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Read a sample from SWORDS AND SCOUNDRELS by Julia Knight

The first book in the Duellist's trilogy – a fast-paced adventure from one of the most exciting new British talents in fantasy

Chapter One

They say that an ounce of blood is worth more than a pound of friendship. Vocho wasn’t so sure about that. Probably depended on whose blood you were talking about, because blood seemed to have got him into nothing but trouble.

The wood Vocho and Kacha lurked in was a mean little thing, a straggle of trees and stunted bushes that fringed the muddy track between some two-cow town in the province of Reyes and a different two-cow, perhaps even three-cow town up towards the mountains and the border with Ikaras. A desolate and rain-sodden spot in the back of beyond, a far cry from the city of Reyes itself. Vocho sat and shivered and dripped as he watched his sister, atop her restless horse, wrestle with the clockwork gun.

“Are you certain you know what you’re doing with that thing?” he said at last. In retrospect, it wasn’t the best thing Vocho could have said to her just then.

Kacha stopped scowling at the gun and scowled at him instead before she raised a cool eyebrow and blew a drip of water off the end of her nose. “Of course. Pretty sure I know where I went wrong last time.”

“You shot my horse’s ear off.”

A curl of her lip from under her dripping tricorne. She was indistinct in the darkness under the sodden trees, her heavy black coat and that ridiculous hat fading into the shadows, leaving only the pale blur of her face.

“Anyone could have made that mistake,” she said airily. “It’s not like, oh, I don’t know, killing the priest we were supposed to be guarding, right?”

“That was an accident!” Vocho was pretty sure anyway – the memories of that night were vague, and though they seemed vivid enough in his dreams, they soon faded to guesswork and ghosts when he woke up. Sadly the duellists’ guild hadn’t seen it as an accident when said priest had turned up with a sword hole in him. Worse, it was Vocho’s sword, the hilt still in his hand. The guild, not to mention the prelate and his guards, tended to take a dim view of that sort of thing. Very dim.

“He was only a priest, and a bad one at that, and that was a good horse.” Vocho still smarted at the fact they’d had to sell the horse – for some reason it had got very nervy after that accident, and nervy horses weren’t good in his new profession of highwayman.

“Maybe only a priest,” Kacha said. “But he was the prelate’s favourite. He was paying our wages, and the prelate’s department and the guild get very upset about people killing priests they’re being paid to guard.” Kacha hefted the gun, prodded the clockwork mechanism and scowled at it some more, like that would make it work properly. “At least in the guild we didn’t have to deal with these sodding things.”

Vocho subtly tried to edge his horse backwards, out of line of sight of the gun, but instead the beast barged sideways and knocked into Kacha’s horse, making it shy and snap at the air, narrowly missing the feather stuck in the brim of Vocho’s hat.

“Careful,” Kacha muttered, “or it’ll be your ear I take off, and not by accident.”

Vocho knew when it was time to stay quiet, and now was such a time. His older sister was mercurial in nature and never more so than when waiting in a dark and rain-drenched wood on the edge of cold mountains for some clocker or ex-noble to drive by so they could rob him, instead of being in a nice dry guild house in a nice hot city down by the coast. Especially when it was because of that dead priest they weren’t in said dry guild house or hot city. Even more especially when Kacha had a new-fangled gun that was difficult to shoot right at best, and an accident waiting to happen at worst. Oh, how the mighty are fallen.

The rain intensified, bouncing from leaf to sodden leaf, shivering from cloud to ground in a constant litany of sound. Confounded northern mountain weather. Vocho would have given a lot of money to be back in Reyes city. It’d be full-blown spring down there by now, and a Reyes spring tended not to include bucketloads of rain, but featured long hot lazy afternoons with a cool breeze coming in off the sea. The nightlife tended to be a little more refined than getting soaked to the skin in the muddy arse-end of nowhere as well.

