After their rout of the Kilim, it had been an almost trivial matter for Nemi's people, the Vangon, to pay their annual tithe to the King. He and his Treasury had been happy to receive their due, and thereby were the Vangon spared the slaughter that the King's armies would otherwise have visited upon them for failure to pay their respects ... in gold.
With that obligation discharged, life had been quiet for Nemi and the Vangon.
In the tavern most nights people could be heard wondering if perhaps word had spread among the local settlements and tribes that Janata's people were not to be crossed, that their swords were sharp. The god of steel, Lishat, and his twin Rikatia, the goddess of combat, watched over them.
Others, mostly the farmers, felt that the peace was perhaps nothing more than the deadening effect of the relentless snow, falling day after day, suffocating everything but the will to live, to survive.
So the Vangon farmers continued to farm, or at least did what they could against the freezing rains, frosts, the short days and the long nights of winter. Meantime, snug in their workshops, the leather-workers and metal-workers and sword-smiths and all the other artisans and craftsmen went about their business. There were always arms and armour and clothing needing repair and replacement; winter was was their busiest time, and they worked long hours to satisfy their customers.
As for the warriors of her people, life for them was a little more complex. It was expected that they should train and exercise, and many did, or at least they tried to, but such discipline is hard to maintain when the days are cold and short, and the beer strong and warming. So, instead, in huts and alehouses, songs were sung, stories were told, and legends were renewed.
But not for Nemi.
After her combat with Alban, brief and brutal as it was, and in the fighting that followed as the Kilim were put to the sword, Nemi replayed the events over and over again in her mind, re-visualising what happened, what could have happened, and she was not happy.
Oh her skills were considerable, and she had not fallen into the trap of relying on her gift for healing to save her, but, still, she was not happy.
In each visualisation, Nemi saw, over and over until it was undeniable, that there was a problem with her technique, with use of weapons. Her short-sword was, well, it was okay, it kept her alive and certainly was washed in Kilim blood, but there was something wrong with it.
It wasn't that she or her sword were not sufficient, but that was all they were. They lacked rightness. They were always Nemi and her sword. It was a tool, but never an extension of her.
There was technique, but no instinct.
And, as the weeks began to pass, this realisation began to gnaw away at Nemi, as insistent and impossible to ignore as a mosquito until she had no other choice.
She had to act, and there was only one thing she could do.
So, two months after the last of the Kilim had died or fled, Nemi took her purse of coins to the city of Fel-Sta.
Love it or loath it, it served a purpose. Beginning as nothing more than a garrison-town a century or more ago where the tithes were collected before being shipped to the King, Fel-Sta had soon grown, attracting merchants and artisans and workers and all the other peoples needed for a town to grow.
And Fel-Sta grew very quickly, coming to squat over the crossroads where it had been established like some unnatural creature of brick and cement and thatch and tile, reaching into the lands surrounding it, drawing in everyone it could find, leaving empty villages in its wake. This was not done through malice, but those who remembered those villages with fondness were not so kind in their words for Fel-Sta.
Fel-Sta grew, Fel-Sta endured, and its critics grew old and died, their complaints dying with them.
It was said almost anything could be bought or arranged in Fel-Sta, but by the morning of her third day in that city, Nemi was beginning to wonder how true the legend was.
For two days, from the time when they opened until the time when they closed, Nemi had been methodically working her way through the small warren of alleys and lanes known collectively as the Sword Quarter. Initially she had visited those weapon-smiths and armourers she had had dealings with in the past, but they had no solution to her problem other than to try to sell her another sword that was, of course, different from the sword she already possessed and would, they promised, solve her problem.
Sadly, for them, Nemi was not so naive.
By the late afternoon of her second day, Nemi had even grown so desperate as to seek inspiration in the more expensive weapon-shops of the master craftsmen. She could not afford their prices, and most of their swords were ceremonial, for display, not for combat but still, after two days of searching, she was beginning to grow desperate.
She knew her problem lay in her weapon, but she was beginning to doubt if there was a weapon that could replace her sword.
The morning of the third day began well, with clear skies and a bright sun shining down from the vault of the heavens.
Nemi took it for a sign, and walked the short distance from the inn where she was lodging to the Sword Quarter, this time heading for the few remaining unexplored lanes at the opposite end of the Quarter from that which she entered it.
