In the second month of her fourteenth year of life, Princess Gabriele LeSalle Basingame, lance-heir to the throne (that is to say, eldest daughter to the First Lance of a queen who herself had no heirs) and already known among the court as the Shining Sun of Eretria for her beauty, became a woman. That is to say, she had the first of what would be many monthly bleedings from her womanly area, and with it, her life began to change.
At her exclamation, her father Lord Doland Basingame, First Lance to Throne Queen Meralina of Eretria, came running; for she was heir to the throne, and assassination attempts had been known to occur. So he was relieved to find his daughter standing upright and alone in her chamber, though rather confused by the fact that she was also bare as the day she was born, staring with rather wide eyes at her womanly area.
"What's wrong?" he said. "Gabriele. What's wrong?"
She turned towards him and pointed. Faint streaks of red ran down the insides of each thigh.
Instantly Lord Basingame understood. Though he himself had no personal experience with this sort of thing, he had been warned by Nurse that this day would probably come soon. That day had arrived, then: with her first courses, his daughter had proved herself a woman in body, and now ready to take the steps towards becoming one in spirit.
For a moment, he allowed his eyes to rest on her; as was proper for a father, he had not seen her naked in quite some time, and probably would never again. She was not yet a woman in form, though clearly one in body, but her breasts had begun their growth, shallow and smooth-skinned, their gentle curves speaking of things to come. As well, her hips showed a nascent widening, beginning to swell from her waist. Her face showed the haunting beauty of her mother where it was not rounded with the curves of childhood; her large blue-grey eyes shone of a laughing intelligence, and her mouth was as quick to smile as it was to twist in anger. Her long hair, a deep lustrous gold, hung down her back, freed from its normal elaborate styling. For a moment, he stared, and was spellbound by the beauty she would become.
"Then it is time," he said.
"I will be known as a woman?" she asked.
"Yes," said her father, "it will be declared." Some had grown anxious, for some girls were already women at her age, and in certain corners of the Royal Court it was whispered that something was wrong. Now those whispers could be definitively laid to rest.
Assuming certain proofs were offered. "I will see that Nurse is informed," he said. "She will know what to do." Lord Basingame himself knew nothing of the methods women used to staunch their flow; that would have been Eleanor's lesson, had she lived. But now Nurse would have to do. Tomorrow's courses would be collected; the next morning, he would have a proof no one could argue with. The magicians (those few trusted within striking distance of Her Majesty) would be able to verify that this was, indeed, Gabriele's blood; and all would be satisfied.
"And I'm to have my First Lance," Gabriele said.
Doland Basingame thought for a moment. "Yes," he said. Thought for a moment--or perhaps was only lost in memory. "Yes, you shall."
If Gabriele had any thought of the course her life would take, she made no sign of it. As heir to the throne (cousin-side or not), her days were not her own.
On the same morning as Gabriele's menarche ceased, Lord Doland Basingame, Lord of the Echoing Vale, Marshal-Captain of the Silver Guard, First Lance to Throne Queen Meralina of Eretria, held up a scrap of cloth darkened with blood, and announced that his daughter was now a woman. After the court had been satisfied (the mages, as predicted, stepping up to do the job), he made his second announcement: that the screening process for a new First Lance would begin again, to resume for the first time since he himself had been matched to Queen Meralina, not long after her first menses. He remembered well the excitement and chaos of those times; it quickened his heart in a way that was part anticipation, part sheer nervous dread. It was always a bit unnerving, he consoled himself, to look one's own replacement square in the face.
The court, indeed the entire country, mobilized in a flurry of activity set off by his announcement. Thirty days, a full month of three weeks, had been allotted for the gathering and preparation of the candidates. On a steady horse, one could ride from one of Eretria's borders to another in just over a week, for it was a modest nation; and since the Silver City was in the center of the country, all would have at least two weeks to hear the news, set out, arrive at the capitol, register at the barracks being now specially prepared for the candidates (and their families, since a number of them would be children not much older than Gabriele herself, and possibly younger), and prepare themselves for the trials, for the Time of Testing in which one would be selected to accompany Princess Gabriele Basingame for the rest of her life.
