Al was a sick as a dog. He hung over the railing of the ship, sipping on water in between his bouts of vomiting it back up a few minutes later. If he laid down, his seasickness was a little better, but he had to keep his eyes closed and not interact with anyone else.
He suffered through a day of this before waking up with it mysteriously gone. He was so giddy that he almost skipped to breakfast with the group.
“My, you’re looking much less green,” Raulin said as Al sat down.
“It just…evaporated all of a sudden,” he said with a grin and a flair of his hand. “I woke up and it was gone and I am loving life again.”
“Well, I’m happy,” Anla said. “I kept worrying all night if you were going to make it to the porthole.”
Everyone’s breakfast was included in the cost of the ticket, so Al was sure to order plenty of food to make up for the previous day. He tucked into his, eating heaping portions of bacon, sausage, ham, hard-boiled eggs, crepes, and a few slices of toast with jam. He washed it all down with glasses of apple juice and Caudet.
“Where does he put it all?” Anla asked, her mouth quirking up.
“Good question,” Raulin said. “The normal end of the joke is that it’s stored in his head, but since that implies he’s stupid and it’s so grossly wrong, it wouldn’t be funny, would it?”
“I have a new joke,” Tel said. “How many hand-sized rocks can a grivven hold?”
“Two?” Anla asked.
“Five,” he answered.
Raulin laughed. “Explaining it won’t help, but grivvens love stacking rocks. It’s a sort of meditation for them, some making an art form out of it. So, he’s implying that they wouldn’t just carry rocks in their hands and on the backs of their hands, but try for one more after that.” Raulin turned to Tel. “It was good, but let me explain context…”
They were in the middle of a deep discourse on how the audience needs to understand the premise of the humor when there were shouts and an immediate evaporation of sound in the dining room. The table turned and they saw two well-dressed gentleman standing close to one another. “Then go ahead, Dombray, show us what you Tektornians are made of!” one gentleman with dark red hair said, giving a look to a few of his cronies nearby that elicited a chorus of laughs.
“Seconds!” the other man, Dombray, yelled. He was easy to spot as he was dark-skinned with curly black hair.
“Hmph.” The red-haired man turned to his cohorts, consulting with one before saying, loudly, “First choice waved.”
The other man licked his lips. “I choose…Duson Kilval.”
A young man near him stood from his table and bowed, taking his position next to his friend.
“Fine. I choose the trirec.”
All eyes in the dining hall searched around until they landed on Raulin. He stood, faced the commotion, and said, “The trirec rejects the request.”
He started to sit down when the red-haired man said, “Ah, but you are honor-, and law-, bound to fight in an official duel.”
“That would be legally true for Ghenian citizens, of which I am not. As for the first part, well, I am a trirec. I wish you luck.” And he sat down.
People still stared at him until the red-haired man spoke again, choosing someone else. With the highlights done, the diners began to speak again, though many still shot looks at the quartet’s table.
“I do have to admit that I would rather not be here right now,” Raulin said in recognition of the attention.
“Care to show me some techniques?” Al asked. “I missed yesterday’s training and I’d like to make up for it.”
“Sure, Wizard, that’s a good idea.”
The two made there way to Al and Anla’s cabin, a room about the same size as a cheap hotel room. When they were inside, Al asked, “Why did you need to get away?”
“I’m a thief, Wizard, and therefore dislike being noticed. That’s all.”
“So far you’ve been working on offensive moves,” Raulin began, moving right into the lesson. “I’m going to show you how to defend against different kinds of weapons. As a future vizier, you’re most likely to encounter some sort of a blade trying to assassinate your employer, likely a knife. If that’s the case, I’m here to tell you that he’ll probably win. All you can do is hope to hold him off as long as possible in order to give your employer time to run away.
“If this guy happens to pick a face-to-face brawl with you, you’ll need to keep him as far away as possible.” He pulled out his favored set of knives. “Like you with your ax, my job is to get as close to my victim as possible before they realize I’m there. I stab, multiple times if possible, and get as far away as I can. You have to stop that from happening. Show me how.”
“You haven’t taught me that.”
“I’m giving you an opportunity to apply your understanding to a problem and come up with a solution.”
Al looked at his ax for a moment, then placed the head of it against Raulin’s chest, holding the end of the haft with one hand.
“Good, for about two seconds. You’d have to be able to keep pushing against the assailant and making sure he moves backward. However, if I slip to the side here, I can slice your arm, then turn and stab your kidneys in two seconds.” He demonstrated with the hilts of his knives before moving back to his first position. “You also never want to extend your weapon like this. Look how weak your control is.” He pressed on Al’s hand and the ax sagged. “And I can also disarm you easily” He pressed his hands between the head and pushed against Al until he lost his balance.
