A girl who is not a warrior hangs from the dusty beams above the university library, bringing her knees to her chest one hundred times, then her elbows to her ears one hundred more, until the muscles in her forearms scream louder than the muscles in her sides.
She grits her teeth for another set, even as the brittle wood scrapes her fingers, her arms slick and trembling. The balmy heat of the setting sun slides over her, magnified by the domed glass roof, her hair falling loose from her braid in waves of inky black that fold over her eyes like a curtain.
Dust particles spiral down from the rafters, past her dimpled leather boots.
Down, down, down four stories until they land upon thousands of tiny hexagons arranged into an ornate map of Alahmeere. Her toes hang over Kaohmorih, drift north to Pucah Forest, then to the exotic trading posts of Costa Gaiah, branching out along the curve of the Hainahmeere Isles at the edge of the Kaiyoh Spiral.
War has redrawn the landscape, but the map remains the same.
More dust glides past her, a riot of shimmering grey that dances in the last shards sunlight. When night falls, the celebrations will begin. Her professors have let classes out early, students gallivanting home to put on their finest robes and braid crowns of honeysuckle into their hair.
The girl prefers the library – the dust and silence, the mystery of hidden things.
Footsteps echo outside the door on the lower level, and a whispered curse escapes her mouth.
She was supposed to be alone.
The girl releases the beam with a sigh, her boots humming as the balconies of each floor pass her on the way down, faded iron railings freckled with old war banners from the days of the Bredannian Occupation, behind them large oak tables covered in ancient maps from the Nomadic Era and moldy tomes full of legends – from the hungry wraiths that haunt country roads after midnight to the giant monsters that roam the northern coast.
When the door swings open, she’s seated at a desk by the window, boots propped against a pile of old volumes, a worn paperback in her lap.
Leisurely, she flips a page, hides the shortness of her breath in a casual sigh. “I thought we canceled for today.”
Hennrih saunters over and tosses a red velvet pouch on the desk. Several coins tumble out of it, gleaming in the evening light. “A bonus for my miracle worker.” He leans against the desk, hands tucked into the pockets of patterned silk trousers, his pointy black hair a haphazard mass over his pale brow. “I passed my agriculture exam with full marks. Professor Dunne wrote my draft exemption letter on the same day.”
A faint color strikes her cheeks. She picks up the coins except for one silver piece and returns them to the pouch, which she holds out to him. “Thank you, but I will take my regular wage, nothing more.”
He ignores her outstretched hand. “Consider it a down payment on the fall session. My father knows your assistance is worth every cent.” He slides into the chair beside her, eyebrows raised at the book in her lap. “For three days, the citizens of Kaohmorih gathered in the square, bringing blood oranges and candles scented with cinnamon and honey. They left statues of scorpions and tapestries decorated with legends of the Siegebreaker.”
The girl closes the book with a wistful sigh, reciting the last line from memory. “Three days of peace after centuries of war, three days to mourn the greatest warrior Alahmeere has ever known.”
“This is a text for first years,” Hennrih scoffs down at her. “I thought you were about to graduate.”
She jerks her shoulders. “I’d better be, for what you just tried to pay me.”
His laugh is decadent, rife with unflinching confidence as he flips through the other books on the table. “Legends of the Kaimannih. Myths of the First Forger. Why waste a mind like yours on children’s tales? You must know that empowered objects don’t exist. Empowered people certainly, but forgers like Master Kitsuh are pure fantasy.”
“What I do with my mind is my business.”
Hennrih places the flat of his palm over the coin on the table and stripes of silver peek out between his manicured fingers. “Do you know what they say was the first thing Master Kitsuh forged?” He swipes his hand away, the coin with it. “A cloak that made the wearer disappear.”
She rolls her eyes, hands clenched as if holding her spear. She can almost feel the smooth metal warming against her palm.
He grins through her disdain as if he doesn’t see it, leaning closer, a smug twinkle in his eyes. “If we had forgers the war would be long over. An army in invisible cloaks. Ships that couldn’t be sunk. You name it, we’d have it.”
“Perhaps.” Her face is a pleasant grimace, every blink a struggle. She pulls a tall candle from a sconce on the wall, and circles the edge of the room, lighting other candles as she goes. Outside, the sun melts behind the outline of the Great Sea Palace like molten gold. Students, soldiers, and other youths gather in University Square for the parade of Feileh Tareis, the Feast of the Fallen.
She feels Hennrih’s eyes on her back, hears his sharp inhale. “Are you being pursued by anyone?”
“Pursued?” She whirls around. Her voice is calm, but her hands fist against her sides. “As in…”
“Marriage.” He walks over to her, knocking the coin against the table, then along the bookshelves, tracking its ridges in the dust – a slow, deliberate approach. Finally, he traces the coin up the sleeve of her tunic, resting firmly on her shoulder. His eyes peak with intention, his breath a touch shallow. “There’s a shortage of respectable men in the city. You’d be lucky to end up with someone like me.”