COMING OF AGE
Whether princess of peasant,
Healer or warrior;
Their destinies are intertwined.
They just don't know it yet.
The evil headmaster and his allies have been thwarted, but the teen wards still have some growing up to do. Studies become harder, romances begin to take hold, and war begins to touch their lives as Humo shifts his evil plans for world domination into full gear. And Humo is not the only threat the wards face.
From illness to fireballs, the Debellos use every trick they can to vanquish the wards. And when the two powerful countries of Syntrea and Massea stand at the brink of war, the alliance keeping the eastern invaders at bay is all but lost. But the Princess and Jamu have joined forces, and Jamu has a plan. Can they defy the Headmaster's will and live to tell the tale? And will their partnership kill any chance Ben has left to win over Jania's heart?
A New Year
Rohen watched gloomily from behind his mug as Jamu chatted with the golden-haired dancer who had decided to join them. Her eye had been on him when she came over, but then Jamu had to open his mouth, and now she seemed to have completely forgotten that he was there. Ben and Jania watched the banter between Jamu and the dancer with amused smiles on their faces.
“After all these years of coming here, you finally seem old enough for me to talk to you, young Surian. How old are you?”
“I will be sixteen this winter,” Jamu replied.
“That is still quite young, but Surians tend to be very mature for their age. Some of the things I hear about your people are fascinatingly wicked.”
“Oh, is that so?” Jamu took a sip from his mug. “And what exactly have you heard about my people?”
“It would not be proper to speak of such things in public. But I know of a quiet place where we can talk in private. I would love to find out if the things I have heard about Surians are true.”
Rohen would have laughed at the look on Jania’s face if he were not so irritated. Of course, the dancer did not know who Jania was. Would she still speak to Jamu so brazenly if she knew the Princess-Heir of Syntrea was seated across from her?
“Do not take this the wrong way. I came here to have a few drinks with my friends, and I do not wish to abandon them. I am sorry,” Jamu told the dancer, squeezing her hand in apology.
Rohen lifted his mug to his face to hide his grimace. He was not even interested in her! “I would be able to clarify any misconceptions you have about Surians,” he said to the curvy young woman.
She gave him a stiff smile in return. “The Surian would know his country best,” she replied.
Ben turned his face away quickly, and Jamu gave him a teasing look. Rohen gave the dancer a tight smile of his own. At least his face was not getting hot.
“You know, your friends seem quite capable of getting along without you for a little while,” the dancer said, turning once again to Jamu.
Jamu gave the dancer an appraising look. He was definitely reconsidering.
The front door to the tavern opened and Galen walked in. She looked around, spotted them, and walked over.
“Hello, Firefly. Are you and Megan done? Did you buy anything?”
“A few things. Meggie left for home. I think she’s going to see Yar.” Galen sat down next to Rohen.
“You have such a pretty little face,” the dancer said to Galen. “Why don’t you let your hair grow?”
“My troop leader will not allow it,” Galen replied.
The dancer nodded. “I see. He must have a very good reason.”
A smile sprouted on Jamu’s face. Rohen closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead. Any chance he may have had with the dancer was gone.
“Rowy, I don’t feel very well,” Galen whispered to him.
Rohen looked at her. She was pale, and her eyes looked dull. He put a hand on her forehead. “You have a fever,” he told her.
“She does?” Ben asked.
Jamu reached over to feel her head. “She is very hot. Are you staying at Espies this weekend, Gayly?”
“No. This is our weekend at home.” Galen rested her head on the table. “I should have gone home with Meggie.”
“Ro, you should take her home,” Ben said.
A mean, desperate idea sprang into Rohen’s head. “No, I can’t go home yet. Galen can hold on there for a bit.” His eyes met Jamu’s. “Isn’t that right, Firefly?”
“I’ll be fine,” Galen mumbled.
Jamu’s eyes narrowed. He stood up. “I will take her home. Come on, Gayly.”
“Oh, must you?” The dancer asked, holding on to Jamu’s arm.
