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The Hunters Chosen

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‘You cannot change my mind on this.’

The words were loud in the entrance hall of the castle—the tall ceilings allowed the words to spread further than the man had perhaps intended them to. Certainly, the man who leant against the wall in a nearby corridor heard them, and he winced.

‘I am set in this—my word is final.’

The speaker was a man of some forty years. He was tall and broad, though a recent illness had ravaged him and he was thin in an ill way, with dark circles ringing his brown eyes. Chin length mousy brown hair hung limp, framing a face made stern by the thickness of his features—a large nose, a square jaw—and by the heavy lines worry had carved into his forehead and around his mouth. Though he was not typically an imposing figure, the thunderous frown darkening his expression and the way he stood with hands on hips and legs solidly planted made him one.

Or, he would be thoroughly imposing save for the fact that opposite him, a girl—a full two feet or more shorter than him—mimicked his pose and glared right back.

She resembled him in expression alone. Aside from that, she was small and slender—though anyone who knew her would say that it was the most misleading thing about her, given that there wasn’t a thing in the world she couldn’t do if she wanted to, or if someone told her she couldn’t. Her long hair was a wild tangle where his was straight, her mouth full and expressive where his was thin-lipped and stern. Her green eyes flashed with determination and not a small amount of frustration.

‘You can’t stop me,’ she told him, voice as soft as it was certain.

The man threw his hands up into the air. ‘I shouldn’t have to! A daughter ought obey her father.’

‘And a father ought support his child!’

He ran a hand over his face, smeared a drop of ink he didn’t seem to know was there.

The girl stared at that smear intently. Anything to keep the trickle of despair from touching her, from making her eyes water or her lower lip tremble. She would not cry.

‘Alexandra,’

‘Give me a good reason,’ she demanded. ‘Just one.’ If he gave that…she’d have something to argue against. Or, if it were a very good reason, she thought, trying to be reasonable as she knew a leader and lady must be, then it would make the disappointment easier to bear.

Hopefully.

He rubbed a hand over his mouth, its perpetual worried downturn hidden for a moment. Finally, he said, ‘You are too young.’

‘All pages are ten. I will be the same age.’ Though she didn’t say it, the unspoken Next hung as a challenge between them.

‘It is hard—’

‘I can handle it.’

‘You will be alone—’

‘Gus will be with me.’

‘In a city far from here—’

‘We have been to Cría, which is further by nearly a hundred miles.’

‘And I cannot bear to let you go,’ he said, simply and sadly.

She stared unblinkingly up at him for a very long moment. Then, her stubborn chin lowered, and her hands dropped from her hips to curl into tight fists. ‘That,’ she told him, voice flat, ‘is not a good enough reason.’

Turning sharply on her heel, she left him there in the hall. She paid no mind to the weight of his stare following her out; already, she was debating the possibilities left to her. Marching out the great door, she passed Mara and Corin where they were crouched beside it, clearly eavesdropping, and ignored them too as they quickly busied themselves polishing the doors and plucking at non-existent weeds in the path. Past them, past the men-at-arms that barred the entranceway, faster and faster until it could no longer be called a march. She hurried over the narrow bridge that covered the quick-running moat and fled into the orchards.

The trees dripped with fresh rain—the clouds must have dropped their burden, heavy and abrupt as they did high in the mountains here, while she was arguing with her father—and she brushed a droplet off her forehead. She flicked it away with a sharp gesture, the only sign she would allow herself of the deep turmoil that warred inside her. She would call it annoyance, irritation, but that was too shallow for the feeling. So she called it nothing at all, only acknowledged it for what it was not.

It was not peaceful with the life her father laid out in front of her. Meek, mild Alexandra. Courting by fourteen, married by eighteen, and standing aside when someone who knew nothing of her people, her land, came in and played at Lord? When she could do it? When she could bear the weight of her people’s dreams and hopes and future—she knew them, she worked with them, she had learned from them, they were her people and for the want of a prick she wasn’t good enough to rule them?

She snatched up her practice bow from the shed as she passed it. Stringing it, she drew it back to test the draw and nodded. Still limber from her morning practice.

Striding out to the range, she began to shoot, letting the strength of her fury draw the string back to her ear. It was a wild array that struck the range and she looked over them, disappointed but not surprised. Collecting the arrows, she returned to her place and began again. This time, she breathed in slow and deep; Lexa let her chest expand and held her breath until her lungs began to protest before letting the breath out. The jittering, clashing feelings soothed and faded as she did so again; she made them fade—her aim suffered from the lack of a clear mind. They were not gone, not forgotten, merely set aside for the moment. It was enough. That time, when she shot again, she noted each arrow punching into their targets with precision.

‘Playing it safe?’

She hesitated for a moment—dagger at my side, knife in boot—but the voice was familiar. Disapproving, too. Lexa twisted, spotting her friend and trainer looming in the shadows under low, gnarled branches. A bear of a man, with shaggy long hair he’d twisted into braids, and arms and legs the size of tree trunks, he somehow still managed to disappear into the wood and the dark when he wanted to.

One day, she thought, I will learn that trick.

‘Where would you have me shoot?’ she asked instead.

Gus pushed away from the trunk and joined her. He walked with great purpose, each stride measured and solid. Crouching next to her, he was nearly as tall as she was, even on his knees. Taking a moment to scan the range, he pointed to the furthest target. ‘Five in the smallest ring. Give you a present if you do it.’

Lexa’s eyes narrowed. She’d never consistently made that shot—her bow wasn’t made for those distances—but if he thought she could do it then she wasn’t about to prove him wrong.

It took most of the afternoon, plus another rain shower that Gus didn’t let her escape—’D’you think all your battles’ll be on a nice spring morning wi’ the birds cheepin away? Learn t’ shoot when ye can barely see a hand in front of ye!’—but she got the five clustered in the furthest target and lowered her bow, grinning. Her arms felt watery and empty and her legs burned from jogging to the target and back again, to dig out her arrowheads, but she’d done it.

‘Well?’ she demanded.

Gus squinted down at her. Then, he nodded. ‘Not bad.’

Lexa’s lips turned up very slightly, but her eyes shone. She hoarded the praise, tucked it away in a quiet corner of her mind where she could find it again.

‘Better than not bad.’

‘Don’t be pert. Your training master won’t allow it.’

The comment bore a surprising sting. Lexa turned away, fixed her scowl on the target. ‘Didn’t you hear?’ She tried not to sound bitter and failed; her words practically dripped with it. ‘I’m not going to Corus.’

‘Aye, I heard milord,’ Gus agreed.

Lexa shrugged. Squashed down the bitter disappointment. ‘I can join the Riders at fifteen. Or I could run away and be a pirate.’

‘Aye, piracy. That’ll help your people.’

Lexa sighed. ‘I was joking, Gustus.’

‘Never a good idea to joke about somethin’ that means so much to you.’

 ‘I don’t know what to do,’ she confessed after a moment. ‘I can’t disobey him. If I go without his permission, he’ll send his men to drag me home. If I do make it to the palace, the training master will send me back without my father’s permission.’ Gus nodded. ‘I don’t know how to prove to him that this is what I want. That this is the right move—he’s so smart,’ she bit out, the frown she had dismissed returning with a vengeance. ‘I don’t know how he can’t see it.’

‘You are his daughter.’

‘Then he should understand. That I love this place as much as he does, that I would do anything to protect it!’

Gus sat silently while Lexa stormed to the target and pulled out her five arrows, and the ones that hadn’t quite made it to the centre ring. She dumped them into the practice bin before Gus spoke again.

‘He’s gone through the knighthood himself, you know,’ he said. Lexa nods. ‘He’s given up many things for his family and for the fief. Perhaps he doesn’t want you to have to do the same.’

‘I don’t have to. But I will, if I must.’

‘I know it,’ he assured her. Lexa burned with satisfaction at that. ‘Give him time.’

‘He’s had time!’

‘That's true. But now is not the time to give up,’ he said so quietly she thought she must have misheard him. For a long moment, she stared up at his serious face and thought about what he had said. Gus returned the stare, met her solemn eyes squarely. Finally, he nodded. Laid a heavy, warm hand on her shoulder. Feeling how chilled she was, he stripped off his cloak and laid it doubled around her shoulders, though still it was too long for her and she held it up to keep it from the mud.  ’Come on now, lass. Your present’s in your room.’

She allowed the distraction before something occurred to her and she turned on him, eyes narrowed to slits. ‘You mean I would have got it anyway? Without all that?’ She waved to the target.

‘Yes,’ Gus agreed, amiably enough. ‘But would you feel as pleased without earning it?’

She huffed and strode away from him. The indignant move was undercut when she slipped on the slick mud, but she continued, chin high, and pretended not to hear Gus hiding a laugh.

She took the path slowly down, not wanting to slip, and when it diverted—one to the narrow path back to the keep and one down to the edge of the forest proper—Lexa hesitated before mucking on down the hill and away from her home. She couldn’t bear to be near her father yet; archery did some good but just the thought of him and his hypocrisy stirred those unhappy feelings in her again.

Instead, she stomped—carefully—down to the forest to check her traps.

‘Alright, lady?’

Lexa waved to Corin. Five years older than her, he was a pretty boy with short light brown hair and brown eyes and a smattering of pimples over his jaw. He was also painfully shy around her so she knew that he wouldn’t follow. He would, however, run for Mara to let her follow Lexa as soon as she was gone past him. 

Lexa sighed, the great safety net her father had cast over her chafing at every turn. Still, it wasn’t Mara’s fault and so she slowed just enough that the woman wouldn’t have trouble catching her. And she did, mere moments later, skirt tucked cleverly so it didn’t drag in the dirt. She clicked her tongue the moment she saw Lexa and touched the back of her fingers to her cheek.

‘You’re like ice, miss.’

Lexa shrugged a shoulder to the older woman, clutched Gus’s cloak and pulled it more tightly around her, and Mara allowed it without further comment.

They walked together to the forest and found each of the five traps Lexa had laid earlier in the week. She barely had to recall where she had laid them; their placement burned brightly in her mind and she trudged to them unerringly. Several had rabbits trembling in the snares. These, they put away in a bag Mara brought with her. The other two were empty and Lexa reset all five.

‘I don’t know what he were thinkin’,’ Mara said finally, sounding very much like she’d been wanting to say it for the past half hour.

‘Gus? He didn’t know I was cold.’ Lexa wrapped herself more purposefully in the heavy cloak, hoping that it would be enough to ease Mara’s worry and keep Gus out of trouble. Mara had a way of making even the biggest, strongest man quake in his boots if she’s mad enough. Lexa admired it, though she wouldn’t know where to begin to mimic that. It seemed much easier to be very good at fighting.

‘He oughta,’ Mara muttered, a little darkly. Her eyes darted back toward the path as though she were considering marching after the man right this second, but the moment passed. Looking to Lexa again, she clicked her tongue again. It reminded Lexa of the chickens they kept and she hid her smile behind the collar of the cloak.

Ducking to pick up a long stick, she swirled it in the air. Pretended that the pattern was one of the sword dances she dreamed of learning in the castle, in straight lines of pages with gleaming swords and gleaming armour, and at the head of the class—though she knew it would never happen—was a short red-haired knight who wielded her sword like she was born with one in her hand.

‘I was speaking,’ Mara continued, interrupting Lexa’s daydream, ‘Gods help me, of your father.’

‘My father?’ Lexa’s pretend sword faltered.

‘Aye. One glance is all any’un needs t’know you’re not suited for sittin’ still and keepin’ quiet.’ Mara lifted Lexa’s empty hand, turned it over to show a hand more calloused than a lady’s should be. Particularly a lady of ten. ‘He can’t see what’s in front of his nose.’

‘Gus says he can. He just doesn’t want to accept it.’

Mara sighed. Patted Lexa’s hand once and let it drop. ‘I hope that’s not th’ case, I truly do. The gods have ways of opening th’ eyes of them that chose to be blind. They tend to be painful. He oughta know that.’

‘I don’t want him hurt,’ Lexa said, frustrated. She knocked her stick-sword against the nearest tree, pouted moodily. ‘I just want…’

‘T’be a knight. We know. We’ve known since ye were a tiny thing.’

‘I’m still a tiny thing,’ she grumbled. ‘Mara?’

‘Aye, lady?’

‘I think Gus hinted that I could change Father’s mind. Or that I should try.’

‘Did he now?’

‘Yes, but…’ Lexa dropped the stick and wiped the dirt off onto her pants leg. She stared down the forest path into the green dark—for a second she thought she could see something there, felt something flash quicksilver like a tiny minnow darting across her awareness. The sensation went as quickly as it came and she pulled herself back to the present, to Mara and their conversation with a shake of her head. Strange. ‘I feel like I've tried everything. Do you think there's still a chance? Only, the start of the training year is hardly a month away and if I want to be a page this year I would have to leave soon.’

Lexa looked up at Mara and paused when she saw the woman’s eyes glazed over, staring not at Lexa but through her. Recognising the signs of someone in the grip of a vision, though she had never seen it for herself, Lexa swallowed hard before she reached over to touch cold fingers to the back of Mara’s hand.

‘Mara?’

Mara blinked. Once, and then a second time, before her eyes refocused on Lexa. The corners of her eyes were pinched. ‘I’m—I’m alright,’ she said.

‘What did you see?’

She hesitated. Lexa kept her gaze steady—something about her stare, she knew, let people trust that she could handle what they tell her.

‘I saw you,’ she told Lexa. ‘Older. With a scar right here.’ With a shaking finger, she traced a line from under Lexa’s ear almost to the middle of her throat. Lexa shivered; that would be a dangerous wound to get. ‘You looked very much the same. More care with braidin’ that hair of yours, though,’ Mara joked.

Lexa rolled her eyes at the familiar tease, though didn’t argue the point. ‘What else?’

‘That was all.’

‘That’s all?’ Lexa frowned. She didn’t speak the thought, but it seemed like a fairly useless vision to her. Mara twisted a lock of hair around her finger and gave it a fond tug—and then another, more sharply. ‘Ouch!’ Lexa pulled away, frowning up at the woman, only to find her eyes glazed over again. The Sight had never struck Mara twice in such quick succession, and it struck Lexa that something could be wrong.

She shifted, uncomfortable, and thought about taking a step back. Going to find someone.

Mara couldn’t read her mind, of course, but it felt as though she could when, as soon as the thought crossed Lexa’s mind, Mara refocused. Her eyes fixed on Lexa with burning intensity and her hand clamped onto her shoulder, holding her in place.

‘Another vision?’ she asked.

Something like that, little lamb,’ a voice that was not Mara’s said. The voice was full of power, power that felt, tasted, smelled, sounded like a bow strung tight, like bursting copper on her tongue, like loamy fresh-turned soil underfoot, like the crackle of dried leaves and twigs, like the shush of a dagger slipping free, like all of that and more. Not what voices should be made of. Lexa recoiled with a gasp, the sensations of the power battering at her, and Mara’s fingers tightened. ‘She’s seeing something, certainly.

Lexa ignored the coiling hint. The voice wanted her to ask about the vision. She wasn’t interested. ‘You aren’t Mara. Release her.’

She’s fine,’ not-Mara snapped. The sharpness eased, turns sweet again—fresh-plucked berries bursting on her tongue, the playful river tugging at her ankles, at her breeches. ’Don’t you want to know about your grand future? Your knighthood?’

‘She isn’t yours to use,’ Lexa told not-Mara sternly. ‘As Lady of this land, I demand that you release her.’

Or what?’

Lexa considered what the voice seemed to want. ‘Or I won’t speak with you.’

For a moment, not-Mara was quiet, thinking over Lexa’s demand. Then, ‘I could make her scream instead,’ it offered, seeming pleased by the idea. Lexa knew that it was because the copper taste was back more strongly, along with the sensation of the hunt. ‘Or…I could leave her and step into your head.

Lexa hesitated. ‘You won’t hurt her?’

Not-Mara grinned, too wide for her small mouth. ‘I swear it,’ not-Mara promised, and jerkily, like a macabre puppet with her friends face, not-Mara held out her hand.

Belly fluttering with panic, but knowing that she wanted its hold over Mara to fall—one of them needed to get help, after all, and the not-Mara seemed to only care about Lexa—she gritted her teeth and took the hand offered.

The presence slipped into her mind easily.

It didn’t have a shape or a face, not straight away, but its perusal of her mind reminded her of the aunt who had swept into their manor some months ago and had trailed her gloved finger over the mantle before inspecting it for dust.

‘Nice clean mind you’ve got here.’ Its voice was more contained within Lexa’s mind. Rough, hoarse with disuse, but warm. ‘Brain, determination. Oho—there’s my girl,’ it chuckled, ‘look at that bite. You’re going to be a beast with a weapon in your hands,’ it said approvingly.

‘Thank you,’ Lexa replied. ‘What do you want?’

‘Me? To help, of course.’

She could see it—her—more clearly now. She’d taken on a semblance of a tall, solidly-built woman with warm brown skin and slate grey eyes. Her black hair hung to just below her ears and, when she moved, the light caught flecks of colours within it—greens and reds, browns and golds. It refused to sit still, fluttering as though it were alive. Or like leaves in the wind, Lexa imagined, and as she thought it, she could have sworn she could make out the faint veining of leaves too. She blinked and the detail was gone, so turned her attention to the rest of the woman—short fingers were tipped in dark, curved nails and her teeth, when she spoke again, were sharp. When she moved, she involved her whole body—head first, questing the direction, and the rest of her body following in a restrained, bunching kind of way that seemed lazy but screamed danger.

Lexa shivered. The woman wasn’t human, not even one with a powerful Gift. That, Lexa knew immediately. She swallowed hard.

‘Don’t be frightened, little lamb,’ the woman soothed, eyes glinting like sun off a blade. ‘I won’t hurt you.’

‘I’m not frightened.’

The woman smirked.

Lexa glared. If she can tell I’m frightened, let her deal with this too. She began to recite all the foulest curses and threats she’d learned from Gus and whatever seasonal workers and soldiers who had moved through her land. Promises of all the vicious things she would do if Mara weren’t perfectly okay.

After a moment, the woman’s smirk grew into something more genuine. Still dangerous, though.

‘Brave girl,’ the woman said with a laugh.

If she meant it to sound genuine, she was doing a bad job of it. There was a slithering, fanged undertone to her words that read as mocking. Steel shot up Lexa’s spine. She narrowed her eyes.

‘I am brave,’ she agreed. ‘I’m also smart. Smart enough to know that gods don’t steal children without a reason.’ The woman looked surprised and then pleased and then thoughtful. For a god, Lexa thought, she’s not very mysterious. Lexa didn’t bother to question how she knew what the woman was—for what else would sound like a forest hunt whenever she spoke? What else would blaze in her mind like a pillar of light?

‘Do you know who I am?’

‘No. But I’d like my mind back, if it’s all the same.’ After a long moment, she tacked on a barely polite, ‘Please.’

‘Hmm. You’re not even the slightest bit curious about why I’m here?’

Lexa was curious.

‘No.’

‘Liar,’ the woman threw back cheerfully. She rolled out her shoulders lazily, strolled—barefoot, Lexa saw—through her mind. It was taking on the shape of her bedroom up in the castle. The woman flexed her fingers in front of the roaring fireplace. ‘It’s alright,’ she said. ‘I’ll tell you anyway. Don’t bother bending that pride for little old me.’ She crouched there in front of the fire, shook her hands through her hair as though she were drying out after the heavy rain.

She took her time and Lexa was starting to think the woman was buying time for herself—for what purpose, though, Lexa didn’t know—when she began to speak, a knowing look that made Lexa flush. Right. She could hear Lexa’s thoughts.

‘I know you, kid. You want to be a knight. You want to hunt down nasty monsters.’ She nodded to the wall to Lexa’s left.

Lexa didn’t want to look but something flickered in the corner of her vision and she turned and walked, astounded, as the wall disappeared and hills rolled out from the edge of the stone floor. It was as though a doorway had opened into a real place and, despite telling herself it wasn’t, she could smell the grass and the bright tang of polish, feel the heat of the sun, hear horses snort and chains jangle as they tossed their heads.

She could not help but stare. She knew this vision. Daydream, really.

It was one of hers.

          Lexa was sitting astride her horse, the mare Alraed, and clad in gleaming chainmail. She was tall and muscled and she had a rather dashing scar—faint and thin—beneath her left eye. Foot soldiers trotted beside her and several other knights rode at her back, and when she pointed her sword—a beautiful weapon that she just knew was perfectly weighted—they followed her without a hint of doubt. Alraed leaped down the hill into a powerful gallop, so fast did she run that it felt like Lexa was flying over the hills. The hot sun and mighty Mithros’s blessing burned down onto her, the enemy fell apart beneath the charge like a hot knife into butter,

‘It’s a pretty picture,’ the woman commented. Lexa flushed. ‘But not quite right.’ With a wave of her shining hand, the vision began again.

          Lexa was sitting astride her horse, the mare Alraed, and her chainmail glinted here and there under rips in the dull brown tunic she wore to cover it.

She was still tall, Lexa saw with some relief, even if she wasn’t that obviously muscled, and there was no scar. That’s alright, she thought. She’d seen it once, two summers ago, on a sailor she was fairly sure, in retrospect, was a pirate. Lexa had thought then that it was quite dashing, but maybe it had been the lady’s sea-blue eyes that had caught her attention. Movement in the vision recalled her attention.

          There were four people with her, all on horses, though she couldn’t see their faces. They clutched swords, not gleaming things but deadly sharp. Hilts didn’t glint with gold or jewels but were wrapped in dark cloth.  Lexa’s was covered too and lay bare across her thighs. One of the other riders held a map open on their thigh. Blood stained the corner of the map under their thumb—bright red and fresh. Lexa pointed to a spot on the map that she couldn’t read and they rode on, shoulders hunched and heads swiveling about, wary of the dense forest surrounding them.

Lexa watched herself in the vision, intently. The other vision had smelled real, had looked and sounded as vibrant as life. But this one… It felt real in a way that she couldn’t explain. She didn’t recognise the woods they rode in, but her eyes lingered on a broken bough and a mossed, fallen trunk and knew she would remember these every day of her life.

          Her eyes were tight at the corners and she shifted her grip on her sword, stretching her fingers out from their tight grip. Turning her head, Lexa looked up from the surrounds into the canopy above.

Lexa's eyes widened. Across her throat, from a point underneath her right ear, was a silvered scar just as Mara had described. She didn't have time to think about what that meant before the vision continued.

          A wordless, shout from behind her—she twisted, cuts a piece of webbing as it shot toward her. She was too late to stop it from sticking her arm to her side but quick enough to stop the spidren from dragging her from her saddle. She switched her sword to her other hand and struck out, distaste flickering over her expression at the spurt of dark blood from the monster's wound. She dodged away from it, nudging Alraed out of the way—

Lexa watched, heart rising into her throat. From her studies, she knew that if the blood were to touch her skin it would burn like acid.

          —she twisted, cutting down the spidren. One of her four companions had struck it in the eye with a grim arrow but the thing had barely halted in its attack. Lexa turned to see what other enemies remained when—her eyes widened in surprise and she wavered on Alraed before slipping down to the ground, mouth slack. An arrow, bristling with menace, stood up out of her chest—

The vision ended there, the fourth stone wall returning to her bedroom with a resounding thump Lexa distantly considered to be quite unnecessary. For a long moment, Lexa stared at that wall unblinking, precisely where she had seen herself—her vision self—fallen.

From her place by the fire, Lexa’s sharp-toothed guest stood and turned toward her, body following.

‘What was that?’ Lexa asked.

‘The truth. A truth.’ She scratched at her ear. ‘If you follow this path, your knighthood, you will reach this point.’

Lexa felt something coming, sweeping around her legs. When she looked down, she saw nothing there but the feeling of being caught remained. With a sickening lurch, she thought of the struggling rabbits in her snares.

‘You will reach this point,’ the woman said again, pacing toward her, ‘…and that will be the day you die.

Lexa blinked.

The woman stopped in front of her—they were the same height, somehow, though Lexa knew that she was a short ten-year-old and the woman was a not-as-short goddess. It’s my mind, she reminded herself. I’m whatever I want to be. She was ignoring something, pushing away something she doesn’t want to think about. What was it? She opened her mouth.

‘How old am I? In that vision. When I die.’ Oh yes. I’m going to die. Her words didn’t feel like her own, too removed from the mind that just wanted to scream. Too young! Too young! I don’t want to die!

‘Eighteen.’ The woman began her pacing again. She seemed capable of standing still for only so long. ‘Only weeks before earning your shield. Just a cub.’

She sounds…sad, Lexa noted. It was strange but she had more important questions than that. Lexa considered the vision again—the arrow in her chest—and found herself glad they were in her mind. The cold sweat that trickled down her spine didn’t show here unless she willed it. With three careful breaths, she pushed aside her panic and the less sharp yet bitter disappointment.

‘Are you telling me not to be a knight?’

The pacing woman stilled.  She tilted her head to the side. With her long, hooked nose, she looked like a hawk. Her eyes were sharp enough for one. ‘Do you want to be?’

Lexa looked down at her muddied boots, mulling over the question. A page for four years, a squire for almost another four. Then dead. No fanfare, no glory. Dead in the mud.

Or a life as a lady—all sitting and curtsying and dancing and never saying what she really thinks and having to marry some boy and—

‘Yes,’ she said, and she felt her answer settle something inside of her she hadn’t known wasn’t settled. She had dreamt of being a knight since she was young but today, for the first time, she knew what it would—what it might mean—and she knew that eight years would be enough. It would be worth it. ‘I do.’

‘I can help.’

‘I don’t want your help.’

The strange woman blinked her gleaming eyes. Her skin rippled, taking on the patched tone of fur, of feather, and finally gleaming scale before reverting. The change had come and gone so quickly Lexa found it hard to remember if it had ever happened.

‘Very well,’ she agreed pleasantly. Lexa narrowed her eyes. Pleasant didn’t sound like it came naturally to her. ‘Convince him on your own, then. And next year when you return… Come and see me.

‘Why?’

‘…There’s a danger stirring in the city of kings, little lamb. Knight or not, you are involved. You’ll have questions, come summer, and I can answer them.’

It was an empty response that Lexa didn’t trust, but the woman hadn’t asked her to swear or promise or anything—in fact, the woman was fading fast from her mind, in a bright way that Lexa knew meant that she was truly leaving, that it wasn’t a trick.

‘What is your name?’ Lexa called, loudly, before the woman could disappear. ‘What danger?’

‘You can call me Tari,’ she said with her sharp grin. ‘When you’re ready to talk to me again, all you need to do is say my name here, by the trees. I’ll do the rest.

Of Lexa’s second question, she said nothing.


Lexa woke coughing.

Her throat was so dry it felt as though the air was scraping through it, clawing up it. She coughed again, nose scrunched up in pain, and a big, warm hand curled around the back of her neck. Something cold pressed against her lips; she couldn’t get her eyes to open—they felt so heavy, her whole body did—but when she flicked her tongue over her lips it tasted of metal and, blessedly, of water.

‘Just water, lass,’ Gus’s voice confirmed for her, and she let him bring the cup back to her lips. She drank greedily until he pulled it away.

When she had drunk enough, she tried again to open her eyes and succeeded. Gus helped her sit up against her pillows and she looked about herself. In her desk chair sat Gus, though the chair was far too small for him. His knees were nearly up around his ears. Her desk chair… Lexa frowned, shook the exhaustion out of her mind. There was something about being in her room that didn’t make sense—the shutters on the windows were open, the sky past them an inky black and dotted with stars. The moon hung heavy over the trees. How did it get so late? Cold air marched briskly in through that open window, whirled into the corners, and marched out again. Lexa shivered. She tried to remember all that had happened, and why it felts so strange to find that she’s in her room. It took a moment to recall that she had been in the forest. Someone must have carried her up to the castle.

A flash of colour grabbed her attention. A figure in a dark orange robe stood by the door—they bowed to her, deeply, and she inclined her head, which was the best she can manage with her whole body a single ache. Then they were gone.

‘One of the Mithran priests. They stayed to make sure you’d wake,’ Gus told her in a low voice, pitched quiet so as not to disturb the others. And there were others—Mara was curled on a pallet by the fire and—Lexa’s eyes widened—her father was sitting in his favourite chair at the end of her bed.

She couldn’t remember the last time he had been in her room. Not since before his illness, she thought. And then, He looks different asleep.

Sallow and clearly exhausted, the skin around his eyes that had already looked purple now appeared bruised, thoroughly blackened by a fist-fight the exceedingly proper man would never participate in. His long limbs were far from regal—legs crossed at the ankles, one hand was cast over the arm of his chair and his fingers brushed the stone floor every time he took a breath. His head was tilted toward her; he had fallen asleep watching her, Lexa realised.

Lexa tore her eyes away from him, back to Gus who watched them all with his black eyes.

‘How long—’

‘He’s been sitting here since Mara brought you up from the trees.’

Lexa swallowed. They needed to talk. ‘Will you wake him?’

Gus nodded. Reached over and laid his hand on his master’s shoulder. ‘Milord,’ he called softly. ‘Titus, wake up.’

Her father woke slowly, blinking over to Lexa. He grabbed Gus’s arm, gripped him bruisingly tight. ‘My girl,’ he whispered, voice hoarse. ‘Am I dreaming?’

‘No, milord. She’s awake.’

‘Gods be blessed,’ he cried, and threw himself out of his chair toward her. He knelt next to her, scooped up one of her hands in his own. ‘Lexa, Lexa, Lexa,’ he muttered, lifted her hand to his forehead. Over his shoulder, Lexa saw Mara awake and stand, hands pressed to her chest and a worried breath finally leaving her.

‘I’m alright, Da,’ she said, as she hadn’t for almost a year. They had been fighting and she’d hoped that calling him Father in that cold tone would tell him how displeased she was but he never seemed to notice. But he must have, Lexa realised, because the moment she said it, his face collapsed into new grief and he cupped her face. ‘I’m alright.’

‘My strong girl,’ he nodded. ‘I know, of course you are, the strongest of all of us,’ he whispered, and stroked trembling fingers over her hair.

‘How long was I asleep?’ His thin mouth crumpled inwards, pursing in thought. His hesitance told her he was considering a lie; Lexa gripped his hand and squeezed. ‘Da, tell me.’

‘Only a day.’ He paused. ‘I don’t suppose—Mara said—she said there was something in the trees.’

There was something sharp about the way he said it that let Lexa know what he’d ordered since he saw her unconscious.

‘Call your men off, Da,’ she told him, sinking back into her pillows. She felt ancient, suddenly, instead of ten. ‘It’s nothing you can hunt.’

‘What then?’

‘She was a tree-god, I think,’ Lexa said, feeling very silly saying it out loud. Remembering faintly, like an echo of a call, how it had felt to stand in front of her—in front of a god—made it not silly. Just dangerous. ‘Or…a god among the trees. She had claws. And her name was Tari.’

Her father went still. ‘A god.’ She nodded. ‘And she kept you for half a day.’ His eyes burned with sudden fury, but his voice was cold. Lexa shivered. One day, she would face someone and she would burn with that cold fire. ‘What did she tell you?’

Lexa broke the hold his eyes had over her, looking away. She could lie. Tell him that the gods demanded she become a knight—but this wasn’t about them. This was her life, even if it was to be a short one.

‘Surprisingly little,’ she told him, frowning.

It made her father laugh, though it had a grim edge to it. ‘That’s gods for you. Nothing they do or say makes sense until it’s too late.’

Lexa nodded slowly. She talked him through their conversation. When it came to the vision of her death, she hesitated and then stopped, withholding the last moments of it. Next to her, Gus shifted in his seat and, when she glanced to him, his black eyes glinted back at her, though whether it was with the knowledge of her omission or anger at what had befallen her, she couldn’t be sure.

Her father settled back in his chair when she was done talking and sighed. For a long time, he didn’t speak. Just stared out the window at the half moon and over the tops of the trees that grew tall and wild around their home and the village. The shadowed heights never seemed more dangerous than they did on this long night.

He stroked the amulet that hung around his neck with an idle finger, deep in thought. Finally, he spoke.

‘I owe you an explanation,’ he said, voice grave. ‘Or an apology. After your mother…’ He paused. ‘I wanted to keep you with me for as long as I could. Keep you safe.’ Pulling his eyes back from whatever pretty future he imagined, he focused on his small daughter in her bed. His eyes were brighter than they’d been for years. Intent. ‘Danger will find us anywhere, Lexa. You should be prepared for it.’

Lexa held her breath, hardly daring to think on what he might be saying to her.

‘If this is what you wish, then… The day after tomorrow we will make the journey to Corus. Gustus will go with us. He was offered the position of a trainer at the palace, which he is now free to take. He will act as your manservant while you are a page. You will follow all of his instructions to the letter. I will present myself to the King and court and judgement…’ He stopped and frowned. Quietly, he said, ‘It has been too long since my last appearance.’

Mara and Gus both bowed their heads solemnly. Titus continued.

‘You will present yourself to the training master and give him my letter of intent.’

With each of the instructions, Lexa nodded. Her hands—her heart—trembled.

It was happening, it was happening. She was going to be a page, and then a squire, and then a knight.

And die before I make it there, a voice within her mind—her own familiar voice—reminded her, but with her father’s warm hand wrapped around hers and Gus watching over them protectively, and Mara smiling at her from the end of her bed, she could push that aside and forget about it. She was going to be a knight.

Her father turned, picked up something heavy from the floor. He set the box—rough but polished lovingly—on her lap. Lexa opened it, beaming when she saw the bow that lay inside. It was nothing like her practice bow—this one gleamed with polish and, though it looked harder to string and draw, she knew it would shoot like a dream.

‘The perfect bow,’ Titus said, voice heavy with resignation, ‘for a page.’


She didn’t enter the forest again before they left.

When they rode out, it was in silent agreement that they took the path down the clear gravelled banks of the river. The heavily forested land had never felt so ominous to her as it did now but Lexa hunched her shoulders and put aside the unsettling sensation of being watched from somewhere deep within the trees. She wouldn’t be back until the next summer—plenty of time, she thought, for the god to move on and give someone else their dire warnings.

Chapter Text

The Great Eastern Road came nearly to the edge of the cliff before it turned away from the river that had been its companion for the last hundred miles. It cut a slow path down the hill, suitable for riders and wagons and those on foot. The river had no such restraints and rushed freely down over the edge of the cliff and into the valley far below.

There, where the two paths diverged, a young girl sat astride her horse. There was a thoughtful look in her green eyes—dappled green and yellow like autumn itself at the bottom of a clear pool—and though her nerves were mostly hidden, the dun mare fidgeted slightly in response to them. She calmed when Lexa stroked her neck gently.

Behind her, two men waited for her to come away from the view.

To her left was a man so tall and broad-shouldered and wild-haired that anyone would be justified in thinking he was part bear. His paint horse, splattered light brown across darker brown, cropped at the grass under his hooves. The rider watched the girl ahead of him with the close, fondly suspicious attention of a man who knew that were he to look away for any length of time, his charge would get into some sort of trouble.

To her right was another man, tall and very thin. His hair had been recently shaved and he rubbed a hand over the stubble now and again, not seeming to notice the motion. A look of permanent concern deepened the creases over his forehead and around his mouth. He was dressed as the others were in suitable riding clothes used to wear but unlike them, he also wore a thick ring of gold on his left hand. It glinted when he gripped at the reins awkwardly, the pre-dawn light seeming to enjoy the mellow tone of gold. He, too, watched the girl. Unlike the other man, his gaze moved from her to the city and back and his restlessness was echoed by his horse. A pony, really, selected for her sure step and willingness to follow other horses without need of much direction.

They had been there for some time. Neither of the men had tried to move her along—they knew her well enough to sense her need for a quiet moment to drink it in. And besides, even for the two of them who had seen the city and its palace before, the view was like nothing else.

The pre-dawn light brushed everything with a faint dusk blush—all purples and pinks—and the green of the valley was an ocean of whispering sea-grass. The yellow-grey stone of the city walls was more grey than yellow in the early hour, the palace seeming nothing special, just more of the same above it. The river, bloated and sluggish from its journey across the flat valley, crawled through the city; river banks built of sheer grey stone directed its zigzagging path through the districts. Several bridges spanned its considerable width—one wide bridge let the main street continue unimpeded from the gates of the city wall up to the gates of the palace.

The palace gates. Lexa leaned forward as though it would help her see more. They were enormousThe gilded doors easily dwarfed the small figures that stood in front of it. And the not-so-small. Lexa could see a heavy supply wagon trundling up toward the gates and the door that opened to accommodate it wasn’t even a quarter the size of the massive gates. A loose stream of people was scattered over that road, The Kings Way, and made their way through the gates on their journey up to the palace.

I’ll be one of them soon.

The thought made a small frown crease her brow. Her wide, full lips sunk into a thoughtful pout, making her look far closer to her ten years than her serious eyes and confident posture suggested. She ran her eyes over the sprawling city again, stared at the palace that will be her home for the next four years at least. 

Last chance to back out.

As she though it, the rising sun caught the gold of the palace gate and the city was awash in sudden warmth.

The palace, which had seemed so drab, slowly brightened as the sun rose until it sat pristine and almost delicate on the top of the distant hill. From where Lexa sat, it looked like something out of a tale: spun of spider silk and dripped with gold of a melting sun. And far above it all, the grand wizard’s tower soared standing sixty, a hundred feet above the rest of the palace.

She sighed happily at the pretty sight. It might not have been a sign that she was doing the right thing, might be nothing more than a pretty view, but either way it allowed her to set her shoulders with new determination.

There would be no backing out, no backing down. Not for her.

‘Thank you,’ she told the men when she nudges her horse back onto the path. They nodded to her. Gus took the lead, sitting up in his saddle and clicking his tongue to get their horses to move on.

Titus lurched when his sometimes-horse—a mare of considerable patience called Leuna—set off after the others. His relief at not having to try to direct the horse warred with his apprehension at being on the creature at all. A man more suited to riding a desk than a horse, he was clearly uncomfortable but he said nothing about it; in the past four days, he’d learned that neither Gus nor his daughter were good company in the mornings. Instead, he clung two-handed to the pommel as the mare picked her slow path down the road.

When they arrived at the city an hour later, the sun had well and truly risen and the lingering summer heat made them aware of the smell of the river and themselves—a dip in cold water wouldn’t be enough to remove the smell of horse and sweat.

‘I’d pay a thousand crowns for a bath,’ Titus told them, making Lexa grin.

‘You’re a soft lord now, Da.’

‘I will thank you to remember that I always was.’ That made his daughter and Gus laugh and Lexa caught her father’s fond look—and the flicker of surprise and pride that he made them, both more frequently solemn than not, laugh.

At the city, Gus nodded to the guards and stopped for a chat. Lexa watched keenly, trying to pick out the near-invisible flash of coin as it passed from his hand to theirs. She didn’t see it, but she did see the guard slip his hand down toward his pouch when Gus pulled away.

‘Main Way,’ Gus told her. As soon as they crossed the bridge, he said, ‘Market Way.’

‘It’s the same street,’ she argued and he shrugged huge shoulders in response. It might have been the same street but it was certainly different. Busier and cleaner. It wasn’t long past sunrise and the streets were only passable for them because they were on horses. She got a few filthy looks from some who had to dodge shod hooves, but ignored them. ‘What am I to expect?’ she asked her father, who nudged his horse to stand abreast with Alraed. Remarkably, he succeeded.

He considered the question, and her.

Gus offered the first piece of advice, coming up to her other side. ‘It’ll be different for you, bein’ a girl.’

She nodded impatiently, tried on a contrite expression when she saw he isn’t impressed. ‘I apologise, my Lord father, Gustus. Please continue.’

Titus snorted. He looked amused, as though he’d just realised he was not the only one that Lexa practised her special brand of disrespect on.

Gus eyed her, scratched at the start of a beard. ‘The lord’ll ask you to his office.’

‘He’ll tell you about the Code of Chivalry, about what it means to be a page.’

‘Warn ye ‘bout the sly things what other pages do.’

‘Which you will not be involved in,’ Titus interrupted, stern. There was steel in his voice. ‘That behaviour is for the uncouth.’

Lexa met his eyes squarely. ‘I’ll do what I must. You know that.’

He scowled. She looked away, ignoring him, and her eyes landed on the only still point in the market—a figure at the edge, standing by a stall full of glittering crystals. They were short and small and wrapped in a drab cloak and their eyes were the only feature Lexa could make out from within a deep cowl—clear and round and the deepest blue Lexa had ever seen.

‘—a room in the pages wing and a day to find your way around,’ her father continued, jostling her out of her distraction. ‘And then eight hard years of work to your knighthood. Lexa, it’s not too late to turn back.’

‘It didn’t work when ye tried that four days ago, it’s not gonna work now. ‘Specially not with her so close and all.’ After a moment, with a bristling grin, Gus added, ‘Milord.’

‘I begin to suspect you are where my daughter learned her disrespect, Gus.’

‘Only beginning to, Da?’ Lexa teased.

Titus rolled his eyes.

They had come to the end of Market Way where it transformed, again invisibly, to The Palace Way. The only difference was a sudden drop in traffic and the slight incline of the road. At the top of it stood the palace gates, as beautiful and bright as they had looked from the top of the hill that morning. But much larger.

Once she was past those gates, she would be one step closer to her shield. She vaguely heard her father telling her more: that sword work didn’t come until later, that she must take any punishment and not complain, that she’d never quite finish all her work—

‘I will,’ she tells them.

Titus laughed, a great belly laugh that made those few souls travelling with them edge away nervously. She scowled, hunches in her seat and waited for him to be done. Her scowl set him off again so it was a rather long wait.

She didn’t mind too much; it had been a long time since she’d heard him laugh like that.

‘You’ll try, my darling,’ he told her when he was mostly calm, a few chuckles shaking his shoulders. ‘Of that, I have no doubt.’

The guards at the gate looked with undisguised curiosity at Lexa. They were too well-mannered to discuss her in front of her, and especially in front of her father, but Gus lingered behind to chat. By the time they’d found the stables and Lexa had helped her father dismount, Gus had caught up.

‘You won’t be the only girl this year,’ Gus told her, helping to care for Leuna. ‘There’s a girl from Danshame as well as the Tirragen heir two years ahead of you.’

‘Be wary of that one,’ Titus warned.

Lexa nodded, noncommittal.

With Leuna brushed and led to her stall with water, they split up to work on their own horses. Lexa kissed Alraed’s nose, scratches behind her ears as she murmured her thanks. She was too tired to respond when Gus gave her more advice—don’t talk back to your training master, Lexa, do all your exercises in the morning, do more than the boys so you don’t fall behind.

She’d just finished grooming Alraed and begun checking over her tack when a boy dressed smartly—and loudly—in red and gold trotted to the entrance of the stables. He took a moment to catch his breath before standing ramrod straight.

‘My Lord of Haryse,’ he greeted with a fine bow. ‘His Majesty the King bids you a kind welcome to his palace after your long absence and requests your immediate attention.’

Lexa winced. Though the boy might not hear the undertone, only repeating the words rote as he had learned them, she understood the faint question—or accusation. Her father’s mouth tightened slightly at the corners. He heard it too.

The boy bowed again. ‘And Lady of Haryse, your daughter, and Captain Bruin. His Majesty the King welcomes you both and looks forward to a time when he may meet you. For now, Lord Padraig wishes to see you.’

Lexa kept her eyes on her father, who ran his hand over his recently shaved head again and tugged at one of his earlobes in deep thought. Coming to some conclusion, he flipped open one of his saddlebags and dug through until he found a short summer coat that would sit well enough over what he was wearing. He shook it free from wrinkles as he best he could and pulled it on.

Gus had turned their horses over to a nearby hostler and now he pressed a similar coat into Lexa’s hands, nodding for her to wear it even when she plucked at her riding clothes. They didn’t have enough time to change, his look warned her and when Lexa looked at the boy with his very polite face on, she sighed and shoved her arms into the sleeves. Gus fidgeted with it until it sat crisp across her shoulders and he gestured for her button it up.

‘It’s hot.’

‘All the buttons,’ he told her, ignoring the whining tone save for the warning look he shot her.

‘You look very fine,’ Titus said when she was done and Lexa sighed, hands dropping from her collar where it felt far too tight and high after a week in the soft, loose riding shirts she favoured. ‘The green suits you well. Mara was right.’

‘Mara is always right about clothes and you’re always wrong.’

‘Something to remember in the future but never to say,’ he told her mildly. ‘Unless you want to stand in the corner of your room for an hour.’ The suggestion made her jaw drop—she wasn’t a baby anymore—and Titus frowned at her wild curls. ‘Anything we can do about these?’

Gus shook his head. ‘No time.’ Nonetheless, he knelt in front of her and tried until the boy coughed.

‘I’m sorry, my Lord,’

‘Yes, yes, we’re coming. Lead on.’

The boy did lead on. Very quickly.

At sixteen, as Lexa would place him, he was all knees and elbows and long strides and she had to trot to keep up. Gus and her father, she noted with disgust, were having no such trouble. Though her father was having a different kind of trouble, walking with a wider gait than usual and the occasional wince. He was not used to days in the saddle.

They parted ways at a grand hall—her father to head straight into the Royal Wing, and Lexa and Gus to follow the boy to the left where the offices are.

Titus pulled her into a hug, resting his big warm hand on the back of her head and bowed low, pressing a kiss to her forehead. There was no one to see it—the boy looked away, flushing crimson at glimpsing such a personal farewell—and so Lexa allowed the gesture. One of her hands clung to his sleeve.

‘You will be so very capable,’ he murmured, kneeling when she didn’t immediately let go. He cupped her face. ‘I have every faith in you, my girl.’

‘Thank you, Da.’

He nodded, cleared his throat. Blinking rapidly for a moment before gathering himself and standing. He shook Gus’s hand too and gave Lexa another nod.

‘Good luck.’

And then, just like that, he was gone. He disappeared into the Royal Wing behind doors that snicked closed with military precision exactly as soon as he was past them.

‘Come on, lass,’ Gus patted her shoulder. ‘Onwards.’

The boy was still blushing a little by the time they got to the training masters office but that might have been due to the very quick pace he kept up. Evidently, they were a little late by the boy's estimation.

He gave them a moment to catch their breath before, with a quiet, ‘Ready?’ to Lexa, he knocked on the plain wooden door. The plaque on it, embossed on brass polished to a gleam, read Training Masters Office.

‘Enter!’

The boy pushed the door open.

The room beyond was clean and neat. The walls had been painted with a cream paint that made the room look bigger than it was, necessary when someone was used to spending their days outdoors, Lexa was sure. Much of the grey stone floor had been covered by a rug of crimson—It would hide blood well, Lexa thought as she looked down at it and wondered if it had ever done exactly that—and a bookcase stood against the far wall.

The most prominent feature of the room was a large desk. It had been placed to one side of the room, which upset Lexa’s sense of symmetry until she realised that not only could no one sneak up behind the desk but it also made it so any attacker was left with only one line of attack. Unless they leaped over the desk, she corrected herself. 

Her examination of the room complete, Lexa focused instead on the man seated behind the desk. He stood, pushing back his chair, and the boy bowed to him.

Lexa copied him. Behind her, Gus did the same.

‘My lord, Lady Alexandra of Haryse, and the Captain Bruin. As you requested.’

‘Thank you, Caleb, you may go.’

The boy bowed again and left. He offered a comforting smile to Lexa on his way out and Lexa felt herself relax a fraction, not realising until that moment that she had been near-certain—and afraid—that everyone in the palace would think her an interloper. The show of kindness did not make her think every person in the palace her friend, but it did disabuse her of the notion that every person was set against her.

‘Step in, close the door.’

The man gave short, precise orders that he clearly expected to be followed. Lexa stepped in. Gus closed the door.

A magelight torch shone brightly from the roof, casting the training masters features into sharp relief.

Lord Padraig, at close to fifty, was easily one of the most formidable people Lexa had ever seen. His hair, cut short and close to his head like a helmet, was the colour of steel. His eyes were blue-grey and betrayed none of what he was feeling. A nose thick and squat looked more like an arrow than a nose, and his lips were so thin that when he spoke it was almost as though a gash opened in his face. He abruptly became, and would remain for many years, Lexa’s purest idea of the walking and talking face of a weapon.

Interest stirred in Lexa, sending a thrill down her spine. She fixed him with an intent stare. This was what she was here for—to learn, to fight, to meet people who had fought for so long they walked as though their own bodies were weapons. People who had trained to make it so.

Lord Padraig stared back.

His eyes roamed—over her hair, braided like Gus’s and tied back, though Lexa could feel where more tangles had come free. He looked over her face, her small ears, her nose, her chin where the round child shape was just starting to thin and point. From head to toes—middling height for a ten-year-old, she knew, and felt a momentary worry that she would be sent home before she recognised it as irrational and the worry passed. There was no way to tell how much she’d continue to grow but Sir Alanna was five foot nothing and she was the King’s Champion so height of all things didn’t matter.

The training master continued to stare a moment longer and she stood still and proud under his examination, back straight, chin up, hands clasped loosely behind her back.

Finally, he spoke.

‘It is not an easy road you’ve chosen, Page Haryse.’ He paused then—for some indigent reply? Proud assurance? She didn’t know, but all he got from her was the barest hint of a smile.

He called me pageLexa thought, pleased.

‘Sit. Both of you.’

Gus waited until she was sitting before he did as well. Lord Padraig looked between them with a common look of confusion—though faint—at the sight they presented. Gus, who made any seat look small, and Lexa, whose chair showed clear over her shoulders. An odd pair, though not odd enough to sway the training master from his task.

He took his seat, pulled his chair in comfortably beneath the desk, and began a speech he had made many times before.

‘In the last few years, under the previous training master’s direction and my own, several female pages have gone on to accept their shields and station as Lady Knights. There will be no probation year. As soon as you step through that door,’ he pointed, ‘you will be a page of the Realm. You have an equal chance of attaining your shield if,’ he insisted, gaze clear and sharp where it rested on Lexa, still assessing her, ‘you work hard. It is possible. It will not be easy.’

At the edge of her seat, eager and determined, Lexa nodded.

‘Very good. While you are a page here, you will learn the skills necessary of a Knight. You will learn to fight, so that you may defend those who cannot defend themselves. You will learn obedience, so that you may serve your King and Kingdom. You will learn the values of chivalry and justice, so that you may carry these wherever you may ride. It is my job, and the job of your masters here, to ensure that you are worthy and capable of these duties.

‘For four years, you will be a page here in the palace. In the mornings, you will train your body and craft. In the afternoons, you will train your mind. Have you a Gift, Page Haryse?’

‘No, my Lord,’ Lexa answered.

‘Then you will learn what the Gift is capable of and how to counter it and to deal with mages when they arise as your enemies as well as people under your command. The Gifted pages in your year will take the same time to train their own powers. Your evenings are yours to spend as you wish—to rest, to learn, and to complete the assignments that your masters will give you. For one evening a week, you and your year mates shall serve in the kitchens. You will serve the high table first and then the rest of your fellow pages. There are some who believe this responsibility is beneath them.’ Lord Padraig paused, giving her the opportunity to say that she too believed it beneath her. ‘I tell you, it is not. A knight is not just a sword—a knight’s duty rests not in the enemies they defeat but in the people they protect. Remember that.’

Lexa nodded. Though it might have been intended as a lesson, she took it into herself as an order.

She thought of her people at home—the village that encircled their small castle, the walls she had helped to build, the mortar she mixed with trembling arms for the masons. She thought of the hunters, with lean faces and quick laughter and the warm panting bodies of hounds at their heels, and the smell of dying leaves and clean rivers when one hunter encircled her with her arms and taught her how to string her bow the very same year she could grip one. She remembered the desolation of mudslides that had carried away their best milking cows, the terror of forest fires and the smell of ash in the air, the pinched concern that faded after a successful harvest, the laughter and shimmering power of Beltane…

She nodded again.

Lord Padraig continued.

‘If at the end of the year you pass your examinations, you shall progress. If at the end of four years you pass your examinations again, you shall be made a squire. A knight may ask you to serve as their squire then and your training will fall to their care. If one does not request you, I will be your knightmaster. After four years of serving as a squire, you will enter the Chamber of Ordeal and, if you emerge, you shall be a Knight of the Realm.’

If you emerge, she repeated. Glancing down to her muddied boots, Lexa recalled the dull brown of a tunic over glinting chainmail and her own face, wide-eyed and clutching at the arrow buried in her own chest. If I make it to the Chamber at all.

‘These will not be easy years,’ he interrupted, pulling her attention back to the present. ‘They will be full and hard. Your trainers will be relentless.’ He looked away for a moment toward the door and his already harsh face tightened, taking on grim lines that the magelight overhead threw into deeper shadow. ‘Our world is full of harsh enemies. Enemies who batter at our borders and our soldiers to test our peace. You will always be able to count on the warriors who shape you and who are shaped alongside you. This is our oath to the pages and squires who become knights, as you will take up your own oath when knighted.’

Lexa swallowed. His serious promise felt weightier, more noble than anything else she had ever been a part of, and she considered the warmth it conjured in her chest before she pressed it into the same corner of her mind that she kept Gus’s steady love and her father’s, and now this oath like a shield of sturdy metal.

‘Is this what you want?’ Lord Padraig asked her and something burned back to her in his eyes when she looked at him, an answering burst of intensity.

She nodded firmly. ‘It is, my lord.’

‘Very good.’ He took a moment, scrawled something on a sheet in front of him. This, he put aside to dry. Next, he pulled another sheet and asked, ‘Do you have a maid?’

‘No, my lord.’

‘One shall be provided to you, then. In your time here you will be provided a room in the pages wing. These rooms are your own private quarters. If you have a guest, the door is to remain open. The same is expected if you are a guest in another page’s room. The maid assigned to you will care for your bed and bath and clothing. Your armour and weapons are your own to maintain. Do not ask her to do these tasks for you.’

‘Yes, my lord.’

‘You are the last to arrive. This afternoon at the fifth bell, stand outside your room. I will be bringing the older pages around, who will select a page to sponsor for the year. Tomorrow will be the last free day you will have in some time. Your sponsor has the duty of showing you the palace—the training grounds, the classrooms, the library you may use, and the dining hall in particular. They will also take you to the palace tailor, who will outfit you as required. The palace smith will provide you with a harness and a practice sword that you will wear at all times.’

Lexa nodded at each of these comments. She would swear that she saw him smile ever so slightly at her show of interest. The smile did not come through in his voice.

‘The day after next, you will attend morning training. It begins promptly one bell after the dawn bell. This will be the first day of your life as a page. Do you understand these instructions, Page Haryse?’

‘I do, my lord,’ she said.

‘Then you may leave. Take this—’ He rolled the now dry missive and handed it over to her. She leaned forward as far as she could and, after a moment, he stretched his arm out the tiniest bit more so that she could reach. She took it from him. ‘To the Head Maid in the servants wing. She will assign your room and your maid.’

‘Yes, my lord. Thank you, my lord.’

‘Captain Bruin, if you would remain?’ Gus murmured his easy acceptance. He gave Lexa an apologetic look but she just nodded. ‘Page Haryse, you may leave.’

At the dismissal, Lexa jumped to her feet and bowed to her new training master. Then, scroll in hand, she trotted from the room.


Some fifteen minutes later, frustrated and a little upset, she stopped at yet another branching corridor.

She had run down two long corridors that both turned out to be dead ends and now she had no idea where to go since none of these doors had the helpful plaque Lord Padraig had on his door. She was about to return to his office and try again from the beginning when she spied a young woman in dark breeches and a crisp white shirt, the crest of the Crown stitched very small over her left breast.

Lexa jogged after her.

‘Miss!’

The woman turned, frowns at the small girl who didn’t quite come up to her shoulder. ‘Yes?’

‘I’m—I’m looking for the head maid. Could you—’

The woman cut her off with a brisk, ‘New page?’ and, when Lexa nodded, gestured for her to follow. She led Lexa back down the corridor she had sprinted out of, and then opened one of the unmarked doors, which took them down a narrow path into a completely new corridor. She passed four more unmarked doors before stopping at one that looked remarkably alike every other door they’d passed.

Still, since she left Lexa there without another word, Lexa had no choice but to knock.

At the second knock, the door jerked open with a,

‘Yes?’

The woman, only an inch taller than Lexa with sleek black hair cropped to just below her ears, was wearing the same dark breeches and white shirt as the other woman so Lexa knew she had to have been right—it was the servants uniform.

‘Are you the Head Maid?’

‘That’s me,’ the woman nodded.

‘I just came from Lord Padraig.’ She held out the scroll he had given her, only slightly crumpled after all this time.

‘Ah, Page Haryse.’ The head maid looked up from the scroll with a warm smile. The corners of her eyes were crinkled with silent laughter. ‘I expected you some time ago.’

Lexa flushed faintly. ‘I got lost,’ she confessed.

‘It happens,’ the woman agreed. She stepped out into the hall, locked her door behind her with a key in a set of what looked to Lexa like dozens of other identical keys that hung from a ring on her belt. ‘Happens to me still, sometimes,’ the woman continued cheerily as she set off down the hall, ‘and I’ve lived here for twenty years. When did you arrive?’

‘Two hours ago at the next bell.’

The woman nodded. ‘There, barely enough time to have nosed around. It’s alright, you’ll learn it soon enough. This here is the servants wing, it’s a bit of a warren but closer to the courts are the tailor and the smith and closer to the offices are the clerks and then further along are the main kitchens. There’s another smaller area for us in the Royal Wing as well.’ She walked in the same manner as she talked—very fast—and soon they were in a hall with a large painting of a knight in grand, heavy armour. ‘Here’s the pages wing. Rooms are sorted by years, mostly, but that changes when the fourth years move out. First year moves into their old rooms, and so on with the next year. You’ll keep the room you get now for all four years, saves you from having to remember where your new room is. Can’t ask you to stuff one more fact into that brain—too hard to do after it’s been cracked open enough times, so I’m told.’

Lexa blinked.

The woman—Mistress Yuga, as she told Lexa, slipping it into their conversation between two separate and unrelated topics—stopped outside a door. It was made from warm brown wood and seemed sturdy. Lexa watched, amazed, as Mistress Yuga pressed a finger to the little brass plaque and writing began to stamp itself into the metal before her very eyes.

Page Alexandra of Haryse.

‘There,’ Mistress Yuga said, very satisfied with her own display of Gift. ‘Now, here is your key.’

She dropped it into Lexa’s hand and instructed her on how to use it—turn it in the lock, whisper her own name, turn it back.

‘After that, only you will be able to use the key. And myself, in case I need to get in or let Lord Padraig in. Your maid will have a copy as well, but she will be the only one who can use it. Nifty piece of magic, isn’t it?’ She grinned. Lexa blinked at her again, still overwhelmed by the wave of chatter. ‘Your things should have arrived already and if you want anything moved around, tell me sooner rather than later otherwise you’ll just have to wait until we find a free moment and I’ll tell you now, those don’t come ‘round very often. You’ll be sharing a maid with Octavia—that’s Page Danshame,’ she told her, and pointed to the door next to Lexa’s, about fifteen feet down the hall. ‘You’re close together so that won’t be any trouble. Now mind, the maid gets paid so don’t worry about giving her a salary unless you intend to hire her as your personal servant.’ Instructions done, Mistress Yuga gave Lexa one last warm smile before she took her leave. ‘Best of luck, Page Haryse.’

Lexa watched her go, imprinting in her mind the route they had taken and every little fact and detail Mistress Yuga had given her before it grew fuzzy. Then, a shiver of excitement in her belly, she slipped the key she’d been given into the lock and turned it, whispering her name. She turned it back again and the lock clicked.

She gave the door a light push.

It swung open easily, revealing a small room some five large steps across and ten deep and walls painted in the same cream of Lord Padraig’s office. There was a row of shuttered windows along the back wall and the drapes were made of stiff fabric, dark green, that would block out any sun when drawn. Tucked into the corner made by the left- and back-wall was a narrow bed; her bags had been delivered and set out upon it, awaiting her neatly. To the right were a heavy wooden desk, two chairs, and an empty bookcase. To her left was the door to the washroom.

Lexa closed the door quietly behind her and sagged a little, leaning her shoulders back against it as she surveyed her new home.

She had made it.

She was a page.

Without much to unpack, the next few hours passed excruciatingly slowly. She considered leaving to explore for herself but the disaster of trying to find the Head Maid’s room was warning enough that she probably shouldn’t. Instead, she took her time setting everything out as she liked it. She moved her clothes into the trunk at the end of her bed, shaking them out and folding them neatly. Her writing materials and the few books she brought with her went to the desk and bookshelf respectively. A thick blanket Mara made for last Midwinter she draped at the end of her bed.

At midday, there came a knock on her door. Lexa opened it to see the young woman who had brought her to Mistress Yuga’s office.

‘Hello?’

‘Page Haryse, my name is Thalia. I will be your maid.’

‘Oh. Hello,’ Lexa said again and the maid kindly tried not to smile at how foolish she sounded. Lexa flushed, feeling somewhat silly standing beside this very tall girl with her curls neatly pinned and her clothes so neat and fresh. Lexa realised that she was still in her riding clothes—smelling of horse and hay—and her flush deepened.

‘I’m not supposed to do this,’ the maid told her, ‘but they insisted. I brought you lunch, and a little extra. I also came to set up a bath for you.’

Lexa just nodded and stepped aside so that the woman could enter. She set down the tray—Lexa hadn’t noticed it, too busy staring at the woman with her quick smile and her amused brown eyes—on Lexa’s desk and disappeared into the washroom.

Next to the plate, Thalia had placed a book. Lexa picked it up, frowning. From inside the front cover, a handkerchief slipped out and she snatched it from the air before it could land on her meal. In the corner of the green cloth, the letters TH had been embroidered in fine silver thread. Lexa smiled down at her father’s handkerchief and folded it neatly on the desk. The book was pocket-sized and thin. Flicking through it, she saw it was a compendium of plants and animals, the sketches were done in careful detail and accompanying descriptions and information writ in neat script.

In the middle fold of the book was a letter in a familiar, spiking hand.

          My Lexa,

          The lovely Thalia has agreed to bring you lunch, as I'm certain you have forgotten. I'm writing this as I must tell you:  I have been set upon Urgent Business and must return home. By the time you receive this, I shall be out of Corus and racing the sun. Please be assured that Leuna shall be fed like a Queen upon our return—I will consider a gilded stall for her. Or perhaps a statue.
          I am deeply saddened that I will not be able to see you again before my leaving,

Lexa had time to read only that much before the door to the washroom opened. She tucked the note into her sleeve and turned to see her maid reappear; the woman smiled kindly at her again—perhaps she had not been laughing at her earlier, perhaps she simply took to smiling easily—and Lexa nodded her thanks.

‘Good luck, Page Haryse,’ Thalia called back over her shoulder, letting herself out.

Lexa waited until the door closed—and locked itself—before she set down the note and went into the washroom to examine the contents. A bath took up the far wall, steam curling off the surface of the water. A washbasin and mirror hung opposite the door, large enough that Lexa could see herself from the doorway if she wished. There was a shelf above the bath where some soaps and washes had been placed.

Lexa dumped her clothes in the hamper at her bedroom door. She folded the coat on top of the rest and wondered if the servants would need to be told to take care with it. She didn’t think they would but… After a moment's hesitation, she placed it in with the rest of her clothes. If it’s ruined, it’s ruined. She wouldn’t be wearing it any time soon anyway.

Scrubbed head to toe—twice—and dressed in clean clothes, Lexa returned to her desk. She pulled her father’s note open in front of her and began to read.

          My Lexa,

          The lovely Thalia has agreed to bring you lunch, as I'm certain you have forgotten. I'm writing this as I must tell you: I have been set upon Urgent Business and must return home. By the time you receive this, I shall be out of Corus and racing the sun. Please be assured that Leuna shall be fed like a Queen upon our return—I will consider a gilded stall for her. Or perhaps a statue.
          I am deeply saddened that I will not be able to see you again before my leaving, as I had hoped. As your Lord and father, I must insist you put any like misery out of mind! Even now, my grey countenance is improved as I think of you here in this Palace. The Lexa I know—upright, strong, and the most  person I have ever known—could, and may, turn the world any which way she desires. Your spirit burns bright—  fuel it.   Learn.   Set it purpose and train until you may face the challenges that will arise without a flicker of doubt. Keep Gustus at your right hand; build new friendships so that others will stand at your left and back. Metaphorically and literally.
          Though it may reflect poorly on me, please be assured that I look forward to the missives I am sure to receive from the training master regarding your disrespect. Do not pretend not to know what I mean! I know you, my girl—my years with you has taught me well that you are wild to the bone.

I am reminded that is time for me to leave.

I enclose but one request of you. Knowing well your record with dutiful obedience, I repeat that this is a request (though I confess to capitalising upon some claim of familial obedience and devotion): Remember that before anything else, you are Haryse born and raised. Keep this at your very heart. Remember us with pride. Let your father, and your people, embolden you and give you strength. We believe in you.

With all of my love,
Gods All Bless,
Your Proud Father

After a fourth time reading the letter, Lexa had memorised the contents, as well as the splotches at the start of the letter that told her he was having trouble finding the words to write. She closed her eyes—thought for a moment about him, his thoughtful eyes, bent over the letter and writing it out in his quick manner. Imagined his creased face lightening when he scrawled his jokes, which sent a pang through her remembering the long months of good humour she had missed being so displeased with him. She thought of the kiss he had pressed to her forehead and, with care, Lexa folded the letter in half and then again into quarters before slipping it into the drawer in her desk that locked with her door key.

She ate her lunch mechanically, moved onto cleaning and polishing her boots and weapons, and used the familiar tasks to think over everything her father wrote.


By the time she had finished with her boots and their little boot knives and moved onto her belt dagger, the fourth bell had long since rung. She was cleaning the polish off her dagger when a voice more suited to the battlefield than the narrow corridor of a palace called the order to ‘Fall out!’

Lexa slipped her blade into its sheathe. With a quick check in the mirror—hair finally neat, nothing on her face, clothing not too wrinkled—she pulled open the door and stepped out, stowing her key in the pouch on her belt.

Lord Padraig stood in the hallway, filling most of it. Is his head actually touching the ceiling or am I just imagining that?

‘Page Haryse.’ He singled her out—didn’t have to say anything else for her to know that any delay, even a few seconds, would not be tolerated. She nodded to him, once, and his gaze lifted away.

His was the only one for curious murmurs had filled the hall behind the training master.

Haryse?

‘Been a while since there’s been one, hasn’t it?’

‘Generations! Wonder what he’s like?’

‘Some little lordling, probably,’

‘It’s a girl.’

The whispers stopped when she stepped properly out into the hall. Her door closed behind her and she stood to attention in front of it, feet spaced under her shoulders and hands clasped behind her back. She lifted her chin and ignored the stares.

‘We have six new pages this year,’ Lord Padraig said to the pages gathered behind him in a messy knot of divided faces. Not just in colour and height—some were curious, others bored, and one tall blond boy smiled kindly at all of them. There was a hint of mischief in that expression and Lexa couldn’t tell if it were inviting or mocking.

Padraig was stopped just short of the page whose room was one down from Lexa’s—the Danshame page.

The page was thinner than Lexa, which Lexa hadn’t known was possible, and her dark eyes were huge in a gaunt face. Dark hair was pulled back in a horse tail and she didn’t seem able to stand still, fingers clenching and unclenching at her sides, a muscle jumping in her cheek as her eyes flicked from face to face. Despite the movement, there was no sign of what she was feeling, face impassive.

‘Name?’

‘Octavia of Danshame.’ After a pause, she added, ‘Sir.’ Her voice was lower than Lexa was expecting, rough but not unpleasant.

‘Page Octavia of Danshame,’ Padraig repeated. He looked down at her, steel eyes unreadable. ‘Who will sponsor Page Danshame?’

‘Page Dame’s Shame, more like,’ someone joked from the throng. It earned them a few chuckles; it also earned them the training master’s sharp attention.

‘Page Elden, one bell of work on Sunday. Starting early this year.’

‘Yes, my lord,’ Page Elden said, a note of remorse in his voice. His eyes—Lexa could see him once he’d sidled up to Padraig’s side—were amused.

