By Kristin Janz
Kristin Janz’s stories have appeared in several other print and electronic publications, including On Spec, Futurismic, and Imaginarium 2012. For a complete list, please visit her website, http://www.kristinjanz.com. Kristin is a 2008 graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop, and lives in Boston with her husband, writer Donald S. Crankshaw.
The Guild of Swordsmen was first published at Silver Blade Magazine in November 2012
* * *
The night before the Emperor’s birthday, someone tried to kill Lida in her sleep.
She woke, lying on her left side, the hilt of her naked sword under her right hand. There was someone in her room. Not Alzadin. Not Saulius. Definitely not Merolliay. The door was closed, the window open. Moonlight flooded the room.
She flipped over and pushed herself up, brandishing her sword with her right hand and flinging the extra pillow with her left. A dark figure leaping at her from out of the shadows collided with the pillow.
Lida’s feet hit the floor. She swept the loose blanket off the bed with her free hand and threw it in her assailant’s face. She lunged and felt his abdominal muscles clench around the point of her sword as it thrust into him.
He grunted as Lida twisted her sword free. The knife from his right hand clattered to the floor in the folds of the falling blanket. His left hand came up from the sheath at his hip with a second knife.
Lida stabbed her sword into that hand. As the second knife fell, she slashed across her assailant’s face with her long, narrow blade, then across his throat.
The assassin stumbled backwards through a pool of moonlight into an end table. He and the table both went down. The unlit lantern on the table crashed to the wooden floor. With a loud crack, the glass chimney broke, and the reek of kerosene filled Lida’s nose and throat.
She froze in place, listening. No sound of breathing to give away a possible second assassin hidden in the room or clinging to the wall outside her third floor window. Only the usual night sounds: the occasional creaking of the old wooden house around her, the rattling of a mule cart on the badly-paved street some distance away. And then of course there was the irregular thumping of the assassin’s twitching body against the floor and wall, and the loud gurgling of his desperate attempts to draw air into his lungs. Until those stopped.
A quick search of the corpse’s pockets by the light of a hastily-lit candle revealed nothing of interest and no clues as to who might have sent him. But Lida thought she already knew the answer to that question. She hauled the body back over to the open window through which the man must have entered and heaved him out.
“Someone tried to kill me last night,” she announced in the morning. She made her voice casual for better effect, but was sure to speak loudly enough that everyone in the room would hear.
No one showed any surprise. Merolliay didn’t even look up from his book, which disappointed her.
“I heard,” Saulius said from the couch. He had his feet up and pastry crumbs down the front of his tailored jacket and in a small pile on the floor. “I considered coming up to make sure you were all right but didn’t want you to get the wrong idea.”
One night, soon after Lida had started renting the top floor of the house, Saulius had broken into her bedroom with a carafe of chocolate hoping to seduce her. He had learned firsthand that she slept with a naked sword and preferred to strike first and ask questions later.
Alzadin said something in his own language. Despite having served as an officer in the Imperial Nemesde Army, he did not speak a word of Nemesde, or pretended not to. Nor could he speak Lida’s language, or Saulius’s, or Merolliay’s.
Still without glancing up from his book Merolliay said in Nemesde, “Alzadin says he recognized the sound of your footsteps after the commotion, and that he could tell you didn’t need help. As could I and no doubt Saulius as well.”
Saulius shrugged and shoved the last bite of his pastry into his mouth, licking black currant preserves off his fingers.
“I didn’t need help,” Lida said. She opened the tap at the base of the urn on the sideboard, watching the black coffee fill her cup. She had never tasted coffee before coming to the Imperial City two years ago, but now she didn’t think she could live without it. “I guess I shouldn’t sleep with the window open.” It was hard for her to sleep without fresh air, having slept outside almost every night for three years before circumstances brought her here.
“Not as long as Helena Dareshna wants you dead,” Saulius said. “How many times is that now? Three?”
“Yes.” Lida took a sip of the coffee then made a face. “Alzadin, this is the worst coffee I’ve ever tasted! I don’t even understand how you made it taste so awful.”
Alzadin was at the table oiling his sword. He made a lengthy retort that Merolliay didn’t bother to translate. But from the way Alzadin gestured at the stairs leading to Lida’s rooms, she suspected it was something along the lines of “If you don’t like my coffee, you’re welcome to get up early and make it yourself.” Alzadin always seemed to understand anything any of them said in Nemesde, which made Lida think that not speaking the language of their conquerors was a choice, not a limitation.
“Have you thought about offering to sell Helena Dareshna the estate?” Merolliay asked from his chair by the unlit fireplace. Whenever Merolliay spoke, Lida’s heart beat faster. Had Merolliay ever crept into her bedroom in the dark of night, she wouldn’t have greeted him with live steel.
“If she’d ever asked, instead of hiring people to kill me, I’d have given her the estate. I don’t even want it.” After the destruction of her home village five years ago by Imperial forces, Lida had traveled around the countryside with Andraikos Dareshna, a renegade officer and Imperial nobleman. When he died, Lida was horrified to learn that he had named her his heir and adopted daughter, bequeathing to her all his titles and lands. Helena Dareshna, Andraikos’s estranged wife, who had expected the estate to go to her, had been even more horrified.
“So sell it to someone else,” Saulius suggested.
Lida shrugged. “Too much trouble.” Andraikos’s lands were a thousand miles away. She had never even seen them. “What’s this?” She lifted the sheet of fine linen paper from the sideboard, rubbing at a patch of gooseberry jam that had leaked onto one corner.
Alzadin said something.
“Alzadin found it at the pastry shop,” Merolliay explained.
The paper had been block-printed in black, blue, and red, and bore the Imperial sigil, a fire-breathing horse with the sun and moon under his feet. Some sort of proclamation took up most of the page. Lida squinted and tried to figure out what it said, but both language and script were too ornamental for her to make much progress. After a moment she glanced up and saw Saulius watching, eager to help but unwilling to anger her by drawing attention to her poor reading skills.
She felt angry anyway but swallowed it down and took the paper over to Saulius on the couch. Andraikos had tried to make her learn to read, but unlike swordsmanship, she hadn’t seen the use and had not been able to force herself to acquire the skill. In the Imperial City though, all except the poorest of the poor could read.
Saulius took the paper with a flourish and sat up. He attended the Imperial University on a scholarship before becoming a swordsman-for-hire, but had to drop out after only one year, apparently because he drank too much and never studied.
“Ahem. ‘Let it be known that as the twentieth year of his most glorious reign approaches, the Divine Emperor Valtseharu Tahevas the Fifteenth, Incarnate Avatar of the Lord of Heaven, High Priest and Intercessor, Savior and Defender of Mankind–‘” Lida glanced over to see whether Saulius’s recitation of the Emperor’s titles and attributes was having any effect on Merolliay, whose people rejected all divinity including the Emperor’s. But if Merolliay was aggravated he was not letting it show. “–et cetera, et cetera . . . ‘let it be known that the Divine Emperor, may he live forever, has chosen to swell the ranks of those permitted to serve him in the Imperial Guard, to bask in his holy radiance and the light of his countenance.’ Et cetera. ‘Therefore, anyone who wishes to serve in this way shall wait without the East watch Gate of the Imperial Compound before sunrise on the last day of the tenth month of this, the nineteenth year in the reign of the Emperor Valtseharu Tahevas.'” The tenth month in the Imperial Calendar ended three days after the fall equinox; today was the thirteenth day of the tenth month.
Merolliay had set his book face-down on his lap, and Alzadin was looking up from his sword even though he must have read the broadsheet himself back in the pastry shop.
“What does that mean?” Lida asked. “Anyone who wants to join the Imperial Guard can just join?” Imperial Guardsmen were selected from the ranks of the City Guard and from the officer corps of the Imperial Army. They underwent rigorous screening to establish their loyalty. And despite the official policy that all positions and professions were open to men from anywhere within the Empire, most guardsmen were of the Emperor’s own people, the Nemesde.
“No,” Saulius said. “There’s more. Listen. ‘There shall be twenty places made available, one for each of the Emperor’s twenty years.'” Twenty years on the throne obviously; today was the Emperor’s thirty-eighth birthday. “‘Entrants shall be matched one against another and shall compete with the weapons of their choice to first blood. At the conclusion of each round the victors shall be matched with other victors, and this process shall continue until forty contestants remain. Each pair will then engage in one ultimate match, this time to the death. The twenty champions shall receive lifetime membership in the Guild of Swordsmen, and their membership dues shall be waived. They shall enter into the service of the Emperor as honored members of the Imperial Guard with all the responsibilities and privileges thereunto.'”
Saulius held the paper back out to Lida. But she didn’t take it.
“That doesn’t make sense,” she said. “How do they know the new Guardsmen will be loyal? What if someone who hates the Emperor gets into the Guard just so he can try to assassinate him?”
A wide grin split Saulius’s face. “Why? Are you thinking of trying?”
“No!” Lida snatched the paper back and crumpled it in her hand. She did hate the Emperor for invading her homeland and destroying her village but not enough to do anything so clearly suicidal. “Anyway, I couldn’t try out for the Guard even if I wanted to. I’m a swordswoman, not a swords-man.” As the Guild of Swordsmen made clear each time she petitioned for membership.
Merolliay seemed surprised at first, then nodded slowly. “Interesting. Alzadin points out that the proclamation never once specifies that the entrants must be men.”
Saulius chuckled. “Maybe the Emperor is specifically trying to recruit you, Lida.”
Lida frowned. No one tried to recruit swordswomen. Lida, Merolliay, Alzadin, and Saulius had to convince each potential client that Lida was as capable as a man at whatever job they were being considered for: guarding a noble family traveling between cities, maintaining order during a wedding or other festival, or perhaps fighting other swordsmen for the entertainment of wealthy patrons. Sometimes Lida wished she was a man. It would have made her life much easier.
“If I know anything about the Emperor,” Merolliay said, “this isn’t about adding twenty new Guardsmen.”
Merolliay had not only been inside the palace, but spoken with the Emperor face-to-face. It was easy to forget who Merolliay was: the Lion of the West, the exiled ancestral leader of a hundred tiny kingdoms now under Imperial occupation.
“Then what is it about?” Saulius asked.
Merolliay shrugged but Alzadin said something from his chair at the table. Merolliay raised an eyebrow, thought for a moment, then nodded. “Alzadin makes a good point. Imperial Guardsmen currently are not members of the Guild of Swordsmen.” He seemed troubled. “There are rumors that the Guild has been pushing for all Imperial Guardsmen, Palace Guardsmen and City Watchmen to be required to join.”
“So?” Lida asked. “What’s wrong with that? All three of you are Guild members. I would be a Guild member, if they’d let me in. The Three Gallant Rogues is registered with the Guild.”
Their company paid a tenth of their earnings to the Guild as dues, above and beyond what Merolliay, Saulius, and Alzadin each paid as individual members. Lida knew that Merolliay resented the portion of dues that went to support the Guild shrine and the temples of their patron deity, but he seemed to accept it as a necessary evil.
Merolliay frowned. “Not everyone needs to be in a Guild.”
Outside, men in identical rough gray tunics and leggings were lifting the assassin’s body into an ox-drawn wagon of unplaned wooden boards. The sides of the wagon were high enough that Lida could not see the contents as she passed by, but the rising stench suggested that the assassin’s was not the only corpse. One of the men in gray watched Lida and the others as they started off down the street coming out of a house from which a body had been thrown, but he didn’t say anything. None of the corpse gatherers were armed, and Lida had never seen City Watchmen in this district.
“I should give the corpse gatherers Helena Dareshna’s address so they know where to return the body,” Lida said. Alzadin chuckled, Merolliay didn’t react, and Saulius just looked uncomfortable. He did not like it when they made jokes about killing people. In fact, Lida wasn’t sure Saulius had ever killed anyone.
