Mardalan raised her eyebrows, impressed despite herself. “You’ve dressed appropriately.”
“Well, of course.” Lal sat in the spindly chair across from Mardalan, arranging her skirts with delicacy—as much delicacy as her long, pointed fingers could manage. “I didn’t want to insult my hostess by dressing down.” She was awash in a froth of purple-gray fabric, as many bows and furbelows as could be tucked into every nook and cranny. Her narrow frame was almost invisible under the flounces that adorned her shoulders and chest, so that it almost looked as though she had the bust to fill it out. She even had a matching hat, complete with enormous feathers and a stuffed pigeon, atop her tightly curling black hair.
It was all glamour, of course. So was Mardalan’s table and chairs, and her food and drink. But they were faeries. They lived and breathed glamour; there was hardly a way to separate themselves from it.
Mardalan laughed, remembering the number of balls and parties Lal had come to wearing a black turtleneck sweater and black jeans, but chose not to ask why Lal would dress well for a meeting she had requested and not at a formal ball. Instead, she raised the teapot, fragrant steam issuing from its delicately curved mouth. “Tea, Lal?”
The two of them were silent as Mardalan performed the ritual of pouring tea into both of their cups, adding milk and sugar as requested (Lal inclined her head to say yes to two lumps of sugar, and shook her head to deny milk), and placing a fragile sugar cookie on each of their saucers.
She lifted her teacup, but did not drink yet, watching Lal. Lal lifted her own teacup and brought it to her face, closing her eyes as she breathed deeply through her nose. “You provide a lovely spread, as always, Mardalan.”
Mardalan inclined her head at the acknowledgment of her hospitality. “I could provide something lovely for the ears as well as the other senses, if you would allow it.”
Lal gave a sneering, sideways look to Mardalan’s musicians, who were curled up asleep in a corner of the hall. “Yes. I appreciate your hospitality in acceding to the wishes of your guest and not forcing me to listen to music produced by slaves.”
“Feloc is no slave. He is a prisoner.” Mardalan sipped her tea. Perfect, as always. “But we have had this argument before.”
“We have. You will not change my mind, and I know I will not change yours.”
They were silent again. Lal took several sips of her tea and a bite of her cookie, her teeth bared as though she were snarling.
Mardalan finally put down her cup with a sigh. “Come, Lal. Out with it.”
Lal, to her credit, did not dissemble. She put down her cookie and looked directly into Mardalan’s eyes. “We want to reopen the school, but we must guarantee the safety of our students.”
“Your students have always been safe.” Mardalan lowered her eyelashes and reached for her cup again.
“Safe until you steal them from their beds. Safe until you ruin their lives. Safe until you destroy their futures.” There was a snap to Lal’s voice.
“What do you expect me to do about it?”
“The court is yours now. No more infighting. That means you have the power.”
Mardalan raised her eyes again and smiled at Lal. “Now you are saying things I agree with.”
Lal had not moved. “But you are not the only thing in this forest.”
“Of course not. You live here somewhere, as well.”
Lal did not rise to the bait—but Mardalan had known she would not; her dwelling place was well hidden, even from the prying eyes of Mardalan’s best spies. “Because you are the one with power, I need your help to keep the students safe.”
An unladylike snort escaped Mardalan. “Would you trust it if I did? You know I have no love for the humans.”
“I would trust your word, Mardalan. I know your word, and it is good. I know you do not love the humans like I do, but you are not interested in having your people interfere with them, either.”
Mardalan took a long sip of her tea, then set it down. “Very well. I will bind my people to an agreement that will genuinely stop them from harming or touching the humans. Will that satisfy you?”
Lal took another vicious bite of her cookie. “Perhaps. What’s to stop you from becoming another ruler like Alaineth, granting permission to touch the humans to any who gain your favor?”
Mardalan smiled, imagining what her people would do to gain her favor if they thought it might mean doing what they wanted to, or with, the humans. “Nothing, I suppose.”
Lal finally bent her head, lifting her arm and touching her forehead with her long fingers. “That’s not good enough, Mardalan. You need to understand how we feel about these humans.”
“They’re humans. Lesser beings.” Mardalan shook her head. “Why is it so important to you that they not be harmed? Why reopen the school? Without the humans here, we might live in peace.”
“I’ve tried to explain this to you. You never listen.” Lal gave her shoulders an impatient shake, as though her dark silk and lace were irritating her.
“What’s the point? I have my own humans here, anyway.” She gave a negligent wave at her sleeping musicians. “They never interest me. Only what they can do. I do love music.”
“You’ve never—“ Lal lifted her head and shook it. “You don’t speak to those humans. Not as fellow beings. You just take them and use them. No consideration at all.”
Mardalan frowned. “Why should I—“
“I don’t mean that you should be talking to your musicians and asking them their deepest desires. But you treat them like props. They do have deepest desires. If you had started with a conversation, you would know.”
“Conversation? With humans?” Mardalan rolled her eyes. Conversation with other faeries was bad enough—as Lal was showing her so clearly.
Lal smirked. “It’s no worse than conversation with most faeries I know, and far better than with some.”
“Have you ever bothered to try it? They might surprise you. In your hundreds of years, don’t you miss surprises?”
Mardalan looked down at her spread, admiring it anew. “I don’t need surprises. I have power.” She lifted the remains of her cookie and popped it into her mouth, letting it dissolve pleasurably on her tongue.
“You do miss surprises. Find a few humans to talk to. Just try it out.”
