Read an Excerpt
The walls of the crowded tavern were shaken from the boom of drunken voices. After solemn mutual toasts, after good-natured but pointed jests, after cheerful scuffles, it was now time to dance on the table. They were dancing with a pair of maidservants who, although as sober as their work required, were flushed and giddy from the glitter of epaulets; from all the gleaming buttons, scabbards, and ribbons; from the passionate glances directed at them; and from their efforts to please the gentlemen of the guards. Glasses and jugs tumbled to the floor. Silver forks twisted into fanciful arabesques, crushed by nimble heels. The maidservants’ full skirts fanned through the air like decks of cards in the hands of a gambler, and their happy squeals rang in the ears of the onlookers. The landlady of the tavern, a wise, gaunt old woman who only occasionally stuck her nose out from her refuge in the kitchen, knew that there was nothing to worry about: the guards were rich and generous, and the damages would be recouped with interest, and more important, the popularity of the establishment would increase a thousandfold after this evening.
After dancing, the revelers calmed down, the din of voices quieted just a bit, and the maidservants, panting and adjusting their clothing, refilled the jugs that had escaped being smashed and brought new glasses from the kitchen. Now, having returned to their senses, both girls bashfully lowered their eyelashes, ashamed at how freely they had behaved. At the same time, an ardent, chimerical hope for something vague, something entirely unfeasible smoldered within the soul of each girl, and whenever a dusty boot brushed against one of their tiny feet as if by accident, that hope flared up and imbued their youthful faces and tender necks with color.
The girls were named Ita and Feta, so it was only natural that the befuddled carousers kept confusing their names; moreover, many of the guards could no longer manage their tongues and thus were scarcely able to compliment the girls further. The impassioned glances were fading, and together with them the girlish hopes for something unrealizable were slowly diminishing, when a heavy battle dagger suddenly slammed into the doorjamb right above Ita’s head.
The room became quiet immediately, so quiet that the landlady stuck her inflamed purple nose out of her kitchen. The revelers looked around in mute amazement, as if they expected to see the menacing Spirit Lash on the smoke-fouled ceiling. Bewildered, at first Ita just opened her mouth, but then, finally realizing what had happened, she dropped an empty jug on the floor.
In the tense silence, a heavy chair scraped back from one of the tables. Trampling the fragments of the broken jug under his boots, a man unhurriedly approached the girl. The knife sheath on his belt was empty, but soon the sinister weapon was extracted from the doorjamb and slid back into its place. The man took a piece of gold from a fat purse.
“Take it, girl. Would you like to earn more?”
The tavern exploded with shouts and laughter. The gentlemen guards—those who were still in any condition to move—joyfully clapped one another on the shoulders and backs, rejoicing at the bold and fortunate amusement thought up by their comrade.
“That’s Egert! Bravo, Egert! A daring brute, upon my word! Well, do it again!”
The owner of the dagger smiled. When he smiled, a dimple appeared on his right cheek near the corner of his mouth.
Ita helplessly clenched her fists, unable to take her eyes off that dimple. “But, Lord Egert, you can’t just … Lord Egert!”
“What, are you afraid?” Egert, a lieutenant of the regiment, asked smoothly, and Ita broke out in a sweat before the gaze of his clear gray blue eyes.
“Stand with your back to the door.”
“But, Master Egert, you’ve all been drinking so heavily!”
“What! Don’t you trust me?”
Ita’s feathery eyelashes fluttered repeatedly. The spectators crawled onto the tables in order to see better: even the truly drunk ones sobered up for the sake of such a spectacle. The landlady, more than a bit agitated now, stood frozen in the kitchen doorway with a mop held motionless at her side.
Egert turned to the guards. “Knives! Daggers! Whatever you have!”
Within a minute, he was bristling like a porcupine.
“You’re drunk, Egert,” Dron, another lieutenant, let the words drop as if by accident.
A swarthy young man peeled himself from the crowd of guards. “Really? He hasn’t drunk all that much. Why, it’d barely wet a bedbug’s knees, the amount he’s drunk! How can he be drunk?”
Egert burst out laughing. “True! Feta, wine!”
Feta obeyed: not immediately, but slowly and mechanically, and simply because she would not dare to disobey the request of a customer.
“But, but,” stammered Ita, watching as a gurgling waterfall of wine tumbled down Egert’s throat.
“Not a word,” he spat, wiping his lips. “Stand back, everyone.”
“Oh, he is drunk!” The shout came from among the gathering of spectators. “He’s going to kill the girl, the idiot!”
A small brawl ensued, but it was soon quieted. Apparently, the heckler had been dealt with.
“I’ll give you a coin for each throw,” explained a teetering Egert to Ita. “One coin per shot. Stay where you are!”
The girl, who had been slowly trying to withdraw from the oak door, fearfully staggered back to her previous position.
“One, two…” Egert took the first throwing knife that came to hand from the mass of weapons. “No, this is so boring. Karver!”
The swarthy youth appeared next to him as if he had been awaiting this summons.
“Candles. Put candles in her hands and one on her head.”
“No!” Ita burst into tears. For a moment, the silence was broken only by her distressed sobs.
“How about this?” An extraordinary thought, it seemed, had dawned on Egert. “For each throw, I’ll give you a kiss.”
Ita slowly raised her tearstained eyes, but the few seconds of procrastination were enough.
“Let me!” Feta pushed her friend out of the way, stood in front of the door, and took the lit candles from the hands of Karver, who was snickering.
The blades clipped the quivering flames ten times, they entered the wood directly over the girl’s head another two times, and they passed within a fingerbreadth of her temple yet three more times. Lieutenant Egert Soll kissed the lowly maidservant Feta a total of fifteen times.
Everyone considered it well played except for Ita. She fled to the kitchen to sob. Feta’s eyes were lowered, and the skillful hands of the lieutenant rested on her waist. The landlady looked on sorrowfully, yet with understanding. It soon became obvious that Feta was feverish and swooning from passion. Somewhat uneasy, Lord Soll decided to take her to her room; he was not gone for very long, but once he returned, he encountered the rapturous, somewhat envious looks of his comrades.
The night was already well past its peak when the company finally quit the welcoming establishment. Lieutenant Dron spoke to Egert’s swaying back. “All the mothers in the district scare their daughters with stories of Lieutenant Soll. You truly are a rascal.”
“That merchant Vapa, you know, that rich man who bought the empty house on the embankment? Well, he just brought in a young wife from the provinces, and guess what: He’s already been informed by the local gossips that he should fear neither pestilence nor ruin, but a young guard by the name of Soll.”
Everyone laughed except for Karver. He frowned at the mention of the merchant’s wife, gritted his teeth, and said, “That’s what I thought. Someone let it slip in all innocence, and now the merchant doesn’t sleep a wink. He guards her.” He crossly tossed his head. Obviously, the merchant’s wife had long occupied his thoughts, but her jealous husband had managed to disoblige him by his very existence.
Wobbling, Egert stopped, and the blissful vacancy of drunkenness on his face gradually gave way to interest. “Are you lying?”
“If I were lying?” reluctantly responded Karver. The conversation seemed oppressive to him.
The whole company gradually sobered up enough to consider the situation; someone chuckled at the thought of intrigue.
Egert drew his sword from its sheath, his renowned sword of ancient design, and holding its narrow edge close to his face, he solemnly pronounced, “I vow that the merchant shall not protect himself, not from pestilence, not from ruin, and definitely not from—”
His last words were drowned out by an outburst of laughter. Karver’s face darkened, and he hunched his head down into his shoulders.
* * *
The glorious city of Kavarren was as ancient as it was militaristic. In no other city did there live, side by side, so many renowned descendants of venerable houses; in no other city did there grow such an assortment of family trees. Nowhere else were valor and military skill so highly valued: the only thing Kavarren valued as highly as prowess with a blade and bravery in battle was skill in breeding and training boars, whose fights were the primary entertainment in the city.
Any House in Kavarren could, if necessary, withstand the onslaught of hundreds of troops. The walls of every manor were surpassingly strong and thick, the unassailable, narrow windows cut in these walls loomed darkly, and a multitude of steel spikes protruded here and there on both gates and doors. An entire arsenal, consisting of myriad types of weapons, was carefully deposited in the vault of each house, and above each roof a banner, adorned with fringe, waved proudly. On the exterior side of the gates, each house boasted a coat of arms, one sight of which might put an entire army to flight from fear of the numerous claws and teeth, the fiery eyes and the ferociously grinning jaws therein. The city was surrounded by a fortress wall, and the gates were protected by such forbidding engravings that even Khars, Protector of Warriors, would either lose his head or flee for his life should he choose to attack Kavarren.
But most of all, Kavarren was proud of its elite force, the regiment of guards. As soon as a son was born into one of the esteemed families, his father would immediately strive for the rosy-cheeked babe’s enrollment in these glorious military ranks. Not a single holiday passed by without a military parade to show off the prowess of this regiment; on the days without a parade, the streets of this peaceful city were constantly patrolled, the pubs prospered, and although mothers constantly and severely appealed to their daughters to be prudent, duels occurred occasionally. These duels were long discussed by the town gossips with both satisfaction and pleasure.
