by Amanda Cast
Between it all
The hatchlings were fed and oiled. Pandora had to tend to them all by herself. Before she left she had set up Serene by the window. It was a small arch window with a flat ceil. It would be hell to find curtains for. The stool that Serene was sitting on was pine—a cheep and light wood. It was stained a darker color than pine was ever supposed to be, but the weight and texture never lied. It was pine.
Serene was still sitting there. Her eyes gazing distantly into the sky. Pandora sighed and changed into clothes that were more adequate for being in a place like the Academy. Once she was in a green tunic and black trousers she felt much more comfortable. Serene had corrupted her after all.
“Serene?” she said quietly.
Serene continued to stare out. Her lips were dry and chapped.
“Serene,” she said more loudly.
Emerald opened her eyes in a cute, dazed sort of way. When she registered what was going on she laid her head back down onto the pillow and fell back to sleep.
“Get up,” she ordered firmly. “You need to eat. If you don’t eat you’ll die. Do you know what that means? You’ll never see Uncle Lindal ever again. You’ll never see your father ever again.”
Serene blinked and looked over at her cousin. The first tear since the first thirty minutes of their long, drawn out coach ride welled up in her eyes and then slid down her pale, blotchy cheek. “I miss him!”
“I know you do, Serene, but we have things we have to do—such as eat. Change into something you’ll feel more comfortable in and we can go.”
Serene nodded and got to her feet shakily. She swayed and caught herself on the window sill. “I feel weak.”
“That’s because you haven’t eaten all day. Please, be my cheerful and witty cousin again, Serene. I don’t like seeing you like this.”
Serene sniffed. “I don’t like being like this. I’ve never been away from Daddy for so long. I mean, yeah, this long, but not… not this long. Not as long as they’re threatening.”
“I know,” Pandora lied. “But you’ll be fine. I promise. Please, just try and be cheerful for the Hatchlings. You’re a natural and happy emotion. They’ll miss their Mama if you miss Uncle Lindal too much.”
“Do you think they’ll let me write Daddy?”
“Well, perhaps, but I would watch what you write. They’ll probably read them before they let them out.”
“Do you think so?” she asked.
Pandora nodded. “I don’t think they trust us anymore than we trust them.” Since Serene did not look too interested in looking for something other than her brown rat outfit Pandora took the liberty of going through her dresses. She found a pretty blue one and held it out to Serene. “Here put this on. I’ll find you some stockings and slippers.”
“Thank you,” Serene said. “Maybe some earrings?”
“Oh, um…where did you put those again?” Pandora asked.
“They’re in the medium compartment in the large trunk.”
Pandora riffled through it and found the box. It was magically enchanted to hold more than it looked. Pandora knew from experience that she had to put it on the ground before she opened it, because when she did layer after layer of jewelry came out. Since Pandora was rather limited on her color coordination she picked a jewelry set that was silver and set in pale blue stones to match the dress. She helped Serene with the necklace, but Serene was on her own with the earrings.
Pandora was satisfied that she had done a good deed, because Serene looked much better and happier now that she was in proper clothing—as she liked to call it.
Serene checked to make sure all the hatchlings were asleep and then she and Pandora left the room. Pandora stopped to check and make sure that they could enter the room again. When she was satisfied they headed down the now abandoned hallway. Everyone was at dinner.
When they stepped into the entrance hall a girl was waiting by one of the mirrors for them. She had a bizarre hair color that appeared to be something between pink and purple. Even her eyes didn’t seem quite right for her complexion. They were black, much like the Arch Mage’s were, but they lacked the overall sense of power and strength.
“Hi,” she said grumpily and pushed herself off of the stone wall. “I’m Chloe.”
“Hi,” Pandora said with just as much enthusiasm.
“Hi, Chloe,” Serene said with a strained smile. “I’m Serene, and this is my cousin, Pandora.”
“Yeah, I know. Look, I’m supposed to make sure you can find the dining hall all right,” she said. “Took you long enough to get down here.”
“We had things to do,” Serene said a bit more naturally.
“Well, enough chit-chat,” Chloe said and swiveled into a mirror.
Pandora remembered it as the one she went through to get food for the hatchlings but decided it best no to make Chloe think she wasted her time anymore than she already did.
“Here we are,” Chloe said. “You losers find a place to sit. I’m joining my friends.”
“Losers?” Serene said, blinking. “Did she just call me a loser?”
“Let it go,” Pandora said and took hold of her cousin’s arm. “We have to behave remember?” She led Serene over to a table that had a place setting far enough from other people to give them some privacy.
“Well, it’s a nice spread,” Serene said with begrudging approval. There were fresh fruits and vegetables, pot roast, roasted chicken, mashed potatoes, sautéed onions and mushrooms, roasted carrots, and pie. Pandora guessed it was cherry. Desert was not that appetizing to Pandora.
Serene graced her ceramic plate with some roast, potatoes, onions, carrots, and mushrooms. For how much Serene usually managed to pack down it was not a large amount of food, but Pandora thought it was a start. While Pandora carefully peeled meat away from the chicken she watched Serene eat. Some of the usual gusto was there, but most of it seemed to be missing.
