Pre-Series Short Story: Stone Heart

Time for the third Firkad Sarovy short story.  This takes place during his stint in the Sapphire Youth Corps, at the age of twelve — so it comes after Gargoyle Claws and before The Lay of the Land.

Not a big event, just a window into some of the relationship difficulties inherent in being Tevestyn.

There are probably three more short stories coming in Young Sarovy’s little arc, but my new work schedule makes it a bit tough to write them in my usual productive period.  It might be a while before they come out, alas.

Includes: combat, injury.

Optional Knowledge: Trivestes.

Approx. Date: 22 years before series.

Note: While Trivestes is the name for the province in standard Imperial parlance, the people of that province call it Tevestys and themselves the Tevestyn.

Description: Young Firkad Sarovy navigates some undefinable feelings.

Stone Heart

“Figured I’d find you here.”

Blinking, sixth-year cadet Firkad Sarovy swiveled his attention from the dueling court to his interloping roommate. Irritation flared and died without reaching his face. There was never a point to showing it—especially where Taymar Vennatry was involved.

“Yes,” he answered. “Because I’m competing.”

She plunked down beside him on the stone bench with an affected sigh. Classes done, she’d tied her uniform jacket around her waist in that too-casual way he hated; some family token glinted at the neck of her faded blue tunic. “You’re practicing,” she corrected. “This isn’t a judged match.”

He looked to the uniformed classmate calling the points, then to the two duelists in full kit clashing across the mossy court. Then back to Taymar. “So?”

“So you’re not obligated to be here. It won’t affect your ranking.”

He blinked again, trying to parse her meaning. It was difficult with Taymar. They’d been roommates for two years now, since the start of fourth year and the shift from general education to officer’s-aide preparation. He wouldn’t say they got along; they had nothing in common, including personality traits. Still, they’d never dueled, Taymar being neither a sportswoman nor a knee-jerk challenger.

Firkad was a sportsman. But because of that, he felt no impulse to challenge Taymar even when she deliberately intruded on his space. Anger was pointless when reason usually worked, and when it didn’t, fighting was equally useless. He wouldn’t duel her if it wouldn’t count.

“I want to be here,” he said finally. “To test myself.”

“Against those two?” She nodded toward the duelists, their sabres flashing in the grey light. Clouds cloaked the broad sky, the air stirring fitfully; there would be rain later. “Well, I mean, who else? They’re the only ones here with kit beside you. Which do you like better?”

He eyed her sidelong, sure he’d caught something weird in her voice but not certain what it was. Then he focused on the duelists. Sefrys Davrochir and Torden Vinkaryl: his top rivals in the sixth-year lists, with whom he’d been trading the top slots back and forth for months now.

Just looking at them in motion gave him a little thrill. Despite identical padding and blades, he knew Sefrys by her poise and sharp motions, keen and cutting and unable to be baited. Torden moved more fluidly, fiercely, but foolishly at times, the silver flick of his sabre a taunt that failed as often as it feinted. They were both in the rangy stage, like him—like Taymar and nearly all the other sixth-years, the girls just starting to outgrow the boys and the wolf-touched beginning to show scruff. In their gear, they were still almost the same.

He liked them that way. Liked facing either of them, since they drew out different responses from him. Ice-cold tactics for Sefrys, who could back him off the court by sheer relentlessness if he failed to turn the tables; motion and adaptability for Torden, who would close-fight at any opportunity. His reactivity embarrassed him sometimes, as if he had no style of his own, but as long as it kept him ranked high enough to fight them, he couldn’t complain.

“Both,” he said.

Taymar exhaled. “Which. Do you like. Better.”

He side-eyed her. “Both.”

The look she gave him was definitely aggravated. He wished she’d make sense. Maybe it was a sibling-speak thing. Unlike him, she’d grown up with two of them—a situation far more common among the southern deieks than the northern. He had a sibling now, but Kasten was six years younger than him, and they’d only met twice. He’d be moving out of the Youth Corps at the same time Kasten was inducted into it, as it should be.

