“Who is it?” I mumbled through my blankets. Someone had been incessantly knocking at my door for a solid minute, and I was far too tired to get up and answer it.
“It’s me,” they responded. I peeled a few of the blankets away from my eyes. Why is Rudy at my door this early? I wondered. Reluctantly, I swung myself out of bed and plodded towards the door.
“Rudy, when I said I needed to sleep on it, I meant more than an actual night’s-” The words in my mouth froze when I saw Rudy clad in leather armor. His arm pressed a helmet against his waist, and a sheathed sword dangled from his belt. Being in a nightgown suddenly felt more embarrassing than it should have. “Did I miss something?” I asked. “Is the Guard leaving early?” Rudy looked at me strangely before finally understanding where my confusion was rooted.
“Oh, no, this is training armor,” he quickly explained.
I narrowed my eyes. “Rudy, why are you knocking on my door this early...and dressed like that?” I knew last night was a little weird for the both of us, but that certainly didn’t explain this.
“Get changed. I wanna try something with you,” was all he said. He still had a kind glimmer in his eyes which told me this wasn’t going to be anything bad. Still, the absurdity of it all had me troubled.
“Should I be worried?” I asked anyways.
Rudy grinned. “Not in the least bit.”
I gently shut the door and headed for my closet. The closet stored multiple versions of the black dress, blue robe, and boots. Today, however, a neat stack of new clothing rested on the closet floor. I picked it up and noticed a small note card tucked in the fabric. It read:
You’re going to need these.
Great, so Elhanan was in on this too. I flipped the card around, and another message was on the back.
Trust him, Blyss.
I sighed and set the note on my dresser. The clothing consisted of a pair of pants and a loose fitting shirt. It reminded me of what I wore after I was purposefully stabbed at the Writer’s cottage. I threw on the clothes and tried to arrange them on my figure as best I could. You look like an awkward sailor, I thought amusedly. I quickly brushed my hair and cleaned my face before stepping back into the hall. I found Rudy leaning against the wall, and he smiled when he saw my clothing.
“So Elhanan did come through,” he said more to himself than to me. Rudy caught me looking at him oddly. “He was there with Vangelis last night,” he explained. I wanted to grill him further, but I remembered the note Elhanan left. I was supposed to trust him.
Rudy led me down to the empty dining hall. We were there so early, even the cooks were only barely beginning to rise to prepare breakfast. On one of the long tables rested two small plates of simple fruit and toast. Cups of water stood beside them. It wasn’t until we drew closer that I noticed the stack of armor laying on the bench below. It looked just like what Rudy was already wearing.
I picked up the helmet and looked at Rudy skeptically. “What is this?”
Rudy smiled, but his face was red. “Just go with it,” he said. We ate the breakfast quietly; I spent the entirety of it staring at Rudy, hoping my gaze would break him. Unfortunately, it never did.
“Is everything alright?” I asked when he told me to put on the leather armor.
“Everything’s fine,” he chuckled. I wasn’t buying it.
“Does this have anything to do with last night?” I pressed. He never gave me an answer. Instead, he took me outside past the archery range and into a small clearing hidden by a clump of trees. We couldn’t see PearlGate, and PearlGate couldn’t see us.
Waiting for us was a sword identical to Rudy’s propped up against the base of one of the trees. Rudy grabbed it and handed it to me, but I refused to take it. “Trust me, please,” Rudy said quietly, without a smile this time. The look in his eyes broke me, and I reluctantly took the sword.
“We’re not here so you can teach me swordfighting, right?” I joked. Rudy’s lips fought another smile. My shoulders dropped. “You didn’t seriously wake me up this early to swordfight, did you?”
“Come on, it’ll be fun,” Rudy said as he set his helmet down.
“Wait, wait, why aren’t you putting that on?” I asked.
“We’re just learning the basics. The helmets are here for when we move to the more advanced stuff,” he explained.
“Why are we doing this?” I asked. I felt like all my questions were beginning to circle back to the same thing.
