The second book in the Duellists trilogy – a fast-paced adventure from one of the most exciting new British talents in fantasy
Vocho threw the dice and loudly cursed himself for a fool. Treble cat’s eye, of course it was, and now he was down a hundred Ikaran bushels, or about ten bulls in Reyes money.
Kacha stood the other side of the gaming table, clothed, after something of an argument, in an Ikaran dress in the latest fashion. A silky green sheath with a split up to the thigh – Vocho had been surprised to discover his sister actually had legs – and precarious heels that made her wobble and look far more fragile than her solid frame would usually suggest. The puffed sleeves covered the fact she wasn’t a soft noblewoman and that her wrists and forearms were laced with muscles and striped with old scars. Her zair had been carefully coiffed, with much swearing, to hide the scar under her eye. No sword, which had irked her the most. She’d sulked in the shadows behind the avid-eyed men and women who’d just won on betting Vocho would lose, but now Kacha raised an eyebrow and smirked.
The dice were, naturally, rigged. Not that he’d tampered with them, oh no. Conduct unbecoming to a zaster of the duelling guild and all that, although not being a member of the guild any longer he tended to forget that bit. It was just no fun cheating people out of their hard-earned – or as was the case in this particular den of iniquity, hard-inherited – cash. So he hadn’t rigged the dice, but someone certainly had. At least they were dry in here, as opposed to highway robbery which had mostly involved him being wet and cold. They had to do something for money – supplies were dangerously low. Besides, he had a plan.
A slight dark-haired man with small sharp eyes and a nose that looked like it had been thumped one too many times swept Vocho’s money off the table and into his purse, which was already heavy. “Not lucky with the dice tonight, are you?” he said in Ikaran, a language Vocho could just about communicate in if he concentrated. “Perhaps you’d care to try something else?”
Vocho feigned nonchalance with an airy wave of his hand, as though the money hadn’t been most of what they had left. “Such as?”
The dark-haired man – his name had never been offered, though mostly he was called Bear for some unmentioned reason – cocked his head on one side and looked Vocho up and down. Took in the slightly worn finery, the hat on the table with its jaunty if tattered feather, the mud-stained boots that had once been polished to a high shine but were now dull and cracked with constant use. Finally his gaze rested on the one thing Vocho knew he was really interested in – his sword.
It was, Vocho had to admit, a damned fine sword. Not too heavy, though heavy enough, perfectly balanced and with a devilishly handsome basket hilt that had been the envy of many a master in the guild – it had certainly saved Vocho’s fingers a time or two. The hilt was a giveaway. It was a guild duellist’s sword and no mistake, and very, very illegal to be walking around with here in Ikaras. And Bear was a collector, something of a connoisseur. Vocho was banking on it.
“A duel,” Bear said now, and then added, as Vocho had suspected he would, “with a twist.”
“Isn’t that illegal?” Vocho asked.
“No more so than gambling with dice or wearing that sword in public. Anyone doing any of those things faces the galleys or perhaps even the gallows. Well? Are you a gambling man or not?”
“What sort of twist?” Vocho was fairly sure he knew the answer because Cospel had done his research well.
“Not you or I fighting,” Bear said. “You’re a man who knows how to use that sword, that’s clear, and as a true Ikaran I know nothing about fighting with a blade like a common mercenary. The fight would be unequal.”
Common mercenary? Vocho fought hard to keep the indignation from his voice. “I could tie one hand behind my back?”
A disturbance behind him made him turn for a second – Kacha had fallen off her heels and was being helped back to her feet by an amused bystander.
“Oh no,” Bear said. “I value my skin far too highly.”
Vocho was pretty sure he knew the answer to this as well. Bear would pick someone who looked like they didn’t know one end of a sword from the other but who was actually not too shabby.
From behind him came the unmistakable sound of metal hitting flagstones.
“I’m sorry, is this your knife?” Kacha said. “What? Oh, I see. That’s the sharp end, is it? How exciting.”
“We each pick someone to fight for us.” Bear’s sly grin made Vocho struggle to keep his own face straight. “You can pick first.”