Taymar seemed to want some kind of surrogate sibling relationship. He did not.

“You can’t have both of them, Firkad.”

“That’s why we take turns.”

Someone behind him snorted. He didn’t bother checking who it was. Cadets of all years tended to congregate here to watch practices, but the only ones whose opinions he cared about were on the court. He looked to his kit instead, set on the slate pavings at his feet. Sabre case, helmet, gauntlets, canteen, towel; his neatly folded jacket sat atop his emptied bag. He’d already strapped on the padded gambeson, cuirass, pauldrons and greaves. He was ready.

“You’re so dense,” said Taymar. “I mean sex. You can’t sleep with both of them.”

He froze, heat crawling up his face. Behind him, one of those unseen spectators laughed and said, “Why not? Some people do it. They have whole bunches of spouses, not just one.”

“Don’t be stupid.” The acid in Taymar’s voice could have blistered skin. “That’s foreigners, that’s not us. We’re supposed to bond. You can’t bond with a whole bunch of people.”

“Who says?”

“Also there’s solitaires,” put in some other commentator.

Taymar hissed, “They don’t count.”

“Sure they do. If solitaires take no mates, then someone else can have two.”

“That’s not how it works!”

Firkad tuned them out with an effort of will. The hot flush was fading, the tension in his shoulders easing as he unclenched his hands. As embarrassing as it was to be called out in public, at least his classmates had taken the argument to Taymar. He’d never managed to beat her in a war of words; she did not acknowledge defeat.

Especially when she was right. Which…

He flicked a look up at the combatants, hoping they hadn’t heard. It seemed not; they were clashing again, masked faces fixed on each other. If he was to choose one to displace, so he could engage with the other…

In…whatever way…

“Ugh, you don’t even change expressions when you blush. You’re impossible.”

He sighed through his teeth. “What do you want, Taymar?”

“For the millionth time, it’s just Tay. And, um…“

Blades clashed, slid, flicked. Hit. The duo disengaged, Sefrys raising her mask to curse. As she turned toward her gear, Torden raised his own mask, laughing.

Firkad stood, propelled by intolerable tension. “Challenge!”

All talk died. As if feeling himself the target, Torden half-turned, dark brows crinkled over equally dark eyes. He had a touch of foreign blood, western; class chatter always disagreed about whether that was better or worse than being part wolf.

Firkad didn’t care about that. What mattered was the cold slippery feeling down his spine when their eyes locked on the court.

For a moment, Torden just blinked, lip curling in what seemed like confusion. To clarify, Firkad took a step forward. “I challenge the winner. That’s you, Torden, isn’t it? I’ll wait if you need a break.”

Off-side, Sefrys snorted. Torden slanted a look her way; Firkad didn’t. Peripherally he could see her removing her gloves, uncapping her canteen. She’d have a break while they fought, and then take on the winner, and—

“You can wait a bit longer. We didn’t invite you.”

Embarrassment crawled up his neck. He tamped it down. “I didn’t think it was a private duel. This is a public practice court.” Situated right in the middle of the campus, in fact, with both the lecture halls and the administration buildings peering down upon it like low windowed cliffs.

Nor had it been a grudge match. They’d darted back and forth with the usual bright alacrity, as much a game as a fight. He didn’t see a need to mention the half-dozen spectators.

“Right. Public. But…”

“There’s no point in arguing,” called Sefrys from her chosen bench. “Go ahead and fight him. I’ll wait.”

Torden sighed heavily—almost melodramatically. “It’s funny,” he said as turned toward Firkad. “Every time you show up, I remember being back in Karsyt Faares. Everybody always watching me, even the statues. You have those where you came from?”

Firkad blinked. “Gargoyles? Yes, we—“

“That’s what you remind me of. A staring stone monster. Weird, right?”

