Fray turned her back on the train as it left the station. The wind of its passing, combined with a spring breeze, made the long skirts of some of the girls dance. She was glad she had chosen the pants version of the school uniform. A skirt just wouldn't fit with the hard boots, the thick, tight belt, or the sword slung over her back. The uniforms everyone was wearing weren't school uniforms, but uniforms of soldiers headed into battle. You could give up your life at any time, at this school. Just like her sister had. The school had eaten her sister alive, leaving not a trace.
Fray`s grip on her baldric tightened until her knuckles turned white. She took a breath and stepped down from the private train platform and onto the school grounds. From this day forward she would be a student of Blade-Bearer Academy, the school that had killed her sister.
Minus a few who already had friends at the school, who were excitedly chatting with their old friends and showing off their sheathed weapons, all the other students looked as nervous as her. Many were worriedly gripping their own baldric, while others who had kept their swords in the original cases had them hugged tightly to their chests as they walked.
No one knew much about the school. Blade-Bearers showed up in the news pretty much constantly whenever there was an armed conflict happening, and you could always see one or two following around VIPs as hired bodyguards, but beyond that very little was known of what a Blade-Bearer actually was, or what went on at the institution that molded them. Even though her own sister had been a student here, Fray felt that she knew next to nothing about the place. Rather than talking about the school, her sister had spent more time talking about the swords. She had only managed to wheedle a few private lessons out of her sister, but Fray wore her own sword a little more easily than any of the other new students she could see.
The old students, however, were another matter. Each one wore his or her sword so naturally it seemed to be part of their biology. There also seemed to be as many varieties of swords as there were students at the school. Huge zweihanders, needle-thin foils, dirks, rapiers, claymores. Main girl even though she saw someone wearing a sheathed kitchen-knife as if it was a weapon. There were cane-swords, whip-swords and shotels. There were beautiful, elaborate works of metallic art and simple, practical models. Of course she could only judge them by their hilts and sheaths, since not a single naked blade could be seen anywhere.
In the packet sent to her home by the school there had been strict instructions to never draw her sword carelessly on school property (or anywhere else). Her sister had been pretty adamant in her own warnings about that, back when Fray was first applying for the school.
"Don't draw your sword until you know what you're doing. Except when you're practicing, don't take it out until you're absolutely sure it's the right thing to do."
At that moment Fray noticed that a few of the new students walking around her were looking around in confusion. Some of them were looking at her pointedly. She also looked around. It was only then she noticed that someone was calling out from the crowd:
"Hey new kid! Stripey-hair! Hold on a second!"
Fray turned toward the source of the voice. To be sure, she was indeed the only one among the main students who fit that description. Her hair, tied in a loose, wavy ponytail, was blonde in front, platinum around where she tied the ponytail, and black toward the tips. She had never dyed her hair in her life, either to create or hide this peculiar coloring. It was as natural as her olive-green eyes.
Finally the owner of the voice broke through the crowd and stopped in front of Fray. From the high pitch of the voice she had been expecting someone small, and she wasn't disappointed. The short girl, with hair and skin the color of chestnuts, put her hands on her knees and panted for a bit before straightening back up. With no introduction she immediately launched into:
"You're her sister, right? Paz`s younger sister. No one else would have that crazy hair. Dang, when she said 'little sister' I thought you'd be a shrimp. I was hoping I could pick up a new recruit."
Fray had never been good at guessing the ages of people from other countries, but she got the feeling it would be wrong to assume this girl was younger than her just due to her size. She definitely did not have any of the soft roundness of a child about her. She was as lithe and toned as a body-building spider. Still, Fray thought the long sword sheathed at the girl's back was a little much. Unless it was made of magical fairy metal with no weight it should have been way too heavy for the small girl to swing freely, judging by its size. Even the generic short-sword on her own back back was too heavy for her to swing more than 20 times in a row. She had no idea how her sister had managed to do 100 practice swings every night with a sword even bigger and heavier.
That said, it could be the girl really was a muscular little kid who just thought it would be cool to carry around a ridiculously large and heavy sword she couldn't even use.
"Hi, my name's Fray," Fray said, leaning on the words a bit to remind the other girl that it was polite to introduce yourself before spouting rapid-fire nonsense.
"Yeah, right, cool, Miriam. I did a few jobs with your sister. She was lightning in a jar. Shame what happened to her. I was away on work, so I didn't get to see her trial or… anyway she was great stuff. I was all ready to welcome mini-Paz as the newest disciple of shouran-ryuu."
Fray started to say something but another voice drowned her out. Most of the new students had passed them by, leaving Miriam and her mostly alone near the front gates of the school. A third party approached; he was the owner of the voice that cut her off, saying:
"I understand that you're desperate for new recruits, Miriam, but perhaps you should give the poor girl a moment to breathe before jumping on her like a starving little wolf."
The speaker was a tall boy with black hair and eyes. His sword was a long rapier with an intricate, elaborate hilt and hand-guard. It was sheathed at his hip, and he kept one hand rested on the hilt. It certainly seemed more natural on him than the long sword did on Miriam.
Miriam bristled at his approach. Fray thought she saw Miriam's short, unstyled hair actually prickle like the quills of an angry porcupine.
"I don't see where a fencer who draws his sword for money comes off talking down to me," Miriam said. Hearing the growl in the small girl's voice, Fray thought the term 'little wolf' was actually fairly spot-on.
