The Royal Academy of Aulen, with its prestigious pedigree and nearly thousand-year history of schooling the children of the kingdom’s most elite, had never hosted a witch-child before. And every day since Ellara Wist had arrived at their hallowed halls, the school and everyone inside of it seemed to go out of their way to remind her they didn’t want to.
Getting into the Royal Academy had taken no less than a handful of small miracles and a mountain of deceit, but her acceptance letter allowed her travel permission past the border of Outerland. By the time she’d arrived at the imposing gates surrounding the school and everyone realized that Ellara Wist wasn’t, in fact, a humble farmer’s daughter with an exceptional I.Q., but a witch who’d duped every barrier separating her from an education, it was too late to send her back without some kind of scandal. After all, her scores on the written entrance exam broke records, and they’d already awarded her the scholarship. The Regents of the Academy feared witch unrest in Outerland if they returned her, so she remained.
Back then, she had been so sure that if she kept her head down, everyone would outgrow the scary stories they were probably told about her kind. They would learn to see past her green skin, dotted with dark freckles. They would know her, not the lies everyone told about witches.
But a year had passed. And no one was growing. No one was changing. No one saw her.
“Someone left horned snakes in the search drawers again. You can fish those out, can’t you?”
“Of course. I’ll be happy to get them.” She beamed up at her usual library companion, a tight-curled, tight-smiling girl named Cendris, from her place behind the carved Thrisall desk where she spent most of her free time re-cataloguing books and repairing broken leather spines.
“I’m sure you will. I guess you would like them, wouldn’t you? You know what they say about birds of a feather. Or, should I say, scales of a feather?”
Cendris disappeared with a twittering laugh before Ellara could inform her that her made-up expression didn’t even make any sense, leaving her alone in the great, yawning library.
Her work-study job as a library assistant may have been a way of hiding her away so the rest of the school only had to look at her during lectures, but Ellara couldn’t help but love the stacks of books towering toward the sky. Nor could she help but feel like the building’s two wings—which moved out from the atrium where her desk was situated—were reaching out to embrace her. As prestigious as the school was, as renowned as it was for educating future rulers, most of the students were more interested in coupling off or training for the upcoming war everyone couldn’t stop whispering about than actually studying, which left her alone with her books more often than not.
When she wrote home to her mother and her sisters and everyone in their village who would undoubtedly huddle around to hear her news, she spoke of the weather and the beauty of the architecture and the challenging aspects of the finer points of the advanced arithmetic they taught her. She never spoke of the loneliness. Or of the solace she found in books. An almanac of the stars over Aulen couldn’t judge her. A compendium of the history of Aulenian queens didn’t laugh at her green skin or poke at her dark freckles. Her favorite characters never left horned snakes for her to wrangle. Humans, on the other hand, weren’t so kind. And now that she’d been around them for so long, she didn’t believe any of them were capable of it.
Whistling one of her mother’s favorite folk songs, she reached for a pair of scaled gloves she kept in the bottom drawer of her desk for just such an occasion. After her first pair had gone “missing,” only to end up on the hands of a statue of a witch being tortured by King Yavul, the mastermind behind the banishment that sent Ellara’s kind to Outerland, she kept them locked away for safekeeping.
After the snakes had been wrangled, she wasn’t in a rush to return to the dormitories. She never was. If she thought she could get away with sleeping under her desk and only resurfacing for meals and lectures, she would have at least attempted it. So, as she made her way through the south wing, she strolled through the moonlight pouring in through the wide, brass-hung windows. During the day, sunlight baked the room, but at night, it was the perfect place to see the moon dancing with its reflection in the river. Here, Ellara could see it all, everything about this place that she actually liked: the gates in the distance, the dark water, the flicker-bugs that danced over the meadows, the dragon’s cave at the base of the river, a human-shaped shadow wrestling a much larger, dragon-shaped shadow, the stars that—
The human and the dragon weren’t usual at all. Or, more precisely, the dragon was a fixture near the River Gate, where it would occasionally poke its head out and prey on small birds who wandered into its watery path, but humans never went anywhere near the dragon, much less tried to wrestle the thing.
Pressing her nose against the glass, she glanced across the shadowed landscape, desperate for even the slightest hint that someone else was out there, someone who could save the body currently fighting the dragon. She could see no one. As the rest of the academy’s dormitories were on the other side of the vast library, she could be almost certain no one could see them, either.
Fates, you’ve got to be kidding me, she thought, her wrists pricking painfully as magic crackled between her fingertips. The trouble with being a witch of the light meant that her magic didn’t give her much room to ignore the suffering; her magic itself wanted to help. She’d been in control of her magic most of her life, but light magic crackled as it came to life, sparking between her fingers, as if reminding her she could do some good.
She didn’t need reminding. The binders on her wrists—two heavy cuffs like bracelets, given to her by the Academy Regents when she arrived here—bound her magic. She could use it, but every time it sparked to life, the binders burned into her skin. It was supposed to be a deterrent, and after the first time she’d burned herself while absent-mindedly using her magic to make up her bed in the morning, she had been sufficiently deterred.
But if she wanted her magic to stop pricking, she at least had to try to help the shadowy figure. Or, she at least had to see that he was alright. The humans may not have done the same for her, but she wasn’t like them.
Gathering up her skirts, she dropped the scale gloves and took off out of the library. The tall grass separating her favorite building from the lake whipped around her calves, and the bend in the river grew larger and larger in front of her.
The moon was full tonight. Thank the Fates for that. It meant that the closer she came to the bank of the river, the easier it was to see and take stock of the situation.
Unfortunately, it also meant she had a perfectly clear view and a spotlight when the dragon sunk his teeth into the gut of his victim.
All at once, a few things became clear to her as time slowed and energy whipped through her body, electrifying her every nerve ending. The victim was a man, bloodied and bruised. One of the dragon’s teeth—the one diving between the victim’s ribcage—was broken. The sword and half of the tooth were lying, discarded, a small distance away, being lapped at by the quiet river.
And the victim held something small in his hands. Something moving.
Ellara’s stomach sunk as her spirits soared. She had to save this man. No matter what it did to her, he didn’t deserve to die like this.
And, if she couldn’t manage that, perhaps she could at least save the duckling.
Bracing herself for the pain, she pressed her palm out towards the dragon and began screaming a curse her mother taught her, the words strangling her throat as her wrists burned. Light flooded the bend in the river, brighter than the moon, and the entranced dragon retreated, dropping his human prey to the wet sand below.
The world spun. The pain was so strong. But the duckling in the man’s hand quacked and scurried off as the body laid there, slack on the ground, and she knew she couldn’t run away to lick her wounds.
Body shaking, she stumbled towards him. Still breathing. Good start. Hands out again, each finger trembling and twitching, she pressed into the bloody wound, letting the heat seep into her flesh and the red dye her skin.
The spell was ancient, as old as magic itself, her mother used to say, and it whispered from her tongue before she registered that she’d done so. Inch by inch, she moved her fingers out of the wound as the magic stitched his body back together.
And when it was done, when she’d absorbed his pain and taken even more from her binders, enough to haze the moon and shake her vision, he groaned back to life.
Even a bloodied mess, she recognized him. Tarran of the Rosson House, a noble family with more wealth and power than anyone in Outerland could dream of having. He wasn’t so handsome now, but she’d certainly eyed him in the halls before. He was the noble prince type she read about in her stories, and she’d never seen him without a smile.
Until now, of course.
“What were you doing?” she hissed, letting her anger fuel her and cover up the weakness in her voice. “Were you trying to get yourself killed?”
“Training…” he coughed. “I was training.”
So, the youngest prince of Rosson House was a liar and an idiot. Interesting. His hand, which had held the duckling, clenched and unclenched, and she leaned back against a nearby rock to survey him. Besides, in lectures, none of the humans had ever let her get this close to them before. She wanted to take advantage of the opportunity.
“Training against the River Gate dragon? I’m sure your house would be very happy if their son came home as an ash heap.”
“I’m sure they wouldn’t care. One less son to worry about,” he said without a trace of humor.
“Well, I’m sorry I disappointed them, then.”
Brown-green eyes snapped open and met hers. They widened until they dominated his entire face and gave away his confusion.
“You. You’re…you’re the witch.”
“I just can’t stop disappointing people today, can I?”
For a few blissful moments, she’d been able to talk to someone like she used to talk to her friends back home, with ease and wit and without prejudice. But Terran, a full foot taller and strong from his military training, inched back from her, stopping only when the heels of his hands touched water.
He hated her. She’d saved his life and still, he hated her. Ellara knew she shouldn’t have expected anything more from a human. They were all the same. But still…disappointment soured everything.
“They said you can’t do magic,” he snapped accusingly.
“I can. It’s just…” With a practiced strength, she pulled the tight binders slightly down her skin to reveal new burn marks. Raw. Bloody. She hissed as the cold wind hit them. “It’s just very, very painful.”
Maybe it was her wry smile or the sight of his blood on her hands, but something shifted in his eyes, something definite and real. It wasn’t a trick of the moon or her perspective; he changed.
“You need to see the healers,” he said.
“They won’t help. They never do.”
His dark brows knit together. “You knew it would hurt and that you wouldn’t get any help after and you still did this?”
“You’re alive, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” he scoffed, blowing past her little joke. “But why did you do it?”
If she were a more cautious person, she wouldn’t have answered him. She would have disappeared into the night and forgotten all about him and the dragon and the duckling. After all, if she told him the truth, maybe he’d tell his friends, and they’d use it against her, put themselves in fake danger so she’d hurt herself trying to save them.
But she wasn’t cautious. These humans, they were all too safe, too protective of their feelings. They played games with one another and tossed everyone who wasn’t like them aside. They didn’t care. But she wouldn’t be the evil witch they believed her to be, not even if it meant putting herself in harm’s way.
And apparently, away from the trappings of school and the eyes of other humans, he didn’t want to be the rotten human she thought him to be, either.
“Because you’re a prince who fought a dragon to save the life of a little baby duck.” She shrugged and pushed herself to stand. “I don’t know. I suppose I thought you were being heroic. There isn’t enough of that around here.” When he said nothing, just stared at her as if she were an ancient rune he couldn’t decipher, she took her leave, calling back to him over her shoulder. “Make sure you drink something strong before you go to sleep tonight. Even my magic can’t save you from the pain you’ll feel in the morning.”
The grass crunched beneath the heels of her boots for one step. Two steps. Five steps. And then—
“My lady. Wait.”
Every sinew in her body froze. My lady? No one at the academy even called her by her name, much less by a title as genteel as my lady. Her chest flushed, blossoming warmth fighting against the cold. He caught up, stepping in front of her to offer a small silver circle. It glinted in the moonlight.
“Please have this.”
They’d played a dozen tricks on her this way, playing nice just before doing something cruel, like pushing her out of a tower. But he did something they didn’t. He didn’t flinch when their skin touched. Holding up the circle of metal, she inspected it. A crown twisted with flowers and axes. Some words in ancient Aulenian.
“Pretty,” she muttered.
He breathed a laugh. The sound sparked something inside of her. It felt like magic, but it didn’t activate her binders.
“It’s a token. They’re used to symbolize debts. You saved my life tonight. So, if you should ever need me to save yours, I will be there.”
“That’s very kind. Thank you.”
She blinked, still staring down at the token, rubbing her thumb over the engraving. The prince of a royal house just gave her—a witch—a debt. After months of being ignored and hated, it meant a great deal to her.
Not that she would let him know that, of course.
“But I don’t think I’ll ever need saving.”