I’m not sure if Mariko’s method of writing on comics was actually helpful as a study tool, but it was more fun than copying runes over and over again in silence. It also took less time. We turned in our pages and Mariko looked on them approvingly. “Wonderful! Soren, I know that if Rose goes first, you’ll just copy her. Would you like to read off that spell you wrote?”
“I don’t quite have a handle of these runes,” I said.
“I think Rose does, though. Rose, please be ready to tell Soren what the next rune is.”
I matched the hand gestures of Mariko’s drawing and read off a surprisingly long raw spell. Rose had to read me more than half of it, but we kept up the flow. At the end of it, the floating runes around my hands coalesced in front of me, forming a small, flat disc of red energy twice the span of my hands. “Well, it works. What was it again? Saving Mercy?”
Rose checked the sheet again. “It’s, uh, Svalinn’s Mercy.”
“Svalinn? That’s a bit of a mouthful.”
“It’s from Norse mythology,” said Mariko. “I think the school in Reykjavik thought it up. It isn’t easy to say if you speak Japanese either, but it’s very useful. Imagine it floating up a few inches.” I did so and the shield obeyed my orders. I could feel the magic flow from me to accomplish the feat. “It persists after you cast it with low upkeep, and you can move it around with a thought. When you’re done with it, just snap your fingers.”
I nodded. “I’ll definitely have to add this to my repertoire.” I decided that instead of unsummoning it, I would test it out a little. With a thought, it came to rest right next to my right arm.
“Very good,” said Mariko. “Now you try it for yourself, Rose.”
Rose had been sipping on a cup of tea. She sputtered, which I thought was a waste of fine tea. “You want me to what?”
“Well, you did such a good job transcribing that spell. It would be a shame to not try it on for size.”
Rose looked like she was going to have an attack. “I can’t, Mariko. I just can’t.”
The older girl smiled at her pleasantly. “Please try for me. I promise I won’t think less of you one way or the other.”
Rose tried to collect herself. “A-alright, if you insist. Ra Ni…” She started off strong, and I was wondering if this annoying disability was finally over.
No such luck. Soon enough, the runes that emerged in midair began to distort.
“Keep going, Rose. I know you can do it,” Mariko cajoled.
Unlike before, Rose pressed on. I smelled ozone, and a light wind started to rustle my hair. She might have been better off giving up; an energy structure appeared in midair, but it was warped. Rose’s eyes went wide when she saw the ugly spell circle. She started hyperventilating, and the shield shot straight at Mariko’s face like a bullet.
With a thought, my own Svalinn’s Mercy intercepted Rose’s. The missile was too much for my shield, and they both vanished in a glittery burst of energy that hung in the air like smoke. Rose’s breeze blew them away soon enough.
“Oh my,” Mariko managed.
Rose collapsed to her knees, and that familiar scent of ozone intensified. “I did it again, I almost killed her, I did it again,” she muttered under her breath. Her eyes didn’t focus on anything in particular, and the windspeed increased tenfold.
My eyes darted from Rose to Mariko and back again. I wouldn’t be able to use Electrify again; the demonic runes would give me away. I also didn’t see a way to get out of the room before Rose blew up, even if I left Mariko to rot. I wondered if a nearby lamp could knock her out without crushing her skull.
While I dithered, Mariko walked over and knelt to Rose’s level. She caught the shorter girl in a delicate embrace and hugged her head to her bosom. For the first time since I’d met her, I found myself envying Rose.
“Shh. I’m okay, Rose. Nobody’s hurt. Nobody’s mad. You can just calm down, okay?”
“That won’t work,” I shouted. “I tried the same thing back in Iceland!”
“Yelling isn’t relaxing, Mr. Marlowe.” Her motherly tone shut me up, even though I was on the verge of panic myself. The papers on the table took to the air, and Mariko’s braided hair was buffeted by the increasingly powerful breeze. She closed her eyes; I imagine even her glasses couldn’t keep it from stinging her eyes. “Rose, I know you can hear me. You didn’t hurt me. Everything is fine.” She gripped the blonde girl tighter and stroked her hair soothingly, and I wondered just how she was so brave in the face of destruction.
