Episode 7 Chapter 10

The prince’s letter came that evening, delivered to the inn by courier bird. Theodore wasted no time. He buried himself in books on knighthood, combing through guidelines and protocol, burrowing deep into their appendices and scratching reminders and notes into memory. He wanted a week to study, but there wasn’t time for that. He presented himself the next day to the central barracks, royal appointment in hand.

The exam room emptied as each knight hopeful turned in their test before Theodore. He went over every question three times, squeezing the allotted hour for every minute. The questions were all about things he thought he knew, but the cost of failure twisted doubt into every line. Theodore never prayed, but found himself muttering ‘please’ over and over as he set down his pencil and surrendered his exam.

The applicants stood in a line in the hall while they waited to be graded. After an eternity, the test proctor swung out with a stack of papers in hand. A knight veteran, with a sword at his belt and a snow-white mustache.

“There is more to being a knight than swinging a sword,” he said, handing out results that crushed spirits. “To join an advanced knight order, you must know the law and how to uphold it. If you have fallen short, know that Laien accepts only the best of the best. Study, train, and return when you are worthy.”

The cadets filed out with hung heads one after the other, leaving only three. Theodore took his results with shaking hands.

“As for you few that made it this far…” The proctor indulged in a smirk. “Report to the training yard at your assigned time for the combat portion of the exam. Swinging a sword isn’t all there is, but you’d better be damned good at it.”

The afternoon sun fought against the autumn chill. Theodore held the practice sword out, standing at the center of the barracks training yard four. Leading with his left leg, he raised his arms and took the ox stance. It was good for thrusting attacks or diagonal swipes but offered minimal protection. Shifting his posture to the plow stance, then the fool, the roof, and then back again to the ox. The motion was stiff, but his muscles remembered the endless drills his father had forced him through.

Lance said the fool stance was vital to baiting your opponent. You looked more vulnerable than you were, and were poised to answer their next attack. Ox, plow, fool, roof. No. There was supposed to be five pillars. He was forgetting the tail. Theodore held the sword behind, letting it point to the ground.

He stepped across the training courtyard, swinging the blade and shifting from one stance to another. He almost tripped. Was this how he positioned his grip? Why was it so hard to remember when he had spent so much time on this? There was so much more to remember: variations, permutations, special stances, and exceptions for every circumstance. Theodore had suffered through so many lectures and had tried to forget all of it. It was all still there, just buried. Remembering was like pulling up brittle tree roots. He would grasp at a memory, only for it to snap in his hand and leave him with only a part of the whole.

“I’m an idiot,” he said. “I spent all my time reading books when this is where I’m weakest.” The test duel would start soon, and now there was no time.

Oboe pulled a dull sword off the rack and marched up to him.

“I’ll help you practice,” she said. “Pretend I’m the test guy.”

Theodore stared at the weapon. “That’s iron. It’s not safe for you to hold that.”

“Don’t worry about me! Come on!”

She swung, and Theodore stepped back. She charged, waving her weapon in every direction. The action woke something in him, let him stop thinking and just move. He dodged to let her run past him. She spun to face him without stance or form, and he knocked the blade from her unguarded grip. A kick sent her into the dirt, and one thrust of the ox meant victory.

His arm locked up. The sword shook in his hand, pointed at Oboe. Ella’s dying eyes flashed in his mind. Silas screamed. The nymph’s severed head sailed through the air.

Oboe kicked Theo, knocking his legs out from under him and toppling him.

“What’s your problem??” She hopped back up. “Why’d you stop?”

“I… didn’t want to hurt you,” he said.

She conked him on the head with her sword. “They’re not real, dummy! My nails are sharper than this! You’re here to show you can fight. You know how, you just need to stop being nice!”

“I know that,” Theodore said, sitting up. He looked at Oboe’s big brown eyes, so determined to help him, so certain and good and dear to him, and he couldn’t imagine even pretending to hurt her. “I know I have to do this. It’s just hard.”

“Then let’s keep practicing until you can do it.” She reached out her hand to help him stand.

The gate of the courtyard opened, shrieking on its rusted hinge. A man in a hunter’s cloak and a cavalier hat swept through, followed by a band of other knights. Conrad Whitechain lifted the brim of his hat to glare at Theodore.

“Grayweather,” he said.

Theodore grabbed Oboe’s hand, and was on his feet again. “Detective. To what do I owe seeing you here?”

“The knights on prince duty told me about your little scheme.” He walked in a slow circle around Theodore. “They confiscated a royal appointment letter from Perceval but failed to stop him from sending another. I’m disgusted by how well you’ve manipulated the boy, but fortunately for us you were sloppy. Did you believe I’d allow you to worm your way back into power?”

“Theo got permission!” Oboe said. “You can’t stop him from taking the test!”

“I know.” Conrad removed his hat. An attending knight took it and placed a sword from the rack in his hand. “Which is why I’ve arranged to administer your practical combat exam.”

 “What?” Theodore said. “How?”

The Knight Detective unbuckled his cloak and tossed it aside to reveal a light fencing uniform. “I train cadets here, just like your father did. I merely had to ask to be the one to test you. But do not worry, I’ve no intention of cheating.” He gestured towards a tall grim, woman in plate mail. “Spy Hunter Fullhound will officiate. This will be a duel until she calls its end. Make no mistake, I will not allow a wretch like you to hold sway over Laien again.”

“Conrad, you’re making a mistake!” Theodore said. “I’m not actually a Feymire spy! I’m trying to help the Fairy Circle! Let’s talk about this!”

“Keep your excuses.” Conrad snapped his sword into the ox stance. “Your actions speak loud enough.”

Spy Hunter Fullhound chopped her hand through the air. “The combat test starts now! Begin!”

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