Well, it’s here!!!! Or more specifically THERE.
And “it” is MAGIC UNIVERSITY, the erotic fantasy novel I have been talking about forever! The one I was writing every single night between midnight and 3 a.m. because that was the only time in my schedule I could find to write!
I worked so hard on this book. It’s the first of a four book series, so a lot of things had to be planned out, considered, and weighed, but like just about everything I’ve written, part of the magic was in how things I hadn’t realized were important took important turns in bringing it all together.
I had lots of support from my friends in HP fandom. It’s no secret that this book is, in many ways, my take on a Harry-Potter-ish scenario. J. K. Rowling didn’t invent the trope of the neglected orphan who suddenly discovers previously unknown magic either in himself, in his heritage, or in the world (thank you Cinderella, Frodo, et. al.), nor did she invent magic wands, spells, flying brooms, or even the concept of a magic school (precedents too many to name, but I’ll give a nod here to Wizard’s Hall by Jane Yolen) or learning magic as a metaphor for coming of age (tip of the hat to A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin, which was one of my favorite childhood books).
MAGIC UNIVERSITY is the book (series) I’ve been wanting to write to satisfy the cravings that the Harry Potter books brought up in this adult reader, but which couldn’t be satisfied in a “book for kids.” So I get have my openly gay characters, my sex magic, and my moral ambiguity. Magic does not come as easy in my universe, either; wands cannot be used like guns.
As the marketing copy goes: “Kyle Wadsworth arrives at Harvard eager to start his new life as a college student away from the cold and distant great-aunt who has raised him. But he walks into a building that only magical people can see, confusing both himself and the administrators of Veritas, the secret magical university hidden inside Harvard. There he first sees a beautiful girl who seems magical to him in every way.
Soon Jess is tutoring Kyle in the ways of magic, sex, and love. But trouble is afoot at Veritas. Rumors abound that a siren is haunting the library, and when Kyle’s best friend is attacked, Kyle is determined to use his newly learned skills in erotic magic to catch the culprit. But which is more important, his quest for justice or his search for true love?”
Without further ado, here’s the first chapter, for your reading enjoyment! And I sincerely hope that you do enjoy it!
Magic University: Book One
The Siren and the Sword
by Cecilia Tan
Kyle looked at the map in his hand, then at the red brick buildings in front of him, standing like sentinels all around a grassy courtyard crisscrossed with pedestrian paths. The map was artfully done in cheery colors, with helpful tips and descriptions in word bubbles, as if each building were a cartoon character describing itself to the visitor. But the buildings he was looking at didn’t match the map. For one thing, there were too many of them.
Maybe every building isn’t actually shown on the map? he wondered. Or maybe I’m in the wrong quadrangle? Or maybe this is all a test to see if you’re REALLY smart enough to be allowed in to Harvard.
He quashed that thought quickly. Kyle Wadsworth hadn’t exactly always led a privileged or easy life, but the scholarship he was slated to receive proved he was good enough for Harvard. Well, at least, they’d said he was slated. The interview was just a formality, they said. The scholarship was as good as his, and with it, a new life could begin. He shifted his tie nervously. Now if only he could arrive on time, he might be getting somewhere. He’d been looking forward to this weekend desperately. Once the interview was out of the way, he would have the whole weekend to explore the city and the campus and—and whatever. Kyle didn’t even know what exactly he wanted to do, only that his blood had sung when he’d realized it meant a chance to get away from the house, away from Great-Aunt Agatha, away from the life he couldn’t wait to leave behind.
He was already eighteen, a high school senior, and desperately ready to start his adult life. Or, at least, college student life.
But adults and students alike were supposed to be able to read maps.
Perhaps the map was just an artist’s rendition and not to scale. He checked the printed e-mail he had folded in his jacket pocket. Enter through the gate and then third building on your right, it said.
One, two, three. This building looked a little older than the one next to it, its archway made of solid stone and the double doors of heavy wood. But when he pulled on the brass handle, it swung inward easily.
Kyle found himself in a carpeted hallway, which was a good sign. Jove had told him once that at universities the administrative buildings had carpets, and classroom buildings didn’t, so he must be on the right track. At the very least, there was bound to be a secretary somewhere in here who could tell him if he was in the right place. The first door on the left was open, and he was about to step through it when a raised voice stopped him.
“Miss Torralva! You know perfectly well I do not believe these vile rumors, which are clearly nothing more than an attempt to undermine our authority and create hysteria.”
It was a man’s voice, speaking in clipped tones. He didn’t have an accent, but the way he spoke reminded Kyle of British actors on TV.
A woman answered him. “Come now, Quilian, there’s no need to be so harsh on the girl.”
“Mistress Finch, I would appreciate if you would stay out of these matters…”
“And I would appreciate if you would not shout at my students.”
