Trissiny perched in a hard wooden chair; it was the only one that lacked armrests to tangle up her sword when she sat. Zaruda sprawled in an overstuffed armchair, twisting her belt so that her sword lay across her lap. Teal and Shaeine perched on the couch with a person-width between them, Fross continued to buzz about everyone’s heads and Juniper settled herself warily in one of the remaining seats.
While Janis, still chattering pleasantly, poured tea into seven cups (Trissiny wondered what she expected Fross to do with hers), the girls silently studied each other with naked speculation. Except for Shaeine, who appeared to be meditating with her eyes open.
“Dig in, everybody! Go on, go on, there’s absolutely no call to be shy; this is your home, after all. And you’ll all be needing a little something to nourish the body after that awful hike you had up to the campus.” Janis stood back, beaming at them, and didn’t settle herself into the last chair until everybody had taken a teacup and a cookie or sandwich from the tray. Fross eventually settled on the rim of the last remaining cup; perched as she was on the coffee table between them, her faint bluish glow cast a pale light across all their faces.
“Right, then!” the house mother went on in her improbably happy tone when nobody volunteered to speak. “To start off, I’d like us to play a little ‘getting to know you’ game!” Zaruda groaned and Teal grimaced, both of which she ignored. “We’ll just go around the circle here, and everybody can introduce herself, tell us what you’re studying and then tell us something interesting about yourself! Who wants to start off?”
“Sure, I’ll get it over with,” said Zaruda easily, setting her untouched teacup back on the coffee table. She stood and bowed dramatically, gesticulating with a handful of cookies. “I am Zaruda Carmelita Xingyu Sameera Meredith Punaji, and no, I don’t expect you to remember the whole thing; you can call me Ruda unless I tell ya otherwise. I’m technically royalty, but don’t let that put you off. My father’s Blackbeard Punaji, the Pirate King. So, yeah, we don’t really stand on ceremony.”
“You’re a pirate?” Trissiny said in alarm.
Zaruda grinned and gestured at herself. “Chyeah! What, in this getup you thought I was a seamstress?”
“I thought you were a princess…”
“For a given value of ‘princess,’ sure. We don’t have spoiled nobles where I come from; I work for a living.”
“As a pirate.”
“This going to be a problem?” She stared flatly at Trissiny, the grin melting from her face.
“All right, then!” Janis interjected, smiling broadly. “Ruda, what do you plan to study here at the University?”
Zaruda lowered herself back into her chair with a shrug, her easy smile returning. “I dunno. Whatever’s lyin’ around, I guess.”
“Um, all right then!” She turned her beaming smile on Trissiny. “Would you care to go next, dear?”
“I…certainly.” She elected not to stand up; after Zaruda’s performance, it seemed self-indulgent. “My name is Trissiny Avelea; I’m the chosen Hand of Avei. The only one currently, but the goddess can elect as many paladins as she likes. She has in times past. I grew up at the Abbey attached to the primary Temple of Avei in Viridill.” She swallowed, feeling the unaccustomed weight of eyes on her. Sisters of Avei practiced modesty as a spiritual virtue; a good soldier didn’t seek attention for herself. “Right now I’m enrolled as a double major in martial arts and the divinity program, but I may narrow that to one or the other as I become more familiar with the school. This is all new to me…”
“It’s new to everybody,” said Teal with an easy smile, which Trissiny returned gratefully.
“Very good, dear,” Janis beamed. “Now, if we’re going around the circle—”
“Oh! That’s me, then!” The pixie shot straight into the air, almost upsetting her teacup in passing. “My name is Fross and I’m here because the Pixie Queen decided to start strengthening ties with the human world and Professor Tellwyrn who’s not even a human was the only person willing to take her seriously, which is a little insulting I guess but on the other hand I can sort of see how we’d seem, I dunno, more cute than impressive to people as big as you guys, no offense. I am studying to become a mage because I have a natural knack for magic of all kinds and I’m really interested in the arcane magic that humans practice but it’s pretty hard to pick up any information on that where I come from so of course I’m very glad to be here!” She buzzed in a complete circle around their heads. “And I’m very glad to meet all of you and I look forward to living with you!”
“Thank you, Fross.” Even Janis seemed a little dazed by all that.
