by Den Valdron
As Markath Khan came towards me, I noticed something very odd over his shoulder. A small ship, a shuttle had drawn Markath Khan's flagship, which had drifted some distance off. It seemed to me that I spotted a dot leaping from the shuttle to the flagship. What was it, some sort of flung package? A bomb? But no explosion ensued.
Markath Khan was before me. This time, there was nothing reckless about him. He took up a formal dueling stance, nodded to me. Then attacked savagely, with a series of short swings and cuts, it was classic Orovar dueling along a straight line. I retreated, moving to the side, parrying like mad, his blade sliding off mine again and again.
“You cannot win,” he said. “I'm stronger, I have more reach and more endurance. I have trained with the sword all my life.”
“And yet,” I said, “you're the one bleeding.”
“I made mistakes.”
He probed, and then lunged, but I was watching his hips and knew it was a feint. When the true attack came, a vicious cut at my legs, I was no longer there. Instead, I followed his reversal, and nicked him once again with the tip of my blade. His answering parry nearly tore the blade from my hand.
“Another mistake?” I asked.
“It was almost yours,” he replied, “a true swordsman would not have taken such a risk for so little reward.”
We circled each other, our blades raised high.
“This whole duel is a mistake for you,” I said, “isn't it.”
He nodded. “. I should have stayed with my original impulse. I let you goad me, you seem good at that.”
He batted at my sword, our blades clashed, but without the conviction of an attack. Just testing.
“And here you are,” I said.
“Here I am,” he said. “What about your mistakes. Why did you turn me down?”
“That was no mistake,” I replied. I tried a feint, he batted it away without caring.
“It was,” he said, “I saw your eyes, an instant after the words left your mouth. You would have given anything to take them back.”
I thought carefully. Did I owe him an honest answer, he was just trying to distract me.
“I had been playing the Princess so long,” I said, “that after a while, it was no longer playing. I had become her, in that moment, I was her.”
“Storybook nobility,” he sneered. “You should have met real nobility, they're far too busy licking each other's excrement for any sort of honourable pretension.”
“You should know,” I replied, and attacked, striking with a series of lunges and thrusts, swinging over to his left. He retreated parrying as we came closer and closer, and then suddenly, his fist swung out, catching me on the jaw. The force of the blow swung me away. As I stumbled, he roared in, swinging hard. Desperately, I pushed his blade up with the flat of my sword, ducking to one knee and then riposting weakly.
He stepped back out of the way. I leaped to my feet quickly, my guard up. My sword was held so tightly, my fingers were going numb. My hand was sweating, I shifted my grip and tightened. I could feel my arm trembling.
“Another mistake,” he said. “First believing yourself a Princess, now believing yourself a swordswoman. It's not the same as playing is it, the reality.”
“You're one to talk,” I snapped. “You accuse me of playing. There's nothing real about you. Do you think they'd follow you, if they knew what you really were?”
“I am their Jeddak,” he said, his eyes narrowing in warning, “they are not troubled that I am a foreigner.”
Expose him, then, I thought. Denounce him as an Orovar? To what effect? Would it be believed? And even if it was, what difference would it make? It would anger him, yes, I could tell. But he was waiting for it. No, try a different tactic.
“A foreigner,” I forced a merry laugh. Did it sound convincing? I thought so. “That's the least of it. No, it's about who you really are.”
He swung hard and angry. He did that when he was roused, wide brutal swings that allowed him to put his strength and weight behind it. He swung into them, going a little off balance. Over his shoulder, on his flagship, dots were falling. Men? I could not allow myself to be distracted.
“A fraud,” I said. “A liar. A hollow man. Oh you know nobility don't you, real nobility, eating each others excrement as you say it, living idle empty lives, useless lives.”
He swung hard this time, and swung again, forcing me to back up. I tried to shift to his left but he followed.
“Bah,” he snarled. “So you've gone from idiot children's stories of nobility, to cynical radical critiques of aristocracy. One's as misguided as the other.”
But I'd hit a nerve.
“Was that why you followed, the Edger Rys Burr Hoss? Boredom?” I asked. “No ideas, no vision of your own, you stole his.”
He grunted, and swung.
“Leader of the Edgers, you claimed?” I parried, watched him approach a low deck platform. “Usurper more like it!”
I feinted to distract him from it, an approach so unexpected it turned into a real attack. Our swords clashed twice. Then I backed away, he followed, his foot hit the edge, he stumbled, and I swung in, nearly spearing him.
“You've lost, you know,” I spat. “However this turns out, you've lost. I've made you look like a fool. None of them will ever forget that. The story will get out, Markath Khan stumbling about, bumbling through the murder of an untrained girl. They'll laugh at you behind your back. Your days are numbered, your enemies...”
