“Where is it we are going, ailenia?” Romeric asked again as he followed Calette up another row of steps. He hadn’t been paying attention. The river was behind them now, with all its cursed, confusing bridges, but the maze of terraced streets that climbed the hillside was no less a puzzle to him.
“It’s not much farther.” She tightened her grip on the fabric of his shirtsleeve. She had latched onto him like that back on Drennan Bridge — not his arm, just the sleeve — and not let go since, fingers twined in the fabric as if she was afraid he’d get away. She led him through the city this way, weaving through the crowds with unexplained urgency. Every so often she’d point to some notable landmark and name it for him, but she never told him where they were going.
The road they traveled now was more stairway than street, broken every few hundred steps by wide terraces that allowed access to side streets and rows of modest shophouses. She stopped now, several steps above him so that their heights were equal. Smitten, he thought, as she stared into his eyes again. Her own were a dusky gray, with drooping eyelids that made her look only half awake, still lost in some dream of the shifting sunlit river. He couldn’t help smiling at the attention, and mirrored her scrutiny with his own, intense and intimate. It made her blush, which made him smile more. Visibly flustered, she turned away and began to climb again.
“What does it mean?” she asked as she led him upward. “Ailenia?” Her tongue tripped over the unfamiliar word.
“It means…” Romeric hesitated before settling on a suitable translation. “Dear.” A more accurate description would have been woman I plan on bedding very, very soon, but he wasn’t sure how she’d respond to that just yet.
“Ailenia.” She tried the word again, and got the pronunciation right this time. She glimpsed at him over her shoulder, not quite shy. “Ailenia.”
He knew he was grinning ridiculously as he let her pull him along, but he couldn’t help himself. He had not had much opportunity to meet many young women in this new city. Those to whom he’d been introduced were different than girls at home, cloaked in a reserve of propriety that he hadn’t yet figured out how to penetrate. Neda was off limits, of course. Her father had made that clear from the start. If even the hint of a romantic notion came to Sieur Fleuracy’s attention, Romeric would find himself badgeless and with nowhere to go. Barris and Tierce were hampered with the same restriction — not that it had stopped either one of them from falling in love with her. It was amusing, really, watching the pair of them struggle to hide their affections. He suspected they weren’t fooling anyone but each other.
It had been Barris who sent him to the wrong bridge. Whether it was a welcome-to-the-neighborhood joke or some more malicious intent at work, Romeric didn’t know. Either way, he would have to thank him for it later. If it hadn’t been on the wrong Drennan Bridge he never would have met Calette.
From the first moment he first saw her, wedged through the bridge railing so she could stare at the water below, he had been captivated. It wasn’t the sort of thing ordinary girls did, which made her instantly interesting. And then, when he’d finally gotten her attention and she’d looked up at him with those sun-dazzled eyes and soft black hair tumbling around her face, she turned out to be quite pleasing to look at. Plump cheeks, honey-colored skin, rosy lips that kept tempting him to kiss her…
The fact that she was Cael Averre’s sister had nothing to do with his sudden affection. He dismissed that idea the moment it popped into his head. Oh, he had to admit a certain sense of satisfaction at having stuffed the blustering prick’s self-importance back down his own throat the two times they’d met — some people were just asking for it — but aside from Barris’s gloomy predictions of retribution, he’d not given Cael a second thought since the day on the river. No, there was nothing perverse in sudden desire to woo his would-be adversary’s sister. He just liked her. A lot.
Because he was busy falling in love, he wasn’t paying that much attention to where they were going. Which is why, when he stopped abruptly in the middle of the next terrace, it took him a moment to figure out what had jerked his attention away from her.
“Almost there.” Calette yanked on his sleeve. But when he didn’t move again she stopped to look at him. “What’s wrong?”
