Lady Blade, Lord Fighter #1
The Silver Bracers

Chapter One

The snow and ice had degenerated to slush that wasn't refreezing even after dark, but Timper still disliked riding through it over the cobbles of the city. Oncoming spring had much more pleasant signs in the south, ones which didn't make the streets slippery and unsafe even for a sure-footed mount, and the young courier wished he was back there. Despite the heavy woolen cloak over his clothing he was cold, but the dratted cold wasn't bad enough to distract him from his problems, only bad enough to be an additional burden. His problems remained just as clear in his mind as they had been.

A part of which was having to plod up and down the streets of the northern city of Fyerlin, trying to find the one he was supposed to deliver his message to. The torches on the heavy stone buildings he passed laughed at him for his initial na´vetÚ in believing that that would be the simplest part of his commission, merely needing the time to reach the lady at her aunt's house. Since the skirmishing had already resumed, having no patience to await a proper spring and summer due to the presence of so many Sword Companies, where else would the daughter of a duke be found but safely beside her aunt? The Countess herself had a strong, competent House Guard, well-armed and able to repel attempted incursions during that time of war and unrest, so where else would her niece be but -

With one of those Sword Companies.

Timper sighed, overwhelmingly relieved that he would not need to be the one to tell that to the duke. After the death of the Duchess, the duke had sent his eldest daughter to live with his sister-in-law, the Countess Illi of Fyerlin, intending to see his child raised with all the necessary graces taught her, graces the ladies of his own house seemed unable to impart to her. The child had been about eleven at the time, and the Countess was well known for her no-nonsense attitudes and iron determination. The strong-willed child would be given no recourse save to obey her and learn the womanly virtues…

This time Timper shivered into his cloak, bewildered as to what might have gone wrong. The lady, now a woman, was not to be found sitting demurely beside her aunt, a fact which Timper was prepared to swear pleased the Countess! When he had politely requested an audience with the lady, he had been settled in a chair, handed a glass of sherry, and then gently told that the lady wasn't there. If it was truly imperative that he see her, her whereabouts might be gotten from the Company clerk of the Silver Gleaming, one of the Sword Companies camped and billeted in and around Fyerlin. How she had gotten involved with one of the Blades of a Sword Company no one seemed prepared to discuss, but Timper prayed he wasn't too late. It was hardly likely that her virginity was still intact, not if she had been in the company of a Blade for longer than five minutes, but that was the duke's concern and the concern of the lady's future husband. His was that he be spared the necessity of having to bring her home already married - or, worse yet, unmarried but pregnant. The duke's temper was unlikely to register the fact that his courier was scarcely apt to be the one responsible. . .

The lady Sofaltis of the Duchy of Gensea, involved with a Blade of a Sword Company!

Timper's shudder reached through to his mount, causing the patient, steady beast to raise its head in momentary distraction. The gelding was hardly the sort of horse to grow skittish, for which Timper was profoundly grateful. He was skittish enough for the two of them, especially after being sent by the Company clerk to the barracks, and from the barracks to a house in the city itself. His demanding the whereabouts of the lady Sofaltis had gotten him no more than grinning silence, and he'd actually had to pay those oversized mercenaries for what he needed to know: where the lady was, and nothing more. The least they could have done was tell him which of the Blades she was involved with, of high rank or low, so that he would have some idea of the amount of difficulty he would face when the man found he was to lose the lady's company. Possibly he should have hired his return escort before continuing his search, but mercenaries were so unreasonably expensive, and he had no idea how long it would take the lady to have her gowns and possessions packed.

Timper sighed again as he automatically counted streets, then guided his horse right into one whose name post was conspicuously absent. It was the third or fourth he'd passed that had been rendered anonymous in just that way, the expected fruits of having carousing mercenaries rollicking through a city. Duke Rilfe would never have allowed that to happen in their city, but what else was to be expected of those of the north? Even the nobility there seemed touched with the same tainted outlook, looseness of morals, little or no sense of duty, a scandalous lack of piety. Why, when he'd asked the Countess if he might have a moment or two with her house priest for the easing of his soul, she'd actually informed him that her house had only a priest of Evon, no priest of Grail! The courier was sure he'd successfully hidden his shock at that, but the Countess hadn't been equally successful at masking her unexplained amusement.

There, almost exactly mid-block on the left, was certainly the house he'd been directed to look for! Timper took in the three torches burning calmly on the front of the large, setback, freely-standing house, the modest metal spear-fence that stood invitingly open, the demurely draped windows that nevertheless showed a hint of lamplight behind them, and guided his mount through the fence and toward the high-pillared front door. He still had no idea whose house he was about to peremptorily enter, but that made little difference to him. He was a courier, empowered to enter anywhere and everywhere to deliver his message, and that would be known to whomever resided in that house. If he hadn't been so cold he would have straightened his shoulders and raised his chin, but gestures like that would have to wait until he was indoors and warm again.

As he drew rein and began to dismount in front of the wide steps of the residence, the front door opened unexpectedly and a boy emerged, muffled to the ears and wearing a woolen cap which couldn't have offset the thinness of his threadbare coat and trousers. The boy pulled the door shut behind him, hurried recklessly down the slippery-looking steps into the torchlit night, then put a thin hand on Timper's bridle.

