The first things Ward learned as a boy were the mathematics of combat, followed closely by the literature of engagement. The one taught him to consider things as miniscule as the length of a man's arms or the depth of his chest. The second taught him to view every little exchange as a poem, a thesis, a novel. Game theory was introduced to him at the same age most of his peasant counterparts were being stripped of their toys and given their first real chores in their mother's gardens.
When he finally switched from flimsy sticks to a bamboo training sword, every feature of his opponent was analyzed as mathematical measurements and possibilities. Every movement became a story, with logical follow-ups and illogical steps and even occasional bouts with writer's block. Game theory brought reason to it all by making him look at himself through his opponent's eyes: How will you best attack me?
"Ward?" his wife called from down the hall.
How will you best attack me? Ward often wondered, both as a child and as a man.
"Are you...oh, Ward," she sighed as she opened the door to his study. "You're still thinking about going through with it, aren't you?"
How will you best attack me? Ward occasionally wondered, not as a sword noble but as a husband. It had taken him a year to do it, but he had learned most of his wife's opening strategies by now. He knew better than to walk into her traps, but there was no avoiding this one. "I'm not thinking about going through with it at all," he said. "I'm thinking about what I'll do when I get there."
Lyza sighed again. She sounded so much older than her twenty-six years when she did that. More maternal. Ward had long guessed that it was some attempt to exert authority, but there was nothing she could do in this situation – not that she wouldn't try, and not that he wouldn't love her for it. Theirs had been an arranged marriage, but Lyza's determination and conviction had done a lot to make it a real one. "Can't you back out?" she asked. "Just once? Your brother is of age now. He needs to be blooded, doesn't he? Let Van do it."
That was new. But Ward was still ready for it: "Van is inexperienced. Borun Tyr has fought seventy-three duels, and has yet to suffer a scar from any of them. I don't want my brother to die."
"So you'll die instead?" Lyza asked, and finally crashed into his back the way she always did when she was trying to make a point. He felt for her. She was the daughter of a godman and a minor noble family under the banner of Ward's masters, the Early Suns. Lyza confided to him, once, that she had wanted to be a priestess when she was a little girl. She still wore all 111 prayer beads around her wrist, and sported a tattoo on her cheek that she had gotten against his wishes: a small black Ohm and some scripture. "Answer me, Ward. Do you intend to die in his place?"
He opened his eyes, ending all pretense of meditation as he did it. Ward's study had very few actual books. It did have a rack spanning one wall, and a high ceiling, and a bare wood floor that creaked and chimed. The wall in front of him was completely taken up by a mirror, very neatly polished and fixed securely in place. That was how he studied. Ward tried to see himself through his enemy's eyes.
Objectively, he was a tall man with long arms and strong hands. He didn't think himself intimidating but many of his enemies had, and a few still did. Maybe it was the bags under his eyes, or the dull emotionless look he tried to maintain. He had a wiry build, more like an Esansi freerunner than a member of the sword nobility. He wore a lot of colors that Lyza charitably described as earthy; browns, greens, a little black. He was unconventional among his class and banner for favoring plainer styles, closer to the fashions of Siñess wushu-ya rather than the overly extravagant wares his contemporaries had. He was unique among the entire sword nobility for keeping his hair cut very short and his beard completely shaved.
"Ward?" his wife asked, squeezing him tight around the shoulders. One good inhale almost forced her hands apart, but Lyza was stubborn. "Answer me. Please," she said, voice trembling.
"I pray to your gods nightly that I never have to actually fight you," Ward replied. "You do know that, right?"
"You're dodging the question," she accused. He could feel her smiling as she buried her face into his back, trying to avoid the mirror.
"Just like I'm going to dodge Borun's sword," Ward told her. "I'm not going to die, Lyza. I've fought plenty of duels. This won't be any different. Calm down already."
"It's not fair. Lohen has other swords he could use for this-"
"None with my record," Ward sighed. He had fought fifty-four – which was another way of saying that he had survived, and won, fifty-four battles against other sword nobles over the course of his career. The Early Suns were a lesser banner. That was why he and Lyza were married: his employment could not have been secured any other way.
"You're not even going to try and coddle me, are you?" she finally asked.
Ward watched his dull visage crack into a sardonic grin, complete with an upraised eyebrow and a playful little gleam in his eyes. "I didn't know a holy reverend mother needed coddling."
"...now you're making me want to go write up your will," she muttered.
Ward closed his eyes and couldn't stop smiling as he took hold of one of her hands. It wasn't a victory by any stretch. It wasn't a defeat either. Ward liked to think of it as a strategic withdrawl, and hopefully it would not be the last one he ever made. "Enough about the duel. Tell me about our children. I haven't seen them in days..."
