On Thursday night, Angelica came out of the library and headed down the walk through the garden behind the building, a pretty short cut to Ash House. The shortened hair on the back of her skull stiffened. She stopped and closed her eyes, clutching her books against her chest with one hand. She whipped 90 degrees left. Bob Flammifer, Jen Greenbelt’s boyfriend, was just standing up to whack her with magic combat.
“Hey, you look stupid,” he was starting to say, when he was cut off as if by a blow to the jaw with an iron bar. Yes, she was good at magic combat. He went down in a heap.
Truman Goth was on the other side. Angelica took a blow from him, then turned her force against him, but they were stalemated. “I should have known,” she managed to say, “you guys wouldn’t fight even up.”
“I missed the library,” said Truman. “Bob said it was a good time.”
She tried to whack at him and landed a half-blow, but his counterblow got through and Angelica went down beside Bob, trying not to get sick the way he was getting. She concentrated on that one goal, which kept her from thinking about why Truman wasn’t kicking her in the teeth right now, magically or otherwise.
“Ag,” came a loud whisper. It was Arnulf’s voice. It was also the closest Angelica would ever come to wanting to kiss him. Truman would not have felt the same: he was yawning and growling at the same time as he tried to hurl his magic combat at the interloper. Interlopers: it was Cloudius’s magic combat that crackled through the garden air. Truman took one more gasp of that air and then fell backwards into the mint patch and commenced to snore.
“Thanks,” Angelica croaked out as Arn and Cloud knelt by her. “Ash is coming, take a powder.”
“Huh?” said Cloudius.
“S’go,” said Arnulf, grabbing his friend and dragging him off into the deep twilight. Mistress Ash, Mistress White and their two House Ghosts came upon the scene and found only the original combatants, who, peculiarly, all seemed to have been on the losing end.
Of course they were all grounded. They got to meet the Headmistress, Lisane Charais, a frosty little magical ethicist with a mystical streak, who did not alter her cold little frown as the situation was explained to her. All she said to them as she looked at them, in much the way a gardener looks at a tomato hornworm, was, “You are on high probation. One more event and you are expelled.”
“What does it mean?” asked Truman of Mistress White, outside the Headmistress’s office.
“It means, Mr Goth, that for the next two months, you will leave the house only to go to class at the times for which you are scheduled, and to the library with me as chaperone.”
“No football?” asked Angelica in a tiny voice.
“You have to let her play football,” said Truman very quietly. “It’s a home game this week.”
“We shall see,” said Mistress Ash.
But half an hour later, Angelica was asked into Ash’s drawing room by the house ghost. She got there and found Ash and White having a nice tea. A third cup and a lovely Danish were laid out for a guest.
“Come in, have some tea,” said Ash. “We need to have a little chat.”
“Am I going to get to play this weekend?”
Ash and White laughed to each other. Ash said, “Angelica, dear, please do not spread this around, but you are not, in fact, on probation. The Headmistress knows as we do of details of the situation that make it necessary to make it appear that you are on probation with the other two. So do not go acting as if you are not on probation. But you are not on probation.”
“I, I’m not on probation?”
“That is the gist of it, yes.”
“Miss Aliyev,” said White, “may I ask if you have ever heard of the Maroons?”
An hour and a half later, the five, plus Ahir, Rats and Pinhead, were all sitting around in Tom’s room. Eva was gazing in at the throng. “The Maroons?” Daphne repeated. “Is that her pronunciation of ‘morons’?”
“She says they’re sort of a magic social club. She said they’re like a big fraternity. But not exactly like Animal House. Like the successful fraternities in Animal House.”
“Did she actually reference Animal House?” asked Arnulf.
“Not as such, no. She said they were like the Rotarians or the Lions. But you have to get asked to join. Some first get asked to join in Lyceum, some get asked at Academy, but if you’re not Maroon by the time to arrive at University, you’re never going to be.”
“So it’s like an elite thing,” said Cloudius.
“Every country has something like that,” said Ahir.
“But some of them are into other stuff,” said Angelica. “Ash and White mentioned the C Group. C is for Controller,” she added in a whisper.
“What do controllers want to control?” asked Tommy, as if it were a silly idea.
“Non-mages,” said Ahir. “Yeah, norms,” said Arnulf. “That’s not actually very nice to call them that,” said Ahir. “It’s not what I call them,” said Arnulf. “It’s what those guys call them.”
“So what about you?” asked Daphne. “Why the talk? Just to tell you who was trying to kill you?”
“Well, apparently,” said Angelica with a smug smile, “they think I’m important.”
“Important?! I mean, not that I’d disagree, of course, you’re very reliable on third and long, but—what does that mean?”
“I don’t know.” She looked up at Daphne, then Arnulf and Ahir. “You guys seem awfully important, not me. I don’t get it. But they kept saying, ‘Do not get caught out alone, especially at night. Remember how important you are! Because we know you would never be a Maroon.’ ”
“I notice,” said Arnulf, “they said alone.”
“They did, yeah.”
“Then alone is what you won’t be,” said Ahir Shaheen.
“I’d have been proud to be there and trade blasts with those guys,” said Pinhead. “I’m so with you guys on this one.”
“Thanks, Pindar,” said Angelica. “That means a lot to me. They’d want you as a Maroon.”
“So would my dad. But not my mom, she told me so,” he added in a low voice.
Angelica looked at Daphne. “So,” she said, standing up, “and I thought this magic school stuff would all be about learning how to fly.”
Before she could leave, Arnulf, then Ahir, then Daphne and Cloudius and Tom and Rats assured her that, like Pinhead, they would stand with her. She suspected most of them would like nothing better than to get in a magical tussle. Still, it was comforting. Several of them were already pretty tough tusslers, as she knew from tussling with them in Defense class.
Half an hour later, Angelica was in her room trying to clear her mind enough to study a little. A small knock came at the door. It was Jen Chang, from upstairs. She was so quiet that Angelica wouldn’t have known if someone else was dubbing her voice. She said a little spell: it sounded like ssshhhh. Then she sat down facing Angelica.
“I wish I’d been there,” she said. “I would have blown them into the ionosphere.”
“Next time, babe,” said Angelica, now much reassured. She had faced Jen Chang in Defense class many times.