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Printed from https://www.writing.com/main/view_item/item_id/1922119-The-Shadow-Tamer--9--10
by Pan
Rated: 13+ · Chapter · Action/Adventure · #1922119
Creaole goes home for a brief respite before school finally starts
Nine ~ Unwelcome company

Creaole started awake, pressed uncomfortably against a grey concrete wall, disorientated to realise she had woken up in a different bed than the one she went to sleep in. She sat up, blinking her eyes into focus in the fuzzy darkness, her brain going into momentary panic mode as it occurred to her that the past week might have been an elaborate dream.

As her eyes adjusted to the grey light she realised was still wearing the bizarre clothes she was expected to wear as a normal human. Her hair was tangled from sleep but still useless for its past purpose of storage. Finally she remembered Darm coming home to bring her back while she was half asleep.

She jumped out of bed to make tea and breakfast, anxious to find Shin.

‘Good morning, Creaole. Did you sleep well?’ Darm asked from his corner. It was impossible to know if he slept or not: Creaole suspected the latter.

‘Yep, thanks for bringing me back.’

‘I half-thought you might never want to return.’ Creaole shook her head, knowing full well that Darm had hoped she would never want to come back. Getting her away from Shin was probably his biggest reason for letting her go to school.

Creaole scrabbled around the little kitchen eating as she loaded her bag with things she usually carried in her hair and pockets. She was out of the door five minutes later, Darm watching her go in silence.

‘Shin?’ she questioned the hazy darkness of the garden once she was a few steps away from the hut. His shadowy shape was solidifying before she had finished saying his name. Creaole grinned and gave her only friend a quick hug, keeping it brief. She backed away and glanced at his hands. They stayed smooth and rounded, making Creaole’s smile widen still further.

‘All sorted,’ Shin said with his own matching smirk as he caught Creaole considering his hands. ‘It just takes a bit of time.’

‘Yay, I have so much to tell you about. If I’d had to wait until next weekend I think too much would have happened and I would have forgotten it all.’ Creaole chatted breathlessly.

She had not realised quite how much she had missed him until she saw his familiar face again. They walked side by side towards the main entrance of the mansion. Creaole related as much as she could about her week, jumping backwards and forwards as she remembered small things she had forgotten. With every story she told, she wished more and more that he had been there with her.

Shin watched her as they walked together. She felt no different to him, her small human soul was still a taunting light in the darkness of the Gateway. But now she looked like a human. Things he had never noticed before suddenly seemed too obvious to miss. Her skin glowed in the dusky light. He had never seen it so clean before, and it stood out more completely than the light ball that glowed around her neck. Small things were still the same, like the brilliant green and gold pin that rested against the dark waves of her hair, and the ribbons tying it back, but it seemed fundamentally different from the tangled mass that had sat on her head last week. Her clothes fitted her better and this made her seem smaller. Suddenly she seemed very delicate.

A ball of panic clenched in Shin’s stomach as they stepped through the main doors of the mansion. With a start, Shin realised that he finally understood what Darm saw when he looked at him. Darm had never seen Creaole fight like a cat when Shin lost control, or calmly stick the pin in her finger to placate an anxious Shadow. Shin knew all of that, but as he watched this new vision of Creaole walk next to him he found himself doubting her, and himself.

‘Are you listening to me, Shin?’ Creaole asked. Although he was watching her, he had not been giving her the responses she had expected. She pouted as he looked back at her blankly for just a second too long. ‘Fine, whatever. Let’s go see Keikei. I’m sure she’ll be interested in what I have to say.’

‘Creaole,’ Shin moaned as she lengthened her stride to walk ahead of him, heading on the shortest route to the centre of the Gateway maze. ‘I was listening,’ he added as he caught up to her. ‘I was just distracted by how different you look.’

Suddenly self-conscious, Creaole ran a hand over her face. Her excitement at seeing Shin had made her forget about her appearance. Creaole considered her the ghostly sheen of her hand with contempt.

‘Sorry, I forgot.’ Creaole tried to sound nonchalant. ‘I’ll grub up at bit when we have to go through the crawl spaces.’ If crawling through there did not sort out her stupid glowing skin then she did not know that anything could.

‘I didn’t say it was bad.’

‘You don’t have to. I stand out like a sore thumb in this place,’ she muttered as she gazed at her own arm, disgusted by the glowing whiteness of it. ‘You know, in the human world some people have skin that’s almost as dark as yours? You wouldn’t look that out of place there, and you fit in perfectly here, but not me, I’m too white for here or there.’

