# The Night Runners: First Year

## Chapter 9

The next time the four girls found themselves together in the same room, it was the middle of the term’s midterm exam week. It was also snowing. As the first term came to an end, winter had set in, bringing rough winds and sleet and snow and ice. Fading into the gray distance, the world seemed comprised of pale blues and whites and blacks as all that remained of the school’s park were wide fields of snow and pines and firs and the bared, black branches of the elms and oaks. The season had changed the school grounds into a harsh land of ice and cold. More often than not, Chrystyna’s, as well as Katrynn’s, pencil faltered as their attention wandered away from a revision. Outside, the world of white seemed far more interesting than calculating the mathematical sums which their teacher had given them for practice.

“A good assassin is a calculating assassin,” Master Thompson always told his students, “and that doesn’t just mean being clever or being manipulative. It is also about quick thinking and being able to swiftly guess a distance or a measurement in the heat of a mission.”

Master Thompson, Emalynn thought, is always trying to make maths more exciting than it really is – but we all know the truth. She sighed.

“What are you studying?” Katrynn asked, eyes still focused on softly falling snow drifting past the wide windows of Chrystyna’s Tower (that was the unofficial name for their team’s meeting place).

“Maths,” Emalynn grunted, her glare still fixed on the papers before her. “I think Master Thompson just gave us this stuff to keep us busy.”

“We’re already busy,” Brittainy rolled off her seat dramatically and sprawled on the ground, still clutching one of the quills which Chrystyna had set out in a jar for everyone’s use. “That’s all I’ve been doing – homework, homework, homework! I’m going to die!!!”

“No one has died of homework,” Emalynn snorted.

“Well, I’ll be the first!”

“I’ll be the second,” Katrynn rubbed her eyes. “I think I read this sentence twice and I still can’t remember it!”

“What’re you studying?” asked Brittainy.

Her blonde curls now popped up at Katrynn’s elbow, and the young girl’s blue eyes fixed on the dark-haired girl’s lecture notes. Brittainy wrinkled her nose.

“Oh. You’re already on your alchemy?” The girl gave a gusty sigh. “I hate the fact I have to memorize that table thing.”

“You mean the table of elements?” Emalynn said. “We all have to memorize it. You’re not the only one.”

“I finished memorizing it last night,” Chrystyna said, withdrawing her attention from a small purple-backed book for a moment. “It wasn’t so bad.”

Emalynn recognized the small textbook as that of the Social Arts taught by Master O’Shore. Chrystyna has been having problems in that class, she mused. Well, she has problems in most of her classes – but that subject really doesn’t seem to come natural to her.

“You think you’ll get a passing grade on the exams this time?” asked Brittainy, bluntly asking what the Romayans had been wondering.

“I hope so,” Chrystyna said. “Living here is so interesting, and so different, from home. I would like to stay here and learn even more.”

“You do realize that this Academy is about being an assassin,” Emalynn said, “not just about reading and learning things.”

“Yes, of course,” Chrystyna said and then added vaguely, “but learning comes in different ways.”

“I don’t see what that-”

“Well, hopefully Mistress Stonecroft passes you for Assassin’s Life,” Brittainy interrupted Emalynn. “I think that if you fail that one, you’ll be out for sure. And you know how much she hates you.”

“I don’t know why,” Chrystyna looked nonplussed. “I thought about it long and hard...”

“Hm,” Emalynn scratched her head. “I think it’s because she’s a bit of an elitist.”

“Elitist? What’s that?”

“See, that’s my point exactly,” Emalynn hit herself in the face with her papers. “I bet Mistress Stonecroft thinks that provincial ‘volunteers’ should just stay home.”

“I volunteered,” Brittainy said, sliding back into her seat. “Not for my province though.”

“I don’t think you volunteered,” Emalynn said, giving Brittainy the typical ‘Romayan Look’ which did not appear to phase the younger girl.

