To make up for yesterday’s debacle, Amber arrived at Master Cinbar’s training area extra early, hair braided and pinned, dressed in practice gear. She’d taken possession of her rooms in the girl’s dormitory last evening, stretched out on the bed to shut her eyes for a few minutes, and promptly fallen asleep for the next several hours.
She’d missed dinner again. Fortunately, Ainsley had left a cold supper and note outside her door, but Amber thought it better not to make a habit of skipping meals with the rest of the school.
A nap had done her no good. Amber had spent the rest of the night lightly dozing, awakening frequently to check the time. It had been a relief when it was finally six o’clock.
Now, ten minutes before the appointed time, Amber crossed the dew-speckled grass under a lightening sky just flushing with dawn. She passed through a line of trees and into a hollow. A pond gleamed to her left; a gazebo sat upon a man-made island right in the center of it. In front of her was a grey-stone house with a pitched roof of slate tiles. A path led up to the front door, but Amber took the fork that meandered down the side of the house and to the back.
The clash of steel upon steel assured her she was going in the right direction. Amber rounded the corner and stopped, staring.
Master Cinbar and Troi sparred together in the cleared yard, swords blurred lines of silver in their hands. They moved like cats, light and lithe. Master Cinbar lunged, so fast Amber had barely time to gasp before Troi blocked the attack. His blade snaked out in counter-attack, but Master Cinbar had already stepped away. Troi’s style was dangerous but flashy; the Master’s graceful in its economy of movement.
They were both good, but the Master was better. Now that Amber was no longer enchanted by the initial dazzle of their swordplay, she saw how Master Cinbar pressed his opponent, pushing Troi to the brink.
But most surprising of all was the look on Troi’s face, a fierce joy, a leaping aliveness.
She had, Amber thought, never seen him so happy.
Curious, Amber surveyed the fight with her mage sight. The pattern rippled and flowed around the two combatants. Troi’s magical nodes glowed softly, but she couldn’t make out Master Cinbar’s at all. The master was well-shielded, but neither of the two used magic.
Or… maybe not. Troi moved well, but he still got tangled in the pattern’s invisible threads from time to time. They tore apart and reformed around him, giving him just the tiniest bit of resistance, costing him just a fraction of a second, expending just a bit more energy.
The master, on the other hand, moved with the shimmering flow of magical energy, aligning himself with, not against, the pattern.
The swords met again. Master Cinbar twisted his wrist, and his blade disengaged first, stabbed through the air, and the point came to rest at the base of Troi’s throat.
“Well done,” he said, low and pleased.
Troi, panting, hair falling across his forehead, said, “I almost had you there, a few times, sir. Someday soon…”
Master Cinbar laughed. “I’ll postpone that day as best I can,” he promised.
Troi’s grin was fierce. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Master Cinbar stepped back and sheathed his sword. Troi did the same, though with a slight tremble that spoke of exhaustion.
“Miss Shelburne,” said Master Cinbar without turning his head. “You had better warm up now.”
Troi looked over at Amber, a flicker of surprise in his eyes. And then it was gone as Troi swiftly but surely withdrew. Amber fancied she could almost see the shutters come down over his face as he locked himself away from the world.
Now his expression was the one of habitual boredom. Amber almost hissed in annoyance at the sight.
“Over here, Miss Shelburne.”
Amber hurried over to her instructor, putting Troi out of her mind. She couldn’t be distracted by the enigmatic Kaidan when she had a chance to redeem herself.
Twenty minutes later and redemption was far from her grasp.
She was, as it turned out, not a natural swordswoman. Or even an average one.
Amber held the wooden practice sword gingerly, as if it might turn into a snake at any moment. It felt all wrong in her hand, and her movements as she went through the first few practice drills were stiff, unnatural, and lackluster.
Master Cinbar watched with narrowed eyes. He’d corrected her grip, her stance, how she moved the sword. But he hadn’t said anything for the last few minutes. Amber gritted her teeth and endured.
It was only one practice lesson. Once he saw she was no good, she’d be back with Mistress Blunkett and others closer to her skill level.
“Troi.” Master Cinbar beckoned the boy closer. The point of Amber’s sword wavered with her surprise. Maser Cinbar said, “Perhaps an opponent will help you understand these blocking drills better.”
Troi’s face was as wooden as the practice sword he picked up. He and Amber faced each other. Her heart hammered.
Troi attacked. In slow motion. With about as much force as a newborn kitten.
Still Amber barely blocked him.
Troi disengaged, attacked again. Amber managed to swat his point away.
Again the blade swept for her.
What’s next? thought Amber, panicking. What was the next part of the drill?
Too late. She screwed her eyes shut, wincing away from the blow.
It never came.
Amber cracked open her eyes. Troi’s wooden sword was poised at her neck.
Then he tapped her on the head with it.
“Ow!” said Amber, more indignant than hurt.
