Authors: B.T. Narro
“I don’t care what his intentions were! I would’ve gone straight in there and demanded…” Alabell stopped herself as she noticed Basen’s surprised look. “Malicious behavior like that doesn’t sit well with me.”
“I can see that.” His look was gentle and curious, giving her the chance to go on if she wanted.
She didn’t. “Anyway, are you ready for my question?”
“I will answer as thoroughly as I can.”
“Which of the rumors about your family are true?”
“Ah…I knew…” He chuckled and shook his finger at her. “I knew you would be clever.” He pursed his lips in thought. “The rumor that my brother was actually my half-brother is true. He was born from an affair between my mother and the late king of Tenred, as many know by now. My parents were young when they had Lexand, and he was only sixteen when he was killed at sea by soldiers from Kyrro. I was born the year after. I always figured my existence was to fill the void his death created in my parents’ hearts. But my father and I didn’t find out the truth about Lexand until recently.”
He paused for a breath as he momentarily relived it all. “It was the same day we were exiled: Tegry Hiller announced that the king of Kyrro was dead and that Lexand Hiller had been his son, not his nephew. Then Tegry took my mother as his new wife, exiling his barren wife along with me and my father out of fear that we would turn against him. Tegry must’ve known we would flee to Kyrro, which he figured he was soon going to conquer. Then, if we survived the incursion, we would be forced to live out in the wild. I’m assuming he expected us to starve eventually if the Krepps didn’t eat us first. My father and I were too enraged and shocked to feel much else at the time. Worry came later, when we realized we were in Kyrro with few possessions. Soon we were forced to sell about everything we had just to eat.”
He laughed bitterly. “It’s almost amusing that people believe we could still be loyal to my uncle. Almost. But in actuality, it’s infuriating.”
“I’m sorry.” She wondered what became of his aunt and his mother, but Alabell suppressed her curiosity to keep to her agreement of one question. “I can see Tegry Hiller shares nothing in common with you except for his surname.”
Basen showed her a faint smile.
Their conversation shifted to lighter subjects. He asked Alabell what it was like to work in Kyrro’s castle. As she told him of her complex duties and the thrill of learning to be the head healer, he compared it to his own experience growing up in Tenred’s castle, which was vastly different in some aspects yet similar in others, such as his thrill of learning magic from the army’s best mage.
Basen was full of stories, telling them with unwavering wit and charm. Beneath it all was a hearty undertone of flirtation that seemed to come out naturally. There was no doubt in Alabell’s mind that he’d stolen the hearts of many young women. But she couldn’t decipher if any of them had ever found a way into his.
By the time they sat down to dine at a tavern, she found herself wishing she had more time with him. She’d never met anyone from Tenred and had regarded them as the enemy because Kyrro had recently gone to war against them. Yet she felt just as comfortable in Basen’s company as she did among her old friends. There was one clear difference, however, a pressure in her chest that had been building in the last few hours. Basen seemed to be enjoying her company, but she couldn’t tell if he felt the same spark in his heart that she did, like an ember yearning for a flame.
It was unfortunate that she had to wear her inelegant healer robes. It had been too long since she’d felt this way, and she couldn’t let this be the last time they met.
“Would you like to visit the castle when evaluation week is over?” she asked him nervously when they came to the end of their meal. “I can give you a tour and you can compare it to your castle, which I would enjoy hearing more about.”
Her offer was more forward then she would’ve liked, but she needed to find an inn before dark and didn’t have time to be subtle.
“I couldn’t think of anything better,” he said with a smile. “What time should I arrive?”
“Sometime before noon would be ideal. The afternoons and evenings tend to be busier for me.”
“Then I’ll be there as early as I can make the trek from the Academy.”
“Good.” She stood to leave, as did he.
“Thank you again for all your help,” he said. “I’ll be in your debt for a long time, but if you think of a way I can repay you sooner, please let me know.” There was his flirtation again, a wry smile to match his hinting tone.
“That's for you to figure out,” she flirted right back, then left with a grin that she wore all the way to the inn.
It was the first day of evaluation week, and Cleve Polken had been looking forward to this day for months. But all of his excitement was gone the instant his uncle, the headmaster of the Academy, told him he would need to make sure some woman named Sanya Grayhart didn’t get tormented by the other warriors. Cleve wasn’t sure how he could keep them from making remarks or pummeling her during duels. He complained about this to Terren but was told to “just do what you can,” and that was that. His uncle was too distracted with other matters to spend more than a fleeting moment discussing it.
He was halfway to the dining hall for breakfast when someone called out, “Cleve, wait!” He turned to find Effie, one of his three roommates. “You walk too damn fast for such a large man.”
“Long legs. Hungry,” he explained as he waited for her to catch up.
“Short legs. Sleepy,” she teased. “You left without me!”
“I didn’t think you would be up this early. You’ve been sleeping later than usual.”
“We always ate breakfast together last year,” she complained, clearly upset. “Of course I’m going to wake early enough to start our routine again.”
Perhaps last year that would’ve tricked him, but he knew her well enough by now to see through her quips at least some of the time. Now was one of them. “You mean you couldn’t sleep because you’re worried about evaluation week.”
“Fine, I admit it. But can you believe they’re making us go through it again?”
“After everything we’ve done, Cleve! You
.” She swatted the air and finally stopped her jabbering. Cleve could count his friends on one hand, and Effie was one of them. But sometimes, mostly when he was hungry, he found her to be a little abrasive. He knew he would enjoy her company as soon as he had his first bite of food.
