The sun fell upon the royal gardens in a beautiful morning that Gisako would have much preferred to pass with her private tutor. It was one of the advantages of her father being a rich merchant from the Guild: when the city closed the schools for girls, even the noble schools, Gisako had no trouble convincing her parents to hire a private tutor for her.
Nevertheless, she still had to play the part of the dutiful daughter and accompany him to these pointless parties that the governor was so fond of throwing in the middle of the week.
“Father… do I really have to go?” She said quietly as they walked. She didn’t much enjoy the thought of the party; not at all, to be precise.
“Of course, dear.” Her father said, hurrying his step. “I have to talk with some of my fellows from the Guild, and it is a perfect chance for you to meet a suitable young man.”
He let the words trail off. They had already talked about how good it would be for the family if she could marry a noble. For all the money that the Gizaletzi name was worth, it could not buy a noble title. She nodded slightly, biting down the remark about how she loathed most of the young nobles she had met so far, and she had met quite a few.
They nodded politely to the guards flanking the entrance to the palace’s main hall, and already the sound of music promised Gisako yet another day of dull events. At least the food was good, and she was even allowed to drink wine.
“Now, dear…” Her father stopped in front of her inspecting her appearance. “You look lovely… just like your mother when she was your age. Go ahead and have fun, daddy has boring business to attend to.”
She nodded and gave him a gentle smile, knowing how much it meant for him for her to play the part. She entered the palace main hall slowly, looking around, changing her bearing to that which suited these parties best.
Little groups gathered by age as parents brought their sons and daughters mostly for the same reasons that her father had brought her. She spied a couple of her so-called friends, a few girls who were tolerable and kept Gisako appraised of the court’s gossip. Not that she had a particular fondness for gossiping, but she had discovered that if she could add two and two together, she could have some insight into what the nobles were actually up to.
One sight surprised her most of all… Lady Tzie, the governor’s daughter was there. She hadn’t had much chance to interact with the princess, but she liked her. She always looked like she was out of place in these parties too, her eyes always darting side to side, as if saying that she too would rather be somewhere else.
She smiled lightly and headed towards the young princess slowly.
“Greetings, my lady.” She said as she was within hearing distance. Minding protocol, she bowed low before the girl.
“Ah… good morning.” The princess said and narrowed her eyes. “Gizaletzi… Gisako, am I right?”
“Yes, m’lady…” she nodded and smiled lightly as she straightened again. “We hadn’t had the chance to talk much yet. And I do not wish to intrude upon you.”
“Ah… no, no… it’s not… you’re not, I mean.” Gisako couldn’t help but notice that the princess was a little agitated and, when she bowed, she also noticed that the hems of the royal dress were wet. Gossip spoke of the princess being a bit too shy for her royal position, a bit too easy to scare. No one spoke of such things in the presence of important people who could report it back to the governor’s wife, of course.
“I couldn’t fail to notice that you have a certain… hmmm… dislike of these kind of parties?”
“Yes…” The princess sighed readily. “I… would rather be in my quarters; I received yesterday a copy of The Seven Golden Journeys and I just began reading.”
“Really? That’s fascinating!” Gisako said a little louder than she had intended to. She liked reading up on old history herself and often persuaded her teacher to go through the history of the land during their time.
“You… you’ve read it?” Tzie’s eyes seemed to lighten a bit, her eyes even stopped looking around to finally focus on Gisako.
“Yes, I like it a lot actually.” Gisako smiled and inclined her head slightly.
“I wonder though, why a princess like yourself would find such things of interest. Not to be rude, but….you know…”
“I…” Tzie sighed again, something she seemed fond of doing. “I like reading. It’s like opening a window to another, better world. Have you… have you ever felt like you are in there? I mean… in the world the book describes, not being yourself.”
“Yes, I love that. To enter the tale, to dream of being there, to relive it in my mind.” Gisako smiled brightly.
“I… I just began the tale of the first meeting between Edarra and Petrigai.” Tzie seemed in a much better mood, almost eager to keep talking with Gisako.
“Oh.” Gisako nodded and smiled, but didn’t want to talk about the book, not wishing to spoil it for the princess. “How far have you come? And do you like it?”