Then a younger woman’s voice. “I’m sorry to have disturbed you, Dean Bell. Never mind, Ms. Finch. It was a waste of time to come here.”
“See that you don’t do it again,” the man said, and strode forcefully from the room, colliding with Kyle outside the door. Kyle found himself on his ass, looking up at a blond man in graduation robes, then scrambling out of the way as if the man were about to kick him.
Instead the man frowned and demanded, “Who are you?”
“Er, Kyle Wadsworth,” he said, climbing to his feet and straightening his jacket. “I’m here for an admission interview?”
The two women he had heard were now standing in the doorway, too, looking at him curiously. “Interview?” said the older of the two, who looked to be perhaps forty. She’s a librarian, Kyle thought, taking in a quick impression of her hair in a bun and glasses perched on her nose.
The librarian called behind her, “Helena, was there a prospective student scheduled to come in today?”
Kyle looked back and forth between the imposing, angry man and the younger woman in the door, who was presumably a student. She had wavy black hair, pinned back with barrettes, and eyes such a dark brown, they were almost black. No, maybe they were black, but her expression was warm. She was looking at him with a mix of sympathy and curiosity, stifling a smile.
“Um, hi,” Kyle said in her direction, then turned back to the man still staring at him. “I’m the Pollock Scholarship recipient?” he ventured, hoping this might ring a bell. “I’m sure the e-mail said my interview was today, two o’clock…”
“You’re in the wrong building,” the man said, and pointed at the wall in the direction of the next building over.
“But Dean Bell,” the girl piped up, “how could he even find…?”
“Silence.” Bell’s glare was as sharp as his voice. “Mr. Wadsworth, was it?” When Kyle nodded he went on slowly, as if Kyle might be too stupid to understand if he spoke any faster. “You. Do not. Belong. Here.”
“Um, okay, sorry, I was just following the directions, third building and all,” Kyle stammered. “I guess I wasn’t supposed to count the one on the corner? Or maybe I was supposed to…”
“Mr. Wadsworth.” It was the librarian again, and she and Dean Bell glared daggers at each other for a moment. “Before you move on, would you sign our visitor register? Our department doesn’t get very many, you see, and our funding for tea and cookies will be cut if we can’t prove a certain amount of interest. Right through here.” She stepped aside and indicated the open doorway.
“Oh, sure. Anything to help…?” He dared a smile at the girl, who was watching him with that same open curiosity and a hint of a smile. She was wearing brown corduroy jeans with a flower embroidered on the pocket and he wasn’t sure why he noticed little details like that, but he tucked it away in his head for later. Maybe he’d get a chance to run into her again.
Inside the office was a large, wooden reception desk which, like much of Harvard, looked like it was either from pre-1800 or like it was made to look that old. Behind the desk sat a pretty blond woman whose lipstick was rather bright. She set a large, leatherbound book on the desk, facing Kyle. The leather creaked as she opened it and she pointed to a cup of pens next to it.
They were all watching quite closely while Kyle took a step forward. Maybe this was the psychology department and this was all some kind of experiment on him? He reached into the pens and pulled one out, hissing sharply as he felt something prick his finger. Great. Now I’ve cut myself and I’ll be bleeding all through the interview. Way to make an impression. He decided he had best just sign his name and get out of there as soon as possible. Maybe he could hurry next door and stop the bleeding in the men’s room or something.
He touched the pen to the first empty line in the ledger and felt a curious shock go through his arm. This has got to be some kind of weird experiment! Or maybe a reality TV show. But he signed his name in flowing letters, hoping the reddish tinge to the ink didn’t mean he’d bled onto the page, or at least hoping they didn’t notice.
As he lifted the pen, he heard a bell tolling. Was he late? He whirled around to find they were all staring at him still. “Um, I…um…better be going…”
That bell just kept ringing though, so loud it was as if it were right in this building. What was going on? None of them moved until the bell ceased to ring, the women sighing in relief and Dean Bell crossing his arms over his chest.
“Well, thank you very much, Kyle Wadsworth,” the librarian said. “I’m Madeleine Finch.” She held out her hand to be shaken, and Kyle reluctantly set down the pen, but he didn’t seem to get any blood on her hand as he shook it. “Welcome to Veritas. It would appear there’s been a bit of a mix-up in your matriculation papers, though?”
Kyle stared at her. “Wait a second. That’s it? I’m in? I only just sent the application. I thought I wouldn’t hear until March…”
Dean Bell made a disgusted noise. “He’s your stray puppy to deal with now, Mistress Finch. If anyone needs me, I shall be in my office.” His tone of voice made it clear that anyone who needed him had best take a leap into the Charles River. He stalked out, robes fluttering behind him.
The receptionist immediately began digging in a file cabinet behind her, while the other two women kept looking at him with growing curiosity.
