Survival of Me
Dancing and DuelingThree-Dancing and Dueling
When Tara left quickly, I slid the sheath of a small dagger inside my sleeve, strapped neatly to the inside of my forearm. I strapped another inside each boot and hid one in my sash. I looked at the time candle and saw that I had several minutes before Jason would come to my door. I opened the doors to my balcony and breathed in the gentle breeze. Jason’s doors were closed, the lights dark. I took another breath and fought down the nerves that suddenly began to bubble.
“I’m alright. I think,” I murmured.
“What’s wrong? Are you nervous?” he asked. I nodded and felt his arms tighten around me. “I won’t let the Lord Airhead near you, I promise,” he whispered.
“It’s not just that. Jace, what business does a girl with no dowry have at a festival where men look for someone to court?” I asked.
Jason took a deep breath and said, “The girl I love.”
My breath stopped and my heart hummed joyfully. Unable to think of a response, I turned in Jason’s arms and looked at him. Seeing the hope, worry, and what I now realized was love, on his face, I put my arms around his neck and kissed him. I felt all my nerves evaporate as Jace and I held each other there, our own bubble of peace. “I love you, Jace,” I said when I got the chance.
‘I love you, too, Izzy,” he replied, leaning his forehead to mine. That moment I found another reason I enjoyed being five feet eight inches; I didn’t have to stretch to kiss Jason’s six foot two inch form.
“My lady?” Tara called from in my rooms.
I sighed and Jason let me slip out of his arms. “Out here, Tara,” I called.
“Ah, my lady, there you are. Good afternoon, you’re Highness. A word, if you would, my lady,” Tara said. I nodded and followed my maid back into my sitting room. She sat me in front of the mirror and slid a drawer out. She took out lip paint and carefully rubbed the rosy pink on my lips. I smiled into the mirror as she sprayed perfume under my hair, on the insides of my wrists, and then a cloud of it over my head and shoulders.
“Thank you, “I said softly as I stood. Jason came in from the balcony, a flower from the trellis in his hands. He came to stand in front of me and slipped the flower into my hair. He turned me to face the mirror and I saw the truth. Jason and I were meant from each other; we always had been. We had gone from play-mates to best friends to lovers.
Jason stood behind me, slid his arms around my waist again, and whispered, “Do you see it now?”
I turned to him and reached up to slip my arms around his shoulders. Tara ducked into the study, failing to hide a grin, as Jason held me. I pulled the Prince close and kissed him gently. He smoothed my hair back as we stared at each other.
The moment was shattered by a loud bell ringing. The bell called all pages and squires to the kitchen, signaling that the feast was about to begin. This was the unofficial signal for nobles and royalty to make their way to the Announcement Hall to wait for their turn to be presented. “You know I’ll have to dance with other ladies and princesses, right?” he asked softly.
“You dragged me to enough of these things, Jace,” I replied gently.
“Who will you dance with when I’m gone?” he asked, unashamed to voice the question.
“If they are free, I’ll probably dance with Jon or Kurt. If someone asks, I won’t say no. Although, most of the men know I’ve no dowry; how they know, I don’t know. But I will refuse Lord Airhead, that I promise,” I told him, meeting his eyes.
He nodded and Tara came forward from the doorway. She nodded towards the vanity table again and Jason went to the main door. With practiced fingers, Tara braided two small sections two the back of my head, where she braided them together to make a single braid fall with the rest of my hair. She took the flower from above my ear and slid it into the ties on the braid. I turned away, moved over to my wardrobe and pulled a gold coli from my purse. I handed it to Tara and said, “Treat yourself tonight, Tara.” A gold coli, equivalent to fifteen silver coifs, would pay for a lavish meal at the finest eating house in the city for at least three people. A maid’s pay was a silver coif a week and Tara couldn’t afford to spend it on celebrating.
Tara’s eyes grew large, and to my shock, a tear spilled over onto her cheek. “Thank you, my lady, thank you!” she gasped. “Dea bless you!” she said, curtsying. Dea was the goddess of the harvest and fertility.
“And you,” I replied, joining Jason at the door.
Bowing, he said, “Lady Isabella, it would be my honor to escort you to the Royal Harvest Festival Feast.”
