PodCastle 517: A Fine Balance

Show Notes

Rated PG-13 for honorable duelists and some less honorable warfare.

A Fine Balance

By Charlotte Ashley

My mistress, Shoanna Yildirim, was the greatest shot in the city.

Each morning, according to her wishes, I cleaned and loaded her revolving pistol. I oiled the clip on her holster and checked the stitches in the leatherwork. I strung a fresh sash of weighted bullets and laid it by the vanity over her scarves.

“Your pistol, Mistress,” I would say to her as she rose from the mirror, her wide, brown lips and dark, sly eyes painted to perfection.

“Thank you, Emin,” she always replied. “But I will not need it today.”

Each morning, she left the gun where it lay. Mistress Yildirim was the greatest shot in the city, but she hunted Kara Ramadami with a blade. That was just one of the many rules of sahidi.

That summer, Kara Ramadami hunted Mistress Yildirim with a pair of shashka, also in accordance with the rules of sahidi.

It was only recently that she had taken up the second weapon, causing the bookmakers to shake their heads and adjust their odds. How could the Dushiq mistress fight and climb with both hands occupied? But Ramadami was goat-like in her movements and did not need hands to scale walls or leap rooftops. She, like my mistress, appeared unbound by the laws of nature that hampered other duelists. Only her Kavalye — her nemesis, my mistress — could challenge her, just as no one could challenge my mistress but Ramadami. They were the most perfectly paired Kavalye the city had ever known.

In their last duel, a clash the tanners of Ceset Alley were already calling the Three-Thrust Fleece, my mistress beat Ramadami when she broke her thumb against the wooden frame of a beamhouse with her first strike. Even thus injured, Ramadami evaded Yildirim’s next advance, delivered backhanded in a whirlwind of ribbon, scarves, and braids. She mounted a clothesline, cartwheeled past my mistress, and took cover behind a red hind-skin curing in the sun. But Yildirim merely spun wide, slicing through the leather like canvas. Her third thrust split Ramadami’s purse and spilt her favor, which my mistress claimed with the broad edge of her sword before it even hit the ground.

We did not see Ramadami for a long time after that, not until I spotted her during the ten mile run Mistress Yildirim had assigned me for my rigors. I spied her unmistakable white-gold hair as I dodged traffic along the busy Ridge, towering over the common people who could match her neither in height nor radiance. She must have seen me before I did her, for no sooner had she caught my attention than she abandoned whatever business she had with the clerks spilling out of the Gentian Courthouse. Narrowing her eyes at me, she slipped around the grand marble staircase and ducked into the first alley beyond. I last caught sight of her alighting on a domed roof like a golden eagle before vanishing around the other side. I swore and sprinted down the Justice Way in the hope of spotting her again, but it was pointless; she was gone.

I squeezed my eyes shut, trying to press an exact copy of her into my memory. White blouse, white pants, white boots, as usual. The two shashka strapped about her chest like a harness. Her unlikely golden hair had been cropped short. She looked leaner and harder than ever, and yet she and my mistress had not met in combat for many months. Mistress Yildirim would turn me inside out to discover where I had glimpsed the woman in white, eager as she was to find her. There had been a time not long before when Ramadami might have turned me inside out to locate my mistress as well.

“The Justice Way?” Mistress Yildirim asked me again as she fixed the last pin in her headscarf just so.

I met her eyes in the mirror, nodding. “On the steps of the Courthouse,” I added. “Speaking with lawyers, I think.”

Mistress Yildirim finished painting her lips and rose with a childish grin. “Of course. How could I have thought she would leave the city? Emin —” she patted my cheek and I tried not to scowl, for I was nearly fourteen and she was my mistress, not my auntie “— wash your face before we leave.”

I followed her through the kitchen and out into the training yard where two of Yildirim’s younger apprentices, Fatima and Layla, were sparring. They paused and watched enviously as we passed through the yard and into the street, not yet old enough to have been paired with Kavalye of their own.

