By Jason E. Thummel
This is a complete work of fiction presented by Black Gate magazine. It appears with the permission of Jason E. Thummel and New Epoch Press, and may not be reproduced in whole or in part. All rights reserved. Copyright 2012 by New Epoch Press.
“You do realize, of course, that you being who you are and I being who I am, that comments about my wife, had I one, would be quite out of place and certainly unprofessional,” said Androi. “For I can scarce hire a duelist to redress the insult as that is our chosen profession. Is it not?” The latter was punctuated by a furious parry and thrust that knocked the addressee back several steps.
“Furthermore, although I grant you some laxity with custom as you are, to all appearances scarce out of diapers and certainly of no name what so ever,” he said with a savage swipe aimed to make his opponent duck cut the air with an audible sound, “I shall most likely file a grievance nonetheless with the guild. You must learn to keep such comments to yourself, for they are not for you to make. You, young man, are the steel behind your patron’s insults, not the insult itself.”
Androi Karpelov had watched with detached calm the youngster’s cool and confident demeanor slowly erode over the course of this exchange, and now had him backed into a corner with few options at hand. He watched the panic chase itself across the boy’s visage and felt a certain amount of empathy. But not much.
“Do you yield, Sir, and admit that the insult which your patron directed at my liege was incorrect and entirely without merit and furthermore, do you apologize by proxy for said falsity?” It was a formulaic question which Androi had asked times beyond count.
“Sir?” his opponent wheezed, keeping up a respectable guard despite the obvious signs of fatigue. “I fear I cannot. It is to the death.”
“It is Sir,” said the other, “for I have been forbidden to relent. Not that I would.” He regained some composure. “For my Lord is quite right in his assessment of your patron.”
“Second,” Androi called over his shoulder, eyes never leaving his opponent, rapier keeping him cornered. “Is this the case?”
“Indeed,” said his Second from somewhere behind, “it is in a sub clause which you might, in your haste, have missed.” The last remark had an acerbic air that was probably meant to suggest something about Androi’s passion for wine over legalities. Ephram did always seem to prefer the pen to the sword.
“Ah, then… ” Androi paused. “I suppose your last lesson will be that it is foolish indeed to undertake such a contract when you will be matched against your superior. Shall we?” He stepped back to give the youth some room in which to make what brave and flashy end he could of himself in this, his last duel.
The boy nodded in acknowledgement. He took one deep and lasting breath, glanced over his right shoulder to where a young woman watched, striving to quench her great heaving sobs with a small silk kerchief, gave her a short curt bow that almost broke Androi’s heart, and then came at him.
Androi allowed him some ground, parrying and dodging with a show of far more concentration than he felt. The swordsmanship was truly uninspired and his muse had abandoned him. It was all for the best, he supposed, for it gave the lad some time to make an impression on the young woman. Perhaps she would remember him, but most likely would find herself another to whom she would attach her dreams in short order. Such always seemed to be the way.
Ah, he thought amid his ongoing reverie, the lad is beginning to tire. To let this go on would be to embarrass him. Look at that footwork; it becomes more sloppy with each passing moment.
Androi flicked his blade in a quick salute and with a twist of his wrist brought the boy’s blade to the side. He stepped long and forward with a lunge and felt, more than watched, as his point slipped into the chest and pierced the heart before passing through to tear the most subtle of holes in the silk jerkin.
He quickly stepped back, bringing the fine steel with him. The woman came into view as his opponent fell forward with a cough and wheeze. That was when Androi noticed the tear streaked face of a very young boy peeking out from behind her dress, his tiny, fine knuckles white with the tense grip he had on the fabric, an identical visage to the youth who now died at his feet.
“A son!” Androi boomed. “That snot nosed child has a son? How could this be? What manner of man would dare enter into this profession with…with…Second!” Androi shouted even more loudly. “Go yonder at once and ascertain if that is in fact his son. This is preposterous and I will not have it!”
Androi busied himself with a show of deftly cleaning the blade of his rapier, but a sick and sinking feeling in his gullet seemed to inform him long before Ephram returned and said that indeed the young swordsman, or former swordsman, was a father. In addition, the woman very much hoped that all accounts were settled and that they should have nothing more to fear from Androi or his patron.
“If you would be so kind, Second, please inform the lady that in such circumstance all grievances are considered resolved. Also that her man was extraordinarily brave and all remembrances should hold him in the utmost regard. Pray give this, his father’s sword, to the son as well with many remarks as to its flawless character, etcetera.” A sudden emptiness came over him and he wanted nothing more than to be far from where he was.
“It is a sad thing I have done this day,” he said.
“And will you be wishing to file with the guild, Sir?” asked Ephram.
“You had stated earlier, as I recall, that you might be wanting to file with the guild Sir, as concerns his remarks regarding your non-existent wife?”
“He was a boy, Ephram,” Androi said, watching the familiar scene of his opponent’s body being lifted and dragged from the dust. Truly, there was little dignity in death. “And he had not the time to learn what manner befits a true duelist. But he held his contract to the end. To the end,” he shouted. A sudden rage overtook his senses. “And for that he should be most highly commended.”
Ephram, his Second, looked about to open his mouth to ejaculate some quip as was his wont, but Androi’s face spoke of deepening foul weather ahead and the Second decided to postpone that, if at all possible, with his most expedient silence. Androi held him with a piercing gaze, defying even an improper breath, then saluted the corpse of his opponent, the young woman and boy, turned crisply on his heel and left the field.
