Sir Apropos of Nothing

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They were dark and stormy knights...and when they had their way with a helpless tavern wench one terrible evening, they had no idea that the result of that twilight brutality was going to come after them years later looking to settle the score...

The "result's" unlikely name is Apropos: A rogue, a rascal, a scoundrel, a cheat...and those are his good points. Lame of leg but fast of wit, the only reason Apropos doesn't consider chivalry dead is because he's not yet through with ...

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New York, NY 2010 Trade paperback Fair. A readable copy of the book which may include some defects such as highlighting and notes. Cover and pages may be creased and show ... discolouration. Trade paperback (US). Glued binding. 672 p. *****PLEASE NOTE: This item is shipping from an authorized seller in Europe. In the event that a return is necessary, you will be able to return your item within the US. To learn more about our European sellers and policies see the BookQuest FAQ section***** Read more Show Less

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Overview

They were dark and stormy knights...and when they had their way with a helpless tavern wench one terrible evening, they had no idea that the result of that twilight brutality was going to come after them years later looking to settle the score...

The "result's" unlikely name is Apropos: A rogue, a rascal, a scoundrel, a cheat...and those are his good points. Lame of leg but fast of wit, the only reason Apropos doesn't consider chivalry dead is because he's not yet through with it. Herewith, Sir Apropos of Nothing -- his story in the words of the knave himself.

Apropos, all too aware of his violent and unseemly beginnings, travels to the court of the good King Runcible, with three goals in mind: to find his father, seek retribution, and line his own pockets. However, Apropos carries the most troublesome burden a would-be harbinger of chaos can bear: He may well be a hero foretold, a young man of destiny. It is not a notion that Apropos finds palatable, having very low regard for such notions as honor, selflessness, or risking one's neck. Yet when Apropos finds himself assigned as squire to the most senile knight in the court -- Sir Umbrage of the Flaming Nether Regions, whose squires tend to have a rather short life span -- Apropos is forced to rise to the occasion lest he be dragged under -- permanently.

His difficulties are compounded when a routine mission to escort the King's daughter home after a long absence goes horribly awry. Suddenly Apropos finds himself saddled with trying to survive while dealing with a berserk phoenix, murderous unicorns, mutated harpies, homicidal warrior kings, and -- most problematic of all -- a princess who may or may not be a psychotic arsonist.

Featuring a hero cut from cloth similar to that of such entertaining blackguards as Blackadder and Flashman, Sir Apropos of Nothing is a skewed version of classic, mythic adventure that is by turns hilarious and frightening, slapstick and serious, and filled with drop-dead laughs and drop-dead people.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
Heroes always accomplish great undoable deeds, triumph over evil and live happily ever after. Right?

Since birth, Apropos' mother thought he was a hero -- despite his twisted leg and homely looks. But Apropos knows the truth -- that he is just a clumsy, selfish coward who does dumb things and is lucky enough to escape harm by lying. The real hero is his brave best friend. Apropos is just a footnote -- a footnote who ain't gonna take it no more.

I loved this book. Apropos is a charming, clever schemer whose self-serving decisions bring him credit for great deeds. When he starts to believe his press releases, he gets hit in the face with the short end of the stick.

This book kept me guessing. I loved each of Peter David's surprising twists. It was easy to read, fast-moving and very funny. Great for fans of Piers Anthony, Robert Aspirin and Terry Brooks -- and for everyone who hates being a comic footnote! (Libby Romfh)

Library Journal
Born to a prostitute and raised to live by his wits, the thief and scoundrel called Apropos undergoes a change of heart when he becomes the unwilling guardian of a rebellious princess. The author of Q-in-Law, Imzada, and other Star Trek novels, David tries his hand at fantasy adventure as he tells the tale of a man who rises from a life of crime to a career as a hero. Arch humor and fast-paced action make this a suitable choice for large fantasy collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 3/15/00.] Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Many know Davis from his bestselling Star Trek novels. Released from that format, he becomes a darkly amusing fantasist. The opening here echoes the oversexed court-jester scene in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask), with stableboy Apropos being found in Lady Granitz's chamber by her husband, Sir Granitz, King Runcible's most bloodthirsty knight, who accidentally impales himself on his own sword while trying to slay Apropos. Apropos and Lady Granitz invent a tale that they were trying to keep Granitz from suicide. So Runcible, perhaps seeing Apropos as a marvelous patsy who may actually succeed, has the Queen send him out on a mission. Then we learn of Apropos' penniless mother who, lost once in the woods, saw a phoenix burn to ash and rise again in flame. When she's raped by six knights, the child born to her has flaming red hair, a phoenix flame on his thigh, a misshapen right leg, and teeth. Covered with birth blood, he bites a boorish tavernkeeper and is named Apropos because he's a child of violence born with teeth. His mother raises him on a whore's earnings, and he's taught to steal by Tacit, a magical youth raised by unicorns, with whom he saves beautiful Sharee the weaver from a mob. When Apropos' mother is murdered and robbed, he goes to Runcible for justice. Instead, he's made squire to creaky old Sir Umbrage, who must accompany Apropos on a mission to pick up the fiery young Princess Entipy from the Faith Women's Retreat and on the way back educate her. Or they could go to the Screaming Gorge of Eternal Madness and-would they rather make that quest? What can it mean when Apropos at last finds a phoenix birthmark just like his on Entipy'sbare hip? And what do the unicorns know that he doesn't? Has he, in fact, gotten his own sister pregnant? Steady fun, yes, but rather YA.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781451623284
  • Publisher: Gallery Books
  • Publication date: 10/15/2010
  • Pages: 672
  • Product dimensions: 1.48 (w) x 5.00 (h) x 8.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Peter David is a prolific New York Times bestselling author whose career, and continued popularity, spans more than two decades. He has worked in every conceivable media—television, film, books (fiction, nonfiction, and audio), short stories, and comic books—and acquired loyal followings in all of them. In the literary field, he has had more than a hundred novels published. He lives in New York with his wife and four children.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

As I stood there with the sword in my hand, the blade dripping blood on the floor, I couldn't help but wonder if the blood belonged to my father.

The entire thing had happened so quickly that I wasn't quite sure how to react. Part of me wanted to laugh, but most of me fairly cringed at what had just occurred. I didn't do particularly well with blood. This tended to be something of a hardship for one endeavoring to become a knight, dedicated to serving good King Runcible of Isteria, a ruler who more often than not had his heart in the right place.

The recently slain knight also had his heart in the right place. This had turned out to be something of an inconvenience for him. After all, if his heart had been in the wrong place, then the sword wouldn't have pierced it through, he wouldn't be dead, and I wouldn't have been in such a fix.

I stood there stupidly in the middle of Granitz's chambers. Like much of the rest of the castle, it was somewhat chilly...all the more so because I was only partly dressed and the sweat on my bare skin was feeling unconscionably clammy. There were long, elegant candles illuminating the room, giving it a rosy glow, since thick drapes had been drawn over the large windows to keep out both daylight and prying eyes. From nearby on the large and damaged four-poster bed, my lover -- and the knight's wife (well, widow) -- was letting out short gasps, trying to pull air into her lungs and only marginally succeeding. The tiled floor seemed to tilt under me for a moment, and I steadied myself as my mind raced, trying to determine what the hell I was going to do next.

The knight's name had been Sir Granitz of the Ebony Swamps, although he was generally referred to as "Sir Granite." The nickname had been well earned, for on the battlefield he had been indeed a sight to see. I had seen it myself, many a time...from a safe distance, of course, since my mother, God bless her, had not raised an idiot for a son. Understand: I did not, nor have I ever, shrunk from a fight when it was absolutely necessary. However, my definition of "absolutely necessary" wasn't precisely in keeping with that of everyone else in my immediate sphere.

For people like Granite, "absolutely necessary" included times of war, matters of honor, and similar esoterica. For me, the term "absolutely necessary" meant "self-defense." I considered war to be an utter waste of my time and energy, since most wars involved people I did not know arguing over matters I did not care about in pursuit of goals that would not have any direct impact upon me. As for honor, that was an ephemeral consideration. Honor did not feed, clothe, or protect me, and seemed to exist primarily to get otherwise inoffensive creatures into a world of trouble.

"Self-defense," however, was a consideration that I could easily comprehend. Whether it be an envious knight attacking me on horseback, an enraged dragon belching plumes of flame, or a squadron of berserker trolls swarming over the ramparts of a castle, those were instances where my own neck was at stake and I would happily hack and slash as the situation required so that I might live to see another sunrise.

I liked sunrises. They made anything seem possible.

Now, Granite...he was the type who would fight anywhere, anytime, at the least provocation. That is precisely the kind of attitude that gets one killed at a young age if one is not a formidable fighter. To his credit, that certainly described Granite. Well over six feet tall and built like a brick outhouse, he often found it necessary to enter a room sideways, his shoulders being too broad to be accommodated by a standard doorframe.

Sir Granite had returned most unexpectedly, at a moment that could best be described as inopportune. For at that particular point in time, I had been in the middle of opportuning myself of his wife.

As burly, as brusque, as fearsome as Granite had been, the Lady Rosalie had been the opposite. Delicate and pale, Rosalie had cast an eye that clearly fancied me in my direction. Considering that, at the time she did it, I was mucking out the stables and up to my elbows in horse manure, she clearly saw something within me not readily apparent from my surface appearance. She and old Granite had just come in from a ride; he perched upon his white charger, and she riding daintily sideways on a brown mare. She winked at me and I hurriedly wiped my hands on the nearest cloth, aware of the disheveled and frankly tatty sight I must have presented. The Lady Rosalie chose that moment to try and dismount. But her foot snagged on the stirrup and she tumbled forward, only my quick intervention preventing her from hitting the straw-covered floor. I caught her, amazed by how light she was. I'd bounced soap bubbles off my fingertips that had more substance.

For the briefest of moments, Rosalie insinuated her body against mine, mashing her breasts against my stained tunic. They were round and felt surprisingly firm beneath her riding clothes. It was not the fall that had carried her against me in that manner; she had done it deliberately with a subtle arching of her back that only I detected. Then, after the ever-so-brief gesture, she stepped back and put her hand to her throat in a fluttery manner. "Thank you, squire," she said, her voice having a most alluring musical lilt.

"Not...a problem, milady," I replied.

Old Granite did not seem to be the least bit supportive of my chivalric endeavors. His thick red mustache bristled and he said contemptuously, "I give you lesson after lesson, Rosalie, and still you can't so much as get off the damned horse. You shouldn't have caught her, squire. A far greater favor you'd have done her if you'd let her fall flat on her ass. It's the only way she's going to learn anything about successful mounting."

"Well...one of two ways," I said in a low voice, just enough for her to hear. Her cheeks colored, but not in embarrassment because she put a hand to her mouth to stifle what clearly sounded like a giggle. I grinned at her. She did not return the smile with her mouth, but it was clearly reciprocated in her eyes.

Granite smoothly jumped off his horse and thudded to the ground like a boulder. "Come, madam," he said, sticking out an elbow in a manner intended to be gallant but that instead simply appeared stiff and uncomfortable. This was not a man who was accustomed to the slightest gesture of gentility. She took his elbow and walked out with him, but glanced back at me just before they left.

From that moment, it was simply a matter of time.

I knew all about Granite. He was typical of Runcible's knights, spouting words of chivalry and justice, but doing whatever he desired behind the king's back. He made polite and politic noises to the king, but he could be as much of a brute as any common highwayman or any member of the Thugs' Guild, and he also had a string of mistresses in various towns and villages. He frequented the whores' tent, which was usually set up at the outskirts of an encampment during a campaign. More than one tart had supposedly come away from the amorous encounter with bruises to show for it when Granite was impatient with his own...performance. The mighty knight, you see, had a bit more trouble wielding his sword off the battlefield than on, if you catch my drift, and that difficulty translated to welts for those who couldn't easily overcome his problems.

I, however, had no such difficulties.

The Lady Rosalie, "heeding" her husband's suggestions to improve her riding abilities, took to the stables more and more frequently to get in practice time. Well...allegedly, that was the reason. But an intended hour of riding would end up an hour of conversing with me as I groomed and tended to the horses while she laughed and giggled and watched me perform my duties with a sort of doe-eyed fascination. I knew exactly where matters were taking us, and did absolutely nothing to deter them in their course.

