Lady Blade, Lord Fighter #2
The Argent Swords

Chapter One

Duke Rilfe of Gensea sat enjoying a late breakfast, at the same time trying to enjoy his company for the meal. Kylin sat with him at the very small board set up in the duke's study, and someone who didn't know better might think that young Kylin had been drinking. The King's Fighter ate heartily enough, but he also babbled on about nothing that could be easily followed.

In point of fact Kylin had already interrupted himself three times to tell three totally unrelated stories. One of the stories had been hilarious, but not nearly as outrageous as Kylin's attempts to look calm, cool, and completely in control of himself. Rilfe had been fighting not to show that he noticed anything unusual, but it finally came to him that ignoring the problem could hardly be considered a kindness.

"Kylin, listen to me," the duke said at last with a sigh, finding it necessary to touch the younger man's arm and repeat himself before the flood of the other's words faltered. "Kylin, if you don't calm down you'll be a nervous wreck for the ceremony, and that won't be of help to anyone. In two more hours you'll be my daughter's husband and my heir, something we've been trying to accomplish for the last week or more. If you pass out because you're strung so tight, you won't have much fun at the feasting afterward."

The light, changeable eyes that came to him then were pained and embarrassed, nothing like the gaze Kylin usually showed to the world. The man was the fourth son of Duke Trame of Arthil, Rilfe's old and valued friend, and was a well known King's Fighter to boot. There was usually a full measure of command in those blue-green eyes, but not on this particular morning.

"And I thought I was doing such a good job hiding what I was feeling," Kylin answered, running a big hand through longish dark blond hair. "I wasn't this nervous when I faced two armed opponents for the place of King's Fighter. I woke at dawn this morning, feeling great, and then the waiting started…"

"Waiting is always harder than battle, especially for a man," Rilfe commiserated, trying to show a compassionate smile. "Blessed Evon gave a large capacity for waiting to women, but little or none to men. Which makes me wonder why some women envy men."

"Some women actually enjoy the wait," Kylin said darkly, his now-unseeing stare pinning the buttered rolls to their plate. "I've been wondering if they know how hard it is for a man, and sit there gloating and delighting in his misery."

"Possibly some women," Rilfe allowed, leaning back in his chair. "I don't think the same can be said about Sofaltis, though. I'm sure she would enjoy prolonging the wait, but not for the purposes of gloating. She's angry with all of us, Kylin, but you're the one she'll be taking her anger out on. Anticipating that can't be easy for you, so you must hold firmly in mind the thought that marriage is the best thing for her. It's the best thing for any woman, but in this case it may very well save my daughter's life. And once she gets over her anger, I'm confident you'll find a way to make her happy."

"If I live long enough," Kylin muttered, but this time the gaze he shared was filled with wry amusement. "I finally got to see her fight when we rescued you and the others from the enemy, and I'm forced to admit she's even better with a sword than I'd imagined. Have you decided yet how we're going to get her out of her apartments and to the ceremony without getting sliced into stewing chunks? Being dead ruins the fun of a wedding Feast even more than passing out."

"You're beginning to sound like Traixe," Rilfe said with his own wry amusement, reaching for his cup of warmed chai. "I've been spending most of my time these last two days reassuring one or the other of you, and I'm starting to feel like the father of two new sons. Considering the fact that Traixe is my most trusted advisor and friend as well as a Fighter and a priest of Evon, and you're my prospective heir and a widely known King's Fighter, I'm also beginning to feel the least bit disconcerted. Two grown men should not start muttering to themselves at the mere mention of a young girl's name."

"My lord, Sofaltis is not your average young girl," Kylin returned, the sigh he didn't quite voice nevertheless making itself fully clear. "She's a Blade of a Sword Company, a Fistmate Blade, which means she's even more capable than your average Blade - who is generally better than average. She knows we tried to trick her into this marriage, which means she'll be out for any blood she can spill. Even your average woman would be dangerous to approach in the frame of mind your daughter's currently in, and on the average most men would avoid a situation like that if they had any choice in the matter. Since we don't have the choice, would you care to hazard a guess about our chances of surviving the marriage ceremony mostly intact? On the average, of course."

