Csethiro Ceredin, third daughter of the Marquess Ceredel, hated her first dancing lesson.
Officially, Mer Halavar had been engaged to teach the two eldest Dach'osmin Ceredins the fundamentals of courtly dance. At nine and eight years of age, they were certainly old enough to learn the figures, and to practice the graceful movement and deportment required of all gently-reared young ladies, which would serve them well in their future careers as courtiers. If Aneän and Pazhiro were excited at the prospect of michen-balls next winter or even simply of getting away from the usual lessons with their long-suffering governess, they were perfectly amenable students.
Csethiro, on the other hand, was... not. Just five years old, she was perhaps a little young to learn such a refined and grown-up occupation as formal dance. She had only moved from nursery to schoolroom a few months before, and certainly had enough to learn with mastering proper behavior before worrying about more complicated things like deportment. There would be plenty of time, in three or four years, for another master to be engaged to teach the younger girls.
One must stop throwing stones at the priceless Pencharneise porcelain before one could learn to appreciate it, after all.
Unfortunately for Min Chalarin, that observation was far more literal that she could have wished it.
The under nursery-maid suspected that Csethiro has some latent mazeise talents; the child moved so quickly that she seemed to fly, rather than run, around estate. Where three-year-old Veru was the quietest and most mild-mannered infant imaginable, Csethiro made enough trouble for all girls combined. When she wasn't hiding ('exploring!') the working barns, or digging up shubbery in the formal garden, she was finding every forgotten nook and cranny in the butler's pantry, the attics, or the servants' staircase. Even the formal receiving rooms were not unscathed; only last week, she'd attempted to sink half the blue room's mantel ornaments in the carp pond. And that same morning, while Min Chalarin was introducing the older girls to their new instructor—and while Csethiro should have been changing her pinafore after breakfast—Csethiro somehow escaped from the chambermaid, and manged to climb up the shelves in the library without being detected, in the process toppling all seven white-leather-bound volumes of The Encyclopedia of Ethuveraz from their position of honor, as well as the complete Peerage and A Comprehensive History of Thu-Cethor. She was discovered (by a slightly bewildered footman) spitting apple pips across the room from the highest possible vantage point.
Csethiro the Fierce, most dread pirate of the Chadevan Sea, made an eloquent case for the crow's nest being the most logical place from which to hurl 'ammu' at her enemies. Min Chalarin, however, decided that enough was enough, and that her most destructive charge needed a suitable outlet for her energies—and promptly frog-marched Csethiro into the ballroom.
“Dach'osmin Csethiro Ceredin will also be joining you.” Min Chalarin gave a perfunctory courtesy, and was out of the door (locked with click) before anyone had the chance to object (or for Csethiro to find more havoc worth wrecking).
“Very good”, Mer Halavar offered a polite smile to his newest pupil. "We will begin with simply walking to the music. Remember, light and easy steps--pretend that the floor is a soft cushion you do not wish to crush. Min Derhallin, the minuet, please." Aneän's music teacher, seated at the harp in the corner of the room, began to play.
Aneän and Pazhiro at least attempted to follow instructions, stepping carefully around the circuit of the room (mincing and flailing a little, as Mer Halavar gently corrected). Csethiro, however, had other ideas about the proper use of pillows. She stomped. She bounced. She pretended to kick the imaginary pillows at Mer Halavar (as she would have done if there were any pillows on the floor) and at Pazhiro (who was giving her severe looks).
The entire first lesson was spent walking in time to different songs while imaging the floor to be clouds or pillows or newly fallen snow (but these were not Csethiro's preferred imaging games, like pretending to be a dog or fighting off thieves). There was also seemingly interminable practicing of "a basic courtesy" (bending the knees while standing up very straight with a book on one's head).
As no one died during the lesson--and no more expensive antiques were smashed on the parquet floors--Min Chalarin pronounced the exercise a success.
And so, when Csethiro decided the next day that all the hunting hounds in the estate were needed to defend against barbarian raiders (and somehow got the kennel keys), Min Chalarin decided more dancing instruction was needed.
"But Edrevenivar the Conqueror didn't have to do stupid dancing!" Csethiro shrieked, not yet ready to resign herself to a whole morning of make-believe games without a single barbarian to fight. Nevertheless, there she was, locked in the ballroom with two embarrassed older sisters, a music teacher who had been in the household just long enough to be afraid, and a dance instructor who had not.
Mer Halavar, apparently, had heard Csethiro's tantrum, and announced that the pavane they were learning was related to the dances popular with the ancient cavaliers, and was reportedly based on the forms they used to train for duels.