In the silence of the crowd, he couldn’t help but hear Sefrys’ laugh.

He stiffened, somewhere between surprised and stung. These were his rivals—his favorites. Yes, he could be intensely target-focused, but that was the point. They were all trying to be the best. That meant honing themselves against other real contenders. More than one, as no single rival could teach every lesson.

It wasn’t about what Taymar’d said. It was practicality and respect and—

“See? What’s wrong with you? You just stand there, staring.”

He couldn’t form an argument. His insides felt frozen—stuck in pre-fight position.

“Why would you say that?” he managed at last.

Torden snorted. “What’s wrong, Gargoyle? Never been mocked before?”

“Not twice.”

As the spectators drew a collective breath, Firkad realized they’d taken it as a threat. He hadn’t meant that. It was just that no one had ever seriously heckled him. He was a quiet person who liked his personal space. His lack of reaction tended to make aggressors bounce off him like from a wall, not come back for more.

It wasn’t as if the sudden nickname was even an insult. He had no reason to get mad.

And yet…

Someone touched his arm. Taymar, he guessed. No one else would dare. “Let’s go,” she said in a voice pitched just for him. “There’s no point to this. We can—“

“If you wanna run off and cry, that’s all right,” Torden offered sweetly, teeth bared.

Firkad made an effort to answer that expression, but only managed a flat hostile smile. “Do you accept my challenge?”

With a scoff, Torden pulled his mask back down. “Sure, why not? Let’s get it over with.”

Carefully, feeling like ice was cracking all across his limbs, Firkad shook off Taymar’s hand and stooped to retrieve his gear. Pulling on helm and gauntlets encased him again in that fierce, private world he’d always hated to leave. The sense of naught but thin insulation between himself and the blade.

His sabre gleamed in the clouded light as he drew it from the case. Controlling his stride, he stepped up to the stone mark embedded in the court’s turf and saluted his foe.

Torden didn’t return it. Beyond him, the western half of the Youth Corps complex’s great central plaza sprawled out placidly beneath the lowering sky, the ornamental ponds just a series of shimmers, the parade ground and other practice spots seeded thinly with the bold or faded blues of instructors’ and cadets’ uniforms. Nothing out of the ordinary for a post-class afternoon. The cadet who’d been officiating looked between them with a frown, then declared, “Start.”

Firkad advanced off the mark quickly, the strange cinder in his chest pulling him forward faster than he preferred. In contrast, Torden was slower—less engaged than his usual slicing fervor. Bored, or contemptuous? Firkad couldn’t quite read the answer in his stance as Torden brushed off those first haphazard strikes.

Cursing internally, Firkad took a step back, trying to regain his composure. This wasn’t personal. This meant nothing—

A skitter-step, a feint, and Torden’s blade scraped his upper left pauldron before he could cut a counter.

“Disabling strike, shoulder,” the officiator announced. “First point, Torden Vinkaryl.”

Firkad’s world narrowed. He couldn’t afford to be caught in the swirl of his thoughts. The Light knew Torden didn’t bother thinking while he fought.

A laugh filtered through his opponent’s mask as they reset. “That’s all your anger is worth? Two swipes and a retreat?”

“I’m not—“ Don’t bite the hook!

He came off the mark fast again, feinting for the leg, then turning Torden’s blade as he went to parry. An upward slice—but Torden slipped aside from it, the sabre biting air past his shoulder. As Torden lunged for a body-stab, Firkad turned as well, bringing his blade down on his foe’s in a momentary lock. He kicked for Torden’s ankle—

And hit nothing as his foe pushed off with the other leg, hopping back before planting his feet. Firkad’s blade, though…

“Disabling strike, forearm. Point to Firkad Sarovy.”

Torden made a vaguely rude gesture with his sabre as they reset. Behind his mask, Firkad forced a smile. A slice across the back of the forearm was good—a clean disengagement strike. But it wasn’t enough. Through the gauntlet, it wouldn’t even have hurt.

