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Keeper of the Lost Cities, Page 18

Shannon Messenger

  “I will not have this argument again, Tiergan. It was the Council’s ruling. I had no choice but to obey.”

  “There’s always a choice,” Tiergan insisted quietly.

  Sophie knew they were talking about Prentice, and she knew she should be curious. But ever since she realized he was the one who’d abandoned her, she didn’t want to be interested in what had happened to him. It hurt too much to think about.

  “Now, now, boys,” Dame Alina said, rising from her chair with an elegant flourish. She smoothed her hair in her dozens of reflections. “Can’t we play nice?”

  No one said anything.

  Dame Alina sighed. Then she turned to Alden, flashing a wide smile. “What do you think the punishment should be?”

  Tiergan snorted. “Yes, let’s leave it up to him. Why bother asking her telepathy Mentor how she should be punished for violating the rules of telepathy?”

  “He’s the one reporting on her to the Council,” Dame Alina argued.

  Sophie had to stifle her gasp. Alden was reporting on her too? How closely was the Council watching her?

  “Yes, everyone knows he’s good at that,” Tiergan growled.

  Alden sighed but said nothing.

  “Don’t forget your place, Sir Tiergan,” Dame Alina said icily. “As long as you are a Mentor you will respect my authority. And I’d like to know what Alden advises.”

  “Of course you do,” he said under his breath. “Everyone knows how you favor him.”

  “Excuse me?” Dame Alina hissed.

  Alden closed his eyes, shaking his head. But Tiergan straightened his shoulders, like he wasn’t backing down. “It’s hardly a secret that you tried to stop his wedding to Della.”

  “Really?” Sophie blurted, unable to stop herself.

  Dame Alina flushed bright red, and her mouth flapped a few times, like she wanted to speak but couldn’t get her tongue to work.

  Alden ran his hands through his hair. “All of that is neither here nor there.”

  “Isn’t it?” Tiergan asked. “This whole process is pointless. Sophie won a pardon from the splotching match. Can’t she hand that over and consider it punishment served?”

  “And allow her to believe that cheating is tolerated?” Dame Alina huffed, still struggling to recover her dignity. “Certainly not.”

  “But she didn’t actually cheat,” Tiergan pointed out.

  “And the fact that we’re here at all tells us she regrets it. She didn’t have to confess,” Alden added.

  Tiergan stared at him for a second, like he couldn’t believe they were on the same side.

  “She should still have to serve detention, at minimum,” Dame Alina insisted.

  “That’s ridiculous,” Tiergan argued.

  “Can I say something?” Sophie asked, stunned by her sudden courage. Her mouth went dry as they all turned to stare at her. “I’ll serve the detention.”

  Seeing how she’d disappointed everyone made her ill. She didn’t deserve to get off easy. And the smile hiding in the corners of Alden’s mouth told her she’d made the right decision.

  Dame Alina nodded. “Good. Then I’m assigning you detention until the end of midterms, and you are not to tell anyone the reason you’re being punished, is that clear?”

  “What will you tell Lady Galvin?” Sophie asked.

  “I’ll explain the situation to her. No reason to worry.” The warmth in Alden’s voice melted the sickening guilt in her stomach. It wasn’t a perfect solution, but at least she’d be able to sleep at night again. Well . . . once she stopped worrying about her midterms. And Bronte.

  One problem at a time.

  It was becoming a theme in her life.

  “WHERE ARE YOU GOING?” DEX asked when Sophie turned to head away from the cafeteria. So much for her plan of slipping away unnoticed.

  She stared at her feet. “I can’t sit with you guys today. I have detention.”

  “Detention?” they all repeated, loud enough to turn a few heads.

  “How long do you have it for?” Dex asked.

  “Till the end of midterms,” she mumbled.

  “The end of midterms!”

  Jensi whistled. “Dude. What’d you do?”

  “I don’t want to talk about it.” She gave a small smile and bolted before they could ask more questions.