Vocho made a show of weighing it all up before he nodded slowly. “All right. What’s the bet?”
Bear hefted his purse in his hands – there was enough money in there to keep Vocho and Kacha fed and housed for a month, and maybe enough to see about other things besides. “This against, well, what do you have left?”
Vocho pretended to think about it and then put his sword very deliberately on the table. “This. If your man can take it off mine, it’s yours. If not, if my man takes the sword from yours then the money is mine.”
“You have yourself a bet,” Bear said as though he knew something Vocho didn’t, giving Vocho palpitations, but there wasn’t much choice by this point. They shook, and Bear’s grin swelled into a full-blown smirk. “You choose first.”
Vocho eyed the small crowd around the tables. Unlike Reyes, which had done away with titles and replaced its nobility with clockers who’d turned out just as feckless if not as inbred, Ikaras still had a full complement of blue-blooded young men and women with lofty titles and nothing much better to do than fritter away their time and money. Duelling had been popular for a time at least. Until too many ended up with serious holes in them or worse, and the Ikaran king had declared duels, along with the gambling that seemed to be the spur for most of them, illegal. That hadn’t stopped events like this, only driven them from grand palaces to dingy little backrooms where the nobles’ finery seemed incongruous in the smoke that leaked through from the rank bars that fronted them.
This particular lot didn’t seem out of the ordinary, from what Vocho had gathered since they’d arrived here a few weeks previously. Ikarans were less foppish and more direct than Reyens, perhaps, but no less vicious, or devious, when it came to it. But of course he and his sister had an advantage – a duelling guild education. Not to mention that in Ikaras ladies did not duel, ever. Ladies did not pick up anything with a sharp edge, or not in public at any rate. Vocho’s surprise for Bear.
“My sister, I think, could take any one of you.”
Bear grinned as though that was exactly the answer he’d been expecting. He pointed to a pigeon-chested young man in the corner, wheezing over a water pipe almost as big as he was. Bear waved him over and whispered in his ear. The young man nodded as though this was no surprise and started making himself ready. This seemed to include copious draughts of what was presumably something to sober him up – the water pipes’ more insidious ingredients made all sorts of things dance in front of the smoker’s eyes.
“Whoops,” Kacha said, and metal rang on stone again.
A few muttered about ladies not duelling, but Bear sliced a glare around the room and they all shut up.
“You’re on.” Vocho picked up his sword and threw it to Kacha, who caught it neatly, unsheathed it and kicked off the heels she’d sworn about so much earlier.
To Vocho’s consternation, Bear didn’t look the slightest bit surprised. He nodded to one of his cronies while the rest made some room, and after a few moments Bear’s duellist stepped forward looking far too at home with his sword.
The duellers sized each other up, before Kacha gave a brief salute and went for the other. The pokey backroom was soon drowned in the noise of swords clashing, the feet of the crowd stamping, a flurry of side bets between Bear’s cronies. Bear’s man was better than he looked – the pigeon chest disappeared, the shoulders came back. He was nifty on his feet too and had a style that seemed to confound Kacha at every turn. She was fighting in the Icthian style, a time-honoured method that was loose, fast flowing and devious, using not just the sword but everything else in range too – feet, elbows, handy bits of furniture. Above all it was elegant, which was not a description you could apply to Bear’s man.
His sword was of a style Vocho hadn’t seen before but had heard about. A palla they called it, a brutal-looking thing with a thick curved blade and not much of a guard, made for quick killing via brute strength not stylish swordplay. He used it far better than his looks had led Vocho to believe too, in a style Vocho had never seen before, a series of savage chops that appeared to give no thought to defence, yet somehow Kacha never got a touch on him. The man wasn’t quick as such, but he was good.
Still, Vocho had every confidence in his sister. She hadn’t been the guild master’s assassin all that time for nothing. She didn’t like using other people’s blades, but as hers were still tucked up safe at the guild where they couldn’t get at them, she didn’t have much choice. She looked like she was missing the dagger she often kept in her off hand though, and was hard pressed to keep her guard up. She was quick enough, but if this went on too long she’d tire against the heavier blade and then he’d have her.
