The domain of Eriz, in the 15th year of Sultan Tamarind, Refuge of the World.
Layla knew she was in luck the moment the dormitory warden started snoring. The sound began as a whistle, and deepened every second until she felt certain the woman wouldn’t catch her sneaking outside. A heartbeat later, she slipped to a crouch beside her bed.
The warden shifted on her cushions.
Across the rows of sleeping girls, Layla watched the woman draw her switch closer to her bulk. Her snores rubbed the silence, steady as a water clock.
With expert hands, Layla mounded her quilt into a decoy. She had to get outside. That noise she’d heard a moment ago—the rhythmic thumping in the distance—had sharpened into the distinctive clopping of iron-shod hooves on the lane. Curiosity burned in her chest. This was Rising Sun Academy, not some army encampment. Who could be riding here so late at night?
She slid her arms through the sleeves of a robe-like kaftan and eased down the length of the room, whisper silent. For once, the floor joints cooperated. She edged past the warden and reached for the knob. Once she was outside, the balcony door closed behind her, and no sound of stirring, no curse of awareness followed. Layla inhaled. Jasmine and moonflower laced the air.
The abrupt jingle of tack told her the horses had stopped somewhere on the boys’ side of the canal. She crept along the second floor balconies. Below, the canal flowed in a glittering line through the bright, moonlit night—a barrier dividing the girls’ school from the boys’. Pausing at the only bridge, she gathered her kaftan close. She shouldn’t do this. Sure, the riders were at the boys’ school, but crossing the Vaulted Walk to the other side was forbidden to students.
“You must be Morteza.” A deep voice drifted from below.
Layla knew that voice. She lunged sideways to look through an arch, but the dratted fig trees blocked her view of the boys’ courtyard. Had she heard right? That slow, leonine growl could only belong to Grandmaster Vidal.
A second man’s reedy voice carried over the water. “Yes, that is my name. I’ve—”
What on Ramza’s great earth was Lord Vidal doing, meeting a stranger at this hour? He certainly wasn’t trying to keep his voice down.
“M-my lord, humbly . . .” the voice trailed off, and then regained strength. “. . . were followed as we left the city. We took an alternate route to delay exposure.”
“Delay?” Lord Vidal said. “Interesting choice of words.”
“The news will get out soon enough.”
“True. This is the boy?”
Curiosity trumped Layla’s feeble hold on obedience. She darted onto the Walk, slipping from column to column—she had to see these visitors. With no railings or walls to shield her, she had only the columns and swaying moonflower vines to hide her presence. She leaned sideways to peer through the vines for a closer view of the boys’ courtyard.
With his uncovered head and shapeless night robe, Lord Vidal didn’t look like the grandmaster of one of Eriz’s most prominent academies. She couldn’t see the faces of the two strangers with him, but the taller one stood like a soldier at attention. He looked young . . . could he be a new student?
Lord Vidal began circling the rigid figure, tapping one hand on his chin. “He’s more filled out than I imagined. He’s eighteen?”
The older, thickset man—Morteza?—cleared his throat. “Seventeen, my lord. You can get the better part of two campaigns out of him before he’s eligible for the Prince’s Own.”
Campaigns? Prince’s Own? Layla fell back behind the column, her hand clapped over her mouth. That could only mean the new boy was an athlete, a siegeball player just like her. The Prince’s Own was the greatest siegeball team in Eriz, hand-picked by the prince himself to compete against other domains for glory, treasure, and land. This stranger spoke as if there was no question of the boy joining the Prince’s Own straight out of academy.
But what role did he play?
“Yes, well,” Lord Vidal said. “However my school benefits, don’t forget this is all Prince Hassin’s plot. Your horses,” he gestured to the poor lathered beasts standing behind them, “can be stabled with mine.”
“Ah, my Lord Vidal.” Morteza removed his coiled headdress. “Might a concerned father have a word in private?”
“Keep it brief.”
“Thank you.” Morteza stepped away from the boy and began speaking to the grandmaster in low tones, leaving his son to explore his surroundings in silence.
The young man’s wandering brought him into better light. With an experienced eye, Layla took in his height and his trim, muscular build. He didn’t look especially fast, or even bulky enough to pummel his way through a blockade, but there was something else there . . . something in the easy confidence of his movements. She sucked in a breath.
A lancer. The most important player on the field, the player responsible for delivering orders, passing the ball and leading the team to victory—their siegeball-mad prince had snagged himself a lancer. And from Prince Kasra of Bahador, no less, judging by the father’s accent. Bahador had been training champion siegeballers for ages, and if this Bahadoren lancer was worth smuggling from another prince . . .
Excitement made her giddy. No more wobbly passes. No more messy starts. Rising Sun Academy’s siegeball team might finally have a lancer worthy of the name.
