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Point of Honor

By Starsong Lightwing

 

"Nice. Wonderful. You did it again, Milantha. How're you gonna deal with this one, hmmm? Milantha Lightwing stepped back, taking what she hoped was a defensive stance. It was times like this that she wondered if Shendar ever planned to include hand-to-hand combat in her training. She looked up at her adversary, eyes defiant as her stomach did flip-flops. A smile that was anything but friendly spread across the face of the Saber Student she'd just insulted. The Saber Student over a foot taller than her and more than twice her weight. The Saber Student still wearing a very realistic practice blade.

"So the little blonde bombshell think she's got guts. I'd heard you had a sharp tongue and too little brains to know when to hold it."

That touched a sore spot. "Watch who you call a bombshell, pal, I just might blow up in your face!" Milantha snarled. "And if ugliness had anything to do with brains, even a Saurian would be smarter than you!"

"Perhaps you need a lesson in respect," he said darkly, his anger clear.

"Perhaps you'd best reconsider."

Milantha straightened and whirled, her large blue eyes widening in surprise. Her eyebrows shot up as she took in the form of the dark-feathered, black-haired Raptrin standing behind her. The ice blue eye that wasn't covered by her curtain of hair twinkled at her for a moment before fixing a cold stare over her head.

"Is there a problem?" The voice, she noticed now, was lightly accented, clipped and brisk. Estelle, she thought, her mind catching up with her. The only Raptrin currently in the Brotherhood. She glanced back at the Student.

"No problem, Estelle," he said, looking slightly pale but eyes still dark with anger. "Just trying to inspire a little respect in the lower ranks."

Milantha snorted. He glared at her. "You couldn't inspire respect if DuCaine himself said you were destined to lead," she muttered, folding her arms. Estelle's mouth twitched.

"I don't believe we've met," she said, "And I rather think you are someone I would like to get to know. Shall we leave this fool to his flatterers?"

Milantha grinned and the two women walked out of the mess hall, leaving the Student seething with his cohorts.

They got halfway down the hall before they cracked up completely.

"What did you say to get him so puffed up?" Estelle finally manage to ask.

"He was puffed up before I got there," Milantha answered, still giggling. "He made some crack about women and swords, and I..." She stopped, her face flaming at her own audacity.

"What?" Estelle inquired.

"Well - I just said-" She looked away and finally repeated the rather off-color retort concerning men and their obsession with their swords that had started the whole thing.

Estelle was in pain by the time she stopped laughing.

"Come on," she clapped Milantha on the shoulder. "Let's get acquainted. I'm..."

"Estelle," Milantha finished, falling into step beside the older woman as they walked down the hall. "Everyone's heard of you. I'm Milantha Lightwing." Estelle smiled sardonically.

"My reputation precedes me, it appears. You're a Junior, did I hear that buffoon say?"

"Mm-hmm. I'm apprenticed to Shendar Darkfeather."

"Don't believe I've met him. I do know another of the Juniors though, have you met Spark?"

"Spark? No, I don't think so."

"His real name is Shockwave, and I believe others call him Sparky as well."

"Nope, doesn't ring a bell. Shendar keeps me really busy, and when I do have free time I'm usually in the library, so I only know a few people, just in passing."

"You'll know him when you meet him, he's got the strangest hair you'll ever see."

Milantha raised her eyebrows but didn't ask, as they had reached Estelle's quarters. "Do come in," she urged. Milantha smiled a little shyly. She hadn't made many friends in the Brotherhood yet, and she didn't want to lose the chance to befriend this intriguing woman. Besides, she told herself, for someone who gets herself in over her head as often as I do it might be a good idea to have an older member to back me up.

"Please, sit down. Get comfortable. Now." Estelle sat down and smiled. "Before we begin, is there anything I should avoid asking about?"

"No, I don't have much to hide."

Estelle's eyebrows raised. "Now that's a rarity," she said dryly. "At least around here."

