Amaril held the sword before him, admiring it. He was not a particularly devout man, but the blade's beauty was almost enough to make him believe in the gods. The spotless silver steel stretched almost three and a half feet from the hilt: a black leather-wrapped design inlaid with an elegant, curving gold pattern, like the roots of a tree. Even the blood gutter was perfect. Amaril ran a finger along its edge, the vibrant pinks, oranges and reds of the setting sun reflecting off the steel as it quivered, before sliding it into the scabbard and walking to the duelling grounds.
In the centre of the wide, dusty duelling ring stood a man clad in chainmail and boiled leather, his own sword held in his hand. Gelson Wise. The nobleman wore wry amusement on his face; the same expression that he always wore, but seeing it now made Amaril scowl.
Amaril stopped three paces from his opponent, and scanned the crowd around them. Three or four dozen had turned up to watch, and many lounged in folding chairs or the audience boxes. Most he did not recognise—likely regulars—and he ignored them, until he spotted the one he was looking for. She'd come. He smiled, then turned back to Gelson.
They stared at one another for a long moment before Amaril spoke. "Do you know why I have called you here?"
"Not really, no," Gelson said.
Amaril's scowl deepened. "Do you know a lady by the name Felise? Felise d'Arle?"
"I do," Gelson said.
"Well, sir," Amaril said, "I have called you here so that we may duel for her hand."
"Oh," Gelson said. "Well that's a bit silly, don't you think? I mean, I'm not betrothed to the girl."
"But you have had… relations, yes?"
"If you mean sex, yeah. We did it a few times. Last night, in fact. But we're not exclusive or anything. You're welcome to take a shot at her."
"That, sir, is hardly the issue! I have declared my intent to wed her, and in your promiscuity, you have offended my honour."
"Okay. Can I forfeit?"
Amaril blinked. "Well, technically, yes, but—"
"I'll do that, then. I'm not all that interested in her, to be honest. She was only fun the first time. If I leave her alone, you'll leave me alone, too, right?"
"Well, I… wait, what?" Amaril shook his head. "No! I have called you here to duel, sir! And you will duel with me, or I shall inform the world of your cowardice and bring ruin upon your house!"
Gelson sighed. "So what you're saying is, you're not gonna let this go."
"No, sir, I am not."
Gelson sighed again. "What kind of a duel is it?"
"To the death."
"I don't suppose you could change that to something less… permanent? Perhaps a good game of cards? We wouldn't even need these swords, then."
"No, sir. We will duel to the death, here and now."
Gelson sighed a third time. "So be it," he said, loosening his blade in the scabbard. "Let's get this over with."
Amaril nodded, and they both turned and walked to opposite sides of the ring. Tension settled on the crowd of onlookers like a dark cloud. Amaril glanced at Lady Felise, who sat in an audience box, chatting with one of her attendants. She looked radiant, of course, dressed in a red silk dress with a fashionably low neckline and lace patterns criss-crossing the bodice. She laughed then, a musical sound, and Amaril smiled. Watch me, my love, he thought. I will prove my worth.
He stopped at the edge of the ring and turned again, drawing his sword. Gelson did the same. For a long moment, all was still and silent. And then they leapt at each other.
Gelson attacked first. He swung his blade wide, and Amaril stepped back, raising his own sword to parry. The blades slid right through one another, and Gelson was thrown off balance.
Amaril made his move, then, swinging at Gelson's unprotected back. But the blade passed straight through Gelson's body, as if through air, and the momentum carried Amaril around in a dizzying circle, dropping him to the ground.
He sat up, frowning at his sword. That was odd. But it appeared he had won. Regaining his feet, Amaril walked over to where Gelson lay in the dust and kicked the man to see if he'd died yet.
Gelson opened his eyes. "I don't feel like I'm dying," he said.
"Easily fixed, sir, I assure you."
"No, no," Gelson said. "I swear I felt it go through me, but there's no pain." He rolled onto his side. "Am I bleeding?"
Amaril bent and peered at the man's back. "No," he said, raising his sword. "I must have missed."
"Wait!" Gelson cried.
Amaril didn't listen, and thrust his blade into the man's side. It slid right through without the slightest resistance, until it struck earth.
Gelson licked his lips. "Did… did you just stab me?"
"Yes, sir, I did."
"There's no pain. Am I bleeding?"
"No, sir, you are not."
"I should probably be bleeding, right?"
"That tends to happen when one gets stabbed, yes."
"Well… now what?"
"Perhaps I should try again," Amaril said, raising his sword.
