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The Hunters Chosen

Chapter Text

The master of etiquette kept his classroom impeccable.

It was, Lexa had no doubt, the cleanest, most dazzling room she had ever been in. Corner to corner, the master had spared no quarter for elegance—tapestries, an oil painting of their Majesties over the desk at the far end of the room where a very neat, handsome dark wood writing desk was sat. Along the wall was a long bench. On it was arranged an array of dozens of items—swords, cups of varying degrees of richness, utensils, boxes and boxes of preserved flowers, and immense rolls of paper. The pages examined the items with great interest; Octavia gravitated to the weapons and pulled a wicked knife from the lot, brandishing it around until the other pages decided it would be safer to stand anywhere else. Lexa found a goblet with a bowl as big as her head studded with a huge sapphire.

‘Fake,’ Hasim told her.

‘Really?’ It looked real, but he reached out a finger and pulled his Gift, glittering a bright orange around his hand, to touch the sapphire. It rang out with a dung clang and he shook his head.

‘Fake.’

Lexa replaced it on the bench with a sigh and continued on.

It was a rich selection—the tapestries weren’t fake, she could see that much, and neither were the exquisite woven table runners nor the heavy gold plates. She fingered one of a very ugly pig thoughtfully for a moment before grinning—it was the twin of the ugly cow tapestry at the end of the corridor, she was certain of it.

Once done, she turned to examine the rest of the room.

It was an odd setup. Instead of individual seating, one large and strange table filled the chamber. Two long tables, easily fifteen feet long, were joined by a shorter third to fashion a U-shape that sat with the open edge in front of the master’s desk. Bronze caps covered the feet of the table legs and a band of warm metal ran along the entire edge of the tabletop, engraved with beautiful detail. The wood had been polished to a dull gleam.

Lexa ran a hand over the bronze and bent to examine the image of a tree that had been set there—she could make out each leaf, the grain of the wood. Confused, she stood straight.

Why had a work of art like this table been put away in a classroom? Even if it was to teach them etiquette, surely they could do that on any old table? It wasn’t until she took a seat that she noticed the line running the length of the table—all the table, turning perfectly and sharply twice to complete the shape. It was about half the width of her little finger and raised, like a scar on the tabletop, though it was made of greenwood within the deep ruddy red-brown of a mature tree. Peculiar.

Lexa pulled her book bag between her feet and frowned at the mark.

Terrance sat next to her.

‘Hello!’

‘Seabeth.’

‘It’s Terry,’ he reminded her.

Lexa hid a smile and ignored his sigh in favour of examining the cut…slice…break? It wasn’t clear exactly what it was—it was so precise, it couldn’t possibly be a natural splitting of wood. Nor had it been hacked with any type of weapon. That would surely have left splinters. And the join looked like it had actually grown together rather than any kind of repair. She reached out, trailed her finger along it for a few inches.

Ilian of Malven took the seat next to her.

‘It was the black robe,’ he said in that quiet way of his. Lexa watched as Ilian reached out and he too touched the line on the table.

‘How’d it happen?’ Octavia had, apparently, put away the knife in favour of sitting on the table, their feet on their chair. They rubbed a thumb over the scarring table and flicked their eyebrows up at Malven in invitation.

The pages leaned in to hear him better. Even Virgil with his sour, superior face.

Ilian flushed very faintly at the attention but cleared his throat. ‘From what little I know,’ he prefaced, ‘the king had the table made for one of the lordly halls. Some people say it was for audiences with foreign dignitaries—to show the wide wealth of Tortall.’ Lexa’s fingers found the tree again. She followed the shape of a small apple and smiled. Was it supposed to represent Haryse?

‘A few days after it had been finished, and the King and Queen had examined the table and paid for it, the black robe was working a magic for slicing. He spoke a Word and all through the palace, things broke in half.’

Whoa.’

‘The King said he was just glad the master had stopped himself before he broke the actual palace in two. Allegedly,’ Ilian added, more quietly.

‘Could he really do something like that?’ Octavia demanded. ‘Cut the palace in two?’

‘If anyone could, it’d be the black robe.’ Hasim made the sign of warding in front of his chest.

Octavia frowned. ‘Don’t you have the Gift?’

‘Yes. To start a fire or find water. Not to change a man into a tree or gouge the earth down to its belly or, or open the gates to the Other Realms. It’s not right to play with the powers of gods.’

‘They don’t belong to the gods if a man has them,’ Octavia pointed out, as smug as they were correct. Hasim rolled his eyes.

‘The gods don’t hand out powers we don’t need,’ Virgil said. He scowled when the pages turn to him. ‘That’s what the priests say. I don’t care.’

‘You don’t care? What about when the need has passed—does he stop using his Gift? Or does he fashion Words that will break our world in two?’

The pages shifted in place, discomforted by the question.

Lexa frowned down at the scarred table and then across at Hasim. On the one hand, he had a point. A mage who could accidentally halve everything within the palace…

‘Was anyone harmed?’ she asked.

Ilian shook his head no. ‘No one. No animals either.’

‘Hmm.’

‘He could,’ Hasim insisted.

Lexa shrugged. ‘No one was hurt. A table fell in two, some tapestries lost their tassels. So what? The man has power and does good with it—you worry about what he might do and ignore everything that he has done. We’ve all heard the stories. The man he turned into a tree was plotting against the King. And he’s never cut into the earth or opened a gate to the Realms.’

‘But he could,’ Hasim repeated, though he sunk lower in his seat.

Lexa fixed him with a blistering look. ‘Maybe. But he hasn’t. He has put protections all over the palace, though, and he’s laid wards over some of Fief Haryse that held against the forest fires we had two summers ago. The whole world seemed to be on fire but the castle felt like it was a warm summer day.’

‘He leveed the river walls in Seabeth,’ Terrance added helpfully. ‘And I heard he dropped new wells in Persepolis.’

‘Just because I’m a Bazhir doesn’t mean Persepolis is my city,’ Hasim pointed out. Terrance shrugged.

‘He also charmed a little wooden horse to gallop around and neigh for my niece,’ Terrance continued, ‘which was very, very annoying but not nasty. He’s a good sort. Barmy, like all those university turnouts. But good.’

‘Well said,’ an unfamiliar voice cut into their conversation.

Octavia yelped and slipped off the table onto their seat.

They, and the rest of the pages, twisted to examine the man who stood there in the doorway. He was tall and slender, with a little weight around his belly that said he was not a fighting man. His brown, curly hair had been cut short so only the slightest waves remained. His brown eyes were sharp and didn’t look like they belong to a face with such a delicate nose and soft mouth. Dressed in a long, light coat over a light silk suit and soft slipper shoes, he was much more suited to the King’s court than the practice courts, unlike the near-identical practical and dirt-splattered pairs the pages all wore.

Although the pages were struck by the immediate understanding that this man was not to be trifled with, they had no way to know that those words would be the last pleasant thing their etiquette master would say to them that lesson.

‘Oh, well, it was Alexandra really, sir,’ Terrance told him.

