"Hey!" Jori slid out of her comfortable slouch against the door frame and leaped into the dormitory room she shared with Cynthia and Jenna. She grabbed her rainbow-splashed mug from Cynthia's hand just inches from being wrapped in newspaper. "That's mine!"
"It's mine," Cynthia said in that deathly quiet voice that always warned of a major explosion waiting for an excuse to break loose. "Jenna gave it to me at the start of the year. You're not stealing it like you stole her!"
"It's mine." She tucked it behind her back and stepped back against her bunk. "I brought two identical mugs when I thought I was only going to have one roommate, and I gave the other one to Jenna. If you stole hers, that's between you and her."
"You lying little thief!"
"Shut up, Cynthia," Jenna said from three steps out in the hallway. "You kept the mug I loaned you and then you broke it and now you're trying to steal Jori's."
"Jenna," Cynthia began, her voice taking on that martyrish wail that made the hair on the back of Jori's neck rise. "You're supposed to be my friend!"
"I didn't want you as a roommate in the first place, but you lied to everyone, from your parents to the admissions counselor, saying that we wanted to be together."
"I didn't lie!"
Down the long dormitory hallway, doors clicked and creaked open as the few residents in their rooms were disturbed by the ruckus. Jori held her breath. Jenna could say things to Cynthia and get away with them when no one else could, just because Jenna was thin and gorgeous and a professional model and popular. Jenna should have let Cynthia know how irritating she was years ago, instead of being nice and polite and hoping the arrogant girl would take subtle hints.
Jori just wished her enjoyment of the argument didn't make her feel guilty, too. Lew had been trying to teach her some consideration for others' feelings and needs, even her enemies'. He wanted her to pity people like Cynthia, not hate them.
"Just finish packing and keep your mouth shut and your hands off other people's property," Jenna finished, and stomped out of the room.
"This is all your fault!" Cynthia shrieked, whirling on Jori so quickly she could only stare.
That hesitation was her undoing. Cynthia lunged, throwing all her size twenty, silk-clad bulk on Jori. She wrapped her musk-scented arms around Jori and snatched the disputed mug from behind her.
Jori knew quite a few curses in the language of Unipuri, picked up quite by accident from the soldiers who had escorted her and Embry and Everon on the rescue mission. Several curses caught in her throat--her mother would know what she meant, even if she didn't understand the language.
"Dashrak bait!" Jori growled, the softest oath she could think of. The venom in her voice made Cynthia jerk back a moment. Jori broke free and snatched back the mug.
Cynthia slapped her. Jori stumbled backwards, slamming her backbone into the support post for the foot of her bunk. She dropped the mug. Sherds of pottery peppered the room.
"Look what you did!" Cynthia shrieked, totally oblivious to the faces now peering around the sides of their open door. She kicked, aiming the hard, pointy toe of her shoe into Jori's knee.
Hours of defensive training had her turning her vulnerable joint out of the path of impact. Without thinking, she presented her bandage-wrapped calf to Cynthia's shoe.
Jori shrieked, reliving the barbed arrowhead ripping through her leg. She folded, nearly slamming her forehead into her desk. She clamped her mouth shut a second later. How many times had Lew drilled her on the need for silence when in enemy territory?
But this wasn't enemy territory--this was her dormitory room at Willowood College.
Nostrils flaring with the effort to take deep breaths to fight her pain, Jori dragged herself up the back of her desk chair and balanced on one leg to face Cynthia again.
Why hadn't the bully kicked her while she was down? She turned and her face burned as she took in the scene filling her room.
Gloria, their dormitory supervisor, had Cynthia pinned into the musky, satin sheets of her lower bunk. Alex and Bree from down the hall hurried to help Jori. Three other girls present on the floor stood in the doorway, mouths dropping open as Cynthia struggled against Gloria's restraint and spewed a stream of curses. Jori blanched and realized that even the Soleris soldiers wouldn't have said such things in the middle of a battle.
"Are you okay?" Gloria shouted over the noise.
Jori nodded and let Bree guide her into her desk chair. Alex knelt to gather up the broken pieces of mug.
