Miriam must have gotten on at the last stop because it was only about half an hour before the train reached the station at Faraday. Key pulled Mat's crutch down from its spot on top their bags. "Do you..." she trailed off.
Matsias looked at Miriam. He didn't like using the crutch around people, but it made standing easier, especially when there was nothing else to balance against. He sighed. "Everyone's going to find out anyway." Traveling in the trailer with Key's family had been one thing, but living at a boarding school would be another. Key handed him the crutch, which he used to lever himself upright, the knee joint in his leg squeaking as he did so.
"We need to oil that thing," Key said as she handed Matsias his backpack.
"Did your leg just squeak?" Miriam asked.
He tapped the crutch against his leg. Even through his pants, the aluminum made a dull thud. "It's a prosthetic."
"Oh. That makes sense." She turned to Key, who was grabbing her duffle from the rack. "Um... do you need help?"
Key looked at Miriam the way a person might watch an excited puppy. "I think I've got it. Thanks."
"Okay." Standing on tiptoe, Miriam pulled her own suitcase down in one fluid motion. Key tossed her duffel bag over her shoulder. Matsias picked up his crutch, which he used more for sitting and standing than for walking, and they headed down the narrow corridor.
When the train moved away from the platform, they could see the school across the street. "That's it?" Though Matsias had dreamed of going to Faraday since he was a kid, he had never actually seen a picture of the place. He'd built it up in his head--a high school for the best wizards in Nideon. But what he saw in front of him barely looked bigger than the Illegate High in his home town.
"Were you expecting something else?" Coming from another student, the question might have sounded condescending, but Miriam sounded genuinely curious. Nevertheless, Mat didn't feel ready to tell her he'd expected a grand building to go with its grand purpose.
The campus was bisected by a street running perpendicular to the train track. On one side, several small buildings radiated out from a larger one in a semi-circle, reminding Matsias of the Pelan sun symbol. On the other side were eight scattered buildings, most of them about three stories high, and each painted a different color. "Those must be the houses." He pointed them out to Key.
She squinted toward the buildings. "I thought you said there were only six houses."
Miriam answered. "The shorter one is the cafeteria. The other is the teachers' house."
"Which one are we in?" Key asked.
"Victoria House," Matsias told her, "it's the white one."
"If you watch the older students," Miriam added, "You'll notice they have different colored ties. The colors match the houses. Providence is purple, Westwood is red..."
"I got it," Key said and Miriam went quiet. The three of them followed the wave of students across the street. Though most of them were freshmen, Matsias saw students from each of the other houses as well. Not only did they wear different colored ties, but most of them had school jackets that represented their houses. The jackets looked the same from the front, aside from the different colored sleeves, and some had a Faraday starfish patch sewn onto them. On the back, though, each house had a depiction of its own animal mascot--hawk, coyote, wasp, panther, or platypus. The last one, Mat remembered, was Hawthorne House, which was known for being different.
Outside Victoria House stood a boy in a red tie and matching jacket, giving instructions. "Please make two lines to get your room assignments. Boys on the left, girls on the right."
Matsias could feel his stomach flip-flopping. "Key, you didn't mark male on your application so we could have the same room, did you?" He already knew the answer, but asking it somehow calmed his nerves. Matsias had shared a room all his life, but sharing it with a total stranger would be a far cry from sharing with Lamel or Key.
"We've talked about this, Mat. If I have to choose between being a girl and a boy, I'd rather be a girl." She put a hand on his arm. "Whoever you're rooming with... I'm sure you'll get along. And we're in the same house. We're still going to see each other every day."
"Wait... you're a girl?" Miriam said to Key.
Key chuckled and wrapped her arm around Matsias as she steered him to the door. "Trust me, it's going to be fine. You're at Faraday!"
Matsias took his place in the boys' line as Miriam followed Key to the other, mouth still hanging open. When Matsias got to the front of the line, a boy in a purple sleeved jacket asked for his name.