Not waiting to be prompted, Shaeine rose smoothly to her feet and bowed to them. “I am Shaeine, daughter of Ashaele, matriarch of House Awarrion. My family serve the Queen of Tar’naris primarily in diplomatic capacities, which led to my selection as part of Her Majesty’s program to strengthen ties with the Tiraan Empire. I have selected a major of history, which is deeply interesting to me. Since I am an ordained priestess of Themynra, I will not be harmed by holy energy, but as a subterranean dweller I don’t appreciate bright lights in my eyes.”
“I said I was sorry!” Trissiny and Fross said simultaneously.
“Now, now, let’s not dwell on little missteps,” Janis said soothingly, “such things are bound to happen, and we put them behind us. Teal, dear, care to go next?”
The short-haired girl cleared her throat, then lifted her teacup to them as if in a toast. “Well, I’m Teal Falconer, music major, looking to become an accredited bard eventually. I’ll be playing and singing quite a bit, but I’ll try not to bother anybody. There’s, ah, not much interesting about me.”
“How can you say that?” Trissiny burst out. “The Talisman of Absolution is only given to creatures ordinarily aligned against the gods who devote themselves to the service of the Church. You’d have to be a thing of unspeakable evil with a heart of gold to get that! It must be an incredible story!”
“Okay!” Janis said with frantic good cheer, her smile seeming to crack at the edges. “Going forward, let’s not refer to our housemates as things of unspeakable evil.”
“I’m sorry,” Trissiny said contritely. “Obviously your privacy is important. I just…such things are sort of relevant to my calling. Forgive me.”
“Hey, it’s not exactly a secret,” Teal said quickly, wearing a nervous half-grin. “I’m just not… I don’t much care to talk about myself, is all.”
“Well, you did very well, dear,” Janis said soothingly, “so let’s move on. Juniper, it’s down to you, honey.”
The green-haired girl waved, smiling pleasantly; she seemed oblivious to the tension in the room. “That’s me! I’m a dryad, but I guess you can tell that.”
“What’s a dryad?” asked Zaruda.
Juniper blinked a few times. “Um…oh. I’m not sure quite how to answer that…”
“Why not,” the pirate said lazily. “If you don’t know, who does?”
“What’s a human?” said Shaeine suddenly. “Explain it in a sentence.”
Zaruda blinked, frowned, and straightened in her seat. “Okay, point taken. Sorry.”
“Well, I guess we’ve got plenty of time to get to know each other,” said Juniper cheerfully, “but since this is just basic introductions, dryads are a kind of tree spirit. I’m like Shaeine and Fross; here from the fae kingdom as a kind of diplomatic outreach. Dealing politely with humans is going to be better in the long run than ignoring or fighting them, I guess.”
“Where’s the fae kingdom?” asked Teal.
“Um…” Juniper seemed nonplussed by this question. “Everywhere?”
“And what are you studying, Juniper, dear?” Janis piped in, clearly trying to steer the conversation back on track.
“Well, I haven’t really decided yet. I mean, I read the list of available majors and they all look very interesting, but that’s because I don’t know what most of them even are. I think I’ll have to get a little more used to things here before I pick one.”
“Undeclared, then,” said Janis, smiling warmly. “Don’t you worry about that, dear, lots of freshmen start out that way.”
“I, uh, wasn’t worried?” The dryad tilted her head. “Should I be?”
“All right!” Janis clapped her hands together. “So, that’s everybody. Wasn’t that fun?” Zaruda snorted into an otherwise chilly silence, but the house mother pressed on. “Life here is pretty simple! You’ll be busy with classes and such soon enough, but you’ll have enough free time to relax a bit, as well. Unless the campus is locked down for any reason, which almost never happens, you can always visit Last Rock, but students aren’t permitted to take a Rail out or otherwise leave the town unless accompanied by a professor.”
“So, what, we’re stuck here?” Zaruda frowned.
“Oh, not at all, dear, this is only during the academic year. Vacation times are your own, and anyway, more of your professors than otherwise grade based on field work, so you’ll actually be traveling quite a bit! Depending on what classes you have, of course. This being your first semester, you’ll mostly be in the same classes; they like to start you kids off with the general education credits first and then move on to your individual studies. Your Monday-Wednesday-Friday schedules and Tuesday-Thursday morning classes will be as a group, with Tuesday-Thursday afternoons for major studies, depending on what you’ve enrolled in.