Kyle tried again. “Look, I’m supposed to have this interview today. I guess maybe I’m already pre-approved because I had to apply early in order to qualify for the scholarship, except I’m supposed to have this interview to, um, make sure I’m not an idiot in person, I guess, because Harvard doesn’t admit idiots, or at least, that’s the theory…uh…” He trailed off, realizing just how much like an idiot he sounded. The student hid her smile behind her hand.
“Mr. Wadsworth, may I ask you a personal question?” Mistress Finch folded her hands in front of her.
“Um, sure, please.”
“Are you, by any chance, an orphan?”
He blinked. “Yes, I am, actually.”
“But is Wadsworth your family name?”
How did she know these things? “Yes, yes, it is.”
She paused. “Helena, did you find anything?”
The receptionist sighed. “Nothing, Ms. Finch.”
Okay, and why do the women call her Ms. Finch, but the dean call her Mistress Finch? He knew university society was supposedly different from everywhere else, but he’d never heard of that. Which one should he use? “Um, find what?”
“A record of your birth,” Ms. Finch answered. “Well, you are a mystery but hardly the first one, Mr. Wadsworth. I’ll just spell it out for you and see if it makes sense to you. The building you’re standing in right now is not a part of Harvard. Well, it is, but it isn’t. There’s a secret university inside Harvard, known as Veritas.”
Kyle blinked. “But isn’t that what’s on the signs outside? Harvard’s motto…”
“The two institutions have an intertwined history,” she went on. “Harvard is for the elite scholars, the future leaders of the world. Veritas is for, well, those with more arcane talents.”
“Magical?” Kyle could still hear the bell ringing in his head. “You mean like wizards?”
The student snorted behind her hand. “We prefer the term ‘magic users.’ ‘Wizards’ is so patriarchal and un-PC.”
Kyle shook his head, but although everything was as weird as some dream, it still seemed to be real. “So, sorry to be skeptical, but…you’re saying I’m magical?”
“You wouldn’t have even been able to see this building if you weren’t at least a little Sighted,” Ms. Finch said, “and you certainly wouldn’t have been able to sign the matriculation register if you didn’t have the power in your blood.”
He checked his finger reflexively, but the bleeding had stopped and he couldn’t even see where the pen had pricked him. “Um, the Dean didn’t seem as convinced…”
“Yes, well, that was another test. He has the power of Voice. If you’d been a non-magical person, you’d have just turned and walked out as soon as he told you to.” Ms. Finch sighed. “We’re already two weeks into the semester, you haven’t registered for any classes, and we need to find you a place to live.”
Kyle looked back and forth between them. “You mean, start now? I, um, I’m supposed to, um…” Supposed to go back to a house where they didn’t want him, a school where he didn’t fit in, and count the days until he could leave. Maybe this was just the chance he had been waiting for. Hadn’t he felt like this weekend was going to be the first step into a new life? Maybe it was just a bigger step than he’d thought. His skepticism shredded in the face of what felt like a real chance to change his life in a drastic way. “I mean, I’d love to start now.”
“You had better. If you were completely unaware of the magical world until now, you have a lot of catching up to do. Helena, could you call up Admissions and see if you can get his file? It’s hardly the first time we’ve had a mix-up between our office and theirs. Mr. Wadsworth, please make an appointment to see me, let’s see, tomorrow at four o’clock. My office is on the second floor here in Peyntree Hall, and we can figure out your schedule then, after I check with the professors on what kind of openings we have.” She paused and tapped her finger against her lips while she thought.
“I can take him over to Camella House,” the student offered then. “We’ve got that foldout couch in our suite. And actually, come to think of it, Alex doesn’t have a roommate and he’s in a double…”
Ms. Finch debated for a moment. “Just for a few days, that sounds fine. He can draw cards later. Yes, Miss Torralva, I’d appreciate it if you could give Mr. Wadsworth here a bit of orientation.”
“No problem, Ms. Finch.” She stuck out her hand to shake Kyle’s as Ms. Finch left the room. “I’m Jess Torralva. I’m a sophomore. You hungry? We could grab some pizza out in the Square, or do you have a suitcase somewhere that we ought to move up to the dorm?”
“Oh, um, yeah, it’s at the bed and breakfast I stayed in last night.” He followed her out the heavy doors and back down the stone steps. “So…’magic users’ eat pizza?”
“Oh yeah. With newt’s eyes and toadstools, though,” she said, completely deadpan for a moment. Then she burst out laughing. “My God, the look on your face!”
He grinned. “Anchovy and mushroom okay? Yeah? Okay, I’ll buy.” This day was getting better and better. First he thought he was going to go to Harvard. Then he found out he was somehow magical. And now he was going to have lunch with a pretty girl who seemed really nice and down to earth and didn’t treat him like he was some kind of pond scum. Yes, a whole new world seemed to be opening up before his eyes.
