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Millie Goes To School.

Chapter Text

The Goddess shut the chest and sat on it.”School!” she said, smiling blissfully. “Rice pudding, prefects, dormitories, midnight feasts, playing the game -”

 

 

“I think it’s perfect,” said Millie.
Gabriel, Christopher and Millie were sitting on hard, shiny chairs in the Headmistress's study, awkwardly balancing cups of weak tea on their knees. Miss Keith gave Millie a perfunctory smile, addressing her remarks to Gabriel.
“I hope Karen showed you everything you wanted to see, Mr - Sir Gabriel?”
It was true that the Head Girl hadn’t had an aura of wisdom beyond her years - in fact she’d seemed rather absent and distracted - and Miss Keith was very much on the far side of youthful - but everything else was just as Millie had expected. The rows of neatly made beds in the ‘dorms’; the wooden desks with their own inkwells, lids scratched with the names of former pupils; the hockey pitch and netball courts - scenes of earnest practice. But even more than all of those things were the girls. Dressed in navy uniform, spreading out across the lawns at break-time, walking and talking in pairs and small groups, arms linked, heads together, whispered secrets, shared jokes, some of the younger ones running, tossing balls, calling and laughing as they played ….
To Millie, who had spent most of her life with only the Temple cats and priestesses for company, Kingscote seemed like heaven on earth - or heaven in World 12B, to be strictly accurate. Even Christopher, who had been rather silent at the sight of so many girls all in one place was looking wistful, remembering how much he’d enjoyed his two terms at school before he’d been abruptly whisked away.
“You get to play cricket here!” he said to Millie, in an undertone heavily tinged with envy.
Miss Keith looked as if she thought boys should be seen and not heard, even boys as tall and haughty looking as Christopher. He seemed to be ignoring Miss Keith entirely, managing to look both vague and superior, except when talking to Millie. Again, Miss Keith addressed her remarks to Gabriel. “Yes, we have an inter-form Cricket competition over the summer term. It’s an opportunity for the girls to train and play together as a team, regardless of ability. We’re very strong as a school on collaboration and working together.”
“Marvellous,” said Gabriel. “If Millie takes to cricket, she can play for the castle team next year.”
Miss Keith’s eyes flickered at the mention of the castle. “Though as I understand it, Millie’s education has been rather - interrupted. She will need to make good what she’s missed over the last few years. Her schoolwork will necessarily have to take priority over sporting activities. She will be placed in the Middle Remove class at first…”
“Perhaps it would be better to start after the summer holidays,” Gabriel said to Millie. “When the school year starts.”
“Oh no! I want to start straight away!” said Millie.
“This weekend is exeat. I suggest you bring Millie early on Sunday so that she can settle in before the other girls arrive back. If I show you to the Secretary’s office she will give you the list of everything Millie needs to bring with her, and she can discuss all the arrangements with you.”
‘Arrangements’ mostly seemed to mean school fees, when and how they had to be paid. Gabriel nodded placidly as Miss Carter went through the details. Millie had a chest full of uncut diamonds to pay for her schooling, and a term at Kingscote would barely make a dent in them.
At length, everything was arranged, and they all shook hands, happily agreeing that they would see Millie on Sunday when she arrived on the early train.
Finally, the three of them were outside, and the imposing front door had closed on them. The bell for the end of recess had gone while they were in the office and the grounds were now empty of life; the sloping lawns still and silent in the sunshine, save for the gardener’s cat padding across on some mission of his own. The school buildings were hung with a silence so heavy one could almost feel it, broken only by the occasional murmur of a teacher’s voice through an open window.
“Are you really quite sure?” asked Gabriel.
“Oh yes!” sighed Millie. “I can’t wait! It’s going to be absolutely super!”
Christopher kicked at the gravel discontentedly. Not only was Millie going to school, and getting to play cricket, and leaving him on his own in the castle again without anyone his own age to talk to, but she’d gone all silly and gushy about it. He was half inclined to stop her being able to go. But as if she’d read his mind she wheeled on him, saying,”Are you sure you don’t mind me using your spare life, Christopher? It’s awfully good of you!” and he had to shrug and mutter nonchalantly that of course he didn’t mind. Millie had used one of his lives to escape the Temple of Asheth, and once Gabriel had fetched it back to their own World he had agreed that Millie might as well use it again to get to the neighbouring world - from where all the best school stories had come.
They strolled down the drive, ostensibly heading back to the train station. Gabriel frowned, and said, thinking aloud, “She wasn’t impressed by the mention of the castle, was she? She’s not a snob at least, whatever else she may be.” A few steps further on, and he caught Millie’s eye and said abruptly, “You know there’s no magic at all in this world?”
“Yes,” answered Millie promptly. “I mustn’t use any here at all, not even witch sight.”
“Yes, I hope I can trust you to stick to that. But that’s not what’s bothering me. Did either of you notice anything? Feel anything out of place?”
“No,” said Christopher. “But there was a lot of silver in there. Those netball cups around the hall must have been silver plate at least.”
“What about you, Millie?”
“I don’t think so. But there was so much to see …..” Once again, she indulged in a happy sigh.
Christopher, quicker to read Gabriel’s expression, asked, “Why? What do you think is wrong?”
“Oh, maybe nothing. Only …. The faintest of prickles, that’s all. As if something has been here that shouldn’t.”
“But if there’s no magic here? Only music, you said, is the closest thing they have?”
“That’s the truth. But in the past non-magical worlds have been used by the wrong sort of people, like the Wraith and his gang, to store things they want hidden.”
Christopher blushed. The knowledge that the Wraith had been his Uncle Ralph was still raw. “I never came to this world when I was - doing his ‘experiments’. I only saw it once before and I wasn’t with Tacroy then.”
“No, no, I wasn’t suggesting that. And maybe I’m wrong. Possibly I’m over-sensitive to the atmosphere here.”
“Well, it is full of a lot of silly girls,” said Christopher hurriedly, to get their thoughts off Uncle Ralph, and Millie, coming out of her reverie, gave him a playful shove in return.
Their fooling took them as far as the bend in the drive where the trees shielded them from the view of the school. There they stepped off the drive into a path between the  bushes and made their own arrangements for getting home.

Chapter Text

“I want to go to school, like Millie in the Millie books. I want to do Prep and eat stodge and learn French…”

 

Millie arrived at Kingscote early on Sunday afternoon. The school felt big and empty with most of the pupils gone. A handful of girls who had been unable to go home eyed her curiously as she was led through endless corridors to find her dormitory. Millie felt self-conscious in her pristine new uniform, especially as the other girls were in the Sunday uniform of school supper dress or gymslip for those who’d been playing tennis.
She spent a bracing half hour with Matron going through her clothes to check that no illicit items had been brought in, that the skirts were all the correct length, and that everything had name tags sewn in correctly. They had, although Matron frowned over the wobbly stitches. Millie had spent much of the previous afternoon struggling to sew neatly, until after pricking her finger and yelping for about the ninth time, Miss Rosalie had taken pity on her and finished the rest.
After the uniform inspection, she was taken to the Middle Remove form room to meet her new Form Mistress. Miss Miller was a soft, mousey woman with a permanent air of apology. She asked Millie to complete some test papers “just so we can see where you’re at in the different subjects” as if Millie would be doing her the most enormous favour. A member of the Lower Sixth who had stayed at school for the weekend had been conscripted to supervise. “This is Janice,” said Miss Miller, tipping a pile of papers onto the teacher’s desk. “She’s very kindly agreed to sit with you while you work through them. Now, don’t worry at all if there’s anything you can’t do - just try your best!” With a shy smile, she scuttled out, leaving Janice to separate the test papers from her own pile of work.
Millie chose an empty desk. With a secret thrill she filled her new fountain pen from the inkwell, arranged blotting paper neatly and set to work, while Janice disappeared behind her books.
The first sheet was all Maths questions. There was nothing on it that she hadn’t done with Mother Proudfoot, so she whisked through it quickly. Then an English comprehension - a page from a story in which a boy had to visit an old woman who was probably a witch - rather boring, but the questions were all easy. Then languages to translate - she supposed one of them was French but couldn’t work out what the other one might be. She had learnt a smattering of several languages at the Temple, but sadly, neither of these, so she could only leave that sheet blank. Lastly, there were some history questions. Gabriel had given her a crash course in the history of World 12B, or more specifically, Europe in World 12B, so she knew that there’d been a War, and another War not long before that, but all these King’s names meant nothing to her. Who were the Tudors? What were Protestants and Catholics?
Giving up, Millie put down her pen. Janice was rather splendid looking, she thought, with silver-pale hair and fine, delicate features like the alabaster statues in the Temple courtyards. Janice was absorbed in her work, unconscious of Millie’s gaze; but after turning over some papers she uttered a muffled exclamation. Millie realised that she’d been staring and hastily glanced away.
“I’m sorry, Millie,” said Janice. “I’m afraid you’ve got the wrong paper there. I’ve got your one still here.”
Oh,” said Millie, relieved. Maybe she really wasn’t supposed to know all that stuff about kings and queens yet.
“I must have given you my Maths homework paper instead.”
Dashed, Millie looked at the Maths sheet. “But I’ve done it.”
Janice came over to her and looked. “You’ve actually completed all of it?”
Millie nodded miserably. A blush spread furiously right up to the roots of her hair. Doing someone else’s homework, or asking someone to do it for you, was a terrible crime in all the school-stories, a really sneaky thing to do … “I’m so sorry. Will you - will you tell them that it was all my fault..”
“Nonsense,” said Janice in a cool, amused voice. “It was no-one’s fault. Just one of those things. If you’re finished anyway, we’ll go along to the Staffroom and tell Miss Miller. Honestly, she won’t mind at all.” She gathered up all the papers. “If anything, I’ll get it in the neck from Crommie when I have to ask her for another copy for myself.” She sounded quite unworried about the idea, but Millie eyed her doubtfully.
“Who’s Crommie?”
“Miss Cromwell. Ferocious Maths teacher. Naughty children who haven’t done their homework get eaten for breakfast.” Despite her words, Janice grinned at Millie in a friendly way, and Millie felt much better.
At the Staffroom door, Janice knocked, asked for Miss Miller, explained the situation with quick precision, and then asked for Miss Cromwell.
Leaving Janice to her fate, Miss Miller took Millie along to the Fourth Year Common Room. “Poor you,” she said. “You must have been wondering what was going on. I hope it didn’t throw you.” Millie murmured politely. “ Now, I’ll ask one of the girls to look after you and take you down to supper.”
Miss Miller opened the door of the Common Room and looked around thoughtfully. Millie just behind her, stood and stared. In her direct line of sight was a tableau that could have graced the cover of ‘Millie of Lowood House’. A girl with wavy, blonde hair sat in the midst of a group of friends. She must have just said something funny because they were all laughing merrily, and the corners of her very pretty mouth were curving upwards. Her friends’ eyes were all on her; they were all attractive in one way or another; one had striking red hair, another a cheerfully open, smiling face. Millie felt a moment of ridiculous hope that she might be included in this group; but that was followed by the oddest impression. The blonde girl had seen the door open, seen her and the member of staff standing there, and was now very casually but very determinedly trying not to be noticed. Without obviously turning away, she was quite carefully not catching Miss Miller’s eye. Miss Miller seemed to be aware of this too, she made the faintest of tuts under her breath and looked elsewhere.
“Ah! Unity,” she said, her gaze falling on a girl sitting alone, reading. “Unity!” she called. “A moment please!”
Unity was an ordinary looking girl, much like herself, thought Millie, with a round face, and straight brown hair. She came slowly blinking out of her book, but agreed to Miss Miller’s request to show Millie around until she was settled in readily enough.
“Come and sit down,” suggested Unity. “It’s not long till the supper bell.”
“What are you reading?” asked Millie.
“Poetry,” said Unity with shy solemnity. “Do you care for poetry?”
“Um, I don’t know, really.”
“This is Shelley. He’s my favourite. It’s so romantic.”
“I don’t know him, I don’t think.” There had been poetry - of a sort - at the Temple; but it occurred to Millie that it probably wasn’t the sort of poetry that would be considered entirely appropriate for a schoolgirl to read.
“I can lend it to you if you like,” said Unity eagerly.
“Thanks. I’ve probably got a lot of other reading to do at the moment - to catch up - you know.”
“Of course. Were you at school before?”
“Not really. I had a sort of governess for a bit. We lived in India you see. Only now I’m staying with my - my guardian, and I’m coming here to school.” Millie said quickly, relieved to get her prepared back-story out of the way.
“So are your parents still in India?”
“Oh, no. Um, no. I -er- lost my parents.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry.”
Millie sensed she had instantly become an object of sympathy to Unity and added, “I was very young. I don’t remember them at all.”
“Oh, but you must miss them dreadfully.”
“No. Really. I never knew them.” And as much to change the subject as because she wanted to know, she asked, “Who’s that girl over there? In the middle of that group?”
Unity looked. “That’s Ginty Marlow, and that’s her friend Monica, and there’s Isa, Jocelyn, Verity, Emma …”
She’s got the sort of face that the Goddess should have,” said Millie, accidentally thinking aloud, but fortunately Unity misheard or misunderstood.
“Oh yes, “ she sighed. “I always think she looks like Venus, you know - rising from the waves.”
Luckily the supper bell rang at that moment. In the general fuss and bustle of everyone crowding down to the dinner hall there was no need for more conversation, but Unity rather unnecessarily kept explaining the way they should go - despite the fact that they simply had to follow the same way that everyone else was going. She led Millie over to the Middle Remove form table, where she was surprised to see that not only Unity but Ginty was going to sit too.
She was secretly curious to see what sort of ‘stodge’ they would have to eat. But on a Sunday evening after exeat, the girls were assumed to have had some sort of Sunday dinner already, so the meal was only a light ‘salad’. Eating the thin slices of spam, served with potato salad and watery lettuce leaves, Millie felt her first pang of homesickness for the Temple. If she’d been there now, she’d have been eating sweet breads stuffed with almonds, spicy meat, fragrant rice dishes….
“Doesn’t this just make you feel glad to be back?” Ginty addressed the table in general, raising her glass of water. “They’ve laid on a welcome feast!” But after that she made no attempt to talk. Conversation at their end of the table was limited to Unity describing various school routines to Millie.
Pudding was a slight improvement; tinned peaches and evaporated milk, but even so, it couldn’t compare to ripe mangoes picked fresh from the tree. But she wasn’t going to complain. You could make jokes, she knew, but you couldn’t moan. That was Bad Form and made you unpopular because it was all just the same for everyone else.
Ginty slipped away from the rest of Middle Remove as soon as the Staff said the prayer after the meal and filed out. It was a fine evening; most of the girls went outside for a last wander before bedtime. Unity took Millie round the grounds; showing her the tennis courts, the sunken garden and the swimming pool.
The swimming pool was surrounded by a chest height brick wall, just low enough to see over, with a padlocked wrought iron gate at one end.
The cat was sitting on the wall. “Wawow” he remarked conversationally as Millie and Unity passed by.
“Nice to meet you,” said Millie politely, and stopped to see if he wanted the back of his neck rubbed.
“Oh, do you like cats?”
“Yes. I’ve got a kitten at the - at home.”
“Oh, how awful, having to leave her behind, I mean.”
“Oh, she’ll be alright. She’ll be so spoilt by everyone there. They practically fight over who’s going to feed her next.”
“You must be missing her though.”
“Yowp” said the cat, and jumped off the wall to investigate a rustle in the grass on the other side. A moment later there was a faint plop as a frog leapt into the pool.
“Ugh,” said Millie. “Do we really have to swim in there?”
“Don’t you like swimming?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never tried. It just looks a bit green.”
The first bats of the evening skimmed over their heads, to hunt for insects over the surface of the pool, still and murky in the twilight.
“Time we went in,” said Unity. “Bed-time’s early first night back.” They walked back, joining others who were also heading in. “Will you be alright? It can be strange, your first night away from home…”
“I’m sure I’ll be fine,” said Millie, who was actually looking forward to spending her first night in a dormitory.
There wasn’t much time to speak to any of the other girls who shared her room, but they all said hello in a friendly manner, and showed her where to put things. Soon it was lights out for the Juniors and Middles, and Millie lay back on her pillow, listening to the sighs and snuffles of seven other girls settling to sleep, and dreamily thinking over her impressions of the day.
She wasn’t entirely sure that Unity fitted her mental picture of a Best Pal. It made her feel guilty to think that, because Unity had been friendly and kind, so it did seem rather unfair to have reservations.
But thinking about Janice, on the other hand …. She would be the most perfect person to have a ‘pash’ or ‘crush’ on; just like the best prefects in the books. What would it be like to be ‘cracked’ on someone? If it meant feeling shy but sort of of tingly and breathless when you thought about them, then she suspected she was already halfway there.

Chapter Text

‘It had some very brightly coloured schoolgirls on the front and in small print: “Another moral and uplifting story about your favourite schoolgirl.’