“I am her troop leader, and she has important drills next week. I have to make sure she is in good shape by then, and keeping her here is not going to help.” He pulled his arm away and offered it to Galen. “Good night, everyone,” he said, giving Rohen a scathing look as he walked past him toward the door.
The dancer stood up as soon as they left, giving Rohen an angry glare of her own. “Tell your Surian friend that I will be waiting for him here next weekend. Hopefully he will come here with real friends, and not you!” She flounced off.
This time his face did get hot. “That was a stupid thing to do,” he said to himself.
“Yes it was,” Jania scolded, throwing a handful of fried noodles at him. “How could you do something like that?”
“What the hell got into you?” Ben asked him.
Ashamed of himself, Rohen could only shrug.
v v v
Later that night, Rohen glumly led Trust through the leaf-strewn path leading to the cottage.
It was a terrible way to start off his final year. If the rest of it was as bad as this week, he did not think he would make it through. Healer Stanis took one of his troops from him. Besides the shock and scare of the close call, it was the second time his troop ended up one short. This year, the third-year cadets numbered exactly sixteen. Now Tuck was gone, and he had no one to cull from, so he was at a disadvantage from the start as far as troop ranking went. He had hoped this would be the year he could get his troops ranked first, but with only three of them, it would be hard.
He kicked dried leaves out of his way. Jamu’s troop had yet to relinquish top rank. In their first year as troop leaders, Rohen had attributed that to Jamu’s Tyros. Rus, Galen and Keran were the best Tyros then, and they were all in Jamu’s troop. It still made Rohen angry how Galen had slipped through his fingers and into the Surian’s hands. It was not Jamu’s fault, but it still felt as if he just jumped on the chance to get her. Jamu knew from Rohen how talented Galen was. Then, Keran’s talent shone through, and no other leader could even come close to Jamu’s group. Even after he gave up Keran to Rohen the following year – only a fool would have handed Galen over at that point – Jamu’s skill as a leader shone through in his cadets. Try as he did, Rohen just could not topple Jamu from his top ranking.
His troops were only part of his worries, however. More and more people were being sent to the Sanatorium. Psychic scans were happening more often, and people who had been hiding their secret for years were being discovered and sent away. Tuck’s taking had especially shaken him; he had been standing right beside him when the guards came. He could do nothing for his troop. And he could not even think about using his mental powers anymore. It was just too dangerous. Why couldn’t Jania just come out and tell everyone that psychics did not really go insane? No one would doubt her word. Did she know what she was doing?
Of course she did. Highborn people always knew what they were doing. Just like Jamu. Thinking of him made Rohen’s forehead itch.
He still felt terrible about what he did, but lately, he always felt bad about himself whenever he was around Jamu. He knew he was jealous, but he could not help it. Jamu always seemed to have the upper hand with everything. He loved his friend, but how could he pair with someone who made him feel insecure?
“Well, well, you look like you had a bad day,” a familiar voice crooned.
Rohen jumped and quickly brought up his nightvision. He gritted his teeth as he spotted the attractive woman right next to him. He could usually sense when Sanguis was nearby; he must have really been lost in thought. Giving Trust’s reins a tug, he kept walking.
Sanguis walked beside him. “You are finally beginning to see how futile this school is for you. Your talents are not being recognized. You cannot even do what you do best.”
“I am not in the mood for this, Sanguis,” Rohen said. “I am not going with you.” He wondered if Sanguis knew about his spellcasting abilities. He had tried all summer to get Ben or Jania to teach him about casting spells, but Jania had spent most of the summer working on reestablishing relations with Massea, and Ben had finally decided to see Widow June for help with his elemental talents.
“You just don’t want to admit that you really have no place here. This Academy is not for you. You are better than all these children here; you are greater than them. Let me get you to that greatness.”
“Why don’t you get yourself away from me, you overgrown bat!” Rohen snapped at her. “You will have to tie me up and knock me senseless to get me to go with you!”
A snarl was the only warning he received. His forearm stopped her hand from striking his face, but her nails stabbed painfully into his arm. He pulled his arm away and drew his swords. “Go home Trust,” he yelled.
