To Amber’s surprise, Kael’s directions did, in fact, take her back to the corridor the Headmaster’s study was on.
Without any detours into damp underground caverns or battles with shadow monsters.
She didn’t make it as far as the Headmaster. Ainsley, eyebrows drawn together in concern, lurked in the corridor. She brightened when Amber appeared. “You made it!”
Amber noted with mixed feelings that the paper mage also looked relieved. “I suppose I did. The way out wasn’t as straightforward as it could’ve been.” She looked down at her mud-spattered, torn skirt.
“But the Headmaster approved you!” Ainsley beamed as if that was all that mattered. “Look!” She lifted Amber’s right hand. A complicated yellow rune glowed on the back of it.
“When did that happen?” Amber wondered, but Ainsley was running on like a bubbling brook.
“I’m so glad. I do like you.” Ainsley clasped Amber’s hand and did a little skip. “Though I shouldn’t be so surprised. Usually the applicants who end up not coming out of the Headmaster’s study are girls who fall instantly in love with Troi or people Kael dislikes on sight.”
“I didn’t come out of the study,” Amber pointed out. “Or at least not to here. Does everyone have to undergo some weird trial?”
“You’re right. You didn’t. That’s strange.” Ainsley cocked her head. “There is a test, of course, but it’s different for everyone. We don’t all have the same magic.”
“I see.” Are failed applicants still wandering around the underground caverns, or worse? Were their bones crunching under my feet down there? She shuddered.
Ainsley giggled. “It’s not what you’re thinking, silly. The failed interviewees wind up back at the train station or the docks, along with all their luggage. We don’t make them do the long trek back.”
Amber was not reassured. “And how would you know they end up at those places? It’s not like you can see them.”
Ainsley hesitated. “I haven’t personally seen it. But the students do test the system, you know. Last year, Troi sweet-talked this rich tourist girl into interviewing. She ended up back in her hotel room. Kael saw her after. Though”—Ainsley tapped her chin—“both Troi and Kael got into trouble for wasting the Headmaster’s time. Stable duty,” she added darkly.
“Oh.” Amber rubbed her fingers across the rune, magic tingling against her skin. I’m still not sure about this. What was that strange test back there?
It was not one of mine. The Headmaster’s voice was so close, it was as if he spoke in her ear.
Amber jumped, startled. Mindspeech?
What do you mean? Tentatively, she placed her palm atop the colored rune.
Your magic pointed you towards a creature in need; it was your character that responded to it, answered the Headmaster simply.
Even so… Amber hesitated.
Unusual magic leads to unusual situations. Magic is not a safe path; but this world isn’t safe either. Heartwood will prepare you, at least.
In the corridor, Ainsley chattered on, oblivious that her companion was no longer listening.
The Headmaster said:
Ask yourself: Do you wish to walk this path?
Amber was silent, thinking.
Then, she thought, Yes, I do, and removed one hand from the other.
She turned her attention to a complicated story about Kael and a herd of pigs that was just drawing to an end.
“Anyway.” Ainsley snapped her fingers, and a stack of cream-colored papers appeared in her hand. “Here’s your contract. Come into this room to sign it. Then we can celebrate tonight! The kitchen staff always outdo themselves when we get a new student.”
The room in question was small and quiet, smelling of wood and dust. Most of it was occupied by a large table ringed with chairs. Amber sat down on one and spread the contract out before her. It was huge, and dense with writing. The paper crackled with strong spells.
“Here’s the pen. Make changes with it, if you need to—Headmaster will respond right off, mostly–and then do a palm-sign right at the back.”
“This may take a while,” Amber warned. “This contract is huge!”
“I’ve never seen it take longer than half an hour to scan through,” Ainsley said. “Of course, most people just flip right to the end and sign.”
“Ainsley,” said Amber ominously, “please don’t tell me that you’re one of those people.”
“Well.” Ainsley smiled mischievously. “I did spend a lot of time in here with the contract, but I was mostly trying to figure out how the spells in the paper worked.”
Amber tugged her braid. “Argh! People! Really! You HAVE to read your contracts, especially ones with this many magical spells on it. Do you really want to end up promising your first-born child to the school without meaning to?”
“Oh, the Masters would never do anything like that.”
“Your faith in humanity is touching, yet very misguided. How do you think lawyers make their living?”
“I’ll be back for you in an hour.” Ainsley waved at Amber. “You’ll be done by then, I’m sure.”
Amber looked at the stack of paper in front of her. Don’t bet on it.
Author’s Note: Sometimes, it’s not so easy deciding where to break up the episodes. This week’s could easily have been about twice as long, but I opted for two smaller episodes over one long installment. Just from my experience, people reading online (either on the website or email) prefer shorter material with lots of white space. I could be wrong, though. Let me know which you like more: Two 800ish-word episodes or one 1600ish-word episode?