Tavi peeked around the corner of the boys’ dormitories at the Academy’s central courtyard, and said to the young man beside him, “You’ve got that look on your face again.”
Ehren Patronus Vilius, a young man barely more than five feet tall, skinny, pale-skinned and dark-eyed, fidgeted with the hems of his flapping grey academ’s robes and overcoat. “What look?”
Tavi drew back from the corner, and tugged idly at his own student’s uniform. It seemed that no matter how many times he got the garment adjusted, his body kept a pace ahead of the seamstress. The robes were too tight in the shoulders and chest, and the arms didn’t come close to touching Tavi’s wrists. “You know it, Ehren. The one you get when you’re about to give someone advice.”
“Actually it’s the one I get when I’m about to give advice I’m sure will be ignored.” Ehren peeked around the corner too, and said, “Tavi, they’re all there. We might as well leave. There’s only the one way to get to the dining hall. They’re going to see us.”
“Not all of them are there,” Tavi insisted. “The twins aren’t.”
“No. Just Brencis and Renzo and Varien. Any one of whom could skin both of us together.”
“We might be more of a handful than they think,” Tavi said.
The smaller boy sighed. “Tavi it’s only a matter of time before they hurt someone. Maybe bad.”
“They wouldn’t dare,” Tavi said.
“They’re Citizens, Tavi. We aren’t. It’s as simple as that.”
“That’s not how it works.”
“Do you ever actually listen to your history lessons?” Ehren countered. “Of course it’s how it works. They’ll say it was an accident and they’re terribly sorry. Assuming it even gets to a court, a magistrate will make them pay a fine to your relatives. Meanwhile, you’ll be walking around missing your eyes or your feet.”
Tavi set his jaw and started around the corner. “I’m not missing breakfast. I was up at the citadel all night, he made me run up and down those crow-eaten stairs a dozen times, and if I have to skip another meal I’ll go insane.”
Ehren grabbed his arm. His lanyard, sporting one white bead, one blue, and one green bounced against his skinny chest. Three beads meant that the furymasters of the Academy thought Ehren barely had a grasp of furycrafting at all.
Of course, he had three beads more than Tavi.
Ehren met Tavi’s gaze and spoke quietly. “If you go walking out there alone, you’re insane already. Please wait a few minutes more.”
Just then, the third morning bell sounded, three long strokes. Tavi grimaced at the bell tower. “Last bell. If we don’t get moving, we won’t have time to eat. If we time it right, we can walk past them when some others are coming out. They might not see us.”
“I just don’t understand where Max could be,” Ehren said.
Tavi looked around again. “I don’t know. I didn’t leave for the palace until just before curfew, but his bed hadn’t been slept in this morning.”
“Out all night again,” Ehren mourned. “I don’t see how he expects to pass if he keeps this up. Even I won’t be able to help him.”
“You know Max,” Tavi said. “He isn’t big on planning.” Tavi’s belly cramped with hunger and made a gurgling noise. “That’s it,” he said. “We need to move. Are you coming with me or not?”
Ehren bit his lip and then shook his head. “I’m not that hungry. I’ll see you in class?”
Tavi felt a swell of disappointment, but he chucked Ehren on the arm. He could understand the smaller boy’s reluctance. Ehren had grown up among his parent’s quiet books and tables, where his keen memory and ability with mathematics far outweighed his lack of strong furycrafting. Before coming to the Academy, Ehren had never been faced with the kind of casual, petty cruelty that powerful young furycrafters could show their lessors.
Tavi, on the other hand, had been facing that particular problem for the whole of his life.
“I’ll see you at class,” he told Ehren.
The smaller boy fumbled at his lanyard with ink-stained fingers. “You’re sure?”
“Don’t worry. I’ll be fine.” With that, Tavi stepped around the corner, and started walking across the courtyard toward the dining hall.
A few seconds later, Tavi heard running footsteps and Ehren puffed into place beside him, his expression nervous but resolved. “I should eat more,” he said. “It could stunt my growth.”
Tavi grinned at him, and the two walked together across the courtyard.
Spring sunlight, warmer than the mountain air around the capital of Alera, poured down over the Academy grounds. The courtyard was a richly planted garden with walkways of smooth white stone set in a number of meandering paths across it. The early blooms had accompanied the green grass up from the earth after winter’s chill, and their colors, all reds and blues, decorated the courtyard. Students lounged at benches, talking, reading, and eating breakfast, all dressed in the uniform grey robes and tunics. Birds dipped and flashed through the sunshine, perching on the eaves of the buildings framing the courtyard before diving down to strike at insects emerging from their holes to gather in the crumbs dropped by careless academs.
