I asked Lucas today, "What of your parents, your family? Do they know you have fled the school and are hiding out in the mountains?"
Chores rotated between students, and today I was awoken early, and in charge of making coffee for breakfast. However, I had never made coffee before, so Lucas was showing me how.
"I hope not," he said, measuring out spoonfuls of dark, fragrant grounds. "I don't imagine the headmaster would be able to keep it quiet, though, if two dozen of his students were accused of Illumination and then suddenly vanished."
"So they have been notified?"
"I would assume so, yes." He took the big ladle from the nearest barrel of water, and started measuring out how much to put in the coffee pots. "Five in this one," he told me, apparently not wanting to discuss it further, "four in these, and just three in this one." The pots were all different sizes, having seemingly been gathered from scrap heaps. Then he showed me how to build up the fire, and where to place the pots on the grate above it. But when we were through, he didn't leave me there to watch the coffee percolate. He sat back on his heels and said, "Here, let's have a bit of a treat. I won't tell if you won't." He got an apple from one of the crates, then poked around for a while until he found a long, metal skewer and speared the apple with it. "Careful not to scorch it," he said, slipping it between the grate above the fire and the walls around it, and holding it near the flames. Then he handed the end of the skewer to me.
I watched the flames for a minute, rotating the apple slowly. The girls and I used to do the same thing at Saint Anne's, on our Saturday off. When we had the apples, at least. We never went hungry, but depending on who was donating and when and how much, we had either bread and water with a little hard cheese, warm beef stew with lots of vegetables, or anything in between.
"Bernice." I realized I had been lost in my thoughts, and looked up at Lucas when he said my name. "Last night when Ivy had her... episode. She saw you."
"What do you mean?" I asked. "I spoke to her and waved my hand before her face, but she did not even blink."
"No," he said. "She saw you." He looked at me with intensely hazel eyes, and I understood. She had seen me in the future.
"Ye-es?" I prompted, a little nervous because of the way he was looking at me. It seemed I was about to receive some bad news.
"The apple," he said, and I looked over to see it had almost dipped into the ashes. I righted it quickly, resting the skewer on the edge of the wall of the little fire pit.
"Mr. Jenkins," I said, calling him that to get his attention. "Please tell me what she saw. At this point, I think very little would shock me." I managed a small smile.
He rubbed the back of his neck, ruffling the dark hair at his nape and staring into the fire. "She... You..." He sighed. "You need to be prepared," he said, looking up at me. "You need to hone your Gift quickly and well. Whatever's been coming, it will be here soon. And it seems you are to play a large part in it."
"What... what is coming?" I asked nervously.
"The war." He looked surprised, as if I should have known this already. "Didn't Professor Eberhart tell you?"
"He kept referring to a 'conflict,' and he told me about... well, about our parents, the Libertists, and the Loyalists. But I know about all that from school."
"There is another one on the horizon," Lucas said grimly. "'Conflict' sounds somewhat better, but it is what it is: a war. Only this one will be fought with Illumination instead of swords and bullets and bombs. Ivy saw it coming years ago."
"I don't understand." Without thinking about it, I was still rotating the apple slowly. "We are here--I am here--training to fight in a war?" The professor had told me as much back at the academy weeks ago, but I suppose I didn't realize what he meant. I suppose I thought I would be on the sidelines, if such a thing were to happen, doing... I know not what.
"Yes, Bernice," Lucas said softly. "All of us will be."
"But why... children? Many here are not yet past the age of majority. How can anyone send children into battle?"
His expression grew still more grim. "We need the numbers," he said quietly. "The professor has been in contact with many of our parents, as many as have agreed to help. Those who knew what was happening could chose to send their children to be trained, or not. That's where there are so few of us here. There are as many out there as there are in here, whose families have not been willing to lend them to the cause. I suppose I can't blame them," he shrugged, looking sad. "I don't think I would want to send my son or daughter into battle, either."
"What about your parents?" I asked.
"My mother is too frightened to do anything, and my father must never know of my Gift, or hers, which of course she keeps hidden. He'd want to use us for his own benefit, us and anyone else he knew was Illuminated."
I watched the apple spin slowly, flames licking over its sides. It had grown a darker red; we should test it soon to see how far inside it had cooked. "So we are to fight? All of us here, and some of those who were in the first war, who came out of the cave with Illumination?" He nodded. "That means the fate of the country could rest upon... fifty or sixty people?"
