Ciena sat at the foot of her bed, legs pulled tight against her chest. Four hours had passed since their match against Wolfe Clan—since the Battlemaster pulled her away from Nahlia Cole's unconscious body.
As far as she knew, Nahlia was still out in the infirmary. Everyone said she would be fine. In fact, rumors of her 'abilities' were spreading through the enclave like wildfire. Apparently, not only was the girl immune to poisons, she had survived a near-fatal bullet wound while evading the Templars.
Whether that was true or not, Ciena couldn't say. She'd also heard stories of the Templars using alchemy to heal wounds far quicker than ordinary medicine could. If she was in league with them, that sort of injury that would be the perfect cover.
Too restless to sit any longer, Ciena rose on unstable feet. Four hours... and still no word from the White Council regarding her fate. She hated being cooped up in this room with nothing but her thoughts, but where else could she go? The rest of Howler Clan wanted nothing to do with her after she got them disqualified.
She considered going to the mess hall but decided against it. The only thing worse than being alone was enduring the commentary of her peers.
"She's gone mad," they would whisper. "Attacking anyone who so much as looks at her the wrong way."
Followed by: "Shhh. Not so loud. You want to be next on her hit list?"
And what if they were right? Sometimes, even Ciena had trouble explaining her aggression. Her actions had felt completely justified down in the Gorge. Now the guilt overwhelmed her nearly as much as the fury that wrought it.
When she glimpsed her reflection in the mirror, two tired, golden eyes stared back. Her hair hung disheveled around her head—barely held together in a pair of unraveling braids. Dirt and dried blood stained her face and clothing.
Ciena looked away, unable to hold her own gaze for more than a heartbeat. She was spared the need to look again when someone rapped on the door.
"What?" she snapped.
"Captain Raider?" A small, timid voice. Probably a messenger boy. "The White Council requests your presence."
Great... Let's get this over with then.
She held her head high as she walked through the crowded lower halls. Pushing through their stares felt like plowing through five feet of snow. Still, she made sure they saw nothing less than what they expected—the Lioness of Raidenwood in all her pride and resolve.
Ciena stood even taller as she passed through the double wooden doors of the council chamber. It was barely past fourth bell, but the sky was a dark charcoal gray. The storm had subsided, but rain droplets still ran down the chamber's floor-to-ceiling windows.
The eyes she met inside were not friendly. To make matters worse, Korilyn Demeron sat in the corner with one of Zidane's scribes. No casual reprimand then, but a formal disciplinary hearing.
As usual, Headmaster Elveron was the first to break the silence, his commanding voice rising to fill every inch of the room. "Let the record show that on Palandal, the sixteenth of Fellmon, Apprentice Ciena Raider is accused of Violence with Malicious Intent against Apprentice Nahlia Cole who was unarmed at the time."
The scribe's pen scratched across the paper as he spoke.
Elveron turned to his right. "Master Physician, the damage report, if you would."
Marwyn cleared his throat, adjusting his spectacles. "Two broken ribs, three fractures, Seven lacerations. Probably mild concussion. Still unconscious to best of knowledge."
Ciena drew a long, uneven breath as Marwyn ran down the list. She had dealt out plenty of injuries over the years, but it was usually no more than a gash or two. Nothing like this.
"Apprentice Raider." Elveron's voice was still stern. "Do you deny this charge?"
Ciena shook her head, biting back a dozen excuses. "No."
"And have you anything to say in your defense?"
She considered telling them about the storm—how it had filled her with an almost uncontrollable rage. The way she moved had been unnatural, more like the Ethereal than reality. And somehow, Nahlia had done something similar. A girl half her strength had resisted the Yuchani poison and forced her back with an explosion of energy.
She could tell them this, but it wouldn't matter. With her violent record, they would probably dismiss it as either a lie or a delusion.
"I didn't mean for it to get out of hand," Ciena said earnestly. "I just—I got so frustrated when she was immune to the Yuchani poison."
"Not immune," Marwyn said. "Impossible. Only fast recovery time."
Ciena's face hardened. "With all due respect Master, she caught my blade with her bare hands. It was clearly an unfair advantage."
Vash raised a thick finger at her. "If you suspect someone of cheating, Apprentice, you call for a timeout. You do not take matters into your own hands."
"Would that have made a difference?" she retorted. "I must have stunned her at least five times before—"
"Regardless," Elveron interjected. "We will speak with Apprentice Cole when she awakens, and no sooner. Rules will be modified to account for her resistance to the Yucnani poison. Moving on with the grievance at hand." The Headmaster turned to Vaulden on his left. "Mistress Academia, what is the punishment for this charge?"
Vaulden glanced down at the ledger on her lap. "For Violence with Malicious Intent against an unarmed student, the offending student will face suspension from all duels and battlegrounds outside of practice environments. No less than two weeks, no more than a full term."
