It was a nice day. Summer was drifting slowly into early autumn’s crisp mornings that brightened into warm, breezy afternoons.
Or at least the Cephiran sunshine looked nice from inside the castle library.
Previous Sunday mornings would have found Hikaru outside early, perhaps enjoying breakfast with Umi and Fuu, or playing with the local children. Some mornings, she begged Clef to lend her Fyula for the day so she could visit Presea to watch the Pharle at her forge. Other mornings, she would badger Ferio into sparring with her or help Ascot care for the many creatures he had adopted.
Her favorite mornings were spent with Lantis and Eagle, doing nothing much at all together.
Today had resembled none of those mornings.
The afternoon was not much of an improvement.
If Hikaru had been mature and sensible, she never would have agreed to spend the day in Cephiro. She was suffering that singular trial that nearly every other Japanese junior high third year must face: the high school entrance exam. Weekends previously spent in Cephiro were now sacrificed to cram school and hours of studying. She hadn’t practiced kendo in weeks. Her dog Hikari had moved on from dropping a ball or leash into her lap and merely gave her mournful glances these days.
When Fuu had said a few days ago that the three of them should take a day off and Umi had declared that studious Fuu was the final authority on this matter, how could Hikaru possibly deny her best friends their hearts’ desire?
So she lugged her bookbag on the subway and up to the observation deck of Tokyo Tower, grasped their hands, and Wished to be in Cephiro. Whereupon Hikaru had cheerfully announced that she was going to continue studying in what had to be the universe’s most beautiful library with the most inspirational surroundings! On such a picture-perfect autumn day, she had taken over a large wooden worktable in the otherwise unoccupied library.
It had been a long shot, but being the mostly-abdicated Pillar did not one give power over mathematics. Or any other subject, for that matter.
“This is stupid,” she muttered under her breath.
The cold, unfeeling diagrams illustrating geometric formulas stared back at her.
“Stupid,” she whispered, squeezing her eyes shut. Her family had worked so hard, supported her so much, sent her to a highly-regarded junior high school, spent even more money on cram school, yet it still wasn’t enough. Hikaru was far below the scores she needed to earn admission into the senior high school that her three brothers had attended. If she didn’t attend a good high school, she would never get into a university veterinary program, never become a veterinarian, and her dreams for her future on Earth would die the day she saw her exam scores on the bulletin board in the schoolyard.
“Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupidstupidstupidstupid,”
“Hikaru, are you alright?”
“Fine!” She sat bolt upright, scrubbing at her face. “I’m fine!”
“I thought you’d be spending time with your friends, especially as your visits have been so infrequent recently.” Clef sat at the long table. “What’s all this?”
“Um,” Hikaru realized that her books and papers covered a space that could comfortably seat six. “It’s for my high school entrance exam.”
At Clef’s curious expression, she continued. “There’s this huge test I have to take in a few months, and your score on the test determines where you can go to high school. And then, where you go to high school determines where you can go to university, and where you go to university determines where you can work when you grow up.” Hikaru sighed, shoulders slumped under the enormity of it all.
“Basically, it can ruin your whole life if you fail.”
“That sounds like a lot of pressure.”
“Yeah.” She sighed again, then put on her cheerful face. “But at least I have a back-up plan that no one else has: run away and live in Cephiro!” Clef smiled in response.
“You could, and you’re always welcome here. But judging by the effort you’re putting in to this exam of yours,” he cast a sweeping gesture over the mess on the table. “You don’t seem enthusiastic about that plan.”
“No,” Hikaru agreed.
“Surely you’re not alone in this? Umi and Fuu would help you if you asked.”
“It’s not that. I mean, I study with my friends from school, and we go to cram school together, and sometimes my brothers help, too.” How could she explain this to someone who, until recently, had no idea that a thing such as ‘high school’ existed? “Umi’s school has an elevator system. She doesn’t have an exam. Fuu…” Here she paused, trying to find the right words. “Fuu is…”
“Fuu is Fuu.” Clef agreed. Hikaru felt that he understood what it was like to have a friend who is so much better than you at something that it is no longer a matter of willingness to ask or offer help.
“Well, I don’t know the content of this exam, and I cannot read your language very well, but I’ve always thought that the best way to understand something is to teach someone else. May I propose that you try to explain this to me?” Hikaru stared.
“But what about your work?” she blurted out. “I mean, don’t you have more important things to do?”
“More important? No, nothing that can’t wait. Or if you would prefer, I’m sure Lantis would be happy to help you.” Hikaru felt her face heat up, though she was pretty sure that Clef wouldn’t tease her.
“Um, I don’t know if I want to study with Lantis.” She surveyed the crumped papers and increasingly inane doodles. “I get kind of frustrated. I don’t even know if you want to be around me.”
“If you truly don’t want to, I take no offense.”
“Maybe, it can’t hurt?” She remembered her manners and bowed. “I’d be honored to have your help.”
“My pleasure. I admit to being curious about your education in Tokyo. Would you like to get started, or have you had enough for today?”
“I haven’t made much progress today, so I should keep going, if that’s not a problem?”
“Not at all. But you should eat something first. You missed lunch.” Clef waved his left hand and a tray appeared, laden with Cephiran food and a tea setting. A moment later the teapot steamed. “No one can concentrate on an empty stomach.” He said matter-of-factly as he poured for both of them.
