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IDENTIFYING THE PROBLEM
Firstmorn, First of Winter, 7438 – EY Day 182
It rarely snows on Wizard’s Reach. The island’s location, barely twenty-five hundred miles north of Amedia’s equator, dictates a moderately warm climate for most of the year.
Yet, sometimes it does snow. I vividly remember it snowing the winter I was three. At first I was scared, but once a couple of my friends joined me and I’d gone out to play in the beautiful whiteness, it became the most exciting day of my young life.
First of Winter, 7438, was another one of those times when it snowed. Perhaps it was Amedia’s way of providing joy to the children, who would not get a light show because there was no Magic with which to fashion one. Perhaps it was merely a sign of the World’s failing health, as the Magic which is Amedia’s life force continued to fade. Either way, the residents of Thunderhead Town awoke to a billow of white on First of Winter Firstmorn. The blanket of snow that followed was neither deep nor enduring, but bitterly reflective of the chilly mood of the city’s Plain folk.
I couldn’t help seeing the snowfall through the small window above my dormitory bed, of course. Though dawn had barely broken, I rose quickly and dressed as quietly as I could, then left the other girls to enjoy their holiday morning slumber while I made my way out to the dormitory common room. There, the huge, nearly wall-sized window would provide a spectacular view of the uncommon event.
I was stopped in my tracks as I entered the common room, though, by the sight of Nik Firewind, staring intently at the swirling flurry. He was sprawled on a divan he had dragged close to the room’s central fireplace and turned to face the window; his face bore a look of rapture so intense that I nearly lost my breath. Certainly, my heart skipped a beat — Nik was, after all, my very recently avowed boyfriend. Seeing him focused so intently on the beauty and bounty of Amedia was … well, both breathtaking and heartwarming, at the same time.
I allowed myself a long moment of watching Nik watch the snow, before making my way around the fireplace. I stopped at Nik’s side and gently placed a hand on his shoulder.
“Nik,” I began softly, “are you —”
He started, stiffening for an instant before relaxing and raising his own hand to caress mine as it lay on his shoulder.
“Astra,” he said, his joy-filled tone as quiet as mine. “Good morning. Here, join me.” He skooched to one side of the divan, creating a space beside him large enough for me to lie on. “We can watch the snow together.”
My heart melted and for that moment I wanted nothing more than to cuddle with my boyfriend and watch the snowfall. At least, that’s what my heart wanted. As for my mind …
Oh, shush, I scolded my practical side as it tried to side-track my feelings. It’s First of Winter and I deserve at least a moment of bliss.
Heedless of the fact that any of the others could join us without notice, I wormed my way into the space Nik had cleared and shivered with joy as he put his arm around me and pulled me close. The crackling blaze in the nearby fireplace, which Nik had clearly tended for it to be so cheerful after a long winter’s night, warmed those parts of me its heat could reach; the rest of me drew warmth from the amazing boy who was cuddling me. For a brief moment I felt content … felt happy enough to forget about everything we faced.
I could even feel some of the tension leave my body as Nik began to gently rub my shoulder.
“Have you ever seen snow before?” Nik’s words seemed to come from a thousand miles away. “I’m told it’s rare here on Wizard’s Reach.”
I had to force my eyes open, to briefly look at him and to concentrate on what he’d said, so relaxed had I become.
“Mmm,” I moaned softly, as his hand continued to caress my arm and neck and shoulder. “Yes, I saw snow once when I was little. It was … mmm! … fun, after I stopped being scared of it. Why?”
“It snows every winter in Norland,” he murmured. “Seeing it like this reminded me of home. But —”
The hand on my arm stilled before Nik pulled me even closer to him. “I just realized that my home is here, now, because I’m here with you.”
“Mmm,” was all I could manage in response. My eyes drifted shut once more as a feeling of sheer contentment settled over me.
Then I felt his lips kiss my forehead. My eyes flew open and the practical part of me surged once more, causing me to stiffen and swallow hard.