It was one of the last few days between summer when the paving stones were hot enough to burn your feet, and winter when the wind was cold enough to freeze your skin before you walked to the next corner. Lida found it too warm for her long-sleeved woolen doublet, which she started carrying rolled up under one arm before too long, but not so hot that she secretly wished she were wearing women’s skirts instead of a man’s shirt, breeches, and knee-high boots. In truth, her clothes were not really cut for men despite their appearance. Saulius’s tailor, when Saulius introduced them almost two years ago, had been thrilled by the challenge of designing clothing in a masculine style but cut for a woman’s figure. Lida was thrilled to have functional clothes that fit properly.
The district they lived in was far from the heart of the Imperial City and carriages-for-hire were impossible to find. They had to walk about two miles to a sufficiently well-traveled crossroads. The price to hire a carriage today was even more outrageous than usual since everyone in the City wanted to participate in the Emperor’s birthday festivities. But it took half the day to get anywhere interesting on foot. In many ways, the Imperial City was not a true city at all so much as ten thousand villages loosely clustered on the steppes.
The carriage let them out in the Kavanian District where Saulius had grown up. Of the four of them, he was the only one born in the Imperial City. His great-grandparents had been brought here as part of the Imperial policy of forced resettlement, but there weren’t many Kavanians still living in the Imperial City who remembered their homeland. As a consequence, their celebration of the Emperor’s birthday was much more enthusiastic than in districts inhabited by more recent exiles.
“Saulius!” Almost as soon as their feet touched the ground, an old woman passing by had recognized Saulius and hauled him down to her level to be kissed on both cheeks and exclaimed over in Kavanian. Lida didn’t understand much of it and she didn’t think Alzadin did either, but of course Merolliay listened along, smiling every now and then. Lida had not yet encountered a language that Merolliay did not understand.
Some sentiments didn’t require words. At one point the woman turned to Lida, looked her up and down as if she were a goat at the market, and sniffed disapprovingly before speaking again. Lida crossed her arms and scowled. Men were condescending enough about her choice to live the life of a swordsman, but the contempt she earned from other women was in a different realm entirely.
And this was just fine, as far as Lida was concerned. Put the old Kavanian woman on a dark street with four drunken thugs and she’d either be shrieking for the City Watchmen to come rescue her or dead. Not Lida. Andraikos had rescued her once, a long time ago, when the Imperial Army destroyed her village. That was the last time she’d had to rely on a man to save her life.
“Who was that?” Merolliay asked, once the old woman was out of earshot.
“My second cousin’s great-aunt,” Saulius said. Saulius was apparently related to everyone in the Kavanian District and always knew the precise degree of their relationship.
“Wouldn’t that be your grandmother?” Lida asked.
“No, my second cousin’s great-aunt by marriage,” Saulius said. “Zuvius!” He waved to a tall young man on the other side of the street, who waved back once he’d caught sight of Saulius, and started to make his way over. “Zuvius is my cousin Vesnia’s brother-in-law,” Saulius explained.
Lida tried to exchange exasperated glances with Merolliay, but he didn’t appear to notice. She knew better than to look to Alzadin for support; she’d seen him with people from his own homeland. Right now he was beaming, as if they’d come to the Kavanian District not to drink and watch the festivities but to become reacquainted with all Saulius’s distant relatives.
There was a settlement of Thousand Lakes folk on the outskirts of the Imperial City, but Lida never went there anymore. It was too depressing and there wasn’t anyone from her own village–it was possible that everyone else from her own village was dead. No one trusted her.
“Saulius!” Zuvius exclaimed upon reaching them. “How goes it?” He was tall, blond, and blue-eyed, like almost all Kavanians, but wore his hair longer, tied at the back of his neck instead of in a short, stylish cut like Saulius’s. He looked a lot like Saulius though, and eyed Lida with the same sort of friendly lust. “Here we have the Four Gallant Rogues, no?” Unlike Saulius, he spoke Nemesde with a noticeable accent and excessively formal phrasing as if he had learned it in school but didn’t speak it often.
“It’s the Three Gallant Rogues, actually,” Saulius said.
“But you are four!” Zuvius protested, gesturing at Lida.
“Yes,” Saulius said, “but once your company of swordsmen is registered with the Guild, it’s an enormous hassle to change the name.”
“Oh, Guilds!” Zuvius said. “Such trouble. Senli Ozius has to join the Distillers of Spirits Guild. Did you hear?”
“What’s this?” Merolliay asked, suddenly interested.
Saulius and Zuvius exchanged glances. “I hadn’t heard,” Saulius said. “Senli–or Grandpa–Ozius makes the best Kavanian fruit brandy. But he doesn’t make very much of it, maybe only three or four gallons each month. After seeing the shed he uses, I’m surprised he even manages to make that much without burning the entire block down.”
“Yes,” Zuvius said, “and the Guild is saying he must clean up the shed. Drive away the rats and such.”
“No rats!” Saulius exclaimed. “I’ll wager that the occasional dead rat in the brew is what makes the brandy taste so good.” He and Zuvius both laughed uproariously.
“It doesn’t sound as if this gentleman can afford Guild membership,” Merolliay said. Lida wondered why Merolliay was so concerned.
Zuvius looked vaguely embarrassed. “Well, no, it is not possible. We are all paying the dues for him, some concerned friends and neighbors.”
“Ha!” Saulius said. “Concerned most of all about the potential loss of fruit brandy. Here-” He rummaged inside an inner pocket of his jacket, surfacing with several copper coins. “Let me show my own concern.”
Zuvius grinned. “Many thanks. I will be sure that a small bottle is held aside for you.”
Down the street some distance, past a clot of jostling merrymakers, an explosion like a tiny thunderclap sounded followed in quick succession by three more. Lida had her sword partway out of its sheath before she realized that they were only firecrackers, not cannon or musket fire.
The crowds in the street, few if any of whom had been born when the Empire invaded their homeland, sent up a cheer and began chanting in Kavanian. Merolliay made a sour expression.
“What are they saying?” Lida asked him.
“‘Long live the Emperor, man and god, god and man,'” Merolliay said.
Lida wondered why Merolliay had agreed to come if reference to the Emperor’s divinity was going to bother him so much. What did he expect at the Emperor’s birthday celebrations?
Zuvius, who must have overheard Merolliay, said, “Who knows if the Emperor is divine?” He had to raise his voice to be heard above the approaching crowd. A parade seemed to be making its way towards them, and the cheers and whistles were growing louder. “We have many gods, and why should they mind if we add one more? If a man might be god, maybe it is not safe to demand proof before worshipping.”
Saulius gave Zuvius a friendly punch in the shoulder. “Three tasks are undertaken only by fools!” he shouted over the excited shouts of the people around them. “To walk between a bear and her cubs, to carry a burning torch into the Imperial Gunpowder Magazines, and to argue philosophy with a Libanian.”
Another rapid series of bangs, each punctuated by a shout from the crowd and a cloud of smoke, made further discussion impossible. Lida caught a glimpse of the two men at the head of the procession turning the corner onto their street pulling a small cart. One of the men marching alongside the cart reached in for some object that he handed off to another. People were in the way, all pushing to see, and even though Lida was unusually tall for a woman, she could only see a bit of what was going on here and there past the heads and shoulders of everyone between her and the middle of the road.
With a hiss and a crackle, the object from the cart sped down the street ahead of the procession, paper streamers unfolding in a burst of wind just before it exploded. Lida tried not to cringe at the noise. She did see the fully-unfolded paper around the firecracker before it blew apart. If one squinted hard and had a vivid imagination, it bore a vague resemblance to the Imperial fire-breathing horse sigil.
Zuvius left them soon after the parade had passed by. From that point on the afternoon passed in a blur of drinking, snacking on street food, and being accosted by Saulius’s relatives, friends, and ex-girlfriends. Towards evening, Saulius and Alzadin left to attend the Swordsmen’s Guild feast in honor of the Emperor’s birthday, leaving Lida alone with Merolliay.
Alone, that is, in a cellar tavern full of strange Kavanian men, a dish of cabbage parcels stuffed with seasoned minced pork on the flimsy table between the two of them. Most of the other men were laborers; their holiday finery faded and mended, dirt under their nails and in the creases of their hands and faces. Lida wondered if her father looked like that. He had gone away when she was a young girl, gone to work in the coal mines or the kerosene factories, and they never saw him again.
There was no lamp on their table, only a couple of squat smoky tallow candles. Lida watched Merolliay in the dim light, watched it reflect off the angular planes of his face and short neatly-trimmed beard. She watched him lick the juice from the cabbage parcels off his fingers. She had drunk too much to worry that he would notice her staring at him. He was like Andraikos sometimes, quiet and thoughtful, as if considering some great mystery that he believed only he could understand. But I might understand, if you only told me, Lida used to think then and thought now.
“Liban!” The word was a drunken slur, harsh and angry. Lida and Merolliay looked up together and saw the speaker looming over their table, swaying back and forth. He was not someone Saulius had introduced them to. In fact, as Lida glanced around the smoky dimly-lit room, she realized that no one left in the tavern had seen them with Saulius. No one except the tavern keeper and his three assistants.
“Yes?” Merolliay’s dark eyes were wary. Out of long habit, Lida shifted her leg to check that the knife inside her boot was ready to be drawn, keeping her hands above the table so as not to alarm the tall Kavanian leaning over them.
“You!” the man said. At a table behind him, three other men, just as tall, were getting up. “No want you. Here.”
Merolliay answered him in Kavanian.
The other man slammed both palms on their table. The dishes rattled. One of the candles fell over and spluttered out. The man answered Merolliay in a rapid-fire onslaught of which Lida understood one word in five, and they were all obscenities.
The man’s three companions were closing in. None of them carried swords, but one had a knife out in his hand.
The tavern keeper called out at the men urgently. Lida heard Saulius’s name but understood little else. Their assailants acted as if they hadn’t heard.
The table upended itself into the drunken Kavanian, all Merolliay’s weight behind it. As he released the table Merolliay drew his sword.
Lida needed no encouragement. Her sword was out only a moment after Merolliay’s. Teeth bared, she sprang after the drunken Kavanian who had started the fight and slashed her blade down the side of his face, shearing away the flesh. He hollered in pain and reached blindly for her. She struck away his hand with her sword then drove the point into his throat.
She turned. The three other men all had knives out. One was down on the floor, but Merolliay was bleeding from a gash across his upper arm. Not his sword arm, but the sight still enraged Lida, and she flew at the men with both sword and dagger, slashing at face and chest. The day’s drinking had made her clumsy but it didn’t matter. Neither of the men had ever faced anything more serious than a tavern brawl, and they couldn’t even scratch her. Thousand Lakes men were famous for their skill as swordsmen. Lida might not be a man, but she’d had four older brothers to spar with, and then Andraikos had forced her to practice for hours each day until the sword felt like an extension of her arm, until she could block and parry without having to think.
Lida yanked her sword out of the chest of the fourth downed man and slashed his throat open. She stepped back breathing hard and looked around for further threats. Everyone in the room was watching her and Merolliay with hostility, even the tavern keeper who’d tried to stop the fight. But no one else carried a sword.
Out on the street, it was almost dark. Hardly anyone was around. A couple of boys, around the age Lida had been when her father left, watched them from the entrance to a tall, grimy house of apartments. A stray dog at the end of the street sat down on its haunches to watch them wipe the blood from their swords.
“Your arm’s bleeding,” Lida pointed out.
“Mm hm.” Merolliay poked at it with one finger and winced.
“I hope they weren’t too closely related to Saulius.”
Merolliay replied with a humorless grin.
“Do you know where we are?”
Merolliay looked up and down the street. “No idea.”
The Kavanian District wasn’t as friendly when they weren’t with Saulius. No one was as hostile as the men in the tavern, but even when they saw young men to whom Saulius had introduced them earlier that day, they were ignored. From a distance across a street, Lida thought she saw Zuvius. But if it was him he turned his back after catching one glimpse of them.
