This is why I like Vhen.
CW: More mockery and bullying.
THINGS IN THE boys’ dormitory were particularly rowdy as everyone tried to bag the best bunks. Those who were disappointed not to be near the windows or a door frequently chose to wrestle those who’d got the best spots before them. Vhen followed Zett to the darkest, stuffiest corner and lay down on his bunk in search of a bit of peace. With quiet Zett on one side and peaceable Guto on the other, he was about as calm as he was going to get, while pillows went flying, along with boots, belt buckles and someone’s shaving kit.
They were worse than a bunch of wild animals penned up for the first time. He knew about exuberance and high spirits, but this was something else. He hoped they calmed down by the time the lamps were blown out, because tomorrow was their first day of real Rider training and Vhen wanted to get some sleep.
“They’ll settle down eventually,” Zett promised, sorting through his bag and transferring his clothes into the chest at the end of his bed. “They always do in the end.”
Vhen would have to take his word for it. Out of the sixteen boys that had been selected for Captain Stirla’s squad, Vhen knew just two of them. He and Guto were the only boys from the Storm Peaks, the rest were an irregular mix of everywhere else. He might not have known the three Sutheralli students, but from the way they kept stealing glances at him and frowning, Vhen feared they might know him – or of him, anyway.
He wondered what story his family had spread back home to explain his disappearance. He wondered what the adventures of a Sun Priest’s academic son would mean to three of the most warrior-looking Storm Class lads Vhen had ever seen. Sutherall was a strict land with a rigid class system. It wasn’t unheard of for someone to shift down a tier – and it was almost always down, since upward mobility was near-impossible – but it was always frowned on. As the son of a Sun Priest, Vhen had been as high as it was possible to be. Training like a Storm warrior was not just a step down, it was practically an insult to both their rank and his. It had been easy to forget such things in fluid, free-moving Zvenera, but the realities of his birth were coming back to him now. Just as he was being vividly reminded of why he so rarely chose to mix with boys his own age.
A pair of wrestlers tumbled past, slamming into Zett and spilling his clothes everywhere.
Animals. Ill-mannered, clumsy, untrained animals.
“Hoo! What’s this? A token from your sweetheart?” One of the wrestlers had started helping Zett pick up his things, only to stop to hold up a white shift. The lawn was so sheer the boy’s hand was visible through the fabric. The dainty embroidered flowers glistened in the light as the boy held his prize aloft. “Look at this, lads!”
Whistles and whoops erupted across the room, while the boy’s wrestling companion held up a dress. “Here, there’s more!”
The dark red dress looked awful against the pale boy’s carroty hair and wasn’t improved when the idiot started capering about, clasping it to his chest and squawking some awful North Point ballad about a milkmaid and a goatherd.
“That must be some sweetheart,” one of the Sutherallis laughed. “Giving away her clothes like that. What does she think you’ll do, sleep with them each night?”
“I wouldn’t mind sleeping with her,” another of the North Point boys said, taking the dress from his ginger friend and groping at the empty waist. “A right proper armful, this one. Gizz’us a kiss.” He crushed the dress against his chest, making kissy faces at the air.
Vhen rolled his eyes at their antics and caught sight of Zett. The Havian still knelt beside his clothes chest, fists clenched on his thighs, body rigid with fury. A chill ran through Vhen, even before the Etherians got involved.
“Nah, there isn’t a sweetheart to be had, Evren, so unless you fancy Zeze over there, you’d best give up your dreams of that dress.”
“Likes a bit of the fancy stuff, does our Zeze,” another boy added.
“I know the Havians like a bit of lace,” a gruff Kevian lad said. “But I’d not heard they’d all turned into girls.”
“Put it on for us, Zeze! Show us your ankles.”
“Give us a twirl.”
“Make yourself pretty!”
They were laughing and mocking, and Zett was just glaring at the floor. Vhen sat forward, ready to end this awful farce, but Zett caught his eye and shook his head sharply.
Lacking a reaction, the teasing and taunts soon fizzled out. “Pah, always the disappointment, Zeze,” an Etherian boy said, throwing the dress over Zett’s head in disgust. “You coddle those dresses like they’re alive, but you haven’t got the balls to wear them.”
