Chapters 1-8 are here
“What are you fighting with Dain Ardin about?” Bronwyn asked in the same tone of voice that she’d been using all day with him. Dain stood with her at the foot of the ballroom dais, while Dain Ardin was on the opposite corner.
The huge expanse was filled, jammed with Cobalt’s Lords and Ladies. A myriad of colors bewildered the eye there were so many. The white marble gleamed. The crystal chandeliers blazed brightly. There seemed a level of nervous tension that wasn’t normal for such an occasion, but after everything that had happened, Dain supposed people had a right to be worried. Part of the goal of tonight’s festivities was to help make them all forget the trouble they faced. He wondered if it would work. So far, it didn’t seem to be. He glanced at Bronwyn.
“I’m not fighting with him about anything. Not until later anyway.” He thought he should just tell her what they were doing, but didn’t feel like it. He was tired of being lectured by everyone, but especially her. Lately, it didn’t seem that he could do anything right with her.
“Do you really think that picking up a sword will solve all your problems?”
“Worked well enough over the last seven years.”
“But when is that ever going to change? Will it? Dain Ardin isn’t your enemy. He’s just like you.”
Dain gritted his teeth together. He thought if he heard that one more time, he’d explode. “He is not just like me. I know it. I feel it. He’s different. From the moment we were separated, he became different from me. Do you think I can’t tell?”
“All you see is your differences.”
“Maybe that’s because everyone else keeps insisting how alike we are.”
Bronwyn shook her head. “If you could only hear how ridiculous that sounds.”
“It’s the way I feel, Bronwyn. What’s so ridiculous about that?”
“Never mind. It’s pointless to argue about it, but then, it seems that’s all you’ve wanted to do lately. About everything.”
“Not everything. Just those things that I think are important.”
“Such as? Why don’t you tell me?”
“Because then I run the risk of you telling me how ridiculous and childish I’m being.” Dain looked at her. “No thanks.”
Marc and Shalis’ arrival, and the ensuing roar from the crowd, interrupted her response. Her expression left little doubt what she thought. She shook her head and left him. Dain knew where she was going without looking.
“What…uh, Dain? What’s going on?” Dain Ardin asked him from across the dais. “Are you fighting with her again?”
Dain shut him out, a difficult task that required a lot of concentration. The thing he was most afraid of was now happening right in front of him and it was his own stupid fault for not telling Bronwyn what they were doing. Now he couldn’t and none of it seemed funny anymore. He wanted to blame that change of mood on her, but couldn’t. Really, she was right. He had been arguing and fighting about too many things, and he couldn’t seem to stop.
The Royal ingress proceeded as Dynan arrived with Liselle. His welcome eclipsed Marc’s by quite a lot. Maybe these citizens of Cobalt were feeling a little guilty at how quickly they’d turned to Ambrose. They made up for their doubt, despite Liselle’s presence, with a lot of cheering. Dynan smiled a little, waved, and didn’t wait for the noise to subside before he started down.
Here in the ballroom, the guests could get to him more easily than the dining hall. A wide strip of blue carpet cut through the room to the dais and it was lined with people. Dynan was stopped for every step, talked to, reached for, his hand grasped – his right hand that was barely out of bandages. Both were gloved to conceal the wounds and protect the healing process.
Dain realized, with a shock, that Liselle was supporting him by his left arm. She tensed slightly, looking to Dain Ardin with a hardly perceptible nod. Marc got the message and slowed down enough so that Dynan caught up to him. He leaned closer as though to talk to him and set his hand on his arm. Dynan was getting better at hiding the usual effects of Marc’s healing techniques. He hardly jumped at all. Dain watched while they made their slow way to the dais.
“He’s never going to get through all this tonight,” Dain Ardin said to Dain.
“Once we get the rest of the Royals in here and he can sit, he’ll be fine.”
Creal, Alexia, Drake and Marella arrived soon enough, but instead of coming down from the landing, they were stopped by a group of young children, who each held a cushion. While some soft music played in the background, and an announcer read a declaration of gratitude, Drake and Creal were presented with medals of some intricate design that Dain hadn’t seen before. Alexia and Marella were given brooches and a bouquet of flowers. It was obvious they hadn’t been aware of the honor. Alexia seemed the most surprised by it. Dain thought that was because she didn’t deserve a medal for her help and she knew it.
They all finally reached the dais and seated themselves. Still Dynan stayed on his feet a few more minutes, further delaying the other ballroom occupants from taking their seats. He got a look from Loren for that, and finally sat down. Almost the moment he did, the lights started to go down.
What followed was an entrancing performance by the Royal Dance Troupe that Dain realized was the story of the last seven years of their life lived in exile. He started edging over to Dynan the closer they got to their separation and noticed Dain Ardin doing the same thing. Dynan glanced up at them both, smiling when they sat at the foot of his chair together.
