Footsteps creaked across the deck.
“Good morn-” A pause. “Afternoon, I suppose.”
A middle-aged woman—half of the couple that attended the ceremony the night before—drew up beside Alex and Theresa, and leaned against the rail, yawning. “Late evenings get harder as you get older, just to warn you two. Of course, I never seem to learn.” She laughed. “Are you vacationing in Generasi?”
“Uh, studying, actually,” Alex said, throwing another glance over his shoulder. The skinny man’s eyes burned into Theresa then flicked to Alex and the newcomer. Sliding off the barrel, he gave a quick nod and made for the stairs leading below deck.
Another small wave of jealousy stirred in Alex, but now it was joined by a feeling of creepiness.
“Ooooh, you got into the University?” the woman brightened, with all traces of tiredness disappearing. “You’re both very, very fortunate. Both my husband and I were born in Generasi, but we’ve only ever toured the University.”
“Oh, are you both wizards?” Alex asked.
“Oh my, no,” she chuckled. “Could never wrap my head around all that ‘spell array and ‘circuitry stuff’, and my husband has enough mana to maybe fill a shot glass. We work as administrators for the ruling wizard council. We’re not very high in the office, but high enough to be worked to the bone!”
“Sounds impressive,” Theresa said.
Alex tried to force the image of Alric’s mayor’s assistant being punched in the face from his mind.
“It’s mostly pens, ink and candlelit nights—not the fun sort either. Oh, and not enough vacation time of course. Still, it’s nice seeing all those young wizards in the city, walking toward bright futures. Together.”
She gave them a meaningful look, and Alex couldn’t help but blush. He made sure his face was turned from Theresa.
“What’s it like? The city?” she asked, giving no hint of embarrassment.
“Oh if you’ve never been, I shan’t say,” the older woman giggled. “Telling now would be like telling you the ending of a book before you get there yourself. It’s something my husband and I are used to now, so I shouldn’t rob travellers of the magic of seeing it for the first time. Trust me, though, you’ll love it. Just take my advice: book a sky-gondola when you arrive. Will you be staying on the campus?”
Alex looked over his shoulder to his sister beside the captain. The wind carried her voice over, and he could hear her asking exactly how sails worked. He smiled. “Maybe for a bit. After that, we’ll be buying a place for my sister, myself and…Theresa.”
“Don’t forget Brutus.” She tapped him on the arm.
“Oh, I could never forget Brutus. I don’t think anyone could. Could you?” he asked the older woman lightly.
She didn’t laugh. An odd look lay on her face. “Buying…property, you say? Young man, you wouldn’t happen to be a noble, would you?”
“It’s just…hmmmm, do you have coin?”
Alex blinked, his cheeks flushing. He felt a little insulted.
“Not to assume anything,” the woman said quickly. “But it’s just that…you’re so young.”
“Oh, we have coin.” His voice had a little more heat than he’d intended. His parents had ensured they’d be well off, and it hurt a little to have that questioned.
“Ah.” The older woman’s hand flew to her mouth. “I apologize, that must have sounded positively dreadful. It’s just…my husband and I are near retirement now, and we’ve been blessed with fine careers. It’s allowed us to vacation from Generasi many times. See our children. See many sights.”
She paused. “We’ve seen many, many young folk climb aboard a ship for Generasi looking to begin a life, but it’s a difficult thing to achieve there. You’re a student at the University so that would exempt you from some of the bureaucratic process, but property is very expensive in the city. I’ve seen just as many disappointed faces on the return journey, or—worse—cramming themselves into tenaments and just scraping by. I’m sorry, but I’m only trying to spare you from disappointment.”
Alex bit down on his anger. Likely, she meant well, but her assumption that his fortune—the material sum of his parents’ lives—wouldn’t be enough made his teeth grind nearly as hard as they had in front of the dungeon core. He pulled himself away from the emotion, acknowledging it and trying to let it pass.
Feeling his anger couldn’t be helped, but acting on it and making an enemy before he’d even set foot in the city could be avoided.
“We’ll have enough,” he said through a forced smile, calling upon his Mark to guide him and make it look genuine.
She searched his face again, and he could tell by her blush that she was a little embarrassed. “Well, you know your business. Again, I apologize. I should go and drag my husband out of bed before he sleeps the whole day away. Enjoy the morning air, both of you. I’ll see you at lunch and—if not—then hopefully during dinner this evening.”
