It had taken Barris a while to really start enjoying himself. Sindera’s warning to stay away lay heavy on his mind. He couldn’t escape the feeling that it’d been a mistake to come, and he kept checking over his shoulder for anyone who might be waiting to ambush him.
But within the dazzling extravaganza of the Trienelle, surrounded by lights and music and masks, he found his misgivings slowly melting away. It was hard to keep worrying when there was so much to see and do, and by the time they reached the dance floor he could hardly remember what he’d been worried about. No one could recognize him beneath the bull mask, he realized, and even if they did, no one cared. Not tonight.
The music hardly stopped between one song and the next, from familiar tunes that had the dancers singing along, to wild drum cadences that whipped them into a whirling frenzy, too breathless for more than the occasional whoop of joy. It was during one such madcap swirl that he stumbled into the midst of a group of bird people, their masks bedecked with feathers in every color of the rainbow. It turned out they were actually apprentice dancers and, full of good humor, they decided he needed their instruction. He laughed as much as they did and pretended to be as ungainly on his feet as they thought he was, having so much fun that he didn’t have time to worry what anyone thought of him.
When a break came in the music, they were all ready for a breather. He looked around for Tierce and Romeric as he came off the dance floor but couldn’t see them. It was odd that neither of them were around, but he had little chance to wonder about it. One of the bird dancers pushed a cup of punch into his hands and they dragged him off to a table they had claimed nearby. Surrounded by his new friends, it was easy not to worry about his old friends.
The first time someone bumped into him, he hardly noticed. It was crowded amongst the tables, easy enough to accidentally jostle someone in passing.
The second time, though, when an elbow knocked his mask askew, he knew it was deliberate.
A cold knot tensed in his stomach, but he kept his movements calm as he set the mask right, not even looking around to see who might have done it. The birds, laughing at another raunchy joke, didn’t seem to notice his sudden stillness as he waited for what was next.
He didn’t have to wait long. The third bump, only moments later, sent the bull mask flying from his head. There were startled exclamations from the those nearby, a few laughs that quickly died away as Barris rose to his feet, shoulders stiff, lips drawn tight. He felt the crowd drawing back around him. Around whoever it was that had knocked the mask off.
He didn’t look to see who it was. Not yet.
He heard whispers from the crowd as he bent to pick up the mask, people trying to figure out who he was. One of the bull’s horns had broken, nothing but fabric molded over wire. He took his time inspecting it, seeing if it could be fit back into place. But the wire was bent. It would never again be what it had been.
He saw the birds staring at him, eyes wide beneath their masks. He’d been a game for them, but they were uncertain, now, poised to take flight. Where was Tierce, he wondered? Romeric? How had they known to come when he was alone?
He turned, finally, to face them. There were three of them, each as tall as he was, and heavily muscled. Workers from the Vallen quarry, he guessed. They had probably lost family on the bridge, too. Swords at their sides, they all wore the same mask, plain and black, covering their whole face, with only eyeholes for their repressed fury to escape.
Barris scanned the crowd behind them, looking for Sindera. She wasn’t hard to pick out. Her elegant black gown, the same eerily plain black mask. He held his own mask, the bull with the broken horn, out towards her.
“That was petty,” he said to her, keeping his tone even, “for one of the Great Houses.”
The girl started forward, anger firing her limbs, but someone beside her grabbed her arm. Held her back. The boys in front of her, men almost, shifted position to block her from his view. One of them stepped forward.
“You were warned, Aderen. You’re not wanted here. Now, are you going to leave on your own, or are we going to have to do it for you?”
Barris recognized him from his voice. “Is this what they teach about honor in Vallen House, Esten? Three of you against one? Masked?”
“This isn’t about honor!” one of the others snarled. “This is about revenge.”
Barris didn’t bother to look around for the Black Shields. The watchmen had no doubt been paid off to keep their distance from this confrontation. It probably hadn’t cost much, he thought bitterly. Somewhere in the distance, the music had started up again, and from farther away he could make out laughter and shouts of merrymaking. The Trienelle was still ongoing, but around them it was almost silent. The whispering had all but stopped when the onlookers heard his name, and they hovered now in expectation of what was about to happen. The birds, who had been laughing with him only moments before, had disappeared into the crowd.
