Toshiana was sitting in the school room tapping her foot on the floor in boredom when the walls of the entire palace shook. A piercing clap made her ears sting. The books on the shelves that lined the walls jumped with the force of the sound.
As she tried to catch her breath, she looked into the eyes of each of her four classmates. They looked as terrified as she felt.
“A shock wave,” said the teacher, his voice calm.
“A shock wave?” replied one of the other students, her voice shaking. “From what?”
The teacher, Shon Malenn, gave his student a straight gaze. “Don’t change the subject, Inyatosh. I asked a question and I expect an answer.”
“What for?” Toshiana muttered.
“What was that, Toshiana? Did you have something you wished to share?”
“Windrunner,” Toshiana said loudly. “That’s the answer.”
Shon Malenn blinked twice before he nodded and looked back down to the notes in his hands. “Right. Okay. This branch hails from the opposite side of the world. They can shift their body into various types of organic matter, often limited to one specific combination, for example: stone or wood.”
“Earthchild,” was the immediate response from Toatosh. He was an idiot.
“That is incorrect,” said Shon Malenn.
“Morphe,” Toshiana answered flatly.
Shon Malenn gave a short nod. “Exactly. Morphe. You must be careful because the two branches come from the same origin. Unlike so many of the other branches, these two can be found within the same families. Earthchildren read the earth, read its life and can a very formidable foe if you interact with the ground in anyway. But they are built for defense. Morphes are often trained on the offensive. A sub sect of the Shifters, they can disguise their body and attack unseen.” He paused and scanned the room, like he was making sure everyone was listening. “Moving on. With these next few, I will give the branch name and you will give me the summary. Use of key words counts in your favor. The first: Rena.”
Toshiana waited. Inyatosh’s hand went up.
“A powerless branch, defined only by their ability to read the threads of other people.”
Shon Malenn nodded. “Very good.”
“So, by definition, not powerless,” Toshiana said.
“If you underestimate them, I guess,” Toshiana mumbled. No one heard her. “You also just said that Earthchildren do not have offensive abilities, yet you did not claim them to be powerless.”
The Shon seemed to ignore her. “Next: Irothiik.”
Toshiana waited. No one spoke up. Better her than no one. “The only teachable branch, in which one can learn lesser forms of many abilities. One of the rarest branches.”
Shon Malenn pursed his lips and smiled such a small smile that Toshiana hardly saw it at all. “Riina Toshiana. If you wouldn’t mind letting someone else answer a question, that would be very kind of you.”
“I don’t care about being kind, Shon,” Toshiana spat.
Before she had time to even blink, she felt a sharp sting across her forearm. She reared back just as the feeling of his strike began to rush over her whole body. Her joints felt like they wouldn’t move. She bit her tongue hard enough to bleed rather than express her pain.
“You will watch your tongue, Riina. You won’t talk back to your instructor. To your elder.”
“You mean I won’t talk back to your ornaments?” she said, eying the badge of honor over his left shoulder. “Or do you mean I won’t talk back to you because you’re a male?”
This time the sharp pain came across her face. She fell over, not lifting herself from her belly. She put a hand to her cheek. It burned like fire. The skin was torn.
“Do you think that your father won’t hear of what is said in the classroom?”
“You don’t need to tell me,” Toshiana managed to say. It hurt to move her mouth. “I know that I’m not safe from him no matter where I go.”
“Sit up,” Shon Malenn demanded.
“You’re bleeding,” Inyatosh said, leaning down toward her.
Toshiana waved at her, a half-hearted attempt at getting her to shut up.
“Class is almost over, and when it is you may go clean yourself up. Now. The third branch which I am requiring you to define is Icechild.”
“A long-split branch of the Speakers,” said Toatosh without pause. “They use water or even moisture in the air to create ice. It can be both a strong offensive or defensive power.”
“Correct,” Shon Malenn said with a grin.
He set his staff down against the wall and turned to face the semi-circle of students. Toshiana was finding it difficult to sit upright. The stinging in her cheek was making her want to close her eyes. That helped somehow. But she didn’t dare. She didn’t want a matching gash on the other cheek.
“There will be an examination on the thirty-eighth of this month to test your knowledge of the Tree of Acaethia. Every leaf and twig of the damn tree will be included. It is the standard test of the Kirakkan school, so it will be held in the Grand Hall downstairs. All of the children your age will be in attendance.”
The five children groaned.
Shon Malenn kicked once at his staff, which snapped loudly against the wall and stopped the noise. All five students sat upright, to attention. “I will not have that. You have only a few days to prepare and I suggest that you all do so.”