“How?” Mardalan was irritated that Lal believed she knew her better than she knew herself.
“We don’t only need a way to keep the students safe in the fall. To reopen, we will also need a teacher to replace Strega.”
Mardalan sneered at the mention of Strega. “She was weak.”
“I would have thought she’d want to stay, now that we’re making such strides in human-faerie relationships, but it seems she’s made up her mind. So what do you say?”
“What?” Mardalan looked up from her tea, confused.
Lal was smiling. “Come teach a class. You’ll have contact with dozens of students. I guarantee you’ll be surprised.”
“And what if I’m not?”
“At the end of the semester, we can reevaluate. Let me bind you and your people to keeping the students safe from harm. Come to campus a few times a week to teach. If they never surprise you, I’ll unbind you and you can have free rein again.”
“You’re very confident.”
“I’ve been working with humans for a long time.”
“What if I want to leave at the end of the semester? Will you let me go?”
“Of course. You can leave now, if that’s really what you want. You know that, right? There’s no more ruler. There’s no more constraints.”
Mardalan looked around at her hall. “I’d need time to put my affairs in order. The court…”
“There’s time. Just let me know who you’re leaving in charge, so I can negotiate with them.”
Mardalan straightened her spine. “No. I’ll take your bet.”
“Very well, then. Let’s write up an agreement for you to bind your people to, and for me to bind you to.”
Mardalan swallowed the rest of her tea, then snapped her fingers. Her servant scurried up. “Parchment and pens,” she told him. As he rushed off for the supplies, she looked back up at Lal, pressing her lips together. “This will be interesting.”
“Yes,” Lal agreed, a faint smile still playing around her lips. “It will be interesting indeed.”
Mardalan lay back on a chaise, throwing her hand over her eyes. She couldn’t believe the semester was finally over. How did Lal and Rook manage it, teaching not just one class, but several per semester? All those human students! It was exhausting.
“It’s been a long twelve weeks, hasn’t it?” came Lal’s voice.
Mardalan lifted her arm and glared at the other faerie. “How did you get here?”
Lal raised her eyebrows. She was dressed again in her customary black human clothing, but at least she’d made the concession of a skirt, rather than jeans. “Are you telling me I am unwelcome? I have always been permitted in your hall before.”
Mardalan sighed and sat up. “No, of course not. You are welcome here.” She was irritated—she knew why Lal was here, and she didn’t like it—but that did not give her leave to be a discourteous host.
She gestured, and another chair appeared for Lal to sit on. Mardalan would not honor her guest by providing a comfortable chaise when she had not honored the space with her dress; it was a tall, hard wooden chair.
Lal sat as gracefully as though she were surrounded by heavy skirts. “The semester is over.”
“And how was it for you?”
“It was most illuminating.” Lal smiled and shook her head. “Once again, the humans managed to surprise me.”
“I thought that was what you liked about them.”
“This was a bigger surprise than usual.” Lal drummed her fingers against the side of the seat. “I am not saying that I am not pleased. I am merely… surprised by how surprised I am.”
Mardalan shook her head. Lal was often baffling, but that had been an especially baffling little speech.
“And how was it for you?” Lal asked. “I was pleased to see that all your students passed your final exam, so you must have done a fairly good job teaching. I’m proud of you.”
Mardalan snapped her fingers for her servant. “Wine,” she said when he had arrived in a rustle of greenery. “Lal, will you partake?”
“Two glasses of the darkest red,” Mardalan said, and her servant scurried off to obey.
Lal looked around. “I’ve just realized something.” She was being excessively polite, allowing Mardalan to take her time answering the question. Mardalan recognized the unusual courtesty, and it only irritated her more.
“No music. I don’t even see your human musicians—just Feloc in his cage.”
Mardalan waited until she had a wineglass in her hand, so she could look into the dark liquid and not at Lal. “I let them go.”
“You…” Lal’s wineglass shook in her hand as she looked around wildly.
Mardalan looked up and smiled, pleased that she’d managed to render the smooth-talking Lal speechless. “You value surprise, do you not?” She took a sip of her wine.
Lal snorted. “You didn’t do it to please me.”
“No.” Mardalan turned the glass about in her hand, admiring the way the wine shimmered in the light. “I did it because… well, you were right.” She had to force the words between her teeth. “Humans are far more interesting than I gave them credit for. They are not the puppets I took them as, and I could no longer treat them that way.”
Lal shook her head. “That is far better than I expected of you. Whether or not you did it to please me, Mardalan, I am pleased.”
“They did surprise me, many times,” Mardalan said. “When there was an injury in my class… I was surprised by my fear. I did not want a student hurt. I realized that it is not so different than what I did to the musicians, so I gave them back their freedom. And when the ghost came to my class—I knew about her, of course, but I had thought she was a phenomenon, not a person. Now I know otherwise.”
“You knew—“ Lal began to laugh, then took a deep drink of her wine. “Mardalan, you continually surprise me. This is why I come here, despite disapproval of your ways. Perhaps now those ways I disapprove are changing.”
Mardalan shook her head and drank her wine.
“So, will you return next semester?” Lal asked. “Or do I still need to find a permanent replacement for Strega?”
Mardalan frowned deeply into her glass. “How long do I have to recover?”
“Six weeks. You’ll be fine.” There was a smile in Lal’s voice.
Mardalan knocked back the rest of her glass. “I’ll have to take your word for it, as you have more experience than I do. I reserve the right to change my mind at any time, of course.”
