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Astrada quietly fumed at Davlos and his courtiers as she saw her sweet and gentle twin, so willing to cooperate with those beasts, subjected to their ongoing cruelty. Astrada’s anger grew as she watched harsh and cruel courtiers of Davlos’ large and aggressive species breaking her beautiful, compliant sister. They showed no mercy in their quest for satisfaction, often causing severe injuries. Eventually her injuries had no time to heal before she would be re-injured again, leaving her body broken and her mind soon followed. Her once radiant beauty faded. She looked unkempt and haggard, wandering the corridors of the harem floor of the castle, casting frequent nervous glances over her shoulder and muttering to herself. Astrada’s twin would pass by without acknowledging her gentle greeting or expression of concern.

Telastra shouted and berated the other girls pulling down favorite pieces of wardrobe from hangers and kicking at them, yelling that no one cared about what they wore just what they could do to them. She screamed at those who confronted her and when the harem supervisors appealed to her to go easy on the others, she would ignore them limping away, speaking angrily to no one in particular and paying no attention to their frustrated scolding. By the time she had reached this stage, they decided to lock her up. Left alone in her room, she went silent, lost inside her head.

Seeing this, Astrada, who already hated her enslavement and the surgeries that had deformed her body, came to hate Davlos and his beneficiaries even more for their treatment of Telastra. She held her anger inside and tried to appear to be one of many among the concubines, but she wasn’t able to hide her difference. The average courtesan girl was more interested in her body and her grooming, flashing smiles and trying on gowns and discussing hairstyles, then squealing in delight as called upon. Not Astrada. Very early on she had made her way to the battle arena and watched, a look first of wonder, then of interest at the rough and tumble battle skills of Davlos and his warriors as they practiced. She tried visualizing what she had seen. Her thoughts always ended up with her driving her sword deep into Davlos’ vital organs. It was a plan she couldn’t resist as she began first to ask, then plead with her master, the Grand Duke, to let her share in his military and personal combat practice and learn some of the skills of a warrior.

Davlos first hesitated. She was a concubine built for pleasure, not to train for combat. Aware of his hesitation, every chance she would run up to him, doing a child-like dance of excitement and give him a well-honed innocent schoolgirl look as she begged him to teach her how to fight like his warriors. Her behavior flattered him, and her persistence was so impressive. He finally agreed.

Astrada learned the many forms of personal combat that Davlos, his soldiers, guards, and aides would use when assaulted or during battle. Early on she was clumsy, seeming to trip over her own feet. The soldiers would subdue her with little effort, slapping her on her behind with the flat of their sword when she called, “yield.”

As time passed, her techniques improved, but while competent, she did not strike Davlos to be in any way capable of matching even his weakest rookie guard. She would practice with the apprentice warriors and training slaves. The combat training, they endured was intense and unrelenting, many left the field covered in blood from great gashes inflicted by sword or bruised from brain jarring hits, with clubs and maces, feet and hands. Even after spending a great deal of time working on her skills, Astrada rarely came out a victor in any of her practice battles, and if she did, it was only when a stroke of luck assisted her. On those rare occasions when an opponent moved the wrong way, twisting an ankle or a knee, stepped on Astrada’s fallen sword or dagger lost balance and fell was she able to earn the cry of “yield” from her opponent.

Unknown to them all, she was observing and absorbing every move, every technique. While appearing clumsy and unfocused, she was far more skilled and abler than she let on, and she knew it. She held back even when she found it hard to do when an arrogant trainee would slap her with the side of his blade, laugh, and ridicule her with sexual taunts. It was a struggle to resist these idiots, any one of whom she knew she could with a stroke disembowel, and then what would that do for their sexual taunts and aggressive innuendo. It was tempting, but she had a plan. She would only reveal her true skill when the right moment came.

After significant time passed, Astrada was ready to reveal to her master what she could do with sword and dagger. She begged her master, the Grand Duke, the best of the warriors in every way, master swordsman, brilliant infighter, excellent archer, on foot or mounted, if he would permit her the opportunity to experience fighting him, the greatest of warriors. Davlos agreed with a lighthearted chuckle, confident he would force her within seconds to yield. He would give her a small bit of time to play around, then bring the show to the end. If he injured or killed her, oh well. She might be one of his better concubines, but she was only chattel. He owned plenty more.

Before the challenge match with Davlos, Astrada made her way to the room where her sister, Telastra, was being held. Her hate for Davlos was almost overwhelming. Why wouldn’t Davlos, knowing the way of Purgatory, have given Telastra a merciful death so she might at least return to the part of purgatory that was the domain of her home world? She could not get close to Telastra as she held no key to the door but pressing her face against the bars of the window, she whispered to the unheeding Telastra, tears coursing down her cheek, that she loved her very much and while she could not set her free, would, this very day, avenge her. The resolution in her voice even shocked her, and Telastra turned to look at her. Their eyes met, and Astrada sensed a brief look of recognition.