"Kylin, you delight me," Rilfe said with an out-and-out grin, reaching over to clap the younger man on the shoulder. "If I didn't know better, I'd actually think you were worried. My daughter isn't going to be harming anyone, and that no matter how excellent a Blade she is. When the time for the ceremony arrives, Traixe and I will be the ones to approach her. No matter how angry she is, can you picture her drawing on us?"

"No, I can't," the other man responded, the dryness now gone from his tone, but not the distraction. "She cares too deeply for you and Traixe to harm either one of you, but that just makes it worse; she's trapped in a situation where her own sense of honor won't even let her fight. Evon alone knows what state she must be in by now, which means Evon alone knows what will happen at the ceremony. And I haven't even been able to tell her I'm on her side."

Rilfe watched Kylin's distraction take him over completely, and for a moment the duke didn't know what to say. Rilfe had been the one who had chosen Kylin to become his heir by marrying his daughter Sofaltis, but the young Fighter's agreement to the arrangement had been the last thing to go right in the very complex affair they were all now in the midst of.

Sofaltis had turned out to be a battle-experienced Blade rather than the shy young lady they'd been expecting, Kylin's disguise as a too-delicate Flower had set her immediately against him, and their enemy, His Holiness Nimran I, High Priest to Grail the All-Seeing, had suddenly changed tactics. Rather than attempting the life of Kylin or even of the duke himself, the priest's minions had concentrated on capturing Sofaltis.

Rilfe moved in annoyance in his chair, but there was nothing he could do to ease that annoyance. Despite their having captured the chief traitor in his household, they still had no idea why Nimram wanted Sofaltis. The orders to take her and deliver her to the High Priest before she could be married to anyone were clear and certain, but nothing beyond that was the same. Rilfe's enemy - who was also the kingdom's secret enemy - had plans for Sofaltis just as she was, but they hadn't the least hint of what those plans were.

"But they don't want her married, so that's what she has to be as quickly as possible," Rilfe growled to himself, his fist tightening around the handle of his cup. "Despite the temper tantrums she's been throwing she won't ignore her duty and disobey me, I know she won't. But I also know she'll take out her anger on poor Kylin."

Poor Kylin. Rilfe suddenly realized it was ludicrous to speak of the young man like that, as though he were small and backwardly helpless. On the contrary he was a good deal larger than average, and his skill with a sword was downright remarkable. His biggest handicap lay in the fact that he'd fallen in love with the woman who should have been nothing more than a political match, and her pain and distress had become his. Kylin couldn't wait to make Sofaltis his, and her stubborn refusal to cooperate with the marriage must have cost him more pain than he'd been willing to speak about.

"Kylin, she will understand," Rilfe said abruptly, deliberately shaking off the depression that had begun to descend on him. "Once she calms down and can be spoken with again, she'll realize we were only acting for her own good. And if she takes longer to be reasonable than we like, we can always have Traixe beat her. Once he's back to full health, that is."

"I'll never again be that healthy," a new voice interrupted, dry with amusement. "Evon may have seen fit to smile on me after our recent trouble, but He hasn't gone so far as to return me to being a boy."

Rilfe joined Kylin in looking up in surprise, staring at Traixe where he stood just inside the study doorway. Traixe was a fairly big man with dark eyes and dark hair very faintly touched with gray, but after what the enemy had put him through two days earlier he seemed too robust. Just the day before he'd needed help to walk from one place to another, and now…

"Traixe, you look completely recovered," Kylin said with the same disbelief Rilfe himself felt, but also with the same delight. "You must have been serious about Evon's intervention."

"Truthfully, my lord, that's all I can think of to explain the thing," Traixe answered, now looking perplexed and uncomfortable as he moved nearer the board. "Last night started in the late afternoon for me, that being as long as the pain and weakness let me stay away from my bed. The healer gave me something to ease the pain, but instead it put me to sleep. When I awoke this morning my wounds were well on the way to being healed, and my strength was back as if it had never been gone. Apparently Evon took pity on me for what I'll be doing in His name today, and made it more possible for me to survive."

