The young foreigner had been fighting all challengers for the last two hours. She wasn’t large for a woman, and yet gave the impression of height. Her hair, perhaps, which had begun in two thick braids wrapped curiously around her head, and had long since transformed into two unraveling streamers that whipped about her face as she turned and tumbled and struck. She fought with rapier and dagger, handling the smaller blade with notably more assurance than the longer weapon. As a swordswoman, her skills stumbled on the bad side of mediocre—except at certain moments, when she would move like a snake in the water; then her challenger might find himself on the striking end of her dagger, and be forced to concede the fight. The gathered crowd jeered the losers then. But they were fickle friends: They jeered the young woman plenty, too.
Two hours into the spectacle, the press in the Old Market prevented all but the most determined drunkards from entering the Maiden’s Fancy. So in this unseasonal dog-heat of early spring, the serving girls waded through the crowd with professional elbows to take orders in the square. Even to the jaded denizens of Riverside, training ground of the greatest swordsmen of the city, the sight of a foreign woman in tight-fitting men’s clothes issuing challenges by the trash-filled mermaid fountain in the Old Market was a more than sufficient spectacle.
The foreign woman had long since kicked her fine leather boots to the edge of the space, a traditional Riverside challenge spot marked by a rough ring of broken and gapped cobbles.
A pair of hungry boys had eyed those fine-tooled shoes with professional avarice before a redheaded woman, gorgeous and plump, grabbed them herself and scowled at the boys. They shrugged and melted back into the crowd, eyes sharp for a hint of treasure. Just because Riversiders were poor didn’t mean they had nothing to steal.
The redhead, now awkwardly clutching her friend’s boots in addition to an overstuffed leather bag, seemed oddly distracted. After all, the fighting was being done in her name: Tess the Hand as they called her, the best forger in Riverside, both skilled and affordable. Her protector had been the pretty swordsman Ben, who hadn’t looked so pretty when the clam women downriver, picking barefoot through the mud for the clams exposed at morning’s low tide, discovered his body among their harvest. Two weeks ago that was, and Tess the Hand was on the market for a new protector with a strong arm who wouldn’t expect sexual favors in exchange for the service.
A young man, soberly dressed in black and doeskin brown, whose measured stride still implied a swagger, edged through the crowd in a slow spiral. He had been among the first to pause and watch when the foreign woman issued her challenge.
“I go against any who dares cross blades with me,” she had called, with a calm pride that lanced through the normal bustle of market day like a sword’s thrust. “And I will choose the next protector of Tess the Hand from among those who best me.” She spoke well, the foreign woman, like someone who had studied the language but was still accustoming herself to its shape on her tongue.
The young man had lived in Riverside for a time, and made himself a reputation among those who cared about the sword. He was tall and lithe, brunet and not quite handsome, except for his eyes—green and gold and framed by curling pale lashes—which could have been his vanity, were he a man who cared less about the sword.
His name was Vincent Applethorpe, and watching the sweaty young woman fight so badly and so well in her unusually bare feet, he began to wonder if he had, at last, fallen in love.
Her latest opponent was one of the many swordsmen who frequented the Maiden’s Fancy: Alaric, a short, heavyset Northerner capable of surprising bursts of speed. He was not clever, nor an artist, but he was vicious and not above foul play, provided he could get away with it. He was also fresh and well-rested. He was dewy with the first ten minutes’ exertion, but only because he was playing to the crowd, toying with his opponent. The foreigner seemed to know this. She kept her eyes on his sword. (His face! Vincent had wanted to shout more than once since the match had begun. Watch his eyes, they’ll tell you what his hands will do!) She dodged Alaric’s blows or blocked them as best she could. She seemed too tired to attack. Or perhaps she was waiting for a certain kind of opening, something that favored those enviably fluid foreign moves.
Alaric feinted left and right, and when that didn’t so much as prompt her to move her blades, he aimed his next blow, without any fuss at all, at her exposed neck. The crowd had time for half a breath. The foreigner wouldn’t have had time even for that. She raised her dagger for the parry at the last moment. She fell to one knee with a force that jarred those who knew what that cost her, and then rolled to one side. She spat a few words...