The leader, the one Barris had identified as Esten Vallen, pulled off his mask. He was Sindera’s cousin, and shared the same sharp-planed features and straight black hair. “I’m not afraid to show my face,” he said, words cracking like stone. “Do you really think anyone is going to care what we do to you? You’re all alone here…”
“No, he’s not!” someone called out, and Barris almost sagged in relief as he recognized Romeric’s accented voice. Why had he ever thought it was irritating? A moment later, the Jurati pushed his way out of the crowd to stand at his side, one hand already clasping the hilt of his sword, ready to draw. “I am sorry I am late,” he murmured to Barris. “Did I miss anything?”
“We’re just getting started.”
A grin flashed across Romeric’s face. “Oh, good.” Then, looking around, he asked. “Where is Tierce?”
Barris barely had time to lift a shoulder in a shrug before one of his still-masked antagonists taunted, “Of course you need foreign swords to defend you, Aderen. No one else will.”
“I do not need a sword to take you down, coward!” Romeric spat back with more vehemence than Barris had ever heard him express.
“Stay out of it, flick,” Esten glanced dismissively at Romeric. “This has nothing do with you.”
Romeric bristled further, his eyes narrowed. But in a low voice, he asked Barris, “What does it mean? Flick?”
Barris blinked at him. “You know…flick.” Romeric looked at him, still clueless. Unsure how to explain except to demonstrate, Barris raised his hand, index finger curled beneath the thumb, and flicked him in the forehead, right between the eyes.
Romeric drew back, startled at first. Then comprehension lit his expression like a flame, and he rounded on Esten in a fury. Barris barely managed to grab ahold of him as he lunged forward.
“This is my fight,” he said, as he yanked his struggling friend back. He wasn’t afraid of Esten and his friends, or what they might do to him, but he didn’t want to be responsible for a brawl in the middle of the Trienelle either. He met Esten’s eyes briefly, then turned his gaze towards Sindera. “This is my fight, but we’re going to do it right. On the Bridge of Blades.”
“A challenge?” Esten said. He cast a wary look at the still seething Romeric. “You won’t have the Jurati fight for you? You’ll fight yourself? ”
“He doesn’t need me to fight for him, you bloated wax chewer!” Romeric shrugged himself free of Barris’s grip, but he didn’t charge at the Vallens again. “You should be looking for someone to fight for you!”
Esten exchanged a glance with his companions, and he then looked over his shoulder at Sindera. She nodded. Just barely. It was enough.
“Fine,” Esten said. “But it happens tonight. Be on the Blade in an hour. If you don’t show up, then everyone in Corregal will know you’re a coward, just like your father.”
“I’ll be there,” Barris answered, trying to convey more confidence then he felt.
With a nod of acceptance, Esten Vallen turned his back and walked away, his masked companions trailing behind. Sindera lingered, though, looking at him from behind the blankness of her mask for a long moment before she too turned and disappeared into the crowd. With their departure, the silence around them broke into an excited hum.
“Fantastic!” Romeric thumped Barris on the back. “A duel! Tonight! That will teach them to keep their mouths shut.”
“If I win.”
“Pfft. Of course you will. You almost beat me sometimes, which means you’re good enough to beat anyone else in this sorry excuse for a town.”
At that moment, Pash barreled out of the crowd and collided with Barris in a tangle of gangly arms and legs. He was breathing heavily, his eyes wild with emotion.
“Easy, tadpole,” Romeric said as he peeled him off Barris. “You missed all the…”
Pash wheeled his arms to free himself from Romeric’s hold and flung himself at Barris again. “Gotta hurry…” he panted. “Trouble…”
Barris grabbed the boy by the shoulders and pushed him back. “Calm down, Pash. Breathe. Okay, now tell me what’s wrong?”
Pash stared up at him with eyes nearly as wide as those on his frog mask. “Tierce is in trouble!”
This was a mistake.
Barris stopped in the shadows between buildings — a few more steps and he’d be visible in the light from the torches that lined the Bridge of Blades. There’d be no turning back after that.
Pash nudged him from behind. “Why’d you stop?” he asked, his voice sounding much too loud on the quiet street. “You’re not scared, are you?”
A little bit, he admitted inwardly, but he kept that thought to himself. Aloud he said, “I just need to catch my breath.”
To reach the Blade in time, they’d had to run.
Pash’s babbled explanation about butterflies and murderers had made no sense, but Barris and Romeric had followed him anyway, through the dark, secret passages that led to the boat landing under the Old Palace. There, they’d found Neda, soaking wet and struggling to pull a rowboat to shore. Tierce was tied up and gagged in the bottom, only just beginning to regain consciousness. Once they’d freed him and brought him around, his story had hardly been more coherent than Pash’s, but judging by the lump on the back of his head, someone had hit him pretty hard.
