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Ice Will Reveal - Sample Chapters

 

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Ice Will Reveal

by Julia Dvorin

 

Chapter One

This servant disguise was brilliant. No one ever notices a servant in a place like this, Whisper thought as she followed the maid back down the richly carpeted hallway of the elegant Raider house, toward the front door, and freedom. The shapeless grey dress and brown wig she’d borrowed made her look like any other kitchen scull or laundress, especially with her head down, her body hunched into itself like a timid mouse, and her natural confident stride cramped into in a meek, servant-like shuffle. She congratulated herself on achieving such a quick, smooth delivery of the letter her mistress, Mins, had given her. Not only had she passed what had surely been a test of her training in disguise and misdirection, but she’d also gained a chunk of time to herself this afternoon.

Her mind had drifted to what she’d do with her time off when a door just in front of them opened as they neared the top of the stairs. Whisper lowered her gaze like a proper servant, but not before catching a glimpse of a short, middle-aged woman dressed all in fitted black leather, chin length brown hair held back in a flowing black scarf and a belt full of throwing knives arranged across her shoulder and down her back.

The maid came to a sudden halt, nearly tripping Whisper.

The woman in black looked coolly at the maid, then briefly at Whisper. “Lekya. Who’s this?”

Whisper kept her head down and tried to look as grey and uninteresting as possible, but her stomach clenched and her pulse chattered in her throat. Blight it! she thought. What wretched timing. Of all the dozens of people in this household, she has to appear right here, right now?

“She brought a letter for Master Cherls. I’m just showing her out,” Lekya said, her attitude so deferential it was almost fawning. Lekya’s afraid of this woman, Whisper thought.

“A letter for Gammon, eh?” The woman looked at Whisper more closely. Whisper bobbed her head but didn’t say anything, hoping her disguise would hold or that the woman would lose interest.

Finally, the woman asked, “Has Gammon left yet?”

“No, Mistress, he’s still in his study. But please you, I think he’s about to.”

The woman nodded and looked back down the hallway. Whisper studied the rug pattern with great dedication.

“Who was the letter from?” the woman asked.

“Mistress Dyrla,” Lekya said.

“The gem merchant? Interesting.” She addressed Whisper, “Tell your mistress that Ellspet Silverhand sends her greetings.”

“Yes, Mistress,” Whisper said, keeping her voice low and gaze averted. Ellspet was her name? Whisper hadn’t gotten a chance to find out during their previous encounter, when Ellspet and she had crossed blades after both of them had shown up at the same time in the same place intending to swipe the same goods. Nasty fighter, that one—Whisper had barely escaped with her skin intact.

Ellspet stepped back into the doorway to allow them to pass. As they reached the top of the stairs and began to descend, Whisper breathed easier. Her palms were sweating and she wiped them surreptitiously on her skirt as she lifted it to descend the polished wooden steps.

They had only gone down a half dozen steps or so when a voice from the top of the stairs said, “Wait a moment, girls.”

They turned to see Ellspet coming toward them. One step above Whisper, she stopped so that their faces were nearly at the same height. Ellspet reached out and tipped Whisper’s chin up with a finger. Whisper let her, trying to avoid Ellspet’s suspicious gaze and look innocent and thickheaded all at the same time.

“Ahhh. Thought you looked familiar, but not in a servant-y way. Nice boots.”

Whisper finally looked straight at Ellspet’s brown eyes to find them narrowed and hard with recognition and dislike.

She gave herself a quick inner kick for her oversight, but said mildly, “thank you, Mistress.” Ellspet dropped her hand but kept her gaze steady
on Whisper’s eyes.

“Lekya, you and I will need to have a conversation later about this incident. Now . . . Whistle, was it? Window. . . ? Whisper. . . ? Yes, that’s it. Mins Delacorr’s girl. You’ll need to come back and talk to Gammon with me.” She crossed her arms in a gesture that put her hand right next to the haft of one of her very sharp-looking knives.

Whisper controlled her facial muscles and kept her voice calm, saying, “Yes, Mistress.”

Lekya looked from one to the other with a confused expression on her face. “What—?” She started to say, but Ellspet flicked her a quick
look and she fell silent again.

“After you,” Ellspet said to Whisper, motioning with her chin toward the top of the stairs. “I think we’d best catch Gammon before he
leaves.”

Whisper said nothing, but straightened as she climbed gracefully past Ellspet on the stairs, making sure to give the smaller woman plenty of space. She could feel Ellspet following close on her heels as she reached the top of the stairs and started back down the hallway.

