(reading time: 54 minutes)
Trouble came to all of Cay Royal, not just its students. Word of the intruder and their power spread quickly. Any calls for Dean Mystpass to invent suspension or detention were neutralized when the safety precautions taken essentially counted as punishment. The whole college went on lockdown, students now escorted in groups from tent to tent and back to the dorms by either professors or security guards.
They were barred from the beaches as well, regardless of whether or not it was on their own time. That wasn’t too much of a burden, as the sky around the college had not cleared since that night, and the rain never stopped completely either. The gray pall was one of fear and dread, for its continued presence almost certainly meant the trespasser was still on the island somewhere, still directing the weather.
They asserted themselves not only as present, but unstoppable. For the first days after the party there were always people on the dorm roof, working in unison to clear the clouds, never making a dent. Wielders rotated in and out, attempting all sorts of spell combinations, but continued to fail. Every magical soul in the country was baffled; it should not have been possible. Rumors swirled of an entire organization set against them, as only a group larger than their own could maintain the weather against such pushback.
Dove and her sisters barely managed to talk their parents out of bodyguards for each of them whenever they weren’t in the Balcony Suite. Apparently it was something Chief Hunter had insisted upon, but the king and queen-madame could overrule him on anything involving the royal family.
She had barely seen her parents in recent weeks, as they were busy hobnobbing with magical elite from across the world, all applying for chances to be diplomats to and from Cay Royal to their respective countries, even though the island hadn’t yet been recognized as a nation by significant governing bodies. Dove could only imagine how invasive a protective detail might become in her life if their sovereignty was actually legitimized.
Her fears of the cloying princess cage and the specter behind the clouds took a backseat on the following Thursday, when she entered the purple Pomegranate Tent for Data Manipulation class. She had successfully avoided Ponder up until then, but he was in that class as well. She sat down without looking at him, bracing herself for a telepathic invitation, but none came. After class then. She could relax until then.
Doing so was easier thanks to the stiff plastic body of the professor. A real name had never been provided, so they were listed everywhere on the curriculum as Anonymous Proxy. Cay Royal College wanted the best teachers it could acquire for every subject, and when it came to the interactions of magic and data the best choice was clearly someone skilled in coding, networks, and hacking.
In the case of Professor Proxy that meant someone who was currently wanted by a number of other governments, but who would receive diplomatic immunity should their island’s flag fly at the United Nations. They chose to present their class while shrouding their identity, and from another continent as well.
They chose as their avatar a towering amalgam of obsolete computers, shelled in gray and off-white textured plastic. It stood at the head of the class, occasionally swinging out monitors from behind itself like street signs to play videos or display diagrams. A central monitor, looking barely advanced enough to play virtual ping pong, gave them a face to focus on if they felt like it: a pair of pixelated sunglasses and a mouth that could only be a smile, a neutral line, or a frown.
Professor Proxy’s voice was heavily modulated, but one of the first things they taught was how to translate noises made by machines into the information they represented. After learning to speak dial-up modem on the first day, they had quickly moved on to much more advanced subjects.
Everyone fell behind almost immediately. Professor Proxy only took questions at the end of class, so they were free to converse amongst themselves or do pretty much anything else as the machine babbled out its lecture. Some tips were helpful, like how to alter sent text messages without leaving a trace, or un-censoring footage with blurs or black bars, but beyond that Dove mostly tuned them out as well.
Doing so became impossible when lightning struck nearby, which interfered with something inside the professor’s casing. Their voice became shrill, forcing the students to cover their ears until it dissolved into static. Sparks flew from a disk drive. Every monitor except the face blinked out, with the one remaining flashing a big green X.
“The professor crashed,” someone said dumbly. “Class dismissed?”
“Class is in session actually,” Lorelei Quince said. “Who wants their future read?” Most turned to see what she meant. The sights major must have seen the interlude coming, as she had pulled several items from her bag and set them out on her desk to set the mood of a fortune teller. Electric candles. Playing cards, which were much more common in magical readings than the already suspiciously mystical tarot variety. Sprigs of scented oak.
They expected her centerpiece to be a crystal of some kind, but instead she had a folded paper fortune teller, elaborately decorated. It looked as if she had tried to mimic illuminated writing from ancient texts, but using only children’s markers. Each section had images from one aspect of Cay Royal: a tent, a hotel, a house in the natives’ town, and a beach.
Nobody mocked the common middle school device. Like the fortune cookie, magic could easily turn such toys into valuable tools. They still weren’t terribly impressive, instilled with magic mostly to record predictions and help ensure a seer wasn’t lying.
“It’s going to be my final project,” Lorelei told them as they gathered around her desk, inching the legs of theirs through the sand. “It’s the most accurate paper teller ever made. Go on. Ask it anything.”
“Okay, who’s going to win the election?” a Mystic boy asked. His father was Jackpot Jackson, illusionist king of the Las Vegas strip, but the boy just preferred to be called Jackson, no title. He dressed mundanely compared to most of the Mystic, and showed an interest in the politics of the island. Everyone was already familiar with his oft-repeated rant that the Mystic should be able to run in the elections and not just fawn over the royal family.
He was himself a strong contender for the student body president, given that he organized the whole structure and rule book for such a contest with Yes Martel in just two weeks. Dove knew him mostly as the boy that looked at her and snidely said ‘no offense’ every time he mentioned his disdain for the king and queen-madame.
“Don’t be dumb,” Lorelei snapped at him. “You know predicting something that big tends to make people change their behavior and thus the result. Somebody ask something reasonable. Something personal.”
“Ooh, I’ve got one,” Wondrous Douglas said, squeezing his way up to her desk. He leaned toward the device and enunciated more clearly than they’d ever heard from him, even in his videos. “Is my boyfriend Bryce coming to visit me here, even though he said he couldn’t get away from work?” Lorelei gently slipped her fingers under the fortune teller and raised it. Slowly at first, she flexed it open and shut, horizontal then vertical, repeating the question, one motion per syllable. She asked him to then pick a color from the inside flaps. He pointed, quickly changed his mind, shook his finger to get rid of the old choice, and pointed again.
“Most… likely,” Lorelei declared as slowly and mysteriously as she could, but she couldn’t resist squeaking and talking at a hundred miles an hour when she saw Douglas beaming. “Oh my god, how long have you two been dating? Do we get to meet him? Why isn’t he enrolled here?”
