Magic’s Price Uncut

Chapter 1

When Savil entered, Vanyel Ashkevron was sitting on the couch, one guard to either side. The way they were standing, it wasn’t clear whether they were there to guard him from harm or to keep him from getting away. Savil regarded him somberly – she hadn't seen her nephew for several years. Those years obviously hadn’t improved him except in looks, which wasn’t a good thing. He was simply too attractive. Fine, raven black hair brushed his forehead and tumbled over silver eyes. His high cheekbones and full mouth contributed to the elegant appearance that likely sent most women into a swoon. Right now, however, his face was set in sullen lines, silver eyes defiant above a slightly pouting mouth. Savil sighed and stepped further into the room.

“You may go, gentlemen,” she said to the two standing on either side of him.

The two stocky men exchanged glances. “But …” said the taller one, “but we have … information … to give you.”

Savil raised an eyebrow imperiously. “My brother placed him under my supervision; he must therefore leave the boy to my judgment. I have no interest in what you have to say.”

The two still hesitated. “Lady, the horse …”

Savil noticed the hurt in Vanyel and interrupted quickly, “… will stay here. The boy will have equestrian lessons; he can hardly go over the course on foot.” The layer of sarcasm in her voice made the shorter one wince.

The taller of the two, however, was made of sterner stuff … or was under more explicit orders. “Surely the Companions …”

Savil would not let him finish. “The Companions bear their Chosen and no other.” These avatars in the shape of a horse bonded with humans in order to protect the land of Valdemar. When they Chose their partner, the one who would be called a Herald after training, the two were bonded until death.

Seeing that the guardsman was going to protest further, Savil drew her power as Herald-Mage and a member of the Council around her. Her voice turned icy, and her blue eyes no less so. “The boy is in my household and under my care now. My brother wishes him to remain her until such time as he has learned what is necessary for him to know as a lord of Valdemar. You will leave now.”

To the two men, Savil appeared to grow in stature; her voice deepened and grew louder. Her eyes flashed with fury at being disobeyed. Thoroughly cowed now, the two bowed and departed as quickly as they could.

The spectacle that had sent Vanyel’s guards – or jailers? – running appeared to have had no effect on him. He remained lounging on the couch in front of Savil as she released her power and turned to him. The Herald-Mage regarded her nephew silently for a few moments, eyes unreadable. “Well, lad,” she said finally, “I won’t deny that you’ve come at a bad time. I don’t have time to be a babysitter.” It was best to let Vanyel know where he stood right away; it was better that he heard it from her than from someone else. “I have three students already, and I don’t have time to put up with the high jinks my brother accused you of when he asked me to take you on.” Then she held up an envelope that the palace guard had given her when he had informed her of Vanyel’s arrival. “Your father sent this with your guards.” She ripped the unopened envelope to shreds and dropped them on the floor. “I’ll tell you this: you’ll stand or fall with me on your own merits. I don’t know how much of what my brother said is the truth, and how much is his own stubbornness. That last letter was so stuffy it could have come from our father. However,” and her voice turned stern, “if I hear that you’ve been skipping lessons or misbehaving here, you’ll be very sorry – and my punishment will be on top of whatever the others give you. I don’t have time to waste, and neither do any of your other instructors here.”

Vanyel’s eyes flickered to something behind her, and Savil felt the mental touch of her three pupils. They were frozen on the doorstep, embarrassed at coming in to find their mentor dressing down a strange boy. Serenely, Savil motioned for them to come forward. It would be worse to pretend that this hadn’t happened. “These are Mardic, Donni and Tylendel, my three protegés. As Herald Trainees, they outrank you; let’s get that straight right off.”

“Yes, Aunt.” Vanyel’s voice was monotone, and his eyes retained their sullen cast.

“Now what that actually means is not a damn thing except that I expect you to be polite.”

“Yes, Aunt.”

Savil’s facial expression didn’t change as mentally she swore. :Damn; I did give the three of you first chance at the garden room, didn’t I?: she asked the trainees.