By the time she reached the carved doorway to Gammon’s rooms, her mind whirled. Mins had warned her to keep this communication as confidential as possible. Mins had her reasons for keeping her communications secret from lots of people—was Ellspet one of them? Even if Ellspet suspected the letter was from Mins, she had nothing but the circumstantial evidence of Whisper’s presence to prove it . . . so far. The more pressing problem was that her cover was completely blown, and the run-in with Gammon, Ellspet, and their other Raider friend this past Autumn Festival had obviously come back around to her, just as she’d feared. She’d have to bluff it out—it would be absolutely thickheaded to try to force her way out of the Raider-filled house with so few of her defenses at hand.

Be like the river and flow with it, she told herself, trying to quiet her mind so she could think clearly. What’s the worst thing that could happen? They’re not going to kill me. Maybe if I apologize flowery enough I won’t even get too bad a beating. . .

Her thoughts were interrupted by Ellspet reaching around her to knock out a quick pattern on the door. It was the same pattern that Lekya had used; Whisper had already memorized it. They heard footsteps, but the door stayed closed.

“What, what?” Gammon called out, clearly annoyed.

“Gammon, it’s Ellspet, and the girl who brought you that letter just now. I’m sorry, but I really do need to speak with you immediately.”

There was a brief pause, then the door opened. Whisper raised her eyes slightly to see a human man finely dressed in rich blue slashed and
knotted leather over smooth white linen, his curly dark hair greying at the temples, a sword belted around his waist and a jeweled dagger handle protruding from his boot. That was Gammon Cherls, the Leader of the Torglamon Raiders, all right—though he hadn’t been wearing the sword when she’d delivered the letter. He looked at Whisper, then at Ellspet, who apparently gave him a signal. He stepped back and allowed them in the room without any further fuss and shut the door.

Gammon said, “I’m just leaving, Ellspet. What’s on your mind?”

“I’ll be brief,” Ellspet promised. “Do you remember during last cycle’s Autumn Festival, when you, Reynall and I met with that spice merchant at the Gryphon, but when we got to his office to look for the package, we found someone just leaving with it? We got it back, but you might also recall that the ensuing encounter left me in dire need of a new tunic.”

Gammon’s eyes widened and he cocked his head to examine Whisper more closely. “By the Goddess, this is that same girl?”

“Yes. We traced her back to Mins Delacorr, remember? But we never had a chance to follow up; we had more important things to do, of course. But heed it, here she is. Looks a bit different than the last time we saw her, obviously. Probably knew we wouldn’t exactly welcome her here,” Ellspet said with a satisfied smirk. “I don’t mean to pry, Gammon, but didn’t she deliver a letter to you? Have you opened it yet? I’m thinking that it’s likely not from Mistress Dyrla at all.”

Ellspet put her hands on her hips and looked boldly at Gammon. “Now what would Mins Delacorr possibly want to say to you? You know
she plays both sides. We shouldn’t be dealing with her.”

Gammon pursed his lips as he looked from Whisper to Ellspet. “No, I haven’t opened it, I was on my way out. Do you need something specific
from me, Ellspet? Say your piece or leave it, I don’t have time for this.”

“You don’t have to do anything. I can take care of this,” Ellspet said. “I just thought you might want to know what’s truly going on here. Who knows, it might change how you look at that letter. Although it does occur to me that you might want to have a chat with Mins fairly soon. She might not like the way we send her apprentice home, and I know you value that relationship—though I’m still not clear why. She’d sell us to the Spikers in a bird peck if it got her enough gold.”

The way they send me home? Whisper decided it was time to break in.

“Master Cherls, Mistress Silverhand, I apologize for the unfortunate incident last Autumn, but I must protest. I told you I had no idea you were engaged in a similar undertaking, and if you’ll recall, I gave over the disputed goods to you at the earliest opportunity. And as I remember, it was Mistress Silverhand here and your companion who first drew blades during the encounter; I merely defended myself.

“My business here today had absolutely nothing to do with that incident, and I apologize for any inconvenience I may have caused you. I was merely doing a favor for a friend, that’s all. I swear to you I have no knowledge of the contents of that letter, nor do I care to know. I ask you, professional to professional, is there no way we can part ways amiably in this situation?”

Ellspet snorted. “Don’t flatter yourself girl, you’re hardly on the same level as us.”