Raindrops plastered the jaunty feather on Vocho’s hat into a tangled mess, ran down his neck, soaked through his heavy cloak and his fancy trousers, was utterly ruining the finish on his best coat and made his hands slip on the little crossbow. He didn’t like crossbows any more than he liked guns, but they had a tendency to backfire less and sometimes you needed one, even if it was a coward’s weapon. Not so long ago they’d have been drummed out of the guild for using one, or the gun, if they hadn’t already been drummed out. He could hear his old sword master now. A projectile weapon is only for those with no class or no balls.

Three months ago he wouldn’t have gone out on a night like this for any money. Three months ago he’d have had that choice. Now he had no money and no choice, so here he was, shrivelling in the rain like a sodding prune. He might be poor, more than poor now, but a man had to make an impression and right now all he was good for was looking like a rat drowned in a water butt.

One insignificant little mistake, and they never let you forget it.

Kacha sat up straight beside him, listening. The rain had soaked through her hat, turning it into a sopping mess, and her blonde hair was dark and lank, but she didn’t seem to mind. Over the whisper of the wind and the rush of the rain came the faintest jingle, as of a horse harness. A vague splashing rumble, as of carriage wheels negotiating a muddy road.

“Kacha . . .”

She shot him a lopsided grin, but it was wound tight as a bowstring. She always got twitchy before a fight, and always hid it with a grin.

“Mask,” she whispered. He pulled his soaking scarf over his chin and nose and she did the same, making sure it was pulled up far enough to cover the telltale puckered scar under her eye. Between the scarf and hat, he’d have been hard pushed to recognise her if he didn’t know her.

A carriage came in to view around the corner, mud splashing from its wheels. A lumbering coach and four, it looked promising – well kept with fancy harness, and the horses were all matched too, which boded well. The driver was a huddle of clothes bundled up in an overlarge shapeless hat and an oilskin cloak against the weather. One armed and lightly armoured man in front on a springy bay horse that looked like it’d jump out of its skin at the slightest provocation, one to the side on a steadier-looking grey. Both men looked thoroughly miserable even under large hooded cloaks. Vocho could sympathise.

A lamp either side of the driver gave Vocho and Kacha light to work with. They waited till the coach was almost on them, then Kacha dug her heels in and her horse leaped from behind the screen of bushes and in front of the carriage. Vocho wasn’t far behind, aiming his horse to the rear of the carriage to stop it backing up. The bodyguard on the side didn’t have a chance to do more than draw his sword before Vocho’s bolt had his hand pinned to the side of the coach. Which was embarrassing because he’d been aiming somewhere else, but he’d take what he could get.

In the hazy darkness at the front of the carriage the driver swore a blue streak and yanked on the horses, which protested at the treatment and managed to get themselves tangled in the traces. The carriage slewed to a stop, making the pinned bodyguard scream before his hand, bolt and all, came free. He knocked his head on the way down into the mud and slumped unconscious. Which at least saved Vocho a job.

By the time the horses had stopped, the fore bodyguard was down and out in the mud thanks to Kacha’s bad-tempered horse lashing out at the bay and an expertly aimed smack in the head from the butt of Kacha’s gun. The bay horse dumped its suddenly unresponsive rider and shot up the road, reins and stirrups flapping, like as not never to be seen again.

Like a well oiled machine, the two of them. When they worked together, nothing and no one could stop them. They hadn’t been the best in the guild for nothing. At least it was earning them some money.

Muffled voices from inside the carriage, most with a hint of moneyed education about them, expressed varying amounts of surprise or drunken annoyance. Vocho heard a faint, “I say! That was bit harsh. Need to discipline your driver, Eggy old lad, I almost spilt my wine.”

Kacha might have been wearing a mask, but her brother could see the flinch around her eyes at the name. Good and not so good. Ex-Lord Petri Egimont, ex-noble who liked to let everyone know it, first-rate duellist, currently a lowly clerk in the prelate’s office, a pet, a symbol of the revolution the prelate liked to parade in front of his admirers more than anything, and yet of more than solvent means. He also knew both Vocho and Kacha, very well indeed in Kacha’s case. Their little spy at the inn on the edge of the woods had neglected to mention who the owner of the carriage was, instead telling them how the man thought tales of highwaymen lately come to the woods were a crock of bollocks and how he was determined to reach his destination by morning. Not to mention how he didn’t bother with many bodyguards, thinking he was above being robbed, or if he was, could beat them in a fair fight.

