Authors: Marie Brennan
Tags: #alternate history, #romance, #Fantasy, #college, #sidhe, #Urban Fantasy
The list of people who helped with this book is very long indeed, but two above all deserve credit for its existence:
, who may have had ulterior motives related to asking me out, but gave the best early critiques just the same; and
, whose beautiful retelling of Tam Lin inspired this story in the first place.
Arguing with my advisor over my class schedule was a familiar ritual. We'd done it six times before, like clockwork, once for every quarter of my freshman and sophomore years, and without it, my junior fall at Welton would not have been ready to start.
But usually the argument went the other direction.
Rodriguez had leaned forward to study the list on his screen, but as he read, he sagged backward until he was slumped in his chair. “This â¦ is not what I expected from you, Kim.”
I shifted self-consciously in my own seat. “SorryâI know I should have sent it to you earlier. But I kept waffling, and didn't make up my mind until pretty late.”
That fell short of describing the situation. My roommate Liesel and I had ended our summer vacation by visiting her parents in Dusseldorf, and only got onto campus yesterday, with classes starting this morning. Instead of the normal pre-quarter meeting with my advisor, I was basically presenting him with a
: the courses I had already signed up for, which I'd have to file requests to change. And this time, it wasn't at all the usual spread.
Rodriguez ran a thumb over one eyebrow and sighed. “Well, at least you're not trying to take six courses this time. Unless there's another you want to add, and need me to sign off on it?” I shook my head, but it didn't blunt his wariness. “That's
changes from the routine, then. What brought this on?”
I shrugged, hoping it looked casual. “I have to get to my distribution requirements eventually, don't I?”
“An excellent point,” Rodriguez said, in an amiable tone I didn't trust in the slightest. “One I believe I've made several times now. And every time, you've waved it off, saying you'll get to them eventually.”
“That's not fair,” I objected. “I did my language and pre-Manifestation history courses freshman fall. And my telepathy requirements that winter and spring. Last yearâ”
Rodriguez stopped me with a raised hand. “Yes, yes. But there are
branches to the psychic sciences, Kim, and you've been avoiding two of them like the plague. I expected a list full of whatever divination courses you haven't already taken, with maybe one mundane class as leavening.” His mouth was set in an ironic line. “To be honest, I was practicing my speech about how you don't want to leave your CM and PK distribution until your senior year, and how the time will slip by before you even know it's gone.”
“Well, there you go,” I said cheerfully. “I listened to your advice before you even gave it.”
He should have looked happier. But Rodriguez was in the telepathic sciences, too, and by the frown on his face, he could read me well enough to tell there was something more to my decision than simple common sense.
Possibly I had just been a little too gung-ho about it. “Ceremonial magic and pyrokinesis, in the same semester,” he said, glancing at the list once more. “And you haven't exactly chosen lightweight options for either one. Are you sure you want to tackle both at once?”
Yes, and at the same time, not at all.
But I'd gone over all of this in Dusseldorf, with Liesel as my sounding board, weighing the pros and consâa lot of cons. Not enough to scare me off, though. I grinned at Rodriguez, doing my best to make sure none of my doubt leaked past my shields. “I tear off band-aids in one go, too.”
His resigned sigh was familiar, and welcome. It meant he was about to approve my course choices. I wondered sometimes whether advisors at MIT or wherever suffered through the same debates with
students. Probably; I couldn't imagine that science nerds were much different from psychic ones. And Welton, being the best psychic sciences university in North America, attracted a lot of high-grade nerds.
Of which I was one. “I've still got Historical Tarot,” I pointed out. “So you know I haven't been replaced by a golem or something.”
“Or something,” Rodriguez said, leaning forward once more. “Well, you haven't died from lack of sleep yet; I suppose you're not likely to start now. Though if you'd tried for six courses again, this argument would be a good deal longer.” He tapped briefly on his keyboard, then nodded. “All right, Kim. You're all set. Just do me a favor and remember that you
drop a course if you need to. You're not exactly hurting for the credits, and you still have two years to go.”
“Sure,” I said, and meant it. I
remember. That just wasn't the same as being willing to do it.
My grin faded, though, as I stepped out of Linwood Hall. Campus myth held that Welton had a weather-control office in charge of arranging sunshine for graduation, prefrosh weekend, and the start of fall quarter, but if so, the staff was out sick this year. The sky had clouded over while I was inside talking to Rodriguez, leaving it a flat plate of grey, and the breeze was cool enough to pass for chilly on what should have been a hot summer day.
I'd come out the back entrance of Linwood, and the gardens there were deserted. Everybody must be in class, or at lunch. Which sounded like a good idea, and never mind how much unpacking I still had to do. Brushing my hair from my eyes, I set off through the gardens.
Ten steps in, I felt like I'd slipped into a different world. The hedge blocked much of the wind, leaving the air hushed and still, and the grey sky felt too low, like a ceiling masquerading as open air. The flowerbeds were in full August bloom, tall lupines fencing off bushes exploding with roses, and their colors almost glowed in the flat light, as if someone had dialed up the saturation.
