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Chapter 18

Miran remained in the arena long after Nessa had dissolved into the crowd.

"New Trainees are meant to be moving into the Barracks."

The gentle voice broke through her thoughts and Miran jumped back to the present. One of the masters was standing by her side.

"I don't know what to do without my sponsor," Miran admitted.

"She'll be back,"was his even reply.

Miran recognized the balding master. It was Master Muski. He seemed to be in charge of things.

It sounded like he didn't much like Nessa's departure or her company. His gaze was still trained in the direction Nessa had last been seen heading.

He re-focused on Miran, "You only have a few hours to move in. I suggest you get started."

"Will I get to live with my sponsor?"

"All first years live together."

"Surely-" she tried.

"Sometimes, exceptions are made," the master regarded her carefully, "but not often."

Master Muski gave the girl instructions to the Barracks and let her collect her belongings.

After Miran tore down the tent and returned it to the Zevers, she began the slow trek back into the city. Burdened with her things, in addition to Nessa's, and all the gear they had accrued over the week, Miran had no trouble finding the Barracks. Many people were willing point the way anytime she looked lost.

Nessa surprised herself when she didn't drag her feet across the threshold of the Conference Chamber. It was the last place she wanted to be and yet, she knew it was time to answer for what she'd done. She couldn't run forever.

Heads turned as Nessa was escorted into the room.

Tyr sat like the king that he was in the gilded chair at the end of a table that took up the bulk of the room. Sunlight shone through the expansive windows on the western wall of the room.

Despite the fact that there were two open doors in addition to the open windows, there was no breeze. Nessa felt as though she were baking alive.

She couldn't tell if it was the stale summer air or the stress of her situation.

The High King's eyes glanced over the newcomers and his aging face deepened into a scowl. "Get out," he demanded to the handful of people milling about.

Nessa recognized them as advisers, members of the Panel, and other such dignitaries. They shuffled dutifully towards the door without a word.

In short order, only the personal guards remained. They stood on either side of Nessa and at the door.

"You too," the king looked pointedly at his guards.

Nessa's escort bowed and made their way towards the exit. It was the two who kept vigil at the entrance who lingered. The girl watched them, intrigued to find others who would be so bold as to defy the High King. She thought it was only something Peacekeepers did.

The girl pushed the thought from her mind. The guards had their reasons for not wanting to obey. They were loyal to the king and didn't want to leave him unprotected, no doubt because of her reputation and her recent classification as Rogue.

"Trainee Lightfoot," the king began when the door was soundly closed behind her, "do you have any idea what lengths I've gone through to recover you?"

Nessa was silent for less than a second. In the past, Nessa bit her tongue to keep herself from responding too quickly, to allow her time to consider the king's words. She did it to avoid the king's explosive outbursts of anger. She didn't like when his loud voice was directed at her.

While she still feared his temper and the power he wielded, she'd spent too long with Miran's blunt questions and pert answers. The words were out before she could stop them: "You blackened my reputation by calling me Rogue. You sent Coursers after me like I was some common criminal, including your own."

"And yet, you enter my city without any of them," the High King sat back and watched her stand frozen in place with fear.

"Did you honestly expect them to be able to catch me?" Nessa shot back.

Maybe it wasn't fear but self-control, Tyr mused. She had the training to kill him, if she was so inclined. He remembered her rage from the early days. He still heard about her outbursts now and again, but it was nothing compared to the untempered fury of a feral creature caged. Perhaps her time in the woods—or wherever it was she had been, allowed the wild to seep back into her blood.

"It is puzzling," the High King noted. "What brings you back? Why have you returned when you seemed so content before to run?"

The redheaded girl crossed her arms with a huff, "And spend my entire life running?" She shook her head. They'd been down that road already. "That's what I realized. You would never stop chasing me."

Tyr surveyed the girl before him. She didn't look very different on the outside. She hadn't grown any in her absence. Her hair was the only visible change. She normally kept her fiery locks shorn as close to her scalp as she could. Months had allowed for growth of unruly curls. Just enough to run fingers through. She was as skinny as ever, but that's what a life on the run does to you.

Something was different about her. She stood as straight as ever, but instead of casting her eyes about the room, blatantly avoiding eye contact like a scolded dog, like she normally did, her gaze was fixed on a space just over the High King's left shoulder. She wasn't so bold as to stare down the High King of Cataire. No one was. The fact that her gaze wasn't wandering meant something.