They made their way back to the suite where Jess lived in Camella House, another red brick building not that different from the others all around Harvard, Kyle noticed, though perhaps a bit smaller than some. It was three stories tall, with about fifty students in residence. The suite was a central room on the third floor with two beat-up couches, a coffee table, and a large TV screen. There were doors to what Kyle took to be several bedrooms. Just down the hall was a very small kitchen. Students had decorated their doors in various ways; some had notepads or white boards for people to leave messages, and it all looked, well, completely normal.
He and Jess had bought two pizzas and brought them back to the suite to eat. As they walked in, a shaggy-headed student was just closing his door. “Ho, Jess, is that for sharing?”
“Yes, Alex, it is,” she said as she put the boxes down on the coffee table.
“Did you hear the bell ringing? Any clue what that’s about?” Alex said as he eagerly tossed himself into an armchair, whatever errand he had been on forgotten. Kyle quietly remembered the bell that tolled when he signed the ledger. “I’ve never heard it ring so many times in a row,” Alex added.
Jess didn’t say anything about the bell right away. “Alex, this is Kyle. As of today, I guess, he’s a freshman.” She sat down on the couch and opened the box on top. Steam rose from the pizza and Kyle’s stomach growled as he sat down next to her.
“Yeah, hi, Kyle Wadsworth,” he said, holding out his hand for Alex to shake, and they both reached for a slice. “Um…”
Jess grinned. “He thought he was going to Harvard.”
Alex’s eyes went up at that. “A foundling? When did they figure out you belonged here?”
Kyle stopped with the slice partway to his mouth. “Um, just today. I walked into the Veritas admissions office by mistake.”
Alex looked back at Jess. “The bell was ringing for him?”
Jess just nodded, nibbling carefully at the tip of her slice of pizza.
“The bell rang like…fourteen times.”
“Is that bad?” Kyle asked, unable to contain his anxiety any longer. “I signed my name in this book and…”
Alex waved him off. “No, it’s not bad. Just…unusual. When it rings, it means you’ve been accepted. It only rang twice for me. Although for Jess here, I think it rang six or seven?”
Jess shrugged, as if it was of no consequence.
Kyle forced himself to take a bite before getting sucked deeper into the conversation. “What’s a foundling?”
Alex drew a long string of cheese from his slice with his mouth as two more students came in and Jess waved them over. When he’d snapped it off and devoured it, he went on. “Foundlings are usually magical children who get raised by non-magical families, oftentimes ones who have no clue about the kid. It’s pretty common, actually. History’s full of them. It’s a problem, because fertility among magic users isn’t great to begin with…” He shrugged. “I guessed foundling and not prodigy because of your name. There were some magical Wadsworths a couple generations back.”
Kyle had managed to wolf down the rest of the piece while Alex was talking. “Prodigy?”
Alex investigated the second box and grunted with approval at finding the black olives. “Prodigy. Like Lindy here.”
A girl with chestnut brown hair, suddenly sitting cross-legged at the end of the table and had a bite of pizza in her mouth so she couldn’t answer, waved with her free hand.
“Lindy’s from a non-magical family, and far as anyone knows she’s the natural daughter of her mother and father, but she’s got the Sight, among other talents.” Alex turned to Jess. “Did you get anything to drink?”
“There’s soda in the fridge,” Jess said, nudging him in the direction of the small refrigerator in one corner of the room. “Anyway, Kyle, it doesn’t matter how you got your magic. Just what you do with it.”
Kyle got the feeling Jess was arguing a point she’d had to make many times before, and he wondered if she was a prodigy, too, and if there was some kind of stigma attached to that.
Lindy wiped her hands on her jeans. “Nice to meet you, I’m Lindy Carmichael. And this is Jeanie,” she said, indicating the Asian-looking girl standing behind her. “And that’s Randall, going into his room there.”
A heavyset student in a polo shirt waved over his shoulder as he went into his room and put his books down. When he emerged, Kyle was surprised to see he was black, but with his hair bleached completely blond. “Hello. Randall.” His hand was large and warm as he shook Kyle’s. “And no, it’s not my natural color. You can blame Alex for this.”
Alex chuckled. “Yeah, horrible spellcasting accident.”
“Really?” Kyle’s eyes widened.
Randall snorted and took a seat, and a slice of pizza. “No. But let us just say that hydrogen peroxide and ethanol do not mix.”
“That’s Randall’s way of saying don’t get drunk if you have a bottle of hair bleach,” Alex said with a sly shrug. “It seemed like a good idea at the time…”
“You could dye it back, you know,” Jess pointed out.
