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 [ 18+ ] who hath desired the sea — her menaces swift as her mercies, for bird
bird
 Posted: Aug 29 2015, 07:35 AM
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The dawn wakes Alis too, unfortunately.

She rises in the lush guest quarters of the palace to a riot of starlings squawking among the fig trees of the courtyard, in a room furnished with all the opulence of the continental Cyprian coast. Rolling to her feet requires wincing, but the soft breeze coming up from the shimmering sea licks at all the aches.

The shoulder isn't the only thing that hurts, but it's the only time to get out into the practice yard before Beate helps her into her heavy plate. For the morning of the tourney, she has a new project in mind: a longsword resplendent in Ortissan filigree, though she doubts that any man or woman she rides against could unseat her so that she could use it. On a field of red, her silver lion is a freshly varnished promise, clawing at the narrow azure chevron of the sea. It puts a cheerful whistle to her step as she walks past the stables and the orange trees.

That morning, though, she isn't the only one in the yard, or even the first. Across the field and under the soft pink sky, the graceful rise and falling of the glaive awaits her. Alis stops whistling. She stills in her tracks, thinking to call across the grass and spoil for a proper fight this time, to charge forward with steel in her hand and a yell that would wake every rook and songbird roosting in the battlements.

Instead she stays there, watchful. There's an angry whirling bite to each swing that she can see even from this far, that she -- recognizes, gods help her. The lion's daughter would never apologize, not for fighting well and certainly not for fucking up Samuel of all people. But there is an uncomfortable, awkward itch that crawls right up under her skin, and Alis skulks away with the taste of copper in her mouth.

There'll be time for that after the tourney, she thinks. Time enough to get her axe, and make it a better fight.

That morning, a peach tree in the orchard ends up getting the worst of it.


*


Around noon, there is enough time to browse the wares before Alis has to buckle into her armour. She cools her nerves by setting off through the milling crowd, past squires and servants and city folk, dancers and acrobats, fragrant with cooking meat and spices and leather and honey.

At the far end of the court, tucked beneath the lacy shade cast by the trees, there is a Watusi merchant that recognizes her by her plait and her sigil. For her, he produces a soft leather bundle carefully stowed away from his more pedestrian wares, smiling gently when he unrolls it before him. Alis sucks in a breath when she sees the set of five franciscas gleaming up at her, each one only about the length of her forearm, each with an arching blade that is sharper and lovelier and more wicked than the last. Her mouth opens around a worshipful, silent little oh. She reaches out, looking up only with her hand a breath away from the first shining haft.

"Go ahead," the merchant says, shrugging. It's steel, after all, isn't it? When the margrave finds his daughter, she's already got her eager hands on all the blades; weighing this one in her hand, running her thumb along the blade of another. He hasn't had to look for very long.

"Alis," he says.

Alis squares up against a burlap-wrapped post set beside the stall, already worn down with notches and bites. She takes a few steps back, frowning. Then, with her feet light over the cobbles, she bounds forward and throws herself behind the swing. There is a moment -- a shining, lovely moment, with her braid whipping wildly over her head and the haft fitting sweetly into her palm, that lasts right up until just before she releases her grip. Then, a nasty little twinge stabs into her left shoulder, and momentum gets the better of her.

The wobbling path that results is no fault of the francisca. It hits a little skewed, and clatters to the cobbles with a chime.

The three of them say nothing. Face burning, Alis goes to pick up the blade, returning to the oilcloth with a reproachful look at the merchant. Then, whirling on her father, she asks, "Do you want to know what he called me?"

"I know what you called him," the margrave says. The country wouldn't have an army if he let his daughter kill every man she didn't like. There is a lecture that asks where do you think this steel comes from? Who do you think threshes the wheat?, but the rooster of the rock didn't throw the first blow. "He's a drunk, and a fool. Whatever he said, you don't have that excuse." He unlaces his hands from behind his back. "We'll discuss it later. For now, Tomas rides in your place."

"What?" Alis's eyes go as wide and round as rivets. "No! You can't just change the docket like that. He's not even ready --" and he rides like a bag of wet potatoes too, but she manages to bite her tongue.