"No!" Gelson shouted. He scrambled away and onto his feet, then glared at Amaril.
Amaril clicked his tongue.
"Now, hold on!" Gelson said. "You parried my attack earlier, and by all rights, our blades should have met. But they didn't." He rubbed at his forehead, frowning. "And then you attacked me. I felt your sword pass through my body, I know I did, but I'm not injured." For a moment, he was silent. Then he glanced up. "Is it blunt, or something?"
"This is the first time I have used it," Amaril said through clenched teeth.
"Oh," Gelson said. "Well in that case, I don't think it works."
Amaril scowled, then bent to pick up Gelson's dropped blade. "My sword," he said, "was forged by Kellan the First—expert swordsmith, and my great-great-great-great-granduncle. It is a masterpiece, sir, more than a hundred and fifty years old, and I purchased it from a gypsy witch twice that age for a thousand crowns. Not to mention the cost of finding it in the first place." He held Gelson's blade in front of him and raised his own again. "What I am saying, sir, is that it works just fine!"
And then he swung with all his might. But again, the blades passed right through one another, as if refusing to recognise the other's existence, and his sword's tip buried itself into the ground.
"Yeah," Gelson said. "I don't think it works."
What came next was something of a tantrum. Out of respect for Amaril's reputation, I will not go into detail, but suffice to say; it was quite unpleasant.
"Maybe it's cursed?" Gelson said, taking a sip of his brandy. "You said you bought it from a gypsy, after all. I mean, when has trusting a witch ever been a good idea?"
Amaril sighed. After the duel had come to its rather anticlimactic end, the onlookers had all departed, Lady Felise included. Only Gelson had remained, and he had then followed Amaril to the nearest tavern and ordered the most expensive meal they served—and somehow convinced Amaril to pay.
"Why are you still here?" Amaril asked for the third time.
"Well, I haven't finished my drink yet, have I?"
Amaril stared at him.
"Alright, alright," Gelson said. "I'm… intrigued."
"The sword, obviously!" Gelson exclaimed. "Mine works the way it should, but yours doesn't cut a damn thing!"
"You don't have to rub it in," Amaril grumbled.
"It's interesting," Gelson continued, as if Amaril had not spoken. "I want to know why it's so useless. And I can't very well get that answer if I'm nowhere near it."
"What does that mean, exactly?"
"It means I'm going to follow you around until I have my answer."
Amaril frowned. "I did try to kill you a few hours ago, didn't I?"
"And that doesn't bother you?"
"Not really, no," Gelson said. "Let bygones be bygones, I say. Besides, you seem like a… chivalrous fellow. Not the kind to stab me when my back is turned, at least."
"But I did stab you while your back was turned."
"Well, yes," Gelson said, "but that was in a duel. I meant in a regular situation."
Amaril pursed his lips and thought for a moment. The man's logic was flawless, and Amaril did consider himself a rather chivalrous fellow. And there was the added bonus that if Gelson was with Amaril, the man wouldn't be able to make a move on Lady Felise. "Very well," he said, nodding. "Our duel is hereby postponed, until I can acquire a replacement weapon. Or, preferably, fix this one."
Gelson groaned. "You still want to do that? I thought it was pretty conclusive, myself."
"The duel was to the death," Amaril said. "Neither of us are dead."
Gelson sighed. "Will I get an answer before you kill me?"
"Well, that's something, at least," Gelson said. "And hey, maybe you'll change your mind." He downed the rest of his cup and smacked it down on the table. "So? Any ideas?"
"The witch I bought it from lives near Caylis," Amaril said. "I intend to visit her and demand a refund. I am prepared to involve the constabulary, should it prove necessary."
"Sounds good to me," Gelson said. "When are we leaving?"
Amaril glanced at the man and sighed, regretting it already. "Tomorrow morning," he said. "Be at the Green Gate by sunrise. And bring a horse."
It took them six days to reach Caylis, during which time Amaril discovered something about Gelson, and indeed himself: he could not bring himself to hate the man. There was an inexplicable charisma about Amaril's unlikely companion, one that drew people to him like moths to a flame—a fact proven all the more true by their roadside encounters.
And though he would never admit it, Amaril was jealous. He'd never had that kind of presence—that appeal, that charm. His natural arrogance was a fault he had not even recognised until partway through his twenty-third year—not so long ago—and early attempts to remedy the issue had not gone particularly well. Where Amaril was hot-blooded and prideful, Gelson was stalwart and sardonic; a contrast that lent itself to many tiny clashes of character.
