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Having sailed at last from the island, we now were bound for Haziz, the South's port city. We had departed it months before, heading for Skandi; but that voyage was finished. Now we embarked on an even more dangerous journey: returning to the South, where I carried a death sentence on my head.
Meanwhile, Del and I passed the time by sparring. She didn't win the matches. Neither did I. The point wasn't to win, but to retrain my body and mind. Tension was in me, tension to do better, do more, be better.
"You're holding back," I accused, accustomed now-again-to the creak of wood and rigging, the crack of canvas.
Del opened her mouth to refute that; holding back in the circle was a thing she never did. But she shut her mouth and contemplated me, though her expression suggested she was weighing herself every bit as much.
"Well?" I challenged, planting bare feet more firmly against wood planking.
"Maybe," she said at length.
"If you truly believe I'm incapable-"
"I didn't say that!"
-"then you should simply knock me out of the circle." We didn't really have a proper circle, because the captain had vociferously objected to me carving one into his deck, but our minds knew where the boundaries lay.
Del, who had set one end of the stick against the deck, now made it into a cane and leaned upon it idly with the free hand perched on her hip and elbow outthrust. "I don't think anyone could knock you out of the circle even if you were missing two hands."
Not a pretty picture. "Thanks." I grimaced. "I think."
Blue eyes opened wide. "That's a compliment!"
I supposed it was.
Now those eyes narrowed. "You are using a different grip."
"I said I would." I'd also said I'd have to. Circumstances demanded it.
She unbent and put out the arm. Her tone was brusque, commanding. "Close on my wrist."
I clamped one big hand around her wrist, feeling the knob of bone on the left side, the pronounced tendons on the underside. A strong woman, was Delilah.
Her pale brows knit. "There is a difference in the pressure."
"Of course there is." I was not altogether unhappy to be holding her wrist. "I have three fingers and a thumb, not four."
"Your grip will be weaker, here." She touched the outside edge of my palm. Nothing was wrong with that part of my hand. There simply wasn't a little finger extending from it any more. "If the sword grip turns in your hand, or is forced back at an angle toward the side of your hand . . ."
"I'll lose leverage. Control. Yes, I know that."
She was frowning now. She let her own stick fall to the deck. She studied my hand in earnest, taking it into both of hers. She had seen it before, of course; seen them both, and the knurled pinkish scar tissue covering the nub of severed bone. Del was not squeamish; she had patched me up numerous times, as well as herself. She regretted the loss of those fingers-hoolies, so did I!-but she did not quail from their lack. This time, in a methodical and matter-of-fact examination that did not lend itself to innuendo or implication, she studied every inch of my hand. She felt flesh, tendon, the narrow bones beneath both. I have big hands, wide hands, and the heels of them are callused hard with horn.
"What?" I asked finally, when she continued to frown.
"The scars," she said. "They're gone."
I have four deep grooves carved in my cheek, and a crater in the flesh over the ribs of my left side. I raised dubious brows.
"On your hands," Del clarified. "All the nicks are gone. And this knuckle here-" She tapped it.-"used to be knobbier than the others. It's not anymore."
I suppose I might have made some vulgar comment about Del's intimate knowledge of my body, but didn't. There was more at stake just now than verbal foreplay.
I had all manner of nicks and seams and divots in my body. We both did. Mine were from a childhood of slavery, an enforced visit to the mines of a Southron tanzeer by the name of Aladar, and the natural progression of lengthy-and dangerous-sword-dancer training and equally dangerous dances for real. The latter had marred Del in certain characteristic ways, too; she bore her own significant scar on her abdomen as a reminder of a dance years ago in the North, when we both nearly died, as well as various other blade-born blemishes.
I had spent weeks getting used to the stubs of the two missing fingers, though there were times I could have sworn I retained a full complement. Beyond that, I had paid no attention to either hand other than working very hard to strengthen them, as well as my wrists and forearms. It was the interior that mattered, not the exterior. The muscles, the strength, that controlled the hands and thus the grip. Not the exterior scars.
But Del was right. The knuckle, once permanently enlarged, looked of a size with the others again. And the nicks and blemishes I'd earned in forty years were gone. Even the discolored pits from working Aladar's mine had disappeared.