Ward kept records of his duels. He liked to know why they were fought, and he kept a running tally on the consequences surrounding their outcomes. His first duel – the one that saw him come of age as a bloodied sword – was fought when a Kangshi emissary under the banner of the Cresting Hills insulted Lohen's firstborn daughter. He had written it out three times in his records: first as measurements, then as poetry, and finally as a sequence of options and choices.
His opponent had been twenty-two year old Damar Gein. He was five feet and ten inches tall, putting him eight inches beneath Ward. He weighed two-hundred and thirty pounds, just ten lighter than Ward at his usual peak. He had a very broad chest and large shoulders and thick biceps. His legs were fit and he had a three inch scar on one of his shins; Ward had seen it on pure dumb luck. As a sword noble, he wore the mark of his banner proudly on the back of each hand and on his forehead. It was a stylized wolf formed from just a few lines and shapes. The forehead mark extended down to the bridge of his nose, so that when he frowned and his eyebrows came together, it looked as if it was snarling.
Like most sword nobles, Damar used a weapon that was too big and heavy to be practical for an ordinary man; a grancalibur, which was basically a sword that could sever uliphaunt limbs with one stroke. Its blade was six feet long, the hilt was another two, and the guard was a pair of thick bars running parallel to each other at the base of the blade. It had been a very artistic weapon, complete with reflective hill imagery on either side of the blade, but Ward ignored that until after the duel was over.
Ward began the poem with the very first strike.
The Twilight Wavers as Shadow Hammers,
Flourishing Wind presses Cresting Wave upon
Tiger's Hunched Shoulders. Tiger Rises and Swipes
Against the Fortress Wall, Gaius Raging as the
Shadowing Ram poises.
The Empty Blade interrupts, and the Judgement comes.
Admittedly, the poetry that Ward had learned was not meant for mass consumption. For him, it invoked vivid memories and the ways that things could have gone awry. It was a quick and easy summary without the intricate charts or detailed examinations and assessments that were present in game theory. It made the duel seem romantic instead of bloody, worth fighting instead of worth fearing.
Ward began that fight with a quick sword thrust, exploiting his reach for all it was worth. His sword in those days was roughly the same as Damar's, and he had longer arms and a sturdier upper body. He was able to jump back the moment his toes hit the ground: Twilight Wavering. Of all the ways he could have countered, Damar struck Ward's blade from below with the pommel of his sword: Shadow Hammering.
Damar flicked his wrist, almost daintily for a man with so much muscle and such a large weapon, and his sword whipped upright and flowed into his first attack. This was Flourishing Wind. Damar's attack was a downward strike, coming at a steep angle from the side: Cresting Wave. Ward met this by bending low and bracing his own sword flat across his shoulders, blocking the attack just a tenth of an inch from the back of his head: Hunching Tiger. Looking back on it, this part could have easily ended with Ward's head severed. He didn't use the Hunching Tiger form when he could help it. Not after that.
Ward stood up straight while swinging his sword in a forward lunging crescent, a Tiger's Swipe. Damar countered by pulling his grancalibur back and bracing it against his shoulder, hip and side like a Fortress Wall. Damar stomped forward, sending a shockwave through the earth and causing the ground beneath Ward's feet to crumble and give way in jagged chunks. Damar bent forward and braced his sword across his shoulder to thrust the pommel into Ward's face: a Shadowing Ram. If he had gone for a Wavering Twilight right then and there, it would have been the end of Ward En Levi: there was no technique in Ward's arsenal back then to counter a grancalibur thrust at maximum distance while he was off-balanced and falling to his knees.
Ward struck him with a flat-handed chop to the side of the throat: Empty Blade. He cracked vertebrae, pinched nerves and ruptured veins in one low-yield burst of chi. Damar was stunned, and Ward cut him in half from the scalp down.
Ward liked to think of the duels as poetry because it was simply more exciting that way. Put into the surgical language of game theory – where he highlighted all the little mistakes that either kept him alive or could have killed him – the duels were plainly terrifying. Literally.
Ward's oldest son was Brand, who was eight. He spent most of his days at the Early Suns' academy, most of his early nights trudging home with his classmates under the care of one of the academy's teachers, and most of his late nights sleeping like a little old man with drool coming out the edge of his mouth. Ward did not get to see him often nowadays since his own afternoons and nights were taken up by the businesses of training and politics. Ward had survived fifty-four duels to the death, and that made him accomplished enough to have students of his own. All were in their teens, all had yet to be blooded, and he had a grim feeling that he was probably going to face one of them with an actual blade someday.
The politics were no less stressful.
The Daos Empire spanned most of the continent. It was almost a thousand years old, and it had developed into an aristocratically-ruled class system over generations. At the bottom were the peasants, serfs, slaves, and the untouchables. Peasants were free people who simply did not own much. Serfs were contractually owned or employed, depending on whose land they lived. Slaves were slaves. Untouchables were mostly men, and some women, who had fallen from an upper class thanks to a grave crime. The second tier of classes were the artisans, merchants, soldiers, apothecaries and all the other functionaries who help to keep a city running. It had the most social mobility, and the most room to acquire wealth.
