The dawn bell sounded like it was ringing right in her ear. It made Lexa jump and she tumbled right off her bed. Mind fuzzy with sleep, it took her a moment to realise why the monstrosity was ringing and why she’d fallen onto cold, rough stone instead of the plush rug she normally fell onto.
Bell. Dawn bell. I’m in the palace.
She pushed up to standing—or tried to. Halfway up, she teetered and fell sideways onto her bed. The muscles in her legs were tightly protesting yesterday’s treatment and for some long minutes, Lexa had to stretch and massage the worst of the knots from her thighs and calves, biting her lip against the pain. When she could finally move, she tottered into her washroom. The water from the taps was freezing but she didn’t have time to wait for warmth—instead, gritting her teeth, she dunked herself under, scrubbed quickly, and dressed quicker. She chose one of the practice uniforms she had been given, not sure exactly of what her sponsor intended for them to do today. After a moment of thought, she added the harness as well.
‘Better to look like a page in the royal wing than a lady covered in mud,’ she told herself sternly when her stomach clenched with nerves. She brushed her hair back into one thick braid and looked at herself in her mirror.
Had she always been this small? This pale? What must the other pages think of her—her with her tiny knobbled wrists and knees and—
Enough. Lexa turned firmly away from the mirror and marched to her door. You’ve never believed that foolishness about being weak before, you’re not about to start thinking it before you’ve even picked up a sword.
Her sponsor, all tall, muscled five foot five inches of her, was slouched against the wall opposite her room when Lexa emerged.
‘Oh good,’ she grunted, pushing away from the wall and standing straight with great reluctance. ‘You look like shit too.’ Lexa scowled but didn’t respond. She still didn’t know enough about this girl to tell if she was joking and, when Anya dropped a breakfast roll into her hands, she decided that it didn’t really matter. ‘Remember the way to the courts?’
Anya yawned, waved a lazy hand. ‘Go on then. Prove it,’ she told Lexa, her voice thick with sleep.
A test already and it’s barely dawn. Luckiest page ever, Lexa thought, mindful to keep unhappiness from her expression. Dredging through her memories of the night before, and what Anya had told her, Lexa started off down the corrider headed left after only a brief hesitation. At the next turn, she paused and looked up at Anya, who stopped a half step behind Lexa and regarded her own fingernails. Lexa would get no help from that quarter, evidently.
Lexa made her choice—it was the wrong one, she realised soon, and she flushed with embarrassment but her shadow said nothing at the detour, only followed her back the way they had come. Lexa relaxes a fraction; Anya might not help, but she wasn’t going to mock her.
Finally, Lexa found the twisting stairwell Anya had said was the quickest way to the courts. She was four steps down when something rose up around her feet— a feeling, a tickle against her awareness—and she slipped, feet skidding out from underneath her. She would have fallen despite the way her hands instantly grasped for something to cling to; that feeling that had risen around her feet surged to engulf her, stopped her from touching anything, from breaking her fall. What saved her was the hand that shot out quick as lightning and gripped at the shoulder of her harness.
Heart in her throat as she stared down into the black stairwell that twisted away out of sight, Lexa regained her footing when Anya dragged her up to the previous step. She looked back at the hand that held her, the corded tendons in Anya’s wrist, and then up at her face, which was smooth of any strain. Her sleepiness was gone too, so quickly that Lexa had to wonder if it had been faked.
‘You forgot,’ Anya told her.
If she was straining to hold her, Lexa couldn’t hear it in that morning gruff voice.
Forgot? Lexa closed her eyes, dipped her chin a little. ‘People put traps on the stairs,’ she recalled in a whisper. She stepped back fully onto safe ground—Anya held onto her until she was back in the corridor completely—and glanced down at the fourth step where the trap had been. She couldn’t see anything there but…Lexa struggled to remember what she had felt in that moment as the trap had struck. The tickle. She had never felt anything like it before and she wasn’t sure that she ever wanted to again.
Anya unhooked her fingers from the harness. She gave it a single tap before she pulled her hand back to her side. ‘Good thing you were wearing that.’
Lexa frowned. ‘You told me to.’
‘Didn’t mean you’d listen. Come on, practice courts this way.’
Lexa’s shoulders slumped. Her first test given to her by her sponsor and she’d failed. So what if she hadn’t wanted it? She had still wanted to do well.
Lexa shook her head. She followed Anya a few steps down the passage but the girl held out an arm across her chest and stopped her. She tapped an impatient foot.
‘I am tired, Haryse. Talk!’
‘I forgot,’ Lexa admitted. ‘I forgot about what you said and now I don’t get to finish.’
‘Going to the courts. Finding my way.’
Anya narrowed her eyes. She rocked back onto her heels, ran a hand over her hair. ‘Don’t be too hard on yourself. No one expects you to know everything or remember everything. I’m not mad you forgot—’
‘But you won’t let me keep going!’
‘—I’m mad,’ she continued, tone cooling as she glared to let Lexa know she doesn’t love being interrupted, ‘because someone tried to bruise my page before I got a chance to.’
Lexa looked up at Anya from under her lashes, trying to gauge how serious she is.
Anya smirked. ‘Relax, page. But not too much. I’d hate for some idiot boy to crack your skull open on the first day.’
In a flat tone, Lexa told her sponsor, ‘Several people have said that now and it’s not reassuring.’ Anya just shrugged. ‘So… Can I find another way to the courts? I can do it,’ she insisted and Anya’s smirk grew the tiniest bit into something softer. Lexa might even have categorised it as fond. With that, Anya returned to her earlier function, the perfect follower—thumbs tucked into her belt, eyes guarded, face smooth. No hints would come from her. Lexa took it as permission and strode away with renewed purpose. She took the passage she knew led to the stables and heard her sponsor follow.
As they moved further away from the stairwell, Lexa wondered if she should tell Anya about the thing she had felt. The more she considered it though, she knew that she couldn’t. She wouldn’t even know how to begin to describe it—Anya would think her mad if she spoke about something waiting for her on the steps that had felt silver-grey and slick and smug, in a way that wasn’t quite intelligent but almost. She shook her head faintly. No. She wouldn’t tell Anya. It was early; she was tired and had a fright. She’d imagined it—that’s all.
‘Not bad,’ Anya told her when Lexa led her to the huge passageway that opened onto the first big practice court. ‘There are a few passages that can shave off a minute or two but,’ she shrugged, nodded, ‘not bad.’ Lexa puffed up a little with the praise and Anya shoved her. ‘Not that great,’ she drawled. ‘Wipe that grin off.’
She strode off toward the arch and Lexa jogged after. Still grinning.
They were almost there when Lexa heard something out of place. The soft shush of boot against stone. Not altogether out of place, but it fell outside of their own two paces and so Lexa listened harder and, when she placed it, sped up a bit to walk next to Anya.
‘There’s someone following us.’
‘Hmm?’ Anya glanced down at her. Lexa found it easier to keep up all of a sudden and realised that Anya had adjusted her stride by a fraction. ‘Yeah. For a while,’ she said without inflection. ‘Nond’s boy. What’s his name?’