  The detention hall was in the glass pyramid, one floor beneath Dame Alina’s office. The ceiling was low and the windows blocked more light than they let in, giving the room a gloomy atmosphere. Sophie tried to sneak in without being seen by the twenty or so other kids, but Sir Conley recognized her from their elementalism sessions.

  “Welcome, Miss Foster,” he announced, and every head turned her way. He brushed a hand across his long dark hair and waved toward the rows of uncomfortable desks. “Take a seat and settle in. I have quite a treat for everyone today.”

  She ignored the stares as she sank into the first empty chair. She caught Keefe’s eye from a desk in the corner. He grinned and gave her a thumbs-up.

  “Ready for more siren song?” Sir Conley asked.

  Everyone groaned.

  “You have no appreciation for art or nature,” he grumbled, clapping his hands. An earsplittingly shrill whine—part whale song, part nails on a chalkboard, with just the right amount of screaming toddler—reverberated through the room. “Uncover those ears—I am broadening your horizons, and you will listen to every note!”

  Everyone glared at him as they lowered their hands.

  “What are you in for?” Keefe asked with a crooked smile. Somehow he’d slipped into the empty desk behind her.

  “None of your business,” she whispered.

  He laughed. “You keep claiming you’re not mysterious, but who are you kidding?”

  She sighed. “What are you doing here?”

  “Remember the reekrod someone put in Dame Alina’s office a few months ago?”

  “That was you?”

  “Of course. Took her long enough to trace it back to me.” He laughed, not even a little repentant. “Will you at least tell me how long I’ll get to enjoy your company here?”

  She bit her lip. “Till the end of midterms.”

  “Sounds like Miss Foster did something very bad. In the future you should leave the mischief making to me.”

  Sophie cringed as a shrill whine rang through the air. “Is it always this loud?”

  “Oh, no. That’s just Sir Conley. Tomorrow it’s Lady Belva.”

  “What’s her brand of torture?”

  “You’ll see.”

  BALLROOM DANCING—THAT WAS LADY Belva’s idea of punishment. Given the choice, Sophie would have taken the screeching sirens any day.

  The desks were shoved aside so the dances could be done in a line, like at old Edwardian balls. Keefe tried to grab her as his partner, but Lady Belva claimed him for herself and paired Sophie with Valin, one of Jensi’s greasy, ponytailed friends. His palms were cold and sticky and a blob of drool settled in the corner of his mouth and never went away. Keefe snickered every time it was her turn to promenade through the other dancers on Valin’s sweaty arm. She’d never been so happy to hear the bells chime the end of lunch.

  “I hope you know Valin is in love with you now,” Keefe teased when he caught up with her in the hall.

  “And you would know that because . . . ?”

  “Please. You could see the stars in his eyes all the way across the room. They shined brighter than that blob of spit on his lips.”

  She couldn’t help laughing. “You’re terrible.”

  “I know.” He grinned wickedly. “But I’m serious. I bumped his arm on my way out the door, and he was crushing hard. The Sophie Foster Fan Club has a slobbery new member.”

  She opened her mouth to argue when she caught what he’d said. �
�Wait—are you an Empath?”

  He winked, reaching for her hand. “Want me to tell you what you’re feeling?”

  She jerked away. “Thanks, I’ll pass.”

  “Too bad I can read what you’re feeling even without physical contact.” His voice shifted up a few octaves as he fanned the air. “I hope Keefe’s right about Valin liking me. Guys who drool are so cute.”

  “Will you keep your voice down?” she hissed, glancing around to make sure no one was within earshot.

  Keefe laughed. He fanned the air again. “Hmm. Now I can tell you’re embarrassed. And a tiny bit irritated.”

  “You’re wrong. I’m just irritated.”

  “Nah. You’re flattered.” He scooted away before she could shove him.

  They walked in silence for a minute before Sophie’s eyes dropped to her feet. “Could you really feel that I was irritated or were you guessing?”

  “You look worried—you wouldn’t have something to hide, would you? A secret crush, maybe?”

