by Serena W. Sorrell

  If an exploding student had caused screaming and chaos, the return of said student as a soma tether was creating sheer pandemonium. Already half of the class was trying to escape out the door at the back of the class. No one would dare the front where Dustin lay sprawled with terror in his eyes while Professor Bloomfield recited anti‑tethering lines with awesome speed and accuracy. Even a master such as the professor wouldn’t be able to halt the process of Bedelia’s soma invading and destroying Jyvis’s, thereby killing him. And then moving on to feed on more somas. The best their professor could do would be to slow it and reduce casualties until the containment crew arrived and permanently sealed Bedelia’s soma. Score another point for Wonderland.

  Bedelia had been rude, but that was hardly a reason she should suffer death, become a murderous tether without any say, and be condemned to containment. Vera knew she would regret the decision as soon as she stood. With care she unlaced her brogues and lined them up at the floor of her seat. She peeled off her socks and felt the cold of the wood floor. She tucked a rolled sock into each shoe and turned to her left. Kain seemed intent on watching the tethering and hopeless struggle Jyvis and Professor Bloomfield were currently engaged in. He only looked up at Vera when she had her hand in front of his face.

  “May I borrow your calligraphy pen, please.”

  “Wha—”

  “It is rather an emergency,” Vera insisted with a sideward glance to the soma gaining purchase on Jyvis. “Please, Kain.”

  The black pen was in her hand. She bowed her head to Kain and held the pen, nib to her palm. Vera heard him gasp as the steel sliced her palm. She ignored the pain as she drew the squiggle around the edge of her right hand. In moments her right hand was a bloody mess of seemingly nonsense shapes. She said the lines only she could.

           Unicorn

          Try to find a spoon

          Tears in a puddle          

          Thread a pearl

  Vera hopped down one step and then stomped back up two; she danced and twirled on cold, bare feet. All the while she tangled the weird words in a lilting tune. The melody she danced to did not connect with the hopscotch rhythm of her lines. Yet they had some effect. The tether turned its tortured features upon Vera. The mockery of Bedelia’s beauty howled like a face being suffocated by a wet sheet. The bellow knocked Vera to teetering. She regained her balance by spinning into the pull of gravity. The lines went on.

          Seals and sails swallow

          Heroes always sink

          Cast the sun

          Feel the beat

          Cry

  The tether soma screeched. Its pain shook a hooked claw from Jyvis’s soma; one arm his own again Jyvis made an attempt to seal himself from further breaching. The tether felt itself being locked out. It shrieked at Jyvis. The stretched skin billowed and reached for Vera, its enemy. Vera was feeling the strain of her lines on her own soma. She couldn’t be sure she would last through another stanza. Then she saw a sliver of Jyvis’s face; where pain should have been in features there was only fear. A sheen of sweat beaded on his forehead made him look just as he had eight years ago. She wouldn’t be the source of more guilt for him. Vera drew in a hearty breath and twirled counter‑clockwise before waltzing down the last step and halfway to the tether. It was being pulled between Vera and Jyvis; stretched thin over Bedelia’s remains. It was confused whether to continue its first kill or stop this tiny threat. Lucky for Vera tethers were not possessed of critical thinking.

          Circle

          Ringing cloud

          Tuck you in sweet

          Wet fire melts—

  At last the tether’s survival instincts kicked in. It released another hook from Jyvis, leaving only one in the side of his chest. The soma tether flailed a blow at Vera. She barely managed to duck below it with a courtesan curtsy. She took a step to the side, her heel came down on the chalk Dustin had dropped in the first round of chaos. The ground came up to meet Vera and a hook came down to pin her throat. Whatever Jyvis shouted was only a shrill ringing in her ears. She was at her limit anyways. She had put up a better fight this time though.

  Sticky hot, a hand pulled hers, and she found herself supported by Kain. A claw cracked the floorboard where she’d been and struggled to free itself.

  “I’ve got you. Finish the lines.”

  Vera would have been too cotton brained to ask him what he meant, but he had already restocked her soma with mana. One bloody hand held hers and his other pressed to the back of her neck. The Wallachia did not share blood lightly. There would be a price to pay for this support. Vera preferred the idea of being alive to repay the debt more than the other option.

