Stark leans against her jeep as Neth bids farewell to the reporters, vultures in her mind. She was initially nervous when Nuria walked up with her wings exposed, but after seeing her keep them furled inward, as well as the fact she was behind the vultures in most instances, she realized that Nuria has internalized the importance of keeping her Vanusi state a secret, and that she can maintain that on her own. However, she knows better than to underestimate the opportunistic nature of any vulture, that they’ll pick at the tiniest bit of flesh until the bone’s been cleaned. She hopes Nuria’s flare-up was too tiny a scrap to link to her wings. But one thing Stark knows the vultures learned, despite the headmaster’s efforts to hide the school’s record low attendance, will soon be known by the rest of Avinia. Even as the last of the news vans leaves the premises, Stark can’t shirk her animosity. She has half a mind to follow them when she starts the jeep.
“You’re leaving already?” Headmaster Neth asks.
“Yes, sir. I’ve already overextended our agreed upon time on campus, but you allowed me to be here for the announcement.” She shows him a sincere look. “Thank you for that, sir.”
“Of course, Stark. You’re still family.”
Stark wants to nod and leave, but she can tell by his pensive tone and thin smile he has more to discuss. “Shall we move to your office, sir?” she says while disembarking.
“If you wouldn’t mind,” he replies as they march away together.
“I assume this has something to do with Ibri House,” Stark says to break the silence once stepping into his office.
“Indeed.” Neth crosses his black carpet at a brisk pace, sparing glances to his predecessors’ portraits lining the walls. He reclines into his cushioned chair and stares up at Stark with a frustrated countenance, the officer opting to remain standing. “I am a million times a fool for creating Ibri House.”
“Far from it, sir,” Stark says with conviction.
“Then why have none of my predecessors ever done so themselves?”
“Because the Avinian world governments effectively beat the idea into the grave whenever it was proposed. If anything, your predecessors would be proud that you’ve managed to succeed in their place.”
Neth slices his head to the side. “It was not my doing.”
“Come again?” Stark feels the hairs on her neck stand on end. Her hatred of the vultures aside, she knows the law to be more outrageous at times, especially the politics behind powered officers and their restrictions.
Neth huffs, removes a nondescript dossier from a hidden panel inside the surface of his desk. “Look at the signature fields at the end right after reading the missive’s title,” Neth instructs as she accepts the dossier.
Stark doesn’t blink when she reads the “Ibri House” title, but after skipping to the end per the headmaster’s suggestion, she immediately understands his reservations. “Is this correct?” Her expression when she looks away from the dossier matches his own.
“This doesn’t happen,” Stark says shakily. “The four world powers all agreeing to this is…well, impossible. Stark finally sits, the weight of the situation sinking in. She thumbs through several more pages swiftly. “And you’re sure this isn’t a forgery?”
“The young lady who delivered it was the same one who delivered the dismissal order during your trial.”
Stark recalls the young lady’s raven hair, vicious nature thinly veiled in her blue eyes, and her snowflake-shaped ring sword. She originally believed Tyra had a hand in summoning her, but then there was the note left to her by the invisible man from the precinct theft. She never told Neth that she and Warden Crata have been trying to investigate him alongside her mother. She remedies that now. “I’ve looked through the dossier and Reddic’s name never comes up. They only refer to the teacher of Ibri House as “TBD”.”
“Yet another mystery behind this man, I met him for the first time only just yesterday and I barely got to know him. He hides his motives behind that grin of his. In actuality, I was trying to dissuade Nuria from volunteering without arousing suspicion.
Another notch in Stark’s nerves twists violently, on the verge of giving her a headache. “Reddic was handpicked by the world’s governors. And now, Nuria, the world’s only phoenix Vanusi, is his student. That’s not a coincidence.”
“That’s the only coincidence. She had to volunteer and Reddic couldn’t force her. However, that doesn’t mean Nuria isn’t part of his plans.”
“Sir, what do you know of this man? Anything at all?”
“Only his powers,” Neth answers.
“I’m all ears.”
“Some sort of large feline, perhaps a leopard or cheetah, based on the tail he summoned in his partial transformation. You can consult with Zathony for a more concrete breakdown. He gave off a rather brilliant light, also.”
“Leopard or cheetah and a light… Light,” Stark repeats the last word until she has a revelation. “Did he use these powers simultaneously?” Neth nods and she says, “Then he’s someone with enough skill to bend the light around his body and turn invisible.”
“You’re saying that Reddic is the man from your trial?”
“The powers line up, he’s the right height, and I think he’s been manipulating events in his favor since last year. He’s the one that planted Halko’s Notes in the library.”
Neth’s eyes widen with terror. “He already knows Nuria’s a phoenix.”
“Which means the world governors do, too.” Stark hands back the dossier and leans forward. “So, what do we do?”
“We tread carefully. Keeping Nuria out of their clutches is paramount, but we cannot do so without any leverage. Neth hides the dossier inside his desk. “Stark, what I’m about to ask of you is not simply dangerous, but will put you on the radar of the most powerful people in the world.”
Stark narrows her eyes, her expression fierce as that of a lioness. “Doesn’t matter. I’ll do anything to keep Nuria safe!”
“I need something, any information you can discover about Reddic we can use to get ahead of this situation. I will not let the Avinian World Government invade my house unimpeded! And should the information you provide prove useful, I’ll lift your probation and allow you back to campus full time, whether Liamria is in custody or not.”
Stark almost jumps at the deal but one thing gives her pause. “What will Tameri think?”
“I’ve kept you at arm’s length long enough at her request. We all must move on one wavelength for the upcoming battle. Tameri will fall in line when the time comes. I have faith she will, as should you. Do we have a deal?” He extends his hand.
Stark shakes it, though still with a few reservations on her mind.