Keeper of the Lost Cities, Page 11Shannon Messenger
Dex smiled, flashing deep dimples. “I like strange. Hey, do you—”
The door burped again.
“You!” A tall woman in a dark green cape stalked through the store, pushing past Sophie and Edaline. A beanpole of a girl in a hooded pink cloak dragged behind.
“What’s wrong now, Vika?” Kesler asked with obvious annoyance.
“Ask your son. This has his handiwork written all over it.” She whipped the hood down from the girl’s head, revealing a shiny bald scalp underneath.
Edaline, Sophie, and Kesler gasped at the same time. Dex, meanwhile, seemed to be trying very hard not to smile. “Hey, Stina. Did you change something? ’Cause you look different today. Wait, don’t tell me. . . .”
“Mom!” Stina growled.
Kesler’s cheeks twitched, like he was battling a laugh. “We don’t sell any balding solutions here, Vika.”
“Just because you don’t sell them doesn’t mean you don’t make them,” she insisted.
Kesler glanced at Dex.
“You know how to make them too,” Dex reminded him.
“I know it was you, you stupid sasquatch!” Stina screamed.
Dex rolled his eyes and pointed to a spot behind her ear. “Did you know you have a dent in your skull right there?”
Sophie bit back a laugh as Stina lunged for him in a flurry of bony appendages.
“That’s enough!” Kesler shouted, pulling them apart. “Control your daughter, Vika.”
“Why should I? It’s not like you control your children.”
Kesler looked like he wanted to throttle her, but instead he gritted his teeth and said, “We have Hairoids in stock. Take some on the house, and she’ll have her hair back in a week.”
“A week?” Stina wailed. “I can’t go to school looking like . . . like . . .”
“Like an ogre?” Dex suggested with a wicked grin.
“If my daughter misses any days of school because of your son, I will make sure he is held responsible,” Vika yelled.
“You can’t prove anything,” Dex grumbled.
“I won’t need to. They’d expect nothing less from a bad match!”
Kesler’s friendly features twisted with obvious rage, and he needed several deep breaths before he spoke. Sophie didn’t know what a “bad match” was, but it must be a heavy insult.
“Okay, here’s what we’re going to do,” Kesler practically spat. “You two are going to get out of my sight, and when I finish helping these customers, I’ll see if I can make the Hairoids more potent. If I can’t, wear a hat.”
Vika stared him down, but he didn’t flinch. “I guess we have no choice. It’s not like anyone else would waste their lives making ridiculous medicines in a useless shop.”
“If it’s so useless, why does everyone buy from me?” Kesler countered.
Vika couldn’t seem to find a retort. So she threw the hood back over Stina’s head and dragged her toward the door.
“I’ll get you for this,” Stina promised Dex.
“Oooh, I’m really scared.”
Stina’s bitter eyes focused on Sophie. “What are you looking at?”
Sophie looked away. “Nothing.”
The door burped again, then slammed.
Kesler pounded his fist against the table, making everyone jump. “Do I want to know what that was all about, Dex?”
Kesler sighed. “You need to be more careful, Dex. You know how some people feel about our family—especially Vika and Timkin Logner.”
“Well,” Edaline said quietly, “this store hardly helps the situation. Perhaps if you made it more traditional—”
“Absolutely not,” Kesler interrupted. “Nothing brings me more joy than watching all the stuffy nobles squirm in here.”
“Just like nothing makes me happier than a shiny bald Stina,” Dex added, grinning.
Kesler couldn’t help laughing. “Well, Dex, since you made the mess, you get to tweak the Hairoids. I need to help Edaline with Elwin’s list.”
Dex scowled and stalked off to collect the supplies from the back. He returned a few seconds later with an armful of vials and spread them on the worktable with a sneaky smile. “This will make her hair grow faster,” he whispered to Sophie. “But it’ll also give her a beard.”
Sophie giggled, and made a mental note never to get on Dex’s bad side. “What did that girl do to you?”