But for all that, Amaril liked him, and his dry wit. It was a shame they'd have to kill one another.
They arrived at the gypsy's shack late in the afternoon, seven days after their failed duel. A tiny building, flat and wafer-thin, the shack sat atop a hill on the outskirts of Caylis town, overlooking a valley speckled with roaming sheep. Many of the planks that formed the shack's walls were rotted and decayed with age. They looked so old, in fact, that by all rights the building should have collapsed decades ago. Amaril did not doubt that one of the witch's spells was responsible for keeping it intact.
Gelson's face blanched as they approached the shack, their horses' hooves clopping as they walked the dirt path. "You're sure this is where the witch lives?"
"I have been here before," Amaril said. "It's not the kind of place a man forgets."
"No, I suppose it isn't." He glanced at Amaril, still seeming doubtful. "Maybe she didscam you, after all. I mean, if she's got swords that are actually worth a thousand gold pieces, why in all the world does she live here?"
"There is little sense in questioning the motives of witches," Amaril said. "Perhaps she is sentimental. Whatever the reason is, you can ask her yourself. I'm sure she already knows we are here."
"Probably," Gelson chuckled. "But you're not really fit to talk about sense, friend. A sensibleperson would have tested the sword before spending half his savings on it. Not that I'm complaining, mind. If you had, I'd probably be dead already."
Amaril scowled and elected not to respond, instead nudging his horse into a light trot, leaving Gelson to follow. The door to the shack opened when he neared the porch, and the witch came out to greet them, hobbling with a old and gnarled walking stick in hand and a giant, black-and-white-striped sheepdog at her side.
"Amaril Azlin and Gelson Wise," the witch said, the wrinkles about her eyes tightening as she squinted. "Yes indeed, a true surprise. To what do I owe the pleasure, I do so wonder?"
"The sword does not work, witch," Amaril said as he dismounted. "The Kell-forged blade. I have come to have it fixed—or to secure a refund."
"Oh. Then this is not for leisure, but for a blunder." She turned, beckoning them forward. "Please, sirs, come right on in. It is much more comfortable inside, and the summer wind is bad for my skin. Pate here will stable your rides."
The sheepdog at her side shifted, then; fur drawing up and inward, muscles twisting and popping, until a young man—easily seven feet tall—stood in the dog's place, his back hunched painfully. He shambled forward and took their horses, leading the beasts onto the porch and into the house.
"Is that a good idea?" Gelson said, frowning. "Taking the horses inside? It seems like it'd be awful cramped."
"Worry not, Mister Wise," the witch said. "The shack is but a clever disguise."
It was Amaril's turn to frown, then. "Why are you talking like that?" he said. "With the rhymes."
"You mean she doesn't always do that?" Gelson asked.
"She didn't when I was here last."
"It is nothing but an affectation," the witch explained. "Meant to cause exasperation."
"Well, it's working," Gelson said. "Think you could stop?"
The witch cocked her head at him, and stayed silent for a long moment. "I suppose I should, if it really bothers you," she said, grinning a toothless grin. "Though truth be told, it's rather tiring for me, too. I didn't think rhyming would be so difficult. Now come, come! The sun's heading home, and I wasn't lying about the wind."
They followed the old woman into the house, and Gelson gasped as he crossed the boundary. "It's… bigger on the inside," he said, turning around to better take in the view.
"I love it when they say that," the witch said to Amaril, her grin widening.
Amaril could not keep from smiling to himself. Indeed, contrary to the outward appearance of a tiny, derelict shack, the interior was a huge, sprawling place, shaped like a dome overhead, the inside of which was see-through, allowing the setting sun to paint the environment with its many hues as the emerging stars watched on. Though it was Amaril's third visit, the beauty of the witch's boundary had not dulled with familiarity.
"A clever disguise," Gelson mused. "You must be a true witch, then, to create something of this scale. Not to mention the skinchanger. I'm sorry for doubting you, madam."
"'Tis of no concern, Mister Wise," the witch said with a smile.
"I am rather curious about that, though," Gelson said. "How did you know my name?"
The old woman winked at him. "A woman never reveals her secrets," she said, then turned and led them down a pebbled path that twisted and turned amidst rows of exquisite gardens, populated with hundreds of exotic plants, their leaves and blossoms forming a rainbow of vibrant colours. The shapeshifter, Pate, took their horses down another path, to what looked like a stable, while Amaril and Gelson followed the witch into a great wooden house—almost a mansion, in truth. A large white cat sat on the porch, watching with emerald eyes. It stood and walked into the house as Amaril neared.
