It was clear who would take up the task of watching Shag: his three best first-year students, Angelica and Rachel and Natalie. It was fairly clear who should be assigned to MacMorris: Tom and Arnulf and Ahir. Cloudius and Rats were assigned to keep an eye on Temple. That left everyone and everything else to everyone else in Ash House. Meanwhile they were watched, continuously, in wonder or suspicion or intent or the simple desire to be looking the right direction when Ash House had its meteor crash on it, metaphorical or physical.
Across the quad and up one, MacMorris House provided an opposing fortress to Ash: one was Minas Tirith, one Minas Morgul, but presumably which was which depended on one’s point of view. Ash House was flanked by White House along Birch Street and Match House along the alley; these constituted quite different types of neutral territory.
White herself might be the Elvenking of Mirkwood, with a band of half-tamed elf princes that included most of the first year Maroons, but her House definitely represented a safe haven for the Ash students. Norbert Match, a classic Hider with a specialty in Light spells, was unfriendly to everyone except, as far as the other Ash kids could see, Tom Hexane. But Natalie was in his house and she seemed to get on okay; several of the other kids in the house were nice too, in particular a tall, willowy Chicago Jamaican named Tee Doubletary and a plump blond girl called Sam Ray.
The other eight houses, inhabited by second and third years, seemed all the more menacing now that they knew sort of who lived where: Shag House, Blaine House, Shapurova House, Sear House all had students who knew spells well beyond what any of the first years had, and who were Maroons or MacMorris adepts. And then there was Temple House.
Daphne and Spiny were out hacking at each other one breezy, dusty morning in late March, and next to them, Ahir was trading techniques with “Machete Girl” Rayah Marin, a darkish, athletic second year from the Caribbean who happened to live chez Temple.
“You gotta bear down on your opponent,” she was saying to Ahir. “You can’t rely on your stylish moves. They be trying to kill you.”
“Reee-ly,” said Ahir Shaheen. “En garde?”
“En garde,” said Rayah.
“A prize to the next winner?” Ahir offered.
“Loser has to tell a secret,” said Ahir, batting her eyes.
“Hot damn,” said Rayah, “you got secrets all right, and I want me some of that.” On the word “some,” Rayah launched her assault on Fortress Ahir: subtle, for her, and also muscular, a drive to Ahir’s waist, then a swing up and then low. But Ahir parried as if she were reading Rayah’s mind, which she was not. And when Rayah had used up her moves, Ahir went over to the attack. One, two, three, four, five, and then she was swinging her whistling saber at Rayah’s ankles, and then with a sharp elbow she put Rayah on the ground, and then, on seven, Rayah found herself supine with a metal point in her face.
“So,” said Ahir softly, “is Master Temple doing anything interesting these days?”
“He’s spending a lot of time in the cellar?” asked Arnulf, sarcasm lurking at the doorway to his voice. “I’ll tell you where he is, and they have Parmesan on the tables.”
“More than usual, Arnulf,” said Daphne. “Look, all I’m saying is, why don’t we do one of our cellar crawls? It was our thing last semester. We’re gonna get rusty.”
“Why send all of us?” asked Tom. “I’ll go.”
“Take a buddy,” said Arnulf. “No one does anything like this alone anymore.”
“Okay,” said Tom, looking around. Everyone he saw looked too obvious. Then his eyes found Jen Chang in the doorway, almost invisible in the lee of Pinhead and Ahir. “Jen.”
“Are you sure she’s okay?” asked Angelica. “Are you sure she’s okay with doing it?” asked Rachel.
“Oh,” said Jen Chang, “have I been waiting to even be asked.”
So Tom began to teach Jen Chang how to be a second floor kid: how to time the house ghost, how to get into the Ash House basement without making noise, where the best hiding spots in the school cellar were, which table to try for at Giordano’s. For the most part, of course, Temple’s movements were ordinary: he spent time in his cellar office, he took a few late night pizza dates by himself, he poked about the rare books. He held conversations in his office, usually with himself.
“He does that a lot,” Tom whispered.
“Can you make out a word he’s saying?” asked Jen Chang.
“Never,” Tom replied, “but he sure seems happy about it.”
Tom and Jen, joined twice by Beep Finger, ate a lot of pizza over the course of the middle week of March. They challenged themselves to try new ingredients.
“Anchovies were a definite maybe,” said Beep.
“I say a no,” replied Tom. “But pineapple remains a serious possibility.”
“Especially with anchovies,” said Jen. The other two both made ugly faces. “So,” said Jen, “am I nuts or does he know we’re here?”
“He knows we’re here,” said Tom.
“I think he knows we’re watching him,” said Beep.
“Yyyyeah,” said Tom, grudging the syllable.
“I don’t think it matters though,” said Jen. She smiled at Beep. “You’re in MacMorris House. What would Professor MacMorris do if he kept noticing us whenever he was sneaking around?”
“He’d totally go out of his way to lose us,” said Beep. “He’s so coooool, but he’s really very uptight.” They looked through the plant where Temple, very obviously not looking their way from across the brick-walled underground room, was relishing his pizza. “Not the feeling I get from this guy,” she said. “He’s not trying to be cool. He really is cool.” She looked at Tom. “What’s the story with him, anyway?”
“No idea,” said Tom. “Love to find out.”
“What do you mean you have no idea?” Jen said. “You’re his favorite student.”
“To pick on,” said Tom. But he thought about it and he knew she wasn’t entirely wrong. He felt like he had the secret key to Temple and didn’t know it. “I don’t know,” he said. “He’s not that old, you know. Did you know that? He’s actually pretty young, like fifty or so.”
“That’s young?” said Beep.
“He’s younger than Ash or White,” said Tom. “Ash told me he was just entering the Academy when she was in her last year. That makes him six years younger than her.”
“Seven,” said Beep. “Academy’s seven years.”
“Six,” said Jen. “Year Seven minus Year One is six years.”
“He’s getting up, he’s getting up,” said Tom. He grinned. “Act normal.”
“You’re doomed then,” said Beep, and they giggled. Jen shushed them, but Temple strode by a couple of tables away, paid the waitress, exchanged a pleasantry, took his box of leftover pizza and headed for the door to the tunnels. “Okay, so we can’t follow him too close,” she went on. “How long do we give him?”
“Long enough to lose us for sure,” moaned Tom.
“It’s why he does it,” said Jen. “Next time, you two come here. Leave me in the cellar.”