Keeper of the lost citie.., p.12
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       Keeper of the Lost Cities, p.12
 

           Shannon Messenger

  “What are we doing here?” she leaned in and whispered.

  “Every morning starts with orientation. It’s no big deal. Dame Alina—our principal—just reads off any announcements while they take attendance.”

  “How can they take attendance with this many people?”

  He pulled his registry pendant out from under his collar. “They track us with these.”

  Thousands of bells chimed an intricate peal, and everyone faced the far wall, which now showed a close-up of Dame Alina, a stunning beauty with porcelain skin and fragile features.

  She smoothed her caramel-colored hair and pursed her lips. “Good morning, prodigies. First and foremost, whoever put reekrod in my desk over the weekend will— It’s not funny!” she snapped as everyone cracked up. Her eyes narrowed. “Mark my words—whoever it was will be punished to the fullest extent of my abilities.”

  She let the threat dangle before she continued. “Last week we had fourteen prodigies detect special abilities—a new record.” She clapped and everyone joined her. “And—last but not least—where is she? . . . Ah, there!”

  A spotlight focused on Sophie.

  “Everyone, please welcome Sophie Foster—a Level Two prodigy, starting her first day at Foxfire.”

  Every eye turned to look at Sophie. Her name hissed around the room like a viper’s nest. “Ssssssophie.”

  Dame Alina cleared her throat. “Is that how we welcome someone?”

  A second of silence passed before everyone clapped. Sophie looked around for a hole she could crawl into.

  “That’s better,” Dame Alina said. “That concludes today’s announcements. Have a wonderful day!”

  Everyone applauded as Dame Alina flashed a brilliant smile and blinked off the screen. Then all eyes returned to Sophie. The whispering started again.

  “Get me out of here,” she begged Dex.

  He laughed and led her out the nearest exit.

  “I can’t believe that just happened.”

  “It’s not a big deal.”

  “She had to force them to clap, Dex.” She buried her face in her hands.

  “Everyone was just surprised. We’ve never had a prodigy start in the middle of the year.”

  She groaned. Why did she have to be the exception to everything?

  “Just relax. You’ll be fine. Come on.”

  He led her into the main building, which was divided into six different wings by the towers, one wing for each lower grade level. The walls of the Level Two wing were the same blue as her uniform, and the banners bore a halcyon in midflight.

  Dex switched halls so many times Sophie lost count, and she was beyond confused when they entered an enormous quad with glittering crystal trees scattered throughout the room. A statue of a halcyon filled the center, sparkling like it was carved from sapphire instead of stone. Prodigies chatted as they put books and supplies into the narrow doorways lining the walls, but everyone fell silent when they noticed Sophie.

  “Okay, this is the atrium,” Dex explained, ignoring the spectacle they were creating. He checked her schedule and led her toward the far wall, to a door marked with a rune she couldn’t read. “This is your locker. See that silver strip?” He pointed to a shiny mirrored rectangle just underneath the symbol. “Lick it. The lock uses your DNA.”

  “That’s gross.”

  “It tastes good.”

  She doubted that, but she could feel everyone watching her so she licked the silver rectangle. “Mallowmelt?”

  “The faculty picks the flavors. They change every day—but watch out for Elwin’s picks. Last week it was pepper. Made everyone sneeze like crazy.”

  Dex’s locker was two doors down, and a loud croak sounded as he opened the door. Dex yelped and slammed it closed, but the whole room filled with the stench of rotten eggs mixed with morning breath and a dash of dirty diaper.

  “She put a muskog in my locker!” he screamed.

  A high, wheezy snicker erupted behind them.

  They whirled around to face a girl towering over them like a giant stick insect. The girl’s head was covered with a mass of frizzy brown curls, so it took Sophie a minute to recognize her as the bald girl from Slurps and Burps. Two girls stood next to her cackling like evil hags.

  “How did you get in my locker?” Dex demanded, stalking up to Stina’s towering body. His head barely cleared her shoulders.

