Chapter 43 - Midterm Exams

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I awoke to a loud banging on my bedroom door.

The sun had barely risen above the icy horizon beyond my window, and far too early for someone to be knocking at my door as if their life—or mine—depended on it.

I groaned and stumbled out of bed to find Andrei standing in the hallway, looking terrified.

"What's wrong?" I asked, rubbing my eyes.

He shoved a piece of paper into my face. "Dark Lord Cavangweth changed the apprentice exam schedule earlier this morning. Your exam is scheduled first."

"What?"

I blinked and looked at the parchment, a revised schedule of the apprentice exams. Mine was supposed to be at three o'clock this afternoon, but as Andrei said, there my name was, at the very top of the list, scheduled for seven o'clock in the morning. This morning.

"What time is it now?" I asked, my usual panic slow to manifest. It was too early for this.

"Half past six."

"Seven hells." I pushed the schedule back into Andrei's hands, just as the door to Sibalee's room opened.

"What's going on?" the princess asked, blinking against the dull glow of the nearest torches. She was still wearing her night robe. "Some people are still trying to sleep."

"Cavangweth changed the apprentice exam schedule," Andrei explained in one breath. "Alden's exam is in half an hour."

Sibalee's eyes went wide. "Oh."

"It's in the twelfth dungeon, the gladiator ring," he went on. "We have to go now, or you'll miss it and forfeit your place as an apprentice this year."

I blinked again, still trying to make sense of what Andrei was telling me... Forfeit my place as an apprentice? "Ugh." I felt like a ghoul, not a person. I couldn't do the exam now. I could barely think. "Why'd he change it?" I asked.

Andrei opened his mouth to speak, but then the door to Phineas's room slammed open, and the Dark Lord emerged with his eyebrows at high alert and menace in his gaze.

"Because he's a complete and utter scoundrel!" said Phineas, fully dressed and obviously unhappy about it. "He's trying to undermine my retirement, that thrice-blasted, elf-eared, jam-toed, two-bit... plonker!" He straightened the lapels of his suit jacket with a hard jerk and glared at the three of us with a twitch of his wild eyebrows. "Well, what are you still standing there in your pajamas for?"

My brain was still too foggy to answer. "Um—"

"Oh, for the love of—"

He snapped his fingers, and a whoosh of magic cascaded over me like a bucket of ice-cold water. I looked down to find myself primly dressed in my finest suit and cape, my nametag hanging around my neck. I ran my hand over my hair, which had been neatly combed, and was now surely messed up.

A second snap of his fingers, and Sibalee gasped.

The chill of the spell was unpleasant when you expected it. Once she recovered, she gasped again. "Oh, this is quite nice, actually," she said, rubbing the fabric of her own clothes, an elaborate black dress with red stitching and black metal accents. She did an experimental twirl, and the layers of petticoats flared and swished as if she danced at a midnight ball.

The blue pendant she wore glittered against the black dress, untouched by Phineas's magic. If he saw it, he made no mention of it. Right now, it was no more than a crystal blue stone, Radmila's eye nowhere in sight.

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