The third class was where honor started to become an issue, and where the lower ranked members of the aristocracy fit in. Its members included higher-ranked soldiers, the sage scholars and chi sorcerers, and many of the religious families. Unique to this class was the sword nobility. Their ancestors had been soldiers elevated to prestige through great deeds; acts of loyalty, cunning, and bravery. The sons and daughters of those soldiers had been greater still, and they had kept their own children educated enough in the art of war that the sword nobility became a stable class of its own.
Centuries of cross-training and intermarrying with scholars and sorcerers had left most of them talented with the use of their chi. That was why so many sword nobles dressed to reflect the cultures that chi sorcery had originated in, and why so many had dedicated their mindset to viewing combat more as a battle of wits and strategy than a hot-blooded competition of murder.
Above them were the majority of nobles. They clustered together in great coalitions called banners, headed by a central family who claimed descent from a line of scholars, generals, holy people, sorcerers or any combination thereof. The lesser families usually anchored themselves by any means necessary, ranging from complete dedication to a particular field of study, governance or war, to simply marrying off their sons and daughters as best they could. That was how Ward's service had effectively been bought by the Early Suns, and his wife's family in particular. Bannered nobles were positively obsessed with honor: it was the only thing many of them had to lose with any shred of dignity, and if they could lose it well then they did not lose it at all. Most of the sword nobility found permanent employment acting as the champions of high nobles in duels of honor.
Above all was the Council of Six and the Emperor himself. The Six were three men and three women drawn from noble families, all of them powerful, skilled, and competent in every way. When not meeting together, they handled day-to-day governance of the empire's six provinces, each of which was further broken down into a dozen to a hundred smaller prefectures, city-states, and surrounding villages and townships. The Emperor was a man descended directly from no fewer than ten gods, according to legend, and he spent most of his time on the road through the empire or at its borders, trying to expand or secure them as necessary.
"I think I get all that," Brand said, having followed Ward's version of these details closely. The boy had a head for politics at age eight that his father was envious of at age twenty-eight. "What I don't get is why duels actually happen. Like the one you're having next week."
Ward immediately thought of Lyza, and wondered whether or not Brand had been put up to asking this. How will you best attack me? he wondered, and already knew the answer: Relentlessly.
"Borun's master, Nath Par, insulted mine to his face, in full view of a hundred witnesses. Lohen and Par have been rivals with each other for years, but this is the first time either has been so...open about it."
"I thought Grandfather was your master?" Brand asked.
"Someone in our class is beholden to many masters, Brand. You'll understand that more as you grow older," Ward spoke from experience, some of it bitter. "Your grandfather is my primary master – the one to which I am normally obligated to serve. My true master is his master, Duke Lohen, who heads the core family of our banner. But though I serve them, I could never take up the blade against my own family unless ordered to do so by a member of the Council or the Emperor," which was something Ward had done, once. It made him glad that at least Van was marrying into the same banner, making it less likely that Ward would have to face him should their respective masters come into conflict. His sisters weren't so fortunate; Rind was marrying into the Winding Roads and Nife was determined to remain unattached until she could find a man 'worthy' of her. Whatever that meant.
"Think of it as being a horse. A horse serves its rider but its true master will always be its owner, regardless of who rides."
Brand nodded. "So could the Duke have chosen someone else?"
There it is, Ward mused. "Yes. But he didn't. Lohen demanded me by name."
Unlike Ward's wife, Brand didn't argue when confronted with blunt facts. He just shrugged and kept moving, the way he was going to have to if he wanted to survive in their world. "How will you win?"
Ward scruffed up the boy's already unruly hair. "That's a much better question," he said, and meant it. It was one he was asking himself every time he looked in the mirror.
One of the key purposes of the sword nobility was to stave off civil war among the idle rich. As obsessed as they were with the idea of honor, they would probably tear the country to pieces inside of a week if it were not for the idea of duelling by champions. Even with the sword nobility in place, many in the aristocratic classes still killed, ruined, and tormented each other. And sometimes they took it far enough that even their proxies suffered for it.
Ward kept his thirteenth duel close to his heart for a lot of reasons. One was that he considered thirteen a significant number; not necessarily good or bad, just important. Another was that he had a deep scar running from his left chest to his armpit. It had been a death blow that was very literally close to his heart. More than anything, he remembered the duel's consequences. Ward often found himself replaying it in his head, over and over again.
Tiger's hesitation permits Serpent's Bold Strike.
Serpent's Venom pours. The Tiger Calls Thunder.
Dancing Dervishes to the foot of a Cresting Wave.
His father had been a good man. He had represented the banner through twice as many duels as Ward had under his belt now. He was tall, broad, strong and possessed of a glamour that would have fit better in the actual nobility rather than its armory of men and monsters. Ward had been unable to look him in the eye when he died. He could not bear to look up from the floor as his ears recorded the wet thump of his father's upper body landing separate of his lower half.
