the unmitigated truth
Relegated to a small, dark alcove in a corner of the Aetherium’s Witchling Academy library, Seraphina Dovetail shifted on her small wooden stool, plucking a fingernail against the frayed edge of the black book on her lap—the only book she was allowed to read for leisure: The Unmitigated Truths of Seventhborns.
She rolled her eyes and kicked the pointed tip of her battered black boot on the stone floor. She needn’t read an entire book on the subject, not when she lived its content every day. She was the seventh-born daughter to a witch, her birth the cause of her mother losing her powers and in turn, her life. If she ever cared to forget, the thin black line on her wrist would remind her. And—she glanced about the library at students sitting in plush chairs and wearing warm cloaks—so would the world.
Unable to stomach reading more about the faults of her irreparable condition, Sera looked across the room to the stool opposite hers. Hazel Flemings, the only other seventhborn in the Academy, sat with her back spear straight, her shoulders relaxed and brown eyes downcast. No signs of hostility issued from her frame and demeanor. Had Sera not been fully aware of Hazel’s presence, she might have missed her altogether. The girl was no better than a shadow.
Sera shook her head. Hazel had clearly taken The Unmitigated Truths of Seventhborns to heart. Namely the chapter on the proper decorum expected of their cursed birthright, from keeping oneself invisible to maintaining a pleasant mien lest anyone consider them ungrateful of the mercy bestowed upon them. In other words, keep a low profile and be thankful they were allowed to live.
Perhaps feeling the weight of Sera’s stare, Hazel lifted her lashes and met her gaze. Sera smiled, though inside, her heart twisted at the fourteen-year-old girl’s innocence. It would never last. Sooner or later, she would learn that regardless of how invisible she tried to be, the world still saw her, and that world was full of monsters ready to devour her at first chance.
A harsh gust of cold air lashed Sera, blew the horrid book from her lap, and shoved her sideways against a neighboring bookshelf. She hissed as sharp pain rushed down the side of her face when it collided with the bookcase.
“Socializing between seventhborns is strictly forbidden,” the woman hissed, one hand on her hip and her face pinched in disgust. She pointed her wand at the book on the floor. “And so is mistreating school property.”
Sera’s pulse quickened. Magic roared through her veins, a fierce heat coursing out from her belly and burning the underside of her skin. “I was not socializing.” She lifted her face to Mrs. James. “And I didn’t mistreat the book.”
Red flushed the matron’s cheeks, her face matching her hair. She moved closer, her eyes narrowed to tiny slits, her hand tight around her wand. “What did you say?”
Sera dug her fingers into her knees to keep them from clenching, to keep from channeling the heat in her core into a gale to blow the beastly woman through the stained-glass window behind her. The headmistress wouldn’t allow her another transgression, not after the fire she sparked last month in a fit of rage.
“Nothing, Mrs. James,” she muttered through clenched teeth. She swallowed thickly, suppressing the magic that squeezed hot, sour bile into her throat. “I’m sorry about the book.”
Mrs. James scoffed, her thin lips pulled to a snarl. “Don’t apologize to me but to all the seventhborns who wished they got the opportunity to study at a prestigious school such as this instead of rotting away in whatever hovel they’ve been cursed to, and rightly so. Any goodness that comes to your sort is great kindness, indeed.”
Mrs. James gasped at the sneer, but Mary Tenant swept beside her and interrupted. “Perhaps Miss Dovetail can show her appreciation by helping me carry a few books to my table?” She flashed Mrs. James a practiced smile, a meek spread of the lips and batting of the lashes that seemed to grant her whatever she wanted—well, most things. “They are rather heavy.”
Mrs. James remained still, seedy brown eyes fixed on Sera and her knuckles white on her wand. When Sera made no attempt at retaliation, the woman sheathed her wand in the metal holder hanging from the side of her dress. “Pick up your book and assist Miss Tenant. Unlike you, the students in this school hope to contribute to the magical community. At least have the dignity to appreciate your mother’s sacrifice…or stupidity.” She spun and clapped her hands twice, prompting students to refocus on their studies.
Sera’s glare remained fixed on Mrs. James’s back. The woman’s last words spurred her magic, a beast clawing at her insides for release. The candles flared on the chandelier above, making the shadows throb in tune with her heartbeat. Nearby students reached for their books, others carefully moving closer to the door. If last month’s events were any indication, they had less than a minute before she snatched out her wand and set something—or someone—on fire.
“Steady, Sera,” Mary whispered, standing close. “You don’t want to do this.” She tilted her head toward the back of the library. “Think of your family.”
