"What is it?" Lichus asked, looking up from the burn on Colton's wrist to Raoul, who shrugged.
"All I know about it is that Colt has an identical one," he said, leaning back in his seat. The mark was one of the first things he had noticed about Colton when they met. He hadn't known what it meant at the time.
"It's a mark that distinguishes those of magical descent," Colton replied, looking at his own burn and thoughtfully rubbing his thumb across it before pulling his sleeve over it again.
"Do you think she knows what it means?" An almost hungry look had entered Lichus' eyes, and Colton and Raoul glanced at each other warily. Raoul wasn't surprised that he was interested in her now – Lichus was always searching for the next best thing to use, and would throw it aside quickly when something better came along. Though maybe that was what was needed to pick the right girl – they couldn't afford to be sentimental about it.
"She didn't seem to," Raoul said finally, picking at his nails and watching Lichus in his peripheral vision. He found himself doing this a lot; observing the man's movements. Though, of course, it wasn't just Lichus he did this with. He did it with as many people in a room as he could, except Colton. His friend was the only person he could immediately dismiss as a potential threat.
"That's unsurprising," Colton nodded as he retrieved the pencil from behind his ear, ready to write when they began. "She's an or- she lives in a small village. I doubt anyone here knows what it is, except maybe the healer woman - I'm sure she would have come across it at some point."
"Could she still learn? Her magic could be an invaluable asset to the task." Lichus was smiling, and Colton frowned slightly. Raoul knew that Lichus' approach irritated Colton, who had been brought up with strict manners and abiding by social rules. After all, Lichus had previously been so dismissive of the girl – but, of course, now she was useful to him.
"Theoretically yes, but in practice it will be difficult. Magic is entwined with life, the effort could kill her. You're supposed to cultivate it from birth, and she has gone eighteen years without using it. We would have to be very careful." Colton chewed on his lip thoughtfully.
"So she could still learn?" Lichus grinned, then clapped his hands together joyfully. "That would be much more effective than using sleeping tonics…"
"I wouldn't dismiss the sleeping tonic plan – that was what we had originally organised, and we know that it would work. Magic might be more convenient but there is no guarantee with it. Not to mention that the girl wasn't in our original four."
"Replace Paela. She was a disappointment in the last stage," Raoul suggested dismissively, and Lichus nodded. He crossed Paela's name off without hesitation.
"So our new four are Farrah, Linden, Royse and Elora," Colton clarified, and Lichus nodded. Colton nodded slowly as though he were still thinking, then seemed to suddenly come to a decision: "Yes. Good."
Lichus stood, his chair making a loud scraping noise against the floor as he did so. "Let's go and talk to the healer, I want to hear what she knows about this."
"What makes you think she'll tell you?" Raoul asked, his eyebrows raised.
"She's a smart woman. We told the village leaders why we were here, and she knows that holding back this information won't help her or anyone here," Lichus drawled, and Colton nodded.
"He's right. It's in her best interests to co-operate, even if she might not want to."
"Fine," Raoul replied, standing from his chair. "Lead the way."
Colton inhaled deeply, taking in the fresh scent of grass and the nearby lake. He enjoyed the country. He was so used to the noise and bustle of the capital that spending time in the open, rural village was a welcome change. He hadn't left the city in years – after his parents' marriage began to crack, the visits to the family country home had become as infrequent as his mother's time spent with him. He hadn't realised that the sky was so huge, so intense. He was used to seeing the towers of buildings invading the air. The journey here had been incredible for him – seeing the sky in all its majesty. Raoul, in his usual fashion, had been unsurprised by it.
"What do you think about the magic?" Colton asked Raoul in a hushed tone. Lichus was walking briskly ahead of them, apparently tired of their company after the month and a half they had spent travelling together. Colton wondered if Lichus was aware that the feeling was mutual – at least, it was for Colton. The man was infuriating; with his pompous, overbearing attitude and inflated self-importance – luckily, he would only have to put up with him for another day or so. He couldn't be certain that Raoul wouldn't flare up at Lichus, after so long internalising it.
