Merin stood uncomfortably, trying not to blush in embarrassment as the tailor pulled out yet another seasilk cloth—this one red—and draped it over Merin’s shoulders. The thick-mustached man turned, eyebrows upraised questioningly.
Aredor tapped his cheek musingly. The room was well lit and crafted of typical Kholinar granite, with woven mats on the floor and decorative pillars along the walls. Aredor leaned against one of the room’s pillars, watching the tailor work.
“Well, ladies?” Aredor asked, turning to the six young women who sat, arrayed in bright-colored tallas and jewel-riddled hairbuns, to his side.
“Better,” one of the women said. Merin still struggled to remember all of their names—he thought her name was Irinah. A creature with dark hair and a plump face, she was the daughter of one of Lord Dalenar’s trusted Shardbearers.
“I agree,” said the one with light hair and a greenish dress. Rahnel, he thought. “But he doesn’t look good in colors that bright. Try something darker, master tailor.”
The other women agreed, nodding and chatting among themselves. Merin flushed at the attention as the tailor removed the cloth and waved his aides to bring him some other choices. It seemed ridiculous to Merin that people could spend so much time worrying about clothing. Before the colors, Merin had spent the better part of an hour trying on different cuts of shirt and trousers behind the changing screen, then presenting each new combination for Aredor and the women to judge.
Yet Aredor and the ladies didn’t seem to find the experience boring. As a matter of fact, they appeared to be enjoying themselves immeasurably. Of course, they weren’t the ones standing on tired legs while the entire room gawked—if it hadn’t been for his military training, Merin was certain his legs would have given out long before.
“Hang in there, Merin,” Aredor said, reading Merin’s expression with a chuckle. “You’ll be glad for the effort—these ladies are the finest judges of apparel in the court. When they’re finished with you, your wardrobe will be the envy of the city.”
The women laughed demurely at the compliment. It seemed to Merin that they were paying more attention to Aredor than the clothing selections. That, however, was not a problem—better Aredor than Merin.
“It certainly is good to have you back in the court, Lord Aredor,” Irinah said as the tailor draped another cloth across Merin’s shoulders, letting it fall around his body like a cloak. Irinah seemed the leader of the women, though from what Merin understood, she was one of the lesser ranked of the four. That was another thing he couldn’t quite figure out, though—noble ranks.
“Oh?” Aredor said with a raised eyebrow. “I wasn’t certain the court would even notice my absence.”
“Lord Aredor!” one of the other ladies said with indignance. “Why, the court wasn’t the same without you!”
Aredor chuckled, nodding toward Merin. “Don’t get distracted, ladies.”
They turned their attention to Merin again, studying the new colors—a deep charcoal draped with grey.
“Far too dreary,” Rahnel pronounced. “Lord Merin is somber enough without covering him in greys.”
“Besides,” Irinah said, “black reminds of Awakeners. No court-conscious man should wear anything too similar to it.”
The tailor nodded, rifling through his cloths again as his assistants pulled off the black and grey. Somber? Merin thought.
“Have you heard the story of Lord Merin’s bravery on the battlefield, ladies?” Aredor asked. “You know he saved the king’s life?”
Merin flushed at the comment, but the women only grew more excited. “Oh, yes,” said one of the more quiet women—Merin had forgotten her name, though she had a thin frame and wide eyes. “We’ve heard of it.” She sighed wistfully.
Merin’s flush deepened. Of course she’d heard of it—everyone had. In fact, most of the people he met couldn’t stop talking about his heroic rise to nobility. To them, his exploit was as something out of the ballads. They didn’t know how hasty and uncoordinated it had been. Of course, most of them seemed more fond of moaning over its dramatic power than actually congratulating Merin on his success. It was as if there were two Merins—one the romanticized lord, the other the awkward peasant-made-nobleman.
“Did you really defeat a Shardbearer without even a dagger?” one of the girls asked.
