Knights are pulling a prank on the ladies of Lady Guinevere’s
Academy for Damsels. After the ladies filled the cadets’ quivers
with honey, it’s only fair that the cadets return the favour.
THE FIRST RULE to be a good, no, a great thief was to be patient. Hurry would get Nathair caught, and getting caught picking the lock of Lady Guinevere’s Academy for Damsels meant an immediate expulsion from Sir Lancelot Academy for Knights, a month grounded at home, and the end of his dream of becoming a knight.
But with his fellow cadets fretting around him and urging him to be fast, the noise of the night patrols roaming New Camelot’s streets, and the looming fear that a clockwork knight might discover them, he wasn’t particularly prone to follow this first rule.
Not that he was a real thief. He’d never stolen anything. So far, he’d used his pilfering skills to help his best friend, Tristan, enter the ladies’ academy to meet his girlfriend of the moment. If Sir Lancelot had been alive today, almost five hundred years after King Arthur’s death, he wouldn’t be impressed by what the young knights in training were about to do. Protecting the ladies was one of the first rules of the Knight Code. Heck, Nathair’s mother wouldn’t be impressed or amused.
He was the first dark-skinned cadet, member of the tribe of the Snake, to almost become a knight, and he might blow his career tonight. But two days ago, the girls of the Lady Guinevere had filled the cadets’ quivers with honey. So, it was only fair that the cadets returned the favour.
“Will it take long, Nathair?” Raymond asked, biting his fingernails. His gaze darted around, and his chest strained the jacket of the cadets’ uniform.
Nathair slid a thin knife into the slit between the door and the doorframe. “It’ll take the time that it’s needed.”
He paused to wipe his clammy hands over his trousers and to push back his hair. A sliver of anxiety crawled up his neck like a spider, but he ignored it. He’d picked this lock dozens of times. He knew it intimately, better than the cabbage field in his farmhouse. Yet that night the lock didn’t want to yield to his touch. The knife jammed even though the lock hadn’t been changed. He was sure of that. It was the same, rusty old lock of a few days ago.
Raymond shifted his weight and blew air on his hands. The blue cloak swished about his ankles. “Can’t you speed up?”
Tristan swatted his shoulder. “First, don’t disturb Nat while he’s working. He tends to become sloppy when you push him.”
“No, I don’t,” Nathair gritted out, sticking the second knife in the lock.
“You do.” Tristan waved a dismissive hand before returning his attention to Raymond. “And second, why did you wear the academy uniform? If someone sees us, they’ll know the Sir Lancelot’s cadets broke into the Guinevere’s Academy.”
Nathair, a knight in training, finds himself rescued by the princess
he’s supposed to save, he’s annoyed. And when the princess proves
she can fight like a knight? Well, that’s enough for a boy to think
about a career change.
Nathair hadn’t planned to end his last day at Sir Lancelot’s Academy for Knights getting caught cheating on his final examination. Especially since the cheating had been a misunderstanding. The incriminating piece of parchment was still in his best friend’s extended hand. General Baldwin loomed over Nathair in his emerald uniform, one eyebrow arched in disappointment.
“Sir, I wasn’t—” Nathair started, standing at his desk.
“Don’t even try, Locksbay.” General Baldwin held up a hand to silence him. “The situation is clear enough. I’ve caught your friend Tristan red-handed passing you that piece of paper with the correct Numeracy answers. Cheating is not only against the academy rules, but the Knights’ Honor Code as well.”
Ouch. That hurts. Nathair wasn’t a cheater. He was an average student maybe, but never a cheater. He bit down the remark and ignored his fellow cadets whispering and giggling behind his back. They leaned forward on their wooden desks, heads turning from him to the general like in a game of stool-ball. Many cadets would enjoy seeing the only russet-skinned boy at the academy being publicly scolded.
Tristan of Greystone stood and bowed to the general. His blond hair swished about his shoulders. “General Baldwin, it’s my fault. It was my idea to help Nathair. I knew he needed help with Numeracy, and I thought to pass him the answers. He didn’t ask me anything.”
That was true, and swyve. Tristan excelled at many things—he was the academy’s top cadet—but persuading people was his most honed skill. His confident tone, reassuring smile, and bright blue eyes could soothe the most inveterate criminal into turning himself in.