Randall answered with a shrug of his own. “Why pretend it didn’t happen? It will grow out, anyway. We’re here to learn, right? Let’s call it a learning experience and move on.”
Kyle couldn’t quite place Randall’s accent. Something Caribbean, he guessed, but he wasn’t sure. It wasn’t like Rastafarian, and he didn’t really have much experience with people from that part of the world.
They ate for a while after that, the various suitemates catching up with each other, but eventually the topic came back around to Kyle and the bell.
“So, wait,” Lindy said. “You had no idea at all? Just walked in?”
“And got trampled by Dean Bell,” Jess added. “Fortunately Madeleine was there to rescue him.”
“Mwahaha,” Alex laughed maniacally. “And a good thing, too, or Master Bell might have made a snack out of you.”
Kyle laughed too, but blinking in confusion, still not sure where the jokes ended and real things started.
“Pffft. Dean Bell’s bark is worse than his bite,” Jeanie said, prompting more laughs from the others.
“So what house is he going to be in?” Randall asked.
“Ours, obviously,” Alex said, now drinking from an open can of cola, his bare feet up on his chair.
“Well, temporarily,” Jess said. “I told Madeleine he could crash here until she figures out where he’s going. She said he would have to pull cards later.”
“Cards?” Kyle said, feeling like most of what he’d said in the past hour had been one-word questions.
“Cards! There’s an idea.” Alex climbed out of his chair, going directly over the arm toward the door to his room, and then coming back with a pack of cards. “Has anyone ever done a Tarot reading for you?”
“An old lady read my palm once, on the boardwalk in Santa Cruz…”
Alex waved him quiet. “No, no. I mean with Tarot cards.”
Jess moved the pizza boxes aside and Alex spread his deck out on the low table, face up. Kyle peered at the pictures, which were more colorful and varied than typical playing cards, and yet still resembled them somewhat. Alex gathered them back up and shuffled the deck.
The others all watched, a sense of anticipation filling the room. “This isn’t going to hurt or anything, is it?” Kyle asked.
“The truth always hurts,” Jeanie quipped, and they all laughed, but it wasn’t a cruel laugh.
Alex held out the deck. “Cut the cards, then pull one out.”
“Okay.” Kyle took the pack, cut it in the middle and set it down on the table, pulling the top card and looking at it. “Am I supposed to show it to you?”
Alex grinned. “Yes, you’re supposed to show it to me. What do you think this is, a magic trick? Oh, duh.” More laughter. “Go on.”
Kyle slapped it down on the table like a blackjack dealer and Jess and Lindy gasped.
“The Ace of Swords,” Alex said solemnly. Kyle waited for him to break into a grin, but his face remained serious.
Kyle finally turned to Jess. “What’s that mean?”
Lindy made a scornful noise. “It doesn’t mean anything. Alex isn’t a soothsayer and probably neither are you. But the swords are the suit of Gladius House. Here in Camella, we’re the cups. The Ace does usually refer to someone on the start of a journey…”
Jeanie snorted. “No wonder you only got a B on that exam. The Ace of Swords, without any other context, usually means The Hero. Think Prince Charming with his sword drawn, going off to slay a dragon.”
Randall made a skeptical noise. “It can also signify the beginning of a great intellectual journey, though. The blade is Occam’s Razor, and the light you see shining in the card is the light of reason.”
Alex rubbed his hands together gleefully. “Draw two more cards, Kyle. Let’s have one that’s past and one that’s future.”
Kyle nodded, but hesitated with his hand over the deck. “Should I cut again? Or shuffle again?”
“You should do whatever you feel is right,” Jess said seriously.
Her dark, dark eyes seemed to be telling him everything would be all right if he just went with the flow. Kyle let out a breath. “Okay.”
He turned up two more cards. An appreciative murmur went around the table. “Your past, three of pentacles. Your future, three of cups.”
“Cups, that’s you guys, right?” The card showed three young women, dancing and drinking, looking very happy and festive.
Alex grinned. “Could be. The three of cups tends to mean good luck. Everything’s going to work out. There’ll be abundance and plenty.”
“Three is the magic number?” Kyle tried.
Alex nodded. “You catch on quick. The three of coins here means hard work. You worked hard to get here.”
Randall pointed to the cards. “It’s usually meant as a pinnacle of craft, though. Given that you don’t know anything at all about magic, yes, I guess Alex is right. You worked hard to get to Harvard, I guess.”
Alex tapped the deck of cards. “And now for a prediction on what will happen to you…tonight.” Kyle could practically hear a drum roll in the background. Alex tapped the deck again. “Go on, pull one more, Kyle.”
Kyle put his hand on the top card, then turned it over slowly. The card showed two people, naked, in a close embrace. A very close embrace.
“The Lovers,” Alex said, solemn again, then gave a sly look to Jess. “Perhaps you won’t be sleeping on the couch after all…?”