Uncertainly, he looked around, trying to discern what had made him so suddenly wary. But the terrace was quiet, with only the tinkling of the fountain to interrupt the peaceful…
“There are no people,” he realized. Though two major side streets intersected with the stair-road here and a number of prosperous looking shops faced the square, there was not a single person in sight — not even a peddler, or a beggar, or a distant passerby. No one.
Calette frowned, looking more confused than worried. Impatient, she pulled on his arm again, but he brushed off her hold and reached for the sword at his hip.
“You should run.”
She opened her mouth to protest, even as the swordmen he was expecting stepped out of their hiding places across the square. “Run!”
This time, she listened. With a look of fear settling over her lovely features, she dashed past him, back the way they’d come.
Smart girl, he thought. At least they knew there were people back that way. He pulled his sword from its scabbard and turned to face the pair of assailants who were coming at him quickly now. He felt his heart quicken in anticipation as they showed their own weapons. But he wasn’t afraid. Not for himself, at any rate.
After all, he’d fought at Wardens Shore.
The first one to come at him was the biggest, dressed in rough-spun clothes with a scarf tied over the lower part of his face to hide his features. His sword was just as rough, big but with no finesse to its lines, and probably no strength in its forging. But it could kill him just as dead if given the opportunity. His attack came fast, sword heaving over the shoulder in a downward arc that Romeric flicked away with his own blade as he dodged out of reach.
Rather than follow up with an attack of his own, he let the man’s momentum carry him past, then darted around to confront the second attacker coming up behind. This one was dressed much the same as the first, but with a full mask covering his face. Romeric didn’t need to see his face to tell he was surprised to find himself embattled so quickly. His sword, prettier than the first man’s, jerked up in surprise, just as Romeric had expected. With a neat twist of his own blade, he knocked the weapon from the assailant’s hand and followed it up with a jab that pierced the man just below the ribcage — not deep, but enough to take him out of this particular skirmish.
Romeric slid past him as he fell, turning on the ball of his foot to face the first attacker once again, just as he heard a cry of dismay from Calette. With a glance in that direction he confirmed what he had expected — a third assailant had come up the stair behind them. Calette flailed against him, but he could nothing to help her until he’d dealt with his own opponent.
The big man came at him, more cautiously this time, but with no less energy behind his blows. Romeric’s slender Arrenal blade was surprisingly resilient against the broad gash of steel that was his opponent’s sword — but that’s why you paid so much for a weapon like his. He knew he was better armed, and after the first flurry of exchanged blows, he knew he was the better swordsman. All the same, there was no playfulness in his defense this time, not like when he had dueled on the Blade. Each time he swung his sword it was in deadly earnest. Twice, he cut the man with the edge of his blade, once on the arm, once on the face, while keeping himself clear of the reciprocating blows. The third time his sword connected with flesh, it was a deep thrust into the man’s shoulder that made him jump back with shout of pain. Romeric wrenched his sword free and swung low as the big man’s sword clanged to the ground. A slice across the hamstring sent him toppling to the ground.
Romeric did not watch him fall, but whipped around to find Calette.
There were three swordsmen blocking the way down the stairs now — no, two men, swords at the ready, and a woman who had Calette in her grasp. Calette, her dark hair in even greater disarray than it had been, looked more perturbed than dismayed.
He paused, not sure if rushing forward would endanger her more than she already was.
“Interesting,” the woman said, and gestured for the two men to move forward. “That was even better than I exp– Ah!”
With a sharp cry, the woman jerked away from Calette who somehow had a knife in her hand. A knife she’d just plunged into the arm of her captor.
The two swordsmen paused and in their moment of confusion Romeric charged forward. He swung his sword at the head of one, and kicked at the kneecap of the other. The sword missed, but a satisfying crunch resulted when his foot connected with the kneecap. He did not pause to gloat, just caught up Calette’s hand and ran.