Sounded just like the pompous Eggy. More fool him.

A pale-haired head poked out of the carriage window. Not Egimont, but certainly once aristocratic if the quality of the chin, or lack thereof, was anything to go by. “Driver? Driver!” His voice was strident and slurred. “What the blazes do you think you’re—”

Kacha shoved the barrel of the gun into the side of his nose. She made her voice a couple of octaves lower than it already was and slipped into a guttersnipe accent to avoid giving herself away to Eggy in the coach. “Good evening. If it’s all the same to you, I’d like to divest you of all your valuables, trinkets and trifles. Money or a hole in the head. I like to do things properly.”

“We’d prefer the money,” Vocho added from his end, affecting a noble accent. “But sometimes a hole in the head is so satisfying, don’t you think? And we haven’t shot anyone for days.”

A click as Kacha did something menacing with the gun. A whispered conversation inside the carriage. Vocho caught sight of the driver, who waggled his eyebrows as though trying to say something. Sadly, Vocho didn’t speak eyebrow.

“Oh,” said the pale-haired man, going cross-eyed as he tried to look at the barrel of the gun while not moving his head. “Well. I’m sure we can come to some arrangement. Perhaps twenty bulls? I’m sure I’ve got enough change. That would seem fair . . . Oh.”

Kacha had nudged her horse up parallel to the carriage, and the evil-minded beast knew exactly what was wanted. It grabbed the pale man’s hat off his head with a great show of teeth and for good measure at a signal from Kacha kicked hard enough to hole the carriage. That horse was more a highwayman than Vocho was, and made him mourn once again the loss of his old horse with its one ear. This new one was dancing under him like a ballerina.

“I think . . .” Kacha said with an air of contemplation. If she hadn’t been wearing her mask, Vocho knew he’d see that lopsided grin again. “I think everything you have would be fair. Those are our usual terms. I wouldn’t like it said that we had favourites. As it’s cold, I’ll let you keep your underwear. Can’t say fairer than that, can we?”

Just to underline her words, the horse snapped its teeth a hair’s breadth from the pale man’s nose. Between that and the gun barrel, it was looking like he’d have no nose left come sunup.

“Um, well yes, you have a point.” The pale man retreated into the carriage to a hurried and whispered conversation. Vocho caught, “Damned cheek of it!” “They’ve got a gun,” “So have I, somewhere . . .” “You can’t even see straight, never mind shoot straight,” “Being robbed by highwaymen is an extra, my lord” in a woman’s voice and “God’s cogs, I was just starting to enjoy myself,” followed by a boozy-sounding burp.

Another head poked out. Dark rather than fair this time, long hair done in the latest foppish style, bound at the base of the neck so that it curled across one shoulder. The face less vacuous, with more of a chin. A trim little beard, a long haughty nose, sharp dark eyes and apparently at least slightly less drunk than Pale Hair. Egimont. Vocho had his sword out and ready, just in case. Just in case Kacha shot the ear off a horse by mistake, or Egimont in the face. Given their recent history, it wouldn’t have surprised him. If she didn’t, he might very well give it a try himself. He sneaked a look at her and was troubled to see her look stricken just for a moment. Like she was ready to drag down her mask and let the world know who they were. Let Eggy know who they were, which would be a disaster.

Time for action. “Could we hurry this up?” Vocho asked. “I’m getting sodding wet here.”

It was enough to get Kacha to pull herself together, and she gave him a brief nod to let him know.

“I’m sure we can negotiate, my good sir,” Egimont said to Kacha in the sort of deadpan drawl that made Vocho’s shoulders itch. He said everything like that – when he spoke at all, which was rare enough – as though all was beneath his notice. He was just so effortlessly bloody suave, which was only the start of the things Vocho had against him.

