By Sarah Ashwood
“Do you play?” he asked.
“A little,” she replied.
With nothing more than a bare sweep of the eyes, he gauged her, examining her thoroughly from head to toe.
“Very well, then,” he said slowly, retreating a step to give her room. “Play for me.”
She gulped, suddenly shy. “Play…for you?”
His dark head tilted quizzically. “You said you played. I would like to see you do it.”
She licked her lips, a thousand objections leaping to mind. I am not very skilled. I have never had a lesson. All I know has been learned from observing others and listening to my father as he tutored his students. You will not be impressed.
“Are you afraid?”
Glancing up sharply at the question, she caught the twinkle of good humor in his cobalt blue eyes. But she saw something else besides humor: a challenge. A challenge to show him what she could do, to prove her worth, and for once display her skills to those who had always derided and looked down on her, those wealthy enough to afford lessons—her social betters, most would say.
Together, the humor and the challenge proved enough to make her lift her head. “I am not afraid,” she declared boldly. “I will play for you.”
A smile flashed across his mouth, there and gone like summer lightning. Withdrawing another step, he offered her the space she needed. “Excellent.” Like the humor, underlying the single word was something else: pride, this time. Pride, and a congratulatory, Good girl.
For an instant she was frozen in place, conscious of all those eyes upon her. Eyes that waited for her to back out or make a mistake; to stumble, to mess up, to make a public fool of herself. To prove she was nothing but what they had always called her: poor man’s daughter. Staring monkey. Little mimicker. Well, today she would prove them wrong. Having been offered the chance, she would not refuse it.
Closing her eyes, she began to play. Hesitantly, carefully at first, then with more confidence as the skills she’d practiced in secret came to the fore. She played and she played, putting into it her very heart and soul. Just as she reached the crescendo, a new sound. An echo of her own playing, but one that harmonized, complimented. He was playing too. Playing with her, playing against her. A duet—a duet with her challenger. Together, they moved in and out, back and forth, up and down, weaving the music of two skilled artists.
Her betters looked on, some with shock and some with envy. Nevertheless, not one of them stirred until it had ended. When she finally opened her eyes, it was to see him staring at her. No one spoke. Then, raising his instrument to his face, he bowed in graceful salute.
“You,” said he, “are most amazingly accomplished. None but the finest can master passages so difficult, and none but a true master can execute them with his eyes closed.”
“I learned from observing. And from my father,” she announced proudly.
He smiled softly. “Your father is a superb tutor, but one like you should have more. Come to my chambers. Tonight. We will discuss it. It would be a pity to waste your talents in the kitchens. Come to me and we will discuss sending you to the Academy. One day, you will be famous, surpassing even myself, I should think.”
Without another word, he turned and left, his stride long, light, and graceful, that of a true master.
She’d not stood there long, gaping after him, when a friend who had witnessed the entire scene dashed to her side.
“I cannot believe it! Did you hear what he said? He’s going to sponsor your entering the Academy!”
She shook her head, still lost in disbelief.
“Who-who was that man?” Foolishly, she had allowed an absolute stranger to challenge and then play with her. She hadn’t thought to ask his name; she was asking it now.
“Don’t you know?” Her friend was astonished. “That is the Swordmaster of Jacklon, Bearer of the Eight Stars, and the Emperor’s personal Guardian! Do you mean to say you were truly unaware?”
When she turned to look at her friend, the truth was written all over her face. “He asked me to play,” she breathed. “And I did. He played with me. It was beautiful; like a duet. And now he—he…”
“Has ensured that you will have a brilliant future,” her friend summarized. She glanced down woefully at the other’s instrument. “How I wish I had watched and practiced in secret like you.”
Awestruck, she lifted her father’s ancient, battered sword, gazing at it with something akin to worship. “Who would have ever thought,” she murmured, “that all my childish swordplay would one day change my life?”
The whim of fate is capricious, yet one thing is certain. One master can always recognize another, if not by face and name, then by talent and skill. So it was that day, for the kitchen maid and the Swordmaster.
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A genuine “Okie from Muskogee,” Sarah Ashwood is a full-time college student soon to obtain a B.A. in English from American Military University. During the course of her collegiate career she has gained entrance to three international honor societies: Phi Theta Kappa, The Golden Key, and Delta Epsilon Tau. Sarah’s prose and poetry have appeared in a wide variety of publications, while her first book, a volume of poetry titled A Minstrel's Musings, was published by Cyberwizard Productions in April 2009. In 2010, Sarah’s Young Adult fantasy novel, Knight’s Rebirth, will be published by the same. Along with her cousin and fellow author Dara England, Sarah is co-editor of the fantasy ezine, Moon Drenched Fables and the romance webzine, Moon Washed Kisses. For more information on Sarah and her writing, please visit www.sarahashwood.com.
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