K Parker: Colours in the Steel

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K Parker Colours in the Steel
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    Colours in the Steel
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K J Parker

Colours in the Steel


It was just a run-of-the-mill shipping dispute, nothing more; a disagreement over the interpretation of a poorly worded contract, some minor discrepancies in various bills of lading, coinciding with a notorious grey area in the mercantile statutes. Properly handled, it could have been settled out of court with no hard feelings. Not the sort of cause you’d choose to die for, if you could possibly help it.

Everyone rose as the judge, a short man resplendent and faintly ridiculous in his black and gold robes of office, made his way across the wide floor of the court. He stopped once or twice, pawing at the ground with the toe of his black slipper to check that the surface was even and true, and Loredan noticed with approval that he was wearing proper fencer’s pumps, not the fancy pointed toes favoured by clerks and deskmen. Not all the judges in the Commercial and Maritime Division were ex-fencers – there simply weren’t enough to go round – and Loredan never felt comfortable with a lay judge. It was hard to have confidence in a man whose experience of the law stopped on the edge of the courtroom floor.

The clerk – elderly, short-sighted Teofano, who’d been here long before any of the current advocates had been born – declared the court in session and read out the names of the parties. The judge nodded to the participants, the participants nodded back and everyone sat down. There were the usual comfortable settling-down noises from the spectators’ benches, the shuffling of buttocks on the stone seats, the rustle of straw as bottles were opened and snacks put handy where they could be reached without having to take one’s eyes off the proceedings for even a split second. The judge peered at the documents in front of him and asked who appeared for the Mocenigo brothers.

Loredan looked up. On the opposite side of the court a huge blond boy was rising to his feet, his head instinctively ducking from a lifetime of low ceilings. He gave his name as Teofil Hedin, stated his qualifications and bowed. There was an appreciative buzz from the spectators, and money started changing hands among those inclined to speculation.

‘Very well,’ said the judge. ‘Who appears for the defendants-’ he hesitated and glanced down at the papers, ‘-the Dromosil family?’

As usual, Loredan felt a twinge in his stomach as he stood up; not fear so much as acute self-consciousness and a great desire to be somewhere else. ‘I do, my lord,’ he said, a bit too softly. He raised his voice a little as he gave his name; Bardas Loredan, fencer-at-law, of the College of Bowyers and Fletchers, ten years’ call. The judge told him to speak up. He said it all again, detecting a slight hoarseness in his own voice. He knew it was the last stage of a mild cold, but the spectators drew their own conclusions and coins chinked softly on the stone.

The judge began to read the depositions. It was a stage in the proceedings that Loredan particularly disliked; it served no useful purpose and always left him tense and fidgety. The other man, whatever-his-name-was Hedin, was standing gracefully at ease with his hands behind his back, looking for all the world as if he was actually listening to what the judge was saying. Some men, particularly the older ones, had some little ritual worked out to fill this gap; a prayer of exactly the right length, mental checklists, even a song or a children’s rhyme. Loredan, as usual, stood awkwardly and shuffled his feet, waiting for the droning voice to fall silent.

Which, at long last, it did; the cue for Loredan’s hands to start sweating. At his side, Athli was fumbling with knots and buckles; if she’s forgotten the ash for my hands, Loredan promised himself, this time I’ll wring her neck.

Without looking up, the judge called for any last submissions, assumed (correctly) that there were none, and gave notice to the advocates. Loredan took a deep breath and turned to his clerk.

‘The Guelan,’ he muttered.

Athli frowned. ‘Are you sure?’

‘Of course I’m sure. You have brought it, haven’t you?’

Athli didn’t bother to reply; whatever her faults, she was reliable when it came to equipment. He also knew that whichever one he’d chosen – the Boscemar perhaps, or the Spe Bref – she’d have said, Are you sure? in exactly the same tone of voice, one which never failed to irritate him. She put her hand into the kitbag and produced the bundle of soft grey velvet, tied at the neck with blue cord. He took it from her and flicked open the knot. Perhaps the Boscemar, after all? No. It was his rule never to change his mind once he’d chosen.

The Guelan. He let the cover fall away – he’d never dream of telling anybody, but it always made him think of a bride’s dress falling to the ground – and wrapped his hand round the plain grip, feeling for the slight grooves that marked the place for his thumb and little finger. Of his three swords it was the longest and the lightest, not to mention the most expensive, well over a hundred years old. Once there had been a design of vine leaves etched on the blade, but you had to hold it just right against the light to make them out now. It had seen him through thirty-seven lawsuits, nine of them in the Supreme Court and one before the Chancellor himself. Five nicks spoilt the edge (there had been others, but small enough to be taken out with a stone) and the blade was slightly bent a hand’s span from the tip, the fault of some previous owner. The Boscemar took a keener edge and the Spe Bref was supposedly better balanced, but in a lawsuit what matters most is trust. After a century of hard work in these courts, it ought by now to know what to do. Just as well one of us does.

The usher gave the order to clear the floor. Athli handed him the dagger – at least he only had one of those, which meant one less thing to agonise over – and he slid it into the sheath behind his back, promising himself as he did so to fit a new spring to it, first thing tomorrow.

Yes. Well.

The judge raised his hand, savouring the drama of the moment, and called on the advocates to approach the bench. As he took his place under the raised platform, Loredan felt his leg brush against the other man’s knee. He winced. It would be particularly unfortunate to die in a shipping case, at the hands of a tall blond bastard. All the more reason, therefore, not to.

As the other man handed his sword up to the judge for inspection, Loredan couldn’t help noticing the flash of light on gilded inlay just above the hilt. A Tarmont, only a year or so old, scarcely used by the looks of it. There were hardly any stone marks to mar the deep polish of the blade; sharpened four, five times at most from new. Oddly enough, the sight raised his spirits a little. An expensive sword, crafted by one of the five best living makers, but new and untried. It suggested overconfidence, a tendency to assume that things will be as they should be. Ten years’ call had taught him that assumptions like that can kill a man, if correctly exploited.

Having handed his own sword over and received it back after a perfunctory glance which he found mildly offensive, he made his usual neck-bob of a bow and walked to his place in the middle of the floor. Under his feet the flagstones felt firm, with just the right amount of sawdust and sand for the best purchase. He was wearing his oldest pair of pumps, long since moulded to his feet, the fairly new soles lightly scuffed with a rasp. Athli took his gown from his shoulders, and he shivered slightly in the chill. One close shave long ago had taught him to fence in nothing but a linen shirt, loose across the shoulders and arms, tightly laced at the sleeves, and a comfortable pair of breeches with no buckles to snag or catch at the wrong moment. He’d watched men die a sword’s length from his face because they’d put on a heavy woollen shirt against the autumn chill. Ten years’ call, and you learn that everything matters.

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