They were halfway to the river before he let them slow, both of them panting as he became aware of the wary looks he and his sword were getting from the now-plentiful afternoon crowd. Huffing, he slid it back into its scabbard before anyone thought to make a scene. Calette’s knife had already disappeared. Women, he remembered, were not allowed to carry blades in Corregal.
“Are you all right?” he asked, trying to catch his breath. His heart was still racing from the brief exertion, and now that the threat was receding — there was no sign of pursuit — he allowed himself to feel the thrill of battle just past. He’d been good, and he knew it. Four against one, if you didn’t count the woman, and they hadn’t come close to touching him with their weapons. He beamed with exhilaration.
Calette raked her hands through her hair, trying to smooth it. “I’m fine,” she said, with a dissatisfied frown. “But I didn’t get my paint.”
“I was going to… Never mind.” She exhaled a lengthy sigh, and looked up into his eyes again, almost plaintive in her study of him. “You’ll just have to come to the house.”
“Ailenia, I would be happy to come and visit you whenever you ask it, but–”
“Don’t worry, I won’t tell Cael you almost got me killed.”
Startled, Romeric blinked. “They weren’t… I mean, they couldn’t have been…why do you think they were after me?”
She tapped the badge of House Averre pinned to her shoulder, which depicted a golden coin ablaze with sun-like rays. “Nobody would attack Averre House anonymously. Anyone stupid enough to come after me would want my father to know who did it. But those men didn’t have any badges at all, and it was too organized to have been a random robbery. That means they had to be after you for some reason.”
Romeric cursed himself inwardly. He had totally overlooked the missing badges in the midst of the fight. It was such a peculiar Corregal custom, this badge-wearing. He’d barely even noticed Calette’s badge (her lips were so much more worthy of his attention). Now he realized for the first time that the badge for Fleuracy House that he wore made him immediately identifiable to anyone who saw him. The thought was more than a little unnerving.
Shouts sounded from further up the road.
“Shields!” Calette murmured, then quickened her pace. “They’ll have found those men you stabbed. Best get as far away as we can.”
Hurrying to keep up with her, Romeric cast a wary glance over his shoulder. “We were attacked. They wouldn’t arrest me for defending–”
“Oh, yes they would! It’s the only way to stop the Houses from warring against one another, by arresting everyone involved in a swordfight. If you’re not on the Blade, and you injure someone with a sword, you’ll spend time in Blackbridge.”
The foot of the stair-road deposited them onto a wide thoroughfare that ran parallel to the river Aris. The road was crowded with people going in every direction, and Romeric stopped, not sure which direction to go. He turned to Calette, only to find her backing away from him. “Come to the house tomorrow,” she told him. “No! The next day. That will give me time to find the right colors.”
“Colors for what?”
A smile fluttered across Calette’s face, the first she’d actually shown him since they met, and he felt his heart lurch in response. At that moment, she could have told him to fly across the river and he would have attempted it.
“I’m going to paint you!” she laughed, her grey eyes sparkling like the river. And then she was gone, darting between one passerby and the next before he even had time to react.
He tried to follow, calling out her name, “Calette!” But he couldn’t get through the crowd quickly enough to see which way she had gone. He ignored the aggrieved looks he earned as he shoved people out of his way, and called out again. “Ailena!”
But it was useless. He couldn’t see her anywhere, and he could not begin to guess which direction. It doesn’t matter, he consoled himself. You’ll see her again soon. Two days was not so long to wait to see the woman you were in love with. Assuming he could find his way to Averre House.
And then he swore, and smacked himself in the the forehead with the heel of his hand. The bridge! She had said she would show him where the right Drennan Bridge was, so he could deliver the parcel Sieur Fleuracy had entrusted to him. But now she was gone, and he still had no idea where he was supposed to go. He wasn’t even sure he could find his way back home from here.
Grumbling at himself and at this thrice-cursed maze of a city, he straightened his tunic and adjusted the weight of his sword belt around his hips. Then, picking a direction at random, he headed off to lose himself once again in the City of Bridges.