Keeper of the Lost Cities, Page 19Shannon Messenger
She slumped against the wall. “I did the best I could.”
“I guess you can’t ask for more than that.” He tried to smooth his wild hat hair. “You staying home tonight?”
“No. Grady and Edaline are taking me shopping.”
“Whoa. That’ll be the first time they’ve gone out in public together since . . . you know.”
She did know. Grady and Edaline hadn’t left the house together since Jolie died. Sophie told them they didn’t have to, but Grady insisted. Foxfire tradition held that at the end of midterms all the prodigies hung their thinking caps upside down from hooks on their lockers. The next day everyone filled each other’s hats with presents and opened them while their parents met with their Mentors to find out their grades. Sophie’s legs felt weak just thinking about it.
She loved the idea of presents and hanging out with her friends, but having Grady and Edaline know if she failed before she did sent chills down her spine. Why couldn’t elves send out report cards like human schools?
“Are you going shopping tonight?” she asked Dex.
“Nope. My parents think it’s too much hassle to take all four of us, and they can never find babysitters for the triplets.” Bitterness edged into his voice. “But don’t worry”—he nudged her arm—“I already made your present.”
“You made my present?” At first she was touched, but then she thought about it. “Wait, it’s not some solution that’s going to turn my hair green, is it?”
Dex flashed a slightly evil grin. “I guess you’ll have to wait and see.”
GRADY AND EDALINE TOOK SOPHIE to Atlantis. She hadn’t been there since the day Alden and Fitz brought her—the day her human life ended—and she still hadn’t figured out how to feel about any of that. She’d been with the elves a little more than three months now, and she’d come a long way. But she still had a long way to go.
Passing her midterms was the biggest obstacle.
She glared at her wrinkled pinky. How many points would she lose for the mistake? And how many more for not finishing?
Grady squeezed her shoulder when he caught her tugging out an eyelash. “Try to stop stressing, Sophie. We’re here to have fun, not worry about grades.”
She was tempted to point out that Grady and Edaline looked more stressed than she did. Their shoulders were rigid, their jaws set, and Edaline had deep shadows under her eyes. But they were making a huge sacrifice for her. The least she could do was enjoy herself.
It took seven stores to find suitable gifts for all of her friends, and with each store Grady and Edaline looked more strained. The worst was the jewelry store. The woman who ran the shop remembered them. Apparently, they used to come in all the time to buy new charms for a charm bracelet—which had obviously belonged to Jolie.
Sophie took Edaline’s hand.
Edaline jumped. Then her eyes welled with tears and she squeezed Sophie’s hand and didn’t let go. Grady took Sophie’s other hand, and they walked that way for the rest of the night.
When they got home, Grady stopped her on her way to her room.
“I’m glad you came to live with us, Sophie. It’s . . .” His mouth formed a word, then changed to a different one. “It’s nice.”
“I’m glad I live here too,” she whispered.
He cleared his throat. “Big day tomorrow. Better get some sleep.”
“Good night, Grady.”
Even though she was terrified about her exam grades, she fell asleep believing that everything was going to be okay.
FOXFIRE WAS ALMOST UNRECOGNIZABLE. Silver streamers wrapped every tree, every shrub, every tower—like the school had been toilet-papered with tinsel. Confetti and flowers covered the floor, and giant bubbles filled with prizes floated through the halls. Prodigies ignored their parents as they dashed around popping as many as they could.
Grady and Edaline were overwhelmed by the crowd, so they went straight to where they’d meet for their first Mentor appointment and left Sophie to celebrate on her own. She made her way to the Level Four wing, deciding to drop off Fitz’s and Keefe’s presents before meeting up with her friends.
A tiny part of her had been hoping she’d find Fitz at his locker, but all she found was a long line of Level Four girls, all of whom glared at her as she added her small, teal-wrapped package to his nearly full hat. The glaring turned even uglier when she added a bright green box to Keefe’s collection.