Sanguis laughed as the gray horse galloped away. “Come on, pup, show me how little you can do to me.”
He charged. Sanguis blocked his strikes with her palms. As he stepped back, she showed him her hands. There was not so much as a welt on them.
“There’s more than one way to peel an apple,” Rohen said. He attacked again. This time, she smacked the swords out of his hands and backhanded him across the face.
Angry, Rohen held his hands out and willed his swords back into his hands. He boosted himself up into the air and struck at her head with both his swords and feet. If his psychic talent was discovered, then at least he would only go to the Sanatorium, and not with Sanguis.
His boot clipped the side of her head, but she grabbed his thigh and pulled him down roughly. His back hit the ground hard, knocking the wind out of him. He lost his grip on his sabers.
Sanguis leaned over him. Weaponless and unable to breathe, he could only stare at her helplessly.
“Ready to go, pup?” She reached for his shirt.
The butt of a quarterstaff slammed hard into Sanguis’ forehead, driving her away from Rohen. “What are you doing to my brother?” Megan cried out. She stepped over Rohen and swung her staff furiously at Sanguis, pushing her further away.
Rohen sat up and watched, horrified. If Sanguis did anything to Megan…
Megan actually landed a few blows before Sanguis was able to grab hold of the quarterstaff. She lifted Megan off her feet and tossed her to the side. “Get away from me, pest,” she hissed.
Megan managed to land on her feet, a few steps in front of Rohen. “Who is that, Ro?”
“Just some woman who can’t take no for an answer,” Rohen replied, grabbing his swords and standing up.
Megan suddenly gurgled and floated up into the air.
“Rohen, child, please come with me,” Sanguis said sweetly. “I would hate to have to strangle someone with such pretty red hair.”
“Let her go!”
“Come here, then. She won’t last very long that way.”
Rohen watched as Megan grabbed at her throat and gasped for air. He dropped his swords and walked over to Sanguis.
He was three steps away from the dragon when an arrow whizzed past his shoulder and into her own. Another one whistled by his ear, but Sanguis caught that one with her hand. Rohen heard a thump behind him.
He turned around. Megan was picking herself off the ground, rubbing her neck. Galen stood a few paces behind her, bow in hand.
“Where the hell did she come from?” Sanguis roared. She tossed the arrow she held with a shriek as it burst into flames.
“You stupid cow!” Megan yelled. She threw her arms up, and the ground beneath Sanguis erupted, sending her airborne. Rohen grinned. She did not look very elegant, upside down in the air as she was.
Galen shot again as she fell. Two arrows struck home. Sanguis groaned, but she slowed her fall and floated softly to the ground, feet first.
Rohen held his hands out eagerly. Seeing Galen made him inexplicably confident. Something inside him, something hot and powerful, urged him to attack. The sabers flew into his hands again, and he ran toward Sanguis.
She saw, Rohen was certain, the look in his eyes. She knew, somehow, that she could no longer win. She calmly pulled Galen’s arrows out from her side and neck and vanished before Rohen could reach her.
Rohen stopped and stared. All these years, Sanguis had taunted him, tried to coerce him, but she had never attacked him. What had possessed her to do so now?
Galen walked up beside him, panting and trembling. He remembered her fever. “Firefly, you should be in bed,” he said, feeling her forehead again. “You are burning up.” He took her bow from her hand and hoisted her onto his back.
“I felt something wrong. It was really bothering me. I had to find out what was going on,” Galen said weakly, resting her head on his shoulder.
Megan walked up to his other side. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine. How about you?”
“Fine.” She reached up to touch Galen’s face. “But Gayly is sick. Who was that, Ro?”
“What did she want with you, Rowy?” Galen asked.
“It’s a long story,” Rohen sighed. He looked back at the place where Sanguis had stood before she vanished. “This is going to be one hell of a year.”
v v v
Jamu stared absently at his troops as they drilled in preparation for the primary ranking trials that afternoon. He thought about the evening he took Galen home. The short conversation they had kept running through his mind.