He’s the smiling page, she recognised. The one with the Trickster’s look on him.

‘I thought to myself,’ the smiling page continued, ‘how can I prove my devotion? How can I throw myself back into the work and wonder of our lives here deeply and with dedication? There is only one method I know, milord, and a bell of work on Sunday ought to do it.’

‘Far be it from me to stand in the way of devotion,’ Padraig said. A sliver of a smile made him look more dangerous than normal, which was already quite dangerous. ‘Shall we make it two bells?’

‘Can you punish him yet?’ Lexa asked, curious. ‘I thought our year as a page hadn’t begun yet. You told me that, my lord.’ The hall fell silent. When Padraig turned to look down at her, she bit down on her tongue, the offending muscle. Stupid. ‘My lord,’

Your year has not begun, Page Hayrse,’ he told her, cutting off any apology before it began. She was glad of it—she wasn’t entirely sure it would have been a good one. His chilled tone assured her that the only reason she wasn’t earning a bell of work for the comment was because of that exact fact. ‘He has had two years to know that I do not abide fools.’

‘Yes, my lord,’ Lexa agreed.

The smiling page echoed her, bowing to Lord Padraig, and sank back into the throng. Before he disappeared, Lexa was sure she saw him wink at her.

Padraig returned his gaze to the now very pale and stiff Octavia. ‘I need a sponsor for this page,’ he said, no room for disagreement in his tone.

‘My lord?’ a quiet voice offered, someone’s hand lifting from the back row.

Padraig nodded. ‘Page Runnerspring. Thank you.’

Octavia narrowed her eyes at the page who had offered—a tall boy, with black skin and broad shoulders and calm, brown eyes. He stepped to the front, the other boys falling away in front of him with smiles. He was clearly well liked. He took his place next to Octavia, who scowled at him.

He didn’t seem to mind.

Leaving Runnerspring behind, Lord Padraig and the rest of the pages moved on. They stopped in front of Lexa.

‘Name?’

Lexa’s stomach flipped. She made to speak, only then realising how dry her mouth was. She licked her lips.

‘Page Alexandra of Haryse,’ she said, and held herself steady when most of her wanted to sag, relieved that her voice hadn’t come out strangled or cracked.

‘Who will sponsor Page Alexandra of Haryse?’

‘Milord—’

Not you, Elden.’

‘My lord,’ Elden said, ‘I am hurt.’

‘You shall hurt more after three bells of work.’

Elden turned over that statement before he swept a low, ostentatious bow. ‘The truth of your words tickles the gods’ ears, my lord. I’m sure I can find an appropriate alternative for my time.’

‘Your staffwork, maybe?’ another page jibed, and Elden feigned hurt before grinning.

Padraig flicked his eyes to Lexa, who hoped she didn’t look as worried as she felt.

There have been two ladies knighted since Mindelan, she reminded herself. Someone will sponsor you. Lady knights aren’t as ill-regarded as they had been. Someone will sponsor you.

Still, the wait seemed to stretch on forever before someone spoke.

‘I will sponsor her, my lord.’

Lexa’s eyes flew to the speaker. She was a head taller than the other pages, even the boys who looked to be of an age with her. Her skin was the warm brown Lexa associated with the K’miri traders, eyes narrow and thoughtful. Her brown hair was kept out of her eyes in a neat tail and her long face and frown made her look severe and serious.

Despite herself, Lexa gulped.

‘Page Anya of Tirragen.’ Lexa knew the title. The Tirragen family had been ill-regarded since the attempted revolt some twenty years ago. Only hours before, her father had warned her to steer clear. ‘You may sponsor Page Haryse,’ Padraig decided.

The girl stepped out of the group and bowed neatly to the training master. She came to stand next to Lexa as the others moved on; while she and Page Anya stood there in silence, regarding one another, Lexa was aware of a tall boy who had to be at least twelve, Ilian of Malven, whom the Prince Jasson chose to sponsor.

‘Hey.’ Lexa’s sponsor pitched her voice so it went to Lexa and no further. ‘Anya.’ She held out her hand.

Lexa looked down at it for a moment before taking it carefully, purposefully, in her own. ‘Alexandra.’

‘A big name for such a small page.’ Anya gave no hint that she was joking.

Lexa stared coolly back at the girl. If she were teasing, Lexa didn’t care. It was of no consequence to Lexa what anyone thought of her—she was here to train, not to make friends. If she wasn’t teasing her, then it was a non-comment and didn’t necessitate an answer.

Further down the hall, a Bazhir boy—Hasim ibn Nazri—was sponsored by another Bazhir boy. They looked too similar to not be related. An older brother, maybe, or a cousin.

Anya watched the procession, narrowed her eyes when Terrance of Seabeth, a slim, cheerful boy with very dark black skin, was chosen by a boy who looked remarkably like a mountain—glacier white hair on top and all hard muscle beneath.

‘That’s Melvin of Nond,’ she told Lexa quietly. ‘Steer clear of him.’ Her voice was quiet and grave. Lexa nodded. The final boy, Virgil of Whitehorn, was thin and pale and bore himself with a proud set to his mouth and chin that gave him a look of disdain, as though he considered the rest of the world unpleasant or uncouth. He was chosen by another boy Anya warned against—Perrin of Halleburn. ‘Careful with that one. Halleburn’s made it no secret that he doesn’t think girls should be here. His father is very conservative and very powerful.’

Lexa nodded. The name tickled something in her mind, beyond the memorised pages of the Books of Nobility. When, after a moment, it didn’t come to mind she set it aside to focus on Lord Padraig again.

The training master turned them loose with a few short words and took his leave. After bowing to him, most of the pages and their sponsors stayed where they were to talk quietly and make introductions.

Not Anya.

As soon as the ‘Dismissed’ dropped from Padraig’s lips, she was off. Lexa sighed and forced her aching legs to move. She passed the boy, Virgil, at the end of the corridor; as she did, Perrin Halleburn looked up and met Lexa with a vicious sneer. He did not care to hide it or diminish it. He seemed not to care who saw it, pure in his abrupt and apparent hatred. Lexa forced herself to move on without reaction, and without looking back, though she didn’t like knowing that he was behind her where no ally of her own stood. She caught up to Anya there at the corner but had to trot to keep up with her. Lexa suspected it would be a running theme until she had grown a little.

Please, she thought, though stopped herself before it became an appeal to the gods. They had some funny ideas on how to answer prayers, and the idea of another god coming to meet her scraped at something raw within her. She set the appeal loose instead, a whisper into the world instead of a prayer. Please let me grow soon.

‘What do you want to see?’ Anya asked her the very second she caught up.

Lexa tried not to sound too puffed when she replied. ‘Smith.  I want,’ she huffed, ‘to get my,’ another huff, ‘practice sword.’

‘Bloodthirsty,’ Anya commented. She looked down at Lexa. When Lexa looked up—and up and up—at her, there was a faint curl to her lips. ‘Sorry to break it to you, the practice swords are just weights. No balance to them.’

Lexa stopped.

Anya continued three paces down the hall before she noticed her absence. Stopping there, Anya turned, brows raised.

‘What?’

‘What’s the point of them, then?’

‘To get you used to carrying a sword. You get a proper one around Midwinter. Come on.’ She didn’t wait to see if Lexa followed, and marched on.

Lexa jogged after her.

‘This is the quickest way to the stables,’ Anya pointed down a corridor after a minute or two of walking in silence, the only other sounds the tap of boots on stone and Lexa’s quiet puffs. Lexa scrambled to find something about this corridor to distinguish it from all the others, to help her to remember, and fixed a long pale scratch along the stone wall in her mind. ‘Remember that. We’ll go to look over your horse and find a new one, if you need. Best to do it before the others.’

Lexa nodded.

‘I’ll point out the courts but it’ll be too dark to show you everything, we’ll do that tomorrow. Then to the tailor, I think.’

‘The smith—’

‘We need to pick up your harness,’ Anya said over her, ‘and clothes. Take them back to your room and then the other way is the smith. I have things to do, Haryse, this is the fastest way to get this over with.’

Lexa pressed her lips flat to keep from a sharp retort. It wouldn’t do to be hurt—Anya didn’t have to be nice, she just had to show her around.

‘Quickest way to the courts is that way.’ Anya pointed to a twisting staircase. ‘Just be careful. Sometimes people slick it up with oil or water and it’s a nasty fall.’ She rubbed absently at her hip—Lexa suspected she got caught that way, once or twice. ‘It also ices fair easily in winter so it’s always a bit shit. Better to go the long way.’

She knew everything about this place, or so it seemed. She didn’t speak as fast or constantly as Mistress Yuga had, but she had one or two facts about almost everything they passed: Sir Alanna kept her quarters in this corridor when she stayed at the Palace (which was infrequent but not uncommon); which places to be quiet and where it was okay to make some noise; who in the kitchens—by name and description—would be happy to provide a hungry page with some food; what meals were okay to skip, and which ones everyone had to be present for.

‘You’ll be having etiquette classes in this room.’ Anya pointed to a door that looked like every other door they’d passed. Lexa focused—there was a scratch on the door handle that had scraped off the polish or paint, that might be a way to recognise it, and the tapestry at the end of the hall had red edging and looked to be of some very ugly cow—and then Anya was off again.

At the stables, Anya checked over Alraed with a deft hand. Lexa’s mare tossed her head under the attention but quietened when Lexa glared at her.

‘Do not embarrass me in front of my sponsor,’ she murmured.

Alraed flicks her ears once as if to say I’ll do as I please.

‘She’s lovely,’ Anya told her, running her hand down the mare’s neck. She petted her in long, firm strokes and Alraed seemed to lose any desire of misbehaving instantly. ‘You’re beautiful, aren’t you?’ Anya murmured, checking each hoof, her teeth and eyes, and inside her ears. ‘Very well cared for. Was that Tobe or you?’

‘I groomed her this morning. Someone else did the tack today but I can do that too.’

Anya nodded. ‘Good.’ She gave Alraed one last stroke over her soft nose and let the mare snuffle at her pockets. When Alraed lipped out a chunk of apple, Anya flashed a grin so quick Lexa wondered if she had imagined it.

But she had no time to wonder over her stern sponsor—they were off and she was running again. This time uphill.

The tailors looked at Lexa like she was a particularly nasty person who chose to be as small as she was, just to make them work harder to make the clothes fit. With a little fuss, they did end up finding four sets of the rough practice clothes that would fit—they were a little big on her but ‘Children grow’ as the tailor snapped at Anya when she dared to snort—and four of the afternoon sets for their indoor classes. Another two sets of the finer tunics in that loud red and gold for the evening meals Lexa would be serving was added, plus a set of bedsheets on top of that, as well as a thick blanket—’For winter’—and the harness she would be expected to wear.

She tried not to lose her grip on the unwieldy pile.

‘If you need more, be ready to pay,’ the tailor told her, and Lexa nodded her thanks. She escaped into the hallway but Anya stopped her before she could go too far.

‘Better put the harness on straight away. Every extra second is an advantage,’ she said in a serious tone that told Lexa this was her first real lesson as a page. Anya pulled aside her own collar to show the harness beneath. ‘Over your shirt or it’ll chafe. Under the tunic so the boys don’t see. Take it off to sleep and in the bath. Any other time, it’s on. Got it?’ Lexa nodded. She let Anya help slip it on over her head and cinch the buckles—‘Just this first time, mind. Watch carefully.’

The harness was just leather and heavy cloth, and the buckles, but Lexa felt the weight drag at her already. She fought a scowl, knowing that it’d be that much harder to run after these long-legged monsters who pretended to be pages.

They dropped her clothes off in her room and then they were off again.

‘Smith now?’ she asked. She recalled what Anya said about the practice swords but still…

Anya rolled her eyes and strode on ahead.

Lexa slouched for a second before running after her.

The smiths was really just an armoury with a little forge to one side. Yes, there was a bigger one in the workshops below, the smith explained when Lexa asked him question after question. He was more forthcoming when Anya, whom the smith eyed warily, disappeared to dig through the bin of practice swords. On all of them, where the blade should have been, was a length of rolled metal. It’d be hurt to be struck with but wouldn’t cut. Of course, a particularly unlucky hit might break bone. She helped her to find the best of the lot for Lexa—it was, as Anya explained, nothing like a real sword but some of them had been much worse. Hers was at least the same length and weight as one of the swords the smith would be making for them to use later in the year.

By the end of the evening, Lexa knew where the dining hall was, the location of one of the small libraries—the one attached to the pages' wing they could use for homework—and the quickest path to the kitchens. She’d gotten her orders to be up at the dawn bell but not to be cheerful because ‘I can’t stand morning people,’ Anya had told her with a curl of a sneer.

Lexa bade her goodnight—which Anya returned with a grunt—and then she closed the door. Fully dressed, she laid on top of her covers and went to sleep.

Chapter Text

The dawn bell sounded like it was ringing right in her ear. It made Lexa jump and she tumbled right off her bed. Mind fuzzy with sleep, it took her a moment to realise why the monstrosity was ringing and why she’d fallen onto cold, rough stone instead of the plush rug she normally fell onto.

Bell. Dawn bell. I’m in the palace.

She pushed up to standing—or tried to. Halfway up, she teetered and fell sideways onto her bed. The muscles in her legs were tightly protesting yesterday’s treatment and for some long minutes, Lexa had to stretch and massage the worst of the knots from her thighs and calves, biting her lip against the pain. When she could finally move, she tottered into her washroom. The water from the taps was freezing but she didn’t have time to wait for warmth—instead, gritting her teeth, she dunked herself under, scrubbed quickly, and dressed quicker. She chose one of the practice uniforms she had been given, not sure exactly of what her sponsor intended for them to do today. After a moment of thought, she added the harness as well.

‘Better to look like a page in the royal wing than a lady covered in mud,’ she told herself sternly when her stomach clenched with nerves. She brushed her hair back into one thick braid and looked at herself in her mirror.

Had she always been this small? This pale? What must the other pages think of her—her with her tiny knobbled wrists and knees and—

Enough. Lexa turned firmly away from the mirror and marched to her door. You’ve never believed that foolishness about being weak before, you’re not about to start thinking it before you’ve even picked up a sword.

Her sponsor, all tall, muscled five foot five inches of her, was slouched against the wall opposite her room when Lexa emerged.

‘Oh good,’ she grunted, pushing away from the wall and standing straight with great reluctance. ‘You look like shit too.’ Lexa scowled but didn’t respond. She still didn’t know enough about this girl to tell if she was joking and, when Anya dropped a breakfast roll into her hands, she decided that it didn’t really matter. ‘Remember the way to the courts?’

Lexa nodded.

Anya yawned, waved a lazy hand. ‘Go on then. Prove it,’ she told Lexa, her voice thick with sleep.

A test already and it’s barely dawnLuckiest page ever, Lexa thought, mindful to keep unhappiness from her expression. Dredging through her memories of the night before, and what Anya had told her, Lexa started off down the corrider headed left after only a brief hesitation. At the next turn, she paused and looked up at Anya, who stopped a half step behind Lexa and regarded her own fingernails. Lexa would get no help from that quarter, evidently.

Lexa made her choice—it was the wrong one, she realised soon, and she flushed with embarrassment but her shadow said nothing at the detour, only followed her back the way they had come. Lexa relaxes a fraction; Anya might not help, but she wasn’t going to mock her.

Finally, Lexa found the twisting stairwell Anya had said was the quickest way to the courts. She was four steps down when something rose up around her feet— a feeling, a tickle against her awareness—and she slipped, feet skidding out from underneath her. She would have fallen despite the way her hands instantly grasped for something to cling to; that feeling that had risen around her feet surged to engulf her, stopped her from touching anything, from breaking her fall. What saved her was the hand that shot out quick as lightning and gripped at the shoulder of her harness.

Heart in her throat as she stared down into the black stairwell that twisted away out of sight, Lexa regained her footing when Anya dragged her up to the previous step. She looked back at the hand that held her, the corded tendons in Anya’s wrist, and then up at her face, which was smooth of any strain. Her sleepiness was gone too, so quickly that Lexa had to wonder if it had been faked.

‘You forgot,’ Anya told her.

If she was straining to hold her, Lexa couldn’t hear it in that morning gruff voice.

Forgot? Lexa closed her eyes, dipped her chin a little. ‘People put traps on the stairs,’ she recalled in a whisper. She stepped back fully onto safe ground—Anya held onto her until she was back in the corridor completely—and glanced down at the fourth step where the trap had been. She couldn’t see anything there but…Lexa struggled to remember what she had felt in that moment as the trap had struck. The tickle. She had never felt anything like it before and she wasn’t sure that she ever wanted to again.

Anya unhooked her fingers from the harness. She gave it a single tap before she pulled her hand back to her side. ‘Good thing you were wearing that.’

Lexa frowned. ‘You told me to.’

‘Didn’t mean you’d listen. Come on, practice courts this way.’

Lexa’s shoulders slumped. Her first test given to her by her sponsor and she’d failed. So what if she hadn’t wanted it? She had still wanted to do well.

‘What?’

Lexa shook her head. She followed Anya a few steps down the passage but the girl held out an arm across her chest and stopped her. She tapped an impatient foot.

‘I am tired, Haryse. Talk!’

‘I forgot,’ Lexa admitted. ‘I forgot about what you said and now I don’t get to finish.’

‘Finish what?’

‘Going to the courts. Finding my way.’

Anya narrowed her eyes. She rocked back onto her heels, ran a hand over her hair. ‘Don’t be too hard on yourself. No one expects you to know everything or remember everything. I’m not mad you forgot—’

‘But you won’t let me keep going!’

‘—I’m mad,’ she continued, tone cooling as she glared to let Lexa know she doesn’t love being interrupted, ‘because someone tried to bruise my page before I got a chance to.’

Lexa looked up at Anya from under her lashes, trying to gauge how serious she is.

Anya smirked. ‘Relax, page. But not too much. I’d hate for some idiot boy to crack your skull open on the first day.’

In a flat tone, Lexa told her sponsor, ‘Several people have said that now and it’s not reassuring.’ Anya just shrugged. ‘So… Can I find another way to the courts? I can do it,’ she insisted and Anya’s smirk grew the tiniest bit into something softer. Lexa might even have categorised it as fond. With that, Anya returned to her earlier function, the perfect follower—thumbs tucked into her belt, eyes guarded, face smooth. No hints would come from her. Lexa took it as permission and strode away with renewed purpose. She took the passage she knew led to the stables and heard her sponsor follow.

As they moved further away from the stairwell, Lexa wondered if she should tell Anya about the thing she had felt. The more she considered it though, she knew that she couldn’t. She wouldn’t even know how to begin to describe it—Anya would think her mad if she spoke about something waiting for her on the steps that had felt silver-grey and slick and smug, in a way that wasn’t quite intelligent but almost. She shook her head faintly. No. She wouldn’t tell Anya. It was early; she was tired and had a fright. She’d imagined it—that’s all.

‘Not bad,’ Anya told her when Lexa led her to the huge passageway that opened onto the first big practice court. ‘There are a few passages that can shave off a minute or two but,’ she shrugged, nodded, ‘not bad.’ Lexa puffed up a little with the praise and Anya shoved her. ‘Not that great,’ she drawled. ‘Wipe that grin off.’

She strode off toward the arch and Lexa jogged after. Still grinning.

They were almost there when Lexa heard something out of place. The soft shush of boot against stone. Not altogether out of place, but it fell outside of their own two paces and so Lexa listened harder and, when she placed it, sped up a bit to walk next to Anya.

‘There’s someone following us.’

‘Hmm?’ Anya glanced down at her. Lexa found it easier to keep up all of a sudden and realised that Anya had adjusted her stride by a fraction. ‘Yeah. For a while,’ she said without inflection. ‘Nond’s boy. What’s his name?’

They didn’t step out of the hall, waiting beneath the arch for a loaded wagon to trundle past.  Lexa dared a look behind them to the boy who loitered at the turn of the passage. ‘Terrance,’ she told Anya, the glimpse refreshing her memory. ‘Terrance of Seabeth.’

Anya clicked her fingers. ‘Seabeth. That’s right.’

He must have heard his name because he stepped forward and then, when they didn’t leave or glare at him, jogged to catch up. He waved a little awkwardly when he was a only a few paces from them.

‘Good morning! Terrance of Seabeth—call me Terry!’ He was dressed the same as Lexa, save for the knife on his belt, which had a wrapped grip of beautifully dyed blue. She couldn’t see the outline of his harness and she wondered if he chose not to wear it or if his sponsor hadn’t taken him yet.

‘Anya of Tirragen,’ her sponsor introduced herself and, without Lexa’s leave, continued, ‘and Alexandra of Haryse.’

He bowed to them both. ‘Good morning!’ he said again. ‘I don’t want to intrude…’

‘Then don’t,’ Lexa suggested.

Anya clamped a hand down on her shoulder. She barely felt it over the harness but the warning was clear enough. ‘Where is your sponsor, Page Seabeth?’

Terrance’s bright smile, which had slipped at Lexa’s comment, slipped a fraction more. ‘Oh, er. Well—it’s early,’ he explained. ‘I don’t want to bother him overmuch and,’

Anya cut him off with a quiet, ‘The truth, lad.’

His shoulders slumped. ‘I don’t know. I thought maybe he chose me because our fathers fought together before but…he told me to do what he says when he says and then he left and I,’ Terrance sighed. ‘Well, I don’t quite know what to do. Or where to go, or how to do anything, and I didn’t want to bother anyone. You two look friendly, though!’

Lexa started. She hadn’t meant to. She scowled fiercely and was satisfied when Terrance eased away a little.

‘Nond is…disagreeable,’ Anya told him, the words and tone too mild to mean anything but severe understatement. Lexa gave a start when she realised that the words were directed to her as well; looking up at her sponsor, she saw that the other girl only looked amused by Lexa’s scowl. Anya turned back to Terrance. ‘It’s not your fault, Seabeth. Just rotten luck. You’re welcome to come on with us—you’ll be using the courts too. If that’s alright with Page Haryse,’ she asks with a touch of formality.

Between Terrance’s pleading look—annoying—and Anya’s amusement at her expense—terrible—Lexa folded. She nodded, if a little grudgingly. She even wiped her scowl away. But, when Terrance bounded to stand next to her, she raised her eyes to the heavens and asked silently for considerable patience.

‘I’m sorry,’ he whispered to Lexa when Anya strode away. ‘I didn’t mean to join you, honest. I thought I could learn a bit if I followed you, that’s all. I swear it.’

Lexa sighed. He sounded so curst sincere that she had to accept that she was being foolish—Anya was her sponsor, yes, but she was also obviously a decent person. Lexa looked sideways and met his wide honest eyes.

‘It’s alright. My apologies. I’m too prepared to fight for everything, I think.’ She admitted it with a tiny smile and it made him laugh. Lexa lightened a little more. Before that day, her little Haryse family had been the only ones to laugh at her comments. ‘I didn’t think but…It’s not just girl pages they dislike, is it?’

Terrance shook his head no. After a moment, he grinned. ‘Let’s not be mistaken though—they dislike girl pages the most.’

His kind laughter followed her when she walked off in a huff after Anya.

They were walking past a long court of compact brown dirt that puffed up in tiny clouds under their steps. The grass had started to creep into the ground on the edges, under the heavy wooden railings that outline the rectangle court.

Anya began to speak when they caught up. ‘Here’s the first court. This is where we learn hand-to-hand. Some years we’ve got a Shang visitor but there haven’t been any since my first year. Heard we’ve someone new this year.’ They made it to the end of the first court and walked down the short width of it to where a little dirt path carried them down to the second court. Anya planted both hands on top of the rail and popped herself right over it, swinging both legs over the top with ease.

Lexa, riddled with awe, resigned herself to slipping through the gap in the rails, ducking her head to avoid the top one. She was glad to see that Terrance does the same, and even gladder to see that he too eyed Anya with admiration.

‘Second court, this is for staff training. Probably it’ll be with Sir Fared again—he’s good. Really good. There might be some sword work here later, sometimes Lord Padraig has us up against staffs. That’s good training. Third court,’ she pointed but didn’t bother walking down the hill to it. There was a long patch of dirt there where she pointed, slimmer than the first and second but just as long. ‘Archery,’ Anya explained and, now that she was looking for them, Lexa could see the targets set twenty-five and fifty paces from the fence. ‘Luckily, the targets are set that way so no one gets hit by a stray. Of course,’ she continued with deliberate nonchalance, ‘if we’re particularly slack in training, sometimes Padraig threatens to change that.’

‘As a joke,’ Terrance added. Anya said nothing. Terrance’s face fell. ‘As a joke, right?’

Ignoring him, Anya continued on. ‘There’s the stable, we’ve been there already so get Nond to look over your horse. Or an hostler,’ she added with a grimace. He nodded, resigned. ‘Past the stable, you see that big field? That’s part of the riding set for jousting and the rest of the lance practice. Padraig’s not as good as Wyldon but he’s fair enough.’

Lexa stood on her tiptoes to peer down at the long field. There were quintains set up and beyond them one lone rider was putting themself through their paces on a huge horse that looked too big for them. They held neither lance nor weapon of any other kind so Lexa guessed they’re on a morning ride.

‘Alright, Terrance.’

‘Terry!’ he corrected cheerfully.

Anya and Lexa sighed. As nice as he was, it was still too early for so much cheer.

‘Terry,’ Anya agreed. ‘We’ll take you to the tailor and smith.’

‘We will?’

‘Yes.’ That warning hand returned to Lexa’s shoulder. She sighed. She didn’t not like Terrance—she just hoped that they might do something else today. ‘And… I wouldn’t say anything ordinarily, but about Nond—’

‘No need for warnings, Anya—may I call you Anya? Thank you. I’ve met people like him before.’ Terrance shrugged. ‘I know to avoid him if I can. And it’s not all bad. Well, he is, I think. Bad, that is. But having him as a sponsor means that I’ve also met two girl pages who are very nice.’

Lexa scowled again. Annoyingly, this time he grinned outright.

‘A bright outlook on it,’ Anya drawled. ‘Come along then.’

They did take Terrance ‘Call-me-Terry’ to the tailor and to the smith and then, to Lexa’s guilty relief, they returned him to his room.

They walked away in silence, which was almost awkward after Terrance’s chatting through the morning but soon settled into a comfortable quiet. Anya pointed out her own room when they passed it; she didn’t take Lexa inside, but Lexa did not begrudge her the privacy. Anya walked them down to the kitchens—the smell of baked bread and fresh-cooked meat filled the passage with a tantalising lure and Lexa’s stomach growled.

Anya glanced down to her, surprise in the slight lift of her brows. ‘I could swear I fed you not an hour ago.’

‘I’m a growing page,’ Lexa answered her primly, nose turned up. The morning exercise and the excitement of being in a new place—the palace, no less—finally had worked together to loosen her tongue.

‘Let’s hope,’ Anya returned, and laughed when Lexa scowled a defeated scowl.

Despite the early hour, the kitchens were busy. A team of workers—Lexa guessed twelve, though she couldn’t be sure as they disrupted her attempts to count them by moving in and out of the next room (the pantry, Lexa assumed, despite never having seen one so large)—prepared the days food, carving meats and fruit, baking breads and pies, and carrying wheels of cheese as tall as Lexa’s torso. The staff spared the pages a look but didn’t pause. Anya entered, with Lexa at her heels.

One woman who Lexa would place at about twenty looked up at their approach but didn’t stop her kneading. She was taller than Anya by an inch or so but broader, with biceps that would make even Gus whistle with appreciation. Biceps that were rock hard as she worked the dough in front of her, dusting the yellowed mixture with white flour. There was a smear of it across her forehead and it showed stark against her dark skin; she was Catharki, Lexa was fairly sure of that, not just from her features but also the banded tattoos about her wrists that freed slaves sometimes got, the ones that darkened the wrist scars to near invisible. Lexa’s gut twisted. She fixed her eyes on the man who was carving the cheese into impressively small slices.

‘Good morning, Anya.’

‘Good morning, Havassah,’ Anya returned. ‘This is Alexandra, I’m sponsoring her.’

For some reason, that made the woman pause in her work. ‘This is your page?’ She tilted her head to one side and then the other. ‘She’s cute. Small.’ Lexa bristled. ‘There, you’re all the same,’ she continued, laughter thickening her accent. ‘Very sensitive about your, what’s the word?’

‘Height? Size?’

‘Yes, those.’ Havassah looked over Lexa, her hands working the dough again without pause. ‘I am pleased to meet you, Alexandra. If you need food come to me. Day and night.’

‘We aren’t allowed out past lights out,’ Anya reminded her.

‘Yes, no page has ever done that,’ Havassah agreed, tone so flat Lexa knew she had to be joking. She stifled a giggle, mostly—it was strange to see Anya, her sponsor she already so admired, older and wiser (and taller), treated with the easy and playful teasing an older sibling might use. ‘You listen to your Anya,’ she told Lexa. ‘She is not always fun but she is very clever. But for food…’ She trailed off, lifted her brows.

Lexa realised after a beat that she was expecting an answer. ‘I come to you?’

Havassah nodded. ‘Very good.’ She sent Lexa off then, to the other side of the kitchen to pick out a few rolls and fruit. And, Lexa saw when she turned around, so that she could talk to Anya alone.

Lexa took her time until Anya shot her an impatient look that meant she knew what Lexa was doing. She trotted back, laden down, and handed half her score to Anya. Taking their treats, they returned to the courts.

As they walked, Anya told her the rest of the more unspoken rules. ‘Wear your sword at all times, even if the boys laugh at you.’ She glanced down at Lexa’s hip, where her sword was conspicuously not sitting. Lexa flushed pink and nods. ‘Don’t talk back to Padraig—he doesn’t like it. Not even if it’s funny. Especially if it’s funny,’ Anya amended thoughtfully. ‘Elden’ll swear up and down on everything short of the Great Gods themselves that he heard the man laugh once but I don’t believe a word from him. You shouldn’t either.’

They stopped by the stables and sat on the railing there. Anya balanced their small basket on the post between them and divvied up the selection.

‘What else? Don’t worry too much about getting bells—everyone does. The masters like to give them out all the time. To build character, to keep us out of other trouble. As actual punishment for not finishing assignments,’ Anya shrugged. She swallowed her lunch quickly and started on an apple. A pony that trotted up to investigate them was awarded a treat, one of the apples that Anya cut into pieces and handed off slice by slice. ‘No one gets enough good behaviour to visit the City in their first year, you’ll probably be getting Sunday bells for months. Padraig gives free afternoons around Midwinter but it’s only because he wants one for himself. And never say you can’t do anything—that’s important.’

‘But what if I can’t?’ Lexa asked, finally done with her lunch.

‘Tell them you failed.’ Anya patted the pony, showed off her empty hands. The pony’s soft nose snuffled at her palms before doing the same to Lexa—finding nothing, the pony blew out a stream of unhappy air and left with a flick of its tail. ‘Greedy little things,’ she said with some affection.

‘What’s the difference?’

‘Hmm?’

‘Between I can’t and I failed. What’s the difference?’

Anya looked at her, expression clear. What do you think? it read in the challenging set of her brows, the shrewd look to her eyes.

Lexa plucked an apple from the basket. Across the field, the pony eyed her. ‘If I say I can’t…it means I’ve given up?’

Anya nodded. ‘Her Highness is coming back round,’ she warned, nodding to the pony. Lexa grinned and slipped out her knife, cutting the apple into slices just as Anya had done. ‘Don’t worry, Haryse, I’ll train you up,’ she promised. The sun was high and everything smelled of fresh bread and crisp apple and horse and Lexa found that she trusted her sponsor. ‘Can’t have anyone thinking I picked the wrong page, can I?’

Lexa was fairly certain the question was rhetorical but answered with a firm ‘No’ to be safe.

‘Well, I think that’s it.’ Anya brushed crumbs off her hands and breeches and hopped down from the railing. ‘Questions?’

She gave the pony an obliging scratch as Lexa thought it over.

In the bright near-noon sun, Lexa found it easy to contemplate the very horrific things she had been wondering about. Do you have recurring visions of your own violent death, and Do you know what a god might mean about danger within the city? And also more personal questions like, Do we have to go into the Forest, which she had found out just that morning made her skin crawl with unease. And questions she didn’t think Anya would want to answer, like, Why does everyone look at you like you’re scum?

‘No,’ she said and clapped her hands free of crumbs. She stepped down more carefully from the railing. No, she repeated more firmly, that time just to herself. There were some things she couldn’t ask Anya, not when she’d only known her for a day. No matter how much she liked her.

Anya returned her to her room and Lexa thought about visiting Gus, but she remembered what she had been told. It was her last free day of possibly her whole life. With excellent foresight, though she did not know how excellent at the time, Lexa fell into bed, managing to get under the covers that time, and closed her eyes.

In three breaths, she was asleep.


As it turned out, she needn’t have been concerned about neglecting Gus.

The dawn bell rang. Lexa fell out of her bed onto the floor. That time, the knowledge that she was in the palace came quicker and it was followed even more quickly by the realisation that this morning she would begin her lessons. In what would become her routine for much of the year, Lexa dragged herself to the washroom and dunked her head into a basin of cold water. It was bracing and as she scrubbed the numb sensation from her cheeks with a towel she was far more awake, though not more cheerful. Dressing quickly in her training clothes and pulling on the harness—which took less time than it had the day before as she grew familiar with the thing—she worked through a set of the strengthening exercises Gus had taught her. To quell her nerves as much as for their true purpose. They made her legs in particular ache in a good stretch—as it happened, running up and down steps and chasing after her monster-legged sponsor used different muscles than running through her village had.

At half-past the hour, she washed her face and hands and pulled on her boots. Just as she was about to lock the door behind her, she ducked back in for her practice sword.

Taking one of Anya’s shortcuts to the kitchens, Lexa moved quickly and quietly through the early morning. Her steps were near silent on the stone, something she took private satisfaction in. True, it was nothing near as difficult as it was in the forest of her home, but she did enjoy sneaking around. Not a truly knightly trait, perhaps, but what others didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them. And would only benefit her. Advantage aside, she had learned some of her best curses from those she had surprised with the talent.

This time, she took care to keep to the walls and move quietly—not because she wanted to sneak but because she doubted anyone, save the pages, needed to be awake at such an early hour.

The side door to the kitchens, the one that brought the servants closer to the private rooms in the pages' wing, was open a fraction and chatter and smells drifted out into the hall. As tempting as breakfast was, a name made her stop short of the light.

‘—Tirragen mot. Surprised she came back again!’

‘You know these pages. More fight than sense.’

‘Aye, but this un’s a girl. Great Mother, she gives mots more sense ’n our menfolk. Gods bless ‘em.’ The older woman spoke about menfolk the way the girl back in Haryse had spoken about her stupid chickens—fond and exasperated. ‘Mithros knows we need ‘em t’ keepus safe but the good Mother knows we are meant ’t keep ‘em happy. None o’ this fighting—ain’t right. You saw th’ other two? The new uns.’

‘I did.’ The younger woman sounded a little short with her companion, not sharing the same joy in the gossip.

The older woman didn’t seem to notice. Or, if she did, didn’t mind. ‘Unnatural, that’s what it is. Oh, I know them what have their shields say they wasn’t magicked but it’s plain as Lady Arre—they ain’t right, Vera, ’n there’s no two ways ‘bout it.’

Lexa inched forward to peer in; she wanted to put faces to names, especially the woman who thought her magicked. Two women were bent over a sturdy wood table to the side. The older one, with white hair and a face all wrinkled, looked to be almost as tall as Gus but slender as a reed. There was a stern set to her mouth and Lexa fixed her in mind as someone to avoid. The other woman was much younger and sweetly plump. Somewhere around her mid-twenties, her dark brown hair was chopped short around her ears. Lexa couldn’t make out anything else distinctive about her, not before her foot slipped on fresh-washed stone as she peered in and she nudged the door with her shoulder, making it creak.

Lexa pulled back, covered her mouth to stopper a gasp.

Had the girl seen her? Lexa thought maybe—had caught a glimpse of a frown, brown eyes on her. Seen or not, did the girl know who she was?

‘Someone there?’ the old woman called, cracked voice stern. ‘Come out now—no loiterin’! There’s work t’ be done!’ She waited a moment before huffing. ‘Vera, go see. If it’s Annis you tell her I’ll be havin’ none of her slack.’

‘I’ll tell her, grandmother. Bread's near done.’

The girl, Vera, stepped out into the hall patting flour off her hands onto her apron. Lexa hadn’t gone far and the girl looked at her, shook her head when Lexa opened her mouth to explain herself, which was a relief, as Lexa had no ready explanation to give. Glancing into the kitchen, Vera disappeared into it. She reappeared a moment later with a handkerchief of clean, white cloth and three rolls wrapped in it.

‘Here. You pay her no mind, hear?’ There was a kindness the brisk words, and the gesture. ‘You run on now—an’ tell that sponsor of yours all her troubles’ve been dealt with. Got that?’

Lexa nodded. She took the package from Vera, smelled the cheese-and-sausage rolls Anya had picked for herself yesterday.

‘Thank you.’

Vera shook her head. She glanced back to the kitchen again. ‘Some think th’ ways we done’ll hold forever. Never mind the K’mir women fight, never mind the Yamani woman among th’ most feared in th’ world. If it means aught to ye t’hear it… Seems t’ me you, and th’ other lady knights, yer just th’ only ones brave enough to do sommat.’ A call from inside the kitchen made Vera sigh. ‘I’ve work t’ do. Enjoy yer food. An’ don’t ye forget—ye’ve more on yer side than might first appear.’ She reached over, pinched Lexa’s cheek. Lexa allowed the gesture because she was hungry and because Vera had been nice—and also because the woman had a grip of iron and she couldn’t get free.

Handkerchief in hand, Lexa trotted to the courts.

Avoiding the twisting staircase.

Anya was leaning against the fence of the first court when she arrived. She was all slumped and yawning, slit-eyed with sleep, but she didn’t look surprised at all when Lexa stopped next to her. She did seem surprised by the offer of breakfast but took one with thanks, biting into it. The corners of her mouth ticked up a little.

‘Vera says all your troubles have been dealt with.’

Anya swallowed ‘Did she now?’ she asked, but it doesn’t sound like a real question. More of a warning.

Lexa listened to the warning and just nodded. ‘Does she always maul pages?’ She demonstrated, mimed pinching a cheek. It made Anya snort.

‘No. You’re just particularly small and cute.’ Lexa crinkled her nose. ‘That’s a hold you won’t learn how to get out of until next month too so either avoid her or let her do it.’

‘Next month?’

‘Yeah. First, you have to learn how to fall.’

‘But I know how to fall!’

‘You do?’

‘She’d better,’ a quiet rumble of a voice said from behind them and way up over Lexa’s head. Anya went very still. She turned slowly to face the man, who barely looked at her, too intent on Lexa. ‘Well, page? Know how to fall?’

‘Yes.’ Anya stepped on her foot. ‘Yes sir?’ she corrected herself, hoping that was what Anya meant, and then she unfolded her handkerchief and offered him one of the rolls. Anya’s hidden panic was replaced by visible concern for the mental state of her page.

‘We’ll see,’ Gus muttered. He wasn’t trying to sound ominous; he also wasn’t much of a morning person. He took one of the rolls, lifted it to his nose. Sniffed at it, nostrils flaring. ‘What’s in this?’

‘Cheese. And sausage.’

He grunted and disappeared half the roll in one bite. ‘Who’s this?’ he asked around the mouthful, jerked a thick thumb sideways to Anya.

Lexa went still. She peeked up at him from under her lashes, considering her answers, before saying both truthfully and very innocently, ‘My sponsor.’ For some reason, her most innocent expression didn’t seem to work; Gus squinted at her, suspiciously, and made a small motion for her to continue. ‘My sponsor…Anya of Tirragen.’

‘Tirragen,’ he repeated. He looked like he was trying not to laugh; from Anya’s set expression, and the way she steeled herself when he shifted his gaze to her, she didn’t see amusement in his eyes.

‘Yes, my lord.’

‘Ha! I’m no lord,’ Gus said around the rest of his roll. He brushed crumbs from his chest. One hit Lexa and she crinkled her nose, taking a step back and out of the radius of danger. The move drew his attention and he said again, ‘Tirragen?’, this time with a question in his voice. Lexa nodded. He opened his eyes wide, looking up at the sky in a silent plea – for forgiveness? Help? Someone to share in his amusement? ‘Couldn’t wait a day t’ disobey him.’

Lexa shrugged. Technically, this hadn’t been her fault—Anya had picked her.

‘Aye well. Tirragen.’ He looked at her appraisingly. ‘Lord mentioned you, now I think on it. Said you know some holds they teach in the tribes?’ Anya nodded. ‘I’d like t’ see ‘em sometime.’

‘Yes sir.’

‘Good. It’ll have to wait, though.’ He nodded a goodbye to both of them; the training master strode down the hill to the court and Gus moved to intercept him. They walked onwards together.

Anya returned, slowly, to her disaffected lean. The railing propped her up enough that she could tilt her head and speak right into Lexa’s ear. ‘You didn’t tell me you knew Captain Bruin.’

Lexa shrugged a shoulder. ‘You didn’t tell me you spent the summer with your mother’s tribe.’ She’d heard the rumour four times in the pages corridor, and at dinner the night before, and that morning so she was fairly certain it was true.

‘Why would I? I’ve known you for a day. Less.’

Lexa fixed her sponsor with a steady look. She lifted her brows—why should she give up secrets, even one she hadn’t know was a secret, if Anya didn’t have to?

The very corner of Anya’s lips flicked upwards. ‘Fair enough.’

They stood in companionable silence until Lord Padraig clapped Gus on the shoulder, a dismissal if Lexa had ever seen one but one that Gus didn’t seem to mind. The great bell rang out from over the castle and Anya nudged Lexa forward to join the rest of the pages. They fell into a line—first-years at one end, fourth-years at the other—and it was obvious by the way some pages shuffled and leaned and craned their necks that pages were missing.

Padraig said nothing. He held his hands clasped behind his back, posture impeccable in military rest, straight and tall and easy to hold. Lexa eyed him up and down and then copied the pose.

Not more than a minute later, three boys came sprinting down the hill to fall into line, panting.

One came to stand next to Lexa—the irritating boy, Terrance of Seabeth. He grimaced apologetically at her.

‘Seabeth!’ Padraig barked. Terrance jumped. ‘Why are you late?’

The boy opened his mouth to answer but the words stuck in his throat. Lexa peeked sideways, wondering if he were scared. But no—his eyes slipped over to an older boy, Melvin of Nond, and Lexa gathered it wasn’t his fault he was late. She wondered what he’d say.

‘No excuse, my lord. It won’t happen again.’

Lord Padraig stared at him. Then, ‘One bell of work this Sunday. Do not make this a habit.’

‘Yes, my lord. I won’t, my lord.’ Terrance bowed.

‘Hannalof, Nond. Two bells on Sunday. You’ve both had more than enough time to know that when I say sixth bell I mean the sixth bell.

Lexa’s eyes widened—she had thought that her father’s cold fury was impressive but it was nothing compared to Lord Padraig’s absolutely chilling tone. She wondered if that was something he’d teach them later.

‘Captain Bruin,’ Padraig said before the pages under his glare got frostbite. ‘I turn them over to you.’

A series of murmurs moved up and down the column of pages.

Those pages unused to Gus—all of them—were surprised when he stepped forward and came sharply into focus. Apparently, none of them had taken note of the man. Lexa smothers a grin. After all, the only reason she had known he was there was because she knew him. And even then, he managed to surprise her sometimes.

Now that he was no longer simply some man loitering near the court, now that he was to be their trainer, the pages took an interest in him. Now, they could see that he was tall and—when he shrugged off his cloak and draped it over the rail—that he was less of a man and more of a collection of enormous muscle that happened to take on the form of a man. He lumbered over to Padraig, and squinted a deceptively mild squint at them all.

‘Morning, milord,’ he greeted, voice a rumble. He waited for a nod before wandering forward and, eyes glinting with good humour Lexa suspected only she could see, held out his hand to her.

He’s gonna murder that little lass,’ Lexa heard from further down the line. Powered by spite, as she often was, her hand shot forward to take hold of Gus’s.

He held it for a moment. And then, he pulled.

She ignored the instinct to pull back—or to use the momentum to power a kick—and let herself fly over Gus’s hip; the ground rushed up toward her and she slapped the ground, dust puffing up under her palms. Intimately familiar with this practice—as he had insisted on waking her in this manner every morning of their journey to Corus—it was easy to hit the ground and pop back up onto her feet.

Patting dust off onto her breeches, Lexa trotted back into line, ignoring the surprise on everyone’s faces.

Not Padraig, she noted from her place beside the particularly surprised Terrance. He would never let anyone see him surprised.

Gus held his hand out next to Terrance. Because Gus saw his surprise too? Lexa wondered, and dismissed the thought as quickly. Gus didn’t have a vindictive bone in his body, certainly not toward eleven-year-olds. And then she craned her neck to watch Terrance go flying—and winced as he hit the ground. Hard.

‘Ouch.’

Gus crouched down next to Terrance and spoke to him quietly for a moment. At one point, he held his hands out in front of him and pushed in the air. Terrance sat up from his prone position and listened with a determined frown. Then, he nodded twice to something Gus asked him; Gus smiled and patted him on the back. Gus stood, faster than anyone might reasonably expect from someone so large, and took Terrance’s hand, flinging him all the way back to the line of pages. Terrance landed a few inches short and this time, Terrance slapped the ground.

Terrance stood, staggered a little, and retook his place by Lexa.

He grinned. ‘I say,’ he said, cheerfully, ‘that’s a hands-on approach!’

Lexa rolled her eyes. There were a few quiet groans down the line from other pages who overheard the comment.

With an amused snort, Gus—Captain Bruin, she should really start thinking of him—moved on down the line. ‘Most important thing to learn,’ he said. ‘Falling. You can fall from just about anything and everything so learning to do it properly is vital.’

‘Captain Bruin.’ An older page—Perrin, Lexa recalled, and narrowed her eyes at him. Gus nodded for him to speak and Lexa, remembering the discomfort she felt when the boy watched her, hoped whatever he said would be stupid enough that her friend would toss him far into the forest where he couldn’t find his way out again. ‘What about us older pages?’

‘What about you?’

‘Well,’ he drawled, ‘we know how to fall.’

Gus stared at the boy for a long moment. He was slouching so the boy only had to crane his neck a little to meet his eyes. ‘What’s your name, page?’

‘Perrin. Perrin of Halleburn.’

‘Hmm.’ Quick as a whip, he grabbed Perrin by the shoulders and, no fancy move or throw, literally tossed him down the court.

Not as far as the forest, Lexa saw, disappointed.

‘Tell me,’ Gus asked the rest of them. ‘Did he slap the ground?’

Perrin groaned.

‘I didn’t think so. Get back in line,’ he ordered, and promptly ignored Perrin again. Perrin slunk to his feet and obeyed, glaring the whole way. ‘This isn’t like learning how to saddle your horse or learning your multiples. You don’t learn to fall once and think it sticks—you fall every morning for the rest of your life,’ he impressed on them, black eyes weighing on each of them in turn. ‘You practice it over and over again knowing that someday it might be what saves your life. Now. Who wants to go next?’

By the time they moved onto staff practice, each of them had amassed a collection of bruises from Gus, who clapped Lexa on the shoulder and promised with a look of muted glee to return the next morning and give them some more.

Their staff trainer was a Bazhir man, slender and shorter than both Lord Padraig and Gus but with squared shoulders and a confident stance born of hard training, not station. He listened to Lord Padraig even as he nodded to each of the pages, eyes flicking over each of them—their faces, the way they walked, their first moments of holding the staff picked out from the bin.

‘Line up!’

The milling lot snapped to attention when Padraig called to them and fell into the same uneven line as before that the Bazhir, using Padraig as a distraction, neatened with not-so-gentle taps of his staff to their ankles.

‘This is Sir Halef ibn Fared. He will teach you how to use a staff. The staff is the primary long pole of pages and squires—at a pinch, it will hold the enemy off long enough for someone trained to come to your rescue. Is there a problem with that, Malven?’ he demanded from the frowning boy.

‘No, sir!’

‘Then why the long face?’

Ilian of Malven was a first-year page as well, but two years older and big. He stood a full head taller than Lexa, with broad shoulders and very little neck. Even less when he hunched under the training master’s attention. His thick eyebrows and full lips, set into a flat line, gave him a menacing air at odds with his hesitant words.

‘I only thought…shouldn’t we defend ourselves? Instead of needing to be rescued?’

The training master nodded. ‘Very good, Malven.’

The compliment made Malven’s eyebrows lift, revealing warm hazel eyes.

‘That is the end goal. However, as pages, if you are in a situation that requires you to defend yourself, I command you to stay alive. Everything out there is bigger, meaner, and better trained. Even bigger than you, Malven.’ The boy grinned good-naturedly. ‘You hold off the enemy until help arrives or you run. Understood?’ Lord Padraig shifted his attention so that all of the pages felt his stare.

‘Yes sir!’

‘Good. Sir Fared?’

‘Thank you, my lord.’ Several of the pages jumped, having forgotten the man behind them. ‘Third, fourth years, pair up. You have ten minutes to panic about how much you’ve forgotten before I get to you.’ The older pages grinned—some of them more nervously than others—and moved off to the side. ‘Second years, pair up—I want you to show our newest pages what I expect.’

The staff work turned out to be fairly straightforward, for the first-year pages anyway.

Lexa hadn’t worked with a staff before, past using one as a hiking stick, but neither had the Danshame page, nor Ilian, who Lexa was paired with. He showed surprising skill, big hands less clumsy than she had assumed, and she decided there and then that she wouldn’t underestimate anyone based on what they look like ever again.

Better to learn it now, she told herself, than when it might get me killed.

Lexa and Ilian traded tentative blows for the first few rounds of Sir Fared’s calls of ‘High! Middle! Low!’ and when they had the measure of one another, they fell into the exercise in earnest. He was a little stronger, she a little faster. Other than the trainer’s commands, Lexa heard nothing save for the clack of wood on wood and, sometimes, on flesh. This was always followed by a yelp.

Sir Fared swooped down on the boy who yelped, examined his bruised hand before steering him back into line. ‘That wouldn’t have happened if you were holding it correctly, Whitehorn.’

‘Yes sir!’

Lexa blocked Malven’s strikes—he was getting faster now he knew how to do it, but he wasn’t out to hurt her—but part of her mind was distracted seeing what the third and fourth years were practising at the other side of the court. Anya looked like the relief of the K’mir warrior women Lexa had seen once, her black eyes intent and her staff a blur around her. Lexa’s right hand slipped inwards on her staff and, before she could correct it, Malven got her index finger. He winced in sympathy when she hissed and stopped to give her time to shake it out.

Fared swooped down on her.

‘Can you continue?’ She frowned very slightly at the question, confused, but nodded. ‘Back in line, then, Page Haryse. And fix that grip.’

Malven mouthed a silent sorry and Lexa nodded. It was okay, it happened. But she didn’t mean for it to happen again.

The boy gulped at the intent look on her face and he settled hurriedly into defence.


Her finger still hurt by the time they get to archery.

The instructor, a short, lean islander called Mister Tern, put ‘The girls together, at the end,’ and Lexa added Virgil’s name to her list of people to avoid when he sniggered at them.

‘I’m not a girl,’ Octavia told her in a harsh whisper, though the page still followed Lexa when Tern glared. ‘Remember that, okay?’ Lexa shrugged and nodded her acceptance. She strung her bow. The dark-haired page narrowed their eyes at her before they added, ‘I’m not a boy either.’

‘I understand.’

‘Really.’

‘In a way. Haryse gets plenty of travellers from Tusaine and Galla and further. There are K’mir traders who have no genders at all—their hierarchy depends on the role they hold in the group.’

‘Really?’ Octavia sounded far more interested than upset then and Lexa made a mental note to write her father asking for the records from the trader’s visit and all they had learned from that caravan.

By the end of the class, she still intended to do it but with much less grace than before. Tern wasn’t interested in teaching her or Octavia at all, simply stared at them for a moment before returning to the other pages, and Octavia turned out to be competitive to a degree that set Lexa on edge. They were smug each time they made a shot and, when Lexa outshot them, they would go into a dark sulk Lexa wasn’t interested in combating. She would give them the notes, Lexa decided, and then be rid of the page for good.

Riding practice was little better.

Octavia brushed away from her as soon as they could so Lexa was alone and she didn’t even get to ride Alraed—the first years didn’t get as far as riding or even mounting their horses. Lord Padraig hovered by each of them and made them saddle and unsaddle and saddle their mounts over and over until finally pronouncing them useless.

‘By the time you lot are mounted, your enemy will be lost to the four winds!’

‘Yessir,’ the pages agreed.

‘If you can’t saddle a horse you can’t ride a horse.’

‘Yessir.’

Lexa spoke in the same tired unison as the others. She examined Octavia’s horse—the enormous destrier she’d seen the day before. They don’t seem very trusting of the horse, shying away when he lipped at their pockets.

‘Get out,’ Lord Padraig finally told them. ‘Not you two. Haryse, Danshame, to me.’

Virgil sneered as he passed. The Bazhir boy didn’t look at them at all—Ilian crooked his finger, the one he had bashed in staff practice, and mouthed another apology. Terrance was too tired to do much of anything but he patted Lexa’s shoulder. She rolled her eyes.

When they were gone, Padraig tucked his thumbs into his belt and stared down at them as though they presented a small yet important problem he had been instructed to solve.

‘You can’t wash with the boys,’ he said with a directness Lexa appreciated and admired. ‘Preparations have been made. Your maid has filled your baths. Be in the dining hall for the lunch bell. Understood?’

‘Yes sir,’ they answered, and he went to follow the boys.

Exhausted, Lexa and Octavia followed him out of the stables. They split away from him and turned up toward the palace where a daunting hill rose ahead of them.

The path through the courts was easier but would take twice as long so, as one, they set off at a slow jog. They matched pace until the very top of the hill, where Octavia tore off ahead of Lexa, flashing a cheeky grin back over their shoulder that made Lexa frown and sprint after them. It was close but Octavia’s hand whacked against the last post of the rail—apparently the winning spot—and they jumped around, crowing their victory.

‘Too slow, Haryse!’

Lexa narrowed her eyes. Silently, she promised herself she would beat them tomorrow.

There was just enough time to wash and dress and get to the dining hall. Octavia was locking their door when Lexa stepped from her room, cheeks stinging in the fresh air from the scrubbing she gave them. They shot each other mutual looks of annoyance but walked together down the corridor.

‘This way is faster,’ Lexa pointed.

Octavia sneered. ‘You’re not tricking me, Haryse.’

Lexa rolled her eyes. ‘Suit yourself.’ She took the route Anya had shown her and reached the hall quickly. Most of the boys had already arrived but she was far from the last. Padraig noted her arrival from his place at the high table and said nothing. The dining hall was filled with almost two dozen rectangular heavy wood tables. They were smoothed and pitted and scraped in places from what Lexa guessed was decades of use. To the left, the kitchens had set out a table where the pages were filling a tray. Lexa turned and collected her own tray. She noted Octavia slipping in and couldn’t resist flashing a small, rude gesture their way. It made their eyes widen and then narrow.

Moving past them, Lexa spied Anya at one of the tables and took the seat beside her.

Anya had her own tray, untouched and pushed slightly away to accommodate a book. From a glance, it looked to be a book of maps but there was enough writing that Lexa figured it to be a history of some kind. She looked away, not wanting to annoy her sponsor with questions, and waited for the rest of the seats to fill up around her.

‘Do we have an assignment already?’

The mellow, deep voice belonged to Octavia’s sponsor—Runnerspring. He sat opposite them, nodding for Octavia to join. They sat directly opposite Lexa and, grinning, stretched their long legs under the table. She stamped on Octavia’s feet when they encroached on her space, which just made their grin grow.

‘Anya?’

She sighed, turned the page of her book. ‘No, Lincoln. Haven’t had class yet, have we?’

‘Just making sure,’ he said easily, apparently unbothered by the sharpness of her tone. He smiled at Lexa; he had a nice smile, a broad pleasant expression that made the skin crinkle at the corners of his warm brown eyes. ‘Hello there. I’m Lincoln. Lincoln of Runnerspring.’ He reached a hand over the table, which Lexa shook.

‘Alexandra of Haryse.’

‘Pleased to meet you.’ He turned to Octavia, opened his mouth but before he can introduce them, Octavia interrupted.

‘We’ve met.’ They grinned.

Lexa glared.

Lincoln seemed amused by his slightly wild page and even more so by Lexa’s reaction. He shrugged to Anya, who looked up to glance between the two first years.

‘Hullo,’ a cheery voice greeted. ‘And hullo to you, young pages.’ Elden, the smiling page who had earned two bells of work in only a few minutes, took the seat next to Lexa. He smiled brightly. ‘It does an old man such good to look upon the both of you—fresh-faced, eager.’ He pressed a long-fingered hand to his heart, breathed in deeply. ‘The green smell of spring.’

‘It’s autumn,’ Anya groused.

Lexa nodded. She also wondered what he was talking about—she was neither fresh-faced nor particularly eager. She was very sure she’d never been more sore in her life. And Octavia…Octavia looked like a hungry wolf, with the lean, shadowed set to their face, and stared at Elden like he was an annoying mouse.

He’d noticed the look too. ‘Lincoln, dear lad, why does your page look like she wants to eat me? What have you been telling her?’

‘Not eat—bite,’ Lincoln corrected him.

‘Bite? Well, you’re a bit young for it,’ Elden said with a grin. He winced—Lexa had barely dodged Anya’s kick and knew he had gotten the full force of it. ‘Ouch! What?’

‘She’s eleven.’

‘I was joking.’

‘Just like you were joking when you called me a bastard?’ Octavia demanded. In all the hubbub, their eyes had never shifted from his face.

His face fell. ‘Ah. Yes. That. I’m sorry—father tells me I have an awful sense of humour and I –’

I’m not hearing an apology,’ Lexa interrupted, surprising herself.

Elden hung his head before fixing Octavia with careful regard. ‘You’re right. I apologise, Page Danshame, whole-heartedly. I should not have said what I did, and you should not have had to bear that. I deserved milord's punishment, and yours - but I hope you'll allow me to settle our debt in some other way.’ He waited for their response and, when Octavia nodded their acceptance slowly, he smiled more blindingly than ever. ‘Thank you. And all of this before proper introductions! Benthor of Elden. Benny to my friends,’ he added with a gentleness that made it obvious he was offering that to Octavia.

‘Yes, we poor unfortunate few,’ Lincoln sighed. He dodged the scrap of bread Benthor threw at his head and Octavia barked a quiet laugh.

‘Lout. Already corrupting the youth against me! He’s been hit on the head a few times too many,’ he said sideways to Lexa. Then, past Lexa, he spied Anya and her book and his good-natured smile fell away to worry. ‘What—have we got an assignment already?’ Benthor asked, craning to take a closer look. Lexa shifted closer to Anya, who cut her a quick glance and tucked her arm in so Lexa had more space. She turned the page.

Lincoln answered for her. ‘Reading for fun.’

‘For fun?’ Benthor repeated. ‘How interesting. You’re an interesting sort, Anya.’

‘And you’re uncultured,’ she retorted, voice mild.

‘That’s not true. I’ll have you know I kissed a lovely Carthaki girl this summer.’

‘While you were in Carthak?’

‘Gods, no. I barely leave the lake if I can help it. Excellent fishing,’ he told Lexa cheerfully. ‘I buy the biggest fish my men reel in and pretend that I caught it.’ That made Octavia grin.

Anya hadn’t been distracted. ‘Doesn’t count.’

‘Doesn’t… Pah! Ridiculous! Lincoln, tell her it counts.’

Lincoln shrugged, shaking his head no. ‘Sorry Benny, I’m with Anya. Doesn’t count.’

As though struck, Benthor recoiled. He leaned back too far, nudging one of the fourth-year pages behind him. ‘Oops, sorry.’ Righting himself, he ran a hand through his golden hair. ‘Jealousy,’ he said after a minute. ‘That’s what this is. You’re both—you,’ he pointed to Anya, ‘and you,’ he turned the accusing finger on Lincoln next, ‘are jealous of my Catharki girl and how very cultured I am. I understand this and,’ he continued, expression becoming grave and nobly suffering, ‘I forgive you.’

Luckily for Benthor, Prince Jasson arrived just then. Because their table was closest to the door—or maybe because he genuinely liked these pages, Lexa wasn’t sure—the prince chose their table to sit at. He took the seat between Lexa and Elden, forcing the Player page down a spot, and his page—Ilian—sat next to Octavia.

Everyone nodded formally to the Prince, who nodded formally back before breaking into a wide smile.

‘Lovely day, isn’t it!’

‘No,’ Benthor sighed. ‘They’re being awful to me.’

‘I’m quite sure you deserved it,’ Prince Jasson told the other boy happily. Benthor sunk into a greater pout. ‘Prince Jasson,’ he introduced himself to the new pages. ‘Alexandra of Haryse, Octavia of Danshame, you know Ilian of Malven, my page?’

Lexa flicked her eyes to him and nodded.

Ilian nodded back. ‘We, ah, were paired this morning, Highness. In staffs.’

‘Wonderful. How was it?’

‘Uh.’ Ilian searched for something to say. ‘She’s quick. You’re quick,’ he said, looking nervous for a moment as though unsure if she’d take offence to being spoken about.

Lexa nodded. ‘You’re strong,’ she returned, though a game of stating the obvious wasn’t what she was interested in. Her stomach rumbled. ‘When do we eat?’ she asked Anya quietly.

‘We have to wait for everyone.’ She glanced over the hall. ‘Halleburn again,’ she grimaced. ‘And his little page. What’s his name?’

It’s Octavia who said, ‘Whitehorn. Virgil.’

‘If they take much longer, I think I shall murder them,’ Benthor said.

‘Benny! It’s not that bad,’ the prince scolded.

‘Ignore His Highness,’ Benthor told the younger pages. ‘He’s just so happy to be a page again instead of a Prince, bless his odd heart.’

Prince Jasson rolled his eyes—they came to a stop on the dining hall door, where two pages had finally entered. The younger page looked jumpy and nervous. Perrin looked like he’d been strolling.

‘Halleburn, Whitehorn. One bell of work on Sunday. A knight does not disrespect their fellows.’ The two bowed to Padraig and took their seats. Padraig remained standing. ‘Mithros bless this food and bless us, that we may continue to grow strong and healthy and carry on the work he has given us. So mote it be.’

‘So mote it be,’ the pages chorused back.

For a few minutes, no one spoke. They were far more interested in eating; the food had grown cool but after so long a morning and so much work, it was the best meal Lexa had ever eaten.

Finally, talk began to pick up again and to exactly no one’s surprise, Benthor spoke up first.

‘Bit short for a prayer. He’s got no sense of drama, does he?’

‘The prayers aren’t supposed to be dramatic. Only sincere,’ Ilian said quietly.

‘Well said,’ the prince nodded to his page.

‘Yes, well said, quite so,’ Benthor agreed. Though his tone was faintly amused, there was no mocking in his eyes. Just sincere good humour. Lexa found herself relaxing the longer he spoke and the more his friends teased him back. ‘I apologise, Malven. I feel like I’m wasting away with all these stern, stoic types around me. I need to make new friends.’

‘Please do,’ Anya muttered.

Lexa grinned down at her plate.

‘Now Anya,’ Prince Jasson started, mildly scolding. Benthor smirked down the table at her at the prince coming to his defence. ‘You know he can’t. We’re the only ones good-mannered enough to put up with him.’ The prince laughed with the rest of them when Benthor pouted and sighed and pretended to cry, pulling a dozen coloured handkerchiefs out to dry non-existent tears.

Finally, their trays were empty, even Octavia’s, which had been laden with nearly twice the amount on Lexa’s plate. Good food weighing them down and aching from head to toe, the young pages stood reluctantly and returned their trays—and their sponsors' trays—to the kitchen.

Anya was waiting for Lexa at the door.

‘Etiquette first,’ she told her. ‘Do you remember the way?’ Lexa nodded. Eyes glinting, Anya slung an arm around her shoulders and turned to the other sponsors. ‘See? My page remembers everything I tell her.’

‘Now now, it’s not a "best page" competition,’ Lincoln soothed. Then, after a moment, he continued wickedly, ‘But if it were, I happen to know that my page beat your page to the top of the hill, Tirragen.’

Lexa darted a look at Octavia, who grinned. Anya didn’t take her arm away. Instead, she squeezed and, with that reassuring weight around her, Lexa just laughed when her sponsor cursed out Lincoln quite spectacularly all the way down the hall. When they reached the end, the older pages made left and the younger pages had to turn right.

‘Go away, little page,’ Anya told her, and squeezed her shoulders one last time before pushing her down the hall. ‘See you at dinner. Don’t fall asleep in class.’

‘I won’t,’ she promised.

‘I might,’ Ilian said, already yawning. ‘Eight years of this, can you imagine?’

think it’s grand,’ Octavia announced with an easy shrug. They jogged ahead a few paces and turned so they were walking backwards, facing Lexa and Ilian. ‘We learn to fight and ride and swim—’

‘You don’t know how to swim?’

‘What part of a mining fief sounds like there’s lots of water involved?’ they shot back to Ilian, who didn’t seem at all bothered by their sharp tone. He began to make plans with them to show them how—there was a large lake on palace grounds, apparently, and some of it was fairly shallow, which made it the perfect place to learn. There wasn’t much time to do it but maybe on a Sunday, if they don’t get into too much strife. ‘Strife is what I do best,’ Octavia confessed, ‘but that would be great, if we get the time!’

‘Lo the squad,’ a quiet voice called out from behind them.

The trio stopped, looking down the corridor to the Bazhir boy from their year. His dark hair was a little ruffled and his eyes narrow with nerves. He glanced over Lexa and Octavia before his eyes settled on Ilian. ‘Do you know where the class is?’ He spoke slowly, as though making sure each word was correct before he said it.

‘This one does, apparently,’ Octavia slung a skinny arm around Lexa’s shoulders, who shrugged them away.

‘Would you like to walk with us?’ Ilian offered, and Hasim fell gratefully into step.

‘I was concerned I would be late. I don’t think I could stand another,’ he said a word in basri Lexa didn’t know, and he grimaced. ‘A smiling teacher. They hit us with sticks and expect us to say thank you.’

The comment surprised a quiet laugh from Lexa, and Hasim looked to her. His brown eyes gleamed; he was pleased by her laugh, she could tell, but then he dropped his gaze again hurriedly. Lexa took a moment to wonder about it - was he conservative? Uncertain of her place here? And then he was setting his shoulders and lifting his eyes again to meet hers solidly. A thought occurred to her and she relaxed, putting aside ungracious thoughts. His ignoring her, and disquiet at acknowledging her, had very little to do with her being a girl and more to do with her being an unveiled girl. 

‘My brother thought I was mad, wanting to be a page,’ Ilian agreed pleasantly. ‘Spending all day being whacked with sticks,’

‘And saying thank you for it,’ Octavia reminded him, and Hasim included them both in his pleased grin.

‘Of course, and saying thank you.’

‘I think it’s grand,’ Octavia repeated.

‘We know what you think,’ Ilian teased. ‘What about you, Haryse?’

Lexa blinked. The other three were all watching her and she shrugged. ‘It’s all I’ve ever wanted. My father supported that.’ Eventually, she tacked on privately. The others nodded.

She stopped then; at their looks of confusion, Lexa gestured to the door she had stopped next to—the one with the scratched door handle. ‘We’re here.’

Lexa knocked on the door. When there was no reply, she pushed it open.

Chapter Text

The master of etiquette kept his classroom impeccable.

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

‘Fake,’ Hasim told her.

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

‘Fake.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Terrance sat next to her.

‘Hello!’

‘Seabeth.’

‘It’s Terry,’ he reminded her.

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

Ilian of Malven took the seat next to her.

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

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

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

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

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

Whoa.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The pages shifted in place, discomforted by the question.

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

‘Was anyone harmed?’ she asked.

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

‘Hmm.’

‘He could,’ Hasim insisted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Octavia yelped and slipped off the table onto their seat.

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

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

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

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

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

‘Alexandra of Haryse.’