“Is there anything else I can get for you?” questioned Claudette, setting down the bottle of wine and leaning far over the table in suggestion of just what additional wares she might be offering. Androi gave her ample bosom a long and lingering look, a sigh escaping his wine stained lips. Although quite familiar with them they never ceased to be of great joy, and gods knew he had the money, but tonight his mind was filled with images that not even a good roll would chase away. Nevertheless, he did give it plenty of consideration.
“You are, as always, most thoughtful,” he replied. “But I think tonight I shall spend in quiet repose. Please see that something is sent up for dinner, if it isn’t too much trouble. Enough for two. I am expecting Ephram at any time. You’ll see that he finds his way here, I trust, and not there?” He glanced down around her waist which sent her into a fit of giggles as she backed out of the room. It was an honest and pleasurable merriment, one which sent him deeper into his melancholy as he could not share it.
Androi tied the bottle and draped it out of the window, where it swung precariously over the cobbles below, passersby far too concerned with the abundance of darkened alleys to pay it much mind. It was not a great vintage, he smiled at the even circumstantial comparison, but it was far better than traveling Uphill with all the gentry and snobbery to get one better. It would do, he thought. So many faces flashed in his mind’s eye, culminating in that of a little white knuckled boy. And if it didn’t he would simply order another…and another.
The sound of laughter echoed up the stair, a counterpoint to the staccato of leather clad footfalls, the cadence of which was all too familiar to Androi. There was a soft knock on the door.
“Good eve, Sir,” said Ephram, hat clutched in his fist and held over his heart. “I trust it would not be impolite of me to remark that I do think you cost me one there.” He turned to look back the down the stairs. “For young Claudette did seem quite amorous and looking to bestow her favors upon me at last. However, she did inform me that you had forbidden it. Jealousy, Sir?”
“I am not in the mood for your gibes at present,” Androi growled, kicking the footstool with his riding boot toward his Second. “So please do sit. Dinner should be arriving in short order.” He turned up the most recent of the bottles of wine which had started his evening and downed it, attention focused on a sudden ruckus from the street below. He leaned his chair precariously toward the window so that he could see.
“That be damned stupid, boy. Now, pick it up, d’ye hear!” There was a sharp crack as a man backhanded a young boy and sent him staggering to the cobbles amidst a chaotic jumble of potatoes.
“Excuse me, Second, I’ve something to which I must attend.” Androi stumbled into a wall as he stood. Ephram noticed two other empty wine bottles and moved himself far from the path to the door.
Those few people who were still on the street in the waning light took great pains to be oblivious to the scene that was playing out near the inn’s main entry. Androi stepped through the portal just as the man struck the boy a blow to the back of his head, the dull thud amplified in the close confines of the narrow lane.
“I said to pick’em up. Ain’t got all night to wait for ye.” He raised his hand again, the boy too sluggish to do much more than reel unsteadily on hand and knee.
Androi grabbed the man’s wrist and jerked hard, spinning him so that they stood facing. He looked up into a set of small, hard, pig-like eyes. The man was a full head taller and built like a dockyard bully. This wasn’t going to be easy.
“Touch me again, drunk, and I’ll kill ye, I will,” the man menaced.
Androi released the wrist and watched the triumphant smile transform into a look of surprise as his fist impacted with the side of the brute’s head.
“Consider that a touch, then,” he said. Although unfortunate, it came as little surprise when the man failed to fall, but instead dropped into a fighting stance and came at him with scarred, bulbous-knuckled fists flying. It was most regrettable and at times painful, Androi thought, that his brain was moving so much more quickly than his body.
The roughened skin of the man’s right hand grated along his ear as he turned his body to the side to avoid the brunt of the impact; warmth began to radiate into his skull. That one might hurt in the morning, he thought.
A predictable follow-up left was coming. The duelist stepped toward the man, whose bicep smacked him soundly on the cheek as he reached up with his own hand, grasped a fist full of hair on the back of the other’s head, and brought the top of his head full force into the other’s face. The nose gave way with a crunch and blood flowed.
Now that the eyes would be smartly watering, Androi took the opportunity to step to the side and deliver several crushing kidney blows, followed by a severe boxing to the ears. The man staggered and fell to all fours. His massive chest heaved like great, gurgling bellows.
“Pick up your own damned potatoes and leave him be,” screamed Androi. He accentuated each word with savage open handed blows to the face, which was already swelling and purpling under the barrage.
“Please sir.” The boy was grabbed his wrist. “Please stop. Please! I beg of you. He is my father, sir.” The boy’s voice was quavering as he fought to get out the words between sobs.
“Father?” Androi muttered, shoving the brute to the cobbles where he lay writhing. “A father ought not treat his boy that way. Here,” he handed the lad the contents of a pocket, “take this. I will not apologize for what I have done, he deserved no less and you deserve so much more. Take my advice and use that to get as far away from that filth as you may.”
Androi turned, stumbling slightly, and headed for the inn. He could envision what occurred behind him as though it played out on a well-lit stage. The boy would help up his father and together they would return to wherever they came from. The money would find its way to dear Papa, the beatings would continue, and some day the boy would be just as bad or dead. Ah but he needed a drink.
“A drink,” he demanded of Ephram as he entered, hand held before him awaiting that most pleasant sensation of the weight of a newly opened bottle.
“Yes, dinner it is,” said his Second, guiding Androi to his chair while simultaneously stuffing a napkin in his collar. “And perhaps I should send to the apothecary for some ointment for your face.”
“Ah, dear Ephram, I am in no need of food at the moment. My gullet rises at the mere thought of it. Only wine will do, I believe, for I feel the first faint glimmer of a throb upon my cheek even as we speak.”
“Sir… ” His Second cleared his throat and looked distractedly about the room. “As is your custom, will you be wanting to go to Sir Thoms’ liberation ceremony tomorrow?”