Tylendel came to stand to one side of Savil while Mardic and Donni moved to the other side. :You did,: replied Tylendel cheerfully, :but none of us wanted to move. It’s too drafty there. Unless you have someone to keep you warm.: He pushed a dark blond curl out of his eyes and regarded Vanyel with no small amount of interest.

“You’ll have the garden room,” Savil said to Vanyel. “The rules here are simple: Be polite, clean up after yourself and obey your teachers and superiors. Stay out of the forbidden areas – one of the trainees will show them to you tomorrow – and don’t miss any classes. As I said earlier, if you don’t follow the rules, you’ll have to deal with me as well as with whomever you offend.” Savil glanced at the time-candle in the corner. “I have a meeting I have to attend to, so you’re on your own for the night. Stay here. I’ll arrange an introduction for you at court tomorrow and you can take your meals with them if you want to; in the meantime, you can eat from the cold cuts and such laid out for us by one of the servants.” She waved an impatient hand at the sideboard, which was laid out with various sandwich materials. “They keep some food here for us, since we don’t always make it to the scheduled dinner times.” She thought for a moment, then added, “You’ll start Weapons’ Training in the morning, with History, Mathematics and Religions in the afternoons.” Savil couldn’t think of anything else he needed to know, and nodded firmly. “Don’t leave the suite tonight.” She rushed out of the room.

Vanyel hadn’t moved throughout the whole interview, but now he stood up languidly and reached for his bags.

“Need any help?” Tylendel asked. Mardic and Donni waited to hear Vanyel’s answer.

“No,” Vanyel answered shortly. “I’m fine.”

Donni raised her eyebrows, seeing the pile of bags on the floor that would need to be moved and unpacked, and Mardic glanced at her. Tylendel, however, shrugged one slender shoulder. “As you wish. I’ll be here most of the evening.” Mardic disappeared into his room, and Donni into hers, but Tylendel sat down on the couch and watched Vanyel as he carted all his belongings into his new room.

:By the way,: he heard Savil Mindspeak to him on her way to her meeting, :I doubt that he shares your proclivities – so don’t break your heart. Or any of the rules,: she added obliquely, knowing her student’s libido.

Tylendel sighed and went to bed.

Chapter 2

Vanyel glared at the bags now piled untidily in his room. /He could have at least tried to insist,/ he thought angrily, aware that he was being unfair. Yet … he hadn’t asked to be here. He wanted to be at home, with his instruments and his freedom. Vanyel pushed away thoughts of the fear he’d left behind, of the Weapons’ Master who had beaten him because he couldn’t learn as quickly or as well as his cousins and brothers, who were much stockier than he was. He refused to recall how his family … except for his sister, who had been sent away, and his mother … had treated him as a pariah. He thought only of his little room in the attic, where he had kept all the instruments he was forbidden to play, and of the admiring glances his looks had drawn at the infrequent gatherings held on his father’s land.

He could use a good deal of that admiration now. Although he tried to persuade himself that he didn’t care what others thought, that he didn’t need anyone, this veil of indifference was wearing thin. The trip had been long, with his father’s “guards” locking him in at night and boxing him in during the ride every day so he couldn’t run away. Not that he would have if he had been given the choice. If he were perfectly honest with himself, he knew he would be happier here than he would have been at home. Even if this Weapons’ Master here were like his old one, unable or unwilling to teach any method of fighting except the hack and bash method that his relatives so favoured, at least he wouldn’t have a personal grudge against Vanyel. That had to be better. Furthermore, no one here hated him the way the priest and his father had hated him back home.

Vanyel, however, was not in the mood to entertain such thoughts. He preferred to dwell on the injustice of being sent to his aunt, the sister his father had disliked the most. He saw it as a severe punishment – and from his father’s point of view, it likely was one.

