Kris Denn marched into the public chambers of the Warders’ Circle. Three steps ahead, Nik held the Rumikan flag high, a golden chimera on a red-and-white field. Musicians on pipes walked alongside Kris, playing the melody to the Rumikan epic of Yel the Wise. Alyx and other attendants followed, the Rumikan entourage for the Gauntlet eight strong.
This last year of Kris’s life had built to this day. Every drill, every sparring session, every working dinner and stop in their tour across Rumika, every session cramming names and figures and laws and histories of trade deals. Yet it was all for nothing unless they succeeded today and in the days ahead.
The chamber was full, with dozens of Rumikans in the guest gallery—more than Kris had seen together since leaving home. The cheering was as loud as the invitational tournaments back home, contests that were each a step Kris had taken on the path to be here today.
Kris wore a close-fitting jacket in red and white and a brand-new set of breeches, the outfit specially made for the Gauntlet.
Yochno Vens met Kris and their entourage at the edge of the stage. Kris bowed to Yochno, who answered with a deep nod. Then the seneschal turned and addressed the room, his rich voice carrying throughout the chambers.
“Kris Denn of Rumika has requested the opportunity to address the Circle.”
All six of the current warders were present, their boxes full. Each was dressed formally, though Kris could see combat tunics and leathers here and there beneath the finery. Such was the life of a warder, the life Kris was about to claim for their own. Both flash and substance, silk and steel.
Kris stepped up onto the central platform, the eyes of the entire room pressing in on them like an advancing pike wedge. But this was Kris’s day, not theirs.
“Warders of the Circle, friends and colleagues, and our esteemed guests. I speak with the voice of Rumika, a proud people who are ready to step into the broader world and take their place among the great nations of the Circle.”
Kris drew their sword and carved the Sigil of Challenge, one of the most intricate sigils they had ever learned: sweeping arcs with precise angles, triangles inside of squares inside of circles that had to connect just so. They’d practiced the sigil a hundred times, then a hundred more.
As they finished the final swoop of the blade, the sigil flashed. The light arced to the altar of challenge, forming a glowing ring showing the flags of the six nations of the Circle. As each nation met Kris’s challenge, their icon would glow in support or darken in opposition.
“The Challenge of the Gauntlet is called!” Yochno declared, ringing the ceremonial bell. “Who shall answer?”
Ojo stepped forward, twin blades on his hip. “Quloo answers.” He showed a hint of a smile. More than anyone, Ojo had helped Kris prepare for this day, so it was fitting Kris would test their mettle against him first.
Quloo claiming the first position in the Gauntlet was a major win. The other nations of the Circle decided among themselves the order that would follow.
The senior Quloi warder stepped up onto the platform and extended a hand to shake. “May you do your people proud,” he said, softly enough that only Kris and Yochno could hear. Kris smiled.
“I intend to.”
On his side of the field, Ojo stretched, but his face was calm. Adechike stood beside him holding Ojo’s blades, animated as he talked about something.
Yochno walked to the center of the dueling arena with the bell.
“The Gauntlet begins! Kris Denn of Rumika challenges and Ojo Kante, Warder of Quloo, answers.”
Kris and Ojo shook hands as Yochno explained the rules. Each duel would be by bladecraft, to the first touch. For each duel, the warder could call a halt and cast their vote in support without a touch being needed. Kris knew this all by heart.
Hurry up and start already, Kris thought, barely keeping the words from their lips.
Endless moments later they were ready to begin. Kris had their plan in mind—empowering sigils for speed to accentuate their advantage, strength to compensate for their weaknesses, then magical attacks as they closed. Stay just outside Ojo’s range, then move in for a quick strike and then out of measure immediately. In and out. Don’t get bogged down.
But even the best plans were like paper umbrellas in the rain.
Yochno’s bell rang,...