Updated: Mar 22
If you absolutely have to keep a magical secret and can never give it away, it’s helpful to be named Silent. At least Silent Lee found it so. A good reminder, she often told herself.
Her classmates at GALA, the Girls’ Academy of Latin and Alchemy, loved to talk—and boast—about the magical things they did. But Silent stayed silent. No one could know that she was that rarest of things, a Betweener who did not live in the same world as them.
She commuted to school each day via a secret doorway in her Great Aunt’s house.
Aunt Gen used to take her through that door using her magical key. The Lee family key, to be specific. But on the morning of the first day of sixth grade (Silent was eleven), her aunt handed her the key. It was a very old-fashioned brass key on a thick string. “Here you go, dear,” she said.
“What?” Sie started at her.
“You don’t need me to walk you to school any longer. I became a key-holder at your age.”
“You want me to keep it?” Sie fingered the key, surprised. It tingled. It was very full of magic.
Aunt Gen nodded and smiled. “Thank you!” Sie slipped the loop of string over her head and let it fall down inside her old-fashioned white school shirt.
“Tuck it in and keep it away from prying eyes. And come straight home after school! I’ll have tea and biscuits ready.”
A short while later, Sie let herself out the side door of the old house on Newbury Street and walked through old-fashioned side-door Boston to school. Horses clip-clopped along cobbled streets and the occasional ‘modern’ automobile with swooping fenders and many-spoked wheels putted past. It was a fine day in that world, and Sie was happy to be on her own.
She arrived a few minutes early at the black iron gates to the academy and stopped to wait. Soon her best friend, Ali, appeared, also walking on her own. Ali’s commute was a lot less complicated, and she’d been walking to school for several years.
“So your aunt finally trusts you?” Ali asked. “Looks like it.” Sie smiled and touched the key through her shirt.
“You’re the keeper now?” Ali exclaimed. She was the only person Great Aunt Generous allowed Sie to talk to about the key—and that was only because Aunt Gen put a strong compulsion on Ali such that she could not discuss it with anyone else even if she wanted to.
“Yes, I’m the keeper,” Sie confirmed with a grin.
“Keeper of what?” a rude voice demanded. It was, well, one of the twins, Sie wasn’t sure which. They were two years older than Sie and Ali. They didn’t like Sie because she took advanced courses with the older students.
“Come along,” a master said, waving the crowd of students toward the gate as she swung it open; but the twins blocked Sie and Ali’s path.
“Show us,” one demanded.
Silent, true to her name, stayed silent, hoping they’d lose interest and go inside.
“Don’t bully her,” Ali snapped, glaring up at them.
“We already know your secret,” one of them said, giving Ali a mean smile. “You’re not a real girl, are you?”
“Shut up,” Ali hissed. (Her family had assumed she was a boy until she got old enough to set them straight. She’d switched from The Boys’ Academy of Alchemy and Magic to the Girls’ Academy of Latin and Alchemy after first grade.)
“We’re going to tell the whole school about you,” the other twin threatened.
“And we’re going to find out what you’re hiding!” the other twin announced. This was directed at Sie. Then, with a gesture in the air to activate a magical working, she added, “Subfuror et ad mea manu!”
Te air rippled between them and then the twin was gripping something in her fist. The twins exchanged a triumphant look as they turned and rushed through the gates, leaving Sie and Ali at the rear of the line of girls filing in.
“Hurry along, please! Don’t be late for our first assembly!” a teacher warned as they entered. And then everyone was bustling along to where rows of chairs were set up in a grand ball-room-style hall. Ali looked stricken but, oddly, Sie was grinning.
The headmistress stepped forward and cleared her throat. “I’d like to—if you could please be quiet in back?—welcome you to a new year at our august academy, where you will practice magical wards and workings and mix alchemical potions with due caution and careful adherence to all safety precautions! Last year, several students turned themselves into small animals by accident, one lost the better part of her left ear in an explosion, and an alchemical fire was lit that required the entire faculty’s combined efforts to put out. We won't have such a spotty record this year, I trust. At any rate, let’s start out with a nice, quiet first day and—“
She stopped abruptly because a loud hissing noise was coming from somewhere in the middle of the many rows of seats.
“What, may I ask, is… Oh dear!” The hissing had grown in volume and now was accompanied by a jet of multicolored sparks. “Is something on fire?”
The twins leapt to their feet, knocking chairs over, as students near them shouted and dove away. Smoke was billowing up from something one of them was holding. “What the hell?!?” she exclaimed, tossing the fiery object away from her as if it were about to blow her up. In fact, it was.
It seemed to be some sort of powerful firework. It swooped and spiraled toward the front where the masters were standing, expressions of alarm and shock on their faces.
It smashed into the lectern in front of the headmistress, then, as everyone held their breath, the lectern burst into flame.
“Everyone outside!” the headmistress shouted.
And that was how the first day of sixth grade began.
“You substituted something for the key?” Ali whispered. They stood out on the sidewalk in front of the school, waiting for the smoke to clear so that students could go back in.
“I took the liberty of slipping a rocket in my pocket before breakfast. It was left over from the Fourth of July.”
“But I thought they took your key!”
“Auntie put a powerful ward on it. Nobody but the strongest sorcerer could take it. But I could feel the tugging of her magic so I let it take the rocket—after putting an illusion on it to make it look like a fancy gold key.”
Ali frowned. “I have questions,” she said. Ali often had questions.
“Why was I carrying a firework?” Sie guessed.
“The Twins bothered us all last year and I assumed they’d pick up where they left off. I figured I’d improvise something if they gave us trouble. I wanted to make sure they didn’t bully us this year too. And won’t it be nice not to have them around for a while?” She smiled.
“You think they’ll get suspended?”
“A week at least. Maybe two.”
“Good!” Ali exclaimed. “But why did it suddenly go off like that?”
“Why indeed?” Sie smiled again.
“That was you? A remote ignition? Isn’t that really difficult…and strictly against the rules?”
“Then of course it wasn’t me. We can go back in now.”
“How did you do that? Can you teach me?”
“Maybe,” Sie said as they filed back in.
But what she thought to herself was, If Ali ever learns that spell, no one within a hundred miles would be safe. Because Ali, while gifted with remarkably powerful magic, had not yet learned to reliably control it. Few if any students at their level were able to combine power and control the way Silent Lee did.
As a child, writer and artist ALEX HIAM spent his holidays in the mysterious historical Ames mansion of his Bostonian great-grandmother. While in college he tracked down stories about magic in the dusty stacks at Harvard University's anthropology library that have sparked his imaginative stories of a magical world hiding in plain sight. His two-part teen fantasy fiction series is now available on Amazon.