She remained deep within the bushes. An enclosed area that was perfect for training away from prying eyes. That is eyes that weren't hers. Avelina had always found this place restful. Perfect for solitude and quiet contemplation. More importantly, a good place for practicing her technique in combat. Alas, Ave wasn't the only one who found this place appealing; it just so happened that her sister's bodyguard discovered this little utopia. Dashing Lina's seclusion. Nevertheless, she realized studying Clara's technique was far more interesting than practicing on her own. Though the princess took pains to remain discreet.
The hidden figure snapped to attention when she watched Clara slow to a crawl, carefully even loving placing her weapon down. What had she called it earlier? "Tianbain. That's it," Avelina thought to herself as she waited for the woman to leave. Seconds felt like days, but finally, Clara left. Whether it was to use the bathroom or to do something else mattered not to Ave. She saw a small window of opportunity and planned to seize it. For she didn't know how long it would last, and there was no time like the present to take care of things. With a long stride, she made her way to the resting weapon. Taking a side in each hand, she began attempting to pry it apart. It was clear that the weapon could be hypothetically split into separate weapons, she had seen it before, yet here she was struggling to do so. A resistant force? Perhaps, but nothing that she couldn't overcome. A muscle in her jaw began working as she concentrated.
Clara returned to the small opening. It was barely large enough to train effectively, though was hidden in the throes of a large garden. The perfect space for the rare times one of the other guards were assigned to duty. Her Highness, Avelina, had been a shadow to Clara for years, almost since her first week on the job, so it was no surprise that there she was, trying to pry apart the separate sides of her weapon. Ashraf would not be pleased. Clara approached silently, taking Avelina by her wrist in a tight, but not painful grip.
"Your Highness, please let go of that," She said sternly, the only hint of her emotion in the hardened glint in her eyes.
She didn't hear the oncoming footsteps. The princess cursed in very unladylike fashion. Especially when feeling the tight grip on her wrist.
"Why should I? It's a beautiful weapon and it's clearly designed for the sake of being split into two. Yet it's uncooperative," she sighed, not seeing a hint of remorse in Clara's eyes; no sympathy here.
"Fine, I'll let it go if you promise to instruct me on how to fight properly. I have no intentions of being a damsel in distress waiting for some knight in shining armor. It's stupid, unrealistic and impractical. It's your job to protect me right? Well, one of the best ways to do that is to teach me how to protect myself. You assure that the instructions are sound and I learn how to defend and protect myself so if there's any time you can't be there I'll be able to take initiative. Otherwise, I'm a sitting duck and I really hate being in such a position," Avelina said. Hoping that this might at least open a crack that she could use to learn more effective combat measures.
Clara took Tianbain out of Avelina's hands, "My duty is to protect you, not to turn you into a weapon."
She took a step away before she broke the two halves apart, examining them for damage before lowering herself into a stance, swinging them slowly as she returned to training. The two halves of the deadly whole swinging softly through the air.
"Turn me into a weapon? Don't be ridiculous. I'm doing this to establish my own autonomy. There will be situations where all the talking in the world will do nothing for me. There will be times where you can't be there to protect me. What happens when they intersect? I'm screwed. Imitating with bits and pieces of knowledge from elsewhere won't be enough to form a fighting style. Maybe I scrap for a bit and barely hold my own. Anything beyond that? Absolutely not. I have no intentions of being held hostage or anything of that sort," Avelina responded.
She watched her continue to swing the weapon, clearly ignoring Avelina as she went through the motions of her fighting style. "Are you even listening?" she snapped, still being dutifully ignored by Clara.
"Yes, Your Highness," Clara replied, connecting the blades once more, sheathing it at her hilt.
She turned to Avelina, considering for a moment. To obey her Majesty or her Highness. Each could have considerable repercussions.
"I follow both yours and her Majesty's orders. But this command, I will have to refuse."
At first, Avelina was excited when Clara sheathed her blade. She still marveled at the special function of the weapon; the ability to split it into two allowed for ambidextrous users to thrive in combat settings. Yet when she heard the words that Clara uttered her good mood dissipated.
"Really? Is that what you want, a weak, reliant little miscreant that can't defend myself forcing me to obey the powers at be? That sounds a lot like the weapon you don't want me to become. Guess what? Looks like I'm already there," Ave snapped before storming away.
