Winter grips the land tight between icy teeth the night after the pages return from their camp. Snow and sheets of rain lash at Corus and the palace. The wall of windows in the Greenery shake under the torrent, rain and hail hitting with bell-like plinks and falling away.
Hanging lanterns glowing with faint magelight glint dimly in the window. Beneath the lights, there is a girl sitting on a long bench of white stone. Her face is pale and drawn, deep shadows gouged under her eyes. A curious vine has tangled itself about one of her legs, up to the knee, and she pets it absent-mindedly, eyes fixed on the bob of a much-flickering lantern far below. She watches as it makes its way from the stables up toward the palace.
The Greenery offers a respite that Lexa desperately needs. Her friends have taken to gathering in her room; they bring with them all the tension that surrounds the Ordeals and each of them has their own incredibly annoying habits. And the noise of it all—the flick of pages as Ilian pretends to read, Hasim’s mutters when he pricks his fingers now and again as he stitches and darns and mends (and worse, his stares), the rasp of stone on metal as Octavia sharpens their knives to wicked points. That alone was too much to bear.
And then Octavia…
Lexa glares out the window. The lantern has disappeared and so she stares instead at one of the palace towers she can just barely see through the thick snow. The gold cap to the white-grey stone glints and gleams.
The candle flickers on Lexa’s bedside and the light plays over her page as she focuses steadily on it, trying to ignore the fact that all of her friends are in her room and being loud and annoying. They’ve been better in the last hour since settling so it isn’t too much of a chore to read. Ilian is very warm against her and she curls her legs up underneath her body, leans more heavily into him.
“Do you think he’s going to be alright?”
It isn’t as though it’s the first time someone has thought it; it’s not even the first time someone has asked it. But unlike the other times, Octavia’s question is laced with genuine interest instead of worry.
Lexa’s hands clench on her book.
No one answers them.
“Gareth said his grandfather lost a finger in the Chamber. And I heard someone went mad in there once.”
Ilian clears his throat warningly. Octavia either doesn’t understand the warning or doesn’t care.
“You know people die in the Chamber? They really do. There was someone who died when Lady Keladry was a squire. That wasn’t so long ago—isn’t that wild? It’s not some story, it actually could happen.”
Lexa isn’t sure if they mean it could happen tomorrow, or it could happen to them. Any of them.
“That’s enough, Tave,” Hasim hisses. “Say something like that, the gods’ll listen.” He makes a sign of protection over his chest, frowning disapprovingly at them. Octavia just rolls their eyes.
“He’s right. That’s not something to joke about.”
“You too?” Octavia looks surprised at Ilian. “I didn’t know you were superstitious.”
“It isn’t superstition. It’s smart. Bad intent like that…that’s the sort of thing that follows you. You don’t joke about the Chamber—everyone knows that.”
“Must’ve missed that lesson,” they drawl. A grin, slight and not very friendly, crooks over their face as they start to sharpen yet another knife. “Missed a lot of lessons as a kid.”
Hasim snorts. “Who’s surprised?” he mutters.
“Lexa doesn’t care. Does she?” Octavia turns their sharpened gaze on her.
Lexa closes her book and stands. “Lexa wanted to read alone tonight,” she tells Octavia. She thinks about leaving it at that, but then, “It is cruel to wish that harm on others,” she says very quietly when she passes Octavia on her way to the door, voice low enough that the boys cannot hear. “And I did not think that you were cruel.”
Lexa blinks out of her memory.
A familiar face is reflected in the windows and Lexa turns to smile. She tries to stand but the vine tangled about her leg is thick and unyielding and it lets her get no further than halfway up before yanking her back down onto the bench.
“Forgive me, I would stand but I find myself unable to.”
Clarke waves away her apology and makes her way over, giggling when she sees Lexa’s predicament. She helps Lexa to coax the vine away.
“I’m glad to be out of it. The weather, I mean. Seems like the sort of thing Lord Padraig would like to train us in. And if it’s still raining in the morning…” She grimaces.
Clarke shivers and then laughs. “He doesn’t want to lose anyone to the lightning, I suppose.” Lexa perks up until, “You know, I think they’re close to discovering how to capture lightning. It shouldn’t be a problem soon.”
“Oh. Wonderful.” Lexa shakes out of her grim mood. “You look well.”
“Thank you. You don’t.” She gives Lexa a considering once over from where she’s kneeling. The vine curls sulkily around a tree trunk and Clarke brushes the dirt and leaves from her lap before dropping onto the end of Lexa’s bench in a most unladylike sprawl. Catching Lexa’s look, she grins. “Oh hush, don’t judge. I’m exhausted.”
“I am well aware of how tiring it is to curtsey for two hours. I’d prefer to break my arm again.”
They fall into a comfortable silence; Lexa returns to watching the weather and Clarke picks up her book from the bench but doesn’t read. She drags her thumb over the corner of the pages and the flutter of that movement is a quiet counterpoint to the crash of heavy rain and hail on glass.
“I wasn’t sure if you would be here,” Clarke says finally.
“I thought you wouldn’t be here.”
“No,” Lexa says, voice flat. “The other lady I’m talking to.”
“You’re speaking to another lady?” Clarke asks, trying not to grin. Amusement bursts out from Clarke beneath their feet, the darkness Lexa is used to from this girl but lined with a playful silver. “I believe I am offended.”
“I am devastated to have disappointed you, Lady Clarke.”
“I shall have to be convinced of this supposed devastation,” she sniffs, nose turned up primly.
“Whatever I may do,” Lexa bows from her place. Grinning, she feels a flicker of hesitation but presses on nonetheless. “That…sound. That thing that happened.” The shadows twist nervously beneath Lexa’s feet and she narrows her eyes at Clarke’s expression, merely politely interested. “I thought about not coming.”
Clarke licks her lips. Her eyes dart down to her book—the embroidery one again, Lexa sees—and she says, “So did I. What luck we both came tonight.”
“Luck had little to do with it,” Lexa says, and when Clarke looks shocked she says, “I came last night too. I wouldn’t’ve come tomorrow,” she allows, which makes Clarke smile, “but that’s because I have to be in the kitchens. We’re learning what to do for the feast. All I was going to say is I don’t know what the sound was but I don’t…feel different and I don’t think we have to worry about it.”
Clarke looks over at her for a long moment before smiling. “I agree. I am glad you’re here, though. I heard the strangest tale today and I can’t decide if it’s typical palace gossip or something…else.”
Lexa grins. “Who are they telling tales about now?”
“The pages winter camp, as a matter of fact. Tell me,” Clarke says sweetly, apparently not noticing the way Lexa’s jaw drops. “Did you really stumble across a slaughtered village and battle a flock of Stormwings?”
Shock lances through Lexa. “It—no. It wasn’t just me! Who told you that?”
Clarke blinks. “I didn’t mean you, Lexa. I meant all of the pages.” Her blue eyes go very wide. “Was it you?”
Lexa curses—a word she learned from Nolan—and turns away.
“Your pardon, Lady Clarke,” she says after a moment. “I shouldn’t speak so.” Clarke demurs quietly to that and if Lexa were paying more attention she might wonder at the way Clarke’s perpetual amusement flares at the apology. “We stumbled across a caravan. They were all dead. It wasn’t—it was…” Lexa closes her eyes and the vision of that clearing and those bodies comes before her. She opens her eyes to avoid looking at it. “It was only three Stormwings and we didn’t fight them. Just talked.” Lexa clears her throat. “I don’t want to talk more about it. Is that…all right?”
She casts around for something else to say. Her eyes settle on the empty post laying against the wall. “I haven’t had the time to set up the training dummy. Perhaps a lesson tonight isn’t right, we shouldn’t,”
“Oh please don’t send me away. I already went to the trouble of sneaking out.”
Lexa hums. “May I ask you a question?” Clarke nods, smiling. Lexa hesitates, feeling the prickle of nerves in the shadows by her feet. She braces her elbows against her knees and leans forward, stares down at her clasped hands. “Who are you?” Before Clarke can answer, Lexa continues quickly. “Before we truly started talking, training, I asked my father about you. He didn’t find any noble lady named Clarke. Nor any lordling.”
“Haryse’s are thorough,” Lexa shrugs.
“My family,” Lexa nods. She frowns when Clarke’s expression flickers—her smile drops and for a moment Lexa is looking across at a girl genuinely shocked. She looks away politely so that Clarke can piece her mask back together and when she hears the rustle of skirts, Lexa looks again and is thankful to see that Clarke looks nothing but politely intrigued.
“I didn’t know,” she says, politely.
“I thought I had told you,” Lexa says, just as politely. “Nevertheless,”
“Yes of course, your question. I’m flattered you would think I’m a lady,” Clarke smiles, fluttering her eyelashes too obviously to be serious. A slight smile is tucked into the corner of her lips. “I am a ward, here by the grace of their Majesties.” Her face falls a fraction. “My family… My mother was a healer and my father was the head of our village. They sent me south when it became too dangerous to stay.”
Lexa listens carefully as Clarke speaks and is surprised to find that everything she feels from her echoes what she’s saying. She’s being truthful, then, Lexa thinks. There’s a strangeness to the feeling, a discord like two notes jarring against one another, that Lexa doesn’t understand but it’s so faint that she doesn’t bother to pry.
“How long has it been?”
“Since you saw your parents?”
“I—“ Clarke swallows. Pain and loss roars through her; her expression never shifts, save for a flicker of light in her eyes. “Years. I was six.”
Lexa sits back, shocked. “Six? And they haven’t come for you?”
“I’m safer here. Well protected, well educated. They’re making me into a proper young lady,” Clarke shrugs.
“A lady never shrugs.”
“A knight is too chivalrous to point that out.”
Lexa grins. “You may be right there. Luckily I’m only a page.”
“Very lucky. They might take your shield for an offence like that,” Clarke teases.
“Then I shall be in your debt, Lady Clarke, if you would not mention to anyone that I was so, so…uncouth.”
“I shall think on it.”
“Naturally, my lady.” Lexa bows from her seat and they both last only a moment before laughing. Clarke covers her mouth with a dainty hand. “May I ask you another question? This one – I hope it won’t be as…difficult.”
“How could I say no to that?”
“By saying no,” Lexa frowns. “I would never force you to answer my questions.”
Clarke blinks, surprised by Lexa’s vehemence. She smiles. “I know. I was only being silly.”
“Oh. I don’t think you should be silly about that. You may mock my chivalry if you like, but there are some who are not chivalrous and I would hate for you to encounter them.”
Clarke grips her hand with her own small, gloved hand. “I am a very good judge of character, Lexa. And I have a knife.”
“That’s true,” she nods, appeased. “Well, in any case. My question is if you, er, well if you have found that book helpful at all?”
“The book—oh! Hert’s!” Lexa nods. “I’ve finished it, I thought it was marvellous. The books I have access to at the moment aren’t nearly as thorough and half as well written. I feel like I’m wading through words with the book but at least he knows what he’s talking about,” Clarke snorts. “And the diagrams were so clear. He’s leagues ahead of his contemporaries—behind Schetts, naturally, but that’s a new edition and far more in depth. For the basics, Herts is still the best—did you know that he perfected the method for bone regrowth that healers still use today?”
She has felt amusement, and suspicion, and despair and loss and fury from Clarke but she’s never felt such a clear joy before.
“I—did not. I shall have to, er, acquire the others for you,” Lexa says, remembering at the last moment not to confess she’s bought them all. The words come out a little twisted, though, and she suspects Clarke knows because she smiles at her and the amusement rises from the ground in happy bubbles. “And you’re certain you don’t want to be a Healer?”
“I want,” Clarke clamps her lips tightly closed before she laughs, shakes her head. “It’s silly.”
The happy bubbles burst and crash in icy waves into the floor, shards spiking around their feet. Lexa twists her hand so that she is holding Clarke’s hand and she lays her free hand atop it, gently. She chooses her words carefully, not wanting to cut herself on one of those shards.
“I withstood my fair share of laughter when I announced my intention to be a knight. You may not have noticed,” Lexa confides, “but I am rather small. They thought I could not do it.”
Clarke grins. “And here you are.”
“Here I am,” Lexa agrees quietly. “I will not poke fun at your dreams, Lady Clarke.”
“It really is silly.” Lexa doesn’t rise to that; she waits and Clarke breathes out. “I haven’t given it too much thought but… I suppose I always imagined I would be helping my family run the household.”
“I don’t think that’s silly at all.”
