The Necromancer and the Reaping Spear: Chapter Six Final

Hello, readers mine. I’m feeling a bit better today. A fortunate change, for it’s today I’ve chosen as the day I’ll throw together some cover art for this leviathan of a book. It’s already formatted for Smashwords, so I hope to have it finished out and submitted to the self-publishing process by the end of the night.

As always, I encourage you to read Making Points, Mental Health, and the Necromancer’s Vengeance Series (northbornsword.blog) before giving me your time or money.

If you want to see this series continue, then please pick up the first book here: Smashwords – The Necromancer and the Revenant: Resurrected Edition – a book by Caerllyn McCurdy. I’m an indie author with no resources save her own. Every dollar, share, and review is precious to me.

Moving on before I make any more uncomfortably-apt The Lord of the Rings references! Here’s Chapter Six, in which Syla prepares for a gauntlet of sparring matches against an entire martial arts school…

Chapter Six

A Spearhead’s Testimony

“A mortal may twist words, erase meaning, and deny evidence. But drive your steel through the flesh, and they will always be persuaded to die.” -Ten-zai, the Inferno Matriarch

Gratai’s eyes widened and she started to speak. “Peace, mother,” Syla said. “I agree with Zhen-mi. Mostly. Her argument simply missed a detail. I don’t need everyone in House Lin, or even everyone in this school, unified in favor of me. I just need to make sure the ones who I can depend on will act when I need it, and those who won’t will stay quiet, compliant, and well out of my way.”

Gratai calmed. She cleared her throat. “You will lose every bout, my dear daughter,” she said. “You possess a quick mind, good instincts, and a ruthless spirit. With years of training you could catch them up, some at least, but today—”

“Well, yes, but that may or may not make a difference,” Syla said. “You didn’t change your mind about me because of some physical thing I did. You changed your mind because I defeated the ideas you had about me—the ones that let you feel right to act as you did. We’ll spar with spears, true. But it’s their thinking I need to beat, not their skill.”

Syla should not have to do any such thing, of course. But if simply saying that would cause these students, or any human, to act as they should, then Syla would probably still be in Firasca with the woman who birthed her.

Len cleared his throat. “Most warstock aren’t Gratai.”

“Tell a bunch of people from birth that they’re superior and most of them aren’t likely to change their minds in a single day,” Syla agreed. “Some of them are likely much more bothered that a foreign-born girl has been dropped into their culture and is awkwardly imitating their customs. I don’t fault them for that—I would be lying if I said it doesn’t feel deeply odd to me, too—and I’m not trying to change the whole stock system. I just need to find out if I can make them see me. Syla.”

“Best perhaps that I return to the Bastion, lest my presence interfere?” Gratai asked.

“Oh, no, exactly the opposite,” Syla said. “I need you to stand high and mighty over the sparring pits where all of them can see you. I need them to know that my mother, the second Inferno Matriarch, is watching everything they do, say, and think towards me.”

“How will that help?” Zhen-mi asked. “They will never dare act on their true feelings towards you when Her Strength is present.”

Syla grinned—a predatory leer worthy of Azukai and her iron fangs. “That’s the point,” she said, and alone of the others present, it was Hei Cho who matched her sly delight.

***

True enough that this was a martial arts school where large-scale spur-of-the-moment spars happened frequently and without warning. Syla still had plenty of time to agonize over her decision while Hei Cho, her mother, and a certain Azukai sifted through formalities. The students sent Lei-zhu with her cold-crooked brows to deliver their acceptance. Syla spent several minutes jittery with nerves until Azukai arrived, with a certain dry annoyance creasing her eerie eyes, to say,

“They seem to have decided to glut themselves in the dining hall and laze about in digestion’s languor,” she said. “It will likely be some while.”

Syla passed the time by wracking her brain for every lesson her mother ever gave her. She also solicited Azukai for a mirror—then too her aid as well as Zhen-mi’s in arranging Syla’s hair. They stood in an empty alcove whose walls were punctured by thousands of thin questing vine-strands.

Azukai asked. Her flickering pale fingers, at Syla’s instruction, pulled and wound and obsidian hair. Zhen-mi held the mirror, moving at small gestures from Syla to let her see herself from different angles. This proved slower than the normal way.

