The students make their way back into the auditorium slowly, each clique whispering about the assembly. Most of them wave at the cameras pointed to record their procession, which is now lit by every light in the ceiling. Nuria pauses when she sees the cameras, nervous that any outburst of uncontrolled fire will do irreparable damage, especially if Aven turns out to be right. If they think my out of control flames are a result of my tutelage here, then the school’s reputation will take a massive blow. Gotta stay out of sight.
“I’ll catch you guys after the announcement,” Nuria tells Rum and the others. She moves back to her spot in the last row and leans back against her seat at an angle to hide from the sight of the cameras entirely. Just stay put and listen. She stares up at one of the ceiling lights as Neth’s voice reverberates around the room.
“To be back amongst your peers after so long must be such a joyous occasion. But do not think of them merely classmates. Look at your left and right. Those people are your family. You’re my family.”
Nuria doesn’t bother to turn her head. My family back home isn’t a myth, but this one is revealing its mythic nature more and more.
“Families grow each and every day. Today, with the inclusion of the new Ibri house, our family has grown by one. It is with great pride and joy that I introduce to you all the professor and housemaster of Ibri house. Please, a round of applause for Professor Reddic!”
Nuria pushes herself up with her elbows and peeks just above the chair in front of her. She sees Neth at the lectern and follows his gaze past the seated professors to stage right. Her magnetized stare follows Reddic, tracking him until he stops right beside the lectern.
The new professor is about as tall as Auriel, and even has the same shade of bright brown hair, though his is short and thick. He wears a yellow dress shirt with short sleeves that fold back just south of his elbows, the cuffs folded back. His dark pants and dress shoes match his double-breasted vest with brown buttons. He stands with a jocund smile, hands in his pockets, and scans the crowd of students.
Nuria watches him so closely that she witnesses his smile waver for an instant. She raises her gaze to his eyes and marvels. His left eye sparkles like a sun-kissed canary. It’s his right eye, however, with its incandescent brilliance that captures Nuria’s full attention. All of a sudden, that same brilliance locks onto her position and focuses on her eyes in the same way she did to his. Just as abruptly, Nuria’s wings forcibly sprout from her back and she lets a high-pitched yelp escape her throat as she’s pushed up and forward.
She pushes her wings behind her to hide her bronze feather from the cameras as they and a few curious eyes whip in her direction. “Sorry,” she says. Most pairs of eyes turn away immediately, but she notices the mirth in Reddic’s face as his stare lingers a few moments longer.
What just happened? My wings haven’t ever done that before. Don’t tell me I’m losing control over my Vanusi powers, too.
“Thank you for the introduction, headmaster,” Reddic says. “Hello, everyone. My name is Reddic,” he addresses the students. “I know I’m new here, but believe this promise. I am here not just to propel Four Hearts Academy into a new era, but also to expand your growth beyond the scope of just your latent powers. With just a raise of hands, how many Ibri are here today? Professors, would you mind participating, as well?”
Nuria raises hers and tries to count all the others. She sees the obvious ones like Rum and Shuri, as well as Professors Tameri and Marmagar. A hand next to Tyra raises, but she doesn’t recognize the white fur.
“Now, I’d like you to keep your hand raised if you’ve ever seen an Ibri experience any form of disrespect. It could be a derogatory image, word or phrase spoken, or perhaps they were physically assaulted because of it?”
The reality that not one hand lowers reminds Nuria of her situation with Egeme. However, it was the opposite back then.
“Keep your hand raised if you yourself have ever experienced any of those?”
Several hands go down, including the white-furred one. Nuria keeps her raised as she recalls her brawl with Kari, the assassin lady. It was the first time her inner phoenix saved her life. Tyra did her best, but my phoenix rescued us both that night. Wait! Is my phoenix acting out now? Does it want me to listen to this guy?
“Thank you. You may lower your hands now. Being the target in those scenarios can make you feel powerless.” Reddic’s jocund smile returns as he raises his right hand and shuts his right eye. His nails sharpen and extend, his left eye’s pupil changes from a circular shape to an oval o0ne, and the contour of his body gleams with blazing white light. The contour of his body changes when a black and brown spotted tail stretches from his lower back. Nuria marvels at how in control of both his powers he seems to be while not even appearing the slightest bit weary. “I’m here to teach Ibri students to embrace what it is about you that makes you special. In spite of what you and what I’ve experienced, I’m raising my hand as a testament to the life I’ve lived and the power I’ve gained in the face of discrimination. I want to impart that same strength to you all. However, there is a catch.”
Reddic cancels his light show and undoes his transformations. “This year is the induction of the Ibri class and thus there is a trial period, so I’m only allowed a max of six students, and all must be volunteers. That being said, I’d like to give the young class, the sophomores, the first chance to join. If you’d like to join my class, all you have to do is step up on stage, tell me your name, say “I’m all in”, and shake my hand. Do I have any volunteers?”
Nuria peers down at the stage. From Zathony and Marmagar to Lynald, she weighs the pros and cons of each. Until she thinks of Tyra, both classes are about even. She turns back to Reddic and her wings twitch, continuing to do so until she looks back at them.
Okay, inner phoenix. I’m trusting you.
“I volunteer!” Nuria declares clearly as she rises. She uses the finger strategy to fold her wings inward, keeping her bronze feather concealed as she passes the cameras. She notices a few shocked faces but ignores them all.
Neth meets her at the steps to the stage and walks with her toward Reddic. “Are you sure about this, Nuria?”
Nuria nods. “You told me last year not to deny the Vanusi part of me. This year, instead of choosing just one part of me, I plan to focus on myself as a whole. And I think I can do that with him.” Nuria steps beyond Neth and stops before Reddic. When she looks up at his face, she focuses on his right eye. “I’m Nuria, and I’m all in.”