Making friends, Caelo-style. (Maegla help them all!)
PEOPLE WERE STARING. Orla tried not to take it personally – the new students were staring at the everyone; everyone was staring at the new students – but it felt like she was getting more attention than most. As she clutched her tray full of steaming vegetables, freshly baked bread and some sort of dried fruit cake, Orla stared at Taryn’s heels and tried not to notice the elbow nudges being exchanged by the people they passed. The general hubbub of the room was too loud to hear any specific words, but she definitely heard “Ihran” more than once, and possibly “Princess” too. She was hardly the only person of interest to arrive in this latest batch of students – Taryn’s princess status was far more interesting, as was the tall girl with the lilac hair – but she still hated the attention.
When Taryn stopped and sat down, Orla was happy to slide onto the bench beside her.
“Is this seat taken?” someone asked, not even waiting for Orla’s reply before they sat.
Startled, she looked up, blinking into a pair of warm amber eyes. A pert nose lightly sprinkled with freckles poked out of a sun-bronzed face, topped with the most fiery hair Orla had ever seen and combined with a mischievous smile, left her feeling slightly dazzled.
“Hello, hello, new people. I’m Caelo, and I’m very happy to meet you. This is Zett, sit!” She slapped the table on her far side, making Orla jump.
The boy standing beside Caelo’s shoulder sighed and did as he was told, sliding onto the bench with his meal tray on the table in front of him. Where Caelo was all friendly brightness, this boy was dark and quiet. As if sensing Orla’s attention, he glanced at her, met her eyes and quickly looked away again. Perhaps he was shy?
“So, here we all are. Who are we? Where are we from? Come on, stories, stories,” Caelo urged, resting her elbows on the table and grinning at her seven captives.
The Storm Peak students on the far side shared glances and Orla heard Taryn sigh beside her.
“All right then, I’ll start. I’ve already told you my name’s Caelo, and I’m lately of the Kaskad selection school. This here is Zett, he was at Kaskad too, but Havia before that.”
“Havia?” one of the Storm Peak girls sat up, suddenly interested. “I didn’t think they sent anyone to the selection school.” Her wide eyes slid sideways until she found Orla. She smiled and turned to her lilac-haired friend. “And here we thought you’d be the only oddity, Rhiddyl.”
The one named Rhiddyl frowned, looking entirely out of place amongst her friends – she wasn’t quite the tallest, but she was slender to the point of fragility, her skin as pale as if she’d never seen the sun. Her lilac hair was short and very fluffy and her blue eyes were as bright as jewels. When she tapped her fingers on the table, Orla was startled to see that her nails were silver. And sharp. In fact they didn’t look much like nails at all; they looked like claws.
Rhiddyl cleared her throat awkwardly and slid her hands under the table.
Embarrassed to have been caught staring, Orla felt her cheeks heat as she glanced up and found Rhiddyl studying her in return.
“Firsts are not oddities, Keiva,” Rhiddyl said in a light, breathy voice. “We are originals.”
While her friends chuckled, Caelo drummed her hands on the table. “Originals,” she echoed, grinning. “I like that. Aquila’s Originals, it makes you sound like a box of biscuits. Zett here can be the one with chocolate chips running through him, a bit dry in places with hints of sweetness. You’d be the white chocolate surprise.” She nodded across at Rhiddyl.
“What’s her surprise?” the tall boy next to Rhiddyl asked.
Caelo chuckled. “If you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m not going to tell you. You’d be the ginger biscuit, by the way, full of hidden spice.” She winked at the boy, then turned to Orla. “Hmm… You would be something plain and uncomplicated, simple enough but utterly delightful.” Orla wasn’t sure if she was insulted by that or not. Bad enough to be compared to a biscuit in the first place, but to be called a boring one likely made it worse. Except Orla didn’t want to stand out and plain biscuits were her favourite. So, probably not insulted, after all.
“Now you,” Caelo wasn’t done yet and had turned her attention to Taryn. “Yes, you.” She tapped her fingers on the table thoughtfully.
“I have no interest in joining your biscuit box,” Taryn said in her frostiest tone. Even though she never used it on Orla anymore, just a glimpse of those icy blue eyes made her shiver.
Caelo laughed. “Touchy, touchy.”
“What about us? What biscuits would we be?” the Storm Peak girls wanted to know.
Caelo waved them aside. “You’re not originals. Storm Peakians are a copper a quart around here. I could get a basket full of you lot without any effort. This box is for originals only.”
The smaller of the girls rolled her eyes and folded her arms indignantly. “I suppose you’re saving the best spot for yourself.”
“Me?” Caelo looked surprised. “Hardly. I’m not the first of my sort here either and I likely won’t be the last. I’m even less original than you lot.”
Which rather took the wind out of their sails.
Ignoring them, Caelo turned back to Taryn. “I suppose you’re not very original either.”
“Not in the slightest,” Taryn agreed, still frosty. “You’ll likely meet my brother before too long.” Orla was surprised her friend had mentioned her brother, until she added. “We look rather alike, so I am not original at all.”
Caelo’s smirk indicated that she didn’t agree, but she mercifully turned her attention away. “All this talk of biscuits is making me hungry. I don’t suppose any of you have names? Or shall I just refer to you as confectionery instead?”
The shorter Storm Peak girl, the one with sun-streaks in her braids, gurgled with amusement. “Is everything food to you?”
