Monday, December 12, 2011

A Lady of Cunning (Part 1 of 3)

Despising a color was a new experience for Macy Bridges. She couldn’t recall another time in her life when she’d found herself at odds with anything that couldn’t be considered competition. And yet she here she sat, despising a poor, defenseless color.

There’s no color as smothering as blue, she thought. Callous and deep as the dark sky, it’s impossible to escape.

Three days had passed since the Hunt at Little Red’s Academy for Ladies of the Fray. For all of that time, the cerulean blue cloak of a Lady of Cunning sat folded and scorned on the corner of Macy’s dresser. It didn’t matter that fewer Ladies of Cunning had been named this year than had been named in a decade. Ladies of Cunning weren’t iconic and their blue robes did nothing but make it clear how far they were from being a Lady of the Ax.

She knew the charge by heart: As Little Red uncovered the wolves disguise, it is the duty of a Lady of Cunning to see what others do not, to question what others cannot, and to uncover the lies that will harm. The words were a constant refrain in her mind. Each time they repeated, she found the words even more hateful.

The injustice of being usurped of her rightful title by sniveling Lochlin Cowle still prickled every time her eyes snagged on the cloak. She hadn’t even bothered to go in for a proper fitting. She didn’t expect to wear it much. Blue, she’d decided, made her skin look sallow, and it was common for Ladies of the Fray to go without their cloaks depending on their work. It would be easy to set it aside and forget the travesty that had befallen her. Better, she thought, to shove it into the darkest corner of her closet and hope the blue faded from neglect.

Most of the other girls had fawned over her, of course, many of them wishing they’d also been named Ladies of Cunning. They used words like “unique” and “elite,” but Macy knew it was all talk. No one in their right mind wanted to be anything other than a Lady of the Ax.

Still, she didn’t dissuade their praises. After all, it was better if they thought she believed it was true. No one needed to know she’d had to return the red leather boots she bought and no one needed to know she’d shed a single tear over her placement.

The knock at her door came as the sun was beginning to set over to Cutter Wood. The view from her fourth story apartment had once filled her with a sense of destiny and knowing. Now it was just the sun abandoning the world yet again to darkness and wolves. She drew the curtain, for all the good it did, and opened the door to find a young girl in the brown slacks and shirt she’d only recently left behind herself. A new recruit to the Academy judging by her height and the way her feet resisted holding still. She held out an envelop with Macy’s name scrawled across the front and said, “Little Bridges.”

Macy took the envelop with a nod and a curt, “Thanks,” and shut the door again.

She’d been expecting the letter, but not quite so soon. Most were given at least a week before receiving their first assignment, time enough to celebrate and move from the student wing to the quarters set aside for newly appointed Littles. Macy had barely started packing. Nothing seemed worth taking anymore. Everywhere she looked, little bits of blue stared back, from the background of photographs and tucked within pieces of jewelry, even her make-up palate was tainted.

Crawling into bed to tuck her feet beneath the covers, Macy paused before opening the letter. She wasn’t used to doubting herself. Three days ago, she’d have torn the letter open before the door clicked shut. It never would have occurred to her that she wouldn’t like what she found inside. Now, though, she worried that its early arrival was a bad sign. Had she performed so poorly in the mimic ring that they wanted to get rid of her entirely?

Better to know, she thought, tearing the letter open before she could change her mind.

She recognized the format of an assignment letter immediately, the page carried the signature scent of cinnamon and the ink was red. It was the letters themselves that didn’t make any sense. Macy read them again and then once more before allowing herself to smile.

Little Bridges, it began, Due to your exceptional record during your time at the academy and your exemplary performance during the final hunt, we request that you present yourself for early assignment. Report to Little Whipple’s office tomorrow morning by 7 AM. Sincerely, Fray Cole.

Macy barely slept, she was unable to still her thoughts long enough to drift off and when she did, her dreams were a press of blue threatening to swallow her up, spitting her back out when she refused to relax into them. It didn’t matter. When the sun rose, she was alert and fresh as if she’s had a full night’s rest. She only hesitated when it came time to don her cloak. She did it quickly, without looking in the mirror and headed out the door with her head held high.

The cloak whispered behind her as she walked and several passing students stopped to watch her pass. Macy kept her eyes forward to give the appearance of confidence, but also to avoid catching glimpses of the blue draped over her shoulders. This moment was very nearly a perfect one. If nothing else, she would be able to revel in the success of having been sent out on assignment before any of her classmates in spite of her status as a Lady of Cunning.

Little Whipple’s office sat in the corner on the ground floor with a view of the practice field out one window and the Cutter Wood out the other. The door was open when she arrived, the room humming in the tone of hushed voices. She paused to knock, but Little Whipple spotted her and waved her inside.

“Come in, come in. It’s good to see you,” she said without meeting her eyes. Little Whipple wasn’t known for her sentimentality. She’d congratulated Macy on the day of the hunt, but had been distant since then. Macy didn’t need to wonder why.

She stepped inside, moving to take one of the seats on the receiving side of Little Whipple’s desk. But seeing that one was already occupied by a boy only a few years older than herself, she stopped. The stripe of green running from the collar of his shirt down his right arm gave him away as a Clever Pan, but other than that he was a stranger.

“This is Clever Oliver Hale. He graduated from Pan’s School for the Clever two years ago and will be assisting you on this assignment. Hale, this is Little Macy Bridges, Lady of Cunning.”

“There’s no better match for a Clever than a Lady of Cunning,” he said. He had an easy grin, as Clever Pans should, inviting and playful. “Pleasure to meet you.”

Macy smiled, enjoying the way her stomach teased her voice when she said, “And you.” It didn’t matter what the assignment was, Macy thought, things couldn’t get any better than this.

“Ah, here we are. Come in, come in,” Little Whipple said, snapping her hand through the air.

So they wouldn’t be alone on assignment. That was disappointing, but Macy wouldn’t let that bother her. If there was one thing in which she had confidence, it was her ability to be charming. There wasn’t anyone else at this school who could diminish this experience for her. Not even, she decided, if it were a Lady of the Ax.

She turned. Saw the red cloak and the plain face above it. And wanted to vomit.

“And here is the Lady of the Ax who’ll be joining you,” Little Whipple continued. “Lochlin Cowle.”

Check back on Wednesday for Part 2 by Lacey! (Also, you can find more fiction in this world using the tag: Lady of the Ax.)

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