It boiled down to politics.
Gorn ver Sabra was the master of Ward's father. He inherited Ward's father from his own, and took the man to be an insurance policy against the consequences of any action he could think to commit. He was a sadist by nature, a voyeur by habit, and a rapist for fun. When he grew bored of his serfs and slaves, he turned his eye to the daughters and wives of the upper classes – those within his banner especially. The first few were unwilling to accuse him, knowing that his champion was too formidable for their accusations to go unpunished. The tenth victim came forward anyway. Ward's father took her champion's head, and Gorn took her in payment for the slander of his supposed good name.
The twelfth victim turned up dead in the streets one morning. The thirteenth was the banner-head's own wife. Driven into a raging frenzy, he petitioned the Emperor directly: if Falman could not be beaten by fair means, he would be broken by foul. Ward was trying to devise a way to kill his own father in less than a day. There was a second noble, Geoden, on stand-by to lodge an immediate accusation and demand a duel of honor within a day if Ward could not get the job done. Either he would kill his own father, or grief would blind the man and let someone else do it.
Ward still remembered how surreal it all felt.
In the end, he was sure that his father had hesitated. Falman Al Levi was a big man, but he was nimble even in his fifties, and his sword had been a dire rapier that moved like both a rod and a whip. If he had not hesitated, Ward was still certain that he would be dead by now. The consequences of his thirteenth duel included Gorn's dishonoring, his rapid descent from the aristocracy, and his eventual murder at the hands of a grudge-bearing banner-head who had the man's bones strung up like a wind chime at his estate's front gate. The entire ver Sabra line collapsed overnight.
It was this duel that caught the eye of the current Duke Lohen. Ward was merely an unattached sword in those days – a true ronin, in a language of one of the older provinces. He had freelanced in every duel before that. But he had proven his loyalty and done as the Emperor told him to, even though it meant killing his own father. It should have made Ward seem positively repugnant, but Lohen saw only potential.
Ward married Lyza less than a month later.
On that same day, he swore fealty and loyalty to the Early Suns banner, to Lyza's family, and to Lohen.
Ward's social class was named for its weapon of choice: swords. The centuries had expanded their arsenal, stylized and exaggerated it beyond the brutal pragmatism of actual warfare, but the sword remained dominant. All the champions, duellists, and ronin learned how to use a sword first. Even into their adult careers, eight out of every ten of Ward's contemporaries still relied on swords. The vast majority of them were too big for an ordinary person to even lift properly, which was why Ward's study had a very high ceiling and most duels of honor happened in locations where the roof was not an obstacle.
There was a huge sub-culture within the sword nobility that attached all kinds of significance to the class' namesake weapon. "It is the physical conduit of your warrior's spirit," Nola Celabute once told him. "It is what makes you a true kensei – a noble sword saint. Be proud, Kensei Ward En Levi."
He had scoffed at her then, and he still did now, which was probably why Nola had not held anything back when they duelled. For all his disrespect, Ward was still alive and Nola was not. He had gone through five swords in the years since he had cleaved her head from her neck, and he had yet to forget the placid smile on her face as it tumbled through the air.
The sword he had now was a daosian giam sized to match the grancalibur he had faced in his very first duel. It was a scholarly sword blown up to barbaric sizes; a work of art impractically adapted to competitions of ritual murder. The blade was five and a half feet long, in part because Ward had long enough arms to make up for the missing six inches. The blade was also thinner than most: just three and a half inches from edge to edge, compared to the average six or seven. The guard was a deception in steel and silver: a large empty ring, standing upright between the blade and the hilt. Ward had used it as both a blade catch and an extra grip in several duels. The hilt was another two feet of wood, metal, leather and cloth terminating in a black jadestone cap with a thick rope tassel dangling from it.
The whole thing was colored a mixture of blues, purples, whites and grays. When empowered with enough chi, violently red runes lit up on both sides of the blade, turning the rest of it black until the power had been discharged somehow. The whole thing had been forged by an Early Suns artisan using pieces of Ward's previous weapons as spiritual components. It had been presented to him as a nameless tool without much ceremony. Lyza's father had stopped by to bless it several times in one day, and Ward's wife was the one who finally named it.
"Skycutter," she declared. "For its owner is like a mountain piercing the skies."
And then she had smiled, and he had smiled, and one thing lead to another over the course of six hours. Nine months later, Ward's first daughter was born. The sword's significance did not occur to him until late one night, as he was rocking little Wara to sleep while trying not to aggrevate a duelling injury to one of his shoulders. He thought the realization itself was a wonderful metaphor.
Skycutter was just an oversized weapon with a name and some cheap tricks built into it. Its role in the history of Ward's life was simply a means to an end. It had no choice in how it affected events, how it was used, or even why it existed. It just was.
In the days leading up to final arrangements for the duel, Ward looked at it and saw his reflection clearly more often than not.
