Aryne knew she shouldn’t, but she always found it entertaining when she was able to shatter Headmistress Tausen’s calm, the serenity she strove so hard to display.
Actually, no, why shouldn’t she? Tausen was an adult and was always banging on about the importance of self-control, Source or not. As far as Aryne was concerned, when a person tried to force others to behave a way that person herself couldn’t manage, that person deserved to be laughed at.
Tausen struck her desk with the flat of her hand. “How many times have I told you, fighting is unacceptable?”
Twelve. And it had stopped being funny. “It was needed.”
“Fighting is never needed here. Fighting can be condoned only when you need to defend yourself against an attack. Are you claiming Nester Cole had attacked you?”
“He attacked someone else. He and his crew.”
“No victim has come forward, and you won’t give me the alleged victim’s name?”
The victim – an actual victim, no ‘alleged’ about it – wasn’t going to talk to Tausen about it. Did she not understand how the students worked at all?
As far as Aryne knew, he hadn’t told anyone about it. Didn’t mean it hadn’t happened. Didn’t mean everyone didn’t know about it.
In the five weeks Aryne had been at the Academy, she had spent a lot of time watching Cole and his minions. She suspected they had abused two students during that time, but she couldn’t be sure about the first one. She hadn’t been there long enough to know if the girl had always been so very timid.
But in Bombar Russ, she had seen a drastic change. He was thirteen, and in none of her classes, but he was very noticeable in his almost constant clumsiness, his extremely thin frame, and facial features that seemed almost unnaturally mixed, jaw line and nose too strong for the rest.
Aryne suspected he would grow up to be rather fine, but maybe the others couldn’t see it.
Despite accidentally making a display of himself on a regular basis, he seemed to accept the mockery of the majority of the others with grace, with no loss to his pride.
And then, all of a sudden, he was seen in the company of Cole and his ilk. It had surprised Aryne, she’d assumed he was too sensible to set up with them, but he was young and a Source. That meant he was emotional, and people often made stupid decisions when they were emotional.
Just as suddenly, he was never seen with them, the change clear to everyone. Aryne had heard he’d taken to staying in his room as much as possible. When he was out of it, whenever Aryne saw him, he skulked around the walls, as close to any door as he could manage, avoiding close contact with anyone else in the area. His shoulders were rounded, his gaze always directed at the floor, and he flinched at unexpected noises.
And it got worse when Cole or any of his cohorts were in the room.
Aryne had tried to talk to Russ a few times, but he wouldn’t answer.
Still, she could see people, could read them. She’d had to learn, with her life in Flatwell. She was dead sure Cole had done something awful to Russ. Just as she was dead sure Cole and his group weren’t going to be punished for their actions.
And that was infuriating. Talking to a few others, being given nothing but shrugs and excuses that there was nothing anyone could do, made it all worse. Wasn’t the Triple S supposed to be some kind of civilized?
She watched Cole even more closely. Sometimes too closely, and Cole would notice her presence, with a smirk inviting her to join him. She didn’t care that he was occasionally aware of her. It didn’t make a difference. It wasn’t as though he would be able to guess her thoughts.
She learned that he was, in his way, a creature of habit. That would make her plan easier to play.
She wanted to include his friends in her plan, but she decided it wouldn’t be practical, would probably scupper her idea. Besides, Cole was their leader. It would be enough.
And so, when he left the water room after taking a late evening bath, all on his own, she charged at him from the shadows and body checked him into the wall.
The clash that ensued hadn’t been easy. She had gotten a split lip out of it, and her lower left ribs hurt like hell. Cole was significantly older and far larger, and he really should have been able to flatten her. But he had obviously never endured any beatings. Most of his moves had been simple punches with badly made fists, and from his posture it had been easy to see where his next strike would come from. She’d been able to avoid most of his swings. She was proud of the fact that she had broken his nose, messed up his knee, and left him gasping on the floor after punching him in the middle of his chest.
Then other students had come into the hall and Aryne and Cole had been dragged apart. A professor had been fetched, and the two of them were taken to Tausen’s office.
Cole had immediately announced Aryne had attacked him. Aryne hadn’t denied it. Cole had claimed she’d attacked him for no reason. Aryne had snorted. Cole had been dismissed with the suggestion he see one of the healers. Aryne had been ordered to remain so she could have a strip torn off.