“Not exactly,” Merin said with a sigh, his voice muffled as the tailor pulled a cloth over his head—this one had a hole in its center so it fell evenly around his body. “I just pulled him off his horse. Someone else actually killed him.”
“Lord Merin is too modest,” Aredor informed. “The Prallan Shardbearer had broken Protocol, and was about the strike the king down. Everyone else scattered, and we were sure His Majesty was doomed. Only one man was brave enough to come to his king’s rescue.”
The women turned properly amazed expressions toward Merin, mouths forming Os of wonder. The tailor stepped back, regarding Merin critically.
“No brown or tans, master tailor,” Irinah said, frowning. “Lord Merin has only recently become a Shardbearer. Brown is too mundane a color—there is no reason to give a reminder of what he once was, now is there?”
The tailor nodded, moving to remove the cloth. Merin sighed to himself. “Aredor,” he said as the tailor worked. “Isn’t there something more important I should be doing?”
“A man has to look good,” Aredor replied. “Half of being a lord is looking the part.”
“That’s the thing,” Merin said. “I’m still not sure what it means to be a lord. What is it I’m supposed to do? Surely there’s more to it than dressing well.”
Aredor chuckled. “You’re always so concerned about what you should be doing. People aren’t going to tell you what to do all the time anymore. Being a lord isn’t so much about what you’re supposed to do as it is about what you feel you need to do. Besides, having a Shardblade doesn’t mean you can’t relax once in a while.”
Standing and being draped with cloth didn’t seem much like ‘relaxing’ to Merin. However, he simply sighed and decided to bear it—Aredor probably knew what he was doing. The tailor finished again and stepped back.
“That’s perfect!” Lady Irinah proclaimed, a sentiment that the others agreed to after a moment of discussion.
Merin looked down. The chosen color was a dark maroon, crossed with a sash of deep navy. It was only one of four color combinations the women had decided they liked. All of them were darker colors—maroon, dark green, and several shades of blue.
“Yes,” Rahnel said with satisfaction. “Well done, master tailor.” The man bowed at the compliment, motioning for his assistants to gather up the cloths and repack them.
Merin looked questioningly toward Aredor, eyebrows raised hopefully. Aredor nodded, waving him down off the raised platform. Just then, the door opened and Renarin stepped in, a customarily dazed expression on his face. Immediately the room fell silent, as the women stopped their chatting.
Renarin stood for a moment, looking across the room. His hair was disheveled, as it often was, and he somehow managed to stand halfway in shadow despite the room’s brightness. The women sat in silence, shooting glances at each other. They tried to maintain their smiles, but even Merin could see that they were uncomfortable.
“I’m . . . sorry to interrupt,” Renarin said, turning to go.
“Nonsense, brother,” Aredor said, waving him forward. “We were finished here anyway, weren’t we, ladies?”
The women rose, smiling and offering belated welcomes to Renarin. They bid Aredor farewell, each getting promises from him that he would call upon them soon.
Renarin watched them go, then turned to Aredor as the door closed behind them. “It didn’t take them long to start fighting for your affection,” he noted.
“Ah, you’re too cynical, brother,” Aredor said, still watching the door, shaking his head wistfully. “We’ve been gone too long. There haven’t been any men here to give them attention. Poor things.”
“They could have come with us to Prallah,” Renarin replied. “The winds know, we could have used a few more scribes.”
Aredor chuckled. “That lot would never have survived the stormlands. This is their element—and now that we’re back, our dear Merin had better watch out.”
Merin frowned as he joined the two brothers, picking up his Shardblade as the tailor and his assistants left out the back door.
“What was that?” Merin asked. “Why do I have to watch out?”
“Unmarried Shardbearer?” Aredor asked. “Savior of the king? Newly adopted into house Kholin? You’re a prime catch, my friend. If you don’t watch yourself, one of those ladies’ mothers will have you wedded before you realize what happened.”