‘You’re wrong,’ Shin replied solemnly. He glanced around at his home, the place he was created to be a part of. ‘I missed you,’ he added quietly. Creaole grabbed his hand, squeezing it and feeling the familiar rebound of his skin as he adjusted to the pressure.

‘I missed you too.’ She grinned back warmly, her too-clean and pale skin momentarily forgotten.

‘Creaole, is that you?’ a voice boomed from the walls, joined and echoed by more and more. The smile slid from Creaole’s face. She had evaded the Shadow Horde for almost two weeks so it was about time they found her, but she wished they had caught up to her after the crawl spaces.

‘Doesn’t look like Creaole,’ the voices questioned. Creaole sighed and waited for them to play out their little game. ‘Then can we eat her?’ A round of growling followed and Creaole tightened her grip on Shin’s hand, holding him next to her. His patience for them was worse than hers. ‘Must be Creaole. That is her lap dog next to her.’ The same eerie echoing rebounded around them as voices agreed and repeated themselves.

‘Ignore them,’ she whispered across the darkness at Shin, gripping his hand tighter.

‘Must be Creaole,’ the voices repeated, getting closer, ‘giving the dog orders, woof woof.’

One by one the echoes solidified into Shadows, walking out of the darkness, crawling down walls to amass before her. They looked like Shin, but whereas Shin was definitely human-shaped these others were not. They were shadows of humans, with arms and legs and heads, but all out of proportion. Beneath their beady white eyes mouths split their faces too wide and were filled with too many teeth.

The Shadow Horde were the Gateway’s foot soldiers. If humans made it past the first door, past Shin, then it was these Shadows they were most likely to meet next. Not confined to any part of the house, they roamed it like wild dogs, and since Creaole had first stepped foot in the mansion she had become their favourite thing to hunt.

‘Did you miss us too?’ One spoke, but it was impossible to tell which. As soon as the sentence was out of his mouth it was picked up by others, echoed from dark mouths with flashing white teeth.

‘Not really,’ Creaole answered honestly, her lip curling into a sneer.

‘We didn’t miss you either,’ replied one. ‘It was wonderful without you,’ another added. ‘So peaceful without your human soul lurking in the garden,’ alleged yet another voice. ‘So peaceful, so peaceful.’ This echoed round for a while, as one by one they all agreed.

‘I’ll be gone again tomorrow,’ Creaole interrupted.

‘Not soon enough.’

‘If we kill you now the peace will return.’

‘Peace,’ echoed through the room, and then as a single entity they stepped forwards towards Creaole and Shin, teeth bared, hands rising as fingers shifted into claws. Creaole held her ground, her hand tightening still further on Shin’s own.

‘Don’t, Shin,’ she hissed. She could feel his tension next to her, the fury threatening to distort him into what they were, she did not want him to fight her battles.

‘You will not kill me. You will let me pass as you always have done and always will do.’ She reached for her head, to the bun that held her pin. There was a hiss of indrawn breath from the Shadows and their next unified step came up short. Beside her Shin shifted, stiffening and trying to pull away. He hated this, hated that he was the same as the Horde that threatened them. He hated the ball of anticipation that tightened his thoughts as he saw the glint of that pin in her hand, pressing away everything that made him into Shin, reverting him to just another Gateway minion.

‘You will let us pass,’ Creaole commanded. They stared at her, tens of eyes sparkling like angry snowballs in the night, a harsh silence cutting through the darkness as the two sides faced each other.

Creaole lowered her hand a fraction and the Horde gave a collective intake of breath, hissing in disgust. Creaole stilled but her heart clenched as she realised that Shin hissed too.

‘We will let you pass.’ Someone cursed from the shadows. ‘Let you pass’ echoed through the group, bouncing back from the walls.

‘That’s what I thought,’ Creaole said, matter of fact as she brought her pin arm back up. She set her jaw and struck her free hand with the pin. The Horde tensed in front of her.

She left her hand there, dealing with the stinging pain that radiated from the small wound. She licked the blot of blood from the end of her pin and returned it to her hair with one hand. With her hand free Creaole scrabbled round in her bag. The Horde growled in unison as she finally drew out the small round tin, but they did not move forwards to stop her. Creaole worked the lid loose with one hand. The pain gel felt as foul as ever as she scooped a dollop of it onto her index finger and smoothed it over the small wound. The sharp sting of pain faded to a faint whisper and the air returned to its liquid form, freeing them all from its grasp.

