And so, as Aria began constructing her wardrobe, and studying every gossip sheet she could lay her hands on, Cressida boarded the coach to the university, and sank into study of every other kind.
One trick she had learned from Aria though, or maybe Aria had learned it from her; gossip was useful. It was all well and good to know the Frescan Ambassador was the Count of Angelico and married to the sister of the Frescan Queen. It was far more useful to be quietly aware that a figure resembling the Count frequently left the Embassy after dinner and spent much of the rest of the night at a quiet little house in a genteel merchant district. A house occupied only by a well-to-do widow.
Cressida’s gossip didn’t come from the printed sheets, although she did keep an eye on them. She had a far better source; the household staff. It was a network she’d been cultivating since around the same time as Aria began preparing for her wedding and was now, according to Patrick, one of the most effective spy rings in the country.
The day rolled on with more lectures, more discussion and more moments where Cressida knew she had earned her place.
One of the most interesting and unexpected classes was the one held in the late afternoon by Professor Greensleeves. The professor had made a life’s study of the different fashions of the various countries and groups of the Alliance and beyond and had discovered some unexpected value in the knowledge.
To put it simply, the class told people how to spot an impostor.
Cressida entered the dining hall for the evening meal, deeply preoccupied with thoughts on dye methods and stitch types. It seems those interminable embroidery sessions were proving useful after all.
Her twin darted across the room to meet her. No surprise he’d opted for the class in lettering and calligraphic styles instead of clothing, but that was one of the reasons having both of them there was so useful, they could divide and conquer.
He herded her to a table with the friends he’d made in the two years he’d been at the University, and Cressida suppressed a sigh. Most of them were well enough, a couple were a little condescending, but Daran was insufferable and she had no patience for him this evening. Which, of course, was why she found herself sitting next to him.
He sniffed as her dinner plate was laid before her by one of the serving staff. “A proper lady wouldn’t eat such stuff.”
Daran clearly had no sisters. She rolled her eyes. “Yes, thank you Daran, we’ve already established that I’m not a proper lady and you’re deeply offended by my presence. Please find something else to complain about, you’re boring me.”
The rest of the table sniggered. Daran resembled nothing so much as an astonished goldfish, with his goggling eyes and mouth opening and closing with nothing coming out.
He found his voice, unfortunately, and began to lecture her on the position of women in society, when he spotted someone past Cressida’s left shoulder and goggled into silence again.
Cressida turned, saw Cameron, who smiled, and nodded to her. She returned both smile and nod, then applied herself to her food.
Daran squeaked. Patrick sighed. “Oh dear, it seems our dear friend is having a little turn. Could someone please escort him to the healers?”
Bedark stood. “I’ve finished. Come on, idiot, let’s get you out of here before you make a complete fool of yourself.”
He bundled Daran under one hefty arm, and all but carried him from the hall.
Shara dropped into his empty seat. “Now that was fun to watch, and not just because of Bedark’s nice muscles. What had the idiot swallowing his own tongue?”
Patrick frowned. “Is Daran commonly known as ‘the idiot’?”
Cressida answered. “Among the female portion of the University’s population, ‘idiot’ this the most polite term for him.”
Patrick frowned, then looked around the table. “Sounds like he may not be the most suitable of company then.”
The others nodded, and like that, Daran would wake the next day to find himself mysteriously ostracised from the group he believed he led.
Cressida woke early, too early, and couldn’t stay abed. Her fingers itched to draw but her room was too dim.
She washed, dressed and scooped up her sketchbook and pencils, she’d brought them back to her room the previous evening, and headed for the courtyard. It was unlikely Cameron would be there but the lamps bordering the area would provide decent light until the dawn took over, and she could do with practice on backgrounds anyway.
She had the outlines of his weapons rack down, and was starting to fill in the details of the twin swords when Cameron arrived, shortly after the rising sun had drowned the courtyard’s lamps in gold.
“I’d ask if you were ready, but you’re clearly through your warm-ups. I’ll have to catch up.”
She liked his smile. It was warm and kind without condescension.
A week of early mornings and frantic sketching later and Cressida was ready to scream in frustration. She glared at her latest efforts. They still weren’t right and she still didn’t know why.
She was perched on the half-wall of the colonnade. A perfect spot for sitting, watching, and scribbling but even that hadn’t helped.
Cameron dropped to sit on the wall next to her and she resisted the urge to lean into his heat, the mornings were still chilly.
He peered at the page. “Going by your expression, I’m assuming you’re not happy with these.”
She sighed and shook her head. “If I knew why they weren’t looking right, I’d feel better. It’s not knowing the reason that’s the frustrating part.”
He looked at them, then down at himself, the back to the page.
He said. “Change of location tomorrow. Let’s meet up in the training hall. It’ll be empty, so you won’t have to worry about putting anyone off and I’ve got an idea that might help.”
She brightened. “Really? What do you think it is?”
He shook his head. “Let me check with a couple of people first, but if I’m right, we’re going to want to be indoors. Aside from anything else, it looks like rain.”
“And what does rain look like before it arrives?”
He pointed skyward. “Clouds.”
She looked up, and saw what he meant. Above the buildings enclosing the far side of the courtyard, a mass of black was building.
She flipped to a new page, pencil flying across the paper as she tried to record the ominous loom above them before the first raindrops chased her inside.
Cameron ran beside her, laughing.
She looked at him once they were safely inside and asked. “What’s so funny?”
“When you’re in artist mode, everything else flies out of the window.”
Oh no. She’d been rude. Again. She felt her cheeks heat and ducked her head. “I’m sorry.”
Cameron tucked a finger beneath her chin, gently lifting her face to meet his gaze. “I like it.”
Her face went hotter again. He was looking at her lips, his eyes dark, his movements liquid. He leaned closer.
Patrick flung open the door from the colonnade. “Here you are! I thought you’d been caught in the rain and melted away.”