“Not very far.” The princess nodded sadly. “Edarra’s husband just died when confronting the Demon Prince Kailung and is receiving Petrigai’s band of fighters. I’m not a very fast reader, I’m afraid; I like to savor every page.”
“Of course.” Gisako smiled, relieved that she had at least found some enjoyable company. “I’m glad to have spoken to you m’lady, if I may say so. Until then, this had promised to be just another boring party.”
“Definitely.” Tzie smiled back. “I… I’m glad you found me before the others. I really don’t know much about jewelers and don’t care much for fiancées and affairs.”
“Ahhh, just like me.” Gisako winked and smiled, then suddenly noticed that she was indeed behaving almost as if speaking to an equal and quickly bowed. “I… didn’t mean any disrespect.”
“No, no.. it’s fine, really.” The princess pulled gently on Gisako’s shoulder, who noted once again the trail of water drops the princess’ robe was leaving on the marble floor.
Gisako smiled and nodded, then inclined her head.
“Maybe you want to change that robe m’lady?” she said quietly nodding to the water drops.
“Uh?” The princess looked down and blushed. “How… careless of me. I was in the baths earlier this morning.”
“Ah, I see…” Gisako smiled and nodded. “I can wait here for you if you like to change?”
“I can’t.” She said, but closed her mouth quickly as if she was revealing a state secret. “I mean… I have to stay here… my mother’s orders… until… uhm…”
“I see.” Gisako smiled and nodded. She knew how it was to have to follow parental guidance. “So… should I get us something to drink maybe?”
“Uhm… right… yes… I think I can.” Tzie nodded shyly.
“Allow me, ladies.” A male voice interrupted them, jarring Gisako’s attention. She turned to the male voice, turning her head only slightly to see who was interrupting them. She knew this man; tall and in his mid twenties, he was dressed relatively plainly compared to the rest of the party’s attendants; long, well-groomed hair framed a handsome and determinate face. But the most prominent feature in his attire was the sword hanging from his waist. Leial Azpikeri, son of Diru Azpikeri whom Gisako’s own father kowtowed to as the leader of the Merchant’s Guild.
“Well….” she turned to look to Tzie, for she was of higher, much higher rank and had the honor of ordering first.
“Just… water… peach-flavored?” The lady said timidly. Gisako had heard that the governor intended to betroth her to this man, matching the Guild leader’s desires, but that Lady Matzidari would have none of it, and Leial himself looked less than interested in marrying Tzie.
“And red wine for me, please.” Gisako smiled politely.
“Certainly.” The man smiled gently and walked over to catch one of the servants waiting on the guests.
“Are you alright?” Gisako turned to Tzie, inclining her head.
“Er… yes?” Tzie looked back at her, her eyes a pool of confusion.
“So tell me, which books have you read so far?” Gisako smiled softly and nodded.
Glad to be back on familiar territory, Tzie began to speak an impressive list of titles, going from adventure novels such as Rise of the Thunder Chosen to more scholarly texts like Tai Zan’s The Twelve Princely Mandates. Her cheer was soon abated as Leial returned with their drinks.
“Here you go, ladies. Lady Tzie and….” He look at Gisako. “I think we have met before, but I apologize for not remembering your name.”
“Gizaletzi, Gisako Gizaletzi.” She nodded and bowed politely as she took the drink.
“Ah, yes; it must have been during one of the Guild reunions… I am Leial Azpikeri.”
She nodded and smiled, again, politely. There was nothing of the cheerful smile that she had shown Tzie earlier however.
“Don’t tell me.” Leial smiled. “You are here too by your father’s orders, paraded like a slab of meat in the market, if you pardon the comparison.”
“Is it that obvious?” Gisako smiled lightly and shook her head.
“Let us just said that my ears caught a conversation not dealing with the latest doings of somebody’s husband on somebody else’s wife and I was drawn like a drowning man to a piece of driftwood.” Leial chuckled slightly, nodding in the girls’ direction.
