Midwinter fades in a distant, fond memory as spring falls upon the land with a vengeance, reclaiming the river from the ice, reclaiming boughs heavy with snow, reclaiming mornings with vibrant reds as winter dies. Snow turns to slush and then to mud before, finally, grass re-emerges in an almost uncannily vivid green. With little to distract or interrupt the pages lessons—and with increased reports of bandits, and immortals, and common wolves no less dangerous for their mortality—Lord Padraig drives them harder in their training than ever. Following Padraig’s cue, or only now realizing how short a time they have left before the end-of-year examinations, the school masters increase their class work and the assignments they hand out. With more work comes more unfinished work, or half-finished, and these are punished with Sunday work that Padraig reads out gravely at the lunch meal. There are only a very few pages that escape full days of work and none of the first-years are included in that number.
“It’s like they’re trying to kill us,” Hasim groans, stretching out his arms. His hand taps against someone passing by and he apologises before looking up.
“Watch it,” Perrin snarls. His gaze flickers to Lexa. She meets his eyes with a flat stare and after a long moment, he moves off without another word.
“They’re trying to stop us from being killed later, I think,” Lexa says to the quiet table as though nothing had happened.
“Right.” Hasim tilts his head, looks as though he’s trying to decide whether or not to ask.
Octavia has no such reservations. They stick their knife into a slab of meat and leave it there, leaning nearly halfway across the table. “What was that?” they hiss to her. “You got him running scared about something?”
“He must have seen the error of his ways.”
“That,” Ilian interrupts in his thoughtful way, “sounds like the sort of thing someone might say if they’d ensured he saw the error of his ways.”
“Sounds like, might say. That doesn’t sound like facts to me. Has anyone finished their poetry?”
“Tave has,” Hasim says, “but it’s not any good.” Octavia nods. It’s taken months but they’ve taught Octavia it’s rude to speak with a full mouth. “Are you really not going to tell us what you did to him?”
“I didn’t do anything to him.”
“Ilian?” Hasim and Octavia twist to look at their friend. Lexa glances his way too and she is surprised to find him looking at her, eyes narrowed and speculative.
Finally, he sighs. “She was telling the truth.”
“You’re joking,” Octavia cries, spitting their greens out onto their plate. “You saw his face, she had to have done something.”
“She was telling the truth,” Ilian repeats, shrugging. “I can’t tell you something different just because you don’t like it.”
“You could.” Octavia huffs when Ilian just shakes his head and returns to his meal. “You could tell us,” they say to Lexa. “If he can’t haze you, he’ll come for us.”
“I gather he’s seen the error of all his ways,” she tells them very calmly.
“Oh you have to have had something to do with it,” Octavia huffs, but Lexa gives them nothing and so they sit and they seethe and finally Hasim has to threaten to charm them so everything tastes like dung before they’ll shut up.
“I spent five hours in the laundry today, Tave. I have been scrubbed, scratched, wet, washed, bubbled and boiled and I am tired,” he tells them. “Just let it go.”
“Yeah, I need help with my problems from Snapper,” they admit. “Lexa? Will you help?”
They make their way to the library after their dinner, bags slung over weary shoulders. Claiming their places at the long table in the library, they set to work.
Some two or so hours later, Lexa stands from the table and climbs out from the bench.
Anya clears her throat. “Bathroom again, Lexa?”
Lexa frowns over at her sponsor, confused by the knowing look she’s getting. “Yes. Will you look after my books?”
“I’ll come with you,” Octavia offers, standing too.
“That’s not necessary,”
“Necessary?” Octavia looks at her like she’s spoken in a language they don’t understand. “I need the washroom,” they tell her, speaking slowly in turn. “It’s…fairly necessary.”
Lexa considers them for a moment but can’t come up with a way to tell Octavia no; she nods, forces her shoulders to relax. “I welcome your company, then.”
“We’re going to the washroom,” Octavia says again, exasperated. “Save that kind of talk for when I join you on a great and dangerous quest.”
“Without thinking it through at all.”
Lexa grins at that and opens her mouth to say how that sounds very much like something Octavia would do.
“Get out if you’re going to talk,” an older page snaps from the back of the library. “Girls. All they do is talk.”
“Care to see the truth of that on the court tomorrow, Disart?” Anya asks without looking up from her book.
“Then I advise you to shut it.” Anya flicks her eyes up to where Lexa and Octavia are standing. “Really, though. Get out.”
Lexa salutes her and turns. Octavia opens the door for her with a bow—which Lexa returns courteously—and they run before someone can blame them for the whistle of wind that sneaks in through the open door.
“What kind of quest?” Lexa asks them as they wander down the hall.
“Dunno. It’s you, though, so guaranteed to be big.” Octavia shrugs, grimaces. “Can we pick up the pace?” They place a hand against their belly and Lexa blinks when she realises they’re moving uncomfortably from foot to foot.
They talk very little on their way to the washroom. Emptying their bladder seems to have lowered their reservation, however, and Octavia chatters away on their return. Their conversation turns to confusion when Lexa takes an unfamiliar turn.
“Um. Where are we going?”
Lexa’s steps falter. Only for a beat, until she realises that her feet have been taking them toward the Greenery. Her steps smooth out again. There’s no reason not to visit; there’s no reason, even, to not bring Octavia with her. It’s unlikely that Clarke will be there, she reminds herself. It’s been four weeks since the events of Midwinter and Clarke hasn’t returned. Not once. And even so, Lexa has changed her nightly routine to include a walk to and from the library past the Greenery, looking in to see if Clarke has chosen to emerge from whatever hiding hole she has for herself. The visits continue more out of habit than hope if she’s honest, and she has no reason not to be within her own mind.
“One of my favourite places,” she tells them.
Octavia looks across at her with no small amount of curiosity. “Oh. Great.”
When they come to the Greenery, Lexa is surprised that Octavia says very little at all. They follow her through the room, listening to what she’s found—the compendium her father had given her at the start of the year had been helpful but incomplete when it came to the vivid blooms of hot-forest flowers and she doesn’t know the names of many of them. They crouch in front of a vibrant star-shaped flower with sheer white petals and red veins that look disturbingly like they carry real blood.
“What’s this one called?”
Lexa shakes her head. “I don’t know. Is there a sign? Sometimes there’s a sign.”
They cast around for a sign but there isn’t one to be found. Octavia brushes the petal with a very careful finger.
“It’s warm. I think it’s alive.”
“They’re all alive.”
“Alive alive!” Octavia hisses and Lexa pulls their hand back from the flower before they touch it again. “If you could name it, what would you call it?”
“Gross. I love it.” Octavia frowns at the bloom. “I would call it… Bleeding star.”
“Because of the petals.”
Lexa nods approvingly. “Very good.”
As they talk, a vine curls around one of Octavia’s boots—a vine as thick as their neck and covered in waxy green leaves as big as their face—and Lexa hooks her arms under their armpits and hauls them back when the vine starts to tug them away. Octavia leaps back into the fray when the vine steals the boot that popped off their foot, but they only threaten the vine with a knife, brandishing it when it comes close to make it flinch back and release the boot, but they never strike.
They don’t talk much more, either.
Lexa wonders at first whether they’re bored, or waiting for something, but then when she tells them about being bound to the bench when a vine tangled her there, a fierce joy brightens Octavia’s eyes and Lexa thinks they’re enjoying what she has chosen to share with them.
Once she’s determined that Clarke isn’t there, Lexa drags Octavia from the chamber before they can pick another fight with a plant.
“So what do you like about it?” they ask, tucking the blade away into their boot. “Does it remind you of home?”
Lexa favours Octavia with a curious frown. “The Greenery?”
“No. Haryse is forested but it’s dry. Cold. We don’t have flowers like that.”
“Oh. Then you like it because it’s not like home?”
“I like it because I like it, I suppose,” Lexa hedges, knowing most of the reason is—was—because of Clarke.
“Oh,” Octavia says again, a curious—but not suspicious—lilt to the word.
“Why do you sound surprised?”
“Well, you have reasons for everything. I guess…I guess I didn’t thought you wouldn’t have a reason for something.” Lexa cocks her head to the side, considering that. “Liking it is your reason though, I suppose,” they continue, nodding. Then, a bit shyly, they add, “Thank you for taking me there.”
Lexa’s frown melts away into a brilliant smile. “You’re welcome.”
Later that week, when Octavia offers to show Lexa their favourite place in the palace, she readily accepts. She may not have if she had known that they would be climbing out of one of the tower windows and up onto the roof.
It’s an utterly unremarkable day, save for two reasons: an achingly beautiful sunset hangs over the city all in reds and oranges, setting the windows of the palace and the city ablaze and dousing the lazy Olorun with gold; and, today is the day that Alexandra of Haryse dies.
“You’re not gonna die, Haryse! Stop being a cry baby and climb out the damn window,” Octavia’s voice calls from somewhere on the outside of the tower.
Gathering her courage and the window sill in both hands, Lexa hoists herself up. She waits until she feels steady and then peeks; the palace grounds fall away far below her and she pales dramatically, despite the iron cage that brackets the space in front of her.
“Gods above,” she whispers, and yelps when Octavia grabs her shoulder.
“Get out here, Haryse!”
There’s a rusted bar that Octavia—or someone else, perhaps—had pried out, leaving just enough room for a tenacious and slender page to wriggle their way through. Lexa sucks in a deep breath and pulls through the gap. She follows Octavia up rather stable handholds with confidence until the cunning wind, sensing her confidence, begins to tug and yank and batter at her, at her clothes, her sword. Her hair mimics it, the braids whipping at her face.
A bead catches her in the eye and she pauses. “Ow.”
“Okay down there?” Octavia yells, words pitched to carry despite the wind.
“Braid. In my eye.”
Ahead of them, Octavia climbs the last stretch off the wall and clamber up and over onto the bell roof. They show no fear, immediately laying face down on their belly to look over the edge of the roof at Lexa.
Lexa eyes the path Octavia had taken. She’s climbed enough trees that it should be a breeze but—she pales, presses closer to the wall when a strong gust plucks at her. Reaching down, Octavia clasps her arm. When they heave, Lexa jumps. She catches the edge of the roof, and one of her feet in the gutter. She hauls herself up, scrambling when the gutter creaks at the added weight and threatens – if not to fall, then at least to jolt free of a brace or two.
After a moment to let her catch her breath, Octavia helps her climb the bell roof. They stay flat against the tiles to keep from being blown from it.
“Should’ve taken off the harnesses!” Lexa yells when the weight of it sits ungainly on her torso.
Octavia laughs in her face. “Bad idea! Only things keeping us on the roof!” They laugh again, no doubt at the horror that spreads across Lexa’s face.
They nod toward the gable that attaches to the tower and shimmies down mist-slick tiles. There’s a wedge about as tall as their chest where the gable shows above the roof and Lexa watches as Octavia pops the wood panel open. It takes a little wriggling but then Octavia is slipping face-first into the space.
After a moment, Lexa follows.
The interior is a crawl space. Heavy wooden beams brace the roof and there are flat boards nailed in place. The way is surprisingly spacious, wide enough for a grown man to crawl through provided he isn’t quite as large as Gus. The walls are thick with dust but a path along the floor is clear where crawling forms have dragged away a good portion of the dust already.
“How—” Lexa stops. With no wind to buffet at them, her voice comes out quite loud and she adjusts to a murmur. “How did you find this place?”
“Hmm? Oh.” Before them, Octavia hunches their shoulders low. “Perrin—uh, Perrin tossed some of my things up here,” they confess. “Ages ago. In the first week.”
Lexa blinks. “I didn’t know.”
“Why would you? Didn’t tell you, did I?” They shrug. “He expected me to get scared off, I reckon, but he didn’t expect me to go and get it back.”
“So that’s what you did.”
“What can I say?” Octavia says, unsettlingly sweet. Demur. “I live to enrage. Hold on,” they say a second later, “back up a little. We’re here.”
Octavia must have been counting the rafters as they crawled because they stop at one that looks identical in every way to all the other beams and they twist so they’re on their side. Reaching out with sure hands, they grip a section of the wall and press out. A faint click releases the panel and Octavia eases it up, catching a rod that starts to fall and propping it open with it. They slip through onto the roof and Lexa follows. She turns to see that the panel, save for the fact that it’s propped open, looks the same as all the roof surrounding it.
“How did you find that?”
Octavia looks back over their shoulder, shrugs. It’s becoming a very irritating habit, since Lexa wants to know. “Poked around, I guess. Come on, nearly there.”
“Where are we?”
Lexa climbs carefully down the roof after them. A tower rises sharply next to them and where it meets the roof is a hidden nook. From it, Octavia pulls a sack, which they open. They pull out a flask, a hunk of break, and lay the now empty sack out over the tiled roof. They lay back on it and settle their hands behind their head.
From here, high above the palace grounds, Lexa can see that they’re above the slinking evening mist, above the curls of grey smoke from the chimneys, above the great billowing steam that rises from the belly of the palace. Though there are some clouds covering pockets of the sky, the night is otherwise brilliantly clear. The stars shine down at them like winking lights from a distant world.
Lexa breathes out slowly. “It’s beautiful,” she says, voice hushed in awe. She sneaks a glance to Octavia; their face is as relaxed as Lexa has ever seen it, a half smile curling their lips. Their dark eyes are distant with some mixed emotion. Fondness, Lexa thinks, and something else. Part of her itches to know exactly what they’re thinking, feeling, and her hand creeps toward them. Before she touches them, she stops herself. Curls her fingers into her palm and brings her hand in toward her own waist.
It feels…wrong. Lexa considers it, the sour taste at the back of her tongue when she thinks of taking the knowledge of this place from her friend.
Coming to her decision, Lexa settles exactly as Octavia has. Close enough to share the sack but far enough that they aren’t touching. She mimics their pose carefully and watches the sky.
“That’s the Cat.” Octavia points it out after some time, as the sky deepens to purples and blues. It takes a few tries but finally Lexa sees it; Octavia has to take her hand and point to each star for it to really settle into her mind, but she gets it. Octavia doesn’t appear to mind the effort.
“The Cat,” Lexa says.
As though knowing they’re being spoken of, the constellation seems to gleam brighter.
“Yeah. Some say the Lioness’s cat, Faithful, they say he was the constellation took flesh. That he guided her on her quests.”
Lexa nods. She’s heard that story. It’s possible, she allows, since the gods do as they will and she suspects constellations aren’t all that different, but unlikely.