Nobody begrudged the intensity of the testing, nor the carnival atmosphere of the proceedings. The First Lance was not just an advisor to the Queen; he was her chief bodyguard, the last and most indomitable barrier between her and danger; he was the leader of Eretria 's small but proud military; he was her most trusted confidant and closest advisor. So important was he that if the queen should fail to produce a suitable daughter-heir (as the present Queen Meralina had, through no fault of her own, as her only son had been tragically lost in an equestrian accident), his own eldest daughter would ascend to the throne, even if the queen should have nieces by blood (as the present Queen Meralina did). And the friendship between the First Lance and the Throne Queen was thought by the people to affect the state of the nation: the greatest queens of Eretria had made husbands or lovers of their First Lances; likewise, those between whom anger and emnity existed, had made bad decisions in policy, and were looked upon with disapproval by all.
The Time of Testing was a time of hope; the people looked to the future with bright eyes, praying to Kyrei, She Whose Hand Shelters, for continued prosperity. But despite the festivities and optimism, Lord Basingame's eyes-and-ears within the city brought back whispers of discontent. For Queen Meralina and Lord Doland were friends, but not good ones; there was as often dissatisfaction between them as agreement, and though the nation still prospered by the wit and wisdom of its dual rulers, many felt that a wiser and wittier man might have been chosen. He had even been foolish enough to allow mages--mages, those vile creatures steeped in magic, who had banded together fifty years ago and brought an onslaught of death down on Rascine... Not that anyone really cared what happened to the Summers, but what sort of fool allowed such dangerous people into the Royal Court? And look, you, for Queen Meralina had no heirs, and instead we will have a daughter of this Basingame on the throne? Loduur will soon rule over us all, and there will be blood and fire. The First Lance heard these whispers and sorrowed, for he knew that his name was not one to conjure with, and because of this he worried for his daughter.
But there were other things to occupy his attention, other things to worry about. His duties to the queen had been slackened slightly, to allow him to supervise the Time of Testing, but the trials themselves needed to be arranged, as well as spaces around them for spectators (for the Trials were watched avidly by any citizen who could bring him- or herself away from daily duties to spectate), and also lodging, food and provisions, and proper training facilities for the candidates; and then there was the fete to be held after the selection, which would involve the manhood and womanhood ceremonies of Princess Gabriele Basingame and her new First Lance, so that Gabriele, once she had become a woman in every sense of the word, could be invested by Queen Meralina as the official heir to the throne. The fete would involve food, drink, entertainment fit for a queen, decorations for the royal banquet hall, official invitations to most if not all the lords and ladies of the land, appropriate garmentry for both the cousin-heir and her lance, and so forth.
There was, in short, a lot to be done. Lord Basingame was so busy during the thirty days that he barely had a chance to see his daughter, this young woman, private name Catheryne, who was now the center of the whirlwind. Of course, she too was busy, learning those things which a young girl learns before becoming a woman; but in the few moments he had to himself, he regretted immensely that they could not see each other. His little girl was taking yet another step away from him, taking a big stride towards becoming a woman in her own right, and he would have liked to cherish the remaining time with her. It seemed only yesterday that he had first held her in his arms, a tiny baby, her eyes surprisingly alert, her grip surprisingly strong, and had decided with Eleanor that her private name, their little daughter's private name which only the most trusted and intimate would know, should be Catheryne; but then, only a few years later, the consumption had taken Eleanor from them, and he had thrown himself into his duties. He could remember as if it were yesterday the last time he had held Eleanor's hand, as her breathing rattled and wheezed and slowly stopped; at times it felt as though it had just happened yesterday, for sometimes he thought he remembered nothing that had happened between then and now, and Catheryne should still be a toddling little three-year-old when she entered the room, not this tall demi-woman with her monstrous bleeding. He did not, in short, know where the time had gone; and with all his heart, he wished he did.
But the thirty days passed quickly, and the Time of Testing began. Lord Basingame, busy man that he was, was not able to watch the trials; the Princess Gabriele did, and chafed under the imposed boredom. It was all the same thing--young men and boys and even grown men running through the same hoops, tackling the same obstacles, failing at the same places. The dress she wore was ornate and abominably heavy; it seemed to strangle her. And because it was in public, with lords and ladies and the common folk watching them, watching her (and not even noticing whose elbows they rubbed; what person of proper breeding would allow such consorting?), she could not even kick her heels beneath her chair to alleviate the boredom, or shift in her seat to bring ease to her slowly-numbing legs. No, she must sit still and prim, a perfect lady in a dress built by a coffin-maker, while inside she wanted nothing more than to jump up and run away.
And so, absorbed in her own annoyances, she totally missed the run of the boy who would eventually become her lance.