“It’s been two years,” he answered. His expression suggested blushing, but he’d trained his cheeks to never do so, especially not with people watching. “He’s kind of lying low because he’s an influencer; he got sucked up in this whole Thryve thing and did a promotion for it. People really ragged on him after it blew up. He lost like a third of his followers. I lost like ten K because I wouldn’t break up with him.”
“Oh, you’re so brave,” Lorelei fawned, several others agreeing.
“Alright, I’ve got a real one,” Jackson insisted. The circle tightened around their folded fortunes, but Dove was distracted by something else. Ponder had quietly gotten up and circled around everybody, taking his bag over to the malfunctioning professor’s side. This in itself wasn’t unusual, as the professor did crash relatively frequently and Ponder was the designated student to reboot them if need be, which every class had.
He was undoubtedly chosen for his technical know-how, even though he was majoring in instilling instead of Data Manip. Almost nobody had chosen the latter, since the professor wasn’t there to physically engage with them and anything they learned might be outdated in a few months’ time.
What she didn’t understand was what he needed one of his prototype magic computers for. She watched as he pulled one out of his bag, opened a panel on the professor’s side, and went to work, clearly having one device interface with the other.
Professor Proxy probably has three or four different things in there connected to the internet. Ponder could be accidentally broadcasting magic to the whole world. Dove was already halfway there before the little voice in her hat could finish. She crouched down next to him and whispered.
“Are you sure you should be doing that?” He flinched and nearly dropped his cluster of office supplies.
“Jeez! What are you sneaking up on me for?”
“It’s not safe.”
“Relax, I’m not enacting my grand exposer plan if that’s what you’re thinking. I’m just trying to reboot him like I always do, but I put the spells in my magiquick instead to see if it works.”
“The name is a work in progress.”
“Did you put your own magic in it? There’s some kind of, I don’t know, storm fiend running around.”
“I might not have been invited to the party,” he said through clenched teeth, “but I did hear about it yes. This isn’t mine. I paid some guy off the island a thousand bucks to lend his magic for a week.”
“A thousand bucks?” She didn’t need to say anything more. He clearly saw the judgment on her face, like she watched a child try to use a peanut butter smeared credit card.
“Don’t look at me like that. You’re the princess. You could just ask and somebody would do it for free.”
“I didn’t ask to be royalty.”
“And I asked to be born into my family?”
“It’s not the same because you don’t have to use any of their-” She was cut off by a new arrival to Pomegranate Tent: Chief Hunter. The stocky man, paying no attention at all to the huddled students, marched over to the professor’s heap and stared at it, displeased.
“What’s wrong with it now?” he asked Ponder and Dove.
“Lightning,” they answered together.
“You’re kidding me.” A silent second convinced him they were not. “Well when do you think you’ll have him up and running again? I’ve got to fax some documents over to him.” He jiggled the tan folder in his hand. Dove saw it contained a single sheet of blank paper. The urge to confront him overpowered her; she reasoned it was entirely his own fault since he had seen fit to argue she was too young to take care of her own safety right in front of her, to the king and queen-madame, without addressing her.
“What are those?” she asked, pointing at the folder so there could be no ambiguity. “I’ve seen you give them to two other teachers.” His expression darkened, as if just realizing that the eyes of children weren’t decorative.
“Don’t you worry about it princess. It’s confidential stuff.”
“If I asked my parents to ask you would you have to tell them?” she asked pointedly. He faltered, clearly caught off guard. He became conciliatory, making it all too clear he didn’t want that to happen.
“They’re just notes for the textbook you kids will have next semester. All the professors are contributing.” He anticipated her next question. Now that he was ready for her aggression he stared back, signaling the ability to anticipate the next ten if need be. “It’s encoded because we encode everything. Governments have to have secrets to be actual governments.”
“I assume by fax you mean scan?” Ponder asked, not taking his head out of Professor Proxy’s tangled wire bowels.
“It goes in that tray there,” Chief Hunter said, pointing at a flap hanging off what would be the professor’s bottom if the towering technological monstrosity had anything resembling human anatomy.
“Yeah that would be the scanner,” Ponder said, the roll of his eyes clear in his tone, especially since it echoed inside the professor’s plastic shell. “It’ll still work; it just won’t send the data until he’s operational again. So go ahead.”
“Alright, well, don’t look,” he ordered them weakly, grunting as he bent low enough to insert the page.
“Look, I’m sorry I blew you off,” Dove said now that the chief was busy. “I really didn’t feel like explaining why I didn’t want to spend time with you. I know you heard what I said from that virtual pet thing.”
“I know you know,” he said, crawling deeper into the professor. His shoulders were gone already. “That’s why I referenced it in the stupid idiot text I sent.” Dove didn’t feel like continuing with his head stuffed in a cupboard, so she dropped to her knees and squeezed in alongside him, watching as he touched his cardboard computer to various modules and waited for invisible readings.
“You’re not an idiot. It was just a misunderstanding.” He burrowed a little deeper, forcing her to take off her hat to make room alongside him.
“Right, of course you wouldn’t say I’m cute. I’m just the screw-up who wants everybody to get along, dropping secrets everywhere. ‘Clumsy’ was the word you were looking for.”
“Hey, don’t put words in my mouth,” she warned him.
“You are cute.” He bumped his head trying to turn. “But cute just means cute… I miss home, I miss my stage, I miss pulling things out of my hat that I didn’t even expect to get. Seriously. I pull things out of the audience’s pockets. They’re shocked when they see a piece of themselves on stage, and I’m shocked to see they could be up there so easily.
The stage acknowledges that the show is temporary, that you only get a little magic. All this is the opposite. They’re trying to make the show permanent, our lives a lie, our trajectory in the cosmos a conspiracy. They pulled me out of their hat, crowned me, and just left me there under the spotlight even after they’ve gone home.
So, for just a minute, I wanted this to be regular life. I wanted to be a girl in college doing something trivial with people who wouldn’t stab her in the back. I wanted to flirt with you because you seemed nice and harmless, but I didn’t want it be a thing. I just wanted a moment.”
“And I guess I ruined it by making it a thing.”
