I awoke to unfamiliar luxury: clean sheets smelling of a flower that dots the Nirmathi countryside, which children call “Lady’s Veil.” The petals’ wistful scent was said to ease troubled sleep.
There was a folksong about a young man who met a maiden in a field and, overcome by her grace, clasped her close to pull back her veil. She changed shape six times, each form more deadly than the last until, in her seventh form, the edge of her veil sliced him open like a blade. She fled and he followed, his blood mingling with the flowers that bloomed beneath her feet, leaving the center of each pale blue blossom stained crimson. I’d heard young girls tell it as a tragic love story, and old men cite it as a parable about the glory and danger inherent in loving the divine. Personally, I thought it was a good warning for people who can’t keep their hands to themselves.
I vaguely remembered seeing the school in the distance late last night, then stumbling through its doors bone-weary after a week’s ride from Kassen and the incessant squabbling of my companions. I thought I recalled the school’s healer shooing me into bed.
I was home, or back at the closest thing I had to a home.
The sunlight slanted in through the diamond panes of my window, but I was still languorous with the remnants of well-earned sleep. I had just slithered onto my stomach and pulled the sheet over my head when the breakfast bell began ringing.
I climbed resentfully out of bed. The academy is housed in an ancient stone manor, and areas of it are riddled with drafts, but Azthur renovated the students’ quarters when he purchased the place. He installed wooden floors and plastered the walls a bright white. Tapestries by local weavers absorbed any chills that came in through the fireplace shared by each pair of rooms (a favorite channel for student pranks), and bright carpets warmed the floors. A generous-sized bed, a chest, a writing desk with a mirror, a coat rack, and two plain wooden chairs comprised the extent of the furniture. The assorted tapestries and carpets gave each room a bit of homey personality.
Desna knows I’ve slept in worse places.
I pulled on a pair of soft leather breeches, a white linen shirt, and my boots, then a vest that concealed a few daggers and my lockpicking kit. Sliding another dagger into each boot—a girl can never have too many knives–I headed downstairs for breakfast.
The hallways were largely devoid of the normal morning bustle. I did see a bleary-looking Pepwinn dragged from his room by his hungry wolf, but I skipped down the stone stairway before he could greet me. At the bottom of the stairs, I stuck my head into the storeroom that led into the kitchen. A harried-looking cook paused in sorting through a barrel of dried fruit to look up at me. “One more for breakfast,” I told her.
She nodded, a dark chestnut curl falling into her eyes. “Extra ham for you, healer says, Miss Elspeth,” she said briskly. “Don’t be looking sour at me, young miss.” I tried to put my face back into a pleasant expression, or at least a dignified one. Sour, my ass. “Healer says you’re almost all used up, and need to build back your strength. Ain’t worth it to argue with a healer, lass–the good ones are right bullies.” She couldn’t have been much older than me, but I dropped my chin meekly and agreed. “Into the hall with you, now. I’ll have your meal out in a trice, and you’ll clean your plate, and neither of us will have to answer to Her Healerness.”
I turned to go, then looked back over my shoulder. “Liss, who made up my bed? Someone scented the sheets with lady’s veil flowers, and I wanted to thank them.”
Her eyes crinkled as she beamed. “That were Jenta, the head housekeeper’s daughter. You been big in her eyes ever since you showed her how to pick the pantry lock—and yes, we know it were you, so don’t bother denying. The little maid heard the other students saying as how you should be home soon, and how you’d cleared the risen dead out of Kassen’s tomb and saved the town. She were worried you’d not sleep easy after bumping noses with ghosts and ghouls and rats and the like, so she slipped off and gathered the veilflowers. Then she nipped at Meyla’s heels until she washed the sheets with the petals. The little one’s a right angel, I say, and I wish me younger sisters were half as sweet.”
“Please pass my thanks to Meyla,” I said. “I’ll find Jenta and thank her myself, and try to avoid corrupting her with any more lockpicking lessons.”
