Summer: 17 years at the Monastery, a few hours after meeting Thalon
A few hours in an air car took Sunar, Master Ikthan, and Thalon to the Ratharin estate. Sunar found himself approaching the largest, most ostentatious doors he’d ever seen. He would never have believed, until that moment, that a door could seem arrogant, but these managed it. He and his companions had pulled up the hoods on their robes, but he could feel the sidelong look from Thalon as they made their way up several flights of marble – with gold inlay – stairs (outside! Gold inlay exposed to the elements, yet it gleamed). Thalon spoke in a voice pitched for privacy, but with slightly mocking tones, “A great display of wealth, isn’t it. What’s the matter Sunar, are you not impressed?”
He kept his own voice quiet to reply, “More like repulsed. You obviously have no small amount of wealth, but you use it to make yourself comfortable and, I presume, happy. These people… they create all of this garish display, but for what? To prove to all that they have wealth? Are they so lacking in center, so absent of faith in themselves, that they feel they need to display like peacocks in spring?”
His anger had been awakened by his own diatribe, and nearly missed it when the unthinkable happened: Master Ikthan barked a laugh involuntarily. The teacher proceeded as if nothing had happened, but Sunar knew.
Thalon gave him a sly smile and a fast wink, “I think you may remind him a bit of someone, my young friend.”
Sunar lifted an eyebrow in an attempt to get the man to elaborate, but a shake of the head made it clear he’d say no more. They reached the top of the stairs and several guards moved – almost in unison – to lower their (ridiculously ornate) spears and block the path. One of them, a dark elf, stepped forward, sneered, and looked down his nose to speak. “You are not on the schedule for an audience this evening. State your names and intention!”
Master Ikthan stepped forward and spoke in a declarative voice: “I am Master Ikthan of the Temple of the Four Peaks. You have no right to bar my path.” He reached into a pocket in his robe, pulled out some sort of small disc, and showed it to the dark-elf. Sunar tried to get a glance at the surface of the disc, and could tell it displayed some sort of hologram at the elf, but couldn’t make the image out from his angle. Whatever the disc showed, the elf looked at it with fear, but did not move.
He took a moment to recover his veneer of disdain before he spoke. “You come with only one man and one boy and expect me to believe that?” he gestured to the disc in Master Ikthan’s hand. “I will have to verify your credentials, and notify my Lord, of course.”
“You are welcome to verify that I am what I say I am, but you will tell no one we have arrived.”
“I will not be spoken to so by…”
Master Ikthan took a step forward, and Sunar had to marvel at how much menace the man put into the simple movement, “Your name and Imperial ID number, citizen.”
“It was a simple question, and I expect you not to dodge it again. I want your name and your Imperial Identification number. Now. I have matters that I will be taking up with Lord Ratharin in court. Tonight. You can allow me in to speak with him now, or you can – if you and Lord Ratharin survive the assault I will come back here with – help Count Ratharin explain to Grand Lord Fanor why you barred my way.”
The dark elf puffed himself up for a moment with obviously false bravado, and glanced meaningfully at the handful of armed guards surrounding him. Ikthan pulled out a device and took the man’s picture. The man started, then fury crawled across his face, “You, sir, are in the private estate of Count Ratharin, and do not have his leave to take pictures! You will surrender that device to me now, or face the consequences!”
Master Ikthan put the device back in his robes. “No.”
The dark elf raised his hand and stepped forward. Thalon made a small movement, just a shifting of his balance, but it resulted in the projection of an air of menace as strong as that put off by Master Ikthan. Sunar shifted his own weight a little, and tried to emulate the other two men.
Something had the desired effect. The dark-elf swallowed hard and took a step back. His eyes flicked between the three of them. He slowly lowered his arm and gave an annoyed signal to the guards, who all seemed to breathe a sigh of relief as they returned to attention and grounded the butts of their spears.
Sunar took in his surroundings with a growing sense of disdain. Such garish spectacle, and for what? To express dominance? All of this wealth, enough to provide so much, to accomplish so much, reduced to such a base function: nothing more than a bull waving its horns around to convince the others of his superiority? Or is it something else? Is it an attempt to compensate for feelings of inadequacy? I wonder how it would be different if these people had learned true confidence in themselves? Now I begin to better understand the minds of men like Vorgar, I think. No wonder he acts like he owns the world: he has to constantly try to prove to himself that he is what he believes. Pitiful.
It took them the better part of half an hour to traverse the palace and make it to the audience chamber, only to find another set of far over-sized doors standing open. The chamber itself could have fit any three courtyards from the Temple, and took up the top four stories of the palace’s central spire. Immense floor-to ceiling windows formed two of the walls, allowing a view across the surrounding city that went for miles.
Sunar blinked, realizing that though the room seemed empty, though there had to be well over a hundred people standing around in various groups. The thing had to be at least fifteen yards to a side, maybe twenty. At the far end from the doors a raised dais, with its base elevated to about the height of Sunar’s head, held a single ornate chair with a pair of pillows before it.
