The rest of the trip to Faraday passed in silence. After about five minutes, the one-handed girl asked Tilli to get her backpack down, and extracted an embroidery hoop from it. A special wrist strap attached to her right elbow and held the hoop in place while she worked the needle with her left hand. Tilli spend most of the ride trying to figure out where she had seen the girl. A one handed girl who does embroidery, Tilli thought, Surely there can't be that many people out there like that? But the harder she thought about it, the more distant the girl's identity became. Tilli couldn't even place her by her accent, which she normally excelled at.
Tilli was mentally going through countries she had visited where people spoke Shugbo when the train came to a stop. She helped the girl get her backpack and her case, and then lingered in the compartment until after she had left. "Is it just me, or does she look really familiar?" she muttered to her siblings.
Cadolina swatted Tilli with her book. "Be polite."
Though it hadn't hurt, Tilli pretended to flinch. "I know you two were thinking it too. We've seen her before."
"That doesn't mean you should bring it up. She might hear you." Caddie jerked her head toward the open compartment door.
Sam set a hand on Tilli's shoulder. "She looks familiar. And you know what? We've got all year to find out why."
Tilli crossed her arms. "Then it's going to bug me all year."
It amazed her that even during conversations like this, Sam's smile reached his leaf-green eyes. Of the three of them, he looked the most like their mother. Not only was he shorter than his sisters, but his skin was a deep mahogany brown, darker than Tilli and Cadolina's pale, oaken shades. "Look at the bright side," he told her, "you'll be living in the same house, so you'll get to find out first."
Tilli was rarely able to stay angry around Sam for long. "Fine," she muttered, and let her brother nudge her toward the door.
As soon as they got across the street, Cadolina headed for Liberty House, with barely a backward glance at her siblings. "She's got house head duties to get to," Sam said as if Tilli had asked why Caddie was leaving them so quickly. "But I can can walk you over if you like."
Tilli shook her head. "I got it."
"All right, I'll see you later!" Sam waved as he ran to catch up to another boy wearing a jacket with the Magnolia House wasp. Tilli followed the rest of the freshmen to Victoria House and picked up her keys.
Tilli's room was on the third floor. It didn't take long to unpack her things. After a lifetime of traveling with her parents on their various duties, she was a master at packing light. She hung her spare Faraday shirts in her closet, folded her denims in the bottom drawer of her dresser, lined her books up on her desk, and tossed her duffel bag under her bed.
The door swung open. The girl who walked through was at least as tall as Tilli, if not taller. She had dark brown skin and short brown curls that, combined with her muscular frame, almost made her look like a boy.
"Hey!" Tilli offered a hand. "You must be my roommate. I'm Tilli."
"Yeah, I'm Key." The girl shook her hand and then began to unpack her own duffel bag. She pulled out what looked like an entire brick of tea and placed it in the second drawer of her dresser. Then she extracted a thermos and looked at it, surprised. "I need to give this back to Mat," Key muttered and placed it with the tea. Next came a beautiful piece of fabric, several feet long, with the shorter sides gathered into a tassel at either end. The center was elaborately embroidered with a myriad of designs in a rainbow of colors. The embroidery sparkled in the light, the same way the embroidery at Key's collar did, and Tilli knew at once the other girl must be Thisaazhou. Thisaazhou traders didn't often travel Agrona, but their embroidery was known throughout the southern hemisphere.
"What is that?" Tilli couldn't help asking.
"My baby shawl." Key carefully draped it over the head of her bed. "My dad made it for me while my mom was pregnant. It's a Thisaazhou tradition. The embroidery represents a family's history, so a child never forgets where they come from." She rummaged in her bag and pulled out a small figurine, about four inches high, made of a mostly clear stone and carved in the shape of a fox. Inside, it flickered with light. "And this is for you. My gift is electricity."
Tilli accepted the fox and examined it. "You made this? It's amazing." She placed it on her bedside table, next to her clock.
"Yup," Key confirmed. "Are you here to study wind?" She eyed TIlli the same way the one-handed girl had, trying to reconcile her tree-bark skin with her height.
Tilli hesitated as the sound of choking reached her ears from a distant memory. She touched the Xurugwi bone necklace at her throat and willed the memory away. "That or maybe languages, so I don't have to live in the shadow of my siblings."
