to triumph quickly or be vanquished

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Clara could feel her knuckles grinding together in Enrico's grip. She tried to make her hand go limp, to release the cramp she could feel building. He took that as a cue to clutch tighter.

Men in intricately wrought armour came and went from the dirt arena, checking leathers and tightening buckles.

Then a phalanx of purple-and-black Princeguards emerged, each pair dragging between them a shackled prisoner—five in total. These prisoners were bound to stakes to one side of the arena. Clara watched as the nearest one slumped against his chains. They all had brown skin and black hair. Samiochi, most likely.

Two short bursts from the trumpeter brought the crowd to silence. Prince Zarinel's herald said, "And now, a show of force."

Two figures jogged into the arena: Fearghill and Siona. Their hair was knotted back from their faces in braid-and-loop formations that must have taken hours, and wove the spider-white strands into crowns around their faces. They were dressed in sky blue tunics, with embossed leather vambraces and boots. Gold glittered in their ears, at their necks, and around their wrists. Each of them carried a stave that had been polished to shining and was wound and tipped with more shining metal.

Clara heard those around her shift and whisper. She leaned forward, and Enrico used his grip on her hand to draw her back. 

Fearghill and Siona bowed deeply to the prince. Clara saw Fearghill glance swiftly at the five bound prisoners.

They matched up with each other, four paces apart. Then Fearghill lunged at Siona. 

Clara gasped, then was struck by the silence around her. Nobody else had seemed shocked. The faces of the lords and ladies had settled somewhere between boredom and curiosity.

"I don't know why his blessed highness insists on these demonstrations," said the woman on Enrico's other side. "Such a brutal, graceless fighting style."

Watching Feaghall and Siona lunge at each other, staves clacking together, Clara had to agree. She had seen the Vallebrion men sparring, and it was almost like a dance, their curved swords arcing and sliding as if choreographed. 

The fight she was watching now, however, spoke of two combatants vying for survival, as if they knew they had to triumph quickly or be vanquished.

A clatter, and Fearghill leapt back, his stave falling to the ground. He nodded, wryly, to his sister. She held out her stave out endwise in front of her, the metal-tipped end towards her own chest, and Fearghill clasped the other end for a moment before bending to collect his own weapon.

They turned to face the prince and bowed again. Clara was struck by Fearghill's grim expression. Siona stood close to her brother, slightly in front, her stance subtly protective.

Prince Zarinel nodded slowly. He leaned over to the herald, who said, "And now, a show of loyalty."

Fearghill stood there he was for a moment, his gaze fixed on the prince. 

"They are enemies of mine, Fearghill," said Prince Zarinel. He did not speak loudly, but his voice carried around the arena. "Are not my enemies your enemies?"

Fearghill bowed. Without looking at her, he gave his stave to Siona and paced across the arena to the nearest of the five prisoners. He put one hand on the man's jaw and the other around his skull, then leaned forward and whispered something in the man's ear. A swift movement, and the man slumped in his chains.

Now the crowd gasped, titillated.

Fearghill went down the line, and so quickly it almost happened between one breath and the next, five lives were extinguished. Expressionless, he paced back to Siona and took his stave. 

"Good lad," said Zarinel, his face settling into an expression that might be pleasure. 

"I am your loyal servant," said Fearghill, bowing. 

Zarinel held his gaze for a long moment, then leaned back, nodded to the herald, and reached for the platter of meats beside him. 

"Let the tournament commence," said the prince.

"And now, a show of skill," said the herald. 

Clara watched as twoscore armoured men jogged into the arena and arrayed themselves around its perimeter. She watched as Siona leaned against Fearghill, who closed his eyes. She watched as the executed man nearest her swayed against his chains.

The ladies got to their feet, calling the name of this or that lord to get his attention, and throwing down favours wrapped in ribbons.

The lords would select from among the favours thrown at their feet and tie the ribbons to the straps holding their shoulder-guards to their chestplate.

Siona left the arena, but Fearghill remained, his head downcast, surrounded by silence, no favours at his feet.

* * *

After the tournament, there was a banquet. How Clara wished she could avoid attending, but with Amarante on one side and Enrico on the other, there was little chance of that.

At least she could have some privacy for a little while. "I have to do the necessary thing," she said. 

Enrico, deep in his cups, waved her off. Amarante, equally contented after a large meal, nodded slowly and seemed blessedly disinclined to chaperone her to the privy. 

Having taken care of her bladder in a little curtained alcove that housed a bench and a chamberpot, Clara hesitated at the door of the banqueting room. Must she go back in? She crept down a darkened hallway and sighed, listening to the muted hum of conversation and laughter.

"Clara of Vallebrion," said Fearghill, coming up behind her. She turned, feeling a mix of pleasure and fear. She had watched him kill five men scarce hours ago. "Lord Fearghill." Clara bobbed her head.

"Are you enjoying the banquet?" He kept his distance from her, leaning against the opposite wall. The corridor was empty, for the moment.

"It is very generous," said Clara.

A wry, bitter smile curved Fearghill's lips. "True enough. And the spectacle?"

"Siona said I should come," said Clara.

"I know. Neither of us knew..."

"That you'd be called on to play executioner?"

Instead of replying, Fearghill bowed his head.

"What I did might be called a mercy," he said eventually. "They might have been torn apart by lions, or beaten to death on the wheel."

Clara was reminded of the moment at the beginning of the tournament when he had stood surrounded by men, alone.

Clara reached up into her hair, which was wound around her head and tied with ribbons, and pulled down one of the tendrils, extracting the yellow ribbon. "Here," she said, holding it out to Fearghill, "if you'll have my favour."

He accepted the ribbon and cradled it in his open palm, studying it with a strange, closed expression. "I thank you."

"You fought well in the tournament," said Clara. "Considering...."

"It is an honour to be allowed to fight with a sword," said Fearghill. Not for the first time Clara had the sense that each word had been shaped and tested before being released.

"You live in a dangerous world, Lord Fearghill," said Clara. 

He looked up sharply, amber eyes meeting brown, and half-smiled. "True enough, Clara of Vallebrion." He closed his hand over her ribbon and tucked it into his tunic. "And since I cannot offer you my sword in return for your favour, I offer you my knowledge instead. How much do you know about the Forest of Vallebrion?"

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