Amber paged through the encyclopedia, stopping every now and again to scrutinize a sketch or skim through a section.
A stack of anatomy books lay on the table by her elbow. Last night’s work in the infirmary had highlighted her woeful lack of education on the subject. Since she had always believed pattern manipulation stopped at another person’s skin, Amber had never deeply studied the way it threaded through veins, fanned into muscles, pulsed with every beat of the heart.
Last night had defied, yet again, her presumptions about magic.
Her lack of knowledge had held her back. Afraid of accidentally harming Flavius, she’d done only the most rudimentary of magic, supporting Master Kristoff as his magic threaded and stitched the boy’s worst injuries.
I have to do better. I need to know more.
And so Amber had made her way to the library, currently presided over by a zealous underling in the Librarian’s absence. The Librarian—the way he pronounced the title always included the capitalization—was on a mission to hunt down rogue magical books.
Amber glanced up at the airy, light-filled chamber, wondering what the missing Librarian was like. So much of the bright spellwork in this place must be hers, each rune almost a music note, the whole string of them almost dancing across leather spines and pale wood. Scents lingered in the dry air—cedar, ink, and paper.
The library extended beyond this room, though. She felt the weight of those other, more dangerous books, tucked away in a honeycomb of cells. Despite their denseness, though, they didn’t drag on the pattern and give Amber a headache. The Librarian had done her job well.
Amber’s gaze swept over the other two occupants of the library. Sitting at another table, Tai was bent over a battered Magical Ethics textbook, brow furrowed in fierce concentration. Amber permitted herself a small grin.
At the main desk, Tomas raised his head from the book he’d been reading and gave Amber a suspicious glare. Gaunt and hard-eyed, hunched over in his shapeless black robe, he resembled a scraggly crow. His suns were inky blotches, splashes of power shining darkly. The occasional black stitchery that Amber noted in the library must be his spellwork.
She smiled at him, but Tomas’s eyebrows only twitched together in response. He gave a loud sniff and re-occupied himself with his book.
Amber was sure, though, that he still watched her. It wasn’t personal, she’d been told. The responsibility of running the library—or so went the common wisdom at Heartwood—weighed heavily on the assistant.
She returned to her own book, a reference volume that detailed the known flora and fauna of the continent. Kael’s words last night had piqued an uneasy curiosity in her. He really had, Ainsley assured her at breakfast, been raised by an indigenous people of the continent. Amber didn’t know much about them beyond what she’d read in breathlessly sensationalized penny dreadfuls. After collecting as many anatomy books as she could carry, Amber had pulled out this reference book.
The section on native sentient species was woefully thin. Amber stopped at a line drawing of a humanoid creature with harsh, almost avian features. The face was long and narrow, with sharply-defined bones and deep-set eyes. It was harder to tell with the shading, but the hair looked more like… feathers? Or were those scales?
Amber recalled the shell-like feathers in Kael’s hair. Eagerly, she turned to the description of the karth.
Not much was known about them. They appeared to be nomadic, but it was hinted they had settlements much deeper inland. They were friendly enough to humans in a remote sort of way. Like many species, they had melted back into the areas of wilder magic as humans colonized the coastal areas. It was assumed that their bodies had a greater tolerance for what was known as the Chaos—that swirling, ever-changing area of dangerous magic that blanketed most of the continent.
Amber nibbled at her thumbnail, deep in thought. Perhaps this explained why Kael was so strong, even my Heartwood sun mage standards, if he’d been living in the outer bands of the Chaos all his life.
What about his real family, though? How’d he end up with the karth?
I could just ask him.
Kael was easy to talk to. He’d opened the conversation in the first place. But how would she pick back up again, without looking like she was prying? So, Kael, I was thinking about what you said…
Amber rejected that conversational starter. She didn’t want to appear too eager to know his past—not after Flavius and Lisette and Troi and all the things they didn’t want to talk about.
Thank goodness I have a normal family.
The ones that are alive, anyway. Amber closed the encyclopedia with a final thud that made Tomas look up and frown.
She left that book on the table—Tomas has made it clear he didn’t trust anyone but himself to reshelve books properly—and scooped the anatomy volumes into her arms. Tomas checked them out with much sniffing and smoothing of pages and petting of spines. When he finally surrendered them to her, it was done reluctantly, as if he were forced to give up his own children.
“Have a nice day,” said Amber with a socially polite smile. Tomas bobbed his head in response. Tai in his corner hadn’t looked up at all during this time, so deeply was he entangled in the thorny tangle of magical ethics.
Amber left the library, her arms full of books. Within a few steps she realized she’d overestimated how much she could safely carry. The pile shifted precariously, and Amber stopped to wrap pattern threads around it.
