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Steel rasped its brittle song as the long, curved blade slid from its scabbard. Glinting in the pale October sunlight, the saber came up to sketch a salute that was more habit than respect.
Lieutenant Jean Massei of the Eleventh Hussars tossed the scabbard aside and settled into a guard, shifting his feet on the damp grass. The dew was slippery, making footing difficult. He smiled harshly behind his golden Hussar mustache, shook his long blond braids slightly, and eyed the man he had come here to kill.
Both duelists were cavalry officers, but there any similarity ended. Massei was young and tall, only a month out of his father's house and already a subaltern in the most prestigious hussar regiment of the Republic. He wore the white and gold of his uniform proudly, a pride turned aggressive and hostile this day.
His opponent was a stocky man with dark hair graying at the temples. He wore the somber green of the Seventeenth Dragoons, dowdy beside Massei's tan breeches and shirt. He held his heavy dragoon saber lightly, easily. His expression was bored.
The dragoon was also a lieutenant in the Cavalry Corps of the Republic, and in theory Massei's equal. There was little love lost between the dashing light cavalry and the plodding dragoons, though. The hussars liked to sing insulting songs about their dragoon brethren, and the dragoons returned their contempt.
That was how this dispute had started, but now it was beyond mere rivalry. A flaring of tempers, an impromptu duel and a hussar officer dying on the grass. Massei was proud to be chosen to issue the challenge, to seek revenge and a restoration of honor. Proud, anda little nervous, for the man he faced was Jervon Dessartes, a notorious duelist and swordsman.
In his late thirties, Dessartes was a little old for his rank. Barracks rumor had it that he had been broken from squadron commander all the way back to cornet, the lowest commissioned rank in the cavalry. Those in the know--or who claimed to be--spoke of dubious political connections and a habit of insubordination. Dessartes never spoke on the matter, remaining aloof and hostile towards anyone outside a small circle of respected colleagues.
He could not be said to have any friends.
There were few onlookers, for the duel was a private affair. Besides, the commanders of both regiments had forbidden the duel, fearing a regimental feud. Both participants had ignored the injunction.
Each man had two seconds, fellow officers come to support their principal. A surgeon stood nearby, shivering in his long black wool coat. The only other man present was a captain of engineers, who had been prevailed upon to act as President and see fair play. He shook his head wryly, bemused by the pointless belligerence of cavalrymen. He nodded slightly as the duelists saluted him, then spoke words he knew to be pointless, asking that the matter be resolved peaceably. Harsh silence greeted his words.
"Very well, gentlemen. Commence!" the captain said sharply, then withdrew to huddle in his dark blue uniform coat. He stepped carefully around Dessartes' dragoon helmet, its crest of horsehair now wet with dew. The captain knew Dessartes' reputation well. Knew that the man was a fire-eater who would issue a challenge at the merest hint of cause.
A kicked hat was quite sufficient reason for Dessartes to kill a man.
Massei dropped into a classic fencing crouch. He half-extended his long, slightly curved blade in the offensive-defensive mode, took a careful step forward. His opponent, still apparently bored, stood upright with his heavier dragoon saber in the hanging or "coward's" guard.
The hussar moved in, feinting to the head and changing line to slash the wrist exposed by a parry. His blade clanged against Dessartes' handguard instead. The dragoon had the opportunity to return the attack, but did nothing.
Mildly surprised at the lack of retaliation, Massei thrust to throat. His attack was blocked by a solid First Position parry. There was still no riposte, but Massei's cut to the head was effortlessly stopped by a rising blade.
Still Dessartes had not moved his feet nor changed his slightly bored expression. A fast cut to cheek was flicked aside by a slight movement of the dragoon's straighter blade.
Massei stepped back, puzzled at his opponent's defensive stance. Sparing a quick glance at his seconds, he dropped into guard and attacked again, a fast cut-and-thrust at chest drilled into him by the regimental fencing master.
It was a fine combination attack, fast and tricky. Yet Dessartes tapped the cut aside, closed the line with a neat circling motion of the blade, and riposted for the first time, a short cut that sent Massei back a pace. The hussar parried and made a rather unscientific hack at Dessartes' head as he regained his balance. He took another pace back as Dessartes began moving forward with his blade now extended menacingly.
Massei gave ground, sudden cold fear gripping him at his opponent's change in style. The dragoon's bored expression had been replaced by a grim smile, and his heavy blade seemed to float easily in his hand. It lashed out in a barely-deflected cut to flank. The hussar's riposte came in the conventional line--textbook perfect--and was stopped as tidily.
"Too clinical, boy. I've read the Cavalry Manual too," admonished Dessartes, beginning a combination attack.
Massei read the attack and attempted to close the line. His blade met empty air as Dessartes withheld the final cut of the formal combination. Instead he punched the blade forward in a thrust, which speared into Massei's flesh just over the hip bone.
"See? You're fighting from a book. Now yield!" Dessartes snapped, stepping back. Somehow Massei kept his feet, his face pale as his left hand covered the wound, crimson staining the white of his uniform shirt.