"We heard the whole thing, from Jenna coming in until she hit you." Alex grinned at the dorm supervisor. "Hey, Glo, you want me to ask my Dad to send some MPs over and lock her up until she leaves campus?"
"That won't be necessary. I was a Marine for six years before I got my counseling degree," Gloria said through gritted teeth. "Cynthia Dawson, you just earned yourself a stay in the Willowood Hotel at your own expense, until your parents come for you."
"You can't do that!" Cynthia howled, startled out of her foul language. "I paid for my dormitory room through the end of the school year. I have rights!"
"That's all she thinks about," Bree muttered. She frowned and dropped to her knees in front of Jori.
"I don't much care." Gloria yanked Cynthia to her feet. "You lose all your rights when you violate the rights of others. Go down to my apartment right now and don't talk to anyone on your way or I'll fine you so many demerits you won't have a refund coming to you--you'll owe the college your first-born child." She glared at Cynthia, towering over her even though Cynthia was a good five inches taller than their dorm supervisor.
To Jori's surprise, Cynthia wilted and slumped out the door. She cast a venomous glance over her shoulder when she left. Jori didn't have time to react to it. Bree gently pressed on her leg, right on top of the bandage. Fire lanced through her leg. It was all Jori could do to keep from kicking and hitting Bree's nose with her knee.
"What did you do to yourself?" Bree yanked up the leg of Jori's sweatpants, revealing a thick winding of bandage, yellow-tinted with Aunt Clea's healing ointment--and a slowly growing bloodstain.
"Oh, great. She popped my stitches," Jori grumbled. Then she realized that she was the center of attention of six sets of eyes. "Ah...I was exercising Lew's horse and fell out in those overgrown fields outside of town, and there was a metal stake hidden in the grass and...I sort of hurt my leg." She was glad she and Lew had thought to concoct a story, just in case someone noticed her injury.
"Why didn't you report this?" Gloria had a quiet tone of voice that was just as much a warning of trouble as Cynthia's.
"I was working for Lew. His medical plan took care of it."
"I'd better have a talk with Mr. Solar. Again," the woman said with a little sigh.
"Again?" Jori had that sick feeling she got when the principal asked to speak with her parents. She never really was in trouble, but the principal was the sort of woman who worried if her students weren't as brilliant and successful as their parents. Jori had a lot to live up to, with her entrepreneur father and concert pianist mother.
"Cynthia's parents brought a complaint against you, because she's leaving Willowood before the end of the semester. Since Mr. Solar seems to be at the core of the problem, I thought we should get his side of the story." Gloria's stern mask softened. She patted Jori on the shoulder. "Don't worry. Everybody vouched for you, Jori. For someone who's so quiet and stays out of trouble...I don't know how you get into trouble."
"I don't let Saint Cynthia tell me how to live my life," Jori murmured. "That's a crime worthy of death, didn't you know?"
Gloria grinned and managed a raspy chuckle. She headed out the door, gesturing for the onlookers to leave with her.
"Oh--better go to the campus nurse to have that leg looked at. Mr. Solar made sure you got a tetanus shot, didn't he?" she asked before she vanished down the hall.
"Lew took care of everything," Jori assured her.
"Lew is great," Bree said. "Would you rather go see him and have him take you to his doctor, instead of visiting the Ice Queen?" She winked.
"I'll drive," Alex volunteered. "I made the mistake of going to her with a sore throat last week. I thought she was going to put me on an IV drip and then lecture my parents on my bad upbringing. I was afraid to tell her Mom is a part-time nurse at the air base and Dad makes us get our physicals from military doctors twice a year." She shuddered, her dark eyes sparkling.
"Thanks," Jori whispered.
Thanksgiving break, she realized, was not going to come soon enough. She and Jenna and Cynthia had come back from their accidental trip to Unipuri early Saturday morning. Here it was only Wednesday of the following week, not even halfway through November, and Jori felt like she had gone through a year of evil looks and nasty muttered remarks and the suspicion she was going to find herself short-sheeted, with her underwear tied in knots and soaked in water, and rat poison in her cocoa mix.
