At the age of thirteen, fun-loving Kylac is already the most skilled bladesman among the vast halls of Talonar, the preeminent battle academy in all the lands of Pentania. But none of his prodigious talents seem sufficient to win the approval of his stern father, headmaster Rohn, who chafes at the mercy Kylac routinely shows his opponents.
When Rohn himself is arrested under dubious circumstances for the murder of a prominent nobleman, however, it is Kylac’s sense of pity and fairness that sets him on course for his first true test—of skills and of principles—against corrupt officials, treacherous rivals, and clandestine forces long held as a blight upon his shores…
The wooden rapier clattered against the sanded stones of the arena floor, its hilt coming to rest near Brie’s hand. She ceased her scrubbing to consider the weapon, hunched as she was on hands and knees, then turned her head to consider him. Her expression accused him of madness.
“Would you see me flogged?” she hissed.
“My father has an audience with the king, and won’t return before nightfall.” Kylac grinned. “Call it a birthday gift.”
A flush stole across Brie’s freckled cheeks. He’d remembered. Just as swiftly, her familiar pout returned. “And a celebration it’d be, to see your father beat you bloody.” Her gaze swept the edges of the chamber, as if expecting to find someone spying from the shadows. “Go on. I’ve work to finish.”
With emphasis, she dipped her sponge in her bucket of dirty water and resumed her scrubbing. Kylac felt his smile slip. Mayhap her flush owed solely to her exertions. Or frustration at being interrupted. Or alarm at his proposal. Whatever, he felt suddenly foolish, having woefully misjudged her imagined reaction.
“I just thought . . .” He watched her reach her sponge blindly for her bucket, pointedly ignoring him. “I mean, you’ve always said—”
He stopped as the bucket tipped, bending reflexively to catch it before it spilled. She spun toward him as he did so, releasing her sponge to take up the wooden rapier by its hilt. Kylac just barely managed to slide his leg clear of its whipping arc—while righting the bucket—before sliding back a pace. By then, Brie was lunging to her feet, pressing him back farther. A skip, slide, and duck enabled him to avoid any stinging bruises, and on her fifth strike, his own practice weapon came to hand—with a sound block and swift counter that she deftly avoided, but that finally forced her to pause.
“Why, did I just catch the masterful Kylac off guard?” she taunted. Her eyes sparkled now with that fierce fire, her puffy cheeks set high and wide in a proud grimace.
“Open your stance. And straighten your toes.”
“My toes are fine. You’re just embarrassed that I nearly took yours.”
“Your front foot is pointed toward the side wall, when your enemy is in front of you.” He jabbed. She parried, realigning her footwork. “The bucket was a nice touch.”
“You underestimated me.” She lunged, choosing a simple combination that compensated with execution for what it lacked in creativity. “You always underestimate me.”
“I’m better than you.” Kylac blocked her advance, then fed her the same combination in reverse. “There’s a difference.”
“One day, you won’t be. And you’ll be too stubborn to see it until it’s too late.”
“Not before you learn to focus your attack on my centerline,” he countered, slipping from side to side as her prodding strikes fanned wide. Brie’s short brown locks swished about her face, causing her to puff now and again as they fell across her eyes. “You’d do well to crop that hair, too.”
“And look more like you? I’d sooner not.”
She nearly caught him then with one of those stabbing lunges. Like an asp she was, with that one, her reach swift and long. Too long, it seemed. For, as usual, she failed to return her guard in time to defend her face against a counterstrike that Kylac chose not to take. “You won’t look a thing like me when you lose your ear,” he admonished her instead. “And you will, if you don’t remember to raise your guard when you snap back from one of those.”
“Oh? Did I nearly lull you again?”
“Keep your elbow down. You’re flapping like a wounded gull.”
Brie just laughed, a sound so rare that it spawned a comforting warmth in Kylac’s chest. She had long yearned for this—a chance to try him in the arena as though she were a fellow student, rather than a scrub girl relegated forever to sopping up their blood and sweat. But Talonar was the preeminent combat school in the city, in the land, likely in all of Pentania. With the long list of wealthy, highborn students clamoring to pay the school’s prohibitive fees, Kylac’s father flatly refused to make room for those who could not.
Least of all some blind pauper’s eleven—no, twelve-year-old granddaughter.
