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The Phoenix Quest I: A Kindled Heart

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Lady Alanna of Pirate’s Swoop and Olau, King’s Champion of Tortall, stretched her back as she surveyed the vast expanse of Lake Tirragen in front of her. The Grand Progress had stopped at Fief Tirragen, and the royal party had been treated to a lavish meal by the surly Darius of Tirragen. Alanna didn’t enjoy the meal at all. The steward of Tirragen reminded Alanna too much of his oldest brother, Alexander of Tirragen. He looked like a much older version of him, so much so that it spooked her.

She understood the reasons King Jonathan stopped along the fiefdoms that were involved in the treason more than a decade ago, and she admitted to herself that draining their purse was a good way of keeping them in line. But it brought back bad memories, and it made her cross. She couldn’t even move freely in the main camps because of the cursed order to stay away from Keladry of Mindelan. And so she went for a ride to find some quiet, finding it at last near the woods to the south of Lake Tirragen.

Or not. A snap on twigs too close to her made her whirl around, sword in hand. How could she not hear the footsteps before this? “Who’s there?”

A small figure appeared from behind a tree. Moonlight showed a young girl perhaps eight or nine in age, her dark hair pulled back into a ponytail. Her eyes were wide but determined, though it was hard to tell their colour in the moonlight.

She bowed like a boy, and Alanna raised an eyebrow. “M-my lady, I’m sorry for disturbing you here when you look like you want some quiet. But — but this is the only time I can see you, and I — I’d like a word, please.”

Alanna could see the girl’s hands shaking before she brought them behind her back. Was she so terrifying these days? “What’s your name, girl?”

“Emmeline of Tirragen, my lady.”

Alanna widened her eyes slightly in surprise. She studied the girl as she sheathed her sword slowly. The girl’s dress had seen better days, and it hung a little too high over a thin frame, as if it was taken by surprise by its owner’s growth spurt. She knew that Tirragen was not the rich fief it once was, but the noble family was old. Surely they could do better than this. “What do you have to say?”

The girl swallowed nervously, but kept her chin up. “I’d like to become a knight, my lady. But my family cannot afford the training. I hope — I hope you can help fund my page training, before I find a knight-master who can help when I’m a squire.”

Again, Alanna fought to hide her surprise. Many questions fought for attention in her mind, and she struggled to pick one. “Why are you asking me? Your previous lord tried to kill me.”

Emmeline winced and hung her head. “I know, and I am sorry. I was born after — after he was dead, but we feel the consequences still at Tirragen. Things won’t improve if we don’t do something about it. If I become a knight I can serve the realm, and one day I’ll do some great deeds to redeem my family’s name.” She shook her head a little, “I’m sorry, that wasn’t what you asked. I asked you because — because I don’t think anyone else would even consider, because I’m a girl.”

Alanna’s eyes softened. Did Alex ever think about the consequences of his treason on his people, his lands? Even if she didn’t like being around here, this was a big fiefdom, and there were many still who were unfairly implicated by Alex.

She took a step closer to Emmeline, and slowly walked a circle around the girl, trying to gauge her fitness. The girl was too thin, though she held herself gracefully and quietly enough that she had caught Alanna by surprise in the woods. With training and proper meals, she would improve her fitness. But she would have to work to build up muscle.

A long mark on Emmeline’s forearm caught her eye, and she grabbed her wrist and turned it towards the moonlight. It was part of a fading bruise. From the shape it looked like someone grabbed her hand very hard.

“Who did this?” Alanna asked sharply, assessing Emmeline’s situation in a new light. Tirragen couldn’t be as poor as she made it out to be. There must be more to the story.

Emmeline flinched and tried to pull her hand back, but Alanna held firm. “It’s nothing, my lady.”

Alanna took her other arm and held it against the moonlight as well. There was no bruise there, but a long scar that looked like it came from a whip, or a belt lashing. Alanna felt her blood boil — who would do this to a child?

“Listen, Emmeline,” She said quietly, meeting the girl’s nervous gaze, “if I’m to help you, you have to be honest with me. No one should treat you like this. And you can’t run away by going to page training, there are other ways to deal with this.”

Emmeline swallowed. “But what will you do, my lady? My family can’t afford any more scandal —”

“Your family did this?” Alanna fumed, her voice dangerously quiet as she thought of words she would have with the lord.

Emmeline looked away, and her voice was edged with bitterness when she replied, “Family only in name. My brother is the Lord of Tirragen, but he’s only twelve. Uncle Darius is the steward, and he — he wished I’m a boy. Xander was supposed to be the knight to redeem our name, but he was crippled by illness three years ago. Darius doesn’t think girls should fight, and he won’t fund my training even though I told him I’d do it.”

“Did he do this to you?”

Emmeline turned her right arm a little, indicating the bruise, “Xander won’t let him hurt me. This was — this was an accident.”

Alanna lifted her other arm, “What of the scar then? How is that an accident?”

Emmeline hung her head, and muttered something.

“Speak up, girl. If you want to be a knight, you need to speak up.”

Emmeline raised her head, her eyes defiant. “I said my father was drunk that day, my lady. He was always drunk. He didn’t mean it.”

Alanna was quiet as she looked into those defiant eyes. How could someone so young suffer so much at the hands of her own family? There were countless children whose lives were changed by wars. Those were suffering that Alanna could try to lessen. But how could she help people like Emmeline?

Well, she asked, didn’t she?

Alanna let go of Emmeline’s left hand, and place her free hand on the bruise. “I’m going to heal this,” She warned before her purple Gift glowed over the bruise for a moment. She sent out her Gift through the girl’s body in the same breath, prodding. There were no more bruises, thankfully. But she could feel the signs of healed flesh, and she was certain that there were more long scars on the girl’s back.

Emmeline snatched her hand back the moment Alanna let go, and she hid both hands behind her back. “Thank you, my lady.”

Alanna straightened up. “Don’t thank me so soon. You’ll get countless more if you go for knight training. It’s not a way to escape bruises, I’ll tell you that. You’ll be beaten, called names, and assigned so much work that you don’t think you’ll ever finish. On top of that, you’ll need to work much harder than the boys to build up muscle and strength. Are you sure you want to be a knight?”

There was a fire in the girl’s eyes. “I’m not afraid of pain or work, my lady. I’m afraid of having things stay the same my whole life, and Tirragen would just waste away. I can only change things by becoming a knight, and that’s what I’ll do.”

The power to change things. Alanna fought to hide a smile. Wasn’t that what she herself sought, growing up in Trebond?

“Will your family let you go if I agree to fund it? What about your mother?” If her brother was Lord of Tirragen, then her father must have passed away.

“Xander will let me go, he will make Darius do it,” Emmeline said quickly, and paused for a bit. “I never knew my mother. She died giving birth to me.”

Yet another thing that they had in common. Alanna shook her head. “Well, there’s that then. Fine, I will fund your training. I will write a letter to haMinch, the training master about the finances.”

Emmeline bowed deeply. “Thank you, thank you, my lady.”

Alanna placed firm hands on her small shoulders, and pulled her back up. Emmeline was blinking hard, and the corners of her eyes shone in reflected moonlight.

“I may not be able to see you very often. There are still rumours that I can somehow magick someone to help her get her shield. The King or haMinch may forbid contact between us once your training starts, so no one can say you cheated. But I’ll keep an eye on you, Emmeline. I have a feeling that you’ll do Tirragen and me proud one day.”

Emmeline nodded, a wobbly smile slowly forming on her face. “Thank you, my lady. I’ll — I’ll make sure I do. Please excuse me, I need to tell Xander about this.”

Alanna nodded, and Emmeline bowed again before she left.

“Gods all bless, Emmeline of Tirragen.”

Chapter Text

Queen Thayet the Peerless sat down on her cot in the main camp with a sigh. It had been an eventful day. Keladry of Mindelan’s tilting incident had got the whole camp talking. Thayet made sure that the poor girl received proper medical attention and comforted her mother afterwards, which made her late for the next engagement, and the next, and things just spiralled out of control. Now she wasn’t going to have time to take a ride like she wanted to. There was another formal dinner planned for that evening, and she would need to start preparing soon. 

The tent flap opened unceremoniously, and she looked up to see her youngest daughter, Vania, enter the tent. Thayet had just started to smile when Vania rushed forward to sit on the cot beside her, taking her hands excitedly.

“Mother, did you see Keladry of Mindelan?” Vania’s eyes were awed, “She was brilliant! Coming back in the third round after that dishonourable knight tried to run her through, and then pushing him off the saddle! He yielded at her sword point!”

Thayet knew that her daughter was not the only one inspired by Keladry’s achievements. It had been heartening to see the girls on the stands getting onto their feet just now, cheering for her. “My dear, the whole camp saw it, and by tomorrow, probably the whole city would hear about it.”

“I want to be like her, mother,” Vania said, her face slowly becoming more serious. “I want to be a knight.”

Thayet tried not to frown at her twelve-year-old. Vania wasn’t one who rush through decisions. “Have you thought this through?” 

Vania nodded as she slowly let go of Thayet’s hands, smiling slightly. “I didn’t decide because I saw Keladry today, mother. I’ve been thinking about it for a while. I like training with your ladies in waiting, I really do, but I want more.” She paused, looking down a little. “I don’t want to be just a lady, even though I know it’s proper work, and it takes a lot to manage an estate well.”

Thayet used a finger to guide Vania’s chin up, making sure that she was looking at her eyes. “Didn’t you want to be a Rider some time back? Why knighthood now?”

Vania smiled crookedly. “Which Rider group would function well with a princess in their midst? They’d be surrounded by extra protection, and the moment there’s danger they’d have to pull back. I would just drag them down. But a knight is different, a knight can work alone. And Roald and Liam seem to be doing well.”

Thayet was silent for a moment, feeling a small surge of pride at Vania’s thoughtfulness. As the youngest of her children, Vania had always been indulged a little more than her older siblings. She and Jon were still strict with Vania, but she knew for certain that Jon hasn’t taken her aside for a serious talk yet about what she might want to do with her life. Jon had that conversation with the others as early as nine years old, but she and Jon had allowed Vania to drift a little. As if not making her choose would prolong her childhood, and give Jon and her more time with their youngest. 

Thayet gently guided a few strands of black hair behind Vania’s ears. Her long black curls were pinned in a loose bun behind her head today, and she wore a light blue dress that brought out her sapphire eyes. “You won’t have much time for dressing up and looking pretty, you know. And you love your dresses.”

Vania rolled her eyes. “I’m sure I will have time to do that, mother. Aren’t you the one who’s always reminding Aunt Buri that being a warrior doesn’t mean she can’t be a woman?”

Thayet hid a smile, knowing that Vania got her. Her eyes traced Vania’s stubborn nose. She was the only daughter of hers to inherit her nose, a reminder of Thayet’s father. Would it get broken one day? “It will be tough. HaMinch won’t have a choice accepting you, but he won’t make it easy. And the Chamber of Ordeal,” Thayet said grimly, recalling all the people she had seen walking out of that Chamber and how bad they looked, “It changes people.”

“Why are we talking about the Chamber of Ordeal?” Jon walked in from the entrance, eyeing his wife and daughter curiously as he walked towards a pitcher. 

“Father,” Vania stood up, shot a nervous glance at Thayet, and walked over as Jon poured himself a glass of cider. “I was just telling mother that I want to be a knight.”

Jon made a noise as if he almost choked on his cider. Thayet grinned despite the circumstances. It had been a long time since anyone made Jon do that. 

“You’re twelve.” It was the first thing Jon said, as he wiped his mouth on his sleeves.

“Nealan of Queenscove was fifteen when he started,” Vania said, and it sounded like she rolled her eyes again, “And he said there were at least three others who started later than he did.”

Jon grimaced a little in irritation, and Thayet knew that Neal was probably not his favourite person at the moment. Jon sat down on the chair next to the table, turning to Thayet with a questioning eyebrow. 

“She has good reasons.” Thayet told her husband.

“And what might they be?” Jon directed the question back to their daughter, leaning back on the chair, “Why do you suddenly want to be a knight?”

“I want to serve the realm,” Vania said, chin high, “not as a healer like Lianne, not as a lady managing an estate, and not just by mother’s side as a lady in waiting. I want to fight.

“And seeing Keladry of Mindelan today,” She continued, turning to shoot a quick look at her mother, “seeing her today made me realise how important it is to have someone to look up to. I know you and mother have been making things a lot better for women in the country over the years, but imagine what kind of message it would send throughout the realm, if one of your daughters is to become a knight. It will make a lot more people think, and maybe give many more girls the courage to choose how they want to shape their lives. Being a princess, in this case, makes a lot of difference.”

Thayet tried not to glow in pride for her daughter. It wasn’t just for her reasons, which were well thought-out, but for the fact that she knew how to change her argument into one that a king might listen to, if not her father.

Jon did not say anything for a long moment, his eyes unreadable as he stared at his youngest. Vania held his gaze steadily. 

“Have you spoken with Kally about this?” Jon finally said, using their eldest daughter, Kalasin’s nickname.

Vania dipped her head just a touch. “Not recently. I asked her why she gave up her shot at a shield a few years ago. She explained to me what you said — that as royal princesses we have our duties, which includes helping Tortall secure allies through our marriages. Knighthood for princesses may be a hindrance to that, and thus a hindrance to our duties.” 

Thayet felt her chest tightened at the matter-of-fact way Vania spoke of it. It was an incident that broke Kally’s heart, and Thayet still ached for her eldest daughter’s lost dream. 

Vania continued, “But among our neighbours, Kally is going to Carthak, we have treaties with the Yamanis, and Liam is due to marry the Tyran princess when she’s of age. That leaves Tusaine, Galla, Scanra and the Copper Isles. The political situation in Scanra and Copper Isles are not stable, so you —”

“Stop it.” Thayet interrupted, and Vania and Jon both turned to her. She couldn’t bear hearing this cold analysis any longer. “You’re not a pawn looking for the best spot to move into, Vania,” She said, keeping her eyes on Jon, “You’re our daughter. We want you to be happy.”

“And safe,” Jon added quickly, frowning at Thayet, “Knighthood is no child’s play, Vania. You could get killed. You will almost certainly get beaten, at some point.”

Vania’s gaze was steady. “And yet you allowed Roald to be a knight, and Liam is already a squire. If I can’t do this because it’s not safe, doesn’t it just mean that you don’t think girls can fight as well as boys? But Aunt Alanna is your Champion, so that —”

“Don’t tell me things I already know,” Jon snapped, and Vania wisely shut her mouth. Jon rubbed the bridge of his nose, and when he looked up again his expression was apologetic. He reached out to hold Vania’s hand, “Maybe I’m just a selfish old man, too afraid to let my youngest daughter grow up and do dangerous things.”

Thayet resisted the urge to go and embrace Jon. He did look tired then, and Thayet knew the many battles ahead that he had already foreseen. The balance between being a good King and a good father is a hard one to juggle, she knew. But this was his moment with Vania.

Vania squeezed his hand. “I have to grow up some time, Da,” She used the name she had called in childhood, “I’m already twelve.”

That made Jon chuckle and Thayet smile. How grown up her daughter had become, and how young she still was! 

Jon opened his arms, and Vania stepped into his embrace automatically. Jon wrapped his arms around her tightly. “You are certainly a grown-up already.”

Thayet stood and walked over, wrapping her arms around them both. “But you’ll always be our little girl.”

They were silent for a moment or two. 

“Can I be your little lady knight too?”

Jon and Thayet both laughed as they pulled back, and Jon reached up to smooth Vania’s hair back. “Fine, my little lady knight. You’ll blaze a path for girls everywhere.”

Vania grinned, and leaned forward to shower them in kisses. “Thank you! Thank you!”

Chapter Text

Padriag haMinch, training master in charge of page training, walked into King Jonathan’s study when the guard opened the door. He walked stiffly to where the King sat behind his desk, and bowed deeply. “Good morning, your majesty.”

“Take a seat, haMinch.”

HaMinch sat, trying to smooth the frown from his face. They both knew why haMinch requested an audience.

“Let’s get straight to it then, shall we?” the king smiled a little.

He nodded at the king. “Yes, your majesty. It is regarding the matter of the female pages. I was notified that there would be three of them this year, your majesty.”

King Jonathan nodded. “More than any of us were expecting. But I must admit, Keladry of Mindelan’s impressive showing during the Grand Progress last season must have inspired many girls. Buri reports that there are more female applicants to the Queen’s Riders this year than any other year.”

HaMinch felt his eyebrow twitched in irritation. “The Queen’s Riders has nothing to do with this, your majesty. It has been decreed from the start that girls are allowed. With her majesty as the founder and patron, it is also proper.”

King Jonathan raised an eyebrow. “It has been similarly decreed more than a decade ago that females are allowed to train for knighthood. Female knights are quite common across the Eastern Lands hundreds of years ago, if you recall.”

HaMinch raised an eyebrow back at his monarch. “I thought your majesty wanted to get straight to the matter? I know what has been decreed, but surely your majesty understand the forces that would oppose this. Having three females in one year alone would cause an uproar, and what more when one is a princess, and the other from a house involved in treason?”

The king leaned back on his chair, and considered him. “What do you want then, haMinch?”

“A probational year,” haMinch began.

“Absolutely not.” The king said immediately, “It has been done to Keladry of Mindelan, and it proved to be unnecessary and unfair. Even my Lord Wyldon thinks so.”

“For all the pages, your majesty,” haMinch continued dryly, wondering why the king felt so strongly about this. Had the queen said something? Or the King’s Champion?

“All the pages?” King Jonathan blinked at him.

HaMinch nodded, his hand fiddling with the calluses around his knuckles. “We live in interesting times, your majesty. I know you chose me as training master because of my family’s standing among the older houses, and I know what they think of females who choose to fight. But times are changing. I see the need for a different generation of warriors to defend our realm,” he held the king’s gaze, “male or female.”

“What do you think of females who choose to fight?”

HaMinch gritted his teeth. “They make the realm stronger, in whichever capacity they choose.”

“Even those who choose to be knights?” the king asked lightly. It was annoying how he seemed to be amused haMinch’s giant headache.

“If they survive the training, and could handle the damage done to their reputation and marriage prospects, yes.” HaMinch said grudgingly, thinking of his own grand-niece, who started playing with swords last year. It was a strange sight, but it filled him with pride. He realised then that he did not want to take it away from her, propriety or no.

“But back to the matter at hand. I suggest we put all the first years on probation, and say that it is for them to understand the duties and harsh training for knighthood. If they could not manage or decide not to pursue knighthood after the year has ended, then there shouldn’t be dishonour in their giving up. It would just be because they realised they were more suited to something else.”

A smile slowly formed on the king’s face. “Why, haMinch. That’s an excellent suggestion. Do you think it will go well with the older houses?”

He smiled tightly back at the king. “They are still shaken by the failures of Stone Mountain and Genlith two winters ago, your majesty. They want changes made to page training to ensure that their precious sons don’t disgrace their families. This gives them a way out if they realise that they sons are not cut out for knighthood.”

The king nodded in approval. “And I assume you’ll be the one to decide whether they pass their probation?”

HaMinch cocked his head slightly. “Unless your majesty want the panel who judges the page examinations to be the ones who do?”

The king didn’t hide his wince. Everybody could tell that the panel was made up of the stiffest conservatives. The tests were basic, and the penalty was, at worst, forcing pages to repeat some training. But to give them the power to kick out pages would be another thing entirely.

“Very well. All pages will have a probational year from now on, and you will have the final say in the outcome.”

“Thank you, your majesty.” He paused. “There’s another matter. Emmeline of Tirragen will be a tricky case. The steward of her estate, Darius of Tirragen, has written to denounce her desire for knighthood and refused any funding for her training, but the twelve-year-old Lord of Tirragen wrote in separately in support of her choice. I will respect the young Lord’s decision, as is his right. Interestingly, Lady Alanna has written that she would be funding her page training.”

He looked into the king’s eyes directly, “I understand that there was an arrangement between Lord Wyldon and Lady Alanna regarding Keladry of Mindelan’s training.”

It was the king’s turn to twitch in irritation. “You have been talking to Wyldon, haven’t you.”

HaMinch nodded. “As is proper to do so, since he is the former training master. We had some interesting debates, but I agree with his assessment that Lady Alanna’s involvement with any of the female pages’ training would be detrimental to the perception of their achievements.”

The kind nodded solemnly. “You’ll want the same arrangement, then? No contact during their training?” HaMinch nodded, but the king frowned, “She’s Vania’s godsmother. They can hardly avoid each other.”

HaMinch tried not to frown. Already, exceptions had to be made for the princess. “Very well. This rule will not apply to Princess Vania alone.”

The king nodded, and continued, “Now that there are three of them, things could get tricky. What happens when they become squires? It was silly enough that Alanna and Raoul avoid being at the same place at the same time because Keladry is Raoul’s squire. With the situation in Scanra as it is, I’m not going to make this a consideration in the knights’ assignment. The King’s Champion will go where she needs to.”

It was a good point. He sighed. “Fine, no contact during their page years, at least. I agree that it would be impractical when they become squires.”

“Good. I’ll let Alanna know. Is there anything else?”

HaMinch stood to bow, he knew a dismissal when he heard one. “No, your majesty. Thank you for your time.”

“And thank you, haMinch,” King Jonathan smiled slightly, “I know it’s not an easy job, but I appreciate your open-mindedness.”

“How could I stick to old ideas, when we have immortals and killing devices?” haMinch said, and bowed again as he turned to leave. “Your majesty.”

XXXXX

Emmeline of Tirragen checked her reflection on the mirror one last time, straightening her tunic. Try as she might, she couldn’t wipe away the silly grin on her face. Starting tomorrow, she would be a page! She was taking the first step to becoming a knight, and redeeming her family name.

She touched the tips of her dark hair, now cut short to her earlobe. She missed her long hair, but she knew that pages would take part in combat, and long hair was just an invitation for people to pull on them. This was but one of the many sacrifices that she would have to make, and she was prepared for it. She was prepared for everything that the training would throw at her.

When the bell tolled for supper, she went out to stand in front of her room, knowing that the training master would be down to inspect them and arrange for sponsors in a minute.

As she closed her door she froze, gaping at the girl opposite her room. Yes, girl. She wasn’t the only female page this year!

Her neighbour had long flowing black hair tied in a ponytail, and it bounced when she turned around. When she did, Emmeline’s eyes widened further. The girl was beautiful. She looked a little older than Emmeline, and her features were elegant and pretty on her cream-coloured skin. Her eyes were sapphire, and it was alluring even when they were looking at her in surprise.

The girl recovered quickly, and grinned confidently at her. She jerked her head to one side, and Emmeline looked at where she was indicating. To her astonishment, the room next to this girl was also occupied by a girl. The third girl also looked a little older, with olive skin and curly brown hair that threatened to escape her short braid. She looked about as startled as Emmeline must have felt. Looking back and forth at the two of them, she smiled, and waved silently.

Out of the corner of her eye, Emmeline saw Padraig haMinch striding down the corridor, and gulped. The training master was an imposing man, heavily muscled and over six feet tall. His no-nonsense face was weathered and tan, and his long dark hair was tied in a horse tail.

Groups of boy bowed with a quiet greeting and joined him as he strode down the corridor. He halted when there were six of them left, three boys and three girls. Emmeline realised with a start that half of this year’s pages were girls. What amazing luck she had.

HaMinch did a quick survey of their faces. “Tomorrow is the last lazy day you’ll have. Your sponsors will show you around the palace and make sure you get the necessary supplies. The day after tomorrow, we will begin training. You,” haMinch pointed at the boy closest to him, “Your name and fief.”

“Gerald of Disart, sir,” the boy bowed gracefully, his brown hair flopping in front of his forehead.

“Who would like to sponsor him?” haMinch asked.

A tall, lanky boy with lighter brown hair stepped forward and bowed, “I would like to volunteer, my lord, we are kinsmen.”

HaMinch nodded. “Very well, Willem of Queensgrace.” And Gerald joined the group of boys.

The other two boys were sorted with similar efficiency. A nervous looking blond, Roland of Nond, was sponsored by Tibout of Runnerspring. The third boy was a lean and muscular Bazhir named Ahmad Seif, and he was sponsored by a freckled boy called Gregory of Nenan. And next up was the the olive-skinned girl with a braid.

“Fianola of King’s Reach, sir.” Fianola started on a curtsy, but changed immediately to a bow. She bowed lower than was necessary, and Emmeline wondered if she was blushing at the slip up.

“Who would sponsor her?”

There was a pause for the first time. Slight murmurs could be heard among the crowd behind haMinch. Emmeline’s excitement waned a little, knowing that it did not matter if half the new pages were girls. Nobody really wanted them here.

“We haven’t got all day, you slowpokes.” HaMinch snapped, and more than some of them jumped at the use of such language.

Finally, a boy nudged the group apart and bowed to haMinch, then Fianola. “I would like to sponsor King’s Reach, sir.”

HaMinch nodded. “Good, Briar of Tasride.”

And suddenly all attention was on her. She swallowed, and bowed. “Emmeline of Tirragen, sir.”

A hush fell across the group, and Emmeline could hear her fief name and the word ‘treason’ being repeated in shocked whispers across the group. Emmeline tried to keep her face neutral, even though her heart thundered in her ears.

“Do I need to prod you every step of the way?” haMinch said impatiently.

Still, no one stepped forward. Emmeline could feel her face warm, and she bit her lips, trying not to cry. She knew this would happen, didn’t she? Wasn’t this how all other nobles treated her family? Even the villagers in her fief hated them.

“Will no one sponsor her?” haMinch repeated, his voice a low dangerous rumble, “Don’t make me assign—”

“Sir,” Astonishingly, the girl opposite her stepped forward and bowed, “I know it is not conventional, but may I sponsor Emmeline? I grew up in the palace, and two of my brothers were pages before. Frankly, I don’t think I need a sponsor.”

HaMinch glared at her. “Are you not yet happy with the number of conventions you have already broken, Princess Vania?”

Emmeline stared at the girl in shock. She was a Conté? Why would she, of all people, want to sponsor her, a Tirragen?

Princess Vania smiled and bowed gracefully. “We live in interesting times, sir. I’m not sure if conventions are good guiding principles.”

For the strangest reason, haMinch looked almost amused, though he tried to hide it. Instead, he nodded. “Fine. You’ll sponsor Tirragen then. Now, supper.”

He turned around and strode through the group of boys, who followed quietly behind him, sneaking glances back at the three girls. Briar was leading Fianola away when she turned to call, “Come sit with us at the hall!”

“Sure!” Princess Vania replied cheerfully as she stepped closer to the still stunned Emmeline. She stuck out her hand. “Hello, I’m Vania.”

Emmeline blinked at the offered hand, and looked up at Vania — she was taller than her by a head. “Why, your highness?” She finally asked, “My family —”

“None of that ‘your highness’ stuff, please,” Vania pulled a face, “And who cares what your family did? You’re here as Emmeline, just as I’m here as Vania. We have to go through four years of training together. I want to be your friend.”

Vania was not like any princess that Emmeline had imagined, but her ears perked up at the word ‘friend’. She never had any, and Xander didn’t count. She smiled weakly, clasping Vania’s hand. “Then call me Emmy. That’s what Xander — what my brother calls me.”

Vania nodded with a smile. “Emmy, I like it. Come, don’t be late for supper.” She started down the hall, and Emmy followed beside her, “Liam says that people can only start eating when everyone is present. So if we’re late, other people would grumble.”

Emmy nodded, noting this for future reference. She would need to take care not to be late. People disliked her enough as it was.

The hall was a picture of controlled chaos. Boys of various ages were talking and joking and jostling a little, though the corner Fianola and her sponsor occupied were strangely hushed, as if the boys didn’t know what to make of her. When the boys saw Vania and her entering, they nudged or poked each other, staring quite openly. Amazingly, some whistles came from one corner of the group before someone else hushed them. Vania tossed her hair defiantly, and went for the food.

Emmy tried to ignore the attention, and focused on the food. She was just passing the roast tray when someone else dumped another serving of roast beef onto her plate. She looked up in confusion.

“You could use more meat on your bones,” Vania winked at her, and led the way to the table.

Emmy looked down at the extra serving of meat, and shook her head with a smile.

Fianola waved gracefully at them as they settled down. “Your highness—”

“Just Vania, please.”

Fianola grinned, “Vania it is. And Emmeline! How lucky are we? Three girls in the same year!”

“She’s Emmy to friends,” Vania nodded at her, and Emmy tried to hide her surprise. Was she used to doing this to other people, being a princess?

Vania was nodding fiercely. “And I know! I was all prepared for the prospect of being the only girl, but now that I see you, I’m so glad that I’m not!”

“There is still a boy among your pretty selves, thank you.” Fianola’s sponsor said dryly, pointing his fork at them.

Vania grinned, offering her hand out for a handshake, “I know. You’re Briar of Tasride, right?”

Instead of shaking the offered hand, Briar took it to his lips and kissed it softly. “At your service, your highness.”

Vania kept her smile, but extracted her hand in a flash and punched him playfully at the shoulder. “Don’t do it again. I’m your fellow page, not a lady at a ball.” Her smile was sweet, but her eyes were anything but. Briar gave a mock salute, smiling sheepishly.

In a beat, Vania was grinning at him as she bummed her shoulders against his. “I’ll need your help, Briar. Could you let us tag along when you show Fianola around?”

“Didn’t someone say very confidently that she grew up at the palace, and has two brothers who were pages?” Fianola teased, slicing her meat gracefully. Emmy didn’t think that she looked half as graceful when she was wolfing down her food. And Emmy wouldn’t have dared tease the princess on the first day.

Vania rolled her eyes. “I know all the places meant for everyday use. Not exactly the ones meant for pages. Sorry, Emmy,” Vania smiled ruefully at her, “I don’t want to get you into trouble.”

Emmy nodded, realising belatedly that the royals must have their dedicated wings and servants. And of course those would be what Vania was familiar with. “Don’t worry. I’m just glad that you took pity on me and volunteered.”

Vania looked like she was about to protest, and Emmy continued hurriedly, “I understand why people act like that. Tirragen has been in decline for more than a decade. Everyone hates my uncle who committed treason.” she said, and realised it was not true. Her late father loved his older brother dearly, and named his only son after him. She couldn’t bring herself to say it out loud.

Instead, she told them before she lost her nerve, “I want to be a knight to redeem my family name.”

The mood at the table had sobered, and Emmy looked down, hating that she was the one who did it. Why was she in such a hurry to explain herself?

“I want to protect the people I love,” Fianola said suddenly, a quiet determination in her brown eyes.

Vania nodded her understanding. “I want to protect the weak, and show people that girls can fight.”

“I want my mother to stop talking about how wonderful my brother is.” Briar said unexpectedly, and the three girls stared at him. He continued slicing his meat casually, “My brother, Seaver, is a squire. He’s a year mate of Keladry of Mindelan, you know.”

“You’re jesting!” Vania’s eyes were wide in admiration.

Briar nodded soberly. “It’s true. I can ask for an introduction — but surely, Vania, you don’t need it.”

Vania cheeks flushed a little, and Emmy widened her eyes in surprise. By now, she didn’t think that anything would throw the princess off. “I don’t want to just walk up and say hello because I’m a princess. Then I’ll always be a princess to her.”

“But you are a princess.” Briar frowned, his meat paused halfway to his mouth in confusion.

“A princess is just a title, Briar,” Fianola said, exchanging looks of understanding with Vania, “What matters more is the person behind it.”

Vania shifted her gaze to Emmy. “It’s the same with a family name, you know. It’s just a name. Who you are is more important.”

Emmy smiled back, trying to keep bitterness out of it. Vania would never understand that a name was not just a name. Because she was a Conté, and Emmy was a Tirragen. Emmy’s family name was the whole reason why she was hated everywhere she went, and it was the reason that she told herself that she would do whatever it takes to clear it.

Mithros witness it, she would redeem the Tirragen name, or die trying.

Chapter Text

Emmeline of Tirragen knew she vowed that she would become a knight or die trying, but she didn’t think that she might just die on the first day of training.

The day before had been a blur, with Vania and herself tagging along with Briar and Fianola, getting equipment from everywhere. Vania took the lead when it came to the more interesting places in the palace, and they managed to get a brief greeting with all the important people — the monarchs themselves, Daine the Wildmage and Numair the Black Robe mage, Duke Gareth the Younger and Prime Minister, and the list went on. Emmy kept her head down whenever Vania introduced her, not wanting to see the look on their faces. From her experience, these could only range from disgust, resentment to outright hatred, and she didn’t need all that just yet. Thankfully, they only had time to rush a greeting, and Emmy didn’t have to hide too long.

She woke up full of nerves this morning, and picked at her breakfast. Only Vania’s sharp eyes on her plate made her go through some food mechanically. It was all as well — there was less of her that she wanted to bury in the ground in shame.

She was horrible at everything. She thought that she would at least be good at something. But she wasn’t: she kept falling the wrong way, and there were no strength to her punches; she flinched at staff training, afraid to get her fingers broken; she struggled to string a bow together, let alone shoot; she rode a horse for the first time in years, and only barely managed to stay mounted.

By the time they had to go for a bath before lunch, Emmy was exhausted. She stared at the uphill climb towards the pages’ wing in despair. There were no women’s baths near the practice courts, and they had to go back to their rooms to freshen up. At least this time, Vania and Fianola were on both sides of her, all of them dreading the climb.

“My brother told me Keladry of Mindelan ran up this hill every day.” Fianola said wistfully. “With weights.”

They had found out that her older brother was Faleron of King’s Reach, who started page training two years before Keladry did.

“What’s wrong with walking?” Vania said tiredly.

“I will run,” Emmy declared, “I can’t possibly fail at running.”

Without waiting for a reply she started up the hill in a trot. She barely made a few paces before Vania and Fianola caught up. She turned briefly to check their paces. They were both taller than her, and had longer legs.

“Don’t let me,” she panted, “Hold you back.”

“I’m flattered,” Vania huffed, “That you think… I can do better.”

Her thighs were screaming. But at Fianola’s fierce nods of agreement she almost smiled. They ran up the hill together, giving each other pats on the back when they reached the top.

*

Vania rested her chin on her hands, trying to pretend to be paying attention to the Mithran priest who had been going on and on about algebra for the past hour. She had had private tutoring since she was eight, and she covered this material two years ago. It was a pity that they couldn’t be placed at their level of competency for these classes. She suppose that it would be logistically challenging, of course. They would need to make sure that she could be free to attend a different class of a specific level at the same hour the other pages were taking this class. But she was bored out of her mind, even if it was a welcome respite from their intense schedules.

She studied the back of Emmy’s head, seeing her studiously scribbling notes as she listened with rapt attention. A glance around the room confirmed that Emmy was the only who was. Fianola caught her eye and winked, and she grinned back, knowing that the other girl was in the same predicament.

She couldn’t believe that Fianola was her year-mate. They were not quite friends, but they had known about each other. Kally spent years learning from Fianola’s mother, the Countess of King’s Reach, and had stayed with the family for the most part. Kally frequently mentioned Fianola in her letters, who was only one year younger than Vania herself. Vania remembered being glad that there was someone who reminded Kally of her.

The bell finally rang, and it was welcome with sighs of relief. Not from Emmy, though. Vania had to tap Emmy’s shoulder to make sure she stood up to leave with the rest of them.

“You like mathematics, don’t you?” Vania asked, seeing a full page of notes before Emmy closed her notebook.

“It’s fascinating to me.” Emmy said, her eyes still half focused, as if she was still puzzling out something in her mind.

Vania shook her head, and slung an arm around the small girl’s shoulder to steer her to the exit. Vania noted again how small and thin Emmy was, and resolved to make sure that she ate well. She had seen Emmy struggle in the morning classes, but half of it seemed to be due to her small size and lack of strength. It was puzzling — Tirragen wasn’t doing well financially, but surely the nobles wouldn’t starve?

“… Myles of Olau, I’m looking forward to it!” Fianola was saying, talking about their next class.

“He’s served since King Roald the fifth, didn’t he?” Emmy asked, a cloud over her expression.

“Yes,” Vania said, “Roald — my brother Roald, that is — said that he makes history come alive in his classes. I’m so glad it’s not another Mithran priest!”

Fianola looked back quickly at the class they just left in alarm. “Don’t be so loud! What if he heard you?”

Vania shrugged. “He’s been here forever. It can’t be new to him that people find him boring. If it is, I’d question his intelligence.”

Emmy looked up at her in surprise. “You found him boring?”

Vania smiled crookedly, “You’re the only one who didn’t, sweet.”

Emmy quickly looked away, and Vania grinned. Emmy reminded her of some of the skittish squirrels that she had once cared for, both bold enough to rush forward for things they wanted, and shy enough to flee at the slightest surprise. But she doubted Emmy would appreciate the comparison.

“That’s not quite fair,” Fianola said thoughtfully as they rounded the corner and entered Myles’ class, “We were bored because we knew the materials. Algebra was fascinating to me when I learned about it last year.”

Emmy turned to her sharply as she set down her things on a desk. “You already learned about it?”

“We had private tutors,” Vania said as she set her own things down next to Emmy. Vania turned just in time to see Emmy flush and turn away.

“But we are exceptions, of course,” Fianola said with a pointed look at Vania, “I’m twelve, and Vania is already thirteen. Everyone else was just learning about it too.”

Emmy seemed to relax a little, but she tensed again one moment later. Puzzled, Vania followed her gaze, and grinned when she saw Myles walking in. She waved.

Myles caught her eyes and bowed a little, smiling warmly back. “Welcome to the class, your highness.”

Vania ducked her head when everyone turned their gaze on her. Waving was a bad idea on hindsight. “Please, sir, just Page Vania will do in this class.”

Myles dipped his head. “Very well, Page Vania.” He surveyed the rest of the class, eyes lingering warmly on the girls. “Three female pages this year. My daughter would be very proud.”

Vania grinned, knowing that Aunt Alanna would be more than proud. Now, Vania just had to make sure she didn’t mess up.

“What do you know about the situation in Scanra?” He asked the class as he sat down.

“Those savages somehow managed to band together for once,” Gerald of Disart said with mild disgust, “Likely they won’t last past this winter. They’ll probably be at each other’s throats by spring.”

Vania frowned, and Myles caught her eyes.

“Page Vania, what do you think of it?”

Vania straightened. “Scanra is a big country. They’re made up by loose clans, and it’s understandable that the clans would want the best for themselves. But if they manage to form even a loose coalition, then surely it is a situation worth learning about, before they catch us by surprise.”

“But learning about the situation takes time, and preparing for war takes time, your highness.” Ahmad Seif said.

“Please, just Vania.”

Ahmad inclined his head a little, “Vania. We need to make an assessment of how serious the threat of war is, and prepare our store of grain and supply of troops, and move them into positions before the war starts. Surely, we’d want to err on the safe side and over-prepare, no matter what the situation in Scanra is.”

Fianola shook her head, “I disagree. Preparing for war means taking men and gold away from building, farming, and education. Being under-prepared for war could lead to our downfall, but being over-prepared could mean we lose more in terms of harvest and taking care of our people.”

And on and on the discussion went, with Myles asking questions in a lull or steering the discussion to another direction when they appeared to be stuck. Vania listened with rapt attention, and made arguments for her own perspectives. It was fascinating how differently everyone thought. All too soon the bell rang for the next class, and they cut short their discussion reluctantly. Vania was already looking forward to the next class. Roald was right!

“That didn’t feel like a class at all, didn’t it!” Fianola said, grinning broadly.

Vania nodded with feeling, and turned to check on Emmy — and realised that Emmy was the only one who had been silent throughout the class. Emmy hung her head as she trudged forward next to her, and Vania frowned in concern.

“Emmeline of Tirragen, is it?” Myles asked before Vania could say anything. “Might I have a word?”

Emmy stopped in front of his desk without meeting their eyes, and Vania and Fianola exchanged glances. Fianola shrugged, and they went to the door. When they turned around the corner Vania pulled Fianola by the sleeve.

“What —” Vania shut her up by putting a finger to her own lips. Fianola’s eyes widened at what Vania was doing, and shook her head vigorously. Vania ignored her, and inched backwards towards the door carefully, pointing her ear at the entrance.

“… I am usually relatively lenient with pages, having been one myself, if you can imagine it.” Myles was saying, “But I do need you to speak up in class. You were silent today, I need you to do better tomorrow.”

Emmy didn’t reply immediately. “I’m sorry, sir. I didn’t — I didn’t have anything to add today. I’m not — I’m not as well-read as the others, sir.”

“Did you not have tutors when you were younger? Or parents who guided your learning?”

Again, there was a moment of silence.

“No, sir.” Emmy said finally, her voice tight. “Can you — can you advise on how I can catch up, sir? Any books that you’d recommend?”

This time, it was Myles who didn’t reply immediately. When he started listing a few books, Fianola dragged Vania away by the arm.

“That was private!” Fianola hissed in her ear.

Vania felt her cheeks warm. “I didn’t think it would be.” She whispered back, “I just thought Emmy was too quiet, and I wanted to make sure she’s fine!”

Fianola didn’t reply, and the two of them hurried to their next class, as if they were both afraid that Emmy would find out that they’d heard.

*

Emmy sank down into her seat next to Vania, almost dropping her dinner tray. She was exhausted. By afternoon, her body had started to ache from the morning’s vigorous training. Mathematics was interesting enough to keep her occupied, but after that it was all she could do to keep her chin up despite the humiliation she felt at being the most ignorant in her class. Even the strange living skeleton, Bonedancer, at Master Lindhall’s class on plants and animals, and the instructor Tkaa, the first basilisk she had seen in her life, did not cheer her up. They only accentuated the ignorance she felt. By the last class on etiquette, she was struggling to stay awake. It was all she could do now to not fall asleep into her dinner.

“Tough first day?” Briar sat down opposite her, staring at all three of them. Vania and Fianola did much better than her today, and even they look exhausted.

Vania glared at him. “You like pointing out the obvious, don’t you?”

Briar smiled sweetly. “Like you just did?”

Vania seemed to consider dumping her hot soup on his head, but shook her head after a moment, and went back to her food. Emmy noted all this absently, for it was all she could do to put food in her mouth and chew. She still had things to do tonight.

The rest of dinner went past just as silently. Only the older pages seemed to be in the mood for talk. All the first years looked similarly worn out.

It was easy to slip away after dinner, and the tea she had helped focus her mind somewhat. She felt surer, calmer about what she had to do. She squared her shoulders, and set out for her first task for the night.

Eda Bell answered her door almost immediately, looking down at her with mild interest. Emmy bowed. “Can I have a word, m’am?”

The Shang Wildcat opened her door wider, and gestured for her to enter. “What is it? Tirragen, isn’t it?”

Emmy nodded. “I didn’t do very well this morning, m’am. I know I’m small and I need to work harder at this, but I don’t know where to start. Can you teach me how I can practice on my own to build up my strength?”

Eda regarded her for a moment. Slowly, her lips quirked. “It took you one day to realise this, good for you.”

Emmy duck her head. “It wasn’t my idea, really. I asked — I asked Lady Alanna to sponsor my page training, m’am. And she said that I would need to work extra hard. I might have learned this the hard way if not for her reminder.”

“What makes you think this would be the easy way?”

Emmy flushed, not daring to look up.

Eda chuckled. “I was pulling your leg, youngster. Now, for you, there are a few things…”

Eda proceeded to show her five different exercises for arms, legs and core muscles, all of which could be practiced anywhere and without equipment. She made Emmy try them all and corrected her stances, and Emmy was thoroughly educated about how not to dismiss simple-looking movements.

“Practise often,” Eda told her as she was seeing a slightly sweaty Emmy out the door, “But take a break once a week, Sunday, perhaps — your body needs rest to build up the muscle. Pushing it every day will not do.”

Emmy could only nod and bow her thanks, still a little out of breath. But she was much more awake now, and happier, because she knew more things that could help her on her quest. She had a path forward.

Next stop, the library, to get the list of books Sir Myles recommended. She was actually looking forward to reading these, despite the fact that her time was already rapidly being eaten up by the homework and essays that had been assigned. Sir Myles’ class had only taught her how big the world was beyond her fief, and she looked forward to exploring it.

She was so absorbed in her own thoughts that she didn’t see the leg sticking out of the corner. She tripped, her hands shooting out to catch herself — but strong hands grabbed her shoulders and slammed her against the wall behind her, pinning her there.

She grimaced, making herself focus on the three older boys in front of her instead of the pain in her shoulders. She recognised the one in the middle as Roland of Nond’s sponsor, Tibout of Runnerspring.

“Who do you think you are, traitor?” Tibout spat at her face, and Emmy shut her eyes just in time. She gritted her teeth in disgust at the moisture on her face.

“Knighthood isn’t for someone like you.” Tibout was saying, and Emmy forced herself to look into his eyes even as she tried to think of a way out. “A traitor wench like you should stay and rot in your rotting castle.”

Emmy glared. “You’re not very creative, are you? Tell me something I haven’t heard before.”

Without warning, his hands loosened and he punched her in the gut. Emmy bit back a cry as she slid down the wall, and someone kicked her to her side when she did. Her vision swam, and she blinked back tears of pain.

“That will teach you—”

“Someone’s coming!” A second boy whispered urgently, and Emmy saw their legs shuffle as they fled.

Ignoring the pain in her side, she wiped her face with her sleeve quickly, and got up on all fours. She tried to get up quickly, but her mid-section and left side bloody hurt. She turned to the wall, and pushed against it to push herself up.

“Emmy!” Vania was suddenly beside her, holding her up by the arms. “What happened?”

Emmy gritted her teeth, looking at her feet as she tried to ignore the pain. “I fell down.”

“Right, I heard that before,” Vania said dryly, though Emmy could still hear worry in her voice, “I’m not haMinch. You don’t have to feed me that. Are you hurt?”

Emmy shook her head, her vision finally steady. If she breathed more shallowly it didn’t seem to hurt as much. “I’m fine.”

“You can barely stand.”

Emmy twisted and swatted away Vania’s hands. “That’s what you think.”

Vania rolled her eyes. “Fine. I’m not here to argue. Fianola and I are going to do our homework in the library, do you want to join us?”

She tried not to let her dismay show. Being near Vania and Fianola was the last thing she wanted, not when she was going to borrow books that they must have read when they were little.

“I’m going to do it in my room.”

Vania raised an eyebrow. “Because this is definitely on the way between the dining hall and the pages’ wing. You were not on your way to the library at all.”

Why couldn’t she just let this go? “I don’t to answer to you, your highness.”

Emmy turned around quickly, winced, and started down the corridor to the pages’ wing, with only her anger and wounded pride keeping her upright against her pain.

Chapter Text

On the second day of training, Emmy woke up in pain. Her limbs were sore from training, but it was her abdomen and left side of her waist that was throbbing painfully. She turned to her right side, and pushed herself up slowly, gritting her teeth. How was she going to get through the morning classes like this?

One step at a time, she told herself as she stood up on wobbly legs. Going through her morning clean-up routine was already tiring. This was going to be a long day.

Someone knocked on her door as she was wiping her face dry, and she straightened in confusion. Didn’t the servants have keys to their rooms?

The person knocked again. Emmy put one hand to her throbbing waist, and walked over to her door.

Vania stood at her door, all dressed and ready for training. She smiled a little when Emmy just stared at her dumbly. Emmy was just recalling in horror what her last words to Vania were.

“Good morning,” Vania said, almost shyly, and held up a small jar in front of her, “This is for you. It’s bruise balm. Use some before you come for training today.”

It took a moment before Emmy reach out for it, guilt building up inside her. “Thank you.”

Vania turned to leave. Emmy reached out and grabbed her wrist.

“Wait,” Emmy said quickly, knowing that she had to make this right somehow. She swallowed as she met Vania’s enquiring blue eyes. “I’m sorry, Vania. About yesterday. I was really tired, and — and I didn’t mean it.”

Vania grinned, looking a little more like herself. She patted Emmy’s hand on her wrist. “It was a long day for both of us. Go get dressed. Let’s not be late for breakfast.”

The bruise balm was a god-send, and it meant that the morning training was only more difficult instead of unbearable. She was getting used to the instructors’ yelling in her ears. When the three girls met at the foot of the hill again to get to their baths, Emmy gripped Vania’s arm with a grateful look, hoping that Vania could understand her. Vania smiled and patted her hand.

Emmy did take longer to wash up through her pain, though, and it earned her irritated looks and growls when she turned up late for lunch. She kept her red face down, dodging even Fianola’s sympathetic pat on her arm. For her tardiness, she was assigned her first punishment duty — one bell of mucking out stables that night. She knew she deserved it.

The rest of her day also went badly; she had finished only the mathematics homework the night before as she was in pain and too tired. She was assigned extra readings and essays as punishment. Only Roland of Nond had similar punishment work, the other first year pages all handed in their work on time.

“Don’t feel too bad about it,” Fianola told her over dinner, “Faleron told me it’s only a matter of time. Eventually no one would be able to finish all the work they give us, and everyone just catch up on punishment work on Sundays. Most people don’t get to go into the city until late in the year.”

Vania groaned loudly, even though she had no punishment work yet. “What’s the point of giving us work when they know we can’t finish them? They’re just setting us up for failure!”

“Maybe that is part of the training,” Ahmad Seif said from next to Emmy. He was the only male first-year who talked to them at all outside of training. “As knights, we don’t turn away from calls for help or from duty. I’d imagine that there is always more work that can be done. Maybe the instructors want us to get used to the idea that our work won’t ever finish.”

Emmy looked up from her self-pity, thinking about Ahmad’s words. It made sense, if you look at it that way. Surely, writing essays or bowing correctly were not the point of their training.

“You are a cheery one, aren’t you?” Vania said dryly as she went back to her dinner.

Fianola was smiling. “Seeing beyond what’s right in front of us, I like it.”

Ahmad took his cup of juice and toasted Fianola silently, Fianola returned the gesture just as solemnly. Emmy smiled despite herself, glad for their company.

She went for her punishment duty at the stables with a lighter heart, vowing to be more careful and to catch up on her work later that night. She was already thinking through the points that she could make for her essays as she was mucking out the stables, and it wasn’t too bad, really.

It was only when she was leaving that she caught the flash of shadows near the entrance. She grimaced. She had resigned herself to a lot of hard work from the instructors, but would these tricks from Tibout and his gang be something that she’d have to live with too?

“Show yourself!” She called out, shifting her stance to one that the Shang instructors taught, “If you think you’re so much better than me, you shouldn’t be hiding in shadows and trying to sneak up on me.”

Sure enough, Tibout and the same two boys from last night strode out from the shadows and stopped a few paces in front of her. Tibout crossed his arms, his face twisted in disdain. “Big words from an uneducated traitor.”

Emmy tightened her fists so hard that they shook. How did he know about her humiliation? Was Roland telling him about her?

Tibout snickered at her. She knew she must be quite a sight; when she was crouching in a defensive stance like that, her head barely reach Tibout’s chest. The two boys behind him were almost just as tall and big. “Do really think you can take us on, you wench?”

“Well,” A familiar voice came from behind her, “She’s got nothing to lose even if she can’t.”

Emmy turned in time to see Vania drop into a crouch as she landed from the lofts. Vania stood up gracefully, and strode over to stand beside Emmy, “You are the laughable one, taking on someone so small with two boys behind your back. Where’s your pride, Runnerspring?”

Tibout flushed, his arms dropping to his side. “You shouldn’t be helping her, your highness. She’ll turn on you one day, just like the other Tirragens.”

Vania crossed her arms, raising an eyebrow. “Manners dictate that I should say, ‘I will take your words under advisement’ even if I don’t agree. But you’ve shown poor judgement and a lack of honour by ambushing Emmy here. I’ll be straight with you and say that your words don’t mean anything to me. Now get lost.”

Tibout flinched, and twitched as if he wanted to charge forward. But he changed his mind, and turned around and fled, his cronies following hurriedly.

Emmy straightened up, her hands still shaking as she stared at her feet, her cheeks warm. “Were you here the whole time I was mucking out the stables?”

“I wanted a quiet place to do my homework.”

Emmy snorted. “There’s no desks in the lofts, and the light from torches barely reach it.”

“I have the Gift. I make my own light.”

Vania sounded almost smug, and it made Emmy look up at her in exasperation. “You don’t have to do this. I can fight for myself.”

“Not when you’re outnumbered,” Vania said, her face serious, “Those boys aren’t looking for a fair fight. They just want to cause you pain, and that’s not right.”

Vania made sense, but Emmy looked away. “I’m grateful for what you did, Vania. But I can’t always rely on you to protect me. I’m here to be a knight. I can’t always hide behind the princess.”

Vania was quiet for a moment, and Emmy realised belatedly that she had touched on a sore spot again by bringing up Vania’s status. She snuck a look at Vania, and saw a frown on her face.

Emmy bit her lip. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to bring up —”

Vania shook her head. “You’re right. I shouldn’t keep using my status to solve things. But I do have a duty to look out for you,” She rested a hand on Emmy’s shoulder, “I’m your friend, and I’m also your sponsor. You will fight for yourself one day. But it’s only the second day of training, no one expects you to take on groups of older, more experienced boys by yourself.”

Emmy took a deep breath, thinking over Vania’s words. After a moment, she grinned up at her, “You didn’t even know where to get our uniforms.”

Vania rolled her eyes. “Such high standards. Wait here, I need to get my things from the loft.”

*

Tibout didn’t bother her again over the next few weeks, and he didn’t even taunt her when it was their turn to pair up in the morning trainings. Emmy wasn’t stupid, his eyes were still full of hatred for her, and no doubt it was only Vania’s influence that kept him in line.

Vania also managed to recruit Fianola, Briar and Ahmad to her cause — there was always one of them with her in the evenings, punishment work or no. All the first years eventually got punishment work anyway, and sometimes they were assigned together. When they were not, one of them would somehow find themselves nearby while Emmy did her work. It helped that they studied together in the library when they were done; because they were always heading to the same place afterwards, their excuses were not too hopelessly ridiculous.

Emmy was both embarrassed and touched, and she worked harder than ever on her training, vowing to grow stronger and better. She did the exercises Eda Bell taught her diligently in the mornings before dawn, and found one of the group to do staff or archery training in the evenings when she did somehow find some free time in her lap. It left her exhausted, but she was starting to feel stronger. Vania’s keen eyes on her plate and not-so-sneaky topping up of meat for her meant that Emmy was eating more than ever.

“People might tease that I’m eating for two!” Emmy protested one night as Vania dumped yet another serving of chicken on her plate.

Fianola giggled. “Well, you look like half of what you should be, so you’re eating for two of you.”

Briar frowned. “That doesn’t even make sense.”

Vania fluttered her eyelashes at him. “Girls don’t usually make sense. Isn’t that what men always say?”

Briar threw a piece of bread at Vania. She grinned, picking it up from the table and throwing it into her mouth with a flourish. Briar seemed to have gotten over Vania’s princess-ness at last.

They were about to leave the mess hall when haMinch asked all the first years to stay back. Emmy exchanged curious glances with the group as the older pages and squires filed out of the hall. Vania shrugged as the six first-years formed a line in front of the lectern, standing at attention.

HaMinch stood behind the lectern, eyeing them sternly. “You lot have now completed one month of training. I’m sorry to say that I find all of you disappointing.”

Emmy gaped in shock, knowing that she wasn’t the only one. Emmy knew that she herself was lagging behind. But surely, Vania’s work was generally superior, having spent some time training with the queen’s ladies. Ahmad and Fianola were excellent archers. How could all of them be disappointing?

“Nond,” haMinch snapped at Roland, who jumped in surprise, “What is King’s Reach best weapon?”

Roland turned to Fianola nervously, opening and closing his mouth though no words came out.

“Tirragen!” Emmy straightened in a jerk. “What is the name of Disart’s mount?”

Emmy flushed. “I— I don’t know, sir.”

“Conté! Why does Nond want to be a knight?”

“I don’t know, sir.” Vania replied stiffly.

“Disart! Which tribe did Seif come from?”

Gerald muttered a negative.

“King’s Reach! How many brothers does Nond have?”

Fianola duck her head and said she did not know.

“Seif! What is Disart’s best subject?”

Ahmad admitted ignorance.

HaMinch paused, looking at each of their flushed and nervous faces in turn. “You are all here to become knights of the realm. You will serve one king, and obey the same Code of Chivalry. And yet even among comrades, you work only in your little cliques.”

His eyes lingered on Vania, Fianola and Emmy. They were, incidentally, standing next to each other. “I respect his majesty’s decision to allow girls to train for knighthood, and I respect the work that the Lioness has done enough to not question whether girls can fight. But if you cannot learn to work with men or the people who doubt you, then you won’t be the knights that the realm needs.”

HaMinch turned to the boys. “The same goes for you boys. This is not the Tortall that your fathers grew up in. We face new threats every day, and we need to change to face them. Tortall is fortunate to have fine fighters, males and females. You will learn to work with them and respect them as your peers. Do I make myself clear?”

They muttered a scattered affirmative.

“Do I make myself clear?” haMinch growled.

“Yes, sir!” they chorused.

HaMinch paused for a moment. “There will be an additional test next spring for you. If you cannot prove to me by then that you have learned to work as a team, you will not pass your probation.”

Emmy gulped, and heard gasps down the line.

“Sir,” Gerald asked tentatively, “how — how do we prove it, sir? What will the test entail?”

HaMinch glared at him. “You will know when the time comes. I suggest you start by getting to know each other as a person. Dismissed.”

Reluctantly, they bowed, and turned to leave the hall. Emmy still couldn’t believe what just took place.

“Everyone, wait.” Vania said when they were about to split into different groups outside the hall. Vania stood in the middle, looking around the half circle of faces with a determined look in her eyes. “We need to work on this.”

“Of course we do.” Gerald crossed his arms, an annoyed frown on his face. “Let’s write a list of questions that haMinch asked and guess what else he might ask us. Then we’ll write our own answers and pass the notes around for everyone.”

Vania shook her head. “That’s not going to cut it. I agree with what haMinch said. We need to learn how to work with each other. It’s not about gathering a list of facts.”

“And what does your highness suggest?” Gerald cocked his chin.

Vania smiled crookedly. “For one, none of this ‘your highness’ stuff around me. They know by now.” She said, cocking her head at Fianola, Emmy and Ahmad. “And they know because we study together, we talk. You and Roland should join us.”

Gerald shot a disdainful look at Emmy, and she knew what was coming next. “We would have joined you if you weren’t associating yourself with treasonous scum like —” he choked when Vania grabbed his shirt collar and pushed him against the wall.

“Vania, you don’t —” Emmy stepped forward quickly, but Fianola caught her arm.

“I do, Emmy,” Vania said, still keeping her eyes on Gerald, who looked mildly terrified at the taller girl. For all he was tall for his age, Gerald was still ten, and half a head shorter than thirteen-year-old Vania. “This is not just about you. Haven’t you heard haMinch? We are all on the same side, we all want to serve the realm. The first thing we owe each other is respect. You will apologise to Emmy, and you will treat us with the courtesy expected of a fellow page.”

Gerald staggered a little when Vania let go. He looked at the twitchy Roland, and the rest of the silent group. He scowled as he turned to her, and did a quick bow. “I apologise, Tirragen.”

Emmy nodded stiffly, knowing that this would not be the end of it.

Vania put on a smile, though it did not quite reach her eyes. “Thank you, Disart. Now, I suggest we pair up for meals and extra training. Let’s start by not getting at each other’s throats for the week, and we’ll see how we might want to change things up next week. Fair?”

They nodded, though Gerald and Roland did so very reluctantly. Vania sighed. “Is there anything you want to add, Gerald, Roland? I know it’s been the four of us against the two of you, and I’m a princess. But believe it or not, I agree with haMinch, and I believe we have a lot to gain from learning from each other. Tell me if you don’t think this is fair to you.”

“I’m fine.” Roland croaked.

Gerald regarded Vania coldly. “Fair, your highness?” he said mockingly, “How are things fair when we know that life will be hard if you so much as say our names to your parents? Not just for us, but even our families? HaMinch says we are peers, but it’s clear as day that you are not one of us, your highness.” He finished with a mocking bow.

Vania flushed, tightening her fists.

“That’s not fair,” Emmy surprised herself by saying, and she made herself continue even when everyone turned to her, “Vania can’t help that she’s a princess. And if she really wanted to use that power, she wouldn’t have ask you what you thought. And she wouldn’t have gone through training or the punishment work like all of us. You are the only one who wouldn’t see pass her title. Give her a chance.”

Vania shot her a smile so full of gratitude that she had to look away.

“Emmy’s right,” Fianola said, stepping forward to stand in front of Gerald, “Vania just took the first step because one of us have to. Give her a chance. Give us a chance.” She extended her hand.

Some of the coldness has left Gerald’s eyes, and he looked a little uncertain as he regarded Fianola’s offered hand. After a long moment, he reached out and clasped it. “Fine. Let’s start anew. I swear to treat you, all of you,” his eyes caught Emmy’s, “with respect. I ask only the same in return.”

They nodded at each other. Vania broke into a wide grin, and threw one arm each around Fianola and Gerald.

“Great! Let’s start tonight at the library, shall we?”

As they made their way down the corridor, Vania caught Emmy’s eyes and winked. She smiled back, glad that she was finally able to help Vania a little, for once.

Chapter Text

The week after haMinch announced his new test was uncomfortable, to say the least. They had paired up as Vania suggested, and Emmy was paired with Roland to start with. They were to partner with each other in the morning trainings unless assigned someone else by the instructors, they had to be conversation partners over meal times, and made sure that they could both attend the study group, where the partnering change based on their strengths in the subjects.

It made for very awkward meals, and Emmy missed the easy conversation she had managed to have with the others. The whole group still stuck together, but whenever they started talking with one another for too long, someone else would shoot them a look, and they would break off and went back to their partners.

Conversation was the most sparse between Emmy and Roland. Roland was always nervous about one thing or another, and Emmy was always self-conscious about her family standing. They would start talking and stop barely a few sentences later. With both of them already exhausted from training and classes, and it just became easier not to talk entirely. Emmy was pretty sure that this wasn’t supposed to happen, but she was too tired to care. It was only November, and Emmy was already looking forward to the week-long break in mid-winter.

“We should go riding tomorrow,” Vania said during supper, on the evening before Sunday, “all of us. We can leave together after lunch.” She said. HaMinch led all the pages for dawn service at a temple for Mithros, the god of the warrior and the sun, and did weapons inspection before lunch.

Gerald groaned openly. “I was looking forward to a day to ourselves!”

Fianola shook her head. “I have to work on the essay for Myles. I’ve been getting behind.”

Vania looked at Emmy hopefully, and she duck her head. “I have some reading to catch up on.” And it was true. She had spent the last month reading the books Myles had suggested for her every Sunday, and there were still more to go, now that classwork was in full swing.

“Oh fine.” Vania said, a little deflated as the others similarly declined.

“Don’t you want to spend some time with your parents?” Ahmad asked as he buttered a roll, “You are the only one among us who actually could. All our parents are out of town.”

Vania smiled tightly. “They are busy. There are a few lords from the south visiting. My siblings are away as well, though Lianne is supposed to visit next month.”

