Pay attention, and the world would drop stories at your feet. Tierce’s father had taught him that. But because he was not particularly interested in collecting stories, he’d added a corollary of his own: find enough stories, and sooner or later you’d end up in the middle of one. That was how he happened to find himself wedged into the throng on the Bridge of Blades, hoping for his chance to duel the foreigner who had thrown down an open challenge to all-comers—and was, improbably, beating every one of them. If a story was going to start on the Blade today, he wanted to be a part of it.
“Sieur Eristan wants us back before dark,” Barris reminded him, raising his voice to make sure he was heard over the enthusiastic clamor of the onlookers. The two of them stood side-by-side in the crowd that packed the bridge to the rails, all young men with House and Guild badges on their shoulders and swords at their hips. Barris was a head taller, which gave him a slightly better view of the cleared area in the middle where the duelists circled one another, though he didn’t look particularly happy about it. He had not wanted to be there at all, and his impatience with his companion was clear. “We’ll be late.”
Tierce pulled his attention away from the duel long enough to glance upriver, where the sun would soon disappear behind distant mountains. “Not that late. We could take Shinetower.”
The peal of sword against sword interrupted Barris’ next objection. Blades flickered back in forth in a swift exchange of blows that left him as mesmerized as everyone else on the bridge. “We’ll miss the dedication,” he muttered as the duelists pulled apart again, though there was not much conviction to it.
Frustrated by the heads still in the way, Tierce tried to elbow his way forward for a better view, but he had to settle for standing on tiptoe to see much. Cael Averre was having a hard time of it. The youngest son of one of the richest Houses in Corregal, Cael was an aggressive duelist with a reputation for overpowering his opponents in the first minutes of a fight. Tierce had personal experience of that, so it was with some satisfaction that he watched the Jurati swordsman rebuff his attacks with apparent ease. The sheen of sweat on Cael’s brow showed the effort was starting to wear him down.
In contrast, the foreigner seemed hardly winded at all, and this was his sixth—no, seventh—bout of the afternoon. Impressive.
“Look at that,” Tierce exclaimed, admiring the negligent flick with which the Jurati deflected a thrust, and then smoothly turned the move into a cut of his own. His blade moved with precision and speed, too fast to possibly avoid. Only at the last second did he pull the blow aside, the blade skimming so close to flesh that Cael must have felt the wind of its passing against his cheek. There was a shout of approval from the audience.
“Who is he?” Barris mused as the Jurati danced away once more from Cael’s blade.
“The son of an impoverished count,” Tierce suggested, the details spinning themselves out in his head even as he spoke. The Jurati’s flamboyant clothing—not to mention the fine blade he wielded—suggested something less humble than ordinary merchant-folk. And since Corregal had no hereditary aristocracy of its own, tales about foreign nobility always had a particularly romantic appeal. “His father gambled away the family’s wealth. All he had left was a sword with which to make his fortune, so that he can return home, restore his family’s honor, and claim the woman he loves as his bride.”
The story earned him some wide-eyed stares from the boys near enough to overhear him, but Barris only snorted. “You just made that up.”
“Of course.” Tierce grinned. “I usually do.”
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A man could make a name for himself on the Bridge of Blades, if he had a good sword and he knew how to use it. For local boys, it was almost a rite of passage, to stand on the bridge and make an open challenge, to face any opponent who came against you with a sword in hand. You fought until you lost. If you fought long enough, someone would notice…and if the right person noticed? It could earn you a place in one of the Great Houses. Maybe even a chance at the Bell Guard. At the very least, you might prove yourself worthy of the city watch, which was better than laboring in some tradesman’s shop for the rest of your life, or hauling cargo on the river.
Yes, there were opportunities to be had on the Blade.
But the foreigner was only looking for a bit of fun.