Barris had wanted to take Tierce to the Gate House right away, to be tended by the healers, but Romeric had insisted otherwise. “You need to go to the Blade,” he said, and when he told the others about the challenge, they all agreed, even the still-woozy Tierce.
That’s how he’d ended up here in the shadows, wondering if it was too late to change his mind.
“Don’t worry.” Pash patted him on the back.“It probably won’t hurt too much if he stabs you. My father says he hardly feels anything when he cuts himself with one of his kitchen knives.”
Barris glanced at him askance, not feeling reassured. “Are you going to wear that thing all night?” He gestured at the frog mask still covering the boy’s face. “If you’re going to be my second you should at least try to look serious about it.”
We’ll get there as soon as we can, Romeric had promised, but Barris didn’t see how it was possible the others would get here before the fight started. Tierce couldn’t even stand on his own when Barris left. Even with both Neda and Romeric to steady him, it would take them too long. Except for Pash, he’d have to face this challenge alone.
Out on the bridge, a sizable crowd had already assembled. Word of the duel would have spread fast through the Trienelle. He saw few masks among them now, but they were still in their party finery, and a festive cheer seemed to have a hold on the gathering. No doubt, there were a lot of people eager to see him put in his place by the aggrieved Vallens.
He wiped his palms against his thighs, took a deep breath to quell his nerves and pushed aside his doubts. “Let’s do this,” he murmured, more to himself than to Pash, and stepped forward into the light.
By the time he reached the center of the bridge, everyone was watching him. It wasn’t just partygoers, he realized as he approached. Scattered among the city’s youth in their festive garb were older men and women, too, no doubt drawn to the commotion from the taverns on either end of the Blade. He should have known there’d be more people interested in this fight. Somewhat to his own surprise, it made him feel more certain about what he was about to do. This wasn’t mere child’s play, bullies calling names and making empty threats. This was serious business, a matter of honor, and he was handling it like a man should. With a sword in his hand.
He found he was remarkably calm when he came to a stop facing the Vallens. Sindera, her hands clenched in fists at her sides, stood surrounded by a half-dozen junior members of the House. They all glared at him with distaste wrought across their faces.
Esten stepped forward, his eyes like iron in the torchlight. “I thought you might not come.”
“I said I’d be here.”
Esten’s eyes flicked to either side, taking in the absence of Romeric and Tierce. “Where are your friends?”
Barris didn’t answer except to give a small shrug of his shoulders. He didn’t owe an explanation to anyone here. Not when most of them would have been standing at his side on a night like this, if things had gone differently five years before. All he owed tonight, he thought, was his sword.
Esten’s lip curled slightly at the lack of an answer, and then he signaled someone in the crowd. “Vallen House requests a marshal,” he said as an older man in the gray, green and gold uniform of the Bell Guard stepped into view. “Aderen is not a name that carries trust.”
“Fine,” Barris said through gritted teeth. “But if I win tonight, that is the last time you will make such a remark about me or my family.”
There was a snort of disbelief from someone in the crowd, and Esten rolled his eyes. “Very well. And if you lose?”
“If I lose…” Barris hesitated, but not because he wasn’t sure. The pause was purely for dramatic effect. He wanted everyone to pay attention, to understand the significance of what he was about to say. He settled his hand on his sword hilt and raised his chin. “If I lose, I’ll leave the city.”
Pash, still standing beside him, gasped, and there was a general buzz of surprise from those watching. Esten’s eyebrow arched. “You’ll leave Corregal? For good?”
Barris nodded once, resolute in his decision. He’d made up his mind on the way here. There was no reason for him to stay if he lost. Five years had not softened the attitude of the city towards him. Five years trying to be as inoffensive as possible, yet still he was shunned and humiliated by those he’d once thought of as friends. Enough was enough. He would no longer abase himself trying to win back their respect; if he couldn’t earn it with the sword, then there was no more point in trying.
The next few minutes were taken up with the formalities of the duel, as the marshal inspected their weapons and recited the code of honor that they were expected to uphold during the fight. Barris only half listened, his attention instead focused on his opponent. He’d watched Esten spar on the Blade before, a capable if not particularly exceptional swordsman. Like Barris, he’d learned to use his height and strength to his advantage, relying on a longer reach and powerful blows to overcome his opponents. They might have been evenly matched, he calculated, except for one thing — Barris had spent the last few weeks practicing with Romeric. The Jurati’s extraordinary skill had forced Barris to adapt; he was already faster than he had been, and he’d learned some tricks that he might be able to turn to his advantage against Esten.
