Rhiain had nearly forgotten about Stephen Naxen by the time she had finished her first week at the Academy. Unfortunately, Stephen Naxen hadn’t forgotten about her.
Ten days after she had landed on Shunieke, she was studying on the fourth floor of the massive library, amid several stacks of books on xenobiology, when a hand suddenly grabbed her by the collar and lifted her six inches off the ground.
The silver-haired girl found herself staring into ice blue eyes that glinted maliciously. “You picked the wrong person to mess with, freak,” Naxen whispered, and slammed her into the wall. The sound echoed down the endless aisles of books Rhiain had been sitting between. She blinked frantically to clear the buzz thrumming through her head, and watched as the older boy viciously kicked at her books and toppled the stacks.
“Just what is your problem?” she hissed, more annoyed than anything else. That Naxen took great delight in picking on her was obvious; that he was xenophobic was starting to make itself clear to her; that he had chosen her specifically to push around did not make much sense in her mind. She had distinguished herself on C’heras among her peers as a even-tempered student who excelled in everything she did. On C’heras no one had bullied her for these accomplishments.
Why do humans like Naxen take accidents so personally?
Rhiain’s face suddenly stung with fiery pain and heat, and she stared at him in disbelief. Naxen merely grinned coldly and flexed his wrist. “Next time, freak, you’ll watch where you’re goin’ if you know what’s good for you. You’ll do what I say if you want to survive here. Otherwise you’ll spend a night in the freezer. Got me?” He raised his hand to slap her again.
She gave him a disgusted look. I didn’t leave a world full of narrow-minded people behind just to arrive here and contend with a narrow-minded and bigoted idiot like you. “As a matter of fact, I don’t.”
She kicked him hard in the groin, and the bully’s face nearly turned purple as he gasped and loosened his hold on her. As the older student bent over in pain, she yanked his head forward and headbutted him so hard that he let go of her completely and fell back against the shelf.
Similar incidents followed. She could see now that ignoring Stephen Naxen would do no good. If he couldn’t find the chance to physically beat her, he would find some other way to discredit her in the eyes of the administrators and instructors, to ultimately force her to leave Shunieke, and there was no way in hell she was going to let that happen.
Selse and her friends counseled her to stay away and not pick fights with Naxen or his friends. “What do you think I have been doing all this time?” Rhiain cried, throwing her hands up in exasperation. “Do you think I like fighting with him whenever he starts to pick on me? I’m just trying to defend myself.”
Are you? a little voice asked quietly in her head.
“And it’s the self-defense part that’s getting you into trouble,” Jerith countered. “No one’s ever confronted him about his prejudices, Rhi. And I’m pretty sure he didn’t expect an eleven-year-old C’heran kid to stand up to him her first day here. He’s not going to stop until he finds some way to beat you through and through.”
Rhiain stubbornly set her jaw and glared at him. The boy regarded her face for a few moments, then sighed and shook his head. “You never quit, do you?”
“‘Quit’ is not in my vocabulary.”
Jerith smiled wryly. He would never tell her that he’d nearly gone after Naxen himself when he had seen the handprint on Rhiain’s cheek. Of course, she probably knew how he felt about her already, but some things were best left unsaid.
Rhiain didn’t need words to know about her tall friend’s feelings for her. She remembered the night a few weeks before, as they had readied themselves for bed after some grueling calisthenics in the gym and a dinner that had gone by much too fast, when Selse had first explained to her Jerith’s sudden turn of behavior. Rhiain could even recall complaining about why he would abruptly look away if she caught him staring at her too long, even when he pretended not to.
“He has a crush on you,” Selse had announced, as if it were old news to her.
“Crush,” Rhiain had repeated blankly.
“Yes, crush,” Selse repeated, grinning at the discomfort on her roommate’s face. Her eyes went round with amazement. “Don’t you know what that is?”
“He’s infatuated with you, Rhi.” Selse burst into giggles. “Jerith, of all people!”