"I think you'll do best sitting down over there next to Kylin," Rilfe said, giving his old friend a baleful look that was at least half serious. "If you two are that worried about what a young girl will do to you, you can sit quivering in terror together. I'll reserve my side of the board for manly men who don't jump when a female stamps her foot."

"If Your Grace will pardon me, I'm forced to point out that your side of the board contains a man who also happens to be the young girl's father," Traixe came back as he took his place beside Kylin. The two men were more amused than insulted, Rilfe noticed with some annoyance, but they also seemed more than prepared to defend their stance.

"If I were her father I would probably be feeling nothing but annoyance like her actual father," Traixe went on as he settled himself. "In point of fact, my lord, I'm the priest of Evon meant to preside over the wedding the young girl has flatly refused to become involved in. I'm also the priest owning the throat the young lady has threatened to put her point to, in an effort to stop the wedding entirely. I wasn't quite at my best when she and her Fistmates appeared out of the blue to save our hides, but I remained conscious long enough to see her fight. If she decides to resist our efforts with a sword, our healer will be hard pressed to keep up with the workload - assuming there's anything for him to do in the first place."

"And there's no doubt she's realized there can be no wedding if something final happens to the intended groom," Kylin pointed out in turn, drawing Rilfe's frown. "She did a good job of trying to force me into challenging her during the time we traveled together, and didn't seem to understand that I can't face her. There's no denying her skill with a sword, but to best me she doesn't need any skill. I could never raise a weapon against her even if it meant my life, so what good does my own skill do me? Traixe, I think, is in the same position, which puts us both in a corner with no place to retreat to."

Rilfe opened his mouth to say something, closed it again when the appropriate words refused to come, then blew out a breath of vexation through his teeth. It was all the fault of that broiling girl, who had always refused to do as other women and behave herself.

"I refuse to believe she would cut down anyone in cold blood," Rilfe said at last, leaning forward to pour more chai into his cup from the warming pitcher. "She may be angry but she isn't insane, and that's what it would take to slaughter those around her - including you two. All we'll have to do is walk up to her and take that sword away, and then even the threat will be over."

"Ah, is that all we have to do," Traixe commented, paying a good deal of attention to choosing a buttered roll. "Did you by any chance notice, my lord, how Sofaltis made certain to give us a subject for questioning even in the midst of battle? She all but ignored the dagger he held and dropped him in his tracks with a blow to the temple. She used her sword's fingerguard for the purpose, and seemed to judge what strength to put in the blow with the nicety of experience."

"An experience I can vouch for," Kylin added, now also paying a large amount of attention to his plate. "She and I had a … difference of opinion when we were traveling together, and the fist she threw at me would have left me rolling on the ground for the rest of the day if I hadn't been able to deflect it. I wasn't quite as fortunate the next time, when she used a length of firewood on the back of my head."

"What we're trying to do is give you a full, true picture of the problem before us, my lord," Traixe said as he watched Rilfe's wordless but clearly obvious exasperation, compassion to be seen in his dark eyes. "You look at Sofaltis and see the mischievous but delightful child she was, and that's where the greatest difficulty lies. The child you remember is gone, replaced by a Fistmate Blade with more than half a decade's worth of battle experience. If she was a son rather than a daughter, would you walk up to so experienced a Blade and expect to simply disarm him?"

Rilfe stared at Traixe without answering, but his fingers drummed on the board in frustration. Leave it to Traixe to dive to the heart of a problem, making it as clear for everyone else as it was to him. The problem wasn't simple it was horribly complex, and Rilfe took a moment to readjust his thoughts. He was popular with his people because he took the time to consider everyone involved in a problem before making a decision, and there was no reason to change the habits of a lifetime.

"To answer your question, Traixe, yes, I would expect to walk up to so experienced a Blade and disarm him," Rilfe said, no longer held by exasperation or vexation. "The Blade would be my son, just as Sofaltis is my daughter, and any father who can't walk up to his child like that doesn't deserve to think of himself as a parent. But that isn't our true problem, and I'm grateful that you two showed me what is."

