I’m going a off schedule to bring you the first episode of the Chrysalis Arc (name subject to change). After this, we’ll resume Thursday updates. Enjoy!
Amber emerged from the girls’ sleeping compartment and into a deserted and stationary train.
What? Where’d everyone go?
All the doors were open, letting in swathes of pale gold early morning light. A porter poked his head inside. “There you are, Miss. You’d better get off soon. This train’s going back to Hopeswell in an hour. I don’t think you want to return with it.”
“Heavens, no! Um, when did everyone leave?” Amber looked around. The other girls had been gone when she’d woken up, but she’d heard people moving around on the other side of the door. It hadn’t taken her that long to get ready, had it?
Maybe repacking my duffel wasn’t such a good idea after all… even if Kael did completely mess up my packing system!
“Got off at six, almost before the train stopped moving. Those Heartwood people.” The porter shook his head indulgently. “They’re a restless lot, they are. Can’t keep them still. There’s three of them waiting for you on the platform, but I’d hurry up, if I were you.”
“Thanks!” Amber swung her bag over her shoulder and stepped onto a small platform, clean and whitewashed. An early spring chill permeated the air, reminding her how far she’d traveled north in the night. Still, Amber closed her eyes and lifted her face towards the sun, reveling in its small warmth. Wonderful! This time yesterday I was tired and sleep-deprived and hunted, and today I’m—well, I don’t know what exactly I am but at least I’ve had my eight hours. Hello, world!
“I can’t believe how lazy she is. I can’t believe I’m stuck babysitting again.”
Lisette, Kael, and Troi stood—for varying definitions of stood—on the platform. Lisette had her hands on her hips and an exasperated look on her face. Troi lounged against a pillar and said nothing. Kael beamed and waved Amber over. He seemed to be the only one of the trio actually glad to see her.
One out of three isn’t so bad. And if people at Heartwood are like Lisette and Troi—or worse, it’ll make it that much easier to turn it down. If they even want me.
“Coming!” Amber hurried over to the three, duffel smacking her side with every step. “Sorry I’m late. I didn’t know we had to get off right away.”
She was talking to thin air. All three Heartwood mages were already headed for the exit. Lisette said over her shoulder, “Master Zoya wants me to show you the school, then deliver you to the Headmaster for evaluation at noon. If we hurry, we might actually be on time.”
I said I was sorry. Amber hastened after the others.
Carradia Station wasn’t overcrowded, but cheerfully busy. Even when they were rushing along to catch trains, people made eye contact and smiled as they passed. A food vendor handed Amber a free donut with, “You look right peaky, love. Can’t have you passing out on the streets. It won’t reflect well on us.” He winked.
The people here are so kind. Amber went under a stone arch and gasped. A flight of generous steps, gleaming white in the sun, spilled down onto a main street that would’ve done any city in Ravin proud. The buildings set back from the road were either brightly-painted or whitewashed, with shutters and doors in contrasting colors. Roof tiles gleamed red and gold.
And unlike Oaktown, this city had elbow room. Shops spread comfortably to either side, houses were surrounded by yards. Here and there, steepled chapels rose up from the rest, along with stone buildings that looked terribly official.
This place is wonderful. Amber had expected something small, clinging, and desperate, not this peaceful and prosperous town.
“Hurry up, slowpoke!” Her escort was already on the street.
Lisette set a fast pace through Carradia, delivering tour-guide information in short phrases. “Town hall. Library. Department of Monsters. Post office.” Her tone invited no questions, but Amber paid her only half her attention. She was too busy gawking at shop windows that displayed a mixture of fashions from all over the island nations; a Kaidan eatery located next to a Serepentine cookshop (and how many times a week do the police get called to those places?); a bookshop (here Amber brightened).
Carradian fashions ran to belled long-sleeved shirts and loose trousers or straight skirts, all embroidered. Amber glanced at the Heartwood mages—Troi seemed to amble, even at this pace, while Kael was bursting with energy as usual—and noticed that they all wore some combination of red and black.
Lisette had changed out of her battle armor and into a black shirt tucked into sleek black trousers. Stylized red embroidery covered the front of the shirt. Troi was in dark trousers, red coat, and crisp white shirt. His clothes looked as if they’d just come back from the cleaners. Kael didn’t look much different, except for the red scarf around his neck.
“Um.” Amber moved next to Lisette. “Are red and black the Heartwood colors? Is it a requirement to wear them?”
Lisette’s eyebrows snapped together. “Yes, those are our colors. You object?”
“I was only asking.”
Lisette unbent enough to say, “There’s no dress code at Heartwood for working mages. But we do like to show pride in our school by wearing its colors.”
Ah. Amber thought of her own wardrobe, dominated by blues and greens.
“The people here like and respect you a great deal,” she commented. She’d noticed the smiles and nods, the lifting of hats, the squeals of the children. Even minus the starry-eyed looks Troi received from young females, this kind of attention was unheard of in Oaktown.
“Well, of course.” Lisette sounded genuinely surprised. “After all, Heartwood protects this town, the surrounding farmland, and the traders on their routes. Isn’t it like that where you’re from?”
“Not really. My people get along very well without magic, for the most part. Our magic isn’t as impressive as yours, though. It’s mostly used for keeping moths out of clothes and wood from rotting in the salt air.”
“Well, those are important tasks, too,” said Lisette, more reasonably than Amber had expected. She shuddered. “But—if that’s all the magic I had to do, all day long, well… I’d stab a fork through my eyeballs, first!”
“Me, too,” said Amber, fervently. Could it be that we’re not so different after all, Lisette and I? Who’d have thought we’d have a normal conversation?
“Hey, Amber, pay attention!” Kael was far ahead of them, waiting at a curve in the street. “It’s just around this bend here!”
Troi was next to Amber. “Close your eyes. You don’t want to spoil your first glimpse of Heartwood.”
“Oh yes!” Lisette took Amber by the hand. “We’ll lead you. Troi, get her other hand.”
“You two do realize I’m a pattern mage, right? There’s no such thing as completely not-seeing for me.” But Amber obeyed, and, after some conflicting tugs on her arms, managed to be led down the road. Lisette fussed over rocks in the way, Troi’s fingers on her arm were cool and light, and Kael called, “Not yet, get her over here first.”
And all the while Amber’s pattern sight showed her marvel upon marvel ahead of her. Spells of all kinds; robust, multi-layered, a feast to her senses. Clusters of suns, shining in more hues and tints that Amber could ever remember encountering. Magic hummed in her ears and tingled electric across her skin.
“All right,” breathed Lisette. “Open up.”
Amber obediently lifted her face up, opened her eyes, and let out a long sigh. “Ohhhh.”
Author’s Note: Amber’s first glimpse of Heartwood Academy! A step forward into her new life?