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“Jess? Jessie, wake up!”

Josie’s voice.

Jess lurched from her covers, stumbling off her bed in a heap, still choking back the most horrid of screams, soaked in fear sweat, sobbing with terror.

It had been so awful. So gods-awful.

She saw her mother’s exquisite gift of a full-length mirror and flinched away, terrified by what she would see, the hideous monster with glittering eyes that would be wearing her face, her lips splitting in the most hideous of grins, a thousand sharpened fangs gnawing away.

Jess screamed and shook, Josie’s pounding increasing in pitch.

“Jess! Oh, by all the saints, please open this door, Jessie. You left the Healers Wing before Jevons could finish your treatment! He is sick with worry. He said you were to check in with him before you returned to quarters, but you never showed!”

Jess took a deep breath, forcing her racing heart to calm.

Never did she recall a dream so awful as the one she had just fled.

Bleary eyes blinked, taking in her pounding door.

She relaxed some strange muscle she couldn’t explain, the door easing open to reveal an anxious Josie pounding frantically on her door, a worried Raphael gazing protectively on.

His face lightened with relief before frowning with concern. “Josie, I do believe she’s tumbled from her bed. Come. Let’s bring her to the healers.”

But Josie had already dashed to Jess’s side, eyes wide with panic.

“Oh, by all the gods, Jess, you shouldn’t even be in quarters! When I heard what that bloody head proctor had done, I swear I wanted to beat him senseless myself! Please stop flinching, Jessie, I need to examine you, make sure you are okay.”

Jess blinked, still feeling groggy, utterly disoriented, grateful to see Josie’s tender expression. To know that someone still cared about her.

“But, Josie, I don’t think you are supposed to even talk to me. I’m… I’m penitent now. Having fallen so low, I don’t want you to get in trouble. You are too precious to risk falling prey to that vile proctor. Not for a second, would I allow that."

“Nonsense!” Josie snapped. “We’re friends. We’re there for each other.”

Raphael nodded firm agreement.

“Besides,” Josie winked, “I’m a healer training directly under Master Jevons, and he has specifically remanded you to my care, and he will make it quite clear to proctors, General Eloquin, even the dean, that when it comes to the care of injured patients, his precedence supersedes all others.”

She turned back to her beau, gazing at her so protectively.

“And what with various goings-ons, students suffering from tainted drinks, reports of threats even in the baths, no one objects to girls taking escorts wherever they go, even if it’s their lovers and everyone knows it, but no proctor dares to say a word, lest another denizen of our keep go missing, and on their heads’ would go the blame.”

Jess gazed at her friend in alarm. “Someone’s gone missing?”

Josie nodded. “That’s the rumor that’s going around. I haven’t had a chance to track it down. We were only informed with our first period class.

“Oh no, I missed first period.” Jess shook. “I can’t do any more than I am. Oh gods, Josie, even this, even this…” Jess squeezed her eyes tightly shut, hot tears springing for still. “Everyone, treating me like I’m less than dirt. Students mocking me, shoving me over, my professors calling me a pathetic fool… I’m dying inside, Josie. I don’t know how much more I can take.”

Josie’s eyes glittered with outrage. “How dare they. How dare they! This whole thing is an outrage, Jess. Jera and Alex explained everything. You didn’t put any student’s lives at risk, you led the charge that saved them.”

Her face paled, tears running down her cheeks as well. “By all the gods, Jess, those vile monsters were sacrificing our friends! Cutting them open, whispering dark enchantments I shudder even to think about. You saved our friend's lives, when your own damned coward of a commander would have turned tail and run!”

And suddenly it was Josie crumpled over and sobbing, Jess catching her and holding her close, prepared for her back’s furious protest, but strangely not a ripple in pain-filled waters troubled her.

Raphael’s gaze also conveyed sharpest empathy, even as he gently took a sobbing Josie from Jess’s arms, Jess lurching to her feet, surprised anew at how limber she felt.

Hardly the broken, trembling wreck of the day before.

She nodded resolutely to herself. The cook’s hearty broth and good table ale had been just what she needed. She had been a fool to deny herself food and water the entire day before, no matter how bitterly she regretted having made enemies of so many teachers, students now feeling free reign to mock her at will.

