Knadrian ducked. Master Invor was pushing him hard now. It was not the sword work that Knadrian had a problem with- it was the footwork! The master always stepped so perfectly, mirroring Knadrian’s every move. It was frustrating in the very least of words. Knadrian sidestepped, Invor quickly matching him and cutting him off with a step back and a slashing cut.
The wooden sword touched Knadrian’s throat. “If this were a real sword, I’d leave you for the foxes, sonny.” Knadrian felt Invor’s golden eyes measuring him. The master’s muscular body had not an ounce of fat; the man was wolf-lean and handsome. He was nearing forty, but his tanned face held no lines of age. “What’s the matter, boy, no fire in your spirit today?”
Knadrian lowered his sword and scowled. “I’ll never be fast enough. You get me every time.” His voice held a slight whine and he saw a look of irritation pass over Invor’s face.
“It is not your speed, boy,” Invor snapped. “You aren’t concentrating. You’re not fighting for your life as you should. You’re letting the opportunities to strike pass you by!”
“But you told me not to think! How am I supposed to not think and concentrate at the same time?” Knadrian’s voice wavered.
Master Invor cracked the wooden sword against Knadrian’s shoulder. “Boy, you came to me with nothing. I’m trying to teach you something and all you do is whine and complain. You think I tutor you for the copper piece you bring me each time?” His deep set eyes blazed.
Knadrian rubbed his shoulder trying to ease the pain. “No master,” he replied obediently. “Please forgive my rudeness.” His shoulders slumped. “I just feel like I’m not learning anything.”
Invor grunted. “Come with me. It’s time to eat.”
Knadrian followed Master Invor into his house. The master’s dwelling was luxurious and located on the upper side of town. Its walls were adorned with realistic frescoes and the furniture was very fine. Knadrian had never been in such a house before he had come to take lessons under Master Invor. He knew that the swordsman usually commanded gold for his tutoring in the martial skills, but accepted the copper coin that Knadrian brought to him because he had trained his father. Derik had been a master swordsman also because of Invor’s training. He had been killed during one of Turlane’s purges two years ago. His crime was that he had been too famous of a general.
Now Knadrian was to take a commission in Turlane’s army. He had to be the best; nothing less would be expected of Derik Burninlance’s son. As Knadrian walked, he saw the busts of the great war heroes. His father was not among them. Turlane had demanded that all proof of the great man’s existence be erased. The son had been allowed to live as long as he would swear loyalty to Turlane upon entrance into the military- something Derik had never done. Derik had instead laughed at Turlane’s offer, saying he served the city of Hadae and did what he thought best for it.
Of course then he had been killed and left his adolescent son devastated. Stop it, Knadrian told himself. You are making yourself maudlin. It is no one’s fault save his father’s stupidity for not accepting the Prince’s offer. He had been told all his life what a great man his father had been; why had he not been clever enough to accept Turlane’s offer?
“He had notions of honor, sonny. That’ll be something you’ll have to acquire.” Master Invor’s voice was gruff. Had he asked the question aloud?
Knadrian felt his cheeks burn. “I understand that. I do not understand why.”
They walked in silence, his question ignored, and came to the atrium. The quarters were suited with hide bound chairs that eased most of the pains from Knadrian’s worn muscles as he sat. A servant came in and took their orders for dinner and brought wine back. Invor took a few sips of the wine.
Knadrian was uncomfortable in the man’s presence. He radiated a power that Knadrian knew he could never possess. He felt ridiculous trying to be someone he was not. All he wanted to do was perfect his painting technique. The master artist of Hadae, Dragomir, had promised to instruct him when he returned from Aerona. The Lord Artist had remarked on Knadrian’s potential as a master artist! Knadrian knew that it would never happen anyway; he would probably die in some meaningless skirmish a thousand miles from Hadae and a sword instead of a paintbrush in his hand.
A few more moments passed, the silence making the time crawl by indefinitely. Finally, he heard Master Invor sigh.
“Let me tell you something, sonny,” he began, his tone serious and in lecture mode, just like when he was teaching Knadrian a new move. “You’re only seventeen. The footwork will come. Meanwhile, your technique will improve also. You’re actually doing very well. You could take any man except perhaps a master like me.” He paused, letting the words sink into Knadrian’s mind. “Don’t argue with me either,” he said before Knadrian could formulate a comment. “I know that silver-tipped tongue of yours is thinking about arguing about my judgment. Your father was a special man, true enough, but you have the potential to be great.” The master took another sip of wine.
“Your father was only the way he was because of your mother. You’ve got to learn to be honorable through your own intuition.”