"Yeah, I'm glad my brother and I don't have the same natural gift," Key said. "Are you good with languages because you're a sprite? Except... if you're a sprite, you're a giant."
Tilli laughed. "I'm half sprite. On my mom's side. There's a foot of difference between him and my dad. But yeah, me and my siblings all got her magical knacks." She checked her watch. "It's almost time for orientation. Should we go?"
Tilli and Key returned to the common room together. She saw the same girl who had joined her on the train sitting on one of the couches next to another girl who was very small. She heard Sam's words in her head. Look at the bright side, you'll find out before us.
"Mind if we join you?" Tilli gestured to the empty space on the couch.
The girl shook her head, and Tilli sat on the other side of her. Key perched on the arm of the couch, a slight scowl on her face. After a moment, she called to someone across the room. "Mat!" A boy who resembled her, but several inches shorter, made his way over to them. He carried a wooden crutch in one hand. The boy could have been Key's younger brother, though that could mean Key had applied to Faraday at an older age. It wasn't unheard of, since some people didn't discover their natural talents until their teens, but she knew Caddie would disapprove of her asking.
"Do you want to sit?" Key asked the boy, who shook his head. Tilli was about to suggest they introduce themselves when the Westwood boy who had met them outside clapped his hands together to get everyone's attention.
There were five heads of Victoria House--one from each of the other houses. Tilli vaguely wondered if they liked being head of Victoria. Caddie had bragged all summer about being head of Liberty, but Tilli got the feeling her sister would have behaved differently if she'd been in charge of freshmen.
"Welcome back everyone," the Westwood boy said, "My name is Iteen, and I'm one of your student heads of house. I'm living on the second floor, along with Tisheet." Key and Mat exchanged a look as the girl in Magnolia yellow waved a hand. "On the first floor are Antony and Valerie." The boy was in purple and the girl in blue--Providence and Hawthorne. "Finally, on the third floor, is Edoward." A fat boy in Liberty green waved. "I'd also like to introduce you to our staff head, Mrs. Putyam." It was not until he said it that Tilli noticed a pale skinned woman sitting nearby. Like the students, she wore a white collared shirt with the Faraday starfish over the breast, as well as a black and white tie, indicating she was in charge of Victoria House. For a moment, Mrs. Putyam's hawk-like blue-green eyes met Tilli's and she remembered that not even Cadolina had dared cross her. "Her office is just off the common room." Iteen pointed to a door behind them. "We are all here to help you, so please, don't hesitate to ask if you need anything. Now we're going to break you into groups..."
The freshmen were sorted in groups based on last name, so Tilli was in a group with Key and her brother, as well as the one-handed girl. But again, before she could speak to the other girl, Valerie approached them. Tilli remembered the pink-haired girl's bored expression from check-in, and it hadn't changed. She hoped this wasn't a reflection of the older girl's thoughts on freshmen. "All right, follow me, and keep up," Valerie told the others.
Valerie took the group to the main building, where most of the classrooms were. "All the classrooms are warded to protect students and staff if any magic gets out of hand," she told them. "Doing any major magical workings without proper warding is both very dangerous and against the rules. If you read the student handbook, which you should have received with your acceptance letter, you will know what magic is acceptable without warding. Doing workings without permission is a good way to get expelled around here, so I don't recommend it." Tilli hadn't read her handbook, but she made a mental note to find that page later.
Valerie's tone lightened up when she showed them the gymnasium and behind it, the lightning ball pitch--a concrete court with a white circle painted in the center. "The pitch is open for students to play when the team isn't practicing," Valerie explained, "you can check out a ball at the gym desk. Or, if you're feeling old fashioned, we also have batons."
"Lightning baton?" Key quietly asked Mat.
"It was originally played with batons," Mat answered, "one end was electrified and painted a different color."
One of the other students raised a hand. "But there's no lines in the circle!"
Valerie's bored expression changed into a smirk. "The pitch is designed to be customizable to the number of players or teams you have." To demonstrate, she stepped into the the circle, and said, "division, two." A line appeared down the center, bisecting the circle. "Division, three." Three lines radiated out from the center. "Division, eight." The circle broke into eight sections, and a murmur passed through the students, who were probably used to drawing their circles with chalk. Even Tilli wasn't used to courts this nice.