“If I’d had to,” Katrynn said, “I would’ve. Assassins are amazing! When we grow up and become experts, we’ll become one with the shadows and sweep away the criminal world with our combined strength!” Katrynn raised a fist in the air imperiously and added: “We’ll scale church towers and the Automaton Clock and we’ll jump from zeppelins-”

“Belaying,” Brittainy interjected. “I remember Master Ahmeen saying something about rope and belaying-”

“-we’ll belay from zeppelins-”

“Why are we on zeppelins?” Emalynn asked.

“Do we have to be on zepp’lins?” asked Chrystyna with worry. “I don’t like heights.”

“We know you don’t like heights,” Emalynn said tolerantly. “Remember when you got stuck trying to climb that tree and Master Ahmeen had to carry you down?”

“Oh yeah,” Chrystyna nodded. “Climbing the tree was really scary – but riding piggy-back was fun.”

Emalynn barely refrained from smacking herself in the face.

“I’m still back on why we’re on zeppelins,” Emalynn said, turning to frown at Katrynn. “You do know that only the military have control of aircraft.”

“We should have a zeppelin,” Katrynn said, “so we can go wherever we want.”

“She has a point,” Brittainy said thoughtfully.

“But don’t zeppelins stand out?” asked Chrystyna blankly. “I thought assassins are anonymous and having a big black zeppelin with the words ‘Assassin Guild’ on the side is not anonymous.”

“Exactly,” Emalynn rolled her eyes. “No zeppelins, Kat.”

“Unless we hijack a zeppelin,” Katrynn argued, obviously very much in love with her mental scenario.

“You can hijack a zeppelin,” Chrystyna said, “I’m staying on the ground.”

“And who will steer it?” asked Emalynn.

“You will,” Katrynn said glibly.

“Oh,” Emalynn paused, slightly mollified by the fact that her younger sister thought her capable of steering a zeppelin. “I suppose...”

“Will we study that in Physical Ability?” Brittainy wondered aloud.

“Study what?” Chrystyna asked.

“Belaying from zeppelins.”

“I don’t think so,” Emalynn said, “and if we do, it won’t be until our third or fourth year. Until then, we have to focus on book learning and theoretics and using blunted weapons.”

“They still hurt,” Chrystyna pointed out.

“What’s your favorite class again?” Emalynn asked the tall, dark-haired girl.

“I like History... and Literacy and Language Study. Alchemy isn’t so bad either.”

“You can hit people hard in Armed Combat,” Katrynn said. “And nobody can knock you over. You probably won’t fail that class.”

“Only extreme idiots fail Armed Combat,” Emalynn said bluntly. “It’s Assassin’s Life we all need to worry about.”

“I do meditating well,” Chrystyna said.

“You mean, you do sleeping with your eyes open well,” Emalynn smiled then.

“So can you!” Chrystyna shot back.

“Well, yeah,” chuckled Emalynn. “I think most of us are learning how to do that.”

With that, a silence blanketed the room as the four girls’ attention returned to the work at hand: their revision and extra practice sheets.

“What do you guys think about Mistress Knowles?” Brittainy asked after twenty minutes of hard work (which involved quill chewing, flailing, some attempts at finishing up her practice pages, and five minutes of daydreaming).

“She’s strange,” Emalynn said promptly.

“Mistress Knowles,” Chrystyna blinked. “Oh, you mean, Sciences?”

“I don’t think she’s that bad,” Katrynn said. “I mean, her homework is pretty easy.”

“As in, nonexistent,” Emalynn said with a frown.

“That’s what makes her so amazing,” Brittainy said. “But I’m thinking more about how she is always making bird noises. What’s up with that?”

“I asked Clarke,” Katrynn’s voice lowered suddenly as though she were imparting some highly classified information. “He told me that Mistress Knowles has a tic.”

“A tick?” Chrystyna’s hand unconsciously wandered to the large tome at her side – a thick dictionary she usually carried about with her. “Isn’t that a bug? Is there a bug in her brain?”

“Whoa! A teacher with bugs in her brains!” Brittainy looked impressed. “How did that happen?”

“Ew! No!” Emalynn flinched at the idea. “Ugh. No. A tic. A tic is like a habit that you get over time from doing the same thing over and over again.”

