The silence that had stretched on for several long, empty seconds in the wake of Sands’ announcement had been interrupted by a new voice. It took me a second to orient myself, looking to the source of those two words. Scout stood there, looking up at me with her gaze only partially hidden by that long brown hair, face slightly flushed. This was the first time I’d actually heard her voice.
“Wha—oh. You mean she’s not a bad guy anymore, if she ever was one.” When the other girl nodded, I smiled faintly. “Yeah, you’re right. I mean, it’s not like she could sneak into this place without them knowing about her history, whatever it is. Hell, she’s got the tattoo pretty much in plain sight.”
“Plus there’s her name,” Sands pointed out. “It’s too much of a coincidence. There’s no way the headmistress doesn’t know everything about her, even if they’re not related.”
“Even if who’s not related?”
The unexpected voice, not Scout this time, made all three of us jump. Turning, we found the girl from the orientation tour, Koren. She was the one who had acted like she was going to throw Vanessa Moon over the magic line, the one that Avalon had thrown to the ground and chewed out. Now she stood there looking between the three of us with a suspicious squint, as if she was trying to read our minds.
“Oh, uhh, nothing.” I shrugged. Knowing that wouldn’t be enough to satisfy the girl, I added, “We were just trying to figure out if my roommate and the headmistress are related or not. You know, same last names.” I figured that was common enough knowledge that I wasn’t throwing Avalon under the bus.
“You mean Miss Stick In The Ass?” Koren’s eyes rolled. “Of course she’s the Headmistress’s daughter.”
I raised an eyebrow at that. “What do you mean, of course?”
“I mean,” Koren replied with the tone that made it clear that she thought we were idiots. “Even if I hadn’t heard them talking, it’s obvious that she thinks she’s better than everyone else. Why? Because she’s totally the Headmistress’s crotch spawn, so she thinks she can do anything she wants to.”
Sands started to retort something nasty, but I stepped on her foot as subtly as I could manage. Yes, Koren could be a bitch. But on the off chance that she actually knew something, throwing away the chance to hear it was a bad idea. “You heard them talking? Avalon and the Headmistress?”
The other girl gave me a look before shrugging. “Uhh, yeah? That’s what I said. You know, last night when I had to wash all the tables because that stupid shit with the Pathmaker building? I was getting a new rag from the kitchen. When I came out, those two were like, hugging and shit. It was gross. The Headmistress was all, ‘I know this is hard on you, but you’re my daughter and I know you can do this.’” Koren made a gagging sound while rolling her eyes dramatically again. “How lame is that?”
Without speaking, I looked at the twins. Both were looking at one another before turning their gazes to me. By mutual, silent agreement, we turned and walked into my room. Scout, a look of satisfaction on her face, closed the door on the bewildered Koren as the girl demanded to know where we were going.
“Beach, you said?” I asked while walking over to look through my clothes that had been delivered to find something appropriate. I’d never been to a real beach, but I had pool wear, and that would do.
Leaving the bag full of books on my bed, I changed into a bathing suit with a long tee shirt over it as well as a pair of sandals before heading out with the twins. They stopped by their own room to change as well, and then the three of us grabbed towels from the bathroom before continuing out of the dorm.
The subject of Avalon’s parentage had faded until we were outside, walking along the path that led away from the school buildings. Finally, I spoke up. “Maybe she grew up with her dad? I mean, maybe Headmistress Sinclaire and whoever Avalon’s father is are like, rivals or whatever. He’s at that school, she’s at this one, and Avalon grew up with him until the Baronness got her back?”
Sands nodded thoughtfully. Before she could speak however, a booming voice filled the air around us, demanding, “And where do you girls think you’re going?!”
The man who stepped into our path was one of the teachers that I’d seen at the staff table the night before. He hadn’t been introduced since he obviously wasn’t new or a track adviser, but I was pretty sure that he taught English Literature. Which was kind of funny, considering how little he resembled what I thought of when ‘English Lit Professor’ came to mind. The man was tall and broad-shouldered, with long, shaggy hair that was such a dark blond it was almost brown. He wasn’t as big as Professor Katarin, but the man still looked more like a football player than a teacher.
Gazing up at the man, Sands replied dryly, “Anywhere we want to, old man. You got a problem?”
The big guy squinted down at her, drawling, “You know what? You’ve got a big mouth, little girl. Your dad let you get away with talking to your elders like that?”
“Pffft,” Sands made a dismissive noise and waved her hand. “He’s old. Who cares what he thinks?”
Making a strangled noise, the man quickly stepped forward and snatched Sands right off the ground while demanding, “Who cares, huh? I’ll show you who cares!” He was clearly playing up the outrage as he swung around in a rapid circle with Sands tossed over his shoulder. “You care now?”