The boy flipped through a box of envelopes. He glanced at Mat's crutch. "Broken leg?"
"Something like that." Matsias realized if he was going to use his crutch regularly, he would have to come up with a reason why.
The boy pulled out an envelope and opened it. "Well, you're on the first floor. Room 106, just around the corner." He handed two keys to Matsias. "Here's your room key, and the key for Victoria, though the front doors are unlocked most of the day." He handed Matsias a folded and stapled piece of paper. "This is your class schedule. We're having orientation for everyone at three. And if you need anything, I'm Antony." He gave Mat a smile that looked only half-genuine, probably because he had to do the same thing for numerous more boys.
"Thanks." Matsias took the keys and walked down the hall in the direction Antony had indicated.
The door to room 106 was open, and a boy about Key's height was unpacking. He had tan skin, and his brown hair, wrapped in a knot on the back of his head, had blonde highlights in it, indicating he probably spent a lot of time in the sun. He wore a faded school jacket with red sleeves. He turned around when Mat knocked, and his mouth spread into a wide smile. "Hey! You must be my roommate. I'm Reed." He held out his hand.
Matsias shook the hand. "Mat. Uh... I thought only freshmen lived in Victoria House."
"What? Oh!" Reed glanced down at his jacket, and then tugged on his black and white tie. "I am a freshman. It's my dad's old jacket. But I'm pretty sure I'll make it into Westwood anyway. My older brother is there. And both my parents were when they were here. Besides, I'm great at lightning ball and, you know, Westwood and athletes..."
Mat didn't know, but instead he asked, "So, your whole family's been to Faraday?" He shouldn't have been surprised. Sometimes magic ran in families, and if one person was good at it, they were likely to teach their kids as well. The thought still made Matsias feel inferior somehow, like he was already competing with someone much more talented than himself.
"Well, I'm from Suxad, a few hours away from Copperridge University. And it's the 'premier institute for magical higher learning.'" He made his voice deeper when talking about Copperridge, which made Matsias more comfortable. Reed shrugged. "We probably just had a lot of opportunity to study."
Matsias nodded and set down his crutch to balance. He and Key had caught the train in southern Nefrale in the wee hours of the morning. They'd traveled all day, crossed the equator, and now his leg was screaming at him.
Reed didn't seem to notice. "So, where are you from?"
"Ethion." Matsias said it without thinking. "At least, that's where I was last. I'm Thisaazhou, so we're kind of all over the Southern Continent." Matsias indicated the shiny blue embroidery at his shirt collar.
But Reed had already hung on to his first word. "Ethion, huh? I hear things can be rough over there."
This time, Mat wasn't foolish enough to speak first. "How do you mean?"
"Well, they say the Pelan brought the Southern Fever twenty years ago. And they're still causing trouble, aren't they? I've heard some of them are cannibals."
Matsias gripped the handle of his crutch harder, but tried to keep his voice nonchalant. "Actually, the old Ethite religion is the cannibalistic one, but... they haven't practiced in centuries." This wasn't strictly true. Though cannibalism had been outlawed for centuries, Mat had heard rumors of some orthodox groups still eating their dead, but he knew it wouldn't help his case to mention it.
Reed shrugged. "Either way, they sound pretty ruthless. It's probably a good thing you got out of there." He punched Mat lightly on the shoulder.
"Yeah. Probably is." Matsias moved his crutch forward, trying to take a step around his new roommate.
"Oh hey, I'm sorry." Reed stepped out of his way.
Matsias sat down on the empty bed, leaning his crutch against the wall. First, he took off his backpack, then his leg. He breathed a sigh of relief as he massaged his stump. He knew Reed was watching him, but his roommate had the decency not to ask.
Reed stopped in the doorway. "Um... I was going to try to catch my brother before orientation. Do you need help unpacking or anything?"
Mat shook his head. "I got it."
"Then I'll see you at orientation?"
Matsias nodded and Reed left the room, leaving him in blessed silence. He thought he could almost get along with Reed. Almost.