She was the only one in the library. It was late. She had been reading up on how to prevent Squellax, a disease which manifested when one did not channel their magic properly, for her assignment on maintaining balance within the magical body. Her shoulders and neck ached from bending over the dusty texts all evening. It was time for bed. She was to be up bright and early for her class on the Benefits of Creature Companionship tomorrow.
Cellestra was nearing the end of her first semester of Healer studies at the Octaive Institute for the Magically Inclined. She had worked very hard for her marks, which had been less than stellar at the beginning of the year. In fact, she had worked a little too hard, focusing so much on her studies that she neglected to make friends or join in to any of the many yearly groups or activities. She had just felt so behind. Most of her classmates had had years to prepare for Octaive, their parents getting them apprenticeships and all the books for preliminary reading. Cellestra’s abilities had only manifested a few months before applications opened, surprising her mother, as she was the only one in the family to present a gift for magic. Leaping at the oppurtunity, her mother had her apply for the scholarship she was riding on at Octaive, wishing for a different future for her daughter than that of military service. Cellestra had gratefully accepted it, more suited to books and writing than battle tactics and marching.
Cellestra gathered her things and made her way to her dorm. It had rained recently. The air was cool and moist, like on a spring night back home, though it was winter in the southerly province of Terr. Cellestra’s dorm was only a few blocks from the library. She enjoyed being able to stretch her legs and walk almost alone through the campus. Other students were either drinking in one of the local bars or sleeping in their beds.
She arrived at her dorm and made her way up several flights of stairs. She walked down a long hallway with low-hanging lamps until she reached her stuffy closet of a room. She flopped down on the hard, single bed, intending to do her thinking while she stared at the ceiling, but fell asleep within a few minutes. She was tired, afterall.
Cellestra generally ate in the dining hall alone, with a book. Today, however, something unusual happened. Someone sat across from her. She saw the food before she saw the person. Toast with almond butter. Yogurt and granola. A mug of green tea. She looked up and sighed. It was Clarke, a highly-skilled first-year in many of her classes. Highly-skilled and highly-competitive. She often gave Cellestra a hard time.
“Good morning, Cellestra,” She said formally. Also from the North, Cellestra would have found her accent comforting, a reminder of home, if it didn’t sound like it came from a thousand years of wealth and old magic.
“Hello,” She said quietly, feeling both timid and reserved in front of the other girl.
“I’ll get right to it,” She said. “Today, Professor Treyward will give out the final assignment and ask us to divide into pairs. I want you as my partner”.
Cellestra was surprised. Clarke had spent the year making it very clear she was leagues above Cellestra, in both breeding and intelligence. She had even implied, several times, that Cellestra did not belong at Octaive, that the elite school should not be giving “hand-outs to brutes made for battlefields”.
“Why?” Cellestra asked.
“It seems obvious. You and I have been going head-to-head all term, though I have consistently come out on top. As a team, we’ll be unstoppable. We’ll blow our classmates out of the water”.
“I’m not sure,” Cellestra responded. She didn’t like the idea of spending any extra time with Clarke.
“Listen, I don’t like it either, but logically, it makes sense. We should put aside our differences, be the bigger women”.
“Who were you planning on partnering with, anyway?”
She hadn’t been. She imagined sitting there in class later that day while friends paired off, being left last, and having the teacher pick someone for her. It was embarrassing and had already happened several times this year.
“Fine,” She said.
“Good,” Clarke responded. “We’ll start tonight, after class. Meet me at the Williamsburg branch at seven. Front steps”.
And she left.
What did I just agree to? Cellestra shuddered internally, and finished her breakfast.
The rest of her day was otherwise unremarkable. Her classes went by quickly and she had a couple of hours before dinner to spend as she liked. She wrote a letter to her mother in the privacy of her room. She filled her in on her classes, what she found interesting, and how she was doing. She didn’t mention her lack of friends or Clarke. She wanted her mother to be happy for her and not to worry.
Finally, she did some of her readings, and then made her way down to dinner, again eating alone.
She made sure to arrive outside of Williamsburg library at seven sharp, not wanting any tardiness to inspire Clarke’s ire. Clarke was already waiting for her.