"My story's pretty unextraordinary," Milantha shrugged. "My parents and I made it through the invasion together and alive. When the Saurians were overthrown, we were ecstatic. We started to rebuild, like everyone else, but..." She dropped her head, her hair falling down like a curtain across her face. "When Canard came to power," she said slowly, "they...the Enforcers killed my parents. They were just trying to get home, and a bunch of Enforcers fired into the crowd after someone they claimed was a rebel. I was so scared, I couldn't do anything but run. I ended up on the streets and started stealing to survive." She shook herself and flipped her hair back, steadying her voice. "Shendar found me and promised to train me. He brought me here, and that's all there is. No shady past. Just a kid who didn't have a lot of other options."

"I see," said Estelle. She was silent for a moment. Milantha shrugged.

"It still hurts, but...I'm learning to live with it. I have a new life now. I'll never forget them, and I'll always love them, but they wouldn't want me to spend my life in grief." A hand drifted up to the necklace she wore.

Estelle tilted her head and blinked. "That's some...interesting jewelry. What's that made of?"

Milantha held it up so the light flashed against the strange pendant. "The fang from a jewel snake that bit me when I was eight."

Estelle's eyes widened. "You survived a bite from a jewel snake?"

"Barely," Milantha shuddered. "It took me a year to recover. I was very lucky." She shifted, folding her right leg against her and resting her foot on the edge of the chair. She pulled up the leg of her white body suit to reveal a tattoo of a blue jewel snake wrapped around her tan-gold ankle. Beneath its bared fangs were two puncture scars.

"I had nightmares for years," she said. "I got sick of it. I snuck out one day and bribed some fat slob at a tattoo parlor to do this to me. I think he thought I'd chicken out. Compared to the way I felt when that snake bit me, the tattoo was nothing." She smiled grimly. "My parents were certainly thrilled. They grounded me ad infinitum."

"Lovely," Estelle commented, raising an eyebrow.

"Yeah, that's what I said. It was pretty stupid, I don't know WHAT I was thinking, but now that I've got it I might as well keep it. I decided instead of being scared of it, I'd use the snake as kinda my personal symbol. Reminds me that if you fight hard enough you can get through anything." She traced the print of a deep blue snake that wound around the waist of her jumpsuit.

Estelle grinned, and the two girls swapped stories for a while.

Suddenly Milantha leapt up.

"Oh my gosh! Look at the time! I have to go, Shendar'll have my hide if I'm late!" She was out the door before she even finished the sentence.

"Nice to meet you too," Estelle said to the empty room, shaking her head.

*****

Milantha bit her lip, trying not to breathe too hard as she rushed into the room. Shendar glared at her, then looked at the clock.

"Let's get started," he said harshly, tossing her a mini, handheld sniper's laser. Milantha tried not to sigh. Again. Always the guns, the surveillance...what about security systems, hand-to-hand? There's got to be more to thievery than this.

The practice was short...probably because Milantha could already hit a fly on the wall from thirty feet and not even singe the paint around it.

"Keep it," Shendar said shortly when she handed the weapon back to him. "It's yours now, you'll need something until you have your saber. Come with me, we're not finished yet." Milantha perked up. Maybe they were finally going to do something new. She strapped the laser's holster to her left forearm and followed her mentor.

*****

It was all Milantha could do not to kick open the doors to the Hall of Archives. Seething, she swept through the room that held records such as maps, and charts, and Brotherhood notes on security systems and the like. The second chamber held the great literature and books of Puckworld's history. Milantha sighed and went to a shelf, running her hand across the boxes of datacards.

"Can I help you find something?"

Milantha jumped and whirled. She supposed she would get used to people sneaking up behind her, since this was after all an organization of thieves, but this was really getting tiresome. The woman standing there arched a silver eyebrow.

"Ah, no," she said, feeling ridiculous. "No, I was just looking around." The pale grey duck seemed to study her for a moment before speaking again.

