Nessa waited for a few breaths before pulling on her pack and peeking outside.
The Coursers were rolling around, their attention focused solely on each other. This was her chance to make a break.
Part of her wanted to watch. It would be a good match. They had similar builds, neither were terribly tall or burly. Hunter was stronger. It was a well-known fact that men were typically stronger than women. It meant the girls had to be smart about fighting them. Oona was crafty. She had earned her Given Name of Trick.
No, she had to run—this was the only chance she was going to get.
As she sidled away, bound for the meadow, Nessa stopped. There was no way she could get to the trees without them seeing her. Inside the city she would find anonymity, for a short time. Just long enough for her to figure out what she was going to do.
It had been a foolish idea coming back, Nessa scolded herself. She just wanted to make sure Miran did well, and that had been assured. Now Hunter had found her again, and when he got through with Oona, he was going to inform the High King that Rogue Nessa Lightfoot was lurking in the city and she'd surely be found.
Nessa was running out of clever ways to evade the Courser, and in this stronghold of the High King, Nessa knew resistance was futile. And yet, she wasn't willing to abandon the fight.
The redhead made her way to the presenting, glad to see that it was underway as she pushed into the stands.
The masters were just finishing reading off the newest trainees in the youngest bracket. Nessa's only hope was that she would be able to see Miran's name read before the High King's men found her.
Nessa, having no interest in the the middle ranks, let her mind wander as those names were announced.
She was scolding herself for not recognizing sooner that Hunter was the King's Courser. No wonder he'd been after her from the beginning. Bad with names, Nessa did remember his reputation.
Since dropping out of the Academy at age sixteen, he'd taken on the job of Courser and caught every bounty he'd set out to get. At age eighteen, he'd been named the King's Courser because of his perfect record and he'd maintained it up until he met Nessa. It explained why he was so motivated. He had to keep his reputation in tact, but also,while the other Courser's were freelance and took the jobs they wanted, Hunter answered directly to the High King, only taking the jobs the High King ordered. The High King did not approve of failure. If Hunter didn't deliver, he wouldn't be holding that job for very long. Which was why Nessa could not let Hunter collect the bounty on her. But now she also knew why he was going to keep coming—because he had to.
Trapped in the city, Nessa could see no way out. Hunter and Oona knew her hair was longer. They also knew she'd been masquerading with a headwrap. Could Nessa find a way to cheat the Coursers still?
Oona would be relentless because she had a score to settle. Hunter's reputation was on the line. He would hunt her until the end, and he had the advantage. He'd been in her camp. He better understood how she functioned and why she was the way she was.
"Miran of Rakesh," Master Muski's voice sounded across the silent training yards.
Nessa was jerked back to reality.
Miran started upon hearing her own name. She took a step toward the master.
"We have Given you name of Swift. Welcome to the Peacekeeper Academy, Trainee Swift."
Master Muski rarely smiled, but Nessa swore she could see a hint of one, despite the distance.
It took a second for Miran to respond. She nodded. She could scarcely believe she'd done it. She knew she wouldn't be here if it weren't for Nessa. Miran searched the stands behind the masters, looking in vain for a familiar face. She wished that Nessa could be here to see this, even though she knew the redhead was halfway to the border by now. She felt proud enough for the both of them. She only wished she had thought to thank Nessa for all her help. Nessa was a great teacher, patient as a saint and capable of maintaining a cool head in many a stressful situation.
"Since you are of an advanced age," the master continued, "and from a foreign kingdom, you may choose a sponsor from among the Trainees present to help you assimilate."
Miran's winning smile vanished. She vaguely remembered a conversation about sponsors. She didn't recall anything positive being discussed, only that they were cutthroat and that she shouldn't trust them.
Muski addressed the stands: "If there are any Trainees who are present who would be willing to sponsor Miran of Rakesh, please stand."
A few did stand among the crowd. Miran didn't like the look of her options. One looked like he'd much rather eat her for dinner. Another looked like as though they were unchaperoned together, she'd wind up in the bottom of the river.
"Please introduce yourselves."
It took everything in Miran's power not to cringe. Could she respectfully decline? Was that allowed?
Just as the last youth finished, a figure shot up from the back of the stands. "Trainee Nessa Lightfoot," announced the voice that carried boldly through the grounds. "I'd like to sponsor you Miran the Swift. I think the fleet of foot should stick together."
Nothing in Miran's arsenal could have stopped her jaw from dropping to the floor.
Nessa had come to the presenting. Miran could barely believe it. Her arrival at the beginning of the week had been surprise enough. Now this? What was she playing at? She was never going to get to Tolin unless...she couldn't.