Vanyel finally took the time to glance around his room … and froze in shock. Instead of the cell in which he had expected to be ensconced, he was in a bright, comfortable room. He touched the soft down quilt on the king-sized bed and sunk into the nearby armchair in amazement. Not only was this not a cell, it was much nicer than his room at home – larger and more comfortable. To one side of the room, there was what appeared to be either a small door or a large window. Vanyel got up and walked over. It was not locked and barred as he had expected, but opened to the touch. He was being given total freedom!

Forgetting his Aunt Savil’s order to stay inside, Vanyel stepped outside and gazed around him in wonder. His room opened up onto a small rose garden. Since it was mid-summer, the area was redolent with the lush scent, and Vanyel breathed it in with enjoyment. He picked a blood red rose, one that set off his dark hair and pale skin perfectly, and held it as he wandered further and further away from his room.

There was a large field not too far away, and Vanyel walked over curiously. Although it was fenced in, the fences were quite low, certainly not high enough to keep the field’s inhabitants in. Vanyel stopped to watch the beautiful white horses curiously. He had, of course, heard of Companions; you could hardly inhabit Valdemar and not know about these magical beings and their equally impressive Heralds.

As Vanyel stood there, entranced, one Companion separated herself from the herd and came over to him. She sniffed him gently, as if curious why he had come to visit.

“Hello, beautiful,” Vanyel greeted her. “I’m sorry I didn’t bring anything for you; I promise I will next time.” He held out his hand, palm up, and she nosed it. Vanyel was no stranger to dealing with horses. He’d raised his own mare, Star, from a filly and was one of the best horsemen of his father’s keep. In fact, that was the only thing Vanyel did for which his father gave him any praise.

The Companion seemed satisfied and nudged his hand upwards. Vanyel laughed and scratched her behind her ears; she closed her eyes in bliss. Finally – and more quickly than Vanyel would have liked – she seemed to tire of the treatment. She slipped her head out from under Vanyel’s hand and pushed him lightly with her nose in the direction of his room.

Vanyel sighed, reminded of all the unpacking he had left to do – and of Savil’s orders. “You’re right,” he said mournfully to the Companion. Before trudging back to his room to tidy up, though, he promised, “I’ll come and visit you later.” /Strange, though,/ he thought. /It was almost like she knew I had to get back./

Kellan watched the young man walk back to his room. :Savil?: she then queried tentatively.

:Hmm, love?: Savil sent back, slightly distracted.

:Am I interrupting anything?:

:No, not at all – Justin’s pontificating on some subject or other.: Savil sent her Companion a mental image of the rather stuffy council member, and was rewarded when a horsy laugh echoed in her mind. :What’s on your mind?:

:Your nephew was out for a visit just now,: Kellan told her solemnly, fully aware of Savil’s orders. :He’s headed back in now, but I thought you’d want to know.: Like her Chosen, Kellan knew that there were places in the palace and on the grounds that the young boy – neither Gifted nor a Heraldic trainee – should not get into. Certain places were not safe for one with no protections.

Savil’s face darkened. :Thank you, ke’chara,: she sent back. :Is it something I should deal with now, or do you think he’ll avoid wandering for the rest of the night?:

While he had been scratching her head, Kellan had planted a compulsion for him to remain in his room. Companions, unlike their human counterparts, had no problems with ethics. :It’s been taken care of,: she sent serenely.

Savil, picking up on what her Companion meant, sent a feeling of disapproval through the link, but what was done was done. She couldn’t really leave the meeting to deal with her disobedient nephew at the moment anyway.

:I know,: Kellan said smugly.