Kylin and Traixe looked at him, expectation clear in both sets of eyes, and Rilfe smiled faintly.

"I can't go on intending to simply drag Sofaltis to the wedding dais, can I?" he asked, the words wry. "She's an adult, capable human being, and is justifiably angry over having been lied to and tricked. The ceremony is scheduled for noon today and won't be cancelled, but the least I can do is sit down with her before that and discuss why it can't be cancelled. I owe her that, and you two should be with me."

Kylin took a deep breath and nodded, and Traixe simply smiled his agreement. The three of them were directly responsible for most of what had happened, and Sofaltis was due apologies and an opportunity for telling each of them exactly what she thought. Since they already knew what she thought the time wasn't likely to be pleasant, but she did have the right…

"So we'll go and see her, but first we'll finish our meal," Rilfe said, reaching again for the platter of fried eggs. "Since we'll be outnumbered, the only thing we can do is strengthen ourselves with food and hope for the best. Then, once we get to the wedding Feast, we make sure to stuff her with food. If she's too full to move, my new heir's chances of surviving his wedding night should be greatly improved."

"As always, my lord, your battle strategy is unorthodox but to the point," Traixe said with a laugh while Kylin chuckled. "With Evon's help, this may all work out yet."

All three of them were agreed on that fervent hope, and Rilfe was definitely heartened. It seemed impossible to deny that Evon had had a hand in Traixe's recovery, as nothing else could account for so miraculous a cure. If that was so then the marriage must also have Evon's approval, and a man with Evon on his side could do anything.

Rilfe reached for another roll and applied himself to his food, firmly refusing to remember that as a Blade, Sofaltis was also able to call on Evon. She had enough of an advantage simply being as she was; the possibility that Evon might be behind her instead of them was enough to make a man shudder, and it was far too happy a day for Rilfe to want to think about such things…

* * *

Kylin of Arthil, King's Fighter and fourth son of Trame, Duke of Arthil, forced himself not to hang back as he and Traixe accompanied Duke Rilfe to Sofaltis's apartments. His nerves were definitely on edge, but only because he felt so damned guilty. At first he'd been more than happy to see Tisah locked up, thinking that that was the only way he could be sure of having a bride at his wedding ceremony, but ever since he'd opened his eyes this morning he was no longer quite as certain.

Kylin sighed as he pushed a hand through his hair, finding it impossible not to be fair about the problem. If it had been his father who had locked him up after trying to trick him into an unwanted marriage, it wouldn't have been safe for anyone to come near him. It would matter not at all that the marriage had been arranged for his own good, and even being in love with his chosen bride would scarcely have been a consideration. The very fact that he was being coerced would have colored everything else, sending him into a rage and keeping him there…

And what made it all doubly worse was not knowing for certain if Tisah felt what he did. The big Fighter had almost gone to her at dawn this morning, intending to let her know he was on her side, intending to find out if there was any chance she might learn to love him - but he hadn't been able to do it. No one he knew would consider him a coward, but all men were cowards about something. The lucky ones just hadn't yet found their own highest mountain.

"Excuse me, Duke Rilfe, but I need to talk to you," a voice came from up ahead, bringing Kylin out of distraction. He looked up to see Tisah's Fistmates, the four Blades of the Fist she'd been a part of, four of the five men who had come secretly into the castle with Tisah to free her father and sisters from capture. They all stood in front of the duke, and the one who had spoken was the Fist leader Rullin.

"There's something I have to tell Your Grace, something I should have said before now," Rullin continued, his light eyes sober in a face that was just short of being pale under its tan. He was a big man with dark hair who looked dangerous in the black leather of a Blade, but Kylin was more annoyed than impressed. He had no idea what the man wanted, but the Blade should have had the good sense to wait for a better time.

"I hope you're not going to say you and your Fistmates can't stay for the wedding," Duke Rilfe answered, stopping in the middle of the hall rather than rudely brushing past. The duke was more gracious than any noble Kylin had ever met, with the sole exception of his own father. "If you leave, Sofaltis will undoubtedly start a war and I'll probably be its first casualty. She has this odd idea that nothing happens in this duchy without my permission."