Miran's shocked mind began to process things. Nessa was in a desperate situation. Something had prevented her exit. Hunter, probably. She'd tried to hide in the city, but knew she couldn't do that forever.
Why had she revealed herself here? Miran dragged her attention back to the masters.
Every single one wore mirror images of slack-jawed surprise. Even the people in the audience had turned to stare at her. Her absence was much discussed.
Nessa's grin was as plain as could be. She couldn't contain it. She'd found the solution to her current problem. She couldn't get out of the city. While it was a travesty, things were starting to look up.
She hadn't expected they would assign Miran a sponsor. It made sense, in retrospect. That's why they were the masters.
She was the perfect person to be Miran's sponsor. They already had a rapport. Nessa would make sure the girl realized her full potential. Miran wouldn't have to put up with some kids trying to scare her out of the program, not that Nessa thought Miran would bow to intimidation techniques, it's just a huge waste of everyone's time.
Whispers raced through the crowd, everybody trying to anticipate what would happen next.
"Trainee Lightfoot," Master Muski's voice penetrated the rising din.
Immediately, all voices silenced.
The audience leaned forward, eager to find out what would be said next, "Welcome back."
"Good to be back, sir," Nessa responded with an easy grin and a level voice that easily crossed the space between.
"If I remember correctly, you are supposed to take the final tests at you earliest convenience. That means you won't be around long enough to be much of a sponsor."
"Not to mention she is already the prince's sponsor," another master muttered.
Muski ignored it.
"As a result of my journey," Nessa spoke up, "I do not think I will be ready to take the tests so soon. I'm sure that you will agree that it should be rescheduled for a later date."
Muski nodded and, after giving her a good long stare, motioned for the Rogue girl to come forward.
"And what of her sponsorship to the prince?" Master Mikhail inquired quietly.
"If you recall, it is actually the prince who is her sponsor, not the other way around," Muski responded.
It was a common misconception. Lightfoot excelled in the physical portion of the Academy but her weakness was in bookwork. Prince Hokan schooled her in the bookwork and since he was prone to missing classes owing to his station, Lightfoot kept him up to date in combat.
Muski watched as the child prodigy made her way towards the front. He wondered if the High King or the prince knew she'd returned. Judging by her disguise, probably not. He couldn't help but smile at her appearance. She appeared bulky and her face and hair were obscured by rags. A simple girl from the mountains had learned a thing or two about disguise and intrigue on her travels.
He was pleased to learn of this new development. It would add depth to her character, making her all the more important. She was more than a Peacekeeper now.
So why was she back?
It was a question Muski didn't want to entertain.
Lightfoot approached Swift. The Tolinese girl was gaping.
Muski dismissed the newly minted Trainees to the Barracks to claim bunks. Family and friends flooded the yard to congratulate those who had been accepted and comfort the ones who hadn't.
"What are you doing?" Miran hissed.
"I underestimated how fast Hunter would catch up to me."
Miran looked wildly around, "Is he—?"
Nessa explained her day so far.
"And instead of running, you came here?"
"You hiked that distance with me. They were going to see me make my escape."
"So you trapped yourself in here? That doesn't seem like something a renowned woman of the woods would do."
Nessa managed a smile, "It was a futile gesture, but then, I saw my way out. You need a sponsor and since this is an honor-based program, they can't refuse me for doing something so selfless."
Miran gave the redhead a searching look, "If they let you back in."
Nessa grinned, "The masters love me, they'll let me back in."
"Then why wouldn't they let you get your shield?"
The smile vanished, "They weren't the ones who did it."
This is what it was all came down. All her secrets were going to be out now.
"Hunter is the King's Courser."
"So?" Miran didn't understand.
"It means he's employed specifically by the High King."
"Aren't they all—?"
"Technically, yes. The King's Courser doesn't choose his bounties like the others do. The High King decides who he goes after."
Miran's face glowed with realization, "Is the High King the one who issued your Rogue status?"
Nessa nodded. She was surprised Miran didn't know already, given how much people liked to talk.
"And you're certain you can't get away?"
A squad of the High King's personal guard had appeared on the edge of the training yards. Someone pointed them in Nessa's direction.
She might have had a small window of opportunity between the Courser scuffle and announcing her sponsorship, but it was gone now.
She didn't have much time left. While a part of her worried that she might never come back, she had to justify why she stopped running.
Nessa said, "You don't know Oona."
Miran was amused to learn that, despite being pursued for over five months and across four countries, Nessa's biggest concern was not that the King's Courser had been on her tail. Instead, she claimed it would be wiser to give herself up than flee knowing a girl named Oona Trick had joined the hunt.
To be the King's Courser must be a very prestigious honor, Miran mused. He had to be good at his job. He had demonstrated many times that he was relentless. So why wasn't Nessa scared of him?
Miran had to withhold a grin. Hunter wasn't going to turn Nessa in, even if he was the King's Courser. He was sweet on her and that made him harmless.
This Oona girl sounded like she had something of a grudge and that was going to make her dangerous. It would be better for Nessa to stay in the populated places where there were a lot of witnesses so that an accident wouldn't happen.
"Why'd you leave?" Miran demanded suddenly, needing to know.
The clink of armor was audible now as the squad approached. Miran whirled to face them.
"You're about to find out," Nessa remarked, making a face.
"Trainee Lightfoot, your presence is requested by the High King," man standing point announced.
Nessa mustered up a harumph, "You and I both know that he's not that eloquent."
The squad eyed her warily. The leader of the group spoke again, "I do. I also know that it doesn't look good if I clasp his prized Peacekeeper in irons in front of this crowd."
"As if you could," Miran piped up.
Nessa shook her head in Miran's direction. She didn't need to get involved. This wasn't her fight. The redhead tried her best at looking sheepish, "I don't know...I haven't beat up any buillies since I've been gone," she lied. "It wouldn't look good if you actually get the upperhand."
"Trainee Lightfoot, please!" The man sounded exasperated. He knew better than to keep the High King waiting. It put him in a foul mood.
Nessa knew this. It was why she was stalling. It was the only thing left that she could control. "What of the rookie?" Nessa asked, "I am her sponsor, after all."
"Peacekeeper nuances are not of our concern," the guard said. "We deal only in matters of the High King."
Nessa let out a breath. She had nothing left in her arsenal. She hadn't even seen the man yet and already she felt defeated.
"Do you want me to come with you?" Miran's voice was so timid that, at first, Nessa had no idea who had spoken. The Tolinese girl must have sensed the mood. The impending dread.
Nessa promised herself that she would keep up the facade long enough to fool Miran.
"Delay your introduction to the man for as long as possible," Nessa warned. "That's the only knowledge I have left to give you, young Trainee." She let the king's personal guards escort her out of the training yards, past the Inner Wall and into the depths of Coghlan Castle.
On her way, Nessa and her escorts passed Hunter. He was striding towards the castle with a purpose when the sight of her stopped him dead in his tracks.
The girl cast a cursory glance over the Courser as she moved along. His blonde hair was askew. His left eye was swelling shut. There was blood dripping from his ear and it looked like he was missing a chunk out out of his neck.
Nessa vaguely wondered how Oona had faired. If she was alive at all.
Deep down, Nessa knew she was. Oona was nothing if not resilient.
Had Hunter emerged victorious? He didn't looked pleased.
There were a number of reasons for that. Nessa had baited him into fighting Oona. She had run away multiple times, going against her word, and now, after everything, she was essentially turning herself in.
Was it possible she would get the reward?
She wondered if the High King would still give the money to Hunter.
In a matter of steps, Hunter was out of sight, but Nessa could still feel his eyes on her. Ever the hunter, even now, he refused to lose sight of his quarry.
As Hunter watched the redhead march into the castle, he vaguely wondered if the High King would reward him with the bounty. He doubted it. Maybe if her return had been silent and not a spectacle.
Hunter crossed his arms as he watched the girl disappear from view. He had to hand it to her, her return was pretty awesome.
Her absence was noticeable and suspicious, but a Courser bringing her back wouldn't look good either. Her returning on her own accord made it look like the chore the High King pretended to send her on took longer than expected.
By all rights, it looked like Nessa had returned to the capital on her own steam, and this parade furthered that theory.
While Hunter had been occupied when she announced her intention to sponsor Miran, the fact that she was back had spread like wildfire.
With Nessa back in town and the High King's personal guard escorting her, Hunter's work here was done. He knew he should check in with the High King, but that could wait until later. Hunter had a notion the old man was going to need space after this reunion.
The Courser turned on his heel, intent on finding something to distract him in the meantime as he worked out what he was going to say to the High King. He was going to have to explain why he hadn't dragged Nessa in. He was going to have to convince the High King that he was the reason she was anywhere near this close to the capital. If the High King didn't think Hunter was capable of hounding his quarry this far, Hunter was going to be out of a job.
As Hunter walked away, he couldn't help thinking that even though he'd chased the girl for five months and gotten within arm's reach many a time, he could never claim that he'd caught her.
No one ever would. Not without her consent.