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

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

Like a snake, she thought.

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

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

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

‘Sit, I said,’ he repeated.

She sat.

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

‘Excuse me, Master Vauntire?’

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

‘What is it, Page…?’

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

‘The majority of you are, and therefor—’

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

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

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

‘Yes, Master Vauntire.’

‘Very good. Let’s begin, then.’

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

As it turned out, they were all similarly awful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Apology, Master Vauntire?’

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

‘Incompetents?’ Terrance supplied helpfully.

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

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

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

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

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

‘Haryse.’

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

‘Was that an invitation?’

‘Obviously.’

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

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

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

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

‘Stonefish?’

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

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

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

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

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

‘Oh sure. Stonefish can camouflage themselves too—’

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

‘Ah…how do I explain…?’

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

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

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

‘From a few barbs?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Something amusing, Page?’

Master Mori didn’t sound unkind, only curious.

Lexa shook her head no.

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

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

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

‘Oh?’ He looked confused.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Eclectic, sir.’

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

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

He continued.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘So?’

‘166HE,’ she started.

Octavia groaned louder.

‘The plaintiff was Lord Mavick.’

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

‘Octavia?’ Lexa called politely.

‘Yes?’

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

‘I’m fascinated,’ Octavia groaned.

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

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

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

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

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

Ilian shrugged. ‘I like history.’

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

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

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

Hasim whistled lowly. ‘That’s ruthless.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No one spoke.

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

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

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

After that, no one interrupted his lecture.

Once done talking, he sat at his desk.

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

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

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

They did. As quickly as possible.

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

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

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

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

‘Too hard for you?’ he sneered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

‘And Terrance?’

‘He’s got a bit of wild magic.’

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

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

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

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

‘Could have been?’

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

‘You’re a terror.’

‘Thank you.’

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

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

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

‘Hello there!’

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

‘Your hair is blue.’

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

‘Yes.’

‘It is,’ he agreed. ‘Yours is brown.’

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

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

‘I do. Are you in it?’

‘Yes.’

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

‘Thank you. Sir?’

‘Hmm?’

Why is your hair blue?’

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

‘Weren’t people staring?’

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

‘Why aren’t your eyebrows blue?’

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

‘But you left the hair?’

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

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

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

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

‘Why canvas?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ah, new students.—

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

Octavia’s grip tightened.

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

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

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

Yes, I think that might be best.

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

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

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

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

‘How long?’ Octavia croaked.

‘An hour.’

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

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

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

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

She just nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Octavia nodded stiffly.

Lexa shook her head no.

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

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

‘Tkaa may ask to speak to you.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘A reasonable dislike.’

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

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

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

‘Very good.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He called on another page.

‘Scrying?’

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

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

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

‘It takes a lot of power?’

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

‘Wins what?’

‘Not sure yet,’ Thom shrugged.

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

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

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

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

When he mentioned the basilisk, Octavia paled again.

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

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

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

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

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

‘What’s it to you?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Lexa grunted.

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

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

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

‘It’s a date.’

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

‘The fruit. It’s called a date.’

‘Oh. I like it.’

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

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

‘I hate you,’ Lexa told him flatly.

Anya jerked.

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

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

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

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

‘How do we feel this morning, pages?’

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

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

Gus gestured them back into line.

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

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

Lexa lifted her eyebrows.

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

‘No.’

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

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

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

Lexa shook her head, flashes two twice.

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

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

‘I’ll get in on that,’ Octavia said.

Lexa eyed them warily but nodded.

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

‘What?’

‘What?’ Lexa asked back.

‘You’re being strange.’

You snapped at me yesterday.’

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

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

‘You deserved it,’ they shot back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘That doesn’t make sense.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Text

A cheery fire pops and hisses in its grate. Lexa dozes a little, enjoying the heat and its smoky smell far more than she’s enjoying struggling with the latest hypothetical seating chart. She scratches yet another name into the list and hopes Master Vauntire doesn’t decide to read it out in class again as the ‘perfect example of what not to do’ as he had twice in the last two weeks.

 The thought makes her start and she reaches out to keep her ink stable. Lexa looks around to see if anyone noticed but the only person near enough is Terrance, and he’s fast asleep. Reassured, Lexa slips back into her thoughts.

Two weeks. She’s made it. She’s finished her first two weeks as a page. Lexa had thought that such a milestone would have been nearly impossible to miss but now that she’s living it, she has enough of a mind to wake up and go about her day and learn her lessons. Nothing extra. Lexa makes a mental note to visit Gus the next day—only seeing him in the mornings for classes has been harder than she expected and celebrating this with him will go a long way to ease that, she thinks. She should write her father too. But what would she say? Everything that she has learned in lessons he already knows and the rest is information she doubts he would find interesting. 

Lexa twirls her pen in her fingers thoughtfully.

What would she tell her father? 

Dear Father, she begins, and writes almost lazily until she realises that she has rather a lot to tell him.

I wake up when the sky is still dark and let people bruise me for several hours. Then, I let Alraed give me more bruises. She’s particularly proud of one that now looks a little like Haryse if you squint. Lord Padraig tries every day to find something that we are bad at. He has finally let us start riding and to use the lance. On the same day, he found what I am bad at—the lance. I am in competition with a half-mad page called Octavia. They are good at everything except for being nice. And staying awake in class. I eat lunch with my sponsor. Octavia also eats with us. And sometimes the prince. In the afternoons, I try and learn so many things and I’m so tired I sometimes think it might be better to eat the books rather than read them. I would learn just as much. I am always sore and I am always hungry. The masters do not like girls. My year mates don’t seem to mind that I am a girl but I do not think any of them are my friend.

This sounds like a lot of bad things. I do not want you to think that I am unhappy. I think I am the happiest I have ever been. You might think me mad for feeling like that after reading only bad things so I will now list the things I like:

small dried fruits called dates
seeing Gus in the mornings—did you know he would be teaching us? I shall have words with you when I return home if you did!!
using my new bow
being the best at archery (even if the instructor doesn’t talk to me)
lunch!
mathematics! (even though the master hates me)
riding with Alraed!
history classes—our master is a Yamani man called Master Mori and he is brilliant and smart and a little odd. He can talk for an hour about the introduction of standard weights for merchants but gets all our names mixed up
writing apologies for Master Vauntire (etiquette master). I’m getting very good at sincerity
dinner!
sometimes the kitchen staff let us take more food after dinner if we ask nicely  

I realised tonight I had finished my first two weeks as a page. I am sure it shall be the end of the year before I know it. My only fear is that by the end, I will have forgotten all my lessons from the start of the year. I’ll have to take plenty of notes.

Give my love to Mara and Corin and all—please tell Mara I use the blanket she made me every night and am wonderfully warm.  

Much love,
Your cracked daughter-page,
Lexa  

She signs off on the letter and sets it on top of her stack of work to dry.

Lexa shakes out a cramp from her writing hand and looks around the library, wondering if any of the others have realised what day it is, if any of them are writing home too.

The library is full this time of night. Lexa peers at a few of the others but she can’t tell what they’re working on—it’s one thing, she thinks, to know where they like to sit. It’s quite another to know what they’re writing just from a glazed look in their eyes or a frown. Still, Lexa is thrilled by what she does know—she knows that the fourth years are mostly missing because they take up the individual study rooms, those of them who still use the library instead of their own rooms. She knows that the second- and third-years spread themselves out through the library at the individual desks and those tables meant for two or four people. She knows them all by name.

Lexa pauses, squinting at one group, none of which she recognises. 

She knows most of them by name, she amends.

She knows that after only two weeks, even the first year pages have their habits. 

There is only one place left for the first years, a long worn table that no one else wants. As sturdy as it is, the benches are hard and cold, the table top has years worth of names and crude phrases carved into it, and it’s positioned right at the door of the library, which means that their papers rustle and flap and flutter away whenever someone opens it.

Lexa sits at the end farthest from the door. Her end is tucked into the corner of the room, with stone wall behind her, the fireplace to her left, and the door visible. Octavia, who had sat with her there for the first night, since moved to the end closest to the door. Ilian sits there opposite Octavia—and lends them his heavy coat too—but Lexa doesn’t consider it a slight. The history books are all housed in the shelves there and Ilian keeps a stack of them at his right elbow. As for his coat…everyone can see that Octavia doesn’t have enough weight on them to waste any shivering it off in the cold. Hasim sits dead centre of the table, though not tonight. Lexa looks around but can’t see him. When he does join them, Lexa has noticed that he writes out his work on a small slate board before copying it out onto paper—a neat tactic Lexa intends to use to herself. Terrance sits on the opposite side of the table from Lexa and a few feet down. More often than not, he spends a good portion of his study time dozing.

Virgil doesn’t join them. 

The door to the library opens—Lexa pins down her seating chart with her elbow and checks that the rest of her work is still under her spare whetstone.

From behind the shelves, second- and third-year pages complain. “Close the bloody door!” 

“Shut it!”

“Who the bloody hell—” 

Lexa tries to identify the voices but gives it up soon enough. The closing door—making everything flutter and flap again—drags her attention back to her paper.

Her attempt—brief as it was—at a pleasant distraction comes to an end. Lexa sighs, scowls down at her assignment. Vauntire had assigned her two additional seating charts, neither of which make any kind of sense.

“Alright?”

Lexa glances up, gives Terrance a tight smile. “Fine.”

He nods sleepily and dips his head again. Lexa fights the urge to kick him and make him do one of the charts—Vauntire doesn’t give the boys extra work. She wonders how much of the ‘special treatment’ is because she’s a girl, and how much of it is because she’s a girl who dares to be awful at etiquette.

What a waste of her evening. Vauntire is going to scrap it and make her write out an apology anyway and—oh. Lexa bites at her lip, wondering whether it would be worth it. Deciding it will at least cheer her up, she dips her pen in ink and sets to work with new vigour.

“What are you doing?”

Lexa ignores them.

“Why are you so pleased? Seabeth—why is she so pleased?”

“Dunno.” Terrance doesn’t even open his eyes. Lexa vaguely regrets her earlier desire to kick him.

“Why are you so pleased?” Octavia asks again, gruff voice suspicious.

Lexa flicks her eyes up and toward them. She thinks about not answering and letting them stew but a flash of inspiration hits. She grins instead.

Octavia’s suspicious glare narrows suspiciously.

“I’m writing an apology for Master Vauntire. For the extra seating charts he assigned.” Despite themself, Octavia grins. Ilian reacts too, looking up with raised eyebrows. Lexa shrugs. “He’s going to make me write one anyway.”

“You’ll get in trouble.”

“For saving time?”

“For being pert,” Ilian corrects her, but he’s smiling a little.

“At least I’ll have earned it this time. Tell me—do you think he’d prefer to be called adored or most adored?”

“Depends on how much trouble you want to be in, I suppose.”

Lexa nods. That makes sense. “Most adored, then.”

Shaking out her writing hand and stretching her neck until it pops, Lexa settles in to write her apology with glee. Ilian is quick to give her some suggestions—Octavia is too, but they’re a little too rude to include without heavy editing. They’re still working on it when an older page seats himself in the middle of the table.

The conversation carries on around him.

“How do you spell it?”

“E – G – R -”

Benny clears his throat loudly.

“E – G – O – U – S.”

“Are you sure?”

“Pretty sure.” Ilian squints thoughtfully into the distance. “No, you’re right. Put an I before the O.”

“Egregious. That looks right. Thanks.”

“Anytime.”

“Evening lads!” Benny interrupts loudly, evidently upset by his lack of welcome. “And lasses, pardon me,” he says with a nod to Lexa and Octavia.

In agreement for once, Lexa and Octavia trade an annoyed look before returning to their own work. “Couldn’t help but notice you lot are causing some strife.”

“Strife?” Lexa repeats, widening her eyes. She also copies down the word for use in her next apology.

“Strife,” Benny confirms. “Now, I’m not here to stop you. Not when you look like you’re having so much fun. Not at all, in fact—I’m here to chat.” With a flourish, he pulls a basket seemingly out of nowhere and pulls a handkerchief away to show off the sweet rolls he’s brought.

Lexa tilts her head, considering. She takes one of the sweet rolls after Ilian scarfs his down and doesn’t die. “Chat?”

“That’s right.”

“With us,” Octavia continues.

“Yes.”

“Sounds suspicious.” Lexa points her finger at Benny. “Suspicious.” She points to the basket of rolls. “Bribe?”

“Bribe,” Octavia agrees, though they rarely agree on anything, eyes rolling back into their head the moment they taste one of the sweets.

Ilian takes another. “You don’t usually chat with us.”

“Very true,” Benny nods.

Very true,” a quiet voice agrees. Benny freezes. Anya steps out from behind the shelves, books in hand. She sets them down—quietly—on the table in front of Lexa. “What’s the occasion, Elden?”

Benny twists in his seat to beam at her. “Anya,” he simpers. Lexa has to duck her head to hide a grin. “You bright star, you stately flower, you…you, ah, midnight dove,”

“What is the occasion,” Anya says again, “she asked with the confidence of someone with six knives within easy reach.”

“You always threaten me so,” Benny begins. “And you’re corrupting the youths—did you know that your page called me suspicious?”

Lexa tunes out his squawking in favour of figuring out where Anya could possibly be hiding six knives. The older girl stands with her back to the fireplace so she casts a rather impressive shadow down the length of the table. In dark breeches and a dark shirt and dark boots, it’s impossible for Lexa to pick out the shape of hilts or blades but she can guess. One in each boot, one at the flat of her back probably. Two, one on the inside of each arm? She frowns a little, wondering where the last knife could be, and when she looks up at her sponsor she could swear she catches a hint of a smirk.

“Move, Seabeth,” Anya commands. Terry, who had woken up when Benny arrived, happily slides down the bench closer to Benny and the basket. She reaches down and steals a sweet roll; Benny isn’t much of a warden and doesn’t appear to notice.

“The occasion,” Benny finally tells them, having finished complaining about Anya and her threats and knives and propensity for violence and his gentle heart that, apparently, wilts amongst this most unfriendly and unkind garden of cruel and cold-hearted fiends, “is the count.”

“A count?”

The count. Anya, stop stealing the sweet rolls and just take them like a normal person. The count is not a who, my gentle doves. The count is a what. A time honoured tradition amongst pages, we revered and noble lot.”

“And what,” Anya interrupts his dignified speech, “is more revered and noble than betting with great abandon on who will be in the most trouble tomorrow?”

“It’s tradition for it to take place on the first Saturday of the year,” Benny picks it up again. “But the fourth years ruined the count after setting fire to the archery targets last week.”

“Objection.”

A very tall, brown-haired fourth year steps out from behind the shelves, down Ilian’s side of the table. He’s pale and slender, with something thoughtful about his mouth, though Lexa imagines she sees something playful and constantly amused in his brown eyes.

“I’ll caution you to watch your words,” he says. “There was no proof of that.”

“Proof enough you lot took the four bells Padraig gave you,” Anya argues.”

“Our esteemed-” A good wood. Lexa writes it down at the bottom of her apology. “-training master is a HaMinch. It would be as useful for me to tell a hurricane not to blow. May I sit?” Gareth asks the table in general and everyone murmurs their yeses and shuffles their papers and squeezes a little closer to their friends.

Gareth, who is very thin, has no trouble slipping in behind Octavia and the wall. He sits just down from Lexa, gives her a pleasant nod. Lincoln, who is much more broad, has Octavia shift up the table so he can sit at the end of the bench instead.

 “You were discussing the count,” Gareth reminds Benny.

“So I was! Sweet roll?”

He shoves the basket over—it gets intercepted by Anya, who keeps one for herself and passes one to Lexa—and he continues.

“There are two simple rules—the entry to the count is five copper bits and you’re not allowed to bet on anyone from your own year. Fourth years don’t usually bother placing their bets—too good for the old traditions, eh?”

“We grow out of childish games,” Gareth returns pleasantly. “I don’t see the harm, though. I’ll put my money down on you, Elden.”

“Excellent!” Benny claps his hands together, rubs them with glee. “My money is on Malven.”

“Me?” Ilian looks up, a frown over his eyes deep and black. Lexa, who knows the frown to be from concentration, grins. Benny, who doesn’t know Ilian, lifts his hands in gentle surrender.

“Peace, Malven. It’s just a game. I always bet on the quiet ones—you always get into so much trouble.” He sounds delighted by it and Ilian just shakes his head, amused.

“May I place a bet?” Lexa asks, and Benny nods encouragingly. “My money is on Nond, then.”

Benny nods, taps his temple to say he’s got her bet.

Anya frowns. “You might want to write them down. You’re not known for having the best head for figures.”

“If they’re the right figures, I do.” Benny smirks, and then hisses. He jerks in a tell-tale way and a hand darts below the tabletop. “Have I mentioned today,” he says through gritted teeth, “that you have a very painful kick?”

“You hadn’t, actually. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” Benny rubs at his shin for a moment more.

“Anya has the right idea,” Gareth says, and he pulls a small pocketbook from his breast pocket and writes down in a quick, neat script the list of names. “Anyone else?”

“Put mine down on Haryse.”

Lexa snaps around to stare at her own sponsor—Anya just grins.

“What?”

“You bet against me!”

“You heard Benny,” Anya says with a shrug. “It’s always the quiet ones. Besides, Snapper gives us girls extra bells just for breathing.”

Lexa wants to argue with her but it’s true. Instead, she asks, “Snapper?”

“Snappet. The mathematics master.”

“Oh.” Lexa considers his tight, mean little mouth and his beady little eyes and the way he snaps his ruler on their desk if they’re slow with their answers. “It suits him.”

Benny nods. “Yes. Yes it does. Now—we have me down for Malven, Gareth has money on me, foolish lad. Haryse, you’ve got Nond—a good, safe bet, wish I’d thought of it—Anya, you’re being a real snake and bet on your own page, that’s nasty of you.” Anya grins. “Anyone else? Come on, Malven, a bit of fun.”

“Benny.”

“Anyone you know got in a spot of trouble?”

Benny,” Anya says again, flicks her eyes to the side. He doesn’t notice and continues to chat to Ilian.

“It’s just a few coppers, not a serious—“

Benny!”

“What, Anya? Oh—Your Highness!”

Prince Jasson sets a stool down at the short side of the table, between Anya and Lexa. He brushes his coal-black ringlets back out of his face and squints suspiciously down the table. “Page Elden, do my ears betray me or are you corrupting my page?” he asks, voice strict. Though he’s inches shorter than the Player page and sitting on a wooden seat like the rest of them, something about his bearing and voice is regal and demands attention, respect.

Lexa finds herself straightening in her seat. She slips her hands under the table and hopes there are no crumbs on her chin or shirt. Terrance and Ilian react similarly. Lexa can’t see Octavia past Gareth and she wonders if they’re reacting much the same or if their pride counters even the prince’s formidable presence.

“Well?” Prince Jasson asks. 

Benny bows slightly. “With the utmost alacrity, Your Highness,” he says, tone almost demure.

It takes a moment for Lexa to realise what he’s agreeing to and she fights off a grin. She stops fighting it when she sees the prince’s lips twitch upwards. Prince Jasson shakes his head. “Don’t you listen to a word from him, Malven—none of you listen to him, hear?” he tells the first year pages. “He’s a bad lad.”

“Your Highness, I’m hurt. I’m the very worst.” Benny flutters his lashes at the prince—and jerks. Twice. He glares, a little uncertain, at Gareth and Anya. He jerks again, hisses through his teeth. “Your Highness,” he says, voice tight with pain. “Please call of your royal and loyal hounds—they have sharp toes and I believe I have been punished enough.”

“For attempting to mislead my page?” Prince Jasson purses his lips. “Danshame, kick him for me, won’t you?”

Benny flinches. “Hold on now, this one has it out for me—ow!”

“Behave, kitten,” Anya drawls.

“Oh very funny, Anya, you’re such a wit.”

Ignoring Benny’s pouting, the prince turns to Octavia. “Your service to the crown is appreciated, Danshame. Now—Gary, what’s the count?”

Gareth reads out the names and, to Lexa’s surprise, the prince pulls a folded sheet of paper from inside his tunic and gives them some more names.

“I can’t bet,” Prince Jasson says with a sigh. “A prince has to be fair in all things.”

“We feel your pain, Highness.”

“Shut up, Benny.”

“Won’t someone acknowledge the joy I bring you all?”

“You bring me joy, Benny,” Anya tells him. “Me and my sharp toes.”

“I hate you most of all.”

“You say the sweetest things.”

When the basket is finally empty, the conversation winds down and the pages all, more or less reluctantly, continue with their work.

Pleasantly warm and pleasantly full, Lexa scratches away at the rest of her assignments. She returns to her apology letter for Vauntire later and, with the raucous additions from the older pages, adds a few sheets to it when it makes the others laugh until they cry. Finally she finishes and tucks it all into her pile.

No,” Benny wheezes, cheeks red with laughter, “read it out again. Can you imagine Vauntire’s face?”

“I want to get a proper sleep for once,” Lexa argues, and Benny relents immediately.

The prince drops his chin into his hand and sighs dreamily. “A proper sleep, I’ve heard about that. Tell me what it feels like, would you?”

The wistfulness makes Lexa grin and she gives him a very shallow bow and a nod.

“Want me to walk you?” Anya asks.

“I’ll be fine.”

“Halleburn could be waiting.”

“Ugh—Halleburn. Where is he?”

“Dunno. Haven’t seen him tonight.” Anya looks over the visible parts of the library. “Or his friends.”

Lexa rolls her eyes, continues to pack. “I can handle Halleburn.” She’s been caught by him before but a shove or a sly foot tripping her up is nothing she can’t deal with. She’s not the only one to go through the same hazing—she suspects Hasim does, from the way he’s turned up to morning classes twice this last week with dark rings of exhaustion under his eyes. Once, Octavia bore a black eye and swollen knuckles. They told no one what happened and asked for no help.

“Really,” Lexa insists. “I’ll be fine.” Anya nods and returns to her book.

Leaving the library—“Close the bloody door!”—a murmur of unease trembles down her spine. It had unsettled her that Perrin and his friends never made their nightly appearance to the library. She peeks around every corner and does so until she’s made her way back to the main corridor. Maybe he’s grown tired of picking on the younger pages. Maybe he’s seen the error of his ways and—Lexa snorts, shakes her head. She stacks her assignments on top of her writing case, moves them into her left arm so she can pull out her key and open her door.

In one sense, the trouble comes out of nowhere. In another, more precise sense, it comes from the other end of the corridor.

Perrin and two of his friends—one a solid second-year with a face so plain Lexa suspects the gods that made him got bored half-way through, his only distinctive feature a chip in his front tooth, and the other boy Bazhir, tall without grace and a proud tilt to his chin just short of arrogance—wander around the corner. One hand tucked in his pocket, Perrin is tossing an apple in his other hand. He is laughing at some comment when he sees Lexa and stops.

Lexa freezes, limbs locked. Her door swings open—she can’t make herself move.

The apple hits the floor, forgotten. The dull crunch of it breaks the stalemate like a warning shot. Nostrils flaring like a hound with the scent, Perrin and his friends run to intercept her.

Move! she tells her useless legs. Stumbling, Lexa tries again. Move, move, move!

Finally, she trips into her room, fear making her heart race and her feet feel cold and heavy. Shame and upset settle ice-cold around her chest when the lanky Bazhir catches up with her before she can shut her door—he grabs her by the collar and yanks her out into the hall. Perrin leaps for her door but it thuds closed and locks—he shakes out fingers nipped between wood and stone but doesn’t look too upset. After all, they’ve got Lexa.

Ducking out of the Bazhir’s hold, Lexa steps out of reach. It means she’s further from her room but, she points out to herself, it’s not like she’ll be able to get rid of them, unlock her door, get inside, and lock it again without them catching up.

Perrin slinks forward, a nasty grin making his normally handsome face cruel.

“Evening, Haryse.” When she doesn’t answer, having trouble keeping an eye on all three of them, Perrin stamps forward to make her flinch. His grin widens. “I said evening, Haryse.”

“Halleburn,” she returns, his name cold and clipped on her lips.

“Have you met my friends? Qasim ibn Hosseim,” he waves to Tall Boy. “And Haysen of Gerry.” Chip Tooth. Lexa likes her names for them better. “Say hello.”

Lexa flattens her lips. Before Perrin can get into his head to remind her of manners, she nods to each of them. “Hosseim. Gerry.”

“You don’t sound pleased to see us. I’m hurt.” Perrin wanders around her—Lexa strains to keep an eye on Tall Boy and Chip Tooth and listen for Perrin. “What have we ever done to you?” Lexa keeps quiet. “Made you lose your work?” Tall Boy reaches out, grinning, and yanks a few sheet loose from her stack.

Hey—” Lexa clamps her mouth shut, sucks a breath in through her nose. Not worth it, not worth it, she chants in her mind. Let it go. It’s harder to keep the chant when Tall Boy pulls the rest of the papers out and Chip Tooth knocks her writing case from her hands. Lexa bunches her hands into fists at her side.

“I’ve gotta say…I didn’t think you’d make it this long.”

“Sounds like something you could’ve kept to yourself, actually,” Lexa tells Perrin.

“Two whole weeks—”

“You can count, Halleburn. Very impressive.”

Perrin shoves her hard, makes her stumble forward. Tall Boy shoves her back—Perrin’s hand clamps down on her shoulder and Lexa grits her teeth, annoyed by how much taller he is than her. He has to crouch a little to be level with her and smile his unfriendly smile into her face. “Little girls don’t belong here. Little girls should be safe at home playing with their dolls.”

Lexa can’t help it—she snorts.

“You will change your mind soon enough,” he continues, ignoring her.

“Oh yeah?” Her knuckles feel like they’re creaking she’s clenching her fists so tight.

“Yeah. It’s nothing personal, Haryse,” he says, though Lexa feels he’s making it mightily personal. “Everyone knows that girls change their minds every week about everything. It’s a waste having you here.”

“So Sir Alanna and Lady Keladry and Lady Arwin and Lady Fiola and Lady Gemima…”

“Were magicked and unnatural.”

Lexa gapes at him. Perrin looks absolutely certain in his words, his two friends nodding as well. “You’re right about one thing,” Lexa says slowly, a ball of fury unwinding in her chest and working its way outwards. She works hard to keep her voice steady—Perrin would only hear a waver as fear, not anger. “Only yesterday I changed my mind about pointing out how ugly red makes you look.” Perrin’s cheeks and neck flush an angry red and Lexa smirks, her point proven.

“I would watch my words if I were you, Haryse—or didn’t you realise?” Perrin waves a hand about them at the empty corridor. His other hand remains where it is on her shoulder, digging blunt fingers in until she’s sure she’ll have five small bruises dotted there. “There’s no one here to help you out.”

“I don’t need any help.” Her heart betrays that with a hard thud against her sternum. Swallowing her fear, Lexa jerks her chin at the other two boys. “I see you do—tell me, do they only help you when you’re losing a fight with a first-year or do they cut up your food real small and wipe your ass too?”

Perrin’s fingers dig in suddenly and with his other hand he slaps her hard enough to make her cheek sting.

“A lady shouldn’t use such words.”

“And a lord shouldn’t raise his hand in anger,” she spits back at him, ignoring the throb of pain. “Just admit you’re talking out the wrong end, Halleb—” He cuts her off with another slap and this time Lexa catches his wrist, digs her own nails into the tender skin between the tendons.

Chip Tooth frees Perrin, making Perrin yelp when Chip Tooth grabs Lexa’s hand and Perrin’s arm and simply rips them apart. He’s not as large as Ilian, Lexa notes, but then again, Ilian isn’t here. Lexa is on her own and compared to Chip Tooth, she’s a stick he could snap in half with his hands as big as dinner plates. Chip Tooth curls his stubby fingers into fists and pops the knuckles of one hand and then the other.

Lexa gulps.

“Better run,” he suggests, little eyes gleaming.

Knowing it’ll earn her a lecture from Gus later, Lexa allows her pride to bristle at the suggestion she’ll run from a fight. Her spine stiffens. Lexa slides her feet slide into position.

Chip Tooth throws a punch that numbs her left arm when she knocks it aside instead of letting it hit the side of her face where he was aiming. She responds with a punch of her own and yells a victory when blood spurts from his nose. A scuff on the ground reminds her of the other two boys—Lexa turns just in time to see Tall Boy bearing down on her and, in a move that would earn a compliment from Gus later, she rolls out of the way.

She pauses to admire the mess they’ve made, all a-tangle, which gives Perrin enough time to grab her around the neck. A nail jammed into the base of his makes him let go. He shakes his hand out, snarling. They dance around each other for a few moments before he retaliates with a kick—it forces the air right out of her lungs. Lexa gasps. Lexa gasps again, more desperately—her chest has seized with the blow and air won’t flood in as it should.  

“Hurts, doesn’t it?” Perrin sneers.

Can always breathe more later, she decides, and runs right for him.

Quicker than he is, Lexa trips him up and kicks his side. Off balance, Perrin stumbles into the wall.

Her victory doesn’t last long. Now recovered, Tall Boy and Chip Tooth look on either side of her. Dodging Chip Tooth’s kick moves her right into the path of Tall Boy’s punch. It clips her eye and colourful lights flash over her vision. Blinded by the lights, Lexa swings wildly all around her as she backs up. One strike gets Tall Boy hard on the jaw—he falls back, cursing, but Chip Tooth replaces him and grabs her by the hair.

Lexa yelps. She grabs and scratches at his hands and wrists, yanks his little finger hard back in its joint. Too slow to register the pain, Chip Tooth holds on. Perrin leaps in to help him and grabs her hands away.

“Had enough?" 

She spits at him and kicks out. Chip Tooth’s already painful hold on her hair yanks more but it’s worth it—she gets Perrin in the stomach and he stumbles away, retching. The sound of his dinner coming up makes her gag. Tall Boy takes Perrin’s place, grabbing her hands.

After that, it’s a bit of a blur. She’s on the ground, curled into a ball, arms around her face, before they’re satisfied.

Perrin crouches next to her. He grabs her wrist and pulls it away from her face. It takes a minute since Lexa has locked her elbow, but finally he wrenches it down. “Had enough?” he asks again. Lexa stares up at him; she feeds as much hate into that look as she can. Perrin smirks. “That’s what I thought.” Adding insult to injury, he pats her on the cheek right on the bruise that’s developing there.

Hard.

It sends a flood of hot copper blood onto her tongue and Lexa lowers her head, spits it out onto the ground. They leave her there, curled up in the corridor. It isn’t until the chill of the stone floor makes her shiver that she moves to stand. It’s one of those things that are easier thought of than done—sitting up makes pain pulse all over her but she forces her body to cooperate and pushes up onto her knees and then all the way up.

The short distance to her room feels like miles. Worse, her assignments are scattered over the corridor. Biting back a tired sob, Lexa makes herself pick up every sheet and rescue her writing case. By the time she makes it to her door, she’s panting. Her legs feel heavy and like they’re made of water all at the same time and every bit of her aches.

She drops her work onto her desk and rubs at her forehead, which throbs with a new ache when she thinks about all the time it will take to re-write everything tomorrow. Leaving it all for the moment, Lexa hobbles into her washroom. Her mirror shows her how bad it is.

A faint mark like a smudge or a shadow sits over most of Lexa’s left cheek and around her eye. By tomorrow morning she knows that it will be a deep purple and her eye swollen. Her bottom lip is split on the same side. Struggling out of her clothes without hurting herself, Lexa finally grits her teeth and groans her way through it. She leaves everything where it lands on the floor and, for a moment, looks over her bruises. There’s a particularly vibrant one already forming on her hip. The worst of the lot—though not the most painful—are the finger-shaped marks on her shoulder where Perrin had grabbed her. She prods at one of them, scowling.

The reflection in the mirror—a girl, bruised and bloody, a dark scowl transforming her face—doesn’t frighten her. Oh, she never wants to be beaten bloody again but—and she grins now, face lightening.

Perrin didn’t win tonight, not really.

The thought holds as she washes carefully and dresses. She hobbles to her desk and sits, holding a cloth soaked in cool water to her lip to ease the ache as she begins her re-writing.

He made a big mistake tonight. He meant to scare her off, frighten her away from her knighthood with a show of how much it can hurt. And it does, Lexa can’t deny that. Every inch of her aches. But more important than her hurts is the sense of satisfaction from every punch of hers that connected. More important is the knowledge that she’ll fight hard every day of her life to keep people like Perrin from picking on whomever they please.

More importantly, she thinks to herself, resolve hardening, no one is ever going to thrash me like that again. Never.

//

If Lexa thought that standing at the back of the group and keeping her head down, sleeves rolled to her wrists, would hide her new injuries then she was very wrong. Within moments of entering Mithros’s chapel, all the pages know. They twist in their seats in front of her—next to her, Terrance stares—and finally the whispers reach the front of the chapel and Lord Padraig. Lexa watches as his shoulders stiffen and he lifts his head from his prayer. The Mithran priest looks most put out, in so much as a person with a face like granite can. 

“Silence.” The training master doesn’t speak loudly—he rarely does, since there is no need. One word from him is enough to get them all to listen. “Bow your heads in worship.”

They do. Padraig keeps his head up a moment longer—his eyes settle on her in the back of the chapel, boring into the top of her lowered head.

Lexa waits, anticipation prickling at her skin like bug bites. But Lord Padraig says nothing about Lexa’s hurts at the end of worship or in his prayer at the beginning of lunch, though she feels his attention more than once. The other pages have no such restrain.

“Purple looks good on you, Haryse!” Nond jeers when she passes him, carrying her lunch tray.

Lexa pays him no mind. Moments later, Ilian—soft-spoken, careful Ilian—trips and spills his water down Nond’s back. Almost as tall as the other boy and a little broader, he doesn’t back down when the fuming Nond gets to his feet. “Oops. Sorry about that,” he says, sounding spectacularly unapologetic.

Nond swipes water from his neck. He bares his teeth. “Watch where you’re walking, Malven.”

Ilian touches a hand to Lexa’s elbow and guides her to their table. She sits at the end, Ilian opposite her. Lexa fixes her attention on her food and doesn’t look up. It doesn’t stop the talk around her.

“Ouch. That looks nasty.” Lincoln takes a seat next to Ilian, Octavia following close behind. “Have you been to the healers?”

Anya slips into the space next to Lexa. Cool fingers fit under her chin and Lexa allows her to turn her head. “Have you been to the healers?” she asks after a moment. Lexa shakes her head no. “You should visit them. It’ll cost you, if you don’t have a note from Padraig. Might be worth it though.” Around the table, the others nod. Lexa lowers her head again, this time to hide a wince. It must look bad. She doesn’t know—she didn’t dare look in the mirror that morning.

Thankfully, the conversation moves on, though Lexa still catches some of them sending her worried glances throughout the meal. She ignores them.

When she’s done, having set aside tough sections of meat and the vegetables when they make her cheek ache for chewing, she props her uninjured cheek in her hand and watches the head table. Padraig eats quick and neat, like he could be called away at any moment. A man seated down from him, dressed in rich clothes and with gold glinting from every finger, has the red nose and cheeks of a drunkard and talks as he eats. Lexa’s gaze flicks back to Padraig—he nods now and again, showing he’s listening, but doesn’t speak. The woman on Padraig’s other side is focused on something under the table but Lexa can’t see what.

When Padraig finishes his meal, a lull falls over the dining hall. The pages stop talking with their friends and hurry to finish their food. In this silence, Padraig reads out the list of this weeks punishment from a small book. He begins with the fourth-years and makes his way down the years.

“Danshame. Three bells - stables. Haryse. Three bells – smiths.” He pauses. “See me before you leave.” Lexa looks up from the table briefly to nod—Padraig doesn’t acknowledge it but she knows he sees it. That man misses nothing. “Malven. Two bells – smiths. Ibn Nazri – three bells. Stables. Seabeth. Two bells – kitchens. Whitehorn. Three bells – kitchens. Dismissed.”

The hall fills with noise again as the pages scrape their chairs back and begin to talk. Lexa waits until the throng has dispersed enough that she won’t get an elbow to her bruise on the way to the kitchen.

Anya joins her.

“What the hell happened to you?”

Lexa shrugs one shoulder. The other is too stiff, too sore to move. “Nothing.” The lie makes Anya frown. She opens her mouth to ask another question and Lexa interrupts, too tired to deal with that. “Who won the pool?”

“What? Oh—Seabeth.”

“Terry?” Lexa wrinkles her nose. “Really?”

“He got in early. Picked Nenan. He got five bells this afternoon.” Lexa frowns, trying to bring up his face. Finally, she recalls a boy with dirty blonde hair and a rather rat-like face and nods. He’s a second-year, always talking back to the training masters—and not in the good-natured way Elden does. “That’s a whole lot of nothing. Who helped it along?”

“No one.”

“No one and nothing.”

“That’s right.” 

“Sure it wasn’t Halleburn? Just tell me—I’ll kick his ass for you, Haryse,”

Leave it,” Lexa hisses. Her bruise gives a nasty throb, answered by one in her temples, and so Lexa hardly feels any guilt at all in stepping sideways into her sponsor and jostling her into one of the fourth-year pages. He looks at Anya, displeased, and Lexa hurries away while she’s distracted.

The kitchen boy looks at her when she returns her tray and gives her a sympathetic grimace. “Chin up, Haryse,” he mutters. He doesn’t wait around for the half-smile she manages, whisks her tray away.

Lexa makes her way to the high table—avoiding looking at Anya—and waits down the steps from the raised dais. Now, she can see that the woman sitting there is feeding slices of meat to a dog that sits pressed against her leg. Lexa grins. She wipes the expression away when Lord Padraig crooks a finger at her.

Limping up the steps, Lexa stands across from her training master and bows. Standing, fighting the wave of dizziness it causes, Lexa fixes her gaze on a knot of wood just above Padraig’s shoulder. It looks like a rude gesture. She wonders if he knows about it.

Padraig is frowning at her. His dark brows, lined with the same grey as his hair, are bunched together over his eyes like little storm clouds. For a moment, the urge to confess to everything bad she’s done and witnessed since arriving rises in her throat. Lexa fights it down, well used to the stare-and-silence routine from Gus. Face still and calm, she waits.

Finally, Padraig speaks. “What is this, Haryse?”

Lexa looks away from the knot of wood. Padraig is pointing to her face, the left side. Lexa’s fingers twitch with the urge to touch it. “A bruise, my lord.”

“A bruise.”

“Yes, my lord.”

“A rather spectacular one at that,” the woman seat at Padraig’s right says.

Lexa blinks. She turns to examine her. The woman wears her black hair cropped short around her ears. Her long nose is a little crooked from a badly-healed break and a very faint scar runs lengthwise over her right eyebrow. Her clothes are practical and comfortable—Lexa can’t see her boots but she suspects they’re the same. The more Lexa sees about this woman, the more she likes her—she’s clearly a woman used to combat and, Lexa flushes a faint pink, very pretty. Brown-skinned and fit and not a day over twenty-five, her smile is wide and bright and her amused eyes are a very light green.

Lexa has to swallow twice before she can speak. “It does look spectacular,” she agrees. Her omission of how it feels makes the woman chuckle.

“Don’t encourage her, Lady Fiola.”

“Lady Fiola?”

“In the flesh,” the lady knight nods. Lexa adjusts her assessment—twenty-two years old. She desperately wants to talk with the woman but a look at Padraig tells her it would be a bad idea.

To appease him, she stands as tall as she is able and tries to hold her hands behind her back respectfully. Her shoulder gives an almighty twinge and, grimacing, Lexa keeps her hands at her sides instead.

“Page Haryse, refresh my memory—you were well enough at dinner last night, were you not?”

“I was, my lord,” she answers promptly.

“How, then, did you come by these injuries?”

Lexa flattens her lips, returns her gaze to the knot of wood over his shoulder. For a moment, the skin between her shoulder blade itches and Lexa wonders what Perrin might do if she tattles. It’s a fleeting worry but she still doesn’t want to do it—worse than Perrin are the other pages, the ones who would ignore and snub her. Besides, she really wants to deal with him on her own.

A lie, then.

“I have delicate skin, my lord.” Padraig stares at her for a very long time before asking her to repeat herself. Ominously, Lexa thinks, he begins to drum a slow beat on the table in front of him. Little finger, ring, middle, index. Little finger, ring, middle, index, and again. Lady Fiola lifts a hand to her lips. Lexa notes that the backs of her hands have the tell-tale scars from a life of fighting. “I have delicate skin, my lord.”

“And the bruises came from where?”

“Training, I suspect.”

“You have never bruised so easily before.”

Lady Fiola’s shoulders are now shaking as she tries to hold back a laugh. Lexa’s eyes burn from how intently she’s staring at the knot in the wood. “It comes and goes, my lord. The delicacy.”

“I’ve never heard of such an illness. Nor did you inform the palace healers or your instructors of this illness.”

“Oh, I don’t like to speak of it. It doesn’t affect me really, just looks…”

“Vibrant,” Lady Fiola suggests.

Lexa dips her a shallow bow and nods. “Vibrant, Lady Knight. Yes. I don’t want people to think that I’m weak. They might, you know, if they thought I had delicate skin, my lord,” Lexa tells him, affecting a sorrowful look.

The drumming of his fingers slows and then stops. “You are aware that if someone attacked you, they would be duly punished?”

“Yes, my lord.”

“And is there anything you would like to add to your explanation, or change, knowing that?”

“No, my lord."

Padraig frowns. “Very well,” he says. “You may go.” He rubs at one of his eyebrows. “Haryse,” he calls before she can go very far. Lexa wavers on the lowest step, turns back to face him. He sighs. “The traditional answer is that you fell.”

Lexa grins. It’s beautiful in its simplicity. “I’ll keep that in mind, my lord. Thank you.”

Left with the feeling he knows exactly what happened—and who wouldn’t, with a bruise so large?—Lexa bows again and to the lady knight as well before she limps down the last step and out of the dining hall. The pages have all long since left to their assigned work. Lexa hurries to join them.

The smith takes one look at her and curses. Small and injured, she isn’t much help. He sets her to fetching and carrying instead and by the end of her three bells, Lexa is ready to curl up and cry.

When she gets back to her room, she does exactly that. She hadn’t the night before—fury had left her eyes dry as a desert—but now they flow in earnest and she hugs her pillow to her chest.

A knock at her door makes her swipe at her cheeks. She winces, fresh tears leaking out at the pressure on her bruise.

“Open up, lass. It’s me.” Gus’s gentle voice makes Lexa’s face crumple and she rolls off her bed, hobbles over to let him in. “Oh Lexa.” He kneels, takes her face in his hands. “They got you good."

Miserable, Lexa nods.

Gus shuffles her back into her room and lifts her up, hands under her arms, to set her on her desk. From deep in his pocket, he pulls out a tub of bruise balm and immediately spreads it over her cheek. He dabs it in careful dots around her eye. Instantly, it cools on her heated skin and the throbbing eases, then begins to fade.

“What happened? None of those lies, now. The truth.”

Gus listens, silent, as she explains—how they’d caught her, how she’d frozen, how they’d thrashed her with ease. By the end, she’s crying again and he pulls her against his chest. Lexa sags. Solid under her forehead, Gus smells strongly of sweat and the sharp polish he uses on his knives, plus something earthy and rich that reminds her of home.

“You listen t’ me—don’t you kick yerself bout this. They were bigger an’ stronger. Aye, an’ outnumberin’ ye.” He chucks a crooked finger under her chin, urges her head up. His dark eyes are kind. “Ye’ve been fightin for two weeks now—yer no’ a warrior yet, eh?” His eyebrows scrunch, like two fat brown caterpillars. The thought makes her smile. “Now. Sounds like ye worried bout freezin’ up.” Lexa nods. “Aye, thought as much. We’ll have’t teach ye how’t not do that. Don’ worry bout it. Ye’ll learn.” She nods again, relieved. “I’ll be by in th’ morning too. I’ve some exercises ye can add t’ yer routine.” He ignores her groan. “Mix some o’ the balm into yer bath tonight. It’ll help with th’ aches.”

“Yessir.”

He cuffs her ear very lightly, making her grin. For a short time, he shifts her braids and neatens her collar, rubs a big thumb over her no-longer-aching eyebrow. Then, he cups the back of her head with his big hand and leans down to kiss the top of her head. He clears his throat when he straightens.

“Remember, use that balm.”

“Yes, Gus.”

“An’ I’ll be by in the mornin.”

“Yes, Gus.”

“Good lass.”


A week after the attack, Lexa is sleeping well again. No nightmares of freezing on the battle-field or in the hall—sometimes studded with too-real images of a blood-slick arrow biting into her chest—and her bruises barely hurt. She has dug out the blanket Mara made for her, though the weather doesn’t call for it yet, and wrapped herself in it while she sleeps. It smells of the sweet-mint-and-lavender package Mara had tucked into the folds of it, and faintly of home. 

In her dream, Lexa is seated at the top of a tall mast. Around her is a forest of blue trees. A brisk wind blows into her face, tinged with wood-smoke. Far below, Lexa can see her crew—made up of a bear, a large cat, two dogs and a toad, and a crow perched on her shoulder—working. They’re dressed in Haryse colours and walking on hind legs. Except for the toad, which just sits. At the prow of her ship, which is small and sleek and fast, is a figurehead. It’s Vauntire—he’s very lifelike in his struggling. With the distance dreaming lends her, Lexa realises he’s probably real. He’s been tied to the prow with lengths of thick rope. The ship sails clean over the trees, only a few of the very tallest and bluest trees rising above the rails.

Something knocks against the mast—no, her door?—and Lexa frowns. 

“Page Haryse,” someone calls in a quiet voice. They knock again.

With a sigh, dream-Lexa steps down from her crows-nest and off the side of her ship. The blue braches blur around her—one tangles like a vine around her legs and she fights it until she realises she’s awake and tussling with her blanket.

Disoriented, Lexa pulls her dagger from under the pillow.

“Page Haryse,” someone whispers at her door.

A second voice makes an annoyed sound. “She’s not waking up. Let’s go.”

“I want to try,” the first insists. They knock again. “Page Haryse?”

Lexa steps quietly over to her door. She pulls it open sharply to surprise whoever is there, stepping back to avoid an attack if it comes. This time, she’ll be ready.

There is no attack.

The person in the doorway wavers a little when she yanks the door away—he’d clearly had his ear pressed to the wood to hear her coming. He shows his empty hands. “Peace, Haryse—gods above, that’s a big knife for a little page!”

“You’ll deserve a stabbing if you say things like that, Jay. You don’t want to stab the prince, though,” tall Gareth standing to the side tells Lexa, and she nods and lowers the dagger.

Lexa steps to the side but neither of them make any motion to come in.

Despite their light words and tone, it’s obvious something is wrong. Lexa can see that the prince is wearing his clothes from the day before—if morning has even come yet and, judging from the way tiredness drags at Lexa, she thinks it hasn’t. He looks rumpled, clothes and frown and ringlets in disarray. He’s pale too, and nervous. And next to him, Gareth’s mouth is pinched tight. His eyes dart behind Lexa into her room and around. When his gaze settles on her, it is calculating and very serious.

Lexa clears her throat. She speaks quietly. “Is something wrong, Highness?”

The prince regards her for a moment. Then, he asks, “Page Haryse, have you seen my ring?” The solemnity of his tone is familiar but Lexa has never heard it without an accompanying amusement in his blue eyes. There is no amusement now.

Lexa shivers.

“Your ring, Highness?” She looks down at his hands—big hands, working hands with the callouses and scars of a knight-in-training—and at the pale spot on his little finger where his signet ring should sit. “No, Highness.”

Damn.” Prince Jasson whirls away, swipes a hand over his face. Gareth lays a hand on his shoulder, which is immediately shrugged off.

Gareth waits a few moments before laying his hand on the prince’s shoulder again. This time, it’s allowed. “Calm down,” he tells him quietly, almost too quietly for Lexa to hear. “It’s alright.”

“It’s my ring,” the prince hisses. “Do not tell me to calm down.”

“We will find it. Don’t lose your head, Highness.” The title adopts a certain sharpness on Gareth’s tongue that makes the prince prickle. He shrugs Gareth’s hand away again, much more deliberately.

Prince Jasson turns back to Lexa. “Haryse, what I am about to tell you goes no further than the three of us. Understand?”

She nods.

“My ring is missing. I don’t know when it happened. It can be tracked but if it a royal mage finds my ring on someone…” He runs a hand through his hair and his ringlets fall messily. From their messiness, she suspects he’s made that same gesture many times tonight.

“They’ll lose a hand at the very least,” Gareth explains gravely, picking up where the prince had stopped. “If this is a bad prank or even deliberate, we don’t want that to happen. I know you’ve a knack for finding things, Haryse,” Gareth says, and Lexa frowns. She doesn’t know where he might have picked up an idea like that. “The prince requires your help.”

“Don’t sound so damn pompous, Gary. Look, I wouldn’t ask unless it were important,” Prince Jasson impresses on her, a hint of his usual self in his eyes. Lexa nods. She knows that about him. He’s never one to ask the younger pages to do things for him or take messages or fetch items and he is always so careful to spread his time evenly between the tables over their dinners and lunches. He’s fair to a fault and stringently honest and Lexa notes that secrets don’t become him. He looks weary tonight and there is a tightness around his eyes that ages him. “Gary is helping me search the classrooms but I need someone to check the stables and, well, you’ve a knack.”

Again with that idea! Lexa doesn’t know how they came up with it—still, her prince has asked for her help.

“One moment, Your Highness.”

She steps back into her room and closes the door. Part of Lexa screams that it’s a trap—going to the stables? Late at night? Past curfew? She could be sent home by the training master if she’s found. Another, larger part of her is unbothered by the request beyond the strangeness of it. She knows the prince and Gareth—they are not her friends but she admires them both. As she considers this, Lexa tosses her hair up into a messy with a practised twist. She dresses in warmer clothes and a short woollen coat too and steps into her boots, stooping to hide her little knife in one. From a hook by the door Lexa takes her belt and, dagger in its sheath, she ties it snugly around her waist. Ready, she opens her door and steps into the hall with the waiting pair.

“You said the stable, Highness?” Lexa asks.

“That’s right,” Gareth tells her. The torchlight throws half his face into deep shadow and his eyes gleam. “Bring it right to the prince’s room if you find it. Do not tell anyone what you’re looking for or what you have. No one. Understand?”

Lexa nods. A warm hand settles on her shoulder and Lexa looks to Prince Jasson.

“I will be in your debt for this,” he says. Gareth makes a small noise in his throat that sounds like disapproval. The prince ignores him. “Thank you, Haryse.” He squeezes her shoulder once before setting off down the corridor, Gareth next to him.

Lexa heads the opposite way at a jog. She barely needs to think of the path she takes—weeks of walking it, half-asleep in the mornings, has left its impression and even the raised flagstone at the end of the third corridor doesn’t trip her in the dark.

The big archway that leads out toward the courts is lit on either side by torches—Lexa waits in a shadowed alcove, listening. The faint jangle of chainmail is her cue to press deeper into the shadows and once the squad of guards has passed, she waits a few moments longer, breath coming quick with nerves. Once she’s sure they’re gone, Lexa slips out into the field. The grass is wet underfoot and Lexa slips and slides her way down the big hill, staying low by the railing in case anyone looked out to see her halfway across the field. Almost there, Lexa has to stop and free her foot from a burrow she hadn’t noticed in the dark. It takes a moment—her ankle throbs and she itches all over, certain that any moment now someone will see her—but then she’s free and slinking around the corner of the big stables.

I’m going back through the courts, Lexa decides when her ankle gives a particularly painful throb. Let them see me! At least I won’t break my bloody ankle.

With the main door looked, Lexa thinks it might be difficult to get in but there’s a barrel placed directly under an opening around the back of the stable. Climbing up onto it, she finds she can pull herself up onto a beam and, from there, into the hayloft. In a move she’s been practicing ever since she saw Anya do it, Lexa plants her hands on the hayloft ledge and pops herself up and inside. The drop to the ground makes her ankle twinge but she’s in.

Inside the stable it’s hot and smells strongly—fresh hay and animal, leather and polish. All around, the building creaks and groans, so different from the quiet pages wing. Lexa grins when a horse snorts in its sleep—that, at least, she recognises from the pages wing. A nose snuffles into the pocket of her coat and Lexa turns to find the pony whose stall she rudely dropped into. “Hello,” she murmurs to the little creature, and she opens her pocket to find a few stale crumbs. The pony doesn’t seem to mind and snuffles at them happily. Lexa pats her new friend’s neck as she waits for her eyes to adjust to the dim light—once she knows where she is and where she wants to go, she gives her friendly pony one last scratch behind the ear and slips into the stable proper.

Her pony nickers. In the still night, the sound travels and one by one the horses lift their heads as they take notice of Lexa.

“Shh, shush,” she tells them, heart thumping in her chest. A few eye her warily and she hopes none of these are trained to alert their owners to a thief. “Please be quiet, the prince sent me, please. I’m a page, you know me, shush.”

She doesn’t know if it’s her words or the fact that she walks closer to the horses, lets them smell her familiar smell and snuffle at her clothes and hair and face, but the horses eventually lose interest and let her move on down the way to the stall where the prince’s mare is kept. She’s a sweet girl, grey with black socks, and huffs a hello into Lexa’s hair.

“Hello Whiskers,” Lexa murmurs, stroking softly at the mare’s nose. “Aren’t you beautiful?” She makes a silent promise to bring some sugar lick for Alraed later, in penance for calling another mare beautiful. “Is it okay if I come into your stall? I know I’m not supposed to be here,” she nods when Whiskers huffs a disapproving snort against Lexa’s cheek. “It’s late, I know, but Prince Jasson sent me. Your rider, the prince?” She waits until Whiskers snorts again. “I’m looking for his ring, have you seen it?”

Whiskers stills and pulls back, out of Lexa’s hands. She looks at Lexa thoughtfully for a long moment before shaking her head in a suspiciously human ‘no’.

The gesture makes Lexa pause. She’d been joking when she asked Whiskers…but she’s heard enough rumours about the clever castle animals to wonder.

Lexa swallows nervously. Very politely, she says, “Thank you. I’m sure you’re right but I promised the prince I would look. Do you mind?”

Whiskers looks like she’s going to guard the gate to her stall, head hanging over it, but then she flicks her tail and takes one step back and then another until there is plenty of room for Lexa to come through. She searches the stall thoroughly—through the fresh hay, in the trough, under the palings between Whiskers’ stall and the next. She even plunges her hand into Whiskers feed bag, which the mare is less pleased by. When she finds no ring, Lexa moves to the table where the pages sometimes work to polish and repair their tack.

Nothing,” Lexa hisses when she’s done. She rubs at her forehead. Whiskers stamps her foot, eats flat against her head. Lexa nods. “You’re right—it’s not good.” She thinks briefly about calling off her search but she knows she can’t. Either she finds the ring or she looks until someone else does. “Can you ask the others? It’s gold and has a sapphire on it. Will they understand that?”

Whiskers tosses her head. Lexa decides that it’s a yes. The mare paws at the ground and whinnies, not loud enough for any hostlers to come in and investigate but enough for the nearby horses to prick their ears. In the stall next to Whiskers, the horse there snorts. Whiskers must not like that answer because she clicks her teeth at the gelding and snorts back.

Lexa leaves Whiskers to her interrogation and picks up her search elsewhere. She sifts through the hay on the floor of the work area, under the table, and through the bins of leather. She checks the cupboards where they keep the pages lances—the lock is rusted and broken and she winces when she tugs it open, the squeal of metal making her teeth prickle. Finding nothing, she returns to Whiskers to say goodnight.

The mare’s head is raised in a proud arch. She stamps her hoot and nickers. Lexa stops. Something is different and it takes a moment to pinpoint what it is.

The stable is waiting in absolute silence. Lexa turns—every horse down the line of stalls on either side are staring at her with their big, liquid eyes. Not knowing what else to do, Lexa stares back.

At the far end, a horse kicks at the door of their stall twice. It echoes like a knock.

“Am—Do I go talk to them?” Lexa asks Whiskers quietly, feeling very lost and little. The mare nods. “Ah. Alright. Thank you.” Her voice only shakes a little.

Waiting at the end of the aisle is a massive gelding, pitch black save for the star on his forehead and two white socks. Lexa relaxes—she knows this horse. The gelding is Octavia’s mount, Beauty, and he reminds her a lot of the wild page. There’s nothing subtle about him, for one thing—all power and fight. He’s smart, wilful, and seems to relish in the challenges Padraig sets in riding practice and the lance work. At first, the other pages had assumed he would be too much for Octavia to handle but Lexa had seen them riding together and Octavia grooming him. They treat him gently and with great care and she had seen Beauty regard her with the same. Knowing that, Lexa was the only one unsurprised when Beauty followed Octavia’s commands in the field so fluidly they seemed to share one mind.

Now, Beauty snuffles very gently at Lexa’s hair for a moment. She stands still until he dips his head and butts it against her chest, demanding a scratch.

She obliges.

“Octavia would call you a traitor, you know,” she points out to the scratch-greedy gelding. Beauty huffs his derision about that and pushes his head harder against her. Lexa grins. “Do you know where the ring is? Or you just wanted to say hello?”

Beauty pulls back. Lexa steps out of reach—the vicious look in his eyes isn’t reassuring.

“Calm, Beauty. Calm down, I didn’t mean anything by it.”

Beauty ignores her soothing and instead lunges forward over the side of his stall and snaps his teeth at a leather care bag Octavia has left slung over the post by his gate. He can’t quite reach, though he tries again, so Lexa slinks forward. Still out of reach of his teeth, she points to the bag. Beauty snorts, tosses his head in a horse nod. Lexa picks it up and digs through it—a brush, hoof pick, coloured string to brain into Beauty’s mane. And finally, right at the bottom—Prince Jasson’s ring.

Lexa’s breath catches in her throat. She closes her hand tight around the ring, hiding it from view.

“Octavia stole his ring—” Beauty clamps his teeth around her elbow in a clear warning. It would be so easy for him to injure her—and badly—so she stays still and reconsiders. “Octavia didn’t steal the ring?” she guesses.

Beauty releases her. Slowly. His warning is clear—I could have bitten you. Don’t make me.

“If they didn’t steal it—and they didn’t,” Lexa hurries to add when Beauty shows his teeth again, “then…maybe they picked it up. No, Octavia could have given it to him at lunch. There’s no reason to keep it.” Lexa frowns down at it. “Why…”

The answer comes to her and she rolls her eyes at her own slow mind. If anyone had found the ring in their bag, Octavia would be accused of theft before they could get a word in to defend themself. Someone who wants that put the ring there.

“Perrin.” Lexa scowls. “It was Perrin, wasn’t it?” she asked Beauty, who presses his forehead hard against her shoulder for more scratches. She scratches at his neck. “He doesn’t want me here so he attacked me and when that didn’t work, he tried something different with Octavia. I know I’m right—I just wish I could prove it.”

The words pull something out of her. It starts like an itch focused in her hand where she clutches the ring and then it bursts outwards. Around her, the world shifts.

The stench of the stable fades and holds a distant second place to a strong tang of metal. Lexa’s nostrils flare—a distinction in the smell she hadn’t known before this moment tells her that the metal she smells is gold. At the same time, the sounds around her come to the fore long enough for her to catalogue—a whistle, air through the roof, men snoring in the backroom, the rustle of horse and rat and dozing dog—before dropping away. Colours, too, flatten to a dull grey. Lexa can still see—and in vivid detail—but the colours don’t distract her. She finds she doesn’t need them anyway, not when there is such a clear path in front of her all in silver. A deep sensation of smugness, deceit, thrums through her.

Never before has Lexa felt it so clearly. A shiver of horror moves through her when she realises what it is: it’s emotion, not hers but someone else’s, that she has stumbled onto—into—brought inside herself. She’s not sure exactly but it doesn’t matter; it flares again like an invitation to follow it to its owner and Lexa retches, hot bile rising in her throat. The violation of it—someone else’s emotions, foreign and alien, inside her—makes her retch.

Sickened, afraid, Lexa throws the ring down to the floor.

As soon as it’s out of her hand, the world snaps back into sharp relief—sounds, smells, colours and all. Lexa totters to the pump at the end of the aisle and retches again. She rinses her mouth out with a handful of cold water and spits it into the drain there. Another handful cleans her sweat-damp forehead and neck.

Once her heart has stopped racing, Lexa scrubs her hands thoroughly and dries them on her pants. She rubs her palms red against the rough material.

Beauty snorts gently and Lexa turns, totters back to his stall. She leans against the rough wood and holds herself there, energy drained out of her like water from a pierced skin.

“What was that?”

Beauty lowers his head over her shoulder and blows a raspberry at the ring, the focus of her discomfort. Lexa smiles despite herself and scratches under his chin.

“My hero,” she murmurs. “Do you know what happened? No? You don’t know?” Lexa pauses. “You didn’t see it?” Beauty shakes out his mane. “Maybe horses can’t see things like that,” she suggests, which is better than thinking it only happened to her. She pats his warm neck. “It was nothing. I’m just tired.”

Beauty nudges her, fixes her with a worried, dark eye. She pats him again.

Ignoring the ring for the moment, Lexa walks down the line of stalls to find Alraed who has been waiting for her so patiently.

Lexa greets her best friend, scratches under her neck where she likes it. Letting herself into the stall, she busies herself by plucking a few straws of hay from Alraed’s tail and crooning compliments to her as she pats and pats and pats her neck. It helps to feel nothing in her hands but the bristle of short horse hair and warm skin. But finally, Alraed snuffles at her and flicks her ears.

“I’m not hiding.” The words sound weak even to her.

Alraed flicks her ears again.

“I’m not.” Alraed lifts one hoof threateningly and Lexa glares at her but has to step quickly out of the stall to avoid having her foot broken. “You’re a nasty horse. I should have sold you to the pie-maker like Da told me to.”

Alraed flicks her tail and turns her back on Lexa.

Scowling, Lexa returns to where she had dropped the ring. She squats, stares down at it.

It looks very innocent, a simple band of gold topped by a flat blue stone. Nothing special about it at all, except of course for what that sigil cut into the stone means. The prince’s ring.

Not wanting to risk that strangeness again, Lexa pulls a handkerchief from her pocket and drops it over the ring before she picks it up. She twists it into the centre of the cloth and ties the ends before shoving it deep into her pocket.

“Goodnight,” she calls out into the stable. “Thank you for your help.” Most of the horses look relieved that she’s leaving and barely bother to lift their heads. Beauty and Alraed both nicker a farewell.

Lexa returns and drops a kiss onto Alraed’s forehead. “You’re a mean girl,” she says with fondness, and Alraed blows a stream of hot air out onto her shoulder.

Leaving the way she came in—the pony is sturdy and stolid and doesn’t seem to mind it when someone as light as Lexa stands on its back to climb out a window—Lexa sets off at a slow jog to the courts.

Great Mithros, Bright Mithros, I’ll be so respectful in worship next Sunday, she prays, just please help me get up this hill without dying from exhaustion. I’ll light two candles! Calves burning at the halfway point, she adds, And I won’t fall asleep in worship. Not even a small nap. I swear it.

Mithros doesn’t lend her strength. She’s panting and ready to fling herself down in the dirt and lay there until training on Monday morning when a familiar sound makes her stop and lift her head. No more surprises, she begs any god that is listening. It must have been none of them. A twang of bowstring, followed by the soft punch of arrow into target, makes her turn.

Great Mithros, Your Brightness, if you put this in my path because you thought I wasn’t being reverent just now then I’m very mad and I will nap through worship!

Aching, Lexa makes her way down to the third court. She squints at the figure there. He has a torch thrust into the dirt at his feet and Lexa would recognise that poor grip even in the pitch black.

“Hasim?” He doesn’t seem to hear. Lexa moves closer and calls out again. The boy twists, lowers his bow when he sees her.

It’s clear that he’s tired. His arms are trembling and the fire light doubles the effect where it flickering over the blunted head of the arrow he has notched to his bow. Lexa can still see sweat circles his neck and under his arms despite the dark cloth. He must have been out here for hours.

“What are you doing?”

“Practice.” Tired, his accent is thick.

“It doesn’t look like practice.” The light catches a shiny welt on his forearm—she would bet that it’s red and sore from where his string has slapped against it. Seeing the direction of her stare, he hides the arm behind his back. A furious thought snaps through her. “Is someone making you do this?” Her mind races. “They’ve made you do this before—all those times you were falling asleep in the mornings, it’s because you were out here, weren’t you?”

“So what?”

“So it’s wrong,” she tells him. He glances away, a stubborn scowl curling his lips. “You know it’s wrong too—why do you let them do this?”

“Do you see anyone making me do it?” Hasim asks. “No. You do not. Because there is no one here—I choose to do this.”

“I’m going to strangle you,” Lexa says very quietly so he can’t hear. She must be even more tired than she thought she was to be so annoyed. He peers at her, seeing her lips move but not hearing her words. Louder, she says, “Choose?"

“Yes.”

Lexa glares. He has to be being obstuse on purpose, she’s sure of it. “So you’re saying that someone—probably Perrin? Or was it Qasim?” Something flickers in his eyes. Lexa knows now it was Qasim—or Tall Boy—the Bazhir who spends his time with Perrin. “You’re saying that Qasim didn’t suggest that you do this?”

Hasim scowls. “No.”

“You’re lying.” 

“And so what!” Hasim explodes. “I need to practice—I am a disgraceful archer!”

“You’re terrible,” she agrees. It makes him start and then nearly smile. “It doesn’t mean you must torment yourself.” Despite her urging and his obvious exhaustion, Hasim remains where he is. A muscle works in his jaw as he stares down the long court, away from Lexa. She yawns, presses her lips together to try and hide it. He gives her a sad smile.

“You should go in and sleep.”

“Not until you do.” To prove it, Lexa folds her arms. Instantly she regrets the harsh stance she took—it might be a very long time before she can convince Hasim to abandon his night-time folly and she wants to sleep. She shifts and the hard lump of the ring in her pocket reminds her of her actual task. Lexa huffs. “I have things to do, Hasim. Go to bed!”

“You go to bed!’

“I want to!” She stomps her foot, frustrated.

For a moment, they trade heated glares but then Hasim laughs. “You are like my fathers horse—she stamps when annoyed too.”

Lexa narrows her eyes. “Is she a good horse?”

Hasim shrugs, nods. “The most best.”

“That’s alright then, I suppose.” She yawns then until her jaw clicks. “Ugh. Look, you’re really terrible and this,” she waves her hand at his set-up, “this isn’t helping you at all.”

“I need-”

“Stand with me at practice tomorrow and I’ll help you. But go to bed.

Hasim nods very slowly and Lexa eagerly takes that as agreement. Agreement means that she can leave and so she does, striding up the hill. She is fuelled by her frustration with him and with Perrin’s nastiness but, as potent as that is, it too drains away by the time she’s past the first court and by the time she makes it to the prince’s room, she’s well and truly flagging.

Lexa yawns again. Lifts a hand and knocks.

The door swings open.

Prince Jasson stands in the doorway, gaping. Behind him is Gareth, seated at the desk. His shoulders are hunched and tense and he rubs nervous fingers over his chin. When he sees Lexa, he shoots to his feet.

“Haryse!”

Swaying in place, Lexa pulls her handkerchief from her pocket. Prince Jasson reaches out. His hand is trembling. Lexa unfolds the cloth and tilts her hand so that the ring rolls off onto his hand.

“Should’ve told me ‘bout th’ wards,” she mutters, grumpily, before staggering off down the hall and away.


The next morning, Hasim joins her at on her way to the third court. Lexa shies away from the unexpected company and glares.

“What?" 

“Good morning,” Hasim says politely. The skin under his eyes are dark with exhaustion but his eyes are bright, gleaming.

What?” she asks again. Her dreams had been filled with colourless visions, leaving her deeply uneasy and her foul mood sours the word.

He must recognise that because he drops his slow pace and blurts, “Did you mean what you said?”

It takes a moment to remember what she had promised. She rolls her eyes. “Yes.”

“And what do you want in return?”

“One day,” she tells him, yawning, “you will be shooting at something.” He nods, confused. “On that day, I will know that you won’t hit me by accident and that’s good enough.”

Hasim stares at her for a moment before he grins, a sly little grin. “What if I hit you on purpose?”