“Of course.” Lal set her glass down by the chair, then rose. “I’ll take my leave of you and let you rest.”
Mardalan inclined her head in thanks, and looked about for her servant as Lal walked away—she needed more wine.
Lal stopped before she had reached the door, though, and turned back. “Mardalan. What happened to them?”
“What happened to who?” Mardalan turned to her servant and handed him her empty glass; he knew what she wanted and scurried off.
Lal raised her eyebrows. “The human musicians. Where did they go when you released them? Will I find them wandering, lost, on campus? Did they even survive?”
Mardalan shrugged, confused and irritated by the question. “What do I care where they went? They aren’t mine anymore.” Her servant returned with her wine glass, and she clutched the delicate crystal.
Lal opened her mouth for a moment, then closed it again and shook her head. “Perhaps you haven’t changed so much. Farewell, Mardalan. I shall see you again in six weeks.”
“Oh, you won’t miss the Solstice ball, will you?” Mardalan glanced over her shoulder at Feloc in the corner. “He’s been learning all kinds of new music.”
Lal smiled. “If I’m invited, I’ll be there.”
“Of course you’re invited. We’re friends, aren’t we?”
“Of course.” Lal’s smile widened. “In two weeks, then. Goodbye.”
“Goodbye.” Mardalan returned her attention to her wine, and when she had taken a long sip, Lal was gone.
Tuesday, November 14
Corrie and Edie walked into their Intermediate Elementalism class. Corrie was working to hold back a smirk. Professor Lal probably wouldn’t like it if she was smirking at her. It would make her even less likely to take what Corrie was about to say seriously.
The two of them waited at the front of the class, by Professor Lal’s desk. There was also another presence along with them. Corrie couldn’t see or sense her, but—unless she had chickened out—she knew she was there.
Professor Lal frowned as soon as she came in, striding directly to her desk. “Corrie, Edie. Is there a problem?”
Corrie shook her head, working even harder to control her smirk. “Everything’s going well. We’ve just brought a guest to class, and wanted to let you know.”
Professor Lal raised her eyebrows. “A guest? Is that so.”
The professor obviously didn’t believe them. “Yes. Her name is Alice Atkins.”
“We’ve spoken to her,” Edie said. “She told us her name. She doesn’t like to communicate with people, but was willing to work with a medium.”
Professor Lal looked between the two of them, her lips pressed thin. “This is the ghost.”
“She has always hidden from magic professors because she was ashamed and embarrassed,” Corrie said. “We’ve known she was haunting Mary Thomas for months, and we spoke to her for the first time about a month ago, but we didn’t find out until recently how you and the other magic professors managed to not know about her.”
“We’ve investigated,” Lal said.
Corrie nodded. “She always hid from you and the other magic professors because she died making a huge mistake with a spell. She was trying to impress her magic professors at the time. Seeing any of you reminded her of the reason she died. You can understand how that would be painful.”
“I…” Lal’s eyes roamed around the air between Corrie and Edie as though she would be able to see Alice. Corrie was perversely pleased that they’d managed to render the faerie speechless.
“She doesn’t remember having you as a professor, which makes sense, since you didn’t remember her, either,” Corrie continued. “She remembers Professor Rook, so he might remember her, too. She’s not ready to face him yet, but she wants to—needs to, I think—come to magic classes.”
“Of course she can’t enroll as a student, since she has no way to fill out the forms or take tests, except through the medium, and the medium has their own classes to deal with,” Edie said. “But if she comes to classes, she’ll learn anyway.”
“And then maybe she’ll understand whatever went wrong with her final spell,” Corrie said.
Professor Lal sighed. “How do you know she’s here?”
“Alice?” Corrie said. “You don’t have to talk to Professor Lal, but can you move something on her desk so she knows you’re here?”
For a moment nothing happened, and Corrie feared that Alice had decided she couldn’t face a magic professor after all. But then a folder on Professor Lal’s desk flipped open and the papers slid onto the floor. To her credit, Lal didn’t jump, just looked down at the pile on the floor with her lips pressed together.
“Well, I can hardly stop your guest from attending class,” she said. “Not if she can’t be seen or touched. But I’ll get in touch with Lin and see if she can’t help illuminate this a little more.”
Corrie and Edie grinned at each other. Lal pointed at the papers on the floor. “However, we did have a handout for class today. So unless your ghost is willing to pass the papers to your classmates, the two of you have just volunteered to pick them up and do that. And hurry, because class ought to have started several minutes ago.”
Corrie shrugged. “Fair enough.” She bent, picked up the papers, gave half the stack to Edie, and began handing them out.
They’d helped Alice as best they could—and that had been quite a lot. From here, any more changes that had to be made, she could make herself.
Saturday, November 11
Dawn was very disappointed that her friends had managed to actually get Alice’s full story without her present. When Roe managed to get in touch with Otis Atkins, she insisted that they all had to be there when Alice got to speak to him. Link had given Otis Roe’s phone number, and Roe had given Otis the basics of the situation, but they needed him to talk to Alice himself. Between his schedule, Lin’s, and everyone’s classes, it had taken them a few weeks to schedule something.
Finally, though, they all crowded into Annie’s room one more time and watched Lin sit in the chair and brace herself. She waited a moment, then frowned, her eyebrows drawing together quizzically. Dawn would have thought it was Alice who was confused, except this still seemed to be Lin’s expression. Was Alice somehow failing to show up?
