Serial News Featuring Tremontaine

Nine Duels: a Tremontaine Story

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I.

His hands were shaking.

One empty, speckled with blood; the other loosely holding the sword.

The other swordsman had mocked him, slyly offered to teach him a faster way to die than at the heels of his old master. So he’d plucked this sword out of his dead master’s hand and thrust it, swift and final, into the throat of the other swordsman. But this hadn’t been a good kill; he knew that, though he couldn’t care. All he cared about was the shaking of his hands. Blood stormed in his ears, the sun was bright, this crooked courtyard faded away, all of Riverside vanishing into the black edges of his vision.

“Vincent.”

His name hissed through the dull storm.

            “Vincent.”

Small, lovely hands covered his, tugging at him, and he went with her easily, let the woman drag him away because he knew her. He clenched his teeth and squeezed his eyes closed. Madeline. Her name was Madeline. She worked for Vanessa, who ran a secondhand clothes shop, and she’d touched more of him than just his hands last week behind a curtain of linen shifts and repaired underclothes from up the Hill. She was safe, inasmuch as anyone was safe, and he gave himself over to her pulling. Around a corner they went, and he held the sword close, pressing the hilt and his fist against his thigh hard enough to bruise. Through a door, up narrow, rickety stairs, and Madeline laughed suddenly as they stumbled into the shop, tittered at Vanessa and a customer as she dragged Vincent through to the small closet where she slept when she tended the shop overnight. She pushed him down onto the low cot, but his own sword, still sheathed, caught and they struggled together for a moment to get it out of the way before she tried to take his master’s sword from his fist. He lifted his eyes, hazel and unfocused, blinking at her like a boy, which he nearly was, and did not let go.

“Everyone knew Severun was after your master,” she said. “When they find him dead, I can convince some they killed each other, but most will suspect the truth. Severun had a lordly patron, and you have nobody, Vin. You’ve got to go.”

He dropped his master’s sword and nodded, his mind pulling in two directions: one all for plans, where and money and how long, the other covered in blood, thinking how cool it had felt, the heart blood from Severun’s throat. Heart blood was supposed to be hot.

Madeline was tugging his jacket off his arms, and he helped a bit. She stripped his shirt away, then vanished, returning with water and a cloth with which she swiftly wiped his face. He hadn’t even realized there was blood on it, but she lifted his chin and rubbed firmly, her mouth pressed tight. “He was your first?” she asked more gently than her cleaning.

Vincent stood up, knocking her back. He caught her elbow and murmured an apology, shoulders bowing in. In the tiny closet, the top of Vincent’s head brushed the sloped ceiling. Madeline was a handful of years his elder, and suddenly felt too motherly, too knowing, and he a naive farm boy unable to make it in Riverside. “I’m fine,” he said.

“I know. Tell me where your money is.”

“What?”

She pursed her lips, reached into her skirt, and pulled a small pouch from a hidden pocket. Tapping it against his bare chest, she said, “So I can pay myself back for this.”

A few moments later, and after a quick shot of rotgut brandy, Vincent ducked out of the shop dressed in a new shirt, waistcoat, and jacket, with just enough money to get him started. His master’s sword he left with Madeline, and as he strode through the narrow streets of the island, he couldn’t stop clenching the hilt of his own. Knowing better than to show weakness, he kept his pace quick and his eyes up, but didn’t hide his glower of anger. Anger at himself for losing his temper, for not waiting to make his first kill something to crow over and be proud of. He’d been in Riverside for near two years, and knew better. He knew better.

As he passed places he’d haunted, jerked his chin at the few acquaintances bold enough to meet the gaze of such a young swordsman so clearly in a fury, Vincent wanted to lash out again, to find a fight, a challenge, as if another kill could wipe the first clean. There were plenty who deserved it here, among the cheap taverns, the thieves and whores and children destined for the same, among the families and innkeepers, laundresses, forgers, fences, and messengers, seamstresses, carpenters, all the folk of Riverside living in these leaning old houses and crowded flats, in dank rooms brightened with rainbow scraps of tapestries or cracked blue windows, laughing or screaming or singing to their lovers and babes. He thought about killing any one of them: Look hard enough into the heart of a Riversider and there would be a shard of darkness. A secret or long thread of blood. Even in him, now.

Vincent Applethorpe reached the bridge and stopped. He did not want to go. Back to the family farm, or out on the road as a guard if he were lucky, a laborer for hire if not. He couldn’t imagine being anywhere in this land if not here in Riverside. As he turned his head to go back, tell Madeline he wouldn’t run, he’d die here, if that was the consequence for being who he was, a distant flash of white light caught his eye: it was the unfurling sail of a ship.

And on the sail was painted, in brilliant blue and gold and pink, a ferocious large cat and a flower.

 

II.

The ocean port city of Chartil was white and blue, spread out like dove’s wings up the sides of the river valley, with narrow cobbled streets, hidden gardens behind whitewashed walls, patios of bold blue tile, and glistening pools of water to wash your hands before entering one of the many small shrines to set incense or pray.

In the Blue Market, halfway up the eastern wing of the city, sun beat down on Vincent’s neck, pricking the skin, and he viscerally recalled the burn he’d dealt with his first few weeks in Chartil, before his neck and cheeks, bared shoulders, and arms darkened to this protective tan. The tips of his hair that he could see now, falling around his face, were brighter gold than they should’ve been, and the men he shared a bunk house with regularly teased him for it. He wasn’t used to being the pretty one, and he wasn’t really now either, compared to the lithe, dark men here, with their liquid brown eyes, but he supposed he was exotic.

A call sounded behind him—“Siba!”—and Vincent put down the bundle of plant fibers he’d been unloading from a merchant cart. It was their name for him, though they pronounced the name Vincent easily enough; the nickname meant a hard fruit like an apple, but he was fairly certain the connotation was more flirtatious than they’d admit.

The call came from Aos, owner of the ship that had brought Vincent to this arid city. A younger son of one of the Chartil explorers, Aos ko Alis ko Renamen-sa had charmed Vincent during the voyage, taught him some of the Chartili language, and taken him home for his first supper in this new country. He’d tried to convince Vincent to stay on with the family in some capacity, but when Vincent explained he was here to find a sword master, Aos had introduced him to the right people to find a job working as a laborer in the Blue Market. This was the first time he’d seen Aos in a week. The young man, perhaps five years older than Vincent’s twenty-one, snaked through the throng of men and women in jewel-toned tunics and scarves, his own headscarf flapping behind him where it was loose behind his left ear.

“Ah, Siba,” Aos said, “Vincent, you must go with me.” He smiled, teeth glinting. The gold ring in his eyebrow glinted, too. He clasped Vincent’s shoulder, leaning in an overly friendly manner—though Vincent was growing used to the familiarity with which the Chartili men here touched one another, casual and intimate, in ways that would’ve meant flirting at home but most certainly did not here. “For swords,” Aos added excitedly.

Vincent glanced around and resisted reaching back to the hilt of his sword. He’d begun wearing it strapped to his back while he worked, though that cut into his draw time. In nearly three weeks here he’d had no reason to need it fast for threat or action as one would in Riverside. There weren’t any swordsmen in Chartil; not the way he was used to. He’d assumed, when he’d set foot on this rocky shore, with its feathery palm trees and layers of brilliant white houses stacked up the hillside, that the fastest way to establish himself would be picking a fight and making his name. That’s what one did in Riverside. But few in this city wore swords, and those who did were conscripted or rich or noble. They did not fight in the streets, or for money. The sword here was a status symbol. Aos told him that first night that there were few ways to find a teacher unless you’d been born onto the path.

