Phoenix Rising – Snippet 01


Phoenix Rising

First volume in the projected Balanced Sword trilogy



By Ryk E. Spoor




Warm light spilled from the windows of the estate, windows that were set in solid stone, warded with spell and steel; comfort with protection. He gripped the hilt of his sword and swallowed; his mouth was dry, as though filled with sand. “I… I don’t want to do this,” he whispered.


          His companion’s grip on his arm was unsettling… a combination of a reassuring squeeze and a warning, angry twist. “Ye’re too late fer that, boy,” the rough voice answered, barely audible from beneath the other’s helmet, covered now with black cloth to prevent any glint of light from reflecting back to possible watching eyes. “Done other things as we been ordered, you have, not so bad, but enough ’tis so you either knew what might be needed, or you been foolin’ yerself. Whichever ’tis, you’d best get over it.”


          “They’re not bad people, sirza.” The word meant friend, brother, father, though not related by blood; it was a word he used only to this man, the man he’d most admired and trusted and followed. “Why –”


          “Dragons and curses, kid, you know that doesn’t matter!” His mentor’s voice nearly rose above a whisper. “We don’t know the why, ain’t got need to know, and askin’ could get you what they’re about to get.”


          He’d never more wanted to just shed the armor he wore than he did now, but his sirza was right; it was too late unless he wanted to go back to the temple and tell what waited there that…


          Shuddering, he shook his head and turned his face back to the castle. No, far, far too late. “We’ll never get in anyway. Doors are shut, the locking wards will –”


          “Been assured that’s no problem. Just be needin’ to break the doors in ourselves. Guards mostly gone.” His companion made three quick hand signals; the others fanned out.  “They’ll be the real problem, boy. Neither soft, both adventurers in their time. But alone, quiet in their upper chamber, guessin’ they’re takin’ advantage with the kids all elsewhere this night.” A gentler squeeze to the arm. “Better this way, eh, sirza? Better than what he would do, if we were daft enough to refuse.”


          That much was true. Their targets thought they were protected, blessed, but he knew how much of that was a lie… and what awaited those who stood against them. Yes, much better to die at my sword, no matter how horrifying they find it, than… than that.


          He took a deep, shaking breath, nodded, and then drew himself up.


          “Good lad,” he heard faintly. The two of them strode to the doorway now, coordinating their steps, concentrating the power they were given, speeding up, strides becoming a jog, a sprint, shoulders lowering…




          The twin doors, each ten feet high and five wide, shuddered at the impact; he felt the cloth covering tear, but the time for stealth was over and it was no longer a concern. He was right, the door-wards are down; all that force would’ve meant nothing otherwise, and likely alarm chimes and lights would now be everywhere – or something worse.


          They drew back, focused, the power flickering about them in tarnished bronze light before they struck again.


          This time the doors flew open, the eight-inch thick beam that had secured them snapped in two, deep gouges in the rimewood panels where their shoulderguards had bitten halfway through the wood.


          Two house guards ran forward, but surprise at what greeted them hampered their response – and outnumbered more than three to one they had no chance, anyway. He and the others moved forward now, swiftly. Thank all the gods that the children are gone. He spared one more glance towards his companion. He planned the assault; I’m sure he waited for just that to happen.


          The others fanned out through the house. Sounds of screams, breaking furniture, curses began to echo throughout the mansion as the two of them bounded up the stairs and smashed into the master bedroom doorway.


          A blaze of blue-white thunderbolts limned them and he screamed, thrown back in a momentarily uncontrollable convulsion. Those wards are still up!


          “Blast them! Threw up a new ward ‘soon’s they heard the noise! Go, boy, got to get the door down before –”


          “I know!” He gathered himself up and they swung hard, sword and axe slamming into spell-reinforced wood and metal. The hastily-spelled ward could not overcome that assault, and though the hilt of his sword tingled he felt the spell break.


          Then the doors were yanked open from the inside, two figures facing them; the grim fury on their faces, though, gave way to disbelief and shock of recognition.


          As one, the two invaders lunged forward.




Chapter 1.


          The huge double doors of Victoria Vantage’s ballroom thundered with the three ceremonial strikes: Strength, Faith, Wisdom, they seemed to say, and were flung open from outside. Kyri was already on her feet, along with Urelle, as six armored figures trooped in, three on each side and halted. “Assembled of Evanwyl!” Thornfalcon’s voice rang out. “Human and Artan, Children of Odin, T’Teranahm and all of the assembled races, the Justiciars of Myrionar greet you!”