Prior to a training session the combatants would choose their weapons from the arsenal beside the training field, Unlike many of the others, Astrada would listen with interest to the weapons master explain what to look for when choosing a weapon. As Astrada’s skills and knowledge grew, she would secretly make her way to the deserted armory, select from a variety of swords, daggers, battle axes and others. She would face the practice mirror and test her cuts and strokes. Her objective was to find what would be best for her size. She found a sword that felt just right, light, well balanced and with good heft and a dagger with a slimmer and lengthier blade than most. They felt a part of her as she practiced her moves. She never used them in practice sessions and instead secreted them in a dusty box in a far corner of the room.

There was no surprise when Davlos chose sword and dagger for the demonstration challenge. These were his favorite weapons for fighting on foot. What he would never know, Astrada also favored these.

Sent to the arsenal to get her weapons, she strode past the many racked swords along the wall and the shiny daggers matched with them. She opened the box secreted behind an ancient wall hanging and withdrew the sword and dagger she had hidden there earlier. After a few feints and moves with her chosen weapons, she took the whetstone to the sword’s already keen edge, working it till it was razor sharp. As she sheathed the dagger, its narrow blade gleamed in the subdued light. Astrada couldn’t have been more satisfied as she strode, weapons in hand, to face her master. It would be, as she well knew, a battle to the death. Either Davlos would die or she would. Davlos was not aware of this as they crossed blades and he shouted, his version of ‘en garde.’

They began to bob and twist, dodging and thrusting with dagger and sword, trying to find their rhythm, while two marshals looked on, ostensibly keeping score. Davlos began easily, barely moving, thrusting with sword and dagger. He was surprised that her defenses were better than expected as she easily countered each of his moves, dancing away then quickly jumping in with a thrust. This irritated him, and he grew more serious in the thrust and slice of his own sword and dagger. Whatever he tried, he found she was meeting his advances skillfully. Unable to land an unblocked blow, Davlos grew more frustrated. Astrada’s exceptional defense foiled him at every move. Then she seemed to stumble and, in the moment, lose concentration, allowing him to reach in with his blade to strike at her exposed midriff. Astrada made a pained gasp. A brief look of satisfaction crossed his face. He was sure he had drawn blood and expected her to yield. This was just as Astrada had planned. The ruse had worked. She couldn’t resist a grin as she began to reveal all she had learned of sword and dagger combat. Instead of crying yield, she attacked more savagely.

In moments, Davlos was on the defensive. So quick and fierce were Astrada’s strokes and slashes they forced him to focus on defense and prevented him from offering any serious counterattack. Having grown angry at the ferocity of the small concubine’s onslaught and the effort it took to defend against it, he attempted to return her ferocity with a ferocious attack of his own. He drove the sword at her exposed breastplate while slashing low with the dagger to score her leg, sever a ligament and drop her. She feinted away from his sword while fending off the dagger slash with her own sword. Imagine his surprise as she neatly avoided his thrusting sword, deflected the slashing dagger and leaped toward him, driving her sword deep into his chest and through his heart. He collapsed to the ground, his eyes briefly wide and staring in disbelief, then closed as the two Marshalls rushed to his aid.

Neither Marshall could reach the fallen duke as Astrada, in one smooth extended motion, drove her sword deep into the heart of one while reaching with her dagger to slash the throat of the other. Both collapsed in death at the feet of their fallen sovereign.

Sheathing both sword and dagger, Astrada ran from the practice room and into the castle. Passing some courtiers on the way, she called to them. “His highness is going to bathe in the practice room and will need some fresh towels after he has spent some relaxing time soothing his aches and pains. He told me to tell you.”

As she vanished into a nearby corridor, she shouted at them, “He wants nice fresh towels, soft ones.”

With the courtiers heading off to find towels, Astrada raced to the royal chambers. Throwing open the door, she could, as she expected, see the Duchess sharing a tryst with secretary Rombir. At her play, while the Duke was at his ‘play’. Both Rombir and the Duchess were among Davlos’ courtiers who had coldly and cruelly misused Telastra. One thrust of the sword through both writhing bodies was all it took to complete their little escapade and settle the debt they owed Telastra.

With five dead already, the Duke, his Duchess, his secretary and two warrior Marshalls, she would have to move fast before they detected the fallen and before suspicion fell on her. Her position as a weak and fearful concubine and her poor attempts at combat in the practice room might buy her time, but she couldn’t be sure.

She raced to the stables where she found her favorite steed, well rested as she had planned, bearing her full pack, and ready for a fast ride across the fields to the swamps. Mounting, she whispered into the beast’s ear and they were off.

They would be well into those swamps before there was any pursuit, or at least that was her hope. It was a dangerous and unlikely destination even for the killer of the Grand Duke and, as she wanted to believe, the last place they would look for her.

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