More than anything, Ward always hated duelling women. They had better than equal representation among the sword nobility: they could choose to actively participate or retire to motherhood or do both at any time, and nothing short of a banner-head's authority could force them to do otherwise.
As a man, Ward did not have those luxuries. But that was beside the point. He hated duelling against women because they were formidable and it was awkward. Common wisdom among the sword nobility was that a woman would beat a man of equal skill six times out of ten, and that was worrying enough on its own. Ward kept a lid on it, but he was still a young man outside of the swords' standards – barely twenty-eight – and he still had the same sex drive that had helped give he and Lyza six children.
Put another way: there was something profoundly inappropriate about trying to penetrate a woman with a sword. There were so many phallic metaphors to it that Ward had a hard time explaining it to anyone – least of all his doting, loving, somewhat tempermental wife.
His first duel with a woman, however, had not been with another sword. It had not even been a solo match. It was with a girl named Tani La Nez. She was in the same overall social strata as Ward, had attended the same juvenile school, and had been the closest thing he had ever known to an actual love as the lesser classes knew them. It was unrequited.
They came from friendly but different banners, from families that were completely unfamiliar with each other, with cultural backgrounds that had nothing in common beyond originating in the same province. Tani's father was a high artisan, an inventor who continually refined and improved transportation within the major cities of Daos.
Ward pursued her actively, trying to find some kind of sponsor for a marriage – or even just an attempt at courtship. Tani was disinterested in the prospect of dealing with the sword nobility, even one who had fiery youth, a decent pedigree, and the mystique of a ronin on his side. Ward was ill established in those days. As uphill as the battle was, it did not stop him from trying. He even offered his services to her father free of charge in an attempt to at least become familiar to the man. Ward thought that might put him in her good graces. It did not.
A year into his pursuit, Ward came to the brutal realization that nothing was going to come of it. Tani would recognize his value only after he was removed from her reach, if she ever recognized it at all. She said as much, in her own way, whenever they encountered each other. Tani was the definition of a social butterfly, but her body language had all the subtlety of a traffic sign.
Ward remembered the set of her shoulders and neck; the places where her mood showed through in her posture. He always thought she was an awful liar because of that. He found it endearing in its own way. Viewed from the side, she always looked troubled. She had two smiles: one that was real, and dazzling, and one that was a courtesan's painting, and strangely lackluster. She could sing, but it was all raw sound and emotion with no skill for the actual words. She could dance, but her figure made her look too young for it to be a good show.
Ward felt protective of her every time they met. He paid more attention to her than anyone else, and that was how he spotted the truth: she could look him in the eye and improvise a decent lie on the spot, but her shoulders always hunched unevenly. One day, when her father was experiencing some very public troubles with his finances and another artisan was attempting to replace him, Ward had asked her, "Is there anything I can do to help you?"
He was offering to duel for her father, but the truth was that he was offering to duel for her.
Tani answered, "I don't know. I'll talk to Papa about it."
Her shoulders hunched, the left higher than the right. She never contacted him, and Ward had not seen or heard from her since. All the trams and public carts that clustered the streets still had the Nez family name and the Twilight Rivers banner. Tani did not.
Ward read the papers in those days, slow as they were.
Tani had married a sword noble just a day before a duel that took her father out of debt.
His name was Borun Tyr.
How will you best attack me? Ward sometimes wondered then, and often wondered now.
"To be brutally honest, I wish I could recuse myself from this," Ward sighed one night as he lay beside Lyza and stared at the ceiling of their bedroom. They slept like Siñessian holy people: on the floor, with just a barely padded sheet and two pillows each. That had been a compromise on Ward's part. His shoulders were not broad for a man his size, but he slept on his side and his head would still sag otherwise.
And more often than not, they ended up sharing the same pair of pillows. Ward and Lyza slept closer than most upper class married couples, with clothes and without. Daosian social and religious customs usually involved a woman "Lying on her back and taking it for the Empire." Ward once made the mistake of teasing her about how poorly she adhered to the godwoman's code in that regard. He slept alone for a month. There was no "Goodnight, my husband/wife" in their marriage. They lay close, and they talked in the dark until the silence between words felt natural.
"Why's that?" Lyza asked in a sleepy tone, snuggling up against him. She almost sounded hopeful. "You're not worried about losing, are you?"
"Not in the slightest," Ward lied, and was able to get away with it because he kept his own lies minimal, always mixed with a little truth. He was worried about losing, but he could not allow himself to feel it. The Lion would not give the Tiger time to overcome his hesitations.
An old, irrational part of him still felt protective of her. It would have been awkward to say, "Because I was once in love with Borun's wife." Ward had more tact than that, and more perspective. He used their children as an excuse instead: "I knew his wife when I was a boy. I don't want to leave her shouldering the burden of any fatherless Tyrspawn if I can help it."
