Chapter One: Amelia
Shit happens. That’s what my godmother always used to say. “Amelia,” she’d tell me, waving a half-drank martini over the cheap little kitchen island she so loved to congregate around, “there’s no rhyme or reason to the world sometimes. No one deserves what they get, good or bad. It just happens. Shit happens. Remember that, honey. If you hunt for meaning in everything—good or bad—you’ll just drive yourself crazy with guilt. Or narcissism. They’re both just as harmful to your health.”
Laura was a smart lady. She’d always had nuggets of wisdom for me, and she spread them liberally at my feet. When she died, I tried to keep some of them in mind but when it seemed like the universe kept piling shit on top of you, ‘shit happens’ started to sound a lot like someone up there had a grudge and wasn’t about to let you forget it.
The Rolls-Royce that picked me up from the bus station hit a pothole in the road, and the thud of the undercarriage against asphalt jolted me out of my thoughts. Probably for the best. The driver, an elderly man with remarkable green eyes, glanced at me in the rearview mirror. “Beg your pardon, Miss Cresswin. Old roads out here.”
“It’s fine,” I replied, though I fingered the edges of the letter that had brought me ‘out here’ to begin with nervously. Cars and loud noises. To say they unsettled me didn’t quite cover it. Not after what happened. I couldn’t let myself think about that, not where someone could see me.
‘Out here’ was far, far from where I was meant to be that day. It was September 5th, a Thursday. First day of classes at MIT. To ask my godmother about it, of course, no one was ‘meant’ to be anywhere. You just were where you were, when you were there. I wondered about that as I stared out the window at the landscape stretching out to one side of the mountain road. The trees north of Moretown, Vermont were turning from green to gold and red. In some places it looked like someone had stabbed the forest, and it was slowly bleeding out. Apt for how I felt, really.
Somewhere in a parallel universe, my godmother was alive and driving me to MIT for my first day of school. I was in the front seat beside her, instead of the backseat of a stranger’s car, singing to some eighties classic from Laura’s college days. Getting psyched. Not watching a mountainside slowly bleed to death.
The drive got progressively rougher, and my nerves grew more and more taut, but I grit my teeth and dealt with it, one hand clutching my unsolicited acceptance letter from the Rosewilde Academy, the other white-knuckling the armrest on the door. Rolls-Royce didn’t install oh shit handles in their half-million-dollar cars. Probably because they weren’t meant for off-road travel, which was just about where we were at.
Two and a half hours after the drive started, we arrived. The car slowed as it took a sharp bend in the road, and a great iron gate with shiny gold spikes arranged along the tops of twisting bars loomed into view from behind the hillside. The gate was tall and arched, the metalwork elaborate bordering on the ridiculous. At the very top of the arched gateway hung a broad shield-crest with a rose and an elaborate letter ‘R’. Metal vines curled away from it, tangling in the bars of the gate, sharp with thorns each a couple of inches long, at least, jutting out near the crest.
I stared up at the structure as we passed it and entered a wide, flat courtyard complete with a white marble water fountain surrounded by flowers that swirled like the edges of some vortex in stripes of dark blue, crimson, ruddy yellow, and white. The three figures at the center of the fountain were frozen mid dance around something like a maypole, except there were no ribbons, and the pole itself was a stylized rose in full bloom. It was just the right amount of pretentious to match the letter of acceptance in my hand.
My door opened, and only then did I realize I was leaning on it. I nearly fell out of the car and had to grab the edge of the driver’s seat to steady myself.
“We have arrived, Miss Cresswin,” the driver said. The fountain must have mesmerized me—I somehow missed him getting out of the Rolls.
Red-faced, I stepped out of the vehicle and pulled the strap of my messenger bag onto my shoulder.
“Welcome to Rosewilde, Miss,” the driver intoned. “You may go inside. I will see that your luggage is well tended.”
“Thanks, Mr…?” It was the third time I’d tried to get the driver to tell me a name. And for the third time he only smiled, those clear, flat emerald eyes of his glinting at me. “Okay, then. For the record, it’s creepy when you do that. Maybe just… rethink it. Just a suggestion.”