Clarke crinkles her nose. “I’m sure it’s nothing to you. You’re going to be a knight. And my teachers,” she rolls her eyes. “You could be a lady-in-waiting one day, if you would only apply yourself,” she says in a snooty mimicry. Lexa stifles a giggle. “It’s what I should want but…”
“You want to go home.”
“I want to help. Do something worthwhile.” Clarke clenches her free hand in her skirts; they crinkle audibly and she starts, flicks them out to smooth out the wrinkles. “I want to help my people,” she says, very quietly, as though she barely dares to hear them herself.
Lexa grips her hand tight. She doesn’t understand why Clarke would think it silly, or why the discordant note rings through her words. But, she thinks, I don’t have to know.
The thought makes it easy to hold Clarke’s gaze and tell her, very simply, “That is a very fine ambition, Lady Clarke.”
They talk quietly for some time more; Clarke manages to pull from her more of what happened on the winter camp, the training and the men who rode from the King’s Own, though Lexa keeps the details of the attack from her. Lexa coaxes information on books Clarke is looking for. She’s too tired to be subtle but Clarke plays along. When the evening bell rings, Lexa parts reluctantly from her friend.
“Shall we meet again tomorrow?”
Lexa shakes her head no. “I have to check in with the Healers.”
Clarke starts. “Are you alright?”
“Hmm? Oh yes, they want to see that my arm is better.”
“Oh. Good. Hm. And the next night?”
Lexa sighs. “No, training for the feast. We’re serving—will you be there?” When Clarke says she won’t, Lexa frowns. “We’re working through until the third night past Midwinter.”
“So I won’t see you for two weeks?”
Lexa shrugs. “What about during the day?”
“Lessons. Always lessons.”
“Oh. I suppose it will have to be the night after the feasts end, then,” Lexa sighs. “I’ll set up our target, you bring your knife.”
“Yes, Training Master Lexa.”
Lexa flushes, rolls her eyes, and takes her leave. She doesn’t find it strange that Clarke won’t be at the feasts until she’s thinking about it much later. A ward of the King and Queen should be at the feast, surely. But the thought comes in the instant before sleep and when she rises the next morning, it’s gone.
Despite the knee-deep snow, the pages are busier with training than ever. Padraig has them training every morning and caring for their horses and then, in place of the afternoon classes, he runs sword drills in the long, mirrored hall. After those lessons they turn themselves ever so reluctantly over to Master Vauntire.
With only a week until the first day of the Midwinter Week celebration—as Vauntire tells them sixteen times that first evening alone—the preparations begin in earnest.
Each of the pages are refitted for their fine red-and-gold tunics and red breeches. Lexa is pleased to find that hers don’t fit anymore—she’s shot up a full inch in the last few months and her ankles and wrists are awkwardly exposed. The tailor gives her a familiar filthy look—the same he gives her each time she returns her practice tunics for darning—but he gives the same look to most of the others, so she ignores it.
Ilian is the worst off of all. The tailor directs to him alone the filthiest look Lexa has ever seen. He has grown more than two inches taller and gained a thickness to his shoulders…and arms…and waist. The tunic tears at the seams of his shoulders and strains. He holds his arms very unhappily above his head, stuck within the tunic and unable to either bring it down or pull it off without it tearing more.
Hasim whistles. “Why not just rip it right into pieces in front of them next time?”
Octavia pats Ilian’s shoulder, with great difficulty. They have to stand on their tiptoes to do it. “It’s because he eats his greens.”
“Then why aren’t you bigger yet?” Hasim teases. “You eat everything.”
“Oh, you noticed!”
“Everyone has,” Ilian joins in, smiling softly down at Octavia.
The tailor grunts as he steps up onto a box and tugs the tunic off Ilian’s shoulders. He whips a knotted rope around him and, with great reluctance, stomps off to the backroom to find him another.
“Might as well just put a red drape over you, Malven. You’ll have grown again by the feast.” Lexa says quietly once they’ve escaped, still wide-eyed from her own interaction with the tailor.
“I thought he was going to strangle me,” Ilian confesses. “What colour was that? Purple?”
“Blue. The red of the tunic made him look purple.”
“Tailor,” the four of them tell Lincoln together, shaken and pretending not to be. “Have you noticed how…”
“Terrifying he is, yeah.”
“Oh yes,” Lincoln agrees. He claps Ilian on the shoulder. “I’m to be refitted now. There is a rip in my sleeve.”
“Mithros protect you,” Lexa wishes gravely and carries on down the hall.
“That was not reassuring!” Lincoln calls after them. “Alexandra! That wasn’t reassuring!”
Hasim waves back at Lincoln and leans close to Lexa. “I could help him—should I help him? Rahat has been teaching me to mend.”
“Oh that’s why you were doing that. I was wondering why your mends were so poor,” Ilian teases, and runs down the hall when Hasim pulls a small knife from his belt. “Lexa, help!”
“I find myself offended that you asked Lexa first,” they shrug. “You’re on your own, my friend.”
Ilian and Hasim—panting, with new tears in their less formal tunics—beat them to the kitchens. When Lexa and Octavia arrive, Vauntire is part way through a rant, punctuated by the stomp and clash of pots and pans and hard-working servants bustling about the large room. Once he’s done with the boys, Vauntire looks over the new arrivals with distinct distaste, his eyes resting on Lexa and Octavia—and behind them, Anya—for only a brief moment before moving on.
“First years, you’re in the kitchens for the week. Second through third years, you’re serving the guest tables. Fourth years, dignitaries. Prince Jasson, you will be serving the high table with Page Aili.” With a sweep of his long, embroidered coat, Vauntire leads the older pages out.
Havassah steps forward once Vauntire has left, mouth twisted bitterly as she glances after him. “Not enough honey in that one,” she mutters. Lexa nods. Always harsh in the face, Havassah softens a fraction when she looks down at her. “Let’s see what we’re dealing with, sha?”
Lexa and Ilian are put to washing, Hasim and Virgil to chopping, and Octavia and Terrance to stoking the great roaring fires beneath the ovens. They’re hard jobs, physically demanding even for six children who have been training four hours a day every day for months. It takes some time of being jostled and stepped on before the first years learn when to duck and when to sidestep to avoid a knock on the head or a slop of hot water or, worse, tepid water down their back. Havassah watches over them and wields an iron ladle in much the same manner as Sir Fared wields a staff, doling out sharp raps against sensitive wrists and the back of a head when they make a mistake.
When Lexa returns to her room the first night, she has to dab bruise balm over several purpling marks. But she also has an armful of rolls and fruits that Havassah had let them take.
The week passes quickly and by the first night of Midwinter feasting, they know their roles well and it passes without incident. Lexa arrives early the second night, slipping into the kitchen and taking her place noiselessly at the washing station.
“Nate,” she greets one of the other washers, a boy of perhaps sixteen years.
He has a broad, smiling face and cheerful brown eyes. The white of the servant shirt is crisp and bright against his dark skin and he has rolled the sleeves neatly above his elbows, not wanting to wet them in the water, exposing a dozen or so small scars, nicks and pocks. Most of them are the typical marks of life—what might have been a badly broken arm, scraped elbows, that sort of thing. One mark, however, is deep and wicked and looks as though it sliced open his arm from the web of his left thumb and forefinger up the back of his forearm and disappears up beneath the sleeve. It is healed now, though raised in a pinkish scar. On her second night working there, she had remembered his face—and that scar—and remembers him for the kitchen boy who had been kind to her that day after Perrin and his lot had cornered her and it had been easy to fall into friendship with him.
“How were the races?”
“Oh a fine set o’ horses. Never seen finer! There was one miss—sleek as the sea herself an’ a be-u-tiful blue-black coat.” Nate whistles, shakes his head. “Now if I was a betting man, an’ I ain’t admitting to nothin’, mind,” Lexa nods, “I woulda won a pretty silver on that lass.”
“And what did you spend that silver on?”
Nate grins, winks. “Mistress Havassah would have my hide if I told a barri lass like you sommat like that, she would.”
“Mistress Havassah would have your hide for many things, it seems.”
“Not respectable company for a fine lady like yerself.”
“There are very few people who can choose my company for me,” Lexa tells him, scrubbing at a particularly stubborn mark on a pot. “Not even my father has managed that.”
“Maybe Havassah though,” Nate teases and Lexa looks up and, glancing around to make sure Havassah can’t hear, gives him a wink back. It’s clumsy but it makes him laugh.
“Less laughing, more cleaning,” Havassah calls. “Or,”
“Ye’ll have my hide?” Nate suggests cheekily and Lexa can’t help but giggle, laughing harder when Havassah brandishes her ladle. He sprints away, dropping his pot into the washing water and splashing Lexa’s tunic. She wipes it absently, more interested in watching him lead Havassah on a chase thorugh the kitchen. He’s lithe and quick, leaping over a barrel with a leap that easily clears it, skids around the far end of the heavy table that runs the length of the room, and only loses her on the sprint back down the opposite end of the room by crawling under the table and making his way back to the washing basin. Lexa is surprised to see he’s barely breathing hard. “Havassah, would ye whack a poor boy? Who works so hard?”
“Sha, and send him home in pieces!”
“Ooh,” he shivers, “ye say the nastiest things.”
Havassah starts toward him again but she’s distracted when the doors leading to the dining hall bang open and the pages enter for the cutlery and plates to set out. Nate gets only an evil eye for all his trouble.
“You take your fate into both hands and dangle it before the Goddess’s hounds.”
Nate scoops the pot from her hands. “Aye, mayhap. Here—yer scrubbing this wrong, I’ll show ye how to clean a spot like this.”
Partway through the dinner preparations, Lexa hears the gossip she was waiting for.
Over at the table, two maids are standing side by side working dark red spices into thick slabs of meat. Early thirties, both of them, with dark hair and pale skin where it hasn’t been browned by the sun, they look similar enough that in a quick glance Lexa guesses them to be sisters. They talk quietly as all the kitchen staff do—saving the bellows for Havassah and the instructions to be shouted from one side of the kitchen to the other—and Lexa picks up a few words. She scrubs slowly, barely even wetting the plate as she strains to hear more.
“—shakin’ like th’ last leaf on a tree he was, but alive.”
“Mithros bless,” the kitchen maid sighs, presses a hand to her heart. “I always fear for ‘em. Big strong lads,”
“And lasses,” her sister agrees, sounding very much like it’s a point she’s had to concede many times. “Brought low by a room. Makes you wonder what goes on in there, don’t it?”
“Oh no, not me. No thank ye, not ever, Goddess willin’. I’ll not be caught in a godless place like that—leave that to our knights.”
“Big strong lass,” her sister snorts.
“Ah’m not the knight now am I? He was paler than a bedsheet when he came out! Ah’ll not put myself through that—I already have’ta deal with Master Pinching Fingers here at work and Master Husband back at home. No ma’am, I won’t be puttin’ myself through more strife.”
Lexa turns her attention back to the basin, sends her smile down to the very clean plate she’s been scrubbing for the last few minutes.
After a moment, Nate clears his throat. “Berra, my love,” he calls out toward the maids.
“Oh you flirt.” Berra sighs.
“Now see here, Master Nate, I believe I was yer love!”
“Gemma! Light of my life!”
“Two-timing me now?”
“Berra, Gemma, I’ve love enough for the two of ye,”
“Ooh, if I haven’t heard a man or two tell me sommat like that a time or so in my life,” Gemma cackles and flips the meat in front of her, which lands with a heavy thump on the tabletop.
“What can we do for ye, love,” Berra flaps a hand to silence her sister.
“Couldn’t help overhearin’,”
“Ah’m sure,” Gemma cackles.
“Yer not calling me a good for naught eavesdropping scoundrel, are ye? Not again, surely!” Nate glances left and right before picking up his towel and wiping his hands, slinging it over his shoulder as he lopes over to join them. He pops a raisin in his mouth and leans against the table, arms folded across his chest.
Strategically, Lexa thinks when she sees the way the women stare down at the lean muscles of his arms.
“What are ye pluckin' our feathers for, ye bad lad?”
“This righteous knight of our realm—I ain’t heard nothin’ about it.” He scratches at his neck. “It went well, then?”
Berra falls onto the opportunity to tell someone new everything she knows. “Well,” she leans forward excitedly. “Young Pevir—you remember him, that lad with the limp.”
“Poor boy, fell off his horse didn’t he?”
“Mm, lucky t’have fixed up as well as he did,” Nate agrees.