“The house rules are pretty simple; no complicated magic in the tower without supervision. We woudn’t want you to destabilize the spells holding it up, haha!” Trissiny wasn’t the only one to grab the sides of her chair at that eerie reminder. “No boys in the tower, either, and that’s not a rule you can break; the tower’s spelled to prevent them entering. Aside from that, just use your common sense and try not to start fires in your rooms or anything.” She chortled happily at that, but Juniper looked alarmed and Zaruda rolled her eyes.
“Where are the boys?” Teal asked.
“Oh, they’re lodged somewhere else, dear, don’t you worry about that. You’ll meet them in class tomorrow.”
“Fitting,” said Shaeine with a solemn nod. “Men are delicate creatures; they require careful handling.”
Everyone gaped at her, which she appeared not to notice, sipping her tea.
“Six of them, too?” asked Zaruda, sitting up straighter in her chair.
“Actually, that’s sort of a funny story,” said Janis. “The balance usually skews in the opposite direction, but this year you girls heavily outnumber the lads. Only two in the freshman class.”
“DIBS!” shouted Zaruda, waving a hand in the air.
“On which?” Trissiny demanded.
“I will let you know!”
“I’d pace yourself, Ruda,” said Janis with a conspirational grin. “Your first class tomorrow is with Professor Tellwyrn. She has zero patience for clowning or horseplay. Unless she’s the one doing it.” She clapped a hand over her mouth. “Um, I didn’t say that last part. Tell no one.”
Shaeine raised an eyebrow. “Tell no one what? I heard nothing.”
“I think I’m going to really like you girls!” The house mother giggled, and for the first time Trissiny had to wonder how old she was. Janis looked to be in her late twenties, but she acted like a strangely motherly teenager. “Well, that’s all I have for now. Anything any of you’d like to talk about?”
An awkward silence descended.
“Well,” Trissiny said, rising from her seat, “unless someone needs me for something, I have evening prayers to perform.”
“There’s a lovely chapel on campus!” said Janis. “Have you seen it yet?”
“I haven’t…I think I’ll explore later. My room will suffice for now. Ruda, you of course may come and go as you wish but I’ll ask that you leave me in peace for a while if you’re coming back to the room.”
“Y’know what, you go ahead. Knock yourself out.” Zaruda waved a hand at her. “I think I’ll hang out down here for a while.”
“Very good. It’s been a pleasure to meet all of you.” Trissiny bowed somewhat awkwardly, a gesture Shaeine returned with enviable smoothness without even rising from her seat. She turned and strode back to the staircase, conscious of eyes upon her back.
As she rounded the curve into the shadows above, a faint murmur of conversation rose behind her.
Trissiny felt, as always, refreshed and calmer after time spent in prayer; it helped that Zaruda had not returned to their room. With the tension of the day bled away by contemplation of the goddess, she felt calm enough to return to the window, pull aside the curtains and gaze outside.
The sun had set while she prayed. The view from Clarke Tower was much less nauseating at night, and even more beautiful, mostly because in the darkness she couldn’t see how far from the ground she was. A glittering vault of stars was obscured by only a few patchy clouds, and Trissiny stood there for long minutes, just looking at them. They, at least, were the same as back home. The world seemed divided in half, the spangled sky meeting the black line of the horizon in a single, even border that circumnavigated the world. It made the sky seem larger than in the hilly territory of Viridill, where mountains rose up on all sides to obscure the lower portions of the sky. Still, it was peaceful.
She considered going to bed, but prayer left her feeling both serene and energized, and she knew from experience that sleep wouldn’t come easily in that state. Casting about for something to do, she glanced over at the stack of books from the Abbey and winced. Maybe…another day. It occurred to her to wonder where Zaruda was. She really shouldn’t get in the habit of staying out late but this early in the semester, but it might be wise to make an effort to befriend the other girls of her class. After all, she had just walked out on them. Hopefully they’d understand the importance of prayer, but there was no reason to encourage hard feelings.
Satisfied with this reasoning, Trissiny belted her sword back on and headed down the stairs.
She paused outside Teal and Juniper’s door, which was still closed, but there was no sound from within and after a moment she decided not to knock; years in the barracks had trained her not to infringe on anyone’s privacy unless she had a specific need. They were probably all still down in the parlor with Janis. Nodding to herself, she continued on.