He braced himself for Kacha’s reply but she kept herself reined in. For now. Only the Clockwork God knew how long it would last.

“No, we may not,” she said in a voice thick with suppressed fury. “Instead, I will shoot your gormless face off if I have to. We’re good with cash though. And jewels, we like jewels, rings, necklaces, trinkets, trifles, baubles and bibelots. How much have you got?”

Egimont raised his eyebrows. Kacha had never got the hang of courtly manners though she could pretend well enough when she needed to. “Not a lot as it happens. Temporarily embarrassed. You know how it is.” Egimont sounded odd – Vocho could only assume he was playing to the drunk ex-nobles in the carriage – which begged the question of why.

“Not really,” Kacha said. Vocho didn’t like the way her finger was twitching on the what-d’you-call-it – trigger, was it? The thing that made the gun go bang anyway. “Everything, that’s what we’re going for. Now out, all of you. And anyone looks like they’re trying anything, this gun tends to go off at a moment’s notice. So do I. And blood is such a trial to get out of silk, isn’t it?”

Egimont sighed as though he was suffering a great trial for a mere triviality and feigned defeat, though knowing the preening mountebank Vocho didn’t believe it for a moment. The door opened and they trooped out. Three men, one so drunk he could hardly stand, but not so drunk he couldn’t be sick, which he managed to do all over the pale-haired fellow, who was pretty damned drunk himself. Two women not, how could Vocho put this? Not of the same class. Underfed, underdressed. Women who were most certainly of his own original station – wretched and plebeian, just trying to earn enough to eat the only way they could. Vocho leaned over the pommel of his saddle, sword out and ready in case these fools weren’t as drunk as they looked.

“You ladies may go. If you’re quick, the inn’ll still be open.”

They didn’t need telling twice – a quick glance of agreement between them and they hared up the muddy road without a backwards glance. Pale Hair looked after them forlornly. “But I already paid!” he wailed to no one, or no one who cared anyway.

Kacha looked up at the driver, who silently spread his hands as if to say, These posh sods deserve everything they get. He was still waggling his eyebrows and mouthing something, but what with the dark and the rain, Vocho couldn’t catch it.

“You keep an eye on him,” Kacha said to Vocho with a nod to the driver. Her horse grabbed at the ruffles on the front of Egimont’s shirt and started to munch with much apparent delight and flashing of big teeth. Vocho would have sworn it understood the concept of intimidation, though good luck to it trying to get a rise out of the imperturbable Eggy.

“And now, gentlemen, if you’d like to empty your pockets.” Kacha was enjoying this, Vocho could tell by the undertone in her voice even as she tried to disguise it. Payback for whatever had happened between her and Eggy, which had left her bad-tempered or alternately silent and dreaming for weeks.

A gun waved in front of them seemed to get them going. Eggy threw two purses into the mud, both clinking heavily. “Go on, Berie,” he said. “And get Flashy’s too.”

Three more purses, all full. Not bad, not bad at all. At a signal from Kacha, Vocho leaped down from his horse, and that’s where it all went wrong.

Kacha’s evil sod of a horse took exception to Eggy’s face and made a grab for it. Eggy wasn’t as drunk as he looked, jumped back half a pace and snatched at the sword at his waist. Kacha wasn’t drunk at all, but the horse’s sudden lunge caught her off guard. The gun fired, there was a bang that seemed like it might take Vocho’s ears off, followed by a brief, gurgling moan. Flashy held up a hand with a hole in it, and promptly stopped being drunk and started being passed out at about the same time he fell into the mud.

“Aw, shit,” Kacha said but she didn’t get any further. Eggy had his sword out – despite the rest of his foppish appearance, it was a good if plain sword, well used – and went for her, smooth as well oiled gears, looking as effortless as ever. Berie tried the same with his flash and glitter sword, got it tangled up in his scabbard, tripped over his own feet and ended up face first in the mud next to Flashy, only less passed out.