“Alright, that’s enough of that,” Syla said, motioning Azukai away. “Good experiment but it’s gone silly. I’d rather roll the hair myself. Just as quick, and not pompous.” She set to work gathering back the tresses on her own.

“I’m grateful to have been honored with the chance to fail you in this,” Azukai said, with such overwrought fervor that Syla had to laugh.

“You’re ridiculous,” she said. “This whole princess business is ruining me. I used to be a humble woman of the people. Now look at me: so accustomed to being waited on that I looked for helping hands with something that’s just as easily done by myself.”

“So,” Zhen-mi said, with a sly look, “if I let go of this mirror, you’ll hold it aloft by sheer force of will?”

“I’d have you to thank for it even then, since it’s putting up with your nonsense that’s forced my will to be as strong as it is,” Syla said. She furrowed her brow and continued her work. “Present company excepted, that jest becomes less funny the more I think about it. A little to the lift, Zhen.” Her handmaiden obliged. Syla shook her head. “Praise to my father for showing me how to handle this the proper way. He also told me about some special style popular among Kiwodan sailors. At least we had time for that much.”

“I’m sorry,” Azukai said.

Syla shrugged. “It’s an old pain. Bittersweet, unlike the newer ones. I’m not about to burst into tears over it. I made peace with my father’s death years ago. That is,” she cleared her throat, “as much as any girl does if her father’s worthy of calling her father. It was a better world with him.” Silence passed by in quiet longing remembrance.

At length, Zhen-mi asked, “Might I ask about that special style, my lady Heir?”

“Oh, right,” Syla said. “I did tease you with that a little, didn’t I? It’s the mark of a sailor who survived the Cleavehull Sea. Like father did, for a while.” She blew out a breath. “Obviously, that did not last forever. I don’t think he planned to test it. Rough seas have a way of defying planning though, and…” she waved a hand. “You know the rest.”

“I don’t think my mother planned to be on the flank that collapsed the day First Husband Ryun died,” Zhen-mi said. “I know the rest.”

Syla shared a sad smile with Zhen-mi and continued her explanation. “Obviously a Kiwodan style assumes classical Ansethi hair, so,” she motioned to her own near-finished arranging, “all versions use dreadlocks. They’re supposed to be thicker, usually, and at least a little on the long side. But,” she laughed, “papa did say no one paid any attention to the length and thickness. You can’t force rules that specific on sailors who make it through the Cleavehull. They’ll do what they please.” She pursed her lips.

“The vital part, the part you really must stick to… it’s something about bits of iron and stones from beneath the quays at one’s home port. There’s a pattern to follow when binding them to each braid. But I fear I’ve forgotten the pattern. I haven’t survived the Cleavehull anyway, so this’ll do.” She sighed, brushing back the robust locks and turning her head from side to side to check herself in the mirror. “Well, easy part’s over.”

“You know that even if every bout goes quickly, forty-some matches in full sparring gear…” Zhen-mi winced. “You’ll be fortunate if you can still move tomorrow.”

“Well,” Syla said, splaying finger-tips around her collar-bone and speaking with a faux-haughty lilt, “That’s the price my body pays for being too weak to keep up with me.”

“It needn’t, necessarily,” Azukai said. “We could…” She trailed off. “No, never mind, that’s a terrible idea.”

“Hm?” Syla asked. She gathered her hair at the back of her head and motioned to Zhen-mi. Her handmaiden obliged her by moving in with a band of silk in the house colors.

“Bringing you to demonhood,” Azukai said. “It would offer you many new powers, but there exists a redoubt of woe and spite in the way of this plan. We call them the gods.”

“Mhm,” Syla said. “I appreciate your intent, but I don’t see the Pantheon letting a demon reign as Matriarch of anything. Given everything you and Kiresa had to plan around just to join us in fighting Mei-la…” she trailed off. “… and now it hurts again,” she finished.

Azukai nodded. Syla set her lips and tied off the band, creating a narrow bundle before the thick-wound dreadlocks spread into a fan-like fall down her neck-nape and back.

