“And this is the solution you suggest to us?” the king demanded. He was building an edge in his tone that made Seryn drop her eyes to the ground again. That was a voice that could command thousands, without ever even shouting, and she recognized it instantly. She’d heard enough of them in her lifetime to be ready to respond when she caught the first hint of them.
She was braced on the outside of her feet before she realized it, spine slung in that easy slope that readied her to move. She liked it. The readiness. The easy, thoughtless way that her ears opened and her mind shut and her body anticipating whatever was asked of it. She let her eyes slide to Macsen, waiting.
Macsen looked to Deaver. The other man slid one step forward, just enough to claim the king’s attention again, and bowed his head.
“It’s a solution,” Deaver said carefully. “One we know works. One where we are capable of offering aid.” He ducked his head a little farther. “You asked for a demonstration, Lord. That is the only reason I brought them here. We make no demands of you.”
The king considered him, gaze wandering back to Seryn and Aled. “Very well,” he said finally. “Let’s have our demonstration.”
The men and women at the edge of the room seemed to understand an instant before Seryn or Aled. They all drifted back on the next breath, cozying toward the wall and leaving a wider space at the center of the room. The king nodded to his son, who stepped down from the dais, motioning for one of the soldiers at the edge of the room. Seryn expected him to come forward, on the first flick, but he ran for a side door. Running to fetch someone, she realized, and then she felt the smile radiating off Aled, and she looked down, her own mouth curling.
“Does it matter to you which one takes the fight?” the king asked Macsen.
Macsen shook his head. “Take your pick, my lord.”
“Seryn,” the king said immediately. “You’ll do us the honor?”
Macsen smiled so quickly, Seryn had to look away to keep from mirroring it. “Yes, your majesty.”
The soldier who the prince had sent from the room came running back, a second man at his shoulder. Seryn gave him her full attention as soon as he came far enough from the shadows for her to do more than make out a gray outline. He was taller than the other soldier, darker skinned like he’d seen a lot more sunlight, and the muscles of his shoulders and chest were obvious, even through the jacket of his uniform. He looked a little like Aled, long and thin, and quick. There was a long, thin sword slung across his back in a leather sheath.
He had a longer reach than she did, and more weight to throw into each motion. She noted both things like she was reading text on a wall, recorded them in the back of her mind, and didn’t much care.
Seryn peeled out of her coat, handing it to Aled, then slipped out of her jacket and he took that as well. He squeezed her hand over top of the fabric before she let go. Seryn tested the fit of her belt, the way her sword rested against her hip, then dropped her hands to her sides.
“To first blood, my Lord?” Deaver asked, settling into his new pose at the face of the crowd. He leaned beside one of the pillars.
“To yield, my lord?” the queen countered.
Seryn looked at her. No else turned, and Seryn forced her expression to flatten. When she turned back to Aled, his jaw was tight.
The king nodded slowly. “To yield.”
Macsen caught Seryn’s eye and didn’t move for a long moment. “You do not yield,” he murmured. “Until I tell you.”
Aled shook his head, so small a movement, only Seryn caught it. She turned her back, so that he’d move to the crowd with Macsen.
“Jeyd?” the king asked.
His soldier came forward, dropping into a bow so deep, his chest rested against his raised knee.
“Are you ready?”
“Yes, sir,” he said. His voice was deeper than Seryn had expected. She paused to listen to its echo on the stones.
“I’m ready, your majesty,” she said.
“At your will, then,” he said.
And Jeyd spun toward her, grabbing his sword out of the sheath on his back and swung at her. He was just as fast as Seryn had expected, and she skittered back to keep out of his reach, jerking her sword sheath up with one hand to fling the blade into the other. Then she ducked under another swing, turned and skittered back again. Her back was to the dais now. The crowd was just a shadow on the other side of the pillars. She looked at Jeyd, all long arm and long leg, and started watching.