He had not gone last, but close to it; the parents of candidates would jockey for their son's order in line, believing (rightly) that the judges would pay more attention to those who went first; believing (rightly) that judges would pay more attention when not dozing off. But this boy did not need to go first; from the moment he stepped onto the obstacle course, he commanded all attention. He was short, perhaps only a few inches taller than Princess Gabriele herself; he wore dark clothes that would not encumber his speed; his hair and eyes were dark, and his cold face burned with determination. And though he was allowed his choice of tools and (practice) weapons from among a pre-arranged selection, he brought nothing with him at all.
Some among the royal court recognized him. His name was Marcus Demitri, and his mother had been the Lady Violet Demitri, last remaining scion of the family, before her untimely passing due to grief over the loss of her husband. As such he was heir to a distinct fortune, but he had no parents and no family, and not a noble house could be found who would deign to even supervise him, much less take him in. He was, after all, half-Summer; his mother had somehow gotten taken with one of those barbarians from the other side of the Spring Lands, and refusing to listen to reason she had wed him and even borne him a child. It was rumored that he had been a peasant in his own lands, and many speculated about the increase of estate he had acquired by marrying into such a prosperous family, and how he had somehow tricked or blackmailed poor Violet into such a marriage. He had died under mysterious circumstances, and none were truly sorry to see him go. But his legacy lived on in young Marcus, the boy nobody would take in. As such he had become almost a child of the court, sleeping in spare rooms in the castle, taking lessons as he could; the children of the court befriended him as they might steal an apple or try to trip the Silver Guardsmen--because they knew their parents would disapprove, and that made it all the more worth doing. About three years ago he had simply disappeared... And most, as with father and mother, had called it a good riddance. But recently he had returned--right about when the Time of Trials had been announced, come to think of it--and here he was.
Those of the royal court, including those in the judging box, wondered what he was doing on the field. Had he really signed up for the trials? From whom had he learned statecraft, strategy and tactics, swordsmanship, leadership? Was this a dare some brazen young lordling had put him up to? It was ridiculous--a halfbreed barbarian? with no tools or weapons? What did he expect to accomplish?
But then the gong sounded, and Marcus Demitri began to move through the obstacle course, and all opinions changed.
His footfalls were silent; he moved with the speed of one far wiser than he in the arts of stalking. He surmounted obstacles with breathtaking speed, contorting his body in ways no one had thought possible. He bypassed some of them in ways the designers themselves had not even anticipated. And when he reached the end of the course, where the Queen's most skilled knight awaited in ritual combat readiness with a wooden shield and practice sword of bundled wood lathes--
The gasps and cries and cheers were what brought Princess Gabriele back from her musings. From her raised position in the box she saw the judges scrambling down onto the field; and Lord Faustos supine on the ground--not retreated with swordpoint to the sky in the ritual signal of defeat, but on the ground!--and a dark-haired boy in black clothing standing over him... Wait, was that Marcus Demitri?? Everyone said he was dead! By now soldiers were hastening down into the field as well, and ignoring the cries from Nurse and from her bodyguards, Princes Gabriele followed them down.
"...Totally inappropriate!" Lord Gevardos was yelling; he was senior of the five judges. "You are meant to show discipline! You are meant to pull back and avoid causing harm!" Behind him, the other four judges stood abreast, their arms crossed, identical expressions of censure on their faces; off to one side, a soldier knelt over Lord Faustos, slapping his face to ill effect.
It was Marcus Demitri. He had always had twice as much nerve as he ought to, and now he didn't quail beneath the stern eyes of the judges. "I did it on purpose," he said. "You would never have believed me if Lord Faustos had yielded; and besides, he would not have known how to yield to this sort of strike. I did it to prove that I could disable an armed man without killing him and using only my hands."
They had seen her. "Princess," said Captain Molthouse, captain of the Silver Guardsmen. "You should not be here. This man is dangerous."
"If I really wanted to be dangerous, I would have killed Lord Faustos," Marcus Demitri retorted. His eyes gave a cold glare. "It's relatively easy when your man is on the ground. Stomp on his stomach, make him vomit--he'll choke to death on it before he wakes up."
"You are not helping your case, young man," Lord Gevardos snapped.
Marcus Demitri turned to Gabriele with a formal bow. "Your Highness."
"Sir," said the soldier bending over Lord Faustos. "He's coming round." All gathered about the supine man, waiting to see what happened.