Emmy chewed thoughtfully, wondering for the first time what it was really like to have the king and queen as parents. It was hard enough for Emmy to imagine having parents, when her father passed away when she was six, and her mother died at childbirth. It was much harder to fathom having the monarchs, feared and respected wherever they went, as parents. Perhaps Vania didn’t really have it all that easy, even if she was a princess.

She was still thinking about parents when she and Roland reported for their punishment duty that night at the armour room. They both had one bell of armour cleaning to do.

Looking Roland, glumly polishing armour, made her wonder. Well, didn’t haMinch say that they should get to know each other as a person?

“Both my parents passed away when I was little,” she volunteered, startling Roland. Emmy kept on polishing, figuring that if they didn’t have eye contact they would both feel more comfortable. “I don’t remember much about either of them. My brother took care of me as best as he could, even though he’s only three years older.”

She scrubbed at a stain on a shoulder plate, part of her marvelling at how big the shoulder plate itself was. Would she ever grow big enough muscles to wear armour like this?

“My father is a second son,” Roland said after a few long moments, and Emmy tried not to look up at him, “He has a younger brother. Uncle Pax had a scandal a few years ago. His squire was involved in a kidnapping, and was killed during his Ordeal. My parents want me to be very careful to protect the family name. We can’t afford more scandals.” He finished quickly, and Emmy did look up this time.

Roland’s face was flushed, and he was scrubbing more furiously at the breast plate he was holding than necessary. And Emmy suddenly understood. It wasn’t that Roland was cold or hated her, but it was because she was a Tirragen, and it would harm his family name if he was somehow associated with her.

“I understand,” she said finally, going back to her own work with a heavier heart. “And I’m sorry. You have a duty to your family, and now you’re stuck with me.”

It wasn’t fair, her heart protested. She had always figured that people avoided her because they disliked or hated her family. She never thought that there might be people who didn’t actually dislike her, but had to stay away from her all the same. Why was she a Tirragen? Why couldn’t she just been born a commoner?

“I’m sorry too.” Roland said quietly.

They didn’t any anything else until the bell rang, and they got up stiffly from an hour of work. They were supposed to meet with the group at the library next.

“I need to get some books from my room,” Roland said, looking around the corridors. He was always twitchy. “Can you wait here for me?”

Emmy shrugged. “I don’t mind going with you. It’s not a long walk.”

Roland smiled nervously. “You don’t have to. It’s been a long day. You see that,” he pointed at a giant suit of armour displayed just outside the room, one of the two display sets. “There’s an inscription about whose armour that is. It’s quite an interesting story. Take a break!” He said, and broke into a trot down the corridor, “I’ll be back soon!”

Emmy smiled a little. This was probably the most he had spoken to her socially. It was a milestone, and for the first time she really appreciated haMinch’s test. They never would have spoken like this otherwise.

She walked over to the giant suit of armour, and bent down to squint at the inscription. The words were carved into a golden plate, and it was hard to read. She reached out with a finger to touch the letters —

— Something groaned.

Emmy looked up just in time to see the giant suit of armour falling onto her.

*

Vania was walking with Gerald towards the library when a large burst of clanks echoed down the corridors to their left. They both jumped.

“What was that?” She asked, fingering her ears. The noise still rang.

“That’s where the armour room is,” Gerald said with a frown. “Didn’t Tirragen and Nond have punishment duty there tonight?”

Vania turned to him in surprise, and broke into a run down the corridor. When she skidded to a stop in front of the armour room, she blinked at the fallen pile of armour in confusion. There was no one else there. But was that — she gasped when she saw the small hand sticking out from under the pile.

She rushed forward, and started to remove the pieces of armour and throwing them aside.

“Gerald, help me!” she cried without looking back, “I think Emmy’s down there!”

A second pair of hands started working next to her. It was a ridiculously large suit of armour, and each piece was heavy. Vania tried not to think about how bad the impact might be, and focused on throwing them aside.

Emmy coughed weakly when her head was uncovered. There was a large bruise on her face and forehead, and her right eye was swollen shut. When her right arm was revealed, Vania grimaced at a cut on her shoulder where the old sword had fallen on her, and at her swollen hand.

“Emmy, can you hear me?” Vania said worriedly as she pulled Emmy onto her lap. Her face was grimaced in pain, and her eyes were unfocused. “Emmy?”

“Where is Nond?” Gerald was asking.

Emmy’s good eye finally focused on her. “Vania.” She whispered, and coughed again.

“We need to get her to a healer,” Vania said, and started to get up, signalling Gerald to get to Emmy’s other side. Together, they held Emmy up between them just as some servants arrived at the scene and gasped at the sight.

“You there, get to the infirmary and make sure someone’s there,” Vania snapped at a servant, who bowed quickly before leaving. “You, don’t touch any of this mess, you got me? I suspect foul play, and I want the palace guards to have a proper look before anyone clear it. Understood?”

“Yes, your highness.” Another servant bowed and signalled his colleague. “We will alert the guards and stand guard here.”

“Thank you.”

They took a few wobbly steps — Emmy definitely wasn’t in a state to walk, and Vania worried about potential internal injuries. She shook her head, and got to a stop.

“Help her get on my back,” She told Gerald, carefully shifting her grip to crouch down in front of Emmy.

Gerald hesitated. “Maybe I should—”

Vania sent him a quick grin. “I am bigger than you, Gerald. Though I appreciate the thought.”

“Vania, you don’t…”

Emmy’s weight slowly rested on her back, and Vania gently slung her arms over her shoulder. “You’re not that heavy, you know.”

Vania straightened with a grunt, almost immediately disputing her own words. Emmy wasn’t heavy, but she was still the heaviest burden that Vania had had to carry. Vania took a tentative few steps, and took a deep breath. She could do this.

She started towards the infirmary in a trot, Gerald falling in step beside her.

“Vania, I’m fine,” Emmy said weakly a few moments later, “Let me down.”

Vania frowned, focusing on her breathing. She didn’t think she could manage talking and trotting at the same time.

“You’re bruised all over,” Gerald said next to her, and Vania smiled at the help, “And from your breathing it sounds like your ribs are bruised. Save your breath.”

They were halfway there when a giant stopped Vania in her tracks. She panted, and looked up at the weathered face of their training master.

“What is this?” haMinch asked with a frown.

With one look at Vania’s breathless face, Gerald stepped forward and bowed. “Sir, we found Tirragen buried under a large pile of armour in front of the armour room. The armour seemed to have fallen on her. We are bringing her to the infirmary, sir.”

HaMinch looked down at them while Vania panted. “Let me do it,” he said unexpectedly. Gently, he took Emmy into his arms and carried her as if she weighted nothing.

“Sir, I can —” Emmy shut up at haMinch’s stern look. Vania exchanged astonished glances with Gerald as they followed him to the infirmary.

Vania got another shock at the infirmary. Instead of Duke Baird or his assistant, it was Lianne who awaited them.

“Lianne!” Vania said to her sister as haMinch carried Emmy to a bed, “When did you get here? You said you’re coming next month!”

Lianne shot her a quick smile before rolling up her sleeves and leaning over Emmy, peeling the shirt over the cut on Emmy’s shoulder to inspect it. “I’ll tell you later. Is this your friend? Hello, can you hear me?”

Emmy nodded, but grimaced immediately as if it hurt to do so.

“Good,” Lianne said, her blue Gift glowing in her hands as she sent it spreading across Emmy’s body, “My name is Lianne, and it seems like you know Vania, my sister. I’m checking your injuries now. Can you stay awake for me?”

“Yes,” Emmy croaked.

“Good.” Slowly, Lianne’s blue glow retreated back into her palms.

“How is she doing, your highness?” haMinch asked, knowing that it was a sign that Lianne had completed her diagnosis. For all she was fourteen, Lianne had been training in the healing arts since she was eight, and the whole palace knew and respected her abilities.

Lianne straightened, and Vania was relieved to see that she wasn’t frowning. “She has quite a number of bruises all over her body, with the most serious instances being her bruised ribs and her right hand. There are some cracks in the bones of her fingers. The cut on her shoulder is shallow.” Lianne took a quick look at Vania and Gerald, “She’s a page, right? I’m going to fix what I can, but I would recommend at least three days of rest before letting her resume the physical training. She should be able to attend the academic classes just fine.”

HaMinch bowed slightly. “I will make the necessary arrangements. I do have a question,” he suddenly said, and Vania turned to him curiously, “Tirragen was found under a large suit of armour that has fallen on her. Is it possible that, with luck, the accident could be fatal?”

Vania grimaced. It was a question that she had been trying to ignore.

Lianne caught her eyes and frowned. “A large suit of armour?” She turned back to Emmy, and examined the cut on her shoulder before healing it with a blue flash. “I suppose that cut was from the sword. If it had fallen at a slightly different angle, the sword could have landed on her throat. As for the rest… it matters because she’s so small. For her size, the armour was heavy enough that if more than one heavy piece had fallen on the same spot on her ribs, it could have crushed her ribs and even her lungs. Then it would be a race against time to save her life.”

Lianne paused, and turned back to Emmy. “Now, I’m going to start the healing, she’s in enough pain as it is. Please excuse me.”

Vania nodded numbly as haMinch led them out of the room to the waiting room outside. Emmy was lucky then, to have escaped with her life.

“Do you know more about what happened?” haMinch asked after he closed the door to the waiting room behind him. His voice was calm, but his eyes blazed with fury.

“No, sir.” Gerald said, standing at attention.

“What was she doing in the armour room? Punishment?”

Vania nodded. “She had one bell of armour cleaning tonight, sir.”

“Was there anyone with her?”

Vania bit her lip, exchanging a look with Gerald. Was this an attempt on Emmy’s life? If it was, was Roland involved? What would happen to him if he wasn’t, and they told haMinch now?

“I asked a simple question.” HaMinch said, his voice dangerously quiet.

“Roland of Nond had the same punishment duty, sir.” Gerald said slowly. “We didn’t see him when we got there.”

HaMinch’s eyebrows twitched. “Find him, Disart, and bring him to my office.”

Gerald bowed, and fled. HaMinch turned to her, and she straightened. He regarded her for one long, uncomfortable moment. “Do you have anything to say, your highness?”

Vania blinked in surprise. “Well, I asked the palace guards to have a look at the scene. I can ask them to report to you later. I don’t think it’s an accident, sir.”

“And why don’t you think so?”

“Such heavy suits of armour would be well-secured for display, sir. They shouldn’t fall for no reason.”

“Indeed.” He sighed, and left the waiting room.

Vania sighed in relief, and dropped down on the bench next to the door. She leaned back against the hard wall exhaustedly. How had things change so quickly? Things were going so well, with Emmy slowly being accepted among their small group, and she was finally looking healthier and putting on some muscles. Why would someone want her life? Or did they want her life? Could it just be some thoughtless fool’s idea of a prank?

Chapter Text

Vania didn’t realise she’d dozed until Lianne sat down next to her and she woke with a start. “Lianne, is she all right?”

Lianne grinned at her, though she looked a little tired herself. “Don’t you trust my skills?”

Vania smiled at her sister fondly, and reached out for a hug. Lianne smelled of fresh cotton and herbs, like she always did. “When did you get back from the City of the Gods? Why didn’t you tell me?”

Lianne gave her one final squeeze before letting go. “I just arrived this morning, and I thought I’d give you a surprise tomorrow. But you surprised me! I’m just glad that you’re not the one lying in there!”

Vania winced. She scooted back into the bench, and brought up her knees close to her chest. “Maybe I should have been. Emmy’s been through a lot as it is. I could have taken it.”

Lianne gripped her arm worriedly. “Don’t be silly. It shouldn’t have happened to anyone.” Vania turned to smile at her to show that she wasn’t completely serious, and Lianne let go. “So that was Emmeline of Tirragen, then?”

Vania nodded. “If you think she’s small, you should have seen her a month ago. All skin and bones, as if Tirragen couldn’t afford to feed her. I don’t get it at all.” She shook her head. “Do you know, I’m like a mother hen around her, always making sure that she eats properly?”

Lianne giggled. “You’re always bossy.”

Vania widened her eyes indignantly. “I’m not!”

Lianne gave her a look. “Do you think I don’t know my own sister? But let’s not argue. Tell me about page training. How are you doing? How’s your study group? You’ve grown taller since I last saw you!” Lianne squeezed her bicep experimentally, “And you’ve grown proper muscles!”

“Are you inspecting a horse?” Vania demanded, though she couldn’t quite keep her grin out of it. “Training is tiring, but it’s good…” Vania chattered on, telling Lianne the latest about her friends, the different trainings, and even haMinch and his test.

“That’s very interesting,” Lianne remarked when she heard about the test.

Vania nodded. “He’s not really what I expected. Mother said that he’s a conservative, but…”

“He’s from a conservative family,” Lianne corrected gently. “He was in the army for most of his career. It probably changed how he thinks.”

“He’s right either way,” Vania said softly. “To think that I was only focused on becoming better than everyone and wanting to prove myself, when the realm needs all of us to be strong, and not just one more lady knight.”

“Someone’s growing up.” Lianne teased, though when Vania turned to her she saw pride in Lianne’s eyes.

Vania elbowed her playfully. “Why are you back early, anyway?”

To her surprise, Lianne’s face fell a little, and she turned to look at the empty room instead. “You know there are a few lords visiting from the south? Father asked me to meet their sons. It’s still early days, of course. But it’s always good to have a look first, so I can tell father what I think before he makes a decision.”

Wordlessly, Vania reached out and gave Lianne’s shoulders a squeeze. Lianne leaned her head on Vania’s shoulder gratefully. Her untied hair was soft, and Vania stroke them absently. They were only a year apart in age, and yet how different their lives were already turning out to be.

“I’m sorry.” Vania whispered after a few moments. It was something that she had been meaning to say to her sisters, and it wasn’t something that she wanted to say over letters.

“Whatever for?”

“For — for asking father to let me be a knight. And getting it.” Vania looked down, blinking hard as tears threatened to fall. “Kally gave up being a knight, and you gave up being a Rider because you do your duties —”

“Hush,” Lianne had straightened up, and she pulled Vania into a hug. Vania set her legs down so she could lean closer into Lianne’s embrace. “You don’t fool me. Being a knight is not easy, and you just do a different set of duties, that’s all.”

Vania allowed herself to sob a little into Lianne’s shirt. “Do you think Kally hates me?”

“Why would she, silly?” Lianne patted her back, “We both love you. And trust me when I say that we’re both very proud of you for fighting for what you want.”

Vania grimaced, squeezing her eyes shut stubbornly. “But if she hadn’t been eldest princess, and if I hadn’t been the youngest, and if I didn’t have the both of you being married off —”

“That’s a lot of ifs, sweet.” Lianne said, though her voice was a little more emotional now, “No one can live asking so many what-ifs. You do your best with the hand you’re dealt, that’s all.”

She paused.“Kally got to choose. She told you that, right? She asked Daine so many questions about Kaddar before she agreed to it. As for me, father asked me to look over them early, so I do have some say in whom I marry. And I trained to be a healer. I can always heal, whoever I marry. We’re not as unhappy as you think, you know.”

Vania chuckled wetly, and straightened up, wiping her cheeks with her sleeves sloppily. Lianne produced a handkerchief from somewhere and helped wipe her face dry. She grinned at Lianne as she did, studying her sister.

Lianne was slender and beautiful, and there was a sense of purpose to her touch. Vania recalled the business-like manner in which she treated Emmy and handled haMinch, a training master decades older than her, and realised that Lianne was very much at ease.

“You’re happy, then?” Vania asked, taking Lianne’s hands into her own.

Lianne smiled, squeezing her hands. “Yes. Don’t worry about me, mother hen.”

Vania gave her a mock-glare, and they both dissolved into giggles.

*

When Emmy opened her eyes, she was greeted with high stone grey ceiling, in a room much larger than any she had woken up in. She frowned, and tried to get up.

It was much harder than usual, and she was a little sore everywhere. Her right hand was in a bandage and it throbbed. She was wearing a patient gown. There were two rows of beds here. She must be in the infirmary. She gasped when she remembered what happened.

“Good morning!” Vania called out a greeting as she entered from a door down the room, holding a heavy tray laden with food. Wait, this wasn’t Vania. Her hair was a little shorter and it wasn’t tied up in a ponytail, and she was wearing a cream-coloured dress with a white apron.

“Princess Lianne?” Emmy croaked as she came closer, terrified that Lianne meant to serve her. Emmy straightened up, and made a move to get out of bed.

“Oh don’t get up, please.” Lianne frowned a little, and Emmy obediently pulled her legs back into the covers. “You know Vania, don’t you? Both of us don’t like our friends using the whole princess or your highness thing. Don’t start with me, please.”

Emmy smiled uncertainly. Both Vania and her sister were such weird princesses. And was she a friend of Lianne now?

“You must be hungry,” Lianne said as she placed a portable desk on her bed, so that the tray of food was right in front of her. It was a generous spread of porridge, bread, ham and cheese, with some milk and juice.

Emmy licked her lips. She was starving. Murmuring a thanks, she started attacking her food.

“How are you feeling today?”

“Much better, your — Lianne.”

Lianne sat down on the edge of her bed, and nodded at her right hand. “I’ll need to perform another healing on that hand after you’re done eating. We can’t always rush through the whole healing process in one go. But otherwise you should be all good. You’ll need to rest a little for two more days. HaMinch said he’ll excuse you from the morning trainings. But not the afternoon classes, mind. You’d still need to go for those.”

Emmy nodded, frowning a little at the thought of missing the morning trainings. She was already lagging behind!

“It won’t help if you rush it, you know,” Lianne said, as if reading her mind. “You need to respect your body and its limits. Pushing through training tomorrow could mean that you remain weak for another few days.”

Emmy widened her eyes. “I didn’t know that. I won’t go for the trainings. Thanks.”

Lianne nodded, relaxing as she leaned a little on her hands, seemingly content to watch Emmy eat. It was only Emmy’s hunger that kept her going — it was a little uncomfortable to be stared at so.

“Vania talked about you in her letters,” Lianne suddenly said, and Emmy slowed a little, “She says you work hard, and you want to redeem your family name one day when you become a knight.”

Emmy could only nod, not knowing what she was supposed to say.

“I’m happy that Vania has two female pages as friends,” Lianne continued, “What with Fianola being a family friend too.”

Emmy paused. “Is Fianola… a family friend?”

Lianne nodded cheerfully. “Kally, our eldest sister, spent years living with the Countess of King’s Reach as part of her education. I don’t think we’ve ever met Fianola in person before, but Kally mentioned her in her letters. How nice it is that she’s decided to become a knight, too! And at the same that that Vania did!”

“Oh.” Emmy stared at her food, finally understanding the knowing looks that Vania and Fianola exchanged sometimes. She had known that King’s Reach was an old noble family, but to have Princess Kalasin living there for years for her education! How could Fianola not talk about it, or be so down-to-earth?

“Emmy — you don’t mind me calling you Emmy, do you?” Emmy smiled and shook her head, and Lianne continued, her eyes serious, “When I was checking your injuries and changing you last night, I saw your scars.”

Emmy flushed, and looked down. Wasn’t it bad enough to have the princess heal her — for her to have changed her clothes, and saw the ugly scars on her back!

“They’re old, but it’s clear that someone whipped you, badly.” Lianne reached out to rest her hand gently on Emmy’s wrist, “Vania said you were all skin and bones when you started training. Does your family treat you well in Tirragen?”

Emmy blinked hard, shame welling up in her.

“No one should treat you like that. You’re just a child. If you report it —”

“What will that do?” Emmy finally found the courage to speak, “It will just bring more shame to the Tirragen name, and we’ve a bad enough reputation as it is.” She looked up, and tried to smile at Lianne’s distraught face, “My brother is thirteen now, and in a few years he’ll be the proper Lord of Tirragen. Things will change. He’s always protected me. The whipping… my father was drunk that night. He didn’t mean it.”

Then hand on Emmy’s wrist tightened, and Lianne’s eyes were filled with pity.

“Don’t feel sorry for me, Lianne,” Emmy said quietly, “I feel sorrier for my brother, who was crippled right when he was about to start page training. One day I’ll probably marry and take another name, but my brother will always be the Lord of Tirragen. That’s why I need to redeem the family name.”

Emmy put down her spoon, and reached out to grip Lianne’s wrist in return, “And I can be a knight, with the Lioness and Keladry of Mindelan clearing the path for lady knights. And I have two female pages as year-mates. I am already very lucky.”

Lianne chuckled, shaking her head. She was blinking a little rapidly, and Emmy went back to her food, not wanting to see another shed tears of pity for her.

“You’re very wise, Emmy.” Lianne finally said after several long moments. Emmy shrugged as she put down her cutleries, and drained the glass of milk.

“Come,” Lianne said, business-like, “Let’s get that hand of yours fixed.”

*

In a way, Emmy’s recovery period was a blessing. It gave her time in the mornings to catch up on her homework and reading, and for the first time in a while she was actually properly caught up. She shouldn’t feel good about it because she was missing the physical trainings, but she took what she got.

Her friends were both shocked and indignant for her, and Emmy had to convince them, as she told haMinch, that Roland had nothing to do with it. Roland wouldn’t meet her eyes when they studied in the library, and no one left the two of them alone long enough for them to have a proper chat. Emmy knew that there was a high chance that Roland had set her up, of course. But knowing his story made her reluctant to push it, because it is much more likely that it was Tibout who made him do it.

It was only when she returned to the morning trainings on the third day that she knew for certain. They had just finished archery training and were making their way to the stables when the two of them ended up last in line.

Roland gripped her shoulder, finally meeting her eyes. “Emmy,” he said quickly, using her nickname for the first time, “I’m sorry. I didn’t know, that — that they planned that. They said it’d be a joke —”

Emmy shook her head, knowing that they might be overheard still. “It’s all right.”

“Thank you,” Roland whispered. “You could’ve told. That I asked you to look at —”

“I know you don’t have a choice.” She whispered back, looking around to make sure no one was listening. “I know what it’s like to have a duty to your family.”

Roland squeezed her shoulder a little, his face full of gratitude.

That following night, it was Gerald and her who were stuck mucking out stables together. Gerald had been shooting her weird looks the whole time, and after she caught him for the umpteenth time, she stopped what she was doing.

“Can you just go ahead and say it?” Emmy said exasperatedly. “I know you want to be polite because we’re trying to work together for haMinch’s test, but I’ve had insults thrown at my face my whole life. I’d rather you spit them out than looking at me like this.”

Gerald stopped and straightened. He had an odd look on his face. “You didn’t tell haMinch about Roland.”

Emmy frowned. “I told him he had nothing to do with it, like I told you —”

“I saw Runnerspring confront him,” Gerald said unexpectedly, “He was stupid, doing it in between the shelves in the library. He asked Roland to direct you to the suit of armour. He told him it was a joke. But if you’d told haMinch that it was Roland who pointed you to the suit—”

Emmy shook her head, getting over her surprise at last. “What will that do? It would just get Roland into trouble, when his family doesn’t need more scandals.”

“Runnerspring could have killed you.”

“I don’t think he meant to kill me,” Emmy said, hoping that it was true, “He probably just wanted to scare me into quitting.”

Gerald raised an eyebrow. “And aren’t you scared? He’s going to keep trying, and he will make your life difficult.”

Emmy smiled crookedly. “Do you think my life would be easy if I quit? My whole family’s shunned and despised because of the actions of one man who died twenty years ago. I have one chance to make things right. Bullies like Runnerspring aren’t going to stop me.”

Gerald didn’t say anything for a long moment, and Emmy went back to work.

Chapter Text

There were no more accidents for the next few weeks, and for that Emmy was grateful. Their training has picked up pace, just as the weather has turned cold with a vengeance. Tilting lessons begun soon after Emmy recovered from her accident, though it meant that she was forever bruised and sore from being hit by the sandbag when she missed the target. They started training with the wooden practice swords, and at last it was something that Emmy took to immediately. She wasn’t good by any measure, but it was not unwieldy like the lance, it wasn’t awkward for her like the staff. She found that she liked it, and she snuck in some practice every night before bed, no matter how short the duration.

Their preparation for haMinch’s test seemed to be going well. Gerald and Vania still argued often, though Gerald no longer mocked Vania’s princess status at every turn. Gerald was still coolly polite to Emmy, and she didn’t mind that. Emmy and Roland had an understanding even if they didn’t speak much to each other. Vania remained suspicious of him, though, and Emmy wasn’t sure what else she could do to make Vania accept him.

They woke up to two feet of snow one Sunday in December, and Vania started a snowball fight when all the pages were walking back to the palace after dawn worship at the temple of Mithros.

“Vania!” Gerald growled, wiping snow from his ears.

Emmy was about to laugh when snow hit the back of her head. She jumped at the sudden cold and whirled around, seeing Fianola’s wink. Surprised, she immediately crouched down and made herself a missile.

From then on it was all out war, with no reliable allies and no one untouched. Emmy caught haMinch watching them at some point, and she half-expected to stop at his order. But to her surprise, he turned around and walked away, letting the pages be silly for a day.

Later at lunch, Emmy was the first in line. She was still wearing one more layer than the rest, and she even so she fidgeted and jumped to keep herself warm.

“You act like you’re still in the snow.” Gerald said with a frown.

“She’s still half you size, Gerald.” Fianola said, as if that explained everything.

Emmy wasn’t about to let others talk about her without her participation. “I’ve grown taller!”

The rest chuckled in line behind her, and she smiled. On days like this, she felt like everything was right in the world.

*

They found out belatedly that Keladry of Mindelan had been in the palace since November, in preparation for her Ordeal of Knighthood over mid-winter. She had stayed in a different wing of the palace, near the King’s Own’s stables, and that was why none of them had seen her.

“We should go see her!” Vania said excitedly in the library, the night they found out.

Fianola bit her lip. “But wouldn’t she be busy preparing for her Ordeal? I don’t want to disturb her.”

“We don’t really have time anyway,” Emmy pointed out, looking up from an essay she was writing. She was excited too, but she was also practical. “It’s like the instructors meant for us to spend our mid-winter break doing their homework, with the way things are going.”

Vania sighed. “We should at least be there when she walks out of the Chamber, don’t you think?”

And they were.

Amidst the boring duties serving plates to older pages in the evenings, they found out about the order in which the year’s squires took their Ordeal, and they waited at the chapel outside the Chamber for two of them — they accompanied Briar to witness his brother, Seaver of Tasride, walk out of the Chamber. Seaver was grey and barely able to stand. His knight-master, parents and Briar rushed forward.

Fianola gulped next to Emmy. “I’ve heard that the Chamber of Ordeal is tough. But he looks like… like…”

“Like death chewed him and spat him out,” Vania muttered darkly next to her. “Roald was the same, when he walked out of the Chamber.”

Emmy’s own breathing had quickened, and her heart thundered in her ears. What did the Chamber do? Would she be able to make it when her turn came? Would it matter that her uncle committed treason?

They were more sober when it came to the sixth day of the Ordeal, when it was Keladry’s turn. The chapel was crowded, and not just with people. In the front row was, interestingly, an ugly white dog and a large group of at least twenty sparrows. Prince Roald was there, along with most of the newly-minted knights. There were even a number of servants, many of whom stood at the back when there was no more seats. The three of them were barely able to squeeze into the seats in the last row.

When Keladry walked out of the chamber, she was greeted with rousing cheers. She looked dazed and pale, and her hands were red and chafed. Her big knight master, Lord Raoul of Goldenlake and Malorie’s Peak, rushed forward and threw a blanket over her, and in a few moments she was ushered out. The cheers went on long after she was gone.

That evening, the three of them snuck out of pre-duties briefing to witness Keladry’s knighting. They all gasped in awe at her shield with the distaff border, and dreamed about what theirs would look like. It was worth Master Oakbridge’s scolding when they got back.

*

Emmy also cried for the first time that mid-winter, when she had opened all her gifts. Xander had sent her a wood carving that looked uncannily like their dog, Ollie. Vania gave her a beautiful belt knife to replace her worn out one. Fianola gave her a few delicate hair pins and ties — Emmy still kept her hair short, but Fianola must have noticed the occasional longing looks she gave her and Vania’s hair. The two of them have managed well, and Emmy was toying with the idea of growing her hair long again.

Ahmad gave her a small book on Bazhir culture. Roland gave her a jar of expensive-looking bruise balm — whether this was out of guilt or a hint that Runnerspring wasn’t giving up, she would not know, and she made herself stop thinking about it.

Most surprisingly, Gerald gave her a thick green scarf, and she had to read the note twice to make sure that her eyes were not playing tricks on her.

You look like you need it. Gerald.

She touched the soft material, and swept her eyes over the other gifts laid out on her desk. The tears just came.

She still remembered how it felt to have no friends, to have no one who stood up for her and no one to turn to other than Xander. She remembered the whispers of ‘treason’ that followed her in the first few weeks, before Vania and the group’s close proximity put a stop to it. How much things have changed in a few months.

She wiped her tears, and got out her ink and papers to write a letter to Xander, describing each gift in detail.

*

The next few weeks flew past in a cold, hard slog. Their training and homework did not let up, and none of them found the courage or the excuse to find Keladry of Mindelan, who was still staying near the King’s Own wing of the palace. Word was that everyone was busy preparing for the impending war with Scanra, and all the new knights would be assigned to the north soon enough.

The news of war made all the pages, first year or older alike, throw themselves into training with renewed dedication. Emmy worked harder than ever, both in class and on her own, in the mornings or before bed. She still received punishment duties now and then, but she realised that they weren’t so bad if she spent the hours of menial labour thinking about her homework. It made her finish her work faster afterwards, and even Vania and Fianola were astonished by her speed.

The days were blurring into one another, until one day in February when haMinch surprised them all by bringing their test forward.

*

Emmy hated the cold. She didn’t realise that she was particularly bad with it until she saw how easily the rest of the pages dealt with it. She seemed to be the only one wrapped in extra layers all the time, and even a well-heated room couldn’t make her remove all her layers. Even the mild-mannered Ahmad teased her about it eventually, and he was from desert country!

And so it was with dread that she followed the pages for a field trip into the Royal Forest. HaMinch had brought all the instructors with him — Sergeant Ezeko, the Shang Horse and Shang Wildcat — and taught the pages how to dress for the cold and survive in them. Emmy was only half paying attention, with the other half of her mind shivering and wishing for a warm fireplace and hot food.

She was very much looking forward to the journey back to the palace after a night of freezing in her bedroll, and so when haMinch asked the first years to dismount and stand aside, she was very confused.

“Listen up, you lot!” haMinch said from his horse, his dark eyes unreadable, “This will be your extra test. Prove to me that you can help each other survive one more night on your own, or you won’t pass probation!” he took a quick look at all the shocked faces that greeted him and continued calmly, “I’ll be back tomorrow morning with your mounts.”

With that, he turned around and led the older pages down the road. Some of them looked as shocked as the first years felt, though a few snickered. The instructors helped lead their mounts away without a backward glance.

Emmy swallowed as she stared dumbly at the retreating group.

“This is madness,” Gerald breathed, making white puffs in the air, “They can’t leave us alone. There could be immortals! Wolves!”

“That’s why he said we should work with each other.” Vania said grimly, and she was the first to turn away from the retreating party, to survey the five of them. “Listen, it’s madness if we’re on our own, but we’re not. We’re future knights, trained in combat. Just last night we were taught how to survive in this condition. We can do this.”

“You’re right, Vania.” Fianola nodded, her eyes determined. “What do you want us to do?”

Vania looked a little surprised at being made in charge, but as she looked around the group, they nodded back at her. Even Gerald waited patiently. Emmy smiled encouragingly at her.

Vania took a deep breath. “Right. We’ll need to take care of shelter and food, and over night we’ll need rotating sentries…”

They paired up for their tasks. Fianola and Ahmad, their best archers, were to hunt for their food. HaMinch had taken away their packed rations, but some of the older pages had shot a deer and some wild turkeys the night before, so it wasn’t impossible.

The remaining four of them set up shelter, using the space between two fallen trees as a base. The back of their shelter leaned against a small twenty-feet rise, and it left only three sides that they would need to defend that night. After that, Vania paired up with Roland to gather firewood while Emmy and Gerald stood guard at their camp, gathering snow into all their canteens to be melted later for water.

Emmy’s hands shook as she grabbed a fresh canteen to fill it with snow.

“Get a hold of yourself, Tirragen.” Gerald said in irritation. No doubt he was unhappy at being stuck with her.

“I can’t help this, all right?” Emmy grumbled, partly hating her own body for not being up to the task. “Do you think I want to feel this way?”

“You won’t be of any use in a hunt,” he muttered, shaking his head.

Emmy flushed. “Isn’t it good that there are six of us then?”

He didn’t reply, and they worked in silence until Vania and Roland returned. With the firewood, Vania used her Gift to start a fire, and Emmy was finally able to relax in front of it. Things actually went pretty well after that — Fianola and Ahmad brought back two turkeys for lunch, and Vania and Roland hunted for dinner while the rest of them sat around the fire and rested. Eventually they were so bored that they had a few practice duels with their sword, and Emmy was pleased enough to find out that she was the best with sword among them.

Later that afternoon, Vania and Roland dragged between them a deer they’d shot, returning triumphantly to cheers and applause.

“You just have to top everything, don’t you?” Fianola said, shaking her head as she helped them bring the deer to camp. Vania grinned widely and did not deny it.

Ahmad directed them from there onwards, being the most experienced with treating the meat. Vania and Roland were granted the right to rest as the others carved up and cooked the meat.

They had a big dinner with plenty of leftovers for the next morning, and it was all they could do to sit around the fire afterwards.

“This isn’t so bad, isn’t it?” Vania said contentedly, leaning back on her hands and looking up on the starry sky. Night time came much earlier these days.

Fianola made an affirmative noise. “I thought it would be more difficult. This was almost fun.”

“Don’t jinx us,” Roland muttered, “We still have the night to go.”

“And Tirragen here might still freeze to death overnight.” Gerald said, and Emmy was about to retort when she saw the smile on his face. Was he just teasing instead of being snide?

“Emmy will manage,” Vania said cheerfully, “She’s come a long way.”

“Don’t talk about me like I’m not here,” Emmy muttered, poking around the fire.

You will manage,” Vania said, looking straight at her with a grin, “You’ve come a long way.”

“I’ve learned a lot as well,” Gerald said unexpectedly, and everyone turned to him, “Like how Vania being bossy has nothing to do with her being a princess. She just can’t help it.”

That got a chuckle out of everyone else, and Vania grabbed a fistful of snow to throw at him.

“I’ve learned that Ahmad comes from the same tribe as the Lioness!” Fianola said smugly.

Emmy’s eyes widened. Vania beat her to it, “What? Why didn’t you tell us?”

“That would would be boasting.” Ahmad smiled, “My grand uncle, Halef Seif, was the headman of the Bloody Hawk tribe when the Lioness came. She was the Woman Who Rides Like a Man, and the shaman for our tribe for a few months.”

“Wow,” Vania said, impressed. “They say it’s always the quiet ones who surprise you.” She looked around, and poked Roland with a stick. “What did you learn, Roland?”

Roland blinked, looking around at them. His eyes landed on Emmy. “I— I learned that Emmy is loyal and kind. She doesn’t deserve to bear a burden like the Tirragen name.”

They fell quiet. Emmy accidentally snapped the stick she was poking the fire with.

“No one deserves to pay the price for the action of another,” she said finally, staring at the dancing flames, “but isn’t that what family, or friendship, is about? We gladly take the burden for the ones we love.”

She took a deep breath. “I don’t want to redeem my family name just for glory, you know. One day I will marry, and I will take the name of another. My brother… he’s the one stuck with the name for life. I’ve gotta do something for him, after all he’s done for me.”

Fianola, sitting the closest to her, reached out and gave her a sideway hug. Emmy leaned her head on her shoulders, still not believing that she had told her year mates something that she dared not tell her brother.

“You’ll do it.” Vania said confidently, her face perfectly serious. “You’ll bring glory to the Tirragen name one day.”

“I do need to make it through the night.” Emmy said softly, hiding a smile.

“Sentries!” Vania suddenly said, sitting upright with her eyes wide. “Mithros, how could I forget? HaMinch would kill me!”

She started drawing up the sentry roster then, to the groans of the others. But Emmy knew that they had gotten lucky — they should have been more alert the whole time. It was already night time, and who knew who — or what — was close by?

Emmy volunteered for the first shift, because she was warm and fed and not ready for bed yet. It would have been that much harder to do it when she had to get out into the cold while half-asleep. Ahmad followed suit, and they both exchanged grins in understanding. Ahmad was desert-born, after all.

*

Vania opened her eyes drowsily, seeing a shadow above her. She woke up fully, and her hand was reaching for her knife when she recognised Ahmad’s face, half lit by the fire that still danced outside their tent.

“Time.” The Bazhir boy said quietly. Vania almost replied aloud before she remembered the other people in the tent. They had placed their bedrolls next to each other to keep warm.

She scrambled out of bed quickly — she would just miss the warm more if she had done it properly, and stood up, grabbing her sword by the entrance of the tent. Emmy was waiting just outside the tent with her bow at the ready, still looking outwards for threats. Vania smiled, and tapped her on the shoulder.

A few glints in the darkness to her right caught her eyes, and she turned just in time to see two wolves jump at Ahmad from the back.

“WOLVES!” She drew her sword and charged as the lead wolf closed its jaw around Ahmad’s calf. “Wake up!”

She swung her sword down, and another wolf was jumping at her at it fell, an arrow sticking out of its ribs. Vania didn’t have time to thank Emmy, and stabbed at the wolf, forcing it to let Ahmad go. Shadows moved beyond the fire, and she chanced a moment for a quick glance — shadows that were the other pages moved behind her, and there were at least four more wolves behind the fire. She needed something quick!

The fire danced. Inspired, she drew her Gift from within her, and used her hand to direct the fire across air, slamming it into two more wolves advancing on the right. The wolves howled.

“Someone back Emmy up!” She yelled, drawing the fire again — it only slowed the two wolves down. “I need archers!”

Another wolf leapt at her.

*

Emmy swung her sword, and the wolf jumped out of the way. Her bow was thrown carelessly on the ground — it took too long to shoot again. She gulped as another wolf joined its companion, circling around Emmy. A shadow moved at her back and she whirled, sword up.

“It’s me!” Gerald said swung his sword at the wolf jumping at her on her left. Emmy jumped aside.

Emmy saw the second wolf leaping for Gerald before he did and charged. Her sword left a large gash on the wolf’s shoulder, and it snarled as it got up, and leapt at her. Flames hit its side, and it howled as Emmy scrambled out of the way. Vania was already directing the fire back to the other side, where three or four wolves were circling the rest of the group. Emmy quickly sliced the fallen wolf’s throat, and turned back.

Gerald had lost his sword, his right forearm bleeding as he staggered backwards. The wolf charged again, and there was no time. She shoved Gerald out of the way and brought her left arm up to block. A sharp force clamped down on her arm, and Emmy cried as she brought her sword around, stabbing up into the mass of fur from below. The wolf dragged her down with it and she slammed down on her side. She pulled her left arm back quickly, and rolled to her right. When she looked again, an arrow had struck the fallen wolf.

Emmy turned back.

Fianola nodded at her, lowering her bow. Vania crouched as she rested her hands on her thighs, panting. Roland stood as he panted, blood dripping from his sword. Ahmad was sitting down, but he also held a bow. There were at least four wolves that she could see on the ground.

“Good work.” HaMinch said as he strode into the clearing, a crossbow in hand. Two more shadows leapt down from the trees, and Emmy recognised Hakuin, the Shang Horse as he walked towards Ahmad. When she turned back, Eda Bell was helping Gerald up.

Still shocked from the attack, Emmy pushed herself up, grimacing when she remembered the bite on her left arm.

“Is it just your arm?” Eda was asking her, and she nodded dumbly.

“You were here the whole time?” Vania’s voice was a little higher pitched than usual. “Did you set the wolves on us?”

“I’m not trying to kill you, Page Vania,” haMinch’s face was grim as he surveyed the scene. “My test is for you to survive the night with your year-mates, if you recall. This was not part of the plan. But rest assured that we had your back. We were prepared to shoot if we saw a potentially fatal attack.”

Belatedly, Emmy noticed the crossbows slung across both the Shang masters’ backs.

“So you don’t care if we’re hurt, or maimed?” Vania said incredulously, swaying a little as Fianola strode towards her, “As long as we don’t die?”

HaMinch frowned at Vania as Fianola wrapped an arm around her waist, lifting Vania’s arm across her shoulder. “None of you have sustained serious injuries. Though you seem to have used your Gift more than you’re accustomed to. I suggest bringing this up with Master Numair in your next class, and learn your limits before you exhaust yourself in battles.”

“This is — this is just —” Vania coughed, and Fianola started steering her back to the tent.

“Sorry, sir,” Fianola said calmly as she did so, “Vania seems to be a little light-headed. It’d be better if she sat down and had some water.”

HaMinch nodded. He started towards Emmy, and she tried to stand straighter. She was trying to bring her arms behind her back when her left arm throbbed in protest. She grimaced, looking down at her arm. There wasn’t a lot of bleeding.

“Let me see.” HaMinch said quietly as he crouched down, and he was surprisingly gentle as he pulled back the layers of clothing she had to examine her forearm.

The extra layers she had helped. There was a large bruise, and only a few teeth marks that bled. If it had been summer, the wolf might have done a lot more damage.

The pages were all quiet as the instructors took care of the wounded. It was only Gerald, Emmy, and Ahmad who were bitten, though Vania looked a little pale and exhausted.

At last, the three instructors stood to survey the pages. All of them were sitting in their bedrolls in the tent. HaMinch has a surprisingly gentle look on his face, or maybe it was the dancing light from the fires that confused Emmy.

“Rest now. We will stand watch for the rest of the night.” He said. Was that a smile on his face? “You’ve passed your test.”

“But we didn’t —” Vania started, frowning, “It’s not daylight yet. I didn’t — I forgot about sentries until—”

“The point of the test is for you to show that you can work together,” haMinch interrupted, since Vania didn’t quite seem capable of making sense, “If you had survived a whole day, you would have shown some evidence of cooperation. But holding off the wolf attack, unplanned as it is, demonstrated without a doubt that you have learned to work together. So yes, you’ve passed the test. Now go to sleep, you’ve earned it.”

Emmy lied down on her bedroll, still dazed but more light-hearted, despite the throbbing in her arm. Sleep claimed her quickly.

Chapter Text

The first year pages were different after passing haMinch’s test. Emmy couldn’t really describe what it was. After they got back to the palace, they were given one day of rest. When they left the infirmary together — Vania, Fianola and Roland all waited for those who needed healings — Gerald patted Emmy on the back absently, and Roland waved with a big grin before going back to his room. They stuck together in the days after that, even if there was no need to.

They went back into training with earnest, with the rest of the palace bustling with the activities to prepare for war. One day in March, most of the knights and other fighters set out for the north, and the palace emptied almost in an instant. The quiet in the halls after dark was eerie after months of late-night bustle.

There were squires who joined their knight-masters in the war, and the mess hall was half empty most of the time. It made any new entrants easier to spot.

And that was why, one evening in early April, Emmy noticed the stranger at their table straight away. She and the gang were just entering the mess hall for supper, and there the boy was, sitting by himself in the pages table, resting his chin on his hand with a plate of food untouched in front of him. He looked to be about Vania’s age, and has short reddish blond hair.

Why was he sitting at the pages’ table, when he clearly wasn’t one? He didn’t wear the page uniform, and Emmy had never seen him before.

But clearly Vania had. She cried in surprise when she saw him, and ran over. “Alan!”

The boy grinned at Vania’s approach, and got out of his seat fast enough to catch Vania’s hug. “Vania! It’s good to see you!”

“Why didn’t you tell me you’re coming over?” Vania said with a laugh when she pulled back, and Emmy joined the others to gather around them. She exchanged a look with Fianola, though it didn’t seem like she knew him as well.

“It was a recent decision.” The boy said, turning to show a friendly smile to the group gathered there.

“Guys,” Vania said when she realised the others were waiting for an introduction, “This is Alan of Pirates’ Swoop, son of the Lioness!”

Emmy’s eyes widened, Fianola gasped. The others looked equally shocked or impressed.

“Now you’ve done it,” Alan said with mock dismay, “They’re going to expect miracles from me and run away when they realise I’m a normal lad!”

Emmy chuckled, liking the boy immediately. He was just a tad taller than Vania, and his friendly smile was completely at ease on his face. Green-hazel eyes danced playfully.

“You’re not a normal lad by any measure, Alan,” Vania shook her head, and started introducing the group one by one. When it was Emmy’s turn, Alan didn’t bat an eye at her family name, and she was immediately grateful.

“Well,” Alan chuckled when Vania was done, “Three female pages this year! To think that I went through all the trouble of asking Lord Imrah to take me in for page training!”

Vania elbowed him. “You could have written to me first, I would have told you that I’m joining.”

“I’m sure you have new friends to make, Page Alan,” haMinch said from the dais where his seat was, his voice carrying clearly across the half-empty hall, “but do not hold others back from their supper.”

Alan had turned around when haMinch spoke, and he bowed smoothly at the reprimand. “I apologise, Sir haMinch. I will let my fellow pages get to their supper.”

Quietly, Vania steered the group to the food line. Gerald beat Emmy to her question, “Is Alan a page? Why haven’t we seen him before?”

Vania passed the plates down the line, giving her an excuse to turn and talk to them, “He’s training under the private tutorship of Lord Imrah of Legann. He will only come here for the page examinations every spring.”

“Is that allowed?” Ahmad asked quietly as they started getting food.

Vania nodded, scooping mashed potatoes onto her plate. “That was how knight training started. Palace-based training didn’t start until much later, during a trying period. Making their sons train at the palace was the king’s way of keeping the nobles in line.”

Emmy took her food absently, thinking about Alan’s training. Why didn’t he just train under his mother?

“So,” Alan asked when they sat down, looking at Vania in particular, “Are you prepared for the tests?”

Vania raised her eyebrows. “I should be asking you that question. We know they will ask things that are covered in our classes. Who knows what rubbish Imrah has been feeding your mind with?”

Alan just grinned, “Do you have any notes that you can share with a poor lad?”

Vania winked. “What price are you willing to pay?”

“Is my friendship and loyalty not enough?” He said in mock surprise, hand over his heart.

Vania laughed. “Your sister is a bad influence on you. Did she just visit?”

Alan resumed cutting his food, smiling wryly, “Can’t I have a sense of humour too?”

“Theatrics don’t work as well on you, my dear,” Vania said gravely. As if just finally remembering the existence of other people, Vania turned to them sheepishly, “Alan has a twin sister, Alliane. We call her Aly. She’s quite a character. It’s like she has Player’s blood in her.”

Alan nodded solemnly. “Aye. Da and I are always worried that one day she’ll disappear with a Player’s troupe and never to return.”

“You’re jesting!” Fianola said, eyes wide, “The daughter of the Lioness, a Player!”

“I swear on a knight’s honour.” Alan said.

“You’re not a knight yet,” Vania threw a piece of bread at him, which he caught as it bounced off his tunic, “You can’t use that.”

“Isn’t that exactly why I should use it?” Alan said, popping the piece of bread into his mouth casually.

“So is she coming or not?” Vania said impatiently.

“She rode north with me from Pirate’s Swoop,” Alan said, “She’s visiting Myles at the moment. But she told me she’ll be here when I ‘show the conservatives what son of the Lioness can do’. With much more colourful language about the conservatives that I dare not repeat.”

“Oh,” Vania’s eyes lit up, “But now you must!”

Emmy chuckled with the rest. The rest of supper was similarly entertaining and educational. Vania asked about the Lioness’ other son, Thom, who was beginning his studies at the university for mages. Emmy knew Lady Alanna had children, but she didn’t know that she had three. Where did she find the time?

They also learned that Alan, for all he was fourteen, was only a first year page. And he was, indeed, joining their group for the page examinations.

“I’m still not as old as Neal when he started, you know.” Alan said in mock indignation when Vania teased him about it. “And he became Ma’s squire. Not a bad outcome, I’d say.”

Alan also managed to squeeze in some of his questions despite Vania’s torrent of questions, and they were eager to tell him about haMinch and the test he set them. He was both impressed and mildly horrified when they told him about that winter night.

Supper passed by all too quickly, and Emmy was sad when it was over. She had no punishment work tonight, though she did have a lot of homework to do. It would have been nice to hear more about the Lioness.

Much to her surprise, Alan stopped her when they left the mess hall. “May I have a word, Emmeline?”

The rest shot them curious looks, but left them alone all the same.

“Ma told me about you.” he said, smiling kindly, “I just want to remind you that while she’s under the king’s orders to not contact you, I’m under no orders to stay away from her. So if you have any message that you’d like me to bring to her, just let me know.”

Emmy opened and closed her mouth dumbly in surprise. “That’s… thank you,” she managed finally, her heart soaring in knowing that the Lioness didn’t just paid her bills and forgot about her. She did wonder. “I will think about what I want to say beyond a big thank you.”

He chuckled. “I’m sure you can manage more than that.” He turned a little more serious, “Ma says she’s proud of you, you know. She heard about your accident at the armour room last year, and she’s proud that you didn’t give up because of that.”

Emmy smiled widely. “I’m never giving up. How did she know?”

Alan raised an eyebrow. “She’s Vania’s godmother, you know. The king wouldn’t let haMinch forbid them to write each other.”

“Vania never said anything,” Emmy said softly, trying to recall the conversations they’d had regarding the Lioness.

“Vania can be sneaky when she wants to,” Alan said with a grin, “I think she picked it up from Aly, when she and Lianne visited Pirates’ Swoop when we were little.”

“You seem close.” Emmy said, wondering what it had been like to grow up among princes and princesses and children of legends.

“We were like a litter of puppies, as Daine likes to say.” Emmy had to laugh at that, and Alan continued cheerfully, “Roald, Kally, Liam, and Thom were the big boys and girls. Jasson is a mage through and through, and he used to follow Thom around like a puppy. Lianne, Vania, Aly and I — now we were the troublemakers. We are much less stiff than our older siblings, and we had a lot more fun — though we got into a lot more scrapes as well.”

Emmy hid her grin at the word ‘stiff’, and shook her head. “It sounds like fun, growing up with friends like that.”

Alan scratched the back of his head with a grin, and Emmy wondered if she had just implied that she had none. She felt her cheeks starting to get warm.

“Would you have some time this Sunday?” Alan suddenly asked, “Ma tasked me to assess your fencing skills, and teach you a few tricks.”

Emmy’s eyes widened, “Could you? That would be splendid!”

Alan laughed. “She was right about you.”

“About what?” Emmy said, and quickly added, “Can I ask Vania and Fianola to come as well? They would love to know as well. Actually, the rest of the first years would —”

Alan chuckled. “HaMinch is very good. Fine, ask them to come along if they’re free as well.”

They agreed on a timing, and finally parted ways. Alan was staying in a room next to Lord Imrah’s guest room, and it was in a different wing of the palace.

“See you soon, Emmeline.”

Emmy smiled at her new friend. “Call me Emmy.”

*

Vania felt the tip of Emmy’s wooden sword touch her throat, and grinned. “I yield.”

Emmy returned her grin, and removed her sword. Vania shook her head, marvelling at how Emmy managed to become so good merely a few months after picking up a sword for the first time. Vania had started learning about the sword before she was ten, though it was more of a passing interest, with a smattering of private lessons with some of her brothers and Aunt Alanna. She was still considered good with it among the first years, though Emmy could now win two out of three bouts with her.

The two of them stretched, deciding at the same time that they had enough of sword practice for a day. Alan was good on his word, and all the first years turned up shortly after lunch to learn a few tricks from him. Despite being a first year page, Alan had been trained by Alanna since he could hold a sword, and he held one as if it was a natural extension of him.

It was now close to forth bell in the afternoon, and they were exhausted. Slowly the other pairs of pages stopped to stretch like Vania and Emmy did, and Alan surveyed them with a grin. Damn the bastard, he didn’t even look winded.

“Good work, lads and ladies.” He said, “I’ll be here until the tests are over. If you want, we can continue this next week —” He didn’t even get to finish, and Emmy and Gerald and the others were already shouting yes and nodding eagerly.

“Spreading your charm again, Alan?” A familiar voice teased, and Vania turned to grin at Lianne. Lianne was dressed for riding, and she held a crossbow in one hand.

“Lianne!” Alan’s smile widened when he saw her, and he trotted to meet her before she reached the group. He moved as if to hug her, but changed his mind last minute, and stayed two feet in front of her, scratching the back of his head. “How are you?”

Vania raised her eyebrows, and watched closely. Lianne duck her head a little, looking very pleased as she muttered something back. Vania blinked, and asked herself when this had started. The four of them — Lianne, Alan, Aly and herself — had always been close, but did she know that something more had been growing between Alan and Lianne?

A smile slowly formed on her lips. It was time for a certain kind of girl talk with her sister.

*

The next few weeks passed by in a blur. All the instructors were not surprised that Alan joined them for the morning trainings, though haMinch was clear that he was not pleased, and picked on Alan’s work every chance he got. Knowing that haMinch valued teamwork, Vania made sure that Alan was included in all the first years’ study group and other activities, despite the fact that Alan did not join their afternoon classes.

Emmy was glad. Alan was funny and down to earth, and had none of the temper that his mother was famous for. It helped that he thought the Lioness would be pleased with her swordsmanship, and she made sure to practice the more complex passes that Alan taught her every night before bed.

All too soon the pages’ tests were upon them. Despite what the older pages said about it being easy, all of them were worried, even Vania.

“Will you stop pacing?” Fianola asked from Vania’s bed where both her and Emmy watched as Vania try to wear a hole in the rug in her room.

Given the tests tomorrow, the group had decided to retire early from the library. But Emmy was restless, and knocked on Fianola’s room. Fianola was in the same state, and they all ended up in Vania’s room, and Vania couldn’t stop pacing.

“What if I screw up and embarrass my parents?” Vania said, her hands on her hips. “What if I do something stupid?”

“You won’t,” Emmy told her, “You’re the best in our year for almost everything.”

“What if I don’t perform well under pressure?”

“You led us when wolves attacked in the middle of the night,” Fianola said dryly. “I’d say you work well under pressure. You just fret yourself to pieces trying to make sure you don’t disappoint your parents.”

Vania stared at Fianola. She pulled up the chair to her desk and all but sagged into it, sighing. “I don’t think I’ve told you this before. But when I asked my father to let me be a knight, I said I want to send a message throughout the realm, and give more girls courage to shape their lives. I know there’s the Lioness, and Keladry of Mindelan. But having a princess do it makes it more… official, you know?”

Fianola was nodding with a smile. “It gives the Crown’s approval to lady knights like nothing else could.”

“That’s why I can’t just pass,” Vania said with a frown. “I need to be good.”

Fianola stood up, and walked over to give Vania a pat on the shoulder. “And you will be. You’ve worked hard like all of us, and we’ve seen you in action. You’ll be fine.”

Emmy walked over as well, and smiled at Vania’s uncharacteristically uncertain face. “You’ll be more than fine. You’ll make your parents proud, I’m sure of it.”

It got her a small smile from Vania. They left shortly after that, having walked off or talked through their anxieties. As Fianola closed the door to Vania’s room, Emmy paused to stare at the door, and contemplated the girl within.

“What’s wrong?” Fianola asked, wrapping one arm around her shoulders.

Emmy shook her head. “I’ve never thought about how much pressure Vania is under. She’s always so sure of herself, and always trying to make us forget that she’s a princess.”

“Being royal is both a blessing and a curse,” Fianola said unexpectedly, and Emmy turned to stare at her. “It’s easy for people to see the glamour. It’s hard to appreciate the pressures and limitations they face.”

Fianola smiled, and steered her towards her door across the hallway. “Don’t worry about this now. Get some rest, and let’s do our best tomorrow, shall we?”

Emmy nodded, and bade Fianola good night. As she prepared for sleep, she wondered if she had been hasty and unfair in thinking that Vania would never understand the burdens that Emmy carried with the Tirragen name. How much did Emmy really know about the burdens that come with being a Conté?

*

All the first-years passed their tests. Vania topped their class, to no one’s surprise. They cheered each other on, and enjoyed themselves that evening, when there were special courses and desserts for supper for the pages and new squires. Emmy felt more light-hearted than she had in months, and she wore a silly grin like all the others for the rest of the night.

Alan had to leave the very next day, with his knight master grumbling that they had stayed in Corus long enough. True to his word, he pulled Emmy aside again after breakfast the next morning to ask if she had any message for the Lioness.

“Not much, really,” Emmy said truthfully. She had spent nights thinking about it in the weeks before the tests, wondering if it was too frivolous to share that she wanted to be as good with a sword as the Lioness one day, or any number of things that she thought of sharing. What could be worth the Lioness’ attention?

“Tell her that I’m very grateful that she gave me a chance,” Emmy told Alan, “And I will work hard and make sure that she doesn’t regret it.”

Alan smiled. “I have a feeling that she won’t.”

They parted ways, and Emmy saw Lianne hurrying towards him as she was turning around the corner. Vania followed at a more sedate pace, a knowing grin on her face.

Instead of following Lianne, Vania walked until she reached Emmy, and turned around, slinging an arm over Emmy’s shoulders.

“Don’t you want to say your farewells?” Emmy asked, turning to look at Vania. It occured to her suddenly that Vania no longer towered over her, and she was only half a head taller than Emmy these days.

“I don’t think they want to be interrupted.” Vania said cryptically. Emmy raised an eyebrow. She was young, but she wasn’t that young.

“Are they…?”

“Maybe.” Vania said, pleased. “We’ll see.”

Vania let go with a sigh, and stretched her arms sideways. She skipped a few steps ahead, and turned around with a flourish.

“Well?” She said with a grin. “How does it feel to complete your first year of page training?”

Emmy grinned back. It felt good.

*

The pages hadn’t quite complete their first year of training after the examinations, strictly speaking. There was a blessed, lazy month of training left before summer camp. Not the the pace was much slower — in the past, Master Oakbridge would cancel his classes while preparing for the monarch’s summer travels. Given the ongoing war with Scanra, the monarchs wouldn’t be doing much traveling over the summer, and the pages had basically the same schedule. But without the pressure of an upcoming examinations, everyone was a little more light hearted.

Summer camp came soon enough, and Emmy rode out with the rest of the pages, excited for her first real trip on the road. The instructors didn’t want to stray far this year, and led them to the camping ground within the Royal Forest, which they reached after a few days on the road.

One of their first few classes were in map-making. It was only when the groups were split up that Emmy realised that she was in trouble. The pages were split across various years, with at least a third or forth year page in each group as leader, and the first years were spread across all six groups.

Tibout of Runnerspring was in her group, and from his smirk she could tell that he would make the most this. Gregory of Nenan, Ahmad’s sponsor and a third year page, was their group leader.

“All right, let’s set out!” Gregory ordered when all the groups were assigned an area to map.

Emmy caught Vania’s worried glance when her group left, and she smiled at her. She had a year’s worth of training now. She needed to know for herself that she could face a bully on her own.

Tibout didn’t waste time. As soon as their camping ground was out of sight, he bumped roughly into her shoulder, and it was only due to her training that she kept her footing.

“Let’s see how long you last without your royal patron.” He whispered, and strode forward to whisper in Gregory’s ears. Emmy recalled with dismay that Ahmad had mentioned that Gregory’s father used to be knight master to Tibout’s brother.

“Tirragen, Tibout — both of you climb up that tree and survey the area.” Gregory ordered when they reached their assigned site, pointing at a tall tree by the corner.

Emmy and Tibout eyed each other, and set off for the tree. Emmy grabbed a low branch and swung herself up, keeping an eye on Tibout at all times. Soon, they were covered by the leaves, and Emmy was prepared when Tibout reached out, aiming for her hair.

She dodged, and aimed a kick at Tibout’s feet.

He cursed when his feet slipped, but he recovered quickly. “I see you’ve learned a few tricks.” He moved sideways quickly, his long legs giving him purchase of branches and holds that Emmy couldn’t reach. “Let’s see if you’ve learned how to fly!”

He shoved her hard, and she reached up and grabbed a higher branch just in time, swinging her body around to let the momentum pass. Her feet found purchase and she kicked, swinging her body back and landing a kick on Tibout’s head. He cried, his grip slipping for a moment.

Her arm muscles were screaming, and she launched herself towards the main trunk once more with trepidation. Should she go back down? That would be shirking her responsibilities. But if she stayed —

Tibout reached for her again, pulling her leg hard. Emmy made a split second decision, and let go, throwing herself on Tibout’s back and pulling him down. He cursed loudly, adjusting his grip on the trunk and using one hand to dig his nails into her hand on his shoulders. She held on.

She stepped on his thighs like they were branches, and leaned closer. “Do you want to fly together?” She panted.

He growled, and with a jerk he swung sideways. Something slammed hard into Emmy’s right arm and she let go with a yelp. Tibout shook his shoulders and pushed her feet away.

Emmy slipped. She grabbed Tibout’s leg as she fell, and let go quickly when Tibout lost his grip. She grabbing frantically at passing branches. Her hands found purchase and slipped, and twigs and branches snapped at her face. Her feet touch ground, and the ground slammed into her back.

She gasped for air. Someone was yelling in pain. It wasn’t her.

She struggled to push herself up on her left elbow — her hands were a mess of cuts and torn skin, but her whole right arm throbbed painfully — and looked. Tibout was clutching his left shoulder and yelling in pain. He didn’t manage to slow his fall like she did.

Gregory and the rest of their group came at a run. He crouched down next to Tibout, and sent a page to get an instructor. He stood up and strode to her, his face furious.

He grabbed her collar and hauled her halfway off the ground. “What did you do, you wench?”

Emmy was still panting, the pain in her hands, right arm and her back slowly but surely registering. She gritted her teeth, “Nothing he didn’t try to do to me.”

He slapped her, and threw her back onto the ground. She landed on her right arm and let out a cry.

“Is that how you treat a fellow page?” Eda Bell’s voice was clear and cold.

“M’am!” Gregory sounded surprised, “That wench —”

What did you just say?”

Emmy pushed herself to sit up, and turned to see that Eda had pulled Gregory close by the collar, her face in a barely contained fury. Gregory opened and closed his mouth a few more times, but nothing came out.

Eda shoved him back, disgusted. “Build a stretcher and get Runnerspring back to camp. We’ll deal with him there.”

Gregory fled, gathering the two other pages in their group.

Eda turned to Emmy, and she swallowed. She tried to push herself up, and almost yelped when pain shot through her hands.

“Can you stand?” Eda asked quietly as she crouched down in front of her.

Emmy nodded, and tried to scramble her legs to push herself up. Eda saw her torn and bloody hands, and reached to grab her elbows. Emmy yelped when Eda took her right elbow. “Not…not there.” Emmy muttered, her face red as she pulled her right arm back.

Eda helped her stand, though Emmy staggered when she let go, her knees protesting painfully. The forest and clearing around her swayed alarmingly for a few moments.