Despite the debacle with the professor who had come to Old Solar's Shoppe and looked in the closet where the doorway used to be, Cynthia still insisted Jenna and Jori had drugged her, kidnapped her, and tried to convince her she had visited another world. She had threatened to leave the college and bring an entire firm of lawyers down on everyone if someone didn't support her and throw Jori out of school, or at least force her to leave. After three days of scowling demands turned to pleas and whining, she had to follow through. It seemed the only people who supported her were her parents, and they couldn't manage to show up until the next weekend.
Jori wished Cynthia had just left, instead of waiting for her cronies or her advisor or a professor to beg her to reconsider and stay.
Maybe she was so unbearable, ready to kill over a mug that didn't belong to her, because she realized no one really wanted her around, not even the people she thought were her friends.
"I'll have to remember that," Jori murmured, when she was alone for a moment while Bree and Alex went to get their coats and shoes and keys. "To have friends, I have to be a friend. No manipulating, no commanding, no guilt trips."
She thought of the way Jenna hardly talked to her now, didn't eat lunch with her or sit with her in their common classes, and sometimes even seemed to avoid looking at her.
"And don't ever tell them your biggest secrets," she added with a sigh. A single tear escaped, but it had nothing to do with the renewed throbbing in her leg. Jori thought she had felt better when her leg was swollen with poison and there was a Malspri talisman embedded in her flesh, waiting to take over her mind.
Whether Gloria had already called Old Solar's Shoppe or because of their master-apprentice link through their dreamstones, Lew was waiting at the back door when the car pulled into the driveway behind the shop. Brayna stood in her little corral and watched Jori limp up to the door. She whinnied, a subdued sound, and bobbed her head at Jori when the girl looked at her.
"Thank you, ladies," Lew said, as he held out a hand to help Jori over the threshold. "You saved me some time, showing up as you did. I was just coming to get you."
"Going out of town again?" Jori asked, with a sinking feeling in her stomach. The last thing she needed was an emergency mission trip to Unipuri when she still had to recover from the last one. True, less than five days had passed in Willowood since returning from her first journey through the doorway--but those five days translated into five months in Unipuri. Anything could have happened in that magic-laden world, and with her luck some obscure prophecy required the presence of a half-trained, accident-prone apprentice Solar.
"No. Your doctor realized she forgot to schedule you for a check-up and I was coming to see if you were free this afternoon." Lew nodded to Bree and Alex, who hovered uncertainly by Alex's beat-up Chevy. "If you could come back in five or six hours, I'd be glad to spring for dinner. As I recall, when I was teaching art at Willowood, the cafeteria food got progressively worse as Thanksgiving approached."
"It's almost inedible now. Thanks, Lew," Bree called with a chuckle. She and Alex got back into the car. Jori and Lew waited until the car pulled out of the driveway before he closed the door.
"Aunt Clea's worried?" Jori guessed.
"Embry got an echo of your pain." Lew rolled his eyes expressively.
"Ouch. Forgot about that part of being partners." She stopped short, which knocked them both off balance because Lew still had a grip on her arm and kept walking. "Lew, is it possible for Embry to take some of my pain? Like, take it away?" She leaned back against the frame of the door between the living quarters and the shop and took some weight off her throbbing leg. "It wasn't half as bad as it should have been when Cynthia kicked me. Right in the bandage. Like there was a target painted on it."
"Why did she kick you?" Lew said nothing when Jori explained the scuffle over the mug. She didn't try to defend her actions, though a dozen excuses came to her tongue. Her master just shook his head. "If he sensed you were in danger, yes, it's possible. In his worry for you, and the fact you two are still so unused to each other, working together, he may have overreacted."
"I think he's a little paranoid, like he feels guilty about David and he's over-protective." She shook her head, wondering where those words had come from.
"Well, we all have a lot of learning to do. He came jolting through the door, half-lame, and I sent him back through as soon as Gloria called."
Lew chuckled as they continued around the counter to the doorway leading into the warehouse. Jori looked around and saw all the shades were pulled down and the "open" sign in the door had been turned around.