Hikaru reached for a promising dumpling-like object on the tray and then suddenly froze as a horrifying thought occurred to her. “Won’t we get in trouble with the librarian for eating in here?” she whispered, her hand hovering inches above the dumpling.
Clef pushed the tray closer to her. “I daresay we could fend her off together.”
Hikaru snickered and took a bite. As the taste of some sort of seasoned vegetable filled her mouth, she relaxed a little. Clef was right, she was hungry, tired, and getting nowhere trying to understand this stuff on her own.
Perhaps belatedly, something occurred to her. “Does Cephiro even have geometry?”
Clef sighed. It was his exasperated-but-slightly-amused sigh, not his exasperated-and-trying-to-control-his-temper sigh.
“Yes, Hikaru. Cephiro has geometry.”
It turned out that, indeed, Cephiro had advanced mathematics. And chemistry, and physics, and biology.
“I don’t even know where to start,” Hikaru admitted after reading her third geometry problem to the Mater Mage of Cephiro. She could feel her face growing warm. So far, she had talked Clef through only two problems on the interior angles of triangles before getting stuck.
“Hm,” Clef leaned closer to her geometry textbook to study the illustration. “Let’s start with a fresh sheet of paper,” he suggested, glancing at the mess of scratched out attempts in Hikaru’s notebook. She dutifully turned to the next page. “Now, please write the numbers zero through nine, in that order, in the corner.”
Hikaru must have looked skeptical.
“Unless you want a lesson in Cephiran numerals, I’ll try to use yours,” he explained. She wrote out the numbers and passed her composition book and pen to Clef. “Thank you,” he said absently, then quickly sketched a duplicate of the diagram in her textbook.
“I always find it helps to write down the goal of the problem. Here, we need to find the angle C-P-B.” he wrote this down at the top of the page in impossibly tidy script. “The problem has given us some additional information,” he continued as he wrote down two other equations from memory. Unless he had somehow learned kanji…? “Now, with only this information, we cannot answer the question. It relies on our knowledge of other geometric properties.”
“But what if I can’t remember any geometric properties?”
“That would indeed be a problem. Some of them can be derived, but as your exam has a time limit I suggest memorizing them so you can recall them with fluency.” He tapped the page with the capped end of Hikaru’s pen to draw her attention back to the problem at hand. “From those properties, what other information do we know about the diagram?”
“Um…” Hikaru stared at the page. The clean lines and angles that Clef had drawn were somehow a little less scary than the same diagram in her book. Maybe the tea was actually a potion to help with math anxiety? “Well that’s a straight line, so all the angles combined should be one-hundred eighty degrees? Is that helpful?”
Clef wrote that down. “Anything else?”
Hikaru stared at the page while Clef waited patiently. At cram school, the teacher hovering over her as she failed to come up with the answer would just make her more and more nervous. But here, in Cephiro’s great library, there were no other students waiting impatiently for the teacher’s attention or snickering behind their hands when Hikaru got a question wrong. There was only Clef, who poured more tea and acted as if he had all the time in the world and nothing better to do than wait as the gears in Hikaru’s mind turned.
“I can’t think of anything,” she finally admitted.
“Neither can I,” said Clef. “Moreover, there are three unknown angles in this problem. Between the two equations we created from the information given to us, and your knowledge that there are one-hundred eighty degrees in a straight line, we have three equations. We should be able to solve three unknowns.” He returned the pen to her. “Try now, but write out every step explicitly.”
“Well, if these two are equal…I can substitute it like this?” Clef nodded as she wrote down some algebra.
“Then I can substitute this one in here…oh! I just solve for the angle now.” She quickly did some more math. “I got thirty-three degrees.” She looked up from her notebook.
“Very good!” Clef smiled. “See, you have to know your fundamentals.”
“Okay, let’s try the next one,” Hikaru turned the page, buoyed with newfound confidence.
If Clef could awaken fire magic in a schoolgirl from Earth, perhaps he could teach geometry to a Magic Knight.
Soon, it was Hikaru picking up the phone after cram school on Friday nights to see if Umi and Fuu wanted to make the trip to Cephiro that Sunday. Umi broached the subject first.
“Don’t you have to study? Won’t your brothers get suspicious if you want to go out every weekend?”
“Well, actually, Clef’s been helping me study, so I’m definitely going this week. I just thought you might want to come, too, and have some fun while I’m busy!” Hikaru wasn’t sure why she hadn’t told Umi (and Fuu) weeks ago. They had homework, too. Clef probably wouldn’t mind if they decided to join in on the studying.
Unless Umi got frustrated…
“WHAT?!” Hikaru jerked the phone away from her ear. “He probably still believes in corporal punishment if you get the answer wrong! Do I have to start checking you for head injuries?”
“Clef’s not like that! He’s actually really patient. And he’s really, really good at explaining math.”
“Huh. Who’d have thought he’d be useful?” Umi sounded calm again. “As hilarious as it’d be to see Clef teaching math, I can’t come this time. I promised my parents I’d stay home and have dinner with them.”
Fuu, on the other hand, greeted the revelation of Hikaru’s unlikely private tutor with her usual equanimity.