“At least I’ll look the part,” she said.

They spoke little from that point forward. Faltering attempts at dialogue sprang up and faded while Azukai and Zhen-mi worked together to fit Syla into a set of padded practice armor. The call came from outside. Syla fought once more to steady herself. There’s only so much to gain from breathing exercises, she thought. If I live too many days with my heart thundering in my ears from fright of the world, will it forget how to beat without panic?

“Syla,” Azukai said, hovering close and resting a hand on her shoulder. “Our Gratai lost ten sparring matches for every victory she took until the very day she ran away. Do you know why?” The zhumozhe smiled. “Because she always challenged the best students. You will one day eclipse the skill which is about to batter you, just as she did. If these haughty children live a thousand years and fight a battle every day, they would barely earn the right stand in your shadow.”

Syla firmed up her jaw. This was not the time for sentimental crying. She snapped her right hand to Azukai’s and clasped the zhumozhe’s fingers beneath hers in silence. Then, with a snapping step from the hips as brisk as any parade marcher, Syla stepped out.

Zhen-mi fell in beside her with thick wooden practice spears under her arm. Every last one was half again as tall as Syla. “Should I fetch any special refreshment for your rest breaks?” her handmaiden asked. This was most likely code for “healing spells.”

“I won’t call many holds for rest,” Syla said, looking out at the forty-five students assembled in a staggered ring around the rocks and sopping-wet foliage speckling the sparring ground’s mud. “Endurance will not be a deciding factor here.”

“Your ladyship anticipates many swift victories?” Zhen-mi asked.

Syla shared a smile with her. “One of those words is correct,” she said. She noted as she stepped through an algae-strewn puddle that the Lashing Rain students had concentrated on the circle’s opposite side. Gratai stood high up on the pronged balcony where Syla’s party had first arrived. Len and Hei Cho stood at her right and left hands, respectively.

These were, Syla reminded herself, the same students her mother defeated earlier. Even aside from that logic’s prime flaw, she noticed this wasn’t precisely true. A newcomer stood near her opponents’ back ranks. A tall figure wrapped in many alternating silk bands, golds, oranges, and reds on their arms that clashed somewhat with the deep-mauve vest that enclosed their body. Bronze symbols hung from dark-iron chains that wrapped their shoulders and formed a many-linked belt around their waist. Their face caused a flinch at first glance: mottled in uneven, splotchy bands up both sides of the neck with burn-scarring. The livid lumpen tissue ran up over the cheeks and onto the figure’s bald brown scalp, where it blended into a great mass that must cover their entire back.

Ragged six-way slits marred sockets which held empty darkness in place of eyes.

“Azukai,” Syla whispered, wrenching her eyes back to their false-calm sweep of the students, “am I seeing a ghost? And if not, who is that?”

“That is Yingsiun of the Kuliu family,” Azukai said. “Hei Cho’s favored protege.”

“I’ve heard that name before,” Syla said. She furrowed her brow. “A scandal, wasn’t it, some years ago? Didn’t he kill someone?”

“Yes, but that killing was the scandal’s resolution, not its genesis. His rival at the time, one Tang-fa of the Meifong family, fought him in a civil duel to determine who would become Hei Cho’s lead student. All rigorous by the Ton-Ga’s codes. They agreed to clash until first blood’s trickle,” Azu said. The zhumozhe frowned. “Except that Tang-fa grew enraged with him. When she seized the struggle’s momentum, she drove him back into a brazier and attempted to hold him there until he burned to death. The Banner-Guard had to haul her away. It took my own intervention to avert his death. His sight, however, I could not save. I offered to claim the girl’s head on his behalf.”

“And he accepted?” Syla asked.

“No,” Azukai said, and smiled with grim satisfaction. “He insisted that no one touch her until he had a chance for a second duel—this one to the death. He entered the bogs in self-imposed exile. It was during that time that he gouged out his own eyes. He misliked that they could not see, yet a foe might still gouge them amid a grapple. Somehow, among the dark trees, he learned to fight better than he ever did when he could see. He returned, he challenged Tang-fa, and he killed her in the second movement.” Azukai flicked her gaze side-on to meet Syla’s. “He used the first to blind her.”