“That’s the Dolphin. Sedadres,” Octavia moves on. This time they don’t hesitate to take her hand and trace the arch of the constellation. “A sailor was caught in a huge storm off the coast and when she awoke she found herself lost in the Great Eastern Ocean. She sailed for ninety days without seeing land, without recognising a single star to guide her home. On the ninetieth day, a pod of dolphins found and guided her to an island where she recovered. When she could, she began the journey home. Just as she came to a familiar sight, the towering heights of the mountains of her home, she came across another ship and found that they were hunting a pod of dolphins. Owing them—or their cousins—for her life, she turned away from the coast to follow the ship instead. She gathered up all the power in her and struck the hunters dead. She died too but in thanks for the deed, the First Dolphin Mother carries her through the night sky so she can look over her family, the First Pod, who saved her life.”
Lexa doesn’t know how Octavia knows the tales, or how much of them are true. She’s heard fragments of them before, of course, but paid little mind to them; the joy and calmness in Octavia’s voice remakes the tales. Makes them new, makes them important. As she listens, she is put in a state of adoration for her friend.
And to think I had thought them only interested in fighting and the bloody histories, Lexa thinks to herself, grinning.
“And there is Qert, who earned his place among the stars when he slew the five guardians of the crystal cavern beneath the Roof of the World and rescued the youngest prince of the King Shi-Hadjik, Prince Shi-Adhan. One of the guardians struck him in the heart with its ice venom and he died when he froze into an everlasting statue of blue ice. But only after fighting the poison for a whole week and carrying the prince to the doorway of the Grand Chamber of Kings so that his father knew that he was safe.”
And there is the violence, Lexa corrects herself with great fondness.
They stay there until it gets too dark and then Octavia leads the way back inside.
“What did you think?” Octavia asks as they amble back to their rooms, hands wrapped around mugs of hot tea that Havassah had pressed on them when they appeared in the kitchens, shivering.
Lexa considers her answer for a long time. Despite their nonchalance, Lexa knows Octavia wants a real answer, and a good answer. Finally, she nods.
“I will go again with you when you invite me. But I’ll need to learn how to climb walls properly.”
“Done. I know a guy.”
“Of course you do. And,” she says, very seriously, reaching out to catch them about the wrist. Lexa turns Octavia so they meet her eyes. “You will tell me whenever you go.” Octavia grimaces. Lexa shakes their wrist, only enough to get their full attention once more. “I don’t want to wake up one morning to find that you fell. You’ll tell me, won’t you?”
Octavia agrees and finally, well past the last bell, the two of them fall into their beds and resign themselves to an early morning and more work come Sunday for their tiredness.
The first break in the otherwise monotonous weeks of spring is the return of a Rider’s Group—the Ninth, the Black Riders.
Just past dawn, the calls and thwack of arrows into wood – familiar, if not peaceful – are broken by the appearance of one, and then two, and then eight Riders galloping from the tree line. They’re a far way down the grounds from where the pages train but one splits off from the others, wheeling his pony to ride directly to Padraig. His pony is breathing hard, sides dark with sweat. The rider doesn’t look much better.
He and Padraig talk quietly for a few minutes before Padraig nods to him sharply. He points down toward the stables and the Rider bows and takes up the lead rein, guiding the exhausted steed down to the stone-and-wood building. Only a short time later, Lexa sees someone with the same build and the Rider’s uniform begin the long jog up to the palace. He disappears inside.
Padraig, meanwhile, returns to the pages who have long since stopped their training. He looks over them before calling so everyone can hear him, “Arm yourselves. Gather at the jousting court and await my instructions.”
Lexa trots with the others down to the stables to the racks of weapons there.
“What do you think it was?” Octavia asks while they’re waiting to get at the ranks.
“Was?” Hasim shakes his head. “Did you see how fast they were riding? It’s going to still be out there.”
“These forests were cleared years ago,” Ilian tells them, petting his horse Kironos on the nose when they pass, an apology for not riding him later that morning. “There shouldn’t be anything dangerous in there.”
“Creatures can move back in –”
“With Riders, the Kings Own, the palace guard and all of us doing sweeps all the time?” He looks out to the forest, dark eyes squinting into the depths. “It shouldn’t be possible.”
“We don’t know what has happened,” Lexa reminds them. She hands her spear out to Rosemark, who checks over it with a deft hand before returning it. “Thank you, Page Rosemark.”
Rosemark isn’t the only one to look over the other pages, first years especially. Aili walks down the line and examines their swords, their harnesses.
“These should give you a little padding,” he tells them, tugging at the straps on their shoulders. “The tailors won’t even give you a bad time if they get ripped,” he jokes. Hasim smiles obligingly.
After Aili has gone by, Prince Jasson fills his place. Gary is a comforting shadow at his side.
“Yes, Your Highness.” Lexa glances toward the Forest.
The Prince steps in close. “There is no shame in being afraid. Only remember that there are those in the castle who do not have the means to defend themselves. That is why we will fight, if it comes to that.”
“Yes, Your Highness.” As he intended, the words do put a little steel into her spine.
He clasps her shoulder for a brief moment and meets her eyes. Brilliant blue eyes sparkle in the early morning sun and she can see the hints of a childhood spent practising royalty, rather than pretending it, when the weight of his regard falls solidly on her for a split moment. It’s long enough. She has to take a moment to gather herself and when she has, she sees that Terry’s round face is as bright as the sun, obviously receiving the same attention from their Prince. They speak together for several long minutes, Prince Jasson’s hand on his shoulder the entire time.
“You really alright?” Hasim asks her in basri. Octavia looks at them curiously before returning to their pacing, one hand on the hilt of their sword, the other clutching their spear. “You look pale.”
“I am pale.”
“Paler than usual.”
Lexa glances sideways at him. When she sees him touching his arm where their paired bracelet sits below his sleeve, up near the crook of his elbow, she swallows hard. She touches her own where it is tied at the same place.
“I…keeping wondering what it is that would send a Riders Group back like that.” It’s hard to find the words with her limited basri and she has to use Common here and there, but he understands and no one else seems to be listening.
“You have an idea what it might be?”
“No. I don’t know anymore than you do,” she points out. He rolls his eyes. “My first thought…was of camp.”
Hasim’s eyes widen. He passes his spear to his other hand, winces when it presses to the bandages there, and he passes it back again. He clears his throat nervously. “Do you think it might be?”
“It’s possible but unlikely,” she tells him reasonably. Beyond her reason, beyond her almost complete calm and readiness, a little trill of fear sounds in the back of her mind. She recalls the clearing, the caravan, the people…and blinks the image away quickly. Padraig takes the memory’s place—he has returned and strides down the hill flacked by four servants. The servants carry two boxes and they set these down on the ground at the railing and pop open the lids. From them, the servants pull out and hand around heavy jerkins. Lexa’s is a little large around the shoulders but when she looks around she sees that everyone’s is. And when she sees Rosemark pull up his spear and practise a jab in it, she sees that he can easily move around even with the new leather covering.
Padraig steps up onto the railing so that he’s looking over them.
“First. Able bodied pages on this excursion only. Nazri, you’re out. And you too, Linden.”
Hasim’s lips flatten in his upset but he just nods and steps to the side of the court, glaring down at the bandages on his off hand. Lexa grimaces a sort of apology as he passes. He had badly burned his hand the day before in his Gifted class and, though only his hand is covered now instead of up his entire wrist, the bandages still stink strongly of burn balm.
“Second. Prince Jasson.” The Prince stiffens when he’s singled out. Cool determination drips over his expression and everyone around him—barring Gary—shift away. “I would ask that you remain to supervise these pages and anyone sent back with information.”
The Prince’s nostrils flare. He folds his hands behind his ramrod straight spine and lifts his chin. “May I speak with you, my lord?”
“Of course, Highness.”
The pair step away. In the lull restless pages fidget and chat and shift. Nearby, a page coughs. Lexa can’t hear anything the prince is saying and she sighs and turns away, giving up the cause as lost.
“Clever, making Pa do it.” Lexa looks over to where Benny has sidled up next to Anya. He speaks loud enough for her, and Lexa and Ilian to hear. “Can’t very well shoot the messenger when they’re your own training master.”
“What do you mean?” Lexa asks.
“He could try,” Anya says mildly. “Any arrow would break before it willingly hit Pa.”
Benny huffs a quiet laugh. Neither of them seem inclined to explain what they mean.
Lexa looks between them, frowning. “You know what’s going on?”
“Me, having more information than anyone else?” Benny feigns surprise. Anya steps on his foot. “Yeah, okay, ouch. It’s spidren.” When the other pages nearby eye him curiously, he pitches his voice a little louder. “The Riders found spidren in the Forest.”
“Spidren?” The word carries around the rest of the pages in seconds. The same eavesdropping page steps forward, nodding to the others but his eyes are fixed on Benny. Nervous eyes, Lexa thinks, seeing the way he squints at Benny like he’s expecting bad news. Hannalof clears his throat. “Do you think they’re the ones behind…you know. What happened at camp?”
Lexa grips the hilt of her sword and waits for Benny’s answer.
Benny shakes his head. His golden hair flutters; as he speaks, he ties it back in a severe horse-tail. It gives his face a lean, stern set and he looks, to Lexa’s surprise, more like a page than a Player ready for a swordsman’s role. She shouldn’t really be surprised. He has, after all, had all the same training as Anya. “We can’t know for sure,” he tells them. Lexa nods slightly. That’s what she had said. “I guess they’d better get one alive and ask it.”
“Spidren won’t talk,” Anya disagrees. “They never talk. Not about anything that matters.”
“Reckon the Palace Mages would be might persuasive this time,” a voice from the back of the crush mutters. A wave of muttered agreement meets that statement.
“Spidren don’t really do that sort of thing, though,” Octavia points out. “The, y’know…” They tilt their head slightly before righting it, eyebrows raised. Lexa looks away. Several other pages do as well. “They tend to eat people right away, or else wrap it up for later. And there were no half eaten bodies and no webs that I saw. Haryse?”
“Were there webs?”
“No,” she tells them, thinking reluctantly back to the forest about that grisly scene. “No webs.”
“Probably was the Stormwings then.” Lexa can’t see who said it. “Bloody carrion eaters.”
“Worse,” another page sneers. “They enjoy it.”
Octavia shakes their head. “Whether or not the Stormwings…did what they did, they don’t start fights. They didn’t attack the people. They don’t involve themselves like that in human affairs.”
“They were pretty involved in killing people in the Immortal Wars,” Wiltshire sneers at them. “Like my brother.”
Octavia bows their head stiffly. “Most Stormwings don’t involve themselves in human affairs. They do…what they do…to the dead but they don’t usually do the killing. No. Whatever did that in the winter, it wasn’t spidrens and it wasn’t the Stormwings either.”
“If you’re so smart, what do you think did that?”
Octavia’s black eyes stare right at Wiltshire. His pinched face tightens under their consideration. “What else?” Octavia says lowly. “Humans.”
Benny clears his throat to break through the conversation. “Pa is coming back,” he says, and waits until the other pages have moved back into a semblance of a line before he looks to Octavia. “You know an awful lot about Immortals.”
“They’re most of what us un-Gifted folk learn about,” they tell him.
Benny nods his understanding but Lexa frowns. She’s in the same class as Octavia and, though it’s true that they talk often about Immortals, she doesn’t know nearly so much as they seem to. The long, and by all appearances reasonable, argument between the Prince and Lord Padraig comes to an end and the time to comment on Octavia’s knowledge is lost.
Prince Jasson turns on his heel and stalks up to the castle, flanked by Hasim and Linden, the second-year page. Gary remains behind with the other fourth-years.
Padraig swings up onto the rail again. The pages move into a loose semi-circle around him so they can hear what he has to say.
“I assume by this point you have heard that there are spidrens in the Forest,” he says, striking right to the point of the matter. When he receives a few nods, he continues. “The Fourth Riders Group left yesterday to deal with reports of bandits to the south and as there are few at the Palace who are trained to deal with this enemy, we will be assisting the Ninth. I have argued that you are all prepared to help. Do not make a liar out of me to my own King.” He casts a steely look over the pages; whatever he sees, it’s enough to continue. “This excursion comes with the following rules.”
All of the pages want a part in hunting them down and they lean in toward Padraig, his words the answer to how to do that. Sorry, Hasim, Lexa sends a thought his way even as she steps in closer to listen.
“When you are given an order, you will follow it immediately. Fourth-years, pair up with a first-year. Thirds with a second year. They will be your pair. Look out for them as you would for yourself. Keep your eyes on the trees. Stay alert at all times. If you see something, you will tell myself, Sir Fared, or one of the Riders. You will make no unnecessary noises—this is not a picnic,” he tells them gravely. “We know where they are and their numbers, thanks to the scouts,” Lexa glances over his shoulder to the group of mounted Riders on their stout ponies. They look lean and tough, with flexible but sturdy armour and a pretty insignia over their left breast. “That does not mean that it is without danger. Spidren are not enemies we can risk underestimating. Nond, what qualities do the spidren possess?”
Lexa blinks and looks over to the fair-headed youth. For once, his face is not set into cruelty but into flat purpose. He speaks briskly and loud enough for all the pages to hear. “Spidren are known to be cruel to their prey. And we are their prey. They look like enormous spiders with human heads and each of the eight legs has a silver claw at the end. They’re quick, too, and the claws can cut through just about anything. Spidren also shoot webs from their middle. The web is tough and sticks to anything, skin too.”
Padraig nods. “Good. Keep in mind they climb, which is why we keep an eye to the trees. And their blood is corrosive.”
“That means it burns, puppies,” a Rider comments in a drawling accent that would sound informal or lazy if not for the accompanying intense stare. His eyes flick over Nond. “You mention the fact they’re meaner than a stung bull, lad?”
“Just Hangley is fine,” the Rider says. He’s a stout man, not much taller than the pages, but solid in neck and shoulders. He wears the same armour as the rest of his Group and a short sword on his hip like he knows how to use it. There is a twist to his lips that might be a smile. A thin scar has cut into the left side of his top lip and, when he smiles, the cut turns white in his sun-burned brown face. Long brown hair is tied back at the nape of his neck and his shrewd, pretty green eyes flick over each of the pages for a moment. When they land on someone, he stares with such intensity that Lexa knows he’s memorized all he needs to know; she suspects he has little trouble finding a target in the field.