"It's my tournament, isn't it?" the margrave asks, a little archly. "But you're right - he isn't ready. I told Kesar to take the day." He tilts his head to the calling bugles, the roar of voices on the green. "I think I'll tell Beate too, come to think of it. Which means you have some work to do, no?"

*


They say that Armel Cormeilles fights as well as the old lion did, in his youth. Maybe even better.

He rides much less now than he used to - though no less fearlessly - back when Alis was just a small thing hollering in these sun-blistered stands. Ever the gallant hero, he wins his first bout easily, and upstages the defending champion on his second. This upset victory, fought bravely on the ground and almost into the stands, brings an already rowdy audience to their feet.

But Alis doesn't get to watch that fight, or the next one. She spends most of the tourney buckling Tomas into his plate, in what turns out to be a horrifyingly anxious, rushing hour and a half for the both of them, though Beate is kind enough (or told to?) to turn up anyway and help. This accomplished, she sends him off with a clanging slap on the back and the truly inspired advice to go fuck him up. She takes to the stands alone, albeit with her five franciscas under her arm for company.

In the fidgeting, sun-baked crowd, there are other pretty things to catch her eye. She comes up behind the back of Mariam's kerchiefed head, craning back into the crowd, and -- on a whim --leans up at the fence beside the other woman's elbow. No shining armour or fine silks for the lady today. "Hungry?" A pair of warm pasties in the grease-spotted paper bag she extends from her left hand is likely the best apology the fishwife is ever going to get.

When the bugle calls, the defender closes the visor of his helm and settles behind his two seasnakes hissing on a checked field of gold. Nearer to them, a tall bay courser shakes its head and paws the earth. The lion rears on a field of blue instead of red, and -- quite frankly, to Alis' eye -- looks a little unsteady.

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Lar
 Posted: Aug 29 2015, 09:33 AM
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The first Cormeilles shield that rides fights well enough that Mariam can't help but root for him, stoic in his saddle and efficient on the ground. All the same, bile rises in the back of her throat, and she hisses the islanders' disappointment when he wins. His second fight earns him Mariam's admiration. The steel-edged taste of battle nearly brings her out of her sulk as metal clangs on metal and lances warp and snap—and then another Cormeilles rides out. Alis, she thinks at first, until the lion's daughter appears at her elbow, pasties in hand.

Mariam hesitates, red-rimmed eyes searching the other woman's face, before she hardens herself and turns away, swallowing.

"No," she says coldly. However tantalizing the smell, Mariam won't accept charity from an enemy—not after last night, when Samuel reminded her that knights, above all, have principles. Loyalty, chivalry, temperance. He may have missed the lesson; Mariam won't.

The silence grows heavy between them before the fight begins, and yet neither of them move, elbows nearly touching on the fence. Mariam yields first, softens, though the set of her bruised jaw refuses to forgive.

"Your brother?" she asks, eyeing the sharp line of red behind lion rampant. The seasnakes opposite hail from the isles further south than Thermyras; Mariam remembers them from trips as a child, when the great brassy gates of Nicetus Hold would open to a white-stone castle dripping with gold-checked flags. The knight must be good to have come this far for a tourney. His destrier throws its tail like a horse from the deep east—and charges.

Mariam holds her breath as the three-beat of the canter breaks into a gallop; as the knights near each other, bracing behind their shields; as the lances strain to hold their aim on the backs of veritable tsunamis. The two crash together and Mariam all but feels the impact in her own shield-arm. Tomas wavers in his saddle, but regains his seat in time to turn for another charge. A squire waits, straddling the fence, for his time to collect the warhorses.

The Nicetian knight sits strong.

"Five bits says he comes off this time," Mariam lilts, eyes darting over towards Alis. It must be a paltry sum for the margrave's daughter, whose smallest expenses are measured in gold—if Mariam knew the price of those franciscas, her heart would break in two.

