The rest of her morning was not as humiliating, but no less busy. Amber ran from room to room and from Master to Master. She spilled ink, brewed potions, lifted weights, struck fires, wrote runes, answered a slew of bizarre questions, and more.
Amber had no idea what the Masters were looking for. This assessment was nothing like the standardized magic tests she had taken back in Ravin.
It was afternoon by the time Amber reached the last door. She was exhausted in mind, body, and spirit, and running on the last vestiges of last night’s cakes. Almost, she was willing to gnaw through the stale bun still in her pocket.
The door she’d been directed to was on the highest floor, save for the attics. The bronze nameplate said Kristoff in beautiful cursive. Amber put her hands on her thighs, bending down and catching her breath. She’d walked up and down many steps today.
The hallway was covered with golden-hued, fine-grained floorboards. A red carpet with black and golden geometric designs ran down the middle of it.
Amber straightened and knocked on the door. Earlier in the day, she’d sent her magical senses questing outwards into new situations, but by now she was too overwhelmed and tired to take in and make sense of all that information.
Light footsteps sounded, and the door was flung open with enthusiastic energy. Amber’s gaze took in a long, well-lit south-facing chamber, with a bank of windows opposite her, then traveled down to the little old man who stood beaming at her as if she were his long-lost granddaughter.
“Amberlin,” he piped in welcome. “There you are at last! Come in, come in. You must be exhausted, child!” He gestured her in, and Amber found herself herded across the wooden floor, past shelves of fabric and baskets of yarn and towards a low table surrounded by plump floor cushions in shades of green.
She sank on one the color of new spring growth, almost sighing as she took her weight off her feet. The last Master had had her standing at a long table topped with a white marble slab, mixing brightly-colored liquids and powders together. For an entire hour.
Pity that all Amber produced were muddy solutions and bad smells.
She hoped the Master would forgive the reek of rotten eggs she’d left behind.
Master Kristoff (she presumed) seated himself on an emerald cushion, as regal as an emperor. The effect was spoiled almost immediately, however, for he shot up again, pattered to a sideboard, and rushed back with a plate full of cookies.
The table was spread for high tea, with thin, trembling sandwiches; scones and jam; and a plateful of light, fluffy pastries. Amber managed, just in time, not to drool all over them.
“Eat, eat,” urged Master Kristoff. He placed the cookies enticingly in front of Amber,and hurried to the other side to pour her tea. “You must be hungry! You’ve come all the way from Ravin!” He shook his head, as if Amber had made the journey from Oaktown to Heartwood in one fell swoop.
“And how are you today?” Master Kristoff went on. “Is Heartwood treating you well?” He seemed so anxious about her well-being that Amber hurried to reassure him she was, despite her famished appearance, feeling fine. Wonderful, in fact.
The worry faded from Master Kristoff’s blue eyes. He beamed. “And I hope you left your family well? They must miss you.”
Bemused, Amber replied, “They’re all quite hale and healthy, thank you.” She wondered if this excessive hospitality was a feature of Master Kristoff’s home culture or his own personality. Had he looked at her paperwork to familiarize himself with her background?
“Good, good!” Master Kristoff clapped his hands together. “Now, tell me all about Oaktown. It must’ve changed in all these years.”
Master Kristoff, as it turned out, had traveled extensively in some distant past. He plied Amber with questions about Ravin, which she answered between mouthfuls of sandwich and sips of black tea with sugar and milk.
As they talked, Master Kristoff knitted, his small hands silver-quick with the needles. A square of green knitting took shape—he must be very fond of the color.
“I wonder, my dear,” he said just as Amber laid down a quarter-sandwich that she absolutely had no more room for, “if you could help me untangle this here.” He nodded towards a nearby basket, which contained a knotted mess of yarn.
“Of course.” Amber shifted over to another cushion—this one the color of dusty-dark summer leaves—and began extracting a sunny yellow thread from the tangle.
“The younger pupils sometimes forget to be careful about keeping the sprites out,” he explained. “And the creatures do love to make mischief.” He frowned. “Or was it cats that got into it this time?”
“Sprites? I think there was one in the girls’ bathroom today,” said Amber, her fingers busy. She hadn’t knitted in ages, but the feel of the yarn, the lingering taste of afternoon tea, and the press of sunshine on her neck were homey and soothing. Even the pattern here was quiescent. Almost, she began to be comfortable.
“Ah, yes. They’ve been trying to encourage it to leave for a while. I’m afraid we might need stronger measures.” Master Kristoff left both knitting and yarn, and hurried over to a stool and spindle. He spun a spun a light, glittery wool as they chatted about the different textiles he’d seen in his island journeys.