“It’s not even your fault really,” Dove went on. “You’re Moneyed, and my family doesn’t have the best experience when it comes to you guys. My dad will let it be water under the bridge as soon as someone gives him a ribbon to cut and Madame will probably pretend she’s not holding a grudge until the moment she dies and unleashes wailing curses on everyone who ever stepped on her toe.”
“You call your mom madame?”
“I really don’t want to get into that right n-” A panel popped open in front of them in response to Ponder’s probing. It displayed fuzzy green text on an otherwise black screen. Using speeree, they were able to read and comprehend every word of it in under five seconds, though the implications left them dumbfounded.
There were three brief profiles: one on Dove, one on Ponder, and one on Hadir Hunter. Dove was relieved to see hers contained only public information, mostly records of her family’s tours and slate of tricks prior to her becoming a princess. Ponder’s was similarly benign, though she was immediately curious about records of him temporarily losing his magic about six years ago.
It was the security chief’s that contained the startling detail. There was a list of his known associates, current and former, and under the heading of something called ‘Squadron of the Stabbed Eye’ one name jumped out: Custus Jordan.
“Hewie’s brother?” Ponder whispered.
“Did you know them?”
“I think one of my cousins is married to one of his cousins. They’re all exiles now obviously. I wonder what this squadron was.”
“Why does Professor Proxy have these?”
“I think it’s automatic,” he theorized. “The machine is instilled with a spell that runs background checks on anybody standing near it. Right now that’s us.” They didn’t discuss it further, as they doubted Chief Hunter’s middle-aged technological discomfort would keep him distracted for long. Ponder quietly shut the panel and went back to work.
“You know, your project might go over better if it had built-in safety precautions,” Dove suggested.
“It’s supposed to! I had a prototype that self-destructed when an unauthorized person tried to use it, but I think I misplaced it.”
“You should be more careful,” Dove said in the most neutral voice she could muster. There were probably a few paperclips still at the bottom of her hat from that prototype. At least it worked the way it was intended. Dove was saved from any suspicion by the professor’s interior lighting up. Fans hummed to life. A few sparks flew between metal facets over their heads, so they scrambled backward and out.
Much to their chagrin, several of their peers were watching as they emerged, clearly wondering what activity had forced Dove to remove the hat she was almost never seen without.
“Get a room you two,” Professor Proxy quipped loudly when they observed the two students crawling out of their insides, which didn’t help matters at all.
“So, meeting next Thursday?” Ponder asked quietly. Dove nodded and they returned to their seats with their heads down. Luckily they weren’t the only ones embarrassing themselves, as Chief Hunter had his hand cupped around his mouth and was whispering something to the professor, right into the side of what might be a head on a person.
“That’s not an ear genius,” the professor said, “but I hear you. Now scram. We’ve got to go over malware curses.” Chief Hunter cleared his throat and got out of there as quickly as he could without breaking into a full run. “Hey, what are you guys doing over there?” The clustered students broke up and returned to their desks.
“I’m telling fortunes Professor Proxy,” Lorelei boasted. “Want me to do yours?”
“Hell yeah,” the professor answered. “Forget malware. Tell me how my crypto will fare next week.”
“Literally everyone who has ever suspected magic of being real is trying to kill you, and often the only reason they don’t do it immediately is that they sense a greater profit from draining you of your resources first. Safety is an illusion invented by the fearful and spread by the most dangerous people of all.
Even your mind is a constant battleground. Every intrusive thought you’ve ever had could’ve been a fragmentation grenade hurled by an enemy to destabilize you from within. Many of you are already puppets, thralls to the family name, mere golems operating under the illusion of free will when you were actually reshaped into objects before you could even walk, sometimes subconsciously on the part of your captors.
Complacency is the root of the very concept of the foe. You can only be inadequate if there is someone present to take advantage of it. For us wielders relaxation is yet another form of rivalry. So, today you will find the invisible attacker, the person just a wall away listening to your dreams. If you fail you will become one of them, and try your hand at the other side, as giving up is not an option in my class.
Blissfully ignorant people huff and puff their way up ropes and around circular tracks in cruel metaphors for their social mobility. You are wielders of magic. Your fitness is in how well you’ve sharpened your competitive edge, and this is your fitness test.”
That was how the professor of Sabotage class, Min Gun-Mo, introduced that day’s lesson, though, aside from the last paragraph or so, it was nearly identical to how she started every class. The woman was small, of dark hair and eye, and she clearly spent most evenings pressed against whatever grinding wheel sharpened the competitive edge, screaming. She was like an arrowhead, one that looked too dangerous to pick up and pocket. The professor was open about the many magical battles she’d faced, but never their context, so her students had no idea what had happened to her to make her so uptight.
She was the only one of the twelve instructors who insisted that the students pay full attention in her lectures, and was not afraid to punish anyone she caught doing otherwise with lengthy written assignments. She even had a way of determining if the assignment was actually written by focus or by magical autopilot while the mind and free hand did something more enjoyable.
None of her students had ever seen her smile, but they sensed she was as close as she ever came to that facial expression after the endless storm darkened their skies. It was confirmation of everything she’d told them regarding vigilance. There absolutely was someone out there, watching, waiting for them to slip up.
Luckily Professor Gun-Mo was not in charge of graduation requirements. Several students were practically destined to fail her class, a fact seemingly confirmed by Lorelei’s fortune telling final project. It was the Dean who set the standards though, and in keeping with the light class schedule the students were free to fail up to three subjects without it affecting their eventual diplomas, which were still in the design stage.
All the same, Dove wanted to avoid any kind of judgment as the princess who skated by on her title, so she gave the unorthodox midterm exam her all. It didn’t take place in Gun-Mo’s usual haunt, Starfruit Tent; instead they were escorted back to the resort and taken to an empty floor called the Terminal.
The place was dense with the sort of imprints they had brought back to life in the beach bungalow. When the Thryve Festival was writhing in death, many of the attendees could not immediately hop back on a plane and leave, and were forced to commandeer part of the only building big enough around to house them.
Hundreds were stranded, and there were only so many rooms, so they had slept, for as much as a week in a few cases, in the hallway leaned up against the wall, using ripped tent flaps as blankets. In their desperation and vengeful tantrums they had destroyed the interior of many of the rooms on that floor, damage that was still not fully repaired by the time the Cay Royal College of Exceedingly Minor Magics was established.
