ram looked at his watch. It was eight thirty when they came into the Refectory. The first class would start in thirty minutes.
"Hurry up," he urged Nick and Theodore, who were filling their plates with toasts and scrambled eggs.
"Relax, there's still plenty of time," Theodore assured him.
Three girls plunged into the chairs opposite them. Those were Karishma, Meilin, and Gwenlian.
"Umm, apple pudding," Karishma said.
"And cherry porridge," Meilin exulted. "The cooks here have my sincere gratitude."
Gwenlian, though, didn't seem happy. "How did you sleep?" she asked the boys, rubbing her eyes that were still sleepy.
Nick muttered something with his mouth full of pie that was supposed to be "just fine."
"Me too," Theodore said.
"And none of you cares about what happened yesterday?"
Aram, Nick, and Theodore stared at her.
"She's talking about the ventriloquist," Meilin said, "hasn't stopped thinking of him since last night."
“Because it was serious what he said,” Gwenlian said, stirring angrily her hot chocolate with a spoon.
“And you know what exactly he was talking about?” Theodore asked.
"Not exactly, but there have been a lot of dangerous magicians throughout the history. If one of them is coming to the Academy..."
"He'll get caught by the town guards. Or be spotted by the Coven of Fifteen," Theodore said.
"Look there," Nick whispered, "the table on the left. Aram, they seem to be looking at you."
All five followed Nick's glance. Cillian and his three cronies were staring at Aram with smirks on their faces.
"The bullies," Karishma said with a scowl.
"They are bullying you?" Nick asked.
"They're bullying everyone," Gwenlian said.
"But why were they staring at you like that?" Meilin asked Aram, once everyone had turned back to their plates.
"We’ve had a minor accident with them," Nick said. "It was my fault."
"It wasn't your fault," Aram said.
"Seems he's been in another accident recently," Theodore said. "Did you see his eye?"
"That's me," Aram said, and under the bewildered gazes of his friends told them about yesterday’s incident.
"That wasn't very smart," Gwenlian said. "Now they’ll be looking for revenge."
"That was the only thing he could do," Theodore said.
"Definitely," Nick agreed.
"My Dad says there's no argument that cannot be solved without fists," Gwenlian said.
"Your Dad's probably never been bullied," Theodore snapped at her, then turned to Aram. "We share the same timetables..."
"Almost the same," Nick said.
"...so we'll be keeping a close eye on you, in case they come close."
Aram gave him a smile.
"What's the first on your timetable?" Karishma asked the boys.
Nick pulled a crumpled sheet of paper from his pocket and spread it on the table. "Theory of Magic, Arithmetic and Alchemy, afterwards History of Magic, Crafting, and Flying."
"We've got the same," Karishma said, looking at her timetable, "only our first is History of Magic, and instead of Crafting we have Baking."
"I wish I had Crafting instead of Baking," Gwenlian said. "Not sure I'm going to have much luck with baking."
"What are we going to be flying on?" Aram asked in such an agitated voice everyone had to smile.
"Brooms and umbrellas," Meilin said.
"And carpets, too," Gwenlian said, "for the races."
"Not sure about the carpets, but maybe an animal or two, like a Pegasus," Karishma said. "In India we fly on a lot of things, but I don't think Academy will teach you how to ride every single rideable flying animal."
"In Russia we ride in flying buckets," Nick said proudly. "I tried once and nearly hugged a tree, it's that hard."
"I think to be able to ride something like a flying bucket you need to know practical magic," Gwenlian said.
"Might be," Theodore said, "but practical magic starts from the second semester. Then if you're lucky and won't get thrown out, you'll get magic wands in the third year,” he said, looking at Aram. “From the fourth year you'll get the right to study in the Academy castle, and if you don’t screw up, you might even have your own crystal ball, though it happens only to the best of the best. And once you reach the last year, you might receive an amulet of your status, 'course if you—"
"Don't get expelled or screw up," Aram cut in, making everyone but Theodore laugh.
Theodore nodded at the clock on the wall. It was fifteen minutes to nine and the Refectory was gradually becoming empty. "Time to go," he said. "We better not be late on the first day."
On their way to the house where Theory of Magic was taught, Aram and Theodore relied on the direction arrows, while Nick didn't stop staring at his map, stumbling once in a while over bushes and benches. After telling him to fold the map and follow them for a thousandth time, Aram held Nick's elbow and began leading him through the garden maze, while Nick kept his eyes glued to the map that was constantly folding and unfolding itself.
At a two-story house of beige bricks, topped with a flat roof that served as a landing place for stone gargoyles, they met with other first-years climbing up the stairs. Theory of Magic was taught in the second chamber on the first floor. It was a big class, with five rows of long desks. The parquetted floor was decked with drawings of witches and wizards, the low ceiling was adorned with meticulous runes, and the walls were covered with bookcases from wall to wall.
Aram, Nick, and Theodore sat behind the desk on the third row and pulled the thick tomes of Theory of Magic from their backpacks.
"Will says Magician Northmind is the scariest, strictest teacher in the Academy," Theodore said. "His strictness is the reason that one third of the first-years gets expelled after the final exams. He's just a..."
The door in the corner of the chamber opened and someone strode in.
Aram surveyed the magician. A monster? It was a small man, a dwarf, a bit thin, with receding gray hair, wearing rectangular glasses and a grayish suit. Without looking at anyone in the class, he walked to his desk by the open window, picked a thick volume from the bookcase, then shut the window and opened the book.