"I'll see to him for you, sir," the boy said in a voice that cracked more from the cold than his age, bobbing where he stood in a parody of proper bowing. "You go right on in to where it's warm, an' I'll put him in the sheds behind."

Timper nodded and surrendered his mount without demurral, pleasantly surprised to see that the amenities weren't entirely lost to those of the north, then climbed the steps toward the front door. Behind him the boy had hesitated very briefly before leading his horse away, just as though he had expected something more from Timper than a nod, but he couldn't imagine what that might be. Residences in the south always had a boy to see to one's horse, and they never expected more than a nod. After all, was he expected to give stabling directions for what would be a visit of no more than a few minutes at the most?

The door opened again as Timper reached it, this time wide enough to let him enter. The entrance hall was lamp-lit and warm, especially when the servingman closed the door behind him, then turned to give him a far more proper bow.

"Allow me to take your cloak, sir," the man offered, already reaching for the garment in question. He was dressed in striped silk with knee hose and buckled shoes, but the scrupulously correct tailoring usually worn by servants of the upper class failed to hide his outrageously large size. One normally chose servants of lesser proportions for one's household, Timper knew, to keep one's guests from needing to look upward in so uncomfortable a manner, but he was hardly there to school those of the north in common courtesy. His commission was far more important than that, and he was anxious to get on with it.

"I shan't be staying long enough for that," Timper denied with a wave of his hand, looking around at the polished-wood paneling of the entrance hall and the closed doors that led from it to the house proper. "I am a courier of the Duke Rilfe of the House of Kienne in the Duchy of Gensea, and have been told that the lady Sofaltis of the same House might be found here. I must insist that I be taken to her at once."

"I do beg your pardon, sit, but I'm afraid that that would be a matter best discussed with my mistress," the man replied, withdrawing his hands with a small, odd smile curving his lips. "I'll have someone take you to her."

"Gad, man, have you no ears?" Timper snapped, long since out of patience with the numberless obstructions he'd found in his path. "I have no wish to see your mistress, I wish to see… "

His words ended in near-outrage as the servant dared to turn his back and take up a small hammer lying in front of a set of crystal bells, and then purposefully strike one of the bells. The pure crystal tone was sweet and considerably more penetrating than Timper would have expected, and the first door to the right opened outward to show another servant like the first, properly dressed but hardly properly-sized.

"This gentleman is here in search of a particular lady," the first servant said to the second, his tone entirely uninflected. "He will, of course, need to speak to the mistress."

"Of course," the second agreed, eyeing Timper's continued possession of a cloak but refraining from commenting on the fact. "If you will be so kind as to follow me, sir?"

Very briefly Timper toyed with the idea of refusing while demanding again to be taken to the lady, and had the servants been of more usual proportions he might very well have done so. After a moment, however, it came to him that these were, after all, no more than ignorant servants, and the wisest course of action might well be allowing them to lead him to their mistress. With that in view he strode through the door being held open for him voicing no more than a short sound of impatience, waited until the servant closed the door again and moved ahead, then followed wordlessly after.

Moving through the doorway had put him in a hall both narrower and longer than the entrance hall, but one whose floor was richly carpeted and whose paneled walls were hung with paintings of obviously great worth. It seemed to Timper as he walked along that the house was the residence of someone of substantial affluence, but it wasn't quite as silent as a residence of that sort should be. Somewhere, a distance off, was what seemed like the sound of roistering voices, but perhaps it wasn't coming from that house. Perhaps those who lived in the house were forced to endure coarse and common but moneyed neighbors, and if that were so . . .

"This way, sir, if you please," the servant interrupted his thoughts, stopping in front of a door to the right perhaps halfway down the hall. A brief knock and then the servant entered, halting just inside to bow to someone Timper was unable to make out beyond the man's bulk. "Your pardon, madam, but this gentleman informs us that he has come in search of a specific lady. Will you see him?"

"Of course I will," came one of the sweetest, softest voices Timper had ever heard, immediately making him wish he might see the face that went with it. "Do show him in, Rinson."

"Sir," the servant Rinson said, stepping aside with another bow, one Timper was barely aware of. The servant's movement had brought to view sight of his mistress, and if anything the look of her was superior to the sound of her voice. The young courier had never imagined that any woman so clearly older than himself might touch him so quickly and strongly, and if he hadn't been in the midst of a commission he would likely have stood there frozen dumb. Night-black hair and shining black eyes, skin the color of faintly blushing cream, full red lips with a devastating smile, all above a richly gowned body of slim elegance and grace. She was seated behind a delicate desk of lace-like carving, obviously a woman of responsibility as well as beauty, and he realized he'd stepped well into the room only when he heard the sound of the door closing somewhere behind him.

"And how may I help you, sir?" the vision asked, smiling at him encouragingly as she straightened in her chair. "Would you care to describe the sort of lady you seek, or would you prefer looking about before voicing your thoughts? Do you seek someone of your own age, or might it possibly be someone more - experienced - that you search for? It would be my greatest pleasure to … assist you in any manner possible."