“He’s older than I am,” Rhiain pointed out.
Selse shrugged. “Only by a year. Does that matter?”
“But I don’t feel the same way about him,” the C’heran girl quietly protested, brushing a strand silver hair out of her eyes that stubbornly fell back across her face as soon as she had pressed her cheek against her pillow.
“I know, I can tell.” Selse was suddenly solemn. “Don’t worry, he’ll get over it.”
I’m not so sure about that …
But the problem of Stephen Naxen soon outweighed that of Jerith’s feelings, and it was not only apparent to Rhiain and her friends. Tension hummed in the air, in the halls of the Academy. Rhiain ignored the whispers behind her back and the knowing looks. Yes, she was the prey, he was the hunter – but not for long.
Rhiain could not explain her nemesis’s contempt for her adequately, not even to herself. The fourteen-year-old human boy was handsome and seemed to have a following among his other human peers, albeit a small one. She couldn’t say that he was popular, exactly; apparently tolerance was taught well enough in the school that such bullying was noticed immediately and stopped.
But her enemy was Naxen. What was it that had endeared him to hate people of different species? Where had he learned to hate at all? She could remember a couple instances in which Naxen had exercised his apparent xenophobia on other non-human students, such as when he’d shoved a Kyronese out of the way in a corridor and had set his following lackeys howling with laughter when the fragile, staff-shaped boy had nearly impaled another student across the hall; or the time when he had shoved a Shuak R’ni’s lunch down the back of its shipsuit, as if to redeem himself for the embarrasment Rhiain had caused him in the cafeteria her first day at the Academy.
The administrators had done nothing thus far to punish him severely for all the occurrences when his harassment of her could have amounted to an all-out brawl. Had they granted him a special status of some sort or were they merely waiting to see if this strange-looking, skinny girl could actually mete out punishment of her own that would stay?
It’s the self-defense part that’s getting you into trouble, Jerith had said. No one’s ever confronted him about his prejudices, Rhi. I’m pretty sure he didn’t expect an eleven-year-old C’heran kid to stand up to him her first day here.
Not one non-human student had confronted this xenophobic bully before? This confounded her. Why not?
I didn’t expect to stand up to anyone my first day here, either, she thought as she contemplated these things one afternoon in the circular garden that sat in the middle of the ring of Academy buildings. Students occupied the other benches scattered across the well-shaded plot of carefully tended greenery, studying for their own classes or chattering away with each other and with their friends. If not for the deep sense of maintaining personal honor that had been instilled into her at an early age on her homeworld, she mused, she did not think she would have stood up to Naxen at all. But if she’d just walked away that day, if she hadn’t thrown that punch after he’d lashed out with his lunch tray, would that have changed how he viewed her?
Sighing softly, Rhiain bent forward and gently caressed the petals of a nearby t’visus flower, a native plant from the Lirian homeworld, and watched the bloom open up to her attentions. Her thoughts drifted back to the events that had brought her here in the first place: she remembered her father’s extreme disapproval, the bitterness he hid behind his sudden refusal to talk with his oldest child, when she had chosen to give up the inherited mantle of leadership that would have been hers one day; his staunch refusal to believe in a life outside of their House, outside of C’heras, had spurred her to leave behind everything familiar and pursue a different career away from the stiff-necked people of her homeworld.
You wanted to get away from all the pomp and ceremony, the same little voice from before reminded her. You didn’t want to become Prime and have to deal with the superficial people your father associates with.
No, I didn’t. Rhiain idly ran a fingertip across the rim of the nectar-filled center of the t’visus. So I enlisted with the GD. She thought of Tarek Hamilton, the GD recruiter who had practically handed her this offer to leave C’heras on a k’halos plate. I changed my name. R’lessaneias had no longer existed after her first day here. And then her mind went back to Gordon Teriss, the kind man on the shuttle who had turned out to be more than what he seemed. And I met someone who believed I could have my own dreams.
