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The Hunters Chosen

Chapter Text

The Great Eastern Road came nearly to the edge of the cliff before it turned away from the river that had been its companion for the last hundred miles. It cut a slow path down the hill, suitable for riders and wagons and those on foot. The river had no such restraints and rushed freely down over the edge of the cliff and into the valley far below.

There, where the two paths diverged, a young girl sat astride her horse. There was a thoughtful look in her green eyes—dappled green and yellow like autumn itself at the bottom of a clear pool—and though her nerves were mostly hidden, the dun mare fidgeted slightly in response to them. She calmed when Lexa stroked her neck gently.

Behind her, two men waited for her to come away from the view.

To her left was a man so tall and broad-shouldered and wild-haired that anyone would be justified in thinking he was part bear. His paint horse, splattered light brown across darker brown, cropped at the grass under his hooves. The rider watched the girl ahead of him with the close, fondly suspicious attention of a man who knew that were he to look away for any length of time, his charge would get into some sort of trouble.

To her right was another man, tall and very thin. His hair had been recently shaved and he rubbed a hand over the stubble now and again, not seeming to notice the motion. A look of permanent concern deepened the creases over his forehead and around his mouth. He was dressed as the others were in suitable riding clothes used to wear but unlike them, he also wore a thick ring of gold on his left hand. It glinted when he gripped at the reins awkwardly, the pre-dawn light seeming to enjoy the mellow tone of gold. He, too, watched the girl. Unlike the other man, his gaze moved from her to the city and back and his restlessness was echoed by his horse. A pony, really, selected for her sure step and willingness to follow other horses without need of much direction.

They had been there for some time. Neither of the men had tried to move her along—they knew her well enough to sense her need for a quiet moment to drink it in. And besides, even for the two of them who had seen the city and its palace before, the view was like nothing else.

The pre-dawn light brushed everything with a faint dusk blush—all purples and pinks—and the green of the valley was an ocean of whispering sea-grass. The yellow-grey stone of the city walls was more grey than yellow in the early hour, the palace seeming nothing special, just more of the same above it. The river, bloated and sluggish from its journey across the flat valley, crawled through the city; river banks built of sheer grey stone directed its zigzagging path through the districts. Several bridges spanned its considerable width—one wide bridge let the main street continue unimpeded from the gates of the city wall up to the gates of the palace.

The palace gates. Lexa leaned forward as though it would help her see more. They were enormousThe gilded doors easily dwarfed the small figures that stood in front of it. And the not-so-small. Lexa could see a heavy supply wagon trundling up toward the gates and the door that opened to accommodate it wasn’t even a quarter the size of the massive gates. A loose stream of people was scattered over that road, The Kings Way, and made their way through the gates on their journey up to the palace.

I’ll be one of them soon.

The thought made a small frown crease her brow. Her wide, full lips sunk into a thoughtful pout, making her look far closer to her ten years than her serious eyes and confident posture suggested. She ran her eyes over the sprawling city again, stared at the palace that will be her home for the next four years at least. 

Last chance to back out.

As she though it, the rising sun caught the gold of the palace gate and the city was awash in sudden warmth.

The palace, which had seemed so drab, slowly brightened as the sun rose until it sat pristine and almost delicate on the top of the distant hill. From where Lexa sat, it looked like something out of a tale: spun of spider silk and dripped with gold of a melting sun. And far above it all, the grand wizard’s tower soared standing sixty, a hundred feet above the rest of the palace.

She sighed happily at the pretty sight. It might not have been a sign that she was doing the right thing, might be nothing more than a pretty view, but either way it allowed her to set her shoulders with new determination.

There would be no backing out, no backing down. Not for her.

‘Thank you,’ she told the men when she nudges her horse back onto the path. They nodded to her. Gus took the lead, sitting up in his saddle and clicking his tongue to get their horses to move on.

Titus lurched when his sometimes-horse—a mare of considerable patience called Leuna—set off after the others. His relief at not having to try to direct the horse warred with his apprehension at being on the creature at all. A man more suited to riding a desk than a horse, he was clearly uncomfortable but he said nothing about it; in the past four days, he’d learned that neither Gus nor his daughter were good company in the mornings. Instead, he clung two-handed to the pommel as the mare picked her slow path down the road.

When they arrived at the city an hour later, the sun had well and truly risen and the lingering summer heat made them aware of the smell of the river and themselves—a dip in cold water wouldn’t be enough to remove the smell of horse and sweat.

‘I’d pay a thousand crowns for a bath,’ Titus told them, making Lexa grin.

‘You’re a soft lord now, Da.’

‘I will thank you to remember that I always was.’ That made his daughter and Gus laugh and Lexa caught her father’s fond look—and the flicker of surprise and pride that he made them, both more frequently solemn than not, laugh.

At the city, Gus nodded to the guards and stopped for a chat. Lexa watched keenly, trying to pick out the near-invisible flash of coin as it passed from his hand to theirs. She didn’t see it, but she did see the guard slip his hand down toward his pouch when Gus pulled away.

‘Main Way,’ Gus told her. As soon as they crossed the bridge, he said, ‘Market Way.’

‘It’s the same street,’ she argued and he shrugged huge shoulders in response. It might have been the same street but it was certainly different. Busier and cleaner. It wasn’t long past sunrise and the streets were only passable for them because they were on horses. She got a few filthy looks from some who had to dodge shod hooves, but ignored them. ‘What am I to expect?’ she asked her father, who nudged his horse to stand abreast with Alraed. Remarkably, he succeeded.

He considered the question, and her.

Gus offered the first piece of advice, coming up to her other side. ‘It’ll be different for you, bein’ a girl.’

She nodded impatiently, tried on a contrite expression when she saw he isn’t impressed. ‘I apologise, my Lord father, Gustus. Please continue.’

Titus snorted. He looked amused, as though he’d just realised he was not the only one that Lexa practised her special brand of disrespect on.

Gus eyed her, scratched at the start of a beard. ‘The lord’ll ask you to his office.’

‘He’ll tell you about the Code of Chivalry, about what it means to be a page.’

