Every Heart a Doorway (Wayward Children #1)(10)

by Seanan McGuire

“Whitman,” said Nancy.

“Miss Whitman,” said Lundy. “As I was saying, you would have gotten this at your orientation, but: I’m not living out an eternal childhood. I’m aging in reverse, growing one week younger for every month that passes. I’ll live a long, long time. Longer, maybe, than I would have had I continued aging in the usual way. But they threw me out anyway, because I had broken the rules. I’ll never marry, or have a family of my own, and my daughters will never find their way to the door that once led me to the Goblin Market. So I suppose I’ve learnt the danger of making importune bargains with the fae, and can now serve as a warning to others. I am still, however, your therapist. It’s amazing, the degrees you can get over the Internet these days.”

“I’m sorry,” whispered Nancy.

Lundy waved a hand as she sat, dismissing Nancy’s apology. “It’s no matter, honestly. Everyone finds out eventually. Now. Who wants to share first?”

Nancy sat in silence as the other students talked. Not all of them: slightly less than half seemed to have been to a world that fell on the “Wicked” side of the compass, or maybe that was just the number who felt like sharing. Jill recited an impassioned paean to the moors and wind-racked hills of the world she’d gone to with her sister, while Jack only muttered something about burning windmills and the importance of fire safety in laboratory settings.

A girl with hair the color of moonlight on wheat stared at her hands while she talked about boys made of glass whose kisses had cut her lips but whose hearts had been kind and true. The girl who was too beautiful to look at directly said something about Helen of Troy, and half the room laughed, but not because it was funny; because she was so beautiful that they wanted nothing more than they wanted her to like them.

Kade made a brief, bitter speech about how Wickedness and Virtue were just labels and didn’t mean anything; the world he’d been to was labeled “Virtue” on all the maps, but it had still cast him out as soon as it realized what he was.

Finally, silence fell, and Nancy realized everyone was looking at her. She shrank back in her seat. “I don’t know if the place I went was wicked or not,” she said. “It never seemed wicked to me. It always seemed … kind, at the root of things. Yes, there were rules, and yes, there were punishments if you broke them, but they were never unfair, and the Lord of the Dead took good care of everyone who served in his halls. I don’t think it was wicked at all.”

“How can you be sure, though?” asked Sumi, and her voice was gentle, underneath her jeering tone. “You can’t even say Wicked right. Maybe it was evil to the core, filled with wiggling worms and bad stuff, and you couldn’t see it.” She slanted a glance toward Jill, almost as if she were checking the other girl’s reaction. Jill, whose eyes were fixed on Nancy, didn’t appear to notice. “You shouldn’t close doors just because you don’t like what’s on the other side.”

“I know because I know,” said Nancy doggedly. “I didn’t go anyplace bad. I went home.”

“That’s the thing people forget when they start talking about things in terms of good and evil,” said Jack, turning to look at Lundy. She adjusted her glasses as she continued, “For us, the places we went were home. We didn’t care if they were good or evil or neutral or what. We cared about the fact that for the first time, we didn’t have to pretend to be something we weren’t. We just got to be. That made all the difference in the world.”

“And on that note, I suppose we’re done for the evening.” Lundy stood. Nancy realized with a start that somewhere in the middle of the session, she’d started thinking of the little girl as an adult woman. It was the way she carried herself: too mature for the body she inhabited, too weary for the face she wore. “Thank you, everyone. Miss Whitman, I’ll see you tomorrow morning for orientation. Everyone else, I’ll see you tomorrow evening, when we’ll be speaking to those who have traveled to the high Logic worlds. Remember, only by learning about the journeys of others can we truly understand our own.”

“Oh, lovely,” muttered Jack. “I do so love being in the hot seat two nights running.”

Lundy ignored her, walking calmly out of the room. As soon as she was gone, Eleanor appeared in the doorway, all smiles.

“All right, my crumpets, it’s time for good little girls and boys to go to bed,” she said, and clapped her hands. “Off you go. Dream sweetly, try not to sleepwalk, and please don’t wake me up at midnight trying to force a portal to manifest in the downstairs pantry. It isn’t going to happen.”

The students rose and scattered, some moving off in pairs, others going alone. Sumi went out the window, and no one commented on her disappearance.

Nancy walked back to her room, pleased to find it bathed in moonlight and filled with silence. She disrobed, garbed herself in a white nightgown from the pile Kade had given her, and stretched out on her bed, lying atop the covers. She closed her eyes, slowed her breathing, and slipped into sweet, motionless sleep, her first day done, and her future yet ahead of her.

* * *

ORIENTATION WITH LUNDY the next morning was odd, to say the least. It was held in a small room that had been a study once, before it had been filled with blackboards and the smell of chalk dust. Lundy stood at the center of it all, one hand resting on a wheeled stepladder, which she moved from blackboard to blackboard as the need to climb up and point to some complicated diagram arose. The need seemed to arise with dismaying frequency. Nancy sat very still in the room’s single chair, her head spinning as she struggled to keep up.

Lundy’s explanation of the cardinal directions of portals had been, if anything, less helpful than Jack’s, and had involved a lot more diagrams, and some offhanded comments about minor directions, like Whimsy and Wild. Nancy had bitten her tongue to keep from asking any questions. She was deeply afraid that Lundy would attempt to answer them, and then her head might actually explode.

Finally, Lundy stopped and looked expectantly at Nancy. “Well?” she asked. “Do you have any questions, Miss Whitman?”

About a million, and all of them wanted to be asked at once, even the ones she didn’t want to ask at all. Nancy took a deep breath and started with what seemed to be the easiest: “Why are there so many more girls here than boys?”