Dove sensed why it was now called the Terminal. With magical hindsight she saw the frustrated people bottled up in the hall, immediately likening them to those stuck waiting at the airport because of a delayed flight. They vanished as she returned to the moment, thanks to Professor Gun-Mo clearing her throat.
“These are your parameters,” she told Dove and Phillipa, who had partnered up for the fitness test. “There are nearly fifty rooms on this floor. Most of them are empty. Two contain Cay Royal College staff who are shielding their presence. Two more contain staff who are actively attempting to interfere with your magic. A few more might contain your fellow students who have already failed.
Your goal is to correctly identify two members of staff and open their doors within one hour. If you open a door to an empty room you fail, but you will stay in that room and do your best to throw off others as they take their test for additional credit. If you open a door to a room with a student, you fail.
You have a partner you may share information with, but only one of you risks each door opening, and if your partner gets absorbed into a room they can use their partnership against you for additional credit. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” the girls answered in unison.
“Good. Your time starts now.” There were no stopwatches present, at leas not physically. One ran in each of their heads, generated by the spell stopway. They walked quickly, not speaking until they rounded a corner and got the professor out of sight.
“Okay, like we talked about?” Phillipa asked.
“Split up, each take half, share info with telepathy,” Dove reminded. They nodded and went their separate ways. Dove had rooms 306 through 330, and plenty of work to do, so she set herself to it. The little voice in her hat walked through the steps.
Okay, first filter out all residual negative energy of the Terminal. The Thryve Festival is long over, never even started in fact. These are just rooms. Full or empty. Full or empty. Next shield and cloak. Quiet your footfalls and breath. Go by them like a ghost. If they don’t detect anything they won’t attack it, so no effort is needed to counter them.
Phillipa reported she was already through her initial sweep of three rooms, but Dove hadn’t examined a single one yet. She put herself in front of 306 and probed with lateral sight. When it came to magic the devil was not only in the details, he was entombed there. An amateur would just use a spell that made the door clear to them or extend the origin point of their vision through the wood. These were magic-intensive efforts, easy to spot.
Instead Dove shrank the origin point and let it glide on the stale air, sending it through the peephole, essentially just using it in reverse. It would probably take anyone inside focusing on the peephole specifically to notice it. There was a made bed. Closed curtains. A humming mini fridge. Nothing out of the ordinary. That didn’t mean they weren’t hiding under the bed.
Professor Gun-mo had told them beforehand that the bathrooms were off limits, so under and behind the bed were the only places they could be hiding. Unless… unless they were so close to the door that her vision missed them as it passed through. She could turn it, but that was an extra layer of magic. Being able to see through a peephole’s incorrect side was questionable, but being able to see through it to the surface it was set in? Highly suspicious.
She shared the conundrum with Phillipa, and her best friend advised her not to twist the magic around. She reasoned that the professors would expect them to use the most straightforward tactics like making the door clear, which would reveal them if they were standing up against it. She didn’t think it likely they would stand there.
Dove agreed, and moved on to methods of detection that didn’t involve sight at all. She mapped the airflow, looking for any human-shaped interruptions that shouldn’t have been there. Nothing. She sharpened her nose to bloodhound precision, but caught no scent of skin, deodorant, or clothing. Sharpening her ears allowed her to hear a battery scraping against its coil inside the room’s television remote as gravity acted on it, but nothing indicative of life.
Three minutes of the exam had blown by, so she couldn’t afford to linger even though she had a list of ten more things she could try, like echolocation, tracing light paths, and scanning for thoughts and emotions.
She mixed up her routine a little with 307, just in case her technique was already being examined. In order to hit all her rooms she had around three minutes each, so she settled into a rhythm of one method or incantation every thirty seconds, moving on after six. She, perhaps mistakenly, cleared 307, 308, 309, and 310 uneventfully.
311 roused her suspicions immediately, but it was difficult to pin down why. She tried a few extra methods, but the only anomalous result came from sharpening her sense of smell. There was a distinct note of a packaged meat product, perhaps turkey jerky, most likely from the minibar. The only way the smell would be that strong was if the package had been opened. One of the staff had helped themselves to a snack.
Phillipa reminded her it could be one of their peers as Dove reached for the handle. She froze. It didn’t seem likely that someone at the same level as her could hide from everything else, but that was presumptuous. There were those majoring in Sabotage after all, much of which was interfering, interrupting, and blocking the magic of other wielders.
Nobody could make themselves invisible, but it was possible to be invisible to a magic form of sight. Her peephole lateral sight returned nothing. How to separate student from staff? Experience. This isn’t chess; they’re not just pawns and rooks. They’re people.
Dove thought about the twenty some students who were in her Sabotage class, running through their pictures in her head, which she rearranged to look like mugshots. Under them she had filed away short lists of details, every piece of personal data shad had observed or subconsciously sensed.
She felt a twinge, like all the mugshots wrinkling, resting on uneven globs of glue. Her recollection was being suppressed, proof positive that someone was both in the room and now aware of her presence immediately outside it. Merely thinking magically now required more effort and took much longer, but Dove was one step ahead.
It was a student, surely, as their efforts had intensified once Dove started looking through her internal roll call. She further deduced that the resistance was forced because she had already come across that person’s photo specifically. So she copied part of the figment, pushing only the photos and lists she had passed over deeper in her mind, leaving the initial one up for them to keep attacking.
There were only six suspects remaining, two Moneyed and four Mystic. The first two were the fraternal Glistarre twins. She ruled them out, as twins were notorious for having difficulty when interacting with minds that didn’t belong to their sibling, the trade-off for such a powerful connection. The four magicians were Handy Dandy, Peony of Feathers, Trickster Timor, and Nicodemus the Invigorating.
Nicodemus was an idiot by Dove’s standards, so she disregarded him. Handy Dandy was a fellow Alteration major working, fittingly, mostly with his hands, disappearing and appearing things inside them much as Dove did with her hat. If he was good at sabotage at all it was probably just making people blink when he was in the middle of a trick.
Timor was a good candidate. A Sabotage major. Yet, she expected better of him. It was odd to detect him this quickly, and by a smell no less. He should’ve been able to disguise that completely.