The echo of voices was faint; sound bounced oddly off the curved walls of the stairwell and was deadened by the absurdly plush carpet, so it couldn’t have been coming from far ahead. As she drew in sight of the third floor door and beheld it standing open several inches, Trissiny determined the speakers had to be within. She was almost abreast of the door before words became audible.
“That’s easy for you to say,” Zaruda’s voice declared loudly. “You don’t have to room with her!”
“Are we still talking about this?” Teal’s voice groaned.
“At least one of us is,” Shaeine said softly. Were they all in there?
“Come on, guys, look at this from my point of view. She’s already almost stabbed Shaeine, tried to interrogate Teal at the meeting and you should’ve seen the way she glared at me when I walked into my own room earlier. This may be funny for you but I’ve gotta worry about getting a sword amidships while I sleep!”
“Um, I really didn’t feel any hostility from her.” Juniper’s voice was nervous, uncertain. “But I’m not so adept at reading humans yet…”
Trissiny’s heart pounded painfully. They were all in there, talking about her. Every instinct born of her training shouted at her to knock, or speak, or announce her presence somehow; eavesdropping was toweringly rude at the very least, and arguably a moral failing. But she felt frozen, listening to them.
“Nobody’s going to stab you in your sleep,” Teal said patiently.
“Okay, why doesn’t somebody switch rooms with me, then! See how you like it. I asked van Richter, she said the rooming assignments aren’t set in stone and somebody always changes, every semester.”
“I don’t agree that Trissiny’s intentions are hostile,” said Shaeine calmly, “but it is early yet. I am not sure I would feel safe sleeping in her presence until I know her better.”
“See!?” Ruda shouted. “How about you, June? Since you don’t think she’s dangerous?”
“Ruda, stop it,” Teal said firmly. “You’re being ridiculous.”
“Yeah? Why don’t you move in with her, then? C’mon, she likes you. You got that Merit Badge of Evil-But-Not-Evil.”
Shaeine’s head swiveled suddenly toward the door. Rising smoothly, she glided across the floorboards to push it the rest of the way open.
“Is…is anyone…” Teal trailed off, her heart rising into her throat. Gods above, if someone had overheard their discussion… Janis would not be happy, to say the least, but if it was Trissiny…
“Nothing,” said Shaeine, pulling the door gently closed. “I thought I heard…well. Sound echoes confusingly in this stairwell.”
“Back to the subject at hand, then!” Ruda half-sat, half-lay sprawled in a corner, occasionally drinking from a bottle of whiskey. So far, nobody had bothered to ask where it had come from. “If you’re so in favor of Trissiny, why’re you so opposed to rooming with her?”
“Because, as I said, you’re being ridiculous. More to the point, Ruda, you’re being unfair. None of us know thing one about each other at this point, Janis’s little game notwithstanding, and we know even less about Trissiny because she’s not been part of this conversation.”
“Cos she’s too holy to hang out with us mere mortals,” Zaruda sneered.
“Because she is a person with a sacred calling, and thus has an obligation to spend time in prayer,” said Shaeine. “As do I. You may believe as you choose, but for me to condemn her as asocial due to that would be the height of hypocrisy.”
“Besides, some people just don’t like large groups,” said Teal reasonably.
Zaruda snorted. “Large groups? Y’all should try sleeping belowdecks in a storm sometime.”
“Okay, I’ve gotta say, I am completely confused,” said Fross, who was fluttering around the ceiling. “I thought Trissiny seemed nice!”
“Guys, I’m telling you, you’d know what I meant if you’d seen her earlier. All I did was come in the door and there she is, making fists and looking like she wants to kick me out the window.”
“If I may ask,” Shaeine interjected, continuing to arrange dark silken tapestries along her walls, “did you enter your room the way you did mine a few minutes ago?”
“What’s that got to do with anything?”
“Only that if you burst in, shouting and gesticulating with a wine bottle, upon a highly-trained warrior who doubtless feels as out-of-place and uncertain as the rest of us to begin with, much of the responsibility would fall on your head if she had struck you.”
