The morning of the trip back to Starstorm Elly woke up from a sleepless dream, her stomach tied up in knots.
She was returning… home.
Back to the royal palace, the ostentatious prison that was the only home she knew, where she had spent her time clinging to the edges of its wide, open hallways and hiding in the shadows of its massive, brightly-lit rooms.
Back to her mother, and her warm, loving embrace and bright smile as she tried to make Elly feel relieved and assured in spite of adversity.
Back to Queen Rienne, and those cold eyes that looked at her like she was garbage, with a stare so icy it made Elly want to hide.
Back to the royal library, filled with more books than Elly could ever read in her lifetime, where she could secret herself away and escape to a world filled with fantasies and hope.
Back to the nobles and their wicked whispers and scornful words, who drove Elly to hide in the first place, treating her like a mutt because of her elven blood.
There were things to look forward to back home, Elly knew that, of course. Elly also knew she wasn’t the same scared, helpless girl she used to be, she knew that she could stand up for herself, because she knew that there were people who cared about her, people who could see that there was something worthwhile in her frail little body.
Elly knew all these things, and yet one thought of that castle made her forget everything she knew, and filled her with such anxiety it was like the last few months had just been a dream from one of her books, and she was helpless “knife-ear” Elly again.
It was in defiance of those worries that Elly had locked her jaw and dragged herself out of bed, packing her things and walking out the door with her head held high.
That confidence had been slow to come, and quick to depart. By the time the train flew down to greet them, her doubts had encroached upon her chest once again, her heart pounding with worry and dread. And she’d continued to feel that nervous anxiety right up through boarding, right until she’d gotten to her own suite joined by the company of Reed Rivers.
“Ah, this place sure is grand,” Reed swooned, twirling about the room. She reached down and snagged a piece of fruit off one of the fancy tables, a bright red apple that made Elly start to drool. In her nervousness that morning she’d foregone breakfast.
“Why so tense, Elly?” Reed asked, biting into the apple. She turned to Elly, the juices rolling down her chin. “You’ve been a little on edge all morning. You aren’t already worried about going back to the royal palace, are you?”
Elly flinched, her mouth going dry. She didn’t know how, but Reed could see her heart, she was always able to. Reluctantly, she nodded her head.
Reed let out a sigh, and shrugged her shoulders. She turned the apple over in her hands, and tossed it to Elly, who caught it without thinking.
“That’s no good!” Reed said, hopping off the soft bed and stretching. “Come on! We’re going to Starstorm! For the Unification Festival! I know you’re a little nervous, but don’t worry! I’m right here at your side, and I’m not gonna let anyone pick on you! You know that, right?”
Reed skipped over to Elly and leaned in close, her smile filling Elly’s eyes. And just like that, the tension in Elly’s chest seemed to scatter in the wind.
There was something about Reed that was just reassuring. The sweet way she smelled, like baking apples, the warmness in her smile, the lilt in her voice like wind chimes on a blustery day, it was all so comforting to Elly, and reminded her again just how fortunate she was that an amazing girl like this called her a friend.
“Let’s try something to take our mind off of all those messy worries getting you down!” Reed suggested, taking Elly by the wrist and guiding her over to the bed. “I know! We can talk about Blake’s dragons! I’ve been dying to do that all day!”
Elly resisted the urge to laugh. Of course she was, that was Reed Rivers all the way.
Reed laid across the bed and stared up at the red silk canopy, her eyes glazing over as no-doubt images of dragons flew through her mind. For a second Elly wondered if she’d already skipped past the “talking” part of the talk, when Reed suddenly sprang up and turned her eyes Elly’s way.
“So, you’ve had some time to get to know them, right? Which one’s your favorite?” Reed asked, her eyes shining eagerly.
Elly opened her mouth, but before she had a chance to answer Reed was already cutting her off.