Whisper let the gibe go, watching Gammon, who still seemed put out at the interruption. He closed his eyes for a moment and drew a big breath through his nose, then released it. “Ellspet, I don’t have time for petty politics right now. If it’s my censure for that Festival incident you’re seeking, then you have it.” He shook his finger at Whisper. “Bad swiper! Stay out of our turf! There, are you happy?” he said this last to Ellspet, who looked disgruntled. Whisper couldn’t help but grin.

“But that’s it,” Gammon continued, his voice firm. “Mins is an esteemed colleague of many cycles, and what I do with her is none of your business. I do value our relationship, and will do nothing to harm it, even if she has other professional relationships you don’t approve of. And I’m sure she’s already discussed the Autumn Festival incident exhaustively with her . . . apprentice, are you?”

Whisper nodded.

“So I’m sure this girl is quite clear on the perils of tangling with Torglamon Raiders. Which is very probably why,” Gammon said, squinting at Whisper’s face more closely, “she decided on the wig and makeup before she came to see us. And I can’t blame her.

“Now, whatever is between you two personally, I’ll invite you to settle it outside, woman to woman. I have spent all the time I want to spend on this. I am leaving, and so are you.” With that he went to the door, held it open and gestured for them to precede him.

Whisper breathed deeply again as she walked ahead of Ellspet down the hallway, down the stairs, through the entryway and out toward the front door, with Gammon several lengths behind them. She won’t fight me one on one, Whisper thought. I outfought her last time and she knows it. If I can get out of here before she finds allies, I’m rosy. She reached for the front doorknob, but Ellspet was quicker. She slipped between Whisper and the door, reached up to grab the high collar of Whisper’s shabby wool dress, and yanked her face downwards.

“You have managed to worsen my opinion of you, girl,” Ellspet said darkly, glaring at Whisper from a handspan away. “Don’t assume I’ll forget this, or you. Watch yourself.” She opened the door with one hand and shoved Whisper through it with the other, then gave her a push that sent her stumbling down the steps and nearly falling on her face.

Enraged, Whisper thrust her skirts aside and grabbed for her boot knife, then sprang back up the steps toward Ellspet.

“Watch your own blighted self, you—” she began, then stopped and ducked as Ellspet pulled her own knife and flicked it at Whisper’s head. The knife clattered down the steps behind her as Whisper rushed to close the distance between them.

Just as Ellspet pulled another knife and crouched to meet Whisper, the front door was pulled farther open. Gammon stood there in back of Ellspet, frowning. Whisper pulled up short, two steps away from them.

“Hey now! Not on the front steps, you thickheaded cats. What are we, tavern brawlers?” He pushed Ellspet’s shoulder; still glaring at Whisper, she shrugged him off and did not turn to face him.

“Ellspet, get back inside. You’re embarrassing me,” Gammon said. “Girl, get yourself gone. If this altercation isn’t out of sight in one minute
or less I’ll get the maid to bring the piss pot to throw on the both of you.”

“Fine. I’ll gladly leave.” Whisper backed down a few more stairs, then turned and walked down the remaining steps and out to the street. She willed her back to stay straight and her legs not to tremble, although she still half-expected a knife between the shoulder blades. It was not until she rounded the corner onto Raven Street and was hidden by the midday crowd that she ducked into a storefront and rested against the wall, her heart racing.

Merciful Mother, I blew that one, she thought. Mins is not going to be pleased. Blighted bad timing. Goddess! I was so close. I’ll have to watch my back some more . . . . She shook her head in self-disgust.

Gammon really saved me from a beating back there. I should be grateful. Whisper trudged down Raven Street, weaving through the crush
of people hurrying to and fro. There’s something I’m missing about Mins and Gammon, though. Mins has been closemouthed about him, but I think they must have been more than just “esteemed colleagues”. I’m unlikely to find out anything about them now, though, after that poor performance.

She sighed, trying not to think too much about the tongue-lashing she’d most likely receive from Mins that evening. Admittedly, it had been a tough test, but she’d failed, and made a worse enemy in the process, it seemed. Well, nothing for it but to keep going. She’d return the costume bits to Garritt, then go home to face Mins as best she could.

That truly was some cursed bad timing, meeting Ellspet on the stairs like that. Better stay away from the dice games tonight.

