Veera knew it was a mistake when they all stood for the first blessing.

Well, the whole process had felt ripe for a mistake—an application sent out with the wrong school name typed on every page, or a phone call answered, breathlessly, with the hopes of an acceptance, only to be met with the dull drone of a robocall.

From when she was in elementary school, every prickle, twitch, or change in the wind felt like it harbored ruin for Veera. 

Perhaps she had known when she had felt that twinge in her back, looking over the glossy brochure that promised intensive classes in the classic magical arts and shadowy gifts (students linking milk-pale arms tattooed with Sanskrit words that might have meant strong or proud or witch but also could mean foolish or cow or garlic) and a two-week residency in old Paris (where some of her cousins on one side might not be able to wear a scarf around their head and friends could not find the right meat blessed by a rabbi’s words). 

But she was trying to be better.

Her mother made her promise to be better.

“You wanted to attend a magical conservatory,” she’d lectured through thinning lips right at the end of the summer before Veera left home, fingers fierce as they dragged oil through Veera’s unbraided hair. Veera bit down on her lip hard, and pressed her hands against her sour stomach. Her mother’s words jostled there alongside undigested food, alongside the continual shudders and shifts in muscle that could be normal, but also could be food poisoning, could be endometriosis, could be a disaster, a nightmare, a fatal flaw…

“Now, you’ve heard back from the biggest one. The best one. If you have to do this, it should be the best, right?”

There was a firm pat on Veera’s shoulder, like always. Her mother would tighten her lips and give that solid, bracing tap whenever Veera was on the cusp of a decision: I support you, as long as you’re going for the best. 

Veera always listened. She always went for the biggest, the best—the scholarships that promised high competition rates, the teams that had the biggest accolades to offer on a transcript but also could lead to dislocated hips, twisted ankles, broken bones, ruin, wreckage, a body strewn across a hospital bed like the Icarus-beautiful fuselage of a destroyed jet plane.

Veera swallowed hard, tasted bile and blood. Her mother sighed and her hands paused on Veera’s shoulders.

“Beta, you cannot live this way. Why must you always be so afraid? I won’t always be there to reassure you when you need to hear it. Be better. Be better. Be better.”

The words pressed into Veera’s skin, slick and almond-scented, and slid down her spine.

She stood for the first blessing, choosing to be better, to not notice (with a usual souffle-collapse of her gut) that every other table held hands and looked around at everything with misty eyes and confidently jutting chins and (oh, there was the numbness to her fingertips) the low rise of mashed potatoes and pallid vegetables where everyone else had full plates—elegant meat rib-rinds and cold cuts gracing fresh bread—she could feel every word jabbing against her lower back.

Be better.

There wasn’t a brown face to be seen.

Be better.

See, the flags overhead in the dining hall? See, where yours—any of them, that you might claim by essence of your blood and being—are missing?

Be better.

“We are proud this year,” the dean said, clearing his throat as his eyes fell on Veera—and why did she choose a table near the front of the room, where they could all make their obligatory pilgrimage to lay hands on her shoulders and tell her how very glad they were she decided to attend (a new ache, to feel there when she was back in her too-cold, too-small room and her roommate politely asked her if she was born here or…)—“to have such a beautiful, diverse student body.”

All eyes turned to her. All faces formed polite smiles. All hands came together in a polite, resounding clap that echoed in her ears and kept time with the thrum in her back.

This was a mistake.

But now she was here.


* * *


“So how is it going?”

Veera was lying prone on her bed, hand against her stomach, phone beside her head. That was the best way to survive phone calls with anyone from back home. If she stood, she could feel the ceiling against her head, no matter that everything on campus seemed to reach up toward the unfathomable.

She was still dizzy and disoriented from adjusting to a new schedule—scratch that, a new life—but her trip to the library earlier had been the cherry on top of the cake. 

Going up a ladder in the conservatory library was an expedition, undertaken with sturdy sneakers and not heels, with your eyes upward toward the prize and not downward to destruction, decapacitation, demolishment. 

And then, there were all the rumors, floating about her head—as they had always been, except not, because now they were vocalized and blatant and harder to blink away.