He roared suddenly, surprising me, and leaped forth with a savage lunge. I barely parried, dodging to the side. He turned and thrust, and again I barely beat his blade out of the way.
“Bull,” he said. “Enjoy yourself while it lasts. I will kill you, and once you're dead, no one will care. You're such an idiot, with your stupid notions of nobility and morality and virtue. With your foolish ideas about people.”
He stepped up close, our blades crossing, our eyes meeting, his voice practically spitting in my face.
“You think these are men? They're all just dogs without the sense to go on all fours. They scratch themselves and fill their bellies and that's all that matters, they'll believe whatever they're told to believe, they'll do whatever they're told to do and pretend its truth and virtue.”
“You think they'll remember this as my humiliation? Two days from now, they'll toast my name as they celebrate my epic battle against the demon princess, you won't be a girl but rather a supernatural monster, and this fight will be pure heroism.”
Abruptly, he pushed hard, seeking to throw me off my feet. But I'd had that treatment too many times out in the canyons, and I was ready. I slipped aside, raising my guard and jabbing as he stumbled on his own strength.
“Ah,” I said, “but you'll remember the humiliation.”
“I can live with it,” he snarled, “but you won't!” And with that, he redoubled his attack, four more times our blades crossed, until he stumbled again against the deck platform.
“You usurped the Edgers,” I said. “It wasn't your idea, wasn't your vision, you simply stole it, thrust yourself to the forefront, with your ignorance and arrogance, and brought it all to ruin, didn't you.”
I only had vague ideas of the trajectory of the Edgers rise and fall, I was guessing. But it seemed to hit.
“Bah,” he said, “no one has any notion of what you're talking about. The Edgers are just memories now, in the minds of an enslaved race. In a few years, it will be the forgotten politics of an extinct race.”
“But that's how you work, isn't it,” I panted. I was so tired. My arm felt like lead. I was going to die, I knew it. “There's nothing real to you, you just steal from others. Just as you stole from the tombs of Mant.”
“The Jeweler, what was his name,” I demanded. “Ol Bolus? It was the same with him, wasn't it. He rescued you. He took you in, sheltered you. It was all his ideas, wasn't it, his schemes that made you wealthy. And how you paid him back...”
“He was going to betray me,” he said, advancing.
I didn't like this, I wanted him angered, reckless, but something like a cold white anger was settling on him, a vicious calmness.
“Was he,” I asked. “Or is that just the lie you used to betray him first. And what of Japhrus Farl? Someone else's vision, someone else's ideas, was he going to betray you too? Was he shocked at your betrayal?”
I jabbed at him. He did not even blink.
“He deserved his fate,” he said, “they all did.”
“Liar,” I said, “none of them did. All the treachery, all the betrayal, it was you, a viper crawling into one nest after another, murdering in the night. There's nothing to you. You speak of vision, you have none of your own, you steal others visions.”
His face became like stone. Only his eyes were alive, afire with murderous fury. He attacked, not recklessly this time, but with calculation, beating at my defences, forcing my arm down. I was forced to retreat.
“I wish I could kill you a thousand times. I wish I could make you suffer a thousand deaths,” he said, “but there will just be the one. I will make the most of it.”
He moved in, I feinted and then turned and sprinted for the edge of the deck. He raced to intercept me, reaching the edge an instant before I did. I stopped and lunged at him, following up with a series of thrusts and cuts. Savagely, he beat them back.
“It won't be that easy Princess,” he snarled. “No quick death throwing yourself over the side. I will not be denied my satisfaction and you will not be permitted even that escape.
My arm was on fire, my fingers were numb. I was trembling all over, I cold barely hold my blade.
“Let me enlighten you,” he said, “in these last minutes of your life. About nobility, about greatness. It is not virtue, virtue is for fools. Nor is it your childish notions about chivalry and honour. And vision? Vision is as common and worthless as leaves on a tree. What matters is will.”
He slapped at my sword with the flat of his blade, watching as I struggled to bring it back to guard as quickly as I could. Over his shoulder, his flagship had turned and was approaching us. More bad news.
“It is will that brought me through the Jagged Lands arrive. It was through sheer will that I came to lead the Edgers, that took me from a penniless stranger to a the wealthiest man in Diome, that lead me to the rule of an Empire. My will, against this worthless world of barely human refuse, my will against the degenerate purposeless Orovars, against the animal barbarians who took their place. They bend to my will. Will is all. Will is everything. Will is power.”
“Selfishness,” I replied, parrying another thrust. “Childish, spiteful selfishness.”
“Whatever,” he said, and slammed hard. I retained my grip on the sword, but stumbled backward. I was exhausted, all my gambits had failed, he would not make mistakes. I could barely defend myself.
“Time to die,” he said, raising his sword as he advanced on me.
That was when the flagship hit.
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