Elly hadn’t been lying when she’d told her brother that she wasn’t worried about coming back to the palace. She wasn’t worried, not really; sure, she was a little nervous, she couldn’t even count how many knots her stomach was twisted into. But she wasn’t scared. Reed was there for her, and she was sure that Lance was, too.
And Blake, well…
“You want to make friends with Blake?” Reed asked Elly over lunch. Elly nodded quickly, looking around to make sure no one had overheard.
“I’m not good at making friends,” Elly said, and as the words escaped her lips Elly felt like she was… what was the opposite of exaggerating? That. “Especially not with boys. And you said that Blake needs more friends, and so do I, so…”
Reed’s face was bright and her eyes were shining gleefully. “Aww, Elly, you want to be Blake’s friend?”
“That-That isn’t weird, right?” Elly asked, her eyes shooting down to her salad as she flustered. “I can have friends that are boys too, right?”
“Absolutely! Although I don’t have any,” she laughed. “Blake’s just a little too stubborn. But if someone can wear him down it’s definitely a fragile little kitten like you!”
Elly’s face heated up, and she puffed up her cheeks. “I’m not fragile!” She huffed.
“Sorry, sorry,” Reed laughed. “I think it’s great, really, double bonus points! You and Blake both need a good friend.”
Elly sighed in relief. Back when they’d first met, she’d hoped that Blake could be her friend, but they’d grown distant through the term. Now that she was confident Elly, she felt like now was the time! Melody and Wendy had shown her how wonderful it was to have friends, and now Elly was ready to reach out to Blake in friendship herself.
“So what’s the plan then?” Reed asked. She popped a potato slice into her mouth and looked at Elly eagerly.
Elly blinked, confused. Plan? What did she need a plan for? “Plan? What do you mean?”
“How are you going to be his friend?” Reed asked. “I say just go up and tell him you want to be friends, directness is always the best plan.”
Elly’s jaw dropped in disbelief. Was Reed crazy?!
“I-I can’t just ASK him to be my friend!” She sputtered, shaking her head frantically and waving her hands like she was trying to bat the awkward words out of the sky. “That’s so weird! And-and-and-and what if he says no?! I’d just die! That would be the most awkward thing in the world, no, no, never!” Elly’s heart was all in a tizzy.
Reed snickered. “Come on now, there’s nothing wrong with it! I asked him to be my friend right away! It’s not awkward unless you make it.”
Elly didn’t believe her. “Um… but Reed… didn’t, like… didn’t he push you away? And he’s still not your friend, right?”
Reed blinked, her smile frozen on her face.
“…So, you don’t want to be direct, then maybe just spend some time with him, that sounds like a plan that can always work!” Reed decided, nodding her head.
Elly decide not to comment on the sudden change, and nodded in agreement. That worked for her. Just… try to get to know him better. “Does he… he likes reading books, so maybe I could talk about that?” She asked. She still had fond memories of the first day she met him, when they talked about stories with dragons.
“Sure, could work,” Reed nodded. Then her grin took on a mischievous glint. “He and I bonded about dragons. Maybe you could talk about that, he definitely likes them!”
“Yeah, that could work!” She agreed. But as she nodded, she thought a little harder and began to have doubts. “But I don’t know a lot about dragons, not as much as you, so maybe not…”
It was the way Reed’s face lit up that told Elly she had just walked right into the other girl’s trap. Her heart sunk.
“That’s fine! I can teach you everything you need to know!” Reed gushed, and Elly wondered if Reed’s advice had been just to lure Elly into another talk about dragons. She wouldn’t put it past her.
“…I think I’ll stick to books,” she politely declined Reed’s offer with an awkward smile.
Books. Books were things Elly could talk about for hours. She got her first chance as Blake helped guide his dragons into their cages. The train was nearing their destination. Stormstar could be seen from the window, and countless trains and ships filled the sky around them as they approached.
“So, um, Blake!” Elly said, handing him the large brown dragon, “are there any books you like to read?”
