Miss Mabel's School for Girls Sneak Peek
I stared at the lavender flowers on the white china and willed my heart to stop pounding. Papa’s advice whispered through my head like the balm of a cool poultice, settling my nerves.
Don’t be afraid, Bianca. The old woman will perceive your personality no matter what you do or say. You can’t hide information from a Watcher. Let her remain in control of the conversation and things will be easier.
“You said that your family is from Bickers Mill?” The old woman, Isadora, startled me from my thoughts with her question. “That’s not very far from here.”
“Yes,” I said, turning around to face her. “I grew up in a cottage outside the village.”
Don’t think about how important this is.
That wouldn’t be too difficult. She only determined the rest of my life. Isadora smiled in a distant way, as if she were lost in thought and only keeping up with the conversation to be kind. She was a stringy old woman, with a curved back and foggy, pistachio-colored eyes, although one of them looked more blue than green.
“Yes,” I said, swallowing past it. She studied me while I continued. “The apothecary said she may not have much longer to live.”
“Well, I’m glad you were able to come here today so that I did not have to come to you. Living near the school helps me keep this part of Letum Wood safe for the students. Now that school has started, I don’t like to leave.”
“I’m sure they appreciate your work as a Watcher,” I said, circling back around to face the tea set. Confidence, I told myself. Even if she can see into your soul and it isn’t very organized.
My hands trembled when I set the fragile cups and saucers on the antique silver tray. Was that right? No, the teacups went on the plates. Or did they? Was I supposed to set out a fork for the little cakes? Or tongs? Or nothing at all? An interview I’d prepared for my entire life, and a tea set flummoxed me. This was a promising beginning. Deciding to leave the cups off the plate, I set them off to the side, lifted the tray and turned to serve the tea.
Isadora moved away from the window with a hobbled step while I approached the little table. Her quaint cottage at the edge of the trees aged with a quiet grace, decorated in an opulence that made me nervous, afraid I’d take one step too far in any direction and break something, like the witches’ bottles hanging from one wall by strings of twine. A simple nudge and they’d fall, shattering, the whispers of their bottled incantations rising into the air like a mist.
Despite her reputation as one of the most powerful witches in our world, Isadora lived a discreet life in the midst of her porcelain tea sets, of which she had many, and her white curtains. A buttery loaf of bread gleamed nearby, smelling of warm yeast and flour.
“Is this part of Letum Wood dangerous?” I asked, taking measured steps so I didn’t rattle the china. Letum Wood, the weather, my chances of survival at the school, I would have picked any of these topics for conversa tion. Anything to avoid the silence that meant she searched my soul, hoping to understand the secrets of my mind.
“It can be a frightening place,” Isadora said, lowering into a wooden chair. “But not when I’m watching.”
“Your grandmother is sick, isn’t she?”
My throat tightened.
For all my precautions in getting there, the tray landed on the table with an ungracious clunk, and I murmured a nervous apology. She smiled, surveying the layout of the china with puckered lips that looked suspiciously close to a smile. I’d gotten the tray wrong, of course. “I was an awkward teenager too, you know,” Isadora said. “Big teeth and whatnot. That all changed when I turned sixteen.”
“Oh?” I stammered, forcing myself to sit down. “Sixteen?” “Yes, your age.”
She’s going to know many things about you. Don’t be surprised if she mentions details you haven’t told her. She sees.
“It’s a wonderful age,” she crooned before I could reply, lightly sliding her cup onto her tea plate. “I started learning how to control magic at a Network school, though not Miss Mabel’s School for Girls. It changed the course of my life.” She paused for a second, then continued as if she’d never stopped. “Miss Mabel’s is a grand place. There’s so much history in that big old estate, you know, and so much to learn.”
“Mmm-hmm,” I hummed as I reached for the pot. The tea tumbled in a coral waterfall into the fragile porcelain cups. Steam rolled off the boiling liquid, filling the air. A drop or two slipped out, falling to the white table cloth when I tipped the spout back. An instant stain spread.
“Miss Mabel’s been teaching there many years,” I said, quickly setting the teapot on top of the diffused pink circles, hoping she didn’t see. My heart pounded. This wasn’t the time for mistakes. Perhaps I’d spent too long perfecting the big things and too little on the mundane.
Our eyes met for the first time. Isadora didn’t smile, just stared into me with a troubled expression. I waited under the scrutiny of her gaze, my heart pulsing in my throat, making me sick to my stomach. Her worried expres sion had nothing to do with my inability to properly set out and pour tea.
Isadora doesn’t care about trivialities.
“Yes, Mabel has been teaching for a long time.” She finally took the offered cup to sip, breaking her intense study. “She’s one of the best teachers in the Network.”
Her face scrunched a little, and I fought back a frustrated sigh. I had steeped it too long again. Herbal teas always stumped me.
“So I’ve heard,” I said.
“Mabel gears her teaching toward action, not books. Education these days involves too much reading. Learning magic should be about practice, not recitation.”
I heartily agreed but remained silent. Bookwork was never my cup of tea, so to speak. Her cup set itself down as I reached for the sugar. I didn’t know how to respond, so I remained quiet and stirred the sugar into my tea. Above all, show confidence, I reminded myself. Sometimes silence does it best.
“Tell me, Bianca, why you are here today.”
I looked up in surprise. Part of me hoped that our entire interview consisted of this strangled, awkward small talk. Then she could probe into my mind and personality in silence, discerning what I already knew. You’re determined to attend this school. You’ve spent years learning magic to prepare. You hope to control fate, but you can’t because she’s a fickle mistress. Then she’d tell me I passed and I’d never have to really answer anything.
