The morning before the race, I got up early and did another practice round. Part of me hoped to see the favourite out there again, but nobody showed up apart from me. It was their bad, really. The air was cool and brisk, and the dewy grass sparkled in the rising sun. I turned around and practised the sharp turns several times this morning. Then I did the long, straight stretches. I drove my broom harder and harder, getting a little more speed for each round.
When I walked back to the house, the handle of the broom was humming with energy. I dismissed it and went to have breakfast. Celeste was at the door, dressed for the contest.
“Disgusting,” she said as I walked up to her. “When did you get up, at five?”
“Warming up the broom is essential for a good race.”
She rolled her eyes. “I know. But it’s hours until the race begins.”
“I’ll warm up again later.”
Celeste rolled her eyes harder. “Never mind.”
She summoned her broom and walked towards the road.
I went to the dining room for breakfast. A grand buffet had been set up, much like the day before. Cloris, Isadora, Amin, and Gabriel were having breakfast. Amin and Gabriel were deep in conversation, so I joined Cloris and Isadora at their table. The two of them said good morning as I sat down.
“Already up?” Isadora said.
I nodded. “Got up at five.”
Cloris took a deep swig of her coffee and sighed. It was past eight now, but she had dark circles under her eyes, she was still in a bathrobe, and she clutched her coffee cup like it was a lifeline.
“I couldn’t get up that early.”
“You’ll soon realise that Gen is up early and early to bed,” Isadora said, her earrings dancing while she spoke. “It’s been that way since you first joined.”
I shrugged. “I like it.”
“You don’t have trouble sleeping before these things?” Cloris asked. “With all the nerves and stuff?”
“Never have trouble sleeping, full stop.”
She nodded and took another deep swig of her coffee. “I’m an insomniac. I don’t know what I’m doing up this early, but I figure I have to warm up.”
Isadora patted her arm. “You’ll do fine.”
Poor Cloris nodded and went to get more coffee. Nadir entered then. He was dressed sharply, and he grabbed a mug and poured coffee before sitting down alone. Gabriel tried to exchange a few words with him from his table, as did Amin, but he only nodded and went back to studying the book he had with him. I couldn’t see the title, though I studied him intently and not very discreetly. He noticed and made a little greeting nod, then went back to his book.
“He’s even less of a morning person than me,” Cloris whispered, sitting back down with another full cup. “And nervous, too.”
I looked at her. “What makes you say that?”
She pointed to the cup. “Not eating. I’m the same – can’t get a single bite down before exams and things. If I tried now, I’d vomit.”
“I know the feeling so well,” said Isadora with a sympathetic look at Nadir. “The first time I commentated the tournament, I thought I’d faint.”
I chanced another look at Nadir. Nervous, huh? Once again, he noticed me staring. This time, however, he slammed his book shut and left the dining room. He pushed his way past Celeste, who walked in just now. Her cheeks were red from the fresh morning air and her hair tousled.
“He looked cheery,” she said, and pulled a chair over to our table.
“There’s a lot of pressure on Mr. Hazan, what with his family” Isadora said, nodding sagely.
As much as I was curious about Nadir, something else caught my attention, now that I looked at her properly. The light hit her face just right, and I could see a web of fine scars crisscrossed her cheeks and her nose. Celeste had noticed, too.
“Dora, I hope you don’t mind my asking, but your face…”
Isadora’s eyes went big.
“Oh, t-these. Right.” She rubbed her scars as if it would wipe them away. “We had another break-in. I was home when they came and they sort of pushed me down the stairs.”
The entire dining room went quiet, all eyes on her.
“It’s healed up nicely,” Celeste said.
Isadora nodded, but her smile had paled.
Cloris asked: “Did they steal anything?”
“They didn’t.” Orion hovered in through the wall and placed a hand on his partner’s shoulder. “Nobody comes here to try and rob us. They come because of me, I’m afraid.”
The silence got heavier.
Nobody expressed surprise. Ghosts were rare, and people would do many strange things to get expensive potion ingredients from them, or even to have a look. That was why they had stopped letting audiences spectate the Moonlight Tournament after Orion’s death. Too many took it as a chance to gawk.
Everyone tried to light up the mood in the dining room, but it didn’t seem to work.
“I’d better go warm up some more,” I said and washed down the rest of my croissant with orange juice, eager to get out of there. “Good luck, folks.”
I went straight out to do my warmups.