“Aye, Mithros was lookin’ over him that day. Well, he and his knight-master—whatshisname, that—mm—slab of a man.”
“Wyldon,” Berra sighs, both hands pressed to her chest. “That man… I saw him joust once and what a sight. Never saw a man wield a stick like that before.” She cuts herself off with a faint cough. “Well, Sir Wyldon and Lady Keladry—“
Lexa’s hearing halts for a moment as blood thuds through her head. Her cloth drops to the floor with a wet slap and, face red, she stoops to pick it up.
“If ye wanted to hear ‘bout it, ye could always join us, lass,” Gemma teases quietly, looking up with a knowing glance. Lexa flushes even brighter but she takes the drying cloth Nate offers and dries off her hands. She feels awkward standing with them but Berra gives her a broad smile and a wink and she realises that they’d known the whole time that Nate had asked for her sake.
“Good evening, she says,” Gemma snorts. “And ye like ye weren’t skulking over there wid ears too big for yer head.” She chortles to herself for a moment. “Go on then, Berra, if yer gonna tell us then tell us.”
Nate winks at Lexa. “Ye need to work on yer eavesdropping,” he murmurs, and turns over his hand to show off a crisp-cooked pastry stuffed with cheese and sausage.
“Wherever would I find someone who makes skulking seem as easy as breathing,” she wonders aloud.
“She’s got ye pegged, lad,” Berra teases, pinching Nate’s cheeks. “Well then, little lass, what did ye want to know?”
“Aye, lass, and knighted besides that,” she nods. “Right as the sun hit Mithros’s mighty shield, the Chamber door opened—ye ever seen it?”
Lexa shakes her head no.
“Big iron doors. Plain and heavy. Cold stone room,” she shivers. “Rows an’ rows of wooden benches, just like in the temple to Mithros here.”
“Well, right as the sun hits the shield, like ah said, there the doors open and the lad stumbles out. White as a sheet and tremblin’. Heard he didn’t speak until the king knighted him.” Berra shakes her head. “Must’ve thought he were still in th’ Chamber.” She turns warm eyes on Lexa and smiles. “All in a piece and sound in mind, like I said.”
Lexa sighs her relief and thanks Berra very politely, which prompts another round of teasing for her manners and her speech. A lady she might be, but for now she’s a page and a page working in the kitchens. Lexa rolls her eyes and takes the teasing.
That evening, with the candles burning low and all the dishes washed and cleaned and every person safe in their beds, Lexa makes her way to the hallway in which the Chamber sits. She crouches against the wall, back flat against the cold stone.
“May I help you, page?”
Lexa jumps to her feet, heart pounding wildly beneath her sternum. She spins to face the very old priest, wearing the orange robe of the Mithran priests, his face hidden within the deep cowl. The shadow disguises him more than the hood ought to, she thinks, and his only identifying features are his voice, dry and cracked like ancient parchment, and the hands folded at his waist that are splotched with age spots.
“N-No, Master Priest. I was… curious.”
“Ah. A divine gift, curiosity.” He lays a gentle hand on her shoulder and Lexa allows him to guide her away from the corridor. She shivers when the temperature changes from a strange, dry cold to the wet winter cold that fills the palace. “The gods gave to each of us a passion, a curiosity. To grow, to make, to learn, to lead. It is to be encouraged.” He stops at the end of this second corridor and Lexa steps out ahead of him, knowing she has been banished in the most polite way possible. “I must warn you,” he says in his cracked whisper, so softly she strains to hear it. “Not to return to this place. There is only one truth within the Chamber and it is given on the day you enter. Not before.”
Lexa bows her head. “Yes, Master Priest.”
“Pages who enter that place do not become knights.”
“Yes, Master Priest.”
“Very good. Run along, child. Sleep long and well. And someday, when you return, I shall sit with you through your vigil.”
Sir Pevir of Hollyrose is the first to be knighted.
Sir Eachon of Brightleigh is second. He too emerges safe and healthy from the Chamber.
Sir Gerlach of Coas Wood is third and he is knighted at midday, missing a chunk of his nose that had healed over as though the wound had been made a half-dozen years prior.
With the first three nights of Midwinter week over, and three new knights—shaken, maybe, disturbed by whatever they might have witnessed in that Chamber but knights nonetheless—given their shields, relief gusts through the palace.
There is no Conté page this year and so for the night breaking into Midwinter proper the Chamber sits closed and empty.
Dawn breaks bright and still that Midwinter morning. A new sheet of snow had fallen overnight and lays undisturbed over the courtyard and over the barren trees.
In her room, beneath a blanket smelling ever so faintly of woodsmoke and home, Lexa’s eyes pop open when the dawn bell rings. Her curls tightly into her bed for several more minutes—Happy Midwinter, she wishes herself—before spilling out in a tangle of long limbs and sheets onto the cold floor.
There is a pile of presents at the foot of her bed that she ignores for now. Each of them are wrapped—one of them with a sprig of winters-breath berry tucked underneath, slightly crumpled, which lends the air a slightly spiced scent Lexa enjoys. Gus, she thinks, and smiles since she had given the same instruction to Mistress Yuga when she had handed over her own gift for Gus. After the tension of winter camp, it had been surprisingly enjoyable hunting down presents for everyone and Lexa permits herself a smile, imagining her friends reactions to her offerings. She had begged Gus to get each of them a tiny boot knife, identical to the one she herself carries. For Hasim, she copied passages of the book her father had written concerning Hasim’s tribe and her family, and added that to the rest of his gift—a thin but very warm undershirt she’d had made, knowing how cold he’d been finding the Corus winter, wrapped around a package of dates. For Ilian, teas and drinking chocolates, a small jade amulet she’d been told could focus a weak Gift, and a collection of maps she had made—of Fief Haryse, from memory; of Fief Maleven, which she had found in the library; one each of the Palace and its grounds; and one of the city of Corus. To Anya she gave a book she’d found in Corus on their free day, not knowing exactly what it is but recognising the words as kemrit, and a small kit of two dozen neatly described and labelled inks. Everything she’d been told about the K’mir tribes told her that thirteen was the year they began to acquire their tattoos. Octavia…Octavia had been the most difficult to shop for, Lexa remembers with a huff, still not pleased with what she ended up giving them. She’d dithered over giving them another knife—which she had ended up getting them, thinking they would enjoy the warped pattern—but it hadn’t seemed enough and so, on advice from Anya, Lexa took a spare braided belt to the tailors and begged—and then paid—them to fix any weak points before studding it with sharp points. The final product was a handsome blue-and-black belt made to be woven into long hair, in case anyone tried to use it against them. She doesn’t bother trying to paint for them, as she had created things for Hasim and Ilian. It’s not a skill she has. Instead, she told Stefan-the-hostler what she wanted and he assured her that Beauty would be appropriately kitted out with a saddleblanket in the grey and yellow of Fief Danshame.
Partway through her weighted exercises, a small knock interrupts her. Lexa continues, until the knock comes again, followed by a voice.
“Lexa,” Hasim hisses. “Lexa, are you awake?” She slips her weights into her pockets and steps over to the door, pulling her sword from its sheath. In a quick movement, she yanks the door open and Hasim stumbles forward. He looks over her and the room in seconds—sweaty face, drawn sword, unwrapped presents—and his face falls in horror. Lexa rolls her eyes but lowers her sword.
“It’s Midwinter,” Hasim tells her in stern disapproval. “No lessons! You’re allowed to sleep in!”
“I don’t know how anymore,” she drawls.
“Then pretend to sleep. Trick your body into it.”
“My body is just as smart as I am. You’re not asleep either,” she points out, stepping away from the door to let him in. She drops the smallest weight to keep the door from closing and sets her sword on her desk before frowning down at the floor to remember where she’d been in her sets. She can’t recall and decides, reluctantly, she’ll just have to start again.
“I,” he tells her, nose high in the air, “came to give you a gift. Here—what are you doing?”
“Exercises,” she puffs, pushing up from the floor. “And I have my gifts. Mistress Yuga delivered them last night.” On the next push up, Lexa jerks her chin toward the small pile. On the down move, she huffs out a little laugh. “Did you forget mine?”
“I’m not certain I believe you.”
Hasim throws himself onto one of the desk chairs and taps his foot impatiently. “I wanted to be here when you opened it, that’s all. Are you almost finished?”
“I’m doing twice as many,” she huffs, “to make up for no lessons.”
Hasim is quiet for long enough that Lexa looks up to make sure he hasn’t fallen asleep. He’s just staring at her, though, so she ignores him.
“You’re really terrible,” he comments after a moment, before sighing. “Fine. I’ll be back. Leave the door open.”
Lexa hums an acknowledgement. He rushes from the room and soon enough he’s back in a set of practice clothes and he watches for a moment before dropping into pace with her.
By the time they’re finished, they’re both sore and sweating. Hasim follows her stretches with ease. Finally, they’re done, and Hasim takes one of her hands in both of his and smiles into her face.
“Now may we open presents?”
Lexa blinks. “I want to bathe.”
Hasim goes to argue but catches a whiff of himself and nods. “Fine.” He leaves again and this time closes the door so she won't be surprised when he reappears. Still, Lexa scrubs quickly until she feels raw all over and then dresses in her Midwinter clothes, a soft winter tunic, green with delicate red-gold branches embroidered about the collar and cuffs, and breeches in a green so dark to be almost black. She’s just finished dressing when Hasim knocks again and she pulls it open to reveal him out of breath and his dark curls still dripping wet.
“I brought mine over,” he tells her unnecessarily, arms wrapped around a small pile, and Lexa flushes a little when she sees he’s ripping hers open first.
Lexa works more quietly than Hasim but with no less delight, examining the gifts that her friends and family have found for her. From her father is a small stack of books she’d requested, and clothes from Mara, and a handsome bronze clip for her cloak from Gus. She grins when she sees it’s in the shape of an apple and she attaches it immediately. From Ilian, she unwraps a handsome journal bound in green leather. Octavia’s gift makes her laugh. Not the pouch, nor the rations stuffed into it, nor the careful charcoal portrait of Alraed that has been rolled self-conciously into the side of the pouch. It’s the small mending kit that they’ve included that makes Lexa laugh and she holds it up to show Hasim.
“Do you think they’re saying something about my mends?” he says, his shirt from Lexa wrapped like a scarf about his neck and up to his mouth.
She grins. “I think they’re saying your mends aren’t good.”
“Ouch. Mine next.”
Dutifully, Lexa finds two from Hasim. The first is a packet of dates, which makes her laugh, and the second is a woven bracelet of two colours. Orange and red, the colours weave into and around one another, tying a cloudy white bead into the centre of the bracelet.
“My parents sent me the threat,” Hasim tells her, tying it to her wrist carefully. “It’s family thread.” Lexa lifts her eyebrows and examines the thread more carefully. She nods to him to show she understands the significance. “The bead is Persepolis glass. I put a charm on it.” Hasim pulls up his sleeve to show off a matching bracelet. “They’ll shine when we’re within fifty yards,” he explains. “If that’s what you want.”
Hasim looks relieved for an instant before he covers the expression with concentration. Orange light flares around his fingers and then around the beads; when his fingers dim and stop, the beads continue to shine faintly. “The weave can’t be cut or taken off by someone else,” he tells her. “So you don’t have to worry about it coming off accidentally or in a fight.”
“It’s brilliant, Hasim. It’s…” Lexa shakes her head, wondering how long he must have looked and practiced to find a charm to do that.
“You’re my sister,” he tells her, voice quiet and firm. “Think of it as a gift for me too so I know if that Stormwing Queen has flown off with you.”
Lexa huffs but nothing can keep her smile from her face for too long. “Deal. Thank you, Hasim.”
“Sure, sure.” He flaps a hand, flushing. “Open another gift.”
There were the typical sweets and money from her father, as well as a new set of writing tips she desperately needed, and Anya gave her a copy of a history book she’d been eyeing from Anya’s own collection for many weeks as well as a small lantern for her desk with a hook if she ever needed to attach it to something like a pole or the side of Alraed’s saddle.
“Brilliant,” Hasim sighs happily, laying back onto her bed. He rests his hands over a small bulge in his belly where he’s eaten half the dates she’d given him and several sweet rolls. “I’m for bed.”
Lexa shakes her head. “You’ll have to leave.”
“Can’t. Not moving for days.”
“I have some more presents to deliver,” she laughs. “Get out of my room.”
