Katerina sat alert, her Mont Blanc fountain pen tapping prettily against her chin. Keiko, on the other hand, was adjusting her lipstick in a small mirror, one enamelled fingernail flicking at the corner of her mouth. Richard’s long legs were stretched out before him, his hands linked behind his head. He couldn’t have looked more uninterested in equations if he’d tried.
Cassie waited for Stolz to snap at Richard as he’d snapped at Isabella and Jake, but he didn’t. He didn’t even turn round. As he stared fixedly at the blackboard, his neck reddened, and he rubbed it anxiously with one hand, getting chalk in his hair.
‘Mr Halton-Jones.’ He paused again. ‘I hardly think—’
‘Oh, come, come, Herr Stolz.’ Richard yawned and stretched. ‘Our American friend is showing off. Challenging your authority, I’d say. Not a good start to the term for him. Or you.’
‘Richard!’ hissed Ayeesha, turning in her chair to scowl at him.‘That’s enough.’
Stolz’s voice was conciliatory. ‘Mr Halton-Jones, believe me, I don’t mind when I get such accurate and quick answers. Now—’
‘In fact, I think that exact equation is an example in the new textbook.’ Richard frowned, pursing his lips. ‘I’m sure I saw it.’
‘The hell it is,’ snapped Jake.
‘Well, Jake, if you feel the need to cram during the holidays so you can keep up with the rest of us, that’s nothing to be ashamed of.’
Jake half-rose. ‘You can kiss my—’
‘Gentlemen!’ barked Stolz. The red flush had crept up to his cheekbones. ‘Jake, sit down. I will not have such behaviour in my classroom. See me afterwards.’
Cassie exchanged a shocked glance with Isabella, who raised her eyebrows. Stolz simply turned back to the board, consulting the book in his left hand. It trembled very slightly.
‘Richard.’ A languid voice broke the awkward silence. ‘Ayeesha is quite right. Behave yourself. You are setting our new scholarship girl a bad example.’
Richard grinned. ‘Whatever you say, Katerina. I do apologise.’
‘In fact, we must all apologise.’ Katerina checked her watch. ‘Herr Stolz, a Congress has been called for the Few. Please do excuse us?’ Her expectant smile was sweet, but she was already gathering her books. So were several other students.
Only Ayeesha looked embarrassed as she got to her feet. ‘I’m so sorry, Herr Stolz. You should have been notified.’
Stolz turned. ‘Thank you, Ayeesha. You’re right, I wasn’t informed, but – yes, of course.’ He tightened his fingers on the chalk, and it snapped. ‘You may go.’
Waste of breath, thought Cassie. They were already going, and Stolz wasn’t even trying to delay them. The expression on his face was a weird mixture of fury, apprehension and relief.
‘Incidentally, Ranjit sends his apologies.’ Katerina’s tongue lingered on the name. Her attention flicked around the rest of the class, then came to rest on Stolz. ‘He had important Few business this morning, but hopes to resume his classes tomorrow.’
Cassie couldn’t help but gasp. Nobody else took any notice as the students left the room, all chatting easily except for the silently apologetic Ayeesha. Keiko threw one last scowl in Cassie’s direction, and then they were gone.
The rest of the class waited expectantly as Stolz fiddled with the broken chalk. Cassie couldn’t believe what she was seeing. That crowd might have asked the teacher’s permission to leave, but they hadn’t waited for the answer. And who did Ranjit Singh think he was?
Stolz made no comment, no comment at all.
‘Now.’ He cleared his throat and jabbed his stub of chalk viciously at the board. ‘The value of z …’
‘What was that about?’ Cassie liked maths, but she’d been itching for the lesson to end so she could buttonhole Isabella in the corridor. ‘Are classes optional for prefects, or what?’
Isabella pushed her hair carelessly behind her ear. ‘They’re not prefects. They’re the Few. They do more or less as they like.’ Shrugging, she marched down the corridor. ‘Some of them take advantage, some of them don’t.’
‘But who are they?’
‘The Few – I told you. Sir Alric’s favourites.’ She flicked her fingers dismissively.
‘But they don’t seem to give a toss about the teachers.’
‘Well. They are much more important than mere teachers, Cassie.’
‘Oh, come on.’
‘Seriously. The Few practically run the school. Not officially, of course, but that’s how it really is. Don’t get on the wrong side of them, is my advice to you. Some of them are perfectly nice, but others …’
‘That’s crazy. Who gets to be, er, Few?’
Isabella shrugged, snorting. ‘The best and cleverest and most beautiful. Hah!’
Cassie nudged her, grinning. ‘So why aren’t you one of them?’
Isabella laughed. ‘You’re too kind, Cassie. You want me to tell you the truth? They have not asked me! There.’
‘That’s kind of hard to believe,’ said Cassie. ‘Maybe the mean ones are jealous. Blackballing you or something. You’re much better looking than Keiko, and I bet you’re smarter too.’
‘Oh, sure. And she knows it.’ Isabella grinned at her. ‘Well, they have an initiation this term, that’s what I hear. That means someone else joins the Few.’