Csethiro was not mollified.
But he had caught her attention.
She watched very carefully as Mer Halavar demonstrated the first movements of the dance: precise and measured steps, controlled turns.
She repeated back the movements after her sisters: if not with their attempted grace, than at least with less destructive force than anyone had anticipated.
Csethiro almost liked her second lesson. Unfortunately, Mer Halavar had neglected to mention how swords were used in the pavane. Clearly, there was more to learn. This, then, was her real first lesson: that sometimes one needs to be patient to get what one wants. For the rest of the spring, Csethiro threw herself into learning to dance as precisely as possible, to prove her mastery of the silly foot movements, so that she could finally learn something useful, ie, how to stab bad people, like heroes do.
Unfortunately, Mer Halavar's contract ended, and lessons stopped for the season without this all-important topic being covered at all. And so, Csethiro realized she would need to make up this deficiency herself.
Unfortunately, her experimental attempts to reconstruct the ancient fighting techniques of the cavaliers were thwarted by her older sisters (who refused to help), and by the nursery staff (who strenuously objected when she recruited Veru to assist while they were all 'taking the air' in the formal garden).
"We do not hit our sisters with sticks!", Min Perrin declared. She swept Veru up in her arms, over Csethiro's objections that her sister was just as likely to hit her (which didn't mollify the head nurse in the slightest), and that Veru was even starting to block on her own. Min Chalarin didn't even listen, but marched Csethiro back to her room, with instructions to 'never hit the baby with or without a stick'.
Unfortunately, this phrasing was more specific that Min Chalarin should, on reflection, have used. Csethiro never again hit Veru, but the governess had said nothing about visiting girls. So, a few short years later, when the Marquess Ceredel returned home on a visit, bringing with him his good friend, the newly widowed Count Celehel, and said count's young daughter, the topic had to be revisited.
This mostly consisted of Csethiro spending the entire visit--less the ten minutes in which she made the acquaintance of Csoru Celedin, decided that Csoru was her fated nemesis (in addition to having no fun ideas for play) and promptly vanquished her hated foe--locked upstairs.
For "being unkind to our guests" Csethiro found herself banished, not to her room, but to the nursery, "until she could behave better than a baby." This lasted through the whole visit, until the count and Marquess had departed for a hunting party on the Dorashada estates with the rest of the nobility of Thu-Cethor.
Aneän and Pazhiro accompanied them. Around the adults' hunting excursions, the Dorashada were hosting a number of childrens' entertainments, and had invited nearly all of nobles' children from the whole district to attend.
[Csethiro forgave her sisters, because they agreed that Csoru was a cry-baby, and no fun at all. Spending an extra two weeks having to pretend to like her was punishment enough, in Csethiro's opinion.]
It was during this visit, with Min Chalarin off chaperoning the elder girls, that Csethiro first found The Book.
With Min Perrin alone supervising the younger girls, Csethiro found it a bit easier than usual to sneak away from her lessons. Now able to read on her own more, she spent less time fighting imaginary threats around the estate, and more time reading wonder-tales in the schoolroom. This tended to be a problem when she should have been learning to balance accounts, but considering her earlier tendencies towards destruction, the staff were inclined to view it as a lesser evil.
Before they had left, Pazhiro had told Csethiro a fabulous tale about a boy fighting off 40 thieves at once ("I don't know how, with his sword! No, thou art stupid! I am the one who read the story!") and Csethiro decided that further research was needed into such a self-evidently useful skill. And, with almost the run of the house, now was the perfect time to search the library.
Instead of the book of wonder-tales, however, she found Ammet Vormamar's A Treatise on the Complete Art of Fencing, with The Protocols For Dueling, and Containing All of the Correct Forms.
It was not an easy book for an eight-year-old child to read. There were no pictures, and the small print was full of elaborate letter forms with unfamiliar scrolls and flourishes. Near the back of the book, some distant ancestor of the Ceredada had tucked in four woodcut images. The paper was old, and heavy, and spotted with age, but the miniatures showed two swordsmen in combat, and the three individual figures standing and holding swords. Later, when she had taught herself to decipher the old-fashioned lettering, she discovered that these were accompanying pictures to chapters 2, 3, 5, and 11—the salute, the ready position, the lunge, and a duel in progress.
