Kon heard the giantess before he saw her. With each of her heavy breaths, a sound like coarse sand grinding bark into crackling splinters echoed down the corridor, reverberating off the emerald walls and through his very bones, leaving his skin prickled and his muscles cringing in discomfort. As unpleasant as the sensation was, he didn’t give his fae the order to silence the girl. Kon was curious — perhaps too curious for his own good.
He’d only seen the wingfolk a handful of times, and not once had he been so close to them, let alone listened to one snore. It was rare for Ora’s kind to leave the northern fjords of Tír, and like most flocks, the Pale Hawks spent their lives avoiding the cold, so naturally Kon had never been to visit. The fact that Ora was a student of Westwind Academy - which sat near Tairn’s equator, where the seasons perpetually shifted between Bloom and Burn - was beyond unusual. There were so many questions that Kon wanted to ask her.
Ora was lying across the Barracks Officer desk on her side, one elbow bent under her neck and head propped up by an open palm. Judging by the ragged tear around her shoulders, her tunic's sleeves had been ripped off by hand rather than cut with a blade. The deep red brassard Wilm had worn yesterday was wrapped around the crown of Ora’s head, sweeping and holding her knotted dreads back in a loose bundle. While asleep and snoring, her face was still as stern as a cliff.
Kon was certain the Barracks Officer was not allowed to sleep on the job. Even so, he found himself reluctant to wake the giantess up. Though Ora was half as big as Vigor, she was still twice Kon’s size, and unlike the fae, overtly unfriendly. Lafer had greeted Ora and received nothing but a glare and a sneer. She had ignored Kon completely when Lafer had pointed him out in the mess.
Kon turned to his fae, who floated and sparkled beside him. What do you think? Should we wake her?
In response, his companion glittered brighter, cutting the giantess’ snoring off with a loud ringing.
“What the-” Ora growled, bolting upright. Kon had been standing a few steps away from the desk, but as her legs abruptly swung in his direction, he couldn’t help but jolt back. He blinked away his fear as she rose onto her feet to loom above him, reminding himself that she was a Seer and a fellow student. Even so, he retreated a step further into the boy’s corridor as Ora leaned closer, her chest puffed up and both arms raised in aggression. “Who the mahak do you think you are, startling the Barracks Officer like that?”
Mahak? Despite what Kon had read about wingfolk language and culture, he did not recognize the word. From context, he could guess the meaning, but decided to let it slide. In response to her raised arms, he folded his behind him politely, then steadied his rising breaths and beating heart.
“I’m sorry for the rude interruption. I didn’t mean to wake you up like that, but my fae was too eager. She’s nascent like yours, so surely you can understand that she didn’t mean to upset you. As for who I am, I’m your new colleague, Kon. I saw you in the mess last night, but you were in the middle of eating, so you might not have seen or heard Lafer mention me. For honesty’s sake, she told me your name already. It’s nice to meet you, Ora.” Kon proffered a hand and smiled.
The giantess eyed him warily, her top lip pulling up in a quiet snarl, revealing teeth as large and sharp as the nails on Kon’s strumming hand. Like Rugged had done yesterday, her glare drifted from his face to his feet and back, sizing him up.
“What are you?” she barked. “Fifty years old?”
“Almost forty. I know it’s unusual for a new Seer. It’s a long story.”
Ora grunted, still neglecting his hand.
“And you?” he asked, dropping his arm with a sigh. Kon was certain she was a teenager, though he wasn’t sure how to determine her age.
Instead of answering, Ora glowered at the gold-and-silver knot hovering beside them, her snarl persisting. Her eyes were cold and colored like ice. “So you’re what rang in my ear, eh?”
Kon’s fae glided closer, then rang a softer note in greeting.
Without so much as a blink or a breath, Ora swung a fist to swat her out of the air, forcing her to soar behind Kon with a metallic shriek.
“Don’t ever make that sound again, or any sound, for that matter. Not at me or near me. Else next time I won’t intentionally miss.”
“You can’t be serious,” Kon replied, taking a step forward. He didn’t even need to inject gravity into his voice. A threat against his fae might as well be a threat against him. He would not take it kindly. “Hitting a fellow Seer’s fae? That can’t be allowed.”
“Do I look like someone who cares?” Ora growled. Her bellowing laughter was as haughty as her tone. “If your fae provokes me, I won’t hesitate to lay her in the dirt, consequences be damned. And guess what, old man? The same applies to you. Whether you see me sleeping, sitting, or standing, I suggest you stay out of my way. Don’t talk to me. Don’t even look at me. Got it?”
Kon shook his head, incredulous. Lafer had told him Ora would be mad if he asked why she was at Westwind, but to receive this level of disrespect and hostility for waking her up when she was meant to be standing guard? It was ridiculous.