  “You left it open, idiot. I guess remembering to close doors is too hard for the son of a bad match to remember.”

  Dex ground his teeth. Then his eyes lit up, and he pointed to a row of scraggly hairs along her jaw. “Nice beard you’re growing there. Hope you know how to shave.”

  Stina felt her chin and shrieked. She grabbed Dex by the shirt. “You little—”

  “That’s quite enough, Miss Heks!” a slender woman in a deep blue gown and cape ordered as she stepped through the wall and pulled them apart. “What’s going on here? And what on earth is that smell?”

  “She put a muskog in my locker!” Dex told her.

  “He put balding serum in my lushberry juice on Friday!” Stina retorted.

  The woman shook her head, her long raven hair swishing behind her. “Such behavior—and in front of our new prodigy.” Her almond-shaped eyes darted to Sophie. “I’m sorry you had to see this, my dear.”

  “You just walked through a wall,” was all Sophie could think to say.

  “Phasers do that sometimes.” She turned back to Dex and Stina. “You two should be ashamed of yourselves. Apologize.”

  Dex scowled. Stina glared. But they both mumbled, “Sorry.”

  “You two obviously need time to bond, so you can spend all week together in lunch detention.”

  “But, Lady Alexine—”

  “I don’t want to hear it. Dex, get that muskog out of here before it stinks up the whole place. And, Stina? You seem to have some strange hairs on your chin. You might want to have Elwin check them.”

  Dex cracked up and Stina turned beet red. She covered her beard with her hand and stalked off, followed by her minions. Lady Alexine swept across the atrium, disappearing through the far wall.

  “See what I mean?” Dex asked as he kicked his locker. “She’s evil.”

  Sophie nodded. “What exactly is a muskog?”

  “It’s kinda like a frog, but it burps stinky gas when it’s scared. So you should probably get away from here—unless you want to smell like muskog fumes all day.”

  He didn’t have to tell her twice. She was already the weird new girl. She didn’t need to be the stinky, weird new girl.

  “Hey, you’re the prodigy Dame Alina told us about, right? The new one?” a small boy asked, catching up with her as she set off through the halls. He was a couple of inches shorter than her, with messy brown hair and a very round face.

  “Sophie,” she corrected.

  “I’m Jensi—whoa—you have really weird eyes—cool—anyway—so—everyone wants to talk to you—but they’re all afraid—so I decided to show them how it’s done.”

  “Um . . . thanks,” she said, struggling to keep up with his rapid-fire speech. He talked like he’d had buckets of sugar for breakfast.

  “See, I told you she’d be nice,” he shouted, making several kids around them turn bright red. Sophie’s cheeks were probably redder.

  “I’ve never heard of you before—and I know pretty much everyone—so where have you been all this time?” Jensi asked.

  She’d been hoping no one would ask that question. Alden had instructed her to be honest. “I was living with humans,” she whispered.

  “Humans!”

  Everyone fell silent. Sophie managed a nod.

  “Well—that’s weird—but cool—you’ll be ‘Human Girl’—it’ll be awesome!”

  She cringed. “How about just ‘Sophie’?”
>
  “If that’s what you want.”

  “Thanks.” They hit a fork in the hallway, and she took the right path on a whim.

  Jensi followed her. “Where are we going?”

  “Elementalism.” She didn’t miss the fact that he used the word we.

  He laughed. “Boy, are you going the wrong way. Come on. I’ll take you there.”

  Part of her wanted to run from the humiliating boy who was drawing way too much attention to her. But she did need help, so she swallowed her pride.

  They backtracked, making so many twists and turns Sophie had to admit she never would’ve found it without him. Finally, they entered a narrow hall that smelled like a storm, right before the first drops of rain fell.

  Jensi pointed to a warped wooden door. “Your session’s in there—oh—and be careful—I’d hate you to get zapped on your first day!”

  “Okay—wait!” she added as his words sank in. “What do you mean, ‘zapped’?”

  Jensi was already gone. She stared at the door, wondering if he was kidding. This was a school. They wouldn’t allow anything dangerous around the prodigies, would they?