:Look, horse,: Savil began threateningly, then laughed. :Don’t think I approve of what you did, but thank you for taking care of him and making sure he wouldn’t get hurt.: Savil’s mindvoice turned serious. :I’ll deal with him in the morning.:

Chapter 3

Vanyel moaned in his sleep. It was the ice dream again – and although he was thankfully frozen against all pain, he was also frozen against joy. He thrashed in his sleep, trying to escape the wasteland that he had once so desired. There was someone on the other side of a chasm, whose face he couldn’t quite see; he wanted to reach this person. As he stepped forward, however, the ice began to break around him with loud cracks, throwing up frozen mountains that were razor sharp. Crack … crack … crack …

Vanyel sat up in bed, suddenly awake. The sound that had been the ice cracking in his dream was actually someone’s sharp raps on his door. “Just a moment,” he called, still sleep-befuddled. He climbed out of the large bed and rubbed his eyes before grabbing a robe to cover his nudity and padding on cold bare feet to the door. He glanced in the mirror before he opened it. Satisfied that no sign of his dream-torment showed on his face, he pulled open his bedroom door.

Savil stood at the entrance, looking stern and impatient. /But then,/ Vanyel thought, /she always looks like that./ He invoked his shield of indifference, silver eyes clouding to light grey. “Good morning, Aunt,” he greeted her. He glanced pointedly at the window, which let in the pre-dawn light. “Rather early, isn’t it?”

Savil stepped forward, pushing Vanyel aside. She pushed the door partway shut, then sat down on the most comfortable chair in the room. Vanyel, looking like a little boy with his hair rumpled and his robe clutched around him, was left staring bewilderedly at his older relative. He seemed to remember himself then, though, and pulled himself up insolently.

“What’s this about?” he demanded.

Savil’s look didn’t change a bit. She merely folded her arms, leveled him with a displeased stare, and said, “You went out last night, after I had specifically told you not to.”

Vanyel barely managed to control his surprise. How could she know that? He hesitated slightly, trying to figure out how to respond. /No, she couldn’t know,/ he reassured himself. That gave him the courage to say defiantly, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Which part?” Savil asked calmly, willing to let him dig himself in further.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Which part don’t you understand? The fact that you went out last night, or the fact that I told you not to?”

Vanyel frowned. This wasn’t going at all the way he had expected.

“That you … that I ….” Vanyel shook his head. “I understand what you’re saying,” he said, trying to regain some of his composure, “but I didn’t go out last night.” He frowned. “Did one of the others tell you I did?” he demanded. “Because if so, they’re lying.”

Savil shook her head slowly. “No,” she said, still calm. I heard it from a source whose honesty I trust implicitly.”

“So you’ll take someone else’s word over that of your own kin?” Vanyel demanded, outraged. Now that he was committed to the lie, he was getting into the act. In fact, he had almost convinced himself that he really hadn’t left the room the previous night.

“When the word is that of a Companion – and not just any Companion, but my Companion, yes.”

Vanyel froze. He was in deep trouble. Everyone knew of the integrity of Companions.

Savil regarded her nephew closely. “Would you like to reword your description of your actions last night?”

Vanyel hesitated, then confessed. “I went outside, yes. Just to the edge of the field over there and back … it had been such a long ride and such a stressful day that I ….” He broke off, then swallowed and straightened. “I’m sorry, Aunt Savil. It won’t happen again.” Shivering a little in the cold air, he asked, “Can I get dressed now?”

“Not quite yet,” Savil replied. “Come here, nephew.”

Vanyel stepped toward her, uncertain what was going to happen next.

“Closer.”

Vanyel was now standing directly in front of her.

“Pull up your robe and turn yourself over my knee.”

Vanyel was horrified. “What?!” he exclaimed.

“You heard me.” Savil’s countenance was a mask of serenity.

“You can’t be serious. Aunt, I’m sixteen years old. I’m too old for that … I’ve never been punished like that!!” He ran his hand through his hair, the indifferent pose long gone. “This is something you do to little children, not to grown men!”

Savil raised an eyebrow. “Grown men don’t disobey rules that are put in place to protect them from things they can’t handle,” she replied. Then she added, her voice turning colder, “If you choose not to obey me again, it will go the worse for you.”

/What could possibly be worse?/ Vanyel wondered. He looked at Savil’s lap, then up at her face, then down at his feet. “Aunt, I can’t. You can’t seriously expect me to do that.” His voice was calmer now. “I understand that what I did was wrong, and I understand you were only trying to protect me. I will try harder.” He looked up at her, sure that this was really what she was looking for. “I’m sorry.”