It all looked peaceful, simple, and lovely beyond the scale of anything outside of the mighty capital of all Alera.
Tavi hated it.
Kalarus Brencis Minoris and his cronies had settled in their usual spot, at a fountain just outside the entrance to the dining hall. Just looking at the other boy seemed to make Tavi’s morning grow darker. Brencis was a tall and handsome young man, regal of bearing and narrow of face. He wore his hair in long curls, considered fashionably decadent in the Southern cities–particularly in his home of Kalare. His academ’s robes were made of the finest of cloth, tailored personally to fit him, and embroidered with threads of pure gold. His lanyard shone with beads of semiprecious stones rather than cheap glass, and lay heavily on his chest with multiple representatives of all six colors–one for each area of furycrafting: red, blue, green, brown, white and silver.
As Tavi and Ehren approached the fountain, the group of students from Parcia, golden brown skin shining in the morning sun, started passing between them and the bullies. Tavi hurried his steps. They only needed to avoid notice for a few more yards.
They didn’t. Brencis rose from his seat at the fountain’s edge, his lips curling into a wide and cheerful smile. “Well, well,” he said. “The little scribe and his pet freak out for a walk. I’m not sure they’ll let the freak into the dining hall if you don’t put him on a leash, scribe.”
Tavi didn’t even glance towards Brencis, continuing on without slowing his steps. There was a chance that if he simply took no notice of the other boy, he might not bother to push.
Ehren, though, stopped and glowered at Brencis. The small boy licked his lips and said, in a crisp tone, “He isn’t a freak.”
Brencis’ smile widened as he came closer. “Of course he is, scribaby. The First Lord’s pet monkey. It did a trick once, and now Gaius wants to show it off, like any other trained beast.”
“Ehren,” Tavi said. “Come on.”
Ehren’s dark eyes glistened abruptly, and his lower lip trembled. But the boy lifted his chin and didn’t look away from Brencis. “H-he isn’t a freak,” Ehren insisted.
“Are you calling me a liar, scribe?” Brencis asked. His smile became vicious, and he flexed his fingers. “And I thought you had learned proper respect for your betters.”
Tavi ground his teeth in frustration. It wasn’t fair that idiots like Brencis should get to throw their weight around so casually, while decent folk like Ehren were constantly walked upon. Brencis obviously wasn’t going to let them pass without incident.
Tavi glanced at Ehren and shook his head. The smaller boy would not have been here to begin with if he hadn’t been following Tavi. That made Tavi responsible for what happened to him. He turned to face Brencis and said, “Brencis, please leave us alone. We just want to get some breakfast.”
Brencis put his hand to his ear, his face reflecting feigned puzzlement. “Did you hear something? Varien, did you hear anything?”
Behind Brencis, the first of his two lackeys stood up and meandered over. Varien was a boy of medium height and heavy build. His robes were nowhere near so fine as Brencis’, though still superior to Tavi’s. The extra fat gave Varien’s face a petulant, spoiled look, and his baby-fine blonde hair was too lank to curl properly, like Brencis’. His lanyard bore several beads of white and green that somehow clashed with his muddy hazel eyes. “I might have heard a rat squeaking.”
“Could be,” Brencis said gravely. “Now then, scribe. Would you prefer mud or water?”
Ehren swallowed and took a step back. “Wait. I’m not looking for trouble.”
Brencis followed the small boy, his eyes narrowing, and grasped Ehren by his academ’s robe. “Mud or water, you gutless piglet.”
“Mud, my lord,” urged Varien, eyes lit with an ugly sparkle. “Leave him up to his neck in it and let those clever wits of his broil in the sun for a while.”
“Let me go!” Ehren said, his voice rising to a panicked pitch.
“Mud it is,” said Brencis. He gestured to the ground with one hand, and the earth heaved and shivered. Nothing happened for a moment, and then the ground began to stir, growing softer, a bubble rising up through the sudden mix of earth and fury-called water with a sodden ‘bloop.’
Tavi looked around him for help, but there was none to be seen. None of the Maestros were passing through, and with the exception of Max, none of the other students were willing to defy Brencis when he was amusing himself at someone else’s expense.
“Wait!” Ehren cried. “Please, these are the only shoes I have!”
“Well then,” Brencis said. “It looks like your little freeholder family should have saved up for another generation before they sent someone here.”