  “Never mind. Forget I asked.”

  He cracked up. “It’s almost too easy to annoy you, you know that?”

  She sighed.

  “Oh, all right. If you must know, yes, your emotions are a little stronger than others. I can’t really understand what they are, but I can feel them—and no, I don’t know why, in case you’re going to ask. Scored me major points with my empathy Mentor when I told him, though.”

  She wasn’t quite sure what to say to that, so they walked in silence until the hallway forked and she went left at the same time Keefe turned right.

  “See you tomorrow in detention,” he said with a smirk. “It’s Lady Galvin. Hope you’re good at ironing. It probably wouldn’t be good to burn more holes in her capes.”

  He was gone before she could ask him if he was joking.

  KEEFE WASN’T JOKING. LADY GALVIN brought an enormous stack of capes for the detained prodigies to iron and hang as their punishment. Sophie wasn’t allowed anywhere near them, forced instead to sit alone in the corner while Keefe winked at her and Valin stared and drooled. She wasn’t sure which was worse.

  She spent most of the time glaring at the level on her nexus, which still hadn’t increased, despite practicing leaps with Grady. He kept telling her to give her brain time to get used to it—she was learning an entirely different way of making her mind work—but it was still annoying.

  She flipped the nexus over so she couldn’t see the meter anymore, and her eyes found the sparkly aquamarine stone. Her mind wandered automatically to Fitz.

  Someone cleared his throat.

  Sophie locked eyes with Keefe. She turned away when he raised one eyebrow. It was a coincidence, she told herself. There was no way he could feel what she was feeling from all the way across the room. No Empaths were that powerful.

  Still, she kept her mind on mundane things until the bells chimed.

  “Oh, Miss Foster,” Lady Galvin called when she was halfway out the door. “How’s your studying going?”

  Her mouth went dry. “Good.”

  “Glad to hear it. You’re going to need it.”

  She nodded and turned to leave.

  “You might want to brush up on iron purification,” she added quietly.

  Sophie spun back around. “Iron purification?”

  “In case you’ve been wondering what to study. Your exam will be in that vein. Even you should be able to handle that.”

  Lady Galvin waved her away and Sophie left the room in a daze.

  Did she really tell her what would be on the test?

  Did she really pick iron purification—the easiest transmutation in alchemy?

  “How was detention?” Dex asked when she found him at the lockers.

  “Good,” she said, still struggling to wrap her mind around what happened. Actually, it was better than good, but he was looking at her like she was a freak, so she didn’t elaborate as she traded books. “Hey, Dex?”


  “Do you think you can help me practice iron purification this weekend?”


  EVERYONE EXCITED FOR MIDTERMS?” DAME Alina’s projection chirped.

  Sophie locked her legs to keep her knees from banging together as Dame Alina continued in her annoyingly cheerful voice.

  “Your thinking caps are in your lockers, and remember, anyone found without one for the rest of the day will be disqualified for cheating—is that clear?” She waited until everyone nodded. “Good. Have fun with midterms.”

  The chorus of groans echoed through the air as Dame Alina flashed away and everyone left for exams. Sophie froze, too terrified to move.

  Dex pulled her toward the atrium. “Will you relax? We’ve been practicing nonstop for a week. You’re ready.”

  She nodded, afraid that if she spoke, her voice would tremble.

  Her hands shook as she slipped on the thinking cap from her locker. The white cloth wrapped around her head and hung in a point. She glared at her reflection. “I look like a Smurf.”

  The thick fabric consisted of an amalgam of metals, made to dull telepathic abilities and preserve the integrity of the exams. But the second she concentrated she could feel Dex’s voice rushing through her mind like a blast of air, so it clearly didn’t work on her. She wasn’t surprised.

  “Well . . . here goes nothing.” She forced a smile before stumbling down the hall on shaky legs.

  She wrote an extensive essay on the human betrayal for elvin history, named more than a hundred stars in the Universe, and won the mind-over-matter debate with Sir Faxon in metaphysics. Tiergan was so amazed that the thinking cap had no effect on her, he gave her an automatic 100 percent.