Pandora sighed and wondered if she could take care of five children on her own.
Many of the students stared at them. It made Pandora lose some of her appetite. She was not accustomed to being the center of everyone’s attention. She imagined that people were watching Serene more closely since Serene was beautiful and perfect in every way. Pandora could mold into walls for all anyone ever cared before. No one had the guts to join them, but Pandora could hear the whispers if not make them out.
Pandora finished quickly and waited with uncharacteristic impatience for her cousin to finish. Serene had to try a piece of the cherry pie and discovered a pitcher of milk. When she finished Pandora stood and said, “Let’s go back to the room. I hate to leave the hatchlings waiting.”
Serene nodded and stood as well. She looked around and saw three boys staring at her. She gave them a sly smile and a small finger wave.
Pandora frowned. “Come on,” she murmured and the cousins left the dining hall.
“Well, that was a nice meal,” Serene said chipperly.
Pandora gave her cousin a sideways look and merely shook her head. “I’d have rather eaten in the room.” She stepped through the mirror and Serene followed after.
“You did not like the other students.”
“I do not like being stared at and whispered about. There is no telling what kind of rumors are being spread about us already and we’ve only been here for two hours.”
“Oh, well, I imagine we’ll find out,” Serene said and yawned. “I’m tired.”
“Me too,” Pandora said and waved her hand over the door. It clicked and opened and Pandora lumbered inside. Serene paused at the door and looked over her shoulder. “I wonder if the other girls are noisy.”
“I can’t imagine how it would matter. You could sleep through a parade.”
“No I couldn’t,” Serene said and rummaged for a night gown. “I like parades far too much.” She gave Pandora a put on grin and then turned back to her search. “Anyway, I just want to know in the end if they’re friendly.”
“I don’t know. I imagine some of them are and some of them aren’t. You can’t really lump any group into one category.”
“Sure you can,” Serene said and let out a victory cry when she found her night gown. “If the leader is mean to us all of them are going to be mean to us. If they leader likes us they will all be friendly.”
Pandora shrugged. “I’m sure we’re stronger than any leader they have. We’ll probably end up swaying some of them, and I can’t imagine many of them will be dumb enough to be mean to us for long. After all, you and I could probably hurt them seriously on our own… add behind that the dragons.”
“Oh, I don’t want to think about it,” Serene said squeezing her eyes shut tight.
Pandora shrugged again. “I’m not too worried.” She slipped into the privy to change. Serene and Pandora were cousins, but still not close enough to dress and change in front of one another.
“What did you think of Chloe?” Serene asked when Pandora reentered the room. She was already in her night gown.
“I think she has a chip on her shoulder,” Pandora said bluntly. “She’ll try and cause trouble, but I don’t know why.”
“She looks like she’s trying very hard to be different. Shame isn’t it? Maybe she’s so jealous of us because we are naturally different. I’m a half-breed and you’re... well… a freak.”
“Thanks,” Pandora said dryly. “The freak is tired.”
“Oh, I don’t mean it badly,” Serene said and bit her lower lip. “I really don’t. Honest. I just mean… well… you know. You’re so much… stronger than you should be. That’s all I mean.”
Pandora eyed her cousin. “You think I’m boyish. Remember?”
“Well, you are!” Serene said defensively. “I mean, if you don’t like it then don’t be that way. I don’t make you wear boys clothes and go around hitting stuff for fun. That’s what boys do.”
“It’s what warriors do, Serene. That’s what I’ve wanted to be all my life. My mother was a warrior once. She was a religious warrior… but not quite a paladin. She did something else.”
“And why do you want to be like her?” Serene asked, genuinely shocked.
“Because! She’s my mother,” Pandora said. “I love her. I may not like her all that much sometimes. I may not like the things she does, but she was different when I was younger. She wasn’t so mean before.”
“Before me you mean,” Serene said bitterly.
“What are you talking about?”
“Father told me all about it,” Serene said with a sniff. “Don’t pretend that you don’t know.”
Pandora just stared, dumb struck. “What do you mean?”
Serene glared at her cousin long and hard. Then her expression changed to that of surprise. “You mean… you really don’t know?”
Pandora shook her head, though she wasn’t certain what she was shaking her head at.
“Your mother… I mean… my mother… Your mother was fine with my father until well… I mean… she wasn’t… she always hated that Daddy and Momma fell in love… it was worse when she got pregnant…I think.”
“What does this…”
“My mother died when I was three. Your mom blamed my father, not that she ever let us meet anyway. She didn’t want a dirty little…I mean… me around.” Serene’s expression drooped and she turned away and headed for her bed. “When your mother tried to kill Daddy her god cast her out. She lost all of her powers. That’s what Daddy says.”
“So… that’s why?”
Serene nodded. “I’m told that she was already on thin ice for the years she held a grudge against Daddy and Momma…”
Pandora sat down on her bed, absorbing everything and bottled it up inside of her mind where she could look at it later. “We should go to sleep, Serene. We’ll have to wake early to feed the hatchlings. I’d like your help this time.”
“Oh, of course, Pandora,” Serene agreed. “I’m…I’m sorry.”
“Good night, Serene.”