They didn’t step out of the hall, waiting beneath the arch for a loaded wagon to trundle past. Lexa dared a look behind them to the boy who loitered at the turn of the passage. ‘Terrance,’ she told Anya, the glimpse refreshing her memory. ‘Terrance of Seabeth.’
Anya clicked her fingers. ‘Seabeth. That’s right.’
He must have heard his name because he stepped forward and then, when they didn’t leave or glare at him, jogged to catch up. He waved a little awkwardly when he was a only a few paces from them.
‘Good morning! Terrance of Seabeth—call me Terry!’ He was dressed the same as Lexa, save for the knife on his belt, which had a wrapped grip of beautifully dyed blue. She couldn’t see the outline of his harness and she wondered if he chose not to wear it or if his sponsor hadn’t taken him yet.
‘Anya of Tirragen,’ her sponsor introduced herself and, without Lexa’s leave, continued, ‘and Alexandra of Haryse.’
He bowed to them both. ‘Good morning!’ he said again. ‘I don’t want to intrude…’
‘Then don’t,’ Lexa suggested.
Anya clamped a hand down on her shoulder. She barely felt it over the harness but the warning was clear enough. ‘Where is your sponsor, Page Seabeth?’
Terrance’s bright smile, which had slipped at Lexa’s comment, slipped a fraction more. ‘Oh, er. Well—it’s early,’ he explained. ‘I don’t want to bother him overmuch and,’
Anya cut him off with a quiet, ‘The truth, lad.’
His shoulders slumped. ‘I don’t know. I thought maybe he chose me because our fathers fought together before but…he told me to do what he says when he says and then he left and I,’ Terrance sighed. ‘Well, I don’t quite know what to do. Or where to go, or how to do anything, and I didn’t want to bother anyone. You two look friendly, though!’
Lexa started. She hadn’t meant to. She scowled fiercely and was satisfied when Terrance eased away a little.
‘Nond is…disagreeable,’ Anya told him, the words and tone too mild to mean anything but severe understatement. Lexa gave a start when she realised that the words were directed to her as well; looking up at her sponsor, she saw that the other girl only looked amused by Lexa’s scowl. Anya turned back to Terrance. ‘It’s not your fault, Seabeth. Just rotten luck. You’re welcome to come on with us—you’ll be using the courts too. If that’s alright with Page Haryse,’ she asks with a touch of formality.
Between Terrance’s pleading look—annoying—and Anya’s amusement at her expense—terrible—Lexa folded. She nodded, if a little grudgingly. She even wiped her scowl away. But, when Terrance bounded to stand next to her, she raised her eyes to the heavens and asked silently for considerable patience.
‘I’m sorry,’ he whispered to Lexa when Anya strode away. ‘I didn’t mean to join you, honest. I thought I could learn a bit if I followed you, that’s all. I swear it.’
Lexa sighed. He sounded so curst sincere that she had to accept that she was being foolish—Anya was her sponsor, yes, but she was also obviously a decent person. Lexa looked sideways and met his wide honest eyes.
‘It’s alright. My apologies. I’m too prepared to fight for everything, I think.’ She admitted it with a tiny smile and it made him laugh. Lexa lightened a little more. Before that day, her little Haryse family had been the only ones to laugh at her comments. ‘I didn’t think but…It’s not just girl pages they dislike, is it?’
Terrance shook his head no. After a moment, he grinned. ‘Let’s not be mistaken though—they dislike girl pages the most.’
His kind laughter followed her when she walked off in a huff after Anya.
They were walking past a long court of compact brown dirt that puffed up in tiny clouds under their steps. The grass had started to creep into the ground on the edges, under the heavy wooden railings that outline the rectangle court.
Anya began to speak when they caught up. ‘Here’s the first court. This is where we learn hand-to-hand. Some years we’ve got a Shang visitor but there haven’t been any since my first year. Heard we’ve someone new this year.’ They made it to the end of the first court and walked down the short width of it to where a little dirt path carried them down to the second court. Anya planted both hands on top of the rail and popped herself right over it, swinging both legs over the top with ease.
Lexa, riddled with awe, resigned herself to slipping through the gap in the rails, ducking her head to avoid the top one. She was glad to see that Terrance does the same, and even gladder to see that he too eyed Anya with admiration.
‘Second court, this is for staff training. Probably it’ll be with Sir Fared again—he’s good. Really good. There might be some sword work here later, sometimes Lord Padraig has us up against staffs. That’s good training. Third court,’ she pointed but didn’t bother walking down the hill to it. There was a long patch of dirt there where she pointed, slimmer than the first and second but just as long. ‘Archery,’ Anya explained and, now that she was looking for them, Lexa could see the targets set twenty-five and fifty paces from the fence. ‘Luckily, the targets are set that way so no one gets hit by a stray. Of course,’ she continued with deliberate nonchalance, ‘if we’re particularly slack in training, sometimes Padraig threatens to change that.’
‘As a joke,’ Terrance added. Anya said nothing. Terrance’s face fell. ‘As a joke, right?’
Ignoring him, Anya continued on. ‘There’s the stable, we’ve been there already so get Nond to look over your horse. Or an hostler,’ she added with a grimace. He nodded, resigned. ‘Past the stable, you see that big field? That’s part of the riding set for jousting and the rest of the lance practice. Padraig’s not as good as Wyldon but he’s fair enough.’
Lexa stood on her tiptoes to peer down at the long field. There were quintains set up and beyond them one lone rider was putting themself through their paces on a huge horse that looked too big for them. They held neither lance nor weapon of any other kind so Lexa guessed they’re on a morning ride.
‘Terry!’ he corrected cheerfully.
Anya and Lexa sighed. As nice as he was, it was still too early for so much cheer.
‘Terry,’ Anya agreed. ‘We’ll take you to the tailor and smith.’
‘Yes.’ That warning hand returned to Lexa’s shoulder. She sighed. She didn’t not like Terrance—she just hoped that they might do something else today. ‘And… I wouldn’t say anything ordinarily, but about Nond—’
‘No need for warnings, Anya—may I call you Anya? Thank you. I’ve met people like him before.’ Terrance shrugged. ‘I know to avoid him if I can. And it’s not all bad. Well, he is, I think. Bad, that is. But having him as a sponsor means that I’ve also met two girl pages who are very nice.’
Lexa scowled again. Annoyingly, this time he grinned outright.
‘A bright outlook on it,’ Anya drawled. ‘Come along then.’
They did take Terrance ‘Call-me-Terry’ to the tailor and to the smith and then, to Lexa’s guilty relief, they returned him to his room.
They walked away in silence, which was almost awkward after Terrance’s chatting through the morning but soon settled into a comfortable quiet. Anya pointed out her own room when they passed it; she didn’t take Lexa inside, but Lexa did not begrudge her the privacy. Anya walked them down to the kitchens—the smell of baked bread and fresh-cooked meat filled the passage with a tantalising lure and Lexa’s stomach growled.