 

 

An extended Form Period took up the first two lessons on Monday morning. Millie sat at the desk she’d used the day before; it was in the centre of the front row, so she hesitated a little before she sat down in case anyone else minded. But the others spread themselves out in a sort of semi-circle around the back and sides of the room. So when Ginty arrived, hurried and breathless and so late that any teacher other than Miss Miller would have told her off, the only spare seat was the one next to Millie.
Miss Miller started with a gentle exhortation to the class to try their very hardest this term; they should remember that the end-of-year exams would determine which form they would be moved to in September. Then there was a reminder that on Games afternoons, as they weren’t permitted to play sports, they could either spectate when there was a cricket match on, or they could take a walk around the grounds.
“I know you girls feel you’re not very involved in goings-on in the school. But this term we have got something that you can be just as involved in as any other form. As you may remember Miss Keith saying at the end of last term, we’re almost halfway towards the fund for a roof for the swimming pool. We’re going to have a real push this term to see if we can get all the way there. On Speech Day we’re going to have a Summer Fair in the grounds when all the parents and visitors are here. Every form has to run a stall.” Miss Miller looked round at the sea of unenthusiastic faces, but smiled bravely and carried on, “So I’m counting on you to think up a really good idea, then we can show everyone that they shouldn’t discount us Middle Removers!”
“Some hope!” muttered Ginty, just under her breath. Miss Miller caught something though, and was about to ask her to share what she’d said with the class when, fortunately for Ginty, there was a knock on the door.
“Message from Miss Cromwell,” said the red-haired girl that Millie had seen with Ginty the night before. She gave Ginty a sideways smile as she came up to the desk; Ginty returned it with a slightly embarrassed grimace, as if she didn’t like to be seen in this company.
Miss Miller took the proffered note and scanned it quickly.
“Very well, thank you.” She dismissed the girl. “Millie, there’s a slight change to your time-table. You’re to take your Mathematics lessons with Upper IVA and Miss Cromwell.”
There was a murmur of surprise from some of the others. Ginty looked at her with curiosity - actually seeming to notice her for the first time. “Gosh, poor you. Don’t get eaten alive.”
“That will do, Ginty,” said Miss Miller sharply, visibly contemplating a lecture on the rudeness of making remarks about members of Staff. But perhaps some memory of a sharp comment in the Staffroom intervened; she simply sighed and let it go.
There was some more routine business to do with the filling of inkwells, opening doors for Staff, and expected behaviour at break times. Then the form was given the remaining time to start thinking about the Summer Fair, while Ginty, Unity and Millie, who hadn’t been at school for the previous half term, were sent to the bookroom to fetch their textbooks.
Most of the books were out this late in the year, leaving only a few crumbling piles of broken and dog-eared copies. “You read out the list, and Millie and I will look for the best ones,” said Ginty, taking charge. Unity blinked a little, but Millie secretly thought Ginty’s plan was sensible. She had already noticed that Unity tended to be slow and ponderous in her movements and rather clumsy with her hands. So Unity read out the names and the others searched, trying to pick out the last remaining books that were actually still in one piece, with no vital pages missing.
“What do you think we could do for the fair, Ginty?” asked Unity.
“ I don’t see why we should have to do anything for the pool, when we’re not even allowed to swim in it,” snapped Ginty.
“We will be by the time the roof’s on,” Unity pointed out, unnecessarily.
“We’ll have left school by then! I mean, seriously, how much money do they think we’ll raise doing Pick A Straw or Get The Ball Through The Hoop?” She blew the dust off another book and dumped it on the pile. “Still, I suppose it’ll be up to us to think of something. I can’t imagine any of that lot coming up with anything decent!”
Millie, adding a book to the neat stack in front of her, noticed Unity looking suddenly gratified, presumably at the use of ‘us’ opposed to ‘that lot’, although it had seemed rather unkind to her. She supposed Ginty and Unity already knew the other girls, whereas she didn’t.

 

 

                                                   X X X

 

 

Millie, not knowing where the classroom was, arrived a little late to her first Maths lesson. So she knocked and opened the door with some trepidation. But Miss Cromwell merely nodded at her and gestured to an empty seat, before carrying on with the lesson. The class was listening to her in perfect silence. The girl in the seat next to Millie’s gave her a quick grin and pointed at the name written on the front of her exercise book - Monica Elliot. Millie smiled back and did the same.
She instantly liked Miss Cromwell, not because of anything she’d done, but because she reminded her so much of Mother Proudfoot that Millie immediately felt at home.
Miss Cromwell was demonstrating equations on the blackboard, but they were a sort that Millie knew how to do, so she was able to let her thoughts wander. Christopher had explained to her that nine lived enchanters only exist when the versions of themselves that should have lived in the Related Worlds didn’t get born for some reason. Everybody else has parallel versions of themselves living in other worlds. Miss Cromwell was clearly a version of Mother Proudfoot. It wasn’t so much that they looked like each other, although they shared an upright, tall, thin physique, and strong, fierce features. It was more the aura they had - especially their unquestioning expectation of obedience from others.
The rustle of books opening shook Millie out of her thoughts. They had to work through some examples themselves. They were relatively easy, and she’d worked through several before she noticed that Monica was frowning hopelessly at her page, having crossed out several attempts. Instinctively, Millie nudged her arm gently, and indicated her own book. She worked through the next one slowly, pointing with her pencil to show where she was moving the numbers and letters, doing each step separately. Monica watching, saw the answer slowly appear, and looking suddenly enlightened, mouthed ‘Oh!’ and set to work herself. The next equation came out right, she grinned at Millie and gave her a discreet thumbs up.
Then both girls almost jumped out of their skin, as Miss Cromwell, on one of her perambulations around the classroom had come to a stop right behind their desk. “Quite right, Monica,” observed Miss Cromwell. “I see our new pupil is an effective vessel for my instruction. Perhaps if you paid a little more attention at the start you wouldn’t need her coaching.”
“S-sorry,” stammered Millie, blushing. But Miss Cromwell waved her apology away impatiently.
“Tell me, Millie. Who has been teaching you Mathematics up to now?”
“Mo - my governess, Miss Cromwell.”
“Indeed. She seems to have done a remarkable job so far. You achieved full marks in the paper you sat yesterday, which was, I believe, intended for my Sixth Form pupils.”
“Oh, yes, um, I’m sorry about that..…”
“Nonsense, girl. What are you sorry for? Being able to demonstrate what you’ve been taught?”
“Oh no. Of course not.”
“Good. I’m glad to hear it. I don’t expect my pupils to apologise for having remembered their lessons. I merely expect them to work hard - just as I expect you to, Verity,” she added, directing her remark to a girl who had been looking around and whispering, but without raising her own voice at all. The errant girl blushed and hastily dropped her head back towards her page.
Clearly, if Miss Cromwell had been born in a different world she would have been a very powerful enchanter. Perhaps it was as well she hadn’t.

 

 

                       X X X X

 

 

Tea (bread and jam, very plain and stodgy cake) and Prep were over. Millie and Unity sat on a patch of lawn that was still nicely warm in the early evening sun. Somewhat to their surprise, Ginty came and plopped down beside them. “Everyone else is at the Play rehearsal,” she said gloomily, as if aware that her presence needed explaining. “How was Maths with Ironsides?”
“Ironsides?”
“Yes, Crommie, you know.”
“It was good, thanks. But why do you call her Ironsides?”
“Well, it was what people called Cromwell, wasn’t it? So Miss Cromwell is Ironsides.”
Millie must have looked as blank as she felt. “Oliver Cromwell,” said Ginty with some impatience.
“O-oh, I see,” said Millie, who didn’t.
Unity, sensing that Millie was floundering, said kindly, “Oliver Cromwell fought against King Charles. We did it in history in the Juniors.”
“I haven’t done much history,” admitted Millie.
Ginty cast her a kindly, contemptuous glance. She said playfully, “So, why are we all in the Remove? Who’s got the best story? Unless anyone wants to confess to being as thick as a plank?..... I’ll start, shall I? So me and my brother and sister got taken hostage at gunpoint by a spy. He sailed us out to a lighthouse and kept us captive till the enemy submarine could come and kill us all. Only luckily my brother killed him and the Navy came and rescued us. So after that, of course I had to stay home and recover from the shock of it all.”
Unity laughed admiringly. Millie smiled broadly, because it seemed to be expected. “I’ve got a better one,” she said. “I was the living incarnation of a heathen Goddess and I lived my whole life in a Temple where the worshippers could only see me once a year. Only when I got to the age of Being A Woman I had to die and let a new girl take my place. So I ran away and asked if I could go to school.”
“Oh, that is a good one,” said Ginty. “Your turn, Unity.”
Unity hesitated. “My brothers both got measles one after the other. First they thought I’d be too infectious to come back to school and then I got it myself anyway.”
“That sounded suspiciously like the truth,” said Ginty disapprovingly.
“It is,” said Unity humbly. “I’m no good at making things up. I haven’t got any imagination really.”
“But you must. I thought you wrote poetry, there was one in the magazine, wasn’t there?”
“Oh, did you read it?” Unity blushed with pleasure. “But poetry’s all about feelings and emotions. I don’t have to make anything up or think of a plot. It’s all real.”
“If you say so. The sailing part of my story was true actually. Only we capsized, and had to swim for it. And we were so wet through and chilled by the time we were rescued, I had a cold that went to my chest. So just a boring illness.”
Millie eyed Ginty. She was making a conscious effort not to use her witch sight in this world, but she couldn’t help seeing when someone was telling the truth, even if she didn’t know why the truth had to be hidden in a joke.
“I was living in India with my guardian. Then we came home for me to go to school.”
Ginty nodded wisely. “My Dad says everyone will be having to come back from India soon.”
Millie made a vaguely agreeing noise, wishing she’d learned a little more about the real India before using it as her back story. Luckily Ginty wasn’t interested in discussing it further.
“The worst of it is, my sisters all think it’s a terrific joke that I’m in the Remove.”
“Oh, that’s rotten of them,” said Unity.
“Have you got sisters here?” asked Millie, with interest. She loved the big families in the school stories.
“Only about a hundred,” said Ginty, sourly. “You’ve only got to turn round and you fall over one of them.”
“The oldest one is head-girl,” said Unity helpfully.
“Oh, yes, I met her first day.”
“That’s Karen. She’s not the worst of them. But they’re all so bloody brilliant and successful all the time. Even the twins who had to start in the Remove in September and Nick’s already moved up to the A form, and Lawrie would too if it wasn’t for her broken leg.”
“I noticed her limping,” said Unity. “What happened?”
“Car accident. Stupid girl ran into the road without looking. That’s why no-one knew where me, Nick and Peter were.”
Goodness. Your mum must have been having fits.
“I expect she’s used to it what with Dad and Giles in the Navy,” said Ginty lightly. Millie had the impression of someone stepping carefully over a snakepit. Time to change the subject.
“So, what play are your friends in?” (In the school stories, the plays were always great fun and turned out terrifically well.)
“The Dream, which is frantically potty, and a complete bore. But none of them can get out of it now.”
“I rather like A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” protested Unity. “Who’s playing Puck?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t ask.” Ginty must have realised that she was giving herself away; that it was obvious even to Unity that she, Ginty, would have liked the play well enough if she had been involved herself.
“What’s it about?” asked Millie.
“You don’t know? Sorry, I suppose you haven’t done any Shakespeare either? Well, it’s a lot of fairies playing tricks on humans. They give someone a donkey’s head and make the fairy queen fall in love with him, and get the human lovers all mixed up.”
“That sounds like the sort of thing they’d find interesting,” said Millie without thinking. Unity and Ginty both looked puzzled, and she realised she’d goofed again. There were so many things she was supposed to know about in this world - like Oliver Cromwell - but there were also things she wasn’t supposed to know about - like the real ‘fairies’. She’d met the people of World Thirteen, dimly understood as ‘elves’ by the people of other worlds, and she knew that there were no colder, nastier living beings anywhere.
Ginty had returned to her grievances. “It’s going to be the most hopeless term. It’s not just the play and no cricket. There’s no swimming even - ”
“And that’s going to be harder for you than anyone,” said Unity with heavy sympathy.
“Why?” asked Millie.
“Oh, because Ginty’s the best swimmer in our year,” said Unity. “She won the 100 metres last year and the Diving.”
“Oh, well, only ‘cos Mon couldn’t swim that day,” said Ginty, obviously pleased but trying to be modest.
“No, everyone knows you’re the best swimmer anyway. You’d still have won even if she’d been in it. It’s not fair that you can’t swim now.”
Millie was silent. She’d have thought that the last thing Ginty would care about was swimming after the story that she’d half been told, half guessed.
As for herself - she’d been brought up in a hot climate, compared to which this English summer’s day was on the chilly side of mild. She couldn’t imagine anything worse than having to take off her clothes and jump into a rectangle of freezing cold water.
But at this moment Ginty noticed the Dreamers, released from their toils, come wandering across the lawn in clumps of post-rehearsal chatter. Leaping up to go and greet her friends, it seemed the conversation was over.

Chapter Text

“The Goddess was a girl with a round, ordinary face and long mouse-coloured hair. She was wearing …. rather a lot of turquoise jewelry, including at least twenty bracelets and a little turquoise-studded coronet.”

 

 

Millie couldn’t imagine what a School ‘Summer Fair’ might look like. She could only picture the narrow streets leading up to the Temple, lined with snake charmers and stalls selling everything from small birds in cages to ‘magic’ carpets. Most of the stalls sold goods that could be offered to the Living Asheth - sticky sweets and pastries, fruit, plump mice for the Temple cats, garlands of flowers, small ornaments and statuettes, and most of all, jewelry. Silver and turquoise were particularly favoured by Asheth.
So when Miss Miller returned to the topic of stalls for the Fair, and none of the other girls had suggested anything more interesting than a Tombola or a Lemonade Stall, Millie, determined to be helpful, blurted out, “Why don’t we have a jewelry stall?”
There was a resounding silence, broken by Alice at the back laughing scornfully. “Do you want us all to flog off Granny’s pearls or something?”
Miss Miller smiled doubtfully, but said in an encouraging voice, “What were you thinking of, Millie?”
“Maybe we could make some?” she suggested.
Unexpectedly Unity came to her rescue. “If you have the right sort of thread you can make bracelets and necklaces with beads - the sort that dressmakers use. They don’t cost much.”
“Well, this is a good idea,” said Miss Miller, much more cheerfully.
“If we made two of each sort, friends would buy them to have one each,” said Ginty on a burst of inspiration. The class, suddenly visualising the idea, came alive and buzzed.
“We’d have to find out where we could get a supply of equipment from,” said Miss Miller.
Unity raised her hand. “If you don’t mind, Miss Miller, I could ask my father.”
“Really, Unity, how’s that?”
Unity blushed as the class’s attention focused on her. “He - he supplies dressmakers and sewing shops and factories. I could ask him if we could have some seconds or broken boxes?”
“Your father sells beads?” asked Alice, a ready note of scorn in her voice.
Unity blushed even redder. “No, it’s fabrics mainly; buttons and beads and sequins and things are a side line.”
“Well, that sounds marvelous, Unity,” said Miss Miller. “If you could write to your father and let us know the result, I’m sure we’ll all be very grateful.”
Millie was surprised at how well her idea had taken off. Alice, who wasn’t much liked anyway, hadn’t got any reaction to her snobbish gibe, and the class as a whole was happy and approving. Even Ginty was taking part in an animated conversation with Fiona and Rosemary about how they could dress up the stall to look like something in an Eastern bazaar.

 

Millie had been trying her hardest to make friends with everyone. She had imagined being part of a large, extended group of friends at school, and had assumed that it would naturally happen as long as she joined in with everything and talked to everyone. In the books, it was only those who were ‘stuck-up’ or who put on ‘airs and graces’ who struggled to fit in, and they had usually learned the error of their ways by the end of their first term.
So she tried to sit by someone different every meal-time. She chatted to anyone that she met in the queue for apples at breaktime; she smiled in passing at everyone she recognised in the corridors; she joined in with conversations in the common room.
She had no trouble talking to people; and it didn’t take her long to know more about her fellow classmates than some of those who had been at Kingscote all their lives. So she knew, for example, that Sheila hero-worshipped an older cousin who had been killed in the war, that Fiona was good at ice-skating and competed in ice-dance competitions in the holidays, that Alice had a sister who was a Deb and Alice was going to be a Deb herself (it was true that Millie didn’t quite understand what a Deb was; as far as she could tell from Alice’s description it was someone who went to parties but had to follow a lot of rules instead of just enjoying them) and that Violet’s mother spent all her time nursing her brother who’d had polio.
So it was easy to be friendly with people, but it was harder than she’d expected to be actual friends with more than a few people. It seemed that most people wanted to sit at the same place and by the same people at every meal. And there was an unwritten rule that the Form groups stayed separate in the Common Room. So she and Monica could get on well when they were in Maths together, seeing the same jokes at the same time, but there was never any suggestion that she could join Monica’s group in the evenings. Similarly, the few girls she met while doing piano lessons would talk to her in the Practice rooms, but were paired off with their own friends the rest of the time. (Gabriel had put her down for piano lessons as an Extra. He had said somewhat darkly that she might need an ‘outlet’.)
Even Ginty who technically ‘belonged’ to the A Form found it hard to continue socialising with them. Either they were at the Play rehearsals, or cricket practice, or Extra Swimming; or, if they were at none of those things then they would be talking about them. Or they would be talking about lessons that Ginty hadn’t been at, jokes that ‘you had to be there’ for, or homework that she hadn’t been set.
But at the same time, Ginty was set apart from the other Remove girls. Everybody knew she was only in the Remove for a term to ‘catch up’ and would soon be leaving them behind again. And the same was increasingly true of Millie and Unity. Millie was already doing Maths with the top set, and it was soon obvious how quick she was in most other subjects. Unity would no doubt be moving back up to the B form as soon as she’d caught up. (She was hopeless at Maths, she always said; if it was just for English and History she would definitely be in the A Form.)
So Millie, Ginty and Unity found themselves together, at first by circumstance, and then by choice.
They were an odd trio. Ginty was quick and sharp and often bitchy but always amusing. Unity was overly sentimental and slow to see a joke, but kind and loyal. She could be tiresome, constantly asking how you felt about minor events, whereas Ginty didn’t seem to acknowledge other people's’ feelings at all. Millie wondered if she was the fulcrum on which they balanced.