No one spoke again. The Horde simply melted back into the dark corners they had slithered from.

When they had all faded from sight Creaole grabbed Shin’s hand. She did not look behind her, just reached out for him, and it was a relief when his form met hers and she knew that he was still there. She still did not turn to face him.

‘Don’t fret about it,’ she whispered gently through the darkness. She could feel the pain ointment greasy between their joined hands, and around it the edges of Shin’s fingers pressed against her delicate skin. She did not let go.

‘Come on,’ Creaole added after a moment. She stepped forwards, her hand still wrapped around Shin’s, and then she took another step, pulling him along behind her. Shin had two choices: hold the human form he had fought to keep a moment ago and have no choice but to follow her, or refuse to follow and be forced into his liquid form, the one he shared with the horde.

Behind her, Creaole felt more than heard him take a step to pursue her and breathed out in relief, taking a half-step so he could catch up.

It was easy to slip back into the routine. It felt as if she had never been away as they wound through the rooms of the maze. Shin was quiet, following a few paces behind her as they made their way through, but that was not unusual either. They met with the Shadow Horde regularly, usually at least once a week. The result was always the same: eventually they let her pass, leaving Shin quiet and reflective for the rest of the journey.

‘I don’t mind, you know.’ They were making their way through the fire room. It was one of the many hazards of the shortest route. They were following the edge of a great cavern. Fire glowed by their feet to one side and to the other a great stretch of rock rose up into the dark ceiling, just enough room in between the two to put one foot in front of the other. It seemed curiously cool and colourless to Creaole, who had now seen the fire and heat of the real world outside the Gateway. In the depth of the dull fiery lava to their left a path of stepping stones wound through the centre of the room, echoing the route that Creaole and Shin took at the edge. They had tried the path through the centre before, but like so many paths through the Gateway, it finished in pain and a dead end. The route round the edge was more dangerous, narrow and so steep they had to almost climb at points, but it got them to the other side.

‘What if I mind?’ Shin mumbled as they scrambled up an outcrop of glowing rock. Creaole stopped and turned to face him fully. His face was creased in bitter frustration.

She regarded him properly for the first time in an age. Shin was a little bit taller that she was, as he had always been, growing with her over the years of their friendship. His form was human, shadows on his dark skin echoing the curve of muscle. His face was not flat and featureless like Darm’s or those of the other Shadows, or how she remembered it from their earliest days together. It was curved and contoured, like her own, his bright round eyes set under ridged brows, the line of a nose splitting his cheeks. Apart from the colour of his skin and eyes he was a perfect imitation of a teenage boy. She wondered when it was he had started appearing completely human. It had started slowly – a nose, or the hint of muscle on his arms and legs, or fingers on the end of his hands. Until now he did all of them at once, holding himself like that all the time.

‘Why do you look like that Shin?’ she asked quietly,

‘Just because,’ he snipped back and pushed past her to carry on their journey. ‘Come on, let’s get to Keikei.’ They finished the rest of the journey in frustrating silence.

‘Creaole, sweetling.’ Keikei’s voice threaded through the dusty reading room when they arrived.

Creaole wound through the scattered piles of book and gave the old woman a heartfelt hug.

‘You have been absent from my halls so long. The books have missed having someone to read them,’ said Keikei as Creaole returned to arm’s length.

‘It’s only been a week, Keikei.’

‘Truly? Well, time is strange in this hall of mine.’ Keikei gave a fleeting glance around the room, as if she were seeing it through fresh eyes. ‘It felt as if you had left. I could not feel your soul near at all. I wished to ask the Soul Guardian but he has been gone too.’ She stared off into the distance. ‘Although I see he is also back now.’

‘I have been in the human world, Keikei,’ Creaole responded with another smile. Keikei looked back at Creaole, surveying her up and down, and finally noticing her appearance.

‘Oh, so you have. You are so small, sweetling, and I never noticed.’ She peered over Creaole’s shoulder to where Shin stood silent and sullen in the background. ‘You didn’t notice either, eh, Shadow? Do you like it too? Or does her delicacy scare you?’

Creaole followed Keikei’s gaze and meeting Shin’s round white eyes.

‘But this means you are at school. Tell me about what you have learnt.’ Keikei said suddenly, her tone brightening as she turned back to Creaole.