Eventually, after a long succession of wrong turns and backtracking, Merolliay and Lida found their way to the District’s central plaza where their carriage had originally dropped them off. Lida saw a doctor’s sign hung over an open door, light spilling out onto the street. When she pointed out the cup and flame symbols of the Healers’ Guild to Merolliay, he agreed to go in.
The doctor cleaned and stitched Merolliay’s arm. He had no laudanum, only the clear, distilled grain alcohol he used for sterilizing the wound and his needles and thread. Merolliay drank three tiny glasses of it but still clutched the smooth wooden stick the doctor gave him so hard that Lida thought his knuckles would crack. The doctor, while not unfriendly to them, muttered to himself in Kavanian the entire time. Lida heard Saulius’s name but didn’t understand what was being said, though she noticed that it brought a smile to Merolliay’s face.
“What was the doctor saying?” she asked, once they were in a carriage headed for home.
Merolliay’s head lolled against the wall of the carriage, and at first Lida thought he hadn’t heard her. Then he laughed as if sharing a joke with an invisible friend.
“What?” she said.
“You don’t want to know,” he said, eyes half-closed. “It might embarrass you.”
“Why?” Lida had the uncomfortable feeling that Merolliay was teasing her, and she didn’t know if she could stand it.
He laughed again, shading his eyes with the back of his hand even though the only light came from a candle in the wall behind a pierced metal screen. The driver was on his seat in front, and the two of them were enclosed in the passenger box where he couldn’t see them.
“Do you know that Saulius is in love with you?” Merolliay asked.
Nothing he said could have shocked Lida more.
“He’s not,” she said. Then, “How do you know? Is that what the doctor was saying?”
“I already knew.”
Saulius might be older than her, but he knew nothing. He was an innocent boy playing at being a swordsman. He hadn’t seen his mother face-down on the ground, blood all around, maybe she was dead and maybe not, but you didn’t wait to find out–
And you didn’t think about things like that. Lida made the memory go away. “Saulius is in love with all women.”
“Not like this.”
“I’m not in love with him.” It had never occurred to her to think of Saulius in that way. In fact, the more he flirted with her, the less seriously she could take him.
“No,” Merolliay said. “Of course you aren’t.”
She wanted to say, Because I’m in love with you, but she didn’t. Maybe he already knew. He was the same age Andraikos had been when he rescued her from the Imperial Army.
Merolliay didn’t love her any more than Andraikos had. Not the way she wanted him to. But they were both men. Lida wasn’t the prettiest girl in the Imperial City, but she wasn’t the ugliest either.
They had to pay the coachman double to get him to drive them all the way home, knowing that he had no chance of picking up a passenger past the crossroads. Lida considered threatening him with her sword, but that was the sort of thing that could get the Three Gallant Rogues thrown out of the Guild of Swordsmen.
She supposed that killing unarmed men in a tavern brawl might also meet with their disapproval. But it wouldn’t be the first time in the Imperial City that a drunken fight between members of different ethnic groups ended with one or more combatants dead. And on the rare occasion that such a case went to court, the magistrates almost always decided in favor of whichever party was on unfriendly ground assuming that they would have been outnumbered. Official Imperial policy promoted the vision that they were all citizens of the glorious Nemesde Empire and that citizens should be able to move safely across all ethnic enclaves in the Imperial City.
Merolliay was less steady on his feet than Lida had ever seen him, but he made it into the house without having to lean on her. In the pitch-dark entryway, which led either to the large two-storey apartment that Merolliay shared with Saulius and Alzadin, or to Lida’s rooms on the third floor, Lida listened to him fumble with the lock for a long time before reaching to help. Her hand touched his and she felt a spark of static jump through her entire body from fingertips to toes. He didn’t draw his hand away.
Inside the large common room, Lida found the covered bowl of glowing coals on the hearth by feel. She opened it and used the coals to light one of the candles they kept on the mantelpiece. In the warm flickering light she saw Merolliay standing halfway between her and the door that led up the stairs to his bedroom, watching her.
She took a step towards him. He didn’t move away or turn his back on her.
She tried to think of something to say, but her tongue felt swollen and useless after all the beer and liquor she’d drunk. Merolliay was the university-schooled son of a noble house. He was the one who knew how to use words, not her. She was just a village girl who could barely read. She pretended to be experienced in the ways of the world, but she’d never had a lover. She and Andraikos used to share their blankets for warmth and sometimes he would kiss her when he’d drunk too much and even touch her breasts under her shirt. But every time he would turn away before he could, as he put it, “take advantage of her.”
Merolliay took a step towards his room, but backwards, so he was still facing Lida as he moved away. She followed with two steps of her own. Another backwards step and she followed. She felt like a fish on a line being hauled out of a lake, hand-over-hand.
He stumbled over his feet into the door when he reached it, clutching at the wall to keep himself upright. By then Lida had closed the distance between them.
Merolliay’s hand darted out and caught a fistful of her shirt, hauling her against him. His back was pressed into the lintel of the door. Lida gasped at the delicious feel of his hard lean body against hers, his fingers digging into her buttocks to grind her hips against him. His other hand released her shirt and slid behind her head, taking her hair in a painful grip and pulling her mouth down to his. She was taller by almost the width of her hand.
His kiss was fiercer than anything she’d shared with Andraikos. It was like he was trying to devour her soul through her mouth, whether he believed in souls or not. Lida tried to respond, tried to remember the way Andraikos had kissed her, but it didn’t seem to matte, because she wasn’t sharing a kiss, she was being kissed. It still felt good mostly, but as it went on she started to feel a rising sense of panic. She might be taller, but Merolliay was physically stronger, and she was at his mercy.
She tried to pull away, but it was as if he didn’t even notice. He drew his tongue down the side of her neck, and she shuddered at the sudden rush of heat between her legs, and shuddered again when his teeth bit hard into the skin over her collarbone. His hand had torn her shirt out of her breeches, and he slipped his fingers up inside, up her back, gently at first, and then his fingers turned into claws, his nails raking down her back in long scratches.
She wasn’t sure if she pulled away or he pushed her away, but suddenly she was free of the iron grip that held her. They were still close enough to touch without reaching and his breathing was as shallow as hers. She could see how aroused he was. But he didn’t reach for her.
His dark eyes went from her chest to her hips and crotch and back again. The top three buttons of her shirt had come undone, and one of them had fallen on the floor between them. He noticed the button on the floor and met her eyes with his.
“Are you coming upstairs with me?” he asked.
Lida didn’t answer. She couldn’t form the words. But when Merolliay went through the door and started up the stairs, she followed him. Her heart was pounding like it did the last few seconds before a duel.
It was painful, which she had heard it would be, and awkward, which she hadn’t. She wasn’t afraid of pain, though, and few things in her life had ever not been awkward. In the moments after they finished she thought she had never been more content lying close enough to Merolliay to feel the heart beating in his chest, feeling the whisper of his breath against her cheek.
When he pulled away from her, she reached out a hand to try and touch his sleek dark hair, but he shook his head and pushed her hand back. His expression was grim, and he wouldn’t meet her eyes.
“Merolliay?” she said. “What’s wrong?”
He shook his head, still not looking at her, and lay down again on his back, far enough away that they weren’t touching.
“This was a mistake,” he said. “It can’t happen again.”
Just at that moment, as Lida was searching for what she could possibly say in response, loud thumping footsteps sounded on the stairs–footsteps she recognized–and a few seconds later Merolliay’s bedroom door was flung open by a laughing Saulius and Alzadin, arms around each other’s shoulders. But not before Merolliay put an exasperated hand over his eyes, muttering, “Oh, for the love of Liban!”
“Mero–” Saulius exclaimed, before noticing that Merolliay was not alone, and then noticing who was with him. “Oh,” he said. The disappointment in his voice would have been evident even without what Merolliay had said earlier.
It occurred to Lida that if this had been a theatrical farce, the audience would have been falling out of their seats. But it wasn’t funny as one of the players having to see the hurt that Saulius was failing to hide, Merolliay lying next to her in the bed but not even wanting her to touch him, Alzadin eyeing Saulius to see if he could extricate himself from Saulius’s arm and escape this awkward situation without Saulius toppling over.
Alzadin said something and started nudging Saulius, attempting to tug him back out onto the landing. But Saulius seemed rooted to the spot.
Merolliay, who still had his hand over his face, shook his head and groaned.
That was enough for Lida. She shrugged back into her shirt and started buttoning it. “We can all leave,” she announced. “I seem to have done whatever I was needed for.”
She thought Merolliay’s mouth twisted in a slight grimace, but she might have been imagining it, wishing desperately for him to show some reaction, any reaction at all.
Unfortunately, her dramatic exit wasn’t as dramatic as she would have liked because her breeches and smallclothes were hopelessly twisted around one ankle. And she must have been more drunk than she realized because it took her several false starts to get them back on properly. Then she looked down and realized that she had only fastened about half of the buttons on her shirt and all of them into the wrong buttonholes. As the final glory, Saulius and Alzadin had apparently taken her announcement that she also intended to leave as an instruction for them to stay until she was ready to go. Or else they just didn’t want to miss the opportunity to watch her dress and were willing to cling to the flimsiest possible excuse.
She left her boots because they were a nuisance to put on at the best of times, and she didn’t want to risk further embarrassment by dropping them. She did stoop to gather her sword and sword belt from the floor next to Merolliay’s bed.
Saulius and Alzadin still hadn’t moved out of the doorway when she got there. She glared up at Saulius.
“Do I have to stab you again?”
He just stared at her, struck dumb, until Alzadin thrust an elbow in his ribs and the two of them flattened themselves back against the edge of the door and the wall of the landing outside to let her by.
Thanks be to the Three, and the god Konendas, and yes, even to the Emperor himself, Lida did not trip and fall down the stairs but made it to the bottom and out into the common room with the last scant shreds of her dignity intact.
Both windows were closed and locked when she got up to her own room. She thought for a couple of seconds, then threw them both open before tumbling into her bed despite the chill in the breeze that threatened frost.
She hoped Helena Dareshna would send another assassin before sunrise. She desperately wanted to kill someone.
The conspirators were all upstairs, six of them, in a small stuffy room smelling of sweat, dry rot, and kerosene. Three blazing lanterns provided plenty of light. Merolliay hoped that the gap under the creaking door was letting in enough fresh air to keep everyone from passing out.
“Took you long enough!” Filipe growled in Libanian from one end of a dusty couch. “What’d you do, stick it in every tavern girl from Kulkarni District to here?”
Merolliay gave him a tight smile and sat down in the seat they left for him on the other end of the couch. He took the wine they’d poured for him too: a well-aged Ortellay from the steep slopes north of Liban. Refusing to drink anything except Libanian wine at their meetings was a point of pride for these men.
“Enough of that, Filipe,” Sharolen said. “We’re here for a reason.” He took a sheet of paper from the satchel at his feet and laid it on the low table that they were all using for their drinks. “You’re a swordsman,” he said, addressing Merolliay. “No doubt you’ve seen or heard of this.”
Merolliay stared, recognizing a copy of the same broadsheet Alzadin had brought back from the pastry shop yesterday morning. The one advertising a chance to try for a place in the Imperial Guard.
“He’s speechless,” Filipe said. “Which means either he has seen it, or he hasn’t. Hard to tell with our Merolliay here.”
“I’ve seen it,” Merolliay said.
“Well?” said Sharolen.
“Well, what?” Merolliay retorted.
Sharolen, angered, opened his mouth to speak but Filipe cut him off. “You know what, Mero. Your Guild. Twenty new swordsmen for the Imperial Guard and the Guild of Swordsmen grants Guild membership to each one. What if some don’t want Guild membership?”
Merolliay set his wineglass on the table, surprised to hear his own concerns hinted at by these men. “I assume those swordsmen won’t enter the contest. Since the contest rules are clear about Guild membership being one of the prizes.”