 

Thus it was that the three of them sat in a row watching a Cricket Cup match one sunny Games Afternoon.
Ginty was watching attentively because all her Best Pals were in it, and she had to be seen to be there for them; though the rest of her family would be rooting for the other team in which her sister Ann was playing. “Though Ann doesn’t really care about sports so she won’t mind if I’m cheering for Monica and co.” she told Millie. Lower V were not a sporty class, and it was only their greater experience that kept the game with Upper IV remotely evenly matched. As it turned out Ginty was finding being a mere spectator more entertaining than she’d expected; since she’d discovered that Millie knew nothing about the rules of cricket she’d been amusing herself by giving a running commentary on the game. It was rather fun to be considered the expert on the game - something that would never happen at home.
Millie was watching because she knew Christopher was crazy about cricket. It had been hard to explain Christopher to the others - to say he was another ward of her guardian’s sounded convoluted, to describe him as her brother seemed wrong for reasons she couldn’t work out yet, so she’d settled for calling him a sort of cousin.
Unity was watching simply because the other two were, and she hadn’t fancied doing anything on her own. She had a notepad in her lap and spent most of her time staring dreamily into the distance, very occasionally licking her pencil and scribbling a few words down in a sudden burst of inspiration. If she’d been hoping the others would ask her what she was writing she was doomed to failure - they were absorbed in the cricket.
Ann was bowling, slow and steady but good enough to get the weaker players out on a regular basis. “The trouble with Ann,” Ginty was explaining to Millie, “is that she doesn’t have the killer instinct. She’s not actually trying to let the other side win, but she can’t help thinking how nice it would be for them. - Oops! Oh, Verity!” Verity had been bowled out. “She should have just tried to block that,” decided Ginty. “Poor Vee was getting a bit cocky.”
Emma was the next to go, having made only two runs, and the balance of the game turned. The remaining players made increasingly rash mistakes, and finally the last Lower IV batsmen was run out with three runs still to make.
Ginty clapped in a resigned sort of way. “Oh, poor Mon, that was such a run of bad luck, they didn’t deserve to lose.” All the same, it was secretly rather a relief that Lower IV wouldn’t be going through to the further rounds of the Cricket Cup without her - at least it was one thing that she wouldn’t be missing out on.
Unity unintentionally echoed her thoughts. “I expect they’re missing you, Ginny. Another really good player would have made all the difference.”
Ginty had the grace to look uncomfortable, but Millie felt an increasingly familiar twitch of irritation. Why did Unity have to be so sycophantic around Ginty? It was almost as if she had a crush on her; but surely crushes were meant to be on the older girls. No-one in the books ever had a crush on someone in their own year.
One thought led to another, and she unconsciously looked over at the Sixth Formers, lolling on the further side of the pitch. Most of them were sunbathing or reading. There were two who were recognisable from this far away because of their blonde hair, Janice of course, and the other was Ginty’s scary sister, the one that everybody said was already Games Captain in all but name. A couple of spaces along, within earshot probably, but not quite close enough to be considered as sitting with them, was a single brown-haired girl. Those three seemed to be the only ones who’d taken any interest in the game.
She’d supposed that friendships got easier as you got older, but that odd two plus one arrangement suggested not. For the first time she recalled the shifting allegiances between some of the younger priestesses at the Temple. She’d known enough as a younger child to occasionally play them off against each other when she wanted something, but she’d never had anyone her own age to talk to. She’d assumed that friendship would follow on from opportunity, and that the opportunity would be found in plenty at school, but so far, all she could see were temporary alliances between people who through the forced circumstances of sharing the same space had to find a way to rub along together.

Chapter Text

“Yes, I do!” screamed the Goddess. “I want to cheek the Prefects …..and sneak on my friends. I want to be bad as well as good! I want to go to school and be bad, do you hear!”

 

Millie had used magic all her remembered life - and probably before that too. It had come to her along with walking and talking, so naturally that it was a long time before she even knew that what she was doing was magic. It was something of a surprise to her, at around the age of eight, to learn that not everyone could do the things that she could do. But it was not until she met Christopher and saw that he had the same sort of magic as her, that she realised her level of power was unusual.
Gabriel had been right when he’d warned her that she might find not using magic in this world difficult. He’d also been right about music.
The effort of consciously not using magic often made her twitchy and tingly. She could feel an almost physical sensation of prickles running up and down her arms. The only thing that helped was sitting at the piano keyboard, practising her scales. As she touched the keys she could feel the tension in her arms running through her fingers, melting into the notes and flying away.
She had two short lessons a week, and allotted practice times. But she took to slipping down to the practice rooms at odd times, on the off-chance of finding one free, even for just a few moments.
Her piano teacher was astonished and delighted at her progress, and used her as an example to the others of just how much one could improve with regular practice…. Millie rather wished she wouldn’t as it made her feel like a fraud. She thought she understood now what Gabriel had told her, that the really great musicians in World 12B were people who might have been powerful enchanters if they’d been born in a magical world.
She returned from piano practice one rainy break-time, to find the rest of Middle Remove gathered round Unity’s desk, on which stood two large brown cardboard boxes. Spilling out of them was a treasure trove - packets of beads in every shape, colour and size, novelty buttons and charms, ribbons, wires, spools of many types of thread and elastic, sequins, wooden beads, glass beads, painted paste beads…..
Middle Remove stood round exclaiming and chattering, pulling out packets in their excitement so that they burst and loose beads rolled everywhere. No-one heard the History Mistress enter the room for their next lesson, and as a result they were required to copy in silence for the first half of the lesson as a punishment.
Lessons and lunch over, they all returned to the Form Room, and the empty desk where the beads had been temporarily stored. It was a wet day, so there was no excuse to go outside, and at first there were too many people trying to play with the beads and getting in each other's way.
It stayed unseasonably cold and damp for the rest of that week. The constant drizzle kept everyone inside and glad to have the jewelry making as something to do, but after a few days the novelty wore off. By the end of the week the weather cleared, and it was rare to see more than two or three girls working at the ‘jewelry station’ together.
On Monday lunchtime, it was Ginty, Unity and Millie who sat round the desk, threading beads onto their own creations.
“Your Dad is amazing,” said Ginty, rummaging through the loose beads at the bottom of the box, looking for the perfect colour. “I can’t imagine asking my father to send me anything.”
“Oh well, he said some of it was bankrupt stock he took for a debt. And the rest is mostly seconds.”
“Even so. Mine doesn’t even send letters!” There had been a note in the parcel when it arrived. Those closest to Unity when she opened it couldn’t help noticing what it said - it was written in large, sprawling hand-writing - ‘Here you go, Princess!’ There might have been some teasing, if they hadn’t been quite so impressed by what Unity’s father had sent. They were grateful, after all.
Ginty had a good eye for colour. She mixed together beads that one might not have thought of putting together, but her finished bracelets always looked eye-catching - “like something you’d buy in a shop,” said Unity admiringly.
Unity was stringing large beads onto a necklace. “Can I try this on you to check the length?” she asked, and Ginty obligingly hung the rope of green glass round her neck. “They’re like the ones the goblin wants in the poem,” she said, fingering the heavy beads, enjoying the feel of them, even through her uniform blouse.
“Oh,yes,” said Unity, delighted. “You look just like I imagine a water nymph.”
“If a nymph wore uniform. Maybe there’s a Salt Marsh School…”
Millie had no idea what they were talking about. “Is this something from the play?”
“What? Oh, no, it’s a poem.”
“I’ve got it in my Anthology. I’ll lend it to you, if you like.”
Millie had so far fobbed off Unity’s offers of books of poetry, but she supposed she ought to read some - people were always saying things in conversation that she found incomprehensible. It wasn’t just poetry of course, it was characters and events from novels or history as well - she didn’t see how she was ever going to catch up.
“The goblin always reminds me of my diddy sister actually,” said Ginty. “Howling and whining for something that’s not her’s.”
“Which one?”
“Lawrie. I had a shawl for my birthday from my Grandmother once, and it was the most luscious pale pink. Lawrie borrowed it without asking before a party ….. And then she threw up all over it!”
The others exclaimed in a satisfactorily indignant way, allowing Ginty to smile magnanimously and say off-hand, “Oh well, she was only about six at the time.”
Getting bored of the bracelet she was threading, she wandered over to the window. “Look at the sun now! They’ll definitely be able to play cricket this afternoon.” She sighed gustily. “It wasn’t so bad when it was raining and no-one could do anything. But now it’s just us again.”
Unity looked up, ready with her sympathetic face. Millie tried to let the bracelet she was making absorb her attention. One advantage of the bad weather had been that they had avoided this sort of conversation for several days.
She was making a replica of a bracelet she had once owned at the Temple, threading tiny turquoise coloured beads onto springy wire, interspersed with the silver coloured metal ones, so that it would eventually wind snake-like several times round an arm. She had found just the right shaped bead to look like the snake’s head…. But she couldn’t tune the others out.
“It’s ridiculous that we can’t swim. It’s going to be gloriously hot later. And none of us are remotely ill or delicate - as if swimming in this sunshine would chill us at all!”
“I know. It’s such a shame that you’re missing out..”
“And the others are already getting excited about who’s going to do what in the Swimming Gala. And by the time we’re out of the Remove it’ll be autumn and there’ll be no more swimming for another year!”
“So unfair, to keep the best swimmer out of it. They’re probably doing it deliberately - to let someone else win.”
Millie couldn’t stand it any longer. “What we should do,” she said calmly, “is go swimming when no-one else is around. At night-time.”
What?”
“We should go out at midnight, and have a swim. Then you’d have done it.”
“Are you mad?”
“Not at all. It wouldn’t be hard. It’d be just like going for a midnight feast.”
“You’re stark raving bonkers,” said Ginty scornfully. “No-one above the Juniors would even dream of having a midnight feast!”
“So? This would be better, wouldn’t it? A Midnight Swim!” She’d suggested it to shut them up, but Millie was starting to be enthused by her own idea.
“How would we even do it?” said Unity. “We wouldn’t be able to see!”
“On a clear night. It’s nearly the full moon.”
“Is it? That would be rather fun - swimming in the moonlight!” Ginty grinned at Millie. “It does sound completely mad though!”
“Shall we then?”
“When?”
“Day after tomorrow - if the sky stays clear, the moon will be full.”
“How will we get out?” Unity protested. “And what if we get caught?”
“We won’t!” said Ginty, heedless of the consequences while the plan was just words and the doing of it still days away. “And we can come out of the fire escapes. Put your swimming cossie under your pyjamas. If anyone sees you, pretend to be sleep-walking.”
“Can you get out of your dorm without anyone waking?” asked Unity, doubtfully, dismayed by the way Millie and Ginty were suddenly sparking each other off. Clearly she was going to be left out if she didn’t join in.
“I can,” said Millie, who had spent her childhood running round forbidden rooms in the Temple without being spotted by guards or priestesses.
Ginty frowned. “The twins always go out like lights. And Ann and Rowan are good sleepers. It’s only Karen who’s awake sometimes - apart from me. But it should be alright. We’ll need to stuff clothes under the covers so it looks like we’re still under there. Come on Unity. If I can get out, I’m sure you can.”
Millie watched fascinated as Ginty turned the full force of her charm on Unity. She was surely doing it quite unconsciously, and yet that level of charm ought to count as a degree of magic. Unity didn’t stand a chance. “Of course, if you want me to, Ginny,” she said. “I’ll do anything for you, you know that.”
“Good. Just think what a story it will be to tell afterwards!”

                           xxxxxx

 

Millie sat on the bottom step of the fire escape at five minutes to midnight. It was quite possible the others wouldn’t come. Fallen asleep themselves, or someone else awake in their dorm; there were plenty of easy excuses if either of them funked it. And in some ways, she wouldn’t mind if they did. It was a beautiful night; pleasantly cool after the stuffiness of the dorm, the sky clear and bright and the lawns ahead of her bathed in moonlight. She would just enjoy the peace, and the view …
The steps behind her creaked heavily and “Millie?” breathed a voice, none too quietly. She waved a hand at Unity, signalling her to shush. Whispers traveled surprisingly far on the night air.
A moment later, Ginty appeared noiselessly beside them. They grinned at each other, and with elaborate pointing gestures and thumbs up, crept away from the side of the building. They scurried to the edge of the lawn, where overhanging trees and bushes would make them less visible in the moonlight - just in case an insomniac member of Staff happened to peer out.
They were far enough away from the building to be out of ear-shot, when Ginty, in the lead, started and yelped. “There’s something moving!” she breathed. The lowest branch of a bush was swaying in front of them. Something rustled. Unity very nearly whimpered.
“It’s the cat,” said Millie.
“What cat?” “Where?”
“Come out, please, cat” said Millie softly. The cat stepped neatly out of the shadow and rubbed itself against her legs.
The others dissolved into giggles. Trying to laugh quietly, with occasional gasps bursting out, they made their way rather shakily along the stretch of gravel path to the swimming pool.
The cat, curious, followed them. The gates to the pool were, of course, locked and they had to pull themselves onto the top of the wall and then slide down the other side. The cat watched their efforts with disdain before lightly leaping up and over himself.
The effort of scrambling over the wall had stopped their giggles. “Well, here we are,” said Ginty. It did seem rather an astonishing thing to be doing, now that they were finally here. The water was so still that it looked like a mirror in the moonlight. Only the diving board at the far end cast one dark bar of shadow across the shining surface.
They pulled their pyjamas off, and then hesitated, looking at each other. “Who’s going first?” asked Ginty.
“It’s beautiful,” said Unity. She lowered herself into a sitting position, and tentatively dipped one foot in the water. The moon in the water broke up into a thousand shattered reflections as the water rippled. Somehow that gave them confidence. With as little noise as an otter entering the water, Ginty was over the side and swimming strongly into the centre. Millie, shivering in anticipation, followed her.
It was cold, cold, cold. Her breath was taken away, and she couldn’t help gasping in shock.
“It’s alright when you get used to it,” said Ginty, gliding up close to her. “Once you get moving.”
Millie obediently tried to move her arms and legs. And realised that it was easy. Swimming was like moving between worlds. You just shaped yourself so that you took up as little space as possible, found the place of least resistance and then pushed ….She swam across the short end a few times experimenting.
“I thought you said you couldn’t swim,” said Ginty, emerging from the water beside her.
“I didn’t know I could.”
“Well, you’re swimming like a fish now. Race to the other end?” she suggested.
Millie had a feeling that it would be wiser not to actually win the race … but fascinated by the deepening water at the far end she slowed down and dived .. down and down … she touched the bottom lightly then kicked upwards towards the moonlight.
“You must have done some swimming before!” said Ginty, accusingly, treading water beside her.
“I don’t remember. I think I went to the sea-side when I was little…” said Millie vaguely. It wasn’t a lie. She did have a very fuzzy, pre-Temple memory of sand under her feet, a vast sea, some smiling grown-ups… ladies with tails like fish …
Ginty had flipped onto her back and was gently floating across the pool, gazing up at the sky. “This was a good idea,” she said, before rolling over and swimming back. “Shall we dive?” She pulled herself out of the pool, and climbed onto the diving board. “You can go off the edge if you’d rather the first time.”
Millie correctly interpreted this as a challenge, and waited for Ginty to use the board. Unity, still sitting on the side with only her lower legs swishing in the water, watched. “You look like one of those Art Deco lamps, “ she called admiringly. Ginty did look striking, poised ready to dive, her arms seemingly reaching for the moon. Then in one smooth movement she bent her knees, bounced up on her toes and curved elegantly into the pool with barely a splash.
Millie stepped up onto the board. The water looked a lot further away from here. She was also fairly sure that she didn’t look like an Art Deco lamp - whatever that was.
She closed her eyes and took a slow breath, visualising the gap that she’d found into Christopher’s world. Somewhere between the air and the water was a gap; she had to point her fingers and flow into it, her body had to follow like a spear, like a snake, like an idea, from one element into another… and she dived.
There was quite a lot of splash and her legs stung rather. She swam back up to the surface slowly, hoping she hadn’t looked too foolish.
“Not bad!” Ginty said, as she surfaced. “Not for a first time. Your legs dropped a bit so you almost belly flopped.”
They swam to the shallow end and back, then dived in once more each, by which time they thought they’d probably pushed their luck far enough.
The night air was cold on their skin after the water and they didn’t have towels with them. They all promised each other ‘not to look’, and peeled off their suits as quickly as they could. Their pyjamas were awkward to pull back on, sticking and reluctant on their wet skin. Millie and Ginty shivered convulsively. Only Unity was still mostly dry, having only got her legs in the water.
“I’m going to put tonight in a poem,” she said. “It was the most sublime thing I’ve ever seen.”
“We should run when we get to the grass, to warm up,” said Ginty as they climbed over the wall. It was harder now that they were cold, and their wet toes stubbed it painfully.
The cat had been watching their antics in the pool from the top of the wall. He now dropped down, and seemed to be leading the way along the path as they tiptoed gingerly along the gravel. Millie was following him, thinking only of her nice warm bed, when she noticed his tail stiffen.
“Mewyumm!”
“Someone’s coming!” she turned and hissed at the others. She just had time to see Ginty grab Unity’s arm and yank her into the bushes, but she had no time to hide herself. There were two people approaching, and they must have already seen her. It was almost as clear as day in the moonlight. She scrunched her rolled up swimming costume tightly in her hand, hoping it wasn’t too obvious what it was, and waited as calmly as she could. She had recognised them before they were close enough to know her - one was Janice and the other was Rowan Marlow.
For a split-second she supposed that Rowan had seen Ginty’s empty bed and come looking for her; but that made no sense - why would Janice have come too?
“What on earth?” “Who’s there?” Voices taut with surprise, but controlled enough to stay low-pitched.
“It’s Millie, isn’t it?” said Janice, as Millie stepped further forward out of the shadows.
“What the hell are you doing out here?” So this was Rowan, the one that Ginty didn’t much like, the judgemental, sarcastic, impatient sister.
“I was too hot to sleep, so I came for a walk to cool down,” said Millie.
“Who with?”
“No-one. There’s only me.”
“Nonsense - I heard voices.”
Janice touched Rowan’s arm, and said, “Ro…” Just one syllable, but Millie was aware of what it meant. It meant ‘Don’t push this because one of Millie’s friends is your sister Ginty, and if it is Ginty hiding behind the bushes you’ll be forced to go and report it because otherwise it’ll look like nepotism, and not only will we be in trouble ourselves for having been out here, but we won’t be able to actually do what we came out here for…’
In her most innocent voice, Millie said, “I was talking to the cat.”
“Miaouw,” agreed the cat, emerging from his temporary hiding place. He proceeded to wind round Rowan’s legs for good measure.
“Oh.” Rowan looked sharply at her, still suspicious. “You shouldn’t be wandering around at night on your own. You shouldn’t be outside at all.”
Millie bit back the obvious retort. Whatever the exact rules were about being out of your dorm at night, she was sure they applied as much to members of the Lower Sixth as they did to herself. But she had a strong feeling that Rowan was the type to hand herself in rather than leave a younger pupil knowing something illicit about her.
“Millie’s new this half-term,” said Janice. “I don’t suppose you’ve learned all the endless rules and regulations yet, have you?” She sounded coolly amused and friendly, and Millie gratefully played along.
“We always used to sleep on the roof when it was hot at - at home,” she said. “But I’m truly sorry. I’ll go back in now, and no-one will ever know. I’ve only been out a few minutes, honestly.”
“Straight back in now, and no dawdling.”
“Of course not. Good night. Good night Janice.”
“Good night,” they chorused, both sounding relieved. Millie ran, as softly and lightly as she could, over the dewy grass. She hoped Unity and Ginty had slipped through the bushes and made their way back safely while she’d been talking, but she had no way of checking. Still, they’d have been a bit dim if they hadn’t.
She paused at the fire escape to let her breathing slow, then crept up silently, found the door safely ajar as she’d left it, and trod along the corridor, into the still-sleeping dormitory. She dropped the swimming costume in a damp ball under the bed, to be rescued in the morning, and finally slid under the covers where she found the rolled up towel and spare pyjamas that she had bundled in there earlier.
Sleep wasn’t going to come soon, not with her skin still clammy and her feet freezing cold, and her mind racing with impressions of the past hour. There was the swimming which had been more fun than she’d really expected, and the diving which she was sure she could get better at if she tried again, and Janice and Rowan …
She wondered if they’d just been out for a walk in the moonlight. Or could they also have been going for a midnight swim? It seemed unlikely that such lofty, sensible beings would do such a thing - but then, why not? It would actually have been much more enjoyable to go with just one close friend, without Ginty’s nervous bravado or Unity’s romantic pretensions. The sort of good friend who could see things without being told them all the time ….
Of course, Janice - and Rowan - now probably thought of her as a barmy kid who wandered around on her own talking to cats. Harmless maybe, but definitely daft.
She hoped that her being there hadn’t spoiled it for them, whatever they were doing. She hoped they’d gone on and done it anyway. In her last thoughts before sleep she imagined Janice, floating on her back the way Ginty had, serene and motionless. Ginty had worn a bathing cap, but in her mind’s eye Janice’s long pale hair fanned out around her. A line from the poetry book Unity had lent her came unbidden - ‘Goddess of the silver lake’ - the water glassy, translucent around her, so still and calm that the ripples ceased and the moon was made whole again.

