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When the session broke for lunch, Sabine tried to signal for Corinne to wait for her, but Corinne was having none of it. The last person she wanted to talk to right now was her mother. Even if that meant she was running away. Again.

The Akashic Academy wasn’t far, and what Corinne needed more than anything else right now was a sympathetic ear. Since it was Sabine Corinne wanted to complain about, her father would be happy to provide that. Maybe while she was there, she could even grab a word with Maddie, who by all reasonable measure should also be willing right now to ally with Corinne against their mother.

Corinne shivered as she passed through the invisible barrier that formed a dome over the academy. This was one place where she was glad not to be in her flight suit, not to have to listen to the discomfort of the nima. This magic disrupted and upset them, which was why so many of the Phoenix Guard refused to come here at all. The powerful protections could play havoc with the engineering and craftsmanship that made flight possible. Corinne knew of more than one Phoenix who had crashed hard because of barriers like this.

But it kept out people who didn’t belong. Only those who had been born with a full akashic adaptation were allowed in the academy—literally. Even a lesser akashic wasn’t good enough. Anyone who lacked the greater adaptation would be frozen, held in painful stasis until someone came to set them free. A cruel punishment for daring to intrude in a place you hadn’t been born to.

This was one of the many things Corinne resented about the academy, about the environment it fostered, about the attitudes of her entire clan. That unique mix of egotism and hubris, of elitism and paranoia that seemed to be the Dragon way.

The school itself was huge, monumental, intimidating. An enormous pyramid, enchanted so much it glowed in the mid-day sun. A circle of domed spires surrounded that, and in the space between spread carefully manicured gardens. This was where Maddie would be. Lunchtime in good weather always drew her outside, where she’d be reading as she ate. Always studying—that was Maddie. Such a good girl, that Madeleine.

There she was, on a wooden bench shaded by the pyramid, a book open in her lap with her lunch spread beside her. She could have been carved by an artist’s hand. Her sari was perfectly arranged. She sat with ankles primly crossed, shoulders and back straight, posture inhumanly perfect.

Such a good girl.

Corinne stopped a few feet away. Maddie looked up, narrowed her eyes, then returned her attention to her book.

“Can we talk?” Corinne asked.

“I’m reading.” Madeleine’s voice was cool.

“You’re always reading.”

Madeleine turned a page with deliberate care and said nothing.

This was how things had been between them for years now. Corinne didn’t know how to get through the icy barrier Maddie had raised between them.

So she forged ahead to the point. “You don’t actually want to marry the Griffon prince.”

Madeleine said nothing. She was doing an excellent job of pretending she hadn’t even heard.

“You’ll have to move to Maximus. You won’t be able to continue your studies. You won’t have our libraries, or the other akashics to work with. If you marry him, you’re throwing away everything you ever wanted.”

In a syrupy-sweet voice, Maddie said, “Really, Corinne? Thank you. I never would have noticed any of that on my own.”

“Then what are you doing? Why would you agree to this?”

“Because I know my duty.” She turned another page. “Maybe if you read more, you’d understand that word.”

Maddie was just trying to get her mad, to drive her away, but Corinne refused to budge. This was too important. “You don’t have to do this. It’s your life. Don’t let mother take it from you.” Or from me, she didn’t say.

Madeleine closed her book with a snap. “Mother has dedicated her life to service to the clan. It’s so incredibly selfish—it’s so you to think that’s a bad thing.”

“I just want you to be happy.”

“No.” Madeleine stood with a graceful sweep. “You don’t care about me being happy. You don’t even know…” Her eyes narrowed, the set look on her face so much like their mother. “You just want me to be like you, always fighting back, just so mother will have someone else to yell at.”

The words struck too close. Corinne took an angry step forward. “That isn’t true.”

“What’s more,” Maddie pressed on, “you don’t even really care what I want.”

“That’s not—”

Shut up! You’re so—ancestors, you’re exactly like her and you don’t even know it. You didn’t even ask me! You just came up here to tell me how I feel, to tell me you know what’s best for me because you’ve always known best.

“For once in your life, listen. Mother asked me. Do you hear that? She asked. And I said yes. I chose this. My choice. So stop acting like this is anything to do with me, and not just one more way for you to fight with her.”

“I only wanted to help,” Corinne insisted. Maddie was wrong. Just plain wrong.

“I don’t need your help. I haven’t needed it for a long time.” Madeleine squared her shoulders, took a deep breath, and sat back down. She reopened her book and made a show of lifting it up so it was between her and Corinne.

Which was…fine. Corinne was done with her.

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Barbara J Webb

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