However, the guards were renowned not only for their debaucheries and adventures. The regiment’s history was full of victories during the internecine wars that had broken out entirely too often in the past. The present-day guards, the descendants of the famous warriors of old, frequently displayed their military skill in skirmishes with the wicked, well-armed bands of highwaymen who occasionally flooded the surrounding forests. All the respectable men of the city spent their youths in the saddle with a weapon in hand.
However, the most terrible event in the history of the city was by no means some war or siege, but the Black Plague, which appeared in Kavarren many decades ago and in the course of three days cut the number of townspeople nearly in two. Walls and fortifications and sharp steel proved powerless against the Plague. The old men of Kavarren, who lived through the Plague in their childhoods, enjoyed recounting the terrible story to their grandsons; however, the young men were quite capable of ignoring all these horrors, possessing that happy talent of youth that allows admonitions heard but a moment ago with their right ears to instantly fly out their left.
Egert Soll was the flesh of the flesh of his native Kavarren; he was a true son and embodiment of its heroism. If he had died suddenly at the age of twenty and a half years, he would have been lauded as the very spirit of Kavarren; it must be said, however, that in his attractive, blond head there were absolutely no thoughts of death.
If anything, Egert did not believe in death: this from the man who managed to kill two men in duels! Both incidents were discussed widely, but inasmuch as they were both questions of honor and all the rules of dueling had been strictly adhered to, the townspeople soon began to talk of Egert with respect, rather than with any sort of condemnation. Tales of Egert’s other victories, in which his opponents escaped with mere wounds or mutilation, simply served as textbook examples for the city’s young boys and adolescents.
However, as time went on, Egert fought fewer and fewer duels, not because his combative vehemence had been exhausted, but because there were fewer volunteers willing to throw themselves on his family sword. Egert was a devoted student of swordplay; the blade became his sole plaything at the age of thirteen when his father ceremoniously presented him with the family heirloom in lieu of his childhood practice sword.
It is no wonder that Egert had very few to balance out his abundance of friends. Friends met with him in every tavern, friends followed at his heels in packs and involuntarily became the witnesses and participants in his impetuous amusements.
A worshipper of all kinds of danger, he recognized the distinctive charm of dancing on the razor’s edge. Once, on a dare, he scaled the exterior wall of the fire tower, the highest building in the city, and rang the bell three times, inducing by this action a fair bit of alarm among the townsfolk. Lieutenant Dron, who had entered into this bet with Egert, was required to kiss the first woman he encountered, and that woman turned out to be an old spinster, the aunt of the mayor—oh, what a scandal!
Another time, a guard by the name of Lagan had to pay up; he lost a bet when Egert, in full view of everyone, saddled a hefty, reddish brown bull, which was furious but completely stupefied at such impudence. Clenching a horse bridle in his teeth, Lagan hauled Egert on his shoulders from the city gates to his own house.
But mostly the cost of these larks fell to Karver.
They had been inseparable since childhood. Karver clung to Egert and loved him like a brother. Not especially handsome but not hideous, not especially strong but not a weakling; Karver always lost in comparison with Egert and yet at the same time basked in the reflection of his glory. From an early age, he conscientiously worked for the right to be called the friend of such a prominent young man, enduring at times both humiliations and mockery.
He wanted to be just like Egert; he wanted it so fervently that slowly, imperceptibly even to himself, he began to take on his friend’s habits, his mannerisms, his swagger, even his voice. He learned to swim and walk on ropes, and Heaven only knows what that cost him. He learned to laugh aloud at his own spills into muddy puddles; he did not cry when blows, accurately thrown by a young Egert, left bruises on his shoulders and knees. His magnificent friend valued his dedication and loved Karver in his own way; this, however, did not keep him from forgetting about the existence of his friend if he did not see him with his own eyes even for a day. Once, when he was fourteen years old, Karver decided to test his friend: He said he was ill, and did not show his face among his comrades for an entire week. He sat at home, reverently waiting for Egert to remember him, which of course Egert did not: he was distracted by numerous amusements, games, and outings. Egert did not know, of course, that Karver sat silently by his window for all seven days of his voluntary seclusion nor that, despising himself, he once broke out into hot, spiteful, angry tears. Suffering from solitude, Karver vowed he would break with Egert forever, but then he broke down and went to see him, and he was met with such sincere joy that he immediately forgot the insult.
Little changed as they grew up. Timid Karver’s love affairs all fell apart, usually when Egert instructed him in the ways of love by leading girls whom Karver found attractive away from him right under his nose. Karver sighed and forgave, regarding his own humiliation as a sacrifice for friendship.
Egert was wont to require the same daring of those around him as he himself possessed, and he did his best to mock those who fell short of his expectations. He was especially unforgiving to Karver; once in late autumn, when the river Kava, which skirted the town, froze over for the first time, Egert proposed a contest to see who could run over it, from bank to bank, the quickest. All his friends quickly pretended to have important business to attend to, sicknesses and infirmities, but Karver, who showed up as he usually did just to be at hand, received such a contemptuous sneer and such a scathing, vile rebuke that he flushed from his ears to his heels. Within an inch of crying, he consented to Egert’s suggestion.
Of course, Egert, who was taller and heavier, easily skimmed across the slick ice to the opposite bank as the fish in the gloomy depths gaped at him in astonishment. Of course, Karver got scared at the crucial moment and froze, intending to go back, and with a cry he dropped into a newly made, gleaming black opening in the ice, magnanimously affording Egert the chance to save him and by that act earn himself yet more laurels.
Interestingly enough, he was sincerely grateful to Egert for dragging him out of the icy water.
Mothers of grown daughters winced at the name of Egert Soll; fathers of adolescent sons put him up as an example for the youths. Cuckolds scowled darkly upon meeting Egert in the street, and yet for all that, they hailed him politely. The mayor forgave him his intrigues and debauches and ignored any complaints lodged against Egert because an event that had occurred during the boar-fighting season still lived in his memory.
Egert’s father, like many in Kavarren, raised fighting boars. This was considered a sophisticated and honorable art. The black boars from the House of Soll were exceptionally savage and bloodthirsty; only the dark red, brindled boars from the House of the mayor were able to rival them in competition. There was never a contest but that in the finale these eternal rivals would meet, and the victory in these battles fluctuated between the two Houses, until one fine summer day, the champion of the mayor, a crimson, brindled specimen called Ryk, went wild and charged his way through the tilting yard.
Having gutted his adversary, a black beauty by the name of Khars, the maddened boar dashed into the grandstand. His own brindled comrade, who happened to be in his path and who gave way with his belly completely shredded to pieces, delayed the lunatic boar for a short moment, but the mayor, who by tradition was sitting in the first row, only had time to let out a heartrending scream and, scooping up his wife, jump to his feet on the velvet-covered stand.
No one knows how this bloody drama might have ended; many of those who came that day to feast their eyes upon the contests, the mayor and his wife among them, may have met the same sad fate as the handsome Khars, for Ryk, nurtured in ferocity from his days as a piglet, had apparently decided that his day had finally come. The wretch was mistaken: this was not his day, but Egert Soll’s, who appeared in the middle of the action before the public in the back rows even understood what was happening.
Egert bellowed insults, most offensive to a boar, at Ryk while a blindingly bright piece of fabric, which later turned out to be the wrap that covered the naked shoulders of one of the more extravagant ladies in town, whirled without ceasing in his left hand. Ryk hesitated for all of a second, but this second was sufficient for the fearless Egert, who having jumped within a hairsbreadth of the boar, thrust his dagger, won on a bet, beneath the shoulder blade of the crimson-colored lunatic.
The stunned mayor presented the most generous of all possible gifts to the House of Soll: all the dark-red, brindled boars contained within his enclosures were instantly roasted and eaten, though it is true that their meat turned out to be tough and sinewy. Egert sat at the head of the table while his father swallowed tears of affection and pride; now the ebony beauties of the Solls would have no equal in town. The elder Soll felt that his impending old age promised to be peaceful and comfortable, for there was no doubt that his son was the best of all the sons of the city.
Egert’s mother was not at that feast. She often kept to her bed and did not enjoy noisy crowds of people. At one time, she had been a strong and healthy woman; she had taken to her bed soon after Egert killed his first opponent in a duel. It sometimes occurred to Egert that his mother avoided him and that she was nearly afraid of him. However, he always managed to drive away such strange or unpleasant thoughts.
* * *
One clear, sunny day—actually, it was the first real spring day of the year—an agreeable new acquaintance befell the merchant Vapa, who was strolling along the embankment with his young wife near at hand.
This new acquaintance, who seemed to Vapa such an exceedingly distinguished young man, was, curiously enough, Lord Karver Ott. What was remarkable about this meeting was that the young guard was promenading in the company of his sister, a girl of uncommon proportions with a high, magnificent bust and humbly lowered gray blue eyes.
