"You will teach me to wield a blade."
The steady, even sound of the whetstone sliding over metal stops abruptly. Vossler stares blankly at her for a moment before he gathers his wits and rises to bow to her. "Princess," he says cautiously.
She clasps her hands in front of her to still their shaking, feeling the edge of her ring dig into her fingers. "I have told you we will not use that title here," she says, and for all her best efforts there is a faint quaver in her voice.
"Amalia," and he stutters over the name, makes a face like he's taken a mouthful of sour wine. "Your father--"
"Is dead," she interrupts. He flinches, and she clasps her hands tighter. "Vossler, I will not sit idly by counting the days while you and the others fight for Dalmasca. If I would rule her, I must fight for her. You will teach me to wield a blade."
"We cannot risk you in battle," he says, and he will not look her in the eye.
"We cannot afford to have too few sword-arms," she counters.
"You are all that is left of House Dalmasca." Still he will not look at her, studying the pattern on Nightmare's hilt. "We would do ill indeed to win the country and lose the queen."
"Vossler." She waits until he looks up at her, slowly. "Had I been born a man, you would never have let me reach this age without knowledge of several weapons."
He says nothing, only looks at her. His knuckles are white from the force of his grip on the whetstone.
"Vossler, we can ill afford to cripple ourselves with deadweight," she says. "We cannot afford to divert men to protect me, and it might well inspire them to see their princess fight by their side."
"If you should be killed, then this is for naught."
"Vossler, I would not ask this of you if I did not feel it necessary. Would that they were with us yet, my father and—and Rasler." She almost chokes on his name, and clenches her hands so tight that she is sure the poesy inscribed on the inner curve of her wedding ring will imprint on her skin. "We would not then be hiding in this damned waterway, listening for the tread of Imperials above us and prisoners in our own homeland. Yet if we do not change with the times, then Archades will break us. I will not have it so. Nor would you. Or are you no longer a son of Dalmasca, willing to defend his land with whatever it takes, however long it takes?"
He flinches, and the stab of regret is sharper than she had thought; she mislikes baiting him thus, but her best efforts to command and coax have failed. If the goad to his pride will not do, then she will get the lieutenants to teach her.
At length he sighs and sets aside the whetstone. She can see the imprint of its edges on his palm. "Tomorrow morning, then, Amalia. At dawn." There is only the barest hesitation before her assumed name, and she knows that he is aware she has noticed.
She looks at the item being proffered by one of Vossler's lieutenants, and then at Vossler himself. For a long moment, she does not speak.
"Lady--" He catches himself halfway through the phrase, grits his teeth. "Amalia."
She wonders how they will ever bypass Imperial eyes, if her assumed name so offends his sensibilities that he can barely endure to speak it. It comes more easily to his men now, and after three weeks, it does not seem so strange to her to answer to her other name.
"Captain Azelas, explain this."
"You have asked me to teach you to fight with a blade," he says quietly. "I do not propose to put live steel in your hands from the first moment. You must first learn to handle the weight and the way it moves."
"I do not question that." She gestures at the wooden practice sword. "I question why this sword is but half the size of those I have seen your men wield."
"There are many styles of sword. I thought this one—the arming sword—best suited to your abilities; it relies more on your quickness than on brute strength."
"Will not my opponents wield weapons that rely on brute strength? This has not half the reach of Nightmare, and I have seen the weapons carried by the Judges. They would snap my little blade like a twig."
"We begin with this," he says flatly. "In time, we may move on to a larger blade. For now, you will use this."
"Even you, Vossler, must eventually yield to necessity." She does not look at him as she takes up the wooden sword. It is surprisingly light in her hand for its size. "I will learn this, whether it be from you or from the men."
"You will learn it from me or not at all." He moves beside her. "If you hold it thus, you will tire your wrist, and you cannot block at these angles, see?" He presses against the sword and it is startling how fast she loses her grip. It clatters to the ground. She bends to pick it up, and will not meet his gaze.
"Hold it thus," he says, adjusting her grip on the sword, "and your opponent will find it harder by far to disarm you."
He trains her relentlessly, until she cannot recall a time she did not ache from the strain of the work and the bruises alike. He is patient with her, more so than she thinks he might have been with one of his recruits—she has seen their bruises, and her own are naught to compare—but nonetheless she aches. Yet she perseveres, for to give up now would be to admit weakness, and that she cannot do.
Thus it is that the first time they face off with each other to truly spar, she spares no thought for defense but instead hammers against his blade, seeking to force him to give ground through sheer persistence. He hardly seems troubled by the hail of blows, parrying her almost effortlessly, and then suddenly he is on the offensive, forcing her back until he has her in a corner, and her blade is trapped beneath his. He is too close, and for one blind moment she nearly lashes out like a cornered animal, her breath coming in short, sharp gasps.
"My lady," he breathes, "yield."
She chokes on the words, but forces them out. He steps back and takes up his stance. Again she attacks, and again he drives her back into the corner, and again she yields.
The first time she bests him it is by accident, a turn of his foot on the stones beneath them, and the edge of her wooden sword flush against his neck. She bids him yield, and he says the words hoarsely.
The second time, she thinks he might have let her win, but by the fifth, it is apparent that she has grown adept with the sword, though her slim blade would be no match for Nightmare.
"You will teach me to handle a larger blade," she says, the point of her wooden sword resting in the hollow of his throat. "And come the morrow, I will join the men on patrols."
"Lady Ashe, no," he protests.
"I am more apt to die of your careless words than an Imperial attack," she says, and though it hurts her to wound him, she can think of no other way to make this clear. "Things are no longer as they were. We must bend, lest we shatter beneath the iron weight of Archadia. I am Amalia now; I am a fighter in the resistance, not a princess who must be coddled lest she come to some harm."
"But you are the princess," he says, and she sees on him the full weight of the resistance's efforts.
"I am a Dalmascan," she says, thinking of her father's tired face. Unbidden, the image of the traitor fon Ronsenburg laying her dead husband before her, his face grave and sorrowful, comes to her mind. Though she banishes it with the speed of long practice, the wistful thought remains: Basch would not have fought her so hard. Nor had he fought Archadia so valiantly. "This resistance needs Amalia far more than it needs Ashelia."
He rises slowly to his feet. "On the morrow I will take you with me on patrol," he says. She nods.
He walks haltingly, like an old man pressed beneath the weight of his deeds, and she wonders if he has the strength in him to bend in the storm that has struck Dalmasca.
She prays he does.