One day she asked me to accompany her on a jaunt, since her husband had gone to deal with a minor uprising in the nearby city of Pell, and she was concerned lest bandits be wandering the roads. This, of course, wasn't her major concern. We rode several miles away from the good king's stables, chatting about trivialities, nonsense, and just about everything except for what really occupied our thoughts. By the lakeside, on a cool morning, nature took its course.

Let us just say that she did not ride exclusively sidesaddle.

I'm sure that I provided little more than an amusement to her, a dalliance. The obvious conclusion was that she was using me to get back at her husband, to make him jealous. But I doubt that was the case, because siccing the green-eyed monster upon Granite could only have fatal consequences. Rosalie may not have been the most polished apple to fall off the tree, but she was most definitely not suicidal. Maintaining a shroud of secrecy over our relationship heightened the likelihood of her keeping her pretty head on her shoulders. Besides, when you get down to it, isn't it the very illicitness of an affair, the forbidden nature of it, which makes it so exciting? Even pedestrian sex can be elevated to new heights when one isn't supposed to be having it.

That was probably what kept it going. Old Granite had made very clear to all and sundry that he thought very little of his wife's mental prowess. He considered her something of a twit. But twit or not, she ably concealed the existence of her tawdry little escapades (and I say that with only the fondest of recollections and greatest esteem) from this great warrior who thought himself one of the most canny and discerning of men.

Consequently, when it all came crashing down, it landed with a most pronounced thud.

The Pell situation, which started as something rather inconsequential, began to spiral out of control. Granite made a tactical error, you see. There had been a hard core of individuals utterly opposed to pouring more tax money into the king's coffers. I couldn't blame them, really. Most of the money paid in taxes didn't go into providing resources for public works, but instead either lined the pockets of key knights, or served to fund foreign wars that most of the peasants never heard of and didn't care about.

The hard core of individuals were endeavoring to organize protests, even stonewall against further taxes. The other peasants were reluctant to join with them. This came as no surprise to me. Being a peasant, I know the mind-set. One becomes so used to being downtrodden that one starts to believe that it's nature's intent that one should inhabit a low rung in society. Lack of movement is a formidable force to overcome.

The rabble-rousers called themselves the Freedom Brigade and set themselves up as enemies of the king and his policies. But they weren't enemies, really. An enemy is someone who has the capability to do you genuine harm. Calling this lot enemies was like referring to head lice as criminal masterminds. They had the ability to irritate, but they were no threat. Only one of the "Brigadiers" had any knack for rabble-rousing at all. I knew him from the old days. His name was Tacit, he was damned good-looking, and the women tended to swoon when they saw him coming. But swoon-inducers aren't necessarily great leaders of men, because men tend to mistrust other men who are that handsome. They start thinking that there's some other agenda in force, such as seeking out leadership just to get the attention and favors of the women, and perhaps they're not wrong to believe that.

Besides, Tacit wasn't the leader of the Brigadiers anyway. I don't even recall the name of the leader offhand; that's how forgettable he was. He was simply stolid and determined to change things, and wasn't particularly good at making that happen.

The truth was, the Brigadiers really just wanted to be in the favorable position enjoyed by those they were opposing, which is usually the case of protesters. If Granite had given them just a taste of the good life, the Freedom Brigade would have melted like a virgin's protests on her wedding night. One of the best ways to dispose of enemies -- even perceived ones such as the Brigadiers -- is to make them over into allies and friends. When someone is not truly in a position to hurt you, that is the time to approach him or her with an air of camaraderie. Respect. Bribery. The Freedom Brigade could easily have been bought off. Hell, I suspect they could have been retooled into a formidable squad of tax collectors that would have put the king's own men to shame.

But not old Granite, oh no.

For Granite was a fighting man, you see. Put him on a field with a sword and buckler, give him a squadron behind him, point him in a direction -- any direction -- and say, "Kill," and watch him go at it. As a slaughtering machine, he was a thing of beauty. There was a tendency to elevate him in positions of importance and rank as a consequence. It's understandable, I suppose. Put yourself in the place of the king. You come riding up to a field after the battle is done, there are bodies strewn all over the place like clothes at a brothel, and there's one man standing there, wavering slightly, wearing tattered armor, copious amounts of blood (none of it his), and a somewhat demented smile. You would tend to think that this fellow knows what he's about. Such was the case with Granite.

Unfortunately, what the king did not realize is that just because one was skilled at one means of controlling an uprising -- namely by whacking it until all of its internal organs are on the landscape -- did not automatically translate into any sort of aptitude for handling other situations.

When Runcible learned of the situation in Pell, he sent Granite, convinced that he was dispatching one of his best men to attend to it. Were Pell in the midst of full-scale riot, Granite might indeed have been just the fellow for it. But matters were still controllable. Why wade in with a broadsword when a whispering dagger would do the job?

Well, Granite used a broadsword and a half. He and his men rode in like the great damned king's own Ninth Army, stampeded through Pell, rounded up a dozen townspeople at random and threatened them with beheading if they didn't produce the names of the Freedom Brigadiers. The citizenry, who were upset about their taxes but not that upset, coughed up the identities like phlegm. Better to live poor than die with a few extra coins in your pocket.

Granite then rounded up the Freedom Brigade. What a great bloody row. The noise, the screaming...it was horrific. They captured almost all of them, and -- truth to tell -- the Brigadiers didn't exactly conduct themselves as heroes. Playing at being freedom fighters, criticizing the king from a distance, declaring that taxes would not be forthcoming and that the king should take his best shot at collecting them -- these are all well and good in the abstract. Faced with a sword to your throat, however, your priorities tend to shift. Rhetoric takes a second chair to saving your own skin. My understanding is that they begged, pleaded for their lives. They wept, they entreated, they soiled their breeches...in short, they made godawful fools of themselves.

Once again, Granite could have gotten out of the entire Pell mess with a minimum of fuss and muss. Not old blockhead, no. The unmanly wailing of the Brigadiers offended Granite's sensibilities. He felt that his valuable time had been wasted rounding up such clearly unworthy foes. This set his anger all a-bubbling, and he needed an outlet for his rage. As it turned out, the only available target was the Brigadiers.

So he put the stupid bastards to the sword, every one of them. Every one except Tacit. Tacit had not been captured with the rest. They tried to take him, to be sure. But when Granite made his sweep, which dragged in the rest, Tacit had managed to fight his way through it, battling with the ferocity of a manticore when faced with death. His freedom had not come without a price. He lost half an ear and his right eye, poor bastard. He took refuge in the Elderwoods, his old stomping grounds, which he and I frequented as children. Once he'd reached there, he was a phantom. There he healed, and eventually returned to Pell with an eyepatch and a new and deadly resolve. Tossed capriciously in the crucible, he'd come through it forged into a cold and formidable enemy.

He rallied the people of Pell in a way that no others of the Brigade had managed, and he turned the entire town into an army. Every man, woman, and child rallied behind him, refusing to pay taxes and demanding the head and private parts of Granite.

Granite obliged. He brought his head, his private parts, and his sword arm -- all still connected to the rest of his sculpted body -- and he also brought along armored troops. They laid siege to the town, and within hours all of Pell was aflame and easily sixty percent of the populace was dead, and another twenty percent or so was dying.

Naturally this resulted in an eighty percent drop in taxes from Pell, which was what all of the to-do was about in the first place. Granite, however, had lost sight of that.

King Runcible had not.

He didn't get truly angry -- he rarely did. But he informed Granite that he was not happy, no, not happy at all with the situation. Granite hemmed, hawed, made apologies, and tried to defend the extreme actions he had taken. "We shall have to think on this," Runcible said finally, which is what he always said when faced with something unpleasant. He then ordered Granite to patrol the outer borders of the kingdom.

I was present when the order was given, standing discreetly behind Sir Umbrage of the Flaming Nether Regions, the elderly knight whom it was my "fortune" to be squiring at the time. It was easy to remain out of sight behind Umbrage. He was such an uninteresting bastard that no one glanced in his direction. He would just stand there, long, skinny, white-haired, and jowly beneath his scraggly beard, leaning on his sword and nodding as if he were paying attention to what was going on.

Granite bowed, nodded, and left immediately.

I, opportunistic little creep that I was, saw my chance to have yet another toss with the Lady Rosalie. I waited until I saw Granite ride away on that great charger of his, and then went straight to the chambers that he shared with his lady.

Rosalie, bless her heart, read my mind. She was lying there, naked and waiting. And she was holding her crystal ball.

Now, Rosalie had no knack for fortune-telling, but she fancied that she did. She obtained the large crystal from a woman purporting to be an oracle, and she would stare into the crystal ball for hours on end, trying to discern her future. Every so often she would make thoughtful pronouncements in a voice that I think she thought was great and profound. In point of fact, it just sounded like Rosalie talking oddly. I never paid any mind to it. It seemed a harmless enough diversion.

"Did you see me coming in that?" I asked teasingly.

She smiled in that odd way that she had, that made the edges of her eyes all crinkly. "In a manner of speaking," she said, and laid the crystal ball on the floor.

My tunic was off and my leggings were just descending below my knees when the door burst open. There was Granite, looking considerably larger than he had when he'd been riding off into the distance minutes before.

I caught only the briefest of glimpses, though, because the moment the door opened, I had already rolled off the bed, landing on the far side, out of view. I may not have had a good deal going for me, but my reactions had always been formidably quick. Long practice, I suppose in keeping one eye behind me at all times. I lay paralyzed on the floor. The door slamming back against the wall had covered the noise of my thudding to the ground, but I was concerned that any further movement on my part might attract his attention. Granite was a formidable warrior with a sense of hearing only marginally less sharp than his blade. I held my breath so that he didn't hear it rasping against my chest, but I was positive that he could nonetheless detect my heart slamming in my rib cage. In any event, I certainly didn't want to risk making scrabbling noises against the floor. That would tip him for sure.

Rosalie was not the brightest of things, but barely controlled panic gave wings to her moderately capable brain. Upon the door slamming open, she had automatically clutched the sheet under her chin, covering herself. "Milord!" she burst out. She certainly did not need to feign her surprise. "I...I..."

I practically heard the scowl in his voice. "What are you about?" he demanded.

"I...I..."

"Well?!"

She suddenly tossed the sheet aside, wisely letting it tumble atop me to further hide me, although -- truth be told -- I'm not entirely certain how effective a disguise it would have been, since piles of laundry do not generally tend to quiver in fear. "I was...waiting for you, milord!" she said, throwing her arms wide and no doubt looking rather enticing in her utter nudity. "Take me!"

I still held my breath, which, actually, was no great trick, because my chest was so constricted I couldn't exhale if I'd wanted to. My heart had also stopped beating, and I was fairly sure my brain was in the process of shutting down. I was hoping, praying that Granite would go for the bait. If he did, and she distracted him sufficiently, I could creep out on hands and knees while they were going at it.

"Take you where?" demanded Granite, never one to pick up on a cue.

"Here! Now!"

He had to go for it. How could he resist? Certainly I couldn't have. Then again, I wasn't a knight, at least not yet. Knights were apparently made of sterner stuff. Either that or Granite was just too block-stupid to be distracted from something confusing to him. Apparently he'd gotten a thought into his head, and the damned thing wouldn't be easily dislodged, probably because it was fairly quiet in his brain otherwise and the thought enjoyed the solitude.

"How could you have been expecting me when I didn't know I was coming back?" demanded Granite.

"I..." I heard her lick her lips, which were probably bone dry by that point. "I...anticipated...or hoped, at least...that you would return to service me once more before you left."

"I didn't. I came back to get my lucky dagger. I forgot it."

"Oh."

If Rosalie had just let that harmless little "Oh" sit there, we might well have avoided discovery. He was, after all, perfectly willing to accept that she was a nitwit. Unfortunately, because a silence ensued, Rosalie felt the need to fill it with words. "Yes. I...saw it over there on the wall and knew you'd be back."