I curtsied and replied, “Prince Jason, it would be my honor to be escorted by you to the Royal Harvest Festival Feast.” As much as I disliked formal events, being at them with Jason wasn’t so bad. I slipped my hand into the curve of his offered arm, and let him lead me down to the third floor. The Queen’s Grand Staircase was the beautiful white marble staircase every girl dreamed of walking down, holding the arm of the knight of her dreams. The dark red carpet covered the center of the stairs and extended all the way to the dais where the King and Queen’s thrones sat. A table sat on the dais, with chairs for the most important royalty. There were chairs for Areni’s heir, Prince Byron, and his wife, Princess Luciana, the first daughter of King Comas of Corson. Beside them were the places for Jason and his companion; me. Beside those chairs were places for Prince Jacana and Princess Guinevere. Next were chairs for Princess Natalia and her husband, Prince Alexander, the heir to the Baren throne. The last two chairs were for Byron’s two sons, Bryan and Brandon. On the other side were chairs for the Twyla Prince Leon and his wife, Princess Aelwen, a Seino seism and his wife, a Seibel seism and his wife, a Seiko seism and his daughter, plus the young sister of Prince Jacana and her companion.
Nobles that had no need to be presented out of familiarity had all taken their seats at the long dining tables. Jason and I stepped back to let some of the more nervous nobles go first. Before I realized it, we were the last waiting.
The herald looked at us and smiled. “Finally,” he muttered. Jason and I grinned at each other, and then turned to the stairs as the herald lifted his voice over the crowd. “His Royal Highness, Prince Jason the Third, and Lady Isabella of Silverwood,” he announced. Jason and I started down the stairs and I heard the mutters. My smile faltered and Jason squeezed my hand. We took our seats and the pages began to bring out the water and finger washing dishes. I took small amount of all the different courses, watching the pages absently. I remembered these pages well and noticed far more accidents than normal. I knew Jason noticed I was watching them, but I tried to keep myself focused on the conversations at my table. When the young page serving me dropped my wine glass, I turned and stood. “Excuse for a moment, your Highnesses,” I said. Jason looked at me, concerned, but I shook my head.
I followed the young page back to the kitchens and waited outside the door. The Etiquette Master, who planned events such as this, hustled out to meet me, concerned. “My lady is there a problem?” he asked, bowing.
“Not with me, no. But you’ll have noticed the odd amount of accidents among the pages, yes?” I replied. When he nodded, I continued, “I have noticed it as well and I am going to guess that you’ve seen no problems with hazing lately. Well, I’m guessing the younger pages ganged up to demand no more hazing. The hazing stopped for a while, and now the older pages are getting back at the younger ones in the most public way possible. I recommend moving the older pages away from the young ones.”
“Thank you, my lady. I shall do that,” he bowed and returned to the kitchens. Behind the door, I noticed several pages with spill marks on their uniforms. I nodded to them and returned to the tables. The last few courses were brought out and then the guests moved to the Moon Ball Room. This one was silver in theme, with huge windows to give guests a view of the Moon Garden.
As tradition required, the King and Queen danced first, followed by their children and foreign royalty. Jason and I had danced with each other so many times that it was easy now. He was a very good dancer, and I wasn’t bad myself. After several dances, we joined Kurt, Jon, and several of their friends. The boys gathered around the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. The girl hid her face behind a delicate fan and I pushed my way through the boys. “Is that any way to treat a lady? Crowding around her until she can’t breathe for the reek of desperation?” I asked them, planting myself in front of the poor girl.
The boys, shame faced, backed off with hasty apologies. All had dealt with my temper, and were not eager to do so again. I turned to the girl and curtsied. I now recognized her as Princess Jacqueline, Prince Jacana’s sister. “Princess, may I offer you my company?” I asked her softly.
“Please, join me,” she replied, snapping the fan shut. I sat on the pillows beside the low bench and looked up at the Princess. “My companion, Tonyella, is dancing with a nobleman named Seamus, I think,” she said.
“I know Seamus. He has asked for my hand in marriage several times,” I told her.
“Well, you are a lucky woman; he is quite handsome,” she replied.
