From the #1 New York Times bestselling author of How to Hang a Witch comes a thriller set at a secretive boarding school where students are trained as spies and assassins. At the Academy Absconditi, there’s no electricity, no internet, and an archaic eye-for-an-eye punishment system. Classes range from knife throwing and poisons to the art of deception. November Adley doesn’t know how an ordinary girl like her fits into the school’s complicated legacy. But when a student is murdered, she’ll need to separate her enemies from her allies before the crime gets pinned or her…or she becomes the killer’s next victim. Start reading Killing November by Adriana Mather now…
My name is November Adley and I was born in August. The way my dad tells it, the Connecticut nights were unusually cool that summer, and the day I arrived our maple burst with color reminiscent of late fall—hence my name. He claims the leaves shone so brightly in the morning sun that it looked like our front lawn was on fire. Dad also says that’s part of the reason I’m obsessed with the woods. I’m not sure there’s any connection, but I enjoy the comfort of that story—a reminder of a time when the world was safe and so was my family.
The most disorienting thing about safety—my own in particular—is that it never crossed my mind before. My ex-CIA, now–financial manager dad often tells me I’m too trusting, all the while shaking his head like he’s shocked that we’re related. Which I, of course, remind him is one hundred percent his fault, since I’ve lived my entire life in the same small town with the same friendly people, who pose about as much threat as a basket of sleeping kittens. Dad argues that I want to believe people are good and that while that’s admirable, it’s also not realistic. To which I ask him how it helps anyone to believe that people are bad. He claims that having a healthy sense of suspicion prepares you for every possible danger. But until now, it was all just a theory. And if I’m being honest, even yesterday, with Dad insisting there was an imminent threat to our family, I still wasn’t convinced. Nope, there was absolutely nothing indicative of danger in my life until a few minutes ago, when I woke up in this medieval-looking . . . parlor?
I frown. A man I’m assuming is a guard stands against the wall next to me. He’s staring forward, blatantly ignoring me, as I consider the door. I push as hard as I can on the wrought-iron latch and even throw my shoulder into the dark wood, but it doesn’t budge. I let out a huff from the effort and scan the room. There’s a roaring fire in the fireplace and maroon velvet furniture that probably costs more than my entire house. But there are no windows and the door in front of me is the only exit.
“I know you hear me,” I say to the guard, who so far hasn’t answered a single one of my questions. He’s dressed all in black, with a leather belt and leather armbands that put to shame the Roman gladiator costume I wore last year for Halloween. I toy with the idea of snapping my fingers in front of his face, but he’s a good foot taller than me and his arms are more muscular than my legs.
He remains silent.
I try another angle. “You know I’m a minor, right? That you can’t keep me locked up in this . . . Well, I’m assuming this is my new boarding school. But what kind of a school locks up their students?” Dad told me this place would be different, but I have a hard time believing he meant I’d be trapped in a windowless room.
Just then I hear a key slide into the door and it swings outward. My shoulders drop and my hands unclench. Another guard, dressed identically to the first, gestures for me to follow him. I don’t waste a second. Unfortunately, the room guard comes, too, and walking between them, I feel almost as confined as I did in that room.
The guard in front pulls a lit torch off the gray stone wall and I take inventory of my surroundings—the lack of electricity, the arched ceilings, the heavy wooden doors that use latches instead of knobs. There’s no way I’m still in the United States. This place looks like something out of a documentary I once streamed about medieval Irish castles. However, I find it nearly impossible to believe Dad would send me all the way to Europe, not to mention be able to pay for it. We almost never leave Pembrook, much less the state of Connecticut.
As we continue to walk, I notice impressive hanging tapestries depicting knights, royal courts, and bloody battles. It’s also dead quiet, no sounds of people chatting or cars driving by.
The hall has a distinct chill, and I pull the sleeves of my sweater down over my fingers for warmth. I have no idea what happened to the coat, gloves, and scarf I wore onto the plane; they weren’t in the room with me when I woke up. We pass under an archway and ascend a staircase with worn, uneven stone steps. I count two landings and three flights before we come to a stop in front of a door patterned with iron rivets. The lead guard unlatches it and warm air billows out.
The antiquated office reminds me of a somber scene in a movie about Mary, Queen of Scots. The only light in the room comes from an abundance of candles set in silver candelabras and in sconces on the stone walls. The windows are covered with heavy curtains and a fire blazes inside the fireplace, filling the air with the scent of woodsmoke.
A tall, thin woman stands behind a seemingly ancient desk. Her brown hair is pulled into a high bun so tight that it gives me a headache just looking at it. She’s probably around Dad’s age, but her severity makes her seem older.
She does a poor impression of a smile. “Welcome to Academy Absconditi. I’m Headmaster Blackwood. I trust your trip was agreeable?” Her voice and demeanor command obedience.
“I don’t remember my trip,” I say, feeling uneasy under her gaze as I pull a piece of fuzz off my jeans. The rant I was working up downstairs feels inappropriate in this formal setting. “I passed out on the plane and woke up on a couch in the . . . To be honest, I’m confused how—”
“Teachers’ lounge,” she says, and gestures for me to sit in an armchair in front of her desk. The frills of a white blouse spill out from the edges of her black blazer. The contradiction makes me wonder which one she is—uptight and trying to appear approachable, or soft and trying to look stern. “You were out for some time.”
“I was locked up down there,” I say, expecting shock, but it doesn’t come. I turn and look behind me. Both guards are still with us, one on either side of the now-closed door. Whether they’re protecting her or preventing me from leaving is unclear. Maybe both.
Blackwood nods as though she understands my unspoken question. “Guards aren’t permitted to speak to students; they only speak to faculty and staff. Now, considering the lateness of the hour, I think we should dispense with the small talk, don’t you?” She glances at a dark metal clock on the wall that resembles a small Gothic tower with exposed gears.