The man continued briskly as though he hadn’t spoken. ‘However, this is not the place for it. The university is still accepting students for this term if you wish to debate morality and power.’

It sounded very interesting to Lexa but from his dismissive tone, she gathered it wasn’t supposed to. It was more likely intended as a dig toward her, emphasised when he followed Terrance’s waving hand to her and said, ‘Perhaps you would feel more comfortable there, Page…?’

‘Alexandra of Haryse.’

His lips tightened. ‘Stand and bow,’ he snapped.

Lexa pushed her stool back, shivered at the way it scraped against the wood. The master’s eyes went cold and still.

Like a snake, she thought.

‘Alexandra of Haryse,’ Lexa repeated, and she bowed to him. Someone nudged her. ‘Sir.’

‘Hmm. A lot of work to do, it seems.’ The master didn’t seem to care who heard the comment. His disdain, evidently, was not supposed to be a secret. ‘Sit down, Haryse. Before you crack open your skull and all your very noble thoughts are lost to us forever.’

Lexa didn’t like how wistful the master sounded at that; etiquette was focused on the conservative, she knew, but it didn’t mean he was permitted to be nasty. Until that moment, she had been sure it meant that he would not be. Or, at least, not obvious about it. She bristled at the direct insult. Standing from her bow, she glared at him, anger and determination burning powerfully in her gut; it made her eyes feel hot and dry and some of it must have shone through because he gave a start and looked away hurriedly.

‘Sit, I said,’ he repeated.

She sat.

Striding to the front of the room, the master set his book down on the writing desk before turning to face them. He held his hands neatly at his sides, somehow managing to look like it was a perfectly natural pose. Ready and loose instead of forced still as Lexa always felt standing like that.  ’I am Master Vauntire. It is my duty to turn you young men into something like nobles.’

‘Excuse me, Master Vauntire?’

The man blinked. Terrance had shot to his feet and Master Vauntire looked bemused by the idea of him having question already. He waved for the eager boy to speak.

‘What is it, Page…?’

‘Seabeth, Master Vauntire.’ Terrance bowed. ‘I only wanted to say, well, we aren’t all men, Master Vauntire.’

‘The majority of you are, and therefor—’

‘Barely,’ Terrance stubbornly insisted. ‘However, we are all pages. Perhaps you could call us that.’ His sweet face, with its dimpled cheeks and soft brown eyes and his halo of black hair, made him the very vision of innocence.

Master Vauntire’s lips pressed into such a tight line that the skin of his chin and cheeks and around his nose went a furious white. He fixed Lexa—his obvious choice for the cause of this—with a look that put his earlier disdain to shame.

‘Perhaps,’ the master agreed. Lexa was surprised that the words didn’t shatter when they fell from his lips, so coldly did he spit them. ‘Take your seat. Page.’

‘Yes, Master Vauntire.’

‘Very good. Let’s begin, then.’

It quickly became clear that the only reason he allowed that was so that he could advance onto the rest of the lesson—and humiliate Lexa by making her perform each of the bows in front of the class. And, for an extra lesson in humiliation, the curtsies as well. The master covered his smirk with a polite hand over his lips. Virgil sniggered outright—until it was his turn to perform the bows and he was tripped three times on his way to the front of the classroom.

As it turned out, they were all similarly awful.

Ilian knew the most—the hierarchy of the bows and two years of practice making them smooth, graceful, instead of the awkward bobbing the rest of them manage. He got nervous speaking in front of the class, however, and fumbled his way through the formal addresses. And when he was done with the ‘simple seating chart’ Master Vauntire set them, his eyes took on a haunted and anxious shadow.

‘At least you can finish it,’ Lexa muttered to him. She got most of her addresses right but none of her bows or curtsies were anything like passable, according to Vauntire. And she’d been working on the chart for a full fifteen minutes, and by working she really meant ‘staring blankly’.

Ilian scraped his hair back, tied it into a tiny bun with a bit of cord. He used the move to hide the way he answered Lexa. ‘I just put them down alphabetically,’ he admitted and, when she glances up in surprise, he grinned.

Hasim knew almost all of the addresses but muddled up enough that he too got a wicked glare—but since no one had yet been spared of that look, not even Virgil the Sour, it could be that Vauntire just looked like that.

Terrance very cheerfully admitted to knowing nothing at all and Vauntire sighed, dragging his hand down his face, and waved him back to his seat. Terrance—’Terry, it’s Terry,’—plopped down into his chair and pulled his chart in front of him.

‘He’s a tender man, isn’t he?’ he asked with a wicked little smile and Lexa’s pen jerked across the chart. ‘Oh gods—sorry, Alexandra!’

‘Don’t worry,’ Hasim said for her. ‘It’s not like she got any of them right.’

Lexa scowled at him and dragged a similar line across his sheet.

Octavia, it turned out, knew the least of all of them but their pride doesn’t allow them to admit it the way Terrance had. Instead, they bowed an identical shallow bow for each one Master Vauntire called out—even the curtsies, which made his face go pale with anger—and finally he threw a now shaking hand to the table and sent them back to join the others.

Well,’ Master Vauntire said in a clipped, sharp tone. ‘It is my displeasure to inform you that you are all in-com-petent.’ He said it that way, relishing the harshness of the way the word could be laid out. ‘You will find an older page to teach you five bows tonight, which you will show me tomorrow. In addition, you will write a full page of apology to me.’

‘Apology, Master Vauntire?’

Yes, Page Whitehorn.’ Virgil’s sour face soured further. ‘For practice. You will be able to find a template in the library. And I need one,’ he continued, ‘for having to teach all of you…you…’

‘Incompetents?’ Terrance supplied helpfully.

Master Vauntire’s glare and point sent them all out of the class.

‘Alexandra!’ Terrance called out before she can leave. She glanced back to see him yanking his book bag over his head, hopping to free himself from his seat. ‘Alexand—oh, you waited!’

Lexa adjusted her sleeve, ignoring Octavia’s curious glance and Terrance’s beaming smile. ‘Seabeth,’ she greeted him as he approached, her tone perfectly cool.

‘It’s Terry,’ he told her for the ninth time. He was whining just the tiniest bit and she tried not to smile but he caught the expression and, to her surprise, laughed. ‘You’re doing it on purpose! This means war, you realise?’

‘I’m not afraid.’ She tossed her head contemptuously, making him laugh again. Her gaze landed on Virgil the Unpleasant. She flicked her eyes from the top of his head down to his boots and then turned away slightly, the most effective snub she knew. Voice terse, she said with perfect politeness, ‘Whitehorn.’

‘Haryse.’

To Terrance alone she said, ‘I know how to get to the next class.’

‘Was that an invitation?’

‘Obviously.’

‘You need to work on that,’ he teased. ‘Can Virgil walk with us?’

No,’ Octavia said, not bothering to pretend that they weren’t eavesdropping. They sidled up next to Lexa and sneered at Virgil. He sneered right back.

Lexa said nothing but she was inclined to agree with Octavia.

‘Aw, he’s not that bad—like a stonefish, that’s all.’

‘Stonefish?’