Tavi had to get Brencis’ attention away from Ehren, and he could only think of one way to manage it. He bent over, dug up a handful of sodden earth into one scooped hand, and flung it at Brencis’ head.
The young Kalaran let out a short sound of surprise as mud plastered his face. Brencis wiped at the mud and then stared, shocked, at his soiled fingers. There was a sudden burst of stifled giggles from the students watching the exchange, but when Brencis stared around him, they all averted their gaze and hid smiles behind lifted hands. Brencis glowered at Tavi, his eyes flat with anger.
“Come on, Ehren,” Tavi said. He pushed the smaller boy behind him, towards the dining hall. Ehren stumbled and then hurried that way. Tavi started to follow him without turning his back on Brencis.
“You,” Brencis snarled. “How dare you.”
“Leave it, Brencis,” Tavi said. “Ehren’s never done you any harm.”
“Tavi,” Ehren hissed, warning in his tone.
Tavi sensed the presence behind him just as Ehren spoke, and ducked. He darted to one side, in time to avoid a pair of heavy-handed swipes from Brencis’ second crony, Renzo.
Renzo was simply huge. Huge across, huge up and down, built on the same scale as barns and warehouses–big, roomy, and plain. He had dark hair and the scruffy beginnings of a full beard, and tiny eyes set in his square face. Renzo’s academy tunic was made of unexceptional cloth, but its very size meant that it had to have cost twice what a normal outfit would have. Renzo had only heavy brown beads on his lanyard–lots and lots of them. He took another step towards Tavi and drove a huge fist forward.
Tavi hopped out of the way of that blow as well, and snapped, “Ehren, find Maestro Gallus!”
Ehren let out a startled cry, and Tavi looked over his shoulder to see Varien holding the little scribe, his arms around Ehren’s shoulders, twisting painfully.
Distracted, Tavi was unable to avoid Renzo’s next lunge, and the big, silent boy picked him up and threw him without ceremony into the fountain.
Tavi splashed into the water, and a shock of cold stole the breath from his lungs. He floundered for a minute, trying to tell up from down, and got himself more or less righted in the two foot depth of water in the fountain. He sat up, spluttering.
Brencis stood over the fountain, mud dripping from one ear and staining his beautiful clothing. His handsome face twisted into an expression of annoyance. He lifted one hand and flicked his wrist in a languid gesture.
The water around Tavi surged on its own accord. Steam, searing heat, washed up and away from the surface of the fountain’s water, and Tavi let out a choked breath, lifting a hand to shield his eyes while the other supported him upright. The flood of heat passed as swiftly as it had come.
Tavi found himself completely unable to move. He looked around him and saw, as the steaming cloud cleared, that the fountain’s water had transformed completely into solid, frozen ice. The cold of it began to chew into his skin a moment later, and he struggled to get a deep breath through the grip of the ice.
“H-how,” he muttered, staring at Brencis. “How did you do that?”
“An application of furycrafting, freak,” Brencis said. “Firecrafting is all about arranging heat, after all. I just moved all the heat out of the water. It’s an advanced application, of course. Not that I would expect you to understand how it works.”
Tavi looked around the courtyard. Varien still held Ehren in a painful lock. The scribe was breathing in short, pained gasps. Many of the students who had been there a few moments before had left. Of the half-dozen or so who remained, none were looking at the fountain, suddenly engrossed in their books, their breakfasts, or in the details of the roof of a building across the campus.
The cold’s teeth became painful fangs. Tavi’s arms and legs throbbed in pain, and it became harder to breathe. Fear raced through him, making his heart labor.
“Brencis,” Tavi began. “Don’t do this. The Maestros–”
“Won’t care about you, freak.” He regarded Tavi with a relaxed, calculating expression. “I am the eldest son of a High Lord of Alera. You’re no one. You’re nothing. Haven’t you learned that by now?”
Tavi knew that the other boy was trying to hurt him, to anger him, and had chosen his words carefully. He knew that Brencis was deliberately manipulating him, but it seemed to make little difference. The words hurt. For most of his young life, Tavi had dreamed of leaving his aunt and uncle’s steadholt, of coming to the Academy, to make something of himself despite his utter lack of ability in furycrafting.
Fate, it seemed, had delivered her most cruel stroke by granting his request.
The cold made it hard to speak, but Tavi did. “Brencis, we’re both going to get demerits if the Maestros see this. Let me out. I’m sorry about the m-m-mud.”
“You’re sorry? As if that should matter to me?” Brencis said. “Renzo.”