He goes eventually, sulking the whole time, and Lexa grabs up her boots and slings her belt around her waist, new pouch on one hip and sword on the other. After a moments hesitation, she clips her cloak around her neck as well and with that, she collects the presents she still needs to hand out and locks the door carefully behind her.
Stopping by Gus’s quarters first, Lexa shifts impatiently from foot to foot as she waits for him to open the door, checking over her little stack as she does.
“Wha—Lexa,” Gus grunts, bleary eyed. “Drank my weight in ale last night. Talk quiet.”
Lexa doesn’t talk at all. She sets her gifts on the floor and flings herself at him, tries to squeeze him tightly enough to wrap her arms around his entire waist. He’s so thick that she can’t quite manage, though she gives it a good attempt.
Gus pats her back gently. “Ye like it, then?”
“I love it,” she tells him, deadly serious.
Gus scratches at his beard, his big hand hiding his smile. “Alright. Ah’m glad.”
“I’ll wear it every day!”
“Good, good,” Gus nods. He waves her for to sit as he moves, slightly unsteadily, to wash his face and rinse out his mouth. Returning, rubbing his face dry on a cloth, he examines her with a beady eye. “Ye look good, Lexa. Noble, like.”
Lexa preens under the attention. “Do you think so?”
“Good, because I’m going to show everyone my gifts.”
“Right now?” Gus looks appalled by the idea of running around the palace, but like he’s steeling himself to do so.
Lexa smiles up at him and pats his arm. “You can sleep some more. I can do this by myself.”
“Bless ye, lass,” he croaks and lays down on his bed immediately. “Merry Midwinter.”
Lexa bends over him and kisses his cheek, wrinkling her nose at the feel of the bristly beard. “Merry Midwinter, Gustus. May every star in the sky know that you are among the greatest of men.”
With that, she is gone, leaving behind a much amused and much bemused man. Gus settles back into his pillow and sighs up at the ceiling.
“Goddess, patroness of parents, thank you for Lexa.” He sighs again, eyelids drooping. “Gods love the girl,” he says on the back of a breath. “I know I do.”
“Apprentice Fletcher hasn’t arrived yet this morning,” a sour looking Healer tells Lexa before she even asks.
Flushing faintly—is she that predictable?—Lexa bows and points to a table at the side. “May I wait?” The healer just nods and shrugs and so Lexa moves over and, curious, pulls a tome from one of the bookshelves to look over.
She loses herself quickly in it in more ways than one. It’s fascinating, certainly, but despite the brief introduction she’s had in reading Hert’s, she understands very little. The text itself is dry but each time Lexa’s brain threatens to seize up and reject the long, complicated sentences, she remembers that these are the books that Healers—that Costia—study to save lives and they seem incredibly wonderful all over again.
—the physical signs of which are many and varied, and which must most typically be understood through experience rather than accumulation of knowledge, as the presentation of such signs can easily be attributed to a number of injuries of lesser or greater danger. It is important for a Healer to conduct a thorough examination of each patient before progressing. While Cratt suggests a checklist, this suggestion is at best slow—which can severely challenge response time in such time-focused situations such as battle healing—and at worse completely ignorant and lazy. A Healer that relies on such checklists past an in-class examination is a Healer than will never be able to make judgements based on context as well as instinct. In this chapter, I will be first outlining the physical, mental, and magical signs that Healers should look for immediately after receiving a patient and the many ways in which these signs of shock may develop in each patient, and which type of trauma these signs suggest. Next, I will—
Lexa looks up from the page and blinks hurriedly, pulling away from Costia’s face so close to her own. She feels herself flushing and returns her gaze to the book. Closing it, Lexa leaps up to return it to the shelf, only to find that Costia hadn’t moved away in the time given. Lexa bumps into her and her hand shoots out to grip Costia’s shoulder, steadying her. After a moment when it becomes apparent that Costia is fine, Lexa’s hand slips down her arm and, when the tips of her fingers prickle, Lexa pulls her hand completely away.
“I—uh,” she stumbles over her words for a few moments, tongue too numb to form words properly. “Uh.”
Costia plucks the book from her hands and, with a glance at the title, steps away to return it to its place. Lexa spins away and scolds herself thoroughly.
“Merry Midwinter,” Costia greets her when she returns, as though nothing had transpired between them. Lexa can see her brown eyes shining with mirth, however, and though she feels she can speak again, her flush remains.
“Merry Midwinter,” Lexa says quietly. She turns, fumbles in her pile for the gift she had found for Costia. “I, uh—I found these for you and I thought, well. I thought that you might like them.”
Costia takes the gift with a thank you and her face lights up—like the sun, Lexa thinks, stunned—when she sees the fine gloves within. They’re thin enough that she could turn pages with them on but, Lexa had discovered, gloriously warm. She had commissioned the maker to add a pattern of tiny green leaves around the wrists of the gloves as well.
“This is very kind of you,” Costia says. “I…I have a gift for you as well,” she admits. “It’s in my desk. Would you wait here a moment?”
“Two, even,” Lexa tells her solemnly and it earns her a bright laugh.
Costia dashes into the Healing wing and Lexa waits, rocking on her heels and ignoring the sour Healer who is shooting her strange, knowing glances. Finally, Costia returns. She grimaces slightly as she hands them over.
“I apologise, I didn’t have time to wrap them,”
“You’re a Healer,” Lexa interrupts her. “I am certainly not wishing to encroach on that time.”
“You aren’t.” Costia smiles at her again, corners of her eyes crinkling with a localised beam of sunlight focuses right at Lexa.
Lexa takes a steadying breath and finally looks down at the presents. One she recognises immediately as bruise balm and she smiles ruefully. “I needed some more of this,” she admits. “But this…” She squints down at the stone in her hands. It’s about half the size of Lexa’s fist and utterly nondescript, though a very pretty light brown. “I’m not sure…”
“It’s enchanted to keep your hands warm. For the next time milord Padraig sends you out in the cold of winter,” Costia tells her, with a faint disapproval in her tone directed at Padraig. “You speak a word and it warms up and you say it again to make the charm stop.”
“What’s the word?” Lexa asks, very curious. And incredibly thankful that somehow she had found two Gifted and kind friends this year.
At the word, the stone begins to heat and Lexa blinks in astonishment as the lingering cold in her hands is chased away.
“This is incredible,” she breathes.
“Yours is more practical,” Costia grimaces. “I suppose you can’t defend yourself if you’re holding onto a rock. I can make you something else,”
Lexa steps back, clutching the rock tightly in her hand. “No! I love it!”
Costia huffs a laugh, reaches out a hand. “Don’t be silly, Lexa, I can make you something better,”
“It’s mine, and a gift, Apprentice Fletcher. I’ll not have you insult my property—and it would be very rude to take it back."
Costia lets her hand fall away, shakes her head. “I suppose you’ll have to keep it then, Page Haryse.”
“I shall.” Lexa lifts it to her face and whispers the word, smiling when the heat lingers for some time before slowly fading. She drops it obviously into the pouch on her hip and pats it happily. “Thank you.”
“Thank you,” Costia agrees. “I’m,” she tangles her gloved fingers and Lexa looks on in awe as her cheeks take on a reddish tinge. “This was very kind of you,” she says softly.
“You’ve been very kind to me,” Lexa returns, a mite stiffly, something she regrets when Costia bows her head and takes a step back as though to return to her work. “Appren—Costia, that is—I’m, it’s been a better year for having you in it,” she tells her, more flustered than she’s ever felt in her life. “In health and friendship.”
“Let this Midwinter mark only the first of many more to come then,” Costia suggests, and as light as her voice is, the way she reaches over and squeezes Lexa’s hand is anything but and Lexa feels like she’s floating when she leaves the Healing wing moments later.
The dizzy, light-headed gold rush lasts until after she’s stowed Clarke’s presents beneath their bench. Lexa steps out from the Greenery and between one heartbeat—finally calmed but still pumping an intoxicating sweetness around her body—and the next, she finds herself caught and dragged. A laughing face calms her trained reaction and she only ends up making Octavia stumble when she goes for their feet.
“Too slow,” they laugh.
“I pulled away,” Lexa tells them, and Octavia grins over their shoulder at her. “Where are we going?” she asks when they tug her down the hall, nearly wrenching her arm from its socket.
“Out! It’s a beautiful day!”
Lexa scowls at their back, absolutely certain—given the unrepentant glee in their voice and their pace—that they’ve done something. She strains her ears and over the sound of their pounding feet, she can hear him. Hasim. Yelling.
“What did you do to Hasim?”
Octavia laughs. They tug her into another hallway and stop, almost backtracking when they see the dead-end corridor. Lexa grabs them before they can leave.
“Lexa,” they whine,
“There’s a window,” Lexa points.
“Oh. Brilliant! Help me up, won’t you?” Lexa braces her hands against one knee and Octavia jumps on Lexa’s push. They catch the edge of the sill and glance out the window. There’s a grimace on their face when they look back in but they shrug. “Not too bad. Might twinge a bit. Coming?”
Lexa cocks her head. Hasim sounds closer. She glances up into her friends mischievous face, the glint of laughter in their eyes, and knows that Octavia has likely done something teetering on the border of annoying and offensive. Still…their hand reaches invitingly down toward her and she feels so light still, and her heart gives an approvingly solid thump, that Lexa reaches up to clasp their wrist without another thought.
“This doesn’t mean I approve,” she warns them.
Octavia lifts their brows, looks from their precarious perch in the narrow window and to Lexa, right there with them, and gives her a rather amused look. “Oh Haryse,” they sigh. “Yeah, it kinda does.”
They lower themself as far as they can go and then shimmy a controlled fall down the wall. Lexa is sure there’s a better way of doing it but doesn’t know what it might be so she copies them, earning a few scrapes but nothing major.
They run until their legs burn a little and then collapse in a small courtyard. It’s out of the way, square with a long bench running most of each wall, and in the centre grows a large tree bare of any leaves. Octavia stops under the tree and huffs, braces their hands against their knees.
“Guess…running was good,” they comment, seeing Lexa is barely out of breath.
“I run every morning. You can join me, if you like.”
“When could you possibly find time for that?”
“Between my exercises and morning classes.”
“You exercise before class still?”
“Of course,” Lexa frowns. “Don’t you?”
Octavia holds off for a moment before they grin. “Yeah. Some weights and stuff. I got some for my birthday.”
“From Lord Bellamy?”
“No,” they tell her flatly. “Thanks for your gifts, by the way,” they continue on as though that single word hadn’t come out positively frozen. In fact…Lexa eyes Octavia curiously and stretches out that other sense she’s been feeling more of ever since the camp. She focuses on Octavia’s words again after a second and tries not to feel too disappointed that all she felt was the cold. It’s a real ability, she’s decided, but not one that seems to obey any kind of command.
“You’re welcome. I liked yours as well.” She twists a little to show off the pouch on her belt and Octavia grins happily.
“Good. Did you show Hasim the mending kit?” Lexa rolls her eyes but can’t stop the smirk from forming. Octavia laughs, delighted.
They talk a while longer—Octavia is very interested in hearing about Gustus and his ale trouble, and Lexa warns them twice not to pick a fight with him today thinking they might be able to throw him. They nod graciously but don’t promise anything. Lincoln had apparently inherited a little of his mothers skill and had taken the time and effort to paint Octavia a landscape of the Palace, which they had hung up on the wall above their desk. When Lexa tells them about the books and gifts from Titus, Octavia tells her about several gifts from their brother, but Lexa has neither the opportunity nor the inclination to press on that subject, seeing Octavia’s lips go white with tension when they force even those meagre words out.
Lexa moves on. She tries not to be obvious about it.
“Enough about your brother,” she says. “What did you do to Hasim?”
Octavia regards her flatly for a moment. They shake their head once and then force a broad grin. “I don’t know what you’re talking about."
“He was chasing you and yelling.”
“How odd. I don’t remember doing anything to him today.”
“Yesterday,” Octavia muses, and Lexa leans forward, seeing the way their lips curl with amusement. They’re too proud of their own trick to stay quiet for long, she knows. She just has to wait. “Well,”
“Speak of the thing itself,” Octavia laughs, and jumps up from the bench. They start toward the other end of the courtyard and Hasim follows. Lexa smothers a laugh; he’s obviously furious but unintimidating as he has to pull his boots from several inches of clumped snow with every step. Not to mention the scarf tucked into his tunic, and his coat, and cloak, and the woollen cap pulled low around his ears. He looks like a lumbering snow golem, all clad in oranges and browns and the faintest hint of gleaming eyes beneath his cap.