“I think my favorite’s definitely the blue one. We’re Soulbonded, after all! Did you know, she’s a Northern Featherwing, too one of my favorites! You can tell because of the little speckles on her powder-blue scales, plus the feathers are an obvious giveaway,” Reed began to ramble. “It’s just perfect, she’s such a cutie! Did you know that when they’re fully grown, Northern Featherwings grown a sheen over their wings that make them shed tiny bits of ice like snowflakes when they fly? Plus their icy breath can freeze a stream solid in two seconds! But they never freeze humans they trust, and they usually…”
As Reed went on, Elly couldn’t help but smile. For her, this was “talking about dragons”. Reed had so much about dragons to share that all Elly had to do to make her happy was listen. And Elly was good at listening.
“…So which one do you like the most?” Reed asked, surprising Elly. She would have guessed that Reed could go for another hour, easy. She was so surprised, that she didn’t think to answer.
“Um… I guess…” Elly hadn’t spent nearly as much time getting to know Blake’s dragons as Reed had. But the brown one was always so friendly, and she had pet it occasionally, so when put on the spot it was the first one that escaped her lips.
“Oh! You mean the Dawnplate Hornback!” Reed said. “Yeah, he’s a really ‘sharp’ dragon! And big for his age. You know, the books say that Hornbacks are friendly and docile, even though they have such an intimidating appearance.”
Elly blinked. Intimidating? She hadn’t felt intimidated by the dragon in the slightest, even though he was the biggest one out of the five.
“Of course, not that you would know,” Reed laughed. “Around you he’s friendly and cute, even I was surprised. You have a good eye, picking one of the most docile of them all, the perfect fit for a little shy thing like you.”
Elly huffed. She was getting better about that! She wasn’t shy and fragile anymore!
Reed’s amused laugh turned into a gleeful cackle. “And just like him, you also know how to look tough when you want! It’s a perfect fit!”
She finished laughing, and turned to cast a wistful gaze at the door.
“…You know what, usually I’m fine with just talking, but right now, I can’t stand it!” Reed was squirming on the bed, and Elly thought she might just sprout wings and fly across the room like a dragon herself. “I gotta go play with them! They’re probably getting nice and used to their new environment, and I need to see it for myself! Come on, Elly, let’s go pay the boys a visit!”
Reed snapped her fingers, and a portal formed in front of the bed. As she turned to step through it, Elly realized the huge problem with this whole thing and stopped Reed before she could.
“Wait, wait!” Elly frantically protested, her face heating up in embarrassment. “You can’t just… portal into the boys’ room like that! What if they’re… changing or something?! You just can’t!”
Luckily, her words seemed to persuade Reed, and the girl shrugged her shoulders, nodding in agreement. “Fair enough,” she agreed. “Guess it’s the old-fashioned way, then.”
Reed dismissed the portal and headed for the door, Elly quickly following after her, apple still in hand.
Elly wasn’t quite sure what she and Reed had stumbled onto when Lance said they could come in. While she and Reed had been talking dragons, Blake and Lance had been joined by Rafe, Est, and Josie, and the five of them were seated around the table, playing a card game.
“Awww! Look at you! Aren’t you just the cutest thing ever?!” Reed gushed, ditching Elly in the doorway and running over to the green dragon, who was hanging from one of the curtains. Elly was tempted to join her, but she held back, still a little nervous. Reed, Blake, and Lance were one thing, but Lance’s friends still made her wary, even though she couldn’t.
“Yo, elf girl, you just gonna hang back there like a wallflower?” Josie called back, Elly flinching in surprise at being addressed.
“Josie…” Lance said, his tone a warning. He clearly didn’t like anyone calling attention to Elly’s elven features.
Josie sighed and shrugged her shoulders. “Hey, she’s part elf, she’s gonna have to get used to folks pointing it out, ‘s all. I didn’t mean anything by it.”