“Or something like that,” Katrynn said. “Anyways, Clarke said Mistress Knowles had been given a surveillance assignment in Zahnt and part of it involved mimicking birds, so she ended up stuck with that habit of making bird noises.”

“Or maybe she’s just bored,” Emalynn said.

“Or maybe she’s part bird!” Chrystyna’s green eyes were wide with awe as though she half-believed her own tall tale.

“Um,” Emalynn said.

“That would be amazing,” Brittainy agreed. “She’d have a perfect camouflage... Except she isn’t a bird. I checked and I don’t see any extra humps on her back where wings would be.”

“Alright,” Emalynn said. “Tell me you guys are joking.”

“We’re joking,” Chrystyna said.

“Yes, yes, joking,” Brittainy hastily agreed.

“Uh-huh.”

“Well, that’s what Clarke said,” Katrynn shrugged.

“He did not say she was a bird!”

“Well, no,” Katrynn said. “Just that she had to act like a bird for too long, so now she’s a bird lady.”

“Where did Clarke hear it from?” asked Emalynn, giving her younger sister a hard stare.

“He heard it from Raz and Jed.”

“Raz and Jed are Third Years. They’re probably messing with Clarke. You know he’s the type who lets his imagination run away with him,” Emalynn sighed and added sarcastically, “not like anyone else I know.”

“I like Clarke,” Katrynn said. “He’s not bad for a boy.”

“I like him too,” Emalynn grinned.

“Yeah,” Brittainy paused and gave Emalynn a look. “You are really nice to him. I heard from Toria that you beat up some Second Years who were making fun of him.”

“I just kicked them in the knees.” Emalynn paused. “And other places.”

“Oh my,” Chrystyna muttered to herself.

“You know Clarke,” Emalynn said and then stopped, remembering Chrystyna’s track record for not recognizing her classmates. “Or maybe not.”

“You spoke with him at lunch the day before yesterday,” Katrynn prompted her forgetful classmate. “He asked you about your history notes.”

“Ohhhh... yes...” Chrystyna blinked. “That boy. He was worried about getting his paper done for Master O’Shore.”

“Clarke is the worst when it comes to due dates,” Emalynn shook her head. “He’s hopeless. Don’t let him entrap you in his endless vortex of procrastination.”

“It’s when you put things off all the time,” Katrynn said.

“Mother says procrastination is taboo in our house.”

“Let’s just say that if procrastination was a person, Clarke would be his best friend,” Emalynn said.

“I’m best friends with it too!” Brittainy cheered.

“That’s... not a good thing,” Emalynn said, deadpan. “Speaking of which, we need to stop procrastinating and focus on our work.”

Chrystyna pulled her gaze away from the lowering clouds, the white expanse of snow-laden trees, and the twinkling lights of the city beyond. Emalynn stared at the blur of black ink before her. It was going to be a long evening of study.

Soon, she told herself, soon it will all be over, and the winter holidays will start.

Two days later, her final paper complete, Chrystyna went in search of her social arts teacher, the illustrious Master Francis O’Shore who also taught history. Master O’Shore was a short, curly-haired, blue-eyed man gifted with a natural spontaneity and charisma which many of his students enjoyed. Thanks to his enthusiasm, most of Master O’Shore’s students found the intricacies of social arts and history coming alive in new and interesting ways.

History in particular interested Chrystyna, who, as a farm girl, had never learned the entirety of Doran’s long history. Life in history class seemed to be filled with epic battles and riveting political meetings. As a result, many students within the Assassin’s Academy became interested in the various facets of Doran’s long and varied history.

Chrystyna was no exception. Like other young students, she struggled with remembering the names, dates, and places, as well as the significance, of the events. However, the general story of Doran’s history had been stamped on the awkward girl’s vivid imagination. Already she had begun to imagine herself as Sir Cornelius, the triple agent who worked for the Crown on the Southern Continent; Lady Nessie, who swam the Bante River in order to warn the villages of a Barbarian attack; King Sorn and Queen Lucie, who disappeared one day after going out for a walk[1], and the crazy Hermit Valsson, who lived with a clan of Great Northern Bears for seven years.

