Once again, Nuria’s fingers reach for but stop short of the bandaged strapped just above her elbow. She finds it a near impossible thing to resist forever, hoping they finish their blood test so she can have her answer once and for all. Before the nurses withdrew her blood, they bandaged her up and gave her a hospital gown in place of her tattered clothing.
Nuria sees no reason her mother would lie to her, but those were certainly anything but her normal flames. She concedes arguments mired in wisdom to her mother all the time. Perhaps this is something her mother foresaw, which is why she thought a school like Four Hearts Academy was beneficial. Perhaps, however, there is something even her mother couldn’t fathom and had no wisdom to give that would alleviate Nuria’s nerves. Although, in this case, Nuria was excited to put this question behind her. She had a multitude coming her way very soon.
Maybe I can reach higher temperatures than I thought. I mean, blue fire burns hotter than my normal flames and I’ve never summoned them. Maybe that bronze tune is somewhere between the two?
Nuria has a tendency to tie higher temperatures to musical notes. At her hottest, around five hundred and fifty degrees is soprano- her personal favorite. The range between three hundred and fifty and four hundred and fifty is baritone. Alto is her code for two hundred and fifty to three hundred and forty-nine degrees. Anything lower than that she calls tenor.
“What are you doing?” a nearby voice asks.
Nuria blinks, unaware that she was humming. She clamps her mouth shut tight as she turns to Shuri, a look of disdain infused in his facial muscles. She shoots him a scowl in return. “Singing.”
She blinks again. I was? She only sings before her family. She wrinkles her nose and shakes her head. I must’ve forgotten he was here.
“How long does it take to do a blood test anyway?” she asks snappily.
“The same time it takes at a hospital. Be patient,” Shuri says. He’s leaned back in a chair against the wall, his foot tapping rapidly.
Nuria notices and smirks. How had I missed him there?
“You shouldn’t have anything to worry about. Your grandfather won’t expel you.”
“That’s not what I’m worried about,” Shuri snaps with sudden heat.
Nuria quiets herself and turns away to slyly observe the young man out the corner of her eye. She sees the rigidity of his posture, the nervous foot tapping, the fear welling in his teal eyes. She softly chuckles.
“You’ve never been in trouble before, have you?”
Shuri narrows his eyes at her, nerves struck. “That’s none of your business.”
“Then take it off your face for me to see. Off your whole body for that matter.” She chuckles again.
“Easy for you to say. You don’t affect the reputation of this school when you act out.”
“We’ll see about that,” Nuria replies with a wink.
“I don’t remember asking for your opinion.”
“No, but you pried into my business, so I pried into yours. Sounds fair to me.”
“I only asked so you would stop. I dislike humming.”
“And I dislike carrot hash. Again, even.”
“Do you have a problem with me?”
“Do you?” She hastily adds, “With me, I mean?”
“My problem is–”
“From what I heard, the two of you were best friends not one hour ago. What happened so fast?” a third voice floats into the room.
Nuria and Shuri mute themselves immediately, both easing backward as Stark encroaches on their argument. Her badge glistens beneath the somber light of the infirmary suite. She stops at the foot of Nuria’s bed, lifting a dossier with both her hands.
“Hello, Nuria. My name is Stark. I’m the head of security for Four Hearts Academy. I have the results of your blood test right here. I’d like for you to take your time as you review them,” she says softly, a hint of warning in her tone. “I’m going to escort Shuri to his grandfather’s office before I return. Is there anything I can get you on my way back?”
Nuria takes the dossier from her, waving it. She didn’t miss the warning lining Stark’s voice. It was strikingly similar to the tone her mother used when they had their debates. Whatever the result was, it was not going to be as easy an answer to accept. “Can you bring my brother here? Rum, err, Aurum, as you probably know him.”
“I’ll return with him shortly,” Stark says and turns her head. “Shuri, let’s go.”
Shuri rises and follows after Stark without even bidding farewell to Nuria. She watches his back, his twin swords strapped it, leave her behind. She’s aware it was inevitable, but since she came to campus, he was always by her side. He was her beacon today, showing her to the cafeteria, keeping her company, even playing with her.
