache would be unceasing. She’d end up treating any hypothetical husband like utter shit as a result, she knew it.
It felt like Nicolette was very, very wrong. That there was this safe road running right down the middle of things and thinking about it made Verona’s stomach cramp. She’d rather fling herself over the side of that safe path, into Otherdom or hardline practice.
“No,” she elaborated, feeling like it was a huge understatement. “None, really.”
“You might change your mind,” Salvador said.
In lieu of throwing up on him to convey her feelings on that, Verona made a face at him instead. With all of the ambient stress and distraction she was channeling into it, and the way the smile dropped from his face, she sorta wished she could take a photograph and keep it with her, to punctuate future statements.
“It’s cool,” Zachariah said. “Sorry my friend’s being annoying.”
“Annoying? You wound me, Zach. Here I am, trying to be a wingman for you-”
“Don’t do that,” Zachariah told his friend.
Verona let them chatter, glancing at Lucy, who looked a bit worried, peeking at the ongoing discussion with Fernanda.
“They can’t keep us here all afternoon, can they?” Lucy asked. “Going to us one by one?”
“I don’t know,” Verona murmured.
That scene of vivid imagination had helped, in a way, even though it had inflated the brutal headache that was gnawing at the back of her brain. If she had to steer off that safe and predictable path that people like Zach were on, she had to do it carefully. It would require some of that surgery Nicolette had talked about. Like with Bristow. Like with Alexander. It would require some brutal amputation somewhere down the line, but she couldn’t make the mistakes Alexander had. If she went down the more serious, more ambitious practitioner path, then she couldn’t go all the way down that road. She had to make those connections, those compromises, do that arranged marriage crap, in a way.
Except without the marriage, like she’d just told Zach. Unless it was purely for show and periodic nights together as the mood struck, with them each having their own space in a manor or whatever. That would actually be kinda ideal.
But she was getting distracted. Very distracted.
A big connection she’d have to hold onto would be her friends and their Other allies.
If she became Other, she’d need to do the same. Maybe less surgery, since the surgery would be on herself.
Having a more concrete plan and set of goals helped focus her and made her feel more sure of her thinking. So much of her exploration here and her discussions with the others had been… breaking down. Trying to process the Other path on her own until Lucy forced her to fess up, then crying it out and confessing stuff. Or trying to support Avery and Lucy from the background until she slipped up, made a mistake, and they got angry. Or…
Or, similar thing, she’d think she had a plan, then Lucy would say something and she’d realize it wasn’t that doable. Or Lucy would say she needed to attend a super boring Self and Soul class and she’d attend and it would make her second guess everything.
Nothing ever came together that easily. She had to put in the work, and maybe sometimes Avery would pull the last step together or Lucy would provide some clarity, but… mostly it was Verona struggling to figure it all out and reality would shout ‘Wrong!’.
Surgery and bridge building. Amputation and politics. Figuring out who to leave behind and who to rely on.
She knew who she was. That was her strength, right?
So she had to hold onto that.
“They’re wrapping up with Fernanda,” Lucy said.
Verona’s eyes widened a fraction.
“How do you know?” Zachariah asked, breaking away from a discussion about a girl who lived in Zachariah’s area. He looked relieved to not be talking to his friend about that.
Lucy tapped her earring.
“Your implement. That’s uh, disconcerting, that you can hear stuff.”
“I’m not that interested in listening to whatever you and Salvador talk about in private, Zach.”
“That’s a relief. I heard you did the ritual, I saw. It looks really good,” Zachariah said.
“Thank you. I appreciate that.”
“My dad picked a mallet.”
“That’s, uh, very nice.”
“My mom had him etch it, so it’s silent, so he doesn’t make such a racket in his workshop area.”
“Uh huh, that’s- sorry to cut you off, but Verona, I think they’re talking to us next.”
“Uh ohhhh,” Salvador jeered, smirking a bit.
Lucy wasn’t smiling, and neither was Verona. Verona managed a shrug and nod.
