Amber couldn’t breathe.
The world had gone all shadowy, the sun a distant smudge in a greying sky. Cold crept over her body; tiny flakes of snow fell onto the sand. She struggled to pull in air, but it all seemed to have gone elsewhere.
The pattern, too, greyed, fast losing vitality. It crumbled to pieces, drifting down like ash. On the ground at her feet, the Torou boy shivered and gulped for breath.
She could barely hear him, the sound tiny in this suddenly strange world. The sea prowled the edges of it like a restless beast. If only she could reach it, if only she could gather up its magic!
A figure stepped onto the beach. A boy, thought Amber as her vision wavered. How is he doing this? The deepest stillness was wrapped around him like a dark cloak. How is he surviving this?
A flare of energy surged across the sand. It flooded Amber with light and warmth; she gasped, found she could breathe again. The greyness vanished, the frost evaporated. The sound of the sea crashed against her ears.
The sun mage faced the newcomer, every muscle tensed, poised to attack.
The other shorter boy said, “Oops.” A sheepish expression crossed his face. He raised his hands in a placating manner. “My control over that spell isn’t very good, I’m afraid.”
Amber stared. He had nearly killed everyone on this beach, and that’s all he had to say? Troi made a sharp movement, then restrained himself. He had gone a greyish white, and his wounds were stark against the paleness.
“Get good,” said Kael, “before you use it again.” His face was the sternest Amber had ever seen it.
“Quite so,” said the boy mildly. Like his magic, he was odd. His features were distinctly Kaidan, but his complexion darker, like milky coffee. His hair was light and curly. He wore a grey open-fronted tunic, belted at the waist, sleeves rolled up to his elbows; wide-legged trousers; and sandals. “But you know, I can’t have you further damaging these students.”
He indicated the prone or gently moaning air ninjas. Seven Torou Academy students, all worse for the wear.
One of them raised his head out of the sand and snarled at the newcomer, “Stay out of this, ksai.” Amber didn’t know what it meant, but it sounded particularly nasty. Troi knelt and looked at the younger boy in the eye. “You’re not any better, kid.”
“And you are a blot on the family name,” hissed the air ninja in the sand. Amber was sure this was the Torou student who’d called her a trophy girlfriend. She decided she didn’t like him at all. “How dare you prance around with our family heirlooms?”
“Because Grandfather willed them to me, coz. You jealous?” Troi raised an eyebrow. “I’m happy to duel you for them. In about a month, when you can hobble about again.”
The other boy drew in a breath to retort.
Amber whipped around. She felt another presence coming—strong suns, air magic, but distinctly feminine.
A Kaidan girl landed on the beach in a flurry of winds, her clothes and hair fluttering artistically. Amber’s hair blew into her mouth. Yuck.
“Pod!” she scolded the part-Kaidan boy. “Don’t go charging off and throwing around weird spells on your own. And you, Shou.” She glared at the unlikeable boy still lying in the sand. “You’ve already made a mess of things. Let your elders deal with it now.” Apparently, she had plenty of ire to spread around—or else, she just liked scolding people indiscriminately.
Troi got to his feet. Annoyance flickered over his face. “Naia. What are you doing here?”
Kael’s eyes widened at the name. Amber noticed how carefully he stepped out of the picture and came to stand next to her.
“What’s going on?” Amber whispered.
“Just watch,” Kael whispered back.
The girl put one hand on her hip and raised her eyebrows. She was not exactly beautiful, but there was something striking about her all the same, with those high, broad cheekbones, dark long-lashed eyes, full lips, and curvy figure. “Isn’t it obvious? It’s time for you to stop playing around, Troi, and come back home.”
“Did you instigate all this, Naia?” Troi gestured at the beaten air ninjas. “Roughing up Heartwood students to lure me into the open?”
“Oh, please, Troi. When do I need to skulk around you? No, Shou did this all on his own.”
Shou spat blood-stained sand out of his mouth. “This is an Irekai matter. Kentai needs to stay out of this.”
Amber’s eyes widened. Even she had heard of the Irekai family of Kaidan. I had no idea Troi was a member of a First Family.
“Unfortunately, Kentai is very much part of all this,” said Naia with a sigh. “What this dolt does reflects on us, too. After all, I am engaged to the idiot.” She gestured towards Troi, in case there was any doubt as to which idiot she referred to.
Whaaaat? Amber mouthed the word at Kael. He shrugged.
This was becoming more and more like a melodrama.
“A promise made between our families when we were just children.” Troi bit out the words.
“And binding on us as members of First Families,” Naia shot back. “Great Sea, Troi, are you seriously renouncing your name? In front of all these witnesses?” She swept her arm to indicate the whole beach, as if cliffs and curious seagulls were as much witnesses as the dozen or so people. “You know what will happen if you do that.”