"I've seen you in here before," she said finally. "What's your name, child?"

Milantha tried not to bristle at being called a child. "Milantha. Milantha Lightwing."

"Tell me, Milantha," the older woman said, raising a hand to indicate the chamber. "Why do you come here so often?"

"It...it lets me get away for a while. Forget about my training and just...be somewhere else."

"Why do you wish to forget your training?"

"Why do you ask so many questions?" Milantha shot back without thinking. The woman's eyebrows rose and Milantha belatedly noticed the red ruby pendant around her neck. Again. I did it again. Not just a Saber Student this time either, we're talking a full-fledged, saber-carrying Red Circle. That moment was one of the rare times Milantha considered apologizing.

"Very well," the woman said mildly, to Milantha's shock. "Is there something you would like to ask me in return?"

"Who are you would be a nice start," Milantha demanded, more harshly than she'd intended.

"I am Iliana. I am the Loremaster; it is my duty to guard what is in these halls. I ask you again, why do you wish to forget your training?"

"I don't want to forget it," Milantha grumbled. "I want to forget how frustrating it is."

"Understandable. The rudimentary skills are often tedious to learn, but..."

"What rudimentary skills?" Milantha exploded. "I'm not learning to fight, I'm not learning to pick locks or break security systems! What exactly is it that he's supposed to be teaching me?" Iliana tilted her head, blinking sapphire eyes at the younger woman. "So far all I've done is learn to shoot, to watch for trouble, I can't even fight hand to hand, I don't know anything about unarmed combat!" Iliana frowned but said nothing as Milantha's outburst ended, her anger fading to something akin to despair.

"Which works do you find most interesting?" she asked abruptly, turning to look at the near-empty chamber.

Milantha's brow creased, but she answered, "The historical books...especially the ones that are written by the people that were there. The others can get kind of boring, but the ones with actual people in them are really interesting."

"I see. Have you been to look at any of the Brotherhood lore? No, of course you haven't, I wouldn't have let you in without finding out who you were and who would vouch for you." Milantha frowned.

"You mean I can actually look at the Brotherhood histories? I thought it was all secret..."

"Not all. Some parts of the Lore are kept secret until I deem it is necessary to reveal them on an individual basis, but for the most part the Lore is available to anyone who's an Honor Blade or higher, and portions of it are open to the apprenticed of the lower ranks or Blade Brothers who have been around long enough that I trust them with it."

"Can...can I see some of it now?" Milantha asked, trying not to sound too eager. Iliana smiled as she failed miserably.

"If you wish. But there are some things you must understand first: The Archive room is one place where thievery WILL NOT be tolerated. I know the contents of that room well, I've kept them safe for over thirty years, through an invasion and a dictatorship, and they WILL remain within those walls. Penalties for this are very severe. There is knowledge in that room that could destroy us if it fell in the hands of our enemies, but it is too precious to be forgotten. Enter the Archives and you enter my world. And in my world, there is no swearing, the past is ALWAYS treated with respect, and everything in these records is to be kept entirely to yourself. No one outside the Brotherhood is allowed to see anything in here, and you must take care not to speak about it to or in the hearing of anyone not authorized to see it. Is that clear?"

"Crystal," said a male voice behind her. "Giving the old Archive Room Rules speech again, Iliana?" Iliana turned to face a grinning Duke L'Orange.

"I was wondering how long it was going to take you to bring that young apprentice of yours down to see me."

Duke smirked. "Yeah, well Dive ain't exactly the kind that has a head for history, if you know what I mean." He reached over and ruffled the younger man's hair playfully. Dive ducked away and glared at him.

"Can I trust he heard enough of that speech that I need not repeat it?" Iliana asked dryly. Duke nodded.

"Nosedive, meet Iliana of the Brotherhood, our current and at the moment only Loremaster. Iliana, may I present Nosedive Flashblade, the young man I have chosen to gift with all my expertise."

