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Sorry for the delays, everyone. I’ll try to catch up this week and get back on track. Thank you for your patience.
Also: new character alert!
And a content warning for bigotry against a gender nonconforming character.
ZETT HELD THE sword perfectly upright, the hilt gripped lightly between both hands. All was still and silent, poised on the edge of the blade, waiting, waiting.
He moved. A throat block, sweeping outwards, slicing down, back up, right, left, turn. He fell into the moment, lost himself to the movement, his sword sharp and precise, his body flowing behind. The skirts of his full coat whirled and flared, turning it into a dance. Brutal and deadly in intent, but beautiful, so very beautiful.
Zett let the sword lead, each move controlled and precise, but never planned. The blade flashed, cutting through empty space, slicing through the dust kicked up by his bare feet as he stepped, leapt and rolled across the arena. Sweat stung his eyes and his breath felt heavy in his lungs as Zett followed where the dance took him, the swirl of his skirts like the fan of a peacock’s tail.
He jabbed, lunging forward, forming a perfectly straight line from his extended right foot up through his spine, shoulders, left arm and sword. His right arm stretched out behind him, counterbalance and elegance. A pause, then a retreat. He pushed off his bent front leg and swept his sword into his right hand, drawing the blade across in front of his face as he sank down onto his right haunch, a move that had taken years to perfect.
The skirts of his coat settled around him with a hush and he fought not to gasp for breath.
The flat of the blade settled atop the tips of his left fingers, his palm held outwards against his imaginary foe.
The sword hummed in his hand, ever eager, ever waiting, his body coiled to strike, to move, to continue the dance.
He leapt straight into the air, slicing once, twice, spun —
And stopped, the edge of his blade halting inches from Edreth’s face.
Once Edreth had been Zett’s best friend on all the Overworld, now he raised his hands, shaking back the lace at each cuff with an elegant flick, and gave a mocking round of applause.
“How utterly splendid, Zettlen. The Cloud Circus will be calling for you any day.”
Heart still racing from where he’d almost sliced the other boy’s head off, Zett dropped his sword to his side and fought to regain his breath. “Lord Edreth,” he greeted as coolly as he could manage, tipping his head the smallest fraction and wondering what the other boy wanted.
Edreth looked him up and down with insulting slowness, a sneer curling the edge of his lip. “Why do you insist on this farce? These theatrics? Your form is still good. If you bothered to train like a true lord with the rest of us, you might even be someone worth knowing one day.”
Zett resisted rolling his eyes, barely, and switched his sword to his left hand, sheathing it at his hip. “Your concern is touching,” he drawled, wiping his sleeve across his sweating forehead. Edreth’s appearance might have caught him by surprise, but it seemed like this conversation would be depressingly predictable. He had neither the time nor the patience for it.
“It’s not my concern you should be worried about, but yours,” Edreth retorted, following Zett across the dusty arena. “Where is your concern for your future, Zettlen? Your reputation? Where is your concern for your family? Don’t you care that you have become a laughingstock? That your whole family has become a joke?”
The barbs were old and Zett shrugged them off with ease. “If my credit is so poor, it’s a wonder you dare speak to me at all, my lord.” He unbuckled his sword belt and laid it on the bench with the rest of his belongings, then reached back to release his hair.
Edreth took a deep breath, ready to begin anew. “We were friends once.”
Zett looked over his shoulder, waiting for the rest to follow.
“It is embarrassing when others remind me of it, seeing you as you are now.”
There it was. Zett pulled off his head scarf and shook his braids loose with a sigh. “You don’t have to look.”
Edreth huffed and grumbled, sounding not unlike the father he once claimed to despise, yet seemed determined now to emulate. Zett almost smiled at the memory of when he’d once accused his friend of being too much like his father. Edreth had not been amused and the scrap that had followed had been glorious. Now he would take it as a compliment.
And Edreth called Zett an embarrassment.
“Why are you like this?” his former friend demanded, gripping Zett’s arm and spinning him around. “Why do you have to be this? Why can’t you be normal?”
Zett stiffened, amusement and irritation fading into icy calmness. “And what is normal, in your exalted opinion, my lord?”
“Normal? What is normal?” Edreth scoffed. “You shouldn’t even have to ask, not if you were one of us, instead of…” He waved a hand, groping for the right words and finding only meaningless nonsense. “Whatever you are. Normal dresses like a man. Normal does not wear dresses. Normal doesn’t dress their hair up in fancy scarves. Normal sticks to decent colours, instead of making a spectacle of themselves at every opportunity. Normal doesn’t dance with a sword. Normal knows how to fight, instead of twirl. Normal follows the rules. Normal doesn’t wear paint on their nails. Normal acts like a man.”
With each spat out sentence, Edreth seemed to grow angrier and angrier, while Zett only felt cold. He would not be ashamed of who he was. He would not be ashamed of what he wore. He would not be ashamed of how he trained with a sword.
He would not be ashamed.
“What next?” Edreth continued, his anger sounding more and more like his stuffy, miserable father. “Are you going to start painting your face like a whore? Will you give up swords all together and take up embroidery with the rest of the women? Will you start wearing heels and mincing around?”
Zett swallowed back a sharp retort. While it was true he had taken to wearing lampblack on his lashes, a little bit of cosmetic enhancement here and there did nobody any harm. And it wasn’t just prostitutes who wore paint on their face. Zett would bet his favourite sword that Edreth’s mother and sisters all did too, but it wasn’t worth getting into a fight over. Besides, the fool wasn’t finished yet.
“Just because we have a princess who hasn’t got the decency to dress as she ought, doesn’t mean you can go around upsetting everyone with your ridiculous theatrics. Can’t you see what you’re doing, Zettlen? Can’t you see the damage you cause? You’re an embarrassment to your family, to me, to anyone who has ever befriended you. Stop being so selfish and act like a normal man!”
The echoes of Edreth’s shouts faded around the empty arena, while Zett stared at his feet and fought to keep his temper in check. The sight of his toenails, painted in glittering gold, bright and shining against his otherwise dusty toes, reminded Zett of who he was, what he was, and what he would never be.
“Why should I want to be normal?” he asked, raising his head to meet the furious dark eyes of the boy he’d once loved like a brother. “Why should I want to be like you?”
Edreth stepped back, startled. “You should want to be just like me. I have everything, everything you should have but will never have because you’re a fool.”
“And you are afraid,” Zett replied, calm and quiet. “What are you so scared of, Edreth? Are you frightened to show your real self to the world? Scared that it will find you empty and worthless? Are you afraid that someone will laugh at you?”
“I’m not afraid of you!” Edreth shouted, and smashed his fist into Zett’s face.
~ Next Chapter ~
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