She was determined to focus on the one ray of light in days bleak and terrible. “Alex, Jera, their friends... is everyone okay?”

Josie turned to Jess, gazing at her so tenderly Jess had to look away.

“Yes, Jess. Of those that survived, bitter tears for horrors endured, lives lost, awful regret for trusting guards that none of us could have known were corrupt, all of those burdens weigh them down. But most of all, what they feel is gratitude. Gratitude for getting one more chance to savor life’s sweetness, no matter the shame of their folly. Gratitude for Squires daring so much in coming to their rescue. And for all that Eloquin had scolded them so fiercely, when those few who had no beau or lost their beau went to the revels to wash away horror's memory, they were not turned away.”

Jess grinned at that, even as Josie flushed.

“Not that it is any business of mine, but I think maybe a few of our peers felt fiercest gratitude for strong, handsome Squires who had risked their lives to save them, who had delivered them from the most horrific of nightmares.”

Jess sighed. “That’s not so uncommon. When a girl or boy is saved from peril, whether a serf from slaver, or a noble girl from a captor only hours away from slicing her throat, they do tend to fall in love with us. At least for a time, and we are far too passionate to deny them, if we feel that same hunger as well.”

Raphael swallowed. “Is that, I don’t know how exactly to put it, you saved their lives, after all...”

Jess nodded. “It may sound strange, fierce feelings inspired in darkest circumstances that would otherwise never occur, but the love is no less intense for that, for all that it might never have blossomed otherwise. It is as if fighting for one’s life cuts through all conventions and poise. Idealized heroes and perfect husbands are one thing, but the man who risks his blood to save your own skin proves himself a worthy mate like no other.”

Raphael smiled. “Well said, Jess.”

Jess chuckled softly. “Of course, people from wildly different lives don’t always mesh after the first furious burst of passion, but more than one young lass who was destitute, sold for slavery, has found herself the proud owners of cozy little farms, former lover as patron, his own family’s farmhands helping her out until she is established. And sometimes, well, we all know a couple young women, ostensibly Highrock servitors, who really just care for the one Squire that saved them or touched their heart. They are wives in all but name, and seeing as how so many of those we saved had been sold as slaves, suffering the worst horrors imaginable, with no place to go, the dean, thank the gods, turns a blind eye. He let it be known that anyone who has dared the crucible of battle for Highrock, Squire or Aspirant, may handfast a girl or boy who touched their heart and live together without censure, all other conventions aside."

Raphael nodded. “Sweet enough an ending, so long as noble scions don’t actually marry without their parent’s consent. More than one noble scion has handfasted a commoner in the heat of passion, his lover and any offspring given comfortable lives when duties of marriage at last make themselves known. Fortunately, no one dares to shame a noble’s mistress, for to insult her is to insult her patron, a foolish move few would dare, even in the capital.”

Jess closed her eyes and smiled. “I’m glad. I’m glad that they can find some happiness to wash away the horrors they endured.”

“And it’s all thanks to you, Jess,” Josie said, pivoting away from Jess’s gaze, examining her back. “And don’t think we’re going to let anyone forget it.” And suddenly a silence so profound Jess heard nothing but the din and cry of youths training outside her window, faint and far off, a warm summer breeze ruffling a few papers upon her hardwood table, covered with a few treatises on military strategy, wax tablets, and scattered scraps of scribbled parchment, an empty flask holding them down, disorganized as she was in so many ways.

“By all the gods,” Josie whispered.

Jess felt her gut clench. “How bad is it, Josie? I was a fool to leave early, wasn’t I? I just, I just couldn’t bear it when Jevons kept insisting that the best thing for me to do was to leave. That I had done so much good, Squires and Aspirants both sobbing confessions in the depths of their pain about what really happens when we blacken our daggers, things he swore never to repeat. All he will say is that my wearing this robe is madness.” Jess allowed herself a sharp, bitter laugh. “And I find that more than half my professors hate me, so much of the school holding me in darkest contempt, and it feels like they always have.”

Jess clenched trembling fists tight. “But I will endure it, Josie. I will endure it. For I will not flee this school I love so fiercely, no matter the jackals nipping at my heels!”

“Jess...”

“I will not leave!” Jess sobbed.