“It-It’s okay, really, I don’t mind,” Elly lied. While Josie wasn’t a bully, Elly never had felt comfortable around her. Mainly because she was just so… off. She didn’t dress like a lady, or act like a lady, or, as Elly’s nose unfortunately told her, wear perfume like a lady. She was crass and rude, and it was shocking because her father Lord Krost held the status of marquess.
“Nah, nah, it’s fine, come on over,” Josie said, waving at Elly. “Wanna play?”
Elly shook her head frantically. She was dreadful at games.
Josie smirked. “Come on, don’t be like that, it’s fun! With you at the table maybe Rafe can finally win a hand.”
Rafe scowled. “Shut it, Josie! You’re just stalling! Are you playing the hand or not?”
Josie smirked. “I’ll push,” she said, fingering one of the clear red stones in front of her, tossing it into the pile of colored stones at the center of the table. “Ten.”
Rafe glanced at his hand, and scowled. He tossed a red stone of his own into the center. “Call.”
Rafe set his hand of five cards on the table. Elly saw pictures of all sorts on them. Two women and a dragon, as well as a rain drop and the moon.
Josie whistled. “Two queens, huh? How about this one?” She set her own hand on the table, showing a two dragons on her cards as well as two clouds and a fireball.
“Dragons and clouds,” Josie cackled. Color filled Rafe’s face and he cursed, slumping back in his chair.
“Come on, this is ridiculous!” Rafe exclaimed. “How the heck do I keep losing?!”
“Maybe if you weren’t so easy to read all the time you could actually figure it out,” Josie cackled, pulling the colored stones in the center over to her pile.
Lance shook his head, suppressing a smirk. “Rafe, she pushed three times in a row and you just followed her when the highest you had was a pair of queens. Next time try giving up a hand or two when it’s low.”
“What, surrender like you three? That’s the coward’s way out!” Rafe protested.
“Of course we gave,” Est said, rolling his eyes. “She pushed three times.”
“I’d rather fight to the end!” Rafe proclaimed indignantly.
“Rafe, you’re what’s known as a ‘sucker’,” Josie snorted, flashing a smirk his way as she began dividing up the stones in front of her.
Elly had no idea what the rules of the game were, but she could tell that it clearly wasn’t a game Rafe was all that good at. She wasn’t about to play, but she was interested enough to watch.
Each of the students put a yellow stone in the center.
Lance took the cards back and shuffled, dealing them out to the other four as well to himself.
“Bet’s to you, Est,” Lance said, glancing to the blonde sitting next to him.
Est studied the cards in his hand. “Ten,” he said, tossing in a red stone.
Rafe was next. “Push ten,” he said, tossing in two red stones. Blake was next, silently tossing in two red stones of his own. Josie was next.
“So Elly,” Josie said, beckoning Elly over, “the way Elementalist works is that your brother over there deals us out the cards. Then we all go around saying how much we want to bet with these stones.”
“Um, okay,” Elly said, nodding. She wasn’t interested in the game at all, but forced a smile to her face and pretended she was in order to keep from seeming rude.
“The goal of the game is to get winning combinations of cards in our hands,” Josie continued. “Pairs and combos and stuff. And you see how the pictures are different colors? White-Gold, Black-Gold, White-Silver, Black-Silver, those are the different kinds of cards, there are thirteen of each color pair.”
Elly could see that the pictures on Josie’s cards were white or black, outlined in either gold or silver. As she scanned the other hands she saw that the kings, queens, and dragons were different, far more intricately drawn and in more colors, with the borders being striped White-Gold, Black-Gold, White-Silver, or Black-Silver.
“Come on, Josie, are you gonna play or not?” Rafe asked, scowling. Elly didn’t know what a good hand was in Elementalist, but she guessed Rafe didn’t have one.
“Fine, fine, I’ll let it ride,” Josie shrugged, throwing two stones in. She turned to Elly. “See, each player gets the chance to decide if they’re gonna push, that’s raise the bet, call, that’s match the bet, or give, that’s forfeit the hand. Once everyone calls, then we show our cards. But first, we get to trade in our cards for some new ones after the first wave of bets.”
