The Three

The Three illo

The Three

by Travis Daniel Bow

The Court Mage bent to take the sword from the limp fingers of Tel’s opponent. He indicated that Tel should kneel. Trembling, Tel dropped to his knees. The Court Mage raised his wrinkled hands and, speaking the word of Removal, lowered the flat of the blade to the top of Tel’s head.

Tel closed his eyes and shuddered as the injuries from the previous bout–at least the ones from his opponent–slithered up and out and into the sword that had made them. The relief was immediate and almost physical, even if the wounds had only been enchantment.

Enchantment. It was enchantment that made the Lu swords look and feel like shining broadswords though they were really nothing more than willow canes. It was enchantment that had measured the sweep of the porter’s blow and the position of Tel’s shoulder so accurately that Tel had actually heard the snap of the muscle and felt the severed half curl up into his neck like a broken bowstring. Enchantment only, but it had taken most of Tel’s courage and will to ignore the pain, drop to his knees, and raise his sword left-handed to block the porter’s follow-up.

It had taken a memory, strong and sharp like heavy smoke in the eyes, to drive his wounded shoulder straight into the porter’s stomach. 

The Three button

Tel’s father was standing frozen, two steps into the smithy, with the blue light from outside casting a long shadow before him. Tel pushed the door, which they had found open, and his mother caught her breath behind him.

The tools were gone. The anvil, the bellows, the tongs, the hardy tools, the punches, and the retired hammers of nine generations of Tel’s fathers, were gone. The dust from the opening of the door swirled on an empty, plundered room with cold ash in the bare forge. Only Tel’s own hammer remained, in the loop on his belt.

One hammer was not enough. In these times, when people no longer had horses to shoe or money to pay with, the entire smithy had barely been enough. Now it was gone.

“He must have been a mage,” Tel said. He didn’t like the tremor in his voice, and he cleared his throat roughly. “The thief. The door was open, but the lock isn’t broken.”

Tel’s father was not listening to him, and Tel’s mother put a hand on Tel’s shoulder to silence him. Tel looked at his father and saw that he was taking a deep, shuddering breath. As he exhaled, he seemed to shrink, and when the last of his breath fluttered the dust in the pillaged room, his shoulders slumped.

The slump was of defeat and despair, for that very day they had left the smithy to ask an old friend for a small loan, just for now, just so they wouldn’t have to sell the iron and thus lose even the hope of getting more business. They had debased themselves, going as a family with the unspoken but well-understood purpose of drawing more pity, and Tel’s father had almost been unable to ask. When the friend had refused, Tel’s father had turned red–from shame rather than anger–and they had left at once. 

Now this. They had debased themselves, and while they were gone a thief had stripped from them the only thing of value they owned. This was why the shoulders of Tel’s father slumped suddenly, as if to say, I am done trying, I am done hoping, I am helpless, I am without worth. This was why Tel’s hand gripped the head of his hammer until it rattled the buckle of his belt with its trembling.

This was why, two months later and against his mother’s will and what will remained in his father, Tel placed that same hammer into the Chest of Most Treasured Things and was directed to the third dais as a contestant for the shuffling of the Lu.

The Three button

Tel’s wounded shoulder struck the porter’s stomach, and the enchantment was not idle. Tel felt the meat in his perceived shoulder tear away from his collarbone even as his physical shoulder drove the air from the porter’s lungs. The agony was colossal, but Tel’s will was strong. With his left hand he raised his sword and delivered the killing blow before blurred vision and dizziness could stop him.

The roar of the crowd washed around him. Tel closed his eyes, swayed on his feet, and allowed a small part of his mind to exult. The rest of his mind bore the pain and wished the Court Mage would hurry.

It was at that moment, only ten or twelve seconds after Tel had defeated the porter, that another blow struck him. The suddenness of it, like a crushing plunge into icy water, caught him totally unprepared. 

No doubt his scream was strange to the crowd. They understood such screams when the Lu swords struck, even if they couldn’t see the wounds, but no sword had been swung. He had been standing, and swaying, victorious and alone on the stone dais except for the prostrate porter. There had been no reason the crowd could see for Tel to drop his sword, throw back his head, and howl like a man in agony.

