For once in his life, George Ferreira was not about to get into some kind of trouble.
Well, at least not right away.
He was working on a project. For school. A research project. One that required many hours in dusty libraries, and many more hours giving himself writer’s cramp to make sense of his research and then create a finished product that would prove to the Professors that he had learned something. He didn’t have time to get into trouble with all the work he had in front of him. His parents would both be crying tears of joy if they only knew.
If there was going to be trouble — and knowing George, there probably would be, eventually — it would be from the subject of the project. Stone circles. Or rather, circles of standing stones. Where did they come from? Who put them there? How? And more importantly, what were they for?
But what intrigued George the most about them was the fact that there was one right near the school, and he and Ravenna were forbidden to go anywhere near it.
Actually, he was the one forbidden to go anywhere near it; George wasn’t sure if Ravenna had been explicitly included in that injunction. But it didn’t matter. She didn’t like the standing stones. She said they gave her the “creeps,” that it felt that someone was “watching her” whenever she got too close. And whenever Ravenna got one of those chills — a goose walking over her grave, George’s granny would have said — she would look over her shoulder or to the left or to the right, wherever the standing stones were in relation to her.
Intriguing. It was all very, very intriguing.
The strangest thing of all, however, was that the Emryses both knew of his research topic, and neither of them had disapproved of it. In fact, George had thought he had seen Professor Merlin have to hide a smile. So what was it that they wanted him to find?
With all of those questions ricocheting off his skull, it was damned hard to force his research to focus on any one specific sub-topic. And of course, no sooner did he arrive at this realization than another very pleasant distraction wandered through the door.
And speak of the devil!
“Oh!” she squeaked.
“Hey,” George replied.
“Hello, George.” One of her fingers came up absently to stroke the bookshelf. “You — um — I need to look something up — that won’t bother you, will it?”
“Course not,” he replied. “We’re mature enough to sit in the same room and study together without killing each other … right?”
Ravenna chuckled and turned to the bookshelf. Her finger ran lightly over the spines of the books, now. If only it would stroke his spine like —
George! St. Robert on a llama! You have a sweetheart!
She found her book and sat down next to him. It was the closest seat to the bookshelf, so it only made sense. George just wished it didn’t make his palms start to sweat. That sort of thing could completely ruin the leather bindings on his book, and good luck explaining that to the Emryses.
As he always did when Ravenna got too close or too pretty or just too much, George steered his mind to thoughts of Delyth. Delyth was everything he was looking for in a girl. No mood swings — no running hot and cold — no insults one minute and then beseeching stares the next. Well, maybe there were insults, but Delyth’s were playful ones, and if he topped her insult, she’d laugh it off like a man, she wouldn’t stare at him with huge chocolatey eyes that looked ready to overflow with tears at any second.
Besides, Delyth’s eyes were blue.
And she knew how to have fun, while some days, George wondered if the word “fun” even appeared in Ravenna’s dictionary. They could talk and laugh and joke, just together or with her friend Cherry. She loved his pranks and always wanted to contribute when he had something new cooking. Maybe Delyth wasn’t very good at pranking people yet, but she would get there — she just needed a bit of time to practice. And then they did couple things, like dancing, she was fun for that, too.
She was a good dancer, which George would be willing to bet Ravenna wasn’t. Delyth had the kind of parents who paid for dancing masters and expensive lessons as a matter of course. Ravenna, George suspected, had the kind of parents who didn’t understand the utility or attraction of dancing lessons. The worst was that he had to agree with them. Dancing lessons sounded like a kind of torture designed to be inflicted on the unwary. But they had produced good results in Delyth, even though she had confided to George that she never liked the lessons much.
And there were other couple things they did together, too. Like kissing. And feeling. Unlike most girls, who smacked a boy’s hand down if it strayed from her cheek, Delyth seemed as eager to explore and experiment as George was. There were limits, George knew — Delyth was a noble girl and couldn’t go too far — but he hadn’t found them yet. George had barely been able to flirt with Ravenna before she was chasing him off. Where, in all of that, was the comparison?
And even if Delyth hadn’t been as permissive as she was, kissing her was just plain fun …
Well, except for when it wasn’t. Apparently they both had the kinds of noses that needed to approach such activities as kisses with extreme caution. It was a good thing they had both determined that with an understanding partner, or else their early romantic histories would have been littered with injured pride, broken hearts, and bruised noses.
So George had no reason to be looking at Ravenna now. Or thinking about her, really. She was just some girl he want to school with, and who he had had a stupid crush on before he got rejected one too many times and got over her. That was all. Nothing to see here.
With that in mind, George turned back to his book and tried very hard to pretend that he hadn’t just been staring at and watching Ravenna.
And — as if he needed confirmation that Ravenna was just a friend and nothing more — he found some more in his book that intrigued him.
So Church folks didn’t like standing stones. In-ter-est-ing. George made a mental note of that. Anything that irked the Church was a good thing in his book. And if the Church had a problem with that, well, George had a problem with so many of them saying that George and everybody like him deserved a slow fiery end as a prelude to a long fiery eternity, so he supposed they were even.