          Good‑bye,

          Sunset off

          Fill the billows

          Grow your roots

          And stretch them

          Tired dreams make

          Lies

  The tether twisted like a rag being wrung to dry. Golden drops of sunlight fell on the charred ash that had been Bedelia. Wherever they fell the ash was washed white and bones began to form the shape of a person. A heart blossomed under the ribs; veins and nerves grew like ivy from the heart, other organs taking shape as the heart began to pump. The semi‑formed lungs filled with a gasp of first air and screamed. The remaining flap of tether began to spike and convulse with the howls of pain. Vera cursed herself for forgetting the excruciating agony of being reformed; even with her soma depleted of mana as it was she should have remembered that. But even with Kain’s blood reinforcing her supply she was worn out and her soma would not support another stanza. An icy hand took her free hand and she felt distant pressure press against her back. A swell of mana flowed into her soma. Jyvis, of course he would use his zodia to intervene as soon as he was able; never mind that he had almost been killed in one of the most terrible ways. Being a Cancer meant they shared water as their element. It was as easy as blinking for him to flood her soma with mana. With the two of them supporting her soma she would find the lines. A triplet would do.

          Twinkle, twinkle, little bat

          Painted porcelain, filled with tea

          Close your haddock eyes

  The screaming petered out before Vera had begun the final line, but she made herself say it all the same. The trauma of feeling yourself being rebuilt bit by bit would be no kindness to Bedelia. Best that she sleep through it until the process was complete. With something akin to pride Vera felt herself swoon. Silver specks danced through her sight and she was closer to vomiting than she had ever been on the rancid bus.

  “Vera,” Jyvis was speaking to her, but the words were fogged. Her soma was exhausted. “Seems to be a dreadful case of mananemia. I’ll take her to the hospitus wing.”

  Mananemia. Jyvis had always been a quick thinker. Whereas she had not stopped to consider the position this would put her in; what position Jyvis would put himself in to keep her safe. Still, she was rather pleased she had saved him first, not to mention reassembling Miss Bedelia.

  “I think it’d be in your best interest to attend the student you just murdered, don’t you think Headmaster?” Kain murmured a line to heal his hands between smugly admonishing Jyvis, “Wouldn’t want word of this getting back to my mother, would ya? Better let me see she gets the proper care from the proper people.”

  Vera was jostled a bit. She wondered if pencils felt this way when they were passed from one person to another. She ought to be much kinder to borrowed pencils. The swaying was terribly inconvenient on her constitution. She would have to apologize to Bedelia’s pencil the first chance she had. At last her body offered her mercy, she fainted as her soma fell away.

***

“Oh, smashing,” a voice boomed in her head, “you’re alive.”

  “Wish I wasn’t.” She ached everywhere.

  “But then where would I find entertainment?”

  She opened her eyes in slits despite the light only compounding the splitting headache. Kain sat on a stool beside her hospice bed. Sterile white sheets covered her and a monitoring bracelet showed the details of her biorhythm and soma on a holo screen. She didn’t like to think Kain had been privy to such details.

  “Have you tried reading?”

  Her attempt to be short with him only made Kain grin wider. She hated such wide smiles, all teeth and malicious glee. She had a fair idea of where the conversation would go. She’d taken a Wallachia’s blood. There would doubtless be a hefty debt to pay. As though sensing her discomfort and reveling in it Kain sat taller, grin relaxed into a abhorrent smirk. He knew she knew there was a cost attached to his aid.

  “We haven’t been formally introduced,” his dark eyes sparkled with mirth. “I am Vladimyr Kain Wallachia the 52nd.”

  Of course he was. As if her day hadn’t been filled with enough omens. They were practically drowning her. She didn’t trust her tongue to make a self introduction so she stilled it. If Kain minded her stoicism he made no sign of it.

  “Seeing as how utterly delightful you are, not to mention the fact that we’ve already mixed bloods and all, I think it would be proper for me to propose a somalink. What do you think?”

  He reached out to touch her cheek only to be swatted away.

  “How dare you! No lady of society would accept such an indecent proposal from a degenerate. I owe you or your family a debt; if you refuse to name the price in earnest I will seek it from your house’s head.”

  Kain was unruffled, “That would be a shame. I don’t think the Wallachias would accept anything from someone of your…background, maybe your life.” She blanched. He had discovered her; whether from the holo screen or the classroom it didn’t matter. “Oh, don’t make such a face. I have no desire to see you dead. Instead, as you like,” he bowed like an honest gentleman, “I will court the subject with more grace since you insist on protocol and manners. Although odd considering…”

  “Odd considering what?”