Savil sighed. “So am I, lad.” Then she stood up, and with one smooth motion, yanked Vanyel off his feet and bent him over the bed. She held him there with one hand and flipped up his robe with the other.

Vanyel yelled with embarrassment and rage. “I said I was sorry!” he shouted. “You don’t have to do this.”

Savil smacked him on his rear. “But I do,” she said grimly, smacking him again. “Lessons are best learned when you know exactly what the consequence is.” As she spoke, she hit him rhythmically with her hand, never losing her breath. “If you disobey me, or any of the people here who are trying to see to your protection – and that includes my trainees as well as your instructors and others in the palace, this will be your consequence.”

Vanyel was yelping and squiggling, trying to get out of her hold, but her wiry form was stronger than it appeared.

“All screaming will do is bring the others to watch,” Savil informed him, making sure to reach all areas of his behind. “Is that what you want?”

Vanyel stifled his shouts, but didn’t stop trying to get away.

Savil finally had enough of his squirming. She yanked him up and, in the face of his relief, said, “You move again and I’ll double it. Stay still.” Wide silver eyes met hers for the split second before she lowered him over the bed.

This time Vanyel didn’t try to get away from the sharp raps delivered to his behind, but after ten swats, he couldn’t help squirming a bit. He bit his lip, not wanting the others to see him in this inglorious position, and tears filled his eyes, turning them to liquid silver. Although he was no longer screaming, Savil could hear his sobs.

“Had you told the truth in the beginning,” she said sternly, her present swats just as powerful as the earlier ones, “your punishment would be over now. However, you lied to me. Never lie to me.”

After spanking Vanyel twenty more times, Savil lowered his robe and sat on the bed next to him, stroking his head. “Certain rules are imperative,” she told him softly. “Not everyone on the grounds has the ability to protect themselves from some of the nastier areas here. We can’t eliminate those areas, because they provide the Gifted and Herald trainees with a place to practice. We can, however, forbid others from going in there.”

Vanyel turned his head up towards her. “I understand that, Aunt,” he said, gulping in breaths, “but I didn’t go very far – just out to the field.”

“And what happens if the fields is being used for war training, or if one of the demons the Karsites are so fond of using is kept in there so that trainees have a chance to practice defending themselves against it before being thrown into the war?”

That hadn’t occurred to Vanyel. “I’m sorry,” he said again, and meant it this time. “I won’t go anywhere you tell me not to.”

Savil hugged him gently, then stood up. As she did so, she caught a glimpse of curly dark-blonde hair flashing past the crack the door was open. “Get yourself cleaned up, lad, and we’ll go over the safe and unsafe parts of the building. There are also some other rules you should know before you go to classes this morning.”

Vanyel nodded, sniffling, and Savil touched him lightly on the head. “I’ll wait for you in the sitting room,” she said, and left, closing Vanyel’s door behind her.

Chapter 4

Savil shut the door to Vanyel’s room softly behind her. Her protégé, Tylendel, was sitting innocently on the couch, a schoolbook open in his lap. Savil noted his measured breathing – in and out through his mouth as if he were trying desperately to show he wasn’t out of breath. Tylendel reached absently beside him and picked up the scone lying there. It already had a bite taken out of it.

As Savil stepped toward him, her feet silent on the wooden floor, he glanced up as if surprised. “Savil,” he said.

“Good morning, Tylendel,” she said as she walked forward. “When did you get up?”

“Oh, just a little bit ago,” he said. “I needed to review a bit for the history test today.” He waved the book he was holding in her direction.

“Mmm,” Savil said, then took the book out of his hands and turned it right side up. “You might have more luck that way.”

Tylendel flushed bright red. Caught in the lie, he decided he’d better come clean. Savil would be more inclined to go easy on him if he did. He hoped. “I’m sorry, Savil,” he said. “I did come out to study, but I heard the noise once I was out here and wanted to know what was happening.”

