Sometimes Ravenna thought this was the favorite part of her day, the part where she stuck her feet up on the bed, pulled out her book, and began to read. There was a neat, book-endish quality to it, considering her least favorite part of the day was when the bells began to ring — while it was still dark — indicating it was time to get up. Still, sometimes Ravenna wondered about herself. What did it say about her life, that she was most miserable having to get up and happiest in the moments just before bed?
Well, she knew what her father would have taken it to mean, since he told her so many times: If getting up is the most bothersome thing you have to do all day, then that means the rest of the day can only go up from there. Ravenna knew also what her mother had to say on the matter. As far as she was concerned, it only meant that Ravenna was a night owl, at her best after the sun went down, catching her sleep late into the night and as far into the morning as she could.
Sometimes, however, Ravenna thought the essence of becoming an adult was pushing such influences from your mind and determining just what you thought of the kind of Sim you were.
She blinked and stared at her book. Drat. She’d just read the same paragraph three times over, and she still didn’t have any idea what had happened. She sighed and returned to the beginning of the paragraph. The worst of it was that this was a good book, too; it deserved better than the treatment Ravenna was giving it.
She wiggled her hips more firmly into the squashy mattress, knowing her gown was getting wrinkled but not caring. What were spells for? She ought to be in her nightgown, too, since she was going to be snuggling under the covers and magicking off the lights as soon as her eyelids grew too heavy for her to read another word. But instead she was still fully dressed — she still had her hat on!
… And she’d just read the same paragraph for the fourth time.
Ravenna sighed and tilted her head back, hearing but not really feeling the dull thunk as it hit the headboard. Her hat got pushed forward, halfway down her forehead. She closed her eyes, wondering if just giving her thoughts free rein would allow them to settle enough to let her read her book.
It didn’t. Her eyes popped open after scarcely ten seconds’ worth of quiet reflection. And her hat was bothering her. She pushed it back to its proper position and fixed her gaze on the ceiling.
Why was she so damn restless? Well … she could think of one reason … but she didn’t want to.
Knock knock knock! “Ravenna?” It was Professor Emrys — Professor Naomi. “Ravenna, do you mind if I come in a moment?”
At least she’d been spared from reading that paragraph a fifth time. “Come in, Professor!”
Professor Naomi entered, bringing winter’s last blast — well, by the calendar, anyway, spring would start in a mere two days — with it. She waved her wand at the door, like a peasant mother shooing a pesky child or dog out-of-doors, where he belonged. As usual, Ravenna twitched when the lights didn’t flicker in the wind. But these lights, the lights the Emryses magicked up and were teaching Ravenna to magic up too, never did. They shone as brightly and steadily as the stars themselves, with only a little twinkle every now to make the room sparkle.
Professor Naomi frowned slightly at Ravenna, a preoccupied frown, a thoughtful frown. “Ravenna, do you mind if we have a short chat?”
Ravenna’s stomach dropped, but she marked her place, set the book on the table, and swung her legs from the bed. “Of course not, Professor.”
Her feet scarcely hit the ground before Professor Naomi added, “It’s about George.”
Ravenna’s stomach dropped another six inches. “… Oh.”
“You don’t think, by any chance,” Professor Naomi asked, stroking her chin, “that he might have … perhaps … gone home early for the Day of the Dead?”
Ravenna blinked. “Huh? Why would George go home early?” Last year, she would have understood it — George wouldn’t have chanced not being around for his grandmother to find him. But this year, the wound wasn’t half so raw, she didn’t think …
But what did she know about it?
“Oh …” Professor Naomi frowned. “Professor Merlin and I are just having a … well, never mind that. Are you and George close? Does he tell his plans to you?”
There was only one acceptable answer for that: smile, look innocent, and slowly shake your head. As if she’d sell out George! He might be cocksure, irresponsible, and too damned clever by half, but he was still a fellow student. They were allies. And Ravenna wasn’t stupid, either — once she and George were on regular speaking terms, the harassment and bullying from other members of their age cohort stopped. Dried up, vanished as if it had never been. Some might have been tempted to call that growing maturity, but … well, Ravenna doubted the fools she’d grown up with could mature at all, never mind that quickly. George must have said something, done something, to get them to back off.
Unfortunately for her, Professor Naomi put her hands on her hips, leaned back, and surveyed Ravenna down the length of her short, pushed-in nose. “Truly, Ravenna? You know Professor Merlin and I wanted you to stay in tonight.”
Yes, she did know that. That was why she was going home in the morning for the Day of the Dead. Her own mother tended to stay in for the Day of the Dead and many of the nights surrounding it, and she knew that Jessie, now that she was home, would be staying in too. So would Garnet. It was just something wizards and witches did.