“I’m not surprised you think Guru Clef is a good teacher. Ferio says he turns down a lot of potential students.”
“I hadn’t thought of that,” said Hikaru. Suddenly she felt guilty again for taking up so much of Clef’s time. “He’s always so busy with the Council, and the Autozam project, and teaching Ascot magic. I’m not event his student and he’s spending so much time helping me. Do you think I should stop?”
“You can’t burden yourself with other people’s choices. If he agreed to help, then the best thing you can to do to honor that is to work hard and try your best.”
Hikaru thought about that for a minute. “You’re right.” Fuu usually was. “So, you coming?”
“I’m sorry, I can’t this week. I have a big group project to finish.”
“Bummer. Ferio will be disappointed.” On the other end of the phone, Fuu sputtered.
It did not take long for them to decide that Clef would be useless at helping Hikaru study the English language.
“I run, you run, he…runs, we run, they run.”
“I still hear Cephiran. Perhaps we should move on to another subject.”
“How dare Mokona not know that one day a Magic Knight would need to study a foreign language?” She giggled into her flashcards and the corners of Clef’s eyes crinkled.
“Should the Creator of our worlds make another appearance, I will raise the issue.”
That is not to say that it was smooth sailing from there.
“UuuuuunnnnngggggghhhhhAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAwhyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy…” Hikaru’s voice warbled from moan, to shout, then ended on a whine, startling two haggard apprentices and one elderly archivist who harrumphed in their direction as he moved further away.
Clef just raised one eyebrow and was silent until Hikaru lifted her head from her textbook.
“Matrices are pointless and I’m never gonna get this.”
“Matrices are not pointless; now let me think of another way to explain it.”
“This is all pointless, because I’m gonna fail my exam and not get into high school and disgrace my family and lose all my friends because they’ll be too embarrassed to be seen with me. Then I will live in a box on the streets and die alone.” Some distant, tiny part of Hikaru’s brain was shocked that she would let herself devolve into catastrophizing. Maybe Umi was rubbing off on her?
Clef’s single raised eyebrow did not budge. “I thought your plan was to run away and live in Cephiro?”
“Hrgh.” She let her head fall back to the table.
Clef tilted his head expectantly but Hikaru did not seem inclined to recover quickly. He pulled a sheaf of papers from an inner pocket of his robes. Trade negotiations with Fahren were ongoing and he had not yet reviewed the latest proposal. He read silently, occasionally making a note in the margins to himself.
After a few pages, Hikaru lifted her head again. “I’m sorry,” she said quietly, face red with shame.
“It’s natural to feel discouraged at times.” Clef lowered the trade proposal. “The important thing is to keep going.”
“I know.” She sighed. “Does Cephiro have exams to become a Mage?”
“Yes, many.” He put the papers aside to give Hikaru his full attention. “They’re not written like in your world, but we have a number of oral and practical examinations in order to attain the rank.” Hikaru shuddered.
“That’s a nightmare. A written exam is bad enough, but oral? I’d freeze up. I hate public speaking.”
“Personally, I’m suspicious of anyone who truly enjoys it,” Clef agreed. “At the time, it was difficult to see the value in learning so much material that wasn’t immediately useful to me, but having that foundation proved valuable as I progressed with my own Magic.”
“So you’re saying I have to learn all this just in case cryptic food prices are in my future?” she asked, half joking.
“It teaches you how to think in certain ways. I’ll think of examples that are more relatable and less ridiculous than the ones in your textbook.” Clef suggested. “For now, accept its place in your life.”
The next week when Hikaru arrived, Guru Clef was waiting for her in the Castle foyer.
“I thought we would move to my study for today,” he said by way of greeting.
“Did the librarian yell at you? I’m sorry!”
“We came to an understanding,” said Clef. “But I had an idea for something that might convince you of the practical applications of mathematics, and the materials are there anyway.”
“I’m skeptical, but willing to be convinced!” Hikaru dug around in her bag. “Look, I did so much better on my practice exam this week!” Clef looked pleased as he studied the marked-up paper and the happy face drawn by her cram school teacher.
“Your hard work is paying off. You should be proud of yourself.”
“Oh no, it’s all due to having such a wonderful teacher!”
“A willing student makes the job easy,” he deflected, but sounded pleased as he handed the exam back. Clef asked politely after Umi and Fuu, and Hikaru’s family, so they chatted pleasantly on the walk to his study. He waved the door open and paused to let her enter first.
Spread on Clef’s unusually tidy desk was a map of the stars surrounding Cephiro. It was a thing of practicality, covered in notes made by many different hands and colored inks, unlike the ornamental calligraphy of the maps that hung framed in the castle observatory. Hikaru slipped her bag off of her shoulder and sat in the chair that Clef held out for her. He sat next to her and leaned over the map.
“Here,” Clef pointed to a dot that was larger than the rest and framed in tidy red script. “This appeared in the sky one night, and was not a known celestial body. The next night,” he pointed to a second dot. “It had moved, but not at a speed of anything known to us. It was imperative that we determine its trajectory. Let us assume a straight line for now, to keep things simple…”
She listened intently as Clef started writing equations on a sheet of parchment. There was something strange and a little captivating about watching math she recognized from her classwork being rewritten in Clef’s own hand using an inkpot pen. He had adapted easily to Earth’s mathematics conventions. It made Hikaru a little embarrassed at her own difficulties (“I’ve been using mathematics for centuries,” he had said gently.).