"Twenty says Nicetus wins."
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bird
 Posted: Aug 30 2015, 07:51 PM
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"Suit yourself," Alis says at last, having spent that seething quiet looking at Mariam's bruises, her red eyes, the angry set of her mouth. She shrugs with her one good shoulder and tears into the pasty with her teeth, making sure to smile when she does it. Briefly she looks up at Mariam with an exaggerated, eye-fluttering, satisfied little mmmmf. If the filling burns her tongue, she doesn't let it show.

But by the time she looks back across the field, she's frowning again. "Tomas, yes," she says, finding herself suddenly restless. Disappointment has been curdling in her all afternoon, though for a time Alis had managed to swallow it for Tomas' panicked sake. It isn't his fault and she knows, but there is so much of her that wants this so desperately that she can't help but scowl at the set of her brother's shoulders. Come on. She holds her breath before the hit.

Nicetus has the favour of the crowd when she exhales. "Double that and you're on," Alis snaps. The gods had never given her much by way of temperance, and chivalry has always struck her as a little quaint, but no fishwife could ever make her bet a single copper against her own brother.

Tomas lifts his shield and starts back towards them again. Alis grits her teeth in a silent please.
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Lar
 Posted: Aug 31 2015, 07:52 AM
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"Ten and forty, then."

Mariam has little to spend, but she'll pay the price to wipe that smug eye-fluttering smile off Alis' face. If Tomas wins, Mariam will be on tight rations for the next few weeks—but when he loses, the coin will jingle happily in her purse. There are expenses for a new graduate like Mariam: new plate, a steed of her own, her personal arsenal of weapons and gear. The palace only provides so much—and there is no wealthy family waiting to spill coin for her.

"Best hope the next charge is better," she retorts, "Or else you might have to have daddy come save you again." For all the sharpness in her words, Mariam smiles as she says them, and the mellow tones of her voice erase the sting. If there is a sly light in her eyes, it can be written off as a trick of the midday sun.

The horses collect, sweating and wild, straining at their bits—and surge forward like loosed arrows.

Nicetus braces for impact, the checked gold of his shield shining brightly. His lance catches dead center on Tomas' shield, forcing his opponent back into the lip of his saddle. Tomas leans, clumsy in his plate, and topples. He crashes to the ground, lance knocked from his hand—then the Nicetian, gallant as befits a knight, draws his horse to a firey halt and catches the reins of Tomas' steed in one gauntlet. He dismounts as Tomas scrambles from the dirt and passes the horses off to the waiting squire.

The men draw their swords.

The clang of steel on steel rises; the clamor of the audience rises with it. Mariam smiles to herself, the bitterness of last night still sharp on her tongue.

It's a quick fight, with Tomas still so unsteady from his fall that the Nicetian holds back, as gentle with his blows as if scolding an unruly kitten. Someone in the audience mews, to a chorus of laughter—the kittens of Cormeilles, indeed.

Mariam coughs to hide a laugh of her own.

Tomas comes to his knees and drops his sword, no doubt burning with humiliation; Mariam turns to his sister, face as sweet as sugar cubes.

"It was well fought," she says—and lies, lies like a thief and a scoundrel—lies as if she believes it herself. There is no less warmth to her when she adds, "I'm sorry for his loss."
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bird
 Posted: Sep 5 2015, 06:56 AM
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"Wasn't my skin he was trying to save, fishwife." It comes out of Alis coolly enough, sucking the shortcrust crumbs from the tips of her fingers as punctuation, but heat spreads under her skin and lights a wild flickering in her eyes as if she has her axe in hand again. She glowers at Mariam, alight. "Next time --"

In Alis' mind, there is absolutely and unquestionably a next time - never mind what the fishwife thinks. Next time, she won't have to play so nicely; next time, Mariam better bring a bigger fucking stick, or that stupid friend of hers (not that it would do her any good); next time, Alis would win (again, after all) and Mariam better hope to be so lucky. But the next pass-at-arms thunders forth and cuts her off with horse hooves and singing steel, and the crowd rises as a drunk and roaring flood around her. Next time is far more dear than a few bits, but Alis yells too, hammering her palm down against the splintering fence as if she might just clamber over it and join the fight after all.