This left Peony of Feathers, and Dove found that she slotted into this situation nicely. She was a Psych major, focused on the many bird familiars she used in her act. If Dove remembered correctly her final project involved storing entire books inside parrots and prompting the animal to speak the text from memory.
The only important detail was the smell. Peony smelled of birds. The layperson wouldn’t notice, but she couldn’t hide it from an enchanted nose, and she knew that. So if it was her in room 307, trying to crumple Dove’s records, she would have only two choices: neutralize the smell with intense magical effort, lessening her ability to focus on sabotage, or to use less and simply twist the smell’s identity.
Turkey jerky also smelled of bird, and came in all the minibars. It was a good trick, but too strong. Dove was sure she was right, discarding the possibility that someone had eaten ten bags of jerky and then ordered more from room service. There was a way to prove it. She focused, creating the image of a human diaphragm in the center of her mind. Not just anyone’s. Peony’s diaphragm. The detail made it all the clearer, sharpened her blade. She launched the spell like a harpoon.
“Hic!” A girl’s voice, just behind the door of 311. “Damn it Dove! Hic! The hiccups, really? Hic! I had you going.”
“Nice try Peony. Say hello to Sergeant Saltine for me.”
“I can’t get him to stop hic! repeating the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, but sure. Hic! Good luck.” Dove left her door behind, sharing the successful detection with Phillipa. Unfortunately it didn’t add any points to her score, so she’d really only succeeded in eating up more of her time. The areas on either side of Peony felt much emptier, so she quickly cleared 312 through 315. Then another conundrum presented itself, practically blazing behind the wood of 316.
There was someone inside, and they weren’t trying to disguise their presence at all. Why would they give up the charade of emptiness so easily? They’ve handed over a clue. Dove slipped through the peephole. A housekeeper, dutifully dusting the windowsill. She was middle-aged, braided locks of hair looking tough as rope. She was humming something, but Dove couldn’t match it to any song she’d ever heard, even when consulting the background recordings in her earliest memories.
She decided it had to be an illusion to fool her sight spell. These rooms were cleared for the test, and still under renovation, so there would be no housekeeping. The humming was probably to distract her. Magic could be hidden in notes like that, mostly to lull people into a false sense of comfort. Her father had often joked that the modern magical community had very nearly been the Moneyed, the Mystic, and the Musical, but for some reason people paid too much attention to musicians.
By now Dove was getting tired of the systematic approach. Today was supposed to be a good day aside from the test. There were no royal duties. A couple Mystics had invited her to the resort pool after class so they could have some fun with underwater spells, bubbling out incantations from the bottom and seeing if they activated immediately or when they burst on the surface. Then she had a meeting with Ponder.
It had taken her a long time to finally narrow down the details of her final project. On stage her signature trick was pulling audience belongings out of their pockets and into her hat, but it was normally impossible if they were paying attention to the object at the time. She couldn’t do it if their hands were in their pockets, touching the item.
So she would work up an ongoing connection between her hat and their pocket, which technically meant part of their body was in her hat, sometimes a hundred feet from where it should have been. Failing might make her hat unravel in an instant. She was sure she could do it though, and not just because the little voice in her hat had the utmost confidence.
She drew from her parents’ experience and the expert way they sliced up their children on stage and separated the pieces to the delight and wonder of the onlookers. The secret was an emotional connection, am empathetic resonance between two blood supplies. With her parents it was provided by familial bond, but Dove was mastering the ability to forge that connection with anyone, to care about their blood as if it were her own.
With that connection she could maker her hand in her hat the same as their hand in their pocket. She could switch the item they held with a nearly identical one without them feeling it slip away. That was the idea, and Ponder had once again agreed to be her guinea pig. It was going well. When their hands were hidden she could feel his pulse in her wrist, and he couldn’t hide the way it fluttered when their eyes met.
Dove hated how vulnerable it made her feel, but she was having fun at school, even with the storm looming perpetually overhead. Yes, she was being passed back and forth, made to stand and smile for photo opportunities, made to shake hands with greased palms, but there were almost always new friends standing a few feet away, rolling their eyes on her behalf.
With all that wadded up in her head she had great difficulty finding concern for her Sabotage grade. She was already playing defense, had been since the moment she learned the Moneyed were running her show now. She’d handled it perfectly well on her own without Professor Gun-Mo’s help. Besides, her lessons were more focused on attacking than defending, and that wasn’t the Mystic way. The Mystic way was getting everybody on your side by letting them pick a card and showing them you understood which card was theirs. It was a stronger bond than most people thought.
No student could do an illusion that well, she reasoned, throwing out the laundry list of tactics. She was on track to pass every other subject, so she threw caution to the wind, grabbed the handle, and threw it open.
“Oh!” The startled housekeeper dropped her dusting cloth and put her hand over her heart. “You scared me child!
“I’m… sorry,” a befuddled Dove apologized.
“Are you one of the students?” Dove nodded. “I’ve never seen people your age with so much free time. Shouldn’t you be in class?”
“I am, we’re using these rooms for a test. I thought they were supposed to be empty.”
“I guess they are,” the housekeeper reasoned. “I was just dusting because I had a little time. Doing it now means it’ll be easier when the room is actually assigned.” Dove guessed it was the truth, as she hadn’t seen a loaded housekeeping cart outside. “I’m sorry for interrupting. I’ll just get out of your way.” She moved to leave, but Dove was compelled to ask something.
“Who are you? I haven’t seen you around.” The woman pointed to her name tag and gave her a look that suggested perhaps it was time for her to see an optometrist.
“I’m new. Never cleaned professionally before… but this new university is the only place hiring on the island. So here I am.”
“Are you a local?”
“All my life. This is such a beautiful place. At least it was until Thryve. I used to work at one of the restaurants, but it’s gone now. That awful man never paid us.” She stopped shaking her head and looked at Dove closely, perhaps questioning her own choice in optometrist. She approached and gently lifted the magician’s hat off her head, then set it back down. “Oh my! You’re one of the princesses!”
“Technically. I… didn’t know if the people who live here even knew who I was.”
“Are you kidding?” she said with a smile, lightly whipping her with a corner of the dust cloth. “Our whole town goes bankrupt and then all of a sudden somebody buys the island and throws in a royal family. It’s all anybody talks about. Your parents haven’t come and seen the town yet though!”