Wholly focused on retraining myself, I had not even noticed. I pulled the hand away, scowling blackly.
"It's not a bad thing," Del observed, though a trifle warily.
"Skandi," I muttered. "Meteiera." I looked harder at my hands.
"Did they work some magic on you?"
I transferred the scowl from hand to woman. "No, they didn't work any magic on me. They cut my fingers off!" Not to mention shaving and tattooing my skull and piercing my ears and eyebrows with silver rings. Most of the rings were gone now, thanks to Del's careful removal, though at her behest I had retained two in each earlobe. Don't ask me why. Del said she liked them.
"You do look younger." Her tone was carefully measured.
Ironic, to look younger when one's lifespan has been shortened.
"Of course, maybe it's the hair," Del suggested. "You look very different with it so short."
"Longer than it was." I rubbed a hand over my head; and so it was, all of possibly two inches now, temporarily lying close against my skull, though I expected the annoying wave to start showing up any day. Del had said the blue tattoos were invisible, save for a slight rim along the hairline. But that would be hidden, too, once my hair grew out all the way.
"I don't mean you look like a boy," she clarified. "You look like you. Just-less used."
Hoolies, that sounded good. "Define for me `less used."'
"By the sun." She shrugged. "By life."
"That wouldn't be wishful thinking, would it?"
Del blinked. "What?"
"There are fifteen-plus years between us, after all. Maybe if I didn't look so much older-"
"Oh, Tiger, don't be ridiculous! I've told you I don't care about that."
I dropped into a squat. The knees didn't pop. I bounced up again. Still no complaints.
Del frowned. "What was that about?"
"Feeling younger." I grinned crookedly. "Or maybe it's just my wishful thinking."
Del bent and picked up her stick. "Then let's go again."
"What, you want to try and wear down the old man? Make him yield on the basis of sheer exhaustion?"
"You never yield to exhaustion," she pointed out, "in anything you do."
"I yielded to your point of view about women having worth in other areas besides bed."
"Because I was right."
As usual, with us, the banter covered more intense emotions. I didn't really blame Del for being concerned. Here we were on our way back to the South, where I had been born and lost; where I had been raised a slave; where I had eventually found my calling as a sword-dancer, hired to fight battles for other men as a means of settling disputes-but also where I had eventually voluntarily cut myself off from all the rites, rituals, and honor of the Alimat-trained sword-dancer's closely prescribed system.
I had done it in a way some might describe as cowardly, but at the time it was the right choice. The only choice. I'd made it without thinking twice about it, because I didn't have to; I knew very well what the cost would be. I was an outcast now, a blade without a name. I had declared elaii-ali-ma, rejecting my status as a seventh-level sword-dancer, which meant I was fair game to any honor-bound sword-dancer who wanted to challenge me.
Of course, that challenge wouldn't necessarily come in a circle, where victory is not achieved by killing your opponent-well, usually; there are always exceptions-but by simply winning. By being better.
For years I had been better than everyone else in the South, though a few held out for Abbu Bensir (including Abbu Bensir), but I couldn't claim that any longer. I wasn't a sword-dancer. I was just a man a lot of other men wanted to kill.
And Del figured it would be a whole lot easier to kill me now than before.
She was probably right, too.
So here I was aboard a ship bound for the South, going home, accompanied by a stubborn stud-horse and an equally stubborn woman, sailing toward what more romantic types, privy to my dream, might describe as my destiny. Me, I just knew it was time, dream or no dream. We'd gone off chasing some cockamamie idea of me being Skandic, a child of an island two week's sail from the South, but that was done now. I was, by all appearances-literally as well as figuratively-Skandic, a child of that island, but things hadn't worked out. Sure, it was the stuff of fantasy to discover I was the long-lost grandson of the island's wealthiest, most powerful matriarch, but this fantasy didn't have a happy ending. It had cost me two fingers, for starters. And nearly erased altogether the man known as the Sandtiger without even killing him.
