I ARRIVED at Mahler's an hour before classes began. I'd had a busy weekend. First there'd been my uniform to buy - a green jumper, light green shirt, green tie, grey trousers, black shoes - then books, notepaper and A4 writing pads, a ruler, pens and pencils, an eraser, set squares and a compass, as well as a scientific calculator, whose array of strange buttons - 'INV', 'SIN', 'COS', 'EE' - meant nothing to me. I'd also had to buy a homework report book, which I'd have to write all my homework assignments in - Mr. Crepsley would have to sign the book each night, saying I'd done the work I was meant to. I shopped by myself - Mr. Crepsley couldn't move about during the day, and Harkat's strange appearance meant it was better for him to stay inside. I got back to the hotel with my bags late Saturday evening, after two days of non-stop shopping. Then I remembered that I'd need a schoolbag as well, so I rushed out on one last-gasp, lightning-fast expedition to the nearest supplier. I bought a simple black bag with plenty of space for my books, and picked up a plastic lunch box as well.
Mr. Crepsley and Harkat got a great kick out of my uniform. The first time they saw me stuffed inside it, walking stiffly, they laughed for ten minutes. "Stop it!" I growled, tearing a shoe off and lobbing it at them.
I spent Sunday wearing in the uniform, walking about the hotel rooms fully dressed. I did a lot of scratching and twitching - it had been a long time since I'd had to wear anything so confining. That night I shaved carefully and let Mr. Crepsley cut my hair. Afterwards he and Harkat left to hunt for the vampaneze. For the first night since coming to the city, I stayed behind - I had school in the morning, and needed to be fresh for it. As time progressed, I'd work out a schedule whereby I'd assist in the hunt for the killers, but the first few nights were bound to be difficult and we all agreed it would be for the best if I dropped out of the hunt for a while.
I got hardly any sleep. I was almost as nervous as I'd been seven years earlier, when awaiting the verdict of the Vampire Princes after I'd failed my Trials of Initiation. At least then I knew what the worst could be - death - but I'd no idea what to expect from this strange adventure.
Mr. Crepsley and Harkat were awake in the morning to see me off. They ate breakfast with me and tried to act as though I'd nothing to worry about. "This is a wonderful opportunity," Mr. Crepsley said. "You have often complained of the life you lost when you became a half-vampire. This is a chance to revisit your past. You can be human again, for a while. It will be fascinating."
"Why don't you go instead of me then?" I snapped.
"I would if I could," he deadpanned.
"It'll be fun," Harkat assured me. "Strange at first, but give it time and you'll fit in. And don't feel inferior: these kids will know... a lot more about the school curriculum than you, but you are... a man of the world and know things that they will... never learn, no matter how old they live to be."
"You are a Prince," Mr. Crepsley agreed, "far superior to any there."
Their efforts didn't really help, but I was glad they were supporting me instead of mocking me.
With breakfast out of the way, I made a few ham sandwiches, packed them in my bag along with a small jar of pickled onions and a bottle of orange juice, and then it was time to leave.
"Do you want me to walk you to school?" Mr. Crepsley asked innocently. "There are many dangerous roads to cross. Or perhaps you could ask a lollypop lady to hold your hand and-"
"Stuff it," I grunted, and bolted out the door with my bag full of books.
Mahler's was a large, modern school, the buildings arranged in a square around an open-air, cement recreational area. The main doors were open when I arrived, so I entered and went looking for the headmaster's room. The halls and rooms were clearly signposted, and I found Mr. Olivers' room within a couple of minutes, but there was no sign of the headmaster. Half an hour passed - no Mr. Chivers. I wondered if Mr. Blaws had forgotten to tell the headmaster of my early arrival, but then I recalled the little man with the huge briefcase, and knew he wasn't the sort who forgot things like that. Maybe Mr. Chivers thought he was supposed to meet me by the main doors or the staffroom. I decided to check.
The staffroom could have held twenty-five or thirty teachers, but I saw only three when I knocked and entered in response to a cry of, "Come in." Two were middle-aged men, glued to thick chairs, reading enormous newspapers. The other was a burly woman, busy pinning sheets of printed paper to the walls.
"Help you?" the woman snapped without looking around.
"My name's Darren Horston. I'm looking for Mr. Chivers."
"Mr. Chivers isn't in yet. Have you an appointment?"
"Um. Yes. I think so."
"Then wait for him outside his office. This is the staffroom."
Closing the door, I picked up my bag and returned to the headmaster's room. There was still no sign of him. I waited ten more minutes, then went searching for him again. This time I made for the school entrance, where I found a group of teenagers leaning against a wall, talking loudly, yawning, laughing, calling each other names and cursing pleasantly.
They were dressed in Mahler uniforms like me, but the clothes looked natural on them.
I approached a gang of five boys and two girls. They had their backs to me and were discussing some programme they'd seen on TV the night before. I cleared my throat to attract their attention, then smiled and stuck out a hand to the nearest boy when he turned. "Darren Horston," I grinned. "I'm new here. I'm looking for Mr. Chivers. You haven't seen him, have you?"
The boy stared at my hand - he didn't shake it - then into my face.
"You wot?" he mumbled.
"My name's Darren Horston," I said again. "I'm looking for-"
"I 'eard you the first time," he interrupted, scratching his nose and studying me suspiciously.
"Shivers ain't in yet," a girl said, and giggled as though she'd said something funny.
"Shivers ain't ever in before ten past nine," one of the boys yawned.
"An even later on a Monday," the girl said.
"Everyone knows that," the boy who'd first spoken added.
"Oh," I muttered. "Well, as I said, I'm new here, so I can't be expected to know things that everyone else knows, can I?" I smiled, pleased to have made such a clever point on my first day in school.
"Get stuffed, asswipe," the boy said in response, which wasn't exactly what I'd been expecting.
"Pardon?" I blinked.
"You 'eard." He squared up to me. He was about a head taller, dark-haired, with a nasty squint. I could knock the stuffing out of any human in the school, but I'd momentarily forgotten that, and backed away from him, unsure of why he was acting this way.
"Go on, Smickey," one of the other boys laughed. "Do 'im!"
"Nah," the boy called Smickey smirked. "He ain't worth it."
Turning his back on me, he resumed his conversation with the others as though nothing had interrupted it. Shaken and confused, I slouched away. As I turned the corner, out of human but not vampire hearing, I heard one of the girls say, "That guy's seriously weird!"
"See that bag he was carrying?" Smickey laughed. "It was the size of a cow! He must have half the books in the country in it!"
"He spoke weird," the girl said.
"And he looked even weirder," the other girl added. "Those scars and red patches of flesh. And did you see that awful haircut? He looked like somefing out of a zoo!"
"Too right," Smickey said. "He smelt like it too!"
The gang laughed, then talk turned to the TV programme again. Trudging up the stairs, clutching my bag to my chest, feeling very small and ashamed of my hair and appearance, I positioned myself by Mr. Chivers' door, hung my head, and miserably waited for the headmaster to show.
It had been a discouraging start, and though I liked to think things could only get better, I had a nasty feeling in the pit of my belly that they were going to get a whole lot worse!