It was not the first time he’d noticed a girl. The older he got, the more they all seemed to stand out. There were dozens of pretty maids roaming his father’s halls, some of them near his age. There were pretty girls selling goods in the market, begging his attention with fluttered eyelashes, but only to try to loosen his purse strings. There were pretty girls in the temple by the dozen.
And then there was her.
He hadn’t thought her pretty at first glance, though there was something striking enough about her that he’d wanted to look again. Her hair was unruly, always tangled and frizzy, hanging around her shoulders like an ebony cloud. Her lavender training robes were ill-fitting for her developing figure, tight in all the wrong places and making her look more like an unevenly stuffed pillow than a person. But her eyes burned like sunlit honey in her round face, casting their warm glow over everything whenever she smiled.
He’d stopped and stared the first time, earning himself a rap on the back of his head before being hurried along.
Most days he didn’t have the freedom to roam the temple, some teacher or another escorting him from class to class, then up to the Archmage for testing before he was whisked back to his home in the capital. So when he looked after that, he tried to do it more discreetly.
So he looked during classes, when he sat behind her and she couldn’t see. He glanced after her when they went separate directions, when she went to have a midday meal and he was led to the Archmage’s tower. And he tried not to stare when they took turns doing demonstrations at the end of each week.
She wasn’t as strong as some of her classmates, and her power paled in comparison to his. But she was determined, always working, always studying, pushing to better herself despite her limitations. She was always surrounded by friends, often laughing, making his isolation even more painful.
What might it have been like, if he’d been one of them? If he could walk with her to class every day?
The thought had slowed him on the path when it rolled through his head for the dozenth time. He’d turned his head ever so slightly, hoping to watch her make her way toward the dinner hall, instead grimacing when Edagan’s knuckles cracked against the back of his head.
“No time for that, boy,” she told him. “You know what girls would think of you, besides.”
He had been incensed, but he couldn’t argue; he knew better than anyone else.
Girls wanted something from him he couldn’t offer, a life that wasn’t his to give. The girls at home swooned when it was inconvenient and batted their eyes when they thought it was. But they didn’t know his circumstances. They only saw his father’s station.
From then on he put his head down and walked without a word. He knew the odds of someone understanding. He was different. Special, but not in a good way. So he tried to shut out the thoughts of her, of her inviting amber eyes and the sweet dimples in her round cheeks whenever she smiled. And he tried very hard not to watch her when they parted ways after the last morning class, lest he earn himself any more knocks on the head.
He tried so hard, in fact, that he didn’t even see her the day she headed toward the library instead of the dinner hall, and when she emerged from the first floor of the Archmage’s tower ahead of him, he didn’t raise his eyes from the ground until he walked directly into her.
Edagan, escorting him again, had caught the girl before she could fall over and gave him a wicked glare. She snapped something, but he didn’t understand. Instead he gawped, his ears burning, an uncomfortable fluttering in his chest.
“I’m all right, Master,” the girl said, brushing herself off, still holding tight to her book. Then she looked at him, and for the first time, he found himself bathed in the warmth of those fiery amber eyes that had held him captivated for weeks. “You’re in one of my classes, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” he’d said, his throat closing on the thousand other words that wanted to follow, keeping any of them from escaping.
She smiled. “Well it’s nice to finally meet you. I’m Firal.” The dinner bell rang and she jumped ahead on the path, pausing after a stride to turn back and look at him again. “You should speak to me some time when you aren’t running errands for Masters. Perhaps we could study together.”
And then she’d been gone, her words of invitation hanging heavy in the air, changing everything in a moment.
He’d thought it made a difference. For years, he held that hope.
And fifty years later, the memory of that first touch still danced in his mind late at night, when he sat beneath the stars, alone despite the thousand other soldiers around him.
Hope, it seemed, was only worth so much.