In the night, Amber woke up to what sounded suspiciously like pebbles rattling against her window.
No. It sounded exactly like pebbles rattling against her window.
Amber slid out of bed, drew the curtains, and raised the window a crack. Another handful of pebbles fountained up toward her. Amber narrowed her eyes, and the pebbles fell soundlessly against an invisible barrier in front of the glass.
Not bad, she thought, proudly. It’s only been a week, and I’m starting to react like a combat mage.
“Hurry up, Amber,” came the whisper, “before the Old Terror catches me.” She didn’t have to think hard to guess he meant the dorm matron.
“You’re not supposed to be sneaking into the girls’ dormitory at all, Kael,” Amber whispered back, but she opened the window wider.
He was inside as quick as a flash. Amber shut the window, put up a light-scattering and sound-proofing pattern in front of the glass. She turned on her small bedside lamp.
Kael sank down into her one armchair and propped his feet on a low table.
“Feet off,” said Amber automatically, giving them a shove. She didn’t want him getting too comfortable.
He grinned at her as he complied. Oblivious as he could be, at least he was easygoing. Amber was finding that rare quality in most of her contemporaries at Heartwood. Most of them tended towards intense in some way or another.
Amber sat down on her bed, the only other available sitting surface. “So, what is it?”
“Well. You’ve been here for over a week now. I thought you’d be bored out of skull with all this school stuff by now.” He indicated the piles of books and heaps of paper all over the room.
“Actually, I find it all very interesting, but from the look in your eye, you have something in mind—probably foolhardy and dangerous.” She’d heard quite the number of stories—most of them related in fond or admiring tones—about his exploits. Amber had formed her own opinion about those and that kept her from pushing the “friends” button on Kael’s name on her cryst. “Spit out what you want, so I can say no, kick you out, and go back to sleep.”
“Oh, I know you won’t be able to resist this, Amber.” Kael pulled out a narrow object from the inside pocket of his capacious coat. Amber leaned forward to examine its signature.
“A taan blade,” she said, “of Kaidan make. A family heirloom and magical weapon, and obviously part of a set. It should have a long sword to go with it. I sense this weapon has a great provenance and deep magical history.”
“I was right. You do know your stuff.”
Amber rolled her eyes. “I’ve also seen it on Troi’s hip a dozen times already. He nearly slew me with one look when I asked about it the other day.” The memory of that conversation rankled. “He’ll kill you when he finds out you’ve taken it.”
“Nah. He may try, but he won’t be able to.”
“I’ve seen him fight.” With those cold winds at his call, Troi was a demon.
“You haven’t seen me fight,” Kael pointed out.
“The warehouse and Needle Guy,” Amber reminded him.
“That wasn’t fighting. That was damage control.”
Amber almost choked at this. The sheer self-confidence of sun mages never failed to surprise her. “What do you want me to do with that?” She pointed at the dagger.
“Find the sword that goes with it.”
Amber blinked. “In Troi’s room?” she guessed. “On Kaidan?”
“Wrong and wrong.” Kael nodded toward the window. “You’ve heard about Touro Academy yet?”
“Only a little.” Carradia was one of many independent townships along the mainland coast, but the island nations had their own enclaves, too. Owned by Kaidan and located on an island in Carradia Bay, Tourou Academy was a prestigious boys-only school for the progeny of the nation’s finest families. “Ainsley told me that Troi was originally at Touro.”
Kael laughed. “He ran away from Touro to Heartwood several times. They got tired of fetching him back, so his family finally allowed him to stay on here. He was supposed to return to Touro when he was seventeen, though. There was even a big family row about it. It all took place Kaidan so the rest of us missed it.” He sighed in obvious disappointment.
Amber’s eyes were round as saucers. Going against one’s family’s wishes was a huge deal in Kaidan culture. “Well, what happened then?”
Kael shrugged. “He made it back here, obviously. But he hasn’t been back home since then and doesn’t talk to his family much anymore.” He picked up one of Amber’s three-dimensional puzzles and started fiddling with it. “You have a lot of stuff, don’t you?”
Amber took it away from him. “About the dagger?”
