They were drunk when they stumbled out of the Point. A bad way to start an adventure, Tierce would later reflect. But on the other hand, if they’d been completely sober, there might not have been an adventure at all.
“I can’t believe you’re really going to see her again,” Barris said as the door swung shut on the noisy tavern behind them. It was a warm evening with no need for coats or coverings as the trio headed across the Bridge of Blades. The bridge was dark, but they were armed and had drunk just enough to be unconcerned about potential dangers. They moved unhurriedly, relaxed and easy in each other’s company.
“Why not?” Romeric flashed a smile at his friends. It was the same, not-quite-decent smile he’d had when he described the encounter with his “ailenia” earlier in the evening. “I think she likes me.”
“Her brother is gonna kill you when he finds out,” Tierce said. Of the three, he’d had the most to drink. Or at least, he had the least experience handling it. His words felt thick in his mouth, and he had to concentrate to make sure they came out in the right order. Talking and walking at the same time were proving to be a particular challenge, though he was sure he could compensate if he just spoke louder.
“Cael?” Romeric dismissed the notion with a snort, but the others were not convinced. Barris shot him a dour look.
“Besides Cael,” he said. “Her parents will never approve. Even if you have money, they’re never going to let her marry a foreigner.”
Romeric’s laugh was sharp and shameless. “Marry? Who said anything about marry? I just think she’s pretty.” He thumped Barris in the arm, Barris pushed him back, and then they shoved each other back and forth in a brief contest that was gloriously inconclusive.
It’s why he’d gone to the tavern in the first place, because he was so confused and frustrated by what had happened in the garden that he couldn’t even think about going home. The others had found him there later and joined him in drowning his sorrows without needing to ask what they were. Which was just as well because how could ever tell them about what had happened?
Head spinning, heart aching, Tierce swayed on his feet in middle of the Bridge of Blades, unable to stop the maelstrom of conflicting emotions that assaulted him. For the first time since he came to Corregal, he wished that he’d never met Sieur Eristan, because then he never would have met his beautiful daughter, who never would be, never could be, his. He wished he’d never come to Corregal at all.
“Tierce?” The other two had stopped their scuffling long enough to notice his apparent distress. Barris peered at him with concern. “Are you all right?”
“I think he is going to be sick,” said Romeric.
Tierce opened his mouth, but whether he was actually going to be sick, or whether he was going to disgorge some heartbroken confession to his friends, he was never sure because, at that moment, there was a sound. A great, reverberating peal that rose out of the darkness upriver and echoed off the sides of the gorge, splintering the quiet of the night.
The Gatehouse bell.
Whatever thoughts they had in their heads disappeared in an instant, and the three boys craned their heads simultaneously toward the source of the sound.
“D’you think it’s a skreik?” Tierce asked in a low, worried voice.
Romeric shook his head. “In the city? It is too well protected.”
Barris only listened, counting silently as the bell rang out twice more and then fell silent. “Three chimes,” he said as the last of the echoes died away. “It’s just a warning. Not a summons.”
“Warning for what?” It was Romeric who asked, but they were all wondering the same thing, staring upriver in the darkness to where the Gatehouse lay. Every Gatehouse ever built had a bell hung over the doorway, used to alert locals in times of crisis. Even in cities as great as Corregal, warded by means both magic and military, the sound of the bell sent a shiver through the stoutest hearts. There were plenty of ordinary dangers in the world, but when the Gatehouse bell spoke…that meant something worse.
“Come on,” Barris said, finally, gesturing them onward. “Sieur Eristan probably knows. Let’s get home.”
It was late enough at night that the streets and bridges of the city were mostly deserted. As the trio hurried toward Fleuracy House, they only passed a few people, usually in groups of three or more and usually in just as much a hurry as they were. Once, they crossed paths with a Black Shield patrol but got nothing worse than warning looks from the officers before going on their way. Bridge abutments, terraced landings, and the difficult geography of the riverside city made it impossible to take a direct route anywhere. They had to cross the river multiple times to get home, and the quickest route was via Shinetower Stair.
Shinetower was a massive spire of rock that jutted out from the cliff at the point where the Cille River met the Aris. Four bridges were anchored in the spire, each at a different height and splayed at odd angles across the rivers, and a slender watchtower perched upon its peak. Carved into the face of the rock, a stairway spiraled down the spire’s length, connecting the tower, the bridges, and an ancient boat dock at its base. Steep, uneven steps, with nothing but a rope to protect against a fall, made the twisting stair a difficult path to take on the best of days. But it was the fastest, and for the three inebriated young men in a hurry to get home, it was the best.