Chapter Text

“Out of loyalty,” the Goddess explained. “In the Millie books, Millie never let her chums down.”
There was no accounting for the Goddess’s obsession, Christopher thought.

 

Millie woke up with an enormous appetite after her nocturnal activities, so she was dressed and down in the dining hall with more than usual promptness, ready for her porridge and toast. Ginty and Unity however, slid into their seats beside her at the last possible moment, just before the Staff filed in and they all stood for the Prayer.
“What happened last night?” Unity mouthed at her.
“It was fine,” said Millie, in her ordinary voice, pouring milk generously over her porridge. “Nothing to worry about.”
“We were afraid you might be in terrible trouble,” said Unity in an exaggerated stage whisper. “Did you say anything - about us?”
There was more than enough noise around them to cover normal conversation, as everyone clattered bowls and cutlery and asked each other if they’d ‘got’ last night’s Prep. Unity’s attempt to be quiet seemed designed to draw attention rather than avoid it.
“No, of course not. Honestly, Unity, everything’s fine. They just told me to go to bed.”
“Oh. Only Ginny really wanted to come out too, and not leave you on your own, only we realised it was (she dropped her voice another octave so she was barely mouthing the word) Rowan. And I said no, not with the way Rowan treats Ginny. It would have made things much, much worse.”
“Absolutely,” agreed Millie cheerfully. “They just thought I was some lunatic new girl who didn’t know the rules, a bit dim but basically harmless. If they’d seen three of us they’d have known we were up to something.”
“Yes, that’s what we thought,” said Unity in a more normal voice, sounding relieved. “But Ginny’s been feeling terribly upset and worried about it…..”
Ginty, sitting on the other side of Unity, had been shovelling in her Cornflakes in silence throughout this exchange. She grinned sheepishly when Millie caught her eye.
Unity continued doggedly, “But if there’s any trouble over it, or if you were getting punished, then of course we’d tell them we were there too; we wouldn’t let you take all the blame.”
“Goodness, there’s no need for that,” said Millie hurriedly. “It’s alright, Unity, do stop going on about it.”
Unity’s face fell, and Millie felt mean. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to snap. Is there any jam left, d’you think?”
There wasn’t, so Millie spread her bread with margarine, and let the conversation turn to the utter boringness of Rationing and when was it ever going to end?

 

There was a minor row in Form Period - or as close to a row as Miss Miller ever got. It seemed that in the initial enthusiasm of making jewelry, people had been keeping some for themselves and wearing their bracelets around the school. Even worse, they’d been giving them to friends in other classes. Staff had noticed and commented.
“It is, as I’m sure I don’t need to remind you, strictly forbidden to wear any sort of jewelry at school, or while you’re in Uniform, even for Saturday Shopping or any other trip. I’m afraid if one more member of Staff has to tell me that someone has been seen wearing a ‘friendship’ bracelet or any other article of jewelry, I’ll have to confiscate all the beads and we won’t be able to run the stall.”
Middle Remove looked at each other with varying attitudes of guilt or accusation. Millie noticed Ginty, sitting next to her, surreptitiously sliding something under her cardigan sleeve. It was a fine line of tiny beads, a pale coral colour, and Millie knew she’d made two the same.
Miss Miller looked anxiously at her Form. “I’ve assured Miss Keith that our - our goods aren’t being used to promote any unhealthy levels of attachment or sentimentality. We simply want to put our talents into producing something that will raise money for the good of the school. So I’m trusting you girls to be sensible and keep all our stock under ‘lock and key’ until the day of the Fair. Is that agreed?”
“Yes, Miss Miller,” mumbled Middle Remove.
Ginty made a comic face at Millie. “What do you think that was all about?” she muttered, under cover of her desk, as they got their books out for first lesson.
“Search me!” Millie replied, raising her eyebrows and grimacing appropriately. And then felt a twinge of guilt; because, after all, hadn’t she herself day-dreamed about Janice coming to look at their stall and specially choosing to buy the most perfect bracelet that she, Millie, had made.

 

The bell had just rung, and Miss Cromwell’s class were putting their books away, when Miss Cromwell called, “A word please, Millie before you go to break.”
Her heart thumped. If any teacher was likely to have to have been looking out of a window late last night, it was bound to have been Miss Cromwell. She must have seen Millie running back across the lawn. What would the punishment be? Would she get an Order Mark? What even was an Order Mark? Would her name be read out in Assembly? Perhaps she’d even be told she had to leave Kingscote?
She stood waiting for the other girls to leave, nervously fiddling with the dog-eared cover of her Maths book. Monica gave her an encouraging smile as she left. It didn’t take long for the class to empty; Lower IVA knew what Miss Cromwell’s reaction would be to anyone who lingered.
Millie stepped nervously up to the desk, sure that she was going to be asked to pack her bags and leave by the next train.
“Well, Millie,” said Miss Cromwell. “It seems that you’re making satisfactory progress in most of your subjects.”
“Yes, Miss Cromwell. At least I hope so.”
“‘Hope’ is not relevant. Hope is the last refuge of those who know that they’re unprepared. You’re either working hard, or you’re not.”
“I am, Miss Cromwell.”
“Good. Then there should be no problem with a move up to the A Form in September?”
This wasn’t the conversation she’d been expecting. “No, Miss Cromwell,” she said.
Miss Cromwell raised an eyebrow. “No need to sound so surprised. I can vouch for your capabilities in Mathematics, and it seems that your progress in both Latin and French is remarkable, given that both languages are new to you?”
She paused expectantly, and Millie was startled to realise that Miss Cromwell was almost paying her a compliment. “I find languages easy,” she explained. “I used to speak - well, several languages at - at home. I suppose it makes it easy to pick up new ones.”
“Indeed.” Miss Cromwell eyed her. “There’s nothing holding you back with your written work in general. However, you appear to be woefully ignorant when it comes to History.”
“Oh. Yes, I suppose I am, Miss Cromwell.”
“So, with the help of my colleagues, I have drawn up a reading list for you. You need to familiarise yourself with some of the themes of British history. I appreciate that you have lived elsewhere for much of your life, but no-one should know so little about the world they are living in.”
“No, Miss Cromwell. Thank you, Miss Cromwell.”
“Here. You will find all of these in the School Library. None of them are currently Restricted as far as I know. Perhaps some of them would be if they were less academic and more designed to appeal to the sillier minds. Still, I expect you’ve seen more of life than the average girl here?”
“Yes, that’s probably true, Miss Cromwell,” she answered, without thinking.
“One day, I may ask you to enlighten me further. However, if you run along now, you should have time to get your milk and apple.”
“Oh, yes, thanks awfully, Miss Cromwell.”
Miss Cromwell’s mouth tightened briefly. “While you’re in the library, you might take the chance to look up the original meaning of ‘awful’ in the dictionary.”
“Oh, sorry. Yes, I will, Miss Cromwell,” Millie said hurriedly, and doing as bid, she ran along.

 

Crunching on the last of her apple, Millie scanned the lawns. Unity and Ginty wouldn’t have known that she’d been kept late in Maths; it was just possible they’d still be hanging around somewhere near.
She couldn’t see them anywhere, but as she paused, wondering where to go, she heard a voice call her name.
It was Monica, sitting on the grass nearby with the gang of four, waving at Millie. “What did Ironsides want?” she asked, as Millie approached. “You’re not in any trouble are you - oh, but tell me to mind my own if you are - if you’d rather not say!”
“Oh, no, it was nothing like that. She wanted to give me a reading list.”
“Extra reading! Whatever for?”
It was awkward standing over Monica while they talked, so Millie flopped down beside her on the grass. She belatedly wondered if the others would mind, but they were fooling around with a paper fan, and looked no more unfriendly than usual. “She was talking about me maybe moving up next term, if I can catch up in all my subjects. so she’s given me some history books to read.”
“So you might be with us all the time? That’s great news, isn’t it?” Monica seemed genuinely pleased for her. The others managed to contain their joy, though Isa said politely, “That’s good.”
“It’s ridiculously hot, isn’t it?” said Monica, still chatty. Millie personally thought it was only just getting comfortably warm but she wanted to agree with Monica because she was being so friendly. The others sprawled, wilting in the heat.
“Fan me, Vee, pretty please!”
“What did your last slave die of?”
“I hate this sun - I just know I’m getting freckles even as we sit here.”
“You are rather. I could join the dots…”
As the others exchanged idle banter, it occurred to Millie that Ginty might not have seen Monica yet, to warn her about the fuss with the bracelets. It wasn’t really any of her business, but it was only fair to say something.
“Did Ginty say anything to you yet about the bracelet? Only you’d better not wear it any more; we were warned in Form-time that no-one is to wear them or they’ll all get confiscated.”
“What bracelet?” asked Monica, looking confused. Her arms, in her short-sleeved summer uniform blouse, were looking tanned but noticeably bare of any adornment.
“Oh, the bracelets we’re making for our stall. People have been sharing them round, and there’s a bit of a row because they’ve been wearing them in lessons and the Staff have noticed. But obviously Ginty hasn’t?”
“Goodness no. I shouldn’t think she’d be that daft! But I haven’t heard anything about what you’re doing? What is your stall going to be?”
Millie explained. Monica seemed impressed. “That sounds fun. All we’re doing is a coconut shy.”
The bell rang for the end of break. “It’s going to be roasting in the DS room,” Monica sighed. “What have you got next?”
“Geography.”
“Oh, bad luck. See you later then.”
Tradition held that Geography was the subject everyone found dullest, but Millie secretly rather enjoyed it. She had spent so much of her life inside the Temple confines that she was actually genuinely interested in learning about rivers and mountains and such-like.
She was already in her place in the classroom when Unity and Ginty reappeared, flushed from hurrying back from the furthest reaches of the grounds.
“What happened to you?” Ginty asked.
“Talking to Miss Cromwell.”
“We were going to wait but we didn’t know how long you’d be, and then we thought you might be going to piano practice anyway.”
Millie had been perfectly unbothered by Ginty and Unity doing their own thing; but Ginty’s need to over-explain cast a doubt over her mind. It hadn’t occurred to her to feel offended, but now she wondered if she should have.

 

The odd thing was that they did exactly the same thing after lunch. At the end of the meal, Millie was exchanging a few words with their Table Prefect, Olive, a cheerful, friendly girl, who didn’t mind a bit of a joke with her juniors. Then, saying goodbye and glancing round, she noticed that Unity and Ginty had gone on without her. Assuming she would see them ahead of her she left the dining hall and scanned the crowd outside, but it was clear that they had simply slipped away.
There was no point worrying, she decided. After all, she had to go to the Library and look for all of Miss Cromwell’s books anyway. If she could borrow a couple she could find a sunny spot by herself and get started on her reading.

 

The hot weather continued, not only that day, but the next. And the next.
Staff who were never normally dressed in anything but tweed and wool appeared in the most unlikely summer dresses. The pupils moaned that it was ‘too hot to work’. Eventually even Millie acknowledged that it was fractionally too warm for comfort.
It was already warm as they sat in the classroom at Form-time; with the sash windows drawn up as high as they would go. Miss Miller came in with an air of one about to share good news.
“The weather forecast is predicting that this heat will continue well into the next week,” she said. “So we’ve decided to make an exception to the usual rule about Middle Remove not participating in swimming lessons. We’ve written to all your parents to get permission - I know there were health issues at the beginning of term - but I can’t see anyone getting chilled in this glorious weather, can you?!” She beamed at the class, and for once they all smiled back. Middle Remove thought this was excellent news.
“You’ll have time-tabled lessons on Games afternoons, and you’ll be able to put your names down for the Extra Swimming sessions just like everybody else.”
Unity raised her hand. “Excuse me, Miss Miller. Will we be able to enter for the Swimming Gala?”
“That will be up to Miss Redmond and the Games Captain. I imagine they’ll be selecting competitors in the usual way. Why, do you fancy having a go, Unity?”
“Oh no, I wasn’t asking for myself, Miss,” said Unity, gazing meaningfully at Ginty.
Most Staff came down hard and sharp on anyone ‘asking for a friend’. Miss Cromwell would have snapped splendidly, thought Millie. Miss Miller was known for being a ‘soft touch’ but even she felt obliged to say gently, “I’m sure your friend can ask for themselves if they want to know something, Unity.”
The odd thing about Unity, thought Millie, is that she was just the way some of the girls in the books were described. Affectionate, loyal, open in declaring her feelings towards her friends.So why was it so annoying in real life?

Chapter Text

The Goddess made notes about it in slanting foreign-looking handwriting….

 

 

The music practice rooms were arranged on either side of two corridors in the shape of a T, in a single storey extension to the back of the school. By unwritten tradition, the rooms at the busier end of the corridor, adjoining the main school building, were used by the beginners, while the rooms at the far ends of the bar of the ‘T’ were allocated to those who were considered to be competent musicians.
The system wasn’t infallible though; there was an occasional blip in the allocation of practice times and places, so Millie wasn’t too surprised when she found herself down on the rota for Room 3 - one of the ‘good’ rooms.
Arriving for her time slot a few minutes early, she could hear someone still playing inside the room. She leaned against the door to listen better.
This was someone who could actually play. The music flowed on, without the stops and starts and repeated phrases that one normally heard from the practice rooms, often accompanied by sighs of frustration. Millie didn’t know the piece of music of course, but it was gentle and soothing, like a river in summertime; not one of the jolly plonkety-plonk pieces that the girls often played. Millie would have listened for ever and was dismayed when the music came to an end, unexpectedly abruptly. She was still rather dreamily leaning against the door, when it was pulled open from the inside.
“I’m so sorry! I completely lost track of the time,” said the girl rushing out. “You must have been waiting ages!”
“No, no,” protested Millie, who wasn’t aware of time having passed at all. “I was enjoying listening.”
The girl glanced at her watch, and exclaimed in dismay. “I’ve taken half your time up! Goodness, I’m so sorry.” Millie recognised her, but wasn’t sure where from. An older girl, maybe Lower Fifth, with long blonde hair in plaits, and a kind, anxious expression. Then her face cleared. “I know! You must have my next practice slot.”
“There’s really no need,” protested Millie weakly.
The girl said firmly, “Of course you must. I’ll change it on the list now.” At the end of the corridor was a notice-board with the practice rota displayed. The girl took out a pencil and inspected it. “Here, I’m down for Wednesday lunch-time in Two. Is that all right for you?”
“Yes, but honestly, you don’t have to…”
“There,” said the girl, drawing a line through her name, and writing Millie’s neatly over the top. It struck Millie that she hadn’t even told the girl her name, but as if reading her mind, the girl smiled and said, “It is Millie, isn’t it? You’re friends with my sister, Ginty.”
So this was why she thought she’d recognised her. The family resemblance was obvious once Millie had been told. This must be Ann.
“I’ll let you get on with what’s left of your practice,” Ann said. “Again, I’m so sorry. I don’t usually lose track of time like that. But that piano does seem to have the nicest tone, and it always makes me feel as if I’m playing better than usual.”
“Really, I couldn’t mind less. And it sounded lovely - your playing, I mean.”
“Oh, that’s kind of you to say,” said Ann, flushing slightly at the compliment as if unused to them. “It’s a good instrument, that’s all.” And she smiled and hurried away, leaving Millie wondering why Ginty hadn’t said much about this sister. Not for the first time, it struck her that Unity really had chosen the wrong Marlow to be cracked on.

 

It was true that she didn’t have much time left to practise - she’d just run through a few scales. But as she laid her fingers to the keys, a shock ran through her and she instinctively stepped back sharply. That had been a magic shock.
Cautiously, she tried pressing one key at a time. Not such a shock now that she was expecting it, but she could feel the magic fizzing under her fingers. She tried each key once, then looked at the pedals, the lid and down the back of the piano, trying to identify what was causing the feeling. The keys themselves gave her the strongest sense of magic at work, but even the wood of the sides and back gave off a soft, steady magic charge.
She was looking and prodding at it for so long - in silence - that the next girl outside, ready for her turn, assumed there was no-one in the room and barged in.
“Oh sorry! I didn’t know there was anyone in here.” She didn’t retreat though; calmly setting up the music stand and taking her violin out of its case. A dark-haired girl, not pretty but with the sort of face you noticed, a couple of years younger. Millie had seen her before, playing in her Form’s cricket match. They had lost of course, the younger year groups always did, but this girl had made a respectable number of runs.
“Is it out of tune again?” she asked, perhaps noticing Millie’s expression. “They’re always having to get the piano tuner in for that one.”
The girl spoke with a confidence which, if Millie had been with her peers, would have got her classed as a ‘cocky little brat’ - that being Middle School parlance for any Junior who actually dared to speak to their seniors. But Millie hadn’t yet absorbed the dictum that one never spoke to a Junior unless it was absolutely essential, so she responded in a perfectly friendly way. “Do you know anything about this piano?”
“Like what?”
“Where it came from maybe?”
“I think an Old Girl might have donated it to the school. Why d’you want to know?”
Millie smiled in as bland and amiable way as she could, and remembering Ann’s words, said, “Oh, I just wondered. It’s got the nicest tone of any of them.”
“Oh, yes. I’ve heard people say that,” agreed the girl. Losing interest in Millie, she lifted her violin to her chin and raised her bow, then waited, clearly signalling that as it was now her time to use the room, Millie was surplus to requirements.
Millie gathered up her music book and left.