Five lanes and a dozen armourers later, just as Nemi was beginning to think of returning to her home in the Vangon Settlement, Nemi came to a sign, a sign of such simplicity, such terseness that, for a moment, Nemi doubted it to be an armourer's shop at all until she caught the unmistakable lines of swords hung in the gloom of the window.
Xan – Exotique Arms.
Deciding that Xan's would be her last attempt in Fel-Sta to find a better weapon, Nemi turned the handle and pushed open the door, finding herself stood in a small, dimly-lit, and slightly musty smelling shop. The walls were lined with swords of various design, some of them so outlandish that Nemi found herself smiling as she wondered quite how they might be used. To the back of the shop was a small glass counter, within which nestled daggers of equally diverse design.
"Can I help you?" came an unexpected voice from the gloom behind the counter.
"I hope so," Nemi answered as she watched a small, shaven-headed man emerge from the shadows, clay pipe in hand. Dressed in the leathers of his trade, he looked more like an arms maker than an arms dealer, prompting Nemi to wonder how real the more extraordinary of the blades on display really were.
"Hah! You 'hope'? Why not come here first?" the man asked, his tone speaking of how Nemi was not the first or the last to come to his shop only when they had failed to find what they sought in all the other shops of the Sword Quarter. He was also, by his tone, unoffended, perhaps resigned to the accident of geography that placed his shop where it was.
"Xan," the curious stranger confirmed.
"Xan? Xan, I'm, I'm looking for something to replace this," Nemi said, grasping the hilt of her sword in explanation.
"What's wrong?" Xan asked, puzzled.
Slowly, not wishing to alarm an armourer in his own shop – a usually fatal mistake – Nemi drew her sword, took position, and waited.
"Show me," Xan said, waving an indulgent hand.
With a slight nod, and without ever breaking eye-contact, Nemi worked her way through some of the basic patterns, came to rest again, and sheathed her sword.
"Hm, Northern school," Xan said, a comment on her style.
"It's not you," Xan said.
"The style?" she asked, hope rising in her voice, tinged with annoyance that she could have missed such a now obvious aspect of her combat.
Xan shook his head. "No. The sword. Not you."
Nemi sighed. "No. It's served me well, but it's still a tool, not part of me, not an extension of my will to survive-"
"-to kill?" Xan interrupted.
Nemi simply smiled.
"So. Come through, to my practice area, and show me more," Xan said, stepping aside and gesturing to the gloom behind him.
Thinking nothing of the possible risk, and confident enough she could defend against any possible treachery by Xan, she followed him though to a simple open courtyard behind the shop, cobbled, with a simple wooden manikin stood in the centre.
"Again," Xan bade her.
Drawing her sword once more, from a resting stance Nemi made a swift series of lunges, blocks, and counter-moves to the static manikin and its wooden sword, the whole series taking her several minutes.
Holding her final pose a moment, Nemi sheathed her sword and turned to Xan.
Rubbing his head in that rasping, annoying way that all bald men do, Xan smiled at Nemi as he said, "Your problem is your reach. Your height is good, so your reach should be fine, but instead you're compensating with your sword, over-reaching to try to get an advantage."
Nemi flexed her arm a moment, closing her eyes, listening to the muscle memory, repeating the moves, slower, her awareness on the flexing of her muscles as she reached, twisted, blocked. Opening her eyes, Nemi smiled at Xan. "You're right. What to do?"
"First, get rid of that," Xan said, nodding at Nemi's sword.
"Spoken like a true salesman," Nemi said, smiling to take the acid from her comment.
Xan shrugged without offence. "Man's got to eat," he said, adding, "But you have to change your weapon. Sometime over-reaching becomes over-balancing, and then," Xan stabbed his belly with his finger.
Now it was Nemi's turn to shrug; no sense in telling Xan anything he didn't need to know. "Let me guess, you have just the thing for me?" Nemi bantered, slapping her hilt for emphasis.
"Perhaps, and perhaps not."
Nemi opened her mouth a moment, shut it, then began again. "Yes and no? Not what I was expecting, Xan."
"Ha! Have something, but not mine. A trade, another 'smith, from Haelton."