Dragon Hall.

And he would know: as the armsmaster said, my master was a great history keeper. If there was an old variation to the approach sequence, then he would find it.

But first I had to tell him, a day before the ceremony, that I could not complete the Mirror Dragon form. I shivered, remembering the welts and bruises of his past displeasure. I knew it was desperation that provoked his hand — in the last ten years my master had trained six candidates and all of them had failed — but I did not look forward to his anger. I gripped the hilts of the swords more tightly. I had to know if the Reverse Horse Dragon Second was allowed. It was my best chance. My master was not a fool, he would not beat me too hard before the ceremony Too much rode upon it. And if his history scrolls agreed with Mian, I'd have at least four hours before the

cleansing ritual to practise the new form and bridges. It was not long, but it should be enough.

I raised the swords in the overhead cut that started the Reverse Second and sliced the left sword down shallowly, conscious of the limited space.

'Oy, don't fling those around in here,' the duty armsman snapped.

I pulled up, dropping the points of the swords.

'My apologies, Armsman,' I said quickly. It was the skinny, sallow one who liked giving lectures. I held out the two hilts to him, angling the blades down. I saw his hand clench briefly into the ward-evil sign before he took the swords.

'Any damage?' he asked, holding one out flat to check the steel.

'No, Armsman.'

'These are expensive tools, you know, not playthings. You have to treat them with respect.

Not hack away with them indoors. If everyone…'

'Thank you, Armsman,' I said, backing towards the door before he could go into a full tirade.

He was still talking as I cleared the steps.

The easiest way out of the school was back across the arena and through the main gate, but I didn't want to walk over the sand again, or draw the attention of Ranne. Instead, I took the steep path down to the school's southern gate. My left hip ached from the strain of the practice session and the cramping in my gut made me breathless. By the time I reached the south gate and was passed through by the bored guard, I was sweating from the effort of not crying out.

A dozen or so house-shops lined the road behind the school, forming the outer edge of the food market. The smell of roasting pork fat and crispy-skinned duck oiled the air. I leaned against the wall of the school, letting the stone cool my back, and watched a girl in the blue gown of a kitchen maid weave through the tight knots of gossiping marketers and pause at the hatch of the pork-seller. She was about sixteen — my true age — and her dark hair was scraped back into the looped braid of 'unmarried girl'. I touched the end of my short queue of black hair; the candidate length. If I was chosen tomorrow, I would begin to grow it to my waist until I could bind it into the double-looped queue of the Dragoneye.

The girl, keeping her eyes down, pointed at a cured haunch on display The young apprentice wrapped the meat in a cloth and placed it on the bench. The girl waited until he had stepped back before laying the coin beside it and picking up the package. No conversation, no eye contact, no touching; it was all very proper. Yet I sensed something between them.

Although part of me knew it was not honourable, I narrowed my eyes and focused as I did with the dragons. At first, there was nothing. Then I felt a strange shift in my mind's-eye, as though I was stepping closer, and a surge of orange energy flared between the girl and boy, swirling around their bodies like a small monsoon. Something soured in my gut and spirit. I dropped my gaze to the ground, feeling like a low intruder, and blinked away my mind-sight.

When I looked back, the girl was already turning to leave. There was no sign of the energy around them. No sign of the pulsing brightness that had left a searing after-image in my mind.

Why could I suddenly see such intimate human energy? Neither my master nor any of my instructors had ever spoken of it: emotion was not the province of the dragon magic. A rushing heat prickled through my body; it was another difference to keep hidden from the world. I pushed away from the wall, needing to work the backwash of power and shame out of my muscles.

My master's house was three roads away, all uphill. The pain in my hip had changed from the familiar ache of overuse to a sharper warning. I needed to get to a hot bath if I wanted any chance of practising the approach sequence. The alley beside the pork-seller was a good shortcut. If it was empty. Stepping to the left, I shaded my eyes and studied the narrow walkway It seemed

safe; no dock boys sharing a quick pipe or waiting for a limping diversion to chase. I took a step out, but hesitated as a familiar wave of motion moved through the crowd — people scrambling to the edges of the road and dropping to their knees, their chatter suddenly silenced.

'Make way for the Lady Jila. Make way for the Lady Jila.'

The voice was high but masculine. An elaborately carved palanquin was moving down the road carried on the shoulders of eight sweating men, the passenger concealed behind draped purple silks. Twelve guards, dressed in purple tunics and carrying curved swords, formed a protective square around it. The Shadow Men, the soldier eunuchs of the Imperial court. They were always quick to beat down those who did not clear the way or bow fast enough for their liking. I dropped to my good knee, balancing on my hands, and dragged my bad leg beneath me. The Lady Jila? She must be one of the Emperor's favourites if she was allowed out of the inner precinct. I lowered into the 'court noble' bow.

Beside me, a stocky man in the leggings and oiled wrap of the seafarer sat back on his heels, watching the approaching procession. If he did not bow down, he would attract the attention of the guards. And they were not careful about who they struck.

'It is a court lady, sir,' I whispered urgently 'You must bow Like this.' I held my body at the proper angle.

He glanced at me. 'Do you think she deserves our bows?' he asked.

I frowned. 'What do you mean? She's a court lady, it doesn't matter what she deserves. If you don't bow, you will be beaten.'

The seafarer laughed. A very pragmatic approach to life,' he said. 'I'll take your advice.' He lowered his shoulders, still smiling.

I held my breath as the palanquin passed, squinting as the dust raised then settled. Beyond us, I heard the crack of a sword laid flat against flesh; a merchant, too slow in his movements, knocked to the ground by the lead guard. The palanquin turned the far corner and a collective easing of muscle and breath rippled through the crowd. A few soft remarks grew in volume as people stood, brushing at their clothes. I dropped my hands to the ground and swung my leg out, preparing to stand. Suddenly, I felt a large hand under each armpit, pulling me upwards.

'There you go, boy'

'Don't touch me!' I jumped back, my arms across my chest.

'It's all right,' he said, holding his hands up. 'I just wanted to return the favour. You saved me from a sword across my back.'

He smelled of fish oil and old sweat and seaweed. I felt a memory move through my body: of holding up a heavy string of black pearl kelp, and my mother, nodding and smiling and coiling it into the basket strapped across her slight body. Then the image was gone. Too quick to hold, like all the others I had of my family

'I'm sorry, sir, you took me by surprise,' I said, tightening my arms around my chest. 'Thank you for the assistance.' Bowing politely, I stepped away from him. The shock of his grip was still on my skin.

The alley opposite was no longer empty; a group of dock boys had congregated near the far end, squatting around a game of dice. I'd have to take the long way round. As if in protest, the pain in my hip sharpened.

The seafarer stopped beside me again. 'Perhaps you will help me once more,' he said. 'Can you tell me the way to the Gate of Officials?'

There was no suspicion or puzzlement on his face, just polite enquiry I looked at the dock boys again, then back at the seafarer. He was not overly tall, but his chest and shoulders were powerful and his face was tanned into stern lines. I glanced to see if he was armed: a knife slung through his belt. It would do.

'I'm going that way myself, sir,' I said, beckoning him across the road towards the alley. It was not strictly in

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