“How do you want to do this?” Lucy asked Verona. “I remember meeting Alexander for the first time, but…”
“Yeah, no,” Verona replied.
“No,” Lucy echoed, frowning more than usual.
They’d gone full kid, full disruption, and put Alexander on his heels a bit. It had bought them the time to change the conversation. The problem was, the other augurs had been there too. Alexander had brought Tanner, Chase, and Wye, along with Nicolette.
Verona thought back, to ties they were maintaining, beyond just the three of them. Four, if Snowdrop was included.
To John, to Edith, to Matthew, to Guilherme and Maricica.
“Remember the first meeting with Mari?” Verona asked Lucy, drawing her feet up onto the edge of the bench and wrapping her arms around her legs.
“Yeah. She makes meetings memorable.”
Verona nodded, thinking. “We did one thing right when meeting Alexander for the first time.”
“Cryptic,” Zachariah said.
Verona shrugged. “They’ve been angling for more information or control of us for a bit, this might be their chance to do that, secondary to their investigation.”
“You really think they’re the types to do that, when Alexander just died?” Zachariah asked.
“Yes,” Verona said, at the same time Lucy and Salvador voiced the same.
“The meeting with Alexander, and Mari, I’m trying to connect the thought- oh,” Lucy said.
Verona could have kicked herself. She hadn’t been building enough. Hadn’t been taking steps. Instead, she’d been leaning back, watching, looking for the right fit.
And Lucy had been taking steps to build herself up, picking her implement, and Avery was giving herself gold checkmarks and going off on an expedition with Jessica.
Just have to pull myself together. Put the headache out of mind, resist the stomach issue. The meds were maybe helping, even if thinking about the meds as being from the brownies was not.
Get centered... I can’t do this if I’m freaking out. Verona found her emotional center. Calm and ordinary in the face of a situation more stressful than her dad bawling and screaming a foot from her face.
“Verona Hayward, Lucy Ellingson?” Raymond raised his voice. “A word?”
There it was. Sure as wet shit.
Verona glanced around, eyebrows up, looking a little surprised at being called as Lucy got up first, clearing the way for Verona to circle around. She left her bag behind. Having her spell stuff and glamour and junk wouldn’t help that much.
At the front of the room, Mrs. Ferguson was with her son, holding his arm and apparently forcing a conversation with Raquel, while Sol looked like he wanted to wriggle out of his skin.
Trade ya, guy, Verona thought.
“Don’t touch,” she told the boys, pointing to her bag, as if that was her biggest concern.
She had to skip to catch up with Lucy, who walked with head high.
It was a pretty imposing arrangement. Raymond was tall and thin and dressed in a way that exaggerated those features, currently a charcoal button-up shirt with brass buttons that were more like horizontal dashes than normal buttons, and pants so black they made the shirt look light in tone. He peered at them with the red-tinted glasses he wore hiding his eyes.
Wye was like Alexander, but younger, and… warmer, maybe, in look. Hair less immaculate, eyes with more emotion in them, a dress shirt that looked like it had been worn for more than five minutes, not just pulled straight off the hanger. She had no illusions about him being sharp. The most dangerous person present? He, like Nicolette, wore glasses, thin and wire-frame, but they didn’t appear to be magic.
Chase was… he was that but taken in the wrong direction. Hair that looked more nineties than twenty-twenty, face too small for his head. He was too soft at the edges of his features, he’d missed shaving spots at the corners of his sorta-nonexistent jaw, and his clothes looked expensive but, maybe like his hair had maybe been, before, it looked like he’d shelled out the money but hadn’t done the upkeep. Maybe that was his entire character.
Tanner was legitimately attractive. Whatever dress code Alexander had encouraged among his apprentices, it worked for the guy, he’d gotten a nice haircut and it worked for him with everything swept back except for locks of hair that were very good at locking, all twirly-downy, he had narrow eyes and a sharp chin, and cut a sharp figure.
Then there was Ulysse, disturbingly attractive and a bit disquieting to have looking directly at her for maybe the first time she’d noticed. Wearing a sports top and shorts like a model from a magazine. And Amine, who wore looser clothing and had looser hair, tied back with beads. A more casual arrangement of beads hung from one forearm and Verona had no idea how it all didn’t slip down.