Her lovely voice had softened and she had leaned forward, her red lips glistening in a way that had Timper completely convinced regarding her sincerity. His gaze had somehow become riveted to her full, heaving bosom, a bosom less well-covered than perhaps she realized, and it was with the greatest difficulty that he brought his eyes to her face again.

"Madam, I -" he began, then paused to bring his voice down from the higher ranges where it had embarrassingly strayed. "Madam, I thank you for your offer of assistance, and shall most willingly accept it," he said on his second attempt, striving to project a maturity of his own. "I am the courier of Duke Rilfe of Gensea, and have come seeking the lady Sofaltis of Gensea, daughter of the duke, for whom I have a most urgent communication. I've been told I would find her here in this house, and although I have never seen her, she was described to me as being perhaps a year my junior, delicately pretty with unusually lovely gray eyes, brown-haired and lithe - "

"Wait just a minute here!" the woman interrupted in sudden annoyance, no longer appearing quite as winsome as she had a moment earlier. "Are you saying you're here looking for someone, an actual, real someone? You have a message to deliver?"

"Hardly so simple a thing as a message," Timper responded, stung by the change in the beautiful woman's attitude. "A ducal courier is not a mere message bearer, the responsibilities of the position are a good deal more complex than - "

"But you don't deny you're here looking to talk to someone," the woman insisted, nearly in accusation. "And not for the usual reason. Well, I'm afraid I can't help you. I've never heard of this … lady, and doubt that she's ever been here. I wish you a pleasant evening - elsewhere."

The lovely woman had risen to her feet behind the desk, her expression now closed and cold, and Timper found himself almost completely at a loss. Not only had be no desire to leave, he could not leave before learning for certain that the lady Sofaltis wasn't there. Firm insistence had often gotten him what information and assistance he required, and now he knew he needed to try something of the same again.

"Madam, I must beg your indulgence for a few moments more," he said at once with more desperation than assertiveness, not precisely the attitude he'd been attempting but one that would have to do. "I've been informed that the lady Sofaltis is here, in company with members of the Silver Gleaming, whose presence, if fact, could scarcely be missed. Their purpose in coming here was kept from me, in a deliberate attempt at vindictiveness, I believe, yet was I specifically told - "

"The Silver Gleaming?" the woman interrupted, a faint, very attractive frown suddenly shadowing her face. "Of course there are members of the Silver Gleaming here. We happen to be very popular with the Blades because of the balanced variety our house offers, just as we're popular with the other Sword Companies. I happened to see a few Fists arriving, but there were no - ladies - with them."

The woman pronounced the word "ladies" as though it were nearly off-color and entirely loathsome, an attitude Timper couldn't quite understand. Not that he was able to understand most of the rest of what he'd been told. The north, it seemed, was far more different from the south than he'd imagined.

"What are Fists?" he asked almost warily, wondering if he would next be able to ask about the "balanced variety" the woman had also mentioned. He wasn't quite sure, but somehow he had the distinct impression the concept of variety was one he ought to be familiar with.

"Fists are special units of Sword Companies," the vision answered, staring at him in an odd manner as she reseated herself. "The units consist of five Blades, usually the best Blades the Company has, and in battle they carry out initial or crucial thrusts. Where did you say you come from?"

"A gentleman scarcely has the time to investigate every unimportant facet of such things as Sword Companies," Timper returned stiffly, this time stung into trying to defend himself. He could also feel the flush in his cheeks, and nearly began shifting in place like an ignorant child caught by his tutor. "Are you absolutely certain there were no women with those … Fists?"

"I said there were no ladies with the Fists," the woman corrected, her face smooth and serene despite the twinkle of amusement in her eyes, her hands holding lightly to the arms of her chair. "Ladies do badly as members of a Fist, but female Blades are another story entirely. Most Companies have their share of females, and although the majority of Fists are all male, one or two have…"

Her voice trailed off as she stared at Timper again, but this time he could see she stared thoughtfully. Something had obviously occurred to her, and her next words proved the point.

"Brown-haired and gray-eyed, lithe and young," the woman murmured, as though hearing the description for the very first time. "And named Sofaltis. It's just barely possible, I suppose, stranger things have happened… If it is true, I'd love to be there. . . "

The woman's eyes lost their distracted took as they sharpened on Timper again with renewed amusement, and then she grew somewhat more brisk.

"It's possible one of the Blades of the Silver Gleaming will be able to direct you to this lady of yours," she said, reaching for a small, delicate bell which stood at the corner of the desk to her right. "I'll have someone take you to them, but I warn you now: if you cause any sort of ruckus among any of the guests, the mistress' rules will see you put out of the house at once, whether or not you've managed to question anyone. Have I made myself clear?"

"But - I thought you were the mistress of this house," Timper blurted, now entirely at a loss. "Those servants - they said - and they brought me here to this room -"

"They thought you were looking for special attention from someone with standing," the woman answered as she rang the bell, this time unable to keep the smile from her face. "There are three of us who spare the mistress that sort of … wearying interview, four when business gets unusually brisk. You would be surprised how many nobles and upper class merchants insist on dealing with no one but - Ah, Rinson."

