The Cadet of Tildor

CHAPTER 1

Lady Renee de Winter turned her back to the parlor, where her father’s clerk counted gold crowns into the visitor’s waiting palm. The coins’ melodic ring turned her stomach.

“Please thank my lord Tamath de Winter for his donation,” the visitor said, bowing. “His generosity keeps the roads well guarded.”

Renee wondered how long the man practiced that sincere voice, or how her father’s clerk tolerated the farce. For that matter, whose benefit was the show for at all? Calling extortion “charity” fooled no one.

She knelt on the carpeted floor and opened her travel trunk. With luck, the visiting thief would see her Academy of Tildor uniform packed inside. Once she graduated, these Family thugs would think twice about making their demands on the de Winter estate. Or on any other estate.

“Your pardon, my lady.” The approaching maid worried her skirts, waiting until Renee shut the wooden lid. “Your father wishes for you to address the tenants tomorrow.”

Renee closed her eyes. He knew she was leaving for the Academy today, just as she had done at the end of every summer since turning ten. Renee wanted to protect Tildor, to serve its people and the Crown. Her father wanted her to stay home and count goats. In gods’ names, they had discussed it—again!—over breakfast that very morning.

Blood boiled beneath her cheeks as she stalked down the wide hallway to her father’s study and slammed the door hard enough to topple accounts books from their shelf. “The Family’s demands will only grow if you keep indulging them, my lord.”

Lord Tamath dipped his pen into the inkwell and continued writing. The dark wood of his furniture matched his strict woolen tunic. “With a mere boy now holding the throne, the danger to us doubles.” His pen scratched over parchment. “It costs less to give coin than to lose wagons. A fact of which you, of all people, should be well aware.” He didn’t look up, didn’t even acknowledge the sting of his words.

Ten years ago, a Family-rigged accident crushed a wagon carrying Renee’s mother and older brother to a market. It would have carried Renee instead of Riley, had she not fallen off a horse that morning. The scar on her palm pressed her to honor their memory; Lord Tamath honored it by feeding their killers.

“Recheck the crop figures before tomorrow, if you please,” he added.

Renee took a breath to steady her voice. “By tomorrow, Father, I will be in Atham, in the Academy barracks, preparing for classes. Surely this isn’t news.”

He dipped his pen again, as if meeting her eyes was beneath him. “Your desire is not news, no.” His curled mustache twitched. “This is.” He held out a folded sheet of parchment with a cracked Academy seal, his lips pressed into a taut line.

She tugged down her tunic, took the three paces from the door to his desk, and tried not to seem as if she reached for a poisonous snake.

Cadet Renee de Winter,

The Academy of Tildor has reviewed your record and found that your competence in the Combat Arts Track falls on the borderline of acceptable levels. As such, the Academy will scrutinize your performance in the coming year and, should we find a lack of sufficient progress, dismiss you from the program. Consider this your Formal Notice of Warning.

Signatures followed the text. Renee looked away, her world trembling. She trained every day. Each and every one. And she was so close. One last year in the Academy’s schoolrooms and two in a field trial and then she would be a Servant of the Crown. “I will work harder, Father,” she