Stargazer Page 10

Mom gently laid one hand on my forearm. “We’ll always be here for you, sweetheart. But you don’t want to hang out with your parents forever, right?”

“That wouldn’t be so bad.” I meant it—but not the same way I would have once. Last year, I had wanted nothing except to hide out from the world forever in our cozy home, only the three of us; now I wanted so much more.

Balthazar stepped to the edge of the fencing area, his mask still tucked under one arm. He looked incredibly dashing in his white fencer’s garb, which outlined his powerful body like he was roughly carved of marble.

Me? I glanced in the mirror along one side of the room and sighed. Dashing was not the word for me. I looked like the lost white Teletubby Pasty. Also, I had no idea how to handle a sword. But there was no way I could claim I needed a second year of Modern Technology class, and fencing was the only other elective that fit my schedule.

“You look terrified,” Balthazar said. “You won’t actually be dueling for your life in here, you know.”

“I get that, but still—sword fighting. I don’t know.”

“First of all, the actual fighting won’t come for a really long time. Neither will the actual swords. Not until you know how to move. Second, I’ll fix it so we’re partners, at least at first. That way I can make sure you’re comfortable.”

“You mean, you’d rather fence with somebody you can beat.”

“Maybe.” He grinned, then tugged the mask down over his face. “Ready?”

“Give me a second.” I busied myself with the mask, which to my surprise I could see out of perfectly well.

Sure enough, we didn’t start fighting right away. In fact, most of the first day was spent learning how to stand. Sound easy? It’s not. We had to hold our legs just so, tensing this muscle but not that one, and position our arms in this incredibly formal, stylized way. I hadn’t realized it was possible to exhaust every single muscle in my body just by trying to stand still, but before the hour was up, I was trembling all over and sore from my shoulders to my calves.

“You’ll be all right,” Balthazar said encouragingly as he adjusted one of my elbows. Our teacher, Professor Carlyle, had already designated him as one of her assistants for the course. “You have good balance, and that’s the main thing.”

“I would think the main thing would be not getting hit with a sword.”

“Trust me. Balance. That’s what it all comes down to.”

The bell rang. Sighing with relief, I stumbled to the nearest wall and sagged against it. I pulled off the fencing mask so that I could breathe more deeply. My cheeks felt hot, and my hair was damp with sweat. “At least I’ll lose weight this year.”

“You don’t need to lose weight.” Balthazar hesitated as he tucked his mask beneath his arm. “You know, if you want to work on this extra, outside of class—we could meet up tomorrow, maybe. Get a little practice in.”

“I can’t this weekend.” If I’d been any less exhausted, would Balthazar have seen the nervous anticipation in my eyes? “Can I take a rain check?”

“Sure.” He grinned at me as he headed for the door. All at once, I wondered if Balthazar hadn’t meant his offer as a way to get close to me. If so, I’d have to figure a way out of it.

I’d worry about all that later. It was the first Friday in October, and that meant I was only a few hours away from being with Lucas again.

First I hurried back to the dorm so that I could shower. No way was I going to meet up with Lucas smelling like sweaty old socks. I didn’t fix my hair or carefully apply makeup, so I wouldn’t tip Raquel off to my plans. I imagined my ultrafeminine former roommate, Patrice, gasping in horror as I simply pulled my hair back into a sloppy bun.

Raquel noticed anyway. “Why are you getting dressed up to lounge around in the woods?”

“It’s hardly like I got out the fur coat and tiara.” I wore jeans and a plain sweater.

She shrugged. “Whatever.” Raquel sat cross-legged on the floor, in the middle of another of her art projects; this collage looked fairly depressing, with a lot of black and a prominently displayed etching of a guillotine. All that mattered to me was that she paid no attention as I finished getting dressed. Ideally I would’ve gone to see Lucas in my prettiest outfit, but there was no way I could believably wear anything dressy. I reached deep into the back of my underwear drawer for a tiny bundle wrapped in a scarf, which I tucked into my backpack along with a thermos that would’ve looked innocent to Raquel.

“See you tomorrow night, okay?” My voice sounded strange—taut and unnatural, as though it might break.

I put one hand on the doorknob, thinking I was all but home free, when Raquel idly asked, “Aren’t you taking your telescope?”

Oh, no. If I were going to watch the meteor shower, of course I would bring my telescope with me—it was heavy, and it had to be handled with care, but I could get it onto the school grounds. What I couldn’t do was lug that thing all the way to Amherst. I thought I’d gone over every detail of my getaway plan. How could I have forgotten something so basic?

“I have another one,” I lied, making it up as I went. “Telescope, I mean. It’s not quite as good as this one, but it’s a lot lighter. So I thought I’d get it from my parents’ apartment instead.”

“Makes sense.” Raquel looked up from her scissors, so that we could see each other’s faces. She looked a little sad; maybe Raquel would never admit that she would miss me over the weekend, but I thought she would. “Tomorrow, then.”

“Tomorrow.” Guiltily, I promised, “We’ll hang out next weekend. Figure out something fun to do.”

“Here? Yeah, right.” She buried herself in her work again, and I was free to go.

As I walked out onto the grounds, twilight was descending over the school. Dusk was one of my favorite times of day; to me it felt as much like a beginning as the sunrise. The sky was a milky violet-gray as I walked to the far end of the grounds and made my way into the woods. My ears pricked up in response to the night sounds: my own footsteps on soft pine needles, the hooting of a faraway owl and—very distant—a girl laughing in a drowsy kind of way that made me think she must be out there with a guy.

I continued on my way, realizing as I went how much sharper my hearing was than it had been last year. Perhaps I’d become so accustomed to the din of Evernight Academy that I didn’t sense the difference so much, but out in the woods, it was obvious. The flapping of birds’ wings, traffic whirring along the nearest road—all of that was clear and distinct. It wouldn’t have been, before.

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