Somehow, it was easy to tell her story to Master Zoya. Not just about what happened after she’d meet Waleem (was it only last night?), but about how she wanted to be a mage, the training she’d received, the license exam she hadn’t passed, how she’d determined to travel and find a way to make a living as a mage. Zoya listened, asking for clarification once or twice, but mostly in sympathetic silence.
Finally, Zoya sat back. “I owe you an explanation or two, as well. Last night, we conducted operations on a number of locations in Hopeswell known to contain smuggled magical items. It’s a problem that’s been growing for a while, and I can tell you—without naming names—that we had the approval, or at least the forbearance, of a number of people in positions of power. That one of the leaders of this smuggling operation picked last night to test your powers was a coincidence.”
She smiled. “You have my personal thanks, though, for recovering the pipe. It belonged to my uncle, a truly good man, and it means a lot to have it recovered. If you hadn’t been holding on to, it’s quite likely it would’ve been destroyed in the raid.”
Both exchanged knowing glances. Kael.
“Then I’m glad at least one good thing came out of my misadventure,” said Amber. She glanced at the screened window and wondered, When are they going to let me off? Shall I return to Hopeswell to get my things? Or should I keep running?
“Is it too much to ask that you captured the leader of the smugglers?” asked Amber.
“Alas, no. He—or she—is nowhere in Hopeswell. We’ve put a wrench in their operations, but they’ll recover from it.”
“If I lie low for a few months, they’ll probably forget about me,” said Amber, hopefully.
Zoya leaned forward. “With your abilities? I think not. You don’t seem to understand just how rare your gift is, Amber.”
Amber squirmed. “Well, I can’t really do too much… and it’s rather limited… and, well, you know just how helpless I was against those two goons earlier…”
“For someone with your lack of training, you did marvelously well. Forgive me, but it seems that the extent of your magical education is two years of elective study at a small-town all-girls’ school and a year’s apprenticeship with a middling runic mage who probably had no idea of your abilities.”
Amber felt even more uncomfortable under the woman’s piercing gaze. Put like that, yeah, her plan to work as a mage looked uncommonly stupid. “Master Ruby wasn’t so bad. She did her best to work with my odd abilities.” And then she retired and went to live in Pangyria near her grandchildren.
“You should be working with some real masters.” Zoya looked as if she were assessing her. “You’ve no doubt noticed the number of young people on this mission.”
“They’re hard to miss.”
“I’m associated with a school up north, on the coast, in the commonwealth of Caradia. We train youngsters with all kinds of unique abilities and many of them—most of them—continue to stay on and work with us. No, I see that you’re thinking of classroom lectures and uniforms and rules—you’re too old for that sort of nonsense, and you won’t find it at Heartwood. What you’d be doing is training with Masters and your peers, taking on small jobs, learning and working.”
“With Kael and Troi and Lisette?” Somehow the thought doesn’t appeal.
Zoya raised her eyebrows. “Has Kael managed to put you off already?”
“Oh, Kael’s all right.” I mean, besides saving my life a couple of times and being absolutely stuffed with power. “But—“ Amber stopped. “Never mind.”
Zoya was amused. “Usually Troi’s our star attraction for the girls. Not this time, I see.” She paused, again looking as if she were evaluating Amber. “Tell me what you see when you look at me with your mage sight.”
Zoya responded with a regal gesture that clearly meant Go on.
“I…” The woman was serious. Amber shut her lips on the protests lining up behind them and complied with Master Zoya’s odd request.
The woman sat with an easy grace, not at all discomfited as Amber examined her. Zoya was so thoroughly shielded that Amber only noticed the slight distortion of the pattern lines around her because she was looking for it. Unlike Kael and Troi and Lisette who leaked power, Zoya was so tightly-controlled, Amber couldn’t even make out her suns at this close distance.
No, that wasn’t it. Amber looked again, looked deeper. There were suns within the woman, buried deep and close to her core, dense and black, with a pull so powerful, Amber was surprised the woman’s own pattern wasn’t subsumed within them. And, maybe, something else…?
“Well?” asked Zoya.
“I see your suns,” Amber blurted out, “obsidian and perfectly round. Smooth-shelled, not pulsating. Nine of them.”
Zoya nodded, as if she had expected it. “Anything else?”
Amber could barely make out the woman’s pattern in the dark light of those amazing centers of power. “I… I’m sorry, nothing besides lines of silver and grey.”
“Don’t be. You already see more than others.” Zoya got up and rested her hand on the back of her seat. “You don’t need to make a decision right now, but since you are on a train heading into Caradia, at least give Heartwood a look. If it doesn’t suit, there are some schools in the Serepentine Isles or maybe Pearlsong in Ravin—you are Ravinian, yes?” She frowned, thinking. “I do have some influence there.”
Amber flushed, feeling like a fraud. She wasn’t that good, no matter what Master Zoya believed. “Ma’am, thank you, but, really… I even failed my license exam.”
“I’m not surprised, young lady,” said Zoya sternly. “Standardized tests are beyond useless and the interview process a joke in most countries. Without a good school backing you, your chances are very limited. Now stop putting yourself down and go get some food in the dinner car.”
“Um, yes, ma’am.”
Zoya said, “I mean it. Heartwood is full of brash young mages happy to take anyone down a notch or two. You have to stand up for yourself.”
With that, she left.
Right. A school full of super-powerful sun mages with massive egos. That sounds like my kind of place—not.
Author’s Note: Zoya rocks. That is all.