‘Yeah. Don’t step on him and he won’t kill you…’ Terrance shifted his weight to the other foot and hitched his book bag a little higher. ‘It’s not the best analogy, I suppose. He’s not that bad.’

‘I can talk for myself,’ Virgil pointed out.

Terrance planted his hand over Virgil’s mouth. ‘But you shouldn’t.’ Behind that hand, Virgil said something that sounded very rude.

‘You have fish that kill people?’ Lexa asked, much more interested in that than Virgil and besides, if they didn’t leave soon they’d be late to the next class. Ilian and Hasim were waiting for them at the end of the corridor and Lexa pointed left.

They went left and she wondered a little that they trusted her enough not to even pretend to argue.

‘Oh sure. Stonefish can camouflage themselves too—’

‘Camouflage?’ Octavia asked, peering around Lexa at Terrance.

‘Ah…how do I explain…?’

‘They make their bodies look like their surroundings,’ Lexa said.

Octavia’s eyes widened. ‘Do they really? Do they look like stones? Or is that how they kill, do they throw stones?’ they asked, much to Terrance’s delight.

‘No, no, they have these barbs, see. I’ll explain that in a bit, though—the camouflage is so interesting, it’s good enough that it’s hard to tell that it’s not a stone until you’re stepping on it and it hurts so much you think you’ll die. Some people do, you know.’

‘From a few barbs?’

‘That’s the best part!’ Terrance exclaimed. ‘They have venom!’

‘Like snakes?’ Virgil asked. Octavia shot him a glare but didn’t say anything. They, too, wanted to know if the fish was like a snake.

‘Er, no. I’m no academic but,’ he sucked in a deep breath and launched into a description of the creature that they listened to eagerly. When they reached the classroom, he cut himself off,  though not without a promise to tell them more later.

‘Come in, come in,’ said a voice from within the room when Ilian knocked on the door. ‘Ah, Malven, come in, come in, welcome back!’

‘I’m a page now, Master Mori,’ Ilian called back, voice fond. His large frame blocked the doorway still and Octavia nudged him hard to get him to move. Ilian grinned down at them and obliged.

‘Ah, yes. So you are. Well! Welcome again, and welcome to all of you as well. Please, come inside.’

Virgil peeled off the group as soon as they got inside. Lexa flicked a glance from him back to Terrance, who smiled a little sheepishly. She didn’t miss at all that he had distracted them from Virgil’s presence, and she was content to let Virgil stay for exactly as long as he didn’t sneer or say anything that made her want to hit him. He’d learn the way to each room soon enough and then, she supposed, it would be up to him to decide if he wanted to spend time with them or not.

The history master—already a delight compared to Vauntire—peered at Ilian and the rest of them and smiled. There was an air about the man that was friendly, in a dusty, cool, slightly absent-minded kind of way. Yamani in features and dress, he wore his black hair long and tied back from his face in a braid. The tunic fell to his shins and was embroidered with dark grey patterns near indistinguishable from the black fabric. Black pearls closed his cuffs at each wrist and in each ear he wore a small black-pearl drop. He was young for a teacher, Lexa placing him in his thirties, though he might have been older if he had to use the spectacles she could see on his desk.

Lexa relaxed a little, seeing Ilian’s clear affection for the man. The other pages too seemed to relax when this master did not seem ready to sneer at them. Or capable of it, both his apparent kindly nature and also what seemed to be quite advanced nearsightedness.

‘Feel free to look around, I’m setting these texts out for you. How many do we have? One, two—Ilian, you have this one already, don’t you?’

‘Yes, Master Mori,’ the boy agreed. He took a seat directly opposite the master’s desk at the front of the room. Lexa wasn’t surprised—by their obvious acquaintance and the friendliness in both their voices, she was sure that history was one of Ilian’s favourite classes.

‘Good, good. Five then. Yes, yes,’ he waved a hand around the room. ‘Please, yes, feel free to look.’

Lexa placed her bag next to Ilian’s desk, who nodded to her, and she did as Master Mori instructed.

His desk, she noted, was not defensible as Lord Padraig’s had been. But it also wasn’t anything like the pristine thing Vauntire had. There was a stack of papers on the desk making an attempt at neatness, ink and pens next to them. Several books stacked on the opposite end were marked with ribbons in places and were obviously well-handled. The entire right wall of the classroom was lined with bookcases—Lexa recognised The Complete Almanacs and guessed he must have at least fifty of them. The individual desks had been organised into a loose semi-circle and each seat had a thin cushion on it.

At the head of that semi-circle was a plush armchair, green, that made her smile.

‘Something amusing, Page?’

Master Mori didn’t sound unkind, only curious.

Lexa shook her head no.

‘Really? I could swear that I saw you smile. Please, do share—history tends to put you all in such a somber mood. I’m sure your fellows would appreciate it.’

The deprecating joke pulled grins from everyone and the master gestured with ink-stained fingers for Lexa to speak.

‘I only saw the chair, Master Mori, and thought perhaps it’s something all historians share.’

‘Oh?’ He looked confused.

‘My father has a similar chair,’ she explained. ‘And a fascination with history.’

‘Oh?’ Mori said again. ‘What name? What does he study?’ He sounded so surprised that Lexa figured the older pages must truly hate history if the idea of someone enjoying it surprised him.

‘Titus of Haryse. He’s working on a history of the alliances of Tortall and the surrounding lands.’

Is he?’ Delight slipped past his calm, even expression. ‘How fascinating!’

Lexa nodded. She returned to her seat and hoped that he wouldn’t press any further—she’d had the attention of both her masters in the only classes they’d had so far and, while Mori was clearly not nasty, she would have preferred to have the chance to observe them first.

What’s done is done, she told herself, and cracked open the book he’d given them.

‘Our classes will be a little…what is the word, Ilian? We shall jump from topics?’

‘Eclectic, sir.’

‘Very good. Eclectic. There are all number of things to learn before you can study history in earnest and, unfortunately, it’s all the very boring topics you must understand first. This will not be a lesson on battles and strategy,’ he said, and even Lexa felt a little disappointed about that. ‘This class is very much about everything that fills the space between the battles,’ he told them, a little breathy with excitement. Turning his back, he brandished chalk in hand and began to write swiftly on the board. As though the sound of chalk on slate were a secret cue that only they knew, immediately half the class drooped and their eyes glazed over. Master Mori didn’t notice—back to the class, he continued to write and talk and write, scrawl spidering web-white over the board.

Cause,’ he wrote on one side of the board, ‘and effect,’ he wrote on the other. Under ‘Cause’ he continues to write. ‘We’ll examine in detail people, the kings and queens and generals and nobles that caused a change in the realm. Inventionsalliances, betrayals—always interesting, there’s a particularly bloody version of the Betrayal of Tayron the Third I’ve read.’ That made Octavia perk up and Mori, looking back over his shoulder, caught it. ‘I thought as much. There’s always one of you,’ he drawled, tone dry. Octavia grinned.

He continued.