Meteiera. The Stone Forest. Where Skandic men with a surfeit of magics so vast that much was mostly undiscovered, cloistered themselves upon tall stone spires ostensibly to serve the gods but also, they claimed, to protect their loved ones by turning away from them. Because the magic that made them powerful also made them mad.
Now, anyone who knows me will say I don't-or didn't-think much of magic. In fact, I don't-didn't-really believe in it. But I'll admit something strange was going on in Meteiera, because I had cause to know. I can't swear the priest-mages worked magic on me, as Del suggested, but once there I wasn't precisely me anymore. And I witnessed too many strange things.
Hoolies, I did strange things.
I shied away from that like a spooked horse. But the knowledge, the awareness, crept back. Despite all the outward physical changes, there were plenty of interior ones as well. A comprehension of power, something like the first faint pang of hunger, or the initial itch of desire. In fact, it was very like desire-because that power wanted desperately to be wielded.
I shivered. If Del had asked what the problem was, I'd have told her it was a bit chill in the morning, and after all I was wearing only a leather dhoti for ease of movement as I went through the repetitive rituals that honed the body and mind. But it wasn't the chill of morning that kindled the response. It was the awareness again of the battle I faced. Or, more accurately, battles.
And none of them had anything to do with sword-dancing, or even sword fighting. Only with refusing to become what I'd been told, on Meteiera, I must become: a mage.
Actually, they'd said I was to become a priest-mage, but I'm even less inclined to put faith in, well, faith, than in the existence of magic.
And, of course, it was becoming harder to deny the existence of magic since I had managed to work some. And even harder to deny my own willingness to work it; I had tried to work it. Purposely. I had a vague recollection that those first days after escaping the Stone Forest were filled with desperation, and a desperate man undertakes many strange things to achieve certain goals. My goal had been vital: to get back to Skandi and find Del, and to settle things permanently with the metri, my grandmother.
I got back to Skandi by boat, which is certainly not a remarkable thing when attempting to reach an island. Except the boat hadn't existed before I made it exist, conjured of seawrack and something more I'd learned on Meteiera.
Magic is merely the tool. Discipline is the power.
Now I stood at the rail staring across the ocean, knowing that everything I'd ever been in my life was turned inside out. Upside down. Every which way you can think of.
Take up the sword.
I lived with and for the sword. I didn't understand why I needed to be told. No; commanded.
"You're still you," Del said, with such explicit firmness that I realized she was worried that I was worried, not knowing my thoughts had gone elsewhere.
I smiled out at the seaspray.
"You are." She came up beside me. She had washed her hair in the small amount of fresh water the captain allowed for such ablutions, and now the breeze dried it. The mix of salt, spray, and sun had bleached her blonder. Strands were lifted away from her face, streaming back across her shoulders.
I have been less in my life, dependent on circumstances. But now, indisputably, I was more.
I was, I had been told, messiah. Now mage. I had believed neither, claiming-and knowing-I was merely a man. It was enough. It was all I had wanted to be, in the years of slavery when I was chula, not boy. Slave, not human.
I glanced at Del, still smiling. "Keep saying that, bascha."
"No," I said, "I'm not. And you know it as well as I do."
Her face went blank.
"Nice try," I told her, "but I read you too well, now."
Del look straight at me, shirking nothing. "And I, now, can read nothing at all of you."
There. It was said. Admitted aloud, one to the other.
"Still me," I said, "but different."
Del was never coquettish or coy. Nor was she now. She put her hand on my arm. "Then come below," she said simply, "and show me how different."
Ah, yes. That was still the same.
Grinning, I went.
When we finally disembarked in Haziz, I did not kiss the ground. That would have entailed my kneeling down in the midst of a typically busy day on the choked docks, risking being flattened by a dray-cart, wagon, or someone hauling bales and none too happy to find a large, kneeling man in his way, and coming into somewhat intimate contact with the liquid, lumpy, squishy, and aromatic effluvia of a complement of species and varieties of animals so vast I did not care to count.
Suffice it to say I was relieved to once more plant both sandaled feet upon the Southron ground, even though that ground felt more like ship than earth. The adjustment from flirtatious deck to solidity always took me a day or two.
Just as it would take me time to sort out the commingled aromas I found so disconcertingly evident after months away. Whew!