“Sir who?” Androi inquired, annoyed at his lack of libation. It was a silly thing for Ephram to try to distract him with all this talk of someone whom he did not know.
“The young man from today, upon whose Lord you visited such just and righteous retribution for his falsity, Sir.”
“But that can’t be right, Ephram, for it will be not tomorrow but two days hence.”
“No Sir, I took it upon myself to inquire after the matter as you had seemed so very passionate concerning the young man. It seems that his estate is in poor standing and as such, the widow has been instructed to skip the expense of the viewing and wake and proceed to the ceremony. It is tomorrow at Fenwick’s.”
“Damn it!” Androi leapt to his feet, upturning the small table upon which his dinner had sat. “I’ll not have it. I will not! Do you hear? A disgrace, an absolute disgrace. Surely his patron, slovenly scoundrel though he may be, would not allow this abomination, this utter contempt and disrespect.”
“Here.” He hastily scribbled something on a scrap of well-worn, ink -stained parchment. “Take this to Fenwick and bid him send the boy off proper. Nothing too extravagant, mind, but proper. He held his contract and I’ll not see him so ill-used. He’s to get the full viewing and wake, make quite certain that is well understood.”
With that he turned his back on his Second, gave a hard pull on the rope that held the bottle of wine, caught it amid air and with great agitation managed to get the screw into the cork.
“Of course, Sir,” Ephram said, backing out of the door with an unnoticed bow. “And you really should get something on that face, Sir.”
Androi, lost in his own dark thoughts, did not mark the exit of his Second.
The tread of the innkeeper’s nephew on the stair stirred Androi from a restless slumber and he sat up, wincing against the morning’s soft light that poured through the shutter. There was a hesitant knock.
“Messenger, Sir. Outside,” the boy said.
Androi dressed quickly, cursing his pounding head and intemperate appetite of the previous night. A messenger at this hour didn’t bode well and he buckled his sword before heading down the stair. Despite his hurry, he did manage to swipe a half loaf of stale bread and was gnawing on one end when he stepped outside and saw Bullom, personal messenger of Baron Wyck. Androi’s mount had already been saddled and stood idly, looking offended at having been disturbed so early.
“My Lord bid you come –”
“Yes, yes Bullom. We musn’t keep the Baron waiting,” Androi replied. He did not like Baron Wyck and would not suffer his company at all were it not that his liege, Duke Allistair, was also Lord to the Baron whereby his services were, at times, at the Baron’s disposal. Such was the case when he had dispensed the foul justice that cut down Sir Thoms the previous day.
Up the High Way they went, their livery and papers giving them quick passage through each checkpoint that dotted the concentric walls which progressed up the hill, each ring more affluent that the last. The main thoroughfare went straight as an arrow shot through the first four tiers, running to a T at the wall of the fifth.
From here to the peak of Uphill, each progressive area had to be attained by a circuitous route that took the traveler always to the opposite side of the circle before they could hope to encounter a gateway through. It was said to be an architectural marvel in aesthetic defensive works, truly a wonder of the brilliance and supremacy of mankind.
A bird dropping spattered his brim and Androi burst out laughing at the irony of it.
The echo of the shod horses’ hoofs changed tone as the cobbles abruptly turned to more precious stone. Mined in quarries from beyond the plains, and brought by the largest organized group of indentured servants in recorded history, the alteration marked the passing from the High Way to Cloud’s Crest. From here their journey would proceed to the Martial and then onward to Eminence Pass. The last two tiers would go unmolested by Androi’s presence, which was all for the better so far as he was concerned.
“My Lord Baron Wyck does await you there,” said Bullom, pointing at one of the many Twillian style chateaus that were clumped together near a small pond and grove of trees. The gentry did always seem to clump themselves together, Androi thought, like fungus clusters, preferring to do their snubbing up close lest it go unrecognized.
“I thank you, Bullom. Please inform the Baron that I have arrived and see that someone cares for my horse. She would do well with some oats and a nice rub down, I should think.”
Androi took a few moments to stretch and clear his mind before heading to the chateau. In the distance he could hear the clear but unpleasant voice of Bullom growling at some stable hand, exercising what little authority he had Androi supposed. A summons to the Baron at this hour was curious and he thought it best that he have his capacities as crystalline as possible. Baron Wyck was many things, but stupid was not one of them; subtle was.
The large wooden and steel reinforced door opened when Androi was five paces away. Very proper, he noted. That he was being shown in the front door, and not dragged to the back one, at least afforded him the comfort of knowing that the Baron was not entirely displeased. A thin elderly gentleman in a smart suit of black and gray gestured toward a small room off the foyer. Androi nodded with thanks and proceeded into the gloom.
The room was a library, small and meant more for entertaining than serious scholarship. A large sofa and several chairs faced each other across a table laden with several decanters and goblets and glasses of all manner.
So, he mused, once again to be denied entry into the upper floors. The Baron must keep each man in his place, after all. He would have to be fully knighted at the least, and only then, probably, would he even be considered worthy to seat himself in the Baron’s privy.
The elderly Keeper of the Portals knocked politely on the already opened door before announcing Baron Wyck, of House Wyck. He droned on for several more moments illuminating various hereditary titles and landholdings and then removed himself so that the Baron could enter unimpeded.
Baron Wyck was a small, hawkish man. His eyes burned with an intelligent intensity that made even the most affable uncomfortable. He was lean to the point of fragility, his bald pate accentuating large ears and prominent eyebrows. What had been denied him in physical stature, however, had been compensated in family connections, social standing and inheritance. This also went a great deal of the way in explaining his marriage to the Lady Lydia, who entered after her husband. Scarce old enough to wed, the Baron had maneuvered the match before other, more likely suitors, could bring themselves to court.