“My work,” Vincent said to Aos now, reluctantly, for he’d surely lose his place if he abandoned the cart.

“Ffft.” Aos dismissed this, waving him along.

He followed through the Blue Market, where the canvas stalls were painted blue and the central fountain reached to the sky in an obelisk tiled in teal and black. Aos led him north, up a street so steep it was shallow cobbled stairs, around walled gardens that smelled of sweet pink flowers whose name he did not yet know. They passed whitewashed inns where bronze travel-gods crouched at the foot of every door, and cafes where men in bright tunics and women in embroidered robes rested on heavy cushions with small cups of sugared coffee as thick and rich as Hill chocolate.

Aos led him around a corner: Below them spread a wide square of columns and arches surrounding a marble courtyard, and in the center dozens of men arrayed themselves in four concentric squares, facing the center. Every one wore a sword.

“Go,” Aos said. “They are the companions and so it is where you should go. To try.”

Vincent drew a deep breath. In Chartili he said, “What is ‘the companions?’ I am welcome there?”

“Men who fight together, for Chartil. And any sword is welcome today,” Aos replied. “It is open today, every year, for men to try the sword. A holy day for the Beloved.”

That, Vincent knew, was the great god of war, and so this was related to the army. Perhaps the only place to find instruction, to fight, since he wasn’t any nobleman. He walked down the street and beneath one of the arches, into the courtyard of swordsmen.

He was challenged immediately by a man with elaborately pinned black hair and two swords in his bright red belt sash. They were the elegantly curved swords of Chartil, one longer than the other, both without cross piece or pommel and only a very narrow guard. The man spoke quickly, harshly. Vincent said in Chartili, using Aos’s words, “I am here to try. My name is Vincent Applethorpe.”

Everyone stared at him, at his gilded hair, sandy skin, and the hilt of his foreign sword. Vincent let his heart pound, welcoming the rush. He felt it in his palms, and it was all he could do not to draw immediately. He was surrounded by dark-haired, dark-eyed Chartili men, different heights and shades of brown and tan skin, in sleeveless tunics and short robes, but all with swords, all studying him, assessing. The man who’d stopped him turned to look at the far side of the courtyard, where, upon a wooden pavilion shaded by blue canvas painted with an elaborate sunrise over the ocean, another man sat upon a low, cushioned chair. This man wore an embroidered white robe with hanging sleeves. His black hair was perfectly smooth and long to his waist, pieces of it pulled back from light brown temples. Like most Chartili men he was clean-shaven, and the sash at his slender waist was crimson, as were those of a third of the men here. They had to be those who were already members of the companions, and this their captain, or lord. He, too, stared at Vincent, and then inclined his head in a small bow.

“Yes,” the first man told Vincent. And a sentence more, of which Vincent only understood the word tach, which was the name of the Chartili sword. Then hands were on his shoulders and he went rigid, but the gathered men only pulled him to the sidelines with them, shoving him into place as two others sprang out of the line and everyone formed up around them, offering a clear dueling ground on the wide, stone cobbles.

The two men drew their swords, bowed at the waist, and began.

It was smooth and fast, and very different style to Vincent’s eyes. These tach were not as long as his sword, and only sharp on the open side of the curve. Meant for cutting and slashing, not a thrust, though the point was surely sharp enough for it. The grip was for two-handed use, adding power and leverage to every strike. Vincent lost himself in the men’s movements, the flow of them, and the near-constant motion of the two fighters. There was less pausing than in Riverside style, less time spent with the swords balanced a kiss away, and every strike was meant to kill, coming in at a hard angle. They rarely—never, in fact—locked together or used any part of their bodies but the swords.

But Vincent recognized the basics in his bones. He could do this, if not like them, then he could certainly hold his own for a few minutes, long enough to prove his mettle. His reach would be farther, and he was fast enough to recover, he hoped, before their strikes. A smile crept onto his lips, small and thrilled. Though he’d run through the motions every day on the ship, and every day in the bare garden behind his bunkhouse, it had been weeks since he’d faced an opponent. And now this! His smile spread.

One duelist grunted as the other sliced in fast enough at the right angle to nearly disarm him, and then in a move Vincent did not anticipate—for how could he, when he never imagined this would be a fight past first blood—the second fighter struck a powerful blow to the neck, cutting the man’s head clean away.

Vincent stepped back, shocked, even as the Chartili men surged forward, congratulating the winner and carefully gathering the dead man’s body and head into a dark blue cloth. There was a man with the shaved and painted head of a Beloved priest murmuring prayers, while the winner was given a red sash to wrap about his waist.

Blood splattered the stone ground, smearing pink and bright red, and Vincent thought without a sliver of doubt that his sword could not do what that tach had done. His sword could pierce through bone to the heart, or skewer a neck, but not cut a head off. A thin rivulet of blood slipped toward his boot, and Vincent stepped on it, so the blood pooled around his boot, and he reached up to draw his own sword. It caught the sun, and the Chartili men turned toward him. He walked forward, chin up, forcing space for himself.

He did not know the ritual, or what was expected, but he knew who he was and wanted to be, so he called, “I am Vincent Applethorpe,” his voice scratchy and dry. Not thinking about blood on his hands, or his dead master.

The captain stood from his cushioned stool and replied. Vincent understood enough to know the captain asked who would face Vincent.

The man who stepped out was shorter and stockier than Vincent, his hair braided back and a thin beard framing his mouth. He wore woven sandals and a sleeveless tunic much like Vincent’s. Older, but not by much. Vincent scoured him for obvious weaknesses, saw none but that the man’s reach would be shorter than his own, even without Vincent’s longer sword. The man bowed, and Vincent returned it, then gave himself over to the duel.

It was awkward at first, and Vincent knew he was too much in his head, could hear his master hissing at him to feel the conversation between himself and his opponent, not to think through it! But he and this Chartili man spoke different languages, with different rules and starting points and punctuation. At least the basic sounds were the same, and they both had tongues and lips and ears.

Vincent tapped his sword to the other man’s tach, slid the blades together to hear them: a slick, high sound of steel and steel. His opponent smiled, and cut in swiftly, but Vincent was ready. He thrust straight, surprising the man—and everyone, by the gasps and cries around them. A swift jab, a bloodied sword tip, and his opponent’s surprise gave him plenty of time to recover. That wouldn’t happen again.

They moved back and forth, and Vincent turned to face away from the sun, dancing in and out, and the man followed, then spun and cut, and cut again, and Vincent could barely dodge, then parried hard, using his hilt to catch the tach blade and twist. Then they leapt apart again, and immediately the man attacked the same way, but higher, and that Vincent was ready for. His hilt was another advantage, though the tach was fast.

Again and again they met and parted, Vincent never giving a target and the other man fighting from a crouch, putting Vincent’s balance off. He made two more hits, but barely, not having time to strike deep. Just shallow jabs that hardly slowed the other down.

It changed when the man sliced open Vincent’s arm, near the elbow, and Vincent spun, using his hip to knock the man away, then following with a perfect strike that skimmed the man’s collar. Both bled, though Vincent did not yet feel the pain of his wound. His ears were full of pulse, his focus narrowed to his opponent’s eyes and shifting core. A thing tied them together, pure and ferocious, and it was the keen edge Vincent loved best, that he’d chased from the farm to Riverside and his master, then lost these weeks until now, now, here.

