Even though they were done with classes and done with tests, no one went home just yet for Christmas. In the Lyceum world, there was still the Yule Festival.
“What happens at the Yule Festival?” asked Cloudius.
“Well,” said Angelica, who knew all about it from her sister, “there’s the banquet, then the Ball, and then the Yule Hunt. They put up this big maze on the football field and then everyone sort of wanders around in it, and we find stuff and win prizes. And we get to go first, the first years do.”
“What if we find all the prizes?” asked Tom.
“They restock them, silly.”
“You going with anyone?” asked Rachel.
“Yeah. Josh Hubble,” said Angelica. They laughed and gave each other shoves: they were sitting on Tom’s floor with Natalie. Angelica turned her head to look at Arnulf, who stood quiet in the door. “Hey Nulf, you going with anyone?”
He smiled, then turned to the hallway. He turned back to mouth See ya, raised his eyebrows, and went down the hall. Ahir smiled in at them and waved. “Hey guys,” she called, and then followed Arnulf down the stairs.
“Where are they goin’?” asked Rats. “Studying?”
“They go for walks,” said Cloudius. “Isn’t the Yule Ball where they give awards?”
“The banquet is,” said Daphne.
“You’re going to win one,” said Tom.
“No I’m not. No way. Not gonna happen.” She frowned and looked down.
“The first of the Yule Awards,” said the deceptively delicate Headmistress Lisane Charais, “is the Athletic Trophy.” She looked to her left and right along the high table: all the dozen plus masters were smiling. Charais herself, who taught only the third-year class on ethics, looked extremely happy. She said, “I am extremely happy to present the Athletic Trophy to the student athlete most responsible for the fact that next week Lake Winds will blow in the continental semifinal in football. Daphne Golden! Come up here, don’t make me throw it to you.”
Daphne did not look as if she hadn’t expected it. She looked as if she’d been dreading not winning. She was dressed as well as anyone had ever seen her, in a long blue dress of Angelica’s, which on her went as low as mid-thigh. She didn’t submit to high heels, of course, but had spent hours polishing her boots; in her hair was a jeweled comb Ahir had loaned her; around her neck was some sort of Amazon medallion that most of them had never noticed her wear before. Walking like an adult (an adult cheetah, that is), she approached Charais, bowed a little and took the award with a humble and quiet thank you.
Ahir Shaheen, though dressed even better than Daphne, did essentially the same act as she accepted the First Years’ Academic Prize: she was the only first year to manage a 4.00 grade point average with a six-course load. But with her out of the running, Angelica was still surprised when she tied with Jen Chang for Ash House academic prize.
“Daphne, you would have been there with us except for one stupid B instead of a B+,” said Angelica.
“I don’t care about that,” said Daphne. She put on a glum look, but then she looked at Angelica and her grin broke out. It didn’t go away all night. She turned to her other side, where Ahir Shaheen was also grinning, while Arnulf whispered sweetly in her ear. “Good job,” Daphne told her, “you deserved it, sister!”
“Some of those Second Years,” said Ahir. “One third year got straight As, but a couple of second years did. They have really hard stuff, too. Henrietta Longbeam. Wow.”
“And she had two interceptions and eight sacks on the season,” said Arnulf.
“What about that Anna Leith?” said Angelica. “She’s way too quiet.”
“What,” Daphne put it, “about Treymond Framer?”
“Is he that funny-looking second-year—?”
“No,” said Arnulf, “he’s that big halfback who plays for New Jersey Consolidated. The one who has twenty-two touchdowns and eighteen hundred yards in eight games. We play them in two weeks.”
“Yeah,” said Spiny, “they beat Boston Poly 42 to 31, and he had five of their six touchdowns and ran for two hundred yards plus.”
“Oh.” Angelica smiled and punched Arnulf in the arm. “I’m sure this big boy here will find a way to tackle him.”
