Sarah Beth Durst

Excerpt from Even and Odd

Chapter One

Like many sisters, Even and Odd shared many things:

Their bedroom.

Their closet.

Six pairs of flip-flops.

Use of the living-room TV.

And . . . magic.

On even days, Even could work magic. On odd days, her one-year-younger sister, Odd, could. Years ago, before their family moved across the border from the magic world of Firoth to Stony Haven, the most ordinary town in Connecticut, the sisters had discovered they could each work magic on alternating days. Showing an imperfect understanding of how calendars work, four-year-old Emma had coined their nicknames -- and they'd stuck. Emma became Even, and Olivia became Odd.

Now twelve years old, Even wished she'd picked a nickname that wasn't a constant reminder of the fact that she lacked magic half the time. Like today, which was an odd day.

On odd days, she couldn't practice her magic. If she couldn't practice, she couldn't get better. If she didn't get better, she wouldn't pass all the required levels of Academy of Magic exams and win her wizard medallion. And if she didn't have a medallion, she couldn't become a hero of Firoth, charged with protecting the magic world against all threats -- a goal that had been her dream for as long as she could remember.

So, not a fan of odd days.

But at least she was still able to help out with the family's shop on odd days, despite her lack of magic. It helped pass the time until she was magical again. That afternoon, Dad had left her in charge of the register while he went to pick up milk from the supermarket and Odd from her volunteer job at the Stony Haven Animal Rescue Center. Even loved being trusted to help their customers.

Like Frank the centaur, who was here to collect his order.

"So that's one box of nine-by-twelve manila envelopes, one vial of imported ambrosia, and a Three Musketeers bar." Even calculated the cost. "Twenty-six dollars and forty-eight cents. Plus one hundred forty-eight seventy-three for the rare honey shipment. Your total is one hundred seventy-five dollars and twenty-one cents."

Frank handed her his credit card. "Excited about summer vacation? No more teachers, no more books, no more . . . Wait, that's not right. ‘No more teachers' dirty looks' is the last one, which means the first one can't be teachers . . ."

She grinned. For as long as he'd been coming into the shop, Frank had liked to try out mundane-world sayings he'd learned. He usually mangled them. "Pencils?" she suggested.

"No more pencils, no more books -- yes, that's it! Thanks, Even!"

"Actually, I'm not done with studying yet," Even said. "I take the Academy of Magic level-five exam on Friday. I'm doing the remote course." She'd been studying hard, practicing every even day and poring over her level-five textbook on odd days. She had it all planned out: Once she passed, she'd only have three more levels until she had her junior-wizard medallion. And once she had that, the Academy could start assigning her basic quests in the magic world, like monitoring a phoenix rebirth or helping with a mermaid migration. If she did well enough with those, then by the time she was eighteen, she'd have her official--

Frank interrupted her daydream. "Ah, fantastic! Good luck!"

The machine spat out his receipt, and Even handed it to him along with his credit card. "Do you need any help with the honey?" she asked politely.

"Yes -- if you could just strap it on my back, that would be great."

Frank was part of a local research team, sponsored by the Academy. He was in the store nearly every other day to pick up special-order items. Currently, his team was studying honey and had ordered samples from across the United States. Last month it was peanut butter. She hefted the box of honey onto his broad horse's back, and she belted it on with the straps he had for that purpose. He held his other purchases with his human hands.

"Thanks for your business," Even told him, hoping she sounded professional.

"Please tell your parents to call when the next shipment comes in." He clip-clopped to the door. Pausing, he cast an illusion to disguise his horse body as a motorcycle and "rode" outside. She wondered if he knew that his motorcycle didn't spew any exhaust and kind of still made a clip-clop horse sound beneath the engine roar. She waved as the door shut behind him.

That went well, she thought. One happy customer down. Yay for me.

Humming to herself, she spent the next few minutes straightening the shop. Built into their family's garage, the shop was crowded with merchandise. Though her parents had renovated both the house and the shop with extra-wide doors to accommodate a variety of visitors, there still wasn't much room for a full-grown centaur to maneuver without bumping into a few shelves. He'd knocked over a display of diapers, sized from pixie to human to troll, as well as a stack of New York City guidebooks.

Their shop carried supplies for the mundane world, as well as imports from the magic world -- anything a magical customer might need for their visit here. It was the kind of store known as a border shop. Located in a border town, close to a gateway between worlds, it was where centaurs, fairies, and other overtly magical beings could buy things without needing to shapeshift or pretend they were in costume. It was also the only place where those visiting from Firoth could ask basic questions, such as "What is an airplane, and is it going to eat me?"

The bell rang over the shop door just as Even finished lining up the stacks of National Geographic, People, and Good Housekeeping magazines. Glancing over, she saw that a new customer had come in: a tall, willowy woman wearing an ornately beaded robe that looked as if it belonged at a Renaissance fair. Her pink hair was braided with jewels and gold-coated flowers, showing off her pointy ears.