“And, knowing my brother,” Renarin added, “he’s doing everything he can to help them out. You realize half the reason he held this little tailoring session was to introduce you to the local eligible women.”
“A little socializing never hurt a man,” Aredor said. “You should try it sometime, Renarin.”
Merin fastened on Dalenar’s cloak, testing the new length—Aredor had ordered one of the tailor’s assistants to hem it, and they had returned it when they arrived. “I appreciate the help, Aredor,” Merin said. “But the truth is, I don’t know if I’ll be able to afford much clothing this month. I planned to send the stipend your father gave me to my parents in Stonemount.”
“Oh, don’t worry,” Aredor said with a wave of his hand. “If you need more, I’ll lend it to you. Now, are you ready for today’s other activity?”
Merin frowned. “There’s more?” he asked, stretching his tired limbs.
“You’re the one who’s always asking what his duties are,” Aredor reminded. “Well, it’s time to start them. If you’re going to compete in Elhokar’s dueling competition, you’ll need to learn how to use that Blade and Plate of yours.”
“Dueling competition?” Merin asked, feeling a twinge of excitement. “Me?”
“Of course,” Aredor explained. “The king ordered all Shardbearers to attend, and you’re a Shardbearer. Unless you want to be made a fool of, you’ll want to learn how to duel a bit before you get thrown into a ring.”
Merin smiled. Finally, something that made sense. The ballads made one thing clear: Shardbearers dueled. “When do we start?”
Aredor nodded. “To your room,” he said. “We’ll start with the Plate, then we’ll go find you a dueling instructor.”
“Father thinks it was a group known as the Rantah,” Renarin explained.
“Rantah?” Aredor asked as he unpacked Merin’s Shardplate, arranging the various pieces on the floor.
“It means ‘Distant Mountain,’” Renarin said. “When he founded Pralir, King Talhmeshas had to conquer a number of smaller nations—he had to hold both the Prenan Lait and the western coast of Prallah if he wanted to found a kingdom with any measure of stability. Rantah is an underground rebellion populated by the noble lines of those conquered kingdoms. They’ve been a stone in Pralir’s shoe for the last two decades, burning villages, attacking caravans, and destroying soldiered garrisons.”
“An underground rebel group?” Aredor asked skeptically. “That doesn’t sound like the kind of organization who could destroy an army of twenty thousand. If they could do something like that, why stay underground? In fact, if they had those kinds of numbers, I doubt they could have stayed underground.”
Renarin shrugged. “The old nobility of Pralir—the ones who have made peace with Elhokar, hoping that he’ll let them retain a margin of power—are convinced it was the Rantah. They say the group has been hiding in Distant Prall for a few years, gaining strength. If they attacked at the right time, as an ambush, it’s conceivable they could have destroyed the Traitor’s secret force. At least they had motive—if there was a group out there who hated Talhmeshas Pralir more than Elhokar, it was the Rantah.”
Aredor shook his head, not convinced as he regarded the Shardplate. Merin’s room was relatively small, but it was blessedly big compared to the simple floor mat and crowded troop tent he had used during his time in the military. There was a bed, a table, and a stool—and while the floor was empty of rugs or mats, Aredor said Merin could purchase either whenever he wished. Right now, the stones were covered with the array of metal Shardplate sections. There were over a tenset pieces, and all had leather straps, but strangely no buckles. Merin looked down, bewildered—he didn’t even know where to begin.
“Shardplate is kind of a misnomer,” Aredor began, selecting a piece of armor—the largest piece, a breastplate-shaped cuirass. “It doesn’t really bond to a person the way Shardblades do. It probably got the name because Shardbearers were the ones who tended to wear it.” He motioned for Merin to hold his arms out, then fitted the breastplate across Merin’s chest.
The leather straps constricted quickly, and Merin cried out in surprise. The piece of armor felt like something living, clamping onto his chest like the jaws of an animal. It halted a moment later, however.