Then things got really bad. A tinny feel to the air. The smell of burned blood. The two things together seemed very familiar, but Vocho couldn’t place from where. The hairs on his neck and arms rose. Burned blood . . . what did that remind him of? And then it came to him that he was deep in the shit. Who burned blood? Magicians, that’s who. What the hells was one doing here? There hadn’t been one in the kingdom for years, not since the prelate gained power and had them killed or chased out for being against his careful, orderly new clockwork plan for the country. Which didn’t explain why the smell seemed familiar.

Time for that later. He had to take out these men before the suspected magician still in the carriage caused carnage. He planted one foot on Berie’s prone back, with a softish kick to the head to keep him there, and swivelled.

Kacha was off the horse by now – was it Vocho or was that evil thing grinning? – and stood, ready and waiting for Eggy to come on. The stupid gun was still in her off hand, and as Vocho turned she flung it at Eggy, catching him a great crack across the forehead that made him stagger back, feet slipping in the mud.

Even Vocho had to admit that Egimont was a fine duellist, but Kacha had the measure of him and a grudge besides. Vocho took half a heartbeat to see her slip under his guard and then left her to it. If there was one thing he was sure of, it was that his sister could take care of herself.

He wasn’t so sure he could, not against a magician. About as rare as rocking-horse shit they were, or had been. Now they were non-existent in Reyes. Just about all he knew was that they were as powerful as kings, which is perhaps why the prelate hated them so much. He’d heard of a man fried where he stood, turned to ash with not even the chance to flinch. Time to be seriously careful, but Vocho had never been a careful man. When he won, which was always, however he could, he did it with speed and above all style.

Only he’d never actually faced a magician. He’d never even seen one, only heard tales. Fuck it, you only lived once.

The inside of the carriage smelled of burned blood and infamy. It was no wonder Kacha hadn’t seen the man, magician or not – he was in the far corner, dressed in flowing midnight blue, cloak, robe and hood fading into the shifting shadows of a dark and rainy night. His face was a pale, scarred smudge against the window and naggingly familiar. The faint suggestion of blood on his hands was the only new clue to what he was. Vocho’s scant consolation was that if he was a magician, he needed blood to draw on to power his spells and there wasn’t any handy. Except his own or Vocho’s, but he had no intention of letting anyone get blood on his clothes.

During all the business outside – Vocho could hear the click and clang of blades, and Kacha flinging barbed insults that the stoic and ever-so-noble Egimont wouldn’t deign to answer – the magician would have had time to prepare. He didn’t seem drunk like the rest, in fact he seemed distressingly alert.

Vocho approached, blade ready in the Icthian style. Free form and ready for anything seemed best at this point, and besides it was his favourite. He advanced slowly but not especially carefully – his forte was the sudden, impulsive move that was frowned on in the guild but would also catch his opponent off guard.

The magician, if that’s what he truly was, held up his bloodstained hands in a gesture that looked like a yield. Vocho didn’t trust it for a second. Another step forward and his blade hovered over the man’s throat.

“My money or a hole in my head, I understand,” the man said. Odd sort of accent, sort of hard and sibilant at the same time, the voice soft but with a crackling undertone that shivered all the hairs on Vocho’s neck.

“That’s the idea,” Vocho said and arranged his feet so he’d have the perfect balance should he need to thrust. He’d never been one for killing for killing’s sake, but he’d not shy away if it was necessary. And a magician – it could be very necessary, if he wanted to live out the night. “What have you got? No, no dipping in your own pockets, thanks. I’m a thief not an idiot.”

The magician inclined his head in agreement. “So I see. I have nothing that would be any value to you, I assure you. A few papers, the clothes I wear. Quills and pens and scalpels for my work, you understand.”

A quick movement of his hand that drew Vocho’s eye, a hand scarred beyond belief but in a bizarrely beautiful sort of way. Dark patterns flowed across knuckles, symbols etched there by who-knew-what sorcery. They seemed to move on their own, those patterns, a flow that took the eye and caught the brain, made him follow them like a starving dog following its master. An itch started between Vocho’s shoulder blades, familiar and yet not, and turned to a burn.