After inquiring at his office and then asking two upper level students (whom she did not recognize, as usual), Chrystyna finally found the history professor in her favorite spot – the Academy’s Library and Archives. The library was in a large hall of its own, complete with lofty arches, graciously carved pillars, and intricate stained glass. In Heathmoor, a four-hour train ride away from her hometown, Grey Crags, Chrystyna had visited the provinces Great Cathedral. Our library is a lot like a church, Chrystyna thought. So peaceful and thoughtful. It’s a place, I guess, where great thoughts are, well, thought.

However, unlike the Great Cathedral in Heathmoor, the aisle was not lined with wooden pews but great wooden shelves filled to the brim with books of all shapes and sizes. A few of the shelves held bins instead of books in which were stored ancient scrolls and large portfolios. Other kinds of storage units held the glass slats of the rarest ancient parchments dating back to the beginning of the Assassin’s Guild. At irregular intervals, the shelving stopped to allow for a group of small tables where students and teachers often assembled for study groups or other assignments. In one such small oasis, surrounded by his own stacks of books and papers, Master O’Shore sat, obviously deeply engrossed in research. Two other teachers whom Chrystyna did not recognize also sat nearby, each reading their own book.

Approaching him quietly, Chrystyna paused to watch her teacher as he slowly flipped through an important looking book decorated with velvet and intricate brass designs along the edges. The pages looked rather old and fragile. Chrystyna coughed and felt a small thrill as her teacher whipped around, suddenly tense at the realization that someone had crept up on him without his noticing. At the sight of his quiet student, Master O’Shore relaxed.

“Chrystyna,” His light blue eyes glinted and then he smiled.

“You need to be careful, creeping up on me like that!” He glanced down at the neat sheaf of papers she held, “I suppose I should be impressed with your sneaking abilities though.”
Chrystyna blinked. “I wasn’t sneaking.”

“Oh.”

“I just walk quietly all the time,” she shrugged. “People think that I’m too tall and fat to walk quietly, but I can do it.”

“I wouldn’t say that you are fat,” O’Shore frowned, wondering which of his students had been bullying the quiet girl. “Some people just grow earlier than others.”

“Oh.”

Chrystyna seemed to take a long time thinking about it before she nodded. Master O’Shore managed to hide the worry he usually felt when talking with his more ‘challenging’ students[2].

“What do you have there?” The teacher finally asked, realizing the conversation was probably not going to start again without his prompting.

“Oh!” Chrystyna looked down at her hand and set her papers down by his work, “I came to bring my final exam paper.”

“Oh yes,” O’Shore picked it up, glanced through it, and nodded. “I see that you followed the format as I instructed.”

“I did my best,” Chrystyna said, with a just a hint of anxiety.

“I always appreciate students who do their best,” O’Shore said, drawing upon his most comforting uncle impression.

“Especially when they start at a disadvantage. This work will definitely help your overall grade. How do you think your other exams are going?”

“Alright, I suppose,” said the quiet girl, looking a little discouraged. “Physical Ability and Social Arts are my worst marks. Mistress Shareef and Mistress Knowles say I’m a rough diamond, and I can do well in their classes – in the future. ‘In the future’, that’s what they always say, but I think I should do better right now, like everyone else.”

“Well, first off,” O’Shore gave the girl a sharp look, “everyone has a different learning curve. Do you know what a learning curve is?”

“A learning curve?”

“It’s the way and rate at which we learn. Everyone is different. Some people start learning easily and quickly, but later on they fizzle out.”

“Fizzle?”

“Right. Remember that school is like a marathon, a long race. It’s not important how you start, but how you end the race.”

“Ohhh... So maybe some people will look smart at the beginning, but look stupid at the end?” Chrystyna asked.

“Wellll,” O’Shore paused. “Something like that. I know that you are having a hard time in many of the classes, but I had a talk with your educational counselor, Mistress Caira. I think she and I and some others agree that you can go far if you keep working hard. Do you know what this means?”

“What does it mean?” asked Chrystyna.

