Tia grabbed her attacker’s arm and pulled, hoping to throw her opponent to the floor. Instead, her foe twisted, throwing both off balance.
“No!” The loud voice came from behind Tia. “Your feet were in the wrong position. Try it again.” The speaker came into view, a short muscular woman with close cropped hair and an archer tattoo on her right bicep: Arlene, veteran of the all-female 11th Amazoni legion. Now she ran the Delphine house, teaching unarmed fighting skills to wealthy women.
“Ready?” A feral smile played across Fila’s lips as she assumed a crouching position.
Tia sighed through the sweat covering her face. “I suppose.” She didn’t feel ‘ready.’ Instead, she felt exhausted. My bruises have bruises. Even my hair hurts. But I asked for this. That thought propelled Tia into a fighter’s crouch. A strand of blond hair fell across her rectangular face. “Ready.”
Arlene walked around Tia, studying her like she was dog or mule. “Remember your feet.” Tia adjusted her stance. “Go!”
Fila’s short, squat dark form collided with Tia.
Tia grabbed and pulled.
Fila twisted. But this time, Tia’s feet were positioned correctly. Fila landed face first on the leather matt with a ‘woof.’
“Better,” Arlene’s hands were on her hips. “Let’s cool down with a nice wall jog.”
Fila rose to her feet with a mock shudder. “I’ll freeze! It’s winter out there!”
Tia giggled. “The snow melted yesterday. Besides, Regis doesn’t get a real winter. This is nothing compared to Equitant.” She reached for a thin orange and white coat.
Fila whirled. “Yeah, well, to me this is damn cold.”
Stone walls forty feet high and four miles long encircled the core of Regis, crown city of the Solarian Empire. Arlene made her students run the whole distance. Two months ago, Tia could barely walk the walls circuit. Now, despite her pains, she maintained an even pace near the front of the pack. Fila, though, wasn’t much of a runner, lagging at the tail with plump, fortyish Daphne.
A gate tower loomed ahead of Tia, blocking the walkway. Getting around the obstruction meant passing through a narrow balcony on the inner side. Turning onto the balcony gave her a view of the city – and the Throne Palace rising above it.
The Throne Palace deserved its name. Part natures work and part man’s, the imperial domicile resembled a seat suited for a giant of legend, complete with seat, armrests and back, while tall turrets in the shaped of a scepter and a naked sword rose from the end of the armrests. One could imagine a god seated on that throne. That was exactly the impression it’s architect, Emperor Regis the First, founder of the Solarian Empire, intended to create.
Tia slowed to a brisk walk on the balcony. The Climb awaits. The ‘Climb’ was Tia’s private name for where the wall switch backed its way to a clifftop near as high as the Palace.
“Think you can beat me to the top?” Arlene jogged alongside Tia, not even winded.
Tia gulped air. “I’m willing to try.”
Arlene laughed. “You don’t try. You just do.” She pulled ahead of Tia.
I can do this. I ran to the top yesterday without stopping. Tia grinned. Two months ago, she couldn’t even walk up the Climb. Her feet moved faster.
Tia reached the first turn, marking a half circle around the imperial cathedral, it’s gold and white dome glistening in the morning light. She could see the back of the Throne Palace from here, separated from the cliff by a deep canyon crossed by a single bridge.
Tia raised her eyes. Arlene was at the next turn, where the walkway turned into a staircase. Don’t think about her. Just move the feet.
Tia reached the staircase. Here she slowed, as patches of ice on the treads made footing treacherous. Her leather shoes tripled in weight. Her breath came in gasps. Ahead, Arlene leaned against the stone rail, apparently engrossed in watching a raven. When Tia neared, the former legionary winked, cast her a mock salute, and started an easy lope.
No, you don’t. Tia increased her pace. Arlene’s lead dropped from ten paces to five. A turret just ahead marked the last switchback and the unofficial finish line. Tia focused on the turret’s doorway and moved. Her outstretched hand touched the turret a heartbeat ahead of Arlene.
“Not bad,” said Arlene. “You’d have made a fair Amazon.”
Tia gulped air, leaning against the railing for support. From here, she could see the whole eastern half of the city. Ten miles away, she could see the wharfs and warehouses of Port Princeps, and beyond that, the blue waters of the Mare Imperium. She faced the former legionary. “You mean that?”
“Yes.” Arlene stared out over the city. “Pity they disbanded the legion.” Officially, the Amazoni had been disbanded due to high casualties and a lack of funds. Unofficially, the dissolution stemmed from patriarchal displeasure at assertive women.