Then it's over, at least until it isn't. For a heart-hammering second, Tomas lies crumpled where he's fallen, still in the trampled grass. "Get up," Alis grits - or maybe thinks it - leaning almost over the fence, food forgotten in her hand. He does, eventually, first on one knee and then the other, slow and a little sheepish in heavy cavalry plate. A little air knifes back into her lungs.

She'd fight this better. Of course she'd fight this better. Nicetus rides strong and is a worthy combatant - it has to be admitted - but he lets his shield arm drop every time he's about to swing high and heavy, even batting around a kitten like Tomas. Alis would punish him for that, for having the gall to pull his punches, for the stupid plaintivemeows that send laughter rippling through the crowd as if it's ever been a funny joke.

Out on the field, Tomas is the first to congratulate the Nicetian knight on his victory. He pulls off his helm with sweat in his hair and a shaky smile, and goes to clasp a gauntleted hand, metal on metal.

His sister is not nearly so gracious. "Here," she says, slapping a single coin down beside Mariam. "Keep the change. Maybe it'll buy you a real weapon."
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Lar
 Posted: Sep 5 2015, 07:52 AM
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The words come like a slap in the face, and for a moment Mariam gapes at Alis, wide-eyed and burning with humiliation. Her hands ball into fists as she grits her teeth, her mead forgotten on the fence.

"Keep your coin then," she retorts, voice steely. "Maybe it will buy you some manners."

As if there's enough coin in the world.

Mariam spits at the other woman's feet, and the crowd behind them hoots, spoiling for another fight. Some of the graduates remember yesterday and shout their drunken encouragement. Even Nicetus has stopped to watch, his helm tucked beneath one arm, smiling teeth bright against his sun-dark skin. He has heard the old adage: there is no storm so harsh as a woman's fury.

"Meet me in the practice yards, then," Mariam hisses. "Half-past four. Leave daddy home this time. I'll show you what my pigsticker can do."

If there are tears welling in the fire of her eyes, she hides it behind the stubborn set of her jaw and offers a handshake to Alis. Let it be an honorable challenge, so it means all the more when the kitten is mewling in the dust.

*

Mariam is in the practice yards by four, her blade gashing the sky. If there is wetness in her lashes, no one is stupid enough to mention it, although her classmates that step forward to warm her up are gentler with their swings that usual. Mariam fumes at them—fumes at Samuel, who has taken up a bleary-eyed post at the fence.

She wears her armor from earlier, but this time with a leather helm pulled down over the thickness of her curls. The sun sits high in the sky, glinting off the sea—off the freshly honed edge of her glaive.
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 Posted: Sep 5 2015, 10:54 AM
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There's a part of Alis that briefly thinks on how -- disproportionate Mariam's reaction seems, that almost wants to say I didn't mean it, but it dissipates as quickly as sun on the water. Argent, chief indented Or with a dolphin haurient Azure might draw a blank, but a blank could be anything. Any number of nerves there to hit.

No matter though, really-- a challenge is still a challenge. The lion's wild-eyed daughter barks a laugh and grinds spittle under her heel, stepping forward, clasping Mariam's hand in a firm grip.

"What," she says, "stick pigs? Maybe I'll pick my teeth with it."

*


Later, in the guest quarters, the afternoon repeats itself.

Not with heavy cavalry armour or lightweight scale this time, though. A small scrapyard forms as she rifles through her chambers, dragging out pauldrons, gorget, and cuisse, this axe or another. Tomas sits on the edge of the bed with his tourney bruises blooming all over him, holding a single shining gauntlet. "Can't you just leave her alone?"

"Have a little faith," Alis says, her hands on her hips. She looks around the room, frowning. "Greaves?"

Tomas points: over there and looks out the window. The rest of the palace has fallen into a hush, a brief reprieve until the final night's revelries. A few sparrows dust themselves lazily in the courtyard below him; crickets hiss in the rising afternoon heat. "This is stupid," he says, shaking his head, breathing in the sea breeze. "Even for you. And what about your shoulder? You know that's why you weren't in the tourney."