Merin wiggled slightly, amazed at how freely he could breathe. The metal was heavy, but weighed far less than the metal breastplates he had occasionally trained with as a spearman. In fact, despite being a single sheet of metal, it felt less constrictive than even his layered wooden spearman’s armor.
“Shardplate fits to its owner,” Aredor explained, reaching for the shoulder guards. “However, it doesn’t bond to you—if you take it off, it will fit to the next person just as quickly as it did you.” Aredor placed the shoulder guards, and they too immediately locked into place, their straps clamping on and fitting to Merin’s body.
“You can put the armor on by yourself, but it’s a bit awkward,” Aredor explained, moving on to the left arm. “If you want to take it off, you can touch the clasp underneath each piece and it will unlock. The armor will stop pretty much any weapon, as long as it doesn’t manage to slide into a chink between two pieces. Shardblades are the exception—Plate will only stop a Shardblade on the first blow. If you get hit squarely in the same place twice, the plate will probably give way.”
“Then what?” Merin asked as Aredor affixed pieces of Plate to both arms. “Is my armor ruined?”
Aredor shook his head, picking up some pieces of armor that fit around the bottom of the chestplate, protecting his sides and waist. “It will repair itself, molding back into its original shape. That takes time, though, so you’ll want to avoid getting hit.”
Merin nodded as Aredor handed him the codpiece, then moved onto helping him attach the leg pieces and metal boots. When he was done, Merin was covered completely in steel except for head and hands. It was a strange feeling, like he had been dipped in a pool of molten metal.
Merin wobbled slightly. It was awkward—that was for certain. However, not because of the weight. Strangely, he felt no more burdened than when Aredor had affixed the first piece. Instead, it was just . . . different. There were tugs on his body in irregular places, and his balance felt slightly irregular.
He raised an arm, and it swung up with ease. Carefully he tested his motion, squatting down and standing up again. Then he tried a small jump. He cried out in surprise as he went higher than expected—almost as high as he would have gone if he weren’t wearing several tenset brickweights of metal. Aredor steadied him as he teetered maladroitly.
“It takes some getting used to,” Dalenar’s heir said with a chuckle. “The Shardplate was made by Awakeners, like your Blade. It compensates for itself, making you stronger and quicker. If you know how to balance the combination of awkwardness and enhancement, you can actually be more fluid in the Plate than you would be normally. You’ll definitely be stronger. The Plate also cushions you from blows—wearing this, you could probably take a catapult boulder in the chest and come out alive.”
Aredor bent over, picking up the last three pieces of armor. “These are the most important pieces of equipment,” he explained. “The gauntlets and the helmet. Most people who attack you will go for your head—it’s the most exposed part of the body. We don’t know why, but no suits of Shardplate were made with faceplates. Some people try affixing them with regular steel faceplates, but many prefer visibility instead. No Shardbearer following Protocol will swing for your face, though they may attack the side of your head. Spearmen and other citizens, however, will always go for the face—that’s practically the only place they can hurt you.”
Merin nodded, accepting the helmet and placing it on his head. Like the other pieces, it immediately sized to fit him, and rested more snugly than his spearman’s cap ever had.
“The gauntlets are designed to give you flexibility,” Aredor explained, holding out the left gauntlet for Merin to slide his hand into.
The gauntlet was crafted from what appeared to be a heavy leather glove fitted with intricate plates of steel running along the back. However, flexing his hand, he realized he could feel through the leather as if it were extraordinarily thin. “It’s amazing,” Merin whispered.
Aredor smiled, holing out the other gauntlet, and Merin slid his hand into it as well.
Immediately, the room pitched around him. Merin stumbled, disoriented, at the strange sensation. The air seemed . . . thick, somehow. Liquid. It rippled and shifted, like—
It stopped. Merin shook his head uncertainly, lifting a gauntleted hand. “Is that supposed to happen?” he asked.
“What?” Aredor asked with concern.
