“You want to what?!”
“Listen, Krea, it’s because I really think he’s going to anyway—” Alston began.
“So because you’re sure Quinn is going to do it anyway, you’re going to stop protesting and just help him? That’s how you keep your friend safe, by helping him plot his own death march?”
“When you say it like that.”
“And what other way is there to say it? Last night, just last night. you said, the Heims Hagr was evil. And now you want to go on it? So much for girls being the changeable ones.”
“Look, Krea, you and I both know Quinn is brilliant. But he’s also–”
“—Reckless. I thought if I can help him maybe he won’t…”
“Or maybe you’ll both—”
“End up like my cousin.”
Krea didn’t say anything. She just looked at him. How did girls manage to give glares that were simultaneously sympathetic and furious?
“I guess you’re right,” Krea said.
Alston looked surprised. “Right about what?”
“You’re not thinking of anything. Because this plan, Alston, it isn’t thinking.” Krea turned and walked away.
* * *
Quinn was playing cards with Ranulf. The two best players in Bolingness Academy, Alston figured. Ranulf was a little taller than Quinn, but not as broad. He was also fast. He seemed to take in everything at once. And he was the only person, as far as Alston knew, who had ever beaten Quinn at a strategy game. The proof of his prowess was that even when Alston walked up, Quinn said nothing. Normally Quinn could hold a whole conversation while playing. It was actually Ranulf who greeted him.
“Hey,” he said. “What’s up?”
“Not much. Quinn’s quiet,” Alston said.
“Well,” Ranulf confided. “That’s because he’s actually losing. Doesn’t happen much.”
Alston grinned. Ranulf laid out four cards. “Skjord,” he announced.
So that was it, Alston thought.
Quinn seemed to relax.
“That,” Quinn said. “Is exactly what I needed out of the way.” He laid down his whole hand. “Ragnok. And, I think, my game.”
“What?” Ranulf’s mouth was wide open. “How did…you knew I had the skjord? Why didn’t you stop me sooner?”
Quinn shrugged. “I’d rather know what my opponent is up to, I guess. Good game.” Quinn stood up. Ranulf stayed seated.
“There was a lot of talk down at the tavern about some academy kids. They say…” Ranulf was shuffling the cards as he talked. “That they were talking about the Heims Hagr.”
“Really?” Quinn looked genuinely curious. Alston never quite got over just how good his friend was at acting. “And what’s that?”
Ranulf glanced up at them. “It’s a…tradition. Most acad kids don’t even know it. It’s almost died out.”
“We’ll have to look into that,” Alston said. “Sounds interesting.” Ranulf was back to shuffling cards, one stack in each hand, flipping each card on top of the other.
“Look,” he said. “You may not want me in on it, and that’s fine. But don’t pretend I’m an idiot.” He looked up again.
“What’dya mean?” Alston asked.
Ranulf seemed to weigh his words for a while before responding. “I mean, I want in. Can I?”
“How many people know?” Quinn asked.
“I’m the only one who’s figured it out as far as I know,” Ranulf said. “I only know because I already wanted to do it.” Alston and Quinn looked at each other.
“Okay,” Alston said.
* * *
“You realize the last time anyone’s ever successfully done this…” Alston, Quinn and Ranulf were in the library.
“I know,” Alston said. “That’s why we want as much on it as we can get.”
“But books?!” Ranulf was incredulous. “We should be planning. Setting it up. Not reading.”
“Maybe reading is how I plan.”
“And,” Quinn said, walking to the end of the wood bookshelf. “This way we can hide from Kre…”
And there, of course, was Krea. She had a kind of calm fury in her expression that told Alston this would be about far more than then being insulted.
“Hi Krea,” Quinn said. “We were, uh, just talking about you.”
“Oh, I heard,” she said, smiling big. “Do go on.”
“Actually,” Quinn said, “I think we were about done.”
“Good,” Krea said. “Then it’s my turn. Alston and . . . whoever you are . . .”
“Ranulf. I’d like to show you something.”
“What about me?” Quinn asked.
“I’m showing the sane people.” Krea said. “You can come if you want.”
“Would that make me one of the sane?”
Krea led them down a winding staircase, through a ballroom, and behind an oak panel that didn’t look like a door. They walked down a long wood hallway that smelled like dust and cobwebs.
“This used to be the main section of the Academy,” Alston said, surprised. “I’ve never been here before.” Krea led them down the hall then stopped about halfway. The stone wall was covered in portraits of Academy Students. “Rupert Odegaard,” read Alston. “Krea, what is this?”
“You know the trophy room?” she asked. Everyone nodded. “That has, amongst other things, the names of all the Bollingness Academy students who made it to Verdou Fountain. And these,” Krea nodded at the portraits on the wall. “Are the ones that didn’t.”
“Did they, you know…”
“Die?” Krea finished. “We assume. Most of them, we don’t know. Some of them were sent home in disgrace—definitely not allowed back to the Academy. Others just disappear from records.”
Ranulf cleared his throat. “How many have their names in the trophy room?”
“Fifteen,” Krea said. “And on this wall, I’ll let you do the math.” Alston scanned the wall counting quickly. There were easily over thirty names on the wall.
“Thirty-six,” Quinn said.
“Not terrible odds, considering,” Ranulf said.
Krea whipped around. “Not bad at all,” she said. “Less than half of the students who try make it. Good odds.”
“But it can be done,” Quinn said, excitement rising. “We just need…”
“No you don’t!” Krea snarled. “I said you could come. I didn’t say you could talk!” Quinn’s eyes opened wide in surprise, but he shut up. “I wanted Alston to see because I thought…Alston?”
Alston was down at the opposite end, staring at a name engraved in the wood at the bottom of a pencil sketch. It was girl with a wide smile and long, braided hair.
“Alston,” Quinn said quietly. “Who is this?”
“This is my cousin,” Alston said.
“But I always thought your cousin was…”
“She was a girl,” Alston said. “And thirteen. The Academy made an exception for her. I was eight when she left our house. She was my best friend.”
Ranulf’s eyes were big. He let out his breath.
“I’m sorry you had to see this Alston,” Krea said. “I had no idea. But you see now, don’t you? We can’t recklessly risk our lives like that. It’d be an insult to her memory.”
Alston shook his head slowly. “No,” he said. “This makes me more determined than ever.”