“Now, with more observations, we can determine not only the speed at which it is traveling, but also its distance from us by observing it from multiple locations far apart.” Clef carefully peeled back the first map to reveal a second, with a slightly different pattern of stars. “These two observations were taken simultaneously, and since the distance separating the observers was known…” he continued, narrating as he wrote.
“There!” He stopped writing and leaned back from the desk. “We’ve calculated both a distance and a rate of travel using your level of mathematics. That gives us…” he paused to roll up the second map, revealing a third underneath, this one with a more elaborate depiction of the path of the mysterious space object. It seemed vaguely familiar to Hikaru.
“Is this…?” She gasped as the map clicked into her memory. Clef nodded solemnly.
“These are the maps we used to track the progress of the invading countries.” He traced the path with his finger. “This is Chizeta’s Road. Of course, to account for the curvature requires some mathematics you haven’t yet learned, but you’d use the same technique to perform the calculations.”
“I never knew,” she said quietly. For all the time Clef and the others in the castle spent on the observation deck, tracking the movements of the invaders’ ships, or when Clef had projected a three-dimensional map of the approaching Roads, Hikaru had never thought about the work that went in to anticipating their arrival. She had just assumed it was Magic.
“I know the examples in your book seem contrived, but remember that they’re simplified so that you may gain mastery of one concept at a time. It’s unsatisfying, but have patience.”
A few weeks later, Clef’s desk looked like Autozam had exploded on it.
“What’s all this?” asked Hikaru, dropping her bag.
“Off the floor, please,” said Clef absently and not for the first time, pulling a few more strange objects out of a box. He was a bit fastidious that way; the only chaotic surface allowed was the desk. “I thought it’d be more interesting to practice these formulae with real examples.”
“Where’d you get this? It looks like it came from Autozam.”
“From the atmosphere restoration project. We’ve been testing some ideas for combining Cephiran Magic with Autozam’s technology.”
“Do they know you…ah, borrowed these?” She surveyed the mess. Was that a circuit board?
“I’ll put it back,” Clef reassured her. She watched as he pushed some things into some semblance of organization. Hikaru had some vague idea of the advanced Autozamian technology, but a few bits and pieces scattered over Clef’s desk looked distinctly Earth-like. Sometimes she marveled at how similar Autozam and Earth were.
“How do you know what to do with all this?” Hikaru was genuinely curious. She had demonstrated her calculator once. Clef had seemed unimpressed.
“I work closely with some of the scientists from Autozam, and I pay attention.”
“I didn’t realize the project would be so involved.”
“What did you think it would be like?”
“Um…” Over the past few months, Hikaru had slowly come to realize that Magic in Cephiro was more than just what she had discovered on the way to being a Magic Knight. She waved her hands aimlessly.
“You know, magic!”
“On such a large scale, that would require being the Pillar of Autozam.” Clef frowned and looked directly into Hikaru’s eyes, suddenly very serious. “Which would be unnecessary and irresponsible.” He enunciated each syllable.
She stared, uncomprehending. “But Autozam doesn’t have a Pillar system.”
Still puzzled, Hikaru blinked a few times at the piercing expression on Clef’s face. Not like he was sizing her up, or staring deep inside her soul…
No. Not piercing. Determined.
She blinked again and the strange expression was gone from his face (had she imagined it?) and he was back to fiddling with the circuit board.
“After your exam is over and you have time, you should come when the Autozam scientists are testing things,” Clef suggested, then said a little cheekily, “You’d have the opportunity to see all this useless education in action!”
“Hey, I never said it was useless!” Hikaru protested. Clef gave her A Look. She pressed her index fingers together sheepishly. “Okay, maybe I got a little frustrated…”
“Here, we’ll have to work together.” Clef handed her some sort of data pad with three colored, insulated wires dangling out of the end like tentacles. “I hope this is similar to what you have in Tokyo, so you’ll be familiar with how it works. I’ll help with the Autozamian characters.”
“You can read Autozamian?”
“It’s mostly phonetic and has changed little in my lifetime.” He reached over to push what was apparently a power button. The data pad glowed to life. “I believe this is called a “multi-meter”. We can use it to measure parts of the circuit and demonstrate the problems in your textbook.”
“Cool!” Hikaru perked up. “At school, only the teacher has one of these so we have to watch demonstrations! It gets kind of boring…”
“Indeed.” He looked pleased with himself at her growing enthusiasm.
“I think we need a battery or something,” she said, peering into the box to see if there was anything still in there.
“That’s where I come in.” Clef smiled, reaching for the circuit board.
It was a fun lesson, thought Hikaru at the end of the day. Eventually they figured out the Autozamian multi-meter, Clef only melted three resistors by mistake, and by the time she got all her work done, she had even decided that she liked solving circuit board problems. She told Lantis as such over dinner. He smiled and added a story from his days as Clef’s student.
Hikaru got every question on Ohm’s Law correct at cram school that week.
