Authors: Lili St. Crow
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Copyright © 2014 Lili St. Crow
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
HE GIRL IN THE WATER.
If she isn’t dead, she soon will be. Limp and boneless, she makes herself as heavy as possible. Blue ice and green slime closing overhead, crackling and creaking as it shudders and grinds. Fickle and loyal at once, the ice numbs her while it obeys her enemy’s raging shrieks.
She always knew she’d drown. The dream comes back several nights in a row, then hides for a while. Just when she starts to relax, it jumps her again. The ice stinging every inch of flesh, her shoes too heavy, sodden clothes dragging her away from hurtful air and into grateful numbness.
A splash, a scream, and frozen water shatters above her. She is sinking fast; the oddest part is how it doesn’t hurt. Her lungs burn, but it is a faraway sensation, disconnected. All she has to do is choke, and it will be over. The water will rush in, suffocation will start. Already blackness is creeping around the corners of her vision. This far down the water is darker, full night instead of dusk, and there is a shadow over her.
Fingers wrap in her hair, and now is the time to struggle. Because if the monster pulls her out of the water she’ll have to go on living in hell, and that she will not endure. There’s a single route of escape. All she has to do is blow the air out, watch the silver bubbles cascade up. Icy water will flood past the stone in her throat, fill lungs and heart and every empty part of her, and there will be darkness.
In that darkness, peace.
The hand in her hair gives a terrific yank, a spike of scalped pain spearing her skull, dragging her toward the surface of hell once more . . .
. . . then, she wakes up.
LLEN SINDER SLID DOWN FURTHER IN HER SEAT,
Superior Heloise Endless Grace’s office suddenly, painfully bright. Her eyelids wanted to fall down to protect the vulnerable bits behind them. Her arms crossed tight over her midsection, holding everything in. Her bare knees were bruised and scabbed, and the tinkling silver luckcharms tied to the straps of her battered but polished maryjanes—Cami said she had extra, as usual, and so onto the straps they went—hushed themselves. They wouldn’t work inside the school, but they were still nice to have. Sort of comforting.
Mithrus knew she could use all the comfort she could get. This was going to end badly, she could just feel it.
her stepmother showed up, inside or outside the house, it ended badly for Ellie nowadays.
“I am afraid the decision isn’t yours to make.” Golden electric light made the Strepmother’s frosted blonde mane a sterile sunburst, and today she was wearing the van Clifs, their spike heels laced with surestep and glittercharms. She’d chosen the eggplant-colored Auberme suit with its forgiving cut since her middle had started to thicken, charmfiber woven into the fabric twinkling a little as she moved. The Strep continued, pitilessly, in that honeyed voice she used to get her way with other adults. “I am her legal guardian, and as such—”
“Ah, yes.” Mother Heloise’s broad pale moonface, framed by her black and white habit, was, as usual, slightly damp. She really looked like a peeled, oiled, hard-boiled egg. Pale and shiny. “Guardianship. It appears Mr. Sinder—Mithrus bless and watch over him—was
clear.” A bovine nod, her jaw working slightly. “The conditions of your guardianship are stringent, madam. And one of them is little Ellen’s continuation at and graduation from both this school and Ebermerle Charmcollege.” A beatific, moronic grin spread the Mithrus nun’s ruddy lips, and if you were an idiot you might miss the sharp intelligence in her small, dark eyes. “We have a copy of the will on file, and Mr. Sinder’s wishes are quite, quite plain. Yes. Quite plain.”
I didn’t know about that
. It was just like Dad to have things set up, but he’d always underestimated his second wife. Once Laurissa Choquefort-Sinder got her head together with another lawyer, the trust Ellie’s father had left would either be drained or so tangled up in the legal system it wouldn’t help Ell at all.
Still, it was nice to know he’d thought about it. Ebermerle was
college for charmers; if you didn’t apprentice with a clan or a powerful charmer you
to have a degree to get licensed.
Good luck getting apprenticed with the Strep feuding with half the charmers in town. Charmers were a picky, jealous bunch anyway, and the Strep was an outsider in more ways than one. She’d been tolerated because she was powerful enough to produce a trademark Sigil, that fiery symbol of two high-heeled shoes Ellie sometimes saw in her nightmares.
Well, and also because Dad had been an inter-province lawyer, and you didn’t want one of
mad at you. He’d loved Laurissa, at least at first.
If Ell’s stepmother took her out of St. Juno’s Academy, it would be time to put the Plan into action. Hanging around the stone house on Perrault Street all day with the Strep screaming at the slightest thing was not, as Ruby would say, even
to copacetic. Neither was charming bolts and bolts of cloth into high-priced couture, or pairs and pairs of footwear that would bear Laurissa’s trademark, added after Ell did the charming—which she never saw a penny of, really, but at least right now she could escape to Juno.
