“Mother, you really didn’t have to come with us — it’s still so cold, you could get–”
“Hogwash! We’re only going to see Georgie off to school once. You expect me to miss this?”
“But Mother, that cough you had, I don’t think–”
“Bianca, if I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times: the day I stop living because I’m too afraid to get sick and die is the day you might as well put me in the coffin and chuck me in the ground. And as for you, young man–” George wasn’t sure which young man his grandmother was referring to until he felt her elbow against his ribs. “You can at least pretend to be a bit apprehensive about leaving your poor parents and grandmother. You’re not going on a vacation, you know!”
“Ow, Granny! How did your elbows get so sharp?”
“I use the whetstone for the scissors on them when no one’s looking, obviously.”
“Your grandmother has a point, you know,” said Richard, putting a hand on his younger son’s shoulder. “The Professors Emrys assured us that this is going to be hard work. You’ll be expected to pass the same entrance exam into Camford that your classmates are expected to pass — aye, and do a good sight better on it, too. This is on top of the magic you’ll be learning.”
“Dad, please. First of all, I was there when Professor Emrys — uh — the guy Professor Emrys told you what we were going to be learning. We’re spending about the same amount of time on ‘school stuff’ as everyone else spends in school. Only, instead of going home to work behind a counter–”
“Don’t you knock working behind a counter, young man, it’s one of the few ways out there to make an honest fortune.”
“But it’s not exactly exciting, Dad. I’ll bet you my new wand you didn’t think working behind a counter was exciting when you were my age!”
“When I was your age, young man, working behind a counter someday was my fondest dream.”
George just raised his eyebrow.
“All right, all right, fine, the counter was a desk and it was only going to be after I got my fill of adventures on the high seas, captained a few dozen ships and with my bravery, derring-do and swashbuckling charm impressed the owner of the shipping company’s daughter to marry me –”
“Oh, Mum had competition, did she?”
“Hardly,” Maude mumbled. “I saw that daughter when your father was courting your mother. She had a hare lip and her breath reeked of onions. Oh, and she couldn’t hold an intelligent conversation to save her life. There was a reason why the shipping owner was promising that whoever married her would be the heir to the company.”
George was still sniggering as they mounted the huge steps to the entrance of the school. They had barely had their cloaks taken away from them by invisible servants before Professor Emrys — the guy professor — emerged from the right-hand corridor. “Welcome, welcome all of you!”
He shook hands with Richard. “Welcome to our school. Are you sure you’re ready to give up this fine young man to our care?”
“What fine young man?”
“Oh, do you mean George? Aye, we’re willing to give him up.” Maude tousled his hair; George stood solid as a rock and tried very hard not to make a face. For anyone else, of course, he would have been ducking and scowling, but Maude was … Maude. “You know, I’m just going to say this once, so here goes. You have no idea what you’re getting into with this kid.”
“Widow Parkinson, I object. I knew your brother. I assure you, there is very little this young man can do that will surprise either my wife or me.”
“With all due respect, Professor Emrys,” Bianca replied, “I knew my uncle too. And I assure you, our George has more tricks up his sleeve than his great-uncle.”
Professor Emrys cast a sidelong glance at Maude, but she only smiled. “Well!” Professor Emrys replied with a cheery smile. “Shall we start the tour?”
The tour was begun, and it didn’t take very long — the school wasn’t very big. Granted, since it only had two students at the moment, it didn’t need to be very big. It just had to be big enough to fit two students, two professors, and magical equipment for all.
George knew he was supposed to be listening closely, since Professor Emrys was talking an awful lot about rules and expectations, but somehow, he just couldn’t keep his mind on the task at hand. Instead, his brain kept leaping ahead, past the dining room, past the kitchen, past the boys’ dormitory, past even the library — and into the classroom, wherever that was.
And finally, finally Professor Emrys pulled a certain book halfway off one of the double shelves, the bookcase swung forward, and all of them trooped into the classroom, where the other Professor Emrys was declaiming instructions from a podium.
“And then you will add two and a half eggs of crystallized moonbeams. Stir widdershins for–” She looked up when she heard the door swing open. “Ah! Merlin! And George, of course. What a pleasure to have you finally joining us!”
He could feel his mother’s and his grandmother’s eyes boring four neat little holes into the back of his skull, so he wracked his brain for something polite to say. “It’s a pleasure to be here, Professor.” The pressure didn’t let up. “Thank you for having me.”
Professor Naomi’s eyes twinkled. “I assure you, George, with one of your gifts, we had very little choice.” He was just about to puff himself up with pride, when Professor Naomi deadpanned, “After all, with your reputed penchant for mischief, I daresay it would have only been a matter of time before you turned one of your teachers or fellow-students into a newt — and then Merlin and I would have to go cleaning up that little mess before we got all the witches and wizards kicked out of Albion.”
Well, George supposed that having a bad reputation was better than having no reputation at all.
He flashed a weak smile to the professor and glanced about the room. Oh, it was perfect. Perfectly perfect. The stained glass windows let in a weird yellow light, bathing the room in an otherworldly glow. The yellow was a bit cheerful for his tastes, but the gray stone walls and brown floor perfectly matched his mental image of a wizards’ classroom.
He looked to the left. And there it was! A lectern and spellbook, just for him, and a cauldron to go with it! It was giving off a blue smoke that seemed to breathe mystery and otherworldly knowledge. And the lectern was made of freaking marble. White marble, but marble. He was enough of his parents’ son to appreciate that. Part of him wanted to run over to the book and start paging through it, but he had to keep up appearances. After all, there was another student here, and it wouldn’t do for him to paint himself as the nerd of the school on the first day. It would show through eventually, all his friends at his old school knew him now for the smartest of the bunch, but he first intended to lay down his reputation in a way that would benefit him. So he looked to the right.