Mistress Yildirim marched down the middle of Dhiar Way with long, bold strides that caused the emerald scarves of her headdress to flutter behind her. The cramped quarters of the narrow, dusty street grew wider at her passing, her presence reducing the cheese sellers and fry cooks, goats trailing small boys, and old crones in dark stoops to eddies in her wake. Already folk had stopped to stare. Neighbors clustered to whisper, speculating about her destination. Strangers pointed and chattered, excited to have spotted such an illustrious hero. People trailed us as they always did — idle old men, errant children, distracted journeymen — hopeful of the chance to witness an encounter between two of the most famous Kavalye in the city. Mistress Yildirim tipped her chin and let a cocky grin play over her face, wearing her bravado like a jeweled coat.

“There are more of them than usual,” I said, eyeing the mob following us. “Pray to God we find her or they will speak of this disappointment for weeks.”

“She wants to be found,” Mistress Yildirim stated. “She gave you a glimpse to lure us in. But I —”

“Mistress!” I stopped and turned. Mistress Yildirim’s sword was already out, but it was not her white-clothed nemesis I had spotted. “Dashurie!”

“Shit,” my mistress muttered, but I could not spare a thought for her inconvenience. Dashurie, my own Kavalye, was in the mob. I’d seen the green-gold of her eyes before she vanished behind a pair of older fellows. I could not let her surprise me — not again.

I drew my shashka and fit my buckler over my glove. The crowd spread slowly with a mix of disappointment and alarm: keen not to be too close to a duel, but irritated the duel was to be between two fresh apprentices and not the famous Kavalye, Yildirim and Ramadami. Dashurie emerged slowly from behind a straggler, shashka in hand.

“Dashurie Dushku, stand where you are!” I called to her, pointing with my sword. “I challenge you to fight me by the rules of sahidi. I challenge you to take my favor!”

“I accept,” she replied simply. She didn’t even salute, just hurled herself in my direction. I crouched low, horse-stance, knowing how Dashurie liked to toss me on my back if I let her. Her shashka she used mostly for parrying; she preferred to grapple.

But I was growing quickly these days, as the ache in my shins could attest. I held steady as she charged, arms close to my sides. At a distance of two swords, she ducked under my guard, planting both hands in the dirt in front of me and kicking out at my blade with the wooden heels of her boots. I twisted with the impact, ignoring the numbness in my hand, praying I would not be disarmed. But I had the wrong foot forward and could only take so much of the blow before I felt an awful wrenching in my wrist.

I used the twisting motion to land an ineffective punch with my buckler, but Dashurie merely rolled away. My blade-hand was useless. I wasted my precious few seconds of advantage switching hands and regaining solid footing when I should have been pinning my opponent and taking her favor. From the corner of my eye, I saw Mistress Yildirim cross her arms over her chest — as sure a sign as any of her disapproval.

Dashurie pushed to her feet and launched herself into another attack. She sliced at me with circular strokes, using her longer limbs and superior control to force me back. And what could I do but give ground? Dashurie would not kill me, but she had not shied from injuring me badly in the past. I did not care to spend another month in a chair, so I retreated, barely deflecting the tip of her sword as I skipped away.

I chanced a glance behind me. We were only a few paces now from the sun-warmed stucco face of the feltmaker’s guildhall. Lately, my lessons with Mistress Yildirim had all concerned precision and control, the sword and knife arts that she had perfected: but she was as often defeated by Kara Ramadami and her more acrobatic tricks. Ramadami won her duels when she used spaces my mistress did not occupy — up and up and up.

I dropped my blade and turned. In two long strides, I reached the doorframe of the hall, eyes fixed on the heraldry hanging above. As I had seen Kara Ramadami do in the past, I jumped, kicked off of the doorframe, twisted, and caught the iron bar sporting the guild’s sign with my good arm. The momentum swung me away from Dashurie, who sliced at the air behind me. Elated, I let go at the apex of my swing and spun, turning to face my opponent.

I snatched at the bar again a moment too late. I was soaring away now rather than swinging back toward her, as Ramadami might have done. My belly hit the dirt and knocked all the air, strength, and sense out of me. The dry earth exploded in a wave of dust, filling my mouth and eyes.

“You stand — well, lie — defeated, Emin Akdari,” Dashurie spoke above me. I barely managed to roll onto my back as she rifled though my purse and turned up my favor, a disk of onyx carved with the arms of the Onsen, my people. She held it up and smiled. I could only lie there and struggle to breathe as she walked away to cash it in.