‘Warn ye ‘bout the sly things what other pages do.’

‘Which you will not be involved in,’ Titus interrupted, stern. There was steel in his voice. ‘That behaviour is for the uncouth.’

Lexa met his eyes squarely. ‘I’ll do what I must. You know that.’

He scowled. She looked away, ignoring him, and her eyes landed on the only still point in the market—a figure at the edge, standing by a stall full of glittering crystals. They were short and small and wrapped in a drab cloak and their eyes were the only feature Lexa could make out from within a deep cowl—clear and round and the deepest blue Lexa had ever seen.

‘—a room in the pages wing and a day to find your way around,’ her father continued, jostling her out of her distraction. ‘And then eight hard years of work to your knighthood. Lexa, it’s not too late to turn back.’

‘It didn’t work when ye tried that four days ago, it’s not gonna work now. ‘Specially not with her so close and all.’ After a moment, with a bristling grin, Gus added, ‘Milord.’

‘I begin to suspect you are where my daughter learned her disrespect, Gus.’

‘Only beginning to, Da?’ Lexa teased.

Titus rolled his eyes.

They had come to the end of Market Way where it transformed, again invisibly, to The Palace Way. The only difference was a sudden drop in traffic and the slight incline of the road. At the top of it stood the palace gates, as beautiful and bright as they had looked from the top of the hill that morning. But much larger.

Once she was past those gates, she would be one step closer to her shield. She vaguely heard her father telling her more: that sword work didn’t come until later, that she must take any punishment and not complain, that she’d never quite finish all her work—

‘I will,’ she tells them.

Titus laughed, a great belly laugh that made those few souls travelling with them edge away nervously. She scowled, hunches in her seat and waited for him to be done. Her scowl set him off again so it was a rather long wait.

She didn’t mind too much; it had been a long time since she’d heard him laugh like that.

‘You’ll try, my darling,’ he told her when he was mostly calm, a few chuckles shaking his shoulders. ‘Of that, I have no doubt.’

The guards at the gate looked with undisguised curiosity at Lexa. They were too well-mannered to discuss her in front of her, and especially in front of her father, but Gus lingered behind to chat. By the time they’d found the stables and Lexa had helped her father dismount, Gus had caught up.

‘You won’t be the only girl this year,’ Gus told her, helping to care for Leuna. ‘There’s a girl from Danshame as well as the Tirragen heir two years ahead of you.’

‘Be wary of that one,’ Titus warned.

Lexa nodded, noncommittal.

With Leuna brushed and led to her stall with water, they split up to work on their own horses. Lexa kissed Alraed’s nose, scratches behind her ears as she murmured her thanks. She was too tired to respond when Gus gave her more advice—don’t talk back to your training master, Lexa, do all your exercises in the morning, do more than the boys so you don’t fall behind.

She’d just finished grooming Alraed and begun checking over her tack when a boy dressed smartly—and loudly—in red and gold trotted to the entrance of the stables. He took a moment to catch his breath before standing ramrod straight.

‘My Lord of Haryse,’ he greeted with a fine bow. ‘His Majesty the King bids you a kind welcome to his palace after your long absence and requests your immediate attention.’

Lexa winced. Though the boy might not hear the undertone, only repeating the words rote as he had learned them, she understood the faint question—or accusation. Her father’s mouth tightened slightly at the corners. He heard it too.

The boy bowed again. ‘And Lady of Haryse, your daughter, and Captain Bruin. His Majesty the King welcomes you both and looks forward to a time when he may meet you. For now, Lord Padraig wishes to see you.’

Lexa kept her eyes on her father, who ran his hand over his recently shaved head again and tugged at one of his earlobes in deep thought. Coming to some conclusion, he flipped open one of his saddlebags and dug through until he found a short summer coat that would sit well enough over what he was wearing. He shook it free from wrinkles as he best he could and pulled it on.

Gus had turned their horses over to a nearby hostler and now he pressed a similar coat into Lexa’s hands, nodding for her to wear it even when she plucked at her riding clothes. They didn’t have enough time to change, his look warned her and when Lexa looked at the boy with his very polite face on, she sighed and shoved her arms into the sleeves. Gus fidgeted with it until it sat crisp across her shoulders and he gestured for her button it up.

‘It’s hot.’

‘All the buttons,’ he told her, ignoring the whining tone save for the warning look he shot her.

‘You look very fine,’ Titus said when she was done and Lexa sighed, hands dropping from her collar where it felt far too tight and high after a week in the soft, loose riding shirts she favoured. ‘The green suits you well. Mara was right.’

‘Mara is always right about clothes and you’re always wrong.’

‘Something to remember in the future but never to say,’ he told her mildly. ‘Unless you want to stand in the corner of your room for an hour.’ The suggestion made her jaw drop—she wasn’t a baby anymore—and Titus frowned at her wild curls. ‘Anything we can do about these?’

Gus shook his head. ‘No time.’ Nonetheless, he knelt in front of her and tried until the boy coughed.

‘I’m sorry, my Lord,’

‘Yes, yes, we’re coming. Lead on.’

The boy did lead on. Very quickly.

At sixteen, as Lexa would place him, he was all knees and elbows and long strides and she had to trot to keep up. Gus and her father, she noted with disgust, were having no such trouble. Though her father was having a different kind of trouble, walking with a wider gait than usual and the occasional wince. He was not used to days in the saddle.

They parted ways at a grand hall—her father to head straight into the Royal Wing, and Lexa and Gus to follow the boy to the left where the offices are.

Titus pulled her into a hug, resting his big warm hand on the back of her head and bowed low, pressing a kiss to her forehead. There was no one to see it—the boy looked away, flushing crimson at glimpsing such a personal farewell—and so Lexa allowed the gesture. One of her hands clung to his sleeve.

‘You will be so very capable,’ he murmured, kneeling when she didn’t immediately let go. He cupped her face. ‘I have every faith in you, my girl.’

‘Thank you, Da.’

He nodded, cleared his throat. Blinking rapidly for a moment before gathering himself and standing. He shook Gus’s hand too and gave Lexa another nod.