“Nothing for you,” the magician said. “Except I may have to kill you. With the utmost regret, of course.”

“Of course.” The patterns shifted, became scenes of blood and murder, of headless bodies and sightless skulls, of days of glory in the guild sparring arena that led Vocho’s head off into odd, dark dreams. The voice sounded more and more familiar but he was past caring, too wrapped up in what the hands were showing him. The burning on his back grew worse, made sweat pop up all along his lip and his hand slick on the hilt of his blade. Frighteningly familiar, yet he couldn’t remember – and did it matter, when those patterns were drawing him in?

A shout from outside, a curse from Kacha and then Eggy calling out an odd word, a name perhaps? A plea for help, certainly. The sounds snapped Vocho back to himself, just in time to see the magician dip a pen into a pot of . . . of blood. Let’s not be shy here, that’s blood . . . and begin a new pattern on his outstretched palm.

The magician was quick, but Vocho had made his name being the quickest man in the duelling guild, so fast he could stab a man and put away his sword before anyone had seen him move. Well, almost that quick. Maybe the magician wasn’t expecting him to be so fast, maybe he thought Vocho was still hypnotised by the flowing patterns, maybe he didn’t expect anyone to attack him at all – magicians were renowned for their arrogance. Whichever, he wasn’t expecting a sword to run him through. Even so, he surprised Vocho by almost getting out of the way – so fast he blurred, but the point still caught him. Just not in the neck. Instead, the sword went straight through the meaty top part of the man’s shoulder and pinned him to the side of the carriage.

The magician let lose a stream of words in a language Vocho didn’t have a hope of understanding. Blood bubbled from the wound – Vocho needed to finish this and quick, before the magician used the blood to finish Vocho. Another thrust, quick as the first, and the magician was too busy grabbing something out of a pocket to move. The blade slid in, right into his windpipe. Cast a spell now, bastard. The magician’s eyes flew wide and one hand scrabbled at his neck, at the blade. The other had hold of . . . Oh shit.

Vocho knew less than bugger all about magicians, but even he knew the scrap of paper with bloody shifting patterns on it wasn’t good. A stored spell, that was all it could be, blood marking the paper like written death. There were tales of them that Vocho had never believed, but he did now. A spell to do what? He’d heard of some men vaporised . . .

He knew enough to get the fuck out of the way. He whipped his sword free of the man’s neck in a gurgle of breath and blood and dived out of a window head first, rolling as he landed, screaming when the burning on his back caught on his shirt. Straight into the mud, but even he didn’t care about getting mud on his nice coat now.

When nothing obvious happened, no explosions and he was still all in one piece, he dared a look up. The carriage door flapped open. Inside, the only sign of the mage was blood on the seat and side of the carriage and a now burned and shrivelled piece of paper fluttering to the floor.

A lucky escape. You’re sitting in the mud, looking like an idiot while Kacha gets all the glory again. He shoved himself up and took stock. He’d ended up on the other side of the carriage from where Kacha and Egimont were fighting. Hadn’t she finished him off by now? When he thought on it, he realised how little time had elapsed from getting into the carriage and his rather ignoble exit.

He wriggled his shoulders – the burning had subsided as suddenly as it started – and made his way around the carriage to watch the show, maybe butt in and finish the job in case Kacha was having second thoughts. Flashy was still flat out in the mud, Berie either out cold next to him or pretending to be. Vocho rather thought the latter, but he wasn’t fighting so that was all right.

Kacha had Egimont on the back foot – quicker even than Vocho when she was at her best, and against Egimont she would make damn sure she was at her best.

“Can we hurry up?” Vocho called. “I’m freezing, soaked and pissed off, and the rest are all dealt with. Stop playing with him and get on with it.”