It reads 1:30, and judging by her “lateness of the hour” comment and the empty hallways, I’m guessing it’s a.m., not p.m. “Hang on . . . that can’t be right.” I look between her and the clock like someone is playing a joke on me. It was after midnight when Dad dropped me at the airport. And about two hours after that when I fell asleep. “Have I been out for a full day? How is that possible? And why didn’t I wake up when I was being brought in here? Or when the plane landed?”
“I understand that you’re disoriented, an unfortunate side effect of getting you here smoothly—”
“Side effect?” My stomach knots up as I narrow the possibilities as to why I was asleep for twenty-four hours. “Did . . . did someone drug me?” My voice has risen in pitch, and I fight off a sense of panic.
I file back through the sequence of events before I passed out. The last thing I clearly remember was having a lemonade on the plane. Dad must have told me a million times not to eat or drink anything that wasn’t given to me by someone I trust, but refusing a drink from a flight attendant is like refusing something I ordered in a restaurant.
I look up at Blackwood for some indication of what’s going on, but her expression is blank. She definitely isn’t acting like the suggestion of a possible drugging is outrageous.
I stand up. My instinct is to run. Except I don’t have a clue where I am, other than a vague sense that I’m in a rural area, judging by the lack of noise. “Ms. Blackwood, can I use the phone? I’m not sure this is . . . I just need it for a minute.” I scan her desk, but there doesn’t seem to be one.
“Unfortunately, no, you may not.”
“I’m sure this is a great school, but—”
She puts up her hand to stop me, like she understands me perfectly but is unwilling to indulge my concerns at present. “Before you leave this office or communicate with anyone, you must understand and agree to the rules.” She pauses. “Also, I’ll ask that you call me Headmaster Blackwood. We pride ourselves on tradition here.”
I stare at her, at a loss for words, something my best friend, Emily, will verify has only happened once before.
Blackwood gestures for me to sit down. “Now, I suggest you relax and pay close attention. Some of what you want to know, I’m about to explain to you.”
I reluctantly sit. Dad told me this school would challenge me in strange ways, and even though I find it all wicked suspicious, I trust him. He wouldn’t put me in danger. In fact, that’s the whole reason I’m here—to keep me out of it. I lean back in the worn leather armchair, tucking one of my feet under me.
Blackwood raises an eyebrow as she takes note of my slouched posture. She stares down at me and lifts her chin almost like she would lift me up if she could will it through her thoughts. “Your sudden arrival was unforeseen. It’s not our policy to admit new students midyear—midsemester, no less.” She looks at me expectantly.
“Thanks for making an exception . . . ,” I say, invoking my manners even though the words feel stiff in my mouth. I don’t like the way she says admit, like this is a long-term thing. Dad told me it would only be for a few weeks, just until he could clear up the break-in at Aunt Jo’s. Then I’d return to my house in sleepy Pembrook and everything would go back to the way it was.
Blackwood opens a black fabric journal marked with a satin ribbon and scans the page. “Before I tell you about Academy Absconditi and its student body, there are three rules that are absolutely nonnegotiable. They must be obeyed at all times and they apply not only to students, but to faculty as well.” She folds her hands over her papers. “The first is that you do not speak, write, or in any other way communicate about your life outside these walls. Not what town you lived in, not who you’re related to. Not your last name or the names of people you know. I understand that you’re particularly gregarious, and I just want to make myself extra clear that if you break this rule, you not only put yourself in danger, but also put your family in danger.”
I squint at her. “How would I put my family in danger here? This place is supposed to be the opposite of dange—”
“I also understand that you’ve been quite sheltered,” Blackwood says, flat out ignoring my question and giving me a disapproving stare. “But time will correct that.”
I don’t respond because I’m not sure what she’s referring to and I’m not sure I want to know. Maybe she’s right about the disorientation, or maybe it’s this conversation that makes me feel like I’m upside down.
“The second rule forbids you to leave the campus,” Blackwood continues. “This institution is located deep in a forest that’s rigged with traps. Going beyond the perimeter walls is not only unwise, but extremely perilous.”
I sit up. Now, this is the kind of school perk Dad sold me on—tree obstacle courses, complex puzzles, knife-throwing tricks.
If this place turns out to be as Robin Hood adventurous as it is creepy, I guess I can forgive him for the long-distance travel, and her for the possible drugging. “What kind of traps? Has anyone ever made it through them?”
“No. Never,” she says as though she’s answered this question countless times and it never stops being exhausting. My eyes drift momentarily above her head to the maroon-and-silver crest on the wall, under which I read the Latin phrase Historia Est Magistra Vitae. Before I can work out the meaning, Blackwood starts talking again.
“The third rule is that if you harm another student, we adhere to an eye-for-an-eye punishment system. All sparring must be confined to the classroom under faculty supervision.”
The momentary excitement I had over the booby-trapped forest disappears, and I feel my expression drop into a frown. Dad said that sending me here was only a precaution, that he needed to be with Aunt Jo for a few weeks, that he couldn’t watch us both at the same time. He told me to trust him. I just assumed he was being overly protective like usual. But if there’s danger here, then the whole thing reeks. A tiny knot forms in my stomach, not the type that overwhelms you in the moment, but the type that lurks and grows in the dark, quiet moments when you’re by yourself.
I look again from the blotted-out windows to the guarded door. “Isn’t that a given . . . the no-hurting-people bit?”
“There have been an unusual number of fatalities here in recent years. So no, it’s not a given,” she says like it’s nothing more important than Taco Tuesday in the cafeteria.
My throat suddenly goes dry. “What do you mean, fatalities? How intense are the classes here? What exactly are people dying from?”