Naturally, Kacha being the bloody perfect person she was, she had a plan. She grabbed a bottle of something from a low table with her off hand on the way past, smashed it so she held the neck and used the jagged end to harry her opponent even as she thrust and parried with her sword. A slash to the face, a vicious thrust to the stomach, which the man only just avoided more by luck than judgement. She got in a few kicks as well, when she had the chance, but this was no easy opponent. For every thrust he had his palla in the way, for every feint he was ready, for every kick to somewhere soft he just wasn’t there, and all the time that heavy blade was swirling, chopping, slashing, coming a shade too close for Vocho’s liking.
The crowd catcalled and jeered, telling the man – Haval they called him, an odd name – to get on with it and beat her. All in all, this was taking a lot longer than Vocho had hoped. Kass must be off form, he thought, because despite the strangeness of the man’s style she should have had the bugger by now.
Then she almost did have him – a vicious slash across where his face had been a second ago with the broken bottle while her sword arrowed towards his torso ready to winkle out his liver. It probably would have gone quite badly for him if the crowd hadn’t erupted in displeasure, pelting Kass with bottles and other less savoury missiles from all sides. They could have coped even with that – Kass ignored them or batted them away and Voch was ready to step in, for Kass’s sake not his own glory, of course – if not for the sudden prick of a blade at Vocho’s waist.
“Even if she wins, you lose,” Bear said into his ear. “I mean to have that sword. The sword that once belonged to the renowned, and disgraced, Vocho of the guild, the sword that killed a priest and started a war. Correct? Thought so. Now, tell your lovely sister to stop. Haval will have no hesitation killing her, and he can, believe me. Even Kacha the noted duellist can’t stop him.”
Vocho looked down at the whisper-thin stiletto that had pierced his tunic, his shirt, and threatened to do the same to his navel. Just as he was about to say screw it and give it a go, two of Bear’s cronies came up beside him. The rest were crowded around Haval and Kacha, and other daggers were being drawn, flickering in the dim and smoky light. Sharp blades might be illegal in Ikaras, but money bought a lot of leeway.
“It’s all about the sword in Reyes, yes? Or at least it was until they got those clockwork guns. Not here though. No duelling. No swords, no guns or not many, not yet. Lots of magicians though, enforcing the laws. So here we do things secretly. Subtle, not like you Reyes pigs. No chance for Vocho the Great to show off.”
“You seem to have the advantage of me,” Vocho managed, trying to move without seeming to. Didn’t help because the blade point followed his belly button, and Bear’s cronies had theirs join in. If he wasn’t careful he might lose a nipple.
“As I should, seeing how much I paid to find out,” Bear said. “Although you two stick out like barbarians here. Now, your sister or your innards. Your choice.”
Not much of a choice then, really.
“Er, Kass? I think we’re all done here,” he shouted. “Hand the nice man the sword, would you?”
A sudden stillness at the other end of the room. Vocho could feel the outraged question even if he couldn’t see her face behind all the onlookers. Silence followed, and Vocho didn’t need to see to know she was assessing the situation, the number of people ranged against them. Luckily for his insides, she wasn’t quite as rash as he was.
Finally a clang followed by a tinkling crash as she dropped his sword and the bottle.
“Excellent,” Bear said. “Now, I wonder how much we’ll get for turning in two Reyes spies in this time of coming war? Get moving.”
A more insistent prick of a dagger into Vocho’s back. He moved but being Vocho couldn’t keep his mouth shut. “I don’t suppose you’ll get much for us, considering we aren’t spies.”
Bear laughed in his ear. “Reyens in Ikaras, with all the trouble lately? What else would you be? I have to say the king was very upset with that business between you and Licio. He stood to make a great deal of money, and our king does not like losing that kind of opportunity. I’m sure he’d be most pleased to meet you, even if you aren’t actually spying. I shall certainly be most pleased to spend the reward money, which I’m sure will be very generous.”
Kacha stumbled in front of Vocho as someone pushed her from behind. The carefully coiffed fair hair had come unbound and now flopped against her forehead in its more usual manner. “Nice one, Voch.”