Nuria smiles. She looks forward to meeting other students soon. The first ones she met weren’t very welcoming, and even though Shuri was around, he certainly had his own first-day issues to tackle. She sees the pattern that’s forming to be on the rise. Perhaps the next person she meets will be amazing. I’ll have to be just as amazing.
Nuria peers down at the folder, scanning the label with her name stamped across it. She fails to shake her nerves away, finding them stuck in her skin like barbed hooks, shifting restlessly as her gaze lingers on her name.
Come on, Nuria. You have to face it eventually. Hell, you ran here to get this answer. Kind of lame to backpedal into cowardice now.
She opens the file and then she… Huh?
Shuri’s earlier jab had been closer to a truth of hers than he realized. Nuria has never been to a hospital before. Neither has Aurum. Their mother always had the same doctor visit them annually at home to perform their physicals and any other medical procedures. She was always emailed the results and only showed them the parts they would understand. What Nuria sees now is something she can’t make heads or tails of.
Instead of reading the entire folder’s contents, she focuses on the concrete details she can wrap her mind around. Name: Nuria, age: 14, height: 5’2”, weight: 122lbs, blood type: BN+.
Nuria zeroes in on that. She recalls her blood type, at least the one that Auriel always showed her, was N-. She was strictly Sulublei… Aren’t I?
This new blood test says otherwise. According to this, she isn’t only Sulublei, but Vanusi. Other than the race’s name, she knows absolutely nothing. All she has in her mind now are questions.
Does this explain the golden fire? Or is it just a temperature thing? If it does, maybe I should join the Vanusi class. If not, maybe I still should. Learn exactly what that blood allows me to do. Then again, they could’ve botched my blood test. Mom wouldn’t have lied to me all those years, surely. Maybe this was some weird aspect of Sudita?
Sudita is a liminal process, a rite of passage for Avinians. When one’s powers activate for the first time, it is usually simultaneous with swelling of heat in the heart or brain. The awakened energy surges through the rest of the body after that, filling one right down to their cells.
Nuria recalls reading the letter. She was pleased to have been accepted, and her heart was aflutter with joy. The warmth she felt could have just been that. Also, she had a nagging thump in her brain right after, as if thoughts she couldn’t begin to process were leaking. Since she was young when she experienced her Sulublei Sudita, she had no means of comparison for answers.
I mean, perhaps my blood never read correctly because I’ve never accessed that power before. But that would mean the golden fire is a Vanusi power. This is tricky. I’ll have to call Mom to settle this. Tonight. Then again, I do still need a house. I can’t hinder things here any more than I already have. Maybe Rum’ll know what to do.
Oh, man, what if his blood test is different now, too?
Nuria’s pacing in tight zigzags when Rum steps into the room with her, suitcase in tow. She smiles when she sees him and immediately runs to hug him. Before her arms can wrap around his back, her head is knocked down by a sharp punch. She yelps as she looks back up, massaging her scalp with one hand.
“What was that for?” she asks, her smile erased by a scowl.
“You didn’t have to leave me behind, stupid! The plan was for us both to leave the house early. I wake up to find that you ditched in the middle of the night without even a note. I had to deal with Mom the entire time. By. Myself.”
“Wait, that offer was serious? But you–”
“Was worried as sick as she was. I pretended otherwise for her sake so she wouldn’t put out a search party.”
Nuria smiles again. “That’s exactly why I left you there. Imagine what she would’ve done if we were both missing in the morning.”
“Try again,” he says bluntly, not fooled by her convenient reasoning. He knows her well enough that she takes the easy way out of arguments, so he leaves openings for her to try and take advantage of, only to pull the rug out from under her. She’s still susceptible, which makes him smile.
“Fine. I didn’t for you.”
“Did it for me?” he asks.
“Not “did it for you”, didn’t for you,” she clarifies. “You were falling apart keeping our plan secret from her, breaking into nervous sweats every time she asked us about our day. In one day, you would’ve dragged me back there, feeling too guilty to continue. And since I know you could, I left alone, sparing you and Mom a little less stress.”
Rum rakes a hand through his hair. “I wouldn’t have dragged you back.”
Nuria gives him a look.
“On the first day,” he amends.
