The newcomer strode through the entryway, shoulders squared. Verin watched as his eyes darted across the torch-lit arena. On a spring morning before dawn, the students of the King's Academy were practicing their fencing.
Something in his nervous gaze felt vaguely familiar. Had they met? He looked eighteen or nineteen years of age, around Verin's age.
“Look at those eyes.” Beside Verin, Aria casually flipped the wooden practice sword in her hand, an appraising expression on her face. “What do you think?”
“Ah…” What sort of answer was Aria expecting? “He’s handsome."
"Clearly not Doroese though. I’d say Jurvic, like you.” Aria eyed Verin, waiting to see her response.
He was definitely from Jurva. Maybe that was why he seemed somewhat familiar. Even though she didn’t know him, perhaps he reminded her of someone she had met.
When she was eight years of age, Verin had left Jurva and traveled where she knew her father’s brother would never pursue her. Dorossa, a kingdom with a taste for battle, became her refuge from her uncle, who had a taste for Verin. In Dorossa, she’d worked odd jobs – not all of them legal - and scavenged the streets until she found a home, a job, and a knack for fencing at the King’s Academy. Once she’d graduated, rather than joining the army, she’d stayed at the Academy as an assistant to the Swordsmaster, teaching students the basics of fencing.
But that didn’t matter right now. Verin crossed her arms. “I’m not Jurvic anymore. I’m Doroese, like you.”
“Right.” Aria arched an eyebrow. “Well, anyways, you can have this one.” She gestured to the newcomer, then passed Verin the wooden practice sword in her hand. “Have fun.”
The last thing Verin needed was to be seen chatting with this boy, especially after all she’d done to disassociate herself with her homeland. But his gaze had landed on her and he headed her direction.
She arranged her features into a welcoming smile, “Welcome to the Academy. I'm Verin."
His eyebrows shot up, “Y-Yes you are.”
That was an odd answer. Verin’s smile faltered for a second before she pasted it back on. “What fencing experience do you have?”
“Um…not much.” He fidgeted, twisting his wrists.
“Well, we accept all sorts at this Academy. Of course, at graduation, you will have to swear an oath to serve Dorossa’s king.”
“Yes. Of course. At graduation.” He laughed, although Verin hadn’t made a joke.
Verin extended the wooden practice sword to him. “I can test you right now, assess where you’re at, and get you with the appropriate swordsmaster to begin training.”
“Right.” He reached out and took the practice sword, muscles slightly tense. “Nice armor.”
Verin looked down, somewhat self-consciously, at her iron mail. She wasn’t required to wear it, she just liked it. She liked to feel safe. “Um, thanks.”
“Verin, don’t you ever look back?”
That was a very personal question, and fairly abrupt, but Verin decided not to dwell on it. “Of course I do. Everyone remembers their past. It’d be hard to forget.” She walked away as she said it, taking another practice sword from the wall
He followed her. “Do you ever miss yours? Your heritage? Your old friends?”
“Why do you ask? What do you know about my heritage?” Also, who the heck did he think he was? She picked up a training sword similar to his and set her feet in a defensive stance. “Strike when you’re ready.”
He inhaled deeply, as if bracing himself for something difficult or painful. “Do you remember me, Verin?”
Had they met? Verin still couldn’t place the odd familiarity that hung about him.
But she’d already answered enough of his personal questions. “I said, strike when you’re ready. I can’t teach you if you just stand there chatting.” From across the room, Aria smirked in their direction.
“I’m not here for you to teach me.”
Verin switched her staff to her left hand and pointed to the door with her right. “Then get out.” At her sharp tone, a few of the students closest to her lowered their practice swords and looked her way in confusion.
He pursed his lips, “Don’t you want to know what I came here for?”
“No. I don’t.” She tried to meet his eyes, but found she couldn’t.
“I came here to…” he trailed off, “Tell you something.”
“Well, you’ve already said plenty.”
“Stop pretending you don’t know who I am.”
“I’m not pretending.” When was he going to leave her alone?
“We’ve spent too much time playing Dragons and Knights for you not to know who I am.”
Dragons and Knights. Little children on the streets of Jurva pretending their lives away.
Verin shook the thought from her mind. “I don’t know you.”
A little boy with a shy smile and poor but generous parents. For a time, he and Verin had been close friends. Verin shook her head again.
Handros stepped toward her hesitantly. “Your family is dead. Your old friends miss you.”
Her uncle was dead. The revelation was like heavy shackles falling from her wrists and ankles. And yet…Verin was Doroese now. She stepped away angrily, her throat constricting, “Don’t you pretend like anyone in Jurva cares. No one did anything to help me!”
Handros paled “If I’d known – ”
“Leave me alone!” She stalked towards the door. Now everyone was watching her. Well, she’d smooth it all over tomorrow.
As she crossed the threshold of the door, a hand landed on her shoulder. Verin spun around and knocked Handros’s touch away. “Do you want to be stabbed?”
He bit his lip. “I came here to tell you...” He fidgeted with the practice sword in his hand. “I’m sorry.”
“No. You aren’t.”
“I miss you.”
“I don’t miss you.”
“I care about you, Verin.”
She crossed her arms. “Is that all? Goodbye.” She set her wooden sword in a crate full of practice weapons and walked away.
Handros didn’t follow her.
Verin caught the scent of cooking pottage and headed down to the Mess Hall. Breakfast would be nice.
She filled her bowl at the central hearth and sat down at a rickety table. It creaked under the weight of her armor.
He’d said he cared about her. He traveled to Dorossa to see her again. Would any of her current friends do anything like that for her? Would Aria?
She stared down at her bowl of pottage, her chest no longer tight, but hollow. Suddenly she wasn’t hungry.
What if he was still waiting for her in the arena?
What if she went back to Jurva with him? Back home? Her uncle was dead. She had enough skill with a sword to make a living as a mercenary or guard. Maybe Handros really hadn’t known what was going on in Verin's home. Maybe Verin could forgive him.
What if Handros had already left, and she stayed here in Dorossa and never left. Never saw his shy smile again.
Verin cursed and stood up, leaving her pottage on the table. She ran back to the arena and found Aria hanging up the practice sword Handros had used. “Where did he go?”
Aria smirked again. “The newcomer? He left. That’s what you wanted, right?”
“Yeah. Right.” Verin tried for another smile, and this time she failed. “Did he say where he was headed?” It was a stupid question.
“No. Probably to grab a bite of food though. You could try the bakery.” Aria shrugged “Or you could avoid the bakery, because you hate him.”
The sun was rising, and the marketplace was filling up as Verin made her way to the baker’s booth. A spring breeze blew through the cracks in her armor.
She found the booth empty. Not even the baker had arrived yet.
She was an idiot.
Verin closed her eyes. What was wrong with her. Slowly, she started to walk back to the King’s Academy.
She spun around. Someone was running toward her. In the morning sunlight she caught a glimpse of his face.
There was that shy smile.