Savil interrupted him. “With noises like that, you knew what was going on.”

Tylendel blushed again. “I didn’t know for sure,” he protested, but Savil cut him off with a sharp wave of her hand.

“Perhaps you should feel what it is like to have someone watching something you wish were private,” she suggested, sitting down on the couch.

Tylendel blanched.

“You invaded another’s privacy,” Savil continued inexorably. “That is never acceptable. Heralds in particular hold privacy sacrosanct.” Savil patted her knee.

“I won’t do it again,” Tylendel pleased, looking at her knee apprehensively. He knew what awaited him there.

“Not after this you won’t,” Savil informed him darkly.

Tylendel sighed and turned himself over her knee.

Savil smiled grimly. “You’re forgetting something, aren’t you?” she asked quietly.

Tylendel winced inside, but stood up obediently and pulled his breeches and undergarments down before returning to Savil’s lap.

“Better,” Savil pronounced, and her open palm hit one bare buttock sharply. “However,” and she continued swatting him as she spoke, “you should have done that originally. You know the requirements here, and in trying to avoid them, you’ve simply earned yourself a longer spanking.”

Tylendel bit his lip with the pain, but was determined to take his punishment like a man. “I’m sorry,” he said quietly, unable to avoid a yelp as his teacher’s spanks began to redden his rear. “I knew it was wrong.”

Savil continued swatting him grimly, her lips pulled tight. She hated this part of taking on trainees. Sometimes she even felt a little responsible for their misdeeds. She wasn’t particularly good at dealing with people, one of the things which made her a very bad Field Herald. Perhaps if she were better, she would be able to keep her trainees from straying from what was appropriate behaviour.

Yet it was her responsibility, no matter what she felt, to see that they were punished when they did stray, in the hopes that they would not again. However badly she felt about spanking Tylendel, she had no doubt that what he had just said was true. He had known it was wrong. She had sensed his interest in her nephew when they had first met. That, however, was no excuse for him to act as he had.

There was another reason Tylendel didn’t want to cry out. Although the lifebonded pair Mardic and Donni had left the suite earlier that morning for extra lessons with another Herald, Vanyel was still there to hear his whimpers. Given Savil’s proclamation about privacy earlier, he wasn’t sure what she would do if Vanyel happened to stumble in on his aunt spanking Tylendel.

The pain, however, was becoming too much for Tylendel to hold in. He began to cry, first softly, then sobbing more loudly. The sound came through the door to Vanyel, who had just finished his bath. “What …?” he began, a little wild-eyed as he came out of his room, pulling a tunic over his bare chest. As his head popped through the neck opening, however, he faltered. He could see exactly what was going on.

Vanyel and his brothers had never been punished like this, and his one experience with Savil had not been enough to accustom him to the sound. He blushed furiously and tried to duck back into his room before either of them saw him.

He was too late.

“Vanyel, stay,” his aunt instructed him calmly, never letting up on Tylendel. “You should see this.”

Vanyel turned an even deeper shade of red. “I don’t really think it’s appropriate, Aunt,” he said, looking anywhere except at the boy whose behind was currently the same colour as Vanyel’s face.

“Watch,” Savil commanded. “You need to know that wrongdoing will be punished the same way, no matter who the person is. You will be treated exactly as my trainees are, exactly as Tylendel is being treated now.”

Vanyel forced his eyes to his aunt’s hand moving with swift, sharp smacks on Tylendel’s behind, despite his overwhelming embarrassment. Yet … it wasn’t solely embarrassment that he felt. He could feel something warm deep inside him, something that made him blush from more than embarrassment. He wanted …

Vanyel’s mesmerized step forward brought a twinge to his own buttocks and snapped him back into reality. He averted his eyes once more, although he kept his face turned in that direction, and resolved not to think further on the subject. After all, he reasoned, his own experience at the receiving end of a similar situation had been too recent. He didn’t want to think about it.

