A long time ago, Caled thought it would be the joy of a lifetime to watch the two best swordsmen in the world clash together. There was beauty in a blade. There was grace in the way it flowed into an arm that knew how to carry it, one limb that spun faster than bone should, fell sharper than flesh ought to. It was the perfect weave of power and skill and elegance. It was a dance that he couldn’t look away from, caught on the knowledge that the ending might literally steal a breath away.
Caled had touched enough blades in his life, spun them through fingers that understood the metal as firmly as a child understood his imaginary friend. He fought enough times to know the feel of a cut, the rush of the run to give one faster than he received it. He knew what it should look like.
And then he saw it.
It wasn’t a dance. It was an instant. It was a moment, spun together not in a braid, but a single, tiny knot. If he’d blinked at the wrong moment, he would have missed it. It was only three steps forward, one long stride to meet it, and one man bowing over a blade that had already been pulled out again. His fall to his knees took longer than the fight did.
Caled swallowed, blinked in the baldness of it. It was beautiful, in the way the perfect curve of the knife was, uninterrupted and clean. It was graceful in the unrepeatable way of a cat’s fall. It was the kind of power that didn’t pause to impress, but came down like a hammer and claimed everything it wanted.
Caled felt no need to see it again. He was happy enough with his other games.
He had his knives in the dark, after all. His walls that he liked to pretend were so thick, but relished in the thinness of them. He had the delicate construction of his secrets. He had the sweetness of a word on his tongue. He had the power of commands. He had his lies.
Caled gave her a knife. Her hand dropped when the hilt rested fully in her palm. Her small fingers looked even smaller on the oiled leather wrapping, but she kept her hold on it well enough.
“Is it heavy?” he asked.
She considered it, thought harder than she had to, but she was young. And she came to her answer quickly enough. “Yes,” she said.
“In the right way,” Caled said. He smiled more to himself than at her. “It’s a good knife. It will slide in easily.”
She nodded immediately, accepting the idea without question. He smiled a little wider.
“I want you to take it with you,” Caled said. He laid his words out carefully. Too much rode on this. Not that she wouldn’t listen. She always listened. “And tonight, I need you to go to the city barracks. You know where that is? Sneak in, the way you do. Make sure no one sees you. On the first floor, all the way at the back, there will be two men, sleeping. I need them never to wake up. Do you understand?”
She blinked at him once. Just once. “Yes, sir,” she said.
“You’ll do this for me?” he asked. He needed it done. Just to topple the falling dominoes he had laid, in the right direction.
She almost returned his smile then, just at the corners of her mouth. She ducked her head to hide it, turned it into a fast nod. “Yes, sir.”
Caled pulled back, smiling broadly. “Good, girl,” he said. “Now get. I’ll see you in the morning.”
She spun the knife in her hand, laid it back against her forearm so she could run with it and darted toward the door. Caled turned back to his desk. He laid out the rest of his plans for the evening. He picked up a knife of his own and disappeared into his work.
The next morning, she didn’t meet him. It wasn’t even midnight when he realized, falling onto his knees, that there was no difference between liars and swordsmen.
The very best of them never danced, never paused to impress. They hit like hammers, and didn’t even stay to watch the collapse.