Raven knew it was unhealthy to brood, but with the ship rocking so, she had little other use for the turbulent sea. The churned-up whitewater blended into the clouds, leaving the ship tossed on a spotty patch of blue-green amid the soggy whites and greys. She clutched the railing, accepting the cold lash of the wave crests as her due. As if under their own will, the fingers of her left hand braided and unbraided her eponymous hair, with a minor spell and its reverse.
She couldn't come clean. The truth wouldn't be an option for a decade or more, she had to just cope with the lies until then. She honored Tanya as best she could, and Tanya's family(damn them) treated her like some kind of saint for it. If she had just spoken up, corrected a minor forensic mistake, they would've known Tanya had invented the spell, and had saved Raven's life with it at the cost of her own life. Raven wouldn't've gotten the scholarship, probably would stay at community college until she got a degree, maybe even get a nonmagical job. She would've been a nobody, but she would've been a clean nobody.
Raven had never managed to spell-blend with anyone else again, with the same spell or with a thousand derivatives. Maybe she was too tainted. Maybe the spell fundamentally knew its master. Poetic justice of a sort, that the very spell that got her a scholarship and deference and access to professors — her name was on two sorcery research papers, for gods's sakes — would forever deny her true exploitation of it.
Her left hand went for her backpack — she had a sneaking suspicion why, and someone her age could get in a lot of trouble for drinking alcohol, but she knew nobody would bother her about it — but instead her hand hit something. She turned, and immediately amended that: somebody.
He had hair as dark as hers, but thicker, styled in long ringlets that flowed over his shoulders. His face had the pretty smoulder of a classic latin lover, with traces of India in there somewhere. He was her age, maybe younger, probably another freshman-to-be. He wore a wide black hat edged in glowing red EL wire — an odd choice for someone taking a ship to Monat Academy — and he had a bright red trenchcoat half-off, revealing a snug black thing over a slender physique.
She froze, an ironic thing to call it given the heat suddenly rising within her. "Oh, uh, sorry…" Intellectually, she recognized that she was being charmed by something so shallow as his looks, but that didn't mean she wasn't affected.
"Not at all, my apologies." He spoke with a clipped english accent, which likely meant English wasn't his first language. She'd have to get used to that. And then he stepped back and bowed, his free hand doffing his hat, his face down and his hair sweeping stylishly. She was already sick of that. People were just being nice, but she didn't deserve it. "I thought you could use a coat in this storm." Back upright, he unshouldered his coat again, releasing a whiff of his scent, young and wild and clean.
"I'm fine. Thanks." She smiled weakly. "It makes me feel like I'm out in the storm…" Then she was distracted from her rationalization by her undeserved destination emerging from the mists. First the sharp rise of the artificial island's emerald moors, then the swaths of blue and purple flowers, and finally the loom of a watchtower. By reflex she closed her eyes, her senses extending to the ethereal.
An aura sheathed the ship, keyed to the Veil and allowing vision through it, but not yet crossing the Veil itself. A shimmering curtain of 27 layers stood before them, ready to yield, ready to slip aside with its contents as if it weren't there at all, ready to harden and crush them if so commanded. The mind controlling it was subtler, a hundred little spiderwebs crazing the surface, flitting in all directions through it.
Everything so far was as she'd studied — although no description could do justice to its majesty — but her trained mind felt more to it. In addition to the curtain walls containing the Veil's "body", a separate inside-out curtain linked each pair of layers, doubtless providing backup bodies should any layer fail or be defeated. Once she stopped feeling the Veil's mind as a hive and started feeling it as a whole, she got a sense of emotion — like a puppy bouncing happily as a member of the pack returned home — and hints of a more-complex mind blended with it. Very like, in fact, the spell-blending that she and Tanya had failed to defend themselves with. Her eyes opened, narrowed in the extreme, goosebumps spread over her body, and her ears rang as she listened on the winds; she even sucked in a bit of air between her front teeth, tasting and smelling, turning every sense to assist. The craftsmanship was clearly different; neither Tanya nor Raven had been involved in this spell-blending, and the spell itself was probably older than both of them put together. It had been put in place over the course of years, built up piece by piece, instead of improvised all at once. And yet… the similarities were unmistakable. The other mind in the spell-blend was cautious, analyzing, ready for anything. Likely a guard blends with the Veil to provide more-thoughtful overwatch.
She turned to the hottie, his primary emotions a glassy-smooth and intoxicating blend of care, curiosity, and patience. He was watching her, not the sight ahead of them. She let her ethereal senses fade without so much as a blink, and looked away, blushing. "Uh… yeah."
He smiled at that. "First time feeling the Veil? I was gobsmacked my first time."
"That, and academic interest. Recognizing some familiar component spells." She switched her grip on the railing to her left hand, and held her right out to shake. "I'm Raven Eddy, by the way."
He shot her a look, or more like a dozen different looks crammed into a fraction of a second, and then shook warmly, firmly. "The Raven Eddy?"
She pursed her lips and nodded, trying to hold back the blush, and probably failing.
