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As Marideen had expected, the arid temperature intensified as they finally left the plateau and entered the true start of the desert. She put her hand over her eyes, looking out across the broken cracked ground, sand, rock, and heatwaves. This was a very stupid idea. They did not have the resources to make this journey, it would be the death of all of them.

She looked at Darian’s back. He was walking in front of the group, as is he even knew where he was going. Fortunately, Marideen knew the direction to the port from here and he happened to be heading in the correct direction, so she let him continue to trudge forward, proud of his new leadership role.

She reflected in her mind the battle that they had over and over again, and it still did not make any sense to her. He had very little skill. His form was very week and messy. She had recognized the form. It was the beginner form taught to children to help them develop the coordination to manage more complex forms. She had mastered that form when she was ten.

Clearly, Beiromon was trying to teach him, she had noticed the nuances in his form and stance that could only come from Beiromon. It had taken her years to break several of those nuances herself. She imagined Beiromon had probably let him win some battles, given him the impression he had true talent. He had done the same for her.

Ultimately, Beiromon was too soft. He was too polite. He was a sword master to nobles, and nobles were often finicky, childish, and stupid. In that environment, you could never offend or injure your noble. She didn’t blame him for being the kind of swordmaster that he was, it was a product of necessity. Make the noble feel stupid or weak, and banishment would be the best you could hope for. 

Marideen herself had needed someone harsher. She had needed someone who would make her more than a dualist, capable of playing with knives and swords but ultimately never having the strength or will to actually use them. That was why she had needed E. She didn’t know where he had ended up. She was sure he was perfectly fine and had escaped. A man of his skill did not get captured by the likes of a few Taerren guards.

Darian clearly did not have the training from someone like E. So how had he beaten her? He had been going for the win, but all of her training was always to go for the kill. Was that as simple as it could be? No. It was something more. He was far slower than her, and his fighting was infantile, but he always one step ahead.

Was this some kind of new fighting style that Beiromon had picked up in prison. Lull an opponent with weakness and draw them into making mistakes. However, she hadn’t made any mistakes. Every swipe of her sword had been perfectly aimed. Yet, she had never struck him. He evaded her at first, and it had been frustrating.

Even though he was slower, he seemed to predict every move she made. He almost seemed to be one step ahead of her with every strike. Then, he had closed his eyes. She had been furious at that, convinced he was mocking her. However, before she had a chance to retaliate, he came at her full force.

His form was perfect for that minute. He moved in ways she had only seen E accomplish. He matched her every step of the way and she struggled to keep him at bay. Then he made a mistake. E would have called it a lethal error. She had been too tempted by his previous ineptness, too afraid at his sudden skill, that she had taken the move.

It was a killing blow, and she had deflected the blade enough that the gash she might have received if they used real blades would not have been devastating. However, she had lost the match because of that rashness.

Now here he was, walking without any of the grace he had shown in the brief minute. Had it been a mistake? A trick of her eyes. He had to have cheated. That was the only answer she could come up with. Someone didn’t dodge like that, deflect her sword like that, or battle like that and actually win.

The sun had grown high overhead and it was the hottest part of the day. She signaled to her men to stop, and Darian seemed surprised at them following her orders. Did he honestly think that because he beat her in a single duel match that suddenly he was in charge? If they had to go into this desert, when she would make sure they had the best chance of making it out again that they could.

After eating briefly, she pulled out some gear, erecting a tent. Darian walked up to her, a look of confusion on his face.

“What are you doing?” Darian asked.

Marideen sighed. You’d think a prisoner would have more experience following orders and not asking questions. Even her most insubordinate followers, now all dead or discharged, weren’t half as belligerent as this man. 

“The sun is overhead, it would be a stupid idea to move now. Now that we are in the desert, we should reserve I movements for dawn and dusk. Dark is too dangerous and day is too hot.”

Darian thought about it for a moment, then turned to the other men and called out, “We’ll be staying under shade right now, we’ll leave our movements for dawn and dusk!”

The three other men nodded to him and went about their work. They nodded! They were already getting ready. They already knew what she knew. Yet they responded to him giving them orders? Like it was his idea in the first place? The audacity of the man! He was not in charge.