And then Nicolette. With the cool lizard hair ornament, dress shirt, and knee-length skirt. Still dressing like an Alexander apprentice, post-Alexander.
All of them tall and the youngest of them was maybe seventeen and then there was Lucy and Verona.
“How are you two?” Raymond asked. “Nicolette tells me Avery’s out on an impromptu field trip with Jessica Casabien, Brie Callie and my apprentice?”
“What is this?” Lucy asked. “Asking us over?”
“Trying to figure out what’s going on. You were involved the other night,” Raymond said.
“Unfortunately,” Lucy said.
“We talked yesterday, but that was about Bristow, and your attendance in general.”
“Yeah,” Verona said. It was her instinct to fall silent, to withdraw, to let the other person exhaust themselves doing all the talking. But she couldn’t do that here. And she couldn’t lose that emotional center. “Can we… not make this, what, seven of you against the two of us? We’re not even a trio right now and that makes us weaker.”
“Are we against you?” Wye asked.
“Kinda?” Verona asked, wincing as she said it. “I’m not going to lie, but like… we’re on pretty good terms now, Nicolette, I hope.”
“Yeah,” Nicolette answered, taking a seat on the box where she’d been sitting with Fernanda a few minutes ago.
“But that didn’t start great. And we’re okay with you, Nicolette, but I remember it seeming like half of these guys were there ready to strongarm us or ruin our day if Alexander said the word, and you guys were stirring up strife in the school-”
“We’re putting the events of this past week to rest where we can,” Raymond said.
“But we can’t!” Verona stressed. “It’s not that simple. You said we’re getting expelled around the time the new headmaster comes, fine, but then we lose protections, and Alexander’s gone, and we may lose the protections he swore to provide us.”
“You should have some,” Wye said.
“Should isn’t good enough. But fine, maybe that’s the way things go, but now you’re also grilling us on this? You said yesterday you couldn’t swear to anything.”
“No,” Raymond said.
“And you won’t swear here? Because stuff we tell you might come back to haunt us, which is definitely something you said we should be careful about.”
“I can’t readily swear oaths without more information than I have.”
“What about them?” Lucy asked. “Can all of these guys swear some oaths, like he swore, at the very least?”
Raymond looked at the young men who formed a half circle around Verona and Lucy.
“No,” Wye answered. “It’s a bad precedent to set, making frivolous oaths when I may be head of the Belanger family.”
Verona laughed in response. This was why she’d needed to have her emotional balance, and be situated at a fake ‘neutral’. To be able to laugh.
The entire room fell silent. Conversations in the background stopped. Even Lucy looked a little startled.
All eyes now on Verona. Laughing so soon after Alexander’s death.
“It’s not frivolous to us,” Verona answered him, more seriously.
“In the grand scheme of things.”
“She’s right,” Lucy pressed. “I feel like Verona’s getting to something and I don’t want to get in the way of that, but she’s right. We swore oaths. You guys have a way of- and I’ve said this before, you make your messes our problem. Over and over again. Nicolette, you trespassed-”
“Only in one sense. The boundaries weren’t marked, there were no declarations of owned territory…”
“Not winning me over here,” Lucy said. “You went digging and you found us. You sent in a dangerous Other that was tearing up our resident echoes, you were told to stay out, you kept going, and you found us. Then you attacked after I personally reached out for parley.”
“Yeah. About right.”
“This stance and this tone runs against what I was recommending,” Raymond said. “Don’t burn bridges.”
“We don’t want to,” Verona told him. “But isn’t it the stupidest thing ever to build metaphorical bridges while the other guy is mounting an army to send over that bridge? We can’t tell you stuff if you’re going to use it against us.”
We can’t tell you stuff even if you won’t, but that’s at least easier.
“That’s pretty damning from my perspective,” Wye mused.
“It’s our reality and our responsibility,” Lucy told him.