Androi bowed low, sweeping his hat in a grand gesture meant more for the Lady than the Baron. He admired her beauty from the corner of his eye, but did not implicate his thoughts in the slightest by staring at her, for Baron Wyck’s temper was known to be quite black even on the sunniest of days.
“I am glad to see that you were able to arrive with some measure of speed,” the Baron said, distracted by the presence of his wife who seemed only then to come to his attention. “Must you follow on my heels like some dog at table begging for scrap?”
“No, my Lord, and my apologies for having disturbed you,” she curtsied. “But I only wished to thank the duelist who had upheld your untarnished honor with his skill.”
“Yes yes,” Baron Wyck said dismissively. “And now he has heard it from your own lips. Please go, we’ve matters to discuss that have no import to a woman.” He waved his hand to shoo her from the room with a menace that sent her scurrying away in a less than ladylike fashion.
Androi bowed low and long, hat brim disguising his lingering look at her departing backside. It was most probable that Baron Wyck had absolutely no notion of the wondrous creature he had snared beyond her heredity and familial holdings. Pity, he thought, as she turned a corner and graced him not only with a glorious profile, but a return glance as well. He smiled.
“Quite a triumph, do you not think?” said the Baron, distracting Androi from his amorous imaginings.
“Yesterday’s duel. Quite a triumph I dare say. The audacity of that man to say such things.”
“You are most certainly correct Baron,” Androi replied, having no notion of the content of the exchange that had instigated the duel.
“To even suggest that I would debase myself in such a way. Trespass indeed. Like some commoner. Some filthy squatter. Disgraceful all the more so in that those lands are mine by right. I shall petition as much when next I am at court. The important thing is that I put Straussman in his place.”
Yes, thought Androi, having me kill Sir Thoms most assuredly taught Baron Straussman a thing or two — taught a great many people no doubt — but not necessarily what you wished.
“In any case, good work.” Wyck tossed a small bag at Androi as though tossing scraps to the dogs. Then he turned his back on Karpelov in way of dismissal.
Androi crushed the bag in his gloved fist, feeling the satisfactory grinding of the coins, wishing it were Wyck’s bones instead. Such rude and arrogant behavior, while expected, nevertheless set his blood to boiling. He would give the coin to Sir Thoms’ widow and son, though he would need to send Ephram for fear of drawing her scorn, and take what satisfaction he could from the fact.
“One last thing,” Baron Wyck said without turning. “Did Sir Thoms happen to say anything during your encounter?”
“I do not recall his saying anything of note. May I inquire as to the nature of the possible remarks in question?”
“No. It is of no consequence. Pray help yourself to something from the kitchens before you go to wherever it is that you go.”
Ah yes, thought Androi, the final insult. It would be impolite to not maintain the common form of address, to belittle me ever so slightly before I go.
“My thanks,” Androi said, bowing to the unseeing back of Wyck. The Baron pulled a book from the shelf and pretended to be alone, a vast sea of ego in so small a room that Androi could not part from it fast enough.
The Keeper of Portals was waiting in the hall, bland face registering no thought or emotion as he stepped forward to assist Sir Karpelov to the kitchen.
“Very good of you, but I know the way.”
The Keeper looked momentarily confused at this address and Androi turned on his heel and rapidly walked down the long central corridor before the man had time to insist on accompanying him. Turning into a side corridor, he had the luck to stumble upon a stairwell and ascended at once.
So you would keep me on the ground floor, Androi thought. Well, I shall simply take the scenic route to the kitchens. He was taking great liberty, he knew, but thought that the relationship to his true liege, the Duke, and his ability to claim complete ignorance of the layout of the chateau would provide him safety enough for a brief excursion.
The second floor hall was narrower than that below, its entire length covered with plush woven rugs stained a brilliant scarlet. The hall was lit naturally by windows down the left side which let in the crystalline daylight through a complex combination of both clear and colored glasses. This cacophony of color was in turn reflected from the right wall, which appeared to be made entirely of quicksilver glass. Androi found it ostentatious and, owing to his overly enthusiastic use of wine the prior night, a bit nauseating. A panel of the mirrored glass opened.
“Ah, Sir Karpelov,” said Lady Lydia Wyck.
“My lady,” he bowed low, hat in hand, eyes averted. It did not bode well, his falling upon the Baron’s wife alone, in the upper floors. Were she to raise the issue it would not go well with him, Duke or no.
“I am sorry to intrude upon you. I was invited to take some food and was on my way to the kitchens and simply became lost. I fear I have no excuse except to plead my complete and total ignorance.”
“Indeed,” she said. “Following all normal customs of architecture, our kitchens are below ground. But it is most certainly easy to become confused and one stair, whether up or down, looks much like the others. Does it not?” She laughed and he looked up.
“My apologies,” she continued, “but I cannot keep up the pretense. Please, do not concern yourself. I do not care if you wish to walk the upper floors and see the house.”
“Thank you my lady,” he said rising. He noted with interest the way in which she held his gaze, a devilish twinkle in her eye, with her lips slightly curved in hint of a smile.
“It was an honor to defend your good name against such accusations of trespass as the Baron Straussman so unwisely put forth.”
“Dear gods,” said Lady Wyck. “Is my husband on about that again? I am thankful of your bravery on our behalf and sorry to say that those lands are not of my family’s holdings. They never have been and we have no claim to them. A point which my dear Baron Wyck knows all to well. They are very fertile fields, however, and do border some of our property.