Vincent Applethorpe was smiling as the final moment approached, teasing his opponent with death, and the man was slowing, just a fraction, just enough. Vincent thrust hard, through the defenses, and buried the tip of his sword in the other man’s shoulder. He twisted, jerking it free with enough force that the other man followed, tipping forward to hit the ground hard with his knees.

He did not get up, and his sword remained low, skimming the stones. Vincent panted over him, smiled, and nodded a bow, for he was too winded to speak. Lifting his gaze, he looked around at the Chartili men, who waited, watching. None moved in to congratulate him, or to help the other up.

“Vincent Applethorpe,” said the captain, stepping down off his pavilion. His accent curled around Vincent’s name rather urgently. He said more, but Vincent did not understand.

“Have I won my place?” Vincent asked, chest heaving.

“End him,” the original soldier with the red sash said slowly, beside Vincent. “You must end the trial of the man you fought.”

Vincent glanced at his defeated partner, who watched him, resigned, mouth drooping with pain. In Chartili he said, “This man can’t fight me now.”

Rumbling flowed around him, from the gathered men. The captain approached, calm and graceful. The silver and violet embroidery on his robe, in a fall of delicate flowers and tiny birds, caught sunlight, making the captain shine like steel. He was nearly the same height as Vincent, and perhaps eight or ten years older. His dark eyes crinkled with curiosity but his lovely mouth turned down. Carefully, he pushed aside his long sleeve to reveal the purple wrapped hilt of his own tach, and placed his cool brown fingers against it, in a clear threat. Kill him, or you will be killed.

It seemed a waste to Vincent, now that the moment had passed, and no purpose or honor hinged on this man’s death that he could see. But he understood it was meant to be a fight to the death, and the men around them made slashing gestures, calling for it. His opponent tilted his chin up, offering his throat, despite a tear caught in his eyelashes and a tremor shaking the sunlight on his lowered, naked blade.

Vincent tightened his grip on his sword, then loosened it properly again, so as not to be rigid. He breathed deeply, and as smoothly, precisely as possible, thrust his sword through the man’s heart.

 

III.

The barracks of the Chartil companions were heavenly. Every moment spun around the sword and preparing yourself for the sword. Vincent lived with seventeen other recruits, all of whom had killed a fellow on the holy day and been removed with Vincent to the outskirts of the city to train. The compound was simple, built of white bricks and clay, and open to the air, as most walls were columns and arches, with roof beams of wood across which heavy canvas could be stretched when necessary. It was rarely necessary. Vincent slept on a pallet, and was given a tunic, trousers, sash, and headscarf, all a dull, weathered red, as well as a pair of thin slippers with a leather sole. They drank a sweet, watered beer and ate as much dried meat and thick cheeses, olives, and hard, thin bread as they liked. Morning prayer at the shrine of the Beloved and his sword spirit Amara was required, but Vincent didn’t mind the moments to relax and breathe. They ran and played games to strengthen their muscles in the mornings, and all afternoon practiced drills, sometimes with swords, sometimes without. He was given a tach, though sometimes he used his own sword and none of the teachers seemed to mind. The recruits worked as a unit, rarely facing an opponent, and the hardest was when they were told to assume a stance and remain in it until the teacher called a halt—sometimes not for hours. It made Vincent sweat and tremble like nothing else, but he’d never been forced to concentrate so perfectly. He was one of the few not to faint or falter.

In some ways, he was behind the other men—technique in particular, and development of certain balancing muscles—but in others he was far superior, for he had been learning to kill since he was fifteen, though in a different style. Vincent watched and imitated naturally, understanding in his body before his head how the tach changed the rules.

Once a week women were brought, ankles braceleted to show they were slaves, and that was a day with no training. The recruits were encouraged to relax, to converse with each other and the women. Forming bonds, Vincent supposed. At first he held himself slightly apart, uncomfortable with the slaves, unsure how he should feel about it, since he was certain he did not understand the nuance, if there was any to be had. There were too many questions he didn’t know how to ask because of language and culture: Who is enslaved? Is one born into it, or do you lose freedom for crimes or debt? Am I in danger of such a fate? Does one serve a term or earn freedom? Eventually it became clear his comrades thought he was unhealthy or dull for not partaking, and he resigned himself to it with the help of an enthusiastic, round young woman named Tila with eyes the color of red clay and black freckles darkening her already tan skin. She taught him several words he was sure he had no need of outside her company.

This compound, he learned slowly, as he learned the right words, was a training ground under the care of a man called Far-Reza ko Arezu ko Shirin-sa Chartili, a nephew of the emperor of Chartil itself, and younger brother to the nobleman who ruled the port city for the emperor. Something like a duke, Vincent supposed, or a prince. Far-Reza, as the men called him, was the commander of this region’s standing army, as well as in charge of recruiting for the emperor’s elite guard, these companions Vincent inadvertently found himself a part of. And he’d been the man on the pavilion who had said Vincent’s name so well.

Far-Reza appeared at the compound just a month after Vincent, one afternoon when there suddenly were five more men than usual, all in the same dull red tunics, with sandals and simple practice swords. He stood beside Vincent in the line, going through the same formations, crying an enthusiastic Ah! with every cut and slash, dragging his toe perfectly in the spin. His shining black hair was bound securely in a knot at the top of his head, and his rich brown eyes sparkled with an obvious joy as he danced through the motions far better than Vincent was able.

At the end of the session, Far-Reza clapped his hand on Vincent’s bare shoulder and said, “Where is your foreign sword?”

“The barracks,” Vincent said. His Chartili was getting much stronger.

“Let us go to it, then.” The nobleman swept his arm out for Vincent to lead him. In the gentle shade of the barracks, Vincent lifted his sword by the scabbard, and offered the hilt to Far-Reza. The prince slung it free in a graceful motion, laughing with admiration. He dropped into a Chartili stance, but tilted his head, clearly sensing the balance was wrong, then lifted elegant black eyebrows to Vincent.

“Like this.” Vincent stepped into a basic dueling guard, swordless, his arm extended, wrist just right.

“Ah.” Far-Reza copied him, and leaned into it, and held the thrust, bending his knee correctly, though he did not seem to know where to put his unarmed hand. Vincent gently touched the hand, correcting the prince. He smelled sharply of spicy incense, not the simple sweat and olive oil of Vincent and his comrades.

“You’re doing well, my commander tells me,” Far-Reza said, carefully slicing the air with the sword. A small line formed between his brows as he shadow-fenced down the line of pallets.

“Thank you, Far-Reza.”

The noble turned. “Reza, if you speak to me. Far-Reza is for . . . about me.”

Vincent nodded, understanding. His teachers distinguished their names in such a way as well, though with a different prefix. “‘Far’ means . . . ?”

“I share heartblood with our great emperor.”

Vincent nodded again, unsure what else to say. Reza watched him, and came close again, with a stalking grace that elicited from Vincent an instinct between fear and lust; Reza held his sword and Vincent was unarmed. Sure enough, the other man lifted the blade and touched the tip to the crook of Vincent’s neck, with just enough pressure to feel but not cut. A very precise gesture for a sword not one’s own.

“Will you do me the honor?” Reza purred, shifting the sword away and offering it back to Vincent.

Vincent bowed, from the waist as they did here, and reclaimed his sword. Reza drew his own from his sash.

First, they went outside again, to the central courtyard where the rest of the company drilled lunges. Far-Reza yelled a halt and, only briefly catching Vincent’s eye, attacked.