“Ah,” Syla said.

“It is worth knowing also that Lei-zhu is her sister,” the devil-matron said.

“That explains much, though perhaps it shouldn’t,” Syla said. “Why are so many of the warstock so proud of their codes when they can use them to kill another’s family, but not when it leads to the death of theirs?”

“You know the answer already, my lady Heir,” Azukai said. She looked up and nodded towards the assembled Lashing Rain students. Syla became aware, then, that their murmuring and shifting had died out some seconds ago. “It seems they’ve chosen your first fight.” Syla nodded and strode forward before she could start to panic. Had they heard that list bit of sniping from her? Why can’t I hold my temper long enough not to sabotage myself? she thought.

She shook her head to clear it. Her shoulders already ached with the practice armor’s weight. The rain existed now only as a memory, and drizzle. Rather than clearing the air, the downpour left it hotter and muggier than ever. Every breath came heavy with damp and the padded armor’s musky, moldered scent. Breathing a stagnant pond, then, as well as fighting in it, Syla thought. And they do this every day. And I don’t.

This was, she decided, the stupidest plan she’d spawned yet.

She recognized Shai’s sturdy build and amiable eyes beneath the plumed steel helm bobbing towards her. The spear-duelist acknowledged her with a low bow. “My lady Heir,” she said. “I am honored to stand as your first opponent.” She swept her spear back inwards. Her expression was neither friendly nor unfriendly, purely alert. Syla matched it.

“Shai Yixiao,” Syla greeted her. “I am honored equally, that the Lashing Rain school greets me first through my sister in spirit.” Utter nonsense. Sending Shai against her was a blatant insult. Given the Yixiao family’s history with the Lins, it was clearly meant as an attack on Syla’s legitimacy as heir. Of course Syla couldn’t accuse them of any such thing. They’d just say they meant to ease her into the gauntlet by a match against someone she already knew. Also an insult, Syla thought. I don’t need coddling.

Telling herself that was well and good for her emotions. It did nothing for her tentative grasp on the spear or the stiffness the practice armor inflicted on her limbs. She tried to imitate Shai’s simple bow and moved so clumsily she almost spat in frustration. Though not monstrously heavy, the fabric resisted. It bunched up against her joints. This was less so like moving in a pond than in drying mud.

As for the spear, it was a beastly-hafted woodwork replicating a north Ton war spear: two and a half meters long covered in clear lacquer to protect it from wood rot. Its reach would ease the disadvantage of Syla’s piddly height. This also gave it the front-weight of any long thing held away from the body. It dragged at her hands. She must clench them to keep it firm, and that boded ill for handling it with any grace. She could wield it for a time with some speed, if little skill. But sooner rather than later, it would exhaust her grip.

Its point wobbled in minor yet constant zig-zags when she presented it.

Shai’s height was merely the most visible and least important element of her size. It was in warstock heritage, and perhaps more importantly, warstock training, with a rich and ample diet all her life. It was in muscle and calloused hands and force-hardened bone. Her spear’s point did not wobble, nor even move, once she drifted it to the center line.

“Combatants at the ready!” Hei Cho bellowed. “You will fight under standard tournament rules. All strike-zones are valid. I will call a pause each time I determine that a blow would have been disabling. The first to accrue five such blows shall be the match’s victor. We are the strongest spear!”

“We are the end of Anseth!” the students called back. Shai’s eyes flicked to Syla’s face. Her opponent shared the call with faint regret’s creases. Syla wanted to say a great many things. About the warstock. About the past. About what she hoped to prove today.

What she actually said was,

“JE-RAH!” in harmony with everyone else.

“Begin!” Hei Cho called.

Shai was measured, explosive, and nigh impossible to read. Syla’s modest training—and ample informal experience—had taught her to look for twitches and tells. A lean. A slant of the eyes. Something as simple as tensing and stillness. Shai offered no such hints. Her spear lashed and her body flowed in behind it to carry both towards Syla. Yet somehow Syla drove the first thrust aside and sent it away from her body.

The contact felt strange: airy. Wobbling.