“Nik,” I said, a bit louder than before and with no contentment at all lingering in my tone. “I … we need to …”
He sighed. “I know,” he said, his voice filled with both reluctance and resignation. “We need to talk, to plan. We need to hold a council session and figure out what we’re going to do. Only …”
He pulled me against him once more, in a hug that was at the same time intense and desperate, yet still tender.
“Only, I hate missing even a moment of being alone with you.” He cleared his throat, as though embarrassed to go on, but then continued regardless. “Astra, I know we’re both pretty young to become involved this way. But we’re also pretty young for me to be a Wizard Council member and for you to be … whatever you are,” he added, though I could tell he meant it with wonder rather than disparagement. “We’re way too young to have the fate of the World on our backs. None of that changes the facts: We’re the only Wizards left who can save the World. It is what it is. I just …”
“I know,” I jumped in when Nik trailed off. “I feel the same. Nik, six months ago I was desperately trying to fit in, to be the Wizard I knew I had to be. I had no interest in boys, none at all. But now, you and me … well, I want that, too. It’s just, something inside me gets in the way every time I try to let it happen the way that I want it to. I’m not sure how we can commit to each other, not all the way, until we save Amedia.Until the World is saved, there’s no place for you or me, let alone you and me.”
He kissed my forehead once more, then sighed again and sat up. “I know, I know. I don’t have to like that you’re right, but you’re right. Come on, let’s go plan a Council meeting.”
There wasn’t all that much to plan. We quickly decided that what we needed to discuss could begin over breakfast when everyone was up; other than that, I suggested that we look into moving the council chamber closer to our dormitory so we wouldn’t have to troop downstairs every day. Nik and I only had to check a few rooms on the same floor as the dormitory before finding one that was the right size — smaller than the room downstairs, but still big enough to hold everyone. We took note of its location and headed back. When we arrived, some of the others were up and huddled around the common room fireplace.
“Everyone else still asleep?” Nik’s question was directed at no one in particular.
“Feeling lazy for the holiday,” Salla Strongaerie added. “But it’s so much warmer out here, they’ll all probably join us in a —”
She cut herself off as the door opened to the girls’ dorm, allowing Carlaine Rockport and Sanora Rainwater to push through. Both of them headed directly toward the fire, each claiming a chair and each leaning forward, proffering their hands toward the flames and visibly shivering. Salla chuckled at the sight.
“You’d think they’d never seen snow before,” the girl from Leaside continued, her voice filled with humor.
“Is that what that is? Snow,” Sanora muttered, briefly glancing at the room’s large window. “Thank Amedia we don’t get it in Heartland. I’ve never been this cold in my life.”
“I bet you get snow in the Great Desert,” Antoine teased her. “There’s certainly snow on the lower plains of Highstone all winter.”
Sanora shivered again and briskly rubbed her hands together. “Maybe so,” she allowed, “but the weather in Maranth is definitely warmer.” Maranth is Sanora’s home town, Heartland’s capital, and a city even farther south than Wizard’s Reach. They probably didn’t ever get snow down there.
Still, it wasn’t cold because of the snow, it was snowing because it was cold … far colder than usual.
None of that mattered, though. We had things to decide. Looking around the room, I noted that Hammel Broadprairie and Wizard André were the last ones still missing, and nudged Nik with my elbow, nodding toward the Boys’ dormitory door when I got his attention.
“Why don’t you roust the last couple of guys so we can head out for breakfast?” Nik nodded and headed in that direction.
“So who’s hungry,” Jorg Boxforest asked as he stood and stretched. “I’m betting the Brotbäckers have put together something special for the holiday.”
“They probably have, Jorg,” I spoke up, raising my voice a bit to be sure everyone would hear, “but we’ve got stuff we need to talk about. Nik and I —”
“Yes, we need to have a council meeting,” Maikel Seabreeze interrupted me from the divan on which he lay. His voice sounded leaden, as though he was exhausted. “But can’t business wait until after breakfast, Astra? I mean, it is First of Winter.”
I stared across the room at the crippled boy from South Beach. He didn’t stare back at me — his eyes were closed — but Jenna Gentlehaze, Maikel’s girlfriend and a constant presence at his side since he’d returned to Wizard’s Reach, stared back in his place.