Even before he drew his sword, he managed to call attention to himself. Blond and fair, he stood out amongst the dusky people of Corregal all the more for his outlandish clothes. Local fashion favored sleek cuts and subdued colors—his elaborately embellished, plum-colored shirt, belted at the waist with an embroidered sash, was ostentatious, to say the least. He wore too much jewelry, too, with gold and gems glittering at fingers, throat and ears.
Jurati, the word went round, with some derision. The islanders were renowned for drinking, gambling, and debauchery, not swordplay. No one took him seriously when he first started nosing around for a bout; they judged him to be some rich merchant’s son, too young and stupid to know what he was asking for. But he persisted, sauntering between the groups of young men gathered on the bridge in the late afternoon, offering unasked for opinions, and calling the reputation of the native swordsmen into question when no one would consent to spar with him. It was Donan Patt who finally gave in, hoping that if he humiliated the peacock quickly enough they’d see nothing more of him but his plucked tail as he ran off.
“What is the wager?” the Jurati asked, his accent making a lilting cadence of the words. The question was met with more scorn. A circle of onlookers had cleared around the pair, Donan’s friends, mostly, looking forward to seeing the stranger get what he had coming. Donan was not necessarily the most talented youth in the group, but his father was in the watch, and he was certainly competent enough to deal with this upstart.
“It’s against the law to wager on the Blade,” Donan informed him. The Bridge of Blades had many rules, necessary in a city where each of the ruling houses maintained what amounted to its own standing army. Bloodshed in the streets might be unavoidable when one house went to war against another, but on the Blade it could at least be contained. The ban on wagering kept tempers from flaring if a contest turned unfavorably for either party.
The stranger accepted this stricture with an easy shrug. “We fight for honor alone, then. ‘Tis better that way. Now tell me,” he said, pulling his sword from the scabbard at his hip. “Does our honor demand real steel, or must we duel with sticks like those boys over there?” He gestured to the far end of the bridge, where a pair of ten-year-olds in livery swatted at each other with wooden practice swords.
At the sight of the Jurati’s sword, a ripple of surprise moved through the circle of onlookers. An Arrenal blade, it was, the silvery engravings down its length thought—but never proven—to be part of a spell-forging that made them lightweight and ever-sharp. Magic or not, there wasn’t a man on the bridge, fourteen or fifty, who didn’t know the value of an Arrenal sword, and few who had hope of ever owning one.
Donan drew his own sword, solid, local craftsmanship without the elegance of the foreign weapon, but just as potent. He’d worked six months laying stone on the Meridian Bridge to pay for it, and he trusted it wouldn’t let him down now. “We can fight with steel,” he said. “You should know, though, that if you’re injured here, you’ll have no recourse to the law. Not even if someone died.”
It did happen, sometimes. But a man who drew his sword on the Bridge of Blades was expected to know the consequences.
“I am not so worried about dying.” The Jurati smiled, a little sideways tilt of the lips that was just shy of arrogant. “Nor for killing either.”
He bowed then, and, with a flourish of his arm, straightened into a position of readiness.
It was a shorter duel than anyone expected. Donan, not wanting to spend any more time than necessary, moved in quickly with a blow aimed high at his opponent’s shoulder. The Jurati deflected it easily and returned with a thrust that made Donan jump back to avoid the point of his blade. Before he had a chance to recover for another attack, the Jurati slid forward and, with two cutting swings to keep him on guard, brought the flat of his sword down on Donan’s wrist with a resounding thwack.
He cried out and dropped his sword. As it clattered onto the cobblestones, there was a moment’s incredulous silence among the witnesses, and then an explosion of consternation. Impossible, that a Corregal swordsman could be defeated by anyone so quickly, let alone by a Jurati fop. Some trickery must have been at play. Someone would have to step in and make things right. Donan Patt, clutching his bruised wrist along with his bruised ego, slipped off unnoticed into the crowd.
The Jurati just stood there, smiling complacently amidst the uproar as the young men on the bridge wrangled over who would get the next chance at him. Spinning his Arrenal sword around by the hilt, he gestured his next opponent forward and said, “Who’s next?”