The final book in the Duellists trilogy – a fast-paced adventure from one of the most exciting new British talents in fantasy
Vocho took a crafty swig from his little bottle, wiped his lips and slid the jollop back into its hiding place in his tunic. It didn’t take long for the familiar warm fearless sensation to flood through him, settling the pain at his hip and more subtle agonies inside.
Suitably fortified and numb enough that he wouldn’t limp and ruin the effect, he strode along the cloister and out into the damp and misty courtyard ready for sparring practice. Lessers today, first-year students with lots of shiny little faces turning to watch Vocho the Great as he readied himself for the lesson. Just one more reason to keep taking the syrup, he told himself. Vocho the Great didn’t limp or feel fear. He did everything with as much style as he could muster, and he was going to carry on being Vocho the Great if it killed him.
“Right, line up in twos,” he said. “Footwork today, boys and girls, because you lot are a bloody disgrace.”
Vocho the Great wasn’t a natural teacher either. These lessers were so new and clumsy that he despaired. Had he ever been that useless? He didn’t think so. Besides, he should be out doing great feats of derring-do as befitted his name. Not nursemaiding little children and trying to get them to not fall over their own feet when they used a sword, or watching them try not to cry when he raised his voice. He drew the line at wiping snotty noses.
“Cospel! Oh, there you are. Will you do something about that nose over there? It’s making me feel ill.”
Cospel rolled his eyes and advanced on the offending boy, muttering under his breath about “not being paid for this”.
“I don’t pay you to moan either, but you do that all right.”
Truth be told, they were both bored rigid. No to mention this wasn’t their job, not really. It should have been Kass out here. She was guild master – she’d cheated in the duel, he was sure of it, the only way to explain how she’d beaten him, even with his dodgy hip. As such, she should have been herding snotty children and trying to make them into duellists, not him. But after that brief spurt of action to win the title, a few weeks where she’d got stuck in, ordering the guild as she saw fit, grief had finally won, a battle even she couldn’t win. She’d sunk further and further into herself, away from him. Away from life it seemed. And while he didn’t mind helping out, he’d somehow ended up doing pretty much all of the guild master work with none of the prestige of the actual title.
He got the lessers doing a few basic exercises, which they still managed to cock up, and looked up at the outer wall that overlooked the harbour. There she was, again. Watching the ships go in and out like she’d never seen them before, like they hadn’t been brought up on the docks. Watching her like that was one of the subtler pains that the jollop helped with. Every day there she was on a different section of the wall, ghosting along like a wraith. She barely spoke, and answered questions with a wan smile that worried him more and more as time spun on.
Worse, with her turned in upon herself like this, it left him to run the guild. He was making a pretty poor fist of it as well. It didn’t help that he was itching to do a job himself, something where he could shine a bit, help keep up the name. But he and Kass always did their jobs together, everything together, and now she’d left him on his own, even though he could see her up on that wall.
Pining for Petri or not, it was time Kass got out of her own head. He’d tried, Cospel had tried, half the masters, fed up of Vocho, had tried, but she just smiled and nodded and went and sat on the wall. It’d been months now, and something drastic needed to be done before Vocho either murdered the next master who complained about some trivial little thing or drowned in the snot of the lessers. Speaking of which.
“God’s bloody cogs, boy,” he bellowed. “You’re supposed to be a duellist, not a drunken sailor. Have a bit of style. Oh, for the love of . . . Cospel, will you get that one to stop snivelling?”
After what seemed like about three years, the lesson was over. The lessers scampered out of his bad-tempered way as he stalked out of the courtyard, away from the prying bronze gaze of the clockwork duellist. He’d once fondly thought she looked on him with pride. Just lately the look seemed more of gentle reproach.
He strode down a cloister and through a door, then allowed himself to sag against the wall for a moment. All the twisting and turning, showing the lessers just where to put their feet when they wanted to thrust, to turn an attack, to change a feint into a slash that would cut an opponent in half, all that footwork had taken its toll on his hip. Only one thing would help. He took a look out of a window, at the great clock that towered over the square in front of the Shrive. Not yet. Give it until, say, five o’clock. His hand shook a bit at that, but he told it not to be so stupid and carried on to the guild master’s office. Which was nominally Kass’s but appeared to have been turned over to him, along with all the paperwork that went with it.
