****Sage Academy, Hayring Village, Country of Kamisu 66****

The children of Sage Academy were using their Cantus to work on individual assignments. Sensei Endou took turns visiting each group's table, offering encouragement, advice, and constructive criticism. Group One was special, being allowed to live despite having met a false Minoshiro, so Endou kept an especially close eye on that group. This year, they had all turned thirteen, so they had the potential to become rowdier.

Each member of Group One worked on something that would target their shortcomings. Mamoru Itou had difficult multitasking, so he was practicing keeping two stones rolling in opposite directions at the same time. Satoru Asahina needed to improve his patience, so he was working on reassembling a broken glass using Cantus. Maria Akizuki grew easily irritated when working with chemical compounds, so she was laying our herbal roots and practicing drawing out their pungent, medicinal juices for tinctures. Saki Watanabe had trouble paying attention to fine detail, so she was using her Cantus to sharpen pencils without breaking their tips. As for Shun Aonuma, his talent was well rounded in all areas, so he was given an advanced assignment. He was working on changing the chemical and biological state of a sapling so that its green leaves would change color like in autumn. The five children were all working hard, and everything was going well until Saki snapped a pencil.

Satoru snickered at the girl to his left. "Hey Saki," he grinned, "aren't you kind of missing the point?"

"Shut up," Saki growled. "I've seen your glass break apart three times, so you have no room to talk!"

"Sure, but my assignment was just to improve my patience. I haven't lost my temper once. So I think I'm doing better than you. Hey, hey Saki—maybe your wit needs to be sharpened."

Mamoru, at the far left end of the table beyond Maria and Shun, let his concentration slip. The round stones he was trying to keep on a straight path veered off course and toppled over the edge of the table.

"You guys," he complained in his light voice, looking over at Saki and Satoru. "You made me mess up. Please don't fight each other, guys. Let's all get along."

"There's absolutely no way I'm getting along with this mulish jerk!" Saki exclaimed. "Lately, he's always picking on every little thing I do! Then he expects me to be nice when he tries to show off!"

"Geeze," Satoru quipped, "how is it that girls can get so emotional so quickly?"

"You boys just hide your emotions," Saki retorted. "And then you refuse to admit you're being emotional when you're angry or you don't get what you want. You're the irrational ones. Boys are pathetic!"

"But Saki," said Shun, sitting between Mamoru and Maria, "I'm a boy, too." He looked up briefly from his sapling and focused his smiling green eyes on Saki.

Suddenly, Saki felt terrible for what she had just said. "Well," she stammered, replacing anger with nervousness, "you're just an exception, Shun. As boys go… well, I think you're amazing."

Satoru laughed. "It looks like Saki has a little crush. Her secret—"

Shooting out her right hand, Saki grabbed hold of Satoru's left ear, twisting it. "Shut up!" she screamed.

"Dammit, let me go! I'm not a little child!"

A defeated sigh escaped the lips of the redheaded girl sitting between Saki and Shun. "I guess I have no choice but to get involved," she mused. "Saki, please let go of Satoru and return to your assignment. Satoru is certainly being childish, but if you continue to react to his behavior, you'll only prove your own childishness. And anyway, Sensei Endou is signaling us to be quiet."

Realizing the sense in the redhead's words, Saki released Satoru and stopped fussing. She leaned over and rested her head on Maria's right shoulder. She murmured, "But Maria, my assignment is so hard."

Maria gently patted Saki on the head. "I know it's difficult, dear. But you can't say it's impossible until you've tried your very best to do it. If you get through the rest of class working hard, then you can come to my house for tea and some fun."

"Really?!" cried Saki. She threw her arms around Maria. "I'll definitely do my best, then! Just watch me!"

"Wait," Satoru interrupted impatiently. "Aren't the rest of us invited? You make delicious tea, Maria."

"Sorry," replied Saki smugly, "but it's girls only."

"Actually," Maria rejoined, "I was going to let little Mamoru come with us."

"Fine then," Saki agreed. "Girls only, plus Mamoru."

"Mamoru's too delicate and nervous to be a man, anyway," giggled Satoru.

"That's quite enough," said Sensei Endou, approaching Group One's table. "You all are distracting the other groups. Please get back to your assignments. Tomorrow, we will be having a special lesson that ties in well with the bickering of group members. You've all grown up enough to develop your own set of emotional reactions. Also, you should have realized that conflict is becoming more pronounced as you begin adolescence. In our society, physical interaction is the best way to soothe feelings and calm conflicts. More on this topic tomorrow."

