(Read the previous scenes here.)
“So, have any of you managed to spot him yet?” Carmen asked, sliding into the last chair at the lunch table.
Liesel shoved a forkful of salad in her mouth to keep from sighing. She liked Michele, a French student she’d met through the International Students’ Union. She liked one of Michele’s two roommates, Sara, who was sitting next to her. But Carmen . . . .
“Spot who?” Sara asked.
Carmen rolled her eyes. “Jesus, of course.” Liesel cringed. Carmen was an atheist, and tolerated Michele’s Wiccan faith—and Liesel’s—because at least it was suitably “magical,” but she kept needling Sara over being Catholic. “The wilder.”
“I haven’t been looking,” Liesel said, laying as much stress as she dared on the pronoun. Unlike some people.
She might as well have said it. Carmen snorted. “You’re just about the only one. Even the professors are out for his blood.”
Her choice of words drew a sharp look from Michele. “What do you mean?”
Carmen waved her concern away with a careless hand. “Not like that; nothing bad. Well, I heard some guys on the cross-country team were planning to jump him—but that’s students, not professors, and besides, they’re probably too scared to try anything. And the total bigot teaching my Latin class keeps threatening to leave if the changeling stays, but whatever.”
Her words made Liesel’s skin jump as if she’d been shocked. “You shouldn’t call him that.”
“What? Changeling? My Latin professor said that, not me. I told you she’s a bigot.” Carmen went on before Liesel could find a response to that. It wasn’t just her insensitive behavior that made Liesel dislike her; the girl had a bulldozer quality that made her almost impossible to influence, short of the kind of empathic intervention that was totally inexusable outside of therapy or crisis work. “But no, the professors are all being scientific. Studying him, you know? Not with actual blood—though I dunno; maybe some of them are running the Krauss test on him, just so they can drool over his rating—but they’re all tripping over themselves to see what he can do. I heard that iron bitch Grayson kept him for three hours after class last week.”
“Poor guy,” Michele said. “I’ve heard some scary things about Grayson. But she used to be a Guardian, didn’t she? They were probably just talking shop.”
Liesel had expected the student body to lose its collective good sense over the wilder among them. After all, very few had ever met a wilder, unless they were like Kim and their parents’ work brought them into contact with Guardians. And college was supposed to be about new experiences. But professors? She had expected better from them.
A vain hope, apparently. Professors were human beings, too. Academic ones, no less, who made their living from studying things. Of course they wanted to study the wilder.
Her own thoughts made her frown. It didn’t seem right, just thinking of him as “the wilder.” But she’d kept the vow she’d made with Kim, not even going so far as to look up his name in the directory. Until Carmen started talking, she’d managed to avoid almost all the gossip about him.
Now that Carmen had opened her mouth, though . . . Liesel almost wanted to take that vow back. It sounded like the guy could use a simple friend. Somebody who didn’t care about his Krauss rating, in a bad way or a good one.
Liesel stopped just short of rolling her eyes. Carmen would see it, and assume the gesture was aimed at her, rather than at Liesel’s own foolish thoughts. She’d never so much as laid eyes on the guy. Who knew what he was really like? Deciding she should be his friend just because he was a wilder, and ostracized, was as big of an insult in its own way as any of the other stupid things people were doing. In fact, Liesel probably wasn’t the first person to think of it. And she doubted he would welcome yet another stranger treating him like a charitable cause.
Carmen was still going on about him. Liesel resorted to a brief tap on Michele’s thoughts. Can you help me change the topic? She’s really starting to make me uncomfortable.
Michele slid her a smile while Carmen was distracted by a message on her port. I’m glad to know it isn’t just me. Do you think it would distract her if I started flirting with you?
It certainly distracted Liesel. Her face heated; she tried and failed to hide the blush behind her water glass. Michele took it as encouragement, and Liesel couldn’t find it in her to complain at all.
(“Welcome to Welton” is a series of teaser scenes. Teasers for what? The answer to that, my friends, is coming on September 18th. Check back each weekday for a new scene!)