An elf! A real elf!

"Welcome!" Even said. Her voice squeaked a little. She'd never met an elf before. Usually they stayed in the magic world and weren't interested in anything to do with the mundane world. But here was one, in their shop! She wished Odd were here to see this. Odd wasn't normally interested in much to do with Firoth, but this would have impressed her.

Keeping her robe lifted so it wouldn't touch the floor, the elf surveyed the shop and sniffed. "This is serviceable, I suppose. Are you the proprietor?"

"It's my parents' shop, but I can help you. I mean, can I help you?" Even felt as if her tongue were knotted like a pretzel. She tried again. "May I help you with something?" There, that was better.

"Perhaps."

The elf didn't elaborate. Instead she studied the overflowing shelves and counters with an air of faint disapproval. She looked as if she wanted to hold her nose but was too dignified to do so. Even waited, shifting from foot to foot, wondering if she was supposed to make suggestions or ask questions or just wait politely for the customer to decide what she wanted.

At last, the elf pointed one delicate finger toward the highest shelf, directly at a plush animal, a panda that had sat in the shop for so long cobwebs were strung between its ears. "I will purchase that item. It will make a suitable gift."

"Good choice," Even said. "Everyone likes souvenirs. I'm sure whoever--"

"I do not require your approval," the elf interrupted. "I require you to fetch it. I do not wish to expend my magic on a menial task."

"Of course. Sorry." She wasn't exactly sure what she was apologizing for, but there was something about the elf's manner that made Even feel like she'd committed a horrible breach of etiquette. She made a mental note to ask her parents more about the customs of elves. That kind of info wasn't in her theory textbook.

Crossing the shop, she retrieved the ladder and carried it to the shelves. She climbed up to the plush panda and reached toward it.

"Excuse me, what are you doing?"

Arm outstretched, Even stopped. "You wanted this one, didn't you?"

"Why are you using such an . . . ordinary way to fetch it?"

"I'm not tall enough to reach it without a ladder." She thought that was obvious, but she kept her voice polite. This was a customer, after all.

"This is a border shop, is it not?" the elf demanded.

"It is." Even wasn't sure what the problem was. So far as she knew, she hadn't done anything inappropriate or unprofessional.

"It is supposed to be run by accredited wizards."

"Both of my parents have their wizard medallions," Even said. Medallions were required to run a shop that carried magical items. According to the laws of Firoth, they were required for any kind of job that involved magic, as well as any sort of official quest, like the kind Even dreamed about, with dragons and unicorns and enchanted stuff. "I'm still a student, but I'm taking my level-five exam soon."

"If you're ready for your level-five, you ought to be able to levitate a simple toy. Have you been so foolish as to let yourself run out of magic?"

Even braced herself, trying not to outwardly cringe. She didn't really want to explain herself to this intimidatingly disapproving customer. "Well, I, um, you see, my sister and I share our magical abilities. I only have magic every other day. And, well, that's not today."

The elf sniffed in disapproval. "Absurd! How can you expect to put in the requisite hours of practice in such a situation? You do not understand the depths of dedication that true wizardry requires."

"I do understand! I work hard!" Even's face felt hot. She stopped reaching for the panda and held on to the ladder.

"Honestly, the presumption of today's youth, to think half an effort is enough--"

"It is enough!" The words burst out before Even could stop them -- she'd argued this debate with herself before, usually late at night when she couldn't sleep, but she'd never had it with a customer. She tried to explain. "I know I'm not ready to be a hero yet, but by the time I'm old enough to get my medallion, I'll be ready for the Academy to grant me a quest--"

"Enough with such foolishness." Frowning, the elf made a gesture with her hands. "If you're truly a hero-to-be, then save yourself from this." Before Even could react, she felt soft, sticky ropes wrapping around her. She shrieked as she realized it wasn't rope at all -- it was spiderweb pulled from the plush panda and grown with magic. The webbing wrapped around her fast, tying her to the ladder.

"What are you doing?" Even cried. "Let me go!"

"I'm teaching you a lesson in humility," the elf said. "It's for your own good. I'll be back to do my shopping when real magic users are here." She flicked her hand one more time, and the panda flew off the shelf. One leg stuffed itself into Even's mouth so she couldn't yell anymore.

The elf waltzed out the door, with the bell ringing sweetly behind her.

Even spat the panda out. It tumbled to the floor. She ran her tongue around her mouth, spitting out bits of fur and dust. Blech. The elf hadn't stuffed the panda in too hard, nor had she tied the webbing too tight. She hadn't been trying to hurt Even, just humiliate her.