          Mist Owl’s precise Artan tones continued from the other side of the doorway. “In the name of Justice and Vengeance, in the name of Truth and Wisdom, in the name of the Creator of All and in the name of all spirits that live, we bring you greetings and glad news!”


          Condor and Shrike stepped forward, one from each line, and turned, facing the open doorway. “The Sword is now balanced. On the one hand is Justice. On the other is Vengeance. But between them is Choice and Judgment. A choice and a judgment have been made this day, and where one has gone to the Sword, another as stepped forward to become the Sword of Judgment itself.” They extended their arms as one as a figure became visible, striding in from the darkness outside. “Evanwyl and all its people behold! This day we are whole once more, for we and Myrionar give to you – the Silver Eagle, reborn to us again as he has ever been!”


          Into the light he came, the Eagle-helm shining like a beacon, the silver and black pattern like wings on the armor and cape that streamed behind, towering dramatically over all the others except Condor, longsword at his hip, walking with a measured solemn step; but she could see the mouth beneath unable to restrain a joyous grin. She led the cheer of “Silver Eagle!”, but then Urelle burst from her seat, tears streaming down her face, shouting “Rion!”, and the entire room dissolved in laughter and cheers. Rion pulled off the Eagle helm and swept his little sister up into his arms. “Now, now, I’m Silver Eagle now, Uri!”


          “Lad, it might be too much t’ expect that your family will be forgettin’ your name soon,” Shrike said with a chuckle. “Most o’ us haven’t family, but we all had names, and still have them. Sometimes, we even use them.”


          “Rion… let me have a look at you.” Victoria put her hands gently on the shoulderguards and just stood there silently for a moment, then embraced him hard. “Oh, dear, if only your parents could be here to see you, Rion. I know how proud they would be, as proud as I am this day.”


          Rion – Silver Eagle, Justiciar of Myrionar! – blushed and looked over at Kyri. “What about you, Kyri?”


          She tried to say something, but settled for just hugging him so hard the armor creaked, feeling something in her finally completely opening like spreading wings, and crying happily. “I knew you’d do it.”


          “That’s more than I knew.” He hugged her back, then looked back at Aunt Victoria. “Two parties in a week? You’ll go broke, Auntie!”


          “Nonsense. Your great-grandmother used to say that one should always have a party just before a great trial, because if things go wrong you at least had a party, and if things go right, you have two. And so now you have your second. And Kyri actually agreed to dance this time instead of stand around in the corners talking with former adventurers, warriors, and priests!”


          Kyri tried not to look embarrassed. But Watchland Velion, the Arms, the other Eyes, and the Justiciars had so many fascinating stories to tell…


          “Now that we are in the home of a brother Justiciar,” Thornfalcon said with a smile, “we are allowed to be… more ourselves.” He swept off his own helmet, revealing a long poet’s face that seemed naturally mournful until he smiled, a face framed by long straight brown hair. And that smile … well, I guess I know why he has that reputation with the ladies!


          “Indeed.” Mist Owl followed suit, showing the features of the Artan, that some called Elves, with surprising black-blue hair around a delicate heart-shaped face with eyes almost as large as his namesake’s. Kyri was startled by his beauty; Lythos, the Vantage household’s Sho-ka-taida or Master of Arms, had much of the delicacy of his people in his figure, but a hardness of feature that denied the possibility of beauty being a consideration.


          “You won’t be dancing in your armor, I assure you,” Victoria said, interrupting. “Unless you intend to flatten your partners’ feet.” She pointed to the side, where one of her servants held a door open. “Change in there.”


          When some of the Justiciars blinked in surprise, she straightened, giving them the same glare she used to give Kyri and Urelle when they failed to wipe their feet properly. “And immediately, if you please!”


          Mist Owl looked scandalized, but Thornfalcon backed up a pace. It was the short, squat Shrike who took action.”Come, lads!” he said with a chuckle, leading the way at a double-march pace. “Choose your battles wisely, or the battle may choose you.”


          Rion stared at her as he was half-dragged away by his new comrades, and Kyri tried to repress a giggle – not altogether successfully.


