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For Want of a Bout

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The distance between Byrgenwerth’s campus and the train station wasn’t an intolerably long one, but Avena Hunter took the trolley all the same. It gave her time to watch people on the street and see how filthy her glasses had managed to get during the hours-long train ride. She sighed, set her suitcase between her feet, and took a handkerchief from an inside pocket of her waistcoat to start cleaning.

The trolley trundled smoothly along the rails, the conductor blowing a whistle when a pedestrian lingered too long and too close. Though the sunlight was mild and sometimes hidden by clouds, the tall buildings all around kept the streets mostly in shadow. Avena waited for a patch of sun before leaning back and checking her glasses for lingering spots in the light. With the lenses finally clean, she settled in to wait for her stop.

“Byrgenwerth, next stop,” the conductor called soon enough. “Next stop, Byrgenwerth.”

Avena took a deep breath, cracked her neck and all knuckles, and picked up her suitcase. Before the trolley had come to a complete stop, she stepped off smoothly and went on her way. The sidewalk before the campus gate was fairly empty, but the pathways afterward were fit to burst. Nearly every person she saw was clearly a student, and almost all were in their first year based on how they looked in every direction before moving. Most carried suitcases as fit to burst as the pathway, some people even needing to take breaks and set the cases down.

She did her best to avoid everyone, sidestepping when she could and stopping outright when necessary. It could not keep her from being clipped by a young man on one side, her suitcase nearly getting knocked out of her hand. He paused to look at her, smiling sheepishly, and lifted a hand as he started away.

“Sorry, Professor!” he said. “Didn’t mean to!”

“I’m not,” Avena began, but he was out of earshot before she could say, “a professor.” She sighed and went off in a different direction after looking about. Her destination became a building with two lines of people in its entrance, one leaving a steady rate and one waiting to enter. She joined the line to enter and checked her pocket watch.

“Er,” a woman ahead of her said, “would you like to go ahead of me, Professor? I didn’t think professors would line up here.”

“I’m not a professor,” Avena replied as she put her watch away. “I’m a first year. But thank you for the offer.”

The woman stared at her. She quietly said, “Oh. All right, then.”

Avena said nothing more, instead waiting in silence as the woman turned around. The line moved along at a good speed, bringing her closer and closer to an office with an open door. She was directed to the office when she reached the front of the line, going inside at once. The office was immense, walls lined with bookcases that were overflowing. The ornate desk toward the back was occupied by a stack of papers and a few boxes. The man sitting at the desk did not look up at her, instead taking a drink from a steaming mug.

“Name and year?” he asked.

“Avena Hunter,” she replied. “First year.”

“Hunter,” he said mildly, going through the stack of papers. “Hunter…ah, yes, here are the Hs.” He read a specific piece of paper before going through two boxes. He took a key from each box, one brass and one heavy iron.

“Brass for the residence hall,” he said. “Iron for the archives, which is not to be shared in any way with the other students.”

“I understand,” Avena said, tucking the iron key into the pocket with her handkerchief. “I don’t plan to share it.”

“Good,” he said. “You don’t want your scholarship revoked. Now, the residence key is for the Cainhurst building, suite five on the fourth floor. You’ve a roommate, and the building’s closest to the archives. You know where the archives are, I assume.”

“Yes sir,” she replied. “Thank you for these.”

“May you gain insight in your studies, Hunter,” he said, waving a hand to dismiss her.

She bowed to him before turning on her heels and leaving. The pathways further from the campus gate were just as crowded as the ones before, and soon the grassy patches became occupied by tired young men and women. Avena walked past them, eyes on the buildings around them. When she saw a large, ivy-covered brick building, she slowed down and looked about. Another large building, wood and painted in shades of dark blue and gray, caught her eye with how many people were gathered around it, and she headed to it without hesitation.

The sign hung over its open double doors read “Cainhurst Hall,” and it removed any doubt from her mind. She lengthened her stride when she saw a stairwell after going inside, taking the stairs two at a time to get to the fourth floor. The doors in the hall were numbered, each number set in shining, polished silver, and she stopped at the door marked with a five. She unlocked the door, stepped inside, and locked the door behind her in one quiet movement.

The common room of the suite was a decent size, furnished with worn armchairs, a chaise lounge, and a coffee table large enough to double as a low, two-person desk. Three doors led away from the room, and she could see a wall mirror above a sink in one doorway. The other doors were mostly closed, but one was soon opened and a lithe blonde woman in a dark red dress leaned out to look at her.

“Oh!” the woman said. “You wouldn’t be Avena Hunter, would you?”

“I am,” she replied. “I’m sorry, I wasn’t told your name when I got my key.”

“It’s quite all right,” the woman said, moving to offer an hand. “Arianna Lilit. I didn’t know Byrgenwerth housed professors with students, much less with first years.”

“I’m not a professor,” Avena said, taking her hand to shake. “I’m a first year, like you.”

Arianna looked at her. She looked at her hair and slowly raised a brow. She asked. “Did you fall into a fireplace this morning and forget to get all of the ash out of your hair, perhaps?”

“No, the gray is natural.”

All of this?” Arianna asked, patting the large gray patch in Avena’s brown hair, situated at the front and right of her head. “You’d see nothing but gray in one eye if this got in your face.”

“I have to admit it’s part of why I keep it short,” Avena said with a weary smile.

“It certainly gives you a sense of dignity,” Arianna chuckled. Taller than Avena, she only had to make her tip her head forward slightly to look at the rest of her hair. “Still a surprise to see it on someone as young as a first year.”

“To be fair,” Avena said when she was allowed to straighten up, “I’m twenty-six.”

“That’s a bit…old for a first year.” She put her hand under Avena’s chin and looked at her face closely.

“I had health issues that kept me out of schooling for a long while.” She hooked a finger over Arianna’s wrist and gently pulled her hand down. “Do you touch everyone like this?”

“Only people who I think won’t bite,” Arianna said, winking at her. She played with the gray patch in Avena’s hair, hummed, and said, “You do look rather pale blooded. But mind your health this term, dear. I don’t want to play nurse to my roommate.”

“I’ll be doing my best to avoid having any issues,” Avena replied.

“Good. But I’m keeping you from setting your things down—please go on.”

“Thank you.” She headed for the trio of doors, checked which room had a suitcase on its bed, and went into the unoccupied room. Her bag she set on the bed; her suitcase she set on the desk. The tall windows in one wall had their curtains drawn, letting the patchy sunlight fall on the lounge seat set below the windows.

“I hope you don’t mind me taking the other room,” Arianna said from the door. “It looks like it’ll face the sunrise.” She smiled slightly, leaning against the doorframe. “I love watching the sunrise.”

“That’s all right,” Avena said, opening her suitcase to take out the books she’d packed. “I do better if my room is warmer in the afternoon.”

“Goodness, you’re a regular paleblood,” Arianna chuckled. “I’ve heard palebloods have trouble staying warm.”

“I wish it wasn’t true, but it is.” When every book was on her desk, she reached into her waistcoat pocket to retrieve her handkerchief and the archive key. Because the key clinked on the desk, Arianna straightened up.

“Is there a key I should’ve gotten?” she asked.

“What?” Avena asked. She looked at the iron key and said, “Oh. No, this is for another building. I’m going to work there. Part of the terms of my scholarship.”

“Ooh,” Arianna said. “May I ask where? I don’t suppose the library?”

“No, the archives. I’ll be restoring things and translating runes.”

Translating? Heavens, why are you bothering with classes if you know runes?”

“I don’t know many obscure ones, just what I could find in libraries.” She smiled and said, “And I’ve wanted to learn about Pthumeru for years. That information is really only here at Byrgenwerth.”

“No wonder you’re going to the archives, then. I hope you won’t mind me asking for help on arcane history courses.”

“That’s fine,” Avena said. “Hopefully I’m not a boring tutor.”

“I think we’ll do well,” Arianna replied, and her smile was so cheerfully bright that Avena could not help her own smile.

————

The move-in day for first years always fell on a Friday, Avena heard during the hall’s first dinner together, to give students time to settle and roam the campus before classes began on Monday. While she also heard several people say they would happily sleep in the next day, she did not plan to join them. As always, she woke at five-oh-five without an alarm, cleaned up, and left the hall as quietly as she could to head for the archives.

Engraved on the double doors were runes Avena had known for years: “Eye,” with its namesake contained with a five-pointed star. She looked about, saw no one, and unlocked the doors to slip inside. The sound of the lock as she set it behind her was as loud as a dropped iron bar in the silence of the great atrium. The ceiling above was a glass dome, adorned with etchings of constellations, and the etchings were mirrored in the tile under her feet.

Her eyes drifted to one side toward a set of doors she knew hid rows upon rows of bookcases filled to capacity. They drifted back and up along the grand hardwood stairs leading up in a graceful curve. Where they finally settled was another set of doors past the stairs, and she went to them with the iron key in hand. When unlocked, the doors opened to a lift, and Avena stepped inside to close and lock the doors behind her. Though there were three basement floors to select from, she did not hesitate in pressing the button for two floors down.

The lift opened to another atrium, less grand than above but with its floor still etched with stars. She stepped into the atrium, looking around, and hesitated at the doors she saw. They were marked with runes she did not recognize, and so she went around the lift slowly. When she spotted the familiar shape of the Lake rune on a door, she sighed with relief and went to it.

It, too, was locked, and the door was terribly heavy, more so than it had seemed when she had watched someone else open it. Most of the room was dominated by a worktable made of metal that glittered in the right light. Around it were drying cabinets, bookcases with solid doors, and cabinets with wide, shallow drawers. One cabinet was smaller, a drawer slightly open. She opened it fully, smiling at the neatly stacked white cloth gloves and the glass case storing fine, sharp knives. After rolling her sleeves up to her elbows, she put on a pair of gloves and went to the cabinet with shallow drawers.

The top drawer was opened, her eyes falling on the sheet of cloth paper resting there. Gently, carefully, she took the sheet from the drawer and moved it to the table. After she closed the drawer, she simply stood and looked at the sheet.

Upon the cloth was the image of a beastly dog, its skin charred and cracked. From its malformed maw came flames; the cracks in its skin all but glowed with fire. Below the beast was written a rune but it, like several places on the beast, was obscured by grime and stains. She kept her hands off the sheet except to carefully turn it to consider it from other angles. After a long while, she gathered material from the smaller cabinet and arranged them on the table. With a light hand, she began to work on removing the grime.

Focused on her task, Avena lost all track of time. Hours passed; she did not notice when her empty stomach growled. Only the sound of someone trying to unlock the already open door made her stop and look up.

“Bloody hell, I locked this,” a man’s voice came through the door. The door was opened immediately after that, revealing a man with glasses, tied-back black hair, and a frown on his face. When he saw her, however, the frown faded for surprise.

Hunter?” he said.

“Uh,” Avena said quietly, shrinking on herself. “Yes—yes, Master Laurence.”

“What on earth are you doing working now?” he asked.

“I,” Avena said, “I wanted to—I’m used to working on cloth paper. And work helps me—I feel more relaxed if I get to work.”

He raised a brow at her. He said, “Work relaxes you.”

“Yes sir.”

He snorted with laughter and said, “Gods. No wonder Master Willem granted you a working scholarship. Well said, Hunter.”

Avena let her shoulders relax, smiling very slightly, and said, “Thank you, sir.”

“Someone to introduce us to, Laurence?” a man outside the door chuckled.

Avena’s shoulders twitched, but the mild, warm rasp of the man’s voice soothed the twitch. She turned to face the door properly as Laurence moved aside. Past the door was an older man in a wheelchair, a cane in his hands and his lower right leg replaced with a wooden peg leg. His clothes were soft, well-worn, and matching his wrinkled face. He tilted his head to look at her from beneath his hat, laughing through his nose.

“Look at you,” he said. “A bit old for a student.”

Before she could protest, Avena noticed the slender, long-fingered hands holding the wheelchair’s handles. She looked up to find a woman standing there. She was pale, long gray-blonde hair tied up in a bun, and wore a warm red shawl over a fine gray dress. She looked at Avena with light blue eyes and smiled, and the sight of her smile was more than enough to make Avena need to fight back a foolish smile of her own.

“Father, that’s not true,” the woman said, her voice gentle and softened with an accent Avena had not heard in years.

“Oh?” the man said, looking up at her.

“She’s no older than I,” the woman replied. “Her eyes are still so young. Can you not tell?”

The man looked at Avena again. After a time, he chuckled and said, “Ah, of course, you’re right. My apologies. Hunter, was it?”

“Yes sir,” she said. “Avena Hunter.”

“Ah,” he murmured. “A good surname. Young. Ready for a long history. Your family chose well.”

Avena looked at him without expression before saying, “Thank you, sir.”

“I am Gehrman,” he said. He gestured to the woman behind him and said, “One of my daughters, Cherise. Lovely as a porcelain doll, isn’t she?”

Avena looked at Cherise, meeting and holding her gaze. Finally smiling and without breaking their gaze, she said, “Yes sir. She’s the loveliest thing I’ve seen all day.”

Cherise’s brows rose, and she hid another small smile behind one hand.

“Students tend to call her ‘the Doll,’” Laurence said offhandedly, examining the sheet on the table. “You’re still so quiet, my dear.”

Avena caught sight of how Cherise’s smile lost its humor, how she returned her hand to the wheelchair.

“Students these days are noisy,” Gehrman said. “They can’t appreciate a comfortable quiet. Maybe some will be more appreciative this year now that we’ll be here more.” He pointed to the table. “A lower Pthumeru tracery, yes?”

“Yes,” Laurence said, “finally. We still have many more high Pthumeru pieces to work, but I can’t turn down requests from you and Willem.” He hummed. “What do you make of this rune? I’m sure I’ve seen ones like it in higher pieces.”

Cherise wheeled Gehrman closer, Avena quickly moving out of the way. They were all silent for a time, and then Gehrman looked at Avena.

“What do you make of it?” he asked.

Avena froze. She looked at the sheet. She felt the weight of Laurence’s gaze upon her, swallowed hard, and said, “It’s—I’m fairly certain it’s the Beast rune. Or maybe a variant of some kind?”

“Ah,” Gehrman said. “A good guess.” He tapped the table and said, “It’s inverted from the usual Beast rune. Curved far more, as well.”

“True,” Laurence said. “Much like a grasping hand.” He rubbed his chin and said, “Hopefully we find more in these pieces. It may be something brand new.”