Blackwood looks at me like I’m a lost puppy that she has no intention of petting. “We do not offer basic studies like other preparatory schools; what we offer is a great deal more. The Academy builds on your skill sets and on your individual strengths. For instance, knife throwing is not simply about precision. It is a skill that is practiced while in motion and under duress. And deception is honed so that you may both read it in others and deploy it as second nature. Instead of languages, we offer an accents class and a cultural norms elective to allow you to better move between countries without your origins giving you away. It’s a privilege to attend this school, not a right. Our professors are of the highest caliber and our students are hand-picked from all over the world. There are eighteen professors in residence, and you, November, make our one hundredth student. Every spot in this school is coveted and every student here knows that.” Her tone sounds like a warning, like I will be out on my butt if I make a wrong move. “You’ll need to undergo a psychological and physical examination before we decide which classes will best suit you.” She leans back in her chair, the candles in the candelabra on her desk casting shadows across her face.
Academy Absconditi—definitely Latin. My brain whirls into motion. Absconditi stems from absconditum, meaning “hidden” or “secret.” So it’s either Hidden Academy or Academy of the Hidden. I can feel my eyebrows scrunching up as I try to take it all in. I’m not sure if I’m excited or terrified to be in a secret school with a bunch of knife-throwing deception experts with accent control.
The candles in the room flicker as though to emphasize Blackwood’s long pause, and when she speaks I once again get the uncanny feeling that she’s able to read my thoughts: “The Academy is true to its name. As far as the world’s concerned, we don’t exist. Not even your parents, who may or may not have been students here, know its location.”
Well, at least Dad was telling the truth when he said he couldn’t tell me exactly where I’d be going. Is it possible my mountain man of a father went to this school? It’s suspicious that he didn’t mention it, but he also never talks about his childhood, so it’s not entirely impossible.
“As you may have noticed, there’s no electricity here. There’s also no Internet access and thus no communication with the outside world whatsoever,” Blackwood continues. “Parental visits are organized through the school and approved at our discretion. Understood?”
I stare at her. That explains the lack of a phone and her refusal when I asked to make a call. But this extreme isolation makes me think one of two things is going on here. Either this is going to be the most intense survival training of my life or the threat to our family was significantly worse than the break-in Dad claimed it was and he wanted me far away while he dealt with whatever really happened. My heart beats a little faster at the thought; I don’t want to believe he would keep something that important from me.
“Understood,” I say cautiously.
“And you agree to the rules?”
“What choice do I—” I clear my throat. “I do.”
“Very well,” says Blackwood, and releases her breath like she’s pleased to be moving on. “As I said, you’ve come to us late at seventeen. Most students start at fifteen, with the occasional admittance at sixteen. You’ll have to make a concerted effort to acclimate quickly, although I’ve been assured you have the skills not only to keep up with the other students, but to excel here.” Her look tells me she isn’t sure she agrees. “Still, keep your head down. Watch and learn from the other students. Keep your socializing to a minimum. Be on time and be polite. And above all, do not disrupt.”
I would laugh, except it’s not funny. She just described the anti-me.
“You’ll have meetings with our analyst, Dr. Conner,” she continues, “who will help you assimilate. Now I think it best if you retire for the evening. Dr. Conner will begin your evaluation in the morning.” She gestures toward the two guards. “These gentlemen will escort you to your room. Layla, your roommate, will act as your guide for your first week. She’s been instructed to brief you on the basics, and I have full confidence that she will be thorough. She’s one of our best students.”
“How do you spell Layla?” I ask, my thoughts turning to one way I can get information without asking for it.
Blackwood hesitates and gives me an odd look. I would tell her that her own name in Old English means “black wood,” but there’s clearly no point.
“L-A-Y-L-A,” Blackwood says, then closes the journal and stands up.
I stand up, too. I want to ask more questions, but it’s obvious from her expression that she has no interest in continuing our conversation.
“Thanks, Headmaster Blackwood. Sleep well.”
She gives a perfunctory nod and I head for the door. The guard with the torch lifts the latch and I follow him into the hallway. He towers over me, and I’m almost five foot nine. And once again, the guards orchestrate it so that I’m walking between them.
The only sound is my boots on the floor. Their footsteps are conspicuously quiet as we make our way down a flight of stairs and into a hallway lined with arched wooden doors marked by wrought-iron accents. There are no numbers or names to distinguish them. The guard in front of me stops and knocks on the third door on the left. Only a second passes before there’s the muffled sound of a metal latch and the door swings open.
The girl behind it has long black hair to her waist, so straight and shiny that it reflects the torch flame. She has dark brown eyes and full red lips. She scans me head to toe and her eyebrows push together, reminiscent of Blackwood’s sour pucker.
Even though she’s in nothing more than a white nightgown, my boots, shabby and mud-stained from my usual outdoor antics, and my oversized cable-knit sweater suddenly make me feel underdressed.
“Layla, right?” I say, stepping in and breaking the silence with a smile. “I hear we’re roommates. I’m November.” I reach out my hand to shake hers, but she doesn’t take it. Instead she does a quick curtsy. A surprised laugh escapes before I can consider it. Her gaze hardens and she latches the door behind me with a rough click.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to laugh. Really. Your curtsy just caught me off guard. Can we start over?” I can hear my best friend, Emily, scolding me for my poorly timed laughs.
“It’s forgotten,” she says like she’s being forced to be polite to me.
The suite of rooms she shows me only reinforces my initial impression that we’re in an old castle somewhere in Europe.
And now that I’m not locked in, I can better appreciate the medieval decor. The stone walls have candle sconces that look like they could be a thousand years old. There is a large fireplace, a light gray velvet couch and love seat, and a breakfast table in front of an arched window that’s entirely covered by heavy maroon curtains. The gray and maroon remind me of the colors of the crest in Blackwood’s office. “Daang,” I whisper.
“Your bedroom’s there,” Layla says flatly, gesturing to my right. Her face shows no emotion whatsoever.
I follow her line of sight to a door that’s a narrower version of the one I just came through.