Milantha rolled her eyes. Nosedive saw and grinned at her. She smiled back shyly at the Strike Force hero.

"Well, well. So this is Puckworld's youngest hero and newest rogue. Well then." Iliana went to the door of the Archive room, the two thieves-in-training on her heels. Duke stood back a little and grinned. When they reached the door, Iliana turned and ignited her saber in a flash of silver and blue. Nosedive and Milantha jumped back hastily. Iliana raised the blade and demanded, "Who seeks the knowledge of the Brotherhood." Chuckling, Duke came up to lay a hand on the shoulder of his apprentice.

"Duke L'Orange, and his apprentice, Nosedive Flashblade." Iliana shifted her eyes to Milantha. She blinked, confused.

"Rank and name," Duke murmured.

"Oh, uh...Junior Milantha Lightwing," she stammered, still confused.

"Who speaks for you, Junior?" Milantha looked to Duke.

"Who's apprenticed you?" he asked.

"Oh. Shendar Darkfeather."

"Enter these Halls with honor, Brothers." Iliana deactivated her saber and lead the way into the Archive room. Milantha must have still looked confused, because Duke patted her shoulder.

"Don't worry about it, sweetheart, it's tradition. Iliana does everything by the book. It's part of what makes her such a good Loremaster." Milantha tried not to be annoyed at being called 'sweetheart'. He doesn't mean anything by it, she told herself. Heís not putting me down 'cause I'm a girl.

The Archive room was an amazing blend of light and shadow. The lights that hung overhead were spotlight-style, pooling over a set of reading tables in two corners and a small area that had been set up as Iliana's office in a third, made more private by a bookshelf blocking off a third side of it but still leaving Iliana a clear line of sight to the door. Everywhere else the light was dim, kept low to protect the priceless ancient lorebooks. Milantha nearly held her breath as she moved through the room, breathing in the scent of ink and paper, looking at the rows of bookshelves that lined the room. A good half of them were empty, but Milantha's attention rested on them for little more than a moment as she went to walk by those that were full, savoring the taste of the titles as she read them to herself. She reached out, but stopped and pulled her hand back, almost afraid they would fall apart at her touch.

"They are there to be touched and read," Iliana's soft, smooth voice said behind her. "Too few come to read about the past that shapes our futures. Touch them, and welcome. It has been to long since young hands turned those worn pages."

"Which ones can I read?" Milantha felt compelled to whisper, staring up at the shelves.

"Any on this wall. It should be enough to keep you occupied for a while."

"Not by half," was Milantha's awed reply. Iliana raised her eyebrows but she smiled as the younger woman selected a volume, carrying it carefully, almost reverently, to a seat at one of the reading tables. Iliana watched her for a moment, then turned to Duke and Nosedive. "Gentlemen. What can I do for you."

"Just giving Nosedive a taste of this dust-trap you seal yourself in," Duke clapped his apprentice on the shoulder. "Really, Iliana, you should get out more. It's not to late for you to find yourself a husband and have that family you always wanted!" Iliana raised a tolerant eyebrow at his teasing tone.

"I've little time for such things, Duke, you know that," Iliana chided. Her tone turned serious. "Especially now. The Invasion forced me to destroy much of what we had. The most precious I managed to bring with me or hide. I must recover the ones that I hid, but the current situation makes it difficult at best." Duke frowned, nodding.

"I hadn't realized we had lost so much of it," he murmured, gazing at the empty shelves.

"We didn't," Iliana sighed. "Soon after you disappeared, I began hiding the Lore. Wars have a history of destroying the greatest records of the past. I was determined not to let that happen. I hid the most precious books...buried them mostly, some were in my personal bolt-holes, and those I have returned here. I knew many of the old tomes by memory, I left those until last. It was mostly those that I burned during the attack, along with some of my personal works that were left. I've been recording what I could from memory. The collection is not intact, and all of it is not yet recovered, but it is not lost either. Not while I live. Never while I live."