The servant who had led Timper to that room appeared even before the crystal voice of the bell died away, giving the young courier no further opportunity for asking questions. Timper felt bewildered and because of that was extremely annoyed, but the presence of the very large servant helped him keep firmly in mind the tenet that no true gentleman was ever rude to a woman.

"Rinson, please show this gentleman to the area of the house where the Blades of the Silver Gleaming are taking their ease," the woman directed, her tone entirely neutral. "Specifically, I would say, the Fist of Soft and Gentle. Are you acquainted with the Blades of that Fist?"

"Of course, Madam," the servant said, his bow tinged more with curiosity than propriety. "If you will follow me, sir?"

Timper had very little choice concerning the following, but his annoyance was growing in leaps and bounds, and he was beginning to regret not having surrendered his cloak when he might have. Not only had the house grown extremely warm, but the output of anger was adding itself to the discomfort of wool. What in Home's name might the Fist of Soft and Gentle be? Hardly the general name of something called a Fist, but just as unlikely a sobriquet for a Blade of a Fist. The young man stomped out of the room at the servant's gesture, deliberately refraining from bowing to the woman whose company he departed. Lovely she might be, but her loveliness had diminished quickly with the increase of her amusement.

This time the servant led the way to the very end of the narrow hall, and the door there gave access to an even smaller and narrower backstairs area that was rather dim. As soon as they had entered the dimness, however, the sound of voices that Timper had noticed earlier became a good deal more imposing on the former quiet. He followed the servant through the dimness to the left, wondering what could possibly be causing such a row, and then another door was opened that answered his question as soon as he had stepped through it into the room beyond.

"Holy Emissaries intercede for my soul!" Timper prayed silently but fervently as he fought to keep the shock off his face, his eyes seeking something innocuous to rest on. The only trouble was, there was nothing innocuous to look at, at least not in that well-lit room. Men dressed in the off-duty leathers of Blades lolled everywhere on the thick carpeting, many of them leaning elbows on cushions as they drank from goblets or shouted in encouragement and high amusement. The many … females with them either had hands on them or were being themselves explored, their scantily clad bodies proving easily accessible, and in the midst of all that there was a - a - dance of sorts being performed.

The pretty young thing standing alone in the middle of the floor was still clad in a proper gown, but even as Timper watched she acceded to the shouting around her with a sob, and began slowly removing the gown. Tears ran down her blushing cheeks as sight of her delicate underclothing was brutally forced from proper privacy into the public domain, but all she received in the way of compassion from those who watched was an increase in their laughter. Had Timper not been certain the girl was a slave he would have interfered no matter the consequences, but a man would be foolish to concern himself with the distress of a newly-made chain child, mostly especially in what he now knew that place to be. He had never before visited one himself, but he had heard stories of such places, oh, my, he certainly had…

"This way, sir," the servant Rinson said to a hopefully unobtrusively appalled Timper, and the courier was quick to follow across the floor behind the stiffly moving, softly sobbing girl. He made every effort to keep his eyes on the servant rather than looking again at the slave, and strove to move as rapidly as possible without giving the appearance of hurrying. A true gentleman never looked at the unclad body of any female, not even his wife, unless he received special dispensation from the Holy Emissaries in acknowledgment of his proven piety. He was then permitted to look upon the woman he took to wife, but certainly not any other. When he admitted to his Holy Council in Strict Truth that he had abrogated a privilege which wasn't his, there would, without the least doubt, be absolute hell to pay.

An arch gave access to another room like the first, only this one had a small, dark beauty in transparent veils moving sensuously to the sound of a pipe. Her wide, beautiful eyes moved from one watching, grinning Blade to the next, the smile visible on her full, pouting lips beneath her face-veil an almost-shouted invitation. Timper found it best to remove his cloak as he passed her, something that helped to keep her from his sight. Everyone knew that Blades of a Sword Company were eternally damned anyway and therefore often indulged in things that made a sensible man tremble and turn away, but possibly no one had told the Blades they were lost. For people who were inescapably heading for eternal damnation, Timper thought they appeared unexpectedly satisfied and unworried.

The courier had his cloak thrown over his left arm by the time he moved through the next arch, which happily gave him something to clutch when he abruptly understood what he was seeing. Blades still lounged in their leathers on the carpeting, but most of these Blades were female and the ones attending them in oiled tights were male. If a woman was of the nobility a man certainly did well to bow low in her presence, but to kneel in front of a common rag, nearly naked and obscenely exposed despite a supposed covering! Timper had never felt so outraged in his entire life, even if the men were nothing but slaves! Good taste demanded restraint in some quarter, and for a man to be made to exhibit himself like that, slave or no, was absolutely unacceptable. Why, he had half a mind to -

"I believe the Fists of the Silver Gleaming are to be found in the next area, sir, " the servant Rinson interrupted Timper's silent expostulation, at the same time reminding him of the warning he had been given. If he were going to execute his commission he needed to restrain his perfectly proper indignation, at least for a short while. After he had gotten what answers were to be had, he would certainly speak his mind and then dare them to do their worst. He strode after the servant without looking again on depravity, knowing without doubt that one who was Saved had nothing to fear from those who were damned.