Nessa Lightfoot might be a girl from the wilds, but she knew some measure of her worth now. Something in the woods had added an inner strength to her character. She was addressing him with a ferocity she never before had dared.

He'd heard from the masters that she could be feisty with her classmates, but she was always meek and subservient to her elders. It seemed those days were gone now.

"So you realized the futility of your run?" The king asked casually. Any other day, he would have raged against her. The fact that she had reappeared so suddenly...he was still in shock. Yelling at her used to make her cower with fear. He had no idea how this new Nessa would react. She'd always been wild. He'd relied on fear to keep her compliant. And her affinity for his son.

"I did," Nessa replied evenly, unaware of the scowl on her face. She'd never been any good at masking her expressions.

"And now you intend to return to the Academy, take the final tests and marry Hokan?"

Nessa let out an unsteady breath. The old man was going to let her take her final tests? It was a small victory, but she was surprised he had conceded at all. Maybe he knew he had too. She'd returned to the masters, not him. They would insist she finish her training and that the marriage could wait. "I will continue my training," Nessa said, "and I will take the Final Tests in due course. But…" she sighed, "I cannot marry Hokan."

Tyr eyed the redhead carefully. He had watched her grow up for the past six years. He had plucked a wild, half-starved girl from the mountains, taught her Lowlander and turned her into a prodigy. She was too stealthy to be a Peacekeeper. Too wild to be loyal. His intention had been to turn her into a Courser. Maybe even to give her the title of King's Courser. She had the ability to hunt down anyone he sent her after. Because he couldn't guarantee her loyalty, he planned to marry her to his youngest son.

It wasn't a Retirement like those of the older days. Hokan and Lightfoot were very much in love. Hokan spent every free time he had with the girl. He was Lightfoot's only friend. So what exactly was the problem?

It was a match that would please many. Hokan and Lightfoot could be simpering and sweet and happy together. With Lightfoot as a member of his family, Tyr could use her reputation, and her skills, to keep the lesser kings in line. No one would challenge his authority or try for the throne because of what she could do.

While the position of High King was determined by a vote of lesser kings, he served until death, or until he decided to step down. The lesser kings would back a candidate with strong resources. Lightfoot was a strong resource. It would ensure his family ruled for a second generation. It happened only rarely.

Tyr watched the girl carefully, wondering what else had changed about her. Was she still in love with Hokan? "My son took time out of his life to civilize you, girl. The outcome of all of that was that he fell in love with you, and this is how you repay him? By saying yes and then running off for some months, shattering his heart into a thousand pieces? Now you return and decline his offer? How could you do such a thing? Why would you deny him his one true happiness?"

The girl trembled and a smile spread across his face. She was stronger but not impervious. The sound of his raised voice could still shake her. She tried to make her expression unreadable but she wasn't very good at it. She'd given herself away. She still had feelings for Hokan.

Why did she not want to marry him?

Nessa tried to control her breathing. She was no stranger to Tyr's rants. He was famous for them. She'd heard more than her share of them thanks to her friendship with Hokan. It was why she tried to remain invisible in his presence. To avoid this kind of attention. Not that she didn't deserve it.

She had only acquiesced to the marriage proposal because she wanted to avoid an outburst from the king. It was why she'd run. She couldn't think of a way to take it back and not insult Hokan. Her time in the woods was supposed to help her think. She still hadn't come up with a way to break the news.

"My happiness doesn't matter?" Nessa wondered aloud.

The High King stood, and Nessa steeled herself against reeling back a step. "Are you telling me you don't love my son?"

The power of his words drove the girl back a step. "I do," she admitted softly. "But I am only sixteen. What do I know of the world? Is it wise to marry the first man I meet?"

"Do you expect to get other offers?" Tyr was curious.

Nessa blew out an amused breath. "Doubtful."

"Then what's the problem?"

"I'm not ready. I'm too young. The Panel changed the rules of Retirement after the last Great War so that Peacekeepers would feel more at ease about their futures. I'd like to see some of the world before I am forced to settle down and bear children."

"What have you been doing these past months if not exploring the world?" Tyr wanted to know.