Time was running short on her playing days. Yes, she was the only female siegeballer since the Tarishii began using a ball in their spear-and-tackle game centuries ago, but the Sultan’s whim to let her play hadn’t changed the rest of her life: she’d still have to leave school at seventeen, just like every other girl. She should be storing up a lifetime of winning memories in the two years she had remaining. Instead, her team was a joke. Every pass she and the other strikers caught off that bumbling lancer Bekir was more to their credit than his.
The way things stood, she faced a future of invisibility, with a husband to obey and children to raise. Layla hoped she could forge a different future, but if that failed, the only memory she would have to sustain her was the triumph of playing in a champion’s game. If her team could get there. She glanced down at the new lancer.
He was looking at her.
Layla jumped behind the column, her heart thundering in her
chest. In her joy, she’d leaned all the way clear of the vines, and the boy—with his quick, lancer’s eyes—had noticed. She looked down at her clothing, hoping her elbow-length kaftan concealed her body adequately. Everything seemed modest enough. Her feet were bare, as were her arms, but those were of no consequence. She was almost ready to laugh about what the lancer might have thought of a girl spying on him when she became aware of the breeze caressing her face. Her veil.
Fear flooded her soul. Slowly, she sank to a crouch, recalling all the times her teachers, the amas, had chastised her for forgetting the veil that hid the provocative female mouth from the eyes of men. Since her father hadn’t made her wear a veil around his estate, she’d never acquired a sense of modesty about it. If she was modest, she wouldn’t forget . . . and wouldn’t be exposing herself to strange Bahadoren lancers while standing on the forbidden Vaulted Walk.
One word from the lancer and her playing days were over, as well as her education. She’d be shipped home in disgrace, or worse. She swallowed hard. She’d better not think about “worse.”
Oh Ramza. She dropped her head into her hands. Please don’t let him say anything to Lord Vidal.
Sanjar’s scalp tingled. Senses honed from years in the streets told him someone was watching him. Casually, he let his gaze slide up the fig tree by the water’s edge, listening for a clue to the spy’s whereabouts. If he’d been anywhere but a school, he’d have drawn his knife—perhaps he should draw it anyway.
The drifting hem of a kaftan caught his eye. Up there, on the bridge spanning the canal. Was that a girl?
He stood transfixed, snared between disbelief and amazement. The girl wore no veil. Loose waves of dark hair blew at her waist, but his eyes rose with unerring purpose to her parted lips. Full, untouched, like a vision in an erotic manuscript. Who was she?
The girl’s eyes widened. Those glorious lips formed an “O” and then she vanished. He started forward.
His father’s voice snapped across his fantasy scene as effectively as a curtain. All at once, he was back in the real world, in a strange country, at an unfamiliar school, with as much say as a horse being sold to the highest bidder.
Morteza strode to his side, a rare flash of anger darkening his brow. Evidently, his father had been motioning to him for some time. “You’ll make the grandmaster think there’s something wrong with your head,” he said.
Maybe there was. This was an academy, after all, and only boys went to academies.
Mastering the impulse to take one last look at the bridge, Sanjar followed the grandmaster and his father to their lodgings. He didn’t care where they slept as long as they could get some food.
The academy’s guest house was a rich-looking wooden structure with latticed windows casting moonlight on the plank flooring inside. The grandmaster sparked a lamp to life and crossed deeper into the room to light a red-bellied table lantern. Fresh light revealed a room furnished with patterned rugs, three deep-cushioned divans and a stove. A room only for sitting.
Even the wealth in this place was foreign.
Sanjar and his father stopped to remove their boots.
Their host returned to the doorway. “There are two bedrooms. I will leave you this lamp. Someone will fetch you in the morning to get the boy settled in his dormitory. Goodnight.” Lord Vidal set his lamp in a niche in the wall, nodded once, and slipped into the night without a word about food. Evidently, hunger wasn’t something his new grandmaster ranked a high priority.
But that wasn’t the only thing on Sanjar’s mind. He looked at his father. “Two bedrooms?”
“Yes.” Morteza didn’t lift his eyes from the rug beneath his feet. “Aren’t we lucky? Choose one.”
Sanjar pulled the grandmaster’s lamp from the niche and pushed through the nearest door to find an enormous wooden frame bed with an embroidered quilt lying at the foot. The smell of damp wool wafted from the carpets, but he didn’t care. He’d never had a room to himself before.
Weariness swamped his limbs. They had ridden seventy miles in a matter of days, from sundown to daybreak, rationing their horses’ energy as carefully as they watched their water. Fear of capture haunted every mile, and even now, Sanjar wondered if he could ever be safe. Leaving Bahador hadn’t been his choice.
But betrayed princes never bothered with such distinctions.
End of Chapter One, Veiled Iron by Michelle D. Sinclair
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