The little voice in her mind took on a mildly mocking tone. And you’re going to let a young Terran by the name of Stephen Naxen who hates you and all other non-humans in the quadrant kill any chance of fulfilling those dreams?
Rhiain smiled grimly and stood, wiping a sticky finger on her trousers as she left the garden and headed back to her dormitory. Hell no!
3 Months Later
“Congratulations, Cadet O’Connell,” Professor Yehalaa said, regarding the sole C’heran student in her class – and in the Academy, for that matter – in her usual grave manner. “You had the highest score once again on the exam.”
The students sitting closest to her desk grumbled good-naturedly as Rhiain stared at the flashing numerals on her terminal screen. “Hey, try to let someone else get the congrats next time, would ya?” Cadet Kh’otos joked from the next desk over on Rhiain’s right.
She just smiled back. “I try to fail sometimes, you know.” It wasn’t her fault that doing well in academics had been a mandatory requirement to become a Prime, was it?
“You, fail?” The boy clutched at his chest in mock-horror. “Good God! You’re breakin’ my heart, O’Connell!”
Rhiain shook her head and turned off her personal computer. Students like Lus Kh’otos made their fascination about her plain, though it wasn’t as plain as a certain boy’s infatuation with her. She grimaced. I take back that thought – it’s worse than just a plain old “crush” now. The holographic flowers left at the door of her private quarters early one morning had told her as much. To make it worse, Selse and her other two friends Taylor and Ziala had made it their personal mission to tease her about Jerith whenever the opportunity to do so presented itself – and that was too often for Rhiain’s liking.
Within the last ninety days, Rhiain had become so accustomed to the routine in the Academy that she had nearly forgotten that a world such as C’heras even existed. Aside from the incidents with Naxen and his gang, no one else had showed an ounce of disciminatory behavior against her – at least, not to her face. The whispers and pointed fingers and looks would always hound her, she thought resignedly, but not to the point of complete discomfort.
She could, however, remember Isar Jholeh’s angry scowls every time the girl and administrator ran into each other in one of the halls. Is she xenophobic, too? Rhiain wondered but kept her opinions to herself. The woman hadn’t seemed to like her since her arrival, and trying to get into the administrator’s good graces wasn’t at the top of Rhiain’s priorities just then.
She left her private musings amid the falling snowflakes that drifted past the only viewport in the empty classroom and found Taylor watching her from the doorway. Even Professor Yehalaa had already left.
Rhiain saw the alarm on her friend’s face and frowned. “What’s wrong?”
“Hide, quick!” the Terran girl hissed. “Stephen’s looking for you.”
“What does he want this time?” Rhiain didn’t move. Hiding was tantamount to bowing to the bully’s wishes to give in.
“I don’t know what he’s up to, but he said that if he ever finds you alone, you’re going to get something worse than the freezer. And two of us against five of them are not good odds, Rhi. Please?” Taylor gave her a pleading look.
Ziala darted into the room, momentarily startling them. “Naxen’s coming down the hall,” the new arrival panted, leaning against a desk and bending over while trying to catch her breath.
Rhiain went back to her desk and turned on her computer. “Close the doors, quietly.”
Several minutes later, the classroom doors slid open, and Professor Jaelson looked up in surprise. So did the thirty-one students he was lecturing on parabolas.
“Did you need something, Cadet Naxen?” Jaelson asked impatiently, staring hard at the third-year student and his four friends.
“Ah – no, sir,” Naxen muttered.
“Walked into the wrong classroom again, did you? Go on, unless you want a few hours of voluntary detention for disturbing my class session.”
Naxen’s eyes locked with Rhiain’s before the doors slid closed again, and his lip curled. “You’re going down,” he mouthed, and then he was gone.
The three girls waited ten more minutes before relaxing. “Nice thinking,” Ziala whispered. “I just hope Professor Jaelson forgives us for using his holograph decoy.”
Rhiain grinned. “Who said he’s going to know?” The other students and the instructor vanished as Rhiain’s computer shut down once again, and the three students quickly raced back to the mess hall before Stephen Naxen and his groupies chanced upon them once more.
