I waved miserably over my shoulder as my friends left ahead of Lady Miranda. This wasn’t actual detention but, I reflected as I opened Kendra’s book, it was worse than when I had been in real detention. I positioned Kendra’s book where I could see it and began to copy.
Within fifteen minutes, I was regretting sending my friends away. I’d finished the copying but now stared at the unlabelled heart diagram. Kendra hadn’t completed hers, either. Certainly, all the information I needed was amongst Kendra’s neat paragraphs, but copying and processing information are different things. I hadn’t taken any of today’s lesson in, and was too scattered and tired to recall the previous lessons we’d covered this stuff in.
Groaning, I fell forward onto my desk, resting my head in my arms and feeling utterly hopeless. How things could be turned on their heads in only twelve hours. But how nice was it to rest my eyes...
The door opened and I sat up quickly, feeling guilty. How long had I slept?
A student I didn’t know stood in the doorway.
“Where’s Lady Miranda?” he asked.
“Lunch,” I answered, going back to my work in the hopes that he’d go away before the temptation to mock me struck him, or before he noticed that I had no idea what I was doing. I stared hard at Kendra’s writing as he crossed the room to leave a few pages on Lady Miranda’s desk, and ignored him steadily as he walked back. I heard his footsteps stop and felt disappointment. I glanced up. He was standing right in front of me. His hair was brownish and thick and shaggy, in need of a cut as much as he was in need of a shave. He had most of a week’s worth of ‘shadow’ darkening his features. I supposed it looked ruggedly handsome, although for me, it was also quite off-putting.
“What?” I asked, so far these days from the well-mannered girl Angela had dropped at the gates two months ago. Oh god, I was becoming more like Renatus. “...would you like?” I amended, too late, but I still reckoned it counted.
“What you in ‘ere for?” he asked, his Manchester accent distinct to me from characters on television.
“Studying,” I answered shortly, hoping my answer was as obvious as my tone implied.
“I heard you was the first kid here to land a detention,” he mentioned. I frowned and shrugged – as if it was his business, anyway – and deliberately went back to my diagram. Which one was the aorta? I vaguely recalled writing the name but didn’t remember what it did or where it was located. I gathered it was somewhat important. The boy didn’t go away.
“Can I see your tattoo?”
I put my pen down and sat back, self-consciously tugging my sleeve even further over my wrist. The marking tingled beneath the fabric, a ghostly reminder of Susannah’s hand on it last night, and her haunting words. The price of our ‘win’ is Renatus’s soul... you may yet live to regret this tattoo...
“No.” I couldn’t believe he’d even ask, when we’d never met before and I was giving him very distinct ‘go away’ signals. “Who are you?”
“Sylvester.” He smiled, an infectiously cheeky smile that was pretty much lost on me in this exhausted state, but I wasn’t looking at his mouth. I recognised his deep chocolately eyes with suddenness.
“I’ve seen you before,” I blurted. I bit my tongue to keep myself from admitting that I’d seen him at breakfast that morning Lord Gawain had announced Aubrey’s betrayal and the news of the missing boys, and that I’d actually been so entranced by his attentive gaze that I’d not listened to a word the High Priest had said. “Around, I guess.”
“I’ve been here all term,” he said. “I got here a few days before everyone else.”
“Oh?” I responded, sitting forward, interested now. I’d arrived on March first, amid dozens of other sixteen-to-nineteen-year-old hopefuls. It hadn’t occurred to me that some people had been here before that date, other than Renatus and his staff, of course.
“Yup. But no show, no tell.” He pressed his hands onto my desk and leaned over it towards me, flickering his eyes to my wrist meaningfully. I figured out the eye-flick, but the rest of his body language was beyond my scope of comprehension. My experience with young males was limited to an older brother, a childhood family friend and my complex relationship with the White Elm’s Dark Keeper. None of my experiences with any of these people qualified me to understand what Sylvester was trying to convey by leaning close to me like he was. I slowly sat back again in my seat and crossed my arms across my chest, enclosing my marked wrist safely under my other elbow. Better to play it safe – I didn’t know the rules of this game.
“Maybe another time. You can keep your story and I’ll keep mine.”
He straightened, a discerning look in his dark eyes. Like I was the one that needed decoding. After a pause that I found slightly awkward, he slid my unfinished work across the desk’s smooth surface and turned it to examine, much as Lady Miranda had.