“My husband, the Baron, has already pedaled some influence and had the land re-surveyed by a Court Topographiere who suffers from some certain peculiarities, shall we say, that he would rather have remain unknown at court. Most unfortunate that they did not remain unknown to the Baron. He ferrets out such things for his use, distasteful as it is. With the new, and most certainly favorable, redrafting of the holdings he will no doubt petition at court to have the lands declared mine. And therefore — his.”
She was not so young and naïve as she first appeared, at least not in matters of power and privilege. Naturally, survival among the bloated and self-serving of society required particular skills and knowledge, but it saddened him to see it in one so young. And so very attractive. He wondered what game it was, if any, that she played with him.
“And why would you tell these things to me, my lady,” he asked, suspecting it would not be truth that he heard.
“I find it shameful that he uses people so. I simply had to tell someone,” she said, holding his chin in her delicate hand and staring into his eyes. “And you, Sir Karpelov, have the look about you of someone who can keep their secrets unto themselves.
“I do hope that we will meet again.” She released him, a slight hint of pink splashing across her silky complexion. Her look was earnest and innocent, yet somehow inviting. This one could be dangerous.
“As do I, Lady Wyck,” he replied, bowing again.
“Step through here.” She pressed against a section of the reflecting glass, springing a hidden door. “Continue through the sitting room beyond, turn left, through the Galleria and continue on until its end. The stair you find there will take you to the kitchens. Provided, of course, you retain your wits and descend.” Her laughter was swallowed by the plush carpets and tapestries of the room. When he donned his hat again, she was gone.
The Galleria ran the remaining length of the chateau, the vaulted ceiling above awash in murals depicting myths and lore from the Lightless times. The artistry was superb and Androi had to admire it. Such exquisite composition, balance and color, was far above one so little deserving as Baron Wyck.
The artifacts displayed in the Galleria were of like theme, rare and expensive beyond measure, displayed here not for interest and knowledge, but for the Baron’s vanity alone. History plucked from the depths of earth and sea sat a silent vigil, a testament to ancient utility, with a cost measured in lives lost reclaiming them from their slumber — Androi cut off such morbid musings and simply tried to enjoy them for the rarities that they were.
The sepulchral silence was interrupted by shattering china as it echoed through the vaulted room, followed by a harsh raised voice.
“You will submit to my desire, bitch, or I’ll see you thrown out and back to the stinking sewers from which you came.”
Androi’s hand found his sword hilt as he ran down the plush carpeted hall toward the disturbance. There were sounds of struggle, tearing cloth, and an unmistakable slap. A woman came running from a hall to the left, her servant garb disheveled and torn, eyes wide with fright and stained with tears. Terrified, she looked at him briefly then turned and ran away to the far end of the Galleria and the safety of the stair.
“I thought I smelled something,” came the same voice.
Androi glanced down the short hall, the end of which sported double doors guarded by Sir Wilton Strake. His sword was in hand, point provocatively raised to knee level, the arrogant sneer on his face emphasized to ridiculous proportions by a large scar that ran from his nose across his cheek to the corner of his jaw. A tea service lay shattered at his feet.
“Surprising,” replied Karpelov. “I would have thought the beauty mark I left you with would have made the bulbous thing worthless.” Strake had not always been in the Baron’s employ, and Androi had once had the pleasure of educating him in the necessity of an impenetrable high guard.
“Jest with me at your peril, bastard,” Strake said. “I am not bound by the usual customs of our profession. I am here to guard something of great importance, and have leave to use whatever force is necessary.”
“I would never accuse you of being confined by the customs and niceties of my profession, Strake. And I have seen with my own eyes what force it is that you deem necessary.”
“Piss off and go back to the squalor you live in. Baron Wyck maintains the noble Rule of House, and as such she is property at my disposal.”
“Hide behind the antiquated Rule, it makes you no more a man to do so. You disgust me. You are a worthless, small, and arrogant ass, Strake. Your being relegated to guard dog does a disservice to those noble animals. You are unfit for any service, and I doubt the Baron would trust your sword to preserve much of anything beyond his lofty stools.”
Despite his best efforts to draw Strake away from his post and into a duel, the other swordsman sheathed his weapon. Karpelov was surprised at his resolve. He could not risk attacking the other man while he stood his post, especially as he was trespassing.
“You think you are so much better than me. Pah! I heard the way you toyed with Sir Thoms before killing him. Cruel even for the bitter old drunkard that you are. And as to who is the better man, why is it that Baron Wyck has asked me to guard the Tears of Saint Cyryll, and not you?”
“No. Only three have ever been found. Two are locked away somewhere in the King’s lowest dungeons and this third entrusted to me. So again, I say, piss off or I’ll kill you where you stand.”
Strake made no move forward, however, and Androi dismissed the bluster immediately. While it would be of great value — personal, professional, and social — to dispatch Strake, an idea concerning the elixir that was the Tears of Saint Cyryll was forming and a disturbance at this point would not do.
Androi turned with a show of contempt, giving Strake his unprotected back. Strake, however, did not seem to note the slight.
Karpelov made certain that he left something he would have to come back for behind in the stable, then rode with a fury that a sensible man would not dare risk. The cobbles, though costly and proof of privilege, were not well suited to horse shoes and his charge kicked up sparks as they recklessly navigated the route, Androi giving rein, cursing his pounding head and churning gut. Seeing this, and knowing he flew down the High Way from Uphill, the gates were thrown ride well in advance and he made good time until he hit Plague Bottom. Here he could scarce be mistaken for some illustrious person or courier, for they knew him well, and civilities slowed him somewhat as he exchanged pleasantries and insults with the throng.
“Boy,” he shouted, slipping clumsily from his mount in front of the inn where he boarded.