“See as you do,” the cook huffed, grinning. “Now away with you. I’ve your breakfast to get.”
I went opened the door to the Great Hall and was met with a wall of sound woven of the voices of the other nineteen students in residence at the school (eighteen more maintained rooms at nearby inns) and the clanking of dishes and utensils.
“Elspeth!” called Luthar, who was probably the closest thing I had to a friend there, from one of the long, scarred tables. “Here, I saved a place for you.” I slid onto the bench next to him, and he poured me a glass of cider from the pitcher shared by our half of the table.
The table quieted and everyone leaned in. “Well?” Luthar demanded.
“It wasn’t glorious,” I told my audience. “Most of it was wet, cold and unpleasant.”
They looked disappointed, so, seizing this rare moment of rapport with my classmates, I gave in and regaled them with a slightly embellished version of the cleansing of Kassen’s tomb. Looking around at their shining eyes, I started to feel a bit strange about just how impressed they were. All I’d really done, after all, was exactly what we’d all been trained to do. The hero-worship from the people of Kassen had been more or less expected, but seeing the same from my peers was unnerving. The whole reason we were all here was to learn real survival and exploring skills, the stark realities unvarnished by all the nonsense bards sing about.
The Azthur Glorgirn Academy wasn’t the sort of fighting school that young people outside of Nirmathas dream of attending. Announcing you’d been a student there wasn’t likely to score you free drinks from callow would-be adventurers in taverns across the Inner Sea region. It wouldn’t draw lovers intent on bedding a hero. You wouldn’t be able to trade on school ties to step into an otherwise unearned command post with an army or mercenary troop.
Azthur’s boasted one feature that the sort of school that offered those benefits usually couldn’t, however: a large contingent of retired—that is, still-living—alumni throughout the lands of the Inner Sea.
“So, anyone have any interesting plans for after graduation?” I asked, wanting my classmates to go back to looking at me like I was one of them.
Luthar traced the grain of the table, scarred with use and the names of generations of hungry students, with a broad finger. He was from Absalom, the biggest metropolis in the region, and his parents had sent him to Azthur’s to learn the skills needed to follow in their footsteps as explorers and treasure-hunters for the Pathfinder Society. He was, I imagine, a perfect presumptive candidate: polished, urbane, and irrepressible.
He was also in giddy, stultifying love with a pretty young woman from the local village of Stardale, and in discussions with her family about marriage and eventually taking over their farm. He was clearly thinking about her now, because he wore a slightly poleaxed smile.
Cari, a tiny woman with a curly mop of hair, smiled with a bright flash of teeth. “Going back to my troop. They’ll have to take me seriously now that I’ve been here.” She was a member of a successful mercenary group and was looking forward to a commission.
The others at the table were Nirmathi, planning to join the militia, which was the closest thing Nirmathas had to a government.
“And you?” Cari asked me. “What does the future hold for the mysterious Elspeth?”
I felt my eyebrows make a grab for my hairline. “Mysterious” was one of the last words I’d choose to describe myself. “I was planning to head to Absalom and try to find a merc troop that’ll take me.”
Tellyr, a dark-eyed Nirmathi boy, leaned aside as Liss appeared with my breakfast. The cook slid the plate in front of me, winked, and bustled back toward the kitchen. “My, my,” Tellyr said mildly, staring at my meal, “do you have a sweetheart on the kitchen staff?”
For all their scoffing at my dislike for meat, the cooks had clearly done their best to make it palatable. My breakfast was a potato hash verdant with herbs and vegetables, the dreaded ham chopped so fine it was barely visible. A pair of poached pairs was wrapped in cured pork sliced transparently thin, and the plate was finished with a piece of crumbly white cheese and a honey-glazed pastry.
I looked around at the remains of my tablemates’ meals: a few thick ham rinds and pools of egg yolk.
