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Volume 3194b
Princess of Az-Lium
by Den Valdron

CHAPTER SEVENTY-FIVE
Markath Khan swung hard, a mighty stroke sufficient to chop down a tree.   I stepped back.  The blade whistled past me.

He grunted, took another step and swung hard again.  I stepped back again, out of the way, my guard up.

There was no finesse there, just brute strength, the way Ton Sabat used to swing.   Of course, Ton Sabat had been utterly ignorant, he'd used a sword like a club which just happened to have a sharp edge.  I wished he was here now.

Markath Khan was not ignorant, merely contemptuous.

He drew back for another mighty swing, I could see him preparing to stamp forward.  What was behind me, I wasn't sure.  As he swung again, I stepped to the side, letting his momentum carry im past me.  Tentatively, I thrust out to the side, slapping my sword against his thigh.  I cursed mentally, I'd used the flat of the blade.  This wasn't practice out among the rocks.

It had an effect though, Markath Khan shrieked and swung on me, swinging fast and wild.  I gave way, parrying desperately, our blades clashed loudly four times, and then there was an opening, I thrust, but he stepped short and I jabbed empty air.

He spat at me.

“So you picked up a trick or two in stage combat,” he swore.  “Something showy and dramatic, but ineffectual and pointless...  Like your whole life.   A player to the end?  You disgust me.”

I did not reply, mostly because I was scared crapless.  I watched him, watched his eyes, his blade, his feet, his hips, waiting for his next move.

He lunged suddenly, I sideslipped and parried, swinging under for a counter thrust, he had to abandon his follow up cut to bat my blade away.

“Play acting,” he sneered.

I shrugged.

“Play acting against reality.   Where are your pretty words now, your speeches, your poses and posturing, all those little games, will they help you now?  You never grasped that did you, that the world is not a stage, that you don't go back to the beginning to do it again three times a day, that you don't rehearse life over and over for dramatic effect?   You're such an empty pathetic thing.”

He swung suddenly, hard, intending to knock the sword from my hand.  I let the force slide off my blade, flexed it away and returned to ready.   His eyes narrowed.

Brute strength.

“Well, this isn't play acting.  This is real.  There are no rehearsals.  You will not get up off the deck, to do this three times a day.  There will be no dramatic words, no speeches.  There is only steel against posturing, truth against lies.”

But when I'd practiced with the men out on the rocks, they'd had brute strength and I'd learned to cope.   More than that, they'd practiced with Ton Sabat, whose brute strength made them like children, they'd learned to cope with his strength, and they'd taught me tricks, the techniques to blunt or divert strength that they'd been forced to learn for themselves.

“You should just give up,” he demanded.  “Throw down your sword, cast yourself on my mercy.  Beg and I might let you live.”

He tried again, swinging harder and more fiercely, as if my retaining my grip had been an accident, an insult.  His sword clanged hard against mine, I let the force bear it down, stiffened and felt the blade slide off, brought it around in an upward thrust.

And made a shallow cut against his breast.

I tried a follow up riposte, which he parried automatically, stepping back, I stepped forward with a feint, which he guarded, and then I dropped my blade fast.

For a second, we stopped, blades raised against each other.  I was panting.  His expression cold, he hadn't even broken a sweat.

Then his expression shifted slightly, he glanced down, reached up with his free hand to touch the trickle of blood running down his breast.   His eyes widened with shock, and then rage.

With a mad howl, he flung himself at me.  I shrieked and parried, backing away, slipping off to the side.  He pursued, chopping like an insane woodsman.   Our swords clashed again and again, but mostly I ducked and dodged, climbing up a set of steps, stepping around a mast.  He stumbled over a coil of rope, seeing an opening I flicked my blade opening a small cut on his forearm.

That infuriated him even further and he redoubled his attack, I parried wildly, retreating steadily.  He stumbled again against a bucket, and I attacked with a stamping thrust, he blocked that, but I swung around with a slashing cut, that he had to fling himself back to avoid.

I took advantage of his lack of balance, attacking with a series of quick direct thrusts that forced him to retreat.  His feet fell stumbled.

He was used to fighting on dueling floors, I realized.  Flat and even and empty open spaces.  I'd practiced with bandits among rocks, and canyons, obstacles and uneven ground always under foot.  I'd learned to watch the ground, to fix it in my memory so I'd know where my feet were going.  He hadn't.

I tried to push him towards a ladder.  One good stumble, one truly awkward moment, maybe I had a chance.

He risked a glance, spotted the ladder.  Then swung back at me lightning fast, this time catching my blade high up quite by accident, almost knocking the sword from my hand.  I stepped back, adjusting my grip, he swung, the blade whistling past.

Someone laughed.

Was he panting just a little.

Markath Khan's blood dripped slowly, steadily upon the deck.  His cape rippled in the breeze, his blade shining.  He still looked like a hero, damn him.

He stared at me with calm and level regard, the fury departed.

“Enough of this nonsense,” he said.  “You tricked me into playing a game, but its not a game, and I'm done.”

He stepped back three steps.  I waited, holding my position.

Then abruptly, he turned and started walking away.

“BilHal Mann,” he called to his nearest guardsman, “do me a favour please, and chop her head off.”

Could I rush him?  No, he was too far already, he'd be able to turn in time.  And it would be an attack from behind.  Whatever credit I'd won from the onlookers would be lost, I'd never survive cutting him down.

The Guard, Bilhal Mann, stepped forward.   He was a mountain of a man, tall, heavy with slabs of muscle, covered with scars, his armour though polished, bore the marks of rough use, and his sword was a heavy notched steel, a killing machine.   There was no chance.  This man would kill me, he would brush away my defenses, words or pleas would not move him.

“With pleasure, Sire,” he said.

He drew his sword and came at me.

I raised my weapon, knowing it would not do any good.

It was over, I knew.  Make it quick, I begged silently.

He grinned maliciously.

Suddenly, a shot rang out.  Bilhal Mann glanced at the red hole that opened in his breast, but his hand to his chest as blood fountained out.  His sword fell from nerveless fingers.  Like a great tree toppling, he fell.

I blinked.

“What?”  Markath Khan swore.  “What the hell?”

“My Lord,” one of the Guardsmen said, “I did it to save you.”

I knew that voice.

“Save me?”   Markath Khan sputtered.

“Of course,” the guardsman said.  I knew that voice, smarmy and cynical and altogether too knowing.

“Had I allowed Bilhal Mann to chop her head off, everyone would have considered you a coward, afraid to kill her yourself,” Vadak Eth said silkily, “I could not allow that.”

Markath Khan stared hard at his guardsman, Vadak Eth, who stared back with the bland confidence I knew so well.  I did not know whether to curse him or kiss him.

Finally, with a sigh, Khan raised his blade and turned back towards me.


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