Granite, unfortunately for us, was able to track the conversation. "You just said that you were hoping I'd return to service you. Now you say you knew I'd be back for the dagger."

"Yes, I...that is to say...I...that..."

There was another dead silence, and I could only imagine the blood draining from her face as her poor brain twisted itself about in confusion. I heard the door bang suddenly and prayed that he had simply exited with no further words...but that hope was short-lived as I heard the bolt slam into place.

Granite was no idiot. I had to give him that much. "What," I heard him rumble, "is going on?"

I thought furiously at her, as if I could project words into her brain in hopes that they would spill out of her mouth. I am ...tongue-tied by your presence, milord...I would say anything just in hopes of saying something you want to hear, milord...I hoped that, in your returning for your dagger, you would savage me like a wild animal, milord...

Something. Anything.

"Don't..." There was a choked sob. "Don't hurt him, milord...."

Anything but that.

I heard a roar then. I think the word "What?!" was in there somewhere, but it was like trying to sort out one particular scream from the howling of a hurricane. There was a quick sound of steps coming around the bed, and suddenly the sheet was yanked off me. My bare ass was still hanging out as I squinted up at Granite.

He wasn't moving. He trembled in place, seized with such fury that he could not yet budge.

I rolled to my feet, yanking my breeches up as I went. The bed was a huge four-poster affair, and I leaned against one of the thick oak bedposts, trying to compensate for my fairly useless right leg. I must have been quite the sight at that moment. At that age, I was thin and gawky. My arms were well muscled from years of hauling myself around while compensating for the lameness of my leg. My ears stuck out too much, and I didn't have normal hair so much as a thick, wild mane of red that proved annoyingly difficult to brush or style. My nose was crooked from the times in the past that it'd been broken. My best feature remained my eyes, which were a superb shade of gray, providing me with a grim and thoughtful look whenever I put my mind to it. However, I suspect at that point that he wasn't exactly concerned with admiring my orbs.

We stood there, frozen in time for half an ice age it seemed. I don't even think he quite focused on me at first, as if his brain was so overheated that he needed time to fully process the information. "I...know you!" he said at last. "You're Umbrage's squire! You clean out stables! You're Appletoe!"

"Apropos," I corrected him, and then mentally kicked myself. As if I wasn't in enough of a fix, I had to go and remind him of my name. Why didn't I just stick my neck out and offer to hack it through for him?

Then I realized he wasn't waiting for an invitation, as I heard the sword being drawn before I actually saw it. I took a step back, making sure to play up my limp so that I could seem as pathetic as possible.

His eyes were fixed on me, but he was clearly addressing his nude wife. "A squire? You cuckold me...for a squire? For a shoveler of horse manure? For this you shame me?!"

Rosalie was not going to be of any help. Her mouth was moving, but no sounds were coming out.

There was no point denying the actual cuckolding. I can be a dazzling liar given the right circumstances, but these were certainly not they. So I felt my only hope was to try and address the other side of the equation. "Now...now t...t...technically, mi...milord," I stammered out, "there's been no, uh, actual shaming, as it were. No one knows. You, Rosalie, me...that is all. And if we can agree to, uh...keep this among ourselves, then perhaps we can just, well...forget this all happened, sweep it under the carpet until...until..."

I was going to say, "Until we're all dead and gone." Unfortunately, at that moment Rosalie found her voice.

"Until you leave again," she suggested.

He swung his sword around and bellowed like a wounded boar. I tried to back up. Not only did my limp impede me, but also my feet became tangled in the sheets and I tumbled to the floor. Rosalie let out a shriek.

I considered telling him at that point that he might or might not be my father, but that statement -- albeit true enough -- seemed to smack so much of a desperation move that I figured it would be perceived as a ploy. So I chose to appeal to the one thing which might serve as his weak spot.

"Where's the honor in this?!" I shouted.

He was standing directly over me, his sword drawn back and over his head, ready to bring it slamming down like a butcher slaughtering a bull. This was no ordinary sword, it should be noted. The damned thing had teeth: jagged edges running down either side, particularly useful for ripping and tearing. It was also formidable for a good old-fashioned slicing. If the blow had landed, it would have cleaved me from crotch to sternum. But he froze, his mustache bristling as if acquiring a life all its own. I thought for a moment that it was going to rip itself off his lip and come at me. "Honor?" he growled. "You have my wife...and speak to me of your honor?"

"Your honor, milord, not mine...I...I am nothing." I spoke as quickly as I could. "I am nothing, no one...but that, you see...that's the point..."

"What is?" The sword, which had a far more formidable point than any points in my repertoire, hadn't moved from its rather threatening position above me.

"Well, milord, obviously...when my corpse turns up, and you, as a man of honor, why, you'll have to own up to your slaying of me... and explain why..."

"I have no intention of hiding it," he snarled. "Not a man in the court will deny my right as a husband!"

"No question." I felt the longer I kept it going, the more chance I had of talking him out of what was clearly his intended course. "But look at the slaughter situation."

"The... what?" The snarl had slightly vanished; he seemed a bit bemused.

"Look at you...full in your leathers, your sword in hand, rippling with power...and here I am, half-naked, on my back, unarmed...well, honestly!" I continued, as if scolding a recalcitrant child. I couldn't believe the tone of voice I was adopting. One would have thought that, in some fashion, I possessed the upper hand. "And a lowly, untitled squire with no land or privilege at that. Where is the challenge in skewering me? Where is the redemption of honor? A stain on your status as husband and man requires something more than mere butchery."

I would have felt just a bit better if the sword had wavered by so much as a centimeter. It did not. But neither did it come slamming down. "What," he asked, "did you have in mind?"

"A duel," I said quickly, not believing that I had managed to get it that far. "Tomorrow...you and me, facing off against one another in the proper manner. Oh, the outcome is foregone, I assure you. I'm but a squire, and lame of leg at that. You're...well...you're you..."

"That is very true," he said thoughtfully.

"Certainly you'll massacre me. But if we do it in the manner that I suggest, no one can look at you askance and say, 'So...you carved a helpless knave. Where is the challenge in that?'" I paused and then added boldly, "I'm right, milord. You know I am. A husband's honor restored. A philanderer put to rights in a way that no one can question. It is the thing to do."

I had him then. I knew that I did. I glanced at Rosalie, praying that she would keep her mouth shut and say nothing to spoil the moment. Thank the gods, her lips were tightly sealed.

In point of fact, I had no intention of battling Granite on the field of honor. The man could break a griffin in half. I wouldn't have had a chance against him; he would have driven my head so far down into my body that I would have been able to lace my boots with my teeth. Fighting him man to man would be suicide.

I intended to use the night between now and tomorrow to bundle together everything that I owned in the world -- which was, admittedly, not much. Then, under cover of darkness, I would slip away. There was a wide world out there beyond the kingdom of Isteria, and I couldn't help but feel that there had to be sufficient room in it for Apropos. Granted, my flight would be an irretrievable besmirching of my honor. To hell with that. Honor did not pay bills, nor keep one warm at night. Apropos would disappear; I would take up a new identity. It wasn't as if the one that I had was all that wonderful anyway. Start a new life, learn a trade, perhaps become a knight eventually somewhere else. Who knew? Perhaps, at some point in the future, Granite and I would meet on the battlefield. We would face each other, glowering...and then, with any luck, I'd shoot him with an arrow from a safe distance.

All this occurred to me in a moment's time.

And then Granite said, "I don't care."

That was all the warning I had before the sword swung down toward me.

Fortunately it was warning enough as I rolled out of the way. The sword came down with such force that it clanged into the floor and bit right into the paving with that jagged edge.

Rosalie shrieked. So did I. Even as I did so, however, I lurched to my feet, pushing up with my good leg. I was still clutching the sheet in my hand, and I threw it over his head to obscure his vision. At that moment Granite struggled with his sword, trying to extricate it from its state of being temporarily immobilized, and he sent up a caterwauling that was a fearsome thing to hear. So infuriated was he that he had practically lost capacity for speech, instead generating a sort of inarticulate grunting.

Picking a general area of the sheet that seemed to represent his head, I drew back a fist and struck as hard as I could. My upper-arm strength, as noted, is somewhat formidable. I hit him on what felt like the side of his head, probably causing a profound ringing in his ears. But by that time he had a firmer grip on his sword, and he ripped it from the floor and swung it about so that it shredded the sheet, which fell to ribbons around him.

Rosalie was shrieking his name, trying to get his attention. That probably wasn't the wisest course. He seemed ready to decapitate her as soon as look at her, but at the moment he appeared more interested in getting to me. He swung again, cleaving straight down once more. Apparently he didn't have an abundance of moves, but the few he did have were devastating if they happened to connect. I lunged onto the bed, barely avoiding the sweep. Rosalie adroitly vaulted over me as I rolled toward the other side, landing on my feet but not smoothly, and stumbling back.

He came after me, his eyes wild, his face turning as red as my hair. He didn't seem in the mood to reason.

I heard a pounding at the door. The sounds of commotion had started to attract attention. The door, however, was bolted. People were calling Granite's name, asking if anything was wrong. Granite didn't bother to respond. I made a motion toward the doorway, and he leaped to intercept. He moved with the speed of a damned unicorn, cutting off my possible escape route. A sneer of contempt was curling his upper lip.

I backpedaled, headed back toward the bed. Symbolic that it should begin and end there. Rosalie had wisely vacated the bed by that point, grabbing a dressing gown from her wardrobe and tossing it over her nakedness. "Milord, stop! Stop!" she said over and over. He seemed disinclined to attend to her wishes, however.

He swung at me and I ducked again, and he hacked right through one of the bedposts. It fell into my hand, a length of wood about three feet. It was better than nothing, although not much. I gripped it firmly, waited for his next pass. It wasn't long in coming. I couldn't let it come into direct contact, because he'd just chop right through the wood as he had done a second ago. I stepped back, angling the wood, and managed to deflect the flat of his blade, preserving my makeshift cudgel for perhaps another second or so.

Granite repositioned himself, the better to get some swinging room so that he could properly bisect me. The hammering at the door became louder. Apparently others in the castle were being drawn by the sounds of...of whatever it was they thought they were hearing. Granite still hadn't said anything particularly useful, seized as he was in voiceless paroxysms of fury.

He took a step back, and for a moment I thought my salvation was upon me, for he stepped on the crystal ball that Rosalie had placed so delicately upon the floor. The large crystal rolled under his foot, causing Granite to stumble. I tensed, waiting. If he went down, I might have a chance to run madly for the door. I don't know how likely escape would have been in that situation; there were apparently knights crowding in on the other side, and the moment that Granite managed to find his voice, they might very well seize me bodily and hold me still so that Granite could finish the job. But I was dealing with one crisis at a time.

He went to one knee, but it was the most fleeting of pauses. Then he was on his feet once more, holding the crystal ball and glowering at it as if the thing had been sentient and tried to trip him out of spite. I made a desperate bolt for the door, but only got a short distance when he froze me with a glance. I stood paralyzed some feet away, my body sideways to him with my lame right leg facing him.

The perpetually screaming Rosalie made a grab for him from the back. He shoved her away without even looking at her, cocked his arm, and let fly with the crystal ball. It hurtled toward me at roughly chest-high level. From the size of the thing and the speed with which it was moving, it would easily have broken any bone with which it came into contact.

My next action was entirely instinctive. With my right leg useless, I pushed off with my left, driving my body weight forward. As I did so, I swung the cudgel, keeping my eye on the crystal ball.

I was nothing but fortunate that Granite had thrown the crystal ball fast and hard. If he had put any sort of spin onto the thing, causing it to move in, say, a curve, I never would have hit it. As it was, it was nothing short of miraculous that I made contact at all.

When the cudgel struck it, I felt a shudder that ran all the way down to my elbows. The cudgel shattered when it hit the crystal ball, and the sphere rocketed right back at Granite. It struck him soundly in the forehead and bridge of the nose, before falling to the floor and rolling serenely away. I'm not sure what that damned thing was made of, but Rosalie had certainly gotten her money's worth. It seemed indestructible.

Granite stood there with an utterly stunned expression. His eyes crossed, his hands went slack...