He had no intention of leaving Corregal any time soon.
“We call upon the Hands of the Broken God as witnesses to this venerable rite of combat,” the marshal said, as Barris took one last glance towards the end of the bridge. His friends were nowhere in sight. This was it. He really was going to have to do this alone. He closed his eyes, trying to take some comfort in the words of the prayer. No one was ever truly alone, he told himself, as long as the Hands were present. He raised three fingers and pressed them to his heart, quietly mouthing the last words of the prayer as the marshal spoke them aloud.
“May honor, justice and mercy be upheld. Mother hold us, Watcher guard us, Dreamer guide us, hand in hand in hand.” For a moment, all were caught in the breath of reverence and, save for the torches hissing fire and the rushing of the river far below, there was silence on the bridge.
The marshal moved, displaying his hands, palms out, to the two combatants.
“You may begin when you are ready,” he said, and stepped back to the edge of the crowd.
As Pash ceremoniously carried his sword back to him, Barris briefly considered removing the fine embroidered doublet he was wearing. It was heavier and more constricting than his usual clothes, and it might hamper his movement during the duel. It’s what Tierce or Romeric would have done, he was sure — but he wasn’t either of them. Be someone you’re not, Neda had tried to convince them all. But right now, he needed more than anything to be himself, and he was not going to duel in his shirt sleeves like a common thug.
“Good luck,” Pash said as he handed him his sword, hilt first. “Stab him good!” Barris nodded his thanks, and the boy scrambled back to a safe distance to watch.
Settling the familiar grip of the pommel in his hands, Barris stepped forward, his sword raised point upward in ritual salute. Esten mirrored the gesture, and then they both slid into guard. They were children of the Great Houses, raised in a tradition that favored swordsmanship as a pathway to honor. They had been taught by the same teachers, trained in the same schools of martial practice, and this kind of ritual combat was as natural as breathing to either of them.
And yet, it was for both the first real duel of honor. The first time when blood would be drawn on purpose, not just an accident in training. The first time when they would be obliged to own the consequences of victory or defeat. The first time they faced the possibility of death in the name of honor. As their eyes met over the bridge of steel between them, Barris saw the weight of this awareness lay on Esten as heavily as it did on himself. Though he’d been old enough to carry a sword since he was fifteen, he knew that, no matter the outcome, tonight he would truly earn the right to bear it.
Esten struck first, righteous anger fueling a powerful thrust that forced Barris back a step. But he parried with a slice of his own that made his opponent draw back just as quickly. As their blades clashed together in a series of give-and-take blows, Barris’s confidence only grew, especially when he realized how tightly Esten was holding his sword, so tightly that it was throwing off the precision of his strikes. The very anger that was fueling his attacks was going to help Barris win this fight.
He stepped back again, letting Esten’s blade swish past him on the right, then darted in while he was off balance with a low thrust at his torso. The blow missed, but he let his momentum carry him past Esten, forcing him to pivot round to face him again — a move Romeric had used a dozen times on him before he’d learned to see it coming. And then, as he slid into guard again facing the other direction, he spotted Romeric on the sidelines, a ridiculous grin splitting his face. He had just enough time to notice Tierce and Neda with him before Esten claimed his full attention again, but it was enough. They’d made it after all, and they were going to see him win.
For the first time in his life, he understood the heady delight that others seemed to take from sword play. He’d pursued it because it was expected, and because it was the surest way for him to win back the respect for his name that his father had tarnished. But he’d never really enjoyed it before now. He didn’t smile — that would have been disrespectful — but he couldn’t repress the thrill that surged through him, so that, when the final blow came, he was standing tall with head held high. With an effortless twist, he blocked Esten’s high cut and sliced downward with his own blade, cutting into Esten’s arn just below the shoulder.
Esten stifled a cry as he jerked back, face gone white, his sword arm suddenly limp at his side. The expression of shock and pain only lasted an instant, as he quickly drew a steely mask over his face.
“First blood!” the marshal called out, voice raised over the sudden rush of spectator comments — had they been silent the whole fight, Barris wondered? Or had he only shut them out of his awareness? — as he stepped into the center of the combat area with his hands raised. He looked towards Barris. “Is the Challenger satisfied with the outcome of the duel?”
His throat tight, Barris could only nod his assent as he lowered his blood-tipped sword, hoping he wasn’t shaking visibly with relief.
“Then this matter is — “
“Cheater!” someone in the midst of the Vallen supporers cried out. “He must have cheated!” Barris didn’t know who, and before he had a chance to react, Esten’s head snapped in that direction.
