Fortuna: The Apprentice, Volume 4

By EG Manetti

Sci-Fi, Romance, Action & adventure

Paperback, eBook

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109
5 mins

1. Improved Circumstances

Sevenday 88, Day 2

   Breathing hard, limbs heavy, Lilian races down the shadowed corridor, intent on the distant door. Heavy footsteps echo behind her. She glances back. The dead man is closer, his gaping mouth emitting angry moans. Her heart pounding, lungs failing, Lilian flees through another darkened chamber, then another. The moans are closing. Desperate, she bolts through an open door. Before her, a Crevasse splits the ground. Only a score of feet across, the ledges run for miles on either side. On the far side, a hound howls defiance. Behind her, the moans of the walking dead man pursue her.
Panicked, Lilian plunges forward and leaps, the far edge retreating beyond her reach. Screaming, she drops into the thirty-mile scar in the planet’s crust . . .

   With the sense of hitting the bed hard, Lilian startles awake, heart pounding and skin covered in sweat. Another evil dream. Groping under her pillow, Lilian seeks her thorn, a slender, six-inch, three-sided blade that is deadly in close combat and usually a talisman against night terrors.

  Five Warriors take it! Where is it? In the dim light filtering through the balcony’s windowed double doors, Lilian searches through the bedding. Her thorn should be where she placed it last night.

   Last night.

   Milord.

   Lilian ceases her frantic searching, her fear and desperation fading with the memory of milord and their erotic Duet in the penthouse. The ritualized reenactment of the battle between Socraide Omsted and Adelaide Warleader is customarily a spiritual observance enacted by adherents of the First Warrior’s and Adelaide’s Sects. Nude and with milord, the stylized mock combat was unbelievably arousing, and the passionate conclusion left Lilian sated.

   Twice more, milord indulged his passion before finally dismissing Lilian for the night. Groggy with the aftermath of milord’s ardent attention, Lilian barely managed to hang her suit before falling into bed.

   Swinging her legs over the edge of the bed, savoring the pleasant soreness in delicate areas, Lilian rises. The chill from the floor’s fern and silver tiles matches the air, cooling the sweat on Lilian’s nude form as she crosses to the worn cordovan leather chair by the windows, where her slate satchel rests. Within is her thorn.

   Worn smooth from centuries of use, the slender bronze hilt holds a faint tracery of ancient symbols inlaid in silver. The unique design of the blade predates the Anarchy. On more than one occasion, Lilian has thanked her patron deity, Adelaide Warleader, for the unusual weapon. Of the six warrior disciplines, only Adelaide’s uses the thorn—a blade small enough to qualify as a personal blade and the only weapon allowed an apprentice.
   

   Settling the sheathed thorn on the gold warbelt around her waist, Lilian begins her discipline. After eight months, milord’s warbelt is as much a part of her as her skin. Sealed with milord’s DNA, the elaborate and expensive belt is a sign of both milord’s protection and his possession.

   I am the sum of my ancestors. Lilian stretches into the forms of attack. Muscles conditioned from years of martial arts training fall into well-known patterns. I am the foundation of my family. The evil dreams are but dreams. A reasonable reaction to the violence Lilian endured at the hands of milord’s rivals in Grey Spear. Honor is my blade and shield. Defense becomes avoidance. Lilian’s skin shines with sweat as her mind clears. Honor knows not fear. Sebastian Mehta, the former preeminence of Grey Spear, has been disgraced and banished from the Third System. He can do her no further harm. Honor endures. Within the sevenday, Sebastian’s vicious protégé, Martin, will also be gone, and with him, Lilian’s evil dreams. Honor acts as duty commands.

   Muscles warm and loose, damp with exertion, Lilian reaches for her training garb. A few minutes later, she is down the stairs and through the courtyard, striding along the covered walkway to the kitchen. In a flash of luminescent green and gold, a rotund furball bolts from the herb garden shed, warbling a gruff welcome. Katleen’s pet tree wombat is the size of a large house cat. Mostly gray, its undercoat of rainbow luminescence is only visible when it is excited. When it comes into its mating heat, it will look more like a moving pyrotechnic than a furry marsupial.