          The crowd did not repress giggles or outright laughter, and spontaneous claps rang out around the room. Kyri, looking around, realized there were even more people here than for Rion’s “Good Luck” banquet – the great hall of Vantage Fortress was crowded. There has to be at least one person from every family in Evanwyl for twenty miles! Maybe five hundred, six hundred, more? You will go broke if we do this again, Auntie!


          But now the ruler of Evanwyl was addressing her aunt. “That… was quite impressive, Lady Victoria,”  said Jeridan Velion, the Watchland. His long blond hair was bound back in a careless-seeming tail; having fairly long hair herself, Kyri was aware of just how very much effort, and probably a little magic, went into making that simple style work without becoming a mass of tangles or an impediment.


          “Not so much,” Victoria said, acknowledging the compliment. “They’re civilized, after all, and would be far too polite than to gainsay a woman in her own house. They just needed a bit of firmness to recognize that they were to be acting like guests rather than Myrionar’s moving statues this evening.”


          “I am more impressed by the fact that you must have appropriate clothing waiting for them – as I am sure they did not come prepared.” The Watchland’s smile was warm this evening. It’s odd, Kyri thought to herself. Some days I’ve felt very comfortable around the Watchland, other days… he seems very cold. There wasn’t anything she could put a finger on, but he did seem to go through different phases; she reminded herself to ask Urelle if she’d ever noticed anything like that.


          Victoria laughed softly. “I should have known you would be thinking a step farther ahead, Watchland. When you’ve been an Adventurer for, oh, thirty years before settling down, you learn to be very prepared indeed. I would expect you would be similarly ready, eh, Jeridan?”


          An incline of the Watchland’s head acknowledged the compliment. “Perhaps, perhaps. But you have a far more… formidable reputation than I.”


          Victoria looked pleased. “Thank you.”


          “As would be expected,” Byll Kontrul said affectionately, then his tanned farmer’s face shifted to a mischievous grin, “from the V—”


          Aunt Victoria’s narrowed gaze cut him off before he could quite complete the phrase – as she had managed to successfully avert it every other time someone had tried to say it in Kyri’s presence. She had guesses as to what the rest was, but no one would ever confirm or deny, and Aunt Victoria staunchly refused to elaborate. It had something to do with her Adventuring days, of course.


          Politely ignoring the byplay, Watchland looked over at Kyrie. “And will you be following in your aunt’s – and your parents’ – footsteps? Or will Arbiter Kelsley’s hopes be fulfilled?”


          “The Arbiter?”


          Her obviously confused question caused Jeridan to smile apologetically. “I seems Kelsley told me things more private than I had thought.” He glanced over, where the Arbiter – highest priest of Myrionar – was speaking to Melni Andris. Oh, Balance, they lost Elodi in one of the patrols. The memory hurt; she and Elodi were the same age, had played together a lot when they were young; her death was the one dark blot in this wonderful week. But Melni still came? I can’t imagine coming to someone’s party if my daughter was killed!


But the Watchland was continuing and she forced herself to listen. “He has been very pleased with your attentiveness in the Temple, with your memorization of the Way of Justice, and other work in Evanwyl, and it’s clear to me that he is hoping you will become a Seeker soon.”


          He is? The thought made her feel warm inside, despite the lingering empathic ache for what poor Melni must be feeling. “I… I am honored that he would want me as a Seeker. But I haven’t decided my path yet.” I really need to speak to her. “Would you excuse me, Watchland?”


          He followed her gaze, nodded emphatically. “Of course, Kyri. Please, go.”


          She reached Melni and the Arbiter just as the holy man of Myrionar was bowing his farewell. “Melni –”


          Melni’s tired, red-rimmed eyes met hers, and the sting of tears overwhelmed her. “Oh, Myrionar and Terian, I’m so sorry, Melni…”


          The older woman embraced her, and Kyri heard a small sob before Melni caught herself and pulled gently away, brushing back her gray-streaked brown hair. “Thank you, Kyri. And don’t you tell me I shouldn’t have come,” she said, as Kyri was about to say exactly that. “El… El would have been furious if I didn’t come to Rion’s celebration. And Balance knows I need some light and cheer in my life now, really.”


          Kyri smiled and blinked the tears away. “I… thank you. Melni.”


          “Besides,” she continued, with a deliberately light tone, “I have so many customers showing off here. Business, you know.”


          If she wants things to be normal, I certainly won’t stop her. I suppose she’s already done a lot of the crying. “Of course I do,” Kyri said, and gave a little showoff spin of the long-sleeved green and aqua dress. “Look, your dresses makes even a mountain like me look good.”