Rudy gave me a weary look, and I sighed. Right, right, just trust him, I told myself as I stepped forward. We spent the morning practicing different skills and attacks with the sword. My wrist wasn’t used to the weight of the weapon, and by noon, it was throbbing terribly. Rudy didn’t let me stop there though. Over the course of the rest of our winter break, he had me sparring, fencing, shooting arrows, making traps, and doing the most rigorous exercises known to these realms. Rudy became more and more like a commander of the Guard with each day. The kind young man I knew was beginning to fade behind sharp orders and annoying persistence. At one point, he had us run something like four miles in a single day without hardly any breaks for water or rest. That wasn’t the hardest thing he made me do though. No, not at all.
“What are we doing today, Master Horsefield?” I asked sarcastically as we entered the clearing again one morning. Rudy threw his sword and helmet on the ground and turned to me.
“You’re gonna punch me,” he answered bluntly.
“Yeah, right,” I began to say. Rudy shrugged.
“You gotta know how to defend yourself without a weapon,” he said.
“I’m a TrueHeart,” I replied. “We don’t find ourselves in many situations that require self defense. Why do I have to do this?”
“You’ve been asking me that since the day we started,” Rudy sighed.
“And you still won’t answer,” I frowned.
Rudy rolled his eyes. “Will you just punch me?” I sighed and walked closer to him.
“I really don’t want to do this,” I reminded him.
“Just think of a time when I really ticked you off,” he offered.
“Like when?” I challenged. Rudy actually smiled for once.
“Well, there’s the time I made you keep running after you tripped...twice. There’s the time I had your arm pinned, and I wouldn’t let go until you could recite every step of making the snap trap. Oh, there’s the time when I made you race me back to the castle, and I beat you, so I made us race again-”
“Wow, you really have been more annoying lately,” I jeered.
“I’m just getting started,” he impishly grinned. “Then there’s the time I made you listen to Fiddle’s one man instrument opera through an entire round of fencing. Oh, and don’t forget I’ve been making you do all this training, and I never have to tell you why because of the convenient little note Elhanan left you with the-”
Yeah, I had no problem punching him after that.
Rudy stumbled backwards and immediately put his hand to his jaw. I was too distracted to see if he was okay though. It felt like every bone in my hand had splintered into a million pieces. I gripped my wrist and bit my lip to keep the screams from escaping. I doubled over and wanted to collapse, but thanks to Rudy, my legs hurt too much to bend down any further.
“Blyss.” I heard his voice come closer. I felt his hand come over my shoulder as he gently pushed me back up.
“Are you okay?” I managed to ask.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” he replied. “How’s your hand?”
“Um, it’s not too bad,” I lied. I knew he could see right through me. Rudy gently uncurled my fingers and held them gently in his hands.
“Don’t keep your thumb in like that,” he said. “Otherwise you’ll break it.”
“I’m not in the Guard for a reason, Rudy. I don’t get why you have to train me like I am,” I said.
“I told you, I need you to trust me,” he reminded me once again.
“Could you just ease up though? I wasn’t built to endure running a gazillion miles a day like you,” I replied.
“But you could. You just have to push yourself more and-”
“The old Rudy wouldn’t have said that,” I snapped. “He would’ve met me where I am, not try and train me into some soldier I’m clearly never gonna be.” Rudy tightened his jaw.
“You don’t know what you’ll encounter out there. What I’m showing you could save your life,” he insisted coldly. I wasn’t done talking though.
“What happened to you?” I persisted. “Where’s the Rudy that came here at the beginning of break? The Rudy who got in trouble with his officers for being too kind? The Rudy who’d sit and tell me his crazy stories? The Rudy who survived the Month of Midnights with me?”
There was a long silence between us.
“I’m still here,” he whispered.
“I know you are,” I said reluctantly. “I know you’re being tough to help me. I just wisk you would tell me why.”
“Blyss, I can’t tell you. You just to have trust me,” Rudy repeated.
“Fine,” I said firmly. “Just tell me this then. Did Vangelis ask you to do this?” Rudy’s eyes became lost in mine.
Don’t get mad, Blyss. Don’t blow up.
Rudy continued, “How about a compromise? You keep doing this, and I promise to ease up. I just really need you to get this, okay?” I smiled and gave a weak laugh.
