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Nothing Altered

By Beth Powers

 

“Can I help you, uh, um…” he floundered, grasping for the proper term with which to address me and my lack of feminine attire. His dark blue eyes held all of the confusion that his polite manner attempted to hide. Without sympathy, I watched him as I struggled to keep my own emotions from reaching my expression. It was hardly my fault that he didn’t know what to do with a woman who refused to wear wasteful, not to mention cumbersome, extra folds of cloth wrapped around her lower half. Finally, the poor gentleman stumbled on to, “…ma’am?”

“Yes, sir.” I had no such problem. As a warrior in the Prince’s Legion, Duke Daevarren had to be addressed with the proper respect. “I heard that the Crown is now accepting commoners as candidates for the Legion. Is that true?” I asked, keeping my tone neutral with some effort.

Traditionally, the Prince’s Legion consisted of an elite fighting force comprised of any sons from the landed gentry who had hopes of a military careers, as well as many who did not. The Legion’s counterpart, the King’s Army, was where commoners, voluntary or conscripted, fought for the realm. When the southern portion of the kingdom decided to stage a rebellion, the Crown became more desperate to obtain well-trained warriors for the Legion and began taking candidates regardless of their background. My information said that Duke Daevarren had been one of the more vocal nobles in favor of allowing commoners a chance to earn their colors in the Legion, which is why I had come to him with my request.

The duke nodded a confirmation, “That’s right. We are,” and leaned his elbows on his polished oak desk, lacing his fingers together in front of his chin. “Are you asking on behalf of a brother or a friend?” he suggested with polite interest.

Shaking my head, I told him, “No,” and met his questioning blue eyes. “I thought maybe if the Crown was willing to take commoners, you’d be willing to take a commoner woman. I was asking for no one but myself,” I added as a note of defiance leaked through my carefully controlled voice. I had always struggled with keeping my emotions in check. The combined efforts of my foster-mother and the community of scholars who raised me had failed to stamp my temper out entirely.

The duke’s eyes, which had begun to wander over to the stack of parchment on his desk, snapped back to mine, once again giving me his attention. “Is this some kind of a joke, ma’am?” he bit out in icy politeness, “Because if it is…” trailing off as his eyes hardened to match his voice.

With a deep breath to douse my temper, I responded as calmly as I could, “No, sir, I want a chance to earn my colors. Would the Crown be willing to allow a woman to fight for it?”

“Absolutely not,” he shook his head emphatically.

“Why?” I asked with all of the politeness I could muster. I touched my fingers lightly to the plain brass bracelet on the opposite wrist. Losing my temper had the nasty side effect of unleashing my magic. If I couldn’t control my emotions, I couldn’t control my power. The bracelet helped me to maintain a tight leash on the magic even if I was on the verge of losing my temper. The duke’s answer wasn’t entirely unexpected, but I wanted to hear the reason from him. I needed him to tell me to my face.

With a weary sigh, the duke ran his fingers through his dark hair and explained, “Women just aren’t capable,” he dropped his hand and looked up at me again, “not meant to be fighters. You’d only get hurt.” His blue eyes were softened with kindness, and his words made me want to punch him in the face.

Resisting the urge and wrapping my fingers tightly around my bracelet, I persisted, “Are you sure you won’t reconsider, sir?”

Shaking his head, the duke selected a piece of parchment off of the stack, and said in clear dismissal, “I’m sorry, ma’am, no.”

My shoulders hunched in defeat as I turned away and crossed the small room to the door. The duke’s refusal made me think that I should have carried out my original plan. Before I had come to the palace that morning, I had stood before the mirror, knife in hand. I had been fully prepared to create the greatest deception of my life. To wipe myself out of existence. To replace myself with someone else, someone acceptable, someone, to all appearances, male. With the knife in one hand, I had taken a hunk of my thick dark hair in the other. Glancing up, I met my own dark eyes in the mirror and froze. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t lie to everyone. I couldn’t lie to myself. I refused to be someone I was not. Tyna I was, and Tyna I would remain.

My hand rested on the doorknob to the duke’s office, which I had pulled open a couple of inches. “No,” I told him firmly. I would not let this man shut me out and make me ashamed of being who I was. At least, I wouldn’t give up without a fight. Letting the door click back into place, I turned around. In a clear quiet voice, I announced, “I challenge you to a duel,” adding calculatingly, “You have insulted my honor, and by your honor, you cannot refuse.”

That caught his attention more completely than anything else I had said during the entire interview. He dropped the parchment from his hand and rose, asking, “Are you mad?” His eyebrows descended in concern, “Rescind your challenge,” he advised as though trying to decide whether or not I was serious, “Someone could get hurt.”