“I’ve heard some of these girls’s situation from them,” Raymond said, glancing over at Wye, then turning to look at Nicolette, then Ulysse. “I can say their hands are somewhat tied.”
“And dictating the terms of our questioning of them is, I maintain, not a good sign,” Wye said. He managed to look stern and dangerous without seeming defensive; he didn’t fold his arms or wear anything more than an inquisitive expression, his posture remained relaxed, thumbs hooked at the corners of his pockets, his tone was level, but he still had Verona’s attention as the threat here.
“Then we’re at an impasse?” Raymond asked. “I don’t like that. As Wye said, not a good sign.”
“Send them away?” Verona asked, indicating the guys. “We sorta trust you and Nicolette, at least. When Lucy was saying she didn’t know what I was getting at… that’s it. Nicolette’s sworn to keep things private and I believe Mr. Sunshine when he says he’s too busy to bother us any.”
Wye frowned, his gaze meeting Ray’s, which was hidden by the red-tinted glasses. Then, relenting a bit, he said, “I’ll go talk to the Leos. Tanner, Chase-”
“You’re not our master,” Chase said.
“I can be,” Wye told him. “Whiskey, cigarettes, whatever, we should meet tonight, talk. Maybe we remember Alexander. The good parts.”
Chase frowned a bit. “Who should I talk to?”
“I don’t know, Chase,” Wye sighed. “The Oni practitioners? Tanner, would you go too? You’ve got the list of questions?”
The three men walked away.
Amine and Ulysse glanced at Raymond, then, without remark, headed over to the far archway, blocking one of the exits.
Leaving just Raymond and Nicolette with Lucy and Verona.
“Will they come after us, do you think?” Lucy asked Nicolette. “Our town?”
“Wye has to manage the Belangers, I guess it’d depend on whether he thinks there’s a good enough prize at the end of that tunnel. Chase has the entire Whitt family leaning on him. The Bristow thing fell through, he can’t even beg his way back to Alexander’s good books if Alexander’s really dead. I guess Tanner’s the one you’d have to worry about, if any of us, and I wouldn’t worry that much about Tanner. He focuses on other sorts of things. Events more than places.”
Lucy bit her lip, nodding.
“I want to ask you some blunt questions,” Raymond said.
“This is all kind of screwed up, isn’t it?” Verona asked him.
“It’s far from great. For my first question, please-”
“I wanted to ask about a limited Oath, first,” Verona tried.
“Please,” Raymond said, raising a hand. “Let me ask first. If you can’t answer, you can’t answer. We can discuss Oaths. But continued stonewalling and deflection may lead to me signaling Amine and him binding you on the spot, if I think we need to bring you into custody for more serious questioning.”
“That’s a bit of a power imbalance, isn’t it?” Verona asked.
“Verona,” Nicolette said. “I don’t know if you realize this, but you’re really coming off as evasive.”
The headache buzzed.
“That’s kind of how Verona always is, a bit,” Lucy said, quiet. “I’ve known her for years, it’s how she was with her dad, her mom…”
“To answer your statement, it is a power imbalance,” Ray told Verona. “That’s reality. I run this school, and in our world, there are no policemen, there are no detectives. We police our own. Often poorly.”
Verona laughed again.
She didn’t look but she could feel eyes boring into her back, in the wake of it. There was zero humor on Raymond or Nicolette’s faces.
“That’s the tone of discussion I was saying may burn bridges,” Raymond said, quiet. “A man died and you’re laughing.”
“I’m not laughing at the death,” Verona said, half-smiling, “it’s all kind of missing the point, isn’t it?”
“Then I’ll get to the point.”
He trampled over her, “Do you girls know anything more about the passing or forswearing of Alexander Belanger?”
“More than?” Lucy asked.
“The typical student in this room. Is this going to be a painstaking process, Ms. Ellingson?”
“A student was forsworn less than a minute’s walk from here, apparently for pretty frivolous reasons,” Lucy said. “So… yes?”
Raymond looked at Nicolette and sighed. He looked back at Lucy. “More than the typical student in this room, then.”