She lifted her eyebrows, waiting for my response, shattering any hope of an easy escape.
Never lie to a Watcher, Papa’s voice returned. Most of the time they already know how you are going to respond. The test is in your emotions, and you can really only control how you use them.
Elaborating on all the possible life benefits of attending Miss Mabel’s tempted me, but she’d know I didn’t really care. Trivialities, I reminded myself. Isadora may already know the answer to her question, but she might not.
A bargain I couldn’t ignore.
I finally settled on the one answer I knew would be true.
“I want to work with Miss Mabel.”
We sat in silence for several minutes. The snap of the fire filled the background. I stirred my cup. Most girls probably had a ready answer for that one. Perhaps I’d been learning how not to set out tea.
“Yes,” Isadora said, taking a sip of her tea with a quiet chuckle that didn’t sound humorous. “You certainly don’t lack motivation, do you?” She looked out the window again. I pulled the tiny silver spoon from my tea and set it next to the cup. My hands still shook, so I folded them in my lap instead of taking a drink, braiding them into a ball of icy fingers. I
wondered if she’d notice if I didn’t take a sip. After her reaction, the taste probably wasn’t worth it.
Isadora opened her mouth to say something, then closed it again. I began to wonder if I could stand a silence so loud.
“My job is to interview prospective students to see if they would be a good fit for Miss Mabel’s School for Girls,” she said, turning away from me. “It’s a difficult education to complete, with a demanding schedule, and isn’t meant for everyone. That’s why the High Priestess of the Network requires you to qualify.”
My knuckles tightened until my hands blanched to a shade of white. This was it. She would turn me down, say I wasn’t the right kind of girl. My whole life and future hung in the balance. It would be quick as a guillotine but infinitely more painful.
High stakes are what you get, I reminded myself, when you have a lot to lose.
I wished I’d worn my hair in a bun instead of loose on my shoulders. But I couldn’t act myself by pretending to be something I wasn’t, so my hair remained down where I liked it.
“I’ve met a lot of students, but never in my life …” she faltered. Her fidgeting and blank stares began to unnerve me. Wasn’t this a witch of great magical knowledge and power?
She set the china cup down with a resolute clank.
“I’m going to let you in, Bianca, but I do so with one warning.” Her creaky, anxious voice took away any chance to feel relief. I waited, holding my breath, while she stared into my eyes.
“Don’t underestimate her.”
I didn’t need to ask whom she meant. The name hung in the air between us like an anvil on a fraying string.
We stared at each other. I wondered just what she saw about me, what facets of my personality, and what motives she understood that I didn’t. Before I drew up the courage to ask, Isadora turned away again, as if she couldn’t stand to look at me, and took another sip of her tea.
My right wrist burned. I grabbed it, which gave only a moment of relief. When I pulled my hand away, a black circle of ancient, minuscule
words lay on the inside of my wrist. The circlus. Without it, the magic surrounding the boundaries of Letum Wood that housed Miss Mabel’s School for Girls wouldn’t allow me in.
My stomach flipped.
I did it.
My chest sank, heavy with fear and weak with relief. I suppressed the rush of panic, banishing it to the corners of my mind. No panic here, just confidence.
I spent years preparing for this. It won’t frighten me now.
I was a terrible liar. Attending Miss Mabel’s School for Girls did frighten me, but so did staying home, forfeiting my only chance at freedom. Isadora seemed to recover her wits with surprising speed. She sat up,
set her napkin on the table, and straightened her wobbly legs. “Have you said goodbye to your mother?”
“Yes,” I said, wincing inside. The fear in her eyes haunted me. Mama didn’t want me to go, not like this. There has to be another way, she whispered to me last night, tears in her eyes that she never shed. I don’t like this, Bianca. What if something happens to you? I hated leaving her.
But I still did it. Because I had to.
Nothing bad will happen, I had promised her. I can do this. I know I can. Isadora nodded once. “Very well, come. Let’s continue your education. I can see that Mabel will be quite … pleased to have you.”
Grateful to get out of the close little parlor, I walked past the window to see a figure moving out from behind a tree. Mama stood amongst the dark woods with her queer gray eyes, her ebony hair restless in the wind.
“Merry part, Mama,” I whispered. The memory of Papa’s voice ran through my head as I stared at her, my homesick heart already raw and throbbing.
Mabel is the one of the cleverest witches in the Central Network. She’s the only one that can remove your curse. You must remember: Mabel does no favors. Be careful, B.
Your life depends on it.
Isadora led me through her house to a rickety back porch where a torch illuminated the ground. A single trail ran from a set of wooden stairs, disappearing into trees and deadfall beyond. The gray and muted brown leaves matched my simple brown dress. Winter robbed Letum Wood of color, leaving it stark and ugly.
“Well, keep to the trail.” Isadora cast a look at the sky. “It looks like rain, so you better hurry. It’s at least an hour’s walk to the school from here.” “Thank you.”
I pulled the hood of my cloak over my long black hair and took a few steps forward. Every minute of my life led to this moment. Fate may be a fickle mistress, I thought, glancing at the sky, but she isn’t entirely unforgiving. Isadora called to me, stopping me in my tracks.
“Did you know they are taking volunteers for the Competition tonight?” I kept my hood up and my eyes on the ground so she couldn’t read my expression.
“Yes,” I said. “I heard that rumor.”
I left before she could ask more, evaporating in the mist of Letum Wood.