“Come back here!”
“Yes you,” Hasim snaps, the harsh edge of his words muffled in all the layers. “You put a—” He splutters, pulls his scarf down to his chin. “You put a mouse in my darning pile!”
“You’re not afraid, are you?” Octavia teases. They dance out of reach again when Hasim tackles them, but not far enough. Hasim surprises them by clambering up onto the bench and sprinting toward them, throwing himself bodily from it to tackle them about the legs. They land heavily, breath knocked out of them, and for a moment neither of them move.
“Should we check on them?”
Lexa looks up at Ilian. He had apparently followed Hasim at a more sedate pace and only now ambles from the hall that opens onto this courtyard. He pulls his cloak tight around his shoulders but other than that he seems mostly unaffected.
“I don’t think so. Do you have a book I can read?”
“You didn’t bring one?”
“I was waylaid,” Lexa confesses.
“Ah. My condolences,” Ilian says solemnly back, only the absolute stillness of his features hinting that they’re sharing this joke. “Here. This is a particularly diverting account of the fourth Tyran queen.”
“Boring!” Hasim shouts from the other side of the courtyard.
Lexa and Ilian ignore him, and the way he shrieks when Octavia shoves snow down his back.
“You don’t want to read it?”
“I’ve nearly finished,” Ilian waves her off. “I think I’ll enjoy the sun instead.” He does exactly that, leaning back against the wall and tilting his head toward the sky. It’s not hot but the sun is bright and Lexa ends up joining him when the sun against the pages is a touch too bright for her to want to bother. She marks her page and hands it back to him. “Pleasant Midwinter?”
“Very,” Lexa nods. “And yours?”
“Getting better every moment.” He glances down at her and then over at their friends. A silence grows between them, not uncomfortable but Lexa can sense that it’s leading up to something. She waits and her patience pays off when Ilian breathes in deeply and begins to speak. “It’s been some time since I have had people to share the day with.” Lexa wonders if she should look at him while he speaks but his voice is so laden with a deep emotion she can’t place that she can’t. He doesn’t seem to mind as he continues. “After my parents… Well, I came to the university and there weren’t…friends for me there. There were mages and intellectuals and the mages tolerated me but I wasn’t strong enough or clever enough with my Gift, I didn’t push it like they seemed to enjoy doing. And the intellectuals all had passions for their minds and as much as many of them enjoyed history as I did, too many more saw their interest in the books themselves than in…” He stops awkwardly, a big hand making some small aborted gesture from his chest outward. “The books were the end goal, I suppose.”
“You wanted to do something more,” Lexa guesses.
Ilian looks down at her again. She doesn’t meet his eyes but she feels it, and sees the way he evaluates her out of the corner of her eye.
“With everything I learned, I started seeing how I could use it to help someone. My brother, the people of Malven.” Lexa nods. She understands that. “But then I saw how many other people were learning the same things, and I started thinking how easily my brother could hire an advisor, a lawyer, a merchant to balance his numbers, all those skills I was learning.” Ilian rubs his fingers over his boy-soft jaw where the faintest stubble was beginning to come through. It doesn’t quite hide a bitter twist to his mouth when he adds, “And that he likely would.”
Lexa bows her head. “I’m sorry, Ilian.”
He shrugs. “My brother is of age. What need has he of a twelve year old?” Lexa tries to think of something that might reassure him, but Ilian presses on before she can. “It was last year, last summer, when I saw the Kings Champion. Word was that they were negotiating another treaty with one of those Scanran chiefs and after one slight or the hundredth she drew her sword and convinced them to sign the damn thing. Convinced them that her way—the King’s way—was the best.”
“You…became a page because of Sir Alanna?” Lexa considers that for a moment. She knows the Champion is her hero, along with the other lady knights, but she hadn’t thought that maybe she was a hero to others. And Ilian? Lexa glances at him thoughtfully. “You want to beat people into seeing things your way?”
Ilian smiles, a slow cheerful kind of smile that tells her that he does know she’s testing him. “I want to change things,” he corrects. “And it occurred to me that there was more than one way to do it. And that one took much longer to learn.”
“And that it might be easier,” she suggests, “to use a gentler method if someone knew that a harsher one was waiting for them.”
“Exactly so,” Ilian agrees, grinning.
Lexa nods and goes back to watching their friends tousle. Their brawling has grown slower as they tire and any moment now she’s sure they’ll trudge over to join them.
“I could have joined the Riders. Or been a lady and married,” she tells him quietly. Ilian turns slightly toward her and she wonders if he’s practised this, making it feel like someone has his complete attention. “Those were really my only other options. If my father hadn’t agreed,” and she doesn’t admit how that had happened, “that was it.”
Ilian grimaces and nods. In some ways, those nobles in the Book of Bronze, or even Silver, and the rich merchants…those girls had more options. They could try their hands at being merchants or starting their own businesses. Schools, maybe. Perhaps if she had had a sibling, Lexa could have done something like that too and things would have been different. Maybe she wouldn’t have followed her father around and seen the corners of her Fief before her fifth birthday. Maybe she wouldn’t have sat in on meetings silently in the corners and listened to him deal with merchants, traders, caravans of refugees. Maybe she wouldn’t have snuck out of so many lessons if she had had someone to stay with. Maybe she wouldn’t have been left in Gustus’s hands and seen the men-at-arms training in the brisk early mornings. Maybe, maybe, maybe.
“There are many ways to affect change,” she agrees, “but I’ve always wanted to do it with a sword.”
That brings a smile to Ilian. Lexa leaves it at that and says nothing more about it, unsure where the edges of her determination lay, if indeed there is an end to it. She knows it has only a little to do with the sword. She knows—has known, for a long time now—that she will have to prove herself. Prove that she’s strong, clever, all those things that people take for granted in men half as clever as she is already at eleven. She knows that a shield lends a certain weight to someone’s words; a history, a set of values. The trust of the King himself. With a shield, her people will trust her to lead them. Maybe even without a husband. With her shield, anyone who visits Haryse will know that she has Honour and Courage and Chivalry. With her shield, with those traits and trusts behind her, she could be Lady od Haryse. And nothing, she thinks, could ever be more important to her than that.
The four of them spend the remainder of their day together, only splitting when evening approaches and they remember that they might have had no lessons but they are still very much expected to work at the feast that night.
Lexa sprints down the servants corridor toward the kitchens, fiddling with the collar of her tunic as she runs. There’s no point in being late and messy, and less point in being neat and late, so she fixes herself as she runs. It is for this reason that she doesn’t see the person in the hall when she turns the corner. By the time she does, it’s too late to stop and she careens into them. The impact is like hitting a rock wall. A clawed hand catches her before she can fall.
“Are you alright, Page Haryse?” Tkaa, the basilisk, asks her quietly in his whispering voice.
Lexa stares up at him wide-eyed. It takes some time to work moisture into her mouth. “Yes, Sir Tkaa.”
“You did not hit your head?”
“No.” Lexa can feel her head throbbing, in fact. She sways a little and glances up from under her lashes to find that he is smiling very carefully, showing only the tiniest hint of teeth. “Merry Midwinter,” she says to distract him, bowing. “Have you enjoyed the feasts?”
“A merry Midwinter to you as well. I have enjoyed the festival very much.” He looks amused and Lexa wonders why until he says, “I was provided with a sampling of many fine stones.”
“Haryse is home to some very old and rich mountains,” she tells him absently, staring up at the tips of his sharp teeth and wondering at the fact that the Immortal has teeth for tearing when surely grinding molars would suit better. “You may find something there of value.”
It is difficult to tell from his towering height and the stillness and coolness of his gaze but she thinks he is watching her with considerable curiosity. Finally, he dips his head.
“Thank you for the generous offer, Page Haryse,” he says. “Perhaps I shall take you up on it one day.”
Lexa bows her head again. She knows at this point she could leave without being rude but… Midwinter, the night of longest dark, is the day for insults to be forgiven and wrongs to be righted and with the Goddess hanging heavy over them, watching with her cool, silvered eye, Lexa feels her own honour surge like a tide, urging her to speak.
“Sir Tkaa.” She clears her throat. “I wish to apologise for my behaviour at the beginning of the term. I have a…dislike of another’s voice in my mind.”
“I understand this dislike, Page Haryse. It was not my intention to cause you alarm or unease.”
Lexa nods, thinks carefully on what her next step should be. An apology, clear and direct and blameless, and then change. That’s what makes a real apology. Gus had taught her that when she was five, after slipping out the window when her counting instructor hadn’t been watching. Appropriate change, she reminds herself, and says, “Would you…like to walk with me to the dining hall?”
Tkaa peers down at her for a long moment before he smiles a little more widely, quickly hiding his teeth again. Lexa smiles toothily up at him to show that she doesn’t mind. A strange noise, like grinding rock clacks in his throat for a moment and he smiles again, showing off a row of small, sharp teeth. Tkaa takes his tail up into one clawed hand and, holding it as delicately as the fine trail of a dress, moves to the side so that Lexa may walk at his elbow. His voice lifts and falls, nearly a trill in places, when he speaks next. Lexa wonders if it always happens or if he’s maybe not controlling himself as completely around her.
“How go your studies, Page Haryse?”
With barely a flicker of hesitation, Lexa repeats a quip she’d heard from Benny. “They don’t go anywhere at all, Sir. I have to attend them every day.”
Tkaa croaks a laugh. “And do you enjoy them?”
Lexa smiles. “Yes sir, very much.” She finds it’s easier to talk to him when she’s not looking right at him.
“What is your favourite lesson?”
“I enjoy History very much, but Mathematics is my favourite. And out of class I am learning basri and kemrit, which I enjoy.”
“Oh? How are your lessons progressing?” Tkaa asks, switching to basri.
“You speak basri? What that word?” She repeats the word she doesn't know for him.
“Ah. Progressing,” he tells her in Common. Lexa practices the word a few times before nodding. “And yes, I do. Basilisks speak many languages, student knight.” He changes to kemrit. “We are great travellers and very curious.” He switches back to Common and smiles slightly, not enough to show teeth. “There is very little to learn when one cannot speak and learn from others.”
Lexa nods. “What other languages do you know?”
“Hundreds. Dragon tongue, they’re very pretentious cousins, of a sort.” Lexa grins; she’s never seen a dragon but she’s heard of them and she thinks they wouldn’t like to be called pretentious. “Gollish. Gallan, Tyran. West Tyran. Several Kyprish dialects. Catharki. Scanran.” He says short passages in each. Something about the Scanran tongue makes Lexa frown but she can’t place what it is about it before they reach the hall.
Master Vauntire and the other pages are assembled in the small preparing space near to the doors of the grand dining hall. They watch with interest as she enters—at first certain that Vauntire will chew her up and spit her out, and then with vague discomfort and surprise when Tkaa follows her in. Lexa sees that several of the newer servants, the ones brought in for help with the feasts, freeze. The palace servants don’t; they give the Immortal polite nods and carry on with their duties.
“Forgive me, Master Vauntire,” Tkaa whispers. He bows his head to the etiquette master. “I had to borrow Page Haryse.”
Vauntire bows to him. For the first time in possibly ever, he smiles. Lexa watches carefully to see if his face cracks. “My thanks for returning my wayward page,” he says so formally that Lexa can’t even tell that he’s lying.
“Thank you for escorting me, Sir Tkaa.”
“It was my pleasure. May your Midwinter be long and still and may the stars sing to you,” he says to her, and then flicks his eyes over the rest of the room as though including them in the blessing.
Lexa is favoured by a long, curious look from Vauntire but he doesn’t berate her when she slips wordlessly into line. He accepts her apologetic bow with a nod.
“As you all know, tonight is the Midwinter Feast. Prince Jasson is absent,” Lexa blinks and searches the line subtly for him but Vauntire is right and he’s nowhere to be seen, “as he will be seated with their Majesties for the festivities. For the length of the festival, he is the Prince and not one of your peers. Treat him accordingly. Second to fourth years, check the board for your assignments. First years…” He looks over them with his customary curled lip. “The servants will tell you what to do.”
He sweeps from the room and soon his place is filled by Havassah.
“You know your jobs,” she tells them, and unhooks the ladle from her belt, sending them all scurrying away.
“Where’s Nate?” Lexa asks the sisters at the spicing station and they exchange knowing looks before turning their smiles on her. Lexa barely stops herself from rolling her eyes.