“Two years ago, a senior broke her neck when she looked down. She lost her breath, and her balance.”

No one caught her, and she was a senior? Just imagine how it’ll be when it’s you. 

“Five years before that, someone stepped into the elevator and through the floor. They didn’t even have time to scream. They say the clean-up was awful, and the student who did the conjuration to present the illusion was arrested for murder.”

Are you willing to take the stairs?

“Sit too close to that window, and you’re a target.” 

For who?

“Does it matter?”

Be better. Be better. Be better. 

She thought calling her mother would help, but the familiar briskness of Ma’s tone—the unspoken expectations of good news, news that wasn’t a blurted out description of a downspiral—only tied her stomach up in more knots.

“So how is it going?” Her mother asked again. Veera took assessment of herself: all the bones yet to be broken, all the ligaments untorn. One difference since she left home: Veera’s chin was too familiar with the soft velvet of her neck. They brooded together, like two birds huddled on a branch. 

What could she possibly say? The contest poster hiding somewhere in a drawer? She wasn’t even entirely ready to talk to herself about that: about why it was shoved down under errant clothes and jumbled possessions. Why she had taken it to her room at all.

She couldn’t remember if she purposefully grabbed it off a bulletin board or was passed it by a well-meaning professor or it stuck to her lunch tray, or maybe another quiet loner seeking warmth and solidarity, as she exited the dining hall on an occasion where it felt right to at least go through the motions of eating.

Either way, the contest poster was there, dog-eared and blaring in garishly bright font, “Still unsure of your concentration? How about POTIONS?” 

Under that was a heavily pixelated screenshot of Alan Rickman as Severus Snape, along with several giddy clip art cauldrons—the type that went with middle-aged grandmother flyers, church bulletins, and library event banners. 

The text continued, “Perfect for undecided majors and circus hopefuls. There’s nothing like an exploding cauldron to make a BIG IMPRESSION.”

She’d already chosen a major, aided in the process by a student services advisor who leaned too close and smiled too widely, in a way that made her wonder if “third-world magic school transplant” was written across her forehead along with the winking unicorn a classmate had willed there one day as a “fun joke” because she didn’t smile that often.

It hadn’t made her feel like smiling at all.

“Now, honey,” the advisor said, making an admirable attempt to not look at her forehead, “I think you should go into Fire Craft. It’s just very you. And the greatest masters are … well, there, aren’t they?”


“India,” the advisor said, brightly, and then, eyes widening, “Or Pakistan. Iran? Oh, wait, wait…” She leaned in and squinted. “You do have a bit of Persian to your chin, yes? I had a friend from Afghanistan and she said…”

“Houston,” Veera said, and she took the papers from the flustered woman, nodding when she was told which office to return to. She went to her room and checked off Fire Craft and hated herself for even going through the motions.

Veera should have mentioned her talent for brewing. That was what got her into a magic conservatory in the first place: the tentative YouTube admission video where she demonstrated her ease with measuring out ingredients and didn’t even have to reach for a spoon, how delicately she could coax one necessary droplet out of a fidgety tube and tap out any assortment of fine powders without sneezing and ruining it all.

But she didn’t. So now, she didn’t want to talk about that with Ma either: the contest or the major.

Instead, Veera could tell her about raising her hand earlier. It was the one time all day Veera raised her head, and her hand, and the skin bristled down her throat with goosebumps. But she was trying to be better, be brave, live bigger and best, so her hand stayed in the air.

Another mistake. 

The professor didn’t see her at first. She was the type of professor Veera thought at first would be the right type to have: impeccably stitched and stuffed with a childhood of sneaking esoteric titles off Ivy League shelves, dissecting the prophecies of Nostradamus instead of Derrida, wearing the well-earned plumage of her doctorate with eyelet lace under aubergine sweater, cuffs folded back. 

Her office, which Veera crept past when in Flamel Hall, boasted a cardboard cut-out of Gandalf the Grey—on which she mockingly threw her faux-fur rimmed coat and wide brimmed hat—and posters from old Broadway plays, overflowing bookcases with heaving sides and titles sorted by, if rumor was to be believed, the taste of the crumbling ink rather than spine color or author surname.