Although it seemed like forever to Tylendel – and to Vanyel, although for other reasons – it was in reality only a few moments before Savil stopped spanking the curly-haired boy. “You may go now, Vanyel,” she informed him, and her nephew wasted no time in making himself scarce. Tylendel she helped stand and re-clothe himself; then she pulled him down on the couch next to her. He winced as he sat down, and Savil barely managed to conceal her own wince as he looked at her, tears still running down his face.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered, turning his face downward.

Savil hugged him. “So am I,” she replied quietly. “’Lendel, dearest, you have to learn …”

Tylendel interrupted her. “I know.” Glancing up at her, he was surprised to see the single tear that escaped her eye. He touched it lightly. “I’m sorry I made you do this,” he said sincerely.

Savil smiled at him. Of all the students she had taught, he was one of her favourites, if one of the ones who got into the most trouble. “Well, just don’t make me do it again,” she said gruffly.

“I won’t.” There was a pause; then he added, “Thank you for not telling him why he was supposed to be there, about what I had done.”

Savil’s face was calm. “I told him the truth,” she said. “Just not all of the truth. This once, I will leave it to you to decide.” Her voice turned stern. “However, if it ever happens again …”

“It won’t,” Tylendel hastened to assure her. “It won’t.” But his eyes turned vague as he said that.

Savil wondered if she should talk to him about the feelings that were obviously developing for Vanyel, but decided to put it off. She really had no clue what to say. She’d have to talk to one of the other Heralds about it … and she had just the one in mind.

Chapter 5

When Vanyel came out a second time, he was much more careful. He pushed the door open slightly and peeked out. Tylendel was sitting on the couch, wincing with every movement, and Savil was nowhere to be found.

After much hesitation, Vanyel opened the door and stepped out. He invoked a shield of indifference; after the way his family treated him, he refused to care whether people liked him or not any more. In his mind, he was surrounded by ice, freezing all feelings and all worries.

Tylendel looked up at the sound of the door. He blushed slightly, but managed to say without a tremor, “Vanyel! Good, you’re up.” He motioned with his scone to the breakfast food on the side table. “You’d best get something to eat. Savil’s just arranging for your classes; when she comes back, you’ll need to leave pretty quickly or you’ll be late.”

Vanyel nodded arrogantly, not saying thank you. Although he didn’t even want to admit it to himself, he was nervous, and any noise that left him would probably be a squeak. He didn’t know what lessons would be like here. However, now that he thought about it, he’d always been praised for his book learning back home. Here would be no different. And even with the weapons’ training, where he’d been mocked and beaten … by the instructor … well, the worst he could get was an instructor like Jervis, his last one. Even that would be better than being at home, because whoever he was, he wouldn’t have a grudge against Vanyel the way Jervis had. Vanyel brightened a little and strolled over to pick up a muffin. Things were looking up.

Savil came quickly into the room. “Vanyel, you’ll be taking History, Literature and Religions in the afternoon; in the morning you’ll have weapons’ training with Kayla. She teaches the young highborns – and if I find out you’ve been skipping her lessons, I’ll take a strap to you.”

The memory of this morning strong in his mind, Vanyel flushed, but said nothing.

Donni and Mardic came bursting into the room just then. “Sorry!” Donni called; “Andrel kept us a little later than he’d planned.”

“That’s fine,” Savil replied absently. “Donni, I’m glad you’re here. Do you have time to take Vanyel to the salle while I get things set up in the Work Room?”

The lifebonded girl nodded pleasantly.

“Thanks.” She started to leave, then hesitated and turned to Vanyel. “Vanyel, what you do with your free time is your own business, as long as you keep up in your classes and obey the rules,” she said, perhaps a bit more harshly than she had intended. “But if you get yourself into trouble, and there’s plenty of it to get into around here, don’t expect me to pull you out. I can’t, and I won’t. You’re an imposition. It’s your job to see that you become less of one.” She turned on her heel and walked out, thanking the Havens that Donni was lifebonded to Mardic. Were she not, Vanyel’s beautiful face and elegant features would be causing havoc. Nothing, however, could shake a lifebond except the death of the one of the pair.