“He couldn’t make it tonight. Another job,” Berra tells her.
“Oh.” Lexa nods, then shakes herself. “Forgive me—Merry Midwinter to you, Berra. And a Merry Midwinter to you as well, Gemma.”
The sisters share a look again, this one soft and melting, before they gather around her and pinch her cheeks and squawk around her like clucking chickens, all bustle and pecking fingers telling her she’s too thin and oh you’re a dear, what a polite little thing you are, and Lexa withstands it good-naturedly until she spies Havassah bearing down on them.
“Back to work! Back to work—you too, Lexa.”
“Yes, Havassah,” Lexa agrees as though appropriately cowed and throws her a thankful look when the sisters turn away, all puffed up at being told what to do but not daring to argue with the kitchen mistress. Havassah drops one eye closed in a brisk wink.
Finally, when Lexa thinks she’s scrubbed her fingers off, the feast is over and the dishes are clean and she’s allowed to return, yawning, to her bed.
Dressed warmly, she is interrupted by a quiet knock on the door and admits Octavia into her room. They lay on her bed and Lexa is too tired to argue so she lays next to them. Moonlight spills into her room through the shutters, throwing lines of shadow over their legs and over the floor.
“Tave?” she says softly into the still night.
“Are you alright?”
Octavia breathes in and out slowly before responding. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
“Because of Tkaa.” Lexa pauses when Octavia huffs but they say nothing so she continues. “Are you still…”
“Scared witless?” Octavia sneers. Their bravado falters after a moment and they shiver, looking away from Lexa. “Yeah. And I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Of course. But when you do want to talk about it…” Octavia grins crookedly, gratefully, and shifts to lean their head on her shoulder. “Hasim enjoys listening.”
That makes Octavia laugh and Lexa grins, flush with success. When Octavia digs their elbow into her ribs, she nudges them back.
“I suppose this means Tkaa is back from his travels, though. He’ll be in lessons again.”
“Suppose so,” Octavia agrees.
“Will you be alright?”
“I’ll have to be, won’t I?” Octavia plucks at the blanket.
Lexa sneaks a look across at them and is struck by how young and vulnerable they seem. With three—or more—square meals a day, Octavia has regained much of the weight that they’d been missing when they arrived at the start of that year. Their cheeks are fuller, though still lean, and with muscle and weight filling out their clothes, they look like a child rather than a somewhat skeletal changeling. Their eyes though… Their dark eyes are wide and haunted.
Lexa takes Octavia’s hand in her own, wordlessly. When they are ready to talk about it…she’ll be here.
She squeezes and with a shuddering sigh, Octavia leans against her shoulder.
When Octavia leaves her rooms much later, Lexa stops in front of her mirror before returning to bed. She pokes at her cheek, drags her fingers down them so she can look into her wide eyes. Is there darkness in them? Can she—can anyone else—see the weight in them, the knowledge of what comes? Do her eyes hold that fear in them for everyone to see?
—green eyes peer out into the forest around her, assessing the trees and the branches above with grave interest. Green eyes go blank and wide with surprise in the instant a wicked bolt seems to sprout from her chest—
Lexa lurches back, pale and cold with more than the winter chill. She breathes out harshly and steps away from the mirror.
“It won’t happen,” she says out loud. The words were meant to reassure her but instead she just sounds young and scared. She clears her throat, meets her reflections eyes. “It won’t happen. I’ll find a way to stop it.”
She’s gritty and tired the next day and the assignments stacked on her desk don’t help. With her friends, she trudges to the library early the next day to get them over and done with.
After two hours cooped up in the small space, however, it gets to be too much.
“That’s it—I give up.” Lexa throws her pen down to the table, scowls at her page.
“Who had bets on the day after Midwinter?”
Lexa doesn’t have to look up to kick Anya for that comment. Her scowl abates slightly when Anya hisses at the pain that blooms on her shin.
“Alright, alright. What are you working on—pfft, should’ve guess. Seating charts,” Anya tells whoever has dragged their seat over to join them.
Lexa peeks. “Hello, Highness.”
“Hello, Alexandra. You sound miserable.”
Lexa waves a hand at her chart. Rather, at the parchment and the slop of ink all over it. “How do you make sense of this?”
“I don’t,” he admits, quite cheerfully. He leans back in his chair so it’s balanced on the back two legs, and knits his fingers together behind his head. He shrugs. “I fake it for a few years, am properly repentant when I am scolded for getting it wrong, and then I’m off to distant and exotic lands. It’s Roald who has to deal with it, poor man. He seems to like it well enough.” Prince Jasson shudders. “I don’t know how he does it. Yes, Your Highness, No, Your Highness. May I plump your pillows and test your food and brush this speck of dust from your cushion for you, Your Highness.”
“Your life sounds terribly difficult,” Anya tells him in a flat tone.
The prince pauses. Then he smiles ruefully and leans forward, the legs of the chair meeting the floor with a quiet click. “That did sound a little conceited, I suppose.”
“Not at all, Your Highness,” Lexa disagrees in a tone as dry as paper. “May I polish your boots, Your Highness?”
Anya—and the Prince—stare at her for a moment before Anya bursts into laughter. “M-May I darn your socks, Highness?” she offers through giggles.
“You’re both awful,” the prince tells them and he stands, turns. “Oh no, please don’t,” he groans when he sees the crush of eager faces crowding behind his chair. While the novel sight of Anya giggling had distracted the prince, the other pages had caught wind of the mischief, as pages always do.
“Please, Your Highness, let me carry your books for you.”
“No, Your Highness, allow me to carry you!”
“I’ll cut your food into very small bites, Your Highness.”
“You foul brute! And make His Highness chew?” Benny shoves his way to the front of the group and preens when Prince Jasson groans, drops his face into his hands. “Highness,” Benny says with great reverence, “forgive his lout for his unthinking ways. He has not a speck of tenderness for you, I can see. Please—I shall chew your food for you,” Benny insists, eyes glinting with the opportunity to tease Prince Jasson and to out-perform his fellows.
“Allow me to lay across puddles for you, Highness. Your clothes shouldn’t be touched by something as lowly as mud.”
“Let this unworthy one take notes for you, Highness, lest your fair and delicate skin be marred by the speck of ink.”
“Notes? You think you deserve to take notes for him? Begone—unworthy indeed!” Benny tosses his long blonde hair, turns his sharp nose upwards in distaste. Gareth, who had made the offer, is grinning from ear to ear and he scurries backwards, making his obeisance’s—in a dozen different and perfect bows, Lexa notices. Benny observes the pages with disgust. “How dare you imply the Highness must think for himself? Highness,” he spins to face Prince Jasson again and he kneels, hand to his heart. “Allow me to bind you hand and foot and think and eat and speak for you too.”
“That sounds like kidnapping and torturing me,” Prince Jasson points out.
Benny bows deeply from his kneeling pose. “If that is what would please you, Highness, I am most willing.”
The prince kicks out, knocks Benny off balance, and he scowls, first at Benny and then at Lexa, playfully. “I hope you’re happy, Haryse.”
“Highness,” Lexa smiles, eyes flicking to Benny who brightens. She doesn’t have his talent with voices but she can do some of what he does with words. “How could I be anything else? Your very presence fills my heart with gladness. I am overwhelmed.” He makes a rude gesture; Lexa grins. “I am certain someone would have done that for you if you’d only asked, Your Highness.”
“Maybe I will ask,” Prince Jasson teasingly threats. “And everywhere you go, a page will follow. Flipping you off.”
“A proper and dignified use of your position, Highness.”
“It is, isn’t it?” He looks pleased by the idea and claps her on the shoulder. “Not for you. But Benny’d get a kick out of it, definitely.”
Lexa agrees, laughing.
Soon enough she has to return to her seating arrangement and huffs. Who cares where unmarried girls sit? Every girl would prefer to sit together at these events, she’s pretty sure about that, so that’s what she decides on.
“It’s not about common sense,” Anya tells her when she complains. She sounds amused and resigned. “It’s a hierarchy, Lexa. It’s supposed to make people feel important. Stop thinking common and start thinking like the noble Lady of a House in the Book of Gold.”
“You think I’m common?"
“I think you’re too sensible to think that the Lord of Kels Ridge could possibly be more important than Lord HaMinch but it’s true. Which means?”
Lexa looks gloomily down at her messy place chart.
“…That he should be closer to the king?”
“And the unmarried virgins?”
Anya snorts. “The girls do all sit together, but not for the reason you think. It’s so everyone at the banquet can chaperone them all at the same time, basically. Banquets are social events.”
“And noble parents don’t want their daughters to be social with the wrong men. Got it.” Her tongue sticks out a fraction between her teeth as she scratches out ‘wrong’ and writes in ‘poor or very odd and not rich enough to be counted as eccentric’.
“Did you write that down?”
“Yes,” Lexa says, satisfied. “I hope Vauntire chokes.”
“You’ll get a bell.”
“For telling the truth?”
“For being pert. And for telling the wrong sort of truth in your…particular form of honesty.”
“It’s called nastiness and I demand to be congratulated for it.”
“Congratulations.” Anya points her pen at the assignment. “Re-write it.”
Lexa sighs. “Bobs and weaves and curtsies,” she mutters, pulling a fresh sheet in front of her. “If a boy noble bows too deeply, they think he’s being charming or silly. If a girl curtsies even a little bit wrong, the shame is kept in the family for seven generations.”
“Or she never marries because the shame was too much,” Anya says helpfully and it makes Lexa’s scowl lighten and then break when she laughs quietly, delighted.
“I can’t wait until I’m knighted and I can—”
She stops, stares down at her essay. A drop of ink falls from the nib of her pen and soaks into the paper, bleeding out through the grain of it and spreading. For a moment, her recent nightmares - and that too real vision - asserts itself and she imagines it red. And the way her face pales when she falls from her horse and the pen in her hand is smooth like the shaft of an arrow—fingers clutching at it, slick with red—and she drops her pen. It clatters to the tabletop, ink splashing across it over Anya’s essay too. Every page watches the pen roll to the edge of the table and teeter there. It falls, loud in the oddly quiet library.
“I—I’m fine,” she breathes, tucking her hands under the tabletop to hide the way her fingers shake. “Excuse me, I’m going to finish this in my room.”
Anya shoots such cold glares at the pages studying around them that suddenly the library is full of high, nervous chatter as they all attempt to seem very uninterested. Only Prince Jasson doesn’t bother to hide his concern. He’s much too dignified for that—or else he wasn’t on the receiving end of the glare. Lexa wonders if it could be illegal to glare at a prince.
Anya runs after her.
“What was that?”
“Nothing—leave it be,” she snaps. Anya glares down at her so fiercely that Lexa is reminded who she is speaking to and she relents, bows her head. “Sorry. I just… Slept poorly.”
“Nightmares?” Lexa gives a noncommittal shrug. “Was it about the forest?”
Lexa’s breath catches in her throat and she looks up, surprised. How could Anya possibly know about—oh. Anya’s sympathy is too real, too complete for her to know about a dream, about a possible destiny. She’s talking about the winter camp.
Lexa shrugs again.
“Well, don’t hide away in your room,” Anya suggests. “That won’t help at all. Want to fight instead?”
Lexa blinks, then grins. “Gods. Yes. Yes I do.”
They go to the mirrored hall rather than their private storeroom. Lexa tosses a cloth over Anya’s face when she pauses to admire herself and splutters when Anya flings it right back. She has to quickly dodge the attack that follows, only the barest hint of a glimmer along the edge of the sword saying that it has been blunted.
“Yes, because all the battles you fight will be formal and no one will blind you when they attack,” Anya drawls. Lexa sees a glint of a thought shining in her eyes before suddenly she can’t see anything at all.
There is no reply and no sound of steps and Lexa gropes blindly with one hand and flails with her sword in the other.
“Don’t lose everything I’ve taught you just because you can’t see,” Anya says from some point behind her.
Lexa spins and brings her sword up out of instinct. The impact of Anya’s sword against it jars down her arm and she hisses, backing up. Despite being unable to see, she can’t stop her eyes from straining to find something and she suspects her mind to be playing tricks on her when a deeper shadow lunges. When she dodges out of instinct, however, and hears Anya’s quiet noise of surprise, she thinks it might be more than imagination.
“What was that?”
“I don’t know, I can’t see, can I?” Lexa snaps.