Forced too, he realized. Through his fae, Kon could hear the slightest of cracks in her voice. The girl’s insolent bravado did little to hide her insecurities and lies.
Kon had students like Ora before. He’d been a student like Ora. After his family died, he’d spent a few years lashing out at every single adult, including the gentle widow, Miss Sut. Whatever losses Ora suffered… whatever pains and fears she felt… she was still a person. She could be reached and helped. It would just take the right kind of encouragement.
Kon stepped closer, raising his head. He could sense Ora wouldn’t truly strike him. In this, the giantess was all bark and no bite. He met her cold eyes with his jaw clenched and his brow furrowed, then breathed in deep to steel his voice. He thought of Gul’s father, Gin, and the stern lectures he gave him as a kid. As much as the two disliked each other, it had been Gin’s harsh words that had pulled Kon from the brink.
“No, Ora. I don’t ‘got it.’ I’ve been nothing but polite to you, but that doesn’t mean I’m a pushover. In fact, given your attitude, I’m inclined to do the very opposite of whatever you ask. I might have just arrived yesterday, but I know you won’t lay a hand on me or my fae. So long as you are wearing that brassard, I know it’s your job to stand guard and keep us safe. I also know you aren’t supposed to be asleep. Colleague or not, I am still your senior, and as such, I expect you to do your job and follow the rules like everyone else. If I come back to find you sleeping again - or if I ever hear you threaten another student like you just threatened me, for that matter - I will not hesitate to speak with the Professors. Before coming here, I was a teacher, so I’m sure with our minds and experiences combined, we’ll be able to come up with a fitting consequence to ensure you never behave like this again. Do you got it?”
Although Kon didn’t show it on his face, he was amazed by how easily Ora shied away as she listened. Her gaze drifted as she moved closer to the desk, grasping it with one hand. As soon as Kon was finished, she grunted affirmation and vaulted into the square of open space. Reluctantly, the giantess turned to face him.
“That’s not an answer,” Kon pressed, his arms crossed as he followed her. “I don’t care if you’re taller than me or stronger than me. I don’t care if you’re a Seer. If you behave like a child, then I’ll treat you like one. Is that what you want? A yes or no will suffice.”
Ora’s eyes widened as she appraised Kon in a new light. Her voice tumbled out as small as he felt in her shadow. “No,” she whispered, half-sneering. “I don’t want to be treated like a child.” By the frustration that laced her voice, it must have been a sore point for her.
“Good,” Kon continued, sighing and softening his tone. “I don’t want to treat you like a child. I would rather treat you as an equal, but I can’t do that if you refuse to do the same for myself and others. That’s reasonable, isn’t it? I don’t believe that’s asking for too much.”
Ora nodded her giant head, then shook it. She wore a frown on her face as she blinked, her eyes glazed, as if half-asleep.
“If you can do that much, I’ll promise a favor in return. I won’t mention this to anyone. Not our fellow students or any Professors.” Again, Kon proffered a hand and smiled. “Does that sound like a deal?”
Ora continued blinking as she lifted a muscular arm. Though her posture was no longer aggressive, the skin of her palm was rough and heavy, making Kon feel like he was shaking hands with a bear.
“I’m glad we could have this conversation now. It was nice meeting you, Ora. I’m sure we’ll speak again soon.”
“Yeah,” she grunted. It was a better response than nothing. When Kon let go, Ora dropped her hand to lean against the desk. Compared to her uproar, she appeared to be dazed.
Kon turned and strode toward the distant staircase. A few steps down the corridor, he realized the air was shimmering with a faint veil of silver light. He beckoned for his fae until she was flying in front of him. You just helped me, didn’t you? Used magic to make her listen?
The floating orb chimed happily, shedding bright sparks in her wake.
Grateful as he was for the support, Kon felt uneasy. I appreciate that. Really. But please don’t use magic without my permission. Especially on other people.
His fae trilled a low duplet, the second note deeper than the first. To his ears, the sound resonated like an agreement and an apology.
Thank you. Kon breathed relief and relaxed his shoulders. Quiet voices echoed out of the stairwell as Ora’s fae - the bright pink glob - slid up the last set like a snail, leaving a moist trail behind it. It seemed the giantess had sent him there to watch for people in case any came her way. She likely hadn’t anticipated Kon coming out of his room, let alone confronting her. Now the fae returned to Ora’s side.
Kon hadn’t anticipated confronting her either. After last night, however? He almost felt like an entirely new man. One who could be courageous in the face of adversity. One who could do the right thing even when it seemed too difficult or terrifying. Lafer and Vigor must have rubbed off on me, he mused. Beside him, his fae sang gleefully.
It was his friends’ voices echoing down the stairs, along with a few others. Among overlapping chatter and disparate footsteps, Kon could hear stomachs growling. He waited patiently for them to descend, his own stomach groaning to join in their symphony of hunger.