“Jamu, I’m sorry.”
“What are you sorry about?”
“Taking you away from all the fun.”
“It is not your fault. It is Ro’s fault.”
“Oh. Are you mad at him?”
“Yes. He refused to bring you home because he wanted to get me away from that dancer.”
“Rowy wouldn’t do that.”
“He would not if he did not have a pitcher or two of honey mead inside him.”
“Did you like her, Jamu?”
“I am not sure. I did not like her at first, but I think I was beginning to change my mind.”
“It’s hard for you to find a girl you like.”
“Yes, it is.”
“Is there anyone you like right now?”
“I like you.”
She had laughed softly at that. “No, silly. I meant like as in the way you liked Jai.”
Jamu studied Galen as she drilled. Still sick, she was laboring to keep up. He remembered how he had racked his brain, trying to answer her question. He remembered the shock of realization as the answer came to him. It was the same answer he had given her before.
She had not taken his sudden silence for what it was. Maybe it was because of the fever. Maybe she just did not understand. Intelligent as she was, Galen could be rather naïve at times. When he didn’t answer her, she had settled back against him and dozed the rest of the way. Jamu paced back and forth, trying to forget how nice she had felt with her hot back against him, and the smell of her hair. He had to stop it. He could not think about her that way. She was only twelve.
“Stop!” he called out. Rus, Cyen, and Laren snapped to their starting stance, but Galen staggered.
Jamu bit back a curse. Galen was in no shape to test. “Galen, come here.”
She approached with a guilty look on her face. Before, that stagger would merit some type of penance. This year, though, he planned to be much more lenient. If he had done his job properly these past couple of years, he should not have to worry about disciplining them at all. He put his hand on her forehead once she reached him. The fever was back. And he noticed something else.
He gently pushed Galen’s chin upward and tugged the collar of her blouse. “May I?”
She nodded and stretched her collar open. “I think I have a rash.”
She did. Purple and red blotches surrounding pink dots all over her neck and chest. He recognized the rash. He kept his expression blank to keep Galen from noticing how unnerved he was.
“You are too sick to test. Go to bed; you are confined to quarters for the rest of the day,” Jamu told her. At least he knew how to get her well. But she could not have gotten sick at a worse time.
“But we will lose our ranking. And I will lose mine,” Galen protested, a look of horror crossing her face.
“We will be fine. And the last thing you need to worry about is your ranking.” Jamu replied.
“Don’t worry, Gayly,” Rus said cheerfully. “All we have to worry about is Rohen’s troops, and he’s down to three, also. We will stay in first.”
Cyen and Laren nodded in agreement. Jamu smiled down at her disappointed face. “Go to bed and get better.”
Galen plodded off, dragging her sparring stick. Jamu turned to the others.
“All right, start again from the beginning. There is something I need to do. Do not stop until I return.”
v v v
Jamu peeked through the curtains surrounding Galen’s sleeping area. “Wake up, Gayly,” he whispered.
Her eyes opened slowly. “How did we rank?” she asked.
“Second.” He pushed the curtain aside and sat down at the edge of the bed. “Ro finally ousted us.”
Her honey eyes filled with tears. “It is not a bad thing,” Jamu said. “We figured, why not make Ro happy and give him a few months as top tiger? It will not last very long.”
She rubbed her eyes. “I let you down,” she sniffled.
“No, you just showed us all how much we need you.” He handed her a small bottle. “I had General Kuten bring over some Surian medicine for you. Drink.”
She emptied the bottle. “That was even worse than those mushrooms Uncle Bilin made me eat last weekend,” she said.
Jamu jumped up and fetched her some water. “This will work better,” he said as she gulped the water down. “It is designed to treat fever and rash.”
“I hope so,” Galen grumbled, handing back the cup and dropping her head on her pillow.
“Spunky little girl!” Jamu pushed her hair away from her face. “Rus will be here soon with some food for you. Go back to sleep. I will be here.”