They stopped in a large sitting room, and the witch gestured for Amaril and Gelson to seat themselves in the lush, red-velvet armchairs by the fire, a low table placed in between. A young girl with twirling skirts and twinkling eyes brought cups of tea and an unashamedly suggestive grin for Gelson. Lily, if I remember correctly, Amaril thought, looking at her green eyes. He only hoped Gelson would not try anything with her. He'd seen how the man acted around women, and a shapeshifter would likely take his hide off.
"Now," the witch said after they had all settled in, "pray tell what you meant, Mister Azlin, when you said the sword does not work?"
"Just that, witch," Amaril replied. "The blade does not cut anything."
"Nothing at all?" the witch said.
"Aye," Gelson chuckled. "We tested extensively."
"Yes, we did," Amaril said. "And it failed to cut even cloth." He stood and drew the blade from his scabbard. "Allow me to demonstrate."
Without waiting for a response, he stabbed down at the table. The blade passed right through the table and floor both, burying itself in the ground halfway to the hilt. The table did not even shake.
"That was rude," Gelson said.
Amaril shrugged. "As you can see," he said, drawing the blade out and sheathing it again, "it cuts nothing."
The witch leaned forward and squinted at the table. "That's not right," she said, shaking her head. "That's not right at all. It worked perfectly fine when it first came into my possession."
"And when was that?" Amaril said.
"Oh, I don't know," the witch said. "Seventy-three years ago, perhaps. Or as close as makes no difference. Time has a habit of getting away from me." She pursed her lips. "And you're sure it's the sword? There was nothing wrong with your… test subjects?"
"Aye," Gelson said, standing. "My blade easily cut what his could not." He drew his own sword, then, and grinned. "Shall I give a demonstration, too?"
And the moment he shut his mouth, his sword snapped in half, shards of steel exploding outward and embedding themselves in the furniture.
They all stared at it, dumbstruck.
"Well," Gelson said. "That was unexpected."
And the moment he shut his mouth, blood spurted from his back, and he fell forward and collapsed on the table, the wood snapping beneath his weight.
They all stared at him, dumbstruck.
Except Gelson, of course, who was unconscious.
The witch licked her lips. "Was he wounded during your travels?" she asked Amaril.
Amaril shook his head dumbly.
"Then… did you wound him, perhaps?" she said, eyes lighting up. "With the Kell-blade?"
"I did…" Amaril said. "But that was a while ago. And there was no blood."
The witch nodded. "And your blades crossed, yes? Before you wounded him?"
"Hah!" she exclaimed. "I know what's happening! That sword of yours is cutting into the future!" She cackled. "His body is only now catching up to the wounds you dealt him!"
Amaril nodded slowly. "That's all well and good," he said, looking down at Gelson, "but… I stabbed him twice."
And the moment he shut his mouth, blood spurted from Gelson's side, splattering Amaril and the witch's faces with crimson.
"Well," the witch said. "That settles it. That blade of yours is a ferdast. A resident—and manipulator—of the temporal plane."
Amaril withdrew a handkerchief and wiped the blood from his face. "How is that possible?"
"Oh, I'll explain later," she said. "More importantly, should I heal Mister Wise? Or do you not particularly care if he dies?"
Amaril glanced down at Gelson's body and sighed. "If you could, it would be much appreciated. I wouldn't mind so much if he died, truly, but I'd rather it happen in a duelling ring, blade to blade."
The witch nodded, but not without muttering, "Men," under her breath. She raised fingers to lips and whistled. A few moments later, Pate appeared at the door. He shambled into the sitting room and easily lifted Gelson in massive arms, indifferent to the blood that gushed from his wounds. Pate carried Gelson up the stairs and laid him on his side in a large featherbed, then stripped the clothes from his back with a gentleness that belied the shapeshifter's size.
The witch leaned forward and scowled. "Oh, well done, Mister Azlin," she said. "You've almost cut the poor man in half!"
"Thank you," Amaril said.
She ignored him, turning to send Pate off with whispered instructions, then began administering a greenish paste to Gelson's wounds, muttering to herself all the while. Pate returned in short order, carrying a cast-iron pot in one hand, and a wicker basket in the other, full of glowing liquids in jars and vials, miscellaneous body parts harvested from miscellaneous creatures, and dozens of other witching implements, as bizarre as they were varied. And bandages, of course. Bandages are always useful.
