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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.

Radiane

Few in history are the referees who have resorted to striking the contestants in order to persuade them to abide by Queensberry rules, but Radiane is not exactly a veteran of the position.

Fewer yet (if not by many) are the boxers who have found this situation a first bit of common ground, and who have siezed the newfound bond to turn their gloves upon the referee in question.

But unique to this match is the interruption of a teenage girl named Georgette: shrieking, leaping from the rubbish bin-cum-cornerpost, defending her friend with the world’s first flying elbow drop.

Proserpina

“Elijah,” he says, and sticks out his hand.

“A gentleman, Elijah,” says Proserpina, “would take my hand first.”

“You’re not one for the gentle,” he grins.

“That’s an ugly assumption,” she says. Behind her, Radiane hammers the bell and yells for the combatants to break their clinch.

“I’ve seen you at the fights, in your smudge and breeches. Not fooling everyone.”

“Don’t follow me again,” she says coldly.

“I don’t have to, now.”

“You’re displaying an unseemly interest.”

“Another thing we have in common,” he says, and attempts to disappear into the shadows, except she watches him all the way out.

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

“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.

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.

Prosperina

“No, not tonight.”

“Oh please! Black Jack Sullivan? And the Dooley Kid!”

“I have a nurse’s appointment.”

“It’s nearly evening,” says Proserpina blankly.

“It’s a…” Radiane smooths her dress. “Whatsit. Woman. Thing.”

Proserpina thinks about her dreams and doesn’t push it. She just goes to the closet in the abandoned wing, dresses down and goes to the fight alone. It doesn’t occur to her that she could be in danger; and indeed she gets nothing more than a nod and a shoulder-squeeze from the man at the gate. The whole night is quite routine.

Which is how she gets caught.

Proserpina

The first time Proserpina explicitly notices one of her teachers is during choir practice. She herself is an unspectacular alto (Iala, by popular acclaim, first soprano; Radiane doesn’t sing).

The teacher in question is Miss Havisham, their choirmistress, nearly thirty and prone to occasional lectures on Liberation about which the school administration probably should not know. The way she attracts Proserpina’s notice is a simple, straightforward sobbing breakdown. Iala’s contingent bustles into comfort formation, and soon all is right again; but when she loosens her bodice to breathe more easily, Proserpina spies the blue point of a tattoo between her breasts.

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