The hairs on the back of my neck rose, and not from cold. Welton's campus was a familiar place, and these gardens were one of my favorite parts, but today they felt alien and strange. I tried to tell myself it was just the jet lag talking, but didn't quite believe it.
The answer, I thought, was to get out of the gardens. Back to the wind, back to people and noise and the rest of the world. And food, I needed food. The central fountain splashed quietly on the far side of the inner hedge, the only sound other than the crunch of my feet in the gravel. I quickened my steps as I rounded the tall bushesâ
And almost ran into Julian.
I didn't even realize it was him at first. What I registered might as well have been a ghost: pale skin, fair hair, clothes that lost their color in the odd light, as if drained by the flowers around us. I yelped and jumped back, and only after that undignified reaction did I realize the ghost was a person, and I knew him.
“Gods!” I exclaimed, pressing one hand to my collarbone. “Don't
that to me.”
“Sorry,” Julian said, keeping his distance. “I didn't mean to startle you.”
I wanted to say I hadn't been startled, but that was pure lying pride. My heart was still going four times too fast. “What are you doing here?”
“Looking for you.”
It sent a new chill along my arms. “How did you know where I'd be?”
Julian's eyebrows rose. “I called Liesel.”
His prosaic answer brought me back to earth with a thump. No doubt Julian could find me with one psychic hand tied behind his back, but he
. Whatever people thought of wilders, they had better manners than that.
No, I'd just muted my port while I was meeting with Rodriguez, so he'd called my roommate. Like a normal person would. I drew in a deep breath, grounding myself, settling my jumpy nerves. “Let's start this conversation over again. Hello, Julian; how are you?”
He smiled. It softened the sharp lines of his face, banishing the unearthly ghost of a moment before, replacing him with the guy who had been my friend since freshman year. The hairs on my the back of my neck still refused to lie down, but that was normal; that was Julian. It was just that I hadn't seen him since May, and it was easy to forget what his presence was like. Skin-crawlingly weirdâbut I would adjust to it soon enough. I always did. “I'm fine,” he said. “I was wondering if you'd like to get lunch with me and Robert.”
“As long as it's quick. I've got class at one.”
Julian checked his watch. “That shouldn't be a problem. What's the class?”
“PK 310,” I said as we circled the fountain, heading for the far side of the gardens. “I'm facing up to my pyrokinesis requirement at last.”
He let out a soft breath of amusement. “You sound so derogatory.”
“I don't want to earn my way through life blowing things up for Hollywood directors.”
“Special effects aren't the only application, you know.”
I did know, but it didn't much change my opinion. “I'm not going to turn myself into a human crash cart, either. What else is there, combat? Not something I'm likely to need. And they don't teach those uses to undergrads, anyway.”
Julian was only half-attending. “Waitâisn't 310 Effect Limits?” I nodded, and in my peripheral vision I saw him frown. “If you don't like pyrokinesis, what are you doing in 310? They design it for PK majors, not divination specialists. Why aren't you taking something lighter, like Small-Scale Control?”
“Small-Scale Control is parlor tricks,” I said with a sniff. “Lighting people's cigarettes with a snap of your fingers, crap like that.”
“Effect Limits will flatten you. It flattens everyone. What possessed you to sign up? Don't tell me Rodriguez suggested it.”
“No,” I admitted. “But Liesel convinced me it's better not to leave my requirements until senior spring, and I figured, I might as well do it right.” Which applied to more than pyrokinesis, so I headed Julian's next question off at the pass. “I'm taking Structures of Ceremonial Magic, too.”
He stopped dead at the edge of the gardens. “Are you, now.”
I stopped, too, and faced him. Julian was almost impossible to read on any level; his impeccable shields blocked all the empathic traces I might pick up from an ordinary person, and his expression didn't give away much more. I'd surprised him, though. “It's a standard introductory course for CM.”
“But not the only one you could've chosen.”
No, it wasn't. I couldn't admit my reasoning, though, not even to Julian. Admitting it to Liesel had been hard enough. Easier to take refuge in annoyance than to face it again now. “So what? Yes, it's a hard class. Yes, Grayson's an iron bitch. She's also an amazing professor, and I'll learn more from her in one quarter than I would from any other teacher in a year.” Assuming I didn't fail out.
Julian remained still for a moment, not blinking. Then he started walking again, leaving me to catch up. “True. As long as you know what you're getting intoâand I'm sure you do.”
His back almost communicated more than his face did. Was he really sure? I didn't know what he was hiding from me, but there was something, or he wouldn't have turned away. Maybe he knew I hadn't just been avoiding CM out of laziness or prejudice.
I didn't ask. He probably wouldn't answer, and I didn't want to talk about it anyway.
We arrived at Hurst, whose glass-fronted dining hall looked out over a charming little pond edged by trees. Inside, those trees' dead cousins were pinned or taped to every vertical surface, a gauntlet of flyers advertising campus clubs and start-of-year events. The lunch rush was in full swing, but Robert was parked at one of the small window tables, feet propped up on two empty chairs to defend them against poachers. He nodded a greeting to Julian, then rose when he saw me. Taking one of my hands in his and planting a chaste kiss on my fingertips, he beamed down at me from his considerable height. “So you've returned to us at last, my lady.”