Avena started to smile. Then, her stomach growled audibly. She went stone still when Laurence turned to her, one brow raised.

“You’re hungry?” he asked.

She could not speak to reply.

“You can’t work if you haven’t eaten,” he said. “You’ll ruin pieces if your hands are unsteady from hunger. Am I understood?”

“Yes, Master Laurence,” she said quietly.

“Good. Go eat. You can work again when your hands are steady enough to copy ten Heir runes with straight lines, or come back on Monday after classes.”

“Yes sir,” she said, taking off her gloves. Eyes aimed down, she meant to slip out the door.

“Good Hunter,” Cherise said.

She stopped.

“Perhaps you would like company?” Cherise asked.

“Wha—no, no, it’s fine,” Avena protested. “I’ll be fine.”

“It’s a bit late for a meal from the residence halls,” Gehrman said with a pointed look at his wristwatch.

Again, she could not speak to reply.

“It’s a chance for me to talk to the new archivist,” Gehrman said. “No need to be shy.”

She hesitated. Eventually, she said, “If—if it wouldn’t be a bother, sir.”

“We’ve some time to burn this morning,” he said, drumming his fingers on his cane. “It’s not a problem.” Turning to Laurence, he said, “Send word if you find more of that rune, would you? A new find in the Beast line would be something remarkable.”

“Straight to you and Master Willem,” Laurence replied, rolling up his sleeves and putting on gloves. “Don’t worry.” He glanced at them, stopping on Avena, and flicked one finger toward the door. “Go on, then.”

“Our thanks, Master Laurence,” Cherise said. She looked at Avena and said, “After you, good Hunter.”

Avena did what she could to avoid rushing out of the room, but held the door open at an angle to stay out of Laurence’s line of sight. She closed the door after Cherise had wheeled German out of the room, going to the lift quickly after that to hold its door open.

“You’re a bit jumpy,” Gehrman chuckled as Cherise wheeled him onto the lift. “Worried that an old man is going to bite?”

“N-no, sir,” Avena said, getting onto the lift.

“Surely not worried that Cherise will bite?”

“No, sir, that’s not—I’m all right.” Though she only meant to glance at them after sending the lift up, she turned properly because Cherise smiled at her.

“Master Laurence is a very particular man,” Cherise said. “Please do not worry.”

“Particular enough to drive other archivists mad at times,” Gehrman said. “Don’t think too hard on how he scolds you.” He huffed a laugh. “Not this early in your career.”

“Thank you both,” Avena said as the lift came to a stopped. She held both the lift door and the entrance door open for them, hesitating when they were outside.

“Please follow me,” Cherise said, starting along the walkway.

“Thank you for this as well,” Avena said, hurrying to match her long, graceful stride. “I never took much time to look around Yharnam when I came here for interviews.”

“The best thing a student can do is get lost in the city,” said Gehrman. “Always something to find where you least expect it.”

“I suppose I should go exploring this weekend instead of jumping into work,” Avena said with a sheepish smile.

“The restorations are an honorable pursuit,” Cherise said. “But there is much worth in finding little joys.”

Gehrman laughed. “You’re too wise for your age, Cherise. I’d prefer the archivists work hard, but there’s always a limit.”

“Sir?” Avena said. “I apologize for being direct, but how do you have permission to come to the working areas of the archives?”

“Because you wouldn’t have half as much to work without me handing them over,” he replied. “Willem and I go a long way back—he owes me, I owe him. Me being a patron for Byrgenwerth helps balance it.”

“Oh. I didn’t know there were any patrons who lived in central Yharnam.”

“We live just outside the city,” Cherise said. “Master Laurence likes to call our home ‘the workshop.’”

“Why that?”

“You restore texts,” Gehrman said, “and I restore arms. I need to make sure my daughters have an inheritance after I’m gone and there’s always a buyer for weapons used in the war.” He smiled at her and added, “But war stories aren’t good partners for morning meals, are they.”

“No, sir,” Avena replied. She went silent after seeing spots on her glasses, cleaning them as they walked. As they passed the campus gate, she put them back on to pay attention to where Cherise led her. They kept on the main streets, not going far from the campus before arriving at a cafe with small tables and chairs outside. Cherise went into the cafe alone for a moment, Gehrman relaxing in his chair as the sun came out from behind the clouds.

In that moment, Avena felt the grave weight of someone’s gaze upon her. She looked about, but saw no one on the street or in the cafe’s seats peering at her. In the corner of her eye up above, blurry because her glasses had slipped on her nose, she caught sight of moving colors: a mix of white, tan-gold, and gray. By the time she turned her head to look at an open window on the third floor, nothing was there.

“Ma’am?” a man said. “If you’d follow me?”

She turned away from the window to see Cherise returned, a waiter with her. The waiter led them to a table somewhat separated from the others and left once they were seated. When he returned, it was only to deliver a large carafe of coffee and, to Avena’s confusion, four cups.

“It will only be a moment more,” Cherise said, pouring coffee into each cup.

“What will?”

“For Maria to arrive.”

Avena looked at her blankly.

“My sister, good Hunter.”

“Your,” Avena started, but she stopped at the sound of approaching footsteps. She turned in time to see a woman let herself into the seating area.

At a glance, the woman was clearly Cherise’s twin, her hair and eyes the same color, their faces nearly identical, and both of them the same height. Where she differed was how her long hair was only tied back in a loose tail, and how her gaze was sharper. She wore black trousers, a white tunic with its sleeves rolled up, and a tan-gold waistcoat left unbuttoned to accommodate her broken right arm and its sling. She brushed hair out of her face as she approached, showing the definition in her forearm and knocking most words out of Avena’s head.

“Sister,” Avena murmured, brows rising.

“Ah, our dear Maria,” Gehrman said, taking to his feet as the woman drew near. He embraced her, kissing her cheek before letting go.

“Good morning, Father,” she said, a smile on her face. As she moved toward Cherise, she glanced at Avena and said, “Are you playing shepherd today?”

“Ha!” he said, sitting down. “Hard to play shepherd to a hunter! No, this is Laurence’s new archivist. Hunter, this is my other daughter, Maria.”

Avena, stuck looking back and forth between them, finally stopped on Cherise and Maria. She saw Cherise whispering to Maria, and saw Maria’s small nod. When Maria turned to her, she stood and offered her left hand.

“Avena Hunter,” she said. “It’s a pleasure to meet you and your family.”

“A pleasure to meet someone who adapts quickly,” Maria said, curling the fingers on her right hand before taking Avena’s hand with hers. “Are you a student?”

“I am. A first year.” She glanced at Maria’s arm as they let go. “Er. Was that recent?”

“About two months. It’s nothing to worry over.” She gestured to the chairs, sitting once Cherise and Avena had sat down. She picked up the cup before her, taking a drink and looking at Avena from the corner of her eye. “Father had said there would be a new archivist starting soon. I did not expect they would join us for breakfast today.”

“Your father was kind enough to offer it after he and Master Laurence caught me in the archives,” Avena said, smiling weakly.

“’Caught’?” Maria echoed, raising a brow.

“She decided to get a head start on working the lower Pthumeru pieces,” Gehrman said. “Ambitious for a first year, I’d say.”

“Ambition can be a virtue,” said Maria. “But I suppose he was harsh to you.”

“I wouldn’t say ‘harsh,’” Avena said. “I shouldn’t get ahead of myself.”

Maria hummed a laugh. “I have met Laurence, good Hunter. ‘Harsh’ is always true.” She turned as the waiter returned, a small pad of paper and a pen in his hands. They ordered food then, Avena going quiet and focusing on her coffee as the waiter walked away.

“Will you be going on campus today?” Cherise said to Maria.

“I will,” Maria replied. “Lessons will start next week and I’m certain Ludwig has put everything in the wrong place.”

“Are you a professor?” Avena asked, looking up.

“Not of lectures,” Maria said. “I lead saber lessons.”

Avena looked at her blankly. She looked at her broken arm.

“This means very little for teaching,” Maria said. “And it will heal soon enough.”

“Maria can win bouts with her left arm alone,” Gehrman said, a small smile on his face. “It’s dangerous to underestimate her.”

Avena looked at Maria, who met her gaze easily. For a moment, when Maria slowly raised a brow, she saw an infinitely sharper edge in her eyes. It was one she had seen before, years and years ago, and it was one she could not forget. When the moment passed, she smiled slightly.

“That doesn’t surprise me,” she said, and she did not have to speak further because the waiter returned once more with their food. She kept her head down as she ate, finishing her meal first as always. As she waited, she cleaned her glasses thoroughly, wiping down the frame as well as the lenses.

“Will you be going back to the archives, Father?” Maria asked.

“Only to see Willem,” Gehrman replied. “I’ve work of my own to tend to in the workshop today.”

“It’s likely to be busy everywhere today. Please be careful.”

“And the same to you, if you’re planning on moving things in that bout hall of yours,” he said, pointing at her. “The last thing you need is to injure your other arm.”

“I have no intention of doing that,” Maria sighed. “Have faith in me.”

At first, Avena had no plan to speak up. Then, she noticed Cherise looking at her closely, a small, encouraging smile on her face. Avena drummed her fingers on her legs under the table, clenched her jaw a moment, and cleared her throat.

“If you’d like,” she said, looking to Maria, “I could help.”

Both Maria and Gehrman looked at her, Maria with one brow raised and Gehrman with both.

“As long as it’s nothing very heavy,” Avena said. “It’s the least I could do to thank you for letting me eat with you.”

Maria considered her for a long, long while. She eventually smiled and said, “Very well. Then I thank you for the help.”

“You don’t need to wait for us, then,” Gehrman said, waving them on with a smile. “I’ll let Laurence know where you’ve run off to, Hunter.”

“Thank you, sir,” Avena said, taking her wallet from her pocket as she stood up. She took a few bills to set on the table as Maria took to her feet, and she followed Maria’s lead back toward the campus.

“Do you volunteer yourself like this often?” Maria asked.

“I suppose I do,” Avena said. “I don’t see any harm in it, though.”

“I would not take that stance with Laurence,” Maria said. “He will take advantage of it in a moment.”

“You’re all making it sound like it was a bad decision to start working for him.”

She chuckled. “Cherise and Father warned you as well?”

“A bit, yes.”

“He and Cherise do not get along for several reasons, but Father has had the misfortunate of seeing several archivists resign because Laurence pushes them too far. I’m certain Father would prefer someone with ambition stay in their position for more than a year.”

“Well,” Avena said, “I have to work for my scholarship, so it’s that or nothing.”

“Your stubbornness fits your surname,” Maria said, her smile shifting to a gentle smirk. “Well said, good Hunter.”

Avena struggled with words, eventually managing to say, “Thank you.” She followed Maria to a part of the campus she had not visited before, the two of them going into a large building. Though she heard voices distantly down a hall, Maria gestured for her to follow her up two flights of stairs to the top floor. Down a hallway and round one corner they went, and Maria unlocked one door that opened to a vast room with one wall lined with mirrors and another made of windows.

All around the room were helmets with metal latticing over the open faces, bits of padded clothing, and wood sabers stacked here and there. Though very few things were within the large squares marked out by white paint on the floor, Avena could see how it was in disarray. She looked at Maria and was not at all surprised to see disdain on her face.

“By the gods, Ludwig,” Maria muttered.

“Does he usually leave things in a mess like this?” Avena asked.

“Not usually, no. Just if I’m away for too long.”

Avena looked around the room, matching items to one another for a time. She adjusted her sleeves, took off her glasses, and went to offer them to Maria.

“Would you mind holding these?” she asked.

“Don’t you need them to see?” Maria asked in turn, but she took them regardless.

“I do, but I’ve broken them half a dozen times in the last two years.” Squinting slightly, she started to gather up the sabers to ferry them over to the racks on one side of the room. “I’d prefer to not knock them off my face and then drop something on them.”

Maria watched her briefly before examining her glasses. She held them up to her face to look through them, grimacing at the blur.

“I see why you want them safe,” she said. “You need them rather badly.”

“It’s not too bad,” Avena said with a laugh. “I can see well enough to get around a room. Just don’t ask me to do any restorations without them.”

“Fair enough,” Maria said, and she tucked her glasses into a pocket of her waistcoat. She began to pick up the padded clothes and helmets, folding the clothes roughly before stacking them and the helmets in crates near the racks. They passed a long while in silence, Avena minding her footing and Maria minding her pocket. When most of the helmets and clothing were off the floor, Avena cleared her throat.

“May I ask how you broke your arm?” she said.

“Why do you ask?” Maria said in turn, arranging sabers on the racks.

“It’s,” Avena said, but she stopped to think. “I can’t see you perfectly, but…you move like you’ve never tripped in your life. I can’t imagine you hurting yourself in an accident.”

“How flattering,” Maria chuckled. “No, it wasn’t an accident. This was during a bout. It was an illegal move from my opponent.”

“You can’t hit your opponent’s arms?”

“Not with the clear intent to harm them. He held his saber in both hands like a club and showed he wanted my arm broken more than anything. Like a child throwing a tantrum.”

Avena turned to stare at her. When Maria began to laugh quietly, hiding it in her left hand, she asked, “What’re you laughing at?”

“Oh, good Hunter,” Maria laughed, “I know you mean to look concerned, but you look confused without your glasses. Here.” She went to Avena, offering her glasses.

“Thank you,” Avena said, looking down to take them. She froze when Maria set two fingers on the bridge of her nose. With how Maria was taller than her, she was able to look up at her without lifting her head, brows raised and drawn together. From so close, the pale blue color of Maria’s eyes was startlingly brilliant.

“Maria?” she said.

“I saw this before,” Maria said, running her thumb over the bridge of her nose. “I thought it was a mark from your glasses.”

“Oh.” She laughed weakly and stepped back to put her glasses on. “No, but they hide it well.”

“What would have given you a scar there?”

“Believe it or not, it was my glasses. Someone hit me while I was wearing them.”

“’Someone’?”

“Someone.”

“With strength enough to scar you.”

“I don’t associate with them anymore, if you’re worried.”

Maria regarded her for a time. She said, “That’s the most one could ask for, I suppose.” She considered Avena’s glasses, hummed, and adjusted how they sat on her face to lower them on her nose.

“Is everyone in Yharnam this eager to touch people?” Avena asked, managing a smile as she pushed her glasses back up.