“Yes,” Lucy said. “My new implement lets me hear things. I heard what you and the other apprentices talked about as a group. Interviews.”
“I see,” Raymond replied. He frowned. “Then, besides what the typical student knows, and what Wye alerted us to in this huddled group and the interviews we conducted, do you know anything more?”
He was going to press on this line until they were cornered.
“I heard what students chattered about,” Lucy said. “Connecting movements and making guesses. Alexander made calls.”
Lucy shook her head. “Just… he made plans to talk to Fernanda’s family, but Fernanda talked about that, too. He, um, he was plotting, rallying the troops, sort of. Talking to some mercenary types through America’s dad, um, he was serious about that revenge plot. I heard only snippets, so there was more I missed or only got fragments of.”
Verona thought hard, trying to think of a way through while Lucy supplied answers. Raymond was too stubborn to deflect or turn aside, he insisted on pushing forward…
Sure enough, he went on, “Then besides that, besides the typical knowledge of students, our discussions and interviews, and the whisperings of students, what do you girls know about Alexander’s passing?”
“I don’t know,” Lucy answered.
“You don’t know?”
“I don’t know what Avery knows, I assume it’s not much more than us, unless Zed or Brie or Jessica have said something.”
“What about you two here?”
“I only really know what Lucy passed on, what she overheard and observed,” Verona said.
“Lucy?” Raymond asked.
“This feels like it’s running against everything my parents tried to instill in me when I was young,” Lucy said. “Talking to authorities and all. Not having a representative.”
“Maybe,” Raymond said. “Nevertheless…”
“Who would you pick?” Nicolette asked.
“The person I’d pick would be the same person Raymond said he wanted to bind, in our earlier conversation,” Lucy said. “Um. Which wouldn’t go over well, because we can’t get to her right now. So it’d be like in the movies, asking for a lawyer that forces a delay.”
“Do you need a delay?” Raymond asked.
“No,” Lucy said, getting a bit heated. Raymond frowned. “But I don’t want to give the wrong answer, because I don’t want to entrap myself or get in trouble. These things happen.”
“Do you think I’d do that?”
“Frankly? Yes!” Lucy raised her voice a bit. “I’m sorry. I respect you more than most here, I appreciate you turning things around, but I can’t forget day one. It wounded me. You wronged me. I have to account for the fact that you could do it again.”
“Even with me looking out?” Nicolette asked.
“Yeah,” Lucy said. “Sorry, I am, but… always.”
She clenched her fist, holding it up, like she wanted to punch something.
Raymond loomed above them, unmoving, silent, watching.
“To answer your question, what else I know, yeah, what Verona said is right,” Lucy finished, turning away, like she was disgusted. Her tone remained angry. “Can we finish this?”
“There’s more to ask,” Raymond said.
“Of course there is,” Lucy added.
Verona glanced at Nicolette, and saw those weird eyes filtered through the glasses, staring at her. Eyes like black windows with pale, shrouded figures within. White-wrapped heads and bodies with vague, distorted black shapes of unevenly-sized eyes and mouths all grouped in the middle of the eye, like a family or something staring through a window.
So many students were watching, looking for clues, for signs. Listening, if they had the ability. Lucy’s anger had drawn more attention.
Even the students who weren’t deeply invested would be following for the drama.
Lucy was here, using the fact that Raymond wasn’t great at dealing with angry people. Tapping into what may have been legitimate anger and emotion.
It bothered Verona, that Lucy had to do that. She’d wanted to find an opportunity to take control over this conversation and she hadn’t been able to get past this. Raymond was too straightforward, too unerring.
Would there be a follow-up question?
“Could your answers provided here be affected by any practice, items, substances, or measures you may have taken?” Raymond asked.
“That apparently doesn’t work,” Lucy said.
“It almost never pays off, even in the short term. I’m still asking.”
“No,” Lucy said.
Verona shook her head. “No items, practice, or any of that junk, really. I took a pill for an upset stomach.”
Give me something. Give me a fingerhold, a crack, a something, Verona thought. Her stomach hurt, as if she were reminded it existed by the mention of the pill. Something I can use.
