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Of nastiness and unexpected defenders.
ORLA BARELY HEARD the words, barely even noticed as the students broke out of line around her, clustering into groups.
Whispers, so many whispers.
Orla pressed a hand against her churning belly and closed her eyes. Thank Maegla she hadn’t given in last night. Thank all the gods she hadn’t gone with him. She felt for Ghera, truly she did, but gods, she was so relieved it hadn’t been her.
“I bet you’re delighted about this, aren’t you?”
She opened her eyes, startled to find Rudtha and Imanyne standing in front of her. Neither girl had spoken to Orla since that first day, when they and their friends had clustered around to pick on her, only to be driven away by Henley.
Henley. He was gone. Orla didn’t know how she felt about that.
“Look at you, you’re practically smiling. After all he did for you!” While their small blonde friend hadn’t lasted a half-month in training, Rudtha and Imanyne were made of sterner stuff. They looked it too as they sneered and glared at Orla – who had no idea what they were talking about.
“I do not understand,” she said, still stunned by the news.
“Neither do we!” Rudtha had always been the more outspoken of the two girls. There was a hint of red in her brown hair, which others whispered was what gave her that temper. Orla thought she was just spoilt. “He gave you everything – friendship, excitement, fun – and you turned on him at the first hint of an argument. He was right about you, right from the start. Ihrans are freaks. You have no place amongst us. You’re not like us. You’re heartless, emotionless, barely more than animals. Look at you, standing there like a lump. Aren’t you upset that you got him expelled?”
Orla’s head hurt. “I thought you said I was smiling?” Rudtha had never been the smartest student in the class, but she usually made more sense than this. “And I didn’t get anyone expelled. I didn’t have anything to do with it.”
“It should have been you.” Taller and darker than her passionate friend, Imanyne was one of the best students. Naturally athletic and clever in class, she had an uncomfortable habit of looking through Orla as if she wasn’t there. She’d even tried to walk through her once or twice, until Orla had learnt to stay well out of her way. Although quieter than the rest of her well-born, rude and arrogant friends, she’d always been the one Orla felt most wary of.
Meeting the girl’s furious hazel eyes now, Orla knew her instincts had been right. Her scalp prickled in warning.
“He meant it to be you.”
“Five months of build-up, wasted!” Rudtha burst out. “We’ve all lost the bet now!”
“Bet?” Orla repeated numbly, even as the words he meant it to be you echoed around her head.
“Didn’t you know?” Imanyne asked, with cloying sweetness. “You were a bet.”
“Your whole friendship was,” Rudtha added, clearly relishing her role in enlightening the stupid Ihran. “All of it, one big lie. One big joke. Could he get the Armsmaster’s precious niece expelled before Aquila. You didn’t think anyone would make friends with you for any other reason? Why would they? You’re short and fat, you don’t know our customs, you barely speak our language, you stump around like a lump, you never laugh or smile, you don’t understand jokes, you’re ugly, you’re -”
Orla swallowed, refusing to let the tears stinging her eyes to fall. She worked her jaw and waited as someone stepped up behind her, ashamed that they had been the one to stop the flow, not Orla herself.
“If we’re going to talk about beauty and ugliness, Rudtha Kartana,” Taryn drawled, stepping up beside Orla in an unexpected show of support. “I would hardly know where to begin. Although that glowing pimple on the tip of your nose is the most obvious. You look like a beacon fire. I commend your courage in leaving the house this morning. I’m not certain I would have dared to be seen in public. It’s hideous.”
Rudtha slapped her hands across her nose with a cry. “Imanyne!” She turned to her friend. “She’s lying! You said it wasn’t that big. Tell me she’s lying!”
Imanyne scowled. “Stay out of this, Taryn,” she growled, ignoring her friend, who was now probing her face and finding that Taryn hadn’t been exaggerating. The pimple on her nose was huge, although not glowing as brightly as a beacon fire. Not until Rudtha started poking at it anyway.
At any other time, Orla would have been deeply amused to see the spoilt brat being embarrassed for once – since Rudtha took so much pleasure in doing the same to others – but she felt too numb.
A bet? Her friendship with Henley had been because of a bet? All those months, all those sly comments, all those insults, all those humiliating outings, all so he could get her expelled before the exams. He’d never been a good friend and Orla had never truly liked him, but he’d been her only option. He had seemed sincere.
Shame curdled her stomach when she thought of the things she’d done for him, the food she’d stolen, the rules she’d broken. She’d been so stupid.
“I’ve stayed out of it for too long,” Taryn said, for no reason Orla could fathom. “Orla didn’t want my help, so I let things fall out as they would, but now I say enough. You’ve had your fun. Your little betrothed has won his prize and he deserves a whole lot worse than being packed off to his family’s backwater estate for the next five years. However, since he’ll then have to spend the rest of his life married to you, I consider him well and truly punished.”
Beautiful Imanyne, always so cool and collected, turned bright red. Her eyes narrowed into ugly little slits and her fingers curled into claws. “Why you spiteful little bi-”
“Ah ah.” Captain Stirla appeared, standing just off to one side, arms folded across his formidable chest. “No brawling outside of training, students. You know the rules. Unless, of course, you wish to join the ranks of the expelled.”
Imanyne froze, flexing and clenching her fists.
“As if we’d bother staying here now,” Rudtha burst out, although her voice was somewhat muffled by the hand she kept clamped over her nose. “Picking that foreigner over a duke’s son! Have you no sense of proper behaviour or the rules of society? You’re a bunch of – of – of commoners!”
Well, goodness, that insult hurt. Even in the depths of her numbness, Orla almost rolled her eyes. If that was worst insult Rudtha could think of, the girl was not fit for a life in the Riders.
“You are speaking to a captain of the Rift Riders,” Sergeant Joras popped up, always around to make sure respect was given where it was due.
“And the husband of Earl Kilpapan,” Taryn added, seemingly unable to help herself.
Captain Stirla frowned at her, no doubt thinking her input unhelpful.
Rudtha scoffed. “As if that counts. The Kilpapans might be old and venerable, but you can’t marry into that. He’s still an Etherian farm boy.” She said the words as if they were the worst thing imaginable.
“And your precious Henley was born in a roadside inn,” Taryn pointed out, getting unusually heated. “Which his family then fled because they couldn’t afford the bill and were too arrogant to work for their living. They were little more than beggars when they inherited that dukedom. Don’t let any amount of gilding and gloss fool you into thinking a title makes him any better than the next brat, because it means nothing!”
“What would you know?” Imanyne shouted, rising to her secret-betrothed’s defence. “You are nothing. A complete nobody. No one even knows what your full name is!” “Then allow me to introduce you,” Lieutenant Dhori appeared, all cool smiles and glinting silver eyes. “This is Nataryn Henstrati Henrykma, youngest daughter of Stratys Henryk III and his Consort, Lady Kilrose of Silver Vale. She’s also known as Taryn, but you may call her Highness.”
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