“Lord Padraig, they ready to hear what we found?” Padraig nods. Leading by example, he lends Hangley his full attention. “Thank you, milord. We came across a huck of web. Our scouts estimate the nest’ll be anywhere from a single pair to a clutch of six, judging from the signs around. Ideally, I’d call in two more Rider Groups to deal with this but your Lord insists you’re up for the challenge.” There’s a few pages who stand a little taller at the comment. Hangley’s lips curve into a definite smirk this time. “Don’t get too confident. If he’s wrong, we’ll know.”
“Won’t be pleasant,” another of the Rider’s calls. She’s a dark-haired woman with a wicked smile and she continues, “Spidren web’ll bind y’all nice and snug.”
“Don’t frighten the wee lambs,” a red-headed man built like a bull rumbles from the back of the group. “We need them to be able to hold those spears straight.”
“That might be an issue for you,” Benny drawls, a too-sharp-to-be-friendly smile directed toward the man, “but we don’t care to hear about it.”
“Enough,” Padraig cuts into the talk, just when the red-head bristles. “Pair up and move out. Two in a row. Eyes on the trees. Each pair keeps out a bow and a spear. Don’t stab one another. And Elden?”
“A bell on Sunday.”
Padraig pairs them; Emry takes his place next to Lexa and gives her a friendly nod.
“Morning, cousin. Lovely day for a hunt,” he says with a broad smile, covering his eyes and glancing up to the sky. Lexa nods. “You nervous?”
Lexa considers the question before nodding. “Yes.”
Emry claps her on the shoulder. “I’ll keep an eye on you. Like as not we won’t see a scrap of the fight,” he reassures her. “The Riders know what they’re doing. Just don’t let one sneak up on me and it’ll be fine.”
Lexa nods. She can feel her palms slick with sweat and she wipes them on her breeches before clutching her bow tight. She double-checks the spear slung across her pack, makes sure she can get it out with ease, and nods again.
They move out. The riders move quietly around the marching column—they appear now and again like ghosts between the trees before disappearing again, and Lexa wishes she were with them instead of the column, which despite their best attempts, makes plenty of noise as they move through the trees. A spot between her shoulder blades begins to prickle and Lexa swallows hard, keeps her eyes moving around to catch any glimpse of silver in the dark. The feeling of being watched only grows stronger the further they walk. The trees grow thick together and in some places they have to move single file, ducking low under branches.
Lexa feels a niggling sensation at the edges of herself. Wrongness. Bloated and slimy, slinking all around them. When the first signs of the webs appears, she almost gags. They’re slick and dripping with a glowing liquid, murky green and muted. The closer she steps to the patches of web, the stronger the sensation grows.
Emry steps closer, clasps her shoulder. His green eyes are worried. Alright? he mouths.
They move on.
The webs grow thicker, though still in tatters. They step into what is almost a clearing, only a few trees interrupting an expanse of mud and clumped grass and rock. A shiver of alarm runs through the column and soon Riders appear, the scouts on either side of the column.
“Wall of webs to the south—shit,” the red-headed Rider curses when he sees the wall they’ve come up to. “Shit! They’ve boxed us in.”
“Another wall to the north,” a young woman confirms. Her eyes glance around the trees before pointing to the rear of the column. “There!”
The company spin and, far down the trail they’ve walked are three spidren advancing on them.
Lexa stares. She’s seen pictures and heard the tales, but it is one thing to hear about them and another to see the monsters. The smallest of the trio is easily seven feet tall and it carries two rough axes in its claws. Padraig wheels around and a spray of dark blood is the beginning of the skirmish. Lexa can see Gus there with him, laying about with a handaxe he buries into a spidren skull so hard it lodges there and sticks.
The younger pages are urged to the rear and the Riders advance. Though there are fewer trees in the clearing, there are enough to make it hard for her to see much more than the flash of spear and hoofs. She can hear Padraig calling out to the Riders, and the scream of a horse.
The cloying, sickly feeling is all around Lexa. Stronger now that the spidren have shown themselves. She stares at what little she can see of the monsters and it takes her a moment to sense the faint twang. She glances behind and up and freezes, unable to move or bring any moisture to her parched mouth to shout. Her fingers feel numb, clumsy. What is she doing? Does she have her spear? She doesn’t—she has her bow in her hands. The spidren is more monstrous than Nond’s description had made them—a sick creature, twanging a bloated, sliming sensation in Lexa’s awareness. It grins a wicked grin, all pointed teeth in a man’s face bristling with wiry black hair, the same that covers the spider body. He has almost no neck at all, just a head connected to a wide spider middle. Eight wrong, spindly legs spiking from his body. She can’t find it in her to yell; she can, however, notch an arrow to her bow. She fits one to the string with shaking fingers and brings it up in a smooth move.
The arrow catches the spidren in one of its eyes. Intelligent as the monsters might be, this one doesn’t seem to care than an arrow is stuck in his eye and he continues his descent down the webs—much faster now that he can see she is aware of him.
“SPIDREN!” Lexa yells, breath returning to her now that fear takes the backstep to her determination. She notches another arrow without looking away from the advancing creature. Its claws dig into the trunk of the tree nearest her, chunks of bark cut away with each scuttling grasp. Had anyone heard her? Had Emry? “SPIDREN AT THE WEBS!”
“SPIDREN AT THE WEBS,” Emry picks up her cry.
Further down the now broken column, a Rider yells. “The webs! Caddum—light the webs!”
A flickering orange light brightens the clearing. It’s soon followed by an awful stench as the small fire—quickly growing to a blaze—ignites the webs. They ignite quickly but burn slowly and so they have to retreat from the fire that spreads across the wall of web. And from the top, black-furred bodies hidden in the canopy, more spidrens drop. Three. Four. Five in all. Eight, including the three that had busied Padraig at the rear.
One lands on a Rider and their horse. A shriek is pulled from the horse when one of those silver-tipped claws digs into the soft of the pony’s belly and rips. The spidren jerks a moment later when a sword sinks into its belly but it doesn’t stop clawing at the horse. Lexa, closest to the fallen Rider, steps up so she’s side onto the Immortal. She stows her bow and retrieves her spear.
The spidren’s head twists. It stares at her and laughs, blood bubbling up between its teeth.
“Child,” it cackles. “We eat well tonight on ssoft flesh.”
Lexa hardens her glare and thrusts her spear forward. Five inches of steel sinks into its side, scraping against the short blade still sticking it. The spidren howls and rips deeply into the horse in reflex. She tries to ignore that; the horse is dead already, there’s no way to save it from a wound like that. But then the spridren grabs at the Rider with another of its claws and Lexa lets the forms she’s practised day after day take over her numbed form. She moves.
The blade of her spear glints with slick, black ichor. It catches the firelight when it slices down and cuts into the leg at the joint. The section of leg from the joint to the claw falls uselessly away, freeing the Rider.
The Rider gasps a breath of relief, eyes darting to Lexa wide and shocked, but she has no time to see more because the spidren screams her anger and staggers upright.
Standing, the monster is enormous. Its centre bulges, a green drip of webbing leaking from a spiral where a belly button would be on a human. She has no time at all to react before a splash of it shoots out to strike her.
The web catches her shoulder and Lexa stumbles back from the attack. It splatters there, hot and dripping with the black blood and she can hear the jerkin sizzling. A drop of it splatters her skin and she cries out, surprised by how much it hurts. Quicker almost than Lexa can see, a leg strikes out and knocks her to the ground.
The spear in her hands rolls away when she opens her hands to slap the ground and, though she pushes up into a crouch instantly, the spidren closes the distance between them in a near gallop. A claw arcs down in a flash of silver; Lexa rolls out of the way. The claw slams into the earth and gouts of dirt spray up from the impact. She gulps when she sees the deep gouge it leaves behind where she had been only moments before.
With a shaking hand, Lexa pulls out her sword.
“What are you going to do,” the spidren croaks, words scattered in her pointing teeth, “with a little stick?”
Lexa ignores the taunt. Her blade rings clearly when she deflects a silver claw with it. She jumps out of the way of another that slashes seemingly out of nowhere, from one of the lower limbs. It becomes rapidly clear that as repulsive as the creature is, it’s also right. There’s very little that Lexa can do with her sword. She glances away for a moment to see where her spear has fallen; the spidren takes advantage and darts forward. Lexa rolls away and back. Distantly, she recognises that it’s driving her toward the webs strung between the trees behind her. There’s not much she can do about that.
Unless, she thinks, looking at the lazy, almost playful way it’s striking at her now, I don’t play the game.
The spidren’s face falls slack with shock when, instead of moving back when the next attack comes, Lexa jumps in and slices at one of the supporting legs with a wide arc. She spins when it falters and she embeds her sword deep into the monsters side. Its blood spatters hot over her hand but she doesn’t worry yet about what that’ll do to her. Grabbing out her knife, she stabs it toward the belly. The hide is too thick for the blade and it’s turned away, managing only to scrape harsh against the hide.
Despite the blood now dripping freely from its mouth, the spidren cackles. It rears up. Lexa steps back—and slams up against a thick trunk. A claw slams into the tree on either side of her and the spidren drags itself forward, reaching another silver tip toward her sternum. It bares its wicked teeth…and chokes on its own laugh.
“What?” Lexa hears herself say. She watches the spidren jerk again, and then looks down to the faint trickle of blood that slops down its front. She moves carefully out of reach, still gripping her knife. Once she’s away from the tree, and the monster, she can see the reason it stopped—a spear sticks from its back, buried deep into the body where Lexa estimates the heart would be. Another spear is buried into the abdomen and a third up into the side under one of the legs.
Lexa looks up from the body—eyes glazed over in death and the corpse slopping down to the blood-slicked ground with a meaty thud—up to Octavia. Gore, black and thick, is splattered over their side from where they had driven their spear nearly entirely through the monster. Emry stands to their side, breathing hard and glaring down at the spidren. Ilian storms to Lexa’s side and checks her over with narrowed eyes before he leans back and breathes out a sigh of relief.
“Hasim would’ve murdered me if you’d been hurt,” he says. He grips her shoulder tight. Then, he hands her spear over and walks to the spidren. He grips his own spear with both hands and wrenches it out. It comes free with a sick plop, blood oozing out after it.
Emry walks over and claps her shoulder, handing her the sword she’d had to leave in its belly. She sheathes it and grips her spear in both hands.
The four of them turn to the rest of the fight.
Many of the spidren lie dead or dying. Two remain and the three first-years and Emry pick up Terry and Virgil and the Rider with them; they advance, spears up, on the one that several others have distracted. For a few minutes, they encircle the monster and take turns to neatly lop off a limb or claw before one of the Riders shoots an arrow right through its head and pins it to a tree. Its limbs jerk and shake for a few moments before it falls still.
“Good hunt,” the Yamani-looking shooter compliments. “Your little friends brought down one on their own, you know.”
“Lexa,” Gus mutters. He whirls to find his charge next to him, leaning heavily on her spear: shaky, bloody, but save for some burns and scratches, mostly uninjured. “Lexa,” he sighs, relieved. "You're alright."
“One of the Riders needs attention.”
“Yes. One of the Riders needs attention,” she repeats, and takes Anya from Gus's group, leads her to the man who had been crushed beneath the spidren. He has dragged himself free of his horse and sits propped against a tree trunk, a clump of web he’s salvaged the only thing keeping his gut closed. The web is drenched red and one of his legs is bent at an unnatural angle.
“How does it look?” he asks, face a bloodless white beneath the black grime. He shivers hard, teeth chattering.
“Not bad,” Anya lies. “I’ll freeze you on three, alright?”
“One—“ Her Gift flashes around her hands and his face falls slack. Lexa reaches out for him to steady him. They wave over Ilian and Lincoln to help him onto a makeshift stretcher. Octavia slips the Riders short sword onto the stretcher next to him.
It isn’t long before Padraig dispatches the last spidren and he comes around to see how they’ve all fared. It’s clear that he’s upset; he stalks through the clearing, cold fury all but radiating from him. Once he can see that all of his pages are still alive, if a little bloody, he relaxes a fraction.
“Tirragen,” he says, ice-cold. “Heal what you can for the pages. Bad injuries first—heal them until they’re not in danger anymore. Nothing more than that. Conserve what power you’ve got left in case there are others.”
“Yessir,” she says, and moves to do exactly that.
“Anyone badly injured returns to the Palace. And two to help with this stretcher. Not you, Runnerspring—Malven and…Hannelof.”
Hannelof nods. Anya is bent over his leg, purple Gift closing up a gash on his thigh. When it’s no more than a scratch, he nods to her and limps over to the stretcher.
“Keep your weapons at the ready,” Padraig tells the others. It’s a mostly unneeded order, as they’re all gripping their spears tight.
“Milord?” Anya speaks up when he doesn’t look like he’s going to continue. Her Gift glitters around her fingers as she examines a puncture wound through a third-years shoulder.
“Should I help the horses?”
“If they need it and if you can. Better to leave it to someone who knows horses, if you can.” Anya nods. Padraig looks down at the gutted horse and grimaces. “Not that one. Bad business, losing a horse.” He clears his throat. “Hangley!”
The Rider breaks off from a conversation with the young scout and jogs over. “Aye?”
“How are your Riders?”
“All able, save for Jorn.” He nods to the one on the stretcher. “What do you want us to do?”
“It’s time we find their nest and burn it,” Padraig tells him. His eyes glint with restrained fury. “Each of yours with a handful of mine.”
“And the ambush?”
Padraig rubs at his chin. He doesn’t seem to notice the grime he’s spreading over it. “Haryse, Hosseim.”
Lexa pushes off her spear and moves to Padraig’s side. Qasim ghosts up to his other side.
“I want every inch of this ambush mapped. I want the spidren’s searched too—if they had human help, I want to know about it.” He drums his fingers against his belt. “Pick someone to go with you to watch your back.”
“Human help, milord?” Qasim asks, voice grave.
“Spidren are tricky on their own,” Padraig admits. “But this is beyond the planning I’ve seen them use before. One wall of web, yes. But to drive us into a box?” He shakes his head.
With some more instruction, they set to work. Lexa takes Emry, who seems reluctant to leave her, and Qasim takes Rosemark. Rosemark bleeds from a slice high on his cheek and he takes a cloth from Lexa with a nod of thanks and a tiny smile, pressing the green cloth to the cut.
“How does it look?”