There was no reason Tel could see, either, and if the scream started because he felt a sword shear the flesh and bone of his arm, it continued because he could not bear his rage any longer. Here he was at the Lu, debasing himself yet again for a chance at hope, and here yet again he was kicked by an unseen foot, manipulated by unseen forces, made to dance by unseen strings.

If he could have seen the enchanter that had been harrying him all day–and who had now dared such a powerful attack so close to the end of the Lu–Tel might have had enough anger to leap from the dais and kill the man with his teeth. But Tel did not see his enemy, only the faces of the crowd, so instead he quieted and tried not to sway as he fought waves of agony in a severed arm and torn shoulder that were, in reality, neither severed nor torn.

The Court Mage was slow in climbing the steps, but at last he reached the top. He bent. Tel knelt. The word of Removal took the pain of Tel’s shoulder. If a little welt remained from the physical blow of the willow cane, that was nothing. Such welts stung Tel’s body in several places from bouts before this. They did not hurt him. They were not what made his lips tremble.

Tel’s lips trembled because his left arm was still bleeding, throbbing and searing under what felt like hot iron against bare flesh.  He could not fight like this.  He could barely stand upright like this.  His only hope was that his unseen enemy would lift the enchantment–or possibly run out of strength–before the final match.

But who was he kidding? Tel was the Three, champion of the lowest and weakest class, and he had only just managed that. He had not, as the One surely had, received his training under bear-marked sword masters in an ancient fencing hall deep within the castle. He had not spent his craftsman wealth–as the Two surely had–to hire guardsmen and soldiers to teach him the sword during the evenings of the last seven years. Even if Tel’s unseen enemy suddenly decided to heal him and let him be, Tel would be dispatched within seconds. No one ever put their money on the Three.

Yet, with reason or without it, some irrational part of him hung on to hope. That part stilled the trembling of his lip, clamped his teeth together, and made his back straight as he stood on the third dais and watched the Court Mage descend with the defeated porter.

Tel hadn’t come this far and endured this much–hadn’t placed his own hammer in the chest of Most Treasured Things–to lose.

The Three button

Close by, on the second dais, Neux stepped back to let the candler bleed.

From where he stood the whole of the Lu crowd was visible. They were packed close and milling, bleating and churning like too many beasts in too small a corral. Some faces were turned up towards his dais, watching the candler clutch at the deep gash Neux had just cut into his hip. Fewer faces, at Neux’s left, were turned towards the third dais. More were turned toward the first.

Neux could not see the fighters on the other daises. No doubt the screeching crowd around the first dais was witnessing a fine display of swordsmanship, but to Neux’s eyes they were gathered around a bare stone platform. The enchantment of the Lu was such that each dais concealed its occupants from the others. No one knew the reason for this enchantment–or for any of the enchantments of the Lu–but it was not difficult to guess. Today was the day of shuffling, and the shuffling would not be just if Lu contestants could watch their future opponents and learn their weaknesses.

Neux knew the weaknesses of his opponents already. This was why he would be the first Three in six centuries of Lu to be shuffled to the top.

He was a Three, at heart, even if he stood and fought now on the second dais. He had entered the match as a Two–and it had taken no small skill to accomplish this–because fighting against a One and a Three in the final shuffling would be easier than fighting against a One and a Two. The Three was never a serious threat.

Neux had cast his most intricate spells of Concealment to make the Chest of Most Treasured Things think him a Two, but he suspected now that the spells had come to nothing. He suspected–and the lucky chance of it made him smile–that the Chest had called him a Two because he was a Two. Stealing the tools of a smith from the boy’s father had made him so.

Neux wondered if the boy would make it to the final match, and congratulated himself that the boy had made it this far. He had not intended, at first, to teach the boy. He hadn’t even expected the boy’s family to move to his particular village, though of course they would be demoted to somewhere on the third terrace; they obviously couldn’t remain Twos without the hoarded tools of craftsmen. He had never dreamed that the boy would come to his very door. 