A gentle hand stroked her tear-stained cheek. Josie's graceful smile pierced Jess’s heart.

“Your back is, well, I think Jevons healed you better than he thought! These scars look weeks old, and your flesh has not buckled and puckered.” Jess felt a curious tingle skitter down her back. She squirmed at the tickling sensation.

“Behave, Jess,” said an exasperated Josie. “I swear, you react so strangely to a healer’s art. Anyway, I sense no scarring within your musculature, and the lashes upon your back look so much better than when you first came to us.”

Jess vented a relieved sigh. “Thank all the gods, Josie.” She allowed a brittle chuckle. “Yesterday was so horrible, I shudder even to think about it. I’m not sure what Master Jevon’s did, but if healing magic takes a few days to kick in, I am still grateful.” She gave a resolute nod. “I think, perhaps, I can bear it, now.”

She turned to her friends, and perhaps it was something in her eyes. They turned away before she could even finish the question.

“Has there been any word on Malek?”

“I’m sorry,” Josie whispered. “Not yet. But from what Alex and Jera said… don’t give up hope, Jess. Never that.”

“I won’t.” Jess wiped away stubborn tears. “Well then, I guess it’s time I headed to class.” She gazed at her supplicant’s robe with disgust, shaking her head before putting it on.

Josie and Raphael opened the door. “Come, Jess. Let’s at least escort you to your next class. Though we dare no more than that, should anyone challenge me for it now or later, I will be more than happy to share stories of a girl of noble temperament and fiercest loyalty they would all be lucky to have as a friend.”

Jess gave Raphael an impulsive hug at those gentle words, amazed once more to be free of crippling pain that would have sent her sprawling but hours ago.

“We are having a Circle meeting tonight. We will escort you there,” Raphael whispered as they neared other students, gazes now equal parts contempt and surprise. “We will pass the Healers Wing and explain you need treatment, if any proctor or student dares to question us.”

Jess nodded, grateful for the thought of sweetest respite, the balm of friendship, even as she endured caustic stares and contemptuous comments washing over her once more, happy none dared spit at her or shove her to the ground, no doubt the benefit of walking in the company of a healer-in-training and the scion of a named lord.

Their friendship would protect her not at all when they continued on with their day, but for at least a moment the students were reminded that Jess did have powerful allies, and more importantly, they still cared about her even in her moment of greatest shame, censured by the school entire.

They, at least, had not abandoned her.

Jess was grateful not to be late late for her first class, Squires having a later start than other students, all knowing that their martial training took place every morning and evening without fail. Yet despite her diligence, Jess found herself speared by the same contempt that had haunted her the day before.

Hostile glares and snide comments washed over her, even as Lady Chevalier caught Jess’s gaze, her one good hand clenching into a tight fist, stomping over toward her.

“I thought I made it clear that I do not want to see your face again, supplicant!”

The class roared with hoots and jeers at that.

Jess closed her eyes and forced her trembling breath to calm. “I am sorry to displease you, instructor, but my master bade me attend every class that I could, without exception. You may castigate me as you wish, I have earned that chastisement in going against his wishes before battle was joined, but you cannot deny me entrance to this class.”

Jess jerked her eyes up, determined to meet her instructor's gaze, dark eyes hauntingly beautiful, for all that she stared at Jess with icy disdain.

“I will not be expelled for failing to attend a class I was assigned, simply because you find my presence distasteful. No written contract was made between us, so it would be all to easy for you to accuse me of sloth, when I did but follow your directive.” Jess forced bitter lips into a cold smile. “If that was your gambit, well played.”

Her professor’s eyes widened with fury.

A surprisingly fast palm cracked against Jess’s jaw.

She let the pain rock through her, rolling with it, doing nothing to dodge the blow.

The class silenced, Jess turned back to gaze at the heaving professor for her. She dipped her head. “You have a warrior’s strength, all your weight behind the blow. Well done. I thought you were a fighter, I see that I’m right.”

“Silence, you bloody wretch! I gave you no leave to speak to me as an equal. None!”

The girl heaved, even her injured hand curled into a claw of a fist, gazing at Jess with such glittering hate.

Jess sighed, lowering her head once more. “I’m sorry you hate me so, professor. I am not your enemy. I am here to learn. Not here to trap you with your own folly, for all that it is your hand print against my cheek.”