At the moment, however, Csethiro recognized that she needed to not have this book confiscated. And so, after several minutes spent trying to piece out the introduction, she carefully replaced the book on its shelf, and returned to the schoolroom. The next day, she raced through her lessons with the same single-minded determination she had applied to dancing when the pavane seemed to hold the secrets of dueling; she then politely asked (an initially bewildered) Min Perrin for permission to read quietly on her own, and crept back to library. There—with a chair leaning against the door to check intruders, as Aneän had once showed her—Csethiro set herself the task of slowly working out the letters and words. Mer Vormamar had a formal and old-fashioned way of describing things, but as he was describing the best ways to stab people while not getting stabbed oneself, Csethiro was inclined to make the effort. It took nearly all of her first week to decide that the introduction was not particularly helpful, and to work through the first chapter (which was only about standing properly, after all). Some of it made sense, like the balancing her weight between both feet (just like Mer Halavar had taught her to do while dancing), but Csethiro soon concluded that she needed an actual instructor.
Min Chalarin returned with Aneän and Pazhiro, but Csethiro kept up her attempts to gain free time by completing her lessons efficiently. It mostly worked. After three years of teaching her, Min Chalarin knew better than to believe that Csethiro had developed a sudden interest in arithmetic, etiquette, or household management (though she conceded the literature and history). By the time they returned from the children's annual month-long visit to the court, Csethiro had impressed her governess enough to be trusted reading alone in the library almost every other day. Csethiro also successfully wheedled Min Chalarin into teaching her to write in the Barzhad, just like the cavaliers of old (this was not difficult, as it was both un-suspiciously in character for the child to be interested in anything related to the cavaliers, and writing was an activity likely to keep her sitting still and out of trouble).
Like most of the noble children of Ethuveraz, the Ceredada girls joined their parents at court to celebrate Winternight. While formal court functions remained the purview of adults—most girls were formally presented into society at 16, and none before the age of 13—there were dances and parties for the children held in different nobles' apartments, visits with family friends, and playdates between children of similar ages. There were, of course, a few children who lived at the court instead of visiting: the imperial children, the boys beginning their political careers as pages, and a few noble children close in age to the archdukes and archduchesses, who served as their companions and playmates (or aspired to be).
The Marquess Ceredel had harbored some aspirations towards having Aneän becoming a companion to the Archduchess Vedero, but two years age difference and a lack of shared interests between the girls stymied that plan. It did not fail as dramatically as his attempt to broker a friendship between his third daughter and Osmin Celehin, but it gave the Marquess further reason to lament having only daughters. After all, the younger archdukes were exact age matches for Aneän and Pazhiro, and either might have become a trusted companion, if only she were a he. Instead, the Marquess consoled himself with the thought that one or the other of his daughters might marry an archduke.
He was discussing these circumstances with his wife one afternoon, near the end of the girls' yearly court visit, when they were overheard by their third daughter. Dach'osmerrem Ceredaran had a sickly constitution, but a finer analytical mind than any three courtiers combined. Despite her poor heath, she stayed at court to uphold the family's social position, and to manage her husband's political career (such as it was).
“Remember Arbelan”, she reminded her husband, “while it will be different with an archduke who is unlikely to inherit, the Drazhada are not an easy family to be allied to. A lesser title can make a better match. And except for that Rothethada girl, archdukes tend to marry women several years their junior. Csethiro or Veru might well be better positioned that Aneän or Pazhiro--”
Although any such alliance must be far in the future—Aneän and the older archduke were both four years shy of adulthood, and Csethiro herself was only 8—the idea of being grown up did not appeal to Csethiro in the least.
So, she very logically fled the Ceredada apartments.
The Untheileneise Court's myriad passageways and warrens of apartments were not exactly forbidden to her. Csethiro had, however, never ventured out into them without a governess, at least one sister, and a page to guide them. Even crossing the hall to the Dorashada apartments to play with Avro and Aläo required supervision and ceremony.
A half-dozen turns later, Csethiro found herself in a long gallery. The gaslamps were unlit, but a welcoming glow several yards ahead revealed an open archway.
Edrevenivar the Conqueror would not fear the dark.
Csethiro crept towards the light; looking through the archway, she found herself on a sort of indoor promenade. It circled and overlooked what appeared to be a ballroom.
But the people below were not dancing.
They were fencing.
Most of the figures Csethiro could see wore the uniform of the Untheileneise guard, with a small smattering of other liveries and the odd fashionable doublet—men at arms employed by various noble families, with two or three young courtiers rounding out the group. Seven or eight pairs were sparring, chalked lines the floor delineating their allowed space. The other score or so watched from benches around the room, a low murmur of commentary beneath ring of steel blades crossing each-other, punctuated by the occasional cheer, jeer or piece of shouted advice.
Csethiro was in heaven.