“All right, so not that,” Al said with a little annoyance.
“Don’t think of answering the question incorrectly as wrong. I’m not doling out points on a test; I’m showing you why and how you should learn from that. Any other ideas?”
Al held the haft with both hands and put it in front of him.
“In order for you to succeed, you’ll need quite a bit of luck. Look how little surface you have to use as a shield. It might work in a pinch against a sword, but not against a knife. It will deflect quickly. You might get their forearm, but you’ll have to be right in the middle, or else they can pivot their arm or wrist and stab you again. Never mind his second hand.” He saw Al’s face. “Not a bad idea, Wizard! It will just take a lot of practice to get that sweet spot. I think it has potential to break your attacker’s nose, too, should you get the thrust in.”
“What’s the answer, then?”
“Well, hoping you’re in an area far from other people, your answer is an overpowering offense as a defense.” He took the ax from Al and had him sit on his bed to give Raulin enough room. He started twirling the ax in his hand, circling his wrist so the weapon made a sagittal loop outside of his body. His arm pulled back and he crossed the ax in front of him, tucking his other arm close to his chest. He finished with a full rotation, letting the ax drop. “You have to be as frightening as possible to drive them off. Fast, showy, random. If they get a moment inside your defenses, you’re toast. And, please, do not try it this fast until you have a good feel for the weapon. If the head shifts, you’ll be slicing your side up at uncomfortable speeds.”
“Can…can I try it?” Al asked, his excitement renewed.
Raulin handed him the ax and showed him the motion very slowly. When he felt he was ready to do it on his own, he sat on the bed and watched.
“Something I was always curious about and never asked: are noble duels and the Noh Amairian Accords system related?”
“Somewhat,” Raulin answered. “The seconds system is a little different. Kings can only call for seconds if they’re grievously injured.”
“But it’s based on that merit that nobles won’t fight with each other.”
Al stopped. “What do you mean ‘can’t’?”
“Something I’ve learned from playing a nobleman, because they’d really wish the general public not know this, is that they actually can’t hurt each other. If they try, they’re injured somehow from it. I worry about the day that trips me up, hurting someone in the peerage as a noble when I’m not supposed to be able to or vice versa.”
“Oh, so that’s why kings have to duel each other before a war can start. Nobles can’t duel each other, therefore the war can’t happen. Amandorlam wouldn’t tell us; they just stated it as a fact and no one really gave an answer.” He titled his head for a moment. “That’s actually a clever way of stopping war all together.”
“Skethik wasn’t too happy about it, I’m sure. But there are ways around it. You can have a battle of up to a thousand mounted knights and still have it be called a ‘skirmish’ three times before it’s called a war. I think Sonder thrives on that little loophole.”
“Those two men today couldn’t actually duel with each other, since they’re noblemen, so they called for commoner seconds to do it in their stead.”
“Yes. There’s a bunch of rules in place. Usually, by the time the duel has to happen, they’ve reconciled and there isn’t one. I’m not too sure about those two. We’ll see.”
“Why did you refuse?”
“My order doesn’t like us interfering in affairs like that. I could have accepted at an exorbitant fee, but there are no agents aboard the ship and I already have twenty-five contracts, which I was whipped for. I don’t want to know what they’d do for my twenty-sixth. And I didn’t like the red-haired man. He was goading the dark-haired one into that duel. Either he’s an ass or he’s plotting something. I’d rather not be on the good side of either if I can’t escape.”
* * *
Anla had decided to take in the view and was on the top deck overlooking the ocean. It was the first time she had been on a ship of any kind, even the wide sleeper-ferries that would keep to the calmer, shallower waters of the eastern part of the Great Gheny Bay, since her mother had been frightened of them. It wouldn’t be her last time on one, so it was fortunate that the sea brought the thrill of smelling the salty tang of the air and feeling the wind whip through her hair instead of seasickness, like poor Al.
She was musing on what it had been like for her father’s crossing when a woman in a wide-brimmed hat approached her. “Olana?”
Anla turned in surprise. “Mrs. Garda! It’s so good to see you!”
“I thought it was you!” They had met on a nature appreciation walk at the Shrine in Mount Kalista and the two had shared a table at meals for a few days. “How are you doing, darling?”
“I’m well. How are you and Mr. Garda?”