Eda helped her walk back to camp, where a furious haMinch waited. Hakuin Seastone was attending to a whimpering Tibout a few feet away.

“What happened?” haMinch barked, his dark eyes blazing.

Emmy swallowed. “I fell down, sir.”

“Do you think this is funny?” haMinch snapped, and Emmy tried not to step back. She had never seen the training master so angry. “Both of you could have been killed!”

“I know, sir.” Emmy hung her head. “I would never have tempted it. But I fell anyway, sir.”

HaMinch was silent for a few moments, and Emmy dared not look up. Her hands twitched and trembled in pain.

“Do you mean to keep her standing, Padraig?” Eda asked coolly.

HaMinch sighed. “Go take care of your hands.”

Eda steered her towards a fallen log and asked her to wait. Emmy sat down with a grunt, her back protesting the movement. She waited in a daze until Eda came back with a medical kit. She checked Emmy’s right elbow first, and declared that it was bruised but not broken.

“What happened?” Eda asked as she started cleaning Emmy’s numerous cuts.

“I fell —”

“I’m not senile.” Eda said lightly, and Emmy blinked at her dumbly. “I’m not the training master, and I’m Shang. I care naught for the silly tradition to talk about falling down. I care about you being confronted by a bigger opponent on a tree, and that you managed to come out better than him.”

Emmy tried not to smile. She told her what happened as she continued to clean her cuts and apply bandages where necessary.

Eda was nodding in approval when Emmy was done. “Very good, Emmy.” Eda said, and Emmy felt a surge of pleasure and pride, “You used your smaller size to your advantage, though the last part was rather reckless. Try to keep an escape route in mind.”

Emmy nodded gratefully.

Eda finished with her hands, and twisted her legs to check her knees and declared her done. She handed a waterskin to Emmy and told her to rest for the rest of the morning. Emmy drank, and slid down to the ground, leaning back on the fallen log.

She didn’t remember dozing off, but the next thing she knew, Fianola and Vania were shaking her awake, twin expressions of worry on their faces.

“What happened, Emmy?” Vania asked, “How did you get hurt?”

“What time is it?” Emmy asked groggily, trying to sit up. She winced when her hands pushed the ground.

“It’s noon, and the teams are coming back for lunch.” Fianola replied, taking Emmy’s hands gently and examining them.

“Emmy!” Briar called, and he trotted over a moment later, a gleam in his eyes. “What’s this about you breaking Tibout’s shoulder?”

That was greeted by yelps of surprise from Vania and Fianola, and Gerald came shortly after with a similar question. Emmy’s cheeks were very warm by the time they crowded around her.

“I didn’t break his shoulder,” she said, and told them the story.

Briar whistled when she was done, and she wished that he wasn’t so loud.

“I told you you could take him on one day!” Vania said, pride in her eyes. Fianola had the same look in her eyes, though she only patted Emmy’s arm gently.

Gerald had a quiet smile, and he slapped her back companionably. She winced.

“What’s wrong?” Vania asked.

“I did fall from the tree as well.” Emmy muttered, tentatively stretching her back.

“Oh! What am I doing?” Vania shook her head. “Can some of you get lunch for Emmy and I? I’m going to try and heal some of her injuries.”

Gerald volunteered, apologetic, and the rest went with him.

“Do you know how to heal now?” Emmy look at Vania curiously as she sat down next to her.

“Only the very basics, like small cuts, or sending someone a small jolt of energy.” Vania explained as she took one of Emmy’s hands into her own. “I never cared much for it. But after finding you under that pile of armour last year and hating myself for not being able to do anything, I asked Lianne to teach me.”

“You did do something,” Emmy reminded her, touched, “You carried me halfway across the palace to the infirmary.”

“And almost killed myself doing it — you are heavier than you look, you know that?”

“You are the one who insisted on feeding me more food.”

Vania grinned, and looked down to concentrate on Emmy’s hands, a blue glow emitting from her own. Emmy relaxed as she watched Vania work.

It was only the first morning of summer camp, and she was already hurt and tired. But knowing that she could fend for herself when it came to Tibout left her heart much lighter than before. She would still stay close with her friends, but it felt good to know that she didn’t have to stand behind them.

Chapter Text

The stories were much wilder than the truth. Tibout did not break his shoulder, but rather dislocated it. He was ordered to stay at the main camp for two more days, while Emmy, thanks to Vania’s healing, was allowed to resume normal activities the very next day.

Not that it mattered. Tibout avoided Emmy as much as he could, likely embarrassed by both what happened and the stories that spread afterwards. Except for Gregory and some of his closer friends, most of the other pages seemed to have a new found respect for her, and Emmy wasn’t sure what to do with the polite nods and the occasional invitations to join their lunch or supper.

The instructors were also careful not to put her and Tibout or Gregory in the same group again, and Emmy was relieved as much as pleased. It meant that she ended up more often than not with Vania or Fianola or her other year mates, and it made any mundane task more enjoyable. That was important, because rain fell on the second week at camp, drenching everyone and almost everything, and any tasks became muddy and wet.

One day towards the end of the second week at camp, it was a rare sunny day, and the first years were sent out as a group to look for dry wood to replenish the stock at their camping ground.

“How are we supposed to find anything dry after the blasted rain?” Gerald grumbled, using his sword to pick some fallen branches off the ground. They dripped in mud. He made a face, and wiped his sword on his boots. They all carried live swords for the first time to summer camp, having been deemed decent enough with them to graduate out of their wooden practice swords at the palace. It was also much more practical for everyone concerned.

“Can we just pick some, and have Vania dry it with her Gift?” Roland said.

Vania’s eyes lit up. “That’s a great idea, Roland!”

Ahmad frowned. “I’m not sure if that is the point of the exercise. What if we are trapped one day without anyone with the Gift, and we need dry wood after a rainy day?”

Fianola hid a smile as Vania’s face fell. “You’re always sensible, Ahmad.”

They found that the areas with thicker trees remained very wet and muddy, and thus they detoured towards an area with sparser trees. It was not really a clearing among the trees, but at least they could see the skies above, and the sun was mercifully warm on their backs as they looked for dry wood.

They had been looking for a while when huge shadows covered the ground. Emmy looked up.

“HURROKS!”

Four of the winged horses flew at them from the sky, silver claws at the base of their bat-like wings aimed right at them.

“Duck!” Emmy pushed Vania down, and they fell flat to the ground as the silver claws missed them and swept upwards again.

“Up!” Vania ordered as they both scrambled to their feet, “Weapons up! Stay in pairs, cover the archers!” Fianola and Ahmad had carried crossbows in addition to swords. “Archers, fire at will!”

A hurrok came for a second pass, and Emmy had her sword up. She dodged its claws and stabbed, carving a line across its side as it screamed and flew away.

She turned. Vania stood frozen as another hurrok dove at her, her sword pointed to the ground.

“Vania!”

There was no time. Emmy jumped and wrapped her arms around Vania, twisting her around to shield her as she pulled them both down.

Too late. Sharp claws cut across her back and she cried in pain. They slammed to the ground, and Emmy landed on top of Vania.

“Vania!” Emmy yelled through the explosion of pain on her back. She shook Vania’s shoulders. “Wake up!”

Vania blinked and tried to get up. Emmy scrambled off her, and pushed herself to her feet with gritted teeth.

“Look out!” Emmy cried again. But Vania was ready this time. She dodged and stabbed neatly into the hurrok’s belly, and it crashed into the bushes behind them.

One more hurrok lied on the ground nearby, two arrows sticking out of its neck. They watched just in time as Gerald took down the third with his sword, jumping out of the way just in time. Ahmad and Fianola shot simultaneously at the last one, and it, too, crashed to the ground.

And it was over.

*

As the last of the hurroks fell, Vania took a quick scan of the others. They were panting or sighing in relief, most looking well if a little worse for wear. She almost couldn’t believe it. Did they, all first-year pages, just took down four hurroks by themselves?

Next to her, Emmy fell on all fours with a thud. Vania’s eyes widened at the bloody mess on her back. Three large claw marks bled sluggishly, soaking through Emmy’s shirt and tunic.

“Emmy!” Vania crouched down next to her, frowning and trying to remember what happened.

Fianola, Ahmad and the others ran over as she helped Emmy up. Emmy was pale and grimacing in pain. She leaned onto Vania heavily, as if Vania was the only thing holding her up.

Vania bit her lips, thinking fast. “It’s not safe here. We don’t know if there are more of them. Let’s retreat to the cave we saw two hundred paces back. Fianola, Ahmad, I want your bows at the ready and eyes on the trees and skies. Gerald, Roland, take the front and back. ”

Vania didn’t wait for the rest to nod or reply, and shifted to carry Emmy on her back. Hands helped her shift Emmy into position. Vania grimaced when she straightened — Emmy had grown since last winter. It was good news, except that this just became harder. She shook her head a little, and started in a trot towards the cave.

“You like… doing this… don’t you?” Emmy said weakly when she had covered a few paces.

Vania grinned a little in relief. Joking was a good sign. “Only because… you like scaring me.” She panted.

“Only because…” Emmy echoed, “I can’t… carry you.”

Vania almost stumbled, finally realising what had happened. Emmy had shielded her with her own body while she stood frozen. What was she doing? Why did she suddenly remember that blasted night?

Not trusting herself to speak, she stayed silent until they reached the cave. When they did, Ahmad and Gerald stood guard at the cave entrance without being told, while Fianola and Roland helped Emmy sit down on the ground. Roland took off his own tunic and started using his belt knife to cut it into strips for bandages. Gently, Fianola pulled up Emmy’s torn tunic and shirt.

Fianola and Vania both gasped. While they had expected to see the three large claw marks, cut diagonally across Emmy’s back, they did not expect the mess of scars on it.

‘Mess’ was the only word for it, for they were long, thin scars that went in different directions, covering her whole back. They looked like they came from a very thorough whipping.

“Emmy…” Fianola said softly.

Roland’s silently handed over of the make-shift bandages, breaking Vania out of her shock. She used one of them to gently wipe away the excess blood. She could feel Emmy flinch at her touch. Curse it, the wounds were too big and deep for her Gift. Why hadn’t she spend more time learning how to heal?

She needed to distract Emmy from the pain. “What happened to your back, Emmy?” Vania asked as she started to lay some strips of cloth on the wounds before wrapping bandages around them. Roland went to join the other boys at the cave entrance, giving them some privacy.

“How did… it was a long time ago.” Emmy muttered as she leaned a little forward, balancing with hands on the ground.

“Who did this to you?” Vania asked, her anger slowly rising at the thought of someone abusing her friend so. Her hands shook a little, and she worked faster with the bandages. “They can’t do this. You need to report them.”

“It was a long time ago.” Emmy repeated wearily.

“Was it someone from Tirragen?” Fianola asked quietly, and Vania suck in a quick breath in realisation.

Emmy took a moment to reply. “My father was drunk that night.”

Vania’s hand shook so badly that Fianola covered it with her own, and took over with the bandages. Vania couldn’t even manage a grateful nod at Fianola, her mind was too shocked to do so.

“Your father…?”

Emmy took a shuddering breath. “It was… it was the day the healer said Xander will be crippled for life,” she said, looking down, “Father was always drunk, but that night… that night he was drunker than I’d ever seen him. His eyes had madness in them. He came back with a whip, and he said he wanted to teach Xander a lesson, for getting himself crippled.”

Fianola had finished with the bandage, and she slowly pulled down Emmy’s tattered shirt. Emmy didn’t even seem to notice as she continued.

“Xander was still weak and feverish. Father wouldn’t listen, not to me, not to the servants. The only thing I could do was to jump over Xander and cover him with my body. Uncle Darius… for all I hate him, he saved my life. When he came, he pulled father away. The servants…” Emmy paused, and took a deep breath, “… they said Uncle Darius dumped a bucket of water on father. When father realised what he did, he went mad. He ran into a wall and killed himself.”

Emmy’s arms shook as they pushed against the ground. “So you see? There’s nothing to report. It’s just one cursed accident after another.” Her voice cracked, and Vania saw tears dropping onto her breeches.

Vania blinked hard to keep her own tears at bay. She shifted so that she was in front of Emmy. Gently, she pulled Emmy up by the shoulders, and closed her arms around her, mindful of her wounds as she felt Emmy lean in.

“You said… you said your brother was crippled right before he entered page training.” Vania said numbly, feeling Emmy shudder against her chest.

“I was six.”

Vania’s hands shook, and she tightened her arms around Emmy, her heart aching for her. A glance at Fianola showed her that the other girl’s eyes, too, shone with tears for their friend. Why must something like this happen to someone so young?

“Don’t,” Emmy pushed weakly against Vania, and she let her pull back. Emmy’s face was pale and streaked with tears, but her eyes were fierce. “Don’t feel sorry for me. I just want to be normal,” she coughed.

Vania looked around, and saw Gerald walking over. He had been carrying their supplies pack. He handed her the waterskin without further explanation. From the shock and sadness in his eyes, Vania knew that he had heard. Probably the rest of them did as well.

Fianola had to support Emmy by the shoulders as she leaned back to drink. Vania stood up, blinking rapidly as she thought about their next course of action. There would be time to talk to Emmy later, and not in front of everyone else.

Ahmad nodded silently at her when she joined him and the rest at the entrance. Roland did not acknowledge her, though the hands on his bow shook.

“Did we get any reply from the main camp?” she asked Ahmad quietly. He had been carrying the gemstone that allowed them to communicate with the instructors at the main camp.

Ahmad inclined his head. “We were not the only group attacked. I told haMinch we can hold our position for now, and he said he will come after he helped the other groups. There were spidrens and centaurs involved, aside from the hurroks that attacked us.”

Vania frowned. “This is too well-coordinated. But they don’t usually work together.”

Gerald nodded grimly in agreement beside her.

Vania shook her head. “We don’t know how long it will take them to get to us. We better get some rest. Ahmad, Roland, go back in and get some rest. Gerald and I will take the first shift.”

She took over Ahmad’s bow and slung the quiver over her back, keeping one eye on the tree line even as she fingered the bow and plucked an arrow from the quiver.

“Were there…” Gerald started quietly, more hesitant as she had ever seen him, “were there… a lot of scars?”

Vania pointed her bow and arrow at the ground, making sure that she could draw and aim quickly. She knew that he wouldn’t take his eyes off the clearing as well. She replied just as quietly, “Yes. They’ve faded a little, but it’s clear as day that her… her father managed to whip her badly before he was stopped.”

“How could —” Gerald swallowed, loss for words for once.

Vania’s throat tightened. “I don’t know.”

They kept their eyes on the trees and the clearing, and no more words passed between them.

*

When Emmy opened her eyes, she saw fading daylight through the tent above her. The cuts on her back throbbed painfully. Vaguely, she remembered being carried on a stretcher, Vania’s worried face staring down at her as she walked beside her.

She licked her lips. Her mouth was stone dry, and she was starving.

“Here,” It was Vania’s voice, and Emmy squinted as her face came into focus. Vania was holding a waterskin to her lips. Emmy drank gratefully.

“Are you hungry?”

When Emmy nodded, Vania went away for a while. Emmy couldn’t do much else except stare at the top of the tent. She felt weary to the bone, even though she had just woken up.

Vania came back with a bowl and spoon, which she set beside Emmy’s bedroll. She sat down next to her, and gingerly helped Emmy sit up. Emmy gritted her teeth and tried not to make a sound. The cuts on her back flared in pain, despite Vania’s careful support. Gently, Vania let Emmy leaned back onto her chest, using her left hand to grab the bowl of porridge. Her right hand reached across Emmy and took the spoon. Carefully, she brought a spoonful of porridge to Emmy’s mouth.

Emmy swallowed, her cheeks warming with embarrassment at being fed.

“I’m sorry,” Vania suddenly said, “The healer had to spread himself thin across the other groups. We were not the only ones attacked, and there are more casualties among the other pages. He said he could only burn off infections for now. You’ll need to wait until we get back to the palace before you get a proper healing.”

Emmy blinked as she tried to process this. Her mind was foggy. “How many… casualties?”

Vania continued feeding her. “Nine injured in total, including you. Thankfully, we didn’t lose anyone. Briar had a deep cut on his thigh from a spidren, but he’ll live.”

Emmy sighed in relief for her friend.

“Emmy,” Vania paused suddenly, her voice tight. “I’m very sorry. I shouldn’t have froze like that. You shouldn’t have to take this for me.”

Emmy reached up with her right hand and patted Vania’s hand gently. “Don’t be. We’re friends. You’ve always taken care of me.” Vania dropped the spoon into the bowl for a moment, and gave Emmy’s hand a squeeze.

There was something she had to know. “But I don’t understand… you always have a cool head, Vania. You had no problems with wolves. Why do hurroks affect you so?”

Leaning on Vania’s chest as she was, she felt Vania swallow. Her hand shook slightly when she let go and went back for the spoon. “When I was six, a band of hurroks and centaurs broke into the palace nursery. Jasson, Lianne and I were trapped. They slaughtered the guards. We would have been killed if not for Lord Wyldon of Cavall.”

Vania paused, forcing herself to steady her hand as she brought another spoonful of porridge to Emmy. “They were so big, and we were so helpless. I just… I just remembered. When the hurrok flew at me, it was like I was six again.”

Emmy nodded her understanding. “Don’t be sorry, then. That would make anyone afraid. Even a fearless princess like you.”

That startle a chuckle out of Vania. “I’m not fearless at all. You are, throwing yourself at me like that. You could have been killed.” Her last words were stern.

You could have been killed,” Emmy muttered. How could she let Vania know that the thought of losing her first friend besides Xander was terrifying?

Vania snorted. “We won’t get anywhere with this.”

Emmy had to smile at that. They continued in silence for a while, before Vania spoke again.

“Emmy… I’m sorry about your father. No one should have gone through what you did, especially not when you’re six.”

Emmy grimaced. She had never told anyone else about the details of that horrible night just for this reason. “I don’t want you to be sorry for me. I just want to respected. I just want to be your friend.”

Vania chuckled slightly. “Friends can’t help feeling sad for a friend, don’t you know? I respect you, all right. Anyone who faced what you did, and carried on fighting like you did deserves respect.”

Emmy felt her cheeks warm. “I wasn’t going to wallow in self-pity my whole life.”

“Of course you aren’t,” Vania said, a smile in her voice. “And we’re all the better for it. Keep fighting, Emmy. I believe in you.”

Emmy believed her, and it gave her a warm feeling in her heart.

*

The pages’ summer camp was cut short, the first time in years. Even so, the instructors kept them at their camp site until a Rider group arrived to escort them back to the palace. Vania kept herself busy for the three days that they waited, taking care of Emmy and trying to make her as comfortable as possible. The other uninjured pages did the same for the other wounded, and they took sentry duties throughout the night. None of them wanted to be caught by surprise again.

On the third evening after the attack, Vania was surprised to see her mother leading the Rider group herself into the camp site.

Queen Thayet spotted her daughter just as quickly, and hurried off her horse and all but ran over to sweep her into a hug. “Thank the goddess you’re all right!”

Vania hugged her back just as tightly, glad to see her after weeks apart. “Mother, I didn’t know you’re coming!”

Her mother pulled back, and surveyed her up and down carefully. “You aren’t injured are you? What’s wrong?” She asked sharply, seeing Vania’s face fell.

“I’m fine, mother,” Vania looked down, “But I got a friend hurt. I — I froze when the hurrok dove at me. Emmy jumped in front of me and took the blows for me instead.”

Her mother rested gloved hands on Vania’s shoulders, and she looked up. “You had a bad experience with hurroks,” she said gently, “Don’t be too hard on yourself. Bring me to Emmy later, I want to thank her properly.” She said and looked up as haMinch strode over to them.

“Your majesty,” haMinch bowed, and eyed Vania pointedly. “We have much to discuss.”

Taking the hint, Vania bowed to the training master and turned to leave at her mother’s nod. She retreated at a deliberately slow pace, straining her ears.

“Have you uncovered who led the attack?” Her mother was asking.

HaMinch must have shook his head, for he said next, “But definitely mages’ work. There were invisible spelled collars on all the bodies, spidrens, hurroks and centaurs alike. Only a mage could detect them.”

Her mother cursed. “With Maggur and his killing devices at the north, this is the last thing we need…”

Sadly, Vania couldn’t hear more. She sighed, and hurried over to Emmy’s tent to make sure that she would be awake when her mother visited.

*

The Rider group brought two healers with them, and Emmy finally had her cuts healed properly, though she slept for almost a day after that. Queen Thayet visited her twice before the group set out for the palace, and Emmy was both flattered and intimidated by the attention.

She watched as Vania rode beside her mother at the front of the group, both of them alike in their beauty, despite their plain working clothes. They made quite a glorious sight, and Emmy couldn’t help but wonder how she ended up friends with Vania.

Fianola caught her staring, and steered her horse closer to hers. “What are you thinking about?”

Emmy nodded at the front of the group with a smile. “I had almost forgotten that Vania is a daughter of the queen.”

Fianola grinned as she followed her gaze. “Vania will be pleased to hear that, even if she will be annoyed that you’re reminded of it.”

Emmy chuckled, knowing that this would be exactly how Vania would react.

“I’m happy for her.” Fianola continued, and Emmy turned to her curiously. “She misses her. The war has kept their majesties busy the past few months. I don’t think she has even talked to her majesty properly in a while.”

Emmy blinked. “How do you know that?”

A normal person would have smirked. But Fianola was still the most lady-like among them, and she only smiled slyly at her. “I observe, my dear Emmy.”

Emmy scowled, and nudged her horse forward. She headed towards Roland instead, needing to talk to someone who didn’t make her feel so young.

Chapter Text

With their summer camp cut short and none of the instructors prepared to give them more classes, the pages were released from their training almost two weeks earlier. Emmy had survived her first year of page training.

The pages lazed about for a few days, not having much on their schedule and not having arranged any transport back home yet. When Vania found out that Emmy had meant to hitch a ride on a merchant’s wagon back to Tirragen for the summer, she told the queen, who arranged such that she could travel with a Rider group that was going the same way. The group actually had to make a detour to Tirragen eventually, but the queen would have none of Emmy’s protests.

What made the matter worse, to Emmy, was that it wasn’t just any Rider group. It was a group led by Commander Buriram Tourakom of the Queen’s Riders herself, and Emmy all but squirmed when the veteran commander studied her when Emmy reported to her with her bags.

After a moment too long, Commander Buriram clapped a hand on her shoulder. “I heard you saved Vania’s life. Thank you.”

Emmy looked down and shook her head. “She’s my friend. It’s only right.”

The commander sent her to leave her bags with the group wagon after that, and she breathed a sigh of relief.

She would soon learn to enjoy herself on the journey. The Riders were a fun-loving bunch, who joked as hard as they worked. Emmy made new friends who didn’t seem to care that she was a Tirragen as long as she did her chores, and who taught her songs that would make even the hardened men-at-arms in Tirragen blush. Emmy had even gotten tips for her riding and archery from Buri — who had insisted that she called her that — herself.

All too soon the four-day journey ended, and the group was dropping her off at the main road towards Tirragen castle before she knew it. She invited them over for a meal, but the group was headed north to the City of the Gods, and they couldn’t afford more delays. Emmy bade her farewell, and promised to look them up when they returned to the palace.

She waved until she couldn’t see the group anymore, and turned back to survey the castle ahead. From a distance, the Tirragen castle stood proud on top of a hill, its double wall imposing. Four towers stood erect at the corners of the castle, and the Tirragen flag waved from each one.

But when she rode closer she saw the more familiar signs — the empty sentry posts along the walls because they couldn’t afford as many man-at-arms as before; the dirty and tattered edges of the Tirragen flags. Moss had crept up along the western side of the castle wall, where the trees led to the vast expanse of Lake Tirragen.

She felt her breath catch at the strangeness of the familiar sight. She had grown up in those walls and in this land, and yet she felt like a different person these days. How was it that Tirragen castle had stayed exactly the same?

Shaking her head, she took a deep breath and rode for home.

*

Emmy looked for Xander the moment she entered the castle, knowing that he wasn’t expecting her for another two weeks, and wanting to surprise him. In her eagerness, she rushed through the corridors, and almost bumped into the person she least wanted to see.

She bowed respectfully, trying not to show her dismay. “Uncle Darius.”

Darius of Tirragen scowled openly at her, making his weathered face looking even older. There was more white around the temples of his dark hair than Emmy remembered, though he still wore the same velvet tunic and hose in dark green.

“I see that a year at the palace hasn’t improved your manners. I told Xander he should have sent you to the convent.”

“Indeed, he told me as much, uncle.” Emmy straightened, and found that he wasn’t as towering as he used to be. “But he knows why I went. I’m going to redeem our family name when I achieve my knighthood.”

Darius snorted, clenching his fists. “Do you realise how costly your silly fantasies are? Enjoying yourself at the palace while we could use an extra pair of hands, and ruining your marriage prospects when an alliance with another house could have helped Tirragen more than your silly knighthood!”

He raised his hand, but Emmy was ready. She blocked his slap with her arm, her other hand snaking towards his throat. But in a flash, her arm was twisted around her back, and her face was slammed to the wall as her arm protested.

“You dare!” Darius growled from right behind her back, “Don’t think that you can defy me with your little training. You need to be taught a lesson.”

He let go, and Emmy gasped. She gritted her teeth at the numbness spreading down her right arm, not wanting to give Darius the satisfaction of hearing her yelp.

“Report to Farrell,” he named the chief housekeeper, a man every bit as cruel as his master, “Tell him you’re assigned to the laundry room for the week. And no supper for you tonight.”

Emmy stared at the floor. “I haven’t met Xander.”

“He’s resting. You will see him soon enough in the evening.”

Knowing that there was no point in arguing, she turned and left, hating herself for slipping right back to where she used to be a year ago.

*

Emmy paused in front of Xander’s room, straightening her tunic and praying for her growling stomach to stay quiet. Taking a deep breath, she knocked.

“Come in!”

When she opened the room and entered, she heard a friendly bark. In the next moment, a large shadow jumped up at her, and she found herself laughing at a very wet welcome by their dog, Ollie.

“Emmy!” Xander’s surprise cry came from somewhere at the other end of the room.

Emmy had to crouch down as she hugged Ollie, running her hands through her shaggy grey fur, telling her what a good girl she was. Ollie got her face wet as she kept licking Emmy, her tail thumping the floor excitedly.

“If I may greet my sister now, my lady Ollie?” Xander said dryly, and Emmy pulled herself away with a grin.

Emmy stood up and lean down again to wrap her arms around Xander, feeling Ollie slide in between her legs and Xander’s wheelchair. Xander hugged her back tightly, slapping her back heartily.

“Why didn’t you tell me you’re coming back early? Let me get a good look at you — you look so different!” Xander said excitedly as he pulled back. Emmy grinned and straightened up for his inspection.

Emmy studied her brother as he studied her. He was pale in contrast to Emmy’s light tan, having spent all his time indoors. His shaggy dark hair was the same, and her hand itched to brush hair away from dark eyes that were identical to her own. His body had changed now that he was fourteen; it was broader and larger than she remembered, though his legs, covered neatly under green blankets, seemed as weak as always. Her heart ached at the man that Xander could have been — it was not as easy to see when he was younger, but now it was painfully clear that his legs would never grow strong enough to match his upper body.

His eyes shone with pride as he took her hands and reached up to ruffle her hair. “Mithros, you’ve grown! You look like a proper page now! Come here, have a seat and tell me about what happened since your last letter. You had a summer camp, didn’t you?”

He guided her towards a small table and chair the middle of the room, and parked his own chair right beside her. He took her hand, grinned, and ruffled her hair again.

“Xander!” Emmy protested with a laugh. “Just because my hair is shorter now it doesn’t mean I like it messed up!”

“But it’s so tempting,” Xander said lightly. “Well, I’ll try and restrain myself. Now, why are you back early? Why didn’t you tell me?”

Emmy was more than happy to tell him. She chattered to him about the camp and what they did, though she left out the confrontation with Tibout, as she did with her accident at the armour room. Xander would only worry and feel bad that he couldn’t do more to help her, and she decided that it just wasn’t worth it.

“Slow down,” Xander interrupted, his eyes worried, “Were you hurt when the immortals attacked?”

Emmy smiled reassuringly. “I had a scratch, but the healers took care of it very quickly. Don’t worry about it.”

Xander rested a hand on her shoulder, his face grim. “I wish you didn’t have to do this. Knighthood is a dangerous business.”

Emmy cupped her hand over Xander’s. “But I want to,” She said softly, “It’s dangerous, but I know more about how to protect myself too. And it’s a chance for me to serve the Crown, to redeem the Tirragen name one day.”

Xander’s hand tightened on her shoulder, and he smiled without humour. “And it’s something I can’t do. I’m sorry I’m such a useless brother, Emmy.”

Emmy closed her free hand on Xander’s, and gently pulled it to her lap, giving it a squeeze. “Don’t say that. You’ve always taken care of me. It’s time I do something for you.”

Xander smiled more genuinely this time. But unfortunately, Emmy’s stomach chose that moment to growl.

“Have you had supper?” Xander raised an eyebrow.

Emmy looked away, and reached down to pat Ollie, who only leaned into her hand in pleasure. “I had some chores to finish and I missed it.”

“Tom!” Xander called, and Emmy waited for the side door to open before she looked up to smile at her brother’s personal servant. “Can you get us some drinks and snacks? I’m feeling hungry again. Supper wasn’t quite as good tonight.”

Tom looked like he always did. His peppery hair was cropped short, and his grizzled beard, weathered skin and powerful frame giving him a forbidding look. But his eyes were always open and kind, and he smiled at Emmy as he nodded. “Welcome home, Emmy.”

Xander sighed when the door closed behind Tom. “I’m sorry you had to run into uncle first. Did he give you a hard time?”

Emmy shrugged. “Just the usual.”

“He threw a fit when he found out that I let you leave for page training without telling him,” Xander said dryly, leaning back on his chair. “I’m glad Tom got out you in time.”

Emmy grinned widely. “I owe both of you for that. Has he changed at all, since then?”

Xander snorted. “What do you think? Still grumbling all the time about the Crown and the lack of servants and whatnot. He was actually here when it all started, and if he was going to change, he’d had plenty of time to do it.”

“Has he given you a hard time?” Emmy asked, suddenly feeling sorry for her brother for being stuck here to endure all this.

Xander smiled tightly. “He’s a great help, even if he grumbles. I wouldn’t be able to manage the estate without him, and there’s so much more for me to learn still.”

Emmy nodded, knowing that it was true. For all Darius of Tirragen was a bully, he was the only adult in the family who understood how things should be run. In another few years, perhaps, her brother would outgrow him. But right now they both needed his help, even if Emmy hated to admit it.

“Listen, Emmy,” Xander began, and Emmy already knew where this was going, “I know he can be mean, but he’s right that there are many chores to be done with the harvest coming in —”

“Xander,” Emmy interrupted softly, “I know we need every pair of hands we can get. Just because I’m a page it doesn’t mean that I’m going to turn my back on my chores. The palace let pages out for the summer so that some of them can go home and help, you know.”

Xander smiled. “Usually that applies to the boys. I doubt that many of the noble girls out there would be working as hard as you do in the summer.”

“Well, I’m not going to bore myself silly with embroidery,” Emmy said with a small snort, “So I might as well do something useful.”

The gratitude in Xander’s eyes unnerved her. It made her realise how much he really needed her, not just with the chores, but also with cooperating with Darius’ orders. From his shoes, Darius was a valued advisor for the whole estate. It must be hard on him to have to choose between her and Darius. He had already chosen her side when it came to her knighthood, and Emmy silently promised to herself that she would try her best not to cause Xander more trouble with Darius.

*

Xander’s warning about Darius held true. Darius and Farrell kept her busy every hour of the day; after her first week in the laundry room where she washed what must be all the bedsheets in the castle, they sent her to run messages or errands in town two to three times a day, and each trip was a hard half a bell run up and down the hills. In between, she was assigned to muck out the stables, scrub the stone flag floors in the little-used sections of the castle, and even to scrub the moss from the western side of the castle walls, where she had a scare when she almost slipped from the twelve-foot ladder she was standing on.

Instead of helping out with the actual harvest work, it seemed like Darius would rather the other servants do that work, and have Emmy pick up the slack for the servants instead. Her skin had darkened a shade by the end of the second week, and she was constantly hungry. Her chores had almost always coincided with the lunch hour, and she had to skip the meal most of the time. If Darius run into her in the halls, which happened more often than should be possible, he almost always found an excuse to punish her by forbidding her from supper. She learned quickly to load up on breakfast and to eat quickly at supper. Xander always made sure he had snacks for her when she visited in the evenings.

She was always exhausted by the end of the day, but she missed the exercises and training that made her feel strong and limber. By the second week, she forced herself to do some practice before bed, alternating between sword practice and the exercises that Eda Bell taught her. It was all she could do to collapse onto her bed after that. The first night she did it, she missed breakfast the next day. She was so miserable that she never made that mistake again, with her body somehow knowing to rise with dawn.

The days passed by in a blur, and she didn’t realise how much time had passed until Xander handed her a letter from Vania one night. Dear Emmy, she read as she collapsed onto her bed later,

How have you been? What have you been up to in the past month? I hope you haven’t gotten rusty with your training! I can’t really go anywhere because of the war in the north, and I am near crazy with boredom! So I practise every day with Shinko and the Queen’s Ladies. There are not many knights in the palace these days, unfortunately. I am picking up the glaive, though. Mother is amused, because she had wanted me to learn it for a long time, but I was always distracted by something else. Now there is nothing to distract me!

I am also pestering Lianne for more healing lessons. My Gift is not as strong as hers, but she said I can still learn to heal light injuries, like the cuts you had from the hurroks. I’m sorry I couldn’t help more back then, Emmy. But I swear I won’t be so useless the next time! (Not that I want you to get hurt)…

Emmy smiled as she kept reading through the long letter. Vania went on to talk about some new books she read, the dresses that she finally got to wear and the new ones she bought. Finally, she ended with a dilemma for Emmy:

I heard mother talk about the war, and there’s been a positive development. The killing devices have stopped working for some reason, and it seems like the tide of war may have turned in our favour. It was enough to get her and father talking about finally having the wedding for Roald and Shinko, and Shinko was so excited! They plan to have the wedding two weeks before our next term starts, and they want something small and quiet, since they had a Grand Progress before the wedding, and it is not prudent to have something extravagant in the middle of a war. I think Roald and Shinko just can’t wait to get married!

I know you must want to spend time with Xander, but would you like to come for the wedding? It will be a small affair with mostly family members and close friends in attendance. I would love to have you come, and mother said the same thing. We can have some fun and explore Corus after the wedding was done, I know we haven’t had time to visit the city in our first year. Come a few days early, and we can get both our dresses done at the same time!

Emmy frowned when she finished the letter. She felt incredibly honoured to be invited, and she would love to go. But there was work to be done still at Tirragen, and however was she going to afford a fancy dress? Xander would probably cough up some coin if he heard, but she didn’t want to know where he would have to cut expenses on to make up for it.

In the end, she fell asleep with the letter in her hands.

*

Emmy was still thinking about how to reply Vania two days later, when she almost run into Darius, again.

“Don’t you have the sense to watch where you’re going?” Darius snapped, dusting his tunic as if she had touched him. She had skidded to a stop right before running into him, after all.

She bowed, and tried to keep her face blank as she offered the sealed note to Darius. “Farrell said the message was urgent, uncle. I was to deliver it with due haste.”

Darius snatched the note out of her hands with a scowl, and scanned it while she waited. He crunched the note into a ball when he was done, and scowled at her. “Tell him that I approve. He can act as he planned. And tell him you’re not to have supper tonight as punishment for your clumsiness. No noble-born daughter should be as clumsy as you are.”

Emmy sighed before she could control herself. “Yes, uncle.”

“What was that?” Darius pulled her chin up roughly with his hand. “Are you not satisfied?” Emmy kept her face blank, knowing that no reply would satisfy him. He sneered. “Do you think that you’re above us all, now that you’re invited to the Crown Prince’s wedding?”

Emmy looked sharply at Darius. She had not even told Xander about this, which meant only one thing. “You read my letter?”

He let go of her chin, and she glared up at him. He smoothened his tunic once more. “I’m the head of this household, I read what I please.”

“It was a private letter!” Emmy felt her blood boil. To think, all the things that Vania had told her in confidence…

“You are my charge,” he hissed, “It’s private when I say it’s private!”

Emmy clenched her fists. “You’re a meddling old fool! I’ll tell Xander.”

He slapped her hard. She staggered a little sideways, her hand flying to her stung cheek. In the next moment he had her collar in his large hand, and he slammed her against the wall. Emmy bit back a yelp at the pain on the back of her head.

“Tell him, go ahead,” Darius taunted, an ugly sneer on his face, “That boy needs me or this wretched place will fall apart! He knows that, even if you don’t!”

He inched closer with a strange glint in his eyes, and Emmy glared daggers at him. “Do you know something else? Do you know how easy it is for me to slip something into his meal? That if he were to die, nobody would find it strange, because he’s such a lost case to begin with?”

Emmy’s eyes widened, her heart thumping with a new fear. “You wouldn’t.”

He shoved her against the wall again, and pulled back. “Disrespect me again, and I might. And I need not even kill him. There are a thousand ways to make someone suffer without killing him. You don’t want to find out, do you?”

He left without another word.

Emmy slid down the wall to sit heavily on the floor, her whole body shaking. Would Darius really do it? He would be the Lord of Tirragen if Xander were to die. But if he really wanted to be the lord, wouldn’t he have done this years ago?

She brought shaking hands to cover her face, feeling ashamed at herself for crying. She was a knight-in-training now, and she couldn’t even protect her own brother! What would Vania say if she saw her!

But what could she do? She would go back to the palace in another month, but Xander had to keep living with Darius for years. Darius could really kill him, and Emmy wouldn’t even know until almost a week later when a courier reaches the palace.

Did she really want to tempt Darius because of her pride? Was her pride worth Xander’s life?

*

Emmy was so ashamed that she had brought danger to Xander that she avoided him for the next week. She tackled her chores glumly, and tried not to think about Vania waiting for her reply. There was no way that she would write to her, now that she knew her letters would be intercepted. She would just have to find some excuse when she got back.

One night when she was doing her sword practice, someone knocked on her door. She switched her sword to her left hand and pointed it downward before she answered it.

“Xander!”

“So you are still in the castle,” Xander said wryly, and wheeled himself in. Ollie trailed him, but stopped to get her own welcome. Xander waited patiently while Emmy hugged and patted Ollie properly, careful with the sword on her left hand. Emmy lingered in her fur; she missed both of them.

“I would have told you if I was leaving,” Emmy muttered as she stood up to close the door, knowing that she couldn’t avoid the talk that was to come.

“Why are you avoiding me, then?” Xander asked evenly.

Emmy plopped herself down onto her bed, one hand patting Ollie’s head as she sat on the spot next to her bed. “I was busy.”

“You have been busy since you came back.” Xander pointed out patiently. “It’s Uncle Darius, isn’t it? What did he do now?”

Emmy kept quiet, not knowing what she could tell. Whatever it was, it would put him in a difficult spot, and she wished that he didn’t pry.

“I know you don’t want to put me in a spot, Emmy,” Xander said quietly, “But we have only each other. I wish you would trust me, and trust that I am strong enough to handle this.”

Emmy looked up in alarm. “I didn’t mean that. I know you’re strong enough, Xander!”

Xander smiled without humour. “Then tell me. I can’t actually promise you that I can put a stop to it, but trust me when I say that I want to know, however difficult it is. What else am I good for if you don’t trust me enough to tell me what happened?”

Emmy stood up to kneel next to Xander’s wheelchair, taking his hand into her own. “I’m sorry, Xander. He threatened to hurt you, and I didn’t know what to do.” Slowly, she told him what happened.

Xander’s knuckles were white from him clenching his fists when she was done. “I’m not surprised, frankly,” he said, the false lightness in his voice a stark contrast to the tension in his posture, “I’d wondered about it myself. Tom tests my food these days, have I told you?”

Emmy shook her head, surprised.

Xander rested a hand on her head, smoothing her hair for once instead of ruffling it. “I think, if he had married and has an heir, he would have killed me a long time ago. But as it is… no one wanted to marry him after he dropped out of knight training. Everyone knew his brother was killed by the Lioness. Yes, he was going to be a knight once.” Xander confirmed, seeing the surprise on Emmy’s face.

Was that another reason why Darius hated the idea of Emmy becoming a knight?

“Right now, he doesn’t have an heir, and he’s practically the Lord of Tirragen, if not in name.” Xander continued, sighing. “It’s a situation that works for him, until I become of age.”

“What happens then?” Emmy whispered, her fear for her brother growing.

Xander patted her head and smiled reassuringly. “We’ll deal with it then. I’m starting to find more people I trust to place around the house. Hopefully in another two years, when I become of age, he won’t be able to do much to me.”

Emmy took his hand and squeezed it. “What can I do?”

“Keep up with your training,” Xander said, his face softening. “Make friends. Enjoy yourself. One of us’s got to have a chance to live beyond these wretched walls.”

Emmy felt tears built in her eyes. Xander was always careful not to be bitter about his circumstance, trapped as he was in a wheelchair and in an aging castle. But which fourteen-year-old boy would like such an existence?

“Don’t feel sorry for me, Emmy,” Xander said quickly, wiping a stray tear off Emmy’s cheek with his finger, “I know it’s not easy on you. I know he makes you do chores that you never should have done, and I know he starves you.” He swallowed, “I’m sorry I can’t protect you better.”

“Don’t say that,” Emmy replied softly, “Please don’t say that. I know you’ve done the best you could. I wouldn’t be in knight training if you didn’t help me.”

She stood up and wrapped Xander in a hug. They held each other for a while, each of them too emotional for anything else.

“Go for the wedding,” Xander said when they finally pulled apart, both of them wiping their eyes quickly. “Don’t let Darius know. I’ll ask Tom to help you slip out tomorrow.”

“What?”

“And don’t come back next summer, or the next. Don’t come back until I tell you to.” Xander said, his eyes serious. “I’ll miss you, but I see now that it’s dangerous for you to be back. He likely won’t touch me for a few more years, but he’s already shown that he doesn’t care for your wellbeing. You’ll only suffer if you come back.”

Emmy blinked, fresh tears coming to her eyes. “But I won’t see you for years —”

“I would rather you stay safe, and avoid the petty humiliations that he gives you.” Xander smiled bitterly, and reached out with a hand to touch her cheek, “You’ve suffered so much in the past two months. I’m not blind. Don’t make me witness this again next summer.”

Emmy hugged him again, letting out a few sobs. His body shuddered against hers, even if he did not make a sound.

*

True to his word, after she delivered a message in town the next day, she found Tom waiting for her with a change of clothes, her things in a saddle bag and a horse. In a few moments, she looked like a completely different person, a young servant boy riding with a merchant’s wagon group heading for Corus.

She paused a little at the rise on a hill, staring at the Tirragen castle with tearing eyes, wondering when would be the next time she sees her brother and Ollie.

Goddess, please keep them safe. She prayed, and nudged her horse into a trot without another backward glance.

Chapter Text

Vania sighed when the palace gate came into view, and slowed her gelding, Thunder, to a trot. It was a glorious morning of riding, though there was now the prospect of an empty afternoon to fill. She could go into the city and get her dress for the wedding done, but she was still waiting for Emmy to reply her. Why hasn’t Emmy replied her? Did the letter go astray?

Vania missed her page friends. It was true that she had grown up in the palace and had many friends in it, not just among the queen’s ladies but also with the servants, stable hands and even the Riders. But after a year of training alongside her year-mates, she realised that some friends were different. These were friends that she had went through thick and thin with; they had fought alongside each other, facing off wolves and hurroks alike. She had a bond with these friends that she didn’t have with anyone else, and she missed them badly. She wished that they would come back earlier.

She was entering the pages’ stables glumly when she saw something that made her blink. Someone was talking to Emmy’s mare, Whisper, standing just outside the stall and offering lumps of sugar to the mare. It was a girl of Emmy’s height, but thinner, darker, and with longer, shoulder-length hair.

Vania dismounted, and led Thunder closer. “Hello?”

When the girl turned around, Vania gasped in surprise. It was Emmy. She was tanned by the sun, and her hair a slightly lighter brown than she remembered. But she looked gaunt, and her eyes were red-rimmed, as if she had been crying.

“Emmy!” Vania let go of Thunder’s reins and rushed forward to embrace her friend. Emmy hugged her back tightly. Vania’s worry grew as she felt how thin her friend had become.

“What happened to you?” Vania asked as she pulled back, surveying her friend more closely. Emmy was wearing clothes that were too big, and her hands were callused in a way that suggested hard labour, not the type that were common to warriors who handled weapons.

Emmy, that dolt, tried to smile as if she hadn’t come back a different person. “Hello to you too. Aren’t you going to take care of Thunder first?”

Vania bit her lip and turned to look. Thunder snorted a little, as if aware that he was the subject of conversation. “Well, come over while I work so we can talk.”

Vania had meant for her to stand and watch while she groomed Thunder, but Emmy picked up a brush anyway and started to help her on the other side. Vania had a thousand questions to ask Emmy, but she didn’t want ask the important ones while there was a horse between them, and thus she stuck to the more basic questions.

“When did you get here?”

“Just half a bell before you did.” Emmy said, concentrating on Thunder and not looking at her, “I traveled alongside a merchant’s wagon from Tirragen. I was going to look for you after saying hi to Whisper.”

Emmy looked tired, and Vania wanted to lighten the mood. “Well, I’m glad that I rank second after your horse.”

Emmy would usually chuckle at something like this. But instead, she gave her only a small smile, which worried Vania even more.

“I wasn’t sure where I was going to find you, and I wanted to see a familiar face.”

That made Vania pause. Emmy must have felt lonely, to want to see a familiar face. She decided that she could not wait further. She was opening her mouth when Emmy spoke again.

“I’m sorry I didn’t reply your letter,” Emmy said quietly. “I wanted to. But I found out that Uncle Darius had read it without my permission, and I figured that anything I send out would be intercepted.”

“What?” Vania paused again. Thunder huffed and shook his head, as if chiding his mistress for being distracted. Vania patted his neck in a silent apology, and continued brushing him down. She felt anger slowly rising in her. “Why would he read your letters?”

“He said he’s the head of the household, and he can read what he wants.” Emmy said wearily.

Vania tried to set aside her anger at this man that she had never met, and tried to focus on her friend instead. “Did he give you a hard time?”

“He’s just being his usual self,” Emmy muttered, “He probably just gave me more work now that I’m a page, and I’m supposed to be able to take them.”

Vania didn’t know what to say to that, and thus she hastened her movements, and tried to get this done quickly. When she was finally done, she walked around Thunder and waited for Emmy to finish. They both washed their hands at the barrel of water by a pillar, and she stopped Emmy before she could walk out of the stall.

She took both of Emmy’s hands in hers, and searched her eyes. “Are you all right?” She asked softly, “You know you can trust me, right?”

She expected Emmy to dodge her question, or look away, and she expected to do more coaxing. What she didn’t expect was Emmy throwing herself at her and sobbing into her shoulder. She hugged Emmy back and patted her back in surprise, stunned by her reaction and curious and angered by whatever it was that made her this way.

Whisper whined in her stall, thrusting her head back and forth and agitated by her mistress’ distress. Emmy pulled back hastily, and wiped her tears before walking to the stall, patting Whisper’s head.

“I’m sorry,” she was muttering when Vania followed her, “I didn’t mean to worry you. I’m fine. Don’t worry, I’m fine.”

When Whisper calmed down and Emmy turned to her, Vania offered her hand, and led her out. They needed a quiet place to talk. Vania led the way to the pages’ wing, and stopped in front of Emmy’s room. She herself had been staying in her room in the royal wing, and she didn’t think that Emmy would want to go there. Emmy stepped forward with her keys.

When Vania entered the room, she waited until Emmy closed the door before she put her hands on Emmy’s shoulders, and steered her gently towards her bed and sat her down.

“What happened?” Vania asked quietly as she sat down beside her, putting an arm around Emmy’s shoulders.

Emmy leaned forward to rest her head on Vania’s shoulder. “I’m so useless, Vania. I thought I could help Xander, but I put him in danger instead, because I couldn’t let go of my pride.”

Keeping her alarm in check, Vania patiently asked question after question, gently coaxing out what happened during the last two months from Emmy. Her disbelief and anger grew and grew as she heard about how Darius of Tirragen threatened Emmy with her brother’s life, and how he treated her like a slave for the last two months. When Vania felt like she heard the full story, she was so outraged that she stood up and started pacing around the room.

“The gall of that man!” Vania spat in disgust, “How can he treat you like that? You’re his niece! You’re family!” She shook her head, “We need to tell my mother about this. She’s not going to stand for —”

“No,” Emmy said as she stood up, meeting Vania’s eyes stubbornly. “Uncle Darius is a Tirragen, when it comes down to it. If something happens to him, it’s the Tirragen name that would be shamed further.”

“But are you just going to let him abuse his position, and threaten your brother?”

“Xander has a plan,” Emmy said, looking away. “And that involves him taking care of this as a family matter. We need to trust him. Tirragen can’t afford any more scandal.”

Vania stepped forward, and placed her hands on Emmy’s shoulders. “Are you sure? He sounds like a dangerous man. What happens next summer when you go back?”

Emmy swallowed, looking down. “Xander won’t let me. He told me not to go back to Tirragen until he said it’s safe to do so.”

“Well, good.” Vania said in relief.

Emmy’s eyes snapped back up at her. “What’s good about it? I won’t get to see him for years, Vania. What if something happens to him? He doesn’t have the best health. And Ollie is eight years old, I probably won’t see her again.” Her voice cracked, and she looked away.

Vania took a handkerchief from her belt and wiped Emmy’s tears. “I’m on his side, Emmy. Just look at you. Two months back, and you’ve been worked to the bone. Who knows what other bullying you’ve suffered that you won’t tell me about? Xander loves you, and he wants you to be well, like I do. Staying here is the best way for you to stay safe.”

Emmy snorted, and plopped back down to her bed. “Everyone’s trying to keep me safe. But I’m here to be a knight. I’m supposed to be able to fight this. I’m supposed to fight for the weak.”

Vania sat down beside her. “And one day you will. You’re trying to fight something too big right now. Give it time, and you’ll be able to do it. It’s like Tibout, remember? You couldn’t take him on your first day of training, but you showed him not to mess with you again at summer camp.”

That got a small smile out of Emmy.

Encouraged, Vania kept going. “One day you’ll stand up to Darius. But not right now. Even Xander is biding his time. You should trust him and follow his lead.”

Emmy took a deep breath, and nodded. She wiped her cheeks again, and looked up at her with an apologetic grin. “I’m sorry to dump this on you. I know you must be excited for the wedding.”

Vania smiled and gave her a quick hug. “Don’t be sorry. I’m glad that you learned to trust me.” Her own stomach growled, and she winced. “I think we missed lunch. Let’s go to the kitchen and get some food.”

Emmy looked at her in surprise. At Vania’s curious look, she shook her head. “I didn’t realise. I’ve gotten used to not having lunch.”

Vania winced in pity, and took Emmy’s hand and dragged her to her feet. “Not here you won’t. I’m going to make sure you eat properly.”

Emmy chuckled. “I’m sure you will.”

She let Vania lead the way to the kitchen, and Vania made sure she had a firm grip on Emmy’s hand. Compared to what Emmy went through, her last two months in palace seemed like a disgustingly luxurious existence. And she had whined about being bored! Emmy must think that she was a spoiled princess.

But no matter. Vania vowed to herself that she would never let someone else abuse her friend again.

*

To Emmy’s horror, she learned that her idea of a ‘small, quiet affair’ was very different from Vania’s idea of one. Emmy thought that the wedding would be a small gathering of family and friends, perhaps twenty people at the most. But to her chagrin, the guest list was closer to sixty, and there was to be a formal ball after the ceremony. Fianola was attending too, having traveled back to Corus from King’s Reach with Princess Kalasin herself.

Fianola arrived the day after Emmy did, and if she was surprised by how much Emmy had changed, she kept it to herself. Vania, Fianola and her spent an afternoon in Corus, trying on dresses and buying accessories. Vania insisted on paying for all of Emmy’s purchases, saying that since it was her who invited Emmy over, she should be taking care of what Emmy would be wearing. It sounded ridiculous to Emmy, but she wasn’t up for an argument, and she really did not have anything that she could wear to so esteemed a company.

They had tea one day with Vania’s sisters, and Emmy was awed by Princess Kalasin, who was probably the most beautiful and astute young woman Emmy had ever met. Lianne was as friendly and as down-to-earth as she remembered, though Lianne couldn’t quite hide a look of alarm in time when she saw Emmy. She also met Vania’s other brothers. Prince Liam was a squire, while Prince Jasson was a student at the university for mages. All of Vania’s siblings thanked her to saving Vania’s life from hurroks, and she was so embarrassed that she felt as if her cheeks would be permanently red.

More guests arrived over the next few days, including the Lioness and her family, and Buri. Fianola and Emmy caught all but a smile and a nod from Lady Alanna before she disappeared into her quarters in the palace. They both sighed, rueing the rule that forbade contact between them and the lady knight.

Buri was under no such orders, and she caught them one afternoon at the archery yard. There was only so much shopping and dressing up that they could do, and they decided to get some practice to kill time.

Emmy tried not to flinch when Buri stopped next to her as she drew her bow. Emmy had not drawn one since before she arrived in Tirragen, when Buri had given her tips on how to improve her skills. Somehow, she knew that Buri would be able to tell that she had not practised.

Her arrow missed its target by a wide margin, and she sighed, lowering her bow. “Sorry, Buri.”

“Don’t be sorry.” Buri said quietly, resting a gentle hand on her shoulder. “Even a fool can tell that you had a hard two months. If I had known that I was sending you to suffer, I would have thought twice about it.”

Emmy tried to smile. “It’s just work, Buri.”

Buri raised an eyebrow. “If you had been fed properly, work should build you up, not grind you down.”

Emmy ducked her head, keenly aware of Fianola and Vania listening nearby.

“You will tell us, if someone’s bothering you?” Buri asked.

Emmy nodded, and smiled tightly. “It’s been taken care of. It won’t happen again.”

Buri eyed her for a long moment, and Emmy tried not so squirm. Finally, she nodded, and clapped Emmy’s back. “You’re not alone, Emmy. There are many of us who want you to succeed. Don’t try to take on everything yourself.”

Emmy blinked at Buri as she went down the line to check Fianola’s stance. Who was among the ‘many’ that Buri spoke of? How did Emmy ended up with so many supporters?

*

The morning after Alanna arrived, she cornered Vania at the practice courts for the queen’s ladies, where Vania had been practicing over the summer. Vania saw the glint in her violet eyes, and steeled herself for yet another round of explanation. Her mother and Lianne had already asked her the same thing.

“Good morning, Aunt Alanna.” She said cheerfully, knowing full well that Alanna wasn’t a morning person.

Predictably, Alanna scowled. “However did Jon sire a daughter so cheerful in the morning?”

“I take after my mother, Aunt Alanna.”

Alanna glared a little at her as she steered Vania into a corner where they might not be overheard. “You need to learn to tell when questions are rhetorical. But enough of this. What’s wrong with Emmy? Why is she skin and bones again? Buri said she was doing well, when she shipped her off to Tirragen for the summer.”

Vania looked down. “I don’t think it’s my story to tell, Aunt Alanna.”

“Well, I can’t ask her myself, can I?”

Vania considered her godmother. “Can you promise not to do something about it?”

Alanna scowled again. “That sounds exactly like I should do something about it.”

Vania sighed. “That’s why she doesn’t want to share, Aunt Alanna. She didn’t want to make a fuss.”

“Will you just get to it? What happened?”

Vania bit her lip. She had promised Emmy not to tell her mother, but she didn’t say anything about anyone else, and certainly not her godmother. And Vania had been dying to share her own outrage with someone.

“Her uncle, Darius of Tirragen, is a bully. He worked her like a slave over the summer, and barely gave her anything to eat. He threatened to harm her brother if she doesn’t comply. You know her brother’s crippled.”

Alanna let out a string of curses. “I didn’t like that man, when I saw him in progress. Why didn’t she report this? The Crown can remove him and assign a new steward —”

“But Darius is a Tirragen,” Vania said with a sigh, “Emmy is worried that Tirragen would be shamed further if that happens. And you know she wants to redeem that name.”

“She won’t be able to redeem anything if she’s starved and worked to death,” Alanna snapped.

“I know,” Vania said quickly, “But it should be fine now. Xander — her brother — sent her back here when he found out, and he ordered her not to return to Tirragen for the next few years. When it’s safe, he will send for her.”

“How old is her brother?”

“Fourteen.”

Alanna cursed softly, and shook her head. “Such a rotten legacy for someone so young. All because Alex wanted to prove he was better than me.” She muttered the last part, almost to herself.

“Aunt Alanna? What do you mean?”

Alanna looked at her for a moment, and sighed. “Alex of Tirragen committed treason, as you know. What’s rotten about the whole thing was that I don’t think he cared for treason at all. He just wanted a chance to beat me in swordplay. He just wanted to be known as the best.”

Vania stared in disbelief. She herself had a competitive streak, but to commit treason just to be the best? Why would anyone do that?

Alanna smiled a little, and changed the subject. “Alan told me Emmy’s good with a sword.”

Vania nodded. “She beats me three out of five bouts. It’s her favourite weapon.”

“You’re about evenly matched then. Show me what you’ve learned while I was gone.”

Alanna proceeded to trounce her thoroughly over the next hour, pausing each time to make sure Vania understood what happened, and what could be done better.

“Can you be my knight mistress?” Vania asked when they finally stopped, exhausted but awed. She knew that Alanna was good, but she was so good at teaching too!

Alanna cackled, and clapped Vania’s shoulder. “If you’re not my goddaughter, I would take you in a heartbeat. But you know that sons don’t squire for their fathers, and it stands to reason that I shouldn’t take you. We’re too close for me to be a proper knight mistress.”

Vania didn’t bother hiding her disappointment. “This is probably the only time I regret being your goddaughter.”

Alanna chuckled, and bumped her head gently. “If sword lessons are all you want, you’ll still get them, silly. I don’t have to be your knight mistress to teach you.”

Vania grinned sheepishly, feeling silly indeed.

*

On the day before the wedding, Emmy thought she had seen all the guests. It had been a whirlwind of meeting famous people who would never have given Emmy a second glance if not for Vania by her side, and Emmy was glad for one quiet day of just her and her friends.

She was wrong. While she was practicing at the pages’ practice courts with Vania, Fianola and Alan, a tall stranger walked through the door to the courtyard and parked herself next to the fence to watch.

When Alan disarmed her again, she bowed to him, and retrieved her sword, giving the tall stranger a second look. She froze in her tracks as Keladry of Mindelan smiled and started walking over. Out of the corner of her eyes she saw Fianola and Vania ending their duel, and they came to stand beside her. They exchanged surprised and awed gazes with each other, while Alan grinned.

“Hello,” Keladry said with a smile, “I’m Keladry of Mindelan. I’m sorry I didn’t come to see you earlier. I was… preoccupied. I just found out on my way here that there are already three female pages in the palace! I know I had to meet you.” She turned to Fianola in particular, “I’m glad you made it. Fianola, isn’t it?”

Emmy admired Keladry for a moment while Fianola bowed to her. She knew that Keladry was tall, but she didn’t realise how towering she would be until this moment. She was about six-feet tall, and Emmy had barely made it past four and a half feet.

“Yes, my lady,” Fianola was saying, a faint blush on her cheek, “Fianola of King’s Reach at your service. I’m glad that you remember me.”

Keladry looked surprised. “King’s Reach? You’re Faleron’s sister?” She chuckled when Fianola nodded, “That sneaky bastard. He never said a word.” She turned to Vania, and bowed, “You must be Princess Vania.”

Vania came as close to panicking as Emmy had ever seen her. “Oh please don’t bow, Lady Keladry! I’m just a page around here. Just call me Vania.”

“Call me Kel,” Kel said with a smile, scanning all their faces, “All of you.”

Her gaze stopped at Emmy, and Emmy remembered to bow. “My name is Emmeline of Tirragen, but please call me Emmy. It’s an honour to meet you at last, my lady.”

“I do wish I can spend more time with you to help with your training,” Kel said a little wistfully, “But the war is keeping us all busy. How are you doing with your training?”

Kel was very interested in their progress. She asked many questions, and made sure all of them knew the exercises they could do to strengthen their arm muscles. Emmy had already learned those from Eda Bell when she was in her first year, but seeing the enlightenment of Vania and Fianola’s faces, she felt a tad guilty for not sharing these with them earlier. Alan only looked at them in amusement, he seemed to have already known Kel.

Eventually Kel had to leave, as she was here for a very short stay and had many errands to run. They all watched her leave wistfully.

“She’s so kind.” Fianola sighed. Emmy and Vania echoed her.

Alan laughed, slapping Vania on the back. “You all look like love-struck maidens!”

“I think we are.” Vania said dreamily.

It made Emmy and Fianola giggle, which only added to the love-struck maiden description. Before long, all four of them were laughing, and Emmy realised that she had not laugh so hard since before the summer.

*

The wedding itself passed by in a colourful blur. Everyone Emmy had met earlier became almost unrecognisable, as everyone dressed in their finest. Emmy herself had spent a full minute gaping at Vania when she met her at the door. Dressed in a deep royal blue dress with her hair down and twined with sapphire stones, Vania looked stunning.

Fianola also looked wonderful, dressed in a forest green dress that complemented her olive skin. Emmy, in her maroon dress, felt like a little girl playing dress up. Still, Fianola complimented Emmy sincerely enough to make her blush, and they set off for the main hall together.

The bride and groom themselves looked stunning, and they were radiant in their joy when they were married in front of Mithran priests. Emmy caught Queen Thayet dabbing at her eyes, though Alanna was close by enough to squeeze her shoulder comfortingly.

It was a simple ceremony, and the ball afterwards was also a relatively simple affair, with none of the fuss or stiffness involved in typical mid-winter parties that Emmy had served at. Emmy danced for the first time, having been dragged to it by Vania and Alan. It was a more casual type of dance than the one taught to the pages, and partners switch often as part of the dance, with no care for whether the partners were male or female. Emmy found herself dancing with all of Vania’s siblings at some point, and met Alan’s twin, Aly, for the first time as they found themselves opposite each other.

It was a night full of fun and laughter, and one that Emmy would remember for the rest of her life.

Chapter Text

After the royal wedding, Emmy, Vania and Fianola had two weeks to laze around before the term starts. They went riding in the Royal Forest, explored Corus together or had picnics under the sun. More than once Emmy found herself falling asleep on the grass, finally able to relax after a hard summer of labour. Vania and Fianola always waited patiently for her even when she asked them to wake her up. Vania would read while she waited, while Fianola worked on her embroidery.