Nessa nodded to herself, she should have seen that one coming. "You found me in the woods when I was ten. My memories before then are mostly green and involve the weather. Since then, I've been in Fresia. I want to see what the world looks like beyond the Outer Wall. I want to know more of this country I am sworn to protect."

"If you want to rove, perhaps life as a Courser is more your style," Tyr suggested.

"I have not come all this way, done all this work, to not receive my shield," Nessa's voice was almost a growl.

"And then?" The king prodded.

Nessa shrugged, "I don't know." She paused, "I do know that I'm not ready for marriage or children. When I change my mind, I'll let you know."

The High King nodded, seeming to accept this, which is when Nessa became suspicious.

Why was he not howling in anger and rage? No one defied him and got away with it. Not even his own sons.

"Are you willing to share your revelations with my son, since, as you pointed out, his life and happiness are involved in this as well as your own?"

The moment of reckoning.

Nessa couldn't bring herself to speak so she nodded.

A shout summoned a guard to the door and Tyr announced his wish for Hokan to be present.

Time passed agonizingly slow as Nessa waited for the dreaded moment of his arrival. The butterflies that had taken over her stomach ever since she stood up to sponsor Miran in the training yards turned into a churning ocean. A storm at sea.

In all of the the chaos, Nessa hadn't anticipated this. She knew that an audience with the High King was unavoidable. She had hoped that a reunion with Hokan wouldn't happen until later.

She still needed to process the day's events.

She wasn't anywhere close to figuring out what she was going to say to Hokan.

She was running out of time.

She had to think of something quick. She had to find a way to explain herself. Hokan knew she wasn't good with words. Hopefully that would make him more forgiving.

Somehow, she doubted it. Not about something this big.

In due course, Prince Hokan strode in.

A small part of Nessa expected him to be different. She turned to look at him when she heard the door open. He was tall, like the high king. He shared his father's strong jaw. He was broad in the shoulders, but not as burly as her father or brothers, yet.

The prince's golden brows were drawn together as he mentally prepared for an audience with his father. When he spotted the slight form of a redhead, turning to face front, head bowed in front of his father, his strides lengthened.

"Ner!" He exclaimed as he closed the distance and enveloped the girl in a hug.

Nessa smiled as she threw her arms around him. Ner was his childhood nickname for her. In his youth, he'd been unable to wrap his tongue around the unusual name of Nessa, and Ner had fewer syllables.

Though Hokan knew that the girl abhorred physical contact, mostly because she wasn't familiar with it, this was a special occasion.

She didn't pull back, just held on tight. Hokan buried his face and his fingers into her hair. He didn't care that it was oily and smelled of campfire. It was proof that she was real.

There were no words. Anything Nessa might have said was wiped clear out of her memory as the warmth of his body pressed up against her.

Just when Nessa was convinced that time had stopped and she and Hokan were going to stay embraced forever, someone cleared their throat.

Nessa and the prince jumped apart, suddenly remembering they were in the presence of the High King.

"I—" Hokan started.

"Didn't you have something you wanted to say to my son?" Tyr asked. Though his lips pulled into a grin, his eyes were as cold as ice.

Nessa nodded, her gaze on the floor. She could feel Hokan looking her over for injuries.

She hadn't grown an inch in her absence, if anything, she looked skinnier than before—like a criminal on the run might. Despite that, she looked healthy. Her hair was growing in as thick as ever. He remembered her tangle of crimson locks when they found her in the woods. It had been deemed unmanageable and shaved off. She didn't know what to do with it, so she kept it off. It was a beautiful color. He'd forgotten how brilliant it was.

Nessa took a step back so she could look into Hokan's bright green eyes and not have to crane her neck.

"Where have you been?" Hokan got his question out first.

Nessa couldn't find the words to explain herself.

"I heard you were back, but I didn't believe it. You've been gone for almost six months…"

"I ran away," she said abruptly, the explanation jumping from her lips.

"What?" Hokan took a step back.

The girl took a breath, risking a glance into his mossy green eyes and immediately regretted it. The air stalled halfway into her lungs. She'd underestimated how hard this was going to be. She'd never kept anything from him, so why was this so difficult? "Six months ago," she said, choking on her breath, "I ran away."

"Why—why would you do that?" Hokan's voice broke. He needed to know, and yet, he was afraid to find out.

"Can you not think of a reason?" Tyr interrupted.

