“Professors!” came the breathy, slightly giddy voice from behind Naomi. “How do I look?”
Naomi put her fork down and looked, because even though Merlin was facing in that direction, he was … a man. Yes, that was the only word for it. A man. And Merlin has his mind more in the heavens, far away from the mere mundanity of dresses and hair and cosmetics, even more than most men. He would never be able to give Ravenna the response she craved.
So she turned around and looked. She took note of the new dress with the jeweled inlay on the sleeves. She took note of the careful cosmetics. She even raised her eyebrow at the hair, which, given how Ravenna’s could naturally be most charitably called stick-straight, must have taken ages to curl that way. And who knew how much magical and non-magical goop she must have put in there to keep it that curled?
There could only be one reason for all of this: a boy.
And by the look on young George’s face … he knew it, too.
Still, Naomi was only her teacher, and though she and Merlin had responsibilities toward their students’ health, safety and virtue, their hearts were quite another matter. So she answered truthfully enough. “Why, you look lovely, dear! Going somewhere special tonight?”
“Tricross Inn!” Ravenna giggled. Ah, yes, that was where all the young things were escaping to these days.
“Funny,” George remarked. “That’s where I’m going, too.”
Ravenna spun and gasped. “No! You can’t be!”
“It’s my night out, too,” George remarked, eying his fingernails as if the fact that Ravenna looked about ready to hex him was a completely normal occurrence. Then again … Ravenna often did look that way. “Shall we go together?”
“What? No! I’m –” She froze and glanced over her shoulder. “I’ll be spending the night with my girlfriends!”
Oh, that poor girl. Such a poor liar. But when you had parents like Morgan and Accolon, who tended to permit a great deal as long as they knew about it ahead of time, one generally didn’t have the time to hone and perfect the vital skill known as lying. Naomi glanced at Merlin, as if to ask, Should we press her? Merlin only shrugged.
Well, Ravenna had spells to protect herself if any boy tried to take things too far, and both of them had a fairly early curfew. The Tricross Inn, too, was generally good enough to only rent rooms to couples who could produce some proof of marriage. But there were ways to get around that for an enterprising pair of young people, especially if one of them was a witch.
“Oh, your girlfriends,” George laughed. “Likely story!”
“Are you calling me a liar?” Ravenna huffed, and tried so hard to look mortally offended.
“No, I’m calling you a bad liar!”
“Ooooh, George Ferreira –”
“George!” Merlin snapped. “For Wright’s sake, stop antagonizing her.” He rolled his eyes and mumbled something into his beard about “idiotic teenage boys.” Naomi rolled her eyes in turn. As if you were any different at that age, my good man!
“Sorry, Professor,” George muttered. All the same, he glanced sidelong at Ravenna and smirked, as if daring her to continue to be antagonized all the same.
“You two should probably get going,” Merlin added, probably to forestall any further arguments. “The night isn’t getting any younger.”
“Right!” Ravenna giggled. “Good night, Professors! See you in a bit!”
“See you,” George muttered, following Ravenna out the door, probably far closer than she wanted … but such was life.
As soon as the door shut behind them, Naomi turned to Merlin. “Are you sure that was wise?”
“There’s a boy involved there.”
“With Ravenna?” Merlin asked, one eyebrow raised.
“Aye, with Ravenna.”
“But she didn’t say anything …”
“Oh, Merlin,” Naomi sighed. “She’s fourteen. She wouldn’t say anything. She’d be sure we would stop her. Or chaperone her, which would be worse.”
Merlin knit his brows. “I do not believe her parents would have stopped her … we can hardly be much more strict than her parents would be.”
“You don’t think? Surely you can’t have forgotten Accolon’s reaction to hearing that a young man would be studying with her?”
Merlin snorted. “Well, he may have liked to, but would he be able? I think not. He’d never catch up to her. And Morgan, I think we can both agree, would have his head if he tried.”
Naomi sighed. “Well, I hope you’re right, Merlin. Because you know if that girl gets into any kind of trouble –”
“Ravenna? In trouble?”
“Noo-o …” If for no other reason than that Naomi had specifically taught her every contraceptive in her arsenal, with Morgan’s enthusiastic backing and approval. “But there are more ways for a fourteen-year-old girl to get into trouble than — getting into trouble. And if she does … do you know who will be to blame?” Naomi picked up her knife and pointed it at him. “You and I, old man. You and I.”
