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The Magnix ride back to Mawihl isn’t nearly long enough. My sighting may have made things a little clearer, but little is definitely the operative word, and I’ve got a lot to think about. Agni believes the man from my nightmare—the man sitting behind the desk in the most recent sighting—must be the leader of the Sons of Morning. The man called Beelzebub. And what Agni knows about that guy is nothing short of horrifying.
I mean, he’s like another Wotan. Except maybe worse because he has more power in the organization. He loves the act of killing—likes to do it nice and agonizing and slow—and he likes to do it in total privacy so that no peering eyes can ruin his mood. Agni says this is different from most Sons of Morning who tend to avoid killing except as part of their ritual—part of what they call a “harvest”—with loads of other takers sitting around and watching, egging them on. Pressuring them to do it.
The idea of a man like Beelzebub ever even touching me, let alone forcing his way into my brain, makes me feel kind of sick to my stomach. Kind of crawly under my skin. I think of Elspeth and that troubled man that Dylan and I saw my first night in Daxa. Think of how broken they both were. Of the way Elspeth begged me to fix her, with that look of panic on her face.
Before I can stop it, my mind’s filled with an image of Beelzebub gripping her head with his too strong fingers, reaching his energy down inside her brain and searing her with unbearable pain. And with that image, every ounce of anger I’ve got just rises up in my chest, my throat. Again I feel like I want to smash things, want to just punch something until it turns to dust. But mostly, what I want to do is make that Beelzebub man pay.
I’m aware of the Magnix train pulling into another station, which means only three more stops left before Mawihl. Only three more stops before I have to go back to being cheerful little Farm Girl again. A thing I’m not sure I can manage at the moment.
A few people get onto the train, and I have to shift a little further against the window to make room for a woman to sit down next to me. Real quick, I check to make sure her essence doesn’t have a stain, just like I’ve already done with pretty much everyone else on the train car.
Now that I know what to look for, I’ve figured out it’s easy enough to search inside a person’s essence without actually needing to have a sighting to pull me in. Without actually having to touch them even, which is good because right now I’m not exactly keen on the idea of touch.
Back at the cave, Agni told me that after Elspeth’s electric display at the Mawihl Welcome Ball this weekend, he looked into her past, and from what he found out it didn’t sound like she was what you’d call a person of importance. She worked odd jobs and lived by herself in a little apartment in the heart of the city. Lived in the same place for ten years without any of her neighbors even learning her name.
She’d been gone three weeks before anyone noticed, and then it was only because Shama Haddad had already started asking around. In fact, it seems like Shama was pretty much her only friend, and Agni couldn’t find a whole lot of evidence of their friendship either. At least not until after Elspeth disappeared.
“To anyone looking in on her she would have seemed nameless and friendless,” he said, “The perfect person to abduct if you didn’t want anyone to notice their absence. A circumstance that is similar for many of the people who have disappeared since Beelzebub came to town.”
It paints a pretty dreary picture, but the thing I don’t get is why the Sons of Morning are even bothering with these people at all. I mean, Dylan’s always saying takers won’t use their essentual energy unless the gains outweigh the loss. So what good does it do them to put energy into destroying people’s minds? Does Beelzebub just get a thrill out of it?
The Magnix train’s pulling into my stop now, and as I’m standing up to get off, I remember President Lucas referring to Beelzebub’s victims as “specimens,” and I cringe. For a second, I feel like there’s an answer in that word. Something important lurking there just barely out of sight in my mind, but I’m so overwhelmed by everything that I can’t see it clear enough. I’ve got too much information to consider and too little understanding of how it all connects.
I feel pretty helpless right about now. Feel like, as best I can tell, the takers are basically winning.
When I come up out of the Magnix station onto the street, I’m so lost in my own thoughts that I end up turning the wrong way. Something I don’t realize until I’ve already rounded the first corner, and at this point, it’s just another thing to make me angry. I spin, kind of furious, back around and smash straight into Leti Kjar.
It’s clearly my fault, but we both go jumping away from each other, sort of holding up our hands in surprise and spilling out apologies.
“I saw you going the wrong way,” she says, her face tinged kind of red and her breath all short and gaspy. “I ran to catch you up.”
It strikes me as a little weird that she’d be so winded after running only one block from the station exit to the corner here, and I notice an odd look to her eyes too. Something halfway between panic and relief. I can’t imagine what that’s about, though, so I just put on my best Sophie Warren smile and thank her for watching out for me.
“My mind was somewhere else,” I say as we start back toward Mawihl, and Leti glances over at me with this knowing little look.
“You think Nando will be in school today?” she asks, and I just stare straight ahead for a minute, trying not to show any emotion.
With everything else on my mind, I’d completely forgotten about Nando’s dad. Forgot that he was killed just two days ago, and that for Nando and pretty much everyone else that I know that’s still probably the primary concern.