“You two all right with this?” he asked.
Dain nodded even though he wasn’t quite sure of that. “I wish Carryn was here to see this.”
“She’s watching,” Dain Ardin said, smirking a little at that. He nodded at the dancers. “Someone has been telling them a few things.”
For a time, as Dain watched this depiction of his life and events, seen through the eyes of Cobalt’s predominate dance Master, he was able to forget about all the most recent catastrophes. The story began the night of the Palace attack, though Dain knew the beginning went back further than that, to when Dynan was nearly killed right after he’d taken the vow. Maybe it went back even further. If what the Book of Truth said was really what happened, it went back many hundreds of years. Maybe even thousands.
Even in this version, there were omissions. The dancers didn’t linger on the tortures Dain endured during those two years where he was Maralt’s prisoner and Dynan had gone to Cadal. The events in the Throne Room were altered as well, something Dain didn’t mind at all. He glanced over at Ralion and discovered that his old guard was watching him. Ralion nodded after a moment and offered a slow smile. Beside him, Geneal was wiping her eyes.
Marc sat beside him and Gaden joined them a moment later. They watched as the days they survived were depicted with a grace and beauty that was wrenching and almost cathartic to witness. Finally, the dance ended with the entire troop performing a celebratory piece where the girls were more frequently in the air than on the floor, and left their audience awestruck and satisfied at the final crescendo.
More performances of various types followed the dancers. A singer with an achingly beautiful voice mesmerized the crowd with a song that Dain hadn’t heard since he was a little boy. A children’s choir sang a few songs, followed by a quartet of stringed instruments.
An intermission of sorts followed the quartet, giving the impression that the show was over. Dain knew better, looking around at all the uniformed men who had slipped in during the dark. They stood in single ranks all around the perimeter of the room, armed with sword and rifle and waiting for orders. He looked over at Dain Ardin. “Do we really have to do this?”
He laughed as he stood. “Too late to get out of it now, Dain. You and your bright ideas.”
Dain tried not to wince as he pushed himself up. “It wasn’t just my idea, Ardin. I thought I told you to stay away from Bronwyn.”
“I did stay away from her, until you made her mad enough to dump you. Just shows what good taste she has.”
“Maybe you’d better wait to see what her tastes will be once she hears about Reisha and the others you have lined up for the night.”
Dynan looked up at them. “We’ll get the chance to see who is brighter than who soon enough.”
Dain nodded at that, but realized the third implication, and looked at Dynan sharply. He only smiled. “We’ll see all right,” Dain Ardin said, but he stepped back, smiling in response to both challenges. “By all means, go see if you can win her back.”
Dain wanted to punch him, but managed to get by him and refrained. He walked over to Bronwyn and got exactly the expression he expected. “I can’t believe you’re doing this.”
“Why? Don’t you think you’re worth fighting for?”
She stared at him a moment, but her expression softened. “No, Dain. I just know it isn’t necessary.” She bit back a smile. “He’s far more difficult a person than you, and much more trouble.”
“Really? It’s about time someone else realized it.”
“It’s the only way I can tell you apart.” She shook her head at him. “Don’t fight with him.”
He leaned down. “We’re not really, but it’s going to look that way.”
“You’ll see.” He turned and found Dain Ardin flirting with Liselle. Dynan just stared at him, but Liselle was laughing. “Then again…”
“I have to go circulate,” Dain said. “You want to come?”
“No, I don’t.”
Before he left her, he put his hands into her hair, leaned and kissed her with a kind of passion that wasn’t generally allowable in so public a place. Long and lingering. A murmured gasp ran through the crowd.
He laughed as he left her, flashing Dain Ardin a smirk as he moved off the dais. His counterpart departed only a moment later, going the opposite direction to make his way around to the stair. Dain stopped at the dessert table about the same time, and started eating all the high-energy foods he could stuff in. He made it about midway down the table when the guards abruptly came to attention and startled a number of guests. Lords and Ladies hurried to get out of the way of advancement as stone-faced men converged on the central aisle.
The drill that followed elicited oohs and ahs at various volume. Dain admitted readily enough that they were good. Every one of them came from the Exile Base and Boral’s training showed. He grimaced at the thought of facing all of them, and had a feeling he would be. He glanced at Avry. The guard didn’t look at all happy. Dain saw his other half approaching the main stairs then. On either arm, two young ladies walked with him. The guards were close to finishing their demonstration and Dain thought they might not get to the end.
“Dain, wait,” Avry said and reached for him. “Please.”
“Stay out of this.”
“Dain, he’s not—”
“That’s an order, Lieutenant.”