When the knock had come and Neux had found himself face to face with the boy he had watched so long in secret, he had frozen. Irrational fear that he had been found out–that his plans were ruined–had twisted his bowels, but as the boy had begun to speak Neux’s fear had vanished. It had been hard not to smile as the boy begged on his knees for Neux to teach him the sword.

His answer to the boy’s request had been obvious, once the question was raised. Stealing the tools had made the boy desperate enough to enter the Lu, but what good would that do if the boy were beaten in the first round, when Katrina faced some opponent too incompetent to take advantage of the situation?  No, if the boy was going to serve his purpose in bringing about Katrina’s downfall–which Neux fully intended him to do–it made sense for him to last as long as possible. 

So Neux had agreed to teach the boy the sword, and had expected him to last two or maybe three rounds.

But he lasted still.  It was he, Neux was certain, who now stood on the third dais, just as Katrina stood on the first, both battling for the right to represent their class in the final shuffling. Neux hoped they would both make it to the end. It would be a treat indeed to witness their final confusion and downfall with his own eyes.  

The candler was stumbling towards Neux. His face was contorted and his left hand clutched his hip, but his right hand was a little too firm on his sword for the stumble to be an accident. He was playing his wound, using the stumble to get closer to Neux.

Neux nearly rolled his eyes. The candler hadn’t made it to the last round on the second dais because he was a fool, but he was a fool if he thought he could hoodwink Neux.

Don’t try to fiddle a fiddler, Neux thought. He raised his sword and smiled.

The Three button

On the first dais, Katrina was having the worst day of her life. 

No, the second worst.  The worst day had been in her fifteenth year, when her older brother had dishonored himself before the people and Katrina had realized that the kingdom was falling.  Maybe it had fallen already.  Maybe it was rotting and filled with termites.

The Three button

The Mieds had been massed outside the walls of the city, ready to lay siege, but the ancient magic of both kingdoms had dictated that two champions should fight before any war began. No aggressor could start a war if their champion were defeated. 

Katrina’s brother went out trembling, and the people watched from the wall tops.  Then he stopped, and before the eyes of the kingdom he turned and came back. Though the champion of the Mieds called jeers after him, he would not fight.

The shame of his cowardice was unbearable, and Katrina wept from the wall top to see it, but worse than the shame was the knowledge that there would be war, and many would die, and her brother did not have enough honor to care.

She screamed this at her father, when he defended her brother. She screamed that the Ones had forsaken all other duties for the sake of the sword, that if they couldn’t even defend the kingdom they did not deserve to be on the first terrace.

“But we are on the first terrace,” her father said coldly. “We are not bound by the people.  We do not dance for their strings.  The Lu gives the right to rule, and we have gained that right every seven years for six centuries.  The Lu has chosen us, and the Lu is just.”

Katrina spoke no more blasphemy in her father’s presence, for in his voice was the readiness to denounce her, but she thought bitter thoughts. She thought that the ancients who had spent so much skill and power working the three stone daises, six Lu swords, and the Chest of Most Treasured Things–who had set enchantments of Perpetuity on the land so that every past attempt to stop the Lu had failed–had been mere men. Their reasons had been less noble and deep and unfathomable than the scholars claimed.

Katrina thought–and it might be blasphemy even to think so–that the ancients had wrought the Lu to keep power in the hands of the powerful. It was called shuffling, and it offered hope to the weak, but that hope was false. No Two or Three in memory had ever changed places with a One. The natural advantages of one’s own society tended to keep one in place, and the royal family, with their bear-marked sword masters, made doubly sure that the shuffling would never take their thrones from them.

Katrina thought bitterly–and knew it was blasphemy to think so–that if the royal family had spent less time sword-fighting and more time governing, the kingdom might not be falling apart beneath them. There might be more than one in a hundred who had gold to pay taxes. There might be more than one in a thousand who touched their heart when they saw the banner of the kingdom. There might not be food riots and gangs of looters ravaging the second and third terraces even before the siege had truly begun.