Master O’Shore leaned forward and gave his struggling student an encouraging smile. “Don’t get discouraged. Never give up. The day you give up is the day you lose.”

Chrystyna nodded slowly. She glanced over at the other teachers – a grey-haired older woman who was writing on a piece of paper with a fancy looking pen and a tall, thin, handsome man who was reading a book labeled Long-Term Intrusions. Long-term intrusions, she thought. I wonder what that means. It sounds painful.

“I heard that you aren’t doing so badly in the Program,” Master O’Shore continued on. “Young Englund had a chat with me the other day about you.”

“Young Englund?”

“I suppose you know him as Master Geoffrey.”

“Oh.” Chrystyna shifted from foot to foot. “We haven’t done our part of the assignment yet, but Master Geoffrey tells me we have to practice a lot for it – because it is coming up after the winter holidays.”

“He said that you are learning to take notes rather well.”

“Yes.”

On the other hand, Master Geoffrey sighed to himself, Englund seems to think that she has no talent in the social arts or in anything else. Despite the fact that the girl performs well in other areas, Englund is forever complaining about awkwardness and lack of tact and all that. As usual.

“I don’t think he likes me,” Chrystyna said. “I mean, I didn’t think so at first, but Emalynn and Brittainy told me that they think he doesn’t like me. They are usually right about these kinds of things. It seems like a lot of teachers don’t like me. Emalynn said it was cause of elight – enlight – elite-”

“Elitist ideas?”

“Yes. That.” Chrystyna’s dark brows wrinkled as she frowned.

“Why can’t just anybody be an assassin? What’s wrong with volunteering? Nobody’s mad at Brittainy ’cause she volunteered. Well,” Chrystyna paused to muse over the conundrum that was Brittainy. “I guess they are mad at her a lot, but not because she volunteered.”

“She didn’t really volunteer,” Master O’Shore chuckled. “She was recruited, which I suppose some people are questioning now.”

“But they won’t kick her out, will they?” asked Chrystyna anxiously. “Her family is important, Emalynn said, so Brittainy can be really strange and not get in trouble.”

“Well,” Master O’Shore sighed, “that is one way of putting it, but you know that the Assassin’s Guild isn’t a Guild that plays around. If the Guild doesn’t want her, it doesn’t matter if she’s going to be the next Queen.”

“Oh.”

“Still, I don’t think they will remove your friend,” O’Shore went on, comfortingly. “After all, she’s got her own assets.”

“I see,” Chrystyna said, not really seeing at all.

“At any rate, the least of your worries is Brittainy,” the History teacher went on. “I would focus on finishing your exams to the best of your abilities and get ready to do a lot of make-up homework during the winter holidays. You’ll also need to brush up on your speaking skills – your ability to chat and make small talk. That way, you will be ready for Master Geoffrey when your assignment comes up.”

“I’ll do my best,” Chrystyna promised with less enthusiasm than O’Shore liked, but the glint in the young lady’s eye was promising.

Perhaps she’s got the will deep, deep down, he told himself. You saw something on the first day at school – determination and innovation. It’s still there, waiting to bloom.

“Well,” the awkward girl shuffled her feet again. “I guess I should go.”

“Absolutely,” Master O’Shore nodded and gestured at the books before him. “Research calls.” He glanced at the clock which was just chiming at the eight. “You run along – it’s curfew.”

Leaning back a little in his chair, the history teacher watched as the young girl’s dark head passed the line of carts with books, down the aisle, past the librarian’s check out desk, and out the door. Francis O’Shore picked up his student’s first page, scanned it quickly, shook his head, and chuckled. Mistress Renfrew disappeared somewhere with her marking, leaving the two men in relative peace to complete their research.

“Interesting read?” The handsome man, whom Chrystyna had noticed, asked, setting down his book.

“Always,” O’Shore handed over the carefully handwritten page he had just read. “First Years are the ones who are most true to their intuition, since their personal expectation haven’t been formed by years of experience and training.”

“Yes,” said the other, absently as he read through the introductory paper. “The double-edged sword.”