"It's not that bad," Lucas was quick to say. "Ivy's seen that the other side--the Britannians and the Loyalists here--have only a dozen or so. And there's another little group on the far coast, I think near Chester, North Jefferson. Something similar happened there a couple years before the end of the war. Some Libertists came across a Sacred Crystal and Illuminated themselves. Not as many of them survived, but... Well, Professor Eberhart told us the whole story once, and I can't remember all of it. But they--the Gifted--all ran off together to hide away, and they've been working on their powers since then. They're very strong, very skilled. And their children, too. So that's another two dozen, I think."
I turned the apple slowly, thinking. "Why not make a whole army of Illuminated people?" I asked after a moment. "We found the crystals once, right? Why not use them again?"
"No one knows where they are," Lucas said sadly. "They were entrusted to someone at the end of the war, and hidden away.
"And no one knows where to find them, or who hid them?" I asked skeptically.
"Well, I certainly don't. I'm sure if their keeper saw that they were needed, he--or she, I suppose--would put them to use. But we've just got to trust that whoever it is that has them is wise and careful." He shrugged. "Let's check our apple, shall we?"
I let him take the skewer from me. He drew it up out of the pit, then lay the apple on top of a crate and used a knife to slice into it. "Perfect!" He cut it in half, causing it to fall off the skewer. "Too bad we don't have any butter or sugar. Ohh, or cinnamon! But anyway." He picked up one half, using the very tips of his fingers. "Cheers," he said as he handed me the other half, and bumped them together like champagne glasses.
I took a careful bite of mine, sucking in air at the same time to cool it in my mouth. The tang of the apple was certainly present, but if I used my imagination, it almost tasted like the inside of an apple pie, warm and soft with spices. I used to play this game with Maggie, during the harder times when all we had for supper was the same bread we'd eaten for a week. We'd tell each other what we wanted it to be instead, and share how it tasted.
It must've shown on my face, how much I missed her, for Lucas tried to distract me. "You're doing really well with the rope thing," he said. "And you're the best I've seen at forming earth. The people you make are so realistic! And I've never seen anyone make them move the way you can."
"Thank you," I said with a small smile.
We were spared further awkward conversation by Zebediah's entrance to the room. He stopped just inside the doorway when he saw the two of us sitting before the fire, frowning a little, but I put his concern to rest. "Come here," I said softly, and he crouched next to me. I held the apple out to him. "Careful, it's hot."
He held my hand in both of his, just his fingertips touching, and leaned forward to take a bite of the apple, his eyes on my face the whole while. I do not know why, but the sight of him leaning over my hands and looking up at me sent a shiver down my spine, in a good way. Then he sat back and chewed, also inhaling through his mouth to cool it. "Good?" I asked, and he nodded. "After days of raw apples, this is a welcome change." He nodded again, then pointed at the coffee pots. "Are they finished yet?" I asked Lucas in his stead.
He checked on them, then pointed to the smallest one. "This is," he said. "Would you like a cup?"
"Zebediah would," I answered. "I'm content with my apple for now." Lucas poured a tin mug full of the dark coffee and handed it to Zebediah, who accepted it, but did not exactly give a kind look to Lucas. Seeming to sense this, he stood. "If you wouldn't mind filling the cups when those are finished, that would be swell," Lucas said to me. "Set them out on the table." He was referring to the planks laid across the tops of two barrels out in the main cavern, from which everyone picked up their meals. "Ivy will come and help you with the rest of it in a bit." He gave me an encouraging smile, then left Zebediah and I alone.
I gave him a few more bites of my apple as he sat and sipped his coffee. Now and then the fire would pop, but since no one else was awake yet, we were in a companionable silence. "Missed you," he spelled on my palm.
"Missed you too," I murmured. "We've been so busy."
He moved around to sit beside me and put his arm around my shoulders; I leaned against him, glad for these few minutes in private with him. He kissed the top of my head, then leaned his cheek there. I don't think I could have been more content were we in a palace surrounded by every luxury.
Then we heard footsteps behind us, and Ivy sang out, "Good morning! My, don't you two look cozy." She leaned right in between us to pick up one of the coffee pots with a spare rag, so as not to burn her hand. Zebediah and I had no choice but to lean apart as she lifted the lid and peeked inside. "All done!" she declared, and set the pot down. "You're on coffee duty this morning, aren't you, Bernice? Zebediah and I can help you set the cups out."
We had no choice but to stand up and do as she said; she and Zebediah took the cups out to the table two by two as I filled them. Then I began cutting up the stale bread while Ivy did the apples, and Zebediah carried out the stacks of each on big trays. Once that was done, nearly everyone was awake and it was time for breakfast. Unfortunately I was not able to be alone with Zebediah for the remainder of the day, as we were both kept too busy to do more than smile at each other from across the room.