The Fallen Diadem
“Are you out of your mind? You’re literally taking Amaranth’s good will and spitting in his face if you do this!” Claire shouted as she loomed over me. Nobody seemed to want to have a civil conversation. Everything was violence and shouting, even when I was meekly sitting on a sofa and trying to explain myself.
“Well the theoretical plan when we departed Vichtstein didn’t account for a man-eating chimera. Virgil is using my duel as pretext to detain our main suspect while Neeka is off helping the guards track the thing. The whole reason to check why he stole the money was to have a reason to force him into a duel with me but Virgil is fixing that issue so I may as well have the duel now, you know?
“And at the same time you’ve pissed off the Hunters of Hellsing. You mind explaining that one to me?”
“The grabbed Neeka! What else was I supposed to do but fight?”
She sighed loudly and pinched between her eyebrows. When she had control of herself again, she shook her head. “Such a boy thing to say. Do you even realize they’re assassins?”
I shrugged. “Not very good in a fight for assassins.”
“Not all of them, you idiot. To hire them, you become their slave for life. Most of them are just regular people working for them. A handful of assassins do all the killing, and one of them is in Port Pelagus. How is he going to feel when he hears that his underlings got done up by some kid?”
“Some kid who met their god,” I mumbled, planting my elbow on the arm of the sofa and looking out the window.
“All the more reason!” Claire shouted. “Besides, you don’t even have armor.”
I shrugged. “I can just request a duel without it.”
She had to stop herself from tearing her hair out. “Did you forget I told you he studied the Raven Strike school? It’s entirely designed to stab through your major arteries and kill you with a single strike. You need armor that fits you.”
“If it's all about thrusts, then he’ll be targeting mail anyways. The visibility of not wearing a helm will be more useful than having useless steel on me. Besides, I’ve studied the Lion Hand style! I’ve got my own threats. This duel isn’t entirely about me surviving him, it’s about me beating him. He will have to deal with me and I’m younger, faster, and stronger. He’ll be on the backfoot.”
“Fine!” she said, throwing her hands up in the air. “Fine, get yourself killed. I don’t need to recruit you anyways. Go get yourself killed. I’ll be speaking to Amaranth about the chimera. Virgil is already committing a supply caravan. You’re on your own, Mark.”
I turned my head as she spun on her heels and gave me her back. She marched to the door, threw it open and slammed it on the way out. Then I was alone in the room, alone with my thoughts and the question of whether my indignation was founded. I hadn’t been pacing the room for long when someone finally joined me; Sammy.
“Are you ready for the show?” he asked.
“Not really actually. I realized I don’t actually know the formal way to demand a duel,” I answered, scratching the back of my neck.
He sighed. “You mean you know how to fight but no one ever taught you how to duel? What kind of school did you go to?”
“My instructor didn’t speak much,” I said, trying to imagine the fallen instructor giving an etiquette lesson. Even harder to picture was Charlie talking about proper behavior outside of a way to shmooze and grift.
Sammy puffed out his chest with a huff and planted his hands on his hips. “Well lucky for you, I happen to be an expert on this subject. Learned it from a Blade Master you know. Please allow me to teach you.”
I nodded and shuffled over, finding it somewhat awkward to listen to a kid several years younger and at least a foot shorter than me. “Just make sure what I do gets taken seriously and he can’t turn it into a laugh. He’s a baron; I’m lowborn.”
Sammy waved it off. “That doesn’t matter. You have to confront him on his chivalric pride as a knight. Sir Brekhart doesn’t look like one, but he has the post he does because he was knighted. So tell me, you got any qualifications to compare yourself to him?”
“I mean, I’m confident I can fight better than him but… this would be my first duel. I guess I had the honor of being recognized by Lord Amaranth for bravery,” I said, fishing out my rudis from within my coat and showing him the weld. I omitted that I had gotten it for blacking out mid-fight.
“You were a slave? Ah well, I guess that doesn’t matter,” he mumbled.
“I’m dueling him because his lie got me enslaved!”
He winced, trying to pick his words around my prickly ego. The discomfort apparent on his face cowed me with shame. “You’re not going to want to bring attention to that. So here’s what you should do. Hold this dagger in your left hand so you can shove it up in the air like a holy symbol for all to see. It’s good because it was given to you by his own liege in the army. You need to throw your sword hand glove at his feet after announcing his name. All you need to say is ‘I challenge you to a duel of honor’ then explain to the onlookers who you are and how he wronged you. ‘By the honor given me’ is a good line for gravitas. Stand your ground and stare him down until he picks up your glove, that means he’s accepted your duel, and then you’re good.”