Too late. The topmost volumes began sliding. Amber made an instinctive move with her chin and one arm to stop them falling. A hard corner bit into her jaw, a gap widened at the bottom of her hold. The pattern fluttered crazily as books crashed to the floor.
“Great, just great.” Amber muttered as she knelt down to gather books. She half-expected Tomas to appear in the corridor, waving his arms like great unkempt wings and pronouncing her unfit to check out library books.
Footsteps sounded behind Amber as she hoisted herself back up to her feet, this time securing her pile with magic.
Someone plopped a book down on the top of the pile. “You forgot this.”
“Um, thanks.” Amber leaned away from the man. He was a stranger, this Kaidan in a dark, expensive, Ravin-made business suit. She had never seen him before. Was he another one of the Masters?
The man smiled at her. His teeth were white, and his eyes crinkled at the corners. It was a charming smile, so why did it leave Amber cold?
Ah, that’s right. The smile didn’t reach his watchful dark eyes.
“Young lady,” he said, “perhaps you could direct me to the exit? I’m afraid I’m hopelessly lost in this warren.” He raised his shoulders in a slight, self-deprecating shrug.
Amber found the helplessness hard to believe. No one with that unconscious air of authority and the power behind those shielded suns could be stumped by a Heartwood corridor just meekly lying in place.
I can hardly say so, though. But I’d better not allow this guy to wander around here. “We’re not far from the lobby. If you’d follow me…?” Without waiting for an answer, she set a brisk pace lobby-wards. The Kaidan man, with his longer stride, easily kept pace with her. His skin was white and smooth, but there was a heaviness to his face. Despite the jet-black hair, she guessed he was older than he looked.
Amber rounded the last corner and opened her mouth to direct the man towards the lobby, now in sight at the end of the hallway.
Her books wobbled dangerously again. The Kaidan man steadied the pile, just as Amber hitched the heap up higher in her arms. His knuckles brushed against her chin, sending a tingle across her skin. Amber jerked her head back from that too-intimate touch.
“Careful,” said the man softly. The air darkened and wavered around him, as if infused with smoke. “Little girls like you shouldn’t take on more than they can handle.” His large, white hand still rested against the books, twin pinpoints of oily light flickered in his charcoal eyes.
Amber’s throat constricted. Implied violence hung thick in the air; almost she caught suns spin to life in dark, cyclonic twists. Like the Kaidan’s hand, the air pressed down on her, pinned her into place.
“Master Daan!” A voice, sharp and concerned, broke into the scene. Like a vapor, the menace dissipated, the aggression fled, the atmosphere snapped back into place. As the Kaidan man—the headmaster of Torou Academy—turned to Mistress Blunkett, Amber was tempted to believe she had just imagined the last couple of minutes.
“… so sorry for the mix-up… this way, please…” Mistress Blunkett fussed over Daan while the man flicked invisible lint off his immaculate sleeve.
“Not to worry, madam.” Daan favored the woman with another one of his suave, entirely fake smiles. He didn’t even look at Amber as he went off with the teacher. Mistress Blunkett, however, gave Amber a quick glance, her eyes flickering in a get-out-of-here gesture.
Mistress Blunkett, Amber realized, didn’t like the man—and was thoroughly rattled by him, too.
And so am I. Tension thrummed through her body. She was aware that her arms shook, and the nasty prickle across her jaw indicated he’d poked her with some sort of magic. The spell had completely disappeared, leaving no trace of its intent on the pattern.
I’m rattled, though Amber, and I’m angry! What does he mean by coming here? Is he trying to disable the competition? In such a ham-handed way?
No, Daan had something else in mind. Amber thought back to the last ten minutes or so. She sucked in an indignant breath.
And he made the books fall in the first place! Just so he could get close to me. The jerk! What is his game?
The cryst in her pocket chose this time to emit a series of chimes. Startled, Amber lost her hold on the anatomy texts entirely. Once more, books thudded to the floor. Amber pulled out the cryst. Red notifications crawled all over its surface.
“What?” she exclaimed out loud in the empty corridor. “Extra training sessions with Master Cinbar and Troi all week?”
With a grimace, she pressed the Accept button. Her intensive schedule would keep her too busy to ply Master Kristoff with all the questions she had.
Then, remembering the look in Daan’s eyes, his power and malice, her hands tightened around the cryst.
I need to get better. Quickly.
Because Torou has it in for me and that was probably the only warning I’m going to get.
Author’s Note: I meant to jump right into the tournament at the Shattered Valley–even started the episode there–but quickly realized I should have a transition scene to wrap up a few threads from earlier and set up the next act better. This is a shorter episode than normal and probably full of typos, for which I apologize in advance. I ran out of time to look it over.