After New Year’s, the studying on Earth took on a more frenetic pace. Hikaru was glad for the chance to escape to Cephiro, where the pressure of cram school and a classroom full of other people’s stress would be replaced by the sunlit calm of Clef’s study and an endless supply of hot tea.
The castle foyer was warmer than the observation deck of Tokyo Tower. She paused to unzip her jacket before making her way up the stairs.
She rapped twice on the door before opening it. “Clef? Happy Earth New Year! I brought snacks for you to try! It’s my favorite mochi, and tangerines, too, I haven’t seen fruit like that in Cephiro so I thought you might like to try it…”
Clef was standing at the window, beyond which snow sifted thickly down. At Hikaru’s entrance, he turned slightly. “Just contemplating the weather,” he said.
“Wow!” She dropped her bag on the floor (Clef would make her pick it up later) and ran to press her face against the glass. “It looks so deep! It must’ve been snowing for hours now!” She rubbed away the condensation her breath left on the windowpane. “We never get snow like this in Tokyo. It’s so beautiful!”
“Mm.” Hikaru stole a sideways glance at Clef, who was staring out the window again. Uncharacteristically, his arms were crossed over his chest, staff propped against the far wall. His eyes had that look in them that meant he was far away.
“Did it ever snow in Cephiro…before?” She still had a hard time saying Emeraude’s name (or Zagato’s) in front of Clef. Sometimes she thought she should say their names out loud to honor their memory with the man who had been their teacher, but then she worried that hearing them spoken in the voice of one who killed them would only bring him pain.
“No,” Clef said quietly after a minute. “Her Will was too strong for most adverse weather.” He didn’t say Emeraude’s name either. Hikaru’s joy at the snow was replaced by a growing lump in her throat. In spite of everything, in spite of saving Cephiro from certain destruction or conquest and abolishing the Pillar system forever, nothing could change the fact that Emeraude had died by her hand.
After an almost unbearable amount of time, Clef spoke again. “Before, when the previous Pillar was in power, it snowed in winter sometimes.” The lump in Hikaru’s throat dropped to her stomach. To her burgeoning shame, she had rarely given much thought to the line of tragic Pillars who came before Emeraude. If Clef had been Emeraude’s teacher, how many of them had he known? Taught? Outlived?
But Clef’s tone was even, without a drop of accusation, and the way he said it made Hikaru feel like he was giving her a small treasure to keep safe instead of an arrow to her heart. She didn’t dare face Clef; she was barely daring to breathe too loudly.
The snow fell relentlessly.
In the end, it was Clef who turned to Hikaru with a slightly mischievous look in his eye, though the sadness was not quite gone. “I never cared for snow, but,” he pushed the glass door open and stepped on to the balcony. “If this is a treat for you, you should enjoy it.” Hikaru followed him onto the balcony. It wasn’t nearly as cold as she expected. The snow creaked under her shoes.
“I always forget how quiet the snow makes everything.” she said, finally swallowing away the lump in her throat. As if on cue, she could just hear distant voices.
“Perhaps not for long. I think you’ll be unable to concentrate until you’ve enjoyed the snow and burned off some energy.” Clef leaned over the railing, pointing to a window several floors below. “I have it on good authority that Ferio and Lantis are in that room. If you sneak around the back way and get them to open the window, you might be able to ambush them.”
“What?” Was he trying to get rid of her or something? “You want me to have a snowball fight? I’m supposed to be studying! My exam is a month away!”
“You’re too distracted this morning. Have a little fun first. We’ll get to work after lunch.” Clef shepherded Hikaru out of his study. If he brushed the melting snowflakes from his shoulders with prejudice, she pretended not to notice. “I expect your full attention this afternoon!” he called after her before he disappeared back into his study.
Not knowing what else to do, Hikaru zipped up her jacket and made her way down the many floors to the garden-level door of the castle.
Clef was correct. A few snowballs from a discreet hiding place, and Ferio did indeed open the window to investigate, leaving his face wide open for the next hit. Lantis took a little more coaxing, but once the children who lived in the castle got involved, he was easily coerced into building a fort with them. Ascot wandered out when he heard the commotion and joined Hikaru to build an opposing fortress together.
For the final assault, Ferio vaulted over his own snow fort, leading half a dozen tiny screeching warriors behind him, and forewent ranged weaponry altogether to tackle Hikaru.
Laughing, fall cushioned by the knee-deep snow, she could see the castle rising up past Clef’s window to the flat gray sky. Lantis appeared above her and lifted her to her feet, leaving Ferio to his own devices.
“We should dry off before we eat,” said Lantis, ever practical. Beside him, Ascot was shivering and blowing into his hands. The kids were picking themselves up, energy spent, slowly filtering back towards the castle and the promise of a hot meal. Crumpled snow angels littered the garden among the ruined forts.
Lunch was a lively affair. When Clef joined the table, Hikaru, Ascot, and Ferio recounted their epic battle while Lantis pretended without success that his role had been only supervisory. Hikaru shared the mochi and fruit with the table, explaining the New Year’s traditions of Japan.
When Hikaru and Clef sat down with her chemistry notes between them, she had to concede to herself that Clef had been right. She had made snowmen, built and destroyed a fort, had a snowball fight, and thoroughly enjoyed the time spent playing with her friends, even if they were technically Too Old for this sort of thing.