“This is the hundred-and-twenty-fourth annual Moonlight Tournament, brought to you live, for the fourteenth year in a row from Moonlight Falls.” Isadora spoke into a crystal ball that recorded and broadcast the race to witches all over the world. She had changed into a nicer dress, her smile was back, and she chatted excitedly with Orion about the upcoming round.
I was lined up in front of the practise arena with the other contestants. It lay in the middle of a little grove of golden trees. The sky was a clear blue, and there was barely any wind to affect the race today. It would all come down to skill.
Celeste, Nadir, Amin, me, Cloris. Isadora introduced us all in that order, and then she and Orion started talking about the hype for this year’s tournament. While Orion spoke, Isadora cast charms that would broadcast while we were on the road. One by one, we were each provided with a spell that functioned like a magical camera. Right about now, the viewers would be able to tune in and see each of our faces.
We walked into the arena: a small, sandy enclosure that was only meant for warm-ups and little tricks. I didn’t need the warm-up after my practice runs, but I got on my broom and did a few laps along with the others, nonetheless. It was a chance for viewers and those who wanted to place bets to view us all in action.
It was a chance for me to see the others, as well. Everyone here had been through a tough vetting process, so it was only a trained eye that could see the little flaws in the way we handled our brooms: Celeste’s slightly-too-firm grip, Cloris’ hesitance to speed up. It surprised me to see that Amin veered to the left and didn’t notice – he must not have warmed up. Hazan’s handling was damn near perfect. I couldn’t help but slow down and have a closer look.
He really was good. The only thing I could see worth correcting was his posture. It was almost unnoticeable, but his movements were a little stiff. I hoped that my broom being a little newer and my superior posture would keep me ahead.
Isadora brought an end to the practice laps, and we all descended to listen to the rules for the race: we would do three laps, follow the planned route, maximum flying height of two metres, no shoving or grabbing others’ brooms, and so on… While she rattled off the rules, I caught Hazan studying me. I smiled, but he didn’t return it. It wouldn’t surprise me if hundreds of teenage witches were swooning right about now, looking at his brooding face. That wouldn’t help him until it was time for the disciplines decided by voting, though.
We all headed over and took our positions when Gabriel told us to.
“Contestants, please summon your brooms,” he said.
Five brooms appeared and five riders got on. I adjusted my grip and my posture. My little light flew in front of my face, and I flashed a smile at all the viewers.
“One foot on the ground,” Gabriel said. “Ready?”
“I’ll count down from three.”
“The countdown is about to begin,” Isadora’s voice boomed over us, magically enhanced for the broadcasting. “I hope you’re ready at home, because our contestants look pretty ready to me…”
I felt my heart racing.
Fireworks went off behind us, and five brooms zipped ahead.
Isadora and Orion’s comments died in the rush of wind in my hair as I leapt ahead of everyone else. I always imagined that a roaring crowd was cheering me on, as I zoomed around the course. In reality, it was only me, the little light, and four other contestants a few metres behind. Even without looking, I knew that Nadir Hazan was right on my tail.
As we made it to the sharp corner, Cloris, Celeste, and Amin lost speed trying to straighten up, but both Nadir and I took the corner in a soft curve. I felt the tip of his broom grazing the bristles of mine and sped up. I leaned over, willing the broom forward.
“… is an extremely close race between Thorne and…” Isadora’s voice came and went as we passed the goal, finishing our first lap.
The second lap passed like the first. On the way, I zoomed past Amin. It must have caught Hazan off-guard, because at the next sharp turn, he lost speed and I jumped a crucial few metres ahead of him. I entered the third lap way ahead.
Before I could start feeling cocky, though, he gained on me. He must really be driving the broom hard, because I noticed the handle of his broom in the corner of my eye.
“Oh no, you don’t,” I muttered under my breath.
I took the corners as widely as I possibly could and cut him off so he had to slow down. The finish-line was within sight now. I cut him off at the last corner. Isadora’s voice faded in.
“… looks like Thorne is ahead again, though Hazan is extremely close.”
He weaved right and left behind me, but I mirrored the movement, and he couldn’t get in. I squeezed the last little bit of speed from the broom, drove it so hard that I thought it might burst into flames.
And then I passed the finish-line.
“Genevieve Thorne wins our first discipline! And right at her heels, Nadir Hazan.”
I did a victory lap, taking off speed little by little. Hazan came in next to me.
“Quite the race,” I shouted over the howl of the wind.
It was the first time I saw him actually smile.