She glared at Darian’s back as he went over and helped put up another shade barrier to protect them from the sun why they waited out the light. Fortunately these tents were tan in color, and while not necessarily designed for camouflage, they would do well enough.

As the sun begin to lower past its peak and the temperature began to fall to unimaginably hot versus the previous unbearably hot; Marideen left her tent and walked over to the four men. They sat in a circle under one of the tents and seemed to be telling stories and laughing of all things.

They almost seemed surprised to see her walk up to them. These were her men. Darian seemed to be wrestling control out from under her in a matter of days. This was not acceptable. She would need to reign her men in closer. She couldn’t afford to have them questioning her leadership.

“Beiromon,” she said, her voice sharper than she intended it to be.

“Yes?” Beiromon said, raising his eyes warily.

What had happened to her old mentor anyway? He had used to be a happy, trusting, and courageous man. Those three years seemed to have hardened him in a lot of ways. It was different than how she had been hardened, but still there. The portly swordmaster she had once trained under was now a grizzled, thin, cautious old man.

“I would like to continue training to use the sword under you.” She demanded more than asked.

Beiromon’s eyebrows raised, “What?”

“It has been clear to me now that my training has been inadequate in the sword,” Marideen stated, biting down on her pride, “Your people was able to best me. I’d be appreciative if you would assist me in sparring.”

Beiromon blushed at that, “Oh well, I don’t really think that I had anything to do with-“

“He’ll do it,” Darian interrupted.

Beiromon glanced over at Darian before sighing, “I guess I’ll do it.”

Marideen fought the urge to glare at Darian. The man just had to open his mouth. Once again it looked like he was telling the men what to do, and they were following his orders. Beiromon would have come around to her way of thinking on his own. Just why did Darian have to butt in again. Curse the man!

“Now is as good of a time as any?” Marideen suggested.

Beiromon glanced over at Darian before he stood up and walked out into the now declining sun with Marideen. What was that look to Darian about? She wished they would just say what they meant and stopped giving each other secret looks.

Marideen ran over to her pack, fetching the two swords out again. She had packed them because they always could be useful. E had told her that to become truly skilled, one must always practice, whenever possible. The swords could be used for other purposes as well, such as incapacitating people without killing them if the need arised.

As they began to spar, at first she began to feel that this was a waste of time. Beiromon was much slower than her, and his movements were far too honorable, leaving weaknesses that nobles were not suppose to exploit, but were still weaknesses for anyone who wanted them dead.

However, as she waited for him to show one of these weaknesses, he exploited a weakness of her own, and the sudden hit with the blade surprised her. It was only a glancing blow, but she was surprised it had striked at all. She backed up a bit and dismissed combat.

“What was that?” Marideen asked, genuinely curious.

“I had noticed you make that mistake while you were fighting Darian, you seem to make it enough that I figured a way to exploit it,” Beiromon nodded.

He wasn’t proud. Beiromon wasn’t a man known to boast. Instead, he showed her what she had done, and explained to her how it could be avoided. Perhaps Beiromon was still a very capable instructor after all. She began to look back at all of her lessons with E. The weakness had seen almost too simple and obvious once Beiromon had pointed it out, so why hadn’t E?

As Beiromon showed her another mistake she had made in her form, she began to quickly form a picture in her mind. None of these weaknesses were severe. They were all slight side glances that may cause a small cut, a scar, perhaps some loss of blood. Either E’s technique allowed the user to take peripheral damage in order to more successfully make the kill, or something Marideen feared more. E had intentionally left weaknesses in her training, so that if he ever had to fight her, he could exploit them. She would definitely need to speak to E whenever she saw him again.

When she finally put her sword up, Darian snatched it and walked over to Beiromon, his eyes not without a little pleading. Beiromon groaned. He was already huffing  and sweating profusely, but after a moment he nodded and stood back up. Rather than engage Darian in a spar though, he merely stood to the side, letting Darian move through the forms.

Darian really was amateur. His forms seemed to be far sloppier than they should have been. He hesitated in the wrong places. Sometimes he moved too quickly, other times he did not move quickly enough. Beiromon critiqued him the best he could, offering support, encouragement, and criticism with all the skill of a sword master.