"I don't mind being around magic users any more, Colt. You know that," Raoul replied equally quietly after a few seconds, and Colton nodded and looked ahead to Lichus, who had just knocked on the healer's door. They caught up with him as the door opened a crack and the elderly, female leader of the village looked out at them.
"Can I help you?" She enquired mildly, not moving out of the way of the door. Lichus puffed out his chest and stood up straighter. Colton struggled not to roll his eyes.
"We're here to talk to you about Elora Lavelle." The older man said, though the woman still did not move from the door. Colton could feel Lichus growing increasingly impatient. He glanced at Raoul, who was making no attempt to hide his pleasure at Lichus' irritation.
"What about her?"
"We noticed the burn on her wrist," Lichus replied, his words clipped.
"I'm unable to discuss patients with you," she replied, beginning to shut the door.
Lichus jammed his shoe in the way. "My lady-"
"My name is Sage."
"Sage, then," Lichus replied through gritted teeth, his forced smile intact, "We know what it is. We think it could help us – really help us. And if it helps us, it helps countless other people."
Lichus had tiptoed around the matter, but the implication hung in the air like smoke: if she didn't talk to them, other people would die. As a healer, she would struggle to let that happen. Colton was both impressed and disgusted with Lichus' smooth manipulation – becoming more impressed when it proved to be effective.
"I had a feeling that was what you were here about. I was hoping it wasn't. Come in," she sighed, walking to the kitchen and pulling a jar down filled with yellowish liquid. They followed her in, all of them stepping tentatively. The strength and variation in aromas hit Colton almost immediately, so thick and heavy that it was like he had inhaled fog. The surfaces were covered in herbs, pots, empty vials and pages loose from books covered in writing and drawings of plants.
"What is that?" Raoul asked warily, watching the woman and eyeing her jar of liquid.
"Juice. Apple. Would you like some?"
The three men shook their heads, and she shrugged and placed the jar back down on the surface with acute precision that seemed to suggest that, while the house looked like a cluttered mess to Colton's untrained eye, she knew exactly where everything was.
"I might just take a moment outside," Raoul muttered, edging back towards the door and stepping out. Sage's pale eyes followed him, seeming to smile, though her mouth remained still.
"You know what the mark means?" Colton asked as she sat at the kitchen table.
"I've known since she was a baby. I thought it was best for her to remain unaware." She paused, then said, as an afterthought: "please, sit. You'll get used to the smell."
"Why?" Lichus exclaimed in disbelief after they had sat down on the wooden chairs, which creaked and wobbled underneath them. "Magic is incredible. It's-"
"Dangerous, if you live in a place where you are alone in your abilities and others are ignorant of what you can do, and what you can't," she finished. "Magic is surrounded by rumours in these parts. There are so few people of magical birth that the rumours are inextricable – and they are often rumours of dark powers and evil deeds. People can do terrible things when they are scared, things they didn't know they were capable of. I couldn't thrust the burden of managing other people's fear on a girl so young."
"She may be able to find her parents," Colton said softly, glancing back to the door to make sure Raoul didn't hear. Colton had decided that Raoul wouldn't be present at the interviews because it wasn't necessary for him to know their histories: if the chosen girl elected to tell him later then that was her business, but for now – especially regarding such personal matters – it was better for him to remain in the dark. Sage looked up at him with her brow creased as he continued. "Those of magical birth are supposed to register."
"Yes, they are," she replied, then laughed sharply. "After the Scourge of the fey in Yurian, many people with abilities went in to hiding. If they were registered, do you think she would be able to find them now? She doesn't even know their names."
"It's different now, people are re-emerging-"
"Some people are. Not everyone. I refuse to be the one to give her hope, just to have it ripped out from underneath her," she said bitterly, then was silent. Eventually, Sage sighed and continued. "If you choose to take her, you should tell her. Let her look through the records herself, see if she's there or anyone who could be old enough to be her parents. But if she stays here, then I won't be informing her. She doesn't have to know. It would only bring her trouble."