“Isn’t that kind of the point?” someone else remarked, leading to guffaws and lewd comments.
Vhen watched Zett pull the dress off his head, carefully folding it up and placing it into his clothes chest as tenderly as if it was indeed alive.
“Such unnaturalness is an affront to the gods,” one of the Sutherallis sniffed. “It is as well he did not play along.”
“Heirayk’s fiery balls, you’re not one of those Sutherallis are you?” another boy groaned. “I joined the Riders to get away from such lectures, thanks.”
The three Sutherallis stiffened. Their heads turned as one to stare at Vhen, daring him to intervene. He was Sun Class. It was his duty to deal with such an egregious misuse of the Sun God’s name and dignity.
Vhen looked at Zett, quietly tending his things, lips tight against the recent indignity he’d suffered, and sighed. “No,” he assured the groaning boy. “He’s not one of those Sutherallis. Can’t you tell a Storm Class warrior when you see one?”
The rowdy boys fell silent, eyeing him watchfully. Vhen hadn’t said much during the day and he knew the others had noticed.
Guto raised his head from where he’d been snoozing and gave Vhen a curious look. He waved him back, wondering how his Storm Peaks friend would feel once Vhen was done. Time to burn some boats.
The Storm warriors straightened up, looking pleased that Vhen was finally doing what was expected of him. He almost smiled.
“You’re Sutherallis.” The outspoken lad shrugged. “That’s about all I can tell, and that’s mostly because of the way you hold yourselves.” He sat up straight, pulling his shoulders back in an exaggerated way and raising his chin. He wrinkled his nose as if he smelled something terrible and started marching back and forth in a jerky, ridiculous manner, sauntering between the two rows of beds. “Look. At. Me.” His Sutheralli accent was horribly nasal and deliberately stilted like the worst caricature. “I. Am. Bet. Ter. Than. All. Of. You. Com. Mon. Ers. Bow to me!”
The other lads hooted. Some threw pillows and socks, but all of them were laughing.
Apart from the Sutherallis and Zett, who was still folding his clothes as tenderly as any religious act Vhen had ever witnessed.
“I see,” Vhen murmured.
“Gods, that’s funny, Klennen. Do it some more!”
“Gods,” Vhen said, just loud enough to gain everyone’s attention, and before Klennen could get started again. “Do you really think the gods care if something’s funny?”
“Heirayk’s balls, he is one of those Sutherallis!”
“Or that Heirayk would appreciate having his balls brought up so often, fiery or otherwise?” Vhen continued, ignoring the interruption.
“He doesn’t care! He’d put a stop to it if he did,” a North Point lad shouted from across the room.
“Maybe,” Vhen agreed, seeing the way the Sutherallis were leaning forward, hanging on his words, poised to attack as soon as he gave the signal. “Or maybe not. It’s hard to care when you don’t exist.”
The Sutherallis sat back as if slapped.
“What did he just say?”
“Did he just say Heirayk doesn’t exist?”
“I thought he was a Sutheralli!”
Confusion rippled around the room, until someone groaned and held their head.
“Maegla, the day has already been too long for this.”
Vhen’s mouth quirked in a wry smile and he looked down, meeting Guto’s eyes. After Rhiddyl, Guto had been the first friend he’d made in Zvenera, his quiet guide to the ways of the city and the culture of his people. He didn’t say much about his family, but Vhen knew they were devout and deeply devoted to the Storm Goddess. Guto wouldn’t care much what Vhen had to say about Heirayk or any of the other gods of the Overworld, as long as he left the Storm Goddess and Patron of the Rift Riders alone.
Vhen looked at Zett, so quiet and calm, even though his hands were shaking.
Vhen smiled, dazzling the room with an unexpected flash of charm. “Of course Maegla doesn’t exist either. None of the gods do. They’re just lies told to children that adults forget not to believe.”
Zett looked up from his clothes, blinking in astonishment.
Vhen winked at him. And the fighting began.
~ Next Chapter ~
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