Nessa sent him a fierce look and Hokan's gaze dropped to the floor, his shoulders hunching a little.

"I said I'd marry you—"

"But you don't want to?" Hokan's voice was a whisper. Scared, but knowing.

"I didn't say that—" she tried to explain.

"Why did you say yes, then?" Hokan was on a roll. Like his father, once he got ahold of something, he didn't let it go. That was where he drew his strength from. His slowly raised his eyes and found Nessa focused on the king.

As the realization dawned, Hokan narrowed his gaze at his father, "You made her?"

"Did you really think she would genuinely want you?" Tyr responded, rising to his feet.

Nessa swallowed hard, but the action couldn't stop the words that spilled out. "How dare you!" There was probably a law that forbade shouting at the High King. She knew it was disrespectful, but they were way past that now. Who did Tyr think he was? He didn't know the goings-on in her mind, the inner workings of her heart. He may be the High King and in charge of matters of Peacekeeper Retirement, but she wasn't a Peacekeeper yet, and the Panel had changed the rules for a reason. So this would no longer happen.

"She loves me and I love her, that is not in contention," Hokan roared across the table to his father. "She didn't run from me. She ran from you, and it's little wonder why. Perhaps if you hadn't stuck your nose where it didn't belong, this would have ended happier. She despises you almost as much as I do, maybe more. Why else do you think we get along so well?"

Tyr turned his attention to the redhead. "Is this true?" He demanded, his voice beyond yelling, his eyes, piercing.

It was a vague question. Hokan had addressed many points in his rebuttal. Nessa chose to reply just as vaguely: "I guess we'll never know."

That wasn't what he wanted to hear. Before Tyr had time to make an accusation or demand she explain, Hokan growled, "I can't stand to look at you a moment longer." He turned on his heel and marched away from the High King without being dismissed. It wasn't good form to storm out on any king, but it was probably easier to do if the man was your father, Nessa observed.

The High King shouted after him: "How so like a woman." He fixed his gaze on Nessa.

"Don't look at me," the girl made a face, "I don't make scenes. I prefer the shadows and the guise of invisibility."

Further reason why she would make a better Courser than a Peacekeeper, but Tyr chose not to pursue that argument at this time.

"If you'll excuse me," Nessa bowed curtly, "I have to go move in." Before waiting for dismissal or the oncoming of a second wind, the girl turned away and stalked silently out of the room.

Tyr let her go.

Nessa couldn't remember breathing until she passed beyond the Inner Wall. That hadn't gone as horrible as expected. Hokan didn't appear to be angry at her, yet.

She didn't know whether to seek him out and explain or give him space. He seemed to have figured everything out. He also could have been bluffing just to get a rise out of his father. He still deserved an explanation.

Nessa knew she wouldn't find him in the castle, but after a weave through the usual places, the girl failed to find the prince. Had he changed so much in her time away that she no longer knew where he went to hide?

The redhead decided to collect her things and move back into the Barracks, but when she ambled beyond the Outer Wall, she couldn't see the tent. She shrugged to herself, figuring Miran would know the whereabouts of her belongings. The girl had to be moving into the Barracks now.

Nessa backtracked to the building built along the exterior side of the Outer Wall. Families were flowing in and out, carrying various belongings.

She slid easily past them and was about to weave her way to the second story when she encountered Master Muski. He was standing in the hallway, overseeing everything.

He caught sight of Nessa over the heads of the people as they flowed past. He greeted her with an easy smile as she drew level with him, "Welcome back, Lightfoot. Your rookie brought your things to your room. She was eager to find out what had happened to you. Did you not tell her?"

"Are Peacekeepers of a habit of making their personal lives public?" Nessa asked, coolly.

"Only when they are to marry a son of the High King," Master Muski responded.

The girl scowled, "I hope you didn't buy me a gift already."

"I'm sorry it took so long for you to come to your senses."

Nessa glared at the master and weaved her way to the second story.

Her pack was sitting outside the door to her room.

The redhead didn't think anything of it. Miran had to take down the tent, pack up and return her gear, and find a bunk in the first year's room. They didn't give much time before they sat everyone down and read them the rules and expectations.

Nessa shouldered the pack and pushed open the door.

She couldn't bring herself to cross the threshold.

As the door swung silently open, a familiar form stood at the window.

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