Authors: Melissa Collins
Copyright © 2013 Melissa Collins
All rights reserved.
ISBN 13: 9780615751085
eBook ISBN: 978-1-63002-269-3
Library of Congress Control Number: 2013900431
Myatheira Press, Owosso, MI
“Watch your guard, Aiva. Don’t let him get so close to you.” She could hear the General’s directions, but there was little time to focus on what he was saying. All she could see was her opponent’s sword coming toward her, hypnotizing with its swift motions. The wood of their practice weapons collided with dull thuds, echoing through the open courtyard of the palace. In a blur of movement she was overtaken, her body thrown backward to the hard ground, the tip of a makeshift blade pressed gently against the side of her neck.
Overhead was the familiar face of the General’s son, dark brown windblown hair draped across his brow. The bright umber glow of his eyes stared down upon her, smiling, hand offered to help her back up. “You let me get too close to you,” he chuckled. “That’s twice now. Should we try for a third?”
“Best of five?” Aiva asked, wiping a bead of sweat from her forehead. Her long ebon hair hung loose down her back, covered in dirt from the fall. Retrieving her sword she held it in front of her. Prepared. Ready for another round. She wasn’t going to let him win so easily.
A solid pat on her shoulder signaled the General’s approach, a broad smile across his face at the sight of Aiva’s determined stance. “Your Highness, I imagine your mother would rather you be cleaned up and ready for dinner soon.”
“My mother knows where I am. She would not be angry if I stayed a little longer.”
“I suppose I should specify that it isn’t the wrath of your mother I concern myself with. While the Queen knows where you are and what you are doing, I would hate to see you explain to Lady Faustine why you were late for your lesson if you hold up dinner. She would be appalled to discover you participating in swordplay.”
Aiva exhaled, staring up at the General defiantly. Rules were ridiculous. Why couldn’t a princess learn to fight? Her mother was Queen Leyna Levadis, once one of the most decorated soldiers in all of Tanispa. It felt almost an insult for her eldest daughter to not know her way around a blade. “Call for my mother then,” she stated firmly. “I am certain she would allow us at least one more match.
“Here she comes now. You may ask her yourself.” The General motioned toward a garden path near the south of the courtyard, the slender form of Aiva’s mother moving gracefully toward them. The Queen was always a stunning sight to behold, even for her own daughter. She carried herself with such poise, yet there was a gentleness in her rich blue eyes that none of her subjects could deny. Beautiful. Regal. The long train of her amethyst gown trailing delicately along the ground with every step.
“General Cadell, are you letting your son abuse my daughter again?” she asked, a lighthearted twinkle in her eyes. “If she has any bruises, I will leave it in your hands to explain their origin to Lady Faustine.”
“Mother, I want to challenge Callum one more time but the General will not let me. Tell him it is alright? I will not take long.”
“You hear that, Father?” Callum laughed. “Aiva believes she can best me quickly. I say, we should let her try. If Her Majesty approves, that is.”
Aiva stared at her mother, anxious to hear her response. She pleaded with her silently; sword clutched tightly in hand, muscles tensed in preparation to fight if the Queen gave her permission.
Her mother looked her over carefully, scrutinizing, appraising her for any sign of present injury. Content that her condition was satisfactory, Leyna nodded her head, motioning Aiva toward Callum. “Alright. One more match. But keep your word and do so with haste. You may think Lady Faustine’s lectures are long and tiresome, but you are not the one who has to listen when she chooses to chastise me for allowing my sixteen-year-old daughter to fraternize with the soldiers. No offense, General.”
“None taken,” he chortled. “Very well, Callum. You have one more match. Go easy on her this time. We don’t want any bumps or bruises.”
Callum tapped the tip of his sword against the ground. “She’s a good fighter, Father. I see no reason to go easy on her.”
Sword raised, Aiva took her stance, eyes locked on Callum. She wasn’t going to let him win so easily this time. He had strength on his side, but she was agile. Enough to maneuver away from him. If she could just keep distance between them, the way General Cadell had taught her. When she allowed her opponent in close, his strength overpowered her. She had to keep them apart. Moving. Circling. Off-balance. If she let him get comfortable, Callum would defeat her again. He was a skilled fighter. Not that she expected him to be otherwise when he was the son of Tanispa’s legendary General Cadell. The same man who led the Vor’shai armies to victory against the Ven’shal.