“Promise.” Rudy backed up and smiled. “Okay, let’s try this again. Remember to keep that thumb out and try punching with your knuckles instead of the flat side of your fingers. That should make it hurt less.”
“I’m not gonna punch your face again, am I?”
Rudy laughed. “Let’s try my hand this time.”
Rudy’s training did, in fact, get easier. Now that we could both enjoy ourselves more, I began to actually learn valuable skills from him. I was proud to say our spars didn’t end after only a few seconds anymore. Sometimes, I’d actually win.
Regardless, I was not satisfied with the mystery surrounding this. I stopped pestering Rudy, but I wasn’t giving up. After supper that evening, I worked up the courage to seek out Vangelis and see what I could learn from him. Once I had scoured most of the castle, I concluded he had to be in his study. I wasn’t particularly fond of walking past all the TrueHeart leaders on my way there, but I wasn’t going to stop now.
I paused before his study doors and drew in a deep breath. Stay calm, don’t work yourself up. I wanted Vangelis to start thinking I could act like a sane adult when I wanted to. I shook off my last bit of nerves and stepped inside.
“Sit down, Blyss,” Vangelis immediately said. He didn’t bother looking up from his book. “I imagine you have questions about Rudy’s behavior.” I nodded and took a seat. Vangelis gently set down his quill and smiled.
“You didn’t listen to Elhanan’s note, did you?” he asked amusedly.
I laughed uncomfortably and said, “For a while I did.” His eyes gleamed pleasantly, but he spoke not a word. “Vangelis,” I continued, “I don’t mind the training. Really, I don’t. But-but why? And why can’t I know?” Vangelis sighed and leaned back in his chair.
“If you knew why, Blyss, it would alter things greatly. You would make choices differently, and as of now, we need you to do exactly what you’re predicted to do.” His voice was serious. I couldn’t argue with him now.
“How far out can you see?” my voice croaked.
“Not far enough,” Vangelis replied remorsefully. I looked down into my lap, beginning to pick at my nails.
“Alright,” I said, finally standing up. “Then I shall do exactly what I am predicted to do...whatever that is.” Vangelis looked up with a hopeful smile.
“Thank you, Blyss. You’ll be doing us all a great favor.” I nodded and left. The conversation was way shorter than I expected to be, but there was nothing else to be said. I would continue to train with Rudy without questioning why. I hated not knowing, but I had already been grappling with the fact that my purpose here was not the same as the others. This new development was just another part of that, and it was useless to resist it any longer. I was always going to be different, and I was always going to be unsure of my future. The sooner I accepted that, the sooner I could go back to enjoying what I did know.
The end of the winter break was drawing closer and closer. All seemed to be well, but the issue between Jackie and me was still unresolved. I told Rudy of our last argument, and he reacted as if he were willing to finally accept that his plan for us would not work. This only fueled my determination to fix that which was broken.
After lunch, on an especially chilly day, I sought out Jackie who was practicing with her sword outside. A thick blanket of frost still covered the grasses, managing to resist the usual morning melt. Jackie was swinging at one of the trees planted around the perimeter of PearlGate. The large gashes in the wood and her fiery expression told me it was a particularly bad day for her.
After a final thwack at the tree, Jackie huffed resolutely and looked up. Her deep breaths disappeared in swirly clouds. “What do you want?” she tersely asked. I moved my hand from behind the folds of my robe and revealed the sword I held.
“Let’s go for a round,” I offered.
Jack raised an eyebrow. “You really want to fight me?” I nodded, but it seemed Jackie wasn’t convinced. “I know Rudy’s been training with you,” she said, “but I highly doubt that makes you qualified to challenge someone like me.”
“Then you can train me too,” I said. I dropped my sword, slipped my robe off and hung it over a tree branch. My standard-issued dress did nothing to barricade the cold, but I grit my teeth and picked the sword back up.
“Is this another attempt to connect with me?” Jackie sighed.
I held up my sword. “Doesn’t have to be,” I answered. Jackie studied me long and hard before raising up her weapon too.
“It’s your funeral,” she mumbled.
As expected, she had me beat almost immediately. With my sword already in her hands, she looked at me curiously to see what I would do. I reached out my hand, and slowly she handed the sword back.
“Again,” I said. Jackie didn’t argue this time. In fact, she didn’t argue any of the times after that. We kept fighting and fighting, each round lasting longer than the rest. I was beginning to pick up on her movements, and she was beginning to tire out.
“No more,” Jackie said after the latest grueling round. Her hands were on her knees as she tried to catch her breath. Inside, I felt the same way, but I did my best to put on the appearance that I was ready for more.
“Tomorrow then,” I said. “Same place, same time?” Jackie looked up at me wearily.
“Seriously?” she wheezed. I waited for her competitive edge to win out, and it did. “Fine,” said Jackie. I smiled and slipped my robe back on.
“You coming?” I asked. Jackie sighed and joined me as we headed back to the castle.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little bit smug about my success. Almost every day we battled. Nothing much was said, but with each round, we both improved. I think Jackie even began to look forward to it. She’d wait for me every day after lunch with a little smirk that began to grow into a smile.
“Don’t you want something in return?” Jackie asked me once after a round.
“I am getting something in return,” I answered.
Jackie rolled her eyes. “Well, don’t you want to get me to open up or something?”
I shrugged. “Only if you want to.” Jackie glanced down at her sword.
“Well, what do you wanna know?” she asked. I took a seat against our carved up tree and thought for a bit.
“Did you have any siblings?” I asked. Jackie shook her head. I paused and thought of another question. “What were your parents’ names?”
“You don’t know your parents’ names?”
“Never had any.” My eyes met hers.
“Oh.” Jackie resigned and sat down next to me. “Grew up with the sheriff. He taught me how to fight,” she explained.
I asked, “Was he a good man?” Jackie looked at me with melancholy eyes and shook her head.
“No. But he treated me well enough.”
“Did you have parents?”
I smiled warmly and said, “Yeah, I did. And a little brother too.” Jackie rolled her eyes and looked away.
“Course you did. You got the perfect life,” she grumbled.
“Not in the least bit,” I snorted.
“What, did your best friend steal your boyfriend?” sneered Jackie.
“No,” I replied, “I accidentally saw my father’s execution.” Jackie’s eyes enlarged.
“Why was he executed?” she asked almost too eagerly.
“I guess you could say he bucked the system a bit. Can’t say I disagreed with him, but he was just at the wrong place at the wrong time.” Even years later, the thought of him still made me pine for his goodnight stories and his quirky laughter. I didn’t miss only him though. I yearned to see Mother and Leo just as much. I received a response to my letter a while ago, but under Vangelis’s rule, I could do nothing but reread it for at least another year.
I noticed Jackie pulling at the cords in her leather armor, clearly unsure of how to respond. “Did Rudy ever tell you our story?” I asked after a little while.
“I guess not,” I chuckled. “I mean our Month of Midnights story.”
Jackie tilted her head curiously. “Not really. He’s given me bits and pieces before.”
“You’d like it,” I said. “It’s gotta plenty of action and peril.”
Jackie cocked her eyebrows playfully. “What kind of action and peril?”
“Let’s see, there’s magical horses, grumpy dwarves, a palace of gold, faery ambushes, several kidnappings, siren attacks, MadMag attacks, a room full of dead bodies, a village on fire, oh, and the time I was pushed off a bridge-”
“Tell me it!” Jackie begged. I couldn’t help but laugh. After suggesting we go back inside, Jackie and I seated ourselves next to the biggest fireplace PearlGate could offer. It was located in a large ballroom that had been redecorated to be a common room. People swarmed in and out, either reading books, playing games, or simply talking like Jackie and I. Lost in our own little world, I told the tale of my stiff, numb life in Chorio all the way to the treacherous journeys I took in Istoria. TrueHearts and members of the Guard began to listen in to my story and a small circle was beginning to grow around Jackie and me. At one point, I looked up and noticed Piper and the twins listening just as intently as Fiddle, Ivan, and Wei. Especially to the TrueHearts, I became no longer the villain girl, but the girl who had heroically survived the villain. Rudy soon made his way through the crowd with Jamie, and he smiled radiantly when he heard the familiar story. He even went so far as to make sure I didn’t leave out any of his favorite details.
“Yeah, with one strike, she set the whole village on fire!” Rudy said at one point, hyping up all the males in the room. “But not before she started a full on food war!” Again, more of the guys shouted, but I couldn’t tell if they were impressed or just jealous. All in all, telling the story was worth it. Jackie went to bed that night with a new respect and maybe even reverence for me.
“I don’t know what you did different, but it worked,” Rudy said afterwards. Mostly everyone had cleared out of the common room by then.
I shrugged. “I kept trying to be a maternal figure, but I think she just needed a friend.”
“Friend or sister?” I looked at him thoughtfully.
Rudy smiled gratefully. Telling the story again made my heart ache again. Rudy had lived through that all with me, and he was still by my side today. He was quite possibly one of the best things that had happened to me during that stupid Month.
“You okay, Blyss? You’re a strange shade of red right now,” Rudy laughed. Of course, this only made my blush deepen.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine,” I said quickly. “I wonder how Minnie and Upright are doing.”
“Well, I’m not sure about Minnie, but I did talk to Upright before we came to Katharos.”
My eyes widened. “You didn’t think to tell me that?” I said slapping his shin.
“What can I say?” Rudy shrugged. “A pretty girl distracted me.” I suppressed a smile, but Rudy knew he had been successful. “Anyways, his Story’s off to a slow start. Snow White’s still gotta grow up and meet the Evil Queen, so Upright and the other dwarves are really bored I guess.”
“I know the feeling,” I commented halfheartedly.
“Hey,” Rudy said softly, “just another year, and then you’re free.”
“I hope so,” I sighed. Rudy took my hand and interlaced his fingers through mine. Gradually, he moved closer, and part of me almost let him kiss me.
“No, no, no,” I whispered playfully as I moved away. Rudy rolled his eyes and sat back.
“Stupid courtship,” he mumbled.
“What was that?”
“I shouldn’t have let you make the rules!” Rudy groaned.
“No, you shouldn’t have,” I laughed. “But if you do this right, you can have me forever.” Normally, I wouldn’t bring this sort of thing up, but tonight it slipped.
Okay, maybe I let it slip on purpose.
“I thought I already had you forever,” Rudy replied with a sly smile. I bit the inside of my cheek to keep me from gushing like a fool.
“We’ll see about that,” I chuckled. Rudy smiled and shifted in his seat on the sofa.
“I know it’s early to be bringing this up,” he said. “I know we’re both still young and this,” he gestured between us, “is still new, but-”
A set of doors were thrown open, and a very sour Morden walked through. Morden was known to be an uptight, thin faced man. Everyone knew he was a huge softie on the inside, thus his position as a TrueHeart leader, but Morden still liked to put on his rigid act. It didn’t really matter though; no one actually feared him.
“Off to bed now,” he ordered curtly. The few stragglers left, including Rudy and me, had lost track of time apparently. Rudy sighed and helped me up. I wasn’t entirely sure where Rudy was going before Morden interrupted, though I could picture in my head the most wildest and romantic of fantasies.
“Some other time,” Rudy muttered with a weak smile.
I linked arms with him and said, “I look forward to it.”
“Get plenty of rest,” Morden said. “You’ll be up late tomorrow.” A faint smile could be seen on the old man’s lips. Every winter break, on the last night before the Guard leaves, PearlGate becomes homes to one of the biggest dances in the realms.
“Goodnight, Morden,” I grinned as Rudy and I passed him.
“Goodnight, my dear,” he nodded. Rudy brought me to my door and insisted I save the first dance for him.
“Actually,” Rudy said, “save all the dances for me.”
“What if I want to dance with Jamie? Or Fiddle?” I protested.
Rudy snorted through his nose. “Only if you like having purple toes.” I rolled my eyes and pushed him away.
“Goodnight, Rudy,” I laughed. Rudy bowed comically and departed. My heart felt so full as I curled into my bed that night. Frost was creeping up my window, and my thick quilts felt so toasty wrapped around me.
Blyss, you don’t have a dress for tomorrow. The thought popped into my mind almost as quickly as it left.
I’d worry about it tomorrow.
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