Veera was an icon, a defiant equalizer of the conference room, for the few minutes she hopefully held her fingers up in the air. 

“And, of course, there are a great many institutions in the south of Spain due to the different schools of thought followed there … ah, yes.” The professor looked over her glasses—and the very moment made Veera’s stomach lurch, because it reminded her of magnifying glasses held over squirming ants, the wrong side of a cup lowering onto a spider still posed on tiptoe toward freedom. “Veera.”

“You’ve mentioned the institutions in Europe, and of course, here in North America,” Veera said, and she tried to make the words strung out as neatly as possible. The first day, the first class, she was worried that, like her parents always warned, her syllables tripped over one another in order to get out of her mouth. So she enunciated every word, stepping on them like stairs and not tripping, stumbling, breakneck, bruised.

“But what about the rest?”

The girl next to Veera smiled up at her tremulously. Veera was proud. Her heart settled down against her ribcage, where it should be. She’d done well. She’d been better. 

The professor blinked, tilted her head. Veera’s stomach burned.

“The rest?”

“India,” Veera blurted out. “Pakistan. Bangladesh. Well, all of South Asia, and Southeast Asia, and then East Asia too, and I would think that even if the Middle East is predominantly Muslim that…”

“Third-world magical schools do exist,” the professor said. Her teeth bit down cleanly around each word: third world. She did not give them the same reassuring pat her voice had given Paris, or Berlin, or Madrid. 

“There’s a great deal of superstition that muddies the waters there. Unfortunately, I doubt that any of them reach the level of quality to be considered a conservatory. You know what I mean, don’t you? We’ll just have to see what future years bring, particularly when we have talented students”—and here, a smile that made Veera’s throat tighten and her think of mold in the walls, undetected asthma, and all the eyes in the auditorium were most certainly on her now and the ceiling was descending like a restricting hand over her brow—“like you who may be able to bring back quality and new developments for their curriculum.”

Veera lowered her hand. She sat back in her seat. The girl beside her nudged her encouragingly, and Veera did her best to smile and nod and take back up her pen. But her stomach roiled. She thought of churning, muddy water, the areas of her ancestors that the professor diminished to grit and sludge and dirty brown.

How was it going?

It was a mistake.

But she couldn’t say that. Not to her mother. 

“It’s fine,” she said tightly. “I’ve learned a little bit.”

And eaten even less, in case of E. coli, salmonella, spit, no salt, no spice. The food was as bland as the conversations that kept people like her out of the institution’s storied history, placing them as a footnote in the here and now. There was nothing to chew down on, even as that always reminded her of what it meant to choke, asphyxiate, expire, and soon, that meant no motivation to sit in the dining hall at all.

“It’s fine,” Veera said again, and tried to mean it.

It would have to be. And she would make it fine.

She would be better.

Because the contest would help. 


* * *


The contest flyer was still buried under the paraphernalia of several weeks away from home: notebooks and dirty tissues and half-screwed liquid lipstick tubes that but for the grace of God had not splattered onto rental texts and a classmate’s borrowed dreamcatcher (accidentally on purpose, if Veera was honest, because the sight of it with its drooping fifteen-dollar tag made her stomach lurch, but saying the words “cultural appropriation” felt like ostracization, becoming a pariah, falling from grace).

She smoothed it out over her sheets and considered it again. She closed her eyes and tried to remember that spark she had at home when she stood over a stove and a wide-mouthed pot, that warmth, that smooth gliding of her hands over a mug with a strainer in hand and a spoon laid on the pristine white counter.

In the background, her dadi’s voice, a low hum as reassuring as the stove’s burners: 

Just a spoonful, there, beta, yes…

And now, at the right moment, you add the cardamom.

Veera opened her eyes, heart aching, stomach roiling, and rushed to the bathroom to cough up her unspiced dinner.

Even the thought of food was betraying her. How could she possibly fool herself into thinking she was meant for potions?

She put the poster aside after she patted off her sweaty face.

She wouldn’t make a mistake like that again.


* * *


It didn’t work.

