As soon as Ember heard that Cassius’ dad was requiring him to train with some kind of weapon after the dragon sighting, there wasn’t a chance she was about to miss watching it.
Of course, he’d been allowed to choose, and he’d chosen the least interesting weapon possible.
She told him as much, because she wasn’t about to just keep that to herself.
Cassius rolled his eyes. “I’m not going to learn how to use a sword,” he said. She watched him juggling with the practise bow that his dad had given with him and wondered if he meant to learn how to use it either.
“Swords suck, there are other weapons that aren’t a bow. That’s so unexciting, you won’t even ever be in the thick of fighting,” she said. “You could have chosen something interesting, like a hammer, or physical combat with knuckledusters or something.”
As he finally managed to hold to bow moderately correct, Cassius’ dad stepped forward to help him notch an arrow.
The archery range was at the far end of the courtyard where all the other weapons’ training happened. There was no one out that morning, save for the occasional person passing up on the wooden wall that surrounded the place. Most everyone who had trained today had already done it, because Cassius had refused to wake up earlier than normal and he had tailoring with Isa in the morning.
“Now draw it back, and aim at the target,” Cassius’ father instructed, nudging Cassius’ arms accordingly as he pulled back on the bowstring.
The arrow fell off the string and Cassius dropped it. It clattered to the ground.
“A crossbow would have been more exciting,” Ember said as Cassius stared down at the arrow like he didn’t know exactly what had happened.
Cassius’ dad glanced at her thoughtfully from her place lounging on top of a pile of sandbags. “You can’t drop a crossbow bolt easily.”
The switch only took a few minutes, and Cassius at least figured out how to hold it much faster. And he didn’t drop the bolt after he put it into the flight track.
“Ok, now lift it and aim it towards the targets.” Cassius’ dad adjusted Cassius’ arms as he lifted it. “And when you’ve lined it up, pull the trigger.”
The bolt went flying into the corner of the strawbale while Cassius recovered from the surprise of the recoil jolt. His father clapped him on the shoulder, but Ember remained unimpressed.
“A fine start,” his father praised. Was it though? He hit the corner of the strawbale. “Soon you’ll be as good as any hunter. Maybe you’ll even take down the dragon.”
Cassius scowled and Ember rolled her eyes. As if. Cassius wouldn’t be able to hurt a rat.
“I’d never hurt a dragon!” he said, jamming the next bolt none too kindly into the flight track after pulling back on the string.
His father sighed. “They’re dangerous. I know you like to read about them, and there’s incredible stories about them, but that’s all they are. Stories. If the dragon got close to you, or anyone else, it could seriously hurt or even kill someone.”
Cassius raised the crossbow again, aimed, and pulled the trigger. He was marginally closer to the centre of the target. He was fidgeting now though, so it would probably be the last of his good shots. “I would never hurt a dragon,” he snapped. “They deserve to live, just like anyone else. This one hasn’t hurt anyone, but it’s a threat because someone saw it.”
She saw Cassius’ dad sigh again, but he didn’t open his mouth to push the issue. Probably for the best, Cassius would never be swayed by the thought of injuring a dragon. Or anything, likely.
As he wildly missed his next shot, she grabbed another crossbow and came beside him. She had never used one before, but she mimicked the instructions given to Cassius and stood beside him, aiming for the second strawbale with a target.
She hit about halfway to the centre. Cassius’ next shot struck the same corner he’d hit the first time.
“This is good for you,” Cassius’ father said, after a few more shots that had varying levels of success. “It’s no good for a healthy young boy like yourself to be sat inside all the time, hunched over cloth and needle.”
“He’s not always inside,” Ember protested. “We run around in the forest all the time. He comes with me to the village to Laska’s smithy and helps me.”
“I mean, I run errands for Laska, I’m not actually helping you,” Cassius pointed out.
She shot another bolt and this time it landed short of the target, burying itself in the ground like a stake. She shrugged. “Sometimes you bring us pastries from Rehanna. That helps my morale.”
“Yeah, but that’s ‘cus she fancies Laska.” Cassius stretched out his arms, nearly taking out his dad with the crossbow. He muttered an apology.
Ember shot him a glare. “She likes me too!” she protested, even though she knew he wasn’t wrong. Honestly, she didn’t understand why Rehanna and Laska couldn’t talk. They were adults, wasn’t that what adults did? “Sometimes she’ll make those tarts special for me because she knows I like them. And the huckleberry pie treats for Rowan! They love those. They can eat them and practise melding magic on the metals at the same time. It’s crazy.”
“They just burned their hands like, a week ago, how can they multitask on their magic?” Cassius wrinkled his nose, making a face. “I can’t even light a candle without concentrating real hard on it.”
Cassius’ father frowned. Cassius wasn’t technically supposed to be practising magic until his birthday, after the kitchen incident and making all the pots fly through the air whenever someone tried to grab them.
She exchanged a look with him and tried not to start laughing.
“When… I was still practising,” he lied, lifting the crossbow as a deflection. “Am I really just going to keep shooting at the target? You don’t even use a crossbow.”