Vincent defended himself desperately. But Reza was a whirlwind, a master in his prime, slashing and turning so fast Vincent only could defend, again and again, countering and tossing Reza back. His vision narrowed, reddening, and his breath seethed through his teeth; he was determined to hold on, to hit back. Once, he managed it, with the same hilt trick that had saved him on the holy day. He twisted Reza’s sword, but Reza spun into the trick, freeing himself while stalling Vincent’s sword arm, and unexpectedly tapped him in the ribs with his elbow: a precise, painful jab. So he was a vindictive fighter, Vincent thought, and stopped the Chartili technique of keeping distance.

Bearing down with all his strength, Vincent stayed close, too close, jamming them up again, until Reza growled with frustration, unable to maneuver in such close quarters. Vincent kicked them apart, to cries of foul play and distress from the audience, but Reza smiled, viciously, and Vincent smiled back. Two breaths later Vincent found himself tripped, landed hard on his back, and the sharp blade of Reza’s tach up under his jaw.

He hadn’t even seen the move. At least he still held his sword.

Cheers erupted, but Reza maintained his smile. He twitched his wrist and cut Vincent just below the left ear. Vincent only gasped before Reza crouched at his shoulder and touched the back of his knuckles to Vincent’s cheek. “You fight with your whole body, Vincent Applethorpe.”

Thinking of half-dozen possible responses, all he could manage was, “Vincent.”

Reza laughed. “Vincent.” He offered his hand, and dragged them both back to their feet. “Wine now, and we’ll walk through everything slowly, for ourselves and for the company.”

Vincent agreed, feeling hotter and more delighted in this defeat than any victory.

 

IV.

War came at the end of the rains, taking Vincent entirely by surprise.

He’d lived and studied with the companions five months then, knew their names and histories, could even sing some of their songs and make up a few rhymes of his own in their tongue. Far-Reza had visited every third week, and Tila the slave girl had made her preference clear, coming right to Vincent when she was brought to the barracks. One of the others had become pregnant, Tila said, and breeding with a companion would win her freedom if the child was healthy, which terrified Vincent rather a lot, when very few things did. The day the summons to war came, he was with her and a few others of the company, soldiers and slaves. Vincent was running drills, half naked, while Tila described in detail the way he moved so that he might stop her for explanations of the words when he did not understand the nuance or turn of phrase. It was a good game, and one they all were entertained by.

Their teacher Yr-Asin entered, which was enough to set everyone on alert, for the teachers did not come to their barracks. “There is war in the Alsayi principality, and we have been summoned,” he said. “Be ready at dawn.”

So they were, though Vincent resisted every moment; packing his few belongings, tying on the heavy lacquered armor and new scarlet sash of the companions, the crested helmet that teased distractingly at the edges of his sight, and the sharp tach blade that went with it all. His own sword was fair useless against the solid leather armor and close quarters of Chartili combat.

He thought of walking away again, returning to the port city, or even going all the way home. War was not what he’d come seeking, though what he did seek, Vincent could still not quite articulate.

The companions marched beside supply carts, their teachers astride sturdy horses whose legs seemed too delicate to hold their muscled girth. For six days they traveled, too much time for nothing but thinking, no drills to focus on. They were joined by more companies, and the regular army, until their force neared twelve hundred. Finally Vincent spotted Far-Reza, and a knot in his chest relaxed.

Around the fires the night before battle, he listened to the stories from veterans, along with his fellow recruits, wondering how he would fare, if this was his last night, whether this tach blade would settle into his hands, saving him. While many of his fellows laughed and gathered courage with watered beer and slaves, Vincent found a flat space of cool, dark desert and worked through tach drills, cutting at his anxiety, breathing deep and even, his heart a pulled string still connected to that faraway home, his first sword, his boots on cobbled streets, the stink of river water and glare of falling snow on lopsided roofs.

He barely slept.

The first man Vincent killed on the battlefield made no sound, for the roar of fighting drowned everything out. There was no room for panic or nostalgia, longing or plans: For Vincent it was a terrible chaos of cutting through to his goal. Follow Far-Reza against the prince of Alsayi, stay with the companions if he could. He barely could.

Every slice of his tach helped him forward: forcing a step at a time, turning, shouldering men away, finding the angle to strike between armor and helmet, recover, stab, protect his flank, come up from beneath a strike, blood in his face, block with the heavy gauntlet on his left arm, cut forward again, grind teeth against surprise of pain, use his entire body to drive on and on, despite slipping, despite sweat in his eyes, the loss of helmet somewhere, after it saved him from a blow to the face, on and on, heat, blood, aching.

Then it was over; suddenly, after many hours. Vincent sagged, heaving to breathe, and listened to the order to withdraw. It was a triumphant flute, and he sheathed his tach without wiping it clean, for there was no clean spot on his sash. As he backed away from the remnants of the enemy, he heard a groan, and crouched to the side of one of the fallen warriors, a man with the crest of the emperor but not the red sash of the companions.

The next hours Vincent spent gathering wounded, half-carrying them or dragging them to the hospital tents built against a sheared cliff of red stone. It was exhausting work, more desperate than the fight itself, and Vincent let his mind loose to avoid what has happening as he lifted nearly dead warriors who babbled in pain or cried for their mothers. In the hospital tent Vincent was pulled to a surgery, ordered to hold down a young man whose arm had been crushed and it all had to come off; the bone was shattered, could not be set, and the best chance was amputation. Vincent used all his weight on the man’s opposite shoulder, holding him, barely able to breathe as the doctor worked, unable to drag his eyes off the bone saw or listen to the soothing murmur of a nurse who continually doused the wound with something sharp-smelling. The warrior groaned, numb and drifting, but he struggled so hard Vincent felt like a monster for holding him down.

When the arm was off, shoulder bound, and the warrior unconscious, Vincent was released. He stumbled away, stomach churning and hearing all the noise of battle again, feeling every ache and bruise in his own body. He left the tent, hurried around a stab of red rock, and bent over to vomit.

He wiped his mouth and leaned into the rock, eyes shut. How had he gotten here? His throat burned, and his stomach too, and he wanted to go home. This was not for him: This wasn’t being a swordsman, but a warrior, and screw all the little gods of Chartil, there was a chasm of difference between the two.

Someone crouched beside him, and Vincent thought fleetingly that in Riverside it might have meant his death. But here in his own army’s camp, it would be a friend.

“Come with me, Vincent Applethorpe,” said Far-Reza, touching the back of Vincent’s neck.

He obeyed, hoping Reza would not remove his hand. It was cool on the fire of Vincent’s skin, gentle and comforting and no matter what else, all Vincent wanted was some comfort.

Reza took him to his own tent: an opulent spire of brilliant blue wool. Thick rugs in ocean-wave patterns and floral weaves covered the packed desert earth. There were lanterns and cushions and a short table lacquered black and tooled with mother-of-pearl. Vincent stared dully at it all as Reza removed Vincent’s sword and sash, then with his own noble hands untied Vincent’s chest-plate and both gauntlets, the skirt of hard leather plates, and dropped it all into a pile. Reza clicked his tongue at a wound on Vincent’s shoulder, then stripped off Vincent’s shirt. He sat Vincent down, ordered him to remove his boots and pants, and vanished outside. The lord returned with cloth and water. He washed Vincent’s face and neck and hands, tended to the two largest gashes, at Vincent’s shoulder and just above his knee. The latter of which Vincent had not even noticed.

“You fought with honor,” Reza said, still gentle.