Gabriel took my hand and led me over to the practise arena, the other contestants trailing behind. We received points and were allowed to sit while the commentators replayed and reviewed the race. Amin, we all learned, had had an accident on the course, and that’s why he lagged behind. He didn’t look hurt, only a bit sheepish, especially when Isadora interviewed him and it inevitably came up. She had a talk with everyone except Hazan, who denied the interview and stood back from the flock.
“This has been a very close race between our reigning champion and our favourite,” Orion said once his partner was done with the interviews. “And I expect this year’s tournament is going to be one of the more interesting ones we’ve seen in years. We’re going to say goodbye for now from Moonlight Falls and we’ll return tomorrow with our transformation round. See you then.”
We all filed off the stage, one by one. I went straight for Nadir Hazan and stuck a hand out at him.
“Thank you for the race.”
He shook my hand. “Thank you. And well done.”
The two of us followed behind the others, walking back to the house.
“Did I do well?” he asked.
I cocked my head. “Your form was near-flawless,” I said. “I’m not sure I should tell you what did it; I’m afraid you’ll come back and beat me next year.”
“Not very likely.”
“All right then. First of all,” I said.” You let yourself get distracted, but you probably know that.”
“Second, your posture could be slightly better. You’re a little stiff. Besides, your broom’s getting old. But I suspect you know that..”
He thought on that. “Nothing else?”
“No. We’re fairly evenly matched.”
Celeste turned with a laugh and looked back at us. “Savour those words, Mr. Hazan, it’s very high praise, coming from Genevieve.”
“Thank you,” he said, bowing. Then he sped up ahead of us.
“I don’t think I’ve heard him speak so many words together before now,” Celeste said, slowing down to walk beside me. “But that really was close, wasn’t it?”
She did her evil villainess laugh. “Oh, this is going to be good.”
I rolled my eyes.
We made it back to see Hazan frozen in the doorway. When we came up he pointed inside. My jaw fell, and next to me Celeste let out a gasp.
It looked like a small, local tornado hard torn through the manor. Plants and furniture were knocked over, rugs had been moved around and pictures ripped from the walls.
I put up my hands, readying a defensive spell in case the intruders were still there, and the others followed my lead. Celeste went right, into the drawing room, Hazan made his way upstairs, while Cloris and I turned left to check the library. It was the same in there. Books were scattered over the floor. The armchairs were moved around, and doors torn open. But there wasn’t a hint of a person otherwise.
I ran out to meet Isadora, Orion, and Gabriel who had just returned. The three of them stared, bewildered, at the mess.
“Not again,” Orion said, hanging his head.
“I’m going to contact the council,” Celeste said, returning from the drawing room. “Why can’t people just leave it be?”
Hazan came back from upstairs – same situation. Nobody was up there, but everything had been searched, moved, rummaged through. Isadora stormed away to check on their storages.
Orion moved away from the flock, into a corner, his eyes wide-open and a hand over his heart. Or at least where his heart had been.
“Are you okay?” I moved to put a hand on his shoulder.
The ghost nodded. “Yes, sorry. This is getting old.”
“They’ve never made this big a mess,” Gabriel said, crossing his arms. “It doesn’t look like they took anything, though.”
Just then, Isadora came back. “Nobody made it into the storage,” she said. “The charms didn’t react either, so I didn’t think so.”
She looked to the rest of us and explained: Since those attempts started, they had put up wards as well as charms that would react if anybody made it in.
“It must have been a teleport,” I said.
Whoever it was could have sent in a small insect or mouse as a teleportation anchor. With that it wouldn’t be hard to get in. Isadora nodded.
“It’s what they did the last time. We tried to ward against it, but they mustn’t have worked.”
Everybody set about tidying the house with spells. I got started on the library and was joined by Cloris. We worked in silence, until she noticed something.
“I think they had a swim,” she said.
She waved me over and pointed at small puddles of water leading away from the indoor swimming pool. It really did look like whoever had done this decided to have a swim and get up and walk away.
Cloris and I stared at each other.
Author’s notes: Heeey peeps. This week, I’d like to draw your attention to the buffet table in the first dining room picture. Not because it’s interesting or particularly interesting or good looking or anything. Just because I spent AGES setting it up with OMSPs and then it ended up being in one picture and one picture only. Yup. Another thing is that this chapter is light on pictures, and I’m super sorry. I’ve been so busy/tired most of the week so I rushed them a little 😦 I’m bad I know.
Anyway, thanks for reading if you’ve made it this far, and hope you’re having a great weekend. Cheers!