But no, the affairs of the first terrace were more important than any affairs of the Twos and Threes. Defending the throne against the next shuffling of the Lu was a higher priority than repairing the crumbling foundation that none of them understood. They were the Ones, and they danced for the strings of no one.

The Three button

So Katrina fought now, in her twentieth year, as her fathers and mothers had fought before her: to earn her place as ruler. She told herself–as perhaps many of her fathers and mothers had–that she did so for the kingdom, that she would change things when she ruled.  In her heart, though, she knew that she was a One, bred and soaked in generations of arrogance. If she ruled tomorrow, she would intend to change things but wouldn’t know how, and in a few more years she wouldn’t care anymore.  

But today was not the second worst day of Katrina’s life because of her despair and self-loathing. That was continual. Today was the worst day of her life because she was under attack by unseen forces, struggling to survive every match when she should have been winning with ease.  Today was the worst day of her life because now, as she faced her older cousin and the most formidable opponent yet, the worst attack of all had struck her with force.  

The shock and pain of an unseen sword shearing the muscle in her shoulder like the string of a lyre drew a yelp from Katrina, and her sword dropped from a hand she could no longer control. She wanted to kick someone, to shriek at the unfairness of it, but long-honed instincts trumped rage and forced her to the floor before her cousin had begun his swing. 

He was off balance, still digesting the fact that Katrina had suddenly yelled and dropped her sword at his feet, and Katrina’s roll carried her just below his reach. She sprang up before his second blow, danced away from his advance, and circled for a glimpse at her fallen sword.

At that moment a second imagined blow struck Katrina’s shoulder–a blunt crash that tore her flesh and fractured her clavicle–and this time she screamed full-throated.

What could cause this?  The realism was too great to have been the enchantment of any mage alive. It was too great even for the mages of her grandfather’s time, standing in a circle of seven under the full moon of an equinox with their hands laid on her while she slept. Only the willow swords, wrought by the ancients, could manipulate human senses so perfectly. And no willow sword had touched her.

There was no time. Before her unseen enemy could incapacitate her completely, Katrina turned her scream into a shout and threw herself towards her cousin. He flinched in spite of himself, confused by her scream, and in the fraction of a second that his eyelids fluttered Katrina turned and cut to the right. She dove, parallel to the floor, and stretched out her left arm for her fallen sword.

Her cousin’s blow struck her above the elbow, shearing the flesh and breaking through the soft, living bone. A moment later her body struck the dais, her fall unbroken by either useless arm, and her breath was driven from her.

According to her eyes, Katrina’s left hand was on the hilt of her sword, but according to the enchantment it was lying severed behind her, and she could not move it. Katrina lay still and tried not to cry.

Her cousin stepped closer, warily, suspicious of a trap and clearly wondering why Katrina wasn’t using her right arm. The crowd was silent, stunned, breathless. Katrina lay helpless, and when her opponent came within striking distance and she still lay prostrate on the stone, he grew more confident. Closer he crept, and closer, and the seconds that passed seemed minutes. At last he stood close enough to strike her. He raised his sword for the killing blow. Katrina closed her eyes.

At that moment the pain in Katrina’s right shoulder–the pain that should not have been there in the first place–lifted. Suddenly and completely, as if the word of Removal had been spoken, Katrina’s collarbone was whole. The tendon in her shoulder was uncurled and re-attached. 

No time. The death blow was already descending.

With a sudden twist, Katrina snatched up her fallen sword with her right hand. Her cousin pulled his blow and tried to move back, but Katrina was already turning her twist into a swing. She slashed upwards, at her cousin’s belly. He screamed, and bent, and froze. Katrina thrust the point of her sword into his chest. He fell. Katrina’s sword glowed the gold of victory.

The crowd was cheering, driven to madness by Katrina’s surprise attack, lauding her genius. Katrina ignored them and struggled to her feet, standing ready for the Court Mage to heal her arm. He was slow in coming, and Katrina almost snatched up her cousin’s sword to perform the spell of Removal on herself.

She was shaking. She should not have been shaking–she should be able to remove herself from the cold pain in the stump of her arm–but she was not able. She couldn’t concentrate. She was furious.

