Desmond tugged on his vest. It fit him as if it had been tailored to him. His pants were long enough. His shirt buttoned snugly but not tightly around his throat.
“Eventually,” Grenor put in, “you’ll learn to direct the magic yourself. The collar will always be involved, of course – the collar is the control for the magic. That was the Agreement,” he added, in a much quieter voice. “But after a time, you’ll be able to look at a piece of clothing and fit it to yourself by will alone. I’d be glad, if I were you. You’ll notice quickly that not everyone is as good at that as you are.”
“It wasn’t me,” Des protested.
“It was you. It was you and the collar as a team – but that means it was at least half your effort and mind – and don’t ever let your compatriot there tell you different.”
“It hasn’t tried so far.” He touched the collar lightly. “These are the best-fitting clothes I’ve ever owned.”
“That’s just one of the advantages to being collared. It might balance out the dormitory living.”
“Oh, this?” He looked around. “I don’t know how I feel about this yet. I shared a room most of my childhood, but that was different.”
“You’d be surprised how many people that’s the story for. Or maybe you wouldn’t.” Grenor shrugged with a smirk. “Your belongings are safe here – and don’t mess with anyone else’s belongings. That’s rule number two.”
“What’s rule number one?”
“This is home now.” Grenor softened tone a little bit. “There’s no place but here for us, and no family but this place. Some day, you may be given assignments that are long-term, and those assignments will become your home and family – but the place you left this morning, that’s gone.”
“I know.” Des swallowed around a lump but kept his chin up. “My mother gave me the blessing for the sailors. I’m gone. Dead.”
“Your mother, then, is wiser than many, and I tip my hat to her. Now. It’s been a long day, and I imagine you’d like to sit down and rest your feet and fill your belly?”
Desmond’s stomach, which heretofore had been relatively quiet, weighed in on that matter. Des colored and looked away, but that couldn’t stop the sound of the collar sniggering in his mind.
“Oh, don’t worry about it,” Grenor assured him. “Like I said, I know it’s been a long day. This way, I’ll lead you to the dining hall.”
Grenor led back into the halls and down a simple hallway that ended in a wide, noisy room. There were people eating at the tables, all dressed in variations on Des’s outfit. Some wore yellow cravats and some golden, some blue cravats and some turquoise like Des’s, some pink and some red. Des spotted a couple in shades darker or lighter than those six, picked out among the sea of people.
Grenor gestured to an area with all people in shades of blue. “That’s going to be your area there. The ones that look the most lost are probably first-year students, like you. Go, grab a meal from the tray area here and then take a seat. I’m sure you’re hungry.”
He gave Des a little shove, which was all it took. Desmond hurried over to the “tray area”: a long table where tin trays were stacked next to cheap tin plates and silverware. There were several dishes to choose from, being served by people in red cravats and heavy white aprons.
“Last one.” The tallest boy grinned at him. His collar was just barely visible from the way he had set his collar and cravat. “You must have have quite a climb.”
“We climbed for a while,” he agreed. “How much food can we have?”
“One plate, but you can fill it.” The boy looked a little sympathetic at that. “Special occasions, more food. So I’ve got a shepherd’s pie here, this is pretty tasty, and then Puggle there has a roasted veg dish that’s pretty good. Aine has some sort of corn-wrap dish, but I’m not quite sure what it is.”
Desmond looked at his plate, looked at the size of the portions left, and decided he might as well eat his fill. “One of each, please.” If they were offering, he wasn’t going to say no. Hesitantly, he added, “We all take our turn in the kitchen, then?”
“First semester, yeah. Then, if it turns out you’re rubbish at cooking, you can substitute it out for other tasks. Not too proud to cook, are you?”
“No, sir.” Desmond grinned crookedly. “Though it it involves anything fancy, I might be at a loss.”
“Have no fear. We’ve all been through it and we can all teach you. I’m Federun, by the way. I’m in Action house. That’s what we call it, at least.”
“Action… oh.” Desmond touched his cravat. “So you chose… physical?” he guessed.
“Exactly. There are some other determining factors, but you’ll figure those out as you go. Red is Action. Blue is Impulse. Yellow is Reflection. They have long fancy names but those are only used two or three times a year. So, welcome to the school. I’ll let someone Impulsive welcome you to the house. And the Dean will welcome you formally — but eat first. The other first-year Impulses are over in that corner there,” he gestured. “Probably the best place for you to sit.”
Desmond took his full plate, a stein of beer, and a hunk of bread and headed for the corner indicated. Eight other people in various shades of blue and turquoise were sitting there, all of them looking at him as he approached.
“It balanced out. Hunh.” The speaker was lanky, wearing the uniform with the kilt, and had a deep royal-blue cravat — and studying Desmond thoughtfully. “I was wondering if we would all even out by numbers. Wonder how they do that?”
“Sure you shouldn’t have gone into the Thinky people?” A short person with very light blue accessories frowned at the lanky on. “We’ve got this one, that gives us nine. Hi.” The short person stuck out a hand. “I’m Wesley. This is Talia. We were the first ones in here.”
They seemed to think that was something to be proud of, so Desmond smiled at them. The lanky one, Talia, winked back, and Wesley shook Des’s hand.
“And you are the last one,” Wesley added. “The last one anywhere, it looks like.”
“I took a nap on the stairs,” Des joked. There was a strange tension when Wesley said ‘last one,” a tension that seemed to infect the whole table. He’d hoped the joke would break the tension, but it only seemed to make it worse.
“Seriously?” a third person, wearing accessories the same cyan as Desmond, leaned forward. “You napped?”
“No? It was a joke. Just a joke,” he added, feeling on guard. “I don’t know what being first or last or in the middle means. I’m new here.”
“We’re all new here.” This third person seemed determined to dislike everything Desmond said, so Des decided not to say anything in reply.
“What Kayey isn’t saying is that none of us know what it means, either.” The fourth person looked a little older than the rest of them, white-blonde hair in two long braids and pale cyan cravat tied messily in the High Street style. “Wesley and Talia are pleased they made it early, but everyone’s worried that you took a long time because you climbed higher. I’m Jefshan, by the by.”
“Desmond. Des. Pleased to meet you all.” He bowed awkwardly, the tray hampering his movement.
“Well, sit down, sit down.” Talia gestured imperiously at an empty seat. “We can’t compare notes properly until you get settled.”
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