Shai recovered instantly with a sloping step to one side. She leaned back as she recovered the spear, then shifted to a returning lunge the same instant that she launched a precise downward strike at Syla’s helm. Again, somehow, Syla blocked it. They fell into a rhythm as they circled and struck. Though Syla hadn’t yet come close to landing a strike, a certain satisfaction grew within her. Maybe she could do this!

She did not with a thrust for Shai’s head which the duelist sidestepped, nor at her feet which Shai hopped over. Even when their spears made contact for any length of time, the pervading sense Syla received was looseness. Her own practice armor resisted her more with its stiff-pack fabric than Shai’s spear did. Frowning, Syla moved her arms as if to deflect another incoming thrust. Then she twisted her wrists down to let her spear smack into the sodden circle’s floor instead. The wooden spearhead came in so slowly that Syla was able to backstep anyway.

Shai wasn’t even trying to hit her.

“Shai,” Syla said, making no effort to hide her annoyance, “why do you start every movement swiftly, then slow it as it reaches the halfway point on its path? Why have you made a pretense of sparring against me if you’ll not even try to strike me?”

The other woman’s eyes popped. “Forgive me, my lady Heir, I—”

“There will be nothing to forgive as long as you stop,” Syla said. “The fault is mine for failing to make myself clear.” She turned, fixing the other students with her gaze. “I did not come here to face idle spear-fondlers who only know how to treat a shaft well when it’s made of flesh. I came here to face the Lashing Rain school! I entered this circle because I want you to strike me with everything you’ve got!”

A resounding metal clonk rang Syla’s ears and sparks flared at her left eye’s corner. She staggered sideways, only half from startlement. She looked back to see Shai recovering her spear. Small burn marks from the practice armor’s warding smoked on its point.

“Point, Shai Yixiao!” Hei Cho bellowed.

“I’m sorry, my lady Heir,” Shai said.

“Don’t be! That’s more like it!” Syla said, yelling for the school’s benefit. “Giving speeches when someone’s looking to put a spear through me—” She anticipated Shai’s thrust enough to move aside, but the subsequent leg sweep knocked her flat on her back. Shai stood over her an instant later with one foot on Syla’s spear, the other on her chest, and that seared wooden point at Syla’s throat.

“Point, Shai Yixiao!” Hei Cho called once more.

“Leads to that,” Syla agreed.

Shai smiled and offered her hand. Wards flared against wards as Syla accepted it.

“That wasn’t what I was apologizing for,” Shai said. “But, thank you.”

Within fifteen seconds, she blasted Syla in the first movement three times: a thrust to the face, an uppercut into the armpit gap on Syla’s right side, and a counterweight-swing down atop Syla’s helm.

“Return to your starting position, my lady Heir,” Hei Cho called. “Next opponent!”

Syla shortly lost track of time. She faced one student after another, each with their own slight variation on Lashing Rain’s relentless style. Some sprang away and whirled their spears back to the center line after landing the finishing blow while others circled her. Some favored thunderous cuts to drive Syla’s spear down and bind it beneath their own thrusts. Others proved vicious-quick and slippery as eels when they rippled in, grappled her, and wrestled her to the ground with wards sparking and buzzing.

They all held one trait in common: Syla never landed a solid hit on any opponent. She managed some ephemeral taps. Hei Cho refused to call these. She had to agree—even if shame and building fury soon made her yearn to stamp, screw up her face, and scream until her lungs collapsed. The willpower needed to keep her simmering mood from showing by word or expression left her even less focus for the fight itself.

This problem compounded another by the time she lost her way into the second half. Even with pauses for breath during and after each bout, her whole body burned. Her lungs ached. Her heart felt halfway up her throat, ramming against it with each beat as if it would erupt from her neck. Sweat lathered her beneath the armor.

I’m going to melt, Syla thought.

It was at this point that Lei-zhu Meifong, thin faced and prim, strode forward to meet her. “My lady Heir,” she said. “It is inspiring to see that you are still full of vigor.” She lofted her practice spear above her and spun it hand over hand, then twirled through three windmilling diagonal circuits around her body before dropping its point in line.

Wonderful, Syla thought.