All too soon the lazy days ended, and their second year of training began. They started wearing weighted harnesses, and the first two weeks were near agony for Emmy, who was still trying to build her strength and muscles back up. But all the second-years soon got used to the extra weight, and carried on with their training. The year was far less eventful than their first one, and its swift passage caught Emmy by surprise.

During their long ride back from Fief Naxen after their summer camp, Emmy had a chance to reflect on the year that had passed. There were a few moments that stood out for her…

*

Gerald stared at Emmy in shock on their first day of training. He snuck looks at Emmy over the day, and finally stopped her after supper. Emmy had been growing increasingly antsy at the attention, and she was prepared when Gerald caught her arm and pulled her to one side.

“What happened to you, Emmy?” He asked with a frown.

Emmy shrugged his arm off, still unprepared for the conversation even if she did see it coming. “I worked over the summer, that’s what. You looked tan and lean yourself.”

“I don’t look like I was starved!” he retorted softly, aware of the other pages passing by. “Did you get sick? Did someone bully you?”

Emmy frowned at the concern in Gerald’s eyes. “Why do you care? I’m back here and I’m in one piece.”

He looked taken aback. It took him a moment to reply. “I’m your friend, Emmy. Of course I care.”

It was Emmy’s turn to be taken aback. Sure, they were on friendly terms after haMinch’s test last year, but they had never really spoken all that much. She always got the sense that Gerald felt that he was better than her. But when she confessed this to Fianola later, Fianola said that he was that way with everyone, and Emmy probably read too much into it.

Standing there in the corridor and seeing the slightly hurt look on his face, she tried to smile. “I’m sorry, Gerald. I — it’s — I just —” she took a deep breath, and decided that he deserved her honesty, “I had some trouble at home. But I’m fine now, and it won’t happen again. Don’t worry.”

Gerald was quiet for a moment, before he reached out to give her shoulder a squeeze. “I’m sorry that your home is not the safe place that it should be for you. If there’s anything I can do to help you, just tell me.”

“Thank you,” she told him softly.

It was the moment when she realised that Gerald was not just a year mate anymore, but a true friend.

*

There were no female pages among the first-years that year. They had been looking forward to the newcomers, and it was a tad disappointing. But Vania took it in her stride, and volunteered to sponsor a Tristan of Meron, a brown-haired boy who was short for his ten years of age. Tristan seemed mostly intimidated by Vania, and it took him weeks before he could stop jumping when Vania called him.

One night in October, Vania asked if Emmy could tutor Tristan instead on his homework, as she remembered that she had promised to talk to Lianne about something last minute and Tristan was already waiting at the library. Emmy agreed as the rest of her year mates were at the library anyway, and it wasn’t that much trouble.

When she relayed the news, Tristan was a little shocked.

“If that’s the case, I can just go back to my room and work on this.” He muttered, and gathered his things.

“Well,” Emmy tried not to frown, “I’m happy to help, and I’ll be just over at the next table anyway. You can stay.”

He forced a smile and stood to leave. “It’s all right, really.”

One of his year mates were nearby, and he hurriedly went over to join him. Emmy was about to shrug it off when she caught it — the two boys whispered hotly among themselves, and Emmy heard the word ‘Tirragen’ and ‘treason’, and realised with a chill the reason why Tristan was avoiding her.

Emmy gripped the chair in front of her tightly, and reminded herself that it was to be expected. She had spent months earning the respect of her year mates, after all. She couldn’t expect the new pages to know and respect her immediately. She didn’t even spend time with any of them. How would she ever earn their respect?

It was the moment that she scolded herself for becoming complacent, now that she knew she was accepted among her year mates. Tirragen was still a disgraced name, and she needed to work harder to prove herself.

*

Over Midwinter, they began to serve the guests in the hall directly. Emmy and Roland were full of nerves, though Vania and Fianola took it all in stride, having been to these balls as guests before. It was an odd role-reversal, but they were confident in their tasks and traded gossips about what the guests were wearing in the rare moments when they had a break.

Emmy and Gerald rolled their eyes at each other, and traded their own gossips about the warriors they recognised. Prince Liam was easily recognisable, though they also saw the newly-married Buri and Lord Raoul, who were back from Fort Steadfast for a short break. Emmy made sure that she caught Buri and congratulated her properly. Lord Raoul looked completely at ease with Buri at his side, and Emmy wondered why he had a reputation of being stiff and wooden at social functions like these.

When they were finally released from their duties, Vania surprised them all by rushing back to her room for a change of clothes. She went on join to the party after that, even though Emmy was exhausted and starving. Emmy didn’t understand the appeal of these parties at all, and she turned Vania down when she asked Emmy to join her.

All Vania could talk about for days afterwards were the ladies that she had met and chatted with, their dresses and hair and accessories. She sighed over the fact that Kel did not come back from the north for the parties, and wished loudly that they could have a chance to see her soon.

“Still playing the love-struck maiden, Vania?” Fianola teased when they were in her room. They were killing time over a game of chess before they had to report to Master Oakbridge.

Vania raised her chin deliberately, and held Fianola’s gaze. “Maybe I’m not playing.”

Emmy moved her castle piece and looked up in time to catch Fianola’s startled look.

“What did I miss?” Emmy asked, looking from Vania’s defiance to Fianola’s surprise.

Vania turned to smile at her, a little too widely. “Nothing, sweet. Oh Fianola, you’re getting checked in two moves.”

Emmy protested loudly as Fianola turned back to the chessboard with a new-found urgency.

Over the next week, something went on between Vania and Fianola. Fianola didn’t quite seem to know what to say to Vania, which was shocking, because Fianola always knew the right thing to say to anyone in any situation. Vania acted coolly against Fianola, making Emmy anxious. The two of them were her best friends, and she didn’t like it when they didn’t get along.

Finally, Emmy tricked both of them with some excuse and locked all three of them in her room.

“All right, what’s going on between you two?” Emmy asked, crossing her arms and standing in front of her door in case any of them tried to leave. She hoped they wouldn’t, because she couldn’t really stop them anyway.

“Did you trick me to get us here?” Vania said indignantly, standing in the middle of her room across from Fianola.

“Emmy, we’re fine, there’s nothing going on.” Fianola said tiredly.

“I know I’m younger than both of you, but don’t treat me like an idiot.” Emmy snapped. “You haven’t been talking to each other for more than a week now. Even Roland could tell something is going on. Can we try to fix this?”

Vania and Fianola both looked away, not meeting each other’s eyes. Emmy uncrossed her arms and rested them on her side with a sigh. “I’m sorry I tricked both of you. But you’re my best friends. And I just want you to get along.”

Vania sighed. “I do want to get along, Emmy. But maybe I’m just becoming more… different.”

Emmy frowned as Vania looked tentatively at Fianola. “We’re all different,” Emmy said, “I’m different from a year ago. I will be different a year from now. What’s that got to do with whether we’re friends or not?”

Fianola chuckled at that, and she stepped forward to take Vania’s hands into her own, her smile open and friendly. “She’s right. We’re all different. But we’re definitely still friends. I’m sorry for the past week, Vania. I just need to get used to it.”

To Emmy’s surprise, Vania threw her arms around Fianola with a big smile, and hugged her tightly, whispering something in her ears.

“Get used to what?” Emmy asked, feeling left out.

They pulled apart. Fianola walked towards Emmy, though Emmy did not miss Vania trying to wipe her eyes discreetly. “Just growing up, Emmy,” Fianola said, putting an arm around Emmy’s shoulders and steering her towards the door. “Let’s get some snacks from the kitchen. We should catch up properly.”

Emmy thought that they would explain further once they settle down with tea and snacks, but Vania and Fianola only talked about the things they missed in the past week, and Emmy got the sense that they didn’t want to talk about whatever it was that happened.

Emmy was frustrated, but eventually her relief won over, and she was just glad that her best friends were talking to each other again.

Still, it was the moment when she realised that there was still an age gap between the two of them and her, and that she couldn’t wait to grow up and catch up on whatever it was.

*

Two days after the pages returned to the palace for summer camp, they were released from training for the summer. Emmy had officially completed her second year of page training. That afternoon, Vania found Emmy sitting at the palace wall and looking out onto the city.

“How did you get here so fast?” Vania said, squeezing into the gap in the walls meant for archers next to Emmy. “We were saying farewell to Fianola together. When I turned around, you were gone.”

Emmy smiled distractedly at her. “I wanted a run. It’s all the riding of the past few days.”

Vania slung an arm around her shoulder and brought her closer. She didn’t say a word. Emmy leaned her head on Vania’s shoulder, and tried not to think about the home that she could not go back to.

“We’ll have fun together.” Vania said encouragingly after a few moments. “We’ll join the queen’s ladies for practice in the mornings, pester Buri and the Rider trainees before they set out for summer camp — did I tell you that Buri’s taken up a part-time instructor position, now that she’s no longer the Commander?”

Emmy shook her head slightly.

“The Riders don’t actually need any additional instructors,” Vania said, and Emmy could imagine her grinning, “But Buri got very bored at Steadfast after a few months, and decided that torturing trainees would be a better use of her time. She’ll be free to leave and visit Uncle Raoul when she misses him enough.”

“Poor trainees.” Emmy muttered.

Vania laughed. “Exactly my reaction!”

Vania continued to chatter about summer plans with her, she invited Emmy to join her when they send off Kally to Port Legann, where Kally would sail for Carthak at last. Emmy’s homesickness was kept at bay, and she was very glad that she had Vania to spend the summer with her.

*

Emmy tried her best to stay cheerful over the next few weeks, as she started to build a routine for the summer. Both of them joined the queen’s ladies for training in the morning, though the two of them would typically linger and do their own practice afterwards. Emmy started to train with the glaive, and slowly got over the fact that she sometimes practiced with not just Princess Shinkokami but also the queen herself.

In the afternoon, they varied their schedules. On some days they visited the Rider’s barracks, where Buri would let them practice riding or archery alongside the trainees and they would stay for supper at the Rider mess. Sometimes they would read in the library, or visit Corus and watch plays. The latter happened more infrequently, because Vania would always pay for those, and Emmy didn’t want to keep relying on Vania financially.

The evenings were hard. Vania would typically have dinners with her family, more so now that it was Kally’s last few weeks in Tortall. Vania tried inviting Emmy, but Emmy turned her down flatly. It was her family time, and Emmy didn’t want to intrude.

Sometimes she wandered down to the Rider mess and looked for familiar faces. Sometimes she ate dinner alone. She always read at night before bed, and she devoured more books than she did in an entire year.

On some nights when the silence and emptiness in her room felt suffocating, she went down to the empty practice courts and did her own practice, trying to burn off her frustration and homesickness.

On one such night, a familiar figure wandered over as she was finishing. When Emmy recognised Eda Bell, she bowed. “Good evening, m’am.”

“Why are you still at the palace?” The Shang Wildcat asked.

“My brother thinks it’s better for me to stay here, m’am, so that I can keep on top of my training.” Emmy replied smoothly, having recited the same lie to many others who had asked her the same question.

Eda raised an eyebrow. “I keep telling you I’m not senile, Emmy.” Emmy stared at her in surprise, and Eda continued more quietly, “I remember the state you were in when you came back last summer. It took you months to regain your strength. If that’s what waiting for you in Tirragen, I’m glad you stayed here.”

Emmy ducked her head, feeling ashamed. How many more at the palace knew about this? How many of them look at her or speak of her with pity? She never asked for pity. She just wanted a chance.

“So how have you been spending your time?” Eda asked.

Emmy swallowed and described her days to her instructor.

Eda turned to survey the rest of the empty courts, thinking. Emmy waited, as she wasn’t in a hurry.

“You’re not making good use of your time here,” Eda said finally, turning back to her, “I’m traveling south to the desert to visit some friends. Do you want to join me?”

Emmy widened her eyes. To travel with the Shang Wildcat, and see the desert?

“I’ll warn you, it won’t be an easy ride,” Eda said sternly, “I travel light, and I move fast. I keep up with my training, and I would expect you to do the same. I don’t want to hear any word of complain.”

Emmy thought quickly — Vania was the only reason she might consider staying for. But Vania had her family here. Vania would be fine if Emmy just explain things to her.

“Yes,” Emmy whispered, her heart lighter and more excited than it had been in weeks. “Yes, I would love to join you, m’am.”

Eda nodded briskly, a small smile on her lips. “Call me Eda on the road. It’s enough that I get called ‘m’am’ three quarters of the year. I don’t want to feel older than I already am.”

Emmy didn’t think her eyes could grow wider. “That would take some getting used to.”

Eda shook her head. “We leave the day after tomorrow. I’m only here to run some errands. Pack your bags and meet me at the stables at dawn.”

“Yes,” She said, and swallowed, “Eda.”

Vania was disappointed that Emmy wasn’t going to go to Port Legann with her and the royal party, but she was also excited and even a little envious of Emmy’s trip with the Shang Wildcat. She sent Emmy off at the stables, rising before dawn even if she didn’t need to. Emmy hugged her tightly and promised to write.

*

Eda Bell wasn’t kidding. It wasn’t a leisurely journey by any measure. They rose with dawn and practiced, with Eda correcting Emmy’s moves and teaching her more Shang fighting than she could ever hope to learn as a page. They rode hard during the day and spoke little, which suited Emmy just fine. Eda preferred camping rather than staying at the inn, and Emmy all but sighed in relief, knowing that she could not afford to keep staying at inns anyway and she didn’t want Eda to spend more coin on her.

They split up chores at camp, and practiced again before bed. Emmy was usually exhausted by the end of the day, but Eda made sure that she was fed well, at least.

They reached the desert after a week of traveling, and Eda looked for a tribe called the Sandrunners, and they stayed with the tribe for two weeks. Emmy had never been welcomed so warmly before, and she fell in love with the tribe and its culture. No one cared that she was a Tirragen, and they took her for who she was.

Eda made sure that she kept up her training at the tribe, though she also had time to learn from the tribes people in the day. She learned about the plants and herbs and survival in the desert, and even a little bit of weaving. She couldn’t wait to tell Fianola about the last part.

Two weeks later, they had to leave for Corus to make it back in time for the new term. Emmy felt sad about leaving, and was already looking forward to visiting them next summer.

The ride back to Corus took on a similar pattern. Emmy was almost sorry when they reached the palace. She had enjoyed the simplicity of life on the road.

“Eda,” She called when Eda led her horse away. Emmy had to use the pages’ stables.

Eda paused, and Emmy ran over to quickly wrap her arms tightly around Eda. “Thank you.” She whispered, “Thank you for this.”

A rough hand patted Emmy’s head. “Don’t think I’ll go easy on you when training starts.”

Emmy let go and grinned up at the older woman. “I wouldn’t dream of it.”

She turned and waved as she ran back to Whisper.

Chapter Text

Now that Emmy was back at the palace and it was the last day of their summer holidays, she took a more leisurely pace as she led Whisper back to the pages’ stable. The pace would pick up soon enough when training starts. She all but groaned when she realised that they would have to start wearing weighted harnesses again. For all she understood the purpose of those cursed things, she couldn’t bring herself to like it or look forward to it. Only Vania would.

When she was almost at the stables, she found a boy holding the reins of a dark brown horse, looking a little lost as he considered two different ways.

“Hello? Can I help you?” Emmy said as she got near.

The boy’s gelding huffed, and eyed her warily. The boy turned — and Emmy realised that it was a girl. The girl was just a few inches shorter than Emmy’s five feet, and wearing well-made tunic and breeches. Her dark brown hair was messily cropped short to her ears, as if she had done it herself, and without a mirror. Her face was unmistakably feminine, with elegant cheekbones, a sharp chin, and large lively brown eyes. She was beautiful, even with her messy hair.

“I’m looking for the stable master,” she said with a slight northern accent, “I want to find a place for Rebel here.”

Emmy felt her lips quirk. “Rebel? Can I say hello?”

The other girl smiled and gestured with a bow, like a gentleman introducing a lady. Emmy let go of Whisper’s reins — they worked well enough on the road that Emmy trusted the mare not to run away without reason — and tentatively reached out to the dark brown beauty. Gently, she touched its face, and blew into its nose. After a moment, Rebel huffed back at her, and she smiled, stroking its face. “You’re a beauty and you know it, don’t you?”

“He does,” the girl said dryly. “I think he likes you.”

Emmy gave his face one last pat before stepping back. “How could you tell? I didn’t have much experience with horses before I came to the palace. Whisper here had to put up with me,” She reached for Whisper’s reins, and stroke her neck.

“Can I say hi to Whisper?” The girl asked, and Emmy nodded. She watched as the girl made her acquaintance with Whisper, and fed her lumps of sugar when Emmy nodded her approval. “She’s beautiful too,” the girl said as she stepped back.

“Thank you,” Emmy grinned, thinking of her mare’s dull brown coat, and the white spots around her neck and rear. Whisper was not an elegant lady by conventional measure, but she was Emmy’s, and they suited each other fine. The girl was probably being polite.

“Now, the stable master,” Emmy said, and showed her the directions. Almost right after that, the bell for the fifth hour past noon rang, and the girl jumped.

“Oh I’m going to be late! I have to go!” She tugged Rebel’s reins, and started towards the direction Emmy pointed her in. “Thank you! I’ll see you later!”

Emmy waved and watched her go. It was only moments later that she realised she forgot to ask for the girl’s name.

*

Emmy spent the next day on cleaning and mending, knowing that she would not have time to do so after the term starts. Two bells after noon, she heard muffled crashes and grating on the floor, and opened her door to peek out to the corridor. She grinned at the sight of Vania struggling with a heavy chest on the floor, and leaned against her door, crossing her arms. Vania must be dragging all her dresses here.

“Need a hand?” Emmy asked casually.

Vania’s face lit up when she saw her, though she placed her hands on her hips at Emmy’s feigned indifference. “Did you need to ask? Haven’t the Bazhir taught you how to treat friends properly?”

Emmy grinned, and trotted over. Vania met her halfway as they embraced tightly. Vania felt a little taller again. Whenever Emmy grew a little taller and covered the half-foot distance between them, Vania would shoot taller again. Vania was already sixteen, but it didn’t seem like Emmy would ever catch up.

Vania fingered Emmy’s new short braid when she let go.

“I like this,” She said, turning Emmy’s shoulder around a little to see better. “Do you know how to twine some spikes into them, to discourage people from grabbing it?”

Emmy grinned at Vania, “That was going to be one of the first things I ask you.”

Vania nodded her head at her storage chest at the floor, and signal for them to lift it together. “What are the other things you are planning to ask?”

Emmy forgot her question when lifted her end with a grunt. “What are you moving over? Don’t you have another room in the royal wing?”

Vania paused to kick her door open wider. “You know how cursed far that wing is. I brought books for you, sweet. I found some interesting titles at Port Legann.”

“Oops,” Emmy said, and followed Vania to foot of her bed. They set down the heavy chest with a grunt. “I brought some sand from the desert for you. I’m sure there are still some in my boots.”

That startled a laugh out of Vania. “I’m glad you went. The trip was good for you. Did Eda Bell teach you anything new?”

They settled down on Vania’s bed and chattered about their summer. At some point Emmy had the sense to bring her mending over to Vania’s room while Vania rearranged her things and polished her weapons. Fianola showed up just an hour before supper, and they tasted the snacks that she brought from home while they caught up.

Finally, it was time to stand in front of their rooms while haMinch led the pages to the first-years and find sponsors for them.

Emmy had a surprise when she realised that the girl she met yesterday was among the new pages, and the only girl in their year. What was even more surprising was her name.

“Patrine haMinch, sir.” She said as she bowed, drawing gasps from the pages present.

Emmy couldn’t see haMinch’s face from where she was standing with the other pages behind him, but his voice was dry when he said, “Very well. And yes, as you must be wondering, we are related. Patrine is my grand-niece. But that does not mean that she will be treated more favourably.”

“And I do not expected to be treated so, sir.” Patrine replied confidently, and Emmy was surprised again that she dared to interrupt.

“You will be handed twice the punishment duties should I find your work unsatisfactory, understand?” haMinch said. The other pages either winced like Emmy did, or snickered.

Patrine didn’t bat an eyelid. “Yes, sir.”

“Now, who would sponsor her?”

Emmy found herself raising her hand even as both Vania and Fianola did. Several other boys did, as well, including Briar, a forth-year page now. A quick count told Emmy that a total of seven pages had volunteered.

HaMinch turned to survey them with a raised eyebrow. “Sponsoring Patrine would not improve my perception of you, to be clear. This is part of the duties of older pages.” He turned a little to Patrine, “This is unprecedented. Would you like to choose your sponsor?”

Patrine nodded, and raised a finger to point at Emmy directly. “I would like her to be my sponsor, sir.”

HaMinch raised an eyebrow, and he wasn’t the only one surprised. “Are you acquainted with each other?”

“We are acquainted with each other’s horses, sir.” Patrine said with a straight face.

Emmy bit her lip to stop herself from grinning. Vania nudged her with an elbow, and when Emmy turned to look Vania had raised her eyebrow too. Emmy mouthed ‘later’ to her.

“Very well,” haMinch said, “Emmeline of Tirragen will be your sponsor.”

Emmy watched her face when haMinch said her name, and was relieved to find that Patrine did not flinch. When haMinch moved on, Patrine slipped easily through the group of pages as they parted ways for her. They shook hands silently, grinning, as haMinch had the next first year page introduced himself. Vania and Fianola were so busy getting Patrine’s attention and waving that they didn’t sponsor anyone else.

Vania and Fianola introduced themselves eagerly as they made their way to supper later, and they peppered Patrine with questions throughout supper. Patrine gamely answered all of them and asked her own, her confidence reminding Emmy of Vania, for all that she was only ten years old.

Emmy also asked questions, but half her mind was thinking back on her first year, and she tried to remember the things that were helpful. She tried to remember how the others acted as sponsors, and her heart fell when she recalled Tristan of Meron, the page Vania sponsored last year. If she was really honest with herself, was Emmy going to help Patrine’s standing among her year mates?

When supper was finally done, she stopped Patrine and the corridor, and motioned for the others to move on. Vania and Fianola looked curious, but they let them be.

“Listen,” she said to Patrine, her heart a little heavier but knowing that she ought to be upfront about it, “I’m honoured that you chose me as your sponsor. But you must know that Tirragen is a disgraced house, and it probably won’t win you any favours from your year mates to be associated with me. I’ll help you find your way around, but I’d understand if you want to stay away from me afterwards.”

Patrine frowned at her. “Are you regretting this?”

Emmy shook her head quickly. “I would love to help you out. But haMinch values teamwork among the pages. You’d need to work closely with your year mates. They might not like to be associated with me, even indirectly. I’m used to it. I just want to make sure you know about this.”

Patrine grinned a little. “Do you think I care about what they think? Rebel likes you, and he’s a good judge of people. You’re stuck with me.”

Emmy had to grin back, though as she put an arm around Patrine’s shoulder and steered her to the pages’ wing, she made a mental note to herself. She would have to watch how Patrine works with her year mates. It would be sad if a relative of haMinch, the training master who brought a disparate group of pages together, were to become known as a lone wolf. Emmy would not let that happen, not on her watch.

*

The third years donned their weighted harnesses on the first day of training, and all of them were miserable. Emmy was pleased to note that she didn’t struggle as much with it as she did at the beginning of her second year. She got used to it within the week, and and breathed a sigh of relief that her months of agony at the beginning of her second year wasn’t going to be repeated.

“You’re doing well with the weights, Emmy,” Roland said to her one morning in their second week of training, panting as he leaned against his staff in the rare moment of breaks the instructors allowed them.

Emmy grinned, breathing heavily herself, though not as badly as Roland. “Eda Bell kept a strict training regimen on the road. We trained even after dinner.”

Roland only had enough breath to give her a brief salute. Emmy surveyed the practice court, looking for one person in particular.

Patrine also leaned against her staff among the first years, though her face was grimaced in pain. Emmy frowned, and noted how Patrine held her ribs as if they hurt. None of her year mates were talking to her.

Emmy stole looks at her throughout the rest of her training, and noted that Patrine favoured one leg over another, and almost tripped when they trotted back to the storage shed to drop their practice weapons.

That night, Emmy stopped Patrine after supper and dragged her back to Emmy’s room when she was certain that Patrine didn’t have punishment duty to report to.

“What happened?” Emmy gestured for Patrine to sit next to her on her bed.

Patrine didn’t move. She look exhausted. “What do you mean?”

“Are you hurt?”

Patrine shook her head quickly. Emmy caught a brief flash of panic, and it was only because Emmy was looking out for it.

She raised her eyebrow. “You don’t have to hide it from me. I saw you at training today. You were in pain.”

Patrine stuck her chin out. “I’m fine. I’m just sore from training, that’s all.”

Emmy crossed her arms. Was she this stubborn when she was starting out? “Why don’t you give me a push-up? You did practise after I went to the trouble of showing it to you the other day, haven’t you?”

Patrine glared at Emmy for a moment. Emmy held her gaze coolly, praying that Patrine had not yet realised that Emmy was not the type who wanted the first years to earn their ways. She would find out in time. But tonight, Emmy just needed to know.

Finally, Patrine lowered herself to the floor slowly, and braced herself on her hands. Her arms shook even at the plank position, and she gritted her teeth. The moment she tried to lower herself she gasped, and her knees hit the floor as she bend at the waist, her face grimaced in pain as she clutched one side of her ribs.

Knowing this was coming, Emmy was already by her side, and she helped Patrine up. She slung Patrine’s free arm over her shoulders, and carefully guided her to sit on Emmy’s bed. Patrine wouldn’t meet her eyes.

“Let me see,” Emmy said, and gently pulled Patrine’s hand away. She lifted Patrine’s shirt, and grimaced at the large bruise across her ribs and mid-section. It looked remarkably similar to her own bruises in her first year, and Emmy wondered if it was the same person who kicked Patrine when she was down.

Without a word, Emmy stood up and looked for the jar of bruise balm in her drawer. Knowing that Patrine was too proud for her own good, she handed it to her instead of helping her apply it.

“It’s bruise balm. Put some on those bruises.”

Emmy watched as Patrine did so.

“Do you have your own?” Emmy asked when Patrine was done. Patrine shook her head, and Emmy pushed the jar back into Patrine’s hands when she tried to hand it to Emmy. “Keep it for now. Use it in the mornings and before you sleep. It’s good, but not so good that you only need it once. Remember to use them on your leg too.”

Patrine looked up to her in surprise. Emmy smiled slightly at her. “I told you I watched you at training.”

Patrine looked away again, her cheeks flushed.

Emmy considered her words carefully. “I was ambushed on my first night of training.” Patrine turned to her again, eyes wide. “Three larger boys cornered me in a corridor. Two held me up against the wall while a third punched me. When I fell to the ground, they kicked me.” Emmy paused. “How many were there for you?”

Patrine gulped. “Four.”

Emmy bit back a curse. “You’d think that they’d show some respect to a Minchi.”

It was the wrong thing to say. Patrine’s face closed up again and she looked away. “Why should they? The whole court knows by now how the Minchi clan denounced my father for letting me train for knighthood. My own relatives swore up and down that I would be gone after probation, and that my grand-uncle was only indulging his favourite nephew for a while.”

Emmy stared in surprise. “I didn’t know. I’m sorry.”

Patrine stood up with only a slight grimace. “I don’t want you to be sorry for me.” She put down the jar of bruise balm on Emmy’s bed, and turned to leave.

Emmy gripped her arm and sighed, “Wait up, will you? I know how you feel. I’m a Tirragen, remember? All my friends feel sorry for me at times.”

Patrine stopped resisting, and looked at the floor.

“They’re still my friends, because we watch out for each other.” Emmy continued, and shifted such that she was standing in front of Patrine. “Most of the time they forget I’m a Tirragen, and see me as a fellow page and friend. You’re new to the palace, and you’re my charge. I don’t care what the court gossip say about you, I want you to do well. Will you trust me?”

Patrine looked up at her, and nodded tentatively. Emmy guided her back to her bed again and set her down.

“First things first, you won’t be able to take on groups of boys at your age,” Emmy began, feeling strange that she was reviewing her own experience and advising someone younger in a similar situation. “You will have the training to do so in time, but not right now. You need strength in numbers. Do you join your year mates when they study?”

“They avoid me.” Patrine said quietly after a pause.

Emmy tried to hide her dismay. She had been so, so lucky to have Vania.

“Well, join us then,” she tried to sound more cheerful, “My year mates and I always study at the classroom next to the library in the evenings. It helps when you come across problems you can’t solve. Don’t go anywhere alone, if you can. I’ll walk with you, but don’t be afraid to ask Vania or the others to walk you if I’m elsewhere, all right? You know they like you. ”

Patrine nodded reluctantly.

“Don’t worry too much about it,” Emmy said gently, “They wouldn’t leave me alone throughout my first year as well. But by the end of my first year I proved that I can take care of myself.” She rested a hand on Patrine’s shoulder, and smiled reassuringly at her hopeful eyes. “You’ll do it too, in time. Let’s watch out for each other in the meantime, shall we?”

Patrine nodded, smiling a little this time. Emmy made sure that she took the bruise balm with her. But Emmy stopped her before she opened the door.

“I know this will sound difficult for you,” Emmy said, “but you’ll have to figure out how to earn the respect of your year mates. Sir haMinch is strict about us having to work together, and you’ll need to learn how.”

“But I would have joined the Riders if I’d wanted to care about what others think,” Patrine protested, bolder now that she could be honest with Emmy. “Knights work alone.”

Emmy shook her head with a smile. She had thought that once too. “Do you think the Lioness work alone these days? She’s fighting Scanrans with the army up north. Keladry of Mindelan is a commander at a camp, leading large groups of men and villagers. We’ll work however we must, when the realm needs us. You’re smart, I know you’ll work this out eventually. But don’t take too long.”

Patrine actually pulled a face at her, and Emmy chuckled as she watched her return to her own room. She closed the door only when she saw that Patrine had reached her room safely. She shook her head. She would have to watch Patrine more closely from now on. She was lucky to have Vania and the others watch out for her, it was time to pass it forward.

*

When Emmy told the rest of her year mates about watching out for Patrine, they agreed readily. Fianola even told her privately that she was proud of Emmy for watching out for someone younger now. When Emmy ducked her head in pleasure and embarrassment, Fianola switched to complimenting Emmy on her combat skills, which surprised her.

After that, Emmy paid more attention to how she fared in class and was again surprised to find that she had improved a lot. She had always lived with the fact that she lagged behind her year mates when it came to combat trainings. But she was somehow among the top in class now, sometimes second only to Vania, sometimes beating Vania by a small margin.

Beyond the hand-to-hand training with Eda Bell on the road, Emmy’s time with the Riders had improved her archery and riding tremendously. Her staff work improved as a result of her training with the glaive over the summer, and her fencing skills were sharpened with some of the moves that Eda taught her while on the road. The only thing that she was still rather horrible at, and in which Vania excelled, was tilting.

“Good,” Vania had said when Emmy jokingly brought this up, “You have to leave something for me to be good at, my dear.”

There was an odd glint in Vania’s eyes when she said it, and Emmy had to wonder if Vania really minded.

In between her training and homework, and the occasional tutoring and keeping an eye on Patrine, Emmy didn’t realise when Vania had started turning up exhausted to the trainings and classes. She took notice when Vania was punished for sleeping in class one day. Vania had dark circles under her eyes, and she looked haggard. Emmy turned to Fianola first, because Fianola noticed everything. But she said she didn’t know the reason, and Emmy decided to confront Vania herself.

She waited for Vania while she mucked out the stables as part of her punishment for sleeping in class.

“What are you doing here?” Vania asked tiredly as she washed her hands.

“Waiting for you.” Emmy said, walking over to stand next to Vania. Vania rested her hands on the edge of the barrel of water when she was done, closing her eyes.

“Are you all right?” Emmy asked, reaching out to rest a hand on Vania’s shoulder.

Vania shook her off, and Emmy tried not to feel hurt by it. “I’m fine. Let’s go. We still have work to get to.”

“Wait,” Emmy hurried to cut Vania off. “I want to know if you’re all right. In general, I mean. You look very tired these days. Has something been bothering you?”

Vania stared at her for a few moments, her eyes unreadable. At last, she looked away. “It’s nothing. Everything’s fine.”

Vania tried to walk around her, but Emmy raised an arm to block her. “I’m not blind, Vania. And I’m not an idiot, or too young to understand. You’re my friend, and something’s bothering you. I wish you would tell me.”

Vania turned, and used her finger to raise Emmy’s chin. Her smile was bitter. “You have grown up, haven’t you?”

Emmy lowered her arm and shifted such that she faced Vania directly. She touched Vania’s raised arm gently. “So have you. We all grow up. Will you tell me what’s wrong? I just want to help.”

Vania pulled her hand back and lowered her head. “You must think I’m a spoiled princess.”

“I never!” Emmy said quickly, both her worry and frustration growing. Why wouldn’t Vania just be straight with her? What made her so tired all the time? “You know I don’t think that, Vania. Why would you say that? Can you just tell me what’s wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong.” Vania insisted, and turned to walk away.

“I’m tired of you treating me like a child, Vania,” The words were out before Emmy could stop herself, and Vania froze in her tracks, half turned away from her. “I know you and Fianola don’t tell me things because you don’t think I’d understand. But I thought I had earned your trust. I thought I’d shown that I’ve improved.”

“Being good in training doesn’t mean you know everything,” Vania said unexpectedly, turning fully away such that Emmy couldn’t see her face.

Emmy blinked, her earlier suspicions floating back up. “Is this what it’s about? That I’m becoming good in training? You don’t like it?” She tried to hide her hurt. She had thought Vania would be proud of her.

“It’s not about you, Emmy.” Vania said heavily, rubbing her temples.

“Have you been doing extra training on your own then?” Emmy asked. Vania’s fingers froze at her temples, and Emmy knew she was right. Emmy frowned, “Have you been sleeping properly? You shouldn’t push yourself too hard.”

“I don’t answer to you.” Vania all but growled, and strode away. They echoed Emmy’s own words, uttered to Vania on her first night of training two years ago. Emmy was so startled to hear them thrown back at her that she didn’t follow Vania.

She stood in a daze at the stables for a while, wondering what had happened to them.

Chapter Text

At long last, Sunday came. Vania struggled to wake up for the dawn service, and decided to sleep in instead, preferring to take punishment duty than giving up sleep. Her head hurt anyway, and her body ached all over.

It was mid-morning when the knock came on her door. Vania ignored it at first, but the person was persistent.

“All right, I’m coming!” She growled, and pushed herself up. The room swayed when she did, and she spent a few moments waiting for it to settle. She staggered over to her door, and opened to find Fianola standing there with a basket.

Vania was still trying to figure out what to say when Fianola strode in and closed the door behind her. She hooked Vania’s elbow with her arm, and put a hand on Vania’s forehead.

“You’re having a fever.” Fianola declared, a concerned frown on her face as she steered Vania to her bed and sat her down. “Have you eaten anything?”

Vania shook her head. She was sick. It finally made sense. When was the last time she was sick?

She let Fianola take care of her, feeding her breakfast and tea, and letting her tuck her in when she left to find a healer. She vaguely remembered haMinch checking in on her, and a concerned Lianne performing a healing on her and sending her to sleep.

Fianola was doing her homework at Vania’s desk when she woke up again. From the sunlight in her room, it was already afternoon.

“What happened?” Vania yawned as she sat up. Her head didn’t hurt anymore, and her body was loose and not aching, if a little weaker than usual. She still felt a little cold.

Fianola poured a mug of tea and set it in Vania’s hand before sitting down next to her on her bed. Vania murmured her thanks and took a few sips. It cleared her mind quickly.

“You were pretty ill this morning. Lianne was worried. How are you feeling now?”

“Much better.” Vania said, sipping her tea again. “Lianne fixed it, whatever it was.”

“Well, Lianne isn’t going to be able to help if you keep pushing yourself too hard.” Fianola said suddenly, and Vania froze.

Fianola’s eyes were stern. “We’re worried, both Emmy and I. You can’t keep pushing yourself this way. Your body needs the rest.”

Vania had stopped listening when she heard Emmy’s name. “Did Emmy say anything?”

Fianola sighed. “Yes. She came to me yesterday. Don’t think that I didn’t notice the two of you not talking to each other the past two days. Something happened, didn’t it? All Emmy would tell me was that she’s worried about you because you’re pushing yourself too hard, and you wouldn’t tell her why.”

Vania closed her eyes, shame building up in her. “I’ve made a mess of things, haven’t I?”

“It’s not that big of a mess,” Fianola said gently, putting an arm around her shoulder, “You just got yourself sick, and your friends sick with worry.”

To add to Vania’s shame, tears built up in her eyes and escaped before she could stop them. “I’m sorry.”

A handkerchief gently dabbed at her cheeks and eyes, and Vania smiled at Fianola gratefully.

“Will you tell me what’s wrong now?”

Vania fumbled for words. “I just… I don’t know when it started. Maybe it was on the road to Port Legann. Maybe it was after I sent Kally off. I just — I see her and I realised how lucky I am to be able to train for knighthood. I mean, I’d always known that. But maybe I’ve been getting complacent.”

She looked down at her tea. “It just hit me again that I’m free to shape my life when Kally couldn’t. When Lianne couldn’t. I had vowed to myself that I would be good at this, that I’d be the best at this and do great things to make up for this — this privilege.

“And when term started, and I realised how good Emmy is becoming, I just — I just feel like I’m lagging behind. That I’m not doing what I should. I thought I’d just work harder so I won’t keep feeling ashamed of myself in front of Lianne or Kally.”

“Oh, Vania.” Fianola tightened her arm in a half hug. “You are already much better than most of us. You work hard, even before you worked yourself sick. Neither Kally nor Lianne, or all the ones who love you want to see you push yourself this way. Will you stop doing this to yourself?”

Vania nodded meekly. “I was mean to Emmy too. She came to ask me what’s wrong, but I kept pushing her away.”

“Well, apologise to her,” Fianola said sensibly. “She’s worried about you. She’d understand if you just explain it to her.”

“She’s grown up a lot,” Vania said, wincing as she thought about on their exchange at the stables, “I feel like I’ve been the childish one.”

“You haven’t been honest with each other, that’s why,” Fianola said. “Emmy’s been more confident since she came back from the trip with Eda Bell. But I think she’s more conscious now that it’s going to be hard to redeem her family name. She worries about it when she sees the younger pages shying away from her.”

Vania frowned, trying to recall whether she had seen something like that. “How do you know?”

Fianola was as close to smirking as Vania had ever seen her. “I observe, my dear.”

Vania scowled. But she put an arm around Fianola anyway and squeezed in a silent thanks.

*

Emmy was having a bad day. Vania still wouldn’t talk to her, and she didn’t show up for dawn worship this morning, which was unlike her. Emmy got worried, but Fianola said she would check in on Vania, and Emmy reluctantly let it go. She was planning to knock on Fianola’s door after lunch when she discovered her own surprise.

She found dark stains on her underwear and breeches when she went to the privy, and she stared at it numbly for a few moments. She’d heard enough complains from Vania and Fianola to know that this meant Emmy’s monthlies had finally begun. She had a vague knowledge of what it meant, and that she needed cloth pads. But where would she get those? And was this why her stomach had been feeling funny the past two days?

Fianola didn’t answer her door. Emmy didn’t want to try Vania’s, not when their last conversation left things so awkward already between them.

Emmy was feeling sad by then, hating the fact that she didn’t have anyone else to turn to. But she made herself move, and her feet had more sense than she did, for they led her to the infirmary.

“What do you need, girl?” An unfamiliar healer saw her come in, and paused from preparing her herbs.

Emmy blushed. “I — I was wondering —”

“Emmy!” Lianne emerged from a room behind the main waiting room, and hurried over worriedly. “Why are you here? Is Vania all right?”

Emmy blinked. “I — I don’t know. I haven’t seen her. Why do you ask?”

“Oh.” Lianne looked surprised. “Well, Vania is sick. I thought you came because something happened to her after I left her.”

Emmy was frowning by then. “I didn’t know. Is she going to be all right? She looked tired for the past few weeks.”

Lianne wrapped an arm around her shoulder and steered her into a small study beside the waiting room, closing the door behind her. “I did a healing on her, she should be resting now. Do you know what she’s been up to recently? She doesn’t get sick often.”

Emmy bit her lip, but decided to tell anyway. Lianne was her sister. If there was anyone that Vania would forgive Emmy for telling, it would be her sister. “She’s pushing herself too hard. I don’t think she’s sleeping properly. She must have been sneaking in more training in the mornings or after midnight. And she wouldn’t tell me why.”

There was a small hearth in the study, with two armchairs on either side of it. With the desk and shelves of books and jars, it was a cramped little room, though Lianne seemed completely at ease. She sat down on one of the armchairs, and gestured for Emmy to sit down on the other one.

Emmy stared at the chair, and remembered why she came. She bit her lip.

“What’s wrong?”

Blushing fiercely, she stammered out the reason why she came. Lianne looked surprised, but she jumped into action, taking cloth pads out of a drawer and sending her to change. When Emmy came back, Lianne was putting some tea leaves into a small jar.

“The tea will ease the cramps,” Lianne said as she closed the lid on the jar, and told her which supply room to go to for more cloth pads. Emmy could only nod, still red-faced and afraid to meet Lianne’s eyes.

“You don’t have to be embarrassed, Emmy,” Lianne said gently, and came around the table to put a hand on Emmy’s shoulder. “Every girl goes through this when we grow up. It’s just a little confusing at first.”

Maybe it was because she trusted Lianne. Maybe it was her confused body playing tricks on her. But she said something that she never thought she’d say, “I wish I don’t have to grow up. I wish things would stay just the way it was. It’s getting so complicated, and Vania wouldn’t even talk to me.”

Emmy blinked quickly, and looked away as she wiped a few tears. She didn’t think she could feel more embarrassed, coming to Lianne — Princess Lianne — with something like this. And now she had to cry in front of her too, when Emmy had not cried since she came back from Tirragen.

Lianne wrapped her in a hug, to Emmy’s surprise. She rubbed soothing circles on her back, and Emmy felt herself relaxing. “You’ll be fine. Even the best of friends argue sometimes. I’d never seen her so close with someone else. She’ll come around soon enough. You’ll see.”

Emmy sniffled, and pulled back reluctantly to smile at Lianne. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what’s gotten into me.”

Lianne smiled back. “The monthlies get us in different ways. Vania gets cross. Some of us get weepy. Don’t worry about it.”

Still, Emmy fled soon after that, her jar of tea leaves in hand. She stopped by the supply room, and was handed a small bag of cloth pads without fuss. When she reached her door, she found Vania and Fianola talking quietly at Vania’s door.

Vania looked as startled as Emmy must have felt.

“Well,” Fianola said finally, when Vania and Emmy only stared at each other, “I’m off to my room. I do have work to finish.”

Emmy turned to open her door, only to feel Vania’s hand on her arm as she fumbled with her keys.

“Emmy,” Vania began.

But Emmy was frowning at how warm Vania’s hand was, and reached out to touch Vania’s forehead with the back of her hand. “You still have a slight fever. Did you take the tea that Lianne gave you?”

Vania chuckled softly. “Look at you, trying to take care of me.”

“You took care of me when you were thirteen.” Emmy said crossly, surprising even herself. “I’m not a child anymore.”

Vania looked taken aback, and she let go of Emmy’s arm. “I’m sorry. I — I didn’t mean to imply…”

Emmy sighed, and opened her door. “Let’s talk inside. You’ll catch a cold again if you keep standing outside.”

Vania huffed a little as she followed Emmy into her room. “I’m not some fragile flower that will break at the first sign of the wind.”

Emmy dropped the bag and set the jar on her desk roughly. “Not usually you’re not. But don’t you see how not taking care of yourself lead to trouble? You won’t even have this cold if you’re not weak from overwork in the first place!”

When Emmy looked up, Vania’s eyes were shocked. She looked away when Emmy’s eyes met hers, and she sank onto Emmy’s bed tiredly. She looked so miserable that Emmy’s heart went out to her, and she crossed the distance between them in quick strides.

Emmy took Vania’s hands into her own. “I’m sorry, Vania.” She said quietly as she crouched in front of her, hoping to catch Vania’s downcast eyes. “I’ve just been worried about you. And then I found out that you got sick. I wish you would listen to me, or trust me enough to tell me what’s bothering you.”

Vania sighed, and smiled down uncertainly at Emmy. Emmy had never seen her this way before. “I’m the one who’s sorry, Emmy,” Vania said. She tugged her up, and patted the spot on the bed next to her. “I’m sorry I keep pushing you away.”

Vania waited until Emmy sat down beside her before continuing, “I didn’t know how to deal with what I’m feeling, and I didn’t know how to tell you.”

Emmy wrapped an arm around Vania’s shoulder and squeezed a little. “Just tell me whatever comes to mind. Let me try and put them together. I was a mess when I came back from Tirragen more than a year ago. You understood me in the end, even if I wasn’t making sense in the beginning.”

Vania smiled a little at her recounting of the events, and she leaned her head on Emmy’s shoulder. “I just — I felt like I was falling behind. I’m proud of you for becoming good at our trainings, Emmy, I really am. It just felt like I wasn’t progressing in comparison.”

Emmy bit her lips to stop herself from protesting.

“Kally and I talked when we were at Port Legann,” Vania continued, “She’s accepted what she has to do, and she said she’s proud of me. But how can I make her proud if I’m not becoming better, or the best I can be? Lianne, too. Lianne wanted to be a Rider once. But now she knows that one day father will arrange a marriage for her that will benefit the realm, and she’ll heal when she can.”

Emmy felt something on her thigh, and looked down to see that Vania had clenched her fists so hard that they shook. “I’m the only princess allowed to be a knight, Emmy. Because I asked for it. I asked for a life I wanted, and I’m the only one who wasn’t denied it. How can I stand tall in front of Kally or Lianne if I just muddle along?”

Finally Emmy understood why Vania had always worked so hard. She had thought that Vania was simply competitive and wanted to be the best in everything. But this wasn’t it at all, was it? How little Emmy knew about Vania, whom she had called her best friend.

“You never muddle along, Vania,” Emmy said quietly, giving Vania another half-hug. “You work hard, and everyone can see that. Kally and Lianne won’t want to see you work yourself sick. Doubtless they just want you to be happy.”

“Fianola said the same thing.” Vania said softly.

Emmy nodded in satisfaction. “You know she’s always right about these things.”

Vania chuckled. She was about to say something when she sneezed. She shivered a little as it passed. Emmy remembered that Vania was still sick, and she shifted to stand up, pulling Vania up with her.

“Let’s get you back to bed. You should at least be wrapped in a scarf or a blanket.”

Vania allowed herself to be towed towards her room.

“Am I always so bossy with you?” Vania asked when Emmy sat her down on the bed.

Emmy smirked as she tucked Vania in. “I learned a lot of what I know from you.”

Vania’s eyes were looking drowsy. “I’m not sure I like what that says about me.”

“Figure it out after you’ve rested,” Emmy said. Vania gave her a sleepy smile, and closed her eyes.

Emmy watched Vania as she drifted off to sleep. Before their examinations at the end of their first year, Fianola had told Emmy that being royal is both a blessing and a curse. Emmy thought that she had learned about what it meant. She thought she understood the pressures that Vania was under. But now, she realised she never knew that so much of it came from Vania herself. Vania had always put on such a brave face, and was always so eager to help others that it was hard to tell she struggled with her own worries.

Emmy kept telling Vania that she had grown up, but had she really? How much did she really know about Vania?

As Emmy closed Vania’s door behind her, she promised to herself that she would be a better friend to Vania from now on.

*

Vania was back to her old self again after she recovered, and Emmy was glad. Both Emmy and Fianola kept close eyes on her. They exchanged notes privately to make sure that Vania wasn’t pushing herself too hard anymore, and didn’t stop until two weeks later. It was late October now, and their training was at full speed. All of them were kept busy with work.

Patrine, on the other hand, had gotten herself punishment duty lined up until January. She was good in both training and classes, way better than Emmy was in her first year. Her problem was her inability to keep her mouth shut, and the fact that her punishment was always doubled because she was a haMinch.

“What did she do this time?” Gerald asked with a raised eyebrow when Emmy mentioned at their study group that Patrine had gotten more punishment duty, again.

“She argued against how staff training should be taught,” Emmy muttered, “I really shouldn’t have shown her how to use the glaive.”

Vania laughed. “Doesn’t she know her uncle well enough to know it’s a bad idea?”

“Her grand-uncle,” Emmy corrected absently as she closed her books and gathered her things. “I think the problem is that she knows him too well, and forgets that this isn’t a family gathering.” She gave them a small wave as she stood to leave, “I need to pick her up from the stables.”

Her year mates called their farewells, knowing at she would not be making the long walk back here after escorting Patrine back to her room. Patrine had three full hours of punishment duty tonight, and it was too late now.

Emmy readjusted her bag as she walked, chiding herself for borrowing so many books from the library. It wasn’t as if she wouldn’t be visiting it again tomorrow night. But the books on Bazhir history and culture looked so fascinating, and she was a little anxious — unreasonably so, as Vania told her — that the books would be borrowed by someone else that she had to borrow them tonight.

Her bag strap was sliding down her shoulders again, and she stopped before she had to turn a corner to adjust it. She almost sighed in frustration when she heard the noise.

It was a muffled thump of someone pushed against the wall.

“Why are you all by your lonesome tonight, girlie?”

Emmy grimaced. She would recognise that voice anywhere. Silently, she slid her bag down and set it softly against the wall.

“Not so proud now without your protector, are you?”

Emmy braced herself when she rounded the corner, and coolly noted the four pages that surrounded Patrine. Tibout was the ring leader, flanked by two of his year mates and a big page that Emmy recognised as a second year.

“Still bullying smaller folks with bigger boys on your back, Tibout?” Tibout and his cronies turned to her as she strode calmly towards them. “I thought you would have grown out of it by now.”

Tibout did something he had never done before. He leered at her. “You know, Tirragen, if you come to your senses and give up this knighthood business, you’d make a good bed-warmer.”

“How dare you —” Patrine was cut off when Tibout slapped her.

It was stupid, but Emmy charged. She jumped and kicked Tibout in a move Eda showed her, and blocked the second page but took a punch from the third. She struck as fast as she could, but there were three of them. She took a few blows to her stomach and legs. Patrine yelped at some point, and Emmy took a few more blows when she tried to pull the second-year off Patrine.

A servant’s shout made them all jump. Emmy was a little dizzy by then, but Patrine pulled her down the corridor, and they ran as fast as they could.

They slowed down only after two more turns. They were lucky that they were at the outer corridors, for immediately Emmy went to the bushes and threw up her dinner. She held her belly gingerly, knowing that there would be spectacular bruises the next morning.

“Emmy?” Patrine asked, panting. “Are you all right?”

Emmy straightened with a wince, and turned around. “I’ll be fine, are you?”

Patrine looked disheveled, and one of her cheeks were red and bruised, but otherwise she seemed fine. She raised her hand to touch her cheek carefully. “I don’t feel too bad. I fended off just one of them. But you took on the other three…”

Emmy took a step and almost stumbled. Patrine hurried over and pulled one of Emmy’s arms around her shoulder.

“It’s not really advisable,” Emmy muttered as they started walking. Emmy was limping a little, and it was only Patrine that kept her upright. She hoped Patrine knew where she was going. Emmy was starting to ache all over, and she didn’t quite know where they were.

Patrine had the audacity to grin. “But you were splendid! You were so fast, and you used moves that I’d seen only from Shang. But they don’t teach that at training, do they? Otherwise Tibout and his gang would have known them.”

“I traveled with Eda Bell to the desert over the summer,” Emmy said tiredly.

“Can anyone do that?” Patrine asked, awe in her voice.

Emmy smiled bitterly. “Only if you can’t go home.”

Patrine was silent, and it took Emmy a few moments to realise what she’d said. She stopped. “Patrine, I didn’t mean — I mean —”

“It’s all right, Emmy.” Patrine said softly, nudging her forward again.

It was a long, painful walk. When they reached Emmy’s room, Emmy had to pass Patrine her keys because her hands were shaking. She all but collapsed onto her bed when they went inside.

A cool sensation on her stomach woke her up. She opened her eyes to see Vania’s worried eyes on her. Her hands and her blue Gift hovered over Emmy’s belly as she soothed the pain on her abdomen. Fianola was tending to Patrine in the background.

“You’re getting better at this,” She told Vania drowsily.

Vania smiled tightly. “I learned something over the summer too, you dolt.”

Emmy grinned at her and went back to sleep.

Vania was good on her words. Emmy was only a little sore the next day, though she knew that she should have been badly bruised. She sought out Vania when she reached the mess hall, and gripped her arm tightly.

“Thank you.” She said quietly.

Vania beamed at her, and nodded at the end of their table. “I was going to scold you for taking on three opponents yourself, but I love how colourful they look today.”

Emmy followed her gaze and hid a smile. Tibout and his gang slouched tiredly at the table, and three of them had bruises on their faces, and one had scratch marks on his hands. But when Tibout caught her eyes, he leered at her again. Emmy clenched her fists as she walked away to get her food.

“What’s wrong?” Vania asked quietly when Emmy sat down with her tray, still shaking a little. Fianola caught her eye opposite their table as well, and Gerald glanced their way casually.

Emmy licked her lips, not quite sure how to say it. “Tibout’s changed.”

“How so?”

Emmy tucked into her food quickly. She was starving, for all she was angry. She straightened up after she swallowed. “He used to just insult my family, calling me a traitor. Last night he said that I’d be a good bed-warmer.”

Gerald slammed his fork on the table. Vania almost knocked over her cup.

“That slimy toad —”

“That rotten piece of —”

Hush!” Fianola hissed quickly as others turned to them. “Do you want everyone to hear?”

Emmy continued to wolf down her food as Vania and Gerald seethed. Fianola was moving a little stiffly, too, though it was hard to tell how she was feeling.

Emmy made herself pause. “It’s probably nothing, guys. It just rattled me, that’s all.”

“It is something,” Fianola said softly, but her eyes gleamed, “You need to be more careful now, Emmy. You’re turning into a woman, and men get different ideas.”

Emmy snuck a quick look at her own chest. She had noticed the changes, though they were so modest that she paid them no heed. Both Vania and Fianola had long since grown into their curves, and lean and small as she was, Emmy doubt that she would ever look as womanly as they did.

You don’t seem to have that problem.” Emmy grumbled, her cheeks red.

“They know they court my father’s wrath if they do,” Vania said lightly, though her eyes were still hard as she cut her sausage.

“And mine’s the same.” Fianola said with a sigh. “I know it’s not fair, Emmy. But our family standings do give us more protection. Just be careful, that’s all I ask.”

“Or point them to me,” Gerald grumbled. His cheeks were pink, but he caught Emmy’s eyes and she knew he meant it. Gerald had a growth spurt over the summer, and he was Vania’s height now. He reminded her of Xander all of a sudden.

Emmy mumbled her thanks, and they continued their breakfast in an awkward silence that so rarely plague them these days. When breakfast was done, they were all relieved to rush off to training.

Chapter Text

Vania made sure that Patrine and Emmy did not walk around by themselves after their fight with Tibout. She quietly arranged with the rest of her year mates such that one of them was always with the two of them. With Emmy’s Shang training, three of them should be enough against the four in Tibout’s gang, she figured. She could tell that Emmy was mildly annoyed at being protected again like she was in her first year, but Emmy was sensible enough not to argue about it.

Maybe it worked, maybe it wasn’t necessary. Either way, there were no more fights for the next two months, and work kept them all busy. Midwinter was upon them again before they knew it. The pages were once again thrust into serving duties, and Vania always made sure that she could clean up and change into a dress quickly after her duties were done.

Vania loved these parties. She loved the decorations, the effort that everyone put in to look their best. She stared openly and was generous with her compliments. That her duties as a page prevented her from joining the parties earlier was probably the only thing she really disliked about her training.

On the third night, when she wandered over to a group of knights, she almost dropped her tray when the tall knight turned to look at her.

“How are you, Vania?” Keladry of Mindelan smiled when she saw her. She was wearing an emerald silk tunic over a white shirt, and she was gorgeous.

“My la — Kel,” Vania stammered, recalling at the last moment Kel’s instruction to use her first name. “I’m well, tha — thank you.”

“Why,” a familiar voice drawled next to Kel, “I never thought that I’d see you stutter. Does haMinch make you exercise your tongues too, until they get so sore that you can’t speak properly?”

Vania glared at Nealan of Queenscove. “I see that more than a year in the north hasn’t sweeten yours any.” She bowed to him mockingly, holding the tray towards him. “You should try some of the sweet juice, Sir Nealan.”

“Do you know each other?” Kel asked mildly, though her eyes twinkled.

“Do we know each other?” Neal repeated as he took a glass of wine instead from the tray. Vania silently offered it to the other two knights, whom she recognised as Kel’s year mates. “She was a little terror growing up, and probably my father’s second-most frequent visitor to the infirmary. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve had to run after her, or entertain her while she nursed some wound or another.”

“Many of them were social visits too, my lady,” Vania said quickly, her haste making her slip into more formal speech, “My sister, Lianne, took to the healing arts when she was young. She loved watching Duke Baird work.”

Kel’s year mates took a step back, and bowed. The red-head spoke. “Your highness, our apologies. We didn’t recognise you earlier.”

Vania stiffened. “Oh please don’t bow. I’m a page here, and I’m on duty today.”

Kel gestured to the red-head first, “This is Merric of Hollyrose, and this is Esmond of Nicoline.”

Vania bowed to them instead, and they looked to Kel in mild panic.

“How long are you here for, Kel?” Vania asked quickly, not wanting things to get too awkward.

“Until the road north is open again,” Kel said, taking a sip from her glass of cider. She wasn’t drinking wine like the others, Vania noted. “I hope things will be fine at New Hope.”

“Kel,” Neal said impatiently, “This is our first real break in a more than a year. I plan to spend time with my wife and not think about those festering patients-to-be for months. You’ve prepared them for a long time, trust that they know how to fend for themselves.”

“And the war is dying down,” Esmond remarked mildly and sipped his own wine.

Vania stayed with them for as long as she could, listening eagerly to the news of the war. She had known that after the defeat of the killing devices in the summer of her first year, the Scanran army had lost their momentum. But it was another thing entirely to hear about the skirmishes that continued at the border. With all the politics that surrounded it, it could be months, or it could be years still before the war was declared as officially over, and the knights at the border released from service.

Finally, she had to leave. Master Oakbridge had already scowled at her from the kitchen entrance for her delay.

Kel clasped Vania's shoulder when she bid them farewell. “Keep up the good work, Vania. I’ll see you around in the next few months.”

Vania’s heart soared, and she grinned widely, waving a little when she turned back. Her shoulder tingled from where Kel touched her. When Master Oakbridge scolded her for chatting with guests for too long, she ducked her head and replayed the conversation in her mind again, trying not to grin.

Kel would be around for the next few months! She said she would see her again!

The thought kept her light on her feet for the rest of the night, and Fianola raised an eyebrow at her questioningly when they passed each other. Vania just grinned and moved on. Fianola would figure it out soon enough.

At the end of the pages’ shift, she bid her friends farewell hastily, and rushed back to her room to clean up and change. Would Kel be at the dance hosted by her father? She heard that Kel didn’t particularly like these occasions. But Yuki loved them, and Shinko had to be there. Maybe Vania would see her again.

She chose a blue dress that showed off her figure, hesitating only briefly. It was silly to hope that it would get Kel’s notice. Kel probably liked men like most women. But Vania just wanted to feel beautiful when Kel was around.

She took her usual shortcut, and was rushing through the corridors when she almost bump right into someone when she turned a corner.

The man cursed. “Who dare to —”

He stared at her. He was a balding man in his fifties, and he must be a lord or some sort, judging from his paunch and expensive clothing and the jewelry that dotted his fingers and neck. Vania didn’t recognise the coat-of-arms stitched into the front of his tunic, though it was fine needlework.

She remembered just in time that she was in a dress, and curtsied. “My apologies, my lord. I was in a hurry and didn’t see where I was going.”

The man, the gall of that man. He leered at her. Belatedly, Vania noticed the red cheeks, and the mild stench of alcohol floating off him.

He took a slow step forward, his eyes on her chest. “Well, an apology like that won’t do. A girl like you should —”

“Perhaps you can take it up with my father the king, my lord,” Vania said steely, “I’m sure his majesty would be keen to listen to your grievances.”

His eyes turned up to her, and he burped. He laughed carelessly. “You’re a Conté! How appropriate. Your father needs me and he knows it! You’ll be the perfect payment!”

Vania scowled openly. “Who are you?”

His arm reached out and Vania stepped back to dodge it. He swayed a little, but held his ground. “You can ask your father —”

Vania saw the shadow, but didn’t register it until Emmy bumped into the man from the side and dumped a pitcher of wine on his expensive clothes.

The man screeched. “What —”

Vania gasped when Emmy hit the man from behind. He fell sideways, knocked out cold. Emmy dashed back to grab a cup from a tray by the floor, and dropped it carelessly near the puddle of wine on the floor.

“Come on!” Emmy urged, gesturing for her to follow when she picked up the tray and the empty pitcher again.

The two of them ran down the hall to their right, and stopped when they reached a private corner next to the exit to the gardens.

Vania panted, noting Emmy’s serving uniform, and the tray of empty pitcher and cups on her hands.

“What are you doing?” Vania asked finally, “Weren’t we dismissed from duty a while ago?”

“I tripped over a guest today.” Emmy said, panting a little herself, “Master Oakbridge made me clean up the small reading rooms around the hall as punishment.”

Vania frowned. “Why didn’t I know that?”

Emmy smiled. “You were in a hurry to return to the party.”

“Oh.” Vania looked down. “I’m sorry.”

Emmy clasped her shoulder, where Kel had touched her previously. “Don’t be. It’s nothing. Are you all right? Did that old man do anything to you?”

Vania smiled a little bitterly. “No, thanks to you. I can’t believe you knocked him out!”

Emmy shrugged. “Anyone who found him would think that he was drunk and tripped over himself. I know you can take care of yourself, but he saw your face. Things may get difficult if he turned out to be some important lord your father is working with. He never saw my face.”

Vania laughed, and threw her arms around Emmy impulsively. Emmy just managed to get her tray out of the way in time.

“Thank you,” Vania said to her ears, “my knight in shining armour.”

Emmy pushed her away gently. “Your page in sweaty uniform. Are you sure you’re all right?”

Vania sighed, and looked down at herself. The dress that she so excitedly wore earlier now disgusted her. “I want to go back to my room. I feel like a slut.”

Emmy touched her arm gently, and Vania looked up to see her tentative smile. “You’re beautiful. Men look at you because you’re beautiful, and they leer at you because they’re dishonourable idiots. It doesn’t make you a slut.”

Vania slowly smiled as she studied Emmy again. Emmy was still half a head shorter than Vania, but she held herself taller these days, and she was all lean muscles. Her short braid was twined with spikes, and her dark, even eyebrows gave her a no-nonsense look. One day people would take one look at her and be intimidated with a glare. But Vania saw concern and kindness in those dark brown eyes, and she felt a burst of pride and affection at the person Emmy had become.