...and his sword clattered to the ground.

"Sir Granite!" The shouting increased from the other side of the door. There was now concerted pounding against it. Perhaps those on the other side had become even more alarmed at the sudden cessation of noise.

I threw myself across the floor, skidding on my stomach, and grabbed the fallen pigsticker. If I could keep the bastard at swordpoint, I might just be able to reason with him somehow. I angled the sword upward, and was about to issue a warning to him to stay right where he was. I then realized just how profound an effect the crystal ball had had upon Granite, for the knight chose that moment to fall forward like a great tree.

Naturally he fell on the sword.

Rosalie emitted a shriek, as her husband's fine, teeth-bladed weapon suddenly appeared protruding from his back. Granite, for his own part, hadn't said anything especially useful in the past few minutes, and his record didn't change. He gave off a confused-sounding grunt. He slid down the length of his blade without having any true awareness that he had just managed to kill himself. There seemed to be a sort of blubbery surprise in his face. Having slightly broken his fall by catching himself on his elbows, he saw that I was clutching the sword's hilt. He batted me away, as if annoyed that I was handling his beloved weapon. He clutched the hilt himself then, pulled slightly, and it was at that point that he truly understood, I think, that his entire upper torso was serving as the blade's new scabbard. He managed to spit out a profanity, which is not the most noble of last words, but probably among the more common, and then he slumped over, unmoving.

f0 There was now a repeated thud against the chamber door. Several of the knights were obviously putting their shoulders into it in an organized fashion.
"This is not going to look good," I observed. Considering the circumstances, I sounded remarkably sanguine. The truth was that I was terrified, and it was all I could do not to vomit.

Rosalie made small whimpering noises, not appearing to be of much help. I was going to have to do the thinking for both of us. Unfortunately, my brain somewhat locked up at that moment, but I forced it to unfreeze as I whispered sharply, "My tunic! Quick!" Rosalie grabbed my fallen clothing and tossed it to me. I threw it on so that I would have the appearance, at least, of propriety.
"Hide! Hide!" she urged.

"No time! Just yell what I'm yelling, and do it as loudly as you can!"

"But they'll hear you!"

"That's the point!" And without further explanation, I began bellowing, "Don't do it, milord! You have so much to live for!" Bless the old fool, he'd had the grace to die with his cold, dead fingers wrapped firmly around the hilt. All the more convincing for my needs as I wrapped my own fingers around his dead ones (a nauseating sensation, that) and kept calling out, "Please don't! Don't do it! They're not worth it! We need you! This isn't the way!"

Rosalie appeared clueless as to what I was about, but she went along with it. At first she spoke with clear hesitation and uncertainty, but within moments she yowled as well, "No, my darling! Don't do it! Listen to Apropos! Don't do it!" Obviously she wasn't quite clear on what it was he wasn't supposed to do, but that didn't stop her from participating with considerable gusto.

At that point, the door cracked open, the bolt shooting across the room and ricocheting off the far wall, and the knights fairly stumbled over each other to get into the room. Sir Coreolis of the Middle Lands was the first one in, with Sir Justus of the High Born directly behind him. Others were crowding in, and I could even spot my master -- my alleged master, in any event -- Sir Umbrage trying to get a look. There was gasping and muttering, and suddenly the words "Make way! Make way!"

They parted like priests in a fart factory as the king stepped through them to examine the situation personally. At his right elbow, as was not unusual, crouched the court jester, Odclay. They could not have been a more disparate twosome. The king, for all that I might have held Runcible in contempt, was nonetheless a regal figure with great bearing and presence. He looked somewhat like a hawk, his entire face almost pushed forward as if he was in flight and seeking out prey with his beak. His reputation as a just and fair man, and supernaturally canny opponent, preceded him. Preceded him so much, in fact, that oftentimes he had to run to keep pace with it. His queen was a gentle, doting, and relatively inoffensive thing, and had produced for the king his sole heir (heiress, I suppose), the Princess Entipy, whom I had never met.

Odclay, on the other hand, was bent and misshapen. A few tufts of light brown hair stuck out at odd angles on his equally misshapen head, and his eyes were mismatched colors...and the colors kept changing. He was good for capering about and drooling every now and then. He was screamingly unfunny and therein lay the humor.

Runcible did not speak immediately. That was his way. I was never quite sure whether he did it deliberately so that he would appear great and wise as people waited for him to utter a few words (as was the general perception) or whether he was just so clueless that he never knew what the hell to say and had to strive mightily to manufacture even the most rudimentary of pronouncements.
"What..." he finally asked in slow, measured tones, "happened?"

Rosalie looked panic-stricken. She had been babbling about how Granite should not do it, whatever it was. But now faced with the question, she had no clue as to how to proceed. Fortunately enough, my mind was already racing. Near-panic tends to focus me.

Letting out a long sigh, clearly not wanting to be the bearer of bad news, I slumped and only at that point released the hilt. I made no endeavor to hide the fact that my hands had been on it. Only a guilty man would feel the need to hide his involvement, and I was anything but guilty. At least, that's what I had to put across.

"Sir Granitz," I began, using his more formal name rather than his popular nickname, "was devastated over the outcome of the Pell uprising."

"Go on," the king said slowly.

"Well...his presence here makes it obvious, doesn't it," I continued. "I mean, you, Highness, sent him on a mission...but yet, he has returned here. He did so because...because he felt that he was not..." I bowed my head. "...not worthy. Not worthy of the trust that you had put on him."

I paused then, waiting to get some measure of how this was going down. The king considered the words long and hard.

"Go on."

Clearly the king was not going to be of much help.

I decided I sounded too calm, considering the circumstances. So the next bit came out all in a rush.

"He was consumed by second-guessing what happened with Pell. Here he was asked to put down a simple uprising, and it resulted in a loss to Your Highness of tax income...and yet, to Granitz, that was not the worst of it. No. No, he had a side that he hid from all of you...hid from everyone except for the Lady Rosalie, of course. A softer side, a side that was...was...was..." I was stuck, and I slammed the floor with my fist to get myself going again. "...was distraught, yes...distraught over the loss of life. The women, the children of Pell, crying out, consumed in fire..."

"I thought he set the fire," said Coreolis in polite confusion.

"Yes! Yes, he did, he set the fire and he ordered the slaughter, but that doesn't mean that inside him, there wasn't a...another side, a softer side, that cried out against what he was doing. A softer side that would not let him rest. Call it a conscience if you will, call it a spark of the divine, call it guilt if you must...call it whatever you wish, but understand that it completely undermined and unmanned him."

"Unmanned him." The words spread like skin rot throughout the gathering.

"What were you doing here?" That was Sir Justus, and he sounded suspicious.
"Happenstance, milord. Pure happenstance. I was passing by the door and I heard what sounded like...sobbing. It was so high-pitched, so womanish, that I naturally assumed it to be a damsel in distress. Even a humble squire must attend to such a situation when it presents itself. That, at least, is what my good lord and master, Sir Umbrage, has taught me."

He had, in fact, taught me nothing of the kind. Nonetheless, the other knights looked at him and nodded in approval, and he took their acknowledgments with clear pride over having done his job well.

"So I entered, inquiring as to what I could possibly do to render aid...and discovered, to my amazement, Sir Granitz in the midst of the most terrible lamentations."

"The Granite one? Nonsense!" said a skeptical Justus. I was not ecstatic about the way the burly knight was looking at me. "In all the years, I never heard him utter so much as one lament. Not a one."

There was murmuring assent from the others. I did not like how this was going, so I raised my voice -- a chancy enough proposition, considering the circumstances I was facing -- and said, "And in all those years, did 'the Granite One' ever once let down his king in the way that he recently had?"
Momentary silence fell over the room as they racked their brains trying to recall such a happenstance. Giving them time to ponder was the last thing I wanted to do, however. I limped in a circle, accentuating my bad leg, to appear all the more pathetic...and also, ideally, all the more helpless in the face of an uncaring and overwhelming fate. "Did it ever occur to any of you that perhaps there were softer aspects of himself that he kept hidden? Hidden deep down so that it would elude your collective notice? A heart that bled when his enemies bled, a heart that felt the pain of every loss. But his head, milords...his head would not allow any of you good knights to see that which he himself found so repulsive: his gentler side. Why do you think he was so formidable at war on the field, eh? Because he was accomplished at being at war with himself! Yes, milords, with himself. But this most recent, crushing indignity, this devastating failure...it was too much. The years of repression burst from him."

I took a moment to try and compose myself, but only a moment, because as soon as one of them even started to form a sentence, I was off again. "The instant I entered, he bolted the door to make sure that no others would follow. Overwrought and ashamed of himself, he knew he could not face you, my king, after he felt he had failed you. Nor did he feel that he could face you good sirs, knowing that this more tender side was...and there is no delicate way to put it, milords. . . out of control. He felt the only honor left to him was a respectable death. But I," and I clenched my fist, "did not agree. I begged him to reconsider, to think of all the carnage and slaughter that he could still inflict. There was so much death left for him to live for. But he wouldn't attend my words, milords, no, he wouldn't." I made a visible effort to keep back the tears. "With those great hands of his, those great hands that have throttled so many, he tried to drive his sword into his mighty chest." There were gasps now. I was reasonably sure I had them, but I didn't let up. My voice went up an octave, to properly project my fear and terror. It wasn't much of an acting chore. If I didn't get the job done, they'd see through this crap I was hurling at them and have me executed, most likely right on the spot. "I struggled with him, milords. As presumptuous, as doomed to failure as that may sound, I tried to stop him. I'm sorry, Sir Umbrage," I said to my master as humbly as I could. "You have taught me" (no he hadn't, see above) "to obey the wishes of a knight, whatever the circumstance. But I could not do so here. I wanted to try and save one of the king's own greats. I wanted to be...to be a hero, milords. To be like you." This brought nods of approval. My heart was pounding. "And then...and then -- "

"And then...then it was amazing, milords!" Rosalie suddenly cried out. I felt my heart sink into my boots. One false word out of her and the entire thing was done for. But Rosalie rose to the challenge. "My husband's strength...it's...it's legendary. But this young man, this squire, nearly matched him pound for pound, milords! He came so close, so close to saving the life of my noble husband, your noble peer. But...ultimately...he..." She choked on the words. "He...could not. My noble lord threw himself upon the upraised blade of his mighty weapon. 'With honor' were the last words he managed to gasp out...and then was cleaved in half the great heart."

It was damned near poetic. Even the vaunted Justus himself was becoming choked up.

There was dead silence. I realized that all eyes were turning toward the king. There might have been suspicion, confusion on the parts of the other knights, but ultimately, it all came down to the king. His thinking shaped the reality.

His gaze never waved from me. As withering an opinion as I'd earlier formed of him, I felt myself starting to get nervous. His reputation for incisiveness and canniness had to be based on something. If he'd seen through the nonsense, I was finished.

And finally, he said two words and only two:

"Good work." And then, with no further comment, he turned and left the room, the jester cavorting and drooling after him.

The relief that flowed through me caused me to sag and almost collapse, but I managed to catch myself before that happened. The other knights came forward, clapping me on the shoulder, clucking over the corpse of their fallen comrade, and offering succor to the lovely Rosalie. Rosalie in turn caught my eye and there seemed to be a slight glittering triumph in there, as if to say, See? I could spout nonsense as well as you. Clearly, she could. And she was in an excellent position as well. As widow, she would acquire all of Granite's lands and titles, and no doubt have a number of eligible men courting her. She wouldn't require the attentions of a lowly squire and stablehand, which was fine by me. As entertaining between the sheets as she was, I didn't need the aggravation. Besides, if anyone caught sight of us together or any whispering began about us, it could utterly shred the tissue of lies that was, at that point, my means of salvation.

Several knights had pushed Granite's corpse out of the way like so much refuse, and they were talking to me pridefully of honor and bravery. I said nothing in reply, because really, there was no point. They were speaking to hear their own voices, not to elicit comments from me. I bobbed my head, smiled, stated my appreciation for their well wishes, and counted myself damned lucky all in all.