Colton nodded, glancing at Raoul who had just slipped back inside, and Lichus burst out, finally asking the question he had clearly been yearning to ask: "Can she still learn?"
Sage raised one eyebrow at his demeanour, leaning back into her chair and regarding him coldly. "Yes, I believe she could. Ora is strong, much stronger than you might think. It wouldn't kill her – but be careful. Magic is a fickle thing."
"We should send for her. We need to find out what she's capable of before we make the next cuts," Lichus said quietly to him. Colton nodded, and the old woman smiled ruefully.
"I believe I can help you there," she said, then raised her voice. "Farrah, would you come here please?"
Colton listened as he heard movement from upstairs, followed by the gentle thump of footsteps on the stairs. Seconds later, one of the girls from selection appeared in the doorway. Farrah Trenwith - one of the front runners for the position.
"Your granddaughter?" He asked, turning to the healer, who shook her head.
"My apprentice. She can fetch Ora for you."
"Of course. Where should I tell her to go?" Farrah asked, looking from Sage to Lichus.
"The village hall." Raoul spoke up, flashing his usual impish smile at Farrah. She smiled back, though it was small. Colton shot Raoul a look, who instantly changed his expression to a sombre one.
"I'll do it right away," She said, then slipped out with all the men's eyes on her. Colton exhaled softly. It was beginning to look like Elora Lavelle, if she came to the meeting and proved herself capable, would be the girl who was sent into the palace – and Farrah Trenwith, her competitor, was unknowingly facilitating her success.
Ora stood in the centre of her small room, practicing the movements they had been taught in the physical training. Her room was small, but large enough to do this. She heard someone walking towards her room before they opened the door, giving her enough time to move out of the way. It flew open seconds later and Farrah walked in and collapsed on top of Ora's tiny bed, her hair windswept and her face pink.
"Did you run all the way here?" Ora asked, glancing at her friend before she moved back into the open space and resumed practicing. Farrah just groaned, then slowly sat up.
"Yes. I won't be doing it again."
"Why?" Ora turned to look at her, then grinned. "You look exhausted."
"I am. What are you doing?"
"Practicing what they taught us. I want to be good at it," She said, and Farrah nodded slowly. Ora slowed to a stop. "So why did you run here?"
A strange look passed over her friend's face, like she was about to deliver bad news. "The rebels came to see Sage. I saw them through my window before they got there, and I tried to listen in but I couldn't hear everything. All I heard was them asking about you – and your burn." Farrah swallowed and looked down at her feet. "I don't think it's a normal burn. They sent me to get you, to take you to the village hall."
Ora frowned, pushing up the edge of her sleeve and looking down at it. "It's just a burn. What else could it be?"
"I don't know. They seem to, though. We should go." Farrah faltered, then corrected herself. "You should go."
"I want you to come with me. Please."
A smile briefly replaced Farrah's worried expression and she nodded, standing up. "Of course."
"You are okay, aren't you?" Ora asked, studying Farrah's features.
"I'm fine." Farrah breathed, nodding at her. "It's just… one of us might be leaving here, for gods know how long. It's odd."
"We're going to go on an adventure, into the great unknown. Like the heroes and heroines in the old, great stories."
"Like Clarisse Lavelle?" Farrah provided, and Ora grinned.
"Exactly like Clarisse Lavelle. She was recruited by rebels, after all."
"Hopefully not exactly like Clarisse. She did die in the end," Farrah reminded, and Ora shrugged and waved her hand.
"A minor detail. It was an honourable death." Ora chewed on her lip, then stood from the bed as well and walked to the door. "Although, Clarisse did know what she was signing up for."
"Maybe we're signing up to clean the rebel's chamber pots," Farrah remarked snidely, and Ora just shrugged as she stepped out of her room and into the hallway.
"I'd rather leave and clean chamber pots than live and die in this tiny village."
"Staying here might not be so bad," Farrah mumbled, fiddling with a strand of hair as she followed her out. Ora looked across at her, her eyebrows raised slightly.