“I’d be surprised if he came,” I say after a second, my own weariness real obvious in my voice.
Crossing the street to Mawihl campus, we fall into silence for a few minutes, only breaking it to say hello to a few other kids we know. As we’re stepping through the door into one of the glass walkways near our class, though, Leti catches me off guard by announcing, totally out of the blue, “My sister is dead too.”
I look up at her in this sort of alarmed surprise, but she’s still got that same stoic expression that she always has. The only hint at her emotions is a tense sort of pursing to her lips.
“Not like Padrig,” she says. “Or Mr. Peréz, but it was by the takers nonetheless.”
“I’m so sorry,” I stammer out. “That’s awful.”
If it’s at all possible, I think I’m even angrier than before. I mean, is there anyone I know who the takers haven’t hurt in some way? Whose lives they haven’t destroyed?
We come up to the door to our classroom, and Leti pauses there for a second, looks back at me. Or really, she looks sort of over my shoulder without actually meeting my eye.
“It was a year ago today,” she says, her expression still barely changing. “I just wanted to tell someone that.”
Then she yanks open the door and steps inside, leaving me to wonder why in the world I was the one she chose to tell, when there are so many other people who would probably make more sense. Who she’s known for way longer.
I stand there for a couple seconds before heading into the class after her, feeling again how unprepared I am to face my friends. Even if Nando’s not there, Eilian will be. And Leti, who’s just dropped a bombshell of emotional news on me. A few minutes ago, I thought I couldn’t handle acting cheerful, but now I’m not sure I can handle anymore of other people’s grief.
When I do walk into the class, the mood in there, though, is downright jolly. Most of the kids are out of their chairs, gathered in a tangle near the front of the room. All of them talking at once, calling things out to each other. Some of them even laughing out loud. It’s so far from what I was expecting—so far from anything I’ve been feeling for the last couple days—that it comes as kind of a shock.
I see Leti, sitting up at her table already and looking totally imperturbable just like she does every day, and I wonder how she can be so good at hiding what she’s really feeling.
Eilian and Tua are perched on the table behind her with their feet on their chairs watching whatever’s going on at the front of the room, but with them it’s easy enough to tell exactly what they’re feeling. Tua, with this big old smile on his face like he’s thoroughly enjoying himself, and Eilian, who looks like she’s not loving this noise even a little bit.
Up at my own table, only Hina is sitting there, looking at her phone and seemingly ignoring the rest of the room. Even though I expected Nando to be gone today, as I come up to my chair it’s almost like his absence has a presence of its own. Like the air is heavier around the space where he should be sitting.
I sling my bag down onto the table and Hina looks up at me, her own somber expression acting as a strange counterpoint to the party-like atmosphere in the room.
“Hey,” I murmur.
She only looks at me for a second before glancing down at Nando’s empty chair and then right back to her phone again, but somehow she manages to make the whole gesture feel like some sort of act of solidarity rather than dismissal. Or maybe I’m just grateful not to have to try and talk to her right now because I’m not really in the mood for a chat myself.
A shout of laughter makes me twist around to see what it’s about, and from this angle I notice a new girl standing there in the middle of all the other kids at the front of the room. Despite the fact that some of the people around her are mostly just talking amongst themselves, she’s definitely the main focus of attention over there, and she looks like she’s having the time of her life with it.
She’s big-eyed with eyelash enhancements that are so unnecessarily thick—and yet so obviously painted rather than regular mascara—that I wonder if she’s somehow good enough at particle manipulation that she could do it herself instead of going to an artisan like some of the other first term girls do. I mean, it’s pretty early in the term for somebody to be tackling that sort of painting yet, but I just don’t think any self-respecting artisan would let a girl go out into public looking like there were spiders crawling out of her eye holes like that.
The girl’s hair is the same dark shade of brown that mine would be if Dylan wasn’t regularly retouching it for me. It falls down the length of her back and over her shoulders in these huge, loose curls that make her look a little bit like an anime character. Just now she’s saying something that I can’t hear, but it must be pretty funny because everyone around her starts laughing again.
Leti—as if this new burst of sound is pretty much the last straw for her—snaps her head around to look over at me with her eyebrows all raised, and this time her usually unruffled expression is tinged so obviously with annoyance that it’s kind of a surprise. Probably she’s as irritated by the fact that all this noise is breaking into her own quiet mourning as she is that no one seems too hung up about Nando right now. And from the way she looks at me, I’m guessing she expects me to feel the same.
I don’t have time to really think about how I feel, though, because Tua notices where she’s looking and he glances over too.
“Hey, Sophie!” he calls out, as if I’m the very person he’s been waiting to see. “What do you think, we’ve got a new farm girl in our class today.”