I wasn't like the others, you see. I had no particular dreams of glory, no desire to do great things, go off on dangerous quests and the like. I simply wanted to survive, get some lands, acquire a title perhaps, avenge myself on my father, and find one particular man and kill him, all in the least hazardous means possible, and then retire in comfort. Until I managed to do that, I intended to keep my head down whenever and wherever I could.

One, however, attains power by being noticed. So I was walking a fine line, drawing attention to myself and casting myself to be as brave as any of the lords of the manor, while at the same time taking care to keep my head on my shoulders. That was my goal: the illusion of danger, as I liked to call it.

"Apropos..."

I turned and saw that the king had reentered. All became silent once more.

"I have a fairly hazardous mission to be assigned. I think you are just the man for it. Report in one hour." He nodded as a means of indicating that the meeting was over, and then exited once more.

"You lucky bastard," said Coreolis.

"Handpicked by the king for a dangerous job," Justus said. "I remember the first time I drew such an honor." He held up his right hand, which was missing three fingers. "Got off lightly for it. Damned lucky to have my opportunity. And now you'll get yours."

And as I felt a chill down my spine, I couldn't help but feel that the ghost of Granite was thinking that exact same thing, and laughing in anticipation of me getting mine.

Copyright © 2001 by Second Age, Inc.

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First Chapter

Chapter One

As I stood there with the sword in my hand, the blade dripping blood on the floor, I couldn't help but wonder if the blood belonged to my father.

The entire thing had happened so quickly that I wasn't quite sure how to react. Part of me wanted to laugh, but most of me fairly cringed at what had just occurred. I didn't do particularly well with blood. This tended to be something of a hardship for one endeavoring to become a knight, dedicated to serving good King Runcible of Isteria, a ruler who more often than not had his heart in the right place.

The recently slain knight also had his heart in the right place. This had turned out to be something of an inconvenience for him. After all, if his heart had been in the wrong place, then the sword wouldn't have pierced it through, he wouldn't be dead, and I wouldn't have been in such a fix.

I stood there stupidly in the middle of Granitz's chambers. Like much of the rest of the castle, it was somewhat chilly...all the more so because I was only partly dressed and the sweat on my bare skin was feeling unconscionably clammy. There were long, elegant candles illuminating the room, giving it a rosy glow, since thick drapes had been drawn over the large windows to keep out both daylight and prying eyes. From nearby on the large and damaged four-poster bed, my lover -- and the knight's wife (well, widow) -- was letting out short gasps, trying to pull air into her lungs and only marginally succeeding. The tiled floor seemed to tilt under me for a moment, and I steadied myself as my mind raced, trying to determine what the hell I was going to do next.

The knight's name had been Sir Granitz of the Ebony Swamps, although he was generally referred to as "Sir Granite." The nickname had been well earned, for on the battlefield he had been indeed a sight to see. I had seen it myself, many a time...from a safe distance, of course, since my mother, God bless her, had not raised an idiot for a son. Understand: I did not, nor have I ever, shrunk from a fight when it was absolutely necessary. However, my definition of "absolutely necessary" wasn't precisely in keeping with that of everyone else in my immediate sphere.

For people like Granite, "absolutely necessary" included times of war, matters of honor, and similar esoterica. For me, the term "absolutely necessary" meant "self-defense." I considered war to be an utter waste of my time and energy, since most wars involved people I did not know arguing over matters I did not care about in pursuit of goals that would not have any direct impact upon me. As for honor, that was an ephemeral consideration. Honor did not feed, clothe, or protect me, and seemed to exist primarily to get otherwise inoffensive creatures into a world of trouble.

"Self-defense," however, was a consideration that I could easily comprehend. Whether it be an envious knight attacking me on horseback, an enraged dragon belching plumes of flame, or a squadron of berserker trolls swarming over the ramparts of a castle, those were instances where my own neck was at stake and I would happily hack and slash as the situation required so that I might live to see another sunrise.

I liked sunrises. They made anything seem possible.

Now, Granite...he was the type who would fight anywhere, anytime, at the least provocation. That is precisely the kind of attitude that gets one killed at a young age if one is not a formidable fighter. To his credit, that certainly described Granite. Well over six feet tall and built like a brick outhouse, he often found it necessary to enter a room sideways, his shoulders being too broad to be accommodated by a standard doorframe.

Sir Granite had returned most unexpectedly, at a moment that could best be described as inopportune. For at that particular point in time, I had been in the middle of opportuning myself of his wife.

As burly, as brusque, as fearsome as Granite had been, the Lady Rosalie had been the opposite. Delicate and pale, Rosalie had cast an eye that clearly fancied me in my direction. Considering that, at the time she did it, I was mucking out the stables and up to my elbows in horse manure, she clearly saw something within me not readily apparent from my surface appearance. She and old Granite had just come in from a ride; he perched upon his white charger, and she riding daintily sideways on a brown mare. She winked at me and I hurriedly wiped my hands on the nearest cloth, aware of the disheveled and frankly tatty sight I must have presented. The Lady Rosalie chose that moment to try and dismount. But her foot snagged on the stirrup and she tumbled forward, only my quick intervention preventing her from hitting the straw-covered floor. I caught her, amazed by how light she was. I'd bounced soap bubbles off my fingertips that had more substance.

For the briefest of moments, Rosalie insinuated her body against mine, mashing her breasts against my stained tunic. They were round and felt surprisingly firm beneath her riding clothes. It was not the fall that had carried her against me in that manner; she had done it deliberately with a subtle arching of her back that only I detected. Then, after the ever-so-brief gesture, she stepped back and put her hand to her throat in a fluttery manner. "Thank you, squire," she said, her voice having a most alluring musical lilt.

"Not...a problem, milady," I replied.

Old Granite did not seem to be the least bit supportive of my chivalric endeavors. His thick red mustache bristled and he said contemptuously, "I give you lesson after lesson, Rosalie, and still you can't so much as get off the damned horse. You shouldn't have caught her, squire. A far greater favor you'd have done her if you'd let her fall flat on her ass. It's the only way she's going to learn anything about successful mounting."

"Well...one of two ways," I said in a low voice, just enough for her to hear. Her cheeks colored, but not in embarrassment because she put a hand to her mouth to stifle what clearly sounded like a giggle. I grinned at her. She did not return the smile with her mouth, but it was clearly reciprocated in her eyes.

Granite smoothly jumped off his horse and thudded to the ground like a boulder. "Come, madam," he said, sticking out an elbow in a manner intended to be gallant but that instead simply appeared stiff and uncomfortable. This was not a man who was accustomed to the slightest gesture of gentility. She took his elbow and walked out with him, but glanced back at me just before they left.

From that moment, it was simply a matter of time.

I knew all about Granite. He was typical of Runcible's knights, spouting words of chivalry and justice, but doing whatever he desired behind the king's back. He made polite and politic noises to the king, but he could be as much of a brute as any common highwayman or any member of the Thugs' Guild, and he also had a string of mistresses in various towns and villages. He frequented the whores' tent, which was usually set up at the outskirts of an encampment during a campaign. More than one tart had supposedly come away from the amorous encounter with bruises to show for it when Granite was impatient with his own...performance. The mighty knight, you see, had a bit more trouble wielding his sword off the battlefield than on, if you catch my drift, and that difficulty translated to welts for those who couldn't easily overcome his problems.

I, however, had no such difficulties.

The Lady Rosalie, "heeding" her husband's suggestions to improve her riding abilities, took to the stables more and more frequently to get in practice time. Well...allegedly, that was the reason. But an intended hour of riding would end up an hour of conversing with me as I groomed and tended to the horses while she laughed and giggled and watched me perform my duties with a sort of doe-eyed fascination. I knew exactly where matters were taking us, and did absolutely nothing to deter them in their course.

One day she asked me to accompany her on a jaunt, since her husband had gone to deal with a minor uprising in the nearby city of Pell, and she was concerned lest bandits be wandering the roads. This, of course, wasn't her major concern. We rode several miles away from the good king's stables, chatting about trivialities, nonsense, and just about everything except for what really occupied our thoughts. By the lakeside, on a cool morning, nature took its course.

Let us just say that she did not ride exclusively sidesaddle.

I'm sure that I provided little more than an amusement to her, a dalliance. The obvious conclusion was that she was using me to get back at her husband, to make him jealous. But I doubt that was the case, because siccing the green-eyed monster upon Granite could only have fatal consequences. Rosalie may not have been the most polished apple to fall off the tree, but she was most definitely not suicidal. Maintaining a shroud of secrecy over our relationship heightened the likelihood of her keeping her pretty head on her shoulders. Besides, when you get down to it, isn't it the very illicitness of an affair, the forbidden nature of it, which makes it so exciting? Even pedestrian sex can be elevated to new heights when one isn't supposed to be having it.

That was probably what kept it going. Old Granite had made very clear to all and sundry that he thought very little of his wife's mental prowess. He considered her something of a twit. But twit or not, she ably concealed the existence of her tawdry little escapades (and I say that with only the fondest of recollections and greatest esteem) from this great warrior who thought himself one of the most canny and discerning of men.

Consequently, when it all came crashing down, it landed with a most pronounced thud.

The Pell situation, which started as something rather inconsequential, began to spiral out of control. Granite made a tactical error, you see. There had been a hard core of individuals utterly opposed to pouring more tax money into the king's coffers. I couldn't blame them, really. Most of the money paid in taxes didn't go into providing resources for public works, but instead either lined the pockets of key knights, or served to fund foreign wars that most of the peasants never heard of and didn't care about.

The hard core of individuals were endeavoring to organize protests, even stonewall against further taxes. The other peasants were reluctant to join with them. This came as no surprise to me. Being a peasant, I know the mind-set. One becomes so used to being downtrodden that one starts to believe that it's nature's intent that one should inhabit a low rung in society. Lack of movement is a formidable force to overcome.

The rabble-rousers called themselves the Freedom Brigade and set themselves up as enemies of the king and his policies. But they weren't enemies, really. An enemy is someone who has the capability to do you genuine harm. Calling this lot enemies was like referring to head lice as criminal masterminds. They had the ability to irritate, but they were no threat. Only one of the "Brigadiers" had any knack for rabble-rousing at all. I knew him from the old days. His name was Tacit, he was damned good-looking, and the women tended to swoon when they saw him coming. But swoon-inducers aren't necessarily great leaders of men, because men tend to mistrust other men who are that handsome. They start thinking that there's some other agenda in force, such as seeking out leadership just to get the attention and favors of the women, and perhaps they're not wrong to believe that.

Besides, Tacit wasn't the leader of the Brigadiers anyway. I don't even recall the name of the leader offhand; that's how forgettable he was. He was simply stolid and determined to change things, and wasn't particularly good at making that happen.

The truth was, the Brigadiers really just wanted to be in the favorable position enjoyed by those they were opposing, which is usually the case of protesters. If Granite had given them just a taste of the good life, the Freedom Brigade would have melted like a virgin's protests on her wedding night. One of the best ways to dispose of enemies -- even perceived ones such as the Brigadiers -- is to make them over into allies and friends. When someone is not truly in a position to hurt you, that is the time to approach him or her with an air of camaraderie. Respect. Bribery. The Freedom Brigade could easily have been bought off. Hell, I suspect they could have been retooled into a formidable squad of tax collectors that would have put the king's own men to shame.

But not old Granite, oh no.

For Granite was a fighting man, you see. Put him on a field with a sword and buckler, give him a squadron behind him, point him in a direction -- any direction -- and say, "Kill," and watch him go at it. As a slaughtering machine, he was a thing of beauty. There was a tendency to elevate him in positions of importance and rank as a consequence. It's understandable, I suppose. Put yourself in the place of the king. You come riding up to a field after the battle is done, there are bodies strewn all over the place like clothes at a brothel, and there's one man standing there, wavering slightly, wearing tattered armor, copious amounts of blood (none of it his), and a somewhat demented smile. You would tend to think that this fellow knows what he's about. Such was the case with Granite.

Unfortunately, what the king did not realize is that just because one was skilled at one means of controlling an uprising -- namely by whacking it until all of its internal organs are on the landscape -- did not automatically translate into any sort of aptitude for handling other situations.

