‘You finish these. I’m not hungry.’
‘Isabella, you haven’t eaten all morning!’
‘I’m fine. I’m just not hungry.’ As if to reassure her, Isabella squeezed her arm and winked. ‘And you always need feeding up.’
Inside her head Cassie heard a disgusted harrumph.
She must keep her strength up for us, my dear. She’s very selfish …
‘Shut up, Estelle,’ she muttered.
Isabella gave her a look in which alarm and concern were equally mingled, but she didn’t have time to question Cassie. Behind her someone shrieked over the shouts and chatter of the market.
Cassie turned towards the direction of the excited voice, and caught sight of a hand waving beyond a knot of German tourists. A familiar face appeared then disappeared, bouncing up once more to get a clear line of vision, and Cassie grinned.
‘Ayeesha, hey! Cormac!’
The Barbadian girl and the Irish boy wriggled through the crowds, managing not to disengage their hands. Still an item then, Cassie thought. She felt an unexpected twinge of envy: that could have been her and Ranjit, if he’d had the courage to fight for her. Annoyed, she shook off the thought. This wasn’t about Ranjit Singh. New start …
‘Hey, guys! It’s so good to see you.’ She accepted a hug from Cormac, and then hugged Ayeesha as Cormac seized Isabella and embraced her warmly.
Ayeesha gave her a brilliant grin, flicking her long braids over her shoulder. ‘And good to see you too, Cassie. Looking good, girl! You’ve been feeding properly!’ The Bajan girl drew back and wagged a mocking finger. ‘About time!’
‘Um. Yeah.’ Cassie smiled awkwardly, trying not to meet Isabella’s eyes.
Ayeesha dropped Cormac’s hand to link one arm through Cassie’s and one through Isabella’s. ‘Come and have coffee, huh? There’s a few of us over in that little café round the corner,’ she said, her soft lilt quickening with excitement.
‘A Few of us, you mean?’ asked Cassie dryly.
Cormac laughed. ‘Sure, but you’ll keep us all in check. And if you won’t, I’m sure Isabella here will. Come on, girls!’
Cassie, to her surprise, found she didn’t need any further encouragement. The elite Few weren’t all her type, not by any means, but there were some of them she’d be very pleased to see again. And she understood them better, now that she understood their motivations, their comradeship, and their unnatural hunger that had to be fed. She was, after all, one of them – or at least part of her was.
As Ayeesha led them to the coffee shop, Cassie found herself looking almost eagerly for familiar faces. Mikhail wasn’t there, thank goodness. Neither was the horrible Sara who’d tipped off the evil Katerina and her mother to Cassie’s movements last term, nearly getting her, Isabella and Jake killed in the process.
But Vassily and Yusuf were sitting together gossiping, and India and Hamid waved as she approached. In the flurry of air-kisses, whether they were sincere or not, Cassie found herself relaxing, smiling. She couldn’t help sensing the new-found respect in their greetings – and she was genuinely glad to see some of them, she thought. Oh, the irony. In fact, considering how she’d first felt about the Few, she was shocked at how at ease she was. It was almost as if she’d missed them.
Voluntarily or not, she realised this was kind of where she belonged now. So maybe Ranjit had been right. Maybe if she’d embraced being part-Few sooner, they would still be together? Maybe—
No. She didn’t want to think about him. Definitely not now. Cassie shook her head to clear it, then smiled and returned Vassily’s formal handshake. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw someone else turn and rise to his feet. A good-looking, rakish figure with a distinctly louche air …
She’d tried to sound a little reticent, but the smile had dawned on her face before she could stop it. Tentatively, almost as if he was afraid of her reaction, the English boy returned it, but without much trace of his usual carefree arrogance.
Cassie swiftly dampened her smile. New attitude or no new attitude, some things never change. Despite Richard’s constant pleas for forgiveness last term, and the invaluable information he gave which led Cassie to finding Jake before he was thrown into the Living Soil, there was one thing she could never quite get over. Richard had been the one to trick her into hosting Estelle’s spirit. She wasn’t sure she could ever forgive him for that, no matter how much things had moved on since that fateful evening. Tightening her lips as she leaned forward to greet him, she avoided making contact with his cheek.
‘Cassie.’ He gave her a wary smile. ‘Great to see you.’
‘Yeah. You too.’
He greeted Isabella fondly, but he kept his distance from Cassie as they all sat down, their voices jumbling, eager to gossip and swap impressions of the new Academy.
‘What do you make of the courtyard? They finally got the hang of having the statues outside!’
‘Too right – but have you seen Sir Alric’s glasshouse? Has to have a special place for his precious bloody orchids, eh!’
‘I’m more worried about the food. I mean, there’s going to be something other than cheese and olives, right?’
‘Cormac, baby, don’t you think of anything other than your stomach?’ Ayeesha patted her boyfriend’s trim midriff teasingly. ‘So anyway, apparently there’s going to be a huge emphasis on history and archaeology this year. Extra classes.’ She rolled her eyes exaggeratedly.