Tierce tried to keep up with his friends, but the higher they climbed, the dizzier he got and the slower his steps became. They didn’t notice when he fell behind or when, overcome by a wave of sudden nausea, he finally stopped. Catching his shoulder against the wall of the tower, he tried to steady himself. He knew he was going to vomit, but he refused to do it there on the stairs. He might be drunk, but he was not disgusting. He remembered passing a bridge landing just a short distance back, and quickly (as quickly as he could), he headed back down, one hand pressed against his mouth to delay the inevitable. Somehow, he managed to keep his feet under him as he went, and in a few short turns he found the wide platform that led the way onto Soz Bridge.
The breeze coming over the river was invigorating, but not enough to stop his rebellious stomach. Clutching the bridge rail, he leaned out and spewed the contents of his stomach into the river below.
When he was empty, he slid to the ground, propped listlessly against the railing as he tried to recover his breath.
That’s when he saw the cat. It was sitting on the railing on the opposite side of the bridge. It was a bit larger than most cats, but it was treating him with the same disregard with which most cats treated the world. There was nothing unusual in that. There were plenty of cats in Corregal. What was unusual was that it was glowing. Red, shimmering light dusted the creature’s black fur, and it flickered and sparked whenever it moved.
“Cats don’t glow,” Tierce mumbled in drunken confusion.
“Maybe I am not a real cat.”
Tierce blinked. The cat blinked back at him with eyes that shone with eerie reflections.
“Did you just…” He stopped himself. Shook his head to try and clear it. “I’m not having a conversation with a cat.”
“That would be ridiculous,” the cat agreed. It stood and stretched itself down to the toes, a lithe and languorous movement that ruffled its sleek fur and caused its glowing red light to shift in color, from red to blue to green and back to red again. As it settled back into place, it seemed somehow bigger in size.
“I am so drunk,” Tierce said. He wondered what had happened to his friends. Surely, they hadn’t left him to wander the city in this condition. He rubbed a hand over his eyes, hoping it would make a difference, but the cat was still sitting there when he was done. Still glowing.
“If you’re not a cat,” he asked it, “what are you?”
“I’m exactly what you wish,” the cat said with a swish of its tail. “And you are wasting time.” It took a few light-footed steps along the railing, away from the entrance to Shinetower. Then it paused to look back at Tierce. “Are you coming?”
Artwork credit: Lucy Womack (by commission)
Everything hurt, but that was all right. She’d earned it. Stretched flat on the ground in the abandoned garden, Neda couldn’t repress a ridiculous grin. Tierce probably thought she was crazy, but she didn’t care. For the first time in her life, she felt like she was doing exactly what she was meant to be doing, and it was glorious. Bruised limbs and aching muscles were a fair price to pay for fulfilling a lifelong dream.
“We should go soon.” Tierce was sitting on a half-broken bench nearby, tying up the bundle that held the wooden swords they’d been practicing with. Unfairly, he looked barely winded after their two-hour workout, and no sweatier than anyone else might in the middle of a hot summer afternoon. Neda, by contrast, felt like someone had sloshed a bucket of rancid water over her.
“I don’t think I can move just yet,” she had to admit. To forestall the inevitable apology, she quickly added, “Thank you for not going easy on me.”
“It’s the same routine your father used to put me through when I was just starting.” He still sounded apologetic but added a word of encouragement. “You’ll get used to it.”
She laughed, remembering. “When you first came to Fleuracy House, you only left your room for lessons and meals. And you never talked. I thought there was something wrong with you.”
He ducked his head and a wavy lock of his dark brown hair flopped over his face. “I was just exhausted all the time.”
Tierce had been barely fifteen years old when he’d come to Corregal, all on his own. He’d spent two weeks haunting the Blade by day and sleeping in the alleys of Landslip before Neda’s father, Sieur Eristan Fleuracy, had found him and took him in to his household as a student. Though clearly grateful for the opportunity he’d been given, it had taken him weeks to settle comfortably into his new surroundings. Once she had gotten to know him a little better, he confided that, as the son of a traveling minstrel, he’d never lived anywhere longer than a month or two at most. It was no wonder it’d taken him time to adjust to living in an actual home.