They made it through three chapters of chemistry before Hikaru had to Wish herself back to Tokyo where it was merely cold without the fun parts of winter.
“I don’t feel ready.” It was two weeks before Hikaru’s exam. She had already made up her mind that this would be her last visit to Cephiro until it was over. “I thought I was okay, but then I did worse on my practice exam the other week.”
“But your exam from this past week was very good,” Clef reminded her. “Focus on that.”
“I know, but I’m still nervous.”
“Of course. Spend your time wisely and practice the subjects that gave you the most trouble.”
“Right.” Hikaru exhaled, deliberately rolling her shoulders back. “Any other words of wisdom?”
“Only the obvious. Get a good night’s sleep, eat a good breakfast, and don’t let it get the better of you.” He shrugged. “Good advice for any world.”
“Umi says to think of the exam as my enemy and not let it win.” At that, Clef made a noise that sounded like he was trying not to laugh.
“She would say that,” he said, somewhat to himself. Then, directly to Hikaru, “If that mindset helps you, by all means.”
“Caldina said to seduce the proctor.”
“Please don’t.” Clef shook his head, but the warning note in his voice foretold of a stern talking-to in someone else’s future.
“It’s fun to picture Caldina doing it, though,” she grinned. Another exasperated sigh.
Clef passed her the last of her notes. She zipped them up in her bookbag with a sense of finality.
“I guess that’s it then.” Not knowing what else to do for the Master Mage of Cephiro-turned junior high tutor, she bowed deeply. “Thank you so much for all your help.”
Clef inclined his head in return. “Don’t discount your own abilities. You’re an excellent student and a hard worker. It was truly my pleasure.” He smiled. “But you are very welcome all the same. I’ll see you out.”
Hikaru hefted her bag over her shoulder and led the way, door swinging open before her.
“So what are you going to do now that you don’t have to teach me math anymore?”
“I thought I’d catch up on my reading.”
“Oh? Anything fun?”
“International trade, mostly.” His tone was a little dryer than normal. “What are you looking forward to doing again?”
“So many things!” she exclaimed, and launched into her list.
When they reached the foyer, Umi was already there chatting with Caldina and Ascot. Lantis stood off to the side, not quite a part of their conversation.
“Ready to go?” asked Umi.
“Yup!” Hikaru bounced into Caldina’s outstretched arms for a tight hug.
“Oh honey, you’re gonna do great!” Caldina squeezed a little harder, lifting Hikaru onto her toes before letting her go, only to hold her by the shoulders. “That test doesn’t stand a chance!” She pulled Hikaru close again to kiss her forehead before finally letting go.
“Thanks! I’ll do my best!” Hikaru turned to give Ascot a hug as well.
“Good luck!” he whispered into her ear.
She turned to Lantis next and wrapped her arms around his waist. His embrace was warm, and even though it made her heart beat a little faster, she didn’t feel nervous around him anymore.
“You can do this,” he said quietly. “I believe in you.”
“Thanks,” Hikaru said against his chest. She hugged him a little longer than strictly necessary before stepping back.
“So you’ve finished teaching Hikaru everything she needs to know, right?” Umi nudged Clef in the shoulder.
“Certainly not.” He stepped out of range with a warning glance in Umi’s direction. “But she’s worked very hard and is well-prepared.”
“Of course she is!” Umi declared, more for Hikaru’s benefit than Clef’s.
“Have you been studying as well, Umi?” Clef inquired politely with a little censure in his tone.
“Nope! I escaped exam Hell this time. I’ll have to do it for university, though.” Umi laughed, ignoring Clef’s frown.
“Where’s Fuu?” Hikaru looked around. As much as she loved having so many of her friends together, they should really get going…
“Speak of the devil,” Caldina grinned.
Fuu and Ferio came around the corner. There was some color in Fuu’s cheeks that hadn’t been there this morning.
“Where have you been?” Caldina asked saucily. Behind her, Umi grinned. The color on Fuu’s cheeks brightened.
“Just taking a walk.” Ferio shrugged a little too innocently. He turned his attention to Hikaru and raised one hand expectantly. “Ready?” He grinned. Hikaru had taught him how to high-five and now he employed it gratuitously.
“Ready!” She grinned back, slapping his hand. Ferio pulled her into a hug and ruffled her hair fondly.
“Thank you for the hospitality.” Fuu bowed politely, as always.
“Aw, sweetie, we love having you here!” Caldina pulled Fuu in for a hug, too.
“Well, I guess I’ll see you all in a few weeks!” Hikaru found herself in the awkward and unusual position of being the one to hurry Umi and Fuu along. Fuu extricated herself from Caldina more gracefully than Hikaru had managed, and there was another chorus of good-lucks and you’ll-do-greats and see-you-laters as the three former Magic Knights stepped a safe distance away from the others.
Hikaru clasped Umi’s and Fuu’s hands in her own to Wish them back to Tokyo together. She glanced back over her shoulder at some of her remaining friends: Caldina and Ascot giving slightly different versions of thumbs-up ( shamelessly enthusiastic and more reserved), the slight but steadfast smile from Lantis, the broader smile of Clef, Ferio alternating between waving good-bye to Fuu and pantomiming victory gestures at Hikaru.