 

Chapter Two

The group of Temple Guardians hanging on the fence of the practice ring gasped, cheered, called out insults and encouragements and otherwise made themselves a noisy nuisance as Jarrod Thornn and his Captain circled each other. Jarrod easily ignored his fellow Guardians’; he let their noise wash over him like so much chattering creek-flow. It was less easy to ignore the discomfort of his situation: matched against his Captain and mentor in a practice session using live blades—and winning. Though both men wore metal helmets and breastplates, Captain Dominnd bled from several shallow scratches on his arms and legs, while Jarrod remained so far unscathed.

Only the top swordfighters were allowed to practice with live blades, and though Jarrod had been doing so with other skilled Guardians for almost a cycle, this marked the first time he had had the honor of sparring live with his Captain. It was a much-anticipated match, and its nonchalant announcement right before the noon meal had resulted in near-empty Guardian tables in the Holy Temple of Ahnweh’s dining hall as Guardians from both companies rushed to save themselves a prime view-spot at the practice ring’s edge.

Jarrod circled the ring, watching his Captain with “soft eyes”, waiting for a shift in the sword dance. His breath was smooth, his jaw relaxed, and his movements fluid with the grace of long practice. He held his heavy sword with ease, as though it were a leafy twig in a child’s idle hand. When he and his Captain finally burst toward each other in a flurry of motion, a clean, fierce joy flowed out of him, down along the blade and straight toward the smallest of openings in his opponent’s defenses.

There! Another hit; he pulled back at the last moment, but still scored his Captain along the forearm, just past his heavy leather glove. Captain Dominnd clicked his tongue sharply at having been caught so, and Jarrod grinned as the onlookers “oooohed”.

He had learned to hold back during practice, had worked hard on his control so that he could drive for an opening then pull back at the last moment, leaving only a token scratch to mark his swift passing. There had been several regretful incidents over the last cycle when, despite his best efforts, his opponent wound up hurt, once grievously. But such was a Guardian’s gamble, and after much prayer and seed-searching he had finally accepted that controlling the power was better than denying it.

Initially, Jarrod had denied this fierce joyful energy and jeopardized the life he now led as a Temple Guardian, a defender of Ahnweh’s holy people and places. Even though he was strongly committed to his loyal protector role, he had recoiled at the reality of training himself to purposeful violence, to becoming so efficiently capable of hurting and killing fellow children of the Goddess. His parents had been taken away from him by just that kind of ultimate disrespect for the Goddess’ sacred gift of life, and he did not want to be forced to perpetuate the same evil on others. He’d never killed another; he didn’t know if he could. He’d prayed many times that the Goddess would never test him that way.

But he could not deny the power that flowed through him when he held a sword and swung it against another. The clear joy, the liquid sense of rightness he felt at these times was his balm against the itchy fear that was his constant companion: that he had displeased his Goddess, that She
would take back what She had given. So he trained, and he practiced, and he readied himself to carry out whatever task the Goddess or Her Holy
Temple saw fit to give him.

“Come on, Captain, you can take him, he’s just a little baby tree,” yelled one of the Guardians behind him.

“Yah, show us some sap!” yelled another.

But they would get no sap from him. He was better than Captain Dominnd, he knew it. He had known it from the first parry, known it wholly and completely without conscious analysis, the way that he knew every opponent. What did it mean when the student surpassed the teacher? Would Captain Dominnd still value him? Or would he be angry, the kind of angry that envy and jealousy fed and fermented?

Captain Dominnd reached out with his blade and tested Jarrod’s shoulder, then drove down toward his hip. Jarrod parried him automatically, flicking away the blade with a brief twist of his wrist. Too easy. Suddenly in a whirl of woolen cloak Captain Dominnd came closer, then too close, inside his reach and aiming his sword down toward Jarrod’s left knee. He nicked the top of it with a shallow gouge and ducked out of reach before Jarrod’s blade came back.

Jarrod laughed out loud, realizing his mistake. He’d slipped into overconfidence, and his Captain, who had known him for cycles—trained him from boyhood—had taken advantage of the shift away from his centered place.

“Thank you, Captain, I’m paying attention now. You don’t have to ruin my pants just to remind me you’re there,” he called to Captain Dominnd, who only scowled and kept circling. The onlookers laughed and jeered. Pienno Dominnd was a strict but efficient leader and an excellent teacher, but he was also proud and somewhat vain. All his company knew it, and loved to tease him whenever possible. Jarrod knew he’d just been playing to the crowd with that crack, but couldn’t resist the rush of energy he got from their approval.