Avry rolled his eyes, and put his hands up in disgusted submission. Dain saw Roland doing the same thing as his counterpart sent the girls off.
“So much for keeping your word,” Dain said.
“You know, I think you’re taking this a little too seriously. I was only escorting them across the room.”
“Maybe you’re not taking it seriously enough.” Dain looked down the line of guards who were in the midst of a very difficult precision drill where swords were tossed back and forth. Mostly what Dain saw was a lot of flashing metal moving rapidly down the line of guards toward him.
“Your timing is off, brother,” Dain Ardin said.
“You better hope not.” He drew his sword and Dain Ardin did the same thing, swearing as he was forced to retreat down the line. A second later, they were fighting not just each other but each thrown sword that flashed through the air.
“I can’t believe…You’re crazy!”
“Move left. Stop. Two more.”
“At least they’re being disarmed.”
Dain smiled at him, dodging just in time as another sword slashed by him. He saw Dynan shaking his head in complete disbelief. Dain spared a glance in their wake just to be certain the guards weren’t simply retrieving their weapons. They seemed a bit confused.
Dain Ardin smirked at him. “I was wondering when you’d figure that part out.”
“They won’t. Against the rules.”
“Whose rules?” Dain Ardin asked, parrying a thrust and a blade that whirled directly at him.
Faces blurred as they raced down the line of guards, rank on rank, through the forest of blades. Dain smiled again as the gasps from the crowd changed to amazement. Many recognized what they were doing, remembering when it was Dynan and he, though not one of those looking on had ever seen this. A lot of the guards were surprised too, as this part of their demonstration was to have concluded before he and Dain Ardin started theirs. They didn’t know what to do exactly, which was just what Dain intended.
“And we’ve only got Avry, Mikk and the rest of them waiting at the end.” Dain spun around as he parried a sword to the floor and saw their guards. Their weapons were drawn, so there was no doubt of their participation. “Told you.”
“You told me? You’re the one who got Loren involved with this. So what exactly did you tell me?”
“That he’d throw everyone into this. Here they come.”
Dain snatched up an extra sword from the floor, instantly dropping the pretense of fighting Dain Ardin. They turned, back to back, and disarmed six more guards before Kenon, Mikk Jorg and Jon Athen came up behind them. Roland and Messel moved forward too. “Who do you want?”
“No one. But I don’t think I have a choice.” Dain Ardin shook his head, smiling all the while at Shalis’ guard, Varrot, and Messel the instant before he attacked them.
Mikk and Jon got the same treatment. Dain managed to disarm Jon, but he was immediately replaced by Avry. Roland and Kenon went for Dain Ardin after he’d gotten rid of Varrot and Messel. Dain thought that was all of them, until he saw Ralion step into the circle of combat. Dain swore under his breath, and Ralion almost started laughing.
“This is fair?” Dain asked Avry.
“Don’t even start with me.”
“I haven’t yet.”
It was infinitely more difficult to fight a battle like this one, where the point was to disarm, but the inevitable injury occurred here and there. Dain felt a cut along his left hand from where he’d used it to stop a sword. Practice blade or not, they still cut skin taken at just the wrong angle. Ralion, of course, noticed.
“You’re bleeding on the floor again.”
Dain ignored him, concentrating solely on keeping both his weapons. Ralion kept trying to draw him out and so did Avry, hoping no doubt to send Mikk in behind him. Dain Ardin kept that from happening for the most part, but he had Roland trying to do the same thing. Dain felt himself start to tire.
“Concentrate and breathe,” Marc said to him. Dain thought if he tried to do anything else but wield his swords, he’d end up on the floor.
He half felt like it was cheating, but did it anyway. For a moment only, hardly enough time to blink, he concentrated and instantly felt completely renewed. Dain laughed and turned on Roland. “Time for you to go away.”
Dain lunged at him, retreated a step to parry an attack from Ralion, and then went back at Roland. The guard was thrown off balance trying to follow him, and stumbled back. He lost his sword when Dain took it out of his hand. Of course, he had to drop one of his own weapons to do it. He turned in time to meet Mikk. “You’re next.”
“But you dropped your sword,” Avry said, advancing until he bumped into Dain Ardin.
“Not exactly. Dropping a weapon to disarm another is allowed.”
“I think you’re forgetting something, Lieutenant.”
“More rules, Your Highness?”
“Just one.” He smiled. “Princes never lose. Go!” Dain said, and Dain Ardin reacted instantly, diving forward beyond the reach of Kenon and Varrot. He landed at the dais and turned back for the guards. Varrot lost his sword. Leaving the others to his brother, Dain charged at Avry. “Time to get this over with.”
