Reading practice

Basics

(from “Cruel Sisters”)

The story’s been told from one end of what used to be our kingdom to the other. The death of the younger princess, supposedly from illness — but one day a minstrel arrived at court, bearing the gruesome harp. Its strings, spun from golden hair and tuned by delicate finger-bones, sang out all the crimes and sins of her royal kin, from her murderous elder sister to her treasonous younger brother to her cruel, capricious, contemptible father the king.

*

Dialogue

(from “Vīs Dēlendī”)

“You will understand when you see my working. And I am sure that when you do, you will judge that I too had sufficient cause for beginning before I entered this room.”

*

Two speakers

(from “Cruel Sisters”)

“Sister.”

Dread grips my soul. I suspected, yes–but it is another thing to know.

“You lied,” I whisper back, my voice as thin and dry as dust. “Why?”

“You mean, why did I condemn them, instead of you.”

The jolt thudding up my arms as I shoved her into the water. It was a stupid argument, and my oath to God, I thought she was exaggerating her distress. She loved to swim in the summer months. But it was early spring, and the water snow-cold, and she never went swimming in her dress. Afterward, I told myself it was the dress that killed her, not me, not me.

I can’t find the words to reply. She answers her own question anyway. “Because there are things that matter more than you, my dear, treacherous sister. Like the fate of this country. If I could bring down the monarchy by pretending to be the dead princess . . . it was hardly a choice.”

How many of their crimes were real, and how many invented to rile the mob? I can’t ask. I don’t want to know. We always disagreed on this anyway, and it’s too late to convince either of us of anything. The country I loved is gone.

My cold hands seek out the warmth of my pockets, and the reassuring weight within. “But now. Are you going to tell?”

“That you killed me? No. Not yet.”

*

Action

(from The Mask of Mirrors)

Within two heartbeats Ren knew she hadn’t gambled foolishly: The Rook dropped immediately from his straight-armed stance into a lower one and met Mezzan’s charge without flinching, parrying the nobleman’s thrusts with a few quick angles of his wrist. And he respected the rules of the game, passing up an opportunity to stomp on the arch of Mezzan’s foot, the way Ren would have done in his place.

But she was a former river rat, and he was the Rook. He could be brutal when necessary, but it was his flair that won him the hearts of the common folk. He danced out of the path of Mezzan’s thrusts with a little lace step, and when Mezzan made the mistake of rushing him, the Rook stepped in to meet it, locking them body-to-body in a brief, circling waltz. Only a swift tilt of his head prevented Mezzan’s spit from flying into his hood, and he let go just in time to avoid an elbow to the jaw.

The hood turned toward Ren. “Remind me, alta—are elbows permitted?”

“They are not,” she said, suppressing a laugh.

“I thought not.” The tip of his blade rapped Mezzan’s arm hard, right where the nerve ran between skin and bone. “Mind your manners, boy.”

The blow and the words were both calculated to enrage. But the increasing wildness of Mezzan’s attacks only left him vulnerable. Almost too fast for Ren to follow, the tip of the Rook’s sword snaked through the looping guard of Mezzan’s rapier and wrenched it from his hand. Metal grated as the hilt slid down the Rook’s blade; he twirled the trapped weapon in a full circle like a child with a toy, then tilted his hand so Mezzan’s sword flew clear.

It flashed through the open air and sank without a trace in the waters of the canal.