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Authors: Foz Meadows

An Accident of Stars

BOOK: An Accident of Stars
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An Accident of Stars
Book I of the Manifold Worlds
Foz Meadows

For Alis and Kit,

in thanks for the strength

their stories bring;

and for Smott of Swords,

the original worldwalker.

Part One
The Universe Next Door
One
Look & Leap

S
arcasm is armour
,
Saffron thought, and imagined she was donning a suit of it, plate by gleaming, snark-laden plate. “Nice undies,” leered Jared Blake, lifting her skirt with a ruler. No, not a ruler – it was a metal file, one of the heavy ones they were meant to be using on their metalworking projects. He grinned at her, unrepentant, and poked the file upwards. The cold iron rasped against her thigh. “Are you shaved?”

“Fuck off, Jared,” Saffron shot back. “I'd rather have sex with an octopus.”

He
ooze
d at her, a ridiculous noise meant to ridicule. Giving her hem a final upwards flick, he retracted the file and pulled a face for the benefit of his laughing friends, then loudly yelled to the teacher, “Sir! Mr Yarris! Saffron said
fuck
, sir!”

Mr Yarris turned with the lumbering, angry slowness of a provoked bear. He was a big man, block-solid and bald – a stereotypical metalwork teacher, except for the fact that he mostly taught art, and was only filling in for Mrs Kirkland. He pointed a fat, calloused finger at Jared, then jerked his thumb at the doorway. “Out.”

Jared mimed comic disbelief as his friends kept laughing. “But sir! I didn't do
anything
, sir! It was Saffron!”

Mr Yarris didn't take the bait. “Out,” he said again, folding his arms.

Jared dramatically flung down the file. “This is bullshit!” he said. “I didn't–”

“OUT!” roared Mr Yarris, loud enough that even Jared flinched, but the effect was spoiled when, seconds later, the bell rang for lunch. As Jared leapt from his stool, Saffron pointedly kicked her bag into his path. His sneakers tangled in the straps, and down he went with a crash.

“Oops,” said Saffron – loud and flat, so the whole class knew that she'd done it on purpose. “My mistake.” And before Mr Yarris could parse what had happened, she reached down, yanked the bag back from Jared and stormed out of class.

She was furious, shaking all over as she sped away from the metalwork rooms.
How dare he. How
dare
he!
And yet he
did
dare, publicly and often, to whichever girl was nearest. Nobody stopped it; nobody even came close. He'd been suspended last year for groping a Year Seven girl in the canteen lines, but once he returned, he was just as bad as ever, snapping bras, making sick comments and bullying Maddie Shen so badly – he stole her bag, opened her sanitary pads and stuck them over her books and folders, all while calling her names – that Saffron had later found her having a panic attack in the bathroom. He was awful, and got up to even worse at parties, but as appalling as Jared's behaviour was, Lawson High apparently considered unrelenting sexual harassment to be insufficient grounds for expulsion. “Boys will be boys,” the deputy head had said, the one time Saffron had screwed up the nerve to approach him about it. “Or should I expel them all, just to be on the safe side?” And then he'd
laughed
, like the fact that the problem was so widespread was
funny
.Saffron came to a halt. She was outside the music rooms, and the air was filled with the yells and shrieks and laughter and profanity of lunchtime. She leaned her head on the rough red bricks and fought back tears.
I can't keep doing this anymore. I can't.

But she had to. What other choice was there?

A
s Gwen saw it
, the first rule of interacting with teenagers was simple:
show no fear
. Given its general applicability, it was also her personal motto, and one that had served her well in the decades since she'd first stumbled into the multiverse and out of what she'd grown up thinking was normal. Human adolescents, she reminded herself, were not more terrifying than magical politics and walking between worlds.
You can do this. You have to.
She took a deep breath, and stepped into Lawson High.

