Authors: Mercedes Lackey
Tags: #Fantasy, #General, #Fiction, #Fantasy - General, #American Science Fiction And Fantasy, #Action & Adventure, #Spanish: Adult Fiction
Keren and Sherrill had claimed the right to give her the good news.
They didn’t even give her a chance to think, either— just appeared at her door, swept her up one on either side, and herded her down the long, dark wood-paneled hall of the Collegium dormitory, down the stairs to the first floor, and out the double doors at the end.
From there they had taken her off to the Seneschal’s office to claim her new quarters. Now she stood in the bedroom of the suite she’d chosen, marveling at her reflection.
“I look like a real grownup for a change!”
“That is the general idea, Sherrill laughed richly.
She cocked her head to one side, regarding the tiny, slender figure in the mirror. Her unruly red-brown curls were as tousled as ever, but somehow gave an impression now of being tumbled the way they were on purpose. The huge, deep-brown eyes that had been utterly guileless seemed somehow wiser; the heart-shaped face no longer so childlike. And all that change wrought by the magic of a new uniform!
“Talia, your head is going to swell like a spongetoad in rainy season if you’re not careful.” Keren interrupted her train of thought a second time. By craning her neck to peer around the doorframe Talia could see the riding instructor grinning sardonically from where she was sprawled on the wooden-backed, red-cushioned couch in the other room.
“Don’t you know what the Book of the One says?” Sherrill added piously over her mate’s shoulder. “ ‘Great pride shall earn equal humiliation.’ “
Talia left her bedroom to join them. They were lounging comfortably in her sparsely-furnished outer room, sharing the lone couch.
“I suppose you’re both going to claim that you never spent so much as a minute in front of the mirror when you first got our Whites,” Talia taunted, strolling toward them with her hands clasped behind her back.
“Who? Me?” Sherrill replied in artificial innocence, lifting an airy hand and batting thick black lashes over wide hazel eyes. “And feed my vanity? W-e-l-l, maybe a little”
“I happen to know for a fact that you spent half the day there. I’m told you were trying every hairstyle you could twist that black mane of yours into, seeing which one went best with the new outfits,” Keren countered dryly, running her fingers through her own close-cropped, graying brown hair.
Sherrill just grinned and crossed her legs elegantly, leaning back into the cushions. “Since I can’t claim equal knowledge of what you did on that august occasion, that’s hardly a fair blow.”
“Oh, I did my share of mirror-gazing,” Keren admitted with mock reluctance. “When you’re as scrawny as a sapling and flat as a boy, it’s rather astonishing to see yourself in something that actually flatters you. I swear I don’t know how they do it— .it’s the same pattern for everybody, and not that dissimilar from the Student Grays—”
“But Lord, the difference!” Sheri concluded for her. “I don’t know of anybody who doesn’t look fantastic in their Whites. Even Dirk manages to look presentable. Rumpled, but presentable.”
“Well, what do you think of me?” Talia asked, turning on her toes in front of them, and grinning impishly into Keren’s eyes.
“What do I think? That you look fabulous, you young demon. Keep fishing for compliments, though, and I’ll likely dump you in the horse trough. Have they told you anything about your internship?”
Talia shook her head, and clasped her hands behind her again. “No. All they said was that the Herald they want to pair me with is in the field, and they won’t tell me who it is.”
“That’s pretty much to be expected. They don’t want you to have time to think of things to impress him with,” Sherrill replied. Suddenly her eyes sparkled with mischief. “Oh, but I can think of one prospect that would give Nerrissa a litter of kittens!”
“Who?” Talia asked, head to one side.
“Kris and Dirk are due back in the next few weeks, and Dirk got the last greenie—as you should know, since it was Skif—so it’s Kris’ turn next! Nessa would die!”
“Sheri, it’s only my internship assignment.”
“A year and a half Sector-riding, most of it spent alone together, and you say it’s only an assignment? Talia, you must have ice water for blood! Do you have any notion of the number of hours Nessa—and half the females of the Circle, for that matter—spend on their knees praying for an assignment like that? Are you sure you don’t have leanings our way?”