“Yeah, that. Troi inherited the set from his grandfather. The long sword that’s supposed to go with it is still at Touro. They wouldn’t let Troi bring it to Heartwood with him. Apparently, it’s a family treasure and a Kaidan cultural artifact. Or something.”
“Well, of course, they wouldn’t,” said Amber strongly. “I’m surprised they let Troi break up the set and take the dagger.
“All I know is that it’s Troi’s sword, and they’re refusing to give it to him. That’s not right.” Kael turned a small model of Allyons Cathedral over in his hands. Amber took that away from him, too.
“Stop touching my stuff,” she scolded. “Well, Kaidan culture is really strict about heirlooms like this. Even Troi knows this. Which is why you’re the only one on this weird quest.”
“Ah, well. I tried.” Kael swept up the dagger and went to the window. “See you later, Amber.”
“Tell me,” pleaded Amber, “that you’re going to return the taan blade and forget about this whole thing.”
He just looked at her.
“I’m going to tell Troi,” she warned him.
“Then I’d better get a head start!” He was out the window before Amber could marshal another argument for her cause.
He’s actually going on a solo raid to Touro Academy? How’s he going to even find the long sword in that huge place? Idiot! Amber ranted silently to herself as she changed, jammed her feet into boots, and threw her tattered mist cloak around her shoulders.
If I end up in trouble over this, Kael, I will personally take it out of your hide.
Amber was rather more cautious as she climbed out the window. I hope I can catch up with him. She reached out with her mage senses–
Amber jumped. “How’d you—how’d you manage to mask your presence like that?” Kael leaned against the wall, and he was so tightly shielded she hadn’t had a clue he was behind her.
“What good is a combat mage who goes about lit up like a music hall all the time?” Kael shifted his gaze to Amber’s cloak. “Great, you’re coming. I knew you couldn’t resist showing off. Let’s go!”
“This is not about showing off,” hissed Amber as she followed him, both of them crouching low to the ground. “It’s about paying off my debts. You helped me back in Hopeswell, so I’m just returning the favor. Midnight missions with you aren’t going to become a habit.”
Amber checked when they got to the trees. “You brought a silfyl?” The creature raised its cat-like head. Its eyes glowed green.
“Of course.” Kael leaped on, and then held a hand out to Amber. She scrambled behind him. “Hold on!”
Night flying was even more exhilarating than that first time. Amber closed her eyes and focused on the patterns around her—ephemeral scarves of wind, distant glittering structures of rock, the restless dance of the sea, the intricate, organic machinery of the silfyl, and the amazing, multi-colored patterns of the human—
Amber checked herself, face flushing. How terribly rude to examine someone else’s patterns that way, especially since she had to sit so close to the sun mage. She had an excellent view of Kael’s broad shoulders and the shell-like feathers shimmering in his messy hair. He radiated warmth and solidity that was hard to resist.
Amber’s education had not prepared her for close proximity to other people, especially of the male persuasion.
“Hold on to me,” said Kael.
“You’re going to fall off, Amber.”
Amber put a hand on his shoulder.
Kael shrugged, the movement far too intimate under her palm. “If you fall, I suppose I could catch you.”
“I’m not planning on falling.” Amber grabbed at wind-torn patterns and wove them around her in a net. She risked removing her hand.
There. All better now. I just have to keep focused on these patterns in case I lose my balance. Focus, Amber.
Of course, now she couldn’t enjoy the beautiful night and the wonderful flying, and the constant battle against the wind’s erosion of her spellwork was giving her a headache—
—but it was worth it for the sake of improvement, right?
Amber opened her eyes. Touro island rose above Kael’s shoulder, a tall, dark building atop it. Defensive patterns swirled all around the place.
That’s right. Kaidan mages used air currents as their magical medium.
“Time to get off.” Kael pointed at the dark water below them. He added, “You can swim, can’t you, Amber?”
“Better stay close to me, then.” He twisted around, put his arm around her waist, and lid off the silfyl.
“That’s got to be the eleven billionth time, you crazy sun-mages!” Amber’s words were lost in the wind. They landed in the water with a splash, Amber with a yelp. Her mist-cloak swirled atop the surface; the rest of her clothes were instantly water-logged and dragging.
