“All right, thank you,” Elsa said to Vonne, whose report on her day’s student council work was, as always, impeccably typed. Rowan always scribbled down notes, if Elsa wanted notes from her. Her own computer was annoying and slow, and the ones in the library too exposed. Most days Elsa didn’t want paper at all anyway; she liked to hear from her officers in person. But Vonne got away with it, and Elsa smiled at Vonne a little more warmly than she smiled at anyone else.
“And Rowan,” Elsa said, turning away from Vonne. Somehow, Vonne knew that she should leave. Rowan used to watch them playing together; around them it was easy to hide. They never noticed anyone but each other, and they made enough noise to cover any sounds that Rowan made, any catch of breath or scrape of feet. Then Elsa started playing with Althea instead, and Rowan found other hiding places. It was all a long time ago, all safe paths outdated and secret places outgrown.
“I followed Debbie,” she said. “Like you told me. But I didn’t see anything.” She’d seen Debbie catch at Allison’s shoulder, and both of them bend their heads together and giggle; they’d fallen entirely silent when Rowan loomed around the corner. Not that Rowan could loom very much, but she’d coughed and stood in the light.
“Nothing at all?” Elsa asked, steepling her fingers over the desk. The sun caught off her glasses, making them shine; if it bothered her, she didn’t move. The glare was too bright for Rowan to see if she even squinted. “Any little thing might make the difference between success and scandal, Rowan. After that thief last week –” She cut herself off. “You’re a smart girl. I know what your grades are like.” She shouldn’t be able to know that. Even the Student Council didn’t have access to the grade databases. But Elsa could walk into any classroom, lean against the doorway and smile at the teacher: “Oh, you have Rowan, don’t you? I’ve been worried about her; we’ve been so busy lately. What’s she like in class?” And the teacher would answer: “Oh, Rowan? She’s so quiet, I barely remember she’s here. But she does well enough, I suppose. As well as can be expected.” From someone of her background, anyway, the teacher wouldn’t say, and Elsa – would Elsa hear it?
Rowan shook her head. Elsa sighed.
“Did anyone see you?”
Rowan nodded. “Debbie did.”
“Did she realize you were following her?”
Rowan nodded again. Elsa frowned, rifling through the papers on her desk. “Let me see… Mallory followed her yesterday. She didn’t find anything useful, but then, she’s not used to St. Claudine’s. She doesn’t always notice anything amiss. She does say she’s fairly sure she kept herself hidden, though…” Elsa tapped one finger against her lips. She used cherry-flavored beeswax chapstick; Rowan had seen it on her desk. It must be sticky against her fingers; it was probably tidier than the Vaseline that Rowan used. It might make her mouth softer than Rowan’s, too.
“You know,” Elsa said. “Mallory’s a good girl, and she can blend in with a crowd all right, but I’ve never had trouble noticing when she comes into a room. She draws the eye.” Mallory was pretty enough, Rowan thought. Bright hair. “But you…” Elsa said, pushing back her chair. “You’re so quiet, when you want to be. It’s a gift.”
Rowan lifted one shoulder.
“I think,” Elsa said, coming around her desk, “you might be able to slip right past me, if you tried. And I’m very observant. It’s lucky for me that you’d never try something like that, isn’t it?”
Oh God. Rowan dug her fingernails into her palm and shook her head. Her bangs tumbled into her eyes, letting her hide. Elsa reached out to brush them away. Her touch was precise; her fingers rested on Rowan’s forehead for half a heartbeat, soft and cool.
“I do need to find out what Debbie is hiding,” she said. “Maybe tomorrow you and Vonne can keep an eye on her together. Vonne can watch her while you stand guard.”
Vonne was punctilious and perfect and there was absolutely no way Rowan could get away with anything in front of her. She reminded Rowan of a commissioned officer, a colonel or a general; not that Rowan knew much about the army, really, but between soaps she’d picked up a show about soldiers. Vonne was definitely not an NCO.