          The laugh was weak, but it wasn’t forced. “Oh, fishing for compliments, are we? Balance, child, you’re impossible to make look bad. I could put you in a pile of leaves and you’d make most of the others look as though they were wearing sacks.”


          Kyri felt her cheeks go warm. I’m not nearly that pretty, and the way I tower over everyone…  Fortunately, she saw movement at the far side of the room. “Oh! Here they come.”


          The Justiciars emerged to renewed applause, which she joined enthusiastically. Thinking on it, she realized that she’d never seen any of the Justiciars without that mystical, ancient, ceremonial armor that was both their badge of office and, it was said, the source of much of their power and protection against many forms of harm. What was most surprising was Condor; he can’t be much older than Rion… well, four or five years older, I guess, she thought, which makes him no more than eight or ten years older than me. He and Rion were almost of identical height, six foot six inches, although Condor was considerably broader across the shoulders, past which fell brilliant red hair. Shrike, Condor’s constant companion, was a grizzled bear of a man, nearly a foot shorter than his friend but if anything slightly heavier, with none of it fat. She saw Condor glance at her and mutter something to Shrike, who grinned and said something back; she thought she caught the ancient word sirza.


          Skyharrier was also startling; he was one of the Saelar, the Winged Folk, but the armor usually restrained the great white, bronze, and gold wings that now stretched wide as he bowed to the applause, hair of the same bronze-white-gold shades tumbling around his face as he did. Bolthawk, as compact and strong as his namesake, was one of the Odinsyrnen, Children of Odin, the shortest of the Justiciars by far but no less formidable, with a sharp, pointed little black beard, short-cut dark hair, and twinkling black eyes like polished onyx.


          They were seated mostly according to plan (there were always a few people who decided to switch seats), the huge ballroom filled with multiple tables to hold all the guests. The largest table, of course, was reserved for the Justiciars, the Watchland, and a few others, including of course the family of the newly-chosen Silver Eagle. Kyri also kept an eye on the two large tables on either side; those were the traditional Server’s Tables – set aside for those who spent time serving the other people attending. Serving was hard work, but those doing the work were supposed to take shifts and had some of the best food set aside for them. Vanstell, the Master of House, saw her looking and gestured for her to pay attention to her own table. She smiled and nodded at the small, perfectly dressed pale-skinned man. Van will make sure everyone gets their share.


Rion was at the head of the table, of course, with the Watchland to one side and Aunt Victoria on the other. This put her next to the Watchland and across from Urelle, who sat beside their aunt, bracketed by Thornfalcon on the other side. Sasha Rithair, one of the Watchland’s Arms and also Evanwyl’s only summoner and trained mage, sat on Kyri’s left. The others ranged down the table, ending with Skyharrier at the foot of the table so that his wings would not crowd anyone else.


Thornfalcon smiled at her with green-brown twinkling eyes. “I am indeed blessed,” he said, with a comical exaggeration that made her laugh. “Here I am with a lady on one hand and two across from me; what other man at this table is so fortunate? Save, of course, you, my lord,” he added to the Watchland, “as is only proper.”


“Hmph,” Victoria sniffed, but she, too, had a spark of amusement in her eye. “Compliments are always welcome, but you’ll keep your wandering gaze from my younger niece, Thornfalcon. Your reputation precedes you.”


“Alas,” he replied, even as more chuckles rippled around the table and the first course – shaved raw pricklepine fish with mixed fruit jelly dip – was laid down, “my reputation also exceeds me, I am afraid; as with so many heroes, the deeds attributed to me overshadow the reality. But then I take your statement to mean I can extend my wandering gaze to your elder niece.” He leaned on his elbows and let his eyes go misty and worshipful, such a caricature of a lovestruck youth – even though he had to be at least thirty-five – that she almost choked with laughter.


“Oh, go ahead,” Rion said. “If she doesn’t like it, she can always break you in half.”


“With the legendary Vantage strength, yes, I suppose she could break a man.” A pause. “If he was lucky.”


Her brother was the one coughing out his last mouthful after that, accompanied as it had been with a leer so extremely exaggerated that she was at once blushing and giggling. And if he wasn’t so old, I might wonder if he’s serious.