“Shaiene nailed it,” said Teal approvingly, nodding at the drow, who paused in her work to nod back politely. “We are all of us in a new place, surrounded by virtual strangers, homesick and scared pantsless about sitting through class with the most dangerous individual in the Empire tomorrow. I’ll admit if, if nobody else will. I don’t assume I’m a good judge of what any of you are really like, because I’ve only met you while we’re all stressed as hell. Trissiny’s in exactly the same boat as the rest of us.” She sighed and sat down next to Juniper on Fross’s bed, which the pixie had told them to treat as a couch since she didn’t need it. “Ruda, just give it time. In three weeks if you two still can’t get along, maybe we’ll talk about redoing the room situation. But seriously, give her a fair chance before you start trying to upend the whole tower.”
The pirate grumbled to herself and took a long pull from her bottle.
“And I’ll tell you something else,” Teal went on grimly. “Your arguments are flimsy and your instinctive dislike of her is irrational. If I were to start making assumptions about people, I wouldn’t start with Trissiny. It looks to me like you’re trying to grasp for a sense of control because you’re more comfortable fighting than trying to get along with people who’re different from you.”
“What did you call me?” Zaruda straightened from her slump, glaring.
“Actually, that seemed pretty spot-on,” said Juniper. “Oh, don’t look at me like that, you’re so much prettier when you smile.”
“I would not have put it so bluntly,” added Shaeine, “but it is a common enough tactic among those of a warlike disposition. It is worth pointing out that, considering that we are all here discussing Trissiny in her absence, it is not she who is chiefly guilty of hostile behavior.”
Zaruda swept her glare around the room, but nobody backed down. Finally, she sighed, sloughing back against the wall. “Three weeks, huh.” She took another drink from the bottle. “Fine, we’ll see. But you’re all gonna feel pretty stupid if one of us turns up dead.”
Trissiny paid no attention to where she was going. The paths of the University were well-lit at night; on her previous trip through the campus during the daylight she hadn’t even noticed the glass orbs hovering unsupported over the paths, but in the darkness they put out a steady white glow that drowned out even the moonlight. She barely noticed them now.
She wanted to hunch over and wrap her arms around herself as she walked, but fought off the impulse. Proper posture was as much a part of her as her sword…as was the instinct not to show vulnerability.
No one had ever hated her before.
Mechanically she put one foot in front of the other, staying on the paths but not seeing where they led. At the Abbey she’d been a hero. Because of Avei’s calling more than anything she’d actually done, but the knowledge of that disparity had driven her to work twice as hard, to make herself worthy of the attention. Even before the goddess had singled her out at fifteen, she had been well-liked among the other initiates. How had she offended everyone so badly in the course of one afternoon?
Trissiny raised her head and found that she’d wandered back to the open lawn she had seen earlier. Though she’d passed a few other students on the way, this place was empty now. Slowly, she made her way over to the gazebo and climbed the three steps into its shade. It was darker here, with no light-globes nearby and the roof obstructing the stars.
So this was what it would be like here. Mother Narny had tried to warn here that out in the world, she would quickly meet people who resented Avei and all she represented, and would resent Trissiny by proxy.
She finally let herself slump into a bench, staring down at her boots.
She was a warrior. Her whole life was the expectation of battle. How could she let herself be so…hurt? It was just a few words from a few girls who didn’t really know her. She swiped at her eyes; the tears weren’t there, and she wasn’t going to let them be. This whole thing was just stupid.
Trissiny lunged halfway to her feet, gripping her sword, and the boy who’d spoken hopped back, raising his hands peaceably.
“Sorry! Sorry, didn’t mean to sneak up on you.”
“I… No, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have let myself be snuck up on.” She sank back down onto the bench. “I’m fine, thank you.”
“Okay, well…I won’t bother you, if that’s what you want, but I don’t think Avei approves of lying.”
She snapped her head up to glare at him. Something about him seemed familiar, though she couldn’t place him and hardly knew that many boys anyway. He had skin the darkest shade of brown she’d ever seen, and curly hair trimmed very close to his head. The expression on his face was pure open friendliness.
“Do I know you?”
“Oh…sorry, I guess that was maybe a little presumptuous.” He smiled ruefully. “It’s just hard not to recognize you, what with the armor and all. I’ve been looking forward to meeting you since I learned we were both coming here this fall.” The boy extended a hand to her. “Tobias Caine, Hand of Omnu. Toby to my friends, which I hope includes you.”
“Oh!” Trissiny rose again, fully this time, and grasped his hand. “Oh, I’m sorry. I’d been hoping to meet you, too, Mr…ah, Toby. I’m Trissiny. Avelea. Um, sorry, I’m just really out of sorts tonight.”
