Amber and co. are back! Sorry for the delay; it was longer than I anticipated. Now on to the fun magic school and mayhem part!
Despite her determination, Amber had no time for any personal quests the next day. She woke up in a panic in an unfamiliar bed, heart pounding, knowing immediately that she was late.
She half-fell out of bed, wrestled her way out of the sheets that had twisted around her like some serpentine monster, snatched up some clothes, and sprinted to the bathroom. When she turned on the faucet to brush her teeth, a jet of cold water sprayed in the face. She was sure she heard a tiny giggle and caught a flutter of movement from the corner of her eye.
Breakfast was over by the time she found her way to the dining hall. The room was empty save for a boy about eleven or twelve years old desultorily wiping the scarred tabletops with a damp rag. His features were Serepentine, but his skin a warm light brown and his eyes a dark blue. Amber hopefully made for the sideboard, but all that remained in the lone bread basket was a hard whole-grain bun, studded with every seed and dried fruit under the sun, a combination that not many people were excited about.
Amber took it because there was nothing else, and last night’s soggy dessert was long digested. Her stomach rumbled.
“Where is everyone?” she asked the boy.
He shrugged. “Probably at the Training Grounds. That’s where everyone starts their day. Unless they’re stuck on kitchen duty.” His tone was disgusted.
A foreboding feeling settled over Amber. “Am I supposed to be there?”
“Probably.” The boy gave her a cheeky grin. “If you’d been at your welcome dinner last night, they’d have told you.”
“Don’t start,” groaned Amber. She thrust the bun into her jacket pocket and sprinted for the training fields.
She found herself grateful to Lisette for showing them to her so thoroughly the previous day.
Half-an-hour later, Amber wondered why she’d been in such a hurry to get there. Luckily, the Master in charge—it was Jex—had dismissed her stammering apologies and waved her over the side for warmups.
It didn’t take long for her to discover that her age-mates outclassed her on all levels.
The aerial sparring and boulder weight-lifting exercises were her first clue. When it became apparent she had no clue what to do with a practice sword in her hand, Jex sent her off to train with the younger students in an adjacent field.
Well, thought Amber as she walked away, trying not to shuffle her feet in combined embarrassment and reluctance. This is a combat magic school after all.
The younger mages looked to be no older than fourteen, except for Ainsley. The blond gave Amber a big grin when she joined their group.
“Don’t worry,” Ainsley whispered. “We do have several support mages. There are more of us delicate types around than you might expect of a combat school.”
“Listen up!” yelled Mistress Blunkett (she had emphasized the Mistress), a large woman with frizzy hair and a whistle around her neck who reminded Amber forcibly of the sports mistress at her prep school. “Get your sparring partners, and remember it doesn’t matter who wins as long as everyone tries their best!”
Same loud voice, same unhealthy enthusiasm for exercise, same rallying cry—yep, some things never change.
Amber looked at the group of youngsters. They all looked like they could wipe the floor with her. Especially disturbing were the boy with a maniacal gleam in his eyes and electric sizzle emanating from his skin and a blank-faced girl with rocks orbiting alarmingly fast around her.
She seized Ainsley by the hand before anyone else could claim the paper mage. “Will you be my partner? Please?!”
“Sure, I will.” Ainsley squeezed Amber’s hand with equal fervor. “I don’t feel like getting destroyed today. We’ll be wimpy together.”
The two squared off.
“Ready!” shouted Mistress Blunkett.
Ainsley tossed handfuls of paper birds into the air.
Amber twitched threads into a shield before her, then reached out for the pattern around Ainsley’s feet. Sorry, but I do have to try my best. It worked with Needle Guy, after all.
It was over in less than a minute. Amber lay on the ground, paper birds fluttering over her head. Ainsley knelt beside her.
“I’m so sorry, Amber! I’ve never defeated anyone with my birds before. I didn’t think they could take you out like that.”
“Haven’t you ever heard of death by a thousand paper cuts?” Amber sat up. “It’s all right. They didn’t push me down. I tripped on a stupid rock and fell over.” A blue bird with a gold floral pattern landed on her shoulder and snuggled into the crook of her neck.
All around them, one-on-one battles continued to rage in whips of air, lashes of water, and magic-fueled punches and kicks.
Mistress Blunkett hurried up and gave Amber a quick once-over. “No blood, no broken bones,” she announced. “Did you hit your head anywhere?”
“Anything else hurt?”
Only my pride. “Not much.”
Mistress Blunkett gave a brisk nod. “Even so, you’d better sit out for a little while.” She tilted her head, looking at Amber out of bright black eyes. She seemed about to say something, then changed her mind with a shake of her head.
So much for impressing her, thought Amber gloomily. She rose to her feet, Ainsley holding her arm for balance.
The paper mage glanced over Amber’s shoulder. Her eyes widened. “Look, it’s Master Cinbar.”
Almost at the same time, all the trainees stopped what they were doing and turned to stare at the tall man coming towards them, his long coat flapping in the wind.
Ainsley whispered, “They say he’s the best swordsman in the Serepentine Isles. Everyone fights to attract his notice, but he takes on only a few advanced students at a time. Troi’s one of them.”
Well, he’s certainly not here for me. Amber could feel the force of the man’s personality like the intensity of sun on desert sand. Besides, he looked distinctly irate. Those startling blue eyes in his dark face were fairly snapping.
Master Cinbar stopped and gave a courteous nod of the head to Mistress Blunkett. “Apologies for interrupting your lesson, Mistress Blunkett, but I believe my student has accidentally strayed into your class.”
His stern gaze swept over the students and stopped at Amber. “Miss Shelburne.”
Amber straightened. “Um, yes? Sir?” Now everyone was looking from Master Cinbar to Amber and back again, in synchronized head-turning. It was creepy.
“You’re supposed to be in a training session with me right now.”
“I-I am?” Amber stuttered stupidly.
Master Cinbar looked at her silently for a long moment. Amber wilted.
“Don’t be late tomorrow.” He turned and strode away. The wind caught his coat and blew it back, revealing a sheathed long sword at his waist.
Everyone breathed, as if released from a spell. Mistress Blunkett gestured for her pupils to resume. She glanced at Amber and, once again, gave that tiny shake of her head.
“Breathe, Amber.” Ainsley rubbed Amber’s hands.
“That—look! Is that how he fells his opponents? By glaring them to death?” Amber shuddered. “I feel for his wife.”
Ainsley laughed as she helped Amber up. “Considering that his wife is Master Zoya, I think you can stop feeling sorry for her. She can take care of herself.”
“They’re a well-matched couple, then.” Amber hobbled off the sparring arena. “What could Master Cinbar want with me?”
“He probably wants to evaluate you.”
“Well, if he’d come only a few minutes earlier, he’d have had his chance.” Amber rubbed her hip. “Ow.”
Author’s Note: Poor Amber. Not the most promising of starts, but of course, we can’t expect things to be too easy for her, right? But settling into Heartwood is not the only thing Amber has to worry about. Coming up in future episodes: air ninjas!