The dinner continued, and she began to get a sense for the Justiciars as people; Shrike and Condor were, of course, like father and son. Oddly, Bolthawk – the squat, blunt-talking Child of Odin – and the quiet, almost ethereal Skyharrier seemed close. Thornfalcon sometimes fell quiet, and his serious gaze at those times made her suspect that the gangly-looking Justiciar played the clown and troubador because otherwise he would be too shy to speak.


Mist Owl was the oldest, and as an Artan he spoke most with Lythos, the Vantage Sho-ka-taida or Master-of-Arms and the only other Artan she knew of in Evanwyl. Mist Owl was… not cold, exactly, but his eyes took in everything and his expression gave back nothing. She had the feeling that he could see through everyone and everything. Come to think of it, that may just be normal for Artan; Lythos always seems to see everything and he almost never smiles.


As though he was reading her mind, the Sho-ka-taida looked up and directly at her… and then, with no one else to see, gave her a tiny smile and the quick hands-grasping gesture that said together it is accomplished. Her own smile was not small, for what the taciturn and perfectionist Artan teacher had just told her was that he believed her assistance – being one of Rion’s main sparring partners – had helped Rion to this wonderful achievement.


Thornfalcon did show his more serious side as he discussed the dinner. “That first-taste was truly exquisite, Lady Victoria. I think I have only tasted such fine An-su-ni in Nya-Sharee-Hilya itself. And this with freshwater fish?”


“Why, thank you, Thornfalcon,” Victoria said. “But the compliments should go to Feszinal, our head chef. He devised this entire feast and that dish, in particular, I know he prepared himself.”


“I will certainly remember to convey my appreciation. I am also impressed with the roundcut of hill quillstrike – not the least because they’re not the easiest thing to catch!”


She listened as the discussions flowed around her like the food. Privately, Kyri preferred what Victoria called “Southland” cooking – complex delicate flavors that were supposedly popular in Zarathanton and other parts far south – but she knew that Aunt Vicky’s “stone and sea” approach was better received here, and she had a top-flight set of chefs. And I can’t complain unless I’m going to learn to do the cooking in between my religious disciplines and combat work, not to mention a little magical study, history…


          She realized she’d drifted when the chiming bell-notes of a Winged Harp sounded. Oh no, the dances already? But who –


          As Rion took her hand and led her out, she realized that question had already been answered. “All right, brother, I’ll dance with you. But no side balcony walks for you.”


          He grinned, leading her in a leafwhirl dance appropriate for the music. “What, I’m not pretty enough for you?”


          She laughed. “I don’t want the other girls getting jealous. We’ve had you to ourselves up until now, right?” It was pretty much true; Rion hadn’t spent any time dancing, flirting, walking, or really even talking much with anyone outside of his training.


          “Well, true, but now I’m a Justiciar. Have to be serious and devote myself to Justice and Vengeance.”


          The words were not nearly as serious as they sounded, and she couldn’t keep an almost teary-eyed smile off her face. “Oh, Rion… you don’t know how good it is to see you like this.”


          He didn’t pretend to misunderstand. “Yeah. I … wasn’t very easy to get along with after Mother and Father…”


          She still couldn’t quite keep the wince from her face. “I wasn’t, either.”


          He snorted wryly. “You weren’t the one that was about to go charging out into the forest, waving a sword around without knowing your target.”


          Kyri remembered that. She also remembered how Aunt Victoria had responded to his determination to kill the people who had slain their parents and left their home a burning ruin: “An admirable plan, Rion Kervan Vantage. Such detail and attention to execution: ‘Bastards! I’ll kill them all!’, indeed. I trust you have some idea as to who ‘they’ are and, by the way you are running with such decision, knowledge of where ‘they’ may be found?”  


          Apparently the same memory had just replayed in his memory, because their eyes met and they both burst into laughter, even while shifting to the one-two-three of a Railwind Cross dance. “I was really stupid then, wasn’t I, Kyri?”


          “No,” she said. “We all felt the same. Urelle too,” she saw her little sister, now twelve, dancing and laughing, and remembered the eight-year-old Urelle staring, fury and emptiness and shock mingled in such a venomous brew that sometimes she wouldn’t speak to anyone for days at a time, wouldn’t eat… or would cry and cling to you in the middle of the night, not letting you go. “Why do you think we’ve all been training every day with you, with Lythos?”


          “I know.” He smiled at her, and gave her a quick hug in the middle of a spin. “But we’re better, now, I think. A lot better.”


          “Risen from the ashes,” she agreed.


