(Read the previous scenes here.)
Earle’s dining hall was a low and sprawling place, claustrophobic enough that I’d avoided it until now. I preferred Hurst, whose floor-to-ceiling windows made it feel more open and pleasant. But Liesel had recruited me for a social project tonight, and it wouldn’t kill me to eat here once, before I swore off it for the rest of my undergraduate life.
The space didn’t make it easy to find people, though. Liesel rose up on her toes to scan the room, then dropped down and shrugged. “I don’t see him. Let’s get food, then try to grab a table.”
That would be easier said than done. The tables here were mostly small affairs, seating four or six people at best, and most of them were full. It looked like there were a few empty places off in the corner, though, where the room bent around into an L shape. I joined Liesel in the serving line, collecting a plate of lasagna and a slice of cake from the dessert table. “What’s your friend’s major? Or his name, for that matter?”
“CM,” she said, and I grimaced behind her back. So much for having things to talk about. “And his name’s Robert Ó Conchúir.”
Nobody I’d heard of, but if he was a CM major, that didn’t surprise me. “Freshman?” I’d assumed so, but hadn’t asked. Liesel nodded. “And the roommate is . . . .”
“Awkward, apparently. He didn’t say more.”
Around the bend of the L and near the windows, a tall, lanky student with a shock of red-gold hair stood up, one hand hovering in the air, not quite waving. He looked our age, and that hair could belong to somebody named Ó Conchúir. “Is that your guy?”
Liesel turned to look, and the hovering became a full-blown wave. “Yes! They must have a table already.” She wove through the crowd, balancing her tray, heading for Robert and his companion.
They not only had a table, they had what looked like every empty seat in the dining hall forming a ragged half-circle around them. And as I came into that buffer zone, I understood why.
“Good evening, Liesel, my lady,” Robert said, with a distinct Irish accent and an honest-to-gods bow to us both. “May I present my roommate, Julian?”
The wilder half-stood as well, but I didn’t think it was because he had the same old-fashioned habits of etiquette as Robert. He stood as if it was reflex, putting himself on his feet so he had more options for movement as Liesel and I drew near. As if some part of him was perpetually ready for trouble, and didn’t want to be sitting when it came.
Were we trouble? No more so, I hoped, than your average pair of freshman girls, and nowhere near enough to concern a wilder.
The sunset coming through the windows painted him with false color, transforming him from the silver statue I’d met last week. It helped that he was wearing blue, not black, and the light gilded his fair hair gold. But nothing dented the shiver of his presence, and Liesel hitched a half-step in front of me, so that I almost ran into her.
“And you are?” Robert asked me with that same antique courtesy, as Liesel set her tray down across from him.
“Kim,” I said. Nothing for it but to take the chair across from Julian. And why shouldn’t I? He was just another freshman guy. Okay, one with a Krauss rating through the roof, but that was no reason to be rude.
Like everybody else in the dining hall was being, treating this like a plague zone. No wonder Robert was soliciting dinner companions.
Liesel had recovered from her own surprise, and was going into full seelie mode, smoothing over the awkward pause. “Robert’s in my history class,” she said to me, using the reminder to get the conversation started. “CM major. Julian, are you—”
She didn’t finish the question. Julian wasn’t staring at me; that was a mistake we weren’t going to repeat. But for all his impassive demeanor and impeccable shields, he couldn’t hide everything from my perceptive roommate. “Have you two met before?” she asked, startled for a second time.
“Last week,” I said, while Robert gaped openly. “I had no idea Julian was Robert’s roommate, though.”
“We ran into each other on Wednesday,” Julian said. His voice didn’t raise the hairs on the back of my neck this time, maybe because it had to compete with the racket of the dining hall. No marble to echo off, and no moonlight to set the stage. “At the monument.”
After a beat, Robert said, “Well. We have fewer strangers at this table than I thought.” Then, stabbing his fork with great concentration into his fried chicken, he sent what was all too obviously supposed to have been a tightly-shielded telepathic whisper—that came through loud and clear to us all. A rendezvous with a girl in the night-time, and you said not a word? There is more to you than I thought!
Liesel turned scarlet. For my own part, I choked on a laugh. Julian glared pure murder at his roommate, and for all I would not have want it directed at me, the reaction humanized him. He wasn’t a statue, nor a walking pillar of sidhe blood; he was an eighteen-year-old guy who’d just been embarrassed at the dinner table, and I hoped for Robert’s sake that the control they drilled into wilders meant Julian wouldn’t go for suitable revenge.
“To be fair,” I said, doing my own seelie best to gloss over the conversational implosion, “all Julian knows of me is that I’m a lunatic who goes diving into the Copper Creek on my birthday, then wanders around campus with wet hair in search of some pneumonia to catch. Hardly the basis for saying we know one another. Are you a CM major, too?”
That was what Liesel had started to ask. Robert said, “You have been questioned, sir,” and nodded his head toward me, in an attempt to redirect his roommate’s attention. I watched Julian swallow down his glare with remarkable speed. Either it had been more of an pretense than I thought, or this was that legendary self-control in action.