“Sure about that?” Anya mutters, but she doesn’t bring it up again, instead advancing once more.
Lexa does her best not to use the shadow of Anya in her mind to help her too much—she tries to listen for the shift of boot against stone, or the whisper of her shirt when she swings, or her breath, but it’s much harder than anything they’ve tried. And even with the strange shadow, Lexa earns several bruises where Anya’s blows land.
“Have you given any thought to how you’ll get Perrin back for breaking your arm?”
Lexa sighs gustily. “No. Well, yes, of course I have. But nothing sounds right.”
“It was all petty. But I lost two weeks—” She grunts, catching Anya’s blade on her own and cutting toward Anya’s stomach. She jumps out of reach and Lexa steps back and falls into guard again. “I lost two weeks. That deserves more than sand in his boots. I don’t know what to do. He won’t stop—do I demand it of him?”
“He won’t listen. You’re thinking of that old Sir Alan story, with Ralon,” Anya guesses. Lexa nods. “If that were possible I would’ve done it in my first year. No, he won’t listen. You’re a girl page, not a boy he happens to be hazing.”
Lexa nods. She had come to the same conclusion, but she had wanted to hear Anya’s opinion anyway. “I can’t ignore him.”
“No. He won’t stop even if you do.”
“It would be so much easier if I could just challenge him,” Lexa scowls. “Thrash him and make him formally apologise.”
“Very confident that you would thrash him.”
“He underestimates me.”
“And you’re good.”
Lexa preens under the compliment and then finds herself toppling back, slamming to the ground. Her breath slams out of her and she groans. The point of a sword is levelled at her neck, she notes first upon opening her eyes, and second that she can see again.
“Hello,” Anya smirks. “Not bad. What trick were you using?”
“What do you mean?”
“I blinded you. How did you hold me off for so long?”
Lexa shrugs and struggles to sit up. “I just knew where you were.”
Anya nods slowly. “Interesting.” A thoughtful look comes over her face and Lexa narrows her eyes, stands and moves further away, no longer feeling safe with that look directed at her. “You know, formal duels don’t really exist outside of tournaments anymore.”
“I can’t enter a tournament. I’m only eleven.”
Anya rolls her eyes. “I’m aware of that.”
“And I’d like to stop Perrin now, not wait four years until I can compete in one.”
“Again, I know that. I was going to say that the only other place formal duels exist is in single combat. If you challenged him, Lord Padraig would have to oversee something like that and make him comply with whatever the agreement is,” she says, like Lexa hadn’t immediately put that together.
Lexa stares at her, eyes wide. Part of her trembles with the thrill of the idea—she could challenge him to a duel and thrash him like she wants to, she could challenge him formally and her Da and Gus would be so proud because that’s the way a Lady acts. A Lady with a sword, anyway.
But the other, far larger and more sensible part of her keeps very still and calm and points out the obvious flaw.
“I can’t beat a third year.”
“No,” Anya agrees. “Not yet.”
The quiet certainty in her tone bolsters Lexa’s courage. Eagerness, in a body-wide thrill, rushes through her and she adjusts her sword grip and nods firmly that she’s ready to continue.
Anya tries her blinding trick several more times that day, sometimes for no longer than the time it takes Lexa to blink, sometimes for entire bouts. It’s infuriating and unpleasant but Lexa finds the longer they train together the easier it is for her to see the outlines of Anya and to defend against her.
Anya wins, as she always does. Again and again.
They stop a little before the lunch hour.
Lexa drops to the floor—of her own volition, for the first time of a half dozen—and groans up to the ceiling. She tilts her head slightly toward the mirrors and catches the end of Anya’s smirk as she drags her cleaning cloth over her blade.
“You’re evil,” Lexa mutters.
“I can work you through lunch if you like.”
“You’re not quite evil,” Lexa amends. She closes her eyes. Even her eyelids feel sore. “Anya?”
“How come you’re so good at this?”
“I’ve had years of practice on you, kid.”
“I know, but,” Lexa groans as she sits up. Is she imagining it or is Anya avoiding her gaze? “You’re better than the other third years too. And the fourth years. And you beat Shimas and he’s one of the King’s Own.”
Anya, satisfied her sword is clean, sheathes the blade. She rubs at her shoulder where Lexa had got a lucky strike in. “I train hard.”
“Should’ve picked Danshame,” Anya mutters to herself, rolls her eyes up to the ceiling. “Fine. Some people don’t trust Tirragen’s. Or girls. Or K’miri people. I’ve had to practice. A lot.”
“And some of it is pure talent,” Anya adds, with a wild kind of grin. Her hair is plastered to her forehead and neck and there’s a bronze flush to her and a life to her smile, her eyes, when she’s wielding her sword and Lexa can’t imagine anyone hating Anya.
Except for Perrin, she amends, but he doesn’t truly count.
She accepts Anya’s hand when she stalks over and pops up onto her feet.
They stretch together slowly, working the leaden feeling from their arms and legs and the tightness from their wrists and hands especially.
“Should’ve had Runnerspring for a sponsor,” Lexa mutters to herself and grins when Anya barks a laugh. “I’m fine. I feel better.”
Anya nods her satisfaction with that answer. “Good. And if you want to talk about,” she breaks off, looking apologetic and a little awkward. “Sorry. I shouldn’t have brought it up.”
“It’s alright.” Lexa smiles up at her sponsor. “I’ll talk to Lincoln.”
Anya laughs, cuffs Lexa around the ear. “Brat.”
It wasn’t really a lie, telling Anya that she felt better. She had in the moment, but that night when the shadows grow long and the branches of the trees in the courtyard grate against her shutters, Lexa can’t sleep. She slips from her room, avoiding the light that spills from open doorways, and makes her way to the Greenery. The magelights glint faintly overhead and Lexa takes her place on the bench by the window, giving the creeping vine a pat when it examines her boot.
“I thought you wouldn’t be back.”
Lexa’s sword is in her hand before she can take in a breath and Clarke’s brows lift in delicate surprise though she doesn’t flinch. Lexa stammers an apology. She takes a breath and apologises again, properly.
“Please, the apology is mine, Lexa. I admit, I was trying to surprise you.”
Lexa grimaces. “I was lost in thought.” She gestures an invitation for Clarke to join her.
“Have you a lot to think about?” Clarke asks. Though her voice is perfectly polite, there’s a sharpness to the cool amusement that Lexa doesn’t recognise. She thinks it might be mocking, almost.
“It’s not all hitting people with sticks.”
“No.” Lexa waits for a moment. “Only mostly.”
Clarke laughs politely. The corners of her eyes crinkle more than the polite laugh would make her and Lexa thinks she might be genuinely amused.
“Would you like to talk about it?” Lexa grimaces. She shakes her had no. “Oh good. I’ve had a dreadful day,” Clarke huffs. “And I need someone to complain to.”
Lexa smiles from under her lashes and gives a half bow. “What else am I for, good lady?”
Clarke laughs into a very entertaining tale. She makes embroidery—and her teacher—sound like a dramatic battle, ending with her fingers in tatters. Her escort was too attentive and she couldn’t sneak away. Her walk in the gardens was a trial, like walking over hot rocks in her too-thin slippers.
“They are not meant for wearing out of doors, Lexa,” she tells her primly and Lexa nods her grave agreement.
Lexa listens carefully, drinking in the new information Clarke is giving her. She suspects, as always, that while much of it is true it isn’t all the truth. That seems to be the way with Clarke, but Lexa doesn’t mind all that much.
When Clarke is done with her story, Lexa says, “I’m scared of dying.”
Clarke hesitates. She opens her mouth to speak and shuts it as quickly. Finally, she says, “That's a heavy thought." A moment passes. Then another. Then, she says, "Is this because of the Ordeals?”
Lexa frowns down at her hands. She hadn’t really considered that but maybe it was the cause of the vision recurring.
“I don’t think,” Clarke says delicately, “that you will need to be concerned with that. Not yet, certainly. And maybe not ever. You have all the skills a knight needs,” she continues gently, laying her hand over Lexa’s. “Chivalry, Courage, Honour. That’s what your knights teach, isn’t it?” Lexa nods. “You have all that already.”
Lexa gives her a thankful smile but doesn’t say anything.
“You don’t have to be a knight. You could be…an advisor. Or an ambassador.”
“It’s not that. It’s not the likelihood of my dying. It’s…” Lexa scrubs a hand through her hair. “I don’t want to die at eighteen with an arrow to the chest before I get my shield. Before I do anything.”
Clarke nods slowly. “You want your death to mean something.”
There’s more to it than that; the faint despair that comes with knowing one death that might come upon her. The inevitability of knowing that it will happen some day, in a solid fashion rather than the nebulous awareness of death everyone carries. The desire to keep it at bay. The helplessness of not knowing how.
Still, Clarke isn’t wrong. Lexa nods. “I want my life to mean something first,” Lexa says, which feels right.
“You have good friends. People who know you.” The shadows around their feet are deep and cold. Lexa shivers. She looks into Clarke’s crystal clear eyes. “They will miss you if you die. You also have people who will fight very hard to keep you alive.”
Clarke smiles. “Are you still concerned.”
“Well don’t be. I need you to teach me still—thank you for the comb, by the way,”
Lexa bobs her head in a nod.
“I still need you, so I’m not about to let anything take you before you’re good and old, Lexa.”
For the second time, it happens.
A sound—like a bell, like a shift in the spine of the earth itself ringing out around them. Clarke’s wide eyes and choked gasp says that she hears it too. And after a split second of silence, and stillness, a great light bursts out between them.
Lexa twists her hand so that she’s holding Clarke’s firmly and in that split second she relies on instinct to tell her what comes next. With that pulse of light comes energy, force, and it sends the two girls away from it with a booming crash. Pots topple over, benches too, even the heavy tree in the centre of the room creaks and a split crackles up the length of its trunk as it groans from the pressure. When the girls are thrown away from it, Lexa uses the momentum and her grip to pull Clarke into her arms. She breaks her fall with her own body.
A moment passes, ringing and jarring in her ears.
A weight shifts on her chest and Lexa blinks her eyes open to see blonde hair and Clarke rolling off her. Clarke stands unsteadily, hair mussed, eyes wide and confused.
Lexa can only imagine what she herself looks like, from looking at Clarke. Clarke is…horrified. Reaching up to her as she would a spooked horse, Lexa is unprepared for Clarke bundling up her skirting and running.
Lexa calls after her but her words come out fuzzy and unintelligible—no, she realises, she just can’t hear them. Her ears are ringing from the blast. Lexa blinks away the starburst spots in her eyes and stumbles to collect anything that belongs to them. Something tells her that even if the first had gone unnoticed those weeks ago, this…whatever it was…did not.
Ears still ringing, Lexa runs from the Greenery. She has to catch herself against the wall now and again when she stumbles, balance off, but finally she reaches the pages hallway after coming a long way round that she doubts she could ever replicate. She throws herself into her room and, shaking, begins to pace.
When her thoughts refuse to settle, Lexa makes her way down the hall to Anya’s room. It’s late but Anya opens the door for her anyway, face drawn and tense. Strangely, the confusion eases to some kind of understanding when she sees Lexa at her door. She steps out into the hall, eyes flicking over Lexa to see if she’s hurt, and wordlessly follows her back to her room.
Lexa wonders idly if she’s ever going to see the inside of Anya’s room.
She sits at her desk for a moment before jumping up to pace once more. Anya takes the other seat and watches her.
“Are you okay?”
Lexa is relieved to hear the words sound normal. She’s relieved to hear.
“Why wouldn’t I be?”
Anya quirks an eyebrow. “You come to me at midnight looking like there are hounds at your heels, maybe?” Lexa grimaces. “Also,” she nods to Lexa’s belly, where she’s holding her arm tenderly.
“Oh.” It twinges, now that she’s looking at it. “Ouch.”
Anya clicks her tongue. She gestures for Lexa to sit and pulls her own chair close so she can examine Lexa’s arm. A trickle of her Gift fades into her skin and Lexa crinkles her nose at the cold feeling.
“Just bruised. You gotta be careful, Lex. You’ll break it again otherwise.”
When she reaches for the bruisebalm on Lexa’s desk, Lexa yelps.
“Not that one!” Anya stares at her. “Costai made—I mean, I haven’t started that one yet,” she says gruffly, clearing her throat. “Use the big one.”
“Right.” Anya doesn’t bother to hide her grin. She rubs the balm gently into Lexa’s arm. “Was it Perrin?”