“That’s not right,” Dove said. “I’ll talk to them, see what I can do. I… This is very new for me. I shouldn’t be a princess. I don’t think anybody should be really. This wasn’t my choice.”
“Cleaning up after all these white people wasn’t my choice either,” the housekeeper said with an expression that had seen far too many people jump into the sea naked and drunk. “You let me know if you feel like switching.” With that she threw the cloth over her shoulder and left.
Right. This place wasn’t abandoned just because Thryve collapsed. People lived here. Still do. And they’re subjects now. There’s money coming in, but is anybody speaking for them? The Moneyed probably haven’t given them a thought. They’re just window dressing; they haven’t shipped them out because a country technically needs a certain number of citizens.
Dove realized she was no better. She hadn’t given those people thought number one since she arrived, instead moaning about being away from a real stage, acting like she was chained to Ponder. She didn’t know what she could do to improve their lives, but there was a flash of an idea. She saw herself smiling in front of a long line of locals. One by one she handed them a little box in whatever colors would eventually adorn Cay Royal’s flag.
They were Magiquicks, though she would use whatever royal authority she had to ensure that wasn’t the name they’d be given. Their nation’s version of the smartphone, never to be distributed beyond their shores, and thus a much smaller risk of exposure and collapse. If such a social program were ever to happen it would need all the details ironed out, like where all the magic in the little boxes would come from, but there wasn’t time for that now. Gun-Mo’s clock was ticking.
The professor asserted that in fact, intruding on Dove’s mind telepathically. Somehow she was observing the proceedings, and informed her that the housekeeper definitely was not supposed to be there, and that Dove would be compensated three minutes of additional time. The magician wasn’t really interested in that extra time, but she was a little curious if anything else enlightening was hiding out in the Terminal.
As she walked she waited for the sensation of being alone to return. The housekeeper was around the corner, but it didn’t. She was outside Dove’s range of perception, but it didn’t. She couldn’t hear people stomping above or below, but she felt like she could. Crossing 320 only soured that feeling, intensified it.
Someone was nearby, weaponizing the residual contempt and frustration of the place. Dove was suddenly surrounded by phantoms of the festival, sitting lined up along the walls on both sides. A tangle of charging cords ran between them and over them. People stared into their glowing phone screens and cried, sometimes over wasted money, sometimes over the conditions of their stay.
“My sponsor dropped me because I plugged them when I first got here,” one of them sniffled to another. “How was I supposed to know?”
“Does anyone have any water?”
“I’ve got vodka.”
“I’m going to sue this place so hard. Can a judge order somebody to turn over a whole island?” Dove stepped over them gingerly even though they hadn’t actually been there for quite some time. She shook her head and deliberately stomped through their ghostly limbs. This was just a distraction to keep her from pinpointing the actual person behind one of the doors.
“Damn it! I’m out. Don’t bother with room 351,” Phillipa told her telepathically. “It’s just you now.” The professor was surely listening in and would be most annoyed by her failure to set up a trap for Dove and earn some additional credit, but the only way Phillipa would bother after such a frustrating experience would be if Professor Gun-Mo was Professor Quixote and Dove was also Professor Quixote.
The Terminal memories started to overlap. They were coming from different moments in time now. One of them banged on one of the doors, demanding to be let in. At one point or another all the doors were being banged on, and all those points had been focused right onto Dove. The clamor made it impossible to think, so she deafened herself completely with the magic word nosow. She could’ve gotten rid of the visual clutter as well, but with so many different pieces of the past flung at her, it would’ve taken too much of her energy. There would be nothing left to use in discerning which room generated the distractions.
She did manage to slow them so they would be less like flies buzzing around her face. As she stared down the hallway they looked almost like a Renaissance painting, its subject the aftermath of a wine-drenched celebration. This was what happened when decadence fell out of the nest, screeching for indifferent aid, unable to realize that those who coddle never actually care enough to rescue.
It’s no wonder Hewie thought he could pull a fast one over on people like this. They’re performers who never actually take the stage. All they do is make noise until a camera points their way. A real star has something to hide, something they will let the audience glimpse, just a crack of the box’s lid, just a peek. These people let it all hang out, just to suck it back up and regurgitate it. You can trick them easily, but if you get too close to them they spew it all over you and suddenly the cameras are aimed your way.
323 was the culprit. If not, this test was getting too irritating for her to care. She sensed a human shape within, lower than it should’ve been, but unmistakable. Dove grabbed the handle and pushed her way in shoulder first, slamming the door behind her to definitively separate from the social media specters. The person inside wasn’t hiding. She was flat on the bed, staring at the ceiling, eyes a little open.
“Oh my god, Lorelei!?” Dove rushed to her and checked her pulse. The student was alive, but unresponsive. She quickly sent a telepathic distress signal to Professor Gun-Mo, and in minutes she was there with two members of the school’s nursing staff. They picked her up and whisked her away with hardly a word, leaving Dove standing there.
What happened to her? It all happened too fast for her to check for injuries, but she magically rewound her memory and watched it from every angle. Lorelei had no obvious cuts or bruises. Her clothes weren’t torn. It was as if an invisible intangible arrow had struck her between the eyes, knocked her onto the bed.
Dove couldn’t imagine why anyone would do such a thing, or how. Professor Gun-Mo had likely laced up every inch of space between the rooms and halls with defensive and detection spells to prevent cheating. Yet somehow someone had done that to her, only to leave her there without taking anything.
Wait. She never goes anywhere without her fortune teller project. It could’ve passed this test for her. Where is it? Dove searched her memories. It was nowhere on her. She searched the room. Not there either. Thunder rumbled overhead as the room darkened. The magician couldn’t help but picture the fortune teller floating away on a skin of water, like a paper boat.
It was coming back, but being pickier than a squall had any right to be. Picking and choosing which parts of their lives it wanted to wash away.
The king and queen-madame were having a quiet night in for the first time in a long while, though even their quietest nights occasionally resulted in noise complaints, at least before they’d been declared stylish heads of state. The Balcony Suite was full of gifts they hadn’t gotten around to opening, and there were probably even more that hadn’t been delivered because security hadn’t examined them yet.