She also almost never let Elsa down. Even if she lumbered like an ox around corners, compared to Rowan. Debbie was clever; she’d probably see Vonne following her if Vonne was working on her own.
Not that it mattered. Elsa was one of St. Claudine’s fortunate daughters, all polish and power, and would never have looked at Rowan twice if the junior class had found anyone else willing to fill the fifth slot on the Student Council. She didn’t think anything of throwing money away – five-dollar coffee shop cupcakes, special-ordered picnic barbecue, fair-trade tea, movie tickets and twenty-dollar snacks. (All spent on Rowan, nothing asked for in return; she didn’t even seem to notice Rowan never paid her share.)
It didn’t matter what Elsa thought of her. Why should she want Elsa to know how good she really was?
“The Harvest Festival is coming up,” Elsa said, stepping back to lean against her desk. She liked to lean on things during their weekend trips; Rowan had never seen her do it in the student council office before.
Rowan had emails in her inbox asking her about the Harvest Festival: how were the stalls laid out? Where were people likeliest to be? What kind of emergency personnel did the school have on hand? Ambulances, police officers?
“Which kind of Queen do you think I should be?” Elsa asked. “Summer or Winter?”
Rowan considered: Elsa steepling her fingers behind the desk, her lips pursed. “Frighten her,” she had said to Thais. “I don’t care what it takes. I want her crying. I want her never to do anything this stupid again.” The light clear and bright at her back, her uniform bright as a field of snow. Implacable. Pure winter.
But then, the picnic last weekend – Elsa had sat with her on the grass where the whole school could her eating with the charity girl, and unpacked takeout boxes with a smile in the gold October sunlight. The leaves had been beautiful around them, like a festival fire, and she had tilted her head and smiled and waited for Rowan to speak. The clouds had glowed like fairy castles, and the last bright warmth of summer had sunk into Rowan’s bones.
Elsa was waiting for her answer. Rowan licked her lips.
“What’s Vonne going to be?” she asked. Vonne seemed all winter to her, sterile and boring, but – that was stupid. Vonne had noticed her, and never been cruel. Friendly enough, even, a couple of times. It was just that she was sharp, the only one in the Council who could catch anything Rowan missed, and Elsa liked her. Elsa smiled at her, easy and open.
“What does Vonne have to do with this?” Elsa said. “I haven’t chosen my queen yet. Did I do something to make you think I would choose Vonne?”
Rowan shrugged. “You talk to her a lot.”
“I talk to you a lot too,” Elsa said. She reached up, hooking Rowan’s hair behind her ears; Rowan didn’t move, didn’t breathe. “You might look good in red, with your hair, but I don’t think I can see you as Summer.”
Elsa shrugged. “I haven’t decided.” She dropped her hands again. “You didn’t answer my question.”
Rowan licked her lips. Her skin buzzed where Elsa had touched her; she wanted Elsa’s hands on her again. On her cheek, on her mouth, running through her hair, cupping the back of her head… “Summer.”
Elsa nodded, solemn and slow. “Thank you,” she said. “I value your feedback.” It was so stiff Rowan almost laughed. This was what St. Claudine’s did to a girl.
“You’ve had a little… trouble finding your feet in the Council, haven’t you?” Elsa asked. Rowan’s spine stiffened. “You’re better at this than your record shows.” Oh hell. “If there’s anything I can do,” Elsa continued, “to make this a little easier for you, I hope you’ll tell me. I’d like to see the best that you can do.”
Oh no. No no no. “I… have to go,” Rowan burst out, fleeing for the door, and all but ran back to her room. Her roommate wasn’t in, but she’d be back any time; Rowan bolted for the bathroom, throwing the lock shut.
Elsa knew. She knew, she knew, she knew. How could she know? How could it even occur to her? She couldn’t know. She couldn’t.
It took Rowan a long time to get her breathing under control. Finally she slipped out of the bathroom – her roommate still wasn’t back – and grabbed a piece of paper off her desk. A pen.
She wouldn’t leave the note tonight. But tomorrow…