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 his adversaries 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 the 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. No one in this city held pity for an Aderen. 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 voice. Why had he ever thought his accent 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 else explain, 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. 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 city.”
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 Oracle 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 from the taverns on either end of the Blade by the commotion. 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 arm 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 stony 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.”