Ciena woke to a stiff mattress, white curtains, and the smell of antiseptic. Voices echoed in the distance, as if from the end of a long tunnel.
She had been to the infirmary a few times already now—mostly for minor scrapes and cuts. She never expected to wake up unconscious in a bed.
Aegon. She dug her fingernails into the mattress as the memories of her duel came flooding back. No one was that good. Not her brother, and not even Master Vash. You could only practice so much until your returns diminished. Fights between experts came down to the smallest details. One successful feint, one over-extension, or lapse in concentration. These moments determined victory or defeat. Life or death.
Casting aside your weapons would normally be considered suicide, but this girl did it anyway.
Ciena’s head pounded as the headache ran from one side to the other. As if her loss wasn’t bad enough, the thought of someone carrying her here across the enclave made her want to bury her face in the pillow.
How long was she out, anyway? Long rays of evening sunlight speared through the windows, so it couldn’t have been more than a few hours.
She tried to move her right arm, but found it trapped within some fabric prison. A moment of panic ran through her as she tugged harder.
“Easy,” a female voice said. “Your arm broke when you fell on it. The physician put it in a sling.”
A woman’s voice—sharp, with a slight Valaysian accent. Almost like...
“Rhia?” Ciena opened her eyes again to see her friend standing at the foot of her bed. “You ... came to visit me?”
She gave a humorless chuckle, gesturing down to her stiff white uniform. “Sure, and I wear this thing as a fashion statement.”
Ciena groaned as the headache twisted its way behind her eyes. Did Rhia mention working here before? She probably did, but Ciena only listened with half an-ear when the others described their enclave duties. She really was a terrible friend sometimes.
“Solizhan,” Rhia hollered to someone outside the curtain-wall. “Better test Raider for that concussion now.” Then under her breath, she muttered, “Aegon knows she needs it.”
Ciena cracked open her eyes again. She had gotten so used to Marwyn that she half-expected to see a short, balding man enter the room. Instead, this physician was tall with a full head of black hair. And judging by his clan name, he was probably another one of Dazen’s relatives.
The sensory tests he ran were fairly routine. While Ciena had never gone unconscious during a duel before, she’d hit her head enough times back in Whitecliff to warrant such exams. After running his tests, the physician asked several more questions. Was she nauseous? Dizzy? Fatigued?
When he asked about mood swings, Rhia was quick to point out that Ciena’s “irritability” was perfectly normal, and no cause for concern.
Satisfied with his results, the physician directed Rhia to change her bandages, then he moved onto another room.
The other girl set to work in silence, removing the blood-stained linen from Ciena’s jaw and applying a greenish ointment to the wound.
“So,” Ciena began slowly. “You’re training to be a medic?”
“It’s a useful skill to have,” she said.
Ciena started to nod, then stopped when Rhia held her still. “It’s just not the job I would’ve expected from you.”
Rhia shrugged as she applied the fresh bandage. “I keep my distance from sick people, but I’m not afraid of a little blood or broken bone. Why do you think Trelidor brought me along to Starglade?
“Alexel’s the one who healed me,” Ciena noted.
“Only because you were cuddling up with death. If you’d been able to ride without passing out, he wouldn’t have bothered with Ethermancy.”
“Why’s that?” Ciena grimaced. “Does his power run dry if he uses it too much?”
“No, but he’ll give you a long spiel on the lessons of pain. It’s the same reason he won’t just heal your arm when he gets back.”
Rhia removed the bandage on Ciena’s temple which was the worse of her two head wounds.
“Aegon,” she muttered. “You must have a death wish. I had sympathy for you when we saved you from those Templars, but fighting Reverius was just idiotic.”
Ciena rolled her eyes. “You didn’t tell me she—”
“I did tell you,” Rhia snapped. “Dazen and I both told you not to fight her, and we gave you plenty of good reasons why.”
Ciena clenched her teeth as Rhia applied more stinging ointment to her head.
“But did you listen to us? No. Of course you didn’t. You judged Reverius on her appearance and her size. Honestly, for someone who can beat a grown man in a fight, you do that an awful lot.”
“Oh,” Ciena let the sarcasm drip from her mouth. “Does the infirmary offer free psychiatric counseling, now? If I’d known that, I would have come here weeks ago.”
“Fine.” Rhia’s chair scraped against the stone floor as she stood. “I’ll go where I’m wanted.”