Both Rube and Cami would be wondering what was going on. She’d been called out of High Charm Calculus, which was normally a blessing, but as soon as she’d entered the office of Juno’s Mother Superior and smelled the Strep’s burnt-cedar anger, her stomach had rolled over and given that same sick thump.
“There are much
—schools.” The Strep was trying, Ellie had to give her that. She didn’t give up easy, especially when it came to something that would likely give Ell a lot of pain.
It didn’t use to be like that. For a while after Dad had brought Laurissa home, she’d been the picture of patience and girl talk. Ellie still squirmed inside, thinking of how pathetically grateful she’d been for all that attention.
“Oh, certainly. No doubt.” The Mother nodded. If she was insulted, she gave no indication; St. Juno’s was
high-finish school for New Haven’s ruling or charm-blessed families. At least the mere-human ones. “But we must obey Mr. Sinder’s final wishes, Mithrus bless and keep him.”
The Strepmother tried gamely once more. “The question of payment—”
“—was addressed by the estate.” Mother Heloise nodded again, a slow, ruminating nod. “The will is
clear.” Now her head came up, and her small, close-set eyes too. There was a gleam in her gaze, but her plump hands had not moved from their quiescence, folded under where her breasts would be—if she had any under the black and white habit. You could tell
about Magdala nuns, but not Mithraic Sisters. Sexless and billowy was the ticket for them.
Maybe that was why they were teachers.
“Quite, quite clear.” Mother Heloise smiled broadly, blandly, and the exotic sight of the Strep struck speechless would have warmed Ellie all the way through if she didn’t know who would end up catching hell for this embarrassment.
And how much it was likely to hurt.
Her stepmother rose, the spike heels grinding into tired linoleum and their sparkcharms crackling. “Ellen. We are
Mother Heloise had different ideas. “Little Ellen needs to run along back to class.” She beamed at said little Ellen, beatifically. “Such a lovely child she is, and
talented. But she is accident-prone, isn’t she? All those bruises and scrapes.”
. Ellie’s mouth was dry as baked charmglass. Her arms cramped, she was holding herself so tightly.
The Strep’s Potential flashed, and for a moment Ell was sure she was going to have one of her raging fits. A Sigiled charmer was nobody to mess with, and Mrs. Laurissa V. Choquefort-Sinder was at the top of her field even if she was an outsider in New Haven, a high-priced
haute couturière amulette
with taloned fingernails and enough Potential to burn down a house.
Even if she did have Ellie doing most of the work that made her famous, now.
If Laurissa did snap a curse at Mother Heloise, maybe the school’s defenses—built to keep nasty nonhuman or barely human things away from vulnerable Potential-carrying adolescent girls, as well as to keep said girls from relentlessly pranking teachers and each other—would wake, and turn even a Sigiled charmer into a pile of ash.
Wouldn’t that be a sight.
Ellen’s breath came high and short.
Oh, please. Please.
The office, its dark scarred wainscoting and tired chipped paint comfortable instead of shabby, grew still and oppressively close. The lightbulb overhead fizzled a little, despite the damper on it. Potential was funny around electricity; even the Great Tesla hadn’t figured out why the two things, seemingly so similar, had such weird effects on each other.
When Laurissa finally spoke, each word was chipped from a block of ice. “What. Are you. Saying?” Dangerously calm.
Ellie waited for the ancient file cabinets to start shivering and Mother Heloise’s heavy desk to shift itself a fraction or two. Her throat was full of scorching-hot liquid, even though she hadn’t had anything but an apple for lunch.
The overhead fixture swung slightly, the air turned hard as glass, and the Strep dropped back into her chair, one beribboned, high-heeled van Clif shoe slipping almost off her bony foot despite a carefully applied stickcharm. She frankly
at Mother Heloise, who appeared not to notice her sudden movement.
“Bruises and scrapes, yes.” The Mithrus nun nodded, mumbling a little. Then her sharp little eyes focused on Ellie again. “We must watch our Juno girls carefully in this dangerous world. Miss Sinder, you run along to High Charm Calculus now. Wouldn’t do to miss the rest of class.”
Her joints creaking, Ellie stood up. Slowly, she shuffled for the door, her skirt moving just above her knees, wool scratching. Her blazer was threadbare, but at least she had the luckcharms and the super-thin hairbands that were
this year. Her maryjanes were gloss-shining, too, because Ellie charmed them herself.
“She’s normally so shy,” Mother Heloise continued, pitilessly. “Doesn’t say a word about home, dear little girl that she is. But teachers, especially we Sisters, bless us in Mithrus’s name, notice things. Little things, Mrs. Sinder.”