Duke gave a low whistle. "I'm impressed, Iliana. I wouldn't have thought even you could do that much."

Iliana smiled crookedly. "You of all people should know that you are never all you can be until you are tested. I devoted my life to the preservation of Brotherhood Lore. I would not see it lost by the vengeance of a race who had forsaken the knowledge of there past, nor to the regime of a lunatic whose soldiers willingly serve and destroy the traditions of their own planet. I will not rest until all the lost records are returned to where they belong, and another has been found capable of caring for them as I have."

"That's a high standard to hold to," Duke smiled. "But don't look to hard. We're not anxious to lose you."

"I am not overly anxious to be lost," Iliana commented wryly. "But I have yet to find anyone to apprentice who shows enough of an interest to make an even mildly competent Loremaster." Her eyes were drawn to Milantha as she spoke. The young blond was deeply engrossed in the book she had selected, turning the pages with great care.

Duke frowned. "I've heard Shendar's quite a fighter."

"Yes," Iliana replied absently, "I once presided over a dual he was involved in. He is also arrogant, foolhardy and easily angered."

"And a lot younger than you."

"Yes," Iliana met his gaze. "And a great deal younger than me. But then what reason would I have to face him in combat?"

Duke held her shielded eyes for a moment before turning back to his apprentice. "Come on, kid, we didn't come here just to gather dust."

*****

Iliana was not surprised when Milantha appeared at the entrance to the archive room. The girl had come whenever her free time allowed it, and Iliana enjoyed questioning her about what she read, finding her unique perspective intriguing and her youthful bluntness refreshing.

What surprised Iliana was that the girl was shaking, and almost in tears. Iliana's stomach turned cold. For a brief moment she considered dismissing the ritual challenge, but the thought was gone in an instant. Tradition was tradition.

"Who seeks the knowledge of the Brotherhood?" she asked, her face a little softer than usual.

"Junior Milantha Lightwing," the girl said, her chin high, refusing to let the tears brimming in her eyes fall.

"Who speaks for you?" Milantha's face twisted for a moment, as if in anger, but she managed to force the answer out.

"Shendar Darkfeather," she whispered hoarsely.

Iliana deactivated her saber. "Come child," she said anxiously, ushering Milantha into the thankfully empty archive room," Come inside and tell me what's happened."

"I...I got into a fight with Shendar." Milantha looked at the ground as Iliana guided her into a chair. "He yelled at me for doing something wrong, and... I don't know what happened, he must have said something, and I just snapped. I started yelling at him, I asked him why I was behind the other students, why he wasn't teaching me anything that the others were learning..." She couldn't hold back the tears any longer. "He started shouting back at me, he said he didn't know why he even wasted his time on someone who was too stupid to even master the basic skills, and he should have known better than to apprentice a girl anyway, especially one..." Her face clouded with anger and her fists clenched. "Especially a slut who didn't have anything on her mind but flirting with every guy in the Brotherhood. I'm not like that, I've never given anyone a reason to think that, he's just saying that because of the way I look and it's not fair!! He never even gave me a chance to learn what the others do... Why did he bring me here if he didn't want me?"

The girl was furious, it was plain. She'd never really felt attached to Shendar, Iliana knew, but to be told those things... Iliana frowned. No apprentice should have to hear those things from her master. It was against everything the Brotherhood believed in. A sneaking suspicion tugged at the back of her mind. She waited for Milantha to regain control.

"Milantha." The girl looked up at her. "I'm going to ask you some questions, and I want to answer them as best you can." Milantha looked confused but she nodded and answered every question Iliana posed to her about her training, about Shendar's behavior and words, about everything she had done with him since her arrival. By the time she ran out of questions, Iliana was angry. Extremely, almost murderously, angry.