“If you’ll excuse the expression, Princess, Seamus is an arrogant airhead,” I said simply.
“Oh, I’m glad to hear someone say it,” the Princess told me, giggling. I smiled and looked up as a girl; the one I knew to now be Tonyella, stormed over and dropped to the pillows on the Princess’s other side. “Tonya? What happened?” the Princess asked.
“That Seamus is an arrogant airhead,” she huffed angrily. The Princess and I laughed, and Tonya looked at us. “What is so funny?” she demanded.
“We were just saying that he was,” I told her. This got a small smile from Tonya.
“Now that Tonya is back, would you tell us your name?” the Princess asked.
“Of course, you’re Highness. I’m Lady Isabella of Silverwood,” I told them.
“Oh, it’s a pleasure to meet you, Lady Isabella,” they said together. We smiled as Jon, Jason, and Kurt came forward from the group of boys sitting around us.
“Princess, would you care to dance?” Jason asked.
“Thank, Prince Jason, but I can tell when someone asks me out of respect. I suspect that I am not the girl you really wish to dance with,” the Princess replied.
Smiling, Jason agreed, “You do not know me, yet you know a man so well.”
“Lady Isabella, are you the girl so lucky to be loved by our prince here?” Tonya asked me.
“I am, indeed,” I told her.
“Well then don’t let him stand there! Some other pretty girl might claim him!” The Princess exclaimed.
“Ah, Princess, no other beauty can compare to you,” I told her, taking Jason’s hand. He pulled me up into his arms as I smiled into his eyes.
“You are kind, Isabella,” she told me.
“My dear Princess, no other girl would be as foolish as to get between our two love-birds here,” Kurt said.
“Oh and why is that?” the Princess asked.
“Because I believe all of them, save you, have seen Izzy in a fight at least once,” Jon replied. I scowled at Jon and Kurt as they offered their hands to the two Pioni women. Tonya and Jon looked perfectly happy as they danced beside the prince and me, forming a small bubble of six happy friends.
We didn’t notice the dance floor had cleared around us until the music changed. Jason, Jon, Kurt, and I grinned at each other as the young nobles began to clap in time with the music. “You know this?” I asked the Princess in surprise when I saw her and Tonya smile. They nodded and the three of us formed a line, facing the boys. We began to step in, then back out, following the music’s soaring rhythm. It was a traditional dance, but it felt new to us as we danced round and round, twirling and spinning. It ended with the boys dipping us low. Jason pulled me upright as Jon and Kurt straightened the Princess and Tonya. We walked back to the pillows and the others sat.
I stopped when I heard the next song begin. A minstrel caught my eye and nodded back to the dance floor, which was still empty. A disc of bells and chimes began to tap a rhythm, followed by a flute, violin, horn, and lute.
The Court looked rather confused. I realized they didn’t know the song, though I knew it by heart. I walked back onto the dance floor and raised my arms. The lute and violin lifted into a skipping, swaying song. I twirled, skipping, my hands clapping above my head. Jason, Jon, Kurt, the Princess, and Tonya moved to the edge of the floor, clapping. Other nobles took up the beat as I pulled the youngest guests into dance with me. Soon, all the teenagers had joined us.
I twirled around and around, lifting my feet as I did. We looped an arm through another’s, male or female, twirled, and went to another. The rhythm steadied until people were dancing in couples, spinning and twirling as a group. They formed a circle as I danced around it inside it. I noticed Jon and Kurt pull Jason in and push him around the circle so that he was opposite me. I leaped as the others did, kicking up one foot under the other. I followed the circle, feeling my heart race with the sound of the flute and trumpet. I didn’t notice the others moving closer together so that Jason and I were closer.
What I did notice was the end of the song approaching. I leaped one more time with the others and continued to twirl as Jason neared. He caught me, twirling with me. The song ended with the others back in the crowd, giving the whole Court, including my family, a view of Jason dipping me in his arms. As the Court clapped and our friends cheered, Jason leaned down and kissed me. He smiled down at me and straightened. I took his hand and stepped to the side so he could bow. He flicked his wrist and I spun into his arms, kissed him quickly on the cheek and spun back out again to curtsy to the Court.
