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Proserpina

Proserpina doesn’t have to make a rousing speech; she doesn’t have to draw a line in the sawdust. “Iala, you owe me,” she says. “Radiane. Ernestine. The rest of you can join us or not. I wouldn’t.”

And in fact, of the core group, four decline. But lumpy, awkward Euphrania Dowell volunteers, as does Emily-Jane Northup, their only third-year. So, to some surprise, does Georgette. Two glances between her and Radiane tell Proserpina everything.

“I don’t suppose we’re waiting for a moonless night to go skulking into the horrid place,” says Iala dryly.

“No,” says Proserpina, “for visiting hours.”

Proserpina

“They were just here when I arrived for practice,” says Radiane with some chagrin.

Proserpina surveys them: a smaller gathering than at the big match, but still far too conspicuous a crowd of teenage girls to be clattering around in a closed wing.

“What do we do?”

“Start teaching them in shifts, I suppose,” Proserpina says.

“But you haven’t finished teaching me yet!”

“Exactly how much do you think I know?”

“Proserpina!” shouts Ernestine, traipsing over. “Where have you been?”

“Yes, out alone?” asks Radiane.

“No,” says Proserpina, too quickly.

Radiane cocks her head. “Not alone?”

“Not that either!” Proserpina says.

Proserpina

Miss Havisham waits expectantly.

“We had, um, a midnight feast, is all,” explains Iala. “In the dorm.”

“Which dorm?” Miss Havisham asks quietly.

“2B!” says Iala. “3A!” says Ernestine.

“It was sort of in both,” says Iala. “Or either.”

“Only,” says Ernestine, “there was a fight. With food. A food fight.”

“No one was hurt,” says Radiane. “It was all in fun. Gentle fun.”

“Well, to be perfectly honest,” says Iala piously, “someone did get hit with a sausage.”

Miss Havisham’s eyebrow can climb no higher.

Proserpina sits in the back, grumpy, cheeks red and left eye puffing up quite nicely.

Proserpina

“Do I have to wear the gloves?” Iala frowns.

“They’re for your hands, not her head,” sighs Proserpina. “Stop tucking your thumbs inside your fists or I shall break them before you do.”

“Swish swish crack!” mutters Ernestine, in the other corner, making little swipes as she stares at the sand-marked edges of the ring. “Pop swish pop!”

“Keep your hands up,” says Radiane, “and please don’t try to pull her hair.”

“I won’t if she doesn’t,” Ernestine lies.

“Eep!” says Georgette, upon accidentally dinging the bell. The chatter of the assembled first-years spooks the pigeons in the rafters.

Proserpina

“If you need me to teach your entire coterie how to pulverize one tempermental milksop,” says Proserpina dryly, “she must have hit you harder than I thought.”

“That’s not what we want!” snaps Iala. “It’s the–the way they look at you, everyone. The fear. The respect.

“I’m sure you’re fantasizing, and in any case, I can’t teach it.”

“Then show me how to earn it!”

“How? Hurting Ernestine?”

“If necessary!”

“No.”

“Then why do you love fighting so much?” Iala sniffs.

“Because boxing isn’t a weapon,” Proserpina says, smiling, as the idea begins to light her up. “It’s a sport.”

Proserpina

But Ernestine doesn’t really listen, which is why she hasn’t locked her wrist when she punches Iala’s mouth. The fight goes quickly floorwards, and ends more quickly still, as teachers wade into Iala’s piled-on entourage: clammers deep in shrieking surf. When they finish prying, everyone’s silent about who hit whom; but there are twenty-six vengeful eyes on one side of the hallway, and one hurt wrist on the other.

Proserpina hears only later, thirdhand. Leaving her dorm to investigate, she finds Iala in her way.

“I need you to teach us some things,” Iala says, fat-lipped, bright-eyed.

Proserpina

“We’ve already discussed this. Strike here.” Proserpina tiredly raps Ernestine’s first two knuckles. “Keep your left hand out to guard and uncurl your right arm as you extend it–”

“I’ve told you, I’m left-handed.”

“Not yet you’re not. You’ll learn to do this the proper way first, and then you’ll be able to switch if you must.”

“When do I get to spar with the two of you?” Ernestine complains. “Why do I have to spend all my time just hitting your musty oatmeal bag over and over?”

“Because over the last fortnight,” Proserpina grates, “the bag has learned more than you.”

Proserpina

“I am not a teacher,” hisses Proserpina, as Ernestine sniffs curiously at the oatmeal bag.

“She has to learn from someone. The Novak girl is crueler even than you were.”

“Iala’s not so bad. And you know I was caught once already!”

Radiane nods. “Exactly. With three of us you won’t have to go without a lookout again.”

“I thought you understood the storybooks. That a third link is weakest, that once you make a circle of more than two–”

“My mistake, Ernestine,” says Radiane loudly, “I thought here you could learn to be dangerous,” and Proserpina bites her own teeth.

Proserpina

She’s had less time to spend with Iala, since the Christmas holidays; so it comes as a surprise to Proserpina to find that her friend has an enemy.

“She did start it,” Iala points out.

“She couldn’t have known you were new money,” Proserpina says.

Iala’s eyes crackle. “Oh, are you going to start now too, Macnair?”

“I’m teasing, Iala.”

“Well, Ernestine Batten wasn’t,” Iala declares. “She’s a prig and a snoot and I won’t spend the next three years looking up her aristocrat’s nose!”

Proserpina says nothing more: it isn’t her affair. Until Radiane brings the girl to boxing practice.

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