Fighting for You
Megan Derr © 2018
All Rights Reserved
SIXTEEN YEARS AGO
Penli huffed and fired one more arrow anyway—and yowled when the instructor cuffed him, leaving his ears ringing.
“What did I say?” Kure demanded.
“Enough,” Penli grumbled.
“Unstring your bow and clean up. We’re done for the day.”
Several paces away, Tishasanti the Bastard opened his mouth to argue, but a look from their archery instructor had him snapping it shut.
Penli bit back his own complaints, even though it wasn’t fair that he was making them quit practice before one of them had one. He’d almost had Tishi-Wishi. One more round and he’d have won!
Grumbling to himself, Penli unstrung his longbow and set it aside before he went to retrieve all his arrows, shoving them irritably into the quiver at his hip. When he was done, he retrieved his bow and headed off across campus to the dormitories on the far side. The air was chilly, heralding the coming winter, but not yet so cold that he needed more than the long sleeves and cowl he was wearing. Practice was usually active enough to keep him warm well into winter. Unlike Tishi-Wishi, he could handle cold weather.
Thinking of Tishasanti and cold weather reminded him of the time Tishasanti had lost his footing and slid all the way down a hill and into a cluster of shrubs the previous winter. Penli snickered at the memory.
“What’s so funny, Penlington? Other than your terrible aim.”
Penli stopped and turned and sneered at Tishasanti. From their first day of school, he’d hated Tishasanti. He was loud-mouthed, bossy, and thought himself better than everyone else. He also liked to solve problems with his fists and, when that didn’t work, tattled to his daddy.
After Penli had gotten revenge on him for a sucker punch by breaking Tishasanti’s nose, they’d been mortal enemies. Well, they’d already been well on the way to that, because Tishasanti thought he was the best at everything—including archery, which was Penli’s specialty. No way was Tishi-Wishi better than him. He didn’t care if they did draw even almost every single time. That was dumb luck for Tishasanti.
“Go away, Tishi-Wishi.”
Face going red at the hated nickname, Tishasanti spat, “If that bastard Kure hadn’t stopped us, I would have had you, and we both know it.”
Penli sneered. “Please. You’ll never have me in any manner of speaking. And you only beat me at anything when luck is on your side.”
“Oh, I see. Still mad about the way I trounced you in the ring this morning?”
Curling his hands into his fists at his side, Penli hissed, “You cheated!”
“All’s fair in war, Penlington. If you hadn’t been so busy fretting about your stupid hair, maybe you’d have seen that move coming. Who needs luck to beat you when all they have to do is get mud all over your hair or clothes? You fuss more than a girl on her wedding day.”
“At least whoever I marry won’t want to kill themselves rather than go through with the marriage,” Penli retorted—and didn’t move in time as Tishasanti bellowed and slammed a fist into his jaw.
Penli stumbled back several steps and wiped blood from his mouth. “Were you hoping I’d go down like you, Tishi? Sorry, you’re the only one here with a glass jaw.” That time, he was ready for the swing, and countered with a dodge promptly followed by a foot to Tishasanti’s stomach.
After that, the fighting got ugly, and stopped only when some professors showed up and dragged them apart.
“Be quiet,” Kure snapped, and Penli withered. Of all the professors on campus, his archery instructor was by far his favorite—even if he could be infuriatingly stubborn and unreasonable about some things. Like putting up with Tishasanti.
He remained quiet as they were dragged into the headmaster’s office. Next to him, Tishasanti was equally silent, which was odd. Usually by now he was screaming about what his father would have to say about this.
“What a surprise to see you two again,” Headmaster Worth replied, leaning back in his seat, making it creak with the weight of muscle and fat wedged into it. In his tournament days, before they’d faded out of popularity, Worth had been called “The Wall” and he hadn’t turned into a ruin with age. “Two violent peas in a pod.”
Penli and Tishasanti bristled. “I am nothing—”
“We have nothing—”
They both cut off as Kure cuffed them.
Worth stared implacably for several long, miserable minutes. “You’re both too intelligent to simply throw you out for the vagaries of youth. However, these violent outbursts cannot continue. You are peers of your respective realms and you must learn to act like it.” When Tishasanti started to speak, Worth cut him off with a sharp gesture. “Spare me mentions of your father; I’ve conversed with him at length and he has left the matter of your discipline wholly in my hands. The question is: what sort of discipline will finally get through those stubborn heads of yours?”
Penli started to reply that removing Tishasanti’s head would fix everything, looked at Worth’s face, and thought better of it. Even if he was right that Tishasanti was the problem. Why did they insist on acting like he was just as responsible? Tishasanti was the one who always started it.
The look on Worth’s face then said he had read every last one of Penli’s thoughts and was vastly disappointed by them. How the bastard did that, Penli didn’t know.
Worth lifted his eyes to exchange some silent conversation with Kure.
“With me,” Kure snapped, and dragged Penli out of the room. The heavy door closed on the sound of Worth giving Tishasanti a dressing down unlike any they’d received before.