The woman quickly made her way to the back of the ship.
Theresa watched her go. “Awkward,” she muttered beneath her breath.
“Yeah,” he agreed, turning back to the sea. “Actually, she reminded me of something that I wanted to ask you about this evening. Can you meet me on deck tonight? And bring your great-grandfather’s sword? And your knife?”
Her eyes searched him for a moment. “I can, but why?”
“I want to try some things with…” He let the statement hang in the air.
She nodded, seemingly knowing he’d referred to The Mark. “We’ll meet after the others have gone to bed. We can leave Selina with Brutus.”
Twin-blade Lu’s sword gleamed in the moonlight as Theresa drew it from its sheath. Now that he had time to look at it closely for the first time in years, Alex couldn’t help but be amazed at how beautiful its steel was.
Like polished silver.
“Actually…” Theresa paused, then slid the blade back into its sheath. “It’s probably safer if we do it this way.”
“Yeah, good point.” Alex imagined The Mark spoiling his concentration while he held a sharp blade. He shook away images of severed fingers flying overboard.
“Before I give you this.” She looked at him seriously. “I want you to understand something: this isn’t a stick. This isn’t a knife. This isn’t a toy.”
“Yeah, it’s your great-grandfather’s sword.” He said respectfully. “I’ll treat it with respect, Theresa.”
“That’s not the only reason to treat it with respect.” Her eyes were as grim as grave stones. “This is a weapon. Pure and simple. A bow is for hunting, targets, fishing and war. A spear is a hunter’s weapon, and a knife is used in most parts of our lives. But I’ll tell you something my grandfather told me: a sword is different.”
She raised up the blade until it was level with his eyes. “A sword has one purpose, Alex: killing. It’s a tool of battle. It’s not the first tool of battle: that’s usually a bow or a spear because even though a sword has bite, it doesn’t have reach. People use them as a decoration, but that isn’t its purpose. Its true purpose is for killing monsters and people: treat it with the same respect you would one of your spells.”
Alex nodded quietly.
Theresa watched him, then handed him the sheathed sword.
Gingerly, he wrapped his fingers around the hilt.
Nothing happened. No interference from The Mark. So that meant he could handle weapons. Or swords at least. What were its limits, then? Would it only react if he attacked someone with it?
“Theresa, how do you strike with a sword?”
“That’s…that’s like asking how do you use a knife: there’re lots of different strikes.”
“What’s an easy one?”
“Hmmm, I’ll teach you a push cut. First, make sure both feet are planted on the…”
He dropped into second position from the Spear-and-Oar Dance, only wavering a little bit on his bent knees. “Does this work?”
Something passed through her eyes. “Yes…” Her voice warbled a little in what sounded like a suppressed laugh. “That works. Now bring your sword up-” She drew her knife and held it in position before her. “-into this guard. This lets you strike and defend against strikes coming from above.”
He watched her form then carefully raised the sword into guard.
The Mark did not like that one bit.
It flooded him with memories of the absolute clumsiest moments in his life. Tripping over his own feet during the harvest festival’s dances. Nearly falling down the stairs when he’d been running out the door as a young boy. Leaning too far over the railing of a bridge while he was fishing and plunging into the stream below.
The images slammed into his mind so hard, that he didn’t have any idea where he was or what he was doing. He tried to get past them like he had when casting his forceball, but he couldn’t. He’d had lots of experience and practice casting the forceball, and that had helped him improve or avoid failures, but he’d had zero experience with swordplay, so there was nothing for him to draw from. All he had was The Mark’s flood of wrong things to do.
He stumbled backward—his hands flailing as the sword went flying—and tripped on a heavy rope on the deck, flipped over a nearby barrel, and landed flat on his face on the other side.
Groaning, he curled up and nursed his aching nose and aching pride.
“Alex?” Theresa’s feet quickly approached him. Her boots were in front of his face. His teacher crouched down in front of him, holding the sword. “Are…” She was desperately holding back laughter. “Are you oka…”
A low chuckle burst from her mouth.
He groaned feebly in response.
From across the deck, he could hear soft snickering coming from the few night crew sailors nearby, concealing their laughter. Trying, at least.