‘Good luck.’

And then, just like that, he was gone. He disappeared into the Royal Wing behind doors that snicked closed with military precision exactly as soon as he was past them.

‘Come on, lass,’ Gus patted her shoulder. ‘Onwards.’

The boy was still blushing a little by the time they got to the training masters office but that might have been due to the very quick pace he kept up. Evidently, they were a little late by the boy's estimation.

He gave them a moment to catch their breath before, with a quiet, ‘Ready?’ to Lexa, he knocked on the plain wooden door. The plaque on it, embossed on brass polished to a gleam, read Training Masters Office.

‘Enter!’

The boy pushed the door open.

The room beyond was clean and neat. The walls had been painted with a cream paint that made the room look bigger than it was, necessary when someone was used to spending their days outdoors, Lexa was sure. Much of the grey stone floor had been covered by a rug of crimson—It would hide blood well, Lexa thought as she looked down at it and wondered if it had ever done exactly that—and a bookcase stood against the far wall.

The most prominent feature of the room was a large desk. It had been placed to one side of the room, which upset Lexa’s sense of symmetry until she realised that not only could no one sneak up behind the desk but it also made it so any attacker was left with only one line of attack. Unless they leaped over the desk, she corrected herself. 

Her examination of the room complete, Lexa focused instead on the man seated behind the desk. He stood, pushing back his chair, and the boy bowed to him.

Lexa copied him. Behind her, Gus did the same.

‘My lord, Lady Alexandra of Haryse, and the Captain Bruin. As you requested.’

‘Thank you, Caleb, you may go.’

The boy bowed again and left. He offered a comforting smile to Lexa on his way out and Lexa felt herself relax a fraction, not realising until that moment that she had been near-certain—and afraid—that everyone in the palace would think her an interloper. The show of kindness did not make her think every person in the palace her friend, but it did disabuse her of the notion that every person was set against her.

‘Step in, close the door.’

The man gave short, precise orders that he clearly expected to be followed. Lexa stepped in. Gus closed the door.

A magelight torch shone brightly from the roof, casting the training masters features into sharp relief.

Lord Padraig, at close to fifty, was easily one of the most formidable people Lexa had ever seen. His hair, cut short and close to his head like a helmet, was the colour of steel. His eyes were blue-grey and betrayed none of what he was feeling. A nose thick and squat looked more like an arrow than a nose, and his lips were so thin that when he spoke it was almost as though a gash opened in his face. He abruptly became, and would remain for many years, Lexa’s purest idea of the walking and talking face of a weapon.

Interest stirred in Lexa, sending a thrill down her spine. She fixed him with an intent stare. This was what she was here for—to learn, to fight, to meet people who had fought for so long they walked as though their own bodies were weapons. People who had trained to make it so.

Lord Padraig stared back.

His eyes roamed—over her hair, braided like Gus’s and tied back, though Lexa could feel where more tangles had come free. He looked over her face, her small ears, her nose, her chin where the round child shape was just starting to thin and point. From head to toes—middling height for a ten-year-old, she knew, and felt a momentary worry that she would be sent home before she recognised it as irrational and the worry passed. There was no way to tell how much she’d continue to grow but Sir Alanna was five foot nothing and she was the King’s Champion so height of all things didn’t matter.

The training master continued to stare a moment longer and she stood still and proud under his examination, back straight, chin up, hands clasped loosely behind her back.

Finally, he spoke.

‘It is not an easy road you’ve chosen, Page Haryse.’ He paused then—for some indigent reply? Proud assurance? She didn’t know, but all he got from her was the barest hint of a smile.

He called me pageLexa thought, pleased.

‘Sit. Both of you.’

Gus waited until she was sitting before he did as well. Lord Padraig looked between them with a common look of confusion—though faint—at the sight they presented. Gus, who made any seat look small, and Lexa, whose chair showed clear over her shoulders. An odd pair, though not odd enough to sway the training master from his task.

He took his seat, pulled his chair in comfortably beneath the desk, and began a speech he had made many times before.

‘In the last few years, under the previous training master’s direction and my own, several female pages have gone on to accept their shields and station as Lady Knights. There will be no probation year. As soon as you step through that door,’ he pointed, ‘you will be a page of the Realm. You have an equal chance of attaining your shield if,’ he insisted, gaze clear and sharp where it rested on Lexa, still assessing her, ‘you work hard. It is possible. It will not be easy.’

At the edge of her seat, eager and determined, Lexa nodded.

‘Very good. While you are a page here, you will learn the skills necessary of a Knight. You will learn to fight, so that you may defend those who cannot defend themselves. You will learn obedience, so that you may serve your King and Kingdom. You will learn the values of chivalry and justice, so that you may carry these wherever you may ride. It is my job, and the job of your masters here, to ensure that you are worthy and capable of these duties.

‘For four years, you will be a page here in the palace. In the mornings, you will train your body and craft. In the afternoons, you will train your mind. Have you a Gift, Page Haryse?’

‘No, my Lord,’ Lexa answered.

‘Then you will learn what the Gift is capable of and how to counter it and to deal with mages when they arise as your enemies as well as people under your command. The Gifted pages in your year will take the same time to train their own powers. Your evenings are yours to spend as you wish—to rest, to learn, and to complete the assignments that your masters will give you. For one evening a week, you and your year mates shall serve in the kitchens. You will serve the high table first and then the rest of your fellow pages. There are some who believe this responsibility is beneath them.’ Lord Padraig paused, giving her the opportunity to say that she too believed it beneath her. ‘I tell you, it is not. A knight is not just a sword—a knight’s duty rests not in the enemies they defeat but in the people they protect. Remember that.’

Lexa nodded. Though it might have been intended as a lesson, she took it into herself as an order.