His voice is loud enough that most the kids in the room turn to look at me now, including the new girl, and I get the impression she’s not exactly pleased to be referred to as a farm anything. Also, for some reason, as soon as her eyes meet mine she gets this expression on her face as if she’s even less pleased by the idea of being associated with me.
“You’ve got blue hair,” she says like it’s not even close to a compliment, and for a second I’ve got this totally irrational impulse to just laugh out loud. I mean, with everything else that’s going on right now, I don’t think I can be bothered to care about something as trivial as some girl giving me attitude.
“It’s not really a farm,” she turns her shoulder on me and looks up at Tua through the mess of her tartantulan eyelashes in this way that I’m pretty sure is supposed to be flirtatious.
It just makes me want to laugh more, though. Like, today, I can’t see any of these mundane social interactions as anything but absurd.
“My mom’s an artist,” she says, all proud, and I notice she’s real careful with how she enunciates her words. As if she’s trying hard to make sure her accent doesn’t sound anything like a farm girl’s. “We don’t do any actual farming.”
If Tua’s conscious of the way she’s trying to flirt with him, he doesn’t show it. Just treats her with the same level of friendliness he offers most people
“Then you’ve probably had real time to practice your painting,” he says. “Unlike Farm Girl here, who’s still a total wreck.”
I kind of roll my eyes at this, and Tua and some of the other kids burst out laughing, which wasn’t really my intention at all. I glance kind of guilty down at Leti, but she’s got her phone out and she’s busy doodling something onto the screen with her finger as if she’s totally oblivious to the whole conversation going on around her.
When I look back up, I see that the new girl’s mouth has gone all thin and unpleasant.
“I’ve had plenty of practice,” she says in this tight little voice, throwing a withering glare right at me as if I’m the one that suggested otherwise.
Eilian, apparently noticing the girl’s weird animosity, turns to look at me now, her dark expression touched with just a hint of wry humor and more than a little of her own irritation.
“This is Brittany McNeil, Sophie,” she jabs her thumb in the girl’s direction. “Had to start the term late due to a family tragedy, which she’s clearly terribly torn up about.”
I don’t entirely get the little dig Eilian just made, but that Brittany girl seems to get it, because she says, kind of defensive, “It was more of an emergency than a tragedy.”
Eilian’s lip just sort of twitches and she gives me the tiniest, sardonic little smile that’s hard for me not to return.
“She’s from Idaho,” Tua chimes in. “Isn’t that pretty close to where you grew up?”
The girl would be from Idaho. I mean, just my luck that the first person I meet from back home is basically a total pill.
“Close-ish,” I answer. “In terms of global geography. It’s not like we ever would’ve met.”
“No,” Brittany says, all emphatic, “we definitely wouldn’t have met.”
I’m beyond laughter over this situation now, and well into a sort of bemused stupor. I mean, where is this girl’s hostility coming from?
As if she can read my mind, Leti looks over at me now too. She raises one curious eyebrow, but I couldn’t even guess what she’s actually thinking about any of this because that mask of impassivity of hers is placed solidly over her features again.
Behind me I hear Hina say, so quiet I’m pretty sure no one else catches it, “New girl forgot to leave her angry eyes at home.”
There’s so much about this that surprises me—the Particle-Blind culture reference, the unexpected humor from Hina, the fact that she’s actually talking at all—that I go spinning around to look at her, eyes kind of wide and this half-gaping smile on my face.
But even though I’m pretty sure she meant for me to hear her, Hina looks totally uncomfortable with my attention now. She manages to give me this crooked little smile, but she can’t quite look me in the eyes.
“That was funny,” I say in this quiet under voice, and I’m about to say something more when Mr. Braun enters the room then.
At the sight of him, the class’s impromptu party gets broken up pretty fast. Mr. Braun waits for everyone to sit down, telling Brittany to take a seat at the front table on the left next to a girl named Maria Ayala, and then he basically ignores her presence there while he prepares to start the class.
I think it kind of bothers Brittany that he doesn’t do more to acknowledge her. You can see it in the prim way she holds her shoulders and the fragile sort of rigidity to her face. Mr. Braun has got bigger things on his mind, though, than a new girl coming to school.
“You have all most likely noticed,” he says, in his best autocratic tone, “that young Mr. Peréz is not present today. Under the circumstances, he would certainly have been excused for any number of days; however, he has informed me that he wishes to return to school tomorrow. Our class does not meet on Tuesdays, but many of you—”
He eyes all of us like he just knows we can’t be up to any good.
“—will undoubtedly encounter him, either in other classes or in the halls, and there are certain things it would be best if you refrained from doing. For instance, do not press him for details about his father’s death nor the investigation surrounding it. Do not overwhelm him with any uneducated and unrequested grief therapy you may feel inclined to offer. Simply express your care for him, inform him that you are sorry for his loss, and leave it at that. Let’s not make the boy feel like an oddity, shall we? When he’s ready to talk, he will.”