Above them, the silfyl made a wide turn and headed back towards land. Amber watched it longingly.
“Fun, isn’t it?” Kael’s suns glowed as they boosted his body heat and, for all Amber knew, his buoyancy.
“It’s freezing!” Great. I’m stuck in this cold dark WET water with a risk-taking, danger-seeking mage. All sun mages recharged their magic in physical and emotional ways. A mage could gain energy through mundane things like eating and exercise, or through absorbing certain kinds of energy through the patterns of the world. There were mages who recharged by sticking their hands in fire and others by eating snow.
Emotional energy also recharged magic power. Anger, joy, love, desire, jealousy—all the tints and shades of emotion were available for harvest, based on the individual. It was the twisted passions of the ruling family of Serepentina—the feeding on pain and fear—that caused their ultimate downfall.
Amber was unusual in that her nodes were like ordinary people’s. She used magical energy in low amounts, and it all came from her environment.
Luckily, water was a great source for Amber. Free-flowing nodes bobbed against her body, and she greedily slurped up the energy from them.
The water around Amber warmed. She gave Kael a grateful look. “Thanks.”
“No problem. Let’s go!”
Amber grabbed his collar. “Not so fast, hotshot. What’s the plan?”
“We bust in, you do your witchy thing, we grab the sword, and leave. If any Torou wimps show up, I fight them.” He looked way too happy about the fighting part.
“Bust in?” Amber raised her eyebrows, though it was really hard to maintain that warning look when one was drenched and clinging to the offender’s arm.
“I meant sneak in, of course,” Kael amended, “while avoiding any and all traps and guards.”
“And if we’re caught?” Regret gnawed the inside of Amber’s stomach. What was it about Kael that swept other people into his madcap schemes?
“Breaking into each other’s school is practically a tradition,” Kael assured her. “The masters will overlook it. Besides, I know for a fact that the faculty was invited to dine and stay over at the Governor’s mansion in Marylebow tonight. Master Zoya got the invitation, too.”
“They can’t all have gone,” Amber pointed out.
“Enough of them are.”
“Kael, they’re not going to be happy with us running off with the sword.”
There was silence, broken only by the lap of wavelets against their bodies. Amber drew the pattern around her, keeping her afloat. A swirl of the warm currents did the same for Kael.
Kael said softly, “There is no doubt, no legal doubt, that the sword is Troi’s. If it turns up in his hand tomorrow morning, there’s not much Torou can do. You’re taking Magical Law and Ethics with Blunkett; you should know how the law strongly favors the rights of the owner of a magical artifact.”
“Well, yes.” This was true even in Ravin; Amber knew of several cases of mayhem and mischief caused by magical artifacts separated from their rightful owners—however you defined those. The Wicked Walking Stick and the Magical Menace of Mapleton were two particularly well-known examples in her homeland.
She tilted her head. “I’m surprised you’re so well-versed in magical law, Kael.”
Even in the starlight, his smile was quick and bright. “I did have to take the class four times, after all.”
“Oh.” Amber searched for something positive to say about this. “That sounds like a… school record.”
“It is.” Kael squeezed her shoulder. “Don’t worry. You won’t get into trouble. People expect me to do crazy things and talk others into them. There are advantages to being a reckless, uncultured nobody. After all, I don’t really know enough of Kaidan traditions to understand the implications of my actions, right?” A wry smile tugged at his mouth.
Amber blinked. This shrewd practicality was new. “I… I suppose so.”
“Then let’s get going. Torou’s defensive spells are weak at the water’s edge.” And with that, Kael arrowed into the water, leaving Amber staring after him.
Was he really coolly exploiting his own reputation as an “act first, think later” type? I might need to re-evaluate my opinion of Kael, Amber thought as she followed.
Author’s Note: Kael surprised me at the end. I didn’t realize he had the self-awareness to take advantage of his character “type.” He’s a funny mixture of easygoing and rashness and, apparently, cool calculation! I’ll have to keep a closer eye on him and see how his character develops.