"Go back to your quarters and clean up," Iliana told her, standing. "I promise you, things will get better. Very soon."

Milantha started to ask how, but stopped at the look on Iliana's face. She got up, wiped her eyes, and left.

"Good girl," Iliana murmured, laying a hand on her saber.

*****

The practice hall was reasonably crowded. Juniors working with their masters, Presabers learning to use their first blade, higher ranks sparring with one another; it was a good cross-section of the Brotherhood talent.

Iliana wasn't interested in any of them.

"Are you sure about this?" Marshall asked her.

"Yes. There he is."

Iliana made her way through the hall to her target. Shendar Darkfeather was a large, sable-feathered brute with a bronze saber. He was engaged in a heated sparring match with another of the Honor Blades. Iliana waited for him to finish, Marshall at her back. He hadn't been any happier than she when she'd told him of Milantha's treatment.

He hadn't been much happier with Iliana's proposed solution, but had agreed to help her.

Finally Shendar swatted the other's blade away with an appalling lack of grace; it was a lumbering, clumsy swing taken when he was off balance, but it delivered with enough force to a sufficiently surprised opponent to do the trick. Shendar smirked as the other went to retrieve his fallen blade. Then he noticed them.

"Shendar Darkfeather," Iliana said in a voice that was not loud, yet seemed to echo through the hall. He turned to face her with a lazy smile. Iliana was not smiling. "You have disgraced your rank and dishonored your blade. By the Law of the Brotherhood I challenge you on point of honor. An apprentice is not a tool to be used for one's own gain, he is the greatest contribution a member can make to the Brotherhood. It is the responsibility of the master to train his apprentice to the greatest of his ability, for the apprentice will someday become the master, and the masters cannot afford to be lacking if the Brotherhood is to survive.

"Your treatment of your apprentice, Milantha Lightwing, is disgraceful and dangerous to the safety of this organization. I, Iliana of the Brotherhood, challenge you to a trial by combat!"

"I second the challenge," Marshal said heavily. A challenge on a point of honor had to be seconded by a witness for a formal dual.

"As do I," another voice came from Ilianaís left. The Loremaster glanced over to see Estelle striding up. She gave the Raptrin a slight nod of gratitude. With two witnesses, Shendar could not possibly refuse and keep his rank.

Shendar's cocky smile was gone now, his eyes cold and his anger plain. "The challenge," he ground out, "is accepted."

*****

"She did what??" Milantha's jaw dropped in disbelief. "Iliana challenged Shendar?"

"On point of honor," Estelle shrugged. "With Marshall and I there to second it, it's a legal challenge. If he loses, he'll lose his rank; he'll be a Blade Brother again. From what I understand, he has to be apprenticed again to get any higher than that, and I doubt anyone would be foolish enough to take him on after this."

"Blade Brothers can't take apprentices," Milantha breathed. Estelle nodded.

"I believe Iliana plans to take up your cause if Shendar loses."

"But...but if she loses, won't she lose her rank too?"

"Yes, but she'll only go down to Honor Blade," Estelle said thoughtfully. "She could climb back up if she wished, though I doubt she'd take the effort. As Loremaster she's practically a rank in herself. At least that's essentially what she said when she explained this all to me."

Milantha had to sit down. This was too much. "Why?" she finally asked. "I mean, just because I don't like being apprenticed to him..."

"It is not merely that, Milantha," the two women looked up as Iliana joined them. "Shendar is completely ignoring all the principles of traditional Brotherhood training. By rights you shouldn't really have been taught to use that..." she indicated Milantha's laser, "Until you made Presaber. There is an order to Brotherhood training. Shendar treats you as if you are just another resource, training you to watch his back and be a cover for him. It also give him a convenient scapegoat if he needs a distraction to get away. That is very dangerous thinking. In fact I don't know how he made it as far as he did in the ranks without someone challenging him already. In any case, the Brotherhood cannot afford to have its apprentices ill trained. Especially reduced in number as we are now. Marshall agreed, that is why he seconded my challenge."