“Look, it’s all fine. I’m alive. I already plan to call Mom tonight to let her know. Now, can I have my hug?” Rum obliges. Nuria manages to touch her knuckles together behind his back and frowns. “Wait, where’s your buster sword?”
Did he take a blood test too and learn he’s not really Ohaida? By Drijad, how’s he handling that?
“It’s back in my dorm. I chose Ohaida House. The older students informed us freshmen they dubbed it “Slayer House” instead.” He chuckles. “Speaking of, your little friend from earlier is in my dorm, too.”
“Friend is a bit premature.”
“What’s wrong with him?”
“You live with him now. You’ll see.”
Rum rolls his eyes. “Anyway, the security lady–”
“Stark,” Nuria corrects.
“Stark is outside. She says Headmaster Neth wants to speak with us. Finalize a few things about our enrollment here.”
“Yeah, I figured he’d want to.” Nuria’s shoulders sink.
Rum notices, but leaves it be, sure she’ll confide in him when she’s ready. He hands Nuria her suitcase, allows her to change, then leads her out of the infirmary suite at a brisk pace.
Nuria focuses on the absence of his buster sword, his bare back a rare sight. She hopes that it’ll remain there. She refuses to tell Rum the truth, again, for his own peace of mind. With their mother also being Ohaida, and with a weapon of her own, the two often sparred together. She knows how close they are, and if he were to lose that connection to her, she fears she wouldn’t know how to restore it. So, she resolves to bear the burden silently, coming clean only after she’s figured it out.
Stark opens the door to a rectangular office, allowing the siblings to venture inside before shutting it behind them. They pass by walls of portraits on a black carpeted floor, and the images all come accompanied by plaques with names etched into them.
Nuria finds her eyes only drawn to one by the entrance to the office. She can’t read the etching too well, thinking it could say “Talsa” or “Tulsa” or “Tusal”. Whatever his name, his glasses hang low on the bridge of his nose, allowing his daunting smile and flat stare their full ability to unnerve observers, Nuria included. She turns away as she and Rum join the headmaster at his desk.
“Would you two please have a seat?” He gestures to the cushioned chairs before him. A wide spherical window behind his chair allows sunlight to bathe the entire office in a warm glow. The siblings take positions in the two center ones. “Just to be perfectly clear, this is not a disciplinary meeting. I simply have a few details I’d be remiss if I didn’t go over them with you. Do you understand?”
They both nod.
Headmaster Neth reaches into a drawer hidden from the siblings’ view, then produces a small container with a digital lock on it. He presses his thumb to the screen. A green line scans his thumb, and after a hiss, the container opens. Neth removes a small golden nugget from within.
“I had this verified after your mother sent payment for your enrollment. I was surprised to find it was not only genuine, but this nugget is nearly one hundred percent pure gold. It dwarfs your tuition for your entire four years immensely. I want to offer you the opportunity to take it back and make a more reasonable payment.”
Neth searches their gazes to find them nonplussed. They knew of the payment. He tried to convince their mother to accept its return and failed. He finds their complicity puzzling. He’s never once thought to trust Shuri with such a vast amount of wealth, but these two not only were trusted, but they make no moves to betray that trust by demanding he give it back to them.
“Sorry, sir, but we can’t,” Rum says. “Our mother wouldn’t like us to take that back. She sent the payment with the added intention of donating to the school’s programs.”
“I understand that, but I have to insist. You’re young. There have to be things you would like to purchase with this,” Neth urges.
“Actually, there is a–”
Rum cuts her off with a deep throat clear and a warning look.
“I was joking. Geez.”
Rum faces the headmaster. “It’s okay, sir. You have all the right to that money now. Not us.”
Nuria raises her hand and waits for Neth to call on her. “I’m sorry if I overstep any boundaries here, but you could use the money to cover the cost of the targets that I…destroyed.” Nuria hastily adds, “Or, you know, something else works too.”
Neth pauses and looks down at his desk. An open envelope with the contents half exposed lay auspiciously directly beneath his gaze. “As a matter of fact, there is one way to do so.”
“Anything,” Nuria replies.
