Izzie walked into the large circular room that served as the Academy's auditorium. It was a room she knew very well, and even before she got into it, she knew exactly what she would be seeing.
Students from the ages fourteen to nineteen filled the room, all in groups. The younger students stuck by their parents, while the older ones talking with their friends. Most of the adults stayed with their own circles: the dragons with the other dragons, the hippogriffs with the hippogriffs, and the rocs with the rocs.
Each family had its own look, whether it was the tattoos they had on their skin, or the clothes that they wore, each had its own traditional appearance that had been passed down from generation to generation. This was not only with the otherkin, either. Many of the humans came from honorable lineages, and wore the garb and symbols from their ancestors. For instance, some men cut their beards a certain way, or the woman wore their hair in a very memorable fashion.
At the front of the room there stood six tall figures. Three of these figures were humans, and the other three were otherkin. Of the humans, there was one young fair-headed woman, one middle-aged but sturdy man, and a rather kindly looking older gentleman. Of the otherkin, there was Morrigan the hippogriff, whose arms were coated in golden scales, a black dragon so old he was almost more lizard-skin than human, and a young and muscular roc, whose reddish brown wings were so large that they made him look tiny in comparison, even when folded tightly against his back.
And there, right in the mess of the room, stood Carmen.
Carmen was Izzie's best friend, since the two were both freshmen, entering the Academy. Neither came from ancient families that had been groomed over generations to become Ryders. In fact, Carmen was an adopted girl, and didn't even know her own origins. It was comforting for Izzie to know that she wasn't the only student at Percival Academy that had no previous experience with dragons and otherkin.
Carmen was a short, petite girl with a boy's haircut of feathery down pale blonde hair that curled around her ears. She wore a simple sundress with a white shawl around her boney shoulders. Usually Carmen had a serious expression for one so young, but as she caught the gaze of her friend, a smile broke out on her face.
"Izzie!" Carmen cried out, and the two embraced warmly, "Izzie, wait until I tell you what I've been up to this summer."
Izzie pulled away and looked over her friend, as if trying to read the news right off of her face. "What?" She whispered excitedly, "Don't tell me—no! It's not a boy, is it? Carmen, do you have boy news?"
Carmen gave a grin so wide that she didn't have to answer.
"No!" Izzie gasped, "You? But Carmen, what ever happened to 'boys are so immature' Carmen? The one who'd rather spit in their faces than kiss them? You met a boy?"
"Not just met a boy," her friend murmured, "I have a boyfriend."
Izzie mock clutched at her heart, feigning a heart attack. "No! Carmen Goodman, tell me it isn't so!" Then she got serious and grabbed at her friend's wrist. "Why didn't you call me sooner?"
Carmen smiled. "It happened all so quickly… I don't know. I wanted to share it with you in person, I suppose."
There was a pause of silence, and then both girls squealed and hugged.
"Oh, you have to tell me all about him," Izzie begged, "What's his name? Where did you meet him? What's he like? Everything!"
"Simon," was the first piece of information that Carmen gave Izzie, as the two girls sat down at one of the tables together, their usual one, "His name is Simon, and we met over the summer. He got a job at my dad's shop, and that's where we met. And well, I don't want to sound cheesy, but here I go… it was love at first sight."
Love at first sight! What an idea! The two girls may have been soldiers in training, but they were still young women, and the idea of romance made them weak in the knees.
"Carmen," Izzie implored her friend, "I can't believe you're saying these things!"
Carmen put her hands on her lips and looked like even she couldn't believe the words coming out of her mouth. "He asked me out, and I don't know, I said yes. He was so different from most guys!"
She paused to let Izzie consider this. "You mean… he was smart?"
They giggled at their little joke. "No, no," Carmen snickered, "He's actually kind of simple. But it's a nice sort of simple. Like, I don't know, there's sort of wisdom in simpleness, don't you think? You don't worry about too much, and you don't let the little stuff get to you. Plus Simon's really nice, and just really easygoing. Sometimes we would just stay up late on the phone and talk for hours. Simon never runs out of things to say."
Izzie nodded along with Carmen. "Wow, he sounds amazing. Are you going to text him and call him over the school year?"
To her surprise, Carmen shook her head. "Actually, we were going to," she explained, lowering her voice as if revealing a secret, "but then Simon thought it would be romantic if we only exchanged letters, like back in the old days."
The two paused a moment to swoon.
"Here, I have a picture of him on my phone," Carmen added, skimming through her cell. When she found it, she showed it to Izzie, who squinted at the grainy picture on the tiny screen.
"Ooh, he's cute," Izzie purred.
"Who's that, now?" A voice that both girls knew too well broke into their conversation, shattering the mood.
They looked up to see Mack, who was grinning at them like a shark. He was a sharp-looking young man of their age group, with slick black hair and mischievous eyes. Behind him stood his two cohorts, the fire dragon Logan and the basilisk Phillip.
The three of them represented everything Izzie and Carmen didn't like about the opposite gender, and had been hounding them for years about going to the school dances with them. At last, in their junior year, they accepted their invitation to go to prom, knowing that it would be the last school event they would be allowed to attend. Carmen went with the tall pale ginger Logan, since out of the three he was the least vile. Izzie took one for the team and went with Mack. Neither girl wanted to go out with the stumpy dark-haired Phillip. He had a slimy personality, and always made the girls feel like they wanted to wash their hands after coming in contact with him.
At the dance, however, Mack and Logan persuaded the girls to both dance once with Phillip, who could find no other date, out of guilt for not choosing him. After the prom was over, Izzie and Carmen returned to their rooms, feeling dirty for having to stoop so low as to go to the prom with Mack and his gang, and took long showers.
