It had been a week since Mishal had been the target of one of Cassius’ pranks. Ember had just finished history lessons with Cassius.
Which was all that say that the pouch attached to the belt at her hip was highly suspect.
Ember’s hair was pulled firmly back into a ponytail that did not even reach her neck, her curls so tight and wild they scrunched into a ball of frizzed auburn hair. Several curls were too short to be secured and fell above her eyes and over her ears. She was carrying one of the standard, blunt training swords. It was loose in her fingers; she wasn’t gripping it right.
She hated training with swords, but it was good for her to practise.
As she stepped into the sandy dust-ring—difficult terrain practise made fighting on steady ground much easier—Mishal sunk the tip of his own blunt sword into the ground and crossed his arms over his chest.
“What’s in the pouch?” he asked.
To Ember’s credit, she met his gaze with determination and raised an eyebrow. If there was an expression that was the opposite of suspicious, she wore it. “Gears. Laska gave ‘em to me to fiddle with. Why?”
He glanced behind her. Alanna was only partially watching, kicking at pebbles with her boot-encased feet, her black hair pulled back in a braided bun that Isadora had probably done for her. If she knew anything about the pouch or its contents, she would have said something.
“If it’s gears, you won’t mind me looking in it then, right?” he asked, though it wasn’t really a question.
She stared at him with sharp amber eyes as if she’d issued some kind of challenge, but she said nothing as he approached her and removed the pouch from her belt. Her cheek twitched.
He sighed before he’d even opened the pouch. She’d been lying. If he hadn’t been thinking about the meeting that Guildmaster Margaretta had pulled him and Isadora aside for, and Cassius sneaking out of the Guildmaster’s study, he might not have noticed.
The pouch was full of a shimmering, dusty substance. Whether it was spell dust that was bound with something mischievous, or it was just glitter. He wasn’t sure which was more unpleasant.
“Tell Cassius to stop interfering with training,” Mishal said. He tried not to think of the last incident, with the hollowed sword that he couldn’t balance or fight with. Or the incident with the tracking hounds. “And you should know better.”
Ember shrugged. “Should I? I’m twelve.”
He glanced over to the crab apple tree nearby. Rowan was sitting in its branches, scribbling in a leather-bound journal elegantly. There was a clock that chimed every hour on the front cover and engraving around the edge. Rowan offered no back up for Mishal, though whether they were ignoring him or hadn’t noticed was anyone’s guess.
They were wearing a ridiculous hat. Looked like the roof of a tower with a sweeping brim. They, as usual, did not look ridiculous, but the hat did. Mishal didn’t know how they had gotten into the tree without losing the hat or tripping on their flowing robes.
“That’s not an excuse,” he told Ember. “And I’ve told you that before.”
“It’s a double not-excuse!” Alanna chimed in, finally raising her head from her perch on a wooden stool. “Or Mishal won’t train you anymore!”
He opened his mouth to correct her on her delivery, but then shut it. He hadn’t slept well enough for this.
“If I don’t have to train with a sword anymore, I’ll make sure he skips his tailoring lesson with Belle to come himself,” Ember muttered.
“They’re learning embroidery. It’d have to be a good payoff to convince him,” Rowan said, staring skyward at nothing in particular. Their expression was contemplative.
Mishal gave Ember a look. “It’s good for you. It makes you versatile. Swords are more common than hammers or flails, it may be your only option in a situation where you need to defend yourself.”
“Untrue,” Ember said, although she did raise her sword and practise swinging it. She was badly off-balanced and could be disarmed with little effort. “I’m gonna be a blacksmith. I’ll have hammers all around me. I’ll make lots of flails to have around.”
“You won’t always be in a smithy,” he said. Then he picked up his own sword and pointed at her feet. “Start with position. I know that you know that. Quit trying to pretend you’re standing on a wobbling board.”
She corrected her position, somewhat, but still held her sword as though it were covered in thorns. He brought his own sword up and, with a flick of his wrist, knocked it from her hands.
She glared. “Don’t call me that.”
By the time he’d managed to get Ember focused on the training session, Rowan’s journal had chimed sweetly, and Alanna was attempting form the pebbles outside the dust-ring into some kind of picture. Isadora always told her to bring books or at least come to tailoring practise with her and Cassius while Ember was training, but Alanna refused.
The patience of a ten-year-old was not long lived, however. Mishal tried to practise with her and Ember together when he had the chance, but Ember’s stubbornness since they’d begun swordplay was hindering the usual routine.
He was attempting some defensive parrying, when Ember said, “Heard you and Belle are leaving.”
Mishal put his weight too heavily on his left foot. With a similar wrist motion as he had done earlier but with more of a swirl, Ember twisted the training sword from his hand and it clattered uselessly into the sand. She stepped forward and tapped her sword to his chest, tilting her neck back slightly to look up at him.
He swatted it away. The air around them had grown still—as still as could be with other training sessions in the background—and he was now aware of both Alanna and Rowan’s gazes directed at him. “Where did you hear that?”
There was a tight set to Ember’s jaw as she looked up at him, brow stiff. “Raz told me.”
Of course. Cassius must not have snuck off far when the Guildmaster had told him and Isadora about the expedition to the ruins.
Alanna scrambled to her feet, icy eyes wide as she stared between them. “But it’s not true, is it?” She hugged her arms around herself. “It isn’t, right?”
The sound thud of a book shutting made him instinctively turn to look right. Rowan had shut their book and was swinging nimbly down for the tree. Their thick, dark hair swung over their shoulders in a loose braid. They set their journal and mechanical pen on the ground and watched with silent curiosity.
He bent to retrieve his sword. He hadn’t been instructed to keep the expedition silent, but surely if the Guildmaster had wanted them to know, she would have told them? Or had their parents tell them?