The Guild of Swordsmen: Part 1
The night before the Emperor’s birthday, someone tried to kill Lida in her sleep.
She woke, lying on her left side, the hilt of her naked sword under her right hand. There was someone in her room. Not Alzadin. Not Saulius. Definitely not Merolliay. The door was closed, the window open. Moonlight flooded the room.
She flipped over and pushed herself up, brandishing her sword with her right hand and flinging the extra pillow with her left. A dark figure leaping at her from out of the shadows collided with the pillow.
Lida’s feet hit the floor. She swept the loose blanket off the bed with her free hand and threw it in her assailant’s face. She lunged and felt his abdominal muscles clench around the point of her sword as it thrust into him.
He grunted as Lida twisted her sword free. The knife from his right hand clattered to the floor in the folds of the falling blanket. His left hand came up from the sheath at his hip with a second knife.
Lida stabbed her sword into that hand. As the second knife fell, she slashed across her assailant’s face with her long, narrow blade, then across his throat.
The assassin stumbled backwards through a pool of moonlight into an end table. He and the table both went down. The unlit lantern on the table crashed to the wooden floor. With a loud crack, the glass chimney broke, and the reek of kerosene filled Lida’s nose and throat.
She froze in place, listening. No sound of breathing to give away a possible second assassin hidden in the room or clinging to the wall outside her third floor window. Only the usual night sounds: the occasional creaking of the old wooden house around her, the rattling of a mule cart on the badly-paved street some distance away. And then of course there was the irregular thumping of the assassin’s twitching body against the floor and wall, and the loud gurgling of his desperate attempts to draw air into his lungs. Until those stopped.
A quick search of the corpse’s pockets by the light of a hastily-lit candle revealed nothing of interest and no clues as to who might have sent him. But Lida thought she already knew the answer to that question. She hauled the body back over to the open window through which the man must have entered and heaved him out.
“Someone tried to kill me last night,” she announced in the morning. She made her voice casual for better effect, but was sure to speak loudly enough that everyone in the room would hear.
No one showed any surprise. Merolliay didn’t even look up from his book, which disappointed her.
“I heard,” Saulius said from the couch. He had his feet up and pastry crumbs down the front of his tailored jacket and in a small pile on the floor. “I considered coming up to make sure you were all right but didn’t want you to get the wrong idea.”
One night, soon after Lida had started renting the top floor of the house, Saulius had broken into her bedroom with a carafe of chocolate hoping to seduce her. He had learned firsthand that she slept with a naked sword and preferred to strike first and ask questions later.
Alzadin said something in his own language. Despite having served as an officer in the Imperial Nemesde Army, he did not speak a word of Nemesde, or pretended not to. Nor could he speak Lida’s language, or Saulius’s, or Merolliay’s.
Still without glancing up from his book Merolliay said in Nemesde, “Alzadin says he recognized the sound of your footsteps after the commotion, and that he could tell you didn’t need help. As could I and no doubt Saulius as well.”
Saulius shrugged and shoved the last bite of his pastry into his mouth, licking black currant preserves off his fingers.
“I didn’t need help,” Lida said. She opened the tap at the base of the urn on the sideboard, watching the black coffee fill her cup. She had never tasted coffee before coming to the Imperial City two years ago, but now she didn’t think she could live without it. “I guess I shouldn’t sleep with the window open.” It was hard for her to sleep without fresh air, having slept outside almost every night for three years before circumstances brought her here.
“Not as long as Helena Dareshna wants you dead,” Saulius said. “How many times is that now? Three?”
“Yes.” Lida took a sip of the coffee then made a face. “Alzadin, this is the worst coffee I’ve ever tasted! I don’t even understand how you made it taste so awful.”
Alzadin was at the table oiling his sword. He made a lengthy retort that Merolliay didn’t bother to translate. But from the way Alzadin gestured at the stairs leading to Lida’s rooms, she suspected it was something along the lines of “If you don’t like my coffee, you’re welcome to get up early and make it yourself.” Alzadin always seemed to understand anything any of them said in Nemesde, which made Lida think that not speaking the language of their conquerors was a choice, not a limitation.
“Have you thought about offering to sell Helena Dareshna the estate?” Merolliay asked from his chair by the unlit fireplace. Whenever Merolliay spoke, Lida’s heart beat faster. Had Merolliay ever crept into her bedroom in the dark of night, she wouldn’t have greeted him with live steel.
“If she’d ever asked, instead of hiring people to kill me, I’d have given her the estate. I don’t even want it.” After the destruction of her home village five years ago by Imperial forces, Lida had traveled around the countryside with Andraikos Dareshna, a renegade officer and Imperial nobleman. When he died, Lida was horrified to learn that he had named her his heir and adopted daughter, bequeathing to her all his titles and lands. Helena Dareshna, Andraikos’s estranged wife, who had expected the estate to go to her, had been even more horrified.
“So sell it to someone else,” Saulius suggested.
Lida shrugged. “Too much trouble.” Andraikos’s lands were a thousand miles away. She had never even seen them. “What’s this?” She lifted the sheet of fine linen paper from the sideboard, rubbing at a patch of gooseberry jam that had leaked onto one corner.
Alzadin said something.
“Alzadin found it at the pastry shop,” Merolliay explained.
The paper had been block-printed in black, blue, and red, and bore the Imperial sigil, a fire-breathing horse with the sun and moon under his feet. Some sort of proclamation took up most of the page. Lida squinted and tried to figure out what it said, but both language and script were too ornamental for her to make much progress. After a moment she glanced up and saw Saulius watching, eager to help but unwilling to anger her by drawing attention to her poor reading skills.