“Yeah, I got that impression.” Letting go of her hand, he hopped up the steps in one stride and seated himself on the bench opposite her, placing them on both sides of the gazebo’s entrance. “You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to, of course, but it’s amazing how much it can help just to talk about what’s on your mind.”
“Don’t worry about it,” she muttered, slumping back onto her seat. “It’s stupid, anyway.”
He shrugged. “Maybe. Doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter.”
Trissiny cast about for something to say that would get rid of him. Omnu’s followers were all about compassion and there would be no shaking a paladin of that deity if he believed she actually needed help. She lifted her head; he was just sitting there, watching her. He had the kindest eyes she’d ever seen.
“Everyone hates me!” she burst out.
“That’s hard to imagine…”
Still with a polite demurral half-formed, Trissiny listened to herself babble on in growing horror; it was as if her mouth was done taking orders. “They do, though, everyone in my house, I heard them talking about it. That makes it even worse! I mean, what kind of person listens in on a private conversation?! I was raised better than that! But they were all talking about me and how they apparently think I’m going to murder them in their beds and I was just, I don’t know, frozen. And the worst part is, this is all so stupid! Why do I—how can I possibly even care about this? I’m a paladin, my whole life is going to be spent applying a sword to people who’re going to hate me no matter what. It’s just ridiculous that this bothers me so much. But it does, and now I don’t even want to go back to my room…”
He just sat there, watching her and listening, his expression attentive without offering a trace of pity, until she finally trailed off and drew in a long, shuddering breath, trying to get herself back under control. She was not going to cry, damn it!
“That’s rough,” Toby murmured. “But first of all, there’s nothing stupid at all about feeling hurt when people are jerks to you.”
“I don’t think they were jerks to me,” she muttered. “I…I think they’re afraid of me.”
“Can I tell you what I think?”
She sighed. “Fine.”
“It sounds to me like a misunderstanding. Whatever you did to set them off, they probably took somewhat out of context. I mean, come on. You’re the Hand of Avei, champion of justice, protector of the weak. I know you didn’t walk in there and say or do anything you meant as a threat. Speaking from experience, we paladins can take a little getting used to.”
“We do?” She looked up at him miserably.
“If I remember right, you’re from Viridill, right? Grew up at the Temple there?”
“In the attached Abbey, but close enough.”
He nodded. “No offense intended, Trissiny, but…honestly, I bet you’re a little sheltered. I was raised at the primary Temple of Omnu, but that’s in Tiraas a stone’s throw from the Imperial palace itself. Literally, my friend Gabriel threw a stone onto the Emperor’s balcony once.”
“Ooh, ouch,” she winced. “Is he still alive?”
Toby laughed. “Yeah, he’s got a knack for getting out of the trouble he gets into. But my point is, I’m used to the politics and the fast pace of the capital. It’s…well, the first thing you learn there is that life is a bunch of confusing gray areas. It can be really hard to take a stand for what’s important and hold to it when you’re surrounded by people who genuinely think nothing means anything and all that matters is power.”
“You think that’s what it’s going to be like here?” Trissiny wanted to groan.
“No…I think the University is going to be a whole different tank of fish. More, uh, detectible shades of gray, maybe. But still, it’s just not going to be as simple as being only around people who share your faith and your convictions.”
“Great. So I’m naïve as well as a menace.” She sighed.
Toby stood up, walked over and sat down beside her, resting a hand on her shoulder. She couldn’t feel his skin through her armor, but there was something reassuring about the weight of it. “I wouldn’t put it that way. You’ve just got a little adjusting to do. Avei’s paladins have been a force for everything that’s right in the world for thousands of years, and I know she didn’t call you by accident. You’ll do fine, Trissiny; remember you’ve got a goddess to help you through it.” He smiled at her, so warmly that she couldn’t help returning it.
“Besides,” he went on, “keep in mind your housemates are all as lost and scrambling to adjust as you and I are right now. I bet you anything when things start to settle down, you’ll find out they didn’t mean any harm.”
She took a steadying breath and nodded. “I…may have exaggerated when I said they all hated me. Teal seemed to be, I don’t know, trying to calm things down.”
