The tournament was fantastic. Orsia could not remember having a finer time in years.
Duels dominated the morning and evening each day, fought at the heart of Rhone Plaza or elsewhere in Nyssa. Watching fights was one of Orsia’s favorite activities, second only to participating.
The first two duelists to enter the tournament squared off that first day as the sun began to dip, making the city sparkle slightly in the cold twilight. The clear favorite to win this fight was the red-haired woman with the massive axe over the slinky black female p’tan facing her. However much Orsia had begged Dell, no silver went on the p’tan.
“I’m telling you,” Orsia had said. “I have a good feeling about that one.”
“Maybe.” Dell had given her a cool look. “If we hadn’t invested all of our savings on your entry.”
“Point,” Orsia had to concede.
For the first half of the fight, it looked like Orsia had been right. In her experience, agility and dexterity always defeated brute strength, and that fact favored the p’tan. The black-furred woman danced around the axe-wielder, landing two stinging blows with her dusky-bladed rapier. Her luck changed, however, when the massive woman brought her axe down on the p’tan’s rapier and shattered the blade with a shriek of steel. Before the p’tan could recover, the woman pounded her into the cobbles with first the butt of her axe, then her gauntleted fists. It took two muscular men to pull her off.
Chenoa Gryn raised the axe-wielder’s hand high. “This duel goes to Edanir of the Nasian Hills!”
Only the applause snapped her from her rage. Her smeared face made Orsia tremble a bit.
Dell squeezed Orsia’s hand. “Can’t say you told me so,” she said coolly.
“Ugh.” Orsia rolled her eyes.
The men went to help the p’tan to her feet, but she hissed at them and spat equal parts blood and drool. She limped off under her own power. That, Orsia could well admire.
She noticed a young man standing beside her, though she couldn’t say what about him had drawn her attention. He wore plain brown clothes, had an average height and build with rich burgundy-brown skin, and looked more or less like everyone else. Perhaps he was some sort of squire or servant of one of the fighters? And yet, something made him seem important. He saw her looking at him and smiled faintly, as though pleased by the attention.
The bard announced the next fight to begin in a few hours, distracting Orsia.
“Come on,” Dell said, pulling Orsia’s arm. “We need to strategize.”
When she looked back, the man was gone.
The following morning, Orsia took her place for her first official duel of the tournament.
Over the previous night, laborers had laid three massive logs in Rhone Plaza. Standing above it all on a raised platform, Gryn explained the rules of this particular duel. “One hit for falling and one for a touch,” the bard said. “If you are hit thrice, you have lost!”
Orsia nodded. The battle would test their balance and also limit their mobility, forcing them to fight in a straight line rather than circle around one another. Fortunately, she excelled in such circumstances.
“Orsia the Quick!” Gryn said. “Does she deserve her place in this tournament? We shall see!”
Ha. Orsia smiled brilliantly. For that little challenge, she’d give them quite the show.
Orsia stepped up on a log with an easy, lithe grace and tested her footing. The cold rain of the previous night had left the log slick, making it especially treacherous, but no matter. She slid one foot off the log as though to fall, making the audience gasp and fix its attention only on her. Then she caught herself on her hands, turned a cartwheel, and came up with her arms flung wide. They cheered and clapped at her performance.
Her opponent appeared out of the ranks of the watchers. He was an older fellow—probably a little past his fortieth winter—and had a big, imperious nose that she thought looked a bit familiar, though she couldn’t place it. Orsia knew dueling for a game of the young, so seeing an older bravo always made her a little wary where others might jest and mock. A fighter needed talent to last so long, and experience wasn’t a thing to sneer at.
The man climbed up on the log, looking a little perturbed at the annoyance, and drew a gleaming rapier that appeared almost new. Perhaps he’d recently commissioned it?
“Thadeon of Nyssa,” Gryn said. “Fight well!”
Orsia needn’t have worried, though. The fight was over almost before it began.
Thadeon came at her, slipping a little on the log, and they traded a few experimental cuts, each easily batted aside. He struck slowly and with strength rather than skill, and that would be his undoing. Before the fourth exchange, Orsia saw an opening in his defense. She parried at his pace, then suddenly riposted much faster and very hard. The thrust hit him in the chest, deflecting off his leather harness so it didn’t puncture his flesh, but the force of it knocked him sprawling into the snow. There he sat, touching his head hesitantly.
“A resounding hit!” the bard said. “A palpable thrust! Two hits for Orsia.”
