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The Hunters Chosen

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Da,

I am all in one piece.

Now that your ‘paternal fears are eased’ (Gustus’s phrasing), here’s the actual interesting news: Lord Padraig says we will be assisting the smiths making our swords soon! And after that, we’ll be learning how to use it! He’s invited smiths from the city to help, since the palace smiths are busy working on another project. Some of the older pages say we don’t get to help, but others (three guesses who) say that the smith will work us until we faint and then use our bones as kindling for the fire. As nasty as Halleburn is, Octavia found the imagery rather brilliant and all they’ve been able to say for days is how much they want a bone hilt sword. They don’t seem to care that bone is fragile and that it might shatter and they won’t listen to me when I tell them so. It’s very frustrating.

My lessons are all going well. Alraed is the best horse in the lot and even better now that she’s not scared that I’ll drop a lance on her head. Don’t laugh at me. Neither she nor I dread that class anymore and it shows. I’m not the best (Hasim is) but I’m not the worst either (Terrance Terry).

Etiquette is dead boring, as always. Master Mori (History) is brilliant. I think he might know even more about the kingdom than even you do—and he’s Yamani!

My other classes are going swimmingly. That’s a joke—Octavia insisted I put it in. It’s funny, or so they say, because I have been teaching them how to swim. Me and Ilian (of Malven) and Hasim (ibn Nazri) and Gus too. We’ve only had a few lessons so far and it’s getting really cold so I think no more lessons until spring.

My other classes really are going well. Despite Master Snappet’s (Mathematics) best efforts, I remain very impressive.

I am in the page’s library at the moment and delaying writing an essay for Master Hardy. I quite like poetry but he’s had us read seven this week and I need a break. Ilian reads them out loud, which is better than having to read them myself. He’s busy currently so I’ll write this and wait for him. Octavia is busy doing an assignment—no, I just checked and they’re drawing a sword with a bone hilt. They’re impossible! I don’t remember how much I’ve told you about them but they’re the Danshame page and Lincoln (of Runnerspring) is their sponsor.

He’s very nice and sometimes gives us extra lessons with the staff. He doesn’t have to but he takes time out of studying and says he doesn’t mind. He’s quiet most of the time but helps a lot when we have to write about paintings. Apparently his mother paints portraits and is requested by plenty of very rich merchants and nobles.

But I was telling you about Octavia… They are shorter than me by an inch or two, but most of the boys are a little shorter than I am—except Ilian, who is several inches taller and two years older. So they’re not alone in that. They have dark hair and they’re really thin and have square shoulders and a square jaw. I think they won’t be very tall when they’re grown—

Octavia interrupted me to disagree. I haven’t the heart to tell them I’m usually right about everything. They’re really good with a staff and at riding, even though Beauty (Octavia’s gelding) is HUGE. They’re also fearless and now happy enough with what I’ve written, even if they still don’t like the idea of being short.

Writ a day later:
I am in my room now and alone. Mostly so I can finish my work but also so I can write to you in peace. It’s not that I don’t trust my friends but there are things I feel foolish writing in front of them. Things I have been thinking that might be just boredom twisting my thoughts.

Octavia is… How a fire is. You can see the wood and the fire itself, but a fire is more than that, it’s the light and the embers and the smoke too and that’s what Octavia is. They are really small (they eat heaps so I think they will grow soon) but there’s more to them. They’re loud and brave and constantly moving and burning. It makes for an interesting friendship. I make mistakes with them all the time—there are things that I say and I don’t realise that it will upset them until they’re in a rage. But just as soon as they’re upset, it’s over. I find I don’t mind their temper as much as I thought I would, or as much as I did when we first met. It’s honest, and I like that. People are more confusing in the city. Octavia is only confusing until they tell me they like something—or tell me loudly they don’t like something—and then they’re not confusing anymore.

I miss Haryse. We were all of one mind there. Things were simple and safe. Please don’t misunderstand and ride (slowly) to my rescue. I’m not afraid here. I don’t fear the city or its challenges. I only wonder if I’ll ever understand it all, or if anyone has.

Writ the same afternoon:

Da—pleas e scold Gustus. He threw me into the lake. It was really cold. Haryse is likely frozen over by now, it’s nearly winter, its not much warmer here. I’m cold. My head is burning but my feet are frozen. I’m wearing Mara’s blanket. Thank her for me please.
I’m not happy. I’ve sneezed four times. It hurts to sneeze. It hurts to write. Gus is no friend of mine. Everything hurts. I wrote you anyway because I know you’ve been waiting for a letter. And I’m your darling daughter and heir so I have obliged and you’re welcome.

Also have added list of books I want thank you
Love Lexa


“Lexa." 

“Anya.”

“How are you feeling?”

Lexa lifts her aching head on her aching neck and fixes Anya with a stare. She has to stare, squinting almost to a glare, because if she doesn’t then her eyes tend to fog over or slip exhaustedly to the side. “Fine.”

“Right. Back into bed with you.”

“I’m fine,” she argues, even as Anya bodily picks her up from her study chair. She tries to struggle free but can’t. Finally, she settles for pouting. “This is unnecessary.”

“I’m fulfilling my vow,” Anya says, obviously delighted. Crouched next to Lexa’s bed, Anya tucks the blankets tight around Lexa’s shivering body and pats her on the head while she’s unable to defend herself. “You wouldn’t stop me from fulfilling my vow, would you?”

“No,” she grits out. “I suppose not.”

“Good. Go to sleep.” Anya pats her again—Lexa snarls at her ineffectively—and stands. “Have you finished this letter?”

“Yes. I can send it myself.”

“You’re in bed and even if the healer comes tonight you’ll still sleep all of tomorrow. I’ll deliver it.” Still, Anya doesn’t pick it up until Lexa gives her a grudging nod. “Do you need anything else?”

Tucked neatly into bed, all her work finished, and exhaustion about to hit her like a battering ram, Lexa sighs. “No. Thank you.”

Anya closes the door gently behind her.

Some hours later, the door opens and Mistress Yuga ushers in two familiar faces. It’s late, and dark, and the magelight they bring with them fills the room with white, gentle light. Lexa props herself up on her elbows, a little dizzy, and greets Costia with a broad smile. She clasps her hand and smiles again when Costia returns the affection with a cool touch to her brow.

“Not too high,” she says, which Lexa thinks is an odd greeting.

“Hello, Apprentice Fletcher.” Costia looks at her when she says it and she smiles.

“Hello, Page Haryse.” That is a better greeting. Not that she disliked the first one but she doesn’t know the proper response and she’d hate to offend Costia. Costia’s eyes are sparkling beautifully now like she’s very happy and Lexa blinks, rubs with her free hand at her heavy eyelids. “How are you feeling, Page Haryse?”

“Lexa. I’m—you can call me Lexa.”

“Then you must call me Costia,” she offers, and Lexa flushes.

“I have a fever, did you know?” she’s quick to tell her, in case Costia thinks that her flush is—gods forbid—a blush. Luckily, Costia nods very seriously. She will make a very good Healer one day, Lexa is certain of it. “My Gustus threw me into the lake and I caught a chill.”

“And a mild hot-pox sickness,” Costia adds. She looks purposefully to Lexa’s hands. Lexa follows her eyeline and looks with some surprise at the welts across her arms. Her forearm is red with scratches. As Lexa watches, her free hand comes up and begins to scratch at her other arm. Costia holds that hand too. “I’ve made up a salve for you. Can you look at me?”

When she talks so sweetly to her, Lexa thinks she could do anything. She looks up. Duke Baird, who is sitting by her feet at the end of her bed, smiles gently at her.

“Do you remember when you first got itchy?” he asks.

Lexa considers that question. She rubs her arms on her blanket but stops when Costia’s grip tightens. “No. I apologise.”

“That’s alright.” Costia’s hands move up Lexa’s arms. It’s a very odd sensation—her hands have become sticky and slimy—but then Lexa looks down and sees that she’s smoothing a yellow paste onto her arms. “This is a mild burn paste.”

“But it’s an itch, not a burn.”

“I know,” Costia says, and gives her a look Lexa thinks means she would roll her eyes but Duke Baird is in the room.

Duke Baird is in the room. Lexa can’t remember if she’s greeted him, or bowed, so she decides to do both just in case. “Good evening, Your Grace.”

“Good evening, Page Haryse. A burn paste will soothe any irritants on the skin and protect it from foreign bodies, such as dirt or dust.”

“Or scratching fingers,” Costia adds, with a pointed look at Lexa’s free hand. Lexa curls it into a fist and presses it against her knee.

She’s getting dizzy again and leans back against her headboard. Two Costia’s swim in her vision.

“Oh no, your Grace, is she-”

“Think it through, Costia,” he says, voice calm.

Lexa sees Costia breathe in and out for a moment before she nods, once, determined. For the first time, she sees a little flicker of green Gift around their noses and mouths and hands. Costia reaches for Lexa, holds out a little glass vial of green-brown liquid. It smells faintly of herbs and, when she drinks, powerfully of nettles and pepper. It itches going down but that fades quickly.

“I should’ve had you drink it to start with,” she adds, with a sheepish look over her shoulder.

Duke Baird nods but he doesn’t scold her. Lexa supposes he’s a little like Padraig like that—he gives Costia lessons and expects her to figure it out.

“Exactly,” Duke Baird says with an approving note in his voice. Lexa opens her eyes. He’s crouching next to her bed now. She meets his eyes—very green, very calm—and for a moment her vision swims again.

“Emry?” She blinks. “Oh. Your Grace. I met Emry, did you know?” Her words slur a little and she slumps heavier against the headboard.

“Did you?” He takes one of her hands loosely in his, presses his fingers to her wrist. “And how is he?”

“Nice ‘n’ sturdy. Like a chair. Not a throne or a cushy chair, just a normal one.” She gazes at her ceiling thoughtfully. “Maybe a bench.”

“I see.” With hooded eyes, the Duke disguises how he feels about that description. His hands remain gentle, however, so Lexa thinks not too badly. “Don’t fret,” he says, and Lexa is certain she’s not fretting so he must be speaking to someone else. She looks from him to the other person in the room.

“Oh, hello Apprentice Fletcher.”

“Hello, Lexa.” Lexa flushes. Her name sounds sweeter on Costia’s tongue. “I’m not fretting.” Lexa nods gravely. She believes Costia. “How do you feel?”

Lexa tests out her muscles and is relieved to feel she can move everything. She had felt much weaker earlier that evening. The itching, under the now glazed-and-hardened paste, is nearly unbearable though.

“Better. Itchy.”

“That is to be expected,” Costia says. She glances again at the Duke. “Sir?”

“You may continue, Apprentice Fletcher.”

“But-“

“You are doing just fine,” he soothes.

“Yes, your Grace. Lexa.”

Lexa beams. “Yes?”

“You must not itch. The sensation will pass by morning but until then you may feel as though you must itch. To counter this, I would like to put you to sleep. Will you let me do that?” Lexa considers that for a moment.

“But if you put me to sleep,” she counters, tone very reasonable, “I will not be able to itch. I need to itch.”

“You cannot itch. You will scar.”

“But I must. I’m sure of it—I’m itchy.”

Costia purses her lips. Her eyes narrow and those lovely eyes flash with purpose. “No.”

“But –”

“Let me put it this way. For your health, we will be putting you to sleep. Now. Are you comfortable?”

Lexa tries to follow the words but they slip out of her grasp, dizzy and slick with fever-sweat and confusion. “I – yes?”

“Good. Goodnight, Lexa.”

“Goodnight?” she echoes, and then Duke Baird touches her brow.

The following evening, Duke Baird gives her permission to leave her bed. She has dinner with the rest of the pages—Padraig nods at her and she nods deeper, almost a bow, at the acknowledgement that she won’t be punished for being sick—and then works on the assignments she missed while she was sick.

Before curfew, she excuses herself. Anya walks her to her room and, when Lexa is sure that her sponsor has gone, she collects a small box and trots to the healers wing.

A healer Lexa doesn’t recognise waves her in. “Good evening, page. Where are you hurt?”

“I am not. I’m here to see Apprentice Fletcher.” She moves the box to one hand, wipes her sweaty palm on her breeches. She does the same with her other hand.

“She’s not in tonight. Want to leave that here?” The healer looks nice and trustworthy and as much as Lexa would like to see Costia she nods. “Here, you can write a note for her if you like.”

Lexa thanks the healer and stares down at the page for a moment. Her pen drips ink onto the page and she shakes herself out of her hesitation, writes a polite note in neat script and tucks it into the box.


Lexa,  

I hardly know where to begin. Perhaps with an assurance that Gustus shall know of my displeasure. Or perhaps my amusement—seeing you ramble in a letter is almost as amusing as listening to your ramblings. You always do when you’re ill. I’m surprised that you survived the incident in the lake and your illness with your self-importance in tact—I don’t fault Gus for that, of course, since neither he nor I have been any good at bringing you to heel. What a terrible phrase for that. I only mean that denying you ought is not our strong suit. It makes me wonder…is your wildness our fault? But no. No, I have thought on it long and hard and I’m sure it is uniquely your own.

