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In the bleak midwinter, foolish princesses roam…
VHEN CHECKED HIS reflection in the mirror and sighed at what he saw. The uniform was plain and untailored, making him look like some raggedy errand boy. His once waist-long hair had been hacked off above his shoulders during one of his fits of pique during his trip from Southerall. His mother would not approve.
The thought made him smile even as he turned his back on the mirror and started to change. The boarding house he’d found to accommodate him during his training was hardly the height of luxury, but it was clean. A little smaller than he was used to perhaps, but what more did he need beyond a place to sleep and a little desk to study on? He didn’t fully know what Rift Rider training actually comprised of, but he doubted he would be spending much time in his little room. The bed was solidly made and the mattress was stuffed with wool, a little itchy at times but warm enough. It could have been worse, and it was all he could afford anyway. He was in exile, after all. His father and sister had both slipped him a little money when they each said goodbye, but Vhen would have to be careful with it. Much though he enjoyed sitting in coffeehouses, taking in the sights, that would have to stop. He probably couldn’t afford to eat out in fancy little bistros each night either.
It was almost enough to make him miss home. Almost.
Smiling at himself, he pulled on more familiar clothes of better cut and warmer materials, then hauled on his boots and descended the stairs. It was Midwinter, after all, and at night was when the celebrations really came to life. Grabbing his coat from the back of the door, he left his cosy boarding room and set out in search of food and adventure.
* * *
A SHARP PROD on the cheek startled Taryn awake. Her head was foggy and her body ached, but despite the haze she quickly realised something had changed. She was warm. No bitter wind blew, sneaking beneath her cloak. No heavy weight dragged in her hand, threatening to pull her down.
No weight. No sword!
Taryn’s eyes flew wide and she sat up, almost head butting the man leaning over her.
She yelped, he grunted. Someone else coughed, attempting to stifle their amusement.
Taryn narrowed her eyes. “Where’s my sword?”
The stranger who’d been poking at her raised sandy eyebrows. “Call that a sword?” he growled, his voice gruff and gravelly.
She frowned, her head too foggy to understand what he was saying. “Of course it’s a sword. Metal blade, sharp, pointy. Sword.”
The man harrumphed and moved away, and Taryn noticed something else. “You’re Ihran.”
“And you’re a genius,” the man muttered.
“Uncle.” The other person spoke, making Taryn jump. She’d forgotten there was anyone else in the room. Except this one wasn’t a stranger. She knew this girl.
“You’re Ihran too.”
Even in the midst of her brain-fog, Taryn knew it was a stupid thing to say.
“I think she has a fever,” the little Ihran was saying to the bigger one.
“You’d best hope so, unless she’s daft,” he grumbled.
“Uncle,” the girl hissed.
He chuckled and patted her on the shoulder. “You’re a good sort, Orla. Go fetch more blankets now.”
While the little Ihran bustled into a different room, the man came back to Taryn. He folded his arms and stared down at her, making Taryn realise she was lying on a bed or couch of some sort. Sharp hazel eyes scanned her face and his expression grew grimmer and grimmer.
When the girl returned, he frowned at her. “Do you know who this is?”
The Ihran girl nodded. “This is Taryn. We sailed together on the Miryhl Heart. She was my roommate.”
“Taryn?” the man repeated, scowling down at her.
Taryn swallowed, realising he knew who she really was. Somehow, despite her never having met the man before, he recognised her. She licked her dry lips. “Pleased to meet you,” she croaked.
He narrowed his eyes. “I’m sure you are. What were you doing wandering the streets at this time of night, Taryn of the Miryhl Heart?”
Taryn shook her head, not wanting to admit that she’d been looking for a place to sleep for the night. Or at least to survive the night. Not wanting to admit that she’d run away from Kilpapan House in another foolish tantrum and landed herself in her worst disaster yet. If she hadn’t thought to bring the sword, she didn’t dare think about where she’d be now. As it was she’d been robbed of most of her meagre possessions and was wearing the rest after a frozen night spent out in the snow.
She could go back, she knew that. They would be angry with her, but worried too. They’d take her back.
She didn’t want to go back. She didn’t want to face how much of a fool she’d been. She was too ashamed.
The little Ihran placed a hand on her uncle’s forearm and whispered something in his ear. Taryn didn’t know why she bothered keeping her voice down, Taryn couldn’t understand a word she was saying.
It might have been Ihran, it might have been the fever. She was so tired, she didn’t even care.
“My sword,” she murmured, flexing her empty right hand, wishing she still held the blade. It might have been fancy and light and not particularly well-made, but it had saved her life. Taryn had no idea how to use it, but it was pointy and sharp and good enough to scare off the robbers. She missed it.
“It is here, do not fret,” a gentle voice whispered, a familiar weight pressing against her hand.
Taryn closed her fingers around the soft-wrapped hilt and sighed. “Thank you,” she whispered, and dropped back to sleep.
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