Lyza was quiet for a long while. She shifted way from him, and he winced in preparation for whatever she was going to throw at him next.
All that came were a pair of hands on his neck, then cheeks. Thumbs rested perilously close to his eyes, but they were gentle. Lyza was sitting close enough to him now that he could smell the mint on her breath and feel its warmth on his nose, lips, and chin. "There are 111 gods in my faith, and not a single one of them is so considerate of their enemies. Not even their enemies' wives and children. Do you know what a kensei is?"
"A sword saint," Ward answered. "A holy warrior, usually recognized when they die in the midst of some great battle or duel for-"
She hushed him with a thumb to his lips. Ward opened his eyes in the dark and thought, if only for a moment, he could see Lyza's staring back at him. Her forehead bumped against his. "A kensei is what I see every time I set my eyes on you."
She leaned in until their noses touched, and then she kissed him.
They didn't speak after that.
They didn't have to.
"Come back to me," Lyza told him for the first time about a month after they were married. It had taken them that long to warm up to each other. She spent much of her time in prayer and contemplation back then, just as Ward spent most of his free time hacking and slashing at people who were nowhere within a mile of his study.
It took three times before Ward stopped shrugging her off and started taking her pleas seriously enough to look her in the eye and say, "I will."
The first time she said, "I love you!" was when he came back from his tenth duel after their marriage. Ward was so high on adrenaline and blood loss that all he could think to do was kiss her until neither of them could breathe and both their mouths were stained red and Ward's attendant, an old family doctor named Wan Shu, was laughing in sheer disbelief.
The first time Ward told her, "I love you," was a much quieter revelation just before his eleventh duel. She told him to come back and he made it all the way to their small estate's front gate before stopping and turning around. With a sword bigger than his body slung over his shoulder, wearing a straw hat to battle the sun's glare, and with a smile that was quieter and more sincere than anything he could manage on most days; Ward looked her in the eye and said the words with no hesitation. He didn't even raise his voice.
She actually slapped him when he came back. Then she got hold of herself long enough to tell him, "You didn't say you'd be back," just before clutching her prayer beads and almost breaking them. "I prayed and I prayed and-"
Ward kissed her. It was as good a conversation stopper as anything else he could come up with.
Lyza stopped praying so heavily after that. She didn't spend as much time in contemplation either. There were too many young ones to keep an eye on, and she had taken to working the door at the Early Suns' devotional temple in what little spare time she did have. Ward watched her sometimes, when she thought he was meditating or practicing. He did so from afar, and challenged himself to do so from a different spot each time. Lyza grew all throughout their marriage.
The only blessing that gave his sword any meaning was the name she gave it.
The duel took place in the morning twilight. There were six observers, with three coming from each family. The agreed upon location was a training ground on the outskirts of the city, enclosed by trees and badly scarred wooden posts that used for practice by all the little boys and girls who were going to grow up and kill each other.
Ward came early. He was punctual that way, and had little tolerance for some of the slavish rituals that others in and around the sword nobility adhered to. He arrived at four in the morning, as rested as he was going to get, with Skycutter sheathed in wood and leather across his back. He wore the garb of a proper wushu-ya: pants fit for a dojo setting, a long shirt with latching buttons and sleeves that only went to his forearms, and thinly made slippers that were missing traction in all the right places. It was all silk, mostly brown, with the buttons and cuffs done in dark green. He wore white socks on principle.
The first thing Ward did upon arriving was to examine the area around him. It was clear flat ground for more than a hundred feet in every direction. The dirt had been packed so hard that any attempt to funnel chi into it would have been a struggle at best. The wooden posts were thick and sturdy, but worn from years of damage by weak-armed novices. The trees beyond were tightly packed, so much so that it looked like a sorcerer had compelled their growth. There was only one path in or out of the area, and Ward knew from experience that it lead down a long flight of stone stairs to a much more public park near an otherwise private school.
There wasn't a single bird, squirrel, or even rat anywhere in sight.
The second thing Ward did was to take Skycutter from his back and plant its sheathed tip into the ground. Even with his base strength to help push it down, the weapon sank no more than a quarter of an inch into the dirt. Ward nodded to himself and made a mental note of that information.
The third thing he did was to close his eyes and try to calm his mind. "Ohm," he said, dragging that one syllable out until his thoughts were a blank slate. He pictured his wife, his sons and daughters, and he put them all in a little box in his mind. He pictured himself, and the box went to his heart and shoved out all the stress, the doubt, the fear, the guilt. He pictured Borun Tyr as best he could, and imagined that his body was Skycutter's sheath: host to an enormous blade, sunken straight to the hilt. It was not pretty. It was a fact.
He inhaled. He exhaled. And with time, he was not alone.