 

Gabriel had given her an address in Somerset to which she could write; his contact in World 12B who would be able to pass on messages. He had warned her to be careful about what she wrote because he suspected the Staff occasionally checked both ingoing and outgoing letters. So she usually wrote innocent letters assuring him of how hard she was working, and how happy she was at school.
‘...... I am practising at the piano as much as possible. I hope you will be able to come to the school Open Day when I am hoping to be able to show you something - I will demonstrate what I have learned about this interesting instrument (underlined).’ In case that wasn’t clear enough she added ‘I know you were interested in the history of this school. I hope when you visit I will be able to tell you all that I have learned (underlined) and show you some interesting features (also underlined).’
She supposed that Open Day would be soon enough for Gabriel to look at the piano. It didn’t seem possible to do it any earlier - relatives did occasionally appear on weekend afternoons, but they were always expected to take their daughters or nieces out to tea, and were never permitted to wander around the school itself. And as far as she could tell,the piano wasn’t actually doing anything with its magic charge. It could stay safely where it was for a couple more weeks, until the Chrestomanci could come and deal with it.
Millie’s letters to Gabriel were usually short and formal. She had, more or less rightly, guessed that Gabriel would not be that interested in the intricacies of boarding school life. If she had written more informally she might have mentioned something about how her friends didn’t seem to be her friends any more. Or rather, it wasn’t that they were unfriendly when they were together; it was just that most of the time they didn’t seem to need her around any more.
On a brighter note she might have mentioned how good she was getting at both swimming and diving. But as it was, she simply signed off, ‘Looking forward to seeing you soon, Yours affectionately, Millie.’

Chapter Text

This was wonderfully jolly, Christopher thought, when he had recovered enough to share his supper with the Goddess and Throgmorten. It was thoroughly companionable knowing a person who had the same sort of magic. He had a feeling that this was the real reason why he had kept visiting the Temple of Asheth.

 

 

Christopher looked through the wrought iron gates at Kingscote School. He shouldn’t have been there, of course. Not only should he not be anywhere near Kingscote, he shouldn’t even be in World 12B.
When Millie’s latest letter had arrived, he had been eager to go and see her at once. But Gabriel had been frustratingly unworried. It was obvious, he had said in his dry, irritable way, that Millie didn’t think there was any great hurry to see whatever it was that she’d found. He had more pressing concerns at present - there were problems in World 5 and World 8 that needed his attention urgently. And, noticing Christopher’s expression and rightly distrusting him, he’d made it quite clear that Christopher did not have permission to go off visiting World 12B on his own account.
But the Chrestomanci had gone away today to deal with the magical misdemeanours in World 5, taking Flavius - Christopher’s tutor - with him.
So here he was, ostensibly in the school room in the castle getting on with some dull tasks, but actually standing here at the front gate of Kingscote.
He had come prepared. He knew how to do invisibility, but making himself invisible and walking into a girls’ school would be horribly sneaky - even without Gabriels’s strictures on the inadvisability of doing magic in a non-magic world. So he was wearing a full-length apron borrowed from Jason the bootboy, and in case he was challenged, in the pocket was a large piece of beef, wrapped in several layers of oiled paper. If asked, he was going to say that he was the butcher’s boy bringing up a piece of meat that had been left off that morning’s order. He had even practised talking the way Jason talked, though he wasn’t entirely confident about that; it sounded alright in his head but it didn’t come out right in his own voice. He couldn’t imagine the scullery maids giggling the way they did with Jason - although they might well laugh outright.
Looking in at the school, he made an educated guess as to which way the tradesman's’ entrance would be, and set off walking round the wall that skirted the grounds. Eventually he came to a much less grand gateway, and turned in.
Almost immediately he realised that his plan wasn’t going to work. Not that it had been much of a plan - he had optimistically assumed that he would be able to walk past the building closely enough to look in some of the windows. In his hopeful imaginings, that had led to him passing exactly the right room and spotting whatever it was that Millie had found.
But the narrow road that led up to the rear of the school had a thick hedge on one side and vegetable gardens on the other. There must have been half an acre of peas and beans climbing up their poles, in full flower, between him and the school. Eventually he came to a low brick building smelling of steam and soap which he guessed was the laundry. Then there was a wood store with neatly chopped logs stacked up to a sloping, corrugated roof; next to that a building attached to the school which might have been a boiler room. On the other side, the hedge had given way to a raggedy copse of trees and bushes - a hedge that had been allowed to sprawl - presumably to shield the pupils from the sight of nosy butcher’s boys. He could hear sounds of life on the other side; distant voices, girls laughing, the regular thwack of a tennis ball, an occasional raised voice of someone urging someone else to ‘follow through after the serve’.
He had come to a part of the main building, with the windows and door standing open in the heat, emitting a strong, cabbagey smell of institutional food, which must be the kitchens. But there seemed no point in approaching closer just to look in a kitchen door. The smell itself was off-putting.
He turned and walked away along the line of the hedge. It had been rather pointless coming here after all.
The hedge was loose and straggly, and easy to slip through in places. The shade was pleasant after the hot sun on the exposed road, so he stepped through. He could see between the scrubby trees and bramble bushes to a chicken-wire type fence on the other side.
He walked a little way, assuming that this area was out of bounds to the girls, when he was startled to hear voices. He froze, listening. Not voices, he realised. It was just one voice, but it was going up and down, sometimes husky, sometimes piping high in a strange falsetto. Curious, he crept slowly closer.
“The bell’s gone.” That was a different voice, lower, flatter.
“Just once more. I had it right that time.” The first voice, but sounding ordinary. “An I may hide my face, let me play Thisbe too, I’ll speak in a monstrous little voice, ‘Thisbe! Thisbe!’ ‘Ah, Pyramus, lover dear! Thy Thisbe dear and lady dear!’”
Christopher could just see them now through the leaves. There were two girls, one partially obscured from view as she seemed to be sitting down, but the other was the one talking; and she was stomping around and waving her arms. What was she doing?
A stick cracked under his foot. Both girls turned to look. Their faces were surprised and - seeing him - hostile, but they were smaller and younger than Millie, which gave him confidence.
“Don’t mind me, girls,” he said cheerfully, channeling Jason. “You carry on with your games.”
Their gaze became even more hostile. “Excuse me?” said the dark haired one. She looked him up and down , taking in the apron. “You seem to have lost your way?”
“Hiding from the Mistresses are you?” he carried on, trying to ignore their haughty stares. The blonde one flushed guiltily which meant that he was right - they weren’t supposed to be here. “Don’t worry. I won’t tell anyone you’re here.” He drew short of adding ‘me darlings’ or ‘my lovelies’, but he added a cheeky wink.
They both glared at him. “I can go wherever I like as it happens. My Aunt is the Head-mistress,” said the dark one.
“She won’t mind you having a friendly chat with the butcher’s boy then?”
“I think she’d mind very much that you’re wandering around where you’ve no business to be, spying on people. Who exactly are you looking for?”
“No need to get narky with me now. I’m not looking for anyone - just fancied a minute in the shade. It’s a hot old day to be traipsing about like I have to. But I’ll be making my way onwards now. Thanks for the friendly welcome, girls.” Another wink, and he retreated as smartly as he could, while pretending to look as if he couldn’t care less... Safely back on the road, he whistled a tune as he walked deliberately casually towards the exit, just in case they were watching to make sure he’d gone.
It had been a wasted morning, he thought, tramping down the road - though it hadn’t been as boring as it would have been if he’d just stayed at home doing dull practice. He hadn’t found anything, he hadn’t seen Millie…. He was rather surprised with himself at that thought, having not realised that he’d been secretly hoping to see her. It had been fun when Millie moved to the castle and he missed her being there.
‘Who are you looking for?’ the unfriendly girl had asked. It only now struck him that they’d assumed he was secretly meeting a girl - a ‘sweetheart’ - from the school. That thought, following closely on the realisation that he missed Millie, made him feel hot, foolish and embarrassed all the way home.


He was in trouble when he got back to the castle. The cook caught him as he was trying to put the meat back where he’d found it in the pantry. She had rather a lot to say about her nice piece of meat being carried around in a dirty apron on a hot summer’s day. She had been going to put it in a pie for everyone’s dinner, with some kidneys, and now it was only going to be fit for mincing up for the kitten and Throgmorten.
After the cook’s ear-bashing Christopher felt even more cross about his failed morning. But Throgmorten, who always seemed to be within earshot in the run-up to mealtimes, was more than usually pleased to see him and actually purred while allowing Christopher to rub his head.

Chapter Text

“You will have to go to school …..Regard that as your punishment. You may come and live in the Castle with the rest of the young enchanters during the holidays.”
The Goddess’s blissful smile came back…..”Hols,” she corrected Gabriel. “The books always call them the hols.”

 

 

Millie, alone in the classroom, looked at the dull, leftover beads in the bottom of the box. Reaching in at random, she picked out a round bead. It was a particularly neutral shade of brown. She twirled it in her fingers. ‘Poor thing,’ she thought. ‘But don’t worry, little bead, I shall make you into the most interesting necklace, and someone will pay more for you than all the pretty, sparkly ones.’ Aware she was being foolish, she giggled quietly at herself.
It was the lunch break and Ginty and Unity had gone for one of their long walk-and-talks. Millie had planned to catch up on her reading, but bored with her current book, had wandered back to the classroom.
Most people had given up on the jewelry making by now; and in fact, there weren’t many beads left. All the nicest ones had been used. All that was left were the muddiest pastel coloured paste beads, some brown glass, a few pewter charms so misshapen that one couldn’t tell what they had been meant to be and some brass bits and pieces. On something of a whim, Millie decided to use them all up in a many stranded necklace, following the pattern of one that adorned the statue of Asheth in the Temple - though that had of course been made of rare and precious stones.
She was feeling rather out of sorts what with one thing and another. Well, one thing really. What were Ginty and Unity endlessly talking about during their long, secret walks? Could they really not include her, at least sometimes? How much could two people say to each other day after day? She felt torn between irritation at their mutual self-obsession and wistfulness at being left out. The odd thing was, she thought, that neither Ginty nor Unity were all that interesting - not on their own, anyway - they ought to be boring each other senseless; and then she was surprised at how nasty that thought was, and was ashamed at herself for thinking it. Guiltily she amended it - of course Ginty was always amusing when there were things going on and a bit of an audience, and Unity was - was ‘deep’. She was always trying to make things more important and meaningful, even when they weren’t. Ginty had once lent them both her favourite book, which Millie had privately thought was absolutely horrible, but Unity had gushed over it and Millie could imagine her growing up to write that sort of thing herself one day.
As she worked she felt soothed by the simple task of choosing which bead came next, and she relaxed. It wasn’t all that long now to the ‘hols’, and then she’d have Christopher to talk to.
The classroom door burst open and Alice and Fiona came in, closely followed by Sheila and Violet.
“Guess what?” cried Fiona, eager to be first with the news.
“What?” asked Millie obligingly.
Guess!”
“Honestly, I can’t.”
Luckily the other girls didn’t want to drag out the guessing game either. “Your name’s down for the Diving Cup!”
“Me? In the Diving Cup?”
“Yes! Isn’t it great?” They all beamed at her, as excited on her behalf as if they’d been picked themselves. “We’ll have someone to cheer on for once.”
“Who else is in it?”
“Ginty, Monica Elliott, Terry Hunt, Jocelyn and Emma - all the usual ones.”
She didn’t think she had a hope of winning or even being placed, but it was a massive honour to be picked at all. The Diving Cup was a proper school competition, held on the last morning of term, and the twelve people who competed in each section were picked by Miss Craven herself.
“And you’re bound to get into the Final at the Swimming,” said Alice. “You could win the swimming and the diving!”
“Oh no,” said Millie, horrified at how optimistic they were being. “There’s lots of better swimmers than me.”
“Well, we’d all rather it was you,” said Violet. “We’ll  be supporting you.”
“Even if you can’t actually hear us,” amended Fiona, because it was considered bad form to openly cheer on one’s friends in the Middles. Only in the Juniors was that behaviour  tolerated, and even for them excessive cheering was frowned upon.

 

The Swimming Gala was more informal than the Diving Cup, largely left by Miss Craven to be run by the Games Captain and a team of ‘volunteers’ from amongst the Sixth Form.
In theory, anyone who could swim well enough to rescue a drowning second year from the bottom of the pool was expected to help with the Gala, as they had for Extra Swimming; but Margaret Jessop was a kindly soul. As far as possible she left the most studious Sixth Formers, such as her friend Karen, off the list, and mostly used those who were in with a chance of being Games Captain next year, and those who would rather be topping up their tan by the pool than sweating over their books.
As anyone who’d ever shown up at Extra Swimming was allowed to take part in the Gala - including no-hopers like Unity, who only came because their best friends did - there were ten or so heats to be swum in each age group. The winners of the heats swam in a final race against each other, to win the Junior, Middle or Senior section.
The swimmers in each heat were meant to be drawn at random, but successive generations of Games Captains had thought that was a silly idea, and instead operated an unofficial Seeding system, so that the best swimmers didn’t race against each other until the Final.
The Gala was due to be held on Saturday afternoon, but as the girls told Millie, it was not unusual for it to be postponed two or three times. One famously wet summer it had been cancelled altogether; after which the Roof Fund had been launched.


But Saturday dawned fine and clear. After breakfast everyone had to go to the hall, form an orderly queue, and each carry one folding wooden chair down to the pool. They were lined in rows on the grass either side of the pool, behind the row of deck-chairs that were provided for the Staff. Under Margaret’s supervision, Rowan Marlow, Lois Sanger and Janice Scott were pulling buoyed ropes across the pool to mark the lanes.
Someone had found some old strings of bunting and hung them at each end of the pool. The Girl Guides, under the direction of Ann Marlow, were setting up a stall selling homemade refreshments. It was all looking very festive and holiday-like.
Even the non-swimmers found it hard to concentrate on their lessons that morning. Staff repeated warnings that however well they thought they’d done in their exams, that didn’t mean that they should stop working before the end of term; but their exhortations fell on mostly deaf ears.
Eventually, to everyone’s relief, it was lunch-time. And then, after the regulation hour’s rest they all trooped down to the pool. It was a glorious afternoon. The wooden chairs were warm to the touch, and the water sparkled in the sunlight.
Rowan Marlow, easily the most forceful of the Sixth Formers, was in charge of getting the Juniors in and out of the changing rooms, and lined up in time for their races. Margaret and Lois stood at the end of the pool to judge the finish. Other Prefects called out the names for the next heat, recorded results and stood glaring at the spectators if any of them showed signs of rowdiness.
Millie was sitting just behind Unity and Ginty. Caught up in the jollity of the occasion they’d been turning their heads to include her in their chat in quite the old way. But after a closely fought race during which all conversation had stopped, Millie noticed Unity pull something out of her pocket to show Ginty. All she saw was a glimpse of pink, and overheard Unity say, “I’ll be secretly holding it when you’re swimming.” It must be one of those bracelets.
Millie was relieved to hear her name called. The last Junior heat was being swum, and Val Longstreet was calling the names of the first Middles to swim once the Junior Final was over. Millie hurried with the others into the large wooden shelter that served as changing room, pulled dress off and bathing suit on, and hanging bag and towel on a spare peg emerged to gather with the others on a patch of grass, where they waited, jiggling up and down nervously by way of warm up.
A flurry of cheering greeted the winner of the Juniors, and Rowan waved them to their places.
The whistle blew, Millie dived, felt the usual shock of the cold water but surged into it with a strong crawl. She lifted her head at the end to find that she was on her own, having won by lengths.
As a winner she had to grab her towel, and sit on the long bench outside the changing room, while the others changed and went back to their places. The next heat was swum and Unity came back, grinning for once, because she had surprised herself by not actually coming last. The winner, a girl from IVB that Millie didn’t really know, came and sat down at the other end of the bench.
The wooden sides of the changing room were thin and flimsy, with odd holes where knots in the wood had fallen out. She realised she could hear conversations going on inside - mostly people wishing each other luck for the next race or commiserations over the previous one - when she heard voices she knew directly behind her head.
“Good luck, Gin. Not that you’ll need it - you’re bound to win the whole thing!” That sounded like Jocelyn.
“Oh, no, don’t say that. I’m out of practice this year - and there’s Monica ….” Ginty, sounding nervous. “Oh, and Millie. She’s pretty good.”
“Oh, her. Well, she is built just like a porpoise so I suppose she ought be able to swim.” Sniggers. Not Ginty, she didn’t think, but one of the others - Emma? Isa? Not Monica, because Monica was in the pool, winning her race by miles. That was a relief, at least.
She had time to arrange her face before Monica came and sat down beside her. “Well done!”
“Thanks. And you! Should we say good luck for the next bit?”
“Yes, why not!” They grinned at each other. Making a joke of it, they shook hands.
It would be fun to be properly friends with Monica, if she moved up to the A form next year. But Ginty would be moving up too, so that probably wouldn’t happen.
Ginty won her heat easily, and came and sat beside them, then Emma, Jocelyn, Terry Hunt, two more from the Upper IVth and one more from Lower IVB.
“We’d better warm up,” said Monica, stretching and then star-jumping vigorously. Millie felt too self-conscious to jump around, She found a space away from Emma and Jocelyn and stretched as best she could.
Then Rowan was yelling at them to line up. She stood on the edge of the pool and found Ginty on one side, Monica on the other. Of course it didn’t really matter who won; in the books all that mattered was that you’d done your best, but all the same …..  she was going to show them just how fast a ‘porpoise’ could swim.
The whistle shrilled; her dive in was flawless, gained her a length and she came into her stroke perfectly. She had never forced herself through the water this hard before, she thought her lungs would burst; then throwing her arm forward to touch the end, she shook water out of her eyes to see firstly Monica on her left and Ginty on her right.
The finish had been so close that the spectators couldn’t tell who’d won and were temporarily silent, until Margaret shouted, “First - Monica Elliott, second Millie De Witt, third Ginty Marlow.”
Then the crowd clapped and cheered. Monica was a popular winner, but Lower IV Remove made an unseemly amount of noise whooping for Millie’s second place, and earned themselves a series of quelling looks from the Staff, not that they cared this late in the term.
Margaret was grinning at them. “You were jolly close! That was a terrific race! You were only a split second behind each other.”
They couldn’t stand there long enjoying the moment. The Senior races had to be swum. Miss Craven and Miss Redmond came to take over as judges so that Margaret and Lois could compete.
Monica, Millie and Ginty all shook hands with each other, earning a fresh round of applause and made their way back to the changing room.
“Well done,” said Millie to Monica.
“It could have been any of us,” said Monica. “I just got lucky today. Next time it’ll be one of you.”
“You were ace today, Mon,” said Ginty. “Really well done.” She just might have congratulated Millie too, but at that moment Rowan called to them to hurry up and change.
And because they did want to watch the Senior races after all, and not just because no-one disobeyed Rowan Marlow, they hurried up.
When they got back to their seats, Ginty and Millie found that Unity had bought them both one of the little cherry buns that the Guides were selling.
“Who do you want to win the Seniors?” she asked, after they’d thanked her.
“Margaret,” said Ginty, who knew her from visits home with Karen.
“Janice or Rowan,” said Millie, as casually as she could, while hoping it would be Janice.
Ginty frowned. “Rowan always wins everything.” She sounded rather pettish.
“I think Margaret too,” said Unity, because that was who Ginty wanted.
The little bun was the nicest thing she had eaten at school so far, thought Millie, as she bit into a particularly big piece of cherry. Or perhaps what she was really tasting was the pleasure of having beaten Ginty and all her snotty friends.