It had never before occurred to Ravenna to wonder why … until now, when she thought she might have an answer …
Still, at least she didn’t have to lie about George. “He didn’t say anything to me about going anywhere, Professor. In fact … I think the last time I saw him, he was working on his star charts …”
Professor Naomi stared at her narrowly, then, apparently satisfied — and why wouldn’t she be? Ravenna was only telling the truth! — sighed. “Blast! If that boy makes Merlin go out on tonight of all nights, I’ll hang him up by the braises myself!”
Ravenna blinked. “He … he could still be around. Have you checked Professor Merlin’s workroom in the cellar?”
“He –” Professor Naomi’s eyes narrowed. “Who told you about that?”
Ravenna blushed. “Um …”
“Let me guess — George?”
Professor Naomi rolled her eyes and shook her head, but she replied, “Aye, Professor Merlin checked already. He’s not down there.”
“He could have a spell of invisibility on him, if he was sneaking down there …”
“No, the room’s warded against that.” Professor Naomi shook her head. “Truly, Ravenna, do you think Professor Merlin and I would have opened this school if we couldn’t take due precautions against students doing exactly what we feared they’d do?”
“Um … good point?” Ravenna tried to grin.
“Very good point,” Professor Naomi smirked.
“Well …” Ravenna scratched her head. “What about the classroom? I know sometimes he likes to study late at night …”
“Aye, when he won’t be observed. I checked there already,” Professor Naomi chuckled. “No sign of him. His book was as ill-tempered as ever, and his cauldron was quite cold.”
“Oh …” Ravenna scratched her head. “Well … he could be at the Gwynedds’ home?” She wouldn’t think about how she didn’t like to say it. But George could be. The Day of the Dead was usually reserved for families, but the nights and days around it — being that it was so close to Robertmas and all — were prime ones for feasting. “Delyth might have invited him …”
“Do you really think he’d be on so innocent a jaunt without telling us?” asked Professor Naomi, eyebrow crooked.
“If he thought you’d say no …” Ravenna flushed. “George … well, he does prefer to ask forgiveness than permission …”
“That he does, but for this he’d ask permission — don’t you think? If he thought it likely to be granted? Which he would,” Professor Naomi added, the last bit mostly under her breath.
“A … good point,” Ravenna conceded. “Wait! I have an idea where he might be!”
Professor Naomi blinked and looked intrigued.
“His dormitory! Has anyone checked there?”
Professor Naomi threw her head back and laughed. “Oh, Lord! Aye, that is the last place anyone would look for a missing George, isn’t it? But alas …” Professor Naomi shook her head. “Professor Merlin already checked.”
“Oh, dear,” Ravenna murmured.
“‘Oh, dear,’ is right,” Professor Naomi sighed. “Well, thank you for your help, Ravenna. You can get back to your reading; I’ll just tell Professor Merlin …”
“Wait … wait, Professor. Why — why was it this night of all nights?” Ravenna asked.
Professor Naomi hesitated. It was that hesitation, more than anything, that convinced Ravenna that she was on the right track. “Well,” Professor Naomi said slowly, “there’s snow over a foot deep all around the shire, and it’s bitterly cold …”
“But Professor Merlin wouldn’t be in the snow, would he?” Ravenna pointed out. “And there are spells to keep warm.” Jessie and Sir William would have caught frostbite a thousand times over if there weren’t.
“Per … haps …” Professor Naomi murmured. “But, Ravenna …”
She stopped. She watched Ravenna closely. And then she asked, “Well, why do you think that Professor Merlin wouldn’t want to go out tonight, if the obvious reason isn’t the one you think to be the truth?”
Ravenna opened her mouth. She closed it again.
She wished it was her mother she had thought to ask this question of.
Still, she took a deep breath, smoothed her gown to hide her sweating palms, and answered. “According to my research, the Gentry like the … thin times.”
“Thin times?” asked Professor Naomi, her eyebrows arching up again.
Ravenna’s face burned. She hated it when they did this — hated it. And why shouldn’t she? Professor Naomi knew what she meant, Ravenna knew she knew what she meant, and Professor Naomi knew Ravenna knew that she knew what she meant, but she asked anyway. There was probably some reason why she did this — some eating-your-vegetables reason — but it wasn’t one Ravenna had to like.
Still, she answered. “Times when the barrier between the new and the old, the past and the future, the here and the there, are … thin. Times such as those around the new year. And around the Feast of the Cordials.”
