No woman could be a Wing forever. That was why Centurion Persia spent her last morsel of stubbornness to keep from limping as she marched into the Eyrie. Some of the Wings who had left her behind hid their smiles, which hurt almost as much as the pity she saw in some of the eyes watching her.
Matriarch Liberia strode out of the gymnasium. There was as much silver as black in Liberia’s braid, but she moved with a vigor that made Persia’s injured left leg want to fold with envy.
Persia tried to slow her breathing to a rate that was seemly after a forced march. She searched Liberia’s face as she so often had in the twenty years since her caste exam, looking for decision. Hope vied with dread, though neither displaced a devotion so deep that a beating would strengthen it as much as a reward.
“Come into the gymnasium,” said Liberia. “You’d better sit down before you fall down.”
Persia saw her fate in the downturned corners of Liberia’s mouth. Liberia turned away, spinning her matriarch’s cloak in a crimson flourish. Pain rose in Persia’s chest, almost smothering the burning in her knee.
She watched a black sail soar on the updraft blowing up the cliff beyond the armory. Persia recalled the sensation of hanging below a sail while the world rolled itself out beneath her. A sensation she loved even more than Liberia. A sensation Liberia had decided she would never feel again.
She followed Liberia into the gymnasium, her left knee asserting its limp once more.
Liberia was already seated on a chair, watching novice Wings practicing with wooden swords. Persia sat on the bench facing her.
“Retirement,” said Liberia.
The word jerked out of Persia’s mouth before she could stop it. Retirement meant leaving the Eyrie. It meant spending the rest of her life supervising Weavers and Cultivators in the Mulberry Fields as they grew silk and wove it into sails and clothes. It meant never flying again.
“No.” The word repeated itself before Persia could swallow it.
Liberia raised an eyebrow. It was answer enough to remind Persia the Silken Matriarch could have her flogged to a pulp at a single word.
“I need more time,” said Persia. “Please. Give me a month and I’ll be fit.”
“You’ve had a year. Another month won’t make any difference.”
“I can get my strength back.”
Persia didn’t believe her own words. The more she worked her knee, the stiffer it became.
Liberia’s thoughtful look showed she didn’t believe them either. Her mouth twitched a smile.
“All right,” said Liberia. “If you can beat me hand to hand, you can have your stripes back.”
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