"My shoulder's fine," Alis starts, and then stops, snapping her jaw shut. The quiet drags a little too long, long enough for a niggling little kernel to bloom into a thought that starts how would he -- , long enough for her to stop fussing over the buckles on her cuirass and really look at him as she snatches up her gauntlet. Tomas Cormeilles, always the fucking diplomat. Always so caring.

Always such a bad liar.

He yields quickly: hands up, fingers spread, reproachful. "It looked like a bad hit, Alis. What was I supposed to do?"

"I don't know! Have you ever thought about keeping your fucking mouth shut?"

A few starlings startle from the sill outside the leaded windows. It makes the silence smart worse.

Alis turns away, tasting metal. Yanks the last buckle on her gauntlet a little too tight, when she looks over her shoulder at him.

"I'll see you on the green."

*


Some time later, when the tide peels back from the rocky shoreline, Alis walks out alone across the palace grounds with a foul mood and her axe over her shoulder.

She isn't whistling this time. She comes up to the paddock with her head held high and the lion's head gleaming on the haft of her axe, shooting Samuel a sidelong glare as she climbs over the fence.

"Early, aren't you?" She leans against her axe, blinking at her gauntlet as if to study her fingernails through the steel. Loud enough that Sam can hear her, she adds, "I didn't realize we were bringing lackeys."
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 Posted: Sep 7 2015, 10:26 AM
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"Not my fault you don't have any friends to bring," Mariam retorts archly, leaning into her glaive so the butt of the weapon grinds down into the dirt. Her eyes crawl up and down Alis' body, searching for weak points—the hinges of her greaves, the undersides of her pauldrons, the slim gap between cuisses. For her part, Mariam is more vulnerable in layers of thick leather, ringed and studded to hold off the lethal bite of a sharpened axe. Vulnerable, but more agile—perfect for the long reach of her glaive.

"Ready?" Samuel shouts from his post at the fence, as if Mariam had asked him to call the match. The look she shoots him could maim; the set-jawed, dark-eyed face she turns to Alis could kill.

"Yes." Maraim hollers back, adjusting the sallet on her head with her free hand. There is a hostile edge to her voice, and she readies her glaive.

"Then by the Gods—"

The rest is lost in the clash of metal on metal as glaive glances cuisses in one smooth lunge, the deadly point of the weapon threatening to slide between pieces of plate. A swing of the axe is enough to knock it aside, but Mariam eases in, relentless as the tide, harrying her opponent from every edge. Each corkscrew of the blade is measured, calculated, none intended to do more than weary Alis is her heavy armor.

There is a look in her face that the men of her class know too well—the look of a cat toying with a mouse.
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 Posted: Sep 7 2015, 09:10 PM
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Mariam looks at her, and Alis looks back, as defiant and deadly and shining as a spear-point. The moment crawls.

A little crowd begins to amass at the paddock fence again as they size each other up - Mariam's classmates, mostly, lured away from their drunken wander away from the tourney or the clatter of their practice weapons. They gather around Sam in a gaggle of armour and sun-ruddied skin, just within earshot of the two women when the wind stills. Someone says, get her, Thermyras! Someone says, taking your clothes off again, Eastmarch? Someone says, twenty on that northern bitch!

Alis looks away first, raising her eyebrows at them gamely. The smirk she crooks at Mariam reads plainly enough: some friends.

Then by the Gods, that northern bitch barely has enough time to clap her helm onto her head before the glaive comes swinging at her. It comes up low against segmented steel, the great axe kicking up clods of dirt on the upswing that meets it. If she'd planned on taunting Mariam, it seems as though Alis forgets it then, stepping forward after that first bruising impact to check the fishwife back with her gleaming shoulder. It's much likelier, though, that the ringing steel drowns it out.

She can afford to be slower in plate -- to be more fearless, more brutish, to let a blow she might have parried or backed away from yesterday slide off her cuirass like rainwater. She could afford to be more patient, too. The plate is southern-made but mostly northern in design; the heavy leather gambeson made for cooler, more fir-shaded summers. Still, Alis doesn't tire so easily, and she comes at the fishwife with swings as wild and brazen as yesterday's.

