On the first day of school, I open my eyes to an index card stuck to the ceiling with one word printed on it in block capital letters: "OXFORD."
I lay staring at it in the growing, greenish light of dawn that wafts through the curtains of the room I share with Ellen and Virginia in Horse Hall. It's a new room, different from the one we'd shared last year, and we'd been surprised when we'd arrived yesterday upon discovering that two of the beds are bunked one atop the other. Ellen and I had quickly agreed to let Virginia have the free bed - she rolls and talks in her sleep - and Ellen had asked for the lower bunk, leaving the top to me.
I had initially thought that it would be fun to sleep in a top bunk, but the novelty wore off after about ten minutes of tossing and turning in it. I've always had trouble sleeping in unfamiliar spaces, and although I'd spent an entire year at Iris Academy already, this new room proved to be no exception. I'd lain awake for most of the night, listening to my roommates breathe (well, in Virginia's case, snore), and going over and over what I've started to call my "plan of attack."
I start it over again now, watching as the light slowly begins to brighten, illuminating the card I'd stuck to my ceiling yesterday so that it would be the first thing I see when I go to bed, and the first thing I see when I wake up.
First I'll talk to Professor Potsdam, I think. And I'll ask about applications. Like when I have to apply, and what I have to say. And whether there's a test.
Thinking about a potential admissions test to Oxford University gives me an uncomfortable sensation, as though I'm prodding a sore tooth. I'd managed to perform well in all my exams at Iris Academy, but then, Iris Academy doesn't have a grading system - and isn't the magical college attached to one of the most prestigious universities in the world.
Well never mind. Maybe it'll just be essays. Professor Potsdam will know, anyway, she might even have had students from Iris get into Oxford before; she'll know what I'll have to do. And then I'll ask her about the grades I'll need to have to get in. I wonder if it's okay that Iris doesn't have grades?
I shift, tossing to my left side, bunching my pillow under my chin. This gets uncomfortable after a minute so I roll to my back again to stare at the card.
It's not alone up there on the ceiling. Surrounding the card are magazine pictures of trees, of mountains, a lizard, a crab. I reach my hand up, and the ceiling is just near enough that I can graze my fingernail along my favorite picture, one that shows a forest of trees lining a craggy hillside.
They really are shaped like giant umbrellas, I think. The trees - dragon's blood trees - just serve as another reminder of why I want to go to college in England, even though they're half a world away from London, on an island in the Indian Ocean.
It had been over the summer, just a little less than a month ago, when I'd spent a week and a half at a country house in Northumberland, on the English-Scottish border, and my husband had told me he'd always wanted to visit the island of Socotra.
Future ex-husband, I remind myself grimly, and have to keep from heaving a sigh for fear of waking my roommates. It had been a strange week in England, but then it's been a strange marriage, one only entered into to keep my soul from being devoured by a manus who was beholden to my husband's - Hieronymous Grabiner's - family. I'd spent nearly a full semester at school being married to one of my professors, but the oddest incident I'd encountered had been that week during the summer. I'd been summoned to England by my headmistress, Professor Potsdam, ostensibly for the purposes of visiting my father-in-law, Aloysius Grabiner - the 16th Viscount Montague. As it turned out, Lord Montague had been planning on killing Hieronymous and taking his body to live another lifetime, and using me to create a child for him to repeat the cycle when it was old enough.
Between my deciding to offer my body up in exchange for Hieronymous's, and Professor Potsdam's entrance at the very last moment, we'd managed to have Lord Montague's spell backfire on him, leaving nothing more than an unpleasant stain on one wall. But Hieronymous had been furious that Professor Potsdam had intended to have me sacrifice myself all along, and quit his job at Iris Academy. He'd stayed in England to take over his father's titles and estate, and although he said I might stay in London to go to school there, in the end we'd both agreed that it would be better for me to go back to America, and Iris Academy.
But I'd promised him, and myself, that it wouldn't be forever, and that I'd go back to England to study magical history someday - not just for him, but for the friend I'd made over my week in his house, Mrs. Craft. She was an octogenarian history teacher who'd been murdered by the late Lord Montague so that he could use her latent magic to take over his son's' body. But most of all, I'd made the promise to myself, feeling that I'd finally figured out just what I want to do with my magical abilities.