That night Rhiain went to the library alone to study for another exam, completely forgetting Taylor’s warning about going anywhere by herself.
“Well, well, well, freak.” Rhiain silently groaned when she heard the too-familiar voice behind her. She turned around to see Naxen slowly sauntering towards her, his four grinning lackeys nearly on his heels.
She couldn’t run – they’d be on her in a second. And she certainly couldn’t take them all at once…
“I need to study, Naxen. Get out of my face.”
“You need to learn my place around here, freak.” Stephen was near enough to give her a rough shove. “Your first lesson starts now.”
Rhiain did not resist when Cadets Jack Olsen and Luke Crawford seized her by the arms. Stephen planted himself squarely in front of her and spit in Rhiain’s face. “I think I’ve got somethin’ better in mind than the freezer for you.”
“Sir.” Rhiain forced her eyes open and frowned up at the murky version of Lear that floated overhead. Selse and Jerith sat nearby, while Jaelson stood in the doorway of the Academy infirmary. Hemmed in between him and five other instructors were the perpetrators of quite a serious crime – the first of its kind that had ever been committed.
Naxen coolly studied the nearest wall and did not acknowledge her. As Rhiain tried to sit up in the cot, she wondered where the bruise on his chin had come from; she certainly hadn’t had a chance to put it there. His dark blond hair was spiked with melting frost and his jumpsuit was wrinkled from his evening exertions.
Lear regarded her solemnly. “Cadet, I need you to tell me exactly who tied you up and left you out in that snowstorm. The students on the watch say they saw Stephen Naxen and his four hooligans dump you near the lake five hours ago.”
Rhiain’s brow furrowed. Everyone else except the five accused cadets watched her and waited for an answer.
Come on, Rhi, Jerith thought. Rub it in their faces – what’re you waiting for!
A peculiar expression crossed the C’heran girl’s face as she stared at Stephen Naxen. The tension in the room deepened. Jaelson frowned and folded his arms across his chest. What was taking her so long? That Naxen was guilty was as plain as the sprinkling of freckles on his face.
“Rhiain?” Lear said gently.
Her gaze flicked back to the administrator. “I don’t remember, sir,” she said softly.
Jerith’s jaw dropped; he started to stand up, but Selse quickly yanked him down. Even Naxen was staring at her now. “Are you sure, Cadet?” Lear was frowning. “Understand that this is a very serious matter.”
“I know, sir.” Rhiain’s face remained impassive. “I just can’t remember right now.”
“Well.” Lear cleared his throat and slowly rose to his feet. “Get some rest, Cadet. We’ll need to talk again when you feel better.”
Rhiain merely stretched out on the cot again, facing the wall, and closed her eyes. By the time we have that little talk, sir, I’ll be gone or he will.
“Why, Rhi?” Jerith didn’t bother to hide his outrage. “Why’d you let him get away with this?”
“Because I would rather settle this honorably, between him and me.” Rhiain sat in the corner of one of the many lounges in the library two hours after the chief medic had given her permission to leave the infirmary. “No interference by anyone.”
“Since when does honor have to do with any of this?” Selse demanded. “You could’ve frozen to death out there!”
“And he’s to blame, fair and square,” Taylor put in.
Rhiain waved a hand. “I know that, you guys. Believe me, I would have immediately called him on it—”
“So why didn’t you?” Jerith interrupted, glaring. “That kind of scheme could’ve landed him on restriction ‘til he got out of the Academy!”
“If you’ll shut up and let me finish, I’ll let you in on my line of reasoning,” she answered testily. When they gave her their undivided attention, Rhiain sighed and sank back in the much too comfortable couch she sat on; she could feel a headache coming on.