Family. A wave of stark cold washed through Sera. Though she could not remember them, she focused on the phantom faces she’d imagined as those of her siblings and father. She hauled in a steadying breath. They were out there, somewhere, and blowing Mrs. James through a window wasn’t going to help her find them. She exhaled, picked up the cursed book, and followed Mary.
A kaleidoscope of color shaded them momentarily as they passed the stained-glass windows portraying the seven guardians, the goddesses believed to be the founders of magic. The women’s mournful faces were turned down to one of the seven elements they cupped in their hands. Each window was a different color, representative of the element: red for fire, yellow for air, blue for water, green for earth, gray for metal, brown for wood, and a clear pane for aether—the study of light and darkness, of emotions and matters of the soul.
Mary guided them behind a bookcase and tugged Sera closer. Sera snatched her hand away, but glancing around, she breathed freer. They were alone, and no one saw the forbidden affection.
“How are you, dearest?” Mary whispered.
“Wonderful and ever so grateful for the Academy’s kindness.” She mocked a bow to the nearest window, the image of the Aetherium founder, Patriarch Angus Aldrich, imprinted on the glass. He sat in a throne chair, surrounded by the seven elemental signs.
“Stop it.” Mary giggled, her skin reddening. She plucked a book from the shelf and handed it to Sera. “How was class this morning?”
Sera took the book in her arms to start their fraudulent pile. “Boring as ever. The sooner we’re done with these Aether-level courses, the better. I don’t know how much longer I can deal with the influence of magic on the soul.”
“Yes, well, you don’t know which elements will be represented during assessments, so you have to pay attention to them all…and perhaps charm a professor in the process to sign your referral papers?”
“You’re doing well in Mysteries of the Mind. Maybe ask Mrs. Aguirre? A referral from an Aether-levels professor is impressive.”
“Maybe last quarter she would have agreed…before the spell-book incident.” Sera shook her head. After attempting to transfer a negative thought into a stone unsuccessfully, she had thrust her spell book aside in frustration and unknowingly too close to the flame beneath her cauldron. The book caught on fire, and, though a simple mistake, no one else saw it as such. Seventhborns weren’t allowed mistakes.
Mary wrinkled her nose. “Ah yes, I forgot about that.”
“But enough about me. How are you?”
“Spent. Mrs. Fairfax was in the infirmary last night,” she said, setting another book into Sera’s arms. “She fell down the stairs and got herself a nasty gash. She didn’t want to wait for Nurse, who was tending to an emergency in the kitchens, and so I tended to her myself.”
Sera waited until they were shielded behind another bookshelf to reply. “That’s fantastic, Mary. Your own patient, even if it is Mrs. Fairfax. That woman is a tyrant.” Though Sera conceded it was only logical the housekeeper disliked her when it was the housekeeping staff who were burdened with cleaning up her messes, like last month’s fire. Or the explosion in the potions room. Not to mention the rubble from the statue she’d blasted two months prior. It was a wonder she hadn’t been expelled, she mused.
Mary shrugged and dropped another book into Sera’s arms. “Yes, well, Nurse will never know. She doesn’t like us healing without her supervision, but it was good practice for assessments. I’ll surely deal with worse as an Aetherium healer.” She blew out a sigh, her black bangs waving upward. “Now I’m positively exhausted. It took nearly all my reserves to heal her wound.”
“Are you mad?” Mary stopped abruptly by the Astral Studies section. “It’s a full moon, silly. All big decisions should be made today, and today is the day I’ll be asked to the Solstice Dance. But first I must be noticed, though it will be impossible with all of that.” She motioned out to the room.
The tables throughout the library were filled—an inordinate number of girls squeezed into the seats. Other girls pretended to search for books in the bookcase nearest the boys’ half of the library, while the boys did the same on their side. Split into two towers, the boys’ and girls’ wards were joined only by the library.
“Then perhaps being seen with me will not improve your chances,” she muttered. “Go, I’m fine. I’ve endured worse than Mrs. James’s wrath. I’m sure someone will ask you.”
“And that’s the problem. My mother does not expect me to go to the dance with someone. She expects me to go with the one. Only a Delacort will do.”
Sera peered around the corner to the boy of topic. He lounged in a leather armchair in the sitting area nearest the great fireplace, where most senior magicians tended to gather. With a hand over his mouth and blue eyes squinted with laughter, he watched his best friend swing his wand while recounting an animated tale.
Sera opened her mouth to deny it, but the clouds shifted and faint rays filtered through the arched window, bathing Timothy in warm light.