“If they knew it would let them see your eyes more clearly, I would not be surprised if they moved your glasses more.” She moved her glasses back down. “I have not seen such a deep blue in years. It’s like…the sea where it’s silent.”

Avena stared at her. She let out a laugh that was quiet enough to be mistaken for an exhale, and she said, “Thank you.” She looked down as she thought. “Maria? I don’t suppose you’d let a first year join your lessons?”

“Any eager student is welcome. Ambitious ones always do well.”

“Then I suppose I need to go sign up for them,” Avena said, looking up.

Maria smiled at her. “A good way to start an afternoon.” She pushed Avena’s glasses back up and said, “I will see you for lessons next week, good Hunter.”

“That you will,” Avena said, smiling back. She bowed her head to Maria, receiving a bow in turn, and headed out of the room. With a clear mind and steady stride, she made her way to the administrative offices, signed up for saber lessons, and eventually wandered back to Cainhurst Hall.

“Where on earth did you run off to, dear?” Arianna asked the moment she arrived. “I thought you’d been snatched in the night.”

Avena looked at her, words having left her. She thought, and then said, “I’m sorry. I should’ve left a note. I just went to work in the archives for a while.”

“‘A while’ would be less than most of the morning, I’d think. And I didn’t think it would leave you as happy as that smile makes you look.”

“Oh.” She laughed. “No, that’s—uh. Because I decided to take saber lessons.”

Oh?” Arianna said, turning to lean over the side of the lounge and smiling. “Would you like to share why you’re taking up a sport, milady archivist?”

“I don’t see why not,” Avena replied, and she sat down in a chair to tell the story as Arianna leaned forward to listen.

Chapter Text

It hadn’t been Avena’s plan to arrive to the first lecture of the term ten minutes early, but it happened all the same. The lecture hall was open when she arrived, and she gladly picked a seat near the front. Though she meant to settle in to wait, scribbling runes in her notebook and finishing the extra cinnamon roll she’d taken from breakfast, shuffling footsteps made her look to the door.

A young man with immense bags under his eyes came into the hall, feet dragging as he looked about with bliss in his face. He made his way to the desks, minding his feet, and sat down at the desk next to her without so much as a glance at her. Avena boggled at him a moment, but started to turn back to her notebook. It was then that he looked at her, blinking as slow as an owl with his eyes too wide.

“Good morning,” he said.

“Good morning,” she replied.

“Are you interested in the history of Isz?” he asked.

“And of Pthumeru and Loran,” Avena said. “But this lecture is specifically for Pthumeru.”

“I know,” he said with a smile. “But it’s also a prerequisite course for courses on Isz. I was wondering if I had a compatriot in seeking knowledge on the roots of our world.”

“Oh. You do, yes.”

“Wonderful!” he laughed, clapping his hands once. “I was hoping to find a majestic student straight away!” He offered a hand, saying, “My name is Micolash.”

“Avena Hunter,” she replied, taking his hand.

“Oh, and a surname as well?” he asked. “How remarkable! You’re rather lucky.”

“I can be, every so often.” As he arranged his things on his desk, she asked, “Why the specific interest in Isz?”

“Isz was more focused on the vast insight of the gods than Pthumeru was,” he replied, tapping his pen on the desk. “Although Pthumeru is said to have had a bit more contact with the gods, admittedly.”

“Then you’re seeking knowledge over power?”

“As any proper scholar should!” he said, smiling again. “Knowledge gained through study shapes the world, after all. I doubt you’re after the power of the old gods with your studies.”

Avena smiled in turn and said, “Not unless you count the advances in medicine the great trio made as ‘power,’ no.”

He looked at her closely, head tilted to one side. He leaned closer and tilted further still, peering at her glasses. After a time, he leaned back, sighed, and said, “It would be marvelous if doctors could grant people new eyes. It must be awful spending money on glasses.”

“Only when I break them. I’m just glad to live in a time where glasses exist.”

“Fair enough. Is that where the interest in medicine came from, then? I don’t suppose you’re aiming for a medical career.”

“Nothing that noble. Just my own self-interest.”

Micolash smirked and asked, “Looking for the secret to a long and inordinately healthy life?”

“Aren’t we all?” Avena asked with a smile.

“If only to get more time to look into the cosmos to find the gods,” he replied, nodding in agreement. “Speaking of which, do you happen to know of any good places to stargaze on campus? My roommate refuses to help me get onto our residence hall’s roof.”

Avena stared at him for a time. She asked, “You can’t just look out your window at night?”

“I can only see a fraction of the sky from my window.”

“Well…there’s a fairly open area near the archives. They don’t allow trees or most plants to be grown close to the building to limit the risk of fires or insects.”

“Wonderful!” he said. “I look forward to the next clear night!” He looked at his notebook and began to write, but he did not look back up. Avena, resisting the intense urge to sigh, settled back to wait. It wasn’t long before other students began to arrive, picking seats and arranging themselves.

As she waited, Avena spun her pen between her fingers and tapped it on her notebook when it reached her thumb. The tap was gentle enough to not draw attention to her, but her bouncing one foot made Micolash glance at her. She stopped and put her foot down, and in that moment a man with combed back gray hair and wearing a yellow waistcoat over his white shirt walked into the room.

At once, the hall went quiet. The man went to the desk at the front of the room, set down the books he carried, and moved onto the blackboard. He wrote a rune on the board to one side, Avena raising a brow at the sight of it. The click the chalk made when he set it down echoed in the silence, as did his sigh. He looked at all of them after turning around, eyes going back and forth as he moved to the desk to lean against it.

“Henryk,” he said. “You’re all here for my knowledge on Pthumeru, clearly. I’m not interested in any theories about the gods or the old royalty you think you’ve come up with. Already heard them, trust me. Comes with having worked down below as long as I did. All I want is for you to learn. Absorb all of this. It’s what Yharnam’s built on, how we came to know the gods.

“But,” he said, “I do want to see what facts you have in your heads right now.” He aimed a thumb over his shoulder and pointed at the rune. “Who can tell me what rune that is?”

After a moment, a few hands went up.

“Girl in green,” Henryk said, pointing toward the middle of the room.

“Impurity?” she asked.

Henryk chuckled. “A favorite of mine from back in the day, but no. Boy in red over there.”

“Oedon, sir?” he asked. “The…um, Formless Oedon?”

Henryk smirked. “Not close, boy.”

Most hands sank back down.

“Come on, now,” Henryk said. “Knowledge is only granted to the curious and the reckless.”

Micolash, smiling brightly, raised a hand.

“Boy who needs sleep,” said Henryk.

“Heir,” Micolash replied, nodding once.

Avena, head tilted as she spun her pen in her fingers, rolled her eyes and sighed quietly.

Henryk smiled and showed his teeth. He said, “You. Lady in glasses and gray. You look certain.”

“You’re trying to trick us, sir,” she said.

“Oh? How’s that?”

“Micolash is half right. It’s Heir, but it’s upside down.”

Henryk laughed and clapped his hands once. “Well done. You caught me. I need to give you harder ones.” He stood up and returned to the blackboard to erase the rune and rewrite it. He tapped the board by the rune and turned to them.

“We’re going to start with runes,” he said. “You can expect the basic courses for Loran and Isz histories to do the same, just focusing on different sets of runes for each. If you’re interested in learning to transcribe and translate the words of the old gods, I recommend Miss Caryll’s courses in future terms. Pthumeru is our primary source of runes, but that’s only because we’ve gone deepest into their catacombs.”

As Henryk continued, starting the lesson properly, Avena restrained her grin and took notes with as much fervor as Micolash did beside her.

————

It was by Avena’s deliberate and careful planning that Tuesday mornings were devoid of classes. Though a major reason for it was to give herself time to manage coursework against work in the archives on Mondays, the other reason was to accommodate regular appointments. While the other students made their way toward lecture halls for nine o’clock lessons, she headed for the university’s clinic.

The door was unlocked when she arrived, but no one was at the front desk and everything was quiet. Avena looked about as she closed the door behind her, seeing another an open door to one side leading to a set of stairs. She started toward the stairs, but stopped at the door.

“Excuse me,” she called up the stairs, knocking on the door. “Is anyone here? I have an appointment with Doctor Iosefka this morning.”

“Come upstairs, dear,” a woman called back. “I have my regular appointments up here.”

The stairs creaked as she went up them, as did the half-open door at the top. Beyond the door was a large room, well lit by several windows in the walls and the dome window that acted as the ceiling. Bookcases and filing cabinets were all about the room, and three standing patient beds and IV stands were evenly spaced apart against one wall. A blonde woman wearing the familiar white doctor’s shawl sat at a desk against the door’s wall, reading through several papers from a file folder. She looked up when Avena drew closer, smiling warmly.

“I’m sorry about not being available when you were on campus before,” she said, standing and offering a hand. “I didn’t know Master Willem was giving you the scholarship that day.”

“It’s all right,” Avena said, shaking her hand. “Thank you for scheduling time for me.”

“Nonsense, that’s what doctors do. If you’d take a seat on one of the beds? We’ll get started with your vitals.”

Avena nodded and moved to sit, pushing up one sleeve as she did. Iosefka followed her after gathering up the file, a pen, a thermometer, a stethoscope, and a blood pressure cuff. Though Avena kept still and silent through everything, when they finally came to her blood pressure it took three attempts before Iosefka took the cuff off her arm and wrote down numbers.

“Your chart from Cathedral Ward’s hospital mentioned it’s not easy to check your blood pressure,” Iosefka said. “I assume you get a bit lightheaded if you stand up too quickly?”

“Unfortunately,” Avena replied.

Iosefka hummed, scanning through the pages in the file folder again. She asked, “Your last blood test was a month ago when you were last in Yharnam, correct?”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Then these results are the most recent.” She turned to a specific page in the file folder, looking at it closely. “Your numbers are more or less what I’d hope they’d be currently, but…have you had any flareups recently?”

“Not since the winter.”

“What do your flareups usually consist of?”

“My hands and right knee hurt so badly I can barely do anything, bleeding and bruising problems, getting sick easily, my hands and feet going blue if I’m not careful, and generally feeling terrible.”

“Bleeding and bruising problems in what way?”

“I bruise if I just bump into something, it takes a long time to stop bleeding if I get cut, and my nose starts bleeding at random.”

“It happened when it was cold,” Iosefka murmured, writing several notes. “That matches with the coldblood line of it. But this happened in spite of medication?”

“I’ve—never had medication,” Avena said, looking down. “Just blood transfusions, and the last one was a few years ago.”

Iosefka paused. She looked at Avena with a raised brow. “No medications at all? Not even short courses of them?”

“The only thing that was easy to get where I lived before was blood. I didn’t get any kind of medication unless I was already in the hospital, but it was just medicine for pain or fevers.”

Iosefka sighed heavily, putting a hand on her brow, and said, “And they’d call themselves doctors despite not putting in the bare minimum to get a patient their care.”

“Is,” Avena said, “is it possible to get medication here? Regularly?”

“Yes, but I would prefer to wait and see if medication is necessary. You look to be in remission right now and you should be all right as is.”

“Would it cure it?” Avena asked, growing quiet. “If I take medicine long enough?”

Iosefka looked at her and saw how she had never raised her head. She inhaled silently, exhaled softly, and set a hand on Avena’s shoulder.

“We haven’t developed cures for diseases that affect the immune system,” she murmured. “There’s a lot of research being done here in Yharnam on Isz findings that’re promising.” She smiled and said, “But we’ve come leaps and bounds in treatment and we can make sure patients live long lives.”

For a time, Avena was silent. Then, she said, “I should try to help with the Isz pieces, I suppose.”

“You should have a chance to do that if you keep working with Master Laurence,” Iosefka said. “Do well and I see you getting hired for the long term.”

Avena smiled tentatively. “I hope so.”

“Plan for the future, Miss Hunter. You have a right to. Now—do you have any pain in your hands or knee currently?”

“I do.”

“I’ll get a basic anti-inflammatory together, but I need to check your weight to make sure the dosing is correct. I don’t want it to affect your stomach.” She gestured for Avena to follow her to a scale on one side of the room. When she measured her weight, she frowned slightly.

“You’re closer to being underweight than I’d like,” she said. “Are you having stomach problems?”

“Well,” Avena said, “no, but…it’s more that I didn’t have the most money for—anything before I came to Yharnam.”

Iosefka exhaled harder than before. “Please take advantage of the food in the residence hall. And it would do you a world of good to start exercising if you don’t already.”

“I’ll be starting saber lessons on Friday, actually.”

She raised a brow. “Saber lessons.”

“Yes.”

“Saber lessons with Maria?”

“Is…that bad?”

“No, but you have to be cautious given how easily you bruise and bleed. The last thing you need is to wear yourself out and into a relapse.”

“Is that going to happen if Maria is leading the lesson?”

“Not necessarily,” Iosefka said, “but I’ve seen more than one student come in after she works them too hard. Please be mindful, dear.”

“I will,” Avena replied, and she kept it in mind as she left the clinic with her medicine in hand.

————

In contrast to Monday, it was Avena’s intent to arrive at the bout hall early, and she gave herself a solid fifteen minutes before the lesson was scheduled to start. Though she expected silence when she opened the door, she was instead greeted by the crisp sound of wood striking wood. Standing at the center of one of the painted squares in the room were Maria, a saber in her left hand, and a tall, lean man with short, gray-streaked brown hair and a close-cut beard.

“You still hesitate, Ludwig,” Maria said with a wry smile, slipping away from a strike aimed at her left shoulder. “Do you not want an easier win?”

“There’s no satisfaction in getting an ‘easy’ win against you,” Ludwig laughed. “And I’ve no desire to make your recovery any longer than it has been.” He froze when Maria ducked under his saber to bring her own up against his throat.

“So be it,” Maria said, still smiling. “Although this does mean you pay again.”

“Very well,” he sighed, turning his saber in his hand to set its tip on the floor. “Hopefully we don’t have too many regulars joining us.”

“We’ll have to see,” Maria replied, turning her saber to the floor as well. She turned then, looking directly at Avena, and said, “You enter rooms as quietly as a cat, good Hunter.”

“I didn’t want to interrupt,” Avena said hesitantly, looking between her and Ludwig. When Ludwig looked at her, she grew tense; when he started toward her, she froze completely.

“I assume you’re the first year student Maria told me would be joining us,” he said, offering a hand when he was close. “I’m glad to see you here early. My name is Ludwig.”

“Avena Hunter,” she replied, taking his hand.

