In The Darkest Midnight – Grace Draven

JAHNA SQUEEZED HERSELF into the corridor’s darkest alcove as hard as she could. Here, the cloisters branched in three directions. The one she hid in led to the storerooms and armory, its pathway lit only by the flicker of two anemic torches anchored to the walls and spaced far apart. Shadows cavorted along the floors and ceiling, hinting that other things besides frightened girls lurked in their umbric shelter. With any luck, that sinister cast would work in Jahna’s favor and deter the pack of silk-clad wolves currently hunting her in the royal palace. The patter of several feet on stone and the frustrated pitch of voices reached her ears. The wolves. Evaline Lacramor and her ever-present toadies on their annual hunt for the prey they found so entertaining to torment. An icy draft barreled through the open archways, nearly guttering the torches’ flames and frosting the walls closest to the arches. Shielded from the worst of the cold by a wall and bundled in a hooded cloak, Jahna sweated with fear and tried not to breathe too loud as her heartbeat thundered in her ears. Another set of steps, this time measured and leisurely, approached from the guest hall opposite from where she hid. A man alone paused, back stiffening as his head turned first one way then the other. The light in the corridors sharpened the edge of shadows more than it illuminated them, but even in its wan luminescence his red hair burned as fiery as a live coal. To see him more clearly, Jahna would have to reveal her hiding spot, so she contented herself with only the impression of wide shoulders and the weighty focus of a raptor. His head turned a little toward her before he faced the direction of Evaline and her pack’s approach.

Their voices were louder now, and they soon came into Jahna’s view, a trio of predators clad in sumptuous gowns and fur-lined cloaks and gloves. Evaline, blonde and beautiful, stomped her foot and clenched her gloved hands into fists. “I can’t believe we lost her. She had to take one of these hallways.” She paced back and forth, peering first down the hall where Jahna hid and then down the other where the red-haired man stood in the concealing shadows, silent as the stone at his back. Jahna held her breath and prayed she wouldn’t sneeze or cough and alert the others to her presence. It was inevitable she’d have to face Evaline at some point during the Delyalda festivities, but the longer she could postpone that particular misery, the better. One of Evaline’s companions, the less forceful but no less cruel Nadel, frowned. “I’m not chasing her if she went that way.” She pointed down the corridor where Jahna hid.

“It’s full of rats and… things.” The third of their party was a girl Jahna remembered as once being nice to her until she fell in with Evaline. Of their trio, Tefila was the most cautious. “Me neither. And it’s very dark.” Evaline rolled her eyes. “Stop being a bunch of ninnies. It’s just Fireface. One girl and there’s three of us.” Tefila gestured to where the man waited, silent and unseen.

“If I were her, I’d go that way. It leads to a set of stairs that takes you down into the queen’s gardens.” Jahna stifled a sigh of relief. She’d almost gone that way, changing her mind at the last moment. The hallway leading to the stairs was long, with no niches or doorways in which to hide, and she had feared not being able to outrun her pursuers. “This is dull, and I’m getting my hem dirty.” Nadel picked at her skirts, shaking them in a futile bid to rid them of the dark stain marring the decorative trim. “Why not just leave her alone? There’s plenty to do here without chasing Fireface all over the palace.” She backed up a step, as did Tefila, when Evaline pivoted slowly and leveled a look on them so full of malice, both girls paled. “Because I don’t want to leave her alone,” she said, the words precise, measured and almost spat between her teeth.

Jahna’s galloping heartbeat picked up speed as terror coursed through her veins. She didn’t know or understand what drove Evaline to seek her out with such zeal, but her pleasure in doing so had been the source of many of Jahna’s nightmares for years. A betraying squeak almost burst from her lips when the other witness to their exchange suddenly moved, his footfalls no longer quiet on the floors as he approached the trio. Their voices fell abruptly silent, broken only by a startled gasp from Tefila when he stepped into the light pooling at the juncture of the three corridors. His bright hair literally shimmered as he bowed in greeting. “My ladies. A good evening to you.” His voice, deep and languid, felt like a caress, and Jahna fancied he could sing well enough to entice birds from trees. If Evaline and her friends’ reactions were anything to judge by, they were as affected as she by that beguiling voice. All three tittered.