The girl was named Bertina. As a foursome—Karver alongside Vapa and Bertina next to the beautiful Senia, the young wife of the merchant—they nonchalantly sauntered back and forth along the embankment.
Vapa was astonished and simultaneously moved; it was the first time one of these “cursed aristocrats” had shown him such warm regard. Senia stole a passing glance at Karver’s youthful face and then immediately lowered her eyes, as though fearful of what the punishment might be for even a single forbidden glance.
They passed by a group of guards, picturesquely stationed along a parapet. Casting a wary glance at them, Senia discovered that the young men were not chatting away as they usually did. Instead, they all stood with their backs facing the embankment and their hands held to their mouths; from time to time they trembled strangely, as if they were all suddenly stricken by one and the same ailment.
“What’s wrong with them?” she wondered to Bertina.
But Bertina merely shook her head sorrowfully and shrugged her shoulders.
Anxiously shifting his gaze from the guards to his sister and then from his sister to Senia, Karver spoke suddenly in a lowered voice. “Ah, believe me, there is such a strong tradition of debauchery in this city! Bertina is an innocent girl; it is so hard to choose friends for her when one is wary of all the pernicious influences. Oh, how good it would be if Bertina could become friends with Mistress Senia.”
With these last words, a sigh slipped out of him.
The foursome turned and began to walk on the opposite side of the embankment; the guards on the parapet were now fewer, but those who remained stubbornly watched the river: all but one who was sitting squarely on the cobblestone pavement and having some sort of fit.
“They’re drunk, as usual,” Karver noted in condemnation. The one who was sitting raised his clouded eyes and then doubled over, unable to control the laughter that pulled at his chest.
* * *
On the following day, Karver and his sister called upon Vapa. Bertina confessed to Senia that she did not know a thing about embroidering silk.
On the third day, Senia, who was intolerably bored from whiling away her days in solitude, asked her husband to allow her to meet with Bertina more often: this would undoubtedly amuse them both, and furthermore Karver’s sister had asked Senia to give her lessons in embroidery.
On the fourth day, Bertina presented herself. She was guarded by her faithful brother, who was unaccountably sullen, and as soon as he had greeted them and deposited his sister, he bowed his apologies and left. The merchant sat down to go over his accounts while Senia led her guest upstairs to her own rooms.
A canary chirped in an ornamental cage. Needles and delicate linen were extracted from a basket. Bertina’s fingers, far too stiff and coarse, refused to comply with the task, but the girl seemed to be trying her best.
“Dearest,” said Senia thoughtfully in the middle of the lesson, “is it really true that you are completely innocent?”
Bertina pricked herself with a needle and put her finger in her mouth.
“Don’t be embarrassed.” Senia smiled. “It seems to me that we can be completely open with each other. So are you really, well, you know what I mean?”
Bertina raised her gray eyes to Senia, who saw with amazement that those eyes were unimaginably sorrowful. “Ah, Senia, that is such a sad tale.”
“I thought as much!” the wife of Vapa exclaimed. “He seduced you and then dropped you, didn’t he?”
Bertina shook her head and again sighed heavily.
The room was silent for a short time and then from the street came the sound of friendly laughter from two dozen young throats.
“The guards,” Senia muttered, going to the window. “They are laughing again. What are they always laughing for?”
Bertina let out a sob.
Senia turned away from the window and sat next to her. “I see. Was he, your beloved, was he a guard?”
“If only,” whispered Bertina. “The guards are tender and honorable, the guards are faithful and manly, the guards…”
Senia pursed her lips incredulously. “I highly doubt the guards are faithful. I think it is more likely that your beloved is called Egert Soll, isn’t that so?”
Bertina jumped slightly on the cushions. The room again became quiet.
“Dear one,” began Senia in a whisper, “you know you can tell me. Have you ever experienced, well, you know, they say that women can also experience, um, pleasure. Do you understand what I mean?” Senia blushed; such candor made her uneasy.
Bertina again raised her eyes, but this time they were astonished. “But, my dear, you’re married!”
“Yes, that’s just it!” Senia abruptly stood up, entirely out of humor. Forcing the words out between her teeth, she said, “I am married. So I am.”
Her guest slowly set aside her embroidery.
Their conversation went on for about an hour. Bertina talked and talked, but her voice never gave out: on the contrary, it discovered an almost musical quality as she progressed. She closed her eyes and tenderly stroked the back of the chair; she practically cooed at one point. Senia, unable to move, stared at her with widened eyes; she could only breathe and from time to time lick her parched lips.
“And all that really happens?” she asked finally in a shaking, choked-up voice.
Bertina slowly, solemnly nodded.
“And I’ll never experience it?” Senia murmured, paralyzed by distress.
Bertina stood up. She took a deep breath as if she were planning to plunge into cold water. She tugged at the front of her dress, and two round, padded sacks fell, one after the other, onto the floor.
Senia’s breath caught in her throat, and she could not scream.
The dress slid from Bertina like skin from a snake. Muscular shoulders, a wide chest covered in curly hair, and a stomach with well-defined ridges of muscle were revealed from beneath the dress.
When the dress slipped even lower, Senia covered her eyes with her hands.
“If you scream,” whispered the voice of the man who had been Bertina, “your very own husband will…”
Senia did not hear the rest; she simply fainted.
* * *
Of course, Egert would not take advantage of the helplessness of a languishing woman. Of course, he quickly managed to bring Senia back to consciousness. And of course, their confidential conversation quickly resumed, though it was now of a decidedly different quality.
“You promise?” asked Senia, shaking from head to toe.
“Upon my word as a guard.”
“You! You’re a guard?”
“How can you ask! I’m Egert Soll!”
“Only with your consent.”
“One word, and I’ll go.”
“Should I go?”
On the first floor, the merchant Vapa was frowning angrily; his accounts just would not add up. The two dozen guards standing below the windows of his home got bored and decided to wander off.
The needlework basket had long since tumbled to the floor, spilling colorful tangles of thread. The caged canary was silent, astonished.
“Oh. Glorious Heaven!” gasped Senia, embracing Egert’s neck with her arms. He was silent; he no longer had the ability to speak.
The poor little bird was beginning to get frightened. Its cage, which hung over the bed, was swaying, rhythmically and vigorously. An ancient clock emitted a majestic series of chimes, and then it did so yet again, and again.
“Oh! Good Spirits! Glorious Heaven!” Senia did not know to whom else to pray; she was almost ready to burst from trying not to cry out at the top of her lungs.
The merchant Vapa rubbed his hands contentedly: the mistakes had been corrected, and a careless scribe would soon lose his position. And how good it was that Senia had become friends with the sister of Lord Karver! For a whole day she had been neither seen nor heard; she did not fidget in front of him, or pester him, or ask to go out walking. The merchant smirked suddenly, thinking he might even have time to go out and visit his mistress.
He raised himself up, intending to escape the confines of his armchair, but he winced at a pain in his back and remained seated.
Lurching slightly, Egert Soll peered out the window toward the embankment. Naked and enervated, he stood in the window aperture and regarded his comrades with scorn. The merchant Vapa jumped and winced. Cursed guards! What did they have to laugh about so?
A few minutes later, Senia and Bertina came downstairs. It seemed to Vapa that his wife was not herself, as if the lesson in embroidery had exhausted her. Saying good-bye, she looked into Bertina’s eyes with special tenderness.
“You’ll come again, yes?”
“Without fail,” breathed the girl, “I have not yet mastered this … stitch, dearest Senia.”
The merchant sneered contemptuously. These women are so sentimental.
“I’ll cut out the tongue,” Egert told his friends in the pub, “of anyone who gossips. Is that clear?”
There was no doubt to anyone that he would do so if the secret of the merchant’s wife Senia became gossip in the town. They all remembered their hereditary blades and their family honor, and they held their tongues.
They winked at Karver and shook his hand because it was clear to them that he had played a significant role in this whole affair. The congratulations, it seemed, afforded him little joy; heedless of the reflection of Egert’s glory that fell to him, his “brother,” Karver first got extremely drunk and then silently slipped away.
* * *
Spring broke forth with driving rains; muddy currents coursed through the steep, cobbled alleyways, and the children of cooks and shopkeepers launched wooden shoes with canvas sails attached to them off to sea while the young aristocrats peered at them from high, oriel windows with quiet envy.
One morning, a simple highway coach drove up to the inn the Noble Sword, which was located near the center of Kavarren. The coachman, going against the usual habit of his kind, did not rush to open the door of the coach, but instead sat indifferently on the driver’s box; apparently, the passengers were not his masters, but nothing more than renters. The carriage door swung open on its own and a young man, slight and lean, kicked open the running board so he could step down.
Outsiders were not all that rare in Kavarren, and it is possible that the arrival of the coach would have gone unnoticed had not Egert Soll and his friends been whiling away the hours at the Faithful Shield, a tavern opposite the inn.
“Take a look at that one!” said Karver, who was sitting by the window of the tavern.
Two or three heads turned in the direction he was looking; the other gentlemen were far too engrossed in their conversation or their wine.