The poster wouldn’t seem to hide in the bottom of her desk drawer, where she wanted it to stay. Veera found it poking out of her notebook on European Magic Origins and plastered to the cover of her Fire Breathing: The Delicate Art textbook. 

“Freaking magic school,” she muttered, crushing it down deeper into her tote. It couldn’t leave her alone. It was eerily familiar in a way, reminding her of how her mother snuck articles on financing a magical education into her book bag in the morning and cleared her throat before launching into a prolonged lecture about the intricacies of brown bodies inhabiting liminal spaces.

Whatever that meant.

This creepy stalker magic the poster had wasn’t so deeply loving, though. It almost felt taunting, just like the bowl of oatmeal that stubbornly appeared at her elbow so that she had to stare straight ahead and breathe through her mouth to shove down the inevitable nausea. It wasn’t what she needed.

It wasn’t going to work.

Even if she took up a spoon and forced that lumpy gray mess between her cheeks, it would just come back up.

The potion would probably just curdle her guts and blow up in her face.

What was the point?

And yet, one night near the end of the first quarter, she found herself drawn down. 

It was the poster. That was all there was to it. It was the poster that was somehow making her feet seek out the empty potions lab, take down an empty cauldron and start mashing, idly, the plants listed in the spare threadbare textbooks: fern seeds and mugwort and one or two boring black seeds from jars that boasted them as imports harvested from Irish fairy rings and thick German forests.

None of it smelled right.

Everything sent her hands flying to her stomach, curling her spine over, willing her body to keep something, anything, inside where it belonged.

Regular classes weren’t much better. The Fire concentration seemed less focused on cultivating your own flame and more on making sure the classmate next to you could handle theirs. Veera found herself nodding, smiling as wide as she could manage until her cheeks ached, reaching out quickly to guide her own spark into someone else’s quavering hands. 

“You’re good at this,” her professor said with an approving nod, but Veera wasn’t so sure. How could this be right when it drained her so profoundly?

Her mother was wrong.

Her nerves were right.

She didn’t belong here. She couldn’t hold on.

But she still crept into the lab, again and again every night. And sometimes, in the afternoons. She was daring too much by being so recognizable and skipping a class or two—even if it felt like just one or two—she knew that. Not just her grades, but her reputation in future academic sorcery circles could be called into question. It wasn’t as though it was enjoyable either, having to deal with a queasy stomach for hours afterward that wouldn’t approve of anything heavier than a carefully sucked ice cube.

But that poster was still haunting her dreams and every corner of her room that it could sneak itself into, and so she ended up in the lab one morning, scraping down the sides of a cauldron.

“Veera?” A voice came from behind her. “From Intro to Ignition?”

Veera turned, and tried to smile. It was one of her classmates, and she couldn’t place her name, but she could place the look on her face: condescending, overly sweet, ready to gently guide her to where she was supposed to be.

“Oh. Hey.”

“What are you doing here?”

“Trying to make something work, but it’s…” Veera gestured to the mess in the cauldron and laughed again, weakly. “Not really happening, I think?”

“Yeah, I can see that,” the girl said, and gave her that careful look up and down. “Hey, you okay? I know that … well, you’re new here, right, and I don’t know if your family … well, if anyone has been somewhere like this before.”

“I’m the only magical user, yeah,” Veera started, and the girl laughed and waved her hands quickly.

“No, I mean … like, higher education in general.”

The words punched Veera in the stomach. She could blink at the girl, entirely awestruck.

“You know, how … like, I guess, you’re supposed to behave on a campus and stuff like that? It can be hard to adjust to. So, if you need help finding your classes or you just want to play around with potions equipment, I’m happy to help.”

There was no shame in being the first on a campus. Veera knew that, knew what it meant to her aunts to see her packing her suitcases and buying a pennant to place on her bedroom wall in the last few days of the summer. She knew that behind all the clucking of tongues and shaking heads, there was pride. There was honor.

But the way this girl said it? The way she looked at the mess glopping off Veera’s scraper onto the counter? 

It hurt. It stung. It made Veera feel sick.

And before she could open her mouth, her hand was rising up to clamp against it. Without so much as a rushed out “Excuse me,” she ran for the sink.