“Students died for your folly!” Professor Chevalier shrieked. “How can you even live with that, let alone tend this class? You should be on your knees, praying before every temple, no matter how lax your faith, hoping some god somewhere can forgive the sins at your feet! The men who died because you acted the fool, when you should have stood strong!”

Jess was chilled to see tears streaming down the professor’s cheek, so many things clicking into place at that moment.

There was so much she could have said.

So many avenues to strike.

Instead, she bowed her head. “I truly regret that my presence offends you so. I shall sit in back of the class, and trouble you not at all.”

“Your very presence troubles me, Calenbry!” she hissed. “Very well. Stay. But turn your seat and face the wall! I don’t even want to see your face.”

And Jess did just that, doing the best to endure yet another bitter day of snide comments and outright contempt, professors calling her a fool for not having memorized materials studied long before Jess had ever thought to attend their class, students laughing at her folly even as she wiped away furious tears, knowing on some level that her professors were absolutely right.

She was grateful for the respite of her ever genial philosophy professor, waxing eloquent on the wonders of redemption, asking how many of those who accuse others of vile acts are themselves guilty of dark impulses they keep well hidden, earning more than a few flinches or frowns from students he gracefully pretended not to see, encouraging all his students to ask themselves in moments of quiet reflection, what were their own worst flaws, and what could they do to change them? For only then would they be worthy of the love, loyalty, and friendship every human craves, by committing to being just as good a friend and partner as they would want in return.

Jess left class feeling strangely optimistic. As savage a Squire as she knew herself to be, or had been before she had lost everything, perhaps it was time she took a moral inventory and ask herself what she could do to be a better friend. So that those who cared enough to show her warmth in a school grown cold and hostile would not be disappointed.

“I thought I told you to leave, Calenbry!”

Hot words, filled with bile. Duggin, sandy hair swept into a braid today, glaring at her with open contempt, and only now did Jess recall why. His stance, the way he carried himself. One of the many students who had challenged for openings into the Squires ranks. All of them fully armored so as to provide protection, but no doubt their challengers knew exactly who various Squires were.

Especially Jess. Quite happy to fight with all her heart, laughing good-naturedly when she sent her opponents crashing to the ground, her quiet head-shakes when Eloquin would gaze at one hopeful or another being all he needed to see, trusting Jess’s judgment, her and Neal both, as to what hopeful student had what it took to blacken their dagger for king and Crown. Not only brilliance and skill with a blade, but a ruthless savagery Jess could just sense, entwined with a grim sense of love, loyalty, honor, integrity, an unnameable something that would assure that those who rode under Eloquin’s black banner would not themselves turn feral and nip at the heels of those they had once called brothers.

Duggin had not made the cut. Not by a mile.

And how his resentment had built and seethed. Only now, when she was vulnerable, exposed, without any apparent allies, he felt free to dispense bitter recompense for the slights he had suffered.

His feral smile made those feelings quite clear.

“Weak as a kitten still, aren’t you, Calenbry brat? Arrogant loathsome fool. Lives lost to your folly, and you dared to pass judgment on my fitness? On your knees, supplicant! As the lowest of the low, we of noble decent may dispense punishment as we see fit! So take your punishment, or leave this school with your tail between your legs like the coward you are.”

The crowd had dispersed. Only a few lingered, cold smiles making it clear whose camp they were in. Duggin smiled, cracking his fists. “I have plenty of time to deal with you now, bitch. One way or another, you’re going to regret what you did to me.”

Jess said nothing, centering herself, shifting her stance, gazing coolly at a glaring Duggin.

His face reddened with fury. “Turn your head down, bitch! I gave you no leave to meet my gaze!” He lunged forward, hands bunched to shove her crashing into the hard stone wall.

Powerful hands latched to Jess's arm. Not powerful enough.

Duggin stumbled as Jess abruptly pivoted, not fighting Duggin’s furious shove but flowing with it, through it, using his force to serve her instead.

Duggin was sent flying with a startled cry as Jess hip tossed him to the hard flagstone floor.

Duggin wheezed for a moment, stumbling to his feet, face no less furious than it had been a moment before. “That’s assault, supplicant!” His lips curled in a cruel smile. “I’ll see you kicked out for that, see if I don’t!”