"But Iliana, he'll hurt you! You can't stand up to him!" Milantha cried.

"You underestimate me," Iliana said in gentle reproof. "You must learn not to judge your enemies... or your allies... by what they seem to be. Lesson number one."

Milantha sighed and buried her head in her hands. After a moment she looked up, pulling the deep blue headband out of her hair and running her fingers through the thick blond locks before replacing the headband. The two decorative beads hanging from either side of it swung as she shook her head.

"What can I do to help you?" she asked. Iliana smiled.

"Nothing, I'm afraid, this I must do by myself. Don't worry, you will have plenty of chances to help me during your training. Although I'm told most of the Juniors despise 'library duty'."

Milantha rolled over, finding it impossible to sleep. Her eyes had long ago adjusted to the darkness, and it seemed annoyingly bright, though the only source of light came from the crack beneath the door. Her eyes fell on the pendant hanging on her bedpost.

Just enough to slow him down. No permanent harm...I can't let him hurt her. And he will, if he can get away with it, she's hit his pride, now... She reached over and picked up the necklace, twisting the fang free from the setting. The clear liquid brimmed to the top of the slender, curved, hollow tooth and she held it carefully. It'd just be evening the odds, really, heís got so much of an advantage with her age and all. Her stomach twisted as she realized what she was thinking. But it would make things so much easier...

"But it would defeat the entire purpose of fighting him," she sighed aloud. "Iliana challenged him on point of honor...I can't just throw that away." But what if she can't do it? I could even use something a little weaker...that wouldn't be so bad...would it?

Milantha twisted the snake fang back into its setting, sealing the poison inside it, and hung it back on the bedpost. She rolled away from it, staring at the wall and begging sleep to take the argument from her thoughts.

*****

"Ease your mind, Milantha, I'm not so helpless as you would make me."

"I know you're not helpless, Iliana," Milantha sighed, so nervous she was nearly hopping from one foot to another. "But when was the last time you fought someone this much younger than you?"

Iliana sighed and straightened, her boots securely in place. The smoky grey overdress she normally wore was no where to be seen, leaving her in the long-sleeved, high-collared bodysuit she wore under it. Her silver saber hung on her wide black belt, and her hair was still pulled back in the severe ponytail she always kept it in. Without the stiff-shouldered overdress and its embroidered symbol of an open book over two crossed sabers, Iliana looked, to Milantha, unnaturally frail.

"If it helps, Milantha," Iliana told her quietly. "I have several advantages over him as well. More experience, for one. More importantly, I've seen him fight and I know his trick. Very few people, however, have seen me in action. Marshall, and one or two others from the old lair. Not Shendar. Not even Leila, for that matter. Calm yourself."

Milantha sighed, fingering her necklace and wondering if she'd made the wrong decision last night. Iliana looked down at her.

"Milantha, you once told me that you are tired of people stereotyping you, trying to sum you up in one word. Look at me. Is 'old' all you see?" Milantha blushed, Iliana's point taken.

"You're right. I'm sorry."

*****

The main feast hall was somber as the members gathered to witness. Duels like this weren't uncommon, but among the higher ranks, they were rare. The circle had been marked out. Shendar stood ready across from Iliana.

Normally, Iliana herself would have presided over the fight, but today Marshall was acting as, well, marshal. Shendar had objected, as Marshall had been the one to second the challenge. Leila had ignored his objection, pointing out that Marshall was the only one who even came close to knowing the traditions as well as Iliana.

Anyone with any sense knew that if tradition was going to be broken, Iliana wasn't going to be the one to do it.

By tradition, Milantha stood with Shendar. He glared daggers at her, as if this were somehow her fault. She folded her arms and glared right back at him. She still hadn't forgotten what he had called her. As if he wasn't counting on it the whole time anyway. And he's like ten years older than me. Why the heck did I go with that creep anyway? The answer? She hadn't had a whole lot of choice.