Marideen found herself almost envying that. E was a brutal teacher, and as she watched Beiromon she began to fill regret that he couldn’t have been her teacher the whole way. Perhaps he wasn’t as soft and weak as she initially thought.

Marideen fetched Beiromon’s sword and placed herself opposite to Darian. He didn’t make any comments, and immediately adjusted his lessons to incorporate two parties. Darian used the forms of Marideen, who blocked with relative ease. He wasn’t trying to hit her, just follow the forms Beiromon was teaching him.

It seemed Darian was progressing rather quickly. Beiromon made some mention that Darian had only been practicing for the last six months. It almost gave Marideen a new degree of respect to know how recently he had come to the sword. He was already starting to learn a few more complex forms, and it had taken her three years to reach that stage. It also aggravated her relentlessly. How had he beaten her with this level of skill?

Eventually, the lesson finished up. Beiromon was sitting down in a chair and Darian put his sword down while he asked Beiromon a question. The fact that he had beaten her still bugged her. Just how did he do it? His back was turned to her now. She didn’t know why she did it. Perhaps she just wanted to put him in his place, just a little. Maybe she wanted to knock him off his high horse.

She swung her blade at his head. It wasn’t a hard or fast swing. It was just enough to clip him in the head and knock him on his butt. The blade missed and Marideen had to gap. Faster than she would have thought possible, he had dropped to his knee. Now he sat there, tying his shoe.

She gaped at him. That couldn’t have been coincidence, could it? She looked up, realizing that Berret and Maximil had watched the entire exchange. They most likely had watched the entire sparring session. They shook their heads in disappointment and Marideen blushed despite herself. At least Beiromon hadn’t noticed.

Darian stood back up, turning to Marideen with an oblivious smile before walking off. He couldn’t have known, could he have? Were his instincts simply that good? Or was he just lucky? She had heard people with good spatial awareness, but this bordered on ridiculous.

Marideen shook her head looking at the sun and grimacing. They should have already been moving for more than an hour. She had let the training distract her and had wasted precious time. Once the camp was packed up, she attempted to get the men to move faster to make up for the wasted time. Beiromon and Darian, both exhausted, did not oblige.

Eventually night fell and they made a quick camp, going to sleep. She slept closer to the heater with the rest of the group this night. It really was too chilly anyway. Before day broke, she woke everyone up, still exhausted, and began to march them again. When the broke for midday again, she looked through all of their resources and gasped.

One of the canteens of water had sprung a leak, emptying out the contents in entirety. How has she not noticed this before? This left them with enough water for the rest of the day. As was, they would have been out of water in two days anyway. She would have tried to stretch it to three. But with this, there was no way they could make it the rest of the way. Worse, they didn’t have supplies to make it if they turned back around either.

As the other men put up the shade, she tapped on Maximil’s shoulder and nodded to the side. He followed her, a look of concern on his face. She told him what she had found.

“Gods, this is bad,” Maximil answered gruffly.

Marideen saw that as an understatement, “I need you to go our scouting.”

Max laughed, “For what? We have seen nothing but rock and sand since we have been in this desert.”

“Just look for something. Take a binoculars, look for an oasis, cactus’s, even an animal. If we have to drink animal blood I find that as a preference over dying of thirst.”

Maximil raised an eyebrow, “I don’t think this planet was ever seeded with floura, we both can see that.”

Marideen growled at him and Max raised his hands. “I’ll look, I’ll look. But just be prepared, I don’t know what we plan to do next.”

“I still think going to the desert was a stupid idea.”

“I agree, little birdy, you don’t need to convince me,” Maximil reassured her.

“Then why did we go? Why trust the man? What did they think will happen?”

Maximil shrugged, “Beiromon seems to have complete faith in the man. He seems to be waiting for something to happen. I never knew him to be a religious man, not like Berret, but he seems to expect something to happen. Even Berret seems to be a little caught up in it. “

Maximil shook his head, “We do not have a lot of time, I should start looking immediately.”

Maximil agreed, and before long, Maximil was walking out into the beating sun. He had a piece of cloth wrapped around his head to protect him from the sun, but like the rest of them, was still suffering from significant sun burn.