Which high-minded attitude took him through the arch and into the next room, but not beyond the first two steps. Once again the majority of Blades were male and their attendants female, but three female Blades sat among them, no two of the women together, half a dozen male attendants also rather visible. Laughter came from many of the Blades, squealing arising from one of the attending females being held down out of sight by four of the men, but none of that was what struck Timper speechless. The sight that froze him was of three of the male attendants, all lined up and posturing in front of one of the female Blades, arms flexing muscle, chests inflated and hips rolling suggestively -

But the rag wasn't even watching! Men were trying to catch the attention of a female, and she wasn't even paying attention!

Timper closed his eyes for a moment and fought to contain his outrage, memory of his commission alone making it possible for him to do so. Females forcing males to grovel and demean themselves was bad enough, but for the female to then turn around and ignore them - ! Such arrogance was intolerable, and completely unacceptable to a gentleman of Timper's station; he would ask his questions and then resoundingly denounce the rag, and yes, the men with her as well. If she had never been taught better, they certainly should have been. The servant Rinson was moving forward, toward the very group Timper meant to confront, and once he had followed and gotten near enough, their words separated from the background din.

". . . could have had our backsides sliced if we hadn't withdrawn when we did," one of the men was saying to another, the speaker a big man with black hair and light eyes who sat to the right of the female Blade. "If Seepar thinks he'll be riding back for us again, he's suffering from the effects of too long a time substituting other things for girls."

"I heard he did the same to one of the Fists of the Crimson Rush just before first snow," the female Blade remarked, the disgust in her voice evident even in the midst of the surrounding noise. "If the Opened Throats Company wants his so-called Fist, they're more than welcome to it, but we'll have to insist on saying our good-byes now - to the Blades he'll supposedly be supporting."

"He's really that bad then," the man who had been spoken to said, sighing where he sat at the first man's right. He was also large with longish, dark hair, but his eyes were dark rather than light. "After the losses we took just before first snow, I was hoping to recruit some seasoned fighters for the Opened Throats rather than the green lads we've been attracting, but I'll take green over yellow any day."

"Yellow might not be the proper color for Seepar and his four," the woman said, then turned her head to the man who sat between her and the second man. "Rullin, old sage, what's the color of incompetence?"

"Red," the man replied with a grin, reaching over to tousle the girl's brown hair. "For all the blood they'll be losing one of these days, hopefully their own. And the next time you refer to me as old, you female infant, I'll turn you over my knee and see to it that you'll need to walk to battle for the next day or three. Instead of needling your unit leader, why don't you pay some attention to those three over there? They're half killing themselves trying to get you to choose one of them for tonight, and you ought to be flattered."

"Flattered isn't what I'm in the mood to be," the girl answered, leaning back on one elbow while continuing to stare at the man called Rullin. "Pleasured is what I'm in the mood to be, but my unit leader has suddenly grown too old and infirm to manage that. Someone not a Blade might think he was afraid of a mere female infant."

The girl's insolence shocked Timper and caused the Fist leader Rullin to begin straightening in anger where he sat, but the servant Rinson interrupted before anything more might be said.

"I do beg your pardon, sirs and madam," he said, bowing to those who reluctantly took their attention from other things. "The house dislikes disturbing guests during their relaxation, but this gentleman was quite insistent about speaking to members of the Silver Gleaming, and one of our staff suggested your Fist. There is someone he is in search of."

The servant looked toward Timper then, and all the eyes of those he'd been addressing followed suit, momentarily disconcerting the young courier. One is looked at many times in one's life, but not often by so large a number of Blades. Their eyes were … different, somehow, harder, perhaps, with gazes unwavering and sharp. Timper found the need to clear his throat, then straightened where he stood.

"I am the courier of Duke Rilfe of Gensea, and have been told that I might learn the whereabouts of the Duke's eldest daughter from this Company," he said in more of a rush than he had expected to, oddly eager to have the words spoken so that he might depart. "I would greatly appreciate being directed to her correct location."

"You expect Blades to be entrusted with the location of a lady?" the man who, from the device on the medallion about his neck, was a member of the Opened Throats Company, asked with a snort of ridicule. He had been the second man in the discussion just past, and seemed greatly amused. "Do your people also believe in having wolves guard their hen houses, boy?"

"It was not I who arranged the matter so," Timper replied with stiffly affronted dignity; "boy" indeed! "Had I had a say in it, I assure you it would have been done differently. If none of you has the information I seek, I will now take my leave."

"Calm your rush, boy," the Fist leader Rullin suggested in a drawl as Timper was about to turn away, the easy words very much a command. "One who walks about unarmed in company such as this would be wise to polish his good manners. For what reason are you looking for this duke's daughter?"

