Swordmaster

Year 342 FW, Autumn, in Condor


Pono’unamau

The train cuts ocean mist as it skims over North Sea beaches. We smoothly crest a hill and the temple city of Pono’unamau rises into view.

Afternoon sun bathes stone walls in golden light, painting hundreds of terraced levels, all cut vertical by white waterfalls that contrast sharply against the deep forest green. Lots and lots of waterfalls. Sunlight catches on many of them and rainbows are everywhere.

I hear murmurs of appreciation from my fellow passengers, many of whom have noses to the glass.

City of Rainbows they call it.

Some people think that’s what Pono’unamau actually means, but really unamau just translates as “river delta,” and I think pono means “song” or “singing.”

The fellow in the seat next to me – Kash I think his name was – sees that I’m awake and tries to resume a monologue about the history of the place, droning on something about an ancient group of people called the Valantar. I flick one fuzzy white tiger ear closest to him and resume trying to ignore him completely. He is not deterred. He lectures like he might be a teacher.

The waterfalls of the city grow larger and closer. Then we arrive and the train eases to a stop and settles to rest in its braces at the main terminal.

Thunks and bumps indicate other cars detaching before the door to our cabin is cracked and they let us out.

I stretch as I disembark, breathing deep. The train platform is an open-air affair and the moist salty spray of the North Sea bites my nose. Memories of the place pop back with them. Most memories are good, some much less so.

The train guildmates have claim check open already. I exchange my ticket for my spear and knife-belt, then throw the latter over my shoulder and jump into the queue at the west gate of the train yard. Once in line I strap on the knives, feeling a small measure of peace from having all my claws back. Maybe now Kash would shut up when I snarl at him.

Then I wait my turn in line. The west gate leads into the old part of the city. Security is tighter here than the other side of the platform, where people are leaving mostly unhindered.

Finally I’m standing before an agent at his podium. This one is human, old and greying, tall and gone to thinness, his heavy suit old and rumpled. He looks to be having a bad day. Guards in orange silks stand unmoving on either side of the gate behind him, identities hidden behind veils.

I present my wild guide guild crest with my left hand, so he can see it and the two sigils branded on my inside arm in one glance. The fur on my arm is trimmed short to make the sigils easy to read.

His gaze lingers over the crest, then seems to trace its way up my arm to my face. “Name?” the man demands. My spear in my other hand hasn’t even caught his notice.

“Tuan,” I answer. “Suntiger,” I remember they always want family names here.

He’s silent, then “the Knight’s Temple is not open to your guild,” he tells me with a sound of finality.

The orange-veils haven’t twitched. That or they’re just dressed-up stone statues. With these guys it’s sometimes hard to tell.

I put my crest back into my pocket, “That’s okay,” I reply agreeably. “I’ve been invited by family Ravensky.”

The man recoils like I’d offered him something dead. “The High Family does not consort with…” he seems at a loss for words and just gestures at each of my bare shoulders.

I try to keep my sigh on the inside. That I’m a guildsman or a cat or armed aren’t really his problem. That I’m a cat with stripes now…

“Look, please, send a messenger, maybe?” I ask him calmly. “Let them know I’m here and I’m sure you’ll find I’m welcome.” I try to keep my damn striped tail from showing annoyance and probably fail.

The scrawny human seems about to ring the alarm on his podium, which would tell me if the orange veils are actually statues or not. I wonder if I should resist arrest or not. Probably not.

Then a melodious voice calls, “Tuan, child, is that you?”

The human goes bloodless and scrambles to his feet. Even the statues of guards seem to straighten by a claw-width. I turn, knowing the voice and totally unsure if I’m in less trouble or more.

The regal jaguar who approaches is smiling. That’s a very good start, I think? Her daughter and I had told her a little lie sometime long ago, and it’s something she might care a lot about if she’d found out by now.

The queen is not all that tall, but walks like she’s the highest woman in the land. Really, she is. She’s thinner than I remember, but her fur is still rich and golden. Her face is ageless and her deep gaze unfathomable. She wears silks that were once purest white, though from knees down they’re now heavily soiled with dark, greasy mud. She glides with the grace of a dancer as she crosses the yard, her silks rippling. A pair of veiled guards in the finest black silks – also recently treated with mud – flit just ahead and make sure her way has no barriers.

“High Lady Ravensky,” someone says in an awed voice somewhere in the queue. I think Kash might be narrating.

I try to make a formal bow, but the lady giggles and catches me in a hug, paying no mind to my weapons. I loosely hug back, taking some pleasure at hearing the gate agent choke on shock behind me.

The lady steps back and holds my shoulders. “Thank you, you came!” she says with an easy smile, tail arced. “Fia will be thrilled, she knew not if word could reach you.”

I note one of her guards is directly behind me and some corner of my mind idly wonders how close their own weapon is to my spine.

“I got the message in time, thankfully. I wouldn’t miss this for anything,” I reply, forcing a smile.

Now she notices my spear. “May I?” she asks.

“Please!” I reply, half-pretending to kneel and offering the weapon over a wrist. I’m really not comfortable full-on kneeling in this crowd, protocol be damned.