As Bear shoved him on towards the door, Vocho took stock. It looked like they were in seriously big trouble here. The room only had one door, which had several of Bear’s cronies loitering by it, supposedly blunted ceremonial daggers drawn. The single window was firmly shuttered, and with a half dozen men in front of it in any case. They might have more luck when they got out of there and into the inn beyond, where Cospel was waiting for them, hopefully still both sober and incognito. Vocho wasn’t prepared to bet on it though.
A figure appeared in the doorway, silhouetted against the glare from the inn’s lamps behind him. Vocho had the strangest feeling he should know who it was, but even when the figure stepped forward he couldn’t place the man for some seconds.
He was tall and slender, older than Vocho by a decade or more, and he moved like he was on oiled springs. One hand was on a duelling sword even finer than Vocho’s. He cocked an eyebrow at Bear, and his smile was as sharp as daggers. It was only when Vocho noticed all the gewgaws and trinkets adorning the man’s very fine clothes – clothes with not a speck of dust or the ghost of a crease – that he realised who he was looking at.
Bear got there first. “Domenech?”
“The very same.” Dom gave Vocho the sort of look that said, “Shut up and let me do the talking.” He was glad to leave him to it. Sort of. The Dom he knew hadn’t been that smart, but this Dom looked like he might be. It was a distraction, at least, one that he and Kacha might take advantage of. They shared a look, and he knew she was as ready as he was, if the opportunity should arise.
Then it was too late for any of the talking that Dom had in mind. Three of Bear’s men lunged at him, and the room became a whirl of men and knives, one flashing duellist’s sword and one heavy, chopping sort of sword as Haval decided that Dom was his for the taking.
The blade was still pricking Vocho around his kidneys and Bear had his arm twisted up behind his back as well. He obviously hadn’t been paying attention elsewhere though because a sudden “Oof!” sounded by Vocho’s ear, Bear’s grip loosened, the blade fell away, and when Vocho turned, Kacha was standing like some sort of vengeful goddess with a high-heeled shoe in each hand. The end of one heel had blood on it, as did Bear’s head down on the floor. His two cronies were too stunned to move for a second – a second too long, as Kacha aimed a vicious balls-high kick at one and Vocho used his elbows and fists to good effect on the other.
Finally they seemed unencumbered by anyone trying to kill them. Kill them right this second, at least. Vocho cocked an eyebrow at Kass and her unorthodox weapons.
“Someone had to bloody well pay for me getting dressed up like this. Be thankful it wasn’t you.” Kass took a swipe at a passing man with one heel, getting him a cracking shot in the stomach and bending him over, breathless. “Now stop pissing about and let’s get out of here.”
“That’s a plan I can get behind. Where’s Dom?”
Dom was by the shuttered window, having seemingly attracted the attention of just about every man with a weapon in the place. Even as they watched, Haval took out a chunk of shutter at Dom’s back, missing him by a scant hair as Dom twisted away, skewering another man as he went. Another chop from that brutal blade, another chunk out of the shutter, and Vocho could see what Dom was about even if Haval was too caught up in trying to hack off his head to notice. Kass saw it at the same time.
Cospel appeared at the doorway, semaphoring desperately with his eyebrows. Vocho had been studying those eyebrows for a long time now, and was fairly sure that Cospel used them to articulate things he dare not say out loud to his employers. This time they seemed to say, “Over here, you stupid bastards.”
Vocho went, though Kass hesitated. “But Dom?”
He grabbed her arm and yanked her over to the doorway and Cospel.
“Said he’d provide a distraction for you, miss.” Cospel had a heavy pewter tankard in one hand and looked about ready to brain anyone who came too close. “And not to let you be stupid and stay in here.”
A thundering crack came from across the room. Haval seemed to have realised what Dom was about, but too late. His heavy sword had burst open the shutter, and with a wink and a wave Dom flipped through the opening and out into the night. Haval roared after him, but the others seemed less keen to follow. Given that four of them were bleeding out onto the floor, Vocho couldn’t blame them.