“The victim won’t speak,” she said.
“So you have decided to act on her behalf.”
Aryne shrugged. “No one else would.”
“Disciplining students is not your responsibility.”
“Sometimes people have to do things when no one else will.”
“That is not your decision to make.”
And yet, she had made it.
“You will apologize to Nester in front of the entire Academy.”
Aye, good luck with that.
“And you will read this.” From her desk top, Tausen picked up a slim book Aryne hadn’t noticed. “It’s a treatise on ethics. It’s a fascinating read.”
Not according to Tausen’s tone. Aryne wondered how long the sentences in that book were. Tausen liked punished her with dense, dry reading.
“You’ll return here tomorrow morning at the half seventh hour. I’ll be picking passages at random for you to recite. Given your memory, you should have no difficulty.”
Probably. Aryne accepted the book.
The evening bell rang, announcing supper. Aryne had learned that the best desserts always went quickly, so she started running down the empty corridor.
She turned a corner.
And she was bowled off her feet.
A glare exploded into her eyes, blinding her. Her brain was shaken of thoughts. All she could feel was her racing breathing, her lungs expanding so large it hurt.
As swiftly as it had hit her, the wave of horrible sensations washed away. She found herself staring up into the brown eyes of a woman lying half on top of her.
Aryne shoved her off and scrambled backwards until she hit the opposite wall. “What the krick was that?”
The woman rose into a kneeling position. She was many years older than Aryne, perhaps around the age of the most senior students. She had red hair, much darker than Leavy’s.
And she was obviously shocked. “What the hell is a Shield doing here?”
“They say I’m a Source.”
The woman scowled. “That was a Bonding! That - ” The woman stopped abruptly, then thought for a moment. “I think. I’ve been told – it’s been described to me. What just happened, it fit the description.”
“I’m only eleven.” Young ones weren’t supposed to Bond. It made them all crazy. Was she going to go crazy?
“That doesn’t mean anything. That’s why we’re separated. How do you not know that?”
“I know that,” Aryne protested.
“Why are you here? Shields aren’t supposed to be here.”
“They said I’m a Source.”
“Who said? What the hell does that mean?”
“I can do both.” She wasn’t supposed to tell anyone that, but if they had Bonded, the woman needed to know. “I can channel. I can Shield myself while I’m doing it.”
The woman stared at her. “That’s impossible.”
“Not for me.” Then, Aryne realized they were out in the open, talking about things others shouldn’t hear. “Come with me.”
The woman raised an eyebrow. “You’re young to be doling out orders,” she commented wryly.
Aryne thought it was a handy skill, that the woman could grab a hold on her control after such a shock. That wasn’t normal for a Source, was it?
“I’ve just come back from touring. I have to report to the Headmistress. And we have to tell her about … this.”
“No!” Aryne hissed. “No one can know!”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“Come with me!” Aryne tacked on a word she didn’t commonly use. “Please.”
The woman rolled her eyes. “Fine. For now.”
Aryne decided her room would be the safest place to talk. Everyone in the building would be at supper right then, but there was no knowing when people would leave the dining hall, and Jossen was the only one who might come in without warning.
Once there, the woman crossed her arms and waited.
“You’ve never heard of this sort of thing before?” Aryne asked. “Shielding and channelling at the same time?”
“Of course not.”
“It’s bizarre, kai?”
“You know everything, do you? No such thing as change?”
“You’re a complete stranger and you’re talking about things that have never been mentioned to me, not in any class, not in any book, not even in rumour. I’ve never seen you before.”
“Because I’ve only been here a few weeks. You said you were on tour.”
“A few weeks,” the woman echoed in a flat tone of disbelief.
Didn’t Aryne’s accent tell her anything? Everyone one else made so much of it, it being so barbaric and all. “Shield Dunleavy Mallorough and Source Shintaro Karish brought me here.”
“You’ve met Source Karish.” The woman clearly didn’t believe that, either.
Aryne found it interesting, how often people focussed on Shintaro and sort of ignored Leavy. “They found me and brought me here. You can ask Tausen, or anyone. Everyone knows.”
“You’re claiming that you’ve lived away from the Academy for this long and have channelled while protecting yourself.”