She rolled over onto her belly and rested her chin on folded hands too look at him. “What’s it like, in Batair?”
“Colder,” he said. “And wetter.”
“That’s not what I mean. What’s it like to live where women can be warriors? Are they different?”
“I don’t know. I never really thought about it.” He seemed to consider the question for a moment and then grinned. “My first teacher was a girl. Her parents were in guard service to the earl of West Tolk, so she thought she knew a thing or two.”
“She was ten. I was twelve. I think she just liked having an excuse to boss someone around.” Neda couldn’t help laughing, and his cheeks reddened with good-humored chagrin. “I don’t think I learned much, but it was a start. I might not be here if it weren’t for her putting a sword in my hands.”
He stood and crossed the garden, bundle in hand, to where a shed slumped against the wall. The garden was oddly shaped, wedged between a rocky slope and sharply angled walls. As far as Neda could tell, it wasn’t attached to any of the surrounding properties—there wasn’t even a proper gate, just a narrow opening blocked by a few wood planks that Tierce had moved aside for them to enter. She had no idea how he’d found the place, but as hidden and forgotten as it was in the midst of the noisy smithies and workshops of the Hammeroad District, there was little chance that their training sessions would be noticed by anyone.
“We can leave these here for next time,” he said, disappearing inside the shed. He was only gone a moment before he emerged again, dusting off his hands.
“Tomorrow?” Neda smiled hopefully, but now it was his turn to laugh.
“I doubt it.” He gave her a wry, appraising look. “If you can move at all tomorrow, I’ll be impressed.”
Neda groaned as she rolled over to her back again, but even the promise of worse pain to come couldn’t dull her happiness. The blue in the sky overhead was starting to deepen in color, a sign that the afternoon was starting to wane. Even in midsummer, night fell early in Corregal, tucked as it was along the gorge of the Cille river. She’d have to get home soon if she was going to wash and change in time for dinner.
“Just tell me it’s worth it,” she said as Tierce extended a hand to help her rise. “Am I any good?”
“You’re the best student I’ve ever had.” He said it with such seriousness that it gave her a moment’s pause before she realized he was teasing her.
She aimed a kick at his shin that he easily avoided. “I’m your only student, you louse!”
He broke into another grin and pulled her to her feet. His hand was warm and strong in hers, and she could feel the rough places where he’d earned calluses from long hours wielding a sword. I’ll have those someday, too, she thought to herself.
He did not release her hand once she was standing. Instead, his face grew serious again. “Neda, I promise you I’m not going to change my mind about any of this. But I think you should tell your father what we’re doing.”
With that earnest expression on his too-handsome face, Neda almost gave in to him. Almost. She could appreciate his concern. She was uncomfortable keeping such a secret from her parents, especially when there was so much risk involved. But she wasn’t ready to give up her dream yet on the mere hope that her father might understand why she wanted it so badly.
“I’ll think about it.” She pulled her hand free from his and used it to pull the damp hair from the back of her neck. It wasn’t quite a lie—she would think about it, even if she already knew what her decision would be. But Tierce seemed satisfied.
He motioned her toward the hidden entry. “You go first. We probably shouldn’t be seen coming and going together.”
Neda nodded in agreement. It wasn’t just a matter of reputation if they were found out. There were laws in Corregal about women wielding swords. They were both taking a risk. She took a half-step toward the gate before turning back to him. “Thank you, Tierce. You can’t know how much this means to me.”
He started to smile, that sheepish little half-smile that was so adorable, and before she knew what she was doing, she leaned forward and kissed him. Not on the cheek, which might have been all right, but on the mouth. It was so fast that Tierce didn’t even have time to react before she pulled back. She caught only a glimpse of his startled expression as she turned and fled.
She was through the gate and two streets away before she slowed down enough to chide herself. Foolish, she thought. Unkind. She knew how Tierce felt about her. He’d never acted on his infatuation, but she’d felt it. It was unfair to suggest that anything but friendship was possible between them, not while he still lived in her father’s house. Even if she had spent a pleasant daydream or two entertaining the notion of just such a dalliance.
And hadn’t his lips been just as soft as she’d always imagined they would be?
She gave herself a vicious pinch to force the memory from her mind. She had to pinch herself three more times before she reached home. At least one thing was certain, she ruefully reflected as she plodded up the hill toward the House. This was one impulse she couldn’t blame on Evod.