Authors: Connie Suttle
"Brat is a good description," I agreed as I sipped a second cup of Falchani black. "I was calling him Surly, because he didn't tell me his name." Crane would have used his blades to drive him into the ground for showing up in public looking and smelling as he did.
"His Sursee claims Iver is a natural at bladework. I haven't heard of a true natural in many years," Camala huffed. "There are always wild claims, but they generally lose on the first day."
"He's still here," I shook my head. "Maybe he knocks his opponents down with the smell. My Sursee always said to use every advantage."
"Iver's chosen an unusual tactic, then," Camala observed. "I can only imagine what some of the better warriors will say to him if he comes to the fighting square looking and smelling like that. There are more than a few officers in the Trials, and I pity Iver if he comes under any of their commands."
"He isn't in the army now?" I blinked at her.
"No. His father has seen to that, as he's asked for a reprieve until Iver marries and has a son. Iver is Inver's only child."
"Iver was certainly doing his best last night," I said. "I have no idea who the woman was, but they made enough noise to wake the entire camp."
"That's not supposed to happen, but I figure Iver paid her way past the guards," Camala snorted. "You could file a complaint with the Lord Marshall against him."
"I don't think I'll be here long enough to file a complaint," I said. "I'm more worried about who I'll face today."
"You're probably the only one wearing white who's still in the Trials," Camala agreed. "They'll pair you with a warrior who's made a good run in past turns, at the least."
"That's what terrifies me," I said. Camala laughed.
* * *
My first opponent that morning had his shirt off, showing his full complement of tattoos. A snarling Falchani tiger graced his chest as his breaths came slow and measured. Two blades were on the ground, ready for his grasp, as he wore no harness and sheaths. Folding to the ground as gracefully as I could, I gave him a last glance before working to get into a meditative state.
My adversary was ahead of me in that respect; already sitting, his eyes were closed, his body relaxed. Here was the seasoned warrior Camala warned me about. Squashing my worry, I worked to control my breathing and shut my eyes.
"Up." Both of us were up in an instant. When the signal came, he was on me. Crane could have taught this one, I knew, as he had the economical movements that my Sursee did—saving his strength and striking where it was most effective.
At least I recognized his movements and felt comfortable falling into what Crane called the dance—that's what the battle between two experienced warriors resembled, when they'd been trained to fight with two blades.
"Are you planning to go on the offensive or are you content to spar all day?" he asked after a while.
"Actually, I thought about complimenting your tattoos—I've never seen a tiger done so well," I said through gritted teeth as I blocked two swift, consecutive blows, his steel ringing against mine.
"I've never broken a sweat until now," he pointed out. "Who trained you?"
"Veykan of the Wildcat Tribe," I replied dutifully. I was only allowed to report the one who'd signed me in, after all.
"Never heard of him," he grunted as one of my blows caused his left blade to sound its ringing complaints across the grounds. I hadn't noticed until then that a crowd had gathered around our square. Pulling my attention back to the bout, I studied my opponent.
"Veykan will be disappointed to hear that," I turned aside, allowing his right blade to miss mine completely. It was one of Crane's favorite tricks, and allowed me to come in under his guard.
"Bout over," the attending officer called as I held the point of my blade at the warrior's throat.
"And so it is," my opponent nodded as I pulled the blade back. "Well done, warrior." He gave me a respectful nod and walked away. The crowd parted to let him through.
* * *
Two clicks later, I dispatched my second opponent of the day—he was good but the first one had been better and would have given Crane a workout. Crane still would have had him, however, when all was said and done.
The bouts were moving closer to the Warlord's tent. My first had been halfway there, the second, half again as close. The third looked to be quite close. I knew the final bout would be held before the elevated benches built for that purpose.
The center and highest level was shaded by thick, red cloth embroidered in gold—the Warlord and General could observe the bout from comfortable seats in the shade. The warriors in the fighting square below would be sweating in the heat of the Falchani solstice as they fought for the Warlord's prize.
* * *
After a lunch of the Falchani version of hummus and flatbread, I faced my third opponent of the day—Camala. She grinned at me as she stepped inside the square and I breathed a shaky sigh. "Friend or enemy, they'll all attempt to win," Crane always said. "Don't let them win."
"Up," the attending officer commanded. The crowd was large—perhaps larger than the one against my first opponent of the day. Money changed hands amid quiet whispers—onlookers weren't allowed to distract combatants.
I figured Camala would come at me fast when the signal came. I wasn't disappointed. I waited for her to get into her rhythm and become comfortable. "Always watch for the pattern," Crane taught me. "And then look for a way to upset it. Throw them off balance and move in with your best attack."
Camala was good, but still my first opponent of the day was better. She stepped out of bounds as I drove her back with a flurry of blows. "Bout over," the officer called. Camala grinned as she sheathed her blades and walked toward me. I thought she meant to take my hand. Instead, she leaned in to kiss me.
"I know you prefer men, I saw that the first time we met," she whispered in my ear. "Otherwise, I'd have asked to unbraid your hair that first night."
She moved away amid catcalls and laughter as I stood, immobilized in shock, watching her braid swing down her back as she strode through the crowd.
* * *
"Warlord," the General stood at the Warlord's right hand, watching with disinterest as the Warlord signed yet another requisition form.
"General," the Warlord replied noncommittally.
"You're not going to believe what I saw today, Warlord."
"Why is that, General?"
"The proper question is 'what is that,' but I will overlook your misuse of the language for now."
"Did you come in here, only to inform me that my language skills are lacking?" the Warlord looked up at his General.