“Then I did my job, didn’t I?”

It makes him laugh and he takes the spot to her right when the bow master tells them to line up. While Master Tern is down the other end of the court, Lexa shows Hasim her stretches and works through them. She has to dredge her memory for Gus’s explanations on what they do—this one to strengthen your fingers, Lexa, this one to make your arm muscles limber and loose so your little twig arms don’t snap right off when you draw, this one to strengthen your grip—and by the time she remembers and repeats them, she’s more calm and her tone bites less.

Hasim is a good student. He copies her diligently, fixing his attempts every single time she corrects him without complaint. She wonders if it’s his nature or because he’s so terrible at archery he knows he needs the help.

Once they’ve stretched, she moves on. How to pick a target. How to breathe, how to calm himself so his shot doesn’t flinch wide of the mark.

Hasim listens carefully to the instructions and when she steps away after showing him a better grip, he breathes, focuses, and lets his first shot of the day fly.

“I did it!”

Lexa squints down at the twenty-yard target. His arrow has struck true and held, though it is wide of centre. Still, much better than the day before.

“I did it!” he says again and he gives her a true smile—one that crinkles the corners of his eyes and makes him lighten. Lexa finds that she’s smiling back.

“Good. Do it again.”

He salutes her cheekily and obeys.

To her left, Lexa notices that Octavia watches him carefully. They adjust their grip slightly and before she can stop herself, Lexa shakes her head and reaches over.

“No.”

Octavia freezes, holds their body rigid and their gaze away, pretending they hadn’t been watching her impromptu lesson with Hasim. Lexa is too exhausted to deal with their pride and continues until she has their hand in her own. She shifts it to where it should be sitting.

“There,” Lexa tells them. “Try that.”

Octavia doesn’t thank her—though, to be completely fair, Lexa turns away immediately and returns to Hasim. Lexa does know that they’re using the hold she showed them because Octavia’s already decent shooting improves.

The third time Octavia makes the difficult centre shot, the bow master wanders down their end of the court. He scowls when he sees their private lesson.

“My instructions not enough?”

Lexa presses her lips flat and doesn’t answer. She’s afraid her response and disdain is clear enough. He doesn’t so much as look at them, let alone teach. Master Tern must read it on her because he swaggers forward and glares down at her. He’s only an inch or two taller than Lexa is but years of working with a bow means that he’s strong. Anger draws thick lines over his face.

“You are a student, not a teacher,” he snaps in accented Common.

“Then you teach us.”

The gruff comment comes from Octavia and Lexa twists to look back over her shoulder at them. They pretend not to notice. Lexa turns back to see Master Tern’s reaction.

Eyes black with anger, he shakes a warning finger at them. “Mind yourself, Danshame.”

“Or what?”

So quick Lexa doesn’t see it, Tern brings a short length of wood up and cracks it harshly against Octavia’s shoulder. A quiet gasp of pain makes Lexa surge forward and when he brings the stick down a second time, Lexa catches it. It stings her palm, making her flinch. Tern glares at her.

“If you won’t teach us,” Lexa tells him, slowly, “we will teach ourselves.”

“That’s a bell this Sunday,” he spits. “For the both of you.”

Lexa stares at him for a moment longer before letting the stick fall from her hand. She returns to her plane in line and ignores the furious glare Tern is giving her.

“Fix your grip,” she tells Hasim. “You’ve slipped again.”

“Stop.”

Lexa ignores Tern’s order. The unfairness of it makes her blood boil. She clamps down on the anger and frustration with a control she only barely feels and forces herself calm. She continues. “Good, Hasim. That’s exactly right. Now breathe and draw—that’s right, to your cheek not your ear. Very good. And release.”

She and Hasim release at the same time and their arrows both find their marks.

“Another bell, Haryse!”

Lexa slots another arrow into place. “The fifty yard target this time, I think.” Hasim glances worriedly at her. She gives him a small nod, knowing his look has nothing to do with the target but rather the training master she’s blatantly ignoring. “You can do it. Adjust for wind and distance—it comes with practice so don’t worry if you don’t get it right this time.”

The bow master paces behind but he isn’t foolish enough to grab her when she has an arrow notched. She fires—he grabs her by the neck and drags her to the fence line, rips her bow from her hands and throws it in to the dust.

Distantly, Lexa sees that her arrow is stuck dead centre and shivering. Not that it matters if he kills her.

The bow masters hold around the back of her neck tightens. He shakes her a little. “You will stop this,” he hisses, spittle hitting her cheek. “No more, no more disrespect.”

“Then do your job,” Lexa tells him flatly, though she flinches when he shakes her again. He’s strong enough to lift her clean off her feet and he does. 

Though she’s focused on Tern, around her she can see Hasim and Octavia’s worried faces—from down the other end of the court, Anya and Prince Jasson are trying to reach her but there are people in the way blocking them.

Tern raises his stick and brings it down twice—one blow hits her harshly on the hip and the other just barely clips her shoulder when someone pulls her out of the way. The iron grip yanks her out of reach when Tern’s grip slackens—another hand comes up, grabs the stick, and wrenches it out of Tern’s hand. As soon as Padraig is sure that Lexa isn’t about to be struck again, he lets her go.

“Is there a problem here, Tern?”

The Master is blatantly absent.

Lexa’s spine goes rigid. She stands to attention, hands behind her back. She’s relieved—it hides the way they’re shaking. “Lord Padraig—”

“I did not address you, Page Haryse.” Is it a good sign? That he’s still calling her Page? Lexa doesn’t know. She sneaks a look up at his face, which remains impassive. “Well, Tern?”

Since Padraig hadn’t told her to drop her eyes, Lexa now looks to Tern. His nostrils flare. His hand clenches around the space where his beating stick had been. “She’s being disrespectful.”

Disrespect is not a beating offence.”

“Just a tap, my lord.”

Lord Padraig drums his fingers against the leather of his belt. “Who is your most accomplished archer?” he asks Tern.

“Most accomplished… Well.” He scratches at his chin. “Hosseim.”

“Good. Hosseim?” Lexa keeps her face smooth of any frown when Tall Boy jogs over and bows. “You will be leading this class until I say otherwise.”

“What-“

“Do not speak,” Padraig advises the bow master. Bow master no longer, Lexa realises. Qasim realises it at the same time, his shocked eyes moving to look at Lexa. For a moment, it looks as though he wants to glare at her and then, surprisingly, he doesn’t.

“Uh—”

“Quickly, page.”

“Yes, my lord!” Qasim says smartly, nods. Lexa doesn’t remember him ever speaking before—his voice is softer than she expected but with a sharp edge to it she suspects is forced so that people think twice about disregarding him.

“Good. Report to me after dinner.” Padraig shifts his gaze to Lexa. She holds herself so tall and still her arms begin to tremble with the effort. “See that your bow is undamaged,” is all he says to her. Lexa and Qasim bow and the training master nods—he makes a sharp gesture and Tern strides from the court, an ugly scowl on his face. Padraig follows him up the hill and into the palace.

Lexa turns to Qasim, who rubs a hand over his face. She thinks he might be in shock. After a long moment, she clears her throat and his eyes snap to her.

“Back in line, Haryse,” he tells her, tone brisk but surprisingly mild.

Lexa nods and trots back to her place. Hasim reaches over, grips her arm above the elbow and shakes her a little.

“What just happened!”

“I…don’t know.”

“Are you out?” He doesn’t flinch from her withering look, just shrugs. “He could be making you finish the day, I don’t know—what happened?”

“Nothing. Except, Qasim is now in charge.”

Hasim frowns a little, twists to watch Qasim. The other Bazhir boy is sneaking a look at Perrin and then, to Lexa’s surprise, ignoring the grin being sent his way.

“Everyone switch to the fifty-yard target. Haryse,” he calls out, still no trace of nastiness in his tone. “How’s the bow?”

Lexa glances it over and fits an arrow to it—she picks her target and shoots. Her bow still feels right in her grip and she nods. “It feels fine, uh,” she pauses, unsure of what title to give him. “Sir?”

He grins. Then, remembering who she is, stops just as suddenly. “Master Sir Teacher Sir, I think you should all call me.”

Down the other end of the court, the prince laughs. “Come off it, Qasim. Also, help me hit this bloody target?”

“Right away, Highness.”

The rest of the lesson passes with a surprising lack of trouble. Qasim even wanders by their end of the court and watches her teach Hasim—when she lifts her eyebrows, he gives her an uncomfortable nod and walks away.

On their way down to the stables, Hasim looks over his shoulder at Qasim thoughtfully. “I hope he’s our teacher forever.”

“He told you that you are a disgrace and made you practice all night. Several times,” Lexa points out.

“Sure. But that was a good lesson, don’t you think?”

Lexa scowls. “I suppose.”

“There you go.”

Teaching Hasim has other benefits, too, not just getting rid of unpleasant bow masters. When they pick up their lances, he teaches her a grip that has the lance feeling solid in her hand—it always felt unwieldy and far too long and Lexa looks at him in surprise.

“Try it out.”

Lexa nudges Alraed to the front of line, eyes the quintains set up in the tilting yard. She holds it as Hasim had shown her and nudges Alraed to charge down the lane. Still heavy, the lance doesn’t swing wildly or knock her horse on the head. She points her lance, aims, and the force of impact jars her hand and up to her elbow. Lexa holds her breath and rides past—for the first time in two weeks, the sandbag doesn’t smack her in the back.

“Good, Haryse!”

Lexa twists in her tilting saddle, scanning the yard. Finally, she spots Lord Padraig. She nudges Alraed to walk on and guides her down the returning lane. When she nears the training master, she stops. His horse—a roan gelding named Mister Splotch—must recognise her because it steps toward her before Padraig still it with a touch.

“My lord?”

“Nazri taught you a hold?”

“Yes, my lord.”

Padraig nods, leans forward in his saddle. “It’s the best run you’ve done so far—still pitiful,” he clarifies, “but the best you’ve done. Do it again. Do it better.”

“Yes, my lord.”

Lexa has to wait some time for another turn—with only four quintains for the first- and second-years, she’s in the third lot to charge. Once more, she hits it smoothly and runs past unharmed.

Padraig nods when she rides past. “Keep it up, Haryse.”

Fairly glowing with the praise, Hasim has to nudge his mare into her to get her to stop grinning. It doesn’t work. Lexa starts grinning at him instead.

Thank you,” she says in a voice oddly close to gushing. “I couldn’t figure out the grip, I had started to think I never would.”

“It isn’t easy for everyone.” Lexa squints at him. He had been doing very well at tilting since the beginning and had long since moved on to having to hit the target dead centre, as Lexa suspects she will soon. Hasim grins. “I am not everyone.” He nudges D’lpedar, his mare, to the line. Watching him charge down the yard, Lexa decides she should begin aiming for the centre now and not just trying to avoid a hit.

She switches her lance to her left arm and shakes out her right, opens and closes her fist a few times to work the numbness out of her fingers. She grins when Hasim lets out a hoot, hitting the target smack in the centre.

“Good, Nazri—less antics next time.”

“Yes, my lord!”

//

After splitting up to bathe, Lexa barely has time to feel Hasim’s absence before he returns to sit with her at lunch. Anya raises an eyebrow at the new face but says nothing. Lincoln, arguably the nicest of all of them, says hello.

When Hasim sits next to her in every class, Lexa is a little afraid that he think she’ll help him in all of those classes as well but it soon becomes obvious that he just…wants to sit with her. 

“Yes,” he says, frowning a little when she asks him that evening. “We’re friends now.”

“We are?”

“You helped me last night, for no reason other than deciding you must.”

“I would do that for anyone.”

“Yes, but today you helped me again even when you got in trouble for it and I think that is something that friends do.”

It’s a nice thought and Lexa smiles down at her work. She finds that she enjoys a lot of what Hasim considers to be ‘things that friends do’. She likes comparing answers with someone and likes when he leans over to her in class and mutters funny comments about the teachers. His complaints are so excessive they make her laugh.

“It took me some time to figure out why Master Vauntire looked so familiar to me—he was like Hrikash. My father’s prize falcon.”

Lexa frowns, confused. There is nothing hugely birdlike about their etiquette master. “That sounds like a very good thing.”

“It would be but any time he saw himself in a mirror there he would be! Preening! We could not take the mirror away because he would strike us!” Hasim shows her a small but nasty scar on his middle finger he swears, hand on his heart, the falcon had made. It sends Lexa into fits of giggles and Hasim smiles apologetically at a few third-years who throw glares their way for making sound in the library. “We should go somewhere else,” Hasim whispers. “We can study in my room? I have a book on numbers I think you will like.”

Lexa eagerly agrees and she packs up her notes and half-finished essay.

They’re nearly to Hasim’s room when they run into Perrin and one of his tag-a-longs. Dirty-blonde hair and a pointed chin—Lexa is sure she knows his name, though she can’t recall it, and is even more sure that he’s unpleasant. 

“Well, what do we have here? Little Haryse cozying up with the desert rat. Isn’t this sweet?”

“What do we have here? Little miss cosying up with the desert rat. Isn’t this sweet?” Perrin’s friend sniggers.

“Leave off, Halleburn.” 

Perrin glares at her, flicks his gaze over her cheek where her bruise is very nearly gone. “Didn’t learn your lesson last time, I see.”

“I knew it,” Hasim hisses.

Lexa ignores that. Anya and several others had tried a few times to get her to tattle—she hadn’t yet but she knows Hasim will tell them all when he gets the chance. For now, Lexa glares right back at Perrin.

“Are you going to let us pass?”

“Mm…what do you think, lads?” He lifts his eyebrows and, stomach sinking, Lexa turns to see that two of his friends have joined them. Tall Boy—Qasim—and Chip Tooth again.

“Wasn’t very polite,” Qasim says. He sounds almost reluctant and he hasn’t yet taken his hands out of his pockets.

“You heard him. Ask again—nicely.”

Lexa scowls. Hasim shakes his head very slightly at her. Politely, Hasim says, “Please, Page Halleburn, may we pass?”

Perrin inspects him carefully before he gives them both a nice, wide smile. “Of course.” He steps to the side. Pointy Chin steps aside too. Lexa throws her shoulders back and marches into the space they’ve left. “Have a nice night, khobi.

Hasim stiffens in shock and his steps falter. Lexa doesn’t recognise the word but she knows it must be foul—when she turns to look at him, his eyes are dark with fury and his lips curled, disgust plain. He turns around slowly.

What did you call me?”

Hearing his tone, Lexa resigns herself to another fight. And just when her bruises had begun to fade.

“What?” Perrin asks, not bothering to hide his glee. “Khobi?”

Behind him, Lexa sees Qasim flinch as well.

“Say that one more time and I’ll acquaint your teeth with my fist.”

Perrin puffs up. He starts to roll up his sleeves in slow, deliberate folds. “Big words. I’d like to see you try.” He licks his lips, grins. “Khobi.”

Perrin keeps his eyes on Hasim, which is his mistake. He doesn’t immediately notice when Lexa darts forward—though, he does when she tackles him and drives her shoulder into his stomach. It folds him over and Hasim must use it to his advantage because the next thing Lexa knows, she’s having to find a way out from under a tangle of limbs. Helpfully, Chip Tooth pulls her clear and Lexa gets a good look at Perrin trying to block Hasim from punching him in the face. Again, judging from his fat lip. Less helpfully, Chip Tooth then throws her clear down the hall. Lexa slaps the ground to break her fall—Gus’ll be pleased, she thinks, just before Rat Face’s kick catches her in the side. Rat Face is unprepared for what that brings—Lexa, who had been willing to ignore him as long as he didn’t wade into the fight, makes him her next target.

Compared with her last fight with Perrin and his friends, this one is short but much bloodier.

Three servants break up the fight and take them to Padraig. Lexa’s opponent—Pointy Chin—is nabbed first and she uses it to her advantage, kicking him hard. Another servant grabs her. He has biceps like boulders and drags her by the scuff of her neck, Hasim in his other hand.

The other three pages follow meekly, trailed by the last—and largest—servant.

When they arrive, Padraig looks over them with a cool, furious gaze. He points to a spot in front of his desk and they line up. Then, he makes them wait.

Worse, he makes them stand and wait he writes sheets and sheets of meticulous script. They relax when he puts down his pen but then he begins to read instead and the last of them—Pointy Chin—realises the torture Padraig is putting them through. He lets a faint whimper escape. Without looking up, Padraig sneers.

“You do not want me to lose my chain of thought,” Lord Padraig threatens. “I might have to begin again.”

Even Perrin glares at Pointy Chin when they hear that.

Finally, Lord Padraig sets aside his paperwork. Beginning at one end of the line, he looks over them and his sharp eyes catch each bruise, each drop of blood, each and every tear and popped stitch in their clothes. His gaze rests the longest on Lexa, either because she’s last in line or because there’s so much to see. A large tear in the sleeve of her tunic has left it hanging halfway down her arm, held on by a bare few valiant stitches. The tunic itself is spotted with blood and ink. Half her braid has come out and her curls are enjoying their freedom, springing happily about her forehead and ears. She blows it out of her face with a sneaky puff and succeeds only in making her split lip sting.

Padraig stands.

The pages—already standing to attention—stand as tall and straight as they’re able. Lexa’s chin has never been higher, she’s sure of that.

He makes his way around his desk and behind them. Lexa keeps her eyes forward though she strains her ears to follow him. Breath in her throat, she thinks she hears him right behind her but then catches a glimpse of him out of the corner of her eye well down the line near Qasim. There’s no way to tell where Padraig is—he walks as soft as a cat and has good reason to torment them.

“Well.”

Lexa winces. His cold tone could freeze water. She sneaks a look—he’s still behind Qasim.

“I have never seen a sorrier lot of pages in my life. Ripped, bloodied—what is this, Halleburn?” He pinches Perrin’s sleeve between two fingers, lifts it.

“Ink, my lord.”

“Ink,” Padraig repeats. The skin around his mouth is tight and white with fury. He strides down the line and around until he is standing next to his desk. “I shall be writing to your families,” he tells them. “All of you. For the next two weeks, you may forget working on your assignments. You will be working every night at whatever task I send you—and you can be assured,” he says, voice silky with promise, “it will be the most disgusting, tedious, back-breaking work that I can devise. If you have enough time to fight then clearly I am not giving you enough to do! I will also ensure that your year mates know exactly who is responsible for giving them extra work. If that is distasteful to you, Gerry,” Padraig snaps, “you should have thought of that before brawling in the corridors!”

Lexa frowns. A thought occurs to her and she steps forward out of line. “My lord?”

“Did it sound like I was done, Haryse?”

“No, my lord.”

“Then what is so important?”

Lexa swallows. “I fell, my lord.” In the sudden silence so profound she thinks the other pages aren’t daring to breathe either, Lexa stares immediately ahead and fixes her eyes on a book in Padraig’s shelf bound in red leather. Until, that is, he steps slowly and purposefully to stop in front of her.

Lexa swallows again.

Her eyes run up—she’s level with his sternum so she has to look up and up, past his rumpled collar to the shadow of a beard on his chin. Did their fight pull him from bed? It’s a funny thought—she wonders briefly what colour his bed sheets are—until she considers how she feels about being woken and suddenly his bad mood seems at once more understandable and more terrifying. Lexa looks up to his face; narrowed into dangerous slits, Padraig’s eyes freeze her to her spot.

“You did, did you?” The question is softly spoken. It makes Lexa shiver. “You fell.”

“Yes, my lord." 

Padraig rubs his fingers over his mouth, thinner than ever in his displeasure. Turning away from her, he travels the line of the pages once more. As he does, his hand falls to his belt and he tucks a thumb into it. His four fingers drum against the leather in a soft tattoo.

“And the rest of you?" 

Qasim clears his throat. There is no sharpness to his soft voice now. “Yes, my lord, we fell.” The older pages follow his lead, Perrin last of all with a twist to his lips.

“Yesh,” Hasim tells him, words thick and slurring. One of Perrin’s blows had caught him on the jaw and it’s bruising rapidly. When Padraig frowns at him, Hasim continues, “Twice, I fink.”

“Are you quite alright, Nazri?”

Lexa steps onto Hasim’s foot. “He’s addled, my lord. From the fall. Please excuse him.”

Padraig sits at his desk. He crosses one leg, ankle on the opposite knee. “And what of the scuffle three servants report seeing?”

“My lord, if I may.” Padraig nods for Perrin to speak. “They must have been tired after a day of work and…mistook the situation.”

“Mistook it.”

“Yes, my lord.”

“Gerry?”

“Uh.” Chip Tooth blinks. “Yes, milord. They were mistaken.”

“It was dark,” Qasim says. “It would have been easy to see several people falling and think that it was something that it was no-”

Padraig holds up a hand. Qasim closes his mouth with a click of teeth. “I’ve heard enough. Halleburn, Hosseim. As third-years, pages who should know better,” he impresses with a glare, particularly focused on Qasim, who looks down, “you both will serve a bell of time on Sunday. If you waste my time, I will waste yours. Clear?”

“Yes, my lord,” they both reply.

“Do either of you require a healer?”

Despite their bruises, the two shake their heads no.

“I will think on a suitable punishment for your…clumsiness. You are dismissed.” Perrin and Tall Boy bow and leave. “Gerry, Wiltshire.” Wiltshire, Lexa thinks, annoyed with herself. “If you two insist on doing as Halleburn does, you should be aware of what that is like. Tomorrow morning, you will report to the smiths and inform them that two weights will be added to your harness. You will wear these weights until I decide otherwise. On Sunday, you will serve a bell with the smiths and then report to the palace clerks.” The two second-years pale—the palace clerks are notorious for running pages to exhaustion—but say nothing. “Do either of you require a healer? Then you are dismissed.”

When they are gone, Padraig turns his considerable attention on the two first years.

“Sit,” he tells them finally. Sharing a glance, Lexa and Hasim do as they’re told. Hasim sways in his seat and Lexa holds him still, pats his shoulder when he gives a discreet nod in thanks. “I assume, given your company, you were not the instigators of this event?” They just blink. Padraig sighs. “You didn’t start the fight—yes or no?”

“Fight, my lord? I fell.”

“Don’t be pert, Haryse.”

“Yessir.”

“I won’t stand for it.”

“Nossir.”

Padraig rubs tiredly at one eyebrow. He stares thoughtfully across at the pair of them and Lexa spends a long minute imagining all kinds of things he might say to them. Pack up your bags and leave. No food or water for three days. You’re not fit to be pages—we’ll train you to be a servant instead. “You didn’t do as much damage as I expected you would.” Lexa blinks. She hadn’t imagined him saying that. “You both will report to the practice courts after dinner for the rest of the week. Haryse, do tell Nazri that when he’s able to actually listen.” 

“Yessir.”

“Good. Do you require the healers?” 

After hearing the others respond to this, Lexa knows what the right answer is. “No, my lord.” Hasim’s version of the same is much slurred through his sore jaw.

A trick of the light—or of her bruised brain—makes her think Lord Padraig’s lips twitch upwards, just for a second. “Don’t be foolish. Do you know where the healers wing is?” he asks, scrawling a note for them.

“Yessir, by the portrait of the ugly man with the pet rats,” Lexa tells him, forgetting herself for a moment as she focuses on how to stand without showing how much pain she’s in.

“The ugl—” Padraig coughs into his fist. “Yes. Quite right, Haryse. Take this.” He folds the paper in two and holds out over his desk. Finally, Lexa manages to stand and only groans audibly once. She doesn’t meet his eyes when she takes the note. “Very good, Haryse. You’re dismissed. You might want to prop up Nazri.”

Lexa looks to Hasim, wavering on his feet. “Yessir,” she agreed. “Very astute of you. Must be why you’re the training master, being so astute,” she adds without thinking. When her words reach her own ears, she flushes. “Begging your pardon, milord, no pertness meant.”

“I astutely noticed that. Go.”

Lexa takes Hasim’s arm and leads him out. At the door, she turns back. "My lord?"

"You're testing my patience, Haryse."

"Yessir. Only, I was wondering if this meant you would pull Qasim from his new position. Teaching us?" she reminds him when Padraig frowns. "He's much better than Tern was."

"I think it would be hard not to be."

"Yes, my lord," Lexa agrees. She closes the door when he nods. Once they’re down the corridor some way, Hasim speaks up. “How’d it go?”

“We’re going to the healers and I think Lord Padraig made a joke.”

“Are you sure? Did you bruise your brain?”

“I didn’t—I know what I saw.”

He hums disbelieving. “Alright. So…it went pretty well then. ‘Cept for the worlds ‘bout to end if you really saw him smile. Lexa laughs, groans when it makes her ribs ache. “Do we have a punishment?”

“I’m not sure. He told us to go to the courts after dinner for the rest of the week.”

“To what? Murder us?” 

“That’d only take one night,” Lexa points out.

 “He could murder us slowly.”

“Or five times.”

“Could do,” Hasim agrees, morbidly enthusiastic. “Once ev’ry night, resurrect us in time for breakfast.” They share a quiet laugh, even though the thought of it sends a little shiver down their spines.

“Or after breakfast. So they don’t have to feed us.”

They arrive in the healer’s wing and Lexa guides Hasim in through the antechamber. She leans Hasim against the wall next to the door. It’s painted a deep green and the plaque on it is silver. She knocks and waits.

“No one can hear that.”

“Shut up, they can hear it.”

“Can’t. Knock harder. Here, like this.” Hasim reaches out and raps smartly on the door.

“So you can manage that but you couldn’t walk by yourself?”

“You were very eager to help me.”

Lexa rolls her eyes. She regrets it when it makes her head pound in her skull. “Next time, I’ll let you fall over.”

“You wouldn’t.”

“Would.”

“Wouldn’t. You’re too honourable.”

“Am not. Remember when Perrin found that lizard in his pocket?”

“That was you?”

Lexa sighs. “He wrecked my seating chart that night. I don’t like the class but I worked hard on that assignment.” Hasim squints at her. A little to her left, actually, but he’s still swaying so she think he’s doing his best. “Alright, I made it all up but it still took almost an hour to do.”

“Both of you are sneaky and I admire that.”

Both of me? How many of me are you seeing?”

“Just two.”

“It should only be one, you realise.” Lexa knocks on the door again, louder. “How come no one is answering?”

“Because Duke Baird is answering a clients call,” an unfamiliar and thoughtful voice explains from behind a bookcase. “Sorry. We don’t usually lock the door but it helps keep the noise out. And we usually have someone in here but Marta left to help out a birthing in the city and Yarren is helping reattach a thumb. So, as you can see, we’re a small team tonight.”

“That’s alright,” Lexa says, though pain makes her tone a little sharp. “Can you help us—uh,” she trails off, tongue sticking to the top of her suddenly bone-dry mouth.

From behind the bookcase, a girl about Lexa’s age has stepped out to examine them both. She’s two inches taller in her thin slippers, maybe three in bare feet since Lexa is wearing her boots. She’s black, with warm brown eyes, and has twisted her hair into many thin braids then tied back in a horsetail. Her dress is dark green; her shirt is blindingly clean and white, sleeves very neatly folded and pinned above her elbows. Around her waist is a belt with several pouches hooked onto it—as Lexa watches, the girl opens one and pulls out a green stone. She hands this to Hasim. It flashes when he holds it. The girl clicks her tongue.

“You’re getting too warm. Better come in before you get a fever and then we’ll have to sweat it out. Both of you look dreadful—what have you been doing?”

Lexa shrugs. She tries to work some moisture into her mouth but can’t. Hasim frowns at her, bemused.

“We got in a—er, we fell. Lord Padraig sent us to be healed. We’ve got a note.” Hasim waits for Lexa to show it. When she doesn’t, he sighs. “Haryse.” 

“Huh?”

“The note.” He lowers his voice. “Do you have a bruised brain?” 

“I’m—no, I’m fine. Here.” Lexa shoves the note toward the girl, who takes it with a little smile.

“Thank you.” She opens the note, scans it. Lexa wishes she had thought to read it on the way—whatever is written on it, it makes the girl grin. She slips past Lexa and opens the door. Lexa follows until Hasim clears his throat. She returns, cheeks blazing, to fetch him. 

“What’s wrong with you?” he asks quietly as they follow the girl.

“Nothing, shut it.”

“I’ve never seen you forget your words like that.”

“I said shut it,” Lexa hisses, and her cheeks burn a darker red. Hasim frowns at her but shrugs.

“Alright, alright. Sorry.”

The girl leads them through the front room into a large chamber. The walls are white with no adornments. A wall of windows would send light streaming into the room during the day. There are easily two dozen beds in this chamber, all of them empty. Along a short side of the chamber are several cases and cabinets filled with books as well as jars and tubs and boxes, none of which Lexa recognises. One of the long walls has fireplaces built into it, each separated by a few feet of wall. Only one of them is lit, nearest to a big desk in the corner of the room.

Speaking into a mirror on his desk is a man who looks tired beyond his years. Dressed all in black, the Duke looks pale and drawn though Lexa would place him only in his forties—his hair is brown with a reddish tint, only the slightest hint of grey. When he looks up at them, she can see his dark green eyes are direct and clear.

“Your Grace?”

“One moment, Apprentice Fletcher,” Duke Baird tells their guide. He smiles kindly at all three of them. Talking into the mirror, he says, “Use the balm twice daily, once in the morning and then again after dinner. Be sure to wash your hands thoroughly afterwards—contamination in food will make you ill and you might find that it will numb your hands if you leave it for too long.”

The answer to that is indistinct but the Duke must hear it clearly because he nods and smiles before setting the mirror reflective side down on the desk.

“Your Grace, we have patients.”

“So I see. Page, you can set your friend down on the bed.” Happily, Lexa dumps Hasim where the Duke points. “Any instructions for me?”

“This note, Your Grace,” Apprentice Fletcher tells him and hands over the note.

“Ah, good. My apprentice,” the Duke tells Lexa and Hasim. Mostly to Lexa, since Hasim had sighed happily upon sitting and immediately lain down. Lexa nods and fixes her eyes on the tips of her own scuffed boots. “Let’s see the damage, shall we?” Duke Baird lays his hands on Hasim’s shoulders—his Gift shines emerald around his hands and he closes his eyes. He talks with his apprentice in quick murmurs and she takes notes in a small book.

Lexa shifts closer.

“These marks, here and here, which we call…”

“Contusions.”

“Very good. How would you guess these were made?”

“He’s still talking so it’s just bruised—not a weapon, then, or it might have been broken. A fist?”

“Meaning?”

“He was in a fight.”

“Didn’t fall?” There’s a good helping of wry humour to the Duke’s tone and Lexa glances up, surprised. He winks and Lexa grins back. “How would you deal with this?”

“Bruise balm once daily for three days and then natural healing. A slow-working healing for the jaw overnight. Plenty of rest.”

“Excellent, I quite agree. I’ll set the healing while you look over Page Haryse for me.”

“Yes, Your Grace.”

With a firm hand, Apprentice Fletcher pulls Lexa to the bed next to Hasim’s. Lexa, wide-eyed, lets herself be pulled. She sits on the edge of the bed and when the girl grabs Lexa’s chin, she obediently twists her head left and right and rolls up her sleeves and follows every order she’s given.

“I wish half my patients were as docile as you,” Duke Baird calls out, smiling kindly.

Lexa flushes hot and stares down at her boots again.

“It really is helpful,” Apprentice Fletcher tells her quietly. “I can tell you that you have just as many bruises as your friend here and if we don’t get this looked at,” she touches the side of Lexa’s eye, very gently, where it’s swelling, “you might have blurred vision for a few days.”

“Oh.”

“Easily taken care of, don’t worry. I could do it myself but I’m not really allowed to.”

“Are you a healer?” Lexa asks quietly.

“I’m eleven so…no.”

“Oh.”

“Mhm.”

Duke Baird comes around to her bedside when he’s done with Hasim—now fast asleep—and Lexa sighs happily when his cool magic spreads through her. It settles around her eye and, though it itches, Lexa makes herself relax and accept the magic. She feels the ache siphon away from her bruised rib and her knuckles and shoulder and stirs. She’s not fast enough to argue with the Duke—he pulls his hands away and pats her shoulder.

“Very good, Page Haryse. You barely fought that until the end.”

“Don’t think milord wanted ev’rything healed,” she slurs, tired.

“He’s not here, is he now?”

“…No.”

“Then I employ my own discretion on how to heal my patients. Not to worry, Haryse, you’ll feel plenty in the morning. Sleep,” he tells her, green eyes kind, and Lexa feels herself being lowered onto the pillow. Her feet are swung up onto the bed.

She fights it, though she lets herself yawn convincingly. When the Duke and his apprentice leave the room, Lexa sits up and stumbles over to Hasim’s bed.

“Are you okay?” she asks him, yawning.

“Mhm. Just m’ jaw.” It sounds more stiff now but Lexa guesses that’s the healing taking effect. “Y’know, I was wrong, Haryse. Not m’ friend,” he tells her. Lexa frowns. “We fought t’gether. Drew blood. Makes us,” he yawns, “brothers.”

“I’m a girl.”

Hasim shrugs. “Family, then.”

The idea warms Lexa—she’s never had a sibling before. She finds herself nodding.

“Yeah?” Hasim asks.

“Yeah.” She clasps his hand when he lifts it. Hasim grins as best he can and yawns again. “You can call me Lexa. If you want.”

“Lexa.” Hasim nods. “Y’know, ‘Prentice Fletcher. Her name’s Costia.”

“I—I don’t—why would I need to know that?”

Hasim shrugs again. Closes his eyes. “Jus’ in case. Go ‘way. M’ sleeping.” Lexa slaps his shoulder gently. Eyes still closed, Hasim grins.

Lexa braces herself against the bedside table, healing tiredness dragging at her. She drops into her bed and barely even feels the press of her bruises. Overhead, the ceiling blurs, and she falls deeply into sleep.

Chapter Text

Octavia is their first visitor. 

When Lexa opens her eyes and sees them, she yells and punches up into the soft of their belly below their sternum. Since Perrin had kicked her there, Lexa had confirmed that it was a very effective move. It works again; Octavia falls back, wheezing, to sit on the end of Lexa’s bed until they’ve caught their breath.

“Why,” they wheeze, impatient with how long it takes to regain it. “Why did you,” another wheeze, “punch me?” 

Lexa guesses they’re aiming for fury, with their dark brows snapped together in a deep V and a scowl; their wheezing detracts from that and Lexa has to fight off amusement to grasp at righteous annoyance. She remembers the way her heart had lurched in her chest and glares at Octavia. Just as their wheezing had made their anger less impressive, so too do the blankets tucked around Lexa make her less imposing, keeping her on her back even as she wriggles and struggles to get free. Octavia grins.

“You were right here,” Lexa tells them. She manages to pull a hand free and holds it up in front of her nose until it’s nearly touching. “I thought you were a murderer.”

Octavia frowns. They seem hurt. “I’d make a better murderer than that. If I wanted to kill you, you’d be dead.”

“I reacted.”

“I can feel that, Haryse.” They rub at their chest to punctuate the comment. “Mithros but you punch hard! Do you hit harder when you’re not waking up?” They lean forward, eyes bright with curiosity. Lexa wonders if they mean for their sharp jaw, their jutting chin, to look so much like a target.

“I don’t know. Annoy me later and we’ll find out.”

“Deal,” Octavia agrees. Their pleasure burns in their eyes, black fire.

“Hmph. Are you going to tell me why you were doing a good impression of a murderer?”

“Once again, I didn’t even try to kill you.”

“I said good,” Lexa points out. “If you had tried, I might’ve said great.” Lexa doesn’t put a lot of confidence in that statement—she doesn’t want to give Octavia any ideas. “Why are you here?”

“I wanted to see how bad the damage was.”

“And?”

“Awful!” Too cheery for Lexa’s tastes. She frowns. Heedless of the disapproval—or deliberately ignoring it—Octavia continues. “They really beat you up. Just beat you. Into a little bloody tiny little bloody little lump.” Lexa winces. “No mercy. Wish I’d seen you before healing. What colour were you originally?”

“What?”

“You’re pretty green, but not a pretty green,” Octavia tells her. “Don’t worry. Hasim is purple.”

Lexa blinks. She glances over and finds that Hasim is awake too and sitting up, a pillow plumped and supporting his shoulders. He waves but doesn’t speak. Lexa understands. There’s a knot the size of Gerry’s fist on his cheek and, as Octavia had said, the whole left side of his face is purple.

“Ouch.”

Hasim nods, then winces. The wince must hurt too because he winces again, very carefully, with the side of his face that isn’t bruised.

“Impressive, right?” As bloodthirsty as Octavia is, Lexa finds herself agreeing. “You’re no slouch, though. Look, it’s almost as impressive.” They press a mirror into her hands. Hasim makes a wounded sound and Octavia lifts their hands in surrender, a sincere and wide-eyed expression of admiration on their face. “Almost. Yours is the most impressive,” they assure him. Hasim settles back into his pillow, appeased. Once he’s settled, Octavia shuffles a little up Lexa’s bed and raises their eyebrows expectantly.

Lexa looks into the mirror.

The skin over her left eyebrow isn’t split anymore, thanks to Duke Baird, but there’s a might bruise ringing that eye and spreading up over where the split had been. The bruise is a patchy purple-green. Lexa grazes her fingers around it carefully; some swelling remains, leaving it tender to the touch, but she can see out of the eye, thank the gods. Her other eye is similarly bruised but not as badly. Lexa touches her nose—swollen, sore, bruised—and it’s tender but doesn’t sting when she breathes. The spot where she had bitten into her lip is completely healed. Lexa prods around her mouth with her tongue and is relieved to feel that the one or two that had been worryingly loose the night before now feel solid in their gum.

Octavia takes the mirror back when she lowers it. They set it on the bedside table and sit on Lexa’s bed once more. “Bet you looked worse last night.”

“What’s it to you?” Lexa narrows her eyes. “What do you want?”

“Want? I’m here to check on—oh alright,” they give up when Lexa narrows her eyes. “I want in.”

“In?”

In the next bed, Hasim makes a small sound of curiosity.

“Yeah.” Octavia glares, but not really at Lexa. They clench their hands in their lap. “I don’t know how you’re doing it but you get into the best brawls—you too, Hasim, but Haryse, you’re the one starting them and I want in.

Lexa blinks. Where to start with a statement like that? “I don’t like you—I don’t start them,” she says, the words almost tripping off her tongue as she tries to figure out which one is more important. “I do not start them,” she says again, deciding that’s the best way to go.

Octavia snorts. “Right.”

“I don’t.”

“So it’s just luck that you’re the one drawn into them?”

“Yes.”

“Right.”

“Bad luck.”

“And they just mysteriously happen around you –”

“Perrin has violently targeted me.”

“– which I might believe –”

“It’s the truth.

“– or not but I don’t care. Whatever the reason –”

“Being violently targeted,” Lexa repeats, speaking slowly and clearly like Octavia is a very stupid child.

“– it’s happening around you.” Eyes flashing, Octavia leans in. Their fists are clenched tight on their thighs, knuckles white and sharp with tension. “I want in,” they tell her. The smell of wood-smoke fills Lexa’s nose and she stares at the fireplace across the room, surprised that she can smell it from here. Octavia draws her attention back to them. “I want in, Haryse, and I think you should’ve picked me from the start, I think you might have if not…if not for that basilisk.” The smell of smoke thickens. “We’re both too stubborn and I should’ve apologised but now I want in. It’s right, don’t you see? People think we’re both girls,”

Hasim makes a small sound at that. He is ignored—Octavia has burning eyes only for Lexa and Lexa finds herself unable to look away from them.

“And neither of us have the Gift and I’m the best fighter –” Here, Lexa makes a small sound of disagreement. Gus has been training her since she was very little so, of the first-years, she’d say she’s the best. “We have a connection.”

“I think you might be my rival,” Lexa points out.

Exactly.” Octavia hunches, shoulders raised and tight like a hawk tensed to throw themself into the air. “So you should be doing this with me.”

“Do you know what a rival is?”

Octavia ignores that. “We should be fighting together, not you and Hasim – no offence, Hasim.”

He grumbles, but not too unhappily. Lexa wonders if he really doesn’t mind what they’re saying about him or if what he had said the night before holds more weight than she had thought. Family, she thinks, and imagines a string between them, tying them together with the green of Haryse and the burnt gold of a desert she’s seen only in paintings.

“Before yesterday you two had barely even spoken but then you’re teaching him? And laughing and joking and you drag him into your fight?”

Lexa rubs carefully at her forehead. Wanting to avoid her bruises, there’s only one little patch of skin that doesn’t hurt to touch and she presses her fingers against it to alleviate the ache. “Once again,” she explains, “we were targeted. I didn’t plan it.”

“Right.” Octavia scowls, the muscles working in their jaw, clenching and unclenching with a fury—or is it hurt?—they don’t voice.

Lexa sighs. Their reasoning is illogical but under it all, Lexa is pretty sure Octavia is saying they’re lonely. She thinks it would be a bad idea to let them know she knows that. “I’m not getting into fights to hurt you. I’m definitely not starting them. I swear that by Mithros.” Octavia doesn’t look surprised—as I thought, Lexa confirms. They didn’t really think I was starting them. It’s an excuse to…to what? Talk to me?

Lexa shifts a little uncomfortably in her bed. Their argument had got out of hand; she can admit that. She hadn’t seen a point in talking to Octavia again, and Octavia had pointedly refused to speak to her. With every day, Lexa knew it had become harder to overcome that. And now, they sit here and demand a closeness?

Something stirs in her chest and moves her to speak again. “If I were to start a fight,” she says, with the clear knowledge that each word is true, “I would want you on my side.”

Octavia blinks. Surprise makes their muscles slacken—jaw drops, hands loosen. They don’t look like a hawk or murderer now. Just a child, too thin and sharp. Lexa's heart grips; she can't help but put their face to one of her plain-dressed riders in her death vision. The urge to take back her words is overwhelming. She doesn't. 

“What? Really?”

“Yes.” She’s sure of it. She buries that fleeting worry deep and immediately forgets. Here, now, Octavia is sharp knees and elbows and knuckles and little idea of what their limits are. They fight on longer than anyone else not from a lack of pain but from a reserve of stubbornness that has to be feared if not admired. They’re a weapon of a person, in a wilder way than Padraig, but Lexa admires it nonetheless. “Yes. I would.”

“Oh.” Octavia clears their throat. “Well. Good?”

Lexa nods.

“So when is the next one?”

Lexa groans, drops her head back onto the pillow. She rubs at her eyelids. “I don’t know how to put this more clearly. I didn’t plan either…brawl.” She says it delicately—the name for it is fun, but she came out the definite losing party of both so it hurts to think about it. “Therefore, I cannot invite you to the next one.”

“That’s alright. I understand.”

Octavia then makes themself very comfortable at the end of her bed.

Suspicious of the capitulation, Lexa narrows her eyes. They grin at her and understanding breaks over her. “No,” she breathes, horrified.

“Oh yes.”

No.”

Not understanding, Hasim hums to get their attention. Octavia’s grin grows. “I’ll be with you two until the next one,” they explain. Hasim’s eyes widen.

“No. Absolutely not.”

“Absolutely yes.”

No.”

Yes,” Octavia insists. “You can’t stop me.”

“I can.” Lexa clenches the bed sheets in fists.

Octavia pats her hand. “You’re welcome to try,” they say, so pleased with themself the words come out as a coo. “But I suspect it would turn into, what’s the word for it? Ah,” they click their fingers. “A brawl.”

Lexa glares. She doesn’t have time to come up with a good counter argument—not that Octavia would listen even to a very good one—before the door clicks open. In the doorway, backlit by a faint magelight, is Costia.

“You again,” she says disapprovingly. Octavia looks back over their shoulder to grin. “How did you get in here?”

“Uh, asking nicely?”

Costia doesn’t even listen to that—she’s spied an open window by this point and she strides over to it, yanking it closed. It’s dark outside still but Lexa isn’t sure how late it is. “You climbed in the window.”

“I asked it nicely, I promise.” Costia doesn’t laugh. Octavia feigns shame, ducking their head low. “I’m sorry. Only, I was so worried about my friends, you see, Healer.”

“Apprentice,” Costia corrects.

At the same moment, Lexa mutters, “What friends?”

“Oh, Page Haryse! You’re awake!” Lexa’s comment drew Costia’s attention and the apprentice comes to join them. Lexa flushes red and struggles upright. Her shoulder twinges when she pushes up and she trembles, stuck halfway. In a flash of pity, Octavia grabs her and hauls her completely upright.

“Thanks,” Lexa mutters. “You still can’t follow me around everywhere.”

“I’d like to see you stop me,” they reply, just as quietly. And very genuinely. Lexa knows now they’ll be just as happy brawling one-on-one with her as they would be fighting Perrin and his company. Well, less happy perhaps but equally willing. “Good morning, Healer Fletcher,” they say more loudly when Costia stops at Lexa’s bedside.

Costia looks long-suffering, if a little amused. “Once again, Page Danshame, I’m an apprentice. So, you’re Page Haryse’s friend?”

“No.”

“Yes!”

Costia looks between them. She frowns.

Octavia continues. “Alexandra is so stoic. I despair of her ever agreeing that we’re friends.”

“It’ll be a long time coming,” Lexa grits out.

“I’ll just have to stick around, I think, until she can’t deny it. That’s why I needed to be here, you see? How could I leave her here alone?”

“Hasim is here.”

“Mostly alone,” Octavia quickly amends. “To wake up with no one to give her water if she needs it? How could I deny my best friends whatever they needed? It’s not the kind of person I am,” Octavia finishes, sighing heavily.

“I had no idea you were so dedicated to me,” Lexa drawls.

Octavia nods. “I’m surprising like that.”

“You must be. I had no clue to your affection for me before this very moment.”

“I’m a quiet sort of person. Quiet dedication.”

Despite herself, Lexa smiles the tiniest bit. Quiet is not a word she would ever use to describe Octavia. “Must be,” she demurs. Octavia grins.

Costia is still frowning, though it’s eased a little at the back-and-forth. She folds her arms across her chest. “This is a place of healing. If you cause any trouble…” A warning note in her voice makes Octavia start to nod quickly, earnestly.

“It’s alright, Apprentice Fletcher,” Lexa says to her. She can’t look right at her because she starts to fumble with her words but staring down at her lap she muddles through, despite her warm cheeks. “Octavia isn’t, they’re not who I fo- er, fell. Fell near. They’re fine.”

Fell near?’ Octavia mouths. Lexa glares. “A dazzling compliment from my very best friend,” they say out loud, amused. “So, Healer Fletcher,”

“Apprentice,” Costia corrects yet again.

Lexa beams down at her lap. She’s beyond relieved for some reason that Octavia’s roguish charm doesn’t appear to be working on Costia.

“Will they be able to go to classes in the morning?”

“Only if they’re not distracted and get plenty of sleep.” Costia lifts her eyebrows. Her slippered foot taps on the floor. “That means leave.”

“Oh, does it?”

“Yes.”

Octavia gulps. “Right.” To Lexa, they grin. “See you in the morning.”

Once they’re gone—out the window, making Costia huff—Costia turns her glare on Lexa. “You should be asleep.” Lexa meekly lays back down, fidgets when Costia tucks the sheets around her. “Will you be able to go back to sleep?”

Lexa thinks about it for a moment. “Yes’m,” she mumbles. Costia doesn’t look convinced. Her hands glimmer green and her unconvinced expression turns downright sceptical. “My bruises hurt a bit,” she admits.

“May I help you?”

“Help me?”

“I can put you to sleep,” Costia explains. “It’ll be very quick. I’d recommend it—you want His Grace’s healing to stick otherwise you’ll have a bad headache in the morning. May I?”

“I—yes, alright,” Lexa says, and she holds herself very still when Costia reaches down. One moment, Lexa is wondering at how soft Costia’s hand is against her forehead and then she’s asleep.

//

Duke Baird releases them in the morning, as soon as the dawn bell rings.

Costia, apparently, has to confirm his decision for herself and she fusses over them both before allowing them out of bed. With a snap of her fingers, she pulls up curtains around the beds to allow them to change into their uniforms. Once they’re ready, the two pages follow Costia out into the antechamber. On seeing who awaits them, Lexa tries to go back.

“Forget somethin’?” Hasim asks cheerfully and loud enough to get Anya’s attention. Lexa shoots him a betrayed look, which makes Hasim smirk. “Should’ve stayed in bed like Fletcher told you.”

“She didn’t know Anya was out here. Did you?” Lexa directs the question to Costia, who looks up from the notes she’s writing. The girl smiles at her. Lexa avoids swallowing her tongue, barely.

“No. But I’m always right in any case.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Lexa says, rolling her eyes. She flushes when she realizes she’s talking to Costia like she might have with Gus. Too open too fast, the thought makes her lose her wits and she stammers over an apology. Costia waves it away with a laugh.

“Well enough to leave?” Anya has met up with them, having slunk her ominous way across the room. “You look awful.”

“It should hurt worse than it looks, at the moment,” Costia tells her, the perfect Apprentice Healer, voice calm and certain. Lexa covers her wounded expression at yet another betrayal.

“Ah, Page Tirragen.” Duke Baird stands from behind the desk. Anya bows to him.

“Your Grace, forgive me I didn't see you. Good morning.”

“Good morning. You are here to collect your wayward charge, I assume?”

“Yes, Your Grace. I hope she hasn’t been any trouble.”

Lexa scowls at the suggestion that she would be. From the corner of her vision, she sees Costia smiling—at her—and she flushes, ducks her head.

“No, no. She was a pleasure to heal. Didn’t fight me at all.” Duke Baird turns his kind eyes on Lexa. “Be gentle on yourself for the rest of the day, at least. You’ll be hungry and tired still. Eat and sleep at a reasonable hour.”

Lexa bows to him. Anya nods as though he were giving her the instructions. “Can they attend class?”

“Yes. But don’t let anyone hit Page Nazri in the face, please. Avoid hitting either of them in the head, really.”

“I’ll try,” Anya drawls.

“No one will hit us if we block it fast enough,” Lexa points out helpfully. Duke Baird smiles; Costia does not. It actually makes the girl glare and Lexa tries again. “No one will hit us in the head?”

Duke Baird rests a hand on Costia’s shoulder. He turns his smile on Anya. “See that they don’t, please.”

“Yes, Your Grace. And Hasim?”

“Mushy foods only,” Lexa says, very serious and concerned for her new brother. Hasim winces; Lexa hides the way victory zings through her pleasantly. That will teach him for betraying her.

“You had a loose tooth too, didn’t you?” Costia asks, voice mild. Hasim’s wince turns feral grin. Costia flicks through her notes slowly. “My mistake—those are fully healed. No soft foods for you, Page Haryse.”

Outmanoeuvred, Lexa nods. “If you insist.”

“Duke Baird’s orders.” Costia manages to sound regretful, which Lexa thinks is a nice touch. She decides there and then that jokes about healing shouldn’t happen around Costia; she’s too good at this game for comfort and Duke Baird doesn’t seem to mind that Costia is speaking for him. He's hiding a smile behind a book he's lifted to his face.

“Page Tirragen, may I assume you’re here to escort them to their classes?”

“Yes, Your Grace.”

“Give Padraig this for me, please.” He folds a slip of paper in two, running his nail over the crease. Anya bows and takes the note, slips it into her pocket. Then, she leads the way to the door and jerks her head for the two first-years to follow.

They walk in silence to the courts. It’s early still—the sky a hazy grey, mostly cloud. The sun bleeds pinks and oranges throughout it and here and there gaps in the cloud cover reveals the deep blue of the morning sky. There are very few people at the courts yet and none close by.

Anya waits until they’re in the first court before stopping. Lexa has never seen her so agitated before but now she watches as Anya paces, prowling in front of them. Finally, she returns to Lexa and glares down at her.

“What were you thinking?” she asks outright. “Fighting? Don’t you understand that you could be dismissed for that?”

“I do.”

“By all means, then,” she says, the words dripping with venom, “explain to me your reasoning. Because from where I’m standing, you’re making a fine mess for yourself.”

“I was defending myself!” She doesn’t mention that she was the one to tackle Perrin; she hopes Hasim has the sense not to mention it either.

“Do you think anyone will care what your reason is? You can’t fight someone like Halleburn and expect no consequences!”

“Twice. It was him last time too,” Hasim interrupts to say. “She said so. Perrin said it too.”

“I know it was him. And that was stupid too.”

“It’s not like I meant for him to thrash me. That was poor luck.”

“It was stupidity. And you learned nothing. You still wander around without a care for your own safety –”

“I learned plenty. Run away sometimes. Keep my back to the wall. That fighting a group is unfair because they don’t attack one by one.”

“You didn’t learn to ask me for help.”

Lexa pauses. She glances slyly up at Anya from under her eyelashes, trying to find something in her expression that could explain that statement. There’s nothing to see—Anya doesn’t look happy, looks like she’s chewing at something nasty, but she gives away no sign of what she expects Lexa’s answer should be. Lexa settles, unhappily, on telling the truth. “No. I didn’t.”

“Why not?”

“I…” Lexa frowns. She scratches at her eyebrow where her bruise is particularly lurid in the hope it’ll distract Anya long enough for her to think the question through. It doesn’t make any sense, though—when was she supposed to have learned that lesson? What would have impressed it? She thinks back to when Perrin had told her there was no one to help her and how the fear of that had felt. “Of course,” she says, though she feels it’s a little like common sense. “If you had been there, we could have held them off a little longer.”

Anya stares down at her for a long moment before cursing, loudly, and spinning around. She strides away.

Lexa looks to Hasim, confused. “Was it something I said?”

“Definitely.”

Lexa nods. She had thought as much. But that doesn’t tell her what had set Anya off and the uncertainty makes Lexa prickly and upset. She thinks her answer must have been wrong but it’s the only one that makes sense. She can waste time trying to figure out what the right answer should be but she’d rather not. Instead, she shoves away the feeling that niggles in the back of her mind that she’s missed the point, and starts on her exercises.

Halfway through her first set of exercises—a nasty one to build strength in her arms and chest that involves lowering herself to the ground and then pushing up again, as mindless in its repetition as it is successful at its purpose—when Hasim drops down next to her and copies her.

“This is torture,” he puffs after six of them. Lexa ignores a petulant voice in her head that reminds her she’d only managed half as many on her first attempt. She’d been eight at the time, though, and not a full month into page training.

“Yes.”

“Why are we doing it?”

I’m doing it to be stronger.” Lexa peers over at him and, smirking, does six more just to annoy him. “I don’t know about you.”

“It looked like fun.”

“It’s not.”

“I know that now,” he sighs. He shakes out his arms. “What’s next?”

Anya doesn’t stay gone forever. In fact, she returns before Gus announces their lesson. Judging by the flush to her cheeks and a light sheen of sweat, she’d gone on a very brisk walk to calm down.

“I’m still mad at you.”

“That’s your business,” Lexa tells her, not as snappily as she might have earlier. She’s in too good a mood—and tired—from her exercises. Anya must be too because Lexa knows, with a certainty she can’t explain, that under all the bristle and gristle and bustle, Anya is fond of her. Fond and protective and Lexa relents enough to smile up at her. The best, most thankful and earnest one she can muster. She appreciates Anya more than she can put words to and some of how she feels must be visible on her face because Anya sighs and drops a hand onto her shoulder.

“Give me the day, kid. I’ll explain later why I’m upset.”

“Upset? Madder than an adder,” Hasim suggests. Anya narrows her eyes at him.

Lexa ignores Hasim and nods to Anya. “Kid? You’re only twelve.”

“Thirteen. Had my birthday a few days ago.”

Lexa blinks her surprise and then nods. She’ll have to get the actual date from someone else. In the meantime, she’ll have to send off for a present or sneak out to the city, perhaps. Or ask permission. Though if she did that first, Lexa reasons, Padraig will suspect her if he says no. What should she get for someone she barely knows, though? Money would be an insult, bruise balm an insult of another kind no matter how practical a gift it might be. A knife? But no, she has six already. Maybe—

Whatever more gift ideas Lexa has, they’re flung clear out of her mind when someone grabs her from behind and tries to throw her. After the night before, she forgets she’s in a class and reacts like it’s Perrin behind her. Heart pounding, she moves as fast as she is able. Jams his finger back into its socket, tries to crack her elbow into his face. Her elbow is blocked and Lexa uses the momentum to spin her around and away. She pants heavily, eyes darting over him to see how he’ll attack next. He doesn’t and, slowly, Lexa allows herself to relax. She looks up at Gus and flinches—he’s glaring at her. No, not at her. At her face.

“Ah. Good morning, Captain.”

“Page Haryse. Are you unable t’ stay outta trouble?”

“So it would seem, sir.”

Gus turns his glare on the rest of the class—he spots the others easily. Lexa doesn’t dare look herself but his expressions show enough to her that she can guess who he’s looking at. Annoyance – that’s Hasim, no doubt. A sour twist to his mouth – Gerry or Pointy Chin. Fury – Hosseim. Sly, burning desire for retribution – Halleburn. It’s uncanny to see her emotions on his face.

“Captain?”

“Get back in line,” Gus cuts her off. Lexa does.

Anger masked, Gus ambles on. He scratches at his beard and explains that they won’t be practicing holds today. Instead, there are logs for each of them.

“What? Are we going to carry them around for the hour?” Perrin sneers. Gus stops in front of him and stares for long enough that Perrin begins to noticeably sweat. “Sir,” he adds finally.

“You’ll be digging a hole for it,” Gus explains. “There are tools against the rail. No closer than six feet to the page on either side.” He gives no further instructions and it becomes clear that he doesn’t intent to. Not until they’re finished, at least, and maybe not even then.

For the rest of the long hour, the pages dig. It’s hard work and gives them blisters and aches in new places. Lexa throws herself into it—she’s helped dig for fences before and this is no different. It’s even relaxing, in a way, and she’s pleased to find that it takes much longer for her to tire and falter than it would have before she started her training.

When the holes are a good foot wide in any direction and three feet deep, Gus lets them stop. They haul the logs over—two pages to each—and stand them up in the holes, pack the dirt down around them. Gus tests each pole with a powerful kick. He gets to one that break—cracks, right down the middle—and stops.

“Who’s is this?” Terry lifts his hand. It barely shakes. “Not your fault, Seabeth,” Gus claps the boy on the shoulder. “But ye’ll have to dig another.”

“Yessir,” Terry sighs.

The rest of the poles remain whole but several are loose and Gus chews those pages out for being lazy and sloppy and tells them they’ll be digging again tomorrow. Not just their own hole—they’ll be digging until he’s satisfied they’ve learned their lesson.

Covered in dirt and with blisters in new places, the pages move on. Lexa lingers for a moment but Gus leaves without so much as a backward look. Last to the second court, there are no staffs left in the bin.

When they see her looking, Octavia waves a hand. They’re holding two staffs and Lexa makes her way over, plucking at a stubborn splinter in her thumb. She accepts the staff Octavia hands her, tucks it into the crook of her elbow as she works at the sliver of wood.

“Aren’t you going to check it?”

“Check what?”

“The staff.”

“No.” The skin around the splinter is reddening and it’s starting to sting when she touches it. Somehow it’s buried at both ends now with the smallest bit of wood still visible.

“Why not?”

“You’ve never given me a bad one before.”

“Today I might’ve.”

Lexa shrugs. Of course, she always does check her staff. She checks all her weapons. Octavia doesn’t need to know that.

“I didn’t, though,” Octavia tells her, oddly earnest. Lexa finally looks up from her thumb to find them standing close and passing their staff from one hand to the other. Almost…nervous?

Lexa frowns, casts a quick look over them from head to toes. “What’s wrong with you?” The question makes them bristle and glare.

Nothing. What’s wrong with you?”

“Splinter. Bruises.”

Octavia has nothing to say to that so they shrug uncomfortably and swing their staff up with a flourish. It’s a little unnecessary but, and Lexa will only ever admit it in her mind, very impressive.

“Ready?”

“Do you think this will get infected?”

“Probably.” Octavia grins a sly grin, eyes fixed on Lexa’s face. “You should go back to the healers—have Healer Fletcher look at it for you.”

Lexa scowls, grabs their staff with both hands. “It’s Apprentice Fletcher,” she tells them.

“It’s cute.”

Lexa has no response for that. Instead, she sets her feet and attacks. Octavia, annoyingly enough, is more than ready for it. They’re more than ready for when Lexa tries to switch places with Hasim to avoid them—Octavia glares at Terry until he meekly takes their old place—and they nudge Beauty into line next to Alraed when it’s time for tilting and by the time they’ve groomed their horses and polished their tack and raced up to the castle, Lexa is resigned to the fact that there’s nothing she can do.

“Are you going to follow me into my bath too?” she asks when Octavia hesitates at her door.

They roll their eyes. “No. Wait for me?”

“I will not.”

Despite her words, she’s standing outside her door, wet hair curling at her neck, when Octavia bursts out of their own room. They grin when they see her standing there.

“You waited!”

“I didn’t.”

“Did.” And, before Lexa can reply with an increasingly annoyed didn’t, “Did you finish that assignment for Hardy?”

Lexa allows herself to be swayed by the change in topic. During lunch, no one bats an eye that Octavia takes the place next her. Lexa shuffles right to the edge of the bench; Octavia looks like they want to follow her but if they did she really would fall off, so they stay put. The first glimpse of mercy she’s ever seen from them. Anya’s eyes gleam as she looks between them but she says nothing.

“Here, Hasim.” Lincoln puts a tray in front of him. The plate of mushed up food makes the other pages wince their sympathy. Hasim pokes at it with his spoon. “Exactly what the healer ordered.”

Hasim grunts his thanks, unenthusiastic.

Everyone watches him eat. His mouth opens very, very slowly. They wince when he does. Benny looks a little green when Hasim closes his lips around the spoon.

“No’ bad,” Hasim declares and goes in for another spoonful.

Lexa latches onto her after lunch, clutching at her sleeve before she can disappear. Lincoln waits a little way down the corridor. “You’ve got to say something to them,” Lexa hisses. “They won’t leave me alone.”

Anya twists her wrist free. “Is that so?”

It doesn’t sound like Anya plans to be helpful. Lexa pales a little. “Please, Anya.”

“Maybe they’ll keep you out of trouble.”

“That’s the last thing they’d ever do!”

“Oh well,” she says mildly, pats Lexa’s head, and makes her way to her class with the other third years.

Anya!”

“See you at dinner, Haryse,” she calls back, laughing of all things. At her.

Lexa scowls at Anya’s retreating back. Hasim steps up next to her, nudges her.

“Class,” he says, rubs at his jaw.

“With Vauntire,” Octavia adds. Lexa doesn’t even jump—by this point, she’d be more surprised if Octavia wasn’t there. “Listen, Haryse, can I talk to you?”

“We have class.”

“It won’t take long.”

“He’ll punish us if we’re late.”

“He’ll punish us for something,” Octavia points out reasonably. It’s unsettling, Lexa thinks, when Octavia is reasonable. “Please?” They shove their hands into the pockets and, with hunched shoulders and a heavy frown they look almost…nervous.

Lexa sighs. “Fine. Save me one seat,” she says to Hasim and he nods but at the edge of her vision she sees Octavia lift two fingers and Hasim nods again. He ignores Lexa’s glare, smiles with half his mouth, and walks away. “Alright, Danshame, speak quickly.”

“Walk and talk, shall we?”

Lexa nods.

Octavia walks silently for a moment. “Do you really not want me around?” They flush, clearly not having meant to blurt it out like that. “It’s just… You’re smart and strong and kind of brilliant, in a scary way, and I can think of worse people to be around than you. And there are worse people than me, don’t you think?”

Lexa tilts her head but doesn’t respond.

Octavia winces. “Gods, you’re a mean one. What do I have to do, Haryse—woo you?”

She crinkles her nose. “I’m un-wooable.”

“Is that a challenge?”

Lexa finds herself grinning, suddenly. She can just imagine it—Octavia, never one to back down from a challenge, singing love ballads to her and delivering composed poetry. Maybe they’d even try their hand at painting, she thinks, remembering their fascination with the landscapes in Hardy’s classroom. She shakes her head. “No. Definitely not.”

“We’ll see.”

“We will not.”

“I think I’d be rather decent at wooing.”

Eager to have Octavia forget about this line of convincing Lexa, she turns the conversation back to the real question. “If it means so much to you, you may stay. I know you want to be in the next fight and I have no reason to stop that. Hopefully after that you’ll leave me alone.”

Octavia winces again, more genuinely. “Gods, Haryse. Don’t pull your punches.”

“I never do.” Lexa considers them for a moment. The upset they don’t seem inclined to voice, their determination and honesty in confronting Lexa… She shakes her head. “Why do you want to be in a fight so badly, anyway?”

“Are you kidding? Look at that bruise!” Lexa has to sidestep quickly when Octavia tries to touch her eyebrow and the bruising there. “You’ve seen battle, Haryse! It’s what I’m made for—you must know that by now,” they point out, tossing their head proudly. They look so much like Beauty in that moment that Lexa has to bite her lip to hide her smile. “It’s a mark of honour,” they insist, and attempt to touch the bruise again. Lexa slaps at their wrist this time.

“Don’t do that.”

“Got it. Don’t woo you and don’t touch your bruises.”

“Don’t touch me at all.”

“Understood.” Octavia salutes her, grinning.

Lexa huffs. She starts off down the next hall and when they reach the classroom, Octavia holds the door open for her.

“After you,” they say and bow.

Vauntire is so incensed he forgets to assign them an actual punishment—neither Lexa nor Octavia see a reason to remind him. Instead, he spends half the class reciting archaic rules and punishments about lateness—apparently in Galla if a servant dallied in the service of their master they could lose a limb—and the other half of the lesson using Lexa and Octavia to demonstrate bowing. Or how not to bow, really. But they slip out of the classroom without an extra bell to their names, and make their way to history.

Master Mori isn’t there when they arrive so Octavia shuffles their seat closer to Lexa’s, leans their arms against her desk. “So?”

Lexa looks up from skimming her notes. “Is this really about a fight?” she asks them quietly. It seems like so much effort to go to. They could start a fight themselves with far less effort.

Octavia is lonely.

The thought re-occurs to her. She must have lost it, in the pain or drowsiness of the night before. Or buried it with something else, a silken voice suggests. She ignores that. Now that she has remembered her impression of Octavia, Lexa watches them with sharper eyes. 

“It’ll be fun to get in a scrap.”

Lexa notes that they didn’t actually confirm or deny her question.

“My friends call me Lexa.” Octavia’s eyebrows lift. They stare at her. “What do your friends call you?”

“My—” Octavia blinks, off-balance. They recover in another moment and offer Lexa a wide smile. “Anything they like, so long as it’s not late for dinner.”

Lexa frowns.

“Late for – it’s a joke, see, call as in yell or beckon?” Octavia’s eyes narrow into slits. “Oh very funny, you’re messing with me.”

“I am. That’s a funny joke. You should tell Anya later.”

“I’ll try to work it in naturally,” Octavia agrees with a bemused shrug. They scratch at the back of their neck. “Lexa.” They glance quickly at her, making sure it’s all right. Lexa nods. The answering smile she gets is blinding. “Well, my brother calls me O sometimes but I don’t want you to call me that.”

“Very well.”

Octavia sighs dreamily. “Come up with something for me, something dangerous.”

“Dangerous?”

“Yeah. Like Alanna the Lioness.”

“That’s an epithet. It’s not a nickname.”

“Some people call her lioness.”

“True enough. Diminutive’s are simpler, though. Alexandra into Lexa. Gustus into Gus. Terrance, Terry.”

“Who’s Gus?”

“Captain Bruin.”

“You call him by his nickname? Who are you?”

Lexa smiles. “I’m Lexa.”

Octavia sighs. “Another joke. You’re a real Player, Lexa.” They smile again when they say her name and Lexa knows she was right. They are lonely. She tries not to think too much about Octavia at her elbow every moment of every day.

“As funny and as smart and strong and scarily brilliant as I am,”

“You’re not gonna let me forget saying that, huh?”

“Not ever. As much as I am all those things, I’m not hugely creative. Hasim might have some good names for you.”

“There are good names in history,” Ilian adds from his place next to Lexa.

“This is a ploy to get me to open my book, isn’t it?”

Ilian grins at Octavia, shrugs. “You’ll never know.”