Oh, there were benefits to being a witch’s daughter! George might be more daring when it came to magic, but when it came to broomsticks, Ravenna was by far the faster. But she could remember going for rides on her mother’s broomstick when she was still a chubby toddler held on by spells and her mother’s own unmoving arm, only thinking that she herself was holding on with her pudgy hands. George had the mere mundanes’ instinctive fear of taking both feet off the ground, but Ravenna could soar like the ravens from whom she took her name.
So she came down for a landing in the inn’s wide courtyard much sooner than George did, and she only waited to banish her broom before she ran up to the merry lighted doors and pushed her way inside.
Now, Christopher had said he would be waiting for her at one of the tables … but she looked at the tables and did not find him.
If her very being had not been thrilling at the mere thought of Christopher, Ravenna would have had to reflect that it was odd that Christopher was not where he had said he would be. But her being was. Christopher! The name hummed in her heart. Christopher Swann! With his deep blue eyes, dashing looks and silky auburn hair. Christopher, who had fingered her hair in its stiff artificial curls and told her he had never touched any that felt better. Who looked into her merely ordinary brown eyes as if he were about to drown in their depths. Who, in short, picked her out of the anxiously milling crowd of wallflowers and homely girls and asked her to dance. Oh, his last name might be Swann, but she had been the ugly duckling before he picked her out to shower with his favors.
He was perfect! He was divine! He was the dream catch of every one of her old classmates! And he was hers!
But she couldn’t see him. The only person who she could see, and who she wasn’t afraid to call out to, was Florencia. Florencia, however, only looked once in her direction, her brown corkscrew curls falling over her back. let her eyes widen and turned away.
That was odd — but perhaps the other girls were jealous! Yes, jealous of Ravenna’s catch! And of course the other girls would come down on Florencia if she talked to Ravenna. Yes, that had to be — had to be it.
Still, that wasn’t finding Christopher for her. Ravenna turned to the hostess and smiled her sweetest smile. “Ma’am, do you know where Christopher Swann is?”
The hostess gave her what, in her long years of reading and writing and experiencing, Ravenna could still only call a look. “Christopher Swann? Lass, do you have any idea how many of you kids tear through here a night, turning my poor head white?” Her poor head was already quite white, but that probably was not something to bring up at just this moment. “And you’re asking if I’ve seen this one or that one! Lord! If I had a farthin’ every time one o’ you kids asked me that …”
Perhaps asking hadn’t been … quite the right response. “He’s about average height, with the bluest eyes and auburn hair that’s about … this long,” Ravenna indicated her shoulders, “and it’s very straight and silky and …”
The hostess only looked more and more skeptical and surprised as Ravenna kept talking, and Ravenna felt her words dry up. But the hostess only pointed to her right and asked, “That him?”
Ravenna turned — that was him!
But … he was dancing with someone else …
Dancing quite … low …
With Katherine Stanhope, too! Pretty Katherine with her curly blonde hair and her silver-gray eyes! They said that Duchess Igraine, Ravenna’s grandmother, had had lovely silver eyes, and those eyes had won her the heart of a king. Not for the first time, Ravenna wished she might have inherited them instead of her own dull, ordinary brown. But no, the gray eyes had gone only to her male uncle and cousins — Arthur, Thomas, Mordred — who could have no possible need of them.
Still, Katherine Stanhope was the best dancer of all the girls she had gone to school with, and Christopher was a good dancer, too. Maybe Christopher had only been bored waiting for her to arrive, and Katherine was bored too, and so they had decided to dance together. Oh, why had Ravenna let George draw her into a pointless argument, if only for a second?
There Christopher was coming up again! Ravenna put on her cheeriest wave. “Christopher! Yoo hoo! Christopher!”
He saw her. He looked at her. He even smiled when he did. Or at least, that was what Ravenna thought at the very first.
It was what she thought afterward, too.
But at first, could she be blamed for breaking into a grin when Christopher stopped dancing and moved a little closer to Katherine, murmuring something to her that Ravenna could not hope to catch? Because the way his eyebrows rose, the way he smiled, even the way his hand half-extended to Katherine … could Ravenna truly be blamed for thinking that he was excusing himself from Katherine was about to come over to her?