“Dashing. You’ll have the girls throwing themselves at you now,” Emry tells him, grinning.
“I always have girls throwing themselves at me.”
“Yes, but you won’t have to pay for it now,” Qasim teases quietly and the three boys laugh quietly before glancing at Lexa, who raises her eyebrows.
Emry clears his throat. “Er. Sorry.”
She shrugs and moves to the first of the spidren, trusting Emry at least to follow. Soon enough, the four of them and the Rider assigned to them have amassed the ugly, rough weapons that some of the spidrens had been using and douse the webs that are still burning. Emry draws a map of the clearing, marking out the webs and the trees with careful detail. Padraig accepts the map without comment. They work on.
Late that afternoon, a column of muddied, bloodied pages trudge back through the forest, through the training courts, and up the sloping hill to the Palace. Several servants wait there, sitting on a long bench, and when they see the pages they leap to their feet and hand out towels and skeins of water. A Healer—Healer Osri, recently graduated and always faintly nervous—looks sleepy, his curling hair not as neatly set as it usually is. He talks quietly and warmly to the pages as he heals them.
“Can’t wait to eat something,” Octavia mutters.
“Eat? I want to wash this grime off.” Ilian scratches at his neck, the mud caked in his hair.
Lexa nods an agreement. She yawns, jaw cracking. “I think I could sleep for days.” She itches at her hand where the blood had spattered. Burns fleck red over her skin and she can't stop running her fingers over the pocked skin.
“Hold onto that dream,” a deep voice says from behind them.
Lexa spins, knife out. Padraig looks almost approving when he moves the blade away with a flick of his fingers.
“I am to report to the King about what happened tonight,” he interrupts. Lexa nods. More surprising than anything that had happened today is the smile that flickers ever so briefly over Padraig’s face. “Find Runnerspring and Hosseim and come along to the Blue Room.”
“The Blue Room. Yessir.”
“Do you know where that is?”
Padraig rubs at his temple. Then he nods. “Hosseim does. Follow him.”
When he’s gone, Lexa turns to find Octavia grimacing sadly at her. “I’ll eat your dinner for you,” they tell her, patting her shoulder.
Lexa wilts. She searches half-heartedly through the room for Lincoln and sighs when she sees him, head and shoulders above the others. She nods to Ilian when he says he’ll tell Hasim what happened, and she crosses the room.
“Lexa.” He turns to her, smile fading at her serious expression. “Is something wrong?”
“Lord Padraig wants us to go to the Blue Room.” Lincoln blinks his surprise. “Have you seen Hosseim?”
“He went to his room,” Nond grunts over his shoulder at her. “Now shut up.”
Lexa grimaces at his back,careful to do it when he won't notice. She doesn't have it in her for another fight. “I have to fetch him,”
“I’ll get some food for us,” Lincoln offers, and Lexa nods. Her legs protest every step but she gathers up what strength she has and trots down the hall to Qasim’s room, knocking politely and then louder when he doesn’t answer.
He pulls the door open, shirt off, a wet cloth slung over his shoulder. A pink scar runs across his chest, from his left shoulder down, bisecting a blue mark that would have sat over his heart. Lexa notices that first, and then the sword in his hand. He lowers it when he sees that it's Lexa.
“Padraig wants us to go to the Blue Room.”
Qasim blinks, then sighs. “Fine. Go, I’ll be there soon.” When she doesn’t move, he glares again. “What?”
“I don’t know the way.”
Qasim rolls his eyes. “Wait there.”
Soon enough, he comes out into the hall in cleaner clothes and his hair neatly combed. “Follow.”
“May I change too?”
“And keep them waiting?” Qasim brows tick up. “No.”
Lexa sighs. She tugs the borrowed jerkin into a semblance of neatness on her shoulders and scrapes her hair back off her face. With a cloth from the pouch on her belt, she scrubs at the filth she can feel on her face but she suspects she doesn’t get all of it. There isn’t much she can do about it though, nor the splatters on her clothes, not unless she wants to keep Lord Padraig waiting. Just as Qasim had said. She glares at his back, hating that she agrees with him even in her mind, but trots down the hall to walk at his side to the Blue Room.
Or rather, to the bench outside.
“Temb!” Qasim calls softly when they approach the delicately carven wood door.
A young Bazhir man in Palace livery glances their way. In his hand is a ceremonial spear, a white frilled cuff above his hand fluttering prettily and another bound below the spear head with purple rope, the ends of which are tasselled. The spear looks decidedly real, Lexa notes and then puts the thought aside, too tired to think more on it.
Qasim leaves her, moving to talk in a quiet voice with Temb. Lexa shuffles to the bench against the wall. She sits.
It isn’t long before Lincoln joins them. He hurries down the hall, passes Lexa a cold pastry. “It was all they had,” he tells her apologetically. “If you eat fast enough, we can split his and say there wasn’t anything left.
Lexa gives him a tired smile. He doesn’t look clean either, which is a relief. Before she can say she isn’t capable of doing anything fast at the moment, Qasim strides back to them. He takes the pastry silently, though he does nod his thanks to Lincoln.
“We may not be called on for some time,” he tells them both. A burst of annoyance glows in her chest and she wishes she had changed after all. She casts the feeling away.
Lincoln nods, settles as comfortably as he can on a wooden bench. He turns to Lexa. “You can nap, if you’d like. I’ll wake you.”
She doesn’t nap. Instead, she pulls her sword across her lap and starts to clean it as it desperately needs and deserves. The blood within the sheath will have to wait until she gets to her room, but the blade itself and the hilt she can do something with.
Qasim rolls his eyes. He drinks from his canteen. If a little water slops onto his hand when it shakes, she pretends she doesn’t notice and doesn’t mention it.
The door to the Blue Room creaks open.
Qasim, who had taken up pacing some time ago in an effort to stay awake, closes the distance from the end of the hall to the door in a matter of seconds.
The three of them enter together. With both doors open, there would have been plenty of space for all three of them to enter shoulder to shoulder. As it is, only one of the two doors has been opened and Qasim enters first. Lexa follows, and Lincoln after her. So smoothly it seems planned, Qasim stops and Lexa steps to his right, and Lincoln to hers.
Lexa examines the room with interest, and a little of the nervous energy that remains from the day. The walls and decorations fade in a swirl of blue and Lexa can focus only on the people within the chamber.
A rather intimate setting opens up before them. Seated at a carven dining table that would seat ten people at most are three men. Padraig is the eldest of the three. He sits to the right, changed out of his bloodied clothes and now in a simple tunic, blue with the haMinch crest stitched onto his breast. His steely hair is uncovered and sweat-slicked to his neck. To the left is a plain looking man in similarly simple clothing. He wears a light purple tunic, so light as to be just shy of white. He’s handsome, in a crooked kind of way—crooked nose, crooked smile, a hazel eye that squints the tiniest bit more than the other. And at the head of the table sits a handsome man with dark hair and a simple circlet curling around his head. His deep-blue eyes are the exact shade of Prince Jasson’s—no, Jasson’s eyes are his shade, she realises, and falls belatedly into the proper kneel to her king.
Qasim and Lincoln are already kneeling.
“Worry not,” an unfamiliar voice says. A nice voice. Smooth and deep and kind. “I understand what it’s like being a page. I was one myself, once upon a time.”
Lexa looks up from the floor—polished hardwood that clicks under boot—to Padraig first. He has his chair turned out from the table slightly so that he can stand without trouble and the only sign of the day upon him is where the collar of his shirt is stained faintly with red. She drags her eyes across to the king.
His face is strong and square. In contrast to the simple circlet around his temples, his clothes are impeccable fine and delicate, embroidered heavily and immaculate despite the late hour. He wears several chains about his neck, each of them studded in jewels, and he wears a ring on most of his fingers. Each ring, Lexa knows, could feed a village for an entire year. She feels frozen in place, much as she had looking upon a spidren for the first time. This man is many things at once: familiar and unfamiliar to her, the edges of him in her mind filled with tales and gossip only; a man, a king; a knight, a mage, a monarch. There are as many tales about him than there are about Sir Alanna and now he sits before her. Scrabbling for some sign of how to continue, Lexa falls heavily into Vauntire’s lessons.
“Your Majesty,” she dips her head again. She pitches her voice polite and smooth. “I meant no disrespect and I ask humbly for your forgiveness.”
“You have it,” he says. “It is late and, from my understanding, it has been a very long day for you all.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty,” the three of them say and they stand.
“Weapons to the door,” Padraig instructs them. He still has his own sword, being a Knight of the Realm and trusted by the King. She’s relieved. Seeing him without his sword would be like…trees, sprouting from the sky. Unnatural.
The other man—a Baron, by the ring he wears—must be trusted as Padraig is, since Lexa can see that he is armed as well. The blades themselves are too well made to show against his clothes but she thinks a man who has such a neat scabbard for the knife on his belt and a place for a blade against his wrist wouldn’t be unarmed for any stretch of time.
Temb takes Lincoln’s sword and knife, and Qasim’s blades, and then her sword. And then each of her knives with growing amusement.
“And the boot knife, I think,” the Baron says.
Lexa pauses. She glances to him before stooping down obediently.
“Leave it,” King Jonathan tells her. “Every warrior should have at least one blade. Makes them more confident, I’ve found.”
“If you say aught like what can a mite like her do with a blade like that, begging your majesty’s forgiveness,” the Baron drawls, “but I’ll remind you that she’s likely trained to do plenty.”
“I am, your Majesty,” Lexa agrees, handing the blade over to Temb, who bows and retires to the corner of the room. “Very well trained.”
Next to her, Lincoln hangs his head and chokes down a laugh.
“Addled, sire,” Padraig says. Lexa sneaks a look at him. She finds him almost relaxed where he sits at the king’s side. “Are you almost done, Haryse?”
“That was my last, milord.”
“Then take a seat.” He gestures to the table and Lexa slips into place next to Lincoln. The three of them have taken the seats down from Padraig, all on the same side of the table.
“Definitely one of yours, Padraig.”
“Page Alexandra of Haryse.” Padraig’s voice is as inscrutable as always and Lexa can’t tell if he speaks with any kind of approval.
After that, she thinks, eyeing her stash of knives, likely not.
“Ah, Titus’s daughter.” Is that interest she sees in the king’s eyes? She tilts her chin up and meets his gaze steadily. “How is your father?”
“According to his most recent letter, very well, sire. Shall I tell him you asked after him?”
“Do,” the king nods. He looks down to a selection of papers in front of him. “Tonight I would hear your accounts truthfully and precisely regarding this spidren matter. Lord Padraig?”
“Hosseim first, sire.”
“Not Haryse? She looks dead on her feet,” the Baron interrupts.
She feels liquid fire drip into her belly and the warmth spreads through her, helping her sit up taller in her seat. Unimpressive in this company, but it makes her feel better. She scowls at the tall, lanky man and doesn’t let his cheerful eyes glittering with good humour distract her.
“Not quite, milord.”
“Don’t play with my pages, Cooper,” Padraig warns. Lexa sees beyond his impassive face to the vein that throbs in his temple. It’s new. He must not like this Cooper fellow, she decides. “They bite.”
“I’m intimately aware of the fact,” Baron Cooper agrees. Whoever he is, he’s brave. Not stupid, as she first considered. There’s a glint to his eyes that says he knows what he’s doing, and enjoys it.
Padraig ignores him. “Hosseim,” he grates out again.
“My lord.” Qasim stands and bows to the company before speaking.
He tells them about the ambush. About the Riders that came, about everything from the time when they heard about the spidrens to how they were organised to move in to what they found when they were attacked. About Padraig's orders to examine the site for human assistance to the spidren. As Qasim talks, Lexa examines the room. There’s something ever so slightly off about it.
It’s aptly named, certainly. The walls are painted a royal blue. Embedded columns divide up the walls into sections, the columns standing from floor to ceiling and painted in gold. Where they meet the ceiling, the capitals of the columns are carven to meet the decorative moulding, which has been gaudily painted in bright colours. To the back of the room is a wall of tall windows. Thick drapes—also blue—cover the windows and allow only a faint light to break through where the drapes don’t quite reach the floor. Two burning fireplaces on either side of the room, set out slightly from the walls, light the space along with many hanging crystals of soft mage-light. Delicate blue-and-white vases filled with pretty flowers have been set on many surfaces, handsome dark wood tables that line the walls, the handles of their drawers golden and polished.
It’s not what she expected to step into and Lexa feels uncomfortable, dirty and bloody on a chair with such luxurious upholstery. More uncomfortable still when she looks on the king in his soft clothes and dripping with jewels.
There’s something about the room itself, beyond the decorations, beyond the decadence of it – unnecessary for a conversation like this one – that seems strange but she’s tired and her mind is fractured between listening to Qasim’s recounting of the ambush and the fight and she can’t figure out what it is.
“Thank you, Page ibn Hosseim. And what occurred after the ambush?”
Lexa drags her attention back to the discussion. Qasim stands straight, hands held behind his back.
King Jonathan lifts a paper Lexa recognises as one of the maps they’d drawn for Lord Padraig. He skims the paper.
He looks tired, Lexa realises. His eyes are ringed and the skin is tight around his mouth. But then he looks up, and there is no trace of it. He’s smiling, even. Lexa frowns, confused by the mixed expressions. “After the fight in the clearing, what happened then? What were you instructed to do?”
Qasim nods. He looks to Lexa quickly, who just blinks tiredly at him. Then, he speaks. “Tirragen—er, Page Tirragen, that is, sire—started healing the pages and Riders on milord’s instructions. Anyone badly injured was sent back to the Palace. Everyone else stayed. We—that is, myself and Page Haryse—were instructed to map the ambush area and find anything that might hint toward any human help.” Qasim stops when King Jonathan holds up a hand. “Sire?”
“Why would Lord Padraig choose a first year for such a task?”
“I couldn’t say, sire,” he tells the king honestly. He flicks a look to Lexa, a tinge of apology to it. She lifts one shoulder in a shrug.
With a smile tucked into one cheek, King Jonathan turns to Padraig. “Well?”
“Haryse showed aptitude for tracking in the winter.”
“Ah yes. Winter.” King Jonathan fixes Lexa with a curious look before nodding. He waits a moment to see if Padraig will say any more and, when he doesn’t, the king returns his gaze to Qasim. “Please, continue.”