Lord Faustos did not look hurt. He wore only a leather jerkin to protect against errant practice-sword strikes, and his hairy arms and thick, corded neck and his entire head were all exposed, things that never would have been allowed in a true battle; but, aside from a lump rising on his left temple (forgivable for a knockout blow), he looked well and healthy. His eyes opened and stared above him for a moment, unfocused; then he saw Marcus Demitri and smiled. His voice was that unmistakable low-pitched, gravelly growl. "So, you've learned more than swordplay since last I saw you."
"I'm sorry if I hurt you, my lord," Marcus Demitri said, inclining his head in the slightest. There was a murmur, and Gabriele herself felt shock: this upstart young boy was not showing the deference he ought to. He was addressing Lord Faustos as an equal! But Lord Faustos simply shook his head and chuckled.
"No more'n I deserve," he said. "'Twas my own actions as much as yours laid me down." He turned to the others. "He kicked me in the head. Can you believe that? I swung at him and he stepped inside my guard, knocked the sword from my hand, and..." He grinned. "There you go. Boy's a foot and a half short my height, but he just jumped and spun and... Oh, and I think he punched me to make me back up too. Before the kick, you understand. Give him some room to move."
"That clearly constitutes a violation of the rules," Gabriele said severely. The rules of the Trial were clear: any physical harm to any of the Trial participants was grounds for immediate disqualification. Her father said that this was an important test. Any man, after all, could swing and hit; it was much harder to swing and then deliberately pull short. "He should be disqualified."
"I agree," said Lord Gevardos loudly. "Lord Faustos is hurt."
"Not hurt enough," Lord Faustos said, grinning. "If he had been in to kill someone deep in the palace and I was on the outer guard, I might've woken up before the job was done. You didn't go full force, did you, you could have kicked my head clear off my shoulders, I wager."
Marcus Demitri said nothing, but a slim smile crossed his face, one that did not warm his eyes.
"The boy's not to be disqualified," Lord Faustos said, sitting up (the entire ring of people moving to accomodate him). "I taught him the blade and he was always a deft hand with it; if he's got such a touch with his hands and feet, he'd be walking death with a sword."
"He broke the rules," Lord Gevardos grated.
"He broke the rules to prove a point," Lord Faustos retorted. "He did it to prove that even with empty hands, he's still dangerous. He proved it. If he's got a leg or an arm free, he'll protect the princess. You can't say that about any of the other boys've been through here today. And some've'm have given me harder lumps than this one has. Now, I might've given him more of a fight; got over-confident, seeing him holding nothing. That's my own mistake, and I'll keep it in mind. But you'll not find a better fighter among any of the candidates. He stays in."
"You have no authority over the Trials!" Lord Gevardos shouted.
"No." Lord Faustos's grin showed several missing teeth. "But I'm right, and you know it."
Lord Gevardos paled, his face angry.
Marcus Demitri continued on to the next stage of the Trials.
That night, Princess Gabriele ate dinner with her father, the first time she had done so since her first menstrual flow a month ago (the second one, amusingly, was nowhere in sight). She wasn't sure what her father had been doing all day, but there was always some silly thing to address, like certain people wanting more money or other people not having enough food or some third party threatening to invade. Gabriele thought it all tiresome and wondered why her father didn't tell them to go climb the Golden Dome. The reason it concerned her, though, was because he hadn't seen the Trials--and maybe hadn't even heard who had won and who hadn't.
The question was not long in coming. "So, Catheryne, how were the Trials?"
"They were boring," she said. "A lot of silly men doing silly things."
"Those silly things could save your life one day," Father said sharply, and Gabriele remembered that once he had had to do them. It might be wise to keep an eye on her tongue for the moment.
But nonetheless, it did seem silly. "I haven't needed a guardian until now," she said. "I don't see why it should be any different later."
"The First Lance is more than just a guardian, Catheryne," Father said sternly. "His primary role is advisor: to tell the queen whether..."
Gabriele tuned out. She had heard her father recite this monologue many times before and could probably match him word for word. It was as if, by repeating it, he legitimized his own position within the court. It seemed pointless to her.
Father seemed to notice, for he cut off in mid-sentence. His face dour, he took another mouthful of food.
"Did anyone catch your eye," he said finally.