On the chair sat a dark elf, worn with age but obviously still hale and strong. Behind him and to the right stood Vorgar. A look of fear crossed his face, quickly covered, and he bent to speak urgently to Lord Ratharin. Anger registered on the man’s face, and he waved a hand to cut his son off, then turned his attention to his visitors.
Some sort of sound system picked up his voice and it projected through the chamber. “Master Ikthan of the Temple of the Four Peaks, I presume? And I would guess that one of your companions is mi’Lord Sunar of the same?” He made mi’Lord sound like ‘boot licking peasant’ “Who is your other companion?”
Master Ikthan picked up the pace, and they moved across the room at what most would consider a run, though their strides looked more like a brisk walk. They got to the steps for the dias and Sunar pulled the small bag out of his robes, took out the head of one of the assassins, and held it aloft, “Mi’Lord Vorgar Ratharin, I charge you with sending a plague of assassins against me; ranging from hired thugs to this, one of the men of your own house!”
Gasps rose from the gathered nobles, who had gathered at the steps to witness the show. He dropped the head and let it roll toward the murmuring crowd, then pulled out the assassin’s arm and held it up. This,” he rotated the arm so that all had a clear view of the markings, “is the symbol of your house, placed on your bonded guards raised to serve house Ratharin. And, before you try to deny it, know that this man’s genome has already been entered as evidence against you, and matched to the known agent of your house. I stand here, before all gathered, and accuse you of vile treachery and base assassination. These repeated attempts on my person can be met with only one response: With the hand of your own man, I challenge you to defend your life against me!”
With that, he swung the arm, backhanded Vorgar across the face, then threw it at the dark elf’s feat. A look of abject terror crossed the dark elf’s face, quickly replaced with mocking rage. He turned to his father, “Are you going to let this hopped-up peasant-in-all-but name come in here and talk to me like that?! He has no…”
A raised finger from Count Ratharin stopped the rant, even though the older man never took his eyes off the severed hand. After some moments the Count sat back in his chair, raised furious eyes to his son, and sneered.
Vorgar’s black face flushed so hard it showed the red through the dark skin, and he looked about to draw and fire. Instead, he slowly bent and picked up the severed hand. “I accept your challenge, farmboy, though I shouldn’t. Everyone knows you yielded to me in our last duel…” Sunar arched an eyebrow as whispers started behind him, but a murderous look from Vorgar stopped them, “Which could make your attempt to challenge me invalid. And don’t you start quoting Imperial law to me, you ingrate! I know the law! I say this to say that I could deny your attempt to challenge me, but I won’t, and for only one reason: I want to look in your eyes and watch you die!
“And, this time there will be none of your silly posturing about weapons, or gallivanting around with some primitive piece of steel. You have challenged me, meaning I get the choice of weapons and the battle field. I choose this place, here and now, and I choose disintegration pistols! We will fight properly, with pistols, like nobles and civilized men, with the Brazarno rules.
“Seneschal, bring me the Brazarno dueling pistol case! Mi’Lord Sunar, I suppose you want Master Ikthan as your second, this time?”
“I accept your field and your terms. To the death with disintegration pistols. I choose fa’Lord Thalon Waterclimber as my second.”
The color partly drained out of Vorgar’s face for a moment, but he covered it with more rage, “fa’Lord Thalon! Foul, I cry foul! This man is a known mercenary! You could not possibly have the ties to him that are expected and traditional for him to serve as your second! You have paid a mercenary to stand with you in contravention to all honor, all law and….”
Master Ikthan and Thalon both raised their right hands together, and let their sleeves fall back. They bore matching brands – the four points of the four peaks temple. Sunar did his best to keep his surprise from his face, Master Ikthan carries the brand? He left the temple at one point to Test against The World? The more I learn, the less I feel I know.
A strangled sound came from Vorgar as their movement cut off his words. His father made some complicated gestures at him, and Vorgar blinked in surprise, then shook with rage. He turned that rage on Sunar as another dark elf came out from a door behind the throne carrying an ornate, ebony, gold inlaid box. He stepped up to Sunar and opened the box.
Two pistols made of sleek, polished black metal with gold inlay in garish patterns up and down the surface glittered in the light. The handles were plated in rose, white, and yellow gold which had been worked in a complicated pattern which resembled water or leaves.
Sunar blinked a couple of times, trying to control his revulsion at the gaudy display, then looked at Vorgar and gave him the most insolent smile he could manage, the one he used to use to drive irritating instructors to distraction, and watched the man’s rage deepen. He let the moment stretch thin, then stepped aside to allow his second inspect, then choose a weapon.
Thalon stepped up to the box, glanced at the two weapons, and chose one. Moving so fast his hands almost became a blur, he dissembled the weapon into its component pieces. The gun seemed to simply fall apart in Thalon’s hands, each piece floating, suspended, in the air when he let it go. Several gasps came from the crowd, and Vorgar immediately began to yell in protest.