“Enough!” he demanded, his husky voice cutting through the sudden tide of dismay. “I said I would abide by the outcome of this Rite of Honor, and I will.” He turned to look at Barris again, one hand pressed against his bleeding shoulder. “Barris Aderen,” he said stiffly. “You’ll hear no more reproach from me about your father’s crimes, nor from any of the Vallens. You’ve proven your character by standing here tonight.”
Barris dipped his chin in acknowledgement. “Thank you.”
“It was a good fight,” Esten added. And though he didn’t smile, he met Barris’s gaze with something like respect in his eyes. He moved his wounded arm as if to sheath his sword, but the movement made him wince. In an instant, his friends had surrounded him, ushering him away in a flurry of concern. Only Sindera stood a little way off, eyes still on Barris. He wasn’t sure, but in the flickering torchlight, he thought he was a tear glittering on her cheek before she, too, turned to go.
Barris closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He had won his first duel. More than that, he’d taken a stand for himself for the first time in five years. He didn’t think it would change everyone’s mind about him, but it was a start.
He opened his eyes again to a barrage of congratulations from his friends.
“I didn’t think you’d make it,” he said, a helpless smile on his face.
“I told you we would,” answered Romeric, slapping him enthusiastically on the back.
“I’ve never seen you fight like that, Barris,” said Tierce. “That was incredible.”
“I was lucky, that’s all.”
“Did you really mean it?” Neda asked, taking a hold of his left arm. She was still damp and bedraggled from her plunge into the river, her brow creased with concern. “Would you have left Corregal?”
“I guess I would have,” Barris said, meeting her gaze. “If I hadn’t won tonight, there wouldn’t have been any reason for me to stay.”
For just an instant, he saw hurt in her eyes, but she covered it up quickly with a smile. “I’m glad your going to stay,” she said.
“We should go celebrate with a drink at the Point,” Romeric said, eyes bright beneath the smear of black paint on his face. Though it was close to midnight, the tavern at the south end of the Blade was still lively with music and people. After his victory, Barris would have been welcomed with cheers and free beer, a traditional reward for victors on the Blade.
“Tierce needs bed right now,” Neda chided him. “Not beer.”
“We should go back to the Trienelle!” Pash exclaimed, pulling his frog mask back over his face and hopping with excitement.
“No, we can’t.” Tierce raised a hand to his head, eye scrunched with discomfort. “I lost my mask.”
He sounded so forlorn Barris couldn’t help laughing. He thought of his bull mask with the broken horn.“I think we all lost our masks tonight.”
“Nobody ever listens to me,” Romeric muttered loudly as they began the trek for home. “Masks are stupid.”
The sword was more trouble than Neda had anticipated. Not only was it heavier on her hip than she’d imagined it would be, but it kept sticking out at odd angles, tangling itself with her legs and the legs of any unfortunate passersby who happened to be in the way. She’d always thought the swordsman’s pose of hand-on-hilt was all about swagger. Now she understood it was a practiced attempt to keep one’s sword under control while moving. Fortunately, with the exception of two girls she knocked over on the dance floor, most people were indulgent of any mishaps. As for the girls, she thought they were probably potters, who were known to be uppity and deserved a little knocking down anyway.
By the time she’d finished her conversation with Romeric, she was ready to give the dancing another try, but her friends had other ideas.
“It’s really important!” Kelyn declared as they hauled her away to a less crowded section of the bridge. There, among much giggling and twittering, it was Etiana who finally blurted out what they wanted.
“Neda, you have to introduce us!”
“The boys!” Mierra bounced on her toes. “Your boys!”
“It’s the Trienelle, Neda. It’s not fair to keep them all to yourself. Everyone knows it’s good luck to get a kiss during the Trienelle.”
“They’re so handsome, Neda.”
“You’re so lucky! You get to live with them.”
She stared at them, not quite believing what she was hearing. In the first place, she had never felt particularly lucky having the three boys invade her home. They were loud and obnoxious and smelled bad most of the time. In the rare times when they were not being irritating, they were occupying her father’s attention and learning the things she wished she could be learning herself. And second, she couldn’t understand why her friends — all smart and sensible girls — were suddenly so wound up about them. They’d never shown much interest before, except to commiserate when Neda complained about all the aforementioned flaws.
“So will you?” Kelyn asked. “Introduce us?”
“We already decided,” Mierra burbled on. “There are three of us, and three of them. Kelyn is tallest, so she gets Barris…”
“I don’t mind,” Kelyn said. Neda imagined she was turning a bright red behind her mask. “It’s just a kiss.”