Timper was taken aback by everything the man had said, perhaps most forcefully by the suggestion that a duke's courier was not considered untouchable by the men he spoke with. He realized then how barbaric those of the north really were and that he was trapped in the midst of them, but there was little he could do right now to alter the situation. The man Rullin, he thought, had deliberately called him "boy," most likely to stress his place among Blades; despite the talk of age, the Fist leader had seen, at most, a decade more of life than Timper. Very briefly the young courier considered refusing an answer to the question which had been put to him; the patient and not-so-patient gazes resting on him, however, caused him to reconsider the idea.

"I seek the lady Sofaltis so that I may deliver the extremely urgent communication entrusted to me," Timper admitted, suddenly and unhappily aware of exactly how long he would retain the duke's letter if these ruffians should attempt taking it from him. "A family tragedy has occurred, and the duke wishes the lady to be informed of it."

Timper had spoken the truth without thinking, but it suddenly came to him that that very same truth should cool their interest. No gold being sent and no secret messages, nothing but news of a tragedy, and what man would find interest in the tragedies of others? Already the eyes of Rullin had lost their look of amusement, but the girl beside him had abruptly straightened to sitting, as though disturbed over something. The Blade leader Rullin noticed the movement as well, and quickly turned his head to her.

"It's your turn to be calm, Soft and Gentle," he said to the female, making no effort to put an arm about her to ease her sudden upset as a gentleman might. "We'll have this straightened out in another minute or so." Then he looked up again at Timper and added, "How were you supposed to identify the lady Sofaltis?"

"Why - I've been given her description," Timper replied in confusion, in the midst of registering the name the girl had been called by. Women were, for the most part, soft and gentle, but by the look of her and the words she had spoken, there was a misnomer if ever he'd heard one. "Perhaps a year my junior, brown-haired and gray-eyed, tall and lithe… "

Timper's words trailed off as the girl rose gracefully to her feet before him, her faintly pretty face expressionless. Her black off-duty leathers fit like the skin they were, her black boots appeared sturdy but well broken in, the sword hung at her side was plain-hilted and no longer new, and the silver medallion of her Company gleamed in the lamplight. It startled Timper to realize that he needed to look up, for the girl was taller than he even though she seemed somewhat younger, and then he began registering certain additional items. Her form was lithe, her face pretty, her hair brown, her eyes gray. . .

"I am the lady Sofaltis," the female said in a voice much like that which the Blade Rullin had used, putting a hand out toward Timper. "Give me my father's letter."

At another time, Timper would have been quick to argue or obey; at that time, however, he was too deeply in shock to do either thing. He had thought the lady Sofaltis indiscreetly involved with a Blade of a Sword Company, but that wasn't so. Far, far worse, she was a Blade of a Sword Company!

* * *

The young idiot just stood there staring at me, his long face pale enough to rival flour. Someone had dressed him in the tights, tunic and short boots no one but very young pages wore in the north, and if I hadn't been so upset I would have felt sorry for him. It wasn't really his fault he looked like a pompous ass, or that I have very little patience with pompous asses.

"I said, give me my father's letter," I repeated, having no idea what could have happened, but anxious to find out. "How long ago were you dispatched?"

"Why-why-five weeks and some days ago," he answered, finally snapping out of it enough to begin fumbling at his tunic. "The roads were terrible and the accommodations worse, but-but-how do I know you're the lady Sofaltis? I must insist upon seeing your signet ring."

"My aunt Illi has my signet ring, and you know damned well who I am," I countered, snapping my fingers in impatience as he winced at what he undoubtedly considered dreadful language. "You couldn't have found me if my aunt hadn't set you going in the right direction, and that direction led here. Stop quibbling and give me the letter."

"Take it slow, Soft and Gentle," Rullin said as he got to his feet, Foist, Jakkar and Hammis rising with him. "I doubt if the boy's used to our sort, and he needs some time to adjust. She is who she says she is, boy, so you'd better give her that letter. If you make her take it from you, you'll be responsible for our needing to find another house to pass the night in. This house has rules against staining the carpeting with blood."

Rull was being his usual lightheartedly mediating self, but the boy my father had sent wasn't finding much comfort in the attempt to put him at ease with joking. His wide, dark eyes moved from one member of my Fist to the next, noticing how every one of them was larger even than I, and then the heavy paper of a sealed envelope was being thrust into my hand. I automatically checked the seal before breaking it, withdrew the letter and read it quickly, then turned back to where I'd left my cup of wine.

"How bad is it?" Rull asked quietly from behind me, concern in his voice. "From your expression it can't be good, but how bad is bad?"

I took a minute to swallow some wine before turning back, then looked directly at him.

"My brother Rymar is dead," I got out with more difficulty than I'd expected to have, feeling as though saying the words aloud was what made them true. "After our oldest brother's accident Rymar was named Father's heir, but Rymar always considered that a responsibility rather than a privileged right. Now he's dead too, but not because of any accident. They tried to make it look like one, but only a fool would have believed that, and my father's no fool. Rymar was deliberately killed."

"Who's 'they'?" Jakkar asked in his rumble of a voice, his big left hand unconsciously stroking his sword hilt. "And why would they want to kill a ducal heir and not go after the duke himself first?"