Troi’s eyes narrowed. “Are you here to threaten me, Naia?”
“I’m attempting to talk some sense into you.” The girl sighed again, put her hands on her hips, and looked up at the sky as if asking for heavenly guidance. “As is my duty.”
Amber tilted her head towards Kael and whispered, “She sure is—dramatic.” She could see how the usually cool, collected Troi would have a personality clash with the flamboyant Naia. Even her gestures were flashy, and her clothes, though practical for an air ninja, were brightly colored and decorated.
“We should stay out of this, Amber,” Kael whispered back.
“Agreed.” Even that powerful mage, Pod—and what was that magic?—and the other Torou Academy boys were staying quiet and still, like good little mice, stares flickering between Naia and Troi. Shou, now ignored, scowled.
“You have no duty towards me, Naia,” Troi said. “Like Shou said, this is an Irekai matter. Go home and find someone else to fix.”
Naia rolled her eyes. “I wish I could go home. But I figured I owed your family this favor. Because, you see, if I hadn’t come, then the Imperators would have. This is your last chance, Troi.”
Troi’s fists clenched, then slowly, deliberately relaxed. “They would’ve gone that far.”
“Will go that far, if I don’t return to Kaidan with you.” Naia spread out her hands. “So, which is it to be? Remember that your decision affects more people than just you.”
“Ah, I see. You’re worried about your own reputation being sullied. I knew this would come back to Kentai honor above all else for you, Naia.”
Naia raised an eyebrow. “Kentai honor is not such a fragile thing, Troi. I was thinking about your mother and sisters. Your school here and your friends. Do you really intend to drag them into this?”
Troi was silent for a long time. Then, “No. I do not.”
Amber stifled a gasp. Naia’s shoulders visibly relaxed. Kael’s expression didn’t change.
“Then you’ll come back with me,” said Naia.
Naia jerked her head up. She gave Troi a startled look, then shook her head. “You fool. All this because you’re in a rebellious phase.” Her brows drew together. “Do you honestly think you’re the only youth to chafe under authority? We’ve all been there, you know, at some point or another. But at least the rest of us are willing to compromise, instead of burning all the bridges that connect us to our families and our histories.”
“Naia,” said Troi with scathing patience, “spare me the bit-part lines from a second-rate drama. You have no idea what you’re talking about, and you don’t know what’s happened between me and Irekai.”
“If this is about your grandfather…” Naia began.
Troi’s hand flashed to his sword. Anger blazed in his eyes. For one wild moment, he looked like he was about to sweep Naia’s head off her shoulders with his blade.
To her credit, Naia faced him unflinchingly. The air around her and Troi stirred ominously, currents prowling between the two.
“Don’t even go there,” Troi growled.
“You can’t keep hiding from the truth forever, Troi.” Amber admired Naia’s nerve, but the girl really didn’t know when to shut up.
“My lady, my lord,” Pod broke in mildly. Everyone turned to him, Naia stormy, Troi cold, the rest relieved. Amber didn’t know how he dared to interrupt but was glad someone had broken the atmosphere of impending violence around Troi and Naia. “This may not be the best time and place to settle a private matter. Perhaps we should deal with what’s before us for the moment.”
Troi’s brows snapped together as he surveyed Pod. Then realization crept into his eyes. To Amber’s surprise, he bent his head in a quick gesture of agreement and respect.
“I’m done here,” he told Naia. “You want to help? Get these”—he gestured at the Torou boys—“off the beach and back to the Island.”
Troi stalked away, hand on the hilt of his sword, winds eddying about him like a tattered cloak. “Come on, Kael, Amber. Let Naia take care of the trash. I wouldn’t want her to have come all the way here and not have a chance to be useful.”
Naia just rolled her eyes again.
Another surprise awaited the trio when they arrived at Heartwood, Troi working off his emotions with a savage pace and Kael and Amber straggling behind.
Actually, Amber admitted to herself, I’m straggling. Kael’s only keeping me company.
Several Torou Academy boys were lined up in the courtyard, facing Heartwood’s main entrance. Amber recognized the three who had attacked Flavius, the injured boy held up by his friends. All of them looked worse for the wear. Lisette stood in front of the doors, arms folded and expression fierce, ready to guard the school all by herself.
The Torou boys were accompanied by a tiny figure. A child? Amber wondered.
But no, it was a girl about Amber and Lisette’s own age, dressed in the same sort of drab clothing Pod had worn. On her, though, they matched her austere beauty. Fully Kaidan, the girl had delicate features, lustrous hair, and soft, dark eyes. In addition, she wore tall wooden sandals and a straw hat with a grey chin-strap. Her sleeves were long and wide, and she bowed deeply with her hands tucked into them.
