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I assumed the second stance—legs spread, knees bent, back sword-straight—and wondered for the thousandth time if I looked anything like the son I should have been.
“Quiet your breathing, Rain.” Papa’s voice was a murmur, a rumble of sound that calmed me like distant thunder. “Don’t let me see your chest heaving.”
Of course my chest was heaving. We were on the third round of the third set, and my too-late night had stolen the edge from my strength. I closed my mouth and forced air in through my nose, long and slow. Like a snake.
“Better.” Papa matched me, his form graceful and balanced. He was every bit the grandmaster I wished I could someday be.
But could never be.
He moved a half-breath before I expected him to—more evidence that I was short on sleep. I arced my knife arm and matched him anyway, thinking through my paces as my feet danced on the packed earth. Papa’s face was serene, as if this were effortless. That’s what I was supposed to do with my face, too, and most days, Papa’s praise for my “centeredness” was high.
“Masterful control,” he would say. “From a distance, no one would guess you were a girl.”
That was the highest compliment—to fight like a boy. Because being a girl was never quite enough.
Papa had just gained the advantage when he stumbled and lost his center. I stepped back, hesitant to claim victory when I saw that he’d slipped on one of my writing pens. He righted himself and gave the Great Cry before slicing forward with a double palm strike that I barely had time to block. I lost my balance and landed hard on my backside.
“Never lose an opportunity!” The hard edge in Papa’s voice had more to do with his own shame than my weakness. “The hesitation of an enemy should be the moment of your victory.”
“I know, Papa.” I drew up my knees and rested my arms on them. “But it was my fault. My writing pen—”
“Was no reason for you to show mercy.” He offered his hand. “We are not promised a path without obstacles.”
It was like him not to mention that I shouldn’t have been so careless with the pen. I took his hand. “I have the best teacher.”
“Papa, you won!” My twin brother Storm shuffled toward us, eager for Papa’s attention.
I tightened my grip on Papa’s hand and pulled myself to standing, not missing the warmth in his eyes—my compliment had gone deep. “Only because I stayed up too late writing.”
Storm giggled—a throaty sound that didn’t match his stature or the deepness of his voice. “My turn now.” His words were slow and slurred and better suited for a five-year-old.
Papa smiled broadly, but his eyes were sad as Storm approached. The sickness we’d had when we were barely a year old had left him forever scathed—half the son he should have been. It was hard, sometimes, to be the one left untouched.
I turned to Papa and bowed, arms crossed over my chest. “As the sun rises.”
He bowed in return. “So it sets.”
Storm swung his arm around my shoulders and squeezed. “Will you spot me?”
“Of course.” Our sister Willow was waiting for me, but this was more important.
I sat cross-legged while Papa helped Storm assume the first stance, reminding him to relax his arms and straighten his legs. Storm nodded with each word of instruction and clapped his hands when Papa said it was time to begin the round.
I scuffled through the dirt, now in a crouch, now on my knees, following Storm and calling reminders to him. Never once did I interfere with anything Papa said—no instructor could have been finer. But Storm’s exuberance always got the better of him, and he needed me to keep him focused.
“Eyes on Papa!” I cupped my hands around my mouth to amplify my voice. “Eyes on Papa, Storm!”
Storm lunged awkwardly to the left, and I rolled out of his way moments before he stumbled and fell. I rushed to his side and sat beside him.
“Are you hurt?”
“Not hurt, Rain.” But his eyes swam with tears.
I kissed the face that looked more like mine than a brother’s should. Eyes, nose, the height of our brows—until Storm’s facial hair had begun to darken, even Mama sometimes confused us. Especially since I often wore pants instead of my sister’s cast-off skirts.
“For reasons unknown, I almost always find you sitting in the dirt.”
Willow crossed her arms as she approached, her perfect hair, tied at the nape of her neck, framing her perfect, heart-shaped face.
“I was spotting Storm.” I rose while Papa reached for Storm’s hand.
“You’re a mess.” Willow grabbed my wrist, her pale olive hand in stark contrast to my darker, sun-goldened skin. She eyed the ink stains on my second and third fingers and wrinkled her nose. “I knew I smelled oil last night. You should go to bed earlier.”