Focus, he reminded himself sternly. Respect your opponent, even though you know him. Every encounter is a lesson. What can you learn from this one?

Though the session lasted another few minutes, neither man landed another solid blow, despite several dramatically close calls that greatly entertained the onlookers. Finally, Captain Dominnd stepped back, raised his hand with the palm out toward Jarrod and said, “Enough. Blessed are those with a sure hand and a fixed mind.”

Jarrod, steady in his centered place, hadn’t even noticed the time had passed and was faintly surprised when Captain Dominnd gave the “end” signal. He lowered his sword and bowed to his Captain, who bowed back before turning and walking to the fence, removing his gloves and helmet and claiming a drink and a rag from a helpful Guardian.

Jarrod closed his eyes for a brief prayer and followed his Captain’s lead, gulping down most of the contents of the water jug in several long swallows. Like Captain Dominnd, he wiped and sheathed his blade before using the rag on his face and neck. He could feel the weight of the other Guardians’ eyes on him, but he didn’t return their speculative, eager looks. He concentrated instead on removing his breastplate and readjusting his uniform, waiting for his Captain to leave the practice ring and begin heading toward the barracks.

Receiving no further satisfaction from Jarrod, the onlookers followed their Captain into the barracks to hear the post-practice analysis. Jarrod followed, too, keeping his back straight and his eyes focused on his Captain’s dark hair at the head of the group.

A stocky, muscular woman with short, straight, dark blond hair fell in next to him. After a few steps, Jarrod looked over to find her grinning widely, looking sidewise at him. She held out a fist, which he knocked gently with one of his own.

“Beautiful, that first feint and push. Really stunning,” she said in a low voice as they walked. “I think our Captain’s getting slower every day.”

Jarrod allowed himself a wisp of smile as he responded quietly, “Thanks, Thace, but you know that’s not true.”

“Eh, I keep hoping. . .” Thace said.

Jarrod rolled his eyes at her. She laughed throatily, but stopped and pasted an innocent expression on her face when one of the other Guardians turned to look. Jarrod felt his mood lighten; there was an easing of a tight space around his chest he hadn’t realized was there. They walked the rest of the way to the barracks in a companionable silence, the chatter of the others swirling around them.


The atmosphere in the barracks’ common room was animated and upbeat. Most days, sparring practice was a routine thing, everyone pairing and re-pairing for a series of short mock-fights, their Captain walking from pair to pair, commenting and adjusting. Every once in awhile, though, it ended with the full company watching as one of them, chosen by Captain Dominnd, went up against the Captain for a final practice fight. Rarely did these fights last more than a few minutes; today’s, with Jarrod, had lasted nearly ten.

As they always did after a practice session, the Guardians formed a loose semi-circle around the Captain’s bench at the end of the common room, chatting in low tones while awaiting their Captain’s words. Some stood, some squatted, some sat on nearby benches and trunks; they were roughly fifty in all, human men and women who had dedicated their lives to protecting the Holy Temple of Ahnweh’s grounds and people. Captain Dominnd’s company was slightly larger than Captain Ironmaker’s, but in all the Temple Guard numbered just under a hundred, a mere vestige of what they had once been, centuries ago. Over the last three hundred cycles, the role of Guardian had become much less dangerous and more ritualized than it had been during and immediately after the Norenoni Occupation. Ahnweh had triumphed, and persecution of that sort was a distant memory; but its legacy was an atmosphere of wary protectiveness and a philosophy of constant readiness that Guardians accepted as their normal state.

It was an absorbing, focused life, spent mostly in each others’ companionship, with a structured sameness broken only by festival days and leave time. It suited Jarrod perfectly. He had participated in Guardian training sessions since he was ten cycles old, attending sparring practice first as an observer and eventually, after cycles of wheedling, as an occasional participant. He’d idolized Captain Pienno Dominnd for cycles, following him everywhere and absorbing his words, actions and lessons with youthful ardency.

Jarrod still remembered vividly the swelling feelings of pride and satisfaction he’d felt at fifteen, when Captain Dominnd came to the Temple orphanage’s dormitory, resplendent in his sashed and buttoned blue and silver dress uniform, to tell Jarrod he’d been formally accepted to the Temple Guard. The other boys had been impressed enough to stay silent for the whole time Captain Dominnd had been there, exploding into chatter and jeers only after he’d solemnly accepted the parchment Captain Dominnd had given him and watched the Captain stride briskly away. The jeers held no sting though, and Jarrod had paid them no mind as he’d quickly packed up his few possessions and left the dormitory where he’d lived his whole life without a backward glance.