When Runcible learned of the situation in Pell, he sent Granite, convinced that he was dispatching one of his best men to attend to it. Were Pell in the midst of full-scale riot, Granite might indeed have been just the fellow for it. But matters were still controllable. Why wade in with a broadsword when a whispering dagger would do the job?

Well, Granite used a broadsword and a half. He and his men rode in like the great damned king's own Ninth Army, stampeded through Pell, rounded up a dozen townspeople at random and threatened them with beheading if they didn't produce the names of the Freedom Brigadiers. The citizenry, who were upset about their taxes but not that upset, coughed up the identities like phlegm. Better to live poor than die with a few extra coins in your pocket.

Granite then rounded up the Freedom Brigade. What a great bloody row. The noise, the screaming...it was horrific. They captured almost all of them, and -- truth to tell -- the Brigadiers didn't exactly conduct themselves as heroes. Playing at being freedom fighters, criticizing the king from a distance, declaring that taxes would not be forthcoming and that the king should take his best shot at collecting them -- these are all well and good in the abstract. Faced with a sword to your throat, however, your priorities tend to shift. Rhetoric takes a second chair to saving your own skin. My understanding is that they begged, pleaded for their lives. They wept, they entreated, they soiled their breeches...in short, they made godawful fools of themselves.

Once again, Granite could have gotten out of the entire Pell mess with a minimum of fuss and muss. Not old blockhead, no. The unmanly wailing of the Brigadiers offended Granite's sensibilities. He felt that his valuable time had been wasted rounding up such clearly unworthy foes. This set his anger all a-bubbling, and he needed an outlet for his rage. As it turned out, the only available target was the Brigadiers.

So he put the stupid bastards to the sword, every one of them. Every one except Tacit. Tacit had not been captured with the rest. They tried to take him, to be sure. But when Granite made his sweep, which dragged in the rest, Tacit had managed to fight his way through it, battling with the ferocity of a manticore when faced with death. His freedom had not come without a price. He lost half an ear and his right eye, poor bastard. He took refuge in the Elderwoods, his old stomping grounds, which he and I frequented as children. Once he'd reached there, he was a phantom. There he healed, and eventually returned to Pell with an eyepatch and a new and deadly resolve. Tossed capriciously in the crucible, he'd come through it forged into a cold and formidable enemy.

He rallied the people of Pell in a way that no others of the Brigade had managed, and he turned the entire town into an army. Every man, woman, and child rallied behind him, refusing to pay taxes and demanding the head and private parts of Granite.

Granite obliged. He brought his head, his private parts, and his sword arm -- all still connected to the rest of his sculpted body -- and he also brought along armored troops. They laid siege to the town, and within hours all of Pell was aflame and easily sixty percent of the populace was dead, and another twenty percent or so was dying.

Naturally this resulted in an eighty percent drop in taxes from Pell, which was what all of the to-do was about in the first place. Granite, however, had lost sight of that.

King Runcible had not.

He didn't get truly angry -- he rarely did. But he informed Granite that he was not happy, no, not happy at all with the situation. Granite hemmed, hawed, made apologies, and tried to defend the extreme actions he had taken. "We shall have to think on this," Runcible said finally, which is what he always said when faced with something unpleasant. He then ordered Granite to patrol the outer borders of the kingdom.

I was present when the order was given, standing discreetly behind Sir Umbrage of the Flaming Nether Regions, the elderly knight whom it was my "fortune" to be squiring at the time. It was easy to remain out of sight behind Umbrage. He was such an uninteresting bastard that no one glanced in his direction. He would just stand there, long, skinny, white-haired, and jowly beneath his scraggly beard, leaning on his sword and nodding as if he were paying attention to what was going on.

Granite bowed, nodded, and left immediately.

I, opportunistic little creep that I was, saw my chance to have yet another toss with the Lady Rosalie. I waited until I saw Granite ride away on that great charger of his, and then went straight to the chambers that he shared with his lady.

Rosalie, bless her heart, read my mind. She was lying there, naked and waiting. And she was holding her crystal ball.

Now, Rosalie had no knack for fortune-telling, but she fancied that she did. She obtained the large crystal from a woman purporting to be an oracle, and she would stare into the crystal ball for hours on end, trying to discern her future. Every so often she would make thoughtful pronouncements in a voice that I think she thought was great and profound. In point of fact, it just sounded like Rosalie talking oddly. I never paid any mind to it. It seemed a harmless enough diversion.

"Did you see me coming in that?" I asked teasingly.

She smiled in that odd way that she had, that made the edges of her eyes all crinkly. "In a manner of speaking," she said, and laid the crystal ball on the floor.

My tunic was off and my leggings were just descending below my knees when the door burst open. There was Granite, looking considerably larger than he had when he'd been riding off into the distance minutes before.

I caught only the briefest of glimpses, though, because the moment the door opened, I had already rolled off the bed, landing on the far side, out of view. I may not have had a good deal going for me, but my reactions had always been formidably quick. Long practice, I suppose in keeping one eye behind me at all times. I lay paralyzed on the floor. The door slamming back against the wall had covered the noise of my thudding to the ground, but I was concerned that any further movement on my part might attract his attention. Granite was a formidable warrior with a sense of hearing only marginally less sharp than his blade. I held my breath so that he didn't hear it rasping against my chest, but I was positive that he could nonetheless detect my heart slamming in my rib cage. In any event, I certainly didn't want to risk making scrabbling noises against the floor. That would tip him for sure.

Rosalie was not the brightest of things, but barely controlled panic gave wings to her moderately capable brain. Upon the door slamming open, she had automatically clutched the sheet under her chin, covering herself. "Milord!" she burst out. She certainly did not need to feign her surprise. "I...I..."

I practically heard the scowl in his voice. "What are you about?" he demanded.

"I...I..."

"Well?!"

She suddenly tossed the sheet aside, wisely letting it tumble atop me to further hide me, although -- truth be told -- I'm not entirely certain how effective a disguise it would have been, since piles of laundry do not generally tend to quiver in fear. "I was...waiting for you, milord!" she said, throwing her arms wide and no doubt looking rather enticing in her utter nudity. "Take me!"

I still held my breath, which, actually, was no great trick, because my chest was so constricted I couldn't exhale if I'd wanted to. My heart had also stopped beating, and I was fairly sure my brain was in the process of shutting down. I was hoping, praying that Granite would go for the bait. If he did, and she distracted him sufficiently, I could creep out on hands and knees while they were going at it.

"Take you where?" demanded Granite, never one to pick up on a cue.

"Here! Now!"

He had to go for it. How could he resist? Certainly I couldn't have. Then again, I wasn't a knight, at least not yet. Knights were apparently made of sterner stuff. Either that or Granite was just too block-stupid to be distracted from something confusing to him. Apparently he'd gotten a thought into his head, and the damned thing wouldn't be easily dislodged, probably because it was fairly quiet in his brain otherwise and the thought enjoyed the solitude.

"How could you have been expecting me when I didn't know I was coming back?" demanded Granite.

"I..." I heard her lick her lips, which were probably bone dry by that point. "I...anticipated...or hoped, at least...that you would return to service me once more before you left."

"I didn't. I came back to get my lucky dagger. I forgot it."

"Oh."

If Rosalie had just let that harmless little "Oh" sit there, we might well have avoided discovery. He was, after all, perfectly willing to accept that she was a nitwit. Unfortunately, because a silence ensued, Rosalie felt the need to fill it with words. "Yes. I...saw it over there on the wall and knew you'd be back."

Granite, unfortunately for us, was able to track the conversation. "You just said that you were hoping I'd return to service you. Now you say you knew I'd be back for the dagger."

"Yes, I...that is to say...I...that..."

There was another dead silence, and I could only imagine the blood draining from her face as her poor brain twisted itself about in confusion. I heard the door bang suddenly and prayed that he had simply exited with no further words...but that hope was short-lived as I heard the bolt slam into place.

Granite was no idiot. I had to give him that much. "What," I heard him rumble, "is going on?"

I thought furiously at her, as if I could project words into her brain in hopes that they would spill out of her mouth. I am ...tongue-tied by your presence, milord...I would say anything just in hopes of saying something you want to hear, milord...I hoped that, in your returning for your dagger, you would savage me like a wild animal, milord...

Something. Anything.

"Don't..." There was a choked sob. "Don't hurt him, milord...."

Anything but that.

I heard a roar then. I think the word "What?!" was in there somewhere, but it was like trying to sort out one particular scream from the howling of a hurricane. There was a quick sound of steps coming around the bed, and suddenly the sheet was yanked off me. My bare ass was still hanging out as I squinted up at Granite.

He wasn't moving. He trembled in place, seized with such fury that he could not yet budge.

I rolled to my feet, yanking my breeches up as I went. The bed was a huge four-poster affair, and I leaned against one of the thick oak bedposts, trying to compensate for my fairly useless right leg. I must have been quite the sight at that moment. At that age, I was thin and gawky. My arms were well muscled from years of hauling myself around while compensating for the lameness of my leg. My ears stuck out too much, and I didn't have normal hair so much as a thick, wild mane of red that proved annoyingly difficult to brush or style. My nose was crooked from the times in the past that it'd been broken. My best feature remained my eyes, which were a superb shade of gray, providing me with a grim and thoughtful look whenever I put my mind to it. However, I suspect at that point that he wasn't exactly concerned with admiring my orbs.

We stood there, frozen in time for half an ice age it seemed. I don't even think he quite focused on me at first, as if his brain was so overheated that he needed time to fully process the information. "I...know you!" he said at last. "You're Umbrage's squire! You clean out stables! You're Appletoe!"

"Apropos," I corrected him, and then mentally kicked myself. As if I wasn't in enough of a fix, I had to go and remind him of my name. Why didn't I just stick my neck out and offer to hack it through for him?

Then I realized he wasn't waiting for an invitation, as I heard the sword being drawn before I actually saw it. I took a step back, making sure to play up my limp so that I could seem as pathetic as possible.

His eyes were fixed on me, but he was clearly addressing his nude wife. "A squire? You cuckold me...for a squire? For a shoveler of horse manure? For this you shame me?!"

Rosalie was not going to be of any help. Her mouth was moving, but no sounds were coming out.

There was no point denying the actual cuckolding. I can be a dazzling liar given the right circumstances, but these were certainly not they. So I felt my only hope was to try and address the other side of the equation. "Now...now t...t...technically, mi...milord," I stammered out, "there's been no, uh, actual shaming, as it were. No one knows. You, Rosalie, me...that is all. And if we can agree to, uh...keep this among ourselves, then perhaps we can just, well...forget this all happened, sweep it under the carpet until...until..."

I was going to say, "Until we're all dead and gone." Unfortunately, at that moment Rosalie found her voice.

"Until you leave again," she suggested.

He swung his sword around and bellowed like a wounded boar. I tried to back up. Not only did my limp impede me, but also my feet became tangled in the sheets and I tumbled to the floor. Rosalie let out a shriek.

I considered telling him at that point that he might or might not be my father, but that statement -- albeit true enough -- seemed to smack so much of a desperation move that I figured it would be perceived as a ploy. So I chose to appeal to the one thing which might serve as his weak spot.

"Where's the honor in this?!" I shouted.

He was standing directly over me, his sword drawn back and over his head, ready to bring it slamming down like a butcher slaughtering a bull. This was no ordinary sword, it should be noted. The damned thing had teeth: jagged edges running down either side, particularly useful for ripping and tearing. It was also formidable for a good old-fashioned slicing. If the blow had landed, it would have cleaved me from crotch to sternum. But he froze, his mustache bristling as if acquiring a life all its own. I thought for a moment that it was going to rip itself off his lip and come at me. "Honor?" he growled. "You have my wife...and speak to me of your honor?"

"Your honor, milord, not mine...I...I am nothing." I spoke as quickly as I could. "I am nothing, no one...but that, you see...that's the point..."

"What is?" The sword, which had a far more formidable point than any points in my repertoire, hadn't moved from its rather threatening position above me.

"Well, milord, obviously...when my corpse turns up, and you, as a man of honor, why, you'll have to own up to your slaying of me... and explain why..."

"I have no intention of hiding it," he snarled. "Not a man in the court will deny my right as a husband!"