Anya glanced down to her, surprise in the slight lift of her brows. ‘I could swear I fed you not an hour ago.’
‘I’m a growing page,’ Lexa answered her primly, nose turned up. The morning exercise and the excitement of being in a new place—the palace, no less—finally had worked together to loosen her tongue.
‘Let’s hope,’ Anya returned, and laughed when Lexa scowled a defeated scowl.
Despite the early hour, the kitchens were busy. A team of workers—Lexa guessed twelve, though she couldn’t be sure as they disrupted her attempts to count them by moving in and out of the next room (the pantry, Lexa assumed, despite never having seen one so large)—prepared the days food, carving meats and fruit, baking breads and pies, and carrying wheels of cheese as tall as Lexa’s torso. The staff spared the pages a look but didn’t pause. Anya entered, with Lexa at her heels.
One woman who Lexa would place at about twenty looked up at their approach but didn’t stop her kneading. She was taller than Anya by an inch or so but broader, with biceps that would make even Gus whistle with appreciation. Biceps that were rock hard as she worked the dough in front of her, dusting the yellowed mixture with white flour. There was a smear of it across her forehead and it showed stark against her dark skin; she was Catharki, Lexa was fairly sure of that, not just from her features but also the banded tattoos about her wrists that freed slaves sometimes got, the ones that darkened the wrist scars to near invisible. Lexa’s gut twisted. She fixed her eyes on the man who was carving the cheese into impressively small slices.
‘Good morning, Anya.’
‘Good morning, Havassah,’ Anya returned. ‘This is Alexandra, I’m sponsoring her.’
For some reason, that made the woman pause in her work. ‘This is your page?’ She tilted her head to one side and then the other. ‘She’s cute. Small.’ Lexa bristled. ‘There, you’re all the same,’ she continued, laughter thickening her accent. ‘Very sensitive about your, what’s the word?’
‘Yes, those.’ Havassah looked over Lexa, her hands working the dough again without pause. ‘I am pleased to meet you, Alexandra. If you need food come to me. Day and night.’
‘We aren’t allowed out past lights out,’ Anya reminded her.
‘Yes, no page has ever done that,’ Havassah agreed, tone so flat Lexa knew she had to be joking. She stifled a giggle, mostly—it was strange to see Anya, her sponsor she already so admired, older and wiser (and taller), treated with the easy and playful teasing an older sibling might use. ‘You listen to your Anya,’ she told Lexa. ‘She is not always fun but she is very clever. But for food…’ She trailed off, lifted her brows.
Lexa realised after a beat that she was expecting an answer. ‘I come to you?’
Havassah nodded. ‘Very good.’ She sent Lexa off then, to the other side of the kitchen to pick out a few rolls and fruit. And, Lexa saw when she turned around, so that she could talk to Anya alone.
Lexa took her time until Anya shot her an impatient look that meant she knew what Lexa was doing. She trotted back, laden down, and handed half her score to Anya. Taking their treats, they returned to the courts.
As they walked, Anya told her the rest of the more unspoken rules. ‘Wear your sword at all times, even if the boys laugh at you.’ She glanced down at Lexa’s hip, where her sword was conspicuously not sitting. Lexa flushed pink and nods. ‘Don’t talk back to Padraig—he doesn’t like it. Not even if it’s funny. Especially if it’s funny,’ Anya amended thoughtfully. ‘Elden’ll swear up and down on everything short of the Great Gods themselves that he heard the man laugh once but I don’t believe a word from him. You shouldn’t either.’
They stopped by the stables and sat on the railing there. Anya balanced their small basket on the post between them and divvied up the selection.
‘What else? Don’t worry too much about getting bells—everyone does. The masters like to give them out all the time. To build character, to keep us out of other trouble. As actual punishment for not finishing assignments,’ Anya shrugged. She swallowed her lunch quickly and started on an apple. A pony that trotted up to investigate them was awarded a treat, one of the apples that Anya cut into pieces and handed off slice by slice. ‘No one gets enough good behaviour to visit the City in their first year, you’ll probably be getting Sunday bells for months. Padraig gives free afternoons around Midwinter but it’s only because he wants one for himself. And never say you can’t do anything—that’s important.’
‘But what if I can’t?’ Lexa asked, finally done with her lunch.
‘Tell them you failed.’ Anya patted the pony, showed off her empty hands. The pony’s soft nose snuffled at her palms before doing the same to Lexa—finding nothing, the pony blew out a stream of unhappy air and left with a flick of its tail. ‘Greedy little things,’ she said with some affection.
‘What’s the difference?’
‘Between I can’t and I failed. What’s the difference?’
Anya looked at her, expression clear. What do you think? it read in the challenging set of her brows, the shrewd look to her eyes.
Lexa plucked an apple from the basket. Across the field, the pony eyed her. ‘If I say I can’t…it means I’ve given up?’
Anya nodded. ‘Her Highness is coming back round,’ she warned, nodding to the pony. Lexa grinned and slipped out her knife, cutting the apple into slices just as Anya had done. ‘Don’t worry, Haryse, I’ll train you up,’ she promised. The sun was high and everything smelled of fresh bread and crisp apple and horse and Lexa found that she trusted her sponsor. ‘Can’t have anyone thinking I picked the wrong page, can I?’
Lexa was fairly certain the question was rhetorical but answered with a firm ‘No’ to be safe.
‘Well, I think that’s it.’ Anya brushed crumbs off her hands and breeches and hopped down from the railing. ‘Questions?’
She gave the pony an obliging scratch as Lexa thought it over.
In the bright near-noon sun, Lexa found it easy to contemplate the very horrific things she had been wondering about. Do you have recurring visions of your own violent death, and Do you know what a god might mean about danger within the city? And also more personal questions like, Do we have to go into the Forest, which she had found out just that morning made her skin crawl with unease. And questions she didn’t think Anya would want to answer, like, Why does everyone look at you like you’re scum?
‘No,’ she said and clapped her hands free of crumbs. She stepped down more carefully from the railing. No, she repeated more firmly, that time just to herself. There were some things she couldn’t ask Anya, not when she’d only known her for a day. No matter how much she liked her.
Anya returned her to her room and Lexa thought about visiting Gus, but she remembered what she had been told. It was her last free day of possibly her whole life. With excellent foresight, though she did not know how excellent at the time, Lexa fell into bed, managing to get under the covers that time, and closed her eyes.
In three breaths, she was asleep.
As it turned out, she needn’t have been concerned about neglecting Gus.
The dawn bell rang. Lexa fell out of her bed onto the floor. That time, the knowledge that she was in the palace came quicker and it was followed even more quickly by the realisation that this morning she would begin her lessons. In what would become her routine for much of the year, Lexa dragged herself to the washroom and dunked her head into a basin of cold water. It was bracing and as she scrubbed the numb sensation from her cheeks with a towel she was far more awake, though not more cheerful. Dressing quickly in her training clothes and pulling on the harness—which took less time than it had the day before as she grew familiar with the thing—she worked through a set of the strengthening exercises Gus had taught her. To quell her nerves as much as for their true purpose. They made her legs in particular ache in a good stretch—as it happened, running up and down steps and chasing after her monster-legged sponsor used different muscles than running through her village had.
