One didn’t expect the Headmaster of a magical academy to be puttering around in the greenhouse, wearing overalls and boots, but there he was anyway, hands full of potting soil. The air was redolent with the scent of earth and green growing things. Amber thought she could almost hear the plants whisper contentedly together on the shelves and tables.
The Headmaster looked up, his heavy-lidded eyes as sleepy as ever. “Ah, Amber, come in.” He didn’t seem at all surprised to see her hovering nervously in the doorway.
Amber obeyed, bracing herself. The Headmaster did have the power to expel her for her part in the escapade. It was even in the contract she’d signed, in a clause about penalties for criminal activities.
“What can I do for you?” The Headmaster laid aside a spade and wiped his hands on a grubby towel.
It was unnerving to have his total attention. His eyes, she thought, were the deepest black she’d ever seen. Something seemed to flicker in their depths, but she had no idea what. A strange sensation crept over her. The pattern was thick and multi-layered around him, opaque to her senses. She itched to get her hands into it, tease it apart, to uncover what lay underneath.
Flushing, Amber realized several seconds had passed. She forced her mind back to the matter at hand.
“Um… about last night…” began Amber.
He waited. Amber was sure the gleam lurking in his eyes was one of knowing amusement, but he wasn’t planning on helping her out.
“I wanted to say… I was with Kael and Troi…” Amber swallowed and finished in a rush, “If there’s any trouble over it, I take full responsibility for my part in it.”
The Headmaster surveyed her for what seemed like an eternity. Mountains might rise and fall in those fathomless eyes of his. Amber tried not to fidget. The thought popped into her head that she didn’t even know his name. Everyone always referred to him as the Headmaster.
Somehow, she doubted now was the right time to ask.
“It was easy to guess, of course, how Kael and Troi located the sword in the first place,” he said finally. “Kael, especially, is known to be very… ah, persuasive, shall we say?”
“That’s true enough,” said Amber fervently. She didn’t quite understand how a rule-follower herself had come to break her contractual obligation of good behavior.
“Relations with Torou Academy,” continued the Headmaster, “have been difficult of late. It remains to be seen if this incident will break them entirely or clear the air.” He lifted a small pot and examined the seedling within. The plant itself was unprepossessing to Amber’s untrained eye, but there was a certain sharpness in the pattern within it.
“Do you know this plant?” asked Headmaster. Amber shook her head.
“It’s dragonsbane.” He placed it carefully on the table.
“Dragons!” squeaked Amber. Anything is possible on the continent!
The Headmaster smiled at her awe. “It’s not what you think, my dear. Dragons are part of an almost mythic past and best they should remain that way. But this little plant has properties that turn away the yuka as well. Dragonsbane is tricky to grow without magic, so we give as many as we can away to the farmers of Carradia.
“It also makes a good tea. I drink a cup of it every day.” He placed the pot back on the table. “We Masters will deal with the Torou situation, but I ask you to remain discreet and not publicize your role.”
“Um, of course.” Amber hesitated. Does this mean I’m not expelled?
The Headmaster cocked his head. “I think we can trust you to be circumspect.” Again, that hidden amusement. “Anything else I can do for you? Are you settling in at Heartwood all right?”
“Yes, I am.” Amber smiled brightly. Aside from sword training, which I suck at. But that’s only to be expected.
“Any trouble at all?” he persisted.
You mean, aside from strangely-twisting passages, memory moths, and Kael’s mad schemes? “None at all.”
Was it disappointment that flickered in his eyes? The Headmaster inclined his head. “Well, then, I won’t keep you, Amberlin.”
Feeling vaguely like she’d passed an examination with mixed results, Amber bobbed a half-curtsey and fled before he could change his mind.
Neither of Amber’s partners in crime were at dinner that night.
“Where’s Kael?” Amber asked Lisette as she sat down with her stack of plate, bowl, and utensils.
“Working,” said Lisette between mouthfuls of beef apple stew. The girl could really pack it in. “Masters figured he’d be better off gone from Carradia for a bit, I suppose.” She gave Amber a sideling glance. “Troi’s also gone, but I don’t ever hear you asking about our resident heart throb.”
“Kael’s easier to get along with.” Amber served herself stew, inhaling the savory-scented steam. “What are they doing?”
“Kael’s out in the wilderness somewhere.” Lisette waved a hand vaguely in what Amber guessed was wilderness-wards. “Troi’s on pretty-boy duty.”
“Pretty-boy duty?” Amber echoed.
“Guarding the governor of the Ravin colonies,” Lisette clarified, “on his tour of the independent townships.” She looked thoughtful. “I hear the governor’s daughter is very pretty, too. I hope she doesn’t fall in love with Troi. You’d think his awful personality would put everyone off, but some people do have a savior complex.” She made a face.
“You have that right,” muttered Amber. She scanned the head table where the Masters sat. Still no Master Kristoff. He’d left Heartwood for the Serepentine Isles the very day she’d arrived, leaving her no opportunity to ask how he knew her.
