Chapter Two: The Treacherous Art of Making Friends




Chapter Two:  The Treacherous Art of Making Friends




Enough sightseeing. Rachel wanted to begin her new life. Mounting her broom, she returned to the school and went in search of the other flying children.

There were three of them—blond girls about her age. They rode travel brooms. Their brightly-colored, sporty, metal flyers had handlebars, seats, and foot rests like a bicycle. Toward the back end of the flying device, the main shaft swept upward a hand’s span, ending in a elegant metal fan consisting of three large blades that stuck out behind the device like a horizontal peacock tail. Travelers were practical and sturdy but not as maneuverable as Vroomie.

The first girl had striking green eyes and her straw-colored hair was pulled back by a gold-flecked headband. Her face was narrow with a spattering of freckles. The second girl was even prettier, though she wore lipstick and dark eyeliner, which Rachel did not think looked appealing on someone so young. She had an intelligent look to her face. The third girl was plainer and heavier than the other two, but her clothes were of excellent quality, with mother-of-pearl buttons on her white shirt and sapphires in her ears.

All three girls were dressed in subfusc—the most modern of the three forms of dress allowed at Roanoke—white button-down shirts, black skirts, long black ribbons that hung down from their necks like thin split ties, and a black half cape. They looked so smart in their handsome outfits, gaily chatting together. Occasionally, one let go of her high handlebars to gesture expansively.

Girls who liked flying. Perfect friends for her!

Rachel had never had a proper friend. She was very fond of the cook’s grandson, but Taddy only visited his grandmother for a few weeks each summer and at Yule. She also adored Benjamin, the son of her father’s close friend, but again, the Bridges rarely came by. She often visited the tenant farmers on her family estate, but their children had school to attend and chores to do. They seldom had time to play.

Ever since Peter left for school three years ago, she had been by herself. Her days were spent wandering the long halls of Gryphon Park or over the extensive grounds. She loved the enormous mansion as if it were a friend, but it was not the same. She had spent her time alone, with nothing for company except her books, her pony, and, more recently, her broom.

Of all the things she had anticipated about coming to Roanoke, having a friend was the one she looked forward to the most. In the storybooks, school children had inseparable friends. He heart thumping hopefully, Rachel flew next to the other children and waved.

The three girls turned and regarded her. Rachel’s stomach tightened. She did not like their expressions. She gave them a big smile. When none of them returned it, the knot in her stomach grew tighter. She forgave them when she realized they were staring at her broom.

Rachel’s broom was not a light weight aluminum device made by Ouroborus Industries, like the other girls were flying. Hers had been constructed in the old-fashioned way, by hand. The main shaft was deeply polished dark walnut. The ten, slender blades of the fan were alternating slats of mahogany and cherry wood. The shiny black leather seat was low to the shaft to allow her to lean close and hook her feet up behind her if she wanted to steer manually, instead of using the levers next to the short handlebars. The fastenings, handlebars, and footrests were of black cast iron and shiny brass. In the early morning light, the three shades of reddish and dark wood gleamed brightly.

Rachel thought Vroomie was the most beautiful thing in the world.

“Hullo. Rachel Griffin. How do you do?” she called hopefully.

“Cydney Graves,” said the girl with the green eyes, giving her a rather nice smile. Her American accent sounded strange to Rachel’s ears. She gestured at the pretty girl and then the plain one. “This is Belladonna Morley and Charybdis Nutt.”

“Morley…as in Aaron Morley?” Rachel asked.

As soon as the words left her mouth, she regretted them. It was not good form to ask if a new acquaintance was related to one of the world’s most infamous evil sorcerers, the archiomancer who had released the Terrible Five from their ancient prison and aided them in their reign of terror. Belladonna’s eyes immediately grew hostile.

“He was my grandfather,” she said coldly.

Rachel sat there, not certain what to say. How did one make friends?

“What kind of broom is that?” Cydney leaned sideways to get a better view.  “It’s too short for a traveler, too long and thin for a sports model, and it has far too big a fan for a racer.”

“It’s a steeplechase broom,” Rachel answered proudly. “They don’t make many anymore.”

“I can see why,” Belladonna  snorted in amusement. “It’s made of wood! What’s with that? Couldn’t afford a real bristleless?”

 “What is a steeple?” giggled Charybdis, as if eager to amuse the other two girls. “An animal they only have in England?”

The three girls snickered.

Pain slashed through Rachel’s heart. Nothing had as much power to hurt her as insults to her precious broom. But she did not let it show. Keeping up a mask of calm was a trick she and Sandra had learned from their mother at a young age. Her face remained thoughtful and solemn.

Rachel raised her head haughtily. “It is a very good broom. Much better than the ones you’re riding!” Which also was not the right thing to say. But then, they had insulted Vroomie.

Cydney’s eyes narrowed. “I will have you know that my broom is an O.I. Flycycle. You can’t buy a better broom.”