“That’s not what honor is,” Vincent replied without thinking. “I don’t know what it was, but not honor. Not one sword against another. It was being someone else’s sword, not my own man. There is no choice in this. I have to be my own man to have honor.”

Silence fell, and Reza was still, holding the cloth to Vincent’s bloody shoulder. The prince’s dark eyes were very near Vincent’s, studying him with care, nothing of censure or disagreement on his face. Vincent swallowed, realizing what he’d said. But Reza slowly smiled.

“You spoke in your own tongue, Vincent. Say so again in mine?”

Vincent took the wet cloth from Reza and wiped harder at the wound, welcoming the pain. He was cold now, naked on the feathered blankets of Reza’s sleeping pallet. Reza knelt, leaning back, and waited. The prince was already clean and changed into the decorative armor he’d been wearing during the journey, not his true battle armor. This was lacquered black leather, painted with lions and red rain, with beautiful, fat pink flowers over his heart. His shining smooth hair fell loose around his face and shoulders, sliding across the chest plate as he moved. Carefully, Vincent said in Chartili, “It was your honor, not my own, because I fought for you, not myself.”

Reza caught his breath, lips parted slightly in wonder. He stared at Vincent until Vincent’s skin crawled and tingled.

Then the prince smiled again, sweet and not just a little wicked. “Very well, Vincent. For my honor, then, I will lend you some trousers.”

Vincent blushed, and Reza laughed.

 

V.

Far-Reza ko Arezu ko Shirin-sa Chartili did not allow Vincent to return to the companion barracks at the end of the very short campaign against the rebellious prince. Instead, he commissioned Vincent as one of his personal guard, and took him home to a sprawling palace at the crown of the shorter of two foothills overlooking the port city. “You will teach me your language and your way of the sword,” Reza said, “and I will personally train you in mine.”

Though one-on-one training was exactly the sort Vincent craved, he found it was not the only reason he was eager to accept Reza’s offer.

That was Reza himself.

The man was so vibrant, as if some strange alchemy inside his chest transformed all thought and experience into that same quivering sensation as when swords clashed together. Vincent felt it just standing beside him; a tremor beneath the skin.

He was given rooms in the wing of the palace nearest the setting sun, with great arching windows and his own bath, pillows and rugs and bold wall drapes. His uniform was improved from the companion recruit’s plain linen and sash to very fine layers of dyed wool in the blue of Far-Reza’s house. The wine was light and delicious, the food varied and rich, plentiful with cheese and nut butters, small roasted birds, olives, and berries. He always had fresh water and as much bread as he liked, and some kind of hot spring behind the palace made bathing water readily available.

Every morning he met Reza in a private yard of carefully maintained grass, surrounded on two sides by columns, one by the indoor ring, and the final by nothing but the slope of the mountain with its craggy boulders, wildflowers, and scrub trees no higher than his waist. Together they worked for hours, taking turns with the tach or Vincent’s sword, and after a week, Reza presented two Chartili straight blades, shorter and wider than Vincent’s, but good for thrusting and approximating the style he’d known at home. They sparred with them most often, adapting to each other and earning quite the bouquet of bruises. In the afternoons Vincent continued his work, though Reza was pulled away to his duties as a commander and younger prince.

Some nights Reza took his meal with Vincent, and they argued over technique and the benefits versus drawbacks of each of their home countries’ favored sword, or they spoke of family and Chartili politics. Vincent tried to explain swordsmen to Reza, but the nobleman clearly found the hiring of stand-ins distasteful, and fighting for money even more so. Vincent pointed out that many Chartili men must join the army for a living, but Reza only countered that the army transforms a man’s sword into the word of the emperor himself, whereas hired duelists were like whores. “At least we aren’t slaves,” Vincent said, rather cold, and there the argument usually stalled. But even at the most strained moments, Vincent found himself relishing the winding conversation.

He began taking shifts with the other household guards, making friends among them. He eschewed the company of slaves, despite the fact that they were the only women he saw with any frequency. Far-Reza certainly had women in his house, though not a wife; a sister and several cousins and ladies’ maids, but they kept to their wings, and only certain guards were allowed to tend them.

It did not take long for Reza to wheedle out of Vincent more details of his childhood and family than all his Riverside friends had managed together. When Reza asked a question suddenly, after a fast bout of swordplay, Vincent minded answering so much less.

Winter came with sharp, cold wind, and one morning, instead of Reza, one of his boy-messengers awaited Vincent in the yard. “He wants you in his quarters,” the boy said, turned on his heel, and went off. Vincent followed with a frown, through the winding open gardens of the palace, the long columned hallways, loud today with wind and spitting sand. The sky was dark, roiling, but did not smell of rain or lightning.

Reza’s rooms were opulent, all carved wood and panels of shining lacquer and pearl, and even the floor was intricate wooden pieces puzzled together in hundreds of diagonal starflower shapes. Dark blue and gold draped from the ceiling, pulled to the walls with red and white cords. Incense burned in a small shrine to the Beloved, the god of war, and three suits of armor were on display in the greeting room, where a short table and kneeling chairs waited beside a brazier.

The prince himself lounged on a bench carved into the wall beside a shuttered arch window. He held a steaming clay mug in one hand, and wrote upon a long parchment roll with a delicate brush with the other. The ink sat on a tiny table decorated with pink fish.

“Reza,” Vincent said, not knowing what else to do but stand there in his uniform, hand at the hilt of his tach.

Reza nodded, finished the curved stroke of one character, then set the brush down and smiled. “You came. Good. Take off your boots and relax.”

Vincent did not move. He glanced around the room again, searching for clues. Reza’s collection of swords leaned against a rack near an arched doorway, through which Vincent could see a wide feather bed and tossed blankets.

“The first winter storm is blowing in,” Reza said. “We won’t get any work done in all this wretched wind and the dust and sand it will toss. Might as well be here.”

“Doing what?”

“Whatever we like. It’s a day off, Vincent. The first day of winter, and I would spend it with you.”

The lightness of his voice teased down Vincent’s spine.

Reza stood. His jewel-toned robe opened widely over his hairless, muscled chest and clung to his shoulders, tied loosely at his waist. Beneath it he only wore loose trousers. His bare feet were a pale brown against the thick, deep blue rug. Vincent did not think he’d seen Reza’s toes before.

“Vincent, are we friends?”

Vincent’s head jerked up. He’d been staring at the prince’s feet. Instead of amused, Reza’s face was a mask of intensity. Nostrils flared, lips parted.

“Yes?” Vincent whispered.

“Then will you spend the day here? Relax. Have coffee, or wine. I will show you the calligraphy brush—I think you will like it. The rules are very specific, but there’s an art to it still.”

All Vincent could do was nod. Reza seemed eager, anxious. But his mouth broke into a smile that crinkled the corners of his eyes, and he held a hand out to Vincent, who untied his sash to settle his sword on the rack beside Reza’s own.

They sat together on the rug and several pillows, with their backs to the carved bench. Reza explained the characters and calligraphy while they both sipped thick, sweet coffee. Vincent could read and write his own language, but these lines and swoops, the few staccato marks for accents, were entirely alien and lovely, like a flowing stream of words, too elegant to mean what Reza insisted they meant: He’d been composing a letter that informed his brother of the goods his household had acquired for the winter, and what supplies they further needed.

When Reza began to teach the characters to Vincent, he put the brush between Vincent’s fingers, gently cupping his hand, leaning in so they could carefully moving the brush together. He spoke quietly, breath on Vincent’s cheek, his long, silky hair sliding over Vincent’s shoulder.