“Eselle, in the kitchens, is from Kassen.” I glanced at Bain, startled. I’d wondered when we first met whether the slim fighter’s heavy-lidded gaze was flirtation, challenge, or contempt, until I realized it was simply habitual. The expression on the Nirmathi’s sienna-skinned face now, however, was clearly amused. “Kassen loses enough people on the Chelish and Molthuni fronts each year that they don’t have enough fighters at home to guard against unexpected attacks. You had our backs, Elspeth, and we don’t forget. The militia would be proud to have the heroine of Kassen in our ranks, and we take care of our own. You could have a real home here.”
My cheeks felt hot. I gulped my cider to cover it, the scent of lady’s veil seeming to fill my nostrils. I’d been too long watching out only for myself to know how to take the sudden, fierce loyalty of the Nirmathi, and I felt like a fraud.
I admired their commitment to freedom, even if fighting a continual war against two powerful empires seemed suicidal to me. There are worse things to live with than a government you don’t like, after all. Azthur’s insistence on the strict neutrality of his school sheltered his students from the strain exacted on the rest of the country, but we’d seen enough of the scars whenever we ventured outside his estate to have some sense of poor, defiant Nirmathas’s desperation. Bain’s little speech, I thought, while probably sincere, hid some strings in its generosity.
“If you’re done with the Heroine of Kassen, Bain,” a new voice broke in from behind me, “I need her elsewhere.”
I jumped several inches off the bench and twisted my neck over my shoulder. Professor Nura El-Ameen, priestess of the Dawnflower and our tutor in protection spells and dealing with outsiders, beckoned graciously to me, as if it were merely a request. “Bring your breakfast, Elspeth. You’re looking a bit wan,” she added.
Professor El-Ameen came from the far-off Empire of Kelesh. In contrast to the stereotypes about Keleshite princesses, the professor dressed plainly. A closer look at her robes, however, told an observer that this was no novice priestess; while simple, they were of fine silk, pale blue with a subtle but ornate gold sunburst pattern that only revealed itself when the light hit it at certain angles.
I offered the occasional prayer and coin to Desna because it made sense to have a good relationship with the lady of luck, but I wasn’t particularly religious. The professor, however, whatever ecstatic rites she might be rumored to practice in private, projected such an air of quiet common sense in public that it was only natural to go to her for advice.
“Am I in trouble?” I asked her as she guided me from the great hall.
“Quite the opposite,” said the professor. “A young woman from Kassen is here and wishes to convey her town’s gratitude to you, both verbally and, I think, in a more tangible form. She’s waiting in the parlor. How are you feeling, by the way? Any lingering aches or abrasions from your adventure?”
“Dan took most of the damage,” I demurred, although I couldn’t help flexing my elbow and wincing.
The professor’s dark eyes narrowed at the movement, and she stopped me as we walked through a shaft of sunlight into the hallway. She stared out at the sun, the strong lines of her profile softening and her eyes turning amber as she murmured a quick invocation to her goddess. I had always thought of Kelish as a harsh language, but her lips shaped each word with a reverent beauty.
The sunlight wrapped around me as if it had weight and substance. The heat of it should have been uncomfortable, but it felt friendly instead. It melted through my skin, purring along my bones and brushing away the last of the tomb’s chill. The pain in my elbow faded, and a sense of perfect well-being enfolded me.
I shook my head to clear it. Motes of dust danced in the light, forming a sparkling veil over the smiling priestess. They swirled around her merrily, gleaming like miniature suns, as if Sarenrae were also enjoying the exchange.
“No more, please,” I said drily, “or you might tempt me to convert, and anyone in my line of work shouldn’t get on Desna’s bad side.” My voice came out rusty, as if I’d just awakened from a deep sleep. “You worship a dangerous goddess, professor.”
Professor El-Ameen’s eyes cooled into their normal dark brown as she turned them to me, and something crossed her face, though whether it was quick-hidden laughter or pain, I couldn’t say.
“All gods are dangerous,” she said.