"No question." I felt the longer I kept it going, the more chance I had of talking him out of what was clearly his intended course. "But look at the slaughter situation."

"The... what?" The snarl had slightly vanished; he seemed a bit bemused.

"Look at you...full in your leathers, your sword in hand, rippling with power...and here I am, half-naked, on my back, unarmed...well, honestly!" I continued, as if scolding a recalcitrant child. I couldn't believe the tone of voice I was adopting. One would have thought that, in some fashion, I possessed the upper hand. "And a lowly, untitled squire with no land or privilege at that. Where is the challenge in skewering me? Where is the redemption of honor? A stain on your status as husband and man requires something more than mere butchery."

I would have felt just a bit better if the sword had wavered by so much as a centimeter. It did not. But neither did it come slamming down. "What," he asked, "did you have in mind?"

"A duel," I said quickly, not believing that I had managed to get it that far. "Tomorrow...you and me, facing off against one another in the proper manner. Oh, the outcome is foregone, I assure you. I'm but a squire, and lame of leg at that. You're...well...you're you..."

"That is very true," he said thoughtfully.

"Certainly you'll massacre me. But if we do it in the manner that I suggest, no one can look at you askance and say, 'So...you carved a helpless knave. Where is the challenge in that?'" I paused and then added boldly, "I'm right, milord. You know I am. A husband's honor restored. A philanderer put to rights in a way that no one can question. It is the thing to do."

I had him then. I knew that I did. I glanced at Rosalie, praying that she would keep her mouth shut and say nothing to spoil the moment. Thank the gods, her lips were tightly sealed.

In point of fact, I had no intention of battling Granite on the field of honor. The man could break a griffin in half. I wouldn't have had a chance against him; he would have driven my head so far down into my body that I would have been able to lace my boots with my teeth. Fighting him man to man would be suicide.

I intended to use the night between now and tomorrow to bundle together everything that I owned in the world -- which was, admittedly, not much. Then, under cover of darkness, I would slip away. There was a wide world out there beyond the kingdom of Isteria, and I couldn't help but feel that there had to be sufficient room in it for Apropos. Granted, my flight would be an irretrievable besmirching of my honor. To hell with that. Honor did not pay bills, nor keep one warm at night. Apropos would disappear; I would take up a new identity. It wasn't as if the one that I had was all that wonderful anyway. Start a new life, learn a trade, perhaps become a knight eventually somewhere else. Who knew? Perhaps, at some point in the future, Granite and I would meet on the battlefield. We would face each other, glowering...and then, with any luck, I'd shoot him with an arrow from a safe distance.

All this occurred to me in a moment's time.

And then Granite said, "I don't care."

That was all the warning I had before the sword swung down toward me.

Fortunately it was warning enough as I rolled out of the way. The sword came down with such force that it clanged into the floor and bit right into the paving with that jagged edge.

Rosalie shrieked. So did I. Even as I did so, however, I lurched to my feet, pushing up with my good leg. I was still clutching the sheet in my hand, and I threw it over his head to obscure his vision. At that moment Granite struggled with his sword, trying to extricate it from its state of being temporarily immobilized, and he sent up a caterwauling that was a fearsome thing to hear. So infuriated was he that he had practically lost capacity for speech, instead generating a sort of inarticulate grunting.

Picking a general area of the sheet that seemed to represent his head, I drew back a fist and struck as hard as I could. My upper-arm strength, as noted, is somewhat formidable. I hit him on what felt like the side of his head, probably causing a profound ringing in his ears. But by that time he had a firmer grip on his sword, and he ripped it from the floor and swung it about so that it shredded the sheet, which fell to ribbons around him.

Rosalie was shrieking his name, trying to get his attention. That probably wasn't the wisest course. He seemed ready to decapitate her as soon as look at her, but at the moment he appeared more interested in getting to me. He swung again, cleaving straight down once more. Apparently he didn't have an abundance of moves, but the few he did have were devastating if they happened to connect. I lunged onto the bed, barely avoiding the sweep. Rosalie adroitly vaulted over me as I rolled toward the other side, landing on my feet but not smoothly, and stumbling back.

He came after me, his eyes wild, his face turning as red as my hair. He didn't seem in the mood to reason.

I heard a pounding at the door. The sounds of commotion had started to attract attention. The door, however, was bolted. People were calling Granite's name, asking if anything was wrong. Granite didn't bother to respond. I made a motion toward the doorway, and he leaped to intercept. He moved with the speed of a damned unicorn, cutting off my possible escape route. A sneer of contempt was curling his upper lip.

I backpedaled, headed back toward the bed. Symbolic that it should begin and end there. Rosalie had wisely vacated the bed by that point, grabbing a dressing gown from her wardrobe and tossing it over her nakedness. "Milord, stop! Stop!" she said over and over. He seemed disinclined to attend to her wishes, however.

He swung at me and I ducked again, and he hacked right through one of the bedposts. It fell into my hand, a length of wood about three feet. It was better than nothing, although not much. I gripped it firmly, waited for his next pass. It wasn't long in coming. I couldn't let it come into direct contact, because he'd just chop right through the wood as he had done a second ago. I stepped back, angling the wood, and managed to deflect the flat of his blade, preserving my makeshift cudgel for perhaps another second or so.

Granite repositioned himself, the better to get some swinging room so that he could properly bisect me. The hammering at the door became louder. Apparently others in the castle were being drawn by the sounds of...of whatever it was they thought they were hearing. Granite still hadn't said anything particularly useful, seized as he was in voiceless paroxysms of fury.

He took a step back, and for a moment I thought my salvation was upon me, for he stepped on the crystal ball that Rosalie had placed so delicately upon the floor. The large crystal rolled under his foot, causing Granite to stumble. I tensed, waiting. If he went down, I might have a chance to run madly for the door. I don't know how likely escape would have been in that situation; there were apparently knights crowding in on the other side, and the moment that Granite managed to find his voice, they might very well seize me bodily and hold me still so that Granite could finish the job. But I was dealing with one crisis at a time.

He went to one knee, but it was the most fleeting of pauses. Then he was on his feet once more, holding the crystal ball and glowering at it as if the thing had been sentient and tried to trip him out of spite. I made a desperate bolt for the door, but only got a short distance when he froze me with a glance. I stood paralyzed some feet away, my body sideways to him with my lame right leg facing him.

The perpetually screaming Rosalie made a grab for him from the back. He shoved her away without even looking at her, cocked his arm, and let fly with the crystal ball. It hurtled toward me at roughly chest-high level. From the size of the thing and the speed with which it was moving, it would easily have broken any bone with which it came into contact.

My next action was entirely instinctive. With my right leg useless, I pushed off with my left, driving my body weight forward. As I did so, I swung the cudgel, keeping my eye on the crystal ball.

I was nothing but fortunate that Granite had thrown the crystal ball fast and hard. If he had put any sort of spin onto the thing, causing it to move in, say, a curve, I never would have hit it. As it was, it was nothing short of miraculous that I made contact at all.

When the cudgel struck it, I felt a shudder that ran all the way down to my elbows. The cudgel shattered when it hit the crystal ball, and the sphere rocketed right back at Granite. It struck him soundly in the forehead and bridge of the nose, before falling to the floor and rolling serenely away. I'm not sure what that damned thing was made of, but Rosalie had certainly gotten her money's worth. It seemed indestructible.

Granite stood there with an utterly stunned expression. His eyes crossed, his hands went slack...

...and his sword clattered to the ground.

"Sir Granite!" The shouting increased from the other side of the door. There was now concerted pounding against it. Perhaps those on the other side had become even more alarmed at the sudden cessation of noise.

I threw myself across the floor, skidding on my stomach, and grabbed the fallen pigsticker. If I could keep the bastard at swordpoint, I might just be able to reason with him somehow. I angled the sword upward, and was about to issue a warning to him to stay right where he was. I then realized just how profound an effect the crystal ball had had upon Granite, for the knight chose that moment to fall forward like a great tree.

Naturally he fell on the sword.

Rosalie emitted a shriek, as her husband's fine, teeth-bladed weapon suddenly appeared protruding from his back. Granite, for his own part, hadn't said anything especially useful in the past few minutes, and his record didn't change. He gave off a confused-sounding grunt. He slid down the length of his blade without having any true awareness that he had just managed to kill himself. There seemed to be a sort of blubbery surprise in his face. Having slightly broken his fall by catching himself on his elbows, he saw that I was clutching the sword's hilt. He batted me away, as if annoyed that I was handling his beloved weapon. He clutched the hilt himself then, pulled slightly, and it was at that point that he truly understood, I think, that his entire upper torso was serving as the blade's new scabbard. He managed to spit out a profanity, which is not the most noble of last words, but probably among the more common, and then he slumped over, unmoving.

There was now a repeated thud against the chamber door. Several of the knights were obviously putting their shoulders into it in an organized fashion. "This is not going to look good," I observed. Considering the circumstances, I sounded remarkably sanguine. The truth was that I was terrified, and it was all I could do not to vomit.

Rosalie made small whimpering noises, not appearing to be of much help. I was going to have to do the thinking for both of us. Unfortunately, my brain somewhat locked up at that moment, but I forced it to unfreeze as I whispered sharply, "My tunic! Quick!" Rosalie grabbed my fallen clothing and tossed it to me. I threw it on so that I would have the appearance, at least, of propriety. "Hide! Hide!" she urged.

"No time! Just yell what I'm yelling, and do it as loudly as you can!"

"But they'll hear you!"

"That's the point!" And without further explanation, I began bellowing, "Don't do it, milord! You have so much to live for!" Bless the old fool, he'd had the grace to die with his cold, dead fingers wrapped firmly around the hilt. All the more convincing for my needs as I wrapped my own fingers around his dead ones (a nauseating sensation, that) and kept calling out, "Please don't! Don't do it! They're not worth it! We need you! This isn't the way!"

Rosalie appeared clueless as to what I was about, but she went along with it. At first she spoke with clear hesitation and uncertainty, but within moments she yowled as well, "No, my darling! Don't do it! Listen to Apropos! Don't do it!" Obviously she wasn't quite clear on what it was he wasn't supposed to do, but that didn't stop her from participating with considerable gusto.

At that point, the door cracked open, the bolt shooting across the room and ricocheting off the far wall, and the knights fairly stumbled over each other to get into the room. Sir Coreolis of the Middle Lands was the first one in, with Sir Justus of the High Born directly behind him. Others were crowding in, and I could even spot my master -- my alleged master, in any event -- Sir Umbrage trying to get a look. There was gasping and muttering, and suddenly the words "Make way! Make way!"

They parted like priests in a fart factory as the king stepped through them to examine the situation personally. At his right elbow, as was not unusual, crouched the court jester, Odclay. They could not have been a more disparate twosome. The king, for all that I might have held Runcible in contempt, was nonetheless a regal figure with great bearing and presence. He looked somewhat like a hawk, his entire face almost pushed forward as if he was in flight and seeking out prey with his beak. His reputation as a just and fair man, and supernaturally canny opponent, preceded him. Preceded him so much, in fact, that oftentimes he had to run to keep pace with it. His queen was a gentle, doting, and relatively inoffensive thing, and had produced for the king his sole heir (heiress, I suppose), the Princess Entipy, whom I had never met.

Odclay, on the other hand, was bent and misshapen. A few tufts of light brown hair stuck out at odd angles on his equally misshapen head, and his eyes were mismatched colors...and the colors kept changing. He was good for capering about and drooling every now and then. He was screamingly unfunny and therein lay the humor.

Runcible did not speak immediately. That was his way. I was never quite sure whether he did it deliberately so that he would appear great and wise as people waited for him to utter a few words (as was the general perception) or whether he was just so clueless that he never knew what the hell to say and had to strive mightily to manufacture even the most rudimentary of pronouncements. "What..." he finally asked in slow, measured tones, "happened?"

Rosalie looked panic-stricken. She had been babbling about how Granite should not do it, whatever it was. But now faced with the question, she had no clue as to how to proceed. Fortunately enough, my mind was already racing. Near-panic tends to focus me.