“A pleasure,” he chuckled. After he let her hand go, he turned and offered his hand to Maria, saying, “You want to do the usual, yes?”

“I would,” Maria said, moving closer to hand him her saber. She held her hand out to Avena as Ludwig headed toward the racks, saying, “Will you roll your sleeves up, Hunter?”

“All right,” Avena said, rolling both sleeves up to her elbows. She held still while Maria examined her forearms, but blinked several times when Maria closed her fingers around her wrist and moved upward until her fingers no longer touched each other.

“I suppose your legs are similar,” Maria murmured, taking Avena’s right hand to look at its palm. She ran her thumb over a callus under her forefinger, close to the edge of her palm, and made Avena spread her fingers apart.

“Scholar’s hands,” Maria chuckled, tapping another callus on the first knuckle of her middle finger. “You hold all your tools in the same way. Do you use your left hand at all?”

“Sometimes. I can only write certain runes with my left hand.”

“Perhaps a parrying dagger in your left hand once you’ve built up the strength to wield a saber one-handed. For now, we’ll focus on two-handed techniques.” She turned to Ludwig and said, “A half-weighted saber.”

“Not full weight?” he asked as he moved toward a certain rack.

“She works with Laurence in the archives,” Maria replied. “Too much strain on her arms will make her hands unsteady.”

“An archivist spending time in Lady Maria’s saber lessons?” Ludwig asked in a laugh. “Brador will have a field day with that.”

“Who’s Brador?” Avena asked.

“Another student,” Maria said, voice idle as she began to stretch Avena’s wrist and fingers. “He likes to tease first years.”

“Did it even when he was a first year,” Ludwig said. “Here we are, half-weighted. Hunter, see how this feels.”

Avena, distracted by the utter lack of pain in her hand as Maria stretched it, did not look toward him immediately. When she turned and saw him coming closer with a saber in his grasp, resting on his shoulder, she froze up again. He did not notice, instead turning the saber over to offer the hilt to her. Because Maria let her hand go slowly, she had a moment to relax before taking the saber.

“Manageable?” Maria asked.

“It should be. It’s not much heavier than the crates of traceries I’ve been carrying.”

“Good. The most important thing when you begin is to mind your wrists.” She tapped Avena’s hands. “Both hands on the hilt, however they’re most comfortable.”

After a moment of thought, Avena arranged her hands on the hilt with her right above her left.

“Elbows bent,” Maria said, reaching down to angle the saber’s hilt up at the same time. “As little strain on your wrists and shoulders as you can.”

“Right,” Avena murmured, considering the weight and position of the saber.

“That’s a more studious look than I’ve seen on a first year in quite a while,” Ludwig said, his smile obvious in the tone of his voice. “Looks like we’ve got a good one to guide.”

“I would agree,” Maria replied. “Hunter, come this way. I want to find a helmet you can wear with your glasses.” To Ludwig she said, “Welcome the other students as they come in.”

He bowed to her, chuckling, “Of course, Lady Maria.”

Maria laughed through her nose and beckoned for Avena to follow her. They went to the crates of gear, Avena carefully leaning her saber against the wall. Maria looked at several helmets before finding one and offering it.

“It opens on a hinge at the top,” she said. “Hopefully this won’t press on your glasses when it closes.”

Avena took the helmet and cautiously put it on. Because the mask pressed down on the corners of the frames when she started to close it, she sighed and took the helmet off.

“Almost,” she said.

“Perhaps closer to what Ludwig or Brador wear, then,” Maria said, going back to the crate. “I want you to be able to see properly without bending your glasses.”

“They don’t bend back very well,” Avena sighed, putting the helmet under one arm to take off her glasses. She looked at them closely, checking for any bends. By the time she’d wiped them off and put them back on, Maria had found another helmet. It did not press on her glasses, even when she closed the helmet completely and did up the clasps under the chin.

“Is it loose at all now?” Maria asked. She set her hand atop the helmet before Avena could answer, tipping back and forth, side to side, and even turning it slightly. Because Avena followed each motion, the helmet fitting too closely to allow otherwise, she smiled and lowered her hand.

“Good,” she said. “I was hoping we’d have at least one helmet to manage it.” She hummed a laugh as she touched the mask in front of Avena’s nose. “Your glasses are remarkably delicate.”

“As long as no one actually hits me in the face with a saber, it should be all right,” Avena said with a sheepish smile.

“The helmet will guard against it,” Maria said, gesturing for her to follow again, “but strikes to the face and head are not allowed in my hall.”

“Is that why you and Ludwig aren’t wearing helmets?”

“Ludwig trusts me,” Maria replied as she started to rummage through a crate of padded clothing. “I do not wear helmets unless I’m in a competition’s bout.”

“That’s reckless,” Avena said.

“True, but I have yet to meet a student who could get close to striking my face even by accident.” She took a pair of gloves from the crate, draped them over her cast, and took a shirt to offer over. “I’m more confident these will fit on the first try.”

Avena took off her helmet, pausing when she took off her glasses. Smirking, Maria held her hand out once Avena had taken the shirt. She took Avena’s glasses, holding them carefully while Avena pulled the shirt on and did up the buttons at the side of her chest. Because a patch of Avena’s hair stood on end from static, she chuckled as she handed her glasses back.

“Your hair is a bit unwieldy,” she said, patting Avena’s hair.

“It is toward the end of the day,” Avena replied, putting her glasses on. “It’ll probably be terrible after wearing a helmet for a while.”

“I must admit I’m curious about how it looks,” Maria said, patiently smoothing her hair down. “I feel it may be cute.”

“’Cute’ isn’t what I’d like to be, frankly,” Avena grumbled. She stopped short in taking the gloves because Maria moved her glasses down to touch the scar on her nose.

“I only said ‘may,’ good Hunter,” Maria said. She smiled, crooked and head tilted, and Avena’s mouth went dry at the sight of her sharp eyeteeth. “It may look quite…charming.”

Avena meant to keep her mouth shut, too aware of how inelegant her tongue was at that moment. She still could not stop the faintly startled noise that left her, and she sighed because she could feel her face burning as Maria’s smile broadened.

“I feel confident that it will look charming,” Maria said. “Let me have your other hand. Your fingers and wrist were stiffer than I expected.”

“It was cold this morning,” Avena said, giving Maria her hand. “And I haven’t worked in the archives since Wednesday.”

“Be sure to stretch before lessons. I don’t want you to be unable to block because your hands wouldn’t move properly.” She hummed quietly, pressing her thumb to the center of Avena’s palm. “Do you only have pain like this in your hands?”

“And in my right knee.”

“A bit like Father,” Maria murmured. “I know how to wrap knees if you need that as well.”

“I’ll probably take you up on that once it really cools down.” She flexed her hand when Maria let go, savoring the lack of pain, and said, “Thank you.”

“Of course,” Maria said. She looked over her shoulder toward the door, letting out a faint sigh. Avena followed her gaze and saw a man speaking to Ludwig. Where Ludwig’s hair and beard were neatly kept, the man’s black hair was longer, his beard less tidily trimmed. Though there were bags under his eyes, he did not look weary in the slightest. Instead, amusement was in his face when he looked their way.

“Well, well,” he said, moving closer. “You’re a curious creature, a scholar come to learn to fight. Who’re you, then?”

“Avena Hunter,” she said, taking the hand he offered with a measure of caution.

“Brador,” he said in turn. He looked her up and down, smirking, and chuckled as he released her hand. “Interesting surname for a scholar.”

“It’s a little off-kilter, I admit,” Avena said. She froze, shoulders rising, when Brador suddenly leaned close and looked at her glasses. When he plucked them off her face, she flinched.

“These are rather flimsy,” Brador said, turning the glasses over and over in his grasp. “And the lenses don’t look that much more sturdy.” He did not resist when Maria took them from him.

“We’ve found a fitting helmet,” Maria said, passing the glasses back to Avena. “I ask you to avoid blows to the face, as always.”

“Of course,” he chuckled, bowing to her. “And nothing like whatever managed to break your arm, yes?”

“I trust you to not throw a tantrum,” she replied.

Brador stared at her before laughing. “A tantrum? I hope it didn’t traumatize you too much to recount it, because I’d love to hear about that.”

“You’re free to join Ludwig and I after the lesson,” Maria said. “You are as well, Hunter.”

“Gladly,” said Brador, and he went to gather his equipment.

“What am I joining?” Avena asked.

“Ludwig and I go out after lessons to discuss how things went and how to conduct the next lesson,” Maria said. “We usually go to a bar near here, especially if students join us.”

Avena looked toward Ludwig, considered him a moment, and turned back to Maria to say, “It must be nice to go out somewhere with him. I doubt men would try to flirt with you if he’s with you.”

Maria laughed once and said, “You see through us, good Hunter. You’re as perceptive as your surname suggests.”

Not thinking her words fully through, Avena said, “I’m glad I picked it.”

Maria’s smile faded from surprise. She asked, “You picked your own surname?”

Avena hesitated, but said, “I did. No one actually adopted me by the time I turned sixteen, so it was my right as a legal adult.”

“You did not know your parents?”

“No. My first memories are in an orphanage and I was never given records of how left me there.” She smiled without strain and said, “Before you worry, it doesn’t torment me. It’s not like I was the only one there, either.”

Maria considered her for a long while. Then, tapping Avena’s chin, she asked, “Would you tell me why you picked ‘Hunter’ after the lesson?”

“As long as you don’t work me so hard that I fall asleep on my feet.”

“I will make sure to mind your stamina, good Hunter,” Maria said, her crooked smile returning. “At least until I can help improve upon it.”

Avena’s mind went blank for a solid five seconds before she managed to say, “I would—appreciate that. For whichever aspect of my stamina you actually mean right now.”

“You are clever even when you blush like this,” Maria laughed, touching her cheeks. She glanced toward the door and said, “I suppose that will be enough to start with.”

Avena looked over, seeing several other students with Ludwig. She jumped when Brador came over and threw an arm around her shoulders, unable to do more than follow his lead as he pulled her along.

“Mind your manners, children,” Brador said. “The lady of the hall plans on starting our lesson.”

Though a few of the younger students looked at Avena, they turned to watch Ludwig head toward Maria.

“Thank you, Brador,” Maria said. She waited until all eyes were on her before saying, “My name is Maria. I lead saber lessons with Ludwig’s assistance. Among you new students, who has taken saber lessons before?” Once a few hands had gone up, she asked, “Which of you intends to participate in competitions?”

All but one hand went down, and it was attached to a slim man with long fingers and stubble dusted on his face.

“What’s your name?” Ludwig asked.

“Simon, sir,” he replied. “I’ve participated in several amateur competitions prior to coming to Byrgenwerth.”

“Good to hear,” Ludwig said with a grin. “There’s going to be a major competition this year, so prove yourself and you’ll have a place.”

Though it was small, Simon’s smile was eager, and he said, “Thank you for the opportunity.”

“Cheers to the new boy,” Brador chuckled. “Do your best.”

“Brador,” Maria said, “since you’re very talkative this afternoon, would you like to tell the new students what makes saber combat unique?”

Smirking, Brador took his arm from Avena’s shoulders and bowed at the waist. When he had straightened up, he said, “Saber combat is a way to let people fight despite all the disparate weapon types used in real combat during the war. Much easier to regulate competitions if the combatants are using the same kind of weapon instead of one man with an axe and the other with a bloody mace.”

He shrugged and said, “I suppose it was also for safety. It’s not easy to limit the number of injuries if you make wood replicas of something other than a basic saber.”

“And injuries still happen, clearly,” Maria said, lifting her right arm slightly. To the other students, she said, “Keep in mind that this occurred during a high-level bout where my opponent aimed to injure me, and he was using a double-weighted saber.”

“A double-weighted saber was allowed?” Simon asked.

Ludwig laughed and replied, “Saber weight is only regulated in amateur competitions. There’s a man in one of our sister universities in the west who uses a triple-weighted saber during high-level bouts. You should look for him this winter.”

Though Maria had opened her mouth to speak to the students, she stopped short to look at Ludwig. One brow raised, eyes alight, she asked, “That’s finally confirmed?”

“Willem let me know of all the participants yesterday,” he replied. “His name was at the top of the list for their university, of course.”

“Of course,” Maria chuckled.

“Best not let your arm get any worse,” Brador said, smile toothy and teasing. “There’s not much time before winter.”

“The competition is in six months, Brador,” Maria said. “That’s more than enough time for me to prepare. In the meantime, there is our current lesson. Hunter, would you come here?”

Avena, feeling Brador’s hand close to her back, moved forward quickly to avoid a shoving. She followed Maria to one of the painted squares, stopping when Maria gestured to her. Maria went to the racks for a saber of her own, setting its tip on the floor once she was facing Avena.

“A saber bout takes place in a square similar to this,” Maria said, pointing at the painted lines. “The paint replaces low walls, but stepping over the lines will count as a loss during sparring. The three ways to lose are by being knocked out of the square, being knocked unconscious, or conceding to the other fighter.

“Hunter,” she said to Avena, “would you put your helmet on and raise your saber?”

Avena nodded and did as she was told. She could not help but grip the saber’s hilt tightly when Maria came closer, her saber raised as well. There was no abruptness in Maria’s movements when she set the edge of her saber against Avena’s forearms, elbows, upper arms, shoulders, sides, and finally her stomach.

“These spots are permissible to hit,” Maria said. She lightly touched the outside of Avena’s left hip, knee, and lower leg and said, “Anything below the waist is forbidden in sparring and competitions.” Without touching, she brought the tip of the sword close to Avena’s helmet. She looked at the other students with a cool eye.

“Memorize how close this is,” she said. “If you bring your saber any closer than this to another fighter’s head in my hall, you will need to find another place to learn and practice. Am I understood?”

“Yes ma’am,” every student said at once.

“Good,” Maria said. “Ludwig?”

“Sabers first,” he said to the students, beckoning them toward the racks. “You need to find the right weight for you, then we’ll find gear.”

As the students followed his lead, Maria moved closer to Avena. She brought their sabers together and adjusted the angle of Avena’s, stepping back to look at her stance.

“I don’t think I’ll be able to win a bout if those are the only ways people lose,” Avena said quietly, looking down.

“A victory is only important if that is your goal,” Maria said. “And I see more people concede from being in pain more than I see people knocked out of the ring or unconscious.” She smiled and lowered her saber. “I can teach you how to win easily enough. You need only be ambitious.”

