The blazing light of Lor speared through the canopy of the great forest overhead, forcing its way through the thin spots to plunge into the small meadow garden as a thicket of blinding green-edged shafts. A light breeze stirred the branches, whispering in the wide leaves as it made the trees sway, and, combined with a harp and a set of double drums playing a martial theme, gave the appearance that the grass of the field was waving burning spears at heaven.
Nera watched her red-haired opponent dodge between the shivering beams as she herself circled through the same thicket. Unlike Velara, worried about keeping her precious pale skin free of freckles, Nera made sure to catch every single beam on her silvered steel breastplate and white garden dress. When she wasn’t squinting, Velara glared. She knew exactly what Nera was doing.
Nera smiled back and twitched her ears cheerfully, then set the thrusting kring stet blade in her left hand crossways and ahead to intercept the coming charge, while holding high the chopping kring thok blade in her right, ready for her reply. The white kring-wood of the practice blades also caught the light as she moved them, further adding to her dazzle.
The vibrant smell of crushed grass warmed by sunlight filled her nose as she tarried in the beam. She settled her bare feet into the turf and waited.
At the moment of intent Velara’s lip curled up ever so slightly in a snarl and her long ears pulled back a fraction of a thumb.
Nera saw it, and looked down at Velara’s feet rather than at her flashing breastplate as the woman charged through a light beam.
Straight in? No, a lead change and a side step to Nera’s left, to come around behind.
Nera whirled into shadow and fell back. Velara’s backhand slash missed her face by a hand.
Now the thrust.
Nera caught Velara’s stet on her own, turning it away to the left.
Velara spun through and skipped back, avoiding Nera’s chop to her legs.
Nera stepped back into another light beam. She hadn’t put much energy into the chop, knowing Velara wouldn’t fall to the first exchange. She wasn’t mad enough yet.
Someone clapped. Who would be clapping?
Probably one of the minor nobles. Neither the General nor the Duke seemed like men to applaud before a full victory.
Nera put her attention back on the duel. Velara had recovered and was circling again.
Nera circled too.
Through the dancing beams, dress swirling in the breeze.
Velara was serious now, now longer dodging the light. She had better be. One of them was spending the night with a noble client, and one of them was going back home with Madame Serill.
Nera winked at Velara, right when the taller woman would be able to see Madame Serill over her shoulder.
You’re the one going home.
The snarl returned.
“So confident, strange-eyes?” Velara called. “Answer me! Which one of us is master Feld’s star sword dancer?”
Velara, of course. She was, indeed, the favorite pupil of the finest sword dancer in Rangira. And not just because she had traded several nights in his bed for extra lessons alone with him.
But Nera had traded tutoring for a second-born son aiming for civil service for extra time with Master Thalan, Master Feld’s assistant.
And he was the one who taught actual soldiers.
Nera had no doubt she had made the better deal.
She bowed her head, acknowledging the point, and then flicked with one ear, dismissing it. She met Velara’s eyes again and opened her stance, inviting attack.
Come at me.
The snarl showed one sharp canine, and the ears went all the way back.
Nera smiled back again.
Velara came, in a swirl of blades moving in perfect forms. Truly beautiful. On other days Nera had watched with envy, wishing she could look like the tall redhead with the white skin, whose spinning dance seemed the ultimate blend of beauty and blood.
But not today.
Today Nera had eyes only for the placing of Velara’s feet, and the location of her pelvis.
“The foundation cannot lie, and without it, no one can stand,” Master Thalan had said.
Velara moved in, trapping Nera’s blades and sweeping them up and away.
But Nera was already falling back, then forward and to the side.
Velara turned to engage, to take the opening she had made at Nera’s waist.
But they were side by side, and Nera sent Velara onto the grass with a slam from her hips into the other woman’s thigh.
In the time it took Velara to fall smoothly, roll perfectly, pop to her feet and dodge back, Nera had marked her with a thrust to the lower back, a slash to the upper arm and a touch dead center on her throat.
Velara raised her stet blade and felt the red chalk marking her throat with her left index finger.
The blazing beams of Lor were nothing to the anger in her eyes.
“Victory to Neralene!” Madame Serill cried out and the music stopped.
Velara held Nera’s eyes a moment longer before looking to their mistress.
“There will be a later,” those eyes said.
Nera did not look forward to it.