Layla, I think. It’s a name that became popular in medieval times, and had something to do with a seventh-century poem. I’m pretty sure it’s Arabic in origin, and if Blackwood’s spelling was right, it’s most likely Egyptian. The tricky part is that each spelling signals a slight variance in meaning. . . . “So, um, did you know your name means ‘born at night’?” I turn back to her, but she’s gone. I stare at the closed door opposite mine. A lock slides into place on the other side of the wood. I didn’t even hear her walk away. She’s no Emily, that’s certain. Who I’m sure by now is at my house, demanding to know where her best friend is and why I’m not returning her texts. I wish Dad had given me time to explain things to her.
I push open my bedroom door—temporary bedroom door. A candle’s lit on my bedside table next to a carafe and drinking glass, and there’s a basin of water on my dresser that I presume is for washing up. A white nightgown identical to Layla’s lies across the end of my bed—which has a canopy made of wood and an intricately carved headboard. Unfortunately, though, my luggage is nowhere to be seen, and I’m too exhausted to try to sort it out. I pull off my boots and my jeans, dropping them on the floor in a pile, and sit down on the bed. It’s like sinking into a giant pillow.
I grab the bottom of my sweater to pull it over my head but change my mind and tuck my legs under the blankets. I blow out the bedside candle and fall backward into the mound of fluff. Only then does my chest tighten with homesickness.
I exhale and stare at the wooden canopy above me. I can make it a couple of weeks anywhere, I assure myself. I made it through soccer camp last summer in a field that stank of rotten cabbage—I’ll make it through this.
I tuck a white linen shirt into a pair of black leggings that I found mysteriously laid out for me when I returned from my bath. I stare at myself in my vanity mirror. The only thing I recognize is my long braid. The rest of me looks like I’ve dressed up as a pirate for the Renaissance Faire. If Emily saw me, she would laugh for a year. I just wish I had my phone to take a picture.
There’s a knock on my bedroom door.
“Come in!” I say, and the door swings open.
Layla’s dressed in the same clothes as me, only the pirate gear doesn’t diminish her grace. Her hair is in a high sleek ponytail that reaches most of the way down her back. If anything, she looks more regal than she did last night. “We’ll be late if we don’t go soon. And I’m never late.”
“I’m usually late,” I say in a friendly tone. “Maybe you’ll be a good influence on me.”
“Do you know where these clothes came from?” I gesture toward my black-laced boots. “When I got back from the bathroom, they were on the trunk at the foot of my bed.”
Her frown deepens. “The maid.”
“The maid?” I pause. “You’re kidding.” Dad never even hired a housekeeper and now I have a maid? This school must have cost him his savings. The knot that formed in my stomach last night tightens. Something about my dad’s decision and this entire situation feels off.
She stands a little straighter, which I didn’t imagine was possible with her already perfect posture. “Not in the least.”
Sheesh. She’s stiffer than my ninety-year-old physics teacher. “Well, any chance you know what happened to my clothes?” I ask. “Also, the things I brought with me from”—I remember rule number one—“home. I can’t find my luggage anywhere.”
“Personal items are forbidden on campus. Headmaster Blackwood keeps them locked up.”
“Even my toiletries and my—”
I grumble. I already miss my pillowcase covered in pine trees that was part of a bed set I lusted after for months. And the scarf Emily knitted last winter that has become a staple of my wardrobe even though it’s lopsided—all the familiar little bits and pieces from my life are locked up somewhere I can’t get them.
“About that—the forbidden part. What’s the deal with all the secrecy?” I ask.
Layla looks at me suspiciously. “Why would you ask me that?”
I definitely wasn’t expecting her to dish on all the inner workings of this place, considering the severity of Blackwood’s rules, but I also wasn’t expecting such a defensive answer. Now she’s piqued my interest. I smile the disarming smile that’s always worked well for me. “I was just hoping you could explain it to me.”
“Don’t be absurd.” She lifts her chin and turns around in one fluid motion. I wouldn’t be surprised if she practiced that dramatic exit, waiting for someone to frustrate her so she could use it.
I follow her into the sitting room. She opens a tall armoire and pulls out two floor-length black coats with hoods and hands me one.
I examine the velvet-lined wool with interest. There are gloves in the pockets. “Is this a cape?”
“It’s a cloak,” she corrects me, “and the quality is impeccable.”
At just about heart level on the left-hand side of the cloak is the crest I saw in Blackwood’s office. It’s embroidered with silver and maroon thread. “ ‘Historia Est Magistra Vitae,’ ” I read out loud. I’m great with Latin root words—it’s one of the things I picked up when I became fascinated with name origins—but I’m awful with the grammar. “History, Teacher, Life?”
“History Is the Teacher of Life—Academy Absconditi’s motto,” Layla says, and sighs like she’s resigning herself to something tedious. “The maroon means patience in battle. The silver means peace. The oak tree signifies great age and strength. The torch represents truth and intelligence. And the sphinx symbolizes omniscience and secrecy.” Layla opens our arched door before the last word leaves her mouth and walks out of the suite without pause.
I follow her and close the door behind us, thinking about the crest as I put the cloak on. The stone hallway is brighter than last night, but the air is still cold, giving it an all-around gloomy feel.
That was a serious rundown of symbols Layla just gave me, not some generalized school motto. I chew on my lip. It’s odd that someone chose colors that mean both “patience in battle” and “peace,” which strike me as contradictory. Also, I don’t know much about crests, but I do know that the sphinx is most commonly associated with Egyptian and Greek cultures. “So back to this secrecy thing—”
I take a better look at Layla. I wonder what would happen if she ever met my dad. I bet they would stare each other down, never saying more than two words to each other. I guarantee she’s the type of girl who likes to pretend she never farts and if one did slip out she would pass out from overwhelm. I laugh.
Layla turns to me sharply. “What?”
For a brief second, I consider telling her. “Look, we’re here together, right? In this, well, this castle, I guess, for at least the next few weeks until we go home for the holidays—” And home forever.
She huffs. “I’m not going home for any holidays.”