Talia chuckled, and wrinkled her nose at them. “Quite sure, darlings. Just what is Kris’ attraction for Nessa, anyway? She’s got most of the males of the Circle panting at her heels as it is,”
“The lure of the unattainable, or so I would surmise,” Keren supplied, lids half-closed lazily with only a glint of brown iris showing. “He hasn’t taken a vow of chastity, but he’s so circumspect about his dalliances you’d never know it. It drives Nessa wild, and the harder she chases, the faster he runs. She’s as caught up now by the chase as by the face.”
“Well, she can chase him all she wants.
am not at all impressed by Kris’ handsome face,” Talia replied firmly.
“Or the gorgeous body—?” interjected Sherrill.
“Or the gorgeous body. Nessa can have all the gorgeous bodies in the Circle, for all I care. Holderkin men are handsome specimens, and I can do without diem—my father could have given Kris stiff competition in his younger days, and I’ve told you what kind of a petty tyrant he was. And my late-but-not-??unented brother Justus was actually handsomer, if you favor blonds, and he was the foulest person I’ve ever known. I’d rather have a good heart and plain packaging.”
“Yes, but Kris is a Herald—” Sherrill pointed out, tapping one long finger on her knee for emphasis. “That guarantees the good heart without having to settle for a homely exterior. No handsome, smiling bastards in our ranks—”
“Sheri, this is all sheer speculation. Until I find out who I’m interning with, I refuse to worry about the subject,” Talia replied firmly.
“You are no fun at all.”
“I never said I was.”
“Hmm. Dirk’s interning that scalawag Skif—” Keren said thoughtfully. “You and Skif were very thick there for a while. In fact, as I recall, you and he had a rumor or two floating about your heads. Is that why you aren’t interested in Dirk’s partner?”
“Maybe,” Talia smiled enigmatically. The fact that their “romance” had been entirely without any result was Skif’s secret—and hers. The streak of ill-luck and accident that had plagued their meetings had not had any effect on tneir friendship: except that they had never managed to be more than just that— friends. Oddly enough, though, except for a brief period of anxiety when word had come that Skif had been hurt during his first three months in the field, Talia had thought less of Skif, and more of his counselor. To her own amazement—and for no reason, logical or fanciful that she could think of—when her thoughts strayed in the direction of the former thief and his internship assignment, it was in Dirk’s direction that they tended to wander. This was annoying; she’d met the man all of three times in her life, and had never been in his company for more than an hour or two at most. Yet, that homely face and those wonderful blue eyes kept lingering stubbornly in her thoughts. It did not make sense.
She shook her head to free it of those fanciful images. She had little enough time, and had none to spare in daydreams.
“Well, this little wardrobe change of yours ought to surprise little Elspeth,” Sherrill said, changing the subject.
“Oh, Lady Bright—” Talia sat down with a thump on one of her cushions, joy extinguished. It almost seemed to her at that moment that the bright sun-rays pouring through her windows had dimmed.
“Something up?” Keren asked, one eyebrow rising.
“Just the usual.”
“What’s usual? You know I don’t get around the Court.”
“Intrigue rising beyond gossip. She’s almost fourteen and still not Chosen; there’s muttering in the Court that she’s still the Brat under the skin and she’ll never be Chosen. In Council meetings one or more of the Councilors is usually trying to pressure Selenay into naming an Heir—’pro tern,’ as they put it—”
“Who?” Sherrill asked in alarm, sitting straight up.
“Who’s stirring up the water?”
“You know I can’t tell you that! Anyway it isn’t just those particular Councilors; it’s more than half of the Court. Elspeth doesn’t say much, but it’s got her very depressed, poor baby. Their timing couldn’t be worse. She’s already moody enough with the normal adolescent woes, and this has got her in near-tears on a regular basis. When I’m not getting my shoulder soggy, I keep finding her at Companion’s Field whenever she’s free, sort of lurking—”
“Hoping any minute to be Chosen. Gods, no wonder she’s wearing a long face whenever I see her. What’s Rolan got to say about this?”
“Be damned if I know!” Talia gifted Keren with a look of exasperation. ‘You know he doesn’t Mindspeak me in words.”
“Sorry,” Keren winced, “I keep forgetting.”
“He’s worried, but it could be as much over the machinations and power-maneuverings at Court as anything else. The current candidates are Jeri, Kerroc , and your oh-so-lovely Kris.”
“Wonderful people in and of themselves,” Keren observed, “But with some not-so-wonderful relatives lurking in the family trees. One would think Kris’ uncle Lord Orthallen would have his hands full enough as chief Councilor without wanting to be the Heir’s uncle—”
“That man will never have enough power to satisfy him,” Talia snapped bitterly.
Keren raised an eyebrow at the outburst, and continued. “Kerroc ‘s horde of lazy cousins would swarm ihe Court, looking for sinecures—and Kerroc ‘s such a soft touch he’d try to manage it. And Jeri—Lady Bright! Her mother!”
“We’d have a battle royal every day between Jeri and Lady Indra over how Jeri’s Council votes should go. I wish her husband would lock her away. Or buy a gag for her.”
“Amen. Pity none of them come without baggage. Not my idea of a fun situation. And poor catling caught in the middle.”
Talia sighed in agreement. “Speaking of no fun, I’d better scramble. Alberich informed me in no uncertain terms that my new status does not exempt me from his special lessons. I have the sinking feeling that he intends to slap my inflated pride down to pre-student levels, and probably with the flat of his blade.”
“Can I watch?” Keren asked wickedly.
“Why not? Elspeth’s always there, and there’s nothing like being worse at something than a thirteen-year-old girl to really deflate your opinions of yourself. Well, that ought to reinflate her self-esteem a bit. Ah, me, it’s a pity to have to get these lovely new clothes all over dirt and sweat—”
As they descended the cool darkness of the spiraling staircase, Keren and Sherrill in the lead with their arms casually linked, Talia reflected that bringing them together was probably the best thing she’d ever done. The bond between them was easily as strong as the one Keren had shared with Ylsa—and had Ylsa lived, they might very well have formed one of the relatively rare, permanent threesomes. There was no doubt that they were very good for each other. Poor Ylsa ...
Talia’s chosen living quarters were at the very top of her tower at the end of the Herald’s wing. The suites in the four towers were seldom used—probably because they were more than a bit inconvenient. The walk up and down the darkened stone staircase was a long one, but she felt that the view (and the privacy) were worth it.
But the trudge was likely to bring complaints from Talia’s friends—and Keren voiced the first of many.
“I’ll tell you one thing, my fine young Herald,” Keren grumbled a little when they finally reached the ground floor. “Visiting with you on a regular basis is going to keep your friends in shape. Why you chose to roost with the birds is beyond me.”
“Do you truly want to know why I chose that particular suite?” Talia asked with a grin.
“Pray remember, if you will, what my Gift is—I’m an empath, not a mindspeaker. Either of you remember who my neighbor was?”
“Mm. Destria, wasn’t it?” Sherrill replied after thought. “Turned out to be a good Field Herald, despite her—ah—”
“Randiness,” Keren supplied with a hint of grin. “That girl! Anything in Grays or Whites, so long as it was male! Havens, when did she ever have time to study?”
“Then you both know about her habit of ‘entertaining’ with great frequency and—um—enthusiasm. What I couldn’t shield I could most certainly hear! Between her nocturnal activities and Rolan’s, I got a quite thorough education, let me assure you! That’s when I swore my privacy was worth any inconvenience. I don’t want to eavesdrop on anyone else’s fun ever again, and I certainly don’t want anyone eavesdropping on mine!”
“Talia, I don’t believe a word of it,” Sherrill giggled. “What could you possibly have to fear from eavesdroppers? You’re practically a temple virgin compared with the rest of us!”
“You ought to believe it, since it’s all true. Well, here’s where we part company. Wish me luck—I’m going to need it!”
Pity that they hadn’t wished her luck—she might have gotten a few less bruises. Talia fanned herself with a towel while she paced back and forth to keep from stiffening up, and watched Elspeth with unforced enjoyment. The girl was a pleasure to observe, moving through the sparring bout with the grace and agility of a dancer, and making it all seem effortless and easy. She was much better even than Jeri had been at her age, but then she had had the benefits of four years of Alberich’s remorseless training; Jeri had only had the finest arms-tutors money could obtain. No amount of money could buy Alberich’s expertise.