“…Etiana gets Tierce…”
“He’s so cute!”
“And I am going to kiss — wait, I can never remember his name right. The Jurati! I bet he knows a lot about kissing.”
“Wait!” someone said, and by this point Neda’s vision was so full of red that she really had no idea who said it. “Who is Neda going to kiss?”
“I’m not going to kiss anyone!” she snapped, her voice rising with sudden temper. “And I’m certainly not going to play matchmaker so you three can indulge some stupid fantasy! If you want them to kiss you tonight, you’re going to have to go find them yourselves!”
With that, she wheeled and stormed off. She was pretty sure that she caught at least two of them with the tail of her sword as she went, but she didn’t care. She wouldn’t have cared just then if the lot of them had tripped on their trains and fallen over the rail into the river. The nerve of them, she fumed as she dodged her way through the crowd. Divvying up her boys as if they were nothing more than a pie they were planning on gobbling up.
A sausage pie, she thought to herself, and immediately burst into fit of laughter. An image flashed through her mind of Barris, Tierce and Romeric, lined up and waiting with puckered lips while her girlfriends came at them brandishing knives and forks, with napkins tied around their necks. It only made her laugh more, and the more she thought about it, the harder she laughed, hard enough that she had to duck behind a booth to try and get control of herself. Hidden from view, she let the laughter run its course until, breathless and teary-eyed, she slumped against the wall and slid to the ground.
The real Daena had never had to deal with anything like this, she was sure. The warrior princess who she was trying to embody tonight had faced real troubles — a warlord who had sought to force her into marriage. She’d fought for her freedom and defeated the villain in single combat, only to suffer a mortal wound during the fight. It was only after she died that her grieving brother, the Evreme king, had outlawed women from bearing weapons in Corregal. It had happened centuries ago, but the women of the city still remembered her with a mix of feelings. It was hard not to admire a woman who had fought so fiercely for her independence. On the other hand, if she hadn’t gotten herself killed, they’d all be a lot more independent today.
Neda ran her fingers over the hilt of her sword while she wondered what had gotten into her friends. None of them had acted like this at the last Trienelle. Of course, there hadn’t been three boys living in her house then. It wasn’t hard to imagine why they’d be thinking about kisses now, when she herself had spent plenty of time thinking about it herself.
I should go apologize, she thought to herself. Tonight was not a night to be at odds with friends. She climbed to her feet, adjusted the sword belt around her hips, and set out to find them again. Not with any great haste, though — she was half afraid they might have taken her advice and gone looking for the boys on their own. That was not a scene she wanted to witness. So she wandered among the game booths, and tried her hand at a few while she went.
She’d just won a handful of tart candied cherries at the ring toss when somebody crashed into her from behind and grabbed her arm, sending the sugary treats flying from her grasp.
“Watch it!” She whirled with her hand raised to fend off a potential attacker, but the pop-eyed visage of a frog caught her up short. “Pash! What are you doing? Be careful. You made me drop my—”
“Neda! You have to come quick!” His voice cracked comically on the last word. “It’s Tierce!”
“What about him?”
“He was with a girl,” he panted breathlessly, “and he went off with her, and-”
She twisted her arm free. “Oh, please. I don’t want to hear that he went off with some girl. Why does everybody seem to think I care about who’s kissing who tonight?”
She turned in annoyance and started to stalk away, but he snatched at her tunic and held her in place.
“No! Listen to me! I was following and they went in the palace and then I saw a man go after them and they hit him!”
“Someone hit Tierce?” The frog mask bobbed up and down. “In the palace?” She glanced northward, towards the gaily lit facade of the Old Palace, the gate shut tight and locked. “Pash, no one can even get in there.”
“There’s a secret tunnel! I followed them and it was dark and I don’t know who it was but we have to help him. Neda, we have to.”
It could be a joke, Neda thought. An elaborate prank set up to make her look like a fool and give everyone a good laugh. But there was something in the heightened pitch of Pash’s voice, the white-knuckled grip of his fingers on her tunic, that made her think he was telling the truth. At least he believed it was true. If it wasn’t, well, she’d just have to be sure to pay back whoever it was that was setting her up.
If it was true, and Tierce really was in trouble…
A sliver of resolve slid down her spine, and she reached for the sword at her side.