But now he had beaten his idol quite thoroughly in a fight, in front of all his company. Will this change things? Jarrod wondered as he stood at the back of the group, having stopped to dunk his sweaty head in some cool water. He could feel a trickle of blood soaking through his slashed pant leg where Captain Dominnd had nicked him, but chose to ignore it.

Unconcerned with his own scratches and bloody clothes, CaptainDominnd sat calmly erect on his bench, looking around at his company. When they had all gathered, he held up his hand for quiet, which came immediately.

“Would anyone like to offer an observation on this afternoon’s practice session?” he asked, looking around at the group. Thace caught Jarrod’s eye across the room and winked.

Discussion of the session was spirited, but Jarrod had a hard time focusing, increasingly caught up in his own thoughts. He only half-listened to the observations made about feints, swing, and keeping a defensive perimeter, and nodded distractedly as suggestions were offered on footwork, grip, and timing.

Jarrod surreptitiously watched his Captain as a friendly but heated disagreement over favored parrying techniques flared and died; Captain Dominnd listened to everything with the same serious, attentive expression, occasionally nodding when a good point was made, or raising his eyebrows when a comment got too long-winded.

I shouldn’t have mocked him. That was unworthy. I should have showed him more respect, as both opponent and teacher.

Finally Captain Dominnd held up his hand, and they quieted expectantly. Jarrod felt his stomach clench.

“There have been many valuable observations offered today, and I expect you all to remember them during tomorrow’s sparring practice. But no one has yet touched on the primary lesson to be learned from today’s session: focus.” This was a favorite topic of their Captain’s, and even Jarrod could tell that the others were chagrined not to have brought it up during the critique.

“Think of the overall flow of the session. At first, while we were fresh, there were more closings, more exchanges. Some of those did not end in my favor,” Captain Dominnd said dryly, causing a few chuckles. “Then, there was a point at which I landed a blow on Jarrod. What happened there?” He looked directly at Jarrod, who knew from experience that this was a rhetorical question and merely looked back at his captain, trying to keep his expression blank.

“Jarrod lost focus. Perhaps he had become overconfident, since he had been so successful so far; perhaps he was distracted by some internal thought or external commotion. We have discussed distraction many times. Remember, what is important in the fight is to watch your opponent, watch intensely like a cat about to pounce, with all your attention fixed on him or her. You must seek those moments of distraction, and fearlessly pounce with a sure hand as soon as you see a shift in the energy. You must focus on their focus, and exploit any opening immediately and without hesitation, or your own focus will be
lost.”

Captain Dominnd looked around the room to see if they were all understanding, or at least paying attention. Satisfied, he went on: “Words alone, telling you day after day about focus and distraction and energy, are not enough to teach you what you need to know. That is why we watch each other during sparring practice, and why we constantly hone our own practice every day. Remember, every encounter is a lesson, a chance for our understanding and thus our skills to grow and flower as the Goddess intends them to.”

Many Guardians, along with Jarrod, nodded at his familiar theme, and Captain Dominnd stayed silent for a few beats to help what he’d said sink in. Then he added, “There is another thing to be learned from this session. It is of course possible to try to create distraction in your opponent, to cause them to waver and lose focus. Jarrod’s taunting of me immediately after I nicked him was designed to make me lose concentration, and it worked for a moment, although Jarrod did not follow up or exploit it. For tomorrow’s practice, I want you to all think about ways you can create or identify distraction, and ways you can make yourselves immune to it. I want you to focus on your opponent’s focus and pounce like cats when you find an opening . . . because despite what I have told you today, and your best intentions, I am sure there will be distractions.”

Captain Dominnd looked around the group for a breath or two. “All right. Speaking of distractions, since Captain Ironmaker’s company has night watch, the following Guardians are granted leave permission after the evening meal: Ullon Rimendo, Haledda Sofradion, Mone Ellawi, Dyson Greenward, and Jarrod Thornn. Goddess’ abundance.” He stood, which was their signal to disperse.

The Guardians scattered to get ready for the evening meal. Thace came up to Jarrod as he sat on his bed and started to remove his bloody pants.