Sunar tore his attention away from Thalon, and looked first at Lord Ratharin, who sat back in his chair staring daggers at his son, and then at Vorgar. He sighed inwardly and cut into Vorgar’s ranting. “You tell me that you know dueling law, and that I shouldn’t need to quote it to you, then you rant like a spoiled child,” gasps behind him at that, “in an attempt to deny me access to the privileges granted by law and convention. You know full well that my second has every right to inspect the weapon.”
Vorgar puffed himself up even further and began to rant again, but his father snapped his fingers. Vorgar turned, startled, looked at his father, and the rage went out of him for a brief moment.
When he turned back he spoke in a more normal tone, but Sunar could detect some fear, “Very well, then, but I have no obligation to make sure that this mercenary monk – an obvious primitive by his dress – has reassembled the weapon correctly. If it fails to work, the onus is on your second, fool, not on me!”
By that time Thalon had already re-assembled the pistol and turned to hand it to Sunar. He spoke rapidly, in a voice pitched for Sunar alone to hear, “These are custom-made weapons, and are rigged. This is a particular trick which has been outlawed more than once, but people like Vorgar keep finding loopholes. In this case, since this is such a dangerous weapon, he would call it an ‘advanced safety’ if brought to task over it, and claim that he is not responsible for the lack of knowledge of his opponents.
“Fifty years ago that would never have stood up before most of the Dukes, and certainly not the Emperor. Now, though…” He shook his head, “No matter. What is important for the moment is that you must flip this lever, and make sure that these two indentations on the handle are squeezed when you pull the trigger, or it will not fire. For all his protests, Vorgar surely at least suspects that I have figured out the secret, even though the mechanisms are fairly well disguised. Expect him to try something else.”
Sunar took the weapon with a nod, and proceeded down the steps. Vorgar followed him, his smug smile back in place.
The crowd opened before them, creating a wide space with no one at either end. The Seneschal stepped into that space and spoke, his voice picked up by the sound system, “The challenge has been properly made and accepted, with all of the necessary forms obeyed. This day Vorgar Ratharin will defend his honor against the accusations of the challenger, using the Brazarno conventions. Duelists, take your starting positions.”
Vorgar sauntered to a spot in the middle of the open area and made a theatrical twirl so that he faced down one of the open directions. Sunar wanted to roll his eyes as he walked to stand behind the man and face the opposite direction.
The Seneschal continued, “I will count to ten. With each count you will each take a single step. At the end of the count I will signal for you to begin, at which point you will turn and fire.”
The Seneschal began to count, and drums played as he did so, soft rolls between a staccato beat for each number. Sunar moved in measured steps. The crowd stood murmuring, eagerly anticipating their sport. He heard a few soft giggles escape from some of the ladies, and wondered if they knew something he didn’t. Vorgar had to have another trick up his sleeve. He began casting his sense about to try and discover it. The drums were annoying, so he tuned them out.
Wait. Drums? A strange embellishment for the Brazarno convention. Why would Vorgar choose such a piece of theater? Unless… There. Footsteps, in time with his, each mere inches from his own. Clever. The rules don’t state which direction one has to walk, just which direction you have to face. A small smile tugged at the corners of his mouth as the Seneschal’s count reached ten.
“Gentlemen, turn and fire… NOW!”
Sunar spun half way around and brought his pistol down to fire from the hip, rather than making a full turn and extending his arm. He found Vorgar still executing his turn. He had his off-hand up to block Sunar’s gun, but it wasn’t there. As the dark elf’s eyes grew wide in surprise, Sunar fired and Vorgar vanished, his pistol clattering to the ground.
Thalon moved quickly to Sunar’s side to collect the weapons and hand them back to the Seneschal.
Master Ikthan still stood atop the dais. He turned to have a whispered, and obviously rather tense, conversation with Count Ratharin, which ended with the Count gesturing curtly for him to leave. The Master gave the most fractional of bows and walked down the stairs as the Seneschal announced that court would be recessed for the evening, and the session re-scheduled for another day.
Once back in the skycar Master Ikthan spoke, “Count Ratharin has several other children, none of which are an embarrassment to the family. He was not pleased to see his errant son die before he could ‘learn the error of his ways and see sense’, but he was not as distressed as one would expect. In any case, I am convinced that he was unaware of the assassination attempts, and will not trouble us further.”
Sunar nodded. “It is good that it is done, then. I just wish…”
Thalon spoke into the pause, “The world out here can be that way, conflicts are often resolved… badly. Still, you have actually done some good today. There are a number of murders, rapes, and other crimes where Vorgar has been implicated, but has been able to stay ahead of any charges.”
Sunar nodded again, “Thank you. It doesn’t make this easier, but it does give some perspective. He turned his head to stare out the window. I made a real difference today. How many good men has Vorgar killed with trickery and deceit? How many more will live because I acted. I hate that I had to kill him, but… letting him live would not have been good. How much better will the Empire be, now that one parasite has been removed? How many more are there like him out there? How much good could I do, out here, walking among the citizens of the Empire. Could I do good that didn’t involve death?
The questions circled in his mind for the entire trip, but no answers came.