Jess was blushing a deep red, but wasn’t making any protestations. Kyle’s eyes were probably as big as saucers. “Um, I, Jess…”
Jeanie got to her feet and made a disgusted sound. “Really, Alex, sleight of hand? Why don’t you show him the other card you have up your sleeve?”
Kyle looked back and forth between them. “That was a trick?”
Jeanie wrinkled her nose. “He’s also got the Three of Swords. Go on, show him.”
Alex sheepishly pulled the card from his sleeve, handing it to Kyle. It showed a red heart, pierced through by three swords. “It means heartbreak, obviously,” Alex said.
Jess got to her feet. “Come on, Kyle. Let me show you the library and some of the other campus buildings. We’ll leave the card tricks to the jokers.”
Kyle followed her, wondering what exactly had just happened.
Jess was the perfect hostess for the next few hours: polite, friendly, but a little distant as she took him around the campus, showing him some facilities shared between the magical students and the normal ones, like the bookstore and the swimming pool; and the ones for magical students only, like Mormallor Hall, where the Alchemy labs were, and the Sassamon Ritual Arts building, which housed many magical artifacts, museum-style, and had a large underground chamber that reminded Kyle of a cathedral, except it was perfectly round and the colorful stained glass ‘windows’ were illuminated from behind by some light source that was not the sun.
As they made the rounds, Kyle learned a little more about Jess herself. She was a sophomore, and she hadn’t declared her major yet, but she was thinking about Healing Arts, even though most people thought Esoteric Arts was more her style. He gathered that there were various departments, just like in a normal university, including Alchemy, Soothsaying, and Ritual Arts.
She also filled him in on the need for secrecy, and the history of Veritas, which went “underground” in 1692 because of the Salem Witch Trials. Technically, to the “real world,” they were Harvard students, and if Kyle went on to a normal life as something like a banker or whatever, he’d be considered a Harvard alumnus. “But who would become a banker or something boring if they could do something magical?” Kyle had asked, which had made her laugh and admit that not many did.
They were having a look through the Elwyn Library collection of magical texts when Kyle lost her for a few moments. The labyrinthine shelves were packed with fascinating books with names like Battle of Wills: When the Geas Becomes a Curse and Man is a Flightless Bird: Keys to Levitation. At one point he turned to whisper to her, and found she was not behind him as he’d thought.
He had the feeling someone was watching him, though. Was she playing hide and seek? He went further down the row, where the lights were not on. Each shelf had a timer switch at the end so that an absent-minded scholar could not leave the lights on in a given section of the stacks, nor could one pore over the books too long before being reminded to keep moving. Kyle did not bother to go back to the end of the shelf to turn the switch, instead pressing deeper into the shadows. “Jess?” he whispered again.
“—es,” he thought he heard an answering whisper. Yes? Did she say yes?
He felt a hand brush over the back of his bare neck and goose bumps rose. He froze, then felt a soft finger trace the shape of his ear. “Jess?” he said a little louder.
The lights came on suddenly and there she was at the end of the row, her hands on her hips. “There you are. Didn’t I tell you how these lights worked?”
“Oh, um, yeah.” Kyle looked around him but there was no sign of whoever had been teasing him. It had to be her, but she had gotten to the end really quickly. He thought about how deeply she had blushed when Alex had slipped The Lovers onto the pile. He hurried to meet her. “Sorry about that. Um, hey, so…your friends are great and everything, but…but what do you say to having dinner together? I mean, just you and me.”
Jess’s black eyes seemed to deepen under the fluorescent lights as she looked up at him. “Are you sure?”
Kyle blinked. “Why wouldn’t I be? Jess, you’re a…a great girl. I really like you. It…it doesn’t have to mean more than just dinner if you don’t want it to.”
She motioned him to follow her and as they were going down the stone stairs of the library, she answered. “I’d like that.”
“For it to be just dinner?”
“For us to have dinner together. Without any expectations, I mean. It might be just dinner…it might not.” Her face was angled toward the sunset, hidden by the buildings, the sky between the dark shapes of the trees in the courtyard turning purple.
“That’s what I mean,” Kyle said. “You know, a date, but the find-out-whether-there-will-be-a-second-date kind of date, rather than the already-committed-to-giving-a-relationship-a-try kind of date.”
That made her laugh. “Okay. I can go along with that.”
“Good. Just, um, not too expensive a place. I’m kind of on a budget…” He grinned at her sheepishly.
“All right.” She linked her arm with his. “I really don’t care where we go. In fact, let’s go somewhere we don’t have to put on nicer clothes. You like Mexican?”
“Mexican is good. Or what about Spanish? I walked past a Spanish place on the way to campus this morning?”