At half-past the hour, she washed her face and hands and pulled on her boots. Just as she was about to lock the door behind her, she ducked back in for her practice sword.
Taking one of Anya’s shortcuts to the kitchens, Lexa moved quickly and quietly through the early morning. Her steps were near silent on the stone, something she took private satisfaction in. True, it was nothing near as difficult as it was in the forest of her home, but she did enjoy sneaking around. Not a truly knightly trait, perhaps, but what others didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them. And would only benefit her. Advantage aside, she had learned some of her best curses from those she had surprised with the talent.
This time, she took care to keep to the walls and move quietly—not because she wanted to sneak but because she doubted anyone, save the pages, needed to be awake at such an early hour.
The side door to the kitchens, the one that brought the servants closer to the private rooms in the pages' wing, was open a fraction and chatter and smells drifted out into the hall. As tempting as breakfast was, a name made her stop short of the light.
‘—Tirragen mot. Surprised she came back again!’
‘You know these pages. More fight than sense.’
‘Aye, but this un’s a girl. Great Mother, she gives mots more sense ’n our menfolk. Gods bless ‘em.’ The older woman spoke about menfolk the way the girl back in Haryse had spoken about her stupid chickens—fond and exasperated. ‘Mithros knows we need ‘em t’ keepus safe but the good Mother knows we are meant ’t keep ‘em happy. None o’ this fighting—ain’t right. You saw th’ other two? The new uns.’
‘I did.’ The younger woman sounded a little short with her companion, not sharing the same joy in the gossip.
The older woman didn’t seem to notice. Or, if she did, didn’t mind. ‘Unnatural, that’s what it is. Oh, I know them what have their shields say they wasn’t magicked but it’s plain as Lady Arre—they ain’t right, Vera, ’n there’s no two ways ‘bout it.’
Lexa inched forward to peer in; she wanted to put faces to names, especially the woman who thought her magicked. Two women were bent over a sturdy wood table to the side. The older one, with white hair and a face all wrinkled, looked to be almost as tall as Gus but slender as a reed. There was a stern set to her mouth and Lexa fixed her in mind as someone to avoid. The other woman was much younger and sweetly plump. Somewhere around her mid-twenties, her dark brown hair was chopped short around her ears. Lexa couldn’t make out anything else distinctive about her, not before her foot slipped on fresh-washed stone as she peered in and she nudged the door with her shoulder, making it creak.
Lexa pulled back, covered her mouth to stopper a gasp.
Had the girl seen her? Lexa thought maybe—had caught a glimpse of a frown, brown eyes on her. Seen or not, did the girl know who she was?
‘Someone there?’ the old woman called, cracked voice stern. ‘Come out now—no loiterin’! There’s work t’ be done!’ She waited a moment before huffing. ‘Vera, go see. If it’s Annis you tell her I’ll be havin’ none of her slack.’
‘I’ll tell her, grandmother. Bread's near done.’
The girl, Vera, stepped out into the hall patting flour off her hands onto her apron. Lexa hadn’t gone far and the girl looked at her, shook her head when Lexa opened her mouth to explain herself, which was a relief, as Lexa had no ready explanation to give. Glancing into the kitchen, Vera disappeared into it. She reappeared a moment later with a handkerchief of clean, white cloth and three rolls wrapped in it.
‘Here. You pay her no mind, hear?’ There was a kindness the brisk words, and the gesture. ‘You run on now—an’ tell that sponsor of yours all her troubles’ve been dealt with. Got that?’
Lexa nodded. She took the package from Vera, smelled the cheese-and-sausage rolls Anya had picked for herself yesterday.
Vera shook her head. She glanced back to the kitchen again. ‘Some think th’ ways we done’ll hold forever. Never mind the K’mir women fight, never mind the Yamani woman among th’ most feared in th’ world. If it means aught to ye t’hear it… Seems t’ me you, and th’ other lady knights, yer just th’ only ones brave enough to do sommat.’ A call from inside the kitchen made Vera sigh. ‘I’ve work t’ do. Enjoy yer food. An’ don’t ye forget—ye’ve more on yer side than might first appear.’ She reached over, pinched Lexa’s cheek. Lexa allowed the gesture because she was hungry and because Vera had been nice—and also because the woman had a grip of iron and she couldn’t get free.
Handkerchief in hand, Lexa trotted to the courts.
Avoiding the twisting staircase.
Anya was leaning against the fence of the first court when she arrived. She was all slumped and yawning, slit-eyed with sleep, but she didn’t look surprised at all when Lexa stopped next to her. She did seem surprised by the offer of breakfast but took one with thanks, biting into it. The corners of her mouth ticked up a little.
‘Vera says all your troubles have been dealt with.’
Anya swallowed ‘Did she now?’ she asked, but it doesn’t sound like a real question. More of a warning.
Lexa listened to the warning and just nodded. ‘Does she always maul pages?’ She demonstrated, mimed pinching a cheek. It made Anya snort.
‘No. You’re just particularly small and cute.’ Lexa crinkled her nose. ‘That’s a hold you won’t learn how to get out of until next month too so either avoid her or let her do it.’
‘Yeah. First, you have to learn how to fall.’
‘But I know how to fall!’
‘She’d better,’ a quiet rumble of a voice said from behind them and way up over Lexa’s head. Anya went very still. She turned slowly to face the man, who barely looked at her, too intent on Lexa. ‘Well, page? Know how to fall?’
‘Yes.’ Anya stepped on her foot. ‘Yes sir?’ she corrected herself, hoping that was what Anya meant, and then she unfolded her handkerchief and offered him one of the rolls. Anya’s hidden panic was replaced by visible concern for the mental state of her page.
‘We’ll see,’ Gus muttered. He wasn’t trying to sound ominous; he also wasn’t much of a morning person. He took one of the rolls, lifted it to his nose. Sniffed at it, nostrils flaring. ‘What’s in this?’
‘Cheese. And sausage.’
He grunted and disappeared half the roll in one bite. ‘Who’s this?’ he asked around the mouthful, jerked a thick thumb sideways to Anya.
Lexa went still. She peeked up at him from under her lashes, considering her answers, before saying both truthfully and very innocently, ‘My sponsor.’ For some reason, her most innocent expression didn’t seem to work; Gus squinted at her, suspiciously, and made a small motion for her to continue. ‘My sponsor…Anya of Tirragen.’
‘Tirragen,’ he repeated. He looked like he was trying not to laugh; from Anya’s set expression, and the way she steeled herself when he shifted his gaze to her, she didn’t see amusement in his eyes.
‘Yes, my lord.’