“We deeply regret,” she was saying as Amber and the boys came within earshot, “what these unworthy boys have done. Please forgive the trouble they have caused. They are young and too much indulged.” Everything about her was correct, from the depth of her bow to the politeness of her diction.
The boys in question didn’t look at all sorry. Most of them wore expressions varying from sullenness to hostility.
The girl straightened, stepped aside, and spoke to them, “Tender your most abject apologies, younglings.”
One of them began, in a whine, “Why do we have to…?”
A flash of magic, a slash of air, quick and savage. The boy winced. Bleeding lines, in the shape of a Kaidan character, scored his cheek.
It had happened in an eyeblink. The pattern vibrated gently in the aftermath.
The girl hadn’t moved at all. Her hands still in her sleeves, her back still straight, she spoke once again, without varying her tone. “Apologize.”
A shiver ran down Amber’s back. Kael’s mouth was tight, Troi’s expression stony. Lisette’s hands had dropped; she stood poised as if to attack. “We don’t need coerced apologies.”
The Kaidan girl ignored her. She looked at the boys with eyes that showed no pity, no anger, nothing that could be called emotion.
The pattern around her was drawn tight, full of strands like fine wires. Wires that were metallic, delicate, almost invisible, and incredibly complex.
The Torou boys fidgeted, giving each other sidelong glances. The one with the bleeding cheek stood staring straight ahead, eyes bright and mouth bitter. Then he knelt, touched his head to the ground, and said, “I am eternally ashamed of what I have done. I throw myself on your mercy.” His voice was edged with acid.
Belatedly, the others followed suit, kneeling awkwardly, their voices a ragged chorus.
Looking sick, Lisette made an impatient gesture for them to get up. “All right, all right. I’m not the one you need to apologize to, but for my part, at least, all is forgiven. I can’t speak for the others, though.”
The Kaidan girl’s brows twitched, just a little. Was there the tiniest suggestion of a crease on her smooth brow? “You are not satisfied?”
She looked quite capable of requiring the Torou boys to flagellate themselves right in front of the school. Amber caught Lisette’s eye and mouthed an alarmed, Say it’s all right! at her.
“It’s all right,” said Lisette hastily. “Let the Masters decide what will happen next. There’s nothing you can do anymore. You may leave, with my acceptance of the apology.”
The girl bowed again, perfectly correct. “My deepest apologies for taking your time with such unworthy boys as these.” She turned to them. “Now you will return with me to Torou.” Her tone was still even, but Amber would’ve cheerfully walked into a lion’s den than go anywhere with that tiny Kaidan girl.
“Wait!” Lisette called out. “Who are you, if anyone should ask?”
“This humble mage is Doua of Haava.” Again the bow. “But I am not worthy for you to remember my name, my lady.” She waited, holding the obeisance.
“I’m not a—” Lisette stopped, uncharacteristically flustered. “Never mind. Please, do go on.” Her tone was just a little too eager. Amber well understood.
She also wanted the unnerving Kaidan girl as far away as possible.
The four Heartwood students watched Doua shepherd her charges, taking small, careful steps in her wooden shoes.
Kael spoke for all of them. “Scary! I think I prefer Naia.”
“I hate to say it, but I do, too,” said Troi. “That was one of the Whispering Winds—she and the boy down on the beach.”
“Who are the Whispering Winds?” asked Amber. “You mentioned them before.”
“They’re the elite youth of the various training academies. They’re the ones who’ll become Kaidan’s topmost battle mages—or undercover operators.” Noting Amber’s blank expression, Troi explained, “They’ll be Imperators.” He looked at Doua’s distant figure. “I don’t know what she and this Pod are doing at Torou, though. Neither of them went there.”
“Her control,” said Lisette, “is something I’ve never seen before. I had no idea anyone could shape air blades like that.”
Kael and Troi both looked solemn.
“She’d be hard to beat in a fight,” Lisette continued. “May the Protector ensure we don’t come to that.”
“But she apologized,” said Amber. “It should be all over, right?”
Kael and Lisette looked at Troi. Tiredly, he said, “It’s a face-saving gesture. Don’t read too much into it.” He brushed past Lisette on his way to the door and called over his shoulder, “I’m going to see the Headmaster now. Don’t come find me for a while.” The events of the day seemed to suddenly weigh heavily on him.
Amber, remembering what Naia had said about Imperators, felt a shadow fall over her. What’s he going to do? she wondered.
Author’s Note: Three new characters this time! Fun fact: Naia was the only new character introduced in the first draft of this. I added Pod and Doua because I wanted to show off more specialized air ninja skills. All three are fun to write, so expect more of them. I hope you enjoyed this episode!