~ 1 ~
The Master arrived, Year 3837
Jahna squeezed herself into the corridor’s darkest alcove as hard as she could. Here, the cloisters branched in three directions. The one she hid in led to the storerooms and armory, its pathway lit only by the flicker of two anemic torches anchored to the walls and spaced far apart. Shadows cavorted along the floors and ceiling, hinting that other things besides frightened girls lurked in their umbric shelter. With any luck, that sinister cast would work in Jahna’s favor and deter the pack of silk-clad wolves currently hunting her in the royal palace.
The patter of several feet on stone and the frustrated pitch of voices reached her ears. The wolves. Evaline Lacramor and her ever-present toadies on their annual hunt for the prey they found so entertaining to torment. An icy draft barreled through the open archways, nearly guttering the torches’ flames and frosting the walls closest to the arches. Shielded from the worst of the cold by a wall and bundled in a hooded cloak, Jahna sweated with fear and tried not to breathe too loud as her heartbeat thundered in her ears.
Another set of steps, this time measured and leisurely, approached from the guest hall opposite from where she hid. A man alone paused, back stiffening as his head turned first one way then the other. The light in the corridors sharpened the edge of shadows more than it illuminated them, but even in its wan luminescence his red hair burned as fiery as a live coal.
To see him more clearly, Jahna would have to reveal her hiding spot, so she contented herself with only the impression of wide shoulders and the weighty focus of a raptor. His head turned a little toward her before he faced the direction of Evaline and her pack’s approach.
Their voices were louder now, and they soon came into Jahna’s view, a trio of predators clad in sumptuous gowns and fur-lined cloaks and gloves.
Evaline, blonde and beautiful, stomped her foot and clenched her gloved hands into fists. “I can’t believe we lost her. She had to take one of these hallways.” She paced back and forth, peering first down the hall where Jahna hid and then down the other where the red-haired man stood in the concealing shadows, silent as the stone at his back.
Jahna held her breath and prayed she wouldn’t sneeze or cough and alert the others to her presence. It was inevitable she’d have to face Evaline at some point during the Delyalda festivities, but the longer she could postpone that particular misery, the better.
One of Evaline’s companions, the less forceful but no less cruel Nadel, frowned. “I’m not chasing her if she went that way.” She pointed down the corridor where Jahna hid. “It’s full of rats and…things.”
The third of their party was a girl Jahna remembered as once being nice to her until she fell in with Evaline. Of their trio, Tefila was the most cautious. “Me neither. And it’s very dark.”
Evaline rolled her eyes. “Stop being a bunch of ninnies. It’s just Fireface. One girl and there’s three of us.”
Tefila gestured to where the man waited, silent and unseen. “If I were her, I’d go that way. It leads to a set of stairs that takes you down into the queen’s gardens.”
Jahna stifled a sigh of relief. She’d almost gone that way, changing her mind at the last moment. The hallway leading to the stairs was long, with no niches or doorways in which to hide, and she had feared not being able to outrun her pursuers.
“This is dull, and I’m getting my hem dirty.” Nadel picked at her skirts, shaking them in a futile bid to rid them of the dark stain marring the decorative trim. “Why not just leave her alone? There’s plenty to do here without chasing Fireface all over the palace.”
She backed up a step, as did Tefila, when Evaline pivoted slowly and leveled a look on them so full of malice, both girls paled. “Because I don’t want to leave her alone,” she said, the words precise, measured and almost spat between her teeth.
Jahna’s galloping heartbeat picked up speed as terror coursed through her veins. She didn’t know or understand what drove Evaline to seek her out with such zeal, but her pleasure in doing so had been the source of many of Jahna’s nightmares for years.
A betraying squeak almost burst from her lips when the other witness to their exchange suddenly moved, his footfalls no longer quiet on the floors as he approached the trio. Their voices fell abruptly silent, broken only by a startled gasp from Tefila when he stepped into the light pooling at the juncture of the three corridors. His bright hair literally shimmered as he bowed in greeting.
“My ladies. A good evening to you.” His voice, deep and languid, felt like a caress, and Jahna fancied he could sing well enough to entice birds from trees.
If Evaline and her friends’ reactions were anything to judge by, they were as affected as she by that beguiling voice. All three tittered. Evaline, always bold, fluttered her eyelashes and sashayed a little closer to their visitor. Her gaze swept him from head to foot. “You’re the swordmaster from Ilinfan, aren’t you?”
He bowed once more. “I am, my lady. Radimar Velus, House of Wemerc.”
Jahna’s eyebrows lifted. Her brother’s new teacher! She desperately wanted to ease out of her hiding place a little more for a better look but dared not. Her fear of Evaline overrode her curiosity for the man her father had paid handsomely to travel from Ilinfan and teach Sodrin how to wield a blade.
The fall of his hair hid most of his profile, but she made out the bridge of his nose and the curve of his cheekbone, both high and prominent. He wasn’t bundled as she and the other girls were in their cloaks, hats, and hoods. Instead he wore thick riding leathers over layers of quilted wool and tall boots that reached mid thigh for warmth and protection against high snow drifts. A sword in its scabbard was belted at his waist. Vambraces clad his forearms, but his hands were gloveless, revealing long, pale fingers and strong tendons that ran the length of his hands to his knuckles.
“You look as if you’re all searching for something important. May I be of any assistance?”
His words made Jahna’s stomach lurch. Had he seen her? More importantly, would he tell? Her legs tensed, and she raised her skirt a little in preparation to run. The only path open to her was the length of hallway behind her back, and that dead-ended at a wall of storerooms. Even if she managed to outrun the girls, her questionable salvation lay in the hope one of those storerooms was unlocked and could be locked from the inside if she reached it in time. That she might freeze to death while she waited out her tormentors seemed a risk worth taking.