“Sir,” said the innkeeper’s nephew.
“Stable this horse and then make haste to my Second. Tell Ephram that he is to be here immediately, that I consider his not already being here a grave insult.”
“Of course, Sir,” he said, standing idle and holding the reins in one hand.
“My apologies,” Karpelov growled, flipping a coin. The boy caught it midair and turned to do as he was bid.
The wait was not long. Ephram pounded up the stair and threw open the door and then, thinking better of his behavior, closed it again and knocked.
“I don’t have time for your games Ephram. Do enter at once before I forget my manners and beat you. And that would be a most unfortunate turn of events as I am needing your assistance this night. Sir Thoms is to be sent off on the morrow, yes?”
“Of course, Sir. Noon is the hour, as you would most certainly approve. All right and proper as was your wish.”
“Yes. Your arrangements are most appropriate and I thank you for your diligence. However, that is much beside the point at present. You are acquainted with the widow of Sir Thoms, are you not, as to her name and lodgings and whatnot?”
“I am, Sir.”
“Good. Then sit a minute, for that is all we have to spare, and I will tell you of what will transpire this night and your part in it.”
Ephram listened, eyes widened by disbelief and mouth closed by hard-earned knowledge – Sir Karpelov did not like to be interrupted.
“The Tears of Saint Cyryll,” Ephram asked when Androi at last finished.
“I thought them nothing but nanny tales.”
“Though we may find that is the truth before the night has ended, you certainly understand that I must try.”
“Of course, Sir.”
“Very well. I would much rather you be a willing participant, though I wouldn’t deem that as required.” Karpelov smiled briefly at his Second.
“Naturally, Sir,” Ephram replied and returned the smile.
“Very good then. A quick bite to eat and off we go, back Uphill.”
“I can’t believe how nice the air is up here,” said Ephram.
“It has to be, Second, for the inhabitants have their noses constantly turned up. They lead themselves about nasally, sucking up vast amounts of such refined air. One quite rightly would think they viewed the world through their nostrils and spoke from out their backsides.
“Now quiet. We dismount here. Take my horse deeper into the thicket and hitch her so that she can get at the lake. It has been a thirsty day’s work, carting my bulk around. Once she is situated, Baron Wyck’s stable is just there.” He pointed across an expanse of dark field to a dimly lit structure. “And don’t forget to put on my clothes that I packed for you. Should something go awry that might be your only hope of getting back to the Bottom.”
“That and riding like the holy Hels,” Ephram said.
“Just so,” Karpelov replied, turning and heading toward the chateau without another word.
Several windows were lit and Androi was thankful that the Twillian aesthetic did not abide such unsightly things as bars on windows. Nor, apparently, did Baron Wyck find it pleasing to maintain any kind of nighttime guard on his perimeter. As if any up to no good would choose to use the door. Of course Baron Wyck would know that, so there must be something that he wasn’t seeing.
Androi opened a flask and took a drink to steady his resolve and prepare for the climbing that lay ahead. Though only the one floor, the arched ceilings pushed the height far above that which his land-loving legs found reasonable and safe.
His vertical progress was slow in the going, for although the crumbling plaster and massive hewn beams provided ample holds, his knowledge of climbing was restricted to trees and ladders. Inch by tedious inch he progressed, increasingly fearful of hearing the cock crow before ever obtaining his destination, when at last he reached the window and pried it open with his fingers.
Once inside it was easy to locate the treasure. The room had been emptied save for a velvet lined display case and a single, ornately upholstered chaise longue.
So it is here that you park your backside and contemplate the hope of the elixir, entertain your dreams of that life after death, thought Androi. How disgusting it must be for Saint Cyryll to know that it is you, of all the unworthy aristocrats that abide Uphill, that have it. She surely sheds many more tears now in that knowledge than ever she did in life. And how it must pain you to have to keep it secret, to give up the prestige it would provide, for his Highness would most certainly have it — one way, or the other — were its existence known.
Karpelov walked around the display, eyes searching for any hidden mechanism, any indication of how the priceless treasure was trapped. He took another long pull from his flask and ran a nervous kerchief across his brow, searching the ceiling, the floor, the couch. There seemed to be nothing.
Too easy, but he had little choice. Putting his flask back in his pocket he reached out and grabbed the glass bottle.
With the instant of contact the air grew heavy and oppressive, the walls, ceiling and floor distorting as an unseen shield surrounded the room, trapping Androi in its confines. Lightning crackled through the space. Each breath became scorched and acrid.
A portal of energy began to form near the open window which he had, so unwisely it now seemed, entered. It hovered, unnatural boundaries expanding, bending and warping the light as a seemingly disembodied hand reached into the room from within. Gods’ curses, thought Karpelov, a Summoning spell. Wyck has a Mage on hire.
Androi pulled his rapier, the sound muffled by the spell, the movement slowed by the thickening air around him. Too late he remembered his flask, lamenting the last few drinks that remained, for the mage came and there was no time now to drink it.
“Welcome death, for I bring oblivion,” said a deafening voice as the mage emerged from the portal, hands twisted in arcane symbols, waiting to unleash mortal conjurations.
“Sir Karpelov, is that you?”
“None other. I say, Nebuchar, very impressive entrance.”
“Thank you. Glad to know it was not wasted on an unappreciative audience. As uncomfortable as this may be, I have to ask what purpose it is that finds you here, where you ought not be?”
“Well, that would seem a reasonable question. However, the fact that your hands stay twisted keeps my blade bared and makes reason seem secondary to the very real and imminent threat that you pose.”
“I could say much the same. The stakes, it would seem, are much higher at present than our usual game of Hangman’s Axe,” said the mage.
