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You swing a staff until you’re ready to swing a sword. Then you go on all kinds of adventures — fighting monsters, casting spells and saving damsels in distress. At least that’s how it’s supposed to work, but I didn’t believe a word of it.

Maybe it really was like that a long time ago. But I didn’t remember my father ever saving a damsel, fighting a monster, or even swinging a sword. He didn’t even carry a sword, although he did help me swing a cane when I was younger.

So I swung my staff because I was supposed to, though I knew one day I’d become a diplomat like my father — using my voice and my mind instead of my muscles and my magic.

But I swung the staff for other reasons too. It helped me forget how people looked at me funny in the corridors of the castle, forget how lonely I was sometimes locked up in the study. It gave me a reason to wake up early every morning, even when I had nothing else to look forward to.

Today was different, though.

Today Giancarlo was going to let me swing a sword, even if it was only a wooden blade.

Maybe it was because I was finally sixteen. Maybe he thought I was ready to fight some of those monsters that I’d never seen and didn’t even believe in. I never got a chance to ask him.

Giancarlo helped me put on the hardened leather breastplate, codpiece and leggings. It is a little embarrassing to have someone help you dress. But if everything isn’t properly adjusted, you risk getting pinched somewhere tender when you’re swinging a staff. I’d learned that the hard way.

“Follow me, Anders,” Giancarlo said, finally satisfied. “We’ll spar down by the river, on the practice field.”

Giancarlo sped along, and I hurried after him. If it weren’t for the bobbing light of the lantern, I would have lost him several times. The armor slowed me a little. But that wasn’t the only reason. There were other problems with my body besides pimples and out of control black curly hair. Even though I had strong arms from morning practice, I was still out of shape. I had been thin and fast once, when I was younger. But that was before the magic, before I was cooped up in the castle.

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