They circled around each other, an occasional feint to try and draw the other into action. Aiva didn’t want to move in too soon. It was best to make her move when he least expected it. Though she tended to fight with a more defensive tactic. Attempting an offensive approach seemed like a good change of routine to put Callum off his guard. To test his defense for once.
In a fluid motion she lunged forward, unsurprised to find her attack parried. She had to keep going. High. Low. Thrust. Counter. Callum moved with her, stepping forward, forcing Aiva to change her direction to circle, not letting him close in on her guard. It was frustrating that he was aware of her weakness. The flaw in her technique. With every step he took, Callum tried to push through her barrier, leaving her vulnerable to his superior strength.
“Watch his feet, dear,” Leyna called out, her voice sounding distant to Aiva’s frantic senses, desperate to keep Callum away. “You are too focused on his sword. Consider your other weapons.”
Her other weapons? That was easy for her mother to say. Though she had a point. Gathering her strength Aiva caught Callum’s sword with her own and pushed him back to grant a brief reprieve from the attack, eyes quickly scanning his body. He was keeping his weight more on the front. With the distribution off-center, a sweep might be possible. When he came in for the lunge there would be an opening. She could see him preparing. Setting up for the attack. Waiting for it, Aiva ducked under the strike, twisting her body to drag her leg along the ground, connecting hard with Callum’s base of support. He went down with surprising ease, air escaping his lungs in a short puff, blinking up at Aiva in surprise as she recovered her own stance, knee pressed into his midsection, sword solidly pointed at his throat.
A wash of pride filled her to see Callum at her mercy. She’d won. And with her mother there to see it! Excitedly she rose to her feet, forgetting about Callum in the moment. Leaving him to pull himself off the ground, Aiva ran over to her mother, arms wrapping around her in a celebratory embrace. “Did you see that, Mother?” she gasped, barely able to contain her joy. “I did it! I won!”
Cadell made his way over to his son, patting him on the back with a bemused shake of his head. “Callum, my boy,” he smirked. “You were just bested by a child.”
“In my defense, she had assistance from the Queen,” Callum cleared his throat, embarrassed by the defeat. “Are you sure we cannot go one more round? We still have time – ”
“Time is one thing we do not have, I am afraid,” Leyna smiled knowingly at Callum. “When next you are able, you are welcome to try again. I am sure Prince Edric would love a match sometime. He was disheartened to miss your company today, but he and his father had other business which detained them. I expect they will come by to see you this evening when they return.”
“Of course, Your Majesty,” Callum bowed to her, eyes lowered to the ground with respect.
Aiva stood proudly at her mother’s side, barely able to contain the desire to laugh. After the number of times she’d fallen to his sword, she’d gotten the final victory in. She couldn’t wait to tell her brother. Edric was sure to find it rather humorous. His little sister had triumphed over a trained soldier.
“Aiva, help Callum put the swords away so we can get to dinner. You know how your sister gets when she has to wait.”
Nodding to her mother, Aiva hurried past Callum with her sword, unable to hold back a giggle as she ran by, poking him in the stomach with the tip of her weapon. He took chase after her, their laughter mingling together through the courtyard, playfully batting at each other’s blade along the path until they reached the gardener’s shed, bursting through the door to stand inside the tiny room.
“We should have another match now,” Callum grinned, holding his sword out in front of himself, a teasing glint in his eye. Aiva tossed her head back, laughing at his desperate attempts to reclaim his honor.
“You should just accept the loss,” she smiled, tapping his blade with her own. “Your average of victories is far better than mine. Why does this one matter so much to you?”
“Because it will be our last match for a while. I leave tonight to officially join the Tanispan military. The training will keep me away for quite some time.” The playful expression on his face faded away, replaced by a look of solemnity. Aiva placed her sword on the rack situated against the wall, turning to face him, surprised by the news.
“You’re leaving?” she asked. Her heart sank at the thought. She knew it was inevitable that Callum would join the Tanispan forces in his father’s footsteps, but never had she thought it would happen so soon.