“Damned sun,” she murmured. It would be a heinous lie to say Timothy Delacort wasn’t handsome with his aristocratic features, mop of black curls, and big blue eyes. Not to mention his impeccable manners. Why he chose Hadden Whittaker as a friend evaded her; the arrogant boy was a nuisance, his ego as big as his mountainous frame.
But she turned away and stacked another book onto her pile. Timothy’s choices were no concern of hers. “Yes, he’s handsome, but I have better things to worry about.”
Mary sighed and lowered her head, pretending to leaf through a book. “Yes, yes, like becoming an inspector, I know, but there is more to life,” she went on. “I would hate for you to wake up one day only to realize life has passed you by and left you an old spinster.” She gasped and shut the book. “Come to think of it, you should come to the dance.”
“If this school is as progressive with the treatment of seventhborns as it claims to be, then why shouldn’t you come to the dance?” Mary stacked the book on the five Sera held already. Sera’s arms began to burn under the strain, but it was rare that she and Mary got to talk during the day. She could weather the discomfort a little while longer.
“Because as much as the Aetherium has embraced Pragmatism,” Sera replied from behind the tower in her arms, “it’s as prejudiced as when the Purists ruled. Pragmatism, Purism. Different religion, same nonsense. For seventhborns at least.”
“Yes, well, I prefer black.”
Mary sulked. “Black is death, Sera.”
She grinned. “Precisely. I would rather be dead than go to that dance—”
A flash of light darted past her. Sera screamed and ducked as it blasted into the bookcase behind her. A rain of tomes tumbled down onto her and Mary, the corners of the books jamming into her head and back before joining the ones that had fallen from her hands to the floor. Specks of light flickered before her eyes.
Silence claimed the room a moment before it exploded into roars of laughter. Sera pressed her hands on the floor and centered herself, mastering the sting along her spine and throbbing pricks at the back of her head. A metallic taste tinged her mouth, and laughter rang in her ears as tears blurred the room around her.
Mrs. James rushed to them. She swept past Sera and helped Mary to her feet. “Miss Tenant, are you all right? Are you hurt?”
“I—I’m fine,” Mary said, a hand pressed against her temple. “What was that?”
“We will speak of this later,” Mrs. James said to Timothy. She drew Mary away to one of the secondary matrons. “Take Miss Tenant to the infirmary,” she ordered the assistant. “We must tend to this cut and make sure it doesn’t scar.”
Rising alone, she looked beyond him, her gaze fixed on Whittaker celebrating behind the chaperone’s back. “That was no mistake.”
Mrs. James scoffed. “This is not the time, Miss Dovetail. No one is persecuting seventhborns anymore. If Mr. Delacort says it was a mistake, then it was a mistake.” She clutched Sera’s chin and, jerking it from side to side, inspected the cut on her cheek.
Lips pressed to a tight line, Mrs. James shoved Sera’s face away and dusted her hands as if having touched something foul. “No need to bother Nurse with an insignificant cut. Go and get yourself cleaned up, and then help straighten this mess. Mr. Delacort, back to your section please.” She spun on her heels and walked away, a chorus of snickers all around her.
“I’ll talk to him,” Timothy whispered. But lost to the swell of heat in her blood, to the laughter, Sera walked around him. A cyclone of warmth gathered in her belly, wildfire twisting with each beat of her heart. The beast that clawed her insides for release grew stronger, raw anger spurring her magic. Reason warned her to calm down. Hadn’t she already caused herself enough problems under similar rage? She shouldn’t do this. She couldn’t. She wouldn’t—
“Forgive me, Dovetail,” Whittaker called out to her. His grin widened. “It was a…mistake.”
Anger waved upward till redness shaded the fringes of her sight. Focused on the thrash of her heartbeat and on the vile boy, she envisioned plumes of fire, and her hands grew hot.
Timothy gasped. “Whittaker, your cloak!”
When the burn in her hand grew to a scalding ache, Sera clenched her fingers shut.
A fire snapped onto the tail of Whittaker’s cloak first, then upward along the black fabric. A collective gasp resounded, cut only by Whittaker’s screams. A soothing warmth rolled through Sera, the release of magic intoxicating and comforting.
Thrusting off his cloak, he threw it to the ground, and with a flick of his wand, extinguished it. He spun to Sera and advanced, his wand aimed at her. “You little—”
His eyes widened. He stopped and lowered his wand slowly, paling in equal measure. The room grew still; so did Sera’s heart as Professor Barrington appeared from behind a bookshelf and moved in between them. Tall and lean, he took up little space in the vast room. His dark humor, however, seemed to obscure all light and air. At no older than five and twenty, he was younger than all the other professors, but this made him no less severe. He had a handsome, angular face, a strong jaw, narrow nose, and thin lips. Full black lashes made his gray eyes seem lighter, more intense. Uncomfortably so as he slid them back and forth between the two students, then lowered them to the smoking cloak.