She felt angry anyway but swallowed it down and took the paper over to Saulius on the couch. Andraikos had tried to make her learn to read, but unlike swordsmanship, she hadn’t seen the use and had not been able to force herself to acquire the skill. In the Imperial City though, all except the poorest of the poor could read.
Saulius took the paper with a flourish and sat up. He attended the Imperial University on a scholarship before becoming a swordsman-for-hire, but had to drop out after only one year, apparently because he drank too much and never studied.
“Ahem. ‘Let it be known that as the twentieth year of his most glorious reign approaches, the Divine Emperor Valtseharu Tahevas the Fifteenth, Incarnate Avatar of the Lord of Heaven, High Priest and Intercessor, Savior and Defender of Mankind–’” Lida glanced over to see whether Saulius’s recitation of the Emperor’s titles and attributes was having any effect on Merolliay, whose people rejected all divinity including the Emperor’s. But if Merolliay was aggravated he was not letting it show. “–et cetera, et cetera . . . ‘let it be known that the Divine Emperor, may he live forever, has chosen to swell the ranks of those permitted to serve him in the Imperial Guard, to bask in his holy radiance and the light of his countenance.’ Et cetera. ‘Therefore, anyone who wishes to serve in this way shall wait without the East watch Gate of the Imperial Compound before sunrise on the last day of the tenth month of this, the nineteenth year in the reign of the Emperor Valtseharu Tahevas.’” The tenth month in the Imperial Calendar ended three days after the fall equinox; today was the thirteenth day of the tenth month.
Merolliay had set his book face-down on his lap, and Alzadin was looking up from his sword even though he must have read the broadsheet himself back in the pastry shop.
“What does that mean?” Lida asked. “Anyone who wants to join the Imperial Guard can just join?” Imperial Guardsmen were selected from the ranks of the City Guard and from the officer corps of the Imperial Army. They underwent rigorous screening to establish their loyalty. And despite the official policy that all positions and professions were open to men from anywhere within the Empire, most guardsmen were of the Emperor’s own people, the Nemesde.
“No,” Saulius said. “There’s more. Listen. ‘There shall be twenty places made available, one for each of the Emperor’s twenty years.’” Twenty years on the throne obviously; today was the Emperor’s thirty-eighth birthday. “‘Entrants shall be matched one against another and shall compete with the weapons of their choice to first blood. At the conclusion of each round the victors shall be matched with other victors, and this process shall continue until forty contestants remain. Each pair will then engage in one ultimate match, this time to the death. The twenty champions shall receive lifetime membership in the Guild of Swordsmen, and their membership dues shall be waived. They shall enter into the service of the Emperor as honored members of the Imperial Guard with all the responsibilities and privileges thereunto.’”
Saulius held the paper back out to Lida. But she didn’t take it.
“That doesn’t make sense,” she said. “How do they know the new Guardsmen will be loyal? What if someone who hates the Emperor gets into the Guard just so he can try to assassinate him?”
A wide grin split Saulius’s face. “Why? Are you thinking of trying?”
“No!” Lida snatched the paper back and crumpled it in her hand. She did hate the Emperor for invading her homeland and destroying her village but not enough to do anything so clearly suicidal. “Anyway, I couldn’t try out for the Guard even if I wanted to. I’m a swordswoman, not a swords-man.” As the Guild of Swordsmen made clear each time she petitioned for membership.
Merolliay seemed surprised at first, then nodded slowly. “Interesting. Alzadin points out that the proclamation never once specifies that the entrants must be men.”
Saulius chuckled. “Maybe the Emperor is specifically trying to recruit you, Lida.”
Lida frowned. No one tried to recruit swordswomen. Lida, Merolliay, Alzadin, and Saulius had to convince each potential client that Lida was as capable as a man at whatever job they were being considered for: guarding a noble family traveling between cities, maintaining order during a wedding or other festival, or perhaps fighting other swordsmen for the entertainment of wealthy patrons. Sometimes Lida wished she was a man. It would have made her life much easier.
“If I know anything about the Emperor,” Merolliay said, “this isn’t about adding twenty new Guardsmen.”
Merolliay had not only been inside the palace, but spoken with the Emperor face-to-face. It was easy to forget who Merolliay was: the Lion of the West, the exiled ancestral leader of a hundred tiny kingdoms now under Imperial occupation.
“Then what is it about?” Saulius asked.
Merolliay shrugged but Alzadin said something from his chair at the table. Merolliay raised an eyebrow, thought for a moment, then nodded. “Alzadin makes a good point. Imperial Guardsmen currently are not members of the Guild of Swordsmen.” He seemed troubled. “There are rumors that the Guild has been pushing for all Imperial Guardsmen, Palace Guardsmen and City Watchmen to be required to join.”
“So?” Lida asked. “What’s wrong with that? All three of you are Guild members. I would be a Guild member, if they’d let me in. The Three Gallant Rogues is registered with the Guild.”
Their company paid a tenth of their earnings to the Guild as dues, above and beyond what Merolliay, Saulius, and Alzadin each paid as individual members. Lida knew that Merolliay resented the portion of dues that went to support the Guild shrine and the temples of their patron deity, but he seemed to accept it as a necessary evil.
Merolliay frowned. “Not everyone needs to be in a Guild.”