  She took a deep breath to calm her nerves, squared her shoulders, and pushed the door open. A loud thunderclap shook the floor, and a bolt of lightning shot out of the ceiling, knocking her off her feet.

  EIGHTEEN

  HOW WAS YOUR FIRST SESSION?” DEX asked as he handed her a tray and made room for her in the lunch line.

  “Oh, fine—except I was almost electrocuted.” She tried to keep the quiver out of her voice. Sir Conley stopped the lightning from hitting her, catching it in a tiny fluted vial at the last possible second. But the hairs on her arms still stood on end. Especially since she’d also botched the class assignment, and she caught Sir Conley making notes about it. Would he be sending them to Bronte?

  “That’s elementalism for you,” Dex said. “Wait till they make you collect your first tornado. They’re not easy to catch.”

  Of course they weren’t. Because they were tornadoes! “Why do we have to learn to bottle that stuff, anyway?”

  “Mastering all the elements is one of the steps toward entering the nobility.”

  “Why?”

  “No idea. Neither of my parents are in the nobility, so I don’t know much about it.”

  Right. His parents were a “bad match”—whatever that meant. “Hey, what are you doing here? I thought you had detention?”

  “I still have to eat,” he grumbled, filling his tray with brightly colored foods.

  The lunch line wound through a series of stalls, like a food court at the mall. None of the food was recognizable, so Sophie grabbed whatever Dex took.

  “Sorry I got detention on your first day. Are you going to be okay without me?”

  “Sure.” She’d eaten lunch alone her whole life—what was one more day?

  Except there were no empty tables inside the cafeteria, which took up the whole second floor of the glass pyramid. Sophie scanned the faces hoping to find Fitz, but all she saw were strangers, most of whom looked away, like they were tying to discourage her from joining them.

  She was on the verge of panic when a pair of teal eyes caught her attention. Unfortunately, they were set into Biana’s perfect face.

  Biana held her gaze and shook her head—barely perceptible—but the message came through loud and clear: Don’t even think about sitting here.

  Sophie ignored the sting of the insult, focusing on the bigger problem. Biana was sitting next to Fitz. Where was she supposed to go now?

  Jensi rushed to her side. “Hey, my friends and I have a table—it’s only guys—and most of them are pretty lame—but you can totally sit with us.”

  She might’ve hugged him if her hands hadn’t been full. “Thanks, Jensi.”

  If Jensi’s friends were human, they would’ve been skinny, with acne and braces. Since they were elves, they were fairly good looking—or they could’ve been if they hadn’t slicked their hair into greasy ponytails. They stared at her like they’d never seen a girl up close before. One of them even drooled.

  “Sorry,” Jensi mumbled, setting his tray down with a bang. “C’mon, guys. I said be cool!”

  “Sorry, dude,” they all said in unison, and went right on staring at Sophie.

  Jensi sighed. “So, how was the E?”

  “‘E’?”

  “Elementalism,” one of the greasy ponytails explained. “Dude, you don’t know that’s what we call it?”

  “Of course she doesn’t. She’s been living with humans,” Jensi explained before she could say anything. He grinned like he’d just done her a huge favor. But she had to fight the urge to crawl under the table. Especially when all his friends leaned back in their chairs and said, “Dude.”

  She barely held back her sigh. “Elementalism was good. I wasn’t zapped.”

  “Well, duh,” the drooly one volunteered. “Your clothes would be all singed and stuff if you were.”

  Jensi rolled his eyes. “Anyway—what do you have next?”

  “The Universe.” The name alone sounded daunting.

  “Don’t you mean the U?” the drooly one asked with an exaggerated wink. The other guys giggled.

  Jensi shot them all death looks. “That’s not what we call it. Stop messing with her.”

  “Sorry, dude,” they mumbled.

  “Enough with the ‘dude’—you guys are killing it!”

  “Sorry, dude.”

  Jensi looked ready to explode. Sophie covered her laugh with a cough.