She thought of her people at home—the village that encircled their small castle, the walls she had helped to build, the mortar she mixed with trembling arms for the masons. She thought of the hunters, with lean faces and quick laughter and the warm panting bodies of hounds at their heels, and the smell of dying leaves and clean rivers when one hunter encircled her with her arms and taught her how to string her bow the very same year she could grip one. She remembered the desolation of mudslides that had carried away their best milking cows, the terror of forest fires and the smell of ash in the air, the pinched concern that faded after a successful harvest, the laughter and shimmering power of Beltane…

She nodded again.

Lord Padraig continued.

‘If at the end of the year you pass your examinations, you shall progress. If at the end of four years you pass your examinations again, you shall be made a squire. A knight may ask you to serve as their squire then and your training will fall to their care. If one does not request you, I will be your knightmaster. After four years of serving as a squire, you will enter the Chamber of Ordeal and, if you emerge, you shall be a Knight of the Realm.’

If you emerge, she repeated. Glancing down to her muddied boots, Lexa recalled the dull brown of a tunic over glinting chainmail and her own face, wide-eyed and clutching at the arrow buried in her own chest. If I make it to the Chamber at all.

‘These will not be easy years,’ he interrupted, pulling her attention back to the present. ‘They will be full and hard. Your trainers will be relentless.’ He looked away for a moment toward the door and his already harsh face tightened, taking on grim lines that the magelight overhead threw into deeper shadow. ‘Our world is full of harsh enemies. Enemies who batter at our borders and our soldiers to test our peace. You will always be able to count on the warriors who shape you and who are shaped alongside you. This is our oath to the pages and squires who become knights, as you will take up your own oath when knighted.’

Lexa swallowed. His serious promise felt weightier, more noble than anything else she had ever been a part of, and she considered the warmth it conjured in her chest before she pressed it into the same corner of her mind that she kept Gus’s steady love and her father’s, and now this oath like a shield of sturdy metal.

‘Is this what you want?’ Lord Padraig asked her and something burned back to her in his eyes when she looked at him, an answering burst of intensity.

She nodded firmly. ‘It is, my lord.’

‘Very good.’ He took a moment, scrawled something on a sheet in front of him. This, he put aside to dry. Next, he pulled another sheet and asked, ‘Do you have a maid?’

‘No, my lord.’

‘One shall be provided to you, then. In your time here you will be provided a room in the pages wing. These rooms are your own private quarters. If you have a guest, the door is to remain open. The same is expected if you are a guest in another page’s room. The maid assigned to you will care for your bed and bath and clothing. Your armour and weapons are your own to maintain. Do not ask her to do these tasks for you.’

‘Yes, my lord.’

‘You are the last to arrive. This afternoon at the fifth bell, stand outside your room. I will be bringing the older pages around, who will select a page to sponsor for the year. Tomorrow will be the last free day you will have in some time. Your sponsor has the duty of showing you the palace—the training grounds, the classrooms, the library you may use, and the dining hall in particular. They will also take you to the palace tailor, who will outfit you as required. The palace smith will provide you with a harness and a practice sword that you will wear at all times.’

Lexa nodded at each of these comments. She would swear that she saw him smile ever so slightly at her show of interest. The smile did not come through in his voice.

‘The day after next, you will attend morning training. It begins promptly one bell after the dawn bell. This will be the first day of your life as a page. Do you understand these instructions, Page Haryse?’

‘I do, my lord,’ she said.

‘Then you may leave. Take this—’ He rolled the now dry missive and handed it over to her. She leaned forward as far as she could and, after a moment, he stretched his arm out the tiniest bit more so that she could reach. She took it from him. ‘To the Head Maid in the servants wing. She will assign your room and your maid.’

‘Yes, my lord. Thank you, my lord.’

‘Captain Bruin, if you would remain?’ Gus murmured his easy acceptance. He gave Lexa an apologetic look but she just nodded. ‘Page Haryse, you may leave.’

At the dismissal, Lexa jumped to her feet and bowed to her new training master. Then, scroll in hand, she trotted from the room.


Some fifteen minutes later, frustrated and a little upset, she stopped at yet another branching corridor.

She had run down two long corridors that both turned out to be dead ends and now she had no idea where to go since none of these doors had the helpful plaque Lord Padraig had on his door. She was about to return to his office and try again from the beginning when she spied a young woman in dark breeches and a crisp white shirt, the crest of the Crown stitched very small over her left breast.

Lexa jogged after her.

‘Miss!’

The woman turned, frowns at the small girl who didn’t quite come up to her shoulder. ‘Yes?’

‘I’m—I’m looking for the head maid. Could you—’

The woman cut her off with a brisk, ‘New page?’ and, when Lexa nodded, gestured for her to follow. She led Lexa back down the corridor she had sprinted out of, and then opened one of the unmarked doors, which took them down a narrow path into a completely new corridor. She passed four more unmarked doors before stopping at one that looked remarkably alike every other door they’d passed.

Still, since she left Lexa there without another word, Lexa had no choice but to knock.

At the second knock, the door jerked open with a,

‘Yes?’

The woman, only an inch taller than Lexa with sleek black hair cropped to just below her ears, was wearing the same dark breeches and white shirt as the other woman so Lexa knew she had to have been right—it was the servants uniform.

‘Are you the Head Maid?’

‘That’s me,’ the woman nodded.

‘I just came from Lord Padraig.’ She held out the scroll he had given her, only slightly crumpled after all this time.

‘Ah, Page Haryse.’ The head maid looked up from the scroll with a warm smile. The corners of her eyes were crinkled with silent laughter. ‘I expected you some time ago.’

Lexa flushed faintly. ‘I got lost,’ she confessed.

‘It happens,’ the woman agreed. She stepped out into the hall, locked her door behind her with a key in a set of what looked to Lexa like dozens of other identical keys that hung from a ring on her belt. ‘Happens to me still, sometimes,’ the woman continued cheerily as she set off down the hall, ‘and I’ve lived here for twenty years. When did you arrive?’

‘Two hours ago at the next bell.’