“We mapped out the clearing easy enough but then we thought we should mark where the webs had been so that we could show others how the ambush had been built. It was difficult because during the fight, one of the Riders had set the webs alight. Rider Caddum. At first, it made it harder to tell where the webs had been, to mark it out, Your Majesty, but then we saw how the burns were wrapped around the trees and –”
“We do not need to hear of your cleverness, Bazhir,” a fourth man says.
He is stepping out from the wall—no, from a compartment in the wall. A panel closes behind him and disappears into the blue of the walls and Lexa realises with another start what had been so strange about the room—it is much larger than the false walls made it seem. Her fathers study has a false wall, she knew there was a reason it was strange.
Qasim, likely also surprised by the man’s entrance, does nothing but lift his chin. Two spots of colour darken in his cheeks from the way the man spits Bazhir like it is filthy.
“In fact you do…sir,” Lexa says. She is unable to pick out his rank from the clothing he wears and he wears no jewellery either, nor is he marked in any distinctive fashion.
His gaze flashes to her; his lip, already curled, devolves into a full sneer.
“Haryse,” Padraig says warningly.
“I apologise for speaking out of turn, Lord Padraig.”
“I apologise too, Lord Padraig, Your Majesty, but Page Hosseim doesn’t speak from a point of pride,” Lincoln adds, his voice a quiet rumble. “He is relaying important information—it shouldn’t be ignored because he was clever enough to find it.”
“If anything, it should be more convincing, since he’s clever,” Lexa points out.
“Haryse,” Padraig sighs. One hand is clenched into a fist and Lexa recognises the gesture as one of her father’s favourites, thinks it’s likely he wants to cover his face but refrains.
“Burns from a fire your own people set aren’t important,” the man in black points out.
“No, but the marks he found underneath the webbing are.”
“Marks? What kind of marks?”
“Symbols of some kind, sire,” Qasim says, drawing the thread of the conversation back into his own hands. He speaks to King Jonathan and his eyes don’t move to the man in black even when he interrupts again.
“Did you write them down? Draw them?”
The man looks purposefully down at Qasim’s empty hands.
“No. I saw strange symbols and didn’t think they should be seen by anyone else.”
Qasim bows, first to Lord Padraig and then to the stranger. “My apologies. Sir.” The pause before the title is precise. Laden with possibility for any title less polite than the one given. “The symbols were, of course, copied.”
The man in black draws himself up to his full height. Disapproval lays draped about him like a heavy cloak and his face, smooth and unmarked by scars, falls into severe lines. “These are your lauded knights-in-training, Jonathan?” Padriag and the king stiffen at the lack of a title, the king less obviously. Baron Cooper’s cheerfulness never falters. When Padraig shifts in his seat, nostrils flaring, King Jonathan shakes his head. Whether or not the man in black notices this exchange, he continues. “Two whelps, one dumb as a rock and the other showing the insolence bred into his people.”
“You have my measure, sir, but you’ve forgotten to say something nice about our friend, Page Haryse,” Qasim prompts, ignoring the fact that they’re not friends at all.
Lincoln swallows a grin with a little trouble. Qasim lifts his prideful chin.
“And the other,” the man in black sneers again, ignoring Qasim entirely, his voice thick with derision. “A girl.”
“I’m surprised to hear you speak so about our Lady Knights,” Padraig says. “Sire, didn’t your Champion defeat the Kadore’s Champion?”
“I believe Sir Alanna did,” King Jonathan agrees mildly. “However, we may reminisce later. Kadore Warroum, I permitted you to join our company tonight because our own discussion was not yet over. Please, allow us to hear out the pages. If you wish to join us at the table, you are most welcome.”
Lexa frowns over at the King and at the Baron with his unflinchingly cheery smile as though he’s taken no note of the Kadore’s words. Allowing someone to listen to a private conversation in a hidden room out of courtesy doesn’t sound like something a King would do. It’s not her place to question but she can’t help continue to do so the longer she stands. The gaudy room, the false walls, the sudden guest. The King’s reluctance to speak out against the Kadore’s rudeness.
The Kadore takes the seat next to Baron Cooper who smiles in a friendly fashion at him. Lexa sets her hands onto the arms of her chair and leans back, considering the man.
“Am I to assume then that you did copy the symbols?”
“Yes,” Qasim tells him shortly. He pulls a paper from his pouch and hands it to Lexa, who passes it to Lincoln, who passes it down to Padraig. Padraig unfurls the paper and glances over it before handing it to King Jonathan, who accepts it with cool curiousity. “The symbols were hard to see—mostly they’d been wrapped under web and then burned at the base, but Haryse—Page Haryse, that is—pointed one out where the web had been pulled away and not yet burned. We cut away the bark from the burned trees and found more of them where it had cut through to the trunk itself.”
“Page Haryse saw them?” Baron Cooper asks.
The Kadore and Baron Cooper turn to look at Lexa. The Kadore looks surprised by the flat stare she’s levelling his way, but he doesn’t speak.
Baron Cooper has no such reservations about speaking to a girl page. “How did you see them?”
She tilts her head to the side, confused. “Milord?”
“How did you find the markings?” he says.
She doesn’t point out that it is almost the same question and instead answers it as simply and correctly as she can. “I looked up, milord.”
“You did, did you?” The answer is apparently fascinating to him. He leans forward, eyes keen. “Why?”
Lexa tilts her head to the side. “Because the spidren climbed down, I suppose.”
“And do you have any idea what the markings are?” King Jonathan interrupts softly.
“Some kind of language, sir,” Qasim says. He shakes his head. “That’s a guess. I couldn’t see any familiarity to it.”
King Jonathan looks down at the paper for a long minute before it rolls it up and sets it aside. He folds his hands in front of him, one over the other, and nods for Qasim to continue.
“We found the markings on most of the trees that had been covered with the webbing and none on trees that hadn’t been, er, webbed. It seemed pretty clear that they were instructions of some kind and that the ambush wasn’t luck. Lord Padraig agreed with that assessment, sire.”
“It started getting harder to track after that. It started raining heavily and the clearing was already covered in our own tracks.” The Kadore sneers at that. Qasim ignores him. “Milord wanted to find the nest so after we mapped the clearing, we started looking for that.”
“I assume from the reports I’ve had so far that you found it?”
“That would be Page Haryse,” Padraig says.
All eyes turn to Lexa. She blinks.
Padraig leans in, looks down the length of the table to her. “Are you with us, Haryse?” His keen eyes skim over her, no doubt marking her appearance, her tired eyes.
“Yes, milord,” she tells him. “I have my own map of the ambush, milord. And of the nest.” When he nods, she hands them over. The King takes them from Padraig. His eyebrows shoot up and he flattens out the paper. Lexa flushes when she sees the red-brown smudges her hand had left. “My apologies—”
“Have you been attended to, Page Haryse?” the King interrupts, skimming the document.
“I’m fine, Your Maj—”
“That wasn’t his question, Haryse.” Padraig narrows his eyes. “Have you been seen to?”
It’s easier to know what to say when she’s looking only at him. “You told Anya life-threatening wounds only.”
“That’s a no, milord,” Lincoln comments mildly.
“Master Thom,” the King calls, “could I borrow you for a moment?” On the opposite wall from where the Kadore had been, another panel opens and Master Thom steps out. He bows to the gathered nobles and strides over to the table. “Would you see to Page Haryse, please?”
“Certainly.” He comes around the table and Lexa stands, coming away from the table so that he can rest an easy hand on her head and shoulder. “Good evening, Page Haryse.”
“Master Thom,” she greets him a little stiffly, feeling the weight of seven pairs of eyes on her. “How does the evening find you?”
“Very well, thank you. Breathe in for me, please,” he says, voice low and soothing. She does; his magic tastes purple as it crackles through her and she focuses on staying still and calm. The warmth of it gathers at her hand and at the scrapes on her shoulders where the spidren had caught her with its claws. The throb eases abruptly and she sags, sighs. Thom catches her and keeps her upright until she pulls away, flushing.
“My—apologies,” she says, words broken by a big yawn. “Thank you, Master Thom.”
“Of course. I am looking forward to your assignment on the ethics of Immortals building their nests in human-settled areas. Can’t have you getting sick before you write that,” he teases, purple eyes glittering in the lamplight. There’s something incredibly familiar about them. The shape of them, maybe? “Drink some of this.” He presses a warm mug into her hand and Lexa looks to Padraig, who nods. She sips at it and spits it back into the mug, coughing. “Feel awake?”
“Hot-pepper drag,” he tells her cheerfully, not disagreeing. “Feel better?”
“More awake, but I’m not sure if it’s worth it,” she tells him, frowning darkly at the mug she sets on the edge of the table. When the King snorts, she looks up at him. “Oh, I’m sorry, Your Majesty.”
“It’s quite alright, Haryse.” He leans forward, cuffs spilling decadently over the table. “Why don’t you tell us about finding the nest?”
“Yes, Your Majesty. I can do that.”
Wood-smoke and the stench of the acrid burning web hang heavily in the clearing. Lexa ties a cloth about her nose and mouth but her eyes still water as she examines the scene of the ambush. The other teams of pages have long since moved along and only the four of them—Qasim and Rosemark, Emry and herself—remain in the clearing. The webs themselves are wrapped about burned trunks, chunks of melted web dripping to the forest floor.
He trots over and looks up when she points. “What is it?”
“I don’t know. Do you?” He shakes his head no and Lexa nods. “Alright. I’ll climb up and have a look.”
“What? No! You’re—you’re a first year. I should do it.”
“You’re too big,” she points out reasonably. He takes another look at the charred trunk—sturdy but blackened, the branches still sparking now and again—and glares down at her.
“Fine. But if you break your neck, I’m telling everyone it was your idea.”
“And that you couldn’t talk an eleven year old out of it?” she retorts, eyebrows shooting up. Before he can reply, she takes a few steps back and takes a running jump up into the tree, gripping the lowest branch close to the trunk and hauling herself up. It doesn’t take long to reach the oddly coloured splotch on the tree. The web slows her down, sticking to her hands and clothes and – worst of all – her hair. She patiently pulls herself free each time, though the feel of it makes her shudder.
“How are you going?” Emry calls up from the base of the tree.
“There’s a branch to your left, you can brace your foot on it—”
“I see it,” she tells him, rolling her eyes. “Thank you, Emry.”
“Alright. Careful, careful—”
Lexa stops, standing on a sturdy branch and holding a slender one over her head so that she doesn’t look her balance. She closes her eyes, sighs.
“Is everything alright, L—“
“Emry, I will jab you with my sword if you say one more word.” He falls silent then and Lexa scales the rest of the tree to the top where the splotch is.
It’s a square of discoloured bark, Lexa sees once she heaves herself up face-to-face with it. It looks as though someone had cut a section out and filled it with bark from another tree. Webbing oozes from the sides of it and she braces herself against the trunk with one hand and frees her knife with the other. She drags her blade around the edge and wedges it into one side, wriggling the block of wood free. It takes some time, the web dried as hard as mortar, but finally it comes loose.
A branch cracks in the forest far below and Lexa fumbles for her bow hurriedly, notching an arrow just as the hissed, “It’s us,” comes from the shadows between the trees. Qasim steps out, Rosemark next to him. “Queenscove, where’s Haryse? I think I found—of course she’s up the bloody tree. Haryse?”
“Did you find something?”
“A block of wood. I haven’t looked inside.”
“Look inside,” he tells her. Then he coughs, all tense shoulders up to his ears and gangly angles, highlighted but the green-grey of the rain clouds that are gathering overhead. “Please.”
Lexa nods. She rests her bow on a hefty branch just below her eyeline and she returns to the discoloured block of wood, popping it fully out from its home.
“I see it,” Qasim confirms. “Drop it down. Looks like a clean drop from here.” She trusts it and drops it down where he points. When he catches it, she lets him examine it and instead looks into the nook. The webbing is thick and Lexa scrapes it out with a few twigs. “Do you see something in there?” Qasim calls up.
“A mark of some kind.”
“I found one too, on one of the west trees. Do you have any paper? Hold on, I’ll throw some up for you.” With a length of twine tied to a scrap of paper and a stick of charcoal, they manage to get it to Lexa after a few attempts and she ties the twine to the branch next to her. She copies the mark, taking a few attempts to get it right. Octavia would do this much better, she thinks, annoyed that her third attempt comes out lopsided. She takes a moment to centre herself before trying again, imaging the mark into quadrants like a simple map, and finally manages to copy it smoothly.
“Anything else in there?” Qasim asks, and he calls her down when she tells him that’s all. Some spidren claw marks, plenty of webbing, but nothing else.
Climbing down is easier than climbing up. She collects her bow and unties the twine and swings down from branch to branch until she’s safely on the ground again. Emry clasps her shoulder tight, ashen faced.
“Don’t do that to me again.”
Lexa pats his hand soothingly, but doesn’t agree to such a ridiculous demand.
“You said you found another mark?”
“Yeah. Looked like this but not the same.” Qasim flicks his eyes up from the page to Lexa, clears his throat, uncomfortable. “Do you recognise it?”
“Alright then. Let’s see if there are any others and then we get milord, let him know what we’ve found.”
The sky darkens further as they work. Thunder rumbles through the sky; no one is surprised, or pleased, when the clouds finally break open and cold, fat raindrops begin to spatter through the clearing.
Lexa wipes her drenched hair from her forehead and the back of her neck. She squints over at the dripping webs, at the corpses, and reaches out ever so reluctantly for that sense of wrongness. It’s faint now, like the water is washing that away too. But to her right and some distance away she feels another clump of it, as steady as the monster corpses.
She jerks her head for Emry to follow.
A covered trail some fifty yards from the clearing falls away into a hollow. It’s well hidden by a thorned thicket that grows on the rise of the hill—the hollow is shallow and the cave opening, jagged and low to the ground, looks like nothing at all until they see the murky glow of web and drag marks, streaked with blood.
“Seems like something we shouldn’t go into alone.”
“Hasim would be upset if I die,” Lexa agrees reluctantly.
Emry snorts. “He’d be furious. I understand, I’ve a brother. He’s always getting into strife,” he tells Lexa, exasperated, and Lexa grins up at him until she realises that he identifies with Hasim, and that she’s the sibling always getting into trouble. She scowls down at the cave and hopes there’s a small spidren, not incredibly dangerous, that she can stab.
She sets trail markers along the path back to the clearing.
“Think we’ll need them?” Emry asks.