Ciena winced. She only had two friends in this entire world, and she was lucky to have those. She couldn’t afford to keep treating them this way.
“Wait,” she said to the other girl’s retreating back. “I’m sorry, alright?”
Rhia spun around on her heel, crossing her arms. It took Ciena several seconds to realize she was waiting for more.
“I shouldn’t have snapped at you,” she said after a short silence. “You were only trying to help.”
Rhia gave a curt nod, arms still crossed. “While you’re at it, I think a few more apologies are in order.”
Ciena sighed, suppressing the urge to roll her eyes again. “And ... I should have listened to you about Reverius.” She looked down at her broken arm in its sling. If Alexel didn’t heal her, this injury would set her back several months. In hindsight, that must’ve been her opponent’s plan all along.
Rhia’s thin eyebrows went up. “And?”
Ciena gave her a flat look.
“What was it you called everyone else before? Mediocre?”
“I said that about the Blademasters. Not you.”
“Yeah,” Rhia said. “And the rest of us read between the lines.”
“Fine.” Ciena shook her head in defeat. “And I’m sorry for acting like I’m better than you. And everyone else.”
“I get it,” Rhia said as she returned to her seat and began applying the bandage again. “You’re good at what you do. Even if you can’t beat the top duelists yet, you train harder than anyone I’ve ever seen. But you know, it’s possible to be good at something without flaunting it in everyone’s face.”
Ciena couldn’t argue with that. She’d planned on starting over in this enclave and being a different person. Apparently, old habits die even harder than imperial families.
“So,” Ciena said. “What’s the deal with Reverius, anyway?”
Rhia finished her work on the bandage and leaned back in her seat. “Let me guess—she got you riled up and then predicted your every move.”
“More or less.” Ciena shrugged with her good shoulder. “I guess she does that a lot?”
Rhia nodded. “I’ve also seen you fight before. You’re good, but you wear your emotions like warpaint. That makes you predictable. Reverius couldn’t beat you by fighting fire with fire, so she used water instead.”
Ciena closed her eyes and sat back. “I’m not in the mood for metaphors. Not with this bloody headache. Just tell me how she did it. She gave her ring to the Blademaster so I know it wasn’t Ethermancy.”
Rhia leaned forward. “Ethermancy is more than flashy jewelry. Etherite helps, but it’s just a tool. The real power is in your head.”
Ciena resisted the urge to stir the air with her hand. Or rather, the sling resisted the urge for her.
“Besides,” Rhia continued, “She’s always been good at using the environment. Sunlight, heat, fire, and all that.”
“Okay,” Ciena said. “For the sake of argument, let’s say it was Ethermancy. She didn’t seem any stronger or faster. She was just … doing the right things at the right times.”
Rhia hummed in consideration. “Are you familiar with battle serenity?”
Ciena shrugged again. “Can’t say that I am.”
“Really? That’s surprising, considering your name.”
She nodded. “Ciena translates to ‘battle serenity’ in Valaysian.”
Ah. That much she did know. Except her parents always left out the ‘battle’ part before. Further proof they wanted a daughter who was peaceful instead of passionate. If they’d had their way, Ciena would have never touched a sword, much less Ethermancy.
Of course, she would gladly sacrifice both things now if it meant bringing her family back.
“It’s a fighting trance invented by my ancestor,” Rhia said. “Vashet had a different idea from Raiden of what a Justicar could be. She fought in a state of utter calm—she controlled her emotions rather than letting them control her. This let her see a battle more clearly, and it gave her the benefits of Ethermancy without so many drawbacks.”
Ciena narrowed her eyes. Was Rhia saying that her ancestor was stronger than Raiden? That she should be more like that?
“Vashet couldn’t beat Raiden in a straight fight,” Ciena said. “The Testaments are clear as glass on that point.”
“Maybe not,” Rhia agreed, “but Reverius still used it to beat you. Might be worth looking into.”
Fair point, that. It still didn’t prove that Vashet’s methods were superior to Raiden’s, but any chance of an advantage was worth investigating.
“My parents have some tomes that describe the trance,” Rhia said. “You could have a look at them sometime if you want.”
“Thanks.” Ciena glanced down at her injured arm again. She wasn’t much of a reader, but without the use of her sword arm, she would have to work with every resource she had.
Ciena intended to challenge Reverius again just as soon as she was healed up and ready. In the meantime, you could never know too much about your enemies.