They laughed, and Isabella flung an arm round Cassie’s shoulder. ‘You’re right, I know that. Poor Jake, he has been under her spell since he came to the Academy. Jake pines for Katerina, and Katerina pines for Ranjit Singh, so Jake won’t ever have her. Serve him right.’ She ended on rather a venomous note.
‘Is that why Jake can’t stand Ranjit? He looked practically homicidal when you mentioned him.’
‘Oh. That.’ Nervously Isabella chewed her knuckles, but after a moment she gathered her composure. ‘Well. Love can do that to stupid boys. It’s all hormones, of course. The relentless primitive drive of the sexual organs.’
‘Cut it out!’ giggled Cassie.
‘That would be an extreme solution, but—’
Cassie gave a yelp of laughter. ‘Stop it! So, seriously. Did Jake come on a scholarship too?’
‘Yes. I think it saved him.’ Isabella sighed, all softness and sympathy again. ‘After his sister died, he went – what do you say? – off the rails? He went a bit crazy. A lot of trouble: fighting, gangs, drugs. Three high schools threw him out, but Sir Alric took an interest in his future, wanted to help him.’
Jake’s sister died? So that was why he was so spiky. ‘Nice of Sir Alric, but …’ Cassie shrugged, then bit her lip. ‘Why would he do that? I mean, Jake doesn’t even seem that grateful.’
‘Oh, but of course Sir Alric felt a responsibility! Jessica Johnson had a scholarship here before Jake did.’
‘Oh, OK. So he kind of knew Jake through his sister?’
‘He offered Jake a scholarship in his sister’s memory. Sir Alric was right to do that, I think. It was a fine way to behave, whatever Jake says.’ Isabella squeezed Cassie’s arm, and lowered her voice. ‘The school was where it happened.’
‘Where what happened?’ Cassie felt a chill in her spine.
‘The accident. Jake’s sister died at the Darke Academy.’
Cassie leaned on the ornate balustrade and stared down the west-wing staircase. This was where Ranjit had stood, watching her, three weeks ago. She tried to remember how afraid she’d been that night, but in daylight the staircase seemed only beautiful, not threatening. Below her, other students were hurrying down to the dining room, chattering and laughing easily. Out of the general chatter she heard Richard’s abrupt, confident bark of laughter, and she smiled.
Still, she couldn’t shake a niggling sense of wrongness.
As the noise and gossip faded, Cassie lingered, frowning. The balustrade was all black iron swirls, punctuated with gilt flourishes of feathers and suns. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw herself and the tall south-facing window reflected in an ornate gold mirror. You wouldn’t think the place could seem so dark and sinister. Cassie shook her head.
She died at the Darke Academy. Jake’s sister died …
At the Academy, in Cambodia. Isabella had been reluctant to explain, which was most unlike her. Cassie had had to badger her for days.
‘I should not talk about it. Honestly, Cassie. A terrible thing. So very sad. Such a young death. And not the firs—’
Her roommate, uncharacteristically, had blushed and clamped her lips together, and no nagging from Cassie would persuade her to finish that sentence.
And not the first, either. Was that what she’d been about to say?
No. Could have been anything. Heck, Isabella could have been about to say, Not the first time somebody had an accident. Or, Not the first tragically young heart-attack victim.
But somehow Cassie didn’t think it had been either of those.
‘I don’t know what happened.’ Isabella had shrugged unhappily. ‘We were never told details. It seemed … not right to ask, you know? There were rumours. There always are.’
Cassie had bitten her lip, hoping she didn’t sound ghoulishly curious. ‘What kind of rumours?’
‘Oh, terrible things. People make things up, when there is no information. That is why I think we should have been told. Then gossip does not start.’ Isabella had hesitated, picking at a fingernail. ‘You look like her, by the way.’
‘Like Jake’s sister?’ Cassie shivered. Resembling a dead girl was not an appealing thought.
‘A little. Not exactly, of course, but her eyes were almost the colour of yours. Not so pale but still, that yellowish green. And a similar sort of face – how do you say, sharp? Intelligent. I think Jake got a fright when he first met you.’
She remembered. Spooky. ‘So what were the rumours?’
‘Oh, crazy things. That her body was … damaged.’
‘What?’ Cassie swallowed hard. ‘Mutilated, you mean? Like she was killed deliberately?’ Poor Jake.
‘No, no. I don’t know. Not mutilated. More … drained, dried-up. Maybe she cut herself, bled to death; that is what I think. By accident or not, who can tell? Something so simple and so tragic.’
‘For God’s sake. That wouldn’t drain her whole body.’
Isabella shrugged. ‘Maybe she lay in the sun too long. Before they found her, I mean. Horrible, but it was all exaggerated, I’m sure. Oh, the dreadful things people say. And that’s why …’
‘Why what? Come on Isabella, spill.’
Isabella sighed, raking her fingers through her hair. ‘That’s why Jake doesn’t like Ranjit. Jess was Ranjit’s girlfriend, you see. There were rumours at school that he was involved.’