I search her face for a hint of emotion but find none. I would be devastated if I wasn’t with my family for the holidays. “Just the same, we might as well make the best of it. Don’t you think?”
Layla turns away from me and down a stone corridor with a series of narrow arched windows cut into it. The stone is so thick that you could easily use the windowsills as seats. I can picture archers perching in them once upon a time, raining arrows down on enemy invaders.
“This building takes some time to learn,” Layla says, completely ignoring my comment. “It zigzags, but the thing to remember is that the outside is a rectangle. So if you follow the outer wall, you can always find your way again.”
It’s like I’m having a conversation with the supermarket lady, Agnes, who hums incessantly and barely listens to anyone. Instead of answering whatever question you asked, she responds with whatever she’s currently thinking about. Emily and I treat her like a fortune cookie. If she tells us the artichokes are running rampant or that potato sprouts look like zombie fingers, we figure trouble’s afoot, but if she goes on about a new ice cream shipment, it’s going to be an amazing day.
“And if you find yourself outside in a courtyard or garden, you’re somewhere in the center of the rectangle,” Layla continues in a monotone, like she’s reading out of a brochure. “The entire structure is three stories tall, except for one tower that’s four stories.”
“Blackwood’s office,” I say, happy to recall a sliver of information about this place.
“Yes,” she says, and takes a quick questioning look at me. “You can orient yourself by that tower. Think of it as north and the girls’ dormitory as east. Directly across from us, on the west side of the building, is the boys’ dormitory.”
I count the doors and the turns as we go, a crack in a stone, a step that’s steeper than the others, committing them to memory. I was the kid everyone followed around at carnivals because it only took me one go-around before I knew where everything was. Dad says it’s from obsessively learning every inch of the woods near our home, which are a bazillion times harder to map than a building or a fair.
Layla reaches the end of the corridor, goes down three steps, and turns left. “I suspect the class schedule here is going to be different from what you’re used to. While some classes are back to back, most are not because many of the courses involve physical exertion. Our heaviest days are Monday through Friday, with a lighter schedule on the weekend. But the professors have the right to call an impromptu challenge whenever they want.” She pushes a flyaway hair back into place. “Now we’re entering the north side of the building, which has classrooms and faculty offices.” She points to the wall. “And the south side has common rooms—the dining hall, library, weapons rooms, and so on.”
I stop abruptly. “Hang on. What kind of weapons rooms?”
She stops, too. “We have a fairly extensive sword collection. And the bows and knives are some of the best.”
I can feel myself grinning. I’ve never used a real sword. Dad always made me practice with a wooden one, which I did so often that I broke my fair share of them. And a room full of knives? Sign me up.
“But the poisons aren’t what they could be,” Layla continues, almost to herself. “There’s no point in talking about it now, though, because we won’t get to that side of the building until lunchtime.”
My smile disappears. “Poisons?”
“I hear they’re expanding the curriculum next term, so it may improve.” Her delivery is matter-of-fact.
As far as I can tell, the only reasons to teach poisons are because you plan to use them or because you think someone might use them on you—neither of which sits well with me. “Why exactly are we learning about poisons?”
She looks at me like I can’t be serious. “You’re excited by knives but wonder why there’s a poisons class? If this is some kind of carefree, innocent act, you can do better than that.”
I stare at her. “Using knives, arrows, and swords is a skill. Poisons are strictly about hurting people.”
“Right. And knives are for cuddling,” she says flatly, and starts walking again. “You have an appointment right now with the head of assessment. His office is just down this hall.”
I grab her wrist, but she smoothly undoes my grip before I get a good hold. She glares at me, the first real sign of life I’ve seen in her. “Don’t ever do that.”
“Touch your arm? Sorry. But stop the tour for a sec. I’m serious. What’s with the poisons and the archaic eye-for-an-eye rule?” My off feeling is escalating and I’m getting the distinct sense that there is something about this place I should know and don’t. “And what about the student deaths Blackwood mentioned? I know I can’t ask who the students are and all, but can you explain at least a little? Should I be nervous right now?”
For a second she looks confused. “I don’t know what you want me to say.”
“The truth. Why would our parents send us to an isolated school where all the rules have some imminent-danger theme?” I dislike the disorientation of not knowing where I am, but not as much as I can’t stand the idea that my dad withheld information from me.
“There’s less danger here than anywhere else,” Layla says like I’ve offended her last sensibility.
“Not from where I’m standing.”
She leans toward me and levels her voice. “I told you to stop playing this innocent game.”
“It’s no game.” I hesitate. My instinct is to double down. “I’m sorry you’re annoyed, but since my dad isn’t here to grill—”
“Lower your voice.” Her tone is commanding and fiery. She looks behind her down the empty hall and pushes me back with surprising force into the stairwell we just came out of. “Maybe this isn’t an act. Maybe you really don’t know. But stupidity isn’t the answer.” Her voice is barely above a whisper and is flat-out accusatory.
“Why would you think my questions are an act? What on earth would I gain from it?”
“My answer’s still a resounding no,” she hisses. “By referencing your father, and only your father, you just told me that it’s likely your mother is dead. Now I know something about you, combined with the fact that you were clearly raised in America, based on your vernacular. The clothing you arrived in last night suggests you live in a northern climate, and based on the style of clothing, I’d say a rural area rather than an urban one. Your features suggest you’re originally from western Europe; I would guess southern Italian because of your hair and eyes. That narrows you down to only a handful of Families you could be related to. Should I go on?”
I stare at her. Who, or what, is this girl? “Families? What families?”
Her eyes widen and her hands clench. “You’re loud and you’re reckless and there is absolutely no chance I’m giving you information. Good play, but you’ve lost.” Her words are biting.
“I’m done with this conversation,” she says. “I can’t believe Headmaster Blackwood matched us as roommates.” She walks away from me at full speed.