“I’m not hungry,” Galen mumbled, closing her eyes.
“You might change your mind once Rus gets here.”
She didn’t answer him. He sat next to her, stroking her hair and thinking. He had not seen that rash before outside of his homeland. It was not common, but he knew very well what caused it. He had to let his father know about this.
v v v
“Are you sure you want to try this, Jania?” Nelsen asked.
“Yes. It will work, trust me,” Jania replied. It felt wonderful to be back in class. The negotiations with the Massean leaders had been frustrating, tedious, and in her opinion, a waste of time. And she had not seen Animis for the entire summer. To be back at Arcanum was to have some kind of normalcy return to her life.
Jania chanted out her spell quickly, her hands moving graciously as the words flashed through her head. Her classmates watched nervously, a safe distance away.
“Jania, I don’t think the stronger invocation chant will make the levitation spell last longer,” Jai said. She took a step back as Jania began to rise off the floor.
“Sure it will. That’s what gives you the lift,” Jania replied. “Don’t look up my skirt,” she warned the three boys.
Nelsen and Seth made faces at her, but Ben turned his face away with a slight nod. Jania stuck her tongue out at the other two boys. Why couldn’t they be gentlemen like Ben?
Hedi pointed up at her. “Jania, stop before you hit the ceiling.”
Jania looked up and tried to make herself stop. It only made her rise faster. Her forehead slammed against a beam before she could do anything about it.
Nelsen and Seth erupted into fits of laughter. Jania rubbed her forehead. She was about to scold the boys when she realized that her legs were still floating upwards. She grabbed at the beam and tried to stop her legs from rising, to no avail.
The two boys stopped laughing. “Wow, look at that,” Nelsen said as Jania’s skirts tumbled down over her head.
Jania fought down panic. How would Grandmother handle something like this? Her skirts fell over her face, and she either had to let go of the beam to hold her skirts and hang humiliatingly upside down, or hang on with her underclothes exposed until the spell expired, which was even more humiliating. “Uh, boys, do you mind giving me some privacy?” She was surprised at how calm she sounded.
“Why? The damage is done.” Nelsen replied. Jania could hear the smile on his face.
“Nelsen, you oaf!” Jania heard Hedi say. There was a thump, then Hedi’s voice again. “It’s all right, Jania. They aren’t looking. Let go of the beam.”
Jania unwrapped her arms from the thick beam, expecting her body to float all the way to the ceiling. Instead, she stood stuck in place. “I can’t move!” She tried to wiggle her legs, only to find them frozen. “Only my arms can move. I’m stuck!” Somehow, she managed to push aside her skirts and twist her head to look down at the floor.
The three boys stared at the door, their backs to her. Jai and Hedi stared up at her. “Can you dispel it?” Jai asked.
After a few tries, she finally shook her head sadly. What a way to start the year.
“I’ll go get Mage Terri. We don’t know how long Jania’s spell will last, since she totally mangled the incantation,” Nelsen said, taking a step toward the door.
“No!” Seth grabbed his arm. “We’ll all get in trouble. We need to find a way out of this.”
Jania tried to move her legs again. “Give me a moment. I’ll think of something.”
“I think you’ve done enough thinking for today,” Hedi said, frowning up at her.
“Look, I’m the one up here. I would think that—”
“Stop, please.” Ben raised his hand. “I’ll get her down. Jai, take me right underneath her. I won’t look.” He kept his head down.
Jai grabbed his hand and pulled him back. “You’re going to cast a spell with your eyes closed?” she asked him dubiously.
“No, I just won’t look up.” He cast the spell Jania had altered and floated up. “Grab my arms,” he said as he reached for her.
Jania locked her hands onto his forearms as soon as she was able to reach them. He pulled her down slowly with one arm and grabbed hold of her waist with the other. Her skirts slid down into place as he pivoted her right side up, and she held on to his shoulders as he pulled her against him. They began to drift slowly to the floor.
“All right, Ben!” Jai cried out as Hedi clapped her hands.
“Can we look now?” Nelsen asked impatiently.
