1 Glacilis, 1129
“Bleedin’ Ancestors, Sav, get your right arm up,” Ragin yelled from behind his mask. “You’d be meat on a pyre if I wanted you dead.”
Rain aspiring to snow pelted the weapon studio’s high, clerestory windows, the mirrors lining one wall reflecting the day’s grey light. I lifted my left leg behind me, letting the muscles stretch as I placed my hands on the floor. My cousins’ practice blades clashed and clacked as Ragin tried to turn Savrin into a swordsman. It’s a lost cause, Ragin, I thought. I think he knew it, but he’s stubborn. Savrin engaged with less skill and more desperation.
They’d beaten me up here, but I’d had to sign a half-dozen documents for tomorrow while I’d changed out of the morning’s formal reception gown. They’d been deep into mock-combat when I arrived.
“Watch your blade, not Rien,” Ragin snapped.
I walked myself back up, feeling every moment of the past six tendays’ inactivity. That I’d managed a half-hour of dancer’s gymnastics or a run through the undercellar while I completed my Advocate’s exams had been a minor miracle of scheduling. I’m stiff and graceless. Never in my twelve years of study had I been so confined to desk and books. It had worked; next tenday, I’d join the ranks at the Ministry of Women and Children and begin my real work, my apprenticeship to Galantier.
“I’m not watch– ow!” Savrin exclaimed. “Watch where you point that, Ragin. I’m no Spagnian.”
I flowed into a lunge, happy this room unlike the rest of the Karsai, was well-heated. I’d felt cold all morning. Still, it’s warmer than the practice yard.
Savrin dropped his guard — again. He already wore spots of chalk on his padded breastplate from the blunted point of Ragin’s sword, and several white slashes on his emerald shirtsleeves. They weren’t sparring for points else Savrin would be down. This was just practice, and probably no challenge for Ragin. For that, he’d want me and frankly, I wasn’t confident. He spends every day of his life in either drill or combat. I don’t.
Clang!! I caught the reflection as Ragin bounced his pommel off Savrin’s helmet and tackled him. They wrestled on the floor in a combination of laughter and mocking insults, until Savrin shrieked, “I give! Ow! I’ll piss — in your bed — if you don’t — stop tickling!”
“I thought you swore off that particular vice a dozen years ago,” Ragin teased.
“Your bed, not mine,” Savrin said. “Get off me! Rye-en, help!”
“Ragin, I’ve little time,” I called, as ready as I’d be. “Da’s got a thousand tasks for me today.”
“I thought today’s free,” he groused as he and Savrin extricated themselves. I buckled my gorget and slithered into the light chain shirt my father insists I wear for swordwork, though everyone else uses leather breastplates.
I slipped on my mask and picked up my practice sword while Ragin exchanged his blunted weapon for an unedged one. These weapons were more dangerous than those he and Savrin used, but only slightly. “Define free,” I said as we met in the center of the floor and Savrin collapsed on a bench at the perimeter. “No lessons, no more receptions, no meetings. Best I’ll get.”
We bowed to each other. “Today’s your last day. It supposed to be yours to do as you want,” he said.
“Thus, we were supposed to ride out at Arisdal,” I said, parried his first blow and circled him. “The weatherwitch promised this storm would hold off until day after tomorrow, but… here we are.” He blocked my thrust. I dodged the riposte.
Our feet slid over the tight canvas floor as we circled, parried, blocked, attacked and counter-attacked. “Not bad for a desk-bound lawyer, Mistress Grace and Voice,” Ragin taunted. “You might last five minutes on the front.”
“If I’m a challenge, Scruff and Nonsense, you won’t last five heartbeats on the front.”
“I’m letting you warm up. Being a gentleman.”
“Already warm,” I said. Real combat began. I threw myself into the sword dance, letting body and eye place blade and arm without my mind’s intervention. We roamed the floor, ducking each other, weaving our blades into silver threads of rain-light. My muscles melted into liquid warmth under the chain. I eeled away from a blow aimed at my stronger left arm and took the opening for my first touch on Ragin’s breastplate.
“Your Highness?” a voice called from the door. Startled, I whirled, thwacking the flat of my blade into Ragin’s side.
I shouldn’t have dropped him. I’m only good with a sword because I’m quick. I’m built like a darning needle — no bruiser. I must have surprised Ragin, too, because one moment he was standing before me and the next he lay at my feet.
The thud might have been expected, had it been possible for me to fell him, but the crack — Ragin knows how to fall well.
I ripped off my mask and dropped my sword, seeing wrongness as Ragin rolled to his back, groaning, his right hand clutching his left shoulder.
“What’s wrong?” I demanded and pulled off his mask. He’d gone the color of winter butter, his naturally pale skin grey and damp.
“Collarbone,” he said through gritted teeth, then proceeded to swear, greatly enlarging my vocabulary.
“Savrin, get help!” I called. “Be still, Ragin. I can’t hit you that hard.”
“Knocked me off balance,” he muttered. “Top over tip.”
“Your Highness,” the voice from the door said again.
I glanced up as Savrin shouldered past the servitor. “Sav,” I yelled. He turned. “Fetch the Healer, meet us in Ragin’s rooms. You,” I said, looking straight at the page. “Fetch my guard from the end of the hall.” He started to protest, but I wasn’t having it. “Now.” He disappeared.
“I’m so sorry,” I said. “Is it broken?” I disliked Ragin’s breathing, too, both shallow and ragged. “I cracked a rib, didn’t I?”
“Not you.” He squeezed his dark grey eyes shut and inhaled a slow, deep breath. “When I fell.” He grimaced and almost chuckled. “You’re sworn to secrecy. If my mates hear I tangled with m’own feet — “
If he had a sense of humor, it couldn’t be that bad. “Ragin, I’m sorry, but to preserve your dignity, I beat you the hard way.”
He snorted ruefully. “Nyuh, dignity’s wounded either way. Help me up.”
“No.” My guards, my Healer and my Ingeniae masters have always emphasized not moving someone with a potentially damaged head, neck or spine. My cousin would not inadvertently kill himself. “Shush. Be still.” I laid my hands lightly on the swelling above his breastplate and inhaled, drawing puissance from the universe. I forced it through channels in my mind, into my hands, then into Ragin’s shoulder. I couldn’t Heal him — I’m a poor Healer — but I could ameliorate pain until the guards got him to the real one.
He rolled his eyes at me and sighed. “Rien, I’ll be fine — once the Healer straps this up — it’s my just deserts for cracking your head on the chimney pot.”
“Quiet,” I said. “Let me concentrate.”
Once the guards shifted my swearing Ragin to the stretcher — they don’t risk an Ascendar’s spine, either — I hurriedly racked our discarded equipment. My arms full of masks, the floor slipped out from under me, making me skip three staggering steps to catch myself. When everything was tidy — the weaponmaster gives no quarter to anyone, even the Razin’s daughter — I knelt on the smooth floor. There, I found what caused Ragin’s fall and nearly sent me down.
The tiny ceramic ball blended into the creamy canvas floor; in the day’s dim light, it was nearly invisible. I fetched the studio’s broom and swept; when I finished, a few score of pea-sized bearings lay on the canvas. How’d these get here? The ceiling was blank plaster; the windows, high and closed. Our weapons were in order; the spheres were pommel weights used to adjust a weapon’s balance to the wielder’s hand, but each sword held only ten or so, not dozens, and no blade lacked a pommel nut. Was someone careless this morning? No, the weaponsmaster would never allow that. Odd.