‘Rumoured intervention of gods,’ he added ‘Gods’ to the board underneath all the rest. ‘Laws, seasons, harvests, and so on and so forth.’ He slashed a sharp line down the centre of the board to separate that first column from the second, moving over to Effect.  ‘All…of…these,’ he said, writing quickly, ‘have direct and indirect effects and it is our job here in this chamber to examine these. So!’ He turned, clapping the chalk dust off his hands. ‘Let’s begin!’

To Lexa—and Ilian, perched as he was on the edge of his seat and already wetting his pen—it sounded fascinating.

For everyone else, though, it was as though the tomes had been dusted with dreamrose because one by one they dropped off. Lexa barely noticed. She was intent on Mori, who paced back and forth across his slightly raised platform as he lectured. He stopped occasionally to take words directly from the textbook and to write on the board but that was limited. Mostly, he spoke—and spoke well—about all these topics that had seemed so dry before, coming from her da. Lexa had still memorised everything her father had told her so she could follow along well with the lecture but she could never have imagined that the dry figures of crops and imports—while important—could seem so wondrous. From Mori, every alliance, every marriage, every slight, every long winter and poor harvest and tax upon the merchants added to a rich tapestry that seemed to predict wars and their outcomes before the first blow had ever been struck. It was enthralling. Occasionally, Lexa found herself distracted by Ilian when he set a sheet to the side and began on the next. By the end of the lesson, he had amassed a little collection of the sheets, covered in the most precise square writing she’d ever seen. She wasn’t familiar with the language, though, and since he didn’t look harried by Master Mori’s rapid speech, she guessed it was a form of shorthand.

When the bell rang, Mori drew a line underneath the date of the law he’d been talking about and turned around. He nodded to Lexa and Ilian, and then drooped the tiniest bit when he saw the others barely awake. Hasim had made one page of notes, Virgil nearly as much, but Octavia was fully asleep and only came awake when Hasim coughed loudly.

‘First two chapters read by tomorrow and summarised, please,’ the master told them. ‘Ilian, a chapter of your other text as well.’

‘Yes sir.’ Ilian continued to write neatly, frowning. ‘Sir, what was that last—oh.’ Master Mori had gone, sweeping out of the room to his next lecture. ‘Did anyone catch that last bit about the law?’

‘Sorry, Malven.’ Octavia dragged their unopened book from the desk, shoving it into their bag. ‘In one ear, out the other for me.’ They patted him on the back.

Lexa leaned over. ‘What’s that shorthand? Will you teach me?’

Ilian met her curious gaze with a calculating one of his own. ‘If you tell me about the law.’

‘Very well. That seems fair. Where did you get up to?’ She had to ask because she was having no luck deciphering his code.

‘I got…the year and the plaintiff but not the actual change.’

‘Mm. I’ll tell you as we walk,’ she offered since they wouldn’t have enough time to get to the class if they waited for him to write. Ilian nodded and packed his bag away, holding his last sheet out to dry. Octavia was slumped against the wall by the door and they groaned when Hasim hooked two fingers around their harness, pulling them gently to follow.

‘So?’

‘166HE,’ she started.

Octavia groaned louder.

‘The plaintiff was Lord Mavick.’

‘It was bad enough having a whole class of this, do you have to keep going?’

‘Octavia?’ Lexa called politely.

‘Yes?’

‘Be quiet. Mavick petitioned the Crown,’ she continued, and Octavia huffed. ‘He wanted an amendment that entailed that a lord of a neighbouring fief could not graze his herds upon titled land, which results in the addition of the phrase that meant nobles of a titled fief were directly responsible for the lives upon it, with emphasis on grazing habits.’

‘I’m fascinated,’ Octavia groaned.

‘You should be. Because the lawmakers never specified in the clause that the lives were cattle, two years later a small raiding party crossed from Tew’s Vale into a neighbouring fief and razed a village there. The Lord of that fief used the amendment to declare that the nobles of Tew were responsible for those raiders and, therefore, the raid.’

‘You’re kidding, that’s dastardly!’ Terrance blurted out.

Virgil spoke up for the first time, frowning. ‘You must be kidding. I’ve never heard of Tew’s Vale.’

Ilian smiled at Lexa, nodded his thanks at her information. ‘You wouldn’t have,’ he told the others. ‘A year after the raid, there were no more nobles. The…neighbouring fief,' he said, as she had, 'demanded recompense for the lives taken and had declared themself enemy to Tew. There was nothing the king could do in time—it was law, after all.’

‘Then how do you know about them?’ Octavia asked. They didn’t sound bored anymore; in fact, they looked the way they had when Mori mentioned the bloody betrayal of the Gallan king. Eyes bright.

Ilian shrugged. ‘I like history.’

Octavia accepted that with a nod and turned on Lexa. ‘What about you?’ Lexa tried not to grin. ‘Your father taught you or something? He’s a historian, right?’

‘He is,’ Lexa nodded. ‘Which is why I know that in 170HE Haryse officially assumed the land of Tew’s Vale by right of conquest.’

Octavia stared at her for a long moment before they said, appreciatively, ‘Damn.

Hasim whistled lowly. ‘That’s ruthless.’

Lexa tried not to take it as too much of a compliment.

Literature was next and Lexa took them to it—the room was one door down from a torch sconce with a piece of twisted metal, but she didn’t point that out to anyone.

The room was as beautiful as Master Vauntire’s room, though there was very little gold or bronze or finery. On the left wall were hung several beautiful Yamani paintings in changing styles and of places in the Isles Lexa had never seen except in art. On the right wall were Tortallan paintings—of Corus, of a dragon curled protectively around a small town, its neck wrapped around a tall tower and its body straddling a silver river as it fought off smaller wyverns, and a third of a place Lexa didn’t know but assumed from the yellow-red hills would be Persopolis. Lexa was especially delighted to see two paintings on the far wall—on the left, a Yamani-style painting of the Tortallan palace, and on the right, a Tortallan-style painting of the Emperor’s palace.

‘The Yamani Princess who married the Prince, she presented it to him as one of the wedding gifts,’ Ilian told them. ‘It’s supposed to show a union between Yamani and Tortall.’

‘It’s beautiful,’ Octavia whispered, to everyone’s surprise. They scowled at the attention. ‘What? I can like art.’

‘But this one has no blood,’ Hasim teased.

‘No battle at all,’ Terrance joined in. ‘It’s positively peaceful.’

Octavia flashed a very rude gesture to all of the other pages and threw themself into a seat just as the master arrived.

‘You,’ he pointed to Octavia. ‘Good. The rest of you. Sit down.’

They hurried to do so; the master waited for them to settle before he spoke again. His first, terse words had given no hint to the voice he owned—a grand, ringing voice that surprised them all with its rich baritone. The recitation was not long but it was moving and the master hung his head when it was over.

‘Who knows where that speech was from?’ he asked once he was done and the moment had faded.

No one spoke.

He sighed for a whole half-minute before swiping a hand over his face. ‘Fine. Yes. The same,’ he muttered a few words too low to make out but which were undoubtedly not kind, ‘as always. I don’t know why I bother—to the front, all of you, quickly.’

There were several cases of books in the storage room off the classroom. He hovered suspiciously when they took both of the books he gave them and then shooed them back to their desk.