“So is this fair now?” Dain asked as he pressed him down the blue carpet. Avry wasn’t prepared for the onslaught and fell back, struggling to keep his balance. The staccato tap of their blades matched the applause and cheers from the crowd. “What you wanted?”
Avry shook his head at him, but he was laughing. “All right, Dain.”
“All right what? Do you concede?”
“Why, do you want me to?”
“Sure Avry. The faster I get rid of you the quicker I get to deal with Ralion. Can’t wait.”
“Dain Ardin has already taken care of Ralion.” Dain looked, if only for a moment. He discovered that he’d been lied to and fallen for the guard’s ploy. It worked, to an extent, when Dain stumbled and fell amidst the gasps of the crowd. Avry stood over him. “Now maybe you’re ready to concede.”
Dain dropped one of his swords, then abruptly grabbed the end of Avry’s and jerked him forward. Dain kicked the guard’s legs out from under him, rolled up to his knees, and set his sword at the guard’s throat. “Maybe not.”
Dain laughed as he stood, though it felt like his lungs might burst as hard as he was breathing. He wasn’t really in any shape to face Ralion, but he turned anyway and found his old guard waiting.
Dain Ardin was still fighting Kenon, right in front of the dais, back and forth. Dain caught a glimpse of Geneal and Bronwyn, and both of them shook their heads at him. Ralion didn’t waste any time getting to him, and Dain thought of quitting just to get it over with. He was tired and Ralion knew it.
“You know, in another place and time, I might think you deserved this,” Ralion said while he practically chased him down the aisle. “But here and now? I’m not so sure. Come on, Dain. We’re putting on a show, remember? And this crowd won’t like it much if you lose.”
Dain stared at him and Ralion laughed. “I don’t—”
“I forgave you when I snapped your ribs the second time. Or maybe it was the third.”
“So what’s this? You taking pity on me?”
“Never pity, Dain.” Ralion smiled and spun his sword around, blades clashing as they locked. Ralion abruptly reversed the blade, and dropped to one knee as he extended the weapon to him. The crowd around them loved it. “Now, take it easy on Kenon. He’s new. We want to keep him around.”
Dain grimaced at that, but nodded. “I’ll be nice. Thanks Ralion.”
Kenon saw him coming and knew that he was doomed. Everyone else knew it too, but many called out to the guard, encouraging him to keep fighting. It wasn’t that they didn’t know the outcome, they just didn’t want them to stop. Dain really hoped Kenon would anyway. His brother felt about the same way. Just as Kenon turned to attack, Dain realized that for the first time since his arrival, he really thought of Dain Ardin as his brother. He almost didn’t bring his sword around in time, but Dain Ardin caught Kenon up from behind and promptly took the guard’s sword. Dain shook his head at the questioning glance he got, wondering how it would ever be possible for them to join.
Kenon grudgingly surrendered, but it became immediately clear that their audience wasn’t ready for anything to stop. They called and cheered for more, plainly not satisfied. Dain turned to them, staring in mock disbelief and got a big laugh for it. Mostly he was trying to stall so he could catch his breath.
Dain started to shake his head, but they shouted him down. Then Dain Ardin joined him and the noise doubled in volume. They looked at each other, then back to Dynan. He spread his hands in question. “What are you waiting for?”
Dynan laughed at the glare he got for that, but the next instant they were battling back down the aisle they’d only just come up. This display mirrored their earlier practice and most everyone in the room remembered seeing it before. A strange vibration came up through the floor, even into the arms of the chair, and Dynan realized it was the noise of people cheering. A group nearest his brothers were laughing more than anything else, and he saw Dain Ardin trying to flirt with the Ladies while he fought. It wasn’t working very well with Dain constantly attacking, drawing him away from anyone he spoke to.
Finally, they stopped their banter and concentrated on the last part of the duel, ending with a flourish right in front of him. Marc leaned over a little as the crowd noise subsided. “No medals tonight,” he said.
“Medals?” Dain asked between breaths. “Who was supposed to get a medal?”
“Any guard who could beat you,” Dynan said.
“Really? So no one managed it. Don’t I get something for all this?”
Dynan took a sip of water, and nodded as he stood, really surprising his brothers. “Yes, actually, you do. Both of you.”
He waited until he had everyone’s attention. That didn’t take long as two guards came down from the landing, each carrying a small wooden case. Attention centered on them and what they carried to the dais. Dynan motioned his brothers over to stand before him. “No amount of gold can ever repay you for what you’ve done. It’s only a symbol of gratitude and a reminder of the great debt you’re owed. You never failed. You never faltered. But for your constant devotion, I wouldn’t be here, and I’m the luckiest man alive having you both as my brothers.”
They looked down at the shining gold, embossed with three entwining rings, smiling at the design. There were no others like them, and wouldn’t be. “Now, go have fun.”