Creaole gave a wry smile as she thought about her mixed experiences so far.

‘I don’t start school until Tuesday, but so far I’ve learnt that I’m not great at being normal.’

‘Oh, sweetling! The grass is always greener on the other side, but don’t despair. It will get better, I’m sure.’ Creaole gave a glum smile. ‘Belief is a powerful thing. You need to remember that.’

‘It’s getting other people to believe me that’s the problem at the moment.’ She glanced at Shin. He was staring at his feet, giving nothing away.

Ten ~ Unusual concern for footwear

Creaole woke up with a start, riffling through the sheets to find her pocket watch. She had wanted to check it so many times tonight that she had decided to keep it in bed with her so she didn’t have to reach over to the bedside table every time she woke up. It turned out that was a mistake. With a huff she got up completely to remake her bed, the heavy palm-sized silver disk not revealing itself until she was finished, when it fell from a fold of her duvet and landed near her feet.

With another huff she jumped back into bed. The one boon of the experience was that now the bed was nice and neat again, and she snuggled back down into the silky cream duvet to check the time. It was five forty-seven, which was thirty-four minutes later than the last time she looked. Minus the five minutes she had just spent searching, that did not leave a lot of extra sleep.

She lay back down in her freshly made bed and stared up at the ceiling. She remained put for five more minutes, well four and a half, and then she gave up completely and threw the covers off.

‘You are up early,’ Darm’s disembodied voice said from the shadows.

‘I can’t sleep,’ Creaole answered as she hit the button that made her new laptop come alive.

‘I see.’ A shadow twisted out from among the others as Darm’s too-large, leathery winged form shifted. He made his way through the furniture he dwarfed towards the kitchen. ‘I shall make tea.’

With a sigh Creaole fired up her new laptop to waste some time practising typing. An hour and two cups of tea later the shrill cry of her alarm wound its way through the flat from her bedroom. With a bounce, Creaole set off down the hallway to get ready for school.

Creaole surveyed herself in the mirror when she was dressed. Her dark brown eyes stared back at her from a ghostly pale face, willing her not to mess this up. Grey socks met the hem of her skirt at her knee, a pine green cardigan rested over the grey and white striped shirt, the school crest in silver on her breast pocket. The almost unrecognisable glossy black braid of her hair reached the small of her back, a brand new satin ribbon woven into it and her green-tipped pin threaded through the top so it appeared to be just a fancy clip. Creaole gave her head an experimental flick to check it was not going anywhere. Satisfied she glanced down at the clock that rested on a chain against her navel. Creaole squeaked and dashed through to the kitchen. How had she managed to be running late when she had been up so early?

She slid to a stop in the doorway to the kitchen, a burst of laughter forcing the panic from her eyes. Darm stood behind the little island in the kitchen. He looked quite ridiculous – a monstrous black creature with dishevelled grey wings surrounded by a sleek modern kitchen. The fridge-freezer hummed behind him as his oversized hands chopped tomatoes on the marble countertop.

‘It seemed you were running late,’ he said by way of explanation as Creaole skidded to a stop and gawked at the strange sight. Her breakfast was assembled on the edge of the kitchen island. Creaole pulled herself together and smiled as she arranged herself on one of the stools.

‘I was, thanks.’ Creaole grinned and tucked into her cereal.

‘I’ve made your lunch as well.’

Creaole just nodded her thanks, her mouth full of cereal. Thanks to Darm’s help she was ahead of herself again when she finished breakfast, and she allowed herself to relax for a moment. She drummed her fingers against the worktop, staying seated for about ten seconds before she jumped up to check her school bag again. Everything was still as she had left it last night so she tucked her lunch into the side pocket and looked around her for more to do.

‘Are you wearing that to school?’ Darm asked. Creaole peered down at her necklace where it rested against her blouse. The silver disk and opaque white ball bounced against her stomach. She tucked it down the collar so the cold metal rested against her skin.

‘The rules don’t say anything against wearing a watch,’ Creaole countered.

‘Nor do they say anything against wearing a magical ball that sheds light, but I doubt they will see it that way. To them it looks like jewellery.’ Creaole frowned. She wanted to keep the present from Shin with her for courage, and the light ball had not left her neck since she had made it.

‘Surely it is safer to keep them on me, just in case.’

Darm considered this in silence.

‘If anyone at the school says anything you must return the light ball, at least, to me.’