The witch took the pot and mixed the ingredients together, using precise measures. Pate took a square-shaped device from the basket and slid it beneath the pot, then twisted a knob on the side, and a blue flame burst into life between the two.
Amaril watched with controlled interest, leaning against the wall in a corner of the room. The witch and the shapeshifter bustled about, doing multiple tasks at once, often without even looking. After a few minutes of mixing, the witch began chanting over the pot in a language that Amaril didn't recognise, and Pate shooed him from the room.
The other shapeshifter, Lily, was waiting in the hall, and she smiled and led him back to sitting room, where the table had been replaced, and the blood and other mess had been cleaned up, then left him to wait.
Luckily, he did not have to wait long. Fifteen minutes after Amaril had been driven away, the witch came trudging down the creaking old stairs and collapsed into her chair, slumping.
As if on queue, Lily backed into the room with two more cups of tea, to replace the ones that Gelson had fallen on. Amaril closed the book that he'd picked up to pass the time—a large, red leather-bound volume on the advantages and disadvantages of self-milking cows over human workers. Why it was there, he had no idea, but it had proven suprisingly interesting.
"So?" he said, feigning a casual disinterest.
"He'll live," the witch sighed, wiping at the sweat on her brow with a loose-hanging sleeve. "But he'll need to rest here for a week or two, at the very least. And there may be some, uh… unintentional side effects."
Amaril arched an eyebrow, but the witch coughed and changed topic.
"You should know you've cost me quite a bit of money, Mister Azlin," she continued. "Some of the ingredients I needed for those salves are awfully difficult to get. The quadriquail liver alone cost me hundreds of Sayali crowns. They're an endangered species, you know."
"Don't expect compensation," Amaril said. "Consider it recompense for selling me a faulty product."
The witch looked up and scowled at him. "I wasn't going to charge you!" she snapped. "Healing is my civic duty. But that doesn't mean the loss is well received." She reached over and took the sword from where it rested beside Amaril's chair. "Besides, the sword is hardly inoperable. In fact, it's worth a lot more as a ferdast than as a Kell-blade. You should consider yourself lucky I wasn't aware of its preternatural properties, else I would not have sold it so cheaply."
"Worth more?" Amaril spluttered. "But it doesn't even work!"
"Yes it does. It just operates on a different thread of time to what you're accustomed to."
Amaril frowned. "Can you fix it?"
"There's nothing to fix," the witch said with a shrug. "I could remove the preternatural properties, but that could take decades." She bared a few inches of the blade. "And I don't know why you'd want that, anyway. The temporal threads can be controlled, with some effort."
"Yes," she said, closing her eyes and placing a hand on the steel. "The threads are what connect the blade to the physical plane, and you could shorten or lengthen them as you please." She slid the sword back into its scabbard and opened her eyes again, handing it back to Amaril. "At the moment," she continued, "I'd say the timeframe between spiritual interaction and physical manifestation is about five-hundred-ninety-eight-thousand, six-hundred-and-twenty seconds. Give or take."
Amaril blinked. "Could I get that in a less… irregular measure?"
"Oh, yes," the witch said. "It's about a week. One-hundred-and-three minutes short, to be exact. Theoretically, the timeframe between when you hit something and when it reacts could be anywhere between instantaneous and century-long. It depends on the wielder's focus."
Amaril nodded slowly. "So the blade could function normally."
"If you can control the timeframe, yes."
"How do I do that?"
The witch sighed. "Learning to channel magical energy is often a complicated and… challenging process. Especially when it comes to temporal energies. But you can accomplish it more easily by focusing on controlling only the blade's signature energies, rather than mixing yourself up with all flows. If you're determined enough, I could teach you, while Mister Wise recovers."
Amaril pursed his lips. "And you can't just remove the magic altogether?"
"The sword was not a ferdast when it came into my possession," the witch said, finishing her tea. "I suspect being stored so close to true magical artefacts for over seventy years allowed the blade ample time to… absorb certain energies. And the scabbard." She chuckled. "And given its company, we should be glad it isn't sentient. I don't fancy dealing with something like that again. But as I said earlier, I could remove the temporal energies, but it would likely take decades. The concentration is strong. It would be best if you learned to control it."
"Very well," Amaril said. "Teach me."
The witch shook her head, standing. "Healing Mister Wise has left me drained. His wounds were extensive. I must rest. We will begin your instruction tomorrow. Lily will show you to a spare room."
Then she turned and left, and Amaril found Lily standing behind him, waiting.