“I . . . I’m not sure,” Merin said. “The room suddenly felt different. I can’t explain it.”
Aredor looked toward Renarin. The younger brother shrugged. “It’s probably just the initial surge,” Aredor explained. “Every time I put the last piece of Plate on, I just feel a slight burst of strength as the Plate completes itself.”
“Maybe that was it. . . .” Merin said slowly.
“Well,” Aredor said, standing. “That’s your armor. Now that you know how to put it on, take it off. We’ve got to get to the monastery while there’s still some light left for training.”
Kholinar was beautiful. Merin couldn’t remember a day when it had been the capital of Alethkar, but it had an Oathgate, which meant it dated back to the days of the Epoch Kingdoms.
Before his ascension to nobility, Merin had never visited a lait. He had known that there were valleys where rivers ran down the center. The idea of a constantly running river itself was amazing enough—back in Stonemount, water had only flowed right after a highstorm. Rain had to be collected carefully, so that there would be water to drink between storms.
Merin had imagined the river to be like the waterways back home—small and swift-running, flowing through cracks with the quick energy of a storm. He had never imagined such a broad, rushing mass of water. It passed by a short distance from Kholinar—far enough away that floods following highstorms wouldn’t be a problem. There was so much water that when he had first seen it the week before, Merin had stood stunned for at least ten heartbeats before Aredor was able to get his attention.
The Lait itself was a valley, one with relatively stiff sides. They were smooth, worn by countless highstorms, but the incline was steep enough for Merin to finally understand just why laits were so perfect for cities. In Prallah, his squad had been taught to avoid narrow canyons for fear of being in one when a highstorm caused a flash flood. The lait valley, however, was wide enough not to be dangerous, but still steep enough that it weakened storms greatly. Indeed, the highstorms that had come since Merin’s arrival in Kholinar had been almost laughably docile.
The result was fertility. Rockbuds lined the sides of the valley—so many of them, in fact, that he could barely see the rock underneath. All of them were in bloom, despite the fact that the last highstorm had been several days before. The landscape was green instead of stoneish tan—it had been unsettling at first, all of that color, but he was quickly growing to appreciate it. Aredor said that the rockbuds only withdrew into their shells during the very height of summer—when the air grew too dry for even the humid valley—or the dead of winter, when the rains fell so steadily that many plants had to withdraw lest the moisture rot them.
The roads of the city were kept free of rockbuds, and the ground was so smooth that Merin had begun copying Aredor, wearing only a pair of comfortable slippers. Back in his village, most buildings had been allowed to give in to the elements. Rockbuds were not removed, and continual buildup of cromstone from winter storms formed stalactites on overhangs, making the buildings look almost like natural formations of stone. In Kholinar, however, everything was sculpted with neat lines. Triangular shapes predominated, with peaked arches and doorways, and many buildings were constructed on grand scales, with massive columns and large open foyers—something only possible in a place where the highstorms lacked fury.
Aredor led Merin toward the edge of town, where they would find Shieldhome Monastery. As they traveled the smooth streets, Merin shook his head in wonder. Two years earlier, he had traveled to a monastery to learn to wield a spear. What would he have thought, had he known he would be returning several years later to take up dueling as a nobleman and a Shardbearer?
Such thoughts were banished, however, as Merin idly caught sight of a passing building. He froze immediately, staring with awe—and more than a little apprehension. The large black structure was crafted in a bulbous shape that seemed to defy regular architectural conventions. It almost looked like an enormous pyre—a massive burst of flame that had somehow been captured and transformed into rock.
Aredor and Renarin paused beside him. “It’s the Kholinar Kablan,” Aredor said. “Hall of the Awakeners. A little eerie, isn’t it?”
Merin nodded. He’d heard of Kablans before, of course, but they didn’t have one in Stonemount—or in any of the nearby villages. In the rare instance an Awakener was discovered in a rural area, they were always sent to a larger city, and the village was paid a percentage of the profits that came through the Awakenings the creature performed.
