K Parker: Evil for Evil

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K Parker Evil for Evil
  • Название:
    Evil for Evil
  • Автор:
  • Жанр:
    Фэнтези / на английском языке
  • Язык:
    Английский
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K J Parker


Evil for Evil

1

"The way to a man's heart," Valens quoted, drawing the rapier from its scabbard, "is proverbially through his stomach, but if you want to get into his brain, I recommend the eye socket."

He moved his right arm into the third guard, concentrated for a moment on the small gold ring that hung by a thread from the center rafter of the stable, frowned and relaxed. Lifting the sword again, he tapped the ring gently on its side, setting it swinging like a pendulum. As it reached the upper limit of its swing and hung for a fraction of a second in the air, he moved fluently into the lunge. The tip of the rapier passed exactly through the middle of the ring without touching the sides. Valens grinned and stepped back. Not bad, he congratulated himself, after seven years of not practicing; and his poor ignorant student wasn't to know that he'd cheated.

"There you go," he said, handing Vaatzes the rapier. "Now you try."

Vaatzes wasn't to know it was cheating; but Valens knew. The exercise he'd just demonstrated wasn't the one he'd so grudgingly learned, in this same stable, as a boy of fifteen. The correct form was piercing the stationary ring, passing the sword through the middle without making it move. He'd never been able to get it right, for all the sullen effort he'd lavished on it, so he'd cheated by turning it into a moving target, and he was cheating again now.

The fact that he'd subverted the exercise by making it harder was beside the point.

"You made it look easy," Vaatzes said mildly. "It's not, is it?"

Valens smiled. "No," he said.

Vaatzes wrapped his hand around the sword-hilt, precisely as he'd been shown; a quick study, evidently. It had taken Valens a month to master the grip when he was learning. The difference was, he reflected, that Vaatzes wanted to learn. That, he realized, was what was so very strange about the Mezentine. He wanted to learn everything.

"Is that right?"

"More or less," Valens replied. "Go on."

Vaatzes lifted the rapier and tapped the ring to set it swinging. He watched as it swung backward and forward, then made his lunge. He only missed by a hair, and the ring tinkled as the sword-point grazed it on the outside.

"Not bad," Valens said. "And again."

Even closer this time; the point hit the edge of the ring, making it jump wildly on its thread. Vaatzes was scowling, though. "What'm I doing wrong?" he asked.

"Nothing, really. It's just a matter of practice," Valens replied. "Try again."

But Vaatzes didn't move; he was thinking. He looked stupid when he thought, like a peasant trying to do mental arithmetic. It was fortunate that Valens knew better than to go by appearances.

"Mind if I try something?" Vaatzes said.

Valens shrugged. "Go ahead."

Vaatzes stepped forward, reached up with his left hand and steadied the ring until it was completely motionless. He stepped back, slipped into third guard like a man putting on his favorite jacket, and lunged. The rapier-point passed exactly through the middle of the ring, which didn't move.

"Very good," Valens said.

"Yes." Vaatzes shrugged. "But it's not what you told me to do."

"No."

"I was thinking," Vaatzes said, "if I practice that for a bit, I can gradually work up to the moving target. Would that be all right?"

Valens had stopped smiling. "You do what you like," he said, "if you think it'd help."

For six days now it had rained; a heavy shower just before dawn, followed by weak sunshine mixed with drizzle, followed by a downpour at mid-morning and usually another at noon. No earthly point trying to fly the hawks in this weather, even though it was the start of the season, and Valens had spent all winter looking forward to it. Today was supposed to be a hunting day; he'd cleared his schedule for it weeks in advance, spent hours deciding which drives to work, considering the countless variables likely to affect the outcome-the wind direction, the falcons' fitness at the start of the season, the quality of the grass in the upland meadows, which would draw the hares up out of the newly mown valley. Carefully and logically, he'd worked through all the facts and possibilities and reached a decision; and it was raining. Bored and frustrated to the point of cold fury, Valens had remembered his offhand promise to the funny little Mezentine refugee who, for reasons Valens couldn't begin to fathom, seemed to want to learn how to fence.

"I think that's enough for today," Vaatzes said, laying the rapier carefully down on the bench, stopping it with his hands before it rolled off. "The meeting's in an hour, isn't it? I don't want to make you late."

Valens nodded. "Same time tomorrow," he said, "if it's still raining."

"Thank you," Vaatzes said. "It's very kind of you. Really, I never expected that you-"

Valens shrugged. "I offered," he said. "I don't say things unless I mean them." He yawned, and slid the rapier back into its scabbard. "See you at the meeting, then. You know where it is?"

Vaatzes grinned. "No," he said. "You did tell me, but…"

"I know," Valens said, "this place is a bugger to find your way around unless you've lived here twenty years. Just ask someone, they'll show you."

After Vaatzes had gone, Valens drew the rapier once again and studied the ring for a long time. Then he lunged, and the soft jangle it made as the sword grazed it made him wince. He caught it in his left hand, pulled gently until the thread snapped, and put it back on his finger. All my life, he thought, I've cheated by making things harder. It's a habit I need to get out of, before I do some real damage.

He glanced out of the window; still raining. He could see pock-marks of rain in the flat puddles in the stable yard, and slanting two-dimensional lines of motion made visible against the dark backdrop of the yard gate. He'd loved rain in late spring when he was a boy; partly because he'd loathed hunting when he was young and rain meant his father wouldn't force him to go out with the hounds or the hawks, partly because the smell of it was so clean and sweet. Now, seven years after his father's death, he was probably the most ardent and skillful huntsman in the world, but the smell of rain was still a wonderful thing, almost too beautiful to bear. He put on his coat and pulled the collar up round his ears.

From the stable yard to the side door of the long hall; hardly any distance at all, but he was soaked to the skin by the time he shut the door behind him, and the smell was now the rich, heavy stench of wet cloth. Well; it was his meeting so they'd have to wait for him. He climbed the narrow spiral staircase to the top of the middle tower.

Clothes. Not something that interested him particularly. Perhaps that explained why he was so good at them. Slipping off the wet coat, shirt and trousers, he swung open the chest and chose a dark blue brocade gown suitable for formal occasions. He took a minute or so to towel the worst of the damp out of his hair, couldn't be bothered to look in a mirror. One more glance through the window. Still raining. But he'd be dry, and everybody else at the meeting would be wet and uncomfortable, which would be to his advantage. That thought made him frown. Why was he allowing himself to think of his own advisers as the enemy?

He sighed. Today should have been a hunting day; or, if it was raining, it should've been a day for writing her a letter, or revising a first or second draft, or doing research for the reply to the next letter he received from her. But there weren't any letters anymore; she was here now, under the same roof as him, with her husband. On a whim he changed his shoes, substituting courtly long-toed poulaines for comfortable but sodden riding shoes. He hesitated, then looked in the mirror after all. It showed him a pale, thin young man expertly disguised as the Duke of the Vadani; a disguise so perfect, in fact, that only his father would've been able to see through it. Oh well, he thought, and went downstairs to face his loyal councillors.

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