That’s not the point. Winning is.

Or at least it always had been before.

“Come on, Torden, don’t waste time.” Sefrys, definitely sounding bored.

“Yeah, yeah.”

This time it was Torden who advanced, with all the usual ferocity. The switch back to normalcy grounded Firkad, and for a few long moments it was the same clash as ever: Torden’s forward fire against his lateral motion, blades clashing and shrilling off each other as the wilder duelist tried to power through. This was how Firkad usually won, evading and turning Torden’s blade until the other boy’s passion ran out and let him rack up enough stings.

But in the wake of one parried pass, Torden didn’t withdraw. He stepped close instead, inside Firkad’s range, and stepped again when Firkad tried to retreat. Sidestepping, Firkad tried to bring his blade to bear, but Torden’s offhand lashed out to clamp on his gauntlet. He moved to do the same, only to feel the pressure of Torden’s sabre against his armored stomach.

A long slash, and the officiator called, “Disemboweling strike. Two points to Torden Vinkaryl.”

And still Torden didn’t step back. Nearly mask-to-mask, he hissed, “Too bad it’s not real. Back off from us or I’ll make it so.”

Then he pushed away, turning with open arms to receive the whistles and hoots from the crowd. Past him, Firkad saw Sefrys on the bench, smiling.

Something inside him, merely hurt before, cracked apart.

A death threat.

A death threat because he’d liked them.

Because they’d been bonding and he hadn’t noticed. Hadn’t thought about it. And no one had told him. They’d just let him step up to the mark.

Simple embarrassment, he could handle. He’d put his foot in his mouth often enough. His home life had given him only adult interactions, nothing with kids his age, and so here in the Youth Corps he’d always felt awkward—an observer more than a participant.

This, though, under all these watching eyes, was a humiliation.

He couldn’t back down. His pride would not allow it. But to keep up this farce of a duel…

“Well?” snapped Torden from the other mark. “You just gonna stand there, Gargoyle? Either fight or forfeit.”

Two points behind. First to five. He’d come back from worse straits.

But this feeling in his chest…

Slowly, forcing himself under control, he backed onto his own mark.

Win or lose, there would be other challenges after this—both by duelists and by less-structured contenders. As one of his year’s top duelists, he hadn’t been accosted in a while; considering Tevestyn pride, only those who thought they could win would dare, and the class rankings had been stagnant for some time. But he’d been shaken, and he knew it showed. Anyone who came after him would take advantage of that, whether on or off the court.

He wouldn’t allow it. This wasn’t a ranked match. He could act as he liked.

He saluted, because it was impossible for him to do otherwise. Then he advanced, side-on, blade held defensively even as he closed the distance.

Torden hesitated, blade dipping a moment in visible confusion. As much as he liked in-fighting, Youth Corps duels didn’t involve the offhand dagger, so this made little tactical sense—nor was it Firkad’s usual style. Which was the point.

He rallied with a slice, which Firkad turned but took no advantage from beside pressing closer. A sidestep to keep from being pushed past his own mark, then Torden stabbed in—again turned. Right shoulder pointed toward his foe, Firkad advanced again, and Torden shifted in mirror of him, putting them sabre to sabre.

“What by the sky—“ he heard from under Torden’s mask.

Firkad lifted his arm a little, leaning forward as if for a slice. It left him open along the belly and legs, which Torden couldn’t fail to notice. An answering shift of his foe told him he’d be taking another disemboweling hit, which was fine. What did points mean, anyway?

A feint-step set Torden on his heels, blade wavering indecisively. Then, as the shame of being backed around the court took hold of him, he lunged.

Firkad moved right into it, sabre too high and still rising. Torden’s blade took him neatly across the midsection, its thwack against his cuirass sharp in his ears. He didn’t let the impact stop him—nor Torden’s free hand, which rose to grab for his sword-arm like before. Instead he locked his offhand around Torden’s wrist, Torden’s sabre pressing harder against his belly as his own blade rose straight up—and then came down hard, pommel-point first, on the space between Torden’s left pauldron and his helmet.