Damn. I’m striking out here. Charm doesn’t work; being pushy doesn’t work. I raise my hands in surrender. “Look, I’m really not trying to piss you off. Honest. My best friend always says I push so hard that sometimes I push people right over a cliff. I get that you don’t trust me. I’ll do my best to chill out and stop attacking you with questions. But I’m not playing you and I don’t know what I’ve ‘lost.’ ”
Before she can respond, the doors around us creak open. Students pour into the hallway, all wearing the same clothes and cloaks we are. Did a class just end? I didn’t even hear a bell. Where I’m used to shouts and laughter and pushing between classes, there are only hushed conversations and deliberate movements.
Layla weaves in and out of the creepily quiet students. The glances I get are so subtle that if I weren’t looking for them I would assume the other students didn’t even notice me. There’s none of the openmouthed new-kid ogling that goes on at my school.
I shiver. There’s something unsettling about this place, making me further question Dad’s decision to send me here. It feels like a test, a way for him to prove the point he’s always trying to make about me being too trusting. I can almost hear him saying: “Look, look at this place and tell me I’m not wrong—people always have something to hide.” The strange part is, even though we had our disagreements when it came to trusting people, underneath it all I got the sense that he was secretly proud that I looked for the best in everyone. Maybe I was wrong.
“Layla,” says a guy walking toward us, and I snap out of my thoughts. He looks remarkably like her, other than his height. Where she’s three inches shorter than me, he’s three inches taller. But they both have the same regal presence and the same pointed expression. “I’m surprised,” he continues. “I would have thought you’d be at the assessment office by now.” He winks at her.
Judging by his comment, it occurs to me she must have told him I was here early this morning. Either that, or they somehow knew I was coming, which worries me more. There’s no phone or Internet here for communicating, so the only way they could have known was if this was arranged days ahead of time, days before I knew myself.
“Extenuating circumstances.” Layla looks at me like I’m an unidentifiable cafeteria food. “Ash, this is November, my new roommate. November, Ash.”
“Layla with a roommate. Who would have thought this day would ever come?” He looks directly at me and I involuntarily take a step backward. There’s something about his gaze that makes me feel instantly exposed, as though he shined an unforgiving light on the pimple I was hoping no one would notice. Where Layla’s cold, he appears warm, and yet there’s nothing welcoming about his welcome.
“You didn’t have a roommate before me?” I ask. Blackwood did say there were only a hundred students and this school is huge, so it’s not surprising there might be singles. But it does seem like a lonely choice in this gray place.
“We’re not all suited for it,” Layla says, and it feels like a warning as much as an explanation.
“I imagine Layla’s taking good care of you?” Ash says before I can respond. The more he speaks, the more I notice the similarities he shares with Layla—the way they move their eyebrows, their strong cheekbones, and even the curve of their hairline.
“She’s an excellent tour guide,” I say. “But so far I’m a terrible tour-ee. I’m mostly badgering her with questions.” I pause, piecing together what little I know about him. “Is Ash short for . . . Ashai?”
His smile widens but looks forced. “Exactly. I’m surprised Layla was talking about me; it’s unlike her.”
You can say that again. “She wasn’t. It’s just that Ash by itself isn’t an Egyptian name. And since Layla’s name is Egyptian, I assumed that yours would be, too. I mean, you two are brother and sister, right?” I don’t feel the same thrill I usually do when I do this. Instead, I get the sense that I’ve said something terribly wrong.
Ash looks at Layla and not at me. “You told her we’re Egyptian?”
The we’re tells me I’m also right about them being siblings.
Layla lifts her chin. “Obviously not.”
They look at each other for a few long seconds. They don’t say a word, but even I can tell they’re communicating in some way by the intensity of the looks they share.
Ash shifts his gaze back to me. “I have time this afternoon. Maybe I could join your tour or even take over for Layla if she needs a break?”
My instinct is to say no, apologize to Layla, and promise I’ll stop talking if she just won’t pass me off to him.
Thankfully, Layla shakes her head. “You know she’s my responsibility,” she says, and I’m grateful—not that being called someone’s responsibility is a compliment.
“Well, then, I guess I’ll just see you both at lunch. Oh, and Layla . . .” He holds up a small braid made of pine needles.
Layla checks the now-empty pocket of her cloak while Ash grins victoriously. “Five, four,” she says with a hint of annoyance. “You win.”
Ash gives us both a small bow as he slips back into the river of students, who behave more like spies than high schoolers. Up close his intensity is almost overwhelming, but as he walks away I find that it’s equally hard not to watch him. I’m not sure if I’m intrigued or intimidated.
I take a seat on one of the maroon couches in the assessment office, which is mostly lit by the glow of flames coming from a large fireplace. Portraits of sour-looking old men and women cover the walls, and the ceiling is crossed with wooden beams. I drag my boot along a faded rug and look out the tall, narrow window, which reveals nothing but thick tree branches.
Dr. Conner places a silver tray bearing steaming-hot bread, butter, and jam on the table in front of me. My stomach rumbles in response. There are few things in the world better than fresh bread. And because of the drugging, I’m not even sure how long it’s been since I last ate.
“Now, November, I’m going to ask you a series of questions,” Dr. Conner says as he lowers himself onto the couch across from me. His accent sounds British, and he wears a black blazer similar to Blackwood’s, only his has a maroon pocket square. If I had to guess, he’s about my dad’s age or maybe even a few years younger.
“The most important thing is that you answer honestly,” Dr. Conner says as he crosses his legs and opens a leather folder.
“It will greatly increase our chances of getting you into the appropriate classes. As it’s unusual for us to accept a student midyear, especially one as old as you, we don’t have the time to leisurely assess your strengths and weaknesses the way we normally would.”
“Absolutely. Fire away,” I say as my brain races through its own assessment. Conner—deriving from cunnere, meaning “inspector,” and cun, meaning “to examine.” “Did you get any transcripts from my school?”