It rankled his father that Kylac should waste his time sparring with her at all. But, at age thirteen, he was already the most skilled student at Talonar, and had been for the past year. So long as he kept excelling in his own lessons and exceeding every staunch expectation his father had for him, he’d been allowed his “petty diversion with the rag,” as his father called her—provided, of course, he did not interfere with her chores, and they confined their after-hours play to the parks and alleys beyond Talonar’s gates.
A pair of stipulations they were breaking now, obviously. But then, it was a special occasion. And truly, what was the harm? Should it come to it, the memory of that laugh would be enough to soothe the sting of a lash or two.
“Guard up,” he cautioned her again. “That’s twice already I might have slit your throat.”
“A fine boast. Feel welcome to back it up at any time.”
And so it went as they danced their dance across the arena floor, Brie letting loose some of that bridled fury of hers, and Kylac offering admonishments where he felt them most needed. In truth, she was a fine athlete, both vigorous and disciplined, with strong endurance, natural instincts, and the even rarer skill of adaptation. She wasn’t as fast as him, nor as polished, but then, with her limited training time, how could she be? Even among the full-time students, he’d met only one or two others who could match him—and they each had a dozen years on him. While they stood at or near their full potential, his remained yet untapped.
“Faster,” he coaxed her, and quickened his own pace, forcing her to respond. “You’ve got to be faster. Weight and speed—”
“Breed power,” she said. “Yet you never advise I grow thicker. If I were to sprout breasts or belly, would you still fawn over me as you do?”
It was Kylac’s turn to redden. As its warmth brushed his forehead, Brie launched another diving thrust. “Guard up,” he reminded her in counter, this time razing her gently across the jaw.
Brie scowled. She was tiring, though neither torture nor deprivation would lead her to admit it. Nor would she ever suggest they stop. Her passion ran too strong, her pride even stronger.
“Open your stance. Guard up. Guard . . .”
He hesitated as a sudden darkness entered the arena. It might have been a cloud shouldering past the setting sun, except that this was a darkness felt, not seen. Brie pressed him as he slowed and withdrew, perceiving some unexpected advantage, mayhap, or thinking it a ruse. But it took her only a moment more to register the truth of his grim expression. Her gaze lifted past him, and she gasped, drawing to a startled halt.
“Master Rohn,” Kylac acknowledged, turning toward the near entry. “Master Xarius.” He bowed briefly to the pair standing within the shadowed alcove, barely more than shadows themselves.
His father stepped forward from beneath the arch, his heavy brow pinched inward, the corners of his mouth anchored low in stern disapproval. The expression itself told Kylac nothing, for it was the only look his father ever wore. But the weight of his silence felt heavy enough to crush stone.
At his shoulder stood Xarius, arms crossed, smirking coldly. His father’s prized pupil and personal warder. Ever the first to taste it when Master Rohn unleashed wind, as Brie had once whispered, though far from the school’s grounds. Xarius had killed for lesser insults.
“Your pardon, sir. I was only—”
“Reminding her to keep her guard up, by my hearing. Is that what you heard, Master Xarius?”
“More than once, sir,” he whispered, like a hissing reptile.
“Aye. More than once. Is your pupil deaf, Master Kylac?”
“Sir? No, sir.”
“Then it would seem a more stringent reminder is in order.”
Kylac glanced at Brie, who was doing her best to control her breathing. “We were only playing.”
“In this arena? You know otherwise, Master Kylac. As does she. If you would train her on this floor, you will finish the lesson.”
“You have my apologies already. If I am to be punished—”
“Master Xarius, remind this new pupil of ours to keep her guard up.”
“Sir,” Xarius replied. He gave a crisp bow, then stepped forward, a slender shortsword coming to hand. Light from the high, open windows gleamed upon its steel surface.
Kylac felt Brie stiffen, pierced by a sudden panic. She dared not run, but knew as well as he that Xarius would maim her with no more thought than he might spend on the removal of a pebble from his boot. As Xarius advanced steadily on soundless feet, Kylac instinctively stepped in front of Brie, snatching the practice sword from her rigid grasp and thus arming himself with the pair of wooden blades.
“The fault lies with me,” he insisted. He twirled one sword and tossed the other, testing their balance and heft, before raising them in a defensive cross. “If any need reminder, it is I.”