"Theory of Magic is the basis of all," he spoke to the silent class. "It's everything: the beginning, the middle, the end. It's the cornerstone of anything you will ever learn. It's the foundation. By the end of this semester you will know exactly the half of this book, by the end of the year you'll know it from core to core. By heart."
Aram looked despondently at his tome. It was the thickest of all the books they had received in the bookstore: 1057 pages. He looked back at Mg Northmind. Despite his small frame, he seemed to fill the class with his presence, and it was so big everyone had shrunk a bit under his squint.
"There will be other books too," Mg Northmind was saying. "But you will have to borrow them from the Academy Library or the Common House. I will not tolerate your dirty, greasy fingers on my books. Now open your copy-books and write."
Mg Northmind dictated a lot. When the class was over, Aram thought his hand was going to fall off. Nick was moaning too, and Theodore kept muttering ‘monster’ under his breath.
Forty pages of reading and two pages of comments on how magic originated and why it still exists was the homework for the next class that was due in three days. No one spoke when the class ended. Silently, the students picked up their books and copy-books into their tired arms and hurried out the door. Seemed that Theodore's constant grimness had infected everyone in the class.
Arithmetic was in the same building, a floor up. The classroom with bronze walls and bronze ceiling was filled with copper calipers, pairs of compasses, antique rulers and counting boards, and tools that left Aram puzzled, but to his great relief the class was very much like what he had been studying at home. Turned out, numbers were the same everywhere.
Alchemy, though, was in a separate house on the other side of the Academy grounds.
"It's because there are a lot of chemicals that can blow up," Theodore said grimly, making Nick and Aram exchange glances not for the first time that day.
Whether Theodore was right Aram couldn't tell, but the classes were taking place in a separate building which was solely dedicated to Alchemy. From the inside it looked more like a dungeon than a classroom. The chamber was cool and devoid of any kind of fire. The light was falling in through the narrow cracks around the walls. The wooden desks were the only reminder that it was a classroom. Slow-burners and vials stood on every desk, and the wall behind the teacher's table was covered with what looked a lot like Mendeleev's Periodic Table, but instead of the one hundred and thirty five elements Aram had learned at his village school, there seemed to be more elements on this one.
A long-faced man in a long black mantle was standing by the table, watching closely as the students were entering. When everyone was seated and their textbooks taken out, he said:
"I am Professor Gideon Nubbles, your Alchemy teacher for the next six years, if none of you ends up blowing up my chamber with me inside."
The students laughed. After Mg Northmind Prof Nubbles seemed to be a blessing. His class passed quickly, mostly because he didn't dictate things that were already written in the Alchemy textbook, but for the first lesson performed tricks that left the class in total bewilderment.
"Sigmund's and Vascitt's Periodic Table," he said, pointing at the wall behind his back. "Gromeldina Sigmund and Elroy Vascitt were two of the most notable alchemists of their time, which is..." he looked at the class. No one raised a hand. "...the fourth century. This amazing table is the child of their long-term collaboration. Some elements you might know." Prof Nubbles raised both his hands up and seemed to beckon something behind him. Two symbols on the periodic table gleamed with blue, unattached themselves from the wall and like blue glittering letters soared into his open palms. The one over his right palm turned into dancing water, the other over the left palm stirred like wind.
"Oxygen and Water." Prof Nubbles brought his hands together and the blue lights merged into each other. He repeated the motion and three other symbols floated into his hands. "Some of you might not have heard of the others. Eliseum, Grut, Stardust." Two of the blue strips merged into each other, producing a sprinkle of golden rain. The students gasped in awe. Prof Nubbles gently pushed the third element into the rain and it blasted with a thud. The students jumped back; some shielded their faces with their arms.
"I will be telling this only once," the Professor said, "never touch an element, if you don't know what it is, and never mix the elements without supervision."
"I'm starving," Theodore said the moment the Alchemy class was over. It was the thirty minute break that followed every three lessons, and they had time to return to the Refectory and have a quick lunch. They were packing their things when Theodore said, "Is that the boy that got caught by the dorm guard?"
Aram and Nick looked at the fifth row of the desks. Behind the farthest desk a short skinny boy was collecting his textbooks.
"What was his name?" Theodore muttered. "Thomas?"
"Yeah," Nick said, "Thomas Malory."
"Hey!" Theodore called. "Hey, Malory, wanna have lunch with us?"
Thomas Malory looked at them, shoved his dip pen into his backpack and rushed out of the classroom.
"He's strange," Aram said, and his friends nodded in agreement.
Meilin, Karishma, and Gwenlian were already in the Refectory when the boys got there.
"How were your classes?" Karishma asked when Theodore, Nick, and Aram took seats in front of them.
"Not bad," Nick said. Theory of Magic is outrageous, and so is Mg Northmind. I hate numbers, so I am biased towards Arithmetic. But Alchemy was...umm...what's that word, Teo?"
"Outstanding? Amazing? Magnificent?"
"Marvelous," Nick said, making the girls smile with excitement.
"What about you?" Aram said. "Happy with the classes?"
The girls looked at each other, all three smiling.
"Harder than we'd expected," Gwenlian said. "But very interesting and informative."
"Especially the History of Magic," Meilin said, and both Karishma and Gwenlian made wide eyes.
"Oh yes," Karishma said. "Now that was something unexpected."
"History of Magic is probably as tedious as Theory, is it?" Aram asked. "The book's thick!"
"It's certainly long, but nothing tedious," Gwenlian said. "What can be tedious about wizard conspiracies, dragon wars, and werewolf rebellions? But it was definitely unexpected, I mean, oh well, you'll see for yourselves."