New character, meet old character.
(In other news, Wingborn is now available in paperback from Amazon. I’ll do a proper post next week. Anyone interested in a giveaway?)
“THAT’S QUITE THE shiner you have there.”
Zett looked up from applying balm to his split knuckles and jumped to his feet, hissing through his teeth as the torn muscles in his ribs protested. “Highness,” he muttered, creaking into a bow that made him so light headed he almost toppled at the princess’ feet.
“None of that nonsense now,” Princess Neryth said, placing her hands on his shoulders and levering him upright before shoving him into his seat. “Settle down and let me see your face.”
For once Zett was happy to comply with an order and grimaced as he leaned back in his chair, lifting his chin to avoid the touch of the princess’ cool hands.
Zett wondered what she made of him. A tall youth, not yet a man but no longer a child, tall and lithe, with evening stubble darkening his cheeks and chin, and high cheekbones that apparently made maidens blush – at least according to his sister. He wondered how that went with the dark hair bound in two thick braids that reached halfway down his back. Or the long coat dress whose cut was far more feminine than masculine. What did the princess make of the lampblack that had so carefully outlined his eyes that morning, but was now smeared across his cheeks, a dark counterpoint to the puffy cuts and flowering bruises that thickened his lips and surrounded both eyes? His nose hadn’t been broken – this time – but it was swollen nonetheless, and his brightly painted nails looked far too fine for his bleeding knuckles. There wasn’t a patch of lace on any of his clothes, but in Havia that made him less of a man than most, since lace was all the rage, thanks to the flurrying choices of the Crown Prince.
Prince Riffle’s mannerisms and quirks were far more effete than anything Zett chose to do or wear. And yet, what could be classed as eccentric and fashion-setting in a prince, would never be seen as normal in a minor lord’s lowly second son.
Gritting his aching teeth, Zett awaited the princess’ judgement, even as he examined her in turn. Here was the woman Edreth had included in his diatribe as not having the decency to dress as she ought. For while Zett liked his clothing with a feminine edge, Princess Neryth was the complete opposite. No fine dresses and fripperies for this princess, no dainty jewels or thin silks. Neryth dressed exactly as Edreth would prefer Zett to – like a man. Her clothes were sumptuously made, of course, and her jewellery was expensive, as befit a princess, but she wore breeches and short coats, swallow-tailed jackets and solid flying boots. There was lace at her collars and cuffs, and embroidery on her waistcoat, but not one thing she wore could be remotely described as feminine. She liked dark colours and severe cuts, heavy materials and large jewels in solitary settings. She was expensive and handsome, but entirely practical – in an aristocratic way.
The two of them were complete opposites in every aspect, and yet, they were remarkably similar.
The princess smiled. “You look like a pirate.”
Zett stared down at himself, covered in blood, clothes torn askew, barefoot still and scruffy, and didn’t see the point in arguing. “You should see the other chap,” he joked.
Princess Neryth snorted. “I have. He looks far worse than you.”
It was Zett’s turn to smile, even though he knew he shouldn’t be proud of it. Pummelling stuffy idiots like Edreth was a foolish thing to do and offered absolutely no challenge for Zett, and yet it was immensely satisfying. Just because he chose to dress more like a woman than a man, didn’t mean he was weak. Women weren’t weak, nor did clothing signify strength. The sooner Edreth learnt that the happier he would be.
Yet no matter how many times Zett proved himself in the dust of the arena – or in hallways, behind the palace, in alleyways and back streets, or anywhere else the bigots tried to jump him – he knew he would change no minds with his fists. Or his words. Or with anything he tried to do. Edreth and others like him had made up their minds a long time ago and no action of Zett’s would change them. There were simply too scared of things that were different.
The princess sighed. “I understand your frustration,” she said, and Zett knew she was the one person who truly did understand. “I understand the temptation. People say such stupid things, believing they are right and we are wrong. Believing that there is a difference between us and them, that there even is an us and a them, but you cannot fight your way out of their prejudice. This time Edreth faced you alone. This time he was arrogant enough to think that wearing a dress made you weak.
“But he won’t make that mistake again. He might be too stupid to see that your choices have nothing to do with him and won’t hurt him in any way, but he is smart enough to know when he has been bested. And stupid enough to let wounded pride override reason.
“He’ll come after you again, Zettlen, and this time he won’t come alone.”
Zett met the calm eyes of the princess everyone knew would one day rule this country, for all that her older brother would sit on the throne, and bowed his head. “I know,” he whispered, because he did know. It had happened before. It would happen again. Zett was strong and he was fast; he knew when to run away and when to fight. He also knew he wouldn’t be able to get away every time, that he wouldn’t win every time. He’d been hurt before, but so far he’d been lucky enough to avoid any lasting damage. His luck wouldn’t last forever.
“I’ve watched you, you know,” the princess said, leaning forward in her chair to brace her arms on her knees. She linked her fingers together and stared at her hands. “I have trained most of my life with a blade and I love the clash of the duel, but you – when you have a sword in your hand, it isn’t just fighting, it’s poetry. You move like art, Zettlen, and it is a wondrous gift.”
A flush of heat rose up Zett’s neck and he looked away, embarrassed. “You flatter me, Highness.”
She really did. Princess Neryth was regarded as one of the finest duellists in all of Havia. She was fast and strong with a blade, brutally efficient and immensely impressive. Zett had watched her fight and train too, and wished he had half her skill.
“I do not.” Princess Neryth waved his words away. “For all your beauty, you lack awareness in the duel. Alone with a blade you are a wonder to behold, but against an opponent it’s almost painful to see the mistakes you make. Your control is impressive, but you lose yourself to your blade too easily and forget that you should be fighting another instead of twirling around, looking impressive.”
His embarrassment deepened and he stared at the floor, knowing everything she said was true. Zett loved the blade, but he wasn’t so fond of fighting others.
“When your peers and their bully boys grow tired of you beating them up or escaping their traps, they will eventually resort to weapons. If they watch you as I, and many others of the court, have done, they will see your weaknesses and assume you won’t stand a chance in a real fight.
“And they would be wrong.”
Zett raised his head, surprised.
The princess smiled, but it was a small, unhappy thing. “Anyone with a blade in their hand can be deadly, Zettlen, and you more than most. You might prefer to dance in a practice bout, but I have little doubt that if your life was truly in danger, your mind would sharpen to fatal precision. All that grace and control would turn to speed and accuracy. Your opponents wouldn’t stand a chance.
“And I will not let that happen.”
~ Next Chapter ~
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