Green bottles topped with gold foil were scattered everywhere like vases meant to fill any gaps in a room’s décor. Four matching surfboards were leaned up against one wall, an ideal gift for magic-wielders who had just relocated permanently to a beach, given that perfect balance and waves were both things they could summon without making onlookers suspicious.
The clutter was kept away from the large wall-mounted television so they could see the results of last night’s elections. They weren’t quite finalized yet, so the Cay Royal public access channel was broadcasting an empty podium with an update ticker running along the bottom. The royal family had been instructed to stay in, so as not to draw attention away from the important results.
While only the Moneyed could run, every citizen sixteen and over was free to cast a ballot. The locals participated as well, but they were kept in the dark regarding the candidacy procedure so that only a wielder could run. In a similarly devious fashion, their votes for president were discarded, as the magical nature of the nation was too important to entrust to the uninformed.
Dove made note of this, several notes in fact, angrily scribbled across the wall of her mind. There was nothing she could do to convince her community to treat such votes with respect, but perhaps after the distribution of magiquicks the native people could justifiably be called wielders.
In less than an hour they would know who the first president, vice president, treasurer, lead surgeon, lead ambassador, and sheriff were. At the end the results of the college elections would be announced as well, and they would have a student body president. Dove had been surprised to learn that Yes Martel was not running for anything even though she had helped design the electoral process. She’s banking on being the first daughter. That’s several steps up.
Her mother Pamposh was one of four candidates, and for the latter half of the semester she’d been running on a platform of reopening the island for tourism, in stark contrast to the other three who wanted to finance the country almost solely from various Moneyed fortunes and laundering schemes. She had the support of most students old enough to vote, as tourism meant socializing with other people as opposed to the ideologically inbred magic community.
It also didn’t hurt that her daughter had been running around asking people who they were going to vote for, keeping her spotlight of powerful peer pressure on them until she heard the answer she wanted. Dove had successfully avoided her scrutiny, and cast her vote for Jonathan ‘Japes’ Chigumbura instead, brother of her adviser, on the basis that he was the only who had campaigned among the rightful residents of Cay Royal.
The Théards were having guests that night, and they arrived at the same time as the food. Jeanguy and Queen-Madame Etz welcomed Ponder into their home, then the carts full of Hawaiian barbecue, and then a young man of fifteen called Clever Théo, a Belgian Mystic that Dazzle had taken a shine to.
This put Dove in an awkward position. Ponder was only there in a friendly capacity, so they could do a little work on their projects while awaiting the election results, but Dazzle’s forward pawing at Théo cast their gathering in a different light: a double date where the boys could meet their parents.
Jeanguy beamed at both of them, smacking them on the back in stinging friendship, not shy with his assertion that anybody would want to date a princess. The queen-madame seemed to have taken a lesson from Yes Martel, subjecting them to a withering gaze. She was equally certain that ‘anybody’ would want to date a princess.
The saving grace for the evening was the clutter of gifts, which had covered the dining table completely. They were allowed to make up their plates and informally sit around the television anywhere where the couches and chairs could hold them. Dove and Ponder were separated by a line of papers and napkins, not that it did much to convince her parents of their true intentions. Razzle, thoroughly sour that she was alone, a rare occurrence for her, heckled her older sister as well.
“So how long have you two lovebirds been seeing each other?” she asked with a nipping smirk before tucking into her pineapple glazed pork with gusto.
“It’s official? You didn’t say anything to us,” Queen-Madame Etz said. “You know better.”
“If that’s the case it calls for some champagne,” the king said, twisting around to see if any bottles were within reach. There were five. He ripped away the foil and aimed the neck at the television. “Perfaim!” The cork popped out and shot with perfect accuracy at the television, hitting the button that lowered the volume so they could better hear each other.
He started pouring into random glasses on the coffee table between them all. Each already had a beverage in it, but they were all in the know, so a quick replacing spell turned what was already present into more champagne. Dove rolled her eyes. She’d had more alcohol since starting school than she’d had in her entire life previously.
The Théard children weren’t of drinking age of course, but wielders started early, the poison resistance in their background cocktails completely neutralizing the first glass or two of any other cocktail depending on concentration. Additionally, they were in a new country, and the actual legal drinking age had not yet been determined, which King Jeanguy read as carte blanche.
Ponder didn’t refute the queen-madame, wise even if she was mistaken. He leaned forward and took a glass.
“Thank you my liege,” he said impishly before sucking on the foamy edge.
“We’re seeing each other several times a week… because we’re project partners,” Dove stressed. She grabbed her hat from the arm of the couch, stuck her hand inside, and flicked the fabric. Razzle jumped as if bitten by a bug. She looked irritated, but when Dazzle laughed at whatever telepathic thing her clever boy told her it doused her twin’s aggression. She changed the subject.
“Did they figure out what happened to Lorelei yet?”
“No,” Queen-Madame Etz said. “She is still brain dead.” Silence washed over them, along with a cold damp breeze from the open balcony. Brain death was a much more mysterious animal when magic was involved. Disease and injury were very rarely the cause. Most of the time it was the result of a psychic attack, and usually only possible if there was a large gap in skill or the victim was already incapacitated in some fashion.
“Who do you think was responsible?” Théo asked, abruptly surfacing from something with Dazzle that was almost certainly more intimate and intense than any conversation, judging by the flush of color in his cheeks. He hadn’t been at the party, hadn’t seen Lorelei successfully reach that enigmatic tent before everyone else.
“Whoever keeps this storm over our heads,” Dove said plainly. “She almost saw them that night. Maybe she did. Maybe they just thought she did. They wanted to keep her quiet.”
“But that means they got into the dorms without anybody noticing,” Dazzle added. “And Professor Gun-Mo missed it. She’s been super pissed since then. She started giving homework. She’s probably even giving herself assignments.”
“Walking into her tent feels like walking into a groaning bear trap now,” Ponder noted. “There’s more magic in there than oxygen.”
“None of that will do any good,” the queen-madame declared. “This entity is supernatural. It has come to attack us. Wherever there are crowns there are evil claws grasping at the gold.” Her children didn’t contradict her superstitions. She was only right about such things a small portion of the time, but all it took was once for her to make it part of her foundation.