“I mean, you sniffed that out like a bloodhound.”
Lexa finishes setting the marker and stands, brushes her palms off on her pants. “Luck.”
“Right.” Emry scratches at his ankle with the butt of his spear. He hands back her bow and they carry on toward the clearing. “Luck.”
They step into the muddied clearing, the pages all gathered once more. The older pages—whom Lexa knows had been searching for signs of a nest for much of the day—stand with slumped shoulders and grim eyes in front of Padraig. She stops where she is and Emry looks from them to her and back again.
“I’ll let Pa know, shall I?” She nods. “I’ll have to say you found it,” he warns, waits for her to nod again before goes to Padriag. They talk quietly for a moment before that sharp gaze pierces her from across the clearing and Padraig nods slowly to whatever Emry is saying. He points to a few pages and gives them curt instructions before a small group of them peel away—Emry, Padraig, the Rider Caddum, and Lincoln—and come to join her.
“Haryse,” Padraig says. “Queenscove said you found something?”
“Lead on, then.”
She does, making a bit of a show of checking the trail marks she left, and soon they return to the hollow. Padraig looks to the opening and back at Lexa. She wonders what he’s thinking; whether it’s of winter camp, or whether he knows Lexa had almost gone in alone.
“Runnerspring, have a look around in there for us.”
“Queenscove, Braske, make sure there’s nothing past this hollow.”
The two of them disappear past the thicket and into the darkening woods. Padraig crouches at the lip of the hollow, facing back toward the clearing, eyes scanning the trees. And Lincoln…Lincoln takes a chunk of wet earth up into his hands and molds it into a tiny shape like a man. His hands flare with a deep brown Gift, sparking with green, and the mud-person steps down off his hands and walks into the cave. Lincoln’s eyes go fully dark, the pupil overtaking the brown irises and then further, covering the whites of his eyes too. With dried blood smeared down his neck and the side of his jerkin, he looks half-wild and, staring unseeing into the thicket, vulnerable.
Lexa unsheathes her sword and takes a wary place at his shoulder, ready to defend him if anything takes the mud-person as a threat and attacks them.
“Empty,” he croaks after a few tense, silent moments.
Padraig stands in a fluid motion, stalks back toward them. He hands over his water skin and Lincoln drinks sparingly from it.
“Thank you, milord. It looked empty but I couldn’t find the back to the cave. It continues pretty far.”
Padraig nods. Lexa finds herself nodding too; she can feel the wrongness still, but the more she uses it the more she can tell how this feels different from the clearing. There is nothing…mobile about it. There are no spidren in this cave, she’s almost certain of it. Her nodding must catch Padraig’s attention because he turns to look at her.
“Interesting find, Haryse.”
She swallows hard. “Luck, milord.”
His gash of a mouth tucks sharply upwards for a moment and in a dry tone, he tells her, “They told me girl pages would bring nothing but trouble.”
“If it’s any reassurance, milord, I don’t think I’m causing it.”
He appraises her with those steely eyes. “But finding it nonetheless. Braske,” he calls out louder and Lexa starts, turning to find Emry and the Rider have returned. “You and Haryse roll in, get your spears up. Queenscove and Runnerspring will follow. I’ll follow last. Clear?”
Lexa grips her spear with clammy hands, eyeing the gash of a cave opening. It’s low to the ground and only three feet tall and she’ll have to crawl to get in.
“Ready?” Caddum murmurs to her. She nods and they duck low, scuttle into the dark of the room. The swift, contained movement causes the slices on her shoulders crack open and bleed afresh. It’s unpleasant to feel the warm blood slink down her shoulders and back; worse still, almost, is the metallic smell that follows her like a cloud. It’s hard to pick out in the stench of the nest but she thinks she can smell it. She presses her back against the rock wall, to the side of the opening; Caddum does the same on the other side. Emry and Lincoln crawl through, and Padraig a moment later.
Caddum ignites a small ball of light that floats in front of them and he sends it around the cave. The firelight shows them the cavern that opens up in front of them—the floor falls away quickly down into the true cavern, muddied floor scattered with pieces of chipped bone and clumps of refuse. Hair, maybe, or wadded cloth? Lexa isn’t sure but it doesn’t look inviting. “Cheery place, isn’t it?” Caddum mutters to her. He’s crouched next to her and only has to lean a little to speak into her ear. “Homely.”
“A little work and it’d be fit for a king,” Emry adds, a grin crinkling his eyes.
“The Maggot, maybe,” Caddum mutters. Spits his disgust onto the ground. "He could rot just fine inna place like this."
Padraig shifts and they turn their attention to him automatically. “Do you see something near the roof?” Lexa peers up into the dark at his direction. No, not the dark—it’s…glowing faintly. Like the webbing. But in clumps. “Send the light up.”
The little ball of light shoots up to the ceiling of the cavern and Lexa and Lincoln recoil when they see the great sacks of web that hang from the ceiling.
“There’s more on the walls,” Caddum tells them.
In a line, Caddum, Emry and Lincoln advance. Padraig and Lexa follow them. They make their way down into the chamber, where the webs clump here and there over the rock. Caddum jabs the butt of his spear into one and pulls it back to show the red muck that clings to it.
“Blood,” Emry whispers.
“That’s not terrible at all,” Caddum grumbles. He slops the muck off the end of his spear. “Shall I cut them down?”
“After we’ve checked the rest of this place.”
They scout through the cavern quickly, but aside from the web-sacks, the cavern is empty. There are few nooks and crannies and those that exist are also empty. The back wall of the cave narrows but doesn’t stop, instead twisting into a narrow path. Padraig grabs the back of Lexa’s jerkin when she steps forward and he nearly picks her up off her feet to put her behind them. They advance slower still, not trusting the quiet. Padraig and Emry lead the way, Lincoln and Caddum bringing up the rear. Lexa stands, annoyed, in the centre of them. She trudges in Emry’s footsteps and, when something tickles at the edges of her awareness, she drops her spear, spins and grabs at Emry’s jerkin and pulls him down to the ground.
“Down,” she tells Padraig and he follows them. The others follow suit in time to avoid a wicked clawed trap, the bony remnants of spidren legs knotted together with blood-slicked rope, that swings down at them from the top of the path.
“Gods, Haryse, how’d you see that?”
Lexa just shakes her head. She peels her hands off Emry’s jerkin and smiles back shakily when he pats her shoulder in thanks.
“Pick a nicer spot to tackle me, next time,” he laughs, flicking mud from his hand. “It’s filthy in here.”
"I'll be sure to do that."
They continue on. There are several pockets of caves that break off from the tunnel, which still descends slowly. The pockets mostly hold more of the webbed sacks, or they’re empty, until they finally come to a room with squared off walls. Heavy wooden beams brace the sides of the walls and support the roof as well and it’s disturbingly man-made for something within a spidren hideout. A table sits in the centre of the room, seats and upturned barrels scattered around it. Signs of a hasty exit—an overturned lantern, unfinished meals, a forgotten pack—are cast around the room.
“Can’t’ve been gone for longer than a day,” Caddum tells Padraig.
“We might be walking into a trap if they’re deeper into this cave.”
“Aye. I’ll call for the Riders.” He strides over to the table, pulling a chain from around his neck. He sets it onto the flat surface and makes the chain into as round a circle as he can. With a whispered word, the space within the ring blurs and fogs. Then a face appears within it, looking up at Caddum.
“Caddum, what is it?”
“We found a nest.”
The other Rider swears colourfully. Lexa looks away from the table to Lincoln, raises her eyebrows. He looks impressed by the string of curses as well.
“Right. How many do you need?”
“As many able Riders as you have,” Padraig tells the other Rider, coming to join Caddum at the table. He flicks his fingers to Lexa and Lincoln and they move to keep an eye on the tunnel. “Best to be safe, I think.”
“Aye, that’s how it goes, innit? Ah, well, Nyet and Parcen are headed yer way.” The Rider nods to someone out of sight. “Churl and Faddim too. That’ll have to hold you over.”
“We’ll make it work,” Padraig says, and the fog clears, taking the Rider with it. Caddum picks it up and hangs the chain around his neck again. “We don’t advance further until they’re here. Runnerspring, can you brittle the path so we hear if anyone approaches?”
Lincoln considers the question and the stone floor carefully. He nods. “Yes, milord, I think I can.”
“Very good. Do so.”
They wait, palms sweating around their spears, for what feels like an age before they hear the Riders coming down the path toward them.
“Cor—that’s a wicked trap,” a small, dark skinned woman mutters as soon as she joins them. “Any get bit by it?”
“No. We were lucky enough to avoid it,” Padraig tells her, and Lexa isn’t sure if she’s dreaming but she thinks it might be a joke.
They advance down the cavern. Lexa is happier now that she’s not the only one tucked protectively within the ranks—Emry and Lincoln both join her in the loose huddle, three Riders to the rear and Padraig leading the other two at the front.
There isn’t a great deal more of the cavern to explore. The walls become obviously more structured. Squared walls and support beams at even intervals—twenty-four of Lexa’s small steps, so about twenty feet, she thinks—and several more natural pockets where boxes of dried meat and blankets and digging tools have been placed. Finally, they come to a dead end where digging tools have been discarded and heavy beams are stacked to the side, but there are no exits and no enemies.
“I gotta say, beggin’ yer parden milord,” the dark-skinned woman—Nyet, Lexa had since learned—says quietly, mouth twisted in distaste as she looks around the tunnel end, “ah’m not thrilled by this discov’ry.”
“Are any of you Gifted?” Padraig asks. “Braske, you made light. What Gift have you?”
“That’s about it,” he admits, relentlessly cheerful. “I can make a smaller light, a bigger light. Several lights. Red lights, blue lights,”
“That’s enough, I understand.” Padraig says, lifting a hand to stop him. “And you others?”
“Nyet has a wee bit of skill with seeing illusions,” a sturdy Rider—Churl—says. “Not so much making ‘em.”
“Good enough. Saved yer ungrateful skin back in Elgrin, didn’t I?”
“Not the way I remember it.”
“You two can flirt later,” Parcen—the third and shortest Rider, a lithe older man with a neat auburn beard and a handax on his hip—says, pushing through them to stand at Padraig’s side. “What would you like us to do, milord?”
“Look for illusions,” Padraig tells them. “Look for exits. And find out where this blasted tunnel was headed. Runnerspring has some skill with earth magics, use him if you can.”
Parcen claps a hand on Lincoln’s shoulder. “I’m sure we can, milord.”
Lexa and Emry move to the side to give the Rider’s room, and they exit with Lincoln at a brisk pace. Lexa keeps an eye on Padraig, ready to move at a moments notice. She can feel fatigue dragging at her now, though she doubts it’s too far past midday. It’s probably natural after a fight and staying on the paranoid side of alert all day. A nervous, ready sort of energy sustains her for now.
“Haryse.” Lexa rocks forward onto her toes, ready. “Go with Queenscove. Search this section of the tunnel to the last storage hole. Check and double check every inch of it for any sign of illusion. Anything seems strange, you get me.”
“Won’t we get in the way of the Riders?”
“You’re Pages of the Realm,” Padraig tells Lexa, and Emry. “You follow my orders, not theirs.”
“Yessir,” they respond sharply and he nods to them, striding after the disappearing Riders.
“And what did you find, Page Haryse?”
“Nothing, Your Majesty,” she admits. She feels like apologising when that intense, brilliant stare settles on her. But there’s nothing to apologise for, not really—there was nothing to find, the Riders had assured them later. “There was more evidence of humans in the cavern system, as well as some trip wires set up beyond the exit. But we found no exits or illusions. Or, er, anything else,” she continues, a little awkwardly, since he was still staring and waiting and she had nothing more to say. Padraig would tell him about the weapons and the tools, the clothing in the packs, the maps and the notebooks. Some of which she could see on the table in front of them.
He nods for her to take her seat and she does. Lincoln speaks next in his low, calm voice; he describes his earth Gift and how he had followed the tunnel back toward the Palace. Close to the Palace, in fact. How he had sensed other tunnel networks far below the earth but couldn't tell where they began or ended up without being inside of them. Finally, he too is done and he takes his seat beside Lexa and gives her a very small nod, lets out his nervous breath.
King Jonathan strokes at the point of his chin, leaning back in his chair. “I thank you for the information you have given us tonight,” he tells them. “I would ask you not to speak of it again, save to the company here and only this company.”
“Yes, Your Majesty,” the three pages agree.
“It will add fuel to a fire if certain information escaped,” he continues.
“So we don’t tell anyone?” Padraig asks, disapproval rumbling in his chest, a discontented wolf. “Is this the wisest course of action, Your Majesty?”
“All it would take is a few words to the right ear, or the wrong one, and this whole incident is over Corus within a day. Port Caynn within three.”
“Exactly—you can’t hide something like this. It will become something bigger than it was,”
“I agree with Padraig on this matter, Your Majesty,” Baron Cooper adds quietly. “You know how people think. They get a fraction of the information and twist it into all sorts of tricky puzzles. Everyone in the palace knows that something happened. If they know nothing, they’ll speculate. And if they know a little—especially about who is involved—“
“Allegedly involved. And gentlemen, may I remind you that we have little ears listening in?” King Jonathan says to stop them. He lifts a hand to the pages, who each are staring down at the floor and trying to ignore the discussion. “Thank you, pages, for your time. You may leave.”
They bow to the men—to King Jonathan first of all, then to Baron Cooper and Lord Padraig, and finally to Kadore Warroum—and exit the room. Temb hands them their weapons back and they spend a moment at the bench outside the Blue Room strapping them back into place. Lexa feels like she’s finally breathing properly again now that she has her sword on her hip and a knife in easy reach.
“Any one else waiting for another man to come out from the walls?” Lincoln asks under his breath as they leave. Qasim snorts; horrified by the sound, he casts Lincoln a nasty look before striding off away from them, back to his room. “Good night, Qasim. Sleep well!” Qasim hesitates at the junction of the halls but waves awkwardly back at them before disappearing. “What an odd young man,” Lincoln drawls.
Lexa laughs. “Do you think he thinks we’ll forget he was nice to us for a bit?”
“I think he hopes we will.” Lincoln shortens his stride so that he keeps comfortably at her side. “I think I’ll be nicer to him,” he muses.
“He won’t be nicer to you.”
“No, but it’ll be fun.”