Lin’s eyebrows lifted. “It’s okay,” she said softly. “I came here today to help you. I won’t come into this building unless it’s to help you.”
Then she gasped, closing her eyes, and when they opened again it was Alice who looked through them. She looked around. “Is it time? Really?”
“It’s time,” Annie said, smiling.
Roe took out her phone and dialed, setting it to speaker so they could all hear it ring. Then a male voice on the other side said, “Hello? Roe?”
“Hi, Mr. Atkins,” Roe said. “We have someone who wants to talk to you. Will you identify yourself?”
“Yes, of course. My name is Otis Atkins. I’m named after my grandfather, who was named after his father. I have an aunt named Alice Norburn. She was named after her great-aunt, Alice Atkins, who died while she was attending Chatoyant College.”
Alice gave another gasp and began to cry. “I’m Alice Atkins.”
“I know,” Otis said. “It’s amazing to be able to speak to you. I wish my grandfather could be here to witness this.”
“Your father is my brother Otis’s son?”
“Yes. He never knew you, of course, but he grew up hearing stories of his brilliant aunt.”
Alice cried harder. “I’m not brilliant. If I was, I wouldn’t have… I would have found a way to learn the spell I needed, instead of having it blow up in my face. I would have returned to help my family.”
Dawn felt sorry for Alice in her obvious difficulty of thinking of herself as dead. It made sense—she was here and talking to them, wasn’t she? And yet, of course, if she weren’t dead, she wouldn’t be a ghost forced to possess a medium in order to communicate. From what Dawn had learned about attitudes toward death in her sociology class, she couldn’t be sure that she wouldn’t feel the same way as Alice after she died. Though, of course, she hoped she wouldn’t be forced to become a ghost.
“But from what my grandfather told me, Otis was very proud of you,” Otis said. “He was so impressed that you had worked hard enough to be able to go to college, and to not even have to pay for it. He never went to college himself, but you inspired him to work hard. Do you remember where he was working when you went to college?”
“Yes, of course. He was an assistant at Nickelson’s Shoe Store.”
“Well, that store went on to be the Atkins Shoe Store.” Otis’s voice was warm.
Alice swallowed hard. “Really?”
“Yes. My great-grandfather owned that store. My grandfather turned it into a franchise—seven stores throughout the state. My father inherited the franchise and ran it well, but decided to send me to college. To the same college you attended. I learned so much here, but I never imagined that the ghost I heard about, haunting the girls’ dorm—Mary Thomas was all girls then—was actually my great-aunt.”
“So my family… they did all right without me?”
“Yes, from what I know. Otis worked hard all his life, but his children never wanted for anything. I don’t know exactly what happened with your sister Grace, but she married and had seven children, so I assume she was happy, too.”
Alice gave a watery chuckle, but her tears seemed to have stopped. “Grace always doted on children. I’m glad she got what she wanted. What about my father?”
“I’m afraid I don’t know. My grandfather never spoke about his own grandfather. But the family didn’t fall into ruin. All his descendants have happy lives.”
“Your life is happy?”
“Very much so. I retired a few years ago from my job as a lawyer. My father sold the shoe stores, and the money was divided between my three daughters. I have two grandchildren now and another on the way. Maybe if it’s a girl, I’ll ask them to name her Alice.”
“Oh, no, you don’t have to do that,” Alice said quickly. “I’m so happy to hear you’re all doing well. It’s… it’s all I could ever ask for.”
“Would you like me to come visit you?” Otis asked. “Perhaps when the students here are on a break?”
“I… no. You don’t have to do that.” It was plain from Alice’s face that she didn’t like the idea of her great-grandnephew visiting her. Dawn agreed that it was a strange thought. If she had lived, they would have never met unless she had lived a very long time indeed. “You won’t be able to see me, after all, and I can’t ask for any more of this medium’s time.”
“Oh. Yes, that makes sense. Still, it’s good to know that you’re there.”
“Thank you so much for speaking to me, Otis,” Alice said.
“Thank you for speaking to me,” he said.
“Can I ask a question?” Corrie put in.
“Certainly,” Otis said politely.
“When you went here, you heard stories about the ghost, right? How come you never investigated?”
“I, well—“ He gave a little cough. “I did, once. A friend and I, along with our girlfriends, who were living in Mary Thomas, tried to have a little seance. But the ghost tipped over our candles. Nearly set Mary Lou’s dress aflame.”
Alice’s hands flew to her mouth. “Oh, I’m so sorry.”
“No worries. I didn’t think much of it, really. I didn’t know who you were, and you obviously didn’t know who I was.”
“No, I… suppose not.”
There was a moment of silence. Then Roe spoke. “Mr. Atkins, do you have anything else to say to Alice?”
“Ah, just that she should feel free to get in touch with me at any time. You have my phone number?”
“Yes, I do. And Alice knows how to get in touch with me. Thank you.”
“Goodbye, Otis,” Alice whispered. She covered her face with her hands for a moment, then when the hands lowered, it was Lin’s face looking out at them once more.
Once they had explained the whole story to Dawn, Annie yawned, covering her mouth unsuccessfully with her hand. “Well, now that we’ve accomplished that,” she said, “I think I’m going to go have the sleep of someone with a very light conscience.”
“That sounds good,” Corrie said. “Sleep well.” But she wasn’t looking at Annie. She looked at Edie and raised her eyebrows very pointedly.
Edie swallowed. If she didn’t do it now, she would never live it down. “I’ll come with you.”
