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You must live. Vanyel thought bleakly back at the intruder, : Let me alone. No one wants me, nobody should want me; I kill everything I care for. Unable to escape the unknown mind-voice, Vanyel finally opened his eyes—and met a pair of glowing sapphire eyes so full of compassion and love that he knew their owner would forgive him anything. That love reached out for him, and flowed over into him. And all the while, that bright voice murmured, like a litany, over and over, into his mind—. The stair treads were so narrow and so slick that not even the servants used it. His comfort, primarily.
Not that Vanyel entirely disagreed with Grandfather; he would have been one of the first to vote to fill in the moat and for fireplaces in all the rooms. But the old man had gotten some pretty peculiar notions about what he wanted where—along with a tendency to change his mind in mid-alteration. There were good points—windows everywhere, and all of them glazed and shuttered. Skylights lighting all the upper rooms and the staircases. Fireplaces in nearly every room. Heated privies, part and parcel of the bathhouse. Every inside wall lathed and plastered against cold and damp. The stables, mews, kennel, and chickenyard banished to new outbuildings.
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Some of those places were important—like the bathhouse and privies. The Ashkevron cousins had a tendency to act as if they had no common ancestors with Vanyel and his sibs whenever the subject of Grandfather Joserlin and his alterations came up. Vanyel held his peace and trotted down the last couple of stone stairs to hold the door open for his cousin.
Oh, gods—let this work , Vanyel thought as they emerged into the gloomy back hall. Did I practice enough with Lissa? Is this going to have a chance against a standard attack? Or am I crazy for even trying? The hallway was as cold as the staircase had been, and dark to boot.
Radevel took the lead, feet slapping on the stone floor as he whistled contentedly—and tunelessly. Vanyel tried not to wince at the mutilation of one of his favorite melodies and drifted silently in his wake, his thoughts as dark as the hallway.
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Without Lissa. If I can just prove that I need her kind of training, then maybe Father will let me go with her —.
That had been the half-formed notion that prompted him to work out the moves of a different style of fighting than what he was supposed to be learning, practicing them in secret with his older sister Lissa: that was what had ultimately led to this little expedition. The way Vanyel had it figured, there was no way short of a miracle that he would ever succeed at the brute hack-and-bash system Jervis used—and no way Lord Withen would ever believe that another style was just as good while Jervis had his ear.
With Lissa gone to Brenden Keep, his last real ally in the household would be gone, too; his only friend, and the only person who cared for him. Vanyel would try to hold his own, wearing nothing but the padded jerkin and helm, carrying the lightest of target-shields, and trusting to speed and agility to keep him out of trouble.
Radevel kicked open the unlatched door to the practice ground, leaving Vanyel to get it closed before somebody yelled about the draft. The early spring sunlight was painful after the darkness of the hallway; Vanyel squinted as he hurried to catch up with his cousin. Vanyel flushed, and stood uncertainly at the side of the sunken practice ground, contemplating the thick, dead grass at his feet. I never botch anything except when Jervis is watching , he thought bleakly, shivering a little as a bit of cold breeze cut through the gambeson.
He could almost feel the windows in the keep wall behind him like eyes staring at his back. Waiting for him to fail—again. Why is everything I do wrong? He sighed, scuffed the ground with his toe, and wished he could be out riding instead of trying something doomed to failure. He was the best rider in Forst Reach—he and Star had no equals on the most breakneck of hunts, and he could , if he chose, master anything else in the stables.
Vanyel walked to the center of the practice field with nervous deliberation, waiting until the last minute to get his helm on. He hated the thing; he hated the feeling of being closed in, and most of all hated having his vision narrowed to a little slit. He waited for Radevel to come up to him, feeling the sweat already starting under his arms and down the line of his back. Radevel swung—but instead of meeting the blow with his shield as Jervis would have done, Vanyel just moved out of the way of the blow, and on his way past Radevel, made a stab of his own.
Jervis never cared much for point-work, but Vanyel had discovered it could be really effective if you timed things right. Radevel made a startled sound and got up his own shield, but only just in time, and left himself open to a cut. Vanyel felt his spirits rising as he saw this second opening in as many breaths, and chanced another attack of his own. This one actually managed to connect, though it was too light to call a disabling hit.
Vanyel just stepped aside at the last moment, while Radevel staggered halfway to the boundary under his own momentum. It was working! Long habit froze them both in position, and the armsmaster of Forst Reach stalked onto the field, fire in his bloodshot glare. Jervis looked the two of them up and down while Vanyel sweated from more than exertion. Jervis looked angry—and when Jervis was angry, it was generally Vanyel who suffered.
And whose idea was this? Jervis charged without any warning, and Vanyel had to scramble to get out of the way of the whirling blade.
He realized then that Jervis was coming for him all-out—as if Vanyel was wearing full armor. He pivoted desperately as Jervis came at him again; ducked, wove, and spun—and saw an opening. He waited, heart in mouth, while the armsmaster staggered backward two or three steps, then shook his head to clear it.
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There was an awful silence—. Radevel backed off the field, then turned and ran for the keep. Jervis paced slowly to within a few feet of Vanyel, and Vanyel nearly died of fear on the spot. Only a haze of mingled fear and anger that made the words meaningless.
It was a hopeless fight from the beginning, even if Vanyel had been good at this particular mode of combat. Five more times Vanyel got up, each time more slowly.
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Each time, he tried to yield. By the fourth time he was wit-wandering, dazed and groveling.
And Jervis refused to accept his surrender even when he could barely gasp out the words. That was all he could think to call it. Van was no match for Jervis, and Jervis was coming at him all out—like he was a trained, adult fighter. Even Radevel could see that.