Lance tossed in two stones.
“New cards?” he asked, glancing around the table. Est took three cards out of his hand and put them down in front of him. Rafe did the same, and Blake put in two. Josie put in three herself, keeping the two snowflakes she had, and Lance put in only one. He collected the cards, and then dealt out more. Elly was surprised he only traded in one card. Josie had said that the point of the game was to make combinations, and Lance didn’t have any matching cards at all.
But then, Elly figured that was normal. She didn’t know the rules, after all.
Josie had gotten another snowflake, which Elly assumed was good. The other cards were a rock and a sword.
“Aaah, drat!” Rafe scowled when the bet got to him. He threw his cards on the table. “Fine, I give!”
“You can get more than just pairs you know,” Josie continued. “There’s also elements that beat each other, and if you get all of one color that’s really good, too!” As Elly got a closer look at her brother’s hand, she realized that the cards he’d kept were all the same color, White-Gold. But the one he’d gotten was a Black-Silver. He didn’t seem to mind, and kept smiling calmly. She assumed that when it came to him, that he was going to give like Rafe did. From what Josie had told her his hand held nothing.
“I’ll push twenty,” he said, tossing in a blue stone.
Elly’s face brightened. Maybe she was completely wrong about this whole thing, she couldn’t think of any reason that someone as smart as her brother would keep a hand that would lose!
More bets went around the table. Est dropped out, and Blake did, too. It was down to Lance and Josie.
“Push ten,” Josie said, putting in another red stone.
Lance didn’t even blink. “Ten, and another ten,” he said, tossing in a pair of red stones of his own.
Josie glanced down at her hand. She wasn’t smiling anymore, she seemed to be taking this seriously as she studied her cards. Elly stood between the two of them. Three snowflakes was good, right? Was it better than what Lance had? Of course, she didn’t know what Lance had, but it was probably good, right?
Josie turned her attention to Lance, which Elly found odd. She was looking at him so intensely, and yet he was as calm as ever, staring straight into her eyes. He wasn’t even blinking.
“…Ah, you louse of a prince,” she scoffed, tossing her hand on the table. “Have it.”
Lance smirked, and set his hand down face up. A bunch of groans rang out across the table.
“Come on, Josie, you let him screw you like that?!” Rafe exploded. “He had shit!”
“It’s that damn look of his,” Josie grumbled, staring enviously at the as Lance took it.
“Wait, I’m confused,” Elly said, looking between Lance’s cards and Josie’s. “Didn’t he have a really good hand?”
“No, he had nothing,” Josie grumbled. “That hand’s a pile of nothing.”
That just made Elly even more confused. “But… But why was he betting, then? Or ‘pushing’ or whatever it’s called?” She turned to her brother. “Lance, why did you bet if you weren’t going to win?”
Lance blinked, and smirked. “But I did win.”
“But… But…” Elly looked at Josie for answers, but the other girl just snickered, shaking her head. Elly got red in the face.
She didn’t understand games at all.
“Having fun?” Reed asked, startling her. Elly turned to see her friend standing behind her, holding the blue dragon in her arms.
“Reed, why don’t you come play?” Blake suggested. “With that smile of yours you’d really clean this poff of a prince out.”
Reed laughed and shook her head. “Maybe another time, right now, I’m just interested in watching.” She leaned in closed, pulling Elly aside. “So, Elly, what do you think?” She whispered. “Still feeling nervous?”
Elly opened her mouth to reply, only to find that she had no answer to give. She had been so focused on the game she hadn’t had a single thought about Starstorm. She blushed, smiling bashfully, and nodded her head.
“I’m glad,” Reed grinned. “Hey, guys, Elly wants to play the next hand!” She called.
Elly froze. What? WHAT?!
Her mouth flapped open and closed as the others made room for her, and Reed sat her down in a chair.
Apparently, Reed wanted to cure her anxiety by giving her something ELSE to get anxious about.