"A few of them did," she said casually. Father had always felt his failure to woo Queen Meralina was an unforgivable lapse on his part. Gabriele, for her part, rather agreed; Father was still strikingly charismatic, with his stern, proud face and intense eyes, and the old hag wasn't exactly the most fetching damsel in the land; it should have been easy to slip into her bed, even despite her marriage. But he hadn't, and that was that; now, evidently, he wanted to ensure that his daughter would not befall the same plight.
Gabriele knew she would not: she was beautiful, and she knew it. She had already seen how some of the youngsters of the Court turned to look at her--the young men about her age or a little older, even some of the ones who were already married. It was as if her body carried some strange power, one that had lain dormant until... Come to think of it, until she had first started her monthly bleeding. They were connected, then. Gabriele wasn't sure what this power was, but if she knew she had it, she could learn to use it. And learn she would.
As to Father's question: There were a few suitable young men in the Trials--tall, with faces so unnaturally smooth as to be almost girlish, feathery pale hair and a lanky, quicksnap grace. But only those few, and she had enough experience with such boys to know that they expected their faces to take them where they wanted to go; most likely, none of them would last to the final round of the Trials, though one could always hope. The rest were not worth considering--too short, wrong hair color, prickly mustaches, too old... Gabriele sighed. So many things that could possibly go wrong. One thing was certain, though: if some man twice her age and already beginning to show it round the middle should happen to win, she would never take him to her bed, and for all his moaning, Father would probably agree.
"Did any of them stand out," Father asked.
Now that was a very different question. "Marcus Demitri was there."
Father's eyes popped open and his head jerked around to stare at her. "Marcus? Marcus Demitri? Little Violet's son? I thought he was dead."
"Evidently not," Gabriele said.
"What was he doing there," Father asked. "Was he watching?"
"He was competing," Gabriele said. Then, insouciantly, after a silence: "He laid out Lord Faustos."
"He did," Father said, his eyebrows bouncing. "Hmm. Well. I guess that's the end of his chances then."
Gabriele did not correct him. For some reason, she liked the idea that Marcus Demitri might have been disqualified, and wished he had been. There was something threatening about his total conviction.
The meal continued for several moments before what would be its permanent interruption, in the form of a tapping on the door. A Silver Guardsman bowed his way in. "Lord Basingame, we need your help for a thing. Concerning the Trials, sir."
Father stood immediately. "Why, what's wrong?"
"It's Marcus Demitri, sir," said the Guardsman. "He--"
"He's contesting his disqualification," Father asked.
"No, sir, he weren't disqualified, sir," said the Guardsman. "But--"
"He wasn't?" Father said. "But my daughter says he laid out Lord Faustos--"
"That he did, sir... Using not but his hands and feet," the Guardsman said, a bit of excitement creeping into his voice at the chance to relate the tale to his superior. "Lord Gevardos wanted to fail him, but he defended his case, he did. Said he did it to prove he could deal with a knight with not but his hands and feet. Said that he had to do it the real way 'cause there weren't no way for him to pretend."
Gabriele deciphered the commoner's speech in her head. Being able to deal with peasants and their less-than-eloquent language was an important part of being a ruler. The idea that the Guardsman was trying to imply was that there were no provisions in sparring for an unarmed opponent making unarmed attacks; he would never have treated as landing a blow because, under the rules, there were none. So he had deliberately broken the rules to prove a point.
The Guardsman was still talking. "Lord Faustos--great man, sir, a great man--Lord Faustos said not to eject him, 'cause there's not one of the other boys is his equal in the fighting. And so he's still in."
"I see," said Father, a new note in his voice. "So what's the problem, soldier?"
"It's Marcus Demitri, sir," said the Guardsman. "He hasn't got a sponsor."
Gabriele felt her eyebrows climbing her scalp of their own accord. Now here was a loophole she could exploit. Every candidate required a respected and acknowledged sponsor, unless of course the candidate was a man in his own right, at which point he could simply vouch for himself, though references were still a benefit. Most of the grown men had them.
"That's impossible," Father said. "No one can enter the Trials without a sponsor."
"Begging your Lordship's pardon, sir," said the Guardsman, "but, err... Yes they can. He has. But he sure can't win the Trials without one, 'specially now as how they've caught him."
"A good point, soldier," said Father. "Come along, Gabriele. Let's sort this out."
For a moment Gabriele wanted to be petulant--she was heir to the throne! not some servant to be ordered about! But there were others about, and it was considered proper for young women to obey their fathers; and so she followed, seething to her private self.