In Kena, where magic was ubiquitous, you could open a portal damn near anywhere. On Earth, however, things were somewhat trickier. The way Trishka explained it – which was, in fairness to Gwen's comprehension, vaguely – some places were simply less accessible than others, resisting the touch of the
jahudemet,
the portal magic, like a knot that won't pull loose. But even once you found a receptive location, you could only use it so many times in succession: the more you ripped a particular patch of reality's fabric in any world, the higher the risk it would start to unravel, and Gwen had no desire to cause an international incident. With her previous portal point thus ruled out, Trishka had gone in search of a suitable substitute, and come up with a patch of bush alongside the local high school. If they'd had more time, Gwen would have protested – the last thing she wanted to risk was an accidental audience – but they didn't, and she hadn't, and now she was here, striding across the playground at what was evidently lunchtime and trying not to look as conspicuous as she felt.

She had a cover story, of course: if anyone asked, she was looking the campus over before applying for a job in the understaffed English faculty. The fact that Gwen had, once upon a time, actually qualified as a teacher meant she could probably bluff her way through an adult conversation should the need arise; the greater risk, as ever, was the curiosity of children. As a flock of shrieking tweens dashed haphazardly past, Gwen suppressed a smile and fought the urge to light up a cigarette, which was bound to attract the wrong sort of attention.
Just get across campus, find the place, and wait,
she told herself.

And then she saw the girl.

She was white, about sixteen. Long-boned and lanky, though her hunched shoulders said she was self-conscious about it. (Gwen, who was tall and had grown up hating it, could sympathise.) Her eyes were green, made prominent by the near-black circles beneath them, while her blonde hair – a natural shade, Gwen judged – hung messily to her shoulders. She was standing by a wall with a bag at her feet, her expression so nakedly lost, it was clear she didn't know she had an audience. Gwen twisted a little to see it, but if not for what happened next, she might still have kept walking.

A rangy white boy came storming up from around the corner, yelling at the girl. He was all raw angles and sharp bones, like he was trying to grow into his body faster than it would let him, and the hooked smile on his face had no friendliness in it.

“What the fuck is your problem?” he shouted, pushing her. “You stupid bitch–”

“Get
off
me!” the girl snarled, shoving him away – or trying to, at least; the boy hung onto her arm with hard, thin fingers, and before she could stop herself, Gwen closed the distance between them. Smiling furiously, she grabbed the boy's wrist, pinching just so to make him give up his grip on the girl, and twisted his arm up behind his back. He yelped, first in shock and then in pain, swearing as he struggled.

“What the
fuck,
lady?”

Gwen tightened her grip. “Say uncle,” she said, and looked straight at the girl, who was staring at her with a mixture of hope and hunger, as if the world had just completely rearranged itself.

Flailing, the boy tried to pull free. Gwen responded by tugging his arm up higher, harder. “Say uncle, boy.”

“Uncle! Uncle! Fuck!” Gwen counted to three, then shoved him roughly away. He staggered, turned and stared at her, incredulous in his anger. “The fuck is wrong with you?”

And before she could answer, he darted away like a rat from a trap, leaving Gwen alone with the unknown girl, who licked her lips and said softly, “Thanks.”

“Does he bother you often?”

The girl snorted. “He bothers everything in a skirt. Are you new here, miss? I haven't seen you before.”

“I'm maybe applying for a job,” Gwen said. “Though I doubt I'll get it.”

“I hope you do.” The girl's jaw ticked. “No one else ever stops him.”

Anger washed through Gwen. She'd already stayed too long, made too much of an impression, but she couldn't bring herself to leave just yet. “Well, they should,” she said, and winced at the inadequacy of the words. “What's your name, girl?”

“Saffron,” she said, clearly surprised by the question. “Saffron Coulter.”

“Well, Saffron Coulter, let me give you some unsolicited advice,” said Gwen, because having already come this far, she might as well go that little bit further – then faltered at the realisation that there wasn't much she
could
say. She didn't know what else was going on in Saffron's life, and the boy's harassment of her wasn't going to stop just because Gwen had literally twisted his arm. What could she possibly say that might make a difference?

“Yeah?” said Saffron, expectantly. “What?”

Gwen sighed. “Life is hard. Some days we get our asses kicked, but apathy breeds more evils than defeat. So, you know. Keep fighting.”

It was, Gwen thought, a shitty speech – Pix would probably laugh until she cried – but the girl, Saffron, lit up as though she'd never heard anything better.

“Thank you,” she said again - quieter than before, but also stronger. For the first time, she stood at her full height. “I'll try.”