“So anyone who doesn’t want to be in a Guild better not try to get into the Imperial Guard through this contest, is that it?” Filipe used a fork to sharply stab a chunk of sweating cheese on the tray between them as if the cheese were responsible for the contest rules. “How long before Guild membership is a ‘prize’ no matter how they qualify for the Imperial Guard? How long before the only thing you can do without joining a Guild is work in a factory or a mine?” Filipe was the only man in the room who had not joined a Guild; but there was no Guild of University Professors for him to join. Not yet.
Tierry shifted on his perch on the high three-legged stool across from them. “I have heard from multiple sources that the Guild of Yogurt-Sellers has been harassing independent vendors who can’t afford membership dues.”
That might explain the sudden absence of the stooped little Kulkarni man from whom Lida used to buy yogurt at the edge of the park near their house. “I have heard similar stories about the Distillers’ Guild,” Merolliay admitted, remembering what Zuvius in the Kavanian District had told them about the old man and his fruit brandy.
“They don’t allow women in the Guilds either,” Filipe said, “so even if some widow with a goat wants to sell extra yogurt to her neighbors and can afford to join, they won’t let her.”
“It’s a problem,” Sharolen said, “and not only for Libanians who don’t want their dues money going to fund pagan temples.” He glanced at Filipe. “It’s a problem for all ordinary men and women living in the City. They’re being forced out of their professions into factories and other menial jobs. Long hours, low wages, and no chance for a better life.”
Merolliay shook his head. Filipe taught Engineering at the Imperial University but none of these other men ever left the Libanian District except to attend these secret meetings, shop for cloth and spices, or participate in political rallies. They were drunk on the fantasy that all subject people of the Empire suffered in bondage, waiting for the purity of Libanian atheism and the Libanian message of the equality of all men to liberate them. He’d have liked to see his countrymen try to start an anti-Imperial political rally among the oppressed Kavanian factory workers from last night.
“I’m not trying to argue that it isn’t a problem,” Merolliay said. “But I’m not sure what you want me to do about it.”
The other six men exchanged glances as if they couldn’t agree on whose responsibility it was to answer him. Eventually, Sharolen spoke up. “Our thought is that the contest might be an excellent opportunity for you to introduce a person whom you can look upon as an ally into the Imperial Palace.”
Merolliay stared at him. “How, exactly, am I to ‘introduce a person’ into the Imperial Palace? I assume you read the part about it being a contest of arms.” He didn’t understand what Sharolen’s suggestion had to do with people being forced out of their professions due to tighter Guild control.
“We realize that the candidate would have to earn a position in the Imperial Guard by his or her own skill,” Sharolen said.
Merolliay froze. Oh, no, he thought. Absolutely not.
“However,” Sharolen continued, “you might have a colleague who trusts your advice and who you think might be useful to you. If they could be stationed inside the palace.”
“‘Useful to me,'” Merolliay repeated.
“A colleague who would be willing to take an oath of allegiance to the Emperor, of course,” Sharolen continued unfazed.
“But remain loyal to me,” Merolliay said. “Someone who’s willing to swear falsely.”
Sharolen glowered at him. Filipe chuckled.
“Yes,” Filipe said, “and if that colleague happened to be a woman, to set a precedent that women should be permitted to join the Guilds–”
“I know what he’s digging for,” Merolliay said, “and the answer is no.” If they thought Lida was willing to swear a false oath, they were fools. Not that that was his only consideration here.
“Surely you have some influence with Lida Dareshna,” Sharolen said.
Possibly not after last night. “I have no intention,” Merolliay said, “of attempting to convince Lady Dareshna to compete for a place in the Imperial Guard. My friends are not game pieces in your misguided plot to overthrow the Emperor.” Nor am I, he wanted to say, angered by their latest attempt to manipulate him with their speeches about the plight of the working class. Perhaps it would have angered him less had any of these men actually belonged to the working class.
“Shove it up your ass, Mero!” Filipe retorted. “Along with that stick you’ve already got shoved up there. You have a responsibility to your own people.”
Who are my people? Merolliay wondered. There was no one in this room whose company he preferred to that of Alzadin, Saulius, or even Lida. No one he trusted to watch his back in a treacherous situation.
Filipe wasn’t finished. “This is going to spread throughout the Empire, these Guilds taking over everything. It’ll come to that even back home in Liban. You don’t get a choice about using people as game pieces, Mero, Lion of the West. All the western kingdoms that the Nemesde Empire has tried to subjugate look to you to give them hope and all you want to do is hide out in the ass-end of the city and play at being a hired sword.”
Merolliay thought of the Kavanian District, of the man in the cellar tavern. “Burn in hell, Libanian!” he had spat across the table. “All you godless atheists, I hope your city falls into the sea.” Merolliay didn’t think that westerner had been looking to him for hope.
He stood up. “Don’t complain to me about the Guilds taking over everything and then try to ride on the coattails of their latest scheme.” He still wasn’t entirely convinced that the contest was a Guild scheme, but these men all seemed to believe it was. He locked eyes with each of them in turn: with Tierry, a member of the powerful Silk Weavers’ Guild. With Sharolen of the Founders’ Guild, owner of a foundry that supplied cannon bodies to an Imperial Army he professed to hate. With Remy, Vierre, and Zhiell, all of artisan guilds that allowed them to practice the trades of their fathers and earn enough to live comfortably and send their children to the Imperial University. Even Filipe, who had never had to choose whether to pay dues that might be used to fund superstitions, or give up his profession and take menial employment.
“Lion of the West,” Merolliay said, his voice venomous with scorn. “We all know what that title is worth. I remember you and my father, Filipe, laughing at the latest ambassador come begging my family to lead them against the Emperor.” Perhaps if they’d taken those appeals as seriously as the Empire had, Merolliay’s father would still be alive today. And Merolliay would be in Liban where he belonged instead of an exile in an unfriendly city fifteen hundred miles from home.
“If my title does mean anything, then one thing I do not have is the responsibility to be used as your game piece. If I’m the Lion of the West, you take orders from me.”
He had expected anger or indignation at his audacity, suggesting that he should have the right to command men older and better-educated based on some half-remembered mythology about his ancestors. He had not expected the shrewd, appraising look Filipe gave him.
“I probably would take orders from you, Mero, if you gave them,” the older man said. “Are you the Lion of the West?”
They were all giving him that look now, every one of them. Men old enough to have brought gifts to his birth celebration.
He backed away, towards the door.
“No,” he said. “No, I’m not.”
Merolliay brooded all the way back to the house, sick with longing for all that had been left behind in Liban. He wasn’t sure his countrymen even realized all the ways they had been corrupted by the Imperial City. He knew all the men at that meeting employed paid servants for menial work in their houses, instead of hiring the near-adult children of friends and neighbors to teach them the value of hard work. Even worse, despite Filipe’s complaint about the exclusion of women from Guilds, Merolliay had yet to see a female face at one of these meetings. The real meetings, not the university rallies or the lectures in cafes. Even at those, the women and girls attended primarily to meet young men, rather than taking an active role in planning and organizing.
And now this. They weren’t Nemesde, to choose leaders based on ancestry instead of ability. What next, shrines and sacrifices in his honor?
It was in this dark mood that he walked into the foyer of the house, hoping the others had gone out and wishing for the hundredth time that he did not have to pass through the common room to reach his own private room. Unfortunately, he could hear raised voices beyond the door, the loudest of them female.
Steeling his courage, and hoping he was not the subject of the discussion, Merolliay walked in.
As always, Lida was the focal point. She was standing in the middle of the room fully dressed from boots to doublet, except for the lack of a sword, her straw-colored hair in its usual pinned-up braids. He had interrupted her mid-gesture, and the look she turned on him as he entered the room reminded him that he would be regretting what happened last night for a long time to come.
Saulius and Alzadin were side-by-side on the couch, both looking grim.
“What happened?” Merolliay asked.
“Some officers from the Guild of Swordsmen came and took Lida’s sword,” Saulius said, gesturing.
Merolliay frowned. “Why?”
“Because I’m not a member of the Guild!” Lida said, the rawness in her voice betraying her emotion. And no wonder; Andraikos Dareshna had given Lida that sword.
“But–” Merolliay started to say, then stopped. It had never been a problem before for Lida to work as a swordsman–or swordswoman. But if all the Guilds were starting to harass those who practiced a trade without Guild membership…
“The Guild officers mentioned something about a tavern brawl,” Saulius said. He frowned. “I hope you didn’t end up killing my fifth cousin or one of his three sons.” His tone was deliberately light.
“If your fifth cousin is the man running the place, then no,” Merolliay said. Saulius relaxed.
“That’s a completely made-up reason!” Lida protested. “We were the ones on hostile ground. And I don’t even remember how many men I’ve killed in tavern brawls. Who cares about three more?”
To spare Saulius from having to argue with Lida about the value of human life, Merolliay said, “The Guild of Swordsmen doesn’t care. This is about something else. Lida has been a member of our company for two years, and the Guild of Swordsmen has known about it since the day she joined. Why are they doing something about it only now?”
“It’s that bitch!” Lida said. “Andraikos’s wife. She knows she can’t hire an assassin good enough to kill me so she paid off the Guild to come after me instead.”
“What happened, exactly?” Merolliay asked.
Saulius waved an arm at the door. “These three men showed up and knocked on the door about an hour ago. They were all in Guild livery–you know, the black hose with no breeches and the silver-trimmed black doublet that barely covers your ass.” Merolliay allowed himself a faint smile. None of the Three Gallant Rogues had ever purchased Guild livery. “They gave Lida some official-looking document that said it was a violation of Imperial law for anyone ineligible for Guild membership to carry a sword.”
Saulius shrugged, and gestured over at the roll of parchment on the table.
“It was signed by the Guild of Swordsmen’s First Captain, and the Imperial Minister of Commerce,” Alzadin said, in his own language.
“Signed by the Imperial Minister of Commerce?” Merolliay said, switching to Nemesde so that the others could understand. “That’s not good.”
“Why is that particularly bad?” Lida demanded. “Does that mean Helena Dareshna is sleeping with the Minister of Commerce, to get him on her side?”
Merolliay found himself too irritated to answer. Sometimes Lida seemed to think that every intrigue in the Imperial City revolved around her relationship with Andraikos Dareshna and his estranged wife.
When she saw that he didn’t intend to reply to her question, Lida gave Merolliay a dark look and stalked across the room to his overstuffed chair, which she then flung herself into in a dramatic sprawl..
“How am I going to make a living if I can’t work as a swordsman? The only thing I know how to do is work as a guard, or fight.”
“If Helena Dareshna is sleeping with the Imperial Minister of Commerce,” Saulius said, grinning, “there’s only one solution. You’ll have to seduce the Emperor himself.”
Lida shot back an obscene suggestion involving Saulius, the Emperor, and some goats. Saulius’s grin only broadened.
Lida’s scowl grew darker; but then she looked up, suddenly a shade more hopeful. “I know what I could do for the Emperor.”
Merolliay froze. Oh, no, he thought.
Saulius leaned forward. “Whatever it is,” he said, his voice dropping into a seductive purr, “you should practice on me first.” He seemed to have recovered from his disappointment over seeing Lida in bed with Merolliay, and was back to the way he usually interacted with her. Merolliay sometimes wondered if he should warn the young Kavanian that Lida would never take him seriously as a prospective lover as long as he carried on that way. But he feared that Saulius wouldn’t appreciate such advice any more than he would have at Saulius’s age ten years ago.
Lida was making a disgusted face. “I still have all my knives, you know.” She gestured meaningfully at her left boot where they all knew she kept one of those knives every waking moment. “Anyway, I wasn’t thinking of anything like that. It’s not something I could practice on you. You’re not looking for twenty new members for your Imperial Guard.”
It took a moment for Alzadin, then Saulius, to follow where she had gone. Alzadin merely looked thoughtful. But Saulius was dismayed.
“You can’t do that!” he protested.
“Why not?” Lida shot back. “Alzadin said the rules never specify that the entrants have to be men.” She looked to Alzadin for confirmation, and he nodded.