The woman nodded. ‘There, barely enough time to have nosed around. It’s alright, you’ll learn it soon enough. This here is the servants wing, it’s a bit of a warren but closer to the courts are the tailor and the smith and closer to the offices are the clerks and then further along are the main kitchens. There’s another smaller area for us in the Royal Wing as well.’ She walked in the same manner as she talked—very fast—and soon they were in a hall with a large painting of a knight in grand, heavy armour. ‘Here’s the pages wing. Rooms are sorted by years, mostly, but that changes when the fourth years move out. First year moves into their old rooms, and so on with the next year. You’ll keep the room you get now for all four years, saves you from having to remember where your new room is. Can’t ask you to stuff one more fact into that brain—too hard to do after it’s been cracked open enough times, so I’m told.’

Lexa blinked.

The woman—Mistress Yuga, as she told Lexa, slipping it into their conversation between two separate and unrelated topics—stopped outside a door. It was made from warm brown wood and seemed sturdy. Lexa watched, amazed, as Mistress Yuga pressed a finger to the little brass plaque and writing began to stamp itself into the metal before her very eyes.

Page Alexandra of Haryse.

‘There,’ Mistress Yuga said, very satisfied with her own display of Gift. ‘Now, here is your key.’

She dropped it into Lexa’s hand and instructed her on how to use it—turn it in the lock, whisper her own name, turn it back.

‘After that, only you will be able to use the key. And myself, in case I need to get in or let Lord Padraig in. Your maid will have a copy as well, but she will be the only one who can use it. Nifty piece of magic, isn’t it?’ She grinned. Lexa blinked at her again, still overwhelmed by the wave of chatter. ‘Your things should have arrived already and if you want anything moved around, tell me sooner rather than later otherwise you’ll just have to wait until we find a free moment and I’ll tell you now, those don’t come ‘round very often. You’ll be sharing a maid with Octavia—that’s Page Danshame,’ she told her, and pointed to the door next to Lexa’s, about fifteen feet down the hall. ‘You’re close together so that won’t be any trouble. Now mind, the maid gets paid so don’t worry about giving her a salary unless you intend to hire her as your personal servant.’ Instructions done, Mistress Yuga gave Lexa one last warm smile before she took her leave. ‘Best of luck, Page Haryse.’

Lexa watched her go, imprinting in her mind the route they had taken and every little fact and detail Mistress Yuga had given her before it grew fuzzy. Then, a shiver of excitement in her belly, she slipped the key she’d been given into the lock and turned it, whispering her name. She turned it back again and the lock clicked.

She gave the door a light push.

It swung open easily, revealing a small room some five large steps across and ten deep and walls painted in the same cream of Lord Padraig’s office. There was a row of shuttered windows along the back wall and the drapes were made of stiff fabric, dark green, that would block out any sun when drawn. Tucked into the corner made by the left- and back-wall was a narrow bed; her bags had been delivered and set out upon it, awaiting her neatly. To the right were a heavy wooden desk, two chairs, and an empty bookcase. To her left was the door to the washroom.

Lexa closed the door quietly behind her and sagged a little, leaning her shoulders back against it as she surveyed her new home.

She had made it.

She was a page.

Without much to unpack, the next few hours passed excruciatingly slowly. She considered leaving to explore for herself but the disaster of trying to find the Head Maid’s room was warning enough that she probably shouldn’t. Instead, she took her time setting everything out as she liked it. She moved her clothes into the trunk at the end of her bed, shaking them out and folding them neatly. Her writing materials and the few books she brought with her went to the desk and bookshelf respectively. A thick blanket Mara made for last Midwinter she draped at the end of her bed.

At midday, there came a knock on her door. Lexa opened it to see the young woman who had brought her to Mistress Yuga’s office.

‘Hello?’

‘Page Haryse, my name is Thalia. I will be your maid.’

‘Oh. Hello,’ Lexa said again and the maid kindly tried not to smile at how foolish she sounded. Lexa flushed, feeling somewhat silly standing beside this very tall girl with her curls neatly pinned and her clothes so neat and fresh. Lexa realised that she was still in her riding clothes—smelling of horse and hay—and her flush deepened.

‘I’m not supposed to do this,’ the maid told her, ‘but they insisted. I brought you lunch, and a little extra. I also came to set up a bath for you.’

Lexa just nodded and stepped aside so that the woman could enter. She set down the tray—Lexa hadn’t noticed it, too busy staring at the woman with her quick smile and her amused brown eyes—on Lexa’s desk and disappeared into the washroom.

Next to the plate, Thalia had placed a book. Lexa picked it up, frowning. From inside the front cover, a handkerchief slipped out and she snatched it from the air before it could land on her meal. In the corner of the green cloth, the letters TH had been embroidered in fine silver thread. Lexa smiled down at her father’s handkerchief and folded it neatly on the desk. The book was pocket-sized and thin. Flicking through it, she saw it was a compendium of plants and animals, the sketches were done in careful detail and accompanying descriptions and information writ in neat script.

In the middle fold of the book was a letter in a familiar, spiking hand.

          My Lexa,

          The lovely Thalia has agreed to bring you lunch, as I'm certain you have forgotten. I'm writing this as I must tell you:  I have been set upon Urgent Business and must return home. By the time you receive this, I shall be out of Corus and racing the sun. Please be assured that Leuna shall be fed like a Queen upon our return—I will consider a gilded stall for her. Or perhaps a statue.
          I am deeply saddened that I will not be able to see you again before my leaving,

Lexa had time to read only that much before the door to the washroom opened. She tucked the note into her sleeve and turned to see her maid reappear; the woman smiled kindly at her again—perhaps she had not been laughing at her earlier, perhaps she simply took to smiling easily—and Lexa nodded her thanks.

‘Good luck, Page Haryse,’ Thalia called back over her shoulder, letting herself out.

Lexa waited until the door closed—and locked itself—before she set down the note and went into the washroom to examine the contents. A bath took up the far wall, steam curling off the surface of the water. A washbasin and mirror hung opposite the door, large enough that Lexa could see herself from the doorway if she wished. There was a shelf above the bath where some soaps and washes had been placed.

