Dinner that night was a subdued affair. A scanty contingent of Masters sat at the head table. Both Master Zoya and the Headmaster were missing. Rumor had it that they were in talks with the Torou staff. The wilder speculation was that said talks were actually duels. Amber rejected that notion entirely.
Some of the students who had been involved in scuffles that day were back, surrounded by peers eager for details. They were all fine; Flavius was the only one still in the infirmary. Kael reported that the boy was in magically-induced sleep and stable for now.
Troi had not reappeared.
“Imperators, that’s serious business.” Lisette stabbed her fork into a piece of chicken. “I don’t know how we’d do, going up against them.”
Kael nodded. “We’d have to give it our best shot, if they come for Troi.”
“Hold on, you two!” Amber shot them both a glare. “You really don’t think you’re going to spark off some kind of war with the elite forces of Kaidan, are you? Imperators are an internal matter. You could get Heartwood—maybe the whole township of Carradia—into serious hot water if you go picking a fight with them.”
“Yeah, we’d better let the Masters handle them,” said Lisette.
“Masters Zoya and Cinbar could probably take them on just fine.” Kael dug his spoon into his pudding and looked entirely too happy about the prospect.
“Kael.” Amber was having a hard time not rolling her eyes dramatically, Naia-style. “I’m sure they’ll look for a diplomatic solution first. And if they can’t find one—well, are they really going to put the entire school in jeopardy for one student?”
Both Kael and Lisette looked at her as if she’d grown two heads.
“What?” asked Amber, irritated. Sometimes Heartwood students acted as if they were the sane ones.
“If Heartwood doesn’t stand up for one of its own when it gets tough, then why are we all even here?” Lisette gestured around the room. “Look at us. We’re outcasts, misfits, orphans. We’re here because there’s no place for us in our own families, our own villages.” Her eyes were bright and her voice fierce. Kael put a hand on her arm. “No other magic school would take us, and any other place would only use and abuse us. Open your eyes, Amber.”
Lisette got up, blinking furiously. “Bathroom,” she announced. She hurried away, knocking against benches as she did so.
Amber turned to Kael and demanded, “What was that all about?”
“Bad memories.” Kael shrugged. “Sorry, Amber, it’s not my place to share Lisette’s story.”
“How about your own then?” Amber asked. “Are you one of those, then—an outcast or an orphan?”
“Eh.” Kael stretched and stood up. “You could say so, but it’s a matter of attitude, too, isn’t it? I don’t really see myself as either. Want me to get you some dessert? Chocolate cake okay?” Without waiting for an answer, he sauntered away to a sideboard groaning under a cornucopia of sweet foods.
He completely ducked my question! Now that Amber thought about it, she knew next to nothing about anyone’s past.
A door at the end of the hall opened, and Master Zoya swept in. In an instant, all eyes were on her. Conversation died immediately.
Master Zoya stood in front of the head table. Her face was tight, and her expression could only be described as fed-up.
You could’ve heard an ant crawling about in the silence that fell over the hall.
“If I can have your attention,” began Master Zoya unnecessarily. “No doubt everyone is aware of the altercations that have taken place between Heartwood and Torou students today. Those have now come to end. The staff of both schools are taking these incidents very seriously, and rest assured, appropriate punishment will be meted out. No one, and I repeat no one is to take matters into his or her own hands. Is that understood?”
Her gaze raked the room.
“Furthermore,” went on Master Zoya in that tight, brittle way, “I want everyone here to remember that we are guests in Carradia. Brawls between schools is distressing to the townspeople. When mages fight, ordinary people suffer. Don’t forget how much stronger you all are.”
Amber glanced around the room, uneasy. Every single mage here was stuffed full of magic. Their suns were strong and glowing. Even though they wore sober expressions, did they really understand how fragile normal people were?
And I’ve forgotten this as well, living among them, going off on hare-brained schemes. Amber shivered. Pattern mage or not, she wouldn’t survive a fall off a building the way a sun mage would. Her defensive magic required intentional spellwork, unlike the way a sun mage’s magic naturally protected his body.
Master Zoya exhaled. “Perhaps we have not made enough allowances for the competitive nature of you young mages.” Her expression became even more wooden. “The Principal of Torou has proposed—and the Headmaster has accepted—a friendly tournament between our two schools.”