She was furious still when the Court Mage healed her left arm and led her cousin down the stone steps of the platform. Her rage–at the injustice, at the makers of the Lu, at her father and family for submitting to this farce–was strong enough that she hardly noticed the crowd’s murmur as the stone dais separated itself from the stone steps. 

Yet some of her anger faded, or was pushed back, as the dais began to move. Her pedestal of enchanted stone, which must have weighed more than a fully laden ship, was drifting slowly toward the courtyard center, parting the crowds like a boat through the reeds, as smooth and silent and effortless as it had been for six hundred years.

What wonders the ancients had wrought, when the kingdom was strong. Katrina wanted suddenly to weep for what had been lost.

She did not see her opponents until the outer circumferences of the three stone circles met around the Chest of Most Treasured Things. At that touching the other two contenders appeared, but for a moment Katrina did not look at them, watching instead as the platforms melded. Stone and stone and stone intermingled like liquid, three circles becoming one circle until Katrina had to back up to stay on her side.

At last she looked up at her opponents. An unnatural quiet fell over the crowd as they studied one another. 

The Two was a tall man, in middle age, with a black beard cropped short and a shaved upper lip. He was handsome, even with his white skin, but also confident. His confidence seemed to Katrina like arrogance, and she hated the man at once.

The Three was much younger–as young as she–and shorter than the Two. The expression on his face held contempt for the sword in his hand and the dais on which they stood, which Katrina appreciated, but it was not his face that caught her attention. What drew her eyes was the welt on his right shoulder, exposed by the wide neck of his peasant’s tunic. It was angry red, even against the red-brown of the Three’s shoulder, and it crossed the sloped muscle that ran from neck to arm.

Katrina looked at the welt, touched her own shoulder, and suddenly understood many things.

“You,” she said aloud, and her voice was strange in the silence. But the Three did not look at her. He was staring at the Two to his left. He opened his own mouth to speak, as if he had not heard Katrina at all.

“You!” he said to the Two, and his voice held the indignation of one betrayed.

The Two, looking back and forth between Katrina and the Three as if he knew them both and held them in amused contempt, smiled above his black beard and spread his hands wide.

“Yes!” he said.

The Three button

The moment Tel saw Neux, here on the final dais with a smug expression on his pale face, he knew. It was not a logical certainty–Neux could have stolen some other craftsman’s livelihood to make himself a Two–but it was a certainty nonetheless. Neux had stolen the tools of Tel’s family. It was Neux that had broken Tel’s father. 

This simple fact burned in the forefront of Tel’s mind, and righteous wrath foamed in his mouth, but in the back of his mind the finer implications of Neux’s betrayal churned.

Neux had stolen Tel’s tools. Losing the tools had convinced Tel to enter the Lu. Neux had trained Tel with the sword.

Neux wanted Tel here. He had planned for it to be so.

Tel could not stand it. Always he was pushed, always he was wounded by unseen forces, kicked even as he debased himself, manipulated even as he gained victory. Always there were strings, tugging at him, and Tel could not cast them off.

It was Neux. It had been Neux all along. 

“You!” Tel said.

Neux spread his hands, his sword held upright and catching the light of the noon-time sun, and smiled.

“Yes!” he said, and his voice rang out over the gathered throng.

The three of them stood a moment, and Tel tried to catch his breath and settle himself to the task at hand. For the first time he looked at the One–Katrina Eliada, of course–and frowned as he did so.

She was staring at him, with intensity, holding her sword in her left hand while her right worked at the sleeve of her fighting tunic. She maintained eye contact with Tel as she rolled the sleeve up, and he looked at her arm.

The forearm was thick for a woman’s, and the skin was even darker than Tel’s. There was sweat on the inside of her elbow, and above it the red line of a welt. Tel sympathized with the blow that must have caused the welt, and wondered if Katrina’s arm had been severed by it. Thanks to Tel’s harrying enemy–which had been Neux, no doubt–Tel knew first-hand the lip-trembling anguish of having ones arm severed.

But why was she showing it to him? Why was she now rolling her eyes and tapping her right shoulder?