“Oh, that’s right, you’ll be rooming with Teal Falconer.” He grinned, nodding. “That’s good, she’s a natural born peacemaker. Yeah, I highly doubt Teal suspected you of anything nefarious.”
“You’ve met Teal?” She let out a huff of breath. “Does everyone here know more about what’s going on than me?”
Toby laughed. “Oh, no, nothing like that; I got to spend some time with her a few years ago when she was at the Church in Tiraas. They weren’t exactly giving her the run of the place, for obvious reasons; it’s spooky going from your own cozy life to being cooped up by suspicious priests. We were both sort of in need of a friend.”
Trissiny felt a perplexing stab of envy for her housemate; it must have been nice, getting to know Toby in a more comfortable place than this increasingly disturbing campus. Or had that really been comfortable? He didn’t make it sound so…
“Is that when she got that Talisman?”
“Yeah… Teal has a demon inside her. It was some kind of possession attempt that went wrong. She’s got control of it, and the Talisman of Absolution helps her keep it contained and protects her from holy magic.”
“Wow…” she breathed. “Yeah, I guess it would burn a possessed person, wouldn’t it? That’d be an awful surprise if someone was trying to heal her.”
“Exactly. Look, I may have said too much about this already; it’s her business.”
“No, I understand. That’s fine, thank you for telling me. I’d been wondering.”
Smiling at her again, he stood. He really did have the kindest eyes… “Well, class starts early and Professor Tellwyrn is…legendary. Showing up half-asleep probably isn’t a good idea, so we ought to get to bed. I’m glad to have met you, Trissiny.”
“You too,” she replied, then smiled hesitantly. “Thanks for listening, Toby. You’re…a good listener.”
“That’s what I’m here for.” He gave her that glowing smile again, then reached over to squeeze her shoulder one more time. “You’re going to be fine. I promise.”
She sat there, watching him stride away across the shadowed green. What a nice boy… Growing up in the Abbey one didn’t get the best impressions of men. It was good to know the world had kind ones. She’d already met a few since leaving home, of course. But, she reflected, tilting her head as she watched Tobias make his way down the path, they weren’t all that pleasant to look at…
Trissiny clapped a hand to her face. “Oh, good. That’s great, Triss,” she muttered. “Meet the only other paladin in the world and you immediately start drooling. Goddess, I’m worse than the pirate…”
Zaruda had apparently prevaricated about not packing anything but what was in the pockets of her coat. When Trissiny got back to her room, she discovered that half of it had been utterly transformed by colorful rugs, wall hangings and throw pillows, all heavily embroidered and most with gilded fringes and tassels. It was as if the room had been turned into some kind of harem, albeit with maps tacked up onto the walls. Or at least, half of it had. Zaruda had arranged her rugs on a very precise line along the floor, perfectly bisecting the room. Trissiny’s side was still as spartan as ever.
The pirate herself was reclining in her bed, her face hidden behind an issue of Varsity Princess. She had finally removed her coat and hat; they currently decorated one corner of her wardrobe’s open door. Seeing Zaruda in nothing but trousers and that ruffled wrap around her upper chest, Trissiny had to revise her impression of the girl as plump. She was short and had a curvy frame, yes, but her arms and abdomen showed solid muscle. Piracy, she reflected, must be hard work.
“Hello,” she said carefully, receiving a grunt in reply. She sighed and began removing her armor, carefully arranging it on the floor beside her bed. “We’d better not stay up too late. Class comes early.”
Trissiny paused for a moment, looking up at her roommate. “I’m not going to attack you or anything, you know. We’re all here to learn. I don’t want any problems.”
“Yeah, you know what’s good for that?” A pair of dark eyes appeared over the rim of the magazine, the blue gem glinting in the magic light of the glow-ball. “Stop creating problems.”
Biting back an unhelpful reply, Trissiny stripped down to her shift and pulled back the thin blanket on her bed; Zaruda vanished behind the pages again. Trissiny padded across the cold floor, not stepping on any of the rugs, and pulled the wall lever by the door, plunging the room into darkness.
“Good night, Zaruda.”
There came a flutter of paper and a thump as the magazine was thrown into a wall. Trissiny climbed into bed and lay still, listening to her roommate’s growling and shuffling as she crawled under her own blankets. She missed the barracks, the quieter sounds of the other girls. Girls she knew and trusted.
She would not cry. Not yet, at least.