Below them, the other members of the class struggled through the switchback. Fila and Daphne hadn’t even finished the first turn yet. Arlene waited until the stragglers cleared the second turn. “Ready for the next part?”
“Think they’ll be there?” Tia fingered her jacket as she spoke.
Arlene snorted. “Yeah, they’ll be there.”
Daphne reached the turret, panting like a bellows. “I swear that stretch just keeps getting steeper.” She clenched the railing.
Arlene let the women catch their breath. “Ready to put on a show, ladies? Don’t get dragged into the bushes.” The last was directed at Fila and pert little Zoe. “Fine, let’s go.”
They passed through the turret. Here, the wall ran level along the clifftop. Right, dead gardens and courtyards fronted large mansion’s belonging to the imperial elite. Ahead and left, a narrow drawbridge spanned the chasm between cliff and palace.
Drunken laughter and the clash of steel came from a from behind a hedge. Tia spotted two armored louts circling each other on an oval of brown grass. Eight or ten other drunken brutes sat on benches offering rude commentary. Three or four more were sprawled out in the dirt. Tia’s eyes probed the pack. And there he was. Sir Hugh Allergan, Lord of Birch River – Tia’s future husband.
Sir Hugh Allergan had five things in common with the other drunkards on the grass: a heroic reputation, a noble title, a pile of bills, a willingness to marry low, and the emperor’s friendship.
Imperial patronage. Immunity to a host of petty taxes and regulations. Enhanced privileges and prospects at home and abroad. Tia’s parents practically drooled at the thought. Tia thought less about imperial patronage and how often he’d beat her. Allergan’s last ‘love tap’ had stung for days. He’d struck Barbara, Tia’s chief rival so hard the girl needed dental work.
Tia’s parents didn’t care about that. What they cared about was their future noble status and the two hundred peasants for possible hire on Sir Hugh’s lands.
Tia spotted pink skin and auburn hair poking from a blanket by the fire. Barbara. One guess what she’d been doing. She could catch a fever in this chill weather. Was that too much to hope for?
The armored combatants shifted position. Tia suppressed a groan as one hefted a shield that depicted a round tower beside a forest. Sir Peter Cortez. Damnit! Why did he consort with these knaves? He was better than that.
Then Peter’s foe swiveled, granting Tia a view of an ex splitting a bronze helm. Sir Fury. A drunkard and rake hot after Tia’s ass.
Peter’s helm rotated in Tia’s direction. A word escaped his lips. “Tessa?” Then Fury’s blade slammed into Peter, knocking him into the hedge.
“Hi, guys!” The voice came from behind Tia. Zoe, of course. The stupid slut had bedded at least two of the louts.
Unshaven faces lifted as the women jogged past.
“Ready for some fun?”
“Come and party!”
“Show us your moves!”
“Want to see my sword?”
A knot of knights made for the walkway. One fell face first in the dirt.
Sir Fury spun away from Peter and clouted one of the others across the head. “Lady Samos, I know you want me!”
Great. Simply great, thought Tia. “Come and get me!” She put on a burst of speed as Sir Fury clattered up the stairs.
Tia cast a glance over her shoulder. One knight snagged a giggling Zoe by the waist. Another took a swipe at a girl’s top. But Sir Fury remained fixed on her. Why couldn’t he chase another girl?
Sir Fury’s hand caught Tia’s shoulder. She twisted away. “Not today, sir knight!”
“Playing hard to get, are we?” The knight grabbed her wrist.
“Unhand her, varlet!” Sir Allergan’s words would have been more dramatic if he hadn’t spoken them in such a jovial tone.
“Why, certainly.” Fury released his grip, took a step back, and bowed. “Lady Samos is all yours.”
Tia seethed at the playacting – at being made into a toy rather than a person. She wanted to lash out and slap both men silly. Instead, she twisted her features into an expression of gratitude. “Why thank you, brave knight.” She used a high-pitched voice. “How may I express my gratitude?”
Sir Allergan wrapped his arm around Tia’s waist. “With dinner. Tonight.”
Tia lifted her eyes. “But fair knight, I must attend church this evening.” More accurately, she attended church with Travis Strong tonight. “Would tomorrow suffice?”
“Tomorrow, then.” Allergan released his grip and twisted away. A moment later he and Fury were walking back towards the stair, exchanging jests. Ahead of them, Zoe and Fila trotted alongside other knights.
Tia shook her head at the knight’s antics. Big kids, the lot of them. Big, spoiled kids who drank too much and thought nothing of skewering people with steel.
“Ready?” Arlene materialized from nowhere.
“Yes.” Tia sighed and resumed jogging, brooding on her impending nuptials.