“I really don’t need to hear this, Master,” Knadrian interjected. He had no desire to listen to anecdotes about his father’s love for his mother. After his father died, his mother had left him to rot and make it on his own. He had been only fifteen when she had gone.
Master Invor’s gaze was settled on Knadrian and he squirmed under its intensity. “Boy, I know you think she is a lowly coward for leaving you in Hadae by yourself, but she thought you were strong enough to handle it. And you are, sonny. How many fifteen-year-olds feed themselves through the winter? How many take it upon themselves to learn the martial arts and enroll in the profession that destroyed his father. That is bravery in the rarest form, laddie, and I’ll not see you throw yourself into the dirt simply because you think you have no skill.”
Knadrian closed his mind. He had no desire to rethink his position on his mother. What kind of a noble woman could she have been? Better yet, had he been such a terrible son that she felt she had to leave him? He heard Invor continue on about Derik giving up his position in the Aeronian army to travel with his mother to Hadae, but only if he would “put all measures of murder behind him.”
Of course that had been hard with a commission in Turlane’s army, and perhaps that was why he had scoffed at Turlane’s offer. Silas Dega had only asked him to lead his troops to the best of his ability; the Prince of Shadows had wanted him to have dirty work on the side also.
“…and butchering women and children was not something that your father wanted weighing on his conscience.” Master Invor said with finality. “Your father was the best of men. He is what we call a ‘baenae-shalom’, which in the old tongue roughly means, a ‘son of serenity.’”
Knadrian stared at the older man. He looked burdened- no… old!… now. “A son of serenity? What is that?” Knadrian stared at the floor to avoid looking at the lines on his master’s face.
Invor took another small sip of the wine. It seemed like the master did want to become drunk for fear of an even looser tongue, thought Knadrian. “Nature will always find a balance boy. With the lamb comes the wolf. We think it is a terrible thing to let a wolf run wild in a pasture, and aye, we’re right, but the wolf culls the flock. Without it, there would be much inbreeding and disease. It keeps the flock strong. The same can be said of man. Turlane is the wolf and the people of the Great Cities- Hadae, Aerona, Detra Esdon Grasia, Talomb- they are the sheep. Turlane has a major cull to keep himself in power. It is required to rid himself of weaker men.”
Knadrian jumped to his feet. “My father was not weak!” Blood coursed quickly through his veins as the heat rose into his face and hands. “I thought you admired my father.” The words came almost as an anguished wail- the hurt reaching deep into his darkest fears and pulling the words out. He needed to hear it.
Invor set his wine cup down. His tone was still even. “Sit boy, I am not done with my analogy. You must not let that temper get the best of you.”
Knadrian sank back onto the couch. The stretched pelt was cool against his bare arms, but his mind spun with things to say to the old bastard who was confirming that his blood was full of cowardice, as he had always known.
Invor cleared his throat. “With the wolves and the lambs comes the shepherd.” Invor’s eyes narrowed and his voice lowered. “The wolf becomes greedy; it takes too many of the flock. The excesses are noted by the shepherd, and he takes up his bow. The wolf is now the hunted. The wolf will surround himself with a pack to protect him, but ultimately, since he is the leader and others envy his position, he will be alone. He will try to rend the hunter with tooth and claw, but the hunter is better equipped. In the end, the wolf will lay dead at the hunter’s feet and the flock will grow again.”
Knadrian’s temper cooled. He reflected a moment on the older man‘s words. “So my father was the hunter, right? He wanted to keep Turlane’s power in check?”
“Yes. You’re father believed that that balance must be maintained and would stop at nothing to keep the harmony of the land.” Invor’s hand cut the air. “Now let us hush, boy,” he said quietly. “There are spies everywhere and I have no wish to be escorted to Turlane’s torture chambers.” The old man chuckled- a rare action indeed. His eyes suddenly became bright and feverish; to Knadrian he seemed a thousand miles away. “Indeed, that is not even on my list of most desired ways to die.” Invor’s eyes shot the door as the servant returned with trays of food. “It’s about time,” he suddenly exclaimed loudly, grinning at Knadrian, “I wasn’t sure if I’d die of starvation or old age first!”
Knadrian was amazed at Master Invor’s casual entrance into sociality. Usually the man was cold and distant, his eyes piercing and shut to outside opinion. This man who had taken his place chattered on about ancient philosophies and analogies like he was a professor at one of the great Aeronian universities. It was baffling to the young student.