“I say, check it out!” Karver nudged Egert, who was sitting next to him, in the side.
Egert glanced over. By this time, the young man had already jumped down onto the wet cobblestones and was offering his hand to someone unseen, someone still inside the coach. The youth was dressed all in dark colors, and Egert instantly felt that there was some sort of oddity in the figure of the young stranger, but he was not sure what.
“He’s not carrying a sword,” said Karver.
Only then did Egert see that the stranger was unarmed, that he was not even wearing any empty baldrics, and that on his thin belt there was no sign of a dagger, not even a kitchen knife. Egert looked at him more intently; the stranger’s clothes seemed extremely formal, but if they made up a uniform, it was in no way military.
“He’s a student,” explained Karver. “Definitely a student.”
In the meantime, the student, having conferred with the person who still remained inside the coach, went to pay the coachman, who still did not display a single sign of obeisance; obviously, in addition to not being the coach’s owner, the student was not wealthy.
“I suppose,” drawled Egert through his teeth, “students, like women, don’t wear swords?”
Egert smirked disdainfully and was about to turn his back on the window when a girl, leaning on the arm of the student, emerged from the carriage. All sound in the tavern immediately ceased.
Her face was anxious, pale from exhaustion, and doleful from the rain, but even this could not spoil it. It was a perfect face, almost as if it were finely cut from marble; only, whereas a marble statue’s white, dead eyes would have stared dully, this girl’s dark, tranquil eyes gleamed lustrously without the slightest shade of coyness.
Like her companion, the newly arrived girl was dressed simply. However, her simple traveling dress was unable to hide either her elegant figure or the lightness and suppleness of her movements. The girl jumped down onto the cobblestones next to the youth. He said something, causing the soft lips of his tired companion to quirk in a small smile and her eyes to become even more penetrating and vivid.
“That’s beyond belief,” murmured Egert.
The driver touched the reins. The two arrivals leapt back to escape from being splattered with the watery mud thrown up by the wheels. Then the young man hauled a large bundle up onto his shoulder, and the visitors entered the premises of the Noble Sword hand in hand. The door, carved with entwined monograms, closed behind them.
In the tavern, everyone started talking at once; for a moment Egert held his peace, unresponsive to the questioning glances of his friends. Then he pulled Karver to the side. “I need to know who they are.”
He stood up, prepared, as usual, to do a service for his friend. Egert watched as Karver, hopping over puddles, rushed across the street to the Noble Sword; the carved door slammed shut yet again, and nearly a quarter of an hour passed before Egert’s sidekick returned.
“Yes, he’s a student. Evidently, they’re staying for about a week.” Karver fell silent, waiting with satisfaction for his friend’s questions.
“And the girl?” Egert nearly spit the words out.
Karver smirked strangely. “She is neither his sister nor his aunt, as I had hoped. She is the fiancée of that boy and, it seems, the wedding is not far off!”
Egert was silent; Karver’s report, although not completely unexpected, piqued and almost outraged him.
“It goes against nature,” said one of the guards. “A complete misalliance.”
They all boisterously agreed.
“Do you know what I’ve heard?” interjected Karver as if in wonder. “I’ve heard that all students are castrated so they can’t be distracted by earthly pleasures, and so they fully consign themselves to their studies. Was that all a lie?”
“It seems it is a lie,” muttered Lieutenant Dron, sounding disappointed. He knocked over his forgotten wineglass.
“If he doesn’t carry a sword, he might as well be a eunuch,” said Egert quietly. They all turned in his direction. A predatory and insolent sneer stalked over Egert’s face. “What use does a eunuch have for a woman, anyway? Especially a woman like that!”
He stood up, and all his friends respectfully made way for him. Having tossed a few gold coins at the innkeeper, enough to pay for the entire company, Lieutenant Egert Soll walked out into the rain.
* * *
That very same evening, the young man and his companion were dining on the first floor of the Noble Sword; their meal was quite modest until the innkeeper, grinning widely, came over and placed a wicker basket bristling with bottle necks on the table in front of them.
“Master and mistress, compliments of Lord Soll!”
With these words, and with a meaningful smile, the innkeeper bowed himself away.
Egert, who had made himself comfortable in a far corner of the dining room, saw how the student and the lovely young woman glanced at each other in surprise. After a long deliberation, the cloth covering the basket was whipped away and joyful wonder blossomed on the faces of the pair leaning over the gifts, which was no real surprise, as the viands and wines had been selected with impeccable taste.
However, bewilderment soon replaced joy; after saying something heated to his companion, the student hopped up and ran off after the innkeeper to find out who exactly this generous benefactor, this Lord Soll, was.
Egert drained his mug to the dregs, stood up leisurely, and made his way through the room to the girl, who had been left alone. As he walked, he purposefully avoided looking at her, fearing disenchantment. For what if this beauty, when seen too close, turned out not to be as beautiful?
The dining room was half-empty. A few guests were eating and a well-behaved group of townsfolk were whiling away their time in amiable drunkenness. The Noble Sword had the reputation for being a calm, decorous establishment; the innkeeper carefully guarded against boisterous carousals and brawls. Delaying the moment of meeting the beautiful lady, Egert noticed a new face among the guests. Apparently, this tall, middle-aged traveler had arrived very recently because Egert did not know him by sight.
Having finally come to within a hairsbreadth of his goal, Egert mentally prepared himself to gaze upon the fiancée of the student.
Oh yes, she was magnificent. Her face no longer seemed so tired, and her cheeks, smooth as alabaster, had gained a bit of color. Now that he was close, he could distinguish small, previously unnoticed details, such as a constellation of tiny beauty marks on her long, proud neck and the unusually steep, bold sweep of her eyelashes.
Egert stood and gazed at her. The girl slowly raised her head and, for the first time, Egert met the gaze of her serious, slightly aloof eyes.
“Good day,” said Egert, and he sat down in the spot vacated by the student. “Does the lady object to the company of a humble worshipper of beauty?”
The girl did not become confused or frightened; she only seemed somewhat taken aback. “Excuse me, you are?”
“My name is Egert Soll.” He stood, gave a short bow, and again sat down.
“Ah.” It seemed she was about to smile. “If that is so, then we should thank you.”
“Not at all!” Egert seemed dismayed. “It is we, the humble citizens of Kavarren, who should thank you for the honor you have bestowed upon us—” He had to pause and fill his lungs with air to finish the florid phrase. “—bestowed upon us, by favoring us with your presence. How long may we shower you with hospitality?”
The girl smiled, and at that moment, Egert wanted nothing more than for that smile to never leave her face.
“You are very obliging. We will be here for a week, perhaps a bit longer.”
With a proprietary gesture, Egert produced the first bottle from the basket and adroitly uncorked it. “Please allow me to fulfill the duties of hospitality and offer you some wine. Do you have any relatives in Kavarren, or perhaps some friends?”
She managed to shake her head no, but just then the student returned and the girl smiled at him, and her smile was so joyful that it completely overshadowed the smile she had just given Egert. Egert noticed this and an unpleasant feeling slid into his soul, a feeling that almost resembled jealousy.
“Dinar, this is the Lord Soll who so generously presented us with all these marvels. Lord Soll, allow me to introduce my fiancé, Dinar.”
The student nodded to Egert, but he did not offer his hand, which was lucky because Egert would die before shaking that bony paw, unaccustomed to weapons and stained with what appeared to be darkened spots of ink. Up close, the student seemed even more despicable and awkward, and Egert felt like crying out to Heaven at the grievous wrong of allowing both the student and his wondrous companion to sit at the same table.
However, at the moment, the beauty and Egert were the only ones sitting at the table. As there were only two chairs, the student could only hover nearby.
Paying him not even the slightest bit of attention, Egert again turned to the girl. “Pardon me, but I don’t even know your name.”
The girl and the discomforted student shared a look, directed at Egert, who was lounging in his chair. The girl answered as if by rote. “My name is Toria.”
Egert repeated her name as if he were examining the taste of it. In the meantime, the student had come to his senses and dragged a third chair, which had been lying vacant nearby, to the table.
“You have neither relatives nor friends here.” Raising himself up a bit, Egert bent over Toria’s wineglass, and his hand, in a seemingly natural fashion, touched hers. “Or rather, you didn’t have any, but now the entire city, I believe, will want to make your acquaintance. Are you simply traveling for pleasure?”
The student, frowning slightly, took a glass from the serving girl and poured himself some wine. Egert smirked with the corners of his lips because the noble beverage hardly filled a third of the student’s glass.
“We are traveling,” confirmed the girl in a slightly restrained manner, “but not for pleasure. Here in Kavarren, many centuries ago, lived a man who interests us from an academic point of view. He was a mage, an archmage, and we are hoping that he left some sign of himself in the ancient archives, manuscripts, and chronicles.”
With every word, she became even more passionate, forgetting her momentary consternation. Some moldy papers were dearer to her, apparently, than her own brothers would be: at the word archive her voice trembled with reverence. Egert raised his glass. It was all the same to him what evoked enthusiasm in the woman, just so long as it gave fire to her eyes and flush to her cheeks.