And Katherine, she was ducking her head coquettishly and probably blushing very prettily, and so she must have been only politely thanking him for his thanks and sending him on his merry way. Because a girl like Katherine could get any boy she wanted, and surely she wouldn’t want to take the only boy a gawky witch daughter of a zombie and another witch could get — would she?
Then, as a cold breeze suddenly blew past Ravenna, Katherine put her hand in Christopher’s. Christopher put his hand on Katherine slim waist. Katherine put her other hand on Christopher’s shoulder.
They were … dancing.
Lost in each other’s eyes.
Ravenna couldn’t be seeing this.
She was imagining it — she was having a terrible nightmare — she had temporarily taken leave of her senses — because hadn’t Christopher asked her just last week, in this very spot, to be his girl? Hadn’t his shoulder brushed against hers, oh-so-shyly, and hadn’t his hair hung down on the side of his face as he ducked his head? And hadn’t he smiled so widely as to show his missing left tooth, which Christopher never showed if he could help it, when she giggled and bowed her head and finally gasped, “Yes!”
Then Christopher’s hand moved from just resting on Katherine’s hip to sliding around her waist and pulling her closer. Katherine came without a protest, with nary a giggle, so lost was she in Christopher’s eyes.
And before Ravenna’s heart could start to beat again around the knife that had suddenly lodged within it … it got worse.
He kissed her!
Kissed her as he had never kissed Ravenna! He only dared a quick peck on the cheek with her. Not this full-on liplock! He’d never tried to bend her backward the way he was bending Katherine at the waist! He’d never made her hang off his shoulders, held up only by his strong arms and her own precious balance, as he was making Katherine!
And Ravenna would have let him if he had asked! There couldn’t be anything wrong with just that, could there? Ravenna was no blushing innocent. Her mother had told her everything just when she’d gotten her first course. She wasn’t a fool who would refuse to sit in the same chair as a boy for fear of getting pregnant. She’d let him do things if they wouldn’t do any harm!
Ravenna was just able to hear herself draw in a shaky gasp when something else — something horrible and braying, like a donkey — cut across her hearing.
But it wasn’t a donkey.
It was worse.
Morgan Capenum. That horrible gloating boy, who had to be twice as horrible simply because he shared her mother’s name. He was staring at her, and laughing.
He wasn’t the only one. Every last boy in the place was laughing at her. Even the waiters were hiding sniggers and smirks behind their hands. Only Florencia wasn’t laughing at her directly, and Florencia wouldn’t even look in her direction.
There was laughing coming from behind her, too.
“Oh my Lord!” Morgan brayed. “I can’t believe you fell for that! Oh, Wright! I told Chris it would never work in a million years! Not with a smarty-pants like you!”
Fell for …
“But you did!” Morgan howled. “You did! You swallowed everything he said hook, line and sinker!”
There was definitely laughter coming from behind her. A pair of laughs. One deep and sultry and gravelly, or as deep and gravelly and sultry as a boy in his mid-teens voice could be, the other high-pitched and giggly.
“And oh, Wright! I thought I was going to miss everything, not seeing the look on your face! But I didn’t miss a thing, just seeing …”
His mouth kept moving, but his voice faded into the background of incessant laughter. Through watery eyes Ravenna saw her hands, her skirts, start to tremble. Through water-clogged ears she heard the laughter rise, rise, rise —
She had inherited, it seemed, some pride from her indomitable mother, the pride that had let the King’s own sister hold her head up high while carrying in her belly and then in her arms her baby by her peasant lover. That fire kept Ravenna’s head up and kept her tears from falling as she left the inn.
It was not enough, however, to keep her from running, not walking out of the inn.
For a very, very long moment, with the laughter of all of the inn’s fools ringing around him, George didn’t move. At least, his feet didn’t move. His fingers, though, did move up to his lips.
Those who knew George well would understand that that was the sign he gave when he was thinking. Those who knew George that well would also know that sign invariably meant trouble for somebody.
The question was, who?
“Oh, Lord, Chris!” that bitch Katherine giggled. “You were right! It was worth it to watch you pawing her last week!”
“I wasn’t pawing her,” Chris sniffed.
“I know, I know, she might be catching. Good Lord! I still can’t believe she fell for it! You’d think a brain like her would figure out you were up to no good!”