“Maikel needs to eat to build up his strength,” Jenna announced, her voice flat. Jenna is my best friend; I knew better than to argue with her when it came to Maikel. She was devoted to him because she loved him, that love having led Jenna to assume the position as his defender and advocate in all things. The reason he needed an advocate was complicated: Maikel was alive and slowly healing because the rogue Wizard, Blight, had used his Magic to heal Maikel ... right after he had caused those injuries, a by-blow of Blight’s drive to slaughter most of the active Wizards on Amedia.
I didn’t begrudge Jenna being protective; Amedia knows how I’d feel if Nik had been injured that way. On the other hand, Maikel had mustered enough force of will to get himself back to Wizard’s Reach after the battle and had fostered the whole reincarnation of the Wizard Council on his own … no small feat, given his physical condition, and the fact that all of us, including the four who were actual council heirs, were merely thirteen-year-old apprentices.
No, there was more force of will to Maikel Seabreeze than his girlfriend cared to acknowledge. But again, this was not the time to argue. Likely enough, the talk at breakfast would turn to business regardless of what any of us intended. With that in mind, I pretended to consider the options.
“You know, Maikel, you’re right,” I said at last, and I could see tension drain from both Maikel and Jenna’s features. “And since it is First of Winter, how about we all go down to breakfast together? Jorg is right, the Brotbäckers probably do have something special prepared. I promise not to raise any business until we’ve all eaten.”
At that moment, the Boys’ dorm door opened and Nik herded out the last of the slugabeds, Hammel and my mentor, Wizard André Skyecatcher. That was my cue to make my way over to Maikel and Jenna to help them head for breakfast — Magic was the safest way for Maikel to do the stairs, and mine was the only Magic that still worked. It was everyone else’s cue to head out, creating a stream of bodies moving toward the common room’s huge double doors, visions of Festival day breakfast dancing in our heads.
Once we got to the kitchen, though, the “festival breakfast” was disappointing. While the Brotbäckers did their best with what they had, making it as tasty and cheerful as they could, what they had was distressingly little. I don’t believe the Plain Folk of Thunderhead were actively trying to starve us out of Thunderhead Castle, but they weren’t going out of their way to make us comfortable, either. Yes, food is always harder to come by in the winter … but there were less than two dozen of us living in the castle at that point.
When we were all finished and heading for the council chamber, I pulled Nik aside. “Is the council going to discuss what we apprentices are going to do, now that Blight has won?”
Nik looked at me, his brows deeply furrowed. “What do you mean, ‘do’?”
I drew a breath to cover my hesitation. “Are we just going to sit here at Thunderhead and accept that Magic is dead?”
He shook his head. “I imagine we’ll talk about it, yes,” he answered slowly, “though I’m not sure what we can do without Magic.”
I opened my mouth to answer, then flashed back on Nik lighting a fire the night Maikel returned, using Magic he apparently borrowed from me through the gems we both wore.
“What about that Flamme spell you worked the other night?”
Nik’s face took on a haunted look; when he spoke, his voice was barely a whisper. “Was that even real?”
I reached out to hold his hand that wore the gemstone ring, raising it between us. “I’m pretty sure that it was,” I said, trying to sound sure and unsure at the same time, as I remembered a horrible vision I’d had of Nik using my Magic through the ring just before Blight killed him.
Nik stood silent for a long moment, his eyes flicking between me and the ring he wore. “I was afraid of that,” he finally allowed. “Astra, I don’t think we should say anything until we test the idea more. I mean, if I can tap into your Magic, that’s great, it might go a long way to making things better. But what if I’m the only one who can do it? And,” he added ominously as a thought obviously crossed his mind, “what if tapping into your Magic harms you in some way? There’s a lot to consider before we just blindly offer you up as a resource for all of us.”
I pulled his hand a little higher and kissed it gently. This was why I had come to love Nik so much — he thought deeply about everything and always put me first, whether or not he realized it.