I am very glad to hear that you are all in one piece. Gustus wrote to me also to tell me you had taken ill with the hot-pox sickness. I hope that the healers knew what it was soon enough to help. You’re no doubt recovered by now but I’m afraid—and I apologise—that Mara overheard you were unwell and she’s insisted that I send the tea she makes when you are sick. Knowing for myself how foul it is, I wanted to refuse. I could not. She has a power beyond anything I have known—she scolded me so thoroughly I am still shaking now, a whole day past. Please remember that I did try to save you from the tea.

On mention of Mara, I remember I meant to tell you: Haryse is not quite frozen over yet, but we did experience the first snowfall of the season last night. I knew it before I had fully awoken—the smell of it, and the cold, was enough. I lay in bed for some long minutes before I remembered that you were not here. I fully expected to hear you running through the halls to wake me and tug me out into the snow. To make snow beasts and to pelt each other with snowballs until we were quite numb. I did not uphold that tradition, I admit. It holds none of the same importance when a small child is not tugging at you. However, it may please you to know that I did light a great fire at breakfast and bade Mara and Corin to dine with me. Corin has shown an aptitude for organisation that I hadn’t expected. He had always seemed quite shy but he has been very helpful with getting in the last of the winter-crisp apples and collecting the reports from our villages as to the repairs that need to be done before the true snowfalls. I’m thinking of training him to be a caretaker. Mostly, though, we spent some time discussing you—Mara in particular has many stories of you slipping free of her. You climbed out a window to escape your embroidery class? I haven’t laughed so long in weeks as I did when I heard that. Have no doubt that they shall be welcome at my table again, and as I have no doubt that the season shall grow colder still, I shall insist on a place at the table for any who ask.

Your sickness is not the only development Gustus saw fit to write of. Apparently, there are new friends in your life and figures of closer relation still. By this, I mean that according to Gus we are to welcome a brother into the family. This does not…displease me, given that Gustus is a man I hold in a similar regard and who has in every forked path of my life walked at my side. I do understand, perhaps more than you realise, the sincerity of such a bond. I would like to know more about this brother of yours. Is it the quiet Malven hier? Or the Seabeth boy? You mentioned him several times in your first letters and I have taken the liberty of reviewing what I know of his family. I am pleased to report that I have heard only good things about Seabeth—his father is honourable and has made quite a substantial base in the south. Not only that, but the Seabeath shipping companies are making headway in the Copper Isles that will be profitable in connections and wealth. I approve very much.

Everything you have written about the Danshame page…I think that you cannot have found anyone more different from you, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. I caution you to hold firm to the things you find important and not be swayed by displays of temper. However, if you trust this child, and it sounds like you do, then I think that you have made a good and honest friend for life and I am pleased for you.
I have included the books you have requested in the package Mara made for you. Corin slipped in a little something for Alraed and Mara would like for you to share the biscuits with your friends, and with Gustus.

From here, I shall write on Haryse business.

Much love,
Your father,
Titus.

Writ the following day:

I have received a missive from Lord Padraig. Much of it regards your progress of these last two months. It did not surprise me to find you are performing adequately. You have always put your full mind and your full – and considerable – determination to your tasks. I am very proud. It did surprise me, however, to learn that the Tirragen heir is your sponsor. I am interested to know how it is that neither you nor Gustus saw fit to inform me of this. I would like to know more. What is the Tirragen heir like? What topics does she discuss with you? What does she enjoy outside of classwork? Is she of even temperament?  Write me soon. All my love, your father.


“The practice of making your own sword isn’t so common anymore. Mostly because maybe one of you would have some talent at it and even then it would take months of practice to get something that looked anything like a sword out of you. We don’t have that kind of time to waste." 

Padraig, hands clasped behind his back, looks over the line of first years.

They’re trembling with excitement, all of them. Even Sour Virgil is, looking like one of those racing hounds all ribs and long-legged intensity. When Padraig’s gaze rests on each of them, they fall still under it for as long as he stares. When he moves on, their nerves, and excitement, and the thrill of having their own sword has them shivering again.

“What we do expect is effort,” he tells them, voice crisp, “and manners befitting a knight. Honour. Chivalry. Respect.” Lexa takes the words into herself like rocks lobbed into a lake. They send ripples to the edges of herself and she knows they remain there, deep inside, and that she is forever changed. She sucks in a breath and focuses on her training master again. “When someone is skilled at a task that you are not, you assist them. There is no difference between a common man and a noble man when they are dead.”

That makes the pages stir. Lexa wonders if it is the idea that they are not so different from a commoner, or if it is the mention of death. She wonders if they have not yet considered it for themselves.

Lexa touches two fingers to the centre of her chest and shivers.

“You will work as hard for them as you would for me.”

“Yes sir!’

“Follow every command at a jump, dedicate your whole self to every job. I don’t care if it’s chopping wood or wielding a hammer or sweeping the floor. I don’t care if you like it. You will do it. Do I make myself clear?” Padraig demands.

“Yes sir!”

“Very good.” He examines each of them once more before nodding. “Masters Smiths, I turn them over to you.” Padraig steps aside to reveal several smiths—two men, one pale and bald and one bearded and black, both quite short, and one dark woman of middling height with hair cropped severely short. Padraig directs two of the pages to each smith: Virgil and Ilian to the first, Master Crocker; Octavia and Terrance to the second, Master Nallsk; and Hasim and Lexa to third, Mistress Whistler.

They approach her slowly and then, when she jerks her head at them, at a trot. When they reach her, she whips out a corded rope and is done before Lexa can even open her mouth. She grunts at the result and moves onto Hasim. Lexa doesn’t know whether to be pleased or not with the mistress smith—she isn’t sure whether she’s been paired with her because they’re both women—but then the mistress stoops to pick up a box of tools and steel spikes and her biceps bulge, straining in her sleeves. Lexa gulps.

“Come on,” she says, and from that point on proves herself to be a woman of few words.

The palace has lent her a forge on the grounds for as long as it takes to make swords she’s pleased with and her apprentices are making themselves at home setting out her tools and supplies. She nods to each of them and then ignores them, and the pages.

The apprentices, Lexa discovers, run underfoot seemingly with connected minds. They have no need for instructions—Mistress Whistler points and they run, back to her in seconds with the exact tool she needs. She grunts and they hand her a cloth. A huff and they find her the bucket she wants, or stoke the fires hotter still. Lexa and Hasim get their instructions from the apprentices—running for wood, keeping the forges hot with enormous bellows, filling buckets, emptying buckets, re-filling buckets, and mostly standing out of the way and watching as the mistress smith works the metal into shape, and re-works it, until she is pleased.

They work with her in every spare moment. Early in the mornings, in the time after classes and before dinner, after dinner until lights out. Somehow, the swords change before their eyes from identical lengths of metal into blades.

They are not as fine as the rippling blue blades from Raven Armoury but neither are they ugly, unskilled things. They are balanced and neat and wickedly sharp. The stopper pommel has a forgers mark, a long rectangle that Lexa stares at for some time before she can recognise it as a reed whistle, but is otherwise unembellished. Mistress Whistler has them cut and work and dye the leather for their grips themselves. Lexa chooses black, the secondary colour for the Haryse arms. Hasim chooses a dark red.

At the end of that week, Hasim and Lexa return to Padraig—sweating and flushed and marked by several stinging burns—and present their swords to him.

The Mistress Whistler comes with them.

Padraig examines Hasim’s sword first, and then Lexa’s.

“Fine work, Mistress Whistler.” She nods. She doesn’t see the need to speak even for Padraig, clearly. “How did these two serve?”

“Well enough.”

Lexa sneaks a glance out of the corner of her eye. Mistress Whistler’s face is set, but not unkind, and when Padraig looks down at the swords again she swears she sees the smith nod to her.

“I am pleased with the work you’ve done, Mistress.”

“Thank you, milord.”

Evidently, the smith heard a dismissal in that for she turns and leaves. Padraig waits until the door to his office closes behind her and then he sheathes each of the blades and returns them to the pages.

“Sword-fighting is unlike hand-to-hand or staff work. Each of the years trains separately. Tomorrow, you will report to the mirrored hall after your last class of the day.”

“Yes, milord,” Lexa and Hasim chorus.

He drums his fingers on the hilt of his own sword. Finally, nose pinched thin in thought, he speaks again. “Do you know why I include pages in the making of their own swords?”

Lexa glances at Hasim, who looks as apprehensive and confused as she feels. They shake their heads no. 

“No,” Padraig nods. “I thought not.”

The drumming of his fingers slows, and then stops.

“You are dismissed, Page ibn Nazri, Page Haryse. Close the door when you leave.”

They both bow and trot out of his office. Lexa pats her sword on her hip when they stride down the hallway. It feels odd—the practice swords had been weighty but they hadn’t felt like this, like they had been made to hang at her side.

“What do you think he meant?” she asks.

Hasim shrugs. “Dunno. Probably some wise lesson about duty.” Lexa looks to him, surprised. “What? My father tries to teach me all the time.”

“He must be disappointed to know that he’s failed,” she teases. Hasim’s smile is quick and bright and pushes laughing crinkles up in the corners of his eyes.

Unsurprisingly, all the first year pages can talk about that evening are their swords. Octavia is the first to leave the library, wanting to polish and sharpen their sword. Lexa reluctantly packs up her books to go with them when Anya suggests she does, since Anya can’t walk her to her room tonight.

“Polishing your sword, eh? I remember polishing my sword for the first time,” Benny reminisces, expression gleeful. He yelps a moment later when Anya kicks him hard.

Lexa looks between them, confused.

“Ignore him,” Anya tells her. Lexa nods. She’s always happy to ignore Benny, which she tells Anya.

“Oh, cruel, cruel words. I can hear you,” Benny complains.

“Good,” Lexa and Anya say together. “And goodnight,” Lexa says to Anya, and the others at their table. Octavia is standing at the door of the library impatiently and she jogs to join them.

“Master Nallsk was brilliant,” they tell her. “He explained everything he was doing and even let us try. Not our swords, of course, but we made little daggers.” They pull one out of their pocket to show it off and they grin when Lexa does. It is indeed a little dagger, its blade the length of Lexa’s little finger—but sharp, she can see—and its handle about the same length again. “This one is for you,” they tell her, and fish out their own where it hangs from a cord around their neck. “I, uh, I made one for each of us.” Octavia says it without inflection but Lexa can see a flush spreading across the back of their neck and over their cheeks.

She takes the dagger and searching in her own bag for a length of cord she knows is in there. Measuring out the right length, she ties the cord around the misshapen hilt—though, admittedly, Lexa can’t say that she would have done a better job than they did—and hangs it under her own shirt. She feels it knock gently against her harness and lays an open hand over it.

“Thank you, Octavia,” Lexa says gravely.

“Sure.”

“Sincerely,” she insists.

Their flush darkens. “Right. Have you named your sword?” Their change in topic is not unexpected and Lexa allows it. She shakes her head no. “I’m going to name mine. A sword like this? It needs a name, don’t you think?” Octavia’s hand doesn’t leave the hilt on their hip. Now that Lexa thinks about it, she doesn’t think it has for the entire evening. “It’s beautiful.” There’s a wonder, a delight in their tone and Lexa smiles, thinking of all the things Octavia finds beautiful: enormous and wild horses; fires; a well-made sword; the bloodiest of poems; winter-bleak landscapes, all greys and whites and blacks; and washed out paintings of the same. “Will you name yours?”

Lexa shrugs. She rubs her palm over the pommel. “If cause presents itself.”

“A sword has to be named. Sir Alanna named her first sword Lightning.”

“Sir Alanna pulled her second sword from an armoury of the Old Ones in the midst of a lightning storm,” Lexa points out. “Yours was made by Master Nallsk in the palace forge."

Octavia contemplates that. A frown brings their dark brows sharply together, but it is thoughtful rather than angry. “You’re saying I shouldn’t name it?”

“Not necessarily.” She swirls her fingers over the whistle mark. “I’m saying that there’s a difference between your sword and a legendary sword.”

Lexa didn’t think there was anything insightful about that comment, but Octavia must hear something in it that she didn’t intend because their frown fades and is replaced with a cocky grin. They stop, pull their sword from its sheath. Padraig had drilled them all that evening in drawing and sheathing their swords and it seems to have worked well enough. Octavia doesn’t fumble this time, at least.

They touch a finger to the blade; red wells up around the press of the metal and runs in a bead across the width of it. The blood gathers on the opposite edge, runs to the point, and falls to the stone floor.

“There, it has tasted blood,” Octavia says with satisfaction. “I have to name it now. And I name it—no, I dub thee…Legend.”

Lexa fights the urge to roll her eyes. “You have to keep it if you bleed on it, you don’t have to name it.”

“No, I think you do.”

“I don’t think so.”