That said, there were eight Ikarans left upright and only three of them, armed with a tankard and some shoes, and the Ikarans seemed to like the odds of that much better. Two of the bolder ones began to advance, and the others fell in behind. Where in hells was his sword? There, half obscured by bleeding bodies where Bear had dropped it. Well, he wasn’t leaving without it. Vocho gave Kass a shove through the doorway, spun and dropped, grabbed the sword and bounced back up – just in time for the lead two Ikarans to slash at his face. The rest came round, trying to flank him.
He flashed them a bright grin, saluted with his sword as though about to launch himself at them, then stepped back through the doorway. As soon as he was through Kacha slammed it shut and turned the key in the lock. Which just left them with a bar full of curious and not especially friendly-looking drunks. When the barman pulled out a thick slab of wood with some nails driven through it, followed by some of his patrons whipping out some impromptu but serious-looking weapons, Vocho made a snap decision.
“I say we run.”
Kass winced – shying from a fight didn’t come naturally – but said, “I don’t think I ever heard you say that before, but you could be right. You’ve got the sword. You keep them busy while we clear a path. Make it quick, OK?”
“Thanks, I think.”
“You’re welcome.” She was still smarting about the dress, he could tell.
Then there was no more time for talk. Two hulking great bruisers, the worse for wear but still steady enough on their feet, lumbered in front of Vocho.
“Here, ain’t you that Vocho bloke?” one asked, and Vocho couldn’t help but preen a little that they knew him.
“Nah, he’s too little,” the second one said.
“’T’s him. I seen the pictures in the paper, and besides Bear said so. This here bloke caused all that ruckus in Reyes. Vocho the Imbècil, Bear said – that was it.”
Vocho the what? His Ikaran wasn’t up to much, but that certainly didn’t sound like Vocho the Great, because he’d learned that word almost first of all. He swished the sword in front of their stupid eyes and prepared to show them that whatever imbècil meant, he wasn’t one. Nothing like a good—
Kass yanked the back of his shirt. “God’s cogs, will you come on? The guards’ll be here any second, and you’ve got a ruddy great sword in your hand.”
The two lumberers came for him brandishing a wicked set of brass knuckles and a foot-long metal spike, but a swipe of his sword kept them back. A clonk behind him – Cospel using the tankard to good effect – a muffled scream as Kass’s shoe caught a man somewhere painful, and the doorway to the street was free. Lumberer number one looked like he’d just worked out that being a good foot taller than Vocho was probably all the advantage he needed, so Vocho didn’t need any encouragement to throw himself through the door after Kass and Cospel.
Then they were running down the street as fast as they could, with a swiftly dwindling crowd after them. A few twists and turns, and they were on their own and out of breath. They stopped. Cospel bent over his knees, gasping. The multicoloured lights that shone from every building, leaked from all the stored sunlight of the glass that covered the city, made his face look like that of a demented clown.
“I could have taken them, no problem,” Vocho said, leaning against the cool throbbing blue glass of an upmarket tailor’s. “What does imbècil mean?”
Cospel hesitated, and his eyebrows didn’t know where to look. “Sort of . . . renowned. Infamous? Yes, that’s it.” His Ikaran was far better than either Vocho’s or Kass’s, though none of them was fluent yet.
“Renowned? Are you sure?” The way the lumberers had said it, Vocho wasn’t so certain.
“Er, yes. Pretty sure. Anyway, look what I got.” Cospel held up a clinking bag. “Once Dom got started, it was easy to pick up all the winnings.”
Vocho took a look in the bag. Not bad for a night’s work. “Cospel, have I ever told you that you’re a marvel?”
“No, but you can say it again if you like, preferably in cold hard cash.”
They made their way through the pulsing lights of the foreign city to the cramped rooms above a cobbler’s that were their current home. Kass was unnaturally quiet all the way, and Vocho got the feeling it wasn’t just because she was wearing a dress and sulking about it.
“Two things,” she said when they got home and Vocho broached the subject. “One, how did Dom know where we were? Two, if he knows, who else does, and do they want to kill us?”