“See!” Lida crowed. “If I win a place in the Imperial Guard, they’ll have to let me into the Guild of Swordsmen. The Emperor said so.”
Merolliay could contain his own dismay no longer. “It isn’t a good idea.”
“Why not?” she demanded.
One of the things that didn’t make sense about the contest being part of the Guild’s attempt to extend its influence over the Imperial Guard was that the contest actually gave the Guild of Swordsmen less control over its membership. It was possible that swordsmen who won places in the Guard through the contest were not permitted to decline Guild membership, as Sharolen and Filipe had surmised. But the rules of the contest seemed to indicate that the Guild also had to extend all the privileges of membership to whomever won. Even if some of those winners had not been eligible for Guild membership before. Lida, for instance.
What if the question Filipe and the others should have been asking wasn’t, “What does the Guild of Swordsmen gain from this contest?” but rather, “To what lengths will they go to keep certain people from entering?”
The latest attempt on Lida’s life had come only after the Guild officers and Minister of Commerce would have known about the contest.
Lida was still staring at him, expecting an answer. Instead of trying to dissuade her with theories he hadn’t had the chance to think through he said, “It’s too dangerous. Have you forgotten that the contest includes a battle to the death?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Lida said. “Because I’m going to win.”
She might win. She was a better swordsman than any other member of the Three Gallant Rogues.
“If you do win, you’ll have to take an oath of allegiance to the Emperor,” Merolliay said.
“Maybe I won’t mind doing that.” Lida’s cheeks were red, as if she had been sitting too close to the fireplace, and her fingers dug into the worn fabric of Merolliay’s chair. “Maybe I’d be happy swearing my allegiance to someone who actually wants it.”
Merolliay noticed that Saulius and Alzadin were trying hard not to look at the two of them. He drew in a deep breath, exasperated. She had other swords, but she didn’t seem to realize that she could be arrested on sight for carrying one in public, now that a Cabinet Minister had signed an order forbidding it. She might not even be allowed to enter the contest.
“You don’t have to do this,” he said. “I’m sure there’s plenty of income from Andraikos Dareshna’s estates in the south if you wanted to live off of that. In fact, if you went there, I doubt anyone would even care–”
—that you carried a sword, was what Merolliay had been about to say. But Lida was on her feet, blue eyes blazing like the Dog Star.
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you? If I went a thousand miles away.”
He had only the briefest moment to realize that the glint in her eyes came from the tears she was trying not to shed. Then she was gone, fled from the room, the door slammed behind her.
By the last day of the tenth month, the weather had changed. A light dusting of snow had fallen on the streets around their house, reminding Lida of the powdered sugar in a box of her favorite sweets. Another luxury she’d grown accustomed to living in the Imperial City. The Thousand Lakes region had snow but very little sugar.
Here, on the plaza facing the Eastwatch Gate, near the river, cold drizzle had fallen instead and still fell intermittently. Sunrise had come as a gradual thinning of the night’s gloom. It was over before Lida even noticed its approach. Around her, swordsmen by the hundreds crowded the plaza, singly or in groups of two or three, all eyeing the tall gate to the palace compound and the guard towers on either side. Some muttered about the gate not having been opened, wondering why they were being kept out in the cold. Others waited in silence, huddling into hooded cloaks or turning up coat collars against the freezing mist.
Saulius and Alzadin had offered to wait with her, but what kind of guardswoman needed her male friends to accompany her wherever she went? Every time she thought about it, she could see those worried expressions on their faces, the looks they exchanged when they thought she didn’t see. It made her angry all over again with a rage that made her face prickle with heat, and her hands itch to throw someone to the ground and kick his teeth in. If only the gods had made her a man instead of a woman! Then no one would assume she was frail. Neither Andraikos nor Merolliay had been able to love her as a woman, except in moments of drunken weakness; what good was it, to be female?
A sudden flash of silver along the river walk jolted Lida out of her brooding. She froze in place. Two black- and silver-clad men were stepping purposefully along the river walk. One of the men who had come to the house to take her sword, and another.
Trying to make the movements look as casual as possible, Lida turned around so that her back faced the Guild officers. She took a few steps farther away from them, putting a few additional swordsmen between her and the river walk. One of those swordsmen was a good size to hide behind: well over six feet tall and probably at least three hundred pounds. He glanced at her curiously as she stepped around him.
“Where is she?” a man’s voice called out. Lida forced herself not to look. She took another step away from the edge of the plaza. From behind her on the river walk, snatches of dialogue reached her ears. “…Lida Dareshna…” she heard, and “…woman….” She stared up at the enormous gate, thick slabs of weathered oak cut lengthwise from mature trees, then joined and banded together with iron. Why wasn’t it opening?
That was one epithet that couldn’t have been meant for her. Nemesde didn’t really have slanted eyes either, but some looked as if they did because of the way their eyelids folded.
“Hey!” It sounded like a child’s voice. “Hey, give us yer swords, then ye have no pricks!”
Scattered laughter rose throughout the plaza. Lida turned her head to see what was happening. Just as she was doing so, the call of a horn rose up from atop one of the two Eastwatch Gate guard towers, followed closely by a second.
The attention of the two Swordsmen’s Guild officers had been distracted by two boys farther down the river walk, both around eleven or twelve years old. They were westerners, possibly even Libanian, dark-haired with light brown faces. As Lida watched, one of the boys threw a stone at one of the Swordsmen’s Guild men, then turned and fled with his companion.
The stone hit the shoulder of the man who had taken Lida’s sword–who, although Nemesde, did not, in fact, have the sort of eyelids that the boys had mocked. The man said something to the nearest guards along the river walk and gestured in the direction the boys had run.
Lida couldn’t hear what they were saying, though, because the gate was swinging out into the plaza. And although the mechanisms were so well-machined as to be almost silent, a cheer had risen from the men all around her, and everyone was moving in a rush towards the entrance.
“Long live the Emperor!” a man hollered, and was answered by a second cheer. Not everyone joined in, but many did, and as Lida was carried towards the entrance in the tide of contestants who were prepared to fight each other to the death to join the Imperial Guard, she wondered if that first man had meant the words, or just said them for effect. She wondered if she could say those words and mean them.
The Hall of Mirrors showcased the wealth of the Empire. Its floor was an unbroken expanse of gleaming lapis lazuli tiles fitted seamlessly together, polished until Merolliay could almost see his face reflected back when he looked down. On either side, the curve of the mirrored walls swept out, reflecting over two hundred courtiers in their jeweled finery, each reflection doubled and redoubled. The tall silver-backed mirrors were all of glass, an extravagance even now but unheard of a hundred years ago when the Hall was first built, and they reached almost from floor to ceiling.
Saulius had his head tilted back to look at the carved stucco figures ornamenting the vaulted ceiling high overhead, his mouth open slightly. Alzadin was having better success at not looking like a village rustic, though Merolliay knew he had never been at court, either.
“You’ve been in this room before?” Alzadin asked, in his own language.
Merolliay shook his head. “The palace complex is enormous. I’ve heard that there are five separate audience halls.” The more austere hall in which he had last encountered the Emperor had emphasized the Empire’s military and spiritual might, its only ornamention a geometric pattern of floor tiles and idols of the Emperor’s ancestors. He preferred this one, despite the extravagance that would have horrified his own practical Libanian ancestors.
“I wasn’t sure I should believe you when you said you could get us admitted to court,” Alzadin said. “Now that we’re here, I’m starting to wonder how wise this was.”
Neither he nor Saulius had asked any questions when Merolliay offered them the chance to accompany him. Something about that unnerved Merolliay. Perhaps because he had spent his life denying that there was anything special about him, only to find that men he considered his equals were ready to follow wherever he led.
“Three gods and the Emperor bless us,” Saulius swore, unexpectedly. He was staring across the room at a small, dark figure in red silk. “Is that Helena Dareshna?”
One of the hallways down which Lida and the other swordsmen were led was covered in marble from floor to vaulted ceiling, the walls inlaid in graceful floral patterns of jade, jasper, and onyx. Another hallway had been paneled in mahogany with alcoves for finely-detailed wooden statues of gods, demons and heroes. The alcoves were ornamented by carvings of ivy, climbing rose, and songbirds almost as intricate as the larger figures. Lida tried not gawk like a village girl. She knew what the Empire did to maintain its power and wealth but couldn’t help to be impressed. When he was drunk, Andraikos used to talk of how he wanted to burn the Imperial Palace to the ground. Lida listened to him, never having seen the palace, and agreed. But now that she was here, to know that he had seen this and still wanted to destroy it … she didn’t know what to think.
She wondered if it would have gone as badly as with Merolliay had Andraikos taken her as his lover. Would Andraikos have tried to pretend nothing happened, but always find some pretense to avoid being alone with her? Perhaps it would have deterred him from leaving his estate to her, and she wouldn’t have had to keep fending off assassination attempts from Helena Dareshna.
If nothing else, she would have been better prepared for Merolliay’s callousness had she experienced it from Andraikos first.
“Lord DeLyon,” Helena Dareshna greeted Merolliay. All eyes in the Hall were on the two of them, the Lion of the West, and the most famous beauty in the Nemesde Empire. “May the Emperor and his divine ancestors grant you a pleasant morning. I see the Three Gallant Rogues are three again.”
“The Three Gallant Rogues are always three,” Merolliay said. “Three Rogues and one Lady.”
Helena smiled, showing perfect teeth like tiny white seashells. “I am afraid I’ll have to disagree with you, if you’re going to call that girl a lady. Have you taken her to bed yet?”
It was easy to engage in this cruel banter with a woman whose feelings he didn’t care about. Not so easy to know what to say to Lida. “No,” Merolliay said. “The other Lady Dareshna is more particular than some.”
Helena showed no reaction to his use of Lida’s title, the title Helena’s own estranged husband had bequeathed to the Thousand Lakes girl. She shrugged as if he had commented upon the weather. “Perhaps about that one thing,” she said. “But tell me. How did the three of you escape that house of yours without her tagging along after?”
“Oh,” Merolliay said, “Lida had already gone out for the day. She had to be outside the Eastwatch Gate before sunrise, you see.”
The smile on Helena’s face froze. “Indeed.”
Back where he had left them, Saulius and Alzadin were trying not to stare. Merolliay had never told them–or Lida–that he knew Helena Dareshna by more than sight and reputation. It had seemed irrelevant when he first met Alzadin and Saulius, a shameful episode of his life best forgotten. Who needed to know that as a young man newly exiled to the Imperial City he had been befriended by Andraikos Dareshna and seduced by the man’s wife? He hadn’t mentioned it when Lida came along either, and each time Helena Dareshna hired an assassin to kill her, it became more impossible to say anything.
“Someone doesn’t want her to compete though,” Merolliay said. “The night before the contest became public knowledge, another hired killer showed up at the house.”
“I didn’t send that one,” Helena said.
Merolliay couldn’t tell whether she was lying. Not like with Lida, whose every emotion showed on her face before she was even aware of it.
“You knew, though.”
“Not before.” She shrugged. “I hear things.” Her red gown was cut lower than was strictly appropriate for court attire, but Merolliay suspected that the Emperor enjoyed a good view of Helena’s bosom as much as any other man at court did.
“What sorts of things do you hear?”
A servant approached with a tray of refreshments, but Helena waved him off. Glancing over to where he had left Saulius and Alzadin, Merolliay saw that Saulius already had a drink in each hand and a third balanced in the crook of his elbow, and was considering the assortment of tiny savories being held out to him.
“Rumors,” Helena said. “Nothing more.” She eyed him as if this were not entirely true, and she was measuring how much to tell.
“I hear rumors myself,” Merolliay said. “I’ve heard that Lida winning a place in the Guard might set a precedent for allowing women into the Guilds. If a woman can join the Guild of Swordsmen, what possible reason is there for excluding her from the Guild of Yogurt-Sellers?”