The dining hall was just as he remembered from before the fire. Effie whistled as they entered. “They did a marvelous job rebuilding.”
The building was made large enough to seat every student and instructor, which would’ve been more than three thousand people if hundreds hadn’t fallen during the war. Now, the enormous tables enclosed by benches were mostly bare. Cleve planned to eat three helpings of whatever was being served. The Academy’s chefs were second only to the king’s.
“There’s going to be a female warrior this year,” Cleve informed Effie as they got their plates and forks and took their place in line.
“A woman warrior? She must be insane or extremely talented.”
“I hope it’s the latter, because I’m supposed to watch over her.”
“She’s probably both. To make it to the Academy, she must’ve trained most of her life…when she could’ve trained as a mage instead. I don’t understand why
would choose a sword over a wand, especially a woman.” Effie grabbed Cleve’s sleeve and gave him a hard look with her dark eyes. “I have decided she must be insane. Be careful.”
But Cleve disagreed—not about Sanya’s sanity, but as to why she might choose a sword over a wand. There were few things Cleve enjoyed more than a good duel, and she might feel the same way.
He and every other warrior were greatly anticipating the Redfield competition later in the year. The war had ruined his plans of competing last year and being the first ever first-year student to win. But only a couple of second-years had won the champion title. He supposed he could settle for that, especially when he already had his beastslayer title from last year.
They sat and ate. He couldn’t figure out if it was his delicious breakfast of eggs, tomatoes, goat cheese, and barley bread, or if it was just being back in the Academy, but he was unable to stop himself from grinning like a fool.
Effie yawned. She wasn’t nearly as enthusiastic as she’d been last night. They’d celebrated their return with their other roommates, the small mage outdrinking all of them and making sure they were well aware of the fact.
She finished her plate and said goodbye while Cleve went for another. Knowing Effie, she would take this time to arrive early and start practicing her spells. It was her method of calming her overactive mind.
Even after three helpings, Cleve arrived early as well. Stepping onto the grass of Warrior’s Field brought back a surge of memories that stopped Cleve as chills ran through him. Here he’d trained and made friends, but some had been killed by Krepps on this very field while others had betrayed him. The grass stretched on for about half a mile to the south and a quarter-mile to the west, filling the same amount of space as the classrooms of the mages, psychics, and chemists combined.
Having lived with Terren from the time he was ten to seventeen, Cleve probably knew more about the Academy than most of the instructors. He considered it his home, his only home.
All the student warriors would be spread out on this field soon, separated into groups of fifty. Last year, there were fifteen hundred of the young swordsmen, but he didn’t know the full count for this year. He looked around for the one woman in case she was here early, too.
Eventually, Cleve found her in the dead center of the field. Half expecting to find a beast of a woman, he was surprised and concerned by Sanya Grayhart’s slim body and gentle eyes. If it wasn’t for the sword she was swinging deftly, he would’ve thought a psychic or a chemist had gotten lost.
She eyed him approaching and stopped practicing. “You must be Cleve Polken, unless you have a twin.”
Cleve knew that Terren had told Sanya nothing about him yet, so her guess was based solely on his reputation. There were few men taller or stronger than Cleve. And not just in the Academy.
“And you must be—”
She swung her wooden sword at his head, forcing him to duck. He pulled his own training sword from its sheath by reflex, but she just smirked at him playfully.
as quick as they say.”
“What if I wasn’t?” Anger colored his tone.
“Then you would’ve learned you need to be quicker.” Her eyes fell to his belt, obviously noticing that he had brought two sheaths instead of one. “Was I supposed to bring my real sword in addition to my wooden one?”
“No, this is my bastial steel sword. I never let it out of my sight.” There was only one in Ovira, and it had slain many foes. If a man could feel love for a weapon, that’s what Cleve felt for his bastial steel sword.
“Can I touch it?”
“Most only ask after they’ve first wondered if they could see it.”
“Can I see it, then?”
She formed a smile, then pointed at him with her weapon. “I like you Cleve, although I’d like you more if you’d let me handle your sword.” She gave her weapon a hard swing at an invisible opponent, then stopped as she seemed to realize something. “Don’t take that the wrong way.” She went back to training, moving quickly as she lunged at no one and then defended a flurry of nonexistent attacks.
“So did you come over because you wanted to meet the one woman who convinced your uncle that she was skilled enough to join the Academy? Are you worried that your reputation as the top warrior will be trumped by a
, and you’ve come to assess your competition?”
“Terren told me to watch over you.”
Shock hit her as she dropped both arms and gaped at him. “My stars, you’re serious.”
“I’m not some child in the meat market holding her papa’s hand so she doesn’t run off. How are you supposed to watch over me?”
“I have no idea.”
“Don’t do anything to help me. You’ll probably just make it worse.”
Cleve shrugged and started walking away. Over his shoulder, he said, “But I will mention that you should make your way over to the designated area of our evaluation group soon.”
“I’m already in our designated area.”
He didn’t know what to tell her given that she didn’t want his help. So he shrugged again and continued walking.
“This isn’t our designated area?” she called after him.
“You might want to follow me,” he called back.
She ran to catch up.
By the time they reached their area at the southern edge, the other forty-eight warriors were there already. Cleve noticed a friend among them, nodding to Alex Baom, who had been at Cleve’s residence last night with Effie and his other roommates. He was excited when he looked around at those in his evaluation group and realized most were second- and third-years. Then he remembered that he couldn’t enjoy the competition as much because he had to worry about Sanya.