From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

COSMIC POWERS

Fiction

The Swordsman Whose Name Was Not Death

After the fight, Richard was thirsty. He decided to leave the parrots alone for now. Parrots were supposed to be unlucky for swordsmen. In this case the curse seemed to have fallen on his opponent. Curious, he had asked the wounded man, “Did you slam into me on purpose?” People did sometimes, to provoke a fight with Richard St. Vier, the master swordsman who wouldn’t take challenges from just anyone. But the wounded man only pressed his white lips together. The rest of him looked green. Some people just couldn’t take the sight of their own blood.

Richard realized he’d seen him before, in a Riverside bar. He was a tough named Jim—or Tim—Something. Not much of a swordsman; the sort of man who made his way in the lawless Riverside district on bravado, and earned his living in the city doing cheapjack sword jobs for merchants aping the nobility in their hiring of swordsmen.

A man with a wreath of freesias hanging precariously over one ear came stumbling up. “Oh Tim,” he said mournfully. “Oh Tim, I told you that fancy claret was too much for you.” He caught hold of the wounded man’s arm, began hauling him to his feet. As a matched set, Richard recognized them: They’d been the ritual guards in the wedding procession he’d seen passing through the market square earlier that afternoon.

“Sorry,” the flower-decked drunk said to St. Vier. “Tim didn’t mean to give you trouble, you understand?” Tim groaned. “He’s not used to claret, see.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Richard said charitably. No wonder Tim’s swordplay had been less than linear.

Over their heads the caged parrots started squawking again. The parrot lady climbed down from the box where she’d escaped to get a better view of the fight. With St. Vier there to back her up, she shook her apron at the two ruffians to shoo them as if they were chickens escaped from the yard. The children who’d surrounded them, first to see if the quiet man was going to buy a parrot so they could see one taken down, and then to watch the fight, laughed and shrieked and made chicken noises after the disappearing toughs.

But people made way for Richard St. Vier as he headed in the direction of a stall selling drinks. The parrot lady collared one of the street kids, saying, “See that? You can tell your grandchildren you saw St. Vier fight right here.” Oh, honestly, Richard thought, it hadn’t been much of a fight; more like bumping into someone on the street.

He leaned on the wooden counter, trying to decide what he wanted.

“Hey,” said a young voice at his elbow. “I’ll buy you a drink.”

He thought it was a woman, from the voice. Women sometimes tried to pick him up after fights. But he glanced down and saw a pug-faced boy looking at him through slitted eyes, the way kids do when they’re trying to look older than they are. This one wasn’t very old. “That was real good, the way you did that,” the boy said. “I mean the quick double feint and all.”

“Thank you,” the swordsman answered courteously. His mother had raised him with good manners, and some old habits cling, even in the big city. Sometimes he could almost hear her say, Just because you can kill people whenever you want to doesn’t mean you have a license to be rude to anyone. He let the boy buy them both some fancy drink made with raspberries. They drank silently, the boy peering over the rim of his cup. It was good; Richard ordered them both another.

“Yeah,” the kid said. “I think you’re the best there is, you know?”

“Thanks,” said the swordsman. He put some coins on the counter.

“Yeah.” The kid self-consciously fingered the sword at his own side. “I fight too. I had this idea, see—if you needed a servant or something.”

“I don’t,” the swordsman said.

“Well, you know,” the boy went on anyway. “I could, like, make up the fire in the morning. Carry water. Cook you stuff. Maybe when you practice, I could be—if you need somebody to help you out a little—”

“No,” said St. Vier. “Thank you. There are plenty of schools for you to learn in.”

“Yeah, but they’re not…”

“I know. But that’s the way it is.”

He walked away from the bar, not wanting to hear any more argument. Behind him the kid started to follow, then fell back.

Across the square he met his friend Alec. “You’ve been in a fight,” Alec said. “I missed it,” he added, faintly accusing.

“Someone slammed into me by the parrot cages. It was funny.” Richard smiled now at the memory. “I didn’t see him coming, and for a moment I thought it was an earthquake! Swords were out before he could apologize—if he meant to apologize. He was drunk.”

“You didn’t kill him,” Alec said, as if he’d heard the story already.

“Not in this part of town. That doesn’t go down too well with the Watch here.”

“I hope you weren’t thinking of getting a parrot again.”

Richard grinned, falling into step beside his tall friend. It was a familiar argument. “They’re so decorative, Alec. And you could teach it to talk.”

“Let some bird steal all my best lines? Anyhow, they eat worms. I’m not getting up to catch worms.”

“They eat bread and fruit. I asked this time.”

“Too expensive.”

They were passing through the nice section of the city, headed down to the wharves. On the other side of the river was the district called Riverside, where the swordsman lived with sharpsters and criminals, beyond reach of the law. It would not have been a safe place for a man like Alec, who barely knew one end of a knife from another; but the swordsman St. Vier had made it clear what would happen to anyone who touched his friend. Riverside tolerated eccentrics. The tall scholar, with his student slouch and aristocratic accent, was becoming a known quantity along with the master swordsman.

“If you’re feeling like throwing your money around,” Alec persisted, “why don’t you get us a servant? You need someone to polish your boots.”

“I take good care of my boots,” Richard said, stung in an area of competence. “You’re the one who needs it.”

“Yes,” Alec happily agreed. “I do. Someone to go to the market for us, and keep visitors away, and start the fire in winter, and bring us breakfast in bed….”

“Decadent,” St. Vier said. “You can go to the market yourself. And I keep ‘visitors’ away just fine. I don’t understand why you think it would be fun to have some stranger living with us. If you wanted that sort of life, you should have—” He stopped before he could say the unforgivable. But Alec, in one of his sudden shifts of attitude, which veered liked the wind over a small pond, finished cheerfully for him, “I should have stayed on the Hill with my rich relatives. But they never kill people—not out in the open where we can all enjoy it, anyway. You’re so much