Knadrian tried to enjoy the light mood that Invor was in, but could not emerge from his position as student. He was supposed to listen to Master Invor in all areas; conversation was not permitted and was deemed unnecessary. Knadrian smiled to himself as Invor was telling a story about a great conquest in the east long ago- perhaps this was the new Master Invor. Perhaps he was treating him like a man. Men bantered with one another; they did not tolerate being smote on the shoulder with a wooden sword. Knadrian’s head reeled with happiness. He was now a man in the master’s eyes! Knadrian took a large mouthful of wine, letting it loll on his tongue. He would savor this night for a long time.
“Master Invor,” Knadrian said, careful not to stretch his newfound adulthood too far with a discussion of a subject that had been declined to him many times.
The man paused mid-bite of his smoked beef. “Yes?” The man’s eyebrows rose in query, his forehead wrinkling slightly.
“When is the next enrollment date?” The military was calling now; his glory and fame would be found across the water, slaying savages who rose against Turlane’s conquest for gold.
The old man sighed and for a moment Knadrian thought he had pushed adulthood too far. His shoulders slumped and he vigorously rubbed his eyes, once more seeming a tired, old man.
The silence stretched for a few seconds. “Skaida, we’ve been through this. Your mother won’t let me enroll you in the military.” Silence. “Ah, but you’d be a great general. I’ll try to reason with her again. Excuse me, Son. I’ll convince her of your expertise in strategy soon enough.” The older man sprung lithely from his couch and exited the atrium. Knadrian sat, baffled.
Skaida? Who in the great heavens was Skaida? Knadrian sat, thinking through the conversation, trying to draw hints and reach a conclusion.
“He’s doing it again.”
Knadrian turned quickly and saw the young servant girl standing in the doorway. She was dressed plainly and her hair was tied back, so he had not noticed her before going in and out. In fact, he thought sheepishly, he had thought her a boy. Her soft, lilting voice gave her away.
“Doing what?” Knadrian heard himself asking just to hear her voice again.
“You don’t know?” The girl asked, drawing closer to him. He noticed that her eyes were a delicate shade of gray. Her face was beautifully rounded and set upon a swan-like neck and her mouth was splendidly sensual. Her blonde hair tumbled out of the knot down her back to her well formed hips. Knadrian tried to avoid staring, but found himself floating in those gray orbs.
“No, I don’t know, tell me.” His voice was husky from the thought of doing a nude sketch of her. Her body was incredibly supple; she would make an excellent court dancer. Knadrian made another fierce attempt to suppress the thoughts of desire swimming in his head. He tried not to notice the sway of her hips as she walked towards him.
The girl sat on the couch beside Knadrian and stared at the floor for a moment. A tear finally coursed down her cheek. He instinctively reached up to wipe away the salty residue. “Just tell me,” he urged her, Invor’s strangeness momentarily forgotten as he felt a swell of concern for this saddened girl.
“Master Invor has a cancer in the brain.” Her statement was jagged, and a sob threatened to envelop the words, but her voice held firm. “He has flashbacks of memories. You may not have known that he had a family once. They were killed by Turlane.” Her voice fell quiet now. Her gray eyes locked to his. “It won’t be long now; then he’ll be with them.” A few more tears trickled down her cheeks. This time Knadrian did not attempt to wipe them away.
Now Knadrian’s eyes found focus on the floor. His face burned with shame. He had replaced thoughts of Master Invor with the grey eyed stranger. There were far too many shades of gray in the world. Like her eyes. No- not like shadows. Her eyes were beautiful, he thought; the worldly shadows were full of pain and hurt. The world should have just been illustrated of black and white, good and evil. Heroes like his father and Master Invor should live forever, while weaker men with smaller dreams died violent deaths.
Knadrian’s voice sounded faded to himself. “I did not know,” he said lamely. Suddenly he remembered his manners. “I will leave now since the master is obviously occupied for the evening.” He saw the girl’s eyes widen with panic. “Don’t worry,” he offered a slight smile. “I will say nothing to Master Invor about the matter at our next training. Please excuse me.” With that said, he stood and started toward the door. Guiltily, his thoughts stayed with her. He should have asked the girl her name.
“Laila,” came the sweet, soft tone. He froze and stared silently at the door. “You may call me Laila,” she said again, this time a little louder. He would have to watch himself with thinking aloud! Knadrian turned slightly for one last look at the beautiful servant and their eyes met briefly, but he practically ran out the door to escape to his own thoughts.
Those shades of gray thickened with each brush stroke, he contemplated glumly as he stepped into the cool night air. Spring usually had a way of making a young man think about rebirth and the fresh aspects of life, and upon meeting Laila, Knadrian’s had been galloping along that trail, but all Knadrian could think of was Master Invor’s mind and body being ravaged by an enemy that he could not face with his strength of arm.