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 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 Rhemish 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 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 startled “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 dragged across the ground.
“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’ve had a little training.”
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. Desperate, she forgot every tactic Tierce had tried to teach her in the few short weeks she’d been learning from him. 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. “Very well, 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.