Evaline, always bold, fluttered her eyelashes and sashayed a little closer to their visitor. Her gaze swept him from head to foot. “You’re the swordmaster from Ilinfan, aren’t you?” He bowed once more. “I am, my lady. Radimar Velus, House of Wemerc.” Jahna’s eyebrows lifted. Her brother’s new teacher! She desperately wanted to ease out of her hiding place a little more for a better look but dared not. Her fear of Evaline overrode her curiosity for the man her father had paid handsomely to travel from Ilinfan and teach Sodrin how to wield a blade. The fall of his hair hid most of his profile, but she made out the bridge of his nose and the curve of his cheekbone, both high and prominent. He wasn’t bundled as she and the other girls were in their cloaks, hats, and hoods.

Instead he wore thick riding leathers over layers of quilted wool and tall boots that reached mid thigh for warmth and protection against high snow drifts. A sword in its scabbard was belted at his waist. Vambraces clad his forearms, but his hands were gloveless, revealing long, pale fingers and strong tendons that ran the length of his hands to his knuckles. “You look as if you’re all searching for something important. May I be of any assistance?” His words made Jahna’s stomach lurch. Had he seen her? More importantly, would he tell? Her legs tensed, and she raised her skirt a little in preparation to run. The only path open to her was the length of hallway behind her back, and that dead-ended at a wall of storerooms. Even if she managed to outrun the girls, her questionable salvation lay in the hope one of those storerooms was unlocked and could be locked from the inside if she reached it in time. That she might freeze to death while she waited out her tormentors seemed a risk worth taking. Evaline’s delicate features took on a decidedly feline cast.

Her gaze slid away from that of the swordmaster’s for a moment. “We were looking for a friend who’s supposed to attend the court supper with us. She went ahead, and we were hoping to catch up, so we could all go in together.” Nadel and Tefila nodded vigorously to lend truth to her lie. Radimar Velus’s silence was just long enough to become awkward before he spoke. “I see, though why would she come this way?” He gestured to a spot behind them. “The great hall iwhere the supper will be held is that way.” A mottled flush crawled up Evaline’s neck to stain her cheeks. Her flirtatious smile thinned, and her eyes cooled. “We may have taken a wrong turn or two,” she said, no hint of being caught at a lie in her voice.

“None of us are familiar with the palace’s many corridors.” His head tilted, sending a lock of that sunfire hair spilling over one shoulder. “I saw a girl heading toward the courtyards. She seemed in a hurry, like you. I only saw her from the back, so I didn’t get a look at her face, but she was wearing a blue cloak I think.” Jahna’s eyes stung with tears. He was sending them in the opposite direction from where she hid. May the gods bless you, she mouthed. She still dared not speak or move, nor hardly breathe. “That’s her!” Nadel nearly crowed in triumph, Tefila clapped once, the feral glitter of eagerness in her eyes turning Jahna’s stomach.

Oddly enough, Evaline seemed disinterested. Her features had softened with the come-hither smile she wore before the swordmaster questioned their wanderings in the palace. She waved a careless hand at her two companions as if the moments earlier, when she’d been all but foaming at the mouth to chase down Jahna, hadn’t existed. “We’ll catch up soon enough.” Her brother’s new teacher was obviously as much a master of decorum as he was of the sword. His mouth turned up at the corner in a brief smile, and he placed a hand on his chest in a gesture of regret. “Ah, but it would be remiss of me to keep you. You might lose choice seats if you arrive to the supper late.” All three girls frowned. “I’d escort you there myself but I must meet with someone before then.

Perhaps I’ll see you there later?” It was a masterfully executed ploy. Nadel leaned to whisper something in Evaline’s ear, to which the other girl nodded before offering Radimar Velus another of her coy smiles. “Of course you’re right, Sir Velus, and we’ll be most pleased to see you at the festivities later.” They wished him good day amid more smiles and flirtatious glances over their shoulders as they turned back the way they came, their pursuit of Jahna no longer of interest to them. Jahna leaned her head against the wall, welcoming the stone’s frigid touch against her hot brow. She didn’t close her eyes but continued to watch the swordmaster where he remained in the hall. After a moment, his shoulders visibly relaxed, and he turned in her direction. “You can come out now.” She hesitated, memories of a past scenario like this one, when she thought it was safe only to realize it wasn’t until too late, rose to haunt her. That event had taught her a valuable lesson regarding trust, one she never forgot.

Her ears strained to hear Evaline’s voice, but the only noise to reach her was the sound of her own breathing. Sir Velus said no more, simply waited, his own exhalations steaming out of his nose into the cold air in a ghostly cloud that quickly evaporated. He’d known all along she was there, and his chance to reveal her to her pursuers had presented itself numerous times during their conversation. Instead, he’d deflected their pursuit and sent them away, all with a charming smile, a kind offer to help and a convincing lie told in a bewitching voice. Jahna white-knuckled her cloak in both hands, pulled her hood over one side of her face as much as the garment allowed, and stepped out of her hiding place. Her savior said nothing as she slowly approached him. His change in position and her closer proximity revealed all the details of his features previously hidden from her view. His voice was beautiful; his visage was not. The facial bones looked as if they’d been hewn from rock by a mason instead of chiseled away from marble by a sculptor. An unforgiving jawline and the deep hollows below his high cheekbones lent a harshness to his features that was enhanced by a thinlipped mouth.