Renzo drew back his fist and hit Tavi in the mouth. Pain flashed through him, and he felt his lower lip split open and tasted coppery blood on his tongue. Anger joined his fear, and he stammered, “Crows take you, Brencis! Leave us alone!”
“He still has teeth, Renzo,” Brencis noted.
Renzo said nothing, but hit Tavi again, and harder. Tavi tried to jerk his head away from the blow, but the ice held him fast, and he could no more avoid it than he could turn a cartwheel. The pain made his vision blur with pained tears he tried furiously to hold away.
“Let him go!” Ehren panted, but no one listened to him. The pain in Tavi’s limbs continued to swell, and he felt his lips go numb. He tried to shout for help, but the sounds came out only feebly, and no help came.
“Well, freak,” Brencis said. “You wanted me to leave you alone. I think I will. I’ll stop by after lunch and see if there’s anything else you have to say.”
Tavi looked up and saw an opportunity approaching-but only if he could keep the bully’s attention. He fixed his gaze on Brencis and snarled something under his breath.
Brencis tilted his head to one side, taking a step forward. “What was that?”
“I said,” Tavi rasped, “That you’re pathetic. You’re a spoiled mama’s boy who is too much a coward to face anyone strong enough to hurt you. You have to pick on people like Ehren and me because you’re weak. You’re nothing.”
Brencis narrowed his eyes, leaning forward intently. “You know, freak. I don’t have to leave you alone.” He rested one hand on the ice, and it began to twitch and shift, letting out creaks and groans. Tavi felt a sharp twinge of pain in one shoulder, cutting through the frozen agony of the ice.
“If you like,” Brencis said, “I can just stay right here with you.”
Variens blurted, “Brencis!”
Tavi leaned forward and growled, “Go ahead, mama’s boy. Go ahead and do it. What are you afraid of?”
Brencis’ eyes flashed with anger, and the ice shifted more. “You’ve had this coming to you, paganus.”
Tavi gritted his teeth over a pained scream.
“Good morning!” boomed a boisterous voice. A large, muscular young man in a legionare’s close-cropped haircut loomed up behind Brencis and casually seized him by the back of his coat and his long hair. Without preamble, the young man drove Brencis’ head down into the ice, cracking his skull against the frozen surface near Tavi with a solid thump. Then the young man hauled Brencis back, and tossed him away from the fountain, sending the young lord sprawling bonelessly onto the green grass.
“Max!” Ehren shouted.
Renzo took a lumbering swing at the back of Max’s neck, but the tall young man ducked under it and drove a stiff punch into the hulking Renzo’s belly. Renzo’s breath exploded from his chest, and he staggered. Max seized one of his arms and sent Renzo sprawling beside Brencis.
Max looked over at Varien and narrowed his eyes.
The young nobleman went pale, let go of Ehren, and backed away with his hands held before him. He and Renzo hauled the stunned Brencis onto his feet, and the three bullies retreated from the courtyard. Excited mutters and whispers from the academs in the courtyard rose as they left.
“Furies, Calderon,” Max called to Tavi, loudly enough to be heard by anyone who wasn’t deaf. “I am so clumsy in the morning. Look at how I went blundering right into those two.” Without further delay, he moved over to the fountain and regarded Tavi’s plight. Max nodded once, took a deep breath, and narrowed his eyes in concentration. Then he drew back his fist and slammed it down onto the ice near Tavi. A spider web of cracks exploded through it, and stinging chips struck against Tavi’s numbed skin. Max pounded his fist down several more times, his fury-assisted strength more than equal to the task of pulverizing the ice imprisoning Tavi. Within half a minute, Tavi felt himself come loose from his icy bonds, and Ehren and Max both hauled Tavi up from the ice and out onto the ground.
Tavi lay for a moment, gasping and gritting his teeth at the numbing cold still in his limbs, unable to speak.
“Crows,” Max swore idly. He started rubbing briskly at Tavi’s limbs. “He’s near frostbitten.”
Tavi felt his arms and legs twitch as fiery pins and needles started prickling against his skin. As soon as he could get his voice back, he gasped, “Max, forget this. Get me to breakfast.”
“Breakfast?” Max said. “You’re kidding, Calderon.”
“I’m going to get a decent b-b-breakfast if it kills me.”
“Oh. You’re doing pretty well then,” Max observed. He started helping Tavi up off the ground. “Thanks for keeping his attention off me until I could hit him, by the way. What happened?”