“The time of year when we celebrate both Light and Dark.”
“Aye,” Ravenna replied, because she knew — now — the real reason behind the Feast of the Cordials. It was always a cause for celebration in the le Fay household, but that was mostly because it was her mother’s birthday. The Church said that the feast was in celebration of the Cordial sisters, who twin sisters who fought bitterly until St. Robert showed up and the love of Wright or some similar nonsense brought them together. But they were wrong. The Cordial sisters had lived hundreds of years before St. Robert. They’d been witches who somehow along the way started their own religion, one as a priestess for the Light, the other as a priestess for the Dark. And they had not been dead more than five minutes before some of their more devout adherents claimed that they were in fact avatars of the twin Goddesses of Light and Dark.
Then, long after they were dead and buried, some Wrightians came along, couldn’t quite manage to convert the people, and so managed to fudge with the timeline and convince the adherents of the old religion that the Cordial sisters were truly Wrightian saints. They even got their own feast day, the same day of their old holiday. And only the witches and wizards remembered why the day was really sacred, special, worth celebrating.
The witches and wizards … and the Gentry. Who, legend claimed, never forgot a thing.
“So, Ravenna,” Professor Naomi asked, “why do you think we witches and wizards don’t like to go out on nights like this?”
“But it doesn’t make sense,” Ravenna murmured. “The Gentry … they don’t often bother witches and wizards. I mean … not unless we’re the type to bother them. They prefer to … to …”
“To?” Professor Naomi asked.
But Ravenna couldn’t say it — not go after people who deserve it. It wasn’t true, was it? If it was true, Sir Bors would have been captured by the Gentry a dozen times by now. And it wouldn’t have been … whoever it was who had carried Paschal and Chloe. Whoever it was was someone her mother had sympathy for. Her mother would have let a man like Sir Bors stew in his own juices rather than cover for him.
But the Gentry didn’t always think like Sims did …
“Power calls to power,” Professor Naomi said, breaking into Ravenna’s reverie. “It was ever thus. And the problem isn’t that the Gentry don’t like us, Ravenna. The problem is often that they do.”
She took a step back and shook her head. “Which is why I wish that George could have chosen any other night of the year to sneak off to the Tricross. Ah, well. I’ll be sending Merlin after him. But don’t worry too much,” she patted Ravenna’s shoulder, “the Gentry don’t go into well-populated areas — and last I heard, they didn’t fly. Professor Merlin will be fine, and so will George, except for what Merlin and I do to him.”
It was the sort of remark that was meant to comfort, so Ravenna gave a dutiful smile. She waited for Professor Naomi to leave, waited for the winter’s blast to not make the lights flickered, waited for the door to shut softly behind the professor. Then Ravenna slid back onto the bed.
She retrieved her book from the table and flipped open to her place. Of course, she couldn’t remember what paragraph she was on. But that was no matter. She’d just start from the beginning of the page.
It wasn’t like she could remember anything she’d already read anyway …
Still, as her eyes darted over the page, she began to find that nothing was sinking in. George … George was missing. Oh, missing was probably too strong a word for it. He was probably off at the Tricross, with Delyth, dancing and laughing and joking the night away. Dilys was probably looking on, lonely and maybe even bored. Cherry Andavri was probably there too, partying in preparation for one last night in Albion before she left for Camford. Maybe George and Delyth and Cherry would include Delyth sooner or later — Delyth would probably insist on it.
Except … except …
That picture made perfect sense — but it was all wrong.
Because that wasn’t where George was.
Ravenna dropped her book; it hit her stomach with a dull thunk. She didn’t even notice, or care, as she rolled off the bed, the book being tossed the floor.
Because the rule about staying in during thin times — even if the Emryses had never called them thin times in so many words, or explained why — that was the one rule George had never, ever argued with. He’d never even asked why. He’d just — accepted it, no questions asked.
Ravenna ran to her dresser, grabbed her cloak and shook it out, threw it over her shoulders and ran out the door.
She didn’t meet either of the Professors in the hallway. She didn’t see them in the atrium. When she pushed open the huge doors, she didn’t see them outside, either.
It was good. They’d never let Ravenna out, and they’d never believe her if she said she knew where George was. She had no evidence, nothing but a hunch that was driving her out the door and across the lane, to … to …
To a place she had never wanted to visit. But a place that was calling her name all the same.
If she was wrong — oh, well. It wouldn’t take her long to find that out. She might even be back before the Emryses realized that they’d lost her other student, too. It wouldn’t take long to search.
But if she was right … then George was there.
And he might not have gone there by his own devices.
And he might be in trouble.