The high lady takes my weapon and studies it with expert eye. She pops the rough leather sheath from the blade and examines both, then replaces the cover. “Is he named?” she asks.

“Fang,” I give, amused she used the he form already.

She grins freely at that and hands my spear back to me with no formality at all. I accept, with the idle note that the black veil at my back doesn’t waver whether I’m armed or not.

“A fierce name for a beautiful tool of ancient craft.” She looks around, “I still have work here, but please, you head up to our house whenever you are ready.”

“May I help here?” I ask, as is proper.

“No no,” she refuses, of course. “Go, find my daughter, rest from your travels.” With that I’m dismissed and the lady floats away. Her guard detaches from my back and skits off with her, silently.

I look over at the agent. He waves me past his podium without a sound. It would be perfectly in her nature if the queen remembered to reprimanded him for this personally, later on. I think he knows it too, as he looks really, really scared.

I smile to him, nod to the orange-veils – who move not one bit – and step between them into the Temple City itself. Inside, nobody pays me any mind whatsoever and I can release the breath I find I’m holding.

I climb aimlessly at first, trying to regain some calm.

Finding peace is not hard. Pono’unamau is probably the most amazing place, anywhere. The new city is on the river shore, but the entire old city is cut into the side of the valley, connected by waterfalls and vines and hidden staircases. Getting anywhere to anywhere is always a challenge, but a very pleasant one.

A few acolytes and apprentices scurry about with chores. All kinds seem represented. Even cats with stripes, I notice happily, waving to another tigerkind on the side of one garden. She wears student greys and is pulling weeds from the garden. She doesn’t seem to see me.

Eventually I decide to start asking directions.

In time I close towards a squat stone building where people think Fiora is at lessons. I pop the buttons open on my vest, just in case, and still find myself nervously tracing a claw over the carved figures of the stone entryway as I step inside.

I hope not to make a scene nor disturb her instructor.

The last rays of this day’s sun stream from windows high overhead and illuminate Fiora, in student grey silks, facing a young ram wearing the un-dyed tan of a novice, as they face off at the center of a mat. About a dozen other students kneel in a line on the side of the mat, also in tan uniforms.

Fiora is the instructor. I should have guessed that.

Both fighters hold curved oak swords. Fiora is at easy ready, the novice a much-less easy mirror of it.

“Tiger!” Fiora calls the moment I step in view. She moves to rest position and bows to her student, then gestures him back at the line. He bows back and flees to his mates. Fiora meets me at the edge of the mat and wraps me in the warmest hug I’ve had in months.

It’s like the fight we had when I left last time never happened.

I hug back, juggling spear and jaguar girl, trying to keep from purring in front of all her students, and pretty much failing.

“Come play!” she commands, letting go and stepping back into her domain.

I shrug out of my pack and kick off my boots, leaving them in a pile on the floor. Then I tug the cover off my spear’s razor-sharp blade and drop it onto the pile too. I bow my way onto the mat and dutifully take easy ready.

This had been inevitable. I’d hoped I might have a minute, but ya know, this is Fiora.

Especially because there are novices to impress, I think. There is no way she can resist showing me up the moment I arrive.

Fiora considers me ears to tail, her lithe body sideways to mine, her wooden sword in a loose low guard. She’s in her normal day-use silks but has the wide leg parts lifted and tucked inside her belt so her footwork is visible. Her weapon is a smooth piece of polished oak with no guard, and I think it might be a tiny bit shorter than her normal sword.

Against this, I’m a smidge taller and a fair bit heavier. My spear is real, my knife harness wraps my waist and left thigh in a web of straps, two blades in easy reach. I’d opened my vest to be non-binding right before I came in the door. I flex my grip on my spear’s haft and then with no warning I take first move.

Her wooden sword knocks my straight thrust aside, easily. Her voice in my memory reminds me, first move of a long weapon is always slow…

…but the next doesn’t have to be, the memory finishes. I don’t stop moving forward. I close distance and shorten my grip right to the guard of my spear, then bring the blade inside her stance to throw a cut towards her face, my shaft between us and her sword.

The shaft of my spear is very light and the weapon is rather quick if used short. Nobody ever expects it.

Fiora doesn’t care though, and drops her blade, hooking my weapon with the grip of her own and twisting her body into some hole in my balance that I didn’t know I had. She tosses me with my own momentum.

I roll to my feet. I’m expecting her foot towards my open backside, she loves that move, so I dodge that with no trouble, and recover balance, sinking my momentum into my spear. I throw a powerful arcing slash towards her center.

It’s just in time to counter a simultaneous cut from Fiora towards me. But I have a spin going now with my spear, and I flip my weapon over to make a second cut with the butt end, then a third with the live, catching each of her sword cuts in turn as she pushes me backwards.

I feel my heels at the edge of the mat. In desperation I drop to my knees and make a sweep at her feet. She jumps it easily, then neatly makes a full circle and brings her sword in an unstoppable arc aiming for my neck.