“Ahhhhhh!” Sands squealed in reply. “Noooooope! Don’t ahhhhh caaaaare! Aaaaaaaaahh I’m gonna be sick down the back of your shiiiirt, then you’ll be aaaaaaaaahhh soooorrry! Leeeemme goooo aaaahhh!”
Instead, the man only slowed enough to catch hold of Scout with his other hand. There was an audible yelp from the other girl as she was hauled up onto his other shoulder. Then he spun even faster while they squealed out loud, limbs flailing helplessly. “You’ll care, oh yeah you will!”
Finally, after several long moments of that rapid spinning, the man stumbled a bit to the grass before dumping both girls off his shoulders. He kept his grip on them just long enough for their feet to touch the ground before releasing them so that he could stumble backwards, sitting down hard on the grass with a grunt. The twins each immediately collapsed as well, yelping in unison.
Smirking a little in spite of myself, I cleared my throat. “So, this is your dad, huh?”
“Mmmhmm,” Sands, eyes closed, waved her hand absently. “Da, this is Flick. Flick, that’s Da.”
The man, who had collapsed onto his back, gave me a thumbs up. “Nice to meet you, Flick.” Lifting his head, he squinted at me blearily. “Could you tell your fifteen identical sisters to go home though?”
Snickering, I reached out a hand to help the man to his feet. “Nice to meet you too, Professor Mason.”
The man took the help, climbing to his feet with a groan before moving to help Scout up while I went to do the same with Sands. “I take it you girls are heading down to the beach then, huh?”
“Yeah, Da, we’re gonna show Flick how to have some fun.” Sands shook her head sadly. “She grew up in Wyoming. So, you know, I’m not sure she knows how to spell it, let alone have it.”
I scoffed at that. “Hey, Wyoming might not be a tropical island, but we have our own fun.”
“I bet!” Grinning at me, Sands asked, “So when you’re playing ‘find your nearest neighbor’, can you use the bullhorn right from your front porch, or do you have to drive around for a bit first?”
In spite of myself, I laughed, hiding it with a cough before retorting, “It’s not that empty!”
“Dude, I looked it up,” Sands informed me. “Your entire state is about a hundred thousand square miles, and it’s got like five hundred thousand people in it. You know what that is? That’s less than a quarter of the population of Brooklyn, which is about a hundred square miles. Your state is a thousand times the size of Brooklyn, and it has less than a quarter of the population!”
Sniffing, I shrugged. “We go for quality, not quantity.”
Sands lifted an eyebrow at me curiously. “Are you sure it’s not because the animals have become sentient and are secretly killing off all the humans?”
I coughed again. “Sapient.”
Sands blinked at me. “Huh?”
“You mean sapient,” I explained. “Sentient just means they feel things. Lots of animals are sentient. Sapient mans they can reason and logic things out, plan things. You know, like homo sapiens?”
Professor Mason grinned. “I like this one. You girls stay friends with her, you might learn something.”
“Meh,” Sands snickered, grabbing my arm. “We’ll corrupt her. Come on, time to hit the beach before it’s too late. Trust me, you don’t want to get caught out after curfew. It is not pretty.”
“Damn straight it’s not pretty,” Professor Mason confirmed. “So don’t push it. You girls are real students now, you’ve got an example to set. Make sure you’re back in your rooms on time. You’ve all got me first thing after breakfast tomorrow, and I want you there bright tailed and bushy eyed.”
I blinked at that. “Don’t you mean–”
Sands was already pulling me away. “Never mind that, inside joke. C’mon, Scout!” She called to her sister, and the other girl quickly gave their father a hug before moving to join us.
At the edge of the school grounds, Sands slowed to point at a shimmer in the air. It was almost like looking through very clean water, a slight distortion that made it clear something was there. “This is the border. They could make it harder to notice, but they don’t want to give any student the excuse of not knowing where they were if they cross it when they’re not supposed to. See, come closer.”
I did so, stepping right up to the edge of the barrier. As I came within a couple feet of it, the sound of gently ringing bells was audible. It was a pleasant sound, but definitely one that stood out.
“Same idea,” Sands confirmed. “No one gets to cross the border and then say they didn’t know. As soon as we go through here, reports get put out. I think they go to umm, our track adviser and the security office. If we’re not back by the time curfew starts, they’ll get a report about that too. They get a list of all students that are past the border after curfew, and trust me, you do not want to be one of those students. Scout and me saw what happened to the ones that tried to beat the system, and it is not fun.”
“The security office,” I echoed with a nod. “You mean like that guy I met earlier. Uhh, what was his name. He was really intense—oh, right, Rendell? Wyatt Rendell?”
Both girls giggled at that. Sands was nodding. “Yeah, Wyatt’s really intense all right. I’m not sure what he did before this, but he showed up at the end of last year. The headmistress brought him in personally. He’s… yeah, really into his job. But he’s just one of the normal security guys. He reports to Professor Kohaku. She’s the one that gets the reports about who’s out when they shouldn’t be.”