Lexa shakes her head, smiling. They walk together in silence into the far more familiar wing of the palace and Lexa speaks up before they enter the pages wing. “Lincoln?”
“What do you think that was about? What the King was saying at the end?”
“I don’t think we should talk about it,” he tells her, very low.
“But what do you think they’re hiding?”
“Lexa,” he says, stopping and falling to one knee. He holds her tight by the shoulders and shakes her, just once. “Trust me on this—do not mention that. Ever. Don’t talk about it at all. Do you understand?”
A smile cracks his severe expression briefly but it rolls back over his face like a grey storm front, crackling with nervous energy. “No. Alright, then consider it an order from your King, which it is. Don’t talk about it. Not the meeting, not anything that was said in it.”
“Why?” Lincoln shakes his head. “I don’t know. But that’s what we were told to do. We don’t know the full picture.”
“I’d like to –”
“But you don’t. Promise me that you won’t talk about it with your friends.”
Lexa chews on her bottom lip, a deep crease forming between her eyebrows. She wants to know, but Lincoln is right that she doesn’t currently know. She can’t make an informed decision about the benefits of talking about it; she does, however, know that if she talks about it, she might as well sign her dismissal this instant.
“I promise,” she tells him, and then jerks a little when she remembers she had agreed not to make any more promises. No burst of power or light comes from them, though, so she’s pretty sure it’s fine.
“Good. If you want to know more, your best bet is probably Padraig.”
“Oh. Thank you.”
“That’s supposed to be a deterrent,” he laughs, hauling himself back up to his feet. “It isn’t for you, is it?”
“He doesn’t scare you?”
Lexa considers that. “No,” she tells him. “Not really.”
“Is it true that he told you a joke once?”
“Well? What happened?” Octavia demands the instance she returns to the pages hall. Hasim leaps to his feet and closes the distance between them, clucking over her with dismay.
“I’m well, Hasim.”
“Forgive me if I don’t trust your opinion on the matter.”
“Forget about your scratches, Lex, what did the king want? What did he say? What did he look like—is he handsome?”
“Yes, I suppose so,” Lexa nods. She flicks her gaze up to Lincoln and shakes her head. “I can’t tell you what was said.”
“What!” Octavia scowls at her, takes a step away, hands fisted at their side. “You don’t trust us? Or you think you’re better than us because you found that cursed nest and not us?”
“Tave, that’s not it.”
“But you’re not going to tell me.” Octavia waits. Lexa presses her lips together and looks to the side. “Fine. Keep your bloody secrets, I don’t care.” They shake off Lexa’s hand when she reaches for their wrist and she has to watch as they stalk down the hall to their own room. The door slams shut behind them, shakes in its frame.
“It’ll be fine tomorrow,” Hasim tells her quietly. He rubs at her shoulder and the sensation is too much after all that has happened. Lexa shrugs him away and clears her throat roughly a few times before speaking.
“I’d like to be alone,” she says.
“Sure. I bet you wanna wash off all the grime and blood and that,” Hasim nods.
“Yes. But mostly I am sad that Octavia yelled at me and I don’t wish to be around people.”
Ilian smiles gently down at her. “We understand. It really will be okay, Lexa. They’ll come ‘round.”
Privately, Lexa doubts it. She has no evidence supporting Octavia coming around any time soon; in fact, the first time they had a disagreement, it had taken a very long time for them to so much as talk to one another. If Octavia is as upset as they looked about not knowing what happened, then Lexa feels reasonably sure that they will not come around quickly. The thought sends a pang of hurt through her and she swallows hard again.
“You can’t tell us anything?” Hasim presses.
“I can tell ye’ll catch strife if yer caught outta bed,” Gus rumbles from the end of the hall, and the pages take that as a sign to scatter. Hasim clutches her arm for a moment, where the bracelet is bound around her forearm, and fixes her with a look she’s certain is supposed to be important and impress some great knowledge on her but she’s tired and the weight of it slips right past her.
He stops in front of her, beady eyes evaluating the way she stoops, the way even his name comes with difficulty from her lips. It’s like he can tell how the world feels heavy around her; he says nothing, just helps her open the door and follows her in. He lifts the harness off her shoulders and guides her to a seat, spending a few minutes untangling her braids before leaving her to do the rest. She feels more human when she re-emerges from the washroom, pink-skinned, no trace of that acrid smoke lingering in her hair, and dressed in her softest bedclothes.
“Good. Good.” He’s pulled down the covers of her bed and Lexa climbs in, falls bonelessly into her pillow. Gus tucks the blanket up around her shoulders and then pulls a seat up next to the bed and sits. When he stays, she pops one eye open with great reluctance.
“I’m here, lass.”
“I know.” She turns onto her side facing him, bundles her pillow under her head. “Why are you still here?”
A smile flickers at the corner of his mouth but she’s caught by another gesture. As unfamiliar to her as the object he’s holding. Over and over he turns it between his hands, a little pouch no bigger than an egg of old brown leather. She recognises the string—corded black and green—as the string that always hangs around his neck and she eyes it with interest.
“Don’t think I’ll rest ‘til I see ye safe an’ sleepin’. That’s all.”
“Oh. Goodnight, then.”
“Goodnight, little star.”
The second break in the sweet, still drift of spring is Padraig's increase in attention to mock battles. The skirmish with the spidren must have shaken him because when they show up the next morning, there are a series of rough-shapen hay creatures in the court and he and Gus spend the morning drilling them in how to survive an attack.
"Dead, Haryse! Dead, Nazri! Dead, Malven."
Octavia—who has not apologised, who does not apologise at all that day—throws themself into the battles with a fervour that earns them considerable attention and the first, "Good," that Padraig gives out.
They take the comment without their typical boldness, only nodding to him and throwing themself back into the fray, efforts redoubled.
Octavia does not relent on the second day, or the third. They offer no apology, nor do they seem interested in receiving one...or in sitting with Lexa at dinner or in the classroom. They will sit at the same table but inevitably on the far side from her, and they become very good at ignoring any question of invitation that involves Lexa.
By the fourth day, Lexa has had enough.
“How do I get them to listen to me?” she asks Gus after the lesson as they walk to the next station.
“They won’t talk to you?”
“Hmm.” He scratches at his chin through his beard. “Ye’ll have to make them listen, somehow. Provided they’re worth the effort. They worth it?”
He takes that as the yes it is and shrugs. “Then ye’ll have t’ do something they can’t ignore.”
Lexa nods, thinking through the advice. When they reach the second court, she pulls two staves from the bin at the end of the court and wheels around, tosses one to Octavia. They catch it out of reflex and Lexa’s staff cracks against it when she brings it down with an ineffective but very satisfying overhead swing.
“What do you think you’re doing?” they burst out. “Trying to crack my head open?”
“If that’s what it takes.”
“I’m furious!” She jabs in toward their ribs. The blow she lands is glancing but enough to make Octavia see red—just as she wanted—and they knock the staff away with their wrist and answer the blow with two of their own. Lexa lets them hit and she hisses, feeling where bruises will certainly form.
“I meant crazy,” Octavia bites back. “Insane. Cracked-nobbed.” They accompany each one with another blow and when they run out of steam, Lexa catches the last blow on her own staff and twists, sending her staff down the same path and into their shoulder. It hits solidly and Octavia staggers back a few paces, hand reaching for the mark.
“I’m not the crazy one,” she tells them, and she can feel her anger burning behind her eyes. The rest of her feels fluid, strong, like hot steel, and when Octavia tries to hit her again she strikes hard and their staff snaps in their hands. “You didn’t even let me explain,”
“It doesn’t matter,” Octavia hisses back. “It doesn’t matter, you’re all the same, exactly the same!” They fling themself at her and Lexa discards her staff.
If words won’t work, she’ll just have to beat it into them.
It’s a messy, dirty scuffle. Dust puffs up around them when Octavia tackles Lexa to the ground, and they don’t as much as pause when Lexa lands a flurry of punches onto their shoulders. It hurts when they elbow her in the belly and headbutt her—Lexa feels her nose crack and coppery blood flood the back of her mouth. She spits it to the side, twists out of their hold and climbs onto their back, shoving their face into the dirt, pulling one of their arms up and out. Octavia struggles but Lexa wrenches the arm back further.
She’s sure they’re about to give in when a big, beefy hand closes around the back of her neck and lifts her bodily off Octavia; Padraig’s other hand closes around Octavia’s collar and he holds them both at arms length, looking very much unimpressed from what Lexa can see of his face. That’s not as important as the swelling bruise on Octavia’s forehead and their split lip and the way their arm dangles a little awkwardly to the side. Lexa kicks out toward them; she misses when Padraig shakes her.
“Enough!” Padraig yells. “What is the meaning of this?”
They stay silent.
His scowl deepens. “Since you caused this to yourself, neither of you go to the Healers. Understood?”
“Yessir,” they mutter.
“And since I expected better of you for some reason, you will be spending the entire Sunday afternoon working in the kitchens. Together. Where you will not fight or I will hear about it and I will ensure that you spend every Sunday until the end of the year scrubbing dishes until your fingers are raw. Do you understand?” he asks them, words clipped and crisp.
He drops them to the dirt without fanfare. "Turn around." They do. He points across the court to the hay monsters, the stuffing whacked out of them and covering the dirt at the base of the poles. A lopsided face, complete with pointed teeth and buttons for eyes, glares at them. "We fight them," he tells them, voice urgent and sharp. "Not each other."
He nods to Sir Fared then, and leaves. The other pages eye them both with curiosity and some glee but they fall into their practice when Fared bellows at them, and so too do Lexa and Octavia. For today, however, Ilian takes Lexa.
“What were you trying to do with that?” he demands. “Drive them further away?”
“They wouldn’t listen to me. Now they can’t ignore me.”
“I hope you know what you’re doing,” is all he says to that.
Lexa fervently agrees.
She sees no more reaction by that evening but when Octavia brushes past her to get into the library first, and scowls at her, she feels something red and boiling beneath the surface and she knows there’s no way that energy can’t keep its lid for much longer. For now, she’s content to wait.
They spend Sunday evening in a tense silence, scrubbing at the dishes until – as promised – their fingers are raw and red. And still Octavia says nothing.
Water slopped down the front of her tunic, arms leaden at her sides, Lexa stops in the corridor and calls after her friend.
Octavia stops, shoulders hunched. Thinner than ever, they look tense as a drawn bowstring.
“Tave, please talk to me.”
“You won’t talk to me,” they croak. They turn toward her and Lexa winces a little at the lurid bruise on their forehead. They point at it, “You did this to me.”
“You did that to yourself,” Lexa tells them reasonably.
“Right. Started the fight too, did I?” Octavia’s eyes flash dark. With… Lexa reaches out with her hand and with her senses and she feels that churning, molten rage again. It’s slower—sluggish now. Like it’s oozing from a place deep within them. Pain? Hurt? Fear? Lexa can’t tell. “What else ye gonna blame me for?” they demand, slipping into their loose northern brogue. “Price’v’eggs? Mildew in yer grain?”
“That’s impossible, how could you cause that?”
Octavia shakes their head, their dark hair a rope across their shoulder in front of them. From where they stand half toward Lexa, it looks wrapped about their throat and Lexa struggles to drag her eyes from it, something about it shaking it to her core.
“Ye don’t understand –”
“So let me.”
Their eyes like burning coals, Octavia looks over to her for a long moment…and then leaves.
Lexa kicks at the wall once they’re gone.
“Handling that child wrong, Alexandra.” She turns when Havassah speaks; she listens when Havassah speaks.
“Tell me. Please.”
“That one hasn’t been treated kindly.” She wipes her hands and Lexa’s eyes are drawn to the thick slavers bands around her wrists.
“Gus said I had to do something to get their attention.”
“And you began a brawl.”
“Octavia likes brawls.”
Havassah snorts, shakes her head. “Ah. You would know best. Better than a kitchen hand.”
“You all seem to know everything,” Lexa disagrees. She shifts her weight; she shouldn’t have kicked the wall—her toe is throbbing.
“Not everything.” Havassah reaches over slowly, catches Lexa’s chin between finger and thumb. She tilts her head slightly to examine the break that has healed so slightly crooked and, with a look down the hall either way, her hand flashes a deep, deep gold. The pain in Lexa’s nose grows as the cartilage rights itself and then it pops into place and she lets out her breath slowly, relieved. “I know some. Enough to know your friend likes the sweet raisin breads. Yes?” Lexa nods. “I will keep some. Come to me tonight. You may bribe your way back into their trust.” Trust. Lexa scowls. “A problem?”
“I don’t know what I did to lose it. Their trust. I tried to explain but they won’t listen. They keep saying I’m just like them and I don’t know who they are. Or why I'm like them.”
Havassah nods slowly. She tosses her cloth to lay over her shoulder and smooths it down. “I come to Carthak by way of boat,” she tells Lexa. “When I was freed, I return to Corus by way of boat. One trip was…not so good. One was the instrument of my own freedom.” She shrugs. “Both boats.”
Lexa nods. “Thank you.” She doesn’t understand, but Havassah’s face is drawn tight and Lexa suspects she doesn’t want to elaborate. “I’ll come by for the sweet bread after dinner?”
Havassah’s stern face falls into a warm, small smile and she cups Lexa’s cheek with her big, scarred hand. She pats once and then retreats back into her kitchen.
They sit in the dining hall for some time before Padraig stands from his place at the head table and leaves the chamber. When he returns, he strides directly to Lexa’s table.
“Who knows where Page Danshame is?”
Her friends stand quickly, the benches dragging back with a harsh squeal on the stone floor.
“Milord?” Lincoln asks. “What do you mean?”
“The page is not within their chamber. And they are not at dinner.”
“With permission, milord,” Lexa says, “we will search for them.”
Padraig fixes his eyes on her. “Did you have ought to do with this, Page Haryse?”
“On my House and honour, milord, I do not believe I did.”
“Not reassuring,” Hasim whispers.
“I didn’t hurt Octavia,” she whispers back. “I never would—you know that.”
“That’s what you should say.”
“Well, I did talk to them. I don’t know if that…”
“You do not have my permission to search for them,” Padraig interrupts coolly. “They will learn that a knight does not abandon their fellow warriors on a whim.”
He begins back to the head table and the others sit slowly, all save for Hasim and Ilian and Lexa. The boys look awkwardly to Lexa, and then to each other. As sure as the stone beneath her feet, she knows that she can't stay here if she doesn't know where Octavia is. Determination runs through her veins, quicksilver, and she is climbing up and over the bench before her heart can beat twice.