"No," he said breathlessly. "Not to you."
Massei lurched into motion, blade swinging in a great arc to clang against Dessartes' hurried parry. A second cut and a third followed, too fast and too hard to allow time for a riposte. The dragoon barely avoided the last by leaping back. His gray eyes shone with an almost joyful intensity as he managed a quick cut, which stained the hussar's sword arm crimson before more huge slashes forced him back several steps.
Massei came on, relentless despite the blood loss that weakened his sword arm every second. He knew that he must keep attacking, must keep Dessartes on the defensive, must ram a killing thrust through before he faltered. He blinked stinging sweat away from his blurred eyes, cutting again and again, stumbling now but still making huge looping cuts that rang and sparked from the dragoon's parries.
Dessartes felt his opponent weakening, felt the blade twist in Massei's weak and blood-soaked hand as it rebounded from his parry. He stepped sharply forward, cutting downward at the hussar's head. Massei flung up his blade, his weak parry bashed aside by Dessartes' cut. The heavy dragoon saber tore across his chest, the nicked edge ripping flesh, steel grating against bone. Massei fell back to the damp grass, his saber dropping from limp fingers. Instantly the hussar's seconds were there, weapons held ready to defend their downed principal if Dessartes turned murderous.
But the dragoon was already walking away, the fight over. There was no joy in killing a man who could not defend himself. Only in the bright moments of combat did Jervon Dessartes truly live, his world focused on a single thought: Kill this man or die.
Dessartes wiped his saber, accepted his dark green jacket from his second and walked slowly to where his helmet lay. Donning it carefully after wiping away the dew, he locked eyes for a second with the engineering captain as the surgeon rushed to Massei's bleeding body. The engineer glared accusingly for a second, then shuddered and turned away. He had expected to see anger, blood lust or perhaps regret in Dessartes' gaze, but there was nothing human there at all. Just the flat stare of an automaton, a man who wanted no part of the world he inhabited. A man who was barely human any more.
Dessartes walked to his horse, mounted and rode off into the morning sunlight. The major would want to know where he had been, and he was not going to be amused when Dessartes told him. Perhaps this time they would dismiss him from the service, or post him to some disease-ridden overseas outpost. Perhaps his career as a soldier of the Republic of Torgin was finally over.
Dessartes didn't care at all.
He rode back to the barracks town of Dysbourg, left his mount with a groom, and made his way to the office of his squadron commander. He paused outside, reading the painted nameplate that hung over the lintel of the door to the office he had once occupied, now the haunt of a toy soldier, a yes-man appointed by the Republic not for his ability but for his loyalty to the new regime. A toady, sycophant, a ... Dessartes curbed his thoughts harshly.
The nameplate read: Major Andre Dessartes, Commanding Officer; Elite Squadron; 17th Dragoons. Dessartes grimaced, knocked once, then strode in.The major was furious. It showed in every line of his rigid posture. He made a show of shuffling papers, keeping Dessartes waiting in front of the wide wooden desk, before resting his elbows on the desk and fixing Dessartes with a baleful glare.
"Lieutenant. I have here a complaint from Colonel Laive of the 11th Hussars. It seems you killed one of his captains yesterday and I hear you have maimed a lieutenant of his already this morning. What was it about this time?"
Dessartes remained at attention, fixing his eyes on a spot on the wall a little above his superior's head. "Sir. I merely observed that the new Council just doesn't have the drive to handle government. Look at these losses in our foreign holdings. Other nations are grabbing anything with our flag on it and nobody seems to care."
"So you disagree with the current government policies. Why kill a man over it?"
Dessartes frowned. 'Disagree' was a mild term for it indeed. "It seems Captain Massei's father was a councilor. He was killed in the coup attempt. Said I was a traitor to the Republic like my father. I told him what I thought of his opinion. His brother officers put him up to fighting over it."
"And you killed him."
"Yes." Dessartes nodded once.
"And the other one?"
"Massei had a brother. He called me out last night--said he wanted revenge or some similar nonsense."
"Will he live?"
"Maybe. I hope so. He fought well, and with courage. Unlike his brother...."
The major paused for a moment, digesting this comment. Then he steeled himself for a distasteful duty, and rapped out, "There is still this complaint: you have killed or incapacitated more officers in the Cavalry Corps than all the border skirmishing this year." He paused to let that sink in, then continued, "I know what they say about Duke Dessartes, and I know what you think about it, but you were broken from major for dueling--and you've had fair warning. I don't want you in the 17th any longer. You will accept reassignment or resign your commission. The papers are here and you leave tomorrow for Port Dorn. Now get out."
Numbly, Dessartes picked up the envelope and saluted his squadron commander. "I accept reassignment. But I will never hear my father--our father--called Traitor for what he did. We both know it was for the best. Sir." He turned quickly and left before his younger brother could answer.
The major listened to his receding footsteps before forcing himself back to today's reports.
"The worst of it is, you're probably right," he whispered.