Amber came to herself very slowly. As her awareness spread throughout her body, she began counting her various pains.
Every part of her ached. Even muscles she didn’t know existed ached. And was it really possible for bones to be tired? And what was that stinging her skin?
And what was she lying on? Something hard and narrow and uncomfortable. It bounced gently along, occasionally jolting, accompanied by a symphony of rattles, squeaks, and hisses.
Oh. A train.
A door crashed open, the sound reverberating through Amber’s skull. An irritable voice demanded, “Why do I have to babysit Miss Sour Prunes? It’s not like she’s going anywhere—nor is anyone fool enough to attack us.”
A deep answered. “Because Master Zoya asked, Lisette. And don’t be too hard on the girl. She’s had a rough day. Besides, Kael likes her.”
“Oh, so now we’re taking Kael’s advice, are we? Well, I think she’s a whey-faced, wimpy—”
Amber unglued her eyelids and gingerly sat up. “Nice to see you too, again, Lisette.”
Lisette, still in her leather-and-metal-armor, wings folded back, loomed over Amber. She’d taken her helmet and mask off, revealing a black hair tied back into a ponytail. Her blue-eyed look was distinctly icy. “So you’re awake. Great, I can tell Master Zoya, and get off babysitting duty.”
She stormed off. Her companion—Jex, from the basement bar—gave Amber a comforting sort of smile. “Don’t mind her.”
“Because she’s like this with everyone?” Amber blinked, trying to get the world to stay still but it insisted on swirling around her in smears of red, gold, and black.
“She hates change. Give it time.”
No thanks. I’m not going to be around long enough for Lisette to get used to me. I hope. Amber changed the subject. “How’d I get here?”
“Kael,” said Jex, as if that explained everything.
“Oh.” That makes three violations of my personal space in one day. Perhaps I should be glad I was unconscious for that last one. “I should thank him.” Maybe sitting up hadn’t been the best idea. She was getting dizzy and her stomach felt really queasy.
Jex crouched so his eyes were level with Amber’s. “You still don’t look so good. How do you feel?”
“Awful,” moaned Amber. “And-and I’m really afraid I’m going to throw up. As in, right now.”
Jex was very kind about it, even holding a handy bucket for her, though the whole ordeal left her wrung out as well as extremely embarrassed. He waved aside her stammered thanks with, “Just thank the Sustainer it wasn’t Lisette holding the bucket,” and left the compartment.
Oh, Maker, yes. I’d have rather died, I think.
Amber made her shaky way to a tiny washroom at the end of car. After she’d splashed her face and rinsed her mouth, she felt more like a human and less like limp, days-old laundry. When she got back to her seat, she found blankets, a carafe of water, and a plateful of biscuits waiting for her. Jex had even provided her with some woolen slippers—they looked about three sizes too big.
Well, that’s thoughtful. I hadn’t expected it of them. Amber frowned as another thought occurred to her. What had she expected? A prison car and shackles, for one thing. A bare ladleful of water a day and hard bread that chipped her teeth when she bit into it. Hordes of faceless, nameless sun-mage-soldiers speaking in monotonous voices.
Not a bunch of—well, youths, like herself.
Amber snuggled with a blue blanket and curled her feet under her. Who knows? This might be their way of winning me over to their side. I probably shouldn’t let my guard down. Though that’s hard to do when one is wearing a fuzzy blanket with a yellow duck embroidered at the corner.
The compartment door slid quietly open and shut. Amber felt the woman’s presence and stiffened.
Master Zoya walked over and leaned against the row of seats facing Amber. “May I sit?” she asked, pleasantly enough.
“It’s your train,” said Amber. Then, realizing her rudeness, hurried to add, “but I do thank you for coming. I realize you must have questions.”
“As do you, I expect.” The woman sat down, her movements neat and efficient, her back straight and one leg over the other. She still wore the Serepentine-style uniform, with a high-collared black tunic and red cloth buttons. Her wide-legged trousers still had sharp creases. She and Amber regarded each other.
For her part, Amber saw a woman who looked neither young nor old, as if those distinctions didn’t apply to her. There was nothing in her outfit to imply power or wealth, but it was inherent in the way Master Zoya carried herself. Her features were clearly Serpentine, from her brown-black hair pulled into a tidy bun to her wide cheekbones and ivory complexion.
Her dark eyes looked tired.
“Before we start,” said Amber, “can we get one thing straight?”
Master Zoya inclined her head in assent.
“Forgive me, but you’re obviously a powerful Serepentine Isles ishara practitioner. So are at least some of your party, like Jex. Last I checked, most of your kind of mages had gone completely raving bonkers, which isn’t a good thing when you’re the ruling class, and been exiled from home—something all of the civilized world was in favor of.” Amber leaned forward, “I have to ask, which side are you on?”
The woman looked taken aback, as if Amber had just asked her if she wore her underwear outside her clothes or not. Then, slowly, impossibly, she smiled. A wide smile, the smile of a child almost. It transformed her entire face and Amber, dazzled by the change, could only think how charming the woman’s expression was.
“Ah, I was not expecting that.” The smile disappeared, but a wry laugher brightened Master Zoya’s eyes. “But, of course, I should’ve realized what you would think of a coterie of powerful ishara mages running around furtively so far from the Serepentine Isles. Yes, I should’ve guessed what you would think. No wonder you ran.
“But you see,” Master Zoya went on, gesturing at the compartment, “you have nothing to fear from us.”
She paused. Amber felt there was some right answer expected of her, but—what? And was Master Zoya just going to sit there, waiting for Amber to pull it out of the ether?
Amber glanced around the car, which gave her no clues. She slanted a narrow gaze at Master Zoya, at the insignia on her tunic, the round patch at her shoulder. The patch depicted a bright yellow five-clawed dragon with a round ball in its front claws.
No, not a ball, but the sun. This was a new insignia, one only a select few were allowed to wear, only what few remained of the ruling family…
Master Zoya… Zoya… A memory finally penetrated her foggy mind. Amber pressed back against the cushions. “You’re Lady Alizoya!”
Master Zoya—Alizoya—bowed her head in acknowledgment. “For my sins.”
“I-I’m so sorry… I didn’t…” Oh, how could I be such an idiot? She’s only the most famous ishara practitioner alive, a child prodigy, one of the ones who helped kick out her dysfunctional family and is cousin to the Dragon Lord himself! And I just accused her of being a smuggler and a rebel!
“I’m such a fool.” Amber hid her face in her hands.
Zoya chuckled. “And here I thought I was immune to pride by now. It appears I still need to learn humility. But we’re here to talk about you, Amber, not me. Sit up, child, and tell me how you came to be in that warehouse in Hopeswell.”
Amber put her hands down. “How’d you know my name?”
“Many people in Hopeswell were happy to talk about you, given the right incentive. You’re quite a popular young lady. Even an unpleasant fellow named Waleem opened up to us.”
“Indeed. Now, tell me.”
Author’s Note: Heartwood is an amalgamation of a number of ideas. Zoya is a character from a different set of stories that I folded into the world of Heartwood. I’m happy to have her appear here, even if she is a secondary character!
On another note, I apologize for missing last week. I’m scheduling the last two episodes of this particular arc for the next two weeks, then taking a break to go over the next arc which isn’t as coherent as I’d like.