"Are you trying to convince me, or yourself?"
"Hush," Farrah flicked Ora's shoulder as they hurried down the stairs and ran to the hall.
"I'm going to tell Sage where I am. I'll be right back," Farrah said as they reached the village hall, then rushed away.
"Wait-" Ora called, but Farrah was already gone. "Do I knock or just walk in?" She muttered to herself, then remembered that it was the village hall and not the rebel's home. She pushed down on the door handle and stepped inside, shutting it quietly behind her. Raoul was sitting in a chair sharpening a knife, which made Ora a little uneasy. He looked up almost immediately and set it down on the floor beside his feet.
"You," he said, as if this were a greeting.
"You know my name," Ora replied, stepping further inside the village hall and tracing her fingers lightly across the top of a chair. She knew he knew her name, she could see it in his face. What she didn't know was why he annoyed her so much.
"Do I?" Raoul replied, sounding surprised as he glanced at her and settled into the chair, stretching out lazily. Ora forced her irritation down, for some reason feeling that any negative response from her would be a triumph for him.
"I have introduced myself to you personally and been put through two stages of the selection process, I'm sure you've picked it up somewhere." Ora commented, looking away from him and picking at a splinter of wood on the backrest of one of the chairs.
"I was only involved with one stage of the selection process so far. Apparently it isn't necessary for me to know your history."
"I agree. It isn't necessary," Ora replied, glancing at the door and willing for Farrah to return quickly. Or the other two rebels, wherever they were.
"Why? Do you have something to hide?" His green eyes glinted as he smirked, leaning forward. Ora didn't know why this remark seemed to land on her – she wasn't hiding anything. She didn't reply to that, instead changing the subject:
"I was told that you weren't meant to tell me your name, and yet you did," she said, resting her weight on the hand that was on the top of the backrest of the chair.
"I don't see what that has to do with you," Raoul replied coolly, and Ora shrugged and feigned innocence as she looked back up at him.
"Oh, nothing. It's just that it's such a simple order, and you couldn't follow it." Ora slipped both of her hands into her skirt pockets. She laughed a little as she continued, "It calls into question your suitability for your job."
He narrowed his eyes and stood up abruptly, pushing his chair back as he did so. Ora prepared herself for whatever followed, but then the door of the storage room opened and the blond rebel stepped into the main room.
"Sorry I'm late. I had to finish writing a letter."
"Where is your other colleague?" Ora asked, keen to get the meeting underway.
"He's still with the healer. He wanted her opinion on… a health related matter." The blond man chewed on his lip, glancing from Ora to Raoul as if he could sense the tension in the room. He seemed to decide to ignore whatever almost-argument had been occurring and turned his attention wholly to Ora. "Do you know why you're here?"
"Not really." She replied, as the door opened and Farrah and the shorter, older rebel stepped inside.
"-every three days and it should clear up," Farrah was saying, and the man nodded and hastily tucked whatever he had in to his pocket.
"What's she doing here?" Raoul asked, frowning as Farrah sat down in one of the chairs near him. Farrah shot Ora a comforting smile.
"Chaperoning," Farrah replied, glancing across at Raoul. He just nodded.
"You're here because of the burn on your wrist." The blond rebel said, bringing the conversation back on topic. Ora rolled up her sleeve, showing it to him, and he nodded slowly. "Yes. I want to be clear with you: that burn marks out people who are capable of magic. We brought you here to test it, to see if you are still capable – or whether eighteen years without use has staunched your ability."
Ora was stunned. Magic… Well, it wasn't unheard of – but it was uncommon in the North of Tenney. Maybe that meant her family were from the South. And people had died using it. For a while she stared down at her wrist, not looking at any of the people in the room until she slowly lifted her head, meeting the gaze of the blond man. "Is it dangerous?"
"No. Well – probably not. There is no guarantee, of course. It depends on whether you're willing to take this risk – to find out more about who you really are."