Valerie took them to the library and the infirmary. Then they walked by the community garden, which a couple of plant wizards tittered over, and several workshops for students to do woodwork, metalwork, and fabric art. The tour ended at the cafeteria. "Perhaps the most important place on campus," Valerie said, and actually smiled at the smattering of laughter she received. Then she ushered them inside for dinner.
Tilli's mouth watered at the sight of Nefrale's national dish--a hearty stew made with fish, coconut, and sweet potatoes. A vegetable stew was available for those who didn't eat meat, though Tilli thought it would be strange indeed to come to Nefrale and not eat fish. For dessert, they had tapioca pudding with sliced bananas and a drizzle of caramel.
As they collected their trays, Key asked if she could sit with Key and Mat, in the hope of avoiding her siblings. As they scanned the room for a table, Tilli looked for the one-handed girl, but they seemed to have lost her in line.
"Why don't we sit with Miriam?" Mat said, holding his tray in one hand and using his crutch to point to the tiny girl Tilli had seen earlier. "She doesn't have anyone else to sit with either."
"Of all the people," Key said, "Mat Truuit wants to eat dinner with someone new." The way Key spoke reminded Tilli of her cousin, Applestar. She couldn't tell if the other girl was angry or amused.
"What?" Mat said, "I liked her." And without waiting for the girls, he walked to Miriam's table.
Key shook her head. "Will wonders never cease." She and Tilli followed.
When they arrived, Miriam waved to another student, and Tilli tried not to smile when the girl with one hand joined them. She also tried not to stare as the girl carefully set down her tray, pulled out her chair, and sat down. Apparently, Tilli failed.
Immediately after sitting, the girl looked directly at Tilli. "Do you want to know how I lost it?" she held her nub in the air, "It got cut off. When I got caught stealing."
Miriam's spoon clattered to the table as she looked up. "You did lie," she said.
The girl let her arm drop back to the table. "Miriam, you're ruining my fun. It's a lot less interesting to tell people I was born this way." She had a smile on her face, but Miriam returned her gaze to her food apologetically. It had been enough for Tilli though.
"I knew I had seen you before. You're Ayan Tyeen!"
"Wait..." Miriam looked up again. "Should we know who you are?"
"Only if you're from the Southern Islands," Tilli said, trying to return to her stew, but continuing to cast sidelong glances at Ayan. "Ayan Tyeen was caught trying to steal from the royal family of Antarand. Twice."
Miriam looked from Tilli to Ayan and back again. "That... doesn't make sense..." she said, "How does Antarand have a royal family? It's just a territory of Florarova."
"Not it's not," the other four students said in unison, and an uncomfortable silence fell over the table. Ayan explained. "Most northern countries don't recognize us as being independent, but the southern nations do. The person who the northerners call the Antaran Premier? He's our king, and his family's held that position for centuries. Anyway, some Florarovan politician gave his sister some fancy jewels, and I tried to steal them."
"Twice," Tilli added again.
"Why weren't you punished?" Miriam asked, "Sorry, I suppose I wasn't supposed to say that."
Ayan smiled broadly. "The first time, I dressed up as a servant of the household. But I was too young to actually be one, so they jailed me. They were hoping to draw out my accomplices, but we called their bluff, and they let me go because I was only ten. But last year, I was a lot smarter. I found out that I look a lot like the Antaran princesses, so I disguised myself as her. Quite the dress too--purple velvet, silver embroidery--it's amazing what Florarovans throw away. I tricked everyone in the household. Except her. Because she came back from her trip a day early.
"Does she only have one hand too?" It seemed Miriam's questions never ended, and Tilli was starting to understand why Key hadn't wanted to join the girl.
Ayan blinked. "No... why would she?"
"Well, if she has two hands, why didn't they figure out you were someone else when they saw you?"
"Illusion magic. I sewed it into the dress. Even Audeni--that's the princess--was impressed. That's why she offered to become my patron and sent me here."
"And why she's become famous in the Southern Islands," Tilli added.
After a pause, Miriam said, "Well, with that introduction out of the way, who wants to go next?"