Egimont was good, but he was never going to be good enough to beat Kacha, who could thrash every man and woman in the duelling guild except Vocho. And it was that “except” that made her so deadly – she was always trying to up her game so she could beat him. Not to mention they weren’t in the guild any more so no guild rules.

A wink from Kacha above her mask, a thrust that would have killed a lesser duellist. Egimont was quick though, Vocho had to give him that. He slipped in the mud as he parried, recovered like a guildsman, used the movement to come up under Kacha’s guard in a classic action in the Ruffelo style that caught her off guard and made Vocho wonder whether she was going easy on him, then startled them both by not going for the thrust. He hesitated just a fraction, staring at Kacha like he’d never see her again, like all he wanted to see was her.

“Please, Kass.”

This was not good. Nor was the way Kacha hesitated at that “please”, the way she shook her head as though trying to shake some traitorous notion out of it. She’d lost her head over Petri bloody Egimont once before and got burned. Vocho wasn’t going to let it happen again.

“Kass, we need to finish this. Right now.”

“Yes,” she said slowly. “Yes, we do.”

With that, she spun behind Eggy, so quick he hadn’t a hope. Took him out with a well practised wallop to the base of the neck that rolled his eyes up into his head before her other arm came up between his legs with an audible whump, a move that the gallant Ruffelo probably never even considered. Vocho caught Eggy before he fell into the mud with the rest – he’d some nice clothes on him, no sense ruining them.

Kacha blew out a ragged breath, wiped a hand across what he could see of her face and picked up the gun. “Bloody things. Never will get the hang of them. Coward’s thing, really. A good blade is where it’s at, right?”

She threw the gun into the bushes by the side of the road. And good riddance.

“Better off sticking with swords,” Vocho agreed, knowing exactly why the subject had changed. “Know where you are with a sword. Guns have no style anyway. No, no panache.”

She rolled her eyes but laughed anyway, a bit shaky but back to herself again. For now.

A peculiar noise reminded them of the driver, still up on his seat. Only just though, because he was bent over and wheezing like an old man, oilskin cloak flapping in the sodden wind like bat wings. On closer inspection, it seemed he was laughing fit to piss himself.

“Oh, that was a good one. Nice shot there.” He went off into gales of more laughter.

Kacha raised an eyebrow his way. “Oh, do be quiet, Cospel. I didn’t want to kill the stupid sod, just rob him. Now come and help me get his boots off.”

“Only good nob is a dead one, I always say, so it’s all good to me.” Cospel wiped at his eyes, allowed himself one last chuckle and jumped down from the seat.

“You might have mentioned Petri was in the coach,” Kacha said.

“You might have mentioned the magician as well.” Vocho kept his voice light, but he could still feel the pained thud of his heart at the sight of that piece of paper, still remember the way the markings on the man’s hands had tried to lead his brain astray.

“Magician?” Kacha asked in a weak voice.

“I tried!” Cospel said. “Only couldn’t say anything, could I? Not unless I want everyone to know I’m helping the robbers of Fusta Wood. Only turned up last minute. Didn’t have a chance to let you know. Knew you two could deal with them though.”

Vocho yanked Eggy’s boots off. A good make, soft leather to the knee, polished to a high shine under the mud. Probably even the right size. “That’s what the eyebrows were all about? Maybe you should teach them to do semaphore, then next time I’ll have a hope of understanding. Though I don’t want there to be a next time, not to meet a magician.” Vocho shuddered.

Kacha looked down thoughtfully at Egimont and if there was a wistful look it soon vanished. “What’s he doing with a magician? He’s only a clerk at the prelate’s office. Not even a very important one. He’s got some money as ex-nobles go, but not enough for that. Above that, his family has no power any more, and that’s what I hear magicians crave. When I hear of them, which is just about never. Are you sure he was one?”

“Good question.” No, he wasn’t sure, in fact he really hoped he was wrong, but if there was even a hint that it had been a magician they could all be very dead. It was probably just him being paranoid. He’d been twitchy ever since the whole thing with the priest. That must be it. Magicians were long gone. Paranoid. “The answer is, I don’t care as long as he isn’t here. Now come on. Time we were on our way. Time to get paid.”