I'd felt confident then that I could get into Saint Amphibalus's - Oxford's magical college - but I don't feel quite so confident now that I'm faced with having to take the concrete steps I'll need to find out what it takes to apply. I still have three years of magical high school before I go to college. And even sooner than that - this January, in fact - I'm getting divorced.
The thought makes my stomach squidge, and I flop over onto my right side, facing the wall. I ought to be grateful to be granted an easy divorce. It's not an enviable position, being forced into marriage at sixteen, even if it's only for a year and a day, and even if it's with a husband who has repeatedly refused to take advantage of me.
He even had my permission that once, and he still said no, you're too young, I think. It was honorable, gentlemanly, non-pervy of him, but I still feel disappointed about it. Maybe I'm a little bit in love with him? The thought doesn't provide me with much comfort. I've never been in love - I don't think, anyway - and I have no idea how to tell when "in love" might actually happen to someone. Even with all the romantic books I've read - Pride and Prejudice, Rebecca, The Age of Innocence, Wuthering Heights, and especially Jane Eyre, my favorite, love always seems to just happen to people. There's no litmus test to determine whether the feelings you feel for someone are love, a crush, or somewhere in between.
I thought I'd been in love once, when I was in the eighth grade. There was a boy in my class with startling green-yellow eyes, the only person in our grade who'd read more books than me. He'd even read Herman Hesse, a fact I'd found extremely alluring. But he'd never treated me as more than an acquaintance, despite all my attempts to draw him into more intimate conversation. At the end of the year he'd gone off to a magnet high school, while I'd been shuttled to the regular public school. I hadn't bothered to apply to the magnet, because by that time I'd known that I'd be going to magic school once I'd turned sixteen. And after a month of the boy being out of my sights from day to day, I'd stopped thinking about him so much - and then at all. And I'd given up my attempts to read Steppenwolf without so much as a pang of guilt.
But this time, it feels different. This time, my husband and I have voluntarily put an ocean between us, and I haven't stopped thinking about him for what feels like every minute of every hour of every day.
I wonder how he's doing. There are five hours' time difference - I think - between him in London and me in Vermont. I'd gotten only one letter, the week before I'd come back to school, that said he'd settled into his house in London for the time being, and to please use that address when writing. I'd dashed off a short letter in response, saying I'd be in school starting September fifth. I haven't gotten another response, but then, I'll probably have to wait until Saturday when it's my job to deliver the mail at five in the morning. It's a long time to wait. I'm eager to know how Hieronymous is settling into his new life as a viscount, and the only aristocratic magical citizen in the United Kingdom, or so I've been led to understand. He's rejected a Parliamentary position, which he intimated might give him some trouble with his country's magical council, considering he would have been the magical community's only representative in the House of Lords.
I hope they - the council, whatever that might be - leave him alone, though the question remains, leave him alone to do what? He'd mentioned to me that he'd been considering setting up a magical school in Newcastle, but I'm sure he hasn't even had the time to start on the kind of work that would be required for such an immense project. And part of me has the rather nagging sensation that, despite the fact that Hieronymous had spent years at Iris Academy as a teacher, he isn't exactly suited to the work. It isn't that he's bad at the job, I reflect, it's only that teaching hadn't seemed to make him very happy. However, I'm hard pressed to think of any sort of career - even that of lounging about and living off of his estate - that would result in Hieronymous being completely content.
I wonder what would happen if I taught there too? I wonder, and not for the first time. It's a pleasant little fantasy - that Hieronymous and I don't get divorced after all, but remain married while I pursue my degree at Oxford. He opens up his school, and I go up to Newcastle after getting my degree, and we teach there together, and maybe….
But the fantasy dissolves in my head almost as soon as it's begun. There isn't any way that I can think of to convince Hieronymous that we ought to stay married while I'm still in high school, and anyway, it'll be years and years yet before I earn my college degree. No matter how many permutations I consider, the entire scenario is entirely unrealistic. I just have to hope that wherever our future paths lead us, it will be together somehow, even if I can't say just how.
My eyes stray back to my index card. Oxford.
First I'll talk to Professor Potsdam, I think. And I'll ask about applications. Like when I have to apply, and what I have to say.
And that's when Ellen's alarm clock goes off.
I feel her shift in the bed under me - the bunk bed is a little rickety - and smack her hand down on the clock. But she isn't hitting snooze - she sits up, stretches, and stands.