I tried to swallow the knot in my throat. “Does it have to be my sword hand glove?”
“Obviously. You’re a man, not some slighted noble girl angry about a stain on her dress,” Sammy said with a shrug and an arched eyebrow.
Unable to explain why showing my palm was a bad idea, I resolved I would just have to keep it in a fist or in my pocket. Sammy didn’t give me much time to think it over, let alone find a bandage to wrap the mark in. He had arrived on Virgil’s orders to bring me to where Brekhart was, and it wasn’t something I could just put off once I had agreed to the merchant’s plan. Neeka was trying to be the hero I had talked her into being, trying to save lives by finding the chimera, so I wouldn’t be able to face her if I didn’t confront Brekhart.
The room I was led to was in fact a garden veranda, with two sides open to the street below. It was a quiet part of town, adjoining the complex, but people still passed by within earshot. I saw Virgil and half a dozen guards assembled, as well as a few rich looking persons I didn’t recognize. They could have been incidental, people the merchant had invited, or friends of Brekhart. Either way, he was sitting at a table with Virgil and noticed me at once.
The liar was in a quilted vest styled like a gambeson, overtop bright white linens and heavy riding trousers. When I had first seen him on that rainy day, he had kept his facial hair in an oiled goatee, but now he had let it all grow out in a barely trimmed mess. It made his face seem fuller, but less noble. I figured he was reflecting the new company he kept. “What are you doing here?” he demanded.
My stride almost faltered, but I raised my voice and answered him. “Sir Brekhart, captain in the Order of the Broken Concordant; the liaison to Port Pelagus and trusted subordinate of your liege, Lord Amaranth Arnstein of the Spear, I am here to challenge you to a duel. By the honor given me by your own master, Amaranth himself, I demand the admittance that you lied to your own lord, further than your lie resulted in the false enslavement of me and my friends. I fought beside your lord in the capture of Vichtstein and earned my freedom after your treachery, and now here I am,” I said, holding up the marked proof of my freedom.
Brekhart paled. His gaze darted immediately to the witnesses gathered. Everyone had turned to listen to what I had to say. Then he turned on Virgil, but mostly on the guards. “You let this scoundrel in your premises? He’s a highwayman! A thief and a scoundrel! I still have the hole in my cloak where his friend tried to kill me, and then he had the audacity to lie about what he stole. This is an insult!”
I threw the glove at his feet and balled my hand into a fist. “That makes two of us then. I confessed on that day to what we did. But you stole the other half of the purse. You embezzled from your own master a thousand silver and blamed it on us, just in time for you to drink and gamble and carouse out of his sight!”
His cheeks went red. “Absurdity! Everyone knows I have done nothing untoward while here! Virgil! Tell them and throw this alley rat out of here at once.”
The merchant just smiled and turned up his hands. “My apologies, but he is here as the servant of a current guest. Given the fact that you will be returning to Vichtstein post haste with Lady West, it wouldn’t make much sense for me to offend my other guest. If you wish to ignore his challenge, you need only step away.”
Sir Brekhart wheeled back on me. “Fine!” He picked up the glove. “You, lowborn scum, have challenged my honor and dignity. I am the son of a baron and graduated with honors from the military academy of Throne. I have served with distinction for years under Lord Amaranth and you accuse me of petty theft and perjury. I accept your duel and as is my right as the challenged I will exact your own head in place of your honor; because, it’s clear you don’t have any.” He threw up a hand and turned away from me. He took a step halfway towards the onlookers, addressing them as he added, “Maybe the next mud rat to throw their glove at me will think twice once you’re buried.”
Virgil clapped his hands together. “It’s done then! I’d be happy to arrange a match for you right at the passing of night. You can be the appetizer to the main event. I’m sure such a heated feud will stoke everyone’s hearts before they watch the champion’s bout. I will however have to ask you to cooperate with the guards on the prudence that there is merit to his accusations. The bout will be at the earliest convenience you see. I want to be all above board while drumming up some excitement. Please forgive my mercantile spirit,” he said as he rose and took Brekhart by the shoulder and walked him out of the veranda.
My mouth gaped as they passed by me. First blood and unarmored had just gone out the window. Half the guards went with Virgil and the other half surrounded me. One of them gruffly said, “you will need be detained as well. Fair treatment and all.”
I stared at Virgil’s back, at that fur lined coat embroidered with gold. “That two-faced bastard is going to get me killed.”