‘I’m only going to say all of this once so listen closely. If you can,’ he added more quietly. As obviously passionate about literature and the arts as he was—speeches, novels, poetry, painting, dance, everything—he was as obviously disinterested in children. The one time he was asked a question, he sighed for another whole half-minute before forcing himself to answer.

After that, no one interrupted his lecture.

Once done talking, he sat at his desk.

‘Read the first chapter of each book.’ A long sigh. ‘Then—gods help me—pick two poems and analyse them. By tomorrow.’

‘Master Hardy?’ He flicked a hand. Ilian took it as permission. ‘How long should the analysis be?’

A very long sigh. ‘A sheet, I suppose. Try not to make me want to fling myself off the Needle, yes?’ They all hurried to agree to that request. ‘Get out.’

They did. As quickly as possible.

‘I thought afternoon classes were for our heads, not our muscles,’ Hasim complained as they left, all of them trying to find a place for the books. Lexa was too tired to say anything so she just nodded her agreement.

Their mathematics master was a very old man who looks slightly like a snapping turtle and, as the lecture wore on, increasingly more so.

Still, it was Lexa’s favourite class and she barely thought about the working needed before she scratched down her answers. She put down her pen when she was finished with the five problems and looked around the mostly empty room. Stone floor, stone walls, just a slate board up the front with instructions.

Lexa continued her examination of the room and then she was looking at the wizened old man. He moved very quickly and Lexa jerked backwards when he appeared next to her.

‘Too hard for you?’ he sneered.

Lexa swallowed her desire to snap back. ‘No, sir. I find mathematics…quite easy.’

I’ll be the judge of that,’ he said, snatching up her sheet. ‘Girls don’t have the brains for—’ He stopped. Looked over her answers again. Unable to find fault in her answers, he smacked the sheet back down onto her desk. ‘Too good to show your working? Re-write them.’

Lexa picked up her pen in fingers that tremble. When it creaked under her grip, she forced herself to breathe a few times.

She was done with the re-write just as quickly and by that time, the master had tottered back to her side. He was carrying a large book awkwardly. The sleeve of his enormous robe had slid down to show off his spindly arm, the knobbly wrist, the stark white arm-hair that matched what little hair he has left on his head.

‘Here, girl.’ The book dropped onto her desk with a thud. ‘Finish the first ten problems from that by tomorrow.’

Lexa opened the book, looked with delight at the problems. ‘Yes sir,’ she agreed, eagerly, and it only felt better when her tone made him scowl. He couldn’t fault her for eagerness, though, so he stomped away to find someone else to pick on.

‘These too, Haryse!’ he called from the front of the room, rapping knuckles against the blackboard where he had written out ten overnight problems for the pages to solve.  She added them to her ever-growing pile of work. Next to her, Terrance winced his sympathy.


After mathematics, they split up. All of the boys were Gifted and they turned left to their classroom. Lexa and Octavia turned right.

All of them are Gifted?’ Lexa asked aloud softly. Her brow crinkled slightly—the Gift was rare. Her da had told her she wouldn’t be very alone in not having it, but here she was with only Octavia.

‘Yeah. Hasim, he’s got mage powers. Versatile, he can learn all sorts of things. Ilian can See. Virgil—who knows? Something nasty, probably,’ they muttered.

‘And Terrance?’

‘He’s got a bit of wild magic.’

‘Oh.’ Lexa walked on a little further. ‘Isn’t the Gift supposed to be rare?’

‘Don’t know.’ That was apparently answer enough for Octavia, who said instead, ‘Do you care? That you’re not Gifted?’

Lexa frowned. She had thought that it might be useful. Interesting. Before she had decided to be a knight, when she was very young, she had dreamed of being a sorcerer. Before she had realised that actually required having the Gift. But did she care? She considered the question carefully, then said, ‘No. Do you?’

They don’t answer for a minute but then finally, Octavia shrugged and said casually, ‘It could have been useful.’

‘Could have been?’

Could be. But nah—a sword is good enough for me. And when I don’t have a sword?’ They lifted their hands, a little raw from falling, and folded them into fists. ‘I get by just fine.’

‘You’re a terror.’

‘Thank you.’

They walked on for some time. Lexa couldn’t shake the question of how many people were Gifted, though, and she scratched at her sternum, unsure of what the sudden prickling sensation of important meant. In her distraction, it took some time before she realised that Octavia was following her. Lexa blinked then confessed, ‘I don’t know where this classroom is.’

Octavia shrugged. ‘We’ll find it. Or someone who knows.’

A servant walked them some of the way but they had to abandon the pages, pointing down the end of the corridor before returning to their work. To the end of the corridor or, perhaps, to the man who was walking there.

‘Hello there!’

Lexa noticed his eyes first—sharp and hazel, watchful—and then the smattering of freckles over his nose and cheeks. The slight smile and then a line of whiter skin at his neck that a higher collar would have hidden from a summer’s worth of sun. He wore a summer coat of light material that was brightly embroidered with sea creatures around the cuffs. Under it was an outfit of very light summer materials, a floaty white shirt and practical dark breeches tucked into the strangest boots Lexa had ever seen. And then, finally,

‘Your hair is blue.’

Octavia snapped a grin her way. ‘Just noticed that?’

‘Yes.’

‘It is,’ he agreed. ‘Yours is brown.’

‘Yes. Do you know the way to the unGifted class?’

His smile grew wide. His whole face was wide, really. Square, with a nose that would have been too big on someone else, and his features were expressive—red-brow brows and a broad mouth and skin that creased and dimpled and he looked nice, if not hugely handsome.

‘I do. Are you in it?’

‘Yes.’

‘Wonderful! I’ll escort you, shall I?’

‘Thank you. Sir?’

‘Hmm?’

Why is your hair blue?’

He ran a hand through it, ruffling it with a crooked smile. ‘My sister,’ was his explanation. ‘I went to visit her and she put it in my products. You know, I didn’t even realise until my mother told me.’

‘Weren’t people staring?’

‘I expect so,’ he agreed cheerfully. ‘I’ve never really noticed things like that.’

‘Why aren’t your eyebrows blue?’

‘Excellent question. I thought blue eyebrows was a bit too far and scrubbed it out.’

‘But you left the hair?’

‘It’ll wash out eventually. And it makes my hair very soft.’ He touched it again. ‘Ah, left turn here.’

Lexa fixed the portrait of a portly man in her mind and followed him.

They’d been walking for a little while when she looked at Octavia. They pulled a face; Lexa rolled her eyes. Then, she pointed to the man’s boots and made a confused face back at Octavia. They shrugged. She saw them looking closer, though, and she could also see that they didn’t know what the boots were either.

‘Problem?’ The man had stopped—he flashed a broad grin at their faces, blank with surprise. ‘They’re canvas—I got them on my last visit to the Copper Isles.’

‘Why canvas?’

‘Leather rots,’ Lexa said and the man clicked his fingers, pointing at her with a grin.