“We’re well. A lot of travel in the last few weeks, but we’ve managed. And you and…Darrick, was it?”
Anla froze her smile in place as she thought of what to say. Mrs. Garda knew full well what had happened at the shrine. They’d had a few conversations about what a woman’s place was and how they had to forgive and forget things like infidelity. In fact, sometimes they made the marriage stronger, she had said, though not the roughhousing he had done to her. She meant well and had been looking out for her best interests, but Anla had been too preoccupied with outmaneuvering Lady Karninth to actually consider what she had said.
Mrs. Garda would love to hear that they patched things up. Anla would have no problems parading Raulin around in front of her, but the whole thing was tricky. Raulin wouldn’t like being unmasked for very long on a ship where people might ask questions of who he was and where he came from. “We did reconcile, but we decided to tackle two different cases at the same time. We’ll be apart for a little while, which will give us some time to reevaluate our relationship.”
“Oh, I suppose that’s good then, dear.”
“He’s still very apologetic and misses me terribly. He’s written a few letters.”
“That’s romantic!” She seemed to brighten a little more. “I’m so glad to hear things are looking better for you.”
“They are. We’ll take a nice rest at home to get to know each other again. I don’t think we have any contracts lined up after I’m finished with mine in Acripla.”
She looked at Anla and gave a knowing look before patting her arm and walking ahead of her. “Coming, dear?” she asked. Anla would rather watch the sea, but since they’d see a lot of that over the next few weeks, she took Mrs. Garda up on her offer.
The Constance on the Sea was a wide barge-like ferry that could house hundreds of people. Mrs. Garda explained that this was only possible because the waters in the bay were relatively shallow and calm and the ferry didn’t sail during the stormy season. It was propelled by a giant water wheel in the rear and auxilliary sails.
“Lucky for you, dear, since I know quite a few of the people here.” She led her into the covered part of the top deck, where people were sitting at tables playing cards, reading books, smoking cigars, napping, or holding conversation with those around them. Most were well-dressed, like Mrs. Garda, and Anla felt only marginally above a pauper in her tan blouse and multi-colored skirt. “Now, what is it you and your husband do again?”
She panicked for a moment, trying to remember what she had told her in passing. Anla hadn’t used the antiques and collectibles line, since she wanted to keep her identity with Al separate, but didn’t want the knowledge she’d picked up to go to waste. “We work for a firm that inspects client’s homes and offers appraisals on items they own that they wish to sell or update client’s homes to the latest fashions.”
“I hope you’re discreet,” Mrs. Garda asked in a low voice.
“Absolutely. All of our ledgers are kept in confidence.” She had learned at some conversation at the libertine ball that no nobleman or well-to-do commoner would wish to appear like they were doing poorly by selling something in their home.
“Very good. I shouldn’t have even asked; you kept your chin high and your mouth closed in a very trying situation. I know what that nasty woman did to you; there was talk, I’m afraid. I admire you for that.” She patted Anla’s arm again.
“Thank you, Mrs. Garda.”
The older woman, her graying hair piled in curls under her hat, walked slowly in her company, surveying the large room. She would point out someone she recognized, give a quick description of them, and either introduce the two or look at Anla. It took her a few times to realize that she was giving her an opportunity to duck out of a meeting with a potential client who had a solatious air about them. This earl and his wife apparently lost a lot of money when their ship sank back in May. That gentleman was single, had been single for a long time, but had a long string of male “assistants”. Anla sighed internally at the prejudice against Uranians.
“Oh, that’s Earl Din Brashef of Kiber’s Port in Courmet,” she said, pointing to a younger man with red hair. “He’s very well-to-do, but I’m not sure how you feel about that nasty business with his rival from earlier. I’m not sure you want to be involved with a man who treats people like that.”
“One that duels?”
“No, no. He and Eri-Viscount Dombray have been at each other’s throats for some time now. Business affairs, mostly. Brashef has been trying to do a hostile takeover for some time in Dombray’s holdings. Dombray isn’t without his nasty tactics, so I’ve heard. Certain warehouses have gone up in flames and certain valued workers pilfered. I believe this is their fifth or sixth duel? Each has two losses on each side. I assume the other one or two were just badly injured.”
Anla was curious about the rules surrounding duels, but it wasn’t the best time to ask. She declined, more because she’d rather not get involved with a man who had crossed Raulin.
It was too bad she wasn’t actually in the business of reselling and decorating; she had quite a few conversations from people who were generally interested in her services. Mrs. Garda looked at her proudly. They ate dinner together, along with Mr. Garda, and enjoyed each other’s company.