To my dive buddy, riding partner, and best friend
Lady Renee de Winter turned her back to the parlor, where her father’s clerk counted gold crowns into the visitor’s waiting palm. The coins’ melodic ring turned her stomach.
“Please thank my lord Tamath de Winter for his donation,” the visitor said, bowing. “His generosity keeps the roads well guarded.”
Renee wondered how long the man practiced that sincere voice, or how her father’s clerk tolerated the farce. For that matter, whose benefit was the show for at all? Calling extortion “charity” fooled no one.
She knelt on the carpeted floor and opened her travel trunk. With luck, the visiting thief would see her Academy of Tildor uniform packed inside. Once she graduated, these Family thugs would think twice about making their demands on the de Winter estate. Or on any other estate.
“Your pardon, my lady.” The approaching maid worried her skirts, waiting until Renee shut the wooden lid. “Your father wishes for you to address the tenants tomorrow.”
Renee closed her eyes. He knew she was leaving for the Academy today, just as she had done at the end of every summer since turning ten. Renee wanted to protect Tildor, to serve its people and the Crown. Her father wanted her to stay home and count goats. In gods’ names, they had discussed it—again!—over breakfast that very morning.
Blood boiled beneath her cheeks as she stalked down the wide hallway to her father’s study and slammed the door hard enough to topple accounts books from their shelf. “The Family’s demands will only grow if you keep indulging them, my lord.”
Lord Tamath dipped his pen into the inkwell and continued writing. The dark wood of his furniture matched his strict woolen tunic. “With a mere boy now holding the throne, the danger to us doubles.” His pen scratched over parchment. “It costs less to give coin than to lose wagons. A fact of which you, of all people, should be well aware.” He didn’t look up, didn’t even acknowledge the sting of his words.
Ten years ago, a Family-rigged accident crushed a wagon carrying Renee’s mother and older brother to a market. It would have carried Renee instead of Riley, had she not fallen off a horse that morning. The scar on her palm pressed her to honor their memory; Lord Tamath honored it by feeding their killers.
“Recheck the crop figures before tomorrow, if you please,” he added.
Renee took a breath to steady her voice. “By tomorrow, Father, I will be in Atham, in the Academy barracks, preparing for classes. Surely this isn’t news.”
He dipped his pen again, as if meeting her eyes was beneath him. “Your desire is not news, no.” His curled mustache twitched. “This is.” He held out a folded sheet of parchment with a cracked Academy seal, his lips pressed into a taut line.
She tugged down her tunic, took the three paces from the door to his desk, and tried not to seem as if she reached for a poisonous snake.
Signatures followed the text. Renee looked away, her world trembling. She trained every day. Each and every one. And she was so close. One last year in the Academy’s schoolrooms and two in a field trial and then she would be a Servant of the Crown. “I will work harder, Father,” she said quietly. “During meals if I must. I will get stronger. You know I will.”
Lord Tamath snorted. “No quantity of training will make a wolf from a cockroach. You’re sixteen. If you had any hopes of growing strong enough to compete with the men, you would have by now.” He jerked the letter from her hand and nodded with satisfaction. “I have indulged this Servant of the Crown fantasy long enough. No, you will not attend the Academy. You will remain here, pursuing an occupation that you have some chance of not failing. I will not have you disgrace these estates or my name.”
Renee swallowed. “The Academy does not require a father’s permission, my lord.” In point of fact, the Academy was Tildor’s sole establishment to ignore lineage. Noble or not, all cadets studied together and graduated—or not—on merit alone. A Servant’s uniform could not be bought. “You cannot stop me from going,” Renee said.
He did look up then, and the fire blazing in his eyes threatened to burn through her. “I can stop you from coming back.” He rose, bracing his palms on the table, and spat his words at her in short, venomous breaths. “Should you ignore my wishes, do not expect a welcome here.” He sat back down and resumed scratching with his pen as if he had not just stuck a dagger into his daughter’s life. “Either come to your senses or live with the folly of your choices. That will be all.”
Cadet Renee de Winter strode down the long corridor of the Academy barracks, each step carrying her farther from home. She trailed her fingers along the walls, enjoying their cool, uneven surface.
Hanging lanterns bathed the hall with dim, yellow light. Soon the walkway would fill with dozens of rushing cadets, future Fighter and Magistrate Servants of the Crown dressed in black uniforms with the colored trims of their career tracks; magistrate red, fighter blue. Black and blue, yes, that fit Fighter Servant cadets well.
As in any army, most of Tildor’s warriors were common soldiers; uneducated weapons-bearers who’d never lead units. Officers—whose skills and studies reached beyond weapons-handling to strategy, law, mathematics, and more—were
And then there were Servants of the Crown.
A unique type of officer, a Servant attended a school—
Renee took a breath and pushed her father’s ultimatum to the back of her mind. What was done was done, and she had at least been able to carry some coin away with her. Enough to survive the year. Many were less fortunate.
Renee halted by the most beautiful sight in the building, her name etched into a wooden nameplate mounted on the door. Her door. Tucking an escaped wisp of brown hair behind her ear, she fumbled in one, then another pocket for the key. It had to be somewhere.
She was searching still when the door swung open, and a tall, grinning girl let her inside. “I recognized the footsteps. No one in their right mind has so much energy.”
“I never claimed sanity, Sasha.” Renee laughed, embracing her roommate. “Try spending a summer with my lord father, if you wish to know why.” She stepped inside and groaned. Books already lay scattered everywhere, a natural hazard of rooming with a magistrate cadet. Not that sharing quarters with another fighter remained an option; the cuts had left two girls in the fighters’ senior class, but the other had developed mage’s Control last spring. A late bloomer. Renee did not know where the Mage Council placed the girl.
Renee maneuvered around a teetering pile of books and dropped her bag on her bed. “Did you rob the library, Sasha?”
“Being the Crown’s cousin has its advantages.”
“You are a corrupt abomination.”
Sasha picked out a leather-bound tome and held it so its title,
Renee snatched the treasure from her friend’s hand. The book’s thin pages bent under her touch. Seven years ago, the Seventh’s leader, Korish Savoy, was a fighter cadet her age. He trained in the same salle, worried about the same exams, followed the same rules. Maybe he opened a book like this too and counted the days to the year’s end, to the two years of field trials, to turning nineteen and graduating. Maybe in another seven years, some other cadet would open a book about Renee. If she made it.
A knock interrupted her musing. Her best friend loitered awkwardly in the open doorway, his hands buried in his pockets. For him, this was positively outgoing. “Alec! The door is wide open.”
“Mmm. Didn’t notice.” He bowed to Sasha before stepping inside.
Renee ran up and hugged him, rising onto her toes to get her arms around his neck. The differences in their physiques had grown pronounced within the last year, when soft curves shaped her previously boyish body. The summer apart accentuated it. Resentment pricked her before she could stop it, and her father’s words bubbled in her mind like a disease. The boys grew. And she did not. Even Alec, who once had looked wide-eyed at her superior swordsmanship, started powering through her parries last spring.
He lifted her off the ground for a momentary hug and then retreated to hide in a corner.
Sasha smiled like a cat with a bowlful of cream. “Your new instructor will come a week late.” She cut her gaze at the book on Renee’s bed. “You may have heard of him.”
Renee looked at Sasha blankly until her roommate chuckled and mouthed the name.