‘Ha! I’m no lord,’ Gus said around the rest of his roll. He brushed crumbs from his chest. One hit Lexa and she crinkled her nose, taking a step back and out of the radius of danger. The move drew his attention and he said again, ‘Tirragen?’, this time with a question in his voice. Lexa nodded. He opened his eyes wide, looking up at the sky in a silent plea – for forgiveness? Help? Someone to share in his amusement? ‘Couldn’t wait a day t’ disobey him.’
Lexa shrugged. Technically, this hadn’t been her fault—Anya had picked her.
‘Aye well. Tirragen.’ He looked at her appraisingly. ‘Lord mentioned you, now I think on it. Said you know some holds they teach in the tribes?’ Anya nodded. ‘I’d like t’ see ‘em sometime.’
‘Good. It’ll have to wait, though.’ He nodded a goodbye to both of them; the training master strode down the hill to the court and Gus moved to intercept him. They walked onwards together.
Anya returned, slowly, to her disaffected lean. The railing propped her up enough that she could tilt her head and speak right into Lexa’s ear. ‘You didn’t tell me you knew Captain Bruin.’
Lexa shrugged a shoulder. ‘You didn’t tell me you spent the summer with your mother’s tribe.’ She’d heard the rumour four times in the pages corridor, and at dinner the night before, and that morning so she was fairly certain it was true.
‘Why would I? I’ve known you for a day. Less.’
Lexa fixed her sponsor with a steady look. She lifted her brows—why should she give up secrets, even one she hadn’t know was a secret, if Anya didn’t have to?
The very corner of Anya’s lips flicked upwards. ‘Fair enough.’
They stood in companionable silence until Lord Padraig clapped Gus on the shoulder, a dismissal if Lexa had ever seen one but one that Gus didn’t seem to mind. The great bell rang out from over the castle and Anya nudged Lexa forward to join the rest of the pages. They fell into a line—first-years at one end, fourth-years at the other—and it was obvious by the way some pages shuffled and leaned and craned their necks that pages were missing.
Padraig said nothing. He held his hands clasped behind his back, posture impeccable in military rest, straight and tall and easy to hold. Lexa eyed him up and down and then copied the pose.
Not more than a minute later, three boys came sprinting down the hill to fall into line, panting.
One came to stand next to Lexa—the irritating boy, Terrance of Seabeth. He grimaced apologetically at her.
‘Seabeth!’ Padraig barked. Terrance jumped. ‘Why are you late?’
The boy opened his mouth to answer but the words stuck in his throat. Lexa peeked sideways, wondering if he were scared. But no—his eyes slipped over to an older boy, Melvin of Nond, and Lexa gathered it wasn’t his fault he was late. She wondered what he’d say.
‘No excuse, my lord. It won’t happen again.’
Lord Padraig stared at him. Then, ‘One bell of work this Sunday. Do not make this a habit.’
‘Yes, my lord. I won’t, my lord.’ Terrance bowed.
‘Hannalof, Nond. Two bells on Sunday. You’ve both had more than enough time to know that when I say sixth bell I mean the sixth bell.’
Lexa’s eyes widened—she had thought that her father’s cold fury was impressive but it was nothing compared to Lord Padraig’s absolutely chilling tone. She wondered if that was something he’d teach them later.
‘Captain Bruin,’ Padraig said before the pages under his glare got frostbite. ‘I turn them over to you.’
A series of murmurs moved up and down the column of pages.
Those pages unused to Gus—all of them—were surprised when he stepped forward and came sharply into focus. Apparently, none of them had taken note of the man. Lexa smothers a grin. After all, the only reason she had known he was there was because she knew him. And even then, he managed to surprise her sometimes.
Now that he was no longer simply some man loitering near the court, now that he was to be their trainer, the pages took an interest in him. Now, they could see that he was tall and—when he shrugged off his cloak and draped it over the rail—that he was less of a man and more of a collection of enormous muscle that happened to take on the form of a man. He lumbered over to Padraig, and squinted a deceptively mild squint at them all.
‘Morning, milord,’ he greeted, voice a rumble. He waited for a nod before wandering forward and, eyes glinting with good humour Lexa suspected only she could see, held out his hand to her.
‘He’s gonna murder that little lass,’ Lexa heard from further down the line. Powered by spite, as she often was, her hand shot forward to take hold of Gus’s.
He held it for a moment. And then, he pulled.
She ignored the instinct to pull back—or to use the momentum to power a kick—and let herself fly over Gus’s hip; the ground rushed up toward her and she slapped the ground, dust puffing up under her palms. Intimately familiar with this practice—as he had insisted on waking her in this manner every morning of their journey to Corus—it was easy to hit the ground and pop back up onto her feet.
Patting dust off onto her breeches, Lexa trotted back into line, ignoring the surprise on everyone’s faces.
Not Padraig, she noted from her place beside the particularly surprised Terrance. He would never let anyone see him surprised.
Gus held his hand out next to Terrance. Because Gus saw his surprise too? Lexa wondered, and dismissed the thought as quickly. Gus didn’t have a vindictive bone in his body, certainly not toward eleven-year-olds. And then she craned her neck to watch Terrance go flying—and winced as he hit the ground. Hard.
Gus crouched down next to Terrance and spoke to him quietly for a moment. At one point, he held his hands out in front of him and pushed in the air. Terrance sat up from his prone position and listened with a determined frown. Then, he nodded twice to something Gus asked him; Gus smiled and patted him on the back. Gus stood, faster than anyone might reasonably expect from someone so large, and took Terrance’s hand, flinging him all the way back to the line of pages. Terrance landed a few inches short and this time, Terrance slapped the ground.
Terrance stood, staggered a little, and retook his place by Lexa.
He grinned. ‘I say,’ he said, cheerfully, ‘that’s a hands-on approach!’
Lexa rolled her eyes. There were a few quiet groans down the line from other pages who overheard the comment.
With an amused snort, Gus—Captain Bruin, she should really start thinking of him—moved on down the line. ‘Most important thing to learn,’ he said. ‘Falling. You can fall from just about anything and everything so learning to do it properly is vital.’
‘Captain Bruin.’ An older page—Perrin, Lexa recalled, and narrowed her eyes at him. Gus nodded for him to speak and Lexa, remembering the discomfort she felt when the boy watched her, hoped whatever he said would be stupid enough that her friend would toss him far into the forest where he couldn’t find his way out again. ‘What about us older pages?’
‘What about you?’
‘Well,’ he drawled, ‘we know how to fall.’
Gus stared at the boy for a long moment. He was slouching so the boy only had to crane his neck a little to meet his eyes. ‘What’s your name, page?’
‘Perrin. Perrin of Halleburn.’
‘Hmm.’ Quick as a whip, he grabbed Perrin by the shoulders and, no fancy move or throw, literally tossed him down the court.
Not as far as the forest, Lexa saw, disappointed.
‘Tell me,’ Gus asked the rest of them. ‘Did he slap the ground?’
‘I didn’t think so. Get back in line,’ he ordered, and promptly ignored Perrin again. Perrin slunk to his feet and obeyed, glaring the whole way. ‘This isn’t like learning how to saddle your horse or learning your multiples. You don’t learn to fall once and think it sticks—you fall every morning for the rest of your life,’ he impressed on them, black eyes weighing on each of them in turn. ‘You practice it over and over again knowing that someday it might be what saves your life. Now. Who wants to go next?’
