Katarina's path was blocked. It was the dead of night, lamps dimly lighting the foyer of her mansion, but a guard stood before the doors. His back was straight and his posture at full attention, still as a statue. In a black longcoat he remained vigilant, tall collar framing his grand beard, grey with experience. Any other house guard, and she would have told him to step aside, and he would have obeyed. But this was the one who she knew would refuse to yield.
"You cannot stop me, father," Katarina said. She had rehearsed the line so many times, to make sure her voice would not stumble or squeak. As she locked eyes with his, staring back into the mirror of her hazel eyes, she knew she had succeeded. He was no longer the master, her the student. They were finally equals.
"You have something that belongs to me. Return it." General du Couteau's voice was stone, ready to crush any opposition. He held out his hand, waiting for his daughter to drop something in his hand. Katarina pulled a scroll from a pocket, bearing the wax seal of the League.
"If you will not accept the invitation, then I, your firstborn child, will accept in your place." Katarina drew a single breath to repeat her words. "And you cannot stop me, father." She heard the click of his blades from beneath his sleeves, that chirp of the executioner. Most who heard it never heard another sound, but the war cry of the blades howled right into her ears.
Katarina planted flat to the ground, an obsidian edge slicing away a strand of hair. Over her head and to her hands she somersaulted, catching her father's arm. Twirling her body, she tumbled through the air, tearing the general off of his feet, sending his body spiraling with hers. With feline grace she landed in a low crouch, a blade in her right hand and another dancing through the fingers of her left. When she looked up, she saw her father standing up straight, as if he had never moved. His wristblade peeked out from his cuff, pointed to the marble floor in a low guard. His left hand was tucked behind his back.
Three knives sailed from her grasp. A single sweep of his arm swatted them away with a clatter. It was then he charged, the weight of his feet trampling the ground. Of course, it was the Lion's Roar, her father's favorite combination. First, a sweeping slash. Duck. Then, a downwards slash. Tumble back. Finally, a gutting thrust. Instead of the parry she'd be taught, Katarina dove at her father. She grabbed his arm, allowing his strength to lift her off her feet. Over his back she cartwheel, the point always a breath away from gutting her. Dismounting, she left with a spinning heel to his spine.
Style fifty five: The Swallow's Folly. Nobody had ever connected it on Marcus du Couteau before.
The general pivoted to his flank. He threw a quick jab to keep Katarina away, an attack easily evaded. He struck again, another slash dodged. The feeling of pain must have angered him, taunted him. Though his strikes were still sharp and precise, they were too predictable. The squeaks of his feet, the twitches in his elbows, Katarina knew which attack was coming every time. Fine, she thought, let him drown himself in his hubris. All the better to prove my point. She let him force him into a corner, expecting a backhand slash that would allow her an easy escape.
"Is this how it ends, Kat?" Her father did not strike. A flick of his foot, and the scroll jumped into his hand. That conniving fox! She wasn't the one leading him; he had been dictating her movements all along. He had let her think she was in control, when he had been the one dancing towards the invitation. Marcus turned his back to his daughter, coat sweeping in the air. Katarina felt her nerve snap, the one she had steeled for this very night. No, it would not end like this. She would not allow it.
Like a starving animal lunging for food, Katarina dove at her father. Her eyes were fixated on the scroll. She lost sight of it before; she refused to make the same mistake. She could see her father glance over his shoulder. That look of panic, the distortion of the face when you know you've been ambushed. It was only a flicker, a brief falter before the blade came out. She could feel the edge open a seam in her forehead. It tore down through her eye, sinking deep into her cheek. The pain dropped her. Katarina grasped her face, blood oozing all over herself.
Fire searing through her nerves blinded her. Strangling gasps echoed in her ears. Having her face torn open scrambled her mind. She lost the battle. It was then that she recalled her father's words.
Do not look when you must see.
Katarina opened her eyes. Blood forced her left to snap shut, but she could see the trail on the ground, marking a path back to the scroll she came for.
Do not listen when you must hear.
Footsteps, getting louder. Her father was approaching.
Do not think when you must know.
I know, she thought. I know why you've been so hard on me all these years. Why you always made me work the hardest, pitted me against the best. Why you're willing to hurt me right now. I know you've grown old, and your successor must live up you.
"Katarina, it's okay." His hand dipped into her vision, offering her help back onto her feet. She pulled her last blade, slipping it into his sleeve and shredding the bind of his weapon. The dagger traced up his arm, grazing the leather. It found its mark at the base of her father's neck, pressed against his flesh and licking a drop of blood. With her good eye, she matched her gaze to his, grinning. She held out her free hand, feeling the flaky dry paper between her fingers.
"Why do you with to join the League, Katarina du Couteau?"
"Not just yet," she said. "Search a little deeper, summoner. You'll know when you have your answer."
Katarina closed her eyes. She could smell the faint musk of his leather coat. The soft crush of his curly beard on her head. The loving embrace of his arms and the sound of his dusty voice.
"Make me proud, Kat."
As it all melted away, Katarina saw a stranger standing before her. Decorated in ornate robes, he had to be the summoner who conducted the entire trial. He spoke.
"How does it feel, exposing your mind?"
"I wonder if father would have seen the same thing," she said. "Are we done, then? I tire of embarrassing myself before fools."
"Welcome to the League, Katarina," he said, motioning the doors open.