His footsteps slowed as he neared the office, and not just because his hip was singing like a tortured choirboy. This was a guild of duellists, men and women who fought, honourably, for pay. It was all about the turn of the blade, the flash of sun off a well-timed attack, the glory and adulation that came with it. Glory and adulation, to his mind, should never involve so much paperwork. There’d been two tottering heaps of it on the desk when he’d left earlier. The Clockwork God alone knew how much there would be when he got back. Sometimes he thought it was his punishment, and he often dreamed about drowning in crackling sheaves of white, black ink flowing down his throat until he choked. He was Vocho the great duellist, not the great bloody signer of papers. It all made him want to lay about with his sword and sweep up the resulting bits later.
Cospel, having got the lessers back to their dorms for now, caught up with him.
“Have you got it?” Vocho asked. He wasn’t sure why he was whispering, given he was supposedly in charge here, but he was.
Cospel brought out a little clockwork gizmo, a fire starter of a newer design that was all the rage. You wound it up and, when you released the catch, two little bronze duellists fought each other in a tiny arena, swords clashing so fast, click-clack-click, it was almost one sound. Each time their blades met, a fat yellow spark would fly off. Unsurprisingly, cases of arson had shot up in the weeks since they’d become popular, to the point where Bakar, the prelate, had instigated a full-time corps for fighting the resulting fires.
“Good,” Vocho said. “I’m going to sort this paperwork once and for all.”
Cospel didn’t say anything to his face, but his eyebrows whirled like disapproving windmills, and there was a certain muttering behind Vocho as he made for the office.
There was a certain muttering in front too as they approached, if anything more disapproving than Cospel’s efforts. Vocho recognised at least two of the voices that drifted out of his office and liked neither of them. His hip twinged in sympathy and he ground to a halt. The limp was back through the numbing syrup, slight but all too noticeable, to him at least. He wasn’t facing what sounded like half the damned guild with a limp. A clock struck in the background, swiftly followed by all the others across the city until the only sound was bells and gongs and the tinkling of inner workings that told everyone who wasn’t deaf, and possibly even those who were, that it was four o’clock.
With a furtive look at Cospel, who was busy muttering under his breath about wages, overtime and days off, Vocho slid his hand into his tunic. One quick snifter, just to settle his hip. Help him deal with the stupid stuck-up bastards he’d been lumbered with as masters. Just a nip. That’s all.
He shut his eyes and waited the few moments before the jollop got to work, then took a deep breath and strode, without a trace of a limp, into the office.
He actually liked the room, when he got it to himself. Large and airy, appointed with only the best – a desk of shining dark wood from Five Islands with a whole host of little drawers, open and secret, plain and booby-trapped, that had kept Vocho busy with his lock pick for the best part of a month. A tapestry from the far-ago time of the now fallen Castan empire, showing some great battle which supposedly the guild had won for the emperor and had led to their currently exalted position. An upholstered Ikaran chest, chased in gold and ivory, a rug made from what was supposedly the hide of a unicorn but which Vocho deeply suspected was, or rather had been, just a very nice horse. A whole collection of swords through the ages from the crude but brutal via the experimental to the springing elegance that was currently in fashion. A splendid view over the docks and, depending on what change o’ the clock the city was on, variously the palace, King’s Row or Bescan Square, with its markets and stalls, truth sayers, storytellers and outright liars. No matter what change they were on, the Shrive still loomed to his left, the great clock in the square before it, but he tried not to look that way if he could help it.
Today he could hardly see the damned window, let alone the view. A master bore down on him from the left, waving yet another bit of paper and bleating about how so-and-so had better rooms than he did – he’d said so last week, and why hadn’t Vocho sorted it immediately? Kass would have done. A second came from the right, one of the dorm masters. She was informing him that Bronze Dorm had a bad case of stomach flux, which was testing the cleaning skills of every maid they had, and that not only would Kass have known what to do, she would have done it without the dorm master having to ask. Another sat back in the chair behind the desk – his chair, damn it, well OK, not exactly but even so. She had her muddy boots up on the shining desk as she drawled on about some of the journeymen who’d been caught selling their nascent services to a street gang from Soot Town, which wasn’t a problem only they weren’t cutting the guild in and did he want her to teach the little buggers a lesson? If Kass had been herself she’d have had her down there a week ago, of course, but Vocho wasn’t quite as good at this guild mastering, she supposed.
Her boots caught one of the towers of papers, sending them scudding over the floor, but she barely even paused. Vocho noted she had some of his best rum in a glass too but didn’t have the chance to do more than open his mouth before another one started, complaining about such-and-such getting all the best jobs, and why wasn’t he getting them, he wanted to know, because everyone knew what an idiot such-and-such was, and just when would Kass be doing something about all this, hmm, because Vocho was obviously not up to the job. Kass this, Kass that. Why aren’t you doing what Kass would? When will Kass start leading this guild properly instead of the hash-up you’re making of it? When is Kass going to start leading this guild? And all in the sort of annoying upper-class drawl that set his teeth on edge.