‘Very good! Yes! Leather rots. It’s very humid in the Isles,’ he explained to Octavia, who still looked confused. ‘The canvas holds and is tougher to pierce too. I would offer to let you test it but the last time I did that my sister stabbed me.’ He rubbed at his belly and this time he didn’t appear to notice Octavia and Lexa’s dual looks of shock. ‘And here we are.’

He had led them to an antechamber where other years of pages are gathered—Melvin of Nond, Lexa recognised, and a tall gangly kind-eyed boy in his fourth year she knows was called Gareth. The others she didn’t know and obviously there were no other first-year pages besides Octavia.

‘Hmm. Small lot this year,’ the man said, rubbing his square chin. ‘Ah well. Maybe we can discuss things in more depth with you lot in charge, eh?’ He directed that to the older pages, who didn’t look nearly as enthused as he looked to be expecting. ‘Or not, or not. Everyone, you remember Tkaa.’

They got that brief warning and then something grazed across the floor, sounding like the slithering of a snake or the slow drag of a lizard on stone.

Octavia’s hand snapped out to grab Lexa’s wrist. They squeezed until Lexa swore she could feel her bones grinding together. She was about to hit Octavia when she looked across into their bone-white face; barely, she held back from violence. Their dark eyes were wide and glassy with terror as they looked upon the creature that stepped, daintily, out of the doorway.

Lexa couldn’t see what had her rival—friend, maybe?—so distraught. The creature—the being—was tall at over six feet but it was far from looking vicious. Its beaded skin was a soft and dark grey, lighter on the belly, with a pearly sheen to the skin. A very faint bulge like a pouch sat below where Lexa would guess a belly-button might be on a man. It held its tail between its Immortal-silver claws as a lady might hold the train of her dress and grey eyes surveyed the class, resting on each page in turn.

Finally, its gaze came to a stop on Octavia and Lexa at the back.

Ah, new students.—

The voice spoke right into their minds, all the pages at once.

Octavia’s grip tightened.

Lexa didn’t shake them off; the bruising grip seemed only fair since she was now digging her own nails into their hand.

She hadn’t known it until this moment but now she did. Now, she could feel it and she hated it. That voice in her head, no matter how different it was from Tari’s… She did not enjoy anything in her mind she hadn’t personally put there.

The blue-haired man cleared his throat. ‘Tkaa, would you…’

Yes, I think that might be best.

He—for that voice had a feeling running through it, like a vein of ore through stone, that Lexa heard as masculine—led the way back into the room he’d stepped out from. The door had closed behind him so he whistle-croaked a note that made it open again, a line glowing silver around the door frame. Tkaa led the pages into the room. The older pages tried to peer back at Octavia and Lexa, but the blue-haired man was blocking those stares with his body.

One by one, the pages disappeared into the room until only the three of them remained.

For several long moments, they stayed like that—Octavia gripping onto Lexa, Lexa gripping back, and the man watching them both.

‘I can spell you calm,’ he offered finally. ‘You will retain all of what you are experiencing now but it will feel as though there is something between your thoughts and your feelings. Would you like me to do this for you?’

‘How long?’ Octavia croaked.

‘An hour.’

They looked like they desperately wished it could be longer but finally they nodded. The man touched two fingers to their temple and after a deep breath, Octavia released Lexa.

‘Sorry,’ they said, voice gruff but not insincere.

‘Don’t be.’ Lexa nodded to the half-moon marks her nails had gouged into their arm. ‘We’re even.’

‘Still. Y’can have a dot o’ th’ balm I’ve,’ they said, slipping into the loose brogue Lexa associated with her villagers, particularly those from the further north. All strung together, needless letters—and some needful ones—dropped.

She just nodded.

The man had let them have the moment, clearly distracted himself. He worried at a long nail—grimaced when the excess crescent of nail came away in his teeth. Lexa noted that he didn’t spit it out, tucking it instead into his pocket. She thought it strange until she remembered the story of powerful mages who can find people with a strand of hair.

‘Ah, so, that was Tkaa. He’s a basilisk. Rather a lovely fellow.’ When he saw that the words didn’t make much affect on them, he gnawed on a different nail. Grimaced again when he realised what he was doing.

‘My brother used a paste on mine,’ Octavia told him. ‘Turns ‘em purple for a day or so but if you chew on ‘em there’s the most gods-awful burn on ye tongue.’

The man grinned. ‘I know it. Works too. Still, how would it look if I couldn’t control myself? Everyone would know it.’

‘Everyone knows it already,’ Lexa pointed out, eyes tracking the finger almost to his mouth.

‘A very good point,’ he agreed. He crouched then, elbows on his knees, hands hanging loose between them, and fixed them with a peculiar look. ‘You looked mightily unhappy to see Tkaa. Both of you. Have you met a basilisk before?’

Octavia nodded stiffly.

Lexa shook her head no.

‘Page Danshame, I understand very well that some Immortals are—’

‘Beggin’ pardon, sir, but I don’t wanta hear ‘bout how nice this basilisk is. I’ll learn, but I don’ wannim near me.’ Their voice was so firm that the man nodded.

‘Tkaa may ask to speak to you.’

‘Not yet,’ Lexa said for Octavia, who was starting to tremble again, despite his magic.

‘Very well. And you, Page Haryse? The sight of a basilisk didn’t seem to bother you.’

He said it with the certainty of someone who had been watching, and watching closely.

She wasn’t sure what to make of this man with his bright blue hair and sharp hazel eyes and his not seeming to care about crouching in front of girls and being plain-spoken despite the rich amulet she could now see hanging around his neck. A sudden want to understand made something push out from under her skin and it encountered something she reads as him. Like the trap on the stair, the reading returned to her in odd sensations she didn’t know how to make sense of. Big, and coiled, and ordered and calm and purple.

She licked her lips, not sure what that was and what it meant.

‘I don’t like people in my mind,’ she told him.

‘A reasonable dislike.’

He was kind not to call it a fear; Lexa wasn’t as foolish as to not realise that’s exactly what it was.

‘Tkaa does not always speak in that manner, though you should be aware that there are many Immortals—some allies, some not—who do. Are you ready to join the others now, both of you?’

Slightly unsteady but knowing they’d held up the class enough, both of them nod.

‘Very good.’

He lead the way. The boys all smirked at them as they took their seats in the only available spaces—right in the middle at the front, where they wouldn’t be able to see what trouble the boys were making behind them.

‘Welcome, welcome—I see all of you have returned for another year of having the stuffing beat out of you,’ the man joked. He didn’t stand in front of them like Master Vauntire had or sit behind it like the others. Instead, he sat on top of his desk cross-legged, hands loose in his lap.

The basilisk—Tkaa—was standing away from them all in the corner. He had his back to them all and was rearranging jars in the shelf there. Since he returned them all to the same place he took them, Lexa suspected that he was only doing it to seem busy.

‘My name is Thom, for those of you who do not know me.’

Thom, Lexa repeated and the realisation of who he was made her sink low in her chair. Next to her, Octavia did the same. Thom of Trebond. Oldest son of Sir Alanna the Lioness.