“You said you didn’t know me well enough to believe me, but you know me well enough to think I’m a liar?”
The woman pinched the bridge of her nose, closing her eyes briefly. “Why don’t you just tell me your story in order? The carriage needs the pull.”
That made sense. Handy trait, that, in a partner.
Partner. Oy. That thought did strange things to her, confusing her. She’d never had anyone, no family, no friends. She’d never thought she’d be a part of anything like that, a group who belonged together. That was what it really meant, right, that she was both Shield and Source? That she wouldn’t Bond with anyone? Because she really didn’t need anyone.
That it had happened, out of nowhere when no one could predict it, that had to mean something was wrong, that the Bond would be twisted. Leavy and Shintaro clearly got on, but Aryne knew that all Pairs weren’t like that. Few were, in fact. Most ranged from coolly professional to cordial. The worst involved partners who despised each other. Given the kind of luck Aryne had had through most of her life, that last was the most likely, right?
The woman seemed a decent sort, though. Hadn’t laid into Aryne for the collision, wasn’t going completely crazy over the Bonding, was letting Aryne speak before making any final decisions. All good signs.
“I can’t tell you where I was.” Not yet, at least. “I didn’t know anything about the Triple S, not really. I would feel things happening, tsunami and things, and I would link them. Couldn’t help it. Didn’t know what it really meant. No one else knew, either. There were never any Pairs there. I met Leavy and Shintaro, they figured out what I was, and they brought me here. They knew I could do both, I told them, but Leavy decided I should be here instead of the Shield Academy. They told me not to tell anyone I could do both, though.”
“For gods’ sake, why?” the woman interrupted.
“Shintaro said if they - ”
“Who is they”
“The council. The professors. If they learn someone can do something strange, they don’t let them go out to posts. They keep them back to try to figure out why they can do what they do.”
“I’ve never heard of anything like that. I’ve never seen Bonded Pairs hanging around when they’re good enough to be posted.”
“They don’t keep them here. They move them somewhere else in Shidonee’s Gap. That’s what Shintaro told me. He told me again and again to keep the Shielding to myself. He’s been out for a few years. He’s heard things. Seen things.” And had a few strange talents of his own that he was keeping to himself. Successfully, or so it seemed to her. People talked about Shintaro, but only about his being a highly talented Source and that he seemed to sleep with a lot of people. Though that last was trash.
“If we’re Bonded, and you’re a Shield, you need to be taught how to perform your role. You won’t learn that here.”
“Everything I know how to do, I’ve taught myself.” Pretty much.
The woman didn’t appear reassured. “I’m not risking my life with an untrained Shield.”
“I’ve already spent my whole life protecting myself without any training at all. I spent months with Leavy. And I have years more to learn. Shields come here to teach, Shintaro told me. By the time I’m old enough to be posted, I’ll be ready.”
“We won’t be posted if no one knows we’re Bonded.”
Oh, right. “I haven’t channelled at all since I’ve been here. I can pretend I can’t. Maybe I can convince everyone that I was put here by mistake. Then, when I’m older, we can tell everyone we just Bonded then.”
“And we still won’t be posted, because everyone will know you weren’t properly trained.”
“Fine, I have no ideas,” Aryne snapped impatiently. “You come up with some.”
“I’ve got a fabulous idea. We tell the Headmistress and we figure out how to make sure we don’t lose our minds over a spontaneous Bonding and can do our jobs well enough to be posted. Do you know what happens to Pairs who can’t be posted?”
They were kept in the Academies to teach, or just left to drift about the world with nothing to do. “Can we just wait a while? See what I can learn? There’s no harm in that.” Gah, she’d have to say it again. “Please.”
“Fabulous,” the woman muttered. “This is a mess, isn’t it? Nothing can ever go smoothly.”
“Fine,” she said impatiently. “But if I start thinking this is getting dangerous, I’m going straight to the Headmistress. I certainly won’t be asking for your permission, child.”
“Seems fair.” She’d work on convincing the woman to keep everything to herself over time.
“So what’s your name, then?”
Oh, right. “Aryne Malkar.”
“I’m Druce Steeler.” She held out her hand. “Pleased to meet you. I guess.”
Maybe not the best start to this sort of thing, but it could have been much worse.