Except at the fences, someone notices -- the margrave's girl isn't swinging that axe very much from her left, is she? Beneath the edge of her barbute, Alis licks a little salt and copper from her lips, and throws herself behind a high and heavy blow.
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 Posted: Sep 7 2015, 10:53 PM
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Mariam stumbles away from the blow, moving back and back to stay out of range. She gives up three-quarters of the paddock before holding her ground, trembling as blocked swings of the axe ring down the pole and through her arms. The lacquer by her hands grows more pitted with each landed strike.

At first Alis has the advantage, and the sidelines murmur their contempt. Mariam isn't holding her stance, with all her weight pushed into her back leg; her dodges are inelegant, clumsy. She lets he glaive slip once or twice as the weight of the axe swings against her. Whatever elegance Mariam has in practice slides from her grasp, until she is nearly on her knees beneath a rain of right-handed blows.

And then she sees her opening.

Mariam takes a glancing blow against her greave that sends sparks spitting into the grass, but it gives her chance enough to strafe left, her grace regained, and throw a wild swing of her blade up into Alis' armpit. The tip of the glaive catches in the plate momentarily and then twists free, popping loose a few rivets, and Mariam pulls her weapon back to lunge again. Now she is reading Alis, dodging the axe before it swings, and her glaive dances in her grip.

A rumble goes up among the bystanders, get her, Thermyras, on excited lips.

Mariam moves lightly, faster than Alis can keep up in her heavy plate with her heavy weapon, and the grim line of her mouth morphs to an easy smile. At once she is in her opponents space, pressed close so they are nearly teeth to teeth; so the axe can't swing near enough to hit her. She forces the pole of the glaive behind Alis' calf, the blade glinting over both of their heads, and pushes, toppling the other woman into the dust.

With one heavy boot she steps on the hand holding the axe, though her opponent struggles against the pressure, and swings the point of the glaive down until it hovers a hair's breadth from Alis' lips.

"Yield."
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 Posted: Sep 8 2015, 03:44 PM
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Gods, what a thing it is -- the advantage. She only gets bolder with each swing, drunk on the heady rush of it, pushing Mariam back towards the fences. The axe whittles out great chunks of hardwood, gouging a wide arc across studded leather. In a different city, in a different fight, Alis might have ended this here and now, but today each new blow tastes too much like victory. Beneath the shadow cast by her helm, her eyes are gleaming: Mariam isn't the only one who likes playing with her food.

Until the glaive-guisarme hooks in, peeling back a little of her cuirass as easily as chicken skin. Alis cries out but wrests free, swinging back around from the right again. Too little, too slow this time. Air whistles over the freshly honed edge.

She tries to knock Mariam back and regroup, but retreat doesn't come so easily. The barbute blocks out enough of her field of view that the glaive seems to come at her from nowhere -- she rushes her swings, striking little, harried by blows from her left that she has no choice but to hunker down and take. When she has her footing under her again, Mariam has her toe-to-toe and teeth-to-teeth, pressed so close that a little breath fogs the shining face of her ruined cuirass. Close quarters, then - Alis takes her right hand off the haft and gets ready to start swinging. Her fist is still curled when she falls backwards into the grass.

She hits the ground bad, and hard. A young man's pealing laughter carries in the salt breeze. Her left hand is pinned by Mariam's foot, her shoulder hurting, her helm lost somewhere in the grass behind. It isn't a small thing, getting up with this much steel pinning down her chest and shoulders, but Alis shrimps herself up onto her elbows anyway.The blade is waiting for her there, barely a kiss away.

She doesn't say anything, not at first, with her breath still running a little ragged and sweat sticking her hair down and gleaming on her cheek. Her eyes trail up and along the glaive, mapping each lacquered knurl and splintered notch along the way. By the time she looks up at Mariam, yield is the only syllable flat enough to say without cutting herself -- so she says it. But it comes out as a mocking echo, a question, a pretty little whisper far too quiet for the boys at the fence to hear. "Yield?" Alis asks, and her eyes are blazing, glaive to the bloodied split of her lower lip. "No."