And then the icing on the cake was that Janice did, after all, win the Senior’s race.

Chapter Text

“Gosh!” said the Goddess. It was a word she must have picked up from her Millie books.

 

 

The weather turned grey and cool for the last week of school. Staff tilted their heads anxiously skywards looking for drops of rain, and discussed having to put the stalls for the Summer Fair in the Hall rather than on the lawn. But although the clouds threatened, the rain held off and Extra Swimming never needed to be cancelled.
Every day after lessons Millie practised her dives, her pikes, somersaults and tucks, along with the others who were entered for the Diving Cup. By unspoken agreement, the deep end of the pool was left for their use only, for as long as they wanted to practise. In another long-standing if unofficial tradition, the Sixth-formers on duty gave anyone who wanted it some gentle coaching in preparation for the day. Rowan Marlow stayed away, as did any other Prefect who had sisters in the competition, so that it was all fair and impartial. But Janice was there; and it was a secret pleasure for Millie all that week to listen to her unhurried, good-humoured advice, and following it, to feel herself improving.
Years later, watching her own children (and several wards) pushing each other off a diving board in the South of France, she recalled those chilly afternoons in the pool at Kingscote and Janice’s calm, cheerful coaching, and thought that it was one of her happier memories from school.

 

The morning of Speech Day dawned dry, if not bright, meaning the Fair could safely take place on the lawns in front of the school. The bunting was unravelled again, this time to loop between a couple of wobbly posts marking the entrance to the Fair. Trestle tables were dotted around on the grass in a large oblong.
Alice seemed to have a surprising commercial flair - she’d slipped out before breakfast to ‘bag’ the best spot for their stall, and had now taken charge of setting it up. She’d had the bright idea of borrowing some of the busts from the Art Room to display the more striking necklaces. To give them more height, they were sat on piles of books. The books, and the table itself, was covered in borrowed tablecloths.
Officially the Stalls were meant to be set up and run by the girls unaided, but most of the Form Mistresses came to cast a proprietary eye over their own Form’s efforts. (Even though it was generally accepted that Miss Cromwell’s Form would certainly win if they were to be so undignified as to have their own little contest as to whose Form would make the most money , one or two of the younger Staff had private hopes of putting her nose out of joint.)
“Oh, I say, this looks lovely,” said Miss Miller.
“Don’t you think our stall looks the best?” asked Fiona, with end-of-term cheek.
Miss Miller almost grinned, but said dutifully, “I think all the stalls are looking wonderful. But you should definitely be proud of yourselves, girls. You’ve worked really hard on this.”
“Millie, mostly,” said Alice, waving at their centrepiece. To Millie’s surprise, Alice had hung her ‘brown’ necklace on the bust in the very centre of the stall.
“Goodness, yes,” said Miss Miller. “That is splendid.” It was true that the necklace looked far better than Millie had imagined it would when she’d started it; once strung together over five strands the beads had lost their dull, drab look and instead seemed to glow softly with deep, subtle shades of hidden colour.
“What do you think we should charge for some of these bigger ones?” Violet asked Miss Miller. “We thought shillings and sixpence for the smaller ones and the friendship bracelets.”
Miss Miller pondered. “How about you don’t put an actual price on the more unique ones. Ask for a suitable donation instead. That way people tend to give more than you might have asked.”
“Unless they only offer a few pennies,” said Ginty. Having lost interest in the jewelry making fairly early on, she was now feeling bored and left out as the others’ work was admired.
“In that case, you say no politely,” said Miss Miller. Some of the girls looked doubtful, foreseeing a level of haggling that they weren’t prepared for. But Alice said cheerfully, “Oh yes. We can do that.”
The first parents and visitors started arriving from eleven o’clock, and the Fair was officially open. Their first customers were a gaggle of Juniors who had been watching them lay out the rows of bright colours with eager magpie eyes, after which they were kept busy serving both school people and visitors. They did a roaring trade in the friendship bracelets.
“This is fun,” said Alice. “I’d quite like to do this properly.”
“What, run a market stall?” asked Unity, who hadn’t forgotten that it was Alice who’d once sneered at her father’s trade.
“Well, no, I was thinking more of a shop. Somewhere nice like Bond Street. It costs an awful lot to come out properly, I wonder if Pa wouldn’t rather set me up somewhere.”
The others listened, half envious, half sceptical. “I can’t think of anything more boring,” said Ginty scornfully. “Having to be polite to customers all day.”
“But I’d be matching them up with the perfect jewels to suit them … and they’d be the most distinguished customers. Like those two - they could come in my shop …”
Following Alice’s gaze, Millie recognised Gabriel and Christopher. With a delighted squeak, she rushed off to greet them.

 

Christopher was feeling overwhelmed. There were girls everywhere - all shapes, sizes and ages - all dressed in the same dingy blue uniform - all chattering girlishly, or giggling girlishly, or generally just being … girlish. And he was the only boy in sight - of his sort of age at least. There were fathers of course - generally bearded and tweedy and smelling of cigarettes, and a few small boys - siblings brought to see Big Sister’s school, but no-one at all who looked like him. He followed Gabriel and Millie through the crowd, as Gabriel politely greeted Staff or spent handfuls of small coins at the various stalls. He must remember to ask Gabriel where he got the right sort of money for the different Worlds.
It didn’t help that he was feeling conspicuous in what he was wearing. Since coming to live in the castle he’d needed a new set of clothes and he’d been allowed to go shopping with Mordecai. For the first time in his life he’d actually had a say in what clothes he wore, and he’d enjoyed himself hugely picking out different coloured shirts and ties. His suit today was quite a conventional pale grey on the outside, (although it had a beautiful blue lining which showed when he unbuttoned the jacket) but his shirt was a bright sapphire blue which pleased him immensely, matched with a paisley tie. Unfortunately, he could see now, that it was the wrong thing to have worn to a Girls’ School Open Day.
“Why do they all have to stare so?” he muttered crossly to Millie. She paused, tilting her head to look at him properly. She had to look up quite a long way; he seemed to have grown even taller in the space of a few weeks.
“I don’t think they’re used to seeing anyone like you,” she said matter-of-factly.
About to ask her what she meant, he suddenly had a shock. Standing right in their path was the little blonde girl that he’d met on his previous visit. Horrified, he was afraid that she would say something incriminating. She was looking straight at him, a bright, observant, alert sort of glance, and then, inexplicably, she looked away - with not a flicker of recognition. He ought to have been relieved, but instead he felt oddly piqued.
“Would you say I have a memorable face?” he asked Millie, feeling foolish.
“Christopher!” she exclaimed. “What’s with you today? Yes, you’re very good looking and very memorable. Happy now?”
He was, ridiculously so.
Having navigated their way around the Fair, Millie led them into the building. Christopher found himself carrying all the bits and pieces that Gabriel had bought. “What are you going to do with all this stuff?” he asked. In one hand he held a pile of raffia placemats tied together with ribbon, and a small stack of embroidered handkerchiefs, and from the other dangled a selection of pom-poms.
“One has to show willing,” said Gabriel. “I thought the kitten might like the pom-poms to play with, instead of shredding all my best socks.”
Millie beamed at him gratefully. “Oh, thank you! How is she?”
“Oh, she’s practically running the castle,” Gabriel told her.
“She even bosses Throgmorten around,” added Christopher.
“Oh, good,” said Millie. She led them through the corridors to the Music Rooms, chatting casually, and stopping occasionally to look at displays of needlework, or sketches and paintings done by the more promising pupils. They could have been any family being shown round the school.
Once in the Practice Room itself however, they all fell silent. Gabriel lifted the lid of the piano, and stood still, lightly resting his fingers on the keys. Christopher didn’t really look at the piano at all; instead he seemed to gaze away from it, with a distant, vague expression on his face. Millie knew that look, and simply waited.
Eventually Gabriel stepped back. He indicated to Christopher. “See what you think.”
Christopher also touched the keys, pressing one after the after and seeming to listen to each note. Then he poked round the sides and top, tapping the wood here and there. “Can we get the back off, do you think?”
“Do you think that’s necessary?” asked Gabriel. “What do you make of it?”
“I don’t know,” admitted Christopher. “But what it reminds me of - or, at least, as close as I can get - is some of the furniture in the Castle. You know, when something’s been in a magical place for a long time and lots of charms and spells have sort of rubbed off on it. It’s almost like a magic smell.”
Gabriel looked pleased. “Yes, it’s been owned or used by someone with power.”
“And it doesn’t seem dangerous. I mean, it feels harmless,” said Christopher. “Do you think it can do anything?”
“That’s the question,” replied Gabriel. “I wonder who owned it before.”
“It was given to the school by an old girl -” Millie began.
“Fernanda Knowles?” asked Christopher.
“How do you know that?” asked Millie, rather put out. It had taken her a long and painstakingly artless conversation with Olive one lunchtime, on the subject of famous old girls, to find out that name.
“There’s a picture of her up there,” said Christopher, nodding at the wall above the piano. Millie looked and saw that he was right. It was hung rather high up, it was true, and it was also rather dusty, but if you bothered to look you could see a photo of a young lady seated at a grand piano in front of an orchestra, and across the bottom of the photo in very loopy writing was an autograph - ‘With many thanks, Fernanda.’
Gabriel looked too. “I think we’ll have to meet Fernanda. She shouldn’t be too hard to find. I’ll make some enquiries.”
“Can I come too?” asked Millie. “When you go and see her?”
“I don’t see why not. If I can arrange it, we’ll go straight to see her after we pick you up, day after tomorrow. As long as she’s not away playing in a concert somewhere.”
“Should we do anything about the piano?” asked Christopher.
“No. I think as it seems to be quite dormant at present we may as well leave it alone.”
They wandered out of the room and slowly made their way back outside. “I believe we’re allowed to take you out to lunch while we’re here. Shall we walk into the town and see what we can get?” asked Gabriel.
As they came out onto the lawns, some of Middle Remove saw Millie and called excitedly. She crossed over to their stall to see why they were beckoning and waving.
“Someone’s bought your necklace!” said several voices. “He’s coming back for it, but he’s gone to see Miss Keith.” Millie could make no sense of this.
“What’s he gone to see Miss Keith about?”
“He’s someone’s dad from Upper IIIA - d’you know a girl called Miranda? Anyway he was looking at it for ages and he asked if it was some sort of copy of something - he was talking about archaeology and stuff we’ve never heard of - but anyway he asked how much, and we said the thing about an appropriate donation, and he said to hold it for him, and he was going to talk to Miss Keith.”
“We think it means he’s going to give something big. I mean, everyone says he’s rolling in it, apparently.”
Gabriel and Christopher stood at a discreet distance, waiting. Millie hesitated - everyone was grinning at her as if she was the hero of the hour, but she didn’t see that she’d done so very much. And before she could wonder what to do, the crowd shifted and she saw Miss Keith hurrying over, accompanied by a small, dark-haired man, and the girl called Miranda trailing politely after them.
“Ah, here you are, Millie,” said Miss Keith, smiling expansively. “Mr West has been expressing his admiration for a necklace I believe you created.”
“Yes, Miss Keith.”
Mr West turned dark, bright eyes on her - and she saw at once that he was shy, and rather uncomfortable with all the fuss. She smiled gently and held out her hand. He shook it and smiled warmly. “It’s so fascinating - what you have made. Are you interested in Egyptology?”
She was going to have to make something up. “I - I copied the idea from some pictures I saw once, of a necklace that was hung on a statue of a Goddess. It was somewhere from the East.”
“Wonderful. I think it must have taken a lot of work?”
Everyone has worked very hard to prepare for this day,” said Miss Keith. Her smile had wavered slightly at the mention of heathen Goddesses. “All our forms have made a wonderful effort.”
“Yes, of course,” said Mr West politely. “But I think this is something out of the ordinary.”
“We’ll wrap it up for you, shall we?” asked Alice, pulling out sheets of newspaper ready.
Mr West thanked everyone earnestly. Miranda slipped her hand under his arm fondly. Miss Keith watched Alice packing up the necklace with a complacent expression - as if, Middle Remove told each other later - it had all been her own work.
And Millie, politely answering Mr West’s comments, wondered just what she’d done.

 

They went into the smartest looking hotel in Wade Abbas, on the High Street close to the cathedral. Christopher and Millie ordered chicken and chips. It was probably the nicest meal she’d been given in this World - but Millie only picked at it, pushing the food round her plate.
“Have you had enough of school yet?” asked Christopher hopefully.
“Maybe,” Millie replied. There was a distinct wobble to her voice. Both Christopher and Gabriel looked at her. She sniffed and swallowed. “I’m sorry. You said not to use magic in this world. But I think I must have …. I didn’t mean to ... but it just happened!”
“Why? What have you done?” asked Gabriel with mild surprise.
“I was picking the last beads out of the box, and I thought I was just talking to myself, but I said they were going to be the best necklace and earn the most money … and I think they have!”
“You don’t know that, do you?”
“Well, Miss Keith was smiling all over her face, so I think Mr West must have given them a really big amount towards the swimming pool. I mean, you saw her!”
“She did seem rather pleased,” agreed Gabriel. “Although one can’t necessarily assume it was anything to do with you.”
“You can’t make something happen just by talking about it,” said Christopher, then doubtfully turning to Gabriel. “Could she?”
“There is a type of magic that works that way,” said Gabriel. “And Millie certainly has the power if she chose to use it. But in general, that sort of charm only speeds up something that was going to happen naturally or enhances something that’s already in motion.”
“Do you think he was going to make a donation anyway?”
“I imagine so. You can’t have done any real harm even if you did make it happen - you couldn’t have made him give money he didn’t actually have, for example.”
“Oh,” said Millie. She still felt guilty, but was consoled enough to eat the rest of her chicken. Nor did she demur when Gabriel ordered them chocolate-nut sundaes for pudding.
“Should we stay for the speeches and the play?” asked Gabriel. “We can if you’d like us to?”
“Oh, no,” said Millie, spooning chocolate sauce. “Everyone says it’s frightfully dull. Even the people who get prizes find most of it a dead bore.”
“What about the Play?”
“It’s Shakespeare. We’ve been reading it in English. I don’t know what you’d make of it - it’s all about fairies playing tricks on people and making them fall in love with each other.”
“Ah. You don’t think it might be rather educational for Christopher?”
“Oh, no, it’s rather silly…..” answered Millie, before she realised that in his quiet, dry way, Gabriel was making a joke.
“We had a Shakespeare in our world,” Gabriel pointed out. “He was a minor magician as well - used to make special effects for the stage until one of his fire illusions burnt down the theatre. There’s some of his plays in the Castle library, if you ever want to compare them. The Tempest is rather a favourite of mine.”

 

Millie said her goodbyes to Christopher and Gabriel at the end of the drive, and they disappeared discreetly. Millie half-wished she had asked them to stay for the Prize-giving and the Play, because it had been so much fun seeing them both again. But it was only till the day after tomorrow, she reminded herself. It was silly to be missing them now.
Giving herself a quick shake she turned and walked up to the school. There she met Violet also going into the Hall on her own, ( her brother wasn’t well enough for her mother to leave, she explained) so they joined up and went in together.

Form prizes weren’t given in the Remove classes, partly because no-one was supposed to be in a Remove class permanently, and partly because their abilities were so widely mixed. Those of Middle Remove who didn’t have parents to sit with sat together in a row towards the back where they could variously yawn, day-dream or exchange whispered jokes under cover of applause. Ginty had gone to sit with her family, and the back of her head could just be seen, sitting between Ann’s tidy plaits and the short bob of one of the twins. Karen, sitting at the aisle end of the row, had to go up and give the Head-Girl’s speech; and Rowan, next to her, had to go and get various sporting trophies. Then Ann, who’d won a Form Prize, had to climb over their knees to get out too. Poor Ginty, thought Millie, with all that to live up to; though everyone said Ginty was the favourite to win the Diving Cup, so she probably would have something to show her parents by the end of term.

 

Despite warning the others that the play was going to be silly, Millie had been looking forward to seeing it. She had never seen a real play in her life, but some of the school stories had had plays in them, and they always turned out astonishingly well - no matter what had gone wrong in rehearsal.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream wasn’t astonishingly good. It wasn’t all bad - no-one stumbled over their lines, there were no anxious gaps when someone missed a cue, the scenery didn’t fall down. But none of the actors ever made the audience forget that they were not in an Athenian woodland - they were only too aware that they were sitting on uncomfortable chairs watching school girls walking around on a stage in costumes that had been used for every school production since before the war. The best that could be said was that their diction was good, and they acted with confidence - some of them with enjoyment. The audience were variously supportive or bored, depending on whether their best friends or their daughters were in it. Most of them even laughed at the scenes that were supposed to be funny.

In the hall afterwards, handing round a plate of sandwiches that Ginty had off-loaded onto her, Millie heard snatches of opinion. Hadn’t Rachel Wilmot been good as Helena? She’d probably been the best thing in it. Hadn’t Val been deadly dull as Theseus, but wasn’t he a dull character anyway?
Once her plate had been emptied she left it on one of the trestle tables and made her escape. Parents were saying their goodbyes; those without visiting family were either slipping away, or trying to grab the last sandwiches. One or two virtuous types were starting to tidy up the empty plates.
But it was the Diving Cup tomorrow, and all she wanted to do was get to bed on time and have a good night’s sleep.