“And improve my stamina.”

“And that,” Maria chuckled. She glanced over her shoulder, seeing students in helmets and padded shirts starting to move their sabers in careful test swings. “Follow my lead, good Hunter.”

Avena nodded, moving where Maria directed her. The other students were soon directed over as well, each new student being paired off with a veteran for guidance and Maria staying with Avena. Ludwig walked between the pairs, correcting posture and position when necessary. More than once, he had to pull Simon and Brador away from each other because their practice was less going through motions and more the beginning of a fight.

“You two,” Maria said when the crack of their sabers striking each other rang out again. All motion stopped immediately, Simon and Brador looking at her with their shoulders rising.

“If you’re that eager,” Maria said, “wear yourselves out in the next ten minutes.”

They looked at her in silence, only looking away when she pointed to the furthest away square. Simon turned back first, looking between Maria and Ludwig.

“Is this a test?” he asked.

“You can consider it one if it’ll make you work harder,” Ludwig replied. He nodded to the other students, saying, “Use this time as your cool down. No one should be too tired after the first lesson.”

“Come on, new boy,” Brador said, voice light with humor as he grabbed the back of Simon’s shirt. He dragged him over to the square, turning his saber over in his hand as he walked. He snickered when Simon pulled himself free, opening his arms to invite an attack.

Avena did not bother following the other students to the square, instead taking off her helmet. Sweat was on her face, making her glasses slip on her nose, and she could feel her hair standing on end in at least two places. She sighed, taking off her glasses to wipe her face dry as the sound of saber strikes grew louder and more numerous.

“No interest in watching a sparring bout?” Maria asked.

“Not when I’m this tired,” Avena replied. She put her glasses back on, looking at her hand. Though it did not ache, the muscles in her arm were tense and twitched every so often, making her fingers jitter. She smiled wearily and said, “That’s not surprising.”

“You did well,” Maria said, smoothing her hair down. “Give me your glasses and focus on cooling down.” She took Avena’s glasses to hold while Avena took off her gloves and padded shirt, watching Simon and Brador fight. Avena ignored them entirely in favor of getting her breathing under control, letting her eyes unfocus as she did. Even when she was breathing easily and had put her glasses back on, she focused on her hands and how her arms were beginning to ache.

“All right, that’s enough,” Ludwig said. “Even if you two have experience, there’s no need to go that far in a spar.”

“For the rest of you,” Maria said, “you’ve done well for your first lesson. Rest well during the week and find ways to incorporate any kind of resistance training for your arms into your lives. We will meet again next Friday.”

Most students said their goodbyes and left the hall, but Avena, Simon, and Brador all lingered. Brador looked between them, raising a brow as he rolled his sleeves up.

“Two fledglings are joining us?” he asked.

“‘Fledgling’?” Simon asked, frowning.

“You’re still young,” Brador replied. “Actually beat me in a bout and I’ll use your name.”

“Brador,” said Maria, “grudges aren’t allowed in my hall.”

“Very well,” Brador sighed. “These two new students are joining us?”

“Yes, and only two,” Ludwig said. “Which is fortunate for my wallet.” To Simon and Avena, he asked, “Have either of you been to the bar a little ways off campus?”

They both shook their heads, Simon saying, “No, sir.”

“It’s a nice place,” Brador said. “A sight better than the bloody Chalice at the edge of Yharnam.”

“That I’ve actually heard of,” Simon said. “You only go there if you have a death wish.”

“Nothing so dramatic,” Maria said, waving her hand in dismissal. “It’s for those who want to get blind drunk before getting into fights. Regardless, we’re staying close by.”

She and Ludwig led the way off campus and through the streets. The sidewalks were filled with students and city dwellers alike, many simply moving to the streets for more space. It wasn’t long before they reached the bar, but Avena stopped short upon seeing the sign hanging over the open door.

“That’s,” she began, but Maria caught her hand and pulled her along and inside.

“You’ll be caught in the thrall, good Hunter,” Maria said. She nodded toward Simon and Brador, who were bustled and jammed by the people going either direction through the door.

“But—that’s a rune over the door,” Avena said, following Maria’s lead all the same. “Why would a bar use it for a sign?”

“Many shops in Yharnam do,” Ludwig said idly, gesturing for them to sit at a table. “Hunter, what do you drink?”

“I,” Avena said, but she stopped, rubbed the back of her neck, and said, “Ale, if…if that’s all right.”

He laughed and patted her on the back, saying, “Ale is always a good choice. Give me a moment, then.” He left, pausing to speak to Simon once he and Brador were free. Both men sat heavily at the table, Simon massaging his shoulders and Brador slumping in his chair.

“You’ve gone soft over the break,” Maria said to Brador, sitting back in her chair. “I did not expect to see you so exhausted.”

“You said to wear myself out,” Brador replied. “Though I don’t see why the new boy and I were the only ones who worked so hard.”

“As opposed to what?”

“The scholar on your arm.”

Avena sighed quietly, starting to look down. She looked back up when Maria tapped her leg under the table with her foot.

“If you would like to have Laurence come after you for making her unable to work, please feel free to lead lessons,” Maria said with a cool smile.

Brador grimaced. “Thanks, but no. I’ve got no desire to listen to him when he screeches about work.”

“You work with Master Laurence?” Simon asked.

“In the archives, yes,” Avena said. Though she meant to speak further, she saw Ludwig returning with full steins of ale in one hand and a bottle of whiskey and two glasses in the other. He set the steins before Avena, Brador, and Simon before pouring whiskey for Maria and himself.

“A boy’ll be along with some food,” he said as he sat down. “Now, Hunter—why did the rune surprise you?”

“I never see runes outside of an academic setting,” Avena said. “Even the Hunter’s rune.”

“That’s what that scribble is?” Brador asked.

Avena gave him a withering look and said, “I’d hardly call the Hunter’s rune a scribble, Brador.”

“You specialize in scribbles if you work with Laurence,” he replied with a smirk.

“I learned it when I was six and in need of glasses, so it’s not something you need any extensive study to read. It’s one of the most basic and important runes that appears in Pthumeru, Loran, and Isz texts. Just because you haven’t bothered to learn it doesn’t mean it’s a scribble you can dismiss.”

Brador laughed and said, “By the gods, Hunter, you were quick to show your scholar’s fangs!”

“I’d be a terrible archivist if I didn’t show them, I’d say,” Avena replied.

Simon laughed then, prodding Brador with his elbow. He said, “Fair warning to you, Brador, the scholarly fighters tend to be the best at parrying. A bit more discerning than those who charge in with all their blood in their head.”

“That is where I plan to go,” Maria said, taking a drink. Smiling, she said, “You dislike being parried, Brador, if I recall correctly.”

Brador laughed again, harder than before, and said, “Not as much as you hate it, Lady Maria! Hunter, you’d do well to avoid parrying Maria—especially once she’s free of that cast!”

“You hate it that much?” Avena asked.

“Enough to knock more than one opponent clear out of the square with one arm,” Ludwig said. Because Maria looked at him with a raised brow, he smirked and said, “Don’t try to be modest about that.”

“Is that what you wound up doing to the little bastard that put you in that cast?” Brador asked.

“Yes,” Maria said mildly. “Though I would have like to have sent him further. Is it my turn to tell a story, then?”

“I’d love to hear it now,” Brador said, grinning as he leaned back with his ale in his hand.

Maria hummed, took another drink, and considered her words. She said, “It was in the final bout of the tournament here at the beginning of summer. My opponent was an upset fighter from the outset…a young man from a tiny fishing hamlet far to the east. Far enough east to be caught up in the war.”

She set her glass down on her thigh and closed her eyes, going on to say, “I only learned this after the fact, but the war left him orphaned. Angry, wanting to hurt others. It is fair to describe his victories as ‘beatings’ more than anything else. There were never any concessions to him, only knockouts. The fact that he was as fast as he was while using a double-weighted blade was horrifying to other fighters.”

“Not to you?” Simon asked.

Eyes still closed, Maria smiled slightly and said, “No. I’ve seen worse. He did not enjoy meeting me. It may have seemed like I was toying with him.”

“How would he have gotten that idea?” Avena asked.

“Because I use two sabers in competitions,” Maria said, “a standard saber and a half saber for parrying. It’s little more than a game to parry obvious swings like his, and multiple parries always lead to fury. When he managed to dodge a blow that had my right arm extended, he took his saber in both hands and swung it like a club.”

She chuckled and said, “He actually managed to break both bones in one swing. If his sabers was lighter, I may have gotten away with minor fractures.”

“He was disqualified, wasn’t he?” Simon asked, a mix of indignation and disquiet on his face.

“No,” said Maria, “because I said that the injury wasn’t bad enough to stop.”

“You kept fighting with a broken arm?” Brador asked with a disbelieving laugh.

“He made me angry,” Maria replied, and her voice was cold enough that everyone but Ludwig shivered to hear it. “And his greed after managing to injure me was…unsightly. He was intent on hitting me in the head after that.” As she lifted her glass to take a drink, she smirked.

“It is a terrible thing to fixate on one place while you attack,” she said. “Patterns easily lead to parries, and strikes to your opponent’s head may leave your chest open for a counterattack.”

“And if you’re fighting our dear Lady Maria,” said Ludwig, “a counterattack to the chest can easily break ribs.” He grinned, lifted his glass in a toast, and said, “And knock you out of the damn square on top of that.”

“He was very angry at the end of it all,” Maria said.

“Even more when you showed your arm was broken and the officials threw him out,” Ludwig laughed. “I’m glad I woke up from my knockout in time to see you thrash him.”

“You fought him, sir?” Simon asked.

“I did. Only managed as long as Maria before her arm was broken.” He sighed and rubbed his chin. “Little bastard actually jumped to hit me in the face. Would’ve broken my jaw without the helmet.”

As Simon and Brador leaned forward to ask question after question, Avena settled back in her chair with a small smile. The ambient noise of the bar was more comfortable to sit in than she had expected. The warmth brought on by so many people in one room helped keep the worst of the ache in her right knee at bay. When food was brought to them and they began to drink in more earnest, the last of the ache was lost in the haze the ale brought.

When Ludwig eventually stood up, heaving Brador and Simon along with him, to rally the bar into singing Byrgenwerth’s anthem, Avena chuckled and took her glasses off. She rubbed her eyes gingerly and started to clean her glasses with no real haste. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Maria lean closer.

“You look ready to fall asleep where you sit,” Maria said.

“It wouldn’t be hard to do,” Avena replied. “You didn’t work me too hard, but I’m going to fall asleep the minute I sit down in my room.”

“That won’t do. You still owe me your story, good Hunter.”

“Oh,” Avena said, pausing before putting her glasses on. She thought. “I’d probably be able to tell it better if we were walking. Less of a chance I’d fall asleep mid-sentence.”

“Have you actually done that?” Maria asked, fighting down a laugh as she stood.

“Not while I was talking to someone, fortunately,” Avena replied, standing as well. “But I’ve fallen asleep on more than one book.”

Maria laughed aloud; the rich sound was enough to remove every thought from Avena’s mind. She did not notice Maria waving to Ludwig, standing dumbstruck until Maria hooked two fingers in the collar of her shirt and pulled her into walking.

Though it was still crowded on the street outside the bar, everywhere else was quieter with the late hour. The cooling air did not treat Avena’s glasses kindly, fogging the lenses enough to make her sigh and push them up onto her head.

“I’d have thought you would wear your glasses if you were walking outside at night,” Maria said.

“The streetlights and moonlight are enough,” Avena sighed, rubbing her eyes one at a time. “It’s ridiculous how bright the moon is here.”

“Father likes to say it’s why Byrgenwerth was founded here. Master Willem adores the moon more than anything else in the sky.” She chuckled and said, “Much like you and the Hunter’s rune, it seems.”

“I sounded very stupid defending a rune’s worth, didn’t I.”

“A bit silly, but very passionate. Why take your name from the Hunter’s rune, though?”

“Well,” Avena said with an exaggerated sigh, “the most important reason in the eyes of the country to get a surname in the first place is that ‘Hunter’ is the only reasonable name to use. No one would let you use ‘Oedon’ and I have no desire to be called something like ‘Avena Milkweed.’”

Maria laughed, saying, “No, ‘Hunter’ is the best choice. But why that and not some other name?”

“There are two reasons,” Avena said. “The first is that the original root meaning of the rune encompassed many kinds of ‘hunter,’ like hunters of prey or hunters of a communion with the gods. I like the idea of being a hunter of knowledge.”

“And the second reason?”

“The rune was eventually adopted by those in the employ of the old Pthumeru royalty who hunted peopled were deemed ‘blood-addled,’” Avena replied. “The Hunter covenant was disbanded a long time ago and there aren’t any texts that really define ‘blood-addled,’ but having the name keeps me motivated in the face of my blood problems.”

“Your what?” Maria asked.

Avena considered her words, sighed, and said, “Sorry, that was vague. I’ve had health problems since I was very young and until recently all my doctors would say is that there’s a problem with my blood. It’s why I tend to look paleblood most of the time, even when I’m doing all right.”

Maria looked at her, thought clear in her face, before reaching down to carefully take Avena’s wrist and lifting her hand.

“Are these problems why your hands and knee hurt at such a young age?” she asked.

“It is.” She smiled slightly and said, “Fortunately, they don’t hurt much at all after today’s lesson, so I think I can keep coming every week.”

“Good,” said Maria. “I would like you to keep coming.”

“I’m not going to be able to participate in tournaments, you know.”

Maria chuckled, moving her hand to set her palm and fingers against Avena’s. She said, “I enjoy teaching students who aren’t there for competitions. A bout becomes like a dance if there’s no need to win.”

“That sounds like more fun than getting knocked out of the square.”

“It is, have no fear of it.” She touched her fingertips to Avena’s palm before taking her hand away, and she asked, “You said you work in the archives on Wednesdays?”

“I do.”

“What are your classes like?”

“Full in the morning, but empty in the afternoon. Why?”

“The cast comes off on Wednesday,” Maria said, lifting her right arm. “I would like to show you how to stretch your hands like I did today.”

“Oh—yes, if it’s not a problem.”

“Gladly. Just come to the hall after noon and I will be there.”

“Thank you, Maria,” Avena said, smiling again. She continued to smile for the rest of way back to the residence all, both of them bidding the other good night before Avena went inside. Though she did fall asleep seconds after sitting on her bed, Avena’s smile did not fade in the slightest.