A group of servants were driving a line of carts toward the Kablan, each one bearing a large block of stone. A couple of figures stood at the base of the marble building—and they wore black. Merin shivered as one of the figures turned toward him. Merin couldn’t see what it looked like because of the distance, but he knew the stories. Awakeners weren’t quite human, not anymore. Their arts . . . changed them.
“I’ve always wondered what the inside looked like,” Renarin noted, looking at the Kablan.
Aredor shivered visibly. “I have absolutely no idea, and no desire to find out. In fact, if I never had to see an Awakener except on the day of charans, it would be fine with me.”
“They are the fuel of our economy,” Renarin said in his unassuming voice. “Without them gemstones would be useless, and we would be paupers, my brother.”
“Well, that’s fine,” Aredor said. “Let them fuel the economy—as long as they do it from within their building.”
Merin nodded. “I agree,” he mumbled. The figure was still looking at him. He had only seen an Awakener once, during his charan. It had been a young man, one who hadn’t been an Awakener very long—only the unlearned were wasted on the charan. That Awakener hadn’t looked any different from a regular person, but he would change. Apparently they all did, eventually.
Merin could still remember the glowing bit of quartz hovering above the Awakener’s hand. He could remember his fear as the quartz floated forward, still glowing, to touch Merin’s skin. It had shattered, sending a strange sensation through his body—a sudden vibration, a feeling like each of his bones had been scraped against rough stone at once. Supposedly, that one experience made Merin immune to Awakening for the rest of his life. There was no reason to fear the creatures, for they no longer had power over him. Even still, when the day of the charan came each year thereafter, he had found a way to be out in the fields when the Awakener arrived to perform the ritual on the children of age that year.
“Be thankful, Brother,” Renarin noted, “that the Almighty didn’t decide to make you an Awakener.”
Aredor snorted. “Come on, let’s get to the monastery while there’s still light.”
Merin nodded eagerly, joining Aredor as they walked away. Renarin lingered for a moment, then followed. Soon they had left the Kablan behind, and a structure with a familiar architecture rose up before them.
Aredor said that Shieldhome Monastery was one of Kholinar’s most famous landmarks. Founded during the Ninth Epoch, the monastery contained the most skilled masters of dueling in all of Alethkar. As they walked through the broad, glyph-covered gates, Merin immediately felt a familiarity. Two years earlier, when he had first joined the military, he had been taken to a Strikehome Monastery in Norkedav for initial training. While the city had been much less grand than Kholinar, the monasteries were nearly the same. The ground was covered with sand for training, and the monastery was made up of four walled courtyards with quarters for the monks lining the outer perimeter.
Aredor kicked off his slippers, motioning for Merin to do the same. “I need to go speak with the monks,” Aredor explained. “And have them gather their masters to see if any are willing to train you. Go over and watch the men spar, if you like. It will give you a feel for the training.”
Merin nodded as Aredor wandered off. There were several groups practicing in the courtyard, including one to his left that was composed of men in colorful clothing—obviously lords. Merin wandered their direction, curious.
Several pairs dueled with Shardblades—an action that Merin would have considered dangerous, had Aredor not explained that once a Shardblade was Bonded, it could be dulled for sparring. The majority of the men, however, dueled with regular swords. As Merin approached, he realized with a sinking feeling that he recognized several of these men.
“Well,” Meridas said, holding up a hand to stop his duel. “Greetings to you, peasant Shardbearer.”
Merin frowned, wishing he’d recognized the man earlier. What was he doing in Kholinar? Meridas was attendant to the king; he should have remained in Ral Eram.
“Come to learn how to duel, little citizen?” Meridas asked, sword held casually at his side as a few other noblemen gathered around him with interested expressions. “You’ll have to be careful. Wouldn’t want to get . . . hurt by accident. Then someone else would have to be given that pretty Blade of yours.”
