Part 2, Section 1 - Delvers

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Paolo.

Leering, I wiped a bit of drool from my chin with the back of a gloved hand.

"I'm sorry, Paolo." Demis beside me, wasn't sure he had done the right thing. Soft boy. He could have done no other. "I know you wanted 'To Death,' but Father Superior—"

"No matter," I breathed, unable to take my eyes off my opponent. I suppose I was trying to get him to meet them, just once. The slippery bastard didn't have the stones. "Justice will be done, and 'the Heal' will do, so long as Clasicant doesn't call for mercy too soon."

Despite its soft name, 'The Heal' was a game with serious stakes, worthy of my caliber. For the right duelist it created a kind of moral loophole that even my pious brother was comfortable with: Because the church had agreed to heal whoever was alive at the end, I would be allowed—no, expected—to fight savagely.

This would be no game of pokes and touches. Attacks would be aimed at vital organs like brains and hearts, or to sever limbs and gouge out eyes. What was cut from the body couldn't grow back. There would even be the opportunity, with the right opening, to kill that tilly bastard instantly.

Then again, maybe I would let him live, minus a few parts. The sudden image of that pretty tilwen face without its nose sprang to mind, and the idea of a living but maimed Clasicant started to grow on me. Should have brought a broadsword, I thought.

"Very well," Father Bessik sighed, cutting short my daydreams of Clasicant's doom. Contrition was visible on his weathered face, and he suddenly looked very old. He smelled of kindness, sick people, incense and old wax. "Both parties will fight until either or both is incapacitated," he intoned. "If he is able, the victor will then withdraw so the vanquished party may be healed. The Holy Order of the Heart of One will act as healers for either party without prejudice. Requesting aid is a forfeit and comes with all the penalties ascribed therewith."

I could hardly hear the priest, even an arm's length away, with all the peasants carrying on. They smelled anxious, horrified and exhilarated—ready to watch someone die, and I was ready to give that to them. They would love it. They would love me. To them, Clasicant was just another tilly dandy, while I represented the realized potential and best virtues of our race.

I drank in their bloodlust, stoking the fires of my rage. Meanwhile, the father droned on with more legal blathering until at last we were free to return to our respective sides of the circle.

I handed Heartseeker, my masterwork rapier, to Demis and he presented it for inspection. Sir Pertuli did the same with Clasicant's blade. Both seconds, especially my brother, stank of growing apprehension, but also faith and pride. Sir Pertuli also smelled of herbal soap, a flowery scent that undulated in waves across the ring. Odd—where had he come by soap so early in the morning, much less the chance to use it?

Clasicant's blade looked good from twenty paces away, but like his shiny jack, I suspected it was new. What a disgrace. They say a good soldier's steel was kept as well as his woman or his horse—better even. By that logic, he must have borrowed someone else's sword, the bastard. Maybe it was mine.

I'd kill him for that too. I didn't care what the excuse was—any insult would do, even my sham of an engagement to the Maid of Orluz.

I watched the inspection ceremony with my teeth clenched. I wouldn't expect Clasicant to cheat, but he was tilwen, and they were tricky when it suited them. One couldn't be too careful.

Stande and Glassier were both human, at least, and could be trusted. Both were such pillars of the fencing community it was inconceivable they could cheat. They were often officiants because of it. Each checked both blades carefully for discolorations and coatings, then ran small oaken delvers over both weapons before declaring them clean and stepping forward to repeat the process on the fencers.

The Silver Blade's officiant waved his rune-covered block around my body, and when the central gemstone remained cold, nodded to confirm that I was clean and stepped away. I huffed out a breath I hadn't realized I was holding. I wasn't using any magic, but I had been worried the delver might have picked up on something.

I watched Glassier check Clasicant, and though the sharp eyed guild master watched both his delver and the tilwen thoroughly, he passed him as well.

"Good," I grinned to Demis as he handed my sword back to me. "Two clean men and two clean blades. This fight is as good as done."

"As you say, Paolo," he nodded. I caught a waft of nerves from him, although his face didn't show it. Unlike my brother, I wasn't nervous. Not in the slightest. There was no room under the scarlet cloak of eternal rage I'd become for something so petty as nerves. I'd prepared for this long ago, and losing was impossible.

As a student in Drakesfjord academy, a war professor named Baberau had impressed upon me the importance of his favorite quote. "Fighting fair," he said, "is the easiest way to lose a battle."

I had made it my personal motto. There was 'following the rules,' and then there was 'fighting fair.' I did the one as often as possible, but never the other. Consequently, I didn't lose, and in a world of rules and delvers to make things 'fair,' never could.

Clasicant's one chance had been a magic blade.

I gave Heartseeker three quick swipes through the air, imagining each silky cut severing one of Clasicant's limbs. Wrist-wrist-neck. I added some parries and warm-up lunges. Beat-wrist-parry-head.  Parry-throat-eye.  Parry-heart. Parry-head.

"Riposte" Clasicant saw what I was doing and gave me a disapproving look, meeting my eye for the first time that morning. His hands were shaking slightly. Pathetic. The look I gave him in return was nothing less than a promise of murder.

Clasicant turned away, shrugging me off. He didn't even warm up, just took his position and watched the priest expectantly.

"Listen brother," Demis hissed as he clasped my hand one last time. "Don't fool around. Cut the tilwen down and be done with it."

I nodded, not taking my eyes from my opponent.

I moved to my mark as Demis called out a little more loudly, "Luck, brother!"

Demis didn't know how long I had planned this confrontation or the things I had done out of the depths of my hatred for Clasicant. He probably wouldn't have approved if he did.

No matter. After today's work, Demis and every other human being in this city would increase in standing by mere association with me, the man who bested the legend. Demis, and all the rest for that matter, could come along for the glory, so long as they didn't stand in my way.

"Don't need it," I spat, as the priest raised his arms, preparing to give the signal. Today, the myth of Riposte Clasicant dies. 

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