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Proserpina

“You’re a deus ex machina,” Miss Havisham whispers.

“We are not yet,” says Proserpina tightly, “out of the machine.”

They can’t get out the way they came in. Emily-Jane’s already had to break an orderly’s nose; more must be coming soon–

And then, suddenly, Elijah is standing in a delivery door. “Come on,” he says. The world outside is surprisingly sunlit.

“I’m taking her into town,” says Proserpina. “Elijah?”

He nods.

“I have to get back to school,” says Radiane. “Georgette, Euphrania, you can help me cover–”

“I’m going to tell my father,” says Iala, pale and sick and furious.

Radiane

Radiane’s read the books about asylums, too.

Her wrist aches a little: sparring and bag work didn’t really prepare her for laying out a grown man, even one with a glass jaw. It’s cold in here. There have been no howls or rattling chains yet. She has noticed that the doors on these rooms are heavily secured, though, and the man at the entrance had no convenient ring of keys.

Georgette is shivering, but following; Iala is pale. “You do have a plan,” she murmurs, “as to what to do when we find her?”

Proserpina says nothing, just strides grimly on.

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

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

“They’re going to end up on the floor,” says one of the watchers dryly.

“Have a little faith.” Proserpina smiles. “Iala will want to mess up her face a little first, and this way they can’t use their fingernails.”

“So what are their sandwich board names? Messface McRichiegirl and the Scratcher?”

Proserpina realizes, with a motionless shock, that her interlocutor is a boy–around her age, long arms draped over the scaffolding, dark shirt and suspenders blended with the shadows of the large and dusty hall.

“You’re not supposed to be here,” she says.

“Neither are you,” he points out, correctly.

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

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.

Proserpina

“You can report me,” says Proserpina, “and I can report your improper attitudes and behavior toward me.”

“My what?” says Miss Havisham, in honest surprise.

“How else,” says Proserpina, “would I be able to draw your tattoo?”

Miss Havisham stares for a moment. “Is this how you see everyone who’s kind to you?” she says quietly. “Your classmates, who adore you, and your Radiane, and that little fox Iala. Does every one of us have a use?”

Then the shame building deep in Proserpina’s belly becomes painfully physical, and she sits down with her boy’s shirt ripping in one tight fist.

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