Please excuse the lame title. I haven't thought up a better one yet.
I'm not going to have chapters or whatever… This is basically one step up from a series of freewrites. I write during breaks at work or when I can't focus on anything else and then go back later to dress it up a little nicer. Please feel free to post in this thread with reactions, suggestions, critiques or anything else. If it gets really long I'll post links to each new part in this first post.
Fray turned her back on the train as it left the station. The wind of its passing, combined with a spring breeze, made the long skirts of some of the girls dance. She was glad she had chosen the pants version of the school uniform. A skirt just wouldn't fit with the hard boots, the thick, tight belt, or the sword slung over her back. The uniforms everyone was wearing weren't school uniforms, but uniforms of soldiers headed into battle. You could give up your life at any time, at this school. Just like her sister had. The school had eaten her sister alive, leaving not a trace.
Fray`s grip on her baldric tightened until her knuckles turned white. She took a breath and stepped down from the private train platform and onto the school grounds. From this day forward she would be a student of Blade-Bearer Academy, the school that had killed her sister.
Minus a few who already had friends at the school, who were excitedly chatting with their old friends and showing off their sheathed weapons, all the other students looked as nervous as her. Many were worriedly gripping their own baldric, while others who had kept their swords in the original cases had them hugged tightly to their chests as they walked.
No one knew much about the school. Blade-Bearers showed up in the news pretty much constantly whenever there was an armed conflict happening, and you could always see one or two following around VIPs as hired bodyguards, but beyond that very little was known of what a Blade-Bearer actually _was_, or what went on at the institution that molded them. Even though her own sister had been a student here, Fray felt that she knew next to nothing about the place. Rather than talking about the school, her sister had spent more time talking about the swords. She had only managed to wheedle a few private lessons out of her sister, but Fray wore her own sword a little more easily than any of the other new students she could see.
The old students, however, were another matter. Each one wore his or her sword so naturally it seemed to be part of their biology. There also seemed to be as many varieties of swords as there were students at the school. Huge zweihanders, needle-thin foils, dirks, rapiers, claymores. Main girl even though she saw someone wearing a sheathed kitchen-knife as if it was a weapon. There were cane-swords, whip-swords and shotels. There were beautiful, elaborate works of metallic art and simple, practical models. Of course she could only judge them by their hilts and sheaths, since not a single naked blade could be seen anywhere.
In the packet sent to her home by the school there had been strict instructions to never draw her sword carelessly on school property (or anywhere else). Her sister had been pretty adamant in her own warnings about that, back when Fray was first applying for the school.
“Don’t draw your sword until you know what you're doing. Except when you're practicing, don't take it out until you're absolutely sure it's the right thing to do.”
At that moment Fray noticed that a few of the new students walking around her were looking around in confusion. Some of them were looking at her pointedly. She also looked around. It was only then she noticed that someone was calling out from the crowd:
“Hey new kid! Stripey-hair! Hold on a second!”
Fray turned toward the source of the voice. To be sure, she was indeed the only one among the main students who fit that description. Her hair, tied in a loose, wavy ponytail, was blonde in front, platinum around where she tied the ponytail, and black toward the tips. She had never dyed her hair in her life, either to create or hide this peculiar coloring. It was as natural as her olive-green eyes.
Finally the owner of the voice broke through the crowd and stopped in front of Fray. From the high pitch of the voice she had been expecting someone small, and she wasn't disappointed. The short girl, with hair and skin the color of chestnuts, put her hands on her knees and panted for a bit before straightening back up. With no introduction she immediately launched into:
“You're her sister, right? Paz`s younger sister. No one else would have that crazy hair. Dang, when she said 'little sister' I thought you'd be a shrimp. I was hoping I could pick up a new recruit.”
Fray had never been good at guessing the ages of people from other countries, but she got the feeling it would be wrong to assume this girl was younger than her just due to her size. She definitely did not have any of the soft roundness of a child about her. She was as lithe and toned as a body-building spider. Still, Fray thought the long sword sheathed at the girl's back was a little much. Unless it was made of magical fairy metal with no weight it should have been way too heavy for the small girl to swing freely, judging by its size. Even the generic short-sword on her own back back was too heavy for her to swing more than 20 times in a row. She had no idea how her sister had managed to do 100 practice swings every night with a sword even bigger and heavier.