She stayed too late that first visit—by the time she found her way back, her sisters had already left for the michen-opera being staged in the Chavada apartments. Fortunately, all of the servants seemed to think that she had been sulking inside rather than skulking outside, and Csethiro was only sent to bed without supper.
She returned to the fencing salon once more during that visit—a more profitable endeavor, since there was a young lieutenant with a surprisingly clear voice who was instructing some new recruits. But each year thereafter, Csethiro devoted every odd moment she could spare to observing the young men sparing there.
Between these observations, and her new ability to read the Barzhad alphabet, Csethiro was slowly able to puzzle out the basic forms of Mer Vormamar's Treatise. Her next major breakthrough, however, came three years later.
Aneän was nearly sixteen, and soon to be making her formal entrance into court society. Pazhiro would shortly follow her. The court itself was in somewhat of an uproar—the banished Empress Chenelo had recently died, and rumors were circulating that the Emperor himself might be looking to remarry yet again. Dach'osmerrem Ceredaran was less sanguine than her husband at that prospect (”We think that our daughters can achieve more than dying young or being relegated”). Both parents, however, agreed that Aneän's coming of age could be easily overlooked amid the excitement, and took steps to remedy that.
Csethiro was not overly concerned with the fine clothing her mother was commissioning, nor the elaborate entertainments her father was financing. (Beyond Pazhiro's satirical rhymes on the subject, and the younger sisters' shared determination to enjoy some part of the festivities.) She was, however, interested in the dancing and deportment instructor that was to 'polish' them all up for the great event.
Csethiro expressed this interest by borrowing the keys to her mother's writing table, locating the pile of letters responding to the Marquess's advertisement, and re-organizing them according to her own interests. The master waxing eloquent on feminine delicacy went to the bottom of the pile, the mistress insisting on separate spheres for men and women likewise. The highest position was occupied by the master expounding on the importance of exercise for young persons—until Csethiro found the letter from Mer Tonatar.
To the Marquess Ceredel, greetings.
Dear Sir, in response to your advertisement of the 4th ultimo, we offer our services as dancing instructor to your children. We studied under Dachensol Irar of the Zhäo Opera, and are prepared to teach all of the latest dances. Our methods are derived from the Zhäo school, and involve the development of health and grace through diverse exercise. We are also a second degree master of the sword, which we studied under the late Dachensol Montrema of Csedo. Our other credentials and references are enclosed.
Mer Tonatar signed his name with a cavalier's monogram.
The other responses went into the fire.
In Csethiro's defense, she and her sisters learned all the court dances they had been promised. They also walked about the family estate with an upright bearing, and unsurpassed grace.
And spent half of every afternoon moving through the fencing forms that Csethiro had spent the last six years trying to learn surreptitiously.
She recognized the steps of their exercises—there were no swords, or mentions of the same, but otherwise, they might have comprised four half-lines in the Untheileneise court's fencing salon.
On the third day of this, Csethiro mentioned Mer Vormamar, and received a rare smile from her otherwise brisk and business-like instructor. On the fourth day, she persuaded Min Chalarin that the first hour of lessons immediately after breakfast would be better spent in healthful exercise than in coaxing feeble melodies from a harp. On the fifth day, Csethiro began her first proper lesson in sword-play, taught by a dancing instructor with no other sparring partner, and chaperoned by a parlormaid who enjoyed the chance to sit down.
On the forty-second day, her parents found out about her extra lessons. The Marquess as inclined to disapprove of women using swords, but was too awed of his third daughter to raise an actual objection. Perhaps he also recalled the fate of his family's porcelain collection. His lady wife looked to her own blood-specked handkerchief, and approved of the endeavor.
Csethiro turned sixteen the autumn after Aneän married the Marquess Attarel (Pazhiro, as always, composed several rhymes on the occasion, one of which was suitable for company). Formal presentations to the (still-unmarried) Emperor were not being scheduled; instead, the custom had arisen of introducing debutantes to the Emperor during their first court ball.
There was a new dress of the palest green to wear on the occasion, and her parents had engaged special hair-dresser for the entire day of the ball. Earrings and combs of gold, green glass beads for her hair, the satin dancing slippers so delicate that a wrong look might crush them—all were carefully arrayed for her court debut.
And she wore them to dance.
But, the evening before, Csethiro donned her fine woolen split skirt, and a new leather doublet (a garment worn by some ladies in casual settings, though never of that material). She twisted her hair up without her maid's assistance, and accessorized the ensemble with the sword-belt and sabre she had liberated from her family's adequate, but lately neglected, armory.
This time, when she walked through the promenade archway, she took the right-hand turn to a spiral staircase, and descended to the practice floor. And made her court debut.