Chapter Text

The Goddess’s round face became all smile, so much smile that her face could hardly hold it and she spread out her arms as well. “They’re the most marvelous books in this world! It’s like really being at Lowood House school. I cry every time I read them.”

 

 

At breakfast, Ginty was unusually chatty, which most of the others interpreted as being nervy about that morning’s competition. It was one of the rare mornings on which they were given boiled eggs, but Ginty wasn’t sure she wanted hers.
“You ought to eat it,” said Unity, who’d been offered it. “Keep your strength up.”
Fiona laughed. “You sound like my mum when I’m skating. Ginty’s only got to jump off the board a few times.”
“It’s not just jumping, though is it? It’s an athletic performance,” said Unity doggedly, the only one not to see that Fiona was obviously joking.
“I’ll have it if you don’t want,” said Millie, who’d finished her own egg and rather wished there was more of it. Ginty passed it over.
Millie’s not too nervous to eat,” observed Alice.
“No more am I!” snapped Ginty. “I don’t much care for eggs!”
Middle Remove, sceptical, but not interested enough to argue, carried on consuming toast and tea.
Millie said, “I’m glad it’s just a school thing. I mean - we don’t have to worry about letting anyone else down.It’s not like a team competition, is it? It’s only ourselves we’re making a fool of if we do mess up.”
“It’s alright for you. No-one’s expecting you to do particularly well.”
Those nearest Ginty gazed in astonishment. Toast was uncrunched, tea cups suspended mid-way to mouths.
Ginty flushed, suddenly realising how her words had sounded to the others. “I didn’t mean she won’t do well,” she said hurriedly. “Just no-one’s seen you in a competition before so they don’t know what you’re like.”
Millie said very calmly, “I knew what you meant.” She carefully scraped out the last spoonful of egg from its shell, before adding, “I suppose the thing is to forget everyone else and just think about what you expect from yourself.”
“Oh, I don’t really care what other people think,” Ginty said carelessly, but her teacup rattled as she put it down.
“Shut up, you lot,” called Olive from the end of the table, saving them all from further comment. “Miss Keith’s about to speak.”
There was no Assembly the morning after Speech Day, so Miss Keith made her announcements at breakfast, before the prayer.
“I was delighted yesterday to see the enthusiasm with which you all worked together for the good of the school. Each one of you is an integral part of our community, and yesterday I saw everyone contributing to the success of the day. As a result, I’m very happy to announce that we now have the funds in place to build a new swimming pool with a roof and seating.” She paused to allow an excited murmur and even a brief smatter of applause to run round the room. ”Work will start over the holidays, so today’s Diving Cup may be regarded as a fitting finale for our current pool. I’m sure everyone taking part will compete in the true spirit of the school - where it’s not the ultimate result, but how hard you try that determines the real success of the day!”
Fiona, catching Millie’s eye, grinned and made an eye-rolling face, then surreptitiously showed her fingers crossed for luck on one hand and a victory-sign with the other. Millie smiled and mouthed ‘thanks’ as Miss Keith intoned the prayer.

As they filed out, Unity pressed rather heavily against her and trod on her shoe. “Ginty didn’t mean what she said,” she hissed urgently into Millie’s ear. “It’s just she’s so sensitive and highly strung - she minds much more about things than we do, and her family put so much pressure on her. They don’t understand her at all. She wouldn’t dream of deliberately offending you…..”
“It’s fine, Unity. You don’t have to explain for her,” said Millie, and deliberately turned in the opposite direction, cutting Unity off mid-flow. There was over an hour of free time before they had to go down to the pool, so Millie made her way to the Music Rooms.
She was sure that she must have used magic on the necklace, and she was afraid that she might do the same thing today. Could she unconsciously use magic to make herself win the Diving? She wasn’t sure if it was even possible - magic and sport were a funny mix; like using magic in matters of love, it was inclined to go awry. But it would be disgraceful to use magic in a sporting competition whether it was deliberate or not, and she was determined to avoid it happening. If only there was something that stopped her working magic - like Christopher and silver. The only thing she could think of doing was to play the piano for as long as possible to work off that ‘bubbling under’ feeling.
After an hour’s practice on the piano her hands, arms and shoulders felt pleasantly drained, with that agreeable feeling of tiredness that comes after an activity one has enjoyed. She thought she’d done enough to be sure she wouldn’t accidentally use any magic, but just in case, she paused in the silent room and said firmly, “I don’t want to win the diving. I’m not going to win the diving.”
As she walked up to the dormitory to fetch her swimming costume she realised she had made herself late. The corridors were empty. She grabbed her stuff and ran.
As she trotted down the lawn, she saw the cat sunning himself. “Hello cat,” she called in passing.
“Prrrr,” he said, rolling over and extending a lordly paw.
“Oh, alright,” she said, crouching down to rub the proffered furry tummy. “But I haven’t got long. I’ll be shouted at for being late if I don’t go now.”
He stretched out and yawned in a dismissive way, and leaving him to his sunbathing, she rushed on.
As she arrived at the pool, Miss Redmond, clutching clipboard and pen, said crossly, “Ah, there you are Millie! Hurry up!”
Most of the spectators were settling in to their seats. The Junior divers were already changed and in the pool warming up. Millie hurried into the changing room where she found the other Middles.
“Where were you? We were beginning to think you’d gone into hiding or run away,” teased Ginty.
Millie, seeing that she wasn’t really late at all, just grinned and got on with changing. She had her costume and cap on just as quickly as some of the slower dressers who’d already started. Then wrapping towels around themselves, they filed out and sat on their allotted bench to watch the Juniors.
Miss Craven and Miss Redmond had seats either side of the diving board, and Margaret Jennings perched on a stool at the far end. They each had score sheets which they scribbled on after each dive. The Junior divers, variously larky or solemn, stepped up to the diving board and took their turn at each dive. As they climbed onto the board and readied themselves, the spectators hushed and held their breath, but as soon as they’d hit the water chatter broke out again.
Millie half-listened to Ginty telling Monica about her holidays. “Mum only told us in her last letter …. We’re going straight down to Trennels tomorrow…. Yes, pretty big, I think ….. I don’t really remember it that well …. He’s my father’s cousin …… yes, Daddy’s on leave these hols…. I don’t know, they have horses so I hope so …. We ought to get some ……”
Ginty was quite different when she was talking to Monica, Millie thought. They were having a perfectly sensible conversation now about maybe doing some show-jumping if she could borrow a decent pony, and neither of them had quoted anything from a poem or gushed about how their spirits felt wonderfully free when they were riding…. And having a nice relaxed conversation about other things was probably the perfect way for Ginty to stay calm and unflustered before the competition - Millie suspected that Monica knew that and had done it deliberately.
The Juniors performed their last dive - a free choice - and while the judges consulted, the Middles were told to get in the pool and warm up. Millie felt self-conscious taking off her towel and walking to the pool edge - as she always did since the ‘porpoise’ jibe. And just as she’d done every afternoon at practice, she told herself that porpoises were creatures of two worlds, just like her, because they breathed air but lived in water; plus of course, they were natural divers.
She plunged in and swam as far as she could underwater, trying not to think about the rows of watching eyes. She knew the spectators would be idly speculating over their chances, some actually hoping out loud that their favourite would win, others pretending to be experts and weighing up their relative merits. She surfaced, flipped on her back and back-crawled to the end of the pool.
When she’d been Asheth, she’d been paraded once a year through the city, with crowds lining the street to push and stare and shout wild prayers. She’d been a living Goddess - and now she was just a pudgy school-girl. The unknown new girl that no-one expected much from. Wouldn’t they be astonished if they could suddenly see her with all four arms raised as she stood on the diving board?
She put her face underwater again to hide her smile at that thought. When she emerged the Junior’s results were being announced. The Middles climbed out to line up and hear what order they were drawn to dive in.
Terry Hunt was first to go, Monica was right after Millie, Ginty a few names further on. The first dive was a simple standing dive that no-one messed up; after that Millie began to enjoy herself.
She couldn’t see how Monica was doing because as she herself was climbing out of the pool Monica was approaching her dive. She could hear a wave of appreciative applause though as she rejoined the line so she assumed Monica was doing well. She could watch as Ginty took her turn, but Ginty wasn’t having a good day.
On her second dive, Ginty had very slightly missed her step running up the board. Not disastrously - she’d saved herself and managed an adequate dive, and if she’d followed it with a couple of good dives she would have made up the lost point or two easily.
But before her third dive, she stood paused at the end of the board, as they all did, preparing to run up. After the usual few seconds, the moment stretched, Ginty still didn’t move, the crowd twitched and murmured and Miss Craven had to say rather sharply, “When you’re ready, Virginia.” Starting sharply forward, Ginty botched the dive completely, hitting the water almost horizontal and throwing up a huge splash.
Both Millie and Monica tried to catch her eye as she returned to the line, but she was staring determinedly at the wet tiles under her feet, and refusing to look at anyone.
Millie’s own dives were coming off rather better than usual; her pikes which had not always worked in practice, were the best she’d ever done, and her somersault had been near-perfect. She started to feel that she might actually be respectably placed; every one of her dives so far had at least been neat and accurate, whereas most of the others had made at least one sloppy dive.
After the disaster, a clearly shaken Ginty managed to pull off a couple of satisfactory dives, saving herself from total ignominy. But for her free choice dive she only attempted a mediocre tuck, whereas Millie, feeling that she had nothing to lose, had tried the handstand take-off that Janice had taught her and managed it brilliantly.
“Well done, Millie, if you hadn’t already, I think you might have got it with that one!” said Monica, returning after her own forward somersault.
Startled, Millie stammered thanks. Of course she’d been pleased with how she was doing but she hadn’t thought she might have done enough to actually win.


But it seemed she had. As they stood, wrapped in towels, watching the Seniors warm up, the names were called out in reverse order; Jocelyn Ferrars third, Monica Elliot second, Millie De Witt first.

Chapter Text

“How do you get the books back?” asked Christopher.
“I beckon the one I want,” said the Goddess……. “It’s a by-product of being the Living Asheth.”

 

Millie had a perfectly lovely afternoon. She spent it on the cricket field, sprawled in the middle of a big, happy, lazy group watching the Cricket Cup Final. Middle Remove, brimming over with the kudos of having a victor in their midst, were determined to make the most of her; while passers-by who hadn’t even known her name before that morning grinned at her and offered congratulations.
Ginty and Unity weren’t part of the group, but then, everyone was so used to the two of them going off for their long secret sessions, that no-one particularly noted their absence. It wasn’t actually compulsory to watch the Cricket Cup, no Staff or Prefect came round counting heads; so it wasn’t until the shadows lengthened that anyone commented. People usually came down for the end of the game, even if they weren’t interested in the whole thing, just to see who’d won.
“Do you think we should go and look for them?” suggested Violet doubtfully.
“Whatever for?” scoffed Alice.
“Ginty did look upset after - “ said Sheila, more kindly.
“So Unity will be urging her to sob on her shoulder, and Ginty will be manfully resisting,” said Alice. “She’s not going to go and jump off the roof or anything.”
This was blunter than the others might have put it, but did basically express what they all thought. They were certainly far too comfortable, and not enough concerned, to go chasing round after Ginty and Unity, who had after all never shown much interest in any of them.
When they all went in for a late supper, Ginty and Unity appeared, looking rather as if they hoped someone would ask them where they’d been, if only so that they could look mysterious and answer with a vague ‘nowhere’.
But that wasn't going to happen; Middle Remove were too interested in talking about the Cricket Cup with Olive, who’d been on the winning team, and was more than happy to relive it all, innings by innings, for their benefit.
“I should think Rowan Marlow’s a dead cert for Games Captain now, isn’t she?” asked Fiona.
“Oh, I should think so,” said Olive, with an airy assumption of knowledge that she didn’t actually have. “Unless they let it be Janice or Lois and give Rowan Head Girl.”
“They couldn’t surely? Not straight after Karen?”
“Seems a bit unlikely,” admitted Olive. “Unless they make it into an honorary Marlow post.”
“What, handed down from sister to sister?” asked Alice.
“Yes, because Rowan would be brilliant obviously, then Ann seems a likely type …”
Too late Olive remembered that the next Marlow down was sitting at the end of the table, and no-one was predicting her having a likely future role as Head Girl. Hurriedly she skated over that - “Course, when it got to the twins they’d have to share it. One of them till spring half term, then switch.”
“Or do it jointly. Half the work each,” suggested Fiona.
Olive glanced down the table to see how Ginty was taking this conversation about her siblings, but Ginty was staring glassily into the distance and didn’t seem to be listening. “Anyway, we don’t have to think about Games Captains or any more school nonsense till September. What’s everyone doing for the holidays?”

 

              xxxxxx

 

The ‘hols’ officially started when the school train pulled out of Wade Abbas, but there had been a holiday atmosphere since the morning bell had woken them for the last time, since they’d stripped their beds and left them bare, eaten their last school breakfast and spent their spare time before Assembly collecting addresses and making promises to write that would mostly be forgotten as soon as they set foot on home turf.
Millie, having received a postcard from Gabriel telling her to take the school train to London, was thoroughly happy and excited. The school train was one of the most important features in her favourite books. It was true that things mostly happened on trains on the way to school, but all the same, it was one more ‘school’ thing to have experienced, just in case she didn’t come back.
And there - she’d thought it ‘out loud’ for the first time - she might not come back. Not because school hadn’t been like the books - she could see now that she’d been silly to expect it to be - nor because she hadn’t made a success of it - because obviously she had. Winning the Diving Cup had made her a minor celebrity in school terms, and even once that glory had faded, there was moving up to the A Form in September and all the possibilities of a new year. It would be fun to have a go at playing netball and hockey, then cricket and maybe having a chance at the Form Prize next summer.
No, it was because she couldn’t use her magic and she was starting to feel uncomfortable about the power bottled up inside her. As Unity might say, she wasn’t being her true self while she was living in this world.
For most of her childhood she’d assumed that the magic she used belonged to Asheth and she could only use it while she was the Living Asheth. Becoming aware that the force latent within her was actually her own had been startling and it had taken her some time to realise who she was and what she could do. But now that she did know, she thought she ought to be correctly trained - and that meant being in a magic world.

 

The neat lines of school girls at the station were demure, still being supervised by the Staff. It was only after the train pulled in and they were permitted to board that the excited sound of chatter and laughter broke out. Everyone scrambled and fussed for places by their friends, fell over knees and trod on toes, swung overnight bags dangerously near other peoples’ faces and eventually settled into seats Staff on the emptying platform watched as their last charges clambered aboard with impressively impassive expressions; only a rare flash of glee passed across the face of a younger member of staff as she caught the eye of another.
The three younger Marlows were not on the train; their holiday home being close by, and their parents driving down themselves, they were to be picked up by car, while the three eldest took the train. This had caused a minor drama at breakfast as Unity had tried to persuade Ginty to swap with one of the others and come by train. Ginty had not been inclined to try - “Honestly, Uni, it’d be such a fuss explaining. What would I say - they’ve all got friends on the train too!”.
So Unity had ended up falling back on Millie and sat in the window seat beside her, mournfully gazing out of the window as the train pulled out. Millie left her to her thoughts and joined in with the general noise and silliness amongst the others in the carriage.
The train stopped. Glancing out of the window, under a platform sign announcing Colebridge Junction, Millie saw Karen, Rowan and Ann Marlow, disembarked and looking about themselves. Further down the train, final goodbyes were being called out of windows. ‘Good luck, Kay!’ ‘See you, Ro!’ ‘Have a good summer.’ ‘Bye Ann!’
The whistle blew, steam hissed and the train moved. Millie, turning back to the carriage, was horrified to see that Unity’s eyes were moist.
“Unity, Whatever’s the matter?”
“I had to say goodbye to Ginnie.”
“Only for the holidays!”
“No, forever. I’ve had my time of being friends with her.”
“Whatever do you mean? You’ll see her again in September!”
“Yes, but she’ll be in the A form then. Monica’s bound to want her back.”
“There’s all the time you’re not in lessons. Ginty can still be friends with you!” Millie spoke bracingly, but deep down she knew that what Unity had said was true.
“She won’t want to. Not when she can be with Monica and the others.”
Horrified, Millie knew that Unity was almost certainly right - but she’d had no idea that Unity herself had such an accurate view of Ginty’s friendship. She couldn’t think of anything to say that wasn’t hopelessly banal and false, but luckily Unity carried on speaking. “I mean it’s like Ginnie’s a beautiful butterfly. And I’m just a - a common toad or something, sitting on a stone by a pond, and the butterfly’s swooped down and landed by me for just a minute before it flies away. And it’s been the most beautiful moment of my life and I’m glad I had it, but of course the butterfly’s got to fly away - I mean, that’s what it does.”
Millie was stunned. Unity could see what Ginty was really like, but instead of being disillusioned she could somehow explain it all away as part of the wonder of Ginty.
“Oh, Unity,” she said helplessly. “I think you should stop defending her.”
“I’d do anything for her,” said Unity miserably. “Rowan gave me an order mark yesterday but I didn’t care.”
This was incomprehensible to Millie but in a desperate attempt to cheer Unity up, she said, “Well, you can write to her over the summer, can’t you?”
“Yes, I’m going to. She’s promised to write back ….. I suppose we’ll have the summer.” Unity sighed and gazed out of the window as if she could see over the rolling green fields to wherever Ginty was, arriving at her holiday home, slipping out of her school self.
There seemed nothing more to say. Millie turned back to the others but kept half an eye on Unity in case there were more tears. But as the train journeyed on, even Unity absorbed some of the holiday spirit that was animating the carriage. She didn’t talk much but she did at least listen and even smiled from time to time. Silly stories about incidents from the summer term were retold and laughed over before they could be lost forever in the oblivion of home life; grievances that would soon be yesterday’s news were aired for the final time. The joyous end-of-term mood created sudden friendship between those who’d barely noticed each other all term, a mood in which people could be sloppily sentimental about each other and the school while also being heartily glad that they weren’t going to see any of it again for eight weeks.
And so the train travelled on, occasionally disgorging a few girls at stations along the way, until it stopped slowly and finally in a shudder of steam at Waterloo Station.

Chapter Text

“The Temple of Asheth!” Gabriel said. “You foolish boy! Asheth is one of the most vicious and vengeful goddesses in the Related Worlds. Her Military Arm has been known to pursue people across worlds and over many years ….”

