At the Palaestra

In the course of revising The Mask of Mirrors, we made a great many cuts within scenes, but only one cut of a scene in its entirety. The bit below was originally in Chapter Nineteen for several reasons: we thought the reader might want a quieter moment before we dove into the chaos of the final chapters, plus there hadn’t been any closure (even of a temporary sort) between Renata and Sibiliat after Giuna revealed the break-in Sibiliat had arranged. We’d also sort of dropped the thread of Ren trying to leverage her knowledge of Mezzan and Idusza — not that Ren really had any opportunity to do anything about that between the Night of Hells and this point, but to the reader, “pages elapsed” feels a lot like “time elapsed” even if it isn’t really.

When all was said and done, however, what we wrote didn’t work. There’s nothing wrong with the scene in its own right . . . but it was too quiet, and waaaaaay too many words for the small things it accomplished. We try very hard to make sure that everything in the book is pulling multiple kinds of weight at once — that’s why we so rarely cut anything wholesale; it would leave too many threads dangling and needing to be woven in somewhere else — but this one could come out with barely a ripple, which was good reason for it to go. Only two things really had to be worked in elsewhere: reference to the Rook having potentially injured himself escaping from the Vigil the previous night (relevant to the later scene at Breglian’s), and Ryvček’s offer of lessons, which found a new home early in The Liar’s Knot. We offer the scene here for your enjoyment!

* * *

Palaestra Gardens, Eastbridge: Cyprilun 31

Ren almost didn’t go to the Palaestra Gardens the next day. Apart from being underslept, she had no particular desire to face the younger nobility of Nadežra. Mezzan would almost certainly be there; so would Sibiliat. One held secrets she hadn’t managed to dig out, and the other had dug out far too many of her own.

And even if none of that were true . . . Leato had taken her to the Gardens several times since that first fencing lesson in his ballroom. Visiting Traementis Manor was painful enough, with his family mourning him, but this was a place she associated with him. She could see his golden hair in the sunlight, dampened to bronze with exertion; she could hear his bright laugh as they traded quips and banter. The equinox was more than three weeks past, the air of the Upper Bank filled with the heady scent of spring blooms, but the memory of his death lay like a pall over the fresh green.

But her own words to Vargo and Captain Serrado haunted her. If Ondrakja was capable of stepping into and out of Ažerais’ Dream whenever she chose, then she could appear at any moment, without warning. And while fencing lessons wouldn’t help Ren much against that — starting with the fact that she couldn’t afford a sword — the exercise would, restoring her endurance and her instincts for a fight.

Besides, she couldn’t avoid Sibiliat forever.

The marble-columned building of the Palaestra proper had changed little since the days when Kaius Rex erected it, though the Tyrant’s appetites guaranteed that it saw little use until after his death. The cold stone and wide arches meant it wasn’t much warmer inside than out; the age-old numinata on the walls barely dulled winter’s bite. But at least the roof kept off the rain, and so most of the winter practices had been held indoors.

Now it was spring, and the fogs of Veiled Waters hadn’t yet descended, so the dueling circles and dummies had been moved out to the grounds. The trees were more branches than buds, scattering the sunlight like lace across the packed ground of the dueling rings. It gave the day the feeling of a festival, the first breath of fresh air after a season of being cooped up indoors.

People were taking full advantage of it. These open practices usually drew a mix of contract duelists and dedicated amateurs, but today it seemed like every delta gentry son and noble house daughter with an athletic bent had come to test their steel. With them came the onlookers, more interested in placing bets than honing their skills.

And very busy gossiping. As Renata passed beneath an arch covered in red, trumpet-shaped flowers, she heard a cluster of the young men talking loudly about a disturbance in the Shambles the night before. “– got chased by one of the gangs,” Bondiro Coscanum was saying, “and when they hit Westbridge the Vigil decided to take notice.”

“I heard he fell off a rooftop,” Orrucio Amananto said.