Helena’s gaze drifted across the room. At first Merolliay thought she was watching the servants sprinkle sand over the floor within the large, roped-off area where the contests would take place. Then he realized that she was looking at a heavy-set Nemesde man standing at one of the corners. The man was watching the two of them more openly than most of the other courtiers were.
“The Guilds are no concern of mine,” Helena said. “I can’t have my estates returned to me by joining a Guild.”
The estates came from Andraikos’s family, not hers. And yet by marrying Andraikos Dareshna, Helena had given up any claim on her father’s property. Once married, a Nemesde noblewoman’s status came from her husband. Merolliay suspected that gifts from Helena’s many admirers allowed her to live in relative comfort; but when he had known her, she never went out with fewer than a dozen servants. Today at court, she’d brought only one.
Helena narrowed her eyes. She was darker than most Nemesde, favoring her mother’s people from the south more than her Nemesde father’s. “Such as that northern girl? The only thing I have in common with her is having bedded my husband.” Merolliay had come to suspect, since that regrettable incident on the night of the Emperor’s birthday, that Lida and Andraikos Dareshna had not actually had the relationship everyone assumed. But he couldn’t tell Helena that without letting her know why he suspected. And he’d dishonored his friend and colleague enough already.
Instead, he said, “You know, Lida once told me that if you’d ever asked her for the estates, rather than trying to have her killed, she’d have given them to you.”
“It’s too late for that now,” Helena said. She took a step back, away from him, inclining her head in a polite dismissal. “I didn’t have anything to do with trying to kill her this last time. But the people who did won’t give up as easily as I have. She’s earned herself some dangerous enemies by showing up here today after all the times she was warned not to.”
“Perhaps,” Merolliay said. He drew the folded invitation from his coat pocket, showed her the Emperor’s seal, still recognizable despite having been broken. “Perhaps she also has some dangerous allies.”
The swordsmen were taken to a large dining hall, where a simple but generous breakfast had been set out on long tables. Lida sat at a corner of one table, hoping no one would try to talk with her. No one did. The big man she had tried to hide behind out on the Eastwatch Plaza sat near the other end of the table, and he nodded politely to her once but left her alone.
Lida didn’t see any other women in the room, although she did see representatives of most of the people ruled by the Empire: yellow-haired northerners, narrow-eyed Nemesde with black hair and golden-brown faces and hands, dark men from the southern deserts, olive-skinned westerners from the mountain kingdoms towards Liban. Most men appeared to be alone, although those who were seated with apparent friends or acquaintances were as likely to be with companions from other parts of the Empire as from their own. Just like her and the Three Gallant Rogues.
She didn’t recognize more than a handful of the swordsmen there, and it seemed that few of the Imperial City’s most elite fighters had chosen to enter, which made sense. The best-known swordsmen–those who were male, at least–had more offers of work than they could accept Who would want to be an Imperial Guardsman, serving in obscurity for room, board, and a very modest stipend, when one could have wealthy clients fighting over one’s services?
Lida washed down a mouthful of bread, cheese, and ham with black tea. Why did she want to be an Imperial Guardsman? Merolliay had been right. If she left the Imperial City for Andraikos’s estates on the southern coast, no one would care if she carried a sword. The estates brought in enough income that she wouldn’t have to work for a living unless she wanted to. She would be far from her friends, but maybe it would be easier now if she were hundreds of miles away from Merolliay. And she didn’t think that she would be free, as a member of the Imperial Guard, to go out drinking very often with Saulius and Alzadin. So why was she doing this?
She was about to take a bite from the flaky crescent pastry she’d added to her plate, then stopped, holding it halfway between the table and her mouth. She could see fig jam leaking from the center. She imagined trying to explain to the village girl she’d been, five or six years ago, how a pastry of white flour and exotic fruit counted as part of a simple breakfast.
She looked up from her breakfast again at men sitting elbow to elbow with those their ancestors would have considered enemies. The Imperial policy of harmony between its entire subject people didn’t always work, as her experience with Merolliay in the Kavanian District had shown. And any of these men might have to fight any other to the death. But they were all here for one purpose as citizens of one Empire. They ate food from every corner of the Empire carried on roads built by laborers of every race. Lida remembered a story about two villages in her homeland that had agreed to build a road between them but neither side could agree on where their responsibility ended. So because of this a short stretch in the middle remained impassable. She had always heard the story retold with pride but now it seemed pitiable. What had the fabled Thousand Lakes independent spirit accomplished against an Empire of a thousand nations?
What would she be, without the Empire?
“From the look on her face when you showed her that document, I thought she’d bitten into a lemon!” Saulius was already in high spirits. Merolliay wondered how many drinks he’d consumed in the short time they’d been separated.
“Or else she wanted to distance herself from you as much as possible before we all get arrested,” Alzadin said in his own language. Merolliay opted not to translate, but Saulius didn’t seem to notice.
In all Merolliay’s theorizing about whose idea the Imperial Guard contest might be and who stood to gain from it, Merolliay had considered various roles and motivations for the officers of the Guild of Swordsmen, the Imperial Commerce Minister, even his fellow Libanians. But there was one very significant character he had not thought much on at all. Until the invitation was delivered to their house.
Admission to court for one Merolliay DeLyon, also retainers, it read in elegantly hand-scripted Nemesde. Upon the last day of the tenth month of this nineteenth year of His Divine Majesty. No accompanying letter or explanation; nothing except the implication that someone in the palace thought he might have an interest in watching the Imperial Guard contest.
The other thing that didn’t make sense about the Imperial Guard contest being some scheme of the Guilds and Commerce Minister was the contest announcement’s ambiguous language. If the Guild of Swordsmen wanted to ensure that no women entered the contest, the rules should have read “any man who wishes to serve” not “anyone”. Why use vague words then go to the trouble of hand-delivering official documents and confiscating women’s swords?
Unless someone higher than the Swordsmen’s Guild officers, higher even than the Imperial Commerce Minister, wanted women to enter the contest. Or, considering the invitation Merolliay had received, one particular woman.
And yet Alzadin’s concern was not unwarranted. The last time Merolliay had appeared at court he had entered in chains, and the Emperor had threatened to execute him when he refused to kneel and swear allegiance. Just because he now carried an invitation to court bearing the Emperor’s own seal did not necessarily mean that all had been forgiven.
The stout Nemesde man who had been watching him and Helena from the edge of the lists had gone over to speak with her, presumably at her invitation. He was obviously upset and trying not to show it enough to draw attention to himself.
“Do either of you–” Merolliay asked, wondering if either Alzadin or Saulius knew who the man was, when a loud gong sounded from the hallway.
The tall rock crystal doors through which they had entered the Hall began to swing outward. All conversation in the room fell silent as the courtiers turned to face the doors through which the Emperor was about to enter.
First came twenty of the Emperor’s wives, each attended by two or three fluttering servant girls. The women arrayed themselves on either side of the dais at the far end of the room, turning back to the entrance again once they had found their places. Next came armed men in Imperial blue livery, about two score of them, in two columns. In a silence punctuated only by the thumping of their soft-booted feet, they made an aisle between the entrance and the dais facing outwards to watch the courtiers on either side.
The gong sounded again, twice, and another two score guards marched into the room, two abreast down the aisle formed by the Palace guardsmen. These wore black from head to foot: narrow trousers and velvet jackets reaching halfway to their knees, smartly tailored with turned-up cuffs and a short standing collar. The Imperial fire horse had been embroidered in red, gold, and blue thread down each sleeve. These were the Imperial Guard Lida sought to join, entrusted with the safety of the Emperor’s person day and night.
The Imperial Guardsmen surrounded the dais and the Emperor’s wives and their servant girls, striking relaxed guard positions. The gong then sounded three chimes. Four more Imperial Guardsmen entered and behind them, the Emperor on his throne carried by eight barefoot servants in blue livery. The Emperor’s face was veiled, the veil suspended from the towering Imperial headdress that added a second and third head of height to the Emperor’s stature. Merolliay found it ridiculous and not even the precious stones glittering in the headdress and throne could impress him enough to make him think otherwise. He wondered if this was how the western kingdoms who looked to him to liberate them from the Empire believed he should be comporting himself.
Surrounded by additional Imperial Guards, the throne bobbed its way to the dais, was carried to the platform at the top, turned around to face the Hall, and lowered. The throne bearers hastily withdrew the poles used to carry the chair, stashing them behind it. Then all eight prostrated themselves around the base of the throne, their foreheads touching the floor of the dais platform, before descending the steps backwards–so as not to turn their backs on the Emperor. Finally, the Emperor’s favored wife of the moment ascended the steps to the foot of the throne, prostrated herself as the servants had–despite the fine embroidered silk of her gown–and then rose and lifted the veil from the Emperor’s face.
A collective sigh rose from the assembled courtiers. Saulius’s and Alzadin’s eyes were wide: perhaps because the Emperor they worshipped, and whose face they would never have seen before in the flesh, looked so unremarkable? The face revealed upon the lifting away of the veil was one at which no one would have looked twice, had it not been surmounted by the uncomfortably ornate headdress. A thirty-eight year old man of mixed ancestry, dark hair and slanted eyes suggesting a predominance of Nemesde blood–like so many in the Imperial City, noble and commoner alike. Handsome enough, neither tall nor short, fat nor thin. Merolliay found it odd that the Emperor’s ordinariness could make one feel more awestruck rather than less, but he supposed that a person’s reaction would probably depend on how they had viewed Valtseharu Tahevas the Fifteenth before seeing him in the flesh.
A man in an embroidered robe of heavy Imperial blue silk ascended the dais and, unsurprisingly, also knelt on hands and knees and touched his forehead to the floor. Merolliay barely stifled an exasperated sigh.
“Greetings, lords and ladies of the Empire!” the man in the robe called out once he had risen. “His glorious and divine majesty, our Emperor Valtseharu Tahevas, Fifteenth of that name, may he live forever, bids you welcome. His beneficent eye shines with blessing upon all who come before him with reverent hearts and marks for judgment all who enter his presence with ill intent.”
Not a few eyes in the room flickered to Merolliay at that. Perhaps more troubling, the eyes of the Emperor himself did not so much flicker towards Merolliay as settle upon him. A slow smile formed upon the Emperor’s lips.
“The Emperor declares that the contest for the Imperial Guard has begun,” the robed man announced. “May all the gods strengthen the hands and sharpen the swords of the Emperor’s most loyal and capable servants that they may be chosen to serve as Imperial Guardsmen. Swordsmen and swordswomen, enter!”
A sudden buzz of chatter rose from the audience. Everyone relaxed and began to resume some version of the conversations they had been carrying on when interrupted by the Emperor’s entrance. Saulius and Alzadin caught Merolliay’s eye, and Saulius, grinning, mouthed “Swordswomen?” Judging from his expression alone one would think Lida had already won.
Lida unbuckled the scabbard from her belt, withdrew her second-best sword and handed the empty scabbard to a waiting attendant. The attendant darted off with it, leaving Lida facing her opponent, a handsome, unshaven man around the same age as Saulius–older than her, but much younger than Merolliay. He shifted his weight from foot to foot with a confident swagger.
“I’ll go easy on you,” he promised with a smirk, leaning in. “Just a scratch to get me in the next round.”
Lida met his eyes briefly with as much contempt as she could muster. If he didn’t know her skill by reputation, he was either new to the Imperial City, or not much of a swordsman. Or both. He didn’t hold his blade as if he’d had real training, and he didn’t seem all that aware of what was going on around him.
Unlike Lida, who was aware of her opponent and could tell what kind of attack he was preparing to strike at her with, but had also noticed that Helena Dareshna was at court today. That a tall bearded man who looked like a Libanian was watching Merolliay from near the door as if trying to decide whether to approach him. That the Emperor had his eyes fixed on the swordsmen preparing to fight, and particularly, on her.
A whistle blew. Lida’s opponent drove forward with an uncomplicated thrust aimed at her left arm.
She didn’t even watch him finish falling. She stepped back a few paces, tugged a handkerchief from her belt, and started wiping his blood from her blade.