“Thank you, Emmy,” She said quietly, “You’ve really grown up.”

Emmy grinned. “Do you want to go back to the ball? Shall I walk you back?”

“You’ll make an intimidating escort, shorter than me and with a serving tray in your hands.” Vania teased, and shook her head. “I’ll head back to my room. It’s been a long night. You should get back to Oakbridge too. I hope he doesn’t give you more punishment duty.”

Emmy looked at her tray with a sigh. “There isn’t much else he can make me do tonight.”

“Don’t jinx yourself,” Vania muttered as they turned to walk down the hall.

When Vania saw that they were leaving the private corner, she felt a sudden impulse, and gripped Emmy’s arm to stop her.

“What’s —”

Vania pulled Emmy a little closer, and leaned down to kiss her on the forehead.

“Midwinter luck, Emmy.”

She smiled at Emmy’s startled face, and strode down the corridor by herself.

*

Emmy stood where she was for a few more moments, her heart beating fast. The spot where Vania kissed her tingled still, and she didn’t know what to make of it. She knew about the tradition of kissing someone they were fond of for midwinter luck, but did it apply to friends? She had never done it, nor had any of her friends to her.

Was it because she was deemed of age now by Vania? Was it a sisterly gesture? Was it because Vania was still rattled but grateful from her encounter with the old sleazy lord? Why did things keep getting more complicated as she grew older? She just wanted to get through training and get her shield and start working.

Emmy made herself walk back to the main kitchen, where she dropped off the empty tray and hurriedly ducked Master Oakbridge when she left. The long day was weighing on her, and she was hungry. She regretted not getting something from the kitchen almost immediately — no doubt the dinner service meant for pages was over by now.

Maybe she should go to the Rider mess and find her friends and some food there. The Rider parties were notorious for dragging on all night, and they didn’t fuss with fancy clothes like they did here. Or she could —

She caught a whiff of alcohol before she bumped into someone as she turned a corner, and she jumped back in surprise. When she recognised the person she walked into she grimaced. She really should have paid more attention at where she was going.

“Isn’t it the Tirragen wench?” Tibout drawled, one hand pushing against the wall for balance. His cronies were nowhere in sight, for once. Though they probably were not as stupid as he was to get drunk while still in uniform.

Emmy walked deliberately to the side, intending to walk around him. She saw his hand coming, and she stepped back again when he moved to block her way. He swayed, and almost bumped into the wall on the opposite side of the corridor. How much did he drink?

“What do you want?” She asked curtly, subtly planting her feet wider in case he was stupid enough to take her on alone and drunk.

“Why, it’s Midwinter,” he said, and lurched forward again. Emmy dodged him calmly. “A fellow’s got to have a warm bed to get back to, don’t you think? How about some Midwinter luck —”

“What’s going on here?” A voice asked coldly.

Emmy turned, and saw Keladry of Mindelan almost right behind her, her face blank. Someone else was behind her, but Tibout moved again and Emmy turned back to keep an eye on him.

“Why, this is just my luck!” Tibout grinned sloppily, “Two wenches who didn’t know their place —”

“That’s enough.” Prince Roald strode forward and threw his glass of wine at Tibout, drenching his face.

Tibout spluttered and rubbed his face impatiently. “You dare —” His eyes widened when he finally realised who stood in front of him, and he grew pale.

“Dare I what?” Prince Roald asked calmly.

Tibout dropped to his knees. “Your highness! I’m sorry! I — I apologise. I —”

“Leave us.” Prince Roald said, “I’ll report to haMinch your behaviour and insult to my friend. Make sure you see him tomorrow to receive your punishment.”

Tibout moaned. He scrambled to his feet and fled.

Emmy bowed respectfully when Prince Roald turned to her. “Your highness.” She shifted and bowed to Kel, “Lady Kel.”

“He didn’t do anything to you, did he?” Kel smiled warmly at her.

Emmy smiled as she shook her head. “He probably couldn’t have, drunk as he was. But I appreciate your help all the same. Thank you.”

“Is he a bully?” Kel asked suddenly, exchanging a glance with Prince Roald. “I didn’t ask you the last time, but there always seem to be a few of them…”

Emmy bit her lip, not knowing what to say. Did the tradition of not telling apply to people who were not the training master?

“I suppose people still fall down, don’t they?” Prince Roald asked kindly.

Kel chuckled. “I almost forgot that we never tell.” She put a hand on Emmy’s shoulder. “I had bullies in my time, too.”

Emmy smiled tentatively, and caught Prince Roald’s eyes. “Vania told us the stories, Kel. She didn’t patrol the halls as you did, but she made sure that the weaker or younger among us don’t walk alone. And that helped.”

“Did she now?” Prince Roald said, looking very pleased. “She never said anything to me.”

Emmy nodded quickly. “Vania’s great at taking care of people. And she’s good at tactics. All of us would follow her lead willingly even if she wasn’t a princess, your highness.”

“Sounds like someone I know.” Prince Roald said, looking at Kel with a raised eyebrow.

Kel looked thoughtful. “Which year are you in again, Emmy? Third?”

Emmy nodded, her heart beating a little faster when she realised what might be on their minds. Emmy and her year mates would need to think about their knight masters — or knight mistress — in another year. Was Kel considering Vania as her squire? Vania had told them that Lady Alanna wouldn’t take her as a squire because they were too close. And Emmy knew that Vania all but worshipped Kel. Vania would be ecstatic if Kel were to take Vania as her squire, even if Emmy would love that chance as well.

“Walk with us a short while,” Kel said, shifting her hand to steer Emmy forward. “Unless you have somewhere to get to?”

Emmy shook her head, and walked in between Kel and Prince Roald, feeling strange to be in such company, and nervous about what she might say.

“Tell us more about how Vania is doing.” Prince Roald said.

Emmy swallowed and told them. She talked about Vania’s superior work in all their training and classes, and how she was a natural leader. To add a more personal note, she told them about how Vania kept an eye on what Emmy ate.

Prince Roald laughed at that, and glanced at Kel with a pointed look. Kel smiled, but didn’t say anything.

They hesitated, though, when Emmy told them that Vania had been spending time learning how to heal over the summer.

“Is she really interested in healing?” Kel probed.

They had stopped by a gap in the corridors that looked out into the gardens. There was two feet of snow outside, though at this spot the warmth from the building held. Perhaps it was some sort of magical wards around the palace.

Emmy considered her words carefully. “She wants to be able to do more if she comes across the wounded in her way. I don’t think she wants to be a healer. But it’s probably best to ask her directly on this, Kel.”

Kel nodded. She crossed her arms and leaned against the wall. “How is Fianola doing?”

Emmy was a little surprised at the change in topic, though she happily told them about Fianola too. She mentioned Fianola’s cool head and keen eyes, and her diplomatic skills. She talked about how Fianola always had the right words to say, that she was always kind. On a more personal note, Emmy mentioned how Fianola had the best embroidery skills among them.

“Not that Vania and I are any good,” Emmy said, frowning slightly as she thought about her non-existent skills.

That made the two knights laugh.

“And how are you doing, Emmy?” Prince Roald asked warmly.

Emmy blushed and felt her throat clamp up. “M-me, your highness? I — I’m doing well. I think.”

Kel reached out to pat her shoulder, smiling. “You were generous with your praise for your friends, Emmy. Surely you can find some words for yourself?”

Emmy felt her cheeks grew warmer, and she looked down at the snow a few feet away. Was there anything that she could say for herself?

“I’m mostly just grateful, Kel,” Emmy said finally. “I wouldn’t even be here, if Lady Alanna didn’t agree to fund my page training. Vania took me under her wing in my first year, when no one would sponsor me. My year mates kept the bullies at bay. And Eda Bell took pity on me last summer, and brought me along to the desert.”

Emmy nodded to herself. So what if she couldn’t get Keladry of Mindelan as a knight mistress? She already had so much, didn’t she?

“I’m mostly just grateful.” She said again to herself.

“You don’t give yourself enough credit, Emmy.” Prince Roald said, looking at Kel. “She saved Vania’s life in their first year. She jumped in front of a hurrok when Vania didn’t duck in time.”

He looked at Emmy again. “Vania told me that you took on the bully again yourself, at the same summer camp. He ambushed you on a tree, and you fended him off.”

Emmy ducked her head, not knowing what to say. To her eternal shame, her traitorous stomach chose that moment to growl.

“Have you not had supper yet, Emmy?” Kel asked sharply.

How she wished she could melt into the snow and disappear. “I tripped over someone tonight, and Master Oakbridge assigned me punishment duty.”

Hands on her back guided her back into the corridor.

“You should have told us,” Prince Roald said with a slight frown, “We wouldn’t have kept you.”

“Dinner has already ended anyway, your highness.”

“Couldn’t you get some food from the kitchen?” Kel asked. She was steering Emmy towards the direction of the kitchen.

“I was hoping to avoid Master Oakbridge,” Emmy muttered.

“Well, he should be gone by now.” Kel said reasonably. “Go on, get some food. If they ask, tell them we kept you busy. I was a page once, I know how hungry you must be.”

Emmy smiled at them gratefully, and turned to bow once before she left at a trot.

What a strange night it was!

Chapter Text

Training and classes resumed after Midwinter with the addition of more weights to the pages’ harness. Emmy bore them without complaint, and the first miserable week passed by soon enough. The only consolation was the news that Tibout had been assigned punishment duty all the way until his final big examinations for his insult to both Emmy and Kel, and the fact that he got drunk in uniform. Gerald and Roland had a good laugh out of it, though Emmy just looked forward to the day he becomes a squire and leave the palace.

“Guess what I saw today?” Roland said excitedly when he reached the library one night in January. Puberty had not been as kind to him as it had been to Gerald, he was still Emmy’s height, though the dusting of freckles on his face multiplied.

“What could get you so excited?” Ahmad asked thoughtfully.

Roland replied before anyone else said anything, too excited to wait, “Tibout’s been abandoned by his cronies! I saw him asking them to do something after supper, but they scorned at him and told him that they wouldn’t want to be on Prince Roald’s bad books. And they left!”

Gerald snorted, and Roland went on to describe Tibout’s face in detail.

Emmy caught Vania and Fianola’s eyes, and saw that they were not as happy at the news.

“What’s wrong?” Emmy asked quietly. She had been about to breathe a sigh in relief, knowing that they didn’t have to escort Patrine in twos anymore if Tibout didn’t have three other boys backing him up.

“It’s good news for us,” Vania said, exchanging a look with Fianola. “But let’s hope he doesn’t do anything stupid.”

“You know the saying, a cornered animal is the most dangerous.” Fianola explained.

Emmy raised an eyebrow at the fact that the gentle and lady-like Fianola compared Tibout to an animal. “I wouldn’t have made that comparison.”

“It’s his final year as a page,” Vania explained patiently, “But his standing among the pages and his instructors had changed overnight. He’s suddenly alone and without allies for the first time in four years. He would be worried about his final examinations, and wondering if any knight master would take someone who’d offended my brother.”

Emmy widened her eyes. She could almost feel pity for him. Almost.

“Don’t let your guard down, Emmy.” Fianola said sternly, and Emmy nodded.

Emmy was glad for the warning, for when she went to pick up Patrine from the armour room with Ahmad by her side, she was there in time to see Tibout push Patrine against the wall. As the two of them ran towards her, they saw that Patrine tried to fight back, but Tibout was still much bigger and stronger.

“Let her go!” Emmy pulled Tibout’s arm back. He tried to punch her, but she blocked easily and kicked his legs out from under him.

Emmy pulled Patrine closer as Tibout stumbled and fell. Ahmad also stood in front of Patrine, his face cold.

Tibout cursed as he pushed himself up. He looked haggard. “You stupid wench. My father’s right. The realm must be falling apart when treasonous scum like you cuddle up with royalty.”

“Watch your words carefully,” Ahmad said, his deep voice quiet but dangerous. “Hasn’t your meeting with his highness taught you anything?”

“It taught me that Tortall is going —”

Watch. Your. Words.” HaMinch’s warning growl came from behind them. Emmy turned to see the training master striding over to stand in front of Tibout. “I see that the evening punishment duties assigned to you has not yet taught you how to be respectful. I want a ten-page essay every week from you. Start with a reflection on the Code of Chivalry.”

“But I already don’t have time to do my classwork!” Tibout protested desperately.

“You seem to find time for trouble.”

“I was teaching the wench a lesson!” Tibout said, and Emmy wondered why he didn’t seem to realise that haMinch was close to exploding. “Everyone said you’re going to kick her out by summer. She should at least —”

HaMinch gripped Tibout’s collar and almost pulled him off his feet. “I am the training master here, not you. I decide who will stay and what lessons they learn.” He pushed Tibout, and he fell sprawling into the ground. “Now get lost and get started on your essay. I want twenty pages on the Code of Chivalry to start with. For your sake, I hope some of that will get through your skull.”

He watched Tibout flee, and turned around. Emmy made sure that Patrine could stand on her own before she let go, and the three of them bowed respectfully.

HaMinch stopped in front of Patrine, and lifted her chin gently with a finger. He turned her face a little to study a bruise on her cheek.

“Didn’t your father teach you how to fight bigger opponents?” He asked quietly.

Patrine gulped. “He taught me the basics, sir. But Tibout was insulting —” She shut up, as if realising that it was a bad excuse.

HaMinch let go and sighed. “Curse it, Patrine. You are talented, but you need to learn not to let words get to you. And for Mithros’ sake, be careful with your own words. I know exactly how you get all your punishment duties.”

“Are you…” Patrine gulped again, “Are you going to kick me out by summer, sir?”

HaMinch narrowed his eyes. “Didn’t you hear what I just said?” Unexpectedly, he nodded at Emmy. “Learn from Tirragen. She has a cool head, and she doesn’t let words get to her.”

Without another word, he turned around and left.

Emmy, Ahmad and Patrine exchanged shocked glances, still not quite sure what happened.

“What did he say about kicking me out by summer?” Patrine asked finally, scratching her head. Her hair was getting longer again, and Emmy made a mental note to help her cut it. Patrine always did a terrible job herself.

“He said he’s the one who decides,” Ahmad said slowly. “Perhaps he meant to tell you that the court gossip doesn’t matter?”

Emmy wanted to put a comforting hand on Patrine’s shoulder, but she flinched when she touched her. “Are you all right? I’m sorry we were late.”

Patrine smiled tiredly, her free hand rubbing the shoulder Emmy touched. “A little bruised. But I’m fine. Don’t worry.”

“Let’s get back to our rooms. Some bruise balm would help.”

They walked back to the pages’ wing in silence. Emmy recalled the edge of desperation to Tibout’s voice and actions, and sincerely hoped that he would keep his cool.

*

The next few weeks passed by without incident, and Emmy was pleased to find out that Patrine passed haMinch’s teamwork test over the short winter camp as well. She didn’t realise that Patrine had started making friends with her year mates, and she asked her about it afterwards.

“I looked at how you work with each other,” Patrine said, almost shyly. All the girls were in Emmy’s room, sitting on the rug close to the hearth and sharing a pack of spiced nuts that Fianola’s mother sent from home.

“You’re fair, and you’re fine with disagreeing with each other. I’d thought that working with others meant that I have to give up who I am.” Patrine continued, “But looking at what you have, I figured it won’t be so bad if I can work for something like this.”

“It takes time, but you’ll get there.” Vania said encouragingly.

Patrine nodded. “I started by offering help with classwork. They avoid me less, and we started talking.”

Emmy patted Patrine’s back cheerfully. “Good for you!”

“Thanks to you, Emmy.” Patrine said, smiling. “It took so much time before they started coming around. If you hadn’t warned me about this earlier, I probably wouldn’t have done it in time for me to pass the test.”

Vania and Fianola both grinned at her then, and Emmy blushed. She quickly changed the topic to the meeting with Kel on Sunday.

Kel was sticking around the palace until the road north opens after the winter, and they met her a few times already over on Sundays at the practice courts. They would train a little together with Kel giving them tips, and after that they would chat over tea and snacks. Sometimes Neal and Yuki would join them as well. Kel was wonderful, and Vania usually wouldn’t stop talking about it for days afterwards. As it was already late February, this upcoming one was probably one of their last such meeting with her.

They finally parted ways just before the curfew.

It was funny, Emmy realised. It wasn’t as if she herself passed the test, but she felt much more light-hearted now that she knew Patrine did well. Not just on the test, but that she finally changed her mind about working alone and made friends with her year mates as well. Emmy felt an unfamiliar sense of satisfaction at seeing someone grow, and she wouldn’t mind doing more of it.

*

Kel and other visiting knights left for the north in the second week of March, leaving the palace feeling a little empty again. One night, as Emmy and Vania were walking towards the armour room to pick up Patrine, a palace runner told them that Patrine’s punishment duty had been changed to mucking up stables, and that Sir Myles was looking for Vania. It had been months since there was any incident, and Emmy waved Vania off.

When she reached the stables she was surprised to see it mostly empty. It made sense though, since a large number of knights and their visiting families had departed recently.

“Patrine?” Emmy called when she reached the end of the stables stalls. She looked around the clearing next to the stables, cursing herself for not having the sense to bring a torch. The light from the stables flickered, and it did not cover much beyond the small patch of grass in front of the stables. It was dead quiet, and this particular section of the stables were empty of horses.

“Patrine?”

Emmy felt a growing sense of unease. Why wouldn’t Patrine answer her? Did Tibout do something to her? He somehow always managed to reach Patrine before she did. What if it happened again?

She looked around to see if there is something that she can improvise as a torch. It was the only reason why she saw the flicker of shadows, and she managed to ducked in time.

The shadow swung at her again, she blocked and kicked. The shadow grunted, and Emmy recognised Tibout with a grimace. Tibout kept throwing punches and kicks at her, taking advantage of his place in the shadows. Emmy blocked as many as she could but took some. Her own blows missed more than they land. Curse the shadows!

“Emmy?” Patrine’s voice asked suddenly.

Emmy turned a little, and grunted at the kick to her ribs. She took on the defensive, and saw another, smaller figure join the fight from her right. Patrine charged at Tibout, and Emmy took advantage of his surprise to pull him forward into the light and land another punch on his face. He growled and swung wildly.

Patrine cried out in pain, and Emmys saw the flash of silver in time to jump back. She gasped when she saw the knife in his hand. Even if the pages fought, it was an unwritten rule to never use weapons that could kill. Was Tibout mad?

Patrine stumbled and fell, and Emmy jumped in front of her. As he swung the knife at her again, she waited as if she wasn’t going to dodge, and turned at the last second to pull his arm and twisted. She drove a knee to his belly, slammed her elbow down to the back of his neck.

He dropped, and did not get up.

Emmy panted, and stepped closer to kick his knife away from him just in case. She turned back to Patrine, and saw that she had tied a strip of tunic in the middle of her calf muscle on her right leg.

“Are you all right?” Emmy asked, crouching down and shifting so that she wasn’t blocking the scant light.

Patrine was panting too. “I’m f-fine, I think. It’s a small cut. But — but it’s getting numb. I don’t know why.”

Emmy frowned, “May I?” At Patrine’s nod, she untied Patrine’s field bandage and unrolled her breeches. Her hand froze when she saw the dark-coloured wound, with small purple tendrils extending from it.

“What is it?”

Emmy quickly took the bandage and tied it higher, just above the wound. Patrine yelped when Emmy pulled it tight. “It’s poisoned, curse the bastard. He was trying to kill us.”

Patrine gaped at her, her face pale.

That pattern triggered something in Emmy’s memory. It was something she saw in the desert. Her eyes widened when she remembered what it was.

“You see that?” Mari, the elderly tribeswoman who was also a herbalist, pointed at a jar with a dead scorpion and a twig of some plant. Emmy was helping her and her daughters out in her tent today, and was learning more about herbs and medicine that she ever thought she would.

“That’s the Scorpion’s Dance. It’s a dangerous poison that maims more than it kills, making it deadly to warriors.” Mari continued, and looked down into the bowl of herbs she was crushing, “A weapon smeared with the poison can leave the smallest cut but leave a warrior crippled. The poison will spread across the wound site in purple tendrils, killing the flesh and vessels within until the person lose the use of that limb forever. All of us of the desert learn to recognise the signs young.”

Emmy watched, awed at the damage that something so small could cause. “Is there anything that can stop it? The Gift?”

Mari snorted. “The Gift. Folks think the Gift can fix everything. The best thing to do is to suck the poison out as quickly as possible, before the damage is done. Perhaps then the Gift can fix the damage. When the muscle and vessels are dead, even the strongest Gift may not restore it.”

“Suck the poison out?”

Mari gave a reluctant nod. “The Gift is actually the best way to suck it, the cleanest. A person can use their mouth, of course, but there is a risk to the person who do it. But the poison will be spread out if it went through the mouth, and is less deadly.”

“Do you know what it is?” Patrine asked, fear in her eyes. Emmy was reminded that Patrine was only ten, for all she was tall for her age, and confident like Vania.

Emmy nodded, and smiled reassuringly. “I know what it is. Don’t be scared. Trust me.”

Emmy didn’t wait for a reply, and shifted her stance such that she was kneeling, and she place both hands on two ends of Patrine’s calf muscle. She leaned down and sucked as hard as she could, filling her mouth with Patrine’s blood before she spat them out. She did it again, and again. The purple tendrils were fading. She did it two more times, and saw that the blood she spat out had become red again, instead of dark red. She breathed a sigh of relief.

She grabbed her own tunic and tore out another strip of cloth, which she used to bandage the open wound, keeping the other bandage tight above the wound. That done, she pushed herself up, and ran over to the barrel of water at stable stalls, and rinsed her mouth as thoroughly as she could.

When she returned, Patrine was trying to push herself up, and Emmy hurried to help her up. She slung one of Patrine’s arm over her own shoulder. “Let’s go to the infirmary.”

Patrine nodded. “What about Tibout?”

“Leave him. We’ll have to report this and let the guards take him. The use of a weapon is forbidden, and a poisoned one even more so.” Emmy said darkly as they started to make their way to the infirmary.

Patrine couldn’t stand on her bad leg at all, and Emmy prayed that she had been quick enough, and that there would be no permanent damage. It was an agonisingly long walk where Emmy held up more than half of Patrine’s weight. Frustratingly, they passed no one on their way that they could alert.

Emmy was sweating and panting by the time they reached the infirmary. When Lianne greeted them with alarm, Emmy was so relieved that she almost dropped Patrine by accident.

“She’s been cut by a poisoned knife,” Emmy said as Lianne hurried to support Patrine on the other side, “I tried to stop the poison from spreading.”

They sat Patrine on a bed, and Lianne immediately sent her blue Gift to Patrine’s leg, her face frowned in concentration.

Emmy sat on the next bed, panting as she watched. The effects of the fight must be catching up with her. She was starting to feel her ribs and the rest of her body aching, and exhaustion had started to weigh on her. Her mind was still trying to wrap around the fact that a fellow page tried to kill her. She knew Tibout was a bully, but was he a killer?

Finally, the blue glow from Lianne’s hand faded, and she straightened up with a sigh.

“Will she be all right?” Emmy asked, her heart racing. If Patrine were to suffer any permanent damage because Tibout wanted to settle a score with Emmy, Emmy would never forgive herself.

Lianne smiled as she undid the top bandage that blocked the blood flow. “She’ll be fine. The poison was mostly gone, and I fixed the cut. You’re Patrine, aren’t you?”

“Yes, your highness.” Patrine said, bowing her head a little, even if she looked dazed.

“Call me Lianne, please.” Lianne smiled, and she walked to a nearby cupboard. “You’re lucky that the poison was stopped before it spread, or you might have lost your leg. How did it happen?”

Patrine glanced at Emmy, and Emmy wondered why Patrine wanted her to lead. Still, she straightened up. “Tibout of Runnerspring attacked us, Lianne. He had a knife — I should tell a guard,” Emmy frowned, “I knocked him out cold. He’s still at the stables. But he can’t get away with this.”

Emmy stood up. “I’m going to find someone —”

Something dragged her down. Darkness assaulted her eyes and she knew no more.

Chapter Text

Both Emmy and Patrine were not in their rooms. Vania tried to tell herself to not panic. There could be perfectly sensible reasons for this. She just couldn’t think of any right now. She knocked on Fianola’s door. A moment later, she knocked again.

“I’m coming!” Fianola opened the door, a small frown on her face. “What’s wrong?”

“Did you see Emmy? Or Patrine?”

Fianola shook her head. “Weren’t you with them tonight?”

Vania grimaced. “I was sent away. Someone sent me a message about Myles wanting to see me, and Emmy and I parted ways before we reached Patrine. But when I reached Myles’ office, he said he never sent for me.”

Fianola was already headed back to her room to take her keys. “Where’s the messenger?”

“I don’t know!”

Fianola grabbed Vania’s arms. “Calm down, maybe they just got held up somewhere.”

“I hope so. It’s already past curfew, why wouldn’t they be back here if nothing happened?” Vania said, looking up and down the corridors as if she would see them any moment.

“Let’s go to the infirmary,” Fianola said decisively. “If anything serious happened, that’s likely where they’d go.”

Vania nodded, and they started towards the infirmary at a run. Vania hoped that Fianola was wrong. Both Emmy and Patrine knew that she could heal the small scrapes and bruises. If they went to the infirmary, something far more serious must have happened.

But where should they look if they couldn’t find them at the infirmary?

She was still thinking of other places to look when they reached their destination. They rushed past the waiting room, and skidded to a stop when they recognised the three people in the main room. Vania’s heart sank.

Both Patrine and Emmy were on patient beds. Patrine was sitting up and looking at Emmy worriedly. Lianne bent over Emmy, her blue Gift glowing softly on her hands.

“Lianne!” Vania panted, taking in Emmy’s unconscious state and grey lips with alarm. “What happened?”

Lianne straightened, and frowned at the two of them. “Emmy’s been poisoned.” Lianne held up a hand to stop their questions, “I need one of you to alert the palace guards — Tibout of Runnerspring is knocked out cold at the stables. He attacked the two of them with a poisoned knife. Ask the guards to recover the knife carefully.”

“One of you should alert haMinch.” Lianne continued briskly, “He should know either way, but Patrine was the one cut with the knife. She’s fine now.”

Vania thought she heard wrong. “But Emmy’s the one poisoned.”

They heard a sob, and saw Patrine wiping her eyes. “She was trying to save me. She sucked the poison out with her mouth.”

Lianne turned to put a comforting hand on Patrine’s shoulder. “And it’s a good thing she did.” Lianne said gently, “You would have lost your leg if she hadn’t done so. The poison is spread out thinner in her, and it wouldn’t do too much damage for now.”

“For now?” Fianola repeated worriedly.

Lianne grimaced. “The poison is spread too thin for me to burn it with my Gift. But it’s slowly attacking her body. She’ll start to feel pain soon enough, and she’ll last only a few days if the poison is not expelled.”

Vania rushed forward to grab Lianne’s shoulders. “What do you mean, she’ll last only a few days? Isn’t there anything you can do?”

Lianne placed her hand gently on Vania’s arm. “There are hundreds of ways to purge poison from a body, many of them harmful to the body itself. I need to know exactly what it is before I can do it properly. That’s why I need the knife recovered as soon as possible.”

Vania nodded. She took a step back and took a deep breath. “I’ll go to the guards. Fianola?”

“I’ll find haMinch.”

They ran out of the infirmary again and split up at the door.

It was easy enough for her to find a guard and assemble a team to head to the stables. She used her Gift to light the way.

Sure enough, Tibout was found unconscious at the end of the stables.

“Tie him up and send him to Sir haMinch.” Vania ordered, her fists shaking in anger at the thought of what he had tried to do. He planned it so well, distracting her and luring Emmy into such a secluded part of the palace at night.

It took them a while to find the knife. When they did, the captain of the palace guards wrapped it carefully in two layers of cloth.

“Give it to me,” Vania said impatiently.

The captain looked taken aback. “Your highness, this is evidence in a crime —”

“It’s needed to save my friend!” Vania snapped. “The healer needs to know what poison’s been used before she can heal her!”

The captain nodded. “My apologies. Let me come with you. I still need to account for this.”

“Thank you.” Vania said, taking the bundle from him. “I’m in a hurry,” She said a little apologetically, and started running towards the infirmary again, the captain at her heels.

When she reached the infirmary, she passed the bundle to Lianne wordlessly, bending over as she panted. Fianola was beside her when she straightened up, offering her a cup of water. Vania nodded gratefully at her, and drained the cup.

Belatedly, she realised that haMinch was in the room, and he was patting Patrine’s back comfortingly. It was odd to see him so gentle.

He looked up and saw them, and came over. His dark eyes blazed with fury. Both of them bowed.

“Have you found the knife?”

Vania nodded. “Yes, sir. I gave it to Lianne. The guards will carry Tibout to your office. He’s still unconscious.”

HaMinch nodded curtly. “Good work. I’ll see to him. Stay with Tirragen. Both of you are excused from training tomorrow.”

Vania felt a rush of gratitude for the training master. She bowed deeply. “Thank you, sir.”

Both Vania and Fianola hurried to Emmy’s bed when haMinch left the room. Emmy’s brows were creased in a small frown now, and her breathing was a little quick for someone who was supposed to be sleeping.

“Did Lianne say if there’s anything we can do?” Vania asked, looking from Fianola to Patrine. “Anything to make her more comfortable?”

Both of them shook their heads. Patrine looked exhausted. Fianola went over and tried to convince her to go to sleep. Vania turned back to Emmy and took her hand. Her hand was too warm. She touched her forehead and felt the same. Vania stood up, and went to find a basin of water and cloth. She damped the cloth, and placed it carefully on Emmy’s forehead.

She couldn’t do much else. But she could do this much.

*

Vania woke quickly. For a moment she panicked — where was she? What was the sound?

Slowly, the outlines of the row patient beds registered. The infirmary was dimly lit by a few torches, but it was enough to see that Emmy was moaning in pain and turning restlessly in her sleep. Vania stood up, and saw Fianola did the same from the other side of the bed. They watched her helplessly for a few moments.

Vania couldn’t stand it anymore. She signalled to Fianola, and both of them made their way to Lianne’s study beside the infirmary. They could see bright lights from the gap below the door, and Vania knocked.

The muffled answer came a moment later. “Come in.”

When Vania pushed the door open she had to blink hard. Lianne’s study was bright as day, lit by a fire in the hearth and a glowing mage globe at a corner of her desk. Lianne was standing up from her armchair by the fire, putting aside a thick book and rubbing her eyes tiredly.

“What’s the matter?”

“Emmy’s in pain.” Vania said, a hint of desperation in her voice. “How’s the cure coming along? Is there anything we can do? Anything at all?”

“Oh, Vania.” Lianne wrapped her in a quick hug. “We can’t rush the spell. By dawn, the residue on the knife would help us narrow down the poison from tens of possibilities to a few, and we’ll need to narrow that down further, until I can determine which brew is the best suited to purge the poison. We’ll just have to wait in the meantime.”

“Can’t we make her more comfortable?” Vania asked, “You taught me spells to soothe pain, and —”

Lianne shook her head sadly. “Until we know which poison she is under, any interference with the symptoms could do more harm than good. What if we miss a distinctive pattern because we covered up a symptom? I’m sorry, Vania. Maybe you should come back later if it’s too much.”

Would she be able to sleep in her room, knowing that Emmy was lying here and in pain?

Vania shook her head. “I’ll stay. She’s my friend.”

Fianola took her arm, and they left the study. They sat back down on chairs on both sides of Emmy’s bed, and watched her grimly.

Emmy’s brows were furrowed even in her sleep. Her fists were clenched tight and her breathing laboured. From time to time she moaned in pain, and Vania wished badly that she could do something to help. Instead, Vania hugged herself tightly, her mind replaying the memories they shared together.

Emmy was like no one Vania had ever known. She was so small and young when they first met, all skin and bones and yet with a fighting spirit much bigger than she was. Even with her rotten family legacy and the mistreatment she had suffered at the hands of her own uncle, she still held on to the hope of redeeming the Tirragen name. It was not even for herself that she fought so hard, she just wanted her brother to be proud of being the next Lord of Tirragen. And despite all the injustice life had thrown at Emmy, she remained kind and loyal when she could have been bitter and resentful.

Vania was amazed by her, awed by her. She wanted to —

Vania blinked. She snuck a glance at Fianola sitting on the other side of Emmy’s bed, and saw that her eyes were closed. Vania covered her own mouth with her hand as she turned back to stare at Emmy, confronting the feelings she suddenly recognised. Her hands shook.

Emmy was not as tall or as strong as Kel, nor her eyes as dreamy. But Emmy was here, flesh and blood in a way that Kel never was. Kel was a hero to Vania, an inspiration. But Vania had seen Emmy fall and stumble. Vania had seen her grow from skin and bones to a strong fighter. She had seen her develop from someone who did not read many books to someone who devoured them and learned far more about the history and culture of the realm than any other page in training.

Vania didn’t want to dream about Kel anymore.

She wanted Emmy.

*

Lianne woke Vania and Fianola up just past dawn. From the shadows under her eyes, it didn’t seem like she had slept much.

“I’m down to three types of poison,” She said quietly, though Patrine sat up anyway and rubbed her eyes. “They each lead to a different type of brew which clashed with one another. I need to find out more. Can one of you get haMinch and see if he got anything from Tibout?”

Fianola volunteered before Vania could.

Lianne turned to Patrine with a small smile. “You should be able to move back to your room after breakfast, and go to class in the afternoon. By tomorrow you can resume normal training.”

Patrine nodded grimly. “I wish I could help.”

That made Vania sit up. “Tell me again how it happened. What did Emmy say when she saw the poison? She said she knew what it was?”

Patrine nodded. “I asked her if she knew what it was. She said she knew, and asked me not to be afraid.”

“Why would she know what poison it was?” Vania wondered out loud, Lianne turned to her in surprise. “We take the same classes. We don’t learn about poisons in class.”

“Books?” Patrine ventured, “She said she read many books over the summer.”

Vania’s eyes widened. “She went to the desert in the summer!”

Lianne straightened up. “The Bazhir is known as a people who know their poisons and herbs. She must have learned it there.”

Vania stood up. “I’ll look for Eda Bell — she might know something.”

She set off at a run. She didn’t know where exactly Eda’s room was, but she knew that it must be near the instructor’s rooms, where Daine and Numair lived. When she reached the right corridor she scanned the name plates impatiently.

Finally, she found the one that listed Eda Bell. She knocked quickly.

Eda opened the door a moment later. Her eyes took in Vania’s breathless face and slept-in clothes, and she frowned. “What’s the matter?”

“Emmy’s been poisoned.” Alarm flashed in Eda’s eyes. “Tibout of Runnerspring attacked her and Patrine last night. He had a poisoned knife, and cut Patrine’s leg. Emmy recognised the poison somehow and sucked it out with her mouth. Lianne said she saved Patrine’s leg. But now Emmy’s burning up, and Lianne can’t heal her until she knows what poison it is.” She paused to catch her breath, “I was thinking, why would Emmy know about poisons?”

“She learned about them from the Bazhir,” Eda said with a nod, and closed her door behind her. She gestured for Vania to lead the way, and they started down the corridor at a brisk walk. “There are many types of poison in the desert — did she say more?”

Vania shook her head. “Patrine just said that Emmy acted very quickly when she recognised it, and Lianne was sure that it would have costed Patrine her leg.”

Eda frowned. “There are two or three types of poison that might have that kind of speed or damage. We have to try and get more from her.”

“Lianne did something with the knife they recovered from Tibout,” Vania said, “And she narrowed it down to three as well. But she said the cures clashed with each other, and she needed to know more.”

When they reached the infirmary, haMinch and Fianola was already there. Vania caught Fianola’s eyes hopefully, but she shook her head. Both Patrine and Lianne looked at her sadly.

“He bought the poison from a traveling merchant,” haMinch said when he caught sight of Vania and Eda. His fists were clenched tight by his side, and anger seemed to radiate from his body. “He didn’t even ask for the name. He only made sure that it would be deadly enough to maim and kill.”

Eda was already by Emmy’s bed, and she watched Emmy moaned and thrashed in her sheets for a few moments. She then flipped Emmy’s eyelids open one by one, careful to avoid poking her eye accidentally as Emmy turned.

“Does she have scars?” Eda asked suddenly.

“Why do you ask?” Lianne said as she closed her hand on one of Emmy’s shoulders. Vania knew then that Lianne knew about Emmy’s whip lashes. Vania walked towards the opposite side wordlessly, and placed her hand on Emmy’s other shoulder.

“One of the poison attacks —”

Emmy cried out in pain. They all stopped to stare.

“Xander, no —” Emmy muttered, her face grimaced in pain. “It’s not his fault, father! No…”

Vania had a feeling what Emmy was dreaming about. She exchanged a grim look with Fianola.

The adults shot them questioning looks. Vania opened her mouth to explain and stopped herself. It was not her story to tell.

“Bad memories.” Fianola said finally. Emmy begged her father to stop again, sweat beading on her face.

“Scars.” Eda reminded them quietly. “One of the likely poisons attacks the flesh. Where the flesh is a mix of old and new, we can see the difference.”

With Lianne holding the other side, they pulled Emmy upright and held her still. Lianne lifted Emmy’s shirt.

Vania gasped, and she wasn’t the only one. She knew the scars were there. But they were purple.

The mess of whip marks on her back, and the three scars from a hurrok’s claws were in a dull dark purple colour, edged with a deep pink. Eda stared at them with a unreadable look on her face.

“Padraig.” Eda said quietly. “You need to see this.”

HaMinch came over with a grim look on his face, and looked. His eyes widened ever so slightly. Eda exchanged a grim look with him, and nodded for them to lower the shirt again.

“It’s the Scorpion’s Dance.” Eda declared as they laid Emmy back down. “The poison turns the damaged flesh purple. A flesh wound with the poison will have purple tendrils around it. Scars are more vulnerable, and the poison attacks them first and turn them purple.”

Lianne nodded and left immediately, saying that she needed to check something in a book. Fianola went to look for a fresh cloth to put on Emmy’s forehead, while Vania sat down on the side of her bed and held her hand.

“Who whipped her?” Eda asked, gripping Vania’s shoulder with one hand. She had a dark look on her face, and haMinch stared at Vania with an intense gaze. “Was it her father?”

Vania’s eyes widened.

“She’s dreaming about her father and asking him to stop.” Eda said curtly. “The poison makes the scars feel like fresh wounds. It’d most likely triggered her dreams.”

Vania cursed softly, not caring that the training master was here. She felt tears building up in her eyes. It was not her story to tell. But Eda was already putting the story together. What good would it do to withhold the truth from them? Emmy might not like it if they ask her when she wakes up.

“It was an accident.” Vania said finally, quickly wiping her eyes.

“No one gives a whipping like that by accident!”

“Her father was badly drunk after a healer told him that his son was going to be crippled for life.” Vania said numbly as Fianola came to place a damp cloth on Emmy’s forehead, her face grim. “He wanted to whip her brother, who was still bed-ridden. Emmy jumped on top of him and covered him with her body. It was a while before her uncle arrived to pull her father away.”

Eda cursed. “Why didn’t she report this? Any temple of the Goddess would have taken her in —”

“There’s no one to report on,” Vania interrupted softly, “When her father realised what he did, he killed himself. She was six.”

Eda’s hand on Vania’s shoulder tightened quickly before she released it. Eda clenched her fists instead. When Vania looked up, haMinch’s fists shook and Patrine had a hand over her mouth, her eyes wide in shock.

Vania swallowed. “Please don’t treat her differently. She hates it when people feel sorry for her.”

“But she shouldn’t have to go through that!” Patrine protested.

“Should or shouldn’t has very little to do with what actually happens,” Fianola said quietly, sitting down on the opposite side of Emmy’s bed.

Vania squeezed Emmy’s hand a little, watching as Emmy grimaced and moaned as her memories tormented her.

*

Emmy was confused and exhausted. One moment she was in the infirmary, throwing up dark red blood while someone held her shoulders. In another moment she was six again, and she felt a whip lash her back as her father cursed Xander’s stupidity in getting himself crippled. And then she was back in summer camp, and a hurrok raked her back as she threw her arms and body around Vania and pushed her down.

Now her stomach rebelled again. She pushed herself up in the torch-lit infirmary and felt pain tore into her back. Hands lifted her shoulders up and turned her to one side. She threw up into a waiting bucket, a pathetic dribble of dark red blood and liquid. She didn’t think she had anything left to throw up, but she heaved and heaved, coughing when she couldn’t push more out.

“Rinse.” A familiar voice ordered, and a cup met her lips.

She gulped the water and rinsed her mouth, twice, before she drank the rest of the water in the cup. She recognised Fianola’s worried face before she fell back down into someone’s waiting arms and into familiar dreams.

The dreams became less vivid, and the pain on her back not as painful as she remembered. She shivered for a while before someone tucked her snugly in blankets. And she finally slept.

When Emmy opened her eyes next, the infirmary was torch-lit again, though fire from the hearth cast dancing light and shadows on the ceiling and walls. She was still tired, but it wasn’t the bone-deep exhaustion from earlier. She turned, and saw Vania reading beside her bed.

“Vania?” She said, her voice a mere whisper.

Vania looked up in surprise, and a relieved grin broke out on her face. She closed her book with a snap. “Took you long enough!”

“What… happened?”

Vania set her book down and held Emmy up by the shoulders. Emmy tried not to wince as Vania rearranged the pillows behind her so that she could lean back on them. Her back felt tender and sore still. Vania poured a cup of water from a pitcher and helped her drink.

“Do you remember saving Patrine’s leg from the poison?” Vania asked when Emmy finally settled down.

It felt like a long time ago. She nodded.

Vania took her hand and patted it. “You got poisoned instead, you dolt. You spent a day just purging the poison from your body, and you slept for another day.”

Emmy didn’t feel like she had slept for a whole day. “Is she all right?”

Vania snorted softly. “She already went back to training today. She came to visit, though. Fianola and the others, too. They left just a while ago.”

Emmy gave Vania’s hand a squeeze. “Why are you still here?”

“Someone should be here in case you need anything,” Vania said matter-of-factly, “Lianne has been taking care of you the past two days, she’s exhausted. I told her I can watch you tonight, and there are servants about as well.”

Why would Vania need to be here if there were servants about? Emmy was curious, but she appreciated Vania’s presence enough that she didn’t want to ask.

“Are you hungry?”

Emmy grimaced, her free hand touching her stomach. “I’m not sure I want food. I don’t think I can keep it down.”

Vania made a sympathetic murmur. “You should still get something. You haven’t had any in the past two days. I’ll get you something easy, like porridge.”

She dashed away before Emmy could say anything, and Emmy dozed sitting up. When she came back and saw how Emmy’s hands shook when she took the bowl, she pulled the bowl back instead and started feeding Emmy herself. Emmy felt embarrassed, but also too tired to argue.

“What did I miss?” Emmy said in between mouthfuls.

Vania watched her closely. “Tibout was kicked out of page training.”

Emmy’s eyes widened, and almost choked. “When? I knew he crossed a line when he used a knife on us, but…”

“HaMinch was livid,” Vania began, and had to nudge Emmy so that she remembered to take another bite, “But because it involved Patrine, he didn’t want to appear unfair and asked my father to judge. Father agreed that Tibout is not fit to be a knight, and he was ordered to leave yesterday. He was close to being put on trial, but haMinch said that the law would hand him a fine at the most given his age, and haMinch didn’t want to bother.”

Emmy was quiet as she thought back about her encounters with Tibout in the past. Had she known that he could be a killer? She looked up when she remembered something, smiling a little bitterly.

“You warned me. You and Fianola both. You told me to be careful about him, but I let my guard down.” She looked down in shame. “I thought I could handle him without his gang. And Patrine was almost crippled because of my arrogance.”

Vania gripped Emmy’s shoulder, a frown on her face. “That’s not true. You saved her life. And who would have thought that he could be so ruthless and cunning? Myles never sent for me, Emmy. Tibout lured me away.”

“What?”

Vania let go of Emmy’s shoulder and picked up the spoon again. “Remember someone passed us a message that night? He sent you to the stables where he was waiting, and he sent me to Myles’ office, almost at the other end of the palace. He planned this well.”

Emmy clenched her fists, her anger rising when she put the pieces together. To think that she almost felt sorry for him for being abandoned by friends and scorned by prospective knight masters. He would have her or Patrine killed, or maimed at the very least…

A rising itch in her chest made her cough, and she was suddenly launched into a coughing fit. Her whole body shook as she felt like she was coughing her heart out, and the scars on her back throbbed. Just when she felt she couldn’t breathe and tears built up in her eyes, a cool and soothing sensation took hold in her chest, spreading outwards rapidly.

Emmy squinted through blurry vision to see Vania’s hand glowing in blue, gently soothing away her discomfort. Emmy fell back onto her pillows, breathing greedily.

“Better now?” Vania asked when the glow of her Gift faded, worry in her eyes.

Emmy was still panting, so she nodded, smiling gratefully.

Unexpectedly, Vania leaned down and wrapped Emmy into a hug. “You gave us quite a scare, you dolt.” Her voice was tight. “Can you not be so heroic next time?”

Emmy hugged her back tightly after getting over her surprise. “I didn’t… want to be a hero. I want Patrine… to have a normal life.”

Vania patted Emmy’s back companionably, but Emmy flinched.

Vania let go quickly, searching her eyes in alarm. “What’s wrong?”

Emmy tried to smile through clenched teeth. “My back hurts. It’s… the scars. They feel like new, I don’t know why.”

Vania looked chagrined. “I’m sorry! Eda said the poison would affect your scars, and I forgot. I’m sorry!”

Emmy blinked at her. “Eda? Was she here?”

Vania sat down on the side of the bed again, nodding. “She was the one who identified the poison. Lianne couldn’t fix a proper cure without knowing what it was. We figured that, if you had known what poison it was even if it wasn’t taught in class, you must have learned it somewhere else. Maybe the desert. So we sent for her.”

Emmy nodded, smiling a little. “I owe her so much. I wouldn’t have been able to take on Tibout alone or save Patrine if she didn’t offer to bring me to the desert.”

“Emmy, there’s something else.” Vania said slowly. “She saw the scars on you back.” Emmy’s eyes widened. “It was how she identified the poison — your scars turned purple. HaMinch and Patrine were there, too. You were dreaming about your father, and she was starting to put the pieces together. I told them the rest.”

Vania took Emmy’s hand, her eyes full of apology. “I know it’s not my story to tell. Forgive me, Emmy.”

Emmy stared at Vania for a moment, slowly wrapping her head around the fact that two of her most respected instructors, and her young charge, now knew her secret. They must have felt so much pity for her.

“Emmy?” Vania asked nervously.

Emmy sighed, covering Vania’s hand with her free hand. “It’s all right. She’d guessed half the story like you said. I just wish — I hope, I hope they don’t look at me with pity from now on. Enough people here do that as it is.”

“That’s not true!”

Emmy smiled crookedly at Vania. “Didn’t you sponsor me back then because you felt sorry for me?”

“Maybe. Or maybe I also thought everyone deserves a fair chance!” Vania retorted hotly, “It’s not always about you, you know!”

Emmy stared at her.

“I’m sorry,” Vania said quickly, dismayed. “That wasn’t how —”

Emmy shook her head and smiled. “You’re right. I suppose I take things too personally.”

Vania was about to say something when Emmy coughed again, one hand clutching her chest. She was so tired.

“Should I use my Gift again?” Vania asked, her hand at the ready.

Emmy reached out to push Vania’s hand away gently, smiling a little at her. “Don’t waste your energy. I feel like… like my body’s been squeezed dry and turned inside out. I don’t think you can fix that.”

Vania’s face softened, and she smoothed away some stray hairs from Emmy’s face gently. “Lianne said you need to stay in bed for a few days, and no training for a week. The poison and the purging took a toll on your body.”

“A week?” Emmy yawned.

Vania started laying Emmy back down on the bed. She didn’t even realise when Vania had moved the pillows.

“Sleep.” Vania ordered gently.

Emmy had already closed her eyes when she felt a flutter on her forehead, like a kiss. She had half a mind to tell Vania that it wasn’t Midwinter, but decided that she didn’t mind.

Chapter Text

When Emmy woke up the next morning, Vania was gone, but Lianne and haMinch were standing and talking at the foot of her bed.

“Sir. Lianne.” She managed to push herself halfway up with shaking arms before Lianne came over to help her and stacked pillows behind her back.

“How are you feeling?” Lianne asked, sitting on the side of her bed, and putting the back of her hand to Emmy’s forehand. Her hand was cool.

“Better now.” She smiled, remembering what Vania told her. “Thanks for taking care of me, Lianne. Vania said you worked all night.”

Lianne smiled back. She did look a little tired, still. “You gave us quite a scare. You still have a mild fever. I’ll bring you some breakfast and tea.”

When Lianne left, it was only haMinch and Emmy left in the room. Emmy looked at her lap, not sure what to say to her training master. From the corner of her eye she saw him sit down on the chair on her right.

“Listen, Emmy,” haMinch said, and Emmy turned to him in surprise. Had haMinch ever used her nickname before?

“Thank you for saving Patrine’s life. I speak not as your training master, but as her grand-uncle.” He grimaced. “Keeping her safe is supposed to be my responsibility. I fell short, and you had to pick up the slack instead, and at the risk of your own life. I sincerely apologise.”

Emmy gulped, and shook her head quickly. “Don’t say that, sir. Patrine is my friend. She’s a good friend. And Tibout has always —” her eyes widened when she realised what she was about to say, and shut up.

HaMinch raised an eyebrow. “He has always given you trouble?”

She looked down at her lap.

“I remember your fall at the summer camp in your first year, Tirragen.”

Emmy was rather relieved that haMinch was back to being her training master again. She didn’t know how to deal with Patrine’s grand-uncle. And she wasn’t surprised at all that haMinch knew about the truth of what happened at summer camp.

“I think Patrine only got his attention because I sponsored her, sir. She probably wouldn’t have attracted trouble if not for me.” Emmy said quietly, “I’m sorry.”

HaMinch sighed, rubbing his elbows absently. “He’s against the idea of females training for knighthood. He revealed as much when I interrogated him. He only picked on you because you don’t have a powerful family to support you, and he was enough of a fool to believe that my cold treatment of Patrine meant that I didn’t care about her.”

“Don’t blame yourself, Tirragen. I’ve erred again in not dealing with him earlier.” He stared at the foot of Emmy’s bed. “If I’d caught him hitting someone else and not Patrine that night in the corridors, I would have kicked him out then, I realised now.” He dipped his head. “I’m afraid in my efforts to appear impartial towards Patrine, I have lapsed in being truly fair, and it emboldened Runnerspring.

“I apologise again, Tirragen.”

Emmy swallowed and shook her head. Was her training master really apologising to her? What was she supposed to say?

“In any case,” He turned to her, his eyes warmer. “What you did is worthy of a true knight. I am proud to call you my student, even if it pained me to see you suffer so.”

He stood up. “I must return to training. Rest well. I look forward to seeing you at training again next week.”

Emmy muttered her farewell and watched him leave, still dazed at his apologies and that he said she was worthy of a true knight. HaMinch was hardly generous with praise. To hear him say that was unsettling. It was fortunate that she didn’t have to do much else for the rest of the day.

She slept for the most part after breakfast, waking in time to take a small lunch. She knew she should be hungry after two days of not eating, but her stomach was still unsettled, and she didn’t have much of an appetite.

Vania put a stop to that when she dropped by after supper. She came with all her year mates, and it was embarrassing to be fussed over so in front of her friends that she took whatever Vania put in front of her.

After a long hour of exchanging stories of what happened that night and over the past two days, they bade farewell. Vania had wanted to stay, but Emmy correctly guessed that Vania had been neglecting her work for the past two days to take care of her, and convinced her to go.

Emmy had been reading for a while when Patrine came.

“Emmy?” Patrine stopped some distance away, uncertainty on her face.

Emmy smiled and put her book aside. “Why are you standing there? Come here.”

Patrine walked over slowly, and stood awkwardly between the chair and her bed. Emmy patted the space at the side of her bed. Vania always sat without invitation.

“I’m sorry,” Patrine blurted, her eyes shining. “I’m sorry you had to go through this because of me, Emmy.”

“It’s not your fault,” Emmy said firmly. “It’s Tibout’s. He’s the one who used the poisoned knife, and he’s been punished for it. Stop being silly.”

“But if you weren’t trying to save me —”

“I make my own decisions.” Emmy said, smiling a little. “Don’t apologise for what I chose to do. How are you doing? Is your leg all right?”

Patrine nodded slowly. “It wasn’t a big deal at all.”

“That’s good.”

Without warning, Patrine took Emmy’s hand, and went down on one knee beside her bed. Her brown eyes were determined. “Emmy, you saved my life. I swear to you that you’ll have my sword for the rest of my days.”

Emmy straightened up from her pillows quickly, pushing herself up with her other hand. She coughed a little in her haste. “Patrine, you can’t do this. You only swear your sword and your loyalty to the king!”

Patrine smiled a little. “The king didn’t risk his life to save mine.”

Emmy shook her head. Patrine was mad. She was too young. “This is madness. What if people hear?”

Patrine cocked her head a little to one side. “Why do you think I came so late?”

Emmy stared at her determined eyes, and knew that there was no point arguing with a stubborn ten-year-old like her. She gulped. “Fine. Then I want you to swear your loyalty to the king. It’s the same thing to me.”

Patrine considered for a moment, and nodded her head.

“Now get up!”

Patrine grinned, and got up to sit on the side of Emmy’s bed.

“You’re good, and you’re mad.” Emmy muttered as she shook her head. “I shudder to think what you’ll do when you become a knight.”

Patrine’s grin widened, and unexpectedly she threw her arms around Emmy. “I can stay past the summer, Emmy! Grand-uncle told me!”

Emmy got over her surprise to hug her back. “That’s great news! I didn’t doubt that you would. Sir haMinch is honourable, he wouldn’t have let court gossip dictate what he does.”

Patrine had a sheepish look on her face when she pulled back. “I think you know him better than I do.”

Emmy patted Patrine’s arm with a smile. “It’s sometimes easier to think clearly when it’s not your own future you’re fretting about.”

Patrine nodded. “He said he was under some pressure before. He’s not the head of the clan, you know, for all that he’s earned a good reputation. But he said — he said with Tibout’s attempt on our lives, kicking me out now would send the wrong signal. That the future knights of Tortall could be intimidated by bullies. It gave him a good reason to keep me, to show that even knights-in-training like us are strong.”

Emmy chuckled, and coughed when her throat itched. Patrine hurriedly poured a cup of water and helped her drink.

“At least some good came out of all this.” She said when she handed the empty cup back to Patrine. Patrine looked very apologetic, and Emmy warned, “Don’t apologise again.”

Patrine gave her a sheepish grin instead.

*

With Tibout gone, it felt like things had quietened down. Emmy jumped back into training after a week of rest, eager to make up for lost time. She knew that Vania and her friends watched her carefully, and didn’t push herself as much as she wanted to. It was hard enough, anyway. She got out of breath easily, and she wasn’t nearly as strong as she used to be. Eda’s exercises gave her more trouble than they did since she came back from Tirragen after her first year.

Something else changed, too. It was hard to put a finger to it, but she didn’t feel as shunned by the younger pages anymore. They nodded at her when she passed them by in the halls, and some ventured tentative smiles. She was pleased, but also confused. It wasn’t their lives that she saved, why would it affect them so?

It wasn’t until the third day she was back to full training that she learned why it was.

She was the last among her year mates to reach the storage shed, and she was panting. When she rested her hands on the fence, her staff slipped from her hand and fell, rolling away from her.

She cursed softly. The morning’s staff training had been hard enough, and she hated that she couldn’t make her body respond the way it used to.

When she started to bend, a hand picked up the staff and passed it to her. She looked up at Tristan of Meron’s green eyes darting away from hers as he offered the staff.

“Thank you,” She said as she took her staff back. He had shunned her because she was a Tirragen just last year. He was the last person Emmy expected to offer help.

Tristan shook his head. “Thank you. Tibout was a bully. It’s a good thing you did, driving him away.”

He fled before Emmy could correct him. Tibout had done it to himself, after all.

She stood in a half daze until Vania called her name. As she trotted to her friends, she realised that Patrine wasn’t the only person that Tibout had bullied. It made her feel a lot better, knowing more than just one person benefited from Tibout’s departure.

*

The rest of her third year passed by in a blur. Alan arrived two weeks before their examinations, and he slipped into Emmy’s group of friends as if he had been here the whole year. It was fun having him around, and all her friends attended his sword lessons on Sundays.

On his second night in the palace, he pulled Emmy aside and presented her with a beautiful dagger.

Emmy’s eyes widened at the beautiful blade, an unexpected treasure beyond the plain hilt and sheath. She admired it slowly, taking in the slight curve and the sharp edges. The stamp of Raven’s Armory at the bottom of its hilt was the only decoration.

“Officially,” Alan winked, “This is a gift from a mysterious benefactor. He caught me on the road and asked me to pass it to you.” Emmy was opening her mouth when he continued, “Ma said she couldn’t be more proud of you, standing up to bullies and risking your life to save another.”

Emmy gripped Alan’s shoulder tightly. “Thank you.”

Alan nodded. “I’ll pass it along.”

They passed their exams without fuss, though Emmy was surprised to find herself ranked second overall, just behind Vania. It had taken her two weeks after the poisoning to get her fitness back to where it used to be, and she just wasn’t as confident that she was at her best during the exams.

They cheered hard when Briar crossed over to the squires’ side of the hall.

Vania was a little wistful about his knight master, to her year mates’ surprise.

“Who’s Merric of Hollyrose?” Gerald asked when Vania moaned about it at the library one night.

“Isn’t he one of Keladry of Mindelan’s year mates?” Ahmad said mildly, and Emmy suddenly understood.

“Not just a year mate,” Vania said, crossing her arms on the table and resting her chin on them forlornly. “He’s based in New Hope, where Kel’s the commander! Briar would be working under Kel’s command!”

“Ah.” Fianola said slowly, a knowing smile on her face.

“I wonder if Kel would ever take a squire.” Vania muttered, and turned her head to one side, “Her family’s not rich, but surely, after a few years as a commander she should be paid well enough to afford one…”

Vania’s sapphire eyes caught Emmy’s, and Vania blinked. Vania suddenly sat up straight, her eyes darting away and going back to her books as if she had not been thinking about something else entirely. Was that a blush on her cheeks, or was it because of the light?

Emmy bit her lip. She had never told Vania and Fianola about that Midwinter night when Kel and Prince Roald bumped into her and asked her detailed questions about how they were doing.

They asked about Emmy too. Who knew what would become of it? Wouldn’t it be worse to give Vania hope, only to have it dashed later if Kel decides to take someone else? Or even not to take a squire at all?

“I doubt she’ll have time for a squire,” Gerald was saying, “And do you really want to be stuck at a refugee camp?”

“It’s a full command,” Vania grumbled, “Do you know how many fresh knights get a full command? Almost none!”

Emmy caught Ahmad’s eyes, and they silently agreed that it was time to stop them before this became a full-blown argument. Ahmad nudged Gerald, and pretended to ask him a question about homework.

Emmy slung an arm around Vania and gave her a half-hug. “We’re a year away from having to worry about this, Vania. I know you like getting ahead, but this is thinking a little too far ahead, even for you.” She grinned to show that she was teasing.

Vania stiffened and squirmed a little. Emmy let go in surprise.

“What’s wrong with thinking ahead?” Vania muttered quietly.

It was the last thing she said to Emmy that night, leaving Emmy very confused.

*

Vania’s strange behaviour didn’t continue, thankfully. She was back to her usual self with Emmy the next day. Emmy soon forgot about that episode, for they had one extremely strange day in May, a few days before their departure for summer camp near Barony Olau.

All the animals refused to work one day. Horses wouldn’t budge when urged to move. The palace dogs disappeared from their posts. The sky was devoid of birds. Later, the pages learned that all the animals, including wilder ones like owls and deers that lived near in the Royal Forest, had gathered at the clearing outside the Wildmage’s window.

Daine gave birth to a baby that day. And it was said that, when the baby gave her first cry, all the animals answered. They yowled and yipped and neighed and made a giant racket, and the baby responded in kind, in similar sounds.

It all sounded rather unbelievable to Emmy, who felt that someone must have exaggerated the story when it spread. But the very next day, a wide-eyed Vania confirmed at breakfast that it was true, and that Daine’s baby had been shape-shifting since birth, and did not mean to stop.

Gerald made the sign against evil. “That’s hardly human.”

“What do you mean?” Vania frowned at him. “Both Daine and Numair are powerful mages. It makes sense that their child is powerfully Gifted, even if she’s young.”

“Have you heard of any Gifted child who can shape-shift at birth?”

“Wildmagic just works differently,” Patrine said from next to Emmy, buttering her roll calmly.

Gerald and Vania were already arguing about another point when Patrine leaned closed to Emmy. “You don’t find it strange, do you?”

Emmy shook her head, shifting her attention reluctantly away from Gerald and Vania. “I think it’s wonderful, to be able to talk to animals and to heal them.” She said, suddenly missing Ollie back home.

Patrine nodded, surprisingly relieved. She paused for a moment before she looked at Emmy tentatively. “Daine said I have some, you know.”

“What?”

Patrine stared at her plate. “She saw me in the stables once, and she came to tell me that I have some wild magic. It explains why I have always been good with horses. But I’m not strong enough to heal, like her.”

Emmy put her fork down to give her a half hug. “It’s still wonderful to have some. Do you know how hard I worked in my first year to get Whisper to like me?”

Patrine smiled. “Whisper is smitten with you.”

Emmy shook her head, glad that Patrine was smiling again. “It took a lot of bribes, and some blood, sweat, and tears. Literally.”

“I don’t believe you.”

Emmy winced a little. “Ask Fianola. Or Vania. Or Gerald. Anyone. I was terrible in everything in my first year.”

Patrine stared at her. “You’re jesting. You’re ranked second!”

Emmy hid a smile. “It doesn’t mean I had always been ranked second.”

*

Summer camp at the valley near Barony Olau was fun, and it was almost as memorable as the day the Wildmage gave birth.

Now that they were third-year pages, Emmy and her year mates started leading groups of younger pages. Tristan was in Emmy’s group, and he was always eager to help and obey her instructions, even if he hardly met her eyes when they talked. Emmy didn’t push it. She was relieved enough that none of her pages challenged her.

They held a few mock battles, with all the pages divided into two large groups. The instructors played judges who’d throw in surprises like disruptions to their supplies or bad weather. It was hard to pretend to be dead and watch the rest of the battle unfold, and harder still to pretend that their group was hit by bad weather.

Vania’s group was victorious in the first three rounds, winning against Gerald, Fianola and Ahmad’s groups. Emmy caught the instructors putting their heads together before their forth battle, when Emmy was leading the opposing team. Emmy was sure that the instructors meant to give Vania a hard time, and her group was hit with the largest number of surprises — faulty equipment, hail storm, stolen horses, among others. Vania was furious, though she still led her group well enough to make it a draw.

