“All right, enough!” Adrie shouted. Standing, she kicked his chair back. It scudded against the stone floor, loud enough to silence everyone who hadn’t dropped their arguments and stutterings at the sound of her voice. She raised her hands to hold the quiet around the long table, then set them carefully over the paper stacks in front of her to lean forward.
“I didn’t have this on my schedule today,” she said. “I don’t like a good panic and I’m honestly quite shocked that it came up at all. I’d so prefer to have a night to prepare for it before I get handed one. And it’s just not a good day for it.” She glanced around the table, looking the other men and women in the eye. “Can we all agree that tomorrow would be a better day for this panic?” she asked.
The line of recruits held straight, shoulder-to-shoulder as Hemmark passed in front of them. It wasn’t particularly hard, with their heels backed against their packs behind them, and their packs touching the barracks wall behind that. They looked directly ahead and didn’t waver, but that wasn’t hard either when turning would have meant looking into the sun that was threatening a too-bright day in the middle of the gray dawn. Hemmark, coming to a stop at the end of the line, pretended to be impressed with his handful of men and tangle of fresh sixteen-year-old boys.
“Welcome to the City Watch,” he said. He tipped his voice into a pitch that he knew would carry clearly down the courtyard, but did not raise his tone into anything that could be called a shout. Some of the boys glanced at him sideways, blinking into the light behind him, as if he might have snuck up just beside them. Meeting his eye, they immediately snapped their heads forward again and straightened like he’d kicked them. He reserved a smile for later.
“We will give you a bed. We will feed you. We will hand you uniforms and weapons and pay you besides. We will train you into the sort of men that this city will respect and sometimes fear. We’ll make you into the sort of man that the man next to you can trust. And in return, you will protect this city, from now until the day you are dismissed. You will follow orders. You will put yourself on the line. You will fight when we tell you fight, stand down when we tell you stand down, wake we tell you wake, and keep to your feet when we need you.”
Hemmark glanced down the line for the inevitable shifting that always arrived when he gave his speech. Feet shuffled. Shoulders rolled a little forward or squared defiantly. It was always half and half in these recruits, between those who relaxed into the idea of taking orders and those who disliked the idea entirely. But there was no more shuffling than usual and he nodded them toward the barracks.
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.