Pay attention, and the world will 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 how the Jurati deflected a thrust with a negligent flick 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.”
Cael’s blows were increasingly irregular, and not just because he was tiring. He had stepped into the ring with the assurance of someone who seldom had to face defeat, but it was becoming apparent that he was not going to win this time. And, just as he lacked the finesse with which the Jurati managed his blade, he lacked the grace to accept his loss with dignity. He was swinging wildly, without any pretense of trying to pull his blows, as was customary in most matches on the Blade. The foreigner had fought six bouts already and not drawn blood once. The red-faced anger on Cael’s face made it clear he wouldn’t be satisfied with anything less.
The Jurati, though he seemed to be enjoying himself immensely, wisely decided it was time to bring the match to an end. A feint to the right left an opening his desperate opponent couldn’t help but take, and when he did, his sword slipped back and, with an unexpected twist, flicked Cael’s blade out of his grasp. It skittered across the cobblestones so that several of the closer onlookers had to hop out of its way lest their toes get clipped. The Jurati, whose smile had never faded for the duration of the bout, grinned even more widely and leveled his blade at his disarmed opponent’s chest.
The crowd cheered uproariously, Tierce and Barris among them. Whatever lingering affront the locals felt at the presumption of the foreigner on the Blade was overcome by the splendid display of swordsmanship. You couldn’t not cheer when someone fought like that.
Unless, of course, you were the one who just lost.
“Where did you learn to fight like that?” Cael snarled at the Jurati. He was tired and breathless and humiliated, reduced to casting vague aspersions on his opponent’s skills.
The Jurati’s face became serious for the first time. He lowered his blade, held it casually at his side as he considered Cael.
“Wardens Shore,” he said finally.
There was a murmur of surprise from the crowd. The story about the Jurati that Tierce had been spinning in his head took an abrupt left turn. Wardens Shore was practically a legend, the site of a battle some five years past, where Jurati defenders had fought a desperate battle to protect their homeland from Khar invaders. They had managed it, against all odds, but only at great loss of life. But there was no way that the young man standing on the Bridge of Blades now could have fought then—he wouldn’t have been more than twelve or thirteen years old at the time.
Cael curled his lip in disbelief. “You never fought there!”
“Are you calling me a liar?” The Jurati spoke mildly, but he shifted his grip on the hilt of his sword just a little. “Because if you are, you better be willing to pick up that sword again and prove it. And I promise you, I will not be pulling any blows this time.”
The lowering sun cast their shadows long over the bridge. The scores of watchers held their breaths, waiting to see what would happen. What had started as an afternoon’s diversion was in danger of becoming much more serious. But Cael had already been beaten once, and though he might be temperamental, he wasn’t an idiot. With unconvincing nonchalance, he forced his shoulders back and his chin up, and schooled his face into a disdainful glower. He did not say anything—he didn’t need to—and the crowd split in front of him as he walked away, stopping only long enough to pick up his sword from where it had fallen.
The Jurati swordsman waited till he was gone from the bridge before he let the affable smile slip once more into place. Then he gave a little shrug and flicked a stray strand of hair out his face. A ray of sunlight caught the silver-engraved blade of his sword as he lifted it. His eyes swept the assembly with implacable confidence. “Who’s next?” he said.
A buzz of voices rose from the crowd, all vague muttering and hemming remarks. No one was quite so confident of victory as they had been a little while before. Tierce had abandoned his own hopes of taking on the Jurati about halfway through the bout with Cael, but beside him he heard Barris murmur, “I could beat him.” Before he had a chance to even decide if he was going to encourage or discourage his friend, someone else spoke out loudly over the bridge.
“I’ll fight you.”
He recognized the voice even before he registered that it was a woman who had spoken. It was the way his heart skipped when he heard her that gave it away, just like it always did when he heard Neda speak.
“Is that…?” He grabbed at Barris’ arm to try and steady himself as he craned upwards for a better view, but Barris was already moving forward, shoving through the crowd more successfully than Tierce had managed it earlier. He had recognized her voice, too.
The Jurati’s head snapped around as the crowd pulled apart once again to let the new challenger through. Mouths gaped at first, and then protests started, scattered with catcalls and outright laughter. She ignored it all, stepping into the center of the ring defiantly with her head held high and her thumbs hooked over her belt. She was dressed as a boy, with her long dark hair hidden under a cap, which is how no one had noticed her sooner, caught up in the drama of the duel as they had been. Now that all eyes were upon her, it was impossible to see that she was anything but a girl.
The most beautiful girl in Corregal, as far as Tierce was concerned.
The Jurati did not look the least bit bothered. On the contrary, he seemed delighted as he inspected his challenger. “Well, well, well. I did not think you Rhemish taught your women how to fight.”
She shrugged. “There’s only one way for you to find out.”
“You don’t have a sword,” he pointed out.
“Are you going to let a small thing like that stop you?”
“Absolutely not!” His gaze swept over the surrounding crowd just as Barris, with Tierce in his wake, at last pushed through the front row of onlookers. His eyes landed on them with a dazzling smile. “Lend her a sword, friends.”
Tierce found himself reaching for his hilt without even thinking about it…but before he could draw his sword, a booming voice rumbled over the crowd:
“I don’t think so.”
That voice everyone on the Blade recognized—except for the Jurati, of course—and when its owner loomed into view, many of those on the fringes of the crowd suddenly remembered they had somewhere else to be. Cagen Thul was second in command of the city watch.