Marcus Demitri was being held in an outer chamber, as befitted someone of his unknown status. Several of the Silver Guardsmen were there, as well as Lord Faustos, and then another man that Gabriele had seen around court on occasion, though she didn't well recognize him. He was a broad, solid man with a ruddy face and sharp cheekbones. His hair was a bronzish color, odd for a Winter, but Gabriele knew that she herself, with her rich golden hair, had very little room to speak.
"Lord Basingame," said Marcus Demitri, bowing low. "I am filled with rapturous joy to find you so well."
"Thank you," said Father, not blinking an eyelid at the boy's rather florid politeness. "I too am pleased to see you well, Master Demitri. It had been said you were dead."
"Merely away in parts unknown, my lord," said Marcus, neatly sidestepping the veiled interrogation. "But I have returned now, and that is all that matters."
"Lord Faustos," said Father, inclining his head.
"My lord," said Lord Faustos with a bow.
Gabriele saw Father's eyes flick to the bronze-haired man. Lord Faustos picked up the hint. "My lord, this is Kenneth Tilmitt, one of the, ah, more outlandish visitors you have allowed into the court." Lord Faustos did not bat an eyelash at the mention of a dangerous, terrifying mage--which was what this Kenneth Tilmitt was--because clearly he was blithely loyal to Father. "He is loyal to the throne, and I brought him in case... Something might occur that only he may deal with." In other words, if Marcus Demitri had something dangerous up his sleeve, this magic-user was around to keep him in check.
"I have been well-treated by the members of this court, my lord," said Master Tilmitt, bowing. His voice was profoundly resonant, seeming to emanate from all corners of the room. "A far better welcome than I might expect from any other place in these lands. If my lord wishes my service, he needs only name it."
His words were outrageous, and yet Gabriele sensed no deceit in his voice. His promise was given sincerely. Father, for his part, responded in dignity. "Thank you, Master Tilmitt. Your presence is all we require for the moment; I trust to your discretion."
"We have matters to discuss," Marcus Demitri said impatiently, his voice cutting the air like a knife.
"That is true, young master," Father said evenly, ignoring the veiled slight. "The matter of your lack of sponsor."
"Well, one must be found," Gabriele said. "The law states that any man shall be eligible to compete if he so choose to, and nothing shall bar him back. Master Demitri clearly falls under the heading of 'any man,' so we had better find him one."
Father smiled at her. "Fair-minded as always, Gabriele."
"The castle provide sponsors to those who cannot find them otherwise," Gabriele said. "You need only to come and ask. Did you not do this?"
"How did you get in?" Father asked. "The registrars asked for the name of your sponsor, did they not?"
"I gave them a false name," Marcus Demitri said, his voice inflectionless. "Your security is quite lax, my lord, they accepted me simply because I had all the proper information in the proper places. Only when they stopped to look for Lord Notorio Absentio, to inform him of my success this afternoon, did they realize he doesn't exist."
"Oh, is that what was going on," Kenneth Tilmitt said with a bright smile. "Guardsmen coming around and asking for someone with such an absurd name that he must clearly be fictional. I thought it was a very large practical joke."
"That it was, Master Tilmitt," Father said severely. "Young man, I do not appreciate the levity with which you approach the Trials."
"The same might be said about you, Lord Basingame," Marcus snapped. "If your registrars had been trained and competent, and not simply satisfied to write down the material without caring, they would have detected my falsehood immediately. As it was, I was able to not only complete the first Trial, but to lure Princess Gabriele to within striking distance, before anyone even noticed I was there under false pretenses. Had I been an assassin, she would now be dead."
"She would indeed," Lord Faustos said, his voice grim. "We'll have to pick up on our security, my lord."
"How would he have killed her?" Father asked. "The Trials allow no real weapons and each participant is searched carefully for hidden items!"
"On the contrary," said Marcus grimly. "There are at least three places I could have hidden a weapon that your Guardsmen didn't check."
"With his hands and feet, same as he 'killed' me!" Lord Faustos retorted. "Did he tell you the details?"
"Who?" said Father, confused by the undefined pronoun.
"The boy jumped up and kicked me in the head," Lord Faustos said. "That's not an easy feat, not for someone his height. He did it hard enough to knock me unconscious but not hard enough to do me any real harm. He's got excellent control, my lord. If he had wanted, he could've seen me laid out dead. You mustn't go underestimating the skill of this boy, my lord."
"If he's so dangerous, why hasn't he been expelled!" Father cried.
