Oh Orla :(
SOMETHING WAS WRONG. It took a while for Orla to notice it, but as her time in Nimbys lengthened and winter reluctantly relaxed its grip, leading to slightly warmer days, hints of returning greenery and an awful lot of rain, she realised she wasn’t behaving like herself. She’d never been a garrulous person or particularly gregarious, but she could hold up her end of a conversation. Back home she hadn’t had many friends, but that was because she had been surrounded by relatives. She might have been her parents’ only child, but they had multiple siblings each, leading to Orla having an endless supply of aunts, uncles and cousins. Her life might have been short on friends, but it had overflowed with family. She’d rarely been alone or lacked for someone to talk to if she so wished.
In Nimbys there were no cousins, no family and very few friends either. She hadn’t known she would miss it. She’d always thought she was quiet and fondest of her own company, always rather resenting the dozens of cousins who interrupted her life each and every day. What she wouldn’t give to have them back now?
It didn’t help that the selection school was nothing like she’d expected it would be. Training with her uncle was hard, she’d known about that, but she did take a small amount of satisfaction in seeing herself improve. No, she would never be as fast or as strong as some of her much larger fellow students, but she held up well and could outpace at least a handful of the others. When it came to stamina she was even better and she didn’t mind working hard to improve herself.
The lessons were a different matter, covering subjects Orla had learned about years ago. Some of the history was new, especially about the countries who didn’t trade much with her own, but the topic was skimmed so lightly Orla rarely felt like she was learning anything. Geography fascinated her, but since Henley found it boring he tended to distract her in those lessons, expecting to be entertained.
As for poetry, Orla had discovered she unexpectedly loved the subject. Unfortunately Henley hated it and he wasn’t alone. It was the most disruptive lesson of the lot and since poor Tutor Yana ended each session storming off, disgusted with the lot of them, Orla hadn’t yet plucked up enough courage to ask her for further reading recommendations. Besides, Henley wouldn’t like it.
Henley. Ah, Henley. That was another thing that took Orla a long time to notice. At first she’d been so relieved to have a friend she’d probably allowed him to get away with too much. His remarks were often rude or insulting, but he did it in such a mild and cheerful way that Orla still wasn’t certain whether he meant to be mean. His smile suggested he didn’t, and yet he always had something else to say to put her down, to remind her that she was small, foreign, not like him. But she was lonely and he was the only one who would speak to her, so she accepted his insults, laughed at his mocking jokes and carried his bag when he pretended to admire her strength.
It was weak, she knew that, but she was homesick and lonely and his was the only friendly face she saw each day, beyond her instructors and tutors. She hadn’t had a chance to see Uncle Hethanon since the school had begun three months ago. If he wasn’t busy training the Riders, Henley had some plan or scheme for her to get involved in.
Orla wasn’t certain she always enjoyed their outings and she frequently felt bad about stealing sweets from the confectioners and distracting the orange girls so that Henley could pinch a fruit or two, but he always waved her concerns away. The merchants of Nimbys were rich and always overcharging people. A few missing wares here and there wouldn’t hurt them.
Still, when Orla’s parents sent her a small allowance each month, she made a point to stop by each of the wounded sellers and spend a little more than she could strictly afford. Not that she minded. The sweets and fruit were always delicious and Henley rarely shared his ill-gotten gains with her.
If she stopped to think about it all too closely, Orla didn’t like the person she was turning into. She wasn’t certain she liked Henley all that much either. But she couldn’t afford to think like that, not unless she wanted to go back to being friendless and alone. At least when Henley was with her no one picked on her. No one made fun of her to her face. No one laughed. Henley protected her from all the bad things, even if he sometimes made her feel ashamed of who she was and where she came from.
He didn’t do it on purpose. He was her friend. He looked out for her when no one else would. She would be nothing without him.
It made her uncomfortable to think about it, so she didn’t think about it.
Still, her spirits were low when she trudged home to the Kilpapan mews one rainy evening. It was Starday, the eighth day of the quarter-moon, which everyone in Nimbys – and across most of the Overworld – had free, intended for prayer and worship. Most people used it to take a well-earned rest, especially the Rider students. Except Henley had dragged her out before noon, promising a grand adventure. They’d snuck into the Swincombe estate and let out several pigs. At least Orla had let them out, and ended up trampled in the mud for her pains, while Henley sat on the wall and laughed and laughed.
They’d almost been caught. Well, not Henley, since it had been easy for him to slip away unnoticed. Orla had been forced to hide in a holly bush for the entire afternoon, watching the servants round up the livestock, praying to any god who was listening that they wouldn’t find her. They hadn’t, but the rain had.
Still coated in pig muck and now soaked to the skin, she’d waited until dark to make her escape. It hadn’t been easy. With no Henley on the wall to help pull her up, she’d been forced to trudge through more muck and mud in search of a different exit. Stumbling through the dark, she’d cut her hands on brambles and torn her clothes on gorse, escaping onto the high scrubland far above the city. It had taken forever to make her way back down, skidding on slippery rocks and falling more than once.
She was a pitiful thing as she limped into her room, stinking and shivering, blood seeping into her stockings from a cut on her knee.
“Had fun today, did you?”
Orla paused in the doorway as a lantern flared to life. For a moment her heart kicked, panicked that someone from the Swincombe family had reported her and now she was going to be punished.
But it was only Taryn.
Orla grunted and shuffled inside.
“You certainly smell adventurous,” the other girl continued.
Orla ignored her, more interested in lighting her own lamp, shucking her ruined clothes and sitting down somewhere soft. Her feet ached and her knee throbbed. Tomorrow was going to be awful.
“You need a bath,” said Taryn, Queen of the Obvious.
Orla scowled. “Are you offering to fetch me hot water?”
Her roommate sighed. “You need more than hot water. A day in the copper with the washing wouldn’t be enough to get that stink off you. Did Henley have you wrestling pigs?”
Stung by the insult, which wasn’t too far from the truth, Orla turned her back and started fumbling with her coat.
“I guess that means he did. I bet he loved that, watching from somewhere high and dry while you got filthy. I’ve noticed how much he enjoys humiliating you. Hardly a good friend, is he?”
“He is an excellent friend,” Orla was stung into replying, even though deep down she knew Taryn was right. Except it was Taryn – and Orla refused to agree with her on principle.
“He’s terrible. I’m not even sure you can call him a friend.”
Orla had to, otherwise she’d have none. “He is a good friend.”
Taryn snorted but thankfully fell silent, allowing Orla to shrug off her shirt and breeches and dry herself with a towel. The cut on her knee stung as she swiped across it.
“Are you hurt?”
“It’s nothing,” she said quickly, not wanting another lecture about how terrible a friend Henley was. “A small scratch, that’s all.”
A long silence fell, much to Orla’s relief, and she had time to pull on her thick sleeping shirt and drop into bed before Taryn spoke again.
“There’s some balm in the middle drawer of my desk,” the other girl said, entirely unexpectedly. “In case you need some. If it turns out to be more than a small scratch.”
Orla stared across the room in astonishment, but Taryn was already lying with her back to the room, blankets pulled up high against her neck, her lamp blown out.
“Thank you,” she said softly, uncertain whether or not she’d imagined the offer. Her roommate didn’t reply and Orla stared at her wounded knee, wondering if it was her head she’d hit in the dark instead.
~ Next Chapter ~
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