“Oh, indeed?” A little of the cheerfulness returned to Gisako’s features and she nodded to Tzie. “I was lucky to find Lady Tzie early on…”
“A lucky find, definitely.” He nodded, and Tzie blushed slightly. “Although I’m afraid I am not as cultured as my lady; my days are taken with the steps along the way of the sword.”
“I figured.” she smiled and nodded to the sword. “But you still prefer books over the most interesting developments in local society?” She asked with a hint of sarcasm, not directed at him.
“I prefer anything to that.” He laughed softly. “I can count myself fortunate that ‘anything’ turned out to be actually interesting; Rise of the Thunder Chosen is a particular favorite of mine.”
“I haven’t read it myself yet, as I stuck to history books mostly.” Gisako smiled and nodded to Tzie again. “But the princess has a rather wide variety of books.”
“I… yes…” Tzie smiled weakly. “The Thunder Chosen…it’s about the founding of the major fighting schools.”
“Including the Hawk’s Talons, which I follow.” Leial nodded, but then his expression changed. Gisako felt the subtle change of mood in the entire room that meant that something had caught the guests’ attention.
A woman had literally stormed into the room, one Gisako had never seen before. She was clothed in a very rich dress, but Gisako could tell that she was missing its accessories. The woman had a fierce beauty about herself, with her hair done in a very utilitarian fashion and her skin tanned by staying under the sun for a prolonged time. She was holding a sheathed sword in her left hand, and her whole stance said that she knew how to use it.
“Who is that?” Gisako whispered quietly.
“Excuse me…” Leial nodded politely to them and walked towards the newcomer, his gaze transfixed by her presence.
“That is… she is…” Tzie stammered a little. “Lady Derrexi Tzelan, firstborn daughter of House Tzelan.”
Gisako was very surprised at this. House Tzelan, the Keepers of the Swords, one of the most important Noble Houses in the Empire.
“Oh, my.” she looked at the woman quietly, inclining her head to take in the full presence. “She sure doesn’t look happy.”
“I guess… she didn’t like the dress…” Tzie spoke softly.
Just then, a servant girl arrived with a tray of drinks, which Gisako found strange as they already had some.
“I… I’m sorry… I have to go now.” Tzie said and left without further explanation. The servant girl bowed to Gisako, waiting for her wishes.
“Thank you, I’m fine.” Gisako looked around at Tzie leaving and back to the servant girl.
The servant girl nodded and faded back into the crowd of gossiping guests. By now, Leial was talking with the Tzelan woman, and her expression seemed to have mollified.
Gisako sighed and retreated to a corner of the room. Her only source of interesting conversation gone, she now was nowhere near as cheerful as before. There was already a lot of speculation that she could hear about the strange newcomer. Jilted lover, wife of a swordmaster, even pretentious prostitute was thrown around the gossip mill.
The woman, obviously a warrior to any who took the smallest interest in actually looking at her, seemed to enjoy Leial’s company, even seemed to briefly flirt with him before heading off into one of the hall’s side rooms. Leial was left there, with a thoughtful expression on his face.
Gisako sighed, taking a sip from the wine and remaining where she was. She wondered why the swordmistress was here and what her arrival implied.
Leial too drifted off in his own direction. And then Gisako glimpsed the same servant girl that had interrupted her and Tzie, walking off towards a small door, without any tray in her hands. Nobody paid any attention to her, as nobles and rich scions were wont to do with anyone they considered their inferior.
Gisako inclined her head and, curiosity overtaking her, she headed after the servant girl quietly. The corridor beyond the door was dark, perhaps too dark for being almost noon, and she thought she could hear voices. As quietly as she could she walked along the corridor, trying to hear what was being said.
“…make sure her meeting with Lord Matzidari is not as… pleasant.” A husky voice spoke barely above a whisper.
“Pfeh… the governor is quite capable of that by himself.” Another, clearer voice rebutted.
Gisako narrowed her eyes and edged closer slowly. This was very interesting.
She was startled by a sudden metallic sound, and she caught a glimpse of something shiny reflecting what little light was available.
“Silence, girl! Speak not of what you only suspect!” The husky voice sounded angry. “Now get to your task.”
“Right, right…” The clear one was startled, but Gisako was surprised at how she, for it was clearly a female, kept her composure. “Don’t get so… hmph…”
Gisako heard steps coming her way; one of the persons she had surprised was walking back out.