“Lexa,” Anya hisses. “Don’t.”
“With all due respect, milord,” she says before Padriag can finish, “not abandoning a fellow warrior goes two ways. If Octavia isn’t here, there’s a reason for it. I intend to make sure they’re not in harms way.”
She bows—properly, courteously—and turns on her heel and marches out the door.
The weight of the matter—deliberately, publicly disobeying Lord Padraig—hits her when she leaves the hall and the door closes behind her. She presses her back to the stone wall and, hands shaking, covers her face. Lexa breathes out slowly and presses her palms to her eyes, trying to push the hot prickle of tears back, away. “What have you done?” she whispers to herself.
There comes no answer, but instead the sound of boots on stone. It makes her swipe at her cheeks and she straightens up, only to sag with relief when she sees it’s her friends.
“Where do we look first?” Hasim asks, concern stark on his face. Ilian says nothing but he doesn’t need to; there is no doubt in his warm eyes as he looks down at Lexa for direction.
Lexa runs through the possibilities quickly. “Hasim, you’re fast—check the stables? And the courts on the way. If they’re not there, check with the guards at the gate if Octavia left.” He nods and runs off.
“You know the castle best. Laundry, smith, library. Anywhere else you can think of.” Ilian nods and jogs in the opposite direction that Hasim had left.
Lexa chews thoughtfully on the inside of her cheek and then trails her way to Octavia’s room. Once she’s there, the idea of what she’s planning feels so ridiculous, so incredible, that she wants to kick herself. She doesn’t have the Gift, she doesn’t have powers. And yet…
She rubs clammy palms on her tunic and then places them on the door. The wood is cool and smooth beneath her hands.
“Er, I don’t know what I’ve been doing,” she says, hoping the words reach someone—anyone—who can help. “But my friend is missing and I would like to find them.” She looks around but there is no sign of anything, or any tugging kind of feeling. Lexa sighs, drags her hands down the door an inch. “Please.”
There’s no way to describe the altering sensation of worry; all Lexa knows is that missing a meal, no matter how angry they are, is unlike Octavia. Completely unlike them. That something must have disrupted them.
Lexa closes her eyes and bows her head. She curls her hands into fists. “Please.”
It feels like a moth fluttering inside her closed hand. A tickling feeling inside her chest that bursts outwards, hand opening, releasing a moth more flame than creature. The white flame covers the walls, the door in a brilliance that makes Lexa’s eyes water even closed and, when she opens her eyes, she can see it there still. The opposite of a shadow, the light settling on a surface.
And she can see where it was disrupted.
An outline of Octavia stands in the doorway, clear as day. And then their footsteps leading away from the hall. Lexa brushes her fingers against the outline, curious, and gasps when she’s pulled in—
the Wild calls to her in the drumbeat of a loud heart, all she can hear. Pine and sap and coarse wet-dog fur she can feel between her fingers fills her nose and Lexa turns, hunts for the source. The stone flattens into indistinct shadows to either side of her and footsteps flare in amber down the corridor, away from the dining hall. The Wild, the Heart, winds around her—bone and loamy soil and the straining of limb, lung, to answer the call of the wild baying hounds—and Lexa falls into Octavia: into the cool, clear blue-glass hurt that breaks and breaks and breaks in their head; into the cauldron in their chest that bubbles and churns; feels the acrid liquid that splashes out from the iron, splashing up and over the walls of their ribcage, the base of their heart, and leaving behind it blistering burns. Lexa feels it like it’s happening to herself, in her own chest, and knows there is no way that she can leave Octavia on their own for a moment longer.
She sets her feet onto the amber-lit path, and follows. At a jog.
“Alexandra of Haryse,” they drawl when Lexa crawls out from the crawlspace onto the roof. It’s slippery with rain and Lexa shivers, not only from the cold but also from having to climb the roof on her own when it’s so slick under numb fingers.
“Octavia of Danshame.”
“Come to tell me I should talk to you again?” they ask, voice surprisingly clear of bitterness.
“No. I was going to,” Lexa admits, “but…I think maybe you need to talk to me.”
Octavia flicks their gaze her way and Lexa stops where she is, some yards from them still. There is no easing of the pain in their eyes; perhaps it flares when they see Lexa, and she feels an echo of that burning pain when she thinks that she’s the one causing them such hurt. “How’d you figure that?”
“Me talking to you didn’t work. Silence didn’t work. Fighting didn’t work.” Lexa shrugs, opens her hands in a silent, What else is there?
“Mm. Got a point there.”
“Are you going to say something?”
“Oh.” Lexa twists her lips sideway, unsure how to proceed. “Can I stay here? I don’t want to climb down yet.” They snort but don’t say no, so Lexa settles where she is. She eases her legs out in front of her and works for a minute to find a little foothold where she can brace her boots. There’s some redness on her fingers and palms from climbing but it’s not too bad, she decides, prodding at the marks.
“Gonna tell me what His Esteemed Majesty told ye?”
“No.” Lexa plucks at a string on her sleeve, grimaces when it starts to unravel. “I'm still forbidden. Are you going to tell me why it bothered you so much?”
“Nah.” That lasts for three more seconds before Octavia is turning toward her again. “Why you?”
“I don’t know.”
“I’m just as strong and smart and good as you. And Danshame is a Book of Gold too—so why you? You found that nest by luck, but I killed that spidren. I saved your life. I should get to go to a secret meeting with the king and I should get to keep His secrets and—” They stop, shake their head. Falling back to lay on the rooftop, Octavia lets out a gust of frustrated air. “It doesn’t matter.”
“I wanted to tell you. I still want to.” Lexa stops unravelling the string on her sleeve when she remembers the tailor will gruesomely murder her. She twists a braid around her finger instead and looks down at the courtyard far below: the silhouettes of palace folk moving in front of the windows, the green buds marching down the length of the branches, the dead leaves swept to the corners of the court. “They told us not to.” She unwinds the braid. “I don’t disagree with you.”
“I don’t disagree with you.”
“What do you mean?”
“Oh. I mean, you are as good a page as I am.” Lexa winds the braid around her finger again. “Octavia?”
“I still can’t tell you what was said in there, but,” she draws in a shuddering breath, considering very seriously what she’s about to offer them, “I can tell you something I didn’t tell them, if you like.” Her boots scuffle a little nervously on the rooftop and Lexa grimaces when her braid tugs at her scalp; releasing her hold on her hair, she chances a look sideways at Octavia. They’re staring at her like they’ve never seen her before. “Tave?”
“Why? Why would-” They clear their throat, try again. “Why would you?”
“I don’t understand why you…got so angry with me. I don’t understand,” Lexa tells them. “I think maybe you think I should understand but... I haven’t been so confused since Audwey tried to tell me that babies come from cradles woven into the trees and are left there by Gainel for the parents who dreamed for children.”
“That’s not how it happens, Tave,” she tells them, exhaustedly, and Octavia chokes out a laugh and has to look away for a moment. “So if I tell you a secret, one that you can’t share, one that I haven’t shared…will you forgive me?”
Octavia pulls themself slowly upright. They fiddle with a small knife before slipping it into their boot. “Nah.”
Lexa swallows. Lifts her chin. “I understand.”
“Nah, because…I reckon…maybe I overreacted.” They look sideways at her, like they’re waiting for her to agree. “You don’t think so?”
“I don’t know yet. You haven’t told me why you reacted, over or not.”
Octavia huffs a bitter kind of laugh. “Right.” They scratch at their neck. “Right. I—have a thing about being lied to. Or people not telling me things, I reckon.” Lexa nods. “People making my decisions for me,” they continue, voice harsh, glaring off into the distance. Lexa glances the way they’re looking in case they’re actually glaring at something but there is nothing for some distance but trees and, beyond the trees, Corus. “That stuff I said, about being as good… That’s not why I was mad. You're something special, I think we all know that. You're bound for greatness. People are gonna see you," they breathe, and the generous words sit on a base of bitterness. Lexa isn't saddened by this; she knows the bitterness isn't for her. It pours from Octavia in waves to some distant point Lexa doesn't yet know.
They are silent for so long Lexa starts to think that’s all she going to get.
But then Octavia sucks in such a desperate breath—like they haven’t been breathing, like this is their first breath after a long time beneath dark waters—and words start to pour out, hard words, bitter words, like the speech is lancing a few deep wounds.
“I was a bastard. My father—old Lord Danshame—he had me with my mother and didn’t want me. Or didn't need me? He had a whole brood of children with his proper wife but whatever shitty accords he’d struck with the powers in his life meant they got picked off, poor shits. One by one. Crimes of the father, and all that. He lost ‘em all,” they tell Lexa, and something in her lurches to hear the real sadness for their siblings in their voice. So much in them is wild and big and even aggressive, but they don’t want to cause pain. They just want to end it. “Rom was every bit a young lord. Riding out on hunts and flirtin’ with the girls and doin’ his learnin’ and figurin’. Handsome as an ox and just as big. Mean swing with an ax. Bem was studying to be a priest of Mithros. And his twin Dalia… Dalia was a warrior of the Goddess. Built like a brick box with biceps as big as my head,” they tell her adoringly. “Tully was—he wanted to be a horse merchant. He was,” they scrub at their nose. “Nine. He was nine, when... Anyway, they all died, and then the lord didn’t have any children and he was dying. From a Sickness. Blasted in on the south winds and took half the bloody town. Wasting away on his back, he got his swords to bring me and my brother up to the castle and he recognised us.” They rub absently at their forearm, just below the elbow. A long healed itch. “Lord Bellamy of Danshame.”
Lexa has never heard a name like that. Said like that. Octavia’s voice shakes, like they’re not sure whether to drop the name into the pits of bitterness or whether it belongs to fondness, love.
“Ah—yeah,” they shake their head, look over at Lexa as though surprised to see her. “Yeah. My brother. He, uh, he was Lord and…everything changed.”
From their tone, Lexa feels confident to add to that. “Not for the better.”
Octavia’s lips quirk up into something that might, by someone who didn’t know any better, be called a smile.
“Not for everyone, no. Not for me.”
“There was a lot that happened in those first years. But all that happened…I’m here now. With a…slight dislike for secrets. And people not telling me things. And I over-reacted because I’m…” Octavia twists their hands together. They glare down at their hands and then, in a calm and confident voice, they pronounce, “You’re my best friend, Lexa. And I figure it’ll hurt like Mithros jamming the sun down my throat if you ever,” they shrug and Lexa does her best to finish the sentence.
Lie to me. Use me. Abandon me.
“I think I’m going crazy,” Lexa tells them. Octavia frowns, confused. “This is what I didn’t tell anyone.”
“Oh. Er, but what I said is…alright?”
“Yes, you’re my best friend too.”
“Yes. It wasn’t luck that made me go to the spidren nest.” Octavia’s eyes fix on her and they nod for her to continue. “I felt it. And I felt the first spidren when it climbed down the web. And I felt the…at winter camp, the people. And the Stormwings. And sometimes,” she hurries to tell them, not sure how to explain it but knowing she needs to do so now or she won’t have the perfect opportunity to do it again and whatever they’ve begun to forge tonight, her and Octavia, won’t settle right. Maybe that’s not true, maybe she’s just scared that it won’t, but fighting Octavia hurt more than she had expected and she never wants to do it again. “Sometimes I feel things that other people feel. Can tell where they’ve been. If they’ve used a book, or a chair. Can feel what they’re feeling. And,” Lexa licks her lips. She hadn’t told even Gustus this. “At winter camp,” she tells them quietly, “I…lost myself. In the forest. I forgot who I was.”
Octavia reaches across the distance between them and clasps her hand tight in theirs. “I didn’t know.”
“I didn’t tell you. Or anyone else. I was...”
Lexa recoils from the word; among knights-to-be, among people who expect a girl to be frightened and run away, and break, sometimes it feels like scared is the worst thing someone could say about her. But Octavia's black eyes are solid and quiet and Lexa jerks a nod. "Terrified."
“You—I know you said it could be between just you and me but this is something you should tell Hasim and Ilian,” they say. “They’ll help. We won’t let you go mad.”
Lexa tightens her hold on their hand. “Thank you, Octavia. And we won’t keep secrets from you on purpose.”
“Or at all.”
“The King did insist,”
“Fine but if you don’t have to keep it a secret, you’ll tell me?”
“…I can live with that. I—feel like a fool, really. I know you weren’t keeping me out. But it…”
“Felt like it?” Octavia shrugs one shoulder. Lexa squeezes their hand again. “Tave?” When they nod, she asks, “Was it bad? The secrets your brother kept from you?”
Their face shutters over, harsh and cold as petrified stone. “Yeah.”
Lexa bows her head. She examines the tiles underfoot, and the warm hand in hers, with the familiar callouses and scars and remembers how she had felt when the spidren had not killed her—had died on Octavia’s spear.
“There was a man,” Lexa begins, “hiding in the wall of the Blue Room.”
Later, they descend from the roof of the courtyard, secrets and revealed secrets and a new understanding held between them like precious things. Lexa walks Octavia to Padraig’s office and smiles when their boys join them, faces brightening in relief and standing from where they sat against Octavia’s door.
“We were worried,” Ilian rumbles. He reaches out and, when he gets a nod, pulls Octavia into a hug. Hasim makes a scene of checking over them and they tussle with him for a bit before slinging an arm around his shoulders.
“You alright, you two?” Ilian looks between them with his narrowed, thoughtful gaze and whatever he Sees makes him relax and beam at them. “You figured it out. Good.”
“Give us a chance to tell you ourselves, hey?” Octavia feigns offence, but they also sling their other arm around Lexa’s shoulders. She considers it for a moment but the weight and warmth of the gesture is nice, so she curls an arm around their waist and lets it stay. “Yeah. We figured it out. We’re good.” They sneak a look to Lexa, who nods. “I skipped dinner. I’m hungry, can I—uh oh. Am I in trouble?”
“Yes.” Lexa shrugs. “But we all are.”
Octavia frowns. “What? Why are you in trouble?”
“Because we went to look for you,” Hasim explains. “Lexa leapt the bench and yelled at Padraig,”
“That’s not how I remember it.”
“Hush, Lexa, I’m telling this story. That’s exactly how it happened,” he promises Octavia. And Lexa doesn’t argue again because a very small smile has grown on their face and she’s not going to be the one to stop that.