“You’re right,” I admitted, “we do have to test it more. We should probably bring Wizards André and Hucklebee in on the question as well.”
He twisted his hand in mine until he could squeeze my fingers tenderly. “Then let’s plan on doing that,” he said, clearly decided. “And let’s do the testing before we say anything in council.”
I sighed again, not liking what my boyfriend said but seeing the wisdom in his words. “All right,” I agreed, trying not to sound reluctant. “We’ll talk to Wizard André about it right after the meeting.”
Nik nodded, then used his hold on my hand to lead me out of the kitchen and toward the council chamber.
We were the last ones into the chamber, the same room where I’d been questioned for days, just before the old council members had headed off to their doom at Blight’s hands. To my mind that was another good reason to create a new council chamber upstairs, near our dormitory, though I hadn’t mentioned it to Nik as we’d checked out the available rooms. After all, I’m not officially a member of the council. Only the four who inherited the positions from their dead parents are official members — Nik, Maikel, Antoine Deephaven and Sanora Rainwater — plus Jenna, my best friend, chosen as proxy for the one old council member who remained alive, Cynthia Cloudholder.
Jenna and Cloudholder are both from Cunedon, so aside from being Maikel’s girlfriend, Jenna had been the logical choice to stand in. Cloudholder was technically alive, but her brain was dead from something Blight had done. As long as she continued to live, she remained a symbol of continuity from the old council to the new.
While I’m not “officially” a council member, those who are had made it very clear that they consider me and all of their fellow apprentices to be council advisors ... which is smart, since five members barely fulfills the minimum requirement set by the old council in an emergency decree. Besides, the thirteen of us had bonded in a unique sort of way, over the past half year. None of us had any practical experience at World government — most of us were, after all, only thirteen, though a couple had recently turned fourteen — so why not all put our heads together?
There was also the fact that I was the only one who still had Magic.
I pulled away from Nik as we entered, heading for a seat in the “audience” section and leaving him to claim his place at the council table. He paused to give me a questioning look before moving toward the table, which was large enough to seat twelve council members and so looked oddly empty with only the five of them seated there. For a moment I pondered the look Nik had given me — had he expected me to sit with him, just because I’m his girlfriend? — but then put the question aside as Maikel rapped his knuckles on the table to call the session to order.
“It looks like we’re all here, so we should probably get started.” We were, indeed, all there; even Wizards André and Hucklebee, the only remaining Senior Wizards that we knew of, had slipped in when I wasn’t paying attention.
“Since this is the first formal meeting we’re having since … ah, since we were forced to take over for our parents,” Maikel said, and the pain on his face was clearly emotional and not just a result of his Blight-inflicted injuries, “we probably need to spend some time getting organized.”
Nik briefly looked like he was about to say something, but quickly changed his mind — Amedia, I thought, he couldn’t already be trying to say something about sharing my Magic, when he’s the one who said to wait!
“The first thing I believe we need to decide —”
“Can I make a suggestion, first?”
Sanora looked uncomfortable as she interrupted Maikel’s thought, but she also had a look of determination about her that the others quickly noted and bowed to.
“Sure,” Maikel quickly acceded. “It’s not like … I mean, we don’t have to make these meetings as formal as our parents always did. What’s on your mind, Sanora?”
“It …” She hesitated, looking around the room and releasing a small shudder before continuing. “It’s this room,” she finally went on. “I — I just don’t feel comfortable here. I mean, our parents were the last ones to sit at this table! And,” she glanced at me, “some of us weren’t treated really well in here.”
“Ah,” Maikel began, then turned to look at the other members one by one.“I don’t think it matters where we meet, Sanora. I’m open to almost anything, as long as we stay here in the Castle.” There were some nervous chuckles from everyone in the room; all of us had seen the growing presence of Plain folk loitering around, just outside the Thunderhead Castle gates.
“Did you have some place specific in mind?”
“Not really,” Sanora responded, sounding even more uncomfortable than she had been. “I —”
“I’ve got a place in mind,” Nik broke in.
