Every Heart a Doorway (Wayward Children #1)(7)

by Seanan McGuire

“Yes,” said Nancy, recovering her composure. She began walking again. “I’m quite sure I don’t want to … have sexual relations with him, and I don’t think his gender expression is any of my business.” She was reasonably sure that was the right way to say things. She’d known the words once, before she left this world, and its problems, behind her. “That’s between him and whoever he does, or doesn’t, decide to get involved with.”

“If you don’t want to do the bing-bang with Kade, I guess I should tell you I’m taken,” said Sumi breezily. “He’s a candy corn farmer from the far reaches of the Kingdom and my one true love, and we’re going to get married someday. Or we would have, if I hadn’t gone and gotten myself exiled. Now he’ll tend his fields alone, and I’ll grow up and decide that he was just a dream, and maybe one day my daughter’s daughter will visit his grave with licorice flowers and a prayer for the departed on her lips.”

Her tone never wavered, not even as she was talking about the death of someone she called her one true love. Nancy gave her a sidelong look, trying to decide how serious she was. It was difficult to tell with Sumi.

They had reached the door to their shared room. Nancy reached a decision at the same time. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re taken or not,” she said, opening the door and walking toward her bed. She put down the basket of clothing. She would need to go through it at more length, to check the fits and fabrics, but it was already an improvement over what she had left behind with Kade. “I don’t do that. With anyone.”

“You’re celibate?”

“No. Celibacy is a choice. I’m asexual. I don’t get those feelings.” She would have thought her lack of sexual desire had been what had drawn her to the Underworld—so many people had called her a “cold fish” and said she was dead inside back when she’d been attending an ordinary high school, among ordinary teenagers, after all—except that none of the people she’d met in those gloriously haunted halls had shared her orientation. They lusted as hotly as the living did. The Lord of the Dead and the Lady of Shadows had spread their ardor throughout the palace, and all had been warmed by its light. Nancy smiled a little at the memory, until she realized Sumi was still watching her. She shook her head. “I just … I just don’t. I can appreciate how beautiful someone is, and I can be attracted to them romantically, but that’s as far as it goes with me.”

“Huh,” said Sumi, heading for her own side of the room. Then: “Well, okay. Is it going to bother you if I masturbate?”

“What, right now?” Nancy was unable to keep the horror from her voice. Not at the thought of masturbation—at the idea that this girl she had just met was going to drop her trousers and go to town.

“Um, ew,” said Sumi, wrinkling her nose. “No, I meant in general. Like, late at night, when the lights are low and the moon-mantas are spreading their wings across the sky, and a girl’s fingers might get the urge to go plowing in the fields.”

“Please stop,” said Nancy weakly. “No, I will not be upset if you masturbate. At night. In the dark. Without telling me about it. I have nothing against masturbation. I just don’t want to watch.”

“Neither did my last roommate,” said Sumi, and that seemed to be the end of that, at least as far as she was concerned; she climbed out the window, leaving Nancy alone with her thoughts, the room, and her new wardrobe.

Nancy watched the empty window for almost a minute before she sank onto the bed and put her head in her hands. She’d expected boarding to school to be full of people like her, quiet and serious and eager to go back to the lands they’d left. Not … this. Not Sumi, and people slinging around technical terms for things she didn’t understand.

She felt like she was trying to sail her way home without a map. She’d been sent back to the world of her birth to be sure … and she’d never been less sure in her life.

* * *

DINNER WAS HELD in the downstairs ballroom, a single, vast space made even larger by the polished marble floor and the vaulted cathedral ceiling. Nancy paused in the doorway, daunted by the scope of it, and by the sight of her classmates, who dotted the tables like so many knickknacks. There were seats for a hundred students, maybe more, but there were only forty or so in the room. They were so small, and the space was so big.

“It’s rude and lewd to block the food,” said Sumi, shoving past her. Nancy was knocked off balance and stumbled over the threshold into the ballroom. Silence fell as everyone turned to look at her. Nancy froze. It was the only defense mechanism she had learned from her time among the dead. When she was still, the ghosts couldn’t see her to steal her life away. Stillness was the ultimate protection.

A hand settled on her shoulder. “Ah, Nancy, good,” said Eleanor. “I was hoping I’d run into you before you reached a table. Be a good girl and escort an old woman to her seat.”

Nancy turned her head. Eleanor had changed for dinner, trading electric orange trousers and rainbow sweater for a lovely sheath dress made from tie-dyed muslin. It was shockingly bright. Much like the sun, it hurt Nancy’s eyes. Still, she offered her arm to the older woman, unable to think of anything else that would fit the laws of propriety.

“How are you and Sumi getting on?” asked Eleanor, as they walked toward the tables.

“She’s very … abrupt,” said Nancy.

“She lived in high Nonsense for almost ten years subjective time, and much as you learned to be still, she learned never to stop,” said Eleanor. “Stopping is what got people killed where she was. It was very close to where I was, you see, so I understand her better than most. She’s a good girl. She won’t steer you wrong.”

“She took me to meet a boy named Kade,” said Nancy.

“Oh? It’s unusual for her to start making introductions that quickly—unless … Did you have trouble with your clothing? Was what you packed not what you found in your suitcase?”

Nancy didn’t say anything. Her reddening cheeks and averted eyes said it all. Eleanor sighed.

“I’ll write your parents and remind them that they agreed to allow me to guide your therapy. We should be able to have whatever they removed from your suitcase mailed here within the month. In the meantime, you can go back to Kade for whatever you need. The dear boy is a whiz with a needle. I really don’t know how we got along without him.”