General Baldwin waved a dismissive hand. “You can sit down, Greystone, and keep going with your examination, but I’ll take fifty points off your final score for breaking the rules.”
Tristan did as told, casting an apologetic glance at Nathair.
General Baldwin took Nathair’s test and scanned it. “Let’s see why you wanted Greystone’s intervention.”
When his’ gray eyebrows shot up, Nathair smelled trouble. He didn’t need the mind-reading power of the mind-wrens to guess what the general was thinking. The bell echoed in the high-vaulted ceiling of the Training Hall, and Nathair exhaled. Chairs scraped back against the wooden floor.
Now he was done for.
“Locksbay,” General Baldwin’s voice sounded stern, “…follow me to my office.”
“Of course, sir.” He collected his quill, parchments, and ink bottle and stuffed them in his bag.
“Sorry,” Tristan whispered. “I’ll wait for you here.”
With heavy feet, Nathair followed the man who might expel him. He swallowed hard, thinking about his mentor. What would Ewhen say when he heard about this? Nathair shuffled behind the general along the Champions’ Corridor lined with famous knights’ suits of armor. They headed to the eastern tower of the castle toward the mechanical winch.
Before entering the narrow cabin that would lift him up to the third floor, Nathair hesitated. Traveling suspended by an iron cable wasn’t his idea of a safe trip. In comparison, the clockwork stairs, despite the grinding noise of the steps winding up, seemed safer. Nathair stepped inside the cabin and shoved his hands in his blue cloak pockets, while the winch coiled up with a grinding of metal against stone. From a gap between two metal plates, he caught a glimpse of rotating wheels and pumping pistons.
Once at the landing, Nathair trudged toward General Baldwin’s office. The oak door closed behind them with a thud. The room had four floor-to-ceiling windows, a high-vaulted ceiling, and a fireplace that resembled a dragon’s open jaw. Despite the size of the room, Nathair’s chest constricted. He breathed in the familiar smell. The musty scent of old parchments mingled with that of the armchairs’ worn leather.
“Sit.” General Baldwin sat on his throne-like chair.
Nathair groaned and dropped down onto one of the stuffed chairs. No chance this would be quick.
General Baldwin scanned Nathair’s test, his eyes darting up and down. “You have twenty-five points. It’s not good enough, but it’s not an excuse to cheat either.”
He didn’t reply. He’d rather take the blame than involve Tristan. Besides, telling the truth wouldn’t change his score.
General Baldwin drummed his fingers on the desk. “What happened? You were a good student. Not the finest, but decent. This,” he gestured at the paper, “is not what I’d have expected from you, and I’m not talking about today’s examination.” He opened a drawer and pulled out a leather folder fat with parchments. He unfastened the string and spread them out.
Nathair gripped the armrests.
“I had a look at your tests and assignments, and I’m very disappointed.” General Baldwin flipped through the stack of papers. “In your last Wildlife and Wild-flora test you scored an Insufficient, same thing with Music and Courteous Conversation.”
He shook his head. A sickening lump crawled into his stomach. Please, anything but Poetry.
“For example, Poetry.” As General Baldwin read, his frown deepened. “Dame Puddifoot wrote only one word about your poetic skills: hopeless. What is your obsession with cats? Cats are all over your poems. You must love them.”
Hardly. Cat rhymed with everything: fat, hat, sat, bat, mat—the possibilities were endless.
“And I see no extracurricular skills or activities.” He stared at Nathair.
He wiped his hands on the trousers of his uniform and pulled back a curled strand of his chestnut hair. Call it a hunch but breaking into Lady Guinevere’s Damsels Academy using nothing but two knives probably wasn’t an extracurricular skill the general would be interested in, but then someone had to release those greasy pigs into Lady Guinevere’s dormitory. Last week, the ladies had filled the cadets’ quivers with honey. It was only sensible that the cadets returned the favor, and Tristan needed help to sneak into the rooms of his many girlfriends.
“Well?” General Baldwin prompted.
“I don’t have much time for extra activities, sir.”
“Anyway, I might agree that Music and Poetry aren’t essential for a knight, but an Unsatisfactory in Swordsmanship and Defensive Strategy is inexcusable. You’ve excelled in them until recently. Ewhen’s always praised your fighting skills and resilience. What’s going on with you?”
