The manwas going to kill was named Umberto. He had the look of a man very sure of himself. She watched him talking to four men, so alike they must surely be his brothers. The five of them were cocksure and preening, as though it was beneath their dignity to even present themselves in the Hall of Blades in answer to her challenge.
Dawn cast angled spars of light through the lancet windows, and the pale marble shimmered with the reflections of those who had come to see a life ended. They lined the edges of the hall by the score, members of both Houses, lackeys, gawkers and some simply with unhealthy appetites to see bloodshed.
“My lady,” said Ammdar, her second older brother, handing her a mid-lengthwith a bluesteel blade upon which light moved like oil. “Are you sure about this?”
“Of course,” replied Fiora. “You heard the tales Umberto and his braggart brothers were spreading in the Commercia?”
“I did,” confirmed Ammdar. “But is that worth his death?”
“If I let one braggart slide, then others will think themselves free to wag their tongues,” said Fiora.
Ammdar nodded, and stepped back. “Then do what you must.”
Fiora stepped forward, rolling her shoulders and sweeping her blade twice through the air – a sign the duel was about to begin. Umberto turned as one of his brothers nudged him in the ribs, and anger touched Fiora as she saw his frank appraisal of her physique, an appraisal that lingered far too long below her neck. He drew his own weapon, a long, beautifully curved Demacian cavalry saber with golden quillons and a sapphire inset on the pommel. A poseur's weapon and one entirely unsuited to the requirements of a duel.
Umberto stepped up to his duelists' mark and repeated the sword movements she had made. He bowed to her and winked. Fiora felt her jaw tighten, but clamped down on her dislike. Emotion had no place in a duel. It clouded swordplay and had seen many a great swordsman slain by a lesser opponent.
They circled one another, making the prescribed movements of foot and blade like dance partners at the first notes of a waltz. The movements were to ensure that both participants in the duel were aware of the significance of what they were soon to attempt.
The rituals of the duel were important. They, like The Measured Tread, were designed to allow civilized folk to maintain the illusion of nobility in killing. Fiora knew they were good laws, just laws, but that didn't take away from the fact that she was about to kill the man before her. And because Fiora believed in these laws, she had to make her offer.
“Good sir, I am Fiora of House Laurent,” she said.
“Save it for your grave-marker,” snapped Umberto.
She ignored his puerile attempt to rile her and said, “It has come to my attention that you did injure the good name of House Laurent in an unjust and dishonorable manner by the indulgence and spreading of malicious falsehoods in regards to the legitimacy of my lineage. Therefore it is my right toyou to a duel and restore the honor of my House in your blood.”
“I already know this,” said Umberto, playing to the crowd. “I'm here aren't I?”
“You have come to your death,” promised Fiora. “Unless you choose not to fight by giving me satisfaction for your offense.”
“How might I give milady satisfaction?” asked Umberto.
“Given the nature of your offense, submit to having your right ear severed from your head.”
“What? Are you mad, woman?”
“It's that or I kill you,” said Fiora, as though they were discussing the weather. “You know how this duel will end. There is no loss of face in yielding.”
“Of course there is,” said Umberto, and Fiora saw he still thought he could win. Like everyone else, he underestimated her.
“All here know my skill with a blade, so choose to live and wear your wound as a badge of honor. Or choose death, and be food for crows by midmorning.”
Fiora raised her blade. “But choose now.”
His anger at what he assumed was her arrogance overcame his fear and he stamped forward, the tip of his sword thrusting for her heart. Fiora had read the attack before it was launched and made a quarter turn to the left, letting the curved blade cut only air. Her own blade swept up, then down in a, diagonal arc. The crowd gasped at the wet spatter of blood on stone and the shocking suddenness of the duel's ending.
Fiora turned as Umberto's sword clattered to the granite flagstones. He fell to his knees, then slumped back onto his haunches, hands clutched to his opened throat from which blood pumped enthusiastically.
She bowed to Umberto, but his eyes were already glassy and unseeing with impending death. Fiora took no pleasure in such a slaying, but the fool had left her little choice. Umberto's brothers came forward to collect the corpse, and she felt their shock at their brother's defeat.
“How many is that?” asked Ammdar, coming forward to collect her sword. “Fifteen? Twenty?”
“Thirty,” said Fiora. “Or maybe more. They all look the same to me now.”
“There will be more,” promised her brother.
“So be it,” answered Fiora. “But every death restores our family honor. Every death brings redemption closer.”
“Redemption for whom?” asked Ammdar.
But Fiora did not answer.