Key left for her class shortly after Tilli and Mat. Her first class was algebra. Then she had history of the Major Continent, which she and Matsias had both requested, in the hope that they would have it together, but he was in the afternoon section. After her recess period, her final class before lunch was magical electricity in room 301B. She had done two circuits around the third floor before someone caught her attention.
"You're looking for a weather class, aren't you?"
Key turned. The girl behind her didn't quite look real. In her blue tie, she looked like a student out of the Faraday brochure that Matsias had shown her years ago. She was petite with perfect skin and blonde hair cut neatly as short as Key's own.
"Magical electricity," Key said, "with..." she glanced at her own schedule.
"Mrs. Theelnin," the girl said, and her blue eyes danced. "It's out here." She opened the door to the balcony. "The B stands for balcony. They really should put up a sign." She led Key past a couple of wrought iron tables and chairs, to the open door of a classroom.
The girl looked around the room, then plunked herself down in a desk. She tapped the desk next to her. Sit here. Mrs. Theelnit tends to pick on the kids on the outside. The front kids are easy, and she assumes the ones in the back are trying to hide."
Key tentatively took the seat. "Is her class hard?"
The girl shrugged. "She's strict, but all she really cares about is that you put in the effort."
"How long have you been here?"
"It's my second year. I'm Kaylee, by the way." She offered her hand and Key shook it.
"Key." She wondered if Kaylee would copy Miriam's faux pas from the day before, but she responded in a way Key never would have expected.
"What are your pronouns?"
"Huh?" Key went over the words in her head, translating them into Thisaazhou and back again, trying to figure out if she had misunderstood.
"Weird question? It's kind of a Hawthorne thing. Do you go by she? He?" She gestured back and forth with her hands, as if indicating invisible options.
"Uh... she? I guess?" Apparently, Key had understood the question perfectly. But she had never heard such a question before. Until now, she didn't know such a question existed.
"You guess?" Kaylee said the words the way her mother did when Key responded uncertainly to a question about bartering.
"I never thought about it before. I usually just go by whatever people call me." Kaylee cocked her head, so Key explained. "Most people get confused and assume I'm a boy."
"But you're... a girl?"
Key shrugged. "I guess." It wasn't exactly the truth. Since she was five years old, Key had had days where she felt more like a boy than a girl, but she'd never had a good way of explaining that.
Key and her father sat at the kitchen table. He patiently embroidered the sleeves of a tunic while quizzing her on her sums. "What is two plus three?" he asked.
"Five. That's easy."
Her father laughed. "Alright, let's try a harder one. What is six plus eight?"
Key thought about this for a moment, determined not to count on her fingers, which her mother insisted made her look foolish. "Fourteen?"
"Very good. Seven plus four."
"Daddy," Key interrupted the lesson. "Why is my name Key?"
She watched her father deftly move his needle in and out of the fabric as the pattern of a fern slowly spread up the sleeve. "Well, Key was the goddess of deceit. And many many years ago, when the Thisaazhou were under attack, she came to them and hid them from the sight of their enemies. So we honor her by giving you her name."
"Would you have still named me Key if I was a boy?"
"Well, I suppose not."
"So I were a boy, I'd be someone else?"
Her father set the embroidery aside to look at her more closely. "Why are you asking this all of a sudden?"
Key tugged on her ponytail. "Because I don't feel like Key today."
Her father chuckled again. "Who do you feel like?"
"Atizh" Her father had recently told her a story about a boy named Atizh who had left his family caravan to rescue a horse. She waiting for her father to respond, and when he didn't, Key plowed on. "So you can teach me how to sew, and I can help you with the clothes."
"Then who will help your mother with the maps?"
Key considered this. She knew when her mother returned, she would bring a map and tracing paper so Key could practice tracing the lines and learn to draw maps one day. "Maybe I'll be Key again tomorrow and I can help with the maps then. Please? I don't want to be a girl today."
But her father shook his head and returned to his embroidery. "Seven plus four."
Key examined Kaylee, trying to decide if she should give the other girl more information, but before either of them spoke again, three breathless freshmen stumbled in. "Please tell me this is room 301B," one of them said.
"We're not late, are we?" Another said, looking around the room.
A small woman entered the room behind them. She wasn't as small as Miriam, but she was close--even in high heels--and in contrast to the freshmen in front of her, looked perfectly composed. "It seems you can find the room," she said, "but can you find your seats?"
They scampered into desks in front of Key and were shortly followed by several other students in the colored ties that indicated they were returning. Key noticed that one or two of them shot a glare at Kaylee, who responded with a wide smile.
Mrs. Theelnin checked her watch and tsked. "It looks like we have a few more students who got lost." She raised her eyebrows. "Though this afternoon, it appears to be the upperclassmen." The frown that followed made Key never want to be late to class, ever.
