I slip back in unnoticed. As usual, the parties grow louder and more cheerful. Just as I enter the room, there is a loud burst of cheering. In the center of the rom, tables and chairs have been cleared away, making room for a dueling arena.
Dueling when drunk is never a good idea, but we Devias are masters at it. Two Devias spin and dance in the center, their blades whirling arcs of light. Their blades meet, throwing up sparks at the impact. One girl loses her grip, and the blade clatters to the ground, amongst loud cheers.
A sword is thrust into my hands. “You go, Natalia!” Iya urges. Before I can tell her that I have no desire to fight, she is pushing through the crowd, pulling me with her. “Make way!” She’s drunk, I can tell. “Make way for our hero!” She pushes me into the center of the arena. Before I can retreat, the other Devias crowd around the edges, cheering loudly.
I sigh, and turn to face my opponent. Her name is Calla. She’s a good fighter- but obviously drunk. Her eyes are too bright, and her hand twitches slightly as she lifts the sword. Then she comes at me, swinging the sword in a blur.
I block it with almost contemptuous ease. A loud clang! echoes through the room. We disengage, and she launches a second attack. I block again, and so the dance of spinning metal resumes. I flick each stroke aside, never moving a step.
The battle continues, until she aims a sharp stroke at my legs- to get me to move. I dance aside, and bring the blade down hard on hers. In her drunken state, she cannot withstand the force of the blow. She drops her sword, and cheers erupt from all around me. Almost instantly, another Devia leaps into the ring, and the fight begins again.
The battles continue. Countless Devias join me in the ring. But I have an unfair advantage. They are drunk. I am not. I am also not interested in this. I don’t drag out the fights. I cut them short, with a lazy ease. This only encourages them, but I do not care. I’m only waiting for this to be over, so I can think.
Another sword falls to the ground. I wait for the cheering, but it never comes. Instead nervous whispers ripple through the watching Devias.
I look up, in time to see Tallin- Tallima- step into the arena. She scoops up the sword with a deft scoop of her wrist. She faces me, a cocky smile crossing her face. I frown slightly. Tallima rarely smiles- in fact, I have never seen her smile in such a way. This is most likely what is making the other Devias uneasy. I look around, and see each one reaching for a nearby weapon, muttering to each other. And suddenly, I realize why.
Tallima almost never participates in duels. In fact, she rarely joins in the festivities at all. Normally she sits in the back and does nothing. So why would she join in now?
The answer is simple, to them at least. They think that she might try to kill me.
Even as the thought crosses my mind, the paranoia sets in. I’ve done what the Queen wants. What if she wants to remove all witnesses? Or what if she knows that I went to see Kane? What if she thinks that I was going to help him escape?
But no. Tallima would not smile if she was being ordered to kill me. Not after I saw how broken the last killing made her. So I smile back. Some of the tension leaves the room at that. I fall into a basic stance, she does the same.
“I wasn’t expecting you to join in,” I comment.
“You looked bored.”
“I wouldn’t say that in present company,” I laugh. “It’s plenty enjoyable.”
Her eyes narrow slightly, and she moves towards me, gliding, her weight shifted slightly onto the balls of her feet. I mimic her, inching closer as well. Then she strikes.
Unlike the drunken attacks of the other Devias, Tallima’s attack is precise, focused, and quick. I smile as I block it. A challenge that’s actually worth my attention. Silently, I thank Tallima. There’s no glory in beating drunk friends, unless you’re drunk as well. But a fight against a skilled and sober Devia- especially one as talented as Tallima? There’s a lot of glory in that- as well as a good challenge.
She doesn’t bother to test me with a few quick strikes. She’s been watching me fight for the past few minutes, and she has no need to test me. She simply attacks as quickly and smoothly as she can, her blade whirling towards me.
Joy fills me, and the thrill of combat brims within me until, just for a little while, I am able to forget all that’s happened, forget Kane, and lose myself in the focused dance that is combat.
There is something beautiful about a duel between two masters. All the Devias are handpicked at young ages, and we begin to train with swords as soon as we can lift them. All of us are masters in swords. In fact, rumors have spread between us that we were all chosen because some time back in our ancestry, we had warrior magic in our family. Not that we do anymore. Magic is dead. Unless you count crafting magic, which is hardly magic at all.
Tallima and I dance back and forth, our blades spinning and whirling, barely more than a blur of light, and a soft whistling sound, until they meet each other with a flash of sparks, and the ringing sound that is caused by the impact of pure metal against pure metal.
It could have lasted for seconds, or for hours. It feels all the same. I spin and dance and fight as if in a dream. And then, suddenly, there is a jarring clang that breaks me out of my trance. It’s harsh and jarring, nothing like the pleasing chimes that the swords were making just seconds before.
My blade is locked against Tallima’s, held at a strangely twisted angle, so that my wrist is bent awkwardly towards me. I try to shift my grip, but Tallima presses harder, and I am forced to stop, or drop my sword.
I can feel the bones in my wrist being forced almost to their limit. I am strong- all of us are- but Tallima is especially strong. Suddenly I wonder how many hours she has spent secretly training- slipping off when none of us are looking. How many secretive missions she has done for the Queen, working under the cover of darkness, honing her skills, and returning with a bloodstained blade.
She is no longer smiling. Her teeth are bared in an intense grimace of concentration. I imagine that my face is the same, as I stare at her across locked blades.
And then it is over. My arm cannot hold against her any longer, and I am forced to drop the blade, or have my wrist shattered. I attempt to catch it in my other hand, and strike at her from there, but she is prepared for this trick, and flicks it away, sending it clattering away across the floor. There is a soft intake of breath, but Tallima just smiles.
“You shouldn’t daydream when you fight,” is all she says. Then she turns, and wanders away, the crowd of Devias parting silently for her. There is no cheering. She probably expected none. She simply walks away in silence.