Something crunched.

With a gasp, Torden tried to shove away with his sabre, his other arm drooping in Firkad’s grip. Firkad didn’t allow it. Still holding tight, he punched with the basket hilt straight into the side of Torden’s helmet. Though padded, it wasn’t meant to soak such hits.

Torden’s legs unhinged. As he sank down, Firkad gave him another punch to assist.

For a moment, there was no sound but the thump of Torden’s sabre hitting the turf and his sharp whimpering breaths inside the mask.

Then someone shrieked. Firkad looked up in time to see but not avoid Sefrys; she slammed into him and bore him to the ground. His head hit the inside of the helmet, the air whoofing from his lungs as her knee compressed his chest. His first instinct was to bring his sabre hilt down on her head—but she was unhelmed, eyes wild and teeth bared. That was a step too far.

So he dropped it, even as her thumbs wedged up under the collar of his helmet. With the mask displaced, she became just a blur through the mesh, her nails digging into his throat. He fumbled to grip her bare wrists, gauntlets making his hands unwieldy.

The Youth Corps didn’t teach wrestling—too undignified. That suddenly seemed like an oversight.

He tried to get a leg up, but she was bigger, heavier, and planted solidly on his middle. A yank, a shove, and his head bounced off the ground again. Stars filled the confines of his helmet. This was a bad idea, said some small calm part of him.

Desperate, he jabbed a hand blindly toward her face. Felt flesh, then a gap—her mouth. Shoved fingers in despite the clash of her teeth. At least there was leather between them.

Then came a yelp, and a lurch. The grip on his neck ceased, and with it the weight and the bite. Gasping, he lay there for a moment as voices shouted fuzzy nonsense. Sefrys and…

Taymar?

The helmet oppressed him. He pulled it off to blink in the unreasonably dazzling cloud-light, breath still coming painfully. His throat felt dented. With effort, he sat up to stare at the two girls now at bay, Sefrys’ hair in grabbed disarray and Taymar dabbing a split lip. At their feet, Torden still lay groaning, good hand fisted against his bad collarbone.

Taymar glanced to him, then moved cautiously away from Sefrys, never turning her back. “Firkad, are you all right? Did she hurt you?”

He could have laughed, but knew it would incite another attack. Sefrys’ eyes were cold flames, promising death before dishonor. “I’m fine,” he rasped as he brushed off Taymar’s offered arm and heaved to his feet.

“Is that so?”

The chill in Taymar’s tone startled him. Hadn’t she just been friendly, concerned? But as he steadied upright, he saw her eyes narrowed in a mirror of Sefrys’, something like contempt down-curving her mouth. For her part, Sefrys’ look had lightened a shade, her gaze now slanted to her momentary foe.

“You’re fine, are you?” Taymar continued flatly. “Then you’ll accept my challenge.”

The words made no sense. His thoughts tangled like a sprung snare. “What?”

“I challenge you. Here, now.”

“Why?”

Behind her, Sefrys huffed something too sour to be a laugh, then stooped to take Torden’s good arm. The boy groaned as she hauled him upright, helm still on but noticeably askew. Taymar didn’t flinch, as if Sefrys’ actions no longer mattered; she just stared, slate-colored eyes dark as stormclouds. “Why?” she echoed.

“He’s an idiot,” said Sefrys. “Use my sabre. I permit it.”

Confused, Firkad cast around the scene for some explanation. The crowd seemed to have grown, more than a dozen cadets standing rapt now, while from the direction of an administration building he saw the tall dark shapes of adults approaching. He looked back as Taymar accepted Sefrys’ blade without looking. On the other bench, Torden sat slumped, muttering breathy curses.

“You don’t have padding,” said Firkad. “You never duel.”