Kaylee, however, was not phased. "It would have been easier to have your room in a tower," she remarked cheerfully.
Mrs. Theelnin peered over her glasses at Kaylee. "Like quill pens and ink bottles, castles went out of fashion long before this school was built."
As if on cue, four more students walked in, all of them in the ties of upperclassmen houses. Mrs. Theelnin scanned the new students, then glanced at a paper in her hand. "It appears everyone is here. Excellent, we can start at last." She spoke as if they had waited half an hour instead of half a minute, but none of the students balked at the comment.
Key was grateful for Kaylee's advice. She only got called on once during class, and fortunately, she had been prepared for the answer. Key wondered if Mat's luck had rubbed off on her a little that morning because Mrs. Theelnin's class was not easy. Even though she hadn't been in actual schools much, she had always assumed that teachers took it easy on the first day. Mrs. Theelnin did not. But she did have a way of growing on you as the class went on. They started by carefully creating small bolts of lightning, like electric shocks, targeted at metal coins. When one of the other students, also from Hawthorne House, asked why they couldn't practice on each other, Mrs. Theelnin pursed her lips and advised him to pretend the coin was another person. Though her fellow freshmen seemed nervous around the teacher, the uppwerclassmen behaved as if they knew it was all an act. It made Key wonder what Mrs. Theelnin was like outside of the classroom.
When Key managed a particularly good burst of lightning, striking the center of the coin and leaving a small black spot, Mrs. Theelnin came up to her. "Guite good control, Miss..."
"Truuit," Key said in a clear voice, trying not to shrink away from the woman, "Key Truuit."
Mrs, Theelnin paused, and for a moment, Key thought she was going to express surpsied over her first name, as most northerners did. Instead, she said, "Truuit... I believe I had your brother in class today. A talented family, I see." She gave Key a small smile and moved on to one of the other frieshmen, who had struck her desk three times and almost lit it on fire.
Key sighed. She understood why Matsias hid his identity, but she'd had enough trouble living in his shadow before they were siblings. Sure, Key was great with electricity, but that was her natural gift. Mat's natural gift was luck and he was always finding clever ways to manipulate other sorts of magic. If he hadn't been Pelan, the universities in Ethion would have been recruiting him, even if he was only fourteen.
In the last ten minutes of class, Mrs. Theelnin had them attempting to make light bulbs glow. Key had filled stone, and occasionally glass figured with specks of lightning before, but had never tried to create an actual circuit with her gift. It had never seemed necessary. Mrs. Theelnin explained why this was more difficult than other beginning electricity practices.
"You don't have to be a god to throw lightning. Anyone can be destructive. But in this exercise, you are using yourself as a battery. You must regulate the current. If you do not send enough power, you get no light. If you send too much..." She said this just as Key's bulb burst. "Your first test will be to light a single bulb for a full minute. It will be at the end of the week."
By the time class ended, Key was positive she would fail the test. How could a teacher make her lack such confidence in her natural gift? "Are all her classes like that?" Key asked Kaylee as they walked back to the first floor.
"That's Mrs. Theelnin. She wants you to think about aspects of your magic that haven't thought of before. Trust me, though. You're going to be amazing at electrocasting by the end of the year."
"What happens if I fail?" When Key had been taught by her family, she hadn't had tests. Her mother would ask Key to practice her archery or manage a budget and scrutinize her every step of the way, but she'd never had grades. She'd learned about those from Matsias, though even he'd had limited experience such things before he'd started attending the Pelan temple school rather than the Ethite public school.
Kaylee shrugged. "You take the class again next year, I guess."
"Probably, I dunno." Kaylee paused and thought for a moment. "There aren't a lot of people who fail classes. The one who do usually leave because they can't keep their grades up."
Key tried not to swallow audibly. "Great. I'm going to get kicked out of Faraday in my first year."
Kaylee laughed. "It's only your first day. I'm sure you'll be fine. Hey, are you eating lunch with anyone? I'm meeting up my roommate, and I bet you two would get along."
As they walked out of the building, Key saw Mat pass with Miriam. He glanced at her as they walked by, and Key sighed. As much as she wanted the excuse not to sit with Miriam, she knew Mat would want to debrief at lunch. "Actually, I told my brother I would eat with him."
"Oh! Who's your brother? Maybe I know him."
Key shook her head. "No, he's a freshman too. And he has trouble meeting new people. Maybe next time?"
"Sure thing! See you tomorrow." Kaylee turned and waved toward someone else, running to catch up with them.
Key watched her go for a moment, a sinking feeling in her stomach. Then she jogged to reach Matsias and Miriam. "So," she asked, "how's your first day going?"