“She’s just evil,” he said as he ground black leaves with a mortar and pestle. “Trust me.”
EDALINE DISAPPEARED TO HER ROOM when they returned to Havenfield, and Grady tried to teach Sophie how to light leap alone. She’d never been so horrible at anything in her life.
The first twenty times she tried, she couldn’t feel the warm feathers—no matter how many times Grady told her to concentrate on the tingle in her cells. After that she couldn’t hold on long enough to do anything except break out in a full body sweat from the heat.
On attempt fifty-seven she finally made a solo leap to the other side of the property. She completed the next five in a row and felt ready to collapse, so she wanted to cry with relief when Grady announced she’d practiced enough. But when he checked her nexus, he frowned.
He pointed to the gray rectangle, which displayed only a sliver of blue. “That means your concentration is at ten percent. Everyone your age is at least at thirty percent by now.”
Yeah, and they’d been light leaping their whole lives—but she chose not to point that out. She didn’t want Grady to think she was difficult. “I’m trying as hard as I can.”
“I know,” Grady said, worrying the edge of his tunic with his hands. “But I don’t think you have any idea what you’re up against. Alden told me Bronte doesn’t want you at Foxfire, which means he’ll be watching you like a hawk. He’ll check with your Mentors. He’ll monitor your tests. And at the first sign of weakness, he’ll step in and try to have you expelled. I wouldn’t be surprised if he pushes for you to be transferred to Exillium—and let’s just say it’s somewhere you don’t want to go.”
She nodded, swallowing a mouthful of bile. If she hadn’t been freaked out about starting Foxfire before, she was now.
How was she supposed to pass when she was so far behind?
Grady forced a smile. “I know you’re struggling to adjust and have a ton to learn, but you’re going to have to push yourself as hard as you can. And I promise I’ll help you every way I can. Edaline will too.”
A flash of light pulled her out of her mounting panic attack, and two people appeared a few feet up the path. She recognized Dex from Slurps and Burps, and the woman he was with resembled Edaline, except her hair was messy and her yellow gown was wrinkled and plain.
“Had to come see for yourself, Juline?” Grady asked.
“I’m allowed to visit my sister, aren’t I?” she asked, her eyes riveted to Sophie.
Grady laughed. “Where’s the rest of the family?”
“Home with Kesler. I didn’t want to overwhelm you.”
“And maybe you wanted time to gossip without interruption?” Grady teased. “Sophie, why don’t you show Dex your room? I have a feeling the girls have a lot of talking to do.”
SOPHIE HAD NO IDEA WHAT to do with Dex. She’d never had a friend before—much less a boy—much less an elf. Dex seemed pretty comfortable, though. He wandered her room, touching everything that caught his interest. He thought her human clothes were hilarious, and was even more excited when he found the scrapbook she’d hidden on the bookshelf.
“Hey, is that you?” he asked, pointing to the photo mounted to the cover.
Sophie’s eyes stung as she glanced at the picture. Her dad and sister waved at the camera while she hid in the background building a sand castle. “Yeah. That was last summer.”
“Is that your dad?”
“Yeah. Well—um—that’s the guy who raised me,” she corrected, blinking away the tears that had formed. It was going to be hard to get used to saying that. But she had to. She wasn’t his daughter. He didn’t even know she existed anymore.
Dex frowned. “What happened to them?”
“I’m not allowed to know.” She couldn’t keep the sadness out of her voice. As much as she didn’t want it to matter, it was hard not knowing where they were or how they were doing.
“Sorry.” He shuffled his feet. “Do you want to talk about it?”
“Not really.” She wasn’t sure she was ready to look through the scrapbook, but Dex already had it open and was flipping through the pages. She hoped there weren’t any naked baby pictures in there.
“Why did you take your picture with a guy in a giant mouse suit? Actually—better question: Why would anyone wear a giant mouse suit?”
“We’re at Disneyland.”
His head snapped up. “I have my own land?”
“My last name is Dizznee.”