That said, it could be the girl really was a muscular little kid who just thought it would be cool to carry around a ridiculously large and heavy sword she couldn't even use.
“Hi, my name's Fray,” Fray said, leaning on the words a bit to remind the other girl that it was polite to introduce yourself before spouting rapid-fire nonsense.
“Yeah, right, cool, Miriam. I did a few jobs with your sister. She was lightning in a jar. Shame what happened to her. I was away on work, so I didn't get to see her trial or… anyway she was great stuff. I was all ready to welcome mini-Paz as the newest disciple of _shouran-ryuu_.”
Fray started to say something but another voice drowned her out. Most of the new students had passed them by, leaving Miriam and her mostly alone near the front gates of the school. A third party approached; he was the owner of the voice that cut her off, saying:
“I understand that you're desperate for new recruits, Miriam, but perhaps you should give the poor girl a moment to breathe before jumping on her like a starving little wolf.”
The speaker was a tall boy with black hair and eyes. His sword was a long rapier with an intricate, elaborate hilt and hand-guard. It was sheathed at his hip, and he kept one hand rested on the hilt. It certainly seemed more natural on him than the long sword did on Miriam.
Miriam bristled at his approach. Fray thought she saw Miriam's short, unstyled hair actually prickle like the quills of an angry porcupine.
“I don't see where a _fencer_ who draws his sword for _money_ comes off talking down to me,” Miriam said. Hearing the growl in the small girl's voice, Fray thought the term 'little wolf' was actually fairly spot-on.
“Marcus Fortias, Lieutenant of the Mercenaries. A pleasure, little Paz. I fought with your sister a few times myself. And slept with her a few times as well. I was also looking forward to you coming here and, unlike little Miriam, I am _quite_ content with your physique,” the boy said, bowing politely.
Fray was a little taken aback.
“That was the creepiest thing anyone has ever said to me,” she said, eyes full of a mixture of equal parts disgust, horror and anger. “I hope I don't live long enough to hear anyone top it. Did you go to my sister's trial?”
Marcus was surprised at the sudden change in subject and took a while to gather his thoughts. For a moment his charming, gentleman smile slipped and Fray caught sight of something far more serious and real in his eyes before he constructed a small frown and responded.
“I'm afraid not. Trials aren't really my hobby.”
“Well. Great. I guess that's all we would have ever had to talk about, so with that gone I'd say we can just call it quits on ever needing to talk to each other again. Thanks. I think I hear the opening… thing… starting. Good-bye.” Main girl turned away from Marcus and gave Miriam a small, stiff bow before brushing past both of them and heading for the school building.
Miriam watched her walk away, her face full of sympathy. She then turned back to Marcus, her hair spiking again.
“Your dead girlfriend's sister shows up and _that_ is the first thing you say to her? Way to leave a good impression. I knew you were worthless but I didn't think you were a chauvinist pervert.”
Marcus, on the other hand, was watching Fray's back with interest, one hand to his chin.
“She's completely different.” He wasn't talking to Miriam, and indeed seemed to have forgotten she was there at all. “Paz would have drawn her sword at something like that. I wish I could have seen her _ra_. Is it the same as hers, or…”
“Hey! Don't ignore me!” This time Miriam's hair looked like it was about to explode in a cloud of needles.
“Shut up, Miriam,” Marcus said, without malice, rather with dismissive indifference, “I have no interest in little girls who pigeon-hole themselves into fighting styles because of their body size.”
“One of these days you're gonna take the wrong contract and end up on the business end of my blade!” Miriam shouted at his back, as he turned and walked away from her, blushing angrily like iron in a forge.
“And then you'll die, because I'm faster than you,” Marcus said over his shoulder, in an off-hand, informative tone. Then he was back into his own thoughts, ignoring any other words Miriam hurled at his back.
