Chapter 1

Aberio Castle, Nactcord Isle, Salvatorrum

One afternoon, Lady Camilla of Rongard was busy decoding dispatches from the capital in Corinth. Lia scowled whenever she heard the noises in the outside courtyard. Her parents better leave soon, or she'll never finish up by dinner. Her twin, Lord Mikael, the heir of Rongard, entered the room, solemn-like. Lia looked at him warily as if he might tell her to stop with the messages and ride with the family instead.

"Let's go fencing, sis," Miks – Lord Mikael – said unhappily. "I'm a little rusty."

Lia was taken aback by his tone and how he couldn't look at her when he asked.

"Me? You know the duchess practically forbade me to touch weapons, right?" The duchess is the twins' step-mother, the duke's second wife when his first, their mother passed away.

"I'm not riding without you, Lia!" exclaimed Miks, exasperated. "And I'm bored. This stupid exile left us with 20 men-at-arms. How am I going to keep the castle safe with only ten men-at-arms? You try making a strategy. It's boring and tiring."

"Your point?"

"Da says I need exercise. Our men were never half as good with swords as you were. I beat them quickly! Besides, with all the strange things happening, I think the duchess is having second thoughts about banning your weaponry. Please?"

Lia stood up, keeping her things. "I'll be with you."

***

The clash of metal against metal rang clear in the courtyard air. Lia and Miks were fencing with dull-edged long swords, trying to find an opening through which they could pierce each other's cotton padding.

Lia jumped out and away from Miks, circling him.

"Rusty, eh?" she asked sarcastically. "I think you missed a century of practice!"

"Not so bad yourself," retorted Miks.

He lunged at Lia's unguarded left shoulder, which she swerved a second late. She ignored the pain and returned the thrust, at the same time, putting to memory his sword technique. Lia continued to watch her twin's chest, arm and sword, waiting for any advantage, dodging his blows and reserving her strength.

"Having second thoughts yet?" Miks sneered. Then she saw it.

"Over my dead body!" she shouted. She gave him a backhand strike to his right collarbone. Miks brought up his sword and disentangled himself, surprised.

"What a great idea. Die, girl!" He lunged again, this time for Lia's throat, which she deftly hopped away from, smacking his side while skipping to the left. Before he could recover, Lia thrust for his chest and Miks, unguarded, tried to punch away her sword. Upon finding more force than he expected, he dropped and rolled away, missing Lia's strike to his head a hairsbreadth away. He rolled again and jumped up as Lia freed her sword, only to find it entangled with his again. Their sweat dripping, Miks disentangled himself and felt Lia's sword find his half a second later.

Miks freed his sword, parried her blows and blocked her strikes, the metal a silver blur in the air. However, his strength was draining and Lia became more forceful: he used strength at the start, trying to tire her out. Lia grinned, finding more openings and less resistance. In the last strike, they came together hilt to hilt, grinding their teeth to shove the other down. In the end, Miks' knees buckled and fell, nearly toppling Lia over him as well.

When Lia regained her balance, she said clearly, "Do you yield?"

Miks was still panting. "This isn't really ne-"

"Do you yield?" she repeated pointing the sword at his throat.

"I yield, okay, alright?" he put up his hands in defeat. Lia offered him her hand, and pulled him to stand next to he, panting. He doubled over, hands on his knees.

"That was the best round I've had in years!" he proclaimed. "You have been practicing."

Lia grinned at him. "I can't let that talent go to waste. And I do have to stay thin. This is one way to do it. You're not bad off, either, but there were times that you were better. What have you been doing?"

"Archery," he answered. "Riding, shooting while riding, snaring, and fishing. Hunting, basically. Actually."

Lia punched him playfully. "I'd take a nice warm bath now. So should you."

Her longsword and practice armor taken care of, Lia headed straight for the bathhouse with her maid Lorna for a steaming hot aroma bath. Taking inventory of her wounds and blisters, she realized how much she missed fencing with Miks.

After she emerged from the steaming hot water, Lorna helped her fix up. Lia felt very good; she even smelled good, like lavender.

They passed by the marketplace to buy bandages for Lia's bruises when they noticed horses they didn't own in the courtyard.