I would not be so easily deterred. “I cannot,” I raised my chin stubbornly and insisted, “You have insulted me. I intend to redeem my honor and prove you wrong.”

He studied me for a moment through narrowed eyes before gritting his teeth and agreeing, “Fine.” Stepping around his desk, he continued briskly as though he wanted to get this ordeal over with as quickly as possible, “As the one being challenged, I say we fight as soon as I can find a reliable witness. With swords. If you don’t have one—” he looked questioningly at me.

“I do,” I supplied.

His eyes narrowed to glittering slits. Commoners weren’t allowed to own or carry swords without special permission from the Crown. I doubted that the wording of the law included commoner women because it would not have occurred to the lawmakers that they would have reason to carry any weapon, much less a sword. Apparently, the duke decided it wasn’t worth pursuing at the moment because he nodded and went on, “Good. I’ll find a witness who can ensure that neither of us cheats with magic, unless you wish to exercise your right to choose an additional witness or a second?”

With a shake of my head, I waived the traditional right. It was easier than trying to explain that I knew no one who would serve in either capacity. I didn’t think it was necessary to drag a stranger into this affair by soliciting the presence of the young soldier from the King’s Army who had directed me from the stables to Duke Daevarren’s office that morning. The soldier, whose name I didn’t even know, was the only person besides the duke himself that I had met in the capital city. The duke’s witness would have to suffice as apparently my opponent didn’t want or need a second either.

 “My squire can direct you to the practice yard, then,” he finished, “Unless you’ve changed your mind…” the duke stopped, looking back at me, with the door open and his hand on the knob.

I brushed past him, “Absolutely not.”

~

“Is my witness acceptable?” Duke Daevarren asked me with such a combination of patronization and annoyance in his tone that I thought he was merely humoring me with the formalities.

We stood in the middle of the practice yard where we had met after I had picked up my blade, and he his witness. I glanced over at the gentleman in question. His grey hair marked him as older than either of us but not so old that I thought he was leaning against the fencepost for support. Even from the distance, I could tell his clothing was expensive and well made, which meant that he was probably a noble.

It didn’t really matter who he was as long as he kept his eyes open and his memory honest. It’s not like I had anyone more suitable to suggest. The only people I truly trusted resided a few days ride north in a self-sufficient community based on a division of labor and devotion to scholarship. Turning back to the duke, I nodded, “He’s fine.”

With a return nod in my direction, the duke said formally, loud enough for his witness to hear, “Should you win, I will give you the chance to try to earn your colors, and if I win, you will drop this nonsense and go home.”

“Agreed,” I answered with equal formality.

The duke continued, “Fight to yield? I don’t think either of us is willing to die for this.”

I shrugged, “Fine by me.”

“Good.” He lowered his voice, “Last chance to back out.”

“No way.”

With a look indicating he had doubts with regard to my sanity, Duke Daevarren told me solemnly, “Very well, then, draw your blade.” He put his words to action, drawing his own.

I removed my dark blade, which was several times older than I, from its embroidered sheath, which I tossed over by the fence at the edge of the practice yard. My foster-mother had never told me the story of my weapon, and I wasn’t entirely sure she knew it herself. She had taught me how to use it, despite swearing that she was no noble. When I was younger, I’d concocted a romantic tale of how she’d learned swordsmanship from a warrior she’d fallen in love with during the rebellion. The fabricated tale involved much self-sacrifice and last-minute saving of lives. She’d evasively denied any such story but had also refused to replace it with the truth. If I won this duel, I would owe it to the basic training she’d given me. Returning to the center, I faced my opponent and stood at the ready. Once the duke had taken a similar stance, the witness called, “Begin!”

Duke Daevarren seemed unwilling to attack, apparently wanting me to make the first move. I obliged, sending my blade in a lazy arc at his side like I’d been taught. As I’d expected, the duke blocked it easily. I hadn’t intended it to hit him. I just wanted to get his measure. He didn’t return the attack—probably afraid he would hurt me.

At my second swing, the duke leaned back and slapped my blade aside with his own. Allowing my arm to be redirected, I cut in toward his knees, but his sword met mine instead. Picking up the pace, I swung toward his head, and he blocked me. Back to his side, but his blade was already there. Starting another cut toward his legs, I changed direction mid-swing and brought my sword straight up before it reached his block, ripping a straight line up the front of his shirt from naval to neck. To avoid damage to more than his tunic, he had to jump back, giving me a small measure of satisfaction.

