BOOK 1 // TWO: The Safe Side

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"Yeah, actually. Much better."

"You missed out on big news, you know."

I hadn't, but it was easier to give Henry's ego its quota of attention, especially when fishing for a quick escape. "Yeah? What happened?"

"My UNL interview." He looked about ready to burst with pride, toothy grin almost reaching his ears. "Smashed it, didn't I? They offered me a scholarship."

I managed a smile, hoping it looked sufficiently genuine. In reality, my gaze was already skirting around the side of his head, mentally calculating my route to the auditorium with enough time to spare. If I left in the next thirty seconds, looping around the huddle of six-foot-plus girls in the centre of the courtyard, I'd probably still have time to locate Orla and Verity. "That's great, Henry. Congratulations."

"Thanks," he said, still smiling. "I'm just so relieved it's official, you know? Now I can stop worrying about where I'm headed when I get out of this place."

"Yeah... sounds great."

"So when's your interview?"

I wasn't sure what surprised me more: the fact that Henry was asking me a question, or that this was the first time I'd thought about it that morning. Every waking moment of the last two months had been spent fretting about the upcoming admissions interview, preparing every conceivable question. And yet, today, the chaos of everything else had forced it from my mind. Kind of remarkable, actually.

"Oh," I said, struggling to pull my words together. "Next week. Look, sorry, Henry, it's just that I really need to be somewhere right now—"

"Oh. Sure." He took a step back, holding up his hands like he was letting me pass. Seriously, how was he not freezing to death? I had a scarf bundled up to my chin, and I still couldn't stop shivering beneath my layers. "I'll see you around, Astrid. Good luck with the interview."

I nodded my thanks, but that didn't stop me feeling guilty as I hurried away toward the auditorium. It was the first time we'd ever had a proper conversation, and it hadn't been anything like I expected. Henry spent so much time talking about himself that I never imagined him having any kind of interest in anyone else. Maybe I'd been wrong all along.

Still, as I approached the huge, circular building I was heading for, my mind soon turned elsewhere. The place opened early for morning assembly, and students usually filtered in as they arrived on campus. However, not for the first time that morning, something had changed. A queue now trailed around the curve of the building, clusters of people all looking equally as pissed off about being made to stand in the cold.

Suddenly, I caught sight of the head of Afro curls I was looking for: sure enough, about halfway around the building, Orla was shrinking into her bright pink coat, a red-nosed Verity beside her. She noticed me about the same time I did, and started beckoning me over with wildly animated gestures.

"Astrid!" she exclaimed, once I got close enough to be deafened. "Thank God. We were starting to wonder if you were taking a double sick day."

I shook my head. "Not quite. I just got cornered by Henry."

"Whitmore?" Verity frowned at me from beneath a woollen hat pulled all the way down her forehead. "Well, I suppose you were the only person left to brag to. It had to happen sometime."

"That's what I thought." Only then did I peer around at the queue in front of us, wondering if there might be some kind of explanation up ahead. All I could see was more people. "What is going on here? Since when do they make us stand around before assembly?"

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