“It’s so obviously unfair!” Vania was still complaining when she sat down next to Emmy in front of the fire. All their year mates had gathered around the small campfire for dinner.

“I can’t believe you don’t see their motivation.” Fianola said with a raised eyebrow.

“You mean other than making her lose, for once?” Gerald said cheerfully. He was in Emmy’s group in the last battle, and he had laughed hard at all the misfortune that befell Vania’s group.

“It’s because you’re too good, Vania.” Roland said, in between bites of roasted rabbit. “They wanted to challenge you.”

Vania froze for a moment. Then she ducked her head. “Oh.”

Emmy grinned, and reach out to give her a sideway hug. Vania was adorable when she was embarrassed.

All too soon they were cleaning up their camp and riding back to Corus. When they paused briefly at the rise of a hill that overlooked the city and the palace, Emmy took a deep breath, and smiled.

She had finished her third year of page training.

Chapter Text

Emmy checked Whisper’s saddle and the fastening of her packs one more time. She had been ready for a while, and she knew Eda was going over her own packs a second time as well. From the looks of it, Eda was being deliberately slow, as if she knew that Emmy was waiting for someone.

“Emmy!” Vania called, running towards them from the main building of the palace, the dawn light showing them only a disheveled girl in shirt and breeches in the shadows.

“Vania.” Emmy said, smiling in relief as she opened her arms and welcomed Vania into them.

Vania all but slammed into her, hugging her tightly. “I’m sorry I’m late! I’m so glad I caught you.”

It wasn’t as if they didn’t say their farewells last night. They had both known for a week that they would be completely apart this summer. Emmy was going back to the desert with Eda — Eda was actually going somewhere else, but promised to drop Emmy off with the Sandrunners for the summer, and to pick her up when it was time to return. Vania was going to accompany her parents to Trebond, where the Wildmage was due to have a naming ceremony for her still-shape-shifting child. After that, Vania would travel with Lianne to the City of the Gods, and she vowed to improve her healing skills.

“You didn’t really have to come,” Emmy said, though she had wanted her to.

“Don’t be silly.” Vania pulled apart, smiling. She passed her a small bag that she had been carrying in one hand. “Take this. I know you liked the spiced nuts Fianola brought back. I found some of them in the city.”

Emmy took them, wondering how much they had cost. Not that she really cared. It was a ploy for her mind to distract herself — she was looking forward to visiting the tribe again, but the thought of leaving Vania was suddenly becoming harder to bear.

“Take care of yourself.” Vania said, her sapphire eyes searching Emmy’s intensely.

Emmy nodded, and tried to smile. “You too.”

Vania smiled tightly, and leaned forward to kiss Emmy on the forehead. Emmy wasn’t even surprised anymore. Emmy wished that she was bold enough to kiss her back just as easily.

Reluctantly, Emmy pulled away and mounted Whisper, thrusting the bag of nuts into one of her saddle bags.

“Safe travels!” Vania called as they rode away, waving hard.

The sun was in their eyes when they rode out into the main road, and Emmy pretended to shield her eyes as she quickly wiped away a few tears.

“You’re close, aren’t you?” Eda asked lightly.

Emmy tried not to blush, knowing that Eda had seen the whole thing. “She’s my best friend.”

Eda raised an eyebrow, as if in challenge, but she didn’t say anything else. They rode on.

*

“Does Aunt Alanna seem anxious to you?” Vania asked Lianne on their first night at Trebond, just after Lianne doused the candles for that night. With the two of them sharing a bed and darkness surrounding them, it was like they were eight or nine again, when they often talked through the night.

Alanna had joined their party on the road two days earlier. With the war dying down and her childhood home nearby, Vania had expected Alanna to be cheerful and friendly. But instead, she was quiet and withdrawn, and she looked exhausted with shadows under her eyes.

Lianne sighed. “She does. I don’t know why, and mother wouldn’t say.”

“Must be some secret then. I wonder what it is?”

“Probably something dangerous,” Lianne said, “To us or to the realm.”

“I wish I’m a knight already,” Vania said suddenly, “I wish I can already help them.”

Lianne’s hand found hers in the dark, and she squeezed them gently. “Your time will come soon enough. Enjoy this while you can.”

Vania snorted. “I’m sixteen. Girls my age who chose to fight are either active Riders, or guarding mother and Shinko as the queen’s ladies. Commoners would be earning a full wage, or taking care of their babies. I’m a page. I’m not sure I ought to be enjoying myself further.”

“Huh. What happened to attending balls and dressing up? You used to love those.”

Vania was glad that Lianne couldn’t see her blush. “I still like dressing up. I wore a dress today.”

“I noticed,” Lianne said dryly. “I also noticed that you weren’t as enthusiastic about attending those balls over Midwinter. Was it because you haven’t found the right man to dress up for?”

Vania made a non-committal noise, her eyes tracing the moonlight beyond the light curtains on the window.

“Or the right woman?”

Vania turned around to her sister sharply. Pale moonlight fell on Lianne’s face, and she was waiting patiently.

“Wha — what did you say?”

“I had crushes on men since I was twelve, Vania.” Lianne said gently, “And you know my feelings for Alan started when I was fourteen. I haven’t heard you talk about men at all, but you talked about other women or Kel all the time. Or Emmy, recently.”

Vania was very glad that her face didn’t face the moonlight, her cheeks were so warm. She had not yet figured out how to tell Lianne. And truth to be told, she was afraid to. What if Lianne thought her unnatural? What if she thought this was yet another way Vania was shirking her duties as a princess, because she wouldn’t want to marry a man?

If Vania had not hinted this to Fianola in one impulsive moment in their second year, no living person would have known that Vania of Conté preferred women.

But now Lianne had asked. How could she lie to Lianne, of all people?

Vania shook a little, suddenly filled with nerves. Belatedly, she realised tears had leaked from her eyes, and she shut them in shame.

She felt Lianne sit up in alarm, one hand rubbing Vania’s shoulder comfortingly. “What’s wrong?”

Vania pushed herself up slowly and let Lianne wrap her into a hug. She rested her head on Lianne’s shoulder.

“It’s all right, Vania. There’s nothing wrong with preferring women.”

“But what am I going to do?” Vania sniffled. “I’m a Conté. I — even if I can find someone to love, and for her to love me back somehow, I can’t marry her! People will say it’s unnatural, it’ll bring shame to father and the Crown and —”

“Hush.” Lianne started rubbing soothing circles on Vania’s back. “You’re thinking too much about things too far in the future. Don’t beat yourself up when you haven’t even begun. Father will react like he always does, but you know deep down he wants us to be happy. Mother, too.”

Vania clung to her sister, immensely relieved for her acceptance, but in a hurry to release all the fears and worries that she had been carrying for so long.

“But how can I do this to them? They already have so many battles to fight at court. I wanted to help them, like you, and Kally, and our brothers. I never wanted to bring them trouble!” She shuddered, “And I said I’d be a knight to show the realm that girls can fight. What good would all this do if I end up a scandal!”

She sobbed into Lianne’s shoulder, and Lianne held her tightly.

“Why am I so different?” Vania muttered miserably, sniffling, “Why can’t I just be a good little princess, and wait for my turn to marry?”

“You would be so boring if that’s true.” Lianne said softly, and Vania felt her lips twitch a little. “We can’t help who we are. You’re great at being Vania, and most of the time you like being her. This is new, and strange, and difficult, but it’s still part of you. And all of us — me, Kally, everyone who love you — all of us love you for who you are. We don’t want you to be anyone else.”

Vania hugged Lianne tighter, failing to find words to show her gratitude.

Lianne started rubbing circles on her back again. “And things aren’t as bad as it seems. Shinko said that it’s common in the Yamani Islands for people to take lovers of the same sex. One day she will be queen. Maybe things will change.”

Vania nodded gratefully. She had not thought about that at all.

She sniffled again, and Lianne pulled back slowly. Lianne turned and stretched her arm towards the bedside table, and came back with a handkerchief.

“Blow.”

Vania blew her nose into the handkerchief, and instantly felt much better. Lianne set the handkerchief aside and gently pulled her back down onto the bed.

“Thank you, Lianne.” Vania whispered, feeling a rush of love for her sister, “I should have told you earlier. But — but I didn’t know how to tell you.”

“It’s all right. It’s not an easy thing to say.”

Vania nodded, and took a few shaky breaths. Lianne’s hand found hers, and gave her an encouraging squeeze.

“Do you like Emmy?”

Vania didn’t reply immediately. She blushed, once again glad for the darkness surrounding them. “I — I don’t know. I think I do. But — but she’s my best friend.”

“Well, Alan was a good friend too.” Lianne said casually, as if they were not discussing Vania’s deepest, most confusing feelings. “But I started wanting to kiss him. That’s when I knew.”

Normally, Vania would squeal at such revelations, as she did when Lianne admitted that she liked Alan. But now, it just made her squirm.

“Well, do you want to kiss Emmy?”

Vania swallowed. “I do. I— I did. Over Midwinter. But on the forehead. I think — I think she thinks of me as a friend. Maybe even a sister.” That thought alone was depressing. What if that was all Emmy would think of her as? An older sister who watched out for her?

Unexpectedly, Lianne leaned forward and kissed Vania on the forehead. “Because that’s how sisters and mothers kiss too, silly. I take it she doesn’t know?”

Vania shook her head miserably. “Maybe she likes men.”

“Has she said anything?”

Vania shook her head.

“Does she have a crush on any men?”

Vania considered for a moment, and shook her head again. “But she’s thirteen. She’s so young.”

“She’s seen a lot more than most thirteen-year-olds.” Lianne said quietly. “More than she should have. And she’s brave, and loyal, and kind. I can see why you like her.”

Vania looked down. “What should I do, Lianne?”

Lianne didn’t answer for a while.

Finally, she sighed. “I don’t have the answers, Vania. I remember, when I first realised what I feel for Alan, I was afraid that it will destroy our friendship if things don’t work out. I held back for a while, and tried to understand how he feels. When I realised he might feel the same way, I told him.”

Lianne gave her hand another squeeze. “I don’t know if this will work for you. Or when Emmy might realise whether she prefers one sex over another. But be careful if you want to keep your friendship with her still, no matter what happens.”

Vania’s heart was beating so fast that she felt like it might jump out of her. It was the thing that scared her the most, more than the possibility that Emmy might not like her back. What if she ruined their friendship?

“Hang in there for another year or two, maybe,” Lianne said, patting Vania’s hand sympathetically. “When Emmy is a little older and knows how she feels, you’ll have a better chance.”

Vania nodded. “We’ll be apart by then, though. We’ll be squires, and we probably won’t see each other so often.” She blinked away a few tears. “It was so hard to say good bye last week.”

Lianne gave her hands a squeeze again, and didn’t say anything else. They let the silence drag, and Vania closed her eyes.

She didn’t have more answers than she did before tonight, but at least she could take comfort in the fact that Lianne knew, and she didn’t treat her any differently. It was with a much lighter heart that she drifted off to a dreamless sleep.

*

One week after Emmy arrived at the desert, a rider galloped into the main camp when she was hanging some clothes to dry outside her tent. He rode straight for the headman’s tent. Everyone who was outside stopped to stare.

“We have a call for help!” he shouted, and Emmy and a few other men found themselves running towards the main camp. Emmy recognised him as part of the patrol squad.

The headman, Hameen, pushed his tent flap open and gestured for the rider to speak.

“A Rider group close by is being attacked by a pack of immortals, headman,” The rider bowed from his saddle, “It’s a group of hurroks and centaurs, numbering close to forty.”

Emmy felt her breath catch.

“How many are there in the Rider group?” Hameen asked quickly.

The rider frowned a little. “They are larger than usual Rider groups. About twenty of them, and three of them, a large black man and two women not in uniform, seem to be leading them.”

Emmy’s eyes widened when she realised what this meant. She rushed forward and bowed to the headman.

“They are trainees! They are not regular Riders, headman. These must be trainees riding for their summer camp. The large black man is Sarge, an instructor. And one of the woman is most likely Onua Chamtong, Horsemistress for the Queen’s Riders.”

“And the other woman?”

Emmy gulped and shook her head. “It could be their former commander, Buriram Tourakom, or it could be someone else. Buri still helps with the training, even if she no longer holds any formal post.”

Hameen grimaced. “Buri and Lord Raoul are both of our tribe. We will take care of them.”

He swiftly called for the men in the camp to assemble. Emmy ran back into her tent to grab her crossbow, quiver, and sword.

“Headman,” Emmy said quickly when she found Hameen about to mount his horse. “Please let me come. I want to help.”

“You’re too young for this, Emmy.” Hameen said kindly, “Eda entrusted you to us, and we must not put you in danger.”

“I’m about to be a forth-year page, sir,” Emmy stood straighter and tried to look more confident, even though she could hear her heart pumping in her ears. “I have three years of training. And some of them are my friends. I can’t sit here while they are in danger!”

Hameen considered her for a moment, and shook his head in resignation. “We let boys your age join a party like this. I suppose it’s not right to keep you here. Get your horse. We won’t wait for you!”

Emmy ran, glad that it was a common practice for the young boys in the tribe to saddle every horse during an emergency. She hopped onto Whisper and brought her quickly to the rest of the group of twenty that was just riding out of the camp.

Hameen led them at a hard gallop. When the scene of the battle came into sight, Emmy almost rode straight into another rider.

“Watch out for the hand signals,” The rider to her left said, and Emmy nodded, her cheeks warm.

Hameen split the group into two, planning to divert the immortals from the group of struggling Riders in the middle. Emmy brought up the rear for her group heading towards the right, trying to keep an eye on the immortals and find familiar faces. The Riders were mostly on the defensive, and a handful had fallen. But they were still fighting.

The hurroks turned on them first, and Emmy shot quickly. Her second shot hit a hurrok in the flank. It screamed and flew upwards and away, before another arrow to its neck took it down.

Emmy took a few more shots, missing some of them as the hurroks were retreating. The tide of the battle had turned with the arrival of the Bazhir. The centaurs found it harder to retreat — the moment they were a safe distance away from the Riders, the Bazhir and Emmy would take their shots. They stayed close to the Riders such that arrows were risky for the Bazhir.

At another hand signal that Emmy missed, the Bazhir closed in, drawing their swords. Emmy hurriedly slung her bow across her back and drew her own sword, nudging Whisper forward. They tried to close in around the remaining four centaurs on their end, though Emmy was kept outside of their ranks by unspoken agreement. Two of the centaurs reared, and the horses close to them balked, throwing off their riders. Whisper halted a few feet away, her head turning left and right and eyes darting around in fear.

“Easy, Whisper,” Emmy leaned forward to rest her hand firmly on Whisper’s neck. “You’re a brave, brave girl.” It wouldn’t do for Emmy to stay on top of her. Whisper wasn’t going to move forward.

She dismounted.

A scream tore through the air. Emmy took a step forward and saw a centaur breaking through the ranks of Bazhir, one screaming Rider trainee bundled under his arm. That explained why no one attacked him. The male centaur had crazed eyes staring straight ahead, and he was fast galloping towards Emmy’s right.

Emmy hid next to Whisper, one firm hand on her flank and keeping Whisper between her and the centaur’s line of sight. She watched his hooves from under Whisper’s belly. Just before his hooves were level with Whisper’s head, Emmy rushed out from behind Whisper and ran as fast as she could, sweeping with her sword just in time to cut one of his hind legs.

He roared, stumbling.

Momentum carried Emmy forward to his left, and she scored another deep cut down his flank. He dropped the trainee on his other side. His sword swung from his left hand towards Emmy, and Emmy raised her sword in time to block, staggering backwards at the force of his blow. He turned fully, stumbling on his front legs but his eyes murderous.

Emmy saw his sword come down and blocked. His right hand moved, Emmy raised her left arm to shield herself. Something shot into Emmy’s forearm right where her neck would have been. Emmy gritted her teeth, and blocked again. As he pulled his sword back she darted in, stabbing deep into his vulnerable mid-section. She yanked her sword up to block as she dropped to her left. His sword slammed onto Emmy’s wrist guard before she managed to roll away.

She cried at the sharp pain on her left arm, but she pushed herself up with her right hand as soon as she stopped. The centaur had fallen, blood flowing from his mid-section and an arrow in his back. Emmy scanned the battlefield. Only one centaur was left standing, fighting futilely against the Bazhir around him. Buri was running towards her from the main group, crossbow in hand. The kidnapped trainee was scrambling towards her as well.

Emmy sat back on her heels, panting as she laid her sword down beside her. She leaned on her right hand to stretch her legs out in front of her, grimacing at the throbbing at her right wrist.

The trainee knelt down next to her, her brown bangs falling into her eyes as she looked down to examine Emmy’s arm. “Are you all right?”

Emmy nodded, still panting. The trainee sat back on her heels and started tearing the bottom of her tunic. Emmy brought her left arm up. A knife was embedded on her forearm, just below her wrist guard. She cursed inwardly at her luck.

“There you are.”

Emmy looked up. Buri looked cross as she crouched down in front of her.

“What were you thinking?” Buri snapped, her voice as stern as Emmy ever heard her. She took Emmy’s left hand with a gentleness that was a complete opposite of her voice and expression.

“I thought…” Emmy took a deep breath, fighting back a wince. “… You needed help.”

Buri glared at her. “Hameen came with twenty men! How old are you? Thirteen?”

“Fourteen.” Emmy said quickly. At Buri’s look, she added meekly, “In a few months.”

“You’re still younger than all my trainees! I have my hands full taking care of them. I don’t need to be worrying about you too! Alanna would have my hide if anything happened to you!”

“Would she?” Emmy asked dumbly, cursing her mouth the moment she said it. She looked down, embarrassed. Did the Lioness really care about her?

“Put a thicker padding,” Buri was saying to the trainee, “It’s a deep cut. Give me your other hand, Emmy. There’s a cut in your wrist guard.”

Emmy sat up straight and offered her other hand. There was a slice across the leather of her wrist guard, and her hand was bleeding a little. Buri took off her wrist guard carefully, revealing a large bruise and a thin cut in the middle.

“You got lucky with this.” Buri said quietly, tearing her own tunic for a makeshift bandage.

Emmy was about to reply when the trainee warned her that she was pulling the blade out. Despite the warning, the burst of pain that came was a shock, and she yelped in pain. Buri moved to Emmy’s right, and she leaned on her gratefully.

“That will teach you not to rush into battles too big for you.” Buri said curtly as she wrapped Emmy’s other hand. Emmy was still a little breathless to reply, but the trainee beat her to it.

“She did save my life, Buri.” The trainee shot a smile at her as she wrapped Emmy’s arm. She was beautiful. Her brown locks was cut short at her ears, and her eyes were a warm emerald. “Thank you, by the way. I don’t even know your name.”

“It’s Emmy.”

The trainee nodded. “I’m Clarissa.”

Buri looked at both of them in turn, adding unexpectedly, “You might be distant cousins. This is Emmeline of Tirragen, Clarissa.” Buri caught Emmy’s eyes and nodded at Clarissa. “She’s Clarissa of Eldorne.”

Emmy turned, and saw a shocked expression on Clarissa’s face that matched her own. Tirragen and Eldorne had been close once, and there were certainly marriages between their ancestors. But Emmy had never met another Eldorne in her life, nor had her father or Darius mention them. Perhaps it would look too suspicious for them to have dealings with each other — it was Tirragen and Eldorne men-at-arms who stormed the palace during King Jonathan’s coronation more than twenty years ago, after all.

Clarissa ducked her head first, and finished wrapping Emmy’s arm with a snug knot. Emmy opened her mouth, and closed it, not knowing what to say.

What would Emmy want someone to say to her? She didn’t want pity. She didn’t want charity. She just wanted to be treated normally, without the weight of treason on her name. Treating Clarissa any differently would mean acknowledging that legacy of treason, and Emmy knew how bad that felt.

Buri nudged Emmy when she was done, and she helped Emmy stand, adding Emmy’s sword to her crossbow in her other hand. It took a moment for Emmy to gain her footing, feeling a light-headedness that could be a sign of blood loss. It took all her will and effort to focus on walking towards Whisper, and she didn’t say another word to Clarissa as they made their way back to camp.

Clarissa didn’t talk to her, either.

*

Much to Buri and the other instructors’ relief, they didn’t lose a single trainee, though about half the group had some injuries or another, and they lost four ponies. They decided to camp with the Sandrunners for a week before moving on to their original destination at Pearlsmouth, letting the injured recover and for them to learn about the poisons and herbs that was the Bazhir’s specialty.

Emmy woke up from a nap the following afternoon to find both Eda and Buri talking quietly in her tent, sitting cross-legged around the low desk in the middle of her tent. She pushed herself up on her right hand, blinking blearily at Eda.

“Eda? When did you get here?”

Eda pulled a small cushion to one side of the desk in a silent invitation. “Just before lunch. I saw the Rider tents next to ours and went there first. It seems like I missed all the action.” Her eyes were sharp on Emmy as Emmy stumbled to her feet and took the two steps needed to get to the desk. Emmy might have sat down a little heavily onto the cushion. “Are you all right?”

Emmy mustered a smile, though her arm throbbed. “I’m fine.”

“Considerate but not helpful, Emmy.” Buri said, pouring a cup of juice for Emmy. Buri and Eda already had cups in front of them. Buri nodded at Emmy’s left arm. “The cut from the throwing knife is deep enough. The other one is mostly bruise. But my healer’s dry from healing all the other injured, and he won’t recover for another couple of days to tend to those properly.”

“It doesn’t even —” Emmy bit her lip as Eda took her arm. No, it wasn’t true that it didn’t even hurt.

Buri raised an eyebrow at her. Emmy hastily took her cup of juice with her right hand and tried to direct her embarrassment to the cup.

“This will take a few days to get back to normal, even after the Gift is used on it.” Eda rested her hand carefully on the desk when she was done. “Not bad, considering the fact that you took on a centaur on foot and won.”

“The idea is to discourage her from doing more stupid things, Eda.” Buri said dryly.

“Credit should be given where it’s due.” Eda said calmly, sipping her juice. Emmy was about to sigh in relief when Eda turned sharp eyes on her. “Still, you took quite a risk, Emmy.”

Emmy squirmed under the eyes of the two experienced warriors, both of them her teachers. “I had to do something. It’s people I know.”

Eda and Buri exchanged a look, and Emmy decided to do something before she was subjected to more scolding. “Have you found out what happened? Why did centaurs and hurroks come to the desert, of all places? And they don’t usually work together, don’t they?”

Eda and Buri exchanged yet another knowing look, making Emmy feel young in a way that she had not felt in a while.

Eda turned to Emmy. “Have you heard about what they found on the immortals who attacked summer camp two years back?” Emmy shook her head, startled to hear that incident being brought back into discussion. “All the immortals had invisible collars put on them by mages, and they were controlled that way. Yesterday’s attack had the same pattern.”

Buri nodded, her face grim. “It’s a mark that only mages can see. The summer camp attack was the first known attack of this kind, but it’s been increasing ever since. This marks the third attack the past two months.”

Emmy’s eyes widened. “Do we know who’s behind them?”

Eda shook her head. “Many have been looking. Provost guards, mages, the Whisper Man. None of them have been successful.”

“It’s a very sneaky rat we have here.” Buri said, taking another sip from her cup.

“Sneaky and political.” Eda added, and Emmy turned to her in surprise. “Not all of these attacks are on people who can fight back, Emmy. Many of them leave villages and towns in ruins, and leave folks talking about how Tortall is falling apart and losing favour with the gods.”

“But we’re winning the war with Scanra!” Emmy protested.

“A war where killing devices made of children’s souls led the charge.” Buri reminded her, “It’s as unnatural as it gets, never mind that they come from our enemy. These attacks are targeted to spread rumours that undermine the Crown. We and the Own try to put a stop to those rumours when we can, but in some parts of the realm the talk does take hold.”

“The tricky thing is these are not new rumours,” Eda set down her cup, “They ride on the talk that have always been here. That the Crown is losing favour with the gods because it allows intermarriages with foreigners, letting women fight — the usual. For some, these attacks are proof that what they’ve always believed is coming true.”

“Some of the nastiest conservatives are happy to ride on it.” Buri said with a look of disgust on her face. “Never mind that it’s the Own and the Riders who clean up after these attacks.”

“Do you mean…” Emmy hesitated, realising how serious a claim she was considering, “Do you mean these people are planning a rebellion?”

None of them were surprised by her question, though they didn’t answer immediately.

“Someone is certainly planning something.” Buri said finally, “And they’ve been working for at least two years. Let’s hope we find and stop them before we find out what they want the hard way.”

Emmy swallowed. Who could be this powerful to enslave immortals to their cause, and be smart enough to evade the best mages and warriors in the realm? And who would dare attempt rebellion against a king who wielded the Dominion Jewel?

How sheltered her life in the palace had been, Emmy realised. So much was going on in the world outside that she did not know about. There was much work to be done. She couldn’t wait to be a knight.

*

Clarissa avoided Emmy for the next few days, and left with the Riders without saying another word to her. Emmy was a little disappointed, even if she did not know what to say to Clarissa either. Eda stayed a few more days after that, her own departure delayed because she wanted to wait for Emmy to heal completely. She was passing by and had meant to teach Emmy new moves before moving on, and she stayed long enough to make sure she did.

“Eda.” Emmy said as the two of them shared their lunch in Emmy’s tent. It was much too hot outside, and Emmy was glad to come back in after a morning of hard work. Eda was due to leave in a few hours, once the worst of the heat had passed.

“Thank you for teaching me these before you leave again.” Emmy asked, looking at her lap. They both sat on the ground. “But I don’t understand. Why are you so good to me?”

Eda raised on eyebrow. “Why does it matter to you?”

Emmy bit her lip. “I’m learning so much. I know most pages would move on to become squires without ever learning so much about Shang fighting. I don’t — I don’t know if I’ve earned this.”

Eda was silent for a moment, and when Emmy looked up, she had an unreadable look on her face. Is it because you feel sorry for me? Emmy was dying to ask, though she couldn’t bring herself to say the words.

“You’ve earned it.” Eda finally said, “I wouldn’t have taught you if I didn’t see you practising hard. I teach plenty of pages at the palace, but few of them sought me out to learn more like you did, on your first day. You don’t have a word of complain for the pace I set on the road, and Hameen said you don’t shirk practice when I’m gone. Why shouldn’t I be good to a good student like you?”

Eda stood up, and plucked Emmy’s empty bowl from her hands without another word. Emmy muttered her thanks as Eda exited her tent.

What Eda said made sense to her. Maybe Eda did feel a little sorry for Emmy. But Emmy felt better now that she at least knew what she could do to make sure she was deserving of Eda’s kindness.

She worked hard in the weeks after Eda left, practising in the early hours of the day and before she slept. It was too hot to do so at any other time of the day. The rest of the time, she visited Mari, the herbalist, and helped her with her chores, learning more details about poisons and herbs than she thought possible. Her fight with the immortals had earned her respect among the men as well, and they sometimes invited her to hunt with them. Sometimes she joined them for archery practice.

When Eda came back a week before they were due to return to the palace, the tribe surprised Emmy by asking her to join them formally as a member of the tribe. Eda was already a member, and she was among the witnesses when they performed the ceremony. Emmy felt incredibly flattered and honoured.

Lying on her bedroll that night, she realised it meant that she would always have a family among the Sandrunners, and it made her cry.

“What’s the matter?” Eda asked somewhere close by. As Eda didn’t stay long with the tribe, the two of them always shared a tent when Eda was back.

Emmy covered her mouth in dismay, chiding herself for forgetting that she wasn’t alone.

“It’s nothing, Eda.” She muttered when she felt like her voice would sound normal.

“How many times do I need to remind you that I’m not senile? I heard you crying.” Eda said, though there was no hint of annoyance in her voice.

Emmy smiled in the darkness. “I’m sorry. It’s just… embarrassing.”

“Huh. Why don’t you humour an old grandma like me?”

“You’re not old,” Emmy protested softly. Eda didn’t dignify it with a reply. Emmy took a deep breath. “I’m just… glad to be included in the tribe, that’s all. Not just welcome as a guest, but included as part of the family. I’ve only ever had Xander.”

Eda was quiet for a moment. “You have friends too.”

Emmy nodded, and realised that Eda couldn’t see her. “I’m lucky to have them.”

“You’ve earned them.” Eda said firmly.

Emmy turned to her left, and sought out the lump of shadows on the other side of the tent that was her teacher and mentor. She didn’t fully agree with that assessment, but she appreciated the thought.

“Thank you.” She whispered.

Chapter Text

Emmy had to be back today. Vania was surprised that she wasn’t back at the palace yet, with tonight being the night when the new pages get assigned their sponsors. Vania herself had been back for close to a week, and she had been restless the whole time. By late morning, she was at the pages’ stables, giving Thunder an unnecessary grooming just so she had an excuse to be there.

It was good that she did. Just when she was finishing up, Emmy rode in on Whisper.

“Emmy!” Vania wore a big grin when she rushed out of Thunder’s stall. Emmy answered it one of her own, and jumped off Whisper gracefully.

They embraced tightly. Emmy felt lean and strong.

“Well, you sure took your time coming back!” Vania said when they pulled apart, still grinning as she scanned Emmy’s face. She looked tanned, and her face was open and relaxed. She felt a little taller, only a few inches shorter than Vania now. Vania fought the urge to kiss her.

“I still have an afternoon to spare!” Emmy grinned back. But she sobered quickly, her hand reaching out to touch Vania’s cheek gently. “You look like you lost weight, though. Have you been pushing yourself too hard?”

Vania blinked in surprise. Her cheek tingled at Emmy’s touch. “Well, I — I wanted to learn as much healing as I can, you know that. And I didn’t want to become rusty in training.” Seeing the growing frown on Emmy’s face, Vania added quickly, “I can heal broken bones now, do you know? I healed a little boy’s broken leg, and he was so awed!”

Emmy smiled, and Vania felt very pleased to see the pride for her in Emmy’s eyes, “That’s wonderful, Vania! Let me groom Whisper, and we’ll talk.”

Vania finished up with Thunder quickly, and went to help with Whisper when she was done. They started talking straight away, eager to fill each other in. Letters had been sparse, with Vania traveling across Trebond and City of the Gods.

“Wait, what?” Vania paused in shock, “You joined a battle against over forty immortals?”

“There was less than half of them left by the time we got there,” Emmy said casually, “And we went in with twenty men. There were twenty-odd trainees and instructors already there.”

Vania looked Emmy up and down. “Were you hurt? I can’t believe they let you fight! You’re thirteen!”

“I’ll be fourteen in a month!” Emmy smirked at her. “And they almost didn’t. But I asked nicely.”

Vania snorted. “You didn’t answer my first question.”

Emmy avoided her eyes. “Just a scratch. But guess what? I met a distant cousin — Clarissa of Eldorne is a Rider trainee, apparently.”

Vania was torn between concern and surprise. Surprise won. “Did you know her before this?”

Emmy shook her head. “We didn’t talk much after that, either. It was so odd. I heard that our families were close before this, but I don’t even know how many Eldornes there are out there.” She paused. “I wonder if she grew up the way I did.”

The forlorn look on Emmy’s face was too much. Vania stopped what she was doing and went around Whisper to grab her hand, giving it a squeeze. She didn’t know what to say, but Emmy seemed to get it.

She smiled back at her. “I’m sorry. I guess we’re all doing well now, with me in knight training and her joining the Riders.”

Vania gave her hand another squeeze before going back to her side of the stall and picking up her brush again. “There’s no need to apologise. You reminded me of something though, I heard talk in the City of the Gods. They talk about these immortal attacks as well, groups that were not supposed to work together banding up to attack towns or travelers on the road.”

“You heard that too?” There was surprise in Emmy’s voice. “Buri and Eda told me after the attack. And they talked about how the attacks make folks talk about… well…”

Vania gripped her brush tighter. “That Tortall is losing favour with the gods? Because we marry foreigners, educate commoners, and allow girls to fight?” She caught Emmy’s concerned eyes across Whisper’s back, and she smiled reassuringly. “I heard that since I was a child. Someone even passed me a flyer, once, listing all the reasons why things are going wrong in our realm. I ran crying to my father, and he was so mad.”

Emmy’s eyes went wide.

“That was years ago. I know it’s nonsense now, don’t worry.” Vania said, focusing on her brush strokes to make sure that she wasn’t being rough involuntarily. “The talk has never taken much hold. But these attacks are reviving them once more.”

They were quiet for a moment.

“Do you think someone is trying to start something?” Emmy asked finally.

“It sounds like it, doesn’t it?” Vania said grimly. She knew her parents had done great things for the people in Tortall, and it angered her to know that there are some who spread twisted lies to undermine them. “I can’t wait to find out who it is, and I want to bring them in.”

Emmy held her gaze evenly. “We’re still in training, Vania. It’ll be years still before we’re knights.”

“So?” Vania challenged, “Didn’t you join the battle to help the Rider trainees? We can still do something. We had three years of training already, and we’ll have more, when the time comes!”

Emmy smiled slowly. “That was how I convinced the headman to let me go.”

Vania stared at Emmy for in surprise for a moment, and broke out laughing.

“I can’t wait to be a knight.” Emmy said quietly when Vania calmed down.

Vania sobered quickly and nodded at her, seeing the same determination in Emmy’s eyes. “Me too.”

*

Their forth year of page training started without fuss. There were two girls among the new pages this year, much to all the girls’ delight. One was Jessamine of Jesslaw, whose grey eyes sparkled with mischief. Vania liked her immediately and became her sponsor. Fianola sponsored a quiet, graceful girl called Wilina of Rosemark. Patrine sponsored Darren of Wellam, much to everyone’s surprise. Emmy was happy to let them sponsor the first-years, thinking that they would give them a better start with their untarnished family names.

In training, Emmy had a shock when Eda started asking her to help teach the other pages in unarmed combat, especially the first years. She had never heard of a page being asked to teach before, even though squires at the palace were known to help out. And even if Vania and Fianola grinned at her in pride and accepted her corrections without fuss, Gerald was a little awkward at the beginning.

“What can I do to make it better for you?” Emmy finally asked after a week, when both of them were alone in the corridors on their way to the library. “You’re always distracted when I’m correcting your stance in class. I need to know you’re listening, or I’m not doing my duty, and you’re not learning things well. It could mean life or death when we’re out there, Gerald.”

“Do you really care about me dying out there, or do you just want to make sure you stay Eda’s pet?” Gerald asked lightly, making Emmy halt in her tracks.

Emmy studied Gerald’s annoyed face. His eyes hinted at some sort of internal struggle. “What is your problem, really?”

“My problem is you’ve been getting extra lessons over the summer!” He snapped. “And you come back all high and mighty! Acting like you’re better than all of us!”

Emmy didn’t try to hide the hurt from her face. “I didn’t ask for this.” Her fists were shaking. “Don’t you think I want to go back to Tirragen, if I can?”

Almost immediately his face changed; his annoyance vanished, leaving only dismay. He reached out to touch Emmy’s shoulder, but Emmy shrugged him off curtly.

“I’m sorry, Emmy. I didn’t mean —”

“You were very clear in what you meant.” Emmy said icily.

“No!” Gerald grunted. He looked to make sure the corridors are empty, and rushed forward. Emmy was too hurt and angry to dodge him, and his face was suddenly in front of her.

He kissed her on the lips firmly.

She staggered back in shock.

Gerald stood where he was, his face miserable. “That was what I meant. I didn’t know — I didn’t know how to say it.” He backed away. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have taken advantage of you.”

He fled down the corridors, back where they came from.

Emmy stood where she was, still stunned. Only when a servant passed by did she make herself move. She walked slowly back to her own room in a daze, and collapsed her bed to stare at the ceiling.

Gerald was a friend. He was a good friend, his respect hard-won and his loyalty a rock that Emmy knew she could rely on. But now it seemed like he liked her as a girl. Did she like him that way?

Almost immediately she knew she didn’t. And she wasn’t even fourteen yet! She didn’t want to think about these things. She had so much to do! What was she going to do with Gerald? Would he be hurt if she said no? Would they still be friends? She would miss having him as a friend. And what about their study group?

She groaned, covering her eyes with her arm.

A while later, she pushed herself up in disgust. She was wasting time. She had work to do. She retrieved her books and sat herself in front of her desk. Gerald would have to wait.

She was halfway through an essay when someone knocked. She opened the door to find Vania looking at her in concern.

“Are you all right? You said you were going to join us in the library.”

“I’m fine,” Emmy said without thinking, rubbing her eyes tiredly. “What time is it?”

“Half a bell before curfew.” Vania said, and gently pushed her way into the room, closing the door behind her. “Are you sure you’re all right? Gerald didn’t turn up as well. Do you know what happened to him?”

Emmy had stiffened at his name, and she knew Vania caught it. Emmy considered Vania’s concerned eyes. Who else could Emmy trust with something like this?

Emmy tugged her to the bed and they both sat. She looked at her lap nervously. “Well. I don’t know what to do.” She paused. “Gerald kissed me.”

Vania almost jumped out of the bed. “He what?

“He didn’t — he didn’t force himself on me or anything,” Emmy said hurriedly, “We were arguing. He said something hurtful. But the next moment, he was very apologetic, and he kissed me on the lips. Just a little. He said that was what he meant.”

“What do you mean, that was what he meant?” Vania asked crossly. When Emmy looked up, she saw that Vania’s eyes flashed with anger.

“I think — I think he was fighting his feelings for me.” Emmy said, her heart softening for Gerald but cringing in guilt because she didn’t feel the same way. “He was saying the hurtful things because… maybe because he didn’t know how to act normally around me anymore. He even apologised afterwards.” Emmy put her head in her hands and groaned. “What am I going to do, Vania?”

Vania gave her shoulders a squeeze. “Do you… like him? In that way?”

Emmy shook her head miserably. “He’s just a friend. But apparently he’s changed. How are we going to stay friends after this? I don’t want to lose a friend!”

Vania took a few moments to reply. “Well… Be honest with him. I think he’ll understand. He’s too honourable to do anything to you if you’re unwilling.”

Emmy looked up to look at Vania uncertainly. “Do you think so?”

Vania nodded encouragingly. “You’re talking about the page who takes the Code of Chivalry more seriously than any of us.”

Despite Emmy’s distress, she smiled a little. “You and him both, though you read it differently.”

Vania raised an eyebrow that suggested she wanted to talk more about this, but she wasn’t going to be diverted. “So yes, I think that the best thing to do is to be honest with him. He will respect that, and you would have done your duty to him as a friend.”

It made sense. Emmy smiled gratefully, and turned to hug Vania properly. “Thank you, Vania. My mind feels clearer now.”

When Emmy pulled back, she considered the fact that her hands were still on Vania’s arms, and her room door was closed. She grinned. “At least I won’t have that problem with you!”

Something flashed past Vania’s eyes, so quickly that Emmy thought she might have imagined it. Was it dismay? But Vania was already grinning back at her.

“Aren’t you lucky?” Vania said, though it sounded a little forced. Emmy was starting to frown when Vania got up. “I better get back. The bell for curfew is going to ring soon.”

Vania fled her room before Emmy could say another word. Did she imagine Vania’s sudden uneasiness? They had plenty of time before curfew to say a few more words. And it wasn’t as if Vania wasn’t living across the hall from her.

Why were her friends acting so weird this year?

*

When Vania closed the door to her room, she leaned her forehead against it, and let out a shuddering breath. She didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

How could things change so fast? How could her feelings become such a mess within a few moments?

She had been so shocked to hear that Gerald kissed Emmy on the lips. And then she almost collapsed in relief when Emmy said she didn’t like him that way. But to hear Emmy joke about not having the same problem with Vania — that stung. It stung more than Vania thought it could, even if Vania had considered the possibility.

She hoped Emmy didn’t sense it. If Emmy preferred men like most women she knew, then it would be better if she never found out about what Vania felt for her.

Vania made herself go through the motions of undressing and preparing for bed. But when she was ready she fell onto her bed, face-down. She sunk her face deeper into her pillow, and tried to convince herself that she wasn’t crying.

*

Gerald was silent and aloof the next day, though for once he did as he was told, without being distracted or acting awkward. Emmy was carefully cool towards him the whole day, though she knew she had to clear the air as soon as they had a private moment.

It was hard to get one. Outside of class, he avoided her every chance he got, and Emmy couldn’t find a moment with him for the next few days. Finally, at training, Emmy stepped close to him and pretended to correct his stance.

“We need to talk.” She whispered so only he could hear. “Please. Stables, tonight at the eighth bell.”

She was there early.

So was he.

She dragged him towards the end of the stables, where it bordered a clearing. It was where she had fought Tibout earlier in the year and almost lost her life.

“Thanks for coming.” She said nervously.

Gerald smiled tiredly. He had shadows under his eyes, as if he hadn’t been sleeping well. “You asked so nicely.”

“Listen —”

“I’m sorry —”

They stopped, and gestured for each other to continue at the same time. They grinned weakly at each other.

“Ladies first.” Gerald finally said.

Emmy ducked her head to hide her smile. It was something he would say. But she sobered when she considered her words. She had rehearsed them many times.

“I value your friendship, Gerald. But,” she swallowed, “I think of you as a friend, that’s all. I’m sorry —”

“No,” He interrupted firmly. “I’m the one who’s sorry. I shouldn’t have acted that way. I was rude, and I was out of line. I’m sorry.”

Emmy shook her head quickly. “It’s all right. I know you didn’t mean anything bad.” She stared at his sad smile, and wanted to salvage what she could. “Friends?”

He nodded slowly. “Always. Maybe one day —” He twitched, as if about to take a step forward, but stopped himself.

He swallowed, and stared at her. Emmy tried to hold her ground, aware that he was looking at her as a girl, and not a fellow page. “Please understand if I — if I avoid you sometimes. I will control myself as best as I can, because I still want to be your friend. But maybe it’s just easier if — if I avoid you sometimes.”

Emmy nodded, not knowing what else to say.

He tried to smile. “Shall we head back to the library, then? We don’t want them to talk.”

Emmy nodded. They walked back together in silence, an arm’s length apart.

*

The next few months passed by a little uneasily, with some tension still between Emmy and Gerald. They acted as normally as they could, though Gerald would avoid partnering with her or going into Corus with the pages when Emmy was going too. Even Vania seemed a little weird, all friendly one moment, and aloof the next.

Emmy would wonder more about this if she wasn’t so busy. Now that it was their final year as a page, the classwork was getting harder and harder even as she found the combat training more manageable. They also hardly get punishment duty anymore, though Patrine, her charge Darren, and Jessamine all got into trouble. Darren and Jessamine both had competitive streaks and a knack for pranks, and Fianola jokingly wondered why Vania and Patrine managed to pick the troublemakers. Wilina was a model page, much like her sponsor.

“Well, I have an eye for people who think beyond rules and conventions!” Vania declared, a hint of pride in her eyes.

“Don’t you wish haMinch thought the same way?” Emmy teased.

Vania winked at her. “Are you sure you know how he thinks about conventions, sweet?”

Vania’s sapphire eyes twinkled.

Her lips looked very kissable.

Emmy blinked, and completely missed what Fianola said to Vania. Where did that come from? She interrogated her own brain and came up with no satisfactory answer.

She looked at Vania again, and felt the same urge to kiss her. She shook her head to clear the thought.

“Emmy?” Vania put a hand on her shoulder, frowning a little in concern. “Are you all right?”

Emmy became very aware of the hand on her shoulder. She saw Fianola and Roland looking at her as well.

“I’m fine.” She lied, “I was just thinking about the math problem.”

Vania rolled her eyes. “We called your name three times! You need to get your head out of the books more, Emmy.”

Emmy knew she was teasing, but she was flustered. “Oh, so I can trounce you more at the practice courts?”

They all stared at her in shock. Emmy privately cursed her big mouth.

Vania narrowed her eyes. “Do you think so? Why don’t we try it?”

They haven’t duelled in a while, not since the last time Alan was here and they tried some of the more complex passes against each other. Even then, they knew what each other would try, and it wasn’t really a freestyle duel that would have pitted their skills against each other. And because of their busy schedules over the past few months, they had not sparred or had a freestyle duel either, and instead spent their time on drills.

Emmy wanted to know. She tried to smile. “It’s about time we have a practice duel again, don’t you think?”

Vania closed her books and stood, a glint in her eyes. “And there’s no better time than now.”

“We still have work due tomorrow,” Fianola said uncertainly as Emmy gathered her things. “Maybe we should do this later.”

“You can stay here, Fianola, Roland.” Vania said with a forced smile. “I’ve been itching to go against Emmy since she came back from the desert. You saw how Eda trusts her as an assistant these days. I’m curious if her sword work is as good as her unarmed combat.”

Roland looked like he was about to protest, and Emmy said quickly, “She’s right. This is between the two of us. Please stay, don’t delay your work because of us.”

The brisk walk to the practice courts was silent. Emmy couldn’t imagine what Vania was thinking. She herself fretted over the strange new feelings. Why did she suddenly want to kiss Vania? They were best friends. Vania had kissed her a few times, but on the forehead, as a sister would. Emmy was thinking of her lips.

What was wrong with her?

Vania led her to the practice courts used by the queen’s ladies, which was the nearest. It was empty at this time of the day. They set their bags next to a barrel that held wooden practice swords. Vania took two, and passed her one.

Vania held her sword up, and Emmy backed away a few steps so they had more space.

“Don’t you do warmups?” Emmy said lightly. She wasn’t sure how they ended up doing this. Was it really a good idea?

“Do you think our enemies would give us time to warm up?” Vania said coolly. “Guard.”

Vania charged at Emmy the second she brought her sword up, and Emmy blocked hastily. Vania attacked relentlessly and quickly, and Emmy was forced to defend. She had to remind herself not to use kicks or other Shang moves.

Vania pressed on. In a few more moves, Emmy’s sword clattered to the floor. Vania’s sword tip was at her throat.

“I yield.”

Vania brought her sword down, her face annoyed. “You were holding back.”

Emmy panted, and decided to be honest. “I didn’t really want to fight you.”

Vania scowled at her. “Do you think I can’t take it? You had to go easy on me?”

“No!” Emmy stepped forward and gripped Vania’s arm. “That’s not it at all. I know you’re good.”

“Then what are you doing, Emmy?” Vania asked in exasperation.

A few strands of dark hair has escaped Vania’s otherwise neat braid. She had a light sheen of sweat on her face. Her brows were creased in a frown, and her blue eyes glinted with impatience.

Emmy still wanted to kiss her.

But could she? What if Vania thought she was strange? What if this changes their friendship forever?

“You girls sure work hard.” A delicate, slightly accented voice called from the corridors, and Emmy turned.

Princess Shinkokami and Yuki walked towards them. Emmy bowed respectfully, though she caught Vania bowing in Yamani-style, with hands flat on her thighs, and wished that she had done the same.

“Shinko-neesan.” Vania said with a smile. She had told Emmy before that ‘neesan’ was Yamani for ‘older sister’, and that her highness had liked Vania calling her that.

“Isn’t it a little late for practice?” Yuki asked. Her face was blank, though her eyes were smiling. Having done glaive practice with them for a month over the summer after her second year, Emmy was a little better than average when it came to reading the Yamanis.

“It’s never too late for practice.” Vania said. Emmy wondered if the two ladies could tell that Vania’s cheerfulness was forced.

Princess Shinkokami turned to Emmy. “How are you doing, Emmy? We missed you at glaive practice.”

Emmy blushed and ducked her head. It was more than a year ago! “I’m well, your highness. I didn’t think you’d remember me.”

Princess Shinkokami did smile. “It is hard to forget someone like you. Vania talks about you often enough.”

Emmy turned to Vania sharply, and saw her blush. What was that?

The pre-curfew bell rang, and both of them jumped at the sound. Emmy didn’t realise that it was so late.

“I’m sorry, Shinko-neesan. That was the pre-curfew bell. We need to hurry back to our rooms.”

“I understand. Have a good night.”

They responded in kind and bowed before they left. It was another brisk walk in silence.

Halfway to their rooms, Emmy sighed. “I’m sorry, Vania. I didn’t mean what I said tonight.”

Vania glanced coolly at her. “Whatever it is you meant, I want another duel with you. A proper one. Don’t hold back on me. It’s insulting.”

Emmy nodded guiltily. “I didn’t mean to. I just had something else on my mind.”

Vania’s hesitation showed, and her annoyance slipped into concern quickly enough. “What is it? Something troubling you?”

They had slowed a little. Emmy looked at Vania’s concerned eyes, and felt immensely lucky to have a friend like her. She couldn’t risk this. Never this.

Emmy forced a smile. “It’s nothing, really. Just a passing thought.”

Vania studied her for a while, and Emmy tried not to fidget. “I know you better than that, you know. But I understand if you’re not ready to share.” She put a hand on Emmy’s shoulder. “But remember that I’m always here for you. Whenever you’re ready.”

Emmy nodded gratefully.

The rest of their walk was still silent, though it held less tension than earlier. When at last they reached their rooms, they muttered a good night to each other and went in.

Emmy leaned her head on her door as she closed it, and gently banged it with her forehead.

What was happening to her?

Chapter Text

Emmy and Vania had a practice duel the following Sunday, in the full view of all their year mates and some of the younger pages. Emmy won two out of the three bouts, though each one was hard-fought. Vania seemed happy towards the end, and congratulated her good-naturedly. Emmy only nodded, and couldn’t bring herself to say more. Her feelings for Vania was still there, bubbling right under the surface that she was afraid that if she said too much, they would slip. If Vania had noticed Emmy being a little quieter around her, she didn’t mention it.

The mountain of homework they were assigned was a welcome distraction for Emmy as she danced on eggshells around Gerald and tried to control herself around Vania. The weeks towards Midwinter passed quickly, and soon they found themselves wearing their best uniform again and reporting to Master Oakbridge for briefing. Vania was particularly excited this winter, for Prince Liam was due to take his Ordeal of Knighthood. She wanted to be there when he walks out of the Chamber, and Emmy and Fianola promised to be there as well.

Emmy actually found that she was enjoying herself as she went around the dining hall to serve the guests. She had seen many familiar faces: Prince Roald and Princess Shinkokami, Buri and Lord Raoul, and Kel and her year mates, among others. It seemed to be more bearable now that it was not a sea of finely-dressed strangers who towered over her.

But on the second night, she saw trouble.

Fianola stood stiffly in front of an older gentleman who was dressed finely in red. He had a full head of white hair, and was lecturing Fianola with a deep scowl on his face. Fianola’s expression was blank, but her eyes were cold. Emmy realised with a start that she was angry. Fianola was hardly ever angry.

At their next break, Emmy caught her elbow before they had to grab a fresh tray of drinks. “Who was the old man bothering you? Did he do something? You looked angry.”

Fianola turned to her in surprise and alarm. Her gaze dropped to the ground, and she sighed. “He’s my father.”

Emmy stared at her.

Fianola tried to smile. “He’s ashamed to find me serving the guests.”

“But — but you’re a page! It’s part of our duties at Midwinter.”

Fianola’s eyes flicked back to the ground. “He never wanted me to be a knight. Mother and Faleron talked him around, but I think he’s regretting it now that the marriage proposal went bad.”

“What?”

Fianola nodded at the kitchen. “Master Oakbridge is scowling at us. Let’s talk later.”

Emmy went back to her duties in a half daze. She kept an eye on Fianola all night, and found her in her room later after Vania went off to join the party, looking for her brothers.

Fianola slouched a little when she sat on her bed, and she wouldn’t look up. Emmy didn’t think she had ever seen Fianola so defeated.

“What happened?” Emmy asked softly when she sat down next to her. “You never said anything about your father, or this marriage proposal.”

“My father let me come for training and paid for it, what else can I ask for?” Fianola said tiredly. “The marriage proposal is with Lord Meron’s eldest son. You might know his younger brother, Tristan. My father is friends with Lord Meron. His eldest is supposed to marry my younger sister, Yvenne. But we met over the summer, and he changed his mind and said he wanted to marry me instead. But he wants me to stop training for my shield.”

Emmy gasped.

Fianola shot her a quick smile. “I refused. I don’t know what he or Lord Meron said to my father, but now he’s mad, and he’s threatening to stop funding my training.”

Emmy gripped Fianola’s hands. “He can’t do that! You’ve worked so hard! And you’re good. You’ll be a great knight one day.”

Fianola gave her a quick hug around the shoulders. “Thank you. The only consolation I have is that we are just a few months away from becoming squires. I won’t need his funding once I get a knight master.”

“Will you be fine for the next few months?” Emmy asked, though she hated that she couldn’t really help her if funding was an issue.

Fianola nodded, smiling tightly. “I have enough savings and jewelry to tide me through, if it comes to that. It hasn’t yet. Don’t worry.”

Emmy nodded in relief. She studied Fianola for a moment. “Does Vania know about your father?”

Fianola shook her head.

“She’d want to know.” Emmy said firmly. “We’re your friends, Fianola. You can trust us with this. A few heads are always better than one. You’re a good friend, and you always know the right words to make us feel better. Give us the chance to do the same for you.”

Fianola looked at her for a long moment. At last, she reached out to pat Emmy’s head. Like Vania, she was half a head taller than Emmy.

“You’ve really grown up.”

Emmy smile crookedly. “When will you and Vania stop saying that?”

“When we’re all old and wrinkled, I’d imagine.” Fianola said with a wink.

Emmy rolled her eyes.

*

Early next morning, all three of them sat on the second row in the chapel, just behind the king and queen and Prince Roald and Princess Shinkokami. The chapel was filled with many of Prince Liam’s friends as well, though Emmy didn’t recognise most of them.

“He’ll be all right,” Vania muttered to herself, fidgeting.

Emmy gave her a hug around the shoulders, and Vania smiled distractedly at her. Next to her, Fianola had a handkerchief out, and she fussed with it nervously. Emmy stared. Why was Fianola so nervous for Prince Liam? She never really spoke about him.

Emmy was still recalling all the previous conversations that involved him that she almost missed it when Prince Liam actually emerged from the Chamber. He was pale and limping, but he managed a smile when the room cheered for him. All of them were on their feet.

When Prince Liam passed them, supported by his knight master on one end and Prince Roald on the other, he turned and caught Fianola’s eyes for a moment. He smiled at her before moving on.

Vania turned around quickly, and Emmy caught her startled eyes with her own. Vania didn’t know about it as well, then.

They didn’t quite corner Fianola in her room later, though it was close.

“Is there something going on between you and Liam?” Vania asked as soon as the door closed behind her.

Fianola sat down on her chair in front of her desk and avoided their eyes. “What do you mean by something?”

“Well,” Vania turned to Emmy for help, but Emmy also didn’t have the words. “We both saw the way he smiled at you just now. I think half the room did. The room was filled with his friends, but he stopped to smile at you.”

Fianola let a smile slip.

Vania grinned, and crouched down next to Fianola. “There it is! When did it start? Why didn’t you tell us?”

Fianola kept her head down, almost shyly. “His knight master visited King’s Reach over the summer. I was practicing archery in the yard, and he joined me. He’s a good practice partner.”

“That’s great, Fianola.” Emmy said as she walked over to lean on the desk so that she could see Fianola better. “Why didn’t you say anything?”

“Yes, this is exciting news!” Vania took Fianola’s hands, “You two would be great together!”

Fianola’s smile faltered. “Vania, you know about the treaty. He’s supposed to marry a princess from Tyra.”

Emmy almost gasped in shock.

Vania looked chagrinned. “I — well, it’s been so long since the treaty was signed that I forgot. I —” Vania grimaced. She stood up and wrapped Fianola in a hug. “I’m sorry.”

Fianola shook her head and forced a smile. “That’s why we didn’t tell anyone. We know it won’t last.”

Emmy reached out to give her shoulder a squeeze, not knowing what to say.

“Don’t worry about it,” Fianola insisted. “We just enjoyed each other’s company for a while, that’s all. It just would have been nice if —” She looked away.

Vania hugged her again, and Fianola buried her head in her shoulder, crying quietly. Emmy felt lost. She had never seen Fianola cry before. And there was nothing she could do.

She watched as Vania held Fianola and rubbed circles on her back, feeling young and useless.

They stayed for a while longer, and left when Fianola calmed down and said she wanted to have some time alone. Vania saw Emmy’s sullen face and beckoned for her to go into her room.

“What’s wrong?” Vania asked quietly. She had probably guessed, but only wanted Emmy to say it herself.

“I feel so bad for her,” Emmy admitted as both of them sat down in front of chairs near the hearth. “To not be able to chase the love she wants, but forced to contend with a marriage she doesn’t.”

Vania sat up in alarm. “What marriage?”

It took a moment for Emmy to realise that she just had the talk with Fianola last night, and there wasn’t time yet for Fianola to tell Vania. So she told Vania about Fianola’s father, and the marriage proposal from Lord Meron’s son.

“Why didn’t she say something?” Vania said exasperatedly, and stood up. “I need to talk to her.”

Emmy grabbed Vania’s arm and pulled her back. “She just had a difficult morning. Let’s not talk about this today, will you?”

Vania sat, and stared at the fire glumly.

“I wish I can help her.” Emmy said quietly.

Vania turned to her. “But it happens to all of us. Even me. Father’s not going to do anything before I earn my shield, but I bet he’ll be thinking about a marriage for me once I have it.” She continued despite the look of alarm on Emmy’s face, “Lianne is probably the luckiest among us in this. Well, she fought for it for a long time, and she’s just succeeded recently. And Alan is the son of the King’s Champion. She and Alan have my parents’ approval, and I expect that they’d get married after Alan gets his shield.”

Emmy was still trying to process all these. Had Vania and Fianola known about this all along?

“You look surprised.” Vania said strangely. “Don’t you have anyone fretting over your marriage?”

Emmy snorted before she could help herself. “Uncle Darius made it clear that I ruined what little prospects I had by trying for knighthood. Xander didn’t say anything.”

Emmy couldn’t quite read the look in Vania’s eyes. “You’re lucky, then.”

Emmy looked away, staring at the fire. “That’s one way of looking at it. Who would want me, anyway? I was stupid when I was young, thinking that I’d clear the Tirragen name and get married. Who knows how long that would take? And which man would want someone with so many scars on her body? They’d take one look at my back and run away.”

Vania sprung out of her chair and took Emmy’s hands. She crouched down in front of her, her eyes intense. “Don’t say that. Your scars are the mark of your courage. You got them because you were protecting someone — first Xander, and then me. Any man —” She swallowed, “Any man who deserves you will appreciate them. And they won’t care about your family name.”

Emmy smiled down at Vania. Next to Xander, Vania was the only who was so fiercely protective of her. Did she herself believe what she said? Would she ever find Emmy beautiful?

“Thanks for saying that,” Emmy told her, giving Vania’s hand a squeeze “I wish they’d think like you. But it’s too soon, anyway. I want my shield before I think about any of this.”

Vania squeezed her hand back encouragingly and stood up. She hesitated for a moment, and leaned down to kiss her on the forehead. “Some Midwinter luck for you, then.”

Emmy closed her eyes a moment, wishing it had lasted longer. She got up as well, and studied Vania’s face. She stood on tiptoes, and kissed Vania on the cheek.

“Midwinter luck to you, too.”

She gave Vania a quick hug and fled, her heart thumping in her ears and her lips tingling.

*

The rest of Midwinter passed by without further incident, though both Emmy and Vania kept a close eye on Fianola, who acted as if nothing happened. Emmy thought about kissing Vania often, though every time she caught herself doing it she would make herself stop, mentally reminding herself how important it was not to mess up their friendship.

Work and training picked up pace once more, and before they realised it, Alan was unpacking his bags and joining them for training again, with their final examinations but two weeks away.

Alan was more withdrawn and sullen this time round, though he wouldn’t say why. Vania seemed to find out a few days after his arrival, and she mirrored his constant frown.

“Is everything all right with you and Alan?” Emmy finally asked one Sunday afternoon she was in Vania’s room, after they had completed their extra sword training. If some of them couldn’t tell Alan was different before, they saw it today. His usual jokes were few and far between, and he wasn’t as forthcoming with his encouragements.

Vania tried to look innocent. “What do you mean? We’re fine.”

Emmy didn’t have the heart to tell her that she had long since learned how to see through this look. “You’re worried about something, both of you.”

Vania stared at her for a long moment, and sighed. Surprisingly, she flicked her fingers, and a curtain of blue glow fell across every surface of the room before disappearing.

“We can’t be eavesdropped on this.” Vania said at Emmy’s questioning look. It made Emmy even more curious. What would warrant such warding in Vania’s own room?

“Listen, I’m trusting lives to you by telling you this,” Vania said very seriously, and Emmy nodded. “Remember Aly, Alan’s twin?”

Emmy nodded again, remembering the girl she had danced with at Prince Roald’s wedding. She had the same reddish blond hair, and the same dancing green-hazel eyes.

“She got herself caught up in a rebellion in the Copper Isles.” Vania continued, a worried frown taking over her features again. “She’s the spymaster for the rebellion.”

Emmy’s jaw dropped. “That’s madness! She’s going to get killed!”

Vania smiled tightly. “She has more training for that work than you think. Aunt Alanna’s husband, the Baron of Pirates’ Swoop, is Tortall’s unofficial spymaster. Sir Myles is the official one. Aly learned many tricks from both her father and grandfather.”

Emmy still couldn’t bring herself to form words. Aly was just one year older than Vania, and she was helping a rebellion in another country? How did that happen?

“I suppose Alan and I are still worried.” Vania looked at her lap. “It finally makes sense. Aunt Alanna was antsy last summer. Alan said Aly was still missing then, and they didn’t know where she was. Now they know, but Aly wouldn’t come back. She said she’s in too deep now, and she cares about the people enough that she wants to see this through.”

Emmy remembered that Aly and Vania were childhood friends. She reached out to give Vania a hug. “I’m sorry to hear this. I know you’re close.”

They pulled back, and Vania leaned back unexpectedly to lie on her bed, putting her one hand under her head. “We used to be. I don’t even know when we started drifting apart.”

Emmy tentatively followed her lead, though she lied sideways so she can see Vania. “Have you really?”

Vania nodded, looking a little forlorn. “The four of us used to do everything together. And we’d talk about what we want to do in life. Lianne was the only one who knew she wanted to be a healer — a healer for a Rider group, to be exact. She loved both the Riders and healing. The rest of us drifted from one thing to the next. The last time I spoke with Aly was at Roald’s wedding. She said she wanted to be a spy, but she knew her parents wouldn’t let her. I wished her well.” She paused. “That was the last time I saw her.”

Vania blinked, and a tear fell from her eye. Without thinking, Emmy reached out and wiped it gently with her fingers. Vania turned to look at her with hopeful eyes, and Emmy felt like she should say something.

“She’s found her path to walk, like you have. She’ll be fine. I heard the Lioness is protected by the Goddess. Surely her daughter will be blessed too.”

Vania smiled and nodded, wiping her other cheek hastily.

“She’s gotten quite the head start, though.” Vania said with a small grin. “She’s leading a rebellion already, but I’m still a page!”

“Only for one more week!” Emmy said, and when Vania caught her eyes she knew that she felt that shiver of excitement too.