Creaole sighed in relief and did up the buttons of her pine green cardigan. Now the bulge at her belly button was hardly noticeable.

‘Thanks. I should head for my bus now.’

Darm simply nodded.

‘Will you be here later?’ She asked as she shrugged herself into her new coat fingering the edge of the bus pass in her pocket, reassured by its presence.

‘I will try to be, but it is hard to know.’

She jumped up and over to him, wrapping her pale arms around his waist. He hugged her back gently.

‘You’ll be fine. This is where you were meant to be.’

Creaole nodded mutely into his leathery stomach then disengaged herself before she chickened out completely.

‘See you later.’

She grabbed her bag from the sofa and strode purposefully towards the door, knowing hesitation would just let her nerves win.

‘Creaole?’ Darm called after her,

‘Yes?’ Creaole answered, turning quickly, and suddenly nervous that this might have all been some terrible misunderstanding.

‘Your shoes?’ Darm reminded solemnly, and the relief made Creaole giggle.

She hurried back and slipped her feet into the plain black pumps then turned one last time and with a wave rushed from the house.

Creaole had plenty of time to spare when she knocked firmly on the door marked Headmistress Browneil. The door creaked as she pushed it open and went in. The room was unchanged from her visit last week, except that this time the headmistress’s suit was navy blue instead of brown.

‘I’m glad to see you have remembered your shoes, Miss Plumviar,’ the headmistress said her tone cool as Creaole crossed the office to the desk.

She pushed Creaole a paper folder across the table. ‘For the time being this is your timetable.’

Creaole interpreted this as depending on what I hear back from your teachers this week there may be some amendments. Creaole just nodded and pulled the top sheet out to see what was in store for her. Today looked like a good day: Physics, Maths, Religious education, Music and Biology. It seemed that on Tuesdays she was not going to feel like an idiot all day – just for forty-five minutes either side of lunch.

‘Registration will be starting in a few minutes. I have put you in Mrs Lilyon’s tutor group. She also teaches set one Biology for year fives, you need to go to biology room four. Do you remember where that is?’ Creaole nodded, and Mrs Browneil paused, examining her across the desk with an expression Creaole now recognised.

‘Mrs Lilyon has been briefed about your situation.’ Creaole understood what that meant as well: her new tutor – and teacher of her favourite subject – had been told she was potentially a liar and a cheat. What a wonderful start to their relationship! ‘So do not expect to be treated differently from the other girls here.’

‘I just want to be normal,’ Creaole said honestly, hoping vainly that the woman before her would see that and finally cut her a bit of slack.

‘I doubt that very much. You best be away or you will be late. Tardiness is not acceptable at Saint Serenity’s.’

‘Thanks for the warnings,’ Creaole mumbled as she stood to leave, remembering her shoes this time.

The hallways were crowded with more people than Creaole had ever seen in one place before. Chatting drowned out all other sound as they surged past in packs, some small and easy to pass by, some with as many as ten girls determined to stay together through bottleneck corridors and the unruly tides of other pupils. Creaole tried to keep to the edge of the hallways, and was resisting the fierce temptation to gawk as the throngs of girls pushed passed her. There were no rules, and as Creaole was forced into the middle of the hall by a particularly large gaggle of girls she thought a system like the ones they used on the roads here would not go amiss.

Then all thoughts of roads and sensible systems for navigating the corridors were pushed from her mind as she got caught up in a group heading towards a set of stairs that she definitely did not want to take. Creaole had no idea where the stairs would bring her out. Trying not to panic and lash out, she surged out of the centre just as she was about to mount the first step. She landed on unsmooth ground – someone else’s foot – and her useless and cumbersome shoe slipped clean from underneath her.

‘Uh, watch my shoes, newbie,’ a tall whippet-thin girl hissed across at Creaole. Obviously the foot belonged to her.

‘Sorry,’ Creaole mumbled absently, wondering why the girl was more bothered about her shoes than her feet, as she tried to fish her own stupid black pump from the floor before it got dragged into oblivion and she was left with one shoe for her first day.

‘Be careful next time, or you will be.’

Creaole gave the girl the benefit of a brief smile, trying not to make it look like a snarl. The girl was already heading away, a gaggle of followers flocking around her, her long blonde hair poker-straight down her back, which Creaole had thought was definitely not allowed. With a start, Creaole remembered her shoe – definitely more important than considering the school rules on hair – and dived back down as she saw it appear briefly in a lull between the flocks of girls.