“Oh,” Annie said, her cheeks going pink. “Yeah, okay.”
“I need to call Link,” Roe said, following them out of the room. None of them spoke on the walk back to Mary Thomas. Even after they parted with Roe, Edie stayed silent; she didn’t want to say this in the hall where anyone could hear them.
Once they reached Annie’s room, Annie sat on her bed and looked at Edie expectantly. Edie took a deep breath and sat on Annie’s chair. She couldn’t make this more intimate by sitting on the bed.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I can’t give you the answer you want, so the answer has to be no. I don’t want to make you keep waiting.”
Annie looked down. “I can’t say I’m surprised.”
“I’m sorry,” Edie said again.
“It’s okay.” Annie lifted her head with what looked like an effort. “I’d rather a clear ‘no’ now than going on a date with you only to find out that you were just doing it because you felt bad, not because you liked me.”
“I wouldn’t do that to you!”
“I know.” Annie smiled. “I trust you.”
Edie lowered her head, embarrassed. “I wish I could give you a yes. You deserve to be loved. But I… I’m not ready, I guess. I don’t think you’re anything like Leila, but I can’t help thinking about her anyway.”
“Yeah, that makes sense. She really betrayed you. Was she your first girlfriend?”
“Yeah. I had crushes in high school, but… nothing ever came of any of them.” Edie shook her head. She didn’t want to think about those, either.
“What about you?”
“I’ve never actually dated anyone.” Annie sighed. “I had the same experiences in high school. I even joined my school’s Pride organization because I had a crush on the president, but I don’t think she ever really noticed me.”
Edie’s eyes widened. “You had a Pride organization? I’m jealous. My school never had anything like that. I was the only out lesbian there. There were a couple of gay guys, too, but things didn’t go well for them.”
“Things didn’t always go well for the Pride folks at my school,” Annie said. “But I guess we were a little more open-minded. We organized a couple of protests and stuff. I don’t think anything ever came of it.”
“I don’t know if I’ve ever asked this. How did you end up at Chatoyant College?”
“Oh, my family has always gone here. Haven’t I mentioned that? My parents met here, and three of my grandparents went here. My cousin Jack graduated a few years ago. Almost everyone in my family knows how to do magic.”
“Oh wow, you never said anything about that! So you knew what you were getting into.”
Annie shook her head. “None of them said anything about the faeries. Well, to be fair, when I went home for Thanksgiving last year I asked if they knew why the woods are off-limits, and if they’d heard about anything weird happening, stuff like that. None of them seemed to know what I was talking about, and this summer when I told them all about the faeries coming out, they were all shocked.” She laughed. “I don’t know if my mom has gotten over her favorite professor being a faerie yet.”
Edie grinned. “Which was her favorite professor?”
“Unbelievably, Professor Rook! It sounds like he gets a lot more interesting when you get into the higher levels of magic. My mom has always talked about how much she loved his Extending Life class.”
“Wow. What was it like to grow up with magic?”
Annie shrugged. “It didn’t seem very different to me. My parents and grandparents always looked younger than my classmates’ parents and grandparents. There was that one time in elementary school that I had two friends over and we all climbed onto the same branch of a tree. It broke, but because my mom was watching, none of us got hurt—not even a scrape or a bruise.”
“Didn’t their parents think that was weird?”
“I don’t remember,” Annie said. “I don’t even know if they told their parents. I probably wouldn’t have, if I’d done something stupid and almost gotten hurt. I do know my mom yelled at us.”
Edie nodded. “I probably wouldn’t have told my parents, either.” She took a deep breath and sat back in the chair. She still felt bad about not being able to give Annie the answer that she deserved, but it was really nice to be able to sit and talk with her so naturally. She was glad she hadn’t broken their friendship.
Edie raised her eyebrows and looked at Corrie. Was she thinking what Edie was now thinking? If Alice could learn what she did wrong with her spell, maybe she would be able to stop haunting Annie.
“Corrie, do you think Lin would be okay with it if Alice used her body to leave?” Corrie said.
Roe nodded. “If she doesn’t like it, she can just expel her, remember.”
“Is that what happened?” Alice touched her shoulder. “This is a medium… yes, I remember learning about them. That makes sense. I didn’t like being shoved out… but when the space returned, I had to enter. It was half a compulsion, half desperation to make someone actually understand me.”
Edie bit her lip. No wonder Lin didn’t like being around ghosts, if they were even in part compelled to enter her body and use it. That fit with what they had seen, too. If Alice had been given free choice as to whether to possess Lin—well, the ghost they had tried to communicate with a few weeks ago wouldn’t have done it, not when she could just continue scaring people.
“Do you want to try it?” Annie asked. “If you want to stay in the building, that’s perfectly understandable. You’re safe here. But you’re safe out on campus, too. The worst that will happen to you is Lin—the medium—expelling you again.”
Alice took a deep, shuddering breath. “Let’s try it. What do I have to lose?”
She stood and took a step forward. She seemed unsteady on her feet, and Roe held an arm out. Alice took the arm and balanced herself, then moved forward to the door.
Edie quickly got up to follow, as did Annie and Corrie. They made an odd little procession as Alice, moving like a decrepit old woman, walked down the hall on Roe’s arm, with the other three following close behind.
Alice stumbled on the steps, but by the time she’d reached the bottom, she seemed to have regained her balance. By the time they reached the front door, she hardly seemed to need Roe’s arm anymore. She reached out for the handle, but pulled her hand back, hesitating.