Lurch said nothing, and I did my best to keep it casual as I rounded the back to the Rolls and looked up at an even more elaborate crest gracing the eaves of an actual mansion. The academy stretched away on either side until it disappeared into a copse of trees at either end. It was all old stonework: mottled browns, reds, and whites, as if more than a single quarry had been needed to build the place. Back in the day, before it was a school, the internet said it was the home of a British lord who’d fled England after he was found to be financing the American Revolutionists. Clearly, he’d had expensive tastes. What happened to Archibald Rosewilde, it didn’t say. I assumed he died in his bed, old, surrounded by servants and his twelve children, and still filthy rich.
I’d thrown the dice already. MIT was out of reach for at least the term. Second-guessing at this point was stupid. So I ascended the twelve stairs to the great, gilded double doors. A great iron ring served as the door handle, so I assumed it was meant to be pulled open.
Locked. That, or the door weighed about ten thousand pounds and wasn’t going to budge for my puny mortal arms. I turned to ask Lurch if there was some other entrance and if this one was just for show. “Hey, how do you…”
The Rolls was gone, and Lurch with it.
And with both of them, my suitcase.
“The fuck is the—”
“Welcome,” a smooth voice said behind me.
I whipped around at the same time that I tried to take a step back, both instincts grabbing me at once with the clear intention to kill me. My legs tangled with themselves, and I tried to correct, but the next step back was off the top stair. I had enough time to imagine one of my old high school teachers speaking at my funeral. “She had such potential. Such a shame her own legs killed her.”
I didn’t dash my brains out over the pristine white stairs. One moment my arms were windmilling as I plunged to my embarrassing and untimely death—the next, there were strong hands on my arms, pulling me back from the brink. The man who’d startled me planted me firmly back on my feet.
He was something to look at. Manners aside—it was just rude to sneak up on someone like that—he had a face I could only call ‘gentlemanly’. Straight jawlines, a bit of a cleft to his chin, a short, swept coif of sandy blond hair, and eyes that should have been blue or green but were instead a kind of golden hazel ringed in black. Pouty lips were curved into just the hint of a smile, which meant a smug sort of half-smile, and his dark eyebrows were pinched together so hard he could have hidden something in the crease between them. All of him was wrapped up in a fitted white shirt and a high-collared, gold-embroidered black vest that belonged in a previous century. “Close call,” he said. “You all right?”
“Uh-huh,” I grunted, before I gulped to wet my dry throat. Excellent first impression. It’s my forte. At least I hadn’t changed that much. I continued to stare at him.
“Would you like a picture?” he asked, his head cocked to the side.
I blinked away my panic-induced trance and brushed his hands off my arms. “A picture of what? Take a step back, thank you, please. And maybe next time just clear your throat, and scuff a shoe or something.”
“I didn’t mean to startle you,” he assured me, and backed off with both hands raised. “You must be Amelia. I’m Lucas. Your greeting party. Can I help you with your bag?”
I had no luggage, since Lurch ran off with it, and looked down at my messenger bag when I didn’t see my suitcase magically deposited nearby. “Um, no. I’ll manage, somehow. How do you know my name?”
Lucas smiled a bit wider. “Rosewilde doesn’t exactly send out acceptance letters at random. We have a file. Your picture is in it. They briefed me before I came to escort you to your admissions exam.”
I glanced around the empty courtyard. “Am I late, or early?”
“Neither,” he said. “You’re precisely on time. Let me show you in.”
He turned, gripped the iron ring of the door, and pulled it open as if it weighed nothing. It swung silently out onto the landing, not so much as a whisper from the hinges. I followed him into a wide, deep foyer with a hallway to either side of the door, a pair of curved staircases at the far end, and six doors lining the walls. Lucas’s shoes tapped quietly over the ancient wood floors, filling the otherwise silent space like a metronome. I took one step, and the wood under my feet creaked menacingly.
“Watch your step,” Lucas called over his shoulder.
“Ha-ha,” I muttered. After my next step, a whoosh of air blew in behind me, and I glanced back to see the door closing. “Lucas, right? What… kind of school is this exactly?”
He stopped by the closest door on the right, made of some smooth dark wood like the double doors at the front. About halfway up the unembellished surface was a burnished gold symbol. Coded room labels? Probably an artifact of the academy’s past. Rosewilde had a thing for the occult; a precursor to the big spiritualism boom. “The kind of school that mints Nobel laureates like pennies,” Lucas said as he opened the door and gestured for me to go in ahead of him.