I immediately fast forward to the middle of my "plan of attack" - look at the smartest students in school, and act like them. The two smartest students in school, in my opinion, are my roommate Ellen, and my student council-mate Minnie. So, despite the fact that I'm desperately tired, I get up and climb down the slatted side of the bunk beds.
"Morning," Ellen says, yawning. "You don't have to get up, I just wanted an early start today."
"Oh, yeah. Me too," I say, not entirely convincingly. "What have you got today?"
"Blue," she says. "You?"
"Same." I'd eagerly searched our available schedules yesterday to determine whether our courses had been expanded this year, but found that we had the same five choices per day, between red, blue, green, black and white magic. No history, no literature, and definitely no science. So I'd dithered over the five courses, but in the end, picked the course that had turned out to become my favorite last year.
And besides, I think, I might as well get used to him not teaching as fast as I can.
Moving quietly, so as not to wake Virginia, Ellen and I gather our things and make our way to the bathroom down the hall. It's early enough that it's not crowded with fellow students getting ready for the day. Only one girl - Pastel, Minnie Cochran's roommate - is standing before a mirror drying her hair with a breeze spell, twisting the pale pink strands around her fingers so they curl. The tips of her diaphanous wings ripple slightly in the gusts of air.
"Morning," says Ellen to Pastel, who murmurs something noncommittal back. But when Pastel sees me walking by in the mirror, she becomes much more lively.
"Eliza!" she says, not taking her eyes off the mirror, but looking at my reflection. "I heard your husband's not teaching this year - is that right?"
"Yeah," I say, not bothering to wish her a good morning, and trying to hurry past to the shower. But Pastel isn't letting me escape so easily. She finally steps away from the mirror and into my path, blocking it.
"Shouldn't you be over in Butterfly?" I ask. It's a little odd to be seeing Pastel in the Horse Hall bathroom.
"Too crowded," she sniffs. "Freshmen took all the mirrors. I figured none of the Horse Hall girls'd be up yet - no offense, but looking nice for the first day of school isn't exactly a Horse Hall priority?"
"None taken," I say, in a chilly tone of voice that implies the opposite, but that Pastel completely ignores.
"So what happened with Grabby?" Pastel asks. "Are you divorced or what?"
"Nothing happened, just his dad died, so he had to move back to England," I say, feeding Pastel the same line I'd fed to Ellen and Virginia when we'd arrived at school yesterday.
Once again, I'd arrived at Iris later than fellow roommates, largely due to the fact that Ellen had apparently ridden up with the Dansons, with whom she'd been staying for the month of August as a break from her summer studying at Iris. Both Ellen and Virginia had greeted me enthusiastically, with stories about the fun Ellen had had in Massachusetts. I'd listened, forcing myself to keep a smile, but I couldn't help being a little jealous - after all, I hadn't been invited, and it's not exactly easy to listen to tales of your two best friends having fun without you.
When Ellen had wound down from recounting berry picking expeditions, fishing trips and picnics in the local park, I'd said "sounds like fun."
Ellen must have noticed the slightly strained tone in my voice, because she immediately colored. "We should have a picnic, the three of us - maybe in the courtyard, before it gets cold! What do you think, Virginia?"
Virginia had turned from where she'd been unpacking a full extra suitcase of snacks, and gave me an unreadable look. "Sure," she'd said, "long as Eliza's not going to spend all her weekends with Grabby again this year."
"O-oh," I'd stuttered in surprise. "Well - I mean - he's not actually - he's not teaching this year."
"What?" Ellen had said, eyes wide, and Virginia had dropped a tube of cookies to stare at me in shock.
"His dad died," I'd explained sheepishly, "so he moved back to England to, like, take care of stuff."
"What stuff?" Ellen had asked, but she was drowned out by Virginia giving a whoop.
"No more Grabby!" Virginia exclaimed. "Sweet!" I had pretended to laugh at Virginia's glee, and had pretended not to have heard Ellen's question. After that - to my relief - the conversation had moved on.