“Here,” Annie said. She stepped forward and opened the door.
Alice let go of Roe’s arm and took a step through the door. Her right side, then her left, moved out into the reddish light of the setting sun. She turned to face them, smiling, her hands spread wide. “Here I am.”
Edie couldn’t help grinning. It was a surprisingly beautiful sight. But suddenly Alice gasped, put her hand to her forehead—and then she was Lin again.
“What happened?” asked Annie, running forward. “Did she get pulled back into the building?”
“No,” Lin said, shaking her head and taking a step back. Roe held her hand out, but Lin made a gesture as though to ward her off, and Roe stepped back as well. “I expelled her. I was tired of it. I didn’t want to be moved around.”
“I’m sorry,” Corrie said, walking out of the building as well. Edie followed. “I thought it was worth a try, and that you would expel her if you didn’t like it.”
“And I did,” Lin said, holding her hand out now to stop Corrie. She took a deep breath. “It’s all right. I felt the ghost use my body to stand up, and I chose to let it happen. It just went far enough. I’m going now. I’ll talk to you later, Roe.”
They watched in silence for a moment as Lin walked away, then glanced at each other uncertainly. “Well, it doesn’t sound like she hates you for dragging her into this,” Annie said to Roe.
Roe grinned. “No, I guess not. At least she learned something!”
“I wonder if Alice will talk to us now,” Corrie said thoughtfully. “I mean, using tarot cards or something. We might not have to go through Lin.”
“Let’s try it,” Edie said.
Corrie looked around. “Do you think she’s out here still?”
“If she’s not, then she’s probably back in my room,” Annie said. “And I have tarot cards there. Let’s see… didn’t you say she did some knocking when you were first trying to talk to her?”
“That’s right,” Corrie said. “Alice, if you can hear us, please knock on the door once.”
They were silent for a moment. All Edie could hear was someone shrieking with laughter on the other side of the building.
“Back inside, then,” Annie said, leading the way.
They headed back in to Annie’s room and shut the door. “Alice,” Annie said clearly, “if you can hear us, please knock once.”
They were silent. This time Edie heard a very distinct knock. They all grinned at each other.
“Alice,” Corrie said, “if you know any other way to communicate with us, please knock once.”
This time they were answered with silence. Annie rummaged through her drawer and came out with a box of tarot cards. She shook the cards out into her hand and spread them onto the bed. “Alice, if you can, please pick out a tarot card to communicate with us.”
The cards rustled, as though in a strong breeze. Several of them flipped over, and then they sprayed in every direction—similar to how they had swirled the first time Corrie had tried to communicate with the ghost, but without as much force, so even though a few of them hit Annie, they fell down harmlessly.
Edie took a deep breath. “Alice, are you frustrated? Please knock once for yes, twice for no.”
There was a knock. Edie nodded. “You’re having trouble controlling the cards?”
“That’s what I thought,” Edie said. “This must be very frustrating for you. I’m sorry. We’ll try to come up with another way to communicate with you.”
There was a pause, then another knock, and the girls all laughed.
“Alice, while we’re thinking, do you want to try one other small thing?” Corrie asked. She paused, but there was no response. “I was thinking that you could follow us to our dorm—me and Edie, that is.” She gestured at Edie. “If you are able to leave the building without the medium, you can let us know once we’re there, and then we’ll know you can move around campus on your own.”
Edie held her breath for a moment. Alice knocked. She grinned.
“Great!” Corrie said. “Let’s go!”
She led the way back down the stairs and out of the building; Annie and Roe came with them, too, plainly curious. They didn’t go quickly, in case Alice couldn’t move quickly without a body. Inside Sayer, they went up the stairs and into Corrie and Edie’s room.
Dawn looked up from her desk when they entered. “Hey, there you are,” she said. “Where have you been?”
“Shh,” Edie said.
Corrie closed the door carefully behind them and looked around. “Alice?” she said. “Are you here?”
For a moment Edie thought they had failed. Then there was a knock.
Edie and Annie cheered. Corrie and Roe high-fived. Dawn stared at all of them. “What the heck did I miss?”
Edie looked at Corrie, and all of them started to laugh.
Edie had no idea what kind of spell Alice could be talking about, and she didn’t want to interrupt to ask. It must have been ritual magic; maybe Annie would understand it.
“I lit the candles—I used fire magic to light them all at once. Do you know how to do that?”
“Yes,” Annie said. “I’ve learned elemental magic. I don’t know any spells like the one you’re describing, but that makes sense, since I’m only in my second year.”
Alice looked down. “Yes, it would be too advanced for you.”
“What did it do?”
“What did it do?” Alice’s voice grew sharp. “It was intended to reveal to me the paths to other worlds. Each color of agate should have risen up into a bright ribbon to follow, and at the end of each I should have found the door to a certain world. Blue for heaven, black for hell. I cannot tell what the other colors should have been.”
Edie’s breath caught in her throat and she clutched her notebook tightly. If she had known this spell, would it have shown her the way to Faerie? She had looked so long—had the knowledge been with Alice all along?
It didn’t matter now, though. If Leila was there again, she didn’t want Edie following her. And it sounded as though the spell hadn’t worked for Alice, so it probably would not have worked for Edie, either.
“That’s not what happened,” Annie prompted her.