She looked at each of their expectant faces and wondered if they really understood. Selse, if anything, seemed exasperated and puzzled by her reluctance. She had gained a bit of fame herself once everyone found out she was “that C’heran’s” roommate, but it hadn’t stalled their growing friendship in any particular way. Rhiain also knew that Selse feared for her, should something occur between her and Naxen that would end in expulsion from the Academy or worse; and while she was grateful for her roommate’s concern, she also found it vexing.
I fought my own battles on C’heras. I was the Prime’s heir. I was expected to win. Rhiain finally looked away from Selse’s anxious features and smiled ruefully to herself. But I’m not on C’heras anymore.
Jerith’s mouth was tight, his eyes narrowed with a protective anger that she found both amusing and somewhat bothersome. Rhiain glanced at Ziala and Taylor, saw their worry, and a strange feeling came over her. If not for Selse, she wouldn’t have come to know any of these people. These peculiar, wonderful people.
I definitely like this world better than C’heras, she decided. Even if I have to share it with people like Stephen Naxen.
“Honor has everything to do with it,” she told her four friends quietly. “I’ve had enough of these back alley fights. It’s me or him. One on one. Let him fight dirty – it will only show everyone just how deep his hatred goes for anybody who’s different. But I intend to beat him on his own ground and throw the results in his face. If I don’t beat him,” she paused, wondering how they’d take this next bit of news, “I’m requesting a transfer to the Academy branch on Terra.”
“You can’t be serious,” Ziala breathed. Studying her younger friend’s face, she nodded slowly. “You are serious.”
Selse’s face had paled. “And what if there’s someone like Stephen Naxen there, Rhi?”
A slight smile crossed Rhiain’s face, though her expression was serious. “I guess I’ll have to have to make sure my reputation doesn’t precede me there, won’t I?”
Jerith left his perch on the edge of the large, crescent-shaped table in the middle of the lounge and came over to sit beside his object of extreme affection. He took her hand; much to his surprise, Rhiain did not pull away. “So you’ve thought this entire scheme of madness through?” When she nodded, he pressed his lips against her cheek and stood to leave. “You’d better kick his butt, Rhi, or I’ll never forgive you.”
Rhiain’s violet eyes glinted with something akin to amusement, though the entire side of her face that he’d kissed tingled. “I’ll do my very best not to disappoint.”
The cacophonous swirl of chatter in the mess hall the next afternoon focused mainly on one topic of conversation: Stephen Naxen’s dirty trick from two nights previous. Many of the students felt some ounce of sympathy for Rhiain O’Connell, though some whispered that she had deserved the “snow dunking” and would have gladly witnessed the spectacle again if they’d had the chance.
Naxen and his friends entered the mess at that moment, laughing loudly. Cadet Aaron Matheson, one of Naxen’s cronies, stared darkly at several second-year boys who booed at them, but the fourteen-year-old bully didn’t even bother to spare them a glance. The fivesome got their meals and went to their usual table.
Approximately seven minutes later, Rhiain O’Connell and Selse Obles walked through the double doors. The C’heran girl did not acknowledge any of the cheers that arose, cheers that were much louder than the boos that had echoed off the walls earlier. She strode straight up to Naxen’s table and stared down at her nemesis. “The lake at 1600 hours, Cadet Naxen. We’ll settle this once and for all.”
The much taller and stronger boy gazed back at her, unblinking, blue eyes darkening with something akin to triumph. Rhiain eyed him. Thinking you’re going to win already, aren’t you? “Don’t bring any of your puny friends with you, freak,” Naxen said flatly. “It’ll make beating you seem even more pathetic.”
Selse laughed lightly. “Better for us not to be there than for your four groveling dogs to slobber on the ice and stain the snow with their piss.”
Luke Crawford began to rise from the bench, the tips of his ears a deep red. Naxen yanked him back down and merely gave Selse an icy stare before returning his attention to Rhiain. “1600 hours, O’Connell.”
Rhiain glided across the ice rink that was Lake K’notei, sending a spray of ice shavings flying as she skidded to a stop in the middle of the largest knot in the outline of the lake’s surface and watched five solitary figures approach the meeting point.