Still, Sera held her head high as Professor Barrington scrutinized the scene.
“Mr. Whittaker, is there a reason your cloak is on the ground, half burned?” he asked, his voice a deep baritone. But while each word was smooth, cultured, and refined, Sera felt the tension in the room swell. Though Barrington exuded sophistication, there was something ominous and dormant beneath his surface. She shivered, having no desire to know what.
Whittaker speared a pudgy finger at Sera. “Sh-she tried to set me on fire!”
Sera glared at him and said nothing. What would be the point? The fire in his eyes told her he’d already gathered his answer.
Barrington’s jaw clenched. “Well, Miss Dovetail?”
“That’s not true, Professor.” Timothy swept up beside her, his chin a touch higher, as though to reach Barrington in stature and intensity. “I was next to her the entire time, and she never drew her wand.”
A strange look overcame Barrington’s eyes, offense that Timothy would dare speak to him mixed with something else Sera couldn’t quite place or care about at the moment. She could only gape at Timothy Delacort defending her. No one ever defended seventhborns, especially someone of his standing, and against his best friend no less.
The crowd gasped, and murmurs erupted once more.
Barrington’s icy scrutiny slid from Timothy to Whittaker. “That’s a serious accusation. Use of magic without a wand is grounds for severe repercussion for a student…as is blaming an innocent witch.” He held out a hand. “Your wand, please?”
Whittaker’s eyes widened, but under Barrington’s steely gaze, he relinquished it. His wand was fashioned out of ash wood, the same school-issued wand as Sera’s, but it was splintered and its casing tarnished. Sera pursed her lips. Just as ugly as its owner.
Barrington twirled the worn rod between long fingers. Sera’s gaze fixed on his Invocation ring, an honor bestowed on graduates of the Aetherium School of Continuing Magic and a sign that he was highly trained and able to manipulate magic without a wand. The mark of a true magician. More, a requirement to becoming an inspector.
“You understand that performing a wandless spell requires expert focus and control, Mr. Whittaker?” Barrington asked.
“Yes, Professor, but how else—”
Though he was focused on Whittaker, Sera stiffened under Barrington’s peripheral glare. Surely he hadn’t seen her illicit use of wandless magic. She turned her eyes down, hoping this was the case.
Whittaker nodded. “I understand, sir—”
Whittaker gulped, a thin sheet of sweat glistening at his wide forehead. He looked to his wand in Barrington’s hand, and then to Sera, and swallowed again. “I…I…”
“Don’t be stupid,” Timothy whispered. “Maybe you mistakenly brushed your wand against your cloak.”
“I would never make a mistake with my wand,” Whittaker barked.
Barrington hummed, one black brow arched. “Then what should we call this?” He motioned coolly to the mess of books scattered just behind them. “Intentional? Did you go against the oath you spoke over your wand to never use it for ill? Tell me it is so, Mr. Whittaker.” He lifted the wand, long fingers gripping the ends tightly. The wand slowly illuminated blue, and Whittaker’s eyes widened the brighter it grew. School-issued wands were designed for the power levels of a student. If Barrington flooded the rod with his more mature, stronger magic, the wand would burn and wither to ash.
“No!” The round-faced boy pressed his lips into a tight line, his hands fisted. “It was…a mistake.”
“As was the matter with your cloak.” The wand’s glow dimmed, and with the whirl of a wrist, Barrington presented it to Whittaker, metal handle first. “Do be sure to sheathe your wand when not in use. You wouldn’t want to fail assessments over something so simple.” He turned to the horde. “Back to your studies.”
Murmurs of protest resounded, but everyone obeyed and returned to their tables.
Sera did neither, focused on Whittaker walking away, Timothy beside him.
She clenched her hands, the need for revenge hot in her fingertips. “He did it on purpose. He could’ve killed me.”
“Yes, well, strike him and you’ll lose everything. Is that what you want?”
Her jaw tightened. “No, it’s not what I want.”
He arched a brow.
“Then off with you.” He spun, his black robes billowing behind him. “And Miss Dovetail,” he said over his shoulder, “I will not save you again.”
Her face grew hotter with each of his retreating steps. Save her again? Her pulse quickened, panic replacing her anger. Did he mean save her from Whittaker, or had he seen her use wandless magic? No, it couldn’t have been possible. She would not be standing there if so; he could have burned her wand and expelled her, but he hadn’t. He must have meant save her from Whittaker, but as she watched him vanish out of the library, all she could wonder was why bother saving her at all?