          “Just like your favorite bird.” He looked around. “Justice’s Name, I think Victoria’s actually starting to line them up for me.”


          She giggled – a sound she tried not to allow to escape in public, but Rion could almost always get her to do it. “You know, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying yourself at your own party.”


          He blushed. “Er… well, no, but it’s a party about becoming a Justiciar, the living weapons of Myrionar, embodiments of Justice and Vengeance – a high and noble calling and all that, you know.”


          The two of them nearly stumbled – the fact that neither danced much was, unfortunately, too obvious – but she still managed a snort of laughter. “I hear that this doesn’t stop Thornfalcon.”


          “True. I think he should’ve been a wandering entertainer if he wasn’t such a monster with that rapier of his.”


          She glanced at the tall, melancholy-faced Justiciar with his slender wading-bird build. “He’s that good?”


          “Hellish. I think he could manage a cut or three on Lythos with that speed. Oh, Lythos would then carve him into a wall ornament, but he’d have been touched. Shrike, he’s an Elemental. Not literally, but like living rock. You get a good swing at him and it just bounces off – Bolthawk’s like that too,” he performed a clumsy hand-around spin that almost tripped them both, then continued, “except that since he’s purely a hand-to-hand man he tries to get up and pound the justice right out of you. Condor –”


          “Condor is asking for the privilege of your sister’s company to dance away the next song,” Condor said over her shoulder. “If you’d be interested, Kyri?”


          She smiled, a little awkwardly. “Well… “


          Rion grinned mischeviously at her and glanced around. “I’ll notice no one had to work at lining them up for you.” He bowed out and let Condor take over, even as she was staring at what did appear to be a … rather large group of young men that kept looking in her direction. That… many? She recognized Zant from Myss Timbers, and three sons of the various Arms – including Torokar Heimdalyn? Balance! We’d both look ridiculous, me over six feet and a Child of Odin barely over four! – and that was Rairlsey Yindar, from all the way over in Gharis… I think I’ll just concentrate on the Justiciar in front of me.


          For a few moments she just tried to follow; the next song’s rhythm was different, and Condor was clearly not much more experienced than her, but trying hard. They settled on a dance her Aunt would have called a jink, but she preferred to call a quad-step. “Um… Condor…”


          “Aran,” he said quickly. “That’s my name. Aran.”


          A nice name. “Aran. I like it. I wasn’t sure the Justiciars kept their names.”


          “Well… yes and no. We’re our Justiciar names most of the time. You understand the idea; by keeping the same names and the armor we imply the immortality of our justice.”


          “Well, yes, of course.” It was actually more fun dancing with Condor than most boys she’d had to dance with. For one thing, he was actually taller than her by three inches, which was something that almost no one except her brother matched. And Watchland Velion, of course, but he’d never ask her to dance.


          “But when we do get the chance to be out of armor – as we do at our own Temple, and at the houses of our own people – we have names like everyone else. We just don’t say them much.” A four step turn, a sidestep, another. “Would you mind if I asked you something?”


          “You just did ask me something.” She grinned. “But no, go ahead.”


          “I see I had best watch my words around you just like your terrifying aunt. I was wondering… well, actually, all of us were wondering why in the name of the Dragons themselves you chose to use a greatsword.”


          She laughed, slightly embarrassed but pleased that the conversation wasn’t going in directions she didn’t have experience with. “I’m … not completely sure myself, I suppose. I mean,” the song ended, another began, but they continued without interruption, “… well… hmm… My brother went for the shorter blade because he felt the bigger blades would slow him up too much. I’ve always been a little faster than him, and I thought… well, I guess I wanted to prove I could handle a weapon that was too much for him.”


          “Ha! That was what I thought.” He grinned to take the potential sting out of the words. “You aren’t letting him be first if he won’t fight for it. Ever.”


          She felt her answering smile which felt more relaxed somehow. “That’s it. That’s exactly it, Co… Aran.”


          He gestured to the other room. “And you remember my sword, so it’s not like I don’t have the same issue. Shrike uses that night-damned axe that looks big enough to cut down trees with a stroke, so I had to go get a weapon that looked even bigger.”


          She laughed. “So we’re both competing with our older brothers?”


          “Seems like.” Up close, his eyes were a startling green, contrasting with red hair that he kept trimmed to an almost reasonable length in front. He’s… really handsome, actually, and was startled to recognize that thought. It wasn’t that she hadn’t noticed anyone before, but the Justiciars were symbols, not people most of the time.