Maikel’s eyes widened a bit before he nodded in Nik’s direction. “Sure, Nik,” he finally acknowledged. “You been talking to Sanora about this?”
“No,” my boyfriend returned, “though I would have if I’d known you felt that way, Sanora.” The girl from Heartland nodded curtly. “It’s just, Astra and I were up early this morning and found a room on the third floor that looks perfect. We were thinking, it would be a good thing to move us up to the same floor as the dormitory, so we don’t have to trudge up and down the stairs to meet. Getting away from this room would be a nice plus, as well.”
“I’ll bet it wasn’t a council room you two were looking for,” Hammel Broadprairie called out, his tone carrying enough sexy overtones to make me blush and drawing raucous laughter from everyone else there … no, not raucous laughter, bawdy laughter, like I’ve heard on countless occasions in pubs when groups of men get together. I caught Nik’s eyes from across the room and saw him smile sheepishly. Well, I suppose that might have been on our agenda, even though we hadn’t actually talked about it — those few minutes we cuddled in the dormitory common room had been wonderful, but the worry that we could be discovered at any moment had hovered in the back of my mind the entire time. After all, the common room was a space for all of us. The privacy of Nik and I having our own room would be very welcome.
It’s not like there’s a shortage of rooms in Thunderhead Castle.
As the laughter died down I dragged my attention back to the room and noticed that both Jenna and Maikel were blushing as well — Maybe Nik and I aren’t the only ones looking for some privacy, I mused, as Maikel visibly threw off his discomfort before turning back to business.
“I think we should limit our interest to the potential council room they found,” Maikel finally said, causing everyone to chuckle once more and re-igniting a burning in my cheeks that comes as a side effect of my very obvious, red-haired blush. I tried to sink into my chair — difficult because the pesky thing was made from solid wood — but Nik took a different tack, sitting up straighter and clearing his throat.
“Yes, let’s concentrate on the new council room,” he said a little too loudly, maybe to distract people from looking at me. “It’s a good bit smaller than this room, but then, we only need a table big enough for five, right?”
“Ah … well, right now there are only five of us,” Maikel answered after a moment. “I’ve been thinking, though. Isn’t it possible there are some other heirs left? Kids younger than us, I mean — Blight would have killed anyone older. Surely some of the provincial families had young kids or maybe grandkids.”
“I’m pretty sure the Sureflights had a granddaughter,” Salla called out, a look of sudden inspiration on her face. “She would have been left with her guardians and teachers when all the Wizards headed off to fight.”
“Exactly,” Maikel crowed triumphantly. “Any idea how old she is? I mean, obviously, the bunch of us are pretty young to form the council, but if there are other heirs out there …”
“We’ve got to go find them,” Sanora broke in. “We’ve got to … I don’t know, bring them here? Protect them, anyway.”
Antoine frowned. “You think Blight’s going to track down children and kill them?”
“I don’t know.” Sanora shrugged. “I wouldn’t put it past him. But … well, a lot of Wizard kids were probably left with Plain nannies when their parents left. You know how angry the Plain folk have become around here? I think I’m more worried about kids out there with Plain folk taking care of them than I am of Blight finding them. The Plain folk might not actually hurt them, but —”
“How about the kids who were left in their own care,” Haaral Nestfeather broke in. “You know, groups of a half-dozen kids, with the oldest looking after the younger ones?”
“Yeah, that’s the way my parents would have done it,” Salla noted.
“Even if we find them, how can they be raised as Wizards?” Danni Quickblaze’s question brought silence to the room. “There isn’t any Magic left, except for Astra.”
“And Blight,” I heard someone mutter, too softly for me to recognize the voice.
“Speaking of Astra,” Maikel said, then turned his gaze to me. “You haven’t said anything yet. What do you think? Will your people hurt the kids?”
I gasped at the question. I was raised Plain, it’s true, but I hadn’t thought of Plain folk as “my people” since becoming a Wizard. Regardless, the thought of Plain folk or anyone else hurting innocent kids, just because they happened to be Wizard, was simply appalling. Maikel’s question was also a blunt reminder that everyone was worried about me possibly having split loyalties … meaning, if Plain folk were becoming a danger to Wizards, then just how safe are Wizards around me?