Orsia waited on the log while Thadeon climbed back up, sword at the ready. He stared at her, and she could see anxiety creeping up inside him and turning into fear. Intimidation could be as sharp as any blade, her old fencing master had taught her.
The third hit was easily achieved. Orsia simply stepped toward Thadeon, menacingly and suddenly, and his eyes shot wide. He lost his balance and tumbled off the log into defeat.
Disappointing, but she’d made it through the first round.
Orsia smiled wanly. One battle at a time.
Two duels transpired each day, and Orsia watched them all—as much as she could, anyway. Some of the fighting styles were flashy and impressive, with weapons and techniques even Orsia had never seen. She’d assessed most of them for weaknesses, but it was hard to predict which combatant would win on any given day. She found the tournament exciting rather than threatening.
Still no sign of the mysterious Khavren. Orsia expected him to show himself at any moment, but every duel began without a trace of their mysterious sponsor. With each day the anticipation grew, nervous tension building for some sort of promised fulfillment. This added to the savor.
The evening of the fourth day brought a dull if aesthetically pleasing match-up between two good-looking human men, completely different in skin-tone, hair style, and carriage though all but interchangeable in weaponry and armor. Both favored the rapier and wore a thick suit of leather with stitched-in rings. Orsia wrinkled her nose. The finest brigandine wouldn’t do much against a good rapier thrust, and their armament wasn’t much to remark upon. Even their fighting styles were similar: both entirely too eager and clumsy, they put too much weight behind each swing and launched cuts with movements thrice as exaggerated as they needed to be.
Handsome, those lads, but she could have easily bested either in a duel. At least one would be eliminated early so she wouldn’t have to waste her time. Although…
“What odds will you give me that I can bed the winner?” Orsia asked Dell.
Her friend looked scandalized. “Orsia Wentworth.”
“What, you think I can’t do it?”
“On the contrary.” Dell gave her a long-suffering look. “With your luck, you’d probably get both of them at once if you wanted.”
Orsia grinned. “So, two to one?”
Dell returned a long suffering scowl. “Fine. Two to one.” Dell held up one of their last remaining silver coins. “And what will you bet with, Lady Empty-Pockets?”
“As if I’ll need it.”
Orsia saw again the young man who blended in with the crowd, across the arena from where they watched. What was it about him that drew her attention?
Orsia ended up rooting for the Dominion native over the local boy, because she liked his smile and the obvious arrogance of leaving his harness unlaced to reveal a swath of his burnished brown chest. She also liked the chest itself, of course. Again she’d guessed wrong, however, and the man met with defeat in short order, proving even less adept at dueling than his foe. At least they ended up laughing and patting each other on the back about it afterward like the old friends they obviously were.
“I’m going to ask that man for a drink,” Orsia said after the bard announced the winner. “Maybe his fellow, too. Join me?” When Dell only smiled ruefully, Orsia smirked at her. “Come now, you gain nothing by being a sore loser. I’ll wager they take pity on my equally pretty but less wealthy friend.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that.” Dell nodded toward the podium.
The Nasian swordsman seemed to be celebrating his victory by kissing his Dominion opponent quite hard and reaching inside the man’s open brigandine to caress his muscular chest.
“Damn,” Orsia said. “I should have known.”
“Probably.” Dell put out her hand. “I’ll take my winnings, then.”
Orsia scowled. “I’ll just have to owe you.”
“Of course you will.”
As the sun rose on the sixth day, Orsia shifted her weight from foot to foot and did a number of quick steps, stretching out her legs for her second duel of the tournament.
By the time the sixteen challengers had become eight, the hundred or so onlookers who had come to see the first fights of the tournament had about doubled in number, including a few folk in wealthy attire and their guards. Word of the tournament was spreading, and Orsia reveled in all the attention. She’d recovered and rested well after her fight with the cavians, and her first duel had been so short she’d barely even noticed herself fighting.
Neither spat had warranted much attention, but it set a certain tone for her fights: quick, precise, and flamboyant. And Orsia Wentworth, natural showman that she was, wasn’t about to disappoint her adoring audience with less than her best. She hoped that at least this new opponent—appearing now out of the ring of watchers—would last long enough to let her demonstrate her flair.
The two squared off in a wide circle cordoned off in the center of Rhone Plaza, giving them enough room to move around. No strange terrain rules this time—not after so many had simply fallen off the logs, shortening their matches and thus depriving the masses of their entertainment.