Chapter Text

Despite the bone-deep exhaustion she’d gone to sleep with, Avena still woke at five-oh-five the following morning. Curled up with her head under the covers, she squinted in the dark. Tentative, slow as she could, she started to straighten out her right leg. For a few moments, her knee was too stiff to move. Her hands took less time to start moving, but the stiffness that lingered was worse.

Still moving slow, Avena pulled the covers down enough to reach out to her nightstand. She retrieved her watch, squinted to read the time, and sighed heavily.

“Damn,” she said. “Breakfast’s not for another hour.” She set her watch down and settled on her bed. Though she closed her eyes, it was only to relax as she flexed her right leg and curled her fingers to her palms over and over. When the worst of the stiffness was gone, she put on her glasses, carefully got out of bed, and dragged the blanket with her to her desk.

Though her textbooks and notes from classes were stacked neatly and at the ready to be worked, Avena moved them off to one side. Instead, she found a piece of blank paper and picked up her pen. She thought for a while, idly bundling herself up in the blanket.

“‘Moon-Heir’ is good for Maria for now,” she said, uncapping her pen. She began to write in runes, taking her time and switching hands on specific runes. Every so often, she paused to flex her leg and check the time. When her watch finally turned over to six o’clock, she stood up, got dressed, and limped downstairs with her medicine and a book.

Where most of the hall matrons for Cainhurst Hall were younger, tall, and stately, the women in the kitchens were older, short, and had significant curves in their spines. They constantly had sour looks on their faces, and the woman heading the kitchen that morning gave Avena a particularly stern glare. She shooed Avena away, pointing toward a table, before retreating into the kitchen. Avena sat gingerly, rubbing her knee, and set her book and medicine down to wait.

Before long, the hall matron arrived with a tray all but overflowing with food: pancakes, toast, bacon, eggs, cinnamon rolls, and a pair of large green apples. Avena boggled, but the woman had already gone. She returned promptly with a pot of coffee and a mug, setting them down with enough force to make the cutlery on the tray rattle.

“Ma’am,” Avena said tentatively, “I don’t think I can eat all of this.”

“Skinny little wretches like you need to mind your bloody manners and eat what’s put before you,” the woman grumbled, pinching Avena’s upper arm. “Not about to have some fool girl keel over in my hall because she won’t eat properly.”

She shuffled away before Avena could protest further, leaving her to stare at the food in confusion. Eventually, she sighed, poured herself a cup of coffee, and took her medicine before starting to eat. Other students began to wander into the hall as she took her time, most yawning and all asking for something warm. Once the medicine began to work, Aven picked her book up and sat back in her chair, continuing to eat slowly.

“Excuse me.”

Avena looked up, finding a young woman with braided black hair standing beside her with an empty mug in her hands.

“I don’t suppose I could ask for some of your coffee?” the woman asked. “The matrons said it’ll be a while before they can brew more.”

“That’s fine,” Avena replied, taking a piece of bacon to eat. “I can’t drink all of it.”

“Thank you kindly,” the woman said, and she filled her mug. She peered at the tray and the food replete upon it as she sipped her coffee. After a moment, she asked, “How did you convince them to give you that much food?”

“I made the matron angry by looking very tired and hungry, I think,” Avena said. “I’m not completely sure why that made her angry or why it made her give me so much, but I appreciate it.”

“I have to admit I’m a bit jealous,” the woman said with a smile. “It all looks delicious.”

“You can have some if you’re hungry,” said Avena.

“Oh—thank you!” She sat down, reaching out toward the tray.

“Except the cinnamon rolls.”

“O-oh, of course.” She took a piece of buttered toast and began to eat. As she chewed, she looked at the book in Avena’s hands.

“It’s on Loran,” Avena said without looking up.

The woman jumped, face flushing, and said, “I—I’m sorry, I’m not trying to bother you, I was just—”

“Curious,” Avena said. “I know. It’s what happens when I read a book with no title on the cover.” She closed the book around one thumb and looked up. “I don’t usually have people look at me this curiously when I ready during breakfast, though.”

The woman’s blush grew darker, and she said, “I apologize. I really was just curious. I see you reading every morning and I’ve been wondering what you’re so entranced by.”

“I doubt Loran society is as interesting to others as it is to me,” Avena replied. “Unless that’s going to be your area of study, miss?”

“Adella Klerus,” the woman said.

“Avena Hunter.”

“Pleased to meet you,” said Adella. “I plan to study medicine, though.”

“Well,” Avena said, voice flat as she looked at the book, “there’s several diseases from Loran, so I’d still recommend reading a bit.”

“I didn’t know where were diseases specific to Loran,” Adella said, leaning close. “Is that what you’re reading about now?”

“More or less.”

“That’s a rather morbid topic to read about over breakfast.”

Avena would have only hummed a response, but turned when someone sat down on her other side.

“What on earth did you do to get so much food, dear?” Arianna asked, filling her own mug with coffee. She looked at Avena’s face properly and sighed. “Never mind. I’d put a mountain of food in front of someone who looks as beaten up as you do.”

“I don’t look that bad, do I?” Avena asked.

“You’ve quite the bags under your eyes,” Arianna replied. As she took the plate of pancakes off the tray, she said, “You have more of the rest, dear. I’ll have this.”

“It’s rude to take someone else’s food, you know,” Adella muttered, looking to one side.

Arianna regarded her with a raised brow. Smirking, she said, “I left all the cinnamon rolls, which is all Miss Hunter really cares about. I’d say that’s polite of me.”

Adella bristled, but she and Arianna both jumped when Avena dropped her book on the table so the spine clacked loudly upon it. Avena looked between them, sighed through her nose, and took off her glasses to clean them.

“Arianna,” she said, “this is Adella Klerus. Adella, this is my roommate, Arianna Lilit. I’ll ask both of you to be civil on Saturday mornings.”

“Oh, I was just teasing a little,” Arianna said, playing with Avena’s gray hair. To Adella, she said, “Honestly, she comes across like a professor far more often than she ever seems like a student. The gray doesn’t help.”

“I think she looks very dignified,” Adella said in turn. “I thought you were a professor the first time I saw you, Miss Hunter.”

“Almost everyone does,” Avena said as she put her glasses back on. She turned when Arianna prodded her shoulder.

“Speaking of which,” Arianna said, “do you have to run straight to the archives once you’ve eaten?”

Avena grimaced and said, “I’m not running anywhere today, but Master Laurence doesn’t expect me until the afternoon.”

“Could I have you for just a little while this morning?” Arianna asked. “I don’t understand where Professor Henryk is leading us in our Pthumeru course and I wanted to ask you about it.”

“He’s been trying to trick my class,” Avena said. “I’ll help.”

Arianna smiled and lightly kissed her cheek, saying, “Thank you, dear.”

Both Avena and Adella went bright red, but where Adella looked scandalized, Avena simply looked deeply embarrassed. Arianna laughed and ruffled Avena’s hair.

“You both are terribly repressed,” Arianna said. “If I was your lover, I’d kiss you properly to thank you.”

“It gives people the wrong impression,” Avena mumbled, adjusting her glasses.

“All right, dear,” Arianna sighed, starting to cut up the pancakes. “I promise to not do that outside the hall.”

“Thank you.”

“I don’t suppose,” Adella said quietly, “that you could help me as well?”

“You’re taking Henryk’s course?” Arianna asked.

“We’re in the same class,” Adella replied, a sour look on her face. “Not that you would’ve noticed with how little you paid atten—”

“Civility,” Avena said to interrupt. Because Adella looked at her with a mortified blush, she said, “I’m sure both of you paid attention. Henryk seems to like tricking students, so I’ll help you both.”

“Thank you,” Adella said, looking at her coffee to avoid their eyes.

“Shall we study here?” Arianna asked.

“That’d be fine,” Avena replied, taking a cinnamon roll. “I’m ready to start when you two are.”

“O-oh, let me go get my book, then,” Adella said, and she hurried off before anyone could speak. Arianna watched her go, but nearly choked on her food when she saw that Avena had already started reading again.

“You awful little woman,” she said once she’d swallowed.

“What have I done that’s ‘awful’?” Avena asked, eyes still on her book.

“Not even showing a polite amount of interest in that poor girl. She might’ve seen you starting to read while she left.”

“She came up to me while I was reading. It wouldn’t be strange to see me reading again.”

“Not even a shred of sympathy for a girl who seems interested in you?”

Avena paused in taking a bite. She looked at Arianna and raised a brow.

“You usually only get up in arms about seeing someone get kissed if you want to be the one kissing them. And hoping to get you as a tutor?”

Avena sighed and said, “Whether or not she’s interested, I’m not going to entertain her to be polite. I’m not interested in her.”

“That’s probably more fair,” Arianna said, taking another bite. When she had swallowed, she added, “And it would be for the best if she didn’t get snippy with Lady Maria.”

“Why do you call her that?” Avena asked, closing her book around her thumb.

“Because that’s what I heard other people call her, dear.” She prodded Avena’s shoulder again and said, “I saw her on campus the other day, though, and I see why people would say that. She looks like an aristocrat.”

“It wouldn’t surprise me if she came from that kind of bloodline.”

“Strange thing for an aristocrat to be leading saber lessons for a university,” Arianna said.

“Who knows how the war affected her family, though. I’m glad she has her father and sister still.”

“No war talk at breakfast or I’ll take your cinnamon rolls.”

Avena regarded her, closed her mouth, and moved the plate of cinnamon rolls out of her reach. It was then that Adella returned, and she sat down next to Arianna to set a textbook between them.

“What are you both stuck on?” Avena asked, taking a bite of a cinnamon roll.

“The way runes are divided into lines,” Arianna said.

“Yes, and how there are supposed to be different strengths of a rune within a line,” Adella added. She moved the textbook closer to Avena and pointed at a trio of runes, saying, “I didn’t see a single person who wasn’t lost when he told us there was a difference between these.”

Avena leaned down to look at the runes closely. She rolled her eyes as she sat back, muttering, “He has to be doing this to every class.”

“You can’t possibly tell us that there’s a difference,” Arianna protested.

“There isn’t with how this book is printed,” Avena said. “Do either of you have a pen?”

“I brought one,” Adella said, turning to the back of the textbook to retrieve a pen under the pages.

“Do you mind if I write in your book?”

“I—no, no, go ahead.”

“Thank you,” Avena said, taking the pen and book. She underscored the last of the three runes, setting her finger beside it as the ink dried.

“This is the fully understood Moon rune,” she said. “It’s the last rune in the line because it’s fully understood.” Above the first rune, she wrote a rune that was less distinct, its lines thinner and missing details.

“This is the first form of the rune,” she said. “Most runes’ first forms are like this—humans couldn’t understand the words of the gods at the start.” She rewrote the second rune, thickening the lines but not adding detail.

“And this is the halfway form of the rune,” she said. “The more scholarly name for it is the consanguineous form, but I almost never see it called that nowadays.”

“Does the fully understood rune have a scholarly name?” Adella asked.

“It’s not as scholarly sounding, but yes. It’s a kin rune when it’s fully understood, as it’s said those who could transcribe the fully formed runes were kin to the gods.” She capped the pen, sat back, and sighed, saying, “You can’t expect people to understand the different forms of runes if you give them a book where they’re identical.”

“Where did you go to school before now?” Adella asked. “None of my schools ever touched on this kind of detail.”

“I didn’t really learn this at a school,” Avena replied. “It was from my own studying while I worked or while I was recovering from an illness.”

“I’d love to see where you got all of this information,” Arianna said. “You must’ve lived near amazing libraries.”

“Ones like our archives, yes.”

“I don’t suppose you’d sneak me in there?”

“I need to keep my scholarship, Arianna.”

Arianna sighed, looked at Adella, and said, “What did I tell you? She’s a professor masquerading as a student.”

As Adella hid a laugh in her hand, Avena hid her own smile by taking a drink of coffee.

————

There was a vestige of the summer in the sun on Wednesday, warming the day enough that Avena was able to take her coat off and roll up her sleeves as she made her way to the bout hall. The door was unlocked when she arrived, and she opened it as quietly as she could while looking about.

Maria was to her left, hanging on a bar on the wall with her right hand. Her left arm was behind her back, right arm slightly bent. With how her short sleeves had been pushed to her shoulders, the definition in her arms was impossible to miss. Avena stopped short in closing the door and simply stood still.

“Hello, good Hunter,” Maria said, voice tense with focus.

Avena jumped. She quickly closed the door and asked, “How did you know I was here?”

“You aren’t silent,” Maria replied, slowly straightening her arm before letting go and dropping to the floor. She pushed her sleeves down as she turned around and stretched her arm across her chest as she moved closer. “And you are the only person I expected to be here now.”

“No lessons in the middle of the week?”

“There will be a lesson this evening. I feel certain in saying you will still be in the archives when I am finished with it.” When she was close enough, she held out her right hand and asked, “How have your hands been since Friday?”

“They were stiff the next morning, but they’ve been all right since then.” She gave Maria her right hand, keeping still as Maria bent and curled her fingers.

“This hand is much more limber than last week,” Maria said, moving on to flex Avena’s wrist. “I suppose you have been working more for classes today?”

“I had more to take notes on, finally.”

Maria paused to look at Avena with a small smile, asking, “Are you saying you already know what your professors try to teach?”

“Just what they use to introduce the courses,” Avena replied. “It’d be a waste of paper and ink if I took notes on things I already know.”

“That is a very prudent thing to say, good Hunter,” Maria chuckled. “Though now I wonder if you would spend your paper and ink on notes for my lesson.”

“I don’t have an artistic side, so it’d still be a waste.”

Again, Maria paused, and she asked, “How would art be involved? Do you intend to draw me in some way?”

“I’m all right at sketching, but I meant trying to write down how it is you move,” Avena said. “You’d need to be a poet, honestly.”

Maria laughed quietly, moving Avena’s glasses down to tap the scar on her nose. She said, “I see you are more comfortable with flirting now.”

“It’s a little easier with us being alone.”

“I thought it would be.” She let Avena’s hand go and asked, “How does that feel?”

“Fantastic,” Avena said, flexing her fingers and wrist. “Thank you.”

“Of course.” She gently moved Avena’s glasses back up, but she did not reach out to take her left hand. Instead, she moved to stand behind Avena, guiding her hands up and together. The space she kept between them was all but nonexistent, her body heat all around Avena and her breath hot against her ear.