“Indeed,” Androi said, sheathing his blade. “However your bluff is as transparent as ever.” They both smiled and the mage lowered his hands.
“Still, the question persists.”
“Ah. Well, would it suffice to say that I do something to right a grievous wrong?”
“Surely it would not be necessary to force one to stoop so low as to remind another of the services rendered on their behalf? Of wounds sustained and a life saved?” Androi pulled his flask and offered it toward the declining mage before drinking.
“One would not have thought another could stoop so low as that, indeed. However, a cheat at cards will stoop to unplumbable depths, I am certain.”
“At least know that it is not for myself that I do this, but for another. A family’s future lay in the balance. Is there any particular method or magic to opening this elixir? Any reason it must remain housed in this bottle?”
“No. It opens like any bottle. A motion to which I am certain you are very much accustomed.”
“Indeed,” replied Androi, turning up his own flask, draining the contents, and running a cuff across his mouth. He smacked his lips appreciatively. Then, pulling the jeweled stopper from the Tears of Saint Cyryll, he poured the liquid into his battered flagon.
“I suspect the Baron will notice its absence,” said Nebuchar.
“Ah yes, well, you see, I have come prepared for just such a circumstance,” replied Androi, unbuttoning his trousers and urinating in the bottle. “Let good Baron Wyck have this be the final flavor to tantalize his dying lips. None would suit the man better.”
“I will lift the spell, the window is yours. None will know that you have passed this way. I shall consider myself in your debt no longer.” Nebuchar uttered some unintelligible syllables and the force that had contained them faded.
“Until next we meet for drink and cards, in any case,” said Androi.
The mage paused. Karpelov could scarce glean what thoughts passed through the other’s mind, and though he felt badly for having used his friend so, it did not change the fact that it was necessary.
“The usual time and place, then,” said Nebuchar, stepping back into the portal and disappearing from view.
Karpelov placed the warm bottle back on the velvet lined display, careful to arrange it just so. Though he would not be there in the flesh, the mere knowledge of what awaited Baron Wyck on his deathbed brought a smile. He exited the room and began his descent.
He would return to Duke Allistair’s estates and serve Baron Wyck in proxy no longer, Androi thought, threading his way down the wall, careful lest he fall so close to the completion of his task. It was the season to leave the city and its oppressive aristocrats in any case. Though the Duke would not acknowledge the falsity — for his own image would be tarnished by his association with the Baron — once he knew how ill-used the duelist had been in perpetrating an illegal claim, surely he would not be lent out to such again.
Androi’s feet touched ground and he released the tense grasp he had upon a hold, sighing with relief as he flexed and stretched the tension from his shoulders. A twig snapped in close proximity and there was a sound of breathing nearby; he squinted against the darkness trying to discern its source.
“Karpelov,” came a whisper.
“Ephram, is that you?”
There was the unmistakable sound of well-oiled steel sliding against leather as a figure stepped into the wan, guttering light from the distant stable. Strake.
“I thought at first to get the house guard. But seeing it was only you, decided that would not be necessary. A drunk and a thief, who would have thought the once mighty Karpelov would have sunk so low? I thank you. Your presence here is the only excuse I need to kill you.” Strake sank into an en-guarde position, sword poised.
“No, I thank you,” replied Androi. “I must admit my own first instinct was to feel some semblance of fear before I beheld who stepped, so cowardly, from out the shadows. However I find myself now filled with the utmost satisfaction in knowing that I will be able to perform a second humanitarian service this night.”
Androi tore free his rapier, using the momentum to carry him into a lunge. Strake deflected the thrust, the sudden violence of it moving him back off his line.
Both men circled, smiling.
“I’ve watched you. I see how you’ve slowed in your old age,” taunted Strake.
“I note you still study your superiors,” replied Karpelov, coming at him full force. The ringing of blades echoed off the cobbles as thrust and parry became a blurring dance, a symphony singing of death.
Strake was not so clumsy and impertinent as once he had been and the two were more evenly matched than previously. Androi had no doubts, however, that his mastery would overcome the other were it not that he was hampered with little time to do so. Help would be arriving any second and, should Strake still live, he might state accusations that could be substantiated in short order. Karpelov had no wish to hang.
Androi gave ground, falling back toward the stables and farther from the house. Strake seemed to sense a retreat and came at him furiously, battering his ever-tiring arm. Karpelov kept in the defense, his few counterattacks on the high line as he played to Strake’s certain memory of their previous duel.
They neared the stable; Strake’s guard was now floating several inches higher than previous as Androi had hoped. With a final flurry he turned the other man, using a constant rain of cutting steel from high left to high right. It was a reckless gamble that he would make, but Androi had no more time.
Strake’s foot slipped as it adjusted to the strewn hay that lay about. Androi lunged long and low, extending far beyond the possibility of recovery, and felt his opponent’s sword as it cut through his hat.
Sir Strake’s weapon slipped from his grasp. Trembling hands instinctively flew to staunch the flow from the wound in his lower abdomen. Karpelov ungracefully found his feet, saluted the other man, and pierced his heart. Strake crumpled and was no more.
Karpelov donned his hat. The warmth of blood crawled down his scalp from where the other’s blade had nicked him.
“Ehpram,” he whispered.
“Here, Sir.” His Second stepped from behind the cover of a stall.
“Take this.” He handed Ephram the flask. “You must do as I bid now and I must stay, for there is no way I fly from this without grave consequences. Just one last favor, if you would? Turn loose my horse as you go.”