She laughed. “I’m pretty sure it’s a coincidence.”
He squinted at the picture. “Are you wearing fairy wings?”
“Okay, I think we’ve had enough fun with the photos.” She pulled the scrapbook away from him before he found anything else to make fun of.
“Sorry. I just can’t get over it. I mean, I’ve never seen a human, in real life. And you lived with them.” He shook his head. “How come you live with Grady and Edaline? Are you related to them?”
Her jaw tightened. “I’m not related to anyone.”
“You’re alive. You must have parents.”
She shook her head. “My real parents didn’t want me to know who they are, so as far as I’m concerned, they don’t exist.”
Dex didn’t seem to know what to say to that. Honestly, she didn’t either.
“Hey, this is one of those music things,” he said, picking up her iPod.
“Yeah. How did you know?”
“My mom’s into human movies. She doesn’t have many, but one of them had one of these things in it, and I’ve always wanted to see one. We don’t have anything like them.”
“Really? Why not?”
“Elves aren’t really musical—not like dwarves. They have some awesome music.” He slid his fingers across the screen. “It’s dead.”
“No outlets here. No way to charge it.”
Dex flipped it over. “I don’t know much about human technology, but I bet I could make it solar powered.”
“Well, I can give it a try.” He slipped it into his pocket and went over to her desk, rifling through all her Foxfire stuff. He scanned her schedule. “Sir Conley’s pretty cool, I hear. But good luck with Lady Galvin. She has the highest fail rate of any Mentor—ever. I’m pretty sure she failed her last prodigy a few weeks ago.”
Sophie’s heart slammed so hard she was surprised it didn’t punch through her chest. Were they trying to make her fail? She wouldn’t put it past Bronte to rig her schedule.
But . . . this was school. She’d always been great at school.
She took a deep, calming breath.
“Hey, I could help you find your way around tomorrow,” Dex offered.
Relief flooded through her. She wouldn’t have to do this alone. Except . . .
“You wouldn’t mind being seen with the weird new girl with the weird brown eyes and the weird human past?”
“Are you kidding? I can’t wait to tell everyone you were my friend first.”
She smiled. “We’re friends?”
“Yeah. I mean—if you want to be.”
Dex’s smile widened, flashing his deep dimples. “Cool. I’ll see you tomorrow morning.”
SOPHIE WAS STILL TRYING TO FIGURE OUT which of the strange gadgets from Della were school supplies when the chimes rang. Dex had arranged to meet her at Havenfield so she wouldn’t have to arrive at Foxfire alone.
She laughed as she let him inside. “And I thought my uniform was bad.”
She couldn’t believe she had to be seen in a blue pleated skirt with black leggings and shirt-vest-cape combo. Dex’s was worse, though. The blue lace-up jerkin over a black long-sleeved shirt and blue slacks with pockets at the ankles wasn’t so bad. But the waist-length cape made him look like a really lame superhero—Captain Blueberry to the rescue!
“What’s with the capes?” she asked.
“I know, they’re stupid, right? But they’re a sign of status, so we have to wear them.”
“Yeah, haven’t you noticed that only the nobility have them? Foxfire is the only noble school—meaning you have to go there in order to be in the nobility—so we wear half capes to demonstrate that. At least next year we get rid of the wimpy halcyon.” He pulled on the blue, jeweled bird that clasped the cape against his neck. “We’ll be mastodons.”
He laughed when he caught her confused expression. “Each grade level has a mascot. Level Two is a halcyon, these dumb birds that can sense when a storm is coming. But Level Three is a mastodon, so at the opening ceremonies on the first day of school we get to dress in these cool elephant costumes. Be glad you missed wearing the halcyon costume. We looked like idiots.”
Dressing like an elephant didn’t sound nearly as appealing as Dex seemed to think, but she’d worry about that next year. Assuming she was allowed to stay at Foxfire.
One problem at a time, she reminded herself.