"That would be like her," the big Blade granted with a faint smile, the other three chuckling briefly behind him. "No, what I wanted to talk to you about was something else, something - Your Grace, do you have any idea how close the members of a Fist are? Usually they're closer than a family, closer than it's possible to describe to outsiders. We - that is, I - I mean, is there any chance Softy can - well, voice her own decision about who - that is, marriage is so permanent and final, and she should have a man - "

"Who truly cares about her?" the duke asked gently, finishing the sentence while the man in front of him floundered helplessly. "I assure you I want no less for my daughter, and the man I've chosen fits that description. I understand now how concerned you four are, and it pleases me no end. You will, of course, sit with us at the main board during the wedding Feast, just as members of the family should. Sofaltis will undoubtedly start that war with you if you don't. Right now, though, I'll have to ask you to excuse me. We'll speak again later, at greater length."

* * *

Rull moved out of the way with his Fistmates after the duke clapped him on the back then continued up the hall. The others with the duke followed him, of course, and nothing was said near Rull until they'd all disappeared. Then Foist put a surprisingly gentle hand on Rull's arm.

"You did the right thing, Rull," Foist said softly, his very light eyes showing the pain he knew his Fist leader felt. "Telling him you wanted to marry Softy would have done nothing more than start trouble, and that man has had enough trouble."

"Now we know why Softy is as decent as she is," Jak commented, looking at Foist rather than at Rull. "I can't say I've met a lot of dukes in my life, but if Duke Rilfe isn't the best of them I'd have to see one better to believe it. He wasn't just talking to put words out. He meant everything he said."

"And he never blamed us for letting Softy fight as part of the Fist," Ham said, his surprise apparently reluctant. "He loves her as much as we do and needs her even more, but he didn't blame us. We're part of Softy, so he went ahead and made us part of him, too."

Rull heard all the words being said to him, but he just stood there with his gaze on the floor, hating himself for being such a coward. He'd meant to tell the duke he wanted to marry Soft and Gentle, but he just hadn't been able to get the words out. Rull knew he wouldn't have been bothered if the duke had laughed at the idea, but what about Softy? What if the duke had agreed to ask her, and she had hesitated the way she'd done a few nights ago? As much as he loved her it would have killed him…

"Why don't we go back to your apartment and have a drink?" Foist asked, this time punching his arm. "It may be too early for these country types, but we never let that stop us before. It'll give us something to do until it's time for the ceremony, and afterward we'll be able to enjoy the wedding Feast."

Jak and Ham agreed enthusiastically, all of them trying to pull him out of the deep well he'd fallen down, but they just didn't have a rope long enough. Only Softy had what would rescue him, and she - she would soon be married to another man.

Rull stood there for another long moment, working to pull himself together. It took some effort but he managed it, and then he was able to let his Fistmates urge him into motion. They had almost reached his apartment when all hell broke loose.

* * *

Duke Rilfe of Gensea would never have admitted it out loud, but he could feel his insides twisting just a little as he unlocked the door to Sofaltis's apartments. He loved his daughter very much and in the short time she'd been back had come to admire her as well, but he wasn't looking forward to the scene they would soon be in the middle of. Traixe claimed she was just like her father, and if that were so then Rilfe was beginning to pity those who had come up against him over the years. Could he really be that stubbornly determined, that ready to fight against the entire world if it became necessary…?

"Excuse me, my lord," Traixe said, bringing Rilfe the realization that he'd just been standing in front of the door and staring at it. "My man tells me a breakfast tray was brought this morning, along with the wedding gown you had made. Both were left in the outer sitting room."

"To avoid a confrontation," Rilfe said with a sigh, seeing out of the corner of his eye the faint smile Kylin wore. If the girl's antics had to amuse anyone, Evon be thanked the anyone was the man who had come to marry her. "They were very wise, but it isn't a wisdom we can share. Let's go in."