Grumbling, but with a solid, unshifting grin on their face, they open their book.

//

Later that evening, after dinner, Lexa and Hasim make their way down to the practice courts.

“What does it mean?”

Hasim kicks his feet against the railing and doesn’t reply. He gives little indication that he even heard, but Lexa sees the way he hunches a little and his hands fist at his knees and she knows that he has. She waits patiently for him to answer, or to not, and his gaze slips from her to the shivering dark of the forest where he loses himself in thought.

She doesn’t mind if he doesn’t answer at all. Lexa is fairly sure of that. She considers it idly, turning the thought over and over in her mind as she might a fascinator between her fingers, walking from one end of the railing to the other with arms outstretched for balance. Usually, not knowing something sits like an itch between her shoulders blades or, if it’s a particularly bothersome secret, twists in her gut. But this isn’t like that. Lexa knows what khobi is—not what the word means, exactly, but it had pulled near identical flinches, grimaces, from both Hasim and Tall Boy – Qasim, she reminds herself – and its use demanded satisfaction. That tells her enough. That it’s a word with teeth that Hasim felt had to be stamped out, that’s enough for her. But it isn’t enough for him. He’s been in a black mood all day and all evening, playing with his mushed food instead of eating. Though, Lexa thinks, if that were my dinner I might not eat it either.

“It’s foul.”

Lexa hums a faint agreement. His dinner had looked foul—pink mush at lunch, green mush for dinner. Then, she blinks. Remembers that her thoughts aren’t his thoughts and that he’s talking about something very different. Lexa turns too fast and her feet slip on the railing. A power blocks her from falling. It feels like a wall of cotton and she hits it and rights herself, jumping down to the ground instead of risking walking the length back to him. Hasim’s hands glint orange with his Gift.

“Thank you.”

He smiles a half-smile and his gaze slinks back to the forest. Lexa turns her back on it and stands a little way in front of him so she can watch his face instead.

“It… It’s foul,” he repeats, voice grave. Lexa reaches out her hand—and more, she realises with a lurch—and touches his shoulder and something else, bone-white and scorching hot and with a tiny, trembling pain she can feel deep in her own chest. She snatches her hand back and presses against it, lets out a shaky breath. When she’s recovered, Hasim is staring at her with dark eyes. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.” Her answer is a touch too fast but Hasim doesn’t notice like she does, on edge and shivering. He nods and kicks his feet again. Lexa frowns. She’s not sure what she could say to lessen a feeling like that, but she knows she wants to try. “I’m sorry you had to hear it.”

Hasim nods again, massaging his jaw. Then, clearing his throat, he asks, “Teach me that block? The one you used against Perrin last night.”

Lexa nods. Padraig hasn’t arrived yet so they’re wasting time standing around, not training or writing their assignments. And it’s training so if he does see them grappling, they won’t be in trouble for fighting. She swings her arms, jumps in place for a minute to warm up. Hasim slips down from his seat on the railing and copies her, grinning. We do look a little foolish, Lexa thinks, grinning right back. But it’s fun. She hadn’t thought that fun would be an equaliser, but she finds she barely thinks at all about dignity or correctness when her heart feels so light.

“We could do this more often,” she suggests, and Hasim nods. Lexa grins, struggling to contain her pleasure. “You could teach me.”

“I don’t know much more lance tricks,” Hasim disagrees.

Lexa shakes her head, bouncing in place. She tells herself it’s to warm her legs but she suspects she’s just happy. It’s a good idea, she’s sure of it. “Basri,” she says, letting him catch up to her thoughts. “Teach me! I’ve always wanted to learn, I know a few phrases, but not enough, not nearly enough, and then, Hasim, you can hear all the words you love too, instead of only the worst of them!” Hasim stops his stretches and stares across the distance to her. Lexa gulps, makes herself still. For only long moment, she thinks she might have overstepped and the thought has wings and claws and swoops inside her chest. It’s not a pleasant sensation. “Is that – is it a bad idea?”

“No,” Hasim clears his throat twice, looks away. “It’s good. It's a good idea."

Lexa has nothing to say to that and so she swallows the sweet feeling of success, and of making her friend so happy, and attacks him.

Hasim blocks the attack, laughing. It’s weak though and Lexa corrects the position of his arm before kicking him again. They practise the open-handed blocks that push an attacker away, would send them spinning away using the force of their own strike against them, and they practise dodging and ducking and side-stepping. Hasim catches her dizzyingly on the jaw and his apology is stopped when she kicks him in the side, making him stagger. After that their strikes grow in confidence and strength.

“Keep those kicks strong, Haryse,” a stern voice reprimands her and Lexa twists to see Padraig at the fence. Arms crossed, he’s watching them spar with the narrow focus she’s only experienced twice before: once, the first time they had met, when his eyes had caught felt like they caught every flaw in her appearance and character; and the second time only the night before when he had them in his office and near scoured them with just the force of his glare. Now, that focus is intently on her alone and she freezes—Hasim’s punch catches her on the cheek and Lexa goes with it, shifting so she escapes the worst of the punch. She hits the ground with a slap and pops right back up, cheeks red with shame.

“My lord,”

Padraig holds up a hand to stop her from speaking. Lexa ducks her head, bites her lip to hold in her excuses. He doesn’t want to hear them, she reminds herself. Just be better.

He walks to join them, stern face unsmiling but not thunderous. When he meets them, he says, “Haryse, your kicks are weak and you allowed yourself to be distracted.” She nods. “Nazri, you pull your punches before they connect. Tell me, Nazri, are you a tree?”

Hasim frowns. “No, my lord?”

“Then you have no need to be rooted to the ground, do you?”

Hasim smiles. “No, my lord,” he says again, more firmly.

“Move those feet. If you stand still, you will lose. Do you understand?”

“Yes, my lord.”

Padraig nods with clear satisfaction. “In the future, you will run the length of this court and back here twice before I arrive.” They both nod. “Nazri, why are you wearing your sword?”

Hasim blinks. He looks to Lexa, who shrugs. Her hand is on her own sword on her hip. “Because…I need to be able to fight if I’m wearing a sword, milord. Or armour.”

“Very true. And reasonable. Tell me, why do I not have you practice with them in the mornings? I do have a reason.” Hasim shakes his head slowly after a moment. Padraig turns to Lexa. “Haryse?”

“I don’t know, milord.”

“Practising without your sword allows you to learn without distraction. Once you have learned them, really learned, then you can add a sword at your side or packs on your back or,” Padraig smiles, a sliver of a thing that makes Lexa’s shoulders slump. She just knows he’s come up with some extra way of making them sweat. “Or any other situation,” he ends, ominously not speaking whatever thought had occurred to him. “Go again.”

Padraig prowls around them. He stays clear of them easily and barks out orders—“plant that foot, Nazri”, “sloppy punch”, “it wouldn’t have landed if you moved faster, Haryse!”—and they adjust as they go. It’s hard work, physically and mentally; Lexa finds herself thinking about every punch, every bunched muscle, every jump or duck.

Padraig looks as fresh as when they had begun, despite running at their side and inserting himself in the fight every half-second, or so it had felt, to shift a foot by a fraction or grip their arm and hold it brutally steady where it should be to block the next attack. He looks them over with sharp eyes and nods before striding up into the palace.

Lexa lets her breath out all in a rush and flops to the ground. Hasim drops a second later.

“I thought,” he pants, “we’d got off easy. No punishment.” Lexa starts to laugh and Hasim grins, rueful. “He’s torturing us.”

“Yes. And teaching us.”

“At least he doesn’t smile,” he mutters. “I think I would lose my mind if they all smiled.”

“I know what you mean.” Lexa rubs her hip where Tern had brought his stick down. She thinks she had seen him smile then—and it wasn’t pleasant, not from a man who was known by his frown.

Hasim blows his breath out again, shakes out his fists, and mutters a phrase in basri that sounds as fond as he does annoyed.

“What does that mean?”

“Ah, more lessons,” Hasim shakes his head, mock upset. “When do we rest?”

“When we die, I think.” She’s too tired for dishonesty.

Hasim is quiet for a short time. Lexa eases her head to the side to see if she’s upset him, but he just looks thoughtful. “It means…it’s a saying about one of our teachers, the old Voice, Fatema. She is good, always, but not kind. So we say to her, Fatema, I found a child of yours.” He grimaces. “Or, I see you in them. It’s hard, it’s not the same, exactly,” he fumbles, trying to explain, and Lexa smiles.

“I like it. Say it again?”

He does. He teaches her a few other, smaller phrases—hello and goodbye, water, food, please—until she can repeat them confidently. He stops howling with laughter at her accent too, eventually. That had made her flush, embarrassed, but she presses on stubbornly.

“I’ll teach you the names of my family tomorrow,” he tells her, and Lexa thinks he’s holding himself differently. Not exhaustion, though she can see that too. But pride, maybe. “We’re family now so you should know them.”

“I’d like that,” Lexa nods.

“Good. One day, you may get to see the family history.” He grimaces. “It is not a dull thing in a book,” he explains. “It is like a tapestry. When a woman is married, she makes her own with her husbands mother to learn her new family and to continue it with the names of the children of the union. They are very beautiful. My mother keeps hers in her marriage chest—I have seen it twice. Once when I was young and she was adding my little sister, and once before I came here, so that I can remember all the family I carry with me.”

Lexa smiles. She was not mistaken. He does walk differently when he thinks of his family—lighter and with the confidence of a lion. No, her smile grows. A horse. Quick and smart and part of a herd.

“How many siblings do you have?”

“Four,” he sighs. Lexa feels that scorching warmth roll off him again as though his fondness has escaped the confines of his skin. She doesn’t flinch away this time. “The eldest, my sister Fatema.”

“Like the Voice.”

“Yes. She has a strong Gift, much stronger than mine. She is studying in the University. And then my two brothers, Syed and Babor. They are twins. They are still in the tribe, I think that my father will name one of them his heir and the other will be my uncle’s heir.”

They climb a staircase and do not speak for a time, exchanging groans at the ache in their calves and thighs. Catching their breath, they pass a doorway to the Greenery.

The Greenery is small—the curved wall of it, where it meets the very side of the palace, is twenty paces long and its other walls smaller—but lovely. The curved wall is entirely glass and the roof green. Beams run from one stone wall to the other and from it pots of all sizes and shapes hang, the greenery for which the room is known hangs from the pots, twisting vines and flowering blooming jasmine that give the room its gentle scent. Yet more plants are held in pots and jars and boxes along the walls and on every table and bench and surface within it. They’re tended by the university students and a teacher in the palace, a Master Hall who asked for it to be built. Lexa reads there sometimes and she turns her head as they pass it, wondering if it’s empty, if she can study there tonight.

There is a girl seated on one of the stone benches and in the moment before stone walls block her vision again, Lexa makes out tumbling, golden curls and the sweet bow of pink lips and blue, blue eyes lifting to meet Lexa’s own.

She blinks.

The grey stone of the corridor returns. Lexa walks on. She clears her throat.

“He doesn’t have an heir?” she asks. “Your uncle?"

Hasim doesn’t seem to have noticed her distraction.

“No. He is bardash. Father teases him it is good that he has had three sons, that uncle can pick his favourite for a son.” His laugh is warm and bright and it makes Lexa smile. “And then there is my little sister. She is,” he counts the numbers out first in basri before translating them to Common, “six now. Father says that she will marry well but Mother doesn’t think so.”

“Why not? Is she unpleasant?”

Hasim grins. “She is very rude,” he tells her, tone fond. “But that is not why. There are men who do not mind a rude wife.” Lexa rolls her eyes. “No, Mother thinks she is a water-finder.”

“Oh.” Lexa knows of the water-finders. They are not Gifted, not exactly. It is similar to wild magic in that it is equally far from the Gift, equally other. She knows that it is a gloried position, that water-finders are much sought after to settle new watering holes, new way-stops, and camps. “Congratulations.”

Hasim nods easily, her congratulations expected but no less kind for that.

They part ways—Hasim to his room and Lexa to hers, and she repeats her lessons in her mind and out loud, getting her tongue used to the foreign words. She packs her assignments and books into her bag and sets off for the library. She meant to head there and not deviate—truly, she did—but she finds herself returning to the courtyard they had passed. The quick glimpse of the girl stirs in her mind. Why did she seem so familiar? Lexa would remember seeing her before.

Lexa steps into the Greenery. There is no sign of the girl. She heads to the bench where she had been sitting and looks around. Under the bench, there is a scrap of paper and Lexa kneels, picks it up.

tempests & gales; a collection – ordin wavespeaker
crystals & the crystalline structure – glory emeryn
healing for the Gifted – bardoch herts  

The writing is messy, rushed, and smudged in places. She wonders if the girl is left-handed to make marks like those. It might not even be the girls note, and even if it is she likely dropped it. Or it’s garbage, Lexa thinks. She doesn’t notice immediately when the Greenery loses its scent, when the plants cease rustling around her head. Only when the note is covered by a blue-white haze, flecked with gold, does she realise that a determination not her own has begun to seep into her skin. There’s a cold edge to it—like ice, like iron—that tells Lexa the feeling is not her own.

Shaking, Lexa pulls her handkerchief from her pocket and tucks the note into it. She puts it back into her pocket and resolves to think about it later. If at all.

She’s tired, Lexa reasons with herself. That’s likely all it is.

Lexa takes a moment to orient herself—the colours have returned to the plants, the sounds and smells too—and heads for the library.

“Where have you been?” Anya demands, over the squawking of the others—close the door, my assignmentand she stands when she sees Lexa, quickly enough that the bench shrieks its displeasure against the stone floor. She crosses the room in long strides until she’s in front of Lexa and speaks again, words sharpened and barbed. “Another fight?” No matter her tone, her hands are gentle and her long fingers cool against Lexa’s bruises.

“No.”

It’s good that Anya had stopped her right at the door. Lexa shakes free of her and lunges for Octavia, who tries to storm out. She snags their wrist before they can go too far. Anya looks between them and returns to her seat.

No,” Lexa says again and kicks the door closed. “Octavia,”

“I don’t care,"

“It wasn’t a fight, Octavia! You didn’t miss out. It was a punishment—that’s all. Padraig was making us do exercises. You can come tomorrow night, if you want.” Briefly, she wonders why she’s explaining herself at all. She hadn’t wanted Octavia in the first place. But, Lexa has to admit, there’s a difference between Octavia leaving her alone because Lexa persuaded them to and Octavia leaving her because something she’s done—real or not—has their face twisting in fleeting but deep hurt.

Octavia snatches their wrist back. They rub at it silently before shrugging. “Fine.” After a moment, the dark set to their face fractures and a small smile shines through. “You were worried I was upset.”

“You were upset.”

“Whatever. You were worried.” Their smile grows. “We’re friends now.”

Lexa blinks. “What?”

“We’re friends.”

“I…wouldn’t go that far.”

“Piss off,” Octavia tells her, now very cheery about the whole thing. “Admit it already, Haryse. We’re friends.”

“We know each other fairly well, we’re in the same year,” Lexa lists, ticking the points off on her fingers, “you’ve never struck me outside of lessons, I find your humour…”

“Amazing.”

“Palatable.”

“Close enough,” Octavia grins. “Plus, you explained yourself to me and didn’t want me to be upset.”

“Because you’d make a scene.”

“What I’m hearing is that you like me.”

“Tolerate.”

“Uh-huh. What was that?” Octavia cups a hand around their ear. “Genuine affection?”

“No.” She moves to shove them away a little—they grab her hand and hold tight.

“Genuine affection and good humour?”

“You’re mistaken.”

“Admit it, Haryse.”

“This is ridiculous.” She tries to shake them off but they refuse to be shook. Lexa huffs. “I need to do my assignments.”

“You can sit with me,” Octavia offers, grinning. Lexa tries not to look right at them—all of a sudden, it looks as though they’ve swallowed the moon and their smile and their eyes are bright and silver with, well, Lexa isn’t sure exactly but she is sure that it’ll be a lot harder to get rid of them now. They’re so close and smiling and Lexa feels her face and the back of her neck grow hot and red.

“Fine. I need to see your notes from Hardy’s class anyway.”

“And you’ll help with my mathematics.”

Lexa stays silent. Octavia slips into place next to her and begs help with their work with a flash of large, vulnerable brown eyes. Lexa thinks she might have broken them when the look doesn’t work on her.

“Come now, Lexa, have a heart.”

Lexa?” Anya asks, looking up from her book. Lexa fidgets a little at yet more close attention. “That’s new.”

“Yes, well, we’re best friends now,” she drawls. Octavia grins and shuffles their papers to the side so she can sit. “That wasn’t an admission, I was making fun of you.”

“So you say.”

“I do.”

“So you say,” Octavia says once more with infuriating calm and Lexa huffs once more.

She does sit with them, though, and works her way through a few problems with them until she tells them to work out the rest alone. She tugs her history assignment from the pile and doesn’t turn Ilian away when he sits with them too, offering his pile of books for her to look through.

The candles burn low. Gritty-eyed and feeling her bruises more than ever, Lexa yawns and starts to pack up her work.

“I can do the rest in my room, I think,” she tells Ilian, thanking him with a smile. She pushes his book toward him.

“Keep it, give it back tomorrow. You looked like you wanted to copy more.”

She nods and packs it into her bag as well. Down the table, Anya begins to pack up her work as well.

“I’ll walk with you.”

Lexa glances up, unsurprised but stomach tight with nerves. “That’s not necessary,” she tries to say.

“Oh no, it wasn’t an offer,” Anya tells her firmly. She sweeps her papers into a neat pile and stands. “I will be walking with you.”

Lexa ducks her head. “Alright. Goodnight,” she says to the others. Octavia grunts. Ilian smiles back and murmurs his own goodnight. She stands at his elbow for a few moments longer, trying to delay being alone with her sponsor. “I’ll give your book back to you at lunch. Or in class.” Ilian nods again. He looks faintly and Lexa thinks he knows what she’s doing. Judging by the stare being bored into the back of her skull, Anya knows too. Lexa sighs and heads for the door.

Anya falls into step next to her.

For some time, Anya does not speak. When she does, a part of Lexa—the childish, trembling part of her that wants only Anya’s affection and none of this flint-spark fury that comes with it—wishes she had not.

“How’s the face?”

“Fine,” Lexa assures her hurriedly.

“Bruises look pretty bad.”

“They’re not.”

“Looks like you’ve got some new ones.” Lexa looks down to where new and vibrant bruises dot up the length of her forearms. Too late to roll her sleeves down now. “And you came pretty late to the library tonight.”

“That’s true.”

Anya nods. “Care to tell me what happened tonight?” Her voice is light. Silky.

Like a net ready to scoop me right up, Lexa thinks. She feels herself scowling a little. How can she avoid upsetting Anya when she doesn’t know what she wants to hear? Honesty, Lexa decides, annoyed. I’ll have to be honest.

“You look like someone put you in a bag and dragged you down Market Way.”

“Why is it called that? I can understand Market Way, I suppose, but why does it change to Main Way and Kings Way? Is it measured? Are there markers?”

“Common agreement,” Anya tells her, voice calm. Too calm. Lexa chances a look up at her. Eyes hooded, Anya watches her almost lazily. She walks with a smooth and measured step, one hand holding her books, the other loose at her side. Lexa licks her lips and swallows around a lump that sticks in her throat and drags all the way down. “Answer me, please.” So mild.

She must be storing all her anger up for later. For when they reach her room, maybe. Lexa is suddenly sure of it and equally suddenly eager to explain to Anya so that the anger isn’t focused wholly on her.

“Nothing happened tonight.” Anya’s eyes flash. “Honest.” Lexa reaches for Anya’s hand but pulls back at the last moment—if she had felt such pain from Hasim a day after being called…that word…what then might she feel from Anya if she’s raging inside? “Nothing happened. I swear it by the moon.”

Anya frowns. “Then why the bruises? Why come so late?”

“It was my punishment. Mine and Hasim’s.” She flushes, scuffs her shoe against the stone floor. “We…Padraig told us to met him in the court. I think he means to train us? But it really is a punishment.” For emphasis, Lexa groans and Anya rewards that honesty with the tiniest smile.

“You say all the new bruises are thanks to milord?” Lexa nods. “And you didn’t run into Halleburn on the way to the library?” Lexa shakes her head no. “I believe you. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t going to talk.” She stops and Lexa realises they’re back at her room already. “Open up,” she says, and smiles. Lexa’s heart sinks into the pits of her stomach. “We’re going to have a chat.”

“I’m pretty tired,” Lexa says, voice so high and shrill with nerves it’s almost a whistle.

“Are you?” Anya sounds so cheerful. Even if Lexa couldn’t feel the dark swirl of amusement—an inky eddy swirling around her ankles, tugging playfully—she would know by the gleam in Anya’s eyes that she has some plot unfolding. “I’ll make it quick, then. In you go.”

Lexa unlocks her door and lets her in. She bustles around for a few moments—props the door open with her boot stand, twitches her bed into neatness, sets her books in their places. Anya makes herself comfortable in one of the desk chairs, long legs outstretched and crossed at the ankles. She says nothing until Lexa starts to unpack her assignments one sheet at a time and then her eyes narrow and she clears her throat.

“Haryse.”

Caught, Lexa drops into the other chair.

Anya’s eyes fix on a spot on the ceiling. Despite her frown, she doesn’t look angry or upset. Just thoughtful. Lexa can almost see her thoughts roiling behind the deep brown of her eyes, twisting and turning as she tries to put an order to them. One long finger taps on the back of her other hand. “I thought all day about what you said this morning and, and about what I want to say to you.”

“And?”

“Haryse.” Anya’s lips twist. “Alexandra," she tries again.

“Lexa. You may call me Lexa. If- If you want.” She contains a flinch when she stammers. She doesn’t want to stammer, doesn’t want to feel all ten years old when she’s offering her friendship—more, the friendship of Haryse—to this girl who she admires, respects, adores fiercely. A ferocity Lexa hadn’t known she was capable of offering to anyone beyond her own family.

Anya licks her lips. “Lexa,” she says after a long moment. She waits until Lexa meets her eyes and—there, she can feel it even though she hadn’t meant to. An answering thrum of affection so deep it feels like a vibration in the air, quick wings fluttering inside the cage of her ribs. Lexa trembles, lips threatening to break into a grin. “Lexa,” she says again. “I want to know why you never let me help you.”

“But I do. You help me all the time!”

“With classwork?” Anya shakes her head when Lexa nods a yes. “You’re smart. You could figure that out if you wanted to. No, there are harder things than classwork and I think this thing with Halleburn could grow out of control.” She tilts her head, eyes Lexa. “I think you know that too.”

Lexa nods slowly.

Anya leans in. “Why haven’t you asked for help? Not Padraig, he would crack down on anyone fighting and I understand not wanting that. But why not ask me? Or your friends, even.” It costs her to suggest that; Lexa realises that she really does want Lexa to consider her as an ally.

“I…don’t know.” Liar, her mind whispers back.

“All day I’ve been thinking about it. Do you not trust me?”

Lexa starts. “What?”

“The Captain is your family, isn’t he? I’ve seen the way he looks at me. I know he warned you away from me,” she runs rigid fingers through her hair, frustrated.

“That’s not why,”

“And I understand, believe me, I understand.” She laughs, a bitter sound that’s hard to swallow. Lexa shakes her head hard.

“No. No, it’s not you. I didn’t plan this,” she tells her, frustrated. “The first time was an accident and then the second Perrin ambushed us and,”

“You don’t want to retaliate?”

“I want to handle it,” Lexa tells her. “By myself. It’s my honour, my life.”

“You’re ten.”

“I’m a Haryse.” Lexa lifts her chin, eyes daring Anya to challenge that.

Anya leans back. “You really think you have to handle it alone.”

“No.”

“You do. You never ask for help with your lessons either.”

“I do! Etiquette,”

“You don’t think of that as a real lesson. You said as much to me yesterday.” Lexa flattens her lips tight, annoyed with herself. “Being too proud doesn’t get you anywhere except hurt. You know that, don’t you?” The edge to her voice is sharp enough to cut. Lexa presses back into her chair, ducks her chin. “Not asking for help is foolish,”

“What reason would I have to think you would help?” Lexa challenges.

Surprised, Anya’s mouth closes with the click of teeth. She frowns. “What?”

“Why would you help me?”

“What do you mean why?”

“I mean…you want the best page, don’t you? You want-“

“The best... God, Haryse, I didn’t sponsor you to flaunt you,” Anya hisses, hands clenched down on the arms of the chair. “Is that what you think?”

“You told me if I can’t do something, do it anyway. Do my best. That’s what you said.”

“I didn’t mean never let anyone help you!”

“But that’s what we have to do, isn’t it? At the end of the day we fight and die alone. I have to be able to win my own battles.” She shakes her head. A too-vivid nightmare stirs, floods her mind with familiar images before she can stop it—red, bubbling up around her lips and through her fingers. A bolt standing upright from her chest that shivers each time she breathes, the hiss and wheeze of a punctured lung telling her it’s futile but body refusing to give in yet—and she shakes the image away.

Anya’s frown is as upset as it is concerned. She doesn’t argue with Lexa immediately; instead, she seems to think about it as though it was true, or true for Lexa. Finally, she says, “You can’t keep on like that. You’ll break.”

“I won’t.”

“Yes, Lexa, you will. From taking on too much alone, maybe, or from loneliness or you’ll end up throwing yourself into the Olorun because that’s so bleak.” Anya holds up a hand, refuses to let Lexa interrupt. “Listen. I didn’t sponsor you so that you could be paraded around when you did well and forgotten when you lost.”

“If.”

“When. Everyone loses. Everyone needs help sometimes.” Anya’s eyes gleam. Lexa prepares herself as best she can for some terribly insightful comment. “Is this why you didn’t want Octavia around?”

“What?”

“They’re getting too close.” Lexa considers that. She doesn’t think that’s why she was doing it. She thinks it was because they ignored her when she had attempted to be kind. But… Her heart clenches painfully tight when she thinks about the plain-clad riders around her in that future vision and, gods, maybe Anya is right. Her upset must show on her face because Anya’s eyes roam over her, greedily trying to catch each flicker. “Gods,” she breathes. “Lexa, what are you mixed in?” She scrubs her fingers through her hair again. “Don’t answer that. I just hope you’re making drama from some trouble any normal ten year old gets involved in.” Lexa smiles weakly but says nothing. “Fine. Fine, you’re entitled to secrets.” She doesn’t sound like she believes her own words, Lexa notes. “But I want a trade.”

“What kind of trade?”

“You keep your secret—I don’t pry, I don’t demand anything. But in return, you let me help.”

“What?”

“I want to be more than your sponsor. I want more than one year of telling you advice you’ll twist to your own messed up purpose.”

“Anya,”

“Be quiet. Just listen. We… we’re a pair, you and I, even for no greater reason than I chose you. And on my honour, and by the moon you swear on, and the Mother who guides us both, I will help you, Alexandra of Haryse. I will guide you, I will lend you the strength you need, I will share what I know with you.”

Lexa sits back in her chair, mouth open. Anya’s vow is offered open-handed and open-ended and, for all her talk of help and kindness and sponsorship, Lexa hadn’t expected it. A tension Lexa hasn’t known she was carrying eases. She hates the feeling, hates understanding she might not know herself as completely as she thinks she does—what else does she fear? What else is she nervous about?

“It doesn’t sound like you’re gaining anything,” she points out, voice too-quiet with awe at the gift Anya wants to offer her.

Anya shakes her head. “I am. You might not see it yet but I am.”

“Like what?”

She keeps her eyes on Lexa’s face, refusing to let her avoid this. “Someone I can trust, to start.”

“And what else?”

“You have your secrets, Haryse. I have mine.” Lexa nods slowly. Anya shifts and with such a minor adjustment, she somehow transforms from easy, patient repose to an intensity that steals Lexa’s breath. Her eyes burn, twin pinpricks of light. “Let me help.”

The acceptance sits readily enough on Lexa’s tongue. Still she doesn’t let it fall.

“Lexa?”

The urge to accept grows. She breathes in, holds it for a moment; she breathes out. “I can’t spend my whole life with a guard at my shoulder. And I refuse to have a slave.”

“I’m not—“

“I may be young but I can help you too. In whatever way I can, I would do that for you.” She flushes at the sound of her voice and the murmur of deep affection within it but if Anya means for this to be one-sided for whatever reason—to claim back later, to hold it over her, though Lexa thinks that is not the type of person Anya is—then she has to know Lexa doesn’t want that. She looks over at her sponsor—friend?—and the smile Anya gives her makes her feel golden inside and out. She wants to bask in the feeling but pushes it aside.

A vow starts to write itself in her head, formed from the hundreds of treatises and vows she has read in her fathers neat script and on pages that smell old and rich. Lexa reaches out and takes Anya’s open hand with her own. When she speaks, she imagines their oaths winding around each others wrist, threading up to their hearts, white as bone, white as the moon, white as the burning stars.

“On my honour and my name and by the moon and the Mother who guides us, I accept your vow and make my own in return. I will learn from you, Anya of Tirragen, and I will share my own knowledge with you. I will give you the strength you have offered to me. I will defend you and fight for you should the need arise.” She hesitates but it doesn’t feel complete and so she continues. “I swear to return the faith and trust you show me in kind. So mote it be.”

“So mote it be,” Anya murmurs.

They part. Lexa rubs at the centre of her palm where a tingle makes her skin buzz, radiating out from a single point like a star. Anya cradles her own hand. She feels no different than before she made the vow, not really, but it feels wrong to break the moment.

Finally, Anya does it for her. She clears her throat. “So. Got a plan to deal with Halleburn?”

Lexa snorts. Of course Anya leaps right back to that point. “Not a plan,” she admits. “I have some ideas.”

“And is there space in those ideas for my help?”

Biting at her lip, Lexa has to rush to reconcile her thoughts—Anya vowed to help and Anya is actually trying to help—before she can nod. “Yes. I suppose so.”

Good. And I’ll dream up some ideas of my own, shall I?” Her grin is wild with promise and Lexa shivers, delighted.

They talk for a short while about what they might do but when Lexa’s jaw cracks with a yawn, Anya stands. Lexa walks her to the door.

“Anya?”

“Mm?”

“Thank you. And,” she feigns a concerned frown, “do you need some tea? Honey?” Anya blinks, confused. “I thought your throat might hurt from speaking more than you ever have before.”

In seconds, Anya has Lexa in a chokehold and she ruffles Lexa’s hair mercilessly until she’s laughing and trying to squirm free. “Impudent.”

“Never,” Lexa gasps. “Concerned!”

“And still, you mock me!”

Never.”

“Pert, ill-mannered thing,” Anya chides, laughing, and tussles her over to her bed and drops her onto it. “Sleep.”

Lexa yawns again and by the time she manages to close her mouth, Anya is gone and the door locked behind her.


 

 Under Padraig’s attention, the first-years become increasingly able to return blows for blows, blood for blood. A week of training helps—not only Hasim but also Octavia, who insists on joining them—and Perrin ensures they have plenty of practice too.

His attacks become less successful, as Padraig had no doubt planned. Perrin and one of his friends, usually Chip Tooth but sometimes Pointy Chin, corner Lexa and her friends in empty corridors and pummel them. But the training pays off—and so too does Anya’s firm command that Lexa always take a friend around with her—and instead of getting in a few good hits before losing, Lexa and Hasim and Octavia start to win. When Ilian starts to join them more and more frequently, the brawls stop altogether.

Perrin does not. His spite, his fury, seems focused on Lexa alone and the viciousness of the petty tricks he plays grows. Lexa gives back as good as she gets. She trips him in staff practice; Perrin uses his Gift to dazzle her during archery, blinding her for several minutes. Lexa pours scouring sand into his riding gloves; Perrin runs his gelding into Alraed, making her have to turn sharply away and into the way of a fourth-year. Displeased by his attempt to hurt Alraed, Lexa steals his spurs, part petty and part pity. His poor horse deserves the respite.

Perrin breaks two of her fingers.

In the morning chill, Lexa flexes her stiff fingers. She smiles down at them—having them broken was bad, true, but Costia had been the one to heal her, which was good. She had taken Lexa’s hand so gently in both of hers and Duke Baird had been easy to ignore when Costia smelled like beeswax and her hands were so soft and her lips pursed so prettily and,

“Check this out.” Octavia nudges Lexa. She blinks, tries not to flush when she realises she’d completely lost her focus thinking about Costia—Apprentice Fletcher, she reminds herself sternly. “Lexa?”

“I’m watching.”

“Look.” They breathe out a stream of air and Hasim, next to Octavia, holds up his hand. Orange shimmers around it and then dark silhouettes twirl through the mist, dancing. Lexa grins her appreciation of the trick. “Make them fight this time,” Octavia asks Hasim, who nods.

Lexa watches but all too soon she finds herself distracted. Could Costia do this trick? Or was her Gift for healing alone? Would she think it juvenile? She’s older than Lexa, maybe she thinks she’s a child. The thought makes Lexa grimace.

“We’re going to show Ilian,” Octavia says. Lexa grunts, eyes fixed on her fingers again. Distantly, she recognises the amused grin both her friends are levelling at her, but they do that so often she doesn’t both dragging herself out of her thoughts. She starts her limbering exercises—forcing the ache out of her fingers and the strength back in—and thinks about the way Costia had stroked her hand gently to check that her fingers were completely healed and—

“Morning, Haryse.”

Lexa pauses in her exercises, not recognising the pleasant voice. She turns and finds herself standing next to Perrin. She takes a step back, frowns up at him.

“Now that’s not very polite. I’m hurt.” She ignores him. “Or are you just not a morning person? I’ve heard there are people who can’t hold a conversation before noon—are you one of those?”

She grits her teeth into a semblance of a smile. No harm in being polite. “No.”

“Not before dinner, then. I understand.”

She ignores the dig at her intelligence. “I was just wondering whether making you cry again would earn me a bell this Sunday or a free afternoon.”

“Oh funny,” Perrin sneers. “With a smart mouth like that, you could be a Player. Or a doxie girl.”

Lexa stiffens. It’s nothing you haven’t heard before, she reminds herself. Keep your head. He wants to get a rise out of you. “What do you want?”

“Lower your hackles, Haryse, it’s a friendly conversation.”

“You’re as friendly as a rabid wolf.”

Perrin smirks. “Can’t handle a little hazing?”

“I can handle anything,”

“Then a conversation with me should be a breeze,” he says, and Lexa glares. He ignores it and leans against the railing lazily. “I’m disappointed in you.”

“I’m crushed.”

His eyes flash, not pleased with being mocked. Something—whatever his grand plan is for this conversation, she guesses—lets him keep a hold on his temper. “I heard so many tales about Corus,” he continues. “How it’s the heart of Tortall and it’s knights the finest in all the land. Ridiculous. My year has Tirragen.” Poison drips off Anya’s family name. Lexa’s calm wavers. “And your year… What do you have? A girl, a bastard, and a desert rat. The king is scraping the barrel for you lot.”

If she bites her lip any harder, this will be yet another interaction with the boy she comes away from bloody. He wants you to fight, he wants you to cause a scene, she repeats, continuing her exercises.

“You have lasted longer than expected,” Perrin admits, still in that generous light tone he’s adopted. “I suspect you won’t last much longer though. Oh, I knew you’d make it this far.” Lexa frowns, surprised. He catches the expression and smiles sweetly. “There were others who weren’t so generous in their assessment, you know, but I knew—this whole place has gone soft. It’s the only reason you’re still here.” He pauses. She ignores him determinedly and notes in her peripherals that annoyance makes him flush. He tries again. “When will your father withdraw you, do you think? He doesn’t want you to be hurt, surely.”

“He trusts me.”

“Does he? Or is he just weak? Can't stand up to one little girl."

"You know very well how formidable I am, Halleburn." Her eyes drop to his wrist where she had twisted so hard they had both heard something pop during their last scuffle.

Perrin's nostrils flare. He continues. "He's afraid of making the hard decisions, then. ” He nods like he’s figured out a great mystery. There is a kind of victory in his eyes and Lexa realises that she’s stopped her exercises, that she’s glaring at him, stiff and still and upset. “I don’t blame him. One mistake and he could bring the name so low,” he says with false sympathy. “One more mistake, that is.” His stare lets her know exactly what—who—he means by that.

Lexa forces a smile. “Do you ever get tired of hearing yourself speak?”

“Never. Hit a sore spot, didn’t I?”

“A little,” Lexa admits. It throws him off-balance, which is a look she finds she likes. “My whole head is aching from having to listen to your drivel. Tell me—do the words taste like the garbage they are?”

His pleasantness falls away as easily as taking off a mask, and underneath it pure fury. He moves in quick as a snake to grip her arm just above the elbow and poison drips from his tongue, pours into her ear.

“You mind your place, Haryse. You and that traitor’s scut you call a father.”

“Keep your tongue off my father. You aren’t fit to lick his boots.”

“Am I not?” Perrin’s eyes are alight with a peculiar, feverish light. He moves in even closer, fingers holding her with bruising force. When she tries to wrench free, he squeezes until she feels his nails cut into her skin. “You don’t see half of what he is, you foolish girl, but I do, I know, I know what he is and what he deserves. He is a loathsome worm crawling in the dirt. A mangy bitch to be culled. He has no right to hold the seat of Haryse.” In his anger and his spiteful glee, his voice shakes with fervour. Spit flings from his lips, flecks her face. Lexa is frozen. She pulls cold around herself tight, not knowing what she is doing. It defends, holds, against the hot wave after wave of Perrin’s disgust and fury that beats against her, roars, crackling, as though she is standing within a fire. “He forgets what he owes but one day he will be reminded of it. One day,” he says, like a vow, like it’s holy, “you’ll find out what kind of a man your father is and I pray I am there to see your face when you do. On that day, Halleburn shall ride upon Haryse with bared steel and fire and we will burn Haryse down to the soot and filth that it is.” He brings his face closer to hers, stares into her wide eyes. A string of saliva, thick and white, bridges his top and bottom lip and trembles grotesquely when he pants, breathless. “I will see you burn.”

Perrin throws her arm away from him and strides to the opposite side of the court. Lexa watches him go, still frozen.

The shock—the cold—lasts until a lick of fire makes it thaw.

He’ll burn her? Burn Haryse? He thinks to ride into her home, challenge her, and return unscathed? His words – no, message – no, threat – no. Vow. His vow turns and churns in her mind and little by little the ice she had built around herself—she wasn’t about to give him the satisfaction of a reaction, she would never give him anything—cracks.

With that freedom, Lexa finds that in the very centre of her self burns a column of white-hot flame and, as she feeds her fear and fury and determination into it, it comes alive. That flame rushes through her and where it encounters the remaining ice it doesn’t let it melt—it makes it burn until there is none left at all. That flame fills her completely, scorches the slimy feeling of Perrin’s touch from her elbow, turns her thought to let the threat go unanswered to white ash.

Lexa turns.

Heat bleaches her vision—the sky burns white, the familiar faces all around her blur and flicker. All she wants is to find Perrin and when she does, and sees him already smiling and laughing, she takes a step toward him.

And another.

And then another.

And, then she’s striding toward him.

“Halleburn!” Lexa calls out to him. It is not a warning—she just wants that pretty nose of his in the perfect place for her to pummel it.

Awareness falls away around her—no. She works it like hot steel, folds it over and over onto itself until she has fashioned a blade with it and she points it right at him. Narrowed to hand and foot and teeth and a heartbeat pounding like battle drums in her ears, Lexa closes the distance between them at a run. Leaps, bears him to the ground with knees against his chest. A crack when they land—sweet, satisfying—and another when she slams her fist into that nose. Blood spurts from it, splashes across his cheek and chin and her wrist where she grips his shirt at the throat. She punches him again, splits his lip. An answering shock of pain tears across her knuckle when one of his teeth cuts against it.

An arm hooks around her waist and hauls her off Perrin so she kicks out, catches him firmly once on his thigh.

Who dares? “Stop!” Anya. “Stop it!”

Lexa reluctantly eases her focus, thinks around Perrin and punch.

“He threatened Haryse,” she growls.

“He was goading you!” Anya sets her down, turns Lexa to face her. She grips Lexa by the shoulders and gives her a firm shake. Anya is pale and wide-eyed. Lexa thinks she might be afraid.

She doesn’t care. “Let him see what that earns him, then.” Outside of her narrow focus, Lexa distantly feels pleased by her tone. So cold it burns.

“Lexa,”

Behind Anya’s shoulder, she sees Perrin is struggling to his feet. He has a hand pressed to his own side, his silver-grey Gift glimmering around it. Lexa intends to make it so he can’t heal himself. She slips out of Anya’s hold and strides toward him. There was more to his words than goading, more than base ignorance or spite. Ignorance and spite she’s faced before. This is different; she knows that, even if Anya doesn’t. This is different and must be dealt with differently.

Nond tries to block her. She doesn’t care about him. She ducks his punch and he roars—not because of her, because of the fist Anya throws at his face. He hadn’t seen it but he felt it.

Lexa feels better knowing Anya is at her back. She beats back the feeling, though—no time for it, no point in it. She heads for Perrin. He’s found his feet and he’s ready for her but she doesn’t mind. This time, she’s going to do some real damage. Enough being quiet, enough letting things happen.

She’s a Haryse.

She’s going to be the one making things happen.

And, Lexa thinks, I’m going to start with making him cry.

An ugly yell rips from her throat. She struggles to be smart about attacking him—low and quick, Gus’s advice rumbles in her ear, even as her mind demands that she slam her fist into his stupid face as many times as she can. He hits her hard and Lexa staggers. She pauses, spits blood out onto the court. Don’t let him get in more hits than necessary. Padraig’s advice makes her body slip into remembered instruction. Pain makes her cling to her smarts, knowing otherwise Perrin will thrash her silly. Lexa kicks him hard in the knee. Another blow, this one to the cheek. A hurt he’ll see later. It brings her in close, though—no time to berate herself, he has a grip on her. She fights; Perrin wraps one arm around her so both arms are caught at her sides. The other he wraps tight around her throat, squeezes.

Black spots threaten her vision; panic makes her dizzy.

She struggles in the bracing of his arms. It’s almost a dance, she thinks to herself. More blood than a ballroom calls for, more pain than crushed toes. But for every step there is its mirror; she only needs to figure out what it is.

The answer comes to her and Lexa has no time to doubt. She slams her head back, not expecting to catch him. Victory surges through her, lending her strength, when his hold slackens for a brief moment—Lexa frees one hand and even as his arm crushes harder around her ribs to compensate, she reaches over her shoulder to scratch at his face. Finding his eyes, she jabs with rigid fingers.

Howling, Perrin drops her.

Lexa’s breath wheezes and drags into her sore throat. She staggers away from him and takes a moment to assess the fight that rages on all around her.

Everyone seems to have a partner. A little ways off, Octavia tackles a stocky fourth-year boy, yelling. Hasim has his arms around Chip Tooth’s neck and is squeezing tight. Ilian seems to be trading blows with a third-year.

On instinct, Lexa ducks. Perrin’s punch whistles overhead. She slips to the side—stay still and lose, she hears Padraig saying in her mind—and turns. His face makes the fire in her chest burn brighter for a moment and if that was all it was, Lexa would be pleased. As it is, something else—certainty, of steel and stone and heat so complete to be cold—stirs deeper still within her. She plunges into it/it rises up to engulf her. Both are true; neither is wholly correct, neither comes close to explaining. For one perfect moment, Lexa knows what to do. She snaps her fist out and catches him squarely on the jaw.

Perrin crumples to the ground, unconscious.

His body makes a meaty thud when it hits the dirt. Dust plumes up around him.

Around them, the other pages stop their own scraps. None of them hold even half the viciousness of her fight with Perrin – Lexa suspects they’re fighting because they want to, not because they need to.

Out of the still moment, Nond throws himself at Lexa.

“I’ll kill you, I’ll kill you!”

Though no longer all-encompassing, all-consuming, Lexa still feels the remnants of that cold-heat and certainty and she sidesteps the older page. He stumbles when she isn’t where he thought she would be and, taking advantage of his confusion, Lexa turns and plants her foot against his arse. She kicks, sending him sprawling face first into the dirt.

“Lexa,”

“Anya.”

“Hey, look at me.” Anya comes to her side, cups Lexa’s chin. She runs a keen eye over her and, when Melvin gathers himself, Anya stands at Lexa’s side possessively.

His dim eyes cut between Anya and Lexa, not sure which one to take on first. Finally, he alights on Anya. Some thought of chivalry no doubt driving him to it, or revenge. Anya had come out of their earlier tussle with rumpled clothes and a bruised cheek—Melvin is obviously missing a tooth.

“Lexa!” someone yells from behind her. She turns to be tackles by one of Perrin’s second year hangers. He’s strong and fast and Lexa has to bring her arms up to block his blows from her face. She allows one that makes her ears ring but gets one off in return that makes him swear and go cross-eyed for a second. A bloody-knuckled Octavia kicks him off her and hauls Lexa to her feet.

“Having fun?” they ask. “I’m having fun.”

“I defended my honour,” Lexa tells them.

Octavia bobs their head. “Good for you.”

Lexa licks her lips. Grins. Too wild, she suspects. Too sharp a smile. “And I’m having fun.”

That makes Octavia beam—their whole face ignites with joy and adoration and probably some huge amount of battle-rush—and they grip her shoulder and shake her. “Good! Let’s kick Nond again,” they hiss, dragging her toward him.

Before they can go more than three steps toward him, Lord Padraig steps onto the court, a grey cloak around his shoulders and a storm brewing behind his eyes. It crackles out when he speaks, whip-lashing each of the pages, lightning and rumbling thunder.

“ENOUGH.”

The pages stop. For those who don’t, Gus is Padraig’s enforcer. He knocks a few heads together and the rest fall into line. The heady rush of a fight leaves Lexa, draining away until she wavers in place and her bruises begin to throb.

Padraig’s gaze catches everything. His eyes settle on Perrin, who is making his way very slowly to his feet. His expression doesn’t change but his disgust deepens somehow. Or perhaps it is Lexa’s wishful thinking but she hopes he can see Perrin is rotten too.

“I am disgusted,” he announces to them, voice shaking and white-lipped with fury. “There will be no lessons this morning. You are each confined to quarters—I will announce your punishment at lunch.” When no one moves, Padraig snarls at them. “Go.”

//

At lunch, the pages stand at their tables, hands behind their backs, and receive their punishment. Lexa listens with a sinking heart to what she has brought down upon them all.

No city visits. No extra lessons. No rewards of any kind. No servants will clean their rooms for two weeks. No servants will fetch or carry or provide, unless strictly necessary, for two weeks. Each evening of those two weeks the pages will spend in the service of the palace—“If you cannot comport yourselves as pages, as future Knights,” Padraig tells them, words slicing through them, stinging as he had no doubt intended, “then you shall not be treated as pages. You are neither worthy of my respect nor my attention. You are not worthy of the respect or attention of the servants. You are certainly not worthy of the respect or attention of your King.”

For once, not a single person makes a sound.

Padraig’s lip curls. Again, he looks over their faces. Finally, he lifts his hands.

“Mithros,” he intones. “Bright One. In your name, we gather here today. We ask you to bless us and to bless this food and bless this our place of safety and home. We ask you to keep our bodies strong and minds sharp so that we might do the work we have sworn ourselves to. We who gather here today ask for your favour and the sharpness of your light. There are those in this world who bring discord and disunity with them. Give us clarity of mind, we beseech you, to see truly. Give us strength, we beseech you, so that we might step from false paths no matter how far down them we have walked. Guide us, shield us, teach us, we beseech you. So mote it be.”

“So mote it be,” comes the ragged response, the pages surprised by the length of the prayer. Lexa stares up at him, trying to decipher the blessing—could it all be about their punishment, about the fight? What could be mean by false paths? Lexa swallows an icy sliver of fear.

Could he be thinking she no longer belongs?

“Hey.” Lincoln reaches around Octavia’s shoulders, grips Lexa and gives her a little shake. She stares blankly over at him. “Don’t think about it. It’ll be alright.”

“Everyone is in trouble because of me.”

“You made everyone join you?”

“Well, no,”

“No.” Lincoln nods. He has a very calm presence; Lexa hadn’t noticed before. “No one blames you.” His eyes cut over to Perrin’s table and honesty makes him tilt his head, negating that comment. “Well. Some people might.”

Lexa laughs a strangled little laugh. Another hand comes over to grasp her other shoulder—Anya.

“He’s right. You’ll be fine.”

Lexa nods down at her plate. Her stomach twists uncomfortably.

Octavia nudges her. “Lexa," they say, and pause. They look nervous and Lexa realises they must be concerned she's going to tell them, You had your fight. I dragged you into one. You can go now. She gives them a tired smile. Octavia knocks their knee against hers, relaxes a fraction. "You should eat. They’ll think you’re upset if you don’t.”

“I am upset,” Lexa whispers back.

“Oh. You mind?” They spear her meat with their knife and drag it over to their own plate. “Thanks. I wouldn’t worry about it.”

“You never worry about anything.”

“True. But think about it this way,” Octavia points their knife toward Perrin’s table, the comfortable grip and loose wrist a bit of a hint that they’re thinking of throwing it. She reaches out and brings their hand down to the table. “No way Perrin is going to bother you again, not when you knocked him out.”

Lexa looks around the table: Benny is ignoring his lunch in favour of scribbling away on a loose sheet of paper, the Prince pressed against his side and contributing to whatever it is he’s writing; Lincoln still smiles at her; Octavia is eating their way through Lexa’s lunch; Ilian looks up from his book when he feels the weight of her eyes on him and he nods to her, respectfully, and doesn’t seem to mind the black eye he earned that morning. Hasim’s grin hasn’t faded once since he saw Perrin drop. She knows his opinion. The one that matters the most – Anya’s – she saves for last.

Anya’s lips are twisted in thought. Finally, she shrugs and nods. “It’s possible. Everyone saw it. He’ll try to avoid that again, I think.”

It seems reasonable when they say it but by that evening, Lexa has talked herself into apologising to the Prince.

She seeks him out in the page’s library and finds him at the back of the room, other fourth years gathered at the same table and all of them pouring over their texts. The Prince listens to her apology and, when she’s done, he shakes his head.

“No one blames you.” When Lexa tries to argue, he lifts a hand. “I am not in the habit of saying things I don’t mean, Haryse. No one blames you.” The other fourth years nod. She gets the feeling they’re not doing it just to appease their Prince. “There were people we really wanted to punch,” he tells her in a loud whisper, making his friends laugh.

“What His Highness means to say –”

“I can speak for myself, Gary,”

“– is that we heard some of what Halleburn said. If you had not retaliated,” Gareth tells her, a brisk type of fury beneath his pleasant words, “someone would have.”

“I would have, certainly.” A lanky boy with floppy brown hair and dark skin and the Queenscove nose holds out a hand, which Lexa shakes. His bright green eyes are friendly and the corners crinkle when he gives her a warm smile. “Emry of Queenscove. We’re cousins, you know.”

“Oh.” Lexa tries to remember ever seeing him before but she’s not met many of her cousins so isn’t surprised that she doesn’t recognise him. “Emry of Haryse. Your namesake?”

He inclines his head. There’s a solidity about him that she finds calming—broad shoulders, big hands, and his features are slow to change between his smile and a thoughtful frown. A smattering of freckles over his cheeks suggest long hours in the sun. “I apologise for not greeting you sooner. A disreputable fellow convinced me not to.” Here, he nudges the boy next to him, a handsome boy with faintly Yamani features. “This one insisted any cousin of mine would know to avoid me. And want to.”

“Oh.”

“It is a joke, cousin,” Emry says, that slow smile spreading over his face again.

“Oh,” Lexa says yet again. The conversation hadn’t gone the way she had expected—indeed, the Prince had withdrawn entirely to let Emry speak to her—and she doesn’t know what to say to someone who professes a connection she doesn’t know how, or if, to accept.

“A pity I didn’t. I apologise. All those days we’ll never regain—we could have spent them whacking one another with heavy sticks.” He seems genuinely disappointed for all his jokes and Lexa feels the corners of her lips curling upwards. He catches the movement and grins encouragingly.

“What fun,” the dark-haired boy mutters.

Emry leans heavily against him. “Silence, knave.”

“I’m trying to heal you of thinking concussions are fun, not letting you break a first-year.”

“Don’t mind Mat,” he says to Lexa. “He’s much nicer when he’s reading.”

“But I don’t talk when I’m reading—ah. I see. Very funny. Little Haryse, you have my permission to please whack him with a heavy stick.”

“I think I’ve had my fill of concussions for one day,” Lexa says quietly. It makes Emry boom a laugh and pages around the library twist to stare and glare but he doesn’t seem to care. And why should he? Lexa thinks. His friends—the Prince himself and Gareth of Naxen—seem well used to him, and fond besides.

Mat speaks first. “Are you sure you’re cousins? There’s not much of a family resemblance. She’s sensible, for one thing.”

“Well, the eyes are different and the nose.” Emry rolls his eyes when Mat smothers a laugh. “Shut up, Mat. Do you have the Gift?” he asks Lexa.

She shakes her head no.

“No matter. I’m sure there’s some commonality.” They stand awkwardly for a moment. The Prince coughs and clears a small space next to him. “Ah, yes. Would you like to sit with us?” He clears a portion of the table of his own papers, making room for her. “You might find it a bit dull. We’re discussing the Gallan Treatises.”

“Which ones?”

“Which…” Emry blinks. “King Artus the Third.”

Lexa nods. “I’m familiar with them.”

“Truly?” When she nods, Emry smiles. “A family trait. You would like my family. My uncle Nealan, he enjoys reading all the histories he can. Rather like your father, I gather?” Lexa nods. “I don’t know how they do it. I lose all the details. All those dates and names blur together. Give me a horse and a message to deliver and I’m your man. But memorising centuries old territories?” He shakes his head. “Still, I have to make an effort. Will you sit with us? I would like to speak with you some more.”

She shakes her head, disappointed. “I only came to apologise. I have to go back to my friends.”

“I understand. Apology heard and rejected.”

Lexa sighs, shifts her weight from one foot to the other.

“I mean it. It was a wonderful opportunity—I’ve always wanted to punch Wiltshire.” He grins cheerfully. Mat rolls his eyes. “We’re all in agreement, Alexandra—your apology is polite but unnecessary.”

Lexa checks that the other fourth-years agree and finally she lets herself smile. Just Perrin and his lot blame her, then. She bows to the Prince and to the others and accepts Emry’s request to speak again soon and she trots back to her table.

“Well?”

“They don’t blame me,” she tells Anya.

“Strange. It sounds exactly like what we already told you.”

Lexa rolls her eyes and nods. “Yes, you’re very smart and I should listen to everything you say.”

“As long as you know it,” Anya murmurs, smiling down at her papers.


My dear daughter,

I read your last letter with little in the way of sympathy. In the future, if you should pick a fight in the name of Haryse honour, I expect a long letter of explanation. Not three lines that mention nothing of the sort. Yes. Gustus has written me and in greater detail than you have.
I would be hard pressed to find any letter less informative than your last. 

Lexa winces. She tries to recall what she had written but can’t. Too addled by the brawl she had begun. She does remember giving him some outrageous title—yes, she scans to the end of the letter, he’s signed off with it. She reads it, cheeks burning.

Your Lordship, whose Poore name giveth my daughter apparent leave to strike sense into Fools of greviously uncouth bearing,
Titus of Haryse.

Judging from his hand, her Da had written the letter as soon as he had read hers. And with haste—no doubt he was still angry. She hopes that after he calmed down that he laughed at the title. Perhaps by the time he’d written out—Lexa flicks through the letter and groans her dismay—six pages of a letter he might have been appeased enough to find the humour in it. After all, he’d signed off with it, hadn’t he?

Lexa returns to reading. She grumbles a little—anger and upset has made her fathers hand small and cramped and she has to strain to read sections of it. She skims the next page. Disappointment, aggravation, ‘endangering her life’, ‘making appropriate choices’. Finally, he continues with something interesting.

Gus tells me you ‘took him down as though you had trained for years, not months’ and that he had ‘never seen a look of such fury on you such as the one he saw’. Our Gustus is something of a writer when he puts his mind to it. I find myself thanking the gods for it. If I waited for your descriptions, I would be waiting a very long time. Gus also tells me that this is not your first tussle, nor your second or even fifth. He tells me you’ve been in no less than seven scraps—and I suspect if you tell him as much as you tell me, the number may be far larger. He may not know the exact number but Gus wrote, and swore by Mistros’s name so I do believe him, that ‘our Lexa had a look of such burning fury that the air fair smoked around her and her not with a lick of the Gift’.
This does not sound so much like the girl I left in Corus. Are you changing so much? Or, and this is a frightening thought, had I never known you?
The only other thought I have is that something the lordling said deserved such treatment. I would like to know what precisely he said to rouse your temper. As I write this, I find it more and more pressing. I know you, my girl. I know it must have been terrible to make you empty those green-fire eyes on him.

After that, he writes her his normal report—the orchard take, news of the villages, nothing that could be used against them but enough to let Lexa know that her absence has changed very little. 

Below his signature, he writes in an ink of a faintly different shade.

I asked Mara if she was furious with you for getting into trouble. Don’t glare at me, Lexa—

She is glaring and she huffs that her Da knows her so well.

Mara scolded me severely, told me once and for all that you’re the cleverest lass that’s ever lived. If it warranted a blow, she told me, then it warranted a blow. She then demanded that I pack with this letter the good bruise balm Mistress Vielle makes.
(There, I told you not to glare. Now I am calm, I understand Mara’s assessment. I am proud of you. Do send me his exact wording!)
I will send this with the rider as soon as he wakes.
Write more, if you have the time. I miss you. 

Lexa pulls out her own writing kit and considers her reply. She doesn’t particularly want to remember Perrin’s face and words but if her Da thinks it’s important… She does as he asks and writes out the conversation in full. Ink blots in spots where remembered fury makes her hand shake.

She writes several more pages of palace gossip and day-to-day news to calm down—and then two more when guilt hits her, one page for Mara and one for Corin to tell them she thinks of them often and misses them. It’s not a big lie—she thinks if she were less busy, less bone-deep tired at the end of each day, she very well might miss them terribly. She tells Corin no one in the palace has his hand with woodwork. To Mara, she thanks her for the blanket, which has been glorious in the evenings she spends writing at her desk.

//

Da,
I apologise for the lack of letters. I didn’t realise you were waiting for them. Gus and I promise to write more often.
Your Lexa.

//

Lexa,
Don’t think at all on what the Halleburn lordling said. He sounds at least half as mad as his father—a noxious man and not to be trusted. I read your letter eagerly and enjoyed the short missive you sent with it. It hardly seems worth the coin to send a letter that short but then I catch myself staring at it and smiling—you have not lost your love of directness, I see.
I am glad for it. I would not want you to change overmuch. I fear you would return home and I would not recognise you. I am only lucky that you are gone not forever and you will return—I shall have you home for the summer and for that I am most grateful.
I enjoy very much reading your thoughts on your training and your new friends. They seem to be fine people. I am interested in knowing who your sponsor is—you never seem to name them, for all you write with great affection.
Tell me if you need anything from home before winter. The roads are unreliable once the snow begins to fall.
Your Da  


“I was wrong.” Octavia dumps their history book onto the table opposite Lexa, who offers up a mixed greeting, not really paying attention. “Lexa!” 

“What?”

“I said I was wrong." 

“And that’s surprising to you?”

Funny,” they sneer. “Be nice to me or I won’t tell you what I was wrong about. And you really want to know.”

Lexa sighs. “I apologise. Please, Octavia of Danshame, dear friend, please tell me why you were in error.”

“Fancy.”

“Thank you.”

“Right, so, remember when I said that there was no way that Perrin would ever so much as look strangely at you again? I was wrong. He’s plotting.”

Lexa frowns. “Why?”

Octavia narrows their eyes. “You haven’t forgotten already, have you? You knocked him out.”

“And Anya knocked out Nond’s tooth.”

“How could I forget that? You act it out whenever you see him.”

“Yesterday,” Ilian reminds Octavia, leaning into the conversation, “you mimed a tooth coming out of his mouth by throwing a bar of soap.” Octavia grins at the memory. “It hit him in the head.”

“An accident,” Octavia tells them, but they sound a little too pleased with themself. “I can admit it likely hasn’t helped since now Perrin and Nond want revenge. They’re planning something.”

“What?”

“I don’t know.” They scowl down at their book, shake their head. “I’m sorry—they stopped as soon as they saw me. But Perrin mentioned Nond and he was with Gerry and Virgil.”

“The worst combination,” Hasim says, coming to sit with them. “What are we talking about?” Ilian catches him up and Hasim hisses his displeasure. “That doesn’t sound good.”

“No. It doesn’t.”

“Who’s Gerry?” Lexa asks. She draws a pair of gloves on the sheet she means to give to Vauntire for their proper attire assignment.

Octavia rolls their eyes. “Whatever name you have for him. The second-year with the chipped tooth.”

Lexa grunts. “Chip Tooth.”

“You’re so imaginative. I’m glad you never gave me a nickname.”

“I did,” she tells them.

“Really? What is it?”

“Hothead.”

Octavia’s lips turn down thoughtfully. “I quite like that.” Lexa nods. “Well, Chip Tooth is Gerry.”

“Ah. Oh yes. I remember.”

“What about Chip Tooth?” Anya asks. Hasim turns and tells her.

Octavia points to Ilian. “What’s his nickname? I know you have to have one for everyone now. How hard is it for you to learn people’s names?”

“Fairly. They’re hard to remember.”

“They’re really not.”

Lexa shrugs. She points to Ilian. “Ox Blood.” Hasim. “Bad Archer.”

Hasim whips around to glare at her. “Really?”

“You were very bad,” she says mercilessly. He scowls half-heartedly. Lexa nods to Anya. “Sponsor.”

“How come I get the most boring name?” Anya complains.

“You're the most boring person." Lexa smirks. Anya rolls her eyes. "No, I’m not creative with the nicknames. I don't need to be. They’re to help me remember people.” She grins. “I am, however, smart and strong and scarily brilliant.” Octavia sinks low in their chair, mutters below their breath. “What were you saying about Halleburn and the others?”

“Right. Halleburn and that half-ogre lad,”

“That’s not fair, I know some very nice ogres,” Ilian disagrees. 

“Fine. Sorry. Half…monster.” Ilian considers that for a moment before he nods. “Thank you. They’re going to try and hurt you. I wish I knew more. I could tell, Lexa, and I know it’s not a lot to convince you but you gotta believe me,”

“I do.”

Lexa’s blood chills to ice water in her veins. She fights to keep her composure when all she wants to do is slam his nose into the table and have it all over and done with.

But she can’t, and Perrin doesn’t make his move that evening, or the day after, or even in the following week. Waiting for the attack is a new type of agony and Lexa finds it hard to put out of her mind. Her friends do their best to distract her but too often she feels the prickle of unfriendly eyes on her and there is nothing they can do to defend against that.

//

On what Ilian is certain will be the last warm day of the season, a Sunday, he raps smartly on her door.

“We’re going to the lake!” Hasim tells her, excitement beaming out his face.

Lexa nods. “Have fun.”

Ilian slips his arm into the gap before she can close the door. “You misunderstand,” he tells her cheerily. “We are all going to the lake.”

“I have work to do. We all have work to do.”

“We always have work to do,” Octavia says, strolling over from their room. “Come on, Lexa, have a heart. Teach your best friend to swim.”

“Hasim knows how to swim.”

“Me! I’m your best friend, you heartless creature.”

“Hasim is my best friend.”

“You’re both wrong,” Ilian says in his friendly rumble. “I’m Lexa’s best friend.”

Octavia laughs. “I don’t care. Open the door, Ilian.”

With an apologetic smile to Lexa, Ilian flexes his muscles and makes the crack open wider. He forces the door open and in the small space available, Octavia shimmies through, grabs Lexa in a headlock, and bodily drags her from the room.

“Get her, Malven!”

Laughing, Ilian lifts Lexa over his shoulder. He holds her legs flat against his chest so she can’t kick him in her struggles and only laughs louder when she beats her fists ineffectively against his back.

“Let me down, you brute!” Octavia hoots at the sight; Lexa shakes her fist at them. “I’m going to murder you, Danshame!”

“It’s so cute that she thinks she’s scary—oh bloody oath, she’s free!” Octavia sprints down the corridor, Lexa close on their heels. The boys’ laughter follows them, louder when Octavia slips when they race around the corner. They roll, limbs flailing, and somehow right themselves so they can pelt their way down the corridor and out into the sun. “You’ll never catch me, Lexa, you’re too slow—ooph!” A spiteful burst of speed lets Lexa tackle them to the ground. Their look of shock is so profound that Lexa laughs. Octavia’s shock bleeds into a grin and they shrug, a little sheepish. “Alright,” they grumble. “Have you been letting me win?”

“No.” Lexa rolls off them, holds out a hand to help them up. “I just wanted to prove you wrong.”

“The mightiest of all urges.” Octavia bows with a silly flourish. “Lexa?”

“Mm?”

Octavia grins, teeth bared. “Run.”

Lexa laughs again and sprints away down the grassy hill toward the lake, Octavia yelling threats of pouring mud down her shirt if they catch her. All thought of papers and assignments and books are blown from her mind—the sky is achingly blue overhead and clear of clouds and the sun pours diamonds into the water, glinting and shifting and luring the pages closer.

And beyond the lake, the forest.

Something in Lexa seizes then—the forest rises like a single monolith being, stretching to either side of her as far as the eye can see. Deep shadows of green fill the space between the trees, so dark as to be almost black, and Lexa shivers. The wildness calls to something in her, makes her want to take a step forward. And forward and forward, and she’s jogged half the distance to the forest before she realises that the coaxing sensation hooked into her chest doesn’t belong to her. She shivers hard, stark fear enough to dislodge the feeling.

“Lexa?” Octavia calls out from behind her. “You alright?”

She turns her back on the forest—ignore the wild dark tangle, ignore the deep green. Banish any thought of the cool, of the pine-sap and the rough of bark. Lexa runs back toward the boys striding down the hill, toward Octavia. This is what she wants—blinding sun, rays of light striking the lake, a brilliant blue sky. Heat on her arms hot enough to blister.

“I thought you grew up in a forest,” they say. “Are you afraid?”

Lexa shivers again. “No.” Yes. “You want to go to the lake, Danshame?”

Octavia is still looking between her and the forest and they don’t seem to register the question. “Huh?”

“Here’s the lake!” Lexa stops and grabs their arms, uses everything she’s learned from Gus to throw them over her hip into the water. After a moment, she remembers that they can’t swim and jumps in after them. The water is crisp and clear and she cuts through it with clean strokes to where they’re flailing. Lexa grabs them and tugs them up to the surface and to the bank. She ignores Octavia for a moment, pulling wet hair from her face and cheeks and neck and tying it up in a messy bun. Once she’s free of that clinging sensation, she grins at Octavia. “Sorry. I forgot.”

Forgot,” they mutter, coughing water still. “Tried to murder me.”

“Not a very good murderer if I saved you.”

Octavia grins. “I didn’t say you were a good murderer. Did you see that!” They yell at Ilian and Hasim. “Lexa tried to murder me!”

“We saw. Pity you failed,” Hasim grimaces, pats Lexa’s shoulder. Octavia grabs the front of his shirt and yanks, sending him tumbling into the water.

“Anything to say, Malven?” Octavia asks, eyes narrowed threateningly.

Ilian lifts his hands in surrender. “No, no. Nothing to say.”

“Smart lad.”

He tosses himself into the water, knees drawn up to his chest, and it splashes water over all of them when he lands. Hasim makes a rude gesture; Octavia copies Ilian, but they’re so small they only manage to splash Hasim when they land.

It drags them all into a water fight. Octavia claims the bank for themself—“I can’t swim, remember?”—and Lexa feels too happy and too sun-drowsy to move too much so she decides to be on their team. The fight lasts exactly as long as it takes the boys to call up their Gift. The combined magic forms a large wave that lifts and drops over Lexa and Octavia, drenching them where they stand.

“Unfair!” Octavia yells a war cry and flings themself into the lake once more, inability to swim apparently no longer a deterrent. They start to flail a few strides out and call a gurgling truce.

“You might need some lessons first,” Lexa tells them helpfully.