"They don't need to challenge you," Del observed from beside me with delicate distaste. "They could just leave you here and let the stench kill you."
With haughty asperity, I said, "You are speaking about my homeland."
"And now that we are back here among people who would as soon kill you as give you greeting," she continued, "what is our next move?"
It was considerably warmer here than on Skandi, though it lacked the searing heat of high summer. I glanced briefly at the sun, sliding downward from its zenith. "The essentials," I replied. "A drink. Food. A place to stay the night. A horse for you." The stud would be off-loaded and taken to a livery I trusted, where he could get his earth-legs back. I'd paid well for the service, though the sailhand likely wouldn't think it enough once the stud tried to kick his head off. Another reason to let the first temper tantrum involve someone other than me. "Swords-"
"Good," Del said firmly.
"And tomorrow we'll head out for Julah."
"Julah? Why? That's where Sabra nearly had the killing of us both." Unspoken was the knowledge that not far from Julah, at the palace inherited from her father, Sabra had forced me to declare myself an outcast from my trade. To reject the honor codes of an Alimat-trained seventh-level sword-dancer.
"Because," I explained. "I'd like to have a brief discussion with my old friend Fouad."
"`Discussion,"' she echoed, and I knew it was a question.
"With words, not blades."
"Fouad's the one who betrayed you to Sabra and nearly got you killed."
"Which calls for at least a few friendly words, don't you think?"
Del had attempted to fall in beside me as I wended my way through narrow, dust-floured streets clogged with vendors hawking cheap wares to new arrivals and washing hung out to dry from the upper storeys of close-built, mudbrick dwellings stacked one upon the other in slumping disarray, boasting sun-faded, once-brilliant awnings; but as she didn't know Haziz at all, it was difficult for her to stay there when I followed a route unfamiliar to her. She settled for being one step behind my left shoulder, trying to anticipate my direction. "Words? That's all?"
"It's a starting point." I scooped up a melon from the top of a piled display. The melon-seller's aggrieved shout followed us. I grinned, hearing familiar Southron oaths-from a mouth other than my own-for the first time in months.
Del picked her way over a prodigious pile of danjac manure, lightly seasoned with urine. "Are you going to pay for that?"
Around the first juicy, delicious mouthful I shaped, "Welcome-home present." And tried not to dribble down the front of my Skandic silks. Still noticeably crimson, unfortunately.
"And I've been thinking . . ."
Hoolies, I'd been dreaming.
And I regretted bringing it up.
"Yes?" she prompted.
"Maybe . . ."
The words came into my mouth, surprising me as well as her. "Maybe we'll go get my true sword."
I twisted adroitly as a gang of shrieking children ran by, raising a dun-tinted wake of acrid dust. "You know. Out there. In the desert. Under a pile of rocks."
Del stopped dead. "That sword? You mean to go get that sword?"
I turned, paused, and gravely offered her the remains of the melon, creamy green in the dying sun. I could not think of a way to explain about the dream. "It seems-appropriate."
She was not interested in the melon. "`Appropriate'?" Del shook her head. "Only you would want to go dig up a sword buried under tons of rock, when there are undoubtedly plenty of them here in this city. Unburied."
Again the answer was in my mouth. "But I didn't make those swords."
Which conjured between us the memories of the North, and Staal-Ysta, and the dance that had nearly killed us. Not to mention a small matter of Del breaking, in my name, for my life, the sword that she had made while singing songs of vengeance. Boreal was dead, in the way of broken jivatmas and their ended songs. Samiel was not.
And something in me wanted him. Needed him.
Del said nothing. Nothing at all. But she didn't have to. In her stunned silence was a multitude of words.
I tossed the melon toward a wall. It splatted, dappled outer skin breaking, then slid down to crown a malodorous trash heap tumbling halfway into the street. "We'll stay the night, buy some serviceable swords and harness, then go to Julah, to Fouad's." I said quietly. "A small matter of a debt between friends."
And the much larger matter of survival.
from Sword Sworn by Jennifer Robinson, Copyright © February 2002, Daw Books, a division of Penguin Putnam, Inc., used by permission.