“Bravo!” she heard, from across the hall. Saulius’s voice, of course. His lone cheer stood out in a room of polite clapping. She waved to Saulius with the bloody handkerchief.
She dared to glance over at the Emperor once more. He was far enough away that she might be mistaken. But it seemed that he was still watching her.
“Fights well, doesn’t she?” said a gruff voice at Merolliay’s shoulder, as Lida sent her second opponent’s sword clattering across the sanded floor. Blood dripped from the loser’s wounded hand, but unlike Lida’s first opponent, he stayed on his feet.
“Filipe.” Merolliay acknowledged his countryman. “How did you get in here?”
“Wrangled an invitation from the Master of the University.” Filipe nodded to each of Merolliay’s companions then gave Saulius a harder look. “You. Weren’t you in one of my classes at the University?”
Saulius turned red. “I might have been, sir.”
Saulius muttered something unintelligible and signaled to a passing servant that he needed a drink.
“Are you only here to insult my colleagues?” Merolliay asked. “You could have just come by the house for that. No need to dress up.”
It was Filipe’s turn to look sheepish. Nothing he was wearing had holes or food stains, but none of it fit, either.
“I’m here to protect your colleagues, Mero. Your little protégé wouldn’t have gotten past the Eastwatch Gate without Tierry’s boy and his friend.”
Lida and her unfortunate opponent stood at a safe distance from one another, waiting for the other matches in their round to be decided. Lida was too obviously not watching Merolliay and his companions.
“My protégé?” Merolliay said. “I’m not sure I’ve taught her anything.”
“Well whatever,” Filipe said, “your Guild figured correctly that she owns more than one sword and was going to enter anyway so they sent a couple officers to arrest her. The boys put a stop on that.”
“How did you know in advance what the Guild of Swordsmen was going to do?”
Filipe snorted. “Same way the Minister of Commerce knew that Andraikos Dareshna’s widow got some useful information from you. We guessed. They’re not stupid, we’re not stupid.”
“The Minister of Commerce.” The heavyset man Helena had spoken to was now standing with two other Nemesde men watching the contest–watching Lida–with a sour expression on his face. “That’s who she was talking to?
“Who else?” Filipe looked around, snatched a pastry from a passing tray. “Who else has been accepting bribes from the heads of all the Guilds? The Commerce Minister will have some explaining to do if Lida gets into the Guild of Swordsmen. Some of the Guilds might even want their money back.” He took a large bite out of the pastry in his hand, spilling crumbs and jam filling down the front of his doublet. “How’d you get in here, Merolliay? Last I heard the Lion of the West wasn’t exactly welcome at the Emperor’s court.”
Merolliay showed him the invitation with the Emperor’s seal. Filipe raised his eyebrows.
“Well,” he said. “Isn’t that interesting?”
Lida suspected that her fourth match was not going to be won as easily as her first three. She had the bad luck to have been paired against the big man she had hidden behind out on the plaza, the tallest and heaviest swordsman in the entire competition.
The whistle blew. All around the two of them steel rang on steel as the other pairs of swordsmen clashed. But Lida didn’t move. Neither did her opponent.
Watching him, Lida shifted more weight onto the balls of her feet. Breathing evenly, she channelled all her nervous energy into the center of her body, riding the wild horse rather than trying to subdue it. She could do this. She had beaten three other swordsmen today. Most of the men she had fought since meeting Andraikos Dareshna had been taller and stronger than she was.
The man glanced to his left, looking surprised. Lida glanced in the same direction, as she knew she was supposed to, and then danced out of the way when he rushed her.
She lunged at him but jumped back when she saw he was going to intercept her. Nothing in the contest rules had said that contestants’ swords needed to be evenly matched, and the big man brandished a sword that would have taken Alzadin, the strongest of the Three Gallant Rogues, both hands to swing. Lida’s sword was slender and light, a weapon more for slashing and thrusting than for hacking. She didn’t want to take the chance that it would shatter if she caught her opponent’s sword on it, or that her arm would give way under the force behind his blow.
They danced. He was fast for his size but Lida was faster. Each time he attacked she was gone: behind him, too far to the left, too far to the right. Around them, the other contests came to an end as one man after another bled his opponent. One went down with his sword hand sheared off; another two crumpled to the floor with slit throats. Servants swooped in to carry away the fallen and swab away the blood. Lida was aware of all this but only in a corner of her mind.
Their pace quickened. Usually when fighting a much larger opponent, Lida would simply duck away from each attack until the other wore himself out and started making mistakes. Or until he got so angry at being unable to best a woman that he rushed her in a blind rage. But this swordsman was better than that. He was big, but not fat, and Lida suspected that he might last as long as she would. If she didn’t do something decisive she was going to lose. Even if she survived, her life as a swordsman would be over. The Guild of Swordsmen would never let her retire quietly to the southern reaches of the Empire with her sword now that she had so openly defied them. What was left? Relying on men to take care of her like Helena Dareshna did?
Lida skipped away several paces well out of reach. Her opponent relaxed, waiting for her to come back.
With her left hand she plucked the knife hidden in her left boot and threw.
It stuck in the man’s left shoulder.
There was a moment of stunned silence from the audience, followed by rapid, hushed murmuring. Lida glanced over at Merolliay, Saulius, and Alzadin, who were still talking with the bearded Libanian man. They looked as shocked as anyone else.
The man Lida had wounded didn’t say a word. He plucked the knife out, ignoring the sudden rush of blood, and tossed it to her hilt first. She caught it.
On the dais at the end of the room, the Emperor rose to his feet as a shroud of silence fell over the room. He raised his right hand.
A blue-robed man at the Emperor’s side called out in a loud voice, “The contestants shall approach the Divine Throne!”
Lida and her opponent gave their weapons over into the outstretched hands of attendants before approaching the Emperor. Lida wasn’t sure what to do when they got to the dais at the end of the room, but her opponent started to get down on his knees, so she did the same, and she also copied him as he leaned forward and rested his forearms and forehead on the floor. The floor was cold against her skin, and she could feel the grit of dirt.
“Rise,” a voice said. Was the voice tinged with amusement?
Lida and her opponent straightened and returned to their feet, and when Lida saw that the big man dared to lift his eyes to meet the Emperor’s, she did so as well.
The Emperor was amused. “How many more knives have you hidden upon your person, Lida Dareshna?” he asked, once more speaking to her directly without using the blue-robed official standing next to him as an intermediary.
And he knew her name. “None, Sire,” Lida replied.
“And will the victors of this contest be entered into the Guild of Swordsmen, or the Guild of Knife-Throwers?”
“The Guild of Swordsmen, Sire.” Her heart thudded in her chest. She kept her hands at her side. If any of the Emperor’s guards thought she might have lied about other hidden knives, she was dead. She already might be.
She took a deep breath. “Sire, the rules stated that combatants might use the weapon of their choice.”
The Emperor did not immediately answer. Lida looked down at her boots, not daring to continue meeting his eyes.
At last he said, “When you compete in the final round–” a fierce joy rose in Lida’s heart, so bright that it seemed to sing, “–the weapon of your choice will be the sword and only the sword.”
Lida exhaled deeply. “Yes, Sire.”
“There are three places available in the final round for swordsmen who did not win their matches but fought well,” the Emperor said. “Both of you shall fight in the last round, and not against each other. I leave it to each of you to decide who won this match.”
Lida spared a glance for the big swordsman standing next to her. His attention was fixed on the Emperor’s face with none left for her. It occurred to her that in all the times she had encountered the big man that day, she had not once heard or seen him speak. She wondered if he was dumb, or even deaf, and what had brought him to try for a place in the Imperial Guard. She suddenly found herself feeling pleased by his renewed chance of success, a feeling that surprised her, since she didn’t even know him.
“You may go,” the Emperor said.
With Lida once again following the other swordsman’s lead, both of them bowed deeply from the waist, then slowly backed away until they were beyond the circle of Imperial Guardsmen surrounding the raised throne.
Although he didn’t smile, the swordsman gave Lida a very slight bow as they left the Hall together. And maybe she was imagining it, but it seemed like a nod of respect such as one of considerable skill might give to an equal.
She returned the bow.
“What if this contest was never something the Guild of Swordsmen wanted?” Merolliay suggested as they watched Lida and her much larger opponent leave the Hall of Mirrors together. “What if it was the Emperor’s idea?”
“I don’t remember the exact words,” Saulius said. “But don’t the contest rules actually say that it was the Emperor’s idea?”
“All sorts of documents claim to have been the Emperor’s idea,” Filipe growled. “It never means anything.”
“If it was the Emperor’s idea,” Merolliay said, “that might explain the wording of the announcement. ‘Anyone’, ‘any entrant’–never ‘any man’. Never even ‘any swordsman’.” He glanced at each of the other three men in turn. “I think the Emperor wants Lida to win.”
Saulius dared a quick glance over his shoulder at the Emperor on his throne. They had all heard the Emperor’s words to Lida, the amusement in his voice as he brushed aside any notion that she had cheated.
“Why?” Saulius asked. “Just because it’s exotic to have a woman in the Imperial Guard?”
Merolliay was about to respond that an opportunity to flaunt the exotic tended to be sufficient reason for an Emperor to do anything. But, before he had the chance, Alzadin tugged at his sleeve and said, “Look!”
The urgency in his voice was enough to grab Filipe’s and Saulius’s attention as well as Merolliay’s, whether they understood Alzadin’s language or not. They all looked in the direction Alzadin had pointed, towards the Hall entrance.
Three black-and-silver clad men stood against the far wall, near the entrance. Officers of the Guild of Swordsmen.
“Well,” Filipe said. “I wonder if the Emperor invited them too.”
The whistle sounded. Lida and her final opponent circled one another, taking slow, measured steps.
By some cruel chance, the swordsman she had to fight to the death was a young Thousand Lakes man, no more than four or five years older than she was. The same age as one of her older brothers, one of the ones who had gone to war against the Empire and never come back. It wasn’t her brother, of course, it wasn’t anyone she recognized, but she knew she was still betraying her homeland.
Her opponent attacked. She caught three blows in rapid succession on the guard of her sword. He backed away again.
Hadn’t she already betrayed her homeland? Hadn’t she lived, since coming to the Imperial City two years ago, as if she loved the Empire better?
She slashed at her opponent’s legs. He caught her blade up and tried to carry his into her side on the return. She danced away.
The words he had murmured to her as they walked to the contest hall together still felt like a sword in her gut. “If you kill me, at least I know that one of my countrymen will be able to take revenge on the Emperor for what he did to our homeland.” Spoken in their own language, so that no one else would understand.
How could she explain that she was both a Thousand Lakes girl, and a woman of the Empire? When it had taken so long for her to realize it herself?
She looked at his head and cut at his side. Blocked. Every boy in the lake country knew that trick.
She flew at him, her sword flashing. Blocked. Blocked. Blocked.
Then the point of her blade pierced his right shoulder. He gasped, and stumbled away. She jerked free and slashed for his throat.
He struck the flat away with his palm.
A sting burst in her right thigh.
She drew her lips back from her teeth. She pushed herself forward, letting the narrow sword slice deeper into the outside of her leg. In his moment of unguarded surprise, she cut off his sword hand.
Blood sprayed from the stump. Lida sprang forward off her good leg, sliced a deep cut across his belly, then drove her sword into his heart.
Saulius threw back his head in a wordless Kavanian victory yell. The liquid in his cup went flying behind him, narrowly missing Filipe. Alzadin, laughing, punched the Kavanian’s free arm.
Merolliay couldn’t help but smile, though he worried about the wound Lida had taken. She was still on her feet, but leaning heavily on two physician’s assistants while the physician inspected her leg.
Victors with less serious wounds were moving out of the rope-delineated competition floor, as palace servants in deep blue livery approached with stretchers to carry off the dead and dying. None of the champions looked particularly happy, and most looked back at the dead men they had left behind, some shaking their heads. Even Lida, who had never shown regret over a kill as long as he had known her, seemed unable to tear her gaze away from the tall blond man lying in the pool of blood she had spilled.
