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In These Hallowed Halls

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Alma looks up, startled, as Tietra flings herself through the door into their small room, her face reddened and tears already filling her eyes. She skids to a halt when she realizes Alma was not alone.

Ever discreet, Lady Ovelia rises to her feet from her seat upon Alma's bed, where they had been reviewing the day's lessons. "Pray forgive me," she says. "I would not wish to intrude." She keeps her eyes kindly averted from Tietra's tears.

Tietra sniffles and swipes a hand across her eyes, then drops into a deep curtsey. "My apologies, Your Highness," she whispers. "I would not give offense."

"I took no offense," Lady Ovelia assures her. "What troubles you? Is there aught I may do?"

Tietra stands up straighter and pulls her shoulders back, a stance Alma has seen Delita take as well, when the highborns that her father fostered were teasing him for lowborn blood. "I tripped," she says flatly.

"I think not." Lady Ovelia's voice is so very mild that it takes a moment for Alma to identify the rebuke. "Here, give me your hand." She bends to examine it, and shakes her head at the swelling already beginning around Tietra's wrist. They are schooled in basic healing magics—useful things for noble women to know, in tending their husbands and children and estates—and Lady Ovelia whispers the words of Cure, the cool light wrapping around Tietra's hand to banish the swelling.

"Thank you," Tietra says, soft and full of wonder.

Lady Ovelia does not let go of her hand. "Who pushed you?"

Tietra looks away. "It doesn't matter," she says. "Thank you for healing me."

Alma has her guesses, but Tietra's secrets are not hers to tell. Still, she frowns.

"I will speak to Father Simon," Lady Ovelia says firmly.

"No, please!" Tietra twists away, then turns scarlet. "Y-your pardon, Your Highness. I only—it will not help, my lady."

Lady Ovelia folds her hands at her waist and bends a look far sterner than her fourteen years on Tietra.

Alma will not let Tietra be intimidated—even with the best of intentions—while she sits idly by. "Your pardon, Lady Ovelia, but I have spoken to Father Simon before. He spoke to the persons in question, and while they took care to hide their taunting thereafter, they intensified it."

Lady Ovelia's expression is sad, but she nods acknowledgment. "My apologies," she says softly. "It had not occurred to me."

Tietra's mouth falls open at the idea that the princess of the realm would apologize to her. Alma nudges her gently. "I—no offense taken, Lady!" Tietra says hastily, dropping a curtsey that the princess waves aside.

"A different question, then, if I may?" Lady Ovelia asks. "Why?"

Alma clears her throat. "Some of our classmates object to Tietra's family, Lady," she says.

Lady Ovelia raises an eyebrow. "I was under the impression she was here under your House's auspices," she says, and oh, that rebuke stings. Alma feels her own failure to protect Tietra keenly enough without it, and her eyes sting.

"Yes, Lady," she says softly. "Yet my House's protection is stronger when the trueborn members are here."

The sound of disgust that Lady Ovelia makes at that makes Alma flinch. "Small wonder," Lady Ovelia says, "that the commonfolk speak of rebellion, when this is how we treat our own." She gestures at the walls around them. Alma and Tietra are here for education only; Lady Ovelia outranks them, but she is a prisoner in these hallowed halls.

"It is not so ill done," Alma says, for something must fill the silence. "My father has done better by me than many would."

"Lord Barbaneth's generosity is more than I would dare dream of." Tietra has swallowed away her tears now.

"Our mothers were friends," Alma explains, knowing Lady Ovelia is curious but too polite to ask. "When my mother passed on, she asked my father to sponsor Tietra and her brother Delita."

Lady Ovelia smiles warmly. "I am pleased at this kindness, for it means I have had a chance to meet you." She tilts her head. "I have, in the past, had some success at coaxing the cooks to slip me a tart before supper. Think you we might attempt that this afternoon?" The heir to the throne holds out her hand to a commoner's daughter, and Tietra takes it.

Someday, Alma thinks as she follows them to the kitchens, Lady Ovelia will be a great queen.