Behind her, she could hear the girl’s flustered “Oh!” and a clumsy dash for the paper towels or a water bottle, but she couldn’t care.

This sucked. All of it sucked. 

And it only got worse when she got back to her room and found an envelope slipped under the door.

“In reference to your scholarship,” it read primly, and then, in her head professor’s block letters, “See me during breakfast.” 

Of course, that wasn’t possible. She’d missed that, and probably her last chance to argue her case in any way. 

She was going home.

And it didn’t even matter.

She hadn’t been better.

She hadn’t been stronger.

She’d just been sick to her stomach and sucked dry of her spark. 


* * *


The next morning, Veera dragged herself out of bed way past breakfast.

She sent a message through a sympathetic-looking suitemate to her head professor.

“Sick. Can I speak to you tomorrow?”

The response came back, terse and tight: “This evening. Look forward to it.”

She laid back and hugged a pillow to her chest and tried to rehearse what she’d say, how she’d explain all of this to her parents.

“The food was bad.”

“The halls were drafty.”

I couldn’t do it.

I couldn’t hold up.

I failed.

“Um, hey, knock, knock.”

Veera sat up, eyes widening. A sweet-faced girl was standing in her doorway, shuffling from side to side, holding a package in her hands. Her face seemed familiar—perhaps on the other side of one of the many crowded classrooms Veera shuffled in and out of all day—yes, likely on the far side of Introductory Arithmancy. Veera could remember sitting behind her innocuously muted laptop, playing reruns of popular crime procedurals while the girl nodded along to the lecture and messaged friends. In class, her high ponytail blocked out any view of her face. Now, her hair tumbled down in wild, sweetly bobbing curls, and an owl was perched on her shoulder.

And she was brown. 

“Hi. Uh, are you looking for me?”

“This came for you in the mailroom. I couldn’t find you in the dining hall, and well, I wanted to introduce myself. We’re in Introductory Spells together, but every time I work my way over, it seems like you’re already out the door. I’m Keira.”

“Hi,” Veera repeated, and then realized she sounded ridiculous. “Thanks. Um.”

She shifted back on the bed and Keira sat down shyly, tucking a curl behind her ear.

“Um. You don’t have to open that in front of me. I just wanted to say hi and let you know I’m here. I know it can be very … hard to adjust here.”

Veera started. “What?”

“You know, not really having a lot of people who get what it’s like to talk with a professor and have them say, ‘I didn’t expect you to know so much about magical theory!’ or ‘Does Africa have an understanding of Merlin’s original theorems?’ I mean, seriously.” 

Keira shook her head. 

“It sucks,” Veera said, her heart suddenly becoming lighter. “And don’t worry, I don’t mind you being here. I think it’s from my mom.”

Keira sat down eagerly, leaning forward as Veera tugged apart the package.

It fell open in her lap.

There was no note, and Veera stared down at what rested there, trying to figure out what was in the little Ziploc bags.

And then, when it settled in, her eyes prickled with tears.

“What is this?” Keira opened a bag and sniffed. Her eyes fell closed and she hummed happily. “Cinnamon.” She reached out and Veera handed her another. “A little nutmeg? Is this … some ginger?”

And then, the last and important bag.

Veera and Keira said it together, “And here’s the cardamom.”

Keira laughed. “You already know what all of this is?”

“It’s chai,” Veera said thickly. “My grandmother’s chai. We’re going to make that now. And then, we’re going to talk about what it’s like to adjust here.”

Keira smiled gently at her. “I’d like that.”

They sat together and Veera sipped slowly as Keira told her about the sports teams and the tricks to studying for finals. Her stomach churned a little.

But she wasn’t sick.

She was doing better. Being able to talk to someone like this wasn’t exactly the goal her parents would want to hear about—“Hey, Ma, I can actually hold a conversation again without my heart in my throat!”—but it was what she needed to know that she would be okay.

And she had a new friend.

This was better.


* * *


Even after her conversation with Keira, it took Veera a few hours of pacing to work up her courage and face the head professor. 

Her palms were still sweaty, and her fingers still tingled. But as she took the staircase, letting her hand rest against the railing and settle into the worn grooves of every student that walked the same path before her, her stomach held steady.