Few of the spectators shared the grimness of the competitors. As Merolliay glanced around the room, he saw groups of courtiers talking animatedly, a few miming moves they no doubt remembered from their favorite matches.
He shook his head. Members of the Guild of Swordsmen were often paid by wealthy patrons to fight one another for the entertainment of the patrons’ guests. Occasionally, a swordsman was killed in one of these matches, sometimes deliberately laid down by an opponent with a grudge, sometimes dying later of his injuries. But matches to the death were illegal, and anyone participating in one was subject to immediate expulsion from the Guild. Of course, this match was an exception, because the Emperor was the law, and the contest rules had stated that any victorious swordsman not presently a Guild member would be admitted to the Guild. Still. Illegal did not mean non-existent, and if the Emperor’s contest were to set off a fashion for death matches….
“What are you so gloomy about?” Filipe asked him, catching the attention of both Saulius and Alzadin. “Your girl won. She’s in. Assuming the Emperor isn’t playing some colossal trick on us all.”
“Yes,” Merolliay said. “Assuming that.”
Lida leaned heavily on the crutches she had been given. She could almost feel the eyes of the palace doctor who had inspected the wound in her leg. He had practically ordered her to report to the sickroom the moment the Emperor dismissed her, to have it cleaned.
“You shall call yourselves men of the Imperial Guard–” he glanced at Lida “–and any of you who are not presently members of the Guild of Swordsmen shall be entered upon the rolls.”
Lida heard applause from the spectators behind her and from the other victorious swordsmen. Some of the women standing or seated on cushions on either side of the dais also clapped their hands. Whether they applauded or not, the women around the throne were all staring at her, not at any of the male swordsmen. While some regarded her with the same scorn Lida was used to from other women, others just seemed curious to see a woman swordsman, and a few seemed delighted by her.
As the official finished speaking, a boy in the same Imperial blue worn by all the servants came to the edge of the dais. He knelt and kissed the floor, holding a parchment scroll above his head in one hand. A robed official came to take the parchment, and as soon as it had left the boy’s hand, the boy kissed the floor again, and darted back towards the audience. Lida didn’t see where he went.
The official ascended the dais to place the scroll in the Emperor’s hand. The room was very quiet as the Emperor opened and read the scroll.
He read quickly, re-rolled it, and handed it back to the official. Lida couldn’t tell what he was thinking.
He lifted his head, scanning the room. “Those responsible for this message may approach the throne. Lida Dareshna, remain here. My new guardsmen are dismissed.”
The big swordsman Lida had fought in the next-to-last round nodded to her as he moved off with the others, and she nodded back. She felt too anxious to smile.
She felt all the more anxious when she saw the faces and garb of the three men in silver-trimmed black who approached the dais at the Emperor’s request. Officers of the Guild of Swordsmen.
“Come,” Merolliay said, taking a step towards the throne at the end of the Hall.
Filipe caught his elbow. His grip was surprisingly strong. “I wouldn’t draw attention to yourself right now.”
Merolliay shook his arm free. “The Emperor invited me here. If I didn’t want his attention on me, I shouldn’t have come.”
Saulius and Alzadin followed him across the Hall. Filipe did not.
How much of this had the Emperor planned? He must have known that the Guilds would try everything short of openly defying him to ensure that no woman won the Imperial Guard contest. But did he know what the Libanians wanted, precedent for other women to join other Guilds, and a woman in the Imperial Guard whose true loyalty was to the Lion of the West? Merolliay’s invitation, stamped with the Emperor’s own seal, suggested that he did.
If that were so, Filipe was right. In fact, not only should Merolliay not be drawing attention to himself, he should be walking in the opposite direction, away from the throne and out the door.
But if Merolliay’s suspicion as to how the Emperor might want to test Lida’s loyalty was correct, it might be too late for that.
His only chance was to offer a better solution, one that assured the Emperor that Lida’s loyalty–and his–were to the Imperial Throne. Not to Libanian schemes, nor to a title that had been meaningless a hundred years ago and was even more meaningless now.
He hoped Lida would forgive him.
“I am informed,” said the Emperor, “that the Guild has forbidden you to carry a sword.”
Lida glanced at the three Guild officers to her left, who had just risen from their obeisance. All three gazed respectfully upwards at the Emperor, neither to the right nor to the left, but the one closest to her had his lip curled in the barest hint of a triumphantly smug grin.
“Yes, Sire,” Lida said. She felt her dream slipping away again, just as she had gotten her fingers around it. How could this be happening? She had killed one of her own countrymen to enter the Emperor’s service, to prove that her loyalty was to the Emperor alone.
“And was the order to put aside your sword not signed also by my own Minister of Commerce? A member of my Cabinet?”
“Yes, Sire,” Lida said.
“My Cabinet ministers are my hands and feet and mouth. To act and go and speak when I cannot. For me to countermand a decree of one of my Cabinet ministers, it would be as if I were countermanding my own authority.”
Was Lida in even worse trouble than she had imagined? Her chance of winning back the right to wield her sword had seemed to be melting away, but if she had made the Emperor look bad…. Would she be beheaded? Or worse?
For one frantic, furious moment, she considered trying to wrest a weapon from the Imperial Guardsman closest to her. Even with her injured leg, maybe she could kill one of them before she was taken down. But she dismissed the idea almost as soon as it entered her mind, and she tamped down her anger as if she were packing powder into a cannon.
“Sire,” she said. “That wasn’t what I meant to do. I only want to serve you.” Close enough to the truth, she thought.
“It pleases me to hear this,” the Emperor said. “But if I allow you to join the Guild of Swordsmen and carry a blade, I must overrule my own Minister of Commerce.”
From behind Lida, a familiar voice said, “Perhaps I may offer a solution.”
It was Merolliay.
Her heart began to race.
She didn’t dare turn to see Merolliay, but behind her, she heard two men get down on their knees and kiss the floor.
The Emperor’s eyes narrowed. “Lion of the West.”
“I’ve never called myself that,” Merolliay said. He was still standing, his voice nearly level with Lida’s ears. Of course, he would not kneel to the Emperor.
“Indeed,” said the Emperor. “I hear that you call yourself a swordsman, of late. That you are the leader of a company of swordsmen that includes this young woman.”
“Our company has no leader,” Merolliay said. Lida heard an odd quaver in his voice. “But yes, Lida Dareshna and I are members of the same company.”
The Emperor leaned forward. “I have heard that the bonds of loyalty within companies of swordsmen are strong.” A note of excitement had entered his voice. “Perhaps one final contest is required, to assure me that this young woman’s loyalty is undivided.”
Lida gasped. The Emperor wanted her to fight her friends? She looked back over her shoulder at Merolliay, before she could think not to. His face was grim.
She opened her mouth to say that she wouldn’t do it, but Merolliay spoke first.
“I have a very different proposal for you, Your Majesty. One that is almost guaranteed to solve several problems at once. Will you hear it?”
The Emperor sat back in his throne. His eyes glinted with amusement. “I hear that my Libanian subjects are masters of the clever solution that appears to benefit those around them, and in fact benefits them most of all.”
“I have also heard this.” Merolliay’s voice was grave. “But I’ve lived in the Imperial City since I was hardly more than a child. I may have lost that gift.”
The Emperor’s lips curled into a smile. “Speak.”
“Your Majesty,” Merolliay said, “it appears that the root of all these problems lies in the fact that Lida Dareshna is a woman. The rules of the Guild of Swordsmen–the rules of all Imperial Guilds–forbid the admission of women as members. As our renowned Minister of Commerce is no doubt aware, allowing Lida to join the Guild of Swordsmen might set a dangerous precedent, encouraging women all across the Empire to petition for membership in all sorts of Guilds. And yet, it seems to me that the solution is simple.”
The wry smile on the Emperor’s face deepened as Merolliay spoke. Lida didn’t understand what he found so amusing. Merolliay’s suggestion, that her example might encourage other women to try to join other Guilds, had never even occurred to her.
“What would this simple solution be?” the Emperor asked.
“Your Majesty,” Merolliay said. “Forgive my ignorance if I am mistaken, but surely his Divine Majesty our Emperor, living avatar of the god Konendas, need only declare that Lida Dareshna is in fact a man, and it will be so. He will then be eminently qualified to join the Guild of Swordsmen and enter your service as a member of the Imperial Guard, and I see no objection that your Imperial Minister of Commerce, or anyone else, might raise.”
The Emperor’s eyes glinted, and he chuckled briefly. But the officers of the Guild of Swordsmen, to Lida’s left, were not so amused.
“Sire,” one protested, “this cannot–”
All amusement vanished from the Emperor’s face. “You cannot be proposing that I lack the authority to make such a proclamation,” he said, his voice mild.
Lida glanced at the three furious Swordsmen’s Guild officers. The one who had spoken was red-faced, and his mouth worked as if he were trying to formulate an answer that both he and the Emperor would find acceptable, and not discovering the words. The other two were tight-lipped, staring straight ahead with expressionless faces.
“No, Sire,” the officer said at last. “Of course not.”
“I thought not,” the Emperor said. He lifted his eyes to Merolliay’s again. “Your proposal interests me. But perhaps you can explain how it provides reassurance on the question of loyalty.”
“If Lida Dareshna were a man,” Merolliay said, “he would be dependent on you for sustenance and support.” The quaver in his voice was back. “As I’m sure everyone at court knows, the will of the late Andraikos Dareshna left his estates and titles to his adopted daughter. If Lida is a man, Andraikos Dareshna had no adopted daughter.”
Lida dared another look behind her, at Merolliay. He was looking at the Emperor instead of at her. But Saulius’s and Alzadin’s eyes were wide with shock.
“Dependence for sustenance and support does not guarantee loyalty,” the Emperor was saying. Lida hardly heard him. She’d wished so many times that she was a man, but it had been an idle, impossible wish, and now the gods must be laughing at her. She could have what she wanted, a place in the Imperial Guard and the Guild of Swordsmen, but not as a woman. And Helena Dareshna would have her inheritance.
“Nothing guarantees loyalty,” Merolliay said. “Every other man who won a place in the Guard today has friends, or family, or lovers. They can say that their loyalty is to you above all else, but it’s impossible to know until they’re tested.”
The Emperor was nodding. “This is true.” He turned his eyes to Lida. “What do you say, Lida Dareshna? Would you become a man to enter my service? Would you give up your titles and estates?”
She felt that she had a thousand thoughts, and couldn’t settle on a single one. What did it even mean, to become a man? Some people said she might as well be one already, the way she lived and dressed. She might have agreed; only she couldn’t stop thinking about the way some of the younger women around the dais had looked at her, a woman achieving something everyone had always told them only men could do. She kept her eyes fixed on the Emperor, so she didn’t have to see if those women were disappointed in her.
“I never wanted the lands and titles, Sire. The only thing I want that Andraikos Dareshna gave me is my sword. The one the Guild took from me.”
“Is the sword still intact?” the Emperor asked the Guild man.
The man choked back an angry response to say, “Yes, Sire.”
“Then you will return it.”
After a moment, the man nodded.
It was a bad choice. Give up everything she’d ever wanted, or deny that she was a woman and serve an Emperor who had considered making her fight Merolliay to prove her loyalty. She hadn’t even thought that her example might encourage other women to demand the right to join Guilds; but it couldn’t, if she had to become a man to join hers. For a moment, she was angry with Merolliay all over again. For this, and for his coldness after what had happened the night of the Emperor’s birthday. For not being able to accept her as both comrade and lover. For having to rescue her.
But her anger lasted only a moment. He wouldn’t have come forward and faced down the Emperor unless he cared about her, even if it wasn’t in the way she’d hoped for. And he’d helped her win her place in the Imperial Guard. Exactly what she had said she wanted.
Maybe all real choices were bad ones.
“I will serve you, Sire,” Lida said. “No other man will serve you better.”