The lake was approximately two thousand meters in length and a thousand, two hundred meters in width. The school was never in danger of being flooded when it rained in the spring; most of the excess water cascaded down the fall that fringed the “toes” of the body of water, which from above resembled The Old Guitarist by the Terran Pablo Picasso so much that the students called the lake “Guitar Boy,” or “GB.” Swimming and water polo competitions were in abundance during the middle of the year; otherwise, ice-skating races across the length of the “rink” prevailed after classes finished for the day. Not a finned creature was to be found beneath the clear, cold surface, but students went out in small teams whenever they could to conduct treasure hunts.
No competition of any sort was on the schedule today. Students lined every side of the lake in Rhiain’s peripheral vision and watched both her and the group of boys slowly trekking across the snowy plain that was wedged between the Academy and the lake. Confrontations like these were not to be missed.
“You still have time to back out, y’know,” Jerith muttered, though the words sounded hollow in his ears.
Rhiain didn’t answer; she merely watched Stephen and his friends draw closer to the lake. Bending down, she removed the attachable blades from the bottom of each boot and handed them to Selse. Then she took off her gloves and undid each clasp on her heavy jacket, shrugging it off.
“Wait for me on the other side,” she said quietly. Selse bit her lip and skated away without a word, her roommate’s jacket in hand; Jerith hesitated, then reluctantly followed her to where Ziala and Taylor were waiting. When he looked over one shoulder, Rhiain had not moved. If not for the vibrant color that made her as real a person as he was, he would have mistaken her for a decorative statue fountain that no longer spouted water.
Naxen came across the ice alone, after removing unncessary outer garments, as well. His face was emotionless as he stared down at Rhiain, and both hands flexed almost casually at his sides. “You’d better head back to the planet you came from after this, little freak, or I’ll have to drag you there myself.”
Rhiain smiled slowly, although it didn’t quite reach her eyes. “Come now, Naxen,” she answered in a light mocking tone. “If you resorted to that, you’d have to head for a planet that’s populated with people just like me.”
She stayed relaxed as he grabbed her by the throat. “Freaks like you contaminate the atmosphere,” Naxen hissed.
Who the hell instilled such thinking into that tiny mind of yours, fool? “And I suppose it’s better that people like you contaminate the environment with all the hate you’re spewing,” Rhiain snapped back. “Where’s the honor in that?”
Naxen let out a sneering laugh, swore at her. “Don’t try to talk to me about honor.” His grip tightened around her neck. “Freaks like you don’t need honor. Freaks like you shouldn’t even exist!”
Rhiain stared up into his face, which was distorted with hatred. For a moment she felt the faintest stirring of pity for him – but only for a moment.
“Honor’s what you make of it, Stephen Naxen. And you just proved to me that you don’t have any.” Her fist connected with his chin before the boy could utter a word, and she backed away after he’d let go of her and stumbled back a few steps. Several seconds later, Naxen lunged at her with a snarl.
Rhiain felt the wind go out of her as the larger boy caught her around the waist and slammed her against the icy surface of the lake. Naxen took advantage of this and straddled her body as he tried to grab her arms and pin them to her sides. With a grunt, she heaved and brought her legs up, pitching him over her head, then immediately scrambled to her feet. Naxen rolled a couple feet away and immediately sprang up again like a stubborn piece of hair.
Yelling in fury, he exploded across the ice and attempted to rush her again, but Rhiain was waiting this time. She charged towards him even as he came towards her, letting the slippery surface of the ice-covered lake give her more momentum, and rammed her shoulder against his sternum, punching him in the solar plexus at the same time. Rhiain heard him gasp, but suddenly he wrapped one arm around her neck in a tight choke hold while fumbling with something else in his free hand.
“Look out,” someone screamed – Selse, it sounded like, she dimly thought – and then Rhiain caught a flash of metal.
She kicked his knee and felt him give way some, but not before searing pain shot up the right side of her ribcage. Pursing her lips together to hold back a scream, Rhiain grabbed the arm trying to strangle her and sank her teeth into the thin sleeve.