Her finger on the metaphorical trigger.
“Did you wish any harm on Alexander Belanger, as that evening-”
Her metaphorical finger twitched and found the trigger more sensitive than she’d expected.
Verona, despite herself, despite sense, sanity, and reason, laughed, interrupting him.
“Verona,” Lucy said.
The laugh trailed off. Verona was startled to find tears in her eyes. “You- you think I wanted this?”
“You think I wanted Alexander gone? I came to study!” she answered. Lucy’s fingers gripped her bare arm, digging in. “I wanted to learn, I wanted to do cool magic stuff! And those guys started a war and they took it to our home, our families, our friends! They dragged us into it and they didn’t back down!”
Her voice rang in the acoustics of the room.
She couldn’t even bring herself to glance behind her, because she didn’t know how she’d react if she did.
“I backed down! I was willing to let Bristow go! You would’ve heard me if you were there! You can ask! I didn’t want that! I didn’t want to- to feel sick at the idea of eating here! I didn’t want to do that to him! I just wanted him to leave me alone!”
The shouting was raw enough she coughed, and she had to bite back a gag.
Raymond’s expression was unreadable.
“Verona was upset enough over it she was sick yesterday. And not great today.”
Verona started forward, and Lucy held back on her arm, like she could somehow keep Verona from getting going again. Verona let Lucy keep her in one spot, but she raised her voice, “You call me evasive but I’m human! I don’t want to talk about Bristow! I don’t want to think about Alexander being gone! You ask me my feelings on him? I kinda liked the guy! I know my friends didn’t like or adore him but I thought he was sorta cool sometimes! Now he’s gone? And I can’t ever chill and talk practice with him? That sucks!”
“Yeah,” Raymond said, terse.
“I didn’t want this,” Verona said, and she couldn’t bring herself to raise her voice as she said that.
The tone that resulted was… pretty much the opposite of the strong image that Lucy and them had been trying to convey, before. The ‘don’t mess with us’ image.
Lucy, fingers still digging into Verona’s underarm, rubbed her thumb on the back of the forearm.
Mixed messages there.
Verona’s breathing was ragged because she wanted to cough more and clear her throat but she couldn’t without risking gagging and she couldn’t risk gagging without throwing up in front of everyone and it was so stupid that this was her stress response and it was absolutely going to be the first moronic bit of humanity she ditched if and when she got around to that.
She already felt like she’d embarrassed herself more than Sol had been embarrassed by his mom, acting like this with everyone watching. Venting emotion like a little bitch, like her dad. Puking would just dial that up tenfold.
She looked at Lucy and in her peripheral vision she could see people looking. Faces blurred by the tears in the corner of her eye.
Lucy gave her a one armed hug, pulling Verona’s head down into her shoulder.
“And you, Lucy?” Raymond asked.
Lucy looked up at him, and she might not have realized it, but she held onto Verona’s arm and shoulder tighter, painfully so. “Really?”
“I have to ask.”
“I didn’t want this, either. I didn’t do it, I didn’t ask for it. Avery didn’t either, for that matter. Now can I take my friend out for some fresh air?”
Lucy’s tone was biting.
Verona hiccuped, which became a cough. She put the back of her wrist to her mouth.
Would Ray push it? Press the questioning?
“Go,” he said. “Take care of your friend.”
The ritual circle exploded near the base of the parking lot. Wet snow splooged out in every direction from the circle’s edge, along with mournful wails and stuff.
Avery crossed the distance, hurrying to their side, as they sat on the steps to a workshop. Zed and Brie lingered behind. Avery practically threw Snowdrop out of her pocket, freeing her to run faster. Snowdrop became human and hurried along.
“What’s wrong? What happened?”
“Alexander’s dead,” Lucy said. “Verona had a freak-out during questioning.”
“Oh,” Avery said.
Snowdrop caught up and tackle-hugged Verona.
“Tried to call, guess your battery was dead,” Lucy said.
“Yeah,” Avery said, her expression stricken. “How… how bad was it?”