“I —” I began, then hesitated. Sure, I spent the first twelve and a half years of my life as a Plain girl. I knew the drill, when it came to Plain existence. For most of my life, though, I’d wanted nothing more than to become a Wizard. I’d learned how to be Plain, of course, but I never thought of myself as truly being Plain. Were Plain folk really “my people”?
“I can’t imagine anyone hurting a small child,” I finally managed. “But yes, the Plain folk around here are incensed with Wizards. That became pretty obvious from some merchants I talked with. On the other hand, they might have good cause to be angry. I wouldn’t have imagined it from the Wizards I met growing up, but after meeting some of those Wizards who came with the old council ... ugh. You all remember how snotty those Wizards were toward Plain folk? Heck, they were snotty toward us, after all we did to keep Magic available on Wizard’s Reach!”
Nik eyed me from across the room. “You mean Wizards like my grandfather.”
“Well … Wizards from the Mainland, anyway.”
“Far too many Wizards never accepted Plain equality,” Wizard Hucklebee spoke up from the back of the room, where he and Wizard André had remained silent this whole time. “A century ago there was no equality — Grand Wizard Stormcloud worked very hard to make equality a reality, especially here on Wizard’s Reach, but even he acknowledged there’s a long way left to go on the rest of Amedia. So yes, Nik, people like your grandfather — people born in older times, who never really accepted Plain equality as the law of the land. They didn’t always treat Plain folk well. And given the long lifespans we Wizards enjoy, there were a lot of Wizards in that position.”
“Nik,” I said forcefully, “you are not your grandfather.”
Nik sat staring at me for a long moment as silence built in the room. Finally he blew out a breath and hung his head.
“No, I’m not,” he said quietly. “None of us here have the same attitudes and prejudices that our parents and grandparents had … but neither do any of these kids we’re talking about, however many of them there might be. That’s why it’s up to us to find them and protect them, be it fromBlightor from Plain folk.”
“But how are we going to do anything?” Sanora looked around the room from her position at the council table, a picture of hopelessness etched on her face. “I mean, it’s a long way to the mainland, let alone the other side of the mainland. How do we get there? Plain folk control all the ships.”
Once again, Nik looked like he was about to say something and since we’d agreed not to mention sharing my Magic, I stood up and faced the room. “We’ll figure something out, Sanora,” I said, glancing at her before focusing on the others. “If nothing else, my father happens to captain one of those ships.”
Sanora got an odd look on her face and slowly sat back in her chair.
“Are we agreed, then,” Maikel asked, after again rapping his knuckles on the table. “We’re going to figure out a way to find any Wizard kids and bring them here?”
“Find them and save them,” Jenna said, speaking for the first time. “But let’s figure out how we’re going to do that, before we worry about where to find them and where to take them.”
Maikel shrugged and threw Jenna a smile, then rapped on the table once more. “Councilors? Under the emergency decree we need a unanimous vote.”
“Let’s do it,” Nik said immediately.
“We don’t have a choice,” Sanora said. “Of course we do it, somehow.”
“Yes,” Antoine said simply.
Jenna smiled shyly but seemed to grow in stature as she sat there. “I’m still not comfortable with this acting councilor thing,” she said softly, “but we’re talking about kids. I have no doubt that Wizard Cloudholder would be in favor. So, yes. I vote yes.”
Maikel rapped on the table. “The motion is carried. It’s, ah … it’s unanimous,” he added, suddenly realizing he hadn’t announced his own vote. “Now we need to figure out —”
“May I suggest,” Wizard André broke in, “that we discuss this more informally up in the common room? I suspect that we’ll all feel more comfortable somewhere other than —”He glanced around significantly. “This place. While we’re up there, we can also check out this new room that Nik and Astra found.”
“Good idea,” Maikel said, and sent Wizard André a look of relief. “The meeting is … well, let’s just say, we’re done for now. Let’s go talk about this and see what we come up with.”