Lisette dropped from the sky, her wings folding behind her back, into a fast-disbanding group of sun mages. “Good job, every–” She gaped at Amber sitting under an olive tree. “What are you still doing here?”
Amber blinked. “Waiting for a ride back?”
“You have to meet the Headmaster at noon! Did you forget already?” Idiot hung unspoken in the air. “Come on, up.” She dragged Amber up to her feet, whirled her around, and jumped onto her back.
“What the–?” Amber’s braid swirled. “Am I supposed to give you a piggyback ride? And what is with you people and personal space?”
“This is the fastest way.” Lisette wrapped her legs around Amber’s waist and stuck her arms under Amber’s.
Amber caught sight of Kael’s face, round-eyed and slack-jawed. “Help, Kael! Lisette’s gone crazy.” Metal snicked as Lisette’s wings opened and spread.
“Oh, man,” he said. “Lisette’s giving Amber a lift. You lucky thing!”
Air currents pushed them into the air. The ground receded at a rapid pace.
Amber, legs dangling, closed her eyes. “You hate me, don’t you. You’re going to drop me any moment and I’ll splatter on those rocks like an overripe melon.”
“Don’t be so melodramatic,” Lisette said in her ear. “Relax, will you. I’m strong.” She swooped and turned, curving toward Heartwood in the north. The ride was surprisingly quiet in spite of the speed. Amber focused on the patterns around Lisette and frowned. “You’re not just riding the air, are you? You’re–” Her eyes widened. “How can it be? You’re manipulating the light, too?”
“Huh. It took you about two seconds to figure that out. Maybe you aren’t half-bad as a mage, after all. Watch out, we’re landing. I’m letting you off here. Go see Ainsley—she’ll take you to the Headmaster’s office.”
They descended in tight spirals. Lisette slowed, but the courtyard still came up much too fast.
“Annnnnd, I’m off.” Lisette released her clutch on Amber, and sprang back up into the air.
Amber landed hard on her feet and staggered. She thought she heard Lisette snort, “Klutz,” but the sound was snatched away by the wind.
I think I prefer flight by cat-bird. Amber stood. Ouch, my poor body!
She staggered up to the doorway and fell through it into the lobby. Ainsley looked up from the desk, eyebrows raised.
“I’m here for my interview!” sang out Amber, gripping the doorway with one hand and smoothing her hair down with the other.
“Ooooh, Lisette just gave you a ride, didn’t she?” Ainsley turned faintly green. “I’m surprised you’re not throwing up. Whatever it is she does with the light—all those sparkles and flashes—it just makes me sick to my stomach.”
She looked at a timepiece on her desk and started up. Her chair hit the floor. “Oh, no! We have to get you at the Headmaster’s office right now.”
Paper birds flew in agitated circles as Ainsley grabbed Amber’s hand and towed her down several passageways. Amber recognized the library doors and the staircase to the armory as they rushed past.
Though… hadn’t they been in a different order earlier? Amber frowned as Ainsley led her past a row of narrow alcoves now used as storage spaces, then down yet another of the narrow staircases so beloved by the designers of Heartwood. A cold draft blew around Amber’s feet and shadows scattered as Ainsley snapped her fingers. Crystals set in the wall flared into jewel colors. Amber barely had time to notice their pattern—colors intermingled with a dark blot—before Ainsley stopped in front of a wooden door.
“In here.” Ainsley patted futilely at Amber’s tousled head and rubbed a smudge from her face. She smiled brightly, but her purple eyes were anxious. “You’ll be all right. Go on in.”
Wondering what kind of ogre she was about to meet, Amber pushed down the handle and entered the room.
Why does he keep it so dim in here? The door clicked shut behind and the sound seemed to come from a longer way away than it should.
It’s cold in here, and it smells rather musty. It feels like there’s a big space ahead of me, too, like some kind of cave.
Amber took a hesitant step forward into the grey twilight. “Hello? Headmaster? I’m here for my interview.”
Bars of warm sunlight slid into the room and slanted onto the wooden floor.
Wooden? Hadn’t the floor been stone just a few moments—
The room resolved itself into an untidy study, lined with bookshelves from wall to wall and floor to ceiling. A large desk piled with papers was squashed against one side. Squishy armchairs with worn leather upholstery and round tables covered in books jostled each other in the rest of the space.
A man turned from one of the shelves, book in hand.
“Ah. You must be Amberlin.” He smiled at her. He was a thickset man, not over tall, but muscular. His hair was a thatch, his eyebrows bushy, and his cheeks and chin were covered in dark stubble. He looked at her through sleepy, heavy-lidded eyes. “Here, look at this book. I think you’ll find it interesting.”
Amber automatically reached for the book. Her senses insisted that this room was cozy and charmingly male, just like Papa’s office back home, but the pattern nagged at her with wrongness.
Is this a test?
“Sir, I-” Her fingers curled around the book, but she was looking at Headmaster.
She stiffened. The makeup of his pattern… those suns! “Why, you’re—” Her eyes met his mild gaze.
Author’s Note: Curiouser and curiouser. The rooms at Heartwood don’t stay still and the Headmaster is… what? What has Amber gotten herself into?