By the time they moved onto staff practice, each of them had amassed a collection of bruises from Gus, who clapped Lexa on the shoulder and promised with a look of muted glee to return the next morning and give them some more.
Their staff trainer was a Bazhir man, slender and shorter than both Lord Padraig and Gus but with squared shoulders and a confident stance born of hard training, not station. He listened to Lord Padraig even as he nodded to each of the pages, eyes flicking over each of them—their faces, the way they walked, their first moments of holding the staff picked out from the bin.
The milling lot snapped to attention when Padraig called to them and fell into the same uneven line as before that the Bazhir, using Padraig as a distraction, neatened with not-so-gentle taps of his staff to their ankles.
‘This is Sir Halef ibn Fared. He will teach you how to use a staff. The staff is the primary long pole of pages and squires—at a pinch, it will hold the enemy off long enough for someone trained to come to your rescue. Is there a problem with that, Malven?’ he demanded from the frowning boy.
‘Then why the long face?’
Ilian of Malven was a first-year page as well, but two years older and big. He stood a full head taller than Lexa, with broad shoulders and very little neck. Even less when he hunched under the training master’s attention. His thick eyebrows and full lips, set into a flat line, gave him a menacing air at odds with his hesitant words.
‘I only thought…shouldn’t we defend ourselves? Instead of needing to be rescued?’
The training master nodded. ‘Very good, Malven.’
The compliment made Malven’s eyebrows lift, revealing warm hazel eyes.
‘That is the end goal. However, as pages, if you are in a situation that requires you to defend yourself, I command you to stay alive. Everything out there is bigger, meaner, and better trained. Even bigger than you, Malven.’ The boy grinned good-naturedly. ‘You hold off the enemy until help arrives or you run. Understood?’ Lord Padraig shifted his attention so that all of the pages felt his stare.
‘Good. Sir Fared?’
‘Thank you, my lord.’ Several of the pages jumped, having forgotten the man behind them. ‘Third, fourth years, pair up. You have ten minutes to panic about how much you’ve forgotten before I get to you.’ The older pages grinned—some of them more nervously than others—and moved off to the side. ‘Second years, pair up—I want you to show our newest pages what I expect.’
The staff work turned out to be fairly straightforward, for the first-year pages anyway.
Lexa hadn’t worked with a staff before, past using one as a hiking stick, but neither had the Danshame page, nor Ilian, who Lexa was paired with. He showed surprising skill, big hands less clumsy than she had assumed, and she decided there and then that she wouldn’t underestimate anyone based on what they look like ever again.
Better to learn it now, she told herself, than when it might get me killed.
Lexa and Ilian traded tentative blows for the first few rounds of Sir Fared’s calls of ‘High! Middle! Low!’ and when they had the measure of one another, they fell into the exercise in earnest. He was a little stronger, she a little faster. Other than the trainer’s commands, Lexa heard nothing save for the clack of wood on wood and, sometimes, on flesh. This was always followed by a yelp.
Sir Fared swooped down on the boy who yelped, examined his bruised hand before steering him back into line. ‘That wouldn’t have happened if you were holding it correctly, Whitehorn.’
Lexa blocked Malven’s strikes—he was getting faster now he knew how to do it, but he wasn’t out to hurt her—but part of her mind was distracted seeing what the third and fourth years were practising at the other side of the court. Anya looked like the relief of the K’mir warrior women Lexa had seen once, her black eyes intent and her staff a blur around her. Lexa’s right hand slipped inwards on her staff and, before she could correct it, Malven got her index finger. He winced in sympathy when she hissed and stopped to give her time to shake it out.
Fared swooped down on her.
‘Can you continue?’ She frowned very slightly at the question, confused, but nodded. ‘Back in line, then, Page Haryse. And fix that grip.’
Malven mouthed a silent sorry and Lexa nodded. It was okay, it happened. But she didn’t mean for it to happen again.
The boy gulped at the intent look on her face and he settled hurriedly into defence.
Her finger still hurt by the time they get to archery.
The instructor, a short, lean islander called Mister Tern, put ‘The girls together, at the end,’ and Lexa added Virgil’s name to her list of people to avoid when he sniggered at them.
‘I’m not a girl,’ Octavia told her in a harsh whisper, though the page still followed Lexa when Tern glared. ‘Remember that, okay?’ Lexa shrugged and nodded her acceptance. She strung her bow. The dark-haired page narrowed their eyes at her before they added, ‘I’m not a boy either.’
‘In a way. Haryse gets plenty of travellers from Tusaine and Galla and further. There are K’mir traders who have no genders at all—their hierarchy depends on the role they hold in the group.’
‘Really?’ Octavia sounded far more interested than upset then and Lexa made a mental note to write her father asking for the records from the trader’s visit and all they had learned from that caravan.
By the end of the class, she still intended to do it but with much less grace than before. Tern wasn’t interested in teaching her or Octavia at all, simply stared at them for a moment before returning to the other pages, and Octavia turned out to be competitive to a degree that set Lexa on edge. They were smug each time they made a shot and, when Lexa outshot them, they would go into a dark sulk Lexa wasn’t interested in combating. She would give them the notes, Lexa decided, and then be rid of the page for good.
Riding practice was little better.
Octavia brushed away from her as soon as they could so Lexa was alone and she didn’t even get to ride Alraed—the first years didn’t get as far as riding or even mounting their horses. Lord Padraig hovered by each of them and made them saddle and unsaddle and saddle their mounts over and over until finally pronouncing them useless.
‘By the time you lot are mounted, your enemy will be lost to the four winds!’
‘Yessir,’ the pages agreed.
‘If you can’t saddle a horse you can’t ride a horse.’
Lexa spoke in the same tired unison as the others. She examined Octavia’s horse—the enormous destrier she’d seen the day before. They don’t seem very trusting of the horse, shying away when he lipped at their pockets.
‘Get out,’ Lord Padraig finally told them. ‘Not you two. Haryse, Danshame, to me.’
Virgil sneered as he passed. The Bazhir boy didn’t look at them at all—Ilian crooked his finger, the one he had bashed in staff practice, and mouthed another apology. Terrance was too tired to do much of anything but he patted Lexa’s shoulder. She rolled her eyes.
When they were gone, Padraig tucked his thumbs into his belt and stared down at them as though they presented a small yet important problem he had been instructed to solve.
‘You can’t wash with the boys,’ he said with a directness Lexa appreciated and admired. ‘Preparations have been made. Your maid has filled your baths. Be in the dining hall for the lunch bell. Understood?’
‘Yes sir,’ they answered, and he went to follow the boys.
Exhausted, Lexa and Octavia followed him out of the stables. They split away from him and turned up toward the palace where a daunting hill rose ahead of them.
