Authors: James Maxwell
“Wait, Jehral,” Ella said. “I almost forgot.”
She once more reached into her workbag and took out the scabbard lying beside the rods. Walking over, she handed it to a
“This is for you.”
A sword rested snugly in the long scabbard like a hand in a glove. Jehral held the hilt of the curved scimitar in one hand and the scabbard in the other as he drew the blade six inches, his eyes widening in surprise when he saw the symbols on the shining steel.
“I had Ilathor find the blade for me. He said it’s as fine as his own. Do you know the Larbi word for the desert rose?”
Jehral opened his mouth.
“No, don’t say it now,” Ella said.
she knew he’d been about to say.
“Say this word to activate the sword. To deactivate it, say the Larbi name for the dust storm.” Ella grinned. “Some Larbi words are derived from the runic language. I hope that it keeps you safe. I don’t know when we will next meet, but I hope it will be under favorable circumstances. Farewell!”
Ella inserted a foot into her stirrup and grabbed hold of the pommel to pull herself up onto her horse’s back. She looked out over her forested home and past; the distant ocean filled her with dread.
Ella kicked her horse forward and waved.
As she rode, Ella pictured the devastation of Shar and recalled Miro’s vivid descriptions of the fates of Veldria and Gokan. The enemy would come with an armada of ships. They would have black powder, and they would have revenants.
It had been too long since Ella had been to the Academy of Enchanters. She’d been busy building the new machines at
and then in Seranthia for Killian’s coronation and the Chorum. Though she wasn’t on the best terms with High Enchanter Merlon, she looked forward to once more seeing the Green Tower and the Great Court.
It was time for Ella to do her part and to create some weapons of her own.
Tapel ducked a blow from the son of a prosperous merchant and then countered with a clumsy thrust. He tried to shut out the calls of encouragement and derision from the boys circled around him but was conscious of their watching eyes. Tapel was desperate to make a good impression.
All the boys training at the Pens in Sarostar knew Rogan Jarvish was married to Tapel’s mother. He couldn’t think of anything worse than embarrassing himself, but these boys had all been training ever since they could hold a sword. If it weren’t for Bladesinger Bartolo’s private instruction, he wouldn’t have lasted as long as the four blows struck so far in this spar.
Tapel took a step back, shifting one foot behind the other in the way he’d been taught. His opponent came forward to meet him and raised his sword as if to strike. Tapel lifted his practice sword to parry, but instead of striking, the merchant’s son kicked Tapel hard in the side of his knee.
Tapel winced but managed to stay on his feet. Another feint then became a real blow, and Tapel’s arm numbed at the shock of the two wooden swords colliding. Tapel couldn’t believe the strength of the blow. His opponent was three years younger than him.
Some of the boys jeered at Tapel. He was a foreigner with a Halrana accent, and they resented his private instruction and life of privilege. He couldn’t see what was so privileged about it; he slept in the same barracks as the other boys, only returning home on Lordsdays for dinner with his mother, Amelia. Tapel could still remember starving in war-torn Ralanast when these boys had been well fed in Sarostar.
Tapel blinked sweat out of his eyes and looked for an
to strike through his opponent’s defenses. The guard of the merchant’s son was high . . . perhaps he could make a false pass at his head and cut low . . .
Tapel took a step forward and feinted into the face of the
son, then dropped to one knee and smashed his wooden sword where the boy’s thigh should have been. Unfortunately, it wasn’t.
His opponent had deftly sidestepped around the clumsy attack, and with Tapel’s footing uncertain, the merchant’s son charged.
Tapel dropped and rolled to avoid the charge, then returned to his feet, panting and gasping. His opponent skewered the air where he’d been. Tapel shook droplets of sweat from his mousy hair. He hadn’t thought he would regret winter’s passing, but now, on spring’s doorstep, the sweat was becoming a problem.
“Never give up the advantage of solid footing unless you’re absolutely sure of yourself,” Bladesinger Bartolo said to the ringed boys. “Tapel’s roll was the only move available to him, but a better opponent would have bested him anyway.”
Tapel’s light wooden sword felt like it was made of solid iron. He waited for the next attack, knowing it was only a matter of time until he was beaten, and knowing it would hurt.
