There’s a peculiar kind of corkscrew brain that enjoys studying for an exam. You have to be able to sink into the words and the concepts, touching on things you already know to be true, and feel some sort of satisfaction as you reconnect them to your memory. It’s also important to maintain the illusion that information for passing the test is for some higher purpose than just passing the test – a lie that most people who experience exams fail to internalise. For Aderyn DuThane, the experience was further amplified in its enjoyment by an adulation of teasing her bunkmate.
Lady Quynn Lyzbyth Wyndsr had a heritage that spoke of nothing but the finest of china and the most polite, mannerly behaviour. Wyndsr Estates were extensive and reached from the northern edge of Hadrian all the way down to the heart of Timoritia. Compared to Aderyn – whose family owned what was, ultimately, a farming valley near a highway – she was practically royal. She’d have deserved a shot at the throne, really, if not for the unfortunate dalliance with The Wrong Religion a few generations back that had rendered her legally dead, or that she was technically both a Dulf and a Chilver by several removed relations – at least one of whom had been removed around the neck height and quite publically, at that.
Quynn was known to her friends as Queeny, and to everyone else, ‘that terrifying Wyndsyr ruffian.’
Queeny never sat up at her desk when Aderyn was studying, and Aderyn had no idea at all what Queeny did when she was studying, because she never studied. Instead, she was on her bunk – the top one – on her back, her head hanging off the side, her mop of frizzy, golden curls hanging upside down. Queeny had dyed half of her hair hot pink to further stand out in a crowd and look confrontational, a form of personal expression she scarcely needed given the way her lower jaw was in perpetual jut. With her hair a tangled mess of jangling colours, and a stark black star painted on one cheek, she looked like a particularly exotic form of iced treat.
Aderyn looked back down to her books, double-checking the answer she’d been given, running the stone in her hand against the dagger on the desk parallel to the handle, up by the tip. “No, Queeny, the Royal Palace is not defended by Corgis.”
“Should be.” Queeny snorted – then, in her inverted position, spat, across the room, into the disused inkwell on her own desk. “Corgis are like, fairy knight horses.”
“I rather think you’re making that up,” Aderyn said, turning the page with her left hand. “And while I may just be taking a guess here, I’m reasonably certain that it’s not going to be anywhere on one of the tests.”
“Could be under culture.” Queeny said, rolling over and over, face first into her pillow.
“I don’t see why you’re even bothering, though.”Queeny grunted, her voice mostly muffled by pillow. Fortunately, Aderyn had had two years to learn to speak that particular language. “You could do what the smart kids are doing.”
Aderyn turned the page in her notebook and cleared her throat – pinning the inference of smart kids against the page and giving another low, metallic grating sound to the room with the stroke of her stone against the knife. “And what, exactly, is that?”
“Fiiiinally! A quiz question worth th’answerin’!”
“Then answer it.”
“I spen’ th’ thirty an’ now ‘m’ loaded up with th’exam questions an’ answers. Gunna saaaail on through at this walk.”
Aderyn opened her eyes wide, took a breath, then leant forwards over her desk. “Where did you get those?”
“Ahah!” Queeny said, swinging her legs over the side of the bed, and sitting up, holding up a finger threateningly. “I did a favour for a favour an’ another favour – an’ now, I have th’ear of DuColome – Th’ Black Dove.” The accent slipped away when Queeny correctly pronounced the surname, and crashed right back as soon as she was done. “Y’know, th’gel that runs our floor.”
Aderyn turned through her notes, looking for an entry labelled DuColome. “Oh, yes. DuColome,” she said, correcting Queeny’s pronunciation. “You know something about her?” she asked, lifting up a single piece of notepaper, upon which a swirl of red text tried to connect pieces of well-hidden information.
“I know they call her,” Queeny paused dramatically, lowering her voice, “The Colome.”
“That’s not what that means.”
“So what?” she asked, flouncing backwards onto the bed again. “Thanks to her, I got what I paid for, and I figger that I spit half th’ answers right, that’s a pass, yeh?”
“Wait, you have all the answers – all of them – and you’re planning on only trying for a pass mark?”
“Well, I dun’ want the markers t’get suspicious.”
The logic there was ironclad, at least. The nature of cheating in the Assassins’ Guild was that it was tacitly accepted, thanks to the fundamentally untrustworthy history the school had. After all, it was hard to train an entire generation of students how to climb walls, breach windows, pick locks, memorise text, and extract themselves leaving no trace of their presence, and not expect at least one or two of them to think about turning those skills on their educators when the time came for examinations. Pragmatically, the solution was that cheating was graded.
Just this year, the exam had been broken into seven parts, with two dummy parts that would not be part of the greater exam, and each part had been hidden around the city. Not on the Guild’s Campus, but out, in the city itself. There had been combination locks and barrel locks and one water lock, each a practical exam. What’s more, thanks to the methods of storage, none of the passages could easily be removed from their location – they had to be copied or memorised.
Aderyn turned a page. Honest study seemed much easier, in her mind. Another scrape against her knife, another passage of reading. “Are you prepared at least for the practical exam?”
Queeny grinned. “Oh, come on.” In response, she swung one hand down to the edge of her bunk, and swung her legs out, holding them straight. Gripping with her left hand, she then lifted – and hauled her entire body’s weight up off the bed’s surface, keeping her legs ramrod straight. “You think,” breath, “climb-and-kill work is going,” breath, “to slow this powerhouse,” breath, “down?”
Aderyn looked up at the back of her roommate’s legs. She could hardly deny what Queeny was capable of. “And if it’s a flat assignment? What if you’ve got a crowd to work with.”
Queeny had been a spot of contention during camouflage classes, where other students mocked her for being very, very easily spotted – not just because of her hair but also her fashion. Longer dresses than normal, rolled up sleeves, all of the ways she conducted herself were counter to conventional fashion. Nobody had been surprised that Queeny had scored in the bottom half of that class. Aderyn’s own marks had been a fairly unimpressive average – perfectly placed in the middle.
“Then I’ll bust out,” breath, “a secret weapon,” Queeny said, leaning forwards on the edge of the bed. “I’ll wear a damn hat.”
“Ah.” Aderyn considered that for a moment. “Why didn’t you ever wear a hat before?”
“Because it wasn’t exams,” breath, “before. Besides, who cares,” breath, “about grades?” She shrugged. “Plus, it’s not like this,” breath, “target’s going to be able to run.”
“Do you know that back in the day, the targets used to be live?” Aderyn asked, her tone hushed.
“I heard they used to be,” breath “volunteers from the,” breath, “big families. You weren’t expected,” breath, “to die because young,” breath, “Assassins were so awful.” Breath. “Not like me.” Queeny’s face split in a cocky grin.
“I heard that it used to be how the big families made people disappear. Let an amateur stab them, then shuttle them off and claim they were killed while they went about to work,” she lowered her voice, “from the shadows.”
“Dun DUN DUN!” Queeny said, raising her hand dramatically – and lowering herself back down to the bed with the other. “You really think there are hidden nobles around, though? I mean, I got thirty-two cousins, according to the paperwork, and we know where they all live. Seems hard to hide anything when we’re paying attention to minor stuff like me. Let alone minor stuff like you.” Queeny said, leaning forwards, thumping her knuckles together.
“You know,” Aderyn said, looking back down to her knife, as she ran the stone over it again. “You lean forward a great deal. I daresay if you do it much more, you’ll fall off your bunk.”