The path through the courts was easier but would take twice as long so, as one, they set off at a slow jog. They matched pace until the very top of the hill, where Octavia tore off ahead of Lexa, flashing a cheeky grin back over their shoulder that made Lexa frown and sprint after them. It was close but Octavia’s hand whacked against the last post of the rail—apparently the winning spot—and they jumped around, crowing their victory.
‘Too slow, Haryse!’
Lexa narrowed her eyes. Silently, she promised herself she would beat them tomorrow.
There was just enough time to wash and dress and get to the dining hall. Octavia was locking their door when Lexa stepped from her room, cheeks stinging in the fresh air from the scrubbing she gave them. They shot each other mutual looks of annoyance but walked together down the corridor.
‘This way is faster,’ Lexa pointed.
Octavia sneered. ‘You’re not tricking me, Haryse.’
Lexa rolled her eyes. ‘Suit yourself.’ She took the route Anya had shown her and reached the hall quickly. Most of the boys had already arrived but she was far from the last. Padraig noted her arrival from his place at the high table and said nothing. The dining hall was filled with almost two dozen rectangular heavy wood tables. They were smoothed and pitted and scraped in places from what Lexa guessed was decades of use. To the left, the kitchens had set out a table where the pages were filling a tray. Lexa turned and collected her own tray. She noted Octavia slipping in and couldn’t resist flashing a small, rude gesture their way. It made their eyes widen and then narrow.
Moving past them, Lexa spied Anya at one of the tables and took the seat beside her.
Anya had her own tray, untouched and pushed slightly away to accommodate a book. From a glance, it looked to be a book of maps but there was enough writing that Lexa figured it to be a history of some kind. She looked away, not wanting to annoy her sponsor with questions, and waited for the rest of the seats to fill up around her.
‘Do we have an assignment already?’
The mellow, deep voice belonged to Octavia’s sponsor—Runnerspring. He sat opposite them, nodding for Octavia to join. They sat directly opposite Lexa and, grinning, stretched their long legs under the table. She stamped on Octavia’s feet when they encroached on her space, which just made their grin grow.
She sighed, turned the page of her book. ‘No, Lincoln. Haven’t had class yet, have we?’
‘Just making sure,’ he said easily, apparently unbothered by the sharpness of her tone. He smiled at Lexa; he had a nice smile, a broad pleasant expression that made the skin crinkle at the corners of his warm brown eyes. ‘Hello there. I’m Lincoln. Lincoln of Runnerspring.’ He reached a hand over the table, which Lexa shook.
‘Alexandra of Haryse.’
‘Pleased to meet you.’ He turned to Octavia, opened his mouth but before he can introduce them, Octavia interrupted.
‘We’ve met.’ They grinned.
Lincoln seemed amused by his slightly wild page and even more so by Lexa’s reaction. He shrugged to Anya, who looked up to glance between the two first years.
‘Hullo,’ a cheery voice greeted. ‘And hullo to you, young pages.’ Elden, the smiling page who had earned two bells of work in only a few minutes, took the seat next to Lexa. He smiled brightly. ‘It does an old man such good to look upon the both of you—fresh-faced, eager.’ He pressed a long-fingered hand to his heart, breathed in deeply. ‘The green smell of spring.’
‘It’s autumn,’ Anya groused.
Lexa nodded. She also wondered what he was talking about—she was neither fresh-faced nor particularly eager. She was very sure she’d never been more sore in her life. And Octavia…Octavia looked like a hungry wolf, with the lean, shadowed set to their face, and stared at Elden like he was an annoying mouse.
He’d noticed the look too. ‘Lincoln, dear lad, why does your page look like she wants to eat me? What have you been telling her?’
‘Not eat—bite,’ Lincoln corrected him.
‘Bite? Well, you’re a bit young for it,’ Elden said with a grin. He winced—Lexa had barely dodged Anya’s kick and knew he had gotten the full force of it. ‘Ouch! What?’
‘I was joking.’
‘Just like you were joking when you called me a bastard?’ Octavia demanded. In all the hubbub, their eyes had never shifted from his face.
His face fell. ‘Ah. Yes. That. I’m sorry—father tells me I have an awful sense of humour and I –’
‘I’m not hearing an apology,’ Lexa interrupted, surprising herself.
Elden hung his head before fixing Octavia with careful regard. ‘You’re right. I apologise, Page Danshame, whole-heartedly. I should not have said what I did, and you should not have had to bear that. I deserved milord's punishment, and yours - but I hope you'll allow me to settle our debt in some other way.’ He waited for their response and, when Octavia nodded their acceptance slowly, he smiled more blindingly than ever. ‘Thank you. And all of this before proper introductions! Benthor of Elden. Benny to my friends,’ he added with a gentleness that made it obvious he was offering that to Octavia.
‘Yes, we poor unfortunate few,’ Lincoln sighed. He dodged the scrap of bread Benthor threw at his head and Octavia barked a quiet laugh.
‘Lout. Already corrupting the youth against me! He’s been hit on the head a few times too many,’ he said sideways to Lexa. Then, past Lexa, he spied Anya and her book and his good-natured smile fell away to worry. ‘What—have we got an assignment already?’ Benthor asked, craning to take a closer look. Lexa shifted closer to Anya, who cut her a quick glance and tucked her arm in so Lexa had more space. She turned the page.
Lincoln answered for her. ‘Reading for fun.’
‘For fun?’ Benthor repeated. ‘How interesting. You’re an interesting sort, Anya.’
‘And you’re uncultured,’ she retorted, voice mild.
‘That’s not true. I’ll have you know I kissed a lovely Carthaki girl this summer.’
‘While you were in Carthak?’
‘Gods, no. I barely leave the lake if I can help it. Excellent fishing,’ he told Lexa cheerfully. ‘I buy the biggest fish my men reel in and pretend that I caught it.’ That made Octavia grin.
Anya hadn’t been distracted. ‘Doesn’t count.’
‘Doesn’t… Pah! Ridiculous! Lincoln, tell her it counts.’
Lincoln shrugged, shaking his head no. ‘Sorry Benny, I’m with Anya. Doesn’t count.’
As though struck, Benthor recoiled. He leaned back too far, nudging one of the fourth-year pages behind him. ‘Oops, sorry.’ Righting himself, he ran a hand through his golden hair. ‘Jealousy,’ he said after a minute. ‘That’s what this is. You’re both—you,’ he pointed to Anya, ‘and you,’ he turned the accusing finger on Lincoln next, ‘are jealous of my Catharki girl and how very cultured I am. I understand this and,’ he continued, expression becoming grave and nobly suffering, ‘I forgive you.’
Luckily for Benthor, Prince Jasson arrived just then. Because their table was closest to the door—or maybe because he genuinely liked these pages, Lexa wasn’t sure—the prince chose their table to sit at. He took the seat between Lexa and Elden, forcing the Player page down a spot, and his page—Ilian—sat next to Octavia.
Everyone nodded formally to the Prince, who nodded formally back before breaking into a wide smile.
‘Lovely day, isn’t it!’
‘No,’ Benthor sighed. ‘They’re being awful to me.’
