Irina folded her day dress, making sure the plain linen was smooth and without wrinkle as she placed it on the nightstand. She dipped her hands into the rosewater and splashed in on her face, patting her pale, smooth skin dry with her hand towel. She preferred the quiet of her room to the rest of the cavernous cathedral. It was small, no bigger than a closet, but she didn’t have to worry about running into the wrong people. The wrong person.
“There you are.”
Irina sighed at the words, not because she disliked her roommate, but because she had hoped she could be alone.
“I’ve been looking everywhere for you.” And Cia took Irina by the hands and pulled her over to the bed they shared. They sat down, and Cia tucked Irina’s dark hair behind her ears for her. “Tell me, how did it go?”
Irina frowned at her friend. It was hard to do, with Cia’s sweet brown curls and her freckled cheeks. “How did what go?”
Cia squeezed Irina’s shoulders. “The examination, Irina. Don’t be ridiculous. How did it go?”
“Oh.” She cleared her throat. It was so hard to pay attention to anything but the thudding of her heart in her chest. He must be walking by. I wonder where he’s going. To the library? No it’s too late for reading. She shook her head, hoping she could clear it. “I…did well.”
Cia scoffed and rolled hazel eyes. “You did not do ‘well.’ You were perfect. Did you even get one question wrong?”
Irina swallowed. Her mouth was dry. Why is my mouth so dry? “Yes. I mean…no. I didn’t get any wrong.”
Cia chuckled. “I knew it. And believe it or not, I think I passed, too.” She threw herself back on the bed, still in her day dress, and spread her arms like a star. “Graduation is so near. And then we’ll be free of this place. And you? You can work anywhere in the world you want. You don’t even have to apply. I bet you’ll be flooded with invitations as soon as the final grades are posted.”
“Yes, I’m sure I’ll be asked.” She was sure, because she’d seen it in her threads. Her talent was no surprise to her or anyone else who could see decently. Just like she knew Cia would be above average, that she’d land a happy job and meet a happy boy. They’d get married and have happy children. She’d be an old lady when she died in her sleep. Old and…happy.
“You’re threading in your head again, aren’t you, Ri?”
“It distracts me.”
Cia nodded, her chin dimpling as she frowned. “It’s just a rough patch. You’ve been bumping into him more, what with testing going on. But soon all that will be over and you’ll be so far away from each other you won’t even remember his name.” She smiled as she left the bed to brush her hair in the mirror.
Her words were supposed to make things better, to ease Irina’s frustration. But it only made her want to tear her own heart apart. She would leave him. She would have to try never to see him again. She would be a good Fate and follow her threads how they were meant to be.
Irina lay in bed awake while Cia snored lightly, a little smile on her face even while she slept. She rolled away, facing the other direction at last and Irina found her chance. She kissed Cia’s forehead and hurried out of bed, pausing at the door with her fingers hovering above the handle.
Don’t, Irina. Don’t. Just go back to bed.
But she could hear him thinking, the far away buzzing of his words in his own mind. The sound of it leaked into her own thoughts, as if they were only a room apart and she could hear him through the wall—muffled, but there.
She knew she shouldn’t talk to him. She knew it.
I can’t sleep.
Silence. He was thinking of what to do, thinking of her. He knew he shouldn’t answer. It’s late.
Get some rest.
They were keeping the sentences short, to the point. Even the conversation was a risk.
I’m trying, Soren.
He waited. He knew what she meant. She was trying to do the right thing, to protect herself and her future. It’s what they both wanted.
And he was gone.
The next morning she sat in the dining hall and swirled her smooth porridge, watching the light reflect off the back of her spoon. She propped her cheek up with her fist, slouching without meaning to. Her classmates filtered in and out, each in their day clothes—plain gray dresses or slacks and shirts. The graduates, very few in number, wore black, their collars low cut and more relaxed. The third years were in gray, the second years in blue, their buttons fastened up to their throats and their hair either shaved or in braids. The first years were in white, and their eyes were open a little too wide, as if they were perpetually lost.
One of them slid their tray in next to Irina’s and fumbled with her spoon before she made it all the way to her mouth. She stared at Irina with big blue eyes, her brown cheeks flushed.
“Is it okay if I sit here?” she asked, her voice soft and hushed.
“You already are, so it must be.” Irina was surprised at how blunt her words came off compared to the first year. But she knew with time, if the girl could survive the program, she’d lose the pretty chime in her speech and it would sound plain and hard and to the point.