He loosened his jacket’s collar. “I…my family had problems this winter.”
“My sister got the water-elf disease.”
General Baldwin’s jaw dropped. “Was it serious?”
“Her lungs were affected.” Nathair fussed with his cloak. “The healer’s fee was exorbitant, and my mother couldn’t hire a worker for the harvest. I had to help her.”
Not that his mother had asked for his help. She wanted Nathair to focus on his studies. In fact, they’d had a furious fight. Still, he’d worked tirelessly on the field. The cuts and bruises covering his hands didn’t come from combat practice. The hours spent plowing and tilling had taken their toll.
“Did your mother ask for a loan?” General Baldwin asked.
“She did.” Nathair’s eyes narrowed. “They wanted forty percent interest.”
General Baldwin tilted his head. “What? That’s robbery. Your mother is being treated like a witch. The reason?”
“They said that…” Anger and shame swept through Nathair. He squirmed on the chair as if he were sitting on hot coals. At least he would be eighteen soon and the official owner of their land. “They don’t trust a russet-skinned woman of the Snake clan, and she was lucky that Ewhen is our landowner. Otherwise, the Wizarding Council would’ve already confiscated our land. Unless we pay the debt in a month, they’ll take our farm, and my mother’s permit to stay in New Camelot will be revoked.”
If his mother were expelled from the city, he’d follow her into the Snake Mountains where her people lived. New Camelot was his home. He’d been born here. All he knew about the Snake people was that they were dark-skinned and worshiped a half-woman, half-snake goddess. He didn’t even speak their tongue.
“I’m not surprised. The war against the Snake people has gone on for too long—like the war against the Saxons and the Goths, and now we’re on the edge of a war with the Romans.” General Baldwin rose and paced. “Did you tell the moneylenders about your father and how your mother is a hardworking, law-abiding citizen? I guess they don’t care.” He stopped pacing. “Why didn’t you tell me any of this? I might’ve helped.”
Nathair scuffed his boots on the marble floor. “I thought I could handle it.”
“Pride is a knight’s trait, but you should’ve told me. Now I can’t do anything. Tomorrow, when the High Wizard assigns you your quest, you’ll be on your own. Besides, I have to inform him of your attempt at cheating, which means your quest will be harder. After the last Wizarding Council’s decree, I’m afraid that…” He fell silent and waved a hand. “Never mind. You’ll know soon enough.”
“Even if I fail tomorrow, I can try next year, right?” He wouldn’t graduate with Tristan, but next year he’d study hard, and his final examination would be better.
General Baldwin paled. “Er…well, that’s the rule…for now.” He turned to the mantelpiece and straightened the shield of the order of the Swan. Always brave, always faithful, always a knight, the motto read.
Those ancient words would be written on Nathair’s shield one day, if he were ever accepted into the order.
General Baldwin faced Nathair, his expression grave. “I know how badly you want to be a Swan.” His chest puffed. “The order of the Swan has the best warriors of the kingdom. I’ve been a Swan knight since your age and fought with them for more than thirty years, so I understand your feelings. Promise me you won’t do anything stupid or reckless tomorrow. When the High Wizard assigns you a quest, I want you to think carefully before accepting it.”
Nathair rubbed the back of his neck, struggling to follow the conversation. He could have a second chance if he failed the quest, but not if he turned it down. Without even trying it, he could never apply to the Swans and could never be a knight. “I’ll do my best, sir.”
“Off you go.” General Baldwin opened the door. “Tomorrow is an important day for you. Sleep well and get ready.”
facing the biggest challenge of his life: proposing to Bryhannon.
Apparently, flowers and a three-month salary worth ring aren’t
enough because she doesn’t seem thrilled by the proposal. She has a
devastating power to control, Reapers to face, and more importantly
she has to find the courage to tell Nathair that she’s a Morrigan.
The wild spinning into the air, the feeling of his ribs almost being crushed, and the searing pain in the skull didn’t bother Nathair much. His head throbbed, and his stomach rolled with nausea, but that was normal when he used a traveling charm.
What bothered him during a trip with a traveling charm was the fear of being beheaded or losing a limb as it’d happened to a junior knight a few weeks ago. The poor lad had lost his foot and screamed so loud Nathair thought a dragon was attacking the Swan’s headquarters.
Yes, a healer had reattached the missing limb, and now the lad walked with only a minor limp, yet, experiencing that type of pain wasn’t something Nathair looked forward to.
He landed on the grass in the middle of the Order of the Swan’s headquarters in New Camelot and staggered onto his feet. The blue smoke produced by the charm twirled around him and dissolved in the morning air. He bent forward and sucked in a deep breath, the faint smell of sulfur, dragonwort, and something else spicy filling his nostrils. He touched his face to confirm his nose and ears were still there. His long curled, chestnut hair fell over his cheeks, and he pulled it back. Good. So even his hair seemed all right. He hadn’t turned bald. Legs? Two. Eyes? Two as well. Fingers? Ten.
Nathair straightened his black Swan uniform and brushed off the dust it’d gathered during his trip from Astolat. Next time, he’d take a dragon flight. It was slower but safer. More or less.
“Finally.” Tristan strode over to him, cutting through the courtyard packed with horses. His neat uniform stretched over broad shoulders, making his golden hair appear shinier. “You should’ve come back yesterday. What happened? Problems with the mission?”
“No.” Nathair smiled. Bryhannon’s flowery scent still lingered on his clothes. “I easily found the Swan’s headquarters in Astolat and delivered the documents, but…” He checked the courtyard. A group of recruits in green uniforms sparred against a clockwork knight—an Ametor. The clash of swords covered their grunts. Senior knights practiced hand-to-hand combat, and a few healers milled around, their noses stuck inside the pages of fat books. No one was close enough to hear him. “Bryhannon came with me and—”
“Bryhannon? You took her with you during a mission?” Tristan’s sapphire eyes widened.
“Shush!” Nathair pressed his lips together and glanced around. “She wanted to buy a few things in Astolat, and I asked her to come. It’s not like I took her into a Saxon war zone. Astolat is relatively safe.” It wasn’t like Londinium, where Saxon dragons had thrown fireballs on the city and almost burned everything to the ground.
Tristan put a hand on the hilt of Gutrender. “She’s still a princess even though her father disowned her and an unchaperoned lady. People will talk. Her reputation will be ruined.”
“No one knows she was with me. She told General Baldwin she was going to visit her sister in Summerland, and since when you’re so worried about propriety?”
Tristan’s cheeks flushed. “I suppose that if the situation were reversed and I’d taken your sister in Astolat with me—”
“You wouldn’t breathe right now,” he gritted out.
Tristan spread his arms. “See what I mean?”
Nathair’s face warmed, and he loosened the collar of his jacket. Tristan had a point, but Nathair had only wanted to spend some time alone with his new girlfriend without General Baldwin’s constant vigilance or a maid listening to everything he said to Bryhannon. Was it that bad?
“Bryhannon insisted, and nothing happened. We slept into two different bedrooms.” Unfortunately.
Nathair arched a brow. “You aren’t planning on taking my sister somewhere, are you?”
Tristan’s stare dropped to the ground. “No. I’ve invited her to Beltane ball in my house, and she said yes.” His chest swelled then deflated. “But she didn’t sound happy.”
Nathair frowned. With her damaged leg, Nineveh probably didn’t feel confident enough to go to a ball, but her mechanical boot allowed her to jump and run freely. So why wasn’t she happy to attend a ball?
Tristan was right about Bryhannon though. Her reputation was at stake, and he had to behave like a proper gentleman. He tapped the small velvet box in his pocket–the proof that he was a gentleman, and that he was serious about Bryhannon. The small case represented the first big step toward a life together.
Slowly, as if he were handling an asp, he fished out the box and showed it to Tristan. “I care about her reputation.”
Tristan’s mouth hung low. “You’re going to propose to her?”
Nathair nodded, not trusting his voice.
“Are you sure it’s the right thing to do?” Tristan peered at him.
“It’s what I want and what she needs. Her father disowned her. She’s been forced to live in General Baldwin’s house. She doesn’t have a family anymore. Besides, I love her, and I’m eighteen now. Why shouldn’t I marry her?”
“I simply think it’s a bit too early.”
Nathair stiffened, closing his hand around the box. “Just because you prefer changing girlfriends every other day, it doesn’t give you the right to judge me.”
Tristan exhaled through clenched teeth and glowered. “Those days are in the past, you know this, or I wouldn’t be courting Nineveh.”
Nathair raked a hand through his hair, a pang of guilt striking him. Tristan had proved to have serious intentions about Nineveh. “Sorry,” he said, stuffing the box back in his pocket.
“Well, congratulations then.” Tristan clasped his forearm like the Swan warriors used to greet each other.
A corner of his mouth quirked up. “I have a job now. My mother’s debt has been paid. I can take care of Bryhannon.” I want to. Then, they could be alone as much as they wanted.
Tristan swatted his arm, startling him. “Ewhen wants to talk to you.” He headed toward the wooden barracks that surrounded the courtyard. “Actually, he was waiting for you early this morning for the camouflage training session.”
Nathair dodged a stray arrow and scowled at the recruit who shot it. The boy flustered and bowed his head. “I thought the camouflage training session was optional.” Besides, spending hours dressed like a bush and imitating birds’ songs grated on his nerves.
“We’re senior knights now. We aren’t at the academy anymore. Optional means compulsory.”
They entered the main building and climbed the wooden stairs to Captain Ewhen’s office. The familiar smell of worn leather and sword polish wafted around. Knights’ boots stomped on the polished floor as a group of Swans marched along the corridor. Some had blood-stained bandages around their heads and arms, the result of a recent Saxon intrusion into Briton territory.
Nathair stopped in front of Ewhen’s office. The door stood ajar, and Ewhen’s booming voice drifted out.
“We’ll find him, whoever he is.” He slammed a fist on the desk, causing it to shake. The content of an ink bottle quivered. “If I have to interrogate every single knight in the entire Briton Empire to find him, I will.”
Nathair winced. Ewhen wasn’t nicknamed the Dragonhearted for being sweet. He peeked inside. A see-through face floated in the middle of the desk right over the silver bar of an orator—the device for long distance communications.
“What’s this all about?” he whispered.
Tristan shrugged. “A dispatch arrived yesterday from the war zone in the south. Something happened, and since the Saxons invaded the land of the Franks, Ewhen didn’t have a moment of rest.”
Sir Bohemond paced in front of the desk, his large frame obscuring the view at every passage.
The ghostly head of the man nodded. “The situation is out of control, Sir Ewhen. Every garrison in Londinium has been thoroughly searched.”
“Search again until you find him.”
The head bowed. “Sir, yes sir.”
“Dismissed.” Ewhen punched a button, and the spectral image disappeared. He shot a glare at the door, features tensing. “Come in.”
Sir Bohemond opened the door fully and beckoned Nathair and Tristan inside. The long scar, crisscrossing his face twitched when his jaw muscle rippled. “Welcome back, Nathair.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Tristan closed the door behind them. Nathair stepped over a pair of muddy boots and stood in front of Ewhen’s wooden desk. It was so large it took up and entire corner, almost as big as his bed.
Ewhen pushed the orator aside. With its long, tubular shape, rounded ends, and the holes on its top, it resembled a flute. He ran a hand over his face, and his auburn hair tumbled forward covering his tense shoulders. “Nathair, I didn’t see you this morning at the camouflage training session.”
Oops. “Uh, thank you, Captain.”
Bohemond chuckled, and Tristan’s mouth twitched up.
Ewhen arched a red eyebrow, but the hard lines on his face softened. “Very funny. Did you have problems in Astolat?”
“Not at all.” Nathair swallowed the lump in his throat. Now his idea of spending more time with Bryhannon didn’t sound so reasonable. “I was delayed.” By the most beautiful and smartest girl I’ve ever met. A smile threatened to raise his lips when he remembered a particularly happy hour spent with Bryhannon by the empty shore of the Lynn River in the moonlight. So he cleared his throat.
that I dig in the dirt, looking for bugs. Nature and books have
always been my passion. I was a kid when I read The Lord Of The Ring
and fell in love with fantasy novels.
Hercules Poirot and Sherlock Holmes. Then I grew up and . . . Nah,
I’m joking. I didn’t grow up. Don’t grow up, folks! It’s a trap.
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