Bastion and Riva stood in one of the training salles. “Just how much training have you had?” he asked.
She shrugged. “I don’t know that you would understand it. Several lifetimes, a dozen styles at least, as many weapons as can be imagined. I’m not exactly in top form at the moment, though, so you might be able to keep up.” She unslung the bag from her chest, careful not to disturb the sleeping infant and gently set him in one corner, out of immediate danger and then she made sure that he was protected from above by a bench.
He looked concerned at her statements, though. “Not in top form? What happened?”
They were alone in the salle, though the walls were covered in various weapons and a few weapon stands were placed on the edges of the room, interspersed with benches. Ringed around the top of the room was an open corridor, a balcony for observers on all four sides. “Oh,” she said, “I was an idiot when I was learning all the neat little tricks and stunts that made some of those battles a blast to watch. You’ll never forget the first time that you realize that you spent more of that swordfight in midair than standing on anything. I tied everything to my Traveler gifts forgetting that sometimes they go haywire for no apparent reason.”
“So you can’t…?”
She shook her head. “Completely shut down. Ears stopped up and everything. I managed to unstick some of the illusion skills, visual and audible, but other than that I’m as mundane as the next person. Well… other than the fact that I’m not entirely human and still enhanced because of it, but that’s a complicated mess if there ever was one. What about you?”
“I don’t know yet. I’ll explain later.” He grabbed a couple swords from a nearby stand and offered the hilt of one over his arm to her. “Why don’t we see who has more of a problem keeping up with whom?”
She grinned and accepted the sword.
— — —
Word of the duel spread quickly. Brady was with several other trainees, getting acquainted, when someone grabbed the edge of the door and poked his head in the room, breathless with excitement. “Captain Bastion’s in the forward training salle with a streetling girl and she’s actually keeping up with him!”
Several jaws dropped and Brady looked confused. “Is he really that good?”
“You don’t know? He’s the best!” There was more than a touch of hero-worship in the boy’s voice.
The room quickly emptied and Brady followed along with the others as they ran to see if they could catch a peek in the room from one of the balconies above it. By the time they got there, the balconies were packed. He looked down and saw Bastion and Riva and was stunned silent.
He had no idea that Riva could fight like that. It was more a dance than a battle.
Even in the concentration of battle, and it wasn’t like they were going full out after each other, Riva noticed the crowd that had gathered above them. “Hey, Bastion, see if you know this line.” She asked him when their blows brought them close to each other. “Morpheus and Neo are fighting.”
Bastion laughed. He knew the line and he knew the situation. “But which of us is which?” He disarmed her and she quickly grabbed another available weapon from the wall and switched styles to match. He nodded in appreciation.
“I haven’t a clue.” She deftly disarmed him, forcing him to seek a replacement.
They traded back and forth for a while, finding as much enjoyment in the activity as those watching above. It was almost an intellectual exercise for them, testing how many ways they could use the weapons around them. Eventually though, Riva pushed herself a touch too far, and tumbled to the ground, having twisted her ankle. They came to a standstill with Bastion’s weapon at her throat.
He started to grin at her until she tapped him on the inside of the thigh with the flat of her knife. She’d almost forgotten that she was wearing it and had drawn it out of instinct. He might have gotten her, but she’d have made sure that he’d never sing bass again. He looked down at the knife blade and nodded.
He backed off and she resheathed the blade. She sat there a moment, trying to catch her breath. “You were holding back.”
“So were you, until the last.” He reached a hand out to help her up. “Are you going to be alright?”
She laughed at herself. “Yeah, happens with astonishing frequency. I’ll limp for a couple hours and then be perfectly alright, until it happens again.”
Their audience gradually dissipated and Bastion helped her over to one of the benches and then brought her the baby who had started fussing. She pulled a bottle out of a pocket on the side of the carrier and began to feed him with a gentle touch that spoke of experience. He had to smile, watching her with the baby.
He didn’t know when it happened, but somehow they had become friends, and he was glad. He just wished that he had the right to ask her if they might be more than that. He wished, again, that Riva could be his Princess. That would make everything right.
— — —
Brady wasn’t sure he liked what he was seeing.
The squires who had beaten Alban hadn’t been on the Palace grounds when news of the fight between Bastion and Riva had run like wildfire. They had been out in the city seeking new targets, and not finding them. Kodran had ordered all of his streetlings to avoid the four if at all possible, and to see that as many of the unaffiliated were warned as they could reach. They’d actually managed to reach quite a few.