What? Amber blinked. A surprised buzzing broke out in the hall.
Kael slipped into place next to Amber, sliding a plate loaded with chocolatey goodness in front of her. “She doesn’t look too happy about this, does she?” he said. “Eat up.”
“Why?” Amber whispered back. “Why’d the Masters agree to this hare-brained scheme?”
“To keep the peace, most likely. Torou Academy’s run by the Kaidan government—this could turn into a nasty international incident if it’s not defused. If Torou’s making a peace offering, best not to slap them in the face with it.”
Kael the diplomat? This was new. Amber was so busy being half-impressed that she missed Master Zoya naming the time and place of the tournament and most of the list of Heartwood participants.
“And the top division will be our journeyman mages against the Kaidan Whispering Winds,” Master Zoya went on. “Representing Heartwood are Kael, Lisette, and Troi.” Kael, busy stuffing his face, gave a quick wave of cheerful acknowledgment. Amber turned around and saw that both Lisette and Troi stood at the back of the hall, flanking the door. They wore identical expressions of grim determination.
Master Zoya’s gaze searched the room, found Amber. “And rounding out the team, for support, Amber.”
Amber jumped and squeaked. “Me?”
Kael turned to her with a grin. “Lucky break for you, Amber!”
Amber could only stare at Master Zoya. Has she lost her mind?
Zoya and Cinbar’s older son, the cheeky twelve-year-old Amber had first met in the breakfast hall, opened the door to her later that night. “Oh, it’s Amber. Here for some intensive weapons training? You’ll need it.”
Tai meant no harm—there was no malice in those laughing blue eyes—but Amber could’ve cheerfully throttled the kid. And she liked him even—he’d certainly livened up the Magical Ethics seminar Amber had taken with Mistress Blunkett. Apparently, he was the youngest student to take the class; given what she’d heard of his antics, he certainly needed it.
“Tai, are you being rude to your mother’s guest?” Master Cinbar emerged so suddenly and quietly from the gloom that both his son and his pupil jumped.
“Amber knows I’m only funning, Father,” said Tai. “Don’t you, Amber? You’re so lucky, though. Wish I was going, too.”
“Pass your Magical Ethics class first, and then we might consider you,” said his father. He tousled the youngster’s hair. “Now go to bed. It’s late.”
Master Cinbar nodded at Amber. “Zoya’s in her study. Down the hall, take a left. It’s the door to the right.”
“Ah, thank you. Good evening, Master Cinbar, Tai.” Amber followed Master Cinbar’s directions, apprehension digging a pit in her stomach. It was never pleasant to be called in by a teacher after school, especially to her house at night. What in the world could Master Zoya want that couldn’t wait until the morning?
Maybe she wants to tell me that my being in the tournament was all a mistake. Cheered by the thought, Amber tapped carefully on the wooden frame of the sliding door and entered at Master Zoya’s quiet command.
Master Zoya’s study didn’t match Amber’s expectations. For one, the room was almost entirely empty of books—and indeed much else. There was little furniture—a low table, a small writing desk, one chair, each piece carved with an elegant simplicity. A few pictures hung on the walls, painted in delicate brush strokes. Tatami mats covered the floor, and a faint scent of tea hung in the air.
But what really caught Amber’s attention was how exquisitely the pattern was balanced within the room. Spells hummed at the very edge of her hearing, buried so deep that Amber couldn’t make out what they were for. From the way the pattern spread out from them, a few objects were clearly foci: a chunk of quartz, a lantern, a set of wind chimes.
Master Zoya herself sat behind the low table, set with teapot and cups.
Amber realized she’d been staring unabashedly and stammered out a greeting.
A twinkle danced in Master Zoya’s eyes, but her face was grave enough. “Please sit, Amber.” She indicated a sage floor cushion.
Awkwardly, Amber removed her sandals and padded over to sit carefully on the cushion. This put her at eye level with Mater Zoya, not the most comfortable of positions. Even her quick survey of the room had shown her, once again, the controlled power that lay within the woman.
Master Zoya poured tea, dark amber liquid steaming in the handle-less cups. She was dressed informally, in what was obviously a house robe, her hair loosely put up and held in place by a single hair stick, its handle shaped like a dragon.
Amber barely breathed, afraid to break the silence. Master Zoya took a sip of her own tea and closed her eyes, as if savoring the beverage. Amber followed suit with a cautious sip. The tea was more bitter than she liked, but there was no way she was going to ask for milk and sugar.