“I do.” Octavia holds up a hand to stop her from disagreeing again. “Hush, you. Just imagine it—Sir Octavia on their steed,”

“The magnificent Beauty,”

“Now you get it,” Octavia says approvingly. “Legend the Sword at their hip.”

“Oats the Feedbag around Beauty’s neck,” Lexa contributes, keeping her face still and serious.

Octavia ignores her easily. “Just you wait, Lexa. There’ll be songs written about me.”

Lexa grins. “Maybe.”

“Just you wait.” They sheath their sword and strut the last few steps to their room. “Sleep well, Lexa.” They tap their sternum where their little dagger hangs, and wink, and Lexa feels fondness rush over them like a wave.

She mimics the gesture. “Sleep well, Octavia.” With a twist of her lips, she adds, “Legend.”

It makes Octavia grin and they bow with a ridiculous flourish before withdrawing.

Despite her disbelief over the tradition of naming a sword that had been bled over, when her sword jerks in her hand that night as she sharpens it, Lexa hesitates before wiping the blood away. The blade catches the lamplight and her eyes, reflecting them, and Lexa sits with her sword across her lap for some time. The name comes to her like a whisper, which she follows until she hears it clearly.

Sunder.

“Sunder,” she repeats.

The great palace bell tolls.

She jumps, stares wide-eyed out the window, and laughs shakily after a moment. That was coincidence, Lexa tells herself and feels better for it. She laughs at herself, shakes her head.

Her sword sits in her lap still, her blood still reddening the edge. “I dub thee Sunder,” she repeats, mimicking Octavia’s wording, and cleans it off.


Father,

I’m recovered. Tell Mara I drank the tea—it was disgusting and made me sweat more than the fever did. I feel much better.
My blood-brother, twice sword—once in blood shared in a fight and once with blood shared freely—is Hasim ibn Nazri of the Bloody Hawk Tribe, son of Naseem ibn Nazri, chief of his tribe. Hasim is not the second son of a shipping empire. He is the fourth child to the chief and likely will not be his fathers heir. He makes me laugh.

The Tirragen heir is my sponsor and friend. Her name is Anya. I suggest you learn to use it.

If anything about this letter seems unnecessarily sharp to you, consider: I feel a closeness to her and a kinship. She has both my loyalty and my affection, to such a depth that I must ask you never to force my hand between you and her.

Alexandra.


At the start of the winter, the Queen and her youngest daughter are taken with a fever. Rumour through the palace is that the King cares not at all for illness—fears it, even—and with those rumours came the inflated, Lexa thinks, stories of how Page Alan, before becoming Sir Alanna, had saved him from the Sweating Sickness. That she had done it Lexa doubts not at all. That Sir Alanna had ventured into the thorny forests of the deep South Forests, beyond the Emerald Ocean, and returned with a single drop of water from the Pool of Everlasting Wellness she very much doubts. 

“Especially since the name is so obviously made up. Pool of Everlasting Wellness.” Lexa snorts. “How awful.”

“What would you call it then?” Octavia swings their staff lazily in an imitation of the glaive dance they’d seen when they’d spied—‘accidentally’—on the Princess’s Ladies.

Lexa meets the end of their staff with her own, clacking, and sends them spinning away, and again when they spin from the other direction. She laughs, aims for their legs so they have to jump over, and, when Octavia swings brutally for her head, ducks into a crouch. The slush of the first snowfall wets their knees when they stumble and they grimace, shake clumps of it free from their leg.

“Well?” Octavia pants. “Gonna admit you’re no great wit either?”

“I don’t know what I would call it—but I know enough to not call it something so terrible!”

“Pah! That’s half the fun! I would call it something like that. The Immortal Drop. Or the Long-Life Leaf.” Lexa grimaces. Octavia grins. “Besides, everyone knows that Sir Alanna called upon the blessing of the Great Mother, was carried across the world by a giant white hawk, collected a tear from the last dragon in the Realm, and poured it into the prince’s mouth before the last breathless hour of the night came to an end.”

“Last breathless hour?”

“I heard it yesterday. Good, right?”

“No. That’s worse than the Pool of Wellness.”

Everlasting Wellness.”

“Whatever.”

Octavia stops trying to bash Lexa’s head in and pauses to catch their breath. They prop their chin on the end of their staff and glance over the court. “What do you think is keeping Fared?”

“Maybe he’s going to start us on something new,” Lexa suggests with very little actual hope in her voice. In the two months they’ve been training, Fared had drilled them and drilled them again in the same forms until Lexa is sure she’s performing them in her sleep and then he drills them some more. No doubt that is the purpose, she reminds herself. Simple skills to keep us alive. Strong foundation.

Octavia looks at her like she’s grown a new head. “Something new?”

“Just a thought.”

“Close to blasphemy!”

“Not quite.”

“Practicing these forms is as close to worship as I get, and twice as regular.”

That is close to blasphemy.” Lexa peeks up at the sky but no storm clouds have formed and Octavia doesn’t look like their blood is boiling in their veins, so they seem to be safe.

Octavia shows their amusement by whacking at her head again. Not for the first time, Lexa wonders why they’ve made friends with such a violent page. But then when Octavia knocks her to her feet and, though they make a joke at her expense, they offer their hand immediately to help her up. They teach Lexa the spin and twist they’d used and, when Lexa uses it against them, Octavia crows their delight instead of complaining, and Lexa knows she could do much worse in a friend.


Alexandra.

Your most recent letter—and I use letter loosely—left much to be desired in length and respect dueHowever—I do not want you to draw away from me. We are already far from one another and I do not relish misunderstandings taking from us the summers we will share. So, then. Honesty. I will write honestly my thoughts.

Lexa, my girl.

I poured for some time over it nonetheless and could not, at first, believe what I was reading. It is common knowledge that the Tirragen heir  your sponsor possesses a Gift, though how strong it is has been kept tightly guarded. I will admit to wondering whether she would be able to enchant you without the knowledge of your masters. And yet, I know that she has not. The strange gaps in your letters that I can read as shame or fear of your sponsor are gaps that can as easily be filled with your anxieties in mentioning her to me, and I am too self-aware to not know which is the true cause. Too self-aware, that is, and too familiar with you, my daughter. Those strange gaps are nothing when compared to all that I see of you in your letters. The girl I raised to be direct and honest, and who grew up braver and stronger than I had ever expected. I can only come to the conclusion that you feel an honest connection with your sponsor.

Though this may shame you, I admit I am not possessed of the same gifts as you are. Therefore I ask of you, give me the allowance of time to consider this. Please.

As you think on that, I will tell you about Haryse, as you mentioned you have missed it. How we miss you!

Haryse is beautiful in winter, as always. I find nothing in the world comparable to the morning snow. Dozens of lines spring to mind, all from poets great and fair, but none manage to capture what it is truly like. Some capture parts and pieces. The stillness. The quiet. The way the snow crunches underfoot or slimes its way into boots and under cloaks. Or the way the snow blankets the village. And yet none fill me with the same bone-chill content—such a strange feeling it is, to be so pleased and so cold at once. I think it is a belongingness that the poets cannot comprehend. They manage, somehow, to lay claim to a piece of the world, a piece of a season, but they do not belong in it. Not in the way I feel connected with Haryse, or with you somewhere at the far end of this vast sheet of snow.

You are not so far away, even in Corus. We have kept up the traditions you have demanded since you could speak. Branches of pine have been strung up over every doorway, green cloth adorns the tables, and silver has been put into every hand. The doors of Haryse sit open in welcome for any guest and traveller. The fire in the hall will burn until the first day of spring. There is a little girl who has taken it upon herself to tend it; she carries kindling from the village to the fire here each day and is watched over most intently by Corin, who seems afraid that she will burn herself.
She has not thus far.

All she does is set down her kindling at her side and then watch, entranced by the flame. I do not think she Sees, and I do not think she has a Gift. She reminds me of you. Stubborn, entrenched in the common motions of life, and yet finding wonder in most everything. I have asked questions of our village, and the villages further out from here. By months end I will know if this girl has family of her own and until then I shall ensure that she is warm and fed. Mara is hard at work making blankets for each of our villagers and some for the cattle too. Corin has gone out with the woodcutters every day and made such a collection for us I think we shall not need to find firewood for the whole of winter. The household is busy with preparing for winter, smoking and salting meats, drying herbs, pickling all the vegetables they can find, plucking every feather off the birds they bring in from the hunts and skinning every fat-or-thin rabbit. No head or foot will go cold this winter, they seem to be stubbornly making sure of that.
Write home soon. Mara and Corin miss you, as do the others.
And so do I. Far more than I can put to words.

Your loving father,
Titus.  

//

My dearest Lexa,

I know I didn’t wait until receiving a response before sending this letter—two letters in a row, you must think me terribly bored to write so often, but I think it is that winter makes your presence felt more. In the warm months you were often out climbing trees and whacking Gustus with sticks, but winter found you curled in that armchair of mine in my study. I miss it. There’s a very old dog I’ve coaxed to sit in it in your place, but he isn’t as good company as you are. He snores and I believe I will be shaving my head again—he has fleas!

I am writing this so soon—your birthday is not for another two weeks—as Mara has insisted I not risk your gift arrives late. We’ve included your Midwinter gift as well, as I remember the early snow of last year and would be terribly upset if you found yourself without your fathers gift come the longest night. I cannot believe that you shall be eleven already! Are you the eldest in your year, save for the Malven boy? Do you feel much wiser? How much have you grown? In my mind, most often you are as small as you were when I left you. At other times, I imagine you as tall as your dear old father! With this letter, I have sent a gift as well as a new cloak in case Mara’s instincts that you are outgrowing everything is correct. Without your measurements she couldn’t make your clothes, but I have sent Gustus enough funds to cover a city tailor.

I miss you very much. I remind myself that you are a page, as you have wanted for so long, and I find myself so pleased and so proud of you that little else matters.

I hope that our gifts bring you joy and remind you of home.

Much love,
Your Father,
Titus.

Writ later:

I concluded my letter too soon—Mara has given me some clothes for you, with another two inches in the wrists and ankles. And orders to have them hemmed if they are too long. Not adjusted, mind—only hemmed. (Her words.) She doesn’t trust the ‘poor work of those quick to cut where a stitch will do’.


Some quarter of the palace—nobles and workers and servants alike—fall ill after the first heavy snowfall. Several of the pages drop too, including Anya.

The sickness begins with a fever and progresses to the point where it keeps Anya confined to her washroom heaving up her dinner no matter how the healers try to ease her nausea. And they do try but only Costia, another apprentice, and one of the novice healers are free to assist the pages with their hurts and aches and illnesses. The rest of the healers—Duke Baird in particular—are kept at the bedside of the Queen and the young princess to help ease their recovery.

With several pages sick, Sir Fared lets them pair up with anyone they like instead of insisting on years. Lexa returns to Octavia with their staff and her own, and finds that Perrin and Melvin have come to stand with them. 

“No.”

“You’re not even going to give us a chance?” Perrin asks quietly.

“No,” Octavia spits, as Lexa says, “Definitely not.”

Perrin’s lips turn down softly. There’s little hint of annoyance or anger in his expression. Melvin is doing his best impression of a rock. “I see. That’s disappointing.”

Octavia ignores Perrin, turning their attention instead to Nond. “You’re being chatty. Tooth still a little loose?”

He scowls at them for that comment and cracks his knuckles. Perrin holds a hand out in front of him. When Melvin stops, Perrin smiles a tight, unpleasant smile at the two first-years.

“Funny, Danshame.” He barely spares Octavia a glance, Lexa realises, before his eyes are back on Lexa. “I’d advice my friend to be less funny. Tirragen isn’t here to save your skin, after all.”

“A threat?” Octavia’s chin juts up and out and they grip their staff tight.

“Just an…observation.”

“Interesting observation,” they say. “Want to know what I’ve observed?”

“Octavia…”

“I observed Lexa knocking you out with one punch,” Octavia hisses. Perrin’s gentled expression instantly sours. “And I observed that she wasn’t far off doing the same to you, Nond.”

“Perhaps that’s enough,” Lexa suggests quietly.

Perrin bares his teeth. “I agree, Haryse. That’s quite enough.”

Lexa drags Octavia back half a foot or so to where they can practice their forms out of Perrin’s reach. His agreeing with her makes her skin itch and she scowls.

“Why’d you stop me?” Octavia asks quietly. “It was fine—Sir Fared is watching.”

Lexa sneaks a look to their instructor. Sir Fared is watching them—like a hunting hawk. Added to his intense stare, his beaked nose and his habit of shaking out his hands like a bird might shake out their pinions solidifies the impression. His eyes rest for a time on the two third-years.

“If you disrupt my class,” he tells them, eyes flicking to where Lexa and Octavia are, “you won’t like the punishments I can come up with.”

In case the warning includes them, Lexa and Octavia nod. Perrin and Melvin take a moment longer but they nod too. Once Sir Fared has turned his back, they both smirk over at the first-years.