Maybe, thought Amber, winding yarn around her fingers, Master Kristoff will take me on as his apprentice when Master Cinbar sees that I’m no good as a combat mage.
By the time her hour was up, Amber was well-fed and relaxed, and there were several neat balls of yarn lined up on Master Kristoff’s table. Master Kristoff beamed at the sight.
He made a great fuss of her as she thanked him on her way out. “Good bye, good bye! It was lovely to visit. How you have grown! So wonderful to see you again!”
It was after the door had shut behind him that his words registered. Amber frowned at the panels.
How I’ve grown? And what did he mean—again?
First the memory moth, now Master Kristoff. Amber didn’t know what to make of it. Deep in thought, she clattered down the steps to the next landing, turned, and squeaked in surprise.
Troi leaned against the wall, his arms folded, head tilted back. His eyes shifted to meet her gaze, but otherwise he made no move.
Amber gave him an uncertain look, then slipped past him. Troi pushed away from the wall and fell into step beside her. They took the next set of stairs in silence.
It was unnerving.
Amber went through possible conversation starters in her mind, rejecting Hello, How’s it going? and Were you waiting for me?
This was Troi after all. He didn’t seem to be the sort of guy who had any patience with social pleasantries.
Amber finally settled for, “How’d you know where I’d be?”
“I’m on your friends’ list on your cryst.”
Amber resisted the urge to check the tablet tucked into her skirt pocket. “I don’t remember putting you on there.” She’d seen the Friends category on her screen and decided that it was too much like school.
“I added myself.”
“You have a habit of getting into other people’s crysts?” Now she’d make extra sure that there was nothing on there for Troi to snoop into. Note to self: Put a really nasty spell on anyone who tries to get into my finances folder.
Troi stuck his hands in his pockets. “I wrote many of the runic spells for the crysts in the first place. It wasn’t too hard to get into yours. Most people make spell changes to theirs right away.”
“Well, excuse me. I haven’t had much time to tinker with it yet, you know.” There was a new pattern near Troi, a powerful one. Her gaze dropped to the dagger at his belt. Hmm. He hadn’t had that with him in Hopeswell. She’d have recognized the signature of it right away.
Amber sighed. “And the reason for this sudden friendliness is…?”
“Lisette’s looking for you. She has to take you to the girls’ dormitory, but you haven’t been answering your cryst messages.”
Amber cringed. She could just picture Lisette getting more and more exasperated by the hour.
“And,” Troi continued, “Kael asked me to keep an eye out for you.”
“And why’d he do that?”
“Dunno.” Troi shrugged again. “Maybe his head’s finally gone as soft as his heart.”
“Where’s he off to, anyway?”
“A job with Master Zoya. Some yuka have been bothering miners in the northern mountains. He likes to have a chance to knock their heads together.”
Bling! Bling! Bling bling bling! Amber jumped as something buzzed at her hip. “What the–?”
“Don’t tell me you had the cryst set to vibrate and ring at the same time?” Troi shook his head as if she were a hopeless case.
“Yeah, yeah.” Amber pulled out the cryst and poked at the screen. “You can laugh at me all you want later, but can you at least get it to stop?” The alarm spells were playing havoc with her pattern senses. Her stomach was queasy.
Troi took the cryst, spread his palm out over it. Tiny runes danced in the blue glow between his hand and the screen. The cryst stopped bling-ing and Amber’s blue-sparked vision went back to normal. “There. You might want to turn off some of these notifications, though.”
Amber stared at the screen, stunned. “What the–?” HOMEWORK ASSIGNMENTS DUE! blared a bright red headline. The Duty Roster button blinked a furious yellow. Pink-bordered invitations to everything from Amazing Card Tricks in the Bluish-Green Room Tonight! to dance classes with someone called Yana. Plaintive purple messages about lost items and a red-tagged request to get rid of the water sprite in the girls’ bathroom.
And about a hundred messages from Lisette, all on the theme of, “Where are you?” The most recent ones were rather irate.
Troi snorted. “Kael shouldn’t have worried. Looks like you’ll have no problem making friends or keeping yourself busy.”
“I don’t know most of these people!” wailed Amber, frantically closing notifications.
“Well, I’ll see you tomorrow morning, then.” Troi started to walk away. “Don’t keep Master Cinbar waiting. Nor me.”
Amber looked up from her furiously blinking screen. “What do you mean?”
Troi raised an eyebrow. “Didn’t you know? I’m your practice partner.”
And with that, he was gone.
Author’s Note: More mysteries about Amber’s background, huh? And now she and Troi are going to be thrown together more. That doesn’t sound like much fun for Amber, but I think this development is going to tie in very well with the main events of the Whispering Winds Arc. Or at least I hope. 🙂