Blake gave her a blank look. “Not really,” he said. “I haven’t had much time to read since the dragons hatched, they take up a lot of my time these days.
“Oh, um, too bad, then,” Elly said, laughing awkwardly.
Well, so much for that plan. Reed was standing behind Blake, and she mouthed over his shoulder “dragons!”
Elly sighed. Maybe later. They finished packing just in time for the train to arrive.
As they walked out of their suites, Elly took one last passing look at the island before them. Cobblestones were shining a bright golden yellow in the sunlight, giving the streets of the city a shimmering glow that could be seen even at a distance. It was the only city Elly had ever seen, so she could not say if it was truly the greatest city in the sky, as so many had claimed. And as high above the ground as they were, its majesty was diminished slightly for Elly, though only slightly. She only needed to close her eyes, and once again she could see all those great sights she had so admired from her window for hours on end. Inns and taverns held home to all manner of sort, and through the streets pedestrians patronized the capitol’s many shops, from painter to baker to blacksmith, bookstores and boutiques, clinics and artisan workshops. When the buildings gave way, their slack was picked up by all manner of stalls and vendors, food carts peddling foreign delicacies, farmers with the last of the autumn harvest, and merchants selling so many things Elly couldn’t even begin to count them all!
From the windowsill it had all seemed so amazing, but now those buildings looked like children’s toys, and bustling pedestrians were so many ants scurrying through golden veins. But beyond the city itself stood one thing that remained as majestic as always. The Thunder Palace was the jewel of Starstorm, and all of Saekoria, really. Nestled upon a plateau, it overlooked the city as though standing in judgment, Starstorm’s watchful protector and silent guard. Ten massive towers of brightstone framed the cradle in the center, like the fingers of a celestial curled up to protect it. Elly remembered from her books that it had been built to withstand entire armies in the days when dragons soared the sky, the massive curtain of its walls and sloping crenellations rose higher and higher as they drew closer to the center and the armored dragonpoint, decorated in golden symbols across every surface. The intricate spellcraft warded against all manner of attack whether from land or air, aided by the finest mages in the nation. And at the fore, standing proudly in the center of the plaza before the Gates of Glory, was Roland the Grand Uniter himself. His likeness meticulously carved in brightstone, he raised his twin swords and smiled proudly, as though daring anyone to try and breach his castle’s mighty walls.
None had ever risen to the challenge. Depending on which side of those walls you stood on, you knew the Thunder Palace as either the greatest blessing from the Celestials above, or a source of unending torment and growing frustration.
Elly knew it as “home”.
Her heart skipped a beat as the train turned, and the Thunder Palace shrank in the distance. Of course the train would not presume to land so near. Minutes later, the sky train came to a gentle stop, landing upon the platform. Elly could hear the piercing whistle drown out the soft ruffle of its folding wings, and swallowed any doubts she had left.
She was here, she was home. Dutifully, Elly followed her brother out of the car, and took pause to feel the warmth of the sunlight kiss her face. She stepped down onto the ground and stared at the brightly-shining castle in the distance; the last time she stood here had been dawn; now, it was approaching dusk. And as daybreak had changed to night, so too had Elly changed from the trembling girl who stood frozen in fear, dreading the future that the Rem Magic Academy would bring;
A smile touched her lips, and stayed there. She followed her brother with a sure foot now.
Of course, the station greeting the train back from Rem Magic Academy was packed. A good many students called Starstorm (or one of the neighboring islands) their home, and with many of that number being nobility, the welcomes were of the grandest sort. Elly was curious that no such greeting awaited them. But she followed Lance through the mob nonetheless, tightly clutching her bags and certain her brother knew where he was going. Elly could make out Blake through the crowd, not only dragging his luggage behind him, but also holding the carrying cage his dragons laid roost in, and his hefty blade strapped to his back. Elly was amazed he could keep pace with them, and almost offered to lend a hand before she bumped into her brother’s back, not having paid attention to know he had stopped.
“Oh! Sorry!” She squeaked, peeking past Lance to see what had given him pause. Her face lit up. Finally, something she recognized.