He lifted the latch and pushed through without waiting for anything that might delay the plunge, knowing without looking that Kylin and Traixe followed. They moved in a body across the outer sitting room and to Sofaltis's bedroom door, none of them commenting on the fact that neither the tray nor the gown seemed to have been touched. The gown had belonged to the girl's mother, altered now to fit the daughter, something Sofaltis would have known if she'd bothered to look…

Rilfe raised a hand and rapped on the bedroom door, fervently wishing the scene to come were already over and done with. None of his sons had lived long enough or stayed long enough to be married, but even if they had it would not have been the same as seeing his eldest daughter wed. A man worried about his daughters in a way he never did with sons, and the end of the ceremony would see him relieved even beyond the safety marriage would bring the girl. He knocked a second time and then a third, still trying to wish the time ahead already behind him, and then he sighed.

"Ignoring us won't make us go away, Sofaltis," Rilfe said in a voice loud enough to be heard on the other side of the door. "Since you won't answer we're coming in without an invitation, and if you try to make a fuss I promise that you'll regret it. Here we come."

Ignoring the feeling that he had somehow blundered into a child's game, Rilfe lifted the latch and strode into the room. He had braced himself against anything from attack to tears and was concentrating on remaining calm as he moved, which meant it took Traixe's exclamation to bring him the truth.

"My lords, she's gone!" Traixe said in disbelief, looking around in confusion from the middle of the room. "This chamber is empty!"

"That's impossible!" Kylin snapped, his face paling with shock even as he immediately began to take charge. "They couldn't have gotten to her here. She must be hiding, if not in this room then in another. I'll look in the wardrobe while you check under the bed, Traixe, and then we'll go through the other rooms one by one."

The two men turned quickly to their tasks, but Rilfe ignored their flurry as he paced slowly to the wide table standing not far from the center of the room. He'd seen a sheet of paper on that table, and knew what it was even before he moved close enough to read it. When he reached the table he forced himself to lift the paper and read, and then he bent his head and put a hand over his eyes.

"My lord, what is it?" Traixe asked from the supposedly soothing darkness Rilfe had temporarily surrounded himself with. "What have you found?"

"I've found a damned good reason for drowning girl children at birth," Rilfe growled in answer, fighting to keep from losing his temper and failing miserably. "The broiling girl has run off."

Traixe and Kylin made the same kind of sound, a strangled denial that was half groan. Then Traixe was beside him and reading aloud from the paper Rilfe still held.

"'Dear Father' - How good of her to remember you're related - 'As your loyal and obedient daughter' - hah! - 'I would never dream of disobeying you' - in a pig's eye! - 'so please take this as my full agreement to the marriage you've arranged for me. I will be delighted to join with the man of your choice - as soon as I return from a most urgent duty I've been called away on. I'm certain we all know that matters of honor must come first, even before filial duty, and your disappointment at the delay is without doubt on the same scale as mine. I will return as quickly as possible, and until I do, I remain, your daughter - ' I don't believe this! What matter of honor? Who called her away?"

"Who could have called her away?" Rilfe countered, his eyes undoubtedly as filled with anger as his voice. "Since she was locked in no one could have reached her, so that nonsense is just an excuse. When I get my hands on her - !"

"My lord, it's possible she isn't really gone," Kylin said, looking more than a little angry himself. "She has to know how badly the enemy wants her, and if she did take off in spite of that - Well, we'll save that for when we find her. She could still be hiding somewhere in this apartment, waiting for you to decide she's gone and so take the guards away from the door. Once that was done she could simply stroll out, then hole up somewhere until - until I-don't-know-what. We can ask when we find her, but first we ought to search."

"Then do it," Rilfe said, gesturing at the two men before he turned to walk back to the sitting room to choose a chair to drop into. That girl! Rilfe watched Traixe stride to his Fighters and send two of them off at a run on some errand or other, and then his old friend and Kylin began to search the other rooms of the apartment. Rilfe simply sat in the chair and stewed, half his thoughts considering how satisfying it would be when he found and punished that outrageous child, the other half sick with worry over the possibility that she really had gone off all alone. If the enemy got their hands on her again, how would he even know…?