Jon and Kurt came out to us and slung their arms around us. They led us back to the Princess and Tonya, who both smiled at us. “So, you two finally admit you’re in love,” Kurt mused, mock punching Jason’s shoulders.
“Yeah, yeah, now it’s your turn, my friend,” Jason replied. While the boys argued good naturedly, I settled myself to the Princess’s left. I finally looked over the Princess’s dress, out of habit for my sisters. The Princess wore her own native Island style; a pink silk kimono embroidered with gold roses, a gold sash, a delicate pink hand fan hanging from the sash, and a braided silk cord twined around her hair. Tonya wore the same, only she wore a pale green kimono with white cranes. Their fans fascinated me. When snapped open, the tips of the steel frame looked like blades. “Princess, I have never seen anything quite like your fan. May I see it?” I asked.
“Of course. Just don’t touch this end,” she replied, pointing at the sharp end. With a careful flick of my wrist, I snapped the fan open and examined it. The steel pieces really were blades. I held it by the dull base, just as she did.
“Why are the frames made of blades?” I asked.
“In the Islands, it is rude for a noblewoman to carry a weapon. So we carry a kioko instead. I’ll show you what they can do sometime,” she offered. I snapped the fan shut and offered it back. She slid it back into her sash and took a crystal goblet of juice from a squire’s serving plate. Tonya and I also took one.
“Prince Jason, you boast of things far beyond your comprehension!” a nasal voice shouted. I looked up and saw Jason facing Seiko Seism Rishav. His daughter, Rica, hung on his arm, trying to quiet him. He threw her off, causing her to fall into Jon. The large, blond knight caught her and sat her on the pillows beside me, blushing.
“Here, my lady,” I murmured, handing her my un-drunk juice. I stood and moved to stand between Jon and Kurt, who stood at Jason’s shoulders. “Jason?” I asked softly.
“And there! You see? You let your women address you by first names! Women do not have the honor to do such!” Rishav sneered.
“My lord Rishav, perhaps it is that way with your people, the Seiko. But here, in Areni, women are just as equal as men in honor and value. I take offense that you would suggest I call my Prince by his name out of disrespect, not companionship,” I replied evenly, feeling my eyes grow cold. I hated the Seiko tradition. In the Seibel and Seino, women could fight and hold positions of honor. In the Seiko, women were good for nothing more than housework. But everyone understood a trial of skills. “And since I take offense, I challenge you to a trial of skill of archery. Put forth your best, and if he should win, then you are right when you say women have no honor. Should I win, however, you will admit that women have just as much honor as men, sometimes more. You will admit that a woman is equal to a man in every way. You will also apologize to Prince Jason and me” I said, my voice frozen.
Rishav paled, then sneered, “You will shoot? Then, I accept this challenge! And as the challenged, I set forth the time. I would have the trial now, if your Majesties will find a place for it.”
I nodded and turned to the King and Queen, who had come over quietly. “We will hold the trial on the first practice range,” the King announced. I curtsied to them and allowed Jason and Kurt to lead me away. Jon turned to his squire and said something. The squire set down his tray and ran in the direction of the east wing.
“Izzy, are you crazy?” Jason asked as he led me towards the practice ranges.
“Perhaps. But it was time somebody shut Rishav up. What did you say anyway?” I asked.
“I told him women could be just of good as warriors as men,” he replied.
“So I’m shooting for both of us,” I told him. He nodded and took my bow, quiver, arm guard and finger tab from Jon’s squire. He slid the quiver into place, fit the arm guard to my left arm, put the finger tab on my right hand, and strung the bow.
“You can beat him, I know you can. You’re the best archer in the kingdom,” he told me, handing me the bow. I tested it quickly and turned to Kurt and Jon. To my surprise, Lady Rica, Lady Tonya, and Princess Jacqueline had followed. Jon and Kurt clasped my shoulders as Tonya gave me a quick hug. The Princess kissed my forehead; a blessing for good luck. Jason kissed my cheek and whispered, “Good luck, love.” I nodded as they left to join the other nobles in the stands.
