A Novel of Tiger and Del
For the first time in years, life seems settled for Tiger and Del. They run a school for sword-dancers in the South. They're raising a two-year-old daughter. They collect income from their interest in a thriving cantina. Occasionally Tiger must dance against sword-dancers bent on killing him for forsaking the oaths and vows of the circle, but for the most part it's an idyllic life. Until Tiger's twenty-five-year-old son accuses him of being "domesticated."
Thus challenged by his own flesh-and-blood to reclaim his legendary status, Tiger, accompanied by Del and his son, embarks on a journey northwards that will test his sword skill and resolve, and lead him and Del into danger from an old enemy. Though Tiger had forsaken his magic years before, he now faces the choice to reclaim it, and to wield it, in order to save those he loves.
“Domesticity,” my son announced, “has blunted you.”
He stumbled back from me, nearly stepping outside of the circle. Like me, he wore leather dhoti, no tunic, no sandals; we were dressed for sword-dancing. His skin was tanned, like mine, and, remarkably, clean of scars. Unlike mine. Well, that would change.
Overhead, the sun burned. In the Punja—the most deadly of deserts—it would drive a sane man to seek the nearest shade, to carry plenty of water, to cover his body with a hooded burnous of nubby silk. But this was not the Punja. This was a place of water, of grass, of high canyon walls that blocked the sun, except when it was directly overhead.
It was directly overhead now, and it was hot.
My son, my opponent stood upright, breathing hard; sweat ran down his dark hair, dripped onto his shoulders. He had grounded his sword in the sand, resting his palm on the pommel, fingers loose. I stared at him, momentarily speechless.
I stood up straight as well, also breathing hard, but did not ground my sword. In fact, I waved it at him, right wrist flexing, supported by musculature developed over decades of practice. Sunlight flashed off the blade.
“Sharp enough to take you,” I pointed out. “Three dances, three wins, and I’ve just about got this one. Or had this one, before you decided to distract yourself from that fact by opening a topic about which you know nothing.” I waved the sword again. “Blunted, am I?”
“Your sword isn’t,” he clarified, wary of the exceedingly sharp point. “You are.”
I wasn’t certain we’d make any progress this way. I squinted at him. “Domesticity?”
I said something short and sharp, and it elicited a snicker. “In what way am I blunted?”
“You used to have adventures,” he said. “Now you stay at home and teach sword-dancing, instead of doing it yourself.”
It stunned me. “You think I’m not dancing anymore? I do it every day, Neesha! I teach you, even, and I don’t notice you’ve left to go off on any adventures.”
“I’m thinking about it,” he said, “and I thought you could come with me. Father and son. You know. Bonding.”
“Bonding,” I muttered between my teeth. Bonding. Bonding? What in hoolies did that mean?
“Maybe even Del could go.”
I blinked. “Del?”
“Sure. The three of us together.”
I frowned. “Del’s got Sula to look after. She’s only two.”
Neesha smiled. “Do-mes-ti-city.”
“And she teaches, too,” I pointed out, meaning Del, not Sula. “When’s the last time you danced with her? Afraid she’ll defeat you?”
He grinned widely, white teeth flashing in a tanned, handsome face. (I had to admit I’d sired a good-looking kid.) “I’m sure she’d defeat me. But that’s not what I mean. Why not dance for real again? You could leave Sula here with Lena and Alric. They’ve got so many kids now running around like chickens that they wouldn’t even notice another. Besides, Sula stays over there while you and Del are teaching. You know they’d be happy to do it.” He shrugged. “Alric’s domesticated, too, but he seems happy that way. I don’t think you are, and I know Del isn’t.”
It was a stab in the gut. “Del isn’t?”
“She adores Sula,” he said, “and she loves you. You stay here, so will she. I’m just saying it would do both of you good to get away for awhile. Accept challenges. Guard a caravan. Get away.” He watched me avidly, then grinned. “Ah-hah! I saw that look on your face. It appeals. You hid it fast enough, but oh, it appeals.”
Maybe it did. I wouldn’t admit it to him. “I have students.”
“Right now you have me. Everyone else has gone off to see families or whatever, remember? “
This was true. Apparently all seven students had gotten itchy feet at the same time—or else the challenges of my discipline had chased them away. Some would come back. I’d left my shodo three times before I finally committed to sticking it out.
Neesha grinned. “What harm would it do for the great Sandtiger to go out and practice again what he teaches? You would add luster to the legend.”
Luster to the legend. Like my legend needed any.
He shrugged. “You’d probably attract more students.”
Probably. But. “Del and I have enough.”
I sighed. “Neesha, you can go any time you like. Neither I nor Del would suggest you stay here. You’ve learned a great deal in two years.”
He nodded, but his eyes, as they met mine, were intent. “What level?”
I shrugged. “Third.”
He shook his head, lips compressed, tips of damp dark hair brushing his shoulders. “Third’s not good enough.”
“It takes seven,” I reminded him. “And usually a minimum of ten years.”
“But of course you did it in seven. Seven levels in seven years.”
“So I did. But you came here with some skills, and third level in two years is not what I’d call slow.” Now I grounded my sword and, as he did, rested my palm on the pommel with fingers loose. “Go. Leave. Make and accept some challenges, Neesha. Sort out what you want, then come back for more teaching.”
His eyes met mine and did not waver. “Come with me.”
I lifted my sword, set the flat of it across one shoulder, turned my back on him, and began to walk away.
“Think about it,” he called. “And ask Del!”
I didn’t need to ask her. I knew what she’d say.
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