Despite my minor victory, it had become clear to me that Duke Daevarren was the better swordsman. I was winded and straining to keep up the pace, and he hadn’t even broken a sweat. His superior ability was made even clearer when he finally counterattacked. Before I had time to react, his blade flashed around mine, metal shrieked, and I watched my sword sail out of my hand to land in the dirt behind my opponent.

Instead of pressing his tremendous advantage, the duke leveled his sword in my direction and asked formally, “Do you yield?”

I hesitated. Yield and I would lose—the duel, my dream, myself. Yield and he would be right. I would become exactly what he had claimed me to be—not capable. I could not allow him to win. Too much was at stake. “Absolutely not.” I punctuated my words by snapping a kick into the duke’s side, causing the air to whoosh out of him as I danced back out of range before he could react.

He jerked to the side with the force of my blow and wheezed, “Are you crazy?” before taking a cautious step back.

Setting my jaw in determination, I told him, “I have yet to be placed in a position where I am compelled to yield, therefore I will not.”

With a disbelieving shake of his head, the duke attacked. I gave ground to avoid being sliced to ribbons as his blade flashed in my direction. I had barely been able to hold my own before when he hadn’t been attacking and I still had a weapon, now it was near impossible. If I was going to win this, it would have to be done quickly.

In desperation, I stepped forward, inside the duke’s guard, as he stabbed at my midsection. As his blade slid past, I grabbed his wrist and twisted it. Snaking my arm underneath his and narrowly avoiding shaving a few inches of skin off of both of us, I pushed his arm toward him, forcing him to turn away from me or risk removing his shoulder from its socket. This motion allowed me to lock his sword arm behind his back with my left hand wrapped around it, and pluck his sword hilt from his unresisting grasp with my right. Shifting my grip, I reached around the duke and placed his own blade against his throat, asking, “Do you yield?”

Without only a moment’s hesitation, Duke Daevarren growled in helpless frustration, “Yes.”

Releasing him, I returned his blade, noting something akin to respect in his eyes, and went to fetch my own. While I was gone, the witness joined the duke, clapping him on the back. I could hear him say enthusiastically, “He’s excellent, Daevarren, I don’t know why you made him challenge you to a duel.”

My mouth nearly dropped open when his words reached me. How could the duke not have told the gentleman why we were fighting? “Excuse me,” I interrupted. If he hadn’t figured it out for himself by the pitch of my voice or seeing me up close, and if the duke wasn’t going to correct him, I would provide the necessary enlightenment. “Perhaps I should introduce myself. My name is Tyna, and I’m no ‘he.’”

Eyes widening with surprise, the witness studied me for a moment before turning on the duke, “She? How could you let a woman talk you into this? Let her think of aspiring toward joining the Legion? Absolutely not.”

“Hey!” I was forced to interrupt again since no one else seemed willing to acknowledge my existence or stick up for me. “How dare you insult me!” My hands curled into fists, causing the bracelet to tighten around my wrist, as I struggled against my temper, “You give my skills praise one minute and revoke it the next after discovering that I am a woman. I don’t care if you’re the king himself, if you continue to insult me, I’ll challenge you to a duel next!”

“Tyna.” The duke prevented me from continuing by informing me gently in a low voice, “He is the king.” By way of explanation, he added, “I needed a witness whose word would be beyond reproach.”

Unrepentant, I bowed as was proper and said imperiously, “I will not apologize, your majesty. You insult me by your words, and you insult yourself if you do not honor the terms you witnessed.”

“If you send her away now, you force me to go back on my word,” Duke Daevarren put in mildly. Mine wasn’t the only honor at stake. “Besides, she’s already proven that she can fight,” he added with a grudging respect in his voice that gave me a fierce feeling of satisfaction, “We could at least give her a chance. That doesn’t mean she’ll make it,” he pointed out.

The king turned toward the duke and gave him a searching look before telling him reluctantly, “You’ve made waves before, Daevarren. Many will be unhappy about this one too.”

The duke’s expression remained bland, but his eyes sparkled dangerously, which made me think that he was looking forward to shaking things up again, “They’ll get over it.”

“Does that mean…?” I asked, wanting one of them to say it aloud.

The king nodded, and the duke told me with an almost-smile curving against the sides of his mouth, “Absolutely.”

About the Author

Beth Powers currently studies long, rambling novels from nineteenth-century America in an effort to add a PhD to her collection of degrees. Powers lives in Ohio with her cats, Murphy and Roscoe. Her work has appeared in both 2012 issues of Shelter of Daylight, and her forthcoming story, “A Thief’s Gift,” will appear in the Spring 2013 issue of the same magazine. Visit her on the web atwww.bethpowers.com.

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