“These stretches are easy enough to do,” Maria said. She brought Avena’s right hand to her left to begin stretching her fingers. “Though it could be difficult to see how to do them yourself if someone else does them for you.”

“That’s—true,” Avena said. “It’s an effective way to teach.”

“Only for simple things like this.” She hummed a laugh and said, “It would be far too awkward to teach saber stances like this.”

“I can see someone getting hit in the face by accident,” Avena chuckled. She went still when Maria moved her hands to trail her fingers down the undersides of her wrists. It sent a tremor down her spine; her face burned when Maria let out a pleased hum.

“Yes,” said Maria, “but I doubt it would happen if it were you.”

“Why’s, um, why’s that?”

“You are unusually cautious when you hold a saber. You were the one new student I did not worry about accidentally hitting another student in the head.”

“You said it was a rule.”

“Yes, but most students still make the mistake once or twice.” She brought her hands under Avena’s, pressing their palms together. When she hummed again, it was in Avena’s ear. “Your hands are very steady. Not even a tremor.”

“Uh—I’m, I’m lucky they usually are,” Avena said. “It’d make some restorations impossible if they weren’t.” She laughed quietly and said, “So no work for me after a lesson.”

“I did worry you would fall asleep on your feet,” Maria said. She reached up with one hand to pet Avena’s hair, saying, “I need to find a way to improve your stamina soon.”

Avena said nothing and did not move. Her silence and stillness lasted long enough that Maria paused and moved slightly to look at her face. Because she had gone bright red, looking startled and overwhelmed in equal measure, Maria smiled.

“It won’t do for you to be so shy about me holding you close, good Hunter,” she said. “You fit well in my arms.”

“No, that’s—it’s not about shyness.”

“Do you dislike being held?”

“No, it’s just that I’m not used to it. Being touched, I mean.”

“I’m surprised,” Maria said, running her fingers through Avena’s hair. “I would think others would have taken more chances to hold you. You’re the perfect size for it.”

Avena opened her mouth, but words failed at how Maria’s fingers sent sparks along her skin. She looked at Maria, saw her smile, and looked down as the heat in her face increased. Maria, in turn, put a hand under her chin and made her look back up.

“You’re this unused to touch?” Maria asked.

“For better or worse,” Avena admitted. “I do like it, if you’re worried.”

Maria hummed, still running her fingers through her hair. She said, “I will have to wait for you to be more used to my touch before we attempt to improve your stamina, I think.”

“That might be better.”

“I have a good reason to touch you often, then,” Maria chuckled. “I’m glad.”

“You touch people that often?” Avena asked, one brow raised and a small smile on her face.

“My romantic partners, yes. I consider it a privilege.” She brought both hands to Avena’s shoulders to run her fingers up the sides of her neck. Because Avena shivered, blush spreading down to her chest, Maria’s smile broadened. She leaned close and murmured, “And there are few things more satisfying than being the reason why a pretty woman is red from pleasure.”

Avena looked at her a moment, inhaled slowly, and asked, “Would you let me have the same privilege?”

“Of course,” Maria laughed. “You are terribly polite to even ask.”

“I like to ask for permission.” Smiling, she said, “It’s always nice to hear someone say ‘yes,’ since it gives me a chance to imagine how else they might say it in bed.”

“Ah, but I only said ‘of course,’” Maria said. “You have no reference for your imagination.”

“I’ve heard you say ‘yes’ before. Now I know it’s not inappropriate to imagine things.”

Maria leaned back to smile at her, putting her fingers under her chin. She said, “I am tempted to have you earn that word from me, Avena.”

“That’d be fine. Then I’d have a good reason to touch you often.”

“Yet you have not touched me at all.”

Avena thought, took Maria’s wrist, and lifted her hand to kiss her palm. When she looked at Maria, she asked, “I assume that counts?”

“Of course,” Maria said. She turned their hands about, kissing the underside of Avena’s wrist. Because Avena’s fading blush returned full force, Maria laughed gently and kissed her wrist again.

“I fear you will go weak if I kiss you properly,” she said.

Avena let out a sound that would have started a word, but it tapered off into silence when Maria kissed her palm. Maria smiled knowingly as she lifted her head, and she pressed her fingertips into Avena’s hand.

“Now I am certain you will go weak,” she said. “And I must admit I look forward to it.”

Words did not come quickly, but when they arrived, Avena laughed shakily and said, “I can’t say I’m not looking forward to it.”

Maria laughed aloud, putting a hand on Avena’s cheek. She said, “Your honesty is refreshing, good Hunter. It will lead you to wonderful things.”

“I would hope so.”

Again Maria laughed, and again she touched her lips to Avena’s palm. She said, “I am tempted to torment you in a pleasant way, but I do not know when you have to leave.”

“What?”

“You will go to the archives after this, yes?”

Avena looked at her blankly for a few seconds before checking her watch. She sighed through her nose and said, “I have to go now. Of course.”

“There is always Friday to look forward to,” Maria said, running her thumb over Avena’s knuckles.

“That’s very true.” Though she hesitated, she pulled Maria’s hand close to kiss her palm. She cleared her throat as she let go, saying, “I’ll see you on Friday, then.”

“You will. Be well, good Hunter.”

“You as well,” said Avena, and she did not bother to temper her smile as she went to the archives. It remained on her face even when she found a note in the restoration room from Laurence with instructions to go back upstairs and put the books back in order. He found her ferrying books between cases when he arrived later in the day, watching her for a long while.

“Hunter,” he said.

“Yes sir?” Avena replied, adjusting her grip on a stack of books as she came to a stop.

“When did you get here?”

“At half past one, sir.”

“It’s three now. Have you been up here the entire time you’ve been here?”

“Yes sir. I didn’t know the books were in such a mess, so I’m not done yet.”

He raised a brow. Avena’s shoulders rose in turn, her grip on the books tightening.

“Was—was I supposed to be done by now?” she asked.

“I thought you’d have lost interest in organizing books by now,” he said. “You work your restorations like they’re tasks from the gods themselves.”

Avena hesitated, looking at the books. Turning to Laurence, she said, “I prefer restorations and translations, but you left specific instructions, sir.”

Laurence snorted with laughter. He chuckled, “Fair enough. Put those away and join me in my office. Something from the workshop arrived yesterday.”

“Yes sir,” Avena said, moving quickly to put the books away and follow after him. By the time she arrived, Laurence had already lifted a long crate onto a worktable and was gingerly working the top off.

“Not sure how he managed to get this in a box,” Laurence said. “Certainly wasn’t Cherise helping, she’s as delicate as a doll, too.” He worked the last nail loose and set it all aside.

“Is this a…tapestry, sir?” Avena asked, peering into the crate.

“A small one, but it’s what his letter said,” he replied. “Said they had it hung in a room, but Cherise noticed it had the variant Beast rune you were working on before. Gehrman hopes it’ll give us more to work with.” He put his hands on the caret and said, “I need you to get this off the table once I’ve got the tapestry. Can you manage?”

“Yes sir,” she said, getting a firm grip on the crate.

“Well said. On three, then.” He reached into the crate, found a firm hold on the tapestry, and said, “One, two—three!”

Avena took the crate away once the tapestry was clear of it, carefully taking it to one side of the room. As she returned, Laurence unrolled what would fit on the worktable and brushed away bits of dust.

“Fascinating,” he said quietly. He traced the lines of runes without touching the fabric, hands coming to a stop over the image of a great gray beast with twisted antlers looking up at the variant Beast rune with reverence in its face.

“I’ve never seen a beast depicted as understanding runes,” Avena said, keeping her hands away. “The tracery with the rune I worked on didn’t have the watchdog beast even seem aware of the rune.”

“This beast isn’t one I’ve seen before,” Laurence said. “There’s one similar in Loran texts I’ve worked, but every descriptor labeled it as an abhorrent beast. But this, Hunter…the beast is beholden to this rune.”

Avena thought. She stared at the beast and its curled hands as it reached for the rune. She looked at the runes writ along the edge of the tapestry closest to her, leaning in when she saw patterns.

“Sir,” she said, “look at these.” She pointed when he looked at her, saying, “Kin-written Heir, Beast, and Hunter, paired with all three writings of Anti- and Clockwise Metamorphosis.”

Laurence peered at the runes, moving closer and taking off his glasses. He did not squint as he examined the runes, only looking back and forth between them, the beast, and the variant rune. After putting his glasses back on, he went to one of his bookcases and climbed up a ladder to search for a book.

“Theory, Hunter,” he said, “I know you’ve got one, spit it out.”

Avena flinched, but swallowed to clear her throat and said, “I think this is showing an evolution of the Beast rune, sir. Metamorphosis on either side is always for enhancing a subject, and using every writing as a support for Beast may be noting that the gods gave their blessing to the change.”

“Or that we were begging their blessing,” Laurence said. He flipped through several pages in a book, nearly closed it, and then grinned. He pointed at the tapestry. “The three kin runes, give me the order again.”

“Heir, Beast, and Hunter, sir.”

“A covenant invocation!” Laurence laughed. “Bless your fortune to see something like this!”

“An invocation?” Avena said. She looked at the tapestry as Laurence climbed back down the ladder. Her brows rose as he came closer, and she said, “Then we’ve found evidence of a covenant closely tied to beasts.”

“It’s a hell of a discovery,” Laurence said. “Not one other covenant rune I’ve seen is a direct evolution of an existing rune, and nothing has been tied to beasts like this.” He pressed the book into her hands, saying, “One of Miss Caryll’s original texts about rune invocations, Hunter. Make it your primary study outside your courses.”

“Thank you, sir,” Avena said quietly, eyes widening as she flipped through pages.

He set his hand flat on the pages to stop her and said, “For now, though, we’re working the tapestry. Help me bring in another table.”

“Yes sir,” she said, putting the book down and following his lead. They retrieved a folding table from a workroom one floor down, both of them taking off their glasses to wipe their faces once the table was set and the tapestry spread out.

“Master Laurence?” Avena said, setting her glasses down to rub her eyes.

“What?”

“Why was something this significant hanging in someone’s house?”

“Because it’s Gehrman’s house,” Laurence said with a scoff. “He’s had more scholarly wealth in his possession than some people will ever see in their entire lives. We’re just lucky that he gives all this to Master Willem for us to study.”

“But where did he get all of it? If this beast is from Loran, that makes two of the great trio that he just has artifacts from.”

He looked at her. He smiled, unpleasant but without cruelty, and said, “Consider this a rule of thumb in our line of work, Hunter. If a donor has an incredibly large volume or broad range of works to give you, you’re better off not knowing where they got them.”

“Yes sir,” Avena sighed.

“Good girl. Let’s have a look at the rest of this, then.”

“Yes sir,” she said again, reaching for her glasses. Weariness on her, though, she fumbled in picking them up. They fell to the floor, hitting the hardwood at just the right angle and speed to crack both lenses. Avena stood there, mouth slightly open. She crouched down to retrieve them and sighed weakly as she stood back up.

“Bloody hell,” Laurence sighed. He made her lift her hands to look at her glasses, shaking his head after seeing the cracks. He asked, “I assume you have a spare pair?”

“The prescription is old, but yes.”

“Old glasses don’t work when you’re studying runes. Take the rest of the day to get new glasses and come back when they’re ready.”

Avena hesitated before asking, “Get them where, sir?”

“There’s an optometrist fairly close by,” Laurence said, going to his desk. He wrote on a notecard and gave it to her, saying, “This is his address. Tell him you work for me and you need a studier pair as soon as possible.”

Again, she hesitated. She asked, “Is…it possible to get an advance on my pay, sir?”

He looked at her a moment, eyes drifting as he thought. When he looked at her again, it was with a raised brow. He said, “You would be getting paid on Friday, wouldn’t you.” Before she could reply, he went back to his desk to write on another notecard. Giving it to her, he said, “Take that to the administrative hall. They’ll give you your pay early.”

“Thank you, Master Laurence. I’m sorry to leave like this.”

He waved a hand and said, “No use being upset over something like this. Just be careful with your spare glasses.”

“Yes sir,” Avena said, bowing to him. “Thank you again.”

He nodded, waving his hand to dismiss her. Sighing heavily as she left the archives, Avena put her glasses atop her head and went back to the residence hall with a headache rising behind her eyes.

————

As she made her way to the bout hall on Friday, Avena walked slowly. She considered the hall’s layout in her memory and wondered how quickly she could get to the helmets. By the time she reached the door, though, she had given up on the idea, too difficult as it would be to wear a helmet the entire lesson without being questioned. She inhaled deeply, exhaled slowly, failed to steady her pounding heart, and went into the hall.

Much the same as last week, Maria and Ludwig were in one of the dueling squares, sabers loud against each other. For a long while, Maria was turned away from the door, wholly focused on Ludwig as he was on her. When they turned about, however, Maria caught sight of her and stopped dead. As she dodged a strike Ludwig aimed at her shoulder, a look of baffled concern rose on her face.

“I know how this looks,” Avena said, tension ratcheting up in her back. “But it’s really not what it looks like.”

Ludwig began to turn as Maria walked past him. In a single smooth movement, Maria moved Avena away from the door and leaned her saber against the wall. Gentle, careful, she took Avena’s glasses off and set a hand on her right cheek. She ran her thumb along the edge of the bruising around Avena’s eye, mouth twisting at the sight of it.

“Who did this?” Maria asked, a cool edge in her voice.

“No one,” Avena said.

“You do not get black eyes like this by chance,” Maria said in turn. “What on earth happened?”

“I broke my glasses and I’ve been rubbing my eye too hard because my spare pair gives me a headache.” Because no shred of belief showed in Maria’s gaze, Avena lifted her trembling right hand and pointed at the bruise on the back of it. She said, “It bruised my hand, too. It just looks worse on my face.”

Maria sighed, concern lingering as she looked at Avena’s glasses. As she put them back on her, she asked, “How did your glasses break?”

“I dropped them.” She froze up when Maria moved hair out of her face, and she looked down when she quietly said, “I’m getting a new pair tomorrow.”

“Are you certain you want to participate in today’s lesson?” Maria asked.

“As long as you don’t pair me with Brador.”

“I’m planning on only letting him work with myself or Simon, frankly,” said Ludwig. “Don’t worry.”

“Thank you, sir,” Avena said. With her eyes on the floor, she did not see Maria nod to Ludwig or how he nodded in turn. She flinched when Maria took her left hand, shoulders rising because Maria went still.