“But not all of them are without experience,” O’Shore added thoughtfully. “The Romayans, you know. And Karness.”

“And the Havershams.”

“Yes. A lot of familial expectations, but by the end, they hopefully become what they were meant to be as assassins,” the teacher turned to give the other man a sharp look. “Is there something you are concerned about?”

“Concerned?” The paper exchanged hands again and was filed away with the rest of the essay in a brown folder. “Not so much concerned, as curious, I suppose.”

“Really?” asked the other man.

“To begin with,” O’Shore leaned back. “I am surprised that the Headmaster has become personally involved with this particular student.”

“Not so much personally involved,” the Headmaster of the Assassin’s Academy replied easily, setting his feet up on the vacant chair opposite him, “as curious, like yourself. Perhaps I am concerned. I have five reports on the table concerning the girl. Ah, Fieldman.”

“Which teachers?” asked O’Shore laconically. “No. Let me guess... Stonecroft, Knowles, Thompson, and Ahmeen?”

“Yes.” Felix Amarost chuckled. “The usual.”

“Well, Ahmeen and Thompson are probably on the fence and just got swept away by public opinion.”

“It’s hardly public opinion.”

“It’s Stonecroft’s opinion,” O’Shore said bluntly, “so it’s public.”

“The other teachers aren’t in raptures either.”

“No one goes into raptures over a First Year.”

“What about the Romayans?” asked Amarost with a hint of cheekiness, his blue eyes twinkling.

“Felix,” O’Shore gave the other man a look. “The whole point is that they are unformed and ready for molding,” O’Shore set down his pen, folded his arms, and gave the Headmaster a look. “The Romayans and the Havershams and whos-its – they should be exceptions. If you ask me, I think people are getting a bit too used to their position and any sign of trouble, any sign of someone not fitting the mold or putting the track record at risk is summarily dealt with.”

“You think the girl should have a chance?”

“That’s why we put her in the program, isn’t it?”

“Well,” the Headmaster, leaned back to stare up at the ceiling meditatively. “It was, initially. Now people are really getting vocal in their disagreements over it.”

“You said ‘yes’,” Francis repeated stubbornly, “when I nominated her.”

“I did.”

“You saw something as well. We just have to wait a bit and give her the chance to catch up to the other students. I mean, this girl just came off of a farm. She began to read fluently two months ago! What can we expect?”

“Some would suggest it is too late for her to catch up,” Felix paused and then winced. “On the other hand...” He trailed off, his gaze now focused on something unseen, something distant.

“I recognize that she has gotten further than I expected, since, as you pointed out, she just got off a farm.”

Francis O’Shore, graduate of the Assassin’s Academy and fellow student of the assassin, now Headmaster, of the Assassin’s Academy, knew what Felix was seeing. He was recalling a scarecrow of a boy just off of a sheep farm in Lusane. Barely able to read or write, the quiet hired worker, against all odds, had graduated and had been accepted into the Guild where he had made a name for himself as being a very capable assassin. Not many remembered Felix Amarost’s past. What did he think when he saw that girl’s entrance forms? Lusane borders Eldalind. It isn’t hard to draw parallels. No doubt Felix is worried that he has allowed nostalgia to cloud his judgment.

“The child was nominated for the Program because of her ability to see patterns.” O’Shore reminded his friend. “She has an innovative, creative style of thinking we have rarely seen in a girl her age. Her teammates are all special for their own reasons – and I think that by the end of the year everyone will see definite progress.”

“Englund complains about his apprentice, but he did say she works hard.”

“A plodder, for certain.” O’Shore shrugged. “And the Program has put her in touch with potential friends. The Brython girl has gotten on well with her.”

“The Romayans, not so such.”

“Give it time, give it time.”

“Well, the Program should be completed by the end of the school year.” Felix Amarost mused. “I wonder how much that team will accomplish.”

“Colin Shermore, Geoffrey Englund, Athylee Corvanon and Hilda-Beth Tayes,” recited O’Shore. “A good group of mentors. So far as I’ve seen, they’re getting the job done.”

“Hm.”

“You think there’s something else going on? The girls have been keeping their grades up and their mentor sheets show progress...”