Ever since that junior year, Mack and his two friends had followed Izzie and Carmen around more viciously than ever, and by pure affiliation, the five students had become more friends than enemies.
The girls had eventually found that, individually, none of the three were all that bad—not even dour Phillip—and it was only in the company of one another that they took on that collective vile persona. Before, this fact had confused Izzie to no end, until she had remembered a saying her mother used to recite to her: "Monkey see, monkey do."
"Come on, who's cute?" Mack insisted, and his shadows snickered and chortled between the two of them.
Carmen scowled at them and tucked her cell into her pocket.
Logan leaned over her, as if trying to catch a glimpse before it disappeared. "Does little Carmen have a boyfriend now?" He mocked.
"None of your business," Carmen snapped.
The look on Logan's face was hurt, but both girls knew him well enough to know that he was faking it. "Oh come on, I can keep a secret," he lied.
This claim was so outrageous that even Phillip and Mack laughed at him.
"Well, whatever," Mack feigned disinterest, "He's probably not even her boyfriend, am I right? Who wants to hear what I did over summer vacation?"
Izzie and Carmen sighed together. "Well, you managed to stay out of jail, I see," Izzie observed slyly.
"Yes, indeed," Mack agreed, grinning his toothy grin, "Doesn't mean that everything I did was legal, though." He reached into his pocket and took out a couple of thin bracelets. "For the princesses," he said as he presented them.
"Mack!" Izzie snapped, "We can't accept stolen gifts."
"Relax," Mack returned, "They were from a dollar store, a dollar for the both of them. Nobody's going to go hungry over it or anything." As long as they had known him, Mack had been sticky-fingered. It wasn't so much of a talent to him as it was an obsession. A few years back, they would have tattle-tailed on him—for his own wellbeing, of course—but they had stopped doing that quite a while back.
Reluctantly, Izzie and Carmen took the gifts.
"Look," Mack added when he saw the looks on their faces, "if you are really that upset, I'll go back and make an anonymous donation of a dollar. Okay? Just… you'd have to let me borrow a dollar first."
This was more like it. Izzie graciously took a dollar out of her pocket and handed it to Mack. "Here, you don't have to pay me back," she told him.
The boys really weren't that bad, she thought, as long as you learned how to control them. Mack was a sucker for girls, especially upset ones. Logan didn't care for practical jokes if his audience didn't find them funny. And Phillip… well, the best way to handle Phillip was to forget that he existed, and eventually he'd do anything for a little attention.
"Hey look," Phillip spoke up for the first time, "The teachers are setting out the food! And I think I see the raspberry Danishes!"
And like chimpanzees, the boys shoved and pushed and tumbled over one another in their race to the pastries. With their awkwardly shaped teenaged bodies, they indeed looked more primate than humanoid.
Izzie and Carmen rolled their eyes.
"I hope Simon doesn't act that way around his friends," Carmen murmured once she was sure the three were out of earshot, "I don't know if I could stand it."
"Unfortunately, I think they're all like that," Izzie tried to comfort her friend, while still being as honest as possible, "At least until they turn a certain age, I think." She slipped the bracelet that Mack had given her onto her wrist. It was made of lime green plastic, whereas Carmen's was light blue. Both of them had the word Princess written on it in small cursive letters. After a second, it occurred to Izzie that both of the bracelets matched their eye colors perfectly, but she didn't feel like mentioning that.
Carmen pulled at her bracelet gently. "No wonder these were worth fifty cents each," she commented, "They feel like they could break at any moment."
Izzie opened her mouth to make a witty comment, but was interrupted.
"Attention, everyone," a voice called out across the room, coming from the mouth of the head teacher, Blanche. She was still quite young, fit and muscular for a woman, with a head of curls so fair they were almost white. She was the one who taught the freshmen class, and the young boys often spent most of their first year at the Academy just staring at her, especially on the days where she wore the dresses that best framed her shapely bosom. Next to her stood her Mani, the roc Purcell, who taught the knights in training.
Behind Blanche and Purcell there stood the other four teachers: Gavin and Valailak, and Usher and Morrigan.
Each of the teachers taught one of the six grades. Every year, Percival Academy only accepted ten students into their freshman grade, but often students transferred in after each year, so that by the time a certain age-group reached the final grade, their number had doubled to twenty or so.
Squires were to be taught by Usher, a teacher that Izzie knew from last year, because the pages and squires often shared classes together. Usher was the middle-aged man, with a dark mustache and a shave head. Back in the days when he was at war, he was Morrigan's Ryder. Since even now the pages were taught by Morrigan, Ryder and Mani still spent a lot of time with one another, and were nearly inseparable.
When the rowdy crowd of students would still not quiet after Blanche's second gentle attempt to silence them, Purcell stepped forward.
He let out a screech that only a roc could make, a sound that perhaps a hawk could have imitated were it four times larger than its regular size. It was the piercing cry of the largest and strongest of the birds of prey, and it had an immediate effect.
"Thank you, Purcell," Blanche said to him, though her heart was not in her words. "I must say," she continued, addressing the students, "This is not a fine way to begin the school year, is it? I expected as much from the new ones, but for those of you who have studied at this school for the past two to five years… well, let's just try to be a better example from now on, shall we?" She didn't wait for an answer. "Good," she snapped cheerily.
Gavin, the old man, stepped forward and continued, "Now, we're going to split up into two groups. Freshmen, sophomores and juniors will be with Headmaster Blanche, Professor Valailak and I. We will be heading out the door to the right. Meanwhile, the pages, squires and knights-to-be will be with Professors Morrigan, Usher and Purcell."