Naxen yelled and immediately let go. Without thinking, Rhiain reared up and out with her leg, and the sound of her boot heel connecting with his jaw echoed across the silent lake.
Light fled from the boy’s eyes as he pitched forward. The attachable skating blade he’d been gripping tightly clattered to the ice and skittered a few feet away.
Gasping, her chest heaving, Rhiain gingerly touched her side as if trying to hold it together and stared down at her fallen enemy, unaware of the yells and cheers rebounding to either side of the lake from the watching crowd.
“Rhiain!” Jerith skated towards her at seemingly breakneck speed, his eyes wide with alarm.
She merely gave him a blank look, then slowly lifted her hand and looked wonderingly at her bloody fingers. The searing pain had turned into something more tangible, a beast struggling to tear its way out of her body from within. He stabbed me, she realized with a frown. That’s not honorable at all…
The clamor of voices faded, and the crimson abruptly darkened to a sickly brown, then to black.
When Rhiain opened her eyes, she was back in the infirmary, and an unhappy Lear was waiting to speak with her.
“Stephen Naxen has been dismissed from the Academy,” he informed her curtly after he had finished lecturing her on the lack of etiquette that always accompanied brawling with another cadet. “And you are on restriction for the next two months, young lady.”
Rhiain nodded weakly. “Yes, sir.”
The administrator’s mellow features, made sharp by his displeasure, softened again with thinly-veiled admiration. “Next time, O’Connell, try picking fights with someone your own size, huh?”
“Next time, sir, I’ll try not to pick fights with anyone.”
“Even better.” Lear smiled and patted her on the shoulder. “Rest easy, youngling. You’re allowed two visitors at a time, but only until the end of the hour. Your restriction time starts when you get out of here, and from what Doc Lorien tells me, that might be as soon as tomorrow.”
Taylor and Jerith came in next. “Selse’s sorry she can’t see you ‘til tomorrow,” Jerith said with his usually exaggerated cheerfulness. “But she’s in class right now.”
“Are you all right?” Taylor asked quietly.
Rhiain gave her an amused look. “As all right as I can be after getting stabbed by someone who’s hated my guts for over the last three months,” she answered dryly. “All mended, actually.”
Jerith grinned and did his best to impersonate Professor Jaelson while Taylor stood back and rolled her eyes. “And has Cadet O’Connell learned anything from this experience?”
“Of course,” Rhiain nodded, her expression solemn. “Next time I’ll bump into someone who isn’t so narrow-minded.”
The three friends talked until a nurse came to the doorway of Rhiain’s room and told them that visiting hours were over. “Get some shut-eye, C’heran,” Jerith said on his way out. “Yer a little too pale for my tastes.”
Define “tastes” and I’ll get back to you on that one, Rhiain told him silently, suddenly remembering the crush he had on her. Now how was she going to solve that dilemma?
Jerith suddenly paused and looked back at her. When he didn't say anything right away, she raised an eyebrow at him. “This is the first time you've ever shown any capabilities to think without opening your mouth, Jerith.”
He shook his head, ignoring her jibe. “Tell me, Rhi – when all’s been said and done, was this a matter of keeping your honor intact after all?”
Rhiain mulled over his words for a moment or two. “Yes, I think it was,” she finally said. “Though Naxen didn’t care much about my honor or whether I had any. Fighting him didn’t make the situation any better or even more honorable on my part.”
“Sometimes events like these end up being beyond our control,” he pointed out.
She regarded him somberly. “If I have to go through something like this all over again with someone else, Jerith, I would handle things the same way.”
He nodded. “Don’t worry about honor so much, Rhi,” he said quietly. “Your victory yesterday makes Rhiain O’Connell seem unbeatable to the potential Stephen Naxens out there.” Jerith looked into her eyes and smiled. “If you ask me, your honor is bound to stay intact for quite awhile.”