Why did every person on this light-forsaken dais seem to know more than Tel?

The High Mage spoke from the top of the stone steps, and Tel turned to face him. The old man’s eyes were glazed, and his voice rang over the silent throng with the power and authority of the Chest of Most Treasured Things speaking through him.

“The final dais is come for the shuffling of the Lu,” he cried. “Three shall fight, two shall fall, one shall stand victorious. The victor shall rule the kingdom. The Lu is just!”

“The Lu is just!” the people answered as one. The High Mage descended, Tel took a deep breath, and the three opponents raised their swords.

The Three button

It gave Neux joy to see the sudden realization and stupid rage of the boy, and it gave him more to see Katrina trying and failing to show him who and what they were to each other. It gave him satisfaction that Katrina looked at him now with understanding, that someone at least would know the difficulty of what Neux had done, that someone would understand his genius.

It had not been easy to learn of the princess’s Pairing, nor to search the records of the city for a child born under the same moon as she, nor to determine which of these children sometimes felt pain when they had no injury. It had not been easy to watch and wait and plan, to carry away the family’s tools, to face the boy every day without smiling, without calling the boy a fool, without betraying the delightful truth.

But now was not the time for gloating. Now was the time he had waited for, prepared for, striven for. Now was the time of fulfillment.

Katrina circled to Neux’s left. Neux raised his sword, deliberately turned his back on Tel, and tried to stop smiling.

The Three button

Katrina saw what the Two was doing. He knew about the Pairing–how he knew, when she could hardly believe it herself, Katrina could not guess–and he was going to use it against her. He had turned his back to the Three, and his turn had been too deliberate to be a mistake. He was hoping the Three would come for him, and be wounded, and thus wound Katrina.

It was a strange thing, to be so exposed. Katrina trusted her own sword to protect her own person, and if she had hated the false wounds worked against her today she had at least thought them some fluke of the Lu. Now, seeing the source of her vulnerability like a great separated protuberance, holding his sword clumsily and out of her reach or control to protect, Katrina felt almost naked.

So she pressed Neux hard–harder than prudence advised–to keep him from turning on the boy. She took less thought than she should have to defend her own openings, depending on the speed of her blows to keep the Two defending and unable to attack her in return. This was why, when he did attack in return, Katrina’s parry was slow. This was why the tip of his sword, deflected from her abdomen, pierced the flesh just outside her hip.

There was pain, and blood, but no disability.  Katrina danced back and raised her guard. The Two stepped back himself, and to the side, raising his sword to engage the boy, but the boy was not behind him. He was standing, still, where he had begun. His sword was raised, and he was ready, but he had not moved his feet.

He was looking at her. She could see that he had felt the sword thrust to her hip, that he finally understood the link between them, and she sighed with relief. She didn’t know why it had taken him so long. Surely he had suspected this, as she had, for his entire life. Surely he had felt her break her leg at ten, even as she had felt him injure himself almost every day of her life.

But perhaps, as a Three, he was ignorant of such things. Perhaps, as a Three, he had never read of the Pairing that was deeper than magic and not fully understood even by the ancients.

Well, he knew now. That was the important thing.

Feeling safer, now that she knew her protuberance would at least not turn on her, Katrina circled beside Tel and engaged Neux again. This time she had no need to mount an unbalanced attack. She worked forward carefully, methodically, inexorably, and sweat began to pour from the pale man’s forehead.

She nearly had him when Tel stabbed her in the back.

The Three button

Tel felt the sword point enter his own back even as he pushed it forward into Katrina’s, and before he could lose his nerve he thrust hard, between the ribs and into the heart. Katrina stiffened, and fell, and Tel fell with her.

Let the Lu know, he thought, that she fell first. Tel needed to have fallen second. That was all he had come here for–not for revenge on Neux, not to rule the kingdom–just to fall second. Let the Lu know.

As they fell, Katrina’s face and Tel’s turned toward one another. Both were contorted, teeth bared and lips pulled back as if by arching their bodies they might escape the pain, but their eyes were open. Katrina’s eyes focused on Tel’s, close, and he felt ashamed. He hadn’t asked for her trust, hadn’t indicated in any way that she was safe to turn her back on him, but looking in her eyes laid the guilt of betrayal heavy on his shoulders.

