The first lesson with Heir Foretold Arelai did not go well. It did not go well from the very start, which Arelai was ten minutes late for, and it continued to not go well for three hours, as Kesi attempted to read Arelai great speeches and epic poems while Arelai traced her finger along the desk, drawing patterns of sparks and occasionally making half-hearted attempts to sound like she was listening.

Kesi could say, "Arelai, how are you ever going to get the nobility to respect you if you don't learn to speak and write in proper Getican?" all she wanted. She could repeat, endlessly, "These writers are the masters of their various arts, and studying them is the only way you can gain the command of language appropriate to the ruler you will one day be." It was no use; Arelai appeared to have no interest in the lessons at all.

At one point, Kesi felt strange air currents shivering around her, and realised that Arelai was manipulating them with magic to listen in on what was happening outside the room. "Arelai," she said, "the fact that I'm not myself a magic user doesn't mean that I can't recognise magic when I see it."

Arelai had looked guilty; the air currents had stilled, and she'd said, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, it's just people were outside talking about the barbarians –" and when she saw Kesi looking unimpressed, her voice became indignant and she said, "It's important. It's much more important than – I mean, I've heard they're getting close to beating us in Har."

"Most of that talk is scare-mongering, and in any case it isn't relevant, Heir Foretold. During my lessons I want you to pay attention to me and to the works we're studying, and nothing else."

And Arelai had nodded in apparent submission, and returned to making sparks under her fingertips and playing with the glittering sleeves of her dress.

Kesi finished the lesson completely exhausted, and somewhat at a loss. She had expected difficulty in gaining the Heir Foretold's respect, assumptions that Kesi was stupid because she couldn't use magic, and incapable of teaching anything. She had not expected the girl to be uninterested in the teaching altogether.

Rhetoricians taught their students from the age of seventeen; before that, the students took their literary and linguistic lessons from Grammarians. Kesi had briefly spoken to Arelai's Grammarian before he left court, but he hadn't been able to help her much, since all his lesson plans had used magic. She was, apparently, on her own.

Instead of going back to her room, after the lesson Kesi made her way to the central hall of the palace, an enormous dome-shaped room with walls made of magically receptive glass. Reports from messengers all over the empire flashed up on these walls, so that this room was the place to go for news. However, the spell involved in transmitting a message a long way was complicated and took a certain amount of effort and energy, which meant that messengers in really serious situations tended not to be able to send word this way. They'd dispatch a message in an flying box instead, since enchanting inanimate objects to head for a particular location was much easier, but that would take days or sometimes weeks to reach the palace, depending on where it was coming from, and would go straight to the emperor rather than to the central hall. So the really bad news tended to be heard much later; however, generally speaking if no word whatsoever about a particular place appeared on the walls of the central hall, it was fairly certain that nothing good could be happening there.

Turany, Kesi's home country, was still entirely safe and free from barbarian attack, Kesi was relieved to see. She found herself missing it slightly, even though it had only been a few days since she'd left. She missed her family and friends and, perhaps most of all, the peace and quiet of her office at the university.

"Well, that's rubbish," said a cool voice from behind her, shaking her out of her thoughts, and she turned to see a woman standing behind her. She was probably about nineteen or twenty and looked like she was probably from Har or the Gemyset islands. More significantly, she wore her dark brown hair cropped close to her head and had on a thick black tunic, which marked her out as a soldier. The tunic was the uniform of the Getican army, and soldiers were the only women who could respectably wear their hair short. (This was why Kesi, who had decided at the age of twenty that braiding her hair without magic took an unacceptable amount of time, wore an expensive wig over her own short hair.)

Kesi followed the woman's gaze to see what was rubbish, and saw that the message she was looking at read: "Officer reporting from Biskan; anticipate barbarian withdrawal within the month; further details to follow."

"Rubbish?" Kesi said. Biskan was one of the Gemyset islands, the 'Granary of Getica' – five small islands which between them provided nearly a quarter of the empire's food. Getica could not afford to lose them.

"I was in Biskan not three days ago," the woman said, flatly. "We're losing badly; we just don't know it yet. I mean, yeah, we've still got plenty of territory, the barbarians aren't advancing, but they're sending in tiny forces ahead and avoiding our massive lump of a centralised army and taking money from the people living in Biskan who'd otherwise be paying taxes to the empire. And without money…"

Kesi noticed at this point that each of the fingers on the woman's left hand bore a rough wooden ring with letters scratched into it. Which meant she was an officer, and a powerful one, probably second-in-command of the army in Biskan. It wasn't unusual for people as young as she was to be in such high command, since only the nobility could be officers. She wouldn't be in charge of the army unit overall, though, since that position was only ever given to Geticans by birth.

"Are you from Biskan yourself?" Kesi asked.

"No, Askh." Kesi had a moment of puzzlement before she remembered that Askh was the other name for Lyren, another of the Gemyset islands. The Geticans put Getican names on places they conquered, since the original names sounded unpronounceable to them. For the illiterate, the lower-classes, the slaves to use those original names – and to speak in their native languages – was reasonable and all that could be expected, but as a member of the nobility it marked you out as a troublemaker. And this woman was of course nobility, even if her speech had suffered a little from association with common soldiers, and she had said Askh, as if it were a normal thing to say, to someone she'd just met. So she had radical leanings and was happy to demonstrate them to anyone – and she was a senior officer? How was that possible?

The woman seemed to have noticed Kesi's surprise, because she smiled slightly, but she provided no answer to the silent question, instead simply saying, "I'm Jia. Nice meeting you," and, placing her right hand on Kesi's right shoulder, sent a flow of warmth into her blood – the standard way for one member of the nobility to greet another newly-met one.

Kesi said, "Nice meeting you too. I'm Kesi," and reached out her left hand to complete the box of their arms, saying quietly, "I'm afraid I'm a non-magic user and can't repay your generous demonstration of warmth, but I do offer the warmth of friendship."

Kesi studied Jia's face for a reaction, but couldn't discern one; she merely said, "Thanks," and withdrew her hand. Then she went on, "Well, I must go. Someone should tell the high-ups that there's too much optimism coming from Biskan and they oughta send reinforcements. See you around, though." And she floated away out of the central hall, before Kesi had a chance to ask her what her business was in the capital, and why she'd left the army in Biskan.