Ora knew he had said that on purpose – he knew she was an orphan, and assumed that she would want to know about the mystery surrounding her family and birth. She was frustrated that the words worked, though she knew that she would probably have taken the risk even if he hadn't said it if it meant she were more likely to get the position.
"Are you sure you're capable of testing it?" She asked, and he ducked his head and smiled as he stepped towards her, his hand reaching for his sleeve. He pulled up the fabric, revealing an identical burn. Ora's eyebrows shot up in surprise, and she glanced up at him.
"I'm sure," he said, his cool blue eyes fixed on hers. Ora looked away from him, back to her wrist – then at his again. Ora pushed down her sleeve, nodding, and a smile spread across his face. "Good. Let's get to work."
Two hours passed with no progress. The short rebel had gone from pacing the room and watching her expectantly to sleeping in one of the chairs. Farrah had agreed to let Ora test her magic on her - they were trying a simple skill: bringing on a state of sleep. She had been patient with the numerous attempts, but eventually had to leave to help Sage put together some cold remedies.
"This is useless, we're wasting our time here," Raoul groaned, rubbing a hand over his face.
"You think I can't do it?" Ora challenged, whipping around to face him. She had become progressively more irritated and embarrassed at each failure – this was supposed to be in her blood, she was supposed to be able to do it. She didn't want to acknowledge the possibility that she had lost her abilities before she had even used them, but that was what it was beginning to seem like. He smiled lazily.
"That's exactly what I think," he replied, standing up from his chair and walked across the room, stretching his legs.
"Why don't I try it on you then?" She asked, her brown eyes narrowed. The blond rebel looked across at Raoul quickly and shook his head.
"I don't think that's-"
"I'll do it," Raoul interrupted, nodding at his friend – who didn't look any less concerned.
Ora shot Raoul a forced smile as she walked across to him.
"You should sit down. I wouldn't want you to hurt yourself when you collapse after falling asleep," Ora instructed, and Raoul didn't move, his eyes unreadable.
"I don't think that will be necessary, and I'm sure you wouldn't mind me hurting myself."
"Raoul," the blond man spoke out, an element of warning in his voice.
Raoul frowned at him, then sighed and sat down, gesturing a flourish with his hands. "Fine. Try it."
Ora knelt in front of his chair. She could feel his eyes washing over her face and she looked up slowly, her jaw set. She could see in his face that he expected her to fail. Carefully, Ora pressed her fingers to his temples. His skin was warm against her cold fingers.
"Sleep," she said quietly but authoritatively. Raoul's eyes seemed unfocussed and Ora sucked in a breath as his gaze seemed to drift around the room. Then he spoke.
"Is this a dream?" He asked, and Ora sighed exasperatedly as she leaned away from him. He caught her eye and a vindictive smile crossed his face as he maintained the stare. "Oh, you're still here. It must be a nightmare."
"I want to try again," Ora said abruptly, turning to look at the blond rebel.
"Raoul might be right," he said softly, clearly trying – though failing - to hide his disappointment, "this could be a waste of time."
"Once more," Ora insisted, looking back to Raoul. He just shrugged, his arms crossed across his chest. She raised her fingers to his temples and took a deep breath.
Then something seemed to explode from within her – not a feeling of power, but of pure exhaustion. It ripped through her, through all of her, from her head, to her stomach, to even the tips of her fingers and toes. Every inch of her was screaming for rest. She saw Raoul's eyelids flutter shut and his head slump to one side before her vision went black.
"She's waking up."
"Don't feel like you have to be concerned about her welfare, Lichus."
"She has been unconscious for three hours. My concern ran out two and a half hours ago."
"Three hours?" Ora mumbled, opening her eyes fully. Her vision swam, and she tried to sit up, though two hands gently but firmly pushed her back down.
"Careful, give yourself some time," the blond rebel said, then smiled at her. "You did it."
"Thank gods. I wouldn't have been able to stand the look on his face if I didn't," Ora muttered, and he laughed.
"I know what you mean."
Ora sat up slowly, rubbing her head as she did so, then looked across the room at Raoul. He was still slumped in the chair, his head lolling back.