The warrior they’d picked to oppose her had such long, raven-black hair that she’d taken him for a woman at first. Not that she was one to talk, with her unruly mop of auburn hair and tomboy features. No one would ever accuse her of being a delicate feminine flower, and thank the gods for that. This young man had the opposite blessing: a body so slim and face so perfect as to be beautiful rather than handsome. His vivid lavender eyes pierced the winter air, and his full lips looked very kissable. A younger Orsia would have found herself practically incapacitated with giggling in the presence of such a lovely lad, and in truth seeing him still gave her pause. But after spending time in the beds of more than a few men and women, from the common to the exceptional of visage and figure, Orsia had come to realize such outward beauty for the mask it was. Outward perfection could hide ugliness or amplify the truth within, and she had no way to tell this lad’s truth.
Until she bested and bedded him, of course.
Chenoa Gryn took his usual place on the platform to announce the fight. “This morn,” the prymidian said, “the scrapper Orsia Wentworth of Nyssa against the duelist Daevos, also of Nyssa!”
“Local lad, eh?” Orsia smirked at her opponent. “Your place or mine after I put you in the dust?”
The beautiful boy drew his rapier, keeping his eyes low and not meeting her gaze.
“What’s the matter, gorgeous?” Orsia asked, flirting a bit. “Nervous?”
“Begin!” the bard said.
Daevos came at her slowly—hesitantly—and that proved his undoing. Orsia didn’t even draw her sword until he neared the reach of her lunge. Not his fault: her range far exceeded what one might expect from just looking at her. She shot out a step, dropped low, and whipped her rapier out like a striking snake, catching the lad’s arm as he thrust awkwardly toward her. Daevos jerked back, startled by the sudden movement and pain, and stared in disbelief at the blood welling on his wrist.
Orsia glanced at the crowd, scanning for something—someone. She caught a glimpse of bright eyes and thin lips that curved into an approving smile. Sure enough, the plain squire was watching.
“First point to Orsia,” Gryn said, and a chorus of cheers arose.
“Sorry about that.” Orsia waved her sword wide, flicking the bit of blood free. She smiled at Daevos. “This thing’s just so sharp, you know.”
The mockery—even Orsia had to admit it wasn’t flirtation any more—seemed to snap Daevos from his startled stupor, and he rushed at her. Stupid.
Orsia dropped low and thrust as he approached. In a fight to the death, she’d have spitted him clean through the belly with that move, but Orsia pulled aside at the last instant so her blade instead nicked Daevos’s ribs. The bard declared a second hit, and she rolled to her feet.
Or, at least, she would have had Daevos not stumbled into her without anything approaching grace. Orsia narrowly jerked her head aside so his blade didn’t cut her cheek open, but instead it stabbed into her shoulder. Pain lashed her, and her arm broke out into numb tingles. She tried to squirm away, but Daevos lost his grip on the blade in favor of seizing her by the shoulders. They fell to the grimy cobbles together, splashing filthy slush all over themselves. Daevos tried to climb on top of her, but Orsia squirmed free.
“This,” she said as she struggled, elbowing him in his pretty face, “is my best—coat!” She smashed her fist into the side of his head, knocking him sprawling to the ground.
Her sword lost in the struggle, Orsia pulled out her long knife and put it to Daevos’s throat. In her anger, she’d almost forgotten the rules of this duel. Chenoa Gryn looked at her, smiling a bit awkwardly. “Four hits for Lady Wentworth,” the bard said. “Er. You’ve won.”
Orsia sheathed her blade, glaring down at Daevos. “By the Hells, man,” she said. “Did you never learn to fight?”
“Not—not a fighter,” he said, his voice as touchable and kissable as his lips. “I… I serve her Ladyship, in the house of Wentworth.”
“I think I’d remember if I had a manservant,” Orsia said. “Wait. You mean—” Her eyes narrowed. “My mother.”
He nodded. “She’s—she’s concerned for you, my lady,” he said. “She paid me to enter and—”
“You tell my mother—” Orsia said, accentuating the point by smashing the pommel of her rapier into Daevos’s stomach, making him crumple. “—that I don’t need her coin to win my battles for me.”
“A fifth hit!” the bard said. “Again, victory to Orsia Wentworth!”
She peeled herself off Daevos, who lay gasping on the cobblestones, fallen sword half a pace from his hand. She couldn’t feel anything but disrespected and hurt when she looked down at him.
Pity, really. He was so beautiful.