She arrived at the door of biology room four with both shoes on her feet and a feeling of relief that outmatched anything she had experienced when navigating the Gateway.

The door was open and Creaole stepped into the room, wincing a little because her eyes were still not completely comfortable with the light. The teaching laboratory was like a dream, and a proper smile slid onto Creaole’s face for the first time since she had left home.

‘You must be Creaole Plumviar.’ Creaole’s attention was dragged to the front of the class where her new tutor and future biology teacher sat, one leg slung over the other and her registration list resting on her knee. She appeared to be in her mid-forties, her chocolate-brown hair in a sensible bob. Behind her there were shelves of things Creaole had only ever seen in books. A foul-looking frog hung suspended in liquid, its insides pinned open for everyone to see. A display of pinned butterflies sat opposite the frog, next to what appeared to be a cage of mice, and a plastic box that seemed to be just full of twigs.

‘Welcome back, Beatrice,’ Mrs Lilyon said absently to a pretty ginger girl who pushed passed Creaole to take her seat. Mrs Lilyon waved Creaole over. Creaole navigated past a ceiling-high set of shelves which were full of glass beakers and pipettes as well as every other type of equipment she could ever hope to lay her hands on.

‘Welcome back, Jessica,’ Mrs Lilyon repeated as a very tanned girl burst through the door, she fell into the waiting arms of four other girls shrieking with glee. Creaole watched openly, wondering if that was really what was expected of you if you were normal.

‘Not quite what you are used to, Creaole?’

Creaole shook her head slowly as she pressed her mouth closed again. ‘Not really, no.’

‘They will calm down,’ said the teacher knowingly. ‘Jessica has been away all summer. They know they are allowed to get away with it this morning. Tomorrow will be more … refined.’ She made another mark on her register without glancing up as one more girl made a loud entrance. ‘Either that, or they will get detention,’ she added quietly, so only Creaole could hear, a conspirator’s smile brushing the edges of her mouth then disappearing without a trace. Finally, she fixed Creaole with a serious expression.

‘Now then, Creaole, Mrs Browneil has told me some interesting things about you.’ Creaole tried to keep her face straight. ‘A home-schooled student coming into set one – it certainly is unusual.’

‘So I hear,’ Creaole replied with a roll of her eyes, then tried to smile and brush it off as she realised she was behaving exactly as Mrs Browneil had portrayed her.

‘Ah yes, she also said you had a … shall we say strong personality.’

Creaole clamped her teeth together to stop herself from saying anything about her feelings on Mrs Browneil’s personality.

‘Still, I have taught a lot of children, and most of them weren’t the nice handpicked students of Saint Serenity’s.’ Her words were neat and clipped. She shot Creaole the same flicker of a smile as earlier, giving her the distinct impression that this woman did not like the headmistress very much.

‘But I am human, and have been wrong in the past. We shall see this afternoon. If my memory serves me well – and it usually does – I have you at two forty-five for a double. I always like to give the girls a bit of a wakeup call after summer. You have two choices: come and take the test, or go to set four who will be in biology room two.’

‘I’ll be here,’ Creaole said with determination, Creaole’s firmness brought the flicker of a smile back to Mrs Lilyon’s face.

‘Oh good. I don’t really like being wrong.’ She made more marks on her registration sheet as two girls filed in together, nattering away, oblivious to the world. ‘Take a seat over there, Creaole, next to Sybil.’ She pointed down to the third row from the back where a girl with mousy brown hair sat perched on the edge of her seat as she listened avidly to the stories of the recently returned Jessica.

When the last girl filed through the doorway and Mrs Lilyon had filled her register she stood, closing the thin registration booklet in a way that brought the whole class to silence.

‘Good morning, girls.’ A mumble of returned ‘mornings’ ran around the class. ‘I trust you have had a refreshing summer break.’ There were a few giggles and conspiratorial whispers. ‘Good, good. Anyway, I am supposed to remind you of the rules, but you are all intelligent girls and I have no doubt that you remember them from last year.’ She paused. ‘If you do not, I will remind you that they can be found at the back of your student diaries, which …’ she paused and pulled a box from behind her desk ‘ … by some twist of chance I have right here.’ She handed a stack to the front desk of each row. ‘Pass these back please, ladies. Assembly for years four and five will be on Tuesdays and Thursdays starting next week. Do not embarrass me by being late or looking a mess.’