Master Zoya was also not in attendance. Amber’s gaze skipped over the rest of the masters, landed on the Headmaster. He still looked like some kind of artisan, sitting not in a place of prominence, but off to one side, nursing a mug and staring into its depths as if fascinated by what he saw in them.
She wondered if it was dragonsbane tea. It sounded like a dangerous sort of drink, but who knew with sun mages. She’d read about a Serepentine mage-king who’d powered his magic with poison. He’d been powerfully and feared—until the poison finally did him in.
“What’s the Headmaster’s name?” she asked Lisette.
“It’s—” Lisette began, then stopped, frowning.
“You don’t know it?” Amber raised her eyebrows. Curiouser and curiouser…
Lisette shook her head crossly. “Of course I do! It’s Flint. We just don’t call him that much, you know.”
Or at all. Despite Lisette’s confidence, Amber wasn’t convinced that the sun mage’s recollection was accurate.
A brief image—a book?—flashed through her mind. Amber shrugged; her mind made strange connections sometimes.
Lisette applied herself to her food again, and Amber turned to a knot of younger students nearby.
“So, where are you from?” Amber asked a younger boy, after Ainsley described, in much detail, a hilarious episode involving her brothers, a bear, and a keg of ale at last year’s Harvest Festival.
The boy, Flavius, started. He was a nervous, twitchy fellow, who spoke—when he did at all—in stutters and pauses and sentences that trailed off into nothingness. The misalignment in his pattern had engendered a kind of revulsion in Amber; so, to make up for it, she tried to be extra kind to him.
“I-I…” stammered Flavius, wide-eyed. His head turned from side to side, as if he were seeking escape.
The rest of the group stared at Amber in silent horror. Lisette kicked her in the shin.
Uh oh. Everyone here knows something I don’t.
“Hey, did you see old Marius’ outfit today?” Ainsley jumped in. “Do you think he chooses his clothes in the dark or does he actually think they look good on him?”
This led to a hearty denunciation of the eccentric Master’s wardrobe. Amber didn’t know who was more relieved at the change of subject—herself or Flavius, who subsided into a slumped heap. His lips moved as if he were talking to himself. Amber quested her senses out toward him; once again made contact with that fluxing pattern of thorns and snarls.
Lisette kicked her again. “Quit it. It’s rude to stare.”
“I’m trying not to, but—”
Lisette whispered furiously. “Look, I don’t know how it is in the islands, but here it’s considered rude to poke around in people’s background unless they volunteer the information. Not everyone has a happy little family in the past like you do.”
“I was trying to be friendly. But by all means, let’s make fun of a Master’s clothes instead.”
The two glared at each other.
“Look, most of us can handle your nosiness, no problem,” said Lisette. “But just leave Flavius alone. Yeah, he has his issues, but it’s not your place to handle them.” She swung her legs over the bench, and gathered her tray. “All right?” She cocked her head.
“Yeah, yeah.” Lisette thought Amber was nosy? All she’d done was try to draw out the kid a little—but fine. She’d gladly ignore him from now on out.
This is a whole new world, with its own social customs. Maybe I’d better listen more and talk less. It had been a long time since she’d felt so gauche—she’d been navigating her parents’ social circle since she was a little girl.
Amber pushed away her bowl, no longer hungry. She started to get up.
The pattern twisted suddenly around her.
Light flashed, so bright that Amber was momentarily blinded. She stumbled, gripped the edge of the table to keep her balance. Cries of surprise rose from the assembled students.
While Amber was still trying to clear stars from her vision, high-pitched wails ripped the air. She winced, clapped her hands over her ears. The wails broke off into a series of rude noises. These were accompanied by billows of grey smoke and a truly noxious odor.
She had to give it to the sun mages. Most of the Heartwood students were on their feet, weapons in hand and magic sparking around them.
Pity they had no one to direct their well-honed aggression towards. The masters at their table looked resigned. They, at any rate, had surrounded themselves with protective spells. The Headmaster still smiled into his mug.
A hollow voice boomed, “Take that, Deadwood scum!” A chorus of unseen voices broke out in a rude song about Heartwood Academy.
Water fell in sheets from the ceiling, salty and cold. Amber gasped as it struck her skin. She was soaked in seconds.
Expressions of dismay and disgust rose from the Heartwood students as they scrambled to get up their waterproof shields.
Not a single one of the masters, Amber noted, was wet.
She was already drenched to the skin. Amber looked wordlessly at Lisette, who was wrapped in a golden light. The water was deflected from her figure in strange angles.
The sun mage’s blue eyes sparked with lightning. She was audibly grinding her teeth. “And to think Kael and Troi are missing this very—lovely—gift from Torou.”
Amber caught Ainsley’s eye. Both of them grinned.
Ainsley leaned close to Amber and whispered. “Last time we had trouble with Torou, it got really bad. A ruined dinner is a small price to pay for peace if this is all the retaliation we get.”
Amber whispered back, “I hope so!”
Author’s Note: I’ve been doing a lot of yard work lately so it’s no wonder my brain placed the Headmaster in a greenhouse! He’s a mysterious guy for sure. But now we’re back to Torou. Maybe pulling off this prank will satisfy them…or maybe not!
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