"If I may, my lord," Kenneth Tilmitt said. "He may be dangerous, but he is offering to be dangerous for your benefit. It is clear his skill and training warrants it. I think it would be foolish for you to reject him--at least, until you've learned from him all that you can."
"Training," said Father, latching on to the first coherent chunk of thought to bob his way. "Yes. Training. Where did you learn what you know, boy?"
"Yes, I think that's a pertinent question," Gabriele said. "Where have you been, that everyone thought you were dead, Master Demitri?"
"I was in Pelanha," said Marcus Demetri calmly. His gaze burned her skin. "Studying with the Night Blades."
The Guardsmen took an involuntary step back. Father's hand flashed to his waist--seeking a sword hilt, she realized, grappling for a sword he wasn't wearing. Master Tilmitt's eyes widened, and she felt a sudden tingling on her skin. Was he holding onto his monstrous Power right then and there?
Before them, Marcus Demitri stood calmly, a strange, self-satisfied gleam in his eye, his every posture and movement gleaming of death.
Suddenly they realized that Lord Faustos was laughing.
"You sure don't do things by halves, do you, boy!" he cried. "Kyrei save us! The Night Blades!" He wiped at his eyes. "And then he just... He just walks in and signs up for..."
The Night Blades were a band of assassins. They were paid to kill, as simple as that. They were among the most deadly people alive. Their skills were legendary, as were their fees. In their own way, they were honorable, but it wasn't wise to trust someone who, it was said, could kill with a look. The boy was right: if he had intended to, he could have slain her this afternoon.
The fact that he hadn't...
"Are you an assassin," Father asked, his voice in surrogate for his sword.
"No, but many of them trained me," Marcus said calmly.
"Why are you here, boy," Father grated.
"To compete in the Trials, my lord."
"Who are you after!" Father thundered. "Who's the target!"
Marcus said nothing, his face calm and expressionless, and slowly Father's frothing anger died.
"A Night Blade's word is his life," Marcus said quietly. "We are hired and paid, but no one catches us if we do not want to be caught. Enough people seek to hire us that in a few days of business we could amass a fortune, and then live as kings without lifting a finger. The buyer has only our word that we will carry out the job he has hired us for... And yet, a Night Blade has never broken his word.
"I give you mine, my lord, that I am here to kill no man, save those that threaten your daughter. I have come to compete in the Trials and for no other reason. To win them, if Kyrei supports my fortune. Then I will be at your service, one of your liege men as these men are, and I would not raise hand against you or yours. If you choose to reject me, that is your right." He did not say what a foolish idea it would be. He didn't need to.
Father's teeth clenched.
Then he relaxed.
"There is still the matter of your sponsor, Master Demitri," he said.
"I'll sponsor him, sir," said Lord Faustos. "Naught have believed me, but I've known this boy since he was a wee toddler and I've always thought him an honorable man."
"You cannot, Faustos," said Father, "you're one of the officials of the Trial. The rules state that an official can't take a sponsor."
"Well... I could resign," said Faustos.
Father's eyes squeezed closed, and he passed a hand over his face. "That... Would be your right."
"I didn't mean it, m'lord," said Faustos apologetically, "I can see how mightily it'd pain you. But I offered it because I believe this boy should be allowed to continue. I believe it strongly."
"Master Demitri," said Master Tilmitt suddenly. "Would you object to one of my... Persuasion... Taking up your banner as a sponsor?"
Marcus Demitri looked up, and his eyes met those of Kenneth Tilmitt. For a moment, silent communication seemed to pass between them.
"I would not object," Marcus Demitri said.
"A mage sponsor... That might reflect badly on you, boy," said Lord Faustos.
"I am confident," said Marcus, "that my abilities will allow me to overcome this setback."
"Yeah, you would be," Lord Faustos grinned.
"And you, Master Tilmitt," said Father. "You agree to the assumption of these duties?"
"Well, I suppose I'd better find out what those duties are," Kenneth Tilmitt said dryly, "but insofar as they are within my power, I will carry them out to the best of my abilities."
"There you have it, m'lord," said Lord Faustos. "A candidate and a sponsor. Not bad for a night's work."
"Yes, yes," said Father distantly, "not bad indeed." He seemed to come to himself--perhaps remembering the acquisition of his own sponsor. "Thank you for your time this evening, gentlemen. I will see you on the morrow."
And thus did Marcus Demitri gain a sponsor.
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