“You stuck?” he asked, lifting it to read more closely. I frowned a little, immediately annoyed that it was so obvious that I sucked at absolutely everything.
“No,” I snapped, standing to snatch the diagram back. He whipped it out of my reach. I was surprised when I missed, because normally I was quite quick, then remembered to be annoyed with him instead of with my tired self. “Hey! I need that.” He leaned away to read it. I exhaled sharply, frustrated. “This is only funny when Addison does it, and you aren’t as funny as he is, so just give it back.”
“Addison James i’n’t funny, he’s a wanker,” Sylvester said mildly, still reading. “You got this wrong, you know.”
I felt a spark of anger ignite in me and for a minute the tiredness was gone. I used my chair as a step to climb onto my desk and grabbed my work back from him. He looked taken aback by my sudden motion and my successful seizure of the hostage diagram.
“Addison happens to be my friend,” I told him, very coldly, “and I’d like you to go away.”
Sylvester stared at me like he was trying to determine a hidden meaning. I realised now that in climbing onto the desk I’d accidentally eliminated the distance between us, and he was now very close. He smiled that cheeky smile again, eyes travelling slowly from my face down my body to my knees atop the desk. I didn’t know how I was meant to feel about that.
“I’d like to stay,” he said, moving closer so his legs were against the desk and resting his hands on the desktop either side of my knees. I didn’t like the closeness and sat back on my ankles to get my face away from his, unfortunately relinquishing some of my height advantage and bringing me back to his eye level. “What’ll you do about it?”
“Just leave me alone.”
“I hear the Elm takes you into battle with them,” he brought up. “I bet you know a bunch o’ ways to get rid o’ me. Let’s see one.”
A few options meandered across my mind, but I soon discarded them. I was quite sure that the offensive magic I’d gleaned from Renatus’s memory (a storehouse of various spells) was not entirely legal, and not something I should be using on other students. Renatus had saved me from expulsion once before when I’d stumbled upon illegal magic; I wasn’t sure if he’d be able to cover it up a second time. So I ignored Sylvester’s prompt and turned my attention to folding my worksheet up.
He came out of nowhere and I reacted without thought. He was already level with me, and leaned forward suddenly, his face coming at mine. Threatened, I raised a hand between us, just as I realised what he was trying to do. His face struck the ward and he straightened with a pained yelp, bringing a hand to his surprised nose and lip.
“Were you trying to kiss me?” I stage-whispered, mortified. I stared at him as he checked his fingertips for blood; I glanced over my shoulder to check no one had seen. The classroom was still empty besides us. “What’s wrong with you? You have a moustache.”
I didn’t know why it was so important that I point this problem out to him; I wondered whether the random, tired comment surprised or offended him. When I looked back, however, it was my turn to be surprised. He was laughing.
“What’s wrong with you?” I asked again, more of an annoyed hiss this time. How was this funny? He’d intruded on my study time, antagonised me, tried to kiss me – when we’d never even met before! – and now that he’d gotten hurt for his troubles, he was laughing? I refused to feel bad about his face, which I assumed to be sore considering he’d rammed it directly into my ward. It had to be a similar sensation to walking into a window.
“I... I’m sorry,” he managed between gasps of laughter. He stepped back and raised his hands, surrender-like. I kept glaring. “You don’ like moustaches? No, sorry, I’m kidding, o’ course. I di’n’t mean anythin’ by it, kay? I was only playin’, the whole thing.”
“Soccer is playing,” I responded in the coldest voice I could manage. I kept my ward, shimmery and translucent, plainly visible in the air between us.
“That ward is incredible,” Sylvester said, reaching into his pocket and bringing out a crumpled gum paper. He flicked it in my direction; his whole face lit up when it struck my magic and bounced off. “We aren’ doin’ anythin’ like that in Level 1. Could you teach me that?”
“I doubt it. You and I seem to have some sort of communication barrier.” I waved my spare hand between us to better demonstrate. “I don’t mean the ward, either. When I say ‘go away’ you seem to hear, ‘hey, come over here and hang out’.” I didn’t mention the attempted kiss. Even the thought of it made me blush. How humiliating. The first teenage boy ever to want to kiss me was an arse and, even better, a total stranger. And he had facial hair. No other boys I knew had moustaches, and I was utterly weirded out by the prospect of kissing someone who did.