“That was . . . new,” Mistress Yildirim said once I had regained enough sense to stand. She lifted my injured hand and scowled when I cried out in response. “It might have worked if you’d had both arms.”

“Sorry, Mistress,” I muttered, desolate. This was three in a row I’d lost to Dashurie. My only consolation was that, after so many losses, my favor would be worth so little. As poor as the Onsen Dynasty was, even they could pay out for the favor of a wretched child like me. I felt tears gather in my eyes and feigned pained noises so my mistress would think I wept only from my injury.

Mistress Yildirim nodded approvingly. “No need for apology. Your awareness is improving, and that last stunt shows you’re thinking, at least. It will come. When you next defeat Dashurie, think what she will be worth.” I ran my empty purse over my face to sop up all the wet. She would be worth a good sum, for an apprentice. I could use the funds on new practice swords for the yards or to help re-tile the livery shop, after I’d paid the Onsen their share.

If I ever won. “I am sorry — I mean,” I changed the subject, “to spoil your hunt.”

Mistress Yildirim’s black eyes narrowed. “Never mind my hunt,” she said, curt. “To the anatomist with you. I will find Ramadami tomorrow.”

Kara Ramadami’s favor was worth three palaces and the gold to paint them. But so was my mistress’s. The only difference was that Ramadami’s Dushiq people could afford to pay out on her favor. If Mistress Yildirim lost, it could bankrupt the entire Onsen Dynasty.

Mistress Yildirim suspected the Onsen were trying to keep her and Ramadami apart. Her patron, Timar Suat Balbay, wanted her to flee the city. But that was too much for my mistress’s honor, let alone her pride.

The encounter at Ceset Alley had paid off all the yard’s debts, allowed her to take on Fatima and Layla as apprentices, and bequeathed many more long years to the Mosque at Mount Kurlak. But Mistress Yildirim had come too late to sahidi. Generations of losses had weakened and impoverished the Onsen Dynasty, until even my mistress’s legendary victories were not enough to prop it up. The Onsen were only as strong as she was.

“Quit while you are ahead,” Timar Balbay had begged her. “The city has never known a pair of Kavalye like you and Ramadami. Your place in history is assured. They will tell stories about nobody else for generations. Retire.”

“Let Ramadami retire. I will not,” my mistress replied. “You have not seen her, Suat. She’s like a bundle of firewood — brittle. She trains too hard. She will break. I will hunt her until it is no longer worth my time.”

Great people refuse to speak of money, but I knew the fear that lurked behind Timar Balbay’s entreaties. Every Onsen knew. The two Kavalye were so evenly matched, neither favor ever devalued, until their duels had become more influential in political affairs than any dynastic policy. They were building the city with their prizes, shaping it according to their ideas.

But Ramadami had become scarce. The two women used to clash once a week at least, a regular spectacle that the people would wait for breathlessly, bet on, and talk about for days afterwards. Before I spotted her on my run, it had been two months since we had last found her. Before she jumped my mistress at Ceset Alley, another three. My mistress was impatient and concocted theories of a conspiracy.

“They sent Dashurie,” she declared later, after the anatomist had packed a cast of cool clay and linen about my wrist. “They sent her to detain me.”

I said nothing, preferring to think of my dance with Dashurie as my own, not just another part of my mistress’s overwhelming drama.

“They think I will not hunt without you,” she continued. “They think an inconvenience will dissuade me. Or they think me a creature of habit.” Yildirim snorted with contempt. “They will have to try harder than that. Come, Emin. We return to the hunt.”

My mistress was a woman of flash and shine, of open-air performances and large audiences. Some Kavalye preferred to fight in the dark and shadows, but not she. It did not suit her and she did not fare well by it. But as we left the yard that evening into a deepening dusk, I was so preoccupied by my bruised pride that I said nothing to dissuade her.

I knew Dushiq-town’s nightlife only by reputation. Farther up the mountain, across the Ridge, they said the marble-tiled streets were patrolled by lantern-bearers escorting nighthawks from well-lit taverns to cheerful evening dances. Brash, red-faced revelers shouted playful offers and challenges across the avenues, only just warming up for a long night of indulgences. Lightning traps lit public squares where whole clans gathered to drink and eat while children chased dogs and formed gangs for mock brawls. The Dushiq were happy and safe, protected by their gold.

