“Lo? What are you doing here?”
Lobelia Woods raised her eyes and saw her dorm mate Tawny Skillson approaching the bench. They were in Mrs. Bodie’s Animism class together and Tawny was popular with their classmates after dubbing their professor “Bodie the Toadie”. Lobelia had laughed too, not just because of the squat woman’s round shape and broad mouth but the fact that she taught a class on channeling animal guides and working with familiars.
But that wasn’t the reason Lobelia was sitting on the old, rickety bench in front of the Headmistress’s office.
Tawny sat next to her. “Did Toadie send you here? Your trick with Amanda Heath’s red squirrel was hilarious and all, but I didn’t think that attaching its tail to her backside was grounds for…here.”
“Amanda loves her tail,” Lobelia said in a low voice. “She told me after class that she always wanted red hair and she couldn’t wait to brush it.” She grinned as Tawny giggled. “No, I’m not here because of her. It’s because of Madam Nycova.”
Tawny gasped and scooted closer. “The Cartomancy teacher? I thought you were her star pupil. I love watching you read the cards. I don’t see how you remember all those images and numbers. The class is alright, I suppose. The deck I use belongs to my gran, but the cards are faded and covered in hard wax. She performed candle magic when it was still illegal, you know?”
“Oh, aye?” Lobelia found herself distracted from her impending doom.
“During the Pyromancy Prohibition of 1946, she led an underground resistance…literally! In the Camsden Caves just outside of Leicester. There were tunnels that led down to this huge sanctuary and witches and wizards could do all sorts of fire magic. Candles, scrying, burnt offerings. Although their ‘offerings’ were words on paper that would be burned in a cauldron. My mam says that Gran and her fellow pyromancers were the ones that caused the prohibition to be repealed.”
“And how did they do that?”
Tawny shrugged. “Beats me but the law was repealed after the Prime Minister’s bedroom caught fire. Oh, don’t worry, he survived, but the visions he claimed to have seen were what must have changed his mind. All of the words she had burned, my Gran told me, she wrote with intention. She used to tell me words were more powerful than any wand.”
Lobelia suddenly remembered where she was and reached into her green robes to clutch the wand fastened to her side. It was a short, blonde maple with a crimson tip of mahogany that was fused there by her father, an enrollment gift when she was accepted. He was so proud that his only daughter had made it into Hedgemont Academy and would be taught by the finest teachers in the country.
The Woods legacy was not that of generous donors with grand halls and dormitories named after their kin, but that of the lower middle-class variety who worked in the kitchens of those halls and turned sheets.
Her parents worked hard to save money when her oldest brother Lawrence was born. They hoped he would have a chance to go to the Academy, but he wanted to travel the world and he did, using his abilities to perform street magic. He would also catch coins in his violin case as he played melancholic tunes or old jigs by request. Eventually, their parents had to send him money to bring him home and had to start saving again. When Lobelia was younger, she would listen to him playing his sad songs as he sat in his open bedroom window. He didn’t play jigs anymore.
The next Woods child was another son, Lucas. His powers were not as strong, and he had no musical talent. However, he found that he was adept at kitchen magic and spent late hours over the stove stirring up an enchanted stew that would keep you warm and well-fed with just one helping. He would make elixirs with herbs and brew teas that could instantly get rid of your cough. When Lobelia was six, she fell ill with stomach pains that even the healers could not treat, but Lucas brought her a mug of drinking chocolate that was blended with spices from the east along with a powerful blessing that was spooned into a dollop of whipped cream. It was the most delicious chocolate she ever had, and she slept soundly that night and woke up the next morning with no more pain. Lucas soon left home for Paris to attend a world-renowned Culinary and Herbology school. He eventually opened his own bakery and only had the chance to visit home during the holidays.
The Woods family had to scrimp and save once more for their youngest, Lobelia, and here she sat in front of the Headmistress’s office.
What if I end up like Lawrence? she thought to herself. Sent back home in shame.
“So!” Tawny’s voice snapped her out of her reverie. “Tell me what’s up, eh? Why did Madam Nycova send you here?”
Lobelia sighed and put her hands in her lap again. “She never told me, but I’m sure it’s because of what I did in the library.”
“Well, you know I like to go to the library and find a grimoire for new spells.”
“Must be a small selection, then. You’re always there.”