His eyes landed on Toshiana. Prepare? She knew it all. Her gut burned with anger. For a short moment, she forgot all about her cheek.
“You are all dismissed. Come tomorrow ready to discuss how the disintegration of the Tree of Acaethia has shaped both the acaethian world and our world.”
Shon Malenn picked up his staff and left the room, his five students packing up their things the moment he was gone.
“He’s a pig,” Inyatosh said, tugging her coat around her shoulders.
Toshiana laughed, wiping at the stream of blood that was now dripping from her chin. “Yeah. I know.”
“I’ll see you tomorrow, Ana.” Her voice was tinged with sympathy.
Toshiana stared at the floor. “Yeah. Tomorrow.”
Inyatosh left quickly, the other students already gone. Toshiana waited a whole minute before she stood up. She didn’t have a coat to carry out with her.
Stepping out into the hallway, she knew immediately she wasn’t alone. She looked one direction, then the other. At the far end, she saw someone leaning against the wall, like he was waiting for her. She rolled her eyes and turned the other way. She made sure her stride was quick.
“Toshiana.” His voice echoed down the enclosed corridor.
She didn’t stop. She could hear footsteps coming after her. Then soft laughter.
That voice. She stopped and turned back. The person walking toward her in the hallway looked almost naked, the lack of a mane glaringly obvious on his scrawny body.
She grinned. “Iroh.”
“You’ve clearly had a bad day.” He saw the gash over her cheek. “School’s not any easier for you these days, I’d take it.”
“Malenn thinks I’m stupid.”
“He thinks everyone’s stupid.”
“Yes, but I’m a girl.”
“Right.” Irochidayu chuckled. He leaned forward a bit and into the light.
Toshiana saw the scarring that covered the top of his head. She noticed it on his arms. She couldn’t stop herself from bursting into laughter. “Bloody flags, Iroh. You’ve got to be kidding me!” She knew she should be quieter, but she simply couldn’t keep her voice down.
“What are you talking about?” Irochidayu demanded. She doubted that he didn’t know exactly what she meant.
“You really went off and got that tattooed on your face?”
“It’s not a tattoo, damnit.”
“Is that why you went off to Cytee?”
“This all started way before Cytee.”
“Oh. Gibbing Thaun. I can’t believe this. How stupid are you?”
“Shut up about it.”
She laughed on for a minute longer, Irochidayu watching her impatiently.
She did her best to reign in her laughter. “Anyway. Where have you been? You vanished a year ago with no word. All General Paratosh said was that you had…I think he said ‘unfinished business’ in Anaeopar. Is that true?”
Irochidayu shrugged. “It might be.”
“Why have you come back?”
Irochidayu’s gaze fell away from her and he smiled awkwardly. “Um—Look. I’m here because my…Paratosh said you had something to say to me.”
“Only if you tell me where you’ve been the last year. And what you’re doing with that thing on your head.”
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
“Stop being so smug, Toshiana. You’re just a kid, for Ramei’s sake.”
“Ramei? You sound like a thrak, Iroh. You know that?”
He looked as passive as ever. “Well, I’ve been in Cytee for a long time now. Can I help it?”
“Yes. You can.”
“Do you have anything to tell me, Toshiana? Or can I go?”
“If you liked your thrak friends so much, why did you come back?” She reached out to put a hand on his shoulder.
His arm swung up and knocked her hand away before she touched him. Her forearm stung where she’d been struck earlier, but that wasn’t why she wore hurt on her face.
“Don’t touch me, Toshiana,” Irochidayu growled.
“You know why not. Won’t your father get mad if he sees you…dawdling in the hallway? Don’t you have training to get to?”
“Since when do you know a single thing about my life?”
Irochidayu sighed. “Just tell me what you have to say, Toshiana. I have things I need to do.”
“Go, then. It doesn’t matter. I gave Paratosh that memo ages ago, back when I thought you’d be coming back home soon. It’s irrelevant now.”
“Fine. See you around.”
Irochidayu turned and walked hastily down the hallway. He was clearly in a hurry. He’d no doubt snuck into the palace in the first place.
“I’ll tell my father you say hello,” Toshiana teased.
“Don’t you dare!” Irochidayu called back without looking.
“Really. Why did you take on the Vulx?”
He was quiet for a moment. “She died,” he said at length.
Toshiana tried to think. “She?”
“Yeah,” he replied. “I couldn’t get to her in time.”