Then she runs her tongue along that razor edge, not blinking even once.
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 Posted: Sep 8 2015, 04:18 PM
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Mariam's breath comes thin, and thinner again when Alis' quicksilver eyes track up the length of her glaive—when the woman is insolent enough to lick the blade, leaving red-tinged spittle along its length. The world seems to freeze for a dizzying moment, and Mariam freezes too, lips parted in what might be surprise. Her heart thuds in her chest.

The still hangs like heavy fog off the sea long enough that the bystanders rustle uneasily before Mariam remembers herself. She forces more weight down into Alis' wrist and grits her teeth, her mouth twisting into an uncharacteristic snarl.

She twirls her glaive blade-end up and slams the end of the pole down into the gap in the lion's ruined armor, bruising ribs and knocking breath free.

"Yield you crazy—"

'Bitch' is lost in the careless clang of blade on gorget as Mariam swings her weapon down again, and this time she punctuates it by slapping Alis' cheek—hard—with the flat of her blade.

A bruise to avenge the purple mess on her own jaw.
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 Posted: Sep 8 2015, 06:28 PM
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It's hardly the first time the lion's daughter has been this -- insolent, though maybe not quite anything like this. She watches Mariam's eyes in that long, drawn-out moment, something molten crawling under her skin. At the fence, a few boys scrabble to try and figure out what the hold-up is.

Insolence doesn't come cheap, of course - it tends to hurt fantastically. The blow to her ribs knocks her back down into the earth, crying out, her eyes shut and her mouth bloodied. Her left shoulder and wrist still protest, wedged into an unhappy angle, though the gauntlet takes the brunt of Mariam's foot. Still, the breath that roars out of her is wild-eyed, triumphant, just this side of laughter -- "No."

She still has no blooming round and scarlet on her lips when the glaive swings down. Alis spits blood, head snapping to the side, sparks blooming between her eyelashes. Her right hand comes up on the glaive's follow-through, as if she's some poor helpless scrabbling little thing -- until she grabs the glaive by the blade in her gauntlet and yanks down and hard, taking Mariam's balance along with it. An inch from her ear, steel sinks into the trampled earth.

It'd be a better trick if she could get up -- get up, and quickly now. But the blow to her ribs still has her coughing, and she only manages to lash out blindly with an armoured boot. "Not to you," Alis wheezes, with blood in her smiling teeth. "Not ever." No matter how their self-styled referee decides to call it.

Except, when she gives the blood an insouciant little lick, it comes out sounding a little more like make me.
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Lar
 Posted: Sep 8 2015, 06:57 PM
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Mariam stumbles and the flailing foot catches her right in the stomach, knocking the wind from her. She coughs and wrests her glaive free, doubled over; the weapon she tosses aside, out of both of their reach. Samuel hops the fence to collect it and hovers for a moment, as if wondering whether to step in—but Mariam doesn't even shoot him a glance. Her eyes are on Alis.

She drops to her knees, one leg slamming down on the other woman's wrist to keep the axe pinned. Her other knee bangs against metal; her knees will show the bruises tomorrow, even despite her armor. Alis will be the worse for wear too.

"You will yield," Mariam says, voice low and close to Alis' face. "Everyone else might be afraid of you but I'm not. Kitten. You—"

Her fist catches the margrave's daughter on the cheek, right where the glaive did, a strong punch made the worse by studs in Mariam's gauntlets.

"Will—"

This fist falls into the gap in Alis' armor.

"Yield."

She readies her fist for another punch but one of the graduates catches her hand. Samuel stands gawping by the fence as Mariam's fellows pull her away and onto her feet, At once she feels weak, as though thrown into a frigid sea; she trembles as someone passes her a waterskin to drink from.

No one moves to help Alis.
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bird
 Posted: Sep 8 2015, 10:22 PM
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"Don't call me --"

In hindsight, she should have seen the first blow coming. The second too, which hurts worse, and leaves her choking and bloodied but unafraid.

