You been thrown out again? he asked as I passed him.
I stopped. Hian had never spoken to me before.
Yes, Armsmaster, I said, tucking my chin into a bow to wait out his scorn.
He held the dagger up in front of him and inspected the blade. Seems to me you were doing all right.
I looked up and met his eyes, the whites yellowed against his forge-reddened skin.
With that leg, youre never going to get the Mirror Dragon Third sequence right, he said. Try a Reverse Horse Dragon Second. Theres a precedent for it. Ranne should have told you.
I kept my face expressionless but couldnt help the skip of hope that caught in my throat. Was it true? But why was he telling me this? Maybe it was just a joke on the cripple.
He stood up, holding on to the doorjamb to help him straighten. I dont blame your mistrust, boy. But you ask your master. Hes one of the best history keepers around. Hell tell you Im right.
Yes, Armsmaster. Thank you.
A loud yell made us both turn toward the candidates on the sand. Baret was on his knees in front of Ranne.
Swordmaster Louan was considered one of the best approach ceremony instructors. Its a pity he retired, Hian said flatly. Youve got practice swords at home?
Then practice the Reverse Second tonight. Before your cleansing ritual starts. He walked stiffly down the two steps, then looked back at me. And tell your master that old Hian sends his regards.
I watched him walk slowly to the gateway that led down to the forge, the distant clang of hammer on anvil drumming his progress. If he was right and I could replace the Mirror Dragon Third with a Reverse Horse Dragon Second, then I would have no difficulty finishing the approach sequence.
I stepped into the cool, dim armory and waited for my eyes to adjust. I was not as convinced as the armsmaster that the council would allow a change to the ceremony, particularly to the Mirror Dragon sequence. The Dragon Dragon was, after all, the symbol of the Emperor, and the legends said that the Imperial Family was descended from dragons and still had dragon blood in its veins.
Then again, the Mirror Dragon had been gone for over five hundred years. No one really knew why or how he had disappeared. One story said that a long-ago Emperor offended the dragon, and another told of a terrible battle between the spirit beasts that destroyed the Mirror Dragon. My master said that all the stories were just hearthside imaginings, and that the truth, along with all the records, had been lost to time and the fire that took the Mirror Dragon Hall. And he would know; as the armsmaster had said, my master was a great history keeper. If there was an old variation to the approach sequence, then he would find it.
But first I had to tell him, a day before the ceremony, that I could not complete the Mirror Dragon form. I shivered, remembering the welts and bruises of his past displeasure. I knew it was desperation that provoked his hand - in the last ten years, my master had trained six candidates and all of them had failed - but I did not look forward to his anger. I gripped the hilts of the swords more tightly. I had to know if the Reverse Horse Dragon Second was allowed. It was my best chance.
My master was not a fool; he would not beat me too hard before the ceremony. Too much rode upon it. And if his history scrolls agreed with Hian, Id have at least four hours before the cleansing ritual to practice the new form and its bridges. It was not long, but it should be enough. I raised the swords in the overhead cut that started the Reverse Second and sliced the left sword down shallowly, conscious of the limited space.
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