Through my sleepless night, I'd thought about confiding to Ellen and Virginia the events of my strange week over the summer, but in the end I had decided that the entire series of events had been too personal for me to relate to any of my fellow students. And besides, it's possible that even if I had just told my roommates, one of them might have let the story slip - not out of malice, but from a momentary lapse. That's how the story of my marriage got out in the first place, though the culprit had been Minnie rather than Ellen or Virginia. Still, the consequences of that slip had been so dire for me that I now think twice - no, more than twice, multiple times - about telling anyone something I want kept secret from the school at large. And considering that Pastel had been an integral part of the secret getting out, there's no way I'm telling her anything more than the most basic facts.
"His dad dying doesn't sound like nothing," says Pastel, but her interest is waning since the answer to her question wasn't some choice piece of gossip. Her eyes stray back to the mirror.
I shrug. "That's all I know about it," I lie.
"Well, I hope the new teacher's at least good looking," says Pastel, stepping back to finish her hair, and leaving me to dash to the shower stall next to the one in which Ellen has entered and drawn the curtain. By the time I finish washing and drying myself off, Pastel is gone, but a queue of girls has formed for the showers. I hurry back to my room to finish getting ready.
Once I'm finished and dressed in my uniform, and tucking my new Intermediate Blue Magic textbook into my bag, Ellen has already parked herself at her desk, and is reviewing a section of her own textbook.
"I read the first ten chapters over the summer," she says, frowning, "I hope that's enough for whoever's taking over."
Just great - I'm already off to a bad start, not having read even a single chapter of our textbook yet. "It might be Professor Potsdam," I suggest. Professor Potsdam is a pretty lenient teacher, who always allows her students to ask for help and re-do assignments - except for exams. Professor Grabiner, on the other hand, had been extremely strict and had no patience for excuses about who had or hadn't read what part of a given assignment.
"Maybe," says Ellen, "but she teaches sophomore white, green and black too - it seems like a lot of work to have to take over all five classes at once for both years."
"I guess," I agree. It's no good speculating about it, anyway. Whatever new teacher we have, we'll have to get used to his, her or es teaching style soon enough. I wait for Ellen to pack her things.
"Should we wake up Virginia?" I ask, glancing at our roommate, who's still sound asleep in bed.
"I think she's taking gym today," says Ellen. Figures - gym is Virginia's favorite class, particularly since it isn't strictly scheduled, allowing for a chance to sleep in. "Now that William's graduated," Ellen says, "she said she gets to slack off a little this year."
"Okay," I say, resigned. "I guess we should go."
Ellen and I make our way first to the cafeteria, where I'm too nervous to eat anything. I suck down a cup of coffee, and then head down the hall to the row of classrooms. We enter the one that had once been Professor Grabiner's. It's been stripped of his crammed bookshelf, and the desk is empty of his inkpot collection. It all looks depressingly clean, devoid of my husband's prickly personality. A number of students have already taken their places, so Ellen and I are forced to sit in the front of the room. As we pass the second row, Minnie Cochran - sitting next to Pastel - gives me a quick wave. I wave back, and give her a small smile. I need to track her down later, to talk to her about our fundraising plan for next week's freshman initiation.
Once Ellen and I settle into our desks, Ellen takes out her book and begins reviewing chapters, so I do the same. I start at the beginning of the book, but get a little lost before I reach the end of the first paragraph.
Blue magic, it says,the magic of transformation and change, of transmogrification and transmutation. In this Intermediate text, you will continue your instruction in the art of transforming physical objects, and transmogrifying spells of other colors in order to adjust their effect. Special care should be taken to ensure that each nuance of every particular spell is...
Uch. Boring. I hope our actual instruction turns out to be a little more interesting than this. I glance up at the clock on the wall - it's a minute past nine, when class is supposed to begin. No instructor has entered the classroom yet, and I begin to wonder whether we're going to have a class after all. I turn back to my book.
...properly categorized and accounted for, leaving nothing to chance. The delicate symbiosis of each particular spell has its own...
"Good morning, students," says a low voice from the back or the room, and all of us turn in our desks to view the speaker. I start, and then stare, only realizing after what feels like a full minute that my mouth is hanging open. But then, I'm not the only one - all of the other students are also gawking at the figure who's just entered the room.
It's a man - or at least, a person who gives the appearance of being a man - who is almost, but not quite, exactly the opposite of Hieronymous Grabiner.