When they stepped into the circle, Milantha's heart sank again. Next to the tall, broad shouldered man, Iliana looked tiny.

Marshall gave the signal, and the blades ignited, clashing together once before the two opponents sank back into their defensive positions. They circled, watching each other's movements. Milantha held her breath. Iliana's movements were smooth and flowing as she traced the edge of the circle. She held her saber with both hands in the same guard position she used at the entrance of the Archives. Shendar's was held loosely in his right hand, most of his movement centered in his wrist, careful not to telegraph his moves by moving his whole body. No one was sure who made the first strike, the other responded so quickly. They met center circle in a short clash designed more to test defenses than to inflict any real damage. They fell back quickly. Shendar was frowning; Iliana's expression was unreadable.

The second strike was clearly Shendar's, he thrust forward. Iliana swatted his blade away and brought her sword around in a sweeping arc that made him leap back. To Milantha's surprise, she didn't press her advantage, merely brought her blade up into a defensive stance once more, waiting for his next attack.

"She didn't fall for it," someone behind her muttered. "Shen's going to have a tougher time than he expected."

"Fall for what?" another of Shendar's friends inquired.

"If she'd followed up on that, he would have ended it," the first explained. "He fakes back like that, and the smaller opponent figures they'd better take the advantage. But he doesn't get off balance enough for them to disarm him, and he uses his weight and strength to lever their saber away while they're not expecting it."

Milantha didn't have time to react to that, as Shendar struck again. Again, Iliana parried but did not pursue.

"She's going to let him wear himself out," one of the older members murmured after two more passes.

Shendar rushed Iliana again, but this time, she didn't wait for him. The second he began to move, so did she, dropping her sword down and bringing it up in a two handed arc. He had to stop his momentum to keep from being sliced from stem to stern. While he was off balance for real, Iliana dropped her left hand from the hilt and sent the bronze blade flying with a one-handed backslash. Her foot flashed out and swept his legs from under him. He fell backwards, pinned by Iliana's boot on his chest, staring up the blade of her silver saber at her cold blue eyes.

Marshall stepped forward and proclaimed Iliana the victor. Milantha breathed out slowly in relief as all but Shendar's friends cheered. Iliana held up a hand for silence. "Let it be known that Shendar Darkfeather has been stripped of his rank and privileges as an Honor Blade. He is given the rank and privileges of a Blade Brother, and is subject to all Law governing that rank. His apprentice, Milantha Lightwing, I take under my own tutelage. All this was rightfully done by challenge on point of honor! Do any deny the legitimacy of this battle?"

Silence. Even Shendar's friends couldn't deny that the fight had gone according to the Law. Shendar didn't look happy, but there was nothing he could do and he knew it.

The crowd disbanded and drifted out.

"Milantha," Iliana motioned for her to follow. She glanced at the laser still strapped to Milantha's forearm. "You should not carry that here. When you leave the Lair, you may take it, but as a Junior, you don't have the control over your emotions to use it wisely."

Milantha wanted to disagree, but she said nothing.

"You have a decision to make," Iliana said solemnly as they left the hall. "I can teach you everything you need to know to survive and succeed in the Brotherhood. But you can be something more, if you wish. I will need a successor someday, and I have met no one who displays the love of history that you do. I do not wish to leave the keeping of such important records to one who does not understand their value, but you must understand what it means if you choose to become the next Loremaster." Milantha nodded, looking up at her new mentor. "It will mean extra studies for you, you will have to learn the Law and the Lore inside out and backwards. Because you have to split your time, it may... no, it will most likely... take you longer than most to climb the ranks. You must ask yourself if this is what you want. There is little material reward in what I do. It is largely a labor of love and commitment."

"I know," Milantha said quietly. "And... I want to do it."

Iliana smiled. "I thought you would say so."

 

Return to the Library...