But now the squires were back, and from the very quiet mutters Brady was hearing from his companions, he wasn’t the only one who wasn’t happy about matters. It seemed that they had an unsavory reputation even here. They glanced at Brady, but he was safely surrounded by other trainees. He quietly resolved to never be alone if he could help it. The last thing he needed was to get into a fight with senior students.
Unfortunately, though, there was one boy who was without companions, the younger son of a nobleman. Kenneth hadn’t really reached out to any of them yet, but they thought that it was simply a matter of shyness, that given time he would relax. Brady wasn’t certain, though, he’d seen that kind of shyness before in streetlings. He suspected that the boy judged himself unworthy of friends.
Until the squires approached Kenneth, letting him follow them around for a while, and Brady began to understand just how dangerous matters could become. The squires were recruiting, and their views on streetling knights were well known.
But what could Brady do? He was new here, and all the new trainees were being run to exhaustion. He warned his companions and kept an eye out for Riva. If he could warn her, then she might be able to get the warning to the Knights-Captain, and they might be able to do something before factions erupted in the Order that could destroy everything that Lady Arie and Lord Tertius had built.
— — —
Riva balanced on a low wall, walking beside Bastion as he showed her the Palace grounds. “Well,” she said, “I know one movie you are familiar with. Where were you when the world stopped turning?”
“I don’t know that one.”
She sighed. “So either you missed it or your particular Earth Prime didn’t have one… or you just don’t know the event by that term. It was the day the towers fell in New York City. Any Earth Prime connected to the history of the primary one changed irrevocably that day.”
“What about you?”
“I was there for it. Was playing a videogame when I got the call that the first tower had been hit. I remember thinking that it was a horrible tragedy. Then… then my husband called to tell me that the second tower was hit and I knew it wasn’t an accident anymore.” She took a deep breath. “Lost him in an accident almost ten years later. Couple of years after that I got a military escort to a dig site and found… well, found a doorway that only I could open. I walked through and never looked back.”
“Nope. Can’t really break that boundary anymore. It’s complicated, but I’m on this side of the gate now, so I’ve got to deal with the here and now as best I can.”
“Did you leave family behind?”
“Not as many as there would have been if I’d crossed the boundary when the Towers fell. Last couple of years before I left were filled with more funerals than a Greek Tragedy. By the time the escort found me… I was pretty well alone other than my dog. You?”
“Just my brothers. Mom and Dad died. It was an accident. That was where I acquired my distinctive scar.” He sighed in old grief.
“You will have the option to return, if you want. Traveler powers don’t stay sealed forever. Eventually I’ll unstick mine and I can help you go home, if you want. Or we’ll run into an active Traveler at some point and they can help you get there.”
Bastion was silent for a long moment. “I had never considered finding a way back. After I arrived here all I wanted was to go home. But eventually I adjusted to this world. I have responsibilities here, obligations.”
Riva sighed. “Obligations can only get you so far. Eventually you have to decide if the drain on yourself is worth it. It is always much more preferable to do something because you want to do it. You mentioned brothers?”
“Yes, one is my twin, Gabriel. He is in the Northern Empire. He and I do not have a positive relationship.” Oh, that was putting matters very mildly. “The other is much younger than we are, Justin. I don’t… I don’t know where Justin is, whether he came here with us or whether he was left behind, alone.” Bastion paused. “If I thought that Justin was alone and frightened, I would do anything to return to him.”
“He’s my brother.” Bastion was silent for a moment. “Would you ever go back?”
She sighed. “If I could? If I could find that gateway and pass back through it? I don’t know. I didn’t have much in the way of family or friends left, though I had something of a developing career as a writer. Still, if any of my friends needed me, then I’d find my way to them no matter the conditions. For me, family is more a matter of my choices. I have chosen brothers and sisters, and even parents. For them I would go running, if I could. Right now, I can’t.” She looked down at the baby she carried, still in his pouch. “For this little one I would do much.” For the sake of all those babes she hadn’t been able to save, she’d give her life to make sure this one lived happy and free.
They came to the end of the wall and Riva carefully sat down on it, looking around at the Palace grounds. They were silent for a while and Bastion wasn’t sure what questions he wanted to ask and which ones were better left unasked.
Riva sighed. “I don’t abandon that which I care about, especially when there are people involved. I have a distressing tendency to hold on to them with both hands and I don’t want to let go, ever, for any reason.” Bastion looked over at her and realized that there were tears rolling down her face. “I’ve lost too many friends already, lost too many loves. Some of them… a few times I nearly followed them to the grave out of grief. It’s made me afraid to bond that deeply… but I don’t know if I can stop myself from doing it anyway.”