"Well, then I'm honored! I'm James Marino, a mere graduate of secondary in Salerno. I meant, more precisely, haven't you been here for orientation?"
She shook her head, withdrawing her hand almost protectively. "No, I missed it."
He turned to look at her sideways, showing off his chiseled profile with a cocky grin. "Perhaps I could give you a tour?"
She looked down, at his sleek black boots, weathering the wave crests admirably. "I don't think that's a good idea…"
His grin turned sardonic and he nodded, then took a step back. "Ah, I see. Well, even in a non-romantic manner, perhaps we should meet up after you've gotten comfortable."
It was her turn for a wry grin. "Perhaps."
The ship had approached the island from the lee side, then once it was fully inside the Veil, circled around to the dock. Raven now stood just aside of the docks, as a river of students flowed past. About a third had suitcases, the rest like Raven having used less-mundane means. They would be getting first pick of… dorms or something, but they had to swim that river to do it. She had given it all due consideration, and no way in fuck was that worth it.
At least the architecture was interesting. She was used to cubist buildings, and even the artiste-architectured things being made of long edges. Here, almost everything was curves, shops imitating elven guard towers from a millennium ago, except for a dome atop each one. Off in the distance, the tallest tower of the Academy was barely visible through the storm still raging, looking like some ribbed dildo in its efforts to avoid rectilinear edges.
As it turned out, that was the wrong thing to be thinking at that moment, as a lovely draconian of some kind darted out of the river. The curse of being bisexual, being distracted by every hottie in the place…
The draconian looked almost human, beautiful and terrible, not just a ruler but fit to rule. She had an elfin chin, full lips with rich black lipstick, high cheekbones with a dusting of silver-blue scales, a slender nose, big captivating almond eyes with icy irises… and then scales forming something like a forehead tiara, leading to considerable horns on each side. Above that her hair was a generous plume of deep blue, flowing to mid-back. She had broad shoulders and hips, and what might be a bustier decorated to look like her scales… or just a form out of her scales that let her do without a top. Her skirt was a sharp contrast in black velvet, stopping just short of "boots" — definitely formed of her scales — from her knees to the talons of her prodigious digitigrade feet. Scales also formed "gloves" from her elbows to the clawed tips of her long fingers, and her flexible spine led down to a scaly, muscular tail. The contrast of shining silver-blue scales with striking splashes of black clothing left her ruddy skin a plain background.
She had apparently swum against the river, maybe all the way from the Academy, and was just now visible as she cut past Raven. Raven tried to bury her face in her hands to keep from staring, but didn't succeed. The vision of loveliness darted under the arch of a nearby shop, and emerged momentarily with four sticks of meat, all different. She found an unoccupied dock pillar right next to Raven, and started nibbling at the middle of the darkest.
Raven swept her hair back, trying to compose herself and disguise her face-hiding gesture at the same time. After what felt like two hours, but wasn't more than two chunks of meat, Raven had gathered enough courage. "Rough weather, isn't it?"
The draconian tilted her head to look at Raven without missing a beat. After finishing a third chunk at a leisurely nibble, she grinned a toothy grin. "The worst. This place is so frigid and depressing. It'd be nice in autumn, maybe…"
Raven pondered this. "But it's September."
The draconian's grin turned predatory. "Y'know. Maybe not."
Raven searched for something to say, until the draconian relented.
"Oi, don't pout, I just wanted to do the bit." She curtsied, managing to avoid hitting her skirt with meat on a stick in the process. "Lysia Ride."
Raven half-bowed, unsure of the proper reply to the gesture. "Raven Eddy."
"You frosh?" The last sound was drawn-out, with her tongue lingering at the roof of her mouth.
Raven blushed furiously. "Well, I haven't tried a lot of things, but I'm open-minded…"
Lysia blinked, twice, then her expression managed a strange mix of startlement and delight. "I think that's the first time I've heard anybody spin that as "do you frosh"… Nice moves, girly." She accompanied this with a swirl of one shoulder. "In other news, are you a freshman at Monat?"
Raven's blush didn't subside in the slightest. "Oh. Uh. Yes. I did some mundane uni first, but —"
Lysia licked her lips in a way that practically stopped Raven's heart, red and black and danger and promise. "Hm. American accent… California, I think… And you're "froshing" at Monat, not Rowell or anything. You must be hot stuff, Hot Stuff." She winked conspiratorially.
The blood drained from Raven's face. Here was a wonderful person, about to treat her like the lie.
"Ouch. That bad? Didn't mean to step on your tail there. Here, peace offering." Lysia held out one of the untouched sticks of meat, as if it were a rose.
Raven took it numbly, looking down at it as a symbol or something, mumbling her thanks.
"No worries, babe. Also, on the scholastic front, I can tutor you for a fee. I take ass, grass, and Bitcoin." Lysia promptly turned away, sauntering with a hypnotic sway in her tail. "Orientation's come and gone, but how about I give you a "tour" of the seedier side of Monat?"
Raven tagged along, the prospect of nibbling at the stick daunting while in the sultry scent trailing from the draconian. "Uh. Actually…"