With my off hand I pull my long knife and catch her cut. It lands hard, but my guard holds. Fiora giggles, twirls her sword, and my knife falls from numb fingers.

But by now I’ve got my spear stance recovered – though on my knees – and I make a solid strike towards her own open side with the blunt end. She takes a step back and I feel a tiny surge of victory. I’m on my feet in a beat and follow, pressing my advantage with a series of thrusts and small twirling cuts. I even get the spear flipped over again so the pointy end is aiming her way.

Fiora allows me to push her back to the center of the mat. Then once she’s sure all her students have an unobstructed view, she strikes both my wrists hard enough to render them useless, taps the spear out of my grasp, and stabs her sword at my throat.

Fuzz it, I think. I pull lux from the stones in my pockets, grab elemental air and wood with my will, and blast the business end of her practice weapon to splinters.

Fiora full on barks a laugh. I cuss myself. I can never resist grabbing lux when she’s winning, and it never goes well from there.

She tucks what’s left of her sword in her belt as she circles behind me, flowing like liquid. I kick my spear back into my hand and turn just in time to see her rip the trigger off a flat octagonal box that she’s found somewhere. She throws it over my head.

Mage Killer. I don’t waste time swearing, I’m on my knees, my spear grounded.

I pull a line of elemental air between my hands to hold my spear without touching it, then the cursed device detonates above me. A raging rune-net cracks out through the room like a drop of chaos sent from the heavens.

But around me, the jagged purple energy pulls into my very special spear and riots in a column of hate straight to ground, like lighting through a rod. I get singed, but my reality holds together.

Three heartbeats and it has past, then I’m back on my feat faster even than Fiora, who rests on one knee, braced into the psychic wave of her own weapon.

I close, ripping my spear out of the mat – apparently I’d grounded it pointy-end-first – and slash at her core. She taught me long ago to try my honest best to hurt her when we train, if I ever felt I had a clean shot.

Fiora folds herself, my weapon passing harmlessly through the space I’d swore she occupied. Then she twists in place, all her silks are flying in every direction, and I’m not sure where she is among them.

I step back as she closes, tightening my weave and using my spear to carve arcs of frozen elemental air between us.

The wooden handle of her broken sword comes tumbling end-over-end through my spear weave, and hits me solidly in the nose. My will and focus shatter in a blast of pain and stars.

I blink tears out of my eyes and then she’s beside me, my own short knife held to my temple. “Stop,” Fiora commands loudly. She sounds unhappy.

I freeze in place. She better not be mad. It was her own damn mage killer that gave her the headache she’s bearing.

She considers me for a long moment. Then she sheathes my dagger back into the harness at my hip and formal bows. I formal bow back.

“You have improved, child,” a song-like voice calls out.

I turn and High Lady Ravensky is in the doorway, watching. Of course she is. The mage killer seems to have not bothered her one bit.

The students are less impressed by her arrival than the crowd at the gate. Two of the the kits aren’t even watching, one of them writhing and holding their head, the other heaving their insides out off the side of the mat. Those two must have mage talents.

The queen considers me for a long moment then nods and says, “Fang is a good tool for you.” She glides to the edge of the mat and asks her daughter, “Will you be much longer, fires-love?”

“We can end early, mother,” Fiora replies.

“As you see best, bells are in a few moments. I’ll be in the gardens, come see me once your guest is settled?”

Fiora agrees, she and her mother touch palms, then the high lady glides out.

Fiora looks around then. She perfunctorily bows to the front of the room, then her students, then calls out “Class is over, go!”

Students echo their own abbreviated bows and scatter, a few helping the two with mage gifts who really don’t want to walk on their own yet. Fiora watches, concern on her face, but makes no move to assist as they vacate.

I step closer, judiciously putting a foot over the spot I’d ripped into the mat. “Did I do okay?” I ask, hopefully.

Suddenly she’s wrapped me in another warm hug, squeezing tighter even than last, and this time she’s purring too. “You did fine. Even mother said so. I am so happy you came, tiger!”

“Wouldn’t miss this for anything, lil’ cat.” I don’t let go until she does. I feel for a moment she’s going to kiss my muzzle but then the moment’s gone.

Maybe some things have changed forever since our fight.

“Come, let us have dinner,” Fiora says. “After, we can clean and fix the room.” She picks up my spear from the mat to study as she leads me out. I collect the rest of my things and follow, highly intrigued by the word dinner and ignoring the rest.

The sun has set while we were inside the building, but dusk lingers a long time this far north.

Fiora takes me through a much simpler path than the one I’d come up on and we close toward the central pyramidal structure of the old city.

Bells start tolling at our approach.

I gather they’re the wrong bells though, because people start rushing around and they do not seem happy. Fiora takes off in a sprint too, still holding my uncapped spear. I take off after. She’s faster.

I make it into the building and find an impenetrable crowd. Fiora is trying to penetrate that crowd, snarling, and is being held back by several others.

She’s hollering in two languages, but it doesn’t look like she’s trying to hurt the ones holding her, nor they her. Actually, I realize, it’s black-veiled family guards that are holding back the royal princess.

That’s really not good at all.