“How did the first Ealderra get their names?”
The whispers died down as every head turned towards Korrit. Suddenly self-conscious, the girl tried to hide behind her veil of thick brown hair. Beneath the curtain, her cheeks glowed a warm pink. Aunt Maloren regarded Korrit carefully, her deep, dark eyes considering the child carefully. Rhani’s furrows ran deeper.
“What made you think of that question, child of Korren?” the adult said at last.
Korrit shifted uncomfortably; the dozens of eyes watching her had yet to look away. Rhani knew the Studious girl did not like too much attention; it was surprising that she had spoken at all in front of such a large group. Thirteen girls, all from different levels of Ealderran society. Most were Warborn, sturdy and trained in the physical arts. But there were a few Magisterras in this year’s group, a couple of Studious like Korrit, and only one Scavenger: Rhani herself. Scavengers were the lowest of the castes—those born without a strong attachment to Mother’s Gift—and most of the girls pretended as if the sunburnt, rust-haired girl did not exist. It was why Rhani was always a bit confused about Korrit’s shyness; after all, the Studious were some of the most powerful Ealderrans. She had no reason to feel afraid, let alone ashamed.
“I…I was just curious,” Korrit answered lamely, her voice a low, rough murmur.
The corner of Aunt Maloren’s lip twitched in a smile at the lie, but she did not press the issue. Instead, she swept her gaze around the gathering, making eye contact with each girl in turn. She rested those dark, knowing eyes on Rhani last, and—Rhani liked to think—longest. They were, after all, actually blood.
“What do you all think?” Aunt Maloren asked. “Where did the first names come from?”
Heads turned toward one another, and the whispers renewed. Korrit breathed a quiet sigh of relief now that she was no longer the center of attention. Briefly, her eyes—or eye, as one was hidden behind the thick strands of hair that still hung in the girl’s face—met Rhani’s, and Rhani swore she saw the girl offer a small smile.
“Mother named them,” a fair-haired girl said, voice raised to be heard above the whispering. Once more, the whispers quieted as all heads turned toward the new speaker. Rhani knew this voice as well, though the association was far less friendly in her mind than that which she associated with Korrit. Ino was a Magisterra, destined to be a great leader—even moreso since her mother was the Matron Magisterra of Hadera, their home. Ino and her cohort flaunted their prestige shamelessly; a lowly Scavenger did not even register as a fellow Ealderran to them. Despite that, the girls never tired of tormenting Rhani’s lot. And as the only Scavenger in this year’s group, Rhani was a particular favorite for their taunts.
Aunt Maloren smiled at Ino. “Indeed.” She turned her dark gaze to Korrit. “Does that answer your question, child of Korren?”
“Yes,” Korrit said, though from the defiant set of her jaw, Rhani knew that was another lie. If Aunt Maloren noticed, she did not show it. Instead, the woman rose to stand at her full, towering height. A curtain of dark, inky black hair fell below her waist. Aunt Maloren, as a Teller, was one of the few who favored long hair in Hadera. But then, a Teller did not have to worry about getting her hair tangled in the brambles that grew in the underbelly of the Sanctuary. Rhani’s mother had had to shear the girl’s hair almost to the scalp many a time. Such was the lot of a Scavenger.