“Archers to the field!” the king boomed. I stepped out onto the field, my dress glinting in the sunset. “Each archer will shoot ten arrows from the thirty marks, in their own time. At the end, her Majesty herself will check the targets,” the king continued. I nodded and faced my opponent. A small wiry man faced me. His blond hair was streaked with gray, as was his short beard. Beady brown eyes stared at me from above a twice broken nose. A scar went down over his left jaw. “Archers to your line!”
I stepped up to the shooting line and smiled. Thirty feet was not a very long range; it was also not very hard. Servants lit the torches around the range as I rolled my shoulders. The man beside me held a double-curve bow; while it was lighter, the lighter weight meant a smaller range. I smiled as the King said for us to begin. I drew an arrow from my quiver and set it on the string. Setting my feet, I raised the bow and drew the string until my fingers touched the corner of my mouth. I sighted easily and fired. The arrow thudded into the black X in the center of the yellow painted middle of the target. The target was a large circle, with three yellow rings in the center. The exact center was marked with an X. Two red rings went around the yellow, then two blue, followed by two black and two white. The inner most yellow was worth ten points, called the X ring. The second yellow was also worth ten, then nine, then eight, until you got all the way to the outer most ring, worth one.
The Seiko’s arrow hit the outer most yellow ring and a groan went up from a small part of the crowd. I fired six more arrows; all of them hit so closely to the first that I saw feathers fall. I drew back on my eighth arrow and fired. The arrow hit one of the others so perfectly that it split the shaft of the first and embedded itself in the wood. I fired again, spearing the previous arrow just as it had speared the first. As I drew back my last arrow, Seism Rishav shouted, “Cheating bitch!” Startled, my arrow hit the line between the inner and second yellow rings. I turned to the Seism, feeling my eyes blazing. The man cowered and a whoop went up from my friends among the young knights. Manners forced me to wait until the Seiko finished shooting, then I stormed over to a bench.
I sat down angrily as the Queen strode down the field to the targets. She checked the Seiko’ target first. The herald with the queen called, “Two X’s, five tens, and three nines!” the man had scored a ninety-seven. The Queen moved to my target and the herald called, “Ten X’s!” I grinned savagely; I had scored a perfect one hundred. I felt hands on my shoulders and looked up at Jason.
He grinned at me as Seism Rishav made his way down to the field to kneel a few feet away. “Prince Jason, my lady, I apologize for any disrespect or offense I implied. My lady, you have proven that women are equal to men in every way, including honor,” Rishav said, his head bowed.
“Your apology is accepted, Lord Seism Rishav,” Jason replied. The man nodded and suddenly leaped forward, a huge knife in his hand. Reacting faster than Jason, I dropped my bow and drew Jason’s sword from the sheath on his belt.
I blocked Rishav’s first wild lunge and exchanged a flurry of quick strikes with the Seism. I let him back up and tossed Jason’s sword back to Jason. I pulled the knives from my sleeve and the back of my sash. Holding the smaller one inverted, I struck out at Rishav. He blocked my strike desperately and lashed out in a wild, straight swing. I ducked under his arm and scored the small knife across his side. I kicked his legs out from underneath him as he tried to turn, and felt his knife bite into my arm.
I knocked his knife out of his hand and stood over him until guards seized him. I knelt and wiped my bloodied blade on the grass, then returned both to their sheaths. That’s when I noticed the blood dripping from my fingers. I moved closer to a torch and examined my arm. A long gash, running from my shoulder to the middle of my forearm, met my eyes. My knees gave and Jason lunged forward to catch me. He held me as a healer ran forward.
The woman pulled a small knife out and used it to cut away my sleeve. She set a white cotton pad over the gash and used bandages to hold it in place. The woman said, “She needs to come to the infirmary so I can clean and stitch that.” Jason nodded and swept me into his arms.
“I can walk, Jace,” I told him, resting my head on his shoulder.
“Sure, Izzy,” he said sourly. He carried me as the woman in white led him to the infirmary on the second floor. One there, he set me on a table and walked out. Smiling, I took the cup the healer offered. It smelled of Sleepflower.
“It’s only a small dose so I can stitch that without you flinching and moving,” the healer assured me. I nodded and drank the sweet nectar. Within seconds, I found myself falling asleep. The healer laid me down and my eyes closed.