As long as he fell second. That was why he had come.

Katrina died when they struck the ground. Tel felt the pop of her heart–his heart–as the incision made by the sword twisted and tore and released the blood of life. Tel began to scream, but was calmed by the sensation of fading, numbing, and drifting.

Katrina closed her eyes, and Tel could not help but close his own. Yet as he lay there he had still enough consciousness to wonder: did I fall second?

He heard the crowd, suddenly. His concentration had blocked them out before, but he heard them now. They were quieting. Solitary voices were asking their neighbors what had happened, was it over, had the Two actually won? Why did his sword not glow? Did the Three live?

Neux laughed. He started with a sharp bark, more surprise than joy or contempt, and then rolled into a low chuckle. Tel heard his boots approach Katrina and then pause. Then he heard the whistle of Neux’s cane and the rap as it struck Katrina’s flesh. Tel felt nothing. Katrina was already dead. The boots approached his own body.

At this point Tel realized that he, himself, was not dead.

Of course he wasn’t. This was the Lu. He could not move his body, and a terrible numbness had settled over him, but even children knew that it was only enchantment. Even children knew that the pain and death of the Lu were false.

Yet–and the ridiculousness of this was suddenly obvious–Tel and every other contestant for six hundred years had insisted on acting as if the Lu was real. They reacted to wounds as if their flesh was actually torn, avoided the swords as if they were more than willow canes, screamed when the canes bent against their chests as if their physical skin had physically parted to make way for a physical length of steel to enter their physical heart.

Everyone knew that the Lu was false, but their actions proved that, to them, it was real.

Had all those who had fallen before Tel had this same realization, when they lay on the stone and expected themselves to be dead and found that they were not? If they had, Tel called them cowards, for even in the realization that their death and wounds and pain and paralysis were totally and absolutely imagined they had persisted in believing them real. They had lain on the stone without moving, succumbing to the illusion, dancing like marionettes even as they realized that there were no strings.

There were no strings.

Suddenly Tel’s fingers gripped the cane of his sword harder, and he was not at all surprised that he had moved. Why should he not?

Neux’s sword was descending, but what did that matter? Neux’s sword was only a willow cane. Tel raised a hand to block it. He felt the bruise it made on the bones of his fingers, but beyond this he felt nothing but willow striking flesh.

The enchantment was not real. The strings were false.

Tel sat up, and the crowd gasped as one man gasps. Neux swung twice more, almost frantically, and Tel held up an arm to fend off the blows. They stung, and welted, and bruised, but that was physical. That was real.

Tel swung his own cane, more from irritation than anything else, and Neux danced back. Tel saw the fear in Neux’s eyes, realized that to Neux the cane was still a sword, and smiled.

He was no swordsman to match Neux, and if they had both held canes Neux could no doubt have beaten Tel into submission. Yet, as Tel rose to his feet and advanced, it became immediately clear that Neux could not move his cane as fast as Tel could. It was heavy in his hand, not because it was heavy, but because Neux’s succumbing mind made it so. Tel whipped his own cane back and forth like the willow switch it was, and Neux fought with all the speed of a very skilled swordsman holding an iron bar.

Tel struck Neux’s left hand, and Neux jerked it back, neck tightening with the effort of not crying out. Tel brought his switch down like a hammer on Neux’s cane, and Neux’s mind turned the collision of two resilient lengths of willow into the clash of two steel broadswords. There was no real vibration, no real force to jar Neux’s weapon from his hand, but his fingers opened and the sword fell.

Tel stepped forward, almost laughing at the absurdity of it, and pressed his cane against Neux’s chest so that it bent almost double.

Neux screamed, and clutched at the cane, and drew back his fingers as if they’d been cut. His eyes met Tel’s, and in them there burned together rage and confusion and despair. Then Neux’s knees struck the stone, his eyes rolled back in his head, and he slumped to the ground.