The Harrowing twins, Rej and Gaj, were the first to appear, though not necessarily in that order. They raced down the larger steps with the same grim expression on their round faces, their lips pursed and eyebrows drawn in concentration. Both had beige skin and russet eyes.
The one in the lead was taller. His bare arms and legs were lanky, yet lean with muscle. In a single leap, he cleared two steps at a time. His long hair — black and streaked with threads of white — swept back and forth behind him.
The other brother was bulkier. His hair was more like fuzz, cut short and faded into the skin of his nape. It was more white than black too, the latter color dotting his scalp like grains of sand. He ran down each step instead of jumping, throwing his weight forward to boost his momentum. Eventually, he managed to take the lead.
Kon backed away from the stairs to give them room. Neither stopped to say hello, though both met his eyes and tilted their chins as they passed by him. Their gold shorts and shirts with green stitching were damp and reeked of sweat. Kon held his breath as he glanced back, watching them run toward a motionless Ora. Despite the lankier brother grabbing the other’s arm and pulling him into the wall as they turned the corner, the giantess remained quiet. Her eyes were fixed on Kon instead.
Lafer and Wilm descended a few moments later, wearing the same gold-and-green shorts and shirts, also drenched in sweat. Vigor and Rugged, as well as the twins’ fae, were nowhere to be seen.
“Kon!” Lafer shouted. Upon seeing him, she leaped immediately, the veins in her legs glowing a bright crimson. More than a dozen steps were cleared by the one bound. Her breath oofed out of her as she landed, prompting laughter. “We’ve been worried! How are you feeling? You didn’t just wake up, did you?”
“I’m well. Incredibly sore and just as peckish, but otherwise, I can’t complain. Just woke up less than an hour ago. My fae could hear you all yelling through our window. Did training go well?”
“It did,” answered Wilm. Kon hadn’t been looking, but he could hear their pace hasten to catch up. “It’s a shame you couldn’t make it. Rugged and I were hoping you’d show up. We were just about to shower and head to the mess, however, so if you don’t mind waiting a bit longer to eat, you can accompany us there.”
“That sounds nice,” he replied.
“Our fae are still on the ramparts if you want some company in the meantime. Vigor’s aura can help with the soreness, but if you’re too hungry, you can go without us. We all would understand.”
“I’ve survived this long, haven’t I? I’m sure I can survive a bit longer. Do I just head straight up?”
“That’s right. I prefer lengthy showers, but I’ll try to make this one quick. Vigor will know when we’re ready and bring you down to meet us at the mess.”
“Got it,” Kon said. “But please, don’t rush for my sake. Is it just Vigor and Rugged up there?”
“Nah. Grit and maybe-Grit is with them, and Lili and Dowen are somewhere up there too. Not sure what’s taking them so long, honestly.”
Kon raised an eyebrow as he glanced between Lafer and Wilm. “Given what you told me about them, I wouldn’t expect them to train with you.”
“They don’t,” Wilm grumbled. “Both of them would rather train on their own and heckle us during their many breaks. Lili wants to get stronger, but it’s hard for her, for obvious reasons. Doesn’t mean she needs to be a jerk, though.”
“Maybe I can talk with her like I did with Ora.”
Lafer hummed in thought as she peeked over Kon’s shoulder. “Holy stars. What did you say to her? The girl almost looks spooked.”
Kon looked again and frowned. Ora’s eyes were wide between blinks. “Just a small lecture,” he whispered, feeling guilty. “Nothing serious.” I hope.
Wilm huffed a breath in surprise. “Well whatever you said to her, good work. She’s been in a terrible mood since she took over for me this morning.”
Lafer chuckled weakly. “You say that like she isn’t always in a terrible mood.”
“Not always. When Lili’s around, she isn’t half as bad. Today’s been worse than normal.”
If Kon felt guilty before, he now felt profound regret. He never liked being harsh, even when his job as a teacher or parent required it.
“You okay, Kon? Your heart is pounding again.”
“I’m okay,” he answered. “You two should go shower. The sooner you do, the sooner we can all eat.”
“Okie then. Vigor knows you’re coming. Cya in a bit.”
Kon stepped aside for Lafer and Wilm to pass him, the latter grinning their broken smile as they waved goodbye to him and his fae. While the pair departed, he gazed at Ora beyond them, meeting her eyes.
I’m sorry, he thought, hoping the frown on the face would convey his concern. Ora continued to stare without an expression, even as her glob of a fae jumped on the desk for her attention. Uneasy and uncertain, he resolved to check on her later and see if she was okay.
For now, he turned and began climbing the stairs, his pace slow and muscles aching. Vigor’s aura would do him wonders. Kon just needed to get there first.