‘I’m quite sure you deserved it,’ Prince Jasson told the other boy happily. Benthor sunk into a greater pout. ‘Prince Jasson,’ he introduced himself to the new pages. ‘Alexandra of Haryse, Octavia of Danshame, you know Ilian of Malven, my page?’
Lexa flicked her eyes to him and nodded.
Ilian nodded back. ‘We, ah, were paired this morning, Highness. In staffs.’
‘Wonderful. How was it?’
‘Uh.’ Ilian searched for something to say. ‘She’s quick. You’re quick,’ he said, looking nervous for a moment as though unsure if she’d take offence to being spoken about.
Lexa nodded. ‘You’re strong,’ she returned, though a game of stating the obvious wasn’t what she was interested in. Her stomach rumbled. ‘When do we eat?’ she asked Anya quietly.
‘We have to wait for everyone.’ She glanced over the hall. ‘Halleburn again,’ she grimaced. ‘And his little page. What’s his name?’
It’s Octavia who said, ‘Whitehorn. Virgil.’
‘If they take much longer, I think I shall murder them,’ Benthor said.
‘Benny! It’s not that bad,’ the prince scolded.
‘Ignore His Highness,’ Benthor told the younger pages. ‘He’s just so happy to be a page again instead of a Prince, bless his odd heart.’
Prince Jasson rolled his eyes—they came to a stop on the dining hall door, where two pages had finally entered. The younger page looked jumpy and nervous. Perrin looked like he’d been strolling.
‘Halleburn, Whitehorn. One bell of work on Sunday. A knight does not disrespect their fellows.’ The two bowed to Padraig and took their seats. Padraig remained standing. ‘Mithros bless this food and bless us, that we may continue to grow strong and healthy and carry on the work he has given us. So mote it be.’
‘So mote it be,’ the pages chorused back.
For a few minutes, no one spoke. They were far more interested in eating; the food had grown cool but after so long a morning and so much work, it was the best meal Lexa had ever eaten.
Finally, talk began to pick up again and to exactly no one’s surprise, Benthor spoke up first.
‘Bit short for a prayer. He’s got no sense of drama, does he?’
‘The prayers aren’t supposed to be dramatic. Only sincere,’ Ilian said quietly.
‘Well said,’ the prince nodded to his page.
‘Yes, well said, quite so,’ Benthor agreed. Though his tone was faintly amused, there was no mocking in his eyes. Just sincere good humour. Lexa found herself relaxing the longer he spoke and the more his friends teased him back. ‘I apologise, Malven. I feel like I’m wasting away with all these stern, stoic types around me. I need to make new friends.’
‘Please do,’ Anya muttered.
Lexa grinned down at her plate.
‘Now Anya,’ Prince Jasson started, mildly scolding. Benthor smirked down the table at her at the prince coming to his defence. ‘You know he can’t. We’re the only ones good-mannered enough to put up with him.’ The prince laughed with the rest of them when Benthor pouted and sighed and pretended to cry, pulling a dozen coloured handkerchiefs out to dry non-existent tears.
Finally, their trays were empty, even Octavia’s, which had been laden with nearly twice the amount on Lexa’s plate. Good food weighing them down and aching from head to toe, the young pages stood reluctantly and returned their trays—and their sponsors' trays—to the kitchen.
Anya was waiting for Lexa at the door.
‘Etiquette first,’ she told her. ‘Do you remember the way?’ Lexa nodded. Eyes glinting, Anya slung an arm around her shoulders and turned to the other sponsors. ‘See? My page remembers everything I tell her.’
‘Now now, it’s not a "best page" competition,’ Lincoln soothed. Then, after a moment, he continued wickedly, ‘But if it were, I happen to know that my page beat your page to the top of the hill, Tirragen.’
Lexa darted a look at Octavia, who grinned. Anya didn’t take her arm away. Instead, she squeezed and, with that reassuring weight around her, Lexa just laughed when her sponsor cursed out Lincoln quite spectacularly all the way down the hall. When they reached the end, the older pages made left and the younger pages had to turn right.
‘Go away, little page,’ Anya told her, and squeezed her shoulders one last time before pushing her down the hall. ‘See you at dinner. Don’t fall asleep in class.’
‘I won’t,’ she promised.
‘I might,’ Ilian said, already yawning. ‘Eight years of this, can you imagine?’
‘I think it’s grand,’ Octavia announced with an easy shrug. They jogged ahead a few paces and turned so they were walking backwards, facing Lexa and Ilian. ‘We learn to fight and ride and swim—’
‘You don’t know how to swim?’
‘What part of a mining fief sounds like there’s lots of water involved?’ they shot back to Ilian, who didn’t seem at all bothered by their sharp tone. He began to make plans with them to show them how—there was a large lake on palace grounds, apparently, and some of it was fairly shallow, which made it the perfect place to learn. There wasn’t much time to do it but maybe on a Sunday, if they don’t get into too much strife. ‘Strife is what I do best,’ Octavia confessed, ‘but that would be great, if we get the time!’
‘Lo the squad,’ a quiet voice called out from behind them.
The trio stopped, looking down the corridor to the Bazhir boy from their year. His dark hair was a little ruffled and his eyes narrow with nerves. He glanced over Lexa and Octavia before his eyes settled on Ilian. ‘Do you know where the class is?’ He spoke slowly, as though making sure each word was correct before he said it.
‘This one does, apparently,’ Octavia slung a skinny arm around Lexa’s shoulders, who shrugged them away.
‘Would you like to walk with us?’ Ilian offered, and Hasim fell gratefully into step.
‘I was concerned I would be late. I don’t think I could stand another,’ he said a word in basri Lexa didn’t know, and he grimaced. ‘A smiling teacher. They hit us with sticks and expect us to say thank you.’
The comment surprised a quiet laugh from Lexa, and Hasim looked to her. His brown eyes gleamed; he was pleased by her laugh, she could tell, but then he dropped his gaze again hurriedly. Lexa took a moment to wonder about it - was he conservative? Uncertain of her place here? And then he was setting his shoulders and lifting his eyes again to meet hers solidly. A thought occurred to her and she relaxed, putting aside ungracious thoughts. His ignoring her, and disquiet at acknowledging her, had very little to do with her being a girl and more to do with her being an unveiled girl.
‘My brother thought I was mad, wanting to be a page,’ Ilian agreed pleasantly. ‘Spending all day being whacked with sticks,’
‘And saying thank you for it,’ Octavia reminded him, and Hasim included them both in his pleased grin.
‘Of course, and saying thank you.’
‘I think it’s grand,’ Octavia repeated.
‘We know what you think,’ Ilian teased. ‘What about you, Haryse?’
Lexa blinked. The other three were all watching her and she shrugged. ‘It’s all I’ve ever wanted. My father supported that.’ Eventually, she tacked on privately. The others nodded.
She stopped then; at their looks of confusion, Lexa gestured to the door she had stopped next to—the one with the scratched door handle. ‘We’re here.’
Lexa knocked on the door. When there was no reply, she pushed it open.