“Our head of security Stark was given this letter,” he lifts it for them to see, “from the young ladies in the Vanusi car. It was left behind by a young man who was to be part of this year’s freshman class. He wishes to have his place held until he’s ready to come to campus. I could use the surplus funding to hold his spot if you don’t mind? Otherwise, I’d have to search our waitlist for a fitting replacement.” He lies. There is no waitlist. Four Hearts Academy has been dwindling in applications and attendance in recent years. This is yet another test for them to claim the money back.
“Sure,” Nuria says. “In fact, you can allocate what you need from that to cover him for this entire year.”
Neth doesn’t blink, but he catches the protest in his throat and locks it down. He knows by now that they’ll stick to their resolve. Admirable children, he thinks.
“Very well. His seat shall be held in reserve.”
“What can we clear up next, sir?” Rum queries.
“Oh, well, Miss Nuria put in a request–”
“Actually, um, sir, would you mind if we discussed that in private?”
“You and me private, or you and the headmaster private?” Rum asks.
Nuria shoots him an apologetic expression. “I promise I’ll tell you soon.”
Rum turns from her to the headmaster slowly. “And this isn’t a disciplinary meeting?”
Rum sighs with relief and rises. “Then I’ll leave you to it.” He leans closer to Nuria’s ear and whispers, “Whatever it is, I’ll be ready to help when you want it.”
Nuria smiles wide. Having her brother behind her is an immense comfort. She wishes that he’d been with her while she traveled if nothing else than to have him beside her. Not in a sense that she’s helpless on her own, but they’re each other’s best friend. Only friend. They grew up in a sheltered home. She saw things during her sojourn that baffled and excited her. She wants to know what Rum saw. They’ll find time to share soon.
When the door to the office closes, Nuria releases a shallow breath. “I take it you’ve seen the blood test results.”
“They were emailed to me immediately after. To Stark, as well. I told her to take a copy to you to absorb on your own. Better to tackle details with your own mind before letting others give their input. Like you just did with your brother.”
“Thanks for that. I still haven’t wrapped my mind around it fully.”
“Understandable. It’s no small shock to receive such life-altering news. But from what I see, you’re handling it quite well.”
“I’m still baffled, though. I didn’t expect to, well, discover this ‘small shock’.”
“I’ve seen your particular case happen a number of times over my years here as headmaster. What you’ve accomplished is what so few of them ever got around to, and none of them as quickly.”
“And what’s this grand accomplishment?” she asks with more bite than intended. “Sir,” she tacks on with a more level tone.
“You’ve not denied yourself the truth of what you are.”
“I’ve been questioning that for an entire week,” she says.
“Not questioning. Speculating. You received a concrete answer not even an hour ago. Yet, the moment I brought up the subject, you didn’t argue or say the tests were wrong. You moved to an open dialogue on the subject. And, if you’ll accept, I do have a proposal that might just be the solution you need.”
“At this point, I’ll take any advice.”
“I believe you should delve into the Vanusi part of your heritage. It will benefit you in ways you aren’t even capable of conceiving at this very moment. But I promise you, the benefits will far outweigh the struggles you’ll face to receive them.”
“You sure about that?”
“Undoubtedly. Besides,” he states, “I saw your Sulublei heritage on full display this afternoon. While I can see there are areas for you to improve upon it, I think you should explore the Vanusi side of yourself. Come to be as comfortable in that element as Sulublei.”
Nuria wanders around the campus in an aimless direction, passing by waves of students traveling in groups, conversing amongst themselves. All of them are comfortable, smiling and laughing and joking freely. As much as the idea of new friends excites her, it frightens her a little. She has Rum, but she can’t very well say that was a friendship that needed fostering. Growing up together inevitably forces one of two outcomes- familiarity or disgust. She finds pleasure they settled on the former, though they shared their fair share of trials.
Shuri was her first attempt, and while he was sort of receptive, it ended with them as distant as they’d been with their first words. Then again, she still smiles when she remembers the fun they had.
Maybe it was just his stress that made him snap. I’ll give him another chance when I can.
Nuria wanders around for the better part of the afternoon, taking her own self-guided tour of the campus, having missed the official one. She examines the library, falling deeply in love with the music section straight away. They have albums from bands and singers she follows religiously, from The Four Feathermen to Juggar to Entro. Entro and Juggar are singers who primarily write party songs. The Four Feathermen are more abstract with their messages and have the best music videos, with wildly imaginative titles. Nuria fancies them the most out of the three.