Jania looked at Ben and smiled. “Thank you, Ben.”
She expected him to blush and look away the way he always did, but this time he looked straight into her eyes, the way he had the first day they met. “You’re welcome,” he replied, smiling back.
It was Jania’s turn to blush and look away. As their feet hit the floor, she released him quickly and stared at the floor. Hedi and Jai mistook her reaction.
“You should have listened to me, Jania,” Jai scolded.
“If Mage Terri finds out, we are all in big trouble,” Hedi added. The two girls began wagging their fingers at her.
Jania let them scold her, but she did not pay much attention. Her back tingled, remembering the feel of Ben’s hands. She watched him turn and walk back to the other two boys.
Nelsen took a cautious peek, then tapped Seth on the shoulder as he turned. Both boys looked relieved.
“You’re not going to float back up, are you?” Seth asked. He exchanged a look with Nelsen, and they began to laugh.
“Hanging upside down like that was not funny,” Jania said, folding her arms across her chest. Her remark only made them laugh harder. Hedi began to giggle, and Ben and Jai chuckled. Jania’s face grew hot.
“Come on, Jania,” Ben said as Jai doubled over, “These things happen. And it really was funny to see…” he shook his head as he laughed, unable to finish.
“I’m a princess. I can’t have people laughing at me,” Jania snapped.
“That’s what makes it even funnier,” Hedi howled, holding her middle. Seth rolled on the floor, cackling.
Jania clenched her fists and blinked back tears. Her classmates would never see her in the same light again. What was she going to do?
She noticed Ben looking at her, no longer laughing. He glanced at Nelsen, then back at her, and smiled. Before she had time to blink, he stepped over, reached down and pulled Nelsen’s trousers down around his ankles.
Jania covered her mouth with her hands. Hedi and Jai screamed with laughter. Nelsen yelped as he grabbed for his trousers.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he yelled at Ben.
“I just wanted to show Jania what we were laughing at,” Ben replied, still smiling at her.
She smiled back at him.
v v v
Megan sat outside the Academy’s north gate, waiting for Keran. She clenched her fists, thinking of a nice way to break the news to him.
The secret lessons had to stop. She enjoyed teaching Keran how to harness his spiritual energy, but Keran now knew enough to keep himself out of trouble, and now it just was not worth the risk. She felt bad; she did enjoy spending time with him, but Yar was beginning to get suspicious, and the lessons were becoming long and complicated. It was time to stop, especially now that summer break was over.
It had been a busy summer, between Widow June’s lessons, Keran’s lessons, and finding time to be alone with Yar. But it was a fun time all around, especially with Ben finally taking lessons with her and Galen. It also helped keep her mind off the tensions between Syntrea and Massea, and the fact that Rohen and Yar might end up going off to war by the end of the year.
The gate opened and Keran walked through. He seemed so happy to see her. “Hello, Megan,” he said cheerfully. “So what are you going to teach me today?”
“Nothing,” Megan said, standing up. “The lessons are over. You know everything you need to keep yourself out of trouble, and more. You don’t need any more lessons.”
Keran’s smile faded from his face. He hung his head. “I see.”
“It’s a waste of time to teach you anything else, really,” Megan said.
“I understand. You have more important things to do with your time than to spend it with me. It’s all right,” Keran said, kicking a stone on the ground.
“Keran, it’s not like that.”
“Of course it is. That’s all right, though. I have better things to do than to spend my time with a female anyway. Now I have the rest of the year to look forward to.” He tried to open the gate to go back in, but the gate could only be opened with a key from the outside. “Thank you for everything, Megan.” His head still down, he rushed away.
So he had better things to do than to spend time with a female. Keran was a true Sevilan. But she had not been very tactful, either. She could not blame him for reacting that way. “Keran! Keran, come back, I have…”
He ignored her and rushed around the corner of the wall. Megan shook her head, disgusted with herself.
“That went rather well,” she said aloud. She pulled out her father’s gate key from her pocket and went inside.
Review by: Namta Gupta, Bookpleasures
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