“I don’t care. Step to the mark.”

Someone had fetched Torden’s sabre and his helmet off the court, leaving it clear. Mind still swimming, Firkad moved mechanically into place, the hard heels of his boots clacking on the stone mark as he set. Across from him, Taymar stood in no proper stance, both hands clutching the sabre’s hilt. Naked as he felt without head protection, she had none either, so he said nothing. Just watched her, trying not to see Sefrys at Torden’s side in the background, working his helmet off then touching his hair.

“I don’t know about this,” said the officiating cadet.

“Go!” Taymar snapped, and charged.

He’d never fought her before. Never fought anyone who had no idea what they were doing, powered only by fury. He tried to sidestep, to strategize—first to five shouldn’t be hard, right? But she chased him like his shadow, swinging viciously, and he remembered that she did gymnastics instead of dueling practice. Any evasion he tried, she sprang into, cutting their distance to handspans at best.

And she hit first—on his sabre-arm as he tried to bring his blade to bear. “Disabling hit!” he heard, and the whoops from the crowd, but Taymar didn’t disengage so he couldn’t either. Could only backpedal furiously as she lashed at him again, teeth bared and torso wide open.

“Crippling hit!” the officiator called as he struck her along the ribs.

The sabre’s tip hissed past his face, the hilt just missing him as he ducked back and away. She followed him with a kick to the thigh, and he responded by smacking her leg with the sabre’s flat. “Crippling hit!” rang out again.

She chopped down. He took it on the off-arm.

“Disabling hit!”

What by the Light is going on here?”

Self-preservation made Firkad skitter back, not from Taymar’s blade but from the bludgeon of Instructor Dymyr’s voice. Taymar started to follow, a killing glint in her eyes, but Firkad kept retreating until the stone pavings rang underfoot, the crowd breaking away around him. As Dymyr and another woman in instructors’ blues pushed onto the court, Taymar finally faltered.

“Instructor!” called Sefrys. “Cadet Sarovy injured Cadet Vinkaryl unlawfully and maliciously! And now he’s fighting a non-duelist!”

And getting his ass kicked, no one added, but he could feel it in the eyes of the crowd.

The rage rose—then collapsed into shame. Sefrys was right.

Instructor Dymyr asked nothing. She simply took one sweeping look around the tableau, then fixed again on Firkad. “Gather your gear and go to my office. Now.”

He nodded and obeyed.

*****

More than a mark passed before the instructor joined him. In that time, his body had given him its own scolding, both arms welted despite the padding and his throat necklaced with bruises. His thoughts chewed their own tail-feathers, an endless cycle of affront, justification, introspection and self-recrimination. At the center of it all was the knot in his chest, as if his heart had petrified.

He stood when she opened the door, hands clasping automatically behind his back. She gave him nary a glance as she moved behind the great inkwood desk, its deep blue grain echoing the patterns of the abstract tapestries that darkened the cut stone walls. Expensive prized imports, that wood and that color, from the distant Forest of Night. The dye of his cadet uniform was a pale imitation.

For what felt like another full mark, she left him standing, seemingly consumed by the paperwork before her. Quill-pen touched page more than once, and he resisted the urge to try to read her scrawl; his sight-tests were all top-tier. Upside-down and messy wasn’t so much of a problem as being caught in the act.

At last, she rested the quill in its holder and turned her granite gaze on him.

“You’re out of the dueling league,” she started.

It hit hard, but not as much as it might have. He’d expected it. He nodded.

“In fact, I might be reassigning you entirely. It depends on your honesty. Why, Cadet Sarovy, did you try to break Cadet Vinkaryl’s shoulder?”

Words swelled up in his throat, none wishing to be said. Instead, he asked, “Try? Is it not broken?”

“His collarbone is fractured, and he is lightly concussed. Answer the question.”

“I…” Why had he done it? “I wanted the fight to be over. It seemed expedient.”

She stared. “I was told that you were the challenger.”