“They will not succeed,” her king assured her, wrapping an arm around her shoulder and draining his glass. He muttered a magic word, letting the foam coalesce into more liquid than it should have, and drained it a second time.
“Why? Because you’re going to stop them?” his wife asked skeptically.
“Yes.” He stared deep into her eyes, instantly doubling the discomfort of the surrounding teenagers. “I will see to my kingdom’s safety.” His children rolled their eyes, knowing it was safe because their mother could never look away when he used that tone. The queen-madame excused herself, and apparently him as well, taking him by the arm and pulling him into their bedroom. The door closed so they could see to each other’s safety.
“Wow,” Ponder couldn’t help saying aloud. “There aren’t even any pictures of my parents looking like they love each other that much.” Razzle laughed, but it died when Dazzle took her mother’s cue and dragged her boy into their shared bedroom. The frustrated twin got up and went out onto the balcony to add her own dreary gray to the clouds pooling above, like moldy water working its way through a ceiling as stains.
That left Dove and Ponder more or less alone, which she was actually glad for. His head was just full enough of crazy ideas to take her theory seriously, and just embarrassed enough to not tell anyone else.
“Ponder… do you remember Lorelei’s fortune teller?”
“Yeah. She was definitely getting an A on that thing. I’m an Instilling major and I have no idea what she did to it.”
“That’s just it; I don’t think she did anything to it, beyond folding it and redirecting magic that was already in it.”
“You think she cheated? On a project for the test semester of a school that doesn’t really exist in the strictest sense?”
“It doesn’t matter if it’s cheating. It could be much bigger than that. You weren’t there that night on the beach, but I was.”
“I know,” he said flatly.
“I didn’t mean, sorry, it’s just that I saw Lorelei reach the tent where this storm-maker was hiding. It opened on its own, and a bunch of stuff flew out and knocked her back. She got hit in the face with a piece of paper.” Ponder leaned in a little, waiting for her to say something significant. “A blank piece of paper.” She didn’t give him anything else. Whether or not he got there would be a good indicator of whether or not she was grasping at straws.
“Oh no way,” he said, eyes widening. He picked up a random sheet from between them and stared at it, more at the composition of the paper than anything on it. “You think it was one of the encoded textbook sheets that Chief Hunter told us about?” She nodded gravely. “But… why would this person want one of those?”
“They’re very valuable,” she argued. “Magic families don’t share traditional spells. They’re the only advantage they have over everyone else. Plus the Moneyed normally share nothing with the Mystic, and vice versa. Chief Hunter said all the professors were contributing… but I bet it was more than them. I think everybody had to give up something juicy for the textbook to qualify for living here. It’s skin in the game.”
High heel clicks filled their ears. A woman in her forties, experiencing the full benefits of both cosmetic surgery and magical beauty enhancement, walked up to the podium on the television screen. She was Tonya, no bombastic honorific even though she was Mystic. She was a famous magician’s assistant, lent and rented out to various performers with personalities too toxic to keep one of their own. She treated the forthcoming announcement of the public office winners like it was any other trick, wearing the smile she hadn’t been seen without in over a decade.
Dove knew her shtick. She would vamp and show off every angle of the envelope before announcing the winners. They still had a little time to talk. Ponder was way ahead of her. He was folding the worksheet in his hands into a fortune teller. He tested it, muttering to himself as he checked the flaps even though there was nothing coherent written on them.
“So you think Lorelei noticed the magic loaded in the sheet,” he said, “and redirected it into fortune telling.” Dove nodded. “It makes a certain amount of sense… but it was so accurate. That implies much more magic than one encoded page worth of spell instructions.”
“Then maybe there was more stuff on it than the chief wanted to tell us,” she guessed. “I think this person was desperate to escape, so they blew the contents of their tent out as cover, but they didn’t mean to send that page out with the rest of it. That was their prize.”
“Which would be why they attacked Lorelei and left her unresponsive: to get it back and keep her from revealing anything.”
“So… does this help us figure out who it is?” Ponder asked pointedly.
“Remember that Chief Hunter was on something called the Squadron of the Stabbed Eye with Custus Jordan? I mean, that’s a suspicious name if I’ve ever heard one. Plus, I think he lied to me about the textbook page’s importance. I’m a princess, so he’s not supposed to do that.”
“Have you asked your parents if they know anything about the book?”
“Yeah. They’re just as clueless as ever, but they did mention sharing our family’s best magic trick with the new government here.”
“That’s the one where you guys get in a box and cut each other into three pieces that get shuffled around, right?” Ponder’s face went a little pale. Apparently he didn’t like imagining his own body as one of his magiquicks, with pieces that could be trimmed, rearranged, or shove inside one another. “Douglas showed me a video of one of your shows. Does it hurt?”
“If there’s any pain you put it one of the parts that isn’t attached to your head,” she said. They heard the envelope open and the paper slide out. Tonya was finally ready to tell them who was leading Cay Royal into its fledgling future.
“And now for the moment you’ve all been dying for,” she bubbled on the screen, pushing a curl of platinum blonde over one ear. Dazzle’s door opened, and both of them leaned out to listen. Razzle stood in the balcony doorway and watched. The king and queen did not grace them with their presence. “The first president of Cay Royal is…” A drum roll played. “…Pamposh Martel!”
There was a wave of cheering somewhere several floors below them. Dove guessed it was from around Yes’s dorm. She was probably having a gathering, a party if her mother won and a strategy meeting if she lost.
“Great,” Razzle pouted. “Now every time we have to pose for pictures Yes is going to be right there telling us to stand up straighter. If she so much as puts her arm around my shoulder she’s going to have it mailed back to her in a month.” Coming from magicians who regularly dismembered each other for the entertainment of strangers, it was a most legitimate threat.
“I was hoping a micronation would have microagression,” Ponder joked, but only Théo laughed. Tonya went on to announce the other winners. None of the results were particularly scandalous, but it was another blow to Dove when she saw that Jackson would be the student body president. He got along with Yes, so if they ever decided she had done something wrong they could come at her from two fronts: her duties and her schooling. To Ponder’s credit, he had the bigger problem still squarely in focus. Her theories regarding the evil presence in the resort were now theirs, and letting her sisters overhear constituted inciting panic. He asked Dove one question telepathically.
“If they have the page back, why is the storm still here?”