Octavia lifts both hands up out of the water and makes a very rude gesture. Lexa laughs until her ribs ache and she lays herself back on the shore.

Before long, she finds her head lolling to the side and Lexa opens her eyes, stares toward the forest. She digs her fingers into the dirt on either side of her but she doesn’t feel the urge to go into the Forest, doesn’t feel the same coaxing as before.

Cold water splashes against her middle. Lexa grunts. More cold water. She lifts her head, glares down at Hasim.

“Hey, grumpy. Are you coming in?”

Lexa grumbles a little but it’s getting hot and she slips into the water, dunks her head below the surface. She swims under the water and tickles Hasim’s foot—even below the water, she hears his frightened squeal.

“That’s not funny,” he splutters when her head breaks the water.

“You’re right. It was very funny.” Lexa leaves him there in the shallows and pulls herself through the water with long, easy strokes. It feels like forever since she swam and it’s nice—the water is only a little cold, not like the River Drenn back home that had been nothing but melted snow and run-off from the glaciers high in the mountains. She flips onto her back and floats for a time, staring up at the sky. Water covers her ears so she doesn’t hear Ilian’s approach until it’s too late, and then he’s grabbing her around the waist and tugging her under the water. She slaps at his shoulder, bubbles streaming from her mouth when she laughs. He lets her up and Lexa sneezes, laughs again.

“Stop having fun by yourself,” he chides, a grin splitting his face nearly in two. Lexa doesn’t think she’s ever seen him so happy and so she goes with him when he tugs her back toward the shore and toward the swimming lessons he has Octavia and Hasim in.

“I thought you knew how to swim,” Lexa says to Hasim, who looks almost as awkward as Octavia. Not quite, of course. Octavia looks like they’re attacking the water when they kick and punch and struggle to swim the short way out toward Ilian.

“I’m from the desert. We don’t swim in our water.”

“Hmm. Octavia, you can’t fight water.”

“I can try,” they disagree. Lexa rolls her eyes. “Well go on then, you show me how to do it.” Lexa shrugs, swims to the shore and steps up next to them. She ties their uncooperative hair up and out of their eyes then coaxes them slowly out into the water again. She teaches them how to tread water and Octavia slowly manages to keep their chin above water. Around a few accidental mouthfuls of water, they ask, “How did you learn to swim?”

Lexa cocks her head to the side, ponders the question. “I don’t remember.” She remembers spending long summers in the river, but she remembers already knowing how to swim. There’s a flash of memory, a long pool of water, warm and still. And a hand under her belly, and water splashing under her little hands, and a soothing voice talking her through it. “I think Gus taught me.”

“Gus?”

“Captain Bruin,” Octavia tells them. “She calls him Gus.”

“Of course she does,” a voice rumbles from the shore and Octavia splutters in shock, sinks under the water. Lexa reaches down to grab their shoulder and pull them back up. “Afternoon, Lexa.”

“Hello, traitor,” she says, reminded that he wrote to her Da. He laughs a great belly laugh, and Lexa lifts her hand to shield her eyes from the sun. She squints over at him, can't help but smile. “Are you coming in?” Gus strips down to his breeches and she cries out, pretending to be offended. “Captain, you are in the presence of a lady.”

“Lady? I see no lady. Only pages here—and disrespectful pages, at that.”

He does, however, pull his shirt back on.

Gus wades into the water, splashing all of them. “You have to teach them to float first,” he tells Lexa and Octavia hangs like a dead weight in his hands when he lifts them up, clothes dripping, and turns them so they’re laying on their back. “Float,” he tells them after rescuing them. Octavia had simply sunk under the water.

“I don’t know how to float.”

Gus sighs heavily.

“Pardon me,” Hasim says, laying on his back and tentatively kicking himself closer to Gus and Octavia and the lesson. “Captain, are you…related to our Lexa somehow?” He looks from Lexa all the way up to Gus’s face and seems, for some reason, to doubt their relation.

“He’s my uncle,” Lexa says. “In the same way that you’re my brother now.”

Gus lifts his eyebrows. Lexa shrugs. Hasim nods, satisfied by the answer.

“More importantly, Gus, how did you teach me to swim?”

“How?” Gus’s face creases in thought. “Well, I took you down to the river and then I just tossed you in.”

Tossed me in?

“Like this.” He grabs her and tosses her deeper into the lake. Lexa comes up spluttering to the sound of Gus’s booming laughter and another splash as Hasim lands near her. He delights all of them—Ilian included—when he lifts Ilian and throws him nearly as far.

“Not really,” he tells Lexa when she asks if he really had risked her life like that. “Yer Da would’ve taken my head for that. There’s a river under th’ castle. Slow an’ still, like. We took ye there, had ye paddle ‘round.” Lexa nods slowly—the image of a cavern comes to her more completely, with stone worn smooth by centuries of gentle water. “Dark as anythin’,” he says thoughtfully as he scrapes his hair back off his head and ties it back. “Nearly lost ye.”

“Liar.”

“Swear by my sword,” Gus laughs. “Ye slithered away like a little fish an’ yer Da used all his Gift liftin’ ye outta the water.”

They spend much of the afternoon in the water but when the sun starts to sink below the Forest, the chill becomes too much to ignore and they trudge back up to the palace, dripping wet and shivering but grinning.

Lexa knocks her shoulder against Hasim’s; he slings an arm around her neck and hugs her tight. “Better?”

Lexa thinks for a moment. For several hours she thought of nothing but half-drowning her friends and certainly the thought of Perrin hadn’t crossed her mind. She grins. “Much.” She leaves his arm where it is, only ducks out from under it when Octavia drips cold water from their hair onto the back of Lexa’s neck. She chases them, slipping on the grass—it smells strongly of dirt and growth and she grabs a handful of grass and tosses it at them, laughing when green blades stick to their neck and clothes. They make sounds of being mortally wounded and slump to the ground. Ilian obligingly scoops them up off the ground and carries them inside.

Lake water drips from the tops of all their heads down to around their ankles, their clothes bedraggled and clinging uncomfortably to chilled skin. Their boots slap wetly against the flagstones. Hardly the picture of noble dignity, they freeze when they turn a corner and find Padraig blocking the way. He’s talking quietly to a lady in a fine crimson blouse and sturdy breeches, her dark hair neatly wound up in braids pinned to her head. She looks like she’d prefer to be outside, too much energy making her tap her foot, and she looks unimpressed by whatever he’s saying. She sees them first and Lexa smiles a little sheepishly when the lady’s eyes widen and her mouth drops into a little O. Padraig glances over his shoulder; his glance lengthens and his speech falters when he takes in the four of them standing very still as though it might let him look over them without seeing.

Padraig stares for a long time. Finally, he sighs. “Make sure to mop up the water after you.”

“Yessir,” they chorus.

Padraig touches his companion’s elbow gently and her expression smooths over instantly. To hide something she doesn’t want them to see, Lexa guesses. Or him. It’s interesting to see him outside of classes but not nearly as interesting as the thought of a hot fire. As soon as he’s past, they flood into the hall and Lexa shivers her way to Thalia’s room. The woman looks her over and sighs.

“Good evening,” Lexa greets, teeth chattering.

“I’ll set your fires,” Thalia says. She pulls her door closed behind her and moves to the room opposite, pulls out two mops and a bucket. “Do you need blankets too?”

“P-please.”

Thalia narrows her eyes. “We can do the mopping,” she tells Lexa, reaching for the mops to take them back. Lexa shakes her head.

“Lord Padraig told us to do it. It’s,” she shivers hard, “f-fine.”

Thalia sighs. “Alright. I’ll have a word with him when you come down with a fever.”

Lexa nods. “Alright.” She shivers again and decides it would be best to keep moving to warm up. She collects Ilian and, nearly numb to the bone, they mop up the track of water they’d left behind. There are a few moments of fright—once, when Ilian nearly kicks over the bucket of water they’ve managed to collect, and again when they start to spar with the mops and some frumpy old academic comes out to yell at them for making so much noise—but finally, they return to their rooms. When they’re all clean and dressed and cloaked in heavy blankets, they find they all have the same idea to make Lexa host them for the reminder of the night.

Hasim brings with him a collection of dates and Lexa glares. “What?”

“I knew you were holding out on me!”

“You ate half in one night.” Hasim blocks her reaching hand so that Octavia and Ilian can take some first. “I had to defend them.”

“Yeah,” Octavia says around a mouthful of dates, reaching for more. “Wait your turn.”

“You don’t even like them!”

“It’s worth it to make you mad.”

They do let Lexa take the last of the dates, which she hoards carefully in her lap. Octavia pulls out a tin of biscuits and hurriedly crumple a note they find in the lid of it, shoving it into their pocket. Ilian finds the satchel of drinking chocolate he’d been saving from home, the one that tastes faintly of cinnamon, and all three of them tease Lexa when she has nothing to share with them.

Finally, rolling her eyes, Lexa stands and makes her way to the door.

“We were teasing,” Octavia calls after her. “Malven…”

“I’ll check on her,” Lexa can hear him say. When he peers out the door after her, she twists to flap a hand at him. “Lexa?”

“I’ll be right back,” she calls back. He nods and disappears.

Lexa trots down the halls to the kitchen, peeks in. There are several servants there—the kitchens are never quiet—but she recognises Havassah and slips in to stand next to her.

“Hello, little mouse,” she murmurs. There’s a streak of flour across her cheek and sweat dotted across her forehead.

“Hello, Havassah.” Lexa nods to her. “You told me to come to you if I need food. May I have some food, please?”

The woman doesn’t smile but a pleased glint lightens her eyes. “Sha. You are too little still, you and that other.”

“Octavia,” Lexa says, nodding.

Havassah looks grave and displeased for a brief moment before she shakes free of it and she nods to a basket of breads and rolls to the side. “They are from this morning. Take what you please.” Lexa pours over the selection, plucks the glazed, animal shaped rolls studded with tiny, dried sweetfruit and the sweet buns from the pile and grins when she finds an apple turnover between two loafs. Havassah has a basket of fruit waiting for her when she returns and she accepts no thanks but gets it, and a beaming smile from Lexa. Arms shaking with the weight of the basket, Lexa returns to her room and her friends.

“I don’t have any sweets,” Lexa apologises to them, enjoying the way they all eye the basket with interest, “but I do know someone in the kitchen.” They fall on the food, ravenous after missing dinner, and Lexa takes her seat on her bed. She yells at Hasim when he tries to take the turnover—“it’s for Ilian,” she tells him, laughing, and while the boys scuffle over it Octavia picks pieces of apple from the centre—and accepts the hot mug of chocolate from Ilian and curls into the end of her bed, Mara’s blanket heavy and warm and close around her shoulders.

They eat and drink and talk late into the night. Hasim takes up his sword to demonstrate a Bazhir scimitar form and Octavia trips over their own trying to mimic him, making them laugh. They bow like they had meant to do it all along and point their sword at Ilian, who pats his belly as an excuse to stay in his chair.

“Oh come on,” Hasim urges.

Ilian shakes his head. “I don’t know anything about swords,” he admits readily enough. “Although…” Octavia takes that as a sign he knows something and grabs his wrist, tugs him up. Ilian stands. “’Twas a moonless night, that night of bloody fervour,” he proclaims and Lexa recognises the first line of the Gallan epic. She grins. Ilian begins to pace slowly around Lexa’s bedroom and his gestures grow, once he gets past his nerves, to imitate their Master Hardy in one of his most self-important moods. “Through the glen nay beast nay bird nay byrrthed thing did stir.”

He stops after several verses, flushed with their attention, and drags Lexa to her feet.

“I don’t know any poems!” she argues, struggling.

“You have to do something.” Ilian’s blush stains his cheeks a deep red and she takes pity on him, nodding.

“Can you sing?” Octavia suggests.

“No.” Lexa twists a braid around her finger. “I…” She grins. If Ilian can do Hardy, Lexa can do Snappet. She hunches her shoulders and draws her tunic over her head to make a hood, or a hump, and sneers at Octavia. “Women are weak in the head,” she croaks, “and magick the gods-fearing men into wicked deeds.” Octavia stares for a moment. “Those without brains speak too much, and those with brains are not girls.” Ilian chokes in surprise, eyes wide. “Mathematics is holy in the hands of faithful men. Women are too weak of will to wield it.”

“He never,” Hasim demands, amusement warring with outrage.

Octavia nods at him and Lexa carries on. “Order exists in all things. The skulls of men are larger to contain the understanding the gods impart to us alone.” Caustic, objectively horrible comments roll so easily off her tongue—genuine things Snappet had said to her at one point or another—and while the boys alternate between laughing and being horrified, Octavia laughs so hard that they fall right off Lexa’s bed and to the floor.

As the night lengthens, their laughter comes as easily but grows weightier, more golden than gold. Warm, pleasantly sore from laughter, and surrounded on every side by her friends—her friends—Lexa lets herself forget about work and about the looming threat of Perrin and enjoys herself instead.

 

Chapter Text

Da,

I am all in one piece.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writ the same afternoon:

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

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


“Lexa." 

“Anya.”

“How are you feeling?”

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

“Right. Back into bed with you.”

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

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

“No,” she grits out. “I suppose not.”

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

“Yes. I can send it myself.”

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

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

Anya closes the door gently behind her.

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

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

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

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

“Lexa. I’m—you can call me Lexa.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But it’s an itch, not a burn.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh no, your Grace, is she-”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, hello Apprentice Fletcher.”

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

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

“Better. Itchy.”

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

“You may continue, Apprentice Fletcher.”

“But-“

“You are doing just fine,” he soothes.

“Yes, your Grace. Lexa.”

Lexa beams. “Yes?”

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

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

“You cannot itch. You will scar.”

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

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

“But –”

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

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

“Good. Goodnight, Lexa.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Lexa,  

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

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

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

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

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

From here, I shall write on Haryse business.

Much love,
Your father,
Titus.

Writ the following day:

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes sir!’

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

“Yes sir!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Mistress Whistler comes with them.

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

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

“Well enough.”

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

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

“Thank you, milord.”

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

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

“Yes, milord,” Lexa and Hasim chorus.

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

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

“No,” Padraig nods. “I thought not.”

The drumming of his fingers slows, and then stops.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lexa looks between them, confused.

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you, Octavia,” Lexa says gravely.

“Sure.”

“Sincerely,” she insists.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, I think you do.”

“I don’t think so.”

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

“The magnificent Beauty,”

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

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

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

Lexa grins. “Maybe.”

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

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

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

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

Sunder.

“Sunder,” she repeats.

The great palace bell tolls.

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

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


Father,

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

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

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

Alexandra.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Last breathless hour?”

“I heard it yesterday. Good, right?”

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

Everlasting Wellness.”

“Whatever.”

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

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

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

“Just a thought.”

“Close to blasphemy!”

“Not quite.”

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

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

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


Alexandra.

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

Lexa, my girl.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your loving father,
Titus.  

//

My dearest Lexa,

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

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

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

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

Much love,
Your Father,
Titus.

Writ later:

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


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

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

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

“No.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just an…observation.”

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

“Octavia…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perrin catches her eye—and smiles.

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

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

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

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

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

“You think you’re special, Haryse?”

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

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

Lexa can’t help it. She laughs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did he hit your head?

She shakes her head no.

Just your arm?

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

We are going to the Healers.

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

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

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

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

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

“Yessir.”

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

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

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

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

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

She twists, stares up at him. “Sir?”

“Sir?” Gus frowns.

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

“Ashamed?”

“You didn’t say anything.”

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

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

“Why would I be ashamed of you?”

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

“I know that.”

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

Gus slows. “I can carry –

“No.”

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

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

“Hmm.”

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

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

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

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

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

“A joke, lass.”

“Oh. The lessons are good.”

“Even that non-Gifted one?”

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

“Hmm.”

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

“Breathe, Lexa.”

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

“Tkaa.”

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

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

Lexa grimaces. Nods. “Yes.”

“Why?”

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

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

Gus’s eyes flash. “That god?”

“Yes.”

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

“Yes.”

“An’ you don’t like it,” he guesses.

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

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

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

“Ye think they’re hers?”

“No.”

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

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

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

Lass,” he murmurs, voice grave with concern.

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

“And?” he prompts.

“I can feel the Forest.”

“The Forest?”

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

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

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

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

“Aye?”

“I’m going to faint now.”

“Aye, lass.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Out of bed already, Page Haryse?”

“Yes, Your Grace. I feel fine.”

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

“Well, I do, and I have classes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I am.” 

“Thank you, then, Your Grace.” 

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

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

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

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

Yet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lexa stands to bow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

She stomps out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

//

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

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

Lexa grins, a little sheepish. “Sorry.”

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

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

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

“Not broken, just a bruise.”

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

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

“Really?”

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

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

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

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

Really?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Done?”

Costia stops. “Would you like to check?”

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

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

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

“Did that hurt?” she asks, worried.

“N-no.”

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

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

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

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

“Pardon?”

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

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

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

“Good.”

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

“Yes, Apprentice Fletcher.”

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

“Yes, Costia?”

“Thank you. For the bracelet.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, Majesty.”

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

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

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

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

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

Lexa’s mouth twists. “Childbirth?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No fighting with that arm, Haryse.”

“Yes, Your Grace.”

“And I expect to see you tomorrow night.”

“Yes, Your Grace.”

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

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


Da,

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

“Running.”

“Milord?”

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

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

“Good.”

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

“Lord Padraig.”

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

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

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

“Yes sir,” Rider Caura says with relish.

Lexa gulps.

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

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

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

“Pretty sure I’ll puke anyway.”

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

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

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

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

“Yes, Rider.”

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

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

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

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

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

Lexa laughs. “Sounds familiar.”

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

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

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

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

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

Lexa grins. “Maybe.”

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

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

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

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

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

“I guess.”

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

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

“See you tomorrow.”

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

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

“Problem, Haryse?”

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

“Yes, Anya.”

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

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

Octavia swallows. Meekly says, “Yes Anya.”

Lexa grins down at her lunch.

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

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

It’s torture.

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

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

Classes are terrible.

Watching everyone but her learn to swordfight is terrible.

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes sir.”

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

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

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

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

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

//

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I am,” Lexa agrees. “I’m Alexandra.”

“Clarke.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I do, yes.”

“You like to…read here?”

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

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

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

Clarke nods.

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

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

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

“And what has you out so late?”

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

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

“No.”

“But,” Clarke gestures to her cast.

“I’m practising,” Lexa tells her.

“Practising.”

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

She gets neither from this girl.

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

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

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

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

“Good for you.”

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

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

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

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

Clarke smiles.

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

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

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

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

“Not…as such.”

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

“You aren’t upset?”

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

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

“Yes, probably.”

“I apologise.”

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

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

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

“What do you mean?”

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

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

“Yes.”

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

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

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

“You must learn."

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

“A sword? No—you need a knife.”

“Pardon?”

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

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

“You would do that for me?”

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

It’s her birthday.

She’s eleven years old.

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

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

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

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

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

Lexa turns curious eyes to the paper.

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

GODS ALL BLESS, LADY PAGE .


Da,

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

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

All my love, and best Midwinter wishes,
Lexa


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

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

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

“Should’ve been,” Anya agrees.

“What is this about, then?”

“You’re sad.”

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

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

Lexa nods slowly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And?”

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

Anya smirks. “I know. And Lexa?”

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

“Happy birthday.”

// 

“How's the arm, Lexa?"

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

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

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

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

“Training is fun.”

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

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

“I’m a page, Clarke.”

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

"I have a horse."

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

"Her. Alraed."

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

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

“Very nice. What else?”

“A travelling case. A cloak from Mara.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I have assignments,” Lexa disagrees.

“The night after?”

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

“Disappointing,” she shrugs. “I’ll keep training on my own.”

“Of course you will.” Lexa sucks her bottom lip into her mouth before saying in a rush, “You left a note here weeks ago. A list. A list of books. One about storms and one about healing. And another, I think?”

Lexa doesn’t think; she knows. She doesn’t admit that she has all the books on that list, that her Da doesn’t really ask questions when it comes to books.

She also doesn’t admit that she’s partway through Tempests & Gales and that it’s fascinating.

Clarke frowns, caught off guard. “Yeah. Yes, that was my list. Why?”

The icicles—which Lexa hasn’t felt for many days now—bristle with suspicion.

Lexa shifts as she considers what to say. She hadn’t planned it out entirely—Clarke never feels, never reacts, the way she expects she will, so planning doesn’t go over well—and the sensation of being out of her depth is keen and keenly unpleasant.

The icicles almost sing with distrust as the moment stretches on. Lexa looks sharply to Clarke but sees nothing on her face but polite interest.

“I have the healing one. Hert’s book.”

“You just happen to have Healing for the Gifted?”

Lexa catches her breath, surprised when the icicles melt and flood her with amusement. She grins, and Clarke grins back. 

“Yes. A coincidence,” she says, and her own amusement curls in her belly. “Would you like to borrow it while I’m away?” she offers, and it’s an incredible thing to know someone’s answer before they say it.

It’s almost nicer, Lexa reflects, to hear it from Clarke. A tension she hadn’t noticed melts, and Clarke’s moonlight curls catch the light and glint and glitter. Her eyes are cold blue like the centre of a hot flame.

Lexa flushes. Clarke smiles and Lexa notes with some relief that she’s flushed too. Their connection has faded, though, and Lexa can’t be sure whether her flush is delight or success or something else.

“I would like that. Very much.”

“I’ll leave it here for you,” Lexa promises.

“And I’ll be here when you get back,” Clarke promises in return. Her tone is light but Lexa feels rocked when the promise clangs like a great bell, like Lexa is standing inside the great bell and the sound is shaking all around her. Like the one time Lexa had heard a word of Old Thak and watched the world literally shift to accommodate it.

Clarke’s eyes are wide and stripped bare of pretence—it’s clear she felt it too. She licks her lips quickly and runs from the room. The blue tail of her cloak swishes around the corner, and then she’s gone.

Chapter Text

 

The pages roll out for their winter camp at the dawn bell. 

Not a creature nor person stirs as they saddle their horses and mount up at Padraig’s quiet command, following him single-file into the forest that lays, still, under a blanket of white. The train of horses churns the snow into dirty slush underfoot and they move at a sedate pace, more due to fear of a horse slipping and breaking a leg than consideration for the hour.

The Royal Forest looms black ahead.

“The sun thinks it’s too good to get up at dawn like the rest of us?” Octavia mutters, making their friends grin tiredly.

Lexa has to agree with them. The sun has barely shifted the night, the sky sitting over them in a low, deep blue ceiling. It certainly hasn’t risen enough to highlight the deep, handsome greens of the canopy and make their entry into it less daunting.

Lexa shivers as they enter. She draws her cloak more tightly around her body. Bleary-eyed and pretending to yawn, she nudges Alraed to follow D’lpedar, Hasim’s mare, and is thankful again for Alraed’s training as her mare picks out a careful track to follow, leaving Lexa to deal with the growing sense of unease. Her eyes flick up the column to where Gus rides, abreast with Lord Padraig. He doesn’t notice the weight of her stare—and even if he did, his place is with Padraig today, not with her—and Lexa focuses on her newly revealed right arm, clamps her hand tight around the little ball-weight in the first of her exercises to regain what strength she’s lost. She imagines the other-Lexa holding firm against the dragging, pulling sensations of the forest, and squeezes the ball again, focusing on that instead of her own unrest.

Deep breaths, she tells herself, as Gus had when he coaxed her out into the Forest last night, and four separate nights before that in the last two weeks. The first time had been… Lexa stops that thought in its tracks, not enjoying the way it makes her control slip. She shivers again and fights to swallow.

//

“Evening, Gus.”

“Lexa!” He makes to open the door further, stops when she shakes her head.

“I was hoping you might be free for a walk. For…that thing I mentioned?”  

He looks down at her quietly for a moment. “Not gone, then?”

“No.” Her lips twist with displeasure. “Not gone.”

“Figured it wouldn’t’ve. One mo’, I’ll get my cloak.” He disappears into his room and returns with a cloak, a deep russet fabric he slings around his shoulders. “Lead th’ way, lass.”

They talk quietly as they walk—he asks about her arm, she asks about the training he does with the off-duty soldiers. He thanks her for her birthday gift, a new knife which brings his knife count up to an impressive nine. That she knows of.

Lexa wiggles a foot from under her new cloak, shows off the boots Gus had got for her. “Thank you for these,” she says for the fortieth time, and he grins, pulls her close against his hip with a bit of a tussle. She wraps her arm as far around his waist as she can and sighs happily when his warmth seeps into her.

“You expecting trouble?” he asks her when they get closer to the forest.

Lexa nods.

“Something I can fight?”

“I don’t think so.” She tries to explain, more thoroughly than she had when she was trembling with the pain of a broken wrist, about what it’s like to experience an emotion that doesn’t belong to her. And about the feeling that had hooked into her and drawn her close, closer to the forest, when she had been running by the lake.

He’s quiet for a long time and Lexa allows it, relaxes into the silence. Finally, he speaks.

“Have ye been in?”

“No.”

“Do ye want to?”

Beads of sweat slick her hands. She wipes them off on her pants and curls a hand around the hilt of her sword, brushing her thumb over the whistler mark. “No,” she says, a bit shakily. “But I’ll have to next week. And I need to understand it before then.” Gus nods. “I was hoping—I am hoping that you’ll go in with me. Tonight. To keep me safe.”

“Of course.”

Lexa smiles up at him, weakly at first, and then her love for him roars through her and she beams. “Thank you, Gustus.”

“It’s a brave thing you’re doin’. I want to help.” Lexa waves that away. It’s not brave. It’s just necessary. He squeezes her shoulder, presses her the tiniest bit closer. Lexa huffs when the gesture throws her balance off and she stumbles, but Gus is still holding her tight so she doesn’t fall.

//

Alraed nickers, bringing Lexa out of her thoughts. She presses a hand to Alraed’s neck and the touch soothes her, as intended. Hasim glances back at them. Lexa shakes her head, shrugs. She looks to see what might have upset Alraed but she sees nothing and chalks it up to boredom or a shadow.

//

A single pace into the Forest has her trembling and leaning up against one of trees. She flinches when she touches it, afraid that the contact will make it all worse. It doesn’t, though, so Lexa leans into it and squeezes her eyes shut in an attempt to find something inside of her that will stop this shaking in her hands.

“Can you, ah, feel it?”

Gustus would be twisting his hands worriedly if he were anyone else. As it is, he shows his deep concern by standing in a ready pose, hand half an inch from releasing a blade into it, and watching her very carefully.

Lexa drags her eyes open. “I could feel it from the Palace,” she tells him, lips a little numb. Not from cold, but from something alike to disuse. Like she’s forgetting how to speak. She wraps her arms around her waist.

“Cold?”

“Yes.” She glares up at him, feeling the force of his gaze and the force of that boundless care he holds for her. “Stop it. Stop feeling all of that.”

Gus stands quietly for a moment.

Lexa shakes her head. “I apologise, I’m on edge. I shouldn’t take it out on you.”

“S’alright, lass.” She looks up to catch him looking oh so casually away, pretending he hasn’t been examining her closely. He glances down the path. “We can stop here.”

“No.” Lexa drags in another shaking breath. She pushes away from the tree. “No, we can’t. I need to learn how to be rid of this by the winter camp.”

Gus presses his lips together but doesn’t comment. She ignores it easily, since she knows very well its cause. He had been surprisingly hesitant to help once she had laid out her intention to conquer the sensations—had tried more than once to sway her thinking to controlling it or embracing the ‘gift’.

“It doesn’t do well to disobey the gods, lass,” is what he keeps his comment to now, for which she is thankful.

“If T—if she wanted an obedient servant, she should’ve picked someone else. And I remind you that we don’t know this is from her.” She also has had considerable practice ignoring the look he gives her for that statement. It’s the same disbelief that typically followed ‘I have no idea what happened to that pie and I definitely didn’t eat it’. “Thirdly, I’m not sure that she was a god. And fourth, and most important,” she stops again after another pace, hating the way it takes so much out of her. Lexa sucks in a deep breath. Scowls at the distance between her and her goal, a rotting stump twenty paces away. “This is my mind,” she hisses, at it, to Gus, she’s not sure. “And it won’t do anything I don’t want it to do. I won’t let it.”

//

She had made it ten paces that first night before breaking into a cold sweat. When she went limp, mind sprawling out into every direction at once, Gus had scooped her up from the ground and carried her out. He took her into the stables where it was warm and dry and they had sat with Alraed, Lexa tucked into Gus’s side, until she had returned to herself. He refused to go in again when Lexa suggested it. Not twice in one night, at least. And since Lexa refused his suggestion—to find the Wild Mage and ask her for help—they were at an impasse until he agreed, two nights later, to take her into the Forest again.

It’s impossible to describe what it feels like to walk into the Forest. It’s not emotions, or thoughts, or impulses from creatures around her, though she thinks that she knows they are there. Maybe. The more she reads the – admittedly slim – volume on wild magic that her father had found and sent, the more certain Lexa is that what she has—whatever it is—isn’t wild magic. And the more certain she grows in that, the more she fears what it might be. Madness.

She stops the trembling in her fingers with a great feat of will.

It’s most likely, and Lexa doesn’t shy away from difficult thoughts. If it is, then it is. And since it’s not the Gift, and it’s not wild magic, then…then it’s almost certainly a madness. The brain she’s so proud of, melting like a handful of snow and draining out of her, into the ground, into the great big bloody stupid trees.

//

“That might be enough for tonight, lass,” Gus cautions.

Lexa stands shakily in the forest. Twelve paces this night. She can make it eight more, at least. “I want to keep going.”

“Don’t push too hard. Lexa, please. It doesn’t do to mess with these things.”

“You’re the one who told me not to waste a gods gift,” she reminds him. He grunts and Lexa turns back, knowing that she’s twisted his words. Knowing too that he’s right. It’s late and she’s scared and more importantly she has training again in the morning. Running, still. She knocks her cast against her hip. “Very well, Gustus. Let’s go.”

She steps toward him and away from the forest, smiling at his relief one moment and then gasping when something snaps into her. Awareness rushes outwards from her centre, heedless of command or question. Lexa—everything that is Lexa—is dragged along with it.

“Lexa?”

She can see Gus if she concentrates, but part of her mind that has no eyes or ears or nose rushes through root and branch and tree and dying and growing leaves and the spots of air in rich soil and everything holds inside it variants of the same power. Far, far beyond it all—and within it, in some twice-cursed way—something thrums in a rush of sound she recognises. A constant crash, a symphony, followed by a flutter like waves on a shore in and then out, crashing in, sucking out to the sea. Like the pulse in her ears, Lexa thinks, and her head starts to spin.

It is eager.

Not the creatures—they don’t think twice about her. She can’t understand their thoughts or words or actions, not in any definite way. She’s just another part of the forest to them. But the land itself seems to want her to know it—the enormous pine she couldn’t wrap around, not with ten Lexa’s—the mud pits—the rivers trembling as they wait for her to notice how delicate they curl, how pretty the sounds they make bubbling over rock steps—

“Lexa.”

“Gus,” she says—or thinks she says, or tries to say? Her mouth doesn’t feel real anymore/feels as real as everything else, bark and bramble and bone and blood, and through it all the crash and pull and crash again, a song Lexa feels in the core of her. She gives a short wail, hands clamped to her ears, when it all clashes together too loud and too much and then she is back in her own body, with her own bony knees pressed to the cold ground, which she can smell rich in her nose and feel under her forehead where she presses it down and she can feel Gus’s hand rubbing big, soothing circles over her back.

“Shh, shush, it’s alright lass, it’s alright. You’re here. I’ve got you. I’ve got you,” he continues, holding her and speaking to her, long into the night.

//

The thought of something as common as a few trees having drawn her out of her own mind infuriates Lexa and so she had returned as soon as Gus had allowed, and then again two nights later, and again only the night before the winter camp, and Lexa found that each time it became ever so slightly easier to keep her mind where it was, and to keep the Forest outside of it.

It has much to do with determination, of which she has plenty. When she grips the saddlehorn between her hands, she imagines—more than imagining, she insists—that she is holding her mind in them and that nothing can get through, or out. So focused on it is she that she doesn’t notice Hasim drawing back to ride next to her until he speaks.

“I’ll be glad when we make camp,” he tells her quietly. “I haven’t rode for so many hours in months.” The face he makes easily conveys exactly what he’s feeling and Lexa laughs.

“I want a spot right next to the fire,” she tells him.

A snort is the warning Lexa and Hasim get before Beauty—and Octavia smugly atop him—shoves his way in between them.

“A fire, a nice soft place to sit?” They scoff. “I want to go hunting.”

“What a surprise,” Lexa drawls. “Go on, surprise us again.”

Octavia rolls their eyes at the tease but obliges. “I’m starving.”

“I’m shocked!”

“Dismayed, even,” Hasim suggests.

Lexa nods. “Bewildered.”

Octavia laughs when Hasim hesitates and has to move onto basri words, where Lexa can’t follow along half as well. They laugh again when Lexa smugly drops a few kemrit words.

“Yes, yes, you’re both very clever and funny.” Octavia laughs when they both preen at the compliment, chins tilting up and small, nearly identical smiles curling their lips. The resemblance is truly uncanny and Lexa wonders if their blood oath did something to them, or if they were always quite similar. “Truly, though,” Octavia continues, “I’m starving. How are you not hungry?”

Some of us,” Lexa says smugly, tossing her hair back in a way that means she’s talking about herself, “thought ahead and packed rations.”

“If you share your hunt with me, you can be my best friend,” Hasim offers earnestly to Octavia. “Lexa doesn’t share her rations.”

Lexa makes an annoyed sound. “I did offer! You turned me down!”

“You’re eating bird food.”

“Nuts and dried fruit is a very good source of energy!”

Octavia groans, places their hand to their stomach. “Enough talk of food! I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.” Beauty stops, looks over his shoulder at his rider with one dark, baleful eye. They gulp. “Not you, Beauty.” Appeased, Beauty trudges on. Octavia stares, dramatically wide-eyed, across at Lexa.

Padraig calls a halt in a clearing and allows them to dismount and stretch.

“Third- and fourth-years, you know the way to winter camp. Ride ahead,” Padraig tells them in his crisp way, eyes scanning each of them for imperfections. Those remaining—the first- and second-years, Padraig, and Gus—stay in the clearing until the others are gone. Anya nods to Lexa as she rides past, before nudging Surestep to catch up with the Prince. “The rest of you will be showing me what skill you have at tracking—if any,” he says, disdain dripping off the last words in a bizarre kind of humour. “Unfortunately, the snow can make it very simple.”

“Heavens forbid something is simple, milord,” Lincoln calls quietly, voice bleached of any kind of tone. 

Octavia lifts a gloved hand to their mouth to hide a smile.

“Quite right, Runnerspring. We stop here for breakfast—if you didn’t think to bring something, you go hungry until tonight. Then we follow the others. I will ask you individually the signs that we are on the trail of a pack of careless pages. Pray,” he says, inflection never changing, “that you identify every sign.”

“And if we don’t, milord?” Terry asks.

“I keep you where we are until you do.”

“And the very hungry pages will string you up,” Chip Tooth mutters.

“It’s not Seabeth’s fault you didn’t pack breakfast,” Lexa mutters to him. He’s sitting only a few paces over and he tosses a particularly ugly look her way.

Padraig ignores their mutters, talking over them.

“Once we make it to camp, as late as that might be,” he says, and Lexa is sure that his eyes settle on Chip Tooth—Gerry—for a moment there, “you will be in charge of clearing your own sleeping space and setting a tent. Whether or not you choose to sleep under shelter, you will prove to myself or the captain that you are capable of it. If it is too late to reasonably go hunting…I suspect you will have to resort to foraging.”

“Hope it won’t be too late to tell blackberries from baneberries,” Gus says cheerfully.


 

The camp, they find late in the afternoon, sits on a rise that ends sharply in an east-facing cliff. At the base of the rise winds a small river about fifteen yards across. This deep into winter, it’s mostly frozen over but the pages can see that the water beneath the thick top layer of ice runs swift and, no doubt, freezing cold. They turn their horses from the river and start up the steady incline. 

The trees grow more sparsely—and twisted by the brisk winds—the further they climb and so the long wooden building that marks the camp comes as a relief. Built only a few yards from the treeline so as not to make too obvious of a target on the bare hillside, the “Shack”, as the second-years call it, is a solid log cabin and looks sturdy enough to keep out the worst of the chill. There is a hastily raised stable on what Lexa suspects is the least wind-prone side of the cabin and she can see Whiskers and Surestep separated by a small, grey mare. She also notes with some relief that the older pages haven’t set up bedrolls outside—until a thought occurs to her and her stomach drops. Ilian voices her thought a moment later.

We aren’t the ones that have to sleep outside, right?”

Hasim blanches, twists in his saddle to stare at them like they’re the ones suggesting it. “Surely not!”

“What do you think soldiers do in the winter, Nazri!” Padraig barks. “Not everywhere you go will have food and shelter enough for you and your horse—are you going to throw someone out of their home so that you have a bed?”

“No sir!”

“No! So make up that tent, Page Nazri!”

Misleading questions aside, once each of the pages have proven that they can put up a tent, Padraig instructs them to care for their horses and then set up their bedrolls inside. The building is empty of any furnishings, including a floor, and the ground is frozen hard and cold. Lexa, Octavia, and Anya are given the spot nearest to the doorway and they set their packs as a hopeful windbreak, and set their rolls close together.

“Seabeth, you’ll be digging the mens latrine for missing as many marks as you did.” Terry bows to Padraig and takes the shovel Padraig hands off, trotting out to do just that. He takes it with good grace, even though Lexa knows he’s more accustomed to the variances of sailing than hunting. “Your Highness?”

“Milord.” Prince Jasson stands immediately. Gareth pauses, then takes over sorting the prince’s pack along with his own.

“Show Seabeth where to go, would you?”

“Yes, milord.”

“Tirragen, organise for one of you,” - the girls goes unspoken – “to dig your own latrine. Catch His Highness before he goes too far—you’ll want to dig far enough away.”

“Yes, milord,” she agrees, and her eyes flick to Lexa.

Lexa jumps up, not wanting Padraig to be able to find fault in her behaviour. He hands her the second shovel and Lexa trots out.

“Highness!”

Prince Jasson stops, smiles a friendly smile. “Haryse. We’re digging just past that copse,” he tells her, pointing to a bunch of dark trees some thirty yards from the building. Lexa fixes the position in her mind and nods.

“I’ll dig…” She scans the area and smiles gratefully when the prince points to a good spot, far from the river and far from the boys latrine. “Thank you, Highness.”

“Think nothing of it. Seabeth?”

“Coming, Highness!” Terry waves cheerfully at Lexa and she grins back. She’s not looking forward to digging out frozen earth, but his smile is infectious and he always looks so pleased when she returns it.

Padraig comes by as she works to examines the placement of her latrine and gives her a nod before leaving her to it. By the time it’s dug, Lexa’s sweat has frozen into a slimy film and she’s certain her blood has frozen solid too. She totters back to the camp and finds, to her great relief, that someone has built a bonfire and is roasting meat. It smells amazing and Lexa shivers her way over, steps over a log and drops onto it next to Octavia.

“Mithros, you’re frozen!” They toss their own blanket over her lap and wave Ilian over. He presses the entirety of his left side against Lexa, squishing her between the two of them.

“T-thanks.”

“Don’t mention it,” he grins. “Tea?”

“P-please.”

Ilian wraps her hands around a metal cup and pours the drink into it. She nods her appreciation and sighs, blissful, as feeling returns to her fingertips.

The fire burns orange and yellow and Hasim turns his talent for illusion on it, entertaining them with the shadows that play against the wall of the long building as they eat. Padraig and Gus are apparently content to let it go on, with no more instructions or information forthcoming. Finally, Lexa lets herself relax too and she enjoys Hasim’s reconstruction of the famous Bazhir fable of the beetle and the scorpion, cheering just as loudly as the boys when the scorpion is crushed.

When their yawns get longer and their eyelids lower, Padraig sets the guard duty—Prince Jasson and a second year page Lexa doesn’t know yet for the first watch, Nond and a second year for the second watch, Anya and Lexa for third watch—and sends them to bed.

Before they fall asleep, Gus kneels next to Lexa.

“Alright?” he asks quietly.

Lexa frowns. “What do you mean?”

“The—gift,” he reminds her clumsily, and Lexa’s eyes open wide when she realises that she hadn’t thought of, or felt, the Forest for most of the day.

“It’s—I can’t feel it,” she tells him. “I don’t know why.”

Gus nods thoughtfully. “Mayhap ye just needed to get used t’ it?”

“Maybe.”

“Well.” He claps her on the shoulder, squeezes. “Good. I’m glad, lass.” With a final whispered Sleep well, he leaves her and Lexa settles, drawing her blanket up to her chin.

Why had she stopped feeling it? It had been so overwhelming that morning, pulling at her mind and her attention as always. And then it had simply stopped? She can’t think that her friends could have countered it in any fashion, not knowingly. But something had happened. All she needs now is to figure out what it was, and how to make it work for her again.

//

A gentle hand rouses Lexa in the early hours of the morning and Lexa grips the handle of her knife under her cloak she’s bundled into a pillow until she realises that the face over her is Anya.

“Your hair is loose,” she says sleepily.

Anya rolls her eyes, jerks her chin to the door.

Lexa pulls on her cloak out and buckles her belt, and sword, around her waist. They sneak out of the building—though Lexa is sure that she can feel Gus’s eyes on her—and once they’re outside, Anya stretches and breathes in deeply. Lexa grins over at her. It’s early, and frightfully cold, but the sharp air reminds her of Haryse in the winter and something about Anya’s softened edges makes her think she’s not thinking about guard duty either.

Until, that is, she is thinking about guard duty and she ties her hair back in her typical severe fashion and jerks her head again for Lexa to follow. They make several rounds of the camp, Anya checking the wards, before Anya boosts Lexa into a tree to observe and she continues on alone for a bit.

“Well?” Anya asks later.

Lexa climbs carefully down from her roost, all too aware of her numb legs. “Cold.”

Anya stares.

“There was a small herd of deer,” she points to the east edge of camp, beyond which the river runs. “They came almost up to the wards before moving on upriver. Two people came out to the latrine, Virgil and Gus.”

“Gus?”

“I’m absolutely positive he was checking on me,” Lexa confesses, like she’s annoyed, but really it’s kind of nice. Anya’s tiny smile tells her that she knows what Lexa is thinking, which is not nice but annoying. The smile twists into a smirk. Anya gestures for her to join her on this round of the camp. “There’s a treeline to the south that could easily block pretty much any movement and if anyone were mad enough to scale the cliffs, they could block us against the river since our horses would never go through that.” Anya nods. “What kind of ward is it? Around the camp?”

“It’s a constructed ward,” Mat tells her, stepping into line next to them. “Morning Haryse, Morning Tirragen.”

“Fenrigh.” Anya looks past Mat to his ever-present shadow. “Queenscove.”

 “Tirragen,” he returns formally, unable to quash his broad grin. Emry bows to Lexa. “Cousin.”

“Cousin Emry.”

“Small talk over,” Emry claps his hands. “Mat, constructed wards?” His smile softens when Mat purses his lips in a thoughtful frown. When Emry realises that Lexa is watching him, he blinks and wipes the soft expression away, replacing it with an entirely different grin. She can’t quite place the difference in them and shrugs, shifting her focus to Mat.

The scholarly boy walks in even paces as he speaks.

“Constructed wards are, put simply, wards that are embedded into some type of construct. Commonly a set of figurines, wood pieces, stones,” he lists off the possibilities, putting out a finger for each. Lexa nods that she understands. “Less commonly into precious stones and crystals. These are set into a shape around whatever it is that you wish to defend. The strength of the ward depends almost as much on the placement of the constructs as it does on the construct itself.” He pauses. “With me so far?”

Lexa nods.

Over their heads, Emry and Anya share bewildered looks.

“Circles are of course the most common structure.”

“Because of their efficiency,” Lexa nods.

“Precisely. Trading out special efficiency for magical efficiency, a star is also rather common. Not for the defence of a campsite,” he allows, “but for safekeeping of an item, perhaps.”

“Can they be set twice?”

Mat waves a hand to dismiss that question. “Probably. I wouldn’t see the point in it myself—as a trap, maybe, but the better method would be to pour that extra power into the original ward, don’t you think?”

Lexa considers that quietly as they walk the outskirts of the camp once more, in the opposite direction. “Maybe…it would depend on the work that the ward was doing?”

Mat gestures for her to continue.

“If one of the wards was for defence and one was for illusion, for example.” She nods as she talks, her argument taking shape. “A star isn’t an easily defensible shape, but if it were placed largely as an illusionary factor, with something that alerted the caster when it was crossed or broken, then that would have its use just as much as a circular boundary would. And if the star is more magically stable, then surely it would hold up a largely magical construct like an illusion better than a circle, which is ideal for the defence of a large item like a camp or a castle.” She pauses for comment, but Mat just nods.

“Quite right. Emry?”

“Er, yes, quite right,” Lexa’s cousin agrees.

“It occurs to me as well,” Lexa continues, and Anya slaps a hand over her mouth.

“Not before breakfast, kid,” she orders, and Lexa squirms for a moment but meets Mat’s eyes and nods when he lifts his eyebrows. At breakfast, or the second after, they would continue their discussion.

Anya abandons her quickly at breakfast, followed by Emry, when Lexa and Mat get into discussing the wards. He has to fill in gaps in her knowledge—she’s read Crystals and the Crystalline Structure by Glory Emeryn cover to cover twice, and the chapters on warding in the non-Gifted books Master Thom had suggested, but not much else—but once he does, they spend most of their breakfast arguing about the merits of constructed wards versus propelled wards, which have no anchor save for the caster.

“Anchor?” Terry asks.

“C’mon lad,” Emry draws the boy gently away. “Not those types of anchors. Leave them to…debate.”

All in all, much of the winter camp isn’t so different from their days in the palace. After breakfast, which the first-years are in charge of for the first morning, Padraig has them training until the sun has well and truly risen. Hunting parties are organised next—one page from each of the years—and sent out to find dinner. Those left at camp prove to Padraig that they can build a fire quickly, can sharpen branches into passable spikes to set in a defensive line around a camp, have their entire souls drawn slowly out of their bodies by way of a horrifically thorough and disgusted speech from Padraig on the state of their weaponry (in the case of Gerry), and all other necessary skills. There are a few surprises Lexa hadn’t prepared for.

The first surprise is Virgil.

Padraig has the first-years learning to make maps—something Octavia is very good at, Lexa becomes very good at once Octavia suggests she view it as a gridmap, her favourite of all map types, Ilian and Terry and Hasim are passable at, and Virgil can’t do to save his life. So frustrated and nervous is he that Virgil doesn’t snap once at Lexa when she kneels next to him and shows him how to assemble the basic map Padraig wants. They practice until he can assemble one quickly, and understand hers at a glance, and when Padraig assesses him that afternoon he gives Virgil an approving nod. His gaze seeks out Lexa and, when he finds her, it rests for a moment.

“Not much of a thank you, was it?” Octavia comments from behind her.

“I didn’t do it for thanks.”

“Sure, but it would’ve been nice.”

“Sooner to get a thanks from me than from Padraig,” Virgil says a little sourly, slinking over to join them. Lexa lifts her eyebrows at the very faint trace of humour in his voice. After a moment of standing awkwardly across from her, Virgil bows. “I’ve behaved…”

“Poorly,” Octavia suggests.

His thin lips twist but he doesn’t disagree. “Page Haryse, please accept a, uh, my formal apology.” The words are stiff and not exactly laden with regret but Lexa doesn’t need a showy display to read discomfort and sincerity in the way he holds himself. Virgil forces himself to meet her eyes. His throat bobs as he swallows. “Thank you. For your help. From here on, I…offer a less…confronted association.”

“Friends?” Octavia translates. Their nose crinkles.

“Octavia, would you give me a moment?” Lexa’s hard stare makes it into a not-quite request and, after a moment, Octavia nods and leaves. “Page Whitehorn.” She wonders what her da would do in a situation like this, if he had ever suffered someone to treat him poorly enough to warrant a formal apology. He’s certainly never discussed it with her. She decides to go with the most logical answer. “I accept your formal apology but deny your thanks. I acted as a fellow page when I assisted you today, and not the Heir to Haryse.”

His relief is clear in the way his sallow cheeks gain a little colour. His shoulders set with a little more confidence too, and his words come easier. “Then I doubly extend my thanks, as I haven’t acted as a page should.” He scuffs a foot over a gnarled root. “I… Halleburn is my sponsor,” he reminds her quietly. “I didn’t want…”

Lexa’s stomach drops as she considers all the ways Perrin might have made Virgil’s life unpleasant if he had been too nice to her.

“I’m sorry. I never considered that.” She frowns. “Are you not still worried?”

Virgil’s lips are flat and stern. “I figure I don’t have to listen to someone who won’t become a knight. And he won’t, the way he’s going,” he tells her firmly. “You are.”

Lexa looks away.

“If you need time to consider,” Virgil offers, the least sour he’s ever sounded, and he takes a step away from her.

Lexa shakes her head no. “A fresh slate, Whitehorn.”

“Virgil.” He holds out a hand and Lexa clasps it with her own.

“Lexa.”

Octavia sighs, disappointed but not truly upset, when Virgil walks at Lexa’s side when they return to camp. Terry is absolutely delighted and, when Hasim returns from hunting, the six first-years sit together for the first time since their first day of classes.

The second surprise winter camp has for them is on the fifth day when Lexa is added to the hunting party.

Benny is in her group and he slings an arm around her shoulder to lead her out of the camp, though he lets her go when one of her knives pricks at the space between two ribs.

“Anya has been a bad influence on you,” he complains.

Lexa considers that, head tilted. “I don’t know. I’ve had this knife since I was seven.”

“My mistake,” Benny adjusts instantly. “Anya is your perfect match and you make a terrifying pair.”

Lexa grins at that. So too do the other pages with them, who she has never met in an official capacity but knows of vaguely. The fourth year is a boy called Doren, of Rosemark, and he is tan and stocky and talks with a faint burr that slurs his words slightly, but not unpleasantly. His hair is brown and he wears it long, tied at the nape of his neck. The second year is a Timon of Pearlmouth, wiry and lean and brown. He has an uncommonly expressive face—making him excellent friends with Benny—and is quick with a joke. He’s nice enough to her and she thinks she remembers being told that one of his sisters is engaged to one of Terry’s brothers, or something along that vein. Maybe that is part of the Seabeth shipping empire plan, Lexa thinks. The older pages are friendly enough, and free with their advice. They give her good pointers on walking in snow that keeps her from slipping, and Doren lets her feel how his dirk is weighted differently from her knife, and they’re both impressed by her accuracy when she claims a white winter-coated rabbit as their first prize of the morning.

They’re twenty minutes from camp, following a faint tread of hoofprints of another herd of deer, and Lexa stops still. A buzz, the only way she can identify it even though intellectually she knows she’s not hearing it, shivers at the edge of her awareness and Lexa turns, draws an arrow smoothly. The feathers of her arrow are brushing her cheek when she realises the arrowhead is pointed right at the heart of a creature—the most repulsive creature she’s ever seen, half human and half bird. As if that weren’t bad enough, the bird part of the Immortal is formed unnaturally from glinting steel. And if all that weren’t bad enough, its entire body is covered in all types of filth—blood and gore, and the acrid smell of urine wafts downwind toward their small hunting party, along with the harsher, eye-watering smell of human waste.

The Stormwings laugh is harsh in his throat. His human parts—the torso and head—might even be handsome if they were clean. He’s tan and muscular and his features are striking, strong. Dark hair tangles in braids dripping with a liquid Lexa doesn’t dare think about, and trophies of bone and feather have been tied into the ends of some of the braids.

“Fast reflexes, girlie,” the Stormwing croaks. “What brings four little knights into these woods, I wonder?”

“We mean to start no fight, Stormwing,” Rosemark calls. He too has notched an arrow, though he hasn’t raised it. Lexa considers lowering her bow but decides against it. She doesn’t like the way the Stormwing watches them. “You’ll find no playthings by following us.”

The Stormwing affects upset, shuffling on the thick branch he’s sitting upon. The metal feathers of his wings and tail drag against the wood, scoring it deeply. “The dead aren’t playthings. We take our job very seriously.”

Lexa feels the buzz again and, not shifting her aim an inch, glances to where a second Stormwing has dropped suddenly onto a branch to the side.

“We?” Rosemark asks.

The second Stormwing warbles her amusement. “We,” she agrees. She’s K’miri dark, with auburn hair in similar braids to the male. “Come to bury your dead, little knights?” She cackles, and the first Stormwing watches her with something close to contempt. “There’s not much left of them.”

“Back to camp,” Rosemark says to them.

Benny pushes Lexa behind him. They back out away from the Stormwings, avoiding the trees they’ve made their perches.

“When you find them,” the female Stormwing says, “know that Banni Longclaw got to them first.” She pushes from her branch, leaping into the air. The bright glint of steel feathers hits them first, and then her overpowering odour.

Once they’re some distance from the Stormwings, the pages return to the camp at a run. Lexa, panting the least, relays the entire conversation to Padraig.

He listens, face impassive. When she’s finished, he nods sharply and whistles. “Drop what you’re doing,” he orders the pages. “Get your weapons. Best archers, split evenly between the fore and the rear. First years to the centre. Not you Haryse, you’re leading with Rosemark.”

It’s not even half an hour later that Padraig, Gus, and the pages walk out past the trees—Lexa points out the scored marks where the Immortals had been sitting—and past that point to the edge of a vale that leads down to a tree-lined road. The path between the trees is narrow and it’s hard to navigate. They spread out, knowing how easily it would be to pick them off one by one if they descended in line.

“Go slow. Step in one anothers tracks—don’t mess any tracks that are already here,” Padraig tells them. The pages nod, faces uncommonly solemn.

Lexa, still in the lead, clutches her bow tight in her hands. She’s midstep when the first swell of unease knocks powerfully into her—off balance, she stumbles, braces herself against the nearest tree. Nothing from the Forest since that first morning and now this? she thinks, blanching. The thought of it overtaking her now, when Padraig is relying on her, when her year mates and the other pages are relying on her… It makes her hands shake and the feeling of unease only grows stronger the more upset she gets. Only…is there something different about it, she wonders.

It is not unlike the first morning, but it is different from it too. She can feel it. A new…she hesitates to say taste but doesn’t know another way to frame the sensation. Something bloated and coppery and bursting with wrong-ness, all mixed in amongst the fresh pine and the quiet purposed pull of the Forest.

“Haryse?”

She swallows, eyes closed. Trying to find herself amidst the wave of otherness.

“Haryse, look at me,” Padraig says to her quietly.

She forces her eyes open and looks up to her training master.

“What is it?” There is no room for disobedience in his tone—it demands an answer. Behind him, several trees away, Rosemark watches them curiously. He’s drawn his sword.

Lexa puts as much trust into the feeling as the fourth year apparently has put into her—a cautious trust built from the fact that most anything is a tool in the right hands.

She points down the embankment, into the deep forest.

“I think I saw something there,” she says.

“Saw what?”

“I couldn’t say, milord. Might be nothing more than a feeling.”

“No,” Rosemark says, pitching his voice so it carries no further than their lot. “I think she’s right. I see something too—it’s a bit dark…Permission to check, milord?”

“No. I’ll go.” He slinks through the trees and, sharing a glance, Lexa and Rosemark follow him. They make it to the thicket when Padraig returns, face white and strained. “Back, stand back,” he orders, voice sharp. “Captain!”

“Milord?” Gus appears in that silent way of his. It makes Rosemark jump, still, but Padraig waves him through the thicket. He allows no one else to follow. Gus returns after a minute, dark eyes flat. “Sommat’ll need to be done. Better we start digging now then get caught out here after dark still going.”

“Digging?” Rosemark’s voice lifts a half octave, catching the attention of the others.

“Digging?” they repeat.

Lexa stares into the thicket like she can see past it. The feeling, with the Stormwing warning, is beginning to make an awful kind of sense—she glances to Gus, hoping that he’ll reassure her. If he feels her gaze, he doesn’t turn and he doesn’t look her way at all.

“Milord.” Prince Jasson has reached their small group and he looks past Padraig into the dark. “May I?” Padraig looks loath to allow it but finally he bows his head very slightly and he and the prince step carefully into the trees and disappear from view.

Gareth joins Lexa and Rosemark and Gus. He doesn’t ask to follow Jasson, though Lexa can tell that he dearly wants to. His eyes never shift from the point that his friend had entered and his body trembles slightly, not with fear but from readiness to move.

“What is it, do you think?” Rosemark asks. He has come to stand at Lexa’s right shoulder. 

“I don’t know.”

In the silence that follows, Lexa glances up at the two fourth years. They don’t look convinced. Or, Rosemark doesn’t look convinced. Gary hasn’t looked away from where the prince had been, but his lips curl downwards with dissatisfaction.

Lexa shifts, uncomfortable. “I don’t know. But,”

“But.”

“Someone has died.” Gary shifts forward. Lexa snags him before he can move much more than a half-step. He stills. “Some people, actually. That's what the Stormwings said.”

"Stormwings?" one of the pages who hadn't known exactly why they'd left camp demands. 

“What do you mean people have died?” Virgil asks, loud enough to garner the attention of any page that had not already figured out that something bad had happened. In his defence, it wasn’t many. He looks very young to Lexa all of a sudden with his dark eyes huge in a pale face, and her stomach flips. They’re only eleven, her and her year mates. A shameful relief makes her throat tighten—she doesn’t want to see them, the dead bodies. She’s glad that they’re only going to be digging.

Graves.

Digging graves.

“Gary,” Prince Jasson says, and everyone stares at him as he regains his composure. His face is bone-white except for around his mouth where it’s green. Gary’s name had cracked in two broken pieces in his mouth and now his face is impassive and unruffled. Lexa thinks she might be the only one who can see the way he clutches white-knuckled at Gary’s hand. “You three,” the prince points to Emry and Mat and another fourth-year. Falduin, Lexa thinks his name is. Falduin of Disart. “Lord Padraig has a job for you. And you,” Prince Jasson includes Gareth and Doren and the last fourth-year, Haraik of Aili, in that, “I’ll show you what we’re doing.”

The fourth-year pages follow their prince back through the wood, silent. To fill their absence, the second- and third-years press up closer to the thicket. Lexa doesn’t realise at first but, with Gary and Doren gone, she’s standing alone at the head of the pack. Padraig’s eyes rest on her.

“Nond,” Padraig calls. “Hosseim, Halleburn, you’re with me. Tirragen, Elden, take a couple pages with you and run back to the camp. Bring back the shovels and any other tools you find.”

Anya reaches for Lexa.

“Not Haryse,” Padraig says.

Anya hesitates before pointing to Ilian and Lincoln. The four of them

“Sir,” Gus starts. He clamps his mouth shut when Padraig shakes his head.

“Captain, you’re taking the others to find a place to dig.”

“Yes, milord.”

Padraig waits until the three third-years and Lexa are all who remain. He sends the boys through the thicket to join the Prince. Then it’s just him and Lexa.

“I don’t know how you knew,”

“I don’t.” Lexa pales when she realises she’s interrupted him. “Sorry, my lord.”

“I can believe that you don’t know exactly what it is,” Padraig agrees, voice low. His eyes—always piercing, now more so—bore into the top of her head, since she’s bowed it slightly to stare at the ground. “But I won’t believe that you didn’t know something. You don’t have the Gift, Haryse.”

“No, my lord.”

“And you didn’t really see anything.” Lexa says nothing. It’s answer enough. She hears him sigh and hard ground shifts under his boots when he steps forward. Startlingly, he lays his hand on her shoulder. “There’s all manner of strange things in this world, Haryse, and for now I don’t intend to dig.”

She glances up.

“Unfortunately, in return I am going to ask you to come with me. What has happened… I can’t risk missing something,” he says, voice grave. “If you’ve some talent, I intend to use it.”

Lexa stares up at him. Unbidden, she says, “Do you train us to be weapons, or knights?”

He doesn’t reply. His guarded expression allows her to glean nothing—not whether he doesn’t know, not whether he knows but thinks she won’t like the answer, not what he thinks of her for asking.

“I’ll help,” she says, to make it feel a little more like she’s offering, and he nods.

“For what it’s worth, I wouldn’t ask it of you if I didn’t feel it was necessary.” His fingers tighten on her shoulder before falling away completely. “Seeing something like this… It is a day that comes to every page. I didn’t think it would come so soon. If you require a moment,”

“I think I would rather see now, Lord Padraig.” Lexa sets her shoulders, lifts her chin. “There’s no telling how I’ll feel until I feel it.”

Padraig nods and turns crisply, leads the way through the thicket to the clearing.

The trees are oaks, live oaks, Lexa notes, and dotted here and there between them are the distinctive silver-striped trunks of young poplars. Great piles of snow had been cleared recently to the edges of the clearing though more has fallen since. The new snow—untouched by the pages that circumvent the clearing, eyes searching the undergrowth for anything out of place—is splashed with colour.

Red, Lexa thinks from a great distance, is the most prominent. She glimpses a pale pink lump she thinks is coloured snow until the details occur to her and she realises that for some long minutes she’s been staring at a pile of entrails.

“Excuse me, milord,” Lexa says very politely, and then turns and vomits into a bush.

He holds out a waterskin for her when she regains her feet and Lexa rinses her mouth and spits before drinking. The cold water clears her head and though her stomach still churns—and a wordless, shrieking part of her whines shrilly where she’s locked it in the back of her mind—there is nothing left to puke up so she nods to him.

“I’m alright.”

“I’d be surprised if you were,” Padraig tells her, voice crisp. His eyes skim the area, narrowed as though the thinner he makes them, the less horror he takes into himself.

Lexa stands at his side and forces herself to take in the scene clearly.

Oaks, poplar trees. Spattered with frozen blood. She points that out and he nods. No footprints mar the new snow. The most recent snowfall had been three nights past and it doesn’t look deep enough to have been more than one nights worth.

Breathing through her mouth, Lexa forces herself to look at the bodies. She finds her eyes are slipping to harmless places—an open hand, a folded blanket, the campfire covered in snow with plates and cups about it like they were about to sit down for a meal. The caravan door, knocking open and closed in the wind. There aren’t many harmless places to look. Her eyes pull away from one bright slash in a woman’s chest and when next they land, she sees that she’s looking at a young man cut nearly in two across the waist.

“What—” Lexa clears her throat, tries to banish the croak. It doesn’t work; she presses on anyway. “What could have done something like this?”

Padraig has no answer for her, of course he doesn’t. Everything she’s noted, he will have noted. He brought her in the hope that she could do something more.

Lexa steps away from him and makes a slow circuit of the clearing. As she walks, she imagines her hands cupped around her head and then, slowly, lifts them away. Everything she hadn’t allowed herself to feel rushes forward to claim her. She turns her toes out and braces herself like Sir Fared always has them stand; grounded, Lexa takes what is being given to her in slices, pieces, turns them over in her mind to decipher them one by one.

Then, she thinks, then she can try to understand what the whole of it means.

The edges of her feel strong and firm, until they dissolve into so much mist and she goes pouring out, or it comes pouring in.

the edges of her, the edges of who? she doesn’t know or care she is tree-many-trees her leaves shiver in the cold wind it tears it pulls she-youngtrees will grow far down the river where the she-breeze takes it—the ends of she-trees are snapfrozen she Bursts when she freezes the pain exists then does not exist there is a tree fallen in the forest between she-tree there and she-tree here and she-falltree sinks eons slow into dirt mud snow into earth and is, is life poured into earth—

Lexa-her steps over a root. She stops for a moment, stares at the too-dark-earth before moving on.

—cold cold cold cold—she-furred creature snoutandwhisker run into hollow—she-creature feels Cold—she-cold whisks through she-trees and touches she-creature-and-river-and-tree-and-All—

—she-tree up up she grows despite cold and down down down out the twisty twisting twining ends of her—she won’t tear in two, it is a fear that does not occur to she-tree and lexa-tree doesn’t know why it occurs to her until her mind screams, too small for everything being fed into her and she blinks open her eyes to find Gus kneeling in front of her, frown carven into his face like a statue and she grips onto his hand and is pulled back into the Forest—and the wind tries to blow her sideways—she is wind too—she is firm and tall she-many-and-every-tree stand firm and there are hands pressed against her sides, those men and their moving tree squeeze through her trees and spill out into the clearing—

She passes Gareth, who is drawing the macabre scene in a notebook. They speak. She isn’t sure what she says, only knows that he doesn’t find anything strange about it.

—smokeandlaugh and fireandmeat and tooloudnoises—

There’s a very small body, the only untouched figure in the clearing. Save for—Lexa swallows, forces herself not to think about it.

—lexa-prey scurries from the clearing—lexa-with-gold-eyes-and-wicked-talons clutches her roost—lexa-with-claw-and-tail slinks with packmate further from the place-that-smells-of-men—lexa-train-of-one-thought marches, she does not know these great creatures she knows smell-and-touch of the marching-one-and-many, she returns to the Hill, this mind is not made for thought beyond Her, this mind thinks in the one-way-run of the river to the sea—

—lexa-the-earth-and-root-and-water-and-Forest holds the men in the clearing—

—lexa-the-Forest tastes the soot-smoke, lexa-the-Forest is pleased by a laugh, high and sweet, same feeling as a new shoot sprouting, lexa-the-Forest reels at hot splash like-water-but-not-water, lexa-the-Forest tastes the metal water, the metal water seeps into the ground, into the snow, into the roots, into the noses of prey and predator, lexa-the-Forest lays beneath bloated bodies, lexa-the-Forest feels the hotsun and the distantstars and hotsun again, lexa-the-Forest curls onwards, lexa-the-Forest hunts and dies and lives and grows, lexa-the-Forest feels the clearing like a bruise, wrong with spilled blood—

—lexa-the-Forest feels Scrape-and-Claw of sharpsharp bird-that-is-not-a-bird, the unbelonging—lexa-the-Forest is—lexa-the-Forest feels-finds-is the OneWhoIs, lexa-the-Forest pours into that child—

Lexa stops her circuit, grounds herself in a fighting stance. She wraps one arm around her middle and gives herself a full-body shake like a dog out of water, slotting herself back into her skin. It feels too tight and small for a split second before she’s herself again, just Lexa.

It’s too much to think about right now—maybe ever, she qualifies grimly—and so carries on back to Padraig.

“Anything?” he asks.

She’s relieved that he apparently saw nothing beyond the usual where she is concerned. Relieved, and confused. Her mouth works as it always has, which feels like a surprise until it doesn’t. As though she had gone out for the day and returned to her room to find everything exactly as she left it.

“Plenty. But nothing…else.”

He nods, closes his eyes. Pressing his fingers into the corners of his eyes, Padraig rubs the tiredness from them.

“I’m sorry, milord.”

“Don’t be. I didn’t expect anything.” Lexa wonders if she should be offended, but decides against it. “You don’t have to be here, Haryse. The Captain is leading the other first-years down that path.” Padraig points. Lexa considers staying, helping the older pages move the bodies now that they’ve recorded everything of importance, but she has nothing to prove and she doesn’t want to be here anymore so she bows and hurries down the path to Gus.

He clasps her tight, not caring who sees it. Pushing her hair back off her face, his eyes scan her for unease or pain. “Alright?”

Lexa forces a smile. “No.”

“Aye. Stupid question.” He pulls her in again and rubs her back. “Ye can sit out if ye want.”

“I’d rather work, I think,” she admits, and he points her in the direction of the shovels.

For a long hour Lexa loses herself in digging until she has blisters. The slam of the shovel into the dirt isn’t soothing and it isn’t easy and it jars every bone in her body and each of her individual teeth, but it has to be done and while she’s concentrating on it, she doesn’t think about a little body hand curled up to its mothers chest and—

“Lexa. Lexa, you can stop now.”

She listens to Hasim and passes up the shovel, fingers needing a little effort to uncurl from the handle. When he lowers a hand, she clasps it and Hasim and Ilian haul her up out of the grave—the hole, her mind supplies, and she clings onto it even though the shame of her reaction burns in her gut. Once she’s out, she can see that together the pages have dug out several large holes, each of them roughly ten by six feet.