This was better. She didn’t have to feel okay all the time, but she was sure enough to face this. 

“You wanted to see me, Professor? I’m sorry, I know you sent that note yesterday.”

The head professor looked up, her brows furrowed.

“Ah, Veera. No problem at all. Sit down.”

Veera sat down, carefully balancing the cup between her hands. Her stomach was swirling, but for the first time in days, it was with excitement instead of nerves.

This wasn’t a mistake.

No matter what happened now, this couldn’t be a mistake.

“I’ve been concerned about you, Veera,” the professor said carefully, setting aside her glasses and leaning forward. “Some of the other faculty have noticed that you aren’t eating properly. Have you been ill?”

“A little, but I’m doing better.”

“That’s good to hear.” She seemed like she was going to say more, and then her eyes narrowed. She took a loud sniff. “What is that smell? It’s wonderful.”

“Oh!” Veera said, fumbling with the cup in her hands. “Since I’m here, I wanted to show you something and see what you thought.”

She set it on the desk between them and removed the cap from the cup’s ceramic lip. It was the ordinary type of lidded coffee cup you could find in any Barnes and Noble’s—nothing at all magical about the cheery poppies painted on the side, or the spoon protruding from it. But when she leaned forward and gave it a stir, the warm brown liquid within lifted in a fragrant cloud that seemed to reach out fingers and clasp her cheek.

It was comforting. It was warm. 

It was perfect. It had to be.

“I wanted to talk to you about … Fire Casting.” Veera kept her sentences short and her eyes level. She could get through this. She had mouthed every word in advance to her bathroom mirror, taking comfort in how her reflection kept a placid smile through the whole narration. “It was recommended as something I might be good at when I first got here. But, now that I’ve been able to try other things, I’m not so sure.”

The head professor leaned forward and stared down at the contents of the cup. She looked back up, eyebrows raised.

“And what is this, exactly, and what does it have to do with your uncertainty about Fire Casting?”

Veera knew very well. 

It had taken an entire late night with Keira to get all the measurements right, starting with the carefully steeped remains of their first cup of chai together as friends and finishing with a giggly venture out into the dark to collect a heaping handful of the peat they claimed in advance as their spot during the Gardening Club meeting they vowed to attend this week.

It wasn’t perfect, like the bad nights and the days when she woke up late for breakfast and the wrong smell hit her stomach where it hurt.

It wasn’t perfect, like how—even with the ice broken—the conversation last night between her and Keira often tapered off into awkward pauses, lapses where they both ran out of words and couldn’t quite make their eyes meet for a moment or two.

But it was close to what she needed.

Just like this budding friendship, just like this meeting in the professor’s cozy office that she might replay in her head later on in the evening and wince remembering her clumsy tongue and shaking hands, it was what was needed in this moment. 

“Cinnamon, ginger, a little black pepper,” she recited. “A homesick tear and a hopeful smile. Stirred three times clockwise, and every family member’s name whispered over it for good measure.”

“That all sounds fascinating,” the head professor said. “A potion for reassurance, I assume?”

“Even better,” Veera smiled. “A potion for grounding.”

For belonging.

For doing better.

“I still smell something else,” her professor murmured, staring at the cup thoughtfully. “But I can’t quite place it. That’s good,” she added hastily when Veera’s face must have visibly fallen. “It means you chose past the beginner’s favorites on the potions shelf. You thought hard about this, and I do admire that, Veera. If this is intended for the potions contest—which I expect is where you’re leading this conversation toward—I think the master is going to find it easier to pick a new apprentice than she thought.”

Veera’s heart pounded in her ears. “So … you think I can do it?”

The head professor didn’t quite smile, but there was something about her eyes that became very kind and made Veera’s throat ache. 

“Veera, I think you absolutely can.”

She leaned back in over the cup and took another deep sniff, her eyes fluttering closed.

“But … what is that scent? It’s wonderful.”

“That’s the most important part,” Veera said, and leaned over to take a deep inhalation herself of the scent of warmth, confidence, home. 

“It’s the cardamom.”

{ Edited by Alexa Wejko. }