Chapter Six: Grey

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There was a new girl in class, and she was sitting in Tomus's seat.

Master Ostrum's morning lecture was small, just twenty students, and exactly enough desks for each one. Those who had arrived before Tomus and me had either claimed their own desks or hung back, watching. Waiting.

I glanced at Tomus. The girl in his seat had rattled him, an unexpected addition to his morning. His face was passive, but his eyes were narrowed in a way I knew meant trouble.

The girl was about our age. Her long skirt was made of homespun fabric; her hair was wrapped in braids, and she wore no makeup. She sat ramrod straight, staring at the worn blackboard

caked in chalk dust as if she were trying to read the words that had long since been erased. Her hands—nails bitten short, skin cracked from labor—were folded neatly atop a short stack of books on alchemy, each so worn that threads leaked from the corners of the clothbound covers.

Tomus strode across the lecture hall, his hard-heeled boots thudding against the wooden floor. She didn't turn to him until he was almost on top of her.

"You're in my seat," he said. He had clearly decided she wasn't worth his veneer of politeness.

"Oh," she said, surprised. "I'm sorry." She gathered her inkwell, pen, and books and stood, shifting her belongings one desk over.

"That's his desk," Tomus said, his voice almost a snarl as he jerked his head toward me.

"It's—" I started, intending to tell her that she could sit there, but Tomus silenced me with a look.

The girl gathered her belongings quietly, then got up, surveying the desks, all of which had now been claimed. No one met her gaze.

"You're in the way," Tomus said as he sat down, as if he were speaking to a particularly dense child.

The girl's eyes flashed, but she spun on her heel and sat down on the floor, directly in front of Tomus.

Tomus's jaw clenched. His foot slid out from under the desk, but she had—by cleverness or accident—sat just out of his reach.

Master Ostrum finally entered the lecture hall and surveyed the room, raising an eyebrow at the girl on the floor, but saying nothing.

"By this point," he said, going directly into his opening lesson, "you have learned everything the books can teach you. It's time for hands-on instruction." He hefted a large box onto his hip and slammed three metal vases on the desk in front of the class. One gold, one silver, and one copper.

Every student sat up straighter. Crucibles. We knew what this meant. We were finally going to perform alchemy.

Tomus's eyes darted to the girl on the floor. He—along with everyone else in the room—was clearly wondering when Master Ostrum would address the new addition to our class. But no one was willing to speak up. Master Ostrum did not like interruptions.

"Alchemy is all about trades," Master Ostrum said, adjusting the three crucibles on the desk so they were evenly spaced. "Copper is for transactions."

We knew this; it had been the first lesson in every textbook we'd studied, every lecture we'd sat through. I glanced over at the girl; her eyes were wide, her attention rapt, and her lips moved silently, repeating Master Ostrum's words.

Master Ostrum picked up the copper crucible, tilting it so we could see it was empty. He plucked a hair from his head and dropped it into the center of the crucible, muttering as runes lit up along the metal. After a moment, he turned the crucible upside down, and a fist-sized granite rock fell into his palm.

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