“No,” Alice said. “I pulled the power to myself in the center of the circle, as the spell indicated, and then pushed it back out to the edges of the circle. But it backfired on me. I remember… I remember great pain.” Her voice faltered. “And the next thing I remember, my room was clean and empty, not mine any longer, and I could not communicate with anyone. I don’t even know how long it has been.”
“What year was that?” Annie asked softly.
“It’s been more than a hundred years.”
“I thought as much.”
“It’s not your fault,” Corrie said. “We’ve found books with bad instructions for spells, too.”
Alice shook her head. “I overreached. I asked for too much. I…” She reached out into the air, as though she could grasp whatever it was she had been trying to reach for. “I thought I was ready for my time here to end, but I was not. I had not learned what I needed to learn.” She shook her head, then dropped her hand back into her lap. “If I had simply waited, perhaps I would have been too late for my father, perhaps not. And now I will never know what happened to my family.”
“I think we can help with that,” Edie said, lifting her head. They didn’t have Professor Strega anymore to help track down family members—but Alice’s family were all humans. They didn’t need a faerie with special knowledge to track down secretive faeries. If they could get on a genealogy site, or find any living relatives of Alice Atkins, they could probably get more of her family’s story.
“We can look for living relatives today. Did you have… well, I guess you wouldn’t have known him, since he wasn’t been born, but we found an Otis Atkins who went to Chatoyant College in 1965.”
Alice gasped, putting her hand to her mouth. “Otis is—was—my brother’s name.”
“So if this Otis was named after his grandfather, or if the name was passed down, then he’s probably a relative,” Corrie said. She turned and grinned at Edie. “Good thinking!”
“We’ll try to find him,” Edie said, “or any other living relatives you might have. Can you tell me your other family members’ names? Or where they lived?”
“It would probably help to know what years they were born,” Annie added.
“Otis was born in 1861,” Alice said in a faraway voice. “Our sister Grace was born in 1867.” She told them the names of their father and mother, uncles and aunts and cousins, and Edie wrote it all down carefully. It seemed to take her more time to remember the locations where they had lived, but she said they were all fairly close together in the next state to the south. Edie hoped they were still in that area. That would make it easier to track down anyone who remembered Alice.
“Does this help?” Annie asked.
“Yes… thank you.” Alice bowed her head for a moment, then lifted it again. “You have given me some hope. I have never had hope before.”
“I have another question, if it’s not too difficult,” Corrie said.
“Please. You have helped so much, I can hardly begrudge you another question.”
Corrie took a deep breath. “Are you able to leave this building?”
Alice looked slightly taken aback. “I do not know. I have never tried.”
“Really? Never?” Edie asked. “You were never so upset you tried to get out of the building?”
Alice frowned and put her fingers to her temple. “I… I can’t be sure. There are so many things that don’t seem to match. Memories that stop and start before they should.”
“Is there anywhere you would go, if you could leave?” Annie asked.
Alice nodded. “If I could leave, I would go to my family… but I do not know where they are now, of course.”
“I wonder if you can leave the building but not the campus,” Corrie said. “If you could leave campus, you would probably have done that way at the beginning of this and gone to your family. Is there anywhere else on campus you would go?”
“No… not that I can think of. Perhaps to the library, to see if there are any books that would explain to me exactly what I did wrong.”
Wednesday, October 18
Edie truly meant to talk to Annie, but it wasn’t easy to get her alone. They didn’t have any classes together, and when they met for meals, they were always with their other friends. With the ghost hanging around, Edie didn’t want to just show up at Annie’s dorm room, so she hoped that the opportunity would come up naturally.
However, it didn’t come up before Wednesday, when Lin met them for dinner to say that she was ready to work with the ghost again. No one wanted to take any more breaks than they had to from talking to the ghost, so after dinner they all headed to Annie’s room. Corrie had suggested waiting for Dawn to finish her shift at work, but Lin didn’t want to stay up that late. Corrie tried calling Dawn to see if she had any updates about the newspapers she’d been looking at, but she didn’t answer—no surprise, if she was working—and they decided it would be okay if they didn’t wait for her.
Lin set herself up in the same way as the last two times and, as before, it was easy to see once the ghost entered her. Alice looked around with wide eyes. “You’re here again. You really want to talk to me?”
“We’ve wanted to talk to you for a while,” Annie said. “A lot of people have.” They’d all agreed to let her be the one to talk to the ghost unless it was necessary for someone else to say something; she seemed to have the best way with Alice, upsetting her the least.
“I didn’t know that.”
“A few weeks ago, my friends tried to talk to you,” Annie said, speaking slowly and carefully, as though thinking through her words as she came up with them. “You seemed to get really upset. You threw their cards at them and, when they followed you out into the hall, you made an illusion so they thought they were going to fall through the floor.”
“I—“ Alice covered her face with her hands. “I’m so ashamed.”
“It’s okay,” Annie said gently. “You can tell us about it. We won’t judge you.”
“You won’t be angry?”
“Definitely not.” Annie looked around at the others.
“No, I won’t be angry,” Edie said. Corrie and Roe agreed with her.
Alice lowered her hands into her lap and twisted her fingers together. “I used to try to talk to people. But they couldn’t hear me, or they couldn’t understand me. There didn’t seem to be any way to make them understand me. This is the first time I’ve been able to have a real conversation with someone. This…” She waved one hand in front of her face. “I don’t know what is happening right now, but I’m grateful that it is. But I started to get really upset when people tried to talk to me, because I couldn’t, and I’m so angry with myself.” Her last few words were half-lost in a wail.