Onsen-town by night was a very different place than by day. Onsen-town had no lantern-bearers. The market had been sturdily tiled three generations ago but had long since grown filthy. Shopkeepers shut and bolted their windows as soon as the shadows grew, rolled up the thin hangings, and kept to their family hearths. The light of Dushiq-town drove dark dealings into Onsen streets. Where by day, we Kavalye were celebrated as prizewinners and gift-givers, by night we were blamed for threadbare livelihoods and ruined dreams.

We should not have been out that night. A brigand is not a Kavalye, and a brawl is not a duel.

My mistress was looking for trouble and, even knowing this, I let her lead me along watercourses and lanes; filthy, crowded cracks between buildings that anyone should have avoided. We traveled down cat-ways and under fences to avoid the gangs that staked claim to the streets, making our way toward the Ridge that split the city into Onsen and Dushiq halves. We had nearly reached that great road when I caught sight of a shadowy shape crouched behind a chimney.

“Mistress,” I hissed.

“I see, Emin, but they are too late. We have nearly arrived — listen.” The bustle of goat carts, pedal wagons, and foot traffic rumbled just ahead.

I glanced back at the lurking figure but it had disappeared. I frowned. What sort of bandit travels by rooftop? That was the behavior of someone who hunted another: of Kavalye. Dashurie was not allowed to challenge me again so soon, and so —

“Mistress!” I yelped. There, on the same roof, another glimpse unmistakable in the moonlight. “White, Mistress! It is Ramadami!”

Yildirim had already moved, sidestepping under the roof’s ledge and drawing her sword. I stood gaping in the alley, waiting for the challenge, but the tap-tap of boot on slate was already retreating to the west. Ready for a chase, Yildirim mounted the gutters and I raced to pursue on the ground.

“There!” I cried, waving my arm in the direction of the old livery. The lithe figure leapt from the rooftop to a porch on the far side, trailing white scarves like stardust. Yildirim followed.

I had to sprint to keep up with the two women, who bounced from house to house like goats, barely rousing the inhabitants. At the bazaar, Ramadami finally descended into the square, or so I presumed. By night, the market was more a pit than a place, enclosed as it was by old stone warehouses. I could hardly see ten paces ahead as I rounded the corner, not even the sheen of the Kavalye’s white clothes.

Only then did I understand the danger we were in. I heard the thump of my mistress’s boots hitting the stones, then the shuffle of more than one person preparing themselves. The dark was almost complete.

Nothing moved for the space of ten heartbeats, not even a cat. And then . . .

“Emin!” Yildirim cried. “It is an ambush. Run, return to the yard! I —”

But her voice dissolved into an anguished snarl. My eyes had become just accustomed enough to the gloom that I could make out four figures in addition to my mistress crouched at the foot of some crates. Yildirim was on one knee, sword drawn. Not one of her attackers was wearing white.

On my honor, I could not run anywhere. Instead, I drew my shashka and crept closer to the ruffians, for they appeared not to be taking any notice of me. My mistress was a spectacular duelist, but four opponents in the dark are stiff odds for any person.

Yildirim lurched forward, her blade clearing space ahead of her, then rolled to her right and lashed out, catching the belly of the attacker there. Her off-hand she kept tight against her ribs and I guessed she had been cut already. She ducked and rolled again before anyone could retaliate, repeating the maneuver on another opponent’s flank. Two more figures emerged from the shadows behind her, cautiously closing ranks. Those two I charged.

These bandits had not the reflexes of Kavalye, not even a young one like myself. Slowly, they realized they were under attack; slowly, they stumbled trying to reposition themselves. My mistress continued to roll and dodge, confusing their attempts to encircle her properly. I took my opportunity to break the first assailant’s guard with a sharp, hard parry, followed by a slash they had not the wit to block. My blade bit into their shoulder and was stopped by their collarbone, but that was enough to panic them into dropping the weapon.

We were now two against four, but despite their weakening odds, the attackers drew closer. We were both injured, my mistress and I, and out of our element. In the confusion of battle, I was sure even more shadows were growing limbs, adding to the attack. They would have from us whatever they wanted soon enough. All I could do was try to raise the price beyond what they were prepared to pay.