   “Beg all you wish,” Lilian scolds. “I will not feed you. You must wait for Katleen to rise.”

   With a disgruntled mumble, the wombat sulks aside as Lilian enters the kitchen. When Lilian emerges ten minutes later carrying a tray with juice, tea, fruit, and rolls, it races hopefully beside her, its luminescence less noticeable in the increasing light of day.

   “Get under my feet and I will kick you,” Lilian threatens.

   Undaunted, the wombat makes pleading little noises while circling her feet.
With a defeated twist of her lips, Lilian tosses the wombat a slice of melon. With a victorious chortle, the wombat bites into the fruit as Lilian disappears into the house.

   “Thorn against short sword,” Helena Faesetili greets Lilian in the courtyard, holding out a facemask.
   

   Lilian’s gray eyes, sculpted features, and trim athleticism are an echo of Helena’s. Garbed in black to her mother’s gray, Lilian is a few inches taller than her mother’s average height, the extra inches either her sire’s legacy or that of some other ancestor. Lilian’s hair is a darker red than Helena’s auburn, while Lilian’s creamy skin tones are deeper than Helena’s milky-white complexion and lack her mother’s dusting of freckles. Only the lightly traced lines at the corners of Helena’s eyes indicate she is in her late forties. With a reasonable expectation of one hundred twenty years, the seer has only recently passed from the first youth.

   Setting the tray inside the dry central fountain, Lilian takes the mask. By milord’s will, she may not train in the stone courtyard without it. Slipping a blade guard over the thorn, Lilian blunts all but the tip. As soon as the protective polymer is set, Helena launches the short sword at Lilian’s head.

   Dodging the blade, Lilian swings around the dry fountain, attempting to breach her mother’s flank. Helena spins and counters. The combatants separate, circling each other warily. Helena feints right, and Lilian goes high, snagging her mother’s tunic with the edge of her thorn. Helena twists away, rolling across one of the stone benches between the supporting pillars. Once, they held lush ornamental plants. Since the ruin, in a household nearly bare of furnishings, they serve as benches and tables when not employed as obstacles in training combat.
   

   For half a period, the two women spar, Lilian’s longer reach compensating for her shorter blade. The quicksilver movements of Adelaide’s Discipline are a powerful counter to the savage grace of Sinead’s Discipline. Lilian is younger and has used her thorn to defend against assault four times in the past year and a half. Helena is a master of Sinead’s Discipline. At the sound of the chimes, the women break off, neither able to claim victory. Lilian has several new bruises from the blunted blade of the training sword, while blood seeps from a thorn scratch on Helena’s wrist.

   “Your speed and strength continue to improve.” Helena rubs at the welling blood. “A year gone, you could not blood me.”

   “Here, Maman.” Lilian pulls a healing cloth from the weapons cabinet after storing her mask. The battered cabinet is the only furniture in the courtyard and the entire first storey of sealed and shuttered chambers. After her sire’s execution, Lilian and her family returned to Crevasse City to discover that their home in the Garden Center District had been vandalized. The warrior elite who reside in the district were not satisfied with theft. What they did not steal, they fouled or destroyed. It was the labor of a sevenday to cleanse and secure the house, compelling Lilian to sacrifice precious bells needed to prepare for her indenture. What little of value remained, Lilian sold to keep the ruined women from starvation until Lilian’s bond executed.

   Lilian does not fault her neighbors for their hatred of Remus Gariten and his foul crimes. It is a sentiment she shares. That does not mean she will forgive or forget how the ruin of their home terrified Katleen and pushed Helena’s deranged mind to the brink of full madness. Refusing to dwell on an unpleasant past she cannot change, Lilian focuses on Helena’s improved stability and the promise of the impending Bright Star summit. To have a role in the first stellar exploration venture in two centuries was beyond her wildest hopes two years gone. Reaching into the fountain for the breakfast tray, Lilian says, “I must hasten to ready for the Cartel. Do you wish the tray here or in your chamber?”


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