“A toast to travelers who search for manuscripts! But I don’t think there ever were any chronicles in Kavarren, and there certainly aren’t now.”
The student puffed out his lips. Without any expression, he said, “There is an extensive historical library in Kavarren, in the Town Hall. Is this news to you?”
Egert refused to trouble himself by entering into conversation with him. Toria, it would seem, was able to appreciate good wine; her eyes had closed with delight after the very first sip. To afford her more opportunities for pleasure, Egert took the next bottle out of the basket.
“Note this wine; it is the pride of Kavarren’s wine cellars, the offspring of southern vineyards, Serenade Muscatel. Would you like to try it?”
As he once again filled her glass, he inhaled the scent that emanated from her. It was the scent of a perfume, of insistent tart herbs and flowers. Then, caressing her warm, twitching hand, he put a tiny slice of rare brisket on her plate. The student sullenly twisted the bottle cork in his long fingers.
“So, what is it about this lucky fellow that interests you even after so many centuries?” asked Egert with an engaging smile. “If only I were in his place.”
She willingly proceeded to tell him the long and entirely uninteresting history of the mage, who founded some kind of order and called them an army. Egert did not understand immediately that she was talking about the Sacred Spirit Lash, to whom some people somewhere, he supposed, really did pay homage.
“Yes, and after he died, his followers claimed he was a god. Historians think that in the end of his life the great mage went mad, and his insanity infected the Order. Can you believe that they’re still sitting around waiting for the End of Time?”
Egert listened to Toria, and the girl’s words flowed past his ears, but her voice, her sweet, uncommon voice, fascinated him. Her velvet lips opened smoothly, allowing her white teeth to flash through; Egert broke out into a sweat, imagining the kiss these spectacular lips could give.
He wished that the girl would talk forever, but she paused, having glanced in passing at the student. He was sitting with his cockles raised like a wounded bird and was looking at her reproachfully.
“I beg you to continue,” said Egert ingratiatingly. “I find this extremely interesting. So this Order of Lash still exists?” The student glared eloquently at Toria and then raised his eyes to the ceiling. Egert was not blind; he had no problem reading in this action the student’s utmost contempt for his academic knowledge. However, to take notice of the behavior of this ratty, pitiful student was beneath his dignity.
Toria smiled in embarrassment. “I would be quite happy to talk to you about it, but we are very tired from the road, so I suppose it is time for us to go.” She stood up smoothly, leaving her glass of wine unfinished.
“Mistress Toria!” Egert jumped up with her. “Perhaps it may be that you will allow me to fulfill my duties as a host tomorrow? If you are really interested in the local sights of interest, I am considered an expert on them, the best in the entire city.”
Egert considered Kavarren’s sights of interest to consist mainly of taverns and the paddocks of the fighting boars, but the credulous Toria was taken in by his utterly unartful trap. “Is that so?”
The student groaned heavily.
Not paying him the slightest attention, Egert nodded energetically. “Without a doubt. Will you permit me to know your plans for tomorrow?”
“They have yet to be determined,” the youth answered morosely. Peering at him through narrowed eyes, Egert noted with amusement that students were capable of becoming angry.
“Mistress Toria”—Egert turned to the girl as if there had never been a student born into the world—“tomorrow I ask that you plan for a sightseeing tour, dinner at the finest establishment in Kavarren, and an evening excursion on a boat. The Kava is an extremely picturesque little river, did you notice?”
She somehow seemed to deflate. Her eyes darkened and now they seemed like twin pits beneath a troubled sky.
Egert smiled as charmingly, as sincerely, and as vulnerably as he could. “I didn’t understand half your tale. I would truly like to ask you a few questions about this, um, gentleman, who gave the world the Order of Lash. And to show my gratitude for the tale, I, your humble servant, will arrange everything for your pleasure. Everything that you require will be laid at your feet. Until tomorrow!”
He bowed and left; the tall, middle-aged guest followed his exit with a weary gaze.
* * *
The custodian of the Town Hall delayed and shook his head for a long time: the book depositories were in a useless state; a large portion of the books had been destroyed in a fire, which had occurred about thirty years ago. He worried that a beam might very well fall on the heads of the young people. The researchers, however, were adamant, and in the end they were allowed access to the treasures they wished to see.
Of those treasures, however, there remained only pitiful crumbs: those very few that the fire had spared had become fat with an entire generation of rats. Raking through the rubbish and litter, the researchers kept exploding into exclamations of despair. Egert, appearing in the book depository with an enormous bouquet of roses, found the young couple just at the moment when, amidst the general ruin, they finally found a corner that had survived more or less intact.
They completely ignored Egert’s arrival. The student was hanging somewhere under the ceiling, swaying on a broken-down stepladder; Toria was craning her neck to watch him, and in her pose Egert saw something akin to worship. Tufts of spiderwebs were tangled in her hair, but her eyes were shining and her soft lips were half-open with delight as she listened to the student, who spoke without ceasing.
He was bursting with words like a fountain bursts with water. Reading out incomprehensible passages from a book, he interpreted them for Toria in the same breath. Long, outlandish names rolled off his tongue while he floridly reasoned out runic texts, and from time to time he switched over into some language that Egert did not know. The girl took a heavy, dusty volume from his hand, and her tender fingers caressed its binding so reverently that Egert experienced a moment of irrational jealousy toward the book.
He stood there for nearly half an hour without being honored by so much as a single glance. Annoyed, he placed the bouquet in the nearest corner and left. His wounded pride pricked unpleasantly at his soul.
The young guests returned to the inn just in time for supper, but once that was over Toria did not leave her room, nor did she answer the courteous note Egert sent her.
On the following day, the custodian of the Town Hall had an appointment with the beneficent Lord Soll, and so the young researchers, who turned up for their books, received a bewildering refusal: it was entirely impossible today; the stairs were under repairs; the keys were under guard. The student and Toria, astonished, were forced to return to the inn. Egert sat in the dining room the entire day, but still Toria did not descend the stairs.
It rained all night long. The rain drenched the student, who departed for the Town Hall in the morning and again returned defeated. It was well after dinner when the clouds finally dispersed and the sun began to peek down upon the drenched city; the young couple, having been so inactive for the past two days, decided to go out for a walk.
As if they were afraid to walk very far away from the inn, the student and his fiancée turned back and forth several times along the drying street, completely unaware of how many attentive eyes kept watch over them through the windows of the Faithful Shield. One noted that the student watched over his fiancée far better than the merchant Vapa watched over his wife; another noted that the wife of the merchant could not hold a candle to the visiting beauty; yet another began to laugh.
Then Karver appeared in the path of the two promenaders.
The spectators, glued to the windows of the Faithful Shield, watched as Karver, as if by chance, grazed the student’s shoulder and then bowed apologetically, almost to the ground; the student bowed as well, and Karver joyfully started a conversation with him, and after asking most humbly for Toria’s permission, led the young man to the opposite side of the street. Waving his arms about, he had herded the student still farther along the street, almost to the corner, when Egert emerged from the doors of the tavern.
Toria answered Egert’s formal greeting with a polite yet reserved nod. She did not seem bewildered or fearful; her eyes, as detached as before, looked at Egert attentively, fearlessly, and with patient inquisitiveness.
“Well, you’re a cunning one, aren’t you,” said Egert with rough reproach. “You made a promise, you did. I waited for the continuation of your tale, and you never came down even once!”
She sighed. “Tell the truth. You’re not the least bit interested in that.”
“Me?” erupted Egert.
Toria looked over her shoulder, searching for her fiancé; catching that tense glance, Egert scowled and began speaking in a low voice.
“What is the point of your seclusion? Are you really preparing yourself for the role of the humble wife, and for such a tyrannical little husband? What’s so terrible about a little conversation, or perhaps a stroll? What’s wrong with having dinner together, or taking a boat ride? But perhaps I’ve offended you somehow. Or maybe you don’t belong to yourself?”
She turned away from him; Egert feasted his eyes on her profile.
“You are so persistent,” she said reprovingly.
“And what would you have me do?” Egert marveled sincerely. “The most beautiful woman in the world is visiting my town.”
“Thank you. You have peculiar notions of hospitality. But I must leave you.” Toria took a step in the direction where the garrulous Karver had ensnared the student.
Egert grew angry. “You are going to chase after that man? You?”
Flushing, Toria took another step.
Egert blocked her path. “You are like a precious jewel that has chosen a rotten hunk of wood as her setting. Use your eyes! You were born to rule; you are a queen, a goddess, but you—”
The student escaped from the corner; he was red faced and disheveled, as if he had been scuffling, and it seemed likely that something unpleasant had happened between him and Karver, who leapt after him, shouting for the whole street to hear.
“Sir, you aren’t even married yet and already you’re playing the cuckold! If the woman wants to talk to a man in the street, a man who is pleasing to her, that is no reason for hysterics!”