The third --

Hands come down to drag the fishwife away before she can land the third.

In the glittering aftermath, Alis lies still and coughing, with the blue sky wheeling high above and sparks still crawling under her skin. Slowly, gods, so slowly, she eases up onto hands and knees and gathers her helm, and then her axe, and sets off the way she came with her head held high. Let the islanders coo over their own, Alis thinks, but she looks for Mariam among the group huddled at the fences as she passes -- and spits, staring them down.

She waits until she reaches the shade of one of the inner courtyards to yank off her cuirass with shaking hands and clutch at her ribs, gasping. Beneath the ripening canopies of fig trees, the carved faces of the saints are a stern reminder: Don't cry.

*


Night finds the capitol still aglow with paper lanterns. Merchants and musicians pack up their wares and make their way out of the harbour city, while pious children wade out into the gentle surf and send out little floating candles to be taken by the tide.

The palace halls still ring with music and laughter then, and well into the small hours of the morning. In a vast white atrium filled with fountains and citrus trees, diplomats and warlords and dignitaries exchange pleasantries over sweet Basadoni summer wine. Above the great mosaic floor, the margrave leans into a carved white balustrade while a man in bright Ilamabad silks laughs at his shoulder and tosses a coin into the fountain far below.

"Don't complain too much, Julien," the merchant is saying. "I have seven. I'm convinced each one plans on murdering me in my sleep."

"At least they agree on something, then. A happy household." The merchant laughs; the margrave shakes his head, scoffing into his drink. "But come now, you didn't come so far west to ask me about my children, did you?"

But the merchant turns, distracted by the sound of metal -- a bright-helmed youth from the king's own guards skidding to a halt. He catches his breath with his hands on his knees, even as the margrave sets down his wine and puts out a hand to steady him. "My lords --"

Around the fountain, a great cry goes up. A man in a bloodied traveler's cloak staggers past the crossed lances of the kingsguard, taking two steps before collapsing on the many-coloured tile.

*


Not much later, the horns sound off the battlements. Alis startles awake in the small hours of the night to frantic voices carrying through the walls and across the yards, a fist hammering at her door. Lamp-light flickers in the gap before forcing its way in, held in the hand of a broad, strong woman with blue tattooes marking her broad forearms and knuckles: old sacred marks of some even more distant northern hold. "Beate," Alis sighs, sagging in relief. Her axe drags, barely ready in her hand. "What's going on out there?"

"Gods, girl, look at you," Beate says, taking her by the chin. Mariam's fist has purpled her cheek and blackened her eye, and the split lip looks a good deal worse than it did yesterday. She teeters from one foot to the other when Beate lets go. "Get dressed. I'll get you something for that lip."

"Where are we--"

But there isn't time. Beate sends her out in scale, with a heavy bundle of clothes slung over her shoulder and a promise to do something about that cuirass. Alis has a curved and wicked dagger on her hip and the great axe in her hand (though, Beate remarks, a sword would certainly be more suitable) when she staggers out into the palace yard. As bleary and blank-eyed as her expression is, her pack is a little heavier with a few squirreled-away treasures -- not the least among them her franciscas.

In the blue pre-dawn light, the palace yard blazes with golden lanterns. Alis finds her brothers there, among cavalry soldiers gathered with their horses, servants and squires scrambling across the grass. Armel sits astride his tall gray mount, leaning forward in his saddle to hold some some hushed conversation with their father. Beside him, Tomas, wide-eyed, stands on the cobbles with his shield on his back and his hand covering his mouth. All through the palace grounds there are whispers of a rider, a dying man chased by demons from the north, but until now none of that had seemed to mean anything. Between her bruised ribs, something twists sharply in Alis' chest.

"Wind at your back, Armel," the margrave says, raising his eyes, looking older than Alis has ever seen him. "Good hunting."

The next time the horn calls, the young lion answers. A hundred horses start out the palace gates in a mighty phalanx, streaming off into the night.
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