Jess said nothing, favoring him with her most mocking grin.

He snarled, charging her with a roar.

Jess dropped as he sought to slam her to the ground, her hands grabbing his uniform even as she gracefully rolled to her back, legs coiled, pressed against his torso, springing them taut at the apex of her roll, Duggin crying out as he was sent flying down the hallway, landing with a crash and a groan, Jess rolling back to her feet as gracefully as she ever had in the training ring.

The onlookers were speechless, more than one snarling and spitting, though two flashed the slightest of nods, which Jess returned, one warrior to another. For in this school like no other, triumph in battle superseded all aspects of social rank or censure.

“Bloody bitch, you’re a supplicant! A fallen wretch despised by everyone! I’ll beat you just as hard as the head proctor did, see if I don’t!” Duggin roared, stumbling to his feet, baton held in trembling grip, plain for all to see.

“Don’t be an ass,” snorted a watching Aspirant. “Calenbry bested you, without throwing a punch. And whatever you may think, you are only free to speak your mind. Physically assaulting supplicants will get you wearing those same robes faster than you can blink.”

Hyve’s student chuckled as Duggin paled, swallowed, and beat a hasty retreat.

“What a fool,” the Aspirant said to no one in particular before sauntering off, the few bystanders leaving as well.

And for all that she cherished that momentary victory, a part of her feared Eloquin’s terrible gaze, lancing hear heart with his disappointment, leaving her writhing with shame.

“Bloody hells, he probably will blame me for the whole damn incident.” She shook her head, grateful the hallway was at least quiet, more determined than ever to avoid the dining hall below. For all that she knew her closest friends stood by her, to see so many scores of students she had once thought or at least hoped were passing fond of her to all be glaring at her or sneering their derision, masks torn free, black hate revealed at last with a single woolen robe as pretext, was a horror as fearsome as plunging into that vile Shadowstorm would have been.

All too happy to stumble into her quarters without further incident, Jess stretched and limbered her muscles, swinging practice saber and longsword in smooth even strokes, strikes flowing into guards and counters as gracefully as she could, a gentle warm up after the most savage of beatings, making sure no strain or stiffness still hindered her form.

When she finished with both weapons she gave a satisfied nod. Injury and exhaustion had left her slightly off her game, but a few solid meals and she would be at peek once more.

She smirked at her door, knowing she couldn’t endure any more derision this day. The dining hall might as well be in Velheim. She could only hope that food and drink would arrive much as it had last night, a welcome balm after yet another long day.

But it never did.

“Jessie, open up, it’s us. Fantastic news!”

Jess blinked open tired eyes, realizing she must have fallen asleep. Her throat was bone dry. She grimaced, knowing she had to stockpile some water flasks no matter how much she feared the humiliation of being mocked by hundreds of students at once.

“Jessie, open up!”

Recognizing Josie’s voice, Jess smiled and did just that.

She froze, her heart lurching in her chest.

Gazing at her with his warm brown eyes, teasing smile upon his lips, and Jess flew into his arms, holding him so tightly, so fiercely, her tears leaking down his doublet.

“Malek! By all the gods, by all the gods! I thought you lost to us! Oh Malek, it would have killed me, had you perished in that mad gambit we took. Don’t ever do that to me again, shieldbrother, do you hear?”

His own eyes filling with silent tears, Malek softly brushed her cheek. “You are crying, shieldsister.” His words seemed filled with a strange kind of wonder. “What a silly thing to do.”

Jess laughed the words away, kissing him fiercely, so grateful to see him alive.

Malek laughed, holding her tight, spinning her once before gently putting her down. “Come, shieldsister, we have a meeting to attend, do we not? I will explain everything when we get there.” Gently taking her hand in his own, he led the way at a rapid pace, a smiling Josie and Raphael but feet behind.

 

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About the author

MH Johnson

Bio: A lifelong lover of fantasy and science fiction, I finally took the plunge and and poured my heart into a fantasy series of my own! I hope you enjoy reading my stories as much as I did writing them, and if you would like to know when the entirety of Jessica's saga is available for reading, (7 full novels!), please consider signing up to my mailing list. http://eepurl.com/cgQzy1

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