The others did not ask where she had sent Maximil. For once Darian was willing to hold his tongue and not demand she explain. For that at least, she was grateful. They remained out of the hot son for the remainder of the day, and for once she decided to sit with the group of men as they talked.

Berret was relating a story about a time he had been caught inside an Usarian Brothel during a Taerren raid. This was a story she had never told her before. She imagined he had always seen her as too young, and as she grew up, she became less and less interested in his stories.

It was an interesting one. It was during a Taerren purge, which was the name for periods of time of noble reform. Houses start shifting for power and it could be a very dangerous time of unrest. Berret never came from a large house, and another noble family had gotten it in their mines that they could annex his property before the Lord Regent reasserted power.

They had already taken over his property, captured his first wife, and were on the lookout for him. If the noble family had caught him, they would have intimidated him into signing over his wealth. He had happened to be at the brothel doing research, as he put it, when they began their seizing his property and looking for him. He had hired a prostitute to hide him under her bed for three weeks.

Although Berret assured her he would pay her for every minute at the full cost of a courtesan, she had insisted on continuing to ply her trade. He shivered to remember the sounds that here heard during those weeks. As he explained to him how he had lived those three weeks, he laughed and Darian joined him. Beiromon even grinned broadly and afforded himself an occasionally chuckle.

“I still can’t handle the sound of a squeaky bed, I absolutely refuse to sleep on a spring mattress,” he finished, wiping a tear from his eye.

The men continued to laugh for several minutes afterwards. Marideen couldn’t really see what was so funny about it. She felt bad for the prostitute. Being forced into that kind of life had to be awful. Berret used her just to save his own life. Perhaps that was the funny part, the irony that he had to do such an unnoble thing in the persuit of maintaining his nobility.

“So what wife are you on now Berret?” Beiromon asked once the laughing settled down.

“Oh, well, lucky number four,” Berret said, smiling to himself.

Beiromon grinned at him, which looked silly, particularly with those sideburns of his. Even prison wasn’t enough to get rid of those side burns.

“It’s not like that. She’s different. I’ve changed my ways, “Berret explained, his mood suddenly becoming somber as he looked down at his stump, “When I lost my arm, I began to realize how fragile the human condition can really be. I straightened myself out, found a beautiful woman. We had a child. He’s two now. With another one on the way.”

Both Darian and Beiromon exclaimed in surprise, congratulating him. Darian had never met Berret before, but even he acted like they had history together.

“Vanelope, my wife, should know what the sex of the baby is now. I can’t wait until I can find out, but we’ve been out of communications for weeks.”

Beiromon nodded, patting him on the back. Marideen of course had known all of this.  His family was currently located on Ophran, which was still the only territory liberated by the Lancers. The gates were kept under strict control, only being active for about fifteen minutes a day following very specific algorithms to keep the Taerrens from launching a counter attack. That was the way it went, you control the gate, you control the solar system.

As time continued to dwindle on, the sun started to near settings. It was hours passed the time that Maximil should have been back and Marideen was starting to worry. They were supposed to be on the move by now, and this either meant really bad news or really good news. It usually meant bad news.

As the sun fell a little more towards the horizon, she finally decided they couldn’t afford to wait any longer. They needed to go looking for Maximil. She was just about ready to give the order to the pack up and explain to them why Max was gone when Darian let out a shout, pointing at something far off in the distance.

Marideen looked off in the distance, not seeing anything. It was another minute before she finally saw the small speck, but she couldn’t make it out. Darian’s eyesight couldn’t be that good, could it? As it approached, she began to see the outline of a man as he ran towards them as fast as he could.

“It’s Maximil,” Darian declared.

Marideen gave him a sidelong look. The man was entirely too far away for him to make that claim with any certainty. It could be any man. Although he did seem to be a larger man and did fit Maximil’s build, she admitted to herself grudgingly.

Maximil continued to sprint until he stopped short right in front of Marideen.

“Did you find anything that can help us?” Marideen asked him.

“Forget about that,” Maximil panted between gulps of breath, “We have bigger problems. There is a Wraith ship.”

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