Merin sighed, turning away from Meridas and the others. He felt their laughter on his neck as he walked away. Every time that he felt like he was growing to be accepted in Dalenar’s court, someone reminded him that he didn’t really belong. Aredor and Renarin could only do so much—they had their own lives, and their own duties. They couldn’t watch out for Merin forever—eventually he would have to find his own way.
You won’t be able to make everyone like you—but you might be able to make them respect you. Dalenar’s words from before returned to him. Merin looked down at his Blade. Perhaps dueling was the way to earn that respect.
He wandered across the courtyard, looking for other duels to watch. Most of the noblemen were near Meridas, so Merin instead found himself watching a group of older monks. Like many monks who followed the Order of Khonra, they wore long tan skirts and loose shirts instead of traditional robes. They fought with swords, though they weren’t necessarily noblemen—monks were considered to have neither class nor gender, and they could practice any art they wished, whether it be painting or dueling.
The monks were very good. They fought with wooden practice swords, and their motions were fluid. Rhythmic. Watching their smooth, controlled motions seemed to calm a bit of the chaos in Merin’s recent life.
After a few moments, one of the monks noticed him watching. The man paused, regarding Merin with the eyes of a warrior. “Shouldn’t you be practicing with the other lords, traveler?”
Merin shrugged. “I don’t really fit in with them, holy one.”
“Your clothing says that you should,” the monk said, nodding to Merin’s fine seasilk outfit.
The monk raised an eyebrow questioningly. He was an older man, perhaps the same age as Merin’s father, and had a strong build beneath his monk’s clothing. He was almost completely bald, save for a bit of hair on the sides of his head, and even that was beginning to grey.
“It’s nothing, holy one,” Merin said. “I’m just a little bit tired of hearing about clothing.”
“Maybe this will take your mind off it,” the monk said, tossing him a practice sword. “And don’t call me ‘holy one.’”
Merin caught the sword, looking down at it blankly. Then he yelped in surprise, dropping his Shardblade and raising the practice sword awkwardly as the monk stepped forward in a dueling stance. Merin wasn’t certain how to respond—all of his training in the army had focused on working within his squad, using his shield to protect his companions and his spear to harry the opponent. He’d rarely been forced to fight solitarily.
The monk came in with a few testing swings, and Merin tried his best to mimic the man’s stance. He knew enough not to engage the first few blows—they were meant to throw Merin off balance and leave him open for a strike. He retreated across the cool sand, shuffling backward and trying not to fall for the monk’s feints. Even still, the man’s first serious strike took Merin completely by surprise. The blow took Merin on the shoulder—it was delivered lightly, but it stung anyway.
“Your instincts are good,” the monk said, returning to his stance. “But your swordsmanship is atrocious.”
“That’s kind of why I’m here,” Merin said, trying another stance. This time he managed to dodge the first blow, though the follow-through caught him on the thigh. He grunted in pain.
“Your Blade is unbonded,” the monk said. “And you resist moving to the sides, as if you expect there to be someone standing beside you. You were a spearman?”
“Yes,” Merin said.
The monk stepped back, lowering his blade and resting the tip in the sand. “You must have done something incredibly brave to earn yourself a Blade, little spearman.”
“Either that, or I was just lucky,” Merin replied.
The monk smiled, then nodded toward the center of the courtyard. “Your friend is looking for you.”
Merin turned to see Aredor waving for him. Merin nodded thankfully to the monk and returned the practice sword, then picked up his Shardblade and jogged across the sands toward Aredor. Standing with Dalenar’s son was a group of elderly, important-looking monks.
“Merin,” Aredor began, “these are the monastery masters. Each of them is an expert at several dueling forms, and they’ll be able to train you in the one that fits you best. Masters Bendahkha and Lhanan are currently accepting new students. You can train with either one of them, though you’ll need to pay the standard hundred-ishmark tribute to the monastery out of your monthly stipend.”