“Something about that particular mission doesn’t smell right, but our students do appear to be doing their fair share of the work,” Felix Amarost settled in for a long delicious conversation about the students in question. “The Romayan girls will, of course, pass with flying colors. Biddable and on target, they are very natural at the skill sets suitable for their age. Physically speaking, they’ve been trained well-”

“It’s their father-”

“Yes, their father definitely has had a hand in their upbringing,” Felix nodded. “You can tell.”

“Oh,” Francis raised an eyebrow remembering the many times he himself had come under the intense scrutiny of his two star pupils. “I can tell. They keep me on my toes.”

“Which we expected.”

“And there’s the Brython girl,” Francis said with a sigh. “Total opposite.”

“Total opposite. Nothing like anyone I’ve ever seen.” Felix agreed. “If I hadn’t seen her test scores... Well, let’s just say that genius isn’t how you start but how you end. Perhaps the future of the Brython girl will be a sharp contrast to her behavior now.”

“She’ll graduate from the Academy, you think?” The History teacher asked curiously.

“Well... let’s just say that her father will withdraw her if she doesn’t seem to fit in with the program.”

“However, because of her position,” Francis guessed, “she’ll be around here a lot longer than others would.”

“Yes, I suppose,” Felix shrugged. “You know that expelling a student is not a problem for me, regardless of where they came from. Besides, she may graduate from our school, but that doesn’t mean that the Guild will take her in.”

“You think the army might accept her?”

“Haha... I don’t know,” Felix chuckled. “The Brython girl’s future, to me, is more uncertain in the long run than Miss Fieldman. Of course, the others disagree, but there are signs there. Her background is interesting as well.”

“Hm? Her background? Chrystyna Fieldman’s?”

“The recruiter noted it. Her mother’s name – Norles. Norles. That rang a bell when I mentioned it to Old Roithers.”

“Really?” Francis leaned forward, suddenly interested. “There’s a connection to the Guild in her family?”

“You wouldn’t believe it, but her mother’s mother – her maternal grandmother, that is, was a Shadow Cleric.” Felix shook his head.

“Seriously?”

“I double-checked the archives. It’s true - she left. ‘Difference of opinion’. That was what it said on the reports.”

“Well, well. So our young lady has a background of some sort after all.” Francis smiled.

I was starting to second guess my intuition, but in the end... I was right after all. The girl does have something... that oddness... It all makes sense now! The kind-hearted teacher shook his head, a great smile plastered all over his face. His greatest skill, Francis had been told, was the ability to fight for the underdog. Chrystyna Fieldman, to him, was the epitome of underdog. Or a dark horse, he told himself gleefully. The darkest dark horse! A grandmother who was a Shadow Cleric.

“It’s not general knowledge, of course,” Felix gave his friend an amused look. “It’s our secret for now. Hopefully it’s an encouraging thought, just in case you are second guessing yourself.”
“You know me well, friend,” nodded Francis. “Well, Shadow Cleric isn’t run of the mill, so that changes things a little. I’m definitely going to fight for this student during our next faculty meeting.”
“After the winter holiday.”
“Oh, yes, yes.”
“We have to survive the rest of exams.” Felix’s blue eyes twinkled and he ran his hands through his hair, causing his short curls to stand up wildly. Then he stretched and rose to his feet. “Exams and holidays with our families.”
“So fun,” Francis said, deadpan, remembering that he had five siblings and their spouses and uncounted nieces and nephews to re-meet during the Winter Solstice.
“You’ll survive,” Felix grinned.

Francis O’Shore glared at his Headmaster’s back and returned to his work.

Winter Solstice is on the way.

[1] Only upper level Masters of the Assassins Guild know exactly what happened to King Sorn and Queen Lucie on that mysterious day of 1897.

[2] ‘Challenging student’ is the kind of phrase most often used by sincerely compassionate teachers or incredibly diplomatic ones (who may or may not be compassionate). This expression covers a wide variety of students from the day-dreamers and bullies to the ones who can never sit still or the ones who refuse to do their homework.

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