“Tyrone said he would teach you in the evenings, we’re just adjusting you to it right now.”
Cassius hmphed at his father and set his crossbow aside. Ember watched him approached the range and set her own aside. She hadn’t run out of bolts like he had, but she’d go and collected hers anyway while he wasn’t practising.
“I’ve heard that Mishal is one of the finest apprentice swordsmen,” Cassius’ dad said. He looked towards Ember, and she decided not to mention he was the only apprentice swordsman at the Chronicler’s Guild. “You’re taking lessons from him, aren’t you Ember? Why haven’t you ever joined them?” his dad said, turning back to Cassius.
That earned his father an impressively sour face, like Cassius had just bitten into a lemon. Or food stuffed with beetles. “Why don’t I ever train with Mishal?” he said mockingly, and then scoffed. “What a stupid question. Mum wouldn’t ask that question, she knows he’s the worst.”
Ember set aside her bolts and leaned over to cuff Cassius over the ear. He yelped. “Stormy’s not the worst, you’re the worst.”
He swatted her away. “Did you hear him the other day? ‘Enamoured by the idea of exploitative profits.’ Ugh. He’s so ostentatious.”
She levelled him with a withering look. Ostentatious? “You’re such a ruffian, I don’t even know what that means.” She shoved him in the shoulder. “‘Ugh, Ember, he’s so annoying, he uses big fancy words that he thinks make him sound smart, he’s so bothersome.’ Ostentatious? You hooligan.”
Cassius’ bronze cheeks had turned a dark, warm shade of pink, and he gave her a shove back. “Shut up! I learned that from Ashael!”
“You’re such a liar.” She ruffled his curls, which would annoy him more than anything.
Sure enough, he squawked and dodged away from her. “He yelled at me in the library the other day! He yelled, Em, in the library! Said I was distracting him! I was just reading! I wasn’t even doing anything!” Cassius’ face was flushed. “He said trouble permeated off of me, and he couldn’t focus on his dumb book about… whatever. Permeated!”
She decided not to point out that Cassius, for years, had been trying to pull Mishal from his books when he was busy. It tracked that he would achieve that and not even notice. Cassius was so smart, and so, so dumb.
“Oh, boo, he said a fancy word. When he and Belle are gone, the only one who will be saying fancy words is you, and you won’t have a fallback than because everyone will notice it since Mishal is gone.”
She hadn’t meant to snap at him, but the words came out harsher than she anticipated. There was a bitter flavour in her mouth as she spoke, and she turned to frown at the ground as if this was all the earth’s fault.
Then she sat down, sick of firing a stupid crossbow at an inanimate strawbale.
There was a beat of silence. Either Cassius didn’t have a good comeback, or she hadn’t startled just herself with her tone.
“It’s actually about high time that I head back to the kitchens to make sure we don’t need a supply run for dinner tonight,” Cassius’ father said. “I trust you two can clean up after yourselves here.”
She glanced up to watch him pat Cassius’ shoulder. Cassius nodded, but it was absent, distracted. “Yeah, we got it,” he said, voice not all that grounded.
And then they were alone, and Cassius put aside his bolts and sat down in the cold earth beside her. He pulled his jacket tighter around him. She wondered how the fur around his collar didn’t tickle him.
“Sorry,” she muttered, tracing the hard dirt with a finger. “I didn’t… You know.”
“Yeah,” he said.
Some of the weight she hadn’t noticed at first lifted off her shoulders and she let herself slump forward a little. She pulled his knees up to her chest and rested her chin atop them.
“Hey,” Cassius said, voice much softer than before. “Uh, you know the other day? I was in the village with Belle, ‘cus we were picking up some fabrics for Miss Honeycutt, and there was this knight passing through. You know, she had the crest of Chromium on her sword. She was really tall, and she had this dark red hair, darker than yours. She beat Old Man Reigh in an arm wrestle like he was made of flour.” Cassius laughed at his own story, and she didn’t even try to fight her own grin. “She reminded me of you.”
She knew he was deflecting, and though a part of her wanted to pinch him and call him out for it, the rest of her didn’t. “Because she had red hair? Lots of people have red hair, Raz.”
“Because she was tough,” Cassius said decisively. “Maybe you’ll be a knight someday.”
She rolled her eyes, but she was smiling. “I wanna be a blacksmith. Knights are cool, but blacksmiths are vital. What are you going to do if you don’t have door hinges? Not have a door, and then you’ll look pretty foolish. Where do you think the kettle in the kitchen comes from? A knight certainly didn’t beat metal into shape with their dumb swords.” Her smile faded. “If anyone was going to become a knight, it’d be Stormy.” She chewed at the inside of her cheek. “Stupid expedition.”
“Yeah, well. What’s so interesting about some dusty, crumbled old buildings? Belle and Stormy will be bored to tears before long, and then they’ll just come back. Besides, think of all the pranks they won’t be able to stop because they won’t be here.”
It wasn’t much of a comfort, but it was enough to make Ember grin. She raised her fist in his direction, and he knocked his own against it. “They’ll never know what hit ‘em,” she promised.