She made a face, then looked at him curiously. “I’m really picky about Spanish food,” she said.
“Oh, is that place no good?”
She stopped walking and faced him. “You really don’t know anything about the magical world, do you?”
He shook his head, wondering what Earth-shattering thing she was about to tell him. “Is it a faux pas to eat Spanish food because of…of the Inquisition or something?”
She burst out laughing. “No, no.” Her face was alight with mirth and he wondered what else he could say to make her laugh like that. Only, intentionally. “You don’t know much about the Inquisition, either, I’m guessing.”
“Um, beyond that it happened and that Monty Python made fun of it, not really,” he admitted. “I’m supposed to be taking European history this year—except it looks like I’m not going to, since I’ll be here.”
She smiled. “You’re cute. Okay, sure. Let’s have Spanish food. I’ll order. Come on.”
She took him by the hand, which for some reason made Kyle’s heart do happy flips in his chest, and led him toward the nearest gate into Harvard Square.
Jess apparently did know a lot about Spanish food. Not only that, but she spoke Spanish, which led to Kyle wondering if Torralva was a Spanish name, which led to Jess finally telling him it was a very old magical family name.
“He was basically one of the most famous enchanters in Spain in the early 1500s,” she said. “He was the healer to Charles V, and reputed among his enemies to be a necromancer, while his supporters thought he talked to angels. The Inquisitors tried him for sorcery, imprisoned and tortured him for three years, and eventually they let him go to Rome…” She shrugged. “There are as many myths about him as there are truths. Let’s just say that it would be a bit like you saying you were descended directly from Merlin.”
Kyle was pushing his spoon through a kind of runny vanilla custard by then, trying to decide if it would be rude to lick the dish. “Are there descendants of Merlin?”
Jess shrugged. “If there are, they aren’t saying so, anyway. England’s had a really fucked-up history in terms of magical suppression, too, and they had some kind of internal civil war in the 1990s that came and went so fast that the other countries never even got to pick sides, from what I understand. But…yeah. People get all in a twist about my ancestry. It’s a pain.”
“Huh. I’m supposedly related to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, but…well, now, come to think of it, Dean Bell did kind of raise an eyebrow at my name.” He gave in and picked up the little glass dish and licked at the cream.
She nodded, seemingly unperturbed by his behavior. “Seems like many of the great American magical figures have been poets, too. Well, I suppose not just American. English language. Shakespeare, Blake…”
“Blake! William Blake?”
She grinned. “Yes, and William Shakespeare.”
“Blake, who claimed to have breakfast with an angel every morning?”
“Yes, that Blake.”
“Wait, so are angels real? You said your ancestor talked to them, too…”
She held up her hands. “Slow down, slow down. The first thing you’re going to find when you explore the magical world is that a lot of what you know is true. The second thing you’ll find, though, is that nothing is as you’ve been taught. Come on, let’s walk while we talk.”
She left money on the table, and as Kyle was digging out his wallet, she waved at him to put it away, as if annoyed he’d even try to pay any of it. Kyle wondered if that meant it wasn’t as much of a date as he’d hoped after all, but he was still too fascinated by her and all she had to say to argue about it.
They walked back toward the subway station, where street musicians were playing. Across the way, in front of a bookstore, a man was juggling while riding a unicycle. “So the first thing you have to get used to, if you have pre-conceptions of magic, is that there’s no such thing as good or evil,” she said, as they walked along. The air was still warm and plenty of people were walking the streets at this hour. “There isn’t ‘black magic’ and ‘white magic’ and although there’s almost certainly a God, if there are angels or devils they don’t actually have anything to do with what we do.”
“But wouldn’t it be evil to use magic to kill?” he asked.
She shook her head. “You can get into what the definition of evil is. Is killing evil? Are animals that hunt for their food evil? Are we, for eating meat?”
He thought about it for a moment. “But animals need to eat. It’s different when one man kills another.”
“Is it? What if they are at war, or it’s self defense? What if one of them is suffering and the other one is releasing him from suffering?”
“Well, okay, but what if the only reason the one killed the other was…for power? Not to survive or defend his family or whatever, but just because it would further his ends?”
Jess turned to look at him as they walked. “Then is it the killing itself that’s evil, or the motivation behind it? Desire for power could drive a man to do many things other than kill. Rape, pillage, embezzle, lie…is there something special about death?”
“Hm, I guess not.” It had seemed so obvious a minute ago. “I guess that’s why they say ‘power corrupts’?”
“And ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely,'” she quoted. “But when it comes to magic,” and she said the word magic a little quieter than the others, “it is a power. So is physical strength, or intelligence. But fire, for example, is not good or evil. It has the power to destroy, to burn down a forest or a building, but we couldn’t live without light or heat, could we? And we harness the power of fire to run machines, light our cities, build things, et cetera. Fire itself, though, is just a power—and magic is like that. A force of nature that can’t really be judged by human morality.”