“Yes.”

“And you wanted to beat him badly enough to break every single rule?”

“Not beat him. Just…” Yes, beat him. Hurt him. Because… “It was an overreaction and a mistake.”

“An overreaction to what, Cadet Sarovy?”

The truth stung his tongue. He tucked it aside. “He insulted me.”

“Teased you, is what the others reported. Mocked you somewhat.”

“Yes.”

“You’ve never been mocked?”

“They said that too, Instructor.”

She made a low sound. He wasn’t sure what it meant. “Cadet Sarovy. Do you think you might be solitaire?”

He blinked. There were several meanings packed in that one word—several questions knotted together. He didn’t think she meant it in the way his classmates had, back before the duel: ‘do you have no sexual interest?’ Though if she did, he didn’t know how to answer that either. He’d never really examined himself that way.

More likely she meant it as the behavioral pattern. ‘Do you have serious problems with aggression and competition?’ Not really—at least, he hadn’t thought so.

‘Do you have a difficult time engaging with others? Should you be assigned alone?’

Well. Maybe.

“I don’t know,” he decided aloud. “I get along well enough with Taymar.”

The instructor’s head tilted. “Do you?”

“Um. Except for the scuffle just now, yes.”

“Do you understand why she challenged you?”

“…No.”

She exhaled a word that sounded suspiciously like ‘children’. “Cadet Sarovy, while you are generally clever, studious and focused, you have some sizable blind spots. As they haven’t been as serious as those we see in confirmed solitaires, we the administration considered it best to keep you in the standard Youth Corps streams, in the hope that you would socialize to a…traditional officer’s-aide state.”

Firkad blinked. They’d been evaluating his behavior?

“It is true that you have been a model cadet,” she continued. “But there is more to our work than rigid excellence. Being able to cooperate with and manage a variety of different personalities is essential for a Sapphire Claw officer. As you must know, we Tevestyn are few compared to the Riddish who make up the bulk of the Sapphire. It is our responsibility to lead them, but also to understand them. So far, you have not shown the capacity.”

Behind his back, his hands clenched together. The pulse in his temples felt like a drum-beat. What did she mean? Was he being kicked out? Nobody had told him he was supposed to learn these things.

“But I’ve never even seen a Riddishperson,” he blurted. The instructor’s eyes narrowed, so he pushed the words out faster before she could stop him. “How can you know I can’t work with them if I never have? Just because I had a fight with Torden and Sefrys? It wasn’t my— It was my fault, but I know that. I can do better. If I pay more attention, I can absolutely figure out what people are thinking.”

Instructor Dymyr steepled her hands. “Can you? What am I thinking, then?”

Firkad stared, attention flickering from point to point. The glint of her eyes meant… The thin curve of her lips meant… That pose meant…

“I don’t know,” he admitted. “But I can—“

The flick of her hand stopped him. “Perhaps, in time, the deficit can be filled in. You are only at the beginning of your journey. But we watch all cadets for behavioral indicators. As you are, I cannot recommend you to the Sapphire’s junior leadership stream. The administrative stream might also be…difficult for you.”

Despite his efforts, his shoulders sank. Being barred from leadership meant never commanding a unit, and perhaps never seeing battle. And being barred from administration meant that he couldn’t even match up to his parents—his father the administrative deieksa of Endry Faares and his mother the aide. Logically he knew that there were only so many such positions, only so many fortresses and outposts and companies and battalions. And yet…

What did that leave? A basic enlisted post? Or…

“Instead, I am recommending you for the scout and surveyor stream. They tend to be more…independent. Individualistic. And tolerant of intolerant types.”

“I’m not—“ He shut his mouth on the rest of that, remembering the fury that brief mockery had ignited. Intolerant not of people, but of affronts to his dignity? It was true that he hated any intrusion on his territory, both physical and emotional.