The girl disappeared through the small entrance/exit, making her way into the city, infuriated at being denied. She needed to accumulate physical clout, not just intellectual jargon and barbed retorts. Pretty words and thinly disguised threats meant almost nothing to her. Sure they had their purpose in the grand scheme but she hated relying on a single asset.
Clara sighed lightly. Avelina was the most troublesome of the three princesses, and this was exactly why. She left after her, following her into the city streets though staying a few meters behind. Just close enough to keep her in sight without being seen herself. This would not be the first time she had done this, and she rarely had cause for concern, though Clara would be the one paying the price if Avelina ended up injured.
Most troublesome indeed. The type to go looking for trouble despite endangering herself. Avelina was furious yet not surprised when it came to being denied. Of course, she wouldn't be taught how to fight. She was a princess that was supposed to be doing princess things. Keeping her nose clean, learning how to entertain guests, being the housewife. She wanted no part of that mess as spoiled as it made her sound. Perhaps that was another tool in her arsenal, as meager as it was. Underestimate Ave at their own peril.
Her attention was drawn elsewhere as she heard a commotion. Bandits and thugs that had carved out their own little niches while avoiding royal attention. Not that the King truly cared about the well-being of her people. Profits were all that mattered to Niu. That and the accumulation of tangible and discreet power. So Ave did as Ave does, swaggering over to the group and their victim.
"Let her go," she trumpeted, as they turned their attention to the young vigilante. "Get away girl," they spat, shaking while injuring their target. "Surely you aren't that stupid. I'll repeat once more. Let. Her. Go," Ave started, earning their attention as they sensed the mocking tone in her voice. They dropped the woman like a sack of potatoes as they advanced on her.
Part of Clara wanted to stay hidden and watch how Avelina handled it. The other part knew it was her job to interfere. As the first of the four men approached, drawing a knife from his waist to strike her Clara cleared the gap, standing in front of Avelina and parrying with Tianbain. She looked behind her quickly at Ave, jutting her elbow back to gently push her backward.
Tianbain flashed forward at the flick of Clara's wrist, slicing through the first man as he keeled over, pressing his hands to the thick wound to try to contain the blood. She bashed the flat of the blade into his side, sending him into the wall with a crash. Her advance continued as two men simultaneously charged her, Xiao and Hai appearing as the blade split, legs spreading as she shifted into a low stance, slicing the tendons on each of their legs to bring them down. The final man was smart. Backing away to try to escape, though he didn't make it far. Her hand was on his shoulder and before he knew it he was bleeding. From everywhere. Cuts littering his skin as it was shattered by her ability. In that moment, Clara appeared just as red as the King.
Avelina saw the flash of blades. Knowing that the match was over before it began. Clara was too fast, too skilled, and far too efficient to be denied. Four street trash were nothing to her and it showed. Swords flashing, skin shredded to ribbons. Blood on Clara and blood on the streets as it pooled.
To appear powerful is to be powerful. Let people see what they want to see. Surprisingly, Avelina didn't faint, nor did she scream. Most people expected that of a princess, particularly one groomed by Niu. Yet Ave was only interested, studying the grisly scene with a bemused expression. Part of her still marveled at Clara's skill, while remaining insanely jealous that she did not have the same aptitude. Words with the strength to back them were something that retained priceless value for her.
Walking forward, she bent down till she was at eye level with one of the fallen. Her voice came out as a soft murmur as she addressed him, "And this is why we can't have nice things." Her gaze like chips of ice as she stood. Part of her was tempted to kick them while they were down. However, she figured that would be unseemly, thus she refrained from the act.
"Hmm. What to do with them. Leave them as is? Kill them off? Or get them help?" she drawled, covering her irritation with a notable boredom. "What do you think Clara?" the princess asked, her gaze raking over the crowd. Avelina shed the spoiled princess mentality as if it were nothing more than a second skin. Calm, collected, and a touch amused was she.
Clara shot her another glare, as scathing as she could be without showing too much disrespect.
"You're going home," She replied, scooping Avelina up easily in her arms, "It's not safe out in the street for you without a guard." She didn't say it, but it was certainly implied that the streets weren't safe because of Ave's instigating tendencies.