Lucy shrugged. “I don’t even know how to begin answering that question.”
“I want to go home,” Verona said.
“Oh,” Avery said. “That’s… pretty bad.”
“…to Kennet, anyway. To be a cat for a few weeks.”
“That sounds more like you.”
Verona gave a half-chuckle.
More students were walking free. It looked like questioning had come to an end. About an hour after they’d gone outside.
Zed and Brie approached, and Lucy motioned for them to move on. Zed asked a question that might have been ‘later?’ and Lucy nodded.
Verona was content to not have more company. Even being outside like this, waiting for Avery, it felt very exposed, and she felt a bit humiliated. That hadn’t exactly been the master ploy she’d been going for, in tackling Raymond.
Avery sat down and leaned back. “We waded through literal despair and desperation in the form of a wintery hellscape, got hunted by three unstoppable-ish Incarnations, Zed got an arrow through his nice jacket, a magic wall-making box and a spare battery, Brie’s binding needs work and that’s getting to her more than I think she wants to admit… and I get the feeling we had the easier time of it.”
“Lucky,” Verona mumbled. “Smart move.”
“What’s the plan for tonight?” Avery asked. “Maybe a walk? Visiting goblins?”
“Library?” Lucy suggested.
“Mmm, you know just what to say,” Verona mumbled, knocking her head against the side of Lucy’s.
“Oh, what shall we learn about?” Lucy asked. “Ogres? Oni? Lost?”
“Keep going, you’re making me feel a bit better,” Verona told her friend.
Lucy went on for a minute or so, musing on topics they could cover and topics they needed to cover, to know what they were grappling with with the new Others of Kennet.
Others who could be working for or under the culprits of the Carmine Beast thing…
Which felt heavy, as Verona thought on it.
Estrella Vanderwerf left through the front doors, stretching, her brother a few steps behind her. Silas, Verona remembered, now that she saw his face.
Silas stayed put as Estrella walked over.
All four of them sat up and looked up at Estrella.
Estrella dropped down to sit on her heels, bringing herself to their level, her attention on Verona.
“What do you want?” Lucy asked.
“Mm. Those tears you shed were real,” Estrella said.
“Do you know what else is real?” Lucy asked. She raised her hand, then raised one finger. “Leave us alone.”
“I remember when I was a little younger than Silas, I had a stay in the Winter court,” Estrella said, rising up to a standing position again. “It was a crash course in all things Faerie. A sink or swim thing for me. A woman took me under her wing, because that was what she did, she took people under her wing, and she shared secrets. She pointed out a young faerie of Winter, something in him broke early. He took on a role and he didn’t want to give it up. He kept saying it. I dare say. I dare say. I dare say.”
“I don’t dare say,” Snowdrop echoed.
“It stood out. Like you laughing stood out. It’s a beginner trick, and I’m pretty tuned into those tricks,” Estrella said.
“What are you talking about?” Lucy asked.
“Three times, a startling laugh. Taking control of the conversation by stamping it with your Self. Making it yours. But the tears were real. The words were real and unfiltered. And they didn’t finish questioning you.”
Verona looked up at the senior student.
“Can’t steer a discussion that big unless you have firm control over yourself. Don’t worry. I wasn’t on Alexander’s side. I’m glad he’s gone. I’m not going to say anything.”
Avery looked at Verona, studying Verona as she heard Estrella’s words.
“If the tears were fake, I’d have so much respect for you. It’s a good move. As is… happy accident, no?”
“My friend was clearly upset and you think we’re happy?” Lucy asked.
“Happy outcome, at least. Showing weakness, it got most of your enemies to back off. Most. Raymond Sunshine closed off with some announcements. They’re bringing in the new headmaster sooner than later, they’re ordering in for dinner, so you don’t need to worry about the Brownies… but that comes at a cost.”
“What cost?” Avery asked.
“The enemies you still have want to make a move, sooner than later. You have two days that aren’t the very supervised field trip to the faerie realm, which means your enemies have those two days to get to you. And if they can’t, I don’t think they’ll let things go.”