Lexa dumped her clothes in the hamper at her bedroom door. She folded the coat on top of the rest and wondered if the servants would need to be told to take care with it. She didn’t think they would but… After a moment's hesitation, she placed it in with the rest of her clothes. If it’s ruined, it’s ruined. She wouldn’t be wearing it any time soon anyway.

Scrubbed head to toe—twice—and dressed in clean clothes, Lexa returned to her desk. She pulled her father’s note open in front of her and began to read.

          My Lexa,

          The lovely Thalia has agreed to bring you lunch, as I'm certain you have forgotten. I'm writing this as I must tell you: I have been set upon Urgent Business and must return home. By the time you receive this, I shall be out of Corus and racing the sun. Please be assured that Leuna shall be fed like a Queen upon our return—I will consider a gilded stall for her. Or perhaps a statue.
          I am deeply saddened that I will not be able to see you again before my leaving, as I had hoped. As your Lord and father, I must insist you put any like misery out of mind! Even now, my grey countenance is improved as I think of you here in this Palace. The Lexa I know—upright, strong, and the most  person I have ever known—could, and may, turn the world any which way she desires. Your spirit burns bright—  fuel it.   Learn.   Set it purpose and train until you may face the challenges that will arise without a flicker of doubt. Keep Gustus at your right hand; build new friendships so that others will stand at your left and back. Metaphorically and literally.
          Though it may reflect poorly on me, please be assured that I look forward to the missives I am sure to receive from the training master regarding your disrespect. Do not pretend not to know what I mean! I know you, my girl—my years with you has taught me well that you are wild to the bone.

I am reminded that is time for me to leave.

I enclose but one request of you. Knowing well your record with dutiful obedience, I repeat that this is a request (though I confess to capitalising upon some claim of familial obedience and devotion): Remember that before anything else, you are Haryse born and raised. Keep this at your very heart. Remember us with pride. Let your father, and your people, embolden you and give you strength. We believe in you.

With all of my love,
Gods All Bless,
Your Proud Father

After a fourth time reading the letter, Lexa had memorised the contents, as well as the splotches at the start of the letter that told her he was having trouble finding the words to write. She closed her eyes—thought for a moment about him, his thoughtful eyes, bent over the letter and writing it out in his quick manner. Imagined his creased face lightening when he scrawled his jokes, which sent a pang through her remembering the long months of good humour she had missed being so displeased with him. She thought of the kiss he had pressed to her forehead and, with care, Lexa folded the letter in half and then again into quarters before slipping it into the drawer in her desk that locked with her door key.

She ate her lunch mechanically, moved onto cleaning and polishing her boots and weapons, and used the familiar tasks to think over everything her father wrote.


By the time she had finished with her boots and their little boot knives and moved onto her belt dagger, the fourth bell had long since rung. She was cleaning the polish off her dagger when a voice more suited to the battlefield than the narrow corridor of a palace called the order to ‘Fall out!’

Lexa slipped her blade into its sheathe. With a quick check in the mirror—hair finally neat, nothing on her face, clothing not too wrinkled—she pulled open the door and stepped out, stowing her key in the pouch on her belt.

Lord Padraig stood in the hallway, filling most of it. Is his head actually touching the ceiling or am I just imagining that?

‘Page Haryse.’ He singled her out—didn’t have to say anything else for her to know that any delay, even a few seconds, would not be tolerated. She nodded to him, once, and his gaze lifted away.

His was the only one for curious murmurs had filled the hall behind the training master.

Haryse?

‘Been a while since there’s been one, hasn’t it?’

‘Generations! Wonder what he’s like?’

‘Some little lordling, probably,’

‘It’s a girl.’

The whispers stopped when she stepped properly out into the hall. Her door closed behind her and she stood to attention in front of it, feet spaced under her shoulders and hands clasped behind her back. She lifted her chin and ignored the stares.

‘We have six new pages this year,’ Lord Padraig said to the pages gathered behind him in a messy knot of divided faces. Not just in colour and height—some were curious, others bored, and one tall blond boy smiled kindly at all of them. There was a hint of mischief in that expression and Lexa couldn’t tell if it were inviting or mocking.

Padraig was stopped just short of the page whose room was one down from Lexa’s—the Danshame page.

The page was thinner than Lexa, which Lexa hadn’t known was possible, and her dark eyes were huge in a gaunt face. Dark hair was pulled back in a horse tail and she didn’t seem able to stand still, fingers clenching and unclenching at her sides, a muscle jumping in her cheek as her eyes flicked from face to face. Despite the movement, there was no sign of what she was feeling, face impassive.

‘Name?’

‘Octavia of Danshame.’ After a pause, she added, ‘Sir.’ Her voice was lower than Lexa was expecting, rough but not unpleasant.

‘Page Octavia of Danshame,’ Padraig repeated. He looked down at her, steel eyes unreadable. ‘Who will sponsor Page Danshame?’

‘Page Dame’s Shame, more like,’ someone joked from the throng. It earned them a few chuckles; it also earned them the training master’s sharp attention.

‘Page Elden, one bell of work on Sunday. Starting early this year.’

‘Yes, my lord,’ Page Elden said, a note of remorse in his voice. His eyes—Lexa could see him once he’d sidled up to Padraig’s side—were amused.

He’s the smiling page, she recognised. The one with the Trickster’s look on him.

‘I thought to myself,’ the smiling page continued, ‘how can I prove my devotion? How can I throw myself back into the work and wonder of our lives here deeply and with dedication? There is only one method I know, milord, and a bell of work on Sunday ought to do it.’

‘Far be it from me to stand in the way of devotion,’ Padraig said. A sliver of a smile made him look more dangerous than normal, which was already quite dangerous. ‘Shall we make it two bells?’

‘Can you punish him yet?’ Lexa asked, curious. ‘I thought our year as a page hadn’t begun yet. You told me that, my lord.’ The hall fell silent. When Padraig turned to look down at her, she bit down on her tongue, the offending muscle. Stupid. ‘My lord,’

Your year has not begun, Page Hayrse,’ he told her, cutting off any apology before it began. She was glad of it—she wasn’t entirely sure it would have been a good one. His chilled tone assured her that the only reason she wasn’t earning a bell of work for the comment was because of that exact fact. ‘He has had two years to know that I do not abide fools.’