“Yes,” he said, “though not officially, of course.”
None of us could formally declare our majors until spring term, on the theory that we should explore our options before we settled down. But it sounded like all four of us had chosen our paths already. “No love for the telekinetic sciences at this table,” I observed. “Liesel and I are both in the telepathics—she does empathy, I do divination.”
Robert put on an expression of horror. Did he always act like this, or was it a device to cover for his roommate’s stiffness? No reason it couldn’t be both, I supposed. “Oh no—I fear this means war, the sorcerers against the psychics. Unless we could persuade you to the dark side?”
“Of ceremonial magic? I don’t think so.” I’d been happily ignoring that ever since Akila’s reading. “Way too much showy ritual and unnecessary pageantry.”
“Unnecessary!” He clapped one hand over his heart as if wounded. “My lady, I will have you know that ritual and pageantry is the lifeblood of any self-respecting magician.”
“Or at least any self-respecting Irish magician who fell in love with tales of Fernando Covas de la Vega as a child,” Julian said.
Robert pulled back in surprise. “When did I tell you that?”
The reply came in the same unruffled tone as everything else Julian said, but its very blandness carried unexpected humour. After a startled silence, Robert laughed and made a seated bow. “I am that obvious, it seems. Very well; I confess. De la Vega is, indeed, a mighty star in my heavens. Self-respecting magicians of another sort may choose to do their sorcery without all the pomp—but where is the fun in that?”
While Liesel answered him, I began cutting up my lasagna, thinking about that reading. Lugh of the Long Hand, the final card. Associated with the Otherworld . . . I didn’t know Julian’s exact Krauss rating, but wilders had far more sidhe blood than ordinary psychics like the three of us. And the Otherworld—long since departed, known to us only through myth—was the home of the sidhe.
No, it went further than that. One of the main stories about Lugh was how the Tuatha Dé Danann almost didn’t let him among them because every skill he could offer, they already had from somebody else. They finally welcomed him in when he pointed out that nobody among them had all those skills. Wilders might not be the best at any one aspect of the psychic sciences, not when compared against the true experts—but unlike ordinary bloods, they were good at everything.
Liesel had brought me here to be social, not to poke at my lasagna and get lost in my own thoughts. She and Robert were talking about classes; I joined in, and after a moment, Julian did, too. But I couldn’t stop watching him in my peripheral vision, still stuck on the reading.
Papa Legba had come before Lugh. Both Akila and I had read a crossroads out of that, a choice of paths. Our meeting at the monument, no doubt. But what choice had I made?
Clarity came in a flash, from the depths of my gift. It wasn’t that clear-cut of a situation: door A or door B, thumbs up or thumbs down. These were paths, and I could backtrack if I changed my mind . . . but the farther I went, the harder it would become.
And this was the start of a path, right here. Julian, making wary conversation, but less wary than he’d been at the monument. Robert, playing up his ridiculousness enough that Liesel nearly choked on her iced tea. The four of us, at the start of something that could turn, over time, into friendship.
It would have consequences. Julian was never going to be just another student; he would always be the wilder, subject to prejudice and curiosity and a lot of arrant stupidity. Being friends with him would limit my options elsewhere. But backing off would have consequences, too, and I didn’t like the look of those half so much.
Julian was saying something about taking a shielding theory class on Tuesdays and Thursdays. “Where is that held, in Morrison?” I said. It would be that or Cavendish; those were the main CM lecture buildings, with most of the labs in Adler.
He nodded. I almost stalled, buying time to check in with my roommate, but it was impolite to have telepathic conversations in front of other people—and besides, I had no doubt what her answer would be. “Liesel and I have lunch in Kinfield on those days, since we’ve both got classes nearby. You’re welcome to join us, if you want.”
He went still. His self-control was good enough that I couldn’t read his reaction, but not good enough to hide that he was having one. Too soon? I wondered. I didn’t want to seem intrusive, but on the other hand, I did want to give him an opening to be social again, if he felt so inclined.
“Possibly,” he said, after a brief pause. “I don’t usually take much time for lunch.”
“With your course load, I’m not surprised.” They’d let him take six classes, I’d noticed. And not lightweight ones, either. “Well, feel free to join us for a break whenever you can. I’m reliably informed that too much studying makes your brain explode.”
Another moment of stillness. Then he exhaled in a quick, voiceless laugh, and smiled. “All right.”
Robert slouched back in his chair, not even bothering to hide his grin. By the self-satisfaction in it, we were all lucky he didn’t simply crow “Victory!”
But it was. He’d engineered this dinner, and it had worked—not just between Julian and me, but all four of us. I suspected Liesel and I would be seeing a lot more of both of them from here on out.
I looked forward to finding out where that path led.
(“Welcome to Welton” is a series of teaser scenes. Teasers for what? The answer to that, my friends, is coming tomorrow!)