Cressida woke to golden sunlight and scrambled to dress. After days of grey, she would finally have the light she needed to paint. She left her room, still fastening her cloak against the likely outdoor chill as she walked down the corridor.
Slipping out of the university’s sleeping quarters, she hurried down the colonnade to the Arts wing, and the sadly neglected room set aside for students who wished to paint or draw. Not a proper study, she was told, but a nice little pastime to round out the hours of real education.
Movement in the courtyard to her right caught her eye and she stopped, enthralled. A man was standing in the middle of the open space, a sword in each hand, moving and twisting in some unknown dance.
Her fingers itched for a pencil, or stick of charcoal and some paper. To capture that flow, the strength and control behind every movement. The man slowed, then walked to a rack at the far end of the area, swapping his twin swords for a tall staff. The movement started again, but different. A different flow, a different rhythm. Cressida sighed and moved closer to the side of the walkway. She needed to see more clearly.
His head turned in her direction, she darted into the shadow of a column, heart beating a frantic, guilty pattern. She was spying, but if she interrupted, he might stop, or become self-conscious and lose the careless grace she so wanted to draw.
As his routine with the staff wound to a close, she stepped back, and scurried away, hiding in the shadows darkening the far side of the walk.
Through the door at the far end, she scampered up the stairs to the studio, pushing open the door, then darting from window to window, throwing open the curtains.
She was the only one who used this room. It was kept clean and free of dust by the university staff, but that was all. Paper, pencils, paints, canvases – they all came from her allowance, and she couldn’t waste any of them.
She pulled her sketchbook from the shelves by the door and, grabbing pencils and charcoal sticks on the way, set up a workspace at a large table in the full light of the windows.
She bent to a fresh page, pencil, then charcoal, and back again, as she tried to put what she’d just seen onto the blank sheet.
Time disappeared, until she was finally recalled to the world by the rumbling of her stomach. Wonderful, she’d missed breakfast again.
She stretched and looked over the figures now covering the page before her, and blew out a frustrated breath. They weren’t quite there. They were missing, something. And she could hardly go spying again to try and work out what.
She slumped back and sighed, then yelped as a shadow detached itself from the corner by the door and strolled forward.
It was the man from the courtyard. Cressida felt her cheeks flame. What must he think of her?
He was standing near her now. Not close enough to loom, but he could most certainly see her drawings now. And see how bad they were.
He leaned closer, eyes on the page, then glanced at her. “May I?”
She nodded resignedly, and he pulled the sketchbook across the table. He studied the sketches he’d inspired, then, with a second glance at her, flicked back through some of the other pages.
He returned it, then leaned a hip on the table, turning enough that he could see her face.
“If it would be easier, you can always draw in the courtyard while I’m training.”
Cressida’s jaw dropped. “I- but- it’s- I couldn’t.”
He frowned. “Why not?”
“Having someone watching you, and capturing your likeness while you’re trying to do something? People hate it.”
The man shrugged. “I’m used to being watched, and I’m used to tuning it out. If you want to draw me, I count myself flattered.”
Cressida wondered if it was possible for her cheeks to actually catch fire. They certainly felt hot enough. She kept her eyes fixed on the images. “It would help. These just aren’t right and I can’t see why.”
He said. “I think they’re amazing.”
That startled her into looking at him. Oh spirits and he was handsome too. Her sister would laugh so hard if she was here; that Cressida had spent so long watching him, and not even noticed his features.
Her stumbling reply was interrupted by the door banging open. Patrick liked to make an entrance. “Hah! I knew it. Scribbling away, forgotten the time, missed breakfast. Come on, Cressy, I have food and today’s lecture schedule.”
He stumbled to a halt as he registered the tall figure lounging next to her.
He looked at her. “Who’s he?”
Cressida rubbed her forehead. “Someone I caught sight of this morning and wanted to draw. He managed to track me down and has kindly allowed me to sketch his next training session.”
The man smiled. “And any others beyond that, if you wish.”
He stood and bowed. “Cameron Greyson at your service.”
Cressida gasped, and stood. “Oh, I’ve been so rude.”
She curtseyed. “Cressida Thornwall.”
Patrick’s expression had turned amused. Cressida was sure she didn’t want to know why. Her brother merely bowed in turn and introduced himself.
Cameron looked between them. “And you’re both scholars here?”
Patrick replied. “Yes. Cressy joined us only this past term, although she’s been studying privately with the tutors for years.”
He turned back to Cressida. “So come along, you know better than anyone how grumpy they get with latecomers.”
She turned back to Cameron. “Thank you for your kindness. When are you training next?”
He said. “Every morning as soon as it’s light enough. If the weather is too vile, then I use the training hall at the end of the barracks.”
She nodded, smiled at him and left the room, pretending not to see Patrick’s smirk.
Thankfully the first lecture of the day was on trade, a fascinating topic, taught by Master Goldsleigh. Not only an excellent teacher, but also one who turned a blind eye to Cressida biting into the bread-and-jam Patrick had brought her.
She heard some shuffling and murmurs from the gallery area upstairs, but ignored it. The military students had odd timetables, so were given their own space, and entrance, so they didn’t interrupt the civilian students’ lessons.
The rest of the day flowed smoothly. Cressida loved the life here, wished she’d been able to join when Patrick had, two years before. But their mother had insisted on her remaining at home to be presented.
Of course she’d been thwarted by the inconvenient death of the King just before the start of the Season. No one was presented that year.
So, then it should have been last year, a double set of debutantes. Wonderful, more ladylike and polished young women with perfect singing voices and exquisite embroidery to sink behind. But then Grandma had died, almost a year to the day from the King.
And so, back into mourning. Cressida heaved a sigh of relief, but also eyed the following season with trepidation. She’d be twenty, and her sister, Aria, would be the correct debutante age of eighteen. In the interests of family harmony, she sat down for a conversation with her parents.
She would not be the adornment to the social whirl her mother deserved, Aria would be. Having her debut at the same time as Aria would dim Aria’s light. It would be simply criminal to make a girl as lovely and accomplished as Ari wait a year simply because of her older sister’s misfortune.
Her mother agreed, thankfully. While Aria had always been her favourite, the two of them had far more in common than either of them had with Cressida, Lady Thornwall was known to dig her heels in at any thought of a social misstep.
Cressida would still be required to attend the balls and dinners and picnics and cultural events, but she would be allowed to do so as a foil to her sister’s debut.
Aria was ecstatic. She had dreamed of her debut season for over ten years, and her wedding for even longer. The only books she cared to study were guides to the peerage and etiquette. She shared dance lessons with Cressida who, for all her bookish ways, moved with unexpected elegance, but took harp alone. They both sewed in the company of their mother in the afternoons, but while most of Cressida’s day was taken up with studies of other countries and laws, treaties, trades and culture, Aria’s only other classroom time was languages. Their father insisted.
Aria had pouted and wept and stormed over it, until Cressida pointed out how charming men found a woman who could make pretty comments in another tongue. And indeed, a woman who could understand their pretty comments to her.
So, Aria had a dabbling of Frescan and Marain. Enough for platitudes and a scattering of expressions in her everyday speech. Cressida and Patrick were both fluent and, when they were at outs with their younger sister, would speak in one or other of them, confident in the knowledge she didn’t understand above one word in twenty.