Nodding his head Callum moved over to the rack, positioning his sword next to Aiva’s, a distance in his eyes that Aiva had never seen there before. He looked thoughtful. Almost sad. “My request was submitted some time ago. We were just waiting for my twenty-fifth birthday. I knew I wouldn’t be denied, but I will say I wasn’t expecting them to contact me so quickly to make arrangements for training. Seems the recruiters are just as anxious for me to get started as my father is.”
“But who will I practice with? My sister would hardly be a worthy opponent and my brother is always so busy…”
“I’m sure my father will continue to work with you, if you desire it. Lady Faustine would probably approve of that more than she would of you working with me. My father is in the employ of your parents. Practicing with him will be considered less inappropriate for a girl of your age. Technically you and I shouldn’t be permitted to socialize at all.”
“I do not care what Lady Faustine says is appropriate or not. We are friends. There is nothing wrong with that,” Aiva frowned. “When will you be back? You will write to us, I hope?”
A faint smile broke through the somberness of Callum’s expression. “Of course I will,” he replied softly, reaching out to muss Aiva’s hair. “Are you going to miss me?”
“I have not decided yet,” she huffed, running her fingers through her hair to try and smooth over the tangles left by Callum’s hand. “I will consider it. But what of you? Are you going to miss me?”
Lowering his eyes to the floor, Callum hesitated to speak. He was nervous. Aiva could tell by the way he idly kicked at the dirt on the ground, avoiding her steady gaze. It was unlike him to appear uneasy. He was always the perfect image of confidence. His personality was usually lighthearted, naturally treating Aiva like his own sister. They had been friends for as long as she could remember. Callum had been nine when she was born, a close friend of her brother Edric. She’d always been considered one of the boys, her interest lying more with the games played by Callum and Edric than the feminine pastimes of the other girls. Never had he shown such reluctance to say anything in her presence.
“Come now, Callum,” she laughed nervously, unsure of what troubled him. “Do you look so wretched because you are not going to think about me while you are gone?”
“No. If you must know, I look this way because I fear I will think about you too much.”
Aiva blinked at him, confused by his statement. Think about her too much? What a silly thought! “You are being ridiculous,” she chuckled, taking a step toward him, taken aback to notice Callum move away. Hurt by the gesture, she paused, gazing at him in disbelief. “Callum,” she said the name, making no attempt to hide her sadness. “What is it? Have I done something wrong?”
Shaking his head Callum seemed to realize what he’d done, correcting the action by stepping in to wrap his arms around Aiva in an awkward embrace. “I’m sorry, Aiva. I did not mean to – I just,” he stammered, frustrated by his inability to find the words he wanted. “Will you look after my sister while I am away? Calie needs someone like you to look up to. I know you will keep her out of trouble until I get back. Can I count on you to do that for me?”
“Do you even have to ask?” Her smile returned. The panic at the thought of having upset Callum somehow had sent her heart into a rush, the steady beat continuing to thump loudly in her head. She didn’t know why it mattered so much, though she hated the thought of him leaving with any hard feelings toward her. She was young, but she knew well enough the dangers of military life. A new fear gripped at her heart, no longer concerned about his opinion of her, caring only about his safety on the field. “This is only training, right?” she asked, uncomfortable with the thought of Callum going off into some dangerous war-torn land that she wasn’t aware of. “You will not actually be going into battle?”
“Not anytime soon. But the Siscalian King Adem has made requests for aid in their naval forces. The pirates from the south are becoming more of a threat along the waters of the Nahpoa Sea, between Namorea and Siscal. When my training is complete, the chances are good that I will be sent to assist in forcing them back to Luquarr.” Aiva felt Callum’s embrace tighten, holding her to him as if afraid to let her go. Unsure of what to do, she patted his back, for the first time sensing a brief wave of discomfort over the thought of her mother or the General walking in to find her in Callum’s arms.
Gently Callum pulled away, hands remaining on her arms, staring into her eyes. He was acting strangely. There was something in his expression that she couldn’t decipher. She worried that maybe he was being sent away against his wishes. But that didn’t make any sense. He’d talked of his dreams to follow in his father’s footsteps for years. There was never a time when he hadn’t carried the desire to one day take the role of general when his father chose to retire.