Ellie twisted the chunk of crystal glass laden with suppressive charms that served as a doorknob and ducked her head as she went through. Sister Amalia Peace-of-Ages, spare and bone-thin in her habit, was nodding over an ancient typewriter, a Babbage screen glowing at eye level on her scarred, ancient wooden desk. More frowning wooden file cabinets and an ancient milkglass window separated her from the hallway, and Ellie almost managed to get past before Sister Amalia croaked, “Hall pass, Miss Sinder.”
“Y-yes.” She wiped at her cheeks, hitching her bag’s knotted strap higher on her shoulder. “High Charm Calc. Lower sixth—”
“—form, yes.” The typewriter clacked, and the deathly silence from behind the Mother’s heavy door wasn’t helping anything at all. What else was Mother Hel saying? What would Laurissa do? Smooth it over, she was good at that.
good, at least with adults.
She’s going to kill me.
Ellie wiped at her cheeks again.
Probably as soon as I get home today.
“Fifteen minutes,” Sister Amalia said, finally, tearing the pink slip viciously from the typewriter and tapping it with one bony finger. The crackle of a small anti-alteration charm popped off her nail and settled into the thin rosy paper. “Class ends in twenty, dearie. Use the water closet in Third Hall.” She turned back to the Babbage’s glowing screen, and Ellie’s throat closed. She wiped at her cheeks again, and the urge to kick the Sister’s desk rattled around inside her like the buckle of the Strep’s special oiled belt tapping against the workroom door.
The Sisters meant well, sure. But Mithrus
, was there going to be a single day in Ellen Sinder’s life when she wasn’t someone’s fucking charity case?
It didn’t help that Sister Amalia was right, and Ellie needed ten minutes in the bathroom in Third Hall before she could march, head high and cheeks dry, back into the droning of High Charm Calculus with the tide of whispers following her.
Ruby’s glory of coppery curls caught the sun and threw it back with a vengeance. She leaned against the black Semprena, her blazer already shucked and the sleeves of her white button-down rolled up to show a clutch of twisted hemp bracelets and smoothly muscled forearms, dusted with gold in the fluid shadow-sunshine. The parking lot around them resounded with chaos as those girls lucky enough to drive home jammed the lanes and honked at each other.
St. Juno’s was paranoid about safety. No riding public transport or walking allowed. You drove or took the small, luxurious buses to your gate—provided you were one of the charm or financial aristocracy attending Juno or the other private schools. Ruby was on file as Cami and Ellie’s driver, and for such a flighty girl she was remarkably consistent when it came to ferrying them to and fro. She even habitually parked underneath the huge willow in the southeast corner of the parking lot, far away from the school but in the shade, so that Cami wouldn’t have to sit in the sun while they waited for the traffic to clear.
Not that it mattered, but it made Cami more comfortable. She had drawn her legs up and sat tailor-fashion on the Semprena’s glossy black hood, her folded hands weighing her skirt decorously down. Her long black hair cloaked her shoulders, and her wide blue eyes were dark and troubled as she studied Ellie for a long moment.
Ruby let out a long, aggrieved sigh, but it was Cami’s turn to talk now, and she liked to have things straight in her head before she let them out into the world. She used to stutter, but ever since winter the words had come more smoothly.
Ellie suppressed a shudder, as if that just-finished winter had returned. Seeing Cami get increasingly nervous and distant, being able to do
about it, and, finally, finding out about Cami’s birth family—the
, an ancient evil with a cracked-up inhuman queen who survived by eating hearts—reaching out to try and steal her away had been pretty goddamn awful. Snow everywhere, the Strep’s increasing violence, the sense of impending doom, and the tunnels under the city, alive with nasty misshapen Potential and hanging with pale lichen—and Cami, lying so still and pale in her hospital bed after they had rescued her.
In the middle of all that, the knock on the door and the news that Dad’s train, bringing him back from another inter-province negotiating session, had derailed out in the Waste. At first, Ellie hadn’t really understood. She’d stupidly, wrongly thought him being gone on business trips every few months was the worst it could get.
It was barely Marus, Marchmonth, but it felt like a lifetime had passed since then. Cami was due for summer school, too, just to catch up.
would be fun for her.
“Mother Hel means well,” Cami finally murmured. “But it’s going to make it h-hell f-for you.”
Ellie ran her fingers back through her hair, the slippery blonde strands clinging. The scab at the back of her scalp twinged a little—she was careful not to break its crust. Hitting the door that hard had been a bad piece of luck, and the Strep had kicked her in the stomach as well. “Yeah.” Trust Cami to put her finger on exactly what Ellie was most worried about.
Camille doesn’t talk much,
Ruby said every once in a while,
but when she does, even Gran listens.