“Who do we report the abysmal failure that is our team mentor to?” I asked a bit darkly.
Sands rolled her eyes. “Deveron? Yeah, he kinda sucks, doesn’t he?”
“I don’t get it,” I spread my arms questioningly. “How did he really get to be a mentor? I know the sword in the stone thing is bullshit, but why would they take a guy that lazy and make him a mentor?”
Sands shrugged helplessly at that. “He didn’t used to be that bad.” In response to my doubtful look, she pressed on. “I mean it. Look, last year when he was a freshman here, Deveron was like… a star student. Seriously, believe it or not, he won pretty much every first year award there is. He was everywhere. He did everything. He was the school all-star. We’re talking straight A’s, community service, extra credit, advanced courses, all of it. The guy was on fire. Hell, in the fight tournament at the end of the year, he came in third. Third. That’s out of the entire school. Do you know how impossible it is for a first year student to come in third out of the whole school?”
I stared at her, mouth open. “We’re talking about the same Deveron Adams, right? You didn’t develop a concussion and start rambling about some other, actually useful guy? What the hell happened?”
Both of the twins shrugged. Scout leaned over to whisper something in Sands’ ear, and the other girl nodded. “He changed. He was gone for the summer, and when he came back, he was… well, he was a jerk. A lazy jerk. It’s like whatever reason he had to push himself before doesn’t exist anymore and now he doesn’t care about anything. Who knows. But that’s why they made him a mentor. I think they’re hoping that something will snap him out of this… dick phase and he’ll actually contribute again.”
I kicked at the ground a little and sighed. “Well I hope he snaps out of it soon. I’d like to have a mentor that I could actually talk to.”
“You can talk to us!” Sands grinned, grabbing my hand. “We’ll tell you everything you need to know. Like right now, what you need to know is that we are going down to the beach. So no more talking about Deveron or anything else depressing, okay?”
“Right,” I smiled in spite of myself. “Let’s go see this beach.
“But I’m telling you right now, the first one of you that makes the Jaws music is gonna get buried in the sand and left there.”
“Mind if I go with you?”
It was the next morning, and I had woken up to the sound of Avalon getting ready to head out again. Just like the day before, she was up early. So early, in fact, that the sun wasn’t quite up yet.
She stopped, pausing to look over at me before reaching out to turn the light on so she could squint at me. “What?”
I sat up, sliding out of bed. “I was just asking if you mind if I go work out with you. You know, keep you company?”
Her suspicious glare didn’t relent. “Why?”
Shrugging, I started to get dressed while suppressing a yawn. “Seems like you have good habits. If I’m gonna make it around here, I should probably follow your lead.”
Avalon was silent for a moment before letting out a sigh. “Whatever, just hurry up. And don’t expect me to coddle you the whole time. I’m not your babysitter.”
Giving the girl a thumbs up, I finished dressing in the exercise clothes before turning in a circle as though looking for something. “Now where is—Herbie? Herb, where are you buddy? Did you—ohhh.” Pointing to the spot near the door, I walked over to pluck the rock off the floor where it had been sitting as though waiting to go out. “Hey there, need to go potty, huh?”
Avalon stared at me. “It has eyes now?”
Turning the rock for her to see, I shook it a bit to make the the googly eyes roll. “Yup, and he thinks you’re cute too.”
That time, I swore I saw the tiniest hint of a smile. It was barely a flicker before she schooled her expression back down while pivoted on her heel to stride out the door. “You’re a freak, Chambers.”
Snickering in spite of myself, I trailed after her. The two of us walked together down the stairs and outside.
“What the–” I blinked at the sight of what had to be two dozen people, half of them adults standing in our way. They were faced away from us, attention directed toward the ground.
Professor Mason, Sands’ and Scout’s father, turned to us. His face was pale as he took a step our way. “Inside, girls. You don’t need to be out here right now.”
“What happened?” Avalon demanded, not letting herself be herded away yet.
“It’s not–” The big man hesitated, clearly reluctant to say anything. “I’m sorry, girls, this isn’t a good time. Go back inside and wait. It’s…” He paused before sighing. “It’s Professor Pericles.”
It was the wrong thing to say. Mentioning Avalon’s track adviser made the girl’s eyes widen and she stopped abruptly. “What about him?”
“I’m sorry, Avalon,” Professor Mason’s voice was as gentle as he could make it. “There’s no better way of telling you this, but his body was found about ten minutes ago. It… doesn’t look like an accident.”
My own voice sounded empty to me, my head ringing almost painfully. “You mean he… he was…”
“Murdered,” Avalon finished flatly, her voice actually shaking a little. “Someone murdered Professor Pericles.”