Later Vocho wasn’t entirely sure what had happened, but the next thing he was aware of was that the woman who’d sat in his chair was on the floor, surrounded by a shower of falling paper, the complainer about so-and-so had a bloody nose, and the one who didn’t like such-and-such was nursing what looked like was going to be a perfect shiner. The dorm master had the reflexes to get across the room fast enough and appeared to have escaped unscathed as she stood by the now half-open window, waiting to see what would happen next. The desk was clear of everything except Vocho’s hands and his sword, and the other masters were staring at him with shock and a simmering anger that would likely boil over later. For now the silence was broken only by the tolling of the god-buoy out in the harbour and Cospel’s sniggers.
“Well,” the dorm master said with a raised eyebrow, “I suppose we can’t expect anything else from you.”
Vocho glowered at her and she had the grace to blush. He took a deep, steadying breath and made sure not to look at Cospel, who was struggling not to laugh. He wasn’t struggling all that hard though, because it kept leaking out like steam from a kettle.
There was a lot Vocho could have said. He could have asked them just how well Kass was doing up on that wall every bloody day. Perfect Kacha wasn’t being very perfect at running this guild now, was she? She wasn’t being guild master at all. But no one seemed to see that, only remembered her as she had been not as she was, and blamed him because he was here and she wasn’t. A lot he could have said but didn’t because he thought Kass had enough of a knife inside her without him twisting it further.
Instead he took a death grip on the desk to avoid lashing out again and a deep breath. “Out, the lot of you. No, I don’t care what he said, or what anyone has done. Out!”
They went, muttering about his lack of manners and breeding, and that Kass would hear of this and more besides. Vocho held on to his temper, barely, until Cospel had firmly shut the door and let loose the laughter that had almost given him a hernia.
“You’re not helping.” Vocho gave the now scattered documents a vengeful kick.
“Maybe not, but we got to take all the laughs we can at the moment,” Cospel said when he’d got his breath back.
Vocho conceded he might have a point and limped about the room gathering the papers into a nice pile in the grate, where Cospel employed his fancy new gizmo and set the bloody things alight. At least it took the chill out of what passed for a Reyes city winter, which mostly consisted of a misty dampness that seemed to seep into Vocho’s hip and make it creak like a clipper in a gale. He lowered himself gingerly into the chair and stared at the flames.
“I’m not sure I can take any more of this. We should be out doing . . . things! Heroic things! Feats! Tales of great bravery they’ll be talking about a hundred years from now. Saving people, guarding hoards—”
“Getting recognition instead of doing paperwork and listening to moaning minnies?”
Cospel slid a sly look his way. “Of course, that means she won, don’t it? That she’d be better at this than you?”
“Normally, I agree – admitting Kass is better at something would be bad. However, this time I’m prepared to let her be better than me.”
“Very magnanimous of you, I’m sure. Thing is, how you going to get her to do the work?”
A good question. They’d all tried. Vocho had talked until he was blue in the face, even Cospel had tried wheedling with that kicked-spaniel look he did so well, but she just shrugged. Some of the masters had tried complaining directly to her and got the same. For all they were happy to tell him how he didn’t compare to her, he knew the masters were running out of patience with her too – there’d been too many whispered conversations that stopped hurriedly if he or Kass came into view, too many looks
askance. He needed to do something and soon, or Kass wouldn’t be guild master even in name.
“What we need,” he said now, “is some commission for her – for us. Not just guard duty or anything boring but something to get her teeth into. You know what she’s like about mysteries. They get her all fired up. We need a commission like that, something to engage her gears, get her out of her own head and back into the world. I mean, you know, for her.” Not for his sake in the slightest, oh no.
Cospel poked at the dying flames. “I think we just burned all the job requests.”
“Bugger.” Vocho thought about it some more as Cospel found what was left of the rum and poured them each a glass. There was only one person she might listen to, who might be able to find something to jolt her out of her misery. Vocho told himself he was doing it for her, really. Helping her because she clearly needed it and she was his sister, and he did kind of love her. Most of the time. Maybe he should talk to her again first. He wanted her to be happy, not drifting around the guild like a ghost of the woman she really was.
But a lack of snot in his life would help too.