"EH?" Ave managed before being picked up like a child. She read between the lines fairly easily, becoming miffed at the notion. The idea that she was an instigator insulted Avelina. All she had done was diagnose a problem and set about resolving it. Nevertheless, she tried to preserve what little dignity she had left by not throwing a predictable tantrum as she was whisked away.
"Did you have to pick me up like I was a small child?" Avelina hissed when they returned. "Then again, that's probably what you all think of me as. A wayward brat with no ambition beyond her childish intentions. Meant to remain weak and dependent, tucked away in an ivory tower as a prize for some knight or lord."
She leaned against the castle wall, a few feet away from where Ave had been plucked onto a bench in the east gardens, raising an eyebrow skeptically. She didn't need words to convey what she meant. Do you think I think so little of you? Her expression said it all.
"I cannot assume anything about you. Her Majesty's orders for me were to protect you and your sisters and do as you wished of me. I do not know what her intentions are for you. Her Majesty is a complicated person. If you are still upset that I refuse to teach you, I apologize, my decision won't change. However, you may ask me questions. I know you have them."
She snorted at Clara's expression. "Yes, considering you don't even trust me enough to handle four little thugs. It sends a clear message that I'm to be coddled and consoled, not trusted and respected," Ave responded, still fuming. Though she found it increasingly difficult to stay mad at Clara considering she was between a rock and a hard place. Niu was a force of nature that was extraordinarily difficult to weather.
"Complicated? Try a labyrinth. Sixteen years in her household and I'm still learning new things about her. Some are rumors, others embellishments, and even outright lies. Regardless, there's a shitstorm of information surrounding her, and sorting through it is a job and a half."
Ave sighed. "Fine. How did you gain that weapon? How is it incredibly simple for you to split them apart when I struggle to do the same? Was it expensive to build them? What minerals or metals were used to form the weapon? Also, what is the name of your fighting style?" she inquired in rapid fire fashion.
"It was made for me by a very sassy smith out of a material called Ustokos. I am able to separate it because I am strong enough to break the attracting force between the halves. I am not disclosing the price and my style of combat has no name." Clara replied blankly.
"A very sassy smith? That's interesting I suppose," she responded. Though what was far more important to her was the material disclosed: Ustokos. Avelina racked her brain for a reason why that name carried particular value. "Ustokos, Ustokos, Ustokos," she murmured aloud.
She moved on for a bit while delving through her memory. "A style with no name? You must have a name. It's essential to giving the style its own identity. Without a name, the style remains a homogeneous mess. Surely you've thrown around the idea of some identifier. Perhaps one related to how the style moves, what phenomenon it imitates. Whether it's fast or deliberate, focused on strength or repetition. There's definitely a distinguishing factor." Ave continued in earnest.
"There is no purpose in a name to me, besides, I have no right to naming it."
Clara did not understand why names were an important thing, however, that was coming from a woman who had defied hers.
"Names are important because they are part of who you are. And if you don't like the one you have, you go out and change it. You make your own name and your own way. Don't be stupid. You have every right to name it. The fighting style is YOURS. You added flares and sequences that can't be found elsewhere. Little quirks that are difficult if not impossible to completely mimic. No right to name it my ass," Avelina retorted.
It was then she remembered something the name's importance. "Ustokos? That's prohibitively expensive. No wonder you don't want to talk numbers. Either way, what inspired you to make and utilize that fighting style? If you don't mind me asking," Ave said, her temper cooled as she moved over to one side of the bench before motioning for Clara to sit.
"I didn't make the fighting style. I can't name it. I have only used what was taught to me." Clara said curtly.
She sat down, obeying the Princess's wish, sitting with arms crossed.
"My uncle taught me how to hold a sword as soon as I could walk. I started with a single Dao and when I was 12 he taught me how to dual. 'My' style belongs to him. Like I said, it is not mine to name."
She felt uncomfortable. The only ones who knew this much were Nyssa, who she willingly told and Niu, who she had no choice but to tell. Being vulnerable had never been a strength. It had always led to pain.