A dirty hand lowers down in front of her and she clasps it. Two pages haul her out of the deep grave and when she’s out of it she can see that together they’ve made a several large pits, each of them roughly ten by six feet.

And then the procession begins. The pages who dug the graves stand just off the path and watch, solemn and quiet and grim, as the older pages carry their oddly shaped sack-wrapped burdens. They do their best to shield the younger pages from the reality of it but they only have so many sack and when they remove them, taking care not to dump people into the pits, everyone can see the truth of the matter. The sacks are oddly shaped, Lexa realises, because the slashes really had severed the limbs. What the pages are bringing to the grace are not intact bodies, but limbs, or limbs and torsos, or a pair of legs. One page brings two hands from two different bodies.

“What did this?” Octavia asks her.

Seeing many eyes on her, Lexa blinks a few times and shakes her head. “I don’t know.”

“Stormwings? You saw Stormwings this morning, didn’t you?”

“The Stormwings…found the bodies.” The ‘And made a mess of them’ goes unsaid.

“But didn’t kill them?”

“No.”

“Who were they?” Terry asks. Against everything she had thought of him, he is not teary or shaking. His eyes are flint-cold and a deep scowl curls his mouth.

“Banni Longclaw—“

“No, Lexa,” he stops her. “Who were they?” Terry waves his hand toward the procession and Lexa lets out a small ‘oh’.

“I don’t know. Travellers. Merchants, maybe.”

“I haven’t heard anything about merchants going missing, have you?”—“No, but we don’t do a lot of business in these parts,”—“It’s not exactly an abandoned section of the woods,”—“Not far from camp,”—“Reckon it could have been us?”—

“Haryse, what did you see?”

Before she can say anything more—which would have been ask Padraig, since she doesn’t know what he wants everyone to know—Lincoln cuts across them, his voice a soothing rumble. “Leave her be. And stop your chatter—show some respect.”

Octavia ignores him. They switch places with Hasim and move closer to her. “Hey. How come Padraig let you see?”

“Be glad you didn’t.”

They blink, rocking back on their heels. The misguided jealousy—at Padraig’s attention, or that Lexa saw ‘battle’ before them, perhaps—fades and Octavia’s gaze dips for a moment to where Lexa is twisting her hands behind her back.

“Sorry, Lex,” they say quietly and stand at her side, shoulder pressed to hers.

After a moment, Lexa presses back.

Eventually, the commonality Lexa had been trying to ignore becomes horrifically clear to the others. When Octavia realises, their hand twists to grip at Lexa’s shirt. “No,” they whisper.

“Where are their heads?”

The third- and fourth-year pages pause lowering their burdens into the graves, but then carry on. The Prince ignores the question entirely as though he doesn’t hear it. He works like a man possessed—eyes blank, movements jerky—and directs them to the right graves, doing his best to keep the parts to the correct bodies. It’s a sick puzzle, the Stormwings having strewn the parts about.

Padraig is the one to answer Ilian.

“We don’t know.”

When the last of the bodies is set in the grave, and the Prince can’t find any changes to make, every page works to fill in the graves. Anya changes several branches into circles and plants them half-in, half-out of the loose soil of each of the graves. Lexa ignores the strange thrum of her Gift, shifting something within the Forest, something that strains for the briefest moment to be changed back before it settles and is quiet.

“Do we know their names? Know anything about them?” Terry asks. “We should add that to the markers.”

“There was a symbol on the caravan,” Gary says, the first he’s spoken. He shows the drawing to Anya, who obediently has the circles shift again until the symbol is carved into the wood.

Padraig nods his approval.

Once they’ve borne witness at the graves, they start the long walk back to the camp. It is a harsh way to learn of what people are capable of, to come across such a scene, and the pages walk with a new air—intangible, but visibly harsher in the lines of their faces and shoulders, and the way their hands never stray too far from their weapons.

Despite her exhaustion, when Lexa feels that almost-familiar buzz she calls, “Stormwing!” and takes aim. Out of the corner of her eye, she sees the other pages follow suit. “Stop if you value your throat,” she warns the Stormwing that drops from the sky, sees that it is the male from earlier. Seconds later, another dives and lands on a tree on the other side of the path. She is not Banni Longclaw but a new Stormwing Lexa hasn’t met.

“The little one has bite,” this new Stormwing says. Her voice is cool and curious. Lexa thinks she might hate that more than the cackling words of Banni Longclaw. At least if the Stormwings are impetuous, if they’re cracked or inherently wrong, she could understand what they’ve done here. But if they’re capable of thought and reason then…

Lexa forces her mind still, feeling the creeping of the Forest at her edges. Firm edges, solid edges. She fills herself with the burning fury that has been smouldering and burning for some hours now, and sights carefully the true-line arc from her bow to where the arrow will hit if she lets it fly.

“Stand down.” Padraig’s command encompasses them all.

Lexa waits for a moment, then lowers her bow. “My lord. This is the Stormwing from before. And a new one.”

“A new one,” the female Stormwing repeats, and smiles a terrible smile—pearly white teeth sharp and gleaming and strings of red caught between some of them. Her green eyes lock onto Lexa’s and the smile widens. “Haryse. I’ll remember that.”

Lexa doesn’t so much as blink. “See that you do.”

The Stormwing cackles. “Oho, I like birdies with a bit of bite.” She flicks her tail twice in what Lexa suspects is a rude gesture, from the way her eyes go sly. “You take care, chicken, that you don’t bite more than you can chew.”

“I’ll thank you not to threaten my pages,” Padraig says. “You will not like the consequences.”

“Yes, yes, your king is the mage-king,” she rolls her eyes.

“That,” he nods, “and also our pages are a lot tougher than they look.”

“They look plenty tough to me,” the male mutters. “All muscle, not fat.”

“Maybe that’s the way they train them,” his companion muses. She laughs again. “Is that it, old silver head? Surely you know we don’t discriminate on the field. You all end up as meat. And we love you all,” she adds, red lips pursed in a grotesque kiss.

Padraig doesn’t react. He stands coolly, every inch the fearless knight from the silver hair like a helmet to the stern gash of his mouth to the sword at his hip that Lexa now sees is bared several inches.

To his side, Lexa brushes her fingers over the fletching of the arrow she’s kept notched. Aiming for the eye makes a statement, but the chest or throat is more likely to hit, she thinks, eyeing the Stormwing thoughtfully.

The male eyes her back, shuffles on his perch.

She hopes she’s making him nervous.

“I would know your names,” Padraig calls up to them.

“Seems fair, since we know one of yours,” the male Stormwing says, still staring right at Lexa. Lexa suspects that his voice naturally falls into a mocking register. She could forgive it that morning; she finds she is less inclined to do so now. “I am Zeddik Claspclaw.” He bows his dark head as graciously as his sensibilities allow, which turns out to be not very much at all.

Padraig nods. Lexa can’t be sure but she thinks that he hasn’t looked away from the female Stormwing. Something about her is more dangerous than Zeddick—Lexa feels it in the way her teeth are set on edge, still buzzing.

“You have the pleasure of addressing Gorma Bloodbrow,” she says, mockingly grand, adding, “Queen of the Steelslice flock,” when it is clear none of them know her by her name. “Zeddick is my consort.”

“Your Majesty, Consort,” Padraig greets them formally. The absolute chill of his fury makes the nod of his head ever so slightly stiff. “Can you tell us what happened in the clearing?”

“I do hope you’re not looking to accuse us,” Queen Gorma says. She scratches her claws against her chest in a place where flesh meets steel. Blood trickles from the wounds her sharp claws score but she doesn’t seem to realise, enjoying instead the way the pages wince at the sound of steel shrieking against steel. “I would find it most uncouth.”

“I make no accusation. We only wish to know what occurred.”

Queen Gorma looks over the pages with a green, curious eye. “My kin and I found the caravan two mornings past. They were dead already.” She smiles. “We did as we are made to do.”

Behind them, pages murmur unpleasant words. It doesn’t seem to bother the Stormwings; if anything, they seem pleased by the distaste.

“Do you want more detail?” the Queen offers, green eyes bright with a wicked humour.

“A little, perhaps. I find it difficult to believe you happened across them. This is a densely forested area.”

“It is.”

“How, then?”

The Queen stirs on her perch, cocks her human head in distinctly avian curiosity. “We are drawn to violence, Knight of the Kings Roost. We do not have to be told where it is.”

Padraig considers this before nodding, very slightly.

He turns on his heel—not bowing to her, a slight that does not go unnoticed by the Queen—and walks away. When he passes Lexa, she draws her bow a fraction. Though she knows he sees the gesture, he doesn’t reprimand her for it.

“Haryse,” the Queen croaks.

Lexa jerks her chin upwards, clenching it against the Stormwings stench. “What?”

“I’ll be seeing you again.” The expression on Queen Gorma’s face can only be a leer. “I look forward to eating your young heart.”

No one reprimands Lexa for bringing her bow up at that obvious threat. The Stormwings lift out of the trees and Lexa doesn’t aim to kill. Her arrow dings harmlessly off the Queen’s tail feathers and her laughter rings through the air for a long minute after she’s gone.

//

They return to the camp.

Padraig has Anya establish a connection with a mage at the palace and explains, with Anya as his mouthpiece, what they found. She relays their orders back to him.

His Majesty the King requests their presence in the forest until such a time as they can be replace. His Majesty the King requests that his servant, Lord Padraig, do his utmost to track the perpetrators. His Majesty the King requests that his servants, knights-in-training all, uphold the Bravery and Honour for which they are renowned about the realm.

All in all, it sounded very much like he was telling them to stay put and do their best, which didn’t sound very kingly—or helpful—to Lexa.

Padraig must have taken the words in a different light because he sets out immediately, taking the fourth-years with him.

In his absence, the camp turns to Gus who stands like a giant in the centre of it and he directs the pages to their work. Sets up a day-and-night watch in three hour intervals, the others to make the defences and to train. The camp devolves into busy work, like an over-turned anthill, until they collapse into their bedrolls.

Padraig and the fourth-years contact Gus before nightfall, and do not expect to return that night.

“Right.” Gus crosses his arms over his chest, looks over the drawn, anxious faces of the children before him. “Today’s bin a shock, I know. I also know yer the toughest lot this side o’ the World’s Roof.”

“Just this side?” Benny drawls, a knife spinning between his fingers. It’s a wholly obvious ploy but it pulls smiles, as it’s meant to.

Gus shrugs. “As tough as y’are, no one leaves this camp without my ‘spress say-so. No one goes unarmed. If I find ye unarmed, I’ll drag ye back to Corus by ye ear and have ye scrubbin’ dishes ‘til ye think ye was born a rag. Keep those swords on ye side sleepin’, shittin’, and every time in between, hear?” They nod. Padraig would never use the same language, but they know he would say much the same. “Good. King’s Own is headed to us wi’ a squad. They’ll be here by morning. T’ bed with the lot’o’ye."

Early morning watch brings the Own—Lexa, wrapped in a cloak high in her tree watches the riders pick their way up the mountain carefully, trying to avoid the pitholes the pages had dug the day before. At the lead is a large man, a knight from the covered shield hanging from his saddle. The four men following are dressed in the deep blue of the Own, in silver or white cloaks. The man riding at the knights side is wearing a white burnoose. Their horses look fresh and excitable, but the riders tame them with a practiced touch and Lexa finds herself nodding as she watches them.

“’Lo the watch,” a pitched voice calls when they approach.

Lexa whistles sharply. An answering whistle comes from the other side of camp—Varkus, the note for I see them—and from the cabin—Gus, expected company.

She swings down and keeps her sights on the group. The biggest rider—possibly the biggest man she’s ever seen, including Gus—removes his helm when they leave the tree line. He holds it to his side in the crook of his arm and brings his beautiful horse to a stop with a murmured word.

“Gods, you must be the smallest page I’ve ever seen!” he announces. Lexa bristles, but it’s then closely followed by, “Well, maybe not. Alan was small. Maybe I’ve just gotten bigger,” so she decides he meant no offence and bows. “Raoul of Goldenlake, Third Company. Damn clever of you to keep your arrow notched—never hurts to be prepared.”

Lexa nods once she straightens from her bow. “I know who you are, Sir Raoul. Welcome to winter camp.” She gives the same nod to the other riders, who bow to her from their saddles.

Sir Raoul dismounts with the easy grace of a man half his age—not, she allows, that he’s old. Just…older. Pushing half-forty, she thinks, since he’s the same age as the King. “Been a while since my last winter camp. As a page, I mean.” He grins, showing off a charming smile. “As a Commander I can’t seem to avoid the blasted things.”

“Not as cushy as you thought, milord?”

“We can find a cushion for you, I think,” another teases. “Just for your chair, or d’you need one for your saddle too?”

Lexa hides a smile. After months with her friends, the teasing feels terribly familiar and it endears her instantly to the group, and to the knight who allows it. Encourages it, if she guesses from the dramatic upset he’s feigning. She steps forward to take Sir Raoul’s reins.

“Captain Bruin is in the cabin, Sir Raoul. He took the first two watches but he’ll be awake still.”

“I’ve no doubt,” Sir Raoul agrees. A flicker of dark concern crosses his face, so quickly Lexa thinks she might have imagined it if it hadn’t pulled an answering anxiety from her. “You lot,” he turns to his riders, “don’t give the page any strife.”

Strife, milord?” The sturdy blond rider that had taken Raoul’s left shoulder cocks his eyebrows. The confident ease with which he sits in his saddle is a sign of long hours spent there; his insouciance, however, is so complete that it can only be a naturally gained gift. “I think I’m offended. Are we offended, Faroush?”

The Bazhir, who at first glance Lexa would put as too reserved to joke, blinks hooded dark eyes at his knightlord. “I believe we are offended, Master Nolan,” he agrees quietly. When Sir Raoul flings his hands up in defeat and strides off for the cabin, Faroush flicks his eyes Lexa’s way and winks. For an instance, Lexa feels as though she’s been given an early view of what Hasim will look like as a man—the shape of their faces are similar, and the colour of their eyes, though Faroush wears his hair cut closer to his head than Hasim does. She wonders if Hasim will become contained like this—if his fidgets will turn into this patience, if his passions will lurk behind hooded lids and only be revealed amidst close company. She doesn’t think she will mind; there is little doubt in her mind that she will not belong to those trusted few.

“May I help you with your horses?” she asks them, particularly eyeing Faroush’s mare.

“I think you’ll have your hands full with Stomper there,” the square-jawed Nolan says, blue eyes bright with a smile.

“If she wants to groom Nisam, she is more than welcome to,” Faroush says. “I will take my lord’s horse, if you wish.”

“You don’t wish to look after your own Nisam?” Lexa checks, though she already has her hands outstretched for the golden mare to sniff and laughs when she steps forward, butts her head to Lexa’s chest.

“Today, this is a gift to you,” he tells her, and smiles gently down at her. “She deserves to be fawned over, by many.” Lexa nods her fervent agreement.

“Alraed is going to be jealous,” Lexa tells Nisam, smoothing her hand down her soft nose.

“Alraed? I would like to meet one so named. Come, let me see her.” Faroush swings down, takes up Stompers reins. They lead the horses to the makeshift stable and Lexa happily grooms Nisam as Faroush admires Alraed, examines her from nose to tail. They discuss their horse traders, and grooming methods, and training, and how demanding their beautiful horses are—“Rightfully so, no?” he says with a fond twist to his lips, and in the next moment accepts a shoulder of spit from Nisam—and he never once seems to mind that he’s talking to a girl. Or an eleven year old. She enjoys the discussion, and the distraction.

By the time they finish grooming them, Stomper too, the Own are well on their way through preparing breakfasts for themselves and the pages.

Sir Raoul is crouched by the fire, pouring something into the pot there. He stands when he sees them. “Faroush, good—would you contact the reserve squad? Hello again, Page Haryse.”

“My lord.”

Faroush nods deeply to her and Lexa bows back. He joins Raoul and they return to the cabin. Lexa wonders whether she’s meant to follow when Nolan waves her over.

He’s seated on one of the logs at the fire and he gestures for her to join him. There’s plenty of space—many of the pages are asleep yet—and one of the Own’s number has disappeared. The other is digging in the packs on the other side of the fire.

Lexa eases herself down and nods politely. She looks up the hill to the cabin, Faroush’s white burnoose just whisking in through the door.

“Forget about them,” Nolan teases. “They’re going to talk to some very boring people—the reserve squad.” He shakes his head. “Sad sacks, they are. No sense of fun. Trust me—we’re the best squad.”

Lexa nods obligingly.

“It’s true, I swear on my honour.”

She thinks she hears the other rider cough something like ‘what honour’ into his fist. Nolan ignores that, magnanimous, and calls to the man striding back toward them.

“Worrem! Worrem, tell her it’s true—we’re the best squad, aren’t we?”

“It’s true,” the man called Worrem obliges, tone so flat Lexa knows he’s humouring his squadmate. He’s a stern looking man, the silver collar and embroidery of his uniform showing off beautifully against his black skin. When he passes her, Lexa can see that freckles are spattered over his cheeks and head, which he’s shaved bald. A neatly trimmed beard follows his jaw line and over the curve of his chin.

“You have to put some passion into it man. Shimas, tell this good page that we’re the best squad.”

The final rider—Shimas—is young, probably not much older than twenty. He looks up from where he’s digging in his pack and shrugs, tilting his hand in a so-so gesture. “I would, but we seem to have forgotten the beef and so I’m really piss—” He stops, glances at Lexa. “Er. Upset with us.”

“You checked the pockets?”

“Why would I put it in the pocket?”

You wouldn’t, but I would. For easy snacking.”

“If you’ve snacked through our entire beef ration…” Shimas grumbles, but never finishes his threat since he comes across the packet and pulls it out with a whoop of triumph, hurrying back to the pot. “So, you must be the Haryse page,” Shimas says, stirring a yellow powder into the pot.

“Must I?”

“You must,” Nolan agrees. “You look not at all like old Danshame.”

“And we’ve met the Tirragen page,” Worrem adds, with a sly look to Shimas that Lexa doesn’t understand. “Therefore, you must be the Haryse girl-page.”

Lexa shrugs. “I am.”

“It’s nice to meet you. Breakfast?” Nolan passes a plate to Shimas, who dumps a spoonful of rice onto it, and over to Worrem who lays meet on the edge, and when it gets back to Nolan he stuffs some vegetables on top since there’s no more space, and he spins an egg on the top of his finger. “Egg?”

“I wouldn’t know where to put it.”

“In your belly,” Nolan advises.

“I don’t think there’d be any space.” 

“Your loss. Shimas?”

The boy barely looks up to catch the egg and cracks it against the rim of his own plate. He’s peering down at a map he’s laid over his knee and eating absent-mindedly. Though, she notes, he never does stop eating at any point. 

Raoul and Faroush re-join them—Nolan hands them each a plate when they do—and when Lexa offers to fetch water for the knight, it sets his men off into excessive offers of their own. He rolls his eyes at Lexa as thought to say ‘see what I have to put up with?’ and she almost smiles but, at the last moment, can’t manage to make the smile stick.

Raoul’s grin fades. He frowns down at his meal and his men trade quiet comments and jokes between them as Lexa eats with the efficiency she’s learned in the pages dining hall. The knight waits until she’s finished—passed her half-empty plate off to Shimas to demolish, at any rate—before speaking.

She wishes that he hadn’t. Her meal sits heavy in her stomach like a great, unfriendly rock.

“I’m told that you found…them.”

“The bodies,” Lexa says flatly. He nods. “No. I was with the group that met the Stormwings. We took Padraig to them and he found the…the bodies a little further on.”

Raoul twists a bit of string about his finger as she speaks and when she’s done, he nods. “I’m glad to have got that wrong. From what I gather, you didn’t need to have seen that.” She makes a small sound and Raoul pauses. “You did see it?”

His eyes are tender. Lexa has to look away. She swallows hard. “Yessir.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” he tells her slowly, with heavy sincerity.

“Thank you, sir.”

Sir Raoul scrubs at his chin with thick fingers. Then, “Did you really piss off old Bloodbrow?”

Language, milord!” Nolan scolds from across the fire, putting the lie to the image that they’re not listening.

“Er, yes. Ah,”

“Aggravate,” Shimas supplies helpfully.

“Provoke.”

Vex.”

“Are you soldiers or poets?” Raoul grumbles. “Haryse?”

“That…may also be true.”

To her surprise, Raoul laughs. He slaps his hand against his knee and Faroush, who had been lounging at the fire, pops an eye open to glare at his knight commander.

Sir,” he reprimands. “Some of us are trying to catch up on our sleep.”

“Beauty sleep, Faroush? You’re already a beauty.”

“Too kind, milord. Do shut up.” Faroush pulls his hood over his face. Lexa notices that his sword doesn’t leave his hand and immediately feels much better that these well-trained men are acting calm and relaxed for her benefit. Or the pages in general. Though most are, still, asleep.

Raoul mimes buttoning his lips and, grinning, stands. “I’m taking a walk.” He rests a hand on Lexa’s shoulder. “You should get some sleep,” he advises.

She returns to the cabin to do just that but after tossing in her bedroll for half of an hour—and getting a sharp elbow in the kidney from Octavia—she throws herself out into the world again and trots to the practice posts instead. With all the business going on, she hasn’t had time to practice her forms with her right hand much at all.

It isn’t long before she grows frustrated by her lack of progress.

“Don't be too harsh on yourself, kid. You were in a cast until last week,” Anya reminds her, turning up out of nowhere when Lexa scowls down at her sword arm for the second time in as many minutes.

Lexa spins to face her.

“But I’ve been practising. And I'm not a kid."

“Mhm. Three hours of practice does not a swordmaster make.”

Lexa knows she’s right. But still. “Why not?”

Anya’s eyebrow quirks upwards. “First position,” she calls, and guides Lexa into it. She doesn’t leave until Lexa is well into the exercises and motivating herself.

“Page Tirragen.”

Lexa turns away from her practice post, confused by Shimas’s cool tone. He had been very friendly to her that morning.

“Shimas. Nice to see you again.”

“Likewise.” He doesn’t sound like he means it. Anya doesn’t look like she does either. “Rematch?”

“If you wish to cry before your squad, I certainly will oblige you.”

Lexa blinks at the taunt—Anya has never been one for taunting an enemy—and watches a transformation take over her friend. Where she has always walked with determination, she is now possessed of something fluid, wild. Like a cat, she slinks forward. Her sword appears to leap into her hand, eager and moving so quickly it appears more quicksilver than steel. Clearly, Lexa thinks, trying hard not to feel upset, she’d been holding back in their training.

“Dulled edges?” he suggests. She shrugs. “Where’s the fun in that. Bare steel.”

“If you wish.”

“Will you set the boundaries?”

Anya lazily flicks her hands. “Logs. Treeline.”

They bow. Shimas strikes.

Lexa drinks in the vision of Anya—she moves almost as though she’s dancing, though she wears a faint expression of boredom Lexa is certain is meant as another kind of taunt. There is exurberance in her footwork and Lexa has heard her discuss duels before, and sword-masters, and know that there is no part of her that is bored by this. Still, for the first few minutes, Anya barely bothers to strike back and contents herself with merely deflecting Shimas’s attacks. After a time, Lexa realises that she’s allowing herself to be herded toward the fire and the boundary logs. Her foot moves back, touches the log, and Anya darts backwards and up onto the log. She spins, bringing her sword down in a flashing arc toward Shimas in a move more demonstrative than strictly necessary. It dazzles Shimas, though, who seems surprised that she’s finally returning the attack. He brings his blade up in time to block and their swords crash together in a spray of sparks. He leaps backwards.

“I thought the log was the boundary,” he chides, circling her.

“Is that what you thought? I meant that the logs were included.” Anya spins her sword in a seemingly lazy pattern. Lexa knows that the butterfly pattern is more than the ostentatious gesture it seems to be. “You don’t want to win this match on a technicality, do you?” The lazy drawl draws colour into Shimas’s cheeks.

He refuses to answer. Instead, he snarls. Before he can work his anger into an attack, Anya advances and for the short remainder of the match Shimas does little else but blocking.

Anya never relents. She attacks in pattern Lexa picks out quickly enough and then, once Shimas settles into defending, her sword flicks out of the pattern and slips around his.

Lexa blinks. She leans forward, stunned to see that Shimas is standing empty handed almost exactly where they had begun the match. Mind racing, Lexa does her best to memorise the attacks, and blocks, and she wonders if Anya had been driving the mtch the entire time—if her blocks had lead to his strikes, if she had always intended for them to meet back at that space. When she feels herself getting too excited, Lexa forces herself to sit back and unclench white fists and breathe out slowly.

“What did you think?” Anya asks her, panting.

Lexa re-evaluates how much effort Anya had put into the fight. Natural grace and talent notwithstanding, she had just disarmed a man several years older than her.

“That was brilliant,” she breathes. “What was that one called—the one that looked like the butterfly?”

“The fishtail. I’ll show you it,” she promises. Lexa sees her own fierce joy reflected in the grin Anya sends her way when she beams up at her. “Want to give Shimas a go?”

“Whoa—no way. No offence,” he says to Lexa. Though she knows he was disappointed by his loss to Anya, he’s already grinning again. “I have some pride and if this one,” he jerks his thumb at Anya, “is training you, then I don’t wanna get beat by a ten year old.”

“I’m eleven.”

“Oh well, in that case,” he laughs. She thinks he’s joking but he draws his sword and beckons her over. “A friendly,” he promises them both. “I hope you don’t mind me saying but your arm…”

“I fell. Several weeks ago.”

“Bad timing.”

“I think it was the result of good timing, actually.”

“Ouch. Well.” He swings his sword, stretches out his shoulders. “Blunted edges good for you?”

Lexa nods and holds out her sword to Anya, whose purple Gift twirls down the length of the blade. She tests the edge on her own thumb before handing it back to Lexa and doing the same for Shimas.

Fighting against someone who isn’t holding back is…interesting. Lexa despises the sensation of the sword leaving her hand when she’s disarmed. She hates even more having the point of his sword at her throat, or spine, or neck, or belly. Those points that, if it were a real fight, would mean she would not stand up again.

They begin yet again after the third time he disarmed her with the same move. Intent on not letting it happen for a fourth, Lexa narrows her eyes and bows to her opponent.

He uses the same opening attack, she realises, and sidesteps it in the way she hadn’t in all the other bouts. He stops the attack when he sees her move, but now that she’s stepped away she can see that the attack has left his right side open and vulnerable. Lexa drives her attack there. He blocks. Returns a strike. Lexa blocks and sends one back. They settle into trading blows and Lexa grows frustrated—and exhausted—by the exchange. He’s older and stronger than her and will easily outlast her in stamina. Not to mention that each of his blows jars down her right arm, which starts to ache as though complaining at her poor treatment of it.

She tosses her head, tries to ignore the way her braids stick to her sweat-slick neck. The sweat is positively dripping off her despite the cold air—Lexa squints over at Shimas, tries not to be blinded when sweat stings her eyes.

He takes advantage of her distraction and advances, catching her blade with his and twisting in that familiar way—Lexa’s body remembers the move and her hand clenches tight on her hilt and with all the strength she has she bears down on the connection.

Shimas leaps back, breaking the connection.

“Almost had you,” he taunts.

Lexa ignores it. She hasn’t enough breath in her to talk.

“Only a matter of time,” he sing-songs.

Lexa tries the old trick of watching his chest to see if it will betray his next attack. She sees when his muscles tense but finds she doesn’t know enough yet to know what that tensing means.

When he disarms her with a move she hadn’t seen before, Lexa is largely unsurprised—though still disappointed. For what is now the fifteenth time, Shimas presses the edge of his sword lightly to her skin. This time, conclusively, he touches it to her neck.

For a moment they stand still and then Shimas withdraws. Lexa lifts an arm to wipe her face. Her hands are trembling with exhaustion. And it’s not even lunch, she thinks, sourly amused.

“Not bad,” he announces.

“Not bad? You beat me every time.”

“Fifteen out of fifteen,” he agrees cheerily.

Anya speaks up from the fire. There’s a book open on her lap but Lexa recognises the map it’s open to and thinks she must not have been reading. “Congratulations, you beat an eleven year old. You must be so proud.”

Lexa winces. “Anya. You saw all of that. How nice. I thought you’d left.”

Anya’s dark eyes slip over to her and announce quite clearly without her having to say a word exactly how foolish of a thought that had been. “How do you feel?”

“Sore,” Lexa admits.

Anya jerks her head and Lexa obeys, trotting over to sit next to her. Without invitation, Shimas joins them at the fire. He accepts the other soldiers cheerful jibes—“Thought you were going to lose that last one for a minute there, Shimas,”—and Lexa ignores it when their attention swings around to her, though she accepts their advice and congratulations on her perseverance with a nod

None of the congratulations mean anywhere near as much as Anya’s murmured, “Not bad.”

She works Lexa through the cool down exercises to relax the muscles and keep them from cramping too terribly and Lexa copies her.

“I hurt everywhere,” she mutters. Distantly, Lexa is aware that she’s complaining. It hurts too much not to, though. She continues. “I didn’t even know I had muscles here.” She jabs her thumb into the middle of her forearm, drags her thumb down the length of it.

Anya clicks her tongue and takes her arm in both of her hands. “After this, we’re gonna put cold wraps around your arms. Unless you can’t manage a bit of cold?” There’s a hint of mockery to her voice and though Lexa understands what manipulation is, she still lets herself be swept up in it.

“I can manage,” she sneers. “I’m not a child.”

Shimas coughs. Lexa narrows her eyes at him.

“Good. We’ll take them off at lunch and then put them on again tonight.” As she talks, she works her thumbs slowly, painfully, gloriously, down Lexa’s arm. There’s no sign of the Gift around her hands but surely she has to be using it—it’s magic how she’s drawing the hurt out.

“I would give you all of Haryse right now,” she sighs, eyes lidded. Anya laughs.

“What’s this? Page Haryse brought low by a massage?”

“Yes. I’m not too—oh, right there,” she sighs happily. “I’m not too proud to admit it.”

Anya laughs again, quiet but a true laugh. Lexa opens her eyes in time to catch the soft expression before it fades. “Better?”

Lexa wants to lie and say no so that Anya will continue but reluctantly she nods. Anya has her clench and unclench her hands a few times and then very gently presses her through another exercise that loosens the wire-tight tendons in her forearms.

“My turn next?” Octavia asks, throwing themself tiredly down on Anya’s other side. “Captain Gus had me climbing trees all morning.” They don’t say any more than that and Anya turns to massage their arms. Lexa slips off to get the healing balm from her pack. “Gods, Anya, marry me,” she hears Octavia groan on her return. Lexa snorts. They flap a lazy hand in her direction. “Oh shut it. You offered your land, remember?”

“I lasted longer than that.”

“Not much longer.”

“Anya! You’re my sponsor—you’re supposed to be on my side.”

“I did bet against you in the count, if you recall.”

“Oh yes.” Lexa sneers at her, enjoys the way the expression takes shape without any intent behind it. Anya’s eyes glint back at her, amused.


The arrival of the King’s Own—and the second squad that rides up at midday—is a sign to the pages. Padraig returns late that afternoon on their sixth day of winter camp and gathers them all at the fire. 

He waits until the pages settle and then a moment longer. Lexa wonders if he doesn’t know exactly what to say. That, almost more than anything else that has happened during this camp, unsettles her deeply.

“I am not unaware of what a shock this week has been,” he says finally. “The winter camp is always a test, of a kind.” The pages nod. Everyone knows there have been some pages who can’t handle the cold, or sleeping rough, and that some years those pages dropped out of the class once they returned to the palace. Padraig drums his fingers against the thick belt at his waist. “You have all comported yourself in a manner to be proud of,” he tells them finally. “We return to the palace tonight. Ensure that the camp is clear and clean and be ready to ride out in an hour.”

It’s an underwhelming ending to the camp but no one argues. If they feel anything like Lexa does, they’re ready to be far from the camp, and the caravan, and back within the familiar grounds of the palace.

“Questions?” Padraig nods when no one speaks. “One hour. We should be in the palace by nightfall.”

They set a quick pace for the Forest Road, Padraig taking them on the road rather than take the dense forest paths all the way back into the Royal Forest proper.

“Anyone else feel like we stumbled into something big?” Hasim says quietly.

Octavia nods. Ilian shifts uneasily in his saddle.

“Why didn’t we go back to the palace right away?” Terrance asks them quietly.

“Padraig wanted to be sure he didn’t miss anything,” Lexa tells him, remembering the way his eyes had scoured the clearing for any sign of what had committed that act. “That’s why he took the fourth-years. To track it down.”

“It? Not them?”

She shrugs, pulls her cloak tight around her shoulders. “I don’t know. I’ve not—I’ve never seen anything like it.” Her voice cracks a little and her friends nod, backing off a fraction. “Anyway. We were the only people there. If we’d gone…there was no knowing if anyone could find that exact place again. Or maybe whatever did it would return, or hide it’s tracks, or,”

“Do you think he found anything? Padraig, I mean.”

She glances to his stiff back, far at the head of the line. “I don’t know,” she says. She feels like she’s been saying it a lot. “I don’t think he’d tell us if he did.”

“No,” the others agree. “Probably not.”

“He might. We saw what happened. He would tell us if we caught it.”

Padraig’s estimation is close—night has only just stirred across the sky when the pages trot into the palace courtyard, metal against stone ringing out.

The first bit of good news for days comes once their horses are groomed and stabled.

“A free day tomorrow,” Padraig tells them, face impassive as ever. “You may do what you wish, including visit the city. First-years must be accompanied by an escort.” He glances their way. “Or go in a pack,” he drawls, and the older years laugh obligingly, sending knowing looks back at the six.

“A bribe, do you think?” Octavia suggests, throwing themself onto Lexa’s bed. The others pour into her small room too. Lexa nudges Octavia across, folds herself into the corner of her bed. Ilian sits at the desk—Hasim sits on the desk. Terrance lounges on the floor and Virgil, stiff-backed, sour-faced Virgil, claims the last seat for himself.

“A bribe for what?” he asks. Octavia glances sharply at him, but there’s no trace of derision.

“I don’t know. Not to mention what happened?”

He waves that away. “We’re pages. We aren’t supposed to mention it anyway.”

“A reward,” Ilian says. “For keeping our heads.”

 They file out to go to their own rooms. Hasim lingers, fingers curled around the doorframe to tether him. He drums his fingers as he stares over at Lexa. "Why do these things always happen to you?" he asks, very softly. No answer springing to mind, Lexa just shakes her head. He sighs. "Sleep well, sister. The morning light will shine brighter."

Much later, laying awake in her bed, Lexa stares out her shuttered window into the courtyard at the oak tree growing there. Not everyone kept their heads, she thinks, the grisly image of the headless caravaners playing out in her mind again and again. She pulls her blanket up to her chin and turns onto her side. She wonders if Hasim's last words had been a familiar phrase, or if he thinks it's bare truth. The stars high above are pinprick bright, burning light from another realm. 

Chapter Text

Winter grips the land tight between icy teeth the night after the pages return from their camp. Snow and sheets of rain lash at Corus and the palace. The wall of windows in the Greenery shake under the torrent, rain and hail hitting with bell-like plinks and falling away.

Hanging lanterns glowing with faint magelight glint dimly in the window. Beneath the lights, there is a girl sitting on a long bench of white stone. Her face is pale and drawn, deep shadows gouged under her eyes. A curious vine has tangled itself about one of her legs, up to the knee, and she pets it absent-mindedly, eyes fixed on the bob of a much-flickering lantern far below. She watches as it makes its way from the stables up toward the palace.

The Greenery offers a respite that Lexa desperately needs. Her friends have taken to gathering in her room; they bring with them all the tension that surrounds the Ordeals and each of them has their own incredibly annoying habits. And the noise of it all—the flick of pages as Ilian pretends to read, Hasim’s mutters when he pricks his fingers now and again as he stitches and darns and mends (and worse, his stares), the rasp of stone on metal as Octavia sharpens their knives to wicked points. That alone was too much to bear.

And then Octavia

Lexa glares out the window. The lantern has disappeared and so she stares instead at one of the palace towers she can just barely see through the thick snow. The gold cap to the white-grey stone glints and gleams.

The candle flickers on Lexa’s bedside and the light plays over her page as she focuses steadily on it, trying to ignore the fact that all of her friends are in her room and being loud and annoying. They’ve been better in the last hour since settling so it isn’t too much of a chore to read. Ilian is very warm against her and she curls her legs up underneath her body, leans more heavily into him.

“Do you think he’s going to be alright?”

It isn’t as though it’s the first time someone has thought it; it’s not even the first time someone has asked it. But unlike the other times, Octavia’s question is laced with genuine interest instead of worry.

Lexa’s hands clench on her book.

No one answers them.

“Gareth said his grandfather lost a finger in the Chamber. And I heard someone went mad in there once.”

Ilian clears his throat warningly. Octavia either doesn’t understand the warning or doesn’t care.

“You know people die in the Chamber? They really do. There was someone who died when Lady Keladry was a squire. That wasn’t so long ago—isn’t that wild? It’s not some story, it actually could happen.”

Lexa isn’t sure if they mean it could happen tomorrow, or it could happen to them. Any of them.

“That’s enough, Tave,” Hasim hisses. “Say something like that, the gods’ll listen.” He makes a sign of protection over his chest, frowning disapprovingly at them. Octavia just rolls their eyes.

“He’s right. That’s not something to joke about.”

“You too?” Octavia looks surprised at Ilian. “I didn’t know you were superstitious.”

“It isn’t superstition. It’s smart. Bad intent like that…that’s the sort of thing that follows you. You don’t joke about the Chamber—everyone knows that.”

“Must’ve missed that lesson,” they drawl. A grin, slight and not very friendly, crooks over their face as they start to sharpen yet another knife. “Missed a lot of lessons as a kid.”

Hasim snorts. “Who’s surprised?” he mutters.

“Lexa doesn’t care. Does she?” Octavia turns their sharpened gaze on her.

Lexa closes her book and stands. “Lexa wanted to read alone tonight,” she tells Octavia. She thinks about leaving it at that, but then, “It is cruel to wish that harm on others,” she says very quietly when she passes Octavia on her way to the door, voice low enough that the boys cannot hear. “And I did not think that you were cruel.”

“Nasty weather.”

Lexa blinks out of her memory.

A familiar face is reflected in the windows and Lexa turns to smile. She tries to stand but the vine tangled about her leg is thick and unyielding and it lets her get no further than halfway up before yanking her back down onto the bench.

“Forgive me, I would stand but I find myself unable to.”

Clarke waves away her apology and makes her way over, giggling when she sees Lexa’s predicament. She helps Lexa to coax the vine away.

“I’m glad to be out of it. The weather, I mean. Seems like the sort of thing Lord Padraig would like to train us in. And if it’s still raining in the morning…” She grimaces.

Clarke shivers and then laughs. “He doesn’t want to lose anyone to the lightning, I suppose.” Lexa perks up until, “You know, I think they’re close to discovering how to capture lightning. It shouldn’t be a problem soon.”

“Oh. Wonderful.” Lexa shakes out of her grim mood. “You look well.”

“Thank you. You don’t.” She gives Lexa a considering once over from where she’s kneeling. The vine curls sulkily around a tree trunk and Clarke brushes the dirt and leaves from her lap before dropping onto the end of Lexa’s bench in a most unladylike sprawl. Catching Lexa’s look, she grins. “Oh hush, don’t judge. I’m exhausted.”

“I am well aware of how tiring it is to curtsey for two hours. I’d prefer to break my arm again.”

Clarke laughs.

They fall into a comfortable silence; Lexa returns to watching the weather and Clarke picks up her book from the bench but doesn’t read. She drags her thumb over the corner of the pages and the flutter of that movement is a quiet counterpoint to the crash of heavy rain and hail on glass.

“I wasn’t sure if you would be here,” Clarke says finally.

“I thought you wouldn’t be here.”

“Me?”

“No,” Lexa says, voice flat. “The other lady I’m talking to.”

“You’re speaking to another lady?” Clarke asks, trying not to grin. Amusement bursts out from Clarke beneath their feet, the darkness Lexa is used to from this girl but lined with a playful silver. “I believe I am offended.”

“I am devastated to have disappointed you, Lady Clarke.”

“I shall have to be convinced of this supposed devastation,” she sniffs, nose turned up primly.

“Whatever I may do,” Lexa bows from her place. Grinning, she feels a flicker of hesitation but presses on nonetheless. “That…sound. That thing that happened.” The shadows twist nervously beneath Lexa’s feet and she narrows her eyes at Clarke’s expression, merely politely interested. “I thought about not coming.”

Clarke licks her lips. Her eyes dart down to her book—the embroidery one again, Lexa sees—and she says, “So did I. What luck we both came tonight.”

“Luck had little to do with it,” Lexa says, and when Clarke looks shocked she says, “I came last night too. I wouldn’t’ve come tomorrow,” she allows, which makes Clarke smile, “but that’s because I have to be in the kitchens. We’re learning what to do for the feast. All I was going to say is I don’t know what the sound was but I don’t…feel different and I don’t think we have to worry about it.”

Clarke looks over at her for a long moment before smiling. “I agree. I am glad you’re here, though. I heard the strangest tale today and I can’t decide if it’s typical palace gossip or something…else.”

Lexa grins. “Who are they telling tales about now?”

“The pages winter camp, as a matter of fact. Tell me,” Clarke says sweetly, apparently not noticing the way Lexa’s jaw drops. “Did you really stumble across a slaughtered village and battle a flock of Stormwings?”

Shock lances through Lexa. “It—no. It wasn’t just me! Who told you that?”

Clarke blinks. “I didn’t mean you, Lexa. I meant all of the pages.” Her blue eyes go very wide. “Was it you?”

Lexa curses—a word she learned from Nolan—and turns away.

“Your pardon, Lady Clarke,” she says after a moment. “I shouldn’t speak so.” Clarke demurs quietly to that and if Lexa were paying more attention she might wonder at the way Clarke’s perpetual amusement flares at the apology. “We stumbled across a caravan. They were all dead. It wasn’t—it was…” Lexa closes her eyes and the vision of that clearing and those bodies comes before her. She opens her eyes to avoid looking at it. “It was only three Stormwings and we didn’t fight them. Just talked.” Lexa clears her throat. “I don’t want to talk more about it. Is that…all right?”

“Certainly.”

She casts around for something else to say. Her eyes settle on the empty post laying against the wall. “I haven’t had the time to set up the training dummy. Perhaps a lesson tonight isn’t right, we shouldn’t,”

“Oh please don’t send me away. I already went to the trouble of sneaking out.”

Lexa hums. “May I ask you a question?” Clarke nods, smiling. Lexa hesitates, feeling the prickle of nerves in the shadows by her feet. She braces her elbows against her knees and leans forward, stares down at her clasped hands. “Who are you?” Before Clarke can answer, Lexa continues quickly. “Before we truly started talking, training, I asked my father about you. He didn’t find any noble lady named Clarke. Nor any lordling.”

“Lordling?”

“Haryse’s are thorough,” Lexa shrugs.

“Haryse?”

“My family,” Lexa nods. She frowns when Clarke’s expression flickers—her smile drops and for a moment Lexa is looking across at a girl genuinely shocked. She looks away politely so that Clarke can piece her mask back together and when she hears the rustle of skirts, Lexa looks again and is thankful to see that Clarke looks nothing but politely intrigued.

“I didn’t know,” she says, politely.

“I thought I had told you,” Lexa says, just as politely. “Nevertheless,”

“Yes of course, your question. I’m flattered you would think I’m a lady,” Clarke smiles, fluttering her eyelashes too obviously to be serious. A slight smile is tucked into the corner of her lips. “I am a ward, here by the grace of their Majesties.” Her face falls a fraction. “My family… My mother was a healer and my father was the head of our village. They sent me south when it became too dangerous to stay.”

Lexa listens carefully as Clarke speaks and is surprised to find that everything she feels from her echoes what she’s saying. She’s being truthful, then, Lexa thinks. There’s a strangeness to the feeling, a discord like two notes jarring against one another, that Lexa doesn’t understand but it’s so faint that she doesn’t bother to pry.

“How long has it been?”

“Hmm?”

“Since you saw your parents?”

“I—“ Clarke swallows. Pain and loss roars through her; her expression never shifts, save for a flicker of light in her eyes. “Years. I was six.”

Lexa sits back, shocked. “Six? And they haven’t come for you?”

“I’m safer here. Well protected, well educated. They’re making me into a proper young lady,” Clarke shrugs.

“A lady never shrugs.”

“A knight is too chivalrous to point that out.”

Lexa grins. “You may be right there. Luckily I’m only a page.”

“Very lucky. They might take your shield for an offence like that,” Clarke teases.

“Then I shall be in your debt, Lady Clarke, if you would not mention to anyone that I was so, so…uncouth.”

“I shall think on it.”

“Naturally, my lady.” Lexa bows from her seat and they both last only a moment before laughing. Clarke covers her mouth with a dainty hand. “May I ask you another question? This one – I hope it won’t be as…difficult.”

“How could I say no to that?”

“By saying no,” Lexa frowns. “I would never force you to answer my questions.”

Clarke blinks, surprised by Lexa’s vehemence. She smiles. “I know. I was only being silly.”

“Oh. I don’t think you should be silly about that. You may mock my chivalry if you like, but there are some who are not chivalrous and I would hate for you to encounter them.”

Clarke grips her hand with her own small, gloved hand. “I am a very good judge of character, Lexa. And I have a knife.”

“That’s true,” she nods, appeased. “Well, in any case. My question is if you, er, well if you have found that book helpful at all?”

“The book—oh! Hert’s!” Lexa nods. “I’ve finished it, I thought it was marvellous. The books I have access to at the moment aren’t nearly as thorough and half as well written. I feel like I’m wading through words with the book but at least he knows what he’s talking about,” Clarke snorts. “And the diagrams were so clear. He’s leagues ahead of his contemporaries—behind Schetts, naturally, but that’s a new edition and far more in depth. For the basics, Herts is still the best—did you know that he perfected the method for bone regrowth that healers still use today?”

Lexa blinks.

She has felt amusement, and suspicion, and despair and loss and fury from Clarke but she’s never felt such a clear joy before.

“I—did not. I shall have to, er, acquire the others for you,” Lexa says, remembering at the last moment not to confess she’s bought them all. The words come out a little twisted, though, and she suspects Clarke knows because she smiles at her and the amusement rises from the ground in happy bubbles. “And you’re certain you don’t want to be a Healer?”

“I want,” Clarke clamps her lips tightly closed before she laughs, shakes her head. “It’s silly.”

The happy bubbles burst and crash in icy waves into the floor, shards spiking around their feet. Lexa twists her hand so that she is holding Clarke’s hand and she lays her free hand atop it, gently. She chooses her words carefully, not wanting to cut herself on one of those shards. 

“I withstood my fair share of laughter when I announced my intention to be a knight. You may not have noticed,” Lexa confides, “but I am rather small. They thought I could not do it.”

Clarke grins. “And here you are.”

“Here I am,” Lexa agrees quietly. “I will not poke fun at your dreams, Lady Clarke.”

“It really is silly.” Lexa doesn’t rise to that; she waits and Clarke breathes out. “I haven’t given it too much thought but… I suppose I always imagined I would be helping my family run the household.”

“I don’t think that’s silly at all.”

Clarke crinkles her nose. “I’m sure it’s nothing to you. You’re going to be a knight. And my teachers,” she rolls her eyes. “You could be a lady-in-waiting one day, if you would only apply yourself,” she says in a snooty mimicry. Lexa stifles a giggle. “It’s what I should want but…”

“You want to go home.”

“I want to help. Do something worthwhile.” Clarke clenches her free hand in her skirts; they crinkle audibly and she starts, flicks them out to smooth out the wrinkles. “I want to help my people,” she says, very quietly, as though she barely dares to hear them herself.

Lexa grips her hand tight. She doesn’t understand why Clarke would think it silly, or why the discordant note rings through her words. But, she thinks, I don’t have to know.

The thought makes it easy to hold Clarke’s gaze and tell her, very simply, “That is a very fine ambition, Lady Clarke.”

They talk quietly for some time more; Clarke manages to pull from her more of what happened on the winter camp, the training and the men who rode from the King’s Own, though Lexa keeps the details of the attack from her. Lexa coaxes information on books Clarke is looking for. She’s too tired to be subtle but Clarke plays along. When the evening bell rings, Lexa parts reluctantly from her friend.

“Shall we meet again tomorrow?”

Lexa shakes her head no. “I have to check in with the Healers.”

Clarke starts. “Are you alright?”

“Hmm? Oh yes, they want to see that my arm is better.”

“Oh. Good. Hm. And the next night?”

Lexa sighs. “No, training for the feast. We’re serving—will you be there?” When Clarke says she won’t, Lexa frowns. “We’re working through until the third night past Midwinter.”

“So I won’t see you for two weeks?”

Lexa shrugs. “What about during the day?”

“Lessons. Always lessons.”

“Oh. I suppose it will have to be the night after the feasts end, then,” Lexa sighs. “I’ll set up our target, you bring your knife.”

“Yes, Training Master Lexa.”

Lexa flushes, rolls her eyes, and takes her leave. She doesn’t find it strange that Clarke won’t be at the feasts until she’s thinking about it much later. A ward of the King and Queen should be at the feast, surely. But the thought comes in the instant before sleep and when she rises the next morning, it’s gone.

//

Despite the knee-deep snow, the pages are busier with training than ever. Padraig has them training every morning and caring for their horses and then, in place of the afternoon classes, he runs sword drills in the long, mirrored hall. After those lessons they turn themselves ever so reluctantly over to Master Vauntire.

With only a week until the first day of the Midwinter Week celebration—as Vauntire tells them sixteen times that first evening alone—the preparations begin in earnest.

Each of the pages are refitted for their fine red-and-gold tunics and red breeches. Lexa is pleased to find that hers don’t fit anymore—she’s shot up a full inch in the last few months and her ankles and wrists are awkwardly exposed. The tailor gives her a familiar filthy look—the same he gives her each time she returns her practice tunics for darning—but he gives the same look to most of the others, so she ignores it.

Ilian is the worst off of all. The tailor directs to him alone the filthiest look Lexa has ever seen. He has grown more than two inches taller and gained a thickness to his shoulders…and arms…and waist. The tunic tears at the seams of his shoulders and strains. He holds his arms very unhappily above his head, stuck within the tunic and unable to either bring it down or pull it off without it tearing more.

Hasim whistles. “Why not just rip it right into pieces in front of them next time?”

Octavia pats Ilian’s shoulder, with great difficulty. They have to stand on their tiptoes to do it. “It’s because he eats his greens.”

“Then why aren’t you bigger yet?” Hasim teases. “You eat everything.”

“Oh, you noticed!”

“Everyone has,” Ilian joins in, smiling softly down at Octavia.

The tailor grunts as he steps up onto a box and tugs the tunic off Ilian’s shoulders. He whips a knotted rope around him and, with great reluctance, stomps off to the backroom to find him another.

“Might as well just put a red drape over you, Malven. You’ll have grown again by the feast.” Lexa says quietly once they’ve escaped, still wide-eyed from her own interaction with the tailor.

“I thought he was going to strangle me,” Ilian confesses. “What colour was that? Purple?”

“Blue. The red of the tunic made him look purple.”

“Who’s this?”

“Tailor,” the four of them tell Lincoln together, shaken and pretending not to be. “Have you noticed how…”

“Terrifying?”

“Terrifying he is, yeah.”

“Oh yes,” Lincoln agrees. He claps Ilian on the shoulder. “I’m to be refitted now. There is a rip in my sleeve.”

“Mithros protect you,” Lexa wishes gravely and carries on down the hall.

“That was not reassuring!” Lincoln calls after them. “Alexandra! That wasn’t reassuring!”

Hasim waves back at Lincoln and leans close to Lexa. “I could help him—should I help him? Rahat has been teaching me to mend.”

“Oh that’s why you were doing that. I was wondering why your mends were so poor,” Ilian teases, and runs down the hall when Hasim pulls a small knife from his belt. “Lexa, help!”

“Nah.”

“Octavia?”

“I find myself offended that you asked Lexa first,” they shrug. “You’re on your own, my friend.”

Ilian and Hasim—panting, with new tears in their less formal tunics—beat them to the kitchens. When Lexa and Octavia arrive, Vauntire is part way through a rant, punctuated by the stomp and clash of pots and pans and hard-working servants bustling about the large room. Once he’s done with the boys, Vauntire looks over the new arrivals with distinct distaste, his eyes resting on Lexa and Octavia—and behind them, Anya—for only a brief moment before moving on.

“First years, you’re in the kitchens for the week. Second through third years, you’re serving the guest tables. Fourth years, dignitaries. Prince Jasson, you will be serving the high table with Page Aili.” With a sweep of his long, embroidered coat, Vauntire leads the older pages out.

Havassah steps forward once Vauntire has left, mouth twisted bitterly as she glances after him. “Not enough honey in that one,” she mutters. Lexa nods. Always harsh in the face, Havassah softens a fraction when she looks down at her. “Let’s see what we’re dealing with, sha?”

Lexa and Ilian are put to washing, Hasim and Virgil to chopping, and Octavia and Terrance to stoking the great roaring fires beneath the ovens. They’re hard jobs, physically demanding even for six children who have been training four hours a day every day for months. It takes some time of being jostled and stepped on before the first years learn when to duck and when to sidestep to avoid a knock on the head or a slop of hot water or, worse, tepid water down their back. Havassah watches over them and wields an iron ladle in much the same manner as Sir Fared wields a staff, doling out sharp raps against sensitive wrists and the back of a head when they make a mistake.

When Lexa returns to her room the first night, she has to dab bruise balm over several purpling marks. But she also has an armful of rolls and fruits that Havassah had let them take.

The week passes quickly and by the first night of Midwinter feasting, they know their roles well and it passes without incident. Lexa arrives early the second night, slipping into the kitchen and taking her place noiselessly at the washing station.

“Evenin’, Haryse.”

“Nate,” she greets one of the other washers, a boy of perhaps sixteen years.

He has a broad, smiling face and cheerful brown eyes. The white of the servant shirt is crisp and bright against his dark skin and he has rolled the sleeves neatly above his elbows, not wanting to wet them in the water, exposing a dozen or so small scars, nicks and pocks. Most of them are the typical marks of life—what might have been a badly broken arm, scraped elbows, that sort of thing. One mark, however, is deep and wicked and looks as though it sliced open his arm from the web of his left thumb and forefinger up the back of his forearm and disappears up beneath the sleeve. It is healed now, though raised in a pinkish scar. On her second night working there, she had remembered his face—and that scar—and remembers him for the kitchen boy who had been kind to her that day after Perrin and his lot had cornered her and it had been easy to fall into friendship with him.

“How were the races?”

“Oh a fine set o’ horses. Never seen finer! There was one miss—sleek as the sea herself an’ a be-u-tiful blue-black coat.” Nate whistles, shakes his head. “Now if I was a betting man, an’ I ain’t admitting to nothin’, mind,” Lexa nods, “I woulda won a pretty silver on that lass.”

“And what did you spend that silver on?”

Nate grins, winks. “Mistress Havassah would have my hide if I told a barri lass like you sommat like that, she would.”

“Mistress Havassah would have your hide for many things, it seems.”

“Not respectable company for a fine lady like yerself.” 

“There are very few people who can choose my company for me,” Lexa tells him, scrubbing at a particularly stubborn mark on a pot. “Not even my father has managed that.” 

“Maybe Havassah though,” Nate teases and Lexa looks up and, glancing around to make sure Havassah can’t hear, gives him a wink back. It’s clumsy but it makes him laugh.

“Less laughing, more cleaning,” Havassah calls. “Or,”

“Ye’ll have my hide?” Nate suggests cheekily and Lexa can’t help but giggle, laughing harder when Havassah brandishes her ladle. He sprints away, dropping his pot into the washing water and splashing Lexa’s tunic. She wipes it absently, more interested in watching him lead Havassah on a chase thorugh the kitchen. He’s lithe and quick, leaping over a barrel with a leap that easily clears it, skids around the far end of the heavy table that runs the length of the room, and only loses her on the sprint back down the opposite end of the room by crawling under the table and making his way back to the washing basin. Lexa is surprised to see he’s barely breathing hard. “Havassah, would ye whack a poor boy? Who works so hard?”

Sha, and send him home in pieces!”

“Ooh,” he shivers, “ye say the nastiest things.”

Havassah starts toward him again but she’s distracted when the doors leading to the dining hall bang open and the pages enter for the cutlery and plates to set out. Nate gets only an evil eye for all his trouble.

“You take your fate into both hands and dangle it before the Goddess’s hounds.”

Nate scoops the pot from her hands. “Aye, mayhap. Here—yer scrubbing this wrong, I’ll show ye how to clean a spot like this.”

Partway through the dinner preparations, Lexa hears the gossip she was waiting for.

Over at the table, two maids are standing side by side working dark red spices into thick slabs of meat. Early thirties, both of them, with dark hair and pale skin where it hasn’t been browned by the sun, they look similar enough that in a quick glance Lexa guesses them to be sisters. They talk quietly as all the kitchen staff do—saving the bellows for Havassah and the instructions to be shouted from one side of the kitchen to the other—and Lexa picks up a few words. She scrubs slowly, barely even wetting the plate as she strains to hear more.

“—shakin’ like th’ last leaf on a tree he was, but alive.”

“Mithros bless,” the kitchen maid sighs, presses a hand to her heart. “I always fear for ‘em. Big strong lads,”

“And lasses!”

“And lasses,” her sister agrees, sounding very much like it’s a point she’s had to concede many times. “Brought low by a room. Makes you wonder what goes on in there, don’t it?”

“Oh no, not me. No thank ye, not ever, Goddess willin’. I’ll not be caught in a godless place like that—leave that to our knights.”

“Big strong lass,” her sister snorts.

Ah’m not the knight now am I? He was paler than a bedsheet when he came out! Ah’ll not put myself through that—I already have’ta deal with Master Pinching Fingers here at work and Master Husband back at home. No ma’am, I won’t be puttin’ myself through more strife.”

Lexa turns her attention back to the basin, sends her smile down to the very clean plate she’s been scrubbing for the last few minutes.

After a moment, Nate clears his throat. “Berra, my love,” he calls out toward the maids.

“Oh you flirt.” Berra sighs.

“Now see here, Master Nate, I believe I was yer love!”

“Gemma! Light of my life!”

“Two-timing me now?”

“Berra, Gemma, I’ve love enough for the two of ye,”

“Ooh, if I haven’t heard a man or two tell me sommat like that a time or so in my life,” Gemma cackles and flips the meat in front of her, which lands with a heavy thump on the tabletop.

Nate gulps.

“What can we do for ye, love,” Berra flaps a hand to silence her sister.

“Couldn’t help overhearin’,”

“Ah’m sure,” Gemma cackles.

“Yer not calling me a good for naught eavesdropping scoundrel, are ye? Not again, surely!” Nate glances left and right before picking up his towel and wiping his hands, slinging it over his shoulder as he lopes over to join them. He pops a raisin in his mouth and leans against the table, arms folded across his chest.

Strategically, Lexa thinks when she sees the way the women stare down at the lean muscles of his arms.

“What are ye pluckin' our feathers for, ye bad lad?”

“This righteous knight of our realm—I ain’t heard nothin’ about it.” He scratches at his neck. “It went well, then?”

Berra falls onto the opportunity to tell someone new everything she knows. “Well,” she leans forward excitedly. “Young Pevir—you remember him, that lad with the limp.”

“Poor boy, fell off his horse didn’t he?”

“Mm, lucky t’have fixed up as well as he did,” Nate agrees.

“Aye, Mithros was lookin’ over him that day. Well, he and his knight-master—whatshisname, that—mm—slab of a man.”

“Wyldon.”

Wyldon,” Berra sighs, both hands pressed to her chest. “That man… I saw him joust once and what a sight. Never saw a man wield a stick like that before.” She cuts herself off with a faint cough. “Well, Sir Wyldon and Lady Keladry—“

Lexa’s hearing halts for a moment as blood thuds through her head. Her cloth drops to the floor with a wet slap and, face red, she stoops to pick it up.

“If ye wanted to hear ‘bout it, ye could always join us, lass,” Gemma teases quietly, looking up with a knowing glance. Lexa flushes even brighter but she takes the drying cloth Nate offers and dries off her hands. She feels awkward standing with them but Berra gives her a broad smile and a wink and she realises that they’d known the whole time that Nate had asked for her sake.

“Good evening.”

Good evening, she says,” Gemma snorts. “And ye like ye weren’t skulking over there wid ears too big for yer head.” She chortles to herself for a moment. “Go on then, Berra, if yer gonna tell us then tell us.”

Nate winks at Lexa. “Ye need to work on yer eavesdropping,” he murmurs, and turns over his hand to show off a crisp-cooked pastry stuffed with cheese and sausage.

“Wherever would I find someone who makes skulking seem as easy as breathing,” she wonders aloud.

“She’s got ye pegged, lad,” Berra teases, pinching Nate’s cheeks. “Well then, little lass, what did ye want to know?”

“He’s…safe?”

“Aye, lass, and knighted besides that,” she nods. “Right as the sun hit Mithros’s mighty shield, the Chamber door opened—ye ever seen it?”

Lexa shakes her head no.

“Big iron doors. Plain and heavy. Cold stone room,” she shivers. “Rows an’ rows of wooden benches, just like in the temple to Mithros here.”

Lexa nods.

“Well, right as the sun hits the shield, like ah said, there the doors open and the lad stumbles out. White as a sheet and tremblin’. Heard he didn’t speak until the king knighted him.” Berra shakes her head. “Must’ve thought he were still in th’ Chamber.” She turns warm eyes on Lexa and smiles. “All in a piece and sound in mind, like I said.”

Lexa sighs her relief and thanks Berra very politely, which prompts another round of teasing for her manners and her speech. A lady she might be, but for now she’s a page and a page working in the kitchens. Lexa rolls her eyes and takes the teasing.

That evening, with the candles burning low and all the dishes washed and cleaned and every person safe in their beds, Lexa makes her way to the hallway in which the Chamber sits. She crouches against the wall, back flat against the cold stone.

“May I help you, page?”

Lexa jumps to her feet, heart pounding wildly beneath her sternum. She spins to face the very old priest, wearing the orange robe of the Mithran priests, his face hidden within the deep cowl. The shadow disguises him more than the hood ought to, she thinks, and his only identifying features are his voice, dry and cracked like ancient parchment, and the hands folded at his waist that are splotched with age spots.

“N-No, Master Priest. I was… curious.”

“Ah. A divine gift, curiosity.” He lays a gentle hand on her shoulder and Lexa allows him to guide her away from the corridor. She shivers when the temperature changes from a strange, dry cold to the wet winter cold that fills the palace. “The gods gave to each of us a passion, a curiosity. To grow, to make, to learn, to lead. It is to be encouraged.” He stops at the end of this second corridor and Lexa steps out ahead of him, knowing she has been banished in the most polite way possible. “I must warn you,” he says in his cracked whisper, so softly she strains to hear it. “Not to return to this place. There is only one truth within the Chamber and it is given on the day you enter. Not before.”

Lexa bows her head. “Yes, Master Priest.”

“Pages who enter that place do not become knights.”

“Yes, Master Priest.”

“Very good. Run along, child. Sleep long and well. And someday, when you return, I shall sit with you through your vigil.”

//

Sir Pevir of Hollyrose is the first to be knighted.

Sir Eachon of Brightleigh is second. He too emerges safe and healthy from the Chamber.

Sir Gerlach of Coas Wood is third and he is knighted at midday, missing a chunk of his nose that had healed over as though the wound had been made a half-dozen years prior.

With the first three nights of Midwinter week over, and three new knights—shaken, maybe, disturbed by whatever they might have witnessed in that Chamber but knights nonetheless—given their shields, relief gusts through the palace.

There is no Conté page this year and so for the night breaking into Midwinter proper the Chamber sits closed and empty.

Dawn breaks bright and still that Midwinter morning. A new sheet of snow had fallen overnight and lays undisturbed over the courtyard and over the barren trees.

In her room, beneath a blanket smelling ever so faintly of woodsmoke and home, Lexa’s eyes pop open when the dawn bell rings. Her curls tightly into her bed for several more minutes—Happy Midwinter, she wishes herself—before spilling out in a tangle of long limbs and sheets onto the cold floor.

There is a pile of presents at the foot of her bed that she ignores for now. Each of them are wrapped—one of them with a sprig of winters-breath berry tucked underneath, slightly crumpled, which lends the air a slightly spiced scent Lexa enjoys. Gus, she thinks, and smiles since she had given the same instruction to Mistress Yuga when she had handed over her own gift for Gus. After the tension of winter camp, it had been surprisingly enjoyable hunting down presents for everyone and Lexa permits herself a smile, imagining her friends reactions to her offerings. She had begged Gus to get each of them a tiny boot knife, identical to the one she herself carries. For Hasim, she copied passages of the book her father had written concerning Hasim’s tribe and her family, and added that to the rest of his gift—a thin but very warm undershirt she’d had made, knowing how cold he’d been finding the Corus winter, wrapped around a package of dates. For Ilian, teas and drinking chocolates, a small jade amulet she’d been told could focus a weak Gift, and a collection of maps she had made—of Fief Haryse, from memory; of Fief Maleven, which she had found in the library; one each of the Palace and its grounds; and one of the city of Corus. To Anya she gave a book she’d found in Corus on their free day, not knowing exactly what it is but recognising the words as kemrit, and a small kit of two dozen neatly described and labelled inks. Everything she’d been told about the K’mir tribes told her that thirteen was the year they began to acquire their tattoos. Octavia…Octavia had been the most difficult to shop for, Lexa remembers with a huff, still not pleased with what she ended up giving them. She’d dithered over giving them another knife—which she had ended up getting them, thinking they would enjoy the warped pattern—but it hadn’t seemed enough and so, on advice from Anya, Lexa took a spare braided belt to the tailors and begged—and then paid—them to fix any weak points before studding it with sharp points. The final product was a handsome blue-and-black belt made to be woven into long hair, in case anyone tried to use it against them. She doesn’t bother trying to paint for them, as she had created things for Hasim and Ilian. It’s not a skill she has. Instead, she told Stefan-the-hostler what she wanted and he assured her that Beauty would be appropriately kitted out with a saddleblanket in the grey and yellow of Fief Danshame. 

Partway through her weighted exercises, a small knock interrupts her. Lexa continues, until the knock comes again, followed by a voice.

Lexa,” Hasim hisses. “Lexa, are you awake?” She slips her weights into her pockets and steps over to the door, pulling her sword from its sheath. In a quick movement, she yanks the door open and Hasim stumbles forward. He looks over her and the room in seconds—sweaty face, drawn sword, unwrapped presents—and his face falls in horror. Lexa rolls her eyes but lowers her sword.

“It’s Midwinter,” Hasim tells her in stern disapproval. “No lessons! You’re allowed to sleep in!”

“I don’t know how anymore,” she drawls.

“Then pretend to sleep. Trick your body into it.”

“My body is just as smart as I am. You’re not asleep either,” she points out, stepping away from the door to let him in. She drops the smallest weight to keep the door from closing and sets her sword on her desk before frowning down at the floor to remember where she’d been in her sets. She can’t recall and decides, reluctantly, she’ll just have to start again.

I,” he tells her, nose high in the air, “came to give you a gift. Here—what are you doing?”

“Exercises,” she puffs, pushing up from the floor. “And I have my gifts. Mistress Yuga delivered them last night.” On the next push up, Lexa jerks her chin toward the small pile. On the down move, she huffs out a little laugh. “Did you forget mine?”

“No.”

“I’m not certain I believe you.”

Hasim throws himself onto one of the desk chairs and taps his foot impatiently. “I wanted to be here when you opened it, that’s all. Are you almost finished?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“I’m doing twice as many,” she huffs, “to make up for no lessons.”

Hasim is quiet for long enough that Lexa looks up to make sure he hasn’t fallen asleep. He’s just staring at her, though, so she ignores him.

“You’re really terrible,” he comments after a moment, before sighing. “Fine. I’ll be back. Leave the door open.”