It’s obvious to Lexa that neither of them mind that he’ll punish them—or don’t believe that he’ll follow through—and she wonders if Sir Fared doesn’t know about the rivalry or if he’s as honourable as the rumours insist he is, and holds everyone to the same standard and thinks they’ll put aside their misgivings. She suspects it’s the latter since he’s never seemed stupid or ignorant, but she’s still annoyed. He can only give so much attention to each pair—he should have made them move, she thinks. Or maybe this is a test for us. The thought comes tripping on the heels of the one before and Lexa scowls.

She’s not an idiot—she knew that her instructors might not be fair, that the boys might haze her. She knew these things, but the more they happen, the less normal or fair she thinks it is.

“On my count,” Sir Fared calls, eyes unwaveringly on Perrin. “High! Middle! Low!”

The familiar clash of wood breaks around the court. Sir Fared lingers down their end for some time but eventually he has to move and yell at other pages to fix their stance and stop flinching, Seabeth! When a page cries out and stumbles out of line—right at the opposite end of the court—he strides to them, to scold and correct them.

Lexa feels the loss of him at her shoulder. She looks uneasily to the pair trading lazy blows next to her.

Perrin catches her eye—and smiles.

Lexa tilts her head slightly when she looks to Octavia and they nod grimly. For each step they take to the left, however, Perrin and Nond move closer. And when Wiltshire—who has been in the other pair this whole time and like a fool, she scolds herself, she hadn’t taken note since he hadn’t drawn their attention—jabs at Octavia’s feet to stop them from moving closer, Lexa realises what Perrin has organised.

She glances sharply to Perrin again, who drops the act. Nond drives the end of his staff down hard to tap Octavia’s ankle. With a cried oath, they leap backwards—and away from Perrin, who slips in the gap and trusts Wiltshire and Nond to cover him from Octavia, which they do.

Perrin advances, bringing his staff down with considerable strength, and Lexa hurries to defend herself. His first blow numbs her fingers.

She glances wildly down the line for Sir Fared, who she sees scowling at the page who had distracted him—Gerry, this whole ambush had been plotted from start to finish—and she catches him at the moment understanding hits him and he turns to find her and Perrin fighting.

Lexa puts him out of her mind—he’s not close enough to help and so she just has to deal with this. She allows him to drive her out of line so she has a little space to manoeuvre. She moves faster than expected, the dirt and snow slippery underfoot and it’s hard to get good purchase, which makes it harder to defend against a real attack. Might be good practice, she wonders. Battles aren’t exactly neat. She’s not a talent with the staff, not like Octavia, and she hopes she can hold him off until Fared arrives.

“You think you’re special, Haryse?”

She ignores him. Let him waste his breath on taunts, if he wants. She spends her time looking for a gap in his attacks but anything she tries, he blocks. Good form, she grudgingly admits, and promises her future self and Sir Fared that she’ll train even harder from now on.

“They might not have sent you home when you attacked me, but they’ll send you home if you’re dead.”

Lexa can’t help it. She laughs.

Perrin jerks back, confused. Lexa takes the opportunity to try to land a blow on him instead. She aims for the ankle like Nond had, wanting him to stay back, and it hits but Perrin barely seems to register the pain. His eyes over-bright and keenly trained on her, he redouble his efforts.

The hit to his ankle is the only strike Lexa gets in. Perrin’s staff blurs with how much strength he puts behind each blow. She lets the part of her mind that remembers High! Middle! Low! to take over and shoves her panic into the far back of her mind where it won’t make her hands tremble, and in this way she keeps Perrin at a distance through muscle memory and luck.

Perrin isn’t taunting her anymore, either. He’s grunting—his dark hair is plastered to his forehead with sweat, which drips down his nose. Lexa isn’t much better off. It feels like a torrent of sweat is making her spine its channel and her shirt sticks and tugs a little with every moment. She praises tailors and smiths and Mithros himself with every blow that slips under her guard. Her torso is padded by the harness and it hurts but none of her ribs are broken yet. When he realises that too, he starts aiming for parts that aren’t padded. Her knee, her hip.

The blows sting and Lexa feels her temper flare. Her flagging muscles muster up a little extra strength and, since she can see Sir Fared finally coming up behind Perrin, she thinks she’s kept Perrin at bay for a respectably long time.

Halleburn!” Fared barks. Lexa suspects he has been yelling the whole time, but the rush in her ears has stopped her from hearing.

Lexa takes a step back—and comes up hard against the fence. When she raises to block his strike, the end of her staff catches against the railing and it’s at an awkward angle. Perrin presses forward and brings his staff down hard on her wrist. Something snaps.

It wasn’t his staff, she thinks when he brings it up unbroken.

Pain and realisation splinters up her arm when she tries to grip her staff. It falls from her fingers. Lexa gasps, swallows down the urge to puke. Sir fared is yelling something that she can’t hear and all Lexa wants is to crouch down and wrap herself around her arm. But she can’t because Perrin is still coming for her.

She bites hard on the inside of her cheek, tries to use the sensation to focus on something other than the pain in her arm. He brings down his staff again—Lexa ducks under the railing and steps quickly out of the court. Perrin’s staff hits the fence and bounces back. She thinks for a moment about grabbing her staff and using it like a baton but another wave of pain makes her reconsider. Instead, she watches as Sir Fared rips the staff out of Nond’s hands and dispatches Perrin with three neat blows—one to his knee, a jab to the gut that makes him blow out his breath, and another to the shoulder. Fared presses the end of the staff to Perrin’s throat.

“I suggest you stay down, Halleburn.” He presses harder until Perrin nods, very slightly, and only then does he let up.

Finally, Lexa thinks, though the alternation mustn’t have taken very long.

“My ears hurt,” Lexa says out loud, and it sounds like the way she’d heard Fared. Comes out twisted like the way Terry had told her waves tumble over themselves against a shoreline.

Familiar hands turn her. Lexa looks to Gus, who kneels at her side. He lays his hands over each of her ears and she can’t hear anything except the shush shush shush of her pulse. Or maybe his. No, she’s fairly sure it’s her own—she can feel its twin in her arm, thudding pain.

Lexa. Gus moves in until all she can see is his face and a little of the court to his left and a little of the palace to his right. But mostly his face. She focuses on his lips to read the words there.

Did he hit your head?

She shakes her head no.

Just your arm?

Lexa feels herself blanch when the pain takes that opportunity to make itself felt once more. She nods, then stops. With her left hand, she points to her hip and knee.

We are going to the Healers.

“Sir Fared,” she says, pulling out of Gus’s hands. She turns to find the pages doing their best not to stare, and Sir Fared gazing solemnly at her. “I’m fine,” she tells him.

He stares a little longer. He doesn’t say anything about her attacking Perrin back so she’s fairly sure he approves—him and his honour—or else he might have said something when she couldn’t hear. Then again, she didn’t do all that much damage to Perrin.

Sir Fared smiles finally and shakes his head. “You’re going to the Healers. That’s an order, Haryse.”

“Sir?” Hasim steps up. He looks a little green around the lips and he darts quick looks towards Lexa’s arm. “I’ll take her, sir?”

“You’ve archery next, Nazri, isn’t that right?”

“Yessir.”

“Captain Bruin will make sure she gets there. Captain?”

“Aye, Sir Fared.” Gus stands. He reaches for Lexa again, who takes a neat step out of reach.

“I will not be carried,” she says quietly enough for the others not to hear. Gus nods. Lexa’s wrist started to throb maliciously and she grits her teeth against a groan. Her teeth throb too.

With a gentle hand on her left shoulder, Gus steers Lexa out of the practice court and up to the castle. As they walk, she focuses on not slipping and also on overthinking the fact that Gus hasn’t said anything. Lexa’s mind churns up distractions and fears to help her ignore the throbbing in her arm. Does Gus regret this? Regret teaching her to fight, regret helping her become a page? Does he think she’s weak? A troublemaker? If he does, that’s his problem, Lexa decides even though her heart gives a painful little flopping thud in her chest. She’s pretty sure she’ll be heartbroken if Gus thinks less of her.

“I can carry you,” he offers quietly when they’re far from the court and no one can see them.

She twists, stares up at him. “Sir?”

“Sir?” Gus frowns.

“Gus, then,” Lexa says, relief fizzling on her tongue. “Are you—you’re not ashamed of me?”

“Ashamed?”

“You didn’t say anything.”

“Only thing I wanted t' say was that I could carry you,” he admits. “I know you’re too proud to say yes until no one could see.”

“Oh.” The fizzling relief spreads all the way down her throat and up her nose into her head. She begins to think it might actually be pain. But she’s still relieved, even if it is pain.

“Why would I be ashamed of you?”

“I don’t know. Why does anyone do anything?” she asks him, a little snappishly. “I want you to know that I’m not a troublemaker or weak. Alright, I’m a bit of a troublemaker,” she concedes with a tilt of her head, “but I’m not weak.”

“I know that.”

She smiles up at him. “Good. Please walk slower. I’m the one with the—I’m the one that’s hurt, it hurts more when I’m jogging.”

Gus slows. “I can carry –

“No.”

He breathes slowly to calm himself. “Fine.” Then, “That boy were awful eager to help you.”

“Who? Hasim?” She rolls her eyes. “He’s my brother, Gus.”

“Hmm.”

“He is, or he says it counts for him but it’s not fully binding until his father and mother agree but it’s binding enough for both of us.” She shrugs, and winces when the movement sends a flare of pain up her arm. It feels like needles and the sensation is spreading. Her jaw feels tight. She carries on. “And he’s my friend and he’s teaching me basri and I trust him.”

“Some good reasons. He’s teachin’ ye basri?” Lexa nods. “Ye didn’t feel ye had enough lessons?”

“Yes, but I wanted to learn. Anya is going to teach me kemrit too—I haven’t asked yet because I didn’t realise she would do those things for me,” she clarifies, “but she will.”

“Hmm.” He must realise how long its been since they’ve had a proper talk—and maybe want to distract her from the pain—because he asks yet more questions in his low rumble that reassures her so much that she’s safe. “And how’re ye other lessons going? Learned t’ read an’ write yet?”

“I know how to read and write—have you been hit on the head?”

“A joke, lass.”

“Oh. The lessons are good.”

“Even that non-Gifted one?”

Lexa sneaks a look up at him, smiles sheepishly when his beady black eyes glitter down at her. “That one, maybe not so good.”

“Hmm.”

“It’s not the material—that’s fine.” She sucks in a breath as she climbs the stairs next to him, grabs his hand with her left and squeezes as the steps jostle her arm. “It’s…”

“Breathe, Lexa.”

She breathes. Clears her throat. “It’s the basilisk.”

“Tkaa.”

“Yes, Mister Tkaa.” She frowns down the length of the corridor. “He unsettles Octavia.”

“And you,” Gus says. It’s not a question.

Lexa grimaces. Nods. “Yes.”

“Why?”

Lexa stops. A little because suddenly her arm hurts and she’s trying to breathe and not cry, and a little because there’s something she hasn’t told him that she thinks she should. Gus stops too when their joined hands tug and he crouches in front of her, concerned.

“I don’t like it.” There’s more to it than that. If she can’t be honest with Gus, who can she be honest with? “Tari was in my mind.”

Gus’s eyes flash. “That god?”

“Yes.”

“Is she still in there?” One of his hands comes up to cradle the side of her face. Lexa leans into the touch, even as she shakes her head no. “What’s she got t’do with the—he speaks into minds.”

“Yes.”

“An’ you don’t like it,” he guesses.

“No. But that’s…that’s not all.” Lexa takes a fortifying breath before whispering, “I think she did something to me.”

Gus pales, she thinks. It’s hard to tell with all the hair and his beard. His eyes widen. “What d’you mean?”

“I mean…” Lexa glances away. “I keep getting these feelings. Ones that don’t belong to me.”

“Ye think they’re hers?”

“No.”

Gus waits patiently. Lexa’s arm throbs and her head throbs and her heart throbs thinking that he might fear her if she explains. But he’s kneeling in front of her, calm and stoic and her left hand tingles and all she feels is a steady, rolling love. Fear—not of her but for her—grows overhead like twining vines. But the love, a river of rock, is wide and runs for ever and ever without stop.

“I can feel yours," she tells him, voice a hoarse whisper. "When I’m touching you.”

Gus looks down at her hand and up, eyes questioning. She nods. He doesn’t look disgusted or upset—he doesn’t feel it either, and she feels tears well up in her eyes, hot and threatening to spill. Gus brushes them away when they do.

Lass,” he murmurs, voice grave with concern.

She hurries on, afraid that she won’t tell him all—most—of what she’s worried about. “And other people, when I’m touching them or things they’ve touched, sometimes. And…”

“And?” he prompts.

“I can feel the Forest.”

“The Forest?”

Lexa wavers, grinds her teeth to stop from crying out when her arm suddenly throbs. Gus glances down at it.

“This will keep ‘til after you’re healed, Lexa.” He draws her gently in for a hug and kisses her forehead, beard bristling her skin. “Thank you for telling me.”

She follows him as he walks quickly onwards and when they make it to the green door she smiles.