"Oh." Ave was all said. She knew to drop the subject immediately, Clara's discomfort visible in her body language. Given that the young woman was the only one Avelina trusted in any capacity (her family was hopeless in this regard), the idea of pushing her too far was something she wanted to avoid.
"I'm sorry for pushing the issue," she apologized before another thought occurred to her. She wasn't sure whether to ask it though after the tension from her earlier comments. Regardless, it ate away at her, Ave dying to understand this bodyguard of hers.
"It's fine," Clara replied. She watched as Avelina squirmed. The teenager always did that when she was bursting with questions. "Your Highness, I told you, you could ask me questions. I will tell you if you're going too far."
Ave breathed a sigh of relief. Though she really had to work on her body language composure. "Why did you save me back then? When I was facing my brother and he was about to cleave me into halves, why did you intervene?" she inquired. It didn't make sense to Avelina. A brother heartless enough to bisect his own sibling, an apathetic mother, siblings either missing or so deep in their own sorrows that they had no time for anyone else. Or even blindly following their mother's orders. Her father had conveniently disappeared only to turn up dead, his purpose fulfilled. Love and protectiveness didn't compute because she hadn't truly experienced the feelings of either.
"I mean sure you were doing your job, but no one would have faulted you. It would have been one less princess to worry about, particularly one so troublesome and rebellious. Even as my mother berated you she would likely be relieved to have the irritant brat out of her hair. Permanently." Avelina continued.
Clara's hand itched and she instinctively reached to her back, catching herself in time to cross it again. This was not the question she expected. She cleared her throat, gaze averted from Avelina's eyes. "Family. Mutilating family. Is something I cannot ignore."
Ave's gaze caught the hand movement, and the effort necessary to return that errant hand to its proper place. Her own wretched souvenir from that day retained its glee as it marked the length of her back. "I see." She lapsed into silence as a steady stream of thoughts were present in her mind. All of them recalling the blinding pain as the massive construct bit into her, tearing through flesh and bone as if it were butter. Only to stop. Her back a grotesque mess as the rest of her frame was littered with smaller injuries.
"You sound as if you speak from experience," she noted. Nothing judgemental in the statement; instead a simple matter of fact tone was present. Somehow sensing a line was close.
Her stomach was in knots, tension springing through her veins. She had never thought to think the little brat would be that perceptive. It had been her fault. A reflexive impulse. She didn't want to be looked at with pity. Didn't need it from anyone. Niu was insensitive enough and Nyssa was an exception.
"Forgive me your Highness, but that is not of your concern. You do not need to know me. I am not a friend. I'm your guard," Clara stood stiffly, glancing at Avelina, "If you do not need me for anything else, I will be going."
"Are you saying I don't have a right to know who is guarding me?" she retorted. Uninterested in the notion of pity but rather besieged by intrigue. She stood at the same time as Clara. "Show me." Two words that formed a command. Glossing over the tension that was present.
"Not a friend? You rescued me from death when you could have looked the other way without severe repercussions. You may have even received a few letters of thanks by refraining actually. At the end of the day, you saw me at when I was most vulnerable, so I think I deserve to see what happened to you." Her tone was frank, a mix of hard truths and discernible facts.
Clara froze. Watching Avelina with blank eyes. It was a command. But she didn't care.
Avelina was in no hurry. She would see what had tempted Clara's hand, what instinct had driven it towards her back. "Show. Me. Now." For her, this wasn't a pity party. If Clara expected and dreaded a bunch of "You poor thing" and "Shame on them" she was to be sorely disappointed. Or heartened. Ave didn't care.
Clara's eyes narrowed, every muscle tense. She wouldn't break the command twice. Avelina knew that. She calmly pulled at the toggles on her top, shrugging it off like a jacket. Next went the tank top, pulled over her head and deposited on the ground with the rest, leaving her in her undershirt. Clara turned, showing her back.
Avelina stepped forward. Surveying the damage and intensive scarring. Unlike the brutal brand that marked her own back, this was the equivalent of patchwork. Whatever had been done had been accomplished over months, years even. A roadmap of pain and suffering. "Who did this?" she asked. A simple question with not a trace of emotion to be found.
"That's enough," Clara said, shielding Avelina from the redness on her face when she dressed again. Showing it was shameful enough, causing her skin to burn. But talking about it was like reliving it. Endless and painful. She didn't want to have that conversation with a child.
