“Sometimes I need a break from ponderous academic reading,” she said with a shrug.

“So you’re a math major?” I asked, because I couldn’t imagine anyone having a textbook like that if they weren’t really, really into math. She didn’t look like any math geek I’d ever met. Hell, Ethan had said she was two years younger than him, and Kimber had said Ethan was eighteen—which made Kimber way too young for college, unless she was some kind of a prodigy.

“I haven’t declared a major yet,” she said. “But I’m leaning toward engineering.”

A Fae engineer. It just sounded … wrong. And how many jobs were there for engineers in Avalon? It wasn’t like engineering would be a useful skill in Faerie, so if she wanted to make use of her degree, she’d have to do it here. Of course, considering the quality of her clothes and furniture, she might be one of those annoying people who don’t have to work for a living.

“And in case you’re wondering,” Kimber continued, “Ethan will be a freshman in the fall, and I’ll be a sophomore. He may have gotten the magic in the family, but I got the brains.”

The look on her face said she wasn’t happy about that, which surprised me. Considering her obvious rivalry with her brother, you’d think she’d be thrilled to be ahead of him in school.

“That must drive Ethan nuts,” I said, and yes, I was fishing.

Kimber took a sip of her posset before answering. “Actually, he couldn’t care less. He’s got the magic, and that’s what counts.”

I felt a surge of indignation on Kimber’s account. “You don’t think being incredibly smart counts for something?”

She smiled wryly. “To humans, maybe. To the Fae, not so much.” She tilted her head to one side. “In human terms, it would be like Ethan was a superstar football player, and I was the brainiac younger sister. Who gets all the glory in that situation?”

I saw her point, but still … “That sucks.”

She laughed, but it wasn’t a happy sound. “Tell me about it.” She sobered quickly. “Actually, Ethan has a lot in common with a human superstar athlete. He’s got an ego the size of Mount Everest, and he’s used to girls falling at his feet in admiration.”

The look in her eyes was a warning, but I pretended not to notice. I would come to my own conclusions about Ethan, thank you very much. It’s not that I didn’t believe what she was telling me—it’s just that I couldn’t help hoping I meant more to Ethan than a notch on his bedpost.

I didn’t think talking about Ethan was a good way to further what I was beginning to think was a budding friendship, so I changed the subject.

I cleared my throat. “So, about magic…” Not very subtle, but I wasn’t sure subtlety would work.

Kimber stared at me long and hard before she finally allowed our previous subject to drop. She shook her head at me in a last sign of disapproval, then asked, “What would you like to know about it?”

I took another sip of my posset as I tried to figure out what to ask first. “What can it do?” I asked, then decided that was probably the stupidest, vaguest question ever. But Kimber didn’t find it as stupid as I did.

“In theory, magic can do just about anything, if the caster is skilled enough.” Her eyes glazed over as she searched for what she wanted to say. “Magic is an elemental force, native to Faerie. It’s not quite sentient, but it’s close.”

I shivered, because the idea of sentient magic was just, well, creepy.

“When you cast a spell, you draw the magic into your body—kind of like when you draw a deep breath before you dive into a pool. Then you release the magic you’ve drawn in, and—if you’re any good at it—it does what you want it to do.

“We vary in how much magic we can draw to ourselves—the more magic we can draw, the more dramatic a spell we can cast. At least in theory. In reality, drawing the magic is the easy part. Getting it to do what you want…” She shrugged. “That’s a lot harder.”

“So what is it that makes Ethan a magical prodigy?” I asked. I knew I was combining two of Kimber’s least favorite subjects—Ethan, and his superior magical abilities—but I wanted to understand about magic, and this seemed like a necessary step.

On cue, the corners of Kimber’s mouth tugged downward. “First, he can draw a lot of magic. Second, he has incredible endurance. Drawing and directing the magic is exhausting. And third, he’s scary-good at getting the magic to do what he wants.

“There are some spells that almost all of us can do. Things like locking doors, or lighting candles. They’re so common, they’re easy. It’s like teaching your dog to sit—just about anyone can manage that, but it would take someone with more skill to teach the dog a trick. If you have more skill with the magic, you can make it do things ordinary people can’t.”

“Like make me lose my voice?” I asked.

Kimber grinned. “Actually, that’s a very common spell, usually used against unruly children. No, something harder would be major healing spells, or illusions. Many of us could manage to do them with a lot of work and practice. Just like many humans could theoretically do brain surgery, but few are willing to put in the massive effort required to learn how to do it.

“What makes Ethan scary-good is that he can make the magic do lots of different, unrelated things. Most people have to really specialize. Sorry to use yet another analogy, but this is really hard to explain to a human. Let’s say a certain kind of magic—like healing magic—understands a specific language, like French. If you learn to speak French, then you can get the magic to do what you want. But the more complicated the spell, the more French you have to know to be able to do it. And maybe illusion magic speaks Mandarin, and attack magic speaks Swahili. You’d have to know three completely unrelated languages in order to communicate with them all. So that’s why most people have to specialize. Ethan, on the other hand, can pick up a new ‘language’ at the drop of a hat.”