“You have everything?” She asked.
“Yes,” Cellestra said.
They went in.
It was all business for the first hour. Clarke began by presenting Cellestra with a schedule she’d made, where she assigned them both roles and deadlines. Cellestra didn’t mind the other girl taking charge. At least she was being civil. After the deliberation, they began to do their own research, each pulling a pile of books from the stacks and dipping their noses into them, working silently.
A soft thud on the table startled Cellestra out of research mode. She looked up. It was Dean, Clarke’s brother.
“I’ve been wondering when you two would get together,” He said.
“Back off, Dean. We’re trying to work,” Clarke said.
“You know she likes girls, right?”
“Dean!” Clarke had leapt up and slammed her books on the table.
He laughed and gave Cellestra one of his arrogant, supposedly charming smiles before walking away.
“Ignore him”. Clarke sunk back into her seat, face red.
“I usually do”.
This prompted a small smile from Clarke, who didn’t look up from her books again.
They went back to work.
Another long day had gone by, leaving Cellestra feeling exhausted. She went to her room, even looking forward to the comfort of her thin, lumpy mattress.
After illuminating the lamps with an easy spell, however, she saw an envelope on her bed with her name written in her mother’s handwriting. Cellestra had only just posted her letter earlier that day. There was no way it had reached her mother that quickly.
She opened it.
You must come home immediately. I wish I could provide you with details, but it isn’t safe this way. Take this letter to your Dean. She will know what to do.
Your loving Mother
Cellestra’s heart was pounding. She had to go home? Why, and for how long?
Though it was already late, she went to seek out the Dean.
“I had hoped this would never arrive,” Dean Alioake said, placing the letter down on her desk. Her long face was accentuated by the two candles on the table, the only source of light in the room.
“What do you mean?”
“We cannot take you home now, not even by portal. It isn’t safe”.
“But I have to go home!” Cellestra’s whole body was tense. She sat on the very edge of her seat.
“You have to calm down and hear me out,” Dean Alioake said sternly, and then continued, “Your mother spoke with me at the beginning of the year when she dropped you off”.
Cellestra remembered that. Her mother had said it was just to discuss details about her scholarship.
“She explained your family’s situation. She said that, were something to come up, she would call you home”.
“What situation? What’s come up?” Cellestra asked, still panicked.
“You come from one of the four old military families in the province of Ashen. These families, as you know, have a history. There is a rivalry between yours and another”.
These were simple facts for Cellestra, things she had grown up hearing.
“The rival family, the Acleeds, feel threatened by your presence in this school, and by your abilities”.
“But I’m studying to be a Healer”.
“You are studying at one of the top magical schools in the country. You are performing very well. You have raised your family’s station in the eyes of the royals”.
“Some members of the Acleeds find this to be somewhat threatening. Some suspect that your family plans to use you to take over their positions in court”.
“But, aside from my uncle, my family isn’t even in court. We’re not nearly as powerful as the Acleeds,” Cellestra said.
“The Acleeds fear they may be about to witness the rise of an underdog, all because of you”.
Why had her mother never spoken to her about this?
Dean Alioake continued, “Whatever their reasoning, they perceive you as a threat, and they eliminate threats”.
Cellestra’s heart dropped in her chest.
“I assured your mother that you would be safe here. She felt, however, that she may need to call you home if her suspicions of the threats to you were confirmed. This letter tells me that they have been”.
The Dean delivered all of this entirely void of emotion, something Cellestra found unsettling. How could she remain so calm while Cellestra felt a chasm open under her feet?
“As I have said, it is too dangerous to send you home. I also feel that we are better equipped to keep you safe here, as Octaive has many of the top wizards in the country. And I would hate to see such a promising student taken away over what I see as rather trivial politics”.
“So, you’ll go against my mother’s wishes then?”
“I will write to your mother, assuring her that you are under our protection. I will also increase your guard”.
“I have a guard?”
“A discrete one”. The Dead almost smiled.
She couldn’t believe this.
“Why did no one tell me? Why was I kept in the dark?”
“We did not want you distracted from your studies. You show such promise. It would be a shame if anything got in the way of that”.
What was the Dean not telling her?
“What if I want to go home?”