Well, she succeeded, Even thought. This ranked up there with the most embarrassing things that had ever happened to her, and that included her near failure on her level-four exam. Now I'm glad Odd isn't here to see this.

Squirming, she tried to loosen the cobwebs. The ladder wobbled, but the webbing held tight. The elf had used a lot of it. Even would have been impressed if she weren't the one stuck. She wiggled her fingers, making a space between the threads. Once she got her hands free . . .

For fifteen minutes, she wiggled and squirmed -- carefully, so she didn't knock the ladder over. She was sure she'd be able to get out eventually. She just had to be patient. She'd freed her fingers. If she could get up to the elbow, then she could tear the rest off . . .

Outside, she heard a car pull into the driveway. Oh no. She wiggled and squirmed faster. She'd just gotten her left arm out up to the elbow when Odd came through the back door to the shop, the one that connected the supply closet with the laundry room of their house. For a brief instant, Even wished the webbing had cocooned her completely to spare her the humiliation.

"So I had the worst, most embarrassing, most horrible day--" Odd halted, staring, and then rushed over to the ladder. "Even! Are you okay? Are you hurt?"

"Hey, Odd, everything's fine," Even said casually. She could feel her cheeks blushing bright red again. This is so not my day, she thought. "How was the shelter? You were saying you had a bad day?"

Still gawking up at her, Odd said, "Um, yeah, my magic malfunctioned, and I accidentally levitated a labradoodle puppy. One of the other volunteers saw and thought I was trying to throw it. It was a nightmare. I was so scared they were going to kick me out, but they decided it was a misunderstanding -- why are you tied to the ladder with cobwebs? Are you sure you're okay?"

"Sure, all good," Even said. She paused, and then: "I could maybe use a little help getting down," she admitted.

Odd began to pull the webbing off her.

"Quickly, before Mom or Dad comes in. Can't you use magic?"

Climbing up the first couple rungs, Odd continued to claw the strands away. Loose cobweb stuck to her arms and hair. "Mom's on a magic-mirror call, and Dad's putting away the groceries. Trust me, my way will be faster. What happened?"

"It wasn't my fault. It was a customer. She was upset that I didn't have magic." Even couldn't help it -- her voice wobbled as she spoke. Why couldn't we have been born with normal magic? She'd never heard of anyone else with split magic. It wasn't fair.

"You told her it wasn't your day, right? Explained about the calendar thing?"

"I told her we alternate days. She did not like that. But it's fine. I'm going to ace my exam, and then she'll be eating her words." If Even said it with enough conviction, maybe she could squelch that nasty bit of familiar self-doubt that kept whispering: What if I'm not good enough? What if I'm not ready? What if no matter how hard I work, I'm never ready to be a hero? Usually it was easy to push the doubt down, but the elf had brought it all back up anew.

"You are going to ace it." Odd finished pulling the threads off Even's left leg. "You've certainly been practicing enough this time around. It won't be like level four."

Hearing Odd say that did help. It was nice that her sister believed in her. It doesn't matter what a stranger thinks, Even told herself. All that matters is what I choose to do. She wished she could make herself fully believe that. "You know, you could practice with me. Well, not the same day as me, obviously, but we could both practice! Remember the first time you turned me into a skunk?"

"Yeah, you were being annoying."

"You turned me into a half skunk, half cat, but then you practiced--"

"Because you kept being annoying. And because it was funny."

"--and you got better at it. If you practiced other kinds of magic, not just skunking me--"

Clearing away the last of the cobwebs from Even's arms and legs, Odd shrugged. "No, thanks. You know I don't want to be a wizard. Magic's just not my thing."

Even plucked a clump of cobweb out of her hair. "I'm not saying you have to be a wizard if you don't want to. You can be my sidekick."

"Seriously?"

"Yes, seriously." Even climbed down the ladder and began gathering up clumps of web. Sticky, they clung to her. "Wait, you meant that sarcastically. I'm being serious! You don't have to do magic, but you can still come with me on my adventures when we're both old enough."

Peeling the sticky cobwebs away, she shoved them into the trash can. "What makes you so sure I'd be your sidekick?" Odd asked. "Maybe you'll be my sidekick. You can clean out the litter boxes in the animal shelter while I cuddle the kittens."

Even pretended she didn't hear her. Keeping an absolutely straight face, she said, "I could transform you into a cat. Or how about a hamster? I'll be a wizard of the realm, and you'll be my adorable talking-animal sidekick!"

"You'd better not still be serious."

After disposing of the last of the webbing, Even patted Odd on the shoulder. "Don't worry. I still have years more of training before I'm even close to being a hero. You'll have lots of time to get used to being a talking hamster."

Odd picked the plush panda off the floor and brandished it like a sword.

Even laughed as Odd chased her around the shop with the panda.

 

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ISBN: 9780358350385

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