‘Damn!’ she thought to herself and slowly edged back, trying to remain in the shadows.
The servant girl stomped on her way out, obviously annoyed, but cleared her throat and breathed deeply before going back out, putting on her meek and servile mask. Fortunately for Gisako, she seemed too preoccupied to notice her presence.
Gisako let out a slow breath, relieved and waited for a bit until she, herself left the darkened corridor.
Suddenly, the shadows came alive around her, or so it seemed. She felt a small but strong hand grab her throat from behind, and something sharp press against her lower back.
“How much did you hear, girl?” It was the husky voice.
“I…I heard nothing, just some voices arguing.” Gisako said, widening her eyes as she realized she was in a rather dangerous situation.
“Don’t lie.” The voice approached her ear; it was coming out muffled, as if the owner was wearing something over her mouth. Now she felt something cold and metallic brush against her face.
“I’m not lying…just something about an encounter being unpleasant or something…” Gisako whispered quietly, doing her best not to sound too afraid.
She blinked hard, it must be her imagination, or the corridor was getting darker?
“Why did you come here?” The voice sounded practically next to Gisako’s ear, and she realized that the cold feeling must be some kind of mask her assailant was wearing.
“I… saw that servant girl go in here… I was talking to Princess Tzie and that girl seemed to… I don’t know… cause her to leave… I was just curious.” Gisako answered truthfully.
“Really?” There was some slight irony in that question. “Are you so interested in the comings and goings of servant girls?”
“Not in any servant girl… but in servant girls who cause princesses to leave suddenly without explanation and quite hurriedly, yes.”
Gisako found some of her usual resolve inside her and her voice sounded more firm now.
“Aha.” The voice chuckled. Gisako couldn’t tell if it was male or female, although she was leaning towards the latter. “Now… give me a reason I should not kill you right now.”
“There is no reason to kill me. I don’t even know what’s going on here and I haven’t done anything wrong.”
“You have good eyes.” The voice was softer, contrasting her action of pressing the weapon a little harder against Gisako’s back. “What do you intend to do with those eyes?”
“For now, I intend to go back into the main hall and pretend to enjoy myself.” Gisako said quietly. She was still afraid, but she managed to hold up a brave facade.
“Good… and if you see that servant girl again?”
“I’ll probably order a drink…” Gisako said and narrowed her eyes lightly.
The voice chuckled again, and now Gisako could tell it was female.
“I like you.” She said. “You are observant, and smart… maybe one day I or one of my sisters will look for you and take you into the shadow of the Moon.”
Gisako felt the pressure soften and disappear, and the corridor did get lighter as she heard a soft rustle of clothing and then nothing.
She turned around slowly, her eyes darting from side to side.
The corridor was completely empty, stretching for several feet and ending at a door she had not heard open or close. That she could now see the end of the corridor when she couldn’t earlier only added to the strangeness of the encounter, until two words the strange woman had said clicked together in Gisako’s head. The shadow of the Moon… the Moonshades!
“Oh my…” She whispered and then quickly retreated from the corridor, leaning against a wall in the main hall to breathe again deeply, her eyes wide with shock.
“Gisako! There you are!” One of her infrequent friends spotted her and walked over her in the company of two other girls. “Did you see that woman walk in? I mean, that was so rude!”
“Rude?” Gisako blinked, her features chalk white and nodded faintly. “Ah yes… that swordmistress you mean?”
“Oh, that’s what she was?” The first girl pouted.
“Oh; you look pale!” Another girl laughed. “Did an ugly and poor boy just propose to you?”
Quickly gathering up her usual facade, Gisako joined in the fake laughter and then returned to her smile, which was just as false. Her mind was still hovering on the events.
Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed the servant girl standing near the entrance of that side room the swordswoman had walked into. The voice of their friends was little more than an annoying buzz as Gisako felt something cold run down her back; the servant girl had just made a series of gestures with her hands and still no one was noticing her.
She remained calm, or tried to, but she couldn’t help thinking that this girl was a Moonshade, one of the spies and assassins that populated many folk tales and legends.