"She's an amazing girl, Gloria. We both suffered through an introductory art class when I was finishing up my teaching career here. She wanted to draw and couldn't seem to get her hands to do what her eyes and imagination saw, and I felt so very sorry for her, because I knew the frustration she encountered." Lew's voice softened as they stepped into the warehouse, the sound immediately caught and either muffled or reflected, depending whether it hit blanket-swathed antiques or crated sets of dishes and crystal, or the vintage clothes he had just bought from a resale shop. "I retired and she went into the Marine Corps for a few years to work out some of her more aggressive tendencies. And learn discipline. She's quite an accomplished cartoonist now. You should ask to see some of her work one of these days."
"I've seen some." Jori breathed a sigh of relief as they stepped into the open area at the back of the warehouse where she had learned swordplay and archery before the full reality of being an apprentice Solar had hit her.
In moments, Lew had unlocked the bar and chain holding the door shut. They fell with a clang. He supported Jori through the doorway. The hot, mid-afternoon, dry air of the entrance to the Collegium of Solars reached out to greet them as the fabric of time and space parted.
When Jori and Lew came back six hours later, her limp had vanished and her leg had healed sufficiently that even if Cynthia did try to kick her again, her wound wouldn't re-open. Nearly four days had passed in the Midworld which held the Collegium, ninety hours of subjective time compared to the six that had passed in Willowood. Jori wished she had been allowed to sit out in the sun and study all those scrolls and tablets Master Solar Margala had threatened to dump on her, while she was healing. She had exercises to do, to strengthen her arms, archery practice, and hours in the saddle learning to guide Jayl and stay on her mount's back while injured. The rest of her time was spent in the healer's hall while an Esta-Guerr touch-healer sped up her natural healing processes. Jori was forbidden to get a tan. She complained about that, and Embry lectured her on hiding paradoxes, until he realized she was joking. Jori knew better than to let herself get tanned in the middle of November. The weathering and longer hair from her first trip to Unipuri had been entirely accidental, and she had stayed in shadows as much as possible when she returned to school, trying to avoid notice and questions she didn't dare answer.
Lew sent Jori upstairs to put her new clothes and books in the room that was now hers, while he ordered pizza. They had guests coming, after all.
"It still blows my mind a little, Lew," Jori said, skipping down the stairs. Her half-healed wound twinged a little, but that persistent itch of healing was welcome compared to the knife agony she had endured.
"Blows your mind?" Her teacher shuddered even as he smiled. "Don't use such phrases where the Malspri or their spies can hear you, Jori. They'll come up with a hundred malicious ideas to fit the phrase. All very literal."
"I hope I never come any nearer to the Malspri than I have already. Embry was giving me a hard time about that spelled arrow barb you took out of me."
"Nothing you could have done about it." He turned to put the kettle on the back burner.
"He thinks we should make it a rule that if we're hit with Malspri darts or arrows, or anything that could leave something in our wounds, we should let our partners use their dreamstones to scan and deactivate it before we try to heal ourselves." She settled down at the table and scooped up crystal vein tea to put into the little ceramic infuser.
"What if your partner isn't close enough to help? What if he's hurt worse than you?"
"That's what I told him. What's wrong with using our dreamstones to scan the wound for debris that might have Malspri magic attached to it, then healing ourselves?"
"Too much time and energy spent in the exercise, that's what."
"Sorry." She started to shrug an apology, then caught herself and slouched down in her chair instead.
A grin cracked Lew's solemn face. They both chuckled for a few moments. Lew had been trying to break her of the gesture for months, ever since they became master and apprentice. Jori finally learned the cultural implications of shrugging when she went to Unipuri. The insult it implied made her want to laugh and gasp at the same time. And knowing the reasons behind not shrugging somehow made it all the harder not to shrug.
"It's not your fault, lass." He settled down into his own chair and reached across to clasp her hands. "You were thrust into the battle at almost the beginning of your training. Sometimes I think you succeeded so well, with so little injury, because you didn't know what older, more experienced minds consider impossible."
"Waetru blesses children and fools, you mean?"
"Something like that, yes. The fact remains that the sooner you are fully trained and not trusting to Waetru's extra protection, the happier we will all be. Ah, and here are your other two Musketeers." He nodded toward the kitchen door, three full seconds before Alex's long-haired shadow appeared against the curtain and she knocked.