Wayrs, a type of sorcerer, were the first to show up. Both were older men wearing tunics that practically obliterated the rest of their clothes from consideration. One was marked with the banner of the Early Suns, the other was marked with the banner of the Twilight Rivers. The opposing wayr looked at Ward with a bitterly inquisitive eye, but said nothing. Ward did not explain himself. The man spent an extra two minutes surveying the battlefield, making sure that it had not been boobytrapped or, amusingly enough, warded against the coming Twilight Rivers' members.
Next were the two nobles themselves, Lohen Pë Rigo and Nath Par. They offered a marked contrast: Lohen was nearly as tall as Ward, twice as charismatic as the next man, and had long blond hair that was black at the tips. Nath was as short as Ward's wife, sported the fat of a man who had probably been athletic in his younger years, and carried himself more like a haughty king than a mere nobleman. Lohen was followed by a nimble-legged scribe with his head shaved and his scalp marked by two dozen red dots in six rows. Par was alone.
"You're here awfully early," Lohen greeted with a casual tone.
"I want this over with," Ward replied.
"I know. You're not nervous, are you?" Lohen asked.
Ward closed his eyes and thought of his sword in its sheath. He feigned a smile and said, "Not at all," because he really was not nervous. Conflicted, but not nervous.
One way or another, someone's children would be without a father. Lyza's or Tani's. Ward gripped Skycutter tight and looked over at Par, who was chatting with a wayr. "Is something wrong with Borun?" he asked.
"I don't know," Lohen told him. "We arrived at the same time and the fat prick smiled all the way up the stairs."
"I heard that," Par commented. He had a lisp.
"I'm glad," Lohen replied. "Truly, profoundly glad."
"You won't be in about...two minutes. Give or take."
Lohen grimaced. Ward could feel both sorcerers preparing their spells in advance. The air was thick with tension when Par suddenly laughed, "Nevermind the two minutes."
Ward looked to the entrance and there...
There stood Tani Tyr and her husband.
It took the sword a few seconds to realize what Par was laughing at. Ward silently cursed himself. He had noticed Tani first. That was not a good sign.
"Lovely scribe," Lohen said, his voice positively dripping over how unimpressed he was. Tani was still as beautiful now as she had been almost ten years ago, but beautiful women came cheap in the capital city. Especially beautiful women who were beginning to show the signs of rough living in their younger days.
Lyza, Ward thought, did not yet have a single major wrinkle or frown line. She had bags under her eyes and she did not wear much make-up. As he studied Tani now, all Ward could see was make-up. He tried to picture her without it and saw lines around her mouth, probably from her courtesan's smile. None of the wrinkles touched her eyes, because the smiles hardly ever hit that high.
Even now, he felt a strange little pang of protectiveness for her.
And then he thought of his wife, and his sons, and his daughters. It was then that Lohen finally whispered, "Your knuckles are white."
Ward loosened his grip. "You should have been more specific about the terms of this duel," he said. "It was going to be difficult before this. Now..."
"Win or I'll tell Lyza that you died because of another man's wife," Lohen pleasantly replied.
Ward felt his stomach turn a little. He tried to focus on Borun. It was not easy.
"I guarantee nothing," he said.
"I guarantee everything," Lohen replied.
Borun Tyr was short. Shorter than any of the other men that Ward had fought through the years. He was barely taller than Tani, if at all. His shoulders were broad though, and his arms were heavily muscled. His dress emulated one of the other chi-birthing cultures, the Nísano, complete with the wide-legged hakama pants and the kimono shirt. It was all patterned to look like waves and ice, with six shades of blue, gray and white in stark contrast to each other. His sword was bigger than he was; a fairly standard grancalibur with a sturdy cross guard and a hilt as long as his arm.
He was compensating for Ward's reach. There was something reassuring about that. Ward continued to study his opponent.
How will you best attack me?
Borun had a beard. He was short, muscular, and he had a beard and a beautiful wife whose smile did not reach her eyes. Tani's body language was still as blatant as ever, but Borun's was even more so. Ward almost pitied him on sight. Brand had a more confident set to his shoulders than this man did. Brand had a more authentic swagger than a champion of seventy-three duels. Brand was eight years old!
"Don't get cocky," Ward mumbled to himself as he unlocked the clasp holding Skycutter in its wood and leather sheath. He might have made underconfidence a survival tool. To second guess all your own actions is to have a clearer picture of them. Clear pictures of the past, better predictions of the future.
His father taught him that. Ward hoped he would live to pass the advice on to Brand, to Wara, to all his children and maybe some of his grandchildren too. He drew Skycutter out and threw the sheath away, focusing intently on Borun.
He might even be lying, Ward thought as he watched the shorter man draw his sword. The gleam of Borun's eyes on wicked steel made this seem more likely. A man does not get through seventy-three deathmatches without earning confidence in himself.
Tani walked around to stand between Par and the Twilight Rivers sorcerer. This put her dead center in the line of Ward's sight as Borun lowered into a fighting stance. It had to be intentional. Ward shut her out, locked her away in a box, and saw himself casting it over his shoulder.