~ ~ ~
A man wearing an official-looking mantle and robe stopped Fray before she entered the main hall of the large building where all the other new students were gathering. She looked at the sheath on his hip but, from the small, square shape of it she could only guess that he was 'bearing' a meat cleaver. His words snapped her to attention, and he met her surprised gaze with one full of heavy sorrow.
“Fray Stella. I was your sister's instructor, and her agent. I wish she could have been the one to welcome you here.”
Fray had pictured her first meeting with an administrator of this school for several nights. Would she burn with rage and demand to know why they had killed her sister? Would they loom over her like evil over-lords, unashamed of snuffing out a single, meaningless existence? Would they be all business, blaming it on the system rather than any individual person?
The responses she had dreamed up for all the possible outcomes faded like morning mist when she heard his words. He was obviously struggling with his emotions just like she was. They were both grieving for Paz. She tried to swallow, failed once, got it right the second time, averted her eyes, and took a few breaths so she could ask:
“Did you see her trial?”
without her voice trembling too much.
“I presided over it. And pronounced her sentence,” he replied, not taking his eyes off of her.
So this was Paz's judge and executioner. She shook her head, then met his eyes again.
“Why was Paz executed?”
“Murder. She used overwhelming, inhuman power to end the life of a person who had no comparable means…” a pause, a slight tightening around his eyes “... who had no comparable physical means of protecting himself. She used her sword to kill an unarmed man.”
Fray drew in a deep breath. She didn't have trouble sucking in the air, but when she breathed it out she shuddered and almost let a noise escape with her breath. She looked for deceit in the man's eyes. He looked for anger or denial in hers.
The silence stretched on. Someone in the auditorium down the hall from them was telling the students to take their seats.
The man reached out a hand. In his palm was a small medallion. On one side Paz's birth and death dates were engraved, on the other was a picture of Paz's face.
“I can't think of anyone else who should bear this. Take it, please. I... prefer not to hold on to it myself, but someone needs to.”
Silently, Paz reached out to take the medallion from his hand with both of hers. She held it in both hands as if warming it, then held it on her palm so she could see her sister's face one more time.
Mechanically she un-shouldered her sword and began to tie the thin chain of the medallion around the hilt. She nearly jumped with shock when the instructor suddenly reached out and grabbed her hand, his face horrified.
When he saw her utter confusion, he relaxed his grip, but didn't let go of her arm.
“In Blade-Bearer Academy, you tie medallions to your sword to commemorate the lives you have taken with your own hands.”
“My sister had eight medallions on her sword,” Fray said, slowly moving her gaze from her own hands to the instructor's face. Her voice was toneless with horror.
“Nine. Eight fair duels, one murder.” The instructor saw that Fray was reeling from the shock, so he transferred his grip to her shoulder and squeezed a little, putting his face close to hers and looking into her eyes.
“...” he seemed about to say something. Rather, he wanted to say something. Instead he simply left his hand on Fray's shoulder, which was beginning to shake a little. Then he straightened and walked past her without saying another word.
Fray awkwardly re-shouldered her sword. She reached out one hand, placing it against the wall for support. Her jaw was clenched so tight it hurt. Her tears pattered onto the floor.
--- Update From New Post Merge ---
Inside the spoilers is Paz's execution scene. I'm not sure, if this were an actual novel or whatever, where I'd put it in the story for the most impact. I actually wrote it first, intending it to be a prologue, but after reading the above section again I almost think it would be more interesting to hold it back for some other point. Anyway, feel free to read this at any point you want to. Please keep reactions to this scene in particular in spoilers so that people who want to choose to read it later aren't spoiled.
>! Paz stood with her feet shoulder-width apart. Her hands rested on the hilt of a sword half as tall as she was, which in turn rested with its point on the ground. Her back was as straight as the blade. She was looking up at the judges, who were looking down at her. The middle-most judge had been her first instructor, then her agent. He was standing, one hand rested on the handle of his own small blade, which was sheathed at his hip. He was looking for something in her eyes or stance that wasn't there, and when he didn't find it at last he let out a sight and shook his head.
>! “Your sentence is death,” he said, in a tone that said he had given up. “Death. For killing an Unarmed with Sword Arts. The offended party has selected your executioners,” He gestured to four or five men standing by wearing green and brown Republic uniforms.
>! Paz nodded. It was the second time she had heard that pronouncement, and she wondered why he was stalling. She had kept mostly quiet during the trial, except when asked a direct question, but now she ventured to speak up.
>! “I know the weight of a life, sir. I don't want to put my own death on anyone else's conscience. If it is agreeable with the court and the offended party, I would like to take my own life.”
>! The middle-most judge slumped into his chair in a way most unbecoming of a professional judge. He placed one hand to his temple, then looked down at her again. He finally gave voice to the questions he had been unable to answer with his eyes.
>! “You have never backed down from a duel in your entire career. You considered it a matter of honor that every opponent be fought to the death. Yet every time you came before us to testify of these duels your blade trembled. Now, of all times, how is it that you and your sword stand straight under the accusation of murdering a man who did not even have a weapon?”
>! The question had nothing to do with a the trial, but she answered anyway.
>! “I apologize that it took me this long to truly understand the weight of life and death. All I have to say is that I regret that the first step I took down the true path my blade has shown me will also be the last one.”
>! Her teacher met her gaze, then sadly closed his eyes and shook his head. He turned to the other judges and conferred with them quietly. He then signaled to a representative from the Republic, whom he also spoke to briefly. The Republic man seemed upset by what the judge proposed, but backed down under the judge's steady gaze.
>! Finally he turned back to the girl. He nodded, slowly.
>! “The court is in agreement. You are granted to permission to end your own life. Do you have any final words you wish to be expressed to the world after you parting?” He gestured for a scribe to take note.
>! She took a deep breath, and brought a smile to her lips. Just once the sword she was resting her hands on shook. It was only a small movement, but the it caused the nine pendants hanging from it to jingle quietly. Each pendant had a name on one side and a face on the other. Eight weighed heavily, though the last was light as a feather.
>! She looked up and spoke:
>! “To my dear sister. Congratulations on being accepted to this Blade-Bearer Academy. I hope that your sword will guide you on a straight path, and that your step will always be light. And… I hope you find that path far faster than I did.”
>! A pause, and her smile grew bleak.
>! “...that's all. Thank you.”
>! There was no noise but the scratching of the scribe's pen. Then silence.
>! Finally, the middle-most judge broke it.
>! “Very well. After you have ended your own life we will confirm your death and strike your name from the records. Farewell. It saddens us all that we must part with you in this way.”
>! She nodded slowly. Her heart was beating fast, afraid of the death it knew was coming, but her soul was at peace. Her back was as straight as the blade of her sword.
>! After another moment's hesitation, she clicked her jaw shut sharply, aiming to break the fake tooth containing the suicide pill that had been planted there before her first away mission. A brief pause, then she tried again. The middle-most judge put his face in his hands as the girl took several bites of air, trying to break the tooth.
>! “What the heck!?” she said, her voice quavering a little with a combination of various emotions, frustration foremost. “How were you expecting us to break these things if we ever got captured? Slam our head against a rock?”
>! “We don't put suicide pills in your teeth while you're asleep. That's just a rumor the instructors like to scare you kids with,” the middle-most judge said, his voice slightly muffled due to his face still being in his hands.
>! She seized up her sword and turned her blade toward her body.
>! “Screw this. It should have been my buddy's job all along. _Kuuha!_”
>! A blast of wind passed through her body, and she felt a strange, numb sensation in her chest. She tried to suck in a breath, but it got caught and instead she coughed, spitting up blood. Her mind raced, trying to find one last thing to say, one last pose to strike before she really went down, but it was all fading too fast.
>! The sword slipped from her numb fingers. She stumbled, staggered, and fell backwards.
>! She gave up on trying to go out with one last one-liner, and instead just smiled and died.