Egliadas Fintenus spat into the bushes. “Too much to hope he broke his neck. Really, Mezzan — two hundred years, and the Vigil’s never managed to catch that kinless bastard? Your father ought to whip them into better shape.”

“Are you saying my father’s to blame?” Mezzan asked coldly, making a show of inspecting the capped tip of his practice blade. “Care to say it in the ring, where I can whip you into shape?”

Egliadas flinched, then tried to cover that with a nervous laugh. “No, I’m only saying, that’s got to be more than luck. I’d wager he has people helping him. Probably every gnat in Seven Knots.”

Or knots all over the Lower Bank, Renata thought. It certainly would aid the Rook’s work if he had a network of that kind feeding him information and providing resources.

She studied Mezzan covertly, wondering if he might be the weak link in his father’s chain. He lacked Mettore’s self-control; could she use that against him? Her thought of breaking his betrothal with Marvisal Coscanum had fallen by the wayside, thanks to the Night of Hells, but she could still try to use that as leverage. Threaten to lean on Alta Faella, perhaps, if he didn’t tell her what he was doing with Idusza and her radical friends.

No. That would endanger Idusza, and Mezzan would probably try to skewer Renata. He might have lost to the Rook and Leato, but he was far too good with a blade for her to beat him in a duel. River rats won their fights with dirty tricks and ambushes, not formal technique.

But Marvisal was a different matter.

Renata spotted her lounging on a bench with Neisat Essunta, watching Mezzan warm up. She drifted in that direction, pretending she was merely enjoying the scent of all the flowers she couldn’t name. When Neisat got up, she slipped into the vacant spot on the bench.

“Alta Renata.” Ever since that night at in Lacewater, Marvisal had been cool to Renata, unable to decide what to do with her. The duel at the engagement party hadn’t helped matters. But Tess was slated to sew her wedding ensemble, and Faella still deigned to keep company with Renata, so Marvisal followed suit. “What a lovely surcoat. I’m surprised to see you out and not in mourning — but I suppose we all tend to forget you’re not really a Traementis. You’ve become so close with them.”

It wasn’t the most promising start to the conversation, but Renata forged onward nonetheless. “I’m doing what I can for them. It’s difficult, when the family is so small; they don’t have more distant kin to take on the burden of handling affairs while his mother and sister mourn.”

“There might have been some hope if Leato had married out — depending on his mother’s choice, of course.” Marvisal’s simper said Renata would have been an unfortunate choice in that regard. “Now I suppose it falls to little Giuna . . . though I imagine only the very desperate would wish to be added to that register, after everything the family has gone through.”

Had Sibiliat been whispering to her? Scanning the gardens, Renata couldn’t see the Acrenix woman anywhere. She’d hoped to do this in a more friendly fashion, but Marvisal’s reflexive hostility left her no option but to go straight for the throat. “If I were you, I would be more concerned with your future than Giuna’s.”

Pretending interest in the dueling ring, Marvisal said, “Oh?”

Renata let her eyebrows rise. “Surely you’ve heard the rumors. With Alta Faella as your great-aunt, I can’t imagine you’re unaware of Mezzan’s side activities . . . but other people have started to hear about them, as well.”

The veneer of geniality scraped away, leaving pale cheeks and a tremor of fury threading Marvisal’s lowered voice. “My great-aunt always taught me that gossip is spread by the jealous, Alta Renata. If I kept that Acrenix snake from wrapping herself around Mezzan, I can certainly handle a kinless cat. Keep your claws off my betrothed, or I’ll rip them out.”

Standing, Marvisal looked down at Ren from her great height and spoke to be heard. “Thank you for sharing your concerns, Alta Renata, but you’ve nothing to fear. I have every confidence that your maid won’t embarrass you. I quite look forward to seeing her work for my wedding ensemble.”

With a prim smile and long strides, she left to watch Mezzan’s bout with Egliadas.