“I made it.” The door opens to Costia’s lovely face, lovely eyes, lovely smile. She smiles back. “Hello, Costia. Gus?”

“Aye?”

“I’m going to faint now.”

“Aye, lass.”

She crumples, falling sideways into Gus, whose arms curl around her shoulders and under her knees. He lifts her easily and Lexa shifts into his shoulder, arm held protectively to her belly. 

Lexa wakes to a dull ache in her arm and her mouth dry like she hasn’t drunk anything in days. She tilts her head and grimaces. Her head hurts too, but mostly it feels strangely like it’s filled with smoke. Her thoughts slip away from her, insubstantial, and her eyes feel gritty like she’s been sitting with her head in a fireplace.

Has she? Surely not. But she can’t say for certain, because her thoughts and memories are coming back to her in erratic chunks and the last day in particular is stubbornly absent.

Just because she doesn’t remember what has happened doesn’t mean it’s going to stop her from doing her work, she reasons with herself, and she sits up and flings the covers back off her bed, stopping with shock when her right arm feels like it’s made of stone instead of bone. There’s a green plaster around the hand and wrist that extends to her elbow, but not around the curve of her elbow, which she’s grateful for. Lexa prods at the plaster—which feels as sturdy as rock—and she can come to some very good guesses as to how she got there. Perrin, she thinks, and a flash of his smug, victorious face comes to mind. There’s no other scrapes or bruises so she’s fairly sure he did this to her, instead of it being some accident. She glances around—rows of identical beds, green covers and all, tell her she’s still in the healers wing. Righteous fury burning in her gut, Lexa kicks her legs free of the blankets too and levers herself up.

She’s struggling to put her harness on over her shirt when the door opens quietly. Lexa spins, stumbles a little when the weight of the harness and her new cast unbalance her.

The door clicks closed. Duke Baird does not look impressed.

“Out of bed already, Page Haryse?”

“Yes, Your Grace. I feel fine.”

“I doubt that.” His eyes are so sharp, Lexa wonders if he really can feel the way her arm throbs. Or the sick dizzy feeling in the back of her head.

“Well, I do, and I have classes.”

“You have a broken arm and you just had a healing this morning. Not to mention that all your classes are over for the day,” he points out, gesturing to the darkened window.

“You could have magicked those look like night time.”

He shrugs. “But I have not. You slept for ten hours.”

“Ten hours?” Lexa’s mouth drops open, aghast. “I have to talk to Lord Padraig—I didn’t mean to miss class, I swear.”

“Don’t be foolish,” Duke Baird tells her, and he says it very gently but doesn’t keep a biting edge from his tone. “You had your arm broken. He understands.” Lexa stirs uneasily. The Duke, watching her, crosses the room. He sits on the bed next to Lexa's and gestures. Lexa sits too. She tries to hide a sigh of relief but suspects that he notices. “You will not be sent away, Page Haryse," he tells her, speaking to what she had thought was a well-hidden fear. "You have been injured, you will heal under my instructions,” his gaze sharpens until she nods, “and then you will return to classes.”

Lexa bites at her bottom lip. “Are you certain?”

“I am.” 

“Thank you, then, Your Grace.” 

He takes some time to explain why they’ve given her a cast—so her arm will heal over time, little spots of Healing magic to help her own natural healing—and how long she should avoid using it—two days for anything, two weeks minimum for fighting—and Lexa has to grip the blankets hard to keep from crying.

“Two weeks, Your Grace?” she asks, very politely, when she thinks she can speak without her voice shaking. 

He nods. He is watching her face very closely and Lexa swallows down whatever might be showing.

“I see.” The words come out as a whisper. Duke Baird says nothing for a moment and Lexa glares at the opposite wall. She’s going to be behind in all her fighting lessons by the time the cast comes off. And the class lessons too, she realises, since she can’t write with her left hand.

Yet.

Lexa flexes her left hand, wonders how long it might take to make it feel as natural as her right.

“Sir Alanna broke her arm when she was about your age, you know,” the Duke comments. Lexa glances to him and sees that his bright eyes are fixed on her and his thin lips are crooked into a thoughtful smile. “Or rather, her arm was broken much like yours.”

Lexa blinks, smiles shyly. “I’m like Sir Alanna?” 

“Hmm.” Duke Baird tilts his head, examines her. “Not exactly,” he admits. “Page Danshame is a little more like her. Alan had a temper on him. Her. Still does, actually.” Lexa grins. That does sound like Octavia. “You’ve got her tenacity, though. Jon—” He coughs. “His Majesty made the mistake once or twice of telling her she couldn’t do something. I believe she came riding home with the Dominion Jewel the second time that happened,” he tells her and Lexa grins. “I expect we shall be seeing very great things from you, Page Haryse…if only you could keep from spending all your time in my quarters.” He lifts his eyebrows and though his words are chiding, his smile is quiet and fond.

Lexa ducks her head, still smiling. “Yes, Your Grace.”

“Very good. Strange,” he comments, standing, “Sir Alanna broke her arm around this time as well. I wonder if that’s why she learned to fight with both hands.”

Lexa stands to bow.

The door opens and Costia peers around it. “Begging your pardon, Your Grace, but Master Hercuel—just what do you think you’re doing out of bed?” Costia’s eyes sharpen to arrow points when she sees Lexa standing and she steps fully into the room and stomps over, fists on hips. “Get back into bed. Right this second!”

Lexa scrambles to obey. She stares, open-mouthed, as Costia turns on the Duke.

“And you! Begging your pardon but you can’t give this one,” she points a finger at Lexa without breaking the glare she’s giving him, “an inch!”

“You’re quite correct,” Duke Baird agrees gravely. “My apologises for endangering your health, Page Haryse.”

Lexa shoots him a warning look—she suspects now isn’t the best time to be funny—and meekly makes a show of smoothing the blankets over her legs when Costia glares.

“Good!” Costia says, the word cracking out like a whip. “Now stay there and rest.”

She stomps out.

Duke Baird lifts a hand to his mouth, green eyes sparkling. “You have collected quite a defender in my apprentice, Page Haryse.”

“It wasn’t—I didn’t mean—I don’t know what I did,” she stutters, and he can’t offer her an answer, just shakes his head.

The door opens again. Costia clears her throat. “Your Grace, Master Hercuel had a recurrence and requests your attention.”

“Ensure him I will be there in a moment.” Costia nods and her eyes slide to Lexa, who braces herself for another glare but, very pleasantly, receives a smile instead. “Apprentice Fletcher is correct, Page Haryse. You’ve had quite a healing—it was a bad break, you know?”

She nods, feeling a little sick at the memory of the break, which has slowly returned to her. And Perrin’s smug face.

“Don’t resist sleep. The healing will, ah, stick better if you let it.” He nods to her and exits.

Once he’s gone, Lexa sits back on her bed and frowns thoughtfully at the ceiling. Her cast is a heavy weight on her belly and she can’t imagine using a sword with it—not to mention Duke Baird’s fury if she hurt herself trying. She shivers at the thought. For all his healing oath, she suspects there’s something hard beneath that kindness. But her left hand? She turns the thought over, curious. Is it that much of a leap from planning to train her left hand to write as well as her right? She flexes the fingers, twists her wrist.

//

In the morning, Costia—Apprentice Fletcher—is allowed to examine Lexa’s bruises and try to heal them, if she can. She starts to roll up Lexa’s pant leg and Lexa flushes, tries to help her only for her cast to make it difficult.

Costia takes both of her hands and places them back onto the bed.

Lexa grins, a little sheepish. “Sorry.”

“It’s okay. Between you and me,” she says, leaning in close and Lexa stares at her bright eyes and then down at her full lips, her breath smelling of mint and her hands of honey, “it’s much nicer to do this for you than for some people I’ve done it for.”

Lexa isn’t sure what to say to that and settles on an, “Oh?”

Costia finishes rolling up her pant leg until its showing the full bruise on the outside of Lexa’s kneecap. She hisses when Costia prods around the edge.

“Not broken, just a bruise.”

Just a bruise,” Lexa mutters, and then scratches at her nose to hide her blush when Costia’s eyes flick up, amused.

“It’s a very impressive bruise, if that’s what you want to hear.”

“Really?”

“I think you’re very brave. I cry when I stub my toe.”

“Everyone cries when they stub their toe,” Lexa tells her.

That surprises a laugh out of Costia. Her hands still on either side of Lexa’s knee, pleasantly cool. “Really?”

“Well, I do. And Captain Bruin, the man who brought me yesterday?” Costia nods. “He does.”

Really?”

“He has much bigger toes than me, so it must hurt more,” Lexa reasons. She knows that’s not how it works, but it coaxes another laugh and brilliant smile from Costia, which is nice.

Still laughing a little, Costia explains what she’s going to do to heal Lexa. Move her magic into her skin and then into the muscles and, “Well, it doesn’t sound pleasant but essentially I’m going to leech the pain and the hurt out of it and replace it with a little magic to prompt it to heal. Does that make sense?”

“Not at all,” Lexa tells her honestly. “But I trust you. Proceed.”

Costia smiles and nods. “I’m not going to talk for a bit—I need to concentrate,”

“I understand.” Lexa leans back, braces her weight on her left arm. Costia bends over her knee very close and Lexa closes her eyes when she feels the magic wash over her knee, warm like the sun on her skin. The sensation increases, but never to burning, and Lexa knows she can’t fight the feeling or it will ruin Costia’s healing. So she breathes through it and then as soon as it began, it’s over and Costia is leaning away and rolling down Lexa’s pants.

“Done?”

Costia stops. “Would you like to check?”

“No. I trust you.” She flushes when she realises that she’s said it twice in as many minutes.

Costia doesn’t seem to mind, though. Rather, she’s as flushed as Lexa feels and she can’t quite contain her smile. “Thank you. Very much. I…” She clears her throat, gathers herself. “I need to look at your hip next.”

Lexa nods. She keeps her eyes closed for this one—Costia moves her shirt up a little and her pants down a little and places her hand on Lexa’s hip and she gasps.

“Did that hurt?” she asks, worried.

“N-no.”

“Oh. Okay. My hands might be a little cold.”

“Yes. It’s okay.” They’re not cold anymore. Lexa doesn’t mention that. What is happening?

The warmth blooms over her hip and then it’s gone and Costia is twitching Lexa’s clothes back into place. She steps away from the bed and helps Lexa upright again.

“You know,” she says, “if you wanted to visit me…you don’t need to be hurt.”

“Pardon?”

“If you want to visit a-and talk or…” Costia twists something under her sleeve and Lexa’s eyes widen when she sees the bracelet there, made simply out of braided thread. She ducks her head, grinning. “I always have reading to do, and we could do that together. If you wanted.”

“I—that would be nice,” Lexa says softly. “Yes.”

“Okay.” Costia tucks her hair behind her ears. “Good.”

“Good.”

“You’re free to go then. Oh, that is, His Grace wants to talk to you before you go about proper care of your cast. And you’d best follow his instructions otherwise we’ll have to break it and start all over again,” Costia warns her, eyes serious as they always are when she talks about Healing. Lexa gulps.

“Yes, Apprentice Fletcher.”

“Good.” The serious look fades into another smile. Shyer, Lexa thinks. “And Lexa?”

“Yes, Costia?”

“Thank you. For the bracelet.”

Lexa’s eyes widen. She hadn’t expected Costia to say anything about it. “You’re welcome. I need…I have class!” she blurts out and strides to the door.

She slips out into the antechamber and scans the room for the Duke. He’s standing behind his desk and talking with a woman. He’s leaning into their conversation, hands moving emphatically as he punctuates his statements, but the woman ignores him with the slightest tilt to her chin and he falls silent.

Lexa watches that with awe. That is even more impressive than Padraig’s chilly command, maybe.

She steps forward, wondering who could intimidate the Duke when even Padraig can’t. The woman is very beautiful, with jet-black curls tied back and pinned. Some have tumbled free and frame her face. Eyes a lively hazel and narrowed with displeasure, her face and lips and eyes look like they’re readier to smile and laugh than frown. She looks quite familiar, but how Lexa can’t place until Duke Baird says something she understands.

“I’m not apologising for it, Thayet. It would have gone against my oath—several oaths, in fact—to refuse.”

Thayet? Lexa thinks. Queen Thayet the Peerless herself? She sucks in a breath and tries to retreat into the healing wing. Her shoulder catches against the edge of a bookcase with a very dull thump she hopes they don’t hear, but they do and then both the Duke and the Queen are staring at her.

Queen Thayet is the first to smile. “Hello there.”

Lexa gulps, drops her gaze to the floor and bows. “Your Majesty,” she murmurs.

She feels the Queen watch her for a moment before her attention returns to Duke Baird. “I don’t want an apology, Baird, I you’re your help. You know I intend to do this with your help or without, but I don’t know anything about Healing and I want to do this right. I’m asking you. Please.”

Lexa glances up into the long silence. Duke Baird’s face is blank but finally he inclines his head. “As you will, Your Majesty.”