As I glance around at the other kids now, the mood is the exact opposite of what it was just a few minutes before. I see varying levels of disquiet in everyone’s face. I see sadness, and maybe even fear. It strikes me that all their laughter was really just their way of coping with a situation that felt too painful for them otherwise, and one look at Tua tells me this has got to be true.
Right now, as he listens to Mr. Braun make reference to Nando’s grief, it seems to me that Tua himself is just barely hanging onto his own emotions. Like if he has to hear one more word about it he’s probably going to burst. I wonder if he’s seen Nando since Saturday night. It would make sense, since I’m pretty sure they’re best friends. So if Tua’s so close to exploding like this, does that mean Nando’s doing even worse?
“With so many troubling things taking place in our city,” Mr. Braun is saying, “it is quite natural if any of you feel a bit unsafe these days. Some of you, as well, have experienced tragedies of your own—”
His eyes pass over Eilian and then Leti.
“—so in case anyone feels the need to talk to someone, I will be extending my office hours each day and you are welcome to talk to me. And I assure you that, if you do avail yourself of my services, I will endeavor to be most sympathetic.”
Mr. Braun pauses for a minute, his eyes traveling over the room one last time. Then, with another clap of his hands, he launches abruptly into the real lecture and doesn’t mention Nando again.
“Today we are beginning our discussion of particle transformation.”
With a snap of his fingers, a practice ball appears on the tables in front of us, and with another snap a small rectangular stone appears next to that.
“Proper particle transformation is dependent on your knowledge of the particle patterns of the matter or media in which you are working. By now you are all familiar with the patterns of the practice clay, but take a look, if you please, at the pattern of the sandstone in front of you. The key to transformation is being able to recognize the differences between the two patterns and to discern what needs to happen in order to make one look like the other.”
There’s something oddly comforting about the familiarity of Mr. Braun’s voice. About his terse instructions on the mechanics of changing the clay to stone, despite the fact that I already know how to do it pretty well myself. It’s comforting, too, to settle myself down into the orderliness of the particle world. To explore it in tandem with Mr. Braun’s words.
For a minute I think maybe I could regain some of that feeling of control and clarity that I had after doing tai chi this morning—maybe it might even clear my mind enough that I’d be able to see the whole Sons of Morning puzzle a little better—but then I hear some exclamations of surprise over on the far side of the room and I lose all my sense of focus.
“How did you do that?” I hear Maria Ayala say, and when I glance over at their table, I see that Brittany’s ball of practice clay now looks like a solid ball of sandstone instead.
Other kids are craning to see what all the fuss is about, and that Kyoko girl that sits by Gabriel is leaning way across the aisle to get a better look.
“I’ve been working on transformation an my own for days already, and I can’t do it that fast,” she says, both amazed and kind of annoyed, and Brittany looks like she couldn’t be any more pleased with herself.
She throws a little glance over at Tua, all smug and sort of snidey, and murmurs, “I said I’ve had plenty of time to practice.”
The expression on Mr. Braun’s face right now is real hard to read, but I get the impression he’s not too appreciative of Brittany’s little painting display.
“Ms. McNeil,” he says, and with just the way he enunciates her name it’s obvious he’s not happy with her. “Please refrain from jumping ahead of the lecture.”
He picks up her new ball of sandstone and gives it a perfunctory examination before turning it back into clay.
“You still have quite a bit to learn, and I would like to get on with teaching it.”
His tone as he says this last part isn’t exactly reproachful—in fact, to me it sounds a whole lot less acerbic than most other things he says—but as he places the clay ball back on her table and starts his lecture up again, you can tell Brittany’s pretty upset. At least, she looks to me like she’d love nothing more than to slide down and hide under her table. For a second there, I even feel kind of sorry for her, but then all of a sudden her eyes shoot over to me, all narrow and so burning with anger that you’d think I made Mr. Braun scold her myself.
I don’t know what it is—maybe the particular kind of spite I see her in her face right now, or maybe just because I’ve already reached my limit with this whole day in general—but at this point I totally lose my cool.
I raise both my eyebrows at her and snap my hands out in this sharp, exasperated sort of a question, and for a second I know I’ve startled her. But then she gets this mean little smile on her face, sort of tilting her face up so it’s like she’s looking at me from above, and real slow she turns forward again to look back toward the front of the room.
I just keep staring at her for a bit, my hands still spread out in front of me and that question still plastered on my face. I think I’m feeling about as stunned as I am exasperated now. I mean, seriously. Even Teresa took a couple of days before she decided to hate my guts.
Previous: Chapter 24
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