There was a powerful blast of wind that knocked our things from the table, and I was sure the storm would start in earnest. However, that last burst was the end of it, and the air went still again. Rose’s eyes refocused, and she blushed a little when she realized just how close she was to the older woman. “I’m so sorry. I don’t know why this always happens.”
“I accept, though you should only say sorry for things that are your fault. I see why you didn’t want to try. I’m sorry I pushed you like that, which is actually my fault.” She let Rose go, who scooted away as fast as she could.
“So, will that conclude our lesson tonight,” I said.
Mariko nodded. “Yes, I think that will be quite enough. Soren, I’ll have to think of a way to repay you for that quick save.”
“No problem at all, my dear,” I said. “Perhaps you could pay me back with a portrait? If you can make Hiro look that good, imagine what you can do with some better material.”
Mariko abruptly let go of Rose and started to pack up. “I don’t do that anymore.”
I raised an eyebrow. “But they’re quite good. Why would you stop?”
“It’s personal. I need to get going, I just remembered I need to… Blast!” Her phone slipped from her fingers and clattered to the ground. She was clearly agitated, and I supposed her hands had gone clammy. If that was the worst of it, she handled near death better than many combat soldiers I’ve met.
Rose was quick to pick it up for her. “Mariko, are you okay? Soren can be a little pushy, but you don’t have to go.”
“I have something I need to do,” she said lamely. “I am glad we were able to make so much progress tonight.” I thought that was an interesting interpretation of events, but I kept my mouth shut.
“Thank you for taking the time,” said Rose.
“It’s no bother. I’m always happy to help.” Before I could say anything, she was gone.
“What’s her problem?” That earned me another elbow from Rose. “Ow! What was that for?”
“I never took you for dense. You did something to upset her!”
“I asked an artist for a bloody portrait,” I protested. “That isn’t beyond the pale.”
Rose crossed her arms over her chest. “It is when I almost killed her not a minute before! It wasn’t the time.”
“She didn’t seem bothered by her near miss until I mentioned the drawing. Hm.” The gears in my head turned as I tried to make sense of it, but nothing came to mind. I groaned. It felt like everyone at the Nagoya Academy was a logic puzzle at the center of a minefield, and I wasn’t even actively pursuing Mariko like the others. “Well, since I seem to be a bit dense tonight, I’ll ask you straight. How are you holding up?”
Rose sighed. “I’m used to letting people down.”
I’ve established by now that I’m a monster and a cad. I began calculating how to turn Rose’s foul mood to my advantage. Settling on a strategy, I put my hand in hers. “Well, I know one person you can please. It seems to me we have a golden opportunity, since we have this room to ourselves.”
Rose’s eyes widened. “Soren, we just barely avoided destroying their clubroom! Why do you want to risk it again?”
“You said something about a magical inhibitor earlier, and I seem to recall an invitation to fool around.”
“I was joking.”
“So, there is no magical inhibitor?” I tried not to let too much disappointment into my voice. I failed utterly.
Rose shook her head. “No, there is. I use it so I don’t cast a hurricane while I sleep. It’s a five-pound ankle bracelet, though. It isn’t exactly sexy.”
“With the right mindset…”
“Stop it,” said Rose. “You’re terrible. Has anybody ever told you you’re terrible?”
I smirked. “I see that smile, though. I think you were seriously considering it.”
“Maybe. Maybe I do like you enough to go that far with you, if I wasn’t going to destroy the school every time I got hot and bothered.” She caressed the side of my face tenderly.
“Well, now I know what my goal is. We’re going to get you over your hang-ups.”
She gave me a skeptical look. “That’s big talk, Marlowe. What do you have that Ms. Edwards, Mariko and a small army of therapists and specialists don’t?”
“A real motivation, that’s what! They were all paid the same whether you can cast a spell or not. Mariko was just a volunteer, which is fine as it goes, but again, no benefit to her. You’re offering me something I’ve wanted since the first time I saw just how lovely you were, and if the cost is getting you to control your affinity, then that’s what I’ll do.”
Rose giggled. “I can’t tell if you’re romantic or desperate.”
“It can be both.”
Rose sighed wistfully. “I guess I’ll take both.”