  Headmaster Jyvis, kempt once more, stood in the doorway to the hospitus room. The other three beds in the room empty. She had the distinct impression these two were opposites in practically every way, and that by being here she would be pulled into the drama of gentlemen.

  “Odd considering Miss Blackwyne’s free form lines, sir.”

  Kain took extra care to honey every word in a way so one perfectly understood the vinegar they hid. For example, from his tone it was obvious he thought himself above the headmaster. He had also inferred Vera Blackwyne did not exist. This likely meant he knew exactly who she was. And more frightening by far, considering his social standing, what. The first day at the University of Mount Ovi and already she had ruined Vera Blackwyne, just as her parents had feared. It had taken near a full year to convince them to let her attend, and only after creating a false identity with credentials and a background. She had worked so hard to make this happen and it was falling down like a house of cards. If she could convince Kain to keep the secret perhaps she could stay, but making any sort of agreement with the—she was loath to use the word—gentleman seemed like an entirely different kind of doom.

  “You must be muddled from the events of the morning, Wallachia,” it was rare for Jyvis to drop formalities, especially when dealing with such an eminent person. “I suggest you deeply consider the severity of your words.”

  “Oh, I have. I intend to keep every damning syllable in my heart; instead I shall take great pleasure in courting Miss Blackwyne with a somalink proposal.”

  Jyvis’s stoicism cracked, “How dare you attempt to blackmail a lady. Even if you are the 52nd in the esteemed Wallachia line I will not stand by and let you bully her into your perverted game.”

  “You show an awful lot of concern for Miss Blackwyne’s well being, more than a headmaster ought to show a student. Curious that.”

  It seemed Kain was keen on making enemies, or at least ruffling Jyvis as much as he could. An impressive feat as Jyvis was seldom ruffled, externally at any rate. Jyvis had already recovered from his earlier slip and that perfect mask of a perfect gentleman kept his features in line. Headmaster Jyvis Eliphas Daresbury turned to first year Vladimyr Kain Wallachia the 52nd, second son of university alumnus and board head, the esteemed and powerful Carmilla Wallachia; with cold eyes and a stone smile the headmaster faced the boy. Kain flinched only a bit, but it would be Jyvis’s victory. She had seen him confront older, wiser, and more pompous persons that Kain with success and flawless etiquette.

  “My family home, if you must know Mister Wallachia, abuts Miss Blackwyne’s; as such we shared a portion of our youth, and I consider her well being as an elder brother would consider his sister’s.” The words were clipped and clear. He left no room for commentary, instead immediately setting a gentler gaze on her, “You will have all your supplies by morning. I’ll have them delivered to your dormitory.”

  The kindness she had known as children went out of him as soon as he turned back to the door. She suspected he intended to make the drive to town himself and would have to sort of the messy affairs of morning before beginning the six hour trip, not including the time it would take for him to purchase all the textbooks and assorted items she would need for the next half year.

  “It’s a bit creepy though,” Kain’s words locked Jyvis to the floor midstride. “Even if you are the youngest headmaster in the university’s history, being so intimate with a girl at least a decade younger than you. Some might call it scandalous, improper even.”

  Yes. That would definitely do. And it did. Jyvis’s persona of perfect headmaster and gentleman had utterly come apart. His face was ruddy with anger.

  “You mean to accuse me of impropriety?”

  “Oh, I would never, sir; unless you are confessing. In which case I would, as is my ethical duty, need report you to the board and proper authorities.”

  Where Jyvis’s smooth voice had become a snarling beast Kain’s fed off the anger. The second heir spoke in a mercurial, with an flaunt of superiority and threats. Words boiled inside both of them. Every sentence regurgitated and writhed inside their mouths. They waited for the other to move first, but when one did the entire dam would break loose. Sticks and stones had nothing on the battle of insults and menace ready to fire. And then the first slur was shot.

  She waited precisely three rounds for the war to become heated to the point of blinding them. Certainly her presence would not be required for such vocabulary peacocking. On bare feet, she slipped from the medicinal scent of the room, away from the schoolyard grade, and padded to the classroom to collect her paper of notes, the borrowed pencil, and discarded footwear.

(part one) (part two) (part four) (the end)

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