Hikaru felt like she could do this, and engulfed herself in light.
Few in Cephiro knew that it was the 24th of February on Earth. For himself, Clef treated it like any other day. After his usual morning lesson with Ascot he settled behind the desk in his office to carve away at the paperwork that kept growing back with the tenacity of ivy.
Someone knocked three times. Lantis.
“Come in!” He was practiced at sounding less annoyed than he felt at the interruptions. The fact that he could sense Lantis behind the door rather than some bureaucrat made it easier.
Lantis went straight for the chair opposite Clef and sat down. Clef recognized the thinly-veiled tension underneath Lantis’ normally stoic expression.
Lantis, Clef decided, did not have enough to occupy his time these days.
After some minutes in expectant silence punctuated only by the scratching sound of Clef’s pen, Lantis spoke first.
“Hikaru is taking her exam today.”
“Yes.” Clef kept writing.
Another few minutes passed in silence before Lantis spoke again.
“Were you ever nervous when I took my exams to become a Mage?”
“Not even a little?”
“No.” Clef crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair a little. “I wouldn’t have put you forward if I didn’t think you were ready at the time.”
“Well, I was nervous.”
“I know.” Clef smirked, halfway between fond and enjoying himself at his student’s expense. “Therefore, it would have done you no good for me to appear anything less than fully confident in you.”
“It’s not that I don’t think she can do it,” said Lantis quickly. “I just…don’t like that it makes her so upset.”
“Hikaru is a student. Exams are part of her life for now.” Clef returned his attention to his papers. “She will grow into it in time. Have more faith in her.”
Lantis was not exactly satisfied with the advice to just stop worrying so much. He rarely was. Neither was Clef when the situation was reversed, for that matter.
Lantis stayed put, having nowhere in particular to be and too preoccupied to focus on anything. There was, however, a danger in lingering. Eventually, Clef would push a thick stack of papers into his hands and demand that Lantis make himself useful.
“Your first swordsmanship exam, now that made me nervous.”
March arrived, and with it, the day that would reveal Hikaru’s fate. She could only choke down a few bites of breakfast. It felt like someone else was acknowledging her brothers’ high-fives and good-luck wishes. The ticking wall clock in her classroom had never echoed like this before, counting each second under the tense gaze of forty pairs of eyes. The teachers didn’t even try to hold anyone’s attention today. Lunch was picked at in uncharacteristic silence.
When the bell rang, the students cleaned their classroom under a heavy atmosphere punctuated by nervous titters. Hikaru and her friends grabbed their bookbags and filed out, jostled by other students clumping together on the stairwells for security.
She found her older brothers Satoru and Masaru waiting for her outside the gate. Masaru enveloped her in a hug and a smile and started talking, but she couldn’t process anything he said. Satoru slung her bookbag over his own shoulders and steered her through the streets with his warm, heavy hand on her shoulder. Her friends found their own parents, and each little party walked towards the high school in a private bubble.
Kakeru met them at the gate to the high school, bowling Hikaru over with a hug. “Okay, do you want us all to come with you? We won’t look at the board. We can all turn around until you say so, if you want. Or one of us can go and find your name. I promise I haven’t looked!”
“Um…” Hikaru came back to herself. This was it. “I should probably go by myself. That way more people can fit.” She found her smile and flashed the V sign. “I’ll be right back!”
Her younger brothers cheered. Satoru smiled and nodded at her, quiet and steady as always. She turned toward the turbulent sea of colorful uniforms and slowly made her way to the board where results were posted. All around her buzzed the indistinct noise of other people’s nervous conversations, punctuated by periodic cheers from the front of the crowd. She glimpsed her friend and classmate Koharu doing the same thing. They shared nervous grins as they made their way to the front.
Being small, Hikaru could easily squeeze and duck between the taller people who made up most of the crowd. Sooner than she would have liked she found herself standing in front of a bulletin board, scanning for her name. She had done this many times before. It was just another test, just another board, just another piece of paper tacked up with her name on it somewhere.
Relief. Not joy, or excitement, or even simple happiness poured down through Hikaru’s body. Just quiet relief. Later she would have no memory of how she got back to her brothers. As soon as they came into view through the crowd, Hikaru was unable to remember how to form words, let alone think of what to say. She just nodded. Satoru smiled back.
“YES!” Kakeru punched the air. “Watch out, boys! My baby sister is coming and you all better be on your best behavior or suffer the consequences!” He shouted in the general direction of his confused and slightly terrified classmates who were loitering to watch the spectacle or waiting for their own siblings.
“I knew you could do it!” Masaru ran forward to scoop Hikaru into a massive hug, swinging her around, heedless of the crowd around them. Time started moving again.
“Masaru, put me down!” She laughed. “You’re going to hit someone with me!” Masaru set her down and stepped back, grinning from ear to ear, then grabbed her and swung her around once more for good measure.
“You worked so hard, Hikaru.” Satoru intervened, putting his hand on her shoulder again and effectively blocking Masaru. “I’m proud of you.”