"No, I came in here to inform you that Pheran Tiger was beaten today. This morning, in fact."
"Pheran, out on the second day? That's preposterous," the Warlord turned back to the papers requiring his signature.
"What's even more preposterous is who took him out," the General said. He usually enjoyed baiting the Warlord.
"Zedru?" the Warlord asked.
"Oh, he's still in, but he wasn't the one. They would never have matched those two up so early."
"Who, then?" The Warlord motioned for the General to get on with it.
"A newly-trained took Pheran out," the General grinned.
"You're either joking or Pheran had to be ill. Which one is it?"
"Neither. I spoke to him before he went to the bathing tents. He said he intends to stay and see how far the one who defeated him goes in the Trials."
"A newly-trained?" the Warlord said.
"Yes. And you should see her. She's something to look at. I watched her from a distance, when she took out Camala."
"She?" The General had the Warlord's attention, now. "And she took out Camala? This girl must be quick as well as trained."
The General's grin became wider. "You should come out tomorrow and watch her yourself before one of the others takes her down."
"Hmmph." The Warlord's response was ambiguous, as always.
* * *
Iver lounged on his pallet, uncaring that he stank of two-day-old sweat and sex when I entered our shared space to collect soap, comb and gah. Without speaking to him, I stalked out of the tent to clean up before dinner.
The cooks were watching for me, it appeared, and seemed pleased to serve me vegetable stew over rice for my evening meal. The crowd had certainly thinned out, and I had the table to myself—until my opponent from the first bout of the day sat down across from me.
"Pheran Tiger," he held out a hand. I took it, attempting to hide my nervousness.
"Devin of the Mountain Hawk," I replied, lowering my head respectfully.
"I watched your second and third bouts today," he said, his dark eyes revealing nothing. "This is your first time at the Trials?"
"Yes," I nodded, pushing peas, carrots and potatoes around on my plate. "My Sursee insisted that I come."
I lifted my head quickly when he chuckled. He seemed to be enjoying himself while I wallowed in discomfort. Until now, I'd thought the only person I'd feel comfortable talking with after I'd beaten them in the fighting square was Camala, and she'd already left to rejoin her unit.
"I was impressed when you eliminated Gearin," Pheran said. "He won the Trials three turns ago."
"Really?" The squeak in my voice embarrassed me and made Pheran chuckle again. "He didn't introduce himself, he just came after me."
"He's talented in that respect," Pheran nodded.
"He's not as good as you," I pointed out. At that moment, I hoped the heat in my cheeks dissipated quickly. Being visibly embarrassed tended to make me even more so.
"I've won the Trials twice," Pheran grinned. I let my head fall to the table, bumping my forehead uncomfortably. Pheran laughed as I lifted my head and blinked at him in dismay.
"How about a game of Irzu after dinner?" Pheran asked as a plate of food was brought for him by a cook's helper. "You play, don't you?" He nodded at the boy who'd served him before digging in.
"I play." I did—Crane and Dragon insisted on it. I often played Crane while Dragon watched, but occasionally Dragon would take me on. The game could go on for days. Dragon was a master strategist, but he appreciated my feel for the game and at times complimented my moves. Compliments from Dragon were very few—Veykan told me that long ago.
"Then come to my tent—number fifty-four, when you finish your meal. I promise not to keep you late. If the game isn't finished, I'll save the moves for later. Tell the boy I'll have someone return my tray." Pheran lifted the tray in question and walked out of the cooking tent.
* * *
Pheran's tent was larger than the one Iver and I shared, and he had the space to himself. Likely he'd had the space to himself all along—I saw no evidence that a tentmate had vacated it after being ousted in the Trials.
The Irzu board was already set up on a low table, with the familiar piles of black and white stones set out beside it. We'd be sitting cross-legged on the floor while we played. Pheran had taken the black, leaving the white stones for me.
"Come in," Pheran motioned me forward as I stood uncertainly at the open tent flap. "I have tea and beer," he added.
"I'll take tea," I nodded as I walked into his spacious tent. A few personal belongings were inside but like most Falchani warriors, the space was clean and uncluttered. "I wish my tentmate could see this," I breathed as I gazed about me.
"Why is that?" Pheran poured a cup of tea and handed it to me.
"Because he's a pig," I stated baldly. "He doesn't clean himself or his space, and he makes the whole tent stink."
"A sure sign of the poorly trained," Pheran motioned for me to sit down. "Who is it?"
"I was told his name is Iver," I said. "He hasn't bothered to introduce himself."
"Ah. Lord Inver's brat."
"I've heard that description before," I nodded.
"It's going around," Pheran said. "Please, don't let your tea grow cold." I drank while studying the board, considering my first move.
* * *
"She doesn't have a clue who I am," Pheran grinned. Raven Praxa, Pheran's Captain of the Guard, watched as Devin walked away. The game lay unfinished inside Pheran's tent—she'd proven a worthy adversary.
"Is that a bad thing? Most people who know you are terrified."
"Are you terrified?"
"At times," Raven admitted reluctantly. "But I'm less terrified of you than I am of the General or the Warlord."
"They usually don't bite," Pheran grinned.
"Say that after you've been pounded into the dirt by either one of them," Raven muttered.
"I have been pounded into the dirt—regularly—by both of them," Pheran replied. "I spar with them once every eight-day."
"And then you pound me into the dirt afterward," Raven nodded.
"It's only fair," Pheran grinned.
* * *
Iver and another
occupied his pallet when I walked into the tent. I considered asking her how she managed to tolerate the stench but held back—I figured she'd get paid for her services before the night was out. Whatever she was charging, it wasn't enough, in my opinion.