The Yule Ball was not the high-pressure affair for the first-years that it would be for, say, the third-years, those towering, somber creatures dancing as though it mattered, eying each other’s dates and costumes across the room and maneuvering to back or undermine each other’s alliances. Daphne and Spiny danced with a couple of second year Amazons and a few other tall tough-looking girls; then each of them danced with a second-year boy, then they traded boys, and then they went out onto the moonlit field and practiced patterns. Tom and Cloud messed around, trying the Pencil before settling on the Hokey Pokey. Angelica, Rachel and Natalie cut up on the dance floor and enjoyed noticing boys watching them. Angelica especially enjoyed not caring whether any particular boy was really serious about her. Eventually they were all back at Ash House, winding down and then drifting off to sleep.
Arnulf and Ahir danced the night away. By the end of it, she had taught him to waltz and to tango, and he had given her total permission to do all the leading that needed to be done. Finally she led him back to the house. They went upstairs to her room, and he kissed her good night. After thirty seconds, a ghostly whistle blew nearby.
There stood the House Ghost. He waved a ghostly stop watch at them: the ghostly whistle swung on a rope around his neck.
“Okay, okay,” said Arnulf. “Honestly,” said Ahir Shaheen. She caressed Arn’s hair: he was washing it a lot more these days. “Good night, Arnulf, shah of my heart.” They kissed again quickly while the ghost heaved a sigh (despite his lack of lungs).
The next day was the Yule Hunt. The day was bitterly cold, but the athletic field, was now filled with hedges—and balmy, even misty, air. The field was already twice as long and twice as wide as it would appear to be from the street (from which it appeared to be a trash-strewn wasteland); it seemed today to have expanded to five or ten times as long and wide as it usually was.
“First years first,” called Mistress White, using her wand as a megaphone. “You will be given an hour. Don’t worry, you won’t be able to wreak too much destruction on each other, and the maze will automatically grow back. Now we have suppressed violent magic on the Maze grounds—but if you even attempt a damage-causing spell, you will be disqualified from the Hunt. There are three items out there as prizes, and each one is also a one time portal item which will transport the one who finds it to the winners’ stand. The items are: a Gem of Energy Storage, a Ring of Saving and a Thermos of Constant Cola.”
“Pepsi or Coke?” someone called out, and was rewarded with a glare that was chilling but hardly refreshing. That segued nicely into the Lining Up, which White and Ash managed with their usual ruthless efficiency. Then MacMorris fired a burst of purple light over them and they were off into the Maze, forty twelve- and thirteen-year-olds pushing and shoving and throwing sleep spells. Within a minute, eleven of them were snoring or puking or otherwise exhibiting the symptoms of magic attack which, while it would not permanently harm them, would put them out of action.
The beginning of the maze was a wide rectangle on the west side of the field, roughly the area of the soccer penalty box, with at least a dozen hedge paths running out from it, north, east and south. The two dozen plus still in the running split among the many ways, and there was a further attrition as the students on a particular path fought it out.
Tom and Daphne went around a corner and then around another, and when they stopped at an F intersection in the hedges, magic blasts began to land around them. Shawytha Green and Hyacinth Potts, who normally were on perfectly friendly terms with Daphne and Tom, came around the corner at a run, yelling and holding their wands straight forward; blasts were coming from them. Daphne dodged to the side and tried to think of a spell, while Tommy stood in his spot and aimed a blast back at Hyacinth. The girl went down in a blur of dark skin and orange dreadlocks.
Daphne swung around the corner, aimed her wand at Shawytha, cried out dramatically and fired off a blast—it was either that or throw trt asht, which could cause frostbite and was thus on the forbidden list for the Hunt. Shawytha dodged and fired back, and Daphne did exactly the same. As the two girls, one tall and muscular and black and the other tall and muscular and blond, fell into a mad blasting game, Daphne muttered, “Beat it, Tommy, make some time while I hold her.” Tom began to back away down the hall, still firing blasts at Shawytha, who fired a few at him. Daphne charged Shawytha, who was almost handcuffed by the closeness of her foe, dodging and retreating. As Tom stood watching, Daphne dashed around the corner. There was a bright flash that held in the air for a solid second, and a sharp clap as of nearby thunder. He turned and ran on.