Thank you.” The Queen pushes up from where she was leaning against the desk and turns. She glances to Lexa again and had obviously forgotten that she was there. “Broken arm?” she asks, clicking her tongue.

“Yes, Majesty.”

“That’s no fun. Why is it in a cast? Can you not afford the cost?” She sounds concerned and frank, intent on getting to the heart of the matter.

Lexa blinks. Cost? “My arm isn’t healed because most healers agree that bones mend better when they’re allowed time to do so. It’s also thought to be better to prevent healing resistance, which I think is a good thing.” She licks her lips. Adds, “Your Majesty.”

“And why is that?” The Queen has a sheaf of papers in her hands that she’s flicking through, but she glances up at Lexa and smiles, nods for her to speak.

“Well. I wouldn’t like to bleed out some day because I couldn’t wait a week or two for my arm to fix.”

The Queen sets her papers down, eyebrows high in surprise. “Do you intend to be on a battlefield, child? Or do you mean childbirth?”

Lexa’s mouth twists. “Childbirth?”

The Queen laughs. “You may find the idea distasteful now, but you won’t always.”

“If you say so,” Lexa demurs, but she cuts a look to Duke Baird and shakes her head very slightly.

He clears his throat. “Your Majesty, may I introduce Page Alexandra of Haryse.” At his words, Lexa realises that she is in the soft green shirt and breeches that the healers have lent her and not in the tunic that shows her status as a page clearly to anyone who so much as glances her way.

“Oh, a page. I see.” The Queen crosses the room to Lexa, holds out her hand. Lexa stares at it for a moment before taking it very gently in her left hand and bowing over it. When she straightens, the Queen has tucked a smile into the corners of her lips where it is mostly hidden but lights up her eyes until they’re sparkling. Lexa’s breath catches in her throat. “My, how chivalrous,” she teases, her voice throaty and amused. “Most people simply shake my hand.”

“Oh.” Lexa’s flush makes the queen laugh—like chimes, or tinkling bells—and Lexa’s tongue feels too large for her mouth, her hands too big, and even though she had bathed only an hour ago, she feels as though she’s missed some spot of grime on her face or neck with the beautiful Queen so close and flawless.

“A pleasure to meet you, Page Haryse. I wish I could speak with you longer,” she says, sounding more sincere than Lexa could expect from her Queen, “however Duke Baird has promised me some of his time this morning.”

Lexa is glad that she’s been witness now to several dismissals that don’t sound like dismissals because it helps her recognise this one. She bows once more.

“Your Majesty,” she murmurs, and then bows to Duke Baird as well. “Your Grace.”

“No fighting with that arm, Haryse.”

“Yes, Your Grace.”

“And I expect to see you tomorrow night.”

“Yes, Your Grace.”

Lexa escapes after that, a little unsteady from the direct attention of the Queen. Behind a bookcase, Costia is hiding and staring starry-eyed at the queen and when she notices Lexa, Lexa puffs her cheeks out, presses a hand to her fast-beating heart in overwhelmed dramatics. Costia grins and waves her goodbye, the bracelet visible at her wrist yet again.

Lexa waves back and pretends Costia isn’t watching as she struggles left-handed with the doorhandle.


Da,

What is the dogs name? What does he look like? He sounds like good company to me. I’d ask you to send him to me but we aren’t allowed pets, even a very old and sleepy dog.

Does the girl have a spot on her forehead? A little brown mole over her left eye? If she does, her name is Tya and she lost her da in the floods two years ago. He was the last of her family, it’s really sad. She was living with the Marsh family when I left in the summer. I’m sure you’d learn of all that eventually but in case it helps, I thought you should know.

I’m glad to know the traditions are upheld. Here, everything smells clean. They don’t use candles so frequently—magelight shines for longer and brighter and doesn’t leave wax drippings and burns on tables. I know that but I do like the cheery candles and I miss the Big Fire in the hearth. It might be some time before I spend another Midwinter with you in Haryse. We should create new traditions for the longest days of summer. I’d like that.
I’ve included a small gift you’re not allowed to open until Midwinter. You’ll know which gift because it’s wrapped. Don’t peek! You can open the other gift if you want to. It’s just a copy of some contracts I found in the clerks office a few weeks ago. Don’t ask why I was there; all you need to know is that I deserved the punishment and it was an arduous punishment indeed. (I learned that word in the clerks office.) The finding of the contracts made it slightly worth it. My hand still aches.

Oh—a little late, but I was to peeved to write it at the time: Thank you for the package, and the biscuits, and the books you sent… Also, I have included another list in the hope it reaches you before the valley closes. I suspect we shall be having some long nights. Thank you, Da!
I have included letters each for Mara and Corin. Please see that they reach them.

May the Great Mother watch over you, and over Haryse, in the long nights to come. May Mithros keep you warm and safe. My love to you all,
Lexa.

(Also, I have received your letter regarding my birthday—not long now!—but I suspect Gustus has hidden the packages and your gift. Thank you!)


Padraig isn’t surprised in the slightest that she’s been forbidden from using her arm for the two weeks. “At minimum,” he says, voice crisp and stern when Lexa repeats Duke Baird’s instructions. “Isn’t that right?”

Lexa’s eyes dip to the ground, to the treacherous slush underfoot that makes her arm throb in worry that she’ll fall onto it. “Yes, milord.”

“It will be up to His Grace, Duke Baird, to release you as fit for combat once more. Do you understand?” 

“Yes, milord,” she repeats, just as clearly as he is speaking, even though she wants to go back to bed and wallow for the next two weeks. That would be useless, of course, so she stays where she is and hopes that he’ll give her something to do that will keep her at the same skill level as the others.

“Running.”

“Milord?”

“You’ll be running.” He nods to the castle wall. “We’re going up there. Afraid of heights, Haryse?”

“Would it matter if I was?" Padraig looks down his nose at her. Lexa clasps her hands behind her back as best she can, the cast making that difficult, and answers again. "No, milord. I'm not."

“Good.”

He leads the way with long strides. Lexa trots behind him and off a step to the side. At the base of the steps, an off-duty Rider is waiting. She stands when she sees Padraig and clasps her hands behind her back. 

“Lord Padraig.”

“Rider Caura. This is Page Haryse.” He steps to the side and Lexa bows shallowly to the Rider, who nods. “She’s out of commission for two weeks. Broken arm.”

“Nasty business, breaks,” Rider Caura volunteers without Padraig’s permission. Lexa’s eyes widen and she glances to Padraig to see what he’ll do. He just nods. “Orders, milord?”

“Just one.” A smile, of all things, curls his lips a fraction upwards. “Make her earn her lunch.”

“Yes sir,” Rider Caura says with relish.

Lexa gulps.

Padraig leaves her at the Rider’s tender ministrations and Lexa wishes she was out there re-breaking her arm instead of under this monsters keen eye. Lexa has run before—often and quickly—but never like this. For hours without stopping. Around the inner castle wall. Up and down staircases. Up and down staircases again until Lexa’s thighs and calves and stomach and back burn with effort. Even her kneecaps hurt and they’re made of bone.

She tells Rider Caura that when she tells Lexa she can take a break, and the rider laughs. Lexa grins, a little shyly. The rider is only six or seven years older than Lexa, and she’s fit and tan and has her red hair cut brutally short. Her freckles are many and everywhere—over her cheeks and nose and forehead and down both forearms, and over the triangle of collar Lexa can see where her shirt is open. Caura plops down onto the stairs next to her and hands over a skin of cold, fresh water. Lexa takes it gratefully.

“You did good, kid. Sip. You’ll puke otherwise.”

“Pretty sure I’ll puke anyway.”

Caura shrugs. “So long as it’s not on me. And not over the wall—it’ll blow back on you, and that’s not fun.”

“You sound,” Lexa says, lungs still working hard to get enough breath for words, “like you’re speaking—from experience.”

Caura shrugs again. “You ready to go again?”

Lexa’s eyes widen and her hands shake where she’s holding them over her head. Her limbs feel like water—heavy water—but she makes herself nod.

“Yes, Rider.”

“Oof—I was teasing you, Haryse.” Caura shakes her head. “We’re done—I’m exhausted, if you couldn’t tell.” Lexa eyes her. She’s breathing a bit heavily but she’s not drenched in sweat or panting like Lexa had been. She points that out and Caura laughs. “I’m not wearing a ten pound harness either. Or a sword. And what, two knives?”

Three, Lexa thinks, but nods instead. It’s always a good idea to have an extra knife that people don’t know about.

“There you go then.” Caura stands with a groan. “Phew, there's an effort and a half. You’re sure you want to be a page?” She holds out a hand for Lexa, who takes it because her legs are almost numb and she needs the help. “When we break a limb we get a nice comfy bed to lie in and a weeks rest.”

Lexa frowns. They take the stairs down to the practice courts carefully. “Really?” After a moment, she decides it doesn’t matter. There’s no point focusing on something she can’t change. “I am set in my course, thank you Rider Caura.”

“Just Caura. That’s good. Determination—you’ll need it,” she nods. “And it’s good too because we don’t really get a weeks rest. Not in a bed anyway. We get strapped to our saddle and told to buck up.”

Lexa laughs. “Sounds familiar.”

Caura’s grin is dazzling and wide. “Thought it might.” Her red hair is dark at the nape of her neck, drenched in sweat. It makes Lexa feel a little better about the way her own hair is clinging to her forehead and neck.

Caura tells her a little more about the Riders—her group, the Twelfth, and being trained by the late commander Buri, and how they've been given time to rest for a few days since a whole lot of them were injured in their last clash with bandits who thought a bunch of girls couldn’t fight.

“We proved them wrong, of course, and didn’t lose anyone. Couple near misses, a graze here and there.” She tugs her sleeve up to show a red triangle where an arrow had punched through her left arm. “Pretty wicked, huh?”

Lexa thinks it is, but keeps her expression clear. “Hardly,” she says, lifting her chin high. “It’s a scratch.”

“A magekiller through the arm.” Caura’s eyes narrow. “You’re making fun of me.”

Lexa grins. “Maybe.”

Caura shoves her gently and Lexa totters to the side, knocks into the wall.

“Hey!” Lexa glances down at Octavia, whose dark eyes are fiery and concerned. They’ve started up a few steps and they’re glaring at Caura. “Alright, Lexa?” Octavia asks without looking away from the Rider.

“Lexa is fine, Page,” Caura soothes, hands open at her sides.

Lexa?” Octavia’s eyebrows shoot up. Their upper lip curls and they take the steps two at a time until they’re close enough to grab Lexa. Octavia clutches at Lexa’s arm above the cast and they drag her down a few steps until they’re between her and Caura. “Such fast friends already.”

“Alexandra is a lot to say when you’re conserving your breath.” Lexa is too tired to have them start a fight, especially one with someone she likes as much as Caura.

“I guess.”

Their jealousy—sharp-edged like a hundred needles prickling Lexa’s skin and the air and pointed toward Caura—makes Lexa irritable. She jerks her arm free, shoots Octavia such a glare that they shut their mouth with the audible click of teeth.

“Thank you for your time, Rider Caura,” she says.

“See you tomorrow.”

Lexa barely contains a groan. She nods instead and allows Octavia to guide her down the steps and to their rooms.

At lunch, she leans against Anya, feeling very much like she had in her first few days of being a page. She wants to fall asleep and Octavia’s helpful—and painful—pinches are the only things keeping her awake.

“Problem, Haryse?”

“You’ll be having one if you don’t move. Along,” Anya promises Perrin in a low voice, not bothering to look up from her meal. After a moment, Perrin stalks away. Anya makes sure that her laugh is pitched to reach him and Lexa tilts her head to see his shoulders tense and his scowl deepen. “Eat your lunch, Lexa.”

“Yes, Anya.”

“What else can you make her do?” Octavia teases, talking around a mouthful of greens.

Anya glances up, narrows her eyes. “Swallow before you talk next time.”

Octavia swallows. Meekly says, “Yes Anya.”

Lexa grins down at her lunch.

Classes are an agony with her arm—her left hand, despite her determination to learn with it, is not up to standard and she struggles to take notes at all. Her head is foggy with exhaustion from the healing too, and she knows that for once her retention of the material will be less than perfect.

After her first sword-fighting lesson—in which she is told to stand and watch and no more—she slumps into the library and slumps into her seat and lowers her head onto her history book.

It’s torture.

She allows herself to mope for a little while before starting on her assignments, and then returning to her room to practice wielding her knife left-handed. It’s dishearteningly difficult but she’s persistant and finds if she practices in front of her mirror it’s easier to see what she’s doing wrong. When the great bell rings the late hour, she cleans her knife and her sword and tucks herself into bed for another day of the same.

Caura has her running again in the morning. Sir Fared makes the trek to the castle wall to give her some footwork to practise—Lexa suspects he feels bad about what happened—and Caura devises a pretty horrible exercise of running up the stairs, sprinting to the first tower, dodging strikes from the wooden sword Caura wields with zero mercy, and then running down the stairs and starting all over again.