His eyes narrowed as he read further. So the Church suspected that the old megalithic monuments were pagan in origin. Well, that would explain why they didn’t like them. The Church liked to forget that they weren’t the only, or even the oldest, religion in town. Some crusading elements had even campaigned to destroy all of the circles. But they had never gotten off the ground, for … George read a little farther and snorted. Typical. Bloody typical of the idiots.
George looked up to find Ravenna smiling almost nervously at him.
“Oh — oh, no, nothing wrong. Just, you know, reading about something those idiots in the Church attempted.”
That was one thing — the only thing — Ravenna had over Delyth. Delyth looked shocked whenever George said something against the Church. But Ravenna got it. Even her friend, Dilys, Delyth’s twin, was more willing to listen than Delyth was. At least, she tilted her head to one side and didn’t say anything — a far cry from Delyth’s outraged protests — and she looked thoughtful when George finished speaking.
“What did they do this time?” Ravenna asked offhandedly, turning a page in her book.
“Tried to demolish a stone circle. A bun–”
Ravenna almost dropped her book. “They didn’t!” she gasped. “Oh, no! Was anybody killed?”
George’s eyebrows went up. “Um … no …”
“Er …” George glanced down at his book and skimmed a few more lines. “No. I mean, aye, truly — nobody was killed. They never got that far.”
“So somebody would have been killed, if they got farther? Well, of course they would have,” Ravenna murmured, looking at her book again.
George’s eyebrow twitched up and down, but he would pursue that later. “No, I mean — well, we both know that the Church can be bloody stupid sometimes, but they’re not suicidal. In order to take something like that,” he jerked his thumb toward the stone circle; Ravenna shuddered on cue, “down and not get anybody killed, you need either people like us, or people like my brother Freddy. You know, the engineer.”
Ravenna’s brows knit, and she nodded. “Aye. That makes sense.”
“Plus, they’ve stood there for hundreds — thousands, maybe, of years — and even if a churchman could get a mob riled up to tear ’em down, the mob’s just not going to be able to do much before they lose interest. So they need somebody like us …”
“And they would never ask somebody like us.”
“Correct, or somebody like Freddy. And somebody like Freddy won’t do it. You don’t tear stuff down unless you know how it stays up, or how it got to stay up in the first place.”
“Magic,” Ravenna murmured, eying her book. George wondered if he could get Delyth into a wide-brimmed hat like Ravenna’s; a girl’s eyes peeking past the brim were just so damned fetching. “It’s the only way.”
“Eh, not according to this book.”
Ravenna looked up, her head tilting to one side. “How could you build something like that without magic?”
“I don’t know about building it, though if we ask Freddy, he might have some ideas,” George shrugged, “but there’s no magic on earth that could make something like that stay put for thousands of years. Magic doesn’t stick around forever. It would have faded hundreds of years ago.”
“Sim magic,” Ravenna murmured to her book.
“Well, of course, but what other kind of magic is there?”
Ravenna didn’t answer that. Instead, she turned her page — a little hurriedly, to George’s eye — and pretended to read.
George narrowed his eyes. “Ravenna?”
“What’s your research project on?”
She didn’t answer right away. And when she did answer, she spoke more to the book than to him. “The — the Gentry.”
“The who?” George asked. “Oh, you mean the F–”
“Don’t say it!”
He jumped and scooted back. “What? Oh, come on, don’t tell me you believe that silly children’s tale.”
“Children’s tale? My brother and sister are half–you know!”
“Well, not that they exist, that’s not the children’s tale,” George shrugged. “I mean that you shouldn’t say their name for fear of calling them or something. I mean, come on — so what if you did? You’re no mean witch. I’m sure you could handle one of them.”
“Plenty of witches and wizards have thought that,” Ravenna replied. “Just not for very long.”
George valiantly refrained from rolling his eyes. “You say their name every time you say your full name.”
“And I still don’t know what my mother was thinking when she took that name,” Ravenna murmured to her book.
“Maybe she was just being daring, adventurous — you know, young. And you know what? If you did call one, wouldn’t that be good for your project? You could call it ‘Interview with a F–‘”
Good Lord, she was sensitive! But if she was going to take it that personally, maybe he had better back off. “All right, fine, fine, I won’t say it. But you ought to think about it.”
“Oh, come on.”
“You are no fun, Rav–” The stone walls of the school were thick, but thick enough to shut out all sounds of church bells. “Blast,” he muttered, standing up and pushing his chair in.
“George? Did — did I say something …?”
“Nah, it’s nothing to do with you.” He turned to her and flashed a smile. “It’s just that my parents want me home this weekend. So I have to go up and throw some stuff in a bag. No, wait, I have to pack. We’re having Stevie-Weevie’s birthday party, so I can’t look like a beggar who just wandered in off the street. My sister’s words, not mine.”