The prominent nose edged toward hawkish, a fitting shape to match the intensity of his gaze. He wasn’t handsome by the standards of Beladine society, but he wasn’t ugly either. The ruggedness of his features was softened by the most arresting pair of green eyes she’d ever beheld. Narrow and framed in dark lashes, they watched her from beneath elegantly arched eyebrows a shade darker than his glorious red hair. Jahna had to swallow twice before she could speak without stuttering. “Thank you for not showing them where I hid.” He gave a brief nod. “The leader of that little trio…” “Evaline Lacramor.” One of those auburn eyebrows arched. “Ah, Lord Lacramor’s whelp.

Why am I not surprised?” His upper lip lifted in obvious contempt. “One of you and three of them. Do you think she would have been so eager to find you had it just been her?” Jahna shrugged, startled by the faint sneering tone in his voice when he mentioned Lord Lacramor’s name and his not-so-subtle insult in calling Evaline a whelp. “Probably. She’s hated me since we first met when we were both small children.” He didn’t ask her why Evaline hated her but steered the conversation in a different direction. His hard face softened, as did his voice. “You heard all that was said, but I’m happy to introduce myself again if you wish, my lady.” She didn’t dare let down her guard, but she did permit herself a tiny smile. “That isn’t necessary, Sir Velus.

I’m Jahna Uhlfrida, Marius Uhlfrida’s daughter.” His bow to her was lower than it had been to the other girls. “Lady Uhlfrida, It’s a pleasure to meet you, though this isn’t how I imagined an introduction to one of his lordship’s family. Why did…” He paused and frowned as if trying his hardest to remember what she’d just told him. “Evaline,” she said. “Evaline. Why did Evaline call you Fireface?” Her amusement at his purposeful memory lapse regarding Evaline’s name died a quick death at the question. Jahna had learned early how to position herself to another person when speaking with them so that the unmarked side of her face was what they saw. The head coverings, scarves and hairstyles she wore served the single purpose of obscuring the side disfigured by the purple stain that spread along the right side of her face from her forehead down to her collarbone and over to her ear. At the moment, she presented her unmarked profile to Sir Velus, but his question forced her to face the inevitable indrawn breath, the flicker of revulsion not shuttered fast enough for her to miss, the involuntary step back, as if the mark she bore might be contagious.

Men were better at controlling their reactions than women, but not by much, and she steeled herself for the swordmaster’s response. It was unavoidable anyway. He would take up residence in her father’s household for four years as her brother’s teacher. Best to get the unpleasantness over with now. She shifted to face him fully and drew back her hood first. Next, she tucked her hair behind her ear before pushing her scar further down her neck to expose the skin there. “This is why.” No quick inhale, no leap back, not even the telltale glint in the eye that always gave away the most stoic observer, and best of all, none of the pity that horrified her more than any insult ever could. Either Radimar Velus was an expert at hiding his emotions, or he wasn’t repulsed by the mark that had been her burden since birth. She chose to believe her first assumption because it was impossible for her to believe the second.

He cocked his head to one side. “Ah, kissed by Yalda the Creator.” Yalda, god of the sun, of spring, of the day. The festival they all gathered for and celebrated now in the depths of winter was in praise of Yalda, whose ascension after the longest night was only a day away. People had called Jahna’s birthmark many things, none of them complimentary. A kiss from Yalda was the first that wasn’t an insult. She hurried to cover up. Despite the swordmaster’s surprising lack of reaction, she was uncomfortable with being so exposed. “You make it sound nice,” she said once she had adjusted her hood. A shallow frown line bisected the space between his eyebrows.

“There’s no reason to make it sound terrible. It isn’t worthy of so unforgiving a name as Fireface.” His thin lips all but disappeared when he pressed them against his teeth, and the green eyes flashed. “Your mark is why they’re chasing you?” She nodded. “So they can tell me in no uncertain terms how offensive they find it.” A low rumble escaped his compressed mouth in an unmistakable growl. “Does it jump off your face and bite them?” The image his question inspired made her chuckle. “No, but I wish it would sometimes.” Her laughter faded but her grin remained. How fortunate Sodrin was—how fortunate they all were—to have this man join their household.