They hurried northward across the bridge, weaving through the crowd just slowly enough to avoid drawing the attention of the Black Shields who were boredly supervising the festivities. At the palace gates, he tugged her behind one of the pedestals that flanked it. When he pushed on the side of the pedestal and it swung back, it revealed a pitch black opening just wide enough for a grown man to duck through. Her nerve almost failed her. This suddenly felt a lot less like a prank. Maybe it would be a good idea to summon the Shields after all.
It wasn’t what Daena would have done, though. The warrior princess wouldn’t have let anything stop her from helping a friend in need. Though her heart was racing in her chest, she wrapped her hand around her sword’s hilt and let Pash lead her into the darkness.
They’d left the door partway open, but by the time they’d circled a dozen steps down the spiraling stairway it was impossible to see anything. They had to go slow as they negotiated their way with only their sense of touch. “Why did they come in here?” Neda whispered, but Pash didn’t answer. Only the quiet padding of his feet on the stone reassured her that he was still in front of her.
The bottom of the stairs took her by surprise. She stumbled when her foot hit the floor unexpectedly, and as she struggled to keep her balance her scabbard scraped against the stone wall, appallingly loud against the silence of this place.
“Shh!” Pash hissed, and they both froze as the sound echoed down a long corridor. Only after the longest minute in her life had passed without anything happening in response did they allow themselves to breathe again, and then begin the slow trek down the hallway. Somewhere up ahead, Tierce was in trouble. Maybe. Or maybe he was enjoying a Trienelle tradition with some girl he’d just met. In some half-buried recess of her mind, Neda wasn’t sure which one of those possibilities would be worse to find.
They had only gone a little way when she began to notice shadows in the darkness around her. There was more light here — not much, but enough to see the bulging shape of Pash’s mask as he crept along beside her. Up ahead, she could just make out a blush of silver limning an opening of some sort. As they got closer, the layers of silence took began to take shape. There was a low, continuous murmur that she realized must be the sound of the river rushing nearby. A dull, irregular thunk. And, just loud enough to hear, the sound of voices. She grabbed Pash’s arm and stopped him.
“That’s where he went?” she whispered, and he nodded. She could feel him trembling with nerves and could hardly blame him. “Listen to me, Pash. I want you to go find Barris and Romeric. Bring them back here as fast as you can. I’ll stay here and make sure they don’t leave.”
He nodded once, and she squeezed his arm encouragingly before he scuttled off into the darkness.
Neda turned back down the corridor and listened again — she could make out several distinct voices, but she was still too far away to hear what they were saying. Hugging the wall and moving as silently as possible, she began to creep forward, terrified that someone would emerge at any moment and discover her. That’s if her heart, pounding in her chest like a barker’s drum, didn’t alert them to her presence first.
It wasn’t until she was nearly all the way to the opening that she could start to make out any words and phrases.
“Not my…” a woman said, her voice rising in a petulant whine. “…did what … told me!”
Another woman answered, sounding displeased, but Neda still couldn’t understand her. She edged closer, her toes brushing against the square of light that fell through the opening.
“What are you going to do with him?”
“That’s none of your business,” said the second woman. “I want you back out there. See if you can find the right target this time.”
“But what if he recognizes me? He’ll wonder where his friend is.”
“Then you better think of a good explanation if he asks!”
“Go!” There was a soft thump, and the first woman let out a started “Eep!” The sound of her rapid footstep heading for the opening caught Neda by surprise — the only thing she could do was drop into a crouch and bury her head in her arms. She held her breath and hoped the patch of shadows was enough to hide her.
Fortunately, the young woman was in enough haste that she didn’t stop to look around. As she disappeared into the darkness of the corridor, Neda let out her breath in a quiet huff. Then she leaned close to the opening to listen again.
“You realize she’s not coming back, right?” a man asked.
“Good riddance,” the woman said. “This whole thing was an idiot’s plan to begin with.”
The man snorted with amusement. “Do you want me to get rid of this one? I can throw him in the river for you.”
“Why is murder always your first thought? I swear, someday I’m going to be able to afford help that knows how to think.”
“I think plenty. I think you don’t want him talking about us.”
“He hasn’t seen anything that can hurt us. Just put him in the boat. We’ll take him with us, leave him somewhere. Landslip, maybe. He’ll think he was jumped and robbed.”
The man answered with a grunt, followed by the sounds of something — or someone, Neda realized with growing horror — being moved.
“If we’re gonna make it look like a robbery…” the man said.
“Not now, you guff. Go check that the watergate’s still open. It’d be just like the idiot Shields to do their job tonight of all nights.”
“Fine. But I claim dibs on that sword. Looks a decent blade.”
Neda sat still, silent as the moon, until the heavy footsteps had receded in the opposite direction.