“And what, you think you’re not in trouble?” Kure demanded, dragging him down the hall and all but throwing him into an empty study room. After slamming the door shut, he folded his arms across his chest.
Penli scowled at the tear in a seam of his shirt—a beautiful, fitted thing meant especially for archery, dark violet lawn and embroidered all over with white and gold flowers. “You didn’t have to ruin my shirt.”
“The blood covering half of it already took care of that,” Kure replied, voice going even colder. “I think you have more important things to worry about than your clothes, Penlington.”
“He started it!” Penli snapped. “I was minding my own business, and he showed up—”
“Just because he taunts you doesn’t mean you have to give in.” Kure held up a hand. “But let’s start with before that. Why do you think I halted practice early?”
Penli shrugged and looked at the floor, fighting an urge to cross his arms. Kure looked intimidating when he did it; Penli would only look weak. “I figured you were annoyed.”
“Yes. About what?”
“I don’t know. I was hitting all the marks. I was one point ahead—”
“That. That right there. The points are not a contest. They aren’t there so you and Tishasanti can feud. Neither are the duels, or the tests, or anything else. Those are meant to test your personal acumen. Do you understand what it is you’re learning to do when you hit those marks?”
Penli looked at him with all the growing irritation overtaking him. “Hitting marks?”
Kure boxed his ears and, ignoring Penli’s yowling, said, “You are learning to kill. Every mark is, if you’re lucky, a dead animal brought down to feed your fellow soldiers. If you’re not lucky, your arrow will land in someone’s eye, or chest, or somewhere that will slow them long enough you can then take a killing shot. And instead of appreciating that, you and Tishasanti are so busy proving who is better that you’re not learning what you should be. What, pray tell, are you trying to be better than him at?”
“Funny, he’s probably giving that same answer to the headmaster as we speak. Why do you want to be better than him?”
“Because I am! Because he picks on people for no reason, he hurts them and laughs as he walks off like none of them matter. And then he gets away with it because of teachers like you, who don’t care what he does!”
Kure sighed and motioned for him to sit, then took a nearby seat. “Penlington—”
“It’s Penli,” Penli muttered.
“Penli, then,” Kure said. “I know you hate him, and perhaps you have good reason. But you need to get through that stubborn head of yours that the biggest reason the two of you clash is that you’re a lot alike.”
“Be quiet,” Kure cut in calmly. “You don’t talk until I say you may. Now, then. You are both exceptionally smart. You are both highly capable in all manner of martial skills. You both tend to be aggressive when you are riled, which is not something to be proud of. If you had grown up just a little bit different, Penli, you would behave exactly like him. It’s by the grace of the gods and your parents that you don’t. But you do seem to have appointed yourself judge, jury, and executioner when it comes to Tishasanti, and that’s just as bad. You see one small portion of Tishasanti’s life and what goes on it. Perhaps he deserves to be punished, but who are you to decide and act on that? What do you think people think of you, always seeing the two of you fight?”
Penli shook his head, a knot forming in his stomach.
“They think you’re pretty, and nice at times, but mostly scary, because you’re always fighting. Because sometimes from where they’re standing, and the limited knowledge they possess, you look like the one in the wrong. Remember that Penli: you don’t always know the whole story, and who is the hero and who the villain is entirely relative. Leave the judging to those who have seen the whole picture.”
“Yes, Professor,” Penli said. Did people really think he was scary?
“Penli,” Kure said more gently, and when he finally looked up continued, “If you really want to be a better person than Tishasanti, then remember that only cowards resort to violence first. Only the cruel-hearted find humor in another’s pain. And the most dangerous person in the room is the one who thinks they know everything. Ignore Tishasanti as best you’re able. Focus on your lessons, and ‘besting’ him fairly. No more fights in the halls, or one day you’ll find that it gets easier and easier to use violence to put people in the place you think they belong. Violence should always be a last resort. Arrogance should never make your decisions.”
“Yes, Professor,” Penli repeated. “I-I’m not really scary, am I? Just because I fight with Tishasanti?”
“You’re intimidating to many because, in addition to fighting with him, you are fiercely competitive, lose your temper quite easily, and there are rumors you’re going to be snatched up by the army because of your archery skills.”
Penli had been preening about that all month: that he was good enough to become a royal archer, go on secret missions to defend the people, and save the kingdom. But with Kure’s words still filling his head, all he felt was sick and scared. He wanted to be a hero, not an evil bastard like Tishasanti. “I-I’m sorry. I really do just hate the way he treats people.”
“I know,” Kure said gruffly. “But trust that people with more experience will deal with him as best we’re able, and there are bits of the story you will likely never learn. I know it’s hard, and often feels unfair, but all you can do is keep moving forward doing your best. Stop giving in to your worst. All right?”
“Good.” He stood and Penli did the same. “Now let’s get you back to your room so you can dress for dinner, and we’ll discuss your punishment along the way.”
Penli groaned, but fell into step alongside him as they headed across campus.