Letting out a long sigh, clearly not wanting to be the bearer of bad news, I slumped and only at that point released the hilt. I made no endeavor to hide the fact that my hands had been on it. Only a guilty man would feel the need to hide his involvement, and I was anything but guilty. At least, that's what I had to put across.

"Sir Granitz," I began, using his more formal name rather than his popular nickname, "was devastated over the outcome of the Pell uprising."

"Go on," the king said slowly.

"Well...his presence here makes it obvious, doesn't it," I continued. "I mean, you, Highness, sent him on a mission...but yet, he has returned here. He did so because...because he felt that he was not..." I bowed my head. "...not worthy. Not worthy of the trust that you had put on him."

I paused then, waiting to get some measure of how this was going down. The king considered the words long and hard.

"Go on."

Clearly the king was not going to be of much help.

I decided I sounded too calm, considering the circumstances. So the next bit came out all in a rush.

"He was consumed by second-guessing what happened with Pell. Here he was asked to put down a simple uprising, and it resulted in a loss to Your Highness of tax income...and yet, to Granitz, that was not the worst of it. No. No, he had a side that he hid from all of you...hid from everyone except for the Lady Rosalie, of course. A softer side, a side that was...was...was..." I was stuck, and I slammed the floor with my fist to get myself going again. "...was distraught, yes...distraught over the loss of life. The women, the children of Pell, crying out, consumed in fire..."

"I thought he set the fire," said Coreolis in polite confusion.

"Yes! Yes, he did, he set the fire and he ordered the slaughter, but that doesn't mean that inside him, there wasn't a...another side, a softer side, that cried out against what he was doing. A softer side that would not let him rest. Call it a conscience if you will, call it a spark of the divine, call it guilt if you must...call it whatever you wish, but understand that it completely undermined and unmanned him."

"Unmanned him." The words spread like skin rot throughout the gathering.

"What were you doing here?" That was Sir Justus, and he sounded suspicious. "Happenstance, milord. Pure happenstance. I was passing by the door and I heard what sounded like...sobbing. It was so high-pitched, so womanish, that I naturally assumed it to be a damsel in distress. Even a humble squire must attend to such a situation when it presents itself. That, at least, is what my good lord and master, Sir Umbrage, has taught me."

He had, in fact, taught me nothing of the kind. Nonetheless, the other knights looked at him and nodded in approval, and he took their acknowledgments with clear pride over having done his job well.

"So I entered, inquiring as to what I could possibly do to render aid...and discovered, to my amazement, Sir Granitz in the midst of the most terrible lamentations."

"The Granite one? Nonsense!" said a skeptical Justus. I was not ecstatic about the way the burly knight was looking at me. "In all the years, I never heard him utter so much as one lament. Not a one."

There was murmuring assent from the others. I did not like how this was going, so I raised my voice -- a chancy enough proposition, considering the circumstances I was facing -- and said, "And in all those years, did 'the Granite One' ever once let down his king in the way that he recently had?" Momentary silence fell over the room as they racked their brains trying to recall such a happenstance. Giving them time to ponder was the last thing I wanted to do, however. I limped in a circle, accentuating my bad leg, to appear all the more pathetic...and also, ideally, all the more helpless in the face of an uncaring and overwhelming fate. "Did it ever occur to any of you that perhaps there were softer aspects of himself that he kept hidden? Hidden deep down so that it would elude your collective notice? A heart that bled when his enemies bled, a heart that felt the pain of every loss. But his head, milords...his head would not allow any of you good knights to see that which he himself found so repulsive: his gentler side. Why do you think he was so formidable at war on the field, eh? Because he was accomplished at being at war with himself! Yes, milords, with himself. But this most recent, crushing indignity, this devastating failure...it was too much. The years of repression burst from him."

I took a moment to try and compose myself, but only a moment, because as soon as one of them even started to form a sentence, I was off again. "The instant I entered, he bolted the door to make sure that no others would follow. Overwrought and ashamed of himself, he knew he could not face you, my king, after he felt he had failed you. Nor did he feel that he could face you good sirs, knowing that this more tender side was...and there is no delicate way to put it, milords. . . out of control. He felt the only honor left to him was a respectable death. But I," and I clenched my fist, "did not agree. I begged him to reconsider, to think of all the carnage and slaughter that he could still inflict. There was so much death left for him to live for. But he wouldn't attend my words, milords, no, he wouldn't." I made a visible effort to keep back the tears. "With those great hands of his, those great hands that have throttled so many, he tried to drive his sword into his mighty chest." There were gasps now. I was reasonably sure I had them, but I didn't let up. My voice went up an octave, to properly project my fear and terror. It wasn't much of an acting chore. If I didn't get the job done, they'd see through this crap I was hurling at them and have me executed, most likely right on the spot. "I struggled with him, milords. As presumptuous, as doomed to failure as that may sound, I tried to stop him. I'm sorry, Sir Umbrage," I said to my master as humbly as I could. "You have taught me" (no he hadn't, see above) "to obey the wishes of a knight, whatever the circumstance. But I could not do so here. I wanted to try and save one of the king's own greats. I wanted to be...to be a hero, milords. To be like you." This brought nods of approval. My heart was pounding. "And then...and then -- "

"And then...then it was amazing, milords!" Rosalie suddenly cried out. I felt my heart sink into my boots. One false word out of her and the entire thing was done for. But Rosalie rose to the challenge. "My husband's strength...it's...it's legendary. But this young man, this squire, nearly matched him pound for pound, milords! He came so close, so close to saving the life of my noble husband, your noble peer. But...ultimately...he..." She choked on the words. "He...could not. My noble lord threw himself upon the upraised blade of his mighty weapon. 'With honor' were the last words he managed to gasp out...and then was cleaved in half the great heart."

It was damned near poetic. Even the vaunted Justus himself was becoming choked up.

There was dead silence. I realized that all eyes were turning toward the king. There might have been suspicion, confusion on the parts of the other knights, but ultimately, it all came down to the king. His thinking shaped the reality.

His gaze never waved from me. As withering an opinion as I'd earlier formed of him, I felt myself starting to get nervous. His reputation for incisiveness and canniness had to be based on something. If he'd seen through the nonsense, I was finished.

And finally, he said two words and only two:

"Good work." And then, with no further comment, he turned and left the room, the jester cavorting and drooling after him.

The relief that flowed through me caused me to sag and almost collapse, but I managed to catch myself before that happened. The other knights came forward, clapping me on the shoulder, clucking over the corpse of their fallen comrade, and offering succor to the lovely Rosalie. Rosalie in turn caught my eye and there seemed to be a slight glittering triumph in there, as if to say, See? I could spout nonsense as well as you. Clearly, she could. And she was in an excellent position as well. As widow, she would acquire all of Granite's lands and titles, and no doubt have a number of eligible men courting her. She wouldn't require the attentions of a lowly squire and stablehand, which was fine by me. As entertaining between the sheets as she was, I didn't need the aggravation. Besides, if anyone caught sight of us together or any whispering began about us, it could utterly shred the tissue of lies that was, at that point, my means of salvation.

Several knights had pushed Granite's corpse out of the way like so much refuse, and they were talking to me pridefully of honor and bravery. I said nothing in reply, because really, there was no point. They were speaking to hear their own voices, not to elicit comments from me. I bobbed my head, smiled, stated my appreciation for their well wishes, and counted myself damned lucky all in all.

I wasn't like the others, you see. I had no particular dreams of glory, no desire to do great things, go off on dangerous quests and the like. I simply wanted to survive, get some lands, acquire a title perhaps, avenge myself on my father, and find one particular man and kill him, all in the least hazardous means possible, and then retire in comfort. Until I managed to do that, I intended to keep my head down whenever and wherever I could.

One, however, attains power by being noticed. So I was walking a fine line, drawing attention to myself and casting myself to be as brave as any of the lords of the manor, while at the same time taking care to keep my head on my shoulders. That was my goal: the illusion of danger, as I liked to call it.

"Apropos..."

I turned and saw that the king had reentered. All became silent once more.

"I have a fairly hazardous mission to be assigned. I think you are just the man for it. Report in one hour." He nodded as a means of indicating that the meeting was over, and then exited once more.

"You lucky bastard," said Coreolis.

"Handpicked by the king for a dangerous job," Justus said. "I remember the first time I drew such an honor." He held up his right hand, which was missing three fingers. "Got off lightly for it. Damned lucky to have my opportunity. And now you'll get yours."

And as I felt a chill down my spine, I couldn't help but feel that the ghost of Granite was thinking that exact same thing, and laughing in anticipation of me getting mine.

Copyright © 2001 by Second Age, Inc.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 19 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 19 Customer Reviews
  • Posted February 9, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Refreshlingly Different!

    What can I say about this book? I bought it for someone as a gift and I have the trilogy myself. I recommend it to those who appreciate a different kind of hero, perhaps a hero that is the Exact opposite of your stereotypical hero. Apropos is surprising, wonderfully sarcastic and ultimately self-serving. Why like him? Because he is refreshingly different. I laughed through this whole book because the narration was delightfully sarcastic. It is shocking and definitely not for those who are easily offended. Enjoy it for pure escapism and enjoy a character that thinks and says things that most of us may guiltily think but refuse to say.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 25, 2004

    Awesome

    I must say, when I picked this book up in the ninth grade, it cracked me up. And it still does. It's a refreshing break from the standard hero-must-save-the-world plot that one generally finds in fantasy novels. The puns were great, the plot was original, and (having never read Terry Pratchett, nor having any interest in doing so) I have to say that I will probably continue to find enjoyment in Sir Apropos of Nothing.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 9, 2004

    If you like Terry Pratchett... read one of his books instead.

    This painfully awful novel is obviously the result of Peter David having read a Terry Pratchett book and saying to himself, 'Hey, I can do THAT.' I'm sorry, Mr. David, but you CAN'T. Why not? Because, to put it plainly, Terry Pratchett is FUNNY, and you are not. I read the reviews on this page, and I just couldn't believe it. FIVE STARS?!? Did we all read the same book? I found 'Sir Apropos of Nothing' mean-spirited, moronic, cheap, unoriginal, and much too self-amused for its own good. It's filled with weak and inconsistent characters, contrived plotlines, and excruciating puns that turned my stomach: The Draft? Queen Bea? The Flaming Nether Regions? The Harpers Bizarre? Puh-LEEEZE! I wish I had never laid eyes on this sorry excuse for literature. I wish I could give it a lower recommendation than one star. It's just awful. Awful, awful, awful. You were a very good comic book writer, Mr. David. It's not too late to go back to that.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 18, 2004

    Revenge of the Sidekick

    Apropos's antics were halarious. I found the reality to be very smart and original. The hero is a selfish coward who is just like all of us. We all know that if faced with incredible dangers we would run like cowards. Apropos is a clever thief but one of the best characters ever, purely for the fact that he is such a bad hero.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 21, 2003

    Finally..... A Hero for the Rest of Us

    This is not your ordinary, everyday book, and Apropos is not your ordinary, everyday man. In short, he is a lowborn, crippled, child of rape, who is just trying to live his life as best he can. This goal is repeatedly hampered by a series of hilarious misadventures which involve such mystical creatures as unicorns, harpies and a phoenix. Whenever Apropos is presented with a dangerous situation, his first instinct is to 'run like heck.' Still, he manages to end up doing the right thing. He is not just a hero, but a hero for modern times. Peter David's writing makes the story quick, easy, and fun to read. There are numerous plot twists and an interesting ending! I would recommend it for anyone who's looking for something light and different. Welcome to the world of Sir Apropos of Nothing!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 7, 2001

    BRILLIANT

    I have read many books in my life but this book is just amazing. It's funny and it shows the many aspects and facades of human nature.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 20, 2001

    Not your average hero

    I loved this book! Written very well from the protagonist's POV, I found it very funny with lots of surprises. The philosophy in the book is interesting and the main character's struggles with morality provoked lots of thought. For anyone who likes something different, I definitely recommend this book and I'm eagerly awaiting the next one.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 13, 2001

    A FUNNY FANTASY

    PETER DAVID is the American answer to Terry Pratchett. This is a well constructed tale for adult fantasy reader

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