The question of who they had meant to abduct gnawed at her, but right now she knew she had to do something to help Tierce. Killing him didn’t seem to be part of their plans, though who knew what might happen if they dumped him, defenseless, in some dangerous part of the city?
Holding her breath, she peeked around the edge of the opening into the cavern beyond. There, in the sparse moonlight that slipped past the obscuring bridge, she could just make out a half submerged dock and the small boat tied to it — that’s what was making the thumping noise. A hooded figure stood bent over in the boat, but what she was doing Neda couldn’t tell.
How long before the man came back? What if Pash didn’t get back with the boys in time to stop them from taking Tierce away? Neda knew in her gut that there was no time to waste. Without waiting to think about what she was doing, she pulled her badge off of her tunic and stuffed it into a pocket. Then, after making sure her mask was firmly in place, she stepped out of her hiding place.
“Get away from him!” Her voice hardly trembled, which surprised her a little, but her hands were shaking as she pulled her sword out of its scabbard. Still, it came smoothly free, testament to the hours she’d been practicing just such a move in her room over the past week. The blade, slender and keen, a caught a shimmer of moonlight as she raised it into guard.
The woman in the boat moved fast, turning and springing from the boat in a single, fluid movement so graceful it looked like she must have practiced it in anticipation of Neda’s arrival. She landed on the stony floor of the cavern, hands raised as if ready to strike until she took a moment to look Neda up and down.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” she said, her voice thick with scorn. It was impossible to see anything of her face inside the hood. “Go away, girl, before you get yourself hurt.”
“I mean it. Get away from him.”
“Or what? You’ll poke me with your toy sword?”
“Look again,” Neda said, stepping further into the light. “This is no toy.”
The woman tilted her head, gave the sword a second, longer look, than glanced Neda again, as if trying to see who she was behind her mask. “So I see. Who are you?”
Flustered by the question, Neda jutted her chin forward. “I… I’m Daena Falisse Duresia, Princess of Averest, Champion of the Alund, Lady of a Thousand Tears, and I want you to get away from my friend.”
The woman let out a dry laugh. With a swift movement, she reached into the boat and came up with a sword in her hand. “Make me.”
Neda didn’t hesitate. Tierce had told her that hesitation could cost a fight. She dove in with a standard low thrust. The other woman parried it with an effortless stroke, the metallic clang of their swords meeting echoing loudly through the cavern. Neda struck again, and again, hoping that a rapid volley of attacks would throw the other woman off guard. But she met every one of Neda’s moves as easily as if they’d been practicing a drill, until Neda was forced to draw back in order to catch her breath.
“Not bad, Princess,” the hooded woman said. She spun her sword casually in her hands as Neda heaved for air. “You know what you’re doing.”
But impressing her wasn’t defeating her — in the next instant, her sword shot out towards Neda in a swift cut, and before long her fast-moving blade had driven Neda back across the cavern. It took every ounce of concentration she had just to protect herself. Desparate, she forgot every tactic Tierce had tried to teach her in the few short weeks she’d been training. She was reacting only, barely managing to keep the other woman’s sword from slashing her a half-a-dozen times. Her quick retreat had her backed up against the cavern wall in moments, and in the end that’s all that saved her. In the dark, the other woman misjudged the distance and her sword, in an overhand swing aiming for Neda’s shoulder, smacked into stone instead. Jarred by the impact, her recovery was slow, and Neda seized the opportunity to swing wildly at her midsection. She only missed slicing into her by a matter of inches.
Quickly, the woman backed off. “Interesting,” she said, sounding hardly winded by the brief skirmish. “Tell me who you are.”
“Princess Daena Duresia,” Neda panted. Her arms were aching, but she kept her sword upright in front of her. “And my friends will be here any minute, so surrender and put down your sword.”
The woman swore under her breath. “All right, Princess. This was fun, but I really don’t have time. I’ll give you a choice. We can keep fighting, and maybe your friends will get here before I skewer you. Or…”
She leaned down and, with a flick of her blade, cut the rope that held the rowboat tied to the dock. “You can go after your friend.”
The river tugged at the small boat, spinning it about as it was caught in the current. It only took seconds before it was a yard away. Two yards. Three.
“Tierce!” Neda rushed to the edge of the water but it was already too far for her to grab hold of it.
The hooded woman shrugged and tossed the sword she was holding to the ground. Without another glance at Neda, she walked towards the far side of the cavern.
Neda didn’t pay her any attention, though. Instead, she dropped her own sword and plunged into the river after Tierce.