The search didn't take long enough for Rilfe to calm himself, but by the time it was over the word seemed to have spread to everyone in the castle. Traixe and Kylin returned to the sitting room reluctantly, frustration and grimness riding them heavily, and just as they did the four Blades of Sofaltis's Fist pushed their way through the crowd gathered in the hall.

"What's happening here?" the Fist leader Rullin demanded, coming forward with the other three. "What's all the fuss, and where's Softy?"

"That's what we'd like to know," Traixe growled, then saw his two fighters coming back from wherever he'd sent them. "Maybe this will give us a clue. You people get out of their way."

Those in the doorway turned and then stepped aside, and the two men were able to come directly into the room. They were both breathing heavily, showing they'd probably run, but not so heavily that they weren't able to speak.

"The stallion's gone, my lord," one of them said immediately, his chest heaving. "The stablemaster said her war horse was in the stall yesterday, but today it's gone. You want me to ask the gate guard what time she rode out?"

"No," Traixe answered with a continuing growl, then turned to look at Rilfe. They both knew that Sofaltis hadn't used the gate to leave, and it wasn't something to be mentioned aloud. The broiling girl shouldn't have known about the secret exit in the stable area, but it was fairly obvious she did.

"Well?" the Blade Rullin demanded again, clearly even more impatient. "What's going on?"

"Apparently Sofaltis has been … called away," Traixe said, turning again to look at the man. "She left a letter saying she has a … matter of honor to attend to, and would be back as soon as it was taken care of. Assuming she isn't kidnapped or killed by our enemies before then. Or doesn't end up dead or taken some other way."

"She's gone?" Rullin demanded, he and the others looking ready to start foaming at the mouth. "Without even telling us? We've got to get her back!"

"First we have to figure out where she's gone to," Traixe pointed out, no happier than the man he spoke to. "She could have picked any direction to ride off in, and I'd be willing to bet she didn't leave any easy track for us to follow. How do we decide which way to go?"

"We'll ride north," Rullin quickly decided, gesturing to himself and his three Fistmates. "She could have decided to go back to our Company, and if she did we'll be able to find her most easily. If Evon's luck rides with us, we may even catch up to her before she gets there. If we do, you don't have to worry about her being kept safe."

* * *

Rullin sketched a brief bow toward the duke, then turned and led the remainder of his Fist from the apartment. Once the four of them were in the hall and striding away from other ears, Foist tapped Rullin's arm with the back of his hand.

"I know you probably missed it, Rull, but you didn't say anything about bringing Softy back if we do find her," the light-haired Blade commented. "That was just an oversight, right?"

"If Softy wanted to be here she would have stayed," Rull muttered, giving most of his attention to where he was going. "If she doesn't want to be brought back, I'll be damned if I'll force her into it."

"Rull, she could have come to us when she got out of that room," Foist pointed out, trying to be as gentle as possible. "Since she didn't, I would guess that she doesn't want us any more than she wants to stay here and get married. She doesn't want any of us."

"That's for her to say," Rull stated, ending the debate in the flatly final way he usually did. Once he caught up to her she would have her say, and he intended doing his damnedest to make sure that say was good news…

* * *

Traixe watched the four Blades leave the room, and then he turned back to Duke Rilfe and Lord Kylin. Knowing the duke as well as he did, the priest of Evon could see that his lord was fighting to pull himself together. Once he had he could begin to make plans that were sound, but suddenly it seemed that Kylin would reach that point first. The young King's Fighter had been deep in thought since he and Traixe had finished their search, and it was possible he hadn't even heard what the four Blades of Sofaltis's Fist intended to do. Then he pulled free of the distraction, firm decision showing in those light, changeable eyes.

"Duke Rilfe, I'm going to leave at once," he announced, surely unaware of how much he sounded like the Fist leader Rullin. "She can't have more than half a day's head start, and if I move fast I should be able to catch up with her quickly."

"In which direction do you intend moving that fast?" Duke Rilfe asked, looking up at the younger man. The duke was furious, but not with those around him. "The hellion left not a single clue as to which way she intended to go, so how can you know you're going where she did?"