He's as tall as Professor Grabiner is - possibly taller. And he's thin. But there, the similarities end. Professor Grabiner is not exactly the sort of person that most people would consider handsome, what with his shaggy black hair, hawk nose, and hooded eyes. This man is not just handsome, he's - well, he's beautiful. He has dark, bronze skin and a head of silvery-white hair that might or might not be due to age. It's impossible to tell how old he is, given the serene expression on his unlined, even features - again, almost the opposite of the constantly irritated expression that Professor Grabiner had displayed in his time at Iris. As the man approaches the front of the room I can see that his eyes are a startlingly deep shade of indigo.
As he passes the rows of students, everyone's head swivels to follow him to the front of the room. Most of the girls - and the guys - are looking very dreamy, and Pastel is practically salivating onto her desk. The new instructor takes his place before the blackboard, right in front of Ellen and me.
"I am Professor Terrec," he says, "and I will be instructing you in the ways of blue magic today." He doesn't have an accent exactly, but there's something about the way he pronounces the words that doesn't quite seem American - just a slight lilt that I can't quite place. "I understand you are the sophomore class?" He lifts the phrase at the end, but it isn't exactly a question. "Then, please, who can tell me how the magic of transformation is used to effect travel between physical spaces, a process colloquially known as teleportation?"
The air next to me is displaced as Ellen shoots her hand into the hair. I look back and see Minnie has raised her hand too.
"Yes?" Professor Terrec says, taking a small book from one pocket and leafing through it. "Miss... Middleton?"
"Blue magic is not only used to shift and transform physical objects," says Ellen, "but planes of space, allowing physical objects to travel from one plane to another almost instantaneously, so long as those planes in space are relatively close together. And on a molecular level -"
"On a what?" asks Professor Terrec, very quietly, but it's enough to send Ellen stammering. And no wonder - Ellen's answer was sounding very, well, science-y.
"Uh - I just meant -" starts Ellen, but Professor Terrec waves her off.
"Your answer was correct, Miss Middleton, thank you. Now who can tell me why blue magic is most effective when paired with black magic as compared to other colors of magic?"
This is an easy one, so although it's against my instinct, I raise my hand. Look at the smartest kids in school, and act like them, I remind myself. I hold my breath, waiting for Professor Terrec to choose.
His indigo eyes fall on me, then, and he says "Miss..." He flips through his book, then pauses, his serene expression falling into a frown. "Lady Montague?" he says. He glances back up to me, distaste creeping onto his features.
I start, the answer I was about to give stopping in my throat, choking me. Lady Montague is technically my title now that my husband is a viscount, but I hadn't thought that anyone at school would even think to call me by it. There's only one person who knows, and who'd be flip enough to insert it in the school register - Professor Potsdam. I grit my teeth as someone behind me snickers.
"It's a mistake," I say, my voice cracking. "I'm just Eliza. Moon." It's a struggle not to drop my eyes, but with a supreme effort, I keep them raised.
"This is not your title?" Professor Terrec asks, a bit of fuzziness in the "r" of "your." Another snicker, louder this time. What do I say? Yes, it's my title, and I don't want to lie, but I don't want anyone calling me Lady Montague either.
"Just Eliza Moon, please," is what I finally say, and my voice drops to a whisper at the end of it. I can't keep my eyes up any longer either; I stare at my open book instead.
"Then," says Professor Terrec, "Miss..." He pauses, and I freeze. "Cochran?"
Minnie rattles off the answer to Professor Terrec's earlier question, and with consternation, I hear her say, basically, what I would have, if I'd had the chance to answer.
"Because both blue and black magic are the most effective types of magic to use on physical objects," says Minnie, "their compatibility is enhanced."
She says it more elegantly than I would have, but I'm still furious and dismayed that I hadn't been given the chance to answer. I would have gotten it right, I think, over and over as class continues. I would have gotten it right if he hadn't - if he'd let me-
I barely hear another word of whatever lecture Professor Terrec gives on blue magic, so consumed am I with anger and embarrassment. When he releases class for lunch, I'm the first to shove my book into my bag and stalk up the aisle to the door. But I pause once, unable to help myself, and look back, to see Professor Terrec staring after me, looking thoughtful and - unless I'm imagining it - still with an expression of distaste.
Great, I think, my first day of school and already the new professor hates me. And then another thought, unbidden, but no less upsetting for that - I'd better not end up married to him, too.