“You smell angry,” Aunt Zoë said as she walked in through the door, sniffing in Thea’s direction like a hound dog scenting prey.
She was always coming up with things like that. Things like The wind looks blue. Or That song was scratchier than a scouring pad! Or telling someone that their purple dress was ‘loud’, and meaning it quite literally. She heard things other people smelled, or saw things other people heard, or absorbed colors through the tips of her fingers.
Although she had been only three at the time, Thea vividly remembered the time that Zoë had said that the wind was blue. It might have been the first real, coherent memory that she could lay claim to. She had piped up with enthusiastic agreement, and had not failed to notice the immediate excitement her words had caused. What she had failed to understand at the time were the reasons behind that excitement, and had happily mimicked Aunt Zoë’s strange ways on several occasions after that, seeking the approval that she had received the first time she had done it.
But it had become all too obvious very quickly that she was merely saying the words, not experiencing them the way that Zoë did. The passing years had made Thea wiser. People had still been expecting great things of her when she was very young–anything she did, anything she said, might have a sign of the Double Seventh latency waking into its full potential. But it always fell flat, usually with someone sighing deeply, “Oh, Thea.” She’d been almost six years old before she realized that her full name was not, in fact, both those words.
“I’m just upset,” Thea said to her aunt, kicking the edge of the couch with the heel of her free foot, the one she had not folded comfortably underneath her.
“Have they been at you again?”
Thea made a face. “They’re always at me.”
“What is it now?”
Thea gestured at the dining room table in the next room, where two objects rested amid an untidy heap of papers. One of them was a perfectly seamless metallic cube. The other was an irregularly shaped blob that may or may not have been made of the same material, and looked like something angular had tried and failed to hatch from a steel egg.
“What on earth is that?” Zoë said, fascinated.
“Ars Magica class assignment. We were supposed to turn the cube into the ball.”
Zoë tore her eyes from the thing on the table and turned a sympathetic gaze on her niece. “Uh-oh. Did you do that?”
“You mean the blob? Nope. That was Frankie’s effort. The cube…is mine.”
The frustration and humiliation of an Ars Magica class were nothing new for Thea. The routine hardly ever varied—an assignment would be given, and then, at the end of the class, certain students would be invited to stay behind. Thea was invariably one of them; her brother Frankie, who was a year behind his peer group and known to be a klutz with anything magical, was another. But even Frankie could eventually do some part of the assignment, in however ham-fisted a way, while Thea could not even manage something that could be classified as a mistake. There would be others, whom Thea bitterly recognized as window dressing, who were there only to show that she was not singled out for anything—as though she could be fooled. The reactions of the others ranged from sympathy (from some who had to work harder at their own talents than the rest) to smoldering resentment for even being forced to sit in the same classroom as the two Winthrop siblings and being tainted by so much as being in their presence. One particularly vicious one had complained loudly about it afterwards in the cafeteria in terms of being forced to breathe the same air as Dunce and Idiot over there and how their ineptitudes were already eating at his own abilities.
“I can feel it,” he had said in a mock-dolorous voice, his hand raised to his forehead in the manner of old television melodramas. “It’s all fading, it’s all going awaaaaaay… this time tomorrow I’ll be no more than a dumb ’dim, and my parents will disown me…”
“Ah, I wouldn’t worry,” one of his henchmen said with a sly glance over at the other table where Thea sat by herself, with her hair hanging over her face to hide her flaming cheeks. “Their parents still love them, wouldn’t you know….”
It only became worse when Thea and Frankie brought their Ars Magica transformations back home that day. Thea had produced hers with a sinking heart, without raising her head to meet her father’s eyes.
“What was it?” Thea’s mother had asked.
“That,” Thea muttered. “It was the cube.”
“What was it supposed to be?” asked Anthony, the oldest brother. It was a Friday, he was home from college for the weekend, and he was full of more than his usual smug self-importance.
Thea muttered something under her breath.
“What?” Anthony said.
“Oh, Thea,” Frankie said. He produced his own effort, half cube, half shapeless blob. “It was supposed to be…”
“Well, not that,” Anthony said with a chuckle.
“A ball,” said Frankie defiantly. “It was supposed to be a ball.”
“You mean like this one?” Anthony had picked up Thea’s untransformed cube and had been turning it over in his fingers; now he passed his other hand over it, murmuring a single word, and he was suddenly holding a smooth metal sphere that sat on his palm like an accusation.
Thea grabbed for it. “Give it back! That was mine!”
“Oh,” Anthony said, “okay.” He passed his hand over it again before she had a chance to snatch it, and it was back in cube form.
“Anthony,” Paul murmured, in a half-hearted reproof.
“Show off,” Thea snarled, still avoiding looking at her father, her fingers curling around her cube as though she wanted to throw it. “When I get to University—”
“You won’t,” Anthony said. “Not at this rate.”
“You wait! When I get to Amford—”
“You can’t go to Amford,” said Frankie. His words fell into the conversation like stones into a pond. Ripples of things that did not need to be said followed them into the silence. You can’t go to Amford, Thea. Amford is the University of Magic. You can never go to Amford, Thea. You can never…
Not even Paul could gainsay that one.
About the Author: Alma Alexander’s life so far has prepared her very well for her chosen career. She was born in a country which no longer exists on the maps, has lived and worked in seven countries on four continents (and in cyberspace!), has climbed mountains, dived in coral reefs, flown small planes, swum with dolphins, touched two-thousand-year-old tiles in a gate out of Babylon. She is a novelist, anthologist and short story writer who currently shares her life between the Pacific Northwest of the USA (where she lives with two cats, a one-eyed ex-feral street moggy rescue, and a retired international grand champion Maine Coon) and the wonderful fantasy worlds of her own imagination. You can find out more about Alma and her books on her website, at her Amazon author page, on Twitter, at her Facebook page, or at her Patreon page.