Hikaru had to blink away some tears. “Thank you for all your support.” She let out a huge breath. It felt like the weight of the last few months was melting off as she lifted her hands up and stood on tip-toe, stretching up to the sky. “Ah, this feels so good! I feel like I’ve been hunched over a desk for ages! Let’s go home, Mom should be back from work, and I have to call Grandma and Grandpa, and Umi and Fuu, and I’m absolutely STARVING!”
Satoru steered their little family toward the train station. Kakeru led the way, talking nonstop about how much fun it would be to take the train every morning with his baby sister, the future domination of their school kendo team, and the treachery of high school boys.
That evening, she played fetch with Hikari for the first time in months and her grandparents arrived for a hot pot dinner. Masaru pulled an ice cream cake from the back of the freezer with “Congratulations, Hikaru! Welcome to High School!” in tidy frosting characters. Umi called just when Kakeru was gathering up the dirty plates, demanding to hear the good news, and then Hikaru remembered that she should tell Fuu, who was too polite to risk interrupting a family dinner.
She slept late into the next morning – one of her brothers had taken Hikari out –then woke leisurely before realizing that there was someone she had to see. She threw on some clothes, brushed her teeth, and ventured out into the main room. Satoru, having heard the door to her room open and close, already had breakfast waiting for her.
“This looks so good, thank you!”
Satoru poured tea for them both and sat down across from Hikaru at the table. “You’re welcome. I hope you slept well?”
“I did, thank you,” She said around a mouthful of rice. “Um, I know we talked about me teaching classes again, and I know I’ve been running off to study all the time, but…um…” She put her chopsticks down and peered at Satoru through the curtain of her bangs. “There’s someone I need to tell in person. Would it be okay if I went out for a bit?”
The walk to the train station was less frantic than it had been in months. The Spring air was mild with the promise of imminent cherry blossoms. On the train to Tokyo Tower, Hikaru could just sit and people-watch and let her mind wander in a way that she hadn’t been able to do for months.
It would be nice to relax a bit, get back to kendo and family and her dog, to spend time with her friends outside of cram school, and to visit Cephiro for fun rather than tutoring. She joined the queue for observation deck tickets and paid for admission. The elevator was full of people, mostly families enjoying a day out. She played a few quick rounds of peek-a-boo with an adorable baby in a stroller on the way up.
When she, Umi, and Fuu had first starting traveling back and forth from Tokyo Tower, they had worried endlessly about being noticed. Fuu had scoured the newspapers and television news shows for reports of strange lights in the Tokyo sky or people reporting vanishing schoolgirls, but nothing ever appeared. Eventually, the three of them just assumed that no one was paying them any attention and tried to “act casual”, as Umi put it.
Hikaru closed her eyes, Wished to be in Cephiro, then opened her eyes to the familiar sight of the castle foyer.
“Clef?” Of course he wasn’t in the foyer waiting for her. He seldom was, even on scheduled visits, now that Hikaru had mastered the art of arriving safely instead of hundreds of feet in the air.
She took the stairs to his study two at a time. The door opened at her touch. “Clef?” The room was still and quiet.
She skipped back down several flights of stairs to Clef’s public office. He made an effort to keep the desk tidier in here, but it was clearly an ongoing battle. He wasn’t there either.
Hikaru ran into shockingly few people as she searched the castle for the Master Mage. It was a beautiful Spring day outside -- that might explain things. Maybe he had gone for a walk outside? Or perhaps he wasn’t here entirely? There had been rare occasions when Clef’s duties had taken him as far as other lands, but he usually mentioned in advance that he would be traveling.
She was poking her head into each door on the floor of the castle where most smaller meetings were held when she heard voices from a room further down the hall. Maybe someone there would know where to find Clef? Hikaru jogged the distance then slowed down to listen quietly at the door. She didn’t want to interrupt anything important.
“Thank you for your cooperation. Improving the Road between Fahren and Cephiro would allow for increased and mutually beneficial trade.” That was a voice that Hikaru didn’t recognize, but the accent sounded like someone from Fahren.
“Yes. When we reconvene, our attention should be on creating a timeline for the work involved.” That was Clef! Unable to contain herself (it sounded like they were wrapping up anyway), Hikaru burst through the door, startling about twelve or so people in various stages of getting up from large, oval table.
“Hikaru?” The Master Mage turned around just in time to brace himself against her exuberant hug almost bowling him over. Other people were staring, but she had never really cared about that.
“I passed! I got in! Thank you thank you thank you so much!” She hugged him gratefully, heedless of the whispers passing around the room about this strangely-dressed and overly-affectionate girl tackling the guarded, occasionally prickly Master Mage of Cephiro.
Clef stepped back and held her at arm’s length.
“I am so proud of you, Hikaru.”
He wasn’t looking at her the way he had when she had returned triumphant and unharmed from the Pillar’s Road, but instead the way Hikaru imagined that he had looked at Emeraude, when she had been his student, or Zagato or Lantis or even Alcyone, before the cracks grew too large and the world crumbled. The way he sometimes looked when he spoke about Ascot, these days.
Hikaru decided that she liked that Clef thought of her as one of his students, too.
“Come on!” She grabbed his hand and pulled him out of the room, past the bewildered faces of Fahrenian and Cephiran diplomats. “You have to find Lantis for me, I can’t wait to tell him!”