“Like I said, that isn’t really an option at this point”.
“Then what am I supposed to do?” She asked. She didn’t like that people had been keeping secrets from her, making decisions for her.
“Keep doing what you have been doing. Speak to me again if you have any more concerns”.
Alioake began shuffling papers. Cellestra was dismissed.
She went back to her dorm and lay on her bed. Unlike the night before, she was not able to fall asleep so easily. Now she was haunted by dozens of questions, as well as the fear of being watched.
– Video ends –
She didn’t know how long she had been gazing out of the window when Clarke asked, “What’s wrong?”
This was her second evening working with Clarke in the library.
“Nothing”. She looked down at the book open in front of her, to the paragraph she had read several times over without really taking it in.
“You’re not focused. Yesterday, you were. What’s changed?”
Cellestra met her inquisitive eyes. “I just didn’t sleep well last night”.
Clarke didn’t look convinced, but she didn’t question her any further. They went back to work.
“Seriously!” Cellestra jumped. She had been staring out the window again.
You know, you can talk to me”.
Cellestra sighed. Who else could she confide in?
“You know that I’m from a military family”.
“The Blackburns, yes”.
“Well, another family, the Acleeds, haven’t taken too well to my presence here, or to the manifestation of my abilities”.
“It’s quite unusual for a non-magical line to produce a wizard all of a sudden”.
“They see me as a threat”. Cellestra went on to explain the letter and her meeting with the Dean, almost in a whisper, in case anyone on the somewhat deserted floor of the library was listening.
She didn’t know why she trusted Clarke. Maybe it was beceause she had no connection to the Northern military families. Maybe it was because, for all her previous bigotry and competitiveness, at least she seemed honest, even if she was a little blunt sometimes.
When she finished explaining, Clarke closed her book and asked, “Would you like tea?”
Cellestra was surprised by the question, but said yes.
They went to Clarke’s dorm. It was a smaller building than Cellestra’s, with fewer but larger rooms. Clarke had a large window which looked out at the lake and two tall bookshelves packed with dense-looking texts. She gestured to a desk where Cellestra could put her things, and went about the process of making tea in the small fireplace in the corner. The room was impeccably neat.
Neither girl had spoken on the way over.
Cellestra looked out the window, admiring the view. Clarke handed her a warm cup of green tea, sitting opposite to her at the table in front of the window.
Finally, Clarke spoke. “I could talk to my family about this. They could do some more research. They’re connected… and interested in you”.
“They are?” How much attention had she managed to draw, unawares?
“Like I said, you’re unusual. Therefore interesting”.
Cellestra realized something. “Is this why you partnered with me? Did your family tell you to?”
“I partnered with you because I genuinely believed you and I would make a good team after observing your study habits and improvement over the semester”.
“What would your family want in return for helping me?”
“Not too much. Mostly, they wouldn’t want to see something so interesting… removed. They may want to meet you. Ask some questions”.
“Hm,” Cellestra mumbled to herself, “And what exactly would this research do?”
“They would find out specifically which members of the Acleeds consider you to be a threat. They would locate anyone sent after you and stop them. They may even have a conversation with the Acleeds themselves”.
“How do you know all of this?”
“This is my family. I’m not a child anymore. I’m kept up-to-date on political matters”.
“You’re only sixteen”.
“So are you”.
They eyed each other over their mugs of tea for a moment.
“Okay,” Cellestra said.
“You may speak to your family about my… situation”.
“Good. Will it put your mind at ease?”
“Will it make you feel less distracted?”
“A little”. Knowing someone else would be looking out for her helped, but she certainly couldn’t let this one go.
“Alright, because I wanted to review our approach to the topic of Green Leaf Extraction before we begin writing”.
They went to work again, this time at the table in Clarke’s room. Cellestra felt more comfortable than she had in the library. And oddly, she was beginning to feel more comfortable with Clarke.
I must be more desperate for friends than I realized.
Back home, Cellestra and her cousin Malta had been inseparable. They had grown up together, had secretly delighted in their mutual love of adventure stories together. Like Cellestra, Malta was of a quieter, gentler nature, preferring to spend her time writing short poems and thinking up interesting characters for her own stories. Unlike Cellestra, however, she had no way out. She was spending the year in their home province at the Dawson Military Academy, being awoken at four in the morning after sleeping on top of sheets she didn’t want to disturb for fear of failing morning inspection.