An artisan passing by burst out laughing. The gray-haired guest, who had just exited the doors of the inn, slowly turned his head toward the group. Lieutenant Dron and the eternally gloomy Lagan emerged onto the front steps of the Faithful Shield.
The student flushed from red to purple; he turned toward Karver as if about to strike him, but then he thought better of it. He turned back and hurried over to the perplexed Toria. He took her forcefully by the hand. “Let’s go.”
Their route of escape, however, had already been blocked off by Egert. Gazing straight into Toria’s eyes, he asked softly, “Are you so submissive as to allow this … this creature to lead you away to the gray, spiritless life he has prepared for you?”
Karver shouted at the student, “But you still have time, sir, to fit yourself for horns! Not a week will pass after your happy little wedding before they adorn your learned brow!”
The student had begun to shake slightly; not even Toria’s hand, which was holding his wrist in a viselike grip, could restrain this shaking.
“Lord Soll, please allow us to pass.”
“In the event that a man should whip out his sword, you, sir, will be able to poke him with your horns,” continued Karver. “This should give you with a certain advantage.”
The student, as though blind, leapt forward right into Egert. Egert’s iron-hard chest repelled him back to his former position.
“What would you call that combat maneuver, master student?” asked Karver. “The Pouncing Pupil? Do they teach that at the university?”
“Lord Soll,” said Toria softly, looking Egert straight in the eye, “it seemed to me that you were an honorable man.”
Over the course of his, admittedly not very long, life, Egert had had sufficient occasion to study women; he had seen numerous coquettes, whose Be gone! meant Come to me, my love and whose Foul rogue! meant We must talk about this later. Married women in the company of their spouses had demonstrated their disinterest and then, once the two of them were alone, had thrown themselves on his neck. Egert knew and could read many shades of meaning, but in the eyes of Toria he read not only complete indifference to the splendor of his manliness, but also the furious power of antagonism, of rejection.
Lieutenant Egert Soll was cut to the quick. In front of the entire regiment sitting in the Faithful Shield, a student, almost a eunuch, someone who did not even carry weapons, had been chosen over him, a man who had heretofore never known defeat.
Unwillingly stepping to the side, he gritted his teeth and snarled, “Well, my sincerest congratulations! An aristocrat in the embrace of a sniveling bookworm: what a splendid couple! But perhaps your learned spouse is just a screen behind which you hide your many lovers?”
Drawn by the noise in the street, the maidservants and guests were peering out the windows of the inn.
The student released Toria’s hand. Ignoring her beseeching look, he drew a deep line in front of Egert’s boots with the dusty toe of his shoe: the traditional challenge to a duel.
Egert laughed condescendingly. “What? I don’t brawl with women! You, my dear sir, don’t even have any weapons!”
Drawing his hand back, the student quickly and audibly slapped Egert across his face.
* * *
The excited crowd—guards, guests of the inn, chambermaids, servants, and casual passersby—filled the rear courtyard of the Noble Sword; Karver was there, practically crawling out of his skin, hurrying to clear a space amidst them for the combatants.
Some kind soul had lent the student his sword, but in his hands even that decent blade looked ridiculous, like knight’s armor at a grocer’s stand. His fiancée seemed ready to break down into tears for the first time since Egert had met her. Toria’s cheeks, white as a shroud, were covered in irregular splotches; their jagged pattern concealed her beauty. Biting her lips, she threw herself at the spectators by turns.
“Stop this, you! Merciful Heaven, Dinar! Stop them, someone!”
To stop an honorably proclaimed duel was unlawful and also foolish: all the residents of Kavarren had imbibed that notion with their mother’s milk. They simply watched Toria with sympathy and curiosity, and many of the women envied her silently: Just think, to be the reason for a duel!
One chambermaid decided, with sincere goodwill, to comfort the poor girl. Throwing off her arms, Toria, despairing of being able to stop Dinar, decided to leave. But she returned almost immediately, as if on a leash. The crowd parted before her, politely giving way, silently acknowledging her right to watch all the details of the fight. Toria leaned against the wheel of a carriage and remained frozen there as if overtaken by stupor.
The adversaries were ready. They stood opposite each other, enemy against enemy. Egert grinned derisively: there was nothing better than love, except a duel. True, his rival was entirely worthless. Just look at how he wheezes, trying to stand in the correct position! It was apparent that he had taken a fencing lesson or two, but not enough to do him any good.
Egert cast his eyes over the faces in the crowd, searching for Toria. Would she watch? Would she finally understand that she had favored a tiny stream from an overflowing sink over a thundering waterfall? Would she repent?
Instead of Toria, Egert met the eyes of the middle-aged guest, that gray-haired man whose head rose above the crowd like a pine tree towering over an orchard. The guest’s gaze, steadfast but expressionless, displeased Egert; he tossed his head and flicked his sword at the student like a stern master flicking a switch.
The student recoiled involuntarily, and the crowd burst into laughter.
“Lay into him, Egert!”
Egert grinned widely. “This is nothing more than a small lesson in good manners.”
The student narrowed his eyes, bent his knees as though he were in a fencing class, and sprang forward recklessly, as if he intended to chop Egert up into cabbage. Within a second, he was looking around in amazement, searching for his opponent, while Egert, appearing behind his back, reminded the student of himself with a delicate jab just below his spine.
“Try not to get distracted, now!”
The student whirled around as though stung. Egert bowed politely and retreated a step.
“All is not lost, lad! Gather your strength and give it another shot. The lesson is just beginning!”
The student stood as rigidly as a mast; the tip of his blade was not pointed at the eyes of his opponent, as it should, but rather at the sky. He lunged awkwardly, managing to hit Egert’s sword, but then the student’s blade swung wide. Its tip hit the sand, and he was barely able to keep his grip on the hilt. The spectators began to applaud. Egert, however, was already bored with this game. He could fence for a hundred hours without rest, if only his hopelessly feeble adversary would not fight so tiresomely.
Egert knew seventeen defenses and twenty-seven attack maneuvers. The entire allure of the sport consisted of connecting these maneuvers so that they created a mosaic tapestry that he wove with his sword, then scattered and reassembled anew. Egert was unable, afterwards, to repeat many of the improvisations that resulted from this weaving: they were born from inspiration, like verse, and they were usually crowned with a wound, if not death. Alas, with this student before him, even with a sword, Egert was limited to using one particular maneuver, a maneuver so simple and vulgar that it resembled smoked herring.
Turning away from yet another clumsy attack, carelessly fending off strong yet inaccurate blows, Egert turned his head in search of Toria. Once he saw her pallid, almost vacant face in the crowd, he mounted his own attack, and the student did not even have time to understand what was happening. Egert dramatically held the tip of his blade near the student’s chest, and the audience yelled out rapturously. Only the tall, gray-haired boarder maintained his calm.
This was repeated again and again. The student could have died ten times already, but Lord Soll prolonged the game, playing with the youth like a cat plays with a mouse. The student thrashed about, brandishing his sword. Pebbles skittered away from under his dusty shoes, but his enemy was like a shadow, ever-present and untouchable.
Egert’s intentionally pedantic, toxic voice never ceased admonishing the student. “So! Ah-ha! Like this! Why do you squirm so, like a snake in a frying pan? Again! And again! Ha! Yes, you are a lazy, indolent pupil! You must be punished! Now!”
Every cry of now was followed by a small jab. The student’s coat, lacerated in several places, hung in rags, and sweat poured down his drawn face.
The combatants once again stood facing each other. The student was worn out and bewildered, while Egert was not even out of breath. Looking into his opponent’s desolate, hate-filled eyes, Egert sensed his own power, an idle, unhurried power that did not even need to be used, only enjoyed.
“Are you afraid?” he asked in a whisper, and in the same breath he read the answer in the student’s eyes: Yes, he was afraid. Terror stood in front of Egert, whose sword was like a serpent’s sting pointed at the poor man’s chest. Egert’s opponent was defenseless against him; he was no longer an opponent, but a victim, and rage had long since given way to anxiety and the desire to ask for mercy, if only his pride would allow it.
“Should I show you mercy?” Egert smiled with just the corner of his mouth. He felt the student’s terror on his skin, and this feeling sweetly thrilled his nerves: all the more so since, in the depths of his soul, Egert had already decided not to penalize the boy too harshly.
“Should I show mercy? Well?”
Despair and terror forced the student into a new, hopeless attack. At the exact same moment, Egert’s boot came down in a puddle, forsaken by the rain, and lost its solid connection to the ground. The legs of the magnificent Egert splayed apart like the limbs of a newborn colt. He barely kept his balance, and the student’s sword grazed the guard’s shoulder, slicing off his epaulet. That proud military affectation hung by a thread, like a dead spider, and the crowd—that cursed crowd, always on the side of the victor—broke out into delighted howls.
“Ha, Egert! He got a hit!”
“Keep at it! Keep at it! He’ll fall back!”
“Bravo, student! Teach him a lesson! Thrash him!”