Ephram paused, as though poised to speak, when there arose from the house a great tumult. Lamps and torches were being struck, passed among a throng of silhouettes. The Second turned and slipped away across the fields to the copse of trees and horses beyond. Karpelov immediately turned his attentions to the approaching party.
“Gentlemen,” he said, sheathing his rapier. “To what do I owe this tardy response?”
“You,” said Bullom, stepping forward from the tense and armed mob.
“You’ve murdered Sir Strake and you trespass here — as you are unbid, I’ll wager.”
“I returned here for my saddlebag, which must either have fallen or been removed from my saddle this morning. Who can say for certain, as my summons this morning seems such a distant and wondrous dream that the facts of it are somewhat cloudy.” He exhaled into Bullom’s face.
“You are drunk, Sir.”
“While I do admit that I have had a drink, that is the extent of any confession. I did no such thing as murder Sir Strake. It is an utterly outrageous suggestion. We did duel, it is true, and that is the whole of it. I will not allow such affronts as he made, though verbal they be, to the good Lady Wyck. His lewd and debauched suggestions as to the acts to which his desires would subject her were too much for any save the most base to tolerate. I will have none speak such carnal and heinous things and live, and that is that.”
Karpelov turned his back in dismissal, retrieved his saddlebag, and began walking into the dark along the path Ephram had taken only minutes before. Rising hopes of having blustered his way out of the situation were dashed, however, with the sudden appearance of several armed and unhappy looking guards blocking his path.
“Sir Karpelov, if you might indulge us a few moments longer… in the house. Baron Wyck would, I am certain, like to have a few words with you,” said Bullom from behind. Leather creaked and silk whispered as the assembly shifted their weight, hands on hilts.
Ephram sat upon the footstool, patting his pale, sweating brow with a shaking hand, the unnatural episode of hours past still fresh and unnerving. Before continuing his tale, Androi offered Ephram another drink of the “sterner stuff” he kept on hand for medicinal use, which his Second gratefully accepted.
“And so I was able to extricate myself from the rather tense situation with a few choice statements whose veracity, while suspect, was founded so in truth that none thought to question it. The House, even dullard Bullom, was well aware of Strake’s rapine ways. It was no great leap for them to conclude that his passions would lead to greater improprieties. On behalf of Lady Wyck, for upholding and defending her untarnished honor, etcetera, Wyck even provided additional funds. Some of which I now give to you.” Androi tossed a small bag at Ephram. It rebounded from his chest and fell into his lap.
“I see you are still somewhat disturbed by the course of events.”
“Sir. I know what you told me. I know I should’a ‘ave expected it — but I just didn’t think it would really happen. There we were, the grieving widow and son and myself. I had explained everything as best I was able and she was willing in her grief to believe anything, I think. So there we are, having broken into Fenwick’s, all shut up with the body in the dark and I really thought…
“Anyway. I gave it to him and just so the temperature dropped, the widows frosted over, there was this… well, just some kind of strangeness… and then I heard this great intake of air and he just… well… just started breathing, sat up, and started talking to his family like nothing.
“He was a bit confused, didn’t remember much. But away they went on the carriage you bought, meager possessions and all, riding like Hel to be clear of the city before daybreak. It’s certainly something I’ll never forget.” Ephram reached over and took another proffered drink, downing it in a single swallow.
“If that be all then, Sir, I am much in need of sleep.”
“Yes, of course. It has been a burdensome night for you, and the witnessing of such a spectacular miracle must be quite draining. However, when you wake please make preparations for our immediate departure. We head to the countryside for a well-deserved vacation.”
“There are few ‘vacations’ in your employ,” Ephram muttered. “One last thing, if you would? You said that the Baron had asked if Sir Thoms said anything before he died. Any idea as to what that was about?”
“Second, your curiosity is a trouble that you would well be rid of. That is why I bid you send them far from here, to a place unfrequented by any that would ever find themselves Uphill. Obviously he knew something that the Baron did not wish be known, and I would no sooner know it than I would put the noose around my own neck. How he maneuvered it to be first offended by Baron Straussman and then have Sir Thoms, inexperienced whelp that he be, sent to defend Straussman I do not know, but also do not doubt. It does not pay to get involved in the games the aristocracy play. They are petty and cruel. You need look no further than the street outside to see the truth of it. Goodnight, or rather good day, Second.”
Androi listened as Ephram descended the stair, a smile on his face. Sir Thoms lived and would be quit of the dueling trade. Master Thoms had his father back. Instead of being ill-used and hanged until dead, he was both vindicated and a hero of House Wyck — at least for the day, and that would be all he would need to remove himself from sight. Anything removed from sight was just as easily out of mind he hoped, opening the window to the first cutting rays of the early sun, and he intended on being both by day’s end.
But first things first, he thought, tugging up a bottle from where it hung out the window. Androi raised a glass of wine in silent toast to himself, Ephram, and Sir Thoms, downing it in a single go and refilling it. Then Sir Androi Karpelov, hero of House Wyck and noted duelist to Duke Allistair, stomped upon the planks, turned down the blanket upon his bed, and laughed in anticipation as he listened to the approaching tread of Claudette’s feet upon the stair. It was going to be a wonderful day.
Jason E. Thummel’s work has appeared in Black Gate, Flashing Swords magazine, the anthologies Rage of the Behemoth and Magic and Mechanica, as well as many other venues both online and in print. His flash fiction story “Contact” appeared in the charity project 100 Stories for Haiti and was later translated into Portuguese.
A collection of thirteen of his Sword and Sorcery and Heroic Fiction tales titled In Savage Lands, and his first novel chronicling the hard-boiled adventures of occult detective Lance Chambers, The Spear of Destiny, were recently published. Both are available in multiple electronic formats and paperback.