The Guild of Swordsmen: Part 5
Merolliay brooded all the way back to the house, sick with longing for all that had been left behind in Liban. He wasn’t sure his countrymen even realized all the ways they had been corrupted by the Imperial City. He knew all the men at that meeting employed paid servants for menial work in their houses, instead of hiring the near-adult children of friends and neighbors to teach them the value of hard work. Even worse, despite Filipe’s complaint about the exclusion of women from Guilds, Merolliay had yet to see a female face at one of these meetings. The real meetings, not the university rallies or the lectures in cafes. Even at those, the women and girls attended primarily to meet young men, rather than taking an active role in planning and organizing.
And now this. They weren’t Nemesde, to choose leaders based on ancestry instead of ability. What next, shrines and sacrifices in his honor?
It was in this dark mood that he walked into the foyer of the house, hoping the others had gone out and wishing for the hundredth time that he did not have to pass through the common room to reach his own private room. Unfortunately, he could hear raised voices beyond the door, the loudest of them female.
Steeling his courage, and hoping he was not the subject of the discussion, Merolliay walked in.
As always, Lida was the focal point. She was standing in the middle of the room fully dressed from boots to doublet, except for the lack of a sword, her straw-colored hair in its usual pinned-up braids. He had interrupted her mid-gesture, and the look she turned on him as he entered the room reminded him that he would be regretting what happened last night for a long time to come.
Saulius and Alzadin were side-by-side on the couch, both looking grim.
“What happened?” Merolliay asked.
“Some officers from the Guild of Swordsmen came and took Lida’s sword,” Saulius said, gesturing.
Merolliay frowned. “Why?”
“Because I’m not a member of the Guild!” Lida said, the rawness in her voice betraying her emotion. And no wonder; Andraikos Dareshna had given Lida that sword.
“But–” Merolliay started to say, then stopped. It had never been a problem before for Lida to work as a swordsman–or swordswoman. But if all the Guilds were starting to harass those who practiced a trade without Guild membership…
“The Guild officers mentioned something about a tavern brawl,” Saulius said. He frowned. “I hope you didn’t end up killing my fifth cousin or one of his three sons.” His tone was deliberately light.
“If your fifth cousin is the man running the place, then no,” Merolliay said. Saulius relaxed.
“That’s a completely made-up reason!” Lida protested. “We were the ones on hostile ground. And I don’t even remember how many men I’ve killed in tavern brawls. Who cares about three more?”
To spare Saulius from having to argue with Lida about the value of human life, Merolliay said, “The Guild of Swordsmen doesn’t care. This is about something else. Lida has been a member of our company for two years, and the Guild of Swordsmen has known about it since the day she joined. Why are they doing something about it only now?”
“It’s that bitch!” Lida said. “Andraikos’s wife. She knows she can’t hire an assassin good enough to kill me so she paid off the Guild to come after me instead.”
“What happened, exactly?” Merolliay asked.
Saulius waved an arm at the door. “These three men showed up and knocked on the door about an hour ago. They were all in Guild livery–you know, the black hose with no breeches and the silver-trimmed black doublet that barely covers your ass.” Merolliay allowed himself a faint smile. None of the Three Gallant Rogues had ever purchased Guild livery. “They gave Lida some official-looking document that said it was a violation of Imperial law for anyone ineligible for Guild membership to carry a sword.”
Saulius shrugged, and gestured over at the roll of parchment on the table.
“It was signed by the Guild of Swordsmen’s First Captain, and the Imperial Minister of Commerce,” Alzadin said, in his own language.
“Signed by the Imperial Minister of Commerce?” Merolliay said, switching to Nemesde so that the others could understand. “That’s not good.”
“Why is that particularly bad?” Lida demanded. “Does that mean Helena Dareshna is sleeping with the Minister of Commerce, to get him on her side?”
Merolliay found himself too irritated to answer. Sometimes Lida seemed to think that every intrigue in the Imperial City revolved around her relationship with Andraikos Dareshna and his estranged wife.
When she saw that he didn’t intend to reply to her question, Lida gave Merolliay a dark look and stalked across the room to his overstuffed chair, which she then flung herself into in a dramatic sprawl..