She kept her head down as she slunk away, hurrying back toward her own wing. Which was how she ended up plowing straight into Sir Tiergan.
“Sorry,” she exclaimed as he struggled to regain his balance. He’d been moving fast, and they’d crashed pretty hard. She rubbed her forehead where it had slammed into his elbow.
“Sophie!” He glanced around, thin lines stretched across his brow. “What are you doing here?”
“I just came to drop off some gifts. Why? Is everything okay?”
He smiled, but it looked forced. “Of course. I just didn’t expect to run into you here. Especially so literally.” His smile turned real with his joke.
“Well, well, who do we have here?”
Sophie’s heart sank as she turned around, expecting to find Keefe with lots of prying questions and one of his trademark smirks. And he was there. But his grin was gone, and it wasn’t he who’d spoken.
A tall, slender man in a sapphire-encrusted navy-blue cape stood next to him, studying Sophie intently. The family resemblance was striking, though Keefe’s disheveled hairstyle and untucked shirt sharply contrasted his dad’s slicked blond hair and pristine tunic.
“This must be the girl who was raised by humans,” he said, much louder than Sophie would’ve liked. “How curious to find her in the Level Four wing, talking to Foxfire’s most infamous Mentor.”
“Infamous?” Sophie couldn’t help asking. She glanced at Keefe, but he was staring at the ground. It was strange to see him so . . . deflated. Like he’d wilted in his father’s presence.
Keefe’s father grinned, an oily sort of smile that dripped with insincerity. “Few Mentors have resigned, then returned years later—out of the blue—to train a mystery prodigy.” He winked with the last two words, like he knew exactly who the prodigy was.
Sophie felt her cheeks flame and searched for some sort of lie. But Tiergan beat her to it.
“Interesting theory, Cassius—”
“Lord Cassius,” he corrected.
Tiergan’s jaw tightened. “Lord Cassius. But do you really think I could be tempted back by a little girl? Especially one performing so unremarkably in her sessions?”
She knew he didn’t mean it. That Tiergan was only trying to keep her telepathy hidden. But the words still stung. A lot.
“Come on, Dad,” Keefe said, looking at Sophie, not his father. His eyes radiated the apologies he couldn’t say. “I’m sure Fos—er—Sophie has somewhere she needs to be.”
Cassius glared at his son. “Yes, of course. And I need to meet with your Mentors. See how disappointing your scores will be this time.”
Keefe rolled his eyes as his father turned to Sophie with another fake smile. “Fascinating to meet you. I look very forward to seeing what you can do.”
Sophie nodded and took off down the hall without saying goodbye. She felt bad leaving Keefe and Tiergan that way, but she had to get away from that man. It wasn’t because he was intimidating—though he was definitely that. She felt sorry for Keefe, having to go home to a cold, critical father every day.
But what she really didn’t like was the way Cassius had looked at her, like he was trying to see through her. And the last thing he’d said: I look forward to seeing what you can do. Almost like he knew something she didn’t. Totally gave her the creeps.
It was a relief to reach the safety of the Level Two wing, which was pa
cked with prodigies running around, popping the prize-filled bubbles. She poked a bubble floating by her locker and a box of Prattles dropped into her hands.
“Good catch,” Dex said, running up beside her. He jumped for a bubble but didn’t quite reach it. Before he could try again, Stina shoved by, raised a bony arm, and popped it.
She waved the bottle of lushberry juice in Dex’s face. “Must get frustrating being shorter than the average dwarf.”
Sophie snorted. “This coming from someone who looks like a giant lollipop. If your head gets any bigger, you’ll topple over.”
Dex cracked up.
“Awfully brave words coming from a girl who’s going to flunk out of here today,” Stina growled.
Sophie opened her mouth but couldn’t find a snappy comeback. Stina could be right, and Sophie was trying very hard not to think about that. Especially after Tiergan’s comment.
Stina giggled. “Enjoy your last day at Foxfire, loser.” She bumped Sophie into the wall and stalked away.
