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In which Taryn behaves in a most uncharacteristic manner. Perhaps she’s sickening for something?
TARYN DIDN’T LIKE Henley. There was something deeply and unpleasant about him. No one should smile so much, especially when it didn’t add any warmth to his watchful little eyes. He was always looking around, noting people’s reactions to him, puffing up his little chest and strutting about as if he was important.
He wasn’t. His father was a duke, that was true, but while the Lyntane title was old and venerable, the Benrath family were a minor, distant little sprig that had somehow managed to inherit the dukedom when all the old Lyntanes died off. Taryn didn’t like thinking like a snob, but Henley spent so much time putting others down for not being as grand as he was that she couldn’t help remembering he was a complete and utter fake.
He might claim to be the son of a duke – although he rarely mentioned his two older brothers – and boast about the great circles he and his family moved in, but he hadn’t recognised Taryn yet. While she was grateful for the reprieve, it was further proof of his irritating airs and blatant lies. Everyone always said how much Taryn resembled her brothers. Hathanon had certainly recognised her without any introduction. So if Henley had come within sniffing distance of Henryn or Lyrai, he would have spotted her straight away.
She couldn’t be angry with him about that. She wasn’t even that bothered by his snobby airs and pretensions – normally such things would amuse her, in a disdainful way. Spending time around him was tiresome after a while, but Taryn was well-trained enough in courtly behaviour to ignore his irritating presence. He was nothing special, hardly worth her notice, except that he’d chosen to befriend Orla – and Taryn couldn’t work out why.
“I say, you’re surprisingly strong for such a little thing, aren’t you? I bet you could carry both our kits and not break a sweat. Let’s see, shall we?”
“What a joy it is to be friends with someone of your size. You never make me feel short, haha!”
“Goodness, your hands are surprisingly large, aren’t they?”
“It’s remarkable what things you Ihrans get taught. Why, you’re almost a clever as us Imercians.”
“I never thought I’d like being taught by an Ihran, but knowing you makes it so much better. You’re almost like us, aren’t you?”
Day after day, Taryn overheard his little slights and jests, always at Orla’s expense, but clothed in an almost flattering way that meant the girl didn’t seem to notice. It drove Taryn mad.
“Who would have thought one of your sort could keep up with us? Your legs don’t look nearly long enough, but you can move quite fast when motivated, eh?”
She wanted to punch his smug little smile off his smug little face every time he opened his mean little mouth, but Orla didn’t seem to mind. Since Taryn knew she had no right to intervene, since she was hardly friends with the girl herself, she held her tongue. She wasn’t at the school to make friends and it was no business of hers who decided to befriend whom.
Until the day she saw Orla walking with Ghera, a shy fellow student who drifted about from group to group, looking for someone to talk to. They were both outsiders, since Ghera was from a remote part of the Lowlands and had struggled to adjust to life in the city. The pair of them probably had plenty of things to talk about, comparing Nimbys to their previous lives, talking how annoying the Imercians were. It was the sort of friendship that made sense.
Everything was going rather well, Taryn thought, watching from the back of the group as the students made their way from the training field to the offices in search of somewhere dry and warm. Until Henley intervened.
“Can we help you?” he demanded, barging up to Orla and looking down his nose at Ghera, even though she was taller than him.
The poor child flushed bright red and shook her head. “N-no, I-I was just talking to Orla. I didn’t mean anything by it.”
“Hm.” He pursed his lips into a mean line. “She’s talking to me now.” Linking his arm through Orla’s, he marched them both away, leaving Ghera standing forlornly to one side of the path while her fellow students rushed by, gossiping in giggling whispers.
Taryn raised her eyes to the damp grey sky and stopped beside the girl. “He’s only the third son, you know, and rumour says his brothers can’t stand him. Once daddy cocks up his toes, poor little chicken will be without a roost.”
“Ch-chicken?” Ghera looked confused. She wasn’t the sharpest quill in the wing.
“Henley,” Taryn explained. “Hen. Ley.”
“Oh!” She giggled. “Oh! Chicken. Like a hen. Oh, that suits him!”
Taryn smiled faintly at the girl’s obvious delight, then nodded towards the offices. “Come on, we don’t want to be late. We might miss an entire verse of Obret’s Mistruan Saga, and wouldn’t that be a tragedy.”
“Actually, I’m not all that fond of Obret’s poetry. I don’t think I’m clever enough for it. It’s a bit too long and wordy for me. I don’t really understand it.”
Taryn kept her sigh inside and tried not to roll her eyes again. Obret was clearly not the only thing Ghera didn’t understand. Served Taryn right for doing a good deed. She should have known better. They never ended well.
“Come on anyway,” she said, instead of snapping. “You know how Tutor Yana gets if we’re late. You don’t want to have to write an extra report in alliterative verse, do you?”
“Oh no, no, no, that would be awful!” For once in agreement with her fellow student, Taryn walked faster, wondering what she might just have let herself in for.
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