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Into the Smear
Winslow Cardiff was tired of waiting. Ever since he was a child his father had promised him a chance to prove himself. Year after year, he dealt with the excuses, the reasons why he could not train with the King’s Blades. And every two years, he watched as mere babies were chosen on the Day of Accolades. Their learning began as soon as they could walk.
Still Count Cardiff continued to lie to him. For that is what those denials were: lies. And not even well-crafted ones, simple denials meant to dissuade an overzealous child. Time and again, Winslow had analyzed the words, the expressions, wanting to believe, but his instincts, and more importantly his soul, told him they were filled with deception. He’d learned to listen to both as he’d grown to wake with the rising of Mandrigal casting its golden glow across the sky.
He did not care if the dregs in the Smear were descendants of the storied Dracodar. He possessed some skill in soul magic too as his tutors had proved. Not as much as others claimed the dregs did, but it was there nonetheless. No one could be recognized as a noble if they lacked such a blessing. So why were these commoners, criminals, diseased miscreants of society, given a chance to become a Blade before the nobility? Why did he have to go through the Trial of Bravery while they had one of the greatest honors handed to them? He growled under his breath.
Count Cardiff had yet again refused him the chance to take the trial last year at fifteen, but he was sixteen now, a man. The hair growing under his chin confirmed it. He would no longer allow his father to bar him from his goal. The choice was his and his alone.
“Are you sure of this?” Gaston asked from where he stood on the other side of the tiny alley. He looked ridiculous in his disguise meant to copy one of the Smear’s dregs in ill-fitting, dirty clothes.
“I’ve never been more certain of anything in my life,” Winslow declared. He had dressed similarly to his friend, but unlike Gaston he’d practiced this for weeks. No one would know the difference.
“Is my face dirty enough?” Gaston smeared some more dirt on his cheeks, rubbing it in.
Winslow chuckled. “You look like a beggar.”
“Perfect, then,” his friend said with a smile. Gaston’s expression became serious, one of the few times he actually looked his eighteen years rather than a skinny youth of thirteen. “Do you think anyone will actually attack us?”
“If it appears they might, we simply reveal who we are. They wouldn’t dare touch a noble.” Even as he said the words, Winslow had his own doubts. His mother had died in the Smear giving birth to him, right after she’d tried to save his older brother during the trial. Guild members had beaten her bloody. He despised them for it but hated them more for the privileges the Day of Accolades provided. “Besides, we’re both trained swordsmen.” He touched the weapon’s hilt hidden by his cloak.
“You know we could simply do like the others … go near the Smear but not actually cross into it. That still counts as part of the test.”
“When have you heard of anyone being accepted as an apprentice who did the trial that way?”
“King Jemare’s son, Joaquin.”
Gaston opened his mouth and then closed it.
“Precisely,” Winslow said.
He stared out across Deadman’s Gap, the street closest to the Smear on this side of Kasandar. A market made up of ramshackle stalls and storefronts spread before him. The homes and buildings hugged each other here and within the Smear more so than in any other place in the citadel. Even at this distance the reek of garbage and clogged drains tainted the air. It smelled like death. Mired in perpetual shadow, alleys and lanes crisscrossed the area, so tight they could barely fit a man, much less two. If the sun really was the God, Mandrigal, his Light had a difficult time reaching the Smear’s streets. No wonder the dregs were a lawless, Godless people.
“To ensure we aren’t denied, we must go through the Smear,” Winslow said, hoping he sounded braver than he felt.
“What if we fail, Wins. Have you considered that?”
“We won’t.” Failure had not crossed his mind. He would pass this test. “This time next month, we’ll be apprentice Blades.”
“You, will be, not I. I’m only here to keep you out of trouble.”
“And a fine job you’re doing too.”
Gaston had never been into physical combat. Even when Count Cardiff had forced them both to learn the sword, he’d resisted. It was something to do with his fragile body and dislike for blood. He’d much rather dive into the rumors, games, and political intrigue that almost every noble appeared to have been swaddled in from birth. Yet, for the sake of Winslow, he learned. Winslow respected his friend for that. He would have done the same himself.
“When our fathers hear of this, they won’t be pleased,” Gaston said.
“It won’t be the first time we have disappointed them.”
They smiled at each other. On the Ten Hills, they were known for their pranks. Not that they had attempted one in the past year, but certain things remained with people. The gutseed in the punch at one of the balls had been genius. Several hundred nobles stinking up the air with their farts. Counts Cardiff and Rostlin had been red-faced. Winslow’s smile became a grin.
His father had used that act as an example to show why Winslow was not ready to become a Blade. The following months were spent learning of Far’an Senjin—the Game of Souls—and the political maneuvering associated with the major noble houses on the Ten Hills. A subject Winslow found more than boring. Fighting and battle, now, that piqued his interest, excited him. None more so than watching the Blades conjure swords, make their bodies as hard as granite, or move so fast they became a blur. He dreamed of achieving those feats.
“You do realize we might come across someone adept in soul magic,” Gaston said as if reading his thoughts.
“Yes, but it’s a slim chance at best.” The mention of it grated at Winslow’s insides. “They will take care not to reveal themselves if any have skill in the arts. Over the last few years not many have shown the ability for much more than the basics.” His father believed the dregs were hiding the gifted among them, but Winslow begged to differ. The Gods had finally culled the talent from them. Deservedly so.
“I pray you’re right.” Gaston made the circular sign for the Dominion over his heart.
“When am I ever wrong?” Winslow winked at Gaston to ease his friend’s worry.
“You’ll be in my debt when this is over.”
“Drinks and women on me then … at Jarina’s Hands when we’re done.”
Gaston smiled. “Any girl I want?”
“Then why are we still standing here?”
Winslow chuckled. When he stopped, he stared across Deadman’s Gap once more. Enough people had gathered in the dreg’s market. No one would be able to pick out the two of them among the crowd. “Act normal. Remember, these people are beneath us. We have nothing to fear.”
Taking a deep breath, he stepped from the corner. With each stride his heart rate sped up, and his stomach tied itself in knots. There was no retreat now. This moment was his, and he would bask in the glory that would come with the trial’s completion. No one and nothing could take that away from him.