“Whoo, he’s a talker, our Captain,” she said, standing in front of him with her arms crossed. “’Focus on the focus on the focus.’ Sure. How are we supposed to remember all that and keep from getting sliced open at the same time? Don’t answer that,” she said, as Jarrod opened his mouth and prepared to launch into his own lecture. “Do you want me to grab you some salve and bandage for that? Looks like you’re going to need to put some pressure on it.”

“Sure, thanks,” Jarrod said, reaching into the chest at the foot of his bed for another pair of pants as she headed for the supply cabinet at the other end of the barracks. He sensed a new presence and looked up to see Captain Dominnd standing next to his bed.

Here it comes, the private critique. Jarrod straightened and looked inquiringly at his Captain, the new pants clutched in one hand.

Captain Dominnd stood there straight and proud as always, regarding Jarrod with a pensive, but not displeased expression. He did not seem in a rush to speak, so Jarrod took the opportunity and spoke first:

“I’m sorry, Captain—I shouldn’t have taunted you. That was disrespectful.”

Captain Dominnd nodded slightly in acknowledgement, and a slight smile touched his lips. “Yes,” he agreed, but without irritation. He regarded Jarrod thoughtfully for a few moments.

“You fought well today, Jarrod. I’m proud of you.”

Proud! Jarrod felt almost as though he might blush at the unexpected praise.

“Thank you, Captain. You’ve taught me well.”

Captain Dominnd smiled at this. “You are polite to say so, Jarrod, but mere teaching can only go so far. You have always had something special about you, and now it is beginning to flower. Congratulations.”

“Thank you, Captain,” Jarrod said, still taken aback by the praise and not sure what to make of this statement. But before he could worry its meaning, his Captain spoke again.

“Speaking of special . . . I know you have leave permission tonight, but there is something you must do first.”

“Of course, Captain,” Jarrod said. “What is it?”

“There is a private meeting in the High Priestess’ study immediately after dinner tonight. She has requested your presence.”

Jarrod blinked in surprise, but tried to keep his face calm. “I . . .would be honored to attend. Is there anything I should know?”

They’d all heard the rumors about some sort of looming outside threat to Mycea; over the last tenday their own training schedules and guard rotations had been upped, and those who came back from leave insisted that they’d seen more of a City Guard presence on the streets as well. Perhaps he was about to find out why.

Or was this something else, something personal? Had they finally realized that he didn’t deserve to be here, that he wasn’t devout enough or truly dedicated enough to be the Goddess’ Guardian? Perhaps his oft-regretted tryst in the prayer garden with Fenyarra back in the dormitory days had finally come to light, and they were ready to banish him for his transgressions. That night had shaped his whole life ever since, but hadn’t he atoned for it? And how would they know, anyway? Fenyarra had refused to identify her partner, and the only one he’d ever told about it was his sister, Whisper—but she’d already left the Temple by then . . .

“You will learn all you need to know when you arrive. Please be there by the sixth bell. You are not in any trouble,” Captain Dominnd said kindly, accurately guessing Jarrod’s foremost concern, if not the reason for it. “Far from it. It seems the Temple has a task for a special Guardian, and you’ve been chosen.”

Special? Chosen? Me? Are they sure? He felt himself spiraling down into old familiar doubts and did his best not to let them show. He nodded gravely at his Captain. “Thank you, Captain. I will serve to the best of my ability.”

“I know you will,” Captain Dominnd said, and turned to leave just as Thace came back with the bandages, blessed salve, and a clean wet cloth.

She watched their Captain leave to begin removing his own bloody clothing, then handed the cloth to Jarrod. “So did he lash you, or did you get off easy this time?” she asked. Jarrod’s thoughts were turned inward, so that Thace had to poke him and repeat her question.

“Easy,” he said tersely, taking the cloth from her and wiping the blood away from the wound, which was starting to sting. He didn’t say any more, so she shrugged and put the salve and bandages on the bed beside him.

“See you at the Dining Hall,” she said, and went off to her own bed to change.

Jarrod’s thoughts chattered through his head as he finished dressing his wound and pulled out his dress uniform. What do they want? What kind of task? And why me? A “special” Guardian, the Captain said. What’s special about me?

He put his boots back on, but before he could stand up another thought struck him. Is this that ‘prophecy of the Foretold’ business again, from
when we were kids? It can’t be, it’s been so long, and my transgression with Fenyarra . . . The Goddess chose someone else. Didn’t She?

He shook his head and stood, smoothing the front of his uniform. No. I’m not going to think about all that again. I’ll find out after dinner. I can wait. Merciful Mother, give me strength.


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