Vincent’s hand shook. It hadn’t since—

Ripples appeared in the swooping black line they drew upon the parchment, and Reza huffed a quiet laugh. “Are you well, Vincent?”

Vincent stood, rather too abruptly. “I haven’t, ah, exercised today. I was expecting it, so I was wound up and . . . and . . .”

Reza rose, too, striding to the rack of swords. “So you’d like to spar, then?”

Relief flooded Vincent’s body, and he leapt at the chance. They chose swords: the simple tan, curved and similar to the tach, but shorter. Vincent removed his boots for the indoor work, and Reza tied the belt of his robe more firmly. But the prince lifted his sword in a languorous salute, and bowed so all his straight black hair swung forward. He watched Vincent, dark brown eyes warm with amusement and anticipation.

Instead of attacking swift and sudden, as Reza usually did, he stalked around Vincent, free hand loose at his side, sword low. It was unsettling, but Vincent ignored it and attacked. Reza knocked his sword away, hardly appearing to move, and kept his attention on Vincent’s eyes and—it seemed—his mouth.

Vincent clenched his teeth, took a deep breath, and sank into himself, into the clear, pure space where he became all sword.

He fought, light and quick, two-handed and then slipping into a one-handed style, and Reza defended himself smoothly. It was good, and even fun, and Vincent unwound slightly, until Reza suddenly darted in, parrying with his blade then turning to use his shoulder to shove Vincent’s sword arm out, invading Vincent’s clear space. Reza tapped his hand to Vincent’s chest, then spun away again, swift that enough the ends of his hair gently slapped Vincent’s cheek and slid over his mouth.

Then Reza was three swords’ lengths away again, smiling.

Vincent could feel the ends of Reza’s hair against his lips still, like ghostly echoes. He dropped his sword. It hit the wooden floor, shocking Reza, who stepped closer with a stormy frown. Wind gusted against the roof just then, slamming hard against the shuttered window. The wind and racket seemed to tip Vincent off-balance: He realized what he wanted to do, though he’d never wanted such a thing before with a man. His lips felt too dry, his whole body clumsy, but he touched Reza’s hair with both fumbling hands, and kissed him.

Reza allowed it, slowly bringing his hands up to Vincent’s neck, then nudged away, brushing his nose to Vincent’s. “Vincent Applethorpe,” he whispered, in Vincent’s home tongue, “This is a different sort of duel.”

Vincent swallowed and slid his fingers down through Reza’s hair. It felt exactly like he’d expected: warm and sleek as a cat lying in the sun. “I’m less experienced with this sort,” he said, feeling young and foolish, looking anywhere but at Reza’s eyes. The tiny scar on the man’s chin, the strong arc of his nose, high cheeks, the thin loops of gold piercing both ears, glinting through the fall of hair, the line of his collarbone, delicate-seeming, but Vincent knew better; he knew exactly how strong and fast Reza was.

The lord laughed softly, and kissed Vincent back, lightly first and then deeper, digging fingers into Vincent’s scalp. It was a command suddenly, and as he always did without hesitation when the command came from Reza, Vincent obeyed.

 

VI.

Something about being in love made Vincent less of a swordsman.

Perhaps it was simply a more intense awareness of his own body, or the happy lightness that kept him from grounding down through his legs for a proper stance, or that he was so easily distracted by a well-timed smile. Most likely, it was that more often than not, he’d rather be cavorting naked and unarmed with Reza than training in the yard. Very unprofessional of him, but when he happened to find himself so—naked in Reza’s arms—he couldn’t bring himself to care.

Yet over the course of winter and the following spring, Vincent’s skills gradually improved, but more because he and Reza focused on nothing else but each other, day and night, training every hour Reza could spare, and learning each other’s physical predilections in battle and bed. The only sour spot in Vincent’s life was the dislike the captain of Reza’s household guard, Yr-Telis, held for him. Telis had only reluctantly folded Vincent into the duty rotations, and when possible, assigned him to the least preferable jobs. Vincent, of course, had grown up on a farm and lived in Riverside, and there were no duties at which he turned up his nose. It was obvious Telis disapproved of Reza’s affection for the foreigner, and he conveyed that disapproval to the other guardsmen. But Vincent did his job, and never called on Reza to help him with aught but training. The nature of their relationship was a secret, and had to be in Chartil, which Vincent found nearly as off-putting as slavery. Affection between men here was kept strictly within the boundaries of family and camaraderie. Lovers existed, but not in public.

When the Beloved’s holy day came around again, he was glad to return to the port city with Reza, to stand and judge this year’s crop of recruits.

Being in the open temple of combat a year later filled Vincent with a glow of expectation, and pride. He relished the competition and the bloodthirsty nature of it, for this was the only time Chartil warriors faced each other one-on-one, to the death. (Though Vincent had heard that noblemen might occasionally call each other a challenge, he had never witnessed such a thing.) The rhythm of the day and the pulse of the army were built on this ultimate game, and at the end of the long afternoon of duels, from his place standing at the pavilion where Far-Reza held his court, Vincent was struck with deadly inspiration.

When Reza would have begun the closing ritual, Vincent strode forward, hand on the hilt of his tach. He turned to face the pavilion, skimming his gaze over Reza to find Yr-Telis, among the seven other guards holding the space for Reza. “Yr-Telis ko Onza ko Shirin,” Vincent said, “I am Vincent Applethorpe, and I challenge you to fight, for the many ways you have not respected me and my sword.”

Yr-Telis smiled calmly, stepping forth. “My lord Reza ko Arezu ko Shirin-sa Chartili, I would accept this challenge, with your permission.”

Vincent did look to Reza then. The prince gripped the lacquered black arms of his chair hard, his expression grim. Reza paused too long, until a murmur broke out from the companions and recruits. The sun beat upon Vincent’s head; sweat trickled down his back.

Finally Reza inclined his head. “By the grace of our Beloved, fight well, companions,” he said, strained and soft.

Vincent smiled and in a flash unsheathed his tach. He lifted his eyebrows to Yr-Telis. The older warrior joined him and carefully unsheathed his own sword.

They bowed, and joined in battle.

It was all Vincent had never yet had in Chartil: sword against sword, to the death, and he knew exactly what he was about. Nothing like going to war, and nothing like his first duel here in this courtyard when he had not understood the rules. This was everything: He was alive with the potential of death in every shift of muscle, every strike, every near miss. Even as he struggled, even as he struck and retreated, even as he gasped to win, he was more and more alive. If he could not do this, he did not deserve what he had!

His heart sang, pure and vicious.

This was what he was for.

The moment Vincent Applethorpe struck down Yr-Telis, many believed the foreigner to have been possessed by the Beloved himself. His body thrummed with energy and he seemed to know where the captain would strike before even the captain did. Vincent was an extension of the tach, its curve like the curve of his arm, like the flow of clouds or a tidal wave. The blade flashed and cut through Yr-Telis’s defense, cut into his neck at a perfect angle, and lodged bloody and ferocious at the center of his collarbone.

Blood splashed Vincent’s hands and face, his chest, and he caught hold of Yr-Telis’s reaching arm as the other man collapsed forward, wheezing blood, and died in the moment.

Vincent was wild for hours, but he capped it off, let it spin inside him, while holding himself hard as steel to look upon. Not until they were back at Reza’s palace, and Vincent went straight to Reza’s room before the prince himself, did he let his wildness light up, send him whirling about the room. He poured himself a glass of wine, moved from window to table to bedroom and back again, pressing his forehead to the sharp wooden corner of the window arch, staring out at the dark valley below Reza’s palace and the sparks of fire lighting the port city overnight.