“Hey, you’re wearing the Ruewen crest,” Dex said, pointing to the triangle patch sewn where her cape hung over her heart: a scarlet eagle soaring with a white rose in its talons. His patch was square and looked like a bunch of chemistry equipment twisted into a tree. “We wear our family’s crest on our uniform. If Grady and Edaline are letting you wear theirs, they must be serious. Are they adopting you?”
“I don’t know.” She’d never thought about adoption—she was still getting used to the idea of being an orphan.
What if they didn’t adopt her?
Everything in her life was so temporary. Her enrollment at Foxfire. Her home. It felt like any second it could all be ripped away.
“Where are they, anyway?” Dex asked, looking around.
“A gnome ran in during breakfast and yelled something about a manticore stinging a stegosaurus, and they both ran off.”
“And people say my parents are weird.”
“It’s pretty crazy here. But they seem nice enough.”
“Grady and Edaline? Oh yeah, they’re great. They keep to themselves a lot because of what happened to Jolie. I never knew them before it happened, but my mom said they used to throw these huge parties everyone looked forward to all year. Now they never leave the house. So weird.”
Sophie shrugged. “A lot of people are never the same after someone they love dies.”
“Yeah.” She started to ask why he seemed surprised, but then she remembered what Alden had explained about the elvin life span. Death was probably a rare thing in this world. Which must make it even harder for the few elves who’d had to cope with it.
“My mom thinks it’ll be good for them having you around,” Dex told her. “Maybe they’ll get over it.”
She wasn’t sure they would ever get over it, but his words calmed her panic. If she was good for them, maybe they’d want to keep her. She did understand what they were feeling—maybe better than most other elves.
“Hey, wait a minute,” she said, frowning. “How do you know about adoption? I’m guessing you don’t get a lot of orphans around here.”
“We don’t,” Dex agreed. “We had a big drama a few years back—some kid named
Wylie whose dad was exiled had his mom die too. Something broke her concentration while she was leaping and she faded away, I guess. I don’t know much, just that Sir Tiergan adopted him and retired from Foxfire.”
“Sir Tiergan—the telepathy Mentor?”
“Yeah. Wait—how do you know about him?”
“Uh, Alden mentioned him,” she mumbled, trying to recover. She’d forgotten to pretend she had no connection to Tiergan.
“Oh yeah, he hates Alden. Blames him for the dad being exiled or something. But I might be remembering wrong. Wylie’s a few years older than me, so I’ve never met him or anything. You ready to go?”
She slipped her satchel over her head. “Yep. How do we get there?”
He led her up to the cupola and pointed to hundreds of crystals hanging in a round chandelier. “The Leapmaster 500. You’re lucky. My parents aren’t nobility, so they’re only authorized to have the 250—it’s missing tons of cool places. Foxfire!” he shouted.
The crystals rotated until one lowered, casting a beam of light toward the ground.
“You ready?” he asked.
She wasn’t. But she forced a smile across her lips, took a deep breath, and let the warm feathers whisk through her and pull her away to her first day at Foxfire.
“THAT’S A SCHOOL?” SOPHIE ASKED, trying to make sense of the bizarre structure spread before them.
A five-story glass pyramid towered over everything from its place in the center of a wide stone courtyard. The main building wrapped around the pyramid in a sharply angled U and was made entirely of stained glass. Six towers—each a different color—separated the wings, and a seventh tower—another Leapmaster—stood in the center, taller than the others.
To the left sat a domed amphitheater and two smaller buildings, all built from the same glowing stones as the castle Fitz had shown her in Lumenaria. To the right, two giant towers, one gold and one silver, twisted around one another. Combined with extensive fields of purple grass, the place seemed more like a small city than a school, and Sophie tried not to imagine how hopelessly lost she would be.
Dex led her into the bottom floor of the glass pyramid, which was packed with prodigies in uniforms the same colors as the building’s six towers. All hope of finding Fitz faded when she saw the chaos, and Sophie ducked behind Dex, hoping no one would notice her.