Instructor Dymyr’s smile widened. “You seem to understand. I’m glad. And I have to say that considering your artistic skills, it would have been a shame to disregard that strength. The scout and surveyor stream is highly demanding, but not more than your demands upon yourself, I think. It can also confer great honor, considering the dangers of the work.”

His chin lifted. Honor—that was good. A necessity to counteract the decline of the Sarovy name. He couldn’t fault his parents for who they were, but compared to the elder lineage, a mere administrator—even one as high as a deieksa—was a long step down from Eagle Knight. It didn’t matter that the shamanic knights had fallen out of favor. He was still their descendant.

And some day, if he was worthy, he would carry the Sarovingian heirloom sword.

“Danger,” he heard himself say. “Good.”

“The scout and surveyor stream includes real combat training,” the instructor continued, still smiling. “Nothing like the formality of duels. But from what I’ve heard of this last duel, I doubt that will be a problem for you. As your last year here is nearly over, there won’t be many changes to your curriculum—do you share any classes with Davrochir or Vinkaryl?”

“No, instructor. Only the dueling lists.”

“Then that will stay the same. Your quarters will be changed—no argument,” she cut his instinctive protest short. “You’ve made enemies of two or possibly three other cadets. It is standard practice to move the most endangered one. Also, consider yourself curfewed, and do not—do not—accept another challenge from any of them. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Instructor.”

“You are almost thirteen. Almost a Sapphire soldier. You must act like it.”

“Yes, Instructor.”

She stared at him for a long moment, expression unreadable. Was that what others saw in his face? He’d never considered himself particularly blank—but then, he didn’t really care whether or not anyone understood.

Or he hadn’t, before this.

It seemed he would have to change.

*****

No matter that he’d been told to accept no challenges, this one felt necessary.

It had been over a month since his move to solo quarters. The school year was nearly over, graduation swiftly approaching. And with it, the end of his time in the Youth Corps.

The end of Taymar’s time, too.

“Our first duel was a draw,” he told her across the shadow-striped alley. Dormitories loomed over them from both sides. As much as he missed the dueling court, going there was impossible. If they were seen, they would be punished. They had no sabres either, or any other kind of sword; he’d cut a broom-handle in two to produce their makeshift weapons. “You can’t be satisfied with that?”

“No.” The light from the end of the alley put her in silhouette, obscuring her expression and robbing him of context for her tone of voice. While he’d planned this as a handicap, it bothered him now. He still didn’t understand her actions.

“Without an officiator, we’ll have to agree on the points.”

“That’s fine.”

“And with no padding—“

“Get on with it, Gargoyle.”

He flinched. It was different to hear it from her. Everyone in his year called him that now, and in some way it felt like a medal. A stupid one, but valued all the same. From her, though…

He didn’t ask, Is it because we haven’t talked since then? He knew the answer. And she would be going into the Sapphire’s administrative stream soon.

“Are you on your mark?” she asked flatly.

“Yes. I—“

“Go.”

He knew instantly that she hadn’t practiced. She moved the same as before: a straight rush, the broom-handle barely feigning a defense. In this narrow space, he had no way to sidestep, but he didn’t feel like dancing anyway.

As he moved to meet her, bringing his broom-handle up below her off-arm toward her ribs, he saw her weapon fall from her rising hand.

He froze, the handle brushing her side.

Her slap hit him hard enough to strike stars.

Ears ringing, cheek stinging, he staggered a half-step aside. Then, by duelist’s instincts, he backed up, meaning to reset on his mark. “One and one. Not really standard, but…fine.”

For a moment, he felt her stare, though he couldn’t see the details. Then she turned, stepped over her fallen weapon, and walked away.

“Taymar?” he called, confused.

No answer.

“Taymar! …Taymar, that’s still a draw!”

No response, no hesitation. As he stared, broom-handle sinking in his grip, she stepped free of the alley and out of sight, leaving just the light.

About H. Anthe Davis

Worldbuilder. Self-published writer.
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