She snorted with laughter at his question, but there was a pained look in her eyes ever so briefly - a look she was quick to hide away by turning to pack her armor securely in the crate that was to be delivered back to Liam's quarters by the squires waiting outside. "I thought everyone knew that story," she said, her tone deliberately light. "Do you want to hear the legend, or the truth?"
"I know the legend. I would like the truth," he replied. Everyone in Arctra knew the legend of how Shaye Dervla became the First Blade and was forced to serve the False Queen before Adare became Ariana and reclaimed her throne, but though legends were based on truth, he knew they were usually heavily embellished. Now that he was First Blade - though he could still hardly believe it - he thought he should learn as much as he could about the woman who held that title before him.
She was quiet for a long moment, drawing in a sharp breath before beginning to speak. "It isn't that different, really," she said, twisting to sit on the bench, her hands clasped loosely between her knees. "I was in my last year of training, fifteen years old. Liam was in my intake, my best friend; the brightest part of my life. When the First Blade brought the Fourteenth to the training grounds on Velasca's first orders, we were all called to gather and made to watch as he executed the Lord Marshal in front of us, a man who had never done a dishonorable thing in his life. His last words were the prophecy - so long as a daughter of Arlan's line bestrides the throne of Arctra ..."
She trailed off, swallowing hard. "And then they read the names of the good men and women they had executed as traitors against Velasca's rule. Liam's father was one of them. They wanted to kill Liam, too, and everyone else who was related to those good people they had murdered. And our training ground became a battleground. We fought to escape, Liam and I; we made it to the stables, but the First Blade was right behind us. I couldn't bear the thought of him dying, of his mother being killed ... so I stayed behind."
She shook her head, smiling bitterly. "I intended to die," she admitted with a quiet huff of laughter. "I thought I could slow up the First Blade long enough for my friend to get away before I was killed. And instead, a fifteen-year-old raw recruit with more anger than skill killed the First Blade in single combat. Scared the crap out of all the soldiers he'd brought with him, I can tell you. But I'll tell you this, though ... not a day went by that I didn't wish he'd killed me instead."
Gerard stood nearby, arms across his chest, studying her while she relived a day she might have rather forgotten or never lived at all. He could almost see what had taken place in his head, though he was not there that day. He was far away in Phalion then, a squire doing his best to rise up through the ranks and become a knight. Velasca's rise to power changed his plans, but that was his story to tell, not hers. "Then the legend is true, and you had no choice but to serve Velasca, even if you did not wish to."
She nodded, her expression bittersweet. "But no one believes the legend," she pointed out. "To Velasca and her supporters, I was a feral, wild thing that couldn't be trusted; to the people I wanted to stand with, I was a turncoat, something to be despised. No one trusted me. No one wanted me. Velasca delighted in ordering me to kneel to her before witnesses, in ordering me to execute friends I had trained with. It's impossible to disobey an order from the hand that wields the Sword, Gerard. I tried. But the pain ... I will never have the words to describe that pain."
"And there is no release but death," he surmised, wondering just kind of fate he'd gotten himself into, and yet, he would not have to answer to someone like Velasca, but to a true daughter of Arlan and the True Queen of Arctra. "I can understand why you might have wished for death, but then, someone else would have taken your place."
"True, and a few tried it," she nodded. "Apparently I was a very angry teenager. No one managed to beat me when I was young, and as I got older, the legend grew. No one dared face me. I think you're the first person to willingly engage in a fight with me in twenty years."
"Willingly?" he echoed, with a derisive grunt. "You think I entered the tournament because I wanted to be First Blade? I entered the tournament because it was expected of me. Because now that I'm ..." He broke off, having to rephrase that. "As a Knight of Arctra, I had little choice." He shrugged as if it was of little import. "I have no family, no wife, no children. All I have is my duty to my queen and country. I have no other purpose in life than that. Perhaps that is why the gods chose me."
"Being First Blade isn't a purpose," Shaye told him, her tension easing as they seemed to step away from the pain of her past. "But I think you may well find that it will put you in a position to choose your purpose in life. Mine ... changed, while I was in that position. When I was young, I thought I wanted to be the First Blade. I wanted to be the best warrior in the world. And now? Nothing in the world can clean my hands of the blood I've spilled, but I can atone for it in my own way. If my husband shuts up long enough for me to explain how I plan on doing that, of course."
"Your husband," he echoed again, knowing well enough who it was she was speaking of. Everyone knew who he was now that Ariana had made him Captain of the Royal Guard - a coveted position that put him in close association with the queen, but then, the same could be said of the First Blade. "I have a feeling I'm going to get to know him better," he mused aloud. "Tell me, how did you escape Velasca?"
"Well, you, he, and Rory are responsible for the security of the palace and the circles in direct proximity to the queen, so ... yes, I'd say you're all going to know each other pretty well," Shaye chuckled. His question made her smile widen. "Velasca made a rather fundamental mistake. While we were at Phalion, she got word that Liam had been sighted in one of the neighboring villages. Fool that she was, she ordered me to seek him out. Just that. So I did, and promptly surrendered to the ambush he'd set up to capture me in the first place. Without knowing it, she let me go, and about a month later, two very good friends stole the Sword of Arlan out from under her nose."
He arched a dark brow in obvious surprise, not so much at Velasca's foolishness as at cleverness of her enemies. She had played right into their hands and given up both the First Blade and the Sword of Arlan without even realizing it. "It sounds like the Gods were working in your favor," he said, crediting the Nine, rather than believing it had been simply a matter of luck. "What did you do with the Sword once you had it?"
"Knowing what I know now, I think the Nine were working under orders from the Goddess, personally," Shaye chuckled. "Fair warning ... even if you despise the Wild Ones with every beat of your heart, never disparage their Goddess. They kill for that insult." She patted his shoulder, reaching up to twist her hair back into its braid, only to laugh outrageously at his next question. "Oh! Oh, well ... I didn't do anything with it ..."
"Then, who ..." Gerard started, but before he was able to finish that thought, they were interrupted by Liam, who just happened to have overheard the last bit of their conversation before he shoved his way into the room.
"I took possession of the Sword," Liam explained, coming up behind Shaye and winding his arms possessively around her waist. "As First Blade, you will have no choice but to obey the orders of whoever wields that blade, whether you want to or not."
"We tested the theory extensively, just to be certain it was the right Sword," Shaye added, leaning back into her husband's embrace with a positively wicked grin in Gerard's direction. If he thought this was bad, he was going to be in serious trouble when he first walked in on the queen and consort.