“You are done for the day.” Thul, who towered over even the tallest people present and was nearly as broad as he was tall, did not need to shout to make himself heard. His deep voice seemed to penetrate on a level deeper than mere sound, almost as if you heard him through the very pores of your skin. He leveled his repressive, black-eyed gaze on the Jurati, and told him, “Put your sword away.”
The Jurati looked as if he was about to protest, but then thought better of it. “It is getting late…” he muttered to himself. He made another bemused little shrug and slipped his sword back into its scabbard. He was soon lost in the crowd that was swiftly breaking apart.
“As for you,” Thul turned his attention to Neda, who had defiantly held her ground when everyone else found it expedient to depart. Barris and Tierce reached her side as he proclaimed his decision.“You will come with me to Blackbridge. It’s forbidden for a woman to take up arms within the city.” A mild sneer turned his lips. “And badgeless, at that.”
She met his gaze evenly. “I never touched a weapon.”
Thul’s mouth twisted, and he opened his mouth to tell her what he thought of such a technicality, but Tierce interjected, “She’s not badgeless, either!”
The watchman paused long enough for Barris to add, “It’s true. She’s sworn to Fleuracy House.”
Thul’s grim eyes shifted to the two young men, taking in the badges on their shoulders. “Is this true?” He asked Neda, who shrugged, but didn’t say anything. “If you won’t prove their claim,” he told her, his words shuddering with the weight of the threat, “then they’ll go to Blackbridge, too, and face charges for misrepresentation.”
Tierce swallowed, and he felt Barris stiffen beside him. Corregal took its House and Guild affiliations seriously, and the punishment for misrepresenting someone’s membership in one or the other could be months in jail. He knew that he didn’t have to worry about that extreme right now, because he was telling the truth…but even the thought of spending one night in the half-sunken cells of Blackbridge gave him chills.
“Well?” Thul demanded, when Neda didn’t answer right away.
“Oh, fine!” With a sour look at Tierce and Barris, she reached into the neck of her tunic and pulled out a long chain, from which hung a smaller version of the same badge that each of them wore pinned to their shoulders. She held it up for him to inspect the engraving on it: the Fleuracy’s falcon, differenced only by the addition of three stars that indicated that not only was she sworn to Fleuracy House, she was born to it.
The bridge was mostly empty by now, and those who were left were hardly more than twilight shadows, now that the sun had set. Thul studied the badge in silence, his eyes half lidded as he considered. He had no eyelashes, Tierce realized with a start—he’d never been close enough to the notorious watchman to notice it before. What was the story behind that, he wondered?
Finally, the big man raised his gaze from the badge, but it was Tierce and Barris he addressed, not Neda. “I have great respect for Sieur Eristan. I would hate to cause him any embarrassment by bringing this to his attention. I will not report this incident. However, you—” he jabbed a finger at the two young men, “will escort her to Fleuracy House. Immediately. It’s not safe for young women to wander the city in the dark.”
It wasn’t safe for anyone to wander the city after dark, Tierce thought, but he didn’t argue the point. He and Barris both nodded, and Thul, his duty done, left them there without another word.
“Just shut up,” Neda said before either of them had a chance to even try and speak. Tierce cleared his throat and looked away awkwardly, but Barris did not look so easy to put off. He opened his mouth twice to say something, only to shut it again under the temperamental force of her glare. He gave up finally and threw up his hands in surrender.
“Let’s just get home.”
“Excuse me…” The Jurati’s voice came to them out of the deepening twilight. His sonorous accent identified who it was as he approached, hands raised casually away from his swordbelt to indicate he offered no threat. “I did not mean to overhear, but did the watchman there say that you are going to Fleuracy House?”
They stared at him as if he’d asked if they were going to visit Old Biarre and not merely crossing the city to their home. In the wake of the confrontation with Thul, Tierce had all but forgotten the reason they’d been on the Blade at all. The reappearance of the foreign swordsman had him scrambling to pick up the dropped threads of the earlier story and wrap them all together neatly.
“Yes. Why?” It was Barris who finally answered, gruff and suspicious. The Jurati took no offense at his tone and offered a small bow.
“It is my great fortune, then, for it is to meet Sieur Fleuracy that I have come to Corregal.” Noting their continued suspicion, he added, “I have a letter of introduction…”
“You’ve come to meet my father?” Neda asked.
“Your father?” A smile spread across his face that was the same as the smile he’d worn when she first stepped forward to challenge him—a smile that wasn’t entirely decent, Tierce thought. “Then it is my very great fortune to have met you here tonight. My name is Romeric Esard.” The foreigner dipped in a bow, and raised his hand to her with a flourish.
“Nedalya.” She eyed the hand with suspicion and did not reach for it. Tierce was frowning, and Barris too, when she flicked her fingers in their direction and gave their names. The Jurati took no notice, only nodded politely to each of them before returning his attention to Neda.
“Will you permit me to escort you home? As the watchman pointed out, night is setting in.”
“I don’t need any escort.” She sounded more frustrated than angry, making Tierce wonder again what had sent her out here, dressed as she was, to try and duel a stranger on the Bridge of Blades. She glared at each of the three in turn. “But I guess I don’t have any choice. Come on.” She pivoted on her heel and strode away, not looking back to see if they followed or not.
Barris shot Tierce an aggrieved look, as if to say, This is all your fault. “We’re going to be so late,” he muttered aloud, and hurried to catch up with Neda. The Jurati went after him, bemused, and Tierce followed too, though more slowly. He seemed to have found himself in the midst of a story after all, and he wasn’t entirely sure that he liked it.