Ciena was braced to hear it, but it was a blow nonetheless. The idea of going even a single week without combat...
"Very well." Elveron gave a curt nod. "Given the nature of Apprentice Cole's injuries—and the fact that Apprentice Raider had threatened her before today—I move for the full four-month suspension. "All in favor—"
"Wait!" Ciena interrupted. "Headmaster, I graduate this term."
"Yes," he replied. "We're all aware of that."
"You mean to tell me I can't duel anyone until after graduation?"
"Your anger is unchecked, Raider." The Battlemaster leaned forward in his chair, stroking his black beard. "If you can't learn to control yourself, there isn't a Seeker in Revera who will take you on as an agent."
"I'm the top fighter in this academy," she retorted. "I'm a clan captain, and I beat my brother today—three against one."
Vash shook his head. "Those achievements aren't half as important as you think. We need rational and disciplined soldiers for the fight against the Templars. Not mindless killers."
"This is ridiculous." Ciena clenched her fists, palms slippery with perspiration "It was one mistake!"
"It goes beyond that," Mistress Vaulden said from within the hood of her fox fur cloak. "As the Headmaster said, we've interviewed several students today. They claimed that you've provoked and threatened Apprentice Cole on multiple occasions."
"You're actually siding with her now? A complete stranger—a half-human who could easily be a Templar spy?"
"Enough." Elveron waved a hand. "I've already told you; we aren't discussing Apprentice Cole."
"Well, maybe that's the problem." A part of her knew she was going too far, but they were already banning her from combat indefinitely. What else could they take away? "You spend years training us to fight, and then you punish us for it. You teach us that humans are the enemy, and then you admit a half-blood into the academy."
Vaulden sighed. "She may be suspicious, but she's still one of us. We can't turn young Aeons away without evidence. If you know something we don't—"
"For Aegon's sake," Ciena interjected. "The man who raised her was a Templar! What more evidence do you need?"
"Watch yourself, Raider," Vash said. "Remember who you're speaking to."
"I'm speaking to a bunch of incompetent old men," she said. "This enclave has been safe for two-hundred years, and now the five of you are going to bring it down because of your failure to see what's right in front of you."
"Enough." Elveron stood, his gray robes billowing. "Speak out of turn again, and you'll spend the night in the cells."
Ciena set her jaw as the fools continued with the vote. This pathetic excuse for the leaders of her race—taking away everything she had worked for in the blink of an eye.
She didn't return to her plateau that evening; she needed some time alone before she informed her clan that she could no longer compete. Instead, she went to the bathhouse to clear her head and wash away the day.
There were only a few others in the women's bathroom when she arrived, and they cleared out the second they saw her. No complaints there.
Hot water shot out from the faucets as Ciena descended the stone steps into one of the larger pools. She lay back and floated in the water, occasionally squinting her eyes open just enough to see a blur of orange from the ceiling lanterns.
She stayed that way for a long time, not wanting to think or reflect—just to forget. Besides, it was never easy to leave the bathhouse in the winter, knowing what harsh elements blew just beyond those stone walls.
"Raider." A man's voice.
Her eyes shot open to find Kalak Demeron standing at the edge of the pool.
"What are you doing in here?" Ciena sank deeper into the water, crossing her arms over her chest.
"I came to bring you your things." He nodded toward a wooden crate beside him. "I was waiting outside... but I didn't have all night."
"My things?" Her eyes darted to the wooden crate, then back to Kalak. "What the hell are you talking about?"
A faint smirk. "Well, I was going to challenge you to get my title back ... but then I heard you can't accept challenges anymore. Vash showed up about an hour ago to confiscate your weapons. Said you wouldn't be needing them for a while."
Ciena swallowed against the sudden dryness in her throat. She had expected something like this, but not so soon. Removing a clan member had to be a unanimous decision. He couldn't possibly...
No, of course he could. Howler Clan had already discussed this; they all wanted her gone. Aegon curse those bastards and their political games.
No other battleclan would accept her if she couldn't compete. This would mean joining the other clanless students in the general dormitory. Instead of having her own room on the plateaus, she'd be sharing with twenty other people. Ciena had never been clanless. She hadn't even considered it a possibility for someone like her.
"Why?" she finally found her voice. "Is this because I embarrassed you in our duel?"
"Come on, Raider." Demeron crossed his massive arms "I'm not that petty. We gave you a chance as captain. We followed your orders, and you got us disqualified. Aside from that, we have no use for a captain who can't fight." He shrugged. "We both know you'd do the same in my position."
Every word he said was true, and there was no point in arguing further. Howler Clan had made their decision, just as the council had.
They all hated her, just like everyone else in this Aegon-forsaken enclave.