“She doesn’t know a good broom from a bad one, Cydney. Look how tiny she is. She can’t be a student. She must be somebody’s baby sister.” Belladonna moved closer, circling Rachel. “Are those even your robes? Or did you put your big sister’s clothes on this morning?.”

Cydney gave Rachel’s garments a cynical look. “Full-academic is so old-fashioned. Nobody wears it any more. Is your family too poor to buy new clothes?”

“No one wears full-academic except royalty,” giggled Charybdis. “Dread and his cronies dress that way. So do the Romanovs, and some of the Starkadder princes.”

Belladonna rolled her eyes. “Well, she’s hardly royalty.”

Unlike the insults to her broom, this second exchange did not trouble Rachel, as their slights were so far from the truth. She considered explaining that her father was the Duke of Devon and that her proper title was Lady Rachel Griffin. It was impossible to get closer to royalty than her family, unless one were of royal blood. Duke was the highest of noble ranks, and the Griffins could trace their lineage back sixty-four generations, all the way to Hyperborea, during the Roman republic.

Since the Wise lived much longer than mundane folk, sixty-four generations was a very long time indeed. Even the Dutch and Japanese royal families, the oldest royal lines in the world, could not trace their lineage back beyond the Middle Ages, much less the Starkadders of Transylvania or the Von Dreads of the kingdom of Bavaria. She did not know who the Romanovs were, unless the girls meant the family of the long-deposed Russian Tzar.

She considered explaining but thought better of it. Such claims smacked of boasting. Let others think what they may. She knew the truth.

 Rachel looked at the three girls again, with their gold-flecked headbands and mother-of-pearl buttons, and realization dawned. These were the American nouveau riche, famous for flaunting their wealth. Coming to riches so recently, they did not understand the principle of true elegance. Rachel’s family owned a town, but the Griffins did not parade around with jewels on their robes. They had far too much class for that.

Not that Rachel disliked Americans. In fact, she admired the spirit of bravery and independence exhibited by the Americans she had met in the past. But she was not sure she was going to like these particular Americans. She felt sorry for these girls. But the sorrow was tinged with a fear.

Perhaps she was not going to find a friend here after all.

The four of them emerged onto the emerald green lawns of the Commons, the fields that stretched from the main building down the length of the campus to the lily pond. To their left lay the reflecting lake with its small pleasure boats. The boats had eyes painted on them and could move of their own accord. On the far side of the lake rose the main building, the great Roanoke Hall. The dining hall was in the center. The right side housed the Upper School, which took students between the ages thirteen and sixteen; the left side housed the college, which started at seventeen. The ages of students attending the Upper School and the college differed slightly from those attending mundane high schools and colleges.

Roanoke Hall resembled the Chateau de Chambord, which Rachel’s family had visited in France. Like Chambord, this building had been designed by the great sorcerer Leonardo Da Vinci. It was a massive castle with enormous round towers. Dozens of lesser spires and gables graced the roof. Six bell towers rose above the rest.

Rachel felt as if these towers and spires called to her, as if they were whispering, asking her to come and fly between them—preferably at high speed. She gripped her handlebars tightly, smiling, eager to accept the challenge.

What a wonderful place to own a broom!

The forest flanked the main chateau and the reflecting lake. Through the trees, birches and hemlocks, she could see the towers of the other dormitories, including Dee Hall, where she had secretly hoped to be assigned, even though generations of her family had all lived in Dare Hall. Each dorm was devoted to students studying one of the seven Sorcerous Art. Each had its own character and nature.

To the right, the Commons stretched several hundred yards to a lily-covered pond. To either side were walled gardens, ivy-covered out-buildings, the gymnasium upon which grew purple wisteria, fountains, statues, domed memorials, and an Oriental garden. In the distance, beyond the pond, she could make out the double row of trees leading to the docks. She could also hear the creek, which through the woods to the east.

Near the reflecting lake, an astonishingly handsome boy with golden curls was chasing a long white and green ribbon. He charged forward laughing loudly as he went. The other girls flying with Rachel stared at him, mesmerized.

No. He was not chasing a ribbon. He was chasing a dragon.

“Sigfried Smith!” shouted the three girls in unison. Rachel feared they were going to swoon and fall from their brooms. She glanced at the boy with interest and saw they were correct. It was Sigfried the Dragonslayer, the most famous boy in the World of the Wise.

The girls began all babbling at once.

“They say he’s an orphan. And raised in the mundane world, too!”

“In a truly Dickensian orphanage, in the worst part of London.”

“And he’s rich as Croesus!”

“Do you think he really killed a dragon in the London sewers?”

“A giant one. All scales and fire!”

“I saw a picture in Mirror of the Wise.”

“Where else would an orphan boy get a fortune?”

In unison, they all crooned, “And he’s got a pet dragon!”

Rachel turned away with a pang of regret. The boy looked so charming and energetic, but there was no point in joining the gaggle. With so many pretty girls to choose from, a boy like that—handsome, famous, and rich—would never pick someone like Rachel to be his friend.