Master Zoya said, “I expect you have questions.”
For a moment, Amber’s mind went blank. Then, “Why did Torou Academy propose a tournament, of all things?”
“Ah.” Master Zoya placed the cup on the table, her fingers still curled around it. “Because it suits their principal’s purposes. What those are, I couldn’t tell you. Shai Daan always did hold his secrets close.”
“You don’t think it’s just to make peace, then?”
“I do not.” Master Zoya’s gaze was turned inward. “I expect it has to do with the suggested location—the Shattered Valley. Do you know of it?”
Amber shook her head.
“It’s north of Carradia, in the mountains. Serepentina claimed it a long time ago and only holds it because no one had bothered to challenge it. The Valley is”—here Zoya paused—“an odd place. It is certainly not a place for farming nor mining nor anything much else.”
“Magic, though?” Amber leaned forward.
“No more, no less than any other place on the coast.” Master Zoya’s smile was wry. “We have explored it several time. But perhaps we don’t have the right kind of sight.”
Now Amber understood her role.
“That’s right,” said Master Zoya. “I’m sending you there to watch, not fight. See what the rest of us haven’t been able to. Keep an eye on Torou’s movements. Shai Daan is up to something. I don’t need to be a mind reader to be certain of that.” Something dark flickered over her, the atmosphere in the room tightened. Did Amber catch a glimpse of her suns, dense as thousand-year-old shadows, smooth as obsidian? She couldn’t be sure.
To her surprise, Amber found herself nodding. “All right. I’ll do it.”
Master Zoya favored her with a small smile. “Thank you. I know we’re asking a lot out of you, especially since you just joined. I’m afraid I’m not the only Master who requests a favor from you tonight.”
Amber tilted her head inquiringly.
“Master Kristoff would like your assistance in the infirmary.”
“He’s back?” All those other questions bubbled up inside Amber. Finally!
“Yes, but his patient needs all his attention—and yours.”
“Flavius.” Anxiety knotted in her stomach.
“If you could do anything for him,” said Zoya gently, “we would be most grateful.” She bowed her head, the gesture humbler than Doua’s empty obeisance.
How could she say no to this woman who expected such goodness from her? “I don’t really know what use I’ll be,” said Amber frankly, “but I’ll try.”
Three hours later, as Amber stumbled yawning and bleary-eyed through darkened corridors in the main Academy building, she nearly tripped over Kael’s legs.
“What the–?” She peered at him. “What are you doing here?”
“Waiting for you.” He rose to his feet and fell into step beside her. “How’s Flavius?” They reached an unlocked side door and Kael pushed it open. Gravel crunched under their feet as they crossed the courtyard in the dim white light of crystal lamps.
“Well.” Amber thought a minute. “He’s back to his human self, at least, for now. He’s no more unstable than normal.” She pressed her fingertips to her temples and grimaced. She was looking forward to a soothing cup of tea, a warm-pack on her aching head, and a long sleep.
“Hmm.” Kael glanced at her. “It really does bother you, doesn’t it? Humans transforming. People having abilities far out of normal experience.’
Amber twitched her shoulders. “I’m not going to let my personal feelings get in the way of Flavius’s treatment, if that’s what you mean. I just think it’s wrong to enable his curse—or magic, or whatever you want to call it. Do you really think this changing from one form to another is healthy for either his body, his soul, or his mind? The more in flux he is, the less chance he has to just be himself.”
Kael put his hands in his pockets and stared up at the sky. The girls’ dormitory loomed above them, all its windows dark. “You may be right.”
“I know I am. I’ve seen his pattern.” Amber fumbled for her key.
“You’d call them monsters.”
“My family. You asked me about them earlier.” Kael didn’t look at her. “I was raised by one of the native races of this continent. They aren’t humans.” A ghost of a smile flickered on his face. “They’ve been called demons before. Still are.”
Amber stared at him.
“Good night, Amber.” He sauntered away and was soon swallowed up by darkness.
Author’s Note: We are heading into the Final Act of this arc (at long last!). I have no idea how many more episodes are left, but I hope they’ll be action-packed and suspenseful. How do you like this arc so far? Feedback is super-helpful for when I edit and release the first three arcs in e-book format. 🙂