“Good,” said Gwen, and with a parting clap to Saffron's shoulder, she strode away in search of a magic door.

A
pathy breeds more
evils than defeat. Keep fighting.

Saffron couldn't get the words, or the encounter, out of her head. Which made no sense; it wasn't as if she'd never had to deal with Jared grabbing her before – not like she'd even needed the help to get rid of him, however satisfying its delivery had been. And it wasn't like she didn't know the world was a messed-up place, either – you only had to look at the news to see that much. But she'd never had an adult acknowledge the fact to her face, let alone so bluntly, and especially not when it came to the predations of Jared Blake. Whoever the teacher was, she'd done more to make Saffron feel capable, safe and validated in the space of one conversation than either her parents or her teachers had since the start of term, and all at once, she didn't know whether she wanted to laugh or cry.

When the bell rang for the end of lunch, she felt like she'd been jolted out of a stupor; she hadn't touched her food. Suddenly, the prospect of going straight to class was intolerable. Shouldering her bag, Saffron cut across campus and headed straight for the second floor entrance to the library, which was built on a slope against the old English block. Once inside, she hid behind the new arrivals shelf until she was sure that none of the librarians were watching, then moved quietly over to the emergency door. It was meant to be alarmed, but as she'd learned after accidentally falling against it a few months back, it wasn't. For obvious reasons, it wasn't locked either – not during the day, anyway – and Saffron slipped through with unobtrusive ease.

On the other side was a small, square landing stuck between two flights of stairs: one going down to the ground level exit, and one that led up to the roof. Saffron took the latter option, leaping up two steps at a time. The roof door was unlocked by virtue of being broken: the lock and handle had both been hacked clean out of the wood, and now it only stayed shut because the cleaning staff kept a heavy chock wedged under the frame. Saffron opened the door, used the wedge to pin it up against the wall so it didn't bang in the breeze, and headed out into the sunlight.

The accessible section of roof was hemispherical, bordered by a waist high brick wall just high enough to hide her from casual scrutiny. To one side was a fat, square vent, and on the other, protected by a broad awning, was a locked metal cupboard at whose mysterious contents Saffron could only guess. Beside it were two plastic chairs, set facing each other under the overhang, and as had become her custom, she sat down in one and propped her feet on the other, head tipped back against the sun warmed metal.

The first time she'd skipped class to come to the roof, she'd been equal parts angry and terrified – angry, because the deputy head had just given her the
boys will be boys
speech, and she could no more have sat through Maths after that than flown to the moon, and terrified, because up until that moment, she'd never cut class in her life. She'd been shaking, so certain that someone was going to shout out or stop her that when she made it up without incident, she spent a full five minutes staring at the open door, convinced that someone was following. But nobody came, and when she showed up to her next lesson, it was like she'd never been gone: friends or faculty, if anyone had missed her, they didn't mention it. It was like a revelation, as though she'd spent years preemptively flinching from someone who, it turned out, either couldn't or wouldn't hit her.

Since then, she'd grown incrementally bolder, coming up more frequently and for longer. She had a half dozen excuses worked out to explain her absence from class in the event that anyone ever asked where she'd been, but so far, she hadn't had to use any of them. Now, she shut her eyes and exhaled deeply, savouring the luxury of privacy and silence as, over and over again, she replayed what had happened.

Apathy breeds more evils than defeat. Keep fighting.

Saffron stayed on the roof for two full periods, only going to her last class of the day for the sake of appearances. As she walked, she found herself surreptitiously glancing around in hopes of spying her rescuer again. She wasn't exactly inconspicuous: where Lawson High's teaching staff was almost uniformly white, the unknown woman was not. Her brown skin was warm and weathered, and when she spoke her rich, smoke-gravel voice was coloured by a faint English accent, marking her as doubly incongruous to Saffron's suburban Australian sensibilities. She'd been tall, too, almost six feet, with kinky, iron-grey hair cut to jaw-length, and when she'd held Jared still, the muscles in her arms had stood out like cords.Such a woman, were she still on campus, should have attracted attention. But though Saffron looked, she didn't see her, and though she listened to her classmates talk, she didn't overhear anything that pointed to her presence.

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