“Don’t let her get to you—and if Lady Galvin fails you, I’ll organize a protest.” Dex pointed to her thinking cap, which was overflowing with presents. “Look at how many people care about you here.” He frowned at his own, half-empty cap.
Sophie nudged his arm, pulled a package from her satchel—the Disneyland watch she’d been wearing when she moved to the Lost Cities. She figured he’d get a kick out of that—and dropped it in.
He grinned, flashing his dimples. “I slipped your present in before you got here.” His eyes dropped to his feet. “I hope you like it.”
“I’ll love it. Just let me drop off Biana’s gift and we’ll go to the cafeteria.”
“Ugh—why did you buy Biana a present?”
“She’s my friend.”
“Yeah, and like a month ago you guys hated each other.”
“That was a misunderstanding.”
“Yeah, well . . . I don’t trust her. I don’t think you should either. Why would she reach out to you for—”
Sophie shushed him as Biana entered the atrium, followed by Maruca. They looked like they were talking, but when Sophie got closer she realized they were arguing.
Biana bit her lip. “Oh, hey, Sophie.”
Maruca glared at Biana.
Sophie cleared her throat. “Sorry. I just wanted to drop this off.” She handed Biana a pink box—the charm bracelet she’d bought her—and turned to leave.
“Wait.” Biana pulled out a slim purple parcel and handed it to Sophie. “You’re coming over for dinner tonight, right?”
“Of course. I can’t wait! Well . . . I’ll see you later,” Sophie said, wondering why Maruca was glaring at her. Then again, so was Dex. “What?” she asked as soon as they were out of earshot.
“You’re going over there for dinner?” He said something else too, but the chiming bells drowned him out.
The bells signaled the start of parent-Mentor conferences. Which meant Grady and Edaline were finding out right now if she was going to stay at Foxfire.
DEX DRAGGED HER TO THE celebration feast in the cafeteria, but Sophie couldn’t relax—even surrounded by friends.
The bells chimed every twenty minutes. Four had already passed, which meant in twenty minutes Grady and Edaline would know if she’d failed alchemy. Her palms were so damp she struggled to unwrap her presents.
“What do we have here?” Keefe asked, snatching a red box from her thinking cap. He was definitely back to his old self without his father around. He glanced at the card and cracked up. “‘Dear Sophie. I really enjoyed our dance, and I hope we can do it again sometime. Love, Valin.’”
Her face burned as everyone at the table laughed—even Fitz.
“Who’s Valin?” Dex asked.
“Vice president of the Sophie Foster Fan Club. Don’t worry, I’m president, so I’ll take care of her.” He winked as he tossed the present back to her. “Go on. Open it.”
There didn’t seem to be a way to avoid it, so she tore off the paper, wishing she could disappear when she unwrapped a bracelet of little heart charms.
Keefe cracked up again. “Aw, Foster has a boyfriend.”
“She does not!” Dex snapped. “You don’t, right?”
She shook her head so hard her brain rattled.
“I’m just teasing—sheesh.” Keefe nudged Dex’s arm, then grinned at Sophie. “Interesting.”
“What?” Dex asked.
“Which one’s your gift, Dex?” Sophie interrupted. She didn’t have to be a mind reader to know what Keefe was going to tease Dex about.
Dex glared at Keefe as he grabbed a small package wrapped in plain white paper and handed it to Sophie. “Sorry, we didn’t have any ribbon.”
“Please, I still can’t believe you made me something.” She tore through the paper and gasped. “My iPod.” She tapped the screen and the gadget sprang to life.
“Yeah.” He pointed to a green rectangle about the size of his fingernail set into the back. “It’s solar powered now, and it has a speaker in case you don’t want to use those ear thingies.”
She stared at Dex for a minute, so amazed she wanted to hug him. She knew Keefe would have a field day, though, so she fought the urge. “This is amazing, Dex. How did you do it?”
He shrugged, pink coloring his cheeks.
“Well, thank you. Best. Gift. Ever.”
“I dunno,” Keefe interrupted. “You haven’t opened mine yet.”