She hoped that the theatrics might disguise shoddy technique. She knew it for a vain hope. Hei Cho would never have tolerated such a student, even if Lei-zhu’s peers would. Still, Syla clung to the delusion for a few beats longer while she caught a few more breath-shreds. Then Lei-zhu sprang out with a thrust that only tapped Syla’s helm before bouncing away. Her armor’s wards barely had time to spark. Her foe rebounded with her spear’s impulse, gliding back a step further than necessary and making a show of spinning. Syla darted forward. She swung her spear out in a wide whistling arc, hoping to smash it sidelong against Lei-zhu’s helm. Her damning boots scuffed mud and splattered water.

That murky sound provided Lei-zhu all the warning needed to whip back around. Her spear whistled down in a right overhand cleave. Its impact rattled Syla’s bones and she actually lost her grip for a blink. She caught the spear again before it fell. That slight pause gave Lei-zhu enough time to launch her own lateral swipe. Syla strove to counter with a copy of Lei-zhu’s earlier downstrike. Her flashy tormentor widened her lunge and shifted more body into her cut. She somehow defeated Syla’s blow.

There were, Syla began to realize, a great many points of polearm technique about which she knew nothing. And somewhere within that unknown was the reason why Lei-zhu triumphed over Syla using the strike with which Syla had failed mere moments ago—and that when Syla copied the strike she’d used to beat that one!

Lei-zhu made it a point to toy with her this way. Minutes dragged by. Breath grew heavier. Limbs shrieked their agonies and slackened further. From lacking springiness at each movement’s start, and struggling to control its finish, her mind thickened and her sinews numbed until they left her truly sluggish. She gasped. She staggered. She heaved for breath. She ground her teeth and came closer with each moment to screaming out what Azukai had told her, to scourging Lei-zhu with her dead sister’s shame just to remind her what it was like to be humiliated. Yet still, Lei-zhu would not land a finishing blow. They circled enough in their lopsided duel for Syla to see the others’ faces.

She looked first to Hei Cho, thinking he’d chastise his student at any moment. Yet, though frowning somewhat, he never did. Her mother stood far too calm. A faint fell glow lurked beneath her black eyebrows—each arched just a little more than normal. It was the only sign the Inferno Matriarch offered that she was in a murderous rage. Yet, she said nothing. Zhen-mi made no effort to hide her indignance. She gritted her teeth and her knuckles turned bone-white against her clenched fists. Yet, like a good warstock girl, she took her cue from her leaders’ silence.

Syla opened her mouth. Her eyes flared and she drew breath to scream at Lei-zhu. The hateful goad’s eyes narrowed. The anticipation of a smile tugged her pouty lips. No, Syla thought, that is defeat. This is a battle of dignity. A rage is just what she wants. Any other time I’d give it to her, but today… today, I deserve better than that. Forget the rest of them.

It was Azukai who found the chance to clue Syla. The demoness’ triangle eyes caught Syla’s hazels. She winked, little more than a twitch of her right eye, and flicked a glance over Syla’s shoulder at the Lashing Rain students. So as she ducked and slid down into the mud, scrambling away from an overplayed sequence of thrusts by Lei-zhu, Syla looked. The tight-lipped satisfaction she’d seen earlier was gone. They glanced at each other. Slight shifts at the hip, furrowed brows, occasional grimaces.

“This,” their looks seemed to say, “is a thing ill-done.”

This is a battle of dignity, Syla realized, which I’ve already won if I can just force Lei-zhu to end the match.

After so many years acting out so many roles, after being made to feel small so many times, it wasn’t hard to combine the two. Syla blinked and gasped. She let her fingers slacken as she tottered forward. She let her spear drop onto the mud-washed rock in front of her. Lei-zhu grinned and committed the one unforgivable sin of a spear duelist.

Lei-zhu Meifong whipped her head around and shifted her feet into a pirouette. Lei-zhu Meifong turned her back on her enemy and for a single breath averted her eyes.