Vania’s eyes blazed. “One more week, and we’ll be squires!”

*

The night they moved over to the squires’ table, the cheers were long and loud. In a break with tradition, not only did the king attend the dinner that night, the queen did, as well. While the king did not single Vania out in his customary speech, everyone could see the monarchs’ proud eyes on her, and Vania was beaming the whole night. It helped that she was still ranked the top of the class.

They celebrated all night, enjoying the special desserts and the entertainers hired by haMinch for the occasion. When they exited the hall, patting their bellies and yawning, they got another surprise.

“Aunt Alanna!” Vania cried in surprise, and ran over to hug her, almost burying her entirely. Emmy noted with amusement that Vania was taller than the Lioness now.

“Congratulations!” Alanna said, patting Vania’s back heartily. When she let go, she turned to the rest of the new squires.

“Congratulations to you lot as well!” She said with a grin.

Alan walked over silently. Alanna gave her son a tight hug, whispering something to his ears as she stood on tiptoes. Alan was a head taller than his mother. He was smiling when he let go.

At last Alanna came to Emmy, warmth in her famed violet eyes. Emmy swallowed, and bowed deeply. “My lady, thank you. I wouldn’t be here without you.”

Small but strong hands pulled her back up, and the next moment, Alanna wrapped Emmy in a hug. Emmy was startled to realise that they were the same height.

“You did me proud.” Alanna said in her ears. “You’ll do Tirragen proud one day, too.”

“Thank you.” Emmy whispered, blinking suddenly teary eyes.

“Don’t worry about the next few weeks’ funding, I’ve taken care of it.” Alanna muttered before she let go to greet Fianola. Emmy could only nod. How would she ever repay Alanna?

When she had greeted all the new squires, she stepped back to survey them, her eyes lingering on the girls. “Now that you’re squires, there’s no need for me to stay away from you. Come meet me tomorrow —”

Ma,” Alan said reasonably, “Can’t you give us one day off? We haven’t finish celebrating!”

Alanna raised an eyebrow. “I waited here for a while for you to finish celebrating! Did you plan to slack off now that you are squires?”

“Maybe just for one day?” Vania said cheekily. Emmy held her breath. Surely, no one spoke to the Lioness like that.

To her surprise, Alanna chuckled and shook her head. “Fine. Have fun tomorrow. Meet me the day after. I’ll be here for a few weeks.”

Vania and Alan cheered.

Chapter Text

Vania brought everyone out to Corus the day after they became squires, where they were to have a fine dinner later that night paid for by their majesties themselves. For all Vania didn’t like to remind people that she was a princess, her friends were sometimes glad for things like this.

They wandered around the city during the day, and the boys soon got tired of Vania and Fianola’s constant stops at jewelry or dressmakers’ shops, and went their own way. They promised to meet later at the eating house. Gerald went a little more hurriedly than the rest, and Emmy’s heart sunk a little. Their friendship was on thin ice these days, and it had been a hard-won one that Emmy had wanted to protect.

Fianola didn’t miss that, for all that her own future was hanging on the line with the battered proposal from Lord Meron’s eldest son still on the cards. She went away, saying that she was going to look for the spiced nuts common in her home fief that Emmy liked.

Meanwhile, Vania brought her to a shop that sold weapon cleaning kits. She inspected the goods carefully, though Emmy looked around more casually, not wanting to study something too closely only to learn that she couldn’t afford it.

When she turned around, she almost jump in shock.

Darius of Tirragen looked as surprised as she was. They stared at one another for a moment.

Emmy forced herself to bow. “Uncle Darius. I didn’t know you’re in town.”

Darius didn’t scowl at her. He actually smiled a little, and Emmy hoped her eyes were not as wide as she felt them to be.

“I’m here to visit some friends.” He said, “Now that your brother has taken over the estate officially as her lord, I find myself with more free time than I used to.”

“Emmy?” Vania asked softly behind her.

Emmy swallowed. The shop was empty save for them, and the shopkeeper had went into his room to retrieve something. It should be fine.

“Uncle Darius, this is Her Royal Highness Princess Vania. Vania, this is my uncle, Darius of Tirragen.”

Darius bowed respectfully, though a glance at Vania showed that her face was cold. “It is a pleasure to meet you at last, your highness. We are honoured that you grace Emmeline with your friendship.”

Vania narrowed her eyes. “Emmy is a good friend. I like taking care of her.”

Emmy’s eyes went to Vania in surprise. Was she hinting to Darius that she would have Emmy’s back?

“That is great to hear.” Darius said, and turned to Emmy again, “We should catch up while I am in town. It is your summer break, is it not?”

Emmy nodded numbly. “We’ve just been made squires.”

Darius didn’t show any reaction to that fact. “Very well. Why don’t we have lunch next Sunday? I will find a place, and send a messenger to the palace to let you know.”

“Yes, uncle.”

He nodded at her and bowed to Vania before leaving the shop. So many things felt wrong. Why would Darius be here, when he didn’t even carry a sword? Why had he try to act nice when he couldn’t have known that Vania was with her? Or did he see Vania before he entered the shop?

“I don’t like him.” Vania said grimly.

Emmy’s hands twitched, she had almost forgotten that she wasn’t alone. “He’s lying about something.”

Vania clasped Emmy’s shoulder, worry on her face. “Are you sure you’re going to lunch with him?”

“I don’t have any excuse.”

“Say you’re ill, or something!”

“Xander hasn’t said it’s safe for me to return,” Emmy reminded her, “Maybe he hasn’t secured his position fully, despite being the official lord now. What if Darius do something to him if I refuse?”

Vania’s hand tightened on her shoulder. “I’ll join you, then.”

Emmy gripped her arm in alarm. “No. You can’t!”

Vania stuck out her chin. “Why not? He’s not going to do anything to me. And he won’t try his old tricks on you if I’m around.”

Emmy shook her head again. “It’s not a good idea. Something’s not right.”

“All the more reason why you shouldn’t go alone!”

Vania made sense. Whatever he planned to do to Emmy, Vania’s presence would deter him. Could he threaten to do anything to Xander? Well, not in front of Vania, surely?

Vania gently steered her out of the stall. “Well, we can talk more about it later, all right? We’ll work something out.”

Emmy knew that she had lost the argument then.

She was distracted for a while, but Vania and Fianola put in a lot of effort to cheer her up, and Emmy couldn’t bare worrying for long. They caught a humorous play, and soon Emmy was laughing along like the rest. Dinner that night was grand, and Emmy had never had finer food.

As the six of them walked back to the palace at a leisurely pace, it struck Emmy that they would soon be apart. They would serve their knight masters separately, and perhaps they would never be as close as they were now.

Would Vania be a stranger to her one day? It made Emmy a little sad, and more than a little nervous, even if she was excited to be a squire and be closer to her knighthood.

Growing up was just never straightforward, wasn’t it?

*

Life as squires without knight-masters was almost a complete opposite of page life. They didn’t have scheduled classes, though Alanna had taken an interest in their fencing skills. Every afternoon, she taught not just the three girls, but the rest of the new squires and whoever was around as well. Emmy was happy to be taught by the Lioness herself, and Alanna hadn’t lost her temper yet. The rest of the time, they could laze around, if they wanted to.

Vania, as usual, wanted to be the first in everything. Now that they were squires, she wanted be the first to visit the Chamber of Ordeal.

Emmy stared at her for a few long moments. “Are you mad? We’ve only been squires for three days!”

“Squires do it all the time,” Vania said dismissively, “And we’re not going in, we’re just going to touch the door.”

Emmy supposed she should be honoured that Vania asked her along. In any case, they still had a few hours to go before Alanna’s training in the afternoon. Emmy sighed, and closed her door behind her.

Vania grinned, and started excitedly for the Chamber.

They had visited the chapel multiple times before to wait for people to emerge from the Chamber, though it was never as empty as it was now. The silence was unnerving for Emmy. But Vania strode right to the iron door. Emmy hurried to follow her.

Vania turned to her eagerly, her hands up and ready. Emmy gulped, and raised her hands.

“On three?” Emmy nodded.

“One, two, three —”

Uncle Darius clutched a bloody knife, sneering at her.

He made good on his threats. At his feet, Xander laid lifeless and wide-eyed. Blood pooled around his body and the toppled wheelchair behind him. Emmy was terrified.

Instead of coming to her, Darius strode to the right instead, where Vania sat bound and gagged. Darius made sure that Emmy was looking before stabbing his knife through Vania’s heart. Vania’s eyes widened in shock and fear, and life slowly left her as blood pooled around her and her face turned white.

Emmy gasped as she staggered back, falling to the floor ungracefully and landing on her behind. Vania managed to stay standing, though she had staggered a few steps away from the door, and her eyes were wide with fear like Emmy’s.

Vania offered a hand and Emmy grabbed it almost in desperation, and they embraced tightly. Emmy ran her hands up and down Vania’s back, making sure that she was real and solid and alive. Vania did the same to her.

“This —” Emmy started and lost her voice. She took a breath and tried again, “This was your idea!”

Vania laughed weakly. “I never said it was a good idea. I just said other people did it.”

They pulled apart reluctantly. Emmy searched Vania’s pale and terrified face, and she couldn’t help stroking it with trembling fingers. It looked too much like the face that the vision showed, after Darius stabbed her. Emmy had almost lost her.

Impulsively, Emmy leaned forward and kissed Vania on the lips.

Her spine tingled. She pulled back quickly when she realised what she was doing. But to her shock, Vania pulled her back in, and kissed her eagerly, almost hungrily. Emmy felt her knees might give up.

When they finally pulled apart, Emmy thought that she might just wake up and realise that it was part of the Chamber’s vision.

But it wasn’t. Vania was still right in front of her, so near that she felt her every breath. Absently, Emmy reached out to tuck a few strands of Vania’s hair behind her ear. Her hand trembled, like the rest of her.

“I’m glad,” Vania said raggedly, a shaky smile on her lips and hope dancing in her eyes.

“Of what?” Her own voice was hoarse.

“That you… feel the same.” Vania whispered, “You do, don’t you?”

Emmy wanted to kiss Vania again, her every instinct wanting to do something that she did not understand. “I want this,” she admitted, “But what is this, exactly?”

Vania laughed softly, her own trembling fingers caressing Emmy’s cheek. “This is us wanting each other, sweet.”

Emmy dared herself to lean into Vania’s touch, and her heart leaped when Vania’s smile widened at that. But her mind has not yet wrapped itself around this. “But how? We’re both —we’re — aren’t we supposed to —”

“Shinko said,” Vania swallowed, her eyes more serious, “Shinko said it’s not… uncommon, in the Yamani Islands, for people to take lovers of the same sex.”

Lovers. The word made Emmy giddy. “Is that…is that what we are?”

“Lovers?”

Emmy could only nod, seeing the tenderness in Vania’s eyes with pleasure and awe.

Vania reached out to stroke Emmy’s hair, tracing it to her braid. “I want us to be. I want to be with you.”

“Me too.” Emmy whispered, realising that it was true. She wanted to stay with Vania forever. “But… but how will we — our friends, your — your family —”

“Shh.” Vania whispered back, “If they love us, they’ll accept us eventually. It’s too soon to worry now.”

Vania leaned forward again for a kiss, and Emmy obliged, all coherent thoughts slipping away from her mind.

*

They jumped apart when a bell rang, and then giggled at each other, feeling silly. Vania’s heart was soaring. She touched Emmy’s face, so familiar, and yet with a strange tender expression that was entirely new. Vania blinked away a few tears quickly.

“What’s wrong?” Emmy frowned in concern, wiping a tear that escaped.

Vania smiled. “I’m just so glad. You don’t know how long I’ve — I’ve hidden this, how long I’ve wondered if you’d ever feel the same for me.”

Emmy’s brown eyes widened a little. “Have you? And I thought —” Emmy chuckled. “I was trying to hide it from you. I thought you’d find me strange, and you wouldn’t be my friend anymore.”

Vania didn’t hide her own surprise. “Have you now? You have to tell me everything.”

Emmy nodded. “You know I will.” She snuck at look behind Vania, and gulped. “Maybe we should go back to our rooms. This is probably not the best place.”

Vania swallowed a laugh. It was true. She sent a silent apology to Mithros, partly hoping that he hadn’t seen the whole thing and wouldn’t punish them for it in their Ordeals. Vania took Emmy’s hand, and they trotted out together.

All through the corridors they snuck looks at each other, grinning like idiots. At a dark bend, Vania took a quick look in both directions, and stepped in to kiss her on the cheek. Emmy blushed in pleasure, and it was all Vania could do to will herself to keep going and not stop there and kiss her senseless.

When at last Vania closed the door to her room behind her and she turned to see Emmy standing there expectantly, she couldn’t help but kiss her again. It was slower, more lingering but no less thrilling.

They rested their foreheads against each other when they pulled apart, and Emmy giggled.

“What?”

“If I were a boy, we wouldn’t be able to do this.”

Vania chuckled, and she pulled Emmy to sit down on her bed with her. She slung an arm around Emmy’s shoulders and pulled her close. She felt Emmy snake an arm around her waist. “Thank the gods for small mercies.”

They were both quiet for a while, just enjoying each other’s presence, and the lightness that came from not hiding anything from each other. Vania’s heart still beat quickly, and she couldn’t help but wonder if Emmy could hear it, leaning close to her chest as she was.

“How long have you known?” Emmy asked finally, turning her head up to peek at Vania.

Vania smiled down at her. “I don’t know when it started. But after you were poisoned by Tibout last year, I was — I was so scared.” Recalling the way Emmy suffered for a few days gave Vania the shivers, and she leaned down to give Emmy a kiss to reassure herself that she was fine now. “After that, I knew.”

Emmy tightened her arms around Vania.

“And you?” Vania asked.

Emmy ducked her head. “Remember the night in the library, when we ended up having a practice duel?”

Vania felt a grin form on her face. “Was this what got you distracted?”

Emmy nodded, and Vania couldn’t help laughing. To think that Vania thought Emmy was insulting her! Emmy pulled away to shoot her a glare, but she looked so adorable that it made Vania laugh harder.

“I was confused! I didn’t know it’s all right to want to kiss another girl!”

That made her stop. She pulled Emmy closer again. “I’m sorry, it’s been a while since I knew I prefer women. I’d almost forgotten how confusing it was at the beginning.”

Emmy nodded against her chest, and Vania breathed a sigh in relief. She breathed in Emmy’s scent, and felt like she could stay like this forever.

“What should we tell our friends?” Emmy asked after a while.

Vania bit her lips. “Fianola knows…that I prefer women. I don’t know what the others will think.”

“I still don’t know what I think,” Emmy muttered.

Vania nudged her a little. “Don’t you? I thought you said you want this.”

“I do, I want this.” Emmy paused to find the words, “But why? Why are we different from other people? What are we going to do in a few years? What happens if your father —”

“Hush.” Vania said softly. “That’s still many years away. We’ll think about it then. I’ve waited too long for this. Let me be with you for a while before we talk about the future.”

Emmy didn’t move, and Vania waited with bated breath.

At last, Emmy nodded. Vania let out a sigh in relief.

“I suppose we shouldn’t tell?” Emmy said tentatively.

Vania swallowed. She had worried about this for a while, after all. “Not now. Maybe Fianola, since she knew about me. Lianne knows I like you. But even our other friends… I don’t know.”

“Gerald would have a fit.” Emmy muttered darkly.

Vania winced. She knew that Gerald liked Emmy. What would Gerald think of them? He was always honourable, though a little traditional in his thinking…

“We’ll just have to be discreet.” Vania said, trying to sound encouraging.

Emmy looked up at her with a sly grin. “Like other squires in love?”

Vania couldn’t resist leaning down to kiss her again. “Exactly.”

*

Bliss was a good word for the next few days. Outside of training with Alanna, Emmy and Vania would find excuses to leave their friends after a while, and they would retreat to one of their rooms, where they would twine themselves around each other and did any number of things. They would kiss, or talk, and when they got tired of both they were content to stare at each other, or even nap next to each other.

They told Fianola on the third day, and to their surprise Fianola hugged them both in congratulations, even getting a little teary-eyed. Emmy felt even worse for her, knowing that her current love was unavailable, and she might be marrying someone who did not appreciate her desire for knighthood. But Emmy couldn’t worry for too long, for Vania knew all too well how to distract her now.

But time still passes, and Emmy’s other problems didn’t wait.

On Sunday morning, Emmy felt a growing sense of dread. She knocked on Vania’s door, and let her guide her to the chair in front of the hearth.

“Vania,” Emmy looked at her seriously, “Don’t come. I can handle Darius.”

“No.” Vania said firmly, predictably. “I know you can fight him, but you would put your brother’s life above yours, and you’ll let him do what he wants. I won’t let that happen.”

“But you’re a princess,” Emmy said, and cringed when Vania’s eyes flash at the use of her title, “I can’t — I can’t risk letting anything happen to you —”

“So you do think there’ll be danger.” Vania narrowed her eyes, “Why is it fine for you to risk your life for your brother, and not fine for me to take a risk for you?”

“Because you’re a lot more important!”

Vania looked like she was slapped.

Emmy swallowed. “You’re a lot more important to the realm. You’re loved by their majesties, and the Lioness, and everyone. You’re too important.” Emmy tried to touch Vania’s cheek, but she flinched away, and stood up.

“Emmy!” Vania looked around, her face incredulous. “I can’t believe you said that. You are important, too, you dolt! My life isn’t worth more than yours because I’m a princess!”

Emmy held Vania’s gaze. “But it is,” Emmy said quietly, “You are a good person. Most of the time you make us forget that you’re a princess. But you are more important, and there will be those who mean you harm because you’re a princess. I can’t let anything happen to you. I’d rather die than —”

Vania pulled her off the chair by her collar, and her hands shook. “Don’t.” Her sapphire eyes were anguished. “Not a word more.”

Tentatively, Emmy wrapped her arms around Vania, and pulled her into a hug. Vania let her. She rubbed circles on Vania’s back, and she felt her relax slowly.

“I’ll be fine.” Emmy told her, “You know I can handle myself. I’ve been teaching you unarmed combat for the past year, remember?”

Vania ignored her completely and tightened her arms around Emmy. “Don’t ever say my life is worth more than yours again, Emmy. I don’t care what everyone says. You are important to me. That’s all that matters to me. And you’re not allowed to die for me.”

“I never said I planned to, just that —”

“That’s fine.” Vania said quickly. “How about this, let me find some backup, at least? We won’t go alone. Both of us.”

Emmy took a few deep breaths. Was there another way out of this? She knew how stubborn Vania could be when she made up her mind. Better not drive her to do something completely crazy.

She nodded, and felt Vania kiss the top of her head.

*

When they rode into Corus later that morning, Vania looked extremely pleased with herself, though she wouldn’t tell Emmy whom she recruited as backup.

“Would it hurt for me to know who it is?” Emmy tried again. The eating house that Darius had asked her to meet him was already in sight, it was the last chance to do so.

“It wouldn’t hurt,” Vania said cryptically, “though you probably won’t feel too comfortable. Better for you to not know.”

Who in Mithros’ name did Vania ask? If it would make Emmy uncomfortable, it could be someone terribly important. But Vania knew everyone who was terribly important. Who would she pick? Who was in the palace this time of the year?

The hostlers who worked for the eating house rushed forward to greet them as they dismounted. They nodded when the hostlers gestured at the entrance, and Vania flipped a coin to them when they turned away.

Vania took Emmy’s elbow and leaned close. “See the building next to this? That’s where our backup is having tea at this moment, on the ground floor. We’d get help in moments. Don’t worry.”

Emmy was about to ask how they were going to contact this person when a servant bowed to them at the entrance.

“Good afternoon, ladies.” He said respectfully, though both Emmy and Vania wore shirts and breeches, “May I know if you have a table booked?”

Emmy nodded. “I am Emmeline of Tirragen. My uncle is expecting me.”

The servant frowned a little. “Lord Darius is expecting you, but we were told to prepare for one guest only.”

Emmy bit her lip, wondering why Darius was using the wrong title so brazenly. Vania caught her eye, and she shook her head.

“She’s my friend.” Emmy said, reluctant to reveal Vania’s status. “I’m sure Uncle Darius won’t mind.”

“Very well.” The servant shrugged, and bowed to show them the way in.

The eating house was small but tastefully furnished. They entered into a foyer that had stairs leading up to a second floor, where residential suites could be rented, according to the servant. Doorways open in each of the three directions. The servant led them down one on the right, where it opened to a spacious dining room with a medium sized dining table that could seat six people, and a unlit fireplace surrounded by comfortable armchairs.

There were only two chairs at the long table, at each end. Darius sat on one of them. When he saw them enter, he stood up hurriedly.

“Your highness! I didn’t know you would be gracing us with your presence today.” Darius bowed when he stopped in front of them. He turned to the servant. “Set up another seat, and move the seats around the long edge so I can talk more easily with her highness.”

After the servant left, Emmy took her chance and bowed quickly. “Uncle Darius. Vania heard about our lunch and wished to come.”

“You could have informed me earlier.” Darius said curtly, a slight frown creasing his brows.

“It was my idea,” Vania said cheerfully. “I only told her this morning. We plan to watch a play after this, so I invited myself.”

Darius forced a smile. “Of course. It is a great honour. Why don’t we have a seat while the tables are being set up?”

Darius guided them to the armchairs, and he summoned another servant to get some tea.

“So tell me, your highness,” Darius said once they had all settled down, his face politely blank, “How did you become friends with Emmeline? I’ve always wished that I’d raised her to have better manners and a better attitude, myself.”

Emmy kept her face neutral. This was more like the Darius that she knew. But one look at Vania showed that she was struggling to keep her face neutral.

“I’m surprised to hear you say that, Darius,” Vania said after a moment too long, her smile thin. “Emmy is well-liked among the pages and the instructors. You might have heard that the Shang Wildcat herself took Emmy on as a personal student, and brought her to the desert for training.”

Darius raised an eyebrow, almost imperceptibly. “Is that so? That’s terribly selfish of you, Emmeline.” He turned to her, his eyes hard, “You have already chased away suitors with this silly knighthood. Who would want you now, if they know that you can fight even when they take away your sword?”

Emmy held his gaze. Two weeks ago this might have rattled her, but no longer.

“Why would she want suitors who would take away her sword in the first place?” Vania said icily, and when Emmy turned to look, she saw that Vania was gripping the armrest so hard that her knuckles were white.

Darius waved a hand at her dismissively. “You don’t understand Tirragen, your highness. You would have many eligible suitors fighting for your hand in marriage, even with a shield to your name. Tirragen is a tarnished name, and Emmeline would need to make do. I know what they want.”

Vania opened her mouth to argue, but Emmy couldn’t let this escalate. “Uncle, has anyone visited Tirragen about my marriage? You haven’t told me news from home. How is Xander doing?”

Darius turned cold eyes to her. “Who did you think would offer you a proposal? Of course there isn’t any! And now I have to travel around the country to find someone who would take you.”

Emmy felt her cheeks warm, whether with embarrassment or anger she couldn’t quite tell.

Darius pushed himself up slowly. “But speaking of Xander, he did ask me to pass you something. Will you follow me? The parcel is in my private room.”

Vania shot her a quick look of alarm. “I will join you.”

Darius paused. “That isn’t necessary. It will be just a few moments. I’m sure that we will be down again before the tables are set up.”

What could he do in a few moments? Emmy shook her head slightly at Vania, smiling reassuringly. “I’ll be down in a moment. Don’t worry.”

“Why would there be anything to worry about?” Darius smiled thinly. “I am her uncle, your highness.”

He stepped away from the armchairs and turned to Emmy expectantly. Emmy trotted over, though he had already turned and started to walk to the door before Emmy reached him. She followed up him down the corridor, not towards where they came from at the entrance, but in the opposite direction. At the end of it was a more private staircase, and they climbed up in silence.

They emerged into another corridor. Darius stopped in front of the second door to her right. He opened it with a key, and gestured Emmy to go inside with a scowl on his face.

Emmy avoided his eyes, and walked in. It was spacious suite, with a four poster bed in the middle.

The door slammed shut behind her.

Emmy spun around, and heard the lock click. She turned the knob and found that it wouldn’t budge. She banged on the door.

“Uncle! What are you doing!” She banged on the door again. “Let me out!”

Only silence remained. She stared at the door in shock. Why did Darius do this? He knew Vania was waiting downstairs. He told her that it would be only a few moments.

What did he plan to do with Emmy?

*

The moment the Emmy’s back vanished from the door, Vania let out a huff of indignation. How could Darius of Tirragen be so — so despicable! So rude! To talk about Emmy like that in front of her friend. He did not care for her feelings at all, it was clear.

But Vania knew that, she tried to tell herself. She knew what kind of a man Darius was. But just being in the same room with him made her feel like punching him. How could Emmy live with this man when she was growing up? And to think that a man like him ordered Emmy around like a slave, and threatened her brother’s life to force her to obey — how could Emmy stand him?

A servant appeared beside her with a tray and three cups of tea. Vania nodded, trying to school her expression neutral. She was getting too angry, and they hadn’t even begun their lunch.

She needed to calm down. The tea would be good for her. Her hands actually shook a little when she reached out for the cup, and she shook her head. What a knight she’d make, if the comments of a scoundrel like Darius could rattle her so.

She took a long sip of the tea and sighed. It was very refreshing and calming. She drained the half the cup, and felt much better. The Riders had taught her the basics of meditation and breathing exercises, and she did them now, taking deep breathes and focusing on them to calm herself down.

“How was the tea, your highness?” Darius’ voice came from the door.

Vania was about to reply when she heard the door lock. She turned around. Darius had locked the door behind him, but Emmy wasn’t with him.

She stood up. “Where’s Emmy?”

“Ah, I see you’ve finished your tea.” Darius said as he came over, looking pleased.

“I said, where’s —”

The room swayed.

Vania staggered, and flung her arms out desperately. She caught the back of an armchair for support, and she held on tightly. Her limbs felt like jelly. She was almost slumped over the armchair.

“How do you feel, your highness?”

Vania forced her head up to look at Darius. There were three of him now, and the room wouldn’t stay still!

“You — you poisoned the tea!” She croaked.

“Poison?” Thankfully, her hearing wasn’t affected. She heard the mocking tone in Darius’ voice just fine. “My, why would I do something so — so treasonous? It wouldn’t do for Tirragen to have another count of treason to her name, would it?”

Vania adjusted her hands, clinging to the armchair desperately. “You won't — won't get away with this!”

“You’re a smart one, aren’t you?” Darius was actually sitting down, if Vania’s vision had not gone completely mad. “You knew about my history with that wench, and you thought you’d protect her — with your sheer presence, I might add.”

“You’re such a fool.” He chuckled coldly. “A remark from the servant about expecting one guest, and a wrong table set up, and you think you have the upper hand. I was worried that you wouldn’t drink the tea, but a few casual insults is enough to make you reach for it.”

He stood up and strode over. He closed his hand around her throat, and tossed her to the floor.

The ceiling and floor melt into one another as Vania rolled across the floor, and she groaned when she stopped. Her limbs wouldn’t obey her. She couldn’t move!

“Have you figured it out yet, your highness?” Darius’ face was too close, and Vania turned away from him and felt him spat on the floor where her face was.

You are the target, Vania of Conté.”

Chapter Text

Emmy paced in the room she was locked in. What should she do? She was locked here, and Vania was waiting downstairs for her. Surely, Vania would make a fuss, no matter what excuse Darius cooked up. Even if Vania was driven away, she would run to the next building to get help. Emmy could just wait, couldn’t she?

But what did Darius want? Why did he come all the way to Corus just to find Emmy and get himself in trouble with a princess? Emmy wasn’t worth anything to him.

Was it to use her as a hostage against Xander, in whatever game they were playing? But getting on the bad side of a princess wouldn’t help Darius in any way. If he wanted to be Lord of Tirragen so badly, he should be trying hard to get into Vania’s good books.

Nothing made sense. Vania was supposed to be the player who changed the game for Darius. Whatever he was plotting for Emmy, Vania would hinder him, stop him, make things so much worse for him. So why would he still try to trick Emmy?

Emmy halted, colour draining from her face.

What if… what if it was never about Emmy in the first place?

*

Darius slapped Vania. She couldn’t even bring her hand up to touch it. The next thing she knew, he had dragged her off the ground by the collar, and slammed her onto the open space between the armchairs and the table.

He kicked her in the ribs, and she cried in pain. She could still feel pain, even if she couldn’t control her limbs.

“I’m not so stupid as to kill you outright with poison, you Conté wench. Your death needs to send a message.” He kicked her again, and again. Vania spat to one side, feeling bile in her mouth.

“This wonderful tea I prepared specially for you is poisoned all right,” He crouched again, and pinched her chin to turn her to him. “Not to kill, but to make you weak as a kitten. When your body is found in a dark alley tomorrow — or who knows, when your body starts to rot — there will be no trace of it in your body, and all of Tortall would know that you are an arrogant princess who pretends to fight among men. That when street thugs surround you, you are all but helpless against them.”

He pushed her head back and she fell onto her back. He pulled a knife from his boots.

Vania couldn’t see his face clearly, but the sneer in his voice was clear. “I’m told that street thugs use knives.”

Vania steeled herself as the knife came down.

*

Darius wanted to hurt Vania. That would explain why he was doing this. Emmy didn’t matter at all, she was just the bait. He’d read her letters, he knew that they were close. Vania all but told him that she would have Emmy’s back. He must have guessed that Vania would be here today.

Emmy looked at the door, and know that there wasn’t any use trying to break it. She ran across the room to the window and tried the latch. Locked, of course. Emmy peeked at the ground below. It was the garden beside the building. There was nothing to break her fall. But this was only the second floor.

Emmy looked for something heavy. Her eyes landed on a paperweight.

She grabbed it and ran back to the window. She slammed it against the window as hard as she could. The glass cracked. She slammed it again, and again.

The glass broke. She hammered out a bigger hole, and barely noticed when she cut her arm. Once it was big enough for her, she crawled through it and jumped.

She cursed. She didn’t land as well as she should, and her right ankle throbbed painfully.

There wasn’t time. She thought for a moment, and ran for the room they were in, gritting her teeth at the pain in her feet.

*

Vania bit back a cry as another slash cut her arm. Darius did not mean a quick death for her, it seemed. He had left shallow cuts on her arms and thighs, and seemed to be enjoying himself.

“You are a hard-mouthed wench, aren’t you?” He was panting, and he stood up with his knife dripping in her blood. “I was looking forward to hear you scream, and plead for mercy.”

“Never!” Vania croaked. What did he do to Emmy? Gods, Vania didn’t care what would happen to her now. Please let Emmy be all right.

“You must have gotten it from you savage mother.” Darius crouched again, and drew a lazy cut down Vania’s side. Vania bit the inside of her cheek until it bled. She would never give him the satisfaction of hearing her scream!

“The kingdom was never the same after she arrived. Schools for commoners, letting women serve as Riders,” He glared at her, “and lady knights. Tortall needs to be brought back to its former glory.”

“By the likes of you?” Vania spat.

Darius slapped her again.

“By the true heir of Tortall!” he snapped. “That Jonathan was but a pretender to the throne. Now the true heir is rising, and with your death, we will —”

Glass broke somewhere, and something crashed into the room.

“Vania!”

Vania breathed a sigh of relief. Emmy was alive!

*

Emmy stared for a moment in shock. Vania was limp on the floor, bleeding from various cuts, and Darius was crouching over her, a bloody knife in his hand. It was like her vision from the Chamber of Ordeal coming alive.

“How did you leave the room?” Darius snapped as he stood up.

Emmy snapped out of her shock. She charged at Darius, who stepped over Vania to meet her. She blocked his knife easily and knocked it out of his hands. He punched her in the gut, and she slammed a knee into his stomach. Her bad ankle wobbled, and his kick knocked her off her feet. She scrambled up to block another kick, and twisted to sweep his legs out from under him.

She jumped to pin him under her knees, and punched his face when he was down. Something stabbed her arm and she cried, turning to twist his arm that found the fallen knife. His other arm closed around her throat and squeezed.

She gasped. Her hands scrambled wildly on the ground. She cut herself on the fallen knife, and turned it around to close her hand on the grip. Her vision was going grey. She aimed the knife downwards, and pushed it down as hard as she could.

The hand around her throat loosened, and she pushed away, coughing and gasping.

The door slammed open, a violet glow around the edges. Alanna the Lioness rushed into the room, her eyes blazing.

“Vania!” Alanna rushed to crouch beside Vania.

Emmy took one look at Darius. The knife was planted at the bottom of his throat. A pool of blood was growing around him.

Blood was bubbling from his mouth. His eyes were wide in surprise.

“Why?” Emmy asked in disgust. Her hands shook.

He turned slightly to her. “For… Tirragen.” He croaked, and life left him.

Tirragen. The name she had worked so hard to redeem. Emmy clenched her fists, but they still shook.

“You’ve ruined us all.” She whispered.

She shook her head, and limped back to Alanna and Vania. Alanna’s violet Gift was glowing from her hands. Vania’s eyes were closed. She was pale, and blood soaked through various cuts on her arms, legs and side.

Emmy dropped down to her knees, and tried not to cry. She didn’t think she succeeded.

Alanna looked up when the glow faded, her eyes worried. “She’ll be fine in a few days. But I can’t wake her.”

Emmy turned to the desk and the armchair. There was a tray, and a cup had been used. She turned back and scrambled closer, checking Vania’s nails. “Darius couldn’t have fought her and won so quickly. She must have been drugged.”

Emmy couldn’t see any obvious signs of poison. Alanna frowned in concentration, her violet Gift glowing again for a few moments. “You’re right. There’s a faint trace of drug that will weaken a person, now that I know to look for it.”

Alanna looked up at Emmy sharply. “You’re bleeding.”

Emmy glanced down at her arm, and saw blood dripping from the cut on her upper arm. Beyond her arm, she could see blood pooling around Darius’ body. Tirragen blood.

Alanna came into view. Emmy turned away, scrambling and stumbling on her knees and hands. A few feet away, she threw up. Her whole body shook, with shock or shame or guilt, she could not tell.

Strong hands pulled her back gently, sitting her a safe distance away from her own sick. Alanna handed her a handkerchief as she started healing Emmy’s arm.

Emmy wiped her mouth, keeping the handkerchief over it with her good hand. She couldn’t stop her tears from falling.

“You saved Vania’s life.” Alanna said quietly.

“I was so stupid.” Emmy whispered, dropping the handkerchief and wishing there was something big enough for her to hide all of her in. “I thought he wanted me. And Vania was almost killed.”

Alanna nudged her. “Sit properly, your ankle’s swollen.” Emmy adjusted her legs, barely wincing when her ankle throbbed. “Don’t blame yourself so quickly. He must have planned this well. We’ll know more when Vania wakes up.”

“When will she…?”

“With the drug and the healing, probably in two or three days.” Alanna said gently. She took Emmy’s arm again, and healed the various small cuts on her hands.

Alanna stood up with a grunt. “We need to get Vania back to the palace, and the guards should take Darius, and search his things.”

Emmy stood up. Her ankle felt a little wobbly, her hands shook, but in her heart she was sure of what she should do. She took a deep breath. “I’ll look for the guards. And I’ll surrender myself.”

Alanna gripped her shoulder. “Are you sure? You saved Vania’s life.”

Emmy nodded. “It’s my duty. A Tirragen has — has committed treason again.” She looked away in shame, “And all of Tirragen must answer for it. If I’m to retain what honour I have left, I need to obey the law and turn myself in.”

Alanna considered her for a long moment. At last she stepped forward to wrap her in a quick hug. “I’ll vouch for you. When Vania wakes up, I’m sure she will too. And Thayet. Just hang in there.”

Emmy nodded.

*

Because of the crime of treason, Emmy was transferred from the provosts’ guards to the palace guards, where she was led to an isolated cell in the palace dungeons. The captain was a face Emmy knew, and he was shocked to see her. He didn’t say a word to her, until he ordered his men to shackle her wrists and ankles to the wall.

“I’m sorry, Squire Emmeline,” he sounded genuinely apologetic, “This is the standard protocol for prisoners who have combat training.”

Emmy nodded numbly. There was a good five feet of chain between the shackles and the iron brackets on the wall, and she could still move around rather freely. The chamber pot was thankfully near. But there was no bed, only straws at her feet.

She sat down by the wall, and brought her knees close.

Her uncle tried to kill Vania. Vania, who took Emmy under her wing since her first day in the palace. Vania, who believed that Emmy would clear the Tirragen name with all her heart. Vania, who made her feel happy and worthy and whole.

How could Emmy ever face her again?

She hugged her knees close and buried her head in it. Her body shook, but she tried not to make a sound as she cried.

*

“Emmy.” The voice was soft, but commanding.

Emmy brought her head up from her knees and squinted. There was no windows in the cell, and she felt disoriented. How long had it been?

“Emmy.”

Emmy turned, and scrambled to her feet.

“Your majesty.” She bowed to Queen Thayet. When she rose, she saw that the queen look tired. Her eyes looked like she had been crying.

“Come closer.”

Emmy obeyed, her chains clanging loudly in the quiet dungeon. She went as far as she could, though there was still five or six feet of space between her and the queen, who stood right behind the bars.

“I’m sorry about the shackles.” The queen said, wincing a little at the sound.

It was too much. Emmy dropped down ungracefully on all fours, too ashamed to meet the queen’s eyes. “I’m sorry, your majesty. I’m so sorry.” Tears dropped to the flag stones in front of her. “I didn’t know — I never dreamed that Darius would — that he would —”

“Emmy,” Queen Thayet said patiently, kindly, “I know you. I know you since you were ten. You saved Vania’s life from the hurroks, and now from Darius of Tirragen. I know you’re innocent.”

Emmy shook her head, biting back a sob. “I’m a Tirragen, your majesty. A Tirragen did this. He said he did it for Tirragen.”

“What did he say?” The queen asked sharply. “Get up, Emmy. I want to know what happened.”

It was easier to obey an order. Emmy pushed herself up, and related what happened. She kept her eyes on the ground the whole time.

The queen sighed when Emmy was done. “There could be more to the story, Emmy. My lord has sent an urgent summons to your brother, and he’s to ride hard for Corus as soon as he gets it. We’ll have a trial with the council when he comes. That’s in another four or five days.”

She paused. “I would have you out of here now, but the king is angry. He doesn’t know you like I do. Please hang on for another few days.”

Emmy nodded, and risked a glance at the queen. Her face, so much like Vania’s, was creased in worry and sadness.

“I deserve this, your majesty. Please don’t worry.”

“You deserve better.” The queen said quietly, and turned to leave.

*

When Vania opened her eyes, she knew that something was wrong. She couldn’t feel very much. She couldn’t really move. Her vision was blurry, but she could see four people around her, sitting next to her bed.

One of them leaned closer, tumbling black hair falling around her face. “Vania, my dear, can you hear me?”

“Mother.” She whispered. Her vision slowly settled, and she could see her mother’s face slowly forming, the tear-stained cheeks shocking on her familiar face. “Don’t cry.”

Queen Thayet made a noise that could be a sob or a chuckle. The person behind her — it was her father, she realised belatedly — put a hand on her mother’s shoulder.

“Well,” her father said, his voice as strained as her mother’s had been, “You shouldn’t have worried her so.”

“Jon!”

“That’s his way of saying that he’s happy you’re alive.” Lianne’s said dryly from the other side of Vania’s bed. She leaned down and kissed her on the forehead. “It took you long enough to wake up, you lazy bum.”

“She should drink something,” Aunt Alanna’s voice said from further down, and Vania caught a glimpse of a redhead.

Someone thrust a cup to her lips, and she drank automatically, feeling her head clearing with each sip of the herbal tea. She surveyed the room and her family with clearer eyes when she was done.

“How long… was I out?”

“Three days,” her mother said, leaning down to kiss her forehead like Lianne did. “It felt a lot longer.”

Vania struggled to remember what happened. She remembered Darius of Tirragen’s trap and his taunts. The last thing she remembered was Emmy coming to her aid.

“Where’s Emmy?”

Her family exchanged glances, and didn’t reply her.

“Where’s Emmy?” She repeated, clenching her fists under the covers and dread growing in her heart.

“Do you remember what happened?” Her father asked.

“Darius of Tirragen poisoned me,” Vania said slowly, catching her breath. “He hurt me. Emmy jumped through a window and came to help. Where is she?”

“Her family committed treason, again.” her father said grimly, “You know what the punishment for such crimes are.”

Vania’s breath quickened, and she struggled to sit up. Lianne hastily sat on the bed, and pulled Vania up such what she leaned back against her chest. “You can’t… it’s not her fault. It’s not —” Vania coughed, and coughed, her parched throat throbbing painfully.

Someone offered her a cup, and she took a few hasty sips. “It’s not Emmy’s fault!”

“We can’t let the Tirragen house get away with this, you know that,” her father said gently but firmly, “If I don’t punish a fief when treason takes place, then other fiefs would try their luck, and claim that they have nothing to do with it if they fail. The laws are there for a reason.”

“What will you do to her?” Vania croaked, tears dripping from her face and her heart pounding. What will happen to Emmy?

Her mother wiped her cheeks with a handkerchief. “You’re upsetting her, Jon. We haven’t decided on a punishment. The Lord of Tirragen is riding hard for Corus as we speak. There will be a trial with the council. We’ll decide something then.”

Vania caught her hand and gripped as hard as she could. “Emmy saved my life. Twice.” she coughed, “That has to… has to count for something.”

“I’ll make sure they’re not stupid or cruel about it, Vania.” Alanna said, and gestured for Lianne to help her lie back down. “You need to take care of yourself, and be strong enough to serve as a witness when Emmy’s brother comes. You got that?”

Vania nodded, her eyes already closing. She prayed that Emmy would be all right.

*

On what felt like the third morning in the dungeons, the guards came into her cell. Emmy scrambled up from where she had been sleeping on the floor, ignoring the random pieces of straw that had stuck to her clothes and hair.

“Have you word of Princess Vania?” She asked anxiously. Alanna had told her that Vania would sleep for about two to three days, and this seemed about the right time.

The two burly guards were twice her size, and unfamiliar to her. She didn’t think that they were on the kind captain’s squad. They sneered at her.

She swallowed, and tried to ignore the bad feeling in the pit of her stomach. “Is she all right?”

“Who’re ye to talk of the princess?” The bald guard on her left spat at her feet. He slapped her hard enough that she staggered sideways. “Your family tried to kill her highness.”

Emmy touched her stung cheek as she straightened, the warmth she felt there more due to shame than pain. “I know. I just — I just want to know if she’s all right.”

One of them punched her in the gut and she doubled over in pain, and tried to keep from throwing up.

“… Them as good king and queen,” the other guard was saying gruffly, “You’ll be cursed by the gods for betraying their majesties.”

Emmy thought back to her eldest uncle’s treason, and the legacy he left. She thought about the bitterness that Darius spread wherever he went, and said before she could stop herself, “Don’t you think I’m already cursed?”

A sharp blow to her cheek sent her sprawling to the floor, and she tasted blood in her mouth where she bit the inside of her cheek. Giant boots slammed into her sides and ribs, and she cried in pain.

“Don’t be pert with me, lass.” The guards were but a tall shadow towering over her as she tried to catch her breath again. “My captain’s given the two of us free rein as to your questioning. You’re headed for Traitors’ Hill soon anyway, but don’t think that we’ll make it easy for you. There’re enough folks who want you punished for betraying their majesties.”

Emmy spat, seeing blood splattering next to her face on the ground. “What questioning?”

“We know who you are.” The first guard’s voice said. “Your brother’s the Lord of Tirragen. Has he been planning this long? What other plots does he have up his sleeve?”

Alarmed, Emmy tried to push herself up, panting. “No. He’s not… he didn’t plan this.”

A kick to her shoulder sent her flat on her back, and she squeezed her eyes shut at the pain radiating from the back of her head.

“… Lies don’t work on me, lass.”

She tried to sit up, but soon strong hands gripped her shoulders and hauled her up, pushing her back against the wall, her feet hanging off the ground.

“You’ll want to be honest with us,” The guard with hair growled. “Don’t think we’ll make it easy on you ‘cos you’re a lass. Traitors are all scum.”

“Darius… acted alone.” Emmy croaked, the guards and the room spinning around her. She slammed into the floor again, pain flaring up her right shoulder as someone else kicked her. She curled up and brought up her arms to block her head, gritting her teeth at the blows raining down on her.

She couldn’t help but feel that she deserved them somehow.

Chapter Text

Things moved fast once the Lord of Tirragen arrived in Corus, two days after Vania woke up. Given the accusation of treason, an emergency court had been assembled in the throne room, with only the monarchs and their council of advisors in attendance. The Lord Magistrate, Duke Turomot of Wellam, was to preside over the proceedings.

Vania was feeling much better, though her stamina was still not back, and she was out of breath after the walk to the throne room. She was glad for Lianne’s support as they made their way into the throne room.

Other than the two thrones at the front of the room, Duke Turomot sat on a raised dais to the left of the thrones, while the council of advisors sat on a row of chairs in front of the dais, on two sides of the thrones themselves. There were two rows of chairs facing the thrones and the row of council members, separated by a red carpet in the middle that led to the throne. Two scribes sat at one end of the row of chairs, facing both the council and the empty row of chairs. Vania and Lianne sat down two of these chairs, the space reserved for witnesses.

Her parents shot her encouraging smiles, and she smiled back. Familiar faces on the opposite row of chairs nodded or smiled at her — Alanna, Raoul, Gary, Daine, and Numair were all part of the council. Though the remaining few had carefully blank expressions.

“If we may begin, your majesties?” Duke Turomot bowed from his seat. At her father’s nod, he turned back to face the court. “Let us begin. This is a hearing on Darius of Tirragen’s assassination attempt on her highness Princess Vania of Conté. As Darius of Tirragen had been killed in the attempt, the Lord of Tirragen, Alexander II of Tirragen, is summoned to answer for the crime. Admit the defendant.”

The guards relayed the order, and the doors to the throne room swung open. A servant in Tirragen colours pushed Xander’s wheelchair into the room, stopping in the space in between the two rows of chairs. The servant bowed deeply and retreated to the back of the room.

“Your majesties, my lord magistrate.” Xander bowed deeply from his seat, his confident voice ringing clearly across the room. “I apologise for not being able to perform the normal courtesies, as my body does not allow me to do so.”

“You’re excused from that,” Duke Turomot gave a curt nod, “However, you are not excused from Darius of Tirragen’s crimes. What do you have to say to that?”

Vania watched Xander’s face closely, recalling what Emmy had shared about his relationship with the Tirragen steward. For all that Darius gave Emmy a hard time, she was also clear that he had been a trusted advisor to Xander, the only adult to help him navigate the responsibilities that had fallen on his shoulders when he was but nine years old.

Vania saw Xander swallow, a hard look on his face. “His actions are despicable, my lord. I have cast him out of Tirragen, and there will be no place on Tirragen lands for his body.”

Some gasps of surprise and outrage rose from the council’s ranks, though not from the faces that Vania was familiar with.

“That seems rather convenient.” Duke Turomot said coldly. “We will reserve more comments until the sequence of events had been laid out. Princess Vania, would you please come forward and relate what happened?”

Vania took a deep breath and stood up. She stepped into the middle of the room next to Xander, and bowed to her parents and the lord magistrate. Calmly, she spoke of the day she almost lost her life, leaving out Darius’ remarks about the true heir of Tortall rising as her parents ordered.

She tried to ignore the barely-contained tension in the room. Both her parents sat stiffly, their hands linked tightly together. She could feel some of her adopted aunts and uncles shifting in their seats. She knew she was loved by many of those present, and it must be upsetting for them to hear of her account.

“… I saw Emmy starting to fight Darius of Tirragen, and after I lost consciousness. When I woke up three days later, I was already in the palace infirmary.” She bowed when she finished her testimony.

Duke Turomot nodded, and gestured to her seat. “Thank you for your testimony, your highness. Please take a seat.”

“To complete the account of the events, I summon our next witness, Emmeline of Tirragen.” Duke Turomot said as Vania sat back down. Lianne gave her hand an encouraging squeeze.

Vania smiled distractedly at her, looking eagerly at the door. She had not seen Emmy since that day, and she missed her. She knew that Emmy had spent the time in the cells, and she had to see for herself that she was all right.

The door opened, revealing three figures. Vania frowned. Something was wrong. As the figures came into view, Vania gasped and stood up. She wasn’t the only one to do so. Two guards dragged Emmy by her arms between them into the room.

Emmy was a mess. Her braid was messy with a few straws sticking to it, her face was bruised with dried blood trailing from her lips. She looked conscious, but her shirt and breeches were covered in dirt and blood stains, and if the guards dragged her she must had problems walking.

Vania wanted to rush to her side, but Lianne’s firm hands stopped her and dragged her back to her seat. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Uncle Raoul restraining Aunt Alanna similarly.

The guards stopped next to Xander and let go. Emmy landed on her knees and fell forward, barely catching herself with her hands in time, coughing.

“Emmy!” Xander cried, lowering from his chair and trying to help Emmy up. He struggled, and it was heart-wrenching to watch one broken person trying to help another. Emmy grabbed the side of his wheelchair with hands that shook, and shook her head at him.

“My lord,” Xander said quickly, his fury barely contained, “Why was my sister treated so badly? Even if she was under detention, the hearing had not been conducted, and she should have been accorded the respect worthy of a noble.”

Duke Turomot’s wrinkled face was flushed. “And she should have. Emmeline of Tirragen, did you sustain these injuries in your fight with Darius of Tirragen?”

Slowly, Emmy shook her head. “I was questioned …” she said weakly, pausing to catch her breath, “… by the guards.”

There was a murmur in the room, and Vania felt her blood boil as she clenched her fists.

“There seemed to be some overzealous guards who need to be reminded of proper procedure.” King Jonathan said lightly, turning a little. Only those who knew him well would recognise his pat on Thayet’s arm as a warning. Seeing her mother’s hard eyes and clenched jaw, Vania knew that her mother was as furious as she was, and hating that she could not do more right now.

“I will personally see to it that they are taught properly. Guards!” Duke Turomot thundered, his face red. He barely waited for the summoned guard to reach the middle of the room before bellowing, “I want the name of every guard that was posted near Lady Emmeline’s cell, and tell them I want to question them personally. See to it that they do not leave the palace until I do.”

“You may sit, Lady Emmeline.” He added when the guard turned to leave.

Xander bowed stiffly from where he sat. “Thank you, my lord, your majesties.”

The court waited uneasily as Emmy turned slowly. She put her hand on the nearest chair, and her arms shook when she tried to push herself up. It was clear to all that she couldn’t do it on her own.

Vania couldn’t stand it anymore. She stood up and rushed over, putting her hand around Emmy’s shoulders and hauling her up onto the chair. Emmy flinched, and Vania worried that she had touched some bruise, but then Emmy smiled up at her.

“I’m glad… you’re all right.” She whispered, and Vania would have kissed her had Duke Turomot not spoken.

“Your highness, she is part of the defending —”

“She saved my life,” Vania said loudly as she turned. She glared at the lord magistrate. “She saved my life, and was mistreated while under the care of the Crown. Is it too much for me to offer her a simple courtesy?”

For the first time, the lord magistrate was speechless.

“Enough,” it was her father who spoke, “Sit down, Vania. We’re all here to make this hearing as fair as it can be.”

Vania swallowed and went back to her seat. Lianne gripped her hand the moment she did, and Vania knew it was partly to stop her from making any more rash moves.

Duke Turomot cleared his throat. “I do apologise, Lady Emmeline. But we must proceed. Could you relate the events of the assassination attempt?”

Emmy nodded. Haltingly, she recalled the events, from when she first met him at the shop in Corus, to the final fight with Darius of Tirragen and how she killed him. Her testimony was interrupted multiple times by her coughing, and Duke Turomot finally summoned a servant to bring her water.

“We have now heard full accounts of the event by all witnesses,” Duke Turomot said as Emmy drained the cup of water. “Lord Tirragen, you said that you had cast out Darius of Tirragen, but it seems that his actions are premeditated. Were you aware of his plots?”

“No, my lord.” Xander said swiftly, “Tirragen and her people are faithful servants to the Crown. We heed the lessons from two decades ago, and we would not dare think of committing treason. Darius — Darius is old.” He swallowed, “He had been slowing losing his mind over the last couple of years. I am horrified and disgusted by his actions, and I do not condone it in any way.”

“Young as you may be, I’m sure you know that as lord of your estate, you are responsible for the actions of your people,” Duke Turomot said quietly. “Even if you cast Darius of Tirragen out, you must realise that the Crown cannot let you or your fief go unpunished. Otherwise, it opens up the door for others to do all manner of things, and to claim that the culprits were cast out when the act is done.”

Xander hung his head. “I understand.”

“The punishment for treason is death. Darius of Tirragen is dead, and that is accounted for. For the culprit’s family, any titles and lands are typically stripped.” Duke Turomot said, and Vania felt her breath catch, “But given the fact that Emmeline of Tirragen saved her highness’ life, the punishment could be lessened. This court proposes that, in the light of the crime, the Crown tax on Tirragen be doubled for the next ten years.”

Vania was about to breathe a sigh of relief, but Xander’s head shot up in shock. “Doubled, my lord? My people would starve!”

Vania frowned as Duke Turomot raised his hand to silence Xander. “Be grateful that you are just being taxed, Lord of Tirragen. Think of the alternatives.”

Xander’s fists were clenched so tightly that Vania could see white on his knuckles. “The Crown tax on Tirragen is already high from the increase two decades ago, and surely your majesties would not care to see common folk suffer —”

“Do not play to their majesties’ kindness,” Duke Turomot warned, leaning forward with narrowed eyes, “I need not remind you that Darius of Tirragen tried to kill their majesties’ daughter.”

Xander opened his mouth, and Emmy reached out to grip his hand in warning. He glanced at her quickly and shook his head.

“But —”

Suddenly Emmy shot out of her seat, dropping to the floor on all fours. “My lord,” She croaked, her face grimaced in pain. Only Lianne’s firm hand stopped Vania from running to her.

“I have a proposal,” Emmy said once she caught her breath, straightening up such that she was kneeling. “I am a knight-in-training. I offer to forfeit my claim to any royal purse for the ten years after achieving my knighthood,” she paused to catch her breath, and gasps were heard around the room, “If only the tax increase could be reduced. I will do whatever the Crown wants me to do.”

Vania covered her mouth with her hand. Knighthood was expensive, with lots of equipment to maintain and horses to feed. The royal purse given for knights’ assignments was a vital source of income, especially for poorer fiefs that cannot provide funds for knighthood. It was clear that Tirragen would not be able to support Emmy financially. Emmy would practically be a slave to the Crown, with barely any funds to spend on herself. She would be noble in name only.

“Are you so sure that you will pass your Ordeal?” Duke Turomot asked with a frown.

“As sure as you are that harvests at Tirragen would bring in a purse, my lord.” Emmy said, panting. “Even with a Crown tax, you would not be sure that no famine or disaster would destroy a year’s income. You claim only a cut.” She paused to catch her breath. “Likewise, you would not be sure that I will pass my Ordeal. But if I do, the Crown has my service.”

Duke Turomot was silent, and mutterings were heard across the room. He shot a look at King Jonathan, and the king cleared his throat. The room silenced.

“This is an unusual proposal,” her father said, “What do you say, council?”

“It is a good proposal,” Uncle Gareth said immediately, “It creates an example that such a crime does not go unpunished, but it does not create additional suffering for the people in Tirragen.”

“What if she flees Tortall?” An old lord Vania did not recognise said near the end of the row. “She could move freely once she becomes a knight. We should at least put a tracker on her, like those mages’ rings on convicts —”

“She’s not a convict!” Aunt Alanna snapped, beating Vania to it, “And can’t you see that she’s trying to save her people? Why would she plead so only to leave Tirragen in a lurch by leaving?”

“She may say so now,” The lord continued to grumble, “but once she grows up and realise how long ten years of poverty can be, would she still care for her people?”

Aunt Alanna, Uncle Raoul and Daine spoke at the same time, and the other conservatives argued back, and Vania stopped making sense of the arguments.

“Enough!” Her father ordered after a few moments. The council got quiet.

“Emmeline of Tirragen,” her father said, “Would you be willing to accept a mage’s tracker on you for ten years, if it is not conspicuous?”

“Emmy,” Queen Thayet spoke unexpectedly, and her father frowned at her, “You saved Vania’s life. We do not want to punish you.”

Emmy tried to smile, one hand clutching her ribs. “Thank you, your majesty. But I have a duty to the people in Tirragen. If the choice is between me or thousands of innocent people at Tirragen starving for ten years, then my choice is clear.” She turned to the king, and nodded, “I will accept a mage’s tracker, your majesty.”

Xander reached out to grip Emmy’s shoulder tightly, and Vania tried not to cry. It was humiliating, to be a slave to the Crown and to be branded like a common criminal.

At the king’s nod, Duke Turomot continued, “Very well. Considering Emmeline of Tirragen’s service to the Crown, the Crown tax on Tirragen would be increased by three-tenths of its current rate. I trust that is acceptable, Lord Tirragen.”

Xander hung his head, his hands shaking. Emmy turned to him and whispered, loud enough that Vania could hear, “Take it, Xander! Don’t be a fool! Think about our people!”

Xander took a shuddering breath. “I — I accept, my lord.”

Duke Turomot nodded. “Very well. Then the matter is settled. Darius of Tirragen’s body will be cast off at Traitor’s Hill. Crown tax on Tirragen will increase by three-tenth of its current rate for the next ten years. Emmeline of Tirragen will forfeit her claim to any royal purse for ten years after her knighthood, and she is not to leave Tortall in those ten years, as enforced by a mage’s tracker on her person. I will assign a Crown mage —”

“No,” King Jonathan said, and everyone turned to him in surprise as he rose from his throne. “Let’s not drag this longer than it should by waiting for a Crown mage assignment. I will do the honour myself.”

Vania watched with bated breath as her father walked towards Emmy.

“Give me your hand, Lady Emmeline. Roll up your sleeves.”

Obediently, Emmy rolled up the sleeves on her right arm. Vania winced at the red marks left by shackles on her wrists, and the large patches of black and blue bruises on her arm.

“This will not hurt,” her father said gently, and rested his hand inches from Emmy’s forearm. A blue glow flared on her skin for a few moments before fading. He straightened, and spoke loud enough that the room can hear. “The mark will not be visible, but if you ever step out of Tortall between now and the first ten years after your knighthood, it will start to sting. I will know exactly when it happens, and I will know exactly where you are. The sting will increase the further you travel out of Tortall, and the pain will only lessen when you come back. Do you understand?”

“Yes, your majesty,” Emmy said, her head bowed.

Vania blinked away tears. It was done — Emmy would be a slave to the Crown to ten years after her knighthood. She knew that her father chose to do it himself because he could be the kindest about it, by making it invisible and painless, but it still hurt to know that it had been done.

“I believe we are done here, Turomot?” Her father asked, going back to the dais and lifting his arm for her mother instead of sitting back down.

“Yes, your majesty. The court can be dismissed.”

Everyone but the two Tirragens stood up, and bowed as the monarchs left the room, followed by Duke Turomot. Some of the council members started filing out.

Vania rushed to crouch next to Emmy, who was trying to smile up at Xander. Tears were flowing unashamedly down Xander’s cheeks.

“I’m so sorry, Emmy.” Xander said, catching Emmy’s hand in his.

“Don’t be.” Emmy croaked, “I’ll be fine.”

As if the gods had not have enough fun at her expense, her eyes rolled upwards immediately afterwards, and she slumped forward into a dead faint.

“Emmy!” Vania cried as she caught her, her own tears flowing freely now. She was barely aware of the blue glow that was Lianne’s Gift flowing through Emmy, and Raoul had to call her name a few times for her to let go.

Raoul picked up Emmy and carried her in his arms like she weighted nothing, and Alanna was next to him as they walked hurriedly towards the infirmary. Xander wheeled his chair around to follow them.

“… Aunt Alanna will take care of her,” Lianne was telling Vania as she helped her stand, “You know she will. She’ll be fine.”

Fine was a relative thing. Vania turned and buried her face into Lianne’s shoulder, never hating as much as she did now for being a princess.

*

Emmy woke up to strange sight. To her left, Xander sat in his wheelchair, his face grim as he listened to the lord magistrate explain something. To her right, Lady Alanna and Queen Thayet sat on chairs next to her bed, also frowning at Duke Turomot.

Emmy tried to sit up when her brain registered that the Queen sat next to her.

“Your majesty!” She whispered, grimacing when her body complained. She didn’t hurt as much as before, but her arm, ribs, and hips still throbbed painfully, and she couldn’t sit up on her own.

“Hush,” Queen Thayet said, her firm hands guiding her back down to her bed. She smiled tightly at her. “Don’t get up. You just had a major healing, and I’m told that you still have a few more to go. Save your strength.”

Emmy felt like she didn’t have any. But she nodded anyway, because she couldn’t really defy the queen even if she wanted to.

“Lady Emmeline,” Duke Turomot said, giving her a quick nod. “I was just telling her majesty about the findings of my investigation into your mistreatment. Someone paid the guards to give you a beating, though the culprit could not be identified yet. I will continue the investigations. In the meantime, rest assured that the guards who accepted the bribe will be dealt with properly.”

Emmy could only nod, her mind still thinking through the discovery. Who would want to see her suffer? Who would be bold enough to do it right under the Crown’s noses? Was she really surprised?

“As I said earlier, I do apologise for the lapse, my lady,” Duke Turomot said tightly, his cheeks flushed, “I despise people who interfere with matters of justice.”

Emmy shook her head quickly, alarmed that such a distinguished man was apologising to her. “Please don’t worry. There are too many guards, and you cannot possibly control them all.”

The strange twitch at the duke’s lips could almost be called a smile. “I was also telling your brother another matter, as I mentioned to her majesty earlier. Once you achieve knighthood, you have forfeited only your claim to the royal purse, and coin in particular. You need not forfeit other rewards in kind, such as jewellery or equipment.”

Emmy blinked at the lord magistrate, and replayed his words in her mind. Did he just tell all of them about a big loop hole?

“Thank you,” Emmy finally said, for the lack of any other words.

Duke Turomot gave a quick nod. “Not many nobles would have remembered the consequences on their own people, my lady. They would have thank the court profusely for getting away with a tax. For Lord Tirragen and yourself to remember your duties to your people, and to make the sacrifice that you did, you have my respect.”

Now it was Emmy whose cheeks were flushed, and she looked to Xander for help, not knowing what to say.

Xander gave her a small smile before turning back to Duke Turomot. “The people of Tirragen have suffered greatly over the years, my lord, and it was due to the actions of a son of Tirragen. We owe them far too much to burden them further. I will spend the rest of my life making up for it.”

Emmy knew he would. She knew that her brother’s life was forever tied to that of his people. She reached out with her hand. Xander saw it from the corner of his eyes and met her halfway. She gave his hand a firm squeeze, hoping that he could see from her eyes that she would always support him. He nodded.

“If there’s nothing else, your majesty?” Duke Turomot said.