When Reza arrived, Vincent turned fast enough that he spilled some drops of wine, and grinned, going forward to grasp at Reza, to kiss him and tear off his clothes.

But Reza’s face was drawn and cold. He stopped, stared at Vincent, and suddenly Vincent could barely breathe: He longed to share this wild joy with Reza, the purity of his purpose and the sword’s purpose, the victory! There was no one else with whom he could share it.

“Vincent,” Reza said, low and tight. He stepped stiffly forward, and when he was nearly in reach, sank to his knees and grasped Vincent’s hips. He pulled Vincent to him and pressed his cheek to the thin wool covering Vincent’s belly. His arms wrapped tightly, like sailing ropes, around Vincent. The prince was shaking.

“Oh.” Vincent stroked Reza’s hair, pulling out beautiful golden sticks and mother-of-pearl combs that held it into an elaborate topknot, dropping them casually to the floor. The flow of black hair spilled free and Vincent pushed down to kneel, too, kissing Reza’s lips.

Reza grabbed his face. “You could have died!” His brown eyes blazed with anger.

“Yes!” cried Vincent, wild still, and he laughed. He kissed Reza again.

“I don’t want you to die. I love you too much.”

The words calmed him, and Vincent quieted Reza with a longer kiss, sliding his hands to the sash at his waist. He slowly untied it, never letting his mouth leave Reza’s, and pushed the embroidered formal robe open, to the next layer of thinner robe. “And I, you,” he murmured, undressing Reza, who allowed himself to be conquered this once, or perhaps realizing such surrender was much too late to avoid.

 

VII.

They went again to war, and Vincent hated it as much, though he was more equipped to face it strongly and with his swordsman’s fire intact. Their battles were farther from home this summer, and lasted longer, but again the emperor’s forces defeated their enemies on the border. Vincent ruled the house guards now: Defeating their captain had shot him directly to the leadership position. It made him Yr-Vincent to the warriors, and his sash was upgraded to scarlet with black embroidery, and his armor painted black, too. At the end of the campaign, Reza’s brother returned to the palace with them, and requested to watch Vincent duel.

It was not the last such performance he gave, as more frequently during end of summer and dry season they were visited by other Far-cousins who had heard of Reza’s pet foreign swordsman. Many wished to try him themselves, which Vincent obliged, understanding the Chartili nobility liked to know their own mettle when it came to the sword. He did not let any win, though was defeated once, by another princely commander bound through marriage to the emperor.

Winter was a cool relief, for it lent Vincent and Reza more time with none but each other.

Vincent had returned to his own sword now that he’d become quite proficient with the tach, and sought to master it from his original perspective. He found that a parry blade in his off hand gave him all the advantage he needed against the tach, if they were on open ground. In close quarters, the tach was too much.

Though content, and even happy, some afternoons when he practiced alone or with some of the newer guards, the clouds suddenly covered the sun and all fell cool and damp, and he recalled the air of his homeland. The memory called to him, like unfinished business. He wondered if his sister thought him dead. He wondered if Riverside had forgotten him.

One morning as he left his own rooms, he opened the door to a woman.

She was no slave, but gowned in a robe as fine as Reza’s, layered deep purple with pink river birds embroidered at collar and cuff, and the under-robe was scarlet edged in silver. Her waving hair was smoothed into a heart-shaped coif, fit with strings of jet beads perfectly matching its shade, and tall combs of amber and lapis. Silver paint brushed her eyelids, lips, and cheekbones, turning her tan complexion as bright as the moon.

Vincent bowed, on instinct. Three guardsmen arrayed themselves behind her, slight and deadly in the paler blue tunics of Reza’s sister’s guard.

“Vincent Applethorpe,” the woman said. “I am Far-Sezan ka Arezu ka Shirin-lo Chartili, Far-Reza’s sister, and I would have a word with you.”

He had seen her, by now, though never spoken to the beautiful woman, a few years older than he was. Vincent nodded, and followed her out the archway onto a path through the rose and rock garden. They walked slowly together, Vincent more curious than worried, until she said, “My brother has put his life in danger for you.”

“How?” Vincent asked bluntly, too surprised to be anything else.

Sezan paused, studying him from the corner of her eye, just exactly the brown of Reza’s. “He turned thirty last summer, and we’ve just had word that for the second season in a row he has put off the fulfillment of his marriage commitment. It has been arranged since he was a boy, the rituals observed these fifteen years, and meant to reach completion before this past winter’s winds arrived. He declined to attend, and the family of his wife-to-be is very understandably offended.”

Vincent did not respond at once; he was unsure how he should do so, or even how he felt.

“Naturally, Far-Reza’s official reasons are to do with war, though that is a thin excuse, as are his duties to the emperor, but I and others suspect the truth, Vincent Applethorpe.”

This time he let himself grimace. Reza had never spoken of this with him, though Vincent had occasionally wondered. In his home city, a man in Reza’s position, Reza’s age, would already be the father of a babe or two with his wife. “How is his life in danger?” Vincent asked, not bothering to deny what Sezan insinuated.

“Yesterday one of our tasters detected poison in the supper meant for my brother. She barely touched her tongue to it, and is deathly ill even now. Perhaps she will not survive.”

Panic gripped Vincent’s heart.

“Yes, you understand,” Sezan murmured, not without sympathy.

Vincent bowed, and too abruptly left her beside a sprawl of fuchsia roses.

He found Reza immediately, in the grand office hall of the palace, where sun streamed through two layers of arched windows, surrounded by aides and advisors, all of them working over a great mess of maps and arguing about some detail, splattering ink. Vincent could not interrupt, but he hung at the arched entrance, staring at Reza with all his willpower, begging the man to look. He thought, Reza might have died, over and again, more desperate than angry, until finally Reza glanced his way. Reza blinked, frowned, and gestured for him to wait.

It was nearly an hour before Reza sent all others away, even the guards on duty, and beckoned Vincent forward. Vincent’s stomach churned; his hand felt glued to the hilt of his sword, he’d held it so tightly for so long.

“Were you going to tell me?” Vincent asked, dangerously quiet.

Reza lifted those elegant eyebrows, and pushed hair back from his face; he rarely wore it intricately knotted on days he worked with his aides. “No.”

“Reza!”

The prince shrugged, standing. “You cannot save me from poison.”

“I want to kill someone for you.”

“You cannot, not here.”

“I am useless here, Reza! And you’re supposed to be married, and your sister says the woman’s family is offended.”

“I can afford to offend them.”

“Can you?”

Reza smiled wickedly, and reached for Vincent’s sash. He pulled Vincent close. “I have thought about you in this room, you know, when you stand on duty, still and patient. I have thought about having you, keeping you on your feet, perhaps with only your sash and sword, but no other covering.”

Though his hips shifted with involuntary desire, Vincent did not let up. He said, inches from Reza, “What good is what we are if you are dead?”

“You toy with death, and gladly—why should you be able to judge me for the same?”

“It is different.”

“No. And besides . . .” Reza pulled a pained face. “I cannot marry her. I cannot . . . give myself to another. Not now, not like this. Or maybe ever.”

“Ever?” Vincent breathed, a dozen futures unfurling before him, none of them including forever.

Reza kissed him sweetly.

But Vincent was a swordsman; forever was unsustainable.