I pushed past my disarmed opponent toward their companion, who by this time faced me on sturdy footing, a sword at the ready. He parried my first three blows, stepping back with each motion. I pressed him, seeing he was unwilling to seize the offensive. His swordwork was slow and formal, like a child after his first lesson, and I took him for an easy opponent. He retreated steadily as my every blow grew closer to finding flesh, exhaling sharply at each clash of our blades.

Exhilarated by my success so far, I swung at him faster and harder. He stumbled, fell to his bottom, and raised his weapon impractically to shield himself from what was surely to be my killing blow. In the dark, I could make out almost nothing of his features, but he could surely see the white of my teeth as my lips curled into a bloodthirsty grin.


My mistress’s scream was so far behind me, I did not understand what I was hearing at first. My arm drooped as I realized what had happened, dread draining the fire from my blood. The brigand at my feet had lured me away from my mistress, out of reach. Now I was too far and too late to help her.

“Mistress!” I cried, turning. I could not even see her for the crowd of black-clad figures surrounding her. I howled as I sprinted back, sword raised, ready to do I know not what. They peeled away from their victim one dark petal at a time, fleeing full tilt into the alleys, revealing the bloodied Yildirim at their center.

She was still alive, her eyes wide with fear when I reached her side. She grasped my arm and tried to pull herself upright, her breaths shallow. She was drenched from the belly down in what could only be blood, and one leg was caked thick with filth. “Help me up,” she hissed. “Home.”

I reached around her with my good arm and lifted her with my back. One of her legs found purchase but the other dangled heavily. She gripped my shoulders and we staggered slowly toward a wall.

“Mistress,” I stuttered, “I am sorry. I thought — I shall fetch the anatomist!”

“No,” Yildirim panted. “We cannot linger for whoever comes to clean up the scraps. Move!”

By the dim light of the moon, I could not make out the source of her injury. Her leg was badly mutilated, that was plain, but she appeared also to have suffered injuries to her abdomen. Every step was a labor and we could not risk the main streets, but after an eternity of dragging her half-conscious through the open sewers of Onsen-town, we came to our yard and our kitchen. She could not sit in a chair, so I propped her up by the laundry basin and ran to fetch the girls to help me.

She had blacked out from pain and blood-loss by the time the anatomist rushed in with Fatima. Under his direction, we moved Yildirim to her rooms and hovered as he set about locating her wounds. A couple of shallow, harmless cuts to her side, only one deep enough to reach a rib. The little finger of her off-hand was so badly cut, he would have to remove part of it. And then her leg.

“See here?” He showed the now-cleaned wound to Fatima, for I had not the stomach for surgery. “One tendon cut, the other hanging by a thread. She’ll never walk again.”

“Never?” I interrupted.

“She’ll be lucky if her blood’s not poisoned from the gutters. Shame on Kara Ramadami; shame. It is a disgrace for Shoanna Yildirim to have been injured like this.” He shook his head and began preparing some needles.

I turned away. It was not Ramadami who had disabled her leg, but whatever conspiracy had drawn assassins to my mistress was not the anatomist’s affair.

By dawn, Mistress Yildirim had taken fever. Though she would never have wanted word of her infirmity to pass beyond our walls, I had not her skill at commanding obedience from every mouth and eye that crossed our threshold. Soon, Timar Suat Balbay sent an envoy, and then, veiled, turned up himself in a state of panic. He impressed on me, his pounding heart inches from my nose, the urgent need for Yildirim to announce her formal retirement the moment she was capable. She could not be caught thus incapacitated; as if I did not know, as if all in Onsen-town did not know how our fates and fortunes lay with the shivering woman upstairs.

She, and one other.

I cleaned and prepared her clothing and weapons, as always. Then I sat in the kitchen to wait for the visitor I knew would arrive.

I did not leave my vigil for three days, but Fatima and Layla brought me news from town. No Dushiq Kavalye had been seen since my mistress’s evil night, and their Onsen counterparts mooned about the streets like shunned lovers. Meanwhile, droves of Dushiq apprentices were coming and going from the big training yards up the Justice Way. Where were their masters? The neighbors whispered of a plot to impoverish the Onsen forever by hiding from our champions.

Kara Ramadami finally showed herself in Onsen-town at dawn on the fourth day, setting the whole city abuzz. A child no older than Layla arrived at our door, breathless.