"Once I'm out of the castle, I'll find the right way," Kylin answered, and Traixe realized there wasn't a man in the entire duchy who could have doubted him. "That girl knew she was risking her life by leaving here alone, but she did it anyway to prove how … free she is. When I catch up to her, she and I are going to have a long, pointed discussion about freedom."

"But this time you're not going alone," the duke said as he stood, stopping Kylin from turning and leaving. "This time I want my authority riding with you, so you'll be taking Traixe and a couple of his men."

Traixe found himself battling Kylin for whose protest got said first, but the duke settled the matter by holding up a commanding hand.

"No, Traixe, I do not need you more than Sofaltis does," Duke Rilfe stated, putting that same hand to his friend's shoulder. "We know now that Nimram's plans have changed, and it's my daughter who is in the most danger. And as for how fast you can travel alone, Kylin, be assured that the others won't be left behind. And if you stop to think about it, Traixe is meant to go with you. For what other reason would Evon have seen fit to bring him back to full health so quickly?"

The question caused both Traixe and Kylin to stop and consider, and Traixe, at least, was quickly forced to agree. If Evon had wanted him healed there had to be a reason, and riding with Kylin was the only logical one. If he was meant to stay at the castle, he could have done that while still hobbling around.

"Yes, all right, I can see your point about Traixe," Kylin conceded a moment later, only faintly disturbed. "For some reason he's supposed to be with me, even though we still don't know why. What I dislike most is the idea of taking him away from you, my lord. Nimram may be after Tisah, but that doesn't necessarily mean he won't be after your blood as well."

"I think we can do something to ease both problems before we leave," Traixe said, suddenly in possession of an idea he should have had sooner. "Nimram wants Sofaltis unmarried and her father without an heir. Both wants can be negated with a single marriage ceremony."

"Traixe, maybe you aren't as healed as we believe," Kylin said, eyeing him strangely. "To have a marriage ceremony we need a bride, and that's the ingredient we're missing. Or didn't you remember that?"

"My lord, we're only missing a bride physically," Traixe corrected gently, trying not to grin. "What we have in her place is her father's presence and agreement to the match - and her own indication of willingness in a letter. With all of that, a proxy wedding is now possible."

"And afterward I can register the marriage and the naming of my heir at the same time," Duke Rilfe said slowly, a definite gleam growing in his eyes. "Once the notification reaches the King's Court that little hellion should be safe in spite of herself - but then all the attentions will probably be yours, Kylin. If you're here we can give you help in staying alive, but if you ride off after Sofaltis - "

"Your Grace, I don't expect to have any trouble staying alive," Kylin interrupted, looking faintly disturbed. "It will take a while for your gallopers to reach the King's Court, and even longer before word of the marriage is spread around. Until that happens Tisah will still be in danger, and the only hope we have is that the enemy doesn't know where she is any more than we do. I just wish it wasn't necessary to sneak around behind her back again."

"With a proxy marriage, you mean," Traixe put in, feeling the younger man's disquiet rather clearly. "It might help, Lord Kylin, if you remember that there would be no sneaking around if Sofaltis hadn't taken it into her head to run off. The difficulty we had until now came about through circumstance and misunderstanding; what we're in the middle of at the moment is being caused by a female Blade called Soft and Gentle. She thought she could avoid the marriage by agreeing to it."

"When the truth is we none of us have a choice," Duke Rilfe added with a gentle clap to Kylin's shoulder, compassion clearly all through him for the man who was so obviously in love with his daughter. "A reasonable adult would have bowed to the inevitable, and made an effort to get to know the man she would be spending the rest of her life with. Sofaltis hasn't yet learned what it means to be a reasonable adult, so it's up to us to teach her. It will surely turn out to be to her benefit."

But will it be to mine? Kylin couldn't help thinking as he let the other two men urge him out of the apartment. Tisah wasn't your ordinary woman, and she wasn't likely to accept the fact of a proxy marriage with a shrug and a sigh. Kylin wanted a wife who was happy rather than miserable, but Tisah seemed determined to be miserable no matter how hard he tried. Once he caught up to her his best move might turn out to be not trying any more at all. But first he had a ceremony to go through, and then he had to catch up in the first place…