“How am I going to make a living if I can’t work as a swordsman? The only thing I know how to do is work as a guard, or fight.”
“If Helena Dareshna is sleeping with the Imperial Minister of Commerce,” Saulius said, grinning, “there’s only one solution. You’ll have to seduce the Emperor himself.”
Lida shot back an obscene suggestion involving Saulius, the Emperor, and some goats. Saulius’s grin only broadened.
Lida’s scowl grew darker; but then she looked up, suddenly a shade more hopeful. “I know what I could do for the Emperor.”
Merolliay froze. Oh, no, he thought.
Saulius leaned forward. “Whatever it is,” he said, his voice dropping into a seductive purr, “you should practice on me first.” He seemed to have recovered from his disappointment over seeing Lida in bed with Merolliay, and was back to the way he usually interacted with her. Merolliay sometimes wondered if he should warn the young Kavanian that Lida would never take him seriously as a prospective lover as long as he carried on that way. But he feared that Saulius wouldn’t appreciate such advice any more than he would have at Saulius’s age ten years ago.
Lida was making a disgusted face. “I still have all my knives, you know.” She gestured meaningfully at her left boot where they all knew she kept one of those knives every waking moment. “Anyway, I wasn’t thinking of anything like that. It’s not something I could practice on you. You’re not looking for twenty new members for your Imperial Guard.”
It took a moment for Alzadin, then Saulius, to follow where she had gone. Alzadin merely looked thoughtful. But Saulius was dismayed.
“You can’t do that!” he protested.
“Why not?” Lida shot back. “Alzadin said the rules never specify that the entrants have to be men.” She looked to Alzadin for confirmation, and he nodded.
“See!” Lida crowed. “If I win a place in the Imperial Guard, they’ll have to let me into the Guild of Swordsmen. The Emperor said so.”
Merolliay could contain his own dismay no longer. “It isn’t a good idea.”
“Why not?” she demanded.
One of the things that didn’t make sense about the contest being part of the Guild’s attempt to extend its influence over the Imperial Guard was that the contest actually gave the Guild of Swordsmen less control over its membership. It was possible that swordsmen who won places in the Guard through the contest were not permitted to decline Guild membership, as Sharolen and Filipe had surmised. But the rules of the contest seemed to indicate that the Guild also had to extend all the privileges of membership to whomever won. Even if some of those winners had not been eligible for Guild membership before. Lida, for instance.
What if the question Filipe and the others should have been asking wasn’t, “What does the Guild of Swordsmen gain from this contest?” but rather, “To what lengths will they go to keep certain people from entering?”
The latest attempt on Lida’s life had come only after the Guild officers and Minister of Commerce would have known about the contest.
Lida was still staring at him, expecting an answer. Instead of trying to dissuade her with theories he hadn’t had the chance to think through he said, “It’s too dangerous. Have you forgotten that the contest includes a battle to the death?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Lida said. “Because I’m going to win.”
She might win. She was a better swordsman than any other member of the Three Gallant Rogues.
“If you do win, you’ll have to take an oath of allegiance to the Emperor,” Merolliay said.
“Maybe I won’t mind doing that.” Lida’s cheeks were red, as if she had been sitting too close to the fireplace, and her fingers dug into the worn fabric of Merolliay’s chair. “Maybe I’d be happy swearing my allegiance to someone who actually wants it.”
Merolliay noticed that Saulius and Alzadin were trying hard not to look at the two of them. He drew in a deep breath, exasperated. She had other swords, but she didn’t seem to realize that she could be arrested on sight for carrying one in public, now that a Cabinet Minister had signed an order forbidding it. She might not even be allowed to enter the contest.
“You don’t have to do this,” he said. “I’m sure there’s plenty of income from Andraikos Dareshna’s estates in the south if you wanted to live off of that. In fact, if you went there, I doubt anyone would even care–”
–that you carried a sword, was what Merolliay had been about to say. But Lida was on her feet, blue eyes blazing like the Dog Star.
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you? If I went a thousand miles away.”
He had only the briefest moment to realize that the glint in her eyes came from the tears she was trying not to shed. Then she was gone, fled from the room, the door slammed behind her.