  But her harder exams were after lunch, and alchemy was up first. Thinking about it made her stomach twist in ways that couldn’t be natural.

  Lady Alexine allowed last-minute studying in detention, so Sophie spent the time mentally repeating Dex’s purification tips.

  “Will you chill?” Keefe whispered. He waved at the air, like he was trying to fan her negative vibes away. “You’re starting to stress me out.”

  “Aren’t you nervous?”

  “Nah, I’m awesome at tests. Photographic memory.”

  Sophie’s eyes widened. “You too?”

  “You have a photographic memory? Then what are you freaking out about?”

  “Because it doesn’t help as much as you think.”

  “Sure it does. How else do you think I got a year ahead? It sure wasn’t my work ethic.”

  “You’re a year ahead?” She’d never realized he was younger than Fitz.

  “Yep. It’s my big claim to fame. I skipped Level One. Kinda like you.”

  “I didn’t skip it. I missed it.”

  “Same thing.”

  It wasn’t, but she didn’t have time to argue. The bells chimed the end of lunch.

  For a second she wasn’t sure if she’d be able to get up.

  Keefe pulled her to her feet. “That means it’s time to go, in case you didn’t realize. Seriously, Foster, you have to relax. You’re going to make yourself sick.”

  “I feel sick,” she admitted, wobbling.

  He jerked away. “Thanks for the warning. No need to share that feeling. Look, I’m not good at the serious, supportive thing—but trust me, you’re going to be fine.”

  “How do you know?”

  He grinned. “I have a feeling you can do pretty much anything you put your mind to. So stop doubting yourself and go prove me right. You know, so I can brag about it.”

  She couldn’t help smiling. “Thanks.” She took a deep, calming breath, squared her shoulders, and ordered her legs to walk. Mercifully, they obeyed.

  Lady Galvin was still setting up when she entered the room. Sophie’s heart stalled when she saw the deep mag
enta berries and the rusty iron key. Lady Galvin may be giving Sophie the easiest discipline, but she certainly hadn’t chosen an easy project.

  “Does the cap even work on you?” Lady Galvin asked, her eyes boring into Sophie’s.

  Sophie shook her head, not quite brave enough to speak the words.

  “Will you be picking the secrets out of my brain, then?”

  She shook her head again.

  “Why should I believe you?”

  She cleared her throat and forced her mouth to work. “I want to pass on my own.”

  Lady Galvin stared at her for a second before she blinked. “You must purify the iron key using only ruckleberries. You have fifty-five minutes. I suggest you get started.”

  Ruckleberries were nasty, stinky little berries that brought impurities to the surface of a metal. They also made your skin wrinkle like an elderly human’s if any of the juice got on you—and you’d smell like feet all day—so most alchemists used other methods to purify metal. But it was the assignment. Sophie had no choice but to dive in and do her best.

  Her palms were so sweaty it was hard to hold the knife as she pierced the first berry and dribbled the juice on the key. She tried to work slow and careful, but a few drops still ended up on her pinky, making it look crinkled and haggard, and the glacial pace made her run out of time. Only three quarters of the key had turned the gleaming black color she was going for, but she hoped it was enough. Lady Galvin’s face was unreadable when she turned it in, and she glared at Sophie’s wrinkled pinky. Points would clearly be deducted.

  Sophie finished out the day with a decent essay on ogres for multispeciesial studies and a mediocre performance on her last two exams. Her channeling went well in phys. ed.—until Lady Alexine ran back and forth through the walls and broke her concentration. And she managed to bottle three different clouds in elementalism, but it took four tries to bottle a whirlwind and the bottle had a crack from the pressure. Sir Conley didn’t look impressed when she handed it in.

  Completely exhausted, she trudged back to the atrium to meet Dex.

  “Well, that was brutal,” he whined, slamming his locker closed. “How’d it go for you?”