“B-Brencis,” Tavi spat. “Again.”
Ehren nodded earnestly. “He was going to bury me up to my neck again, but Tavi threw a bunch of mud at his face.”
“Hah,” Max said. “Wish I could have seen that.”
Ehren bit his lip, then squinted up at the larger boy and said, “If you hadn’t been out all night, maybe you would have.”
The large academ’s face flushed. Antillar Maximus’s features were not beautiful by anyone’s standards, Tavi thought. But they were clean-cut, rugged, and strong. He had the wolfish grey eyes of the northern High Houses and combined a powerful build with a casual feline grace. Though usually he shaved scrupulously every day, he evidently hadn’t had time to this morning, and shadowy stubble gave his features a roguish cast that went well with the dents in his twice broken nose. Max’s robes were plain and wrinkled, and had to struggle to contain his shoulders and chest. His lanyard, randomly arrayed with a hefty number of colored beads, had been carelessly knotted in several places where it had broken.
“I’m sorry,” Max mumbled, as he help Tavi stagger towards the dining hall. “It just kind of happened. There are some things that a man shouldn’t miss.”
“Antillar,” murmured a female voice, a low and throaty purr drawling out consonants with an Attican accent. Tavi opened his eyes to see a ravishing young woman, her dark hair worn in a long braid that fell over her left shoulder. She was surpassingly lovely, her features delicate, sensual, and her dark eyes smoldered with a kind of silent sensuality that had long since enraptured nearly every young man at the Academy. Her academ’s robes did not manage to conceal the lush curves of her breasts, and the southern silks they were made from clung to her hips and hinted at the outlines of her thighs as she walked across the courtyard.
Max turned to face her and gave her a gallant little bow. “Good morning, Celine.”
Celine smiled, the expression a lazy promise, and let Max take and kiss her hand. She let her hand rest on Max’s as she studied the unconscious Brencis, and sighed. “Oh, Antillar. I know it amuses you to render my fiance unconscious, but you’re so much . . . larger than he. It hardly seems fair.”
“Life isn’t fair,” said a second female voice, and a second beauty, indistinguishable from Celine except that she wore her hair braided over the opposite shoulder, joined them. She slid one hand over Max’s shoulder, on his other side, and added, “My sister can be such a romantic.”
“Lady Celeste,” Max murmured. “I’m just trying to teach him manners. It’s for his own good.”
Celeste and Celine joined hands and walked toward the dining hall. Celeste gave Max an arch look and said, “You are a vile brute of a man.”
Max swept his arm back as he gave the young noblewomen a gallant bow. “Celeste,” he said. “Celine. I trust you slept well last night? You’ve almost missed breakfast.”
Both of their mouths curved up into identical small smiles. “Beast,” said Celine.
“Cad,” her sister added.
“Ladies,” Max bid them with another bow, and watched them walking away as he stood with Tavi and Ehren.
“You m-make me sick, Max,” Tavi said.
Ehren glanced back over his shoulder at the twins and then to Max, his expression puzzled. Then he blinked and said, “That’s where you were all night? Both of them?”
“They do share the same quarters. Hardly would have been polite to only have one, and leave the other all loneloy,” Max said, his voice pious. “I was merely doing what any gentleman would.”
Tavi glanced over his shoulder, his eyes drawn to the slow sway of the girls’ hips as they walked away. “Sick, Max. You make me sick.”
Max laughed. “You’re welcome.”
The three of them entered the dining hall in time to get the last of the food prepared by the kitchens that morning, but just as they found a place at one of the round tables, running footsteps approached. A girl no older than Tavi, short, stocky and plain, came to a halt at their table, her small scattering of green and blue beads flashing in a stray beam of sunlight against her grey robes. Her fine, mouse-brown hair waved around her head where tiny strands had escaped their braid. “No time,” she panted. “Put that down and come with me.”
Tavi looked up from his plate, already laden with slices of ham and fresh bread, and scowled at the girl. “You would not believe what I had to go through to get this, Gaelle,” he said. “I’m not moving an inch until my plate is empty.”
Gaelle Patronus Sabinus looked around them furtively, and then leaned down closer to their table to murmur, “Maestro Killian says that our combat final is to begin at once.”
“Now?” stammered Ehren.
Max cast a longing glance down at his own heaping plate and asked, “Before breakfast?”
Tavi sighed and pushed his chair back. “Blighted crows and bloody carrion.” He stood up, wincing as his arms and legs throbbed. “All right, everyone. Let’s go.”