“Sorry,” Avena said after clearing her throat.

“Come with me, Avena,” Maria said gently. She led Avena away from the door, putting herself between it and Avena when they came to a stop. Gentle as she’d spoken, she began to stretch Avena’s fingers and wrists.

“I—I already did that,” Avena said, eyes still on the floor and anxiety thick in her voice.

“I can feel you did. This is in the hope that it will help you relax.”

“Sorry,” Avena said again, even quieter than before. “I’m trying to.”

“Avena,” Maria said, enfolding Avena’s hand in hers, “you will work with me today. Once the lesson is over, I will take you back to your hall so you can walk without those glasses on. Do not worry.”

Avena cleared her throat in an effort to keep it from closing up, but she could not find words to reply. She nodded, and she managed to avoid flinching again when Maria took her right hand.

“Is this hand all right?” Maria asked, minding the bruise as she stretched her fingers.

“It—it is. I’ve had worse bruises.” She looked up without lifting her head when Maria put a hand on her cheek.

“And your eye?”

“That’s fine.” She smiled weakly. “I think my eyes bruise easier after that—time I got the scar on my nose.” When Maria moved her hand under her chin, she finally lifted her head. She grew tense as Maria looked at her in silence, staring back with uncertainty.

Maria took Avena’s glasses off and carefully hung them on the collar of her shirt. She then moved her hands to Avena’s face, leaning close enough that Avena did not have to squint to see her.

“Nothing will happen to you today,” Maria said. “You do not have to worry.” She ran her thumbs over Avena’s cheeks. “Please do your best to relax before the other students arrive.”

Avena nodded, managing to whisper, “Sorry.”

“Focus on my hands,” Maria said. As she moved her thumbs back and forth, she murmured, “Breathe slowly.”

She nodded again and let her concentration distill down to Maria’s hands and how they felt on her face. Though her fingers were long, elegance in how deftly they moved, the pads of her fingers were rough and calluses were in her palms. Each movement she made was steady and slow, so much so that Avena did not flinch when she reached up to run her fingertips along her eyebrows.

“You will have new glasses tomorrow?” Maria asked. “Even though it will be Saturday?”

“The optometrist is doing me a favor because Master Laurence sent me to him,” Avena said.

“I better understand your caution about your glasses now.” She put her hand on Avena’s cheek and said, “I am glad he is doing this favor. I cannot imagine what your headache is like if you gave yourself a black eye without realizing it.”

Avena’s gut twisted. She looked back down and said, “Sorry. I’m—I’m fine, I’m not—” She froze when Maria put a finger over her lips.

“Avena,” Maria whispered in her ear, “you are all right. I only want for you to relax.” She ran her fingers through Avena’s hair with tenderness, over and over until Avena finally looked up. She smiled then, gentle as her hands had been, and offered Avena her glasses.

“Thank—thank you,” Avena said, fumbling the sounds in the words. She cleared her throat, put her glasses on, and said, “I…um. I’ll be—I’ll be all right. For the lesson.”

“I trust that you will tell me if you need to stop.” She brushed Avena’s hair back and said, “You will tell me, yes?” When Avena nodded, she smiled and said, “Thank you. I promise the lesson will be simple.”

Avena nodded again, but words did not come to her for the entirety of the lesson. Maria said nothing on it, accepting nods and shakes of the head as answers. Even when the lesson ended and the students and Ludwig had gone, words did not return to Avena. She stood near the door, shoulders raised and eyes low in an effort to shrink. Maria came to stand before her, and she held out a hand in Avena’s line of sight.

“Do you need your glasses while you walk down stairs?” she asked.

Avena looked up at her and shook her head.

“I would like to take your glasses now, then,” Maria said. “You are terribly pale.”

Hands shaking visibly, Avena took her glasses off and handed them over. When Maria beckoned her closer, she stiffened. Maria beckoned again; Avena hesitantly moved forward. Once she was close, Maria put her arms around her and held her steady against her trembling.

“You’re all right,” Maria said. “Nothing will happen to you. Do not worry.”

Avena managed to nod, but could not keep from flinching when Maria lightly put a hand on her head. Maria waited until she had relaxed slightly before petting her hair. Bit by bit, the tension in Avena’s shoulders lessened, and soon she was able to look up at Maria again.

“Shall we go to your hall now?” Maria asked.

“Yes please,” Avena whispered. “It’s Cainhurst.”

Maria nodded, and she offered Avena her hand after letting go. The silence was allowed to return as Maria led Avena out of the hall and along the walkways. There were few people to be seen, and fewer who bothered to look their way. By the time they arrived at Cainhurst Hall, the sun was only beginning to set, and Maria gently pulled Avena to one side.

“Will the hall be serving food to students now?” she asked, giving Avena her glasses.

“Uh,” Avena said, fumbling for her watch. “Y—they will.”

“Then I ask you to eat well and rest before tomorrow,” Maria said. “I fear you will make yourself sick wearing these glasses for even one minute too long.”

The shaking in Avena’s limbs vanished as her heart dropped and left a void in her chest in its wake. She stared at Maria, mouth slightly open, as words utterly failed her. With her glasses still off, she could not parse Avena’s expression, and she flinched again when Maria reached out to touch her.

“I swear I’m not getting sick,” Avena said in a breaking rush.

Maria went still. She slowly drew her hand back. After a moment, she said, “I know you are well. But I still ask you to go eat and rest now, Avena. You look more exhausted than you should be.”

Misery starting to fill the void in her chest, Avena nodded, put on her glasses, and started toward the door.

“Avena,” Maria said gently.

She stopped and looked back.

“Will you have time to visit the hall on Monday? I would like to see your new glasses once you’ve had a chance to rest.”

She hesitated, working out how to swallow the lump in her throat, and said, “Is—is the afternoon all right?”

“It is. I will see you on Monday, yes?” When Avena nodded, she smiled and said, “Then I ask you have a pleasant weekend, Avena. Rest well.”

Avena nodded again, lifting a hand in parting as she went into the hall. With how few people were in the dining hall, it took no time at all to get and eat dinner in utter silence. Once her stomach was full, she retreated to her room to read the book Laurence had given her, glasses off and out of reach on her desk. When the shaking returned, she went to sit in bed with the covers bundled around her.

It was in this position that she fell asleep, but she had settled on her side when Arianna returned close to curfew. She did not wake when Arianna tapped on the door, nor when she took the book and set it safely on the nightstand. Arianna sighed as she turned out the light, but said nothing on her way out of the room.

When five-oh-five arrived the next morning, Avena woke as usual. The headache that greeted her was harsh enough to force her to close her eyes again, and in her exhaustion she dropped back to sleep in an instant. When she woke again, it was because Arianna was shaking her.

“Come on, dear, I don’t want you missing breakfast,” Arianna said.

Avena looked at her blearily.

“It’s half past nine.”

“It’s that late?” Avena asked.

“I wouldn’t call it late, but yes. Now come on, breakfast and then off with you to pick up your glasses. No one wants you wearing that damned old pair anymore.”

“All right,” Avena said, sitting up. The moment she was upright, she leaned forward to put her head in her hands.

“If I didn’t know you, I’d swear you have a hangover,” Arianna said, sighing with sympathy in her voice.

“Can we move the lesson on runes to tomorrow?” Avena mumbled through her fingers. “Please? I swear I’ll be fine by then.”

“Just worry about getting your glasses and dealing with that headache,” Arianna replied. “I already warned you about not wanting to play nurse for you this term, and the runes’ll still be here confusing me and Adella when you’re available. Besides, it’ll give me another chance to convince her that your black eye really isn’t from a fight.”

“Sorry,” Avena sighed. “And thank you.” She slowly got out of bed, gingerly picked the grit from the corners of her eyes as Arianna left her to herself. She cleaned up and dressed to leave campus, checking the contents of her wallet once before leaving the suite and once again before leaving the hall with a raspberry scone to eat as she walked.

Though the sun was brilliant, clouds few and far between, a brisk breeze nipped at Avena whenever it blew. She kept her eyes on the sidewalk, only looking up to check where she was. The optometrist’s office was a fair distance off campus, and the man was loitering in his own doorway when she arrived.

“C’mon, girl,” he said, waving her inside. “Let’s get you seeing again.”

“Thank you, sir,” Avena said. She followed him to a long desk near an intricate refractor, squinting at the machine only a moment before he offered her a black glasses case.

“Same kind of materials as Laurence’s pair,” he said. “Much lighter and they won’t break if you knock them off a table.” As she took the case, he muttered, “Country doctors just slap the flimsiest bits of glass and metal together, I swear.”

“I’ll still be careful with them,” Avena said, taking the glasses out to peer at them. The frames were gray-black metal where her old pair’s were silver, the lenses square instead of round, and they weighed almost nothing when she put them on. She looked about, headache immediately improving, and sighed.

“Nice to see properly, isn’t it,” he chuckled.

“It really is,” she said, exhaling a laugh. “Thank you again, sir.”

“Glad to help. You’ve brought the payment for the glasses, yes?”

“Yes sir,” she replied, taking her wallet from her pocket. She paid him, thanked him again, and went back outside with a slight smile on her face. For a minute or two, she stood still simply to take in the fine details she could see again. Though she turned back toward the campus, she hesitated with a thought. She checked the contents of her wallet, thought further, and then turned about to head in a different direction.

An hour and a half was needed to find a tailor, be fitted for a heavy sweater, and then move onto the bookstore she knew of. By the time she found two new books, her stomach was empty and her head throbbing. It was on the suggestion of the shopkeeper that she went in a certain direction after leaving, and she sighed with relief when she turned a corner and smelled as much as saw the bakery a few shops away.

The bakery was warm enough that Avena did not mind waiting in the midday line, but she held her bag close for caution as she left. Though she meant to reach into the bag after moving away from the door, she froze stiff when she looked across the sidewalk.

Maria was leaning against the railing along the sidewalk’s edge, a half-eaten pastry in hand and amused surprise on her face. The tips of Avena’s ears burned as her stomach twisted, but Maria only smiled, chuckled, and shook her head.

“I must admit I did not realize it was you when you passed by,” Maria said. “Your glasses are completely different.”

Avena hesitated. When Maria gestured to the space beside her, though, she went to lean there. She turned when Maria touched her chin, keeping still while Maria looked at her glasses.

“What a difference the shape of the glasses make,” Maria said. “These are very becoming on you.”

“Thank—thank you,” Avena said, throat closing for a moment. She cleared it and said, “Even though you didn’t recognize me?”

“I recognized you, good Hunter,” Maria chuckled. “I just did not realize it was you because I did not expect to see you.”

“Oh.” She laughed weakly before looking down. “I probably would’ve gone back to campus for lunch if I wasn’t hungry and tired like this.”

“I would enjoy the company if you chose to eat here.”

Avena looked back up at her. With her glasses on, she could see how Maria’s eyes were underscored from a lack of sleep. Because she continued to smile despite it, Avena nodded and said, “It’d be rude to turn a pretty woman down.”

Maria laughed through her nose and took a bite of her pastry. After swallowing, she said, “I am happy to hear you flirt with me. You still look very tired.”

“I haven’t really been able to get rid of my headache.” Before she took a bite of her own pastry, she ruefully said, “I wish oversleeping would actually fix headaches for me.”

“You overslept?”

Chewing, Avena nodded.

“But it is the weekend. What do you define as oversleeping on a Saturday?”

“Getting up any time after five-fifteen any day of the week is oversleeping.”

Maria raised a brow at her, mouth twisting slightly. She said, “That is rather hard on yourself. You do not give yourself little pleasures like sleeping in?”

“I can go back to sleep if I want,” Avena said. “I just don’t do that very often.”

“Do you read until the hour is sensible?” Maria asked, gesturing to the books.

“Read, or practice runes. What counts as a sensible hour to get up on a Saturday for you?”

“Nine at the latest. I only sleep longer if the day before was demanding.”

Avena stopped short in taking a bite. She looked at Maria slowly and asked, “Then…when did you get up this morning?”

“I did not get up,” Maria said, and she ate the last piece of her pastry. Once she had swallowed, she said, “I did not go to bed last night.”

Avena stared at her. She said, “You what?”

“I stayed awake last night,” Maria replied.

“You—why?”

Maria smiled, dusted off her fingers, and tucked loose hair behind Avena’s ear. She said, “Where I am from, it is said that if you remain awake through the night and let your mind dwell on another’s rest, the gods will grant that person your slumber. I thought it was only true for Cherise and I because we are twins, but I am happy to hear you took my sleep.”

Face burning, Avena quietly said, “You didn’t have to do that.”

“I wanted to.” She moved Avena’s glasses down to touch the scar on her nose, saying, “I had hoped you would sleep without the fear you had yesterday.”

Avena’s stomach twisted again, harder than before. She opened her mouth, felt her throat close up, and swallowed hard to clear it. She said, “I’m sorry. For how I behaved yesterday. I didn’t—I wasn’t afraid of—afraid of you.”

“But you were afraid of what I would do after seeing your eye,” Maria said, running a curled finger over Avena’s cheek. “And you were afraid of what I would do if I thought you were sick.” She put her fingers under Avena’s chin to make her look up and meet her gaze as she said, “I would like to ask why you were afraid, if you would tell me.”

For a long while, Avena said nothing. Her jaw flexed visibly as she tried to work through words. When she finally opened her mouth to speak, it was in time with the wind picking up in a sharp burst. It sent a chill through her, which forced the words to become a startled, choked noise.

Maria, brows rising from surprise, could not suppress a giggle at the sight and sound of it. Avena, in turn, sighed, took off her glasses, and pinched the bridge of her nose as the chill set her to shivering.

“I apologize for laughing, good Hunter,” Maria said, putting a hand on her shoulder. “But—please believe me when I say that was very cute to see.”

“It’s…fine,” Avena said. “I just wish it wasn’t windy and cold when I’m trying to talk.”

“Would it help to be somewhere more private?”

“It would.”

“Would you like to visit my flat, then? It is fairly close.”

Avena smiled, small and weary, as she put her glasses back on and looked at Maria. She said, “I admire you for making that offer sound so chaste.”

“On any other day it would be different. But the offer stands if you would like to leave the cold.”

“I would like to, Maria,” Avena murmured.

Still smiling, Maria stood up straight, offered a hand, and said, “Then follow me, good Hunter.”

Avena nodded, took her hand, and followed her lead through the streets.