Of the countless pairs eyes in the palace whose cold gaze made Elly wither in shame, Head Maid Fie’s weren’t one of them. Indeed, she was stern and cold to Elly without fail, but she treated everyone with the same detached air of professionalism that Elly believed a maid should have. Not at all like those gossiping women who shot her mocking glances and whispered behind her back. No, Fie was like her mother, a maid who took pride in her position.
She may have worked in the palace as long as Elly could remember, but she still looked so young. Her tan skin was flawless and beautiful, like a woman of her twenties, one nearly double that. But one look at the depth of her dark eyes and the wisdom held secret within them told the story. Her hair was a braided rope of midnight, but Elly had not once seen it down from where she wrapped it behind her head, just past her bonnet. She stood in dress of black and stark white, and while other nobles might be insulted to have a maid come fetch them, Fie’s presence away from the palace marked only the highest of honors.
“Greetings, my prince,” the maid greeted Lance with a lowered head, holding her hand over her breast. “At his majesty’s command, I have come to deliver you and your friends to the Thunder Palace.” Fia stood beside one of the royal carriages, a magic vehicle so large it could carry twice their number, easily. She had never ridden in one before; the trip she’d made to the train station before had been on a servant’s cart.
“Oh, no need for all that trouble!” Reed said, laughing jovially like the head maid was an old friend. “I can get us there in a snap!”
Fie’s face was the perfect mask of professionalism, not even the twitch of an eyebrow disrupted her serene expression. “That is not permitted,” she coldly rebuffed her, “magic of any sort is explicitly forbidden within the presence of the Thunder Palace.”
Reed sighed and shrugged her shoulders, smiling in resignation. “Ah, well, if those are the rules,” she said, as though she didn’t make a habit of flouting rules about her magic’s usage whenever it suited her. Elly had to laugh.
“Come this way,” Fie said, stepping aside and opening the door to the carriage, allowing them to climb aboard. “Please, allow us to take care of your luggage.”
With a snap of her fingers two more maids seemed to appear from nowhere, rushing to the students and scooping their cases and trunks from their hands before they could say a word.
Startled, Elly just followed her brother into the carriage as Reed piled in behind her. Elly glanced over her shoulder to see Blake was still standing in the square. And the expression on his face was like nothing Elly had seen before. His eyes were filled with disbelief, and his face seemed frozen in an expression of shock, like he had seen a ghost. Elly wondered if he was stunned at the sight of a carriage driven by magic given his history on a farm, but those thoughts quickly left her. Whatever it was that haunted him was deeper than that.
“Young lord, may I take your luggage?” Fie calmly asked. This seemed to shake Blake out of whatever stupor he had found himself in. He swallowed and shook his head.
“N-No, it stays with me,” Blake said, sharply jerking his eyes from the maid as he pushed past her and climbed up into the carriage, passing the large cage over to Reed.
“What’s wrong, Blake?” Reed laughed, hopping up to cross the aisle of the carriage and sit down next to him, setting the dragons down beside her. “You look like you just saw a demon crawl up from Tartarus itself!”
“It’s nothing,” Blake said, unable to look Reed in the eye. Fie closed the door on them, and about a minute later the carriage sprang to life, magic charging through the orica system and into the spellcraft, turning the wheels and pushing it forward.
Elly turned to Blake, who was sitting across from her. She had been hoping to use the ride up to the Thunder Palace to try her hand again at making friends, but it was clear that whatever was bothering Blake, he wasn’t in the mood to talk. So she sat back and relished in the luxury she had found herself in. The seats were plush and she sank right into them, beautiful scarlet and gold, curling up her back and nestling her in softness. It was like being hugged by a pillow.
A smile spread across Elly’s lips as they approached the Emperor’s Escarpment. Blake wasn’t on her mind anymore, and she didn’t care about the queen or what awaited her in the palace. She felt like all her worries were being gently massaged away by the smooth rocking of the carriage. In spite of herself, she wondered if this was what it would feel like if she had been born a genuine princess.