He looked around at the boys circling the sandy floor of the arena and wished there weren’t so many watching. Distracted, he almost missed his opponent coming forward. Tapel raised his sword with both hands on the hilt to ward off the overhead swing in the nick of time.
“Concentrate!” Bladesinger Bartolo called.
Tapel tried, but he couldn’t forget that Bartolo himself, as well as Miro, the high lord, had trained in this very arena and gone on to become the world’s finest swordsmen. And the man who’d trained them was Rogan, Tapel’s stepfather. Tapel didn’t want to let
Tapel moved to dodge the next attack but instead felt a dulled wooden sword point smash into his left bicep. He fought the urge to cry out, even though the blow was agonizing.
“Fight on,” Bladesinger Bartolo called out. “Tapel, hold your sword one-handed now. Your left arm is limp.”
Tapel lifted the sword, now as heavy as a sack of grain, and tried to ward off the next flurry of blows. There was a sound like a
whip, and he felt a sharp whack on his temple; suddenly, he was on his back on the ground, staring up at the sky.
“Tapel, stand,” Bladesinger Bartolo said.
Lord of the Earth, it was an effort, but Tapel climbed to
“Now bow to your opponent. Good, both of you. It’s time for the sixth form now. Steel swords. Tapel, go to the infirmary and get that head seen to.”
Swaying on his feet as he left the arena, Tapel put his fingers to his temple and looked with surprise as they came away tinged with red. He couldn’t even remember the skin being split. He wondered if that was what it was like in real combat—whether you kept fighting even when you’d been cut deeply, or whether you felt the pain right away and struggled to go on. Perhaps it depended on the wound.
Some of the youths made way for Tapel to get past, chuckling and shaking their heads, but Tapel turned back to the arena as two sixth-form students with sharp steel swords stepped in. Now fifteen years old, he wanted to watch the older boys fight.
The best to watch were the young men four and five years older than him. Once, he even saw Bladesinger Bartolo enter the arena with Dorian. Their swords whirled so fast, Tapel couldn’t even
. Not long after that Dorian went into the
for secret training. Dorian returned with the zenblade and
of a bladesinger, and half an ear. He never told
what had occurred in the Dunwood, although Tapel heard rumors that the Halrana were somehow involved. Dorian had half an ear, but Tapel could feel the envy washing off every other student.
Bladesinger Bartolo took his eyes momentarily off the ring to frown at Tapel and incline his head sharply in the direction of the infirmary. Tapel sighed and walked away from the arena, wishing he’d been able to start his training as early as all the Alturan boys. He wondered if he’d ever get rid of his Halrana accent. At least he was staying in the barracks, where his mother couldn’t keep an eye on him.
Unfortunately, today was Lordsday, and after practice he had to make his way to the Crystal Palace, so his mother could fuss
Anything was better than that.
Fergus the ferryman gazed out at his city as he navigated the Sarsen.
White snow turned translucent as it warmed in the afternoon sun and dripped from the trees with a steady patter. The ice in the Sarsen was gone; fish were spawning in pools far from the city; and singing birds flashed into the green water, emerging with little
prey downed with gusto.
Flowers dotted the riverside gardens in the Woltenplats and on the banks below the Crystal Palace: yellow daisies and shimmering summerglens, dainty white dewdrops and scarlet passionflowers. Bees buzzed as they flitted from one petal to another, and the hum of insects in the nearby Dunwood formed a melodious backdrop to any conversation away from the city center.
Mornings were misty and evenings cool, but at this time of year, at this time of day, there was no place better to be than Sarostar.
Fergus knew Sarostar like the back of his hand. He knew the
of all the nine bridges and the stories of intrigue and
from the many years of the Crystal Palace’s
. He knew the names of each of the buried souls who
the Heroes’ Cemetery near the Academy of Enchanters, and he knew the best place to have a mug of cherl or buy a length of Alturan silk.
But most of all, Fergus enjoyed knowing the people. He loved Sarostar, and he made it his business to get to know as many of her residents as he could, something his job as ferryman facilitated. He knew when to talk and when to listen. He knew the right questions to ask, and how to nod and keep his mouth shut. His wife said he was too curious, but Fergus thought there was nothing wrong with being interested in people.