Xarius scowled, the predatory glint in his eye dimming with uncertainty. He glanced back at Rohn.
Their headmaster only glared, saying nothing.
Xarius smiled, the cruelty in his eyes flaring. It was the only warning Kylac received before Xarius attacked, a second blade joining the first, whipping toward his face in a blinding flurry.
Kylac had anticipated nothing less. His own blades were already moving, turning the strikes aside with deft twists and precise angles. He could not harm Xarius with his training weapons, allowing the elder combatant to press him with impunity. Yet it also enabled Kylac to narrow his focus, to concentrate solely on defense.
Brie shied backward, retreating toward her bucket and sponge. Thankfully, Xarius made no move to follow her. And why would he? It wasn’t often he found himself with an advantage such as this against his only real rival. Kylac was not only the headmaster’s son, but roughly half Xarius’s age—salts in the wound as Kylac had taken to besting him regularly during their daily sessions. Given the chance to reassert himself and deliver a scar or two in lasting insult, the prideful Xarius would be determined to do just that.
Assuming he failed to simply take Kylac’s head or some piece of it in trophy.
The fury of the quicksilver strikes slashing and stabbing his way left Kylac little doubt as to Xarius’s preference. And by now it seemed clear he could rely on his father not to intervene. Kylac had staked this challenge. His father—his instructor—would let him live or die by it.
Thus far, his wooden swords were holding up well against the onslaught. Hewn of granitewood from the deep Kalmira, thickly lacquered and well polished with use, they were as strong as any oaken staff thrice their girth, able to withstand the lighter blades with which Xarius was most adept. Nonetheless, Kylac could feel the nicks and notches collecting along their length. Be it late or soon, his opponent’s fine steel would hack and carve them to splinters, and Kylac’s bones with them.
If he intended to end this in his favor, he needed to do so swiftly.
The lethal blades thrashed before him, a dicing whirlwind. Xarius was unquestionably a master—precise, poised . . . patient? Normally, yes. But as Kylac continued to weather the storm, he could sense in his adversary a gnawing frustration. He had expected a swift victory, in this instance. Denied that, and with his master looking on, Kylac could see in him the mounting need for a decisive victory—and the urgency that came with it.
So Kylac gave him the opening he sought, angling a wooden blade out carelessly wide, inviting Xarius to disarm him on that side. Xarius did so, and Kylac gave a startled yelp in feigned dismay as the practice weapon skittered away. A somewhat reckless maneuver, but also fairly obvious. He doubted Xarius would have taken the bait under normal circumstances.
In this instance, however, the next strike took dead aim at his naked wrist. Rather than shy from the advancing blow, Kylac rolled forward underneath it, trading a small cut on the shoulder of his jerkin for his pursuit of Xarius’s retreating blade. His open hand grabbed for its hilt as his remaining sword stabbed hard against a nerve in Xarius’s elbow, disabling his grip.
An overhead block spared Kylac’s head a cleaving, and enabled him to spring up with confiscated steel in hand. By the time Brie had placed a hand to her mouth to silence her squeak of alarm at Kylac’s seeming vulnerability, it was he who held the edge of a sharp blade against his opponent’s throat, drawing Xarius backward into a submissive stance.
They remained locked that way for a moment, Kylac triumphant, Xarius fuming, neither making a sound. It was Rohn who finally shattered the stillness.
“I heard no one yield.”
Kylac glanced at his father, then peered down into Xarius’s livid face. In nine years of training together, not once had the elder fighter admitted defeat. He didn’t have to. Both knew that Kylac wasn’t going to slit his throat. Even if Kylac couldn’t guarantee the same were their positions reversed.
Rohn, too, had seen this stalemate before, and shook his head disapprovingly. “Suffer the weak . . .” He left the sentence hanging, waiting for Kylac to complete it.
“And you will suffer their weakness.”
“Again you prove soft—a softness with which you would now infect others.” Rohn gestured vaguely toward Brie. “You think you’ve defended her this day? Shielded her with your coddling? You’ve enabled a deficiency. Reinforced a flaw. Fostered a failing. You have killed her, perhaps, and do not yet know it.”
Kylac didn’t dare face Brie, as he wished. Instead, he glanced down at Xarius, who now wore a derisive sneer.
“We do not teach failure here,” his father spat, and swept the arena with his glare. “This lesson is over.”