“That’s perfectly understandable,” Annie said. “It must be stressful to be unable to talk to people when you just want them to understand you.”
“That’s not it,” Alice said. “I’m angry with myself for messing up. I reached too far. I wanted more than I was ready for, and I lost everything.”
Edie was pretty sure Alice was referring to how she had died—but she couldn’t be certain. In their last two conversations, Alice had seemed to get upset at the idea that she was dead, so Edie didn’t even know if she understood that she was a ghost. But what did she think was going on, if she couldn’t accept the idea that she was dead?
“I ruined everything for my family,” Alice continued bleakly. “And I can’t do anything to fix it.”
“What happened?” Annie asked. The whole room seemed hushed. “Maybe we can help you fix it.”
“You can’t reverse the process. You can’t…” Alice put her head in her hands. “I know there’s no magic that does that.”
Maybe she did understand that she was dead, but couldn’t bring herself to say it. Edie hoped Annie would be able to keep talking around it. It was a little confusing.
Annie shook her head. “I know that. But maybe we can help you fix the mistake you made.”
“How can anyone do that?”
“I don’t know, but I have no chance of figuring it out if I don’t know what happened.”
“All right. All right.” Alice seemed to shake herself, straightening up. “I needed to graduate. I needed to do a final project. I had to prove myself to the magic professors, to show them that I knew everything I needed to know. I found a spell in a book that I thought would be perfect, but of course I had to test it myself and be sure I understood all the parts before I could perform it in front of them.”
“That makes sense,” Annie said.
Alice nodded. “So I gathered all the components in my room, here.” She gestured at the room. “Juniper branches, candles, agate and amethyst crystals. I arranged them in the prescribed circle.”
Corrie didn’t have a lot of hope that Professor Lal would be the one on duty, but she headed over to the magic building anyway. Somewhat to her surprise, Professor Lal’s door was ajar and the light was on inside. Corrie glanced around the hallway, but no one else seemed to be there. She knocked lightly on the door.
“Come in,” Lal said.
Corrie opened the door and walked inside. Lal was bent over her desk, a pen in one hand, reading something. “Hi, Professor Lal.”
Lal looked up at her, eyebrows arching. “Hello, Corrie.”
“If you’re busy, I can come back later.”
Professor Lal put down her pen and shook her head. “I am not busy. Do you have some concern about class? You are doing remarkably well—though, I should not say remarkably.” She smiled and stretched her arms above her head. “You are doing precisely as well as I expected, given how you performed in your introductory class, and your control is growing every day.”
Corrie grinned. She hadn’t come here expecting or even hoping to be praised, but it sure was nice, especially coming from such a strict teacher. “It’s not about that. It’s just some research I was doing, and I was curious. You’ve been at this school for a while, right?”
“A hundred and fifty years, on and off.”
Corrie nodded, hoping Lal wouldn’t ask her about what the research was. “Did you ever know a student named Alice Atkins?”
“Atkins.” Lal tapped her lower lip with her finger. “I remember an Otis Atkins. Alice Atkins… the name does ring a bell, but I don’t think I taught her. Of course, I can’t guarantee that I have memorized the names of all the students I have ever taught.”
“No, that makes sense.” Corrie was sure that if Professor Lal had taught a student who had died on campus, that would be seared into her memory. Corrie would certainly always remember the names of Elrath, Sean, Payton, and Elena, and she had barely even known Sean.
Then again, what if Professor Lal had taught Alice Atkins, and it turned out that she hadn’t died on campus? Maybe she was just tied to Mary Thomas because she had been a student there; maybe she’d died years after she graduated and returned to campus. That would help explain why the magic professors seemed to be so certain that there was no ghost in Mary Thomas.
“Maybe Alice Atkins was Otis’ little sister, and he told her not to take any of your classes when she came here,” Corrie suggested, grinning at the idea.
Professor Lal shook her head at Corrie. “I do not think so.”
“What about the Mary Thomas scholarship? Were you around when they were doing that?”
“Yes, I left the school for a time not long before Miss Thomas died, but I remember it had been her intention to leave her house and her money to the school. When I returned, they were giving out a scholarship in her name, and I remember two or three girls who received it before the money ran out.” She pursed her lips. “There was said to be some bad luck associated with the scholarship. I can’t recall why.”
Corrie raised her eyebrows. Maybe Alice had died at the school after all. “That’s weird. Why would a scholarship be bad luck?”
“It was given to girls who could not have attended a college otherwise. Perhaps they were not all well suited to this particular college.” Professor Lal shook her head. “I can’t tell you any more than that, Corrie. What is this research related to?”
Corrie bit her lip. “It’s just personal. I read that Alice Atkins made some contribution to magical theory, and I thought—“
“Corrie.” Professor Lal leveled an unamused look at her. “If this was about magical theory, I would know about it. Who is Alice Atkins?”
“I don’t know,” Corrie said truthfully.
“Are you following that ridiculous story about a ghost in Mary Thomas again?”
Corrie tried to control her annoyance. “Why are you so sure there isn’t a ghost in Mary Thomas?”
“I have personally investigated the story more than once, as have several other professors on this campus. We have seen absolutely no evidence of such a thing. Perhaps you should stop chasing nonsense and focus on your schoolwork instead.”
Corrie nodded, taking that as a dismissal, and left the office, frowning. She hardly saw the campus around her as she walked back to Sayer. How could the ghost have hidden her existence so thoroughly from the professors, when she was so very obvious to Corrie, her friends, and especially Lin?