Ilinfan swordmasters were famous for their skills with the blade, their services as teachers and guards so prohibitively costly only kings and the wealthiest nobles could afford them. But for Jahna, this man’s value lay in the kindness he’d shown her, the sincerity of his engagement with her. She prayed it wasn’t a false show employed to endear him to her father through the affection of his children. Jahna was only fifteen, but she had already developed a keen sense of a person’s mettle and their motivations, if for nothing else than her own self preservation. Though she didn’t put all her trust into her impressions upon a first meeting, Radimar Velus seemed an admirable man in many respects. She had no wish to linger on the subject of her disfigurement and grasped for another ready topic. “My brother is eager to begin training with you. You’re all he’s talked about for months now, ever since my father said you were coming from Ilinfan to stay with us. Did you just arrive?” Radimar nodded. “Last night.

I’de taken lodging in the city and planned to meet with your father and brother during the Delyalda festival but managed to secure a room here in the palace. I was leaving there to find Lord Uhlfrida when I spotted you in the hallway.” She whistled low. “I can’t believe you actually found a place to stay anywhere close to the festivities, much less here in the palace.” Every inn and stable in the capital was packed to the rafters with visitors who had arrived from all across Belawat to attend the festival. The palace itself, a sprawling structure with countless chambers and corridors, resembled a rabbit warren at the moment with people bedding down in the interior hallways, once-empty storerooms and even the floor of the smithy where the forges offered warmth, if not soft beds, during the bitter nights. He snorted. “It wasn’t easy, but I managed.” It must have cost him a small fortune to do so. Uhlfrida still complained about the handsome sum he contributed to the royal coffers for a suite of three rooms crammed tight with people and belongings.

The swordmaster offered his arm to her. “May I escort you to supper, Lady Uhlfrida?” She was tempted to accept. Only her father or Sodrin had ever escorted her to the royal feasts. Until two years ago, when she reached the age where awareness of the opposite sex and her own lack of attractiveness to them became more obvious, she’d been content to accompany one of them to the great suppers, even if the meal itself was an ordeal she endured with a blank expression and the pretense of not caring that hundreds of stares rested on her as she pushed her food around her plate. Walking in on Sir Velus’s arm would not only generate the usual stares but also furious whispers and shocked expressions. All those people who either tutted over her unfortunate mark with their false sympathy or openly gawked before turning away with a shudder would conjecture among themselves over how ugly Jahna Uhlfrida managed to lure a man other than her parent or sibling into escorting her to the feast. She smiled at the image such daydreaming conjured. “Is that a yes, Lady Uhlfrida?” Sir Velus watched her, a half smile of his own curving his lips. Oh how she wished it were. Jahna sighed and shook her head.

“I’m sorry, Sir Velus. I must say no. If Evaline sees me on your arm, her retribution will be swift, and I’d like to enjoy a little of Delyalda if I can.” She didn’t exaggerate. Evaline would make it even more of her mission than she already did to seek out and exact vengeance for some imagined slight Jahna visited on her simply for accompanying Sir Velus into the great hall. Jahna would have to spend the rest of their visit hiding under her bed to avoid what promised to be some creative cruelty dreamed up in Evaline’s twisted mind. The swordmaster’s piercing gaze sharpened even more, and he lost the smile. “Have you told your father or brother any of this?” A flutter of panic beat in her chest. “My father is a busy man with more important things to attend to, and my brother knows. He’s come to my defense a few times.

It’s a small matter, really.” She pretended not to see the skepticism in his drawn-down brow and narrowed eyes. “Besides, as a new member of our household, you’ll likely be seated with us at supper anyway.” Another thought occurred to her. “Didn’t you say you had to meet someone?” His broad shoulders lifted in a shrug. “I did. I have. You.” Her young heart beat like a swallow’s wings, this time from excitement instead of fear. She looked forward to the next four years.

She held out a hand. “Thank you again, Sir Velus. You saved me.” He clasped her fingers with his. She felt the ridge of calluses on his palm that marked where he held a sword. “It was my pleasure, Lady Uhlfrida.” He bowed over her hand, his warm breath skating across her knuckles. He straightened, gifting her once more with one of those measuring stares. His hard face was somber. “Maybe during my stay in your father’s house, I will teach you how to save yourself.

” She returned his bow of farewell and watched as he strode down the corridor that led to the courtyards, wishing she could follow and admire the falling snow as it blanketed the buildings and garden statuary. Instead, she hurried in the direction Evaline and her toadies took, toward the great hall where the evening feast waited for King Rodan and his bevy of nobles.

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