Braggart, Lady Cecilia van Deusen thought grudgingly, as she tried to maintain the stiff attention that they were trained for.
She is not even that pretty, Patricia Legazpi risked a glimpse at the willowy figure in the center, before returning her sight at the tree ahead. So tall, I wonder if a lord would offer her marriage, she snickered.
No hair could be that red! She had dyed it at Madame Guerin’s, for sure, Lady Irene Valliant bit the inside of her lips. And that skin…so pale! That would be a work of lead, she granted. She’s a Schultz, after all. She could easily get hold of difficult substances.
She’s Baron Laurent’s goddaughter, that is why, Elizabeth Langley thought bitterly. I have a better aim, but instructors fuss over her like she’s the daughter of the king.
All nine girls, lined up in a horizontal line, sighed in chorus.
Adriana released the arrow from the bowstring. She stood still, not removing her amber-colored eyes on the target. The arrow flew flawlessly in the air. Its rhythm could be detected by her sensitive ears as it cut its way through the air… nearer… nearer—
It shot right at the center of the red circle, at the middle of the target, just as she had calculated.
That was when she finally lowered the bow, relaxing her strained muscles. Her smile was masked beneath her impassive face, allowing only the others, her classmates and instructors, to see a young lady devoid of emotion.
A perfect emissary.
Lieutenant Colonel Damask nodded in approbation as Sergeant Guevara wrote on his scroll, probably using the highest form of praises to bring to the Baron. She returned to her position, at the rightmost of the horizontal line of female Novices. Her classmates snatched glances at her in resentment, which was nothing new to her. Five years, and she turned into an emotionless rag doll just like how they liked it.
“Class dismissed,” Damask declared. They quickly bowed in unison. Just before Adriana left, however, their instructor called her name. “Novice Schultz!”
Adriana wanted to complain, she always did especially now that she was craving for Sarah’s afternoon cupcakes, but she couldn’t. And so she turned with that blank face of hers and walked briskly to the officers, only stopping a few feet from them.
“Sir!” she stood in attention, her right arm placed diagonally on her chest.
“At ease, Schultz.”
She placed her other arm on the side. Usually, Damask would shower her with praises after their firing sessions, so this one was not unfamiliar to her.
“Good aim, as always, Novice Schultz.” At the corner of her eye, she noticed the officer—the bastard—had the decency to roam his eyes on her body which was covered with loose tunic, her Novice garb. He cleared his throat. “The headmaster wants to meet you at his office, at the hour of four in the afternoon. He has important matters to discuss with you.”
She hadn’t predicted that, though. “Yes sir!”
“Good. Now, you’re dismissed.”
She bowed to the officers before treading through the open field before entering the Harrington Hall. Several girls were walking through the halls, trying not to be late to the next class. Adriana recalled how it was to be one of them, thirteen to fifteen-year-olds in braided hairs and light morning gowns, wondering how to apply war tactics and several other theories from their books to the battle field, to the real world.
She sighed. It wasn’t that difficult then. She was studious, always had been. She always floated calmly through school. That was one of the few things she had in common with Isabella, she mused. Her very feminine twin, a perfect Schultz.
The grandfather clock on the foyer told her she had thirty minutes to prepare herself for the meeting. She went through the winding stairs until she reached the third floor, the fourth room to the left. When she opened the door, Cecilia and Diane were already there, seated on the former’s bed, their bodies frozen and their stares intent on her. Both of them were still in their Novice garbs.
Adriana closed the door behind her, ignoring Diane as she stood up and walked towards her own bed. It was a mistake of choosing the bed closest to the window—she had to pass the two of them first before reaching her own.
“That was quick,” Cecilia smirked, scrutinizing her dress.
She shrugged, calming the pulse that was throbbing painfully in her head. “I do not know what you’re talking about.” She rummaged her drawer for a decent afternoon dress.
“Adriana, you exactly know what I am talking about,” Cecilia sneered. She would have conceded that her roommate had a pretty face, if not for the vile character that she had.
“Cecilia!” Diane, the more sensible of the two, chided.
“What? She had to know,” Cecilia went on. “Gossips are circulating around the school about you.”
Her white and burgundy dress, gold on the seams and the burgundy skirt flowing, was what she first found. It would have to do, she decided. “And what is that?”
“They say you’re having trysts with Officer Damask. He gives you private lessons for you to excel in exchange of your... virtue.”
Her head snapped up. Cecilia was smiling triumphantly. And why wouldn’t she? She had been the first one to ignite Adriana’s temper. It would be sensational for weeks to come.
Diane’s face lost its color. She wouldn’t like to be associated with the older girls’ fight, even if it would provide Harrington Manor’s weekend’s entertainment. “Um, Sarah is probably serving our snacks—”
“Let me say my piece first,” she told the poor girl, before turning to Cecilia. “I apologize if I am that good a Novice for them to think I would stick to lowly measures to be an emissary,” she spat, “and I apologize if they’re too jealous to admit that I’m that good.”
She ignored her retort and went on. “And I apologize if I’m not like you, Cecilia, because do you know what the Novices say about you?”
Cecilia’s face was as red as her gown. “What?”
She leaned closer, a sneer on her face evident. “You spread your legs to every officer that comes to instruct us.” She shrugged, picking the gown from the drawer. “I have no idea how that spread like wildfire, because I haven’t told a single soul that you usually return to our room at dawn.”
Her roommate’s knuckles were turning white from her balled fists, and her lovely face transforming to worse.
At last, Cecilia huffed, stomped her feet and stormed out of the room. The silence was a blessing to her. She turned to the meek girl who was sitting on her bed, confusion written on her face.
“You can follow her, Diane,” Adriana said patiently.
Diane looked at her warily. “Um…”
“You need protection,” she said. “I don’t.”
That was enough an explanation to her other roommate. Within a minute, she had the room to herself.
She sighed. That was easy. Now, if she could just know how to dress with the girlish gown on her own for twenty minutes…
Lawrence David Harrington, Baron Laurent, was not a patient man. He was a trusted subject of the Tuerre’s monarch, a wealthy businessman, and lorded acres of land that could compete with the earls’ and dukes’ of the kingdom. He had earned that through cunning, perseverance and connections. Patience was not one of them.
Adriana was not going to be a receiver of the man’s ire, even if she was the baron’s beloved goddaughter, and thus she was walking hastily along the carpeted corridor of Harrington Hall, her silk slippers barely making a sound. She had decided against removing the braid of her silky auburn hair, which saved her a few minutes. Her burgundy gown, though light, was providing hindrance to her supposedly quick flight. Only her flushed cheeks showed that she was in a hurry.
Each step reminded her of the cool blade on her right thigh, a gift of her godfather’s on her fourteenth birthday. She never had the need to use it, and she hoped today was not any different.
Eventually, she was standing in front of a huge wooden double door, with two guards standing outside. They looked at her in recognition.
“I have an appointment with the headmaster,” she told them. She ignored the grumbling of her stomach. She would have to run to catch a cupcake or two from the pantry.
Without further questioning, the double door opened. “Lady Adriana Marcela of the House of Schultz,” one of the guards announced.
The heavy man behind the desk looked up from his thick books and nodded. She stepped inside the room, roaming her eyes around the four walls. She scarcely noticed the doors closed. She had always been an audience in this room, but she could not get tired of its endless shelves of books, the large map of the kingdom of Tuerre and the territories that surrounded it, and the painting of Baron and Baroness of Laurent. The painter had captured the mesmerizing beauty of the baroness, her godmother and a second mother to her. The baron must have noticed her gawking at the painting, for he chuckled.
“Bianca would have been very proud of you, my dear,” Harrington said.
Adriana snapped out of her reverie and looked at the man. He removed his spectacles and stood up. There were specks of grays in his hair, and several lines were added on his kind face. Since when had he turned old? She had no inkling.
“Uncle!” she ran to her godfather, who received her with open arms. She buried her face on his chest, inhaling the familiar scent of his cologne.
His chest vibrated as he chuckled. “Now, my dear, I hope you were not tortured here in school while you were gone.” He patted her head, just as he had done since she was young.
She inched away from him. It was only he who had seen the mask behind her lovely face. She had allowed it to be. She smiled. “No, thank the gods, but the training had been harder and harder each day.”
“I suppose it would be, now that your graduation from this school is nearing,” he granted. “Your instructors provided nothing but praises from you. My pride swells every time I read their evaluations of you.”
She blushed and glanced at the floor. “I’m not that good as they say, Uncle.”
“Nonsense, you are your father’s daughter. Of course, you’ll be excellent in the field,” the baron said. “Now my dear, how do you like graduating a few months ahead of your classmates?”
She looked up and blinked. “A few months…ahead?”
He shrugged. “You have excellent credentials. It has nothing to do with you being my favorite godchild. You are going to be an exceptional emissary, as your instructors say so.”
She squared her shoulders. “If the kingdom is in need of my service, I would gladly do so.”
Baron Laurent looked at her without uttering a word, contemplating at her reply. At last, he laughed, and heartily at that.
“Is there something wrong?” Adriana queried.
He shook his head. “My child, I was right. You would pass my test.”
He nodded, his laughter trailing off. “You are ready for your first mission, I’m afraid.”
My first mission! Her adrenaline kicked in. They were told that some Novices receive their missions while they were at Harrington Manor, but she hadn’t met someone in her class to have done so. Now, her Uncle was offering—no, ordering—her first mission and she was as excited as a toddler for her first pony.
“Before that, I have news to bring to you.” The baron whisked a glass of brandy before speaking, staring at her grimly. It brought her back to five years ago, when they were but ten, learning of their parents’ death.
It couldn’t be, she thought, but it was written all over his face.
“Isabella is gone, Addie,” he said quietly, using her pet name.
Gone. Her twin who could not even hurt a single fly. “How? Why?” she mustered all her strength to sound sane, but couldn’t.
He placed the glass on the table. “They found her body at Median forest three nights ago. Stabbed three times, mostly at the chest. She seemed to have been abducted, with the ropes around her wrists and rope marks on her ankles. She put a good fight though—her nails are caked with blood. Your aunt does not have an inkling of what happened. I told her Isabella is visiting us, and she believed it.”
Typical, she thought derisively, thinking how pompous and shallow her father’s sister had been. “Why did you not tell her? Is she not Isabella’s guardian?”
“This is where you come along, my dear.” She stiffened. “You will be acting as an emissary for Prince Edward. He is studying Alchemy in the Academy. It wasn’t what His Majesty wanted, but the crown prince must be undergoing a rebellious stage to ignore his father’s wishes. You, my dear, will serve as his guard. Stalk him, tie him up, whatever you wanted to do to accomplish your mission, I care not, as long as you ensure the safety of the prince. The only thing you have to remember is that His Highness must not know of your job. He made the king promise not to send him a guard.”
The Academy…her body grew cold. “Does that mean I’m going to study there, sir?”
“Study, yes, you’re going to be a student just like anyone else in that school.”
“Alchemy?” Her governess had taught her the fundamentals before she was sent here. Perhaps it wasn’t so bad.
The baron shook his head. “A Schultz studying Alchemy is unheard of. A Schultz studying Apothecary is highly probable. Besides, your twin was studying Apothecary before she…passed away.” He gave her a calculating look before proceeding.
She swallowed the lump that was formed on her throat. “I will be studying as Isabella…sir.”
How ironic. She spent five years away from her relatives to forge a path of her own, just like her father. Now, five years forward, she was going to do the very thing that had her driven away from her blood.
“Yes, my dear. We cannot risk unnecessary inquiries. Your sister’s death is connected to something much bigger than what he hoped for, and it mustn’t be known. Not yet, anyway. I know how you abhor going back to your roots, but this is the only way you can follow the prince without them noticing that there is something peculiar with your arrangement. You will study there and pass your subjects just like any other students, in a field where your family is known for.”
Her throat went dry. “But how can I follow the prince if we’re studying different fields?”
“You will have common subjects, that I can assure you,” he replied. “Your schedule is already arranged for your, er, convenience. Haven’t you heard from your sister with your letters?” She shook her head. “Any man she fancied…?”
Fancied…Adriana tried to recall their letter correspondence. “She did tell me about a man…” her voice trailed off. “The prince…is that man?” She wanted to scoff at the mere idea. She easily beat the boy in griffin races when they were younger. What could her sister possibly saw on that fledgling of a prince?
Baron Laurent nodded, pleased by her quick thinking. “Apparently, and the crown prince returns the feelings much, much more. It is quite known in the Academy, and we will use it to our advantage as long as the investigation of Isabella’s death goes on.” He breathed out heavily, holding her shoulders as if afraid she would break. “Addie, I know this mission is hard to you to start since learning of your sister’s death, but we need to start. I apologize, but I need your answer right now.” Several thoughts ran into her mind, most of which she hoped her godfather was not privy of. “Are there any other questions, Adriana?”
Damn. “Why me, Uncle?” she asked boldly. “I am but a Novice, and you are asking me to guard the heir to the throne of Tuerre. Surely there must be an emissary more capable of the task. And you have said the prince is already studying there, so there must be someone already following him, is it not?”
Baron Laurent’s lips formed into a thin line. “For your first question, yes, there are. And I am aware that you’re still a Novice, months away from graduation. I cannot divulge any other information to you as I have sworn secrecy, but other emissaries are…preoccupied with their respective assignments that we are asking a Novice to guard the crown prince.” He smiled kindly. “But you are not just a Novice, Adriana. You are the best one that we have.”
The best Novice who couldn’t protect her own sister, she added in her head.
“For the second one, there is someone already following him, but with Isabella’s death, his Majesty is more wary of his son’s safety. I am not in the position to disclose any whereabouts about the other emissary, and do not bother yourself looking for that person. Your priority, should you accept the mission, is Prince Edward’s safety.”
He cleared his throat, resuming his seat behind the desk. “So what do you say, my dear? Do you accept the mission?”
“Yes,” the word slipped from her tongue without warning.
Her godfather beamed appraisingly. “Very well. You will be travelling to Sebastian at daybreak. The coach has been prepared for you, and so are your trunks.”
She raised her brow. “You knew I would say yes?”
“I knew you could not resist a mission,” he winked at her in mischief. “After all, you are my godchild.”
“But I do have a favor to ask,” She spoke, “in exchange for this.”
“Tell me, my dear, for I will grant it if it is within my means.”
Her lips twitched. “Let me kill the bastard who murdered my sister.”
Baron Laurent blinked several times, and eventually his lips broke into a grin. “Certainly, my dear.”