She moves through the halls of the rest of the building, looking into classrooms that all stand opposite to floor to ceiling windows. Between window panes are doors that lead to alcoves with tables and benches. The cafeteria also has doors leading to those same alcoves. She finds two nearly identical labs at the front of the building, situated in opposite corners.
The last stop on her tour is her new home.
Neth informed her that she had until dinner ended to choose either the Sulublei dorm or Vanusi dorm for the year. Being Ibri, she was free to choose the other next year. He assured her that both professors were aware of her predicament and would welcome her should she step through their doors.
Time to test that theory.
Nuria climbs the porch leading to the front door of a six-story dorm. She considers knocking, shakes her head, then marches on inside, crossing the threshold of a dark door with a frame of vermillion.
She sucks in a breath as she enters the foyer. The furniture inside shares the threshold’s color scheme. The chairs are vermillion with legs made of the same dark wood. The deep brown of the wooden floor brightens the room but allows it to maintain its eerie atmosphere, like a haunted house illuminating a room of horrors with only a single light bulb.
Nuria shakes her nerves away once more. Stop it. Just find the professor.
She awakens her courage and strides over to a staircase in the rear right corner of the room. She follows the winding staircase to the next floor, coming to a crossroads. She can part at the first landing or proceed up the staircase to the higher stories. She opts for the former, coming to a narrow corridor between two different walls. To her right and left are restrooms. Before her is a set of double doors. She doesn’t even have to turn around to know another set lies behind, as well.
There aren’t any gender-specific signs on the doors, so which is the female dorm?
Nuria abandons her thoughts and goes for the door directly in front of her. It opens from the other end just as she reaches it- thankful that the door goes in and not out- when a raven-haired young woman exits. The newcomer flinches when she sees Nuria in the corridor with her, then holds a hand to her chest as she calms herself.
“Glad to know this place isn’t only getting to me,” Nuria says.
“I have half a mind to kick the decorator,” the young lady says. She sees the suitcase in Nuria’s hands and grins. “If you’re looking for the female dorm, turn around. This one here,” she points her thumb over her shoulder, “belongs to the boys, err, boy.”
“Yeah, I heard the other one didn’t show. I’m Nuria, by the way.”
“Where’s your suitcase?”
Tyra points to the other door before heading that direction. “In here, but without signs, it’s a difficult thing to remember.”
Nuria follows Tyra inside the female dorm, and the decorations are more of the same. The beds line the rounded wall, save for the section where a large draped window stands, have black sheets and comforters. Red ribbons trace the legs, making them look like dark chocolate candy canes. The sunlight pouring through the transparent red curtains casts a pink film over the entire room.
“At least it’s spacious,” Nuria comments, not liking the pink glow.
“The building?” Tyra asks.
“No, the room.” Nuria turns to Tyra in time to see her perform some sort of internal smack. She then notices for the first time that Tyra’s clothes are extremely well made, from silky materials she’s only seen on tv shows and fashion commercials. Except, Tyra’s top has two slits in the back outlined by metal plates. Each one cuts diagonally across her shoulder blades, exposed flesh underneath. “Nice clothes.”
Tyra faces her with another smile. “Thank you. I love your shirt. Music fan?” Tyra points to the whimsically designed musical notes all over the front.
“Oh yeah. I bought this at a concert three years ago.”
“Which concert?” Tyra asks, moving over to the bed just right of the window. She inspects her hair in the mirror resting atop a bedside drawer.
“TFF.” Nuria pauses and looks around, trying to see what other beds have been occupied. “Did the others already choose their beds, too?”
“There’s only one other girl. She already went to go and start dinner. She chose the bed on my right,” Tyra explains. “If you want, you could choose the one across from me.”
“Sounds good to me.”
Nuria dumps her suitcase on the counter, emptying her clothes out on the comforter. After haphazardly folding them into a pile, she scoops them up and places them into the bedside drawer, made of the same dark wood as the walls and ceiling. Her shredded backpack and clothes pain her. She withdraws her journal from the backpack before looking around the room.
