54. Little Dancer

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When I had met with Valalya to discuss what she was so eager to hear, I had meant to confide in her the fear I had of becoming like my mother. After her revelation of her suitors, however, I felt I could not bear to continue the subject. My curiosity was still unforgiving, but my respect for her caused me to shut it away. Yet, there was one thing I had still to ask her.

"Do you mean to be forced into it?"

Her answer had not been gratifying. "I mean to let my people choose which hand to take in mine, as they did for my mother."

She was sacrificing her choice because she no longer trusted herself. It was the most painful thing I had ever heard her say. And the most foolish. The people of Valhoal had fought and clawed a home from the desert beneath Thalon's leadership, and they respected her for it. Barrin had set them on this path when he broke their chains. In the eyes of Valhoal, they were the parents of our nation, and so it suited everyone to have them wed. That did not mean they would find a suitor as worthy to claim the hand of their princess. She who was a symbol of all that Valhoal would grow to be... No man could hope to live up to such a jewel. If Valalya maintained her stance to let the people choose, she would die alone.

That bothered me much more than the thought that I was nearly resigned to the same fate. My fear for my own future, at least, I could now tie back to all that I had known and what I had grown up with. Though my parents declared themselves husband and wife, they had been together but twice in sixteen years. This, more than anything, assured me that Sarrie loved Raydin as much as he did her, because she had never once sought the arms of another since she had me. Yet, for all their love, they had not sought each other out in the intervening time.

Thalon and Barrin were no better examples. They had married for duty and the survival of Valhoal. That was something they had never hid from anyone else. It took them years to fall in love with one another, and they seemed more surprised than anyone that they had done so.

Now, with Valalya's failed courtships, how could I tell myself that to marry another was a fate which I must look forward to? How could I not feel that I was better off remaining as I was? I had a child, now. Maybe not of my own blood and body, but that had never been what created a family. What more could be asked of me in that regard?

If it were not for Cardan, I might have gone on believing my whole life would be spent alone.

Nothing seemed to have motivated him quite like that first night in Valhoal. Whatever he must have felt, something drove him to learn. Every morning after our breakfast in the sitting room, he was the one that took Little Rabbit to her lessons, and he sat beside her through all of the morning. In the afternoons, however, he sought me out. One such time, he found me sparring with Tharin.

"I have been away for a few months and you have only grown slower," I chuckled as I rapped the flat of my blade against the outside of his thigh and rolled away from his chopping motion.

"You have too much energy," he complained, twirling his own long knife in his right hand and taking up the same fighting stance.

I feinted to the left before diving in on his unguarded side and punching him below the ribs. He grunted as I backed away once more, light as ever on my feet. "I hate when you do that," he muttered.

"So learn from it and stop letting me do it."

"You sound like Father."

"And if you had listened to him, you would not now hear it from me."

In the midst of my training, I did not realize the audience that had formed in the shadows of the pillars. Little Rabbit, I knew, was near because our tether told me so. Yet, I was not aware of her father's presence until Valalya remarked aloud, "They bicker like a married couple. It is this that makes them such a favorite fantasy of my mother's, I am sure."

Confused, my eyes strayed to the shadows and instantly found Cardan's. An unfamiliar flush came over me and I almost did not catch the swift stabbing motion Tharin made. Whirling in place, I thrust an elbow into his back as his momentum carried him too far past me. The blow caused him to lose his footing and he fell to the ground.

"That does it," he groaned as he pushed himself to his feet. Without looking at me, Tharin dropped down from the raised platform and approached Valalya between the pillars. "Next time she is like this, you can spar with her. Maybe you will be fast enough to avoid her tricks."

Valalya's smile was serene as she took the knife from him. "I would be happy to, Little Brother. Alas, even I cannot keep up with her when she is of a mood."

"What mood?" I called.

Before either of them could answer, Cardan had taken the knife from my sister and hopped up onto the platform. "Feisty," he said with a tiny smirk.

I grinned. "If that is the word you would use, I wonder at your being up here."

"I have seen you feisty before. I can handle it."

At this, I laughed. Then I lunged. Not only did my blade find his inner thigh, but I managed to cause his own blade to scratch his chest before I danced away on light feet. Between the pillars, Valalya called out, "Beware the little dancer. She thinks of fighting as a game, and she is quite good at those."

Cardan nodded his head to her in acknowledgement before he lunged at me. The problem with his strategy was that I had too much room to maneuver. Whenever he tried to press me into a corner, I lashed out in a strike that found its target more often than not, and darted out of reach. Yet, in all that time, he did not yield. He learned. Which directions I preferred to strike from; which locations on his body I might target; how best to keep his body turned so that I would have fewer chances of a perfect strike. While it was admirable that he was learning at such a rate, it was still no match for fifteen years' worth of constant knowledge of exactly what my body was capable of. At last, it was Little Rabbit that recalled us from our duel.

"Ana, is it time to eat now?"

In an instant, I turned and tossed my knives into the chest of practice blades and left the platform behind me. Cardan was at my side a second later before he scooped her up into his arms. "Yes, it is. A quick meal for us and then I think your mother and I will need baths."

Valalya had lingered in the shadows for so long that I almost forgot her. Until she remarked, "The perfect little family you three make. I can hardly wait until there are more of you."

She walked away before I could do more than glare at her. I refused to look at Cardan.

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