"You're a strange one," Rone said. "You have manners and airs of a wizard, but none of the entrappings. No books. No college robes. You summon a sword, but not servant or guardian spirits. It's a rare wizard who does his own scutwork."
"Well observed," Azurdanak said. "You should know the rue you travel with."
"My homeland is far away, known to us as Kainenland, founded by a conjurer of renown."
"I've heard of it," said Rone. "I've heard it called the Towerlands."
"Indeed you have. Wizardry runs in Kainen blood."
"And you're not one of the vaunted conjurers?"
I was in training for such. But events, as they do, transpired. A vast curse befell my people, called up by my master, Symerond, consorting with forces beyond his mettle. Pyrotechnics ensued and Symerond lay dead at a maleficent's cloven feet."
"A maleficent? So you're diabolists?" Dahlia asked.
"Not after that affair," he said dryly. "The maleficent was and remains bound within my master's tower, but his reach was not so hindered. Crops withered. Rivers ran red. Barricaded in Symerond's tower, the maleficent demanded firstborn sacrifices. We resisted for a time, but... necessity became reality.
"After some months, research uncovered a way to breach the tower and potentially lift the curse: one thousand deaths bought in single combat.
"I had wanted only to be a scholar-wizard, steeped in study. Perhaps take on an apprentice of my own some day. The Kainenland greybeards decided otherwise.
"Symerond had no known living relatives, so the task of lifting the curse fell to me, his intellectual heir. A curse which can only be lifted by the sword.
"Of course I had as much experience with swords as eels with kites. So I embarked on a natural course--I sought the finest teacher and commenced study."
"Who was your teacher?" Rone's entomological reverie had ended some moments before and he seemed drawn in to this part of the story.
"The renowned fencing master, Thibidout of Ravenna."
"I know of Thibidout. But not you," Rone said.
"Then it is as I have wished. Notoriety does my cause no service. Convinced of the import of my quest, Thibidout trained me in secret for five years."
"Five years won't make a master swordsman," Dahlia said.
"But brilliance, need, and keen study do. I do not possess Rone's strength or the lifetime of discipline. Nor do I have your grace or natural ability. I used what I have: quick study and knife-edge focus. For five years I studied the Derecha school of fencing under Master Thibidout. His system is objectively the best. No weapon can prevail over a Derecha master, especially one wielding a ley rapier."
"I've heard the Derecha boast, but never had the good fortune to observe it," Rone said diplomatically.
"Watch closely then," Azurdanak said. "Thaumaturgy was my destiny, but then wizardry became waylaid. Now I am an itinerant swordsman on the grimmest of missions."
The life you choose is seldom the life you live," said Rone.
"We all know that song," said Dahlia.
"That's a long tale under a short hat, 'Danak." Dahlia had given Azurdanak a nickname the first day out. He refrained from objecting lest she return to "Stick Arm" or a less pleasant moniker. "I still think you're borrowing trouble. But I respect your courage. And you're a middling swordsman. You might live if you keep moving."
"I shall do both," Azurdanak said. "Death is no acceptable option."
"That choice is not entirely yours," said Rone.
"I have not had the luxury of choice for seven years."
Rone met his eyes and nodded in response.
The next evening, an hour before sundown, Dahlia was collecting firewood in a thicket when she heard a single footstep rustle behind her. Her sword was in her strong right hand in time to ward off the club descending on her back.
She whirled to face three assailants: two ragged Crosian bandits: one missing part of an ear, one with a snaggled tooth recovering for another blow with the club. And a swarthy greasy-haired Urugan wielding the traditional long knife of his people.
"Looks like we found a bird alone here in the grass--"
The snaggletoothed bandit's taunt was cut short. Dahlia leapt toward him and cut his wrist deeply. He cried out and dropped his club. Now in close, Dahlia pulled his own knife from his belt and gutted him while he stared at his gashed wrist.
As the other two maneuvered to attack, Dahlia rolled forward and beyond them, nicking the missing-ear bandit's calf along the way. He crumpled and Dahlia rolled back to finish him with a quiet gurgle.
The Urugan hesitated which gave Dahlia enough time to stand and face him. He slowly sheathed his long knife and held up his hands in front of him. "I see you are not the wounded bird we mistook you for for, m'lady," he said in an unusually cultured, musical voice for an Urugan. "Forgive the egregious presumption. I am but a lowly outcast from my tribe, seeking to make his way in a strange land. I fell in with lesser company, and you have shown me the error of my ways. Perhaps you will also show mercy?"
Dahlia laughed. "I have no quarrel with you, exile. Be on your way and choose better allies next time. I claim rights to these louts' pockets though."
"Of course, my lady. Who would gainsay such a reasonable request?"
"And yours," she said lowering her sword to the pouch on his belt.
He paused. "But that I would have offered it first to a lady of such keen demeanor," he said, untying it from his belt. He threw it at her feet, and she kicked it a couple of yards beyond his reach.
"Your tongue has a spritely dance for an Urugan."
"My kin and I have occasionally had differences of perception."
"Hence your banishment."
"As you say, my lady."
"I'm not your lady, exile. Now go find a better class of gutter trash to roll in."
"Your mercy is matched only by your beauty," he said. He looked again at his forfeited pouch and backed many paces before turning away from the broadsword.
Dahlia picked up the pouch and sorted through it. A handful of silver coins and a couple of long fangs from some animal carved with primitive scrimshaw. They might sell to a curio collector. The bandits had only a few copper coins between them, but the knife she took from the first one had decent craftsmanship. Shame he hadn't thought to use it.