A city’s heart wasn’t just in her beautiful buildings and the tales that made up her history. It was in her people: the humdrum details of their daily lives; how they interacted with the city, buying and working and eating and loving. If Fergus the ferryman could live forever, he would never tire of his favorite people in all the world, the people of Sarostar, capital of Altura.
Yet Sarostar had changed.
Though ferryboats were again traveling the river after a cold winter, for once, Fergus the ferryman wasn’t enjoying the spring. He pulled on his oars, hauling against the Sarsen’s strong current, and scowled.
Fergus had never in all his life seen so many strangers in
. Over the last months the city had become a scene of intense
; Sarostar’s nine bridges thronged with
from sunup to
. The demand for the services of the
. Not only was half of Halaran traveling back and forth between the free cities and Ralanast, but there were also these
from across the sea, the Veldrins. Even Dunfolk now
frequently that people barely
It was all so different.
There were so many newcomers, and so many of them looked suspicious! He looked at his current passenger, a prime
had tried engaging the man in conversation, but his
stayed silent as a clam. The man’s manners were strange and his skin swarthy. He looked around the boat as if it were dirty, and sniffed disdainfully, looking pointedly at the pipe stuffed into
belt. He was definitely a Veldrin.
Some of them settled in well, but many still pined for their home. Lady Amber, the high lord’s wife, had performed miracles, and a new district appeared in Sarostar’s north: the Veldonplats it was coming to be called. The people there had beds to sleep in and nightlamps to fill their houses with light, but it was a running joke in the city that there was an excess of nightlamps in the Poloplats market and a shortage of plain candles and oil lanterns. The
hadn’t taken well to enchantment.
One thing was for certain: they worked hard to perform to the high lord’s demanding schedule for fortifications. They knew what was coming, and their feverish stories had the whole city on edge. Just two days past, a Veldrin named Deniz had told Fergus about the fleet that would come from the west. When the time came, Fergus would fight.
Yes, some had settled in well, but not this one.
Fergus rowed hard against the current, the muscles in his
and back straining with effort. As the afternoon began to fade to evening, Fergus’s passenger stared in dread at the Crystal Palace’s cycling colors. When the high lord opened the way home, this one would be happy to go.
“There we go,” Fergus said as the flat-bottomed boat gently nudged the dock near the Pens. “Two copper cendeens that’ll be.”
With a grunt the Veldrin handed Fergus a couple of coins and disembarked.
Fergus knew the high lord was doing the right thing, but that didn’t mean he didn’t long for the old days, when he knew every face in Sarostar.
Fergus looked up when he heard a boy’s voice, and broke out in a smile when he saw who it was. “Tapel! Lord of the Sky, lad, another beating, eh?”
“I gave a bit back,” Tapel said.
“I’m sure you did. Here, get in. Next stop, the Crystal Palace.”
“Was that last man a Veldrin?” Tapel asked as he hopped into the boat.
“Why do you ask?”
“He sniffed when he passed me. I hate it when they do that.”
“Some of them think we’re barbarians,” Fergus said, pushing off. “Don’t mind them, lad. A lot of strangers in Sarostar, though.”
“You’ve noticed too?”
“Eh?” Fergus grunted as he put his back into the oars. “Noti
“Oh, nothing. Well, tell me, do you think this is strange? I saw a one-eyed man a few weeks ago. He was walking through the
market, dressed as a wealthy merchant. He was buying goods in the section where they sell stores. You know, salted meat, biscuits, that sort of thing.”
“What of it?”
“I swear I saw the same man again, just yesterday,” Tapel said. “This time he was dressed as a beggar.”
“Are you sure?”
“You should say something to someone at the palace. Or
Tapel shuddered. “Bladesinger Bartolo? I couldn’t.”
“Well, sometimes people like you and me notice things that others don’t. We’ll keep an eye out, eh?”
Tapel gave a weak smile as he touched a red mark on his head, and Fergus saw a boy struggling with the expectations that had been placed on him. “All right. Thanks, Fergus.”