Merin regarded the two monks Aredor had indicated. Both looked very distinguished, almost uncomfortably so. They regarded Merin with the lofty expressions of men who had spent their entire lives practicing their art, and who had risen to the highest of their talents. They stood like kings in their monasteries—not condescending, but daunting nonetheless.
Merin glanced to the side, a sudden impression taking him. “Holy ones, I am honored by your offer, but I feel a little overwhelmed. Could you tell me, is the monk I just sparred with accepting students at the moment?”
The masters frowned. “You mean Vasher?” one of them asked. “Why do you wish to train with him?”
“I . . . I’m not certain,” Merin confessed.
One of the masters waved for a younger monk and sent him running off toward Vasher’s group. As he did so, Aredor pulled Merin aside with a concerned face.
“What are you doing?” Aredor asked quietly.
“Those masters make me uncomfortable, Aredor,” Merin said.
Aredor rolled his eyes. “You’re going to have to get over that, Merin. You’re a lord now.”
“I’m trying,” Merin replied. “But . . .”
“The man you sent for isn’t even a proper monk,” Aredor said. “He’s Oathgiven, not Birthgiven. He joined the monastery by choice, rather than being given by his parents before the age of his charan. He won’t be a dueling master—he probably just came here by happenstance.”
“Aredor,” Merin said frankly, “I came here by happenstance.”
Aredor just sighed as the young monk approached, the man Merin had spared with—Vasher—following behind. “What is this about, masters?” Vasher asked in a calm voice.
“This child wishes you to be his master,” the senior master said, waving toward Merin. “He wishes to know if you are taking any students.”
Vasher snorted. “You really don’t know what you’re doing, do you, little spearman?”
Merin just shrugged.
“Very well,” Vasher said. “If he is willing to do what I say, I’ll train him.”
Aredor groaned quietly, but the masters just nodded and began walking away. Vasher turned back toward the corner of the monastery, where the monks he had been sparring with still practiced. Uncertain what else to do, Merin tagged along behind. Once they reached the place he had dueled before, Merin set aside his Shardblade and reached for a practice sword.
Vasher reached out a foot and placed it on the sword just as Merin began to lift it. “No,” he said.
Merin rose uncertainly, watching as Vasher walked over to the weapons pile and selected an object. He returned with a large, thick-hafted horsekiller arrow and handed it to Merin.
“An arrow?” Merin asked slowly.
“A little spear,” Vasher said. “For a little spearman. I don’t want you thinking you are a duelist—you haven’t earned a practice sword yet.”
“You let me fight with one before, master,” Merin protested.
“That was before you were my student,” Vasher informed. “And don’t call me ‘master.’ My name is Vasher. From this moment on and until I declare your training complete, you are not to duel with anyone unless I give you permission. You may not swing a sword—even that Shardblade of yours—unless it is under my direction. Do you understand?”
“Yes, sir!” Merin snapped, spearman training returning.
“And don’t call me ‘sir’ either,” Vasher said with a bitter scowl. “You’re a lord, not a footman. Follow my rules if you wish, learn from me as you wish, and leave as you wish. I care not.”
“Okay . . .” Merin said, eyeing the arrow with skepticism.
“Good. Now, watch.” Vasher turned, falling into a stance and raising his sword. He stood there for a moment, then turned expectant eyes on Merin.
Merin quickly mimicked Vasher’s stance. The monk walked over to him, nudging Merin’s foot forward a few inches, correcting his posture, and showing him how to grip the arrow.
“Good,” Vasher said. “How high can you count?”
“Uh, I don’t know,” Merin confessed, holding still in the stance. “As high as I want, I suppose.”
“Good,” Vasher said, turning and walking back toward his dueling partner. “Hold that stance for a thousand heartbeats. When you’re done, let me know and we’ll do another.”
Merin frowned, but the monk said nothing further. A bead of sweat rolled down Merin’s cheek in the sunlight. What have I gotten myself into? he wondered, sighing internally.