 

Gabriel and Christopher were waiting for her at the station. Christopher was looking particularly eye-catching in a dark pink shirt under his pale silver suit. The Kingscote girls eyed him approvingly as they passed.
Millie had been hoping that they might go on a bus, which was another thing she had never done, but Gabriel led the way to the line of waiting taxis. At the head of the queue was a small, chubby man, who on spotting them, beamed and held out his hand. “Gabriel! I wondered if you might come this way!” While enthusiastically pumping Gabriel’s hand he caught sight of Millie. “Ah, and this must be young Millie! How are you? How did you find Kingscote? The first term can be a bit rocky, can’t it, but you seem to have survived alright, eh?”
Bewildered, Millie shook the offered hand. The man’s daughter, also in Kingscote uniform, plump and fair haired, was a younger girl that Millie only knew vaguely by sight. Before any introductions could be carried out, the taxi beside them honked its horn. Both men hastily indicated that the other should take this one.
The stranger won. “You take it, we’re in no hurry, no hurry at all.” He waved cheerily as Gabriel, Millie and Christopher piled in and the impatient driver pulled away.
“Who was that?” asked Christopher. “I didn’t think you knew anyone in this world.”
“Of course I do,” said Gabriel. “I have agents in every world in our series. When I took charge of Millie I asked them all if they knew of any good schools and it was Mr Todd who sent me the Prospectus for Kingscote. He sends his own daughter there so I assumed it would be a reasonable place. He has some connection to the Headmistress’s family as well I believe.”
“This isn’t my favourite world,” Christopher observed, staring out of the window. “It’s all so dreadfully grey.”
“Not all of it,” said Millie. As if to prove her point, the taxi drove past an acre of bombsite, or perhaps building site now, where bright pinkish-red flowers grew all over the rubble. “They’re the same colour as your shirt.”
Christopher, rather pleased that she’d noticed, grinned. “Look at everything else though. It’s so dull. Even the people look dull.”
They drove along several more depressed and shabby streets before coming into an area of tall, terraced houses. This seemed brighter, giving off an air of prosperity and fresh paint, with boxes of trailing summer flowers hanging under handsome sash windows. Here the taxi stopped, outside number 44, and they all climbed out. The house seemed quiet and sleepy, an impression confirmed when they had to rap the brass knocker and ring the bell twice before the door was opened.

A tall, striking woman looked out at them. She had dark, glossy hair piled messily on top of her head and was wearing a purple silk dressing gown, as if they’d disturbed her in the middle of a nap. She gazed at Gabriel in the polite but irritated way of one not expecting visitors, and then she saw Millie. Her eyes widened and her mouth opened in a slow oh of surprise. Before anyone could say anything her legs seemed to disappear underneath her and she collapsed into a faint on the tiled doorstep. Only Gabriel was quick enough to register what was happening; he threw himself down on his knees with a speed of reaction that belied his age, just managing to catch her head and shoulders before she hit the floor.
“Christopher! Take her other side,” he ordered. “Millie, there must be a servant somewhere in the house. Go and look, will you.”
In the entrance hall there was a long high-backed wooden bench. Half-lifting, half-pulling, Gabriel and Christopher placed the unconscious woman on it, with a coat rolled up under her head.
Millie hurried down the long hall, peering through doorways on either side. She had never been in a private house in this world, and couldn’t help looking around curiously. The first room she glanced into was filled with a grand piano, the next was a small parlour, then a larger sitting room and a dining room. At the furthest end of the house she came to a green baize door. Hanging beside it was a bell which only made a small ping when she rang it. Giving up, she pushed open the door and went down some steps into a kitchen.
“Goodness, Miss! Who are you?” exclaimed an elderly servant, coming through a back door. “I didn’t know there were visitors!”
By the time the situation had been explained, and a glass of water poured, and they returned to the hall, Fernanda was sitting up. She looked very pale and shaken, but she was listening to Gabriel who was speaking to her quickly and intently. “You’re quite safe, Madam, I assure you. Ah, here’s Millie.”
Millie handed her the water. Still trembly, she fumbled as she took the glass. Millie noticed her hands - long, slender fingers, neatly manicured nails painted a pearly pink - a pianist’s hands.
Fernanda looked Millie up and down, taking in the navy uniform and the school badge on her blazer. “You’ve come from Kingscote, I see. It was always scarlet in my day. Forgive me,my dear, I thought - well, I thought that you’d finally caught up with me. But now I think about it, there must have been two or three Living Goddesses since I left.”
Millie was puzzled, because this lady seemed quite young, and had in fact only left Kingscote seven or eight years previously. And more pertinently, how could she see Millie’s four arms?
“I’m not the Living Asheth any more. I’ve left all that. I’m at school now,” she said.
“So the Chrestomanci tells me. It was just the shock when I recognised you as - as -.” She stopped talking abruptly, as she noticed the servant hovering in the background. “Effie, could you fetch us all some coffee? And some cakes and sweets? We’ll be in the sitting room.”
She stood up to lead the way, shaking off Gabriel’s proffered arm. “I’m quite alright now, thank you.”
They moved into the bigger of the rooms Millie had looked into, an elegant room heavily scented with the perfume of hothouse flowers, which filled an assortment of vases on every available surface.
“I was playing last night,” Fernanda explained, waving a careless hand towards the flowers. “I must apologise for my gown; I’m afraid I’m a very late riser after a performance.”
Christopher had been admiring the dressing gown very much indeed; it was such a deep luscious shade of purple. He had to make a conscious effort to keep looking around the room, in order to avoid seeming to stare.
Gabriel said politely, “Please don’t apologise. We’re the ones who should be apologising for the intrusion.”
“So if you really haven’t been sent by Asheth, can I ask why you are interested in me?”
“I need to ask about the piano - the old piano that you gave to the school. It’s a magic artefact, and as such I’m responsible for its use or misuse.”
“The piano! So that’s how you tracked me down!” Amused and relieved, she gave them all a dazzling smile. Millie thought, gosh she’s pretty; no wonder Christopher can’t take his eyes off her.
At that moment the door opened and Effie wheeled in a trolley. Fernanda leapt up to remove a bouquet of flowers and place it on the hearth rug instead, so that a coffee pot, cups and saucers and a tray of things to eat could be laid on the table. Millie looked at the plates of fancy cakes, pastries and chocolate (chocolate!) with the same avaricious excitement that Christopher had shown towards the dressing gown. Fernanda caught her eye. “I get food packages sent to me,” she explained. “I’m very fortunate to have gained some admirers in America.” She handed Millie and Christopher plates. “Help yourselves. I expect you’re desperate for something nice to eat after a term at Kingscote - it was bad enough when I was there!”
“Oh, it’s not all bad,” said Millie, feeling a surprised urge to defend the school. But she willingly filled her plate, while Fernanda poured coffee into dainty, gilded cups and handed round.
“Make sure the door is shut properly, will you, please?” Fernanda asked Christopher. “Not that Effie’s hearing is very good these days. I doubt she could listen at doors even if she wanted to.” Christopher obediently checked, helping himself to another chocolate as he sat back down.
“The piano isn’t really magic. Or at least it wasn’t. But I need to go back a long way before I can explain.” Fernanda took a long, thoughtful mouthful of coffee. Then slowly, as if pulling at a loose thread, she started to talk. “The story starts in your world, Millie. My world, once. We lived in the foothills between the desert and the mountains.
My family were thieves. Robbers and thieves. We did what we could to get by. We had no land, no trade. It was a hard place to live. People survived by selling their children as slaves - at least we never did that.
When I was very young my parents realised I had magic. They thought I’d be the making of the family. They sent me to a local warlock - the closest thing to a wizard in our village - but he couldn’t do much himself and taught me even less. The one useful thing he did was see that I had more than one life. I’d been moving between that world and this without even knowing what I was doing.
This world was the perfect hiding place. I used to go ‘into the woods’ to play to escape the chores my mother wanted me to do - but my village only had a few stunted thorn trees where a trickle of water ran. When my parents found out where I was going they gave me stolen things to take and hide away.
I had to be careful where I put things. Once I dug a hole in a field to hide some gold my family had stolen; when I went back for it, the field was all ploughed up and the gold all gone.
We started to prosper. My father and brothers would disappear for a few days, return in the dead of night with baskets of goods which they’d give me to hide. When the heat had died down, I’d retrieve them and my father would sell them on.
But my brothers got too confident. They raided a baggage train that was heading to the big city - and they stole some chests of treasure that were intended for Asheth - they were being taken to be offered at the Temple.
The Arm of Asheth surrounded our village within a day. The villagers had no reason to protect us - they couldn’t wait to save their own skins by pointing out where we lived.
My father shouted at me to ‘Go!’ I knew what he meant - to jump into this world - but I hesitated. I had some vain idea of trying to defend them with my own magic, but I had all the power of a fly buzzing against a moving mountain. A sword struck me, and I woke up in this world.
I lost everyone. Not only my family, but someone I loved very much. We weren’t betrothed - his family would never have agreed to let him marry me, but we were lovers in secret. When the Arm of Asheth were first seen marching up to the village, and everyone else was running to their huts to hide he came straight to warn me. He tried to protect me, but the first soldier to reach us knocked him aside as if he wasn’t even there.”
Fernanda stopped. Millie, appalled and not knowing what to say, took Fernanda’s empty cup and refilled it from the pot. She stirred in a generous spoonful of sugar, before offering it to her. “I’m so sorry,” she said.
Fernanda took the cup and sipped absently. After a long moment she recollected herself. She looked directly at the three of them again as if she was actually seeing them, not gazing right through them and into the places of her past.
“I’ve never told anyone any of this before. How could I? They’d have thought I was mad!
So I was here in this world, alone and friendless.
There was a small amount of stolen gold still hidden here, which I retrieved, and then set about the business of simply surviving. When the gold ran out I found a job, as a sort of housemaid and companion to an elderly lady. There wasn’t much work a young woman in this world could do it seemed, even with more of an education than I’d had!
My duties were relatively light, and I had time to reflect and remember. One of my jobs was to change the old lady’s library book every other day, and I took the chance to read what I could myself; until I came across a book called the Time Machine.
Well - I became obsessed. If I could go back in time I thought I could save everyone, all my family, and my dear love.
Every night I went to bed longing for him whom I’d lost. Every morning I woke up full of feverish excitement - planning how to get back to him.
There was a cellar in the old lady’s house that she no longer went into, because she couldn’t manage the steps. There I built my contraption - a machine that I thought would enable me to travel back in time. I put all my power into it. I believed it would work - had to believe - but of course I didn’t really know what I was doing.
It was almost ready when the old lady died. Her relatives couldn’t wait to sell the house and get their hands on her money - so I had to hurry.
I climbed into my contraption and set it in motion.There was an enormous roar and an explosion which knocked me unconscious.”
Fernanda paused again, smiling at the rapt expressions on the faces of two of her listeners. Gabriel, more sceptical, asked, “How did you make your machine? There’s no magical materials in this world.”
“The truth is, I’ve had to piece together my own memories of that part of my life. Because when I came round from the explosion I was lying on the floor of the cellar, staring up through the destroyed ceiling at the room above me, covered in fallen rubble and dust. I had no memory of who I was, why I was there or what had happened. And I was a child.
Only gradually have the details of my previous life returned to me, in bits and pieces; sometimes in dreams, sometimes in nightmares. Sometimes a smell or a chance word brings something back.
You see, the time machine did work after a fashion. It took me back in time - but it took me back in years of my own life - so that I returned to childhood. I looked like a child of nine or ten. But I was in such a state of shock and distress that the people who found me didn’t know where I’d come from, could barely get my own name out of me. I later found out that they’d assumed I was a refugee child who’d got lost or run away, and been hiding in the empty house when there was a gas explosion - or so they guessed.
There were refugee children being fostered at that time - whose relatives had sent them out of Germany - and I was treated as one of them. I was taken to the home of one of the ladies who was organising the rescue of these children and they found me a foster home. And that’s how I ended up living with the kindest, most gracious, gentle, wonderful old man.
He owned this house, and he gave me everything - a home, an education, a career. Assuming I couldn’t speak much English, he taught me himself. He was impressed at how quickly I seemed to pick it up - a deception that still grieves me, but what could I say? When I recovered some health and cheerfulness he thought he should have me educated and he sent me to Kingscote.
All I have I owe to him. He loved music, and he taught me to play the piano. At first I tried hard to learn simply in order to please him, but soon I came to love it myself. It’s a comfort to me now that I was able to repay a fraction of his kindness by playing for him - I set a challenge to myself to master the pieces he most loved. He showed me that I had a talent, and without him I’d be nothing.
I was in my last year at Kingscote when he died. He left me this house, and everything in it, including the piano. The school had given me a scholarship for my music which paid for me to go to the Royal College of Music, and now I’m fortunate enough to earn my living as a professional musician.
And so here we are.”
Fernanda stopped talking finally, and drained the last of the now cold coffee. Millie and Christopher were bursting with questions, but they waited while Fernanda picked up a tiny pink macaroon and ate it slowly.
“Wasn’t it funny living as a child when you were actually a grown-up on the inside?” asked Millie.
“Not so much at first because it took me a while to remember that I hadn’t been a child before the explosion. Physically it was hard because I was used to having longer arms and legs - I was awfully clumsy for some time. But my dear Zayde - for so I came to call him - was the sort of adult who never spoke down to children. He always talked to me as an equal, and so I never felt strange with him. With other adults, yes I did sometimes. At school seeming a little old for my age was no problem. Kingscote expects its girls to be very mature. I didn’t have time to giggle and be silly with the others anyway; I spent all my free time practising the piano.”
“Have you never tried to go back? To your own world?” asked Christopher.
“No, I’ve never tried. I doubt I could - I lost one life when I escaped from the Arm of Asheth, and another one when the time machine exploded. I suspect I’m on my last life. But even if I had nine lives like you two - what would be the point? There’s nothing there for me!”
“But what about your magic powers? You can’t use them here.”
“No. But I have something better.” Fernanda smiled and her dark eyes lit up. “What do you call it when a room full of hundreds of people sit completely still, as if spellbound, to hear the sound that you’re creating? Out of wood and bone? Isn’t that magic enough?” She looked at Gabriel. “I can still enchant people. I can put them into a different state of mind, make them happy, make them cry, put pictures into their heads. I can connect them to people who lived two centuries ago. I don’t need magic. It never did me any good. I’ve lost it now - I can’t feel the power inside me any more - I seem to have exchanged it bit by bit for my musical ability.”
“So what happened to the piano at Kingscote?”
“I love that old piano. It was the one I learned to play on. It used to be here in this very room - just where that sofa is now - and Zayde used to sit on this chair and listen. I must have played it for hours - sometimes six or more hours at a stretch. It must have absorbed some of my magic without me realising what was happening. I’m afraid to play it now in case I set off something magical by accident but I can’t bear to destroy it. So I thought it would be safe at Kingscote, just being played by quite ordinary girls. I hoped the magic would gradually leak out of it and be lost.”
“I imagine that that is what will eventually happen,” agreed Gabriel. “I didn’t detect anything unsafe when I inspected it.”
There was a soft knock, and then Effie put her head round the door. “Excuse me, Miss. Will your guests be staying to dinner?”
It was clear to Gabriel, Christopher and Millie that Effie would much rather that they didn’t, just as Fernanda’s instant smile made it obvious that she was about to suggest they did.
“Oh, we must get back,” said Gabriel quickly. “Millie can’t wait to get home and check that we’ve been looking after her kitten properly.”
Disappointment passed fleetingly across Fernanda’s face, but she said, brightly, “Of course. And I expect you want to get out of that beastly uniform. It’s never properly the hols till you’re in your own clothes!”
Satisfied, Effie withdrew, and Fernanda’s voice took on a wistful tone as she asked, “So what are you going to do about the piano?”
“Leave it where it is for now,” said Gabriel. “It’s rather large to move between worlds. Not impossible of course, but I imagine it would cause rather a fuss at Kingscote if a piano apparently disappeared into thin air!”
“No, it would be most irregular. At Kingscote pianos are expected to stay where they’re put!” agreed Fernanda, catching Millie’s eye with a conspiratorial grin.
“And over time the residual magic will dissipate,” continued Gabriel. “Millie can keep an eye on it for the time being.”
“Please call again,” said Fernanda as they went through the motions of getting ready to leave. “Whenever you’re here. I want to say it’s been good to talk - but maybe that’s not quite the word - it’s been a relief. I might have slowly gone mad wondering if I’d really lived the life I have - without ever being able to talk to anyone who would comprehend it at all!”
She lingered in the doorway as she saw them out and down the street. Millie, turning to give her a last friendly wave found that she was feeling sorry for Fernanda; which was ridiculous surely? Fernanda had a dazzling, successful new life here. She was a rising star, was already famous and would possibly become more so. She could have lovers, (maybe that’s where the chocolates had come from) and if she wanted to, her own family one day. But she would never, ever be able to talk about her strange, unforgotten twice lived half-life. Her first - probably only - chance to talk about it had been with Millie - who was herself a living connection to the cold, implacable Goddess who had destroyed that life.
Millie thought that it was lucky that she had stopped being Asheth in the last seven weeks and become an ordinary schoolgirl. A plump, plain looking and normal schoolgirl. A perfectly average schoolgirl - but with a secret past life that she too could never talk about.
Except unlike Fernanda, she at least could go back to a place where people did know who she was - and where she felt she belonged. She could go home - home for the holidays.

Chapter Text

What memories would a piano have if it was sentient? Nocturnes, bagatelles and ballades, ‘Chopsticks’ played a thousand times? A distant forest, a long ago elephant?

This piano bore a memory of time; time that had been lived twice; time that was wrong. It resonated with the touch of a player who was out of their own time. Now it was weighed down with the years that should never have been. Time pressed on the keys, the hammers and strings, the dampers, the pedals. Time thickened and slowed the vibrating air and the notes misplayed, the sound smothered and warped by the weight of hours, days, years.

The long holiday quiet was broken by the blind piano tuner and his dog. The Music Mistress’s voice - this one’s a nuisance, it’s always going out of tune - the dog’s soft whine as it lay obedient but distrustful by the door. The tuner’s fingers, gentle, subtle, releasing
The piano let out what could only be described as a sigh as the burden of time suddenly loosened and lifted away.

Something in the air around it changed as time slipped free. Something had shifted. But it was only a piano and knew nothing of dates and decades. It simply waited for the long holidays to end, for the players to return, and for the touch of fingers on keys.