Malta acted happy for her, but Cellestra had seen the disappointment in her eyes. They had planned to suffer through Dawson together, comforted by the fact that they would still have each other to read to at night.
Now they were hundreds of miles apart, and each girl’s only comfort was in their letters, which they sent back-and-forth continually.
Cellestra often felt guilty for abandoning her friend. Though what choice had she had?
It had been a lonely few seasons without her. When she had received the letter from her mother, her heart had leapt momentarily at the prospect of being united, perhaps over the holidays. When could she possibly see Malta now?
When would she be able to go home?
These questions made her heart hurt.
Cellestra and Clarke did not speak about the threats on her life for awhile, choosing instead to focus on their project. Cellestra liked it this way. She spent so many hours alone, worrying, going over it all in her head, that her time with Clarke offered a nice reprieve, a welcome distraction, to her fear.
Clarke was always very formal and focused on the task at hand. Cellestra did, however, catch her looking her way on occasion when they were supposed to be reading. As soon as their eyes met, Clarke would quickly look down as if to deny that she had been looking in the first place.
Once, when she had passed the other girl a book, her fingers met Clarke’s for a moment. The sensation she felt upon contact was distinctive, something she couldn’t help by recall later.
Cellestra wasn’t sure how to feel about any of this. There had been a boy back home, briefly. It had been exciting at first, but his neediness quickly made Cellestra feel bored. He had wanted to marry her. She felt too young to make such promises.
What was she feeling for Clarke? It reminded her of the feeling she had had at the beginning of her previous relationship, but it was slightly different. She was drawn to Clarke, attracted to her, yes, but simultaneously afraid. Afraid to feel what she was feeling.
Sometimes she thought about Dean’s teasing. Did Clarke prefer girls, and if so, how would he know?
Clarke and Cellestra finally presented their project in class. After sitting through two weeks of other student’s presentations, Cellestra knew that theirs was the best. Professor Treyward was often left slightly open-mouthed by the end, which made Cellestra smile.
A few more presenters went up, and then class was dismissed.
Clarke put her hand’s on Cellestra’s desk and leaned in, her long brown hair almost touching the other girl. There was a look in her eyes, a certain brightness, as though she had just won a competition.
“I think we should celebrate”.
Cellestra laughed, delighted by the response in her new friend.
“Alright. With what?”
“Let’s head over to the Sleepless Goat for dinner, on me”.
They weren’t the only ones celebrating the end of the term. Though there were still exams to write, many students were taking the night off, filling the Goat almost to capacity. Cellestra and Clarke were lucky to get a table.
Though this was her first time in the pub, Cellestra felt instantly comfortable. It was a student favourite, with its mismatched chairs, artwork on the walls, and low lighting, making much of its griminess appear edgy rather than plain gross.
Cellestra ordered a chicken pot pie and an amber ale. She didn’t have too much experience with drinking, but figured that she’d be fine so long as she took it slow.
After their food and drink arrived, Clarke said, “They’d like to meet you”.
“My parents. Over the holiday, after exams”.
Cellestra looked up from her food. “Oh”.
This was the first they’d spoken of Cellestra’s situation since their initial conversation.
“I know you can’t go up North to visit your family right now, so maybe you can come visit mine? We’re quite a bit closer and the route is tightly patrolled by my parent’s guard”.
“Maybe”. The thought made her feel nervous. How would an old, moneyed wizard family react to her?
“We have plenty of room too. An entire guest house, actually… Maybe I could stay there with you so you don’t get lonely”.
“My parents also have some information, they said, which you might want to hear”.
“What kind of information?”
“They wouldn’t say”.
After a short pause, Cellestra said, “I suppose it does sound better than wandering around an almost empty campus all holiday, even if I do like the libraries”.
“We have a library. A substantial one, in fact, with much of interest for Healers”.
“Of course you do”. Cellestra smiled at Clarke’s sincerity. She seemed to want her to want to come.
“You’ll come then?”
It was Clarke’s turn to smile, just a little.