“But Tawny, it’s so peaceful in that corner. It may be old and musty but it’s private. No one notices anything.”
“And that’s why everyone goes there to lock lips,” her friend added.
Lobelia rolled her eyes. “I try to block that out. Stevie McCree is back there every other day with a new girl. The only magic he’ll ever have is not getting mono.”
“Well, there is a potion for that.”
“Anyway, I was going through an old Tarot book to find a new spread to work with, and I found one. Actually, it was more of a summoning spell, but with cards.”
Tawny’s eyes grew wide. “Lo! Don’t tell me you summoned an evil presence in Snog Central! Ugh, I can only imagine the sort of demon that would pop up there. It would keep Stevie ‘McCreep’ away, I suppose.”
“No, I didn’t summon a demon.” Lobelia pulled out a black drawstring pouch. She opened it and pulled out a crystal that was gray on one side and clear on the other.
Tawny clicked her tongue. “Love, that’s just a smoky quartz. We’ve all got one.”
“It’s not the crystal. I keep it in here to cleanse my cards. It’s this.” She pulled out a Tarot card and Tawny moved so close that their knees touched.
“What is that?” She watched as Lobelia turned the card over from its black and white diamond back to the bright image it held. “I may not know anything about Tarot, but I know that’s not in a traditional deck. What sort of spell was this?”
Lobelia gazed at the image on the card and smiled. “I know the Tarot back and front and all way around and I do enjoy reading. But my intuition lately has been shot, so I wanted something challenging. In the old book I found a spread that was accompanied by a spell. You pull a single card from your own deck as a sort of sacrifice.”
Tawny shook her head. “I don’t like the sound of that.”
“It’s not sinister…at least I hope it isn’t. You put down the Death card and then you put down a random card from the Minor Arcana, any of them, and it will be replaced by another card.”
“Which card did you sacrifice, then?”
“The Three of Swords. I hate that card and when I pull it in a reading I want to scream. Swords piercing a heart is the most dreadful sight.”
“And the Ten of Swords along a dead man’s back isn’t depressing enough for you?” Tawny said.
“You place the card face down onto the Death card and you whisper a personal incantation.”
Tawny looked up the corridor again and could swear she heard footsteps.
“After you say your incantation three times, you turn over the card and it will be a new one.”
“And this is the card you got? Lo, I can’t even tell what it is.”
“Because it’s supposed to be unique to the reader, something only they would understand. I think it’s because of this card that I was sent here. Madam Nycova stopped me on my way to lunch and told me that I was to report here afterwards. Someone must have seen me perform the spell.”
Tawny suddenly jumped from the bench. “Were the Grayson twins there? Those girls are such dirty snitches.” They looked toward the stairs and saw shadows along the wall of the staircase. “That will be the Headmistress. I’ve got to go, hen. Good luck!”
Lobelia put the card and crystal into her pouch as the footsteps approached the bench.
“Miss Woods. I’m sorry to have kept you waiting.”
Lobelia instantly stood to greet the Headmistress and found that Madam Nycova was at her side. Even more surprising was the bright expression on her face as she looked down at her.
“Please do come in.” The Headmistress’s slender frame walked through the large oak door that was held open by the buxom Madam. “Take a seat, dear. There is no time for small talk, I’m afraid, but I would love for you to join us for tea.”
“Y-yes, ma’am. Thank you.” Lobelia sat in the large, brown leather chair in front of her desk as Madam Nycova sat in the one next to her. They sat in silence as the Headmistress summoned a tea kettle from a nearby hot plate. “Madam, you take milk, yes? And Miss Woods?”
“Oh, um…milk and two sugars…please.”
With their tea prepared, the Headmistress took one long sip and smacked her wrinkled lips before setting down the saucer and cup. “May I see this Tarot card you conjured, Miss Woods? Madam has been raving about it all morning.”
Lobelia nearly spilt her tea but managed to set it on the desk in time for a single drop to splash onto the saucer. She took her black pouch from her robes and opened it and placed the card on the desk. Lobelia heard Madam Nycova sigh.
The Headmistress picked up the card and grinned. “My goodness…what an image! It’s gorgeous. I’ve never seen one like this and I’ve seen plenty.”
“I told you, Headmistress,” Madam said with a lilt in her Romanian accent. “Mary Grayson said she witnessed Miss Woods perform the spell perfectly. She said the incantation was lovely, as well.”