Queen Thayet nodded. “Thank you for your quick work, Turomot.”

He bowed to the queen, and paused to look at Emmy once again. “Gods all bless, Emmeline of Tirragen.”

Emmy nodded and watched as he left, her brain still not making enough sense of what was happening. She felt a headache building in her temples.

“I’m sorry, Emmy,” the queen said suddenly, and Emmy stared at her. “We should have checked in on you more when you were under custody.”

Emmy shook her head and coughed when she tried to speak. It was too much, with so many important people apologising to her on the same day. “Please don’t,” She said hastily, “I know there are people who hate me, for being a girl and a Tirragen. They always find a way to make things difficult.”

Seeing the sudden glint in the queen’s eyes, Emmy regretted her words immediately. She should have thought before she opened her mouth!

“Who are these people?” The queen asked sharply.

“The same people who tried to kill you with a suit of armour in your first year?” Alanna asked, the same hard look in her eyes.

“Someone tried to kill you in your first year?” Xander repeated in disbelief, and turned to Emmy with a look of betrayal on his face that cut Emmy like a knife. “Why didn’t you tell me, Emmy?”

It was too much. She shook her head as panic built up in her chest, and when she opened her mouth a coughing fit took over. Her chest and throat throbbed painfully as she coughed and coughed, pain and a lack of air taking over her senses.

Finally, a cool sensation settled on her chest and spread upwards towards her throat and her head. She relaxed, opening her eyes to look closer at the purple glow above her. Alanna was standing next to her now, her hand glowing with the purple Gift. Queen Thayet hovered behind her, looking at Emmy worriedly.

“Here, drink this,” Alanna said as the purple glow faded, and she had a mug in one hand. Gently, she slid one hand under Emmy’s shoulders and propped her up, and brought the mug to her lips with the other hand.

Emmy was too tired to be intimidated. She drank from the mug greedily, noting with pleasure that it was a sweet herbal tea that soothed her painful throat.

When she drained the mug, Alanna set her back down carefully. Emmy blinked wearily at the worried faces around her.

“Sorry.” she muttered, embarrassed.

Queen Thayet patted her hand. “Don’t be sorry. Vania wouldn’t be alive without you. I’m sorry we couldn’t take better care of you, and the trial didn’t go the way we expected. If you need anything at all, just ask. You heard Turomot, there are ways around your sentence.”

Exhaustion tugged at Emmy, and she shook her head slightly, her eyes already closing. “I would have served the Crown anyway…”

*

When Emmy woke up next, it seemed like the middle of the night. The infirmary was dark, with only two torches providing a dim light. Vania sat to the left of her bed. Her hair was in a messy ponytail, and her eyes were red-rimmed, as if she had been crying.

Emmy pushed herself up in alarm. She managed with some effort, feeling slightly stronger than the first time she woke up.

“Vania, what’s wrong?”

Vania had leapt out of her seat, and she kissed Emmy quickly before wrapping her in a tight hug. She held on to Emmy for a long time. It was worth the complaints from some of the bruises Emmy still had.

“I’m so sorry, Emmy.” Vania whispered in her ears.

It brought tears to her eyes. “I’m sorry, Vania. It’s like you said, I take things too personally. I couldn’t see that it was never me that he wanted, and you had to suffer —”

“Hush.” Vania said, her voice as choked as Emmy’s own. “It’s not your fault. I fell for it too, remember? He was laughing at me, at what I fool I was…”

Emmy tightened her arms around Vania, even if it hurt. “No, he’s a cunning old fox! Don’t listen to him!”

“But he’s right,” Vania insisted softly, “I’m a fool. I thought I could protect you. But you had to save me instead. I couldn’t even protect you from guards in my own palace. I’m a useless fool.”

Vania sounded so convinced that Emmy pulled away to look at Vania properly. Her eyes and cheeks were wet, like Emmy’s. Her eyes, usually so confident, were clouded with defeat.

Emmy touched her cheek softly, wiping Vania’s tears with her fingers. “No, you’re not a useless fool. I wouldn’t even be here if not for you. You took care of me since my first day here, remember?”

A small smile formed on Vania’s lips. Encouraged, Emmy kept going. “And it’s not just me you helped, you led all our year mates and brought us together. You led us when wolves attacked in the middle of the night. You protected not just me but Patrine and —” Her throat gave up, and she started coughing. She coughed and coughed, her hand clutching her newly-healed ribs that still throb with every cough.

She put her hand up when she saw Vania’s blue Gift glowing. She took a few deep breaths and tried to smile. “I’m fine. Don’t waste your Gift. You’ve just recovered from a healing, too.”

Vania looked like she was about to cry again. Silently, she went around Emmy to stack pillows up, and gently guided Emmy to lean back on them. She sat down as close as she could by the side of the bed.

“I should have asked you earlier.” She said quietly. “How are you feeling?”

Emmy smiled reassuringly at her. “At lot better, I swear. I couldn’t sit up the first time I woke up. I’m much better now.”

Vania tucked a few stray hairs behind Emmy’s ear. “I will find out who bribed the guards and did this to you. They’ll pay for it.”

Emmy looked down at her lap. “Maybe it’s the gods’ punishment for me.”

Vania put a finger to Emmy’s chin and nudged her face up. “Why would you say such a thing?”

“My eldest uncle committed treason. My youngest uncle tried to kill you. Isn’t that enough reason?”

Vania’s hand moved from Emmy’s chin to her shoulder, and she gave it a squeeze. “Don’t be silly.”

Emmy shook her head and smiled bitterly. “I thought I could redeem the Tirragen name. But all I became was bait, for my uncle to commit treason by trying to kill you. I’m a joke.” Her voice cracked. “My whole life’s a joke.”

She sobbed, and in a moment Vania was hugging her tightly, and Emmy sobbed into her shoulders openly. Vania was murmuring soothing things, telling her it would be all right. But how could it be? Tirragen was now twice-disgraced. How was Emmy ever going to redeem that name?

Vania was one solid presence the whole time she cried. When Emmy got tired, she felt Vania help lower her to the bed once more. She felt Vania kiss her forehead and lips, though her eyes were already closed.

Her last thought before sleep claimed her completely was that this could not continue. She didn’t deserve Vania.

Chapter Text

Vania wiped her cheeks dry before she left the infirmary. It was dawn, and perhaps she could escape to her room without meeting anyone. She walked in a half daze, exhaustion weighing her down. She had stayed up all night just staring at Emmy, and thinking of all the ways that she had let her down. She was supposed to protect Emmy. But not only did Emmy have to save her, Emmy had been beaten up while held in custody in the palace. And Emmy had to shoulder a tough sentence for ten years because of course an example had to be made for attacking the princess…

“Vania!” Someone called, his tone impatient.

Vania turned to her left, and saw Gerald walking briskly towards her. He had a dark look on his face. “How are you doing?” He asked curtly.

Vania blinked at him wearily. “I’m fine.”

“Oh yeah?” He said, his tone mocking. “How is Emmy doing?”

“She’s in the infirmary. Aunt Alanna said she should stay in bed for another day or two.” Vania said, wondering why Gerald sounded strange.

“Why is she there, when the assassination attempt was on you?” Gerald spat, his brown eyes intense with fury.

Vania rubbed her temples. “What do you want, Gerald?”

“I want to understand why the heralds are saying that Tirragen is disgraced, and that Emmy is to work and be branded like a convict for ten years after her knighthood! As if she was the culprit!” He paused briefly to take a breath, “I want to know why she’s lying in there, not you!”

Vania stared at him.

“My father has ordered me to stay away from Emmy because she’s a Tirragen, even though by all accounts she saved your life!

He liked her, Vania remembered. He had kissed her earlier this year, though Emmy told him she wasn’t interested. But his feelings didn’t stop, it seemed.

Gerald grabbed Vania’s collar roughly, his anguished face inches from hers. “Why must she suffer so because of you, Vania? Why didn’t you ask your father to help her?”

He was a smart person. He would understand when he had a chance to think it through. Vania knew that he just wasn’t thinking straight.

Though deep down, she agreed with him. Why couldn’t Vania protect Emmy better?

Vania looked down, feeling a few tears escape. And she thought she had cried herself dry by now.

“Say something, damn you!” His hand shook, and he looked near to crying himself.

“Is there a problem here?”

Vania turned. Her brain registered dusty traveler’s clothes, and her brother’s frowning face. Was Liam supposed to be in back today?

Gerald let go slowly, and bowed deeply. “Your highness.”

“What is your name, squire?” Liam asked coldly.

“Gerald of Disart, your highness.”

“What were you doing to my sister?”

“Liam,” Vania found her voice at last. She wiped her cheeks roughly, knowing that Liam had seen her tears. “He’s my year mate. We were just arguing like usual. It’s nothing.”

Liam looked from her to Gerald suspiciously. “It didn’t look like nothing. I trust you, Vania. But you know I won’t stand for you to be bullied. Leave us, Squire Gerald.”

Gerald bowed silently and left.

“Liam, I didn’t know you’re —” Vania shut up as Liam wrapped her in a tight hug. He was well-muscled and strong, and Vania allowed herself to relax in his arms, resting her head on his shoulders.

“I came as soon as I heard. I think Jasson is arriving later today.” Liam said quietly. “Are you all right?”

She let out a sob. She was tired. Emmy was hurt and condemned with a hard future. Gerald was right in hating her. Maybe Fianola and her other year mates would hate her too. For what kind of friend was she?

Liam patted her back. “Let’s find a quieter place to talk, shall we?”

What Vania really wanted was to collapse onto her bed and forget about everything. But she let Liam steer her to a private corner of the garden in front of the royal wing. Most occupants of the palace respectfully avoid this garden, and it was one of the few places outdoors where the royal family could be themselves freely.

They sat on a bench, and Liam slung one arm around Vania’s shoulder protectively. “You look tired. Have you been sleeping well?”

Vania shook her head numbly.

“Why?” Roald would have waited for her to be ready. Jasson would have tried cracking a joke. Liam charged head on, as always.

Vania needed the prodding. “I — I can’t — I hate being a princess, Liam!”

Liam raised an eyebrow. “We all hate our station at some point, Vania. Why now?”

Vania put her face in her hands, leaning forward as she rested her elbows on her knees. “Emmy saved my life. But she was beat up while in our custody, and she has to face ten years of working for the Crown without pay! They put a tracker on her like she’s a convict, Liam!” She sobbed. “If I were just another squire, she would have been called a hero.”

Liam’s strong hands patted her back gently. “We know she is. The heralds mentioned it. It was the only reason why she and her brother were not stripped of their titles and lands. Things are not as bad as it seems, Vania.”

“Then why do I feel so miserable?” Vania buried her face in his shirt. She cried only for a while before her tears ran dry.

Through her cloud of exhaustion she felt Liam gently turn her around and lay her head on his lap. He nudged her thigh gently, and she brought her legs up onto the bench.

“Rest. I could use a doze myself.”

Vania managed a smile when she closed her eyes.

She didn’t know how long she slept, but smells of freshly-cooked sausages filled her nostrils, and her stomach growled in welcome. She opened her eyes to blink at the sun high up in the sky.

She was still in Liam’s lap. To her right, Liam cracked open an eyelid to look at her. Seeing that she was awake, he opened his eyes completely. Feeling someone tug her braid, she turned to find Jasson sitting on the grass in front of the bench, twirling the ends of her braid in his fingers. Someone had laid out a blanket on the grass at the same spot, and Roald and Shinko sat on the left edge. Roald was smiling and had a hand on the bump on Shinko’s stomach. There were several baskets and a wide spread of food on the blanket, and Lianne sat on the opposite end of the blanket, cutting a chunk of cheese.

She pretended to rub her eyes. “Why didn’t anyone wake me?”

“You needed the sleep.” Lianne said matter-of-factly.

“And I wanted to see if you still drool in your sleep.” Jasson said seriously. Vania touched the corners of her mouth in panic, and he laughed.

She slapped his shoulder half-heartedly. “I don’t see you for months, and what’s the first thing you do? Where’s my hug?”

He sighed loudly and dragged himself to his feet, a picture of reluctance. Vania raised both her arms expectantly. Jasson pulled her up, waited for her feet to touch the ground before pulling her into his arms. He was more lanky to Liam’s muscular, but his arms around her were strong and firm.

Vania took a deep breath. He smelled of books and exotic materials that she could not name. He was more and more like a true mage each time she saw him. “Welcome back, Jasson.”

“I wish I was back sooner,” Jasson said quietly, patting her back. “I’d turn him into a frog for you.”

Vania chuckled and let go. She turned away to wipe the corners of her eyes quickly. “You can’t turn people into frogs.”

“I can.”

“No you can’t.”

“Yes I can.”

“The sausages are getting cold, kids.” Liam said, sitting down right in front of the bench.

Jasson kissed Vania quickly on the forehead, and resumed his seat. Vania walked over to the space between Shinko and Lianne, and sat.

“Shinko-neesan, should you be out here and sitting on the grass?” Vania asked, pouring a cup of juice and downing it.

Shinko smiled. She was getting more expressive these days. “I should do this before I get too big to do so. Some sun would be good for me, and Lianne agrees.” She said, though she directed the last part at Roald.

Roald put up hands in surrender. “I don’t argue with the healer.” He leaned forward to kiss her quickly on the lips.

“That’s sweet, Roald,” Liam said evenly, his shoulders tense. “The two of you are enough to make me wish for a drink.”

Vania wondered how many of her siblings knew about Liam and Fianola’s fling over the summer. In any case, it wouldn’t be good to dwell further on the subject. Liam had the shortest temper among all of them.

“How long are you here for, Liam?” Vania asked quickly.

The tension around Liam’s shoulders eased a little, and he accepted the plate of sausages Jasson passed him, stabbing a few with his fork and dropping them onto his plate. “Well, long enough to find a squire.”

“Looking for a squire already?” Roald remarked, taking the plate passed to him. Liam had passed his Ordeal only a few months ago.

Liam nodded. “It’s hard to train on the road by myself.”

“Is that your only reason for wanting a squire?” Jasson asked incredulously, a piece of cheese halfway to his mouth. “What happened to training the next generation, coaching youngsters on the Code of Chivalry?”

Shinko and Lianne hid their smiles, Roald and Vania grinned outright.

Liam rolled his eyes. “That, too. But squires are practical.”

“I’m glad that’s how knight masters think, Liam.” Vania said dryly. “I shall strive to highlight how practical I am.”

“Well,” Roald said before Liam could retort, “don’t touch the Bazhir. I think father wants to take him as squire.”

Vania straightened. “Ahmad? Father wants to take him on?”

“It makes sense.” Liam said slowly, “It’s been a few years since he had a Bazhir for a squire. I suppose there’s only one?”

Vania nodded, smiling a little. She was glad that her quiet, thoughtful friend would have the honour of serving the king.

“Well, that leaves four, isn’t it?” Roald asked, turning to Vania, “Assuming that you can’t take Vania?”

Liam grinned at her. “I wish you’re not my sister and I can take you, Vania. I heard you ranked top in your year.” Vania grinned, proud that he knew. But he continued, “And it leaves two, really. I can’t take the girls.”

“Why not?” Lianne asked sharply.

He cut his cheese slowly. “It’s not proper. I’d ruin their reputation.”

There was a moment of silence.

“I was not under the impression that Kel’s reputation is ruined,” Shinko said, her face blank. Even those who didn’t know her could tell that she was displeased.

Roald put a hand on Shinko’s. “What do you mean, Liam?”

Seeing the rising colour on Liam’s cheeks, Vania finally realised the reason. She looked around the garden. It was only them.

“Liam,” Vania said quietly, “I think you should tell them about Fianola.” Liam’s eyes widened in surprise. “I’m sorry, but your excuses make you sound like a chauvinistic pig.”

His narrowed his eyes. “Thanks, Vania.”

“What about Fianola?” Roald asked sharply.

Liam’s face reddened, and he ducked his head and didn’t say anything for a moment. Taking pity on her brother, Vania tried. “Well, they met last summer at King’s Reach. They like each other. But…”

“But I’m to marry a Tyran princess in two years,” Liam said finally, reaching out for the cup of juice. “I can’t waste her time.” He downed the juice and looked at the cup in mild disgust, as if he wished it were wine instead.

Quietly, Jasson clasped a hand on his shoulder and gave it a squeeze. Roald patted his knee.

“I’m sorry, Liam.” Lianne said, her eyes full of pity.

Liam shook his head. He seemed to slouch a little. “We didn’t let it go very far, because we both knew it won’t last. She’s —” He swallowed. “She’s very wise.”

“You don’t want to take Emmy, either?” Vania asked. She could guess the reason, but she wanted to be sure.

Liam smiled sadly at her. “I know the three of you are close, Vania. I know it’d be hard for her to find a knight-master, but with my history with Fianola, I don’t think it’s a good idea to take her best friend.”

Vania nodded. He’d confirmed her suspicions. “How about Gerald, then?”

He frowned. “The squire who was rough with you this morning?”

Jasson leaned forward with an identical frown. If not for the fact that Liam had a beard and Jasson didn’t, they could be twins. “What happened this morning?”

Feeling all eyes on her, Vania blushed and put down her bread. “We had an argument, that’s all. We argue all the time.”

“He had a hand on your collar, Vania.” Liam said seriously, “Do you argue like that all the time?”

Vania looked at her lap, biting her lip. She had to clear the misunderstanding on Gerald, or his reputation among her siblings was ruined. But if she were to do that, she had to tell them everything.

Lianne took her hand in hers, and when Vania looked up, she saw her frowning in concern.

Vania swallowed. She looked around her siblings seriously. “This is just between us, mind you. Gerald has feelings for Emmy.” Lianne’s hand on hers tightened a little, and Vania tried to ignore it, “He was angry about… about Emmy’s treatment. That she was beat up in the cells. That she had to endure ten years of living like a convict despite saving my life. He asked why I didn’t do more for her.”

“You did your best,” Lianne reminded her gently. “I was there when you begged our parents to reconsider her deeds, and you’d just woken up from your ordeal.”

Vania looked at her lap glumly. “What a fat lot of good did that do? Emmy still has to suffer.”

“Vania,” Roald said gently but firmly, “you know what the standard punishment is. You’ve convinced our parents to lower that to a tax. No one expected Emmy to sacrifice her welfare for ten years for her people. You did enough.”

Vania sniffled, telling herself not to cry again. It was so much easier to succumb to her weaknesses when she was surrounded by loved ones.

“I know. When I’m calm, I know that. And Gerald wasn’t calm this morning,” She looked up at Liam again, “He’s frustrated. His father asked him to distance himself from Emmy because of Tirragen is now a twice-disgraced house. He’ll understand when he calms down. Don’t misunderstand him, Liam. He’s a good friend of mine, and I swear to you he will make a great squire.”

Liam raised an eyebrow. “That’s quite the endorsement.” He nodded. “I’ll talk to him.”

Vania smiled gratefully. “Thank you.”

*

Emmy eased herself to the edge of her bed, and dropped her feet to a pair of slippers on the ground. She shoved her feet in hastily, and pushed herself up. Her knees buckled, and she turned quickly to catch herself on her bed, cursing softly.

Her injuries were mostly healed now, though her ribs, left thigh and right forearms, where she had cracked bones, still throbbed, and she didn’t have much strength in her. Her arms shook as she pushed herself upright. Maybe she should have rung the bell for a servant after all.

“Emmy! What are you doing?”

Emmy cringed, recognising the characteristic scraping of wood on floor as her bother wheeled himself over. She didn’t want to face him right now. She couldn’t, not without turning and falling over herself like a joke.

Large, strong hands reached across her body and closed around her waist. Xander lifted her up by the waist and turned her around before sitting her down on her bed again.

Emmy blinked at him in surprise. She didn’t realise that he was so strong. But when she studied him she realised he had changed. He had grown noticeably taller even from his wheelchair. His dark shaggy brown hair was shorter and neater on a broader face that was more defined than she remembered. What was most different was his arms — he had strong, muscular arms, and he even looked a little tan. Emmy didn’t see notice these changes in those tense, painful moments in the throne room. But Xander had grown up, like she had. He turned seventeen this year, after all.

He scowled at her. “What are you doing? Are you supposed to be out of bed yet?”

“I…” She somehow felt like a little girl in front of him. “I wanted to use the chamber pot.”

His face softened. “Why didn’t you call a servant?”

Emmy ducked her head. She remembered yesterday, when the queen, Lady Alanna, Duke Turomot, and Xander were in the room. She knew that she had some explaining to do.

He extended a hand. “I’ll bring you. Sit on my lap.”

Emmy stared at him. They had done this when they were young. When Emmy was sad, he would offer rides on his chair. Sometimes his personal servant, Tom, would push them both as hard as he can, speeding down the empty hallways, and their laughter echoed across stone walls for long moments after they stopped.

“Are you sure?” She found herself asking uncertainly. “I’m not so little anymore, Xander.”

He smiled. “Neither am I.” He beckoned with his hand.

Emmy took his hand, and he pulled her quickly into his lap. He pulled her legs to one side, and started towards the privy at the corner of the room. This privy was built with patients in mind, and between Xander and the various holds and handles along the wall, Emmy managed to relieve herself without further incident.

She sat herself down onto Xander’s lap again when she was done, leaning back against his chest tiredly as he wheeled them both back to her bed. “Thank you.” She rasped.

He kissed the top of her head. When they reached the side of her bed, Emmy was reluctant to move.

“Would it hurt you if I hug you?” Xander asked tentatively.

Emmy shook her head. “Just avoid my ribs.”

Xander hugged her from behind, closing his arms carefully around her shoulders. “I’m so sorry, Emmy.”

Emmy relaxed in her brother’s arms. She rarely felt so protected. “I’m tired of people saying they are sorry for me, Xander. Don’t you start.”

“Is that true?” Xander said evenly, “Then why don’t we switch this around? Why didn’t you tell me someone tried to kill you in your first year, Emmy? What other bullying or injuries you’ve suffered that you’re not telling me?”

Emmy turned her head upwards, and saw anguish on Xander’s face. She turned back and stared at the side of her bed. “I didn’t want you to worry.” She muttered quietly.

Xander swallowed and his hands shook, and Emmy knew that he was trying to control his temper. “Do you think I’d feel better finding out from someone else? The queen thanked me, telling me that you put yourself between a hurrok and Princess Vania in your first year summer camp, getting mauled while you saved her life. You told me you had a scratch. Your training master said you saved his grand niece in your third year, and you were poisoned for days. And now — and now this.”

Something dripped on Emmy’s shoulder, and when Emmy looked up in alarm, she saw that tears were falling from her brother’s face. “Must I hear from heralds or folk songs one day that you’ve become a hero? Must I collect your body one day, without ever knowing the dangerous business you’ve gotten yourself into?”

Emmy hurriedly pushed herself up using the sides of his chair. Her forearm and ribs throbbed, but she ignored them as she turned to wrap her arms around Xander, hugging him properly.

“I’m sorry, Xander.” She muttered, “I’m sorry. I didn’t know how to tell you without worrying you. You have enough to worry about at home.”

“And how many times do I have to tell you that I want to know,” Xander said impatiently, though he hugged her back just the same. “And there I was at home, thinking that I’d sent you somewhere safe, and you would be enjoying yourself.”

Emmy smiled against his chest. “I did enjoy myself. I have good friends here. These accidents don’t happen that often.”

Xander huffed indignantly. “You better tell me what other scrapes you got into. I’ll stay here and interrogate your friends if I think you’re holding back.”

Emmy winced. Slowly, she told him about Tibout, from her first year to the incident that got him kicked out of page training. That got Xander asking questions about her time spent in the desert. She told him about saving the group of Riders, and he asked to see her scar.

Xander held her left arm gently, one finger tracing the short scar where a knife had embedded itself. “If you’re a boy, you’ll have ladies swooning all over your scars.”

It made her think of Vania, and their chat last Midwinter. Emmy knew now that Vania already had feelings for her then, and Vania had meant every word when she said that she didn’t mind the scars.

Were it not for the circumstances, Emmy would’ve told him about Vania, and about how she herself preferred women. But Xander already had enough surprises for today, and Emmy wasn’t so sure that she was worthy of Vania anymore. So she kept quiet.

“Don’t be sad, Emmy.” Xander said, concern in his eyes. He must have mistaken her silence for sadness. “One day, you’ll find a man who appreciates you.”

Emmy made herself smile at him. “I need just one man in my life, and I already have him.”

He rolled his eyes, though his lips quirked. “I was going to say that you’re all grown up now, but you go and say silly things like this.”

“Who says grown-ups can’t be silly?” Emmy challenged.

“Indeed, I’ve never heard any good arguments against it.” Emmy straightened up with a wince, and looked around Xander’s chair to see Lady Alanna striding towards them, a look of amusement on her face.

“I was going to scold you for getting out of bed when you shouldn’t,” Alanna said, stopping next to them and looking down with a raised eyebrow at the arrangement, “But I see you’ve improvised.”

Emmy blushed fiercely.

“I did the scolding already, my lady,” Xander said smoothly, “She was going to fall because she wanted to go to the privy by herself, so I offered help.”

“And I assume you’re staying because you can’t get yourself out of that chair,” Alanna said matter-of-factly.

Emmy wished she could just disappear. Of all the people who could have found them, it had to be the Lioness herself.

“Come,” Alanna offered her hands, “It can’t be that comfortable for Xander.”

It made Emmy look at Xander, and she caught him smiling sheepishly. She took Alanna’s hands immediately.

“You should have told me, Xander.” Emmy muttered as she stood up. Her left leg wouldn’t hold, and she would have fallen if Alanna hadn’t caught her. Alanna almost half carried her back to her bed, and Emmy was panting a little by the time she leaned back on the stacked pillows behind her, and Alanna pulled her covers back up to her waist.

“Thank you, my lady,” she muttered quickly, her face hot.

Alanna nodded. She took Emmy’s wrist and checked her pulse. “How are you feeling today?”

Knowing that Alanna was asking as her healer, Emmy knew better than to lie. “It doesn’t hurt as much anymore, my lady. But my ribs, forearm and thigh still throb a little. I still don’t feel very strong.”

Alanna nodded and let go of her wrist. “It’s to be expected. Your bones were cracked in those places, and your body is spent from healing all other the bruises. Stay in bed for another day, and eat more meat. Try walking short distances tomorrow. Take it easy for the rest of the week.”

Emmy nodded meekly.

“Thank you, Lady Alanna.” Xander said, his face grim as he watched Emmy. “It’s very kind of you to tend to her personally. I know you must have other matters to attend to.”

“I feel partly responsible,” Alanna admitted, and Emmy looked to her in surprise. “I let you go and surrender yourself, but I didn’t check on you while you were in there.”

Emmy shook her head quickly. “Nor did I expect you to, my lady. No one expected the guards to be bribed. It has nothing to do with you, my lady.”

“I still wish I’d done something more.” Alanna said. She sat on the side of her bed, and her violet eyes searched Emmy’s intensely. “Have you thought about what to do after you recover?”

Emmy blinked at her stupidly for a moment. “I — well, I’m just glad that I got off with a light sentence. I thought I would be thrown on Traitor’s Hill.”

She saw Xander wince out of the corner of her eyes, but Alanna waved impatiently. “That was before. Now that you know you can continue with your training — and in fact, you must, given the sentence you bargained for — what are your plans?”

Emmy ducked her head. She had thought about this briefly, as she laid awake staring at the ceiling this morning. It was depressing. “I’d like to continue my training, and find a knight master. Only… I don’t know who would want me. It’s bad enough that I’m a girl, and a Tirragen. Now with this new scandal, I don’t think anyone would want me. Even if they do, taking me would hurt their reputation. I’d feel bad for them.”

“Well, I’ve long stopped caring about my reputation,” Alanna said, “Would you like to be my squire?”

Emmy was glad that she was sitting down. “…What?”

“I said, would you like to be my squire?” Alanna looked like she was hiding a smile.

“My lady…” Emmy didn’t know what to think. “I can’t — you’ve already funded my page training, I can’t ask you for more! Besides, why do you want me?”

Do you feel that sorry for me? She wanted to know, but couldn’t bring herself to ask. She couldn’t say no, even if Alanna did offer out of pity.

“I think I did the asking, youngster,” Alanna said lightly, “As for why you? You work hard,” she started counting on her fingers, “You’re brave. You’re loyal to your friends. You’re the best in hand-to-hand combat among the new squires. Both you and Vania are good with the sword, and I can make you better.”

She paused, and looked from a stunned Xander to Emmy. “And I killed your uncle.” She continued more quietly, “I have a feeling that it’s the Goddess’ will for me to end the bad blood between us by training the next Tirragen knight.”

Emmy was still too stunned to speak. To be squire to the Lioness herself? It had been a fantasy to her. Something she’d dismissed almost as soon as she thought about it, because why would it be possible? With her family history, with the other female pages that Alanna could’ve asked, why would it be Emmy, a Tirragen?

Alanna laid a hand on Emmy’s knee. “I came to court this summer wanting to take you on. I had to fight for this. There’s the usual concern about whether people will say I help you cheat to get your shield. But with this new scandal, like you said, it’ll deter too many people. You’re already every bit as controversial as I am, Emmy. I think we’d suit each other. What do you say?”

Emmy gulped. “Yes, my lady! Yes! I’d — I’d be honoured to be your squire.”

Alanna grinned, and patted her knee again before she slid off the bed. “Good. Rest up. I’ll come by again tomorrow, and we’ll talk details when you’re well again.”

Emmy and Xander bade her farewell hastily. When she was out of sight, Xander wheeled up close and gripped her hand, his eyes wide.

“You’re squire to the Lioness, Emmy!”

Emmy stared at him, still in disbelief. Then slowly, a grin formed on her lips.

She would be squire to the Lioness!

Chapter Text

Most of Emmy’s year mates came to the infirmary later that afternoon. They were still in their practice clothes, which meant they must have come straight from their training with Alanna.

“Emmy!” Roland all but bounced over to her, his eyes wide with excitement. “Lady Alanna told us you’re her new squire! Congratulations!”

He clapped her shoulder heartily, and Emmy managed to grin at him despite her surprise at their visit. Ahmad nodded at her with a smile from the foot of her bed.

“Roland, can’t you see she’s still in bed? Couldn’t you have waited a little?” Fianola went around to the other side of her bed and sat down. She took Emmy’s hand, her brows creased in concern. “How are you feeling, Emmy? We didn’t have much news over the past week. We couldn’t see both Vania and you. All we heard was that there’s been an assassination attempt on Vania, and what the heralds announced after the trial.”

Emmy’s smile faltered. “I’ll be fine in a few days. The heralds are right. My uncle —” she swallowed, “my uncle tried to kill Vania. I killed him. Tirragen barely got away without having our titles and lands stripped away from us.”

The mood sobered quickly among her group.

She tried to smile at them, and turned to Roland in particular. “Tirragen is twice-disgraced now. I’d understand if you want to stay away from me.”

Roland gave her shoulder a squeeze, his brown eyes fierce. “I won’t abandon you, Emmy.”

“But your parents…” Emmy muttered, remembering what he told her about his parents wanting to avoid scandals.

“They’ll understand one day,” Roland said, looking so serious that he looked a few years older. “It’s more important to be loyal to friends than care about what others think.”

Emmy gripped his hand gratefully. Ahmad nodded his agreement at her, and Fianola patted her hand encouragingly. Emmy looked down, touched by their support.

“Thank you.” She whispered.

“Gerald!” Roland suddenly said, and Emmy looked up to see Gerald walking in from the door. He looked a little dazed. “What did Prince Liam want?”

“He pulled him aside after our training.” Fianola muttered to Emmy as explanation.

“He…” Gerald stopped at the foot of Emmy’s bed, staring at her for a moment. “Are you all right, Emmy?”

Emmy nodded, conscious of his feelings for her. She tried to smile. “I’ll be fine in a few days.”

Gerald nodded numbly, and kept staring at her. Roland went over to sling an arm around his shoulder. They made an awkward pair, with Gerald being a head taller than Roland. “So what did his highness want?”

“He asked me to be his squire.”

Fianola let go of Emmy’s hand to stare at him. Emmy felt torn between watching Fianola and Gerald.

Roland clapped his back heartily. “Well, you’re the second one to have found a knight master then! Good for you!”

Ahmad inclined his head. “Congratulations.”

Fianola’s smile looked forced. “Indeed, congratulations, Gerald. It’s a great honour.”

Gerald didn’t look like he believed it. “I wasn’t expecting it. Not after he saw Vania and me this morning…”

Emmy straightened up. She missed Vania, though she had been trying not to think about it. “What happened between you and Vania this morning?”

“I…” He hesitated. “We had an argument. Prince Liam caught us in the thick of it.”

“You always argue.” Ahmad said with a smile, “Perhaps Vania explained things to his highness.”

They chatted for a while more, helping Emmy catch up with the news that she had missed over the past week. Apparently, Lady Kel and some of her year mates stationed in the north for the past few years had arrived at the palace. They were due for a reassignment now that the war was over, and Emmy’s year mates couldn’t help wondering if they were looking for squires. Emmy hoped that Lady Kel would take Vania or Fianola, she seemed interested enough two winters ago.

When she felt comfortable enough, she shared the details of what happened during the assassination attempt, and explained the source of her injuries.

“Have they found out who bribed the guards?” Gerald asked, a dark look on his face.

“We’ll give them a good pounding.” Roland chimed in, wearing a similar look.

Emmy tried to smile, touched by their protectiveness. “Between you, Vania and the Lioness, I think they’d flee as far from Corus as possible, if they had any sense.”

When she heard Roland’s stomach growling, she sent them away for their supper, heartened that her friends were sticking with her despite the scandal.

Xander dropped by to share supper with her, and stayed long after to chat. She sat on his lap and let him hold her for a long time after learning about Ollie’s passing. He had to leave the next day, having been away long enough when he had not planned for a trip. Emmy was sad to see him go, but her heart was light in the knowledge that she could visit Tirragen now, should she have free time or if the Lioness happened to pass by.

She was starting to doze off when she felt someone sit on her bed. She had a feeling who it might be, and she opened her eyes hopefully.

Vania smiled a little, taking Emmy’s hand and giving it a kiss.

“I missed you today.” Emmy smiled back.

“I had to come late. Or I wouldn’t be able to do this.” Vania leaned down and kissed Emmy on the lips slowly. Emmy closed her eyes briefly, losing herself to the bliss.

“Is that worth waiting for?” Vania teased when she pulled back.

Emmy smiled in reflex. But a moment later, she remembered. Her smile faltered, and she pulled her hand back.

“What’s the matter?”

“Vania,” Emmy begun, her throat tight. She had to do this, and Vania deserved her honesty. “I can’t do this anymore. I don’t — you deserve someone better than me.”

Emmy tried not to cringe at the hurt look on Vania’s face. “Why would you say that?”

Emmy looked away. “I almost got you killed. I’m a mess of scandals and debt to the Crown. You deserve someone better.”

“You dolt.” Vania said, her voice as emotional as Emmy’s. When she looked, Vania’s eyes shone with tears. “Weren’t you the one who told me that I’m a target because I’m a princess? It’s not about you, damn it.”

Emmy chuckled bitterly. “It never is, isn’t it? You would have thought that I learned that lesson by now.”

Vania took her hand hurriedly and kissed it softly. “I’m sorry, that’s not what I meant.”

“You’re right, though.” Emmy said softly, looking at their entwined hands. If only life as was simple as staying together. “I’ve been the daughter of a disgraced house for so long that I always feel like I need to prove myself.” She squeezed Vania’s hand. “With Darius, I thought it’s about proving I can handle myself around him, and I failed you terribly.”

“You didn’t —”

“I did,” Emmy said firmly, “and I almost got you killed. I’m a mess, Vania. And I owe debts to the Crown, to Lady Alanna, to Eda Bell… you deserve someone better. Someone who can take care of you with a cool head, and someone you can be proud of.”

Vania squeezed Emmy’s hand tightly, her other hand closing on Emmy’s shoulder and her face full of frustration. “I’m proud of you, you dolt! You fought your wretched family legacy every step of the way, and you worked hard to earn the respect of our instructors and friends. You’re kind and loyal when you don’t have to be. Why can’t you see this?”

“Because they don’t matter!” Emmy snapped, fighting to keep tears from falling. “It doesn’t matter how hard I try, Tirragen is a rotten name! It has two counts of treason to its name now, how am I ever going to redeem it?”

Vania’s hands loosened in surprise.

Emmy looked away and wiped her eyes. “I’ll work for the rest of my life to clear it if I have to. I want to —” She snuck a look at Vania, “I want to be with you. But I can’t give you what you deserve. Not when I have to spend my life on this.”

Emmy stared at the dancing flames in the hearth for a few moments as neither of them said anything. She felt miserable admitting what she just said. But she knew it was the right thing to do.

Unexpectedly, Vania kissed her again, so hard that it made her insides go weak. Emmy was glad that she was lying down. She panted when they finally pulled apart.

“And people say I’m bossy.” Vania said, a little out of breath herself. “Who gave you the right to decide what I deserve? By your thinking, am I supposed to find someone who will revolve her life around mine, and pay me attention every second of the day? She’d drive me mad in a day!”

Emmy smiled a little despite herself.

“I’m going to be a knight, Emmy,” Vania continued quietly, her eyes intense on Emmy’s, “I won’t be sitting around exchanging poetry with my lover. I will go where I’m needed, for weeks and months at a time if I have to, and my lover needs to understand that. She’ll need to let me go and not fuss. And I’ll be honoured if I can fight alongside her and train with her.”

Vania took Emmy’s hand again, and smiled a little, “It sounds like I have a lifetime of work ahead of me too. Do you think I can give you what you deserve?”

Emmy stared at Vania in awe. Emmy wanted someone who would understand her work like that too. Could they give each other that?

What if they could?

The possibility was so tantalising that Emmy didn’t dare to give it form, for fear that the dream might disappear if she tried to catch it too hard.

Vania’s smile widened at Emmy’s look. “It sounds like we deserve each other, don’t you think?”

This time, Emmy pushed herself up on one hand. She traced the outline of Vania’s beautiful face tenderly, and leaned in for a long, lingering kiss.

*

Vania ran through the corridors, pulling her practice glaive out of the way of a servant pushing a cart. It had been more than a week since her poisoning, and she wanted to start training again. But because she had stayed late at the infirmary last night, she actually overslept. She wasn’t so late that she missed the session entirely, but no doubt the ladies had started by now.

When she reached the practice courts she slowed to a stop in surprise. Instead of already in the middle of practice, the queen’s ladies were crowded around someone and greeting her warmly. It wasn’t hard to place the person, who was easily the tallest among the ladies. Kel had returned to the palace.

“Kel,” Vania said after greeting the others, “You’re back!”

Kel turned to her with a smile. “I came for a reassignment. Would you like to pair up with me?”

Vania nodded eagerly. She regretted it soon enough, for Kel defeated her easily within a few moves. Vania had forgotten how out of practice she was. She was about to bring her glaive to a starting position, still trying to catch her breath, when Kel stopped her.

“Take a few more moments, I don’t mind.” Kel said, holding her glaive against the ground by her side. “I heard about the assassination attempt. Have you recovered fully?”

Vania looked down. Of course Kel would have heard. The heralds pass through every city in Tortall. And now she would know that Vania was the kind of princess who needs to be saved.

“I have, my lady. It’s just my first day coming back to training. I should have started earlier.”

“When did the healers clear you for training?”

“Just yesterday.”

“Then you shouldn’t have started earlier.” Kel said firmly, giving Vania’s shoulders a squeeze. “Part of being a knight is about taking care of yourself. Respecting healers’ advice is a big part of that. Anyway, a practice duel is not the best place to start after a bout of injury. Why don’t you do some pattern dances today? Show me what you know.”

Vania nodded. She knew only one, and she showed Kel. Kel corrected a few of her stances, and made her do it again. When she was satisfied, she taught Vania a new pattern dance that emphasised a different set of sweeps. It was a good workout, and Vania worked up a good sweat.

“Do you have anywhere you need to get to after this?”

Vania shook her head, still breathing hard. It felt good though, she missed this feeling.

“Walk with me a short while.”

The two of them walked towards the edges of the practice court, down a path that would lead them to a field near the stables.

“How are you doing?” Kel started.

If the past two weeks had not happened, Vania might have chattered on, eager to share every single detail of what she found interesting. But the whole incident had sobered her up, and she couldn’t summon much enthusiasm, even for a woman on whom she held a crush for a few years.

She shrugged. “As well as I can be, I guess. I survived.”

Kel’s eyes were concerned when she turned to look at her. “You’re quieter than usual.”

Vania smiled tiredly. “I just had to grow up quickly over the past two weeks. I thought I knew what being a princess entails. But seeing Emmy take up a ten-year sentence upon herself, despite being the one who saved my life, it just — it hurts. If I weren't a princess, she would have been celebrated as a hero.”

Kel slung an arm around Vania’s shoulders and gave it a squeeze. “Many of us can see her for who she is, sentence or no. You shouldn’t be so hard on yourself.”

Vania shrugged again. It was one thing to know, and quite another to do.

“This may not be the best time to do this, given the circumstances,” Kel said, and Vania looked up curiously, “But I wanted to ask before anyone else gets a chance to. Would you like to be my squire?”

Vania stopped in her tracks, staring.

Kel smiled and nudged her along, and she did it in a half daze. “I heard you have a flair for command. I’ve just been assigned Captain of the Third Company in the King’s Own, while my Lord Raoul will spend more time with First Company. You’ll see more battle than most squires would, and you’ll learn the logistics and other administrative matters in running a company of warriors. There will be two healers attached to the company, and one of them is Neal. You can learn from them in your free time too. It will be hard work, but haMinch and I both feel that this will develop your talents well.”

Vania couldn’t seem to get her brain to work. Kel, the Lady Knight Keladry of Mindelan, was asking Vania to be her squire! Hadn’t she dream about this for a long time? Hadn’t she wondered again and again what it would be like? And Kel said she could learn more healing!

“What do you say?” Kel nudged her again.

“I — I would love to, my lady,” Vania said, “But what about Fianola? Or Emmy?”

Kel looked at her a little oddly. “I thought you’d have heard. Alanna has asked Emmy to be her squire.”

Vania widened her eyes. Why hadn’t she heard? She had been seeing Emmy every day! And any of her friends would have mentioned it, wouldn’t they? Unless it happened yesterday, when Vania spent the whole day with her siblings. She didn’t do much talking with Emmy at night, either.

“Well, it did just happen yesterday,” Kel muttered, unwittingly confirming Vania’s suspicions. “As for Fianola… I’ll be honest with you. If I hadn’t been assigned Captain in the Own, I would have asked her. I would love to take either of you, but right now, I can do you more good than I can to her.” Seeing the uncertainty on Vania’s face, she added, “I know of someone who plans to take her on. It will be a good offer, trust me.”

Vania considered for a moment. There was no reason for Kel to lie to her. Slowly, she smiled. “I would love to be your squire, my lady.”

“We need to work on the title,” Kel muttered, shaking her head. “I like you calling me Kel. Let’s just stick to that in private, and use my title only on official business, shall we?”

Vania nodded, grinning. She liked her knight mistress already.

*

Emmy took another step. And another. She grinned, for all she felt wobbly. She was finally walking on her own again! It had been more than a week since she walked freely, without shackles or someone dragging her or helping her up. It felt good.

“Emmy!”

Emmy stumbled in her surprise, and just managed to catch herself on the side of her bed.

Hands pulled her up, and wrapped her in a hug. “Kel asked me to her squire, Emmy!”

Emmy grinned as she hugged Vania back. She patted Vania’s back heartily. “Congratulations!”

So Kel did ask Vania, after all. Emmy was both relieved and happy that Vania had a dream come true.

“And to you too!” Vania pulled apart to grin at her, and kissed her quickly. She hugged her again. “I heard! Why didn’t you tell me Aunt Alanna asked you?”

Emmy laughed a little. “We were a little busy last night, if you remember.”

Vania chuckled, and pulled back slowly. She studied Emmy’s face tenderly, and smoothed her hair back from her face. “Let’s sit.”

They both sat on the side of the bed, their legs hanging.

“Kel’s leaving in two days. I’m to join her.” Vania said, looking at Emmy anxiously.

Emmy swallowed a burst of disappointment. So soon? “Of course. Where are you bound?”

“Port Legann, to start with. Kel’s taken command of the Third Company in the Own, Emmy.” Vania said, taking Emmy’s hand and squeezing it reassuringly. “The company is near Port Legann at the moment. But once Kel’s taken command, she’ll go where there’s need. I’ll hardly be in one place.”

Emmy smiled at her. “Me too. I think Lady Alanna means to set out once I’m well enough to travel.”

“I’d ask you to write, but I’m not sure how our letters are supposed to find each other.” Vania said. To Emmy’s surprise, there was a tear at the corner of her eye.

Emmy reached up to wipe it gently with her fingers. “I’m sure Kel knows. I’ll ask Lady Alanna. They’re used to life on the road.”

Vania smiled at her. “Don’t mind me. I’m just being silly. We both want this.”

“It’s just a little sudden,” Emmy said softly, and saw the understanding in Vania’s eyes. “I just thought we might have more time.”

Vania nodded. She reached out to smooth Emmy’s hair again. Emmy didn’t braid it, since she was in bed most of the time. And she found that she liked Vania running her fingers through her hair.

“Will you please take care of yourself?” Vania all but pleaded. “No heroics. No skipping meals.”

Emmy chuckled. “I think whatever heroics I have will look silly next to the Lioness. And I’ll think about you every meal time, so I’ll know to not to skip it.”

Vania smiled sadly. “Or maybe not. I don’t think I can stand missing you at every meal. Maybe every night.”

“Don’t push yourself too hard.” It was Emmy’s turn. “Don’t think that you have to be the best at everything. Remember that people love you for who you are, not how many hours you put in training, or how —”

Emmy stopped when Vania hugged her tight. She hugged her back. They held on to each other for a long time.

Finally, Vania pulled away, wiping her eyes. “I have to go. I need to move my things to a room next to Kel’s. It’s near the Own’s barracks. And I’ll need to get equipment and pack.” She looked around quickly to make sure they were alone, and planted a kiss on her lips. “I’ll be back tonight.”

Just as quickly as she came, she was gone.

Emmy sat there in a daze, wiping her eyes. She knew this was coming. She knew that they would apart most of the time. Why did her heart still ache so?

It must be all the sitting and lying down. She pushed herself to her feet, and started putting one foot in front of another again. It calmed her down as she went along. Soon, she would go back to training, and she would train under a legend. She would learn from the best swords person in the realm, and begin her next stage of knight training.

Vania would learn from another knight who’s a bit of a legend herself. She would learn about the ins and outs of command, and Emmy knew that it suited her.

They would both walk different paths. When they see each other again months or years down the road, they would be different people. They would be stronger, wiser, that much closer to becoming knights themselves.

Would they still talk as easily and freely? Would they still feel for each other the same way? What if one of them stopped?

It scared Emmy as much as it thrilled her.

*

Vania cursed when the book on top of the pile she balanced on her arms slipped and dropped to the floor. She really should have just asked the servants to help her move. It wasn’t abusing her privilege, really. Other squires do it all the time. But no, she had to prove that she was not a spoiled princess —

“I’ll get it.” Gerald’s voice said quietly. A moment later, he reappeared in Vania’s line of sight. Instead of dropping the book on top of the large pile, he scooped over half the stack and carried them himself, and shifted to walk alongside her.

“Thanks.” Vania muttered, remembering that their last encounter didn’t end well.

“Your brother asked me to be his squire.” Gerald said after a few paces.

Vania looked over at him, trying to read his expression. “Which one?”

“Liam. Stop pretending. You talked to him, haven’t you?”

Seeing the irritation on his face, Vania turned back indignantly. She was trying to help.

“I’m sorry.” Gerald said after a moment, sighing. “That was uncalled for. You did me a favour. I’m actually here to thank you.”

“You have an interesting way of doing it.” Vania muttered before she could help herself.

“I didn’t mean to, I’m sorry.” He said. He did sound rather apologetic.

Vania sighed. “Forget it. I’m just in a bit of a hurry. I’m to ride out at dawn the day after tomorrow.” Seeing his blank look, she added, “Kel asked me to be her squire. She’s been made Captain of the Third Company in the Own.”

He smiled warmly. “Congratulations. I know you admire her.”

Vania nodded her thanks.

“Liam didn’t just ask me,” Gerald said as they turned a corner. “He actually challenged me to a practice duel, and only asked after that. I think I passed some sort of test, even though I lost to him quickly.” He shook his head, “The point is, the first task he set me is to read up on the laws surrounding treason in Tortall.”

Vania frowned.

“I know what he’s trying to get at, Vania. I’m sorry about yelling at you yesterday.” He said. They had reached her new quarters. The door was still open, and many of Vania’s things were thrown carelessly in a mess on the floor. They set the pile of books on top of the bed.

Gerald turned to her, “Emmy’s sentence is unconventional, but certainly not as harsh as the law demands. I know you helped her already. I’m sorry.” He extended a hand to her.

Vania shook it, smiling a little. Liam would make an interesting knight master. “Don’t worry. I know you care for her.”

Gerald actually blushed, and he looked down. “As a friend.”

Vania bit her lip. Why did she bring that up?

“Well,” Gerald said hurriedly, “All the best to you, Vania.”

“You too!” Vania had to call after him, he was out of her room that quickly.

Vania checked the time, and hurriedly took her sword, running for the practice courts. This was the last time she would be taught by Alanna in a while, she would not miss it for the world. Besides, she knew Fianola would be there early, and she wanted to catch her.

Sure enough, Fianola was already there when Vania reached the otherwise empty courts. She waved a little.

“Fianola,” Vania said as she stopped in front of her other best friend, panting a little.

“Guess what?” Fianola grinned, “Your brother asked me to be his squire!”

Vania blinked.

“Which one?” She asked dumbly.

“Prince Roald!”

Vania sighed in relief. Of course. Jasson wasn’t a knight. She must be tired. Though she managed to smile. “Congratulations, that’s wonderful news!”

Fianola nodded excitedly. “He said he wanted to support lady knights, but he also wanted someone who’s diplomatic enough to deal with the type of guests he had to meet.” She ducked her head. “He’s a bit apologetic about me potentially not getting enough combat experience, what with him so well-protected. He said he’ll let me ride with his personal guard and run patrols when I've settled down some.”

Vania grinned, her heart filling with joy for her friend. She didn’t need to feel bad about having Kel for a knight mistress then. Her eyes widened when she remembered — Kel had known! She knew that Roald was going to ask Fianola.

“I’m riding out with Kel!”

Fianola’s eyes widened. After Vania told her the full story, she embraced her tightly. “I’m so happy for you!”

“I’m riding out soon though,” Vania said when they pulled apart. “The day after tomorrow. I may not see you for a while.”

“I’ll write you.” Fianola said, her eyes determined.

Vania nodded. “I’ll write too.”

They clasped hands, sharing a look of understanding. Things would change. But their friendship wouldn’t.

Chapter Text

A/N: Hello everyone, thank you so much for sticking with this story for so long! Now that we have come to the end of their page years, I have decided to split up the story and call this the end of part 1. I initially envisioned this as one long story that spans across the full plot, but I realised that their page, squire and knighthood years are about very different things with very different focus even if there is one overarching plot, and I’d like the story summary to reflect that. If I updated the summary to reflect their squire years, though, it will reveal too much to readers who are just starting on the story - so splitting them up it is!

Special thanks to reader karameiwaku, who tipped my hand when I was hesitating about splitting the story into three parts, and who suggested the title to part 1 and gave me inspiration for more!

And a huge THANK YOU to all of you who spent time reading and commenting. Your comments and kudos are very gratifying and inspiring, and all of your speculation about the knight masters / knight-mistress pairings were very fun to read! Reading your comments is a sure-fire way to get me excited about writing more, so please keep them coming!

Personally, this is the longest single story I’ve ever written, and I wouldn’t have gotten so far without all of you, dear readers. I can’t find the right words to share just how grateful I am for all of you reading this.

I also want to mention that there is a companion to this series, ‘Duty is an old man’, that showed how Kally took the news of Jon letting Vania begin her knight training. The Phoenix Quest is focused on Emmy’s story, but sometimes there are scenes and stories that fascinate me but don’t fit well into the overall arc and pacing. ‘Duty is an old man’ is one of them, and I’m playing with an idea of showing the highlights of Fianola’s story in another. If you have any special requests / ideas about companion fics, let me know in the comments! I can’t promise I’ll definitely take them on, but if I don’t know, there’s zero chance of it happening, right?

Anyway, since I’ve already written about 7-8 chapters for part II, here is a ‘trailer’ of sorts from what I already have - the wording may change, but the scenes and stories are pretty fixed.

After the trailer I have a snippet of Chapter 1 of part II - read on here, or go to The Phoenix Quest II: A Rising Flame to read the full thing!

XXX

In the upcoming chapters of The Phoenix Quest II: A Rising Flame:

Now that Emmy and her year mates have found their knight mistresses and masters, they are ready to begin the next phase of their training. But things are heating up with rumours of rebellion rising. There will be danger ahead…

…“Stay with me!” Alanna was pressing something on Emmy’s thigh, and she slipped the roll of bandage under Emmy’s thigh expertly, and pulled it out from the other side. “I’ve sent a signal, I know Third Company’s close. Help is coming. Stay with me!”

“Third Company?” Emmy said weakly.

Alanna shot her a quick look. “Yes, Vania is coming. You want to see her, don’t you?”

Emmy managed to smile. “She will… have a fit.”

I will have a fit once I know we’re safe,” Alanna snapped, tying the bandage tightly. Emmy flinched…

XXX

…Vania put a trembling hand on Emmy’s arm, tears welling in her eyes again. “She took the arrow for me.” She said softly, “It was meant for me!”…

XXX

Emmy and Vania will have to work through their growing feelings for each other, as well as confront what they mean…

…When Emmy opened her door, Vania all but pushed Emmy in, and she locked the door behind her. The moment Vania turned around, her lips was on Emmy’s. Emmy responded in reflex, the longing she had been suppressing rushing to the fore.

“You’ve been avoiding me.” Vania accused, her voice slightly ragged as they paused for breath. But she was on her again before Emmy could respond, and Emmy surrendered to the fire coursing through them, her body trembling at the feeling of Vania’s hands on her body…

XXX

…“You think so far ahead, Emmy.” Vania finally said, letting out a nervous chuckle. She was afraid to confront her own thoughts.

Emmy met her eyes again, her gaze fiercer than Vania felt. “Don’t you think about the future? Or is this just — just a fling for you?”…

XXX

But no matter the danger, familiar faces and new friends will help them along the way, or at least make life more interesting…

…“Indeed, the things that folks will say about our Protector of the Small, losing to her squire at a weapon that she’s been training with since she was six,” Neal said dryly as he approached them from his tent, his sword in hand. …

XXX

… Eda laughed. Emmy watched in amazement as Eda laughed and laughed, leaning back onto thin air as her laugher rang across the practice courts. Emmy had never seen Eda laugh like this.

“I would have taught her if she asked!” Eda said as she calmed down, laughter lingering in her eyes...

XXX

…“We didn’t get to throw you,” Jessamine of Jesslaw said as Darren of Wellam threw Emmy on her back, as if that explained everything.

Darren extended a hand to help Emmy up. “Now we can claim that we’ve thrown the Lioness’ squire on her back.”

“Which she allowed you to.” Wilina of Rosemark said quietly, shaking her head…

XXX

… The woman snorted and waved a little. “I’m sure Buri told you we don’t like the whole title thing. I’m Miri. Call me commander again and I’ll tell Buri on you.” She said, extending her hand with a grin.

Emmy grinned back and shook Miri’s hand. “Noted, Miri. Call me Emmy.”…

XXX

… To her surprise, Clarissa brought her pony a little forward so that she could glare at Mick. “If you can’t remember your manners, go annoy someone else. We don’t want her to think that Sea Gale is a group of barbarians.”

“Aw.” Mick said, and when Emmy caught his eyes, he did look a little apologetic. But he pulled his reins, and turned back join the other Riders towards the end of the line.

“Sorry about that.” Clarissa muttered, “Sea Gale isn’t a group of barbarians, for the record.”…

XXX

And below is the first part of chapter 1 from part 2, ‘Knight Mistress’. The story is already up at The Phoenix Quest II: A Rising Flame, so please hop over there to read the full chapter, and don’t forget to subscribe! I try to write ahead and post an update every weekend, so stay tuned!

One fine morning in June, Squire Emmeline of Tirragen set out on the road north with her knight-mistress, Lady Knight Alanna of Pirate’s Swoop and Olau, King’s Champion of Tortall.

Emmy, as she was known to her friends, couldn’t quite keep a grin off her face. Alanna wasn’t very specific on where exactly they were headed, but Emmy didn’t really care. Despite her initial apprehension at the thought of leaving her friends behind, her complete recovery from a recent bout of injuries had left her feeling much better and hopeful. She was also still in mild disbelief that she was traveling beside a legend, and it left her heart bursting with excitement at the adventures ahead.

It helped that her lover, Princess and Squire Vania of Conté, gave her a long farewell and showered her with warm reassurances six days ago, before she set out for Port Legann with her own knight mistress, Lady Knight Keladry of Mindelan, Captain of Third Company of the King’s Own.

Still, her eyes lingered on the city streets as they rode through Corus, trying to commit the details of the city she had called home for the past four years in mind. Who knew when would be the next time she would see it again? Alanna was known to not dwell at court for long.

“Missing the city already?” Alanna said when they left Corus behind. She had gestured for Emmy to ride beside her the moment the road became wide enough for her to do so.

Emmy grinned at her knight mistress. “Just taking one last look, my lady. I’m ready for adventure!”

Alanna snorted. “I’m going to repeat this to you when we’re drenched in rain and mud with no inn in sight.”

“Do you mean to stay at inns, my lady?” Emmy was curious. She had traveled with the Shang Wildcat, Eda Bell, over two summers in her page training. Eda had avoided those entirely when she was on the road.

“One tip for you,” Alanna turned to shoot her a look, “I like my baths, and I can be a real bear if I go too long without it.”

Emmy smiled. “I’ll make sure a hot bath is ordered for you the moment we stop at an inn, then.”

Alanna’s lips quirked. “You’re a fast study.”

Emmy bowed from her saddle. “As your squire should be.”

It wasn’t something that she would have done even just weeks ago. But Alanna had checked in on her almost every day in the infirmary after Emmy agreed to be her squire, and Emmy had slowly gotten more comfortable around the living legend. After all, she had caught Emmy when she stumbled, and seen her embarrassing performance when she picked up her sword again after her recovery. Emmy figured that, if Alanna had seen her at her clumsiest and still did not regret her choice, then maybe Emmy did have a chance with her after all.

As they rode on, Alanna asked Emmy more about her page years. She already knew a good deal, thanks to Vania’s letters, though she wanted some of the details, and asked Emmy to explain things from her perspective. In return, she shared some stories from her own page years, and Emmy’s eyes were wide for a long time, imagining famous folks like the King, Lord Raoul and Alanna herself as pages.

When they stopped for a quick lunch of bread and cheese under a large tree by the road, Alanna looked at Emmy with an odd look on her face.

“You haven’t ask me where we’re headed.”

Emmy shrugged. “I figured you’d tell me when you want to.”

“Next time, ask.” Alanna said, taking another bite, “I like my squires sharp. I think you are, but you won’t learn if you follow me like a puppy all the time.”

“Yes, my lady,” Emmy said, bowing her head a little. Alanna was right. Emmy was too careless, indulging only in her excitement for the road. She was here to learn, after all!

“Where are we headed, then?” Emmy asked as she straightened.

“Cresthill. It’s a town just north of Barony Olau. There’s a mage I’d like to meet, and Cresthill is the latest town where he’s said to have passed through.”

Emmy frowned. “You’re looking for a mage?”

Alanna nodded, turning to check on their horses. “Have you heard anything about magical attacks?”

Emmy’s eyes widened, suddenly connecting the dots. She nodded. “I heard about them from Buri and Eda last summer, when the Sandrunners tribe saved Rider trainees from a group of immortals.”

Alanna was surprised, and wanted to know the story. Emmy told her about how the tribe received a call for help, and how Emmy joined them. She related the story from Buri afterwards — that there had been an increasing number of attacks by groups of immortals controlled by magical collars.

“Have you found who’s behind the attacks, my lady?” Emmy asked eagerly the moment she finished her story.

Alanna shook her head. “I wish that was the case. The mage I’m chasing goes by the name Ilyorn Silversmith, and he’s been the one helping to repel these immortal attacks.”

“Oh. He’s on our side, then?”

Alanna took a sip from her waterskin. “That’s a good question. What’s interesting though, is that he always seem to be one step ahead of the Riders or the Own that’s called to aid these towns or groups of travellers. It took us more than a year to notice it — at first, he stopped a few attacks, and we were glad for the help. It’s only when we started tracing the attacks and his location that we realised he always seem to be heading where the next one is.”

“You think he’s the one starting the attacks?” Emmy asked sharply.

“That, or he’s the luckiest mage alive. Or the unluckiest.” Alanna said with a crooked smile. “Either way, the towns and people he saved all but worshipped him. Some of the local lords had even invited him to dine in their castles, and he’s been building quite a name for himself.”

“If that’s the case,” Emmy asked with a frown, “Wouldn’t he be easy to find?”

“Good question,” Alanna said, “Next question.”

Emmy blinked, her thoughts racing. “But he isn’t? He leaves a town before he needs to? He travels alone, and rides fast, or under the cover of night?”

Alanna chuckled. “Very good. You’ve earned your dinner tonight.”

“What do you plan to do when you find him, my lady?”

“I’m going to ask him if he wants to serve the Crown.” Alanna said casually, taking another bite.

Emmy stared. Alanna waited while Emmy struggled to find her words. “But… but my lady, you just said we don’t know if he’s actually behind the attacks. Why… why would you ask him if he wants to serve the Crown?”

“How do you think Numair Salmalín decide to serve the Crown?” Alanna asked with a raised eyebrow. “Because I asked. We may not know if Ilyorn is going to be the next Numair, or the next Ozorne. But how he responds to this offer will tell us more about what he wants.”

Alanna grimaced a little. “The Whisper Man’s been trying to get more information on him, but it’s been difficult. We are quite sure that Ilyorn Silversmith is not his real name. There’s no record of this name that goes back beyond the last few years, even though by all accounts, he’s Tortallan.”

Emmy remembered that the Whisper Man was the codename for the realm’s unofficial spymaster and Alanna’s husband. He was supposed to be good, and if he couldn’t find anything, then Ilyorn must be good at hiding his tracks.

“It’s usually not wise to confront someone as powerful as him without knowing more,” Alanna shook her head a little, “But we don’t have much choice, not with the increasing number of attacks and the dead ends from the investigations. Be careful when we meet him, Emmy.” Alanna was already standing up and stretching before Emmy recovered from her surprise.

Emmy jumped to her feet and bent to dust her breeches in one smooth motion.

Alanna eyed her as she stretched carefully, shaking her head. “Youngsters.”