When Gelson woke the next morning, the first thing he did was flirt with the shapeshifter girl. Amaril wasn't sure if the man was blind to the fact that her eyes were too large and too green to be entirely human, or just that starved for female attention, but he decided he didn't particularly care, and immediately threw his efforts into controlling the sword.
As the witch had promised, learning was difficult. But Amaril had always appreciated a challenge.
They began with theory, the witch assigning him various books on the spiritual currents, the myriad forms of energy, and even basic human physiology, to teach him how the energies would flow. On the rare occasions she tutored him directly, she spoke as if to a child; enunciating carefully, explaining even the most obvious of terms, and asking after every sentence if he understood. She clearly believed that he was incapable of comprehending such concepts, regardless of their esotericism, and Amaril dove into the study almost to spite her.
By the end of the first week, he could control the blade's energies well enough to read and conciously manipulate the disconnect between the blade's physical and spiritual halves—if only by a few minutes—and the results led him to renewed vigor and doubled efforts. And by the end of the second week, his incessant practice enabled him to shorten the delay to a few hours.
Gelson recovered in his entirety during that second week, even his scars healing over, claimed he felt better than ever, and proceeded to eat his way through the witch's storehouse, though it did little to sate his newfound appetite. He'd left one day for Caylis, unnoticed by Amaril in his concentration, and returned with a new sword that was a fair bit more elegant than its predecessor.
He spent some time sitting with Amaril, listening in on the witch's lectures or observing Amaril's practice (though there was little to observe). But, of course, the majority of his time was spent with Lily, and the man's grin never failed to widen when he saw her, despite the bloody scratches that began to stain the backs of his shirts—a detail that both pleased and irritated Amaril, when he finally noticed.
The witch, impressed with Amaril's progress (and displeased with Gelson's nightly endeavours), decided that two weeks was long enough, and promptly delivered their eviction notice. So, they packed what little they had, said their goodbyes, and then began the trip back to Sayal. Amaril continued his practice with the Kell-blade while they travelled, and managed to perfect the instantaneous effect, as the witch had assured him he would.
They reached Sayal at noon, almost a month after they'd left. As soon as they were through the gate, Amaril turned his horse west.
"Where are we going?" Gelson asked, moving up beside Amaril.
"The quarter grounds," Amaril said. "We've unfinished business."
Gelson's face blanched. "By which you mean…"
"The matter of Lady Felise remains undecided."
Gelson groaned. "You still want to do that?"
"Yes," Amaril said, then booted his horse forward. Behind him, Gelson sighed.
A few hours later, Amaril thumped on the door to Lady Felise's rooms; three strong knocks in quick succession. He shifted his feet and fiddled with the collar of his new jacket, though the cuffs on his sleeves proved obstructive.
Gelson glanced sideways at him. "You look ridiculous, you realise."
"Shut up," Amaril said, putting on his best smile. "This is the current fashion."
"I very much doubt Felise cares what clothes you're wearing, Amaril. In fact, I think she'd prefer you be naked."
Amaril's smile tightened. "Do not insult her honour as well as mine, Gelson."
"Sorry," Gelson said. "It's just… well, she's a bit…" Footsteps sounded on the other side of the door, and Gelson sighed. "Oh, whatever. I'm sure you'll find out."
Lady Felise opened the door, drawing her dressing gown tighter about her shoulders as the cool evening air reached her—but not before Amaril noticed that beneath the robe she was naked.
"What is it?" she demanded, frowning at them.
"We have come to inform you, lady," Amaril said, gesturing to himself and Gelson, "that despite the interruptions in schedule, we still intend to duel for your hand, and we would ask that you attend the rematch. Tomorrow afternoon, lady, at the duelling grounds."
"I think not," Lady Felise said.
Amaril blinked. "Might I ask why, lady?"
"I went to your silly little show last time, but only because I was bored," she said, stifling a yawn. "I never had any intention of marrying either of you, and that has not changed. Gelson was only fun the first time, and you, Mister Azlin, are simply not my type. Besides which, I have already chosen my suitor."
A man came to stand beside her, laying his hands on her shoulders and kissing her ear. He had a bushy red beard, a neck as thick as Amaril's thigh, and arms even thicker.
"That is," Lady Felise continued, "unless you'd care to duel him for my hand?"
Amaril said nothing.
Lady Felise smiled. "Well, then. If the two of you wish to kill each other, feel free. But I will not deign to watch."
And with that, she closed the door, leaving Gelson and Amaril standing alone on her doorstep. They stood in silence for a short eternity, and Amaril turned to find Gelson looking at him. The man scratched at his stubble, then spoke.