‘I am a mage and, while the rest of your friends are being taught to control and use their Gifts, I will be teaching you how to defend yourself against Gifted enemies. I will also teach you the kinds of things different Gifted people are capable of, so that you can better defend yourself or so you can understand what Gifted soldiers under your command can do. Who can tell me a skill that a mage might bring to the table?’

‘Blasting magic,’ Nond yelled out from the back row.

‘Aggressive as always, Nond. Welcome back.’ Thom nodded to him, smile wry. ‘As direct as that is, you are correct. Some mages are capable of these battle magics, as they are called. These require a great deal of power and study, however, so very few mages are capable of sustaining spells of that magnitude. Anyone else?’

He called on another page.

‘Scrying?’

‘Yes, good. What are the drawbacks to scrying?’ When no one spoke, he clicked his tongue. ‘Battle magics require power,’ he held up one finger, ‘and learning,’ he held up a second. ‘These are the typical drawbacks to that magic. What is the most obvious weakness of scrying?’

‘You-’ Octavia stopped when Thom looked at them. He nodded kindly. Swallowing, they fixed their eyes to bore into their teacher and never waver to the side. They continued. ‘You have to know what you’re looking for, if you’re scrying. There are blind spots.’

‘Correct. Very good, Danshame, there are blind spots to scrying. What’s another drawback?’

‘It takes a lot of power?’

‘Yes and no. To a very weak mage it might not be possible but most mages are capable of basic scrying. I’m looking for something particular. Come on now, I know you’re tired,’ he wheedled. ‘First one to give me the answer I’m looking for wins.’

‘Wins what?’

‘Not sure yet,’ Thom shrugged.

‘Pollution,’ Lexa offered quietly. Thom gestured for her to elaborate. ‘Places with lots of magic and lots of people…they’re harder to scry. Aren’t they? And places with defences against scrying.’

‘That’s correct. Can you tell me why?’

Lexa frowned, calling up her memory of watching the mage place the wards around her castle and what she had told the much younger Lexa. ‘For places with lots of magic, it disrupts the purpose of the scryer. It’s like a fog. And since scrying works best with reflective things—water, mirrors—actual smoke and all that from cities would make that harder.’

Thom pointed to her, grinning. ‘An excellent answer. Thank you, Page Haryse.’ He returned to addressing the class. ‘For the first few lessons of this term, we will cover many common skills for survival, healing and warcraft and discuss the strengths and the drawbacks for these. After that, we will move onto different terrain-based skills. Whenever Tkaa is available, he will assist me in teaching you what non-human mages are capable of, and the strengths and weaknesses of the creatures called Immortals.’

When he mentioned the basilisk, Octavia paled again.

Lexa reached her hand a little closer—and the thing inside her reached out too. She felt the moment Octavia’s fear snapped through the magic and terror flooded back into their system. If she could ignore the feeling, strange as it was, Lexa found that her eyes showed her the truth of it; she watched as the blood drained from Octavia’s face and their hands curled into fists. They spent long minutes staring at the grain of their desk, unmoving.

And when Tkaa spoke in his polite, soft whisper, Octavia’s eyes froze to that deep black.

Lexa took a set of notes outlining Thom’s lesson. When the class ended, she bundled them up and placed them in front of Octavia who shoved them away.

I don’t need your pity,’ they hissed under their breath, body too many angles and none of them soft. Two spots of red anger high on their cheeks lent them a feverish flush.

‘I don’t.’ Lexa packed away her own things. They were the only ones left in the room, save for Tkaa in the corner where he had been for the entire class. To leave, he would have to pass by them and Lexa suspected he didn’t want to frighten them. ‘I do think if you don’t take the notes you’re a fool. You didn’t hear a word Thom said.’

‘What’s it to you?’

Their fury hadn’t abated one dot and, though Lexa would make allowances for fear, she wouldn’t let them use her for target practice.

‘Nothing at all.’ In a move that was perhaps a little cruel, Lexa nodded to the basilisk in the corner and said as sweetly as she could manage, ‘Good evening, Mister Tkaa.’

‘Good evening, Page Haryse,’ he returned in that whisper, dipping his head in reply.

Lexa barely had enough time to put her books away on her desk and scrub the ink off her fingers before she had to make it to dinner. Octavia was there when she arrived, pale and drawn but there. They glared at her the tiniest bit, which Lexa ignored She took her place next to Anya.

Padraid stood. ‘Bright Mithros, we name you. We give praise for the strength you lend us, we give praise for the blessings you bestow on those who fight in your name. Bright Mithros, as your light fades from the sky we rest so that we may continue on tomorrow, in your name, so mote it be.’

‘So mote it be,’ came the answering rumble from dozens of tired pages.

Lord Padraig sat and the pages copied him. Almost as one, the sponsors hooked fingers around their charges harnesses, keeping them from falling face-first into their meals.

By the time dinner was over, Lexa knew she had never been in so much pain nor so tired as she was. But she had work to do and so she dutifully followed Anya to the library to learn five bows from her—and five curtsies as well, just to be safe. It made her legs and belly burn to bow so many times and Anya wasn’t lenient—when Lexa told  her that, she just nodded and made her repeat all that she learned.

‘See you in the morning, Haryse,’ Anya said, leaving her at her bedroom door.

Lexa slunk in, eying her bed longingly. Instead of dropping onto it as she desperately wanted to do, she sat on her hard wooden chair and pulled her work in front of her. By the time she finished, the final bell was ringing out over the court and her eyes hurt.

She didn’t bother to undress, just dropped her harness over the back of her chair and crawled into bed.


The next day began the same as the last…but worse.

The bell rang—she fell out of bed. Belatedly, she slapped the floor thinking that Gus had somehow snuck in to toss her to the ground.

He didn’t laugh or make any sound—and the cold started seeping in through her clothes—so Lexa levered herself up and, with trembling arms, lowers herself again. Every inch of her body hurt and the only thought that got her through the exercises was knowing that if she kept at them, one day she would get to tell Gus what to do.

Starting this morning, Lexa swore, I’m going to tell Gus exactly what I think about his exercises. And it won’t be polite.

Bright-cheeked from scrubbing her face, she trotted to the dining hall—one of the servers who reminded her of Corin from home, but more confident, snuck her two rolls with a wink. She tossed one to Anya when she got close, only a little disappointed when the girl snatched it out of the air.

‘Mean,’ Anya said, and looked almost approving. ‘How do you feel?’

Lexa grunted.

‘This’ll cheer you up. Here.’ She turned Lexa around and nodded over to where Virgil was leaning, shakily, against the railing.

‘He looks terrible,’ Lexa said, and she did feel better.

But not any less tired and so it was with drooping eyelids that she missed the first time Anya tried to hand her a small fruit. Finally, Anya called her name to get her attention. She pressed it into her hand. Lexa eyed it; skin a deep purple and wrinkled, it looked strange and not terribly appealed. Crinkling her nose, she tried it. Warily. The sweet flavour was strong and she took her time nibbling at it.

‘It’s a date.’

‘What’s a date?’ Lexa asked. She hadn’t been asked on a date. Had she? Her father had warned that sometimes the courtships were strange.