Nobody had mentioned that the other student was a girl.
And what a girl she was! Her uniform showed off her slender, lithe form; the way she was bending over her cauldron put her hindquarters on full view. There was nothing wrong with that in George’s opinion.
She turned around, though, and before George could be disappointed, he noticed something else.
Holy ta-tas! That girls’ uniform is STRAPLESS!
He should have noticed it, would have noticed it on Professor Naomi’s gown if he hadn’t been firmly trying to block that particular sight from his mind. Really, who needed to see that on a woman Professor Naomi’s age? But on this young lady … oh la-la, as the Gaulish would say.
And now he noticed — she was smiling at him.
She doesn’t even mind me sizing her up! Sweet!
“Hi!” she said in a voice so bright and so happy that George couldn’t help but smile back. “I’m Ravenna. You must be George!”
George glanced over his shoulder. His parents were safely in conversation with the Professors. Maude was still watching, but as George looked at her she looked away, whistling rather conspicuously, in his opinion.
So it was a feeling of full safety that George turned back to her and said in his suavest tone, “Why yes, little lady, as a matter of fact, I am.”
Her head turned a little to one side. “Ex — excuse me?”
Oh, boy. We’ve got ourself a naïve one here, folks.
He grinned as he sauntered over. Well, he’d just have to rectify that.
“Well,” he said, doing his best to drop his voice down an octave or so. Girls loved that, or at least, all the girls at his own school had loved that. “Let me put it like this — if I would have known you were here, I would have come a year earlier.” That wasn’t quite true, because now, seeing her, he was glad he’d had that year. If he had walked in here as a callow boy of twelve, who knew what kind of amateur mistakes he would have made with this precious little lady?
And her friends, he thought, his eyes drifting across that lovely expanse of shoulder and collarbone down to —
“Um, my eyes are up here.”
He looked up, meeting those eyes. They were pretty, too, a very warm brown. “I know,” he said. “I’m just admiring the … whole effect.”
Silly thing, trying so hard to play dangerous and hard-to-get! Oh, she’d suffered from being the only student, so bereft of male attention; he could tell that. Why, if he hadn’t known better, he would have thought that she actually sounded angry and offended! She was lucky she was dealing with such an experienced young man; a year ago, he would have thought she was serious and backed off! Foolish girls, with their heads too full of Lady Guinevere’s romances — but they need to learn to tone it down, otherwise they’ll chase off all the guys who don’t know what they’re up to!
“Of your uniform, of course. I especially like … these,” he said, one finger tracing the silver bits along her upper arm and shoulder.
“Hey!” she jumped away. “I didn’t say you could touch me!”
“Not with your mouth, you didn’t.”
“Not with anything!”
He hesitated. Maybe he was moving a bit too fast. She probably was gently reared, if not nobility herself. “Point taken, sweetheart–”
“Sweetheart?” she repeated. Funnily enough, it wasn’t the normal girlish squeal he was used to hearing, but more like … more like Dannie sounded when she was about to go off on someone.
“Well, if you don’t like sweetheart, I can always call you–”
“You can call me by my name and nothing else, wise-ass,” she snapped. “It’s Ravenna le Fay, my mother thought for a good long time before she gave me that name, and I’d appreciate it if you used it.”
Why does that name sound so familiar?
“And here’s another thing,” she continued, putting her hands on her hips and doing her best to glower at him. In fact, a year ago he would have thought she was succeeding. “I don’t know what you’re here for, but you know what I’m here to do? To STUDY. Yes, that’s right, to open up a book and READ IT and LEARN something. Not to be hit on by little boys whose voices haven’t even broken yet!”
“And you know what the first thing I’m going to learn now is?” she asked, leaning in closer.
“Did anyone tell you that your perfume smells divine, honey?”
“If it does, you’d better enjoy it while you can — because the next thing you’re going to be smelling is POND SCUM, after I turn you into a toad!”
“Now that’s just–”
“Excuse me,” Richard said, stepping in between the two of them. “Do you mind if I borrow my son for a moment? Thank you.” Not waiting for an answer, he grabbed George by the ear and dragged him off to the corner of the room.
“Do you have any idea who you were just insulting?” he demanded.
“Dad! I didn’t insult anyone! I was flirting!”
“Oh, Wright. Well, the first thing you can learn here is the difference between those two concepts!” Richard shook his head. “That young lady was not interested and continuing to harass her like that is a serious insult.”
“Dad, come on, I was hardly–”
“Yes, yes, you were. Stop arguing.” Richard sighed. “Why did you have to go discovering girls two seconds after you stopped hating them?”
“I’m precocious, Dad.”
“You’re not precocious, you’re positively provoking! Ugh! George! Don’t you realize that was the King’s niece you were insulting?”
“The King’s …” George glanced at her over his shoulder at where Ravenna was bent, once again, over her cauldron. “The King has one hot–ow!” he shouted as Richard’s hand made contact with the upper portion of his head. “Dad!”
“George, if you know what’s good for you, you will leave that young lady alone. And that’s an order.”
Richard glared at him, and George was left to look over his shoulder again.
Ravenna might not want to look at him now … but she’d come around. They were the only people under the age of one hundred or so in the school. She’d have to come around if she wanted to preserve her sanity …