‘As a plank,’ said Cassie dryly, ‘and you are not. Anyway, there was an interview too. They wanted to know everything. What I’d studied, what I thought, where I came from. Like they were picking my brains. Just as well Patrick coached me.’
‘And he is …?’
‘Don’t give me that!’ Cassie laughed. ‘He’s my key worker at the home, OK? He’s lovely. Pity he isn’t the manager.’ She gave an angry shiver as she remembered that night last month. Waking in the night as usual, she’d overheard the familiar, whip-like voice cutting into the new girl, a skinny, sullen, tear-stained eleven-year-old. Self-harming, is it now, miss? What won’t you do for a bit of attention? I’d cut a bit deeper if I were you. ‘Jilly Beaton’s a vicious cow. Inspectors love her, but she’s a cow when they’ve gone.’
‘Back home in Argentina,’ sniffed Isabella, ‘cows are very important, but they know their place.’
The horrible memory dissipated on the spot. Stifling a laugh, Cassie elbowed Isabella in the ribs. ‘Anyway, Patrick’s great. I dunno what I’d have done without him. He kept badgering me to go for the scholarship. Said somebody else he knew had won a place and I could do it too, if I tried. And know what? He was right.’
‘But of course he was. Now, I think we’ve seen everything except the gardens. And the sixth-form building, of course, but that is separate, on the other side of the street. Meanwhile, here we are! Back at the main entrance hall.’
Really? Cassie must have lost her bearings. She had been in this soaring space before, of course, but only just, peering in to watch Madame Azzedine disappear into the shadows. Now she had to gasp.
A great curving staircase swept down from where they stood to a marble-tiled hallway. The stairs were supported by massive pillars, and between each pillar was a white statue on a plinth. Gods and monsters again, gleaming like alabaster. The gilding was lavish enough to take Cassie’s breath away, and even Isabella was starry-eyed with pride.
‘Isn’t it beautiful, Cassie? I hope we will stay here longer than a term. It is one of the most beautiful venues we have had. Well, in my time. I think the school has been here before, but a very long time ago.’
‘What d’you mean? It hasn’t always been here?’
With a peal of laughter, Isabella linked her arm through Cassie’s. ‘We have only just come here! The Academy moves every term, you didn’t know?’
‘No. Every term? Seriously?’
‘Every term. Last term we were in Sydney! So exciting. Spring term, Moscow. And last year at this time it was Rio de Janeiro! I loved Rio.’
Cassie gaped. ‘It moves all over the world?’
‘But of course! With the Academy I have studied in Cape Town, in Bangkok, in Madrid … Oh, I can barely remember.’ Isabella tossed her hair. ‘It is what makes it so exciting to be a student here. They did not tell you this?’
‘No, they never said. But I mean, why move?’ Cassie was surprised at the stab of disappointment. ‘It’s so beautiful here.’
‘Everywhere the Academy goes is beautiful,’ said Isabella dismissively. ‘Sir Alric would not have it any other way. Ah! Jake! Jake Johnson! Don’t you dare pretend you haven’t seen me!’
At the foot of the stairs a boy turned from a blonde girl and looked up. Close-cropped brown hair and beaten-up jeans: Cassie recognised him straight away. The American – the macho one with the bad manners. He grinned up at Isabella as she ran down the stairs two at a time, then glanced at Cassie, raising a hand in hesitant greeting. There was no time for more. Isabella threw herself into his arms and gave him a smacking kiss on each cheek.
Which was brave, thought Cassie, considering how Jake’s companion was glaring at her.
If Jake was good-looking, the blonde girl was stunning. Her eyes were icy-blue and her face was rigid with disdain, but she was still beautiful. Like the Snow Queen, thought Cassie, remembering old picture books. The diamonds sparkling in her ears weren’t as hard and cold as she was, but boy, was she lovely. Her skin was just radiant. Like winter sun.
‘Jake!’ whooped Isabella, detaching herself.
‘It’s great to see you, Isabella,’ he said, with a sidelong glance at the blonde goddess.
There was something formal and withdrawn in his tone, and Isabella’s face clouded with disappointment. Her smile grew a little nervous as she turned to the blonde. ‘Hello, Katerina.’
The voice was throaty, the accent clipped. Scandinavian? wondered Cassie. German? She was reminded of old movies on boring Saturday afternoons in Cranlake Crescent. Katerina was ethereal and distant, like Greta Garbo, maybe, or Ingrid Bergman. Cool as a Hitchcock blonde.
‘Isn’t it wonderful to be back, darling? And who is this?’ Her intent smile made Cassie fidget. ‘Were we permitted to bring personal staff this term? I wish they had told me.’
Blood rushed to Isabella’s face. ‘No, Katerina, this is—’
Managing to contain her irritation – just – Cassie made herself hold out her hand. ‘I’m Cassie Bell. I’m the new scholarship girl.’
Isabella sagged with relief. Katerina put her fingers to her mouth.
‘Oh, do forgive me.’ Gracefully she took Cassie’s extended hand. ‘Always, always I am so clumsy. Am I not, Jake?’ Her smile sparkled.
‘No way, Katerina!’