“So she did snitch…” muttered Lobelia.
“Come again, dear?” said the Headmistress.
“I’m sorry, ma’am. I’m afraid that I’m rather confused.”
The two ladies suddenly laughed, and Lobelia’s anxiety began to ebb as the Headmistress snapped her fingers and two shortbread biscuits appeared on her saucer. She picked up one of them and hovered it over her teacup.
“My dear girl, do you know how difficult that spell is?” she asked. “I’ve been doing spell work for sixty years and that spell has been the bane of my existence! I’m sure that’s why I received the card that I did when it finally worked. Serves me right.”
Madam Nycova turned to her and beamed. “And the spell only worked for me after I graduated from Hedgemont. What you have achieved, young lady, is an accomplishment worthy of recognition.” She addressed the Headmistress. “May I tell her now, ma’am?”
“Please do.” She finally dunked her shortbread and ate it in one soggy bite.
“Miss Woods,” said Madam Nycova. “You love reading the cards, yes?”
Lobelia began to relax and picked up her tea again. “Yes, Madam. I love it very much.”
“That’s wonderful to hear. I know that you are an excellent student, but after what was witnessed today, I would say that you are one of the most gifted witches in the school. That is why I have contacted a colleague of mine in Paris. Her great-great-great grandmother wrote the spell you performed and started a college for gifted readers, and I made a, how you say…a referral.”
Lobelia’s jaw dropped. “You referred me to another school?”
“Not just any school, dragă,” said Madam. “Académie Liliane LeFeuvre, the best Cartomancy school in the world. They can teach you not just the art of Tarot but spell work to make your abilities stronger. It can open many doors for you if you take the chance.”
Madam’s face drooped and she took Lobelia’s free hand. “If you love the cards as much as you say, then this would be a wonderful opportunity to become the truly gifted reader you are.”
Lobelia’s eyes suddenly stung with tears. “It would be an honor, Madam. But…my family…they don’t have much, and they spent many years saving just to send me here.”
“That will be taken care of, Miss Woods.” The Headmistress snapped her fingers again and a parchment unrolled on her desk. She picked up her quill and wrote on it, saying, “Any referrals made by Hedgemont Academy will have their first year paid for, on the condition that you keep good marks, of course.” She rolled the parchment and sealed it with green wax. She stamped Hedgemont’s coat of arms in the wax and handed it to Lobelia.
“A parchment from Paris was sent to your parents. They don’t have to do a thing for now. The only thing missing is your answer.”
Lobelia set down her tea again and took the parchment. She clutched it to her chest as a tear rolled down her cheek. “Thank you, Headmistress. And thank you for your referral, Madam Nycova. It’s not an easy decision to make, for I love Hedgemont, and I have a lot of friends here.”
“Please think on it, dear girl.” The Madam stood and took her hand again. “It would make us all proud.”
Lobelia felt like flying when she left the Headmistress’s office and her robes billowed behind her as she went up the stairs to the dormitories. She was instructed to read the parchment she was given and sign it if she accepted the terms of the school, and in a few days, she would receive further instructions.
She sat at her desk by the window that overlooked the central plaza where Hedgemont’s fountain sprang from a large rock, its well littered with hag stones. The last few minutes were still reeling in her mind as she thought about the opportunity to delve deeper into Cartomancy and to do it in Paris of all places!
“And I wouldn’t be alone with Lucas living there,” she said to herself, her smile growing bigger. “I’ve never been to his bakery, and I wouldn’t have to wait till the holidays to see him!”
She picked up her quill and placed the tip of it over the parchment. Lobelia Woods closed her eyes and thought of the lengths her parents went to in order to send her here, and how all of their hard work eventually led to this moment. Then she thought of her brother Lawrence who played sad music in his bedroom window at night.
She felt her intuition spring to life once again, the same that could see every card clearly, and she opened her eyes to find her signature on the parchment. It sparkled in front of her and hovered off the desk to roll itself up and dissipate into thin air.
She heard the thumping of flats running up the stairs to the rooms and Tawny flung open their bedroom door, her cheeks flushed from running.
“Well, what happened?” she asked, panting against the door frame. “Were you expelled?”
Lobelia looked at her friend and knew that she would miss her the most. She gave her a smile and replied: