A cheery fire pops and hisses in its grate. Lexa dozes a little, enjoying the heat and its smoky smell far more than she’s enjoying struggling with the latest hypothetical seating chart. She scratches yet another name into the list and hopes Master Vauntire doesn’t decide to read it out in class again as the ‘perfect example of what not to do’ as he had twice in the last two weeks.
The thought makes her start and she reaches out to keep her ink stable. Lexa looks around to see if anyone noticed but the only person near enough is Terrance, and he’s fast asleep. Reassured, Lexa slips back into her thoughts.
Two weeks. She’s made it. She’s finished her first two weeks as a page. Lexa had thought that such a milestone would have been nearly impossible to miss but now that she’s living it, she has enough of a mind to wake up and go about her day and learn her lessons. Nothing extra. Lexa makes a mental note to visit Gus the next day—only seeing him in the mornings for classes has been harder than she expected and celebrating this with him will go a long way to ease that, she thinks. She should write her father too. But what would she say? Everything that she has learned in lessons he already knows and the rest is information she doubts he would find interesting.
Lexa twirls her pen in her fingers thoughtfully.
What would she tell her father?
Dear Father, she begins, and writes almost lazily until she realises that she has rather a lot to tell him.
I wake up when the sky is still dark and let people bruise me for several hours. Then, I let Alraed give me more bruises. She’s particularly proud of one that now looks a little like Haryse if you squint. Lord Padraig tries every day to find something that we are bad at. He has finally let us start riding and to use the lance. On the same day, he found what I am bad at—the lance. I am in competition with a half-mad page called Octavia. They are good at everything except for being nice. And staying awake in class. I eat lunch with my sponsor. Octavia also eats with us. And sometimes the prince. In the afternoons, I try and learn so many things and I’m so tired I sometimes think it might be better to eat the books rather than read them. I would learn just as much. I am always sore and I am always hungry. The masters do not like girls. My year mates don’t seem to mind that I am a girl but I do not think any of them are my friend.
This sounds like a lot of bad things. I do not want you to think that I am unhappy. I think I am the happiest I have ever been. You might think me mad for feeling like that after reading only bad things so I will now list the things I like:
small dried fruits called dates
seeing Gus in the mornings—did you know he would be teaching us? I shall have words with you when I return home if you did!!
using my new bow
being the best at archery (even if the instructor doesn’t talk to me)
mathematics! (even though the master hates me)
riding with Alraed!
history classes—our master is a Yamani man called Master Mori and he is brilliant and smart and a little odd. He can talk for an hour about the introduction of standard weights for merchants but gets all our names mixed up
writing apologies for Master Vauntire (etiquette master). I’m getting very good at sincerity
sometimes the kitchen staff let us take more food after dinner if we ask nicely
I realised tonight I had finished my first two weeks as a page. I am sure it shall be the end of the year before I know it. My only fear is that by the end, I will have forgotten all my lessons from the start of the year. I’ll have to take plenty of notes.
Give my love to Mara and Corin and all—please tell Mara I use the blanket she made me every night and am wonderfully warm.
Your cracked daughter-page,
She signs off on the letter and sets it on top of her stack of work to dry.
Lexa shakes out a cramp from her writing hand and looks around the library, wondering if any of the others have realised what day it is, if any of them are writing home too.
The library is full this time of night. Lexa peers at a few of the others but she can’t tell what they’re working on—it’s one thing, she thinks, to know where they like to sit. It’s quite another to know what they’re writing just from a glazed look in their eyes or a frown. Still, Lexa is thrilled by what she does know—she knows that the fourth years are mostly missing because they take up the individual study rooms, those of them who still use the library instead of their own rooms. She knows that the second- and third-years spread themselves out through the library at the individual desks and those tables meant for two or four people. She knows them all by name.
Lexa pauses, squinting at one group, none of which she recognises.
She knows most of them by name, she amends.
She knows that after only two weeks, even the first year pages have their habits.
There is only one place left for the first years, a long worn table that no one else wants. As sturdy as it is, the benches are hard and cold, the table top has years worth of names and crude phrases carved into it, and it’s positioned right at the door of the library, which means that their papers rustle and flap and flutter away whenever someone opens it.
Lexa sits at the end farthest from the door. Her end is tucked into the corner of the room, with stone wall behind her, the fireplace to her left, and the door visible. Octavia, who had sat with her there for the first night, since moved to the end closest to the door. Ilian sits there opposite Octavia—and lends them his heavy coat too—but Lexa doesn’t consider it a slight. The history books are all housed in the shelves there and Ilian keeps a stack of them at his right elbow. As for his coat…everyone can see that Octavia doesn’t have enough weight on them to waste any shivering it off in the cold. Hasim sits dead centre of the table, though not tonight. Lexa looks around but can’t see him. When he does join them, Lexa has noticed that he writes out his work on a small slate board before copying it out onto paper—a neat tactic Lexa intends to use to herself. Terrance sits on the opposite side of the table from Lexa and a few feet down. More often than not, he spends a good portion of his study time dozing.
Virgil doesn’t join them.
The door to the library opens—Lexa pins down her seating chart with her elbow and checks that the rest of her work is still under her spare whetstone.
From behind the shelves, second- and third-year pages complain. “Close the bloody door!”
“Who the bloody hell—”
Lexa tries to identify the voices but gives it up soon enough. The closing door—making everything flutter and flap again—drags her attention back to her paper.
Her attempt—brief as it was—at a pleasant distraction comes to an end. Lexa sighs, scowls down at her assignment. Vauntire had assigned her two additional seating charts, neither of which make any kind of sense.
Lexa glances up, gives Terrance a tight smile. “Fine.”
He nods sleepily and dips his head again. Lexa fights the urge to kick him and make him do one of the charts—Vauntire doesn’t give the boys extra work. She wonders how much of the ‘special treatment’ is because she’s a girl, and how much of it is because she’s a girl who dares to be awful at etiquette.
What a waste of her evening. Vauntire is going to scrap it and make her write out an apology anyway and—oh. Lexa bites at her lip, wondering whether it would be worth it. Deciding it will at least cheer her up, she dips her pen in ink and sets to work with new vigour.
“What are you doing?”
Lexa ignores them.
“Why are you so pleased? Seabeth—why is she so pleased?”
“Dunno.” Terrance doesn’t even open his eyes. Lexa vaguely regrets her earlier desire to kick him.
“Why are you so pleased?” Octavia asks again, gruff voice suspicious.
Lexa flicks her eyes up and toward them. She thinks about not answering and letting them stew but a flash of inspiration hits. She grins instead.
Octavia’s suspicious glare narrows suspiciously.
“I’m writing an apology for Master Vauntire. For the extra seating charts he assigned.” Despite themself, Octavia grins. Ilian reacts too, looking up with raised eyebrows. Lexa shrugs. “He’s going to make me write one anyway.”
“You’ll get in trouble.”
“For saving time?”
“For being pert,” Ilian corrects her, but he’s smiling a little.
“At least I’ll have earned it this time. Tell me—do you think he’d prefer to be called adored or most adored?”
“Depends on how much trouble you want to be in, I suppose.”
Lexa nods. That makes sense. “Most adored, then.”
Shaking out her writing hand and stretching her neck until it pops, Lexa settles in to write her apology with glee. Ilian is quick to give her some suggestions—Octavia is too, but they’re a little too rude to include without heavy editing. They’re still working on it when an older page seats himself in the middle of the table.
The conversation carries on around him.
“How do you spell it?”
“E – G – R -”
Benny clears his throat loudly.
“E – G – O – U – S.”
“Are you sure?”
“Pretty sure.” Ilian squints thoughtfully into the distance. “No, you’re right. Put an I before the O.”
“Egregious. That looks right. Thanks.”
“Evening lads!” Benny interrupts loudly, evidently upset by his lack of welcome. “And lasses, pardon me,” he says with a nod to Lexa and Octavia.
In agreement for once, Lexa and Octavia trade an annoyed look before returning to their own work. “Couldn’t help but notice you lot are causing some strife.”
“Strife?” Lexa repeats, widening her eyes. She also copies down the word for use in her next apology.
“Strife,” Benny confirms. “Now, I’m not here to stop you. Not when you look like you’re having so much fun. Not at all, in fact—I’m here to chat.” With a flourish, he pulls a basket seemingly out of nowhere and pulls a handkerchief away to show off the sweet rolls he’s brought.
Lexa tilts her head, considering. She takes one of the sweet rolls after Ilian scarfs his down and doesn’t die. “Chat?”
“With us,” Octavia continues.
“Sounds suspicious.” Lexa points her finger at Benny. “Suspicious.” She points to the basket of rolls. “Bribe?”
“Bribe,” Octavia agrees, though they rarely agree on anything, eyes rolling back into their head the moment they taste one of the sweets.
Ilian takes another. “You don’t usually chat with us.”
“Very true,” Benny nods.
“Very true,” a quiet voice agrees. Benny freezes. Anya steps out from behind the shelves, books in hand. She sets them down—quietly—on the table in front of Lexa. “What’s the occasion, Elden?”
Benny twists in his seat to beam at her. “Anya,” he simpers. Lexa has to duck her head to hide a grin. “You bright star, you stately flower, you…you, ah, midnight dove,”
“What is the occasion,” Anya says again, “she asked with the confidence of someone with six knives within easy reach.”
“You always threaten me so,” Benny begins. “And you’re corrupting the youths—did you know that your page called me suspicious?”
Lexa tunes out his squawking in favour of figuring out where Anya could possibly be hiding six knives. The older girl stands with her back to the fireplace so she casts a rather impressive shadow down the length of the table. In dark breeches and a dark shirt and dark boots, it’s impossible for Lexa to pick out the shape of hilts or blades but she can guess. One in each boot, one at the flat of her back probably. Two, one on the inside of each arm? She frowns a little, wondering where the last knife could be, and when she looks up at her sponsor she could swear she catches a hint of a smirk.
“Move, Seabeth,” Anya commands. Terry, who had woken up when Benny arrived, happily slides down the bench closer to Benny and the basket. She reaches down and steals a sweet roll; Benny isn’t much of a warden and doesn’t appear to notice.
“The occasion,” Benny finally tells them, having finished complaining about Anya and her threats and knives and propensity for violence and his gentle heart that, apparently, wilts amongst this most unfriendly and unkind garden of cruel and cold-hearted fiends, “is the count.”
“The count. Anya, stop stealing the sweet rolls and just take them like a normal person. The count is not a who, my gentle doves. The count is a what. A time honoured tradition amongst pages, we revered and noble lot.”
“And what,” Anya interrupts his dignified speech, “is more revered and noble than betting with great abandon on who will be in the most trouble tomorrow?”
“It’s tradition for it to take place on the first Saturday of the year,” Benny picks it up again. “But the fourth years ruined the count after setting fire to the archery targets last week.”
A very tall, brown-haired fourth year steps out from behind the shelves, down Ilian’s side of the table. He’s pale and slender, with something thoughtful about his mouth, though Lexa imagines she sees something playful and constantly amused in his brown eyes.
“I’ll caution you to watch your words,” he says. “There was no proof of that.”
“Proof enough you lot took the four bells Padraig gave you,” Anya argues.”
“Our esteemed-” A good wood. Lexa writes it down at the bottom of her apology. “-training master is a HaMinch. It would be as useful for me to tell a hurricane not to blow. May I sit?” Gareth asks the table in general and everyone murmurs their yeses and shuffles their papers and squeezes a little closer to their friends.
Gareth, who is very thin, has no trouble slipping in behind Octavia and the wall. He sits just down from Lexa, gives her a pleasant nod. Lincoln, who is much more broad, has Octavia shift up the table so he can sit at the end of the bench instead.
“You were discussing the count,” Gareth reminds Benny.
“So I was! Sweet roll?”
He shoves the basket over—it gets intercepted by Anya, who keeps one for herself and passes one to Lexa—and he continues.
“There are two simple rules—the entry to the count is five copper bits and you’re not allowed to bet on anyone from your own year. Fourth years don’t usually bother placing their bets—too good for the old traditions, eh?”
“We grow out of childish games,” Gareth returns pleasantly. “I don’t see the harm, though. I’ll put my money down on you, Elden.”
“Excellent!” Benny claps his hands together, rubs them with glee. “My money is on Malven.”
“Me?” Ilian looks up, a frown over his eyes deep and black. Lexa, who knows the frown to be from concentration, grins. Benny, who doesn’t know Ilian, lifts his hands in gentle surrender.
“Peace, Malven. It’s just a game. I always bet on the quiet ones—you always get into so much trouble.” He sounds delighted by it and Ilian just shakes his head, amused.
“May I place a bet?” Lexa asks, and Benny nods encouragingly. “My money is on Nond, then.”
Benny nods, taps his temple to say he’s got her bet.
Anya frowns. “You might want to write them down. You’re not known for having the best head for figures.”
“If they’re the right figures, I do.” Benny smirks, and then hisses. He jerks in a tell-tale way and a hand darts below the tabletop. “Have I mentioned today,” he says through gritted teeth, “that you have a very painful kick?”
“You hadn’t, actually. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” Benny rubs at his shin for a moment more.
“Anya has the right idea,” Gareth says, and he pulls a small pocketbook from his breast pocket and writes down in a quick, neat script the list of names. “Anyone else?”
“Put mine down on Haryse.”
Lexa snaps around to stare at her own sponsor—Anya just grins.
“You bet against me!”
“You heard Benny,” Anya says with a shrug. “It’s always the quiet ones. Besides, Snapper gives us girls extra bells just for breathing.”
Lexa wants to argue with her but it’s true. Instead, she asks, “Snapper?”
“Snappet. The mathematics master.”
“Oh.” Lexa considers his tight, mean little mouth and his beady little eyes and the way he snaps his ruler on their desk if they’re slow with their answers. “It suits him.”
Benny nods. “Yes. Yes it does. Now—we have me down for Malven, Gareth has money on me, foolish lad. Haryse, you’ve got Nond—a good, safe bet, wish I’d thought of it—Anya, you’re being a real snake and bet on your own page, that’s nasty of you.” Anya grins. “Anyone else? Come on, Malven, a bit of fun.”
“Anyone you know got in a spot of trouble?”
“Benny,” Anya says again, flicks her eyes to the side. He doesn’t notice and continues to chat to Ilian.
“It’s just a few coppers, not a serious—“
“What, Anya? Oh—Your Highness!”
Prince Jasson sets a stool down at the short side of the table, between Anya and Lexa. He brushes his coal-black ringlets back out of his face and squints suspiciously down the table. “Page Elden, do my ears betray me or are you corrupting my page?” he asks, voice strict. Though he’s inches shorter than the Player page and sitting on a wooden seat like the rest of them, something about his bearing and voice is regal and demands attention, respect.
Lexa finds herself straightening in her seat. She slips her hands under the table and hopes there are no crumbs on her chin or shirt. Terrance and Ilian react similarly. Lexa can’t see Octavia past Gareth and she wonders if they’re reacting much the same or if their pride counters even the prince’s formidable presence.
“Well?” Prince Jasson asks.
Benny bows slightly. “With the utmost alacrity, Your Highness,” he says, tone almost demure.
It takes a moment for Lexa to realise what he’s agreeing to and she fights off a grin. She stops fighting it when she sees the prince’s lips twitch upwards. Prince Jasson shakes his head. “Don’t you listen to a word from him, Malven—none of you listen to him, hear?” he tells the first year pages. “He’s a bad lad.”
“Your Highness, I’m hurt. I’m the very worst.” Benny flutters his lashes at the prince—and jerks. Twice. He glares, a little uncertain, at Gareth and Anya. He jerks again, hisses through his teeth. “Your Highness,” he says, voice tight with pain. “Please call of your royal and loyal hounds—they have sharp toes and I believe I have been punished enough.”
“For attempting to mislead my page?” Prince Jasson purses his lips. “Danshame, kick him for me, won’t you?”
Benny flinches. “Hold on now, this one has it out for me—ow!”
“Behave, kitten,” Anya drawls.
“Oh very funny, Anya, you’re such a wit.”
Ignoring Benny’s pouting, the prince turns to Octavia. “Your service to the crown is appreciated, Danshame. Now—Gary, what’s the count?”
Gareth reads out the names and, to Lexa’s surprise, the prince pulls a folded sheet of paper from inside his tunic and gives them some more names.
“I can’t bet,” Prince Jasson says with a sigh. “A prince has to be fair in all things.”
“We feel your pain, Highness.”
“Shut up, Benny.”
“Won’t someone acknowledge the joy I bring you all?”
“You bring me joy, Benny,” Anya tells him. “Me and my sharp toes.”
“I hate you most of all.”
“You say the sweetest things.”
When the basket is finally empty, the conversation winds down and the pages all, more or less reluctantly, continue with their work.
Pleasantly warm and pleasantly full, Lexa scratches away at the rest of her assignments. She returns to her apology letter for Vauntire later and, with the raucous additions from the older pages, adds a few sheets to it when it makes the others laugh until they cry. Finally she finishes and tucks it all into her pile.
“No,” Benny wheezes, cheeks red with laughter, “read it out again. Can you imagine Vauntire’s face?”
“I want to get a proper sleep for once,” Lexa argues, and Benny relents immediately.
The prince drops his chin into his hand and sighs dreamily. “A proper sleep, I’ve heard about that. Tell me what it feels like, would you?”
The wistfulness makes Lexa grin and she gives him a very shallow bow and a nod.
“Want me to walk you?” Anya asks.
“I’ll be fine.”
“Halleburn could be waiting.”
“Ugh—Halleburn. Where is he?”
“Dunno. Haven’t seen him tonight.” Anya looks over the visible parts of the library. “Or his friends.”
Lexa rolls her eyes, continues to pack. “I can handle Halleburn.” She’s been caught by him before but a shove or a sly foot tripping her up is nothing she can’t deal with. She’s not the only one to go through the same hazing—she suspects Hasim does, from the way he’s turned up to morning classes twice this last week with dark rings of exhaustion under his eyes. Once, Octavia bore a black eye and swollen knuckles. They told no one what happened and asked for no help.
“Really,” Lexa insists. “I’ll be fine.” Anya nods and returns to her book.
Leaving the library—“Close the bloody door!”—a murmur of unease trembles down her spine. It had unsettled her that Perrin and his friends never made their nightly appearance to the library. She peeks around every corner and does so until she’s made her way back to the main corridor. Maybe he’s grown tired of picking on the younger pages. Maybe he’s seen the error of his ways and—Lexa snorts, shakes her head. She stacks her assignments on top of her writing case, moves them into her left arm so she can pull out her key and open her door.
In one sense, the trouble comes out of nowhere. In another, more precise sense, it comes from the other end of the corridor.
Perrin and two of his friends—one a solid second-year with a face so plain Lexa suspects the gods that made him got bored half-way through, his only distinctive feature a chip in his front tooth, and the other boy Bazhir, tall without grace and a proud tilt to his chin just short of arrogance—wander around the corner. One hand tucked in his pocket, Perrin is tossing an apple in his other hand. He is laughing at some comment when he sees Lexa and stops.
Lexa freezes, limbs locked. Her door swings open—she can’t make herself move.
The apple hits the floor, forgotten. The dull crunch of it breaks the stalemate like a warning shot. Nostrils flaring like a hound with the scent, Perrin and his friends run to intercept her.
Move! she tells her useless legs. Stumbling, Lexa tries again. Move, move, move!
Finally, she trips into her room, fear making her heart race and her feet feel cold and heavy. Shame and upset settle ice-cold around her chest when the lanky Bazhir catches up with her before she can shut her door—he grabs her by the collar and yanks her out into the hall. Perrin leaps for her door but it thuds closed and locks—he shakes out fingers nipped between wood and stone but doesn’t look too upset. After all, they’ve got Lexa.
Ducking out of the Bazhir’s hold, Lexa steps out of reach. It means she’s further from her room but, she points out to herself, it’s not like she’ll be able to get rid of them, unlock her door, get inside, and lock it again without them catching up.
Perrin slinks forward, a nasty grin making his normally handsome face cruel.
“Evening, Haryse.” When she doesn’t answer, having trouble keeping an eye on all three of them, Perrin stamps forward to make her flinch. His grin widens. “I said evening, Haryse.”
“Halleburn,” she returns, his name cold and clipped on her lips.
“Have you met my friends? Qasim ibn Hosseim,” he waves to Tall Boy. “And Haysen of Gerry.” Chip Tooth. Lexa likes her names for them better. “Say hello.”
Lexa flattens her lips. Before Perrin can get into his head to remind her of manners, she nods to each of them. “Hosseim. Gerry.”
“You don’t sound pleased to see us. I’m hurt.” Perrin wanders around her—Lexa strains to keep an eye on Tall Boy and Chip Tooth and listen for Perrin. “What have we ever done to you?” Lexa keeps quiet. “Made you lose your work?” Tall Boy reaches out, grinning, and yanks a few sheet loose from her stack.
“Hey—” Lexa clamps her mouth shut, sucks a breath in through her nose. Not worth it, not worth it, she chants in her mind. Let it go. It’s harder to keep the chant when Tall Boy pulls the rest of the papers out and Chip Tooth knocks her writing case from her hands. Lexa bunches her hands into fists at her side.
“I’ve gotta say…I didn’t think you’d make it this long.”
“Sounds like something you could’ve kept to yourself, actually,” Lexa tells Perrin.
“Two whole weeks—”
“You can count, Halleburn. Very impressive.”
Perrin shoves her hard, makes her stumble forward. Tall Boy shoves her back—Perrin’s hand clamps down on her shoulder and Lexa grits her teeth, annoyed by how much taller he is than her. He has to crouch a little to be level with her and smile his unfriendly smile into her face. “Little girls don’t belong here. Little girls should be safe at home playing with their dolls.”
Lexa can’t help it—she snorts.
“You will change your mind soon enough,” he continues, ignoring her.
“Oh yeah?” Her knuckles feel like they’re creaking she’s clenching her fists so tight.
“Yeah. It’s nothing personal, Haryse,” he says, though Lexa feels he’s making it mightily personal. “Everyone knows that girls change their minds every week about everything. It’s a waste having you here.”
“So Sir Alanna and Lady Keladry and Lady Arwin and Lady Fiola and Lady Gemima…”
“Were magicked and unnatural.”
Lexa gapes at him. Perrin looks absolutely certain in his words, his two friends nodding as well. “You’re right about one thing,” Lexa says slowly, a ball of fury unwinding in her chest and working its way outwards. She works hard to keep her voice steady—Perrin would only hear a waver as fear, not anger. “Only yesterday I changed my mind about pointing out how ugly red makes you look.” Perrin’s cheeks and neck flush an angry red and Lexa smirks, her point proven.
“I would watch my words if I were you, Haryse—or didn’t you realise?” Perrin waves a hand about them at the empty corridor. His other hand remains where it is on her shoulder, digging blunt fingers in until she’s sure she’ll have five small bruises dotted there. “There’s no one here to help you out.”
“I don’t need any help.” Her heart betrays that with a hard thud against her sternum. Swallowing her fear, Lexa jerks her chin at the other two boys. “I see you do—tell me, do they only help you when you’re losing a fight with a first-year or do they cut up your food real small and wipe your ass too?”
Perrin’s fingers dig in suddenly and with his other hand he slaps her hard enough to make her cheek sting.
“A lady shouldn’t use such words.”
“And a lord shouldn’t raise his hand in anger,” she spits back at him, ignoring the throb of pain. “Just admit you’re talking out the wrong end, Halleb—” He cuts her off with another slap and this time Lexa catches his wrist, digs her own nails into the tender skin between the tendons.
Chip Tooth frees Perrin, making Perrin yelp when Chip Tooth grabs Lexa’s hand and Perrin’s arm and simply rips them apart. He’s not as large as Ilian, Lexa notes, but then again, Ilian isn’t here. Lexa is on her own and compared to Chip Tooth, she’s a stick he could snap in half with his hands as big as dinner plates. Chip Tooth curls his stubby fingers into fists and pops the knuckles of one hand and then the other.
“Better run,” he suggests, little eyes gleaming.
Knowing it’ll earn her a lecture from Gus later, Lexa allows her pride to bristle at the suggestion she’ll run from a fight. Her spine stiffens. Lexa slides her feet slide into position.
Chip Tooth throws a punch that numbs her left arm when she knocks it aside instead of letting it hit the side of her face where he was aiming. She responds with a punch of her own and yells a victory when blood spurts from his nose. A scuff on the ground reminds her of the other two boys—Lexa turns just in time to see Tall Boy bearing down on her and, in a move that would earn a compliment from Gus later, she rolls out of the way.
She pauses to admire the mess they’ve made, all a-tangle, which gives Perrin enough time to grab her around the neck. A nail jammed into the base of his makes him let go. He shakes his hand out, snarling. They dance around each other for a few moments before he retaliates with a kick—it forces the air right out of her lungs. Lexa gasps. Lexa gasps again, more desperately—her chest has seized with the blow and air won’t flood in as it should.
“Hurts, doesn’t it?” Perrin sneers.
Can always breathe more later, she decides, and runs right for him.
Quicker than he is, Lexa trips him up and kicks his side. Off balance, Perrin stumbles into the wall.
Her victory doesn’t last long. Now recovered, Tall Boy and Chip Tooth look on either side of her. Dodging Chip Tooth’s kick moves her right into the path of Tall Boy’s punch. It clips her eye and colourful lights flash over her vision. Blinded by the lights, Lexa swings wildly all around her as she backs up. One strike gets Tall Boy hard on the jaw—he falls back, cursing, but Chip Tooth replaces him and grabs her by the hair.
Lexa yelps. She grabs and scratches at his hands and wrists, yanks his little finger hard back in its joint. Too slow to register the pain, Chip Tooth holds on. Perrin leaps in to help him and grabs her hands away.
She spits at him and kicks out. Chip Tooth’s already painful hold on her hair yanks more but it’s worth it—she gets Perrin in the stomach and he stumbles away, retching. The sound of his dinner coming up makes her gag. Tall Boy takes Perrin’s place, grabbing her hands.
After that, it’s a bit of a blur. She’s on the ground, curled into a ball, arms around her face, before they’re satisfied.
Perrin crouches next to her. He grabs her wrist and pulls it away from her face. It takes a minute since Lexa has locked her elbow, but finally he wrenches it down. “Had enough?” he asks again. Lexa stares up at him; she feeds as much hate into that look as she can. Perrin smirks. “That’s what I thought.” Adding insult to injury, he pats her on the cheek right on the bruise that’s developing there.
It sends a flood of hot copper blood onto her tongue and Lexa lowers her head, spits it out onto the ground. They leave her there, curled up in the corridor. It isn’t until the chill of the stone floor makes her shiver that she moves to stand. It’s one of those things that are easier thought of than done—sitting up makes pain pulse all over her but she forces her body to cooperate and pushes up onto her knees and then all the way up.
The short distance to her room feels like miles. Worse, her assignments are scattered over the corridor. Biting back a tired sob, Lexa makes herself pick up every sheet and rescue her writing case. By the time she makes it to her door, she’s panting. Her legs feel heavy and like they’re made of water all at the same time and every bit of her aches.
She drops her work onto her desk and rubs at her forehead, which throbs with a new ache when she thinks about all the time it will take to re-write everything tomorrow. Leaving it all for the moment, Lexa hobbles into her washroom. Her mirror shows her how bad it is.
A faint mark like a smudge or a shadow sits over most of Lexa’s left cheek and around her eye. By tomorrow morning she knows that it will be a deep purple and her eye swollen. Her bottom lip is split on the same side. Struggling out of her clothes without hurting herself, Lexa finally grits her teeth and groans her way through it. She leaves everything where it lands on the floor and, for a moment, looks over her bruises. There’s a particularly vibrant one already forming on her hip. The worst of the lot—though not the most painful—are the finger-shaped marks on her shoulder where Perrin had grabbed her. She prods at one of them, scowling.
The reflection in the mirror—a girl, bruised and bloody, a dark scowl transforming her face—doesn’t frighten her. Oh, she never wants to be beaten bloody again but—and she grins now, face lightening.
Perrin didn’t win tonight, not really.
The thought holds as she washes carefully and dresses. She hobbles to her desk and sits, holding a cloth soaked in cool water to her lip to ease the ache as she begins her re-writing.
He made a big mistake tonight. He meant to scare her off, frighten her away from her knighthood with a show of how much it can hurt. And it does, Lexa can’t deny that. Every inch of her aches. But more important than her hurts is the sense of satisfaction from every punch of hers that connected. More important is the knowledge that she’ll fight hard every day of her life to keep people like Perrin from picking on whomever they please.
More importantly, she thinks to herself, resolve hardening, no one is ever going to thrash me like that again. Never.
If Lexa thought that standing at the back of the group and keeping her head down, sleeves rolled to her wrists, would hide her new injuries then she was very wrong. Within moments of entering Mithros’s chapel, all the pages know. They twist in their seats in front of her—next to her, Terrance stares—and finally the whispers reach the front of the chapel and Lord Padraig. Lexa watches as his shoulders stiffen and he lifts his head from his prayer. The Mithran priest looks most put out, in so much as a person with a face like granite can.
“Silence.” The training master doesn’t speak loudly—he rarely does, since there is no need. One word from him is enough to get them all to listen. “Bow your heads in worship.”
They do. Padraig keeps his head up a moment longer—his eyes settle on her in the back of the chapel, boring into the top of her lowered head.
Lexa waits, anticipation prickling at her skin like bug bites. But Lord Padraig says nothing about Lexa’s hurts at the end of worship or in his prayer at the beginning of lunch, though she feels his attention more than once. The other pages have no such restrain.
“Purple looks good on you, Haryse!” Nond jeers when she passes him, carrying her lunch tray.
Lexa pays him no mind. Moments later, Ilian—soft-spoken, careful Ilian—trips and spills his water down Nond’s back. Almost as tall as the other boy and a little broader, he doesn’t back down when the fuming Nond gets to his feet. “Oops. Sorry about that,” he says, sounding spectacularly unapologetic.
Nond swipes water from his neck. He bares his teeth. “Watch where you’re walking, Malven.”
Ilian touches a hand to Lexa’s elbow and guides her to their table. She sits at the end, Ilian opposite her. Lexa fixes her attention on her food and doesn’t look up. It doesn’t stop the talk around her.
“Ouch. That looks nasty.” Lincoln takes a seat next to Ilian, Octavia following close behind. “Have you been to the healers?”
Anya slips into the space next to Lexa. Cool fingers fit under her chin and Lexa allows her to turn her head. “Have you been to the healers?” she asks after a moment. Lexa shakes her head no. “You should visit them. It’ll cost you, if you don’t have a note from Padraig. Might be worth it though.” Around the table, the others nod. Lexa lowers her head again, this time to hide a wince. It must look bad. She doesn’t know—she didn’t dare look in the mirror that morning.
Thankfully, the conversation moves on, though Lexa still catches some of them sending her worried glances throughout the meal. She ignores them.
When she’s done, having set aside tough sections of meat and the vegetables when they make her cheek ache for chewing, she props her uninjured cheek in her hand and watches the head table. Padraig eats quick and neat, like he could be called away at any moment. A man seated down from him, dressed in rich clothes and with gold glinting from every finger, has the red nose and cheeks of a drunkard and talks as he eats. Lexa’s gaze flicks back to Padraig—he nods now and again, showing he’s listening, but doesn’t speak. The woman on Padraig’s other side is focused on something under the table but Lexa can’t see what.
When Padraig finishes his meal, a lull falls over the dining hall. The pages stop talking with their friends and hurry to finish their food. In this silence, Padraig reads out the list of this weeks punishment from a small book. He begins with the fourth-years and makes his way down the years.
“Danshame. Three bells - stables. Haryse. Three bells – smiths.” He pauses. “See me before you leave.” Lexa looks up from the table briefly to nod—Padraig doesn’t acknowledge it but she knows he sees it. That man misses nothing. “Malven. Two bells – smiths. Ibn Nazri – three bells. Stables. Seabeth. Two bells – kitchens. Whitehorn. Three bells – kitchens. Dismissed.”
The hall fills with noise again as the pages scrape their chairs back and begin to talk. Lexa waits until the throng has dispersed enough that she won’t get an elbow to her bruise on the way to the kitchen.
Anya joins her.
“What the hell happened to you?”
Lexa shrugs one shoulder. The other is too stiff, too sore to move. “Nothing.” The lie makes Anya frown. She opens her mouth to ask another question and Lexa interrupts, too tired to deal with that. “Who won the pool?”
“Terry?” Lexa wrinkles her nose. “Really?”
“He got in early. Picked Nenan. He got five bells this afternoon.” Lexa frowns, trying to bring up his face. Finally, she recalls a boy with dirty blonde hair and a rather rat-like face and nods. He’s a second-year, always talking back to the training masters—and not in the good-natured way Elden does. “That’s a whole lot of nothing. Who helped it along?”
“No one and nothing.”
“Sure it wasn’t Halleburn? Just tell me—I’ll kick his ass for you, Haryse,”
“Leave it,” Lexa hisses. Her bruise gives a nasty throb, answered by one in her temples, and so Lexa hardly feels any guilt at all in stepping sideways into her sponsor and jostling her into one of the fourth-year pages. He looks at Anya, displeased, and Lexa hurries away while she’s distracted.
The kitchen boy looks at her when she returns her tray and gives her a sympathetic grimace. “Chin up, Haryse,” he mutters. He doesn’t wait around for the half-smile she manages, whisks her tray away.
Lexa makes her way to the high table—avoiding looking at Anya—and waits down the steps from the raised dais. Now, she can see that the woman sitting there is feeding slices of meat to a dog that sits pressed against her leg. Lexa grins. She wipes the expression away when Lord Padraig crooks a finger at her.
Limping up the steps, Lexa stands across from her training master and bows. Standing, fighting the wave of dizziness it causes, Lexa fixes her gaze on a knot of wood just above Padraig’s shoulder. It looks like a rude gesture. She wonders if he knows about it.
Padraig is frowning at her. His dark brows, lined with the same grey as his hair, are bunched together over his eyes like little storm clouds. For a moment, the urge to confess to everything bad she’s done and witnessed since arriving rises in her throat. Lexa fights it down, well used to the stare-and-silence routine from Gus. Face still and calm, she waits.
Finally, Padraig speaks. “What is this, Haryse?”
Lexa looks away from the knot of wood. Padraig is pointing to her face, the left side. Lexa’s fingers twitch with the urge to touch it. “A bruise, my lord.”
“Yes, my lord.”
“A rather spectacular one at that,” the woman seat at Padraig’s right says.
Lexa blinks. She turns to examine her. The woman wears her black hair cropped short around her ears. Her long nose is a little crooked from a badly-healed break and a very faint scar runs lengthwise over her right eyebrow. Her clothes are practical and comfortable—Lexa can’t see her boots but she suspects they’re the same. The more Lexa sees about this woman, the more she likes her—she’s clearly a woman used to combat and, Lexa flushes a faint pink, very pretty. Brown-skinned and fit and not a day over twenty-five, her smile is wide and bright and her amused eyes are a very light green.
Lexa has to swallow twice before she can speak. “It does look spectacular,” she agrees. Her omission of how it feels makes the woman chuckle.
“Don’t encourage her, Lady Fiola.”
“In the flesh,” the lady knight nods. Lexa adjusts her assessment—twenty-two years old. She desperately wants to talk with the woman but a look at Padraig tells her it would be a bad idea.
To appease him, she stands as tall as she is able and tries to hold her hands behind her back respectfully. Her shoulder gives an almighty twinge and, grimacing, Lexa keeps her hands at her sides instead.
“Page Haryse, refresh my memory—you were well enough at dinner last night, were you not?”
“I was, my lord,” she answers promptly.
“How, then, did you come by these injuries?”
Lexa flattens her lips, returns her gaze to the knot of wood over his shoulder. For a moment, the skin between her shoulder blade itches and Lexa wonders what Perrin might do if she tattles. It’s a fleeting worry but she still doesn’t want to do it—worse than Perrin are the other pages, the ones who would ignore and snub her. Besides, she really wants to deal with him on her own.
A lie, then.
“I have delicate skin, my lord.” Padraig stares at her for a very long time before asking her to repeat herself. Ominously, Lexa thinks, he begins to drum a slow beat on the table in front of him. Little finger, ring, middle, index. Little finger, ring, middle, index, and again. Lady Fiola lifts a hand to her lips. Lexa notes that the backs of her hands have the tell-tale scars from a life of fighting. “I have delicate skin, my lord.”
“And the bruises came from where?”
“Training, I suspect.”
“You have never bruised so easily before.”
Lady Fiola’s shoulders are now shaking as she tries to hold back a laugh. Lexa’s eyes burn from how intently she’s staring at the knot in the wood. “It comes and goes, my lord. The delicacy.”
“I’ve never heard of such an illness. Nor did you inform the palace healers or your instructors of this illness.”
“Oh, I don’t like to speak of it. It doesn’t affect me really, just looks…”
“Vibrant,” Lady Fiola suggests.
Lexa dips her a shallow bow and nods. “Vibrant, Lady Knight. Yes. I don’t want people to think that I’m weak. They might, you know, if they thought I had delicate skin, my lord,” Lexa tells him, affecting a sorrowful look.
The drumming of his fingers slows and then stops. “You are aware that if someone attacked you, they would be duly punished?”
“Yes, my lord.”
“And is there anything you would like to add to your explanation, or change, knowing that?”
“No, my lord."
Padraig frowns. “Very well,” he says. “You may go.” He rubs at one of his eyebrows. “Haryse,” he calls before she can go very far. Lexa wavers on the lowest step, turns back to face him. He sighs. “The traditional answer is that you fell.”
Lexa grins. It’s beautiful in its simplicity. “I’ll keep that in mind, my lord. Thank you.”
Left with the feeling he knows exactly what happened—and who wouldn’t, with a bruise so large?—Lexa bows again and to the lady knight as well before she limps down the last step and out of the dining hall. The pages have all long since left to their assigned work. Lexa hurries to join them.
The smith takes one look at her and curses. Small and injured, she isn’t much help. He sets her to fetching and carrying instead and by the end of her three bells, Lexa is ready to curl up and cry.
When she gets back to her room, she does exactly that. She hadn’t the night before—fury had left her eyes dry as a desert—but now they flow in earnest and she hugs her pillow to her chest.
A knock at her door makes her swipe at her cheeks. She winces, fresh tears leaking out at the pressure on her bruise.
“Open up, lass. It’s me.” Gus’s gentle voice makes Lexa’s face crumple and she rolls off her bed, hobbles over to let him in. “Oh Lexa.” He kneels, takes her face in his hands. “They got you good."
Miserable, Lexa nods.
Gus shuffles her back into her room and lifts her up, hands under her arms, to set her on her desk. From deep in his pocket, he pulls out a tub of bruise balm and immediately spreads it over her cheek. He dabs it in careful dots around her eye. Instantly, it cools on her heated skin and the throbbing eases, then begins to fade.
“What happened? None of those lies, now. The truth.”
Gus listens, silent, as she explains—how they’d caught her, how she’d frozen, how they’d thrashed her with ease. By the end, she’s crying again and he pulls her against his chest. Lexa sags. Solid under her forehead, Gus smells strongly of sweat and the sharp polish he uses on his knives, plus something earthy and rich that reminds her of home.
“You listen t’ me—don’t you kick yerself bout this. They were bigger an’ stronger. Aye, an’ outnumberin’ ye.” He chucks a crooked finger under her chin, urges her head up. His dark eyes are kind. “Ye’ve been fightin for two weeks now—yer no’ a warrior yet, eh?” His eyebrows scrunch, like two fat brown caterpillars. The thought makes her smile. “Now. Sounds like ye worried bout freezin’ up.” Lexa nods. “Aye, thought as much. We’ll have’t teach ye how’t not do that. Don’ worry bout it. Ye’ll learn.” She nods again, relieved. “I’ll be by in th’ morning too. I’ve some exercises ye can add t’ yer routine.” He ignores her groan. “Mix some o’ the balm into yer bath tonight. It’ll help with th’ aches.”
He cuffs her ear very lightly, making her grin. For a short time, he shifts her braids and neatens her collar, rubs a big thumb over her no-longer-aching eyebrow. Then, he cups the back of her head with his big hand and leans down to kiss the top of her head. He clears his throat when he straightens.
“Remember, use that balm.”
“An’ I’ll be by in the mornin.”
A week after the attack, Lexa is sleeping well again. No nightmares of freezing on the battle-field or in the hall—sometimes studded with too-real images of a blood-slick arrow biting into her chest—and her bruises barely hurt. She has dug out the blanket Mara made for her, though the weather doesn’t call for it yet, and wrapped herself in it while she sleeps. It smells of the sweet-mint-and-lavender package Mara had tucked into the folds of it, and faintly of home.
In her dream, Lexa is seated at the top of a tall mast. Around her is a forest of blue trees. A brisk wind blows into her face, tinged with wood-smoke. Far below, Lexa can see her crew—made up of a bear, a large cat, two dogs and a toad, and a crow perched on her shoulder—working. They’re dressed in Haryse colours and walking on hind legs. Except for the toad, which just sits. At the prow of her ship, which is small and sleek and fast, is a figurehead. It’s Vauntire—he’s very lifelike in his struggling. With the distance dreaming lends her, Lexa realises he’s probably real. He’s been tied to the prow with lengths of thick rope. The ship sails clean over the trees, only a few of the very tallest and bluest trees rising above the rails.
Something knocks against the mast—no, her door?—and Lexa frowns.
“Page Haryse,” someone calls in a quiet voice. They knock again.
With a sigh, dream-Lexa steps down from her crows-nest and off the side of her ship. The blue braches blur around her—one tangles like a vine around her legs and she fights it until she realises she’s awake and tussling with her blanket.
Disoriented, Lexa pulls her dagger from under the pillow.
“Page Haryse,” someone whispers at her door.
A second voice makes an annoyed sound. “She’s not waking up. Let’s go.”
“I want to try,” the first insists. They knock again. “Page Haryse?”
Lexa steps quietly over to her door. She pulls it open sharply to surprise whoever is there, stepping back to avoid an attack if it comes. This time, she’ll be ready.
There is no attack.
The person in the doorway wavers a little when she yanks the door away—he’d clearly had his ear pressed to the wood to hear her coming. He shows his empty hands. “Peace, Haryse—gods above, that’s a big knife for a little page!”
“You’ll deserve a stabbing if you say things like that, Jay. You don’t want to stab the prince, though,” tall Gareth standing to the side tells Lexa, and she nods and lowers the dagger.
Lexa steps to the side but neither of them make any motion to come in.
Despite their light words and tone, it’s obvious something is wrong. Lexa can see that the prince is wearing his clothes from the day before—if morning has even come yet and, judging from the way tiredness drags at Lexa, she thinks it hasn’t. He looks rumpled, clothes and frown and ringlets in disarray. He’s pale too, and nervous. And next to him, Gareth’s mouth is pinched tight. His eyes dart behind Lexa into her room and around. When his gaze settles on her, it is calculating and very serious.
Lexa clears her throat. She speaks quietly. “Is something wrong, Highness?”
The prince regards her for a moment. Then, he asks, “Page Haryse, have you seen my ring?” The solemnity of his tone is familiar but Lexa has never heard it without an accompanying amusement in his blue eyes. There is no amusement now.
“Your ring, Highness?” She looks down at his hands—big hands, working hands with the callouses and scars of a knight-in-training—and at the pale spot on his little finger where his signet ring should sit. “No, Highness.”
“Damn.” Prince Jasson whirls away, swipes a hand over his face. Gareth lays a hand on his shoulder, which is immediately shrugged off.
Gareth waits a few moments before laying his hand on the prince’s shoulder again. This time, it’s allowed. “Calm down,” he tells him quietly, almost too quietly for Lexa to hear. “It’s alright.”
“It’s my ring,” the prince hisses. “Do not tell me to calm down.”
“We will find it. Don’t lose your head, Highness.” The title adopts a certain sharpness on Gareth’s tongue that makes the prince prickle. He shrugs Gareth’s hand away again, much more deliberately.
Prince Jasson turns back to Lexa. “Haryse, what I am about to tell you goes no further than the three of us. Understand?”
“My ring is missing. I don’t know when it happened. It can be tracked but if it a royal mage finds my ring on someone…” He runs a hand through his hair and his ringlets fall messily. From their messiness, she suspects he’s made that same gesture many times tonight.
“They’ll lose a hand at the very least,” Gareth explains gravely, picking up where the prince had stopped. “If this is a bad prank or even deliberate, we don’t want that to happen. I know you’ve a knack for finding things, Haryse,” Gareth says, and Lexa frowns. She doesn’t know where he might have picked up an idea like that. “The prince requires your help.”
“Don’t sound so damn pompous, Gary. Look, I wouldn’t ask unless it were important,” Prince Jasson impresses on her, a hint of his usual self in his eyes. Lexa nods. She knows that about him. He’s never one to ask the younger pages to do things for him or take messages or fetch items and he is always so careful to spread his time evenly between the tables over their dinners and lunches. He’s fair to a fault and stringently honest and Lexa notes that secrets don’t become him. He looks weary tonight and there is a tightness around his eyes that ages him. “Gary is helping me search the classrooms but I need someone to check the stables and, well, you’ve a knack.”
Again with that idea! Lexa doesn’t know how they came up with it—still, her prince has asked for her help.
“One moment, Your Highness.”
She steps back into her room and closes the door. Part of Lexa screams that it’s a trap—going to the stables? Late at night? Past curfew? She could be sent home by the training master if she’s found. Another, larger part of her is unbothered by the request beyond the strangeness of it. She knows the prince and Gareth—they are not her friends but she admires them both. As she considers this, Lexa tosses her hair up into a messy with a practised twist. She dresses in warmer clothes and a short woollen coat too and steps into her boots, stooping to hide her little knife in one. From a hook by the door Lexa takes her belt and, dagger in its sheath, she ties it snugly around her waist. Ready, she opens her door and steps into the hall with the waiting pair.
“You said the stable, Highness?” Lexa asks.
“That’s right,” Gareth tells her. The torchlight throws half his face into deep shadow and his eyes gleam. “Bring it right to the prince’s room if you find it. Do not tell anyone what you’re looking for or what you have. No one. Understand?”
Lexa nods. A warm hand settles on her shoulder and Lexa looks to Prince Jasson.
“I will be in your debt for this,” he says. Gareth makes a small noise in his throat that sounds like disapproval. The prince ignores him. “Thank you, Haryse.” He squeezes her shoulder once before setting off down the corridor, Gareth next to him.
Lexa heads the opposite way at a jog. She barely needs to think of the path she takes—weeks of walking it, half-asleep in the mornings, has left its impression and even the raised flagstone at the end of the third corridor doesn’t trip her in the dark.
The big archway that leads out toward the courts is lit on either side by torches—Lexa waits in a shadowed alcove, listening. The faint jangle of chainmail is her cue to press deeper into the shadows and once the squad of guards has passed, she waits a few moments longer, breath coming quick with nerves. Once she’s sure they’re gone, Lexa slips out into the field. The grass is wet underfoot and Lexa slips and slides her way down the big hill, staying low by the railing in case anyone looked out to see her halfway across the field. Almost there, Lexa has to stop and free her foot from a burrow she hadn’t noticed in the dark. It takes a moment—her ankle throbs and she itches all over, certain that any moment now someone will see her—but then she’s free and slinking around the corner of the big stables.
I’m going back through the courts, Lexa decides when her ankle gives a particularly painful throb. Let them see me! At least I won’t break my bloody ankle.
With the main door looked, Lexa thinks it might be difficult to get in but there’s a barrel placed directly under an opening around the back of the stable. Climbing up onto it, she finds she can pull herself up onto a beam and, from there, into the hayloft. In a move she’s been practicing ever since she saw Anya do it, Lexa plants her hands on the hayloft ledge and pops herself up and inside. The drop to the ground makes her ankle twinge but she’s in.
Inside the stable it’s hot and smells strongly—fresh hay and animal, leather and polish. All around, the building creaks and groans, so different from the quiet pages wing. Lexa grins when a horse snorts in its sleep—that, at least, she recognises from the pages wing. A nose snuffles into the pocket of her coat and Lexa turns to find the pony whose stall she rudely dropped into. “Hello,” she murmurs to the little creature, and she opens her pocket to find a few stale crumbs. The pony doesn’t seem to mind and snuffles at them happily. Lexa pats her new friend’s neck as she waits for her eyes to adjust to the dim light—once she knows where she is and where she wants to go, she gives her friendly pony one last scratch behind the ear and slips into the stable proper.
Her pony nickers. In the still night, the sound travels and one by one the horses lift their heads as they take notice of Lexa.
“Shh, shush,” she tells them, heart thumping in her chest. A few eye her warily and she hopes none of these are trained to alert their owners to a thief. “Please be quiet, the prince sent me, please. I’m a page, you know me, shush.”
She doesn’t know if it’s her words or the fact that she walks closer to the horses, lets them smell her familiar smell and snuffle at her clothes and hair and face, but the horses eventually lose interest and let her move on down the way to the stall where the prince’s mare is kept. She’s a sweet girl, grey with black socks, and huffs a hello into Lexa’s hair.
“Hello Whiskers,” Lexa murmurs, stroking softly at the mare’s nose. “Aren’t you beautiful?” She makes a silent promise to bring some sugar lick for Alraed later, in penance for calling another mare beautiful. “Is it okay if I come into your stall? I know I’m not supposed to be here,” she nods when Whiskers huffs a disapproving snort against Lexa’s cheek. “It’s late, I know, but Prince Jasson sent me. Your rider, the prince?” She waits until Whiskers snorts again. “I’m looking for his ring, have you seen it?”
Whiskers stills and pulls back, out of Lexa’s hands. She looks at Lexa thoughtfully for a long moment before shaking her head in a suspiciously human ‘no’.
The gesture makes Lexa pause. She’d been joking when she asked Whiskers…but she’s heard enough rumours about the clever castle animals to wonder.
Lexa swallows nervously. Very politely, she says, “Thank you. I’m sure you’re right but I promised the prince I would look. Do you mind?”
Whiskers looks like she’s going to guard the gate to her stall, head hanging over it, but then she flicks her tail and takes one step back and then another until there is plenty of room for Lexa to come through. She searches the stall thoroughly—through the fresh hay, in the trough, under the palings between Whiskers’ stall and the next. She even plunges her hand into Whiskers feed bag, which the mare is less pleased by. When she finds no ring, Lexa moves to the table where the pages sometimes work to polish and repair their tack.
“Nothing,” Lexa hisses when she’s done. She rubs at her forehead. Whiskers stamps her foot, eats flat against her head. Lexa nods. “You’re right—it’s not good.” She thinks briefly about calling off her search but she knows she can’t. Either she finds the ring or she looks until someone else does. “Can you ask the others? It’s gold and has a sapphire on it. Will they understand that?”
Whiskers tosses her head. Lexa decides that it’s a yes. The mare paws at the ground and whinnies, not loud enough for any hostlers to come in and investigate but enough for the nearby horses to prick their ears. In the stall next to Whiskers, the horse there snorts. Whiskers must not like that answer because she clicks her teeth at the gelding and snorts back.
Lexa leaves Whiskers to her interrogation and picks up her search elsewhere. She sifts through the hay on the floor of the work area, under the table, and through the bins of leather. She checks the cupboards where they keep the pages lances—the lock is rusted and broken and she winces when she tugs it open, the squeal of metal making her teeth prickle. Finding nothing, she returns to Whiskers to say goodnight.
The mare’s head is raised in a proud arch. She stamps her hoot and nickers. Lexa stops. Something is different and it takes a moment to pinpoint what it is.
The stable is waiting in absolute silence. Lexa turns—every horse down the line of stalls on either side are staring at her with their big, liquid eyes. Not knowing what else to do, Lexa stares back.
At the far end, a horse kicks at the door of their stall twice. It echoes like a knock.
“Am—Do I go talk to them?” Lexa asks Whiskers quietly, feeling very lost and little. The mare nods. “Ah. Alright. Thank you.” Her voice only shakes a little.
Waiting at the end of the aisle is a massive gelding, pitch black save for the star on his forehead and two white socks. Lexa relaxes—she knows this horse. The gelding is Octavia’s mount, Beauty, and he reminds her a lot of the wild page. There’s nothing subtle about him, for one thing—all power and fight. He’s smart, wilful, and seems to relish in the challenges Padraig sets in riding practice and the lance work. At first, the other pages had assumed he would be too much for Octavia to handle but Lexa had seen them riding together and Octavia grooming him. They treat him gently and with great care and she had seen Beauty regard her with the same. Knowing that, Lexa was the only one unsurprised when Beauty followed Octavia’s commands in the field so fluidly they seemed to share one mind.
Now, Beauty snuffles very gently at Lexa’s hair for a moment. She stands still until he dips his head and butts it against her chest, demanding a scratch.
“Octavia would call you a traitor, you know,” she points out to the scratch-greedy gelding. Beauty huffs his derision about that and pushes his head harder against her. Lexa grins. “Do you know where the ring is? Or you just wanted to say hello?”
Beauty pulls back. Lexa steps out of reach—the vicious look in his eyes isn’t reassuring.
“Calm, Beauty. Calm down, I didn’t mean anything by it.”
Beauty ignores her soothing and instead lunges forward over the side of his stall and snaps his teeth at a leather care bag Octavia has left slung over the post by his gate. He can’t quite reach, though he tries again, so Lexa slinks forward. Still out of reach of his teeth, she points to the bag. Beauty snorts, tosses his head in a horse nod. Lexa picks it up and digs through it—a brush, hoof pick, coloured string to brain into Beauty’s mane. And finally, right at the bottom—Prince Jasson’s ring.
Lexa’s breath catches in her throat. She closes her hand tight around the ring, hiding it from view.
“Octavia stole his ring—” Beauty clamps his teeth around her elbow in a clear warning. It would be so easy for him to injure her—and badly—so she stays still and reconsiders. “Octavia didn’t steal the ring?” she guesses.
Beauty releases her. Slowly. His warning is clear—I could have bitten you. Don’t make me.
“If they didn’t steal it—and they didn’t,” Lexa hurries to add when Beauty shows his teeth again, “then…maybe they picked it up. No, Octavia could have given it to him at lunch. There’s no reason to keep it.” Lexa frowns down at it. “Why…”
The answer comes to her and she rolls her eyes at her own slow mind. If anyone had found the ring in their bag, Octavia would be accused of theft before they could get a word in to defend themself. Someone who wants that put the ring there.
“Perrin.” Lexa scowls. “It was Perrin, wasn’t it?” she asked Beauty, who presses his forehead hard against her shoulder for more scratches. She scratches at his neck. “He doesn’t want me here so he attacked me and when that didn’t work, he tried something different with Octavia. I know I’m right—I just wish I could prove it.”
The words pull something out of her. It starts like an itch focused in her hand where she clutches the ring and then it bursts outwards. Around her, the world shifts.
The stench of the stable fades and holds a distant second place to a strong tang of metal. Lexa’s nostrils flare—a distinction in the smell she hadn’t known before this moment tells her that the metal she smells is gold. At the same time, the sounds around her come to the fore long enough for her to catalogue—a whistle, air through the roof, men snoring in the backroom, the rustle of horse and rat and dozing dog—before dropping away. Colours, too, flatten to a dull grey. Lexa can still see—and in vivid detail—but the colours don’t distract her. She finds she doesn’t need them anyway, not when there is such a clear path in front of her all in silver. A deep sensation of smugness, deceit, thrums through her.
Never before has Lexa felt it so clearly. A shiver of horror moves through her when she realises what it is: it’s emotion, not hers but someone else’s, that she has stumbled onto—into—brought inside herself. She’s not sure exactly but it doesn’t matter; it flares again like an invitation to follow it to its owner and Lexa retches, hot bile rising in her throat. The violation of it—someone else’s emotions, foreign and alien, inside her—makes her retch.
Sickened, afraid, Lexa throws the ring down to the floor.
As soon as it’s out of her hand, the world snaps back into sharp relief—sounds, smells, colours and all. Lexa totters to the pump at the end of the aisle and retches again. She rinses her mouth out with a handful of cold water and spits it into the drain there. Another handful cleans her sweat-damp forehead and neck.
Once her heart has stopped racing, Lexa scrubs her hands thoroughly and dries them on her pants. She rubs her palms red against the rough material.
Beauty snorts gently and Lexa turns, totters back to his stall. She leans against the rough wood and holds herself there, energy drained out of her like water from a pierced skin.
“What was that?”
Beauty lowers his head over her shoulder and blows a raspberry at the ring, the focus of her discomfort. Lexa smiles despite herself and scratches under his chin.
“My hero,” she murmurs. “Do you know what happened? No? You don’t know?” Lexa pauses. “You didn’t see it?” Beauty shakes out his mane. “Maybe horses can’t see things like that,” she suggests, which is better than thinking it only happened to her. She pats his warm neck. “It was nothing. I’m just tired.”
Beauty nudges her, fixes her with a worried, dark eye. She pats him again.
Ignoring the ring for the moment, Lexa walks down the line of stalls to find Alraed who has been waiting for her so patiently.
Lexa greets her best friend, scratches under her neck where she likes it. Letting herself into the stall, she busies herself by plucking a few straws of hay from Alraed’s tail and crooning compliments to her as she pats and pats and pats her neck. It helps to feel nothing in her hands but the bristle of short horse hair and warm skin. But finally, Alraed snuffles at her and flicks her ears.
“I’m not hiding.” The words sound weak even to her.
Alraed flicks her ears again.
“I’m not.” Alraed lifts one hoof threateningly and Lexa glares at her but has to step quickly out of the stall to avoid having her foot broken. “You’re a nasty horse. I should have sold you to the pie-maker like Da told me to.”
Alraed flicks her tail and turns her back on Lexa.
Scowling, Lexa returns to where she had dropped the ring. She squats, stares down at it.
It looks very innocent, a simple band of gold topped by a flat blue stone. Nothing special about it at all, except of course for what that sigil cut into the stone means. The prince’s ring.
Not wanting to risk that strangeness again, Lexa pulls a handkerchief from her pocket and drops it over the ring before she picks it up. She twists it into the centre of the cloth and ties the ends before shoving it deep into her pocket.
“Goodnight,” she calls out into the stable. “Thank you for your help.” Most of the horses look relieved that she’s leaving and barely bother to lift their heads. Beauty and Alraed both nicker a farewell.
Lexa returns and drops a kiss onto Alraed’s forehead. “You’re a mean girl,” she says with fondness, and Alraed blows a stream of hot air out onto her shoulder.
Leaving the way she came in—the pony is sturdy and stolid and doesn’t seem to mind it when someone as light as Lexa stands on its back to climb out a window—Lexa sets off at a slow jog to the courts.
Great Mithros, Bright Mithros, I’ll be so respectful in worship next Sunday, she prays, just please help me get up this hill without dying from exhaustion. I’ll light two candles! Calves burning at the halfway point, she adds, And I won’t fall asleep in worship. Not even a small nap. I swear it.
Mithros doesn’t lend her strength. She’s panting and ready to fling herself down in the dirt and lay there until training on Monday morning when a familiar sound makes her stop and lift her head. No more surprises, she begs any god that is listening. It must have been none of them. A twang of bowstring, followed by the soft punch of arrow into target, makes her turn.
Great Mithros, Your Brightness, if you put this in my path because you thought I wasn’t being reverent just now then I’m very mad and I will nap through worship!
Aching, Lexa makes her way down to the third court. She squints at the figure there. He has a torch thrust into the dirt at his feet and Lexa would recognise that poor grip even in the pitch black.
“Hasim?” He doesn’t seem to hear. Lexa moves closer and calls out again. The boy twists, lowers his bow when he sees her.
It’s clear that he’s tired. His arms are trembling and the fire light doubles the effect where it flickering over the blunted head of the arrow he has notched to his bow. Lexa can still see sweat circles his neck and under his arms despite the dark cloth. He must have been out here for hours.
“What are you doing?”
“Practice.” Tired, his accent is thick.
“It doesn’t look like practice.” The light catches a shiny welt on his forearm—she would bet that it’s red and sore from where his string has slapped against it. Seeing the direction of her stare, he hides the arm behind his back. A furious thought snaps through her. “Is someone making you do this?” Her mind races. “They’ve made you do this before—all those times you were falling asleep in the mornings, it’s because you were out here, weren’t you?”
“So it’s wrong,” she tells him. He glances away, a stubborn scowl curling his lips. “You know it’s wrong too—why do you let them do this?”
“Do you see anyone making me do it?” Hasim asks. “No. You do not. Because there is no one here—I choose to do this.”
“I’m going to strangle you,” Lexa says very quietly so he can’t hear. She must be even more tired than she thought she was to be so annoyed. He peers at her, seeing her lips move but not hearing her words. Louder, she says, “Choose?"
Lexa glares. He has to be being obstuse on purpose, she’s sure of it. “So you’re saying that someone—probably Perrin? Or was it Qasim?” Something flickers in his eyes. Lexa knows now it was Qasim—or Tall Boy—the Bazhir who spends his time with Perrin. “You’re saying that Qasim didn’t suggest that you do this?”
Hasim scowls. “No.”
“And so what!” Hasim explodes. “I need to practice—I am a disgraceful archer!”
“You’re terrible,” she agrees. It makes him start and then nearly smile. “It doesn’t mean you must torment yourself.” Despite her urging and his obvious exhaustion, Hasim remains where he is. A muscle works in his jaw as he stares down the long court, away from Lexa. She yawns, presses her lips together to try and hide it. He gives her a sad smile.
“You should go in and sleep.”
“Not until you do.” To prove it, Lexa folds her arms. Instantly she regrets the harsh stance she took—it might be a very long time before she can convince Hasim to abandon his night-time folly and she wants to sleep. She shifts and the hard lump of the ring in her pocket reminds her of her actual task. Lexa huffs. “I have things to do, Hasim. Go to bed!”
“You go to bed!’
“I want to!” She stomps her foot, frustrated.
For a moment, they trade heated glares but then Hasim laughs. “You are like my fathers horse—she stamps when annoyed too.”
Lexa narrows her eyes. “Is she a good horse?”
Hasim shrugs, nods. “The most best.”
“That’s alright then, I suppose.” She yawns then until her jaw clicks. “Ugh. Look, you’re really terrible and this,” she waves her hand at his set-up, “this isn’t helping you at all.”
“Stand with me at practice tomorrow and I’ll help you. But go to bed.”
Hasim nods very slowly and Lexa eagerly takes that as agreement. Agreement means that she can leave and so she does, striding up the hill. She is fuelled by her frustration with him and with Perrin’s nastiness but, as potent as that is, it too drains away by the time she’s past the first court and by the time she makes it to the prince’s room, she’s well and truly flagging.
Lexa yawns again. Lifts a hand and knocks.
The door swings open.
Prince Jasson stands in the doorway, gaping. Behind him is Gareth, seated at the desk. His shoulders are hunched and tense and he rubs nervous fingers over his chin. When he sees Lexa, he shoots to his feet.
Swaying in place, Lexa pulls her handkerchief from her pocket. Prince Jasson reaches out. His hand is trembling. Lexa unfolds the cloth and tilts her hand so that the ring rolls off onto his hand.
“Should’ve told me ‘bout th’ wards,” she mutters, grumpily, before staggering off down the hall and away.
The next morning, Hasim joins her at on her way to the third court. Lexa shies away from the unexpected company and glares.
“Good morning,” Hasim says politely. The skin under his eyes are dark with exhaustion but his eyes are bright, gleaming.
“What?” she asks again. Her dreams had been filled with colourless visions, leaving her deeply uneasy and her foul mood sours the word.
He must recognise that because he drops his slow pace and blurts, “Did you mean what you said?”
It takes a moment to remember what she had promised. She rolls her eyes. “Yes.”
“And what do you want in return?”
“One day,” she tells him, yawning, “you will be shooting at something.” He nods, confused. “On that day, I will know that you won’t hit me by accident and that’s good enough.”
Hasim stares at her for a moment before he grins, a sly little grin. “What if I hit you on purpose?”
“Then I did my job, didn’t I?”
It makes him laugh and he takes the spot to her right when the bow master tells them to line up. While Master Tern is down the other end of the court, Lexa shows Hasim her stretches and works through them. She has to dredge her memory for Gus’s explanations on what they do—this one to strengthen your fingers, Lexa, this one to make your arm muscles limber and loose so your little twig arms don’t snap right off when you draw, this one to strengthen your grip—and by the time she remembers and repeats them, she’s more calm and her tone bites less.
Hasim is a good student. He copies her diligently, fixing his attempts every single time she corrects him without complaint. She wonders if it’s his nature or because he’s so terrible at archery he knows he needs the help.
Once they’ve stretched, she moves on. How to pick a target. How to breathe, how to calm himself so his shot doesn’t flinch wide of the mark.
Hasim listens carefully to the instructions and when she steps away after showing him a better grip, he breathes, focuses, and lets his first shot of the day fly.
“I did it!”
Lexa squints down at the twenty-yard target. His arrow has struck true and held, though it is wide of centre. Still, much better than the day before.
“I did it!” he says again and he gives her a true smile—one that crinkles the corners of his eyes and makes him lighten. Lexa finds that she’s smiling back.
“Good. Do it again.”
He salutes her cheekily and obeys.
To her left, Lexa notices that Octavia watches him carefully. They adjust their grip slightly and before she can stop herself, Lexa shakes her head and reaches over.
Octavia freezes, holds their body rigid and their gaze away, pretending they hadn’t been watching her impromptu lesson with Hasim. Lexa is too exhausted to deal with their pride and continues until she has their hand in her own. She shifts it to where it should be sitting.
“There,” Lexa tells them. “Try that.”
Octavia doesn’t thank her—though, to be completely fair, Lexa turns away immediately and returns to Hasim. Lexa does know that they’re using the hold she showed them because Octavia’s already decent shooting improves.
The third time Octavia makes the difficult centre shot, the bow master wanders down their end of the court. He scowls when he sees their private lesson.
“My instructions not enough?”
Lexa presses her lips flat and doesn’t answer. She’s afraid her response and disdain is clear enough. He doesn’t so much as look at them, let alone teach. Master Tern must read it on her because he swaggers forward and glares down at her. He’s only an inch or two taller than Lexa is but years of working with a bow means that he’s strong. Anger draws thick lines over his face.
“You are a student, not a teacher,” he snaps in accented Common.
“Then you teach us.”
The gruff comment comes from Octavia and Lexa twists to look back over her shoulder at them. They pretend not to notice. Lexa turns back to see Master Tern’s reaction.
Eyes black with anger, he shakes a warning finger at them. “Mind yourself, Danshame.”
So quick Lexa doesn’t see it, Tern brings a short length of wood up and cracks it harshly against Octavia’s shoulder. A quiet gasp of pain makes Lexa surge forward and when he brings the stick down a second time, Lexa catches it. It stings her palm, making her flinch. Tern glares at her.
“If you won’t teach us,” Lexa tells him, slowly, “we will teach ourselves.”
“That’s a bell this Sunday,” he spits. “For the both of you.”
Lexa stares at him for a moment longer before letting the stick fall from her hand. She returns to her plane in line and ignores the furious glare Tern is giving her.
“Fix your grip,” she tells Hasim. “You’ve slipped again.”
Lexa ignores Tern’s order. The unfairness of it makes her blood boil. She clamps down on the anger and frustration with a control she only barely feels and forces herself calm. She continues. “Good, Hasim. That’s exactly right. Now breathe and draw—that’s right, to your cheek not your ear. Very good. And release.”
She and Hasim release at the same time and their arrows both find their marks.
“Another bell, Haryse!”
Lexa slots another arrow into place. “The fifty yard target this time, I think.” Hasim glances worriedly at her. She gives him a small nod, knowing his look has nothing to do with the target but rather the training master she’s blatantly ignoring. “You can do it. Adjust for wind and distance—it comes with practice so don’t worry if you don’t get it right this time.”
The bow master paces behind but he isn’t foolish enough to grab her when she has an arrow notched. She fires—he grabs her by the neck and drags her to the fence line, rips her bow from her hands and throws it in to the dust.
Distantly, Lexa sees that her arrow is stuck dead centre and shivering. Not that it matters if he kills her.
The bow masters hold around the back of her neck tightens. He shakes her a little. “You will stop this,” he hisses, spittle hitting her cheek. “No more, no more disrespect.”
“Then do your job,” Lexa tells him flatly, though she flinches when he shakes her again. He’s strong enough to lift her clean off her feet and he does.
Though she’s focused on Tern, around her she can see Hasim and Octavia’s worried faces—from down the other end of the court, Anya and Prince Jasson are trying to reach her but there are people in the way blocking them.
Tern raises his stick and brings it down twice—one blow hits her harshly on the hip and the other just barely clips her shoulder when someone pulls her out of the way. The iron grip yanks her out of reach when Tern’s grip slackens—another hand comes up, grabs the stick, and wrenches it out of Tern’s hand. As soon as Padraig is sure that Lexa isn’t about to be struck again, he lets her go.
“Is there a problem here, Tern?”
The Master is blatantly absent.
Lexa’s spine goes rigid. She stands to attention, hands behind her back. She’s relieved—it hides the way they’re shaking. “Lord Padraig—”
“I did not address you, Page Haryse.” Is it a good sign? That he’s still calling her Page? Lexa doesn’t know. She sneaks a look up at his face, which remains impassive. “Well, Tern?”
Since Padraig hadn’t told her to drop her eyes, Lexa now looks to Tern. His nostrils flare. His hand clenches around the space where his beating stick had been. “She’s being disrespectful.”
“Disrespect is not a beating offence.”
“Just a tap, my lord.”
Lord Padraig drums his fingers against the leather of his belt. “Who is your most accomplished archer?” he asks Tern.
“Most accomplished… Well.” He scratches at his chin. “Hosseim.”
“Good. Hosseim?” Lexa keeps her face smooth of any frown when Tall Boy jogs over and bows. “You will be leading this class until I say otherwise.”
“Do not speak,” Padraig advises the bow master. Bow master no longer, Lexa realises. Qasim realises it at the same time, his shocked eyes moving to look at Lexa. For a moment, it looks as though he wants to glare at her and then, surprisingly, he doesn’t.
“Yes, my lord!” Qasim says smartly, nods. Lexa doesn’t remember him ever speaking before—his voice is softer than she expected but with a sharp edge to it she suspects is forced so that people think twice about disregarding him.
“Good. Report to me after dinner.” Padraig shifts his gaze to Lexa. She holds herself so tall and still her arms begin to tremble with the effort. “See that your bow is undamaged,” is all he says to her. Lexa and Qasim bow and the training master nods—he makes a sharp gesture and Tern strides from the court, an ugly scowl on his face. Padraig follows him up the hill and into the palace.
Lexa turns to Qasim, who rubs a hand over his face. She thinks he might be in shock. After a long moment, she clears her throat and his eyes snap to her.
“Back in line, Haryse,” he tells her, tone brisk but surprisingly mild.
Lexa nods and trots back to her place. Hasim reaches over, grips her arm above the elbow and shakes her a little.
“What just happened!”
“Are you out?” He doesn’t flinch from her withering look, just shrugs. “He could be making you finish the day, I don’t know—what happened?”
“Nothing. Except, Qasim is now in charge.”
Hasim frowns a little, twists to watch Qasim. The other Bazhir boy is sneaking a look at Perrin and then, to Lexa’s surprise, ignoring the grin being sent his way.
“Everyone switch to the fifty-yard target. Haryse,” he calls out, still no trace of nastiness in his tone. “How’s the bow?”
Lexa glances it over and fits an arrow to it—she picks her target and shoots. Her bow still feels right in her grip and she nods. “It feels fine, uh,” she pauses, unsure of what title to give him. “Sir?”
He grins. Then, remembering who she is, stops just as suddenly. “Master Sir Teacher Sir, I think you should all call me.”
Down the other end of the court, the prince laughs. “Come off it, Qasim. Also, help me hit this bloody target?”
“Right away, Highness.”
The rest of the lesson passes with a surprising lack of trouble. Qasim even wanders by their end of the court and watches her teach Hasim—when she lifts her eyebrows, he gives her an uncomfortable nod and walks away.
On their way down to the stables, Hasim looks over his shoulder at Qasim thoughtfully. “I hope he’s our teacher forever.”
“He told you that you are a disgrace and made you practice all night. Several times,” Lexa points out.
“Sure. But that was a good lesson, don’t you think?”
Lexa scowls. “I suppose.”
“There you go.”
Teaching Hasim has other benefits, too, not just getting rid of unpleasant bow masters. When they pick up their lances, he teaches her a grip that has the lance feeling solid in her hand—it always felt unwieldy and far too long and Lexa looks at him in surprise.
“Try it out.”
Lexa nudges Alraed to the front of line, eyes the quintains set up in the tilting yard. She holds it as Hasim had shown her and nudges Alraed to charge down the lane. Still heavy, the lance doesn’t swing wildly or knock her horse on the head. She points her lance, aims, and the force of impact jars her hand and up to her elbow. Lexa holds her breath and rides past—for the first time in two weeks, the sandbag doesn’t smack her in the back.
Lexa twists in her tilting saddle, scanning the yard. Finally, she spots Lord Padraig. She nudges Alraed to walk on and guides her down the returning lane. When she nears the training master, she stops. His horse—a roan gelding named Mister Splotch—must recognise her because it steps toward her before Padraig still it with a touch.
“Nazri taught you a hold?”
“Yes, my lord.”
Padraig nods, leans forward in his saddle. “It’s the best run you’ve done so far—still pitiful,” he clarifies, “but the best you’ve done. Do it again. Do it better.”
“Yes, my lord.”
Lexa has to wait some time for another turn—with only four quintains for the first- and second-years, she’s in the third lot to charge. Once more, she hits it smoothly and runs past unharmed.
Padraig nods when she rides past. “Keep it up, Haryse.”
Fairly glowing with the praise, Hasim has to nudge his mare into her to get her to stop grinning. It doesn’t work. Lexa starts grinning at him instead.
“Thank you,” she says in a voice oddly close to gushing. “I couldn’t figure out the grip, I had started to think I never would.”
“It isn’t easy for everyone.” Lexa squints at him. He had been doing very well at tilting since the beginning and had long since moved on to having to hit the target dead centre, as Lexa suspects she will soon. Hasim grins. “I am not everyone.” He nudges D’lpedar, his mare, to the line. Watching him charge down the yard, Lexa decides she should begin aiming for the centre now and not just trying to avoid a hit.
She switches her lance to her left arm and shakes out her right, opens and closes her fist a few times to work the numbness out of her fingers. She grins when Hasim lets out a hoot, hitting the target smack in the centre.
“Good, Nazri—less antics next time.”
“Yes, my lord!”
After splitting up to bathe, Lexa barely has time to feel Hasim’s absence before he returns to sit with her at lunch. Anya raises an eyebrow at the new face but says nothing. Lincoln, arguably the nicest of all of them, says hello.
When Hasim sits next to her in every class, Lexa is a little afraid that he think she’ll help him in all of those classes as well but it soon becomes obvious that he just…wants to sit with her.
“Yes,” he says, frowning a little when she asks him that evening. “We’re friends now.”
“You helped me last night, for no reason other than deciding you must.”
“I would do that for anyone.”
“Yes, but today you helped me again even when you got in trouble for it and I think that is something that friends do.”
It’s a nice thought and Lexa smiles down at her work. She finds that she enjoys a lot of what Hasim considers to be ‘things that friends do’. She likes comparing answers with someone and likes when he leans over to her in class and mutters funny comments about the teachers. His complaints are so excessive they make her laugh.
“It took me some time to figure out why Master Vauntire looked so familiar to me—he was like Hrikash. My father’s prize falcon.”
Lexa frowns, confused. There is nothing hugely birdlike about their etiquette master. “That sounds like a very good thing.”
“It would be but any time he saw himself in a mirror there he would be! Preening! We could not take the mirror away because he would strike us!” Hasim shows her a small but nasty scar on his middle finger he swears, hand on his heart, the falcon had made. It sends Lexa into fits of giggles and Hasim smiles apologetically at a few third-years who throw glares their way for making sound in the library. “We should go somewhere else,” Hasim whispers. “We can study in my room? I have a book on numbers I think you will like.”
Lexa eagerly agrees and she packs up her notes and half-finished essay.
They’re nearly to Hasim’s room when they run into Perrin and one of his tag-a-longs. Dirty-blonde hair and a pointed chin—Lexa is sure she knows his name, though she can’t recall it, and is even more sure that he’s unpleasant.
“Well, what do we have here? Little Haryse cozying up with the desert rat. Isn’t this sweet?”
“What do we have here? Little miss cosying up with the desert rat. Isn’t this sweet?” Perrin’s friend sniggers.
“Leave off, Halleburn.”
Perrin glares at her, flicks his gaze over her cheek where her bruise is very nearly gone. “Didn’t learn your lesson last time, I see.”
“I knew it,” Hasim hisses.
Lexa ignores that. Anya and several others had tried a few times to get her to tattle—she hadn’t yet but she knows Hasim will tell them all when he gets the chance. For now, Lexa glares right back at Perrin.
“Are you going to let us pass?”
“Mm…what do you think, lads?” He lifts his eyebrows and, stomach sinking, Lexa turns to see that two of his friends have joined them. Tall Boy—Qasim—and Chip Tooth again.
“Wasn’t very polite,” Qasim says. He sounds almost reluctant and he hasn’t yet taken his hands out of his pockets.
“You heard him. Ask again—nicely.”
Lexa scowls. Hasim shakes his head very slightly at her. Politely, Hasim says, “Please, Page Halleburn, may we pass?”
Perrin inspects him carefully before he gives them both a nice, wide smile. “Of course.” He steps to the side. Pointy Chin steps aside too. Lexa throws her shoulders back and marches into the space they’ve left. “Have a nice night, khobi.”
Hasim stiffens in shock and his steps falter. Lexa doesn’t recognise the word but she knows it must be foul—when she turns to look at him, his eyes are dark with fury and his lips curled, disgust plain. He turns around slowly.
“What did you call me?”
Hearing his tone, Lexa resigns herself to another fight. And just when her bruises had begun to fade.
“What?” Perrin asks, not bothering to hide his glee. “Khobi?”
Behind him, Lexa sees Qasim flinch as well.
“Say that one more time and I’ll acquaint your teeth with my fist.”
Perrin puffs up. He starts to roll up his sleeves in slow, deliberate folds. “Big words. I’d like to see you try.” He licks his lips, grins. “Khobi.”
Perrin keeps his eyes on Hasim, which is his mistake. He doesn’t immediately notice when Lexa darts forward—though, he does when she tackles him and drives her shoulder into his stomach. It folds him over and Hasim must use it to his advantage because the next thing Lexa knows, she’s having to find a way out from under a tangle of limbs. Helpfully, Chip Tooth pulls her clear and Lexa gets a good look at Perrin trying to block Hasim from punching him in the face. Again, judging from his fat lip. Less helpfully, Chip Tooth then throws her clear down the hall. Lexa slaps the ground to break her fall—Gus’ll be pleased, she thinks, just before Rat Face’s kick catches her in the side. Rat Face is unprepared for what that brings—Lexa, who had been willing to ignore him as long as he didn’t wade into the fight, makes him her next target.
Compared with her last fight with Perrin and his friends, this one is short but much bloodier.
Three servants break up the fight and take them to Padraig. Lexa’s opponent—Pointy Chin—is nabbed first and she uses it to her advantage, kicking him hard. Another servant grabs her. He has biceps like boulders and drags her by the scuff of her neck, Hasim in his other hand.
The other three pages follow meekly, trailed by the last—and largest—servant.
When they arrive, Padraig looks over them with a cool, furious gaze. He points to a spot in front of his desk and they line up. Then, he makes them wait.
Worse, he makes them stand and wait he writes sheets and sheets of meticulous script. They relax when he puts down his pen but then he begins to read instead and the last of them—Pointy Chin—realises the torture Padraig is putting them through. He lets a faint whimper escape. Without looking up, Padraig sneers.
“You do not want me to lose my chain of thought,” Lord Padraig threatens. “I might have to begin again.”
Even Perrin glares at Pointy Chin when they hear that.
Finally, Lord Padraig sets aside his paperwork. Beginning at one end of the line, he looks over them and his sharp eyes catch each bruise, each drop of blood, each and every tear and popped stitch in their clothes. His gaze rests the longest on Lexa, either because she’s last in line or because there’s so much to see. A large tear in the sleeve of her tunic has left it hanging halfway down her arm, held on by a bare few valiant stitches. The tunic itself is spotted with blood and ink. Half her braid has come out and her curls are enjoying their freedom, springing happily about her forehead and ears. She blows it out of her face with a sneaky puff and succeeds only in making her split lip sting.
The pages—already standing to attention—stand as tall and straight as they’re able. Lexa’s chin has never been higher, she’s sure of that.
He makes his way around his desk and behind them. Lexa keeps her eyes forward though she strains her ears to follow him. Breath in her throat, she thinks she hears him right behind her but then catches a glimpse of him out of the corner of her eye well down the line near Qasim. There’s no way to tell where Padraig is—he walks as soft as a cat and has good reason to torment them.
Lexa winces. His cold tone could freeze water. She sneaks a look—he’s still behind Qasim.
“I have never seen a sorrier lot of pages in my life. Ripped, bloodied—what is this, Halleburn?” He pinches Perrin’s sleeve between two fingers, lifts it.
“Ink, my lord.”
“Ink,” Padraig repeats. The skin around his mouth is tight and white with fury. He strides down the line and around until he is standing next to his desk. “I shall be writing to your families,” he tells them. “All of you. For the next two weeks, you may forget working on your assignments. You will be working every night at whatever task I send you—and you can be assured,” he says, voice silky with promise, “it will be the most disgusting, tedious, back-breaking work that I can devise. If you have enough time to fight then clearly I am not giving you enough to do! I will also ensure that your year mates know exactly who is responsible for giving them extra work. If that is distasteful to you, Gerry,” Padraig snaps, “you should have thought of that before brawling in the corridors!”
Lexa frowns. A thought occurs to her and she steps forward out of line. “My lord?”
“Did it sound like I was done, Haryse?”
“No, my lord.”
“Then what is so important?”
Lexa swallows. “I fell, my lord.” In the sudden silence so profound she thinks the other pages aren’t daring to breathe either, Lexa stares immediately ahead and fixes her eyes on a book in Padraig’s shelf bound in red leather. Until, that is, he steps slowly and purposefully to stop in front of her.
Lexa swallows again.
Her eyes run up—she’s level with his sternum so she has to look up and up, past his rumpled collar to the shadow of a beard on his chin. Did their fight pull him from bed? It’s a funny thought—she wonders briefly what colour his bed sheets are—until she considers how she feels about being woken and suddenly his bad mood seems at once more understandable and more terrifying. Lexa looks up to his face; narrowed into dangerous slits, Padraig’s eyes freeze her to her spot.
“You did, did you?” The question is softly spoken. It makes Lexa shiver. “You fell.”
“Yes, my lord."
Padraig rubs his fingers over his mouth, thinner than ever in his displeasure. Turning away from her, he travels the line of the pages once more. As he does, his hand falls to his belt and he tucks a thumb into it. His four fingers drum against the leather in a soft tattoo.
“And the rest of you?"
Qasim clears his throat. There is no sharpness to his soft voice now. “Yes, my lord, we fell.” The older pages follow his lead, Perrin last of all with a twist to his lips.
“Yesh,” Hasim tells him, words thick and slurring. One of Perrin’s blows had caught him on the jaw and it’s bruising rapidly. When Padraig frowns at him, Hasim continues, “Twice, I fink.”
“Are you quite alright, Nazri?”
Lexa steps onto Hasim’s foot. “He’s addled, my lord. From the fall. Please excuse him.”
Padraig sits at his desk. He crosses one leg, ankle on the opposite knee. “And what of the scuffle three servants report seeing?”
“My lord, if I may.” Padraig nods for Perrin to speak. “They must have been tired after a day of work and…mistook the situation.”
“Yes, my lord.”
“Uh.” Chip Tooth blinks. “Yes, milord. They were mistaken.”
“It was dark,” Qasim says. “It would have been easy to see several people falling and think that it was something that it was no-”
Padraig holds up a hand. Qasim closes his mouth with a click of teeth. “I’ve heard enough. Halleburn, Hosseim. As third-years, pages who should know better,” he impresses with a glare, particularly focused on Qasim, who looks down, “you both will serve a bell of time on Sunday. If you waste my time, I will waste yours. Clear?”
“Yes, my lord,” they both reply.
“Do either of you require a healer?”
Despite their bruises, the two shake their heads no.
“I will think on a suitable punishment for your…clumsiness. You are dismissed.” Perrin and Tall Boy bow and leave. “Gerry, Wiltshire.” Wiltshire, Lexa thinks, annoyed with herself. “If you two insist on doing as Halleburn does, you should be aware of what that is like. Tomorrow morning, you will report to the smiths and inform them that two weights will be added to your harness. You will wear these weights until I decide otherwise. On Sunday, you will serve a bell with the smiths and then report to the palace clerks.” The two second-years pale—the palace clerks are notorious for running pages to exhaustion—but say nothing. “Do either of you require a healer? Then you are dismissed.”
When they are gone, Padraig turns his considerable attention on the two first years.
“Sit,” he tells them finally. Sharing a glance, Lexa and Hasim do as they’re told. Hasim sways in his seat and Lexa holds him still, pats his shoulder when he gives a discreet nod in thanks. “I assume, given your company, you were not the instigators of this event?” They just blink. Padraig sighs. “You didn’t start the fight—yes or no?”
“Fight, my lord? I fell.”
“Don’t be pert, Haryse.”
“I won’t stand for it.”
Padraig rubs tiredly at one eyebrow. He stares thoughtfully across at the pair of them and Lexa spends a long minute imagining all kinds of things he might say to them. Pack up your bags and leave. No food or water for three days. You’re not fit to be pages—we’ll train you to be a servant instead. “You didn’t do as much damage as I expected you would.” Lexa blinks. She hadn’t imagined him saying that. “You both will report to the practice courts after dinner for the rest of the week. Haryse, do tell Nazri that when he’s able to actually listen.”
“Good. Do you require the healers?”
After hearing the others respond to this, Lexa knows what the right answer is. “No, my lord.” Hasim’s version of the same is much slurred through his sore jaw.
A trick of the light—or of her bruised brain—makes her think Lord Padraig’s lips twitch upwards, just for a second. “Don’t be foolish. Do you know where the healers wing is?” he asks, scrawling a note for them.
“Yessir, by the portrait of the ugly man with the pet rats,” Lexa tells him, forgetting herself for a moment as she focuses on how to stand without showing how much pain she’s in.
“The ugl—” Padraig coughs into his fist. “Yes. Quite right, Haryse. Take this.” He folds the paper in two and holds out over his desk. Finally, Lexa manages to stand and only groans audibly once. She doesn’t meet his eyes when she takes the note. “Very good, Haryse. You’re dismissed. You might want to prop up Nazri.”
Lexa looks to Hasim, wavering on his feet. “Yessir,” she agreed. “Very astute of you. Must be why you’re the training master, being so astute,” she adds without thinking. When her words reach her own ears, she flushes. “Begging your pardon, milord, no pertness meant.”
“I astutely noticed that. Go.”
Lexa takes Hasim’s arm and leads him out. At the door, she turns back. "My lord?"
"You're testing my patience, Haryse."
"Yessir. Only, I was wondering if this meant you would pull Qasim from his new position. Teaching us?" she reminds him when Padraig frowns. "He's much better than Tern was."
"I think it would be hard not to be."
"Yes, my lord," Lexa agrees. She closes the door when he nods. Once they’re down the corridor some way, Hasim speaks up. “How’d it go?”
“We’re going to the healers and I think Lord Padraig made a joke.”
“Are you sure? Did you bruise your brain?”
“I didn’t—I know what I saw.”
He hums disbelieving. “Alright. So…it went pretty well then. ‘Cept for the worlds ‘bout to end if you really saw him smile. Lexa laughs, groans when it makes her ribs ache. “Do we have a punishment?”
“I’m not sure. He told us to go to the courts after dinner for the rest of the week.”
“To what? Murder us?”
“That’d only take one night,” Lexa points out.
“He could murder us slowly.”
“Or five times.”
“Could do,” Hasim agrees, morbidly enthusiastic. “Once ev’ry night, resurrect us in time for breakfast.” They share a quiet laugh, even though the thought of it sends a little shiver down their spines.
“Or after breakfast. So they don’t have to feed us.”
They arrive in the healer’s wing and Lexa guides Hasim in through the antechamber. She leans Hasim against the wall next to the door. It’s painted a deep green and the plaque on it is silver. She knocks and waits.
“No one can hear that.”
“Shut up, they can hear it.”
“Can’t. Knock harder. Here, like this.” Hasim reaches out and raps smartly on the door.
“So you can manage that but you couldn’t walk by yourself?”
“You were very eager to help me.”
Lexa rolls her eyes. She regrets it when it makes her head pound in her skull. “Next time, I’ll let you fall over.”
“Wouldn’t. You’re too honourable.”
“Am not. Remember when Perrin found that lizard in his pocket?”
“That was you?”
Lexa sighs. “He wrecked my seating chart that night. I don’t like the class but I worked hard on that assignment.” Hasim squints at her. A little to her left, actually, but he’s still swaying so she think he’s doing his best. “Alright, I made it all up but it still took almost an hour to do.”
“Both of you are sneaky and I admire that.”
“Both of me? How many of me are you seeing?”
“It should only be one, you realise.” Lexa knocks on the door again, louder. “How come no one is answering?”
“Because Duke Baird is answering a clients call,” an unfamiliar and thoughtful voice explains from behind a bookcase. “Sorry. We don’t usually lock the door but it helps keep the noise out. And we usually have someone in here but Marta left to help out a birthing in the city and Yarren is helping reattach a thumb. So, as you can see, we’re a small team tonight.”
“That’s alright,” Lexa says, though pain makes her tone a little sharp. “Can you help us—uh,” she trails off, tongue sticking to the top of her suddenly bone-dry mouth.
From behind the bookcase, a girl about Lexa’s age has stepped out to examine them both. She’s two inches taller in her thin slippers, maybe three in bare feet since Lexa is wearing her boots. She’s black, with warm brown eyes, and has twisted her hair into many thin braids then tied back in a horsetail. Her dress is dark green; her shirt is blindingly clean and white, sleeves very neatly folded and pinned above her elbows. Around her waist is a belt with several pouches hooked onto it—as Lexa watches, the girl opens one and pulls out a green stone. She hands this to Hasim. It flashes when he holds it. The girl clicks her tongue.
“You’re getting too warm. Better come in before you get a fever and then we’ll have to sweat it out. Both of you look dreadful—what have you been doing?”
Lexa shrugs. She tries to work some moisture into her mouth but can’t. Hasim frowns at her, bemused.
“We got in a—er, we fell. Lord Padraig sent us to be healed. We’ve got a note.” Hasim waits for Lexa to show it. When she doesn’t, he sighs. “Haryse.”
“The note.” He lowers his voice. “Do you have a bruised brain?”
“I’m—no, I’m fine. Here.” Lexa shoves the note toward the girl, who takes it with a little smile.
“Thank you.” She opens the note, scans it. Lexa wishes she had thought to read it on the way—whatever is written on it, it makes the girl grin. She slips past Lexa and opens the door. Lexa follows until Hasim clears his throat. She returns, cheeks blazing, to fetch him.
“What’s wrong with you?” he asks quietly as they follow the girl.
“Nothing, shut it.”
“I’ve never seen you forget your words like that.”
“I said shut it,” Lexa hisses, and her cheeks burn a darker red. Hasim frowns at her but shrugs.
“Alright, alright. Sorry.”
The girl leads them through the front room into a large chamber. The walls are white with no adornments. A wall of windows would send light streaming into the room during the day. There are easily two dozen beds in this chamber, all of them empty. Along a short side of the chamber are several cases and cabinets filled with books as well as jars and tubs and boxes, none of which Lexa recognises. One of the long walls has fireplaces built into it, each separated by a few feet of wall. Only one of them is lit, nearest to a big desk in the corner of the room.
Speaking into a mirror on his desk is a man who looks tired beyond his years. Dressed all in black, the Duke looks pale and drawn though Lexa would place him only in his forties—his hair is brown with a reddish tint, only the slightest hint of grey. When he looks up at them, she can see his dark green eyes are direct and clear.
“One moment, Apprentice Fletcher,” Duke Baird tells their guide. He smiles kindly at all three of them. Talking into the mirror, he says, “Use the balm twice daily, once in the morning and then again after dinner. Be sure to wash your hands thoroughly afterwards—contamination in food will make you ill and you might find that it will numb your hands if you leave it for too long.”
The answer to that is indistinct but the Duke must hear it clearly because he nods and smiles before setting the mirror reflective side down on the desk.
“Your Grace, we have patients.”
“So I see. Page, you can set your friend down on the bed.” Happily, Lexa dumps Hasim where the Duke points. “Any instructions for me?”
“This note, Your Grace,” Apprentice Fletcher tells him and hands over the note.
“Ah, good. My apprentice,” the Duke tells Lexa and Hasim. Mostly to Lexa, since Hasim had sighed happily upon sitting and immediately lain down. Lexa nods and fixes her eyes on the tips of her own scuffed boots. “Let’s see the damage, shall we?” Duke Baird lays his hands on Hasim’s shoulders—his Gift shines emerald around his hands and he closes his eyes. He talks with his apprentice in quick murmurs and she takes notes in a small book.
Lexa shifts closer.
“These marks, here and here, which we call…”
“Very good. How would you guess these were made?”
“He’s still talking so it’s just bruised—not a weapon, then, or it might have been broken. A fist?”
“He was in a fight.”
“Didn’t fall?” There’s a good helping of wry humour to the Duke’s tone and Lexa glances up, surprised. He winks and Lexa grins back. “How would you deal with this?”
“Bruise balm once daily for three days and then natural healing. A slow-working healing for the jaw overnight. Plenty of rest.”
“Excellent, I quite agree. I’ll set the healing while you look over Page Haryse for me.”
“Yes, Your Grace.”
With a firm hand, Apprentice Fletcher pulls Lexa to the bed next to Hasim’s. Lexa, wide-eyed, lets herself be pulled. She sits on the edge of the bed and when the girl grabs Lexa’s chin, she obediently twists her head left and right and rolls up her sleeves and follows every order she’s given.
“I wish half my patients were as docile as you,” Duke Baird calls out, smiling kindly.
Lexa flushes hot and stares down at her boots again.
“It really is helpful,” Apprentice Fletcher tells her quietly. “I can tell you that you have just as many bruises as your friend here and if we don’t get this looked at,” she touches the side of Lexa’s eye, very gently, where it’s swelling, “you might have blurred vision for a few days.”
“Easily taken care of, don’t worry. I could do it myself but I’m not really allowed to.”
“Are you a healer?” Lexa asks quietly.
“I’m eleven so…no.”
Duke Baird comes around to her bedside when he’s done with Hasim—now fast asleep—and Lexa sighs happily when his cool magic spreads through her. It settles around her eye and, though it itches, Lexa makes herself relax and accept the magic. She feels the ache siphon away from her bruised rib and her knuckles and shoulder and stirs. She’s not fast enough to argue with the Duke—he pulls his hands away and pats her shoulder.
“Very good, Page Haryse. You barely fought that until the end.”
“Don’t think milord wanted ev’rything healed,” she slurs, tired.
“He’s not here, is he now?”
“Then I employ my own discretion on how to heal my patients. Not to worry, Haryse, you’ll feel plenty in the morning. Sleep,” he tells her, green eyes kind, and Lexa feels herself being lowered onto the pillow. Her feet are swung up onto the bed.
She fights it, though she lets herself yawn convincingly. When the Duke and his apprentice leave the room, Lexa sits up and stumbles over to Hasim’s bed.
“Are you okay?” she asks him, yawning.
“Mhm. Just m’ jaw.” It sounds more stiff now but Lexa guesses that’s the healing taking effect. “Y’know, I was wrong, Haryse. Not m’ friend,” he tells her. Lexa frowns. “We fought t’gether. Drew blood. Makes us,” he yawns, “brothers.”
“I’m a girl.”
Hasim shrugs. “Family, then.”
The idea warms Lexa—she’s never had a sibling before. She finds herself nodding.
“Yeah?” Hasim asks.
“Yeah.” She clasps his hand when he lifts it. Hasim grins as best he can and yawns again. “You can call me Lexa. If you want.”
“Lexa.” Hasim nods. “Y’know, ‘Prentice Fletcher. Her name’s Costia.”
“I—I don’t—why would I need to know that?”
Hasim shrugs again. Closes his eyes. “Jus’ in case. Go ‘way. M’ sleeping.” Lexa slaps his shoulder gently. Eyes still closed, Hasim grins.
Lexa braces herself against the bedside table, healing tiredness dragging at her. She drops into her bed and barely even feels the press of her bruises. Overhead, the ceiling blurs, and she falls deeply into sleep.