***Akuzi Residence, White Sand Village, Kamisu 66***

White Sand Village was the westernmost of the eight villages in Kamisu 66. It was built next to a large lake, and got its name from the white sand surrounding the gentle shore ten miles long and in places a mile wide. The people in White Sand were generally a little better off than some of the other villages, such as Waterwheel. They owed this prosperity to the many goods and services provided by the lake's wetlands. The main economy was built on the fishing industry, but supplemented with farming and a lot of merchant traders.

Maria's house was large and made of strong wood further reinforced by synthetic materials. Against the front side of the house, facing toward the shore of the lake, a fine wooden deck had been built. It was a great place for sitting and watching the sunset on the lake. Above the low deck, shouji doors led into the main sitting room, decorated in a fairly traditional Japanese style with tatami flooring. A low bamboo table stood in the center of the room, and it was here that Maria served tea to Saki and Mamoru. After brewing and steeping the loose-leaf tea, the kids drank it out of small, round porcelain cups.

"It's my first time making this blend," said Maria excitedly. "Well? What do you think?!"

Mamoru coughed. "It's very spicy," he muttered nervously.

"I like the spiciness," Saki told her hostess. "It's well balanced by that other flavor, the one that's rich and just slightly nutty."

"Good analyzation," Maria complimented her. She then launched into lively speech, her skin looking radiant, and her Aegean eyes sparkling. "This tea is a blend of ginger root and violet soshi leaves and flowers. Isn't the fragrance nice? I got the fresh plant materials from a merchant and dried them out myself. I suppose this blend is too hot and strong for summer, but I'll make a bunch more in autumn. Next I want to make a blend of Gyokuro and chrysanthemum with bits of dried Ume. I can probably find a merchant who sells high quality green tea, and for the mums, I was hoping I could harvest some from your flower garden, Saki."

"Of course," Saki replied generously. "I'll always do whatever I can to help you."

She had been listening in smiling contentment. Since she loved gardening, Saki was always thrilled to learn what sort of plants could be used to make tea. The girl also loved being pampered by Maria when she was in hostess mode. Saki could not help smiling whenever Maria got excited, regardless of the topic. Having Maria as a friend was the highest of privileges in Saki's mind. The two girls had gotten along well since their second year in Waterwheel's Harmony Elementary, but it wasn't until this year that Saki started to realize why they got along.

Everyone in Group One liked each other and enjoyed hanging out, but Saki and Maria grew especially close since they were the only girls. Maria was the caretaking type; she loved to be around slightly less mature friends and set a good example for them, teaching with confidence and etiquette. Saki had always longed to have a sister, and became lonely quite easily, so she loved having Maria around. She admired every talent, quirk, and thought expressed by Maria. The girls also had a lot in common. They possessed roughly equal abilities with Cantus, they loved walking and gardening, and both were curious, stubborn, and intelligent. They had been friends for so long now that they trusted and confided in each other, which in turn strengthened their bond more.

"Maria," said Mamoru, growing uncomfortable as the girls silently stared at each other. "Let me do something to help. Is everyone finished with their tea? I'll wash out the cups in the kitchen."

"Thank you, dear," Maria smiled sweetly.

Mamoru smiled back, and his face seemed strangely flushed.

When the little boy had left the room, Maria scooted closer to Saki, put an arm around her shoulder, and whispered, "Tell me. Saki, while we're alone, tell me if Satoru was right earlier today. Is Shun your crush?"

"W-well," Saki stammered. "He stays so distant, so I don't know if I know him enough to really, really like him. But I do think he looks very handsome. I'm always amazed by his talent with Cantus. I don't know if I have a crush or what, but it's true that I wish he would talk to me more."

Maria gave a little squeal as if hearing a juicy, taboo secret. "Oh my god, Saki! You've finally started to show interest in someone. It's exciting to see everyone changing so fast and grappling with these new emotions. Mamoru is going through the same thing."

"He's attracted to a girl?" Saki asked in surprise.

"Yes. You see, he seems to have a tremendous crush on me. I'm not really interested in him right now, but I don't have the heart to tell him to back off. He's such a precious little thing."

"Uh… sure," Saki agreed hesitantly. She didn't know why, but she suddenly felt highly irritated with the boy wallflower of Group One. Her mood worsened as the day went on. She wished she understood why.