"I don't know," I admitted, annoyed at the lack of logic to the thing. "It's clear they want my father's heir dead, but not him. And as for who 'they' are, I don't know that either. I have a feeling my father knows, but I don't."

"If he doesn't know yet, I'm willing to bet he's working on it," Rullin commented, having heard of my father even before I'd joined the Fist. "Was Rymar your father's last living son?"

"He just might have been," I said, swallowing again at my wine. "My other brothers, one older than me and one younger, haven't been heard from for years, which probably means they're both dead. There's no other reason for them not to have let Father know where they are. Except for my two little sisters, all that leaves is me."

"Who will be doing what?" Rull asked, a question Foist, Jakkar, and Hammis were also interested in having answered. Fists are closer than most families, closer even than marriage, and what affects one of its Blades affects the other four as well. "Will you need to go home for a while to pay your respects, or was your father simply sending you a warning?"

"My father wants me home, but not to pay my respects," I said with the reluctance firmly back in place, not exactly avoiding the four pairs of eyes on me, but not quite meeting them either. "I don't know what he has in mind, but he definitely and specifically wants me home. And besides that, he wouldn't be sending me the sort of warning you mean. He … doesn't know I'm a Blade."

I used the relative resulting silence to look up - relative in relation to the carousing still going on in the rest of the room - and found that I would have been better off continuing to avoid the stares of my Fistmates. They weren't exactly furious, or at least Foist, Jak and Ham weren't.

"That's not quite what you said when you joined the Company," Rull pointed out with a growl after a moment, his light eyes filled with dagger points. "Of course my family knows all about this, you said. Of course I have their permission, you said. They know all about what I'm doing and they approve, you said."

"My aunt Illi knew and approved," I countered, wishing Rull would stop looking at me like that. "I wasn't trying to make trouble for the Company, but if I'd asked my father he probably would have refused permission, and I wasn't of age yet. Was I supposed to go home and sit quietly while waiting for the years to go by? I wasn't lying, I simply didn't tell all of the truth."

"Oh, is that all you did?" Rull said, folding his arms across his chest while the others sighed or shook their heads or rubbed their eyes. "The fact that your father's a duke is completely beside the point, is it? If he'd found out and had gone foaming at the idea, he couldn't have done more than asked the King to have our Company disbanded and outlawed, now could he? Of course he couldn't, so why would we be upset? You didn't do anything more serious than jeopardize the lives of everyone in the Company. Talk about Seepar. The only lives he endangers are the five of the Fist he's supposed to be backing."

There was no amusement of any sort in Rullin, not in his eyes or his face or his voice, and it suddenly came to me that there was no longer any extraneous noise in the room. Everyone was listening, every Blade there had heard what he'd said, and it didn't matter that Rullin was right about what I'd done. Fistmates don't say things like that to one another, not when they want to continue being Fistmates, but that, of course, was the whole point. He'd been trying to tell me that not only was I about to leave, I also needn't bother coming back. I'd been wondering why he'd been avoiding me the last couple of weeks and had been trying to tease him out of whatever his problem was, but it looked like the problem went too deep for teasing. He'd taken the very first opportunity to invite me out of the Fist, and although it hurt more than I'd ever be able to explain to an outsider, I wasn't someone who believed in staying where I wasn't wanted. I held his gaze for a long moment after he'd fallen silent, then simply turned and got out of there.

I had to push my way through onlookers and a sudden babble of disturbed conversation, but size and determination count for quite a lot in a situation like that. I felt as though I'd just lost four of the five fingers of my sword hand, but that, of course, is what it's all about. A fist is a hand closed and ready to fight, the same thing a Fist is, especially the closed part. When a Fist is forced open it's never done without pain, and I've always preferred licking my wounds in private.

I strode through the areas until I reached the door leading to the front hall, threw it open then left it for one of the servants to close behind me, and didn't realize I was being followed until the door was closed and most of the revel-noise was cut off. Hurrying footsteps sounded behind me, and then came the voice of someone I'd forgotten about entirely.

"My lady, I really must insist that you wait for me," that ass of a courier complained, obviously having trouble keeping up. "I am, after all, the one your father sent to escort you home."

Which shows how hard my father was trying to protect my virtue, I thought rather than said, gesturing to the door servant to find my cloak. Those of the south placed a much higher value on virginity than northerners did, which also showed how vastly more intelligent northerners were.

"I shall hire an escort for us first thing tomorrow," the ass babbled on, making no effort to take back the letter I discovered I still held. "Should you be able to tell me how quickly you expect your maids at the Countess' house to pack your clothing and possessions, I'll know when to tell the escort to - "

"There won't be an escort," I said, staring at the letter I held as the idea came to me. "I'll be leaving for home tonight, after I make a few necessary stops, and if you intend coming with me you'd better be prepared to move fast and ride hard. I want to be home as soon as humanly possible."

"But-but-my lady!" he protested, back to being shocked. "You mean to ride the entire distance alone? With the protection of no one but myself?"