Creaole’s diary reached her, and copying the other girls she got out her pens to write her name in the front.

‘Wow, look at that piece of junk. Please tell me it’s a family heirloom or something?’ The girl to Creaole’s left, whom Mrs Lilyon had called Sybil, hissed across the desk as she eyed Creaole’s tin with distaste. It had been Creaole’s very first gift from Shin, she had used it for ten years but was probably a hundred years older than that. She peered at the other girls’ pencil cases and realised instantly that her dinted bronze one was not normal.

‘I would appreciate it if you could refrain from talking over me, Sybil,’ Mrs Lilyon interrupted from the front, and Creaole was relieved to have attention drawn away from her. ‘But while I remember, I shall introduce the newest member of form 5B. Creaole, would you stand for me, please.’

Creaole winced and her stool squeaked noisily along the floor as she stood up and twenty pairs of eyes turned towards her. She gave an award little wave as she was scrutinised in the silence that followed.

‘Creaole has just moved from Canada, where she was home schooled by her mother. She will be in set one. Beatrice, Samantha, Delease, please show Creaole to her classes after registration.’ Three faces nodded and Creaole tried to memorise them for future reference, but Mrs Lilyon was still talking. ‘Would you like to tell the class a little bit about yourself, Creaole?’

The colour drained from Creaole’s cheeks. She did not want to tell the whole class about herself; she could not think of anything she wanted to do less. She would rather navigate the school again than stand here and tell the twenty pairs of eyes turned towards her any of the lies she had crafted. It appeared she did not have a choice, though. Silence was stretching out across the laboratory.

‘I’m Creaole.’ She tried to smile and do her best to seem normal. ‘I’ve just moved to Chester so I don’t know my way around yet…’ Creaole hesitated as her mouth dried up, ‘I don’t really like wearing shoes much.’ A few of the girls laughed and checked her feet. ‘So could someone remind me if I walk off without them?’ Another round of giggles rose from the girls and Creaole slumped back onto her stool before she was asked to say anything else.

‘I’m sure the girls could manage that. Thank you, Creaole. Right, that’s about it for this morning, thank you, ladies. Those with me this afternoon, don’t forget the annual post-summer pop quiz.’

A groan erupted from a handful of girls that was audible over the scraping of stools and the returned chatter. Creaole slid her pencil case and new diary into her bag and considered that it had not really gone as badly as it could have.

‘Creaole?’ She glanced up as a crisp voice threaded through the background hubbub.

‘I’m Beatrice. This is Samantha and Delease.’ The girl in the middle pointed briskly to the two girls at her flank one after the other and they gave a little smile and a quick hello. Beatrice was small and curvy and her fierce fiery-orange hair was tied cursorily from her face in a plain ponytail. She was pretty and pixyish but there with a serious set to her brown eyes and her uniform was immaculate. Samantha was mousey brown, her uniform a bit dishevelled, a couple of buttons mismatched on her green cardigan. She was taller than Beatrice, and the bag slung over her shoulder looked more like a sports kit than a book bag. Delease had her books clutched under one elbow and her stationery poked out of her cardigan pocket; her hair was almost as dark as Creaole’s and was pinned back in a messy bun held in place by a couple of pens and shiny pink clip. As she said hello her accent sounded foreign.

‘We have a few minutes before class so we’ll show you the year five common room,’ Beatrice added.

The common room was in the basement of the main building, down the stairs that had nearly claimed Creaole’s lost shoe earlier. A few thin, high windows let in the only light but the room was bright and decorated with posters and pictures. There were a couple of sofas –green and grey, of course – which gave the impression of being more hardwearing than comfortable, but they were already full of girls, who were sitting cross-legged, mugs of tea clutched between their hands as they swapped stories of the summer. A few girls had chosen to sit on the floor instead.

‘We’re allowed in here at break times,’ Beatrice explained. ‘You can make yourself tea in the corner. I’d bring your own mug tomorrow – the school ones are too small.’ Finally Creaole thought to herself, something that she actually approved of in this place that was not a classroom.

‘Those lockers are for our stuff. I’d pick one now or all the good ones will be gone.’

‘Is it okay to leave my lunch here?’ Creaole asked,

‘Sure, most of the girls who bring their own lunch eat in here. You can come to the dining room but you can’t get tea in there at lunchtime so …’ Creaole nodded, thankful that Darm had chosen her a place to live and study that seemed as obsessed with tea as she was.