As intriguing as the door itself was, it led to a fairly plain office. Just a desk, a high-backed leather chair on one side and a slightly shorter chair on the other.
“Please, have a seat,” he urged me when I stood just inside, baffled at the lack of anything else in the room. Including a lamp. There were no windows, either, and yet somehow the room was lit. As if the light was just there. I wanted to look around, the physics of the room sending my brain into overdrive.
“I didn’t apply to this school,” I told him as he brushed past me to take the tall chair behind the desk. “The letter just came in the mail. Maybe it was meant for another Amelia Cresswin?”
“Highly unlikely,” Lucas said, and opened a draw to rummage around for something. He withdrew a stiff black folder and flipped it open. “Just a few questions for our records. If you could sit? This won’t take long.”
I did, but reluctantly, and while searching the room for a source of light. “How is this room lit? Where is the light actually coming from.”
Lucas chuckled softly. “The same place all light comes from. Where else? Now, It’s Amelia Rosalind Cresswin, correct?”
The sound of my mother’s name on anyone’s lips always made me flinch internally. “Yes,” I said. “I go by Amelia, though. Or Amy.”
“Mm.” His pen moved to another line. “Parents?”
“None,” I said. “I lived with my godmother, Laura Kinreedy, but she—”
“You manifested yourself, then?” Lucas interrupted.
“What?” I cocked my head at him. “Obviously not. My… my parents have passed. Rosalind and Jakob Cresswin.”
Lucas blinked at me, maybe skeptical—it was hard to read his expression—but turned his eyes back to the paper and scribbled the names down. “Okay, then. Previous education?”
“Ridge Avenue Upper, in Cambridge Mass,” I answered, and leaned in to see what was else was on the form. “If you sent me an acceptance letter, don’t you already know that?”
He quirked an eyebrow. “Yeah… I mean your other school. Your primary academy, obviously.”
We stared at one another. I waited for the punchline but it didn’t come. “I didn’t… are you absolutely certain you have the right person? And is this place empty? I haven’t seen a single other student here. You’re not… uh… is there anyone else here?”
I put a hand on my bag. Under the flap was a keychain with a removable can of mace. Mysterious letter? One guy in the whole place? Creepy driver? Freaky magic light tricks? I entertained a variety of explanations and a lot of them seemed to end with me in a basement dressed in doll clothes while this guy, cute or not, shouted at me about putting lotion on my skin. If he was some eccentric billionaire, I did not for a moment put it past him. Laura always said wealth made people crazy.
Lucas closed the file and pursed his lips as he laid the pen on it and steepled his fingers. “So you went to a public high school?”
All my red flags were waving, so I slipped my hand under the flap of my bag and rose calmly from the chair. “I can see this was some kind of mistake,” I said politely, smiling at him as nicely as I could as I stepped back from the chair and made my way to the door. “I’ll just see myself out. You have a nice day, Lucas. It was a pleasure to meet you. I think I should probably go—”
As I opened the door, Lucas raised a finger as if to warn me of something but I was done listening to all that. Instead, I turned quickly and pushed through the door.
Right into a much smaller room than the foyer we’d come from. There were murmurs to my right, and when I looked at the source of the voices I found a long table at the far end of the room. Behind it, thirteen men and women dressed exactly the way administration and faculty were expected to at a graduation ceremony sat arrayed like judges on a panel.
The one in the middle, a man a bit past middle-aged, with shocks of white along either side of a head of receding black hair, stood and gave me a broad, welcoming smile.
“Ah, Miss Cresswin,” he said, very much like he’d been expecting me. “So glad you were able to make it. Welcome to the Rosewilde Academy of Magical Arts. If you’ll just set your bag to one side please; it’s technically prohibited in the testing room. Then we can begin your placement exam.”
I closed my jaw, which had dropped open the moment I walked through the door, and scanned the line of people behind the table. I tried to summon some words—the right question, a phrase that would make them all admit that I was being punk’d, and reveal Ashton Kutcher from some hidden panel in the walls.
Instead, all that came out was, “Huh?”
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