"On the count of three," Lohen and Par said in near-unison.
How will you best attack me?
Ward already knew.
Both Lohen and Par skipped the first two.
The poetry of the sword nobility was not written for mass consumption, when it was actually written at all. Lyza had known many of that class over the years, been married to one for so long now that it felt like he made up the lion's share of her identity. Ward probably did not know it, but she often read his works. They were clinical. Detached.
The actual poems were simply impenetrable to someone who had not grown up as a member of the culture. They were just terms strung together like bad haiku: no rhyme, no cadence, no real considerations for syllable count or arrangement; just a cheap use of phrases under the pretense of inspiring deep thoughts. The only way for someone to understand them was to have them explained step by step and although Ward usually wrote out the actual details of a duel so thoroughly that Lyza could picture his opponents' breathing patterns, that just did not do it justice.
Lyza had witnessed a few of Ward's duels. They were genuine poetry in motion. They had to be demonstrated through real actions, because words on a page could not express them. A duel was something exciting and horrifying, breathtaking and terrible. It was a truly quantum singularity where everything in Lyza's life seemed to hinge on one perfectly timed step here, or one lightning fast flick of the wrist there; their outcomes always so uncertain that she could not tell if any one movement would actually affect anything at all.
She was powerless, Lyza knew. All the times she had pleaded with Ward not to attend a duel – not just against Borun Tyr, but against others before him and, hopefully, many more after – he had simply refused to engage her. Tears, she learned, were an unfair advantage that did nothing but shut him down. Pleading, tempting as it was, achieved nothing. She could not bargain. She could only watch as her own fate was put on the line.
Lyza still had vivid memories of the first time she ever bore witness to a duel.
It was less than a month after they were married. She stood in attendence behind Ward, and actually felt a flutter through her stomach at the sight of him dropping into a fighting posture. There was something unreadably brave, stalwart, strong about him in that moment. He lifted his sword, a giam in those days, and then he went to war with a man named Vice Konda. On the morning of his duel with Borun, Lyza stepped into her husband's study and opened one of his journals. She walked over to the pad where he always knelt in meditation, sat down without a hint of the lady's grace she tried to give off in the company of others, and she read.
Serpent's Lunge begets second serpent's Spiral.
Hunching Tiger becomes Bucking Bronco becomes
Serpent's Lunge. The Serpents' Dervish ends
with a broken fang. The Reaping Whirlwind
begets a Thousand Cuts...
Lyza stopped her reading here. It still made her sick to remember how Ward had broken Vice's sword in half, and yet the shorter noble did not give up. He surged forward, dealing one enormous cut to Ward's forehead that left his entire face a bloody red mask for the rest of the duel. It had blinded him for moments, and he had backstepped in what she still swore was a panic – even if his notes did not read that way. His arms had been cut badly enough to shred the sleeves of his shirt completely.
...that the Balancing Log cannot endure until
the Lumberjack's Vicious Discard.
The Tiger's Empty Claw can still break bones.
The Boneless Serpent Endures through spirit.
She stopped again, remembering how Ward had cracked Vice's leg with one good strike. The smaller man lost his footing but recovered quickly.
Serpents Lunge yet with broken fangs unheeded.
Tiger's Empty Claws. The Desperate Discard.
Vice rolled away with most of his shirt blown open and his chest ravaged by a burst of chi. He threw his broken sword at Ward's face.
The Juggler's Catch and the Emperor's
Popular Judgement cannot dissuade
The Tiger's Empty Claws.
Vice dove in after his sword. Ward smashed it out of mid-air, caught it and tried to stab him down through the head with it, but Vice had been quicker still. Two open-handed strikes had sent Lyza's husband flying right by her, trailing blood in a blur with gaping holes in the hips of his pants and burnt skin underneath. She could still hear the bones cracking almost ten years later, and still wondered how he was able to walk normally less than a week later.
One Tiger Pounces upon another.
The second Tiger rolls.
Empty Claw Rising.
Empty Claw Falling.
The first blow shattered Vice's jaw and sent his teeth flying so high and far that not all of them were ever found. The second collapsed his collar into his lungs. The third tore his throat wide open, spilling blood more than six feet away from the source. His head almost ripped off, but for a few messy pieces of meat and gristle holding it in place. As duels go, it was probably one of the most violent and desperate of Ward's career. Lyza still remembered looking upon her husband in that moment. She remembered it more clearly than anything in her life.
Not because of the monstrous beast she saw covered in blood and gore, barely able to stand when the adrenaline high failed and the chi reserves ran dry, but because of what was beneath it. She still saw the awkward, withdrawn, slavishly devoted man who she knew was doing what he had to in order to see his wife the next morning. His eyes were red with blood, within and without, but they were still his.
She shuddered just thinking about it. Then she closed the book.
And then she heard the door open.
Lyza shut her eyes and started to pray.
The door slammed shut.
Write your own ending.