After double physics Creaole had a new text book to keep in her locker, as well as two homework books – twice as many as everyone else. The lesson had been wonderful, though. Creaole had sat quietly next to Samantha, answering the questions directed at her and trying to keep herself inconspicuous. Her new motto: average is normal – although it quickly became obvious that it was not the motto of her self-imposed leader, Beatrice.

‘Wow, you’re not going to have much spare time this term, are you?’ Delease commented at the end of double maths as the teacher handed Creaole another extra homework booklet. ‘I still have mine in the common room if you just want to copy?’ Creaole laughed nervously, checking that the teacher had not overheard before shaking her head.

‘No, it’s fine. My mum covered most of this stuff so it shouldn’t take me long.’

‘All the more reason to just copy if you know it anyway.’ Delease laughed mischievously. ‘It’s not cheating if you would have known the answers, just good time management.’ Beatrice shot a disapproving glance over her shoulder. Delease rolled her eyes a little at Creaole.

‘So you were home-schooled?’ Creaole nodded back while Delease continued making conversation as they made their way across the school.

‘I’ve always wanted to be home-schooled. We learn so much rubbish here. Why do I need to do RE?’ she complained animatedly, her hands waving as she spoke, the twang to her words coming back. ‘I’m happy for other people to pick their religion, I don’t care what they believe, it’s up to them.’ Creaole nodded blankly, deciding RE was probably short for religious education. ‘And art, I have all the artistic flair of a blind rat. I know some people are great at it, but I’m not and I know it so why can’t I just take extra music? It’s ridiculous.’

‘Delease.’ Beatrice cut in without looking back or slowing down, her tone clipped and disapproving. ‘Perhaps Creaole is not interested in your opinions on different education systems?’

‘Oh.’ Delease blushed and grinned sheepishly over at Creaole. ‘Yeah, sorry, I guess you have opinions on being home-schooled too, but how come you came here? You’re living with your uncle now right? Is your mum still in Canada?’

‘My mum, err … died,’ Creaole winced as the group stumbled to a stop.

‘Oh my gosh, I am so sorry.’ Delease blushed furiously, making Creaole feel even worse.

‘It’s not your fault, don’t worry.’ Creaole hated the lies. Of course, that was one of the few truths of her story, except that Creaole had never known the woman; her name was probably not Felicity, and definitely not Plumviar. Creaole just thought of her as another example – albeit a particularly epic one – of human stupidity. So instead of feeling devastated at the loss of her mother, Creaole just felt particularly guilty at the look of pained mortification that lined Delease’s face.

‘Really, it’s okay. It’s been a long summer.’ Creaole thought Delease might burst into tears, and Beatrice was furious. Samantha just looked embarrassed.

‘We should go or we’ll be late.’ Beatrice broke the awkward silence, forcing the group into action as they realised the time.

‘I’m really so sorry, Creole.’ Delease mumbled when she had found her voice again, still distraught.

‘Honestly, it’s fine, you weren’t to know,’ Creaole tried to reassure her as they entered the classroom.

‘Take a seat and be silent, ladies. I will not have my students falling through the door like twittering birds.’ A sharp male voice brought them to a silent standstill in the doorway. ‘Be quick about it. You are already late.’ Each of them peered up at the clock above the whiteboard. The second hand was ten seconds passed the twelve. In stunned silence the four of them made their way to an empty table.

Creaole took a seat and got out her pad of paper and pencil case. It was the stillest and quietest she had seen her fellow students all day. They were staring at the teacher with uncertain awe, and Creaole realised he must be new too.

‘I am Mr Grimsfolk,’ he scrawled it across the whiteboard, ‘Grimm as in the brothers. Folk as in the tales. Jokes are not welcome.’ He surveyed the assembled girls as if they were a basket of rotten fruit. He was tall and thin, and hunched his shoulders. His suit trousers were a too long but were perfectly ironed. His hand kept darting to his empty collar as if to straighten a tie that he was used to wearing. His face was bitter and foxy, and a touch of orange dusted his sideburns.

‘I expect silence in my classroom unless you are responding to a question. Wrong answers result in extra homework so don’t bother guessing. Raise your hand if you have a question, if I am in the middle of something do not bother, if you are given permission to ask your question make it succinct. If it is a stupid question I will not answer, if I have already told you the answer you will get more homework. If I like it you will get a merit. Don’t expect any merits.’ He paused for dramatic effect. ‘Welcome to religious education.’

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