“Your nephew,” Ravenna replied, rising and smiling. “That should be a lot of fun.”
George did his best not to gag. Like sitting around and feting a not-quite-one-year-old would be fun. Oh, well, he ought to be able to get some teasing in of Freddy and his wife. Plus Dannie was always fun to be around. And Delyth would be there. His parents had seemed only too thrilled when he asked if he could bring her.
They said he could bring as many friends as he wanted, in fact, as long as the number stayed within reason …
“Hey,” he asked, “want to come along?”
Ravenna’s lips parted slightly. “You … you want me to go with you to your nephew’s birthday party?”
“Aye, sure, why not? My sister invited your cousin, the Princess, so that might be fun for you. Oh, and her husband is coming too, but I think he’ll mostly be hanging out with Freddy. He sounds like he’s got a stick shoved halfway up his ar–er, he sounds like a bit of a stick-in-the-mud anyway, so he and Freddy get along just fine. And a bunch of Dannie’s other friends are coming, too. Not that you care about any of that … but the important thing is, it’s going to be me stuck with a bunch of boring adults who are only going to talk about babies and stupid stuff like that, and a bunch of little kids who somebody might expect me to babysit if I don’t get a bunch of friends together to keep me too busy to be roped into that. So you want to come? You can bring Dilys, too, if you want.”
“You — you’d let me do that?”
“Aye, sure! Delyth is coming, so it’s not like her parents would say no or anything.”
Her face fell — really fell — George had never seen an expression like that before. Her mouth, which had been smiling, turned into a frown; her eyes, wide and hopeful, narrowed; her shoulders slumped. “Delyth is coming?”
“Of course. Why wouldn’t she be?”
“Oh … oh, no reason. It was a silly question, anyway. But — but since you have so many people coming, I couldn’t put your parents out like that. So, thank you — but no thank you.”
“You don’t want to come because Delyth is coming.”
“I never said that!”
“But it’s true, isn’t it?” George asked, leaning back on his heels. “Why is that?”
“It is not true!”
“Aw, come on, don’t deny it. It’s perfectly honest. You won’t even come to the Tricross if you and Dilys haven’t made plans before. Come on, what’s your problem with her?”
“I don’t have a problem with her! I just don’t want to go to the Tricross and play chess by myself! Is that so difficult to understand?”
“It wouldn’t be, except it isn’t true. You’ve got some sort of problem with Delyth. I just want to know what it is.”
“There is no problem!”
George tapped his chin, then he leaned closer to Ravenna. “You’re jealous — that’s it, isn’t it?”
Ravenna’s jaw fell. “You think I’m jealous?”
“If you’ve got a better explanation, sister, I’m dying to hear it.”
“I am not jealous!”
“Nope, don’t believe you,” George replied, crossing his arms and shaking his head. “You’re going to have to do better than that.”
“Why would I be jealous of her? What does she have that I don’t?”
“Um … an infernally clever, dashing, devastatingly handsome, and incredibly modest sweetheart, for one?”
“You — you are not — you are not modest!”
“So you think I’m clever and dashing and handsome? Thanks, Ravenna! I never knew you had such a good opinion of me!”
“I do not!”
“But you only said I wasn’t modest,” George leaned closer, blinking innocently. “So that must mean that you do think I’m –”
“I do not! I do not! I only said you’re not modest because you’re a, a, a — pathological liar!” she yelped. “And a bad one, at that!”
“Eh, I thought most pathological liars are pretty good at, considering how much practice they get –”
“Then you’re the exception to the rule!”
George blinked at her and sighed, exasperated. “Really, Ravenna? That’s the best you can come up with?”
“You — you spout foolish — idiotic — words, calling me jealous, and claiming that I’m the one with the problem, while you’re — how much of an egotistical jerk does a guy have to be to assume that one girl doesn’t want to hang out with him because she’s jealous?”
“Got a better reason?” George asked laconically, arms crossed before his chest. “Because like I said, I’m dying–”
“Maybe I just don’t like her!”
“Why not? You like her sister just fine.”
“Sisters can be different, obviously! Any daughter of my mother knows that!” Ravenna snapped. “And she — she — she’s almost as egotistical as you are! She thinks she owns any room she walks into! She carries on like a — like a — like a farm girl with her swain! She acts like she can do whatever she wants with whomever she wants –”
“Hey,” George interrupted, “that’s my sweetheart you’re talking about –”
“–where if I tried to do one half, no, one quarter of the things she does with you, everybody would call me a slut!”
“And you know what the saddest thing is? You know what the saddest, most pathetic thing is, George?”
“She’s not being slutty at all! But I would be, if I carried on like that! So you know what? Maybe I am jealous of your little sweetheart. I’m jealous that she gets to walk on water, and everything I step on turns to horseshit!”
She pushed past him without a further word, and George turned, watching her go with slack jaw.
But as she walked off, he had only two thoughts.
The first was that she was totally jealous.
The second was that he wished the first didn’t make him so damn happy.