          And at that moment, another voice spoke. “Condor, you cannot monopolize the time of the loveliest lady in the room.”


          To her utter astonishment, it was the Watchland. Even more to her surprise, Condor seemed almost afraid as he yielded his place. “Certainly, sir. My apologies.”


          From the Watchland’s expression, he wasn’t quite sure why Condor was so apologetic either. But he turned to her with measured grace and bowed. “I hope you do not object. If you do, of course, I will be off.”


          “Object? Um, sir, oh, no, not at all…” This is why I hate these kind of things! I’m sounding like a stuttering ninny and I’m going to end up stepping on his feet. Unlike her prior partners, the Watchland was a master of the dance floor. Which, she realized as he led her gently in a round-round, meant that he was going to make her look as though she knew what she was doing.


          “I have to say I am terribly pleased to see your brother – and you – recovered as you are,” Velion said quietly.


          She blinked. “Recovered?” Then she remembered her prior conversation with Rion. “Oh. Thank you, sir.”


          “Perhaps it was not evident to you; indeed, it surely was not. Yet the Vantage family are Eyes of the Watch, second only to the Watchland, and harm to them is harm to our country; but more, your mother and your father were much beloved and your family is – has always been – one of the hearts of Evanwyl. The grievous blow you suffered seemed, for a time, to have taken your own hearts away and left only grief and anger. Becoming a Justiciar is not Rion’s true achievement.”


          I had no idea the Watchland … well, watched us so closely. “You’re right, sir.”


          He laughed softly. “Sir? Dear me, I suppose I must be that old to you.”


          “Old? I…” She didn’t want to say anything insulting, and really, he didn’t look old at all. “You… well, you’ve been around since I was a little girl.”


          “Yes. Yes, I have. That must make me a bit old in your eyes, I cannot deny it. Still, could you call me Jeridan?”


          It finally dawned on her that this was not simply a social dance. The Watchland did not dance casually, although he danced often. Me?


          It had never occurred to her that she would even be noticed by the Watchland. Now that it seemed to have happened, she wasn’t sure what to think.


          But he was waiting for a reply, so she pushed the considerations of future issues aside. “Of course, um, Jeridan.”


          “Thank you.” He seemed aware of her discomfiture. “Is this too embarrassing for you?”


          “That… would not be the right word. Confusing in a way.”


          Another gentle laugh. “As straightforward as your father and mother. Good. I understand the confusion. You are not quite seventeen, and I barely on your side of thirty. In many ways it would seem we have little in common. Yet appearances may be deceiving.”


          “Meaning no offense, sir, but you don’t know much about me, or I you.”


          His smile had a slightly sharper edge. “The latter may well be true, but the former may not.” He guided her in an in-and-out twirl, which she only managed by remembering her training with Lythos. Martial skills can be applied to the ballroom. I have to remember that. Coordination and focus.


          But the Watchland was continuing. “I observe everyone in the realm that I can; those on whom I rely – and who rely upon me most directly – I try to learn a great deal about.” He saw her nod, and continued. “And when such a tragedy befell one of my own Arms? I have made sure to watch your family – and watch over them – as much as I could. So I am afraid that I do, in fact, know much about you – how you pushed aside your own grief to help your sister and support your brother, how you tried to take up your father’s patrols when you were barely thirteen, your training alongside your brother with your Master of Weapons to the point that you became one of his best sparring partners – and he now  Justiciar! — and your…” he saw her staring and almost stumbling, smiled again. “As I say, I know far more than you thought, obviously. Enough,” he said, looking more serious, “to make it, perhaps, very wise that I give you the opportunity to learn more about me. I have mentioned this to your Aunt and while she has some doubts, I am sure, she only said that any further interaction would be entirely up to you.”


          There it was, a sledgehammer blow delivered with the delicacy of a butterfly landing. Before she could form a reasonable reply, Thornfalcon begged the privilege of a dance in so comical a fashion she could hardly refuse.


And at the end of the night, she was bewildered to find that the sight that stayed most in her mind was not her triumphant brother holding aloft the Eagle helm, or the Seven Justiciars all arrayed before them, but instead two pairs of eyes; green eyes behind a helm, smiling into hers… and the blue eyes of the Watchland, intense and somehow lonely against the darkness of the night, looking back at her as the door closed.