She blocked his next swing, took it on both arms, with her sword forced over her head supported on both palms. She felt it, straight down to both shoulders. The next swing, she let slide to one side, as she flipped her blade solely back to her right hand.
He was watching her too, waiting for her to retaliate, and creeping closer to laughter the longer she waited.
So, she darted in, twisted inside his reach, brought her blade up and sliced the edge of her sword toward his ribs. She nicked him before he pulled his block close enough to his body to catch her. He pulled back. She liked the feel of putting her foot down and watching him retreat, but she didn’t let herself stay still for long. He was swinging in toward her head again, and she had to take the force of it on her arm, before she could slide out from under it.
Jeyd paused to fill his lungs properly, and looked her over.
Seryn looked back, knowing the expression. He was finished calculating his odds with her, finished charting his own fight, and he liked what he saw. Seryn shifted her grip on her sword. She didn’t.
She didn’t let him hit her on the next three attempts, then couldn’t stop him on the fourth. He saw her steady herself to take the blow, and drove in hard. She gasped. She thought she’d felt his strength before, but this jerked the muscles in her shoulders, ground the bones down on each other.
Wincing, Seryn turned into the blow, though that hurt more, and drove her sword toward his chest. She waited for the feel it of it, meeting the cloth and skin. It didn’t come, he knocked the sword point to one side, turned sideways and swung at her again. It wasn’t as firm a hit as the first, but it echoed it. She wanted to pivot back, and get out of reach again, but drove in tighter in one more attempt to cut him. She saw blood, and twisted under his arm, danced behind him. She sliced up his back, kicked him in the back of the knee and scrambled out of his reach.
It took him a moment to straighten, but he had his eyes on her over his shoulder in an instant. She knew the look. He could jump up if he needed to, but he’d take any rest she gave him.
Her hand was shaking. She shouldn’t have been breathing hard, but she was. He was bleeding, she wasn’t, but she knew she was losing.
Seryn looked at Macsen. He shook his head.
Jeyd came back toward her. Two blocks, and he caught her in the shoulder with the butt of his sword. It sent shock needles down her arm, and she brought her elbow across his jaw. His cheek was split at the bone when he looked at her again, and he sliced toward her.
He caught her arm. Warm blood soaked into her sleeve.
Seryn pulled back again. She looked to Macsen. He shook his head.
She drove in this time, nicked him once. He couldn’t bring his sword up high enough to block her, but he twisted at the last moment, threw the weight of it behind his fist and punched her high in the stomach. She doubled over his arm, held tight to keep him from moving away, and slashed down again. She caught skin, felt his blood splash her hand, but she knew she hadn’t had enough force to do real damage. He caught her in the chest with cold metal. She felt the slice melting down from her collarbone, warming as it went, and broke free of him in an instant.
Putting a hand to her chest, she felt for how deep he had dug. It was really just a scratch. But it was long. She looked to Macsen.
He shook his head.
Seryn swallowed. He was never going to say yes.
Jeyd was swinging back toward her, smiling.
Seryn dropped her sword. The clatter shocked him, but not as much as the fact that she kept her feet and leaned in toward him. With both hands, she hit just below his elbows, flung his arms wide, then turned her palms flat against his ribcage.
Ice burst underneath her shoulder blades, tore gashes down her arms beneath the skin, wrapped the muscles in aching cold that locked her arms in place. At her palms, it popped and burned. The air hissed. His jacket blackened under her fingers, cracked and crumbled. Then his shirt. Then her fingers were pressed on bare ashy skin. Her fingers were glowing white-blue, hot. The glow licked the air like smoke, slid like water, bit hard. She didn’t let it escape far from her hands, just held it there, against his ribcage.
And he screamed, the deep voice twisted high for an instant.
“Yield!” he shouted.
Seryn dropped her hands, dropped to one knee, and let him run three steps away from her.
She heard the gasp and murmur from the crowd. She heard the king stand. But she looked to Macsen first.
He looked back, smiling with approval, but it settled over her shoulders and made them colder.