She bit her lip, a little afraid of what Keefe might give her. “Which one’s yours?”
“Your hat was overflowing, so it’s waiting in your locker.”
“How did you get in my locker?”
“I have my methods.”
She shook her head in disbelief as Marella shoved a box wrapped with crooked green paper into her hands. “Open mine next.”
Marella gave her a variety pack of flavored air, plus she got a ton of candy from prodigies she barely knew. Biana gave her a set of edible lip glosses, and Jensi gave her a speckled spider snapper—a plant that fed off spiders. Clearly, he didn’t know how to shop for girls.
The only real disappointment was Fitz’s gift. He gave her a riddler—a pen that only writes the words of a riddle until someone writes the correct answer. It was kind of cool, except he also gave one to everyone else. She’d spent forever trying to find him something personal, settling on a miniature Albertosaurus covered in deep violet feathers. She knew it was silly, but it reminded her of the day they met, and in the card she thanked him for showing her what dinosaurs really looked like.
Fitz giving her a fancy pen—especially the same fancy pen he gave everyone else—made it seem like he hadn’t thought about her at all. But maybe he hadn’t. He’d hardly looked at her gift when he opened it, too distracted by the tunic Keefe gave him, which had i know what you’re thinking—and you should be ashamed of yourself embroidered across the front. She tried not to let that bother her.
The doors burst open and parents streamed in. Sophie couldn’t breathe as she scanned the faces, desperate to find Grady and Edaline.
Dex squeezed her shoulder and told her it would be okay no matter what, but she barely heard him. She’d found Grady and Edaline, and their faces were unreadable as they searched the room, not seeing her as she shoved toward them. She was halfway there before she locked eyes with Grady. A huge grin lit up his face.
“You passed,” he shouted over the crowd.
A hysterical laugh erupted from her lips as she ran the rest of the way and threw her arms around them. When her brain caught up, she wondered if she’d crossed a line, but their arms wrapped around her, and when they let her go their eyes were misty.
“I really passed?” she asked, needing to hear it again. “Even alchemy?”
“You got a seventy-nine on your pu
rification. Still room for improvement, but within passing range.”
She squealed, hugging them again.
Grady grinned. “I’m sensing you’re happy about this.”
She laughed so hard tears streamed down her face, but she didn’t care. She passed! She could stay at Foxfire. Sure, she still had to face Bronte and the Council in five months about permanent enrollment, but right now she was going to celebrate.
She raced back to the table and threw her arms around Dex. “I couldn’t have done this without you.” His face was tomato red when she let go, and she couldn’t help giggling.
Everyone congratulated her—except Keefe, who leaned in and whispered, “Told you so,” when his dad wasn’t looking. All her friends had passed their exams. In fact, it looked like most of the school had. A few parents had to comfort sobbing prodigies, but everyone else was tossing confetti and partying. Unfortunately, that included Stina.
Her face twisted into a sneer when she noticed Sophie celebrating. Then she rolled her eyes and stomped away. Sophie giggled.
She wanted to stay for the party, but she could tell Grady and Edaline were a little overwhelmed. She ran back to the atrium to pick up Keefe’s gift, so she would be ready to go home. Inside her locker she found a giant box of mood candy, a small black cube, and a note:
For the Mysterious Miss F—
If you don’t relax, this candy will always taste bitter—so snap out of it! And try to stay out of detention! —K
The candy tasted like sugarplums, and inside the black cube she found a round silver pendant with a cobalt blue crystal in the center.
The candy turned sour.
Since when did Keefe give her jewelry?
He didn’t like her—
She wouldn’t finish the thought. There was no way a guy like Keefe would ever, could ever—why was she thinking about this? Marella’s boy-craziness must be rubbing off on her.
It was just a necklace. He probably gave them to all the girls.
She didn’t know what to do with it, so she shoved the pendant to the back of her locker, and was glad she didn’t see Keefe before she left. She needed to figure out how to thank him for such a strange present.