Lexa hums an acknowledgement. He rushes from the room and soon enough he’s back in a set of practice clothes and he watches for a moment before dropping into pace with her.

By the time they’re finished, they’re both sore and sweating. Hasim follows her stretches with ease. Finally, they’re done, and Hasim takes one of her hands in both of his and smiles into her face.

Now may we open presents?”

Lexa blinks. “I want to bathe.”

Hasim goes to argue but catches a whiff of himself and nods. “Fine.” He leaves again and this time closes the door so she won't be surprised when he reappears. Still, Lexa scrubs quickly until she feels raw all over and then dresses in her Midwinter clothes, a soft winter tunic, green with delicate red-gold branches embroidered about the collar and cuffs, and breeches in a green so dark to be almost black. She’s just finished dressing when Hasim knocks again and she pulls it open to reveal him out of breath and his dark curls still dripping wet.

“I brought mine over,” he tells her unnecessarily, arms wrapped around a small pile, and Lexa flushes a little when she sees he’s ripping hers open first.

Lexa works more quietly than Hasim but with no less delight, examining the gifts that her friends and family have found for her. From her father is a small stack of books she’d requested, and clothes from Mara, and a handsome bronze clip for her cloak from Gus. She grins when she sees it’s in the shape of an apple and she attaches it immediately. From Ilian, she unwraps a handsome journal bound in green leather. Octavia’s gift makes her laugh. Not the pouch, nor the rations stuffed into it, nor the careful charcoal portrait of Alraed that has been rolled self-conciously into the side of the pouch. It’s the small mending kit that they’ve included that makes Lexa laugh and she holds it up to show Hasim.

“Do you think they’re saying something about my mends?” he says, his shirt from Lexa wrapped like a scarf about his neck and up to his mouth.

She grins. “I think they’re saying your mends aren’t good.”

“Ouch. Mine next.”

Dutifully, Lexa finds two from Hasim. The first is a packet of dates, which makes her laugh, and the second is a woven bracelet of two colours. Orange and red, the colours weave into and around one another, tying a cloudy white bead into the centre of the bracelet.

“My parents sent me the threat,” Hasim tells her, tying it to her wrist carefully. “It’s family thread.” Lexa lifts her eyebrows and examines the thread more carefully. She nods to him to show she understands the significance. “The bead is Persepolis glass. I put a charm on it.” Hasim pulls up his sleeve to show off a matching bracelet. “They’ll shine when we’re within fifty yards,” he explains. “If that’s what you want.”

Lexa nods.

Hasim looks relieved for an instant before he covers the expression with concentration. Orange light flares around his fingers and then around the beads; when his fingers dim and stop, the beads continue to shine faintly. “The weave can’t be cut or taken off by someone else,” he tells her. “So you don’t have to worry about it coming off accidentally or in a fight.”

“It’s brilliant, Hasim. It’s…” Lexa shakes her head, wondering how long he must have looked and practiced to find a charm to do that.

“You’re my sister,” he tells her, voice quiet and firm. “Think of it as a gift for me too so I know if that Stormwing Queen has flown off with you.”

Lexa huffs but nothing can keep her smile from her face for too long. “Deal. Thank you, Hasim.”

“Sure, sure.” He flaps a hand, flushing. “Open another gift.”

There were the typical sweets and money from her father, as well as a new set of writing tips she desperately needed, and Anya gave her a copy of a history book she’d been eyeing from Anya’s own collection for many weeks as well as a small lantern for her desk with a hook if she ever needed to attach it to something like a pole or the side of Alraed’s saddle.

“Brilliant,” Hasim sighs happily, laying back onto her bed. He rests his hands over a small bulge in his belly where he’s eaten half the dates she’d given him and several sweet rolls. “I’m for bed.”

Lexa shakes her head. “You’ll have to leave.”

“Can’t. Not moving for days.”

“I have some more presents to deliver,” she laughs. “Get out of my room.”

He goes eventually, sulking the whole time, and Lexa grabs up her boots and slings her belt around her waist, new pouch on one hip and sword on the other. After a moments hesitation, she clips her cloak around her neck as well and with that, she collects the presents she still needs to hand out and locks the door carefully behind her.

Stopping by Gus’s quarters first, Lexa shifts impatiently from foot to foot as she waits for him to open the door, checking over her little stack as she does.

“Wha—Lexa,” Gus grunts, bleary eyed. “Drank my weight in ale last night. Talk quiet.”

Lexa doesn’t talk at all. She sets her gifts on the floor and flings herself at him, tries to squeeze him tightly enough to wrap her arms around his entire waist. He’s so thick that she can’t quite manage, though she gives it a good attempt.

Gus pats her back gently. “Ye like it, then?”

“I love it,” she tells him, deadly serious.

Gus scratches at his beard, his big hand hiding his smile. “Alright. Ah’m glad.”

“I’ll wear it every day!”

“Good, good,” Gus nods. He waves her for to sit as he moves, slightly unsteadily, to wash his face and rinse out his mouth. Returning, rubbing his face dry on a cloth, he examines her with a beady eye. “Ye look good, Lexa. Noble, like.”

Lexa preens under the attention. “Do you think so?”

“Aye.”

“Good, because I’m going to show everyone my gifts.”

“Right now?” Gus looks appalled by the idea of running around the palace, but like he’s steeling himself to do so.

Lexa smiles up at him and pats his arm. “You can sleep some more. I can do this by myself.”

“Bless ye, lass,” he croaks and lays down on his bed immediately. “Merry Midwinter.”

Lexa bends over him and kisses his cheek, wrinkling her nose at the feel of the bristly beard. “Merry Midwinter, Gustus. May every star in the sky know that you are among the greatest of men.”

With that, she is gone, leaving behind a much amused and much bemused man. Gus settles back into his pillow and sighs up at the ceiling.

“Goddess, patroness of parents, thank you for Lexa.” He sighs again, eyelids drooping. “Gods love the girl,” he says on the back of a breath. “I know I do.”

//

“Apprentice Fletcher hasn’t arrived yet this morning,” a sour looking Healer tells Lexa before she even asks.

Flushing faintly—is she that predictable?—Lexa bows and points to a table at the side. “May I wait?” The healer just nods and shrugs and so Lexa moves over and, curious, pulls a tome from one of the bookshelves to look over.

She loses herself quickly in it in more ways than one. It’s fascinating, certainly, but despite the brief introduction she’s had in reading Hert’s, she understands very little. The text itself is dry but each time Lexa’s brain threatens to seize up and reject the long, complicated sentences, she remembers that these are the books that Healers—that Costia—study to save lives and they seem incredibly wonderful all over again.

the physical signs of which are many and varied, and which must most typically be understood through experience rather than accumulation of knowledge, as the presentation of such signs can easily be attributed to a number of injuries of lesser or greater danger. It is important for a Healer to conduct a thorough examination of each patient before progressing. While Cratt suggests a checklist, this suggestion is at best slow—which can severely challenge response time in such time-focused situations such as battle healing—and at worse completely ignorant and lazy. A Healer that relies on such checklists past an in-class examination is a Healer than will never be able to make judgements based on context as well as instinct. In this chapter, I will be first outlining the physical, mental, and magical signs that Healers should look for immediately after receiving a patient and the many ways in which these signs of shock may develop in each patient, and which type of trauma these signs suggest. Next, I will—

“Enjoying it?”

Lexa looks up from the page and blinks hurriedly, pulling away from Costia’s face so close to her own. She feels herself flushing and returns her gaze to the book. Closing it, Lexa leaps up to return it to the shelf, only to find that Costia hadn’t moved away in the time given. Lexa bumps into her and her hand shoots out to grip Costia’s shoulder, steadying her. After a moment when it becomes apparent that Costia is fine, Lexa’s hand slips down her arm and, when the tips of her fingers prickle, Lexa pulls her hand completely away.

“I—uh,” she stumbles over her words for a few moments, tongue too numb to form words properly. “Uh.”

Costia plucks the book from her hands and, with a glance at the title, steps away to return it to its place. Lexa spins away and scolds herself thoroughly.

“Merry Midwinter,” Costia greets her when she returns, as though nothing had transpired between them. Lexa can see her brown eyes shining with mirth, however, and though she feels she can speak again, her flush remains.

“Merry Midwinter,” Lexa says quietly. She turns, fumbles in her pile for the gift she had found for Costia. “I, uh—I found these for you and I thought, well. I thought that you might like them.”

Costia takes the gift with a thank you and her face lights up—like the sun, Lexa thinks, stunned—when she sees the fine gloves within. They’re thin enough that she could turn pages with them on but, Lexa had discovered, gloriously warm. She had commissioned the maker to add a pattern of tiny green leaves around the wrists of the gloves as well.

“This is very kind of you,” Costia says. “I…I have a gift for you as well,” she admits. “It’s in my desk. Would you wait here a moment?”

“Two, even,” Lexa tells her solemnly and it earns her a bright laugh.

Costia dashes into the Healing wing and Lexa waits, rocking on her heels and ignoring the sour Healer who is shooting her strange, knowing glances. Finally, Costia returns. She grimaces slightly as she hands them over.

“I apologise, I didn’t have time to wrap them,”

“You’re a Healer,” Lexa interrupts her. “I am certainly not wishing to encroach on that time.”

“You aren’t.” Costia smiles at her again, corners of her eyes crinkling with a localised beam of sunlight focuses right at Lexa.

Lexa takes a steadying breath and finally looks down at the presents. One she recognises immediately as bruise balm and she smiles ruefully. “I needed some more of this,” she admits. “But this…” She squints down at the stone in her hands. It’s about half the size of Lexa’s fist and utterly nondescript, though a very pretty light brown. “I’m not sure…”

“It’s enchanted to keep your hands warm. For the next time milord Padraig sends you out in the cold of winter,” Costia tells her, with a faint disapproval in her tone directed at Padraig. “You speak a word and it warms up and you say it again to make the charm stop.”

“What’s the word?” Lexa asks, very curious. And incredibly thankful that somehow she had found two Gifted and kind friends this year.

Calforves.”

At the word, the stone begins to heat and Lexa blinks in astonishment as the lingering cold in her hands is chased away.

“This is incredible,” she breathes.

“Yours is more practical,” Costia grimaces. “I suppose you can’t defend yourself if you’re holding onto a rock. I can make you something else,”

Lexa steps back, clutching the rock tightly in her hand. “No! I love it!”

Costia huffs a laugh, reaches out a hand. “Don’t be silly, Lexa, I can make you something better,”

“It’s mine, and a gift, Apprentice Fletcher. I’ll not have you insult my property—and it would be very rude to take it back." 

Costia lets her hand fall away, shakes her head. “I suppose you’ll have to keep it then, Page Haryse.”

“I shall.” Lexa lifts it to her face and whispers the word, smiling when the heat lingers for some time before slowly fading. She drops it obviously into the pouch on her hip and pats it happily. “Thank you.”

“Thank you,” Costia agrees. “I’m,” she tangles her gloved fingers and Lexa looks on in awe as her cheeks take on a reddish tinge. “This was very kind of you,” she says softly.

“You’ve been very kind to me,” Lexa returns, a mite stiffly, something she regrets when Costia bows her head and takes a step back as though to return to her work. “Appren—Costia, that is—I’m, it’s been a better year for having you in it,” she tells her, more flustered than she’s ever felt in her life. “In health and friendship.”

“Let this Midwinter mark only the first of many more to come then,” Costia suggests, and as light as her voice is, the way she reaches over and squeezes Lexa’s hand is anything but and Lexa feels like she’s floating when she leaves the Healing wing moments later.

The dizzy, light-headed gold rush lasts until after she’s stowed Clarke’s presents beneath their bench. Lexa steps out from the Greenery and between one heartbeat—finally calmed but still pumping an intoxicating sweetness around her body—and the next, she finds herself caught and dragged. A laughing face calms her trained reaction and she only ends up making Octavia stumble when she goes for their feet.

“Too slow,” they laugh.

“I pulled away,” Lexa tells them, and Octavia grins over their shoulder at her. “Where are we going?” she asks when they tug her down the hall, nearly wrenching her arm from its socket.

“Out! It’s a beautiful day!”

Lexa scowls at their back, absolutely certain—given the unrepentant glee in their voice and their pace—that they’ve done something. She strains her ears and over the sound of their pounding feet, she can hear him. Hasim. Yelling.

“What did you do to Hasim?”

Octavia laughs. They tug her into another hallway and stop, almost backtracking when they see the dead-end corridor. Lexa grabs them before they can leave.

“Lexa,” they whine,

“There’s a window,” Lexa points.

“Oh. Brilliant! Help me up, won’t you?” Lexa braces her hands against one knee and Octavia jumps on Lexa’s push. They catch the edge of the sill and glance out the window. There’s a grimace on their face when they look back in but they shrug. “Not too bad. Might twinge a bit. Coming?”

Lexa cocks her head. Hasim sounds closer. She glances up into her friends mischievous face, the glint of laughter in their eyes, and knows that Octavia has likely done something teetering on the border of annoying and offensive. Still…their hand reaches invitingly down toward her and she feels so light still, and her heart gives an approvingly solid thump, that Lexa reaches up to clasp their wrist without another thought.

“This doesn’t mean I approve,” she warns them.

Octavia lifts their brows, looks from their precarious perch in the narrow window and to Lexa, right there with them, and gives her a rather amused look. “Oh Haryse,” they sigh. “Yeah, it kinda does.”

They lower themself as far as they can go and then shimmy a controlled fall down the wall. Lexa is sure there’s a better way of doing it but doesn’t know what it might be so she copies them, earning a few scrapes but nothing major.

They run until their legs burn a little and then collapse in a small courtyard. It’s out of the way, square with a long bench running most of each wall, and in the centre grows a large tree bare of any leaves. Octavia stops under the tree and huffs, braces their hands against their knees.

“Guess…running was good,” they comment, seeing Lexa is barely out of breath.

“I run every morning. You can join me, if you like.”

When could you possibly find time for that?”

“Between my exercises and morning classes.”

“You exercise before class still?”

“Of course,” Lexa frowns. “Don’t you?”

Octavia holds off for a moment before they grin. “Yeah. Some weights and stuff. I got some for my birthday.”

“From Lord Bellamy?”

“No,” they tell her flatly. “Thanks for your gifts, by the way,” they continue on as though that single word hadn’t come out positively frozen. In fact…Lexa eyes Octavia curiously and stretches out that other sense she’s been feeling more of ever since the camp. She focuses on Octavia’s words again after a second and tries not to feel too disappointed that all she felt was the cold. It’s a real ability, she’s decided, but not one that seems to obey any kind of command.

“You’re welcome. I liked yours as well.” She twists a little to show off the pouch on her belt and Octavia grins happily.

“Good. Did you show Hasim the mending kit?” Lexa rolls her eyes but can’t stop the smirk from forming. Octavia laughs, delighted.

They talk a while longer—Octavia is very interested in hearing about Gustus and his ale trouble, and Lexa warns them twice not to pick a fight with him today thinking they might be able to throw him. They nod graciously but don’t promise anything. Lincoln had apparently inherited a little of his mothers skill and had taken the time and effort to paint Octavia a landscape of the Palace, which they had hung up on the wall above their desk. When Lexa tells them about the books and gifts from Titus, Octavia tells her about several gifts from their brother, but Lexa has neither the opportunity nor the inclination to press on that subject, seeing Octavia’s lips go white with tension when they force even those meagre words out.

Lexa moves on. She tries not to be obvious about it.

“Enough about your brother,” she says. “What did you do to Hasim?”

Octavia regards her flatly for a moment. They shake their head once and then force a broad grin. “I don’t know what you’re talking about."

“He was chasing you and yelling.”

“Was he?”

“Yes.”

“How odd. I don’t remember doing anything to him today.”

“Yesterday, perhaps?”

“Yesterday,” Octavia muses, and Lexa leans forward, seeing the way their lips curl with amusement. They’re too proud of their own trick to stay quiet for long, she knows. She just has to wait. “Well,”

You!”

“Speak of the thing itself,” Octavia laughs, and jumps up from the bench. They start toward the other end of the courtyard and Hasim follows. Lexa smothers a laugh; he’s obviously furious but unintimidating as he has to pull his boots from several inches of clumped snow with every step. Not to mention the scarf tucked into his tunic, and his coat, and cloak, and the woollen cap pulled low around his ears. He looks like a lumbering snow golem, all clad in oranges and browns and the faintest hint of gleaming eyes beneath his cap.

“Come back here!”

“Me?”

“Yes you,” Hasim snaps, the harsh edge of his words muffled in all the layers. “You put a—” He splutters, pulls his scarf down to his chin. “You put a mouse in my darning pile!”

“You’re not afraid, are you?” Octavia teases. They dance out of reach again when Hasim tackles them, but not far enough. Hasim surprises them by clambering up onto the bench and sprinting toward them, throwing himself bodily from it to tackle them about the legs. They land heavily, breath knocked out of them, and for a moment neither of them move.

“Should we check on them?”

Lexa looks up at Ilian. He had apparently followed Hasim at a more sedate pace and only now ambles from the hall that opens onto this courtyard. He pulls his cloak tight around his shoulders but other than that he seems mostly unaffected.

“I don’t think so. Do you have a book I can read?”

“You didn’t bring one?”

“I was waylaid,” Lexa confesses.

“Ah. My condolences,” Ilian says solemnly back, only the absolute stillness of his features hinting that they’re sharing this joke. “Here. This is a particularly diverting account of the fourth Tyran queen.”

“Boring!” Hasim shouts from the other side of the courtyard.

Lexa and Ilian ignore him, and the way he shrieks when Octavia shoves snow down his back.

“You don’t want to read it?”

“I’ve nearly finished,” Ilian waves her off. “I think I’ll enjoy the sun instead.” He does exactly that, leaning back against the wall and tilting his head toward the sky. It’s not hot but the sun is bright and Lexa ends up joining him when the sun against the pages is a touch too bright for her to want to bother. She marks her page and hands it back to him. “Pleasant Midwinter?”

“Very,” Lexa nods. “And yours?”

“Getting better every moment.” He glances down at her and then over at their friends. A silence grows between them, not uncomfortable but Lexa can sense that it’s leading up to something. She waits and her patience pays off when Ilian breathes in deeply and begins to speak. “It’s been some time since I have had people to share the day with.” Lexa wonders if she should look at him while he speaks but his voice is so laden with a deep emotion she can’t place that she can’t. He doesn’t seem to mind as he continues. “After my parents… Well, I came to the university and there weren’t…friends for me there. There were mages and intellectuals and the mages tolerated me but I wasn’t strong enough or clever enough with my Gift, I didn’t push it like they seemed to enjoy doing. And the intellectuals all had passions for their minds and as much as many of them enjoyed history as I did, too many more saw their interest in the books themselves than in…” He stops awkwardly, a big hand making some small aborted gesture from his chest outward. “The books were the end goal, I suppose.”

“You wanted to do something more,” Lexa guesses.

Ilian looks down at her again. She doesn’t meet his eyes but she feels it, and sees the way he evaluates her out of the corner of her eye.

“With everything I learned, I started seeing how I could use it to help someone. My brother, the people of Malven.” Lexa nods. She understands that. “But then I saw how many other people were learning the same things, and I started thinking how easily my brother could hire an advisor, a lawyer, a merchant to balance his numbers, all those skills I was learning.” Ilian rubs his fingers over his boy-soft jaw where the faintest stubble was beginning to come through. It doesn’t quite hide a bitter twist to his mouth when he adds, “And that he likely would.”

Lexa bows her head. “I’m sorry, Ilian.”

He shrugs. “My brother is of age. What need has he of a twelve year old?” Lexa tries to think of something that might reassure him, but Ilian presses on before she can. “It was last year, last summer, when I saw the Kings Champion. Word was that they were negotiating another treaty with one of those Scanran chiefs and after one slight or the hundredth she drew her sword and convinced them to sign the damn thing. Convinced them that her way—the King’s way—was the best.”

“You…became a page because of Sir Alanna?” Lexa considers that for a moment. She knows the Champion is her hero, along with the other lady knights, but she hadn’t thought that maybe she was a hero to others. And Ilian? Lexa glances at him thoughtfully. “You want to beat people into seeing things your way?”

Ilian smiles, a slow cheerful kind of smile that tells her that he does know she’s testing him. “I want to change things,” he corrects. “And it occurred to me that there was more than one way to do it. And that one took much longer to learn.”

“And that it might be easier,” she suggests, “to use a gentler method if someone knew that a harsher one was waiting for them.”

“Exactly so,” Ilian agrees, grinning.

Lexa nods and goes back to watching their friends tousle. Their brawling has grown slower as they tire and any moment now she’s sure they’ll trudge over to join them.

“I could have joined the Riders. Or been a lady and married,” she tells him quietly. Ilian turns slightly toward her and she wonders if he’s practised this, making it feel like someone has his complete attention. “Those were really my only other options. If my father hadn’t agreed,” and she doesn’t admit how that had happened, “that was it.”

Ilian grimaces and nods. In some ways, those nobles in the Book of Bronze, or even Silver, and the rich merchants…those girls had more options. They could try their hands at being merchants or starting their own businesses. Schools, maybe. Perhaps if she had had a sibling, Lexa could have done something like that too and things would have been different. Maybe she wouldn’t have followed her father around and seen the corners of her Fief before her fifth birthday. Maybe she wouldn’t have sat in on meetings silently in the corners and listened to him deal with merchants, traders, caravans of refugees. Maybe she wouldn’t have snuck out of so many lessons if she had had someone to stay with. Maybe she wouldn’t have been left in Gustus’s hands and seen the men-at-arms training in the brisk early mornings. Maybe, maybe, maybe.

“There are many ways to affect change,” she agrees, “but I’ve always wanted to do it with a sword.”

That brings a smile to Ilian. Lexa leaves it at that and says nothing more about it, unsure where the edges of her determination lay, if indeed there is an end to it. She knows it has only a little to do with the sword. She knows—has known, for a long time now—that she will have to prove herself. Prove that she’s strong, clever, all those things that people take for granted in men half as clever as she is already at eleven. She knows that a shield lends a certain weight to someone’s words; a history, a set of values. The trust of the King himself. With a shield, her people will trust her to lead them. Maybe even without a husband. With her shield, anyone who visits Haryse will know that she has Honour and Courage and Chivalry. With her shield, with those traits and trusts behind her, she could be Lady od Haryse. And nothing, she thinks, could ever be more important to her than that.


The four of them spend the remainder of their day together, only splitting when evening approaches and they remember that they might have had no lessons but they are still very much expected to work at the feast that night.

Lexa sprints down the servants corridor toward the kitchens, fiddling with the collar of her tunic as she runs. There’s no point in being late and messy, and less point in being neat and late, so she fixes herself as she runs. It is for this reason that she doesn’t see the person in the hall when she turns the corner. By the time she does, it’s too late to stop and she careens into them. The impact is like hitting a rock wall. A clawed hand catches her before she can fall.

“Are you alright, Page Haryse?” Tkaa, the basilisk, asks her quietly in his whispering voice.

Lexa stares up at him wide-eyed. It takes some time to work moisture into her mouth. “Yes, Sir Tkaa.”

“You did not hit your head?

“No.” Lexa can feel her head throbbing, in fact. She sways a little and glances up from under her lashes to find that he is smiling very carefully, showing only the tiniest hint of teeth. “Merry Midwinter,” she says to distract him, bowing. “Have you enjoyed the feasts?”

“A merry Midwinter to you as well. I have enjoyed the festival very much.” He looks amused and Lexa wonders why until he says, “I was provided with a sampling of many fine stones.”

“Haryse is home to some very old and rich mountains,” she tells him absently, staring up at the tips of his sharp teeth and wondering at the fact that the Immortal has teeth for tearing when surely grinding molars would suit better. “You may find something there of value.”

It is difficult to tell from his towering height and the stillness and coolness of his gaze but she thinks he is watching her with considerable curiosity. Finally, he dips his head.

“Thank you for the generous offer, Page Haryse,” he says. “Perhaps I shall take you up on it one day.”

Lexa bows her head again. She knows at this point she could leave without being rude but… Midwinter, the night of longest dark, is the day for insults to be forgiven and wrongs to be righted and with the Goddess hanging heavy over them, watching with her cool, silvered eye, Lexa feels her own honour surge like a tide, urging her to speak.

“Sir Tkaa.” She clears her throat. “I wish to apologise for my behaviour at the beginning of the term. I have a…dislike of another’s voice in my mind.”

“I understand this dislike, Page Haryse. It was not my intention to cause you alarm or unease.”

Lexa nods, thinks carefully on what her next step should be. An apology, clear and direct and blameless, and then change. That’s what makes a real apology. Gus had taught her that when she was five, after slipping out the window when her counting instructor hadn’t been watching. Appropriate change, she reminds herself, and says, “Would you…like to walk with me to the dining hall?”

Tkaa peers down at her for a long moment before he smiles a little more widely, quickly hiding his teeth again. Lexa smiles toothily up at him to show that she doesn’t mind. A strange noise, like grinding rock clacks in his throat for a moment and he smiles again, showing off a row of small, sharp teeth. Tkaa takes his tail up into one clawed hand and, holding it as delicately as the fine trail of a dress, moves to the side so that Lexa may walk at his elbow. His voice lifts and falls, nearly a trill in places, when he speaks next. Lexa wonders if it always happens or if he’s maybe not controlling himself as completely around her.

“How go your studies, Page Haryse?”

With barely a flicker of hesitation, Lexa repeats a quip she’d heard from Benny. “They don’t go anywhere at all, Sir. I have to attend them every day.”

Tkaa croaks a laugh. “And do you enjoy them?”

Lexa smiles. “Yes sir, very much.” She finds it’s easier to talk to him when she’s not looking right at him.

“What is your favourite lesson?”

“I enjoy History very much, but Mathematics is my favourite. And out of class I am learning basri and kemrit, which I enjoy.”

Oh? How are your lessons progressing?” Tkaa asks, switching to basri.

You speak basri? What that word?” She repeats the word she doesn't know for him.

“Ah. Progressing,” he tells her in Common. Lexa practices the word a few times before nodding. “And yes, I do. Basilisks speak many languages, student knight.” He changes to kemrit. “We are great travellers and very curious.” He switches back to Common and smiles slightly, not enough to show teeth.There is very little to learn when one cannot speak and learn from others.”

Lexa nods. “What other languages do you know?”

“Hundreds. Dragon tongue, they’re very pretentious cousins, of a sort.” Lexa grins; she’s never seen a dragon but she’s heard of them and she thinks they wouldn’t like to be called pretentious. “Gollish. Gallan, Tyran. West Tyran. Several Kyprish dialects. Catharki. Scanran.” He says short passages in each. Something about the Scanran tongue makes Lexa frown but she can’t place what it is about it before they reach the hall.

Master Vauntire and the other pages are assembled in the small preparing space near to the doors of the grand dining hall. They watch with interest as she enters—at first certain that Vauntire will chew her up and spit her out, and then with vague discomfort and surprise when Tkaa follows her in. Lexa sees that several of the newer servants, the ones brought in for help with the feasts, freeze. The palace servants don’t; they give the Immortal polite nods and carry on with their duties.

“Forgive me, Master Vauntire,” Tkaa whispers. He bows his head to the etiquette master. “I had to borrow Page Haryse.”

Vauntire bows to him. For the first time in possibly ever, he smiles. Lexa watches carefully to see if his face cracks. “My thanks for returning my wayward page,” he says so formally that Lexa can’t even tell that he’s lying.

“Thank you for escorting me, Sir Tkaa.”

“It was my pleasure. May your Midwinter be long and still and may the stars sing to you,” he says to her, and then flicks his eyes over the rest of the room as though including them in the blessing.

Lexa is favoured by a long, curious look from Vauntire but he doesn’t berate her when she slips wordlessly into line. He accepts her apologetic bow with a nod.

“As you all know, tonight is the Midwinter Feast. Prince Jasson is absent,” Lexa blinks and searches the line subtly for him but Vauntire is right and he’s nowhere to be seen, “as he will be seated with their Majesties for the festivities. For the length of the festival, he is the Prince and not one of your peers. Treat him accordingly. Second to fourth years, check the board for your assignments. First years…” He looks over them with his customary curled lip. “The servants will tell you what to do.”

He sweeps from the room and soon his place is filled by Havassah.

“You know your jobs,” she tells them, and unhooks the ladle from her belt, sending them all scurrying away.

“Where’s Nate?” Lexa asks the sisters at the spicing station and they exchange knowing looks before turning their smiles on her. Lexa barely stops herself from rolling her eyes.

“He couldn’t make it tonight. Another job,” Berra tells her.

“Oh.” Lexa nods, then shakes herself. “Forgive me—Merry Midwinter to you, Berra. And a Merry Midwinter to you as well, Gemma.”

The sisters share a look again, this one soft and melting, before they gather around her and pinch her cheeks and squawk around her like clucking chickens, all bustle and pecking fingers telling her she’s too thin and oh you’re a dear, what a polite little thing you are, and Lexa withstands it good-naturedly until she spies Havassah bearing down on them.

“Back to work! Back to work—you too, Lexa.”

“Yes, Havassah,” Lexa agrees as though appropriately cowed and throws her a thankful look when the sisters turn away, all puffed up at being told what to do but not daring to argue with the kitchen mistress. Havassah drops one eye closed in a brisk wink.

Finally, when Lexa thinks she’s scrubbed her fingers off, the feast is over and the dishes are clean and she’s allowed to return, yawning, to her bed.

Dressed warmly, she is interrupted by a quiet knock on the door and admits Octavia into her room. They lay on her bed and Lexa is too tired to argue so she lays next to them. Moonlight spills into her room through the shutters, throwing lines of shadow over their legs and over the floor.

“Tave?” she says softly into the still night.

“Mm?”

“Are you alright?”

Octavia breathes in and out slowly before responding. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

“Because of Tkaa.” Lexa pauses when Octavia huffs but they say nothing so she continues. “Are you still…”

“Scared witless?” Octavia sneers. Their bravado falters after a moment and they shiver, looking away from Lexa. “Yeah. And I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Alright.”

“Really?”

“Of course. But when you do want to talk about it…” Octavia grins crookedly, gratefully, and shifts to lean their head on her shoulder. “Hasim enjoys listening.”

That makes Octavia laugh and Lexa grins, flush with success. When Octavia digs their elbow into her ribs, she nudges them back.

“I suppose this means Tkaa is back from his travels, though. He’ll be in lessons again.”

“Suppose so,” Octavia agrees.

“Will you be alright?”

“I’ll have to be, won’t I?” Octavia plucks at the blanket.

Lexa sneaks a look across at them and is struck by how young and vulnerable they seem. With three—or more—square meals a day, Octavia has regained much of the weight that they’d been missing when they arrived at the start of that year. Their cheeks are fuller, though still lean, and with muscle and weight filling out their clothes, they look like a child rather than a somewhat skeletal changeling. Their eyes though… Their dark eyes are wide and haunted.

Lexa takes Octavia’s hand in her own, wordlessly. When they are ready to talk about it…she’ll be here.

She squeezes and with a shuddering sigh, Octavia leans against her shoulder.

When Octavia leaves her rooms much later, Lexa stops in front of her mirror before returning to bed. She pokes at her cheek, drags her fingers down them so she can look into her wide eyes. Is there darkness in them? Can she—can anyone else—see the weight in them, the knowledge of what comes? Do her eyes hold that fear in them for everyone to see?

green eyes peer out into the forest around her, assessing the trees and the branches above with grave interest. Green eyes go blank and wide with surprise in the instant a wicked bolt seems to sprout from her chest—

Lexa lurches back, pale and cold with more than the winter chill. She breathes out harshly and steps away from the mirror.

“It won’t happen,” she says out loud. The words were meant to reassure her but instead she just sounds young and scared. She clears her throat, meets her reflections eyes. “It won’t happen. I’ll find a way to stop it.”

//

She’s gritty and tired the next day and the assignments stacked on her desk don’t help. With her friends, she trudges to the library early the next day to get them over and done with.

After two hours cooped up in the small space, however, it gets to be too much.

“That’s it—I give up.” Lexa throws her pen down to the table, scowls at her page.

“Who had bets on the day after Midwinter?”

Lexa doesn’t have to look up to kick Anya for that comment. Her scowl abates slightly when Anya hisses at the pain that blooms on her shin.

“Alright, alright. What are you working on—pfft, should’ve guess. Seating charts,” Anya tells whoever has dragged their seat over to join them.

Lexa peeks. “Hello, Highness.”

“Hello, Alexandra. You sound miserable.”

Lexa waves a hand at her chart. Rather, at the parchment and the slop of ink all over it. “How do you make sense of this?”

“I don’t,” he admits, quite cheerfully. He leans back in his chair so it’s balanced on the back two legs, and knits his fingers together behind his head. He shrugs. “I fake it for a few years, am properly repentant when I am scolded for getting it wrong, and then I’m off to distant and exotic lands. It’s Roald who has to deal with it, poor man. He seems to like it well enough.” Prince Jasson shudders. “I don’t know how he does it. Yes, Your Highness, No, Your Highness. May I plump your pillows and test your food and brush this speck of dust from your cushion for you, Your Highness.”

“Your life sounds terribly difficult,” Anya tells him in a flat tone.

The prince pauses. Then he smiles ruefully and leans forward, the legs of the chair meeting the floor with a quiet click. “That did sound a little conceited, I suppose.”

“Not at all, Your Highness,” Lexa disagrees in a tone as dry as paper. “May I polish your boots, Your Highness?”

Anya—and the Prince—stare at her for a moment before Anya bursts into laughter. “M-May I darn your socks, Highness?” she offers through giggles.

“You’re both awful,” the prince tells them and he stands, turns. “Oh no, please don’t,” he groans when he sees the crush of eager faces crowding behind his chair. While the novel sight of Anya giggling had distracted the prince, the other pages had caught wind of the mischief, as pages always do.

“Please, Your Highness, let me carry your books for you.”

“No, Your Highness, allow me to carry you!”

“I’ll cut your food into very small bites, Your Highness.”

“You foul brute! And make His Highness chew?” Benny shoves his way to the front of the group and preens when Prince Jasson groans, drops his face into his hands. “Highness,” Benny says with great reverence, “forgive his lout for his unthinking ways. He has not a speck of tenderness for you, I can see. Please—I shall chew your food for you,” Benny insists, eyes glinting with the opportunity to tease Prince Jasson and to out-perform his fellows.

“Allow me to lay across puddles for you, Highness. Your clothes shouldn’t be touched by something as lowly as mud.”

“Let this unworthy one take notes for you, Highness, lest your fair and delicate skin be marred by the speck of ink.”

Notes? You think you deserve to take notes for him? Begone—unworthy indeed!” Benny tosses his long blonde hair, turns his sharp nose upwards in distaste. Gareth, who had made the offer, is grinning from ear to ear and he scurries backwards, making his obeisance’s—in a dozen different and perfect bows, Lexa notices. Benny observes the pages with disgust. “How dare you imply the Highness must think for himself? Highness,” he spins to face Prince Jasson again and he kneels, hand to his heart. “Allow me to bind you hand and foot and think and eat and speak for you too.”

“That sounds like kidnapping and torturing me,” Prince Jasson points out.

Benny bows deeply from his kneeling pose. “If that is what would please you, Highness, I am most willing.”

The prince kicks out, knocks Benny off balance, and he scowls, first at Benny and then at Lexa, playfully. “I hope you’re happy, Haryse.”

“Highness,” Lexa smiles, eyes flicking to Benny who brightens. She doesn’t have his talent with voices but she can do some of what he does with words. “How could I be anything else? Your very presence fills my heart with gladness. I am overwhelmed.” He makes a rude gesture; Lexa grins. “I am certain someone would have done that for you if you’d only asked, Your Highness.”

“Maybe I will ask,” Prince Jasson teasingly threats. “And everywhere you go, a page will follow. Flipping you off.”

“A proper and dignified use of your position, Highness.”

“It is, isn’t it?” He looks pleased by the idea and claps her on the shoulder. “Not for you. But Benny’d get a kick out of it, definitely.”

Lexa agrees, laughing.

Soon enough she has to return to her seating arrangement and huffs. Who cares where unmarried girls sit? Every girl would prefer to sit together at these events, she’s pretty sure about that, so that’s what she decides on.

“It’s not about common sense,” Anya tells her when she complains. She sounds amused and resigned. “It’s a hierarchy, Lexa. It’s supposed to make people feel important. Stop thinking common and start thinking like the noble Lady of a House in the Book of Gold.”

“You think I’m common?"

“I think you’re too sensible to think that the Lord of Kels Ridge could possibly be more important than Lord HaMinch but it’s true. Which means?”

Lexa looks gloomily down at her messy place chart.

“…That he should be closer to the king?”

“Correct.”

“And the unmarried virgins?”

Anya snorts. “The girls do all sit together, but not for the reason you think. It’s so everyone at the banquet can chaperone them all at the same time, basically. Banquets are social events.”

“And noble parents don’t want their daughters to be social with the wrong men. Got it.” Her tongue sticks out a fraction between her teeth as she scratches out ‘wrong’ and writes in ‘poor or very odd and not rich enough to be counted as eccentric’.

“Did you write that down?”

“Yes,” Lexa says, satisfied. “I hope Vauntire chokes.”

“You’ll get a bell.”

“For telling the truth?”

“For being pert. And for telling the wrong sort of truth in your…particular form of honesty.”

“It’s called nastiness and I demand to be congratulated for it.”

“Congratulations.” Anya points her pen at the assignment. “Re-write it.”

Lexa sighs. “Bobs and weaves and curtsies,” she mutters, pulling a fresh sheet in front of her. “If a boy noble bows too deeply, they think he’s being charming or silly. If a girl curtsies even a little bit wrong, the shame is kept in the family for seven generations.”

“Or she never marries because the shame was too much,” Anya says helpfully and it makes Lexa’s scowl lighten and then break when she laughs quietly, delighted.

“I can’t wait until I’m knighted and I can—”

She stops, stares down at her essay. A drop of ink falls from the nib of her pen and soaks into the paper, bleeding out through the grain of it and spreading. For a moment, her recent nightmares - and that too real vision - asserts itself and she imagines it red. And the way her face pales when she falls from her horse and the pen in her hand is smooth like the shaft of an arrow—fingers clutching at it, slick with red—and she drops her pen. It clatters to the tabletop, ink splashing across it over Anya’s essay too. Every page watches the pen roll to the edge of the table and teeter there. It falls, loud in the oddly quiet library.

“Lexa?”

“I—I’m fine,” she breathes, tucking her hands under the tabletop to hide the way her fingers shake. “Excuse me, I’m going to finish this in my room.”

Anya shoots such cold glares at the pages studying around them that suddenly the library is full of high, nervous chatter as they all attempt to seem very uninterested. Only Prince Jasson doesn’t bother to hide his concern. He’s much too dignified for that—or else he wasn’t on the receiving end of the glare. Lexa wonders if it could be illegal to glare at a prince.

Anya runs after her.

“What was that?”

“Nothing—leave it be,” she snaps. Anya glares down at her so fiercely that Lexa is reminded who she is speaking to and she relents, bows her head. “Sorry. I just… Slept poorly.” 

“Nightmares?” Lexa gives a noncommittal shrug. “Was it about the forest?”

Lexa’s breath catches in her throat and she looks up, surprised. How could Anya possibly know about—oh. Anya’s sympathy is too real, too complete for her to know about a dream, about a possible destiny. She’s talking about the winter camp.

Lexa shrugs again.

“Well, don’t hide away in your room,” Anya suggests. “That won’t help at all. Want to fight instead?”

Lexa blinks, then grins. “Gods. Yes. Yes I do.”

They go to the mirrored hall rather than their private storeroom. Lexa tosses a cloth over Anya’s face when she pauses to admire herself and splutters when Anya flings it right back. She has to quickly dodge the attack that follows, only the barest hint of a glimmer along the edge of the sword saying that it has been blunted.

“Cheat!”

“Yes, because all the battles you fight will be formal and no one will blind you when they attack,” Anya drawls. Lexa sees a glint of a thought shining in her eyes before suddenly she can’t see anything at all.

“Anya?”

There is no reply and no sound of steps and Lexa gropes blindly with one hand and flails with her sword in the other.

“Don’t lose everything I’ve taught you just because you can’t see,” Anya says from some point behind her.

Lexa spins and brings her sword up out of instinct. The impact of Anya’s sword against it jars down her arm and she hisses, backing up. Despite being unable to see, she can’t stop her eyes from straining to find something and she suspects her mind to be playing tricks on her when a deeper shadow lunges. When she dodges out of instinct, however, and hears Anya’s quiet noise of surprise, she thinks it might be more than imagination.

“What was that?”

“I don’t know, I can’t see, can I?” Lexa snaps.

“Sure about that?” Anya mutters, but she doesn’t bring it up again, instead advancing once more.

Lexa does her best not to use the shadow of Anya in her mind to help her too much—she tries to listen for the shift of boot against stone, or the whisper of her shirt when she swings, or her breath, but it’s much harder than anything they’ve tried. And even with the strange shadow, Lexa earns several bruises where Anya’s blows land.

“Have you given any thought to how you’ll get Perrin back for breaking your arm?”

Lexa sighs gustily. “No. Well, yes, of course I have. But nothing sounds right.”

“Mm.”

“It was all petty. But I lost two weeks—” She grunts, catching Anya’s blade on her own and cutting toward Anya’s stomach. She jumps out of reach and Lexa steps back and falls into guard again. “I lost two weeks. That deserves more than sand in his boots. I don’t know what to do. He won’t stop—do I demand it of him?”

“He won’t listen. You’re thinking of that old Sir Alan story, with Ralon,” Anya guesses. Lexa nods. “If that were possible I would’ve done it in my first year. No, he won’t listen. You’re a girl page, not a boy he happens to be hazing.”

Lexa nods. She had come to the same conclusion, but she had wanted to hear Anya’s opinion anyway. “I can’t ignore him.”

“No. He won’t stop even if you do.”

“It would be so much easier if I could just challenge him,” Lexa scowls. “Thrash him and make him formally apologise.”

“Very confident that you would thrash him.”

“He underestimates me.”

“And you’re good.”

Lexa preens under the compliment and then finds herself toppling back, slamming to the ground. Her breath slams out of her and she groans. The point of a sword is levelled at her neck, she notes first upon opening her eyes, and second that she can see again.

“Hello, Anya.”

“Hello,” Anya smirks. “Not bad. What trick were you using?”

“What do you mean?”

“I blinded you. How did you hold me off for so long?”

Lexa shrugs and struggles to sit up. “I just knew where you were.”

Anya nods slowly. “Interesting.” A thoughtful look comes over her face and Lexa narrows her eyes, stands and moves further away, no longer feeling safe with that look directed at her. “You know, formal duels don’t really exist outside of tournaments anymore.”

“I can’t enter a tournament. I’m only eleven.”

Anya rolls her eyes. “I’m aware of that.”

“And I’d like to stop Perrin now, not wait four years until I can compete in one.”

“Again, I know that. I was going to say that the only other place formal duels exist is in single combat. If you challenged him, Lord Padraig would have to oversee something like that and make him comply with whatever the agreement is,” she says, like Lexa hadn’t immediately put that together.

Lexa stares at her, eyes wide. Part of her trembles with the thrill of the idea—she could challenge him to a duel and thrash him like she wants to, she could challenge him formally and her Da and Gus would be so proud because that’s the way a Lady acts. A Lady with a sword, anyway.

But the other, far larger and more sensible part of her keeps very still and calm and points out the obvious flaw.

“I can’t beat a third year.”

“No,” Anya agrees. “Not yet.”

The quiet certainty in her tone bolsters Lexa’s courage. Eagerness, in a body-wide thrill, rushes through her and she adjusts her sword grip and nods firmly that she’s ready to continue.

Anya tries her blinding trick several more times that day, sometimes for no longer than the time it takes Lexa to blink, sometimes for entire bouts. It’s infuriating and unpleasant but Lexa finds the longer they train together the easier it is for her to see the outlines of Anya and to defend against her.

Anya wins, as she always does. Again and again.

They stop a little before the lunch hour.

Lexa drops to the floor—of her own volition, for the first time of a half dozen—and groans up to the ceiling. She tilts her head slightly toward the mirrors and catches the end of Anya’s smirk as she drags her cleaning cloth over her blade.

“You’re evil,” Lexa mutters.

“I can work you through lunch if you like.”

“You’re not quite evil,” Lexa amends. She closes her eyes. Even her eyelids feel sore. “Anya?”

“Mhm.”

“How come you’re so good at this?”

“I’ve had years of practice on you, kid.”

“I know, but,” Lexa groans as she sits up. Is she imagining it or is Anya avoiding her gaze? “You’re better than the other third years too. And the fourth years. And you beat Shimas and he’s one of the King’s Own.”

Anya, satisfied her sword is clean, sheathes the blade. She rubs at her shoulder where Lexa had got a lucky strike in. “I train hard.”

“Anya.”

“Should’ve picked Danshame,” Anya mutters to herself, rolls her eyes up to the ceiling. “Fine. Some people don’t trust Tirragen’s. Or girls. Or K’miri people. I’ve had to practice. A lot.”

“Oh.”

“And some of it is pure talent,” Anya adds, with a wild kind of grin. Her hair is plastered to her forehead and neck and there’s a bronze flush to her and a life to her smile, her eyes, when she’s wielding her sword and Lexa can’t imagine anyone hating Anya.

Except for Perrin, she amends, but he doesn’t truly count.

She accepts Anya’s hand when she stalks over and pops up onto her feet.

They stretch together slowly, working the leaden feeling from their arms and legs and the tightness from their wrists and hands especially.

“Something wrong?”

“Should’ve had Runnerspring for a sponsor,” Lexa mutters to herself and grins when Anya barks a laugh. “I’m fine. I feel better.”

Anya nods her satisfaction with that answer. “Good. And if you want to talk about,” she breaks off, looking apologetic and a little awkward. “Sorry. I shouldn’t have brought it up.”

“It’s alright.” Lexa smiles up at her sponsor. “I’ll talk to Lincoln.”

Anya laughs, cuffs Lexa around the ear. “Brat.”

//

It wasn’t really a lie, telling Anya that she felt better. She had in the moment, but that night when the shadows grow long and the branches of the trees in the courtyard grate against her shutters, Lexa can’t sleep. She slips from her room, avoiding the light that spills from open doorways, and makes her way to the Greenery. The magelights glint faintly overhead and Lexa takes her place on the bench by the window, giving the creeping vine a pat when it examines her boot.

“I thought you wouldn’t be back.”

Lexa’s sword is in her hand before she can take in a breath and Clarke’s brows lift in delicate surprise though she doesn’t flinch. Lexa stammers an apology. She takes a breath and apologises again, properly.

“Please, the apology is mine, Lexa. I admit, I was trying to surprise you.”

Lexa grimaces. “I was lost in thought.” She gestures an invitation for Clarke to join her.

“Have you a lot to think about?” Clarke asks. Though her voice is perfectly polite, there’s a sharpness to the cool amusement that Lexa doesn’t recognise. She thinks it might be mocking, almost.

“It’s not all hitting people with sticks.”

“No?”

“No.” Lexa waits for a moment. “Only mostly.”

Clarke laughs politely. The corners of her eyes crinkle more than the polite laugh would make her and Lexa thinks she might be genuinely amused.

“Would you like to talk about it?” Lexa grimaces. She shakes her had no. “Oh good. I’ve had a dreadful day,” Clarke huffs. “And I need someone to complain to.”

Lexa smiles from under her lashes and gives a half bow. “What else am I for, good lady?”

Clarke laughs into a very entertaining tale. She makes embroidery—and her teacher—sound like a dramatic battle, ending with her fingers in tatters. Her escort was too attentive and she couldn’t sneak away. Her walk in the gardens was a trial, like walking over hot rocks in her too-thin slippers.

“They are not meant for wearing out of doors, Lexa,” she tells her primly and Lexa nods her grave agreement.

Lexa listens carefully, drinking in the new information Clarke is giving her. She suspects, as always, that while much of it is true it isn’t all the truth. That seems to be the way with Clarke, but Lexa doesn’t mind all that much.

When Clarke is done with her story, Lexa says, “I’m scared of dying.”

Clarke hesitates. She opens her mouth to speak and shuts it as quickly. Finally, she says, “That's a heavy thought." A moment passes. Then another. Then, she says, "Is this because of the Ordeals?”

Lexa frowns down at her hands. She hadn’t really considered that but maybe it was the cause of the vision recurring.

“I don’t think,” Clarke says delicately, “that you will need to be concerned with that. Not yet, certainly. And maybe not ever. You have all the skills a knight needs,” she continues gently, laying her hand over Lexa’s. “Chivalry, Courage, Honour. That’s what your knights teach, isn’t it?” Lexa nods. “You have all that already.”

Lexa gives her a thankful smile but doesn’t say anything.

“You don’t have to be a knight. You could be…an advisor. Or an ambassador.”

“It’s not that. It’s not the likelihood of my dying. It’s…” Lexa scrubs a hand through her hair. “I don’t want to die at eighteen with an arrow to the chest before I get my shield. Before I do anything.”

Clarke nods slowly. “You want your death to mean something.”

There’s more to it than that; the faint despair that comes with knowing one death that might come upon her. The inevitability of knowing that it will happen some day, in a solid fashion rather than the nebulous awareness of death everyone carries. The desire to keep it at bay. The helplessness of not knowing how.

Still, Clarke isn’t wrong. Lexa nods. “I want my life to mean something first,” Lexa says, which feels right.

“You have good friends. People who know you.” The shadows around their feet are deep and cold. Lexa shivers. She looks into Clarke’s crystal clear eyes. “They will miss you if you die. You also have people who will fight very hard to keep you alive.”

“I know.”

Clarke smiles. “Are you still concerned.”

“Yes.”

“Well don’t be. I need you to teach me still—thank you for the comb, by the way,”

Lexa bobs her head in a nod.

“I still need you, so I’m not about to let anything take you before you’re good and old, Lexa.”

For the second time, it happens.

A sound—like a bell, like a shift in the spine of the earth itself ringing out around them. Clarke’s wide eyes and choked gasp says that she hears it too. And after a split second of silence, and stillness, a great light bursts out between them.

Lexa twists her hand so that she’s holding Clarke’s firmly and in that split second she relies on instinct to tell her what comes next. With that pulse of light comes energy, force, and it sends the two girls away from it with a booming crash. Pots topple over, benches too, even the heavy tree in the centre of the room creaks and a split crackles up the length of its trunk as it groans from the pressure. When the girls are thrown away from it, Lexa uses the momentum and her grip to pull Clarke into her arms. She breaks her fall with her own body.

A moment passes, ringing and jarring in her ears. 

A weight shifts on her chest and Lexa blinks her eyes open to see blonde hair and Clarke rolling off her. Clarke stands unsteadily, hair mussed, eyes wide and confused. 

 

Lexa can only imagine what she herself looks like, from looking at Clarke. Clarke is…horrified. Reaching up to her as she would a spooked horse, Lexa is unprepared for Clarke bundling up her skirting and running.

Lexa calls after her but her words come out fuzzy and unintelligible—no, she realises, she just can’t hear them. Her ears are ringing from the blast. Lexa blinks away the starburst spots in her eyes and stumbles to collect anything that belongs to them. Something tells her that even if the first had gone unnoticed those weeks ago, this…whatever it was…did not.

Ears still ringing, Lexa runs from the Greenery. She has to catch herself against the wall now and again when she stumbles, balance off, but finally she reaches the pages hallway after coming a long way round that she doubts she could ever replicate. She throws herself into her room and, shaking, begins to pace.

When her thoughts refuse to settle, Lexa makes her way down the hall to Anya’s room. It’s late but Anya opens the door for her anyway, face drawn and tense. Strangely, the confusion eases to some kind of understanding when she sees Lexa at her door. She steps out into the hall, eyes flicking over Lexa to see if she’s hurt, and wordlessly follows her back to her room.

Lexa wonders idly if she’s ever going to see the inside of Anya’s room.

She sits at her desk for a moment before jumping up to pace once more. Anya takes the other seat and watches her.

“Are you okay?”

Lexa is relieved to hear the words sound normal. She’s relieved to hear.

“Why wouldn’t I be?”

Anya quirks an eyebrow. “You come to me at midnight looking like there are hounds at your heels, maybe?” Lexa grimaces. “Also,” she nods to Lexa’s belly, where she’s holding her arm tenderly.

“Oh.” It twinges, now that she’s looking at it. “Ouch.”

Anya clicks her tongue. She gestures for Lexa to sit and pulls her own chair close so she can examine Lexa’s arm. A trickle of her Gift fades into her skin and Lexa crinkles her nose at the cold feeling.

“Just bruised. You gotta be careful, Lex. You’ll break it again otherwise.”

When she reaches for the bruisebalm on Lexa’s desk, Lexa yelps.

“Not that one!” Anya stares at her. “Costai made—I mean, I haven’t started that one yet,” she says gruffly, clearing her throat. “Use the big one.”

“Right.” Anya doesn’t bother to hide her grin. She rubs the balm gently into Lexa’s arm. “Was it Perrin?”

“No.”

“Hmm.” She works slowly, a frown deepening between her brows. “Have anything to do with something…weird that happened tonight?”

“Weird?”

“About a bell ago.”

Lexa jerks, surprised. That long ago? She must have been running for longer than she’d thought. “No. I don’t know. Don’t ask me about it. Please,” she tacks on.

Anya purses her lips. “You’re not hurt?”

“No.”

“Anything like it happened to you before?”

No.”

As she says it, Lexa knows it isn’t quite true. But the first time no one had noticed and there had been no light and they definitely hadn’t been thrown about the Greenery so…no. It wasn’t the same. Surely.

“You felt it? Something?” Lexa asks after a long moment.

Anya bobs her head in a nod. “Yeah.”

“What was it?”

“Feels like something you should be telling me,” Anya grumbles but doesn’t press. “It felt like… It felt like when I made that oath with you. But…"

“More,” Lexa says clumsily, her tongue feeling too big to handle the word well.

“More,” Anya agrees.

Lexa swallows thickly. “Do you think it was something bad?” The thought of having somehow bound Clarke to some kind of oath… Horror drops like ice into the pit of her stomach.

“I don’t know. But I think you might want to hold off making any more promises,” Anya advises.

Lexa nods. “I promise,” she agrees gravely.

Anya narrows her eyes and Lexa grins sheepishly when she realises what she’s said.

//

After the Midwinter week, all six of the Ordeals have passed harmlessly. Sir Allen of Cavall, Sir Homir of Mandash, Sir Rurik of Heathercove join the ranks of the knights. Once Sir Rurik emerges from the Chamber safe and mostly whole, the palace brightens and lightens and celebrates.

All, that is, save for Lexa and a handful of others.

Clarke has been avoiding her. Lexa hadn’t been certain at first but then Clarke hadn’t shown up to any of their lessons for three weeks and now she’s fairly certain of it.

Lexa understands. But she doesn’t like it.

“Has this bookshelf insulted you?”

A voice interrupts Lexa, makes her look away from where she’s glowering up at the heavy wooden shelf and the annoying lack of free foot stools to help her reach the topmost portion. She looks up to Benny, whose sea-blue eyes are entirely too amused.

Lexa sighs. “I can’t reach.”

She catches the smile he can’t quite hide; Benny is courteous enough to pretend it never happened at all and in a too-flat tone, smothering his amusement, asks, “Reach what?” He pulls down the tomes Lexa points out and helps her carry them back to her study table. He turns the books in his hands so that he can read the spines and whistles lowly. “Oaths and Oathbreakers, Bloodoaths; Fealty and Traitors… This is heavy reading, Alexandra.”

“Yes.” She sits, pulls them to her side of the table.

He takes the other side of the table for himself and lays out his assignments. Instead of reading them, he looks thoughtfully at her. “Is something wrong?”

“No.”

“You look frazzled.”

“Not everyone has a rigorous hair-care routine.”

“They should – ” Benny starts, swallows the rest of his mow familiar rant in favour of eyeing her suspiciously. “I shall not be distracted.”

“That would be a first.” Her biting words only make him laugh.

“I don’t want to bother you so I will ask only once more. Is something troubling you, oh noble Alexandra?”

Despite the extravagant words, he asks in such a quiet and even tone that she thinks he’s as close to serious as he gets. Lexa peeks over the top of her book.

“Maybe.”

“Mm. Would you care to discuss it?”

She narrows her eyes. Benny is as beautiful as ever but there’s something different about him. After a moment, she pinpoints the main difference—his hair is tied back instead of hanging loose around his shoulders. She’s seen that before, though, since he ties it back in the training yard. The real difference is the crinkle sitting between his brows, absolutely foreign.

Caring leads to frowning, frowning to wrinkles, wrinkles to premature aging, and my sweet, sweet companions, that is not something that shall ever claim Benthor Corrin Pen-Tormack of Elden!

“You’re frowning.”

“I am concerned for you.”

“Frowning leads to wrinkles.”

“Wrinkles are inevitable,” he informs her gravely.

Lexa feels her eyebrows lift what feels like a full inch in surprise; surprised, confused, she allows herself to be swayed by this more solemn Benny since talking to Anya isn’t possible and her year mates are busy with their own assignments. Closing her book makes Benny sit up and lean in. She can’t explain the potential bond she formed with Clarke so instead she tells him the other item weighing on her mind and Benny listens as she explains the problems she’s still having with Perrin.

She can’t let others fight her battles for her, she explains, but she’s so incredibly tired of wasting her time with him. But if she doesn’t fight back then Perrin will think that he’s won and she will feel like he’s won something. Then again, if she fights and loses then all she’s done is perpetuate a ridiculous and petty competition to defend her and her family’s honour that doesn’t have much to do with honour at all.

“And I know I’m supposed to fight him because the act of facing him is what protects my honour, not the act of winning, but wouldn’t it be just as honourable to ignore him because petty attacks can’t tarnish my honour? And ignoring him sounds right but it feels wrong.” She sighs, scrapes her fingers through her curls. “What do you think?”

“I’m not sure,” Benny admits. He rolls a coin between his fingers and makes it disappear, reappearing in his other hand. “I do think he’s a fool if he thinks you’re weak.”

“Or he has a bad memory.”

“Or you gave him a bad memory when you knocked him out,” he suggesting, grinning. Lexa grins back. “Then again, he could be playing the fool. Or goading you.”

“Playing the fool?”

“Pretending to be dumber than he really is.”

“Oh.” Lexa frowns. She hadn’t considered that. “Benny?”

“Yes, little fox.”

“You’re being very clever tonight. Why is that?”

“I’ve noticed that Anya prefers the clever lads. Haven’t you?” His voice is very serious but Lexa doesn’t believe him. She believes him even less when he blinks his big blue eyes. After a long silence, his smile grows like a wild thing on his lips, untamed. “Can’t fool you, hmm?”

“You were too serious. It felt like a feint.”

Benny blinks. “It did, did it?”

Lexa nods.

“I…will keep that in mind, little fox.” Before her eyes, Benny brightens and changes a little. Not a lot, but he looks more of the Benny she knows. No longer like he’s wearing a serious mask, just a serious expression. The difference is very small but still it makes Lexa nod.

“I think that’s better.” 

“I’ll try it out on Anya later,” he winks.

“She’ll figure it out. She’s smarter than me.” 

“Maybe.”

“Two copper on it?”

“You’ve a strangle hold on those coins. Let them breathe,” he urges. Lexa lifts one brow. “Or not. Two coppers,” he agrees. They shake on it and Benny’s coin appears in what had been an empty hand.

“So. Why are you being clever?”

“You seemed to need a clever friend, not a funny one. And there didn’t seem to be many options.”

Even knowing he’s so good at faking his expressions, Lexa thinks the sincerity in his eyes is real. She smiles a little shyly. “Are you my friend, then?”

Benny’s expression falls clean away, revealing shock and upset and a fierce determination. He tames himself with a visible struggle before saying, “Yes, Alexandra, I am.”

Lexa feels her world tilt the faintest amount. Why don’t people tell her things like this when they happen? “Thank you, Benthor,” she says, still considering it and trying to catalogue it. His friendship makes sense, now that she thinks about it. He treats Anya and the Prince in a similar fashion—teasing and joking and endless dramatics, and now she sees how his behaviour shows he treats her in a similar vein. Which, she concludes, suggests that he considers her in a similar vein to his friends, making her a friend. “I understand.”

“Good. I would have told you earlier, if I’d realised you didn’t know.”

“There are plenty of things I don’t know.”

“Perhaps I can make sense of them for you,” he suggests.

“Maybe.” Lexa shrugs. “Can you help me understand Perrin?”

“To understand the mind of a man,” he sighs dramatically, twisting his hands in an agonised contortion of dismay or displeasure, “would be for one knowing moment and then endless twice-wrought madness.”

“You seem to think I don’t need clever Benny anymore,” Lexa drawls, unimpressed.

“Clever Benny shows himself in pieces,” Benny admits, dropping his chin lazily into his hand. “And also I don’t know what the right strategy is with Perrin.”

“Strategy works best when you know strengths and weaknesses. If we start there,”

“We’ll have something to go off. Brilliant,” Benny nods. “He’s proud.”

“Hates being ignored.”

“Exactly. Ignoring him when he’s goading you could trick him into making a mistake.”

“Or make him more dangerous,” Lexa points out. “But I can’t fight him right now, I’ll end up hurt.”

“Probably. I’d suggest only engage with him when you’re surrounded by people. Glare at him if he insults you, or ask Anya to say something scathing.” He flutters his eyelashes. “She’s very good at that.”

“Is there something in your eye?”

“A lovelorn expression.”

“Oh, is that what it was?” she says, unimpressed.

“You’re not very nice sometimes,” Benny comments, a happy smile crooked on his lips. Lexa wonders if the crookedness means it’s natural. All his expressions are always so symmetrical and perfect. She likes the idea of having made him smile. “If pride makes Perrin short sighted, we—you, that is—may have the most success using a long term solution.”

“Anya suggested a swordfight.”

“She would.” He waves a hand when she glares. “It has merit, I’m not denying that.”

“Of course it does. But,”

“But?”

“I can’t do it yet. He’s been training for years so I—” Lexa stops. She sits bolt upright, mind working quickly. “I need more time,” she murmurs. Yanking her papers toward her, she ignores her mathematics problems and begins to write on the backs of her pages in neat, leaning letters.

Benny frowns down at the page, reading upside down. After a few moments, his jaw drops. “Can you do that?”

“I’m a Haryse. There’s very little I can’t do.”

“Alexandra, my dear delightful dove,” he says with the reverence typically reserved for Anya on her nastiest of days, “if you would permit a measly player to assist you, it would be my honour and delight to do so.” He bows somewhat awkwardly in his seated position.

Lexa grins. She holds off agreeing for a moment. “You understand that it can’t be a joke. This is serious.” 

“Yes.”

“And your reputation,”

“They won’t see me in this. I would say trust me but I doubt that would have much effect. How about this—I know things,” he tells her. “About people. Families. Things people would do much to hide.”

Lexa’s hand stills on her page. She looks up, curious. “Truly?”

“You would be surprised how much people tell a devesatatingly handsome idiot.”

“About Halleburn?”

“Amongst others, yes.”

“In that case, Benthor, we have an accord.”

They shake on it there in the back of a dusty library, books stacked around them. Looking back on it years later, Lexa would be able to pinpoint it as one of the moments that changed the direction of her future and despite the trouble it brings, wouldn’t change a thing.

//

Dear Da,

Sorry for the lack of letters. It’s not just because of the snows. Oh, winter is beautiful in Corus, but slushier and wetter than in Haryse. Odd. In any case, that’s not the reason for the delay. I have something in the works and I’ve only just figured out what I’d like to do about it. A friend of mine helped and I think it’s a good plan. I’ve sent some papers for you to look over—I’ve been using Corvard’s Formulae to help, so try looking there first. Chapter 4, if I’m not mistaken.

Midwinter was lovely—thank you for the books, you chose well as always. And please thank Mara for my new clothes. Right now it looks like I’ve borrowed a giants clothes but I think I’ll grow into them soon.

Hoping your Midwinter was good. How is Tya? How is the household?

Much love,
Lexa. 

//

Dear Lexa,

Midwinter was strange without you. Very strange. Still, there were duties to fill my days with and the home was full every evening for the feasts. Tya is very well; she has been given a permanent place in the household. Officially, she is to look after the fires and the torches and ensure that there is plenty of firewood though Corin has forbidden her from using an axe yet. Perhaps when she’s grown. For now, she’s collecting kindling and the firewood from the stacks.

Mara cried when she read that your clothes didn’t fit. I’m certain you should be expecting another package soon.

Covard’s Formulae was an interesting read. It helped very much in getting my head around the problem you sent me. I certaintly never had problems like this in my years of study. I believe that I’ve sorted it—I’ve included a copy of the solution in your letter for your perusal. Do let me know if you have any more problems you need your Da’s help for. I am eager to discuss this with you come summer.

Your loving father,
Titus of Haryse.


Lexa knows the very day that Perrin receives a letter from his father.

The long, cold stares she’s given from across the dining hall are only one proof—the manner in which he goes out of his way to stand on the opposite end of the training hall, completes his work in his room rather than visiting the library, doesn’t so much as look in her direction if they pass in the halls, all of these are more and delicious proofs that Lexa hoards, delighted by her success. It is only a respite, she knows. Some day—and some day soon—the Lord Thaddim of Halleburn will find a way around her father’s very polite threat of blackmail.

But not today, and not tomorrow. And until he does, Lexa decides to work hard to ensure she has the skill to take Perrin on and stop this nonsense.

Permanently.

Chapter Text

 

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.”

“Fine.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, I need help with my problems from Snapper,” they admit. “Lexa? Will you help?”

“Sure.”

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.”

“Would you?”

“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.

“…No.”

“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.

“Right.”

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?”

“Bleeding flower.”

“Gross. I love it.” Octavia frowns at the bloom. “I would call it… Bleeding star.”

“Because of the petals.”

“Yeah.”

Lexa nods approvingly. “Very good.”

“Thanks.”

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?”

“Yeah.”

“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.”

“Ouch.”

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.

“Need help?”

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?”

“Dunno.”

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.”

“Yessir!”

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.

“Alright, Haryse?”

“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?”

“Hmm?”

“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?”

“Yessir.”

“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?”

“Yessir."

“A bell on Sunday.”

“Yessir.”

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.

She nods.

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.

She fires.

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.”

“You’re alright?”

“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?”

“Aye.”

“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.

“Tirragen.”

“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.

“Apologies, milord,”

“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?”

“Nossir.”

Padraig rubs at his temple. Then he nods. “Hosseim does. Follow him.”

“Yessir."

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.

“Runnerspring,”

“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. 

“What?”

“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.”

“Thank 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. 

She flushes.

“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.”

“Please rise.”

“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.

Lexa starts.

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.”

“Runnersp–”

“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.”

Hosseim.”

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.

Hosseim.”

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.

“Yes, milord.”

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.”

Padraig nods.

“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?”

“That’s dreadful.”

“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.

“Emry?”

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.

“Fine.”

“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?”

“Hello, Hosseim.”

“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.

“See it?”

“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?”

“No.”

“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.

“Hmm?”

“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?”

“Yes, milord.”

“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.”

“Yes, milord.”

“Queenscove, Braske, make sure there’s nothing past this hollow.”

“Yessir.”

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?”

“Yessir.”

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.

“Advance. Slowly.”

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.”

“Aye, milord.”

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?”

“Mm.”

“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?”

“No.”

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.”

“But why?”

“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?”

“No.”

“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.

“Gus.”

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.

“Alright, lass?”

“Alright, Gus.”

“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.

“Gus?”

“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?”

“No.”

“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?”

“It’s Octavia.”

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.”

“You’re mad!”

“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.

“Yessir.”

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.

“Tave.”

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.”

“Page Haryse,”

“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.

“And me?”

“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?”

“Doubt it.”

“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.”

“What?”

“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?”

“Yeah.”

“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.”

“What?”

“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.

“Your brother.”

“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.”

Lexa nods.

“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.”

“Right. Good.”

“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...”

"Scared?"

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?”

“Certainly.”

“…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.

“Hello there!”

“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.