Cassie almost flinched. The woman leaned on her silver-handled stick as if it was all that was holding her up, yet there was nothing feeble about that gaze. Her eyes glittered fiercely. They weren’t hostile, though. More … assessing.
Her skin was like crazed porcelain, translucent and webbed with lines. Perfectly white hair was swept up into a chignon. The bones of her face might have been lovingly sculpted out of granite. Cassie swallowed hard.
‘I mean, if you’d rather I didn’t … I don’t want to sound …’
Pale lips pursed. ‘Are you offering to help me, young lady?’
‘Well, yes.’ Cassie fidgeted, feeling a little stupid.
‘How perfectly charming of you!’ The imperious coolness melted into a sparkling smile. ‘May I take your arm?’
Awkwardly, Cassie held it out, and gnarled fingers curled round her bicep. For an instant Cassie thought of the swan in the courtyard, its webbed feet gripping the bronze girl like talons; then she shook herself and smiled back. Behind them she heard the leopard-purr of a powerful engine, and the black car slid away.
‘So lovely to have a young body,’ murmured the woman.
‘What?’ Cassie blinked. ‘I mean, I beg your pardon?’
‘A young body,’ she smiled, ‘to help me. How kind you are.’
The grip on Cassie’s arm felt surprisingly steely, but the rest of the woman was as light as a leaf skeleton. Cassie took care as she helped her up the steps. There seemed to be a lot of them.
‘Thirteen steps,’ mused the woman, as if reading her mind. Pausing to take a breath, she stared up at the classical façade of the school. ‘It’s been so long since I was last here, but I remember these steps as if it were yesterday. You’re new, my dear, aren’t you?’
‘Is it that obvious?’ Cassie grinned.
Her laugh rang like a gentle bell. ‘Yes – but in the best of ways. Take my advice, ah …?’
‘I’m Cassandra. Everybody calls me Cassie, though.’
‘Cassandra! How lovely. I shall call you Cassandra. And I am Madame Azzedine, but you will call me Estelle. And my advice is that you should take all that the Academy has to offer.’
Halting again, Madame Azzedine turned to her, fierce with excitement. ‘It is the finest of schools. Indeed, the Academy is so much more than a school. Make the most of all that it can give you, Cassandra, and it will change your life. For ever. Do you understand me?’
‘Er … yes.’
Madame Azzedine gave a sharp laugh. ‘I think perhaps you do not. Not quite. But you will learn, my dear. You will learn so much. The Academy can change your life.’
They were only a few steps from the top now, and the old woman’s breath came in rapid, shallow gasps.
‘That’s what I want.’ Cassie almost wanted to place her hand on the one that gripped her arm. But touchy-feely wasn’t in her nature, however strong her instant empathy with this kind, imperious woman. Anyway, she wouldn’t put her bitten nails anywhere near that paper-skinned, immaculately manicured hand.
Madame Azzedine put the hand to her chest for a moment, catching her breath. ‘What is that, Cassandra? What do you want?’
‘I want to turn my life around—’
‘Turn it?’ As they reached the top of the steps, Madame Azzedine released Cassie’s arm. ‘No! The Academy will teach you to conquer life, to beat it into submission and bend it to your will. True graduates of the Darke Academy take life by the throat, Cassandra! Remember that!’
A strange shiver ran down her spine, but Cassie shook it off and grinned. ‘I will,’ she said. ‘I will!’
Smiling, Madame Azzedine clasped both Cassie’s hands in hers. ‘Good!’
A cough from the shadowed doorway, and Cassie almost jumped out of her skin.
‘Madame, welcome.’ A squat, sombre-uniformed man inclined his head. ‘Sir Alric is expecting you.’
She laughed gaily. ‘But of course he is! Excuse me, Cassandra, my dear. And good luck.’
‘Thank you, Madame Azz— um, Estelle,’ mumbled Cassie.
‘And may you have many, many rewarding years at the Academy.’ Madame Azzedine gave her a contented smile. ‘I’m entirely sure you will.’
Cassie watched the old woman go, a little uneasy. She’d liked Madame Azzedine. Very much. It was just that …
Oh, for God’s sake. It was just that Cassie was out of her depth. Poor old thing, she must be a hundred in the shade. How old did she think Cassie was? At fifteen, she’d have two or three years at the Academy, max, rather than many of them – assuming she didn’t drop out, or get thrown out. Madame Azzedine might look fabulous for her age, but she was losing it a bit. She was no one to be afraid of. She was elegant and confident, that was all. It was time Cassie learned to be the same.
Still, Cassie thought crossly, at least she had a rough idea how to behave like a human being – unlike the staff around here. That porter, or whatever he was, didn’t even offer the old girl a hand. The hatchet-faced bruiser simply tagged along as she limped into the vast, baroque hall. Moments later they were both lost from sight.
Cassie shrugged. Nothing to do with her. Remembering that her case was still at the foot of the steps, she turned on her heel and ran back down, light-footed and even a little light-hearted.
Her heart went crashing right back into her trainers. A small group had gathered in a semicircle around her abandoned case and, as she approached nervously, the Japanese girl gave her a sidelong smirk.