It was a week later that the envoy from Es-Karu ka Elizin ka Sharin-lo arrived, with a declaration of offense for Far-Reza. Reza wrote the reply himself, saying the brother of Es-Karu was welcome to attend upon him for a challenge of honor.

And so her brother did. And so did Far-Reza fight him in a slow, dancing duel, and kill him with that same curved strike to the heart that Vincent had perfected.

 

VIII.

Moonlight glinted on the blade as it sank through the dark room and touched its sharp edge to Far-Reza’s neck.

Vincent held still as Reza opened his eyes and found Vincent’s. He imagined he could feel Reza’s pulse quicken through the length of perfect steel connecting them.

Slowly, Reza sat, and Vincent moved with him, so the sword remained against his neck but never quite cut.

It was the start of summer. All the arches of Reza’s rooms were open to the hot, black nights, stars winking, moonlight cool, and wind blowing the wall hangings in a seductive dance. The Beloved’s holy day had come and gone again, and soon, soon, soon, the rains would arrive, promising next the summons to war. Vincent felt it all pressing against him, and for what? He performed his swordplay, he stood guard, and he gave every part of passion his heart was capable of to Reza, but—

There was too much future, not enough challenge.

He could not belong to Reza.

“You are restless?” Reza whispered. “Need to spar? What a way to awaken your lover, Vincent, with this sword bared.”

“Do you accept the challenge?” Vincent asked, his voice a low rumble.

Reza scoffed, spread his hands. “I do.”

Vincent allowed him space to tie on trousers and collect a sword of his own. Both men faced off bare-footed, bare-chested, with their hair hanging around their shoulders—for Vincent’s hair, too, was long now, wavy and sun-gold. They moved carefully at first, swords touching gently now and again, like tentative lovers. Around the low bed, slipping back out into the greeting room.

Then Vincent struck. Reza blocked. Again. And Reza swung in, cutting hard, so Vincent twisted his wrist to parry, and they parted. It happened again and again, as if choreographed, except there were no smiles, no little teasing flirtations of tapping blades or a wave with the free hand.

Vincent focused. He breathed deeply and evenly, trusting himself and all he’d become in these two years. He knew the blade and he knew the rules, and would discover now if he could turn them inside out to his advantage.

Reza’s eyes widened a fraction, as the lord realized the intensity with which he needed to be fighting. Disbelief threw him off, and Vincent claimed every bit of spare ground, not letting up, driving hard. Reza growled then, and fought back, a cornered lion who suddenly realized he had more to protect than his own life.

“What is this?” Reza hissed, cutting hard. They knocked over the short lacquered table and a clay cup wobbled, finally toppling down to crack on the wooden floor.

“Reza?” called a voice through the door.

“I’m fine!” Reza snapped.

Vincent attacked.

He thrust for Reza’s heart, and the lord bent away, gasping, unharmed.

It would’ve been a clean death, if Vincent had truly meant it.

Lowering his sword, Vincent nodded. He breathed hard, but did not pant. His insides felt scoured clean. Reza threw his own sword down in a fit of tantrum, and jabbed his finger at Vincent’s chest.

What is this,” he demanded again.

“I wanted to know,” Vincent whispered.

“Know what?”

“If I could feel it, sparring with you.”

“Feel what?” Reza put his face in Vincent’s.

“Like a swordsman,” he said, but only because it would be cruel to answer, Alive, to a man he loved and respected and longed for.

Reza took Vincent’s hair, and then his head, and kissed him too hard; kissed him furiously and thoroughly. “I will make you feel,” he said, biting Vincent’s mouth, digging at his ribs, and Vincent smiled—actually smiled, though it hurt him like a bruise.

Hours later, Vincent lay on his back, staring up at the dark wooden ceiling above Reza’s bed, Reza asleep with his head on Vincent’s stomach, an arm curled around his thigh possessively. Every breath Vincent took lifted Reza’s head slightly, amusing Vincent in the only warm pocket of his heart. He memorized the weight, the drooping sensation in his limbs, sweat dried on his shoulders and the backs of his knees, the soft pillows beneath them, cushioning them like clouds. Reza’s mussed hair spread over his chest. The lord’s shoulder and arm were so smooth, so relaxed, lined with muscles soft now as he slept. A thin woven blanket covered only Reza’s calves and feet, leaving the rest of his body’s long line free to the air, to Vincent’s traveling gaze. Someday he would be on a hard pallet in Riverside, eyes shut, and recall every detail of this moment. The smell of desert air, the silence of the palace, lacking even birdsong or the quiet pad of slaves’ feet this early in the morning.

He gently rolled, extracting himself with a soothing murmur. He did not remember what happiness felt like as he stood and found his clothes, as he tied on his sash and took his own old sword. For a moment, he studied the tach that belonged to him now, and considered keeping it. But no, what good would it be in Riverside but to remind people he’d been away, and why he’d been away, and make him stand out for more than his skill? That was dangerous. He wanted to be known only for what he could do with this sword, not as a traveler or explorer, or as some royal man’s lover. No matter how much his heart was breaking.

Vincent did not let himself look at Reza again before leaving, worried he might see tension, or worse, a smile, on his lover’s dreaming face.

 

IX.

It was a perfect autumn day when Vincent Applethorpe stepped again onto the bridge running to the east bank of Riverside. Two and a half years since he’d left.

He’d hacked off most of his hair, so it curled at his jaw, and his skin maintained the sun-kissed glow of the desert, making his eyes lighter. But also he’d sold his fine Chartili clothing, and a pair of gold earrings that had been a gift, in exchange for solid boots, trousers, a shirt, and a coat. When he’d buckled his city sword belt on his hip again, and felt the weight of his sword tugging slightly, the sway of its length as he strode down the streets from the dock to the bridge, he knew he was home. But one he’d earned, not fallen into.

Riverside was alive and loud, colorful and stinking and slithering with shadows under every bright sign and glittering window.

Some speculative looks followed him as he hunted, tracking his confident stature and the bright sword at his side. Straight toward the bowels of the island he headed, before finding a place to sleep, before feeding himself. The streets narrowed even further, and the leaning houses cut off the crisp daylight. Laundry was strung across from window to window like festival flags, and water dampened everything: It clung to the cracks of the street, trickled along the gutters, dragging leaves and filth, linen ruffles and foamy old beer, the scraps of Riverside life. Taverns had their doors wide open, and it was just cold enough for fires at cross-streets to welcome drifting men and women, on breaks from work or pausing on the way home. They shared gossip and snarls, bread and thin pies. And several wore swords.

Vincent scanned the crowd, ready with a sharp smile. This was a bad, close-quarters location, but all the more challenging for it.

He wouldn’t wait for this to come to him, but would bring it on, immediate and quick.

There: a man holding himself well, sword cared for, but lacking fancy dress or signs of much wealth. His dark hair dragged down his neck to his bland coat collar; he’d not shaved in days. But his shoulders were strong and he reached angrily across the barrel he shared as a table with two others and threw one of the other men back. Vincent managed to slide into the path of it, so the other man toppled into him.

Vincent scowled, shoving the man away, and smeared spilled beer with one hand, fingering his hilt with the other. “You ruined my new coat,” he said dangerously to the swordsman.

The other was plenty eager, stepping out and laughing. “I did, at that, man. You’d fight me for it?”

Vincent drew.

“That’s Cales Martin, stranger,” called a woman whom Vincent hardly noticed, all his attention on his opponent. “He’s a good reputation.”

“I’m Vincent Applethorpe, miss, and I will too before long,” he said, calm and careful, and then he attacked.

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