Donni, Mardic and Tylendel were watching Vanyel sympathetically. He didn’t want their sympathy. Raising his nose, he spoke only to Donni, ignoring the other two. “I’ll go get my stuff; then you can take me to the salle.” He walked stiff-backed to his room and began gathering up all his armour and padding.

The three trainees exchanged glances, but didn’t say anything. Instead, Mardic headed out to his own classes, with Tylendel, after he had gathered his books, following. Donni, offended, but trying to be understanding (after all, he’d just come to a strange place and met a whole group of new people), waited for Vanyel.

When Vanyel came out, he was staggering under the load of his armour. Donni looked dubiously at him. “All that’s yours?” she asked, hazel eyes wide with surprise.

Vanyel glared at her. “Yes.”

Donni shrugged, shaking her head. Tight black curls scarcely moved. “It’s your back.” Then she led him out of the room and down the corridor to the exit. They wandered a circuitous path that led past several ornamental gardens and a number of fish ponds, and down a gravel path that led to and along the river. They passed what appeared to be a stable, except that the stalls had no doors on them. Vanyel observed that he was close to the field he’d been caught at the night before, despite the longer route than the short walk he’d taken.

When the path finally swerved to the right and the two came to a gate in a high wooden fence, Vanyel was tired and sweating. He devoutly hoped that this was the end of their journey. Unfortunately, when Donni opened the door, she smiled sympathetically at him and pointed to a building across a long field, on the other side of the hill. “That’s the salle,” she said. She giggled. “They built it just last year. I think they got tired of trainees having bouts in the hallways when it rained or snowed.” She glanced at him, serious for a moment. “That’s one of the rules now – no drawing a weapon except on the archery range or in the salle unless it’s in self-defense. Or unless you’re under the supervision of one of the Heralds.”

Vanyel just nodded, determined not to show how tired he was. He wished she would hurry up, though; the burden he was carrying seemed to grow heavier by the second.

When they finally reached the salle, a tall, slender woman in dark grey came over to them. “This Vanyel?”

Donni nodded and picked up a bracer that Vanyel had lost from his pile. “Yes ma’am. I guess all this stuff is his. Vanyel, this is Weaponsmaster Kayla.” She glanced around, placed the bracer back on Vanyel’s pile and said, “I’ve got to get going; I’m late for a session in the Work Room with Savil.”

Kayla grinned wryly. “Havens forefend!” she exclaimed mock seriously. “Savil would eat me alive if you were late.” Then she turned serious. “Don’t forget you have dagger this afternoon, girl.”

Donni grinned. “I won’t,” she replied, and took off.

Kayla looked Vanyel up and down, studying him expressionlessly. Vanyel withstood it without arrogance, too tired to do anything except try not to show his fatigue. The moment lasted far too long to his liking. Finally, Kayla nodded. “You can dump that stuff in the pile over there,” she said, pointing to the corner. “You won’t be needing it.”

“I won’t?” Vanyel asked dumbly, doing as she said.

“Havens no, boy!” Kayla laughed. “That stuff’s about as suited to you as boots on a cat. Whoever your last master was, he was a fool to put you in that. No, you’ll be learning fencing with Duke Oden.” She pointed to where two androgynous fighters were doing a graceful and potentially deadly dance with slender swords. “He’ll be glad to have another student besides young Lord Redel. That is the style suited to you, so that is the style you’ll be learning.”

Vanyel’s heart rose from his stomach. Although he was not looking forward to fighting - or moving - not with the spanking he'd had that morning, at least he was going to learn something more suited to him. Perhaps he'd actually be good at weapons for once.

“Mind you,” Kayla added, “you’ll be getting just as many bruises and working just as hard as any of the heavy fighters. Oden’s no light taskmaster. Come on; let’s get you suited up.”