‘Yes, my lord,’ Lexa agreed.

The smiling page echoed her, bowing to Lord Padraig, and sank back into the throng. Before he disappeared, Lexa was sure she saw him wink at her.

Padraig returned his gaze to the now very pale and stiff Octavia. ‘I need a sponsor for this page,’ he said, no room for disagreement in his tone.

‘My lord?’ a quiet voice offered, someone’s hand lifting from the back row.

Padraig nodded. ‘Page Runnerspring. Thank you.’

Octavia narrowed her eyes at the page who had offered—a tall boy, with black skin and broad shoulders and calm, brown eyes. He stepped to the front, the other boys falling away in front of him with smiles. He was clearly well liked. He took his place next to Octavia, who scowled at him.

He didn’t seem to mind.

Leaving Runnerspring behind, Lord Padraig and the rest of the pages moved on. They stopped in front of Lexa.

‘Name?’

Lexa’s stomach flipped. She made to speak, only then realising how dry her mouth was. She licked her lips.

‘Page Alexandra of Haryse,’ she said, and held herself steady when most of her wanted to sag, relieved that her voice hadn’t come out strangled or cracked.

‘Who will sponsor Page Alexandra of Haryse?’

‘Milord—’

Not you, Elden.’

‘My lord,’ Elden said, ‘I am hurt.’

‘You shall hurt more after three bells of work.’

Elden turned over that statement before he swept a low, ostentatious bow. ‘The truth of your words tickles the gods’ ears, my lord. I’m sure I can find an appropriate alternative for my time.’

‘Your staffwork, maybe?’ another page jibed, and Elden feigned hurt before grinning.

Padraig flicked his eyes to Lexa, who hoped she didn’t look as worried as she felt.

There have been two ladies knighted since Mindelan, she reminded herself. Someone will sponsor you. Lady knights aren’t as ill-regarded as they had been. Someone will sponsor you.

Still, the wait seemed to stretch on forever before someone spoke.

‘I will sponsor her, my lord.’

Lexa’s eyes flew to the speaker. She was a head taller than the other pages, even the boys who looked to be of an age with her. Her skin was the warm brown Lexa associated with the K’miri traders, eyes narrow and thoughtful. Her brown hair was kept out of her eyes in a neat tail and her long face and frown made her look severe and serious.

Despite herself, Lexa gulped.

‘Page Anya of Tirragen.’ Lexa knew the title. The Tirragen family had been ill-regarded since the attempted revolt some twenty years ago. Only hours before, her father had warned her to steer clear. ‘You may sponsor Page Haryse,’ Padraig decided.

The girl stepped out of the group and bowed neatly to the training master. She came to stand next to Lexa as the others moved on; while she and Page Anya stood there in silence, regarding one another, Lexa was aware of a tall boy who had to be at least twelve, Ilian of Malven, whom the Prince Jasson chose to sponsor.

‘Hey.’ Lexa’s sponsor pitched her voice so it went to Lexa and no further. ‘Anya.’ She held out her hand.

Lexa looked down at it for a moment before taking it carefully, purposefully, in her own. ‘Alexandra.’

‘A big name for such a small page.’ Anya gave no hint that she was joking.

Lexa stared coolly back at the girl. If she were teasing, Lexa didn’t care. It was of no consequence to Lexa what anyone thought of her—she was here to train, not to make friends. If she wasn’t teasing her, then it was a non-comment and didn’t necessitate an answer.

Further down the hall, a Bazhir boy—Hasim ibn Nazri—was sponsored by another Bazhir boy. They looked too similar to not be related. An older brother, maybe, or a cousin.

Anya watched the procession, narrowed her eyes when Terrance of Seabeth, a slim, cheerful boy with very dark black skin, was chosen by a boy who looked remarkably like a mountain—glacier white hair on top and all hard muscle beneath.

‘That’s Melvin of Nond,’ she told Lexa quietly. ‘Steer clear of him.’ Her voice was quiet and grave. Lexa nodded. The final boy, Virgil of Whitehorn, was thin and pale and bore himself with a proud set to his mouth and chin that gave him a look of disdain, as though he considered the rest of the world unpleasant or uncouth. He was chosen by another boy Anya warned against—Perrin of Halleburn. ‘Careful with that one. Halleburn’s made it no secret that he doesn’t think girls should be here. His father is very conservative and very powerful.’

Lexa nodded. The name tickled something in her mind, beyond the memorised pages of the Books of Nobility. When, after a moment, it didn’t come to mind she set it aside to focus on Lord Padraig again.

The training master turned them loose with a few short words and took his leave. After bowing to him, most of the pages and their sponsors stayed where they were to talk quietly and make introductions.

Not Anya.

As soon as the ‘Dismissed’ dropped from Padraig’s lips, she was off. Lexa sighed and forced her aching legs to move. She passed the boy, Virgil, at the end of the corridor; as she did, Perrin Halleburn looked up and met Lexa with a vicious sneer. He did not care to hide it or diminish it. He seemed not to care who saw it, pure in his abrupt and apparent hatred. Lexa forced herself to move on without reaction, and without looking back, though she didn’t like knowing that he was behind her where no ally of her own stood. She caught up to Anya there at the corner but had to trot to keep up with her. Lexa suspected it would be a running theme until she had grown a little.

Please, she thought, though stopped herself before it became an appeal to the gods. They had some funny ideas on how to answer prayers, and the idea of another god coming to meet her scraped at something raw within her. She set the appeal loose instead, a whisper into the world instead of a prayer. Please let me grow soon.

‘What do you want to see?’ Anya asked her the very second she caught up.

Lexa tried not to sound too puffed when she replied. ‘Smith.  I want,’ she huffed, ‘to get my,’ another huff, ‘practice sword.’

‘Bloodthirsty,’ Anya commented. She looked down at Lexa. When Lexa looked up—and up and up—at her, there was a faint curl to her lips. ‘Sorry to break it to you, the practice swords are just weights. No balance to them.’

