Nessa Lightfoot's amber eyes snapped open when she heard footfalls stop outside her door. Anticipating the knock that would follow, the girl ran a hand through blazing red curls before pulling on her uniform.
When the knock sounded, Nessa was already halfway to the door. She lifted the latch and the door opened.
A tall girl with dark hair, bronzed skin and almond-shaped eyes that indicated she hailed from the kingdom of Tolin, was standing in the doorway. She was also donning an Academy uniform. Her name was Miran Swift. She and Nessa had traveled together from the Tolin border to the Peacekeeper Academy in the heart of Cataire. "Master Muski told me to tell you he wanted you to join the First Years this morning to assess your skills. I was going to tell you last night but—" Miran's gaze flitted to the pallet behind Nessa. There was a lump that indicated it still had an occupant. One with blonde hair.
Nessa didn't recognize the insinuation. After a night in the bunks with the rest of the rookies, Miran was probably up-to-date on all the gossip that had resulted in Nessa's departure some months ago.
"Give me a second," the redhead said. She pulled on her braces, an invention that kept up her pants without the encumbrance of a scabbard. They clipped onto the back of her pants, came over each shoulder and attached in the front. Since she had no hips and was skinnier than before, the braces were ideal to hold up her pants regardless of what the day might hold.
As she secured her braces, she ambled back to the pallet and nudged a sleeping form.
The sleeper groaned and blinked up at Nessa with grass green eyes.
"Hokan, I'm going to breakfast with Miran. I'll see you later," Nessa said pulling on her boots as she spoke.
"I'm telling you so you don't panic when you get up in an hour and find me missing. I'm training with the rookies today."
Hokan nodded slowly before dozing off again.
Nessa shook her head as she left the room, closing the door behind her, walking with Miran to the Dining Hall, just the next building over.
They were about to descend the steps when Nessa felt her companion brimming with questions. "Ask."
"Who was that?"
"Hokan," Nessa said.
"As in Prince Hokan?" Miran gaped.
The redhead made a face, "Such a terrible name can't be common."
"Isn't it against the rules—?"
The rules and regulations were freshly imprinted in Miran's memory since she'd been forced to listen to them last night—her first night as a Peacekeeper Trainee.
Miran was referring to the rule that prohibited trainees from sharing the same bed. It was to prevent premature Retirement.
Though Nessa and Hokan were close, they weren't close...in that way. "Aside from the fact that we were only sleeping, he's the son of the High King. My future husband, if you believe the hype."
Miran's severe look did not fade. Apparently, she had a few opinions about propriety. Foreign territory for Nessa.
"He's been living in my room since I've been gone. All his stuff is in there. Who was I to displace him after all this time? It was one night." Nessa shrugged.
Miran was not convinced.
Nessa didn't know what else to say. Even though she and the prince were supposed to marry, their feelings, though deep, had never played out in any physical form. Part of it was Hokan's shyness and part of it was because you just don't pull moves on the Academy's most prized trainee and live to tell the tale. Mostly though, it could be attributed to their desire to abide by the rules set by the masters and the Panel, and Nessa's own hesitance regarding physical contact. The redhead blew out a breath as she tried a different way to explain herself: "We stayed up late catching up and he ended up passing out instead of going back to the castle."
There was a pause and then Miran asked, "Do you love him?"
Nessa's voice was equally quiet, "I'm not sure I know what love is."
"But you were supposed to marry him?"
"That's what they tell me."
"So you ran away to avoid it?"
"I ran away for a lot of reasons," Nessa explained. "I wanted my shield but I wasn't sure I wanted to be a Peacekeeper, stuck in a town trapped by walls...but I know the High King doesn't want me out of his sight." She'd spent almost six months on the run from the wrath of the High King and her future. Only her investment in Miran's education had enticed her to return to the capital city of Fresia. Getting cornered by Coursers—bounty hunters in the service of the High King had prompted Nessa to return to the Academy, but she didn't want to be back. This was only temporary. The thing she'd been struggling with was Hokan. "I want to spend every waking moment with Hokan, but I'm not sure I want to marry him. I've been at the Academy for as long as I can remember...stuck in this city. If I get married, I'll never leave here. Marriage, to me, seems like just another cage."
Miran was silent as she thought this through.
The pair had traveled together across the continent. They'd fought and run from Cataire's Coursers. Along the way, Nessa had trained Miran for the Entry Games. With her help, Miran earned a position in Cataire's Peacekeeper Academy. In the end, the Coursers caught up with Nessa and instead of running away, Nessa had chosen to return to the Academy and sponsor Miran. The plan had been that Nessa would escort Miran back to Tolin when her time here was over. Was that still going to happen?
"I just want to be free," Nessa said quietly when Miran offered no words.
Miran understood the desire. Never had she been more free than when she was traveling with Nessa. "Do you still want to go...now that you're here again?"
The redhead managed a grin, "Are you asking me if I will leave Hokan a second time?"
Miran was silent as she waited for the girl to answer her own question.
"Whatever my feelings for him may be, they pale in comparison to my need to be in the wild. He has accepted his cage. I cannot."
They'd pushed into the dining hall and grabbed a seat, piling food into bowls.
"Will you tell him this time?" Miran asked hesitantly.
"I owe him that much," Nessa blew out a breath.
The pair were silent for a time, munching on porridge, thinking their own thoughts.
"I'm sorry I didn't move your stuff in," Miran apologized suddenly. "Muski told me which room was yours, but when I got there, it smelled distinctly like boy—" the girl made a face. "In all the chaos, I thought I got the room number wrong…did you find your pack? I'm sorry I just left it in the hallway. I was going to bring it down to my bunk, but Muski rushed me out..."
Nessa could help but grin at how nervous the girl suddenly seemed. "I found it, it's fine. I was just as surprised as you to find my room occupied." Nessa was silent for a moment as she reflected on what Hokan had done for her. Hokan had steadfastly believed she would return. It was why he'd occupied her room—so the masters wouldn't give away the room to someone during her prolonged absence.
Telling him about Tolin was going to break his heart.
The redhead sighed and Miran caught her eye.
"Did you get a decent bunk?" Nessa asked suddenly, needing the change in topic.
They were silent through breakfast announcements. Neither girl quite fit in. Both were foreigners. One was present by choice, but didn't know much about the world she was getting into. The other had no where else to go, and only knew that she'd never fit into the world that surrounded her.
Nessa joined the crew of rookies for a set of tests that measured proficiency in the different areas of study. As part of the Entry Games, the rookies fought each other to gain a place at the Academy.
Now, they fought masters and skilled trainees. There were a wider range of tests.
Nessa stood last in line for every test, watching the masters fight the rookies, and seeing just how much work Miran was going to need.
At lunch, a balding master in a red tunic pulled Nessa aside, "You're as fit as you were before you left. You could easily take the final tests as early as next week." She had bested most of the trainees and decided a draw was the best course of action when it came to the masters. If she beat them all, it would demonstrate she had nothing left to learn and could take her final tests. She couldn't do that. She wasn't ready.
She should have expected that Master Muski, of all people, would see through her charade.
"I could," Nessa agreed. "I've decided that I want to be an Elite."
Muski searched the girl's amber eyes, "That's another year or so of training."
"I am aware," Nessa responded.
"What about your marriage?"
"Did you lose your memory along with the days?"
"I informed the High King that I have no intention of marrying his son."
"He's not going to let you train to be an Elite."
"Are you in charge of the Academy or is he?" Nessa stalked away.
Muski watched her go, puzzled. Lightfoot had started the program late and could easily finish early. Most young people were dropped off at age ten. Nessa hadn't started till she was twelve. Most completed their final tests around age eighteen or nineteen. Nessa could have passed them at sixteen.
She wanted to be done her studies as soon as possible because she wanted to go somewhere beyond the walls of Fresia. Muski wasn't sure she was would find what she was looking for in the field. She didn't like the Academy. She stuck around because she was just stubborn enough to finish what she started. Her body wasn't conditioned for life as a Peacekeeper or the wife of a politician. Beyond the Academy, outside the city, she would flourish. Such conditions were no place for the wife of a prince. Not when that prince was the son of the High King.
Why did she want to stay longer? She knew better than to try the patience of the High King? If she studied longer at the Academy, she could try to delay the wedding. The High King would never allow it though. He wasn't going to let her get her shield before. Why would he let her attain Elite status now?
Muski worried about what the High King would do in retaliation for her blatant disregard of his wishes. He hadn't thought twice about sending Coursers after his most prized possession. It didn't bode well for future reactions.
Coursers. Muski suppressed a shudder. Coursers were an awful invention. An abomination.
In the days of old, Peacekeeping was a profession exclusively for women. Wanting to take advantage of their skill sets, various kings had them Mate with men of equal skill to produce offspring—the next generation of Peacekeepers. Not every woman accepted the idea of childbearing known as Retirement. Some ran away. Some killed the Mates that had been chosen for them. Coursers were the men who were sent after the women who ran or fought. They had to have equal skill to a Peacekeeper to be able to track her down and subdue her.
The lines were more blurred now.
Boys with long established lineages were being taken on as trainees at the Academy when daughters were not produced. Now, more and more girls were dropping out of the Academy to become Coursers, wanting to rove rather than be tied to one plot of land. Muski didn't blame them. What they didn't know was that the High King intended to Retire them all the same.
A lot of the families whose children got accepted as trainees didn't have the money to pay for the Academy. The tuition was taken from the Royal Treasury. Every child was in debt to the king. He collected that debt in the form of their firstborn. In that way, the cycle continued.
The dynamic between Coursers and Peacekeepers was not a pleasant one. Before the last Great War, things had been coming to a head. Rebuilding from continental domination had reset the scales for some. The Panel was still working on a way to Retire Peacekeepers without the adverse effects of suicide and murder. It was hard to accomplish. They still believed that strong Peacekeepers could only come from the offspring of two strong fighters. They didn't force as many mating pairs, but in the more distant clans, it was still common practice. The biggest change was in allowing men to become Peacekeepers. In doing so, they hoped that relationships might form naturally that could persist until Retirement was granted.