He raises an eyebrow. “Certainly not. I can assure you that none of that information exists here. And everything said in this office is confidential and used only for teaching purposes. No one else has access to your files besides Headmaster Blackwood and myself.”
Layla’s and Blackwood’s warnings ring in my head. Did he think I was testing him to see if any of my personal information was on record here?
“Oh, good. Then let’s tackle your questions,” I say with less pep.
He runs his hand over his short beard and frowns at me. “Are you an introvert or an extrovert?”
“Extrovert. Hundred percent,” I reply.
“Do you have any injuries that currently limit your movements?”
“Nope. No injuries.”
“Which level of balance most accurately describes you—the ability to walk a ledge, a tree branch, or a tightrope?”
I can feel my forehead scrunching as I consider my answer. Where is he possibly going with this? It feels more like an assessment for playing extreme sports than for a school. “Tree branch. Are there really people at this school who can walk a tightrope?”
“Climbing skills?” Conner asks, ignoring my question.
He looks up for a brief moment. “How excellent?”
It’s starting to seem like none of these questions are going to be about my academic strengths. “Trees are my best, but I can climb rocks, shinny up poles . . . basically, if there is a texture and a handhold, I can climb it. It’s sort of a—” I stop myself before telling him that there’s a running bet among my friends in Pembrook about what I can climb and how fast. Rule number one, I remind myself.
He lifts his eyebrows. “Nighttime or daytime?”
“Nighttime or daytime?”
“Really, both are fine.”
“I’m glad you think so,” he says in a way that tells me he’s not glad. “But when I give you a choice, I expect you to choose.”
I shift my position on the couch even though I don’t need to. “Nighttime.”
“Why?” he says, and looks up at me.
“Well,” I say, and pause. “Darkness doesn’t bother me, and it can be really useful sometimes.”
He nods and jots down a note, which by this point in this bizarre conversation I would really like to see.
“Which of your senses would you say is the strongest?”
“Huh, okay, let me think.” When I was little, Dad and I started playing this game where one person was blindfolded and would follow the other through the woods and away from the house for five minutes. The leader would zigzag and go in circles, trying to confuse the blindfolded person as much as possible. But if the blindfolded one could find their way back to the house, they won. I always did it by listening and by touching the trees. Dad swore he did it mostly by scent, which I still think is unbelievable. He started designing outdoor strategy games like the blindfold game after my mom died when I was six. We’d go on camping trips for long weekends and he’d teach me all sorts of tricks—survival skills, I guess is what they really were, though they felt more like puzzles or games back then. He never admitted it, but I think he was trying to find ways to exhaust me physically and mentally and keep me from asking questions about my mom.
Conner clears his throat. “Next question.”
“Wait, I have my answer.”
He looks at me pointedly. “I said next question, November.”
“Some combination of touch and hearing,” I say quickly before he can start talking again, not because I couldn’t pass on the question, but because I don’t like to be silenced.
He doesn’t react. “Would you rather climb a tree, go out to sea, or be pain-free?”
I hesitate. Dad used to give me these kinds of personality tests as a sort of riddle. I always teased him that it was a carry-over from his former life in the CIA. But what I want to know now is what going out to sea, my strongest sense, and whether I like day or night have to do with anything.
“It’s not a difficult question,” Conner says, and my brain snaps into motion.
Climb a tree probably means you just want to have fun or live in the moment. Go out to sea? Leave where you are, feeling unsatisfied with your current situation. Be pain-free . . .other than the obvious meaning, I’m actually not sure about this one.
Conner pulls at his beard and looks between me and the folder as he jots down notes.
“Be pain-free,” I say, even though climb a tree is definitely the most accurate for me. However, if there’s one thing I get the sense this school doesn’t value, it’s having carefree fun.
He grunts. “And your capacity for spatial relations?”
“I’ve always played a lot of sports . . . so I would say strong.”
“As in breaking them?” Boy, this guy doesn’t spare a word he doesn’t have to.
“As in breaking or creating.”
I shrug. “No experience.”
He looks up at me for a second and I get the sense that he doesn’t believe me. “Okay, good. That will give us a starting point at least for class assignment.”
Class assignment—I now take it that the classes Blackwood and Layla described aren’t just electives, they are the curriculum. Not that I’m sad to give up math and English, but it’s also shocking that a prep school wouldn’t be more focused on academics.
Conner puts the leather folder on the table. He looks at the untouched tray of food. “Aren’t you going to have some bread and jam?”
“Thanks, but I’m good. Feel free to eat without me,” I say, trying not to make eye contact with the tempting bread.
“You must be hungry. You haven’t had breakfast yet,” he says, and smiles.
After they most likely drugged me on the plane, there is no way I’m eating this. I look at him squarely. “This is an assessment office and you’re assessing me, right? The only thing I can think is that the food is part of my assessment, and I’m not sure I want to find out what’s in it.”
His expression shifts, like he’s found something he was looking for. “You’re suspicious. Or maybe it’s just me that you don’t trust.”
For a second I’m taken aback. This is the first time anyone has ever called me suspicious. And somehow this comment feels different from the others, like he’s probing my psyche as opposed to just collecting information. “I don’t like to make the same mistake twice,” I say carefully.
He waits a beat, and I can practically see the wheels in his head turning, making decisions about me. It’s strangely uncomfortable to be assessed when you don’t know what people are looking for or what types of conclusions they are coming to.
Conner leans back on the couch, and his casual posture almost appears welcoming, like I’m talking to one of my friends’ dads, not an uptight assessment officer. Dad. A pang of homesickness grips my empty stomach.
“How much do you know about the Academy, November?” Conner asks.
“Very little,” I say, and I can tell by his look that he takes it as the truth.
“Headmaster Blackwood asked that I speak to you a bit about our history and what is expected of you here,” he says, and I lean forward.
“Yes, please.” At this point I’ll take all the info I can get.