  “Thanks for taking care of her, guys, but I’ll take it from here,” a girl’s voice interrupted.

  All the greasy ponytails stared and drooled again as a pixielike girl grabbed Sophie’s tray and motioned for her to follow.

  “What are you doing?” Sophie hissed.

  “Rescuing you,” she whispered, tossing her blond hair.

  Not sure what else to do, Sophie murmured a quick goodbye and caught up with the girl.

  “You can pay me back later,” she said without turning her head. She was extremely petite, and her uniform looked like it spent the night balled up on the floor, but she still looked pretty. Maybe it was the way she’d twisted some of her hair into tiny braids, or her huge, ice blue eyes.

  “Sitting with those guys is social suicide,” she explained.

  “Jensi’s not so bad,” Sophie argued. Sure he was a little overeager, but he’d come to her rescue twice already.

  “Yeah, he’s fine, but those other guys . . .” She shuddered. “My name’s Marella. Not Mare. Not Ella. No nicknames.” She led Sophie to her table and set the tray down next to hers. “Most of the people here aren’t worth my time. But I figured anyone who got Stina to hate her in less than a day is my kind of girl. Take a seat.”

  For some reason Sophie obeyed. “Stina hates me?”

  “Oh yeah. But you’re better off. She’s evil.”

  “So I keep hearing.” She wasn’t sure it was a good idea to have enemies though. Would Bronte use that against her if he found out?

  “Anyway, I saw you over there with the drooly boys and felt sorry for you, so I thought I’d try making a friend.” The way she said it was almost like Sophie should feel honored. “You gonna eat or what?”

  “Oh. Right.” Sophie took a small bite of a green puffy ball and felt her lips pucker. It tasted like sour licorice soaked in lemon juice. “Do you usually sit by yourself?” she asked when she could move her face again.

  “Sometimes I let boys sit with me, but I’m not a fan of girls. Girls are annoying.” She shot Sophie a warning look, like she was ordering her not to be obnoxious. “Like, check out Princess Prettypants over there.” She pointed to Biana and rolled her eyes. “I’d rather hang out with a bunch of goblins.”

  Sophie grinned. She couldn’t
understand how such a grumpy brat could be related to Alden and Della—or Fitz.

  “Her brother’s cute, though,” Marella said, her voice turning dreamy. “What I wouldn’t give . . .”

  It took all of Sophie’s willpower not to agree. She took another bite of the green ball.

  Marella smiled when she cringed. “Too sour?”

  “Way. I guess that’s what I get for copying Dex.” She took a sip of lushberry juice to wash away the taste.

  “Dex . . . strawberry blond curly hair and dimples, right? He’s cute. His family’s a little”—she looped her finger around her ear—“but that’s not really his fault.”

  “His parents seemed okay when I met them,” Sophie said, defending her friend.

  “The Dizznees are nice, but they’re odd. I mean, they have triplets!”

  “And having triplets is . . . bad?”

  “Yeah. I mean, I don’t know how it is in the Forbidden Cities, but here we have our kids one at a time. So to have three at once is weird. My mom says it’s because his parents were a bad match.”

  Sophie tensed at the insult. “What exactly is a ‘bad match’?”

  “A couple that was ruled genetically incompatible. Usually means their kids will be inferior—and if you’d met the triplets, you’d believe me. No way those kids will be normal.” She shrugged. “Even his aunt and uncle are superstrange.”

  “Grady and Edaline?”

  She nodded. “They used to be celebrities—like, more famous than the Vackers.”

  “Who?”

  Marella shot her another warning look. “Fitz and Biana. Their dad’s superimportant—their whole family is. But Grady was even more important, ’cause he has such a rare special ability. Then their daughter died and they freaked out and cut themselves off from everyone.”

  Sophie wasn’t sure she liked Marella’s tone. There wasn’t even a hint of sympathy. “You guys really don’t understand how hard death is, do you?”

  “And you do?”

  She nodded. “My grandma died when I was eight, and my mom cried for weeks.”