The four had a pleasant, relaxed evening playing Castle Illusive, eating pizza, and talking about plans for Thanksgiving break. Alex's parents were invited to spend the day with Bree's mother, and her adopted aunt and uncle and grandmothers in Logon. Jori was supposed to fly to Toronto to meet her parents for the kick-off to a symphonic Christmas tour her mother was participating in. She wondered if Lew had any objections to her being away from school for so long. They had never really discussed the long gaps in her training during school breaks when she would have to leave Willowood to be with her parents. Thanksgiving vacation was only five days long--but that translated into five months in Unipuri, and two-and-a-half months in the Midworld. Time she could spend learning Unipuri history, battle techniques, swordplay and archery. Time she could half-kill herself with exercises and then luxuriate in Clea's coddling and scolding.
Then there was the little matter of confronting her father with her new life as an apprentice Solar, and the promise he had made years ago when he essentially refused the call of the dreamstone: to send his children to be tested and possibly called. Jori was glad her father had followed through, yet she hesitated to break the silence. Was he worried about her? Did he think silence meant nothing had happened--and was he relieved? She feared part of her hesitation was that she wanted her father to worry and suffer, and part of her wanted to punish him. Just a little. Some warning, a hint of what to expect at Old Solar's Shoppe would have been nice.
Of course, when she was honest, she had to admit that she had no idea what she would have done if she had known what waited for her. Would she have run to Old Solar's before she even unpacked on the first day at Willowood College? Or would she have avoided the shop with all her strength of will? Jori couldn't imagine living without the wonderful, terrifying, astonishing, reality-stretching secret hidden in the warehouse, but that was hindsight.
Alex drove the three of them back to the dormitory at nearly eleven, an hour after the security doors were locked.
"I hope somebody remembered their card key," Bree said as they walked up the slightly icy back steps to the electric door.
"Don't worry. I've been learning how to pick locks." Jori grinned at her two friends, who instantly laughed. The truth was, she had spent nearly four hours straight learning how to pick locks, against the time when stealth and silence might be the only way to protect her life.
"Got an idea," Bree said, once they were inside and climbing the stairs to their dorm floor. She spoke in a hushed voice, in respect for the girls who were sensibly trying to get some sleep. It really was wasted effort, since they could hear five different songs blasting from stereos as they went up the stairs and passed floor landing doorways. "Cynthia has to get back into your room to pack her gear before her folks show up on Friday. You can't be there every time she's there."
"You don't want to be there, either," Alex added, shaking her dark head.
"What's to stop her from trying to take something of yours?"
"Can't exactly demand to search all her suitcases, can I?" Jori mused.
"So, you can hide your gear with us, until she's gone," Alex filled in. "Just the stuff that she might be able to use, anything special to you. Clothes that might actually fit her."
"She doesn't wear jeans or sweatshirts. My teddy bear slippers, though..." She put a horrified expression on her face, which earned squeaks of laughter from her two cohorts.
Jenna wasn't back in the room yet, which was in the same condition it had been when Jori left it earlier that day--right down to the shattered remains of the mug on the tile floor and Cynthia's half-packed box. She pulled a box from the top of her closet, and Alex and Bree helped her go through her possessions for anything Cynthia might take just to be spiteful. Jori was surprised at how many things she had that could be taken "hostage". How many times in the last few days, in the Midworld, had Embry and she discussed the need to travel lightly in service to the Collegium and Unipuri? Her hands shook a little as she put a few useless but precious trinkets into the box. Jori knew she would be furious if that little porcelain box with the Harlequin on it, from friends in Italy, were to vanish or break. She stored spare change in it, but a paper cup could replace it. She had to be careful not to knock it off her desk, and wrap it in lots of paper to protect it in storage. What other things did she have that took up time and effort to take care of them, but did her little actual good?
The clock on her desk clicked to midnight, when Jori finished her chore, said good-night to Bree and Alex, and climbed into her bunk.
Where was Jenna? Should she be worried? Jenna was never out this late, even when she had a date. Being a model, she was strict about her getting the right exercise and diet and rest.
So, what was wrong with her one remaining roommate?