When guards who had been observed in some villainy or cowardice, or who had been convicted of treason, were expelled from the regiment, they suffered a shameful punishment: Their epaulets were publicly shorn from their shoulders. Without knowing it, the student had brought great shame upon Egert, who saw his comrades exchanging glances, smirking and whispering amongst themselves—for shame!
Everything further transpired instantaneously, in the space of a breath.
Forgetting himself in his fury, Egert sprang forward. The student, absurdly throwing up his sword, leapt forward to meet him—and froze, his astonished eyes staring into the guard’s. Egert’s family sword blossomed from his back; it was not lustrous as usual, but dark red, almost black. Standing for a second more, the student fell down as awkwardly as he had fought. The crowd became quiet; a blind man would have thought that there was not a single soul in the back courtyard of the tavern. The student slumped heavily onto the trampled dirt, and Egert’s unmercifully long blade slipped out of his chest like a snake.
“He impaled himself,” said Lieutenant Dron loudly.
Egert stood, his blood-soaked sword lowered down toward the ground, and stared dully at the form in front of him. The crowd shuffled slightly, letting Toria through.
She walked carefully, as if on a wire. Paying no heed to Egert, she approached the youth on tiptoe, as though she were afraid to wake him. “Dinar?”
The young man did not answer.
The crowd dispersed, averting their eyes. A reddish black stain crept out from under the lad’s dark coat. The innkeeper sniveled in a low voice, “Oh, these duels! Young blood is hot, everyone knows it. What should I do now? Well, what am I going to do?”
Egert spit to get rid of a metallic taste in his mouth. Glorious Heaven, why did it go so wrong?
“Dinar!” Toria gazed pleadingly into the young man’s face.
The courtyard emptied slowly; as he was leaving, the tall gray-haired boarder cast a glance in the direction of Egert, a glance that was intent yet incomprehensible.
* * *
The student was buried quickly, but with all the proper decorum, at the city’s expense. The city was flush with gossip for a week. Toria addressed a complaint to the mayor. He received her, but only so that he could express his condolences and lift his hands in dismay: the duel proceeded according to all the proper rules, and although it is extremely unfortunate that the youth died, did not he himself challenge Lord Soll? Alas, my dear lady, this unfortunate incident can in no way be called a murder. Lord Soll is not under arrest. He fought on the field of honor, and he too might have been killed. And if the deceased gentleman student did not carry weapons and did not know how to wield them, well then, this misfortune falls to the student and is in no way the fault of Lieutenant Soll.…
Four days had passed from the day of the duel, three from the day of the burial. In the gray early morning, Toria abandoned the city.
The week of her stay in Kavarren lay on her face in black, funereal shadows. The student’s bundle dragged on her arm as she plodded out to the carriage waiting by the entrance; her eyes, extinguished, ringed with dark shadows, watched the ground as she walked, which is why she did not immediately recognize the man who courteously lowered the running board of the coach.
Someone’s hand helped her cast the bundle onto the seat. Mechanically offering thanks, Toria raised her eyes and came face-to-face with Egert Soll.
Egert had been watching over the fiancée of the student he killed, though he himself did not know why. It is possible that he wanted to apologize and to express his sympathy, but it is more likely that he entertained certain vague hopes in regards to Toria. As a worshipper of risk and danger, he was accustomed to taking a relaxed approach to death, his own and others’. Should not the victor have a right to count on an allotment of the relinquished inheritance of his vanquished foe? What could be more natural?
Then Toria met Egert’s gaze.
He was prepared for a display of wrath, despair, or hatred, and he had fortified himself with words appropriate to the situation. He even intended to accept a slap in the face from her hand, but what he saw in Toria’s splendid yet heartbroken eyes repelled him backwards like a blow from a steel-clad fist.
The girl looked at Egert with bleak disgust completely lacking in malice, as one might look at vermin. There was no hatred in her, but it seemed as though she might vomit at any moment.
Egert did not remember the route he took as he walked—or did he run?—away, his eyes downcast so that he might never again see or meet or remember such a gaze.
* * *
The next day, he was sitting in the Faithful Shield, gloomy, despondent, and full of malice. Karver was hovering next to him, happily chatting away about boars and women: the seasonal boar fights were not far off. Would his father enter Handsome, Butcher, or the young Battle? Incidentally, the lovely Dilia, wife of the captain, had asked about Egert, and it would be quite dangerous to neglect her; she would get her revenge. And why on earth should Egert, who was the center of attention in the city this week, spoil the bright days of such a remarkable life with despondency?
Egert instinctively noticed a certain pleasant agitation in the voice of his friend. It seemed that in the depths of his soul, Karver rejoiced in the knowledge that, although he was victorious in the field of battle, Egert had come in second in the field of love and was therefore equal to other mortals. It is possible that, in judging him this way, Egert wrongly accused Karver in his mind, but that was neither here nor there: the chatter of his friend wearied Egert. With the nail of his index finger, he carved out a furrow in the blackened tabletop. Yes, he agreed with everything Karver had to say, but for Heaven’s sake, let him shut up for a minute and give his lieutenant the opportunity to finish his mug in peace!
Just then the door opened, thrusting a waft of cool air and a ray of light into the stuffy tavern. The newcomer stood on the threshold and, after looking around to be sure he had the right place, he entered.
Egert recognized him. He was that strange gray-haired man who had been staying at the Noble Sword for the last ten days. Walking past the guards, he pulled out the chair at a vacant table nearby and heavily lowered himself into the seat.
Not knowing exactly why, Egert watched him out of the corner of his eye in the feeble light of the crowded tavern. It was the first time he managed to get a close look at the stranger’s face.
The age of the grizzled boarder was impossible to determine: he could have been anywhere from forty to ninety years old. Two deep, vertical lines intersected his cheeks and lost themselves in the corners of his chapped lips. His long, thin, yellow nose flared continually, as if it were about to fly away. His eyes, clear and set far apart, seemed completely unconcerned with the world around him. Examining him, Egert saw his large, leathery eyelids, devoid of eyelashes, twitch slightly.
The innkeeper brought the stranger a mug of wine and was about to move off when the stranger unexpectedly stopped him.
“Just a minute, dearest. Don’t you see, I’ve no one to drink with. I understand that you are busy, but all I require is a little company. I want to drink to the glorious guards, the destroyers of the defenseless.”
The innkeeper flinched: he understood quite well to whom this toast was directed. Muttering apologies under his breath, the kindly soul scuttled off, and just in time, for Egert too had heard the words that were meant for him.
Unhurriedly placing his mug back on the table, he looked the stranger right in the eyes. As before, they were calm, even indifferent, as though someone else entirely had spoken that disastrous toast.
“And just whom are you drinking to, my dear sir? Whom do you name so?”
“You,” the stranger said, undaunted. “I name you, Egert Soll. You are right to go pale.”
“Pale?” Egert stood up. He was in his cups, but far from drunk. “What the—” The words strained through his teeth. “I am afraid that someone may come tomorrow wishing to call me the destroyer of feeble old men.”
The stranger’s face changed oddly. Egert suddenly understood that he was smiling.
“A man chooses who he will be, what his reputation will be. Why don’t you slaughter, let’s say, women with that sword of yours? Or ten-year-old children? It’s possible they might have more success against you than your last victim did.”
Egert was rendered speechless; at a loss, he turned toward Karver. But Karver, who was usually so sharp of tongue, was now, for some reason, wrapped in silence. The customers of the tavern, the innkeeper, who had retreated to the kitchen doorway, and a small, snot-nosed scullion were all keeping their heads down as if they sensed that something extraordinary was about to happen.
“What do you want from me?” Egert forced out, looking into those large, limpid eyes with hatred. “Why are you trying to provoke me into drawing my sword?”
As before, the stranger stretched his long, dry mouth into a smile. His eyes remained cold. “I also have a sword. But I thought you preferred those who don’t carry weapons, eh, Soll?”
With great difficulty, Egert forced himself to unclench his fingers, which were fastened to the hilt of his sword.
“Do you like easy victims?” The stranger asked soulfully. “Victims who exude terror? That sweet feeling of power, eh, Soll?”
“He’s a madman,” Karver said quietly, as if confused. “Egert, let’s go, yeah?”
Egert drew a deep breath. The stranger’s words affected him deeply, painfully, and far more strongly than he liked. “It is your good fortune,” he uttered with difficulty, “that you could be my grandfather. And I don’t fight with old men, is that clear?”
“It’s clear.” The stranger again raised his mug, and turning to Egert, to Karver, and to all those who were listening to their conversation with bated breath, he declared, “I drink to Lieutenant Soll, the embodiment of cowardice, hiding behind a mask of valor.”
However, he did not manage to drink his toast, because Egert’s sword, flying out of its scabbard, knocked the mug out of his hand. The silver cup bounced along the stone floor and then stopped in a dark red pool of spilled wine.
“Splendid.” The stranger contentedly wiped his wet fingers on his napkin, and his enormous nostrils swelled. “Do you have enough courage to take the next step?”
Egert lowered his sword; its tip rasped along the stones, drawing a curvy line at the feet of the stranger.