“Don’t close your eyes, dummy!” Troi stalked back to his place. The look he threw her was irritated. As Master Cinbar watched—was there a glimmer of amusement in the teacher’s eyes?—Troi said, “Now, again.”
Troi was at her lesson the next day and the day after. Amber wondered why Master Cinbar wasted his time like this, but she couldn’t deny it was effective. Every time Troi faced her with a bored look on his face, Amber couldn’t help but want to do something—anything—to wipe it off.
At least she held the sword properly now. Amber cringed at the memory of Troi’s face when his sword had met hers a little too hard during a drill and the jarring contact had made her drop the wooden blade.
It was his two-koppa witch expression.
She hadn’t dropped the sword since.
On the fourth day, after more blocking drills, Master Cinbar said, with a gleam in his eye that Amber mistrusted, “I think we should make time for sparring today.”
Troi straightened, eyes lit up with unholy glee. “Excellent idea, sir.”
“But, sir,” Amber appealed to the master, “he’s miles better than I am. And just look at his face. He can’t wait to squish me flatter than a pancake.”
“We’re using wooden swords, Miss Shelburne,” said Master Cinbar with a straight face. “I’d like to see how you do in a combat situation. However, in order to level the playing field, Troi is confined to using only the practice sword. Miss Shelburne may use all the weapons at her disposal.”
“I’ll still beat her,” said Troi with a snort.
All her weapons? Did that include magic? As Amber took her place, sword ready, she decided it must mean so. How else was she to beat Troi?
When Master Cinbar said, “Begin,” she reached for the pattern.
Troi was right there faster than she’d expected. His sword flickered towards her. Amber scuttled back, tripped on a rock, and fell on her rump.
Looming above her, Troi said, “At least get your sword into guard position. I know you can do that much.”
“It’s hard to do two things at the same time,” she grumbled, scrambling back to her feet.
Troi raised his eyebrows and sword. “Then learn. Quickly.” He attacked.
Amber squeaked and ducked to the side. The wooden sword whistled through the air and rapped her on the hip.
“Now you’re bleeding from a leg wound,” said Troi conversationally. “What will you do next?” He slashed at her, but Amber managed to block the strike. Barely.
Troi disengaged as Amber circled him warily, keeping out of his reach. Then he stepped forward…
… right into a patch of uneven footing where she’d cut the pattern. Troi stumbled, and Amber, waiting for that, rushed in, extending her sword arm. Blast him, but he was already recovering…
Her sword point met Troi’s chest just as his blade rested against her neck.
Amber let out her breath in a long sigh.
Master Cinbar called out, “That’s enough for today, then.”
Troi gave her a grim nod, and they both turned to bow to Master Cinbar. Troi left quickly, but Amber, shaky now that the adrenalin rush was gone, remained.
Master Cinbar said soberly, “It was a draw there, at the end, but Troi was right. In a real fight, you wouldn’t have made it this far.”
“I know.” Amber closed her eyes, as her pounding heart settled down to a slower tempo. “I know.” She opened her eyes and gave Master Cinbar a direct look. “Why are you and Troi both wasting your time with me, sir? You know that I’ll never be a great swordswoman.”
“Teaching you to stay alive,” said Master Cinbar gently, “is not a waste of my time. Have you forgotten that your erstwhile employer has already sent his thugs after you? Because we at Heartwood have not.”
Amber shivered. “But surely they won’t come all the way here!”
“Do you wish to wager your freedom, your life, on that, Miss Shelburne?”
Amber was silent. Then, slowly, she shook her head.
“Your magic is unique and versatile.” A smile broke Master Cinbar’s face. “I’ve already had to listen—from many Masters, not just my wife—just how amazing it is. They want me to teach you to stay alive long enough to use it.” He paused. “I think you can win with it. Fighting well is not only for sun mages.”
Again that gleam in his eyes, but at least now she understood his purpose, at least a little bit. Still, the way he said that…
“Master Cinbar,” she said, “when you and Troi fight, it’s always without magic. Still, the way you move… do you… sense the pattern, too?”
His smile was wry. “Miss Shelburne, I have no magic.”
“And yet, even I can hold my own in a sun mages’ world.” He nodded at her. “Think on that the next time you doubt yourself, the next time you call yourself “stupid” in your own head. If you get in the habit of doing that, you’ll lose your fight before you even step foot on the battle field.”
A bell rang out from within the house. Master Cinbar tilted his head. “Time for breakfast. You had best go get your own.”
“Ah, yes. Thank you.” The words came out in a rush. “For these lessons and everything else too.” She bowed and the master sketched a good-humored gesture of dismissal.
As she hurried away, his words came back to her.
Fighting well is not only for sun mages.
Author’s Note: Sorry for the unintended break! Family sickness and other responsibilities took a large bite out of my time.
I’ve decided to change up the way I’m doing the serial. Instead of one short episode a week, I’m moving to longer episodes every other week. I hope it’ll be easier to be immersed in the story with longer episodes.
Next week, Amber’s invited along on an unauthorized midnight mission. I think you can guess who instigates it!