He folds his hands in his lap. “But,” he says with emphasis, “this brief introduction will not make up for the plethora of information that you have missed in your first two years.”
I get the sense that he’s warning me, which is baffling. Why would they let me in if they were so worried about everything I’ve missed?
“Before we get into all that, though—Headmaster Blackwood made rule number one clear to you, did she not?”
“Never reveal personal information about yourself or your family,” I say.
Conner nods. “We also ask that you use precautions with any students you might recognize. We understand it’s inevitable that some of you will know each other. But it’s in those moments when you are most comfortable that you will be the most vulnerable,” he says, and again I get the feeling that he’s fishing for something.
“Not a problem,” I say. “I don’t know anyone.”
He looks at me for a long moment and clears his throat. “Now, let’s see here. . . . The Academy was designed and built by the original Council of Families as an elite institution for their best and brightest children. It was the first time that all of the Families worked together toward a common goal. It was agreed then, as it is still agreed today, that strategic excellence and safety among their children be prioritized above politics.”
Now I’m officially lost. I want to ask him What politics? but he continues speaking before I can open my mouth.
“I cannot tell you the exact date this school was founded, as its secrecy has prevented some of that information from being recorded, although many estimate that it was approximately fifteen hundred years ago, roughly a thousand years after the first three original Families formed. What I can tell you is that Academy Absconditi has been housed in this particular building since 1013.” He lifts his chin a little higher, as though that’s a mark of pride.
Families—there’s that word again. When I questioned Layla about it, she acted like I was being intentionally annoying. Conner clearly assumes I know what it means, too, and I’m not sure I want him to know that I don’t. I nod as if I’m following.
“All students have the same required core classes,” Conner says. “And the choice of special electives like accents, martial arts, coding, boxing, archery, and horticulture. While levels of specific skills vary within each year of students, there is a strict divide between the elemental-level students in their first two years and the advanced-level students. If an elemental-level student cannot transition properly to advanced-level expectations, they are not permitted to stay.” Conner pauses in a way that makes me think he wants me to understand the gravity of his words.
“And because I’m seventeen, I’m guessing I’m in my third year and therefore an advanced-level student?” I say.
“You are. Now, we’ve been assured that your physical skills are sufficient. But the core class that links everything we do here is history. Unfortunately, you have missed two and a half years of lessons that not only reveal the stories of the original Families but also analyze the major historical events they influenced. It’s the strategy discussed in the context of these historical events that will shape your education here. Headmaster Blackwood only hopes that your tutors have been good enough that you do not slow down the other students. As I said, excellence is a must.”
History Is the Teacher of Life now makes perfect sense as the school motto. Also, I’m pretty sure my dad would kill me if he spent a ton of money to safeguard me in a remote private school only to have me sent home because I failed some cryptic history class. I rub my hands together. “And if I wanted to do some independent studying just in case? Is there a book I could read or something?”
Conner frowns for so long that I cough in the hope that the sound will make him stop staring. “I fear that if you don’t realize there’s no written record of that history, it may be altogether impossible for you to survive here with the other students.”
The word survive sends a chill through me. So I laugh. I laugh because I’m good at it, because it’s been my lifelong go-to in order to make people feel at ease, and because I get the distinct impression that I just revealed my hand and need to recover—fast. “I didn’t mean a book about Family history. I meant a book that might help me with, you know, the subtleties.”
He huffs like he’s unsure, but the threat has disappeared from his eyes.
“Or anything else you can think of,” I say. “I’m all ears.”
He relaxes into the pillows behind him. “Well, now, that is something you will just have to figure out for yourself.”
I open my mouth to respond but catch myself. What a jerk.
Dr. Conner stands. “Now if you’ll follow me, I have one final thing for you to do this morning.”
I get up off the plush couch and push my braid over my shoulder.
Conner pulls two chairs away from the wall and sets them up facing each other. I wait for him to sit down, but he doesn’t. Instead, he straightens his vest and stands behind the chair on the right. “Sit, please, in whichever seat you like.”
The chair he’s not standing behind would put my back to the door. I don’t know if it’s a feng shui thing or not, but it’s always bugged me to sit with my back to an exit. However, there’s no way I’m going to sit in the seat he’s standing two inches behind. I glance around, and instead of choosing, I sit on the floor with my back against the wall where the chairs originally stood.
I don’t bother to explain my actions and he doesn’t ask. No “I gave you a choice” speech this time, either. He just jots down more notes.
After a moment, Conner hands me a piece of paper with eight squares of color on it. “Please mark each color with a number, one being your favorite and eight being your least favorite. No need to overthink it. Just choose which colors you enjoy the most.”
I stare at him. First all those odd questions, and now a color test?
Conner offers me a pen and a pencil.
I take the pencil and mark a 1 next to yellow and a 2 next to green. They remind me of the sun and the trees and are exactly the opposite of being in this gloomy gray building. I mark a 3 next to red and the pencil breaks in my hand; the entire point comes off. I look up at Conner, who is watching me carefully and without surprise. He makes no effort to offer me the pen or a different pencil.
Is he waiting to see if I’ll ask for help? Screw that. I stick the pencil in my mouth and bite into the wood. Then I pull bits of it off with my fingernails until the exposed lead forms a crude tip and I continue marking the colors. Conner watches my every move.
I stand up when I’m finished and hand it back to him.
He nods at the paper, like it’s telling him things he already knows. “You may go,” he says over his shoulder as he walks back to his desk.
“Can I ask you something?” I say. “Was that food you offered me okay to eat?”
Conner turns around and pulls a small vial of something from his blazer. “The antidote,” he says, and smiles.
I stare at him in horror. I figured the food might be part of the assessment, but I didn’t actually predict that the guy who’s been charged with making sure I acclimate here was going to poison me.
He takes a seat at his desk. “And now you must go,” he says. “I have a schedule to keep.”
I grab the door latch. I can’t get out of his office fast enough.