Between the three of them, they soon had everything of value off the men. Not a bad haul as things went. As well as the five purses, each of which would keep them fed and warm and drunk for a week or more, Vocho had a fine new pair of boots that didn’t pinch too much, a splendid crimson silk jacket and matching short cape from Flashy that he would probably never wear, not in that crap sack of a village they were living in, and Berie’s gilt and glitter sword, which looked good but on closer inspection bent like tallow when pressure was applied. Ah well, he could sell it anyway. Kacha made sure she got Eggy’s sword – far better than Flashy’s for all it was gilt-free – and stripped them of all their jewels.

They took all the clothes they didn’t want and bundled them into a sack, leaving three almost naked gentlemen and two nearly naked guards. Who wouldn’t care nearly so much as the gentlemen when they all arrived wherever they were headed, wearing nothing but underwear, with some rather suspicious damp staining around the crotch area in Berie’s case.

On to the carriage, and their spy – Cospel – had been right. Under a seat was a trunk big enough to stash a dead body in, secured with no less than five impressive locks. Vocho almost drooled just looking at it. Whatever was in this chest, it was very valuable to someone – bodyguards, locks and a possible magician to guard it, a thought that made sweat prickle on Vocho’s scalp. But they’d made it out of the debacle alive, the winners, and they had this too. That was the important thing.

He could hardly wait to open it. If they got away before that magician recovered from a sword through the throat, whoever owned it would never find it.

It took the three of them to get the chest up onto the back of Vocho’s horse, which sank into the mud and groaned under the weight. Vocho gave him a pat and decided that seeing as his boots were covered in mud already, he could probably walk back. It wasn’t like he wasn’t already soaked.

Once they were done, Cospel too stripped off. Vocho tied him up on the driver’s seat and left him to a shivering wet drive, with a “We’ll leave your share in the usual place.” He thought for a moment. “Where were you headed anyway?”

Cospel shrugged. “A town just along the valley – that’s as far as this coach goes.”

Hmm. A long way from Reyes and Egimont’s usual stamping grounds. Never mind, he could think on that later. Vocho and Kacha manhandled the limp and muddy men into the carriage and Cospel clucked the horses on.

They watched the carriage until it disappeared around a bend and all they could make out was a faint light through the rain. Kacha forced a laugh and took Vocho’s arm as they led the horses off the road and into the darkness of the woods. Vocho wasn’t fooled. Her hand shook, ever so slightly. He knew why too – she’d almost killed Flashy, and it had been a miracle she hadn’t. She’d never say it, but she didn’t like the killing part. Things happened in the heat of the moment, it was true – a slip, a stray thrust, an unexpected movement and she couldn’t avoid that – but she avoided killing if she could. Too merciful, without that ruthless instinct. It was her one weakness as a duellist, as far as Vocho could make out, which meant obviously it was the one he ragged her about as often as he could. A duellist might have to kill, to protect whoever he was guarding, to finish the job, though they were expected to refrain whenever possible. Just as well he managed for them both when it was necessary, mostly.

That’s what was making her edgy perhaps; not that Petri had popped up, like a bloody jack-in-the-box, just at the worst possible moment.

He sidled a look her way. No, it was Petri that had her rattled with that “please”, damn the suave bastard.
They stopped to watch the carriage light disappear behind another line of trees.

“The respected Egimont sent off in his drawers, displaying the only jewels he has left,” she said with a satisfied smile. “Well, if that doesn’t make you your precious new name, nothing will.”

“Bugger.”

“What?”

“I forgot to tell him our new names.”

About the Author

Julia Knight is married with two children, and lives with the world’s daftest dog that is shamelessly ruled by the writer’s obligatory three cats. She lives in Sussex, UK and when not writing she likes motorbikes, watching wrestling or rugby, killing pixels in MMOs and is incapable of being serious for more than five minutes in a row.