Tel could tell, by the roar of the crowd, that his own sword glowed the gold of triumph.

“The Three!” a woman shouted, and then thousands took up the chant with her.

“The Three!” they shouted. “The Three!”

The Three button

Tel sat down on a low stool, in the house that had belonged to his family for two months, and looked at Katrina.

“How can you stand it?” she asked.

“Stand what?”

“Your arm. You burned it. It’s throbbing.”

“Oh. Yeah. I flicked a hot flake on it earlier. I went by the smithy on the way down here this morning.”

Katrina scowled at him. She did not need to speak the words. 

“You know,” Tel teased, “I could stop coming to see you. It’s weaker when we’re farther apart.”

“How would you know? I thought you had learned to transcend all magic.” The sarcasm in Katrina’s tone was heavy, but not malicious. For all her scowling and brooding, Tel thought she enjoyed his visits.

“I thought you said it wasn’t just magic,” Tel said. “Anyway, I can feel it. You woke me up last night when you stubbed your toe. Is it hard to see in the dark, without a servant to hold the candle for you?”

Katrina waved a hand dismissively at him, but Tel caught a hint of a smile on her lips as she turned away.

“Listen,” Tel said, before he could get caught up in trading insults and lose his nerve. “There’s something I’ve been wanting to say.”

Katrina looked at him with raised eyebrows. Tel had the impression, as he often did, that she was up on a throne somewhere instead of sitting in a rickety chair in a hovel on the third terrace.

“Back on the dais, when you turned your back to me,” Tel said. “I just feel bad, you know, for…”

“Stabbing me in the back?” Katrina said. She put a hand to her heart and tilted her head back, mocking him with a wounded expression. “I know, I know, you did it for your destitute family. No need to apologize.”

“Really,” Tel said. “I’m sorry. It must be hard, to be put out of the palace.”

Katrina’s face straightened, and grew somber. She looked Tel in the eyes.

“Really,” she said. “I understand. It’s better this way. Another seven years in that palace, and I would have become one of them. Down here it’s… difficult, but better.”

They were both silent for a while. Katrina sat back in her chair. Tel put his elbows on his knees and his chin in his hands. When the weight of the solemnity became too much, Katrina spoke.

“I’m learning to thresh,” she said.

“Oh ho,” Tel said, raising his eyebrows and looking impressed. “Moved on from weeding, I see. A grave responsibility.”

Katrina sniffed a laugh, then leaned forward and punched Tel in the arm.

“Ow,” she said.

“Serves you right,” Tel said.

They sat back and enjoyed the evening for several minutes. It was cool outside, and the door of Katrina’s hovel was open to the breeze. After a while, Tel sighed.

“The kingdom needs you up there,” he said. “I’m no good at ruling. It’s too much responsibility.”

Katrina looked at him hard, for several seconds, and leaned forward suddenly.

“The kingdom needs you,” she said, as if it were the most important thing in the world. “For the first time since the Lu, someone that’s not steeped in centuries of ignoring the second and third terraces is on the throne. You won that place. You have that power. Rule, Tel. Change things.”

Tel didn’t answer for a moment. He looked at Katrina, and the crickets sung the song of the evening.

“Always pushed,” he said finally, hating the pouting in his voice. “I wanted to save my family, and now it’s my job to save the kingdom.” He shook his shoulders as if someone were tugging at him. 

Katrina looked him dead in the eyes, without pity.

“There are no strings, Tel,” she said, “but that doesn’t mean we can’t be bound.”

For a moment, Tel thought she was talking about magic.  Then he understood.

_______________

Travis Bow grew up in Reno, NV (where he raised and sold pigs), went to Oklahoma Christian University (where he broke his collarbone in a misguided Parkour attempt), married an electrical engineer (who puts him to shame in ping-pong), got his master’s degree from Stanford (where he and his bike were hit by a car), and now does R&D for Nikon (where he has filed several patents). His short stories have been appeared in Bards and Sages Quarterly, Stupefying Stories, Punchnel’s, Kids ‘Magination, and Liquid Imagination. His debut novel, THANE, is scheduled for publication in mid-2014.

 

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