“Sleeping is overrated.”
“I’ve been ready for almost half an hour,” Willow said. “Might we go to town before all the shops close?”
“It’s barely past morning tea.” I turned to Papa. “He was a little quicker that time, don’t you think?”
“A little, yes.” It was the same game we always played—seeing improvement that wasn’t there.
Willow stepped between us. “Rain. Honestly.”
“Give me five minutes.” I ran toward the house, pretending not to hear her as she called out a reminder to wash my face.
Fifteen minutes later, with a clean face and a fresh linen skirt and blouse, I met Willow at the gate of our modest yard. A rehearsed apology was on my lips, but the irritation I had expected didn’t seem to be there. She smiled in a sort of not-quite-there way and opened the gate, stepping aside to let me pass through.
Ever since her betrothal, there hadn’t been much to lower her spirits. As if finding a husband were the single most important thing in the universe.
“How much are you spending?” I asked as we made our way down the flower-lined footpath.
“As much as I need to.” She must have seen the skepticism on my face, because she added, “It’s just a few basics. Materials for my bridal trunk, a new dress for dinner with his family. Not more than a couple of tak.”
I stared. “That could buy enough food to feed us for days.”
“Well, it’s not grocery money,” Willow said, her voice edged with defensiveness. “Papa and Mama set it aside for me, along with my dowry.”
“I know that.” I gentled my voice. “You deserve it. Truly.”
Papa hadn’t been able to afford Willow’s dowry by the time she turned eighteen, and it had been a source of shame for her. Now, at nineteen, she was delighted to be at the receiving end of Papa’s recent good fortune.
“I’m so eager to meet him,” Willow said, her voice airy again. “He’s from Thorn Village, just over the rise.”
“Yes, you told me.” Six hundred times.
“Do you think he will mind an older wife?”
I held back a laugh. “Seriously, Willow. You’re nineteen, not forty-nine.”
“You know what I mean.”
“He’s eighteen,” I said. “I don’t think a year makes so much difference.”
“Most girls my age are married already.”
I frowned. “Are you going to start that again?”
“No.” Willow grabbed my hand and squeezed it. “We’re going to pick out the most beautiful, seductive nightgown we can find.”
“Yes. And you’re going to pay close attention, because your turn is next.”
My stomach did the same flip it always did whenever someone brought up my own betrothal. “I don’t mind waiting until I’m nineteen.”
“You won’t have to, silly duckling! Papa already has half your dowry put away. You’re in much better shape than I was at your age.”
I bit back my normal retort—that I’d rather die a toothless hag in the gutter than be married off to a boy I’d never met. Willow was the daughter any parents would dream of—lovely, obedient, eager to serve the high king by becoming a wife and siring fine soldiers. Even if it meant marrying a boy who, for whatever reason, was willing to accept a girl past the traditional age of betrothal.
“I don’t think I’ll find a boy who won’t mind if I greet him at the door wearing my Neshu robe.”
“Once you’re betrothed, you won’t waste your time on that anymore,” Willow said. “You’ll realize what’s really important.”
“I already know what’s important.”
Her face clouded with scorn. “Neshu is for boys, Rain. And no matter how good Papa says you are, that’s not going to make things any better for Storm. And you know it.”
I wanted to say the words that burned on my heart every time we had this argument—that if I hadn’t been born, Storm would be the Neshu fighter I aspired to be. But I remained silent, certain she knew the truth as well as I did.
She softened her voice. “You’ll bring Papa and Mama honor in your own time. Besides, you—”
“Move!” I pushed her out of the way as several fine black steeds made their way across our path. As expected, I lowered my eyes and bowed my head, not daring to look even though I longed to cast a disdainful glance at them.
Willow peered after the riders. “Didn’t they see us?”
But we both knew the answer. It was up to us to move out of the way or be trampled. To the noble, a girl upon a country road had as much value as a flea in a horse’s ear.
I glanced at the backs of the riders, their bright red and green livery indicative of the underking of Tenema, our province. My stomach twitched, nudging me that something wasn’t right.
Copyright © 2019 by Jill Schafer Boehme