Instead, she zoomed forward and looked more closely at the dragon creature, as it zig-zagged along the edge of the reflecting lake. Its long serpentine body—which sometimes seemed to be ten feet long and sometimes twenty—was covered with soft white fur on top and emerald scales on the underside. Its frippery—immensely long whiskers, tail puff, and the mane that ran down the length of its body—were jade green. Short horns curled above its almost wolf-like head. It was a lung, a river spirit from the Far East. Only, according to the news glasses, no one had ever seen one like Sigfried’s.

It was so beautiful. She wished she could reach out and pet it.

The dragon turned and looked at her with its large jade eyes. Rachel regarded it back. Their eyes met. He looked so intelligent, so mentally active, Rachel could not help smiling.

“Flying brooms! Wicked cool!” Sigfried exclaimed behind her. He had an English accent, too, though it was working class. The familiarity of it made her feel more at home. Turning, Rachel saw him peering closely at Belladonna’s red bristleless.

“Where do you attach the bombs?” Sigfried peered at the device. “These things look like they don’t even have missile bays! How do you expect to blow up a lecture hall during a dull class without missiles?”

Rachel burst out laughing. Behind her the three blonds giggled, but they seemed uncertain, as if they did not know what to make of him.

“What a cute accent!” exclaimed Charybdis, batting her blond eyelashes at him.

It amused Rachel to watch the girls gush over the famous boy. She did not much care for them, but she had to admit they made a cute picture, all giggling and blushing in their smart black and white uniforms. She bet the boy liked it.

Boys were like that.

Rachel herself was not much interested in boys, except for her enduring crush from afar on John Darling, the son of world famous James Darling, Agent. She realized suddenly that John must be somewhere on campus. The thought made her slightly breathless.

“How fast can it go?” Sigfried ignored the girls, his entire attention on their brooms. “If I fly fast enough, can I ram through a wall? Can it emit an oil slick and make people skid in mid-air? Do people who fly too high freeze, so that their corpses circle the earth forever? Have any sorcerers taken a broom to the Moon? Mars? If not, I want to be the first person on Mars!” He stared up at the sky hungrily. Grinning again, he asked, “Can I have a go?”

Rachel laughed again. The boy was outrageous. If she had a friend like this, she would be always laughing. The other girls did not seem to be catching on.

“I…guess you can try it.” Belladonna bit on a lock of her shoulder length hair. “Though if you’ve never flown before, it’s tricky. You might want to wait for gym class.”

“One of you could give him a ride,” Rachel suggested.

The other children turned. The gazes of the three young women were not friendly. Rachel blushed. She had not meant to draw attention to herself. She started to pull back, but the boy gave her a grin so bright that the gleam from his teeth could have blinded sailors on passing flying ships. Perhaps, he, too, enjoyed hearing a familiar accent.

“I guess you could sit on the shaft.” Belladonna gestured at the long pole behind her seat. “People used to do that all the time, before the idea of adding seats became popular.”

“Great! I want to go see Stony Tor.” Sigfried spoke with tremendous enthusiasm. His startlingly blue eyes glittered with maniacal delight. “I hear there’s an evil goblin trapped there! The Here of Dunderhead or something. Can we see him? Will he be cross if we poke him with a stick? What if we shoot him with fireballs? Do we learn to throw fireballs here? All magicians in stories throw fireballs—or so I’ve been told. Haven’t read a lot of stories, outside King Arthur. Do we get to be knights?”

“We are not allowed to cross the wards that protect school grounds.” Cydney spoke with haughty primness. Rachel guessed the harshness of her tone was directed at Belladonna, for being the first one to offer to take the cute boy for a ride. “Crossing the wards without the proper precautions could let something unpleasant through the protections.”

“How disappointing.” Sigfried scowled.

Rachel’s heart went out to him. “Why don’t you take him without crossing the wards?”

“Duh! Stony Tor is outside the school grounds,” Cydney looked at Rachel as if she were a particularly unpleasant bug.

Undaunted, Rachel rolled her eyes. “Leave by the door. Go out through the ruined castle and down the green steps to where the ferry docks. Then fly around the island to the north.”

“I don’t think we’re supposed to do that,” Belladonna broke in hastily.

“Well, no one ever said that to me, so the rule doesn’t apply.” Sigfried spoke with extreme confidence.

“Besides,” Charybdis said, a slight tremble to her voice, “If we fly away from the island, we might get confused by the obscuration and get lost.”

Rachel smiled a secret smile. “I won’t get confused.”

She turned to where Sigfried stood on the damp morning grass, his bare feet sticking out from under his brand new robes. He looked so eager and so filled with enthusiasm. Similar to laugher and yawning, Rachel realized, enthusiasm was contagious.

Like two dappled roads cutting through a dark forest, the dilemma branched before her. Should she take the safe path and say nothing? Or take the other path and risk leaving school grounds, which was surely against some rule, to forge a bond with a boy she had only just met?

In less time than a tongue of flame took to flicker, she had made her decision—like when flying.

Rachel leaded forward and patted the back of the long leather seat on her steeplechaser. “Come on, Sigfried Smith. I’ll take you for a ride.”