“Good.” The grizzled boarder of the Noble Sword was satisfied, although his gaze, as before, remained entirely indifferent. “Only, I will not fight in a tavern. Name the place and time.”
“By the bridge beyond the city gates,” Egert forced himself to squeeze the words out. “Tomorrow at dawn.”
The stranger took out his purse, extracted a coin from it, and laid it on the table next to the wine-stained napkin. He nodded to the innkeeper and started for the door; Egert just had time to throw words at his back, “Who will be your seconds?”
The boarder of the Noble Sword stopped in the doorway. Over his shoulder he said, “I have no need of seconds. Bring someone for yourself.”
Lowering his head under the lintel, the stranger left. The heavy door swung shut.
* * *
A good half of all the duels in Kavarren took place by the bridge beyond the city gates. The choice warranted itself: walking only a few steps from the road, duelists found themselves in an unpopulated place, concealed from the road by a wall of old spruces; furthermore, in the early morning dueling hour, the road and bridge were still so deserted that they seemed long since abandoned.
The combatants got to the bridge at almost the same time. Egert arrived a bit in advance of the grizzled stranger, and he stared into the dark water while he waited.
The cloudy spring river carried swollen shards of wood, clumps of river grass, and lifeless shreds of last fall’s leaves in its current. Here and there small whirlpools eddied around stones, and Egert liked to peer into the very depths of their black funnels: they reminded him of the intoxicating sensation of danger. The railing of the bridge was completely rotten, but Egert leaned against it with his entire body as if tempting fate.
His adversary finally mounted the bridge, and it seemed to Egert that he was quite out of breath. At this moment, the stranger appeared truly old, much older than Egert’s father, and Egert was stunned: Would there really be a duel? But meeting those eyes, cold and clear as ice, he immediately forgot that thought.
“Where is your friend?” asked the stranger.
Egert had been beyond stern when he forbade Karver to accompany him. If his opponent chose to defy the rules and forgo a second, why on earth should he, Egert, behave any differently?
“And if I should suddenly attack you with a dishonorable maneuver?” asked the grizzled man, not taking his eyes off Egert.
Egert sneered. He could have said that he had little fear of pushy old men and their dishonorable ways, that he had little use for empty chatter, and that he had conquered numerous opponents in his short life, but he saved his breath, contenting himself with this eloquent sneer.
Without uttering another word, the duelists left the road. Egert walked in front, carelessly exposing his back to his opponent, by which action he meant to shame the stranger, to demonstrate his complete dismissal of any villainy. They passed by the spruce grove and came out into a clearing, circular like an arena and tramped down by the boots of countless generations of Kavarren’s duelists.
It was damp there from the river. Removing his uniform jacket with its firmly sewn epaulets, Egert regretfully thought that the spring this year had been extremely cold and long, and that the outing he had planned for the day after tomorrow would have to be deferred until the days became warmer. The dew weighed the grass down to the ground and rolled down the tree trunks in large drops. It seemed as though the trees were weeping for someone. Egert’s well-made boots were also covered in drops of dew.
The adversaries stood opposite each other. Egert realized with amazement that for the first time in his entire dueling experience he was contending with a rival about whom, all else being even, nothing was known. However, this did not bother Egert at all: he was about to learn everything he needed to know.
They both drew their swords: Egert indolently, his opponent calmly and indifferently, like everything else he did. The stranger did not hurry to attack; he simply stood and looked Egert in the eyes. The tip of his sword also looked Egert in the eyes, intently, seriously, and just by the way the stranger stood in his pose, Egert understood that this time he would have need of all seventeen of his defenses.
Wishing to test his opponent, he embarked upon a trial attack, which was repelled leisurely. Egert tried another, and in similar fashion the stranger deliberately repulsed the rather cunning strike that consummated Egert’s short, newly minted combination.
“Congratulations,” muttered Egert, “you’re not bad for your age.” His next combination was artfully composed and brilliantly executed, but the grizzled stranger just as dispassionately fended off the entire series.
Not without pleasure, Egert realized that his opponent was worthy of his attention and that his victory would not be easy, but that would make it all the more honorable. In the depths of his soul he bitterly repented that there were no spectators around who could appreciate his brilliant improvisations, but at that very moment the stranger attacked.
Egert was barely able to turn the attack aside; all seventeen of his defenses were wiped out as he impotently switched from one to the next. Blows fell upon him one after the other, unexpected, insidious, unrelentingly intense, and as he furiously defended against them, Egert saw steel very close to his face more than once.
Then, just as suddenly, the attack stopped. The stranger retreated a step as if he wished to better examine Egert from head to toe.
Egert was breathing heavily, his wet hair was sticking to his temples, trickles of sweat were pouring down his back, and his sword arm was ringing like a copper bell.
“Not bad,” he gasped, looking into those clear eyes. “Well, you never said you were—what are you, a fencing master gone into retirement?”
With these words he sprang forward and, had there been any witnesses to this battle, they would have confirmed without reservation that the swordsman Egert had never before produced anything like these magnificent combinations.
He hopped like a grasshopper, simultaneously attacking from the right and left, from above and below, planning out his moves twenty steps in advance; he was fast and technically flawless; he was at the peak of his form—and yet, he did not achieve a single success, however small.
It was as if all his blows came up against a stone wall. A bull calf might feel something similar the first time he contended with an oak tree. Not a single combination unwound to its finish; his opponent, as if he knew Egert’s thoughts in advance, turned all his plans inside out, passing into counterattack, and Egert felt the stranger’s blade touch his chest, his stomach, his face. Egert recognized, finally, the game of cat and mouse that he himself had played with the student; it was crystal clear that Egert could have been killed a good ten times, but for some reason he remained among the living.
“Interesting,” he wheezed, retreating two steps. “I’d like to know to whom you sold your soul … for this…”
“Are you afraid?” asked the stranger. These were his first words since the beginning of the fight.
Egert studied this indifferent old man endowed with unprecedented strength; he studied his rugged, lined face and enormous, cold, lashless eyes. The stranger was not even breathing hard: his breath, just like his voice and his gaze, remained even.
“Are you afraid?”
“No,” Egert responded contemptuously, and as Glorious Heaven was his witness, it was the purest truth. Even in the face of inevitable death, Egert did not experience trepidation.
The stranger understood this; his lips elongated the way they had in the tavern. “Well…”
Ringing, their blades crossed. The stranger performed a subtle circular motion with his blade, and Egert shrieked in pain as his wrist bent backwards. His fingers opened of their own accord, and his hereditary sword flew through the steel gray sky in an arc, thudded into a pile of last year’s leaves, and sank from sight.
Clutching his injured wrist, Egert retreated, not meeting his opponent’s eyes. He was mortified that the feeble old man could have quickly disarmed him in the very first minute of the battle by this maneuver, and that the battle they had just had was nothing more than a farce, a game, like suicide chess.
The stranger looked at him calmly, without speaking.
“Are you just going to stand there?” asked Egert, outraged but not frightened. “What comes next?”
The stranger remained silent, and Egert realized that his own bravery and scorn of death were a weapon he could use to debase his conqueror.
“Well, go ahead and kill me,” he laughed. “What else can you do to me? I’m not some abject student who trembles in the face of death. You want to see the truth of it? Strike me!”
Something changed in the stranger’s face. He stepped forward, and Egert was shocked to realize that the other man really did want to strike him down.
Killing an unarmed man was, to Egert’s eyes, the greatest possible infamy. He smirked as scornfully as he could. The vanquisher lifted his blade. Not turning his eyes away, Egert gazed intrepidly at the naked edge near his face.
The stranger struck.
Egert saw how the steel edge of the sword swept through the air like the shining blade of a fan. He awaited the blow and death, but instead he felt a sharp pain on his cheek.
Not understanding what had happened, he raised his hand to his face. Warm liquid flowed down his chin. The cuff of his shirt was immediately stained with blood. In passing, Egert gave thanks that he had taken off his coat and thus saved it from being ruined.
He raised his eyes toward the stranger, and saw his back. He was sheathing his sword in its scabbard as he walked leisurely away.
“Hey!” shouted Egert, scrambling to his feet like a fool. “Don’t you have anything else to say, you long-toothed louse?”
But the grizzled boarder of the Noble Sword did not look back. And so he left, without turning around a single time.
Pressing a kerchief to his cheek, he picked up his family sword and tossed his coat over his shoulder. Egert was wholeheartedly grateful that he had come to the duel without Karver. A whipping was a whipping, even if the hoary stranger had been as skilled with a blade as Khars, Protector of Warriors. All the same, he was not Khars. The Protector of Warriors valued tradition; there was no way that he would have ended a duel in such a strange and absurd way.
Dragging himself to the shore of the river, Egert got on all fours and peered into the dark, perpetually rippling mirror of the water. A long, deep gash, reflected in the water, loomed on the cheek of Egert Soll. It ran from his cheekbone to his chin. At the sight of it, the reflection pursed its lips incredulously. A few warm, red drops fell and dissolved into the cold water.
English translation copyright © 2012 by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko