Few things in my life had ever been as exhausting – or rewarding – than the time I spent training with La Sistenza. Each morning, Caidan and I woke up before the sun had the chance to warm the ground, ate breakfast en route to our training field with Augustine, and spent daybreak until midday performing various physical challenges. Over a period of weeks, I had undergone such a transformation that it was hard to believe that I used to be a scrawny, bookish girl whose words were mightier than her muscles. Hours in the direct sunlight had bronzed my skin and bleached my chestnut hair with streaks of auburn. I could count my abs through my stomach and sported noticeable bulges in my arms. I no longer snorted and gasped when confronted with a mile-long run, but welcomed it as an easy warm-up for much more difficult ordeals.
Augustine sometimes instructed us individually, focusing on and correcting our specific weaknesses. In my sessions, she usually provided me with extra strength training. "You're smaller than we would have liked," she told me once, "so we need to bulk you up some. Il Med's grunts will have a huge physical advantage over you. However, I'll bet not one of them is as pigheadedly stubborn as you are." I had a quick fiery urge to be offended before I realized that she was actually complimenting me. I relished in Augustine's praise and fought hard to excel at everything she taught me so that I could go on to learn new things. For me, she was a teacher. For Caidan, however, she was a coach; she challenged him and worked him hard, and he would never perform as well if he thought she was cutting him slack. Augustine knew how to tailor her training to each of our individual learning needs.
The training affected Caidan just as much as it affected me, although his progress was rather more mental than physical. His shallow cockiness was beginning to slowly fade away, replaced by a kind of steely confidence that had been completely absent before. He no longer danced around the finish line of our running exercises, taunting me as I wheezed my way towards him. Rather, he would nod silently at me as we crossed the line within seconds of each other.
As if our brains weren't exhausted enough from the mind-numbing physical activity, Caidan and I were also required to study Eaven's history and survival training. These were instructed individually; La Sistenza wanted to be sure that we were both adequately prepared for the journey in the event that Caidan and I were separated. I would spent my afternoon in Chor's apartment, poring over historical documents, while Caidan would trudge with one of the three Necchi brothers to various locations; the next day, we switched places. Our rigid schedules were posted on our doors every morning, courtesy of Luca.
One night, I woke up in a cold sweat. Blinking and shivering, I glanced out the window. Eaven's two silvery moons shimmered against an inky sky; it was still night. I wasn't used to this; usually I was so exhausted by the end of the day that I slept soundly the entire night. Shuddering, I pulled a fur mantle over the nightdress that Clarita had given me and climbed out of bed.
My feet led me down the corridor and into the room where I had first met the members of La Sistenza. I pushed the door open and was surprised to find that two of the four candles were still lit. Chor sat at the table, which seemed vast and empty. The circles beneath his eyes looked even more prominent, and he appeared tired and aged. In front of him was Alessa di Libri's bibbia; her picture on the front seemed to move in the flickering candlelight.
"Audrey," he said with quiet surprise. "Why aren't you asleep?"
"Why aren't you?" I returned.
"I wish you could have met her," Chor said, ignoring my question. "Alessa. She was spirited. Fiery. A lot like you."
I approached the chair that had been conspicuously empty during our first meeting. "She sat here during meetings, didn't she?" I asked. Chor nodded.
"She would have liked you," Chor mused. "And Caidan. I know she would have."
There was something soft and strangely intimate about the way Chor talked about Alessa. I wondered if the two of them had been romantically involved. It made sense, the more I thought about it. Why Chor insisted upon her empty seat at the meetings. Why he was staring at her picture.
"You loved her," I said, more a statement than a question.
"More than anything," Chor responded, his voice cracking slightly. "She was my fiancée. No one outside of La Sistenza knew. It is unwise to love in such dangerous times. But I continue to love, stronger than I did before." The despondency in his tone almost made me weep for him.
He seemed to snap out of his reverie. "It's late. You should go back to sleep. You need to be up early tomorrow. We all do." He leaned forward and blew out the candles. The room plunged into darkness, and then my eyes adjusted to the moonlight filtering in through a window I hadn't noticed before.
"Chor? I'm really sorry," I said, knowing that the words were completely inadequate.
"We all are," he sighed. "Good night, Audrey."
I left him in the dark room and padded back to my room, musing over what Chor had said. It is unwise to love in such dangerous times… I shuddered at the thought, pulling the mantle closer to myself. I nestled back among the furs on my bed and drifted into an uneasy sleep full of mutilated corpses and haunted cottages.