“Hmm.” She works slowly, a frown deepening between her brows. “Have anything to do with something…weird that happened tonight?”
“About a bell ago.”
Lexa jerks, surprised. That long ago? She must have been running for longer than she’d thought. “No. I don’t know. Don’t ask me about it. Please,” she tacks on.
Anya purses her lips. “You’re not hurt?”
“Anything like it happened to you before?”
As she says it, Lexa knows it isn’t quite true. But the first time no one had noticed and there had been no light and they definitely hadn’t been thrown about the Greenery so…no. It wasn’t the same. Surely.
“You felt it? Something?” Lexa asks after a long moment.
Anya bobs her head in a nod. “Yeah.”
“What was it?”
“Feels like something you should be telling me,” Anya grumbles but doesn’t press. “It felt like… It felt like when I made that oath with you. But…"
“More,” Lexa says clumsily, her tongue feeling too big to handle the word well.
“More,” Anya agrees.
Lexa swallows thickly. “Do you think it was something bad?” The thought of having somehow bound Clarke to some kind of oath… Horror drops like ice into the pit of her stomach.
“I don’t know. But I think you might want to hold off making any more promises,” Anya advises.
Lexa nods. “I promise,” she agrees gravely.
Anya narrows her eyes and Lexa grins sheepishly when she realises what she’s said.
After the Midwinter week, all six of the Ordeals have passed harmlessly. Sir Allen of Cavall, Sir Homir of Mandash, Sir Rurik of Heathercove join the ranks of the knights. Once Sir Rurik emerges from the Chamber safe and mostly whole, the palace brightens and lightens and celebrates.
All, that is, save for Lexa and a handful of others.
Clarke has been avoiding her. Lexa hadn’t been certain at first but then Clarke hadn’t shown up to any of their lessons for three weeks and now she’s fairly certain of it.
Lexa understands. But she doesn’t like it.
“Has this bookshelf insulted you?”
A voice interrupts Lexa, makes her look away from where she’s glowering up at the heavy wooden shelf and the annoying lack of free foot stools to help her reach the topmost portion. She looks up to Benny, whose sea-blue eyes are entirely too amused.
Lexa sighs. “I can’t reach.”
She catches the smile he can’t quite hide; Benny is courteous enough to pretend it never happened at all and in a too-flat tone, smothering his amusement, asks, “Reach what?” He pulls down the tomes Lexa points out and helps her carry them back to her study table. He turns the books in his hands so that he can read the spines and whistles lowly. “Oaths and Oathbreakers, Bloodoaths; Fealty and Traitors… This is heavy reading, Alexandra.”
“Yes.” She sits, pulls them to her side of the table.
He takes the other side of the table for himself and lays out his assignments. Instead of reading them, he looks thoughtfully at her. “Is something wrong?”
“You look frazzled.”
“Not everyone has a rigorous hair-care routine.”
“They should – ” Benny starts, swallows the rest of his mow familiar rant in favour of eyeing her suspiciously. “I shall not be distracted.”
“That would be a first.” Her biting words only make him laugh.
“I don’t want to bother you so I will ask only once more. Is something troubling you, oh noble Alexandra?”
Despite the extravagant words, he asks in such a quiet and even tone that she thinks he’s as close to serious as he gets. Lexa peeks over the top of her book.
“Mm. Would you care to discuss it?”
She narrows her eyes. Benny is as beautiful as ever but there’s something different about him. After a moment, she pinpoints the main difference—his hair is tied back instead of hanging loose around his shoulders. She’s seen that before, though, since he ties it back in the training yard. The real difference is the crinkle sitting between his brows, absolutely foreign.
Caring leads to frowning, frowning to wrinkles, wrinkles to premature aging, and my sweet, sweet companions, that is not something that shall ever claim Benthor Corrin Pen-Tormack of Elden!
“I am concerned for you.”
“Frowning leads to wrinkles.”
“Wrinkles are inevitable,” he informs her gravely.
Lexa feels her eyebrows lift what feels like a full inch in surprise; surprised, confused, she allows herself to be swayed by this more solemn Benny since talking to Anya isn’t possible and her year mates are busy with their own assignments. Closing her book makes Benny sit up and lean in. She can’t explain the potential bond she formed with Clarke so instead she tells him the other item weighing on her mind and Benny listens as she explains the problems she’s still having with Perrin.
She can’t let others fight her battles for her, she explains, but she’s so incredibly tired of wasting her time with him. But if she doesn’t fight back then Perrin will think that he’s won and she will feel like he’s won something. Then again, if she fights and loses then all she’s done is perpetuate a ridiculous and petty competition to defend her and her family’s honour that doesn’t have much to do with honour at all.
“And I know I’m supposed to fight him because the act of facing him is what protects my honour, not the act of winning, but wouldn’t it be just as honourable to ignore him because petty attacks can’t tarnish my honour? And ignoring him sounds right but it feels wrong.” She sighs, scrapes her fingers through her curls. “What do you think?”
“I’m not sure,” Benny admits. He rolls a coin between his fingers and makes it disappear, reappearing in his other hand. “I do think he’s a fool if he thinks you’re weak.”
“Or he has a bad memory.”
“Or you gave him a bad memory when you knocked him out,” he suggesting, grinning. Lexa grins back. “Then again, he could be playing the fool. Or goading you.”
“Playing the fool?”
“Pretending to be dumber than he really is.”
“Oh.” Lexa frowns. She hadn’t considered that. “Benny?”
“Yes, little fox.”
“You’re being very clever tonight. Why is that?”
“I’ve noticed that Anya prefers the clever lads. Haven’t you?” His voice is very serious but Lexa doesn’t believe him. She believes him even less when he blinks his big blue eyes. After a long silence, his smile grows like a wild thing on his lips, untamed. “Can’t fool you, hmm?”
“You were too serious. It felt like a feint.”
Benny blinks. “It did, did it?”
“I…will keep that in mind, little fox.” Before her eyes, Benny brightens and changes a little. Not a lot, but he looks more of the Benny she knows. No longer like he’s wearing a serious mask, just a serious expression. The difference is very small but still it makes Lexa nod.
“I think that’s better.”
“I’ll try it out on Anya later,” he winks.
“She’ll figure it out. She’s smarter than me.”
“Two copper on it?”
“You’ve a strangle hold on those coins. Let them breathe,” he urges. Lexa lifts one brow. “Or not. Two coppers,” he agrees. They shake on it and Benny’s coin appears in what had been an empty hand.
“So. Why are you being clever?”
“You seemed to need a clever friend, not a funny one. And there didn’t seem to be many options.”
Even knowing he’s so good at faking his expressions, Lexa thinks the sincerity in his eyes is real. She smiles a little shyly. “Are you my friend, then?”
Benny’s expression falls clean away, revealing shock and upset and a fierce determination. He tames himself with a visible struggle before saying, “Yes, Alexandra, I am.”
Lexa feels her world tilt the faintest amount. Why don’t people tell her things like this when they happen? “Thank you, Benthor,” she says, still considering it and trying to catalogue it. His friendship makes sense, now that she thinks about it. He treats Anya and the Prince in a similar fashion—teasing and joking and endless dramatics, and now she sees how his behaviour shows he treats her in a similar vein. Which, she concludes, suggests that he considers her in a similar vein to his friends, making her a friend. “I understand.”
“Good. I would have told you earlier, if I’d realised you didn’t know.”
“There are plenty of things I don’t know.”
“Perhaps I can make sense of them for you,” he suggests.
“Maybe.” Lexa shrugs. “Can you help me understand Perrin?”
“To understand the mind of a man,” he sighs dramatically, twisting his hands in an agonised contortion of dismay or displeasure, “would be for one knowing moment and then endless twice-wrought madness.”
“You seem to think I don’t need clever Benny anymore,” Lexa drawls, unimpressed.
“Clever Benny shows himself in pieces,” Benny admits, dropping his chin lazily into his hand. “And also I don’t know what the right strategy is with Perrin.”
“Strategy works best when you know strengths and weaknesses. If we start there,”
“We’ll have something to go off. Brilliant,” Benny nods. “He’s proud.”
“Hates being ignored.”
“Exactly. Ignoring him when he’s goading you could trick him into making a mistake.”
“Or make him more dangerous,” Lexa points out. “But I can’t fight him right now, I’ll end up hurt.”
“Probably. I’d suggest only engage with him when you’re surrounded by people. Glare at him if he insults you, or ask Anya to say something scathing.” He flutters his eyelashes. “She’s very good at that.”
“Is there something in your eye?”
“A lovelorn expression.”
“Oh, is that what it was?” she says, unimpressed.
“You’re not very nice sometimes,” Benny comments, a happy smile crooked on his lips. Lexa wonders if the crookedness means it’s natural. All his expressions are always so symmetrical and perfect. She likes the idea of having made him smile. “If pride makes Perrin short sighted, we—you, that is—may have the most success using a long term solution.”
“Anya suggested a swordfight.”
“She would.” He waves a hand when she glares. “It has merit, I’m not denying that.”
“Of course it does. But,”
“I can’t do it yet. He’s been training for years so I—” Lexa stops. She sits bolt upright, mind working quickly. “I need more time,” she murmurs. Yanking her papers toward her, she ignores her mathematics problems and begins to write on the backs of her pages in neat, leaning letters.
Benny frowns down at the page, reading upside down. After a few moments, his jaw drops. “Can you do that?”
“I’m a Haryse. There’s very little I can’t do.”
“Alexandra, my dear delightful dove,” he says with the reverence typically reserved for Anya on her nastiest of days, “if you would permit a measly player to assist you, it would be my honour and delight to do so.” He bows somewhat awkwardly in his seated position.
Lexa grins. She holds off agreeing for a moment. “You understand that it can’t be a joke. This is serious.”
“And your reputation,”
“They won’t see me in this. I would say trust me but I doubt that would have much effect. How about this—I know things,” he tells her. “About people. Families. Things people would do much to hide.”
Lexa’s hand stills on her page. She looks up, curious. “Truly?”
“You would be surprised how much people tell a devesatatingly handsome idiot.”
“Amongst others, yes.”
“In that case, Benthor, we have an accord.”
They shake on it there in the back of a dusty library, books stacked around them. Looking back on it years later, Lexa would be able to pinpoint it as one of the moments that changed the direction of her future and despite the trouble it brings, wouldn’t change a thing.
Sorry for the lack of letters. It’s not just because of the snows. Oh, winter is beautiful in Corus, but slushier and wetter than in Haryse. Odd. In any case, that’s not the reason for the delay. I have something in the works and I’ve only just figured out what I’d like to do about it. A friend of mine helped and I think it’s a good plan. I’ve sent some papers for you to look over—I’ve been using Corvard’s Formulae to help, so try looking there first. Chapter 4, if I’m not mistaken.
Midwinter was lovely—thank you for the books, you chose well as always. And please thank Mara for my new clothes. Right now it looks like I’ve borrowed a giants clothes but I think I’ll grow into them soon.
Hoping your Midwinter was good. How is Tya? How is the household?
Midwinter was strange without you. Very strange. Still, there were duties to fill my days with and the home was full every evening for the feasts. Tya is very well; she has been given a permanent place in the household. Officially, she is to look after the fires and the torches and ensure that there is plenty of firewood though Corin has forbidden her from using an axe yet. Perhaps when she’s grown. For now, she’s collecting kindling and the firewood from the stacks.
Mara cried when she read that your clothes didn’t fit. I’m certain you should be expecting another package soon.
Covard’s Formulae was an interesting read. It helped very much in getting my head around the problem you sent me. I certaintly never had problems like this in my years of study. I believe that I’ve sorted it—I’ve included a copy of the solution in your letter for your perusal. Do let me know if you have any more problems you need your Da’s help for. I am eager to discuss this with you come summer.
Your loving father,
Titus of Haryse.
Lexa knows the very day that Perrin receives a letter from his father.
The long, cold stares she’s given from across the dining hall are only one proof—the manner in which he goes out of his way to stand on the opposite end of the training hall, completes his work in his room rather than visiting the library, doesn’t so much as look in her direction if they pass in the halls, all of these are more and delicious proofs that Lexa hoards, delighted by her success. It is only a respite, she knows. Some day—and some day soon—the Lord Thaddim of Halleburn will find a way around her father’s very polite threat of blackmail.
But not today, and not tomorrow. And until he does, Lexa decides to work hard to ensure she has the skill to take Perrin on and stop this nonsense.