Lexa stopped.

Anya continued three paces down the hall before she noticed her absence. Stopping there, Anya turned, brows raised.

‘What?’

‘What’s the point of them, then?’

‘To get you used to carrying a sword. You get a proper one around Midwinter. Come on.’ She didn’t wait to see if Lexa followed, and marched on.

Lexa jogged after her.

‘This is the quickest way to the stables,’ Anya pointed down a corridor after a minute or two of walking in silence, the only other sounds the tap of boots on stone and Lexa’s quiet puffs. Lexa scrambled to find something about this corridor to distinguish it from all the others, to help her to remember, and fixed a long pale scratch along the stone wall in her mind. ‘Remember that. We’ll go to look over your horse and find a new one, if you need. Best to do it before the others.’

Lexa nodded.

‘I’ll point out the courts but it’ll be too dark to show you everything, we’ll do that tomorrow. Then to the tailor, I think.’

‘The smith—’

‘We need to pick up your harness,’ Anya said over her, ‘and clothes. Take them back to your room and then the other way is the smith. I have things to do, Haryse, this is the fastest way to get this over with.’

Lexa pressed her lips flat to keep from a sharp retort. It wouldn’t do to be hurt—Anya didn’t have to be nice, she just had to show her around.

‘Quickest way to the courts is that way.’ Anya pointed to a twisting staircase. ‘Just be careful. Sometimes people slick it up with oil or water and it’s a nasty fall.’ She rubbed absently at her hip—Lexa suspected she got caught that way, once or twice. ‘It also ices fair easily in winter so it’s always a bit shit. Better to go the long way.’

She knew everything about this place, or so it seemed. She didn’t speak as fast or constantly as Mistress Yuga had, but she had one or two facts about almost everything they passed: Sir Alanna kept her quarters in this corridor when she stayed at the Palace (which was infrequent but not uncommon); which places to be quiet and where it was okay to make some noise; who in the kitchens—by name and description—would be happy to provide a hungry page with some food; what meals were okay to skip, and which ones everyone had to be present for.

‘You’ll be having etiquette classes in this room.’ Anya pointed to a door that looked like every other door they’d passed. Lexa focused—there was a scratch on the door handle that had scraped off the polish or paint, that might be a way to recognise it, and the tapestry at the end of the hall had red edging and looked to be of some very ugly cow—and then Anya was off again.

At the stables, Anya checked over Alraed with a deft hand. Lexa’s mare tossed her head under the attention but quietened when Lexa glared at her.

‘Do not embarrass me in front of my sponsor,’ she murmured.

Alraed flicks her ears once as if to say I’ll do as I please.

‘She’s lovely,’ Anya told her, running her hand down the mare’s neck. She petted her in long, firm strokes and Alraed seemed to lose any desire of misbehaving instantly. ‘You’re beautiful, aren’t you?’ Anya murmured, checking each hoof, her teeth and eyes, and inside her ears. ‘Very well cared for. Was that Tobe or you?’

‘I groomed her this morning. Someone else did the tack today but I can do that too.’

Anya nodded. ‘Good.’ She gave Alraed one last stroke over her soft nose and let the mare snuffle at her pockets. When Alraed lipped out a chunk of apple, Anya flashed a grin so quick Lexa wondered if she had imagined it.

But she had no time to wonder over her stern sponsor—they were off and she was running again. This time uphill.

The tailors looked at Lexa like she was a particularly nasty person who chose to be as small as she was, just to make them work harder to make the clothes fit. With a little fuss, they did end up finding four sets of the rough practice clothes that would fit—they were a little big on her but ‘Children grow’ as the tailor snapped at Anya when she dared to snort—and four of the afternoon sets for their indoor classes. Another two sets of the finer tunics in that loud red and gold for the evening meals Lexa would be serving was added, plus a set of bedsheets on top of that, as well as a thick blanket—’For winter’—and the harness she would be expected to wear.

She tried not to lose her grip on the unwieldy pile.

‘If you need more, be ready to pay,’ the tailor told her, and Lexa nodded her thanks. She escaped into the hallway but Anya stopped her before she could go too far.

‘Better put the harness on straight away. Every extra second is an advantage,’ she said in a serious tone that told Lexa this was her first real lesson as a page. Anya pulled aside her own collar to show the harness beneath. ‘Over your shirt or it’ll chafe. Under the tunic so the boys don’t see. Take it off to sleep and in the bath. Any other time, it’s on. Got it?’ Lexa nodded. She let Anya help slip it on over her head and cinch the buckles—‘Just this first time, mind. Watch carefully.’

The harness was just leather and heavy cloth, and the buckles, but Lexa felt the weight drag at her already. She fought a scowl, knowing that it’d be that much harder to run after these long-legged monsters who pretended to be pages.

They dropped her clothes off in her room and then they were off again.

‘Smith now?’ she asked. She recalled what Anya said about the practice swords but still…

Anya rolled her eyes and strode on ahead.

Lexa slouched for a second before running after her.

The smiths was really just an armoury with a little forge to one side. Yes, there was a bigger one in the workshops below, the smith explained when Lexa asked him question after question. He was more forthcoming when Anya, whom the smith eyed warily, disappeared to dig through the bin of practice swords. On all of them, where the blade should have been, was a length of rolled metal. It’d be hurt to be struck with but wouldn’t cut. Of course, a particularly unlucky hit might break bone. She helped her to find the best of the lot for Lexa—it was, as Anya explained, nothing like a real sword but some of them had been much worse. Hers was at least the same length and weight as one of the swords the smith would be making for them to use later in the year.

By the end of the evening, Lexa knew where the dining hall was, the location of one of the small libraries—the one attached to the pages' wing they could use for homework—and the quickest path to the kitchens. She’d gotten her orders to be up at the dawn bell but not to be cheerful because ‘I can’t stand morning people,’ Anya had told her with a curl of a sneer.

Lexa bade her goodnight—which Anya returned with a grunt—and then she closed the door. Fully dressed, she laid on top of her covers and went to sleep.