‘The fruit. It’s called a date.’

‘Oh. I like it.’

Anya nodded. She plucked apart her roll, scanning the courts as she ate. Lexa watched her quietly for a minute before mimicking her. Standing quietly and paying attention, despite her exhaustion, meant that this time she turned when Gus appeared next to her. He dropped her a quick wink before Anya turned as well. He reached down, relieving Lexa of the last of her roll.

‘Good morning, pages. How do you feel this morning?’

‘I hate you,’ Lexa told him flatly.

Anya jerked.

Gus grinned and shrugged, wandering off to bully some other pages as he chewed.

‘He’s four times bigger than you,’ Anya told her when he was out of earshot. ‘Pick a fight with the bow master instead—he’s only twice your size.’ Despite her teasing, there was an undertone of genuine concern to the words. Lexa almost smiled at the idea that her sponsor thought her cracked already.

None of the pages were late that morning—Padraig looked pleased, maybe. Lexa couldn’t be sure.

Gus threw four of the pages before he bothered to speak to any of them.

‘How do we feel this morning, pages?’

‘Ready to collect a matching set of bruises, sir,’ Octavia drawled. It earned them a sharp look from Padraig and a rumbling laugh from Gus. They were stood next to Lexa and Lexa thought for a minute that, when he stopped in front of both of them, he was going to toss Octavia. Then her feet left the ground and only years of muscle memory kept her from breaking her face on the ground.

She stood out of the dust—and saw Octavia doing the same thing.

Gus gestured them back into line.

‘You can talk back to me when you can throw me,’ he told Octavia, who didn’t seem to think it a reprimand. They tilted their head, examining Gus.

‘How long do you think that’ll take me?’ they asked Lexa. ‘Next year?’

Lexa lifted her eyebrows.

‘What? Longer?’ She nodded. ‘…Think I can hold my tongue that long?’

‘No.’

Octavia cackled—Lexa wondered if their temper from the day before had been forgotten, or if Thom had worked more magic on them, or if they were cracked. She couldn’t be sure so she ignored them and focused on Gus.

Gus tossed Perrin again and Hasim coughed ‘How far?’ into his fist.

Ilian flashed a two with his fingers and then a zero.

Lexa shook her head, flashes two twice.

After their class finished, Hasim paced the distance to where Perrin had landed. ‘Twenty three. Haryse was closer. Sorry, Malven.’

‘Did you have money on it?’ she asked. Ilian shook his head no. ‘If Gu—if the captain keeps throwing him, maybe we should.’

‘I’ll get in on that,’ Octavia said.

Lexa eyed them warily but nodded.

They walked down together to the second court—Hasim and Ilian arguing about how much they should bet and if it’s worth it—and Octavia nudged Lexa.

‘What?’

‘What?’ Lexa asked back.

‘You’re being strange.’

You snapped at me yesterday.’

‘That was yesterday,’ Octavia pointed out, and Lexa frowned for a long minute before she realised that was the entirety of their explanation. Or perhaps their apology?

She folded her arms and fixed them with a displeased look. ‘You snapped at me,’ she repeated. ‘I did nothing wrong.’

‘You deserved it,’ they shot back.

 Lexa wasn’t about to accept that—because she didn’t—so when they were paired up against each other their tempers flared and flared again when both of them found that they were evenly matched. Which absolutely would not do so, when Octavia pressed their attack, Lexa pressed back until they were striking and blocking with all the force they could muster until sweat stung their eyes and their breath come harsh.

By the end of the session, they were exhausted and Sir Fared was watching them with interest.

The next day, they found he’d decided to pair them until further notice.

In archery, though she had Anya’s joking permission, Lexa did accidentally pick a fight with Master Tern when she insisted she could shoot accurately beyond the piddling target fifteen-foot target she’d been allocated.

‘You will do as I tell you,’ he snapped in his accented Common.

Lexa ignored him and shot several arrows into the centre of the fifty-foot target. Despite the fact every single one of them hit the mark, clustered in the centre, he dressed Lexa down with a scathing tongue and assigned her a bell of work that Sunday.

Lexa squeezed her eyes shut when the man left, hand trembling around the grip of her bow.

In Lord Padraig's class, they still didn’t get to ride and Lexa knew she’d have to make time for it somehow—Alraed was getting antsy, and a good grooming didn’t stop that.

They were too tired to speak during lunch—and Lexa was still ignoring Octavia, who was ignoring her right back—and after lunch Master Vauntire made them bow until they were trembling anew. And then he taught them more, clearly intent. And assigned a longer apology for Lexa to write, since he said hers was ‘sarcastic’ where it should have been ‘repentant’. 

‘He must've been reading mine,’ Virgil muttered. When he realised he was being nice to her, he sneered and knocked his shoulder into hers when he left the room. 

‘I didn’t know there were so many ways to bow,’ Ilian grumbled.

History was brilliant for Lexa and Ilian but brilliance had a limit when another two chapters were added to their workload. The others slept. In literature, the master read their essays and made them all work quietly on revisions.

‘What do we revise?’ Hasim asked him, earning the full brunt of his displeasure.

All of it. There’s no possible way you lot can write worse essays than what I saw.’

Mathematics was a high point—she had finished all of her problems—until he looked them over and assigned a full thirty for the next night. Tkaa was absent from the unGifted class and Thom continued on with his lesson from the day before, adding an assignment onto their workload.

‘How am I supposed to finish all of this?’ Lexa demanded of Anya that evening at dinner. She was wavering again and Anya gripped the back of Lexa’s shirt.

‘You’re not supposed to. Surely your father warned you.’

‘That doesn’t make sense.’

‘I know that I warned you,’ Anya continued. ‘They give you more work than you can possibly handle and you handle as much as you can and keep going.’

Benthor leaned forward to talk around Anya. ‘It’s to prepare us for the persistent knowledge that nothing will ever be easy and that life isn’t kind.’

‘Cheery.’ Lincoln shook his head reprovingly. ‘It’s to make us strong. To take on what burdens we can and understand our limits.’

‘It’s pure sadism,’ Prince Jasson muttered.

‘What’s wrong, Your Highness?’ Benthor teased. ‘Forgot what being a page meant?’

‘I royally decree that you be quiet for the rest of dinner.’

Benthor rolled his eyes and then, surprise of all surprises, shut his mouth.

‘That won't last long, look he's eating faster,’ Lincoln pointed out and Benthor flashed a messy smile around his food. ‘Disgusting.’

Anya rolled her eyes at the boys but smiled down at her plate, very faintly. As stern as her tone could be, Lexa knew that Anya was good to the core. She felt it in a permanent, overpowering way when Anya sat her down and rifled through the work they were assigned and organised it by importance. With a sigh of disappointment, Lexa tucked her mathematics at the bottom of the pile. She could get through them quickly and knew she should focus on the other work first. 

‘There,’ Anya said with satisfaction. ‘Easy.’

Lexa knew it was, and would be, anything but. But she had a sponsor and understood the work and the other pages were good and she knew that she'd rather be here, drowning under useless work, than anywhere else.