The Guild of Swordsmen: Part 6
By the last day of the tenth month, the weather had changed. A light dusting of snow had fallen on the streets around their house, reminding Lida of the powdered sugar in a box of her favorite sweets. Another luxury she’d grown accustomed to living in the Imperial City. The Thousand Lakes region had snow but very little sugar.
Here, on the plaza facing the Eastwatch Gate, near the river, cold drizzle had fallen instead and still fell intermittently. Sunrise had come as a gradual thinning of the night’s gloom. It was over before Lida even noticed its approach. Around her, swordsmen by the hundreds crowded the plaza, singly or in groups of two or three, all eyeing the tall gate to the palace compound and the guard towers on either side. Some muttered about the gate not having been opened, wondering why they were being kept out in the cold. Others waited in silence, huddling into hooded cloaks or turning up coat collars against the freezing mist.
Saulius and Alzadin had offered to wait with her, but what kind of guardswoman needed her male friends to accompany her wherever she went? Every time she thought about it, she could see those worried expressions on their faces, the looks they exchanged when they thought she didn’t see. It made her angry all over again with a rage that made her face prickle with heat, and her hands itch to throw someone to the ground and kick his teeth in. If only the gods had made her a man instead of a woman! Then no one would assume she was frail. Neither Andraikos nor Merolliay had been able to love her as a woman, except in moments of drunken weakness; what good was it, to be female?
A sudden flash of silver along the river walk jolted Lida out of her brooding. She froze in place. Two black- and silver-clad men were stepping purposefully along the river walk. One of the men who had come to the house to take her sword, and another.
Trying to make the movements look as casual as possible, Lida turned around so that her back faced the Guild officers. She took a few steps farther away from them, putting a few additional swordsmen between her and the river walk. One of those swordsmen was a good size to hide behind: well over six feet tall and probably at least three hundred pounds. He glanced at her curiously as she stepped around him.
“Where is she?” a man’s voice called out. Lida forced herself not to look. She took another step away from the edge of the plaza. From behind her on the river walk, snatches of dialogue reached her ears. “…Lida Dareshna…” she heard, and “…woman….” She stared up at the enormous gate, thick slabs of weathered oak cut lengthwise from mature trees, then joined and banded together with iron. Why wasn’t it opening?
That was one epithet that couldn’t have been meant for her. Nemesde didn’t really have slanted eyes either, but some looked as if they did because of the way their eyelids folded.
“Hey!” It sounded like a child’s voice. “Hey, give us yer swords, then ye have no pricks!”
Scattered laughter rose throughout the plaza. Lida turned her head to see what was happening. Just as she was doing so, the call of a horn rose up from atop one of the two Eastwatch Gate guard towers, followed closely by a second.
The attention of the two Swordsmen’s Guild officers had been distracted by two boys farther down the river walk, both around eleven or twelve years old. They were westerners, possibly even Libanian, dark-haired with light brown faces. As Lida watched, one of the boys threw a stone at one of the Swordsmen’s Guild men, then turned and fled with his companion.
The stone hit the shoulder of the man who had taken Lida’s sword–who, although Nemesde, did not, in fact, have the sort of eyelids that the boys had mocked. The man said something to the nearest guards along the river walk and gestured in the direction the boys had run.
Lida couldn’t hear what they were saying, though, because the gate was swinging out into the plaza. And although the mechanisms were so well-machined as to be almost silent, a cheer had risen from the men all around her, and everyone was moving in a rush towards the entrance.
“Long live the Emperor!” a man hollered, and was answered by a second cheer. Not everyone joined in, but many did, and as Lida was carried towards the entrance in the tide of contestants who were prepared to fight each other to the death to join the Imperial Guard, she wondered if that first man had meant the words, or just said them for effect. She wondered if she could say those words and mean them.
The Hall of Mirrors showcased the wealth of the Empire. Its floor was an unbroken expanse of gleaming lapis lazuli tiles fitted seamlessly together, polished until Merolliay could almost see his face reflected back when he looked down. On either side, the curve of the mirrored walls swept out, reflecting over two hundred courtiers in their jeweled finery, each reflection doubled and redoubled. The tall silver-backed mirrors were all of glass, an extravagance even now but unheard of a hundred years ago when the Hall was first built, and they reached almost from floor to ceiling.
Saulius had his head tilted back to look at the carved stucco figures ornamenting the vaulted ceiling high overhead, his mouth open slightly. Alzadin was having better success at not looking like a village rustic, though Merolliay knew he had never been at court, either.
“You’ve been in this room before?” Alzadin asked, in his own language.
Merolliay shook his head. “The palace complex is enormous. I’ve heard that there are five separate audience halls.” The more austere hall in which he had last encountered the Emperor had emphasized the Empire’s military and spiritual might, its only ornamention a geometric pattern of floor tiles and idols of the Emperor’s ancestors. He preferred this one, despite the extravagance that would have horrified his own practical Libanian ancestors.
“I wasn’t sure I should believe you when you said you could get us admitted to court,” Alzadin said. “Now that we’re here, I’m starting to wonder how wise this was.”
Neither he nor Saulius had asked any questions when Merolliay offered them the chance to accompany him. Something about that unnerved Merolliay. Perhaps because he had spent his life denying that there was anything special about him, only to find that men he considered his equals were ready to follow wherever he led.
“Three gods and the Emperor bless us,” Saulius swore, unexpectedly. He was staring across the room at a small, dark figure in red silk. “Is that Helena Dareshna?”