"Marcus Fortias, Lieutenant of the Mercenaries. A pleasure, little Paz. I fought with your sister a few times myself. And slept with her a few times as well. I was also looking forward to you coming here and, unlike little Miriam, I am quite content with your physique," the boy said, bowing politely.
Fray was a little taken aback.
"That was the creepiest thing anyone has ever said to me," she said, eyes full of a mixture of equal parts disgust, horror and anger. "I hope I don't live long enough to hear anyone top it. Did you go to my sister's trial?"
Marcus was surprised at the sudden change in subject and took a while to gather his thoughts. For a moment his charming, gentleman smile slipped and Fray caught sight of something far more serious and real in his eyes before he constructed a small frown and responded.
"I'm afraid not. Trials aren't really my hobby."
"Well. Great. I guess that's all we would have ever had to talk about, so with that gone I'd say we can just call it quits on ever needing to talk to each other again. Thanks. I think I hear the opening… thing… starting. Good-bye." Main girl turned away from Marcus and gave Miriam a small, stiff bow before brushing past both of them and heading for the school building.
Miriam watched her walk away, her face full of sympathy. She then turned back to Marcus, her hair spiking again.
"Your dead girlfriend's sister shows up and that is the first thing you say to her? Way to leave a good impression. I knew you were worthless but I didn't think you were a chauvinist pervert."
Marcus, on the other hand, was watching Fray's back with interest, one hand to his chin.
"She's completely different." He wasn't talking to Miriam, and indeed seemed to have forgotten she was there at all. "Paz would have drawn her sword at something like that. I wish I could have seen her ra. Is it the same as hers, or…"
"Hey! Don't ignore me!" This time Miriam's hair looked like it was about to explode in a cloud of needles.
"Shut up, Miriam," Marcus said, without malice, rather with dismissive indifference, "I have no interest in little girls who pigeon-hole themselves into fighting styles because of their body size."
"One of these days you're gonna take the wrong contract and end up on the business end of my blade!" Miriam shouted at his back, as he turned and walked away from her, blushing angrily like iron in a forge.
"And then you'll die, because I'm faster than you," Marcus said over his shoulder, in an off-hand, informative tone. Then he was back into his own thoughts, ignoring any other words Miriam hurled at his back.
A man wearing an official-looking mantle and robe stopped Fray before she entered the main hall of the large building where all the other new students were gathering. She looked at the sheath on his hip but, from the small, square shape of it she could only guess that he was 'bearing' a meat cleaver. His words snapped her to attention, and he met her surprised gaze with one full of heavy sorrow.
"Fray Stella. I was your sister's instructor, and her agent. I wish she could have been the one to welcome you here."
Fray had pictured her first meeting with an administrator of this school for several nights. Would she burn with rage and demand to know why they had killed her sister? Would they loom over her like evil over-lords, unashamed of snuffing out a single, meaningless existence? Would they be all business, blaming it on the system rather than any individual person?
The responses she had dreamed up for all the possible outcomes faded like morning mist when she heard his words. He was obviously struggling with his emotions just like she was. They were both grieving for Paz. She tried to swallow, failed once, got it right the second time, averted her eyes, and took a few breaths so she could ask:
"Did you see her trial?"
without her voice trembling too much.
"I presided over it. And pronounced her sentence," he replied, not taking his eyes off of her.
So this was Paz's judge and executioner. She shook her head, then met his eyes again.
"Why was Paz executed?"
"Murder. She used overwhelming, inhuman power to end the life of a person who had no comparable means..." a pause, a slight tightening around his eyes "... who had no comparable physical means of protecting himself. She used her sword to kill an unarmed man."
Fray drew in a deep breath. She didn't have trouble sucking in the air, but when she breathed it out she shuddered and almost let a noise escape with her breath. She looked for deceit in the man's eyes. He looked for anger or denial in hers.
The silence stretched on. Someone in the auditorium down the hall from them was telling the students to take their seats.
The man reached out a hand. In his palm was a small medallion. On one side Paz's birth and death dates were engraved, on the other was a picture of Paz's face.
"I can't think of anyone else who should bear this. Take it, please. I... prefer not to hold on to it myself, but someone needs to."
Silently, Paz reached out to take the medallion from his hand with both of hers. She held it in both hands as if warming it, then held it on her palm so she could see her sister's face one more time.
Mechanically she un-shouldered her sword and began to tie the thin chain of the medallion around the hilt. She nearly jumped with shock when the instructor suddenly reached out and grabbed her hand, his face horrified.
When he saw her utter confusion, he relaxed his grip, but didn't let go of her arm.
"In Blade-Bearer Academy, you tie medallions to your sword to commemorate the lives you have taken with your own hands."
"My sister had eight medallions on her sword," Fray said, slowly moving her gaze from her own hands to the instructor's face. Her voice was toneless with horror.
"Nine. Eight fair duels, one murder." The instructor saw that Fray was reeling from the shock, so he transferred his grip to her shoulder and squeezed a little, putting his face close to hers and looking into her eyes.
"..." he seemed about to say something. Rather, he wanted to say something. Instead he simply left his hand on Fray's shoulder, which was beginning to shake a little. Then he straightened and walked past her without saying another word.
Fray awkwardly re-shouldered her sword. She reached out one hand, placing it against the wall for support. Her jaw was clenched so tight it hurt. Her tears pattered onto the floor.