“I guess that’s a failure?” she asked when she’d finally gained control of herself and held out a hand to him.
“Well…” he grunted as he got to his feet. “I guess the sword’s not a good idea. But we’re not done yet.”
A pure weapon was out of the question. But what about something with a more general use? He looked at her hunting knife. “How about we try your knife?”
They took up position on the cleared area of the deck again, this time with Alex gripping Theresa’s sheathed knife. She stayed very close to him this time, with her hands spread out to catch him if he toppled.
“Alright, now bring it up like I showed you.” She watched him closely.
Grimacing, Alex brought the knife into guard position.
“Okay, were getting somewhere.” He sighed with relief. Slowly turning toward Theresa, he kept the position of his body and hands as close to how she’d showed him as he could. “We’re getting somewhere.”
Again, it occurred to him that he should hold the knife in similar positions to how he would if he was using it for everyday tasks. A person couldn’t very well cut a rope or skin a carcass hanging from a rack without holding a knife in front of themselves, could they?
“Hrm.” Theresa watched him closely before stepping back and raising her sword into guard position. “Strike at my blade.”
Carefully, he tapped her sheathed sword with the knife.
“Alright, now do it faster.”
Another tap. No complaint from The Mark.
“Hmmm, unsheathe the knife.” Theresa said, drawing her sword.
He startled. “Uh, are you sure about that?” Again images of severed fingers drifted through his mind.
“If anything goes wrong I’ll knock it out of your hand, okay?”
He looked at her for a long moment. He didn’t like the idea of waving any sort of weapon toward Theresa, but better to know The Mark’s limits now, rather than later during some nasty situation.
“Okay…just, be careful.” Steadying himself, he slid the knife from the sheathe.
Her eyes hardened. “Now strike my blade hard.”
Taking a deep breath, he stabbed toward her sword.
The Mark flooded him.
Images of failures rose, the strongest was him tripping over the barrel minutes before. His concentration and balance were ruined, and he wavered on his feet. But the memories weren’t as aggressive as when he’d used the sword. He felt the position of his body, his feet stumbling around over the deck and suddenly, Theresa was there, catching him.
The images cleared shortly, leaving Alex in her grip. Her knife lay on the deck.
“That…” he panted. “Hold on.”
She let go and he bent down, taking up his notebook that he’d laid on the deck nearby, and flipped it open. He wrote a new entry:
Strong interference with direct combat. The more focused the action on direct combat, the more strong the interference. Full weapons cause the strongest reactions. More general use items grant more freedom.
Sword: full weapon
Knife: weapon, tool, kitchen implement.
He thought about what this might mean for other areas.
Forceball is a utility spell. Can use for multiple actions once spell is cast. Only problem is when used on direct combat against another.
Direct combat spells out of the question? Maybe. Maybe not. Test later.
If combat spells not an option, focus on utility spells used for indirect combat? Defensive spells? More research needed.
He closed the book.
When they got to Generasi, he’d need to experiment with different sorts of spells and skills. For now, the dance seemed like a good option. The Mark didn’t seem to mind when he was using the mop. Hopefully, the dance would give him a way to be evasive in combat, but using a weapon with it would probably be a bad idea.
“Well, maybe the mop is your weapon of choice. It seems like you’re best with it.” Theresa offered with barely concealed laughter.
“Yeah, it wasn’t all that ba-” He paused. “Wait, mop?”
He hadn’t told her a word about the dance practice the night before.
She froze as he slowly turned to look at her.
“Did…were you spying last night?”
He thought back to that feeling of being watched.
“N-No,” she lied badly.
“Liar. Where…where were you?” he choked. Images of himself dancing around with a mop came to mind.
Her eyes flicked guiltily to the staircase. “Gel-Dor told me about the dance and uh…suggested I watch the deck when the others went to bed.”
Alex stared at her in horror. “You…you…you…”
“I wanted to tell you earlier, but there were so many people around and I didn’t want others to hear of your…” she shuddered. “Glorious…mop slinging.”
She broke down in helpless laughter.
“I’m going to kill you!” he promised.
“Not unless you’re using that mop!”
In a fake rage, Alex chased Theresa around the deck until they were scolded by the nightwatch.
It was a familiar feeling to both of them.