Renata cursed inwardly. Either Marvisal is as good a liar as I am, or she doesn’t know a damn thing about Mezzan’s involvement with the Anduske. So much for that avenue of inquiry.

“If your aim is to emulate me,” Sibiliat said, sauntering up as though she’d been waiting to catch Ren off-footed, “you’re welcome to Marvisal’s spite. It was growing tiresome.”

Her face was clean of cosmetics, her pale hair pulled back in a simple bun. The stiff broadcloth of her surcoat and breeches resembled Renata’s, but Sibiliat’s were surprisingly utilitarian for the heir to a noble house. She’d abandoned kid and silk for leather dueling gloves, and she was buckling on the fitted coat meant to protect the duelist against blunted practice blades. It looked battered and mended in places — well-used.

Sibiliat had hung back that night in Lacewater and hadn’t attended the practices Renata had been at, but one look made it clear she wasn’t lacking in experience. Ren’s inner cursing grew more foul.

The Acrenix woman offered her a good imitation of a smile. “Marvisal’s no match for you. Pick up your practice sword; I’ll show you some tricks.”

It wasn’t quite Uniat, but Renata couldn’t afford to refuse the unspoken challenge. Too many people had overheard it. Gritting her teeth, she went to buckle herself into a spare protective coat.

She half-expected Sibiliat to immediately tear into her. The borrowed long blade felt unwieldy in Ren’s hand; she had far more experience with knives than anything else, and kept expecting the weapon to move faster than it did. Against someone with actual training, she was as easy a target as the painted circles some of the duelists were lunging against along the Palaestra’s outer wall. But Sibiliat held back — at least to begin with.

“I’m surprised you didn’t receive any sort of training in Seteris,” Sibiliat said after a few passes of easy testing. “I thought nobles there were born with blades in their hands. I suppose your mother couldn’t justify the cost . . . I mean, for a daughter who would never need to defend herself.”

So it was to be that sort of sparring. Ren understood this type very well — even if she wasn’t accustomed to doing it while waving a sword around. When Ren lunged, Sibiliat slammed the hilt of her blade downward, knocking Ren’s point out of line, and counter-thrust to the hollow of her shoulder. Even with a blunted tip and the heavy coat, it stung.

“My mother has many faults,” Renata said, retreating. “But this is surprising to no one, except perhaps herself.” Had Sibiliat guessed the rest of it, or found some way to confirm that Letilia wasn’t her mother — wasn’t even in Seteris? She would have a harder time proving Renata was a complete impostor than simply a poor cousin . . . but it wasn’t impossible.

Using her blade to move a clay bead along the rack that marked points, Sibiliat said, “She must be horrible indeed, for her own daughter to speak ill of her” She took up her stance for another pass. “Granted, the only mother I ever knew was my grandmama, so perhaps I don’t understand these things. Still, didn’t she gift some of her jewels to you? I seem to recall a few pieces.”

Renata blinked. If this was Sibiliat’s attempt to hint at her poverty, it seemed poorly aimed. “A few. But my mother’s taste is . . . rather different from my own.” She advanced again, thrusting with the over-long blade, and got slapped down and hammered in the shoulder again.

“I’ve heard she was obsessed with Seteris. I suppose that’s why you don’t have any numinatrian pieces. She kept them all?” It was a subtle dig: a well-scribed numinat was worth more than mere gems, much as imbued objects had more value than their simple counterparts. But the thrust that came with it was hardly subtle. It struck in the same spot, and the resulting ache was beginning to radiate down Renata’s wrist and back.

She controlled the urge to shake her arm loose, not wanting to give Sibiliat that satisfaction. The woman was humiliating her, but she was also becoming predictable. The trouble, Renata realized, was that she didn’t have a good enough sense of how long her blade was. Every time she attacked along that line, Sibiliat easily rocked her hips back and out of reach, and then answered with the same counter.

But recognizing that didn’t tell her what to do about it, other than to stop lunging. Every other attack she could think of right now would scandalize the onlookers, and not in a good way.