“Only when I’m hungry,” Caelo agreed cheerfully, picking up her bread roll. “Names?”
“I’m Tenzi,” the girl finally gave in. “This is Keiva.” She indicated the girl beside her. “That’s Rhiddyl as you might already know. He’s Vhen and that’s Guto on the end. We all came from Zvenera, as you already guessed.”
“Not quite all of you,” Caelo said, smiling. “But I’m delighted to meet you.” She swung her eyes towards Taryn and raised coppery eyebrows expectantly.
Taryn sighed. “I’m Taryn. This is Orla. We’re from Nimbys.”
Caelo’s smile widened. “Of course you are,” she chuckled.
Orla shifted in her seat, aware that Tenzi was staring at her.
“Are you from Nimbys?” the outspoken girl asked. “Because -”
“Tenzi.” Keiva elbowed her. “Eat your vegetables.”
The other girl looked down at her plate and wrinkled her nose. “Do I have to?”
“Yes,” her four friends said in unison, making Caelo snicker.
“This year is going to be so much fun and we haven’t even started yet.”
* * *
AFTER LUNCH THEY split up. The quiet Havian boy led the two Storm Peaks lads – although if one of them wasn’t a misplaced Sutheralli, for some reason not training or travelling with the rest of his country folk, Taryn would eat her flying gloves – off in one direction, while the ever-so-chatty Caelo dragged the girls in another.
“Don’t get too comfortable,” she said, as she showed them into the crowded girls’ dormitory. “Everyone gets moved once we’re sorted into flurries, so this is only temporary.”
“It had better be,” grumbled Jylana, one of the Nimbys students who had quickly cosied up to the well-born boys after Taryn had seen off Imanyne and Rudtha. “It’s bad enough having to train with traitors. I’d rather not sleep near them as well.”
The accompanying grumble of agreement made Caelo frown. “Traitors?”
“Be wary on your right, student, you never know when someone might turn on you.”
Still frowning, Caelo turned to her right and eyed Taryn and Orla. “Hm.” Her mouth compressed into a thoughtful line. “Is this why they call you the Outcast Princess?” she asked in a surprisingly soft mutter.
Taryn didn’t know who’d come up with that nickname – it hadn’t started until they were on the Miryhl Heart – but she’d dearly like to meet them, so she could thank them appropriately. A few good kicks in the shins and a quick shove off Aquila’s falls ought to do it.
“She’s not an outcast,” Orla muttered, ever loyal. “She didn’t do anything.”
Caelo’s lips twitched and she met Taryn’s flat stare with a wink. “I never said she did. Why don’t you two sleep here? These beds are free.”
And so, miraculously, were the two on either side as the previous inhabitants swiftly cleared out, not wanting to sleep too close to the outcast.
“Useful,” Caelo murmured, eyeing up the prime beds beside the door and no doubt wondering whether or not to push their luck.
Tired of the childish games, Taryn dumped her bag on the one next to Orla’s and sat down before the redhead could try to manipulate everything to her advantage. “This will do,” she announced, much to Caelo’s amusement.
“I am not your entertainment.”
Caelo’s snicker showed just what she thought of that. Taryn ignored her, sensing she was going to be doing an awful lot of that over the next few years, and bounced on the mattress instead, testing its firmness.
The three Storm Peaks girls clutched their bags and dithered. Two empty beds lay on Taryn’s left, while two more lay beyond Orla’s. Which outcast would they inadvertently ally themselves to?
“If you’re a princess, I must know your brother,” the strange Rhiddyl suddenly announced, throwing her bag onto the bed next to Taryn’s and sitting down, studying her with those curious jewel-bright eyes.
Something sparked in Taryn’s memory. “You know Lyrai,” she said, realisation dawning. “You’re his Rhiddyl.”
Curiously, the girl blushed. Except her pale skin didn’t turn pink, it darkened to a shade closer to mauve. Unsurprising when one consider she wasn’t a human with red blood, but a dragon with something closer to black. “He… he’s mentioned me?” the girl-dragon fluted in her breathless voice.
“Along with Mhysra, Cumulo, Hurricane and the others,” Taryn agreed, amused and sensing that someone had a crush on her brother. “They’ll be happy to see you again, I’ve no doubt.”
“Oh.” The dragon’s eyes widened. “Stirla said they’d be here. I thought they left.”
“They did, but teaching brought them back.” She considered whether or not to mention the baby, and wondered about it herself. Had Mhysra had it by now? Should she go in search of them? Lyrai was her brother, after all, and despite their frequent clashes, she did care about him. And Mhysra. And her future niece or nephew.
“I’m glad,” Rhiddyl fluted happily. “I was sad when I heard they’d all left. It seemed so unfair.”
“Mm.” Distracted by her thoughts, Taryn looked around and saw the other girls had settled on Orla’s far side and were chatting with Caelo, leaving Orla sitting quiet and alone. Taryn smiled at her.
Orla jumped to her feet, obviously as eager to leave the room and the cold-shoulders of their fellow students as Taryn was. “Please.”
“I can show you around,” Rhiddyl offered, just as Caelo said, “Let me show you everything!”
Taryn looked at Orla. Her friend shrugged. She nodded at Rhiddyl, deciding she would be less hard work than Caelo. “That would be nice, thank you.” “Excellent!” Caelo rubbed her hands together, either not noticing or choosing not to acknowledge that she’d been snubbed. “Let’s grab the boys and let the fun begin.”