"You didn't wake him up?" Ora asked, looking back at the blond man. He suddenly looked sheepish and stood up from beside her.
"I could have done, but I think he needed the sleep."
"Shall I do it?"
"No, I will. You should go home and get some rest. We're making more cuts tomorrow morning and choosing the final girl tomorrow night. You should be prepared for whatever happens."
Ora nodded and stood, though her head swayed as she did so. "Will this happen every time?"
"No, just the first time. From now on if you use too much it will just stop suddenly. You'll be unable to use it at all."
She didn't say anything else, though waved as she left. The cool night air surprised her; it had been the afternoon when she had gone in. Her steps were clumsy and slow, and she took each one carefully. Her feet seemed to drag against the grass.
Ora sighed and turned around to see who was talking to her. Royse. She stifled a groan, instead forcing a smile. "Good evening."
"Did you just have a meeting with the rebels?" Royse's face was illuminated by one of the lanterns outside the village hall, her angular features casting shadows across some of it.
"Yes, I did," Ora replied politely, hoping that was it – but Royse didn't look like she was preparing to leave.
"Are we all having one?"
"No, I don't think so. Good night, Royse." Ora raised her hand and then slowly turned, walking back to the orphanage. She would have to explain to Sidra where she had been all night – she was supposed to have helped cook dinner. Ora looked back once and saw Royse standing where she had left her, her face blank as though she were deep in thought.
The cuts were easy to make. Only the most promising four were kept on; Farrah Trenwith, Royse Averell, Linden Fellows and Elora Lavelle. Colton had been pleased with the final four, though he had noticed Royse looking oddly at Elora when he had named her as one of the remaining girls. The rest of the day had been spent arguing about which girl would be best suited, and this had gone on well into the night – with a couple of breaks where one of the village women had kindly brought them lunch and dinner and they agreed to not talk about work while eating. They all had their favourites; Raoul favoured Farrah for her medical skills and beauty, while Lichus appreciated Royse's intelligence and her straight-talking manner that had been evident in her interview. Colton argued Elora's case repeatedly - her magic made her the most obvious choice. Unfortunately, Raoul had decided that he didn't like her and was determined that using mild sleeping tonics would be more effective for the plan anyway.
"Look, Farrah is an excellent candidate. Her knowledge of herbs and medicine is an incredible asset to her – but in this case, it's also detrimental. If we put someone with that skill set in to a role where it won't be used, it would be a waste. We can't waste her." Colton chewed on his lip. "We should send her to a rebel camp to receive further training."
Raoul was silent, which Colton knew to mean that he agreed with him – even if he wouldn't say it just yet. Farrah's name was crossed off.
"So it's between Royse and Ora," Raoul said quietly. Lichus rubbed his eyes as he sighed heavily. Colton stood up from where he had been sitting, and as he did so the door to the village hall burst open. The three men looked to one another in confusion as Royse stepped inside.
"Ora can't leave, she's too busy here," she announced, sounding breathless – as though she had run here.
"Excuse me?" Lichus asked, staring at her. Royse nodded, her eyes wide and with a determined sheen in them.
"She's busy – she has to look after the children, and Sidra's hands are stiff so Ora can't go, she won't be allowed. And Linden… Linden doesn't cope well with pressure. She'll crack. Farrah is in love with Laithe - she thinks people don't know, but we do. She won't want to leave him." Royse said this all very fast and when she finished she allowed herself a breath before continuing. "I know you're picking the girl tonight. I just want you to know who you're choosing. You had an additional meeting with Ora that you didn't have with me, so I thought… You just need to know. I'm the better option."
There was silence that hung heavily in the room, weighing down on all four of them. Colton finally nodded. "Thank you, Royse. We'll think very carefully."
Royse nodded, then turned and left. She shut the door quietly behind her and Raoul stood and walked to one of the windows, watching her walk away. He turned back to them relatively quickly.
"I think that solves our problem," he said dryly.
"It does," Colton replied, picking up the pencil and drawing a line through a name, leaving only one left uncrossed.