“Yes, he’s almost as pretty as you are,” I retorted, “and well aware that his family’s wealth allows him to walk in late and then to game in the front of the hall, all without repercussion. He’s the vainest young man I ever met.”
“How can you say so? The story of how he and his three sisters and aunt escaped from the assault on Eko by murderous, plague-ridden ghouls—forced to call their good-byes to their parents and cousins left behind on the shore as the monsters advanced. It’s a heartbreaking tale!”
“If it’s true. The settlement and fort were specifically established at Eko because it is an island, and ghouls can’t cross water. So how could ghouls have reached them? Anyone can say what they like when there are no witnesses.”
“You just have no heart, Cat. You’re heartless.” Her scowl was meant to pierce me to the heart, if I’d had one. With an indignant flounce of the shoulders, she turned away to furiously sketch on a blank page of her book, using my good silver pencil with its fresh lead.
“If by that you mean I don’t fall head over ears in love with every handsome face I encounter, then I thank the blessed Tanit for it! Someone needs to be heartless. His family is well-to-do and well connected, that’s certain. His elder sister married the younger brother of the cousin of the Prince of Tarrant. His aunt is known to be very clever at business, with contacts reaching across the banking houses of the south. All points in his favor. Especially given the always impoverished state of the Barahal finances. Now I want my pencil back.”
“You’re going to tell me what he asked about me,” she murmured without looking up or ceasing her drawing, “because otherwise I will pour a handful of salt into your porridge every morning for the next month—”
“Catherine! Beatrice! The Hassi Barahal cousins are again demonstrating their studiousness, I comprehend.”
Distracted by the sound of Beatrice’s voice, I hadn’t noticed the proctor’s slithering approach along the back aisle. She came to rest right behind us, close enough that her breath stirred the hair on my neck. Her gaze swept the balcony. The other female pupils were all intent on recording the formula V(1)T(2) = V(2)T(1), which was shedding chalk dust on the board as the venerable professor repeated Alexandre’s law: At constant pressure, the volume of a given mass of an ideal gas increases or decreases by the same factor as its temperature increases or decreases.
The maestra grabbed my schoolbook off the table and flipped through its blank pages. “Is this a new schoolbook, maestressa? Or the sum total of your knowledge?”
Cats always land on their feet. “Flammable air is fourteen times lighter than life-sustaining air. It can be produced by dissolving metals in acid. Gas expands as its temperature goes up. No wonder the mage Houses hate balloons! If it’s true that proximity to a cold mage always decreases the ambient temperature of any object, then wouldn’t a cold mage deflate any balloon sack just by standing alongside it?”
Her narrowed gaze would have flattened an elephant. But the gods were merciful, because instead of sending me off to the headmaster’s office for impertinence, she turned her attention to Bee. My dearest and most beloved cousin hastily set down my pencil and attempted to close her sketchbook. The proctor slapped a hand down, holding it open to the page where Bee had just sketched an impressive portrait of a personage obviously meant to be me. With a cackling death’s-head grimace and denarii for eyes, the caricature gazed upon an object held out before it in a bony hand.
“I see you have been paying attention in anatomy, at least,” remarked the maestra as icily as the draft that shivered over us through the high window slits. “That is a remarkably good likeness of a four-chambered heart, although is a heart not meant to reside in the chest cavity?”
Bee batted her eyelashes as her honey smile lit her face. “It was a moment’s fancy, that is all. An allegory in the Greek style, if you will. If you look at the other pages, you’ll see I have been most assiduously attending to this recent series of lectures on the principles of balloon and airship design.” She kept talking as she flipped through the pages. The babble pouring mellifluously from her perfect lips began to melt Maestra Madrahat’s rigid countenance. Buoyed up by a force equal to… gases expand in volume with…
Soon pigs would fly.
“Such fine draftsmanship,” the proctor murmured besottedly as Bee displayed page after page of air sacs inflated and deflated and hedged about with all manner of mathematical formulae and proportional notations, balloons rising and slumping according to temperature and pressure, hapless passengers being tossed overboard from baskets on high and falling with exaggerated screams and outflung arms—