"Oh, I'm sure you won't have any trouble supplying me with all the protection I need," I murmured, turning away from his wide-eyed and stunned disbelief. I'd stop at my barracks to pick up my gear, at the Company clerk's to hand in my resignation, and at my aunt Illi's to thank her for all she'd done for me. Right after that I'd start for home, and once I got there my father would know his troubles were over.

My brother Rymar had been one of those people everyone liked, the sort whose every word and gesture told you he would never hurt you, the sort who never caused harm to anyone or anything. It was one of the furiously unfair parts of life that people like Rymar usually ended up being hurt, swept out of the way like dust before those who never minded hurting everyone they could reach. As my father's heir he'd been a prime and easy target, but our enemies would not find it the same with the one who would next be heir.

The only one left to be heir.

Me.

With no Fist to go back to, with no brothers to claim the Duchy, what other course of action made as much sense? My father needed an heir and I needed something to do with my life, and even if my father hadn't already thought of it on his own, he would certainly welcome the suggestion. We hadn't seen each other for five years, and he'd be pleased and proud at what I'd learned and done. As I took my cloak from the servant I tucked the letter into my swordbelt, more anxious than ever to be home again and started with my new life.

* * *

Sofaltis stared at Rullin with a look that made him feel as though he'd savaged something small and helpless, and then she turned and forced her way through the gathered crowd to disappear from sight. His first urge was to go after her and tell her he hadn't really meant what he'd said, but Rullin had spent most of his life training himself to ignore first impulses. By the time he knew he should have done it anyway the miserable female infant was not only out of sight, but probably gone from the house as well. He unfolded his arms, muttering curses at himself under his breath, then turned to find the eyes of the rest of his Fist on him.

"Nice going, Rull," Foist said with a judicious nod, folding his arms as his very pale eyes pinned Rullin where he stood. "I've never been able to draw blood like that without using my sword. You should run a Company practice in the technique."

"Why in hell did you just let her walk away like that?" Hammis demanded, fists on hips and dark eyes blazing. "Why didn't you stop her?"

"Maybe he forgot how long it took us to find a fifth for our Fist who actually suited all of us," Jakkar rumbled, another pair of dark, accusing eyes. "Maybe he was afraid she was starting to get ideas about him, and he wanted to get rid of her before she did."

"Are you all happy now?" Rullin growled back, sending his glare to each of them in turn. "Since I couldn't tell on my own what a stupid thing I'd done, you three had to do the telling for me. Do you have it out of your systems now, or is there something else you'd like to add?"

"I still want to know why you didn't stop her," Hammis persisted, too angry himself to care about Rullin's anger. "It isn't as if she tried to hurt the Company on purpose, and there are more than a few of us still walking around who wouldn't be if she hadn't joined up. Is Jak right? Did you think she was after you, so you either had to run yourself or make her do it?"

"Don't be stupider than you took, Ham," Rullin said in disgust, wishing he could get back to his drink but knowing he had to first settle things in his Fist. "Soft and Gentle wasn't after me or she would have said so. She was just in the mood for my brand of wrestling, and laughed when I told her she had to learn to ask nice. She tried to play stubborn, so I did too, which is what probably started it all. She knows I like spreading myself around too much to ever settle down, so which one of you thinks she's dim enough to get a taste for me anyway? I didn't stop her because I'd really put my foot in it, and if I'd tried to force her to listen to an apology, she probably would have drawn on me. Tomorrow morning she'll be easier to talk to, and more likely to listen to what's being said. Especially if you three are right there behind me. Are you three going to be right there behind me?"

"We're trying to decide if it would look better or worse with our points in your back," Foist said, running a hand through his long blond hair. "I don't like the idea of Soft and Gentle feeling hurt like that, even for just one night. What if she goes out and gets into a fight? She's all alone, so how would we know about it?"

"Alone she isn't," Jakkar told him, just in time to keep Hammis from exploding again. "That little twerp in the tights went trotting off after her, and if anything happens even he'll be smart enough to come back and get us. As long as he's first of all smart enough not to get in her way."

"Maybe you're right about waiting until tomorrow," Foist grudged to Rullin, turning aside to reach down for his wine cup. "If we've got to send her home for a while, a proper sendoff'll make her feel better - and bring her back faster."

"And meanwhile we get to fight one Blade short," Hammis muttered, going after his own cup. "Which is better than adding a temporary fifth we don't know and can't count on. Fighters should have to give up their families when they become Blades."

"We're all jealous of her family, Ham, but she's not going back there to stay," Foist said with a small laugh, clapping the other big man on the back. "Before we know it she'll be here again, right where she belongs. You get born into a family, but a Fist goes a lot deeper than that."

Jakkar added something to that that made Hammis snort out a laugh, but Rullin wasn't listening any longer. He sat down to retrieve his wine cup and emptied it in a swallow, then gestured to one of the servants to refill it. If the other three thought they were wild over what had happened, they should feel it from his point of view. Maybe it was the thought of Softy's going home that had pushed him so far out of line, or maybe it was the way he'd been feeling for the last couple of weeks. Rullin didn't know what he wanted or how he felt about all that, but one thing he did know: there wasn't a girl in the house who suited him as well as Soft and Gentle did, which meant the night ahead was going to be a very long one.