“She comes!” the girl panted. “Kara Ramadami comes down Dhiar Way, and she has others with her!”

I waved her inside. “Others? Other duelists, you mean? Tell their Kavalye, not —”

The girl shook her head excitedly. “Not Kavalye, just others — with swords!”

“They must be Kavalye if they are armed,” I scolded the child, but the words were nearly choked by my rising panic. “They might be newly sworn. Go to the other yards, find their pairs.”

“I’ve been,” the girl snapped. “Anyway, they’re all dressed alike, these ones. Like musicians in green and white. They aren’t Kavalye.”

I was about to shoo the girl off when I heard the scrape of a chair behind me. Mistress Yildirim, chalk-faced and bruised, stood at the entrance to the hallway.

“How many?” she asked. “And how far away?”

The child’s eyes widened. “A parade of them, Mistress. And many blocks hence, still. I ran as fast as I could, but she’s coming here. She must be. She’s come to challenge you, hasn’t she?” Her eyes were lit with anticipation. I started to stammer an excuse but my mistress spoke first.

“Of course she has,” Yildirim replied. With her bad leg tucked behind the good, leaning on a wooden chair, she almost looked ready. “Emin.” Her hard stare frightened me into silence. “Get my pistol.”

Pistols were against the rules of sahidi. Coming to call on your Kavalye at her home was not, though it was close enough to dishonorable to be distasteful. Mistress Yildirim insisted on being readied to face Ramadami despite her grievous wound and continued illness, insisted on meeting her Kavalye on the street, not at the door. This was to allow the woman in white to save face, though I could not see why we afforded her such a courtesy. After all, surely she had come to kill my mistress. After all, surely my mistress would kill Kara Ramadami to save herself. What honor could be left at the end of a day as cursed as this?

Even readied, my mistress was a shadow of herself. There had been no time to apply her makeup, nor could her bright leather boot fit over her mangled leg. She wore her shashka at one hip, her pistol at the other, and a buckler over the bandage on her left hand. I had to act as her crutch in order for her to move at all. She could not even stand without my help.

Yet she held her chin high as we exited the yard to meet the Dushiq on the thoroughfare. The child’s warning could not have prepared me for the spectacle there, for the long rows of armed soldiers in identical dress lining our narrow street. Their green uniforms were cut from fine wool, new and lined with white satin. Each had identical new shashka and, strapped to their backs, long rifles like hunters carried. None of them was any Kavalye I knew, and not one of them should have had the right to be so armed, but what could anyone do? They were so many, so splendid in their Dushiq colors. Our neighbors crowded around them, curious and heedless, but their calm, unexplained presence terrified me. They outnumbered every sworn Kavalye in Onsen-town.

Kara Ramadami, all in white, stood in the middle of the street. She and Mistress Yildirim exchanged salutes.

“You’re not dead,” Ramadami stated. “Good.”

“I would not deprive you of that honor, Kavalye,” Yildirim replied.

I expected Ramadami to at least scowl at the insult. What person of honor could stomach the suggestion that their opponent had to be softened up before they could be beaten? It was too clear, now, what had befallen my mistress. They could not beat her fairly and so Ramadami would take her unfairly. I wished I could challenge her myself, so much did I hate her in that moment. But the woman returned a wry smile.

“No, you are not worth anything to me dead. And yet, as I hear it, you are worth even more to your masters, who cannot afford for you to be beaten.”

Mistress Yildirim ground her teeth. I nearly reached for my own shashka, to hear the Onsen so brazenly disrespected — even if it was true.

Ramadami continued, “My own masters, they have kept me very busy these last several months. Training this apprentice and that, instructing nobles, running errands. I was quite stunned, I admit, when they suggested to me these two days hence that I finally seek you out. It would appear my masters are suddenly ready to demand your price from the Onsen.” Mistress Yildirim shot a surreptitious look at the Dushiq who surrounded us and Ramadami returned a conspiratorial half-nod. “I told them I was indisposed, as I had heard you were, but they sent these fellows along to encourage me.”

If the green and white soldiers understood Mistress Ramadami’s bitter tone, they made no sign of it. Who were these armed people who dared interfere in sahidi? Yildirim, for her part, smiled broadly.