Classes are terrible.

Watching everyone but her learn to swordfight is terrible.

Not being immediately good at using her left hand is terrible.

Most terrible of all is that on the third morning, Lexa finds that Caura has been replaced by an off-duty soldier. Captain Richel is short and clean-shaved, save for a bristling moustache. A trim build and a sword that hangs very naturally at his side tells Lexa he’s used to fighting, and good at it besides, but that doesn’t mean that the uncomfortable feeling she gets from him is wrong. After all, she reasons to herself, plenty of people can fight and it doesn’t make them all honourable. Or good. She has no basis for the feeling except for his small, gleaming eyes and his unpleasantly wet mouth that smacks when he speaks.

“Rider Caura? The Twelfth got sent out to deal with a spidren nest outside,” he tells Lexa when she asks. His eyes flick from the top of Lexa’s head to her toes. He grimaces. “Milord says you’ve been instructed to…run around.”

Lexa doesn’t like the way he says it, all slow and condescending. She nods. Ducks when he tries to cuff her around the head. It makes his eyes flash but he doesn’t try again.

“I ask you a question, I expect one of two answers. Yes sir, or no sir. Clear?”

“Yes sir.”

“Good.” Richel sits, crosses his legs at the ankles and closes his eyes. “Go on then. Go on your jog.”

He doesn’t run with her like Caura had, which is good. But he also doesn’t care all that much about what she does, which is less good. Lexa finds it harder to motivate herself.

“You won’t have someone to cheer you on in a real fight. C’mon Lexa,” she tells herself, puffing, and focuses herself to train as she had with Caura, dodging imaginary strikes and jumping over imaginary logs and rubble, practising her footwork. The silence is the worst part and so Lexa talks to herself—encouragement, sometimes, but mostly practising her basri phrases and the very little kemrit Anya has taught her, and later moves onto the list of addresses she needs to learn for Master Vauntire in the hope that the rhythmic running will help drum them into her brain.

She doesn’t let herself think about what the others are learning as she runs endlessly around the castle—those thoughts lead her to squirming that she won’t remember how to fight by the time the cast finally comes off, or that she’ll never be a good swordfighter now.

She does think about Perrin, though, and how she might hurt him back.

//

Moping earns her worried looks from her friends, and worrying looks from Anya, so Lexa does it in private and not for long. Instead, she takes herself off to empty classrooms or the mirrored hall each night to practice with her knife and it’s not going so terribly anymore, which is a relief.

On the sixth night, she’s walking back to her room from her late-night training when she glances down a corridor to the Greenery and, on a whim, walks in.

The wall of windows shows of the dark, dark night and the crescent moon like a silver arch. The walls are cast in that same silver, and the plants, and a girl sitting there.

The girl. The one Lexa had seen here once before.

She’s reading—a book in her hands, lifted right up to her face until her nose is nearly brushing against the pages—and so doesn’t notice Lexa in the doorway. Lexa takes the opportunity to examine her.

She’s young and small, and Lexa is fairly sure that they’re about the same age. Lexa can’t make out her height with her sitting hunched. Lexa tilts her head, curious. She has terrible posture for someone so clearly noble—judging from her delicate light-blue dress and matching cloak draped around her, and the soft silver slippers, and the glint of jewels in her ears and around her neck, and her soft unscarred hands only marred by splattered ink, and the skin so white it’s as though she’s never seen the sun. Maybe she never has, Lexa thinks, amused. Daughter of the Goddess Moon herself. The moonlight silvers her hair and sends the light shimmering around her.

The girl brushes a curl out of her eyes. Lexa can’t be sure what she sees—something magical? or a shadow?—but she stiffens, twists on the bench to squint at the doorway where Lexa stands.

“Who’s there?” Her voice is tight but doesn’t tremble. She clutches at her skirts and shifts so that she can run, if need be.

“I didn’t mean to frighten you, lady,” Lexa says quietly. “My sincere apologies.”

The girl relaxes. “No apology is needed, milord.”

“Lord?” Lexa grins. She steps forward into the light and watches as pink spreads over the girl’s cheeks. It’s strange to see while cast in silver—more shadow than rouge.

“Oh.” The girl sits prim and proper and folds her hands neatly on her lap. “You’re a girl.”

“I am,” Lexa agrees. “I’m Alexandra.”

“Clarke.”

“Lady Clarke.” Lexa straightens. “I didn’t mean to disturb you,”

“Didn’t you?” Clarke tilts her head, curious. Her face is empty of guile or suspicion, and her eyes are clear and bright too. Lexa starts to answer when something dark and slinking—a shadow, or a limb of dark water—curls around her ankle teasingly, distinctly amused. Lexa glances down but nothing is there.

“No. I didn’t. I don't know you," Lexa tells her bluntly. "How would I know you would be here?”

Clarke's lips twitch upwards. "Very true. You should know you might find me here often. I like this place.” Clarke closes her book around her thumb, shifts a little to make space. “You can stay, if you like.” Lexa plucks her sweaty collar away from her skin, looking down to hide her embarrassment. “I don’t mind,” Clarke says with a little coaxing in her tone and Lexa doesn’t know a polite way of declining—especially since she doesn’t really want to—so she nods, a bit stiffly, and sits at the opposite end of the bench.

They sit in a silence that teeters between companionable and awkward.

Lexa clears her throat. “You like it here?”

“I do, yes.”

“You like to…read here?”

Clarke’s sweet smile curls her lips up. “Yes. Oh, you won’t tell anyone, will you? My curfew is a bell after dinner and they dim the lights,” she tells Lexa with upset tinged sulkiness.

The cold dark crawls over Lexa’s boot, curls around her ankles in a slinking amusement. Again, the shadows don’t move except with the natural wind. Lexa sucks her bottom lip into her mouth, buys herself a little time by reading the title of the book.

“Patterns,” she reads, “by Yelena Babaroshk. Embroidery?”

Clarke nods.

The darkness curls, and uncurls, and twines like a black cat around Lexa’s legs.

She wonders for a moment that she’s feeling it so keenly—it’s not like before when she was touching someone, or something that had been held. They’re sitting on the bench together but Lexa doesn’t think that should mean anything. She’s sat with her friends many times before and felt nothing. Why, then, is she feeling this so strongly?

Her only thought is that Clarke could be feeling it strongly and the emotion is seeping out to touch Lexa, somehow. She shivers.

“And what has you out so late?”

Lexa glances up. The shadows are motionless at her feet. “I have been training.” She pats her sword.

“You’re left handed?” Clarke asks. The chill in the shadows deepens, not unpleasantly. Rather like being submerged into the crisp, cold waters of a spring river.

“No.”

“But,” Clarke gestures to her cast.

“I’m practising,” Lexa tells her.

“Practising.”

“I’m a page. I’m training for my knighthood.” Lexa pauses for the flash of polite dismay she’s used to from some of the girl servants. Or, sometimes worse, amused bafflement. Like Lexa is an odd little girl who will grow out of this idea.

She gets neither from this girl.

Instead, Clarke stares at Lexa with something like yearning and though Lexa’s first impression of her was that she was soft—soft and yielding and sweet and small—there is a determination in that stare that has Lexa rethinking.

And the cold, and the amusement. She doesn’t know what those mean.

“You can apply if you’re older than ten.”

“I’m eleven,” Clarke tells her, chin jutting out mulishly like Lexa should somehow have known that.

“Good for you.”

Clarke flushes at Lexa’s drawl. “I don’t really want to be a knight,” she says after a moment. “It does sound glamorous. But I can’t.” She sounds wistful but she doesn’t feel it. Doesn’t feel much of anything—her amusement sputters out. Lexa suspects it wasn’t ever a choice Clarke had been allowed to consider.

She makes a note to thank Gus again for being her friend.

Lexa glances away from Clarke’s smile, down to a little potplant. Lexa touches the leaves gently. “You wouldn’t find it that glamorous. Not after the first time you find a leaf where you weren’t expecting one. Or mud. Or sand. Or,” she twists her left hand so Clarke can see the scrape from where she had dropped her knife earlier and tried to catch it. “Or an injury.”

Clarke clicks her tongue, reaches out. Her Gift glows around her hand, white with the faintest hint of blue. It tickles at Lexa’s nose, snowdrop sweet, and Lexa sneezes.

Clarke smiles.

“Do you always sneeze when someone uses their Gift?”

“No.” Lexa sneezes again. She lets Clarke take her hand and watches her Gift roll over the scrape like a blizzard. The mark prickles with cold and, when it passes, the mark is gone.

Clarke sits back, a look of satisfaction sparking from her eyes. “That worked quite well, I think.”

Lexa tests her arm, nods. “Have you ever done that before?”

“Not…as such.”

“That’s a no,” Lexa translates, and Clarke smiles sheepishly. That dark amusement returns and twines quickly around her ankles. Lexa looks away from Clarke before she can react oddly. She focuses on her unblemished forearm. “You did very well.”

“You aren’t upset?”

“I don’t think so.” The amusement tugs at Lexa, trying to unsteady her. It succeeds, a little. She clears her throat. “Everyone has to learn at some point. Um. Are you training to be a Healer?”

Clarke shrugs a shoulder. Tosses her silvered hair back over her shoulder. “No.” She blinks. Her fingers rest on Lexa’s wrist. “I’m sorry, I should’ve told you I’d never done it before.”

“Yes, probably.”

“I apologise.”

“I accept your apology,” Lexa tells her gravely. A grin tugs over her lips. Is that her own amusement, or is that Clarke’s affecting her? She barely considers that before discarding it—she can tell the difference in a split second. It’s her own.

“May I ask you something?” She waits for Lexa to nod before scooting closer on the bench, eyes curious. “Is it difficult? Being a page?”

“Very. But it’s necessary to be a knight, which is what I want. So,” Lexa shrugs. “Not so difficult.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean…when something is necessary, it doesn’t matter how difficult it is.” Lexa blinks, tilts her head. “You get it done.”

Clarke’s mouth falls open the tiniest bit. She bites onto her bottom lip. She mouths words Lexa doesn’t recognise—another language?—and nods. “May I ask something else?”

“Yes.”

Clarke’s fingers curl in her skirt. The amusement crackles and breaks. A deep whirlpool opens up between, underneath, them. Lexa’s breath hitches, finding it difficult to continue as that whirlpool yawns wide and deep and drags everything into its gut. “Have you always been brave? Or did it come when you learned to fight?”

Lexa grips the hilt of her knife, smiles a little grimly when she realises she’s trying to make herself brave with the feel of it in her hand. “Both, I think.”

Clarke nods. “I wish I knew how to fight, just a little. I hate feeling…” The whirlpool sucks and drags and yearns. Lexa’s hand tightens on her knife until she yanks herself free again and regains her composure. She searches Clarke’s face for a sign of that whirlpool of—of what? Lexa has never felt anything like that before. Hurt? Fear? It’s deeper than that. Despair? “Weak, I suppose.”

“You must learn."

“Any idea where to find a sword?” Clarke laughs, tone mild. There is nothing mild about the way the whirlpool grows teeth of brittle, vicious icicles.

“A sword? No—you need a knife.”

“Pardon?”

“A knife. Simple enough to use and relatively simple to hide. And maybe take up running to build your strength.” Lexa’s heads pounds as she tries to connect the mismatch of what she sees and what she feels. How can the toothy whirlpool, drowningly cold, belong to a girl with this open, sweet, soft face? “I’ll bring a knife for you. Tomorrow night?”

Clarke’s eyes glint cold. Relief floods Lexa’s chest. She hasn’t misunderstood this strange power.

“You would do that for me?”

Lexa licks her lips. “Something tells me it’s important.”

Clarke shifts closer. Lexa’s eyes skid over the little snub-nose, her dimpled chin, and back to those cold, clear eyes. She’s struggling, Lexa realises, to hide it again. Lexa refuses to look away, refuses to give her that opportunity.

Clarke drops her eyes. “I can’t be here tomorrow,” she says quietly. “The night after, perhaps?”

Lexa nods. “It will be easier to get a knife for you to keep by then.” She clears her throat, bows messily. “Until then, Lady Clarke.” Lexa turns on her heel and exits.


Dear eleven-year-old daughter of mine (as I suspect you will be by the time this letter arrives),

I received your letter as I was sitting down to write you. What a happy coincidence! I have found one of the books you requested in a shop here, but the others I suspect you will have to order from the city. If only my daughter had earned a free afternoon from her training master… Ah, but what am I thinking? Only good and non-troublesome pages earn free afternoons! Do not think that I am displeased—you would not be my Lexa if you did not stand firmly to your principles, even when they clash with those who name themselves your superiors.

I am most impressed to hear about your sword. I had not heard of this Mistress Whistler but I inquired with the men-at-arms and they have confirmed that she is very respectable indeed, and talented. You may count yourself as lucky to have such a smith forge a weapon for you. I cannot wait to see it—of all your many talents, my darling girl, drawing is not one of them. I wait eagerly to hear news of your lessons. Do you find sword fighting much different from your other lessons?