At least if she thrust higher, she’d make it harder for Sibiliat to slap her blade downward. Renata tried — but this time Sibiliat merely ducked under it and countered to the same damned spot, landing on the incipient bruise with a precision that would do an inscriptor proud.

Fuck this. On the next pass Ren charged in with more force, hoping to put Sibiliat off-balance and possibly create an opening she could use.

Instead there was a scraping counter, Sibiliat’s blade seeming to wrap around Renata’s own. An instant later they were body-to-body, Sibiliat a mere breath from Ren’s face.

A breath that was hot and uneven with contempt. “I know what you are. You may have Giuna fooled, but I’m watching you,” Sibiliat whispered, soft and venomous as a serpent’s kiss.

There it is. The threat she’d been expecting all this time. Sibiliat wasn’t going to spill her secret yet; unlike the Rook, she preferred to hold onto her leverage for future use. And since Giuna hadn’t made a public issue of Renata’s poverty, Sibiliat doing so might lose her Giuna’s goodwill.

But it confirmed what Ren had suspected. And as they broke apart, she knew that blade was going to stay at her throat until Sibiliat ceased to have any use for it — or buried it to the hilt.

Before she could respond, a Vraszenian drawl interrupted them. “Nicely done, Alta Sibiliat. Excellent demonstration of both voiding and transport.”

Sibiliat’s gaze went past Renata’s bruised shoulder. “Thank you, Mistress Ryvček.”

Oksana Ryvček sauntered into view, practice blade dangling from her fingers. “Care to try yourself against me?”

From the narrowing of Sibiliat’s eyes, the clear answer was no. But she pivoted to face Ryvček, taking her opening stance. “I’m honored by the opportunity.”

She wasn’t honored for long. The instant Sibiliat moved, the tip of Ryvček’s blade flicked forward — and then Sibiliat’s sword was on the ground and she was clutching her hand, strangling back curses.

If Renata hadn’t been standing in exactly the right spot to see it happen, she wouldn’t have even known what Ryvček did. The blunted point of her weapon had slipped through the guard of Sibiliat’s blade and struck right in the tender meat between thumb and palm.

“Your grip defense, however, needs work. Again?” Ryvček asked. Sibiliat nodded, but when she bent to pick up her sword, her hand spasmed and she hissed again. “Or not. It might be best to put ice on that. I’ll see to your gear.”

“Don’t trouble yourself, duellante,” Sibiliat said sweetly, retrieving her blade with her left hand. She saluted Ryvček with it, gave Renata a cool nod, and left before she could be served further humiliation.

Clicking her tongue, Ryvček tucked her practice blade beneath one arm and brushed her silver-shot hair from her face. “Trained by Carduin Destaelio himself. You would think she would have picked up some of his manners, too.”

Then her attention shifted to Renata, and she folded her arms. “And I would expect Leato to have taught you better about sparring with someone like that. As in, do not let them bait you into it.”

Renata’s jaw tensed. “It isn’t always possible to pick one’s battles.”

Rubbing the back of her neck — a move Leato seemed to have picked up from her — Ryvček snorted. “True enough. For those, you need to prepare. Prezilny and Tsápekny afternoons, block them off. Come to my townhouse for lessons. Isla Strešla, in Kingfisher.”

Renata did her best not to stare. “I –” I can’t afford that. But she couldn’t say so, not in public. She would have to wait until Tsápekny, then find some way to tell Ryvček in private, without admitting the full extent of her situation.

A finger leveled before her nose, steady as a sword’s tip. “And do not even think about offering me coin. It is the least I can . . .” The finger wavered, and for the first time since Ren had met her, Ryvček looked something other than cocky and self-possessed.

Only for an instant. Then her fingers curled into a fist that fell to her side. “Leato cannot do it, so I will. And if you need someone to represent you in a duel, I will be insulted if you ask anyone else.”

Renata’s throat tightened, but she managed to nod. “I understand. And thank you.”