Ave recalled the quote as she saw the redness that appeared on her ears even as Clara shielded her face. "Your family did this. And it embarrasses you to admit this small fact. You refuse to own your experience and instead hide it, allowing it to hold sway over your heart and mind. What have you gained from these efforts?"
For years she had played the spoiled brat, the girl who neglected her princess duties. It was an easy role to reprise as she was the youngest and it was generally expected of her. But she accumulated knowledge under that guise. What people saw as daydreaming covered an attentive ear. Eyes that appeared spaced out drank in her surroundings while searching for the smallest detail. It was a game of hers. Simplistic, yet still a game.
"Your Highness," Clara said clearly, turning around. Her body burned still. Heart tight. "It is not of your worry." She fought for control of her words. She wanted to scream. She wanted to punch Avelina. How dare she. Even as a princess. She had no business in Clara's past but yet she still pried. Her emotions were in turmoil under the strong facade of a blank face, but all behind it was noise and chaos.
She had crossed a line. Went way too far. Yet she would go further. She would have to learn when to let things be. "It is my worry. What happens when the game is up? When the container cracks and its contents spill out into the world? What happens to all who are nearby? Are they just collateral?" Ave pushed, hinting towards something. If Clara was allowed to put the princess back together again, then she would return the favor. The girl had to admit she was really good at pushing people's buttons and presumed it would be the death of her one day.
"Your Highness," Clara's tone was cold and hardened. The heat was gone. There was just emptiness. "Stop." She commanded. Clara had no authority to do so. She was not better than a princess. She was to serve them. "My problems are those that cannot be fixed. I am not broken. Each scar you saw. Every mark set my determination that much further. The marks they left do not matter to me. It's the fact that they were forced to make them."
"You aren't? Then act like it. It took me asking you twice for you to bare them. If the existence of these marks does not matter to you then prove it." Avelina's words were sharp, carrying the authority of the Longinus line.
It came swift and hard. The rotation of her hip and a sharp leopard fist punch to the princess's stomach. Clara might pay for it later, but right now it was worth it. She grabbed Avelina by her chin, pulling her close. "I resisted because my past does not matter. I am now. I am what I have overcome."
It hurt like hell, yet Avelina found herself smiling. Yes, she would feel that one for a while. Her eyes burned like azure flames. As she was pulled in close by Clara she loosed a punch of her own. Perfectly placed on the centre line with an elbow that remained curved. The force concentrated in her knuckles and little finger as the tightly closed fist hit home. Kwitang.
"Good. I hate people who wallow in their feelings." she murmured back.
Clara let herself stagger back, composure returning to her. She straightened, averting her gaze and ducking her head. "Forgive me, your Highness."
Her emotions had gotten the best of her. Avelina had antagonized her to the point of no return. But that was no excuse for what she had done. She had betrayed the one duty set for her. And she would accept whatever punishment given.
Standing on her own two feet once more, Ave walked over. Placing a karate chop on Clara's head. "That's for holding that in for so long. Seriously, it's not healthy Clara. Also, would it kill you to be just a bit less uptight? You look like a statue with such stiffness. It's really uncomfortable to watch," Ave responded, the lovely brat returning.
Yet dissipating just as quickly when she turned to more serious matters. "Still, I'd rather have you blow up on me than anyone else. I have the bravado to withstand your fury. So save the snapping for me understood? Good. Also, what the hell was that punch? It hurt like shit but god was the sequence amazing." Her eyes were starry as she recalled it.
"Who said I was holding it in. I just didn't want to have the conversation with a child." Clara stated, one eyebrow perfectly raised. She took her leave, making sure Tianbain was tight at her side before calling back, "It was a Leopard Punch. My uncle taught me that too."
Avelina pouted. "Child? You wound me. I'll have you know that I'm 16 years old, nearly 17," she retorted good-naturedly.
"You were holding it in. If I can push your buttons that easily someone else is bound to come along and do the same. Also, you're forgiven. Later Clara." she called to the woman's retreating figure. Grinning even as the aftermath of that punch set in.
"Jesus this hurts," Ave said, feeling a knot already growing. Yes, she would definitely feel this in the morning.