A few moments passed before Lady Tzelan walked out of the room, apparently even angrier than when she had arrived. Gisako narrowed her eyes slightly, watching the woman and guessing that whatever the two Moonshades had discussed back there had worked out as the husky voice had planned it.
Another girl arrived, older than them but related to one of the group.
“Would you believe that?” The new arrival said. “Apparently, that woman is here to start a warrior school for girls, please!”
“That’s so silly!” One of the younger ones giggled. “I bet it is for peasants and commoners; you wouldn’t catch me dead holding a sword!”
“They are so heavy!” Gossip and mockery started anew, but Gisako’s lips slowly spread into a smile as she thought about this. It sounded too good to be true. Here was her chance to dive into the stories she had read. To be different, to do something besides attending boring parties.
Gisako could feel the strength of the woman’s spirit even at that distance. And she could even see a few little scars marring the otherwise perfect skin of her arms. Here was a true noble lady, not like Gisako who was only merely rich, yet she was holding her sword proudly, rejecting the vestments of wealth that came with her station.
Gisako smiled and inclined her head, but her smile dropped a little when she thought about what her father would say to such a thing. He would never allow this, certainly. Neverhteless, Gisako followed her heart for once, no thought given to etiquette as she left the company of the shallow girls of the court, hoping to catch up with the swordmistress in the hall.
“M’lady…” Gisako had to almost run to reach the woman’s angry stride, her breath labored when she finally reached her.
“Save it!” The woman barked, surely confusing Gisako’s address as just another of the piling insults.
“I’m sorry…” She said, bowing softly. “This… I heard about the school you will open… I just wanted to… apply.”
That seemed to have an effect. The woman stopped and looked at her with a mix of surprise and relief.
“Follow me.” She said, nodding towards the nearby gardens. She slowed her pace, allowing Gisako to recover some dignity as well as her breath. Still, Gisako was used to lady-like steps and had to push herself to keep up with the swordmistress.
“What’s your name?” Lady Tzelan asked.
“Gisako Gizaletzi, m’lady.”
“And you wish to join the Hawk Maidens… why?” She slowed and turned to face Gisako now that they were in the gardens.
“I….” Gisako swallowed lightly and looked up to meet the woman’s gaze. “I am quite frankly interested more in being something other than a show-around doll to gain my father a better position.”
Lady Tzelan had a piercing gaze, reading GIsako up and down, as if weighing the worthiness of her intentions.
“I’ve heard rumors about marauding demonspawn in the passes.” The warrior said. “You are aware that once I deem your training sufficiently advanced we may very well go and support the Watch in their patrols.”
“I had figured as much m’lady.” Gisako nodded and did not flinch under the gaze, but held it as best she could.
“You also realize that this…” She touched Gisako’s rich dress with the handle of her sword, then did likewise with the dress she was wearing. “This will be gone; you will sleep in a mat on the floor, wake up early and work hard; no more parties, nor fine food, nor fine wine.”
“Which is the main reason I want to join.” The girl said, nodding.
Lady Tzelan smiled and nodded approvingly. Her brown eyes softened and gave Gisako the feeling that there was more to this woman than what first appeared.
“Then I will welcome you gladly.” She said finally.
Gisako heard soft running steps along the garden’s walkways, coming towards them.
She smiled, bowed softly and turned to look at who was approaching.
It was, surprisingly, Lady Tzie.
“L-lady Tzelan… wait…!” The girl hurried and almost stumbles to the ground.
Gisako was quick to support the girl as she stumbled, helping her keep her footing.
“Uhm… thank you…” Tzie muttered and then composed herself, giving Gisako a very strange look before addressing the older woman. “Lady Tzelan… my mother awaits…”
“Ah, yes, yes…” Lady Tzelan put a hand on her forehead. “No point in delaying the inevitable… let’s go, Lady Matzidari… Miss Gizaletzi, it was a pleasure to meet you.”
“It was all mine.” Gisako nodded, bowed softly to both of them and watched as they left.
It was strange seeing the two side by side; both of noble blood and yet neither behaving as Gisako had been taught to expect from nobility. It was a refreshing sight.