Haryse is plodding along. As I suspected, Corin is proving to be very capable as a caretaker and needs very little in the way of direction. I have informed him of my intentions. He stammers mightily for a lad of nearly twenty but I can tell that he is honest, and honestly pleased. Mara is pleased for him too, and the others. We shall be hosting a dinner to celebrate tonight and Corin has asked to organise it, which I suspect is a test of his own skills.

I have included another report with this letter. I suspect it will be the last for some time as the snow is coming thicker every day and the pass will be more dangerous. I will not send a messenger through it unless it is dire. I’ve included my intentions for Corin and also Tya, take a look through it at your leisure and send back your thoughts in the spring.

A note: Your writing looked very different from normal. Completely different, in fact. Did you have someone else write it for you? I cannot believe that a trip in the clerks office would make your hand ache so much as to change your writing entirely.

Your adoring father, who cannot believe that you are eleven already,
Titus of Haryse


Ten days after Perrin broke her arm, she returns to her room from her second check up with Duke Baird to find several packages on her desk.

Mistress Yuga had clearly let herself in and she has stacked several packages at the foot of her bed on the trunk. All that mind-numbing jogging must have turned her brain to mush because it takes her a few moments to understand what they are and why they’re in her room.

It’s her birthday.

She’s eleven years old.

Lexa closes the door behind her and, before examining the packages, turns to look at herself in her mirror. Does she look much older? Much different? She doesn’t think so. Does she feel much older? Lexa frowns; she watches her reflection frown back. No, she decides. She just feels a like a tired ten year old.

Still, she changes into her night clothes and places her sword on the bed next to her, within easy reach even if she can’t wield it. Then she crosses her legs and pulls the packages toward her.

There are three in total—two neatly wrapped and one not wrapped at all, save for a bright ribbon around the box. Since he’s done the same since she was very little, Lexa knows that gift is from Gus. She opens it first, wrestles the lid open one handed. Inside the box is a pair of beautiful black boots and she tugs them on immediately, delighted. She tucks the ribbon into her pocket. Her father has given her books—the ones she asked for, and a book on Haryse that she hadn’t asked for. Lexa opens it and grins, finding it a history of trading with the Bazhir and K’mir traders, and alliances that had been forged and broken. It is in her fathers neat script and she realises, feeling warm and happy, that he must have written it for her. The other gift has no note attached. Lexa opens it cautiously—she doesn’t think her friends know that it’s her birthday.

The box is a fine case made of a glossy brown wood. It is unmarked and opens when she brushes her fingers over a slightly darker patch of wood. The lid opens with a creak and Lexa sniffs, taking in the pine scent and something like grain. Her gaze is drawn immediately to what is stored in the compartment to the left. Three little balls no larger than her fist. Lexa grins—she knows what they are. They look like colourful juggling balls but, unlike jugglers tools, these are weighted heavily. A paper tucked under the largest of the three balls has hand-drawn instructions showing her how to use them and Lexa’s grin widens. In the compartment to the right sits a large pot of bruise balm. She tests it on her knee where she had slipped on slick ice that morning and the bruise fades before her wide eyes. Very potent bruise balm, she corrects herself.

Lexa runs her fingers along the outside of the box thoughtfully, pleased by the gift but confused. They’re perfect gifts for a page, and for her, but she doesn’t know who it could be from. She swirls her finger over a knot in the wood and blinks when a little compartment opens in the lid. A scrap of paper flutters out, which Lexa takes. Before she reads it, she eases the compartment closed again and tries to find the edges of it but by excellent craftsmanship or magic, it has disappeared.

Lexa turns curious eyes to the paper.

Common parchment, black ink. Nothing distinctive about it at all, not even the neat block letters lend her a clue.

GODS ALL BLESS, LADY PAGE .


Da,

Thank you for the book—I love it! I had no idea that children of the Bloody Hawk tribe had visited Haryse—neither did Hasim! Please tell Mara that I love the cloak and that the clothes will not need hemming. It looks like I really have grown… Also, Gustus took my measurements and bought me some other clothes with the allowance you gave me. Mostly thicker breeches, since it’s getting very cold but also because I’ve been running so much I’m wearing holes in all of mine. Also did you know that Gus would be giving me boots? They’re beautiful and perfect and I’m never taking them off again. I slept with them on, even!

As for my handwriting…Did I not mention that I broke my arm? Don’t worry about it at all. It's only a little bit broken. The healers say the cast will be off very soon. Duke Baird himself is looking after the healing. I don’t know what an appropriate Midwinter gift might be for him but I’m thinking he won’t need anything healing related. I will ask Thalia to pick up a new pen set for him—he spends a lot of time writing and it might be nice. I will be able to collect some good Midwinter gifts for all of my friends with the allowance you have given me, thank you for that.

All my love, and best Midwinter wishes,
Lexa


“You’d think with such nice gifts you’d be a little cheerier.” Lexa glances up at Anya and shrugs. “Hmm.” Anya stands, pats Lexa’s shoulder and jerks her head for Lexa to come with her. “Come on, Lex. Visiting Costia will cheer you up,” she says with a little sympathy and she doesn’t even tease Lexa when the words make her flush. Anya leads her out of the library after getting Octavia’s promise to take Lexa’s things to her room.

Instead of heading to the healing wing, Anya takes her to an empty storeroom.

Lexa steps into the room when Anya gestures and she glances around, confused. “Where’s Costia? Is she meeting us here—oh. I see. It was a ruse.” She sighs, turns to face Anya, who has closed the door and crossed her arms with a distinctly unimpressed look. “The sympathy should have been my first clue.”

“Should’ve been,” Anya agrees.

“What is this about, then?”

“You’re sad.”

“I suppose you’d like me to just stop being sad? Perrin broke me arm. I can’t do any of the things I want to do—“

“Stop. Stop being a fool.” Anya moves quickly, kneels in front of Lexa. She grips Lexa’s shoulders and gives her a little shake, eyes bright. “You can do anything you put your mind to, Lexa. And you can do even more when I’m here to help you. And I promised to help you, didn’t I?”

Lexa nods slowly.

“Then stop trying to learn how to do it all on your own and take your sword,” Anya nods and Lexa unsheathes her sword. She knows how to do that much left handed. It feels comfortable and solid in her grip and Lexa feels a small smile start.

"I was going to ask you for help soon," Lexa tells her, a slippery feeling - guilt? - making her say it. She doesn't want Anya to think she wouldn't have asked. Or that she would ask anyone else.

Anya's eyes glint with pleasure. “Good. That’s it. Now.” Anya draws her own sword. “Guard.”

She moves her through basic forms, makes her hold and brace until her arm trembles. Anya is relentless—makes her aware of every part of her body, from her sweaty grip on her sword to her tense neck to her slack stomach to her feet at the wrong angles. When they finally stop, Lexa is aching in muscles she hadn’t known she had. Sweat stings her eyes and drips down her nose and her lungs are heaving—though, she thinks, not as badly as they might have been five days ago before all her running.

“Well?” Anya asks. “What do you think?”

“I think,” Lexa nibbles at her lip, “you’re terrifying.”

“And?”

Lexa’s smile splits, sly and pleased. “And I can do this.”

Anya smirks. “I know. And Lexa?”

She looks up, grimaces when Anya ruffles her sweat-dark hair.

“Happy birthday.”

// 

“How's the arm, Lexa?"

"Hurts." Lexa glares down at her cast - she's getting it off soon, she hopes, but the twinges of pain don't fill her with confidence - then up at Clarke. She watches her circle the makeshift man - 'oh let's call him a villain, that's so romantic' as Clarke had said when Lexa explained its purpose - and clears her throat. "You're stabbing too low."

Clarke rolls her eyes but adjusts her strike. "You know, you could’ve told me it was your birthday."

Lexa steps up, adjusts her grip on the lethal little knife slightly. She nods when Clarke has it right. “Why?”

“We could’ve done something else. Something more fun.”

“Training is fun.”

Clarke gives her a horrified look and Lexa fights a smile. She looks different in Lexa’s practice clothes—they’re a little tight around the shoulders and a little long in the leg, but Clarke let out the stitches a little and rolled up the pants, so it’s fine. She just looks so…normal. So much like Lexa’s other friends that Lexa forgets sometimes that she doesn’t know anything about Clarke at all. Not really.

“Tell me you don’t really believe that.”

“I’m a page, Clarke.”

“You’re a human first! Lexa grins. She thinks Padraig might not agree with that. She doesn’t even know if she agrees with that. "What about jewellery? A pony?"

"I have a horse."

"You do?" Clarke perks up, eyes brightening. "What's its name?"

"Her. Alraed."

"Alraed." Clarke grins. "I like it. Did you get anything nice, at least?”

Lexa rolls her eyes at Clarke's single-mindedness. “Some books. Boots.” Lexa kicks out her foot to show them off.

“Very nice. What else?”

“A travelling case. A cloak from Mara.”

“Mara, who’s Mara?” Clarke slashes at the stump they’ve tied cushions to. It slits open with a tearing noise and she smiles a tight, fierce smile that Lexa returns. 

“She was my nursemaid. And then helped Da raise me.”

“Hmm.” Clarke’s Gift shines and drags her finger across the pillow. She takes her hand away and the pillow looks as it had before it had been slashed. “Next. What about the neck?”

“The neck of most men is all the way up here,” Lexa says, already shaking her head. She lifts her hand high above both their heads. “They’ll see you coming from the start. There’s an artery here,” she reaches out for Clarke and thinks better of that gesture, holds out her leg to demonstrate on herself where the artery is. Clarke watches closely. She’s flushed too, from exertion mostly, but her eyes are steely with focus. “Cut deep here and they’ll have to get a Healer or bleed out.”

“How awful.” Clarke looks horrified, and sounds horrified. But she doesn’t feel horrified.

And Lexa can usually feel Clarke, so long as they’re in the same room. She doesn’t not feel her, not the way she sometimes doesn’t feel Octavia or Anya or Hasim or Costia, even if they’re touching her.

Lexa reaches out—she confirms that the dark amusement coils underfoot, and a patch of cold focus radiating out from Clarke and then pulls her awareness back. There’s no way of explaining it that she likes, but imagining it as another Lexa’s hands touching these sensations is how she’s managing. For now.

The bell for curfew rings and Clarke’s eyes snap upwards, then out to the window. The moon sits much higher than it had when they began.

“Curfew.” She sighs, puts her little knife away in the sheath Lexa got her for too. “Tomorrow?”

“I have assignments,” Lexa disagrees.

“The night after?”

“Packing for our excursion into the Forest.” That’s not a lie but it’s not completely true either. That doesn’t bother Lexa very much; Clarke isn’t a paragon of honesty either. “Clarke?”

“Disappointing,” she shrugs. “I’ll keep training on my own.”

“Of course you will.” Lexa sucks her bottom lip into her mouth before saying in a rush, “You left a note here weeks ago. A list. A list of books. One about storms and one about healing. And another, I think?”

Lexa doesn’t think; she knows. She doesn’t admit that she has all the books on that list, that her Da doesn’t really ask questions when it comes to books.

She also doesn’t admit that she’s partway through Tempests & Gales and that it’s fascinating.

Clarke frowns, caught off guard. “Yeah. Yes, that was my list. Why?”

The icicles—which Lexa hasn’t felt for many days now—bristle with suspicion.

Lexa shifts as she considers what to say. She hadn’t planned it out entirely—Clarke never feels, never reacts, the way she expects she will, so planning doesn’t go over well—and the sensation of being out of her depth is keen and keenly unpleasant.

The icicles almost sing with distrust as the moment stretches on. Lexa looks sharply to Clarke but sees nothing on her face but polite interest.

“I have the healing one. Hert’s book.”

“You just happen to have Healing for the Gifted?”

Lexa catches her breath, surprised when the icicles melt and flood her with amusement. She grins, and Clarke grins back. 

“Yes. A coincidence,” she says, and her own amusement curls in her belly. “Would you like to borrow it while I’m away?” she offers, and it’s an incredible thing to know someone’s answer before they say it.

It’s almost nicer, Lexa reflects, to hear it from Clarke. A tension she hadn’t noticed melts, and Clarke’s moonlight curls catch the light and glint and glitter. Her eyes are cold blue like the centre of a hot flame.

Lexa flushes. Clarke smiles and Lexa notes with some relief that she’s flushed too. Their connection has faded, though, and Lexa can’t be sure whether her flush is delight or success or something else.

“I would like that. Very much.”

“I’ll leave it here for you,” Lexa promises.

“And I’ll be here when you get back,” Clarke promises in return. Her tone is light but Lexa feels rocked when the promise clangs like a great bell, like Lexa is standing inside the great bell and the sound is shaking all around her. Like the one time Lexa had heard a word of Old Thak and watched the world literally shift to accommodate it.

Clarke’s eyes are wide and stripped bare of pretence—it’s clear she felt it too. She licks her lips quickly and runs from the room. The blue tail of her cloak swishes around the corner, and then she’s gone.