“Snap,” he agreed. He leaned back against the table in front of mine and regarded me from there. “You’re right. I shouldn’a stirred you up like that. I was bein’ a shit. I’m sorry. I wasn’t bein’ serious and I di’n’t mean to offend you, kay? Obviously, though, you can take care o’ yourself.”
He smiled, a not-so-irritating expression, and I relaxed slightly. His comment stroked my pride, one of my many weaknesses, and made me feel more in control of the exchange. I dropped the ward.
“Yes, I can,” I answered, still keeping it cool. “I’ll do a lot worse if you try anything like that again. Now, please, go away so I can finish this.”
“No, wait,” Sylvester insisted, stepping forward again, to which I responded by bringing my hand back up, ready for a second ward or anything else I needed. He stopped and raised his hands again. “I really am sorry. It was stupid. I just though’, I don’ know,” he laughed awkwardly here, “I just thought, here’s a pretty girl – worth a shot, right? Two possible outcomes: either she goes for it, or she slaps my face. Silly me, to forget that with women, there’s always more than two possible outcomes.” He smiled affectionately at me, though I couldn’t fathom why. I tried to ignore the confusing fluttering in my stomach when he said the word ‘pretty’. “If you’ll forgive me, I promise, I swear, I’ll never try to kiss you again – unless you ask me to.”
“Which will never happen,” I impressed upon him. I considered the proposal. “How about, instead of forgiveness, we both just agree to forget the last five minutes ever happened?”
“Maybe that’s a good idea,” he agreed, looking relieved.
“Okay. Done. Meeting forgotten.”
“Deal, but I’ll do you one better.” Sylvester covered his eyes with his hands. I sort of wished he wouldn’t; it would be easier to guess what he was up to if I could read his intentions in his eyes. He removed his hands and shook his head like he was clearing his thoughts away. When he opened his eyes, he smiled and waved once. “Hi, I’m Sylvester. You’ve never met me before but I know you’re Aristea, because, well, I go to school here and everyone knows who you are. I’ve been meanin’ to find a way to meet you for a while now, and I’ve jus’ wandered into this classroom to find you kneeling on a desk, so I have to assume some other guy has been in ‘ere annoying you.”
He shrugged, and I allowed a half-smile. He still wasn’t as funny as Addison, but I didn’t feel so compelled now to let him know this.
“I think I’ll jus’ stand here and contemplate the structures of the human heart,” he mentioned, tapping his hairy chin and looking at the ceiling thoughtfully. “Hmm... well, the superior vena cava is the big vein at the top that brings blood down into the right atrium...” He paused and glanced at me. Suspiciously, but recognising my chance, I lifted my knee to pull my exercise book out from under me. I unfolded my heart diagram and used the exercise book to lean on as I filled in the gaps. Sylvester continued, “Underneath that is the right ventricle, separated from the atrium by the tricuspid valve...” He waited for me to catch up, watching as I wrote. “Tri-cus-pid... valve... Yup, and then the blood goes up the pulmonary artery through the... No, that’s the pulmonary valve,” he corrected, stepping back over to me to point to where I’d gone wrong. This time I didn’t ward him off. I crossed out my mistake and rewrote the name.
It was all done within a minute. I sighed and sat back on my heels when I finished the horrendous task.
“I am definitely going to fail this test next week,” I admitted. Sylvester laughed lightly.
“Not now you have the right labels on your diagram, you muppet,” he said. “Make sure you memorise it. Lady Miranda don’ take kindly to failure in her exams. We have exams most weeks in Level 3. This week there’s just a paper due. More a presentation, really.”
“I didn’t know you were in Level 3,” I said stupidly.
“Probably lots you don’ know ‘bout me,” he quipped, grinning. “Was great – and interesting – to finally meet you, Aristea.”
“Yeah,” I agreed, offering a small smile in return. It seemed to suffice. “It was interesting to meet you, too. And thank you for your... contemplations.”
Still smiling, Sylvester left the classroom. I waited for the door to close firmly before slowly climbing down from the table, not sure how gracefully I could manage this in my skirt. Not particularly, it turned out, so I was glad to have waited.