The first year tugged at her stiff collar, at the rigid sleeves of her shirt and slacks, and ate for a little bit, her lips meeting her porridge. She stopped and set the spoon down. “Forgive me, but you look so much like—” She cleared her throat and shook her head, her braids flopping about her ears. “I mean, I heard Irina Glass went to this school, but it’s just a rumor. And I don’t mean to be rude, but you look a lot like her.”
Irina frowned at the girl, sitting up a little straighter. She tucked the flyaways from her braid behind her ears. “Why would that be rude?”
“Oh. I don’t know. I was just…”
“No, it’s fine.” Irina held her hand up to the girl. “You didn’t mean offense. I wish I didn’t have to be her most of the time, anyways.”
The first year’s mouth fell open, her meal slipping around inside it. “You’re her?”
“And you’re here? Sitting in the cafeteria? Eating breakfast? With me?”
Irina almost chuckled. “I eat breakfast just like everyone else.”
The girl finally pulled her mouth shut and swallowed. She blushed at her own behavior, tinting her honey cheeks. “Well, I hope I get to see you work before you leave us, Miss Glass. It would be an honor—“
Irina lost track of the girl’s words. They faded into nothing.
He walked in, his shoulder’s straight and his chin down, as if he was thinking. He was always thinking. She could hear him fussing around in his head all the time. He skipped his place in the line when the other students insisted he cut in front of them. He nodded his thanks and grabbed a tree fruit. Somehoe the movement made his muscles stretch beneath his shirt. He paused, said hello to someone. Sat down at the table nearest the door.
He had a book in hand, and he put his shoes up on the chair opposite him, flipping through the pages and taking half the apple in one bite. He chewed like that, his head bent and his eyes scanning the lines of text, his jaw clenching and unclenching.
What is he reading? Irina could find out so easily if she wanted to. A quick knock on the door of his mind. But she held back. She watched him instead.
He glanced up as a friend walked in. He smiled at him. They shared a joke. His grin was bright, especially in contrast with his black day clothes. Black, for a graduate. He’d done well. His tests had been held a year before hers but he hadn’t left the cathedral yet. Surely he had job offers. Surely, there were dozens of private parties who could use his services. But he stayed. Why?
You know why.
She jumped, spilling most of her ice cold porridge onto the table. She wiped it up with her napkin, trying not to look completely insane in front of the first year.
What are you doing? We’re not supposed to talk.
I had to. You were staring.
You were reading. I was curious.
He flipped to the cover of his book, still keeping his eyes on it, making sure no one knew they were speaking. Durand. 13th century. It’s boring. You’d love it.
She smiled. It felt good to smile. Like her heart was wiggling free, cracking the icicles off and inching closer to the fire.
“Is it true?” The first year cut them off, leaning in closer to Irina across the table. “Forgive me, but is it true you’re going to pledge to be lifebound? I thought maybe it was another rumor.”
Irina drummed her fingers on the table. There were always rumors about her floating around. She was one of the most admired scholars in all of Op. “Who told you that?” she asked the girl.
She shrugged, her eyes on her food for a moment. “It’s just what I heard.”
“I haven’t even graduated, yet alone decided what to do with my life.” Irina leaned in to the girl. “And I know this is your first year, but it really isn’t nice to ask such personal question to someone you don’t know, rumor or not.”
The girl blushed so deep it might have stained her cheeks crimson. “Oh.”
Irina sat back. Even though she’d kept her voice down, most of the cafeteria was staring, listening. She couldn’t get a word in without people hanging on it, dissecting it, trying to learn her secrets. If Irina so much as sneezed, someone would pick up her tissue and try to extract her talent by sleeping with it beneath their pillow. Anything to have the skill she had. Anything to be her.
“You can all go back to eating now,” Irina said to the room. “I’m not giving her the secrets to the craft. I promise.”
And they resumed, all a little embarrassed that they’d been so nosy. Irina gathered her things and stood, tossing her braid over her shoulder.
“You have a name, first year?”
Irina motioned for her to come closer, then she cupped her hand and whispered into the girl’s ear. She didn’t say anything, really. But that didn’t matter. She pulled away. “Welcome to Cathedral Rei, Milan.”
And as she left, a dozen scholars scuttled over to see what information she’d left with the timid little first year. Milan blushed and toyed with her food, shooting a grateful glance at Irina’s back as she walked out.
That was sweet. She’ll be queen of the first years for sure.
You can whisper to me, if you want.
Irina stopped in the hallway, her stomach turning over, her chest pulling tight as she breathed. Of course she wanted to. That’s all she wanted. Seriously, Soren. Shut up.
And he did.