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In which Orla meets some locals :(
“ARE YOU THE Armsmaster’s assistant or something?”
Aching in every part of her body after her first training session, Orla had been focusing so hard on putting one foot in front of the other as she made her way from the field to the offices she didn’t realise she’d been surrounded.
Startled, she looked up, blinking to find herself in the centre of a group of fellow students. The three girls and two boys were well-bundled up against the cold, towering over her with a mixture of curiosity and ridicule. She might be new to Nimbys, but she could recognise the rich kids easily enough. Not just from the clothes they wore, it was in the way they held themselves and looked down their snooty noses at everyone else.
Orla sighed; she was too tired for this. “No. I am not his assistant.”
“Oooh, I love your accent,” one of the girl’s cried, the smallest, blondest one of the gilded lot. “Naaawt tis aahsistaahnt,” she mimicked badly, giggling.
The others laughed.
“Why else would you be here?” One of the boys wanted to know. He was taller and broader than the others, possibly older too. He looked at Orla like she was a slug. “The Riders have no other use for Ihrans.”
Another group of students hurried past, heads averted, whispering amongst themselves. No one was going to help her.
Orla raised her chin. “The Riders have plenty of use for Ihrans,” she replied, gritting her teeth against the giggling echo of the silliest girl as she distorted Orla’s accent again, sounding absolutely nothing like her. “Who else makes their swords and teaches them how to fight?”
“Workers.” The other boy waved a dismissive hand. He was as blond as the silly girl and looked similar enough to be her older brother. “Ihrans make good workers.”
But not Riders. He didn’t need to say the words, his scathing look said them loudly enough.
“Who ever heard of an Ihran Rider?” The tallest of the three girls said, making the rest of them titter.
“I didn’t think they bred miryhls small enough,” the dark-haired boy drawled.
“Maybe she can ride a pigeon,” the third girl suggested, and the group roared with laughter.
Orla stood before their mockery, heat rising to her face. Her hands balled into fists, but she couldn’t think of the words, any words, to fire back at them. She could only feel angry and humiliated, burning with embarrassment.
“Hey now, there’s no need for that.” A new voice entered the fray and Orla tensed against fresh insults. “She’s not that small.”
The tallest boy scoffed. “You would say that, Henley. You’re barely taller than her yourself.”
The newcomer – who was indeed barely a hand taller than Orla – gave an exaggerated sniff. “Your family still breeding pigs, are they, Swincombe? You might want to invest in better soap.”
Two of the girls burst into surprised laughter, only to clap their hands over their mouths when their friends glared at them. The new boy, Henley, rocked back and forth on his heels, looking highly pleased with himself.
“Your father might be a duke, Henley,” the tallest girl said, all high and haughty, “but you’re still a brat.” Tossing her hair over her shoulder, she marched off, the rest of the group following in high dudgeon.
“Takes one to know one!” Henley called out, winking at Orla.
She stared at him. Short and stocky, he was an odd combination of curly dark hair, pale skin, freckles and bright blue eyes. He smiled brightly, meeting her eyes.
“Lord Henley Benrath, at your service.” He gave a flourishing bow, peeking up at her from beneath his curls, probably expecting laughter or applause or some such thing.
He straightened up, a faint flush of colour in his cheeks. “Shall we proceed?” he asked, pointing down the path, which was now almost empty of students. If they didn’t hurry, they would be late for their first class.
Hitching her bag higher on her shoulder, Orla nodded and started walking again.
The lord fell into step beside her. “You shouldn’t let them get to you, you know. They’re a boorish, brainless lot, picking on you because you’re new and different. Don’t pay any attention to them and they’ll get bored of it within a month.”
Orla eyed him sideways, wondering why he was being friendly to her. Except perhaps because she was new and different. She nodded. “I don’t plan to.”
He smiled. “Excellent. You know, I think you did rather well back there. I couldn’t help noticing you in the training session, standing out as you do. You did exceedingly well for your size.”
She frowned, uncertain whether she’d been complimented or insulted. “Thank you.” She chose to believe he meant well. It made her happier.
He smiled again, tucking his hands behind his back. “Yes, well, we small folk must stick together. Even if I’m not quite so small as you, eh?” He winked, smiling that bright smile again.
Orla smiled back, a little confused but willing to accept the hand of friendship since no one else seemed in a hurry to offer it. “No one is as small as me,” she joked.
He laughed, his amusement warming some of the cold inside her. “I see we’re going to be great friends,” he declared, leading the way into the offices and down the corridor to where the other students had gathered. “I hope so,” Orla agreed, smiling as she walked with him into their first official lesson and sat down at a desk beside her first official friend.
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