He nodded. “So…what can I do with…with magic?” He followed her lead, saying the word most quietly at the end of his sentence.
“That remains to be seen, doesn’t it? Just like you can have two equally intelligent people but one will be good at math and the other at language, we’ll have to find out where your talents lie.” She led him up past another group of street musicians. “Have you ever had prophetic dreams, or the sudden feeling like you knew what was about to happen?”
He thought about it. “Not really.”
“If you can’t think of an incident right away, you probably aren’t prophetic,” she said. “Usually, if you’ve had one of those dreams… you don’t forget it. It stays with you, almost like it haunts you until it comes true.”
Kyle walked a little faster so he could see her face as they made their way up the sidewalk. “Do you have that kind of dream?”
“I only did once,” she said, pausing in front of the window of a natural foods store, then walking a bit more slowly down a side street. “I was thirteen. I dreamed I was at a masked ball, everyone was dressed for what must have been Carnavale in Venice. There was music and wine and dancing…then this man, dressed like some kind of prince or courtier in a black-and-white mask, took my hand and kissed it, and gestured to the dance floor…” She stopped again, this time looking into the window of an art gallery, except she wasn’t seeing the glass sculptures or jewelry displayed there, Kyle thought. She was seeing the images of her dream.
She looked up at him suddenly and shook herself. “Um, yeah, so I dreamed I found my true love at Carnavale in Venice, and the next morning I woke up to find I had gotten my period for the first time.” She was blushing.
“And have you ever been to Carnavale in Venice?” Kyle asked.
She shook her head. “I figure I’ll go when I finish school. That doesn’t mean the dream will come true, of course. It could mean a lot of things that I won’t realize make sense until after they happen. I haven’t had another one like that, so I don’t think I’m prophetic, anyway. But we were talking about you.” She started walking more quickly, and Kyle was amazed to find the street they were now walking down seemed to lead right back to the campus. He wondered if that was magic, or if his sense of direction was just wrong. “Do you have a green thumb?” she went on. “Or can you tell when someone’s sick or hurt?”
He shook his head.
“Hmm. Well, Madeleine—that is, Ms. Finch to you, unless you end up in Camella House for real—will probably have some tests to help you determine your aptitudes, maybe to help you pick out classes. Although I’m betting she’s going to put you right into History of Magic and some stuff like that.”
Kyle made a face. “Sounds a bit dull.”
“And probably a class in poetry.”
“After all, you’re descended from Longfellow, right?”
“Huh. My cousin used to say I had a way with words.”
“Maybe you’ll be the next great English-language poet and word mage.” Now she looked up shyly. “They say no one’s ever perfected a love potion that really works, after ten centuries of trying, but that a love poem can be irresistible.”
Here her eyes looked like deep pools, like he’d never find what was at the bottom of their depths. He was hardly aware of having stopped walking, one hand catching hers as she faced him. “Let’s go back to your room,” he said.
Her smile was as knowing and alluring as the Mona Lisa’s. “You’re right. You know just what to say.”
They didn’t say anything as she led the way back to the dormitory, not holding Kyle’s hand this time, yet he felt as close as if she had, as if an invisible line were connecting them.
Jess didn’t speak again until she had closed the door behind them. Her room had two beds, from which Kyle supposed she had a roommate, but she latched the door behind them. He decided not to worry about it. There were other things grabbing his attention. Like her hand on his cheek. “Despite my name, I’m not very experienced,” she said, standing so close he could feel the front of her shirt brushing his.
“Name?” he asked, trying to remember where in the Torralva story there was anything about sex. Maybe he’d better study up.
“Never mind,” she said. “I really like you, Kyle. I do. I just don’t want you to be disappointed.”
He slid his arms around the small of her back, which pulled their hips together to create a center of heat between them. “Whatever you want to do is fine. I’m not very experienced either.” He held back from telling her that he’d in fact been considered a total loser in high school and that scoring a gorgeous, smart, funny, and kind girl like her would have been out of the question. There was being honest, and there was oversharing. “I mean, really.” You just met me. I, um, I wasn’t even sure we were going to go beyond the good night kiss, it being a first date and all…
He didn’t voice those thoughts either. Did he really have the power to say the right thing? He let out a slow breath and tried to imagine he did.
“Just tell me when I should stop,” he said, tilting her chin up so that he could kiss her.
“Okay,” she whispered, just before his lips touched hers.
[End of excerpt! If you want to read the rest, you’ll have to go to my publisher, Ravenous Romance, for it! The ebook is available for sale right now in PDF format and a few others. It’ll take a few weeks to go live on the other sites around the internet like Amazon Kindle, Fictionwise, and AllRomanceEbooks.]