Syla summoned a surge of energy, though her forearms screamed and tore. She threw herself forward over the rock and seized up her slickened spear. Her right foot slipped out. Whether from mud or exhaustion Syla could not say. She knew it with a thought-shimmer swifter than words. She wouldn’t reach Lei-zhu in time—not unless she could make the spear reach further. So as she jabbed her arms forward, as her left hand dropped down to steady her against the rock, she let its haft slide through her grasp. Vibrations rippled down the shaft as it struck metal. They tore it free from her fatigue-chilled fingers, but there was no denying the existence of the instant before.

That instant when, braced upon the ground, Syla held her spear straight out with its counterweight alone balancing it against her palm, and its shaft flexed in collision against Lei-zhu’s warded brow. Its charred tip hissed and spat steam as it fell into the water.

“Point, Syla Lin!” Hei Cho bellowed. As Lei-zhu spun, her mouth dropping open in denial, a laugh and a cheer emerged from the Lashing Rain students. Shai, red-faced with glee, shook herself with the force of her applause. “Quiet!” Hei Cho called. But by the undertones of his voice, Syla knew he said it with a faint smile.

“T-that—that is not…” Lei-zhu sputtered, looking down on Syla, “that is not a properly-executed reed-thrust! That is not proper technique!”

In view of all the technique Lei-zhu had shown thus far, Syla offered the most damning response she could conceive: two raised brows, a flat stare, and utter silence.

“Your Strength,” Hei Cho asked, projecting his voice, “to your knowledge, has your daughter yet been instructed in the Lashing Rain school?”

“She has not, Grandmaster,” Gratai’s voice echoed out.

“As your teacher, I must respectfully suggest that you correct that mistake at once,” Hei Cho said. “There’s talent there going to waste. And I would have loved to see you execute a reed-thrust at all, Lei-Zhu Meifong, if you’d been so exhausted on your first day of instruction!”

Lei-zhu bit through her lip and stared at the mud. Red droplets ran down her jaw and stained the morass beneath her. Her training helm and loose hair-strands shadowed her thin face like a cavern-mouth hung by soaking creepers. Thus it was only Syla who could see the tears which did not join them, but glinted briefly on her cheeks before they ran down into the darkness under her collar.

Syla, meanwhile, hauled herself up and collected her spear. This was exactly the comeuppance Lei-zhu deserved. Syla should not have to restrain herself further, nor scrounge stamina she didn’t have to show kindness to such a petty, vicious, and possibly bigoted scrap of a woman. But it was at a moment just as desolate at this, she knew, that an unexpected kindness could breach the warstock facade. And what I deserve, Syla thought, is to wring some sort of triumph out of this trial.

So as she stood and ground aching legs forward through air that felt heavier than lead, she did not pass Lei-zhu by in spiteful silence as she wished. Manipulative as it might be, as much as it took something from her she did not have to give, and as much as a part of her hated herself for playing the role that comforted her enemy, Syla drew even with the girl.

And, as with Gratai, as with Morkui, as with herself, she gambled everything on a guess.

“Lei-zhu,” she murmured, without turning her head, “no matter what they say to you, no matter what they put you through, only one has the power to decide whether you become like your sister. That one is you.”

She heard a faint, shuddering inhalation from within the helm. She’d struck true. She resisted the urge to say anything further and returned to her starting position.

“Begin!” Hei Cho called.

Lei-zhu took two lunging steps, legs stretching so far her movement more closely resembled a striking viper balancing from its back coils than a human body, and administered a single heavy overhand to Syla’s helm before she could react.

“Point, Lei-zhu Meifong!” Hei Cho called. A thrust, two cuts, and a grapple and disarmament later, he called it for the fifth and last time that day.

Lei-zhu presented a stiff bow to Syla with lips tight against trembling. Then she turned on her heel and walked back among the other Lashing Rain students.

Something changed after that. A small thing, perhaps, or everything. Each student came forward. Syla, too worn to do much besides flailing her spear in their general direction, nevertheless bowed and held their gaze. They held it in turn through every exchange, save when a grapple or a sudden slip on Syla’s part broke the line. They held it while they retreated, in precise and unadorned steps, from each finishing blow they landed against her. Then, all at once, the second-to-last student recovered her spear from a thrust up underneath Syla’s helmet-brim. She bowed, walked backward, and rejoined the others. Yingsiun Kuliu stepped forward.

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