“The Dushiq have persons now to help Kavalye fight their duels?” she asked. “Your masters are indeed richer than mine!”

“I apologize that I did not come sooner, Shoanna Yildirim,” Ramadami said, her voice raised for all to hear. Then she spoke so quietly that none could hear but my mistress and myself. “I did not know my masters would take so active a hand in helping me. But you and I, we have always understood each other.”

“Yes,” Yildirim replied. “I think we have understood each other perfectly.”

Ramadami raised her voice once more. “It has been an honor to be paired with you. There is surely no greater service a person can perform for another than to be a worthy opponent, the tool by which glory and riches may be brought to your people. I have become great because you are great. I will never forget that.”

Yildirim nodded. “And I have become this weapon that I am in the fires of your forge, Kara Ramadami. It would be an honor to fight you one last time.”

“I accept your challenge.”

Yildirim gripped my shoulder with her buckler hand as she drew her sword. I was not sure what to do next when Ramadami approached, shashka drawn, and saluted my mistress with her arms wide. But she did not lunge.

“Take it,” the woman in white said in a low voice.

Yildirim extended her sword, threading its tip through the straps of Ramadami’s purse. With a flick of her wrist, she cut the harness and let the purse slide down the blade into her hand.

Ramadami bowed. “In this way, I honor you and sahidi.”

We had, until then, been enclosed by a dome of silence, a sacred space of our own making. But at Ramadami’s words, the invisible walls fell and a great roar of confusion crashed over us. I saw with surprise that the audience who beheld us was bigger than it had ever been, as if every Onsen in the city had gathered to witness us. These people now cheered and shouted, surprised, delighted, or angry. They had never made such a fuss about any duel, no matter how exciting, but I saw then the difference.

Every rifle in Dushiq hands was leveled shakily at my mistress.

“Drop your shashka,” one of them cried over the hubbub. I could not tell which.

“Beg your pardon, fellows, but to whom do you speak?” Ramadami asked smoothly, stepping forward past Yildirim. “There are three of us Kavalye here, all honored with the right to bear arms.” Suddenly, subtly, the two women were standing back-to-back facing the guns.

“Don’t move!” someone shouted. “Both of you, drop your shashka and your favors. You are to come with us to the Dushiq palaces.”

My mistress dropped her sword casually, a cruel smile creeping over her lips.

“This is it, then? Your Dushiq masters think they can bankrupt the Onsen and replace sahidi — Kavalye — with this? You children with guns trained on women of honor, on your peaceful neighbors?” Her smile vanished. “Put up your weapons and go home. I will tell you only once.”

“Mistress,” I hissed. “This is not the death you wanted. Get away! The Onsen are done!” I saw how few we were against the rows of white and green. Our enemies exchanged nervous looks, baffled by what was surely empty bluster.

“You have been warned.” Ramadami appeared to have caught my mistress’s mad death wish, for she did not move, either.

“If you will not disarm yourselves, Mistresses,” the spokesman said, “we must consider you rogues and enemies of the Dushiq.” The soldiers pulled back the bolts on their rifles. At the click, the unarmed people started to shriek and flee. Only confusion prevented me from doing the same. “On three.”

Mistress Yildirim had drawn her pistol before one.

My mistress fired first at the soldier directly in front of her. It was a sloppy, loose shot by her standards, catching the man square in the face where, rather than kill him, it tore his jaw from its hinges, and most of his cheek, too. But he dropped the rifle, howling and sputtering blood, flailing for his companions, who shoved him away in horror.

Her second shot was fired in the confusion. It passed through the skulls of two more soldiers, killing them before their neighbors noticed they had been hit.

“FIRE!” someone screamed, but it was too late. The legend of my mistress’s marksmanship had already seized their minds and imaginations. Shots exploded from the left flank, but Yildirim and Ramadami had already dropped to the ground in unison. I felt the heat of lead cut my back but the sting only prompted me to duck as well.

Then Ramadami took flight. As the soldiers stuffed their barrels and reloaded, she stood and skipped right into their line of fire. Planting her foot on the first man’s chest, she pushed off, flipped backwards, and kicked the gun right out of his grasp. She caught it midair and had leveled it down the line by the time she landed.

Two more shots rang out — crack! Crack! — from Yildirim’s pistol, these felling two more uniforms on either side of her. Foom! The basso belch from Ramadami’s barrel followed, ripping through the front ranks.

The soldiers broke, every face I saw scarred with panic. Crack! Yildirim’s fifth shot broke the air like lightning, passing through one soldier’s shoulder and piercing the flash pan of his neighbor’s rifle. Sparks exploded from the kindled weapon as a few more soldiers chanced wild shots. I heard desperate cries of, “Fire! Fire!” and saw discarded rifles land in the mud. The smell of smoke preceded more screams and gunshots. Foom! Ramadami pivoted, fired, and leapt again. I swear she ran through the air overhead, held aloft by passing bullets. When she landed, she broke another soldier’s jaw with the butt of her stolen weapon.

More bullets crossed the street, catching everyone but their intended targets in the confusion. I curled into a ball and waited for my turn to be shot.

After an endless moment, I felt the tug of a strong hand on the back of my vest. “Get up, Emin!” It was Kara Ramadami, so I obeyed. “Your mistress needs you.”

The crowds had completely dispersed. The dust was made muddy with the blood of the injured and the dead. A few Onsen people had fallen amongst the uniformed Dushiq, a sight that made me sick to the stomach. Mistress Yildirim lay on her belly, propped on her elbow with her pistol leveled unmoving up Dhiar Way.

“Come, Mistress,” I told her, tugging on one arm as Ramadami took her other. “The day is won.”

“Not yet,” Yildirim said, though her voice was thin.

“Yes, Mistress, please,” I begged her. “Let us go before more of them return. You have only one bullet left and the Dushiq are too many.”

Yildirim squinted and squeezed the trigger.

My mistress, Shoanna Yildirim, was the greatest shot in the city. That last bullet launched from the muzzle of the revolver gifted to her by the Sultan Mahmud himself and, praise God, its lead skin caught fire as it sped north.

It streaked, aflame, toward the Ridge. The tall palaces of the Dushiq were barely the size of playing cards on the hillside, so distant that they might as well have been drawn on the horizon. Still, the flaming bullet streaked toward them, nothing but the twinkle of a falling star over the city. After a breathless minute, it flared once before it hit its target in a puff of white powder.

“Help me up,” Yildirim said, her lip twitching with a familiar smirk as the building began to smoke. “Now is our time to be gone.”

“And mine as well,” Ramadami added. Yildirim looked her in the eye, her smile fading. She nodded. I can only guess what it cost the woman in white to walk away that day, knowing she would never again know the glory of a duel.

The Dushiq grudgingly paid out Kara Rama­dami’s favor and said nothing about their attempted coup or the strange fire that had originated in the upper offices of one of their palaces and destroyed half the wing before it was discovered and put out. The dead were buried and the grief of Dushiq and Onsen alike forged a new reminder of the civil balance sahidi maintains.

Kara Ramadami, we never saw again.

Nor did Shoanna Yildirim ever walk again. With both women removed from sahidi, the prizes could not threaten either dynasty. Every person in Onsen-town told ever-greater tales of the encounter that proved, as nothing else could, the power of Kavalye to keep the peace where mere soldiers could not. That peace reigned for the remainder of my lifetime.

I never knew another person with the skill of my mistress or her nemesis. In time, people would come to doubt their feats and call them mere stories, allegories at best. It was just as well. No peace could stand on only two pillars, no matter how strong. The fine balance between Onsen and Dushiq, we all shared between us.

About the Author

Charlotte Ashley

Charlotte Ashley

Charlotte Ashley is a writer and bookseller living in Toronto, Canada. Her short fiction appears in a number of anthologies and magazines, including the Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2017. She has been nominated for both the Aurora and Sunburst Awards. Charlotte recently published Archipelago, an alternate history swashbuckling portal fantasy told in three novellas, co-written with Andrew Leon Hudson and Kurt Hunt.

You can find more about her at http://www.once-and-future.com or on Twitter @CharlotteAshley.

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Charlotte Ashley

About the Narrator

Tatiana Grey

Tatiana Grey is a critically acclaimed actress of stage, screen, and the audio booth. She has been nominated for dozens of fancy awards but hasn’t won a single damned thing. She lives in Brooklyn, New York. See more about Tatiana at www.tatianagrey.com

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