“The heart wants what it wants,” replied Chris in that infuriating tone of one who had far too many hearts wanting him — and, what was worse, knew it. “She wouldn’t use logic when her dreams were coming true, now, would she?”
“Of course not!”
George came to his decision. He turned to his buddy — for they were buddies, back in school — with a big smile. “That, Chris, was a good one.”
Chris’s eyes lit up. “It was?” And well they should. George only had been the best prankster in a generation … in more than one generation, really, if you thought about it. His approval ought to mean something.
“Oh, aye. But you know what would make it even better?”
“Watching her fly off in tears.”
“Fly — she won’t fly from here! Even she’s not that socially suicidal!”
“Wanna bet?” asked George, eyebrows going up. “Tell you what. If you don’t see her flying off when we get to the balcony upstairs, I’ll owe you five coppers.
That was all it took to make Christopher sprint for the stairs. George followed at a much more sedate pace.
There was, after all, no rush.
He moved sedately up the creaking stairs as Christopher pounded up them; he meandered to the balcony when Christopher ran. He made damn sure he was seen. He wanted there to be witnesses who knew, when Christopher made his exit from the balcony, that he had been out there with George Ferreira.
And so when he got outside, he was not at all surprised to only hear Christopher sigh, “Damn!”
“I only caught the tail end of her broom! But you’re right. She did fly from here. And she flew fast!”
Of course Ravenna would fly fast. She had just been humiliated in front of every last one of her peers. If George had just survived such an embarrassment and wasn’t taking an immediate revenge, he would have flown out of there quickly, too.
But you couldn’t trust a bonehead like Christopher to figure that out. Especially a bonehead who didn’t know a damn thing about magic.
“Well, too bad,” George sighed, or pretended to sigh. “Maybe next time.”
“Next time?” Christopher turned, laughing. “You think I’d be able to top this time?”
If George had been the mastermind of this trick, he would have been able to come up with something to top it. Not right away, no, not that. But there would have been something.
“Stranger things have happened,” George shrugged. “Hey … speaking of pranks you can’t beat, remember when we put Mother Julian’s braises on the top of the belltower?”
“Do I ever! Lord, George, that was the best trick ever! I still don’t know how you got her braises!”
He hadn’t. But it was amazing what you could do with an exceptionally large pair of women’s braises (you probably could have fit two of Mother Julian into it, not that you could tell with her habit), the skill necessarily to embroider a cross onto each cheek-cover, and the power of suggestion. Nobody had even considered that maybe a nun would be the last person to be sitting on two crosses. Nobody had even realized that no nun was going to leave her underclothing anywhere an enterprising thirteen-year-old boy could find it.
“My secret!” George laughed. “But I’ve got news — I can top it.”
“You can?” Christopher, the fool, leaned closer.
“Aye. My friend …” George clapped his hands on Christopher’s shoulder and smiled his patented I’m-planning-something-and-you’re-in-on-it grin. Christopher grinned back.
So he was all the more surprised when George’s grin turned into a snarl, his hands into hooks digging into his flesh, and the friendly clap into a shaking. “If you ever try anything like that on Ravenna again, it’ll be your braises up on the top of the bell tower — and you’ll still be in them.”
“Wha–George! What the hell!”
“That was cruel, Christopher!” Cruel enough that George wouldn’t do it, not even to that bitch Katherine, much as she might deserve it. Not even to that Christopher, much as he did deserve it. “And stupid! She’s a witch, she could have turned you into a toad!”
“She wouldn’t! She’s a — a wuss! She wouldn’t dare!”
Christopher … perhaps had a point.
“Maybe she is. But maybe it’s just that she has scruples. But remember this, buddy …” George leaned closer, his mouth just inches from Christopher’s ear, his breath stirring the other boy’s hair. “I would. I’m not. Again, I would. And this is the most important part …” He grinned. “She might have scruples …” He backed away and kept whispering, the better to make Christopher strain to hear him. “I don’t have any scruples whatsoever. Remember that, buddy. Remember that the next time you think you’re going to play a cruel trick on a helpless girl. Remember that every night as you go to sleep and every morning as you wake up. And remember that no matter what you do, where yo go, who you see … I’ll be watching you.”
And with that he turned on his heel and left Christopher, one thought ringing through his mind: