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Orla makes a choice.
“PACKAGE FOR YOU, Student Orla,” one the clerks called just as Orla was leaving the offices. “Looks like more goodies from home.”
“Oooh.” Henley rubbed his hands together as he followed Orla to the front desk. “What is it? Food? Sweets? Money?”
“Letters,” Orla replied, taking the package from Clerk Toma with a grateful nod. She weighed the padded package in her hand and revised her assessment. “And tools.” Something heavy was inside it anyway.
Henley made a dismissive sound. “Never mind that then, word is Clatchtons are getting a shipment this afternoon. Big. Expensive. Coming from Lansbrig. Fancy taking a closer look?”
Orla looked at the greed on his face and sighed, rubbing her eye. Anyone overhearing their conversation would think he meant going to the docks to watch the crates being unloaded. Vast crates, Orla had no doubt, full of some of the most delicious fruit on the Overworld, particularly mangoes and cherries, of which Clatchtons was the best distributor in Nimbys. Orla knew the shop, had drooled at the delicious scents when walking past a few times, but she’d never had enough money to go inside. Nor had Henley even suggested trying to steal from them. Until now.
One look at her friend’s avid eyes and Orla knew he had no interest in watching the crates be unloaded at the docks. He wanted to visit the shop, likely after dark. And she would be the one who would steal things for him.
“No.” Orla shook her head, hugging her packet of letters to her chest. The sight of her father’s beautiful handwriting, all flourishes and curves even on the prosaic lines of her name and the Rider office address, was enough to make her heart ache. She missed her parents. She missed her family. She missed home. She missed the person she used to be.
Henley’s sunny smiling face darkened. “Excuse me?” he asked, his voice soft and frosty, the tone he usually saved for depressing servants and other presumptuous people.
“I am having dinner with my uncle,” she lied, because she had to tell him something and she didn’t want to make him angry. If she said she didn’t want to go to Clatchtons he would try and talk her around. If she said she didn’t want to steal, he would act like she already had and denounce her to everyone present. So she lied.
Except it wasn’t too much of a lie. She would have dinner with her uncle, he just didn’t know it yet. Hethanon would never turn her away.
Henley drew his head back, rather like a startled goose. “Dinner?” he echoed, as if the concept had never occurred to him. “I am inviting you to Clatchtons.”
Yes, and that was the problem. “I haven’t spoken to him for two months,” she tried to explain, hating that she was sounding as if she was pleading. She didn’t want to anger him, but the more she thought about spending time with her uncle, the more she wanted to catch up with him. She so rarely saw him outside of training. Because Henley kept her constantly busy, filling up her free time with schemes and plans, very few of which Orla actually enjoyed.
“You see him every day,” Henley scoffed, waving a dismissive hand. “Come with me instead. We’ll have fun.”
“No.” The word escaped before she could try and think of something less final, something more diplomatic. Henley didn’t like final. He didn’t like being denied. He was the one to say no, no one else.
She swallowed and hugged her letters, watching the smile fade from his face, his blue eyes narrowing to cold slits.
“You’re choosing him over me?” he asked, softly, far too softly.
Orla shook her head. “No,” she said again. “It’s not -”
“You’re saying that word an awful lot today,” he interrupted. “You should be careful.”
She swallowed again and shook her head. “It’s just one night, one meal. He is family.”
“Family,” he scoffed again, shaking his head. “What has your family ever done for you? They sent you to Nimbys, alone and unprepared. Your uncle didn’t help you then.”
Orla opened her mouth to correct him, but Henley wasn’t interested in facts. He held up a hand to silence her.
“I was the one who saved you. I was the one who took you in when you were abandoned. I showed you the city. I keep you entertained. I show you how to have fun. Without me you’d be nothing. I am your friend, Orla. I’m asking you for one small thing, just a little thing. Come with me tonight. You can see your uncle tomorrow. Come to Clatchtons. It’ll be better than any substandard meal your uncle can dish up.”
She shook her head again. She hated to make him angry, hated to disappoint him. He was her friend, he had shown her the city, but so had her uncle. The Kilpapans were the ones who had taken her in, but she could have stayed with her uncle if she’d chosen to. No one had abandoned her. She wasn’t nothing. Nor did she often have fun with him. If anyone was keeping anyone entertained, it was usually her suffering to make him laugh. It wasn’t a small thing he was asking of her. It was everything.
Henley’s eyes widened and his jaw clenched. Red lines appeared across his cheekbones, making his freckles stand out even more. He looked furious. Orla braced herself for one of his blistering tirades.
“Fine,” he said, in that horribly calm voice. “You’ve made your choice.” He narrowed his eyes and curled his lip. It was the disdainful expression he showed everyone else, but not her, never her. She was his friend.
“You will regret this,” he promised, spinning on his heel and slamming out through the office front door.
Her breath seeped out in a shaken sigh, her heart thumping against her package from home. She felt sick.
“Don’t you worry about him, love, you’re better off without him.” A passing Rider patted her consolingly on the shoulder.
Orla nodded absently, agreeing with the woman. Still, what had she done? She’d seen firsthand the sort of grudges Henley was capable of holding. Had she now become his enemy? He was her only friend. What would she do without him?
And yet, at the same time, she had absolutely no urge to go after him. She didn’t want to go to Clatchtons. She didn’t want to go anywhere with him. In fact, the lack of his presence by her side, demanding her attention, prying into the secrets of her parcel from home was something of a relief. The prospect of losing him as her friend – her only friend – was strangely freeing.
Oh gods, what kind of a monster was she? Henley had done so much for her and she wasn’t even sorry he was gone. Maegla, she missed her mother and father. They were often silly and overdramatic, but they were wise in the ways of the world too. She could sit down and pour out her foolish story to them and they would make it make sense. They would sort it all out.
Except they couldn’t. Not only because they weren’t there, but Orla had never even mentioned Henley in any of her letters home. Why was that?
More guilt, more homesickness. Perhaps she wouldn’t go and see her uncle tonight. Perhaps she would go home and lie in the dark.
“You won’t regret it.”
The last voice Orla wanted to hear spoke coolly and confidently from the side of the entrance hall.
Orla hugged her parcel and glared at Taryn. “I have no wish to hear your opinion.”
Taryn snorted, not too dissimilarly to the way Henley often did. “Whoever does? But I’ll give it anyway. Listen to the Rider. You are better off without him. Spending more time with him will only end up one way – in serious trouble. The sort of trouble that’ll see you packed off home, your dreams and ambitions ground into dust. If you’re serious about becoming a Rider -”
“I am serious!” Orla snapped, hearing the doubt in the other girl’s words. The same doubt that dogged Orla day and night. The same doubt she saw in the sneers of her fellow students, in the silence they left around her, in the comments Henley always dropped. Everyone doubted her right to be there, including herself. The only ones who didn’t had written the letters she was clutching hard enough to turn her knuckles white. “You have no right to doubt me. No right to advise me. No right to talk down to me as if I am some dirty child. Stay out of my business.”
“I would if you made a better job of minding it for yourself.”
Speechless with fury at the condescending reply, which encapsulated everything Orla most hated about Taryn in one simple sentence, she could only manage a wordless snarl. Then it was her turn to stomp away, slamming the door of the office behind her.
TARYN WINCED AS the window glass rattled in the abused door.
“If one more person slams that door today, I swear by Maegla, I will bolt them myself!” an angry clerk cursed from the workroom behind the desk.
Taryn put her head down and decided it was time to leave.
Captain Stirla leant against the wall in front of her, arms folded across his chest. “You could have handled that better,” he pointed out unhelpfully.
Tired of fighting, of always getting things wrong, of being alone, Taryn didn’t bother arguing for once. She just sighed. “I know. Not my finest moment.”
“You weren’t wrong.” The big man stepped forward and wrapped a comforting arm around her shoulders. “But unfortunately no one likes having their noses rubbed in their mistakes.”
Ha! She knew that extremely well, but she leant into him anyway, because even though he was no brother of hers, he was the closest she had in that moment.
“Come to dinner,” he invited, giving her a hug that left her close to tears. “Milli’s worried about you and wants to see how you’re getting on.”
Taryn dearly wanted to go to Kilpapan House, to sit down with the captain and the earl and let them fuss over her for an evening. Lyrai and Mhysra had left for Aquila months ago; the countess and Derrain were both away on their ships. There might be a bit of an interrogation over dinner, but it wouldn’t be as fraught as the last time. They would take care of her; she would let them. “What about Orla?”
Stirla released her with a sigh and steered her towards the door, through which they passed with utmost gentleness. “Hopefully she’ll avoid you by heading to her uncle’s, just as she said she would. If not… Well, some things can only be learned through experience.”
“She wouldn’t go after Henley, would she?” Taryn asked, horrified that she might have driven Orla back to that little weasel just when the girl had finally stood up to him.
Stirla shrugged. “Maybe, although I doubt it. She’s loyal and stubborn, our little Ihran, but she isn’t stupid. If Henley is set on breaking into Clatchtons tonight, Orla won’t play any part in it.”
“Is he going to break into Clatchtons tonight?” Taryn wasn’t convinced. Without Orla to do his dirty work for him, she couldn’t see Henley having the guts.
“His pride’s been stung,” Stirla sounded pleased. “I’m sure he’ll try.”
“Then shouldn’t we tell someone and try to stop him?”
The captain smiled, although it wasn’t a very nice smile. “Don’t you worry about that, little sister. He won’t get far. Come along to dinner. The earl has ordered partridge.”
It was Taryn’s favourite. Not that she would let him distract her so easily. “You’re planning something.”
His unpleasant smile turned smug. “Like our Ihran friend, I’m not entirely stupid either. However, since it was gossip that brought this to my attention in the first place, I am all too aware that gossip works both ways. Come to dinner, Taryn, and forget about Henley and Orla for one night. You’re developing frown lines.”
She gasped, hand flying to her face. “I am not!”
“Sure you are. Right here.” He pressed a thick finger to the middle of her forehead, shoving her gently backwards.
She scowled at him.
“Oh no, not the face. Save me from the face.” He held up his hands in mock defence.
Aware that they were drawing attention from the palace guards – her father’s guards – Taryn sniffed. “The earl is expecting me. I shall see you at dinner.” Sticking her nose in the air, she chose the moral high ground and marched away with as much dignity as she can muster.
“There’s no point carrying tales,” Stirla called after her. “Milli knows me too well already.” “That won’t stop you getting into trouble. Oh, the tales I shall tell,” she sighed, and sprang away with a shriek as the captain chased her down the cliff path and back into the city.
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