Uneasy, Jake returned all his attention to Isabella. ‘Anyway, Miss Caruso, mathematics is just what you need. The highest achievement of reason.’ A broad grin softened his chiselled face. ‘It does not yield to violent emotion. It brings order out of complete chaos. Am I getting through? Ow!’
She slapped him again with a textbook. ‘If you are going to insult me, Jake Johnson, I will not speak to you for the whole term. Ah!’ Isabella’s face brightened as she pulled Cassie to a halt beside a huge portrait. ‘This you must see, Cassie. You, Jake Johnson – go away.’
‘Hey!’ He held up both hands, still grinning. ‘I consider my ass whupped. Anyway,’ he jerked a thumb at the painting, ‘you’ll excuse me if I don’t stay to genuflect.’ He sauntered towards the classroom.
Isabella was scowling. ‘That boy is impossible!’ she exclaimed. ‘No respect. For anyone. Not even for this amazing man.’ She flourished her fingers at the painting. ‘Look, Cassie. This may be all you ever see of him.’
‘Yeah?’ The portrait was so big Cassie had to take a step back to see it properly. ‘Who is it?’
‘This is Sir Alric Darke.’
Cassie studied him. So this was the legendary founder of the Darke Academy? The portrait was a modern one, his angular face defined in deceptively casual brushstrokes. His eyes burned with vivid intelligence, their colours melding into grey but glinting like mica in granite. His silver-streaked dark hair grew in a perfect widow’s peak, one stray strand of it curving down his forehead like a thin blade. He had been painted at his desk, a book open beneath his hand, and he was watching the artist with an expression of cold, probing curiosity. Cassie felt he was looking straight into her brain and soul.
‘Jeez,’ she said after a moment. ‘I bet those eyes follow you around the room.’
‘Striking, don’t you think?’ Isabella tugged her arm. ‘Come on, Cassie, you cannot stand here for ever. We’ll be late!’
Cassie let Isabella pull her towards the classroom, but she couldn’t help turning back once. Yup, they did follow you.
‘Miss Caruso.’ The maths teacher peered over his half-moon specs as Isabella flounced into the room. ‘It’s the first day of term. Please don’t tell me your time-keeping is going to be as execrable as your algebra. Again.’
‘Oh, Herr Stolz, I am so sorry.’ Isabella threw him a lovely smile as she tugged Cassie towards two empty desks. ‘I just know you will make something of me this term.’
Someone at the back of the class murmured a few words that Cassie didn’t catch. She glanced round: Katerina. The girl at her side spluttered with laughter.
Keiko. Of course.
Taking no notice, Isabella dumped her books on her desk.
Stolz forced his twitching mouth into a scowl. ‘Leading astray our new girl, too? Shame on you, Isabella. But welcome to the Academy, Cassie. I saw your test paper – very impressive. I’m expecting great things from you.’
Cassie felt blood rush to her face as every student turned to stare at her. She slid into her chair, shoulders hunched, trying to occupy the tiniest amount of space possible. When Isabella gave her a dig in the ribs, though, she gasped and sat upright, shoulders jerking back. Jake wasn’t kidding about the broken rib.
As Stolz turned to scribble on the blackboard, Jake himself leaned across from the desk on her left. ‘It’s all the polo,’ he explained in a stage whisper. ‘She’s deadly with a mallet. So I’m told.’
‘Ignore him,’ hissed Isabella. ‘Now, Cassie. The cute blond boy, that is Dieter. He is from Bavaria. Cormac – beside him – he is from Dublin. Doesn’t he have beautiful blue eyes?’ Blatantly, Isabella pointed out more students. ‘Ayeesha is from the West Indies. Barbados, I think. She is very nice –’ she lowered her voice, ‘much nicer than some of them.’ Disparagingly, she nodded in the direction of Keiko and the group at the back of the room, before resuming her introductions. ‘That is Ayeesha’s roommate next to her. Her name is Freya: Norwegian. Alice: she is English, like you. Perry Hutton you know, worse luck, and poor Richard has to share with him.’ She sniffed. ‘Jake’s roommate is South African: Pumzile, there. He has a twin, Graca, but she is in the other Year Eleven class. It’s just as well they split those two up, if you ask me—’
‘Sorry.’ She smiled sweetly.
‘No, you’re not,’ muttered Jake.
‘And you, Mr Johnson,’ said the teacher, who hadn’t turned round, ‘if you’d be good enough to give me your attention instead of flirting, perhaps you could let me know what x would equal in this equation?’
‘Sure,’ said Jake. He didn’t even look at the board. ‘It’s b minus y divided by z, am I right? No, ’s OK, Herr Stolz. I know I’m right.’
‘Too clever for your own good, Jake.’ But Stolz was smiling.
‘You can say that again,’ drawled someone from the back of the class.
Cassie turned. Yes, she’d recognised the voice: Richard, the smooth English boy, gave her a warm smile and a flirtatious wink. He and Keiko and Katerina sat together in that ‘not-so-nice group’ Isabella had pointed out. What struck Cassie, now she had a chance to stare at them, was their sheer collective beauty. They looked like an advertising pull-out in some glossy magazine: Vanity Fair, maybe, or Vogue, one of those posh monthlies Jilly Beaton used to read.