Che was being bullied again.
Perched atop the slender tower, a remnant of the ancient Moth civilization that had once ruled the city now known as Collegium, Tynisa was too high to catch the words. But the tones came through well enough: the open jeering of the two Beetle girls, and the whiplike flick of the Fly girl’s interjections. And Che’s silence, which filled the gaps between the insults like alchemical glue, slow and thick and heavy.
Tynisa peered down. Che was hunched over, arms folded tightly across her chest, her dark hair hiding her face. Art-wings flickered as the Fly girl made a sudden dart at her, no doubt to enjoy watching her flinch. The other Beetle girls were both taller than Che, and had her backed up against a wall. None of them would see Tynisa if she used the tower to block their view.
She descended with more speed than care, nearly slipping once; the Art of climbing was not particularly strong in her, and she normally made sure to always keep three points of contact with the surface. Tynisa only slowed at the end, setting her feet lightly and silently on the ground.
“Everyone knows your own family didn’t want you,” one of the Beetle girls was saying.
A protective rage burned in Tynisa’s heart. She wanted to rush forward and slam the girl’s head into the wall. But that might lead to the Beetle girl’s parents complaining to Uncle Sten, which would humiliate Che even more. No, Tynisa would use the Spider skills she was born to, and slay the bullies without ever laying a hand on them.
She stood up straight and stepped out from behind the shadow of the tower, this time making sure that her shoe made a smart clack against a cobblestone. The sun was behind her, making her cascade of hair glow like golden flame and forcing the bullies to squint at her. Tynisa had planned for that exact effect. The girls’ involuntarily lowered heads would make them feel that she was in a position of power over them, even if they didn’t realize why. The Beetle girls shut up in a hurry, and the Fly girl darted back.
“Everyone knows you’re the dullard of your family,” Tynisa said to the first Beetle girl, whose cheeks darkened with angry shame. Her mother was a noted artificer, but she herself had no gift for it. Before she could manage any reply, Tynisa turned to the second girl, whose father frequented bars early and left late. “Shouldn’t you be pouring your father into bed right about now?”
Neither of the Beetles replied, stabbed to the heart with words that drew more blood than blades. But the Fly girl dove in to hover before Tynisa, high enough to make her look up and well out of her reach. At that, Tynisa realized that she’d made a tyro’s mistake: she’d taken out the easier targets first, leaving her most formidable enemy time to prepare a counterattack.
Sure enough, the Fly girl spat out, “You’re one to talk about family! Where’s your mother, Spider girl? What woman got desperate enough to pay Stenwold Maker in the only coin Spiders always have in their purse?”
The sun was behind Tynisa, but a bright crimson light seemed to flare before her eyes. And though a chill was in the air, a wave of heat washed through her. She reconsidered the distance between her and the Fly girl. It wasn’t too far after all, not if she moved fast—
A solid figure stepped between Tynisa and her prey. Tynisa blinked, half-blinded by her own red rage. It was Che, hands on her hips, a frown on her round face as she shook her head. Che didn’t want her to fight…?
Che moved to stand beside Tynisa, shoulder to shoulder like they were making a shield wall.
“Sure, let’s talk about family,” Che said. “Where are your sisters? Mine’s right here, defending me.”
The bullies glanced at each other. Then, as if they were Ants in telepathic communication, they seemed to reach a decision. All at once, they broke eye contact, muttering about having better things to do, and walked away.
“I could have beat them,” Tynisa said. “All three of them. Easy.”
“I know,” Che said. She caught Tynisa’s slender hand in her sturdy one. “Come on. Let’s go home.”