“No trash can?” she says.
Tyra turns from inspecting her hair. “The professors said to use the ones in the restrooms. Janitorial staff handles it from there.”
Nuria laughs mockingly. “Except I have no clue what bathroom to use. Great.”
“Less than ideal, I agree, but we’ll get used to it.”
Nuria huffs and drops her ruined belongings on the floor. “Not on an empty stomach. Let’s go join our classmate for dinner.”
They find her scarfing down an entire tray of chicken wings. She ignores the looks of the other diners. Long has she suffered the disgusted curiosity of people, and it doesn’t much bother her now. She likes to eat, but at the end of the day, she also knows that she has to. She covers a belch with her wrist as Nuria and Tyra join her, their trays modest in comparison.
“Hey, Tyra. Hey, umm, new girl,” she says after swallowing a bite of chicken, skin and all.
“Cool name. I’m Carnya,” she replies, extending her elbow out as her half of a handshake. Nuria bumps her own elbow against it, sealing the introduction officially.
Nuria assesses Carnya, in awe of her appetite. She ignores her own hunger as she watches Carnya satisfy her own. The young woman wipes the excess grease from her cheek when she finishes the wings. She exchanges the now empty dish with one full of triangular watermelon slices. She lifts one to take a huge bite when she notices Nuria’s staring. With a soft chuckle, she says, “I need to eat a lot every day. Around 2500 calories. Keeps my venom glands from releasing my toxins and killing me in my sleep. As long as my metabolism is working, my venom glands are dormant.”
Nuria blinks and shakes her head. “Sorry, I wasn’t staring to be rude. It’s just, I’ve never seen one person able to eat that much in one sitting.”
“You’d be amazed if you came when I did. I’m on my ninth plate now.” Carnya winks, then takes that huge bite.
“Give me a minute. I’m busy here,” she says around a mouthful. Several mouthfuls later, and her ninth dish is as clean as the others that came before. Carnya leans back in her chair, satisfied by the watermelons. The last remaining pieces are the seeds, floating in the pink juice dripping from the rinds. “So glad bloating never lasts too long.”
Carnya gingerly rubs her belly while she listens to the other young ladies change subjects.
“When did you experience Sudita?” Nuria directs the question to Tyra.
“I was born into it,” she says coolly. “You?”
“Once years ago, and again very recently,” Nuria states. “Only just learned I’m Vanusi.”
Tyra blinks, astonishment taking hold of her face. “You’re Ibri? That’s awesome. I’ve never met one in person before.”
“Really?” Nuria finds that hard to believe. Aside from her mother, she knew plenty. The community in Sakela Desert was almost exclusively Ibri. Her mother took her and Rum there when they children. Nuria was sad when they couldn’t any longer. She hopes to not be banned from Four Hearts Academy in the same way.
“Not until I came here,” Tyra answers. “I used to think they were really rare.”
“Me, too,” Carnya steps back into the conversation. “Cool to have one as a classmate.” She raises her glass. “To our very own Ibri,” she cheers. “Unless this makes you feel awkward.”
Nuria shakes her head. “On the contrary, it’s nice to hear.” She also raises her glass and clanks it against her friends’.
As Tyra delves into her meal, Carnya rises for dish number ten. She returns with three pieces of apple pie with scoops of ice cream on top. As she takes her seat, Nuria says, “Excuse my ignorance when I ask this, but should we really be eating…meat?” She whispers the last word like it’s taboo. She eyes the burger in her hands warily.
Tyra hushes her pending laughter by pressing a finger to her lips. “You needn’t worry, Nuria. Vanusi and normal animals have one defining difference. We Vanusi have an enzyme in our blood that normal animals do not. It’s called virecia. Very dangerous for any Avinian to digest.”
Carnya returns with her plate, this one sporting three pieces of apple pie with scoops of ice cream on top. “She’s right. I’d be dead a thousand times over otherwise.”
Nuria smirks crossly. “Unless your metabolism burns off the virecia infection before it can take effect.”
“I assure you, it’s fine. Nobody will crucify you for eating…meat,” Tyra mimics her emphasis on the word perfectly.
“That’ll be far from my most embarrassing question, I guarantee you.”