One of the hallways down which Lida and the other swordsmen were led was covered in marble from floor to vaulted ceiling, the walls inlaid in graceful floral patterns of jade, jasper, and onyx. Another hallway had been paneled in mahogany with alcoves for finely-detailed wooden statues of gods, demons and heroes. The alcoves were ornamented by carvings of ivy, climbing rose, and songbirds almost as intricate as the larger figures. Lida tried not gawk like a village girl. She knew what the Empire did to maintain its power and wealth but couldn’t help to be impressed. When he was drunk, Andraikos used to talk of how he wanted to burn the Imperial Palace to the ground. Lida listened to him, never having seen the palace, and agreed. But now that she was here, to know that he had seen this and still wanted to destroy it … she didn’t know what to think.
She wondered if it would have gone as badly as with Merolliay had Andraikos taken her as his lover. Would Andraikos have tried to pretend nothing happened, but always find some pretense to avoid being alone with her? Perhaps it would have deterred him from leaving his estate to her, and she wouldn’t have had to keep fending off assassination attempts from Helena Dareshna.
If nothing else, she would have been better prepared for Merolliay’s callousness had she experienced it from Andraikos first.
“Lord DeLyon,” Helena Dareshna greeted Merolliay. All eyes in the Hall were on the two of them, the Lion of the West, and the most famous beauty in the Nemesde Empire. “May the Emperor and his divine ancestors grant you a pleasant morning. I see the Three Gallant Rogues are three again.”
“The Three Gallant Rogues are always three,” Merolliay said. “Three Rogues and one Lady.”
Helena smiled, showing perfect teeth like tiny white seashells. “I am afraid I’ll have to disagree with you, if you’re going to call that girl a lady. Have you taken her to bed yet?”
It was easy to engage in this cruel banter with a woman whose feelings he didn’t care about. Not so easy to know what to say to Lida. “No,” Merolliay said. “The other Lady Dareshna is more particular than some.”
Helena showed no reaction to his use of Lida’s title, the title Helena’s own estranged husband had bequeathed to the Thousand Lakes girl. She shrugged as if he had commented upon the weather. “Perhaps about that one thing,” she said. “But tell me. How did the three of you escape that house of yours without her tagging along after?”
“Oh,” Merolliay said, “Lida had already gone out for the day. She had to be outside the Eastwatch Gate before sunrise, you see.”
The smile on Helena’s face froze. “Indeed.”
Back where he had left them, Saulius and Alzadin were trying not to stare. Merolliay had never told them–or Lida–that he knew Helena Dareshna by more than sight and reputation. It had seemed irrelevant when he first met Alzadin and Saulius, a shameful episode of his life best forgotten. Who needed to know that as a young man newly exiled to the Imperial City he had been befriended by Andraikos Dareshna and seduced by the man’s wife? He hadn’t mentioned it when Lida came along either, and each time Helena Dareshna hired an assassin to kill her, it became more impossible to say anything.
“Someone doesn’t want her to compete though,” Merolliay said. “The night before the contest became public knowledge, another hired killer showed up at the house.”
“I didn’t send that one,” Helena said.
Merolliay couldn’t tell whether she was lying. Not like with Lida, whose every emotion showed on her face before she was even aware of it.
“You knew, though.”
“Not before.” She shrugged. “I hear things.” Her red gown was cut lower than was strictly appropriate for court attire, but Merolliay suspected that the Emperor enjoyed a good view of Helena’s bosom as much as any other man at court did.
“What sorts of things do you hear?”
A servant approached with a tray of refreshments, but Helena waved him off. Glancing over to where he had left Saulius and Alzadin, Merolliay saw that Saulius already had a drink in each hand and a third balanced in the crook of his elbow, and was considering the assortment of tiny savories being held out to him.
“Rumors,” Helena said. “Nothing more.” She eyed him as if this were not entirely true, and she was measuring how much to tell.
“I hear rumors myself,” Merolliay said. “I’ve heard that Lida winning a place in the Guard might set a precedent for allowing women into the Guilds. If a woman can join the Guild of Swordsmen, what possible reason is there for excluding her from the Guild of Yogurt-Sellers?”
Helena’s gaze drifted across the room. At first Merolliay thought she was watching the servants sprinkle sand over the floor within the large, roped-off area where the contests would take place. Then he realized that she was looking at a heavy-set Nemesde man standing at one of the corners. The man was watching the two of them more openly than most of the other courtiers were.
“The Guilds are no concern of mine,” Helena said. “I can’t have my estates returned to me by joining a Guild.”
The estates came from Andraikos’s family, not hers. And yet by marrying Andraikos Dareshna, Helena had given up any claim on her father’s property. Once married, a Nemesde noblewoman’s status came from her husband. Merolliay suspected that gifts from Helena’s many admirers allowed her to live in relative comfort; but when he had known her, she never went out with fewer than a dozen servants. Today at court, she’d brought only one.
Helena narrowed her eyes. She was darker than most Nemesde, favoring her mother’s people from the south more than her Nemesde father’s. “Such as that northern girl? The only thing I have in common with her is having bedded my husband.” Merolliay had come to suspect, since that regrettable incident on the night of the Emperor’s birthday, that Lida and Andraikos Dareshna had not actually had the relationship everyone assumed. But he couldn’t tell Helena that without letting her know why he suspected. And he’d dishonored his friend and colleague enough already.
Instead, he said, “You know, Lida once told me that if you’d ever asked her for the estates, rather than trying to have her killed, she’d have given them to you.”
“It’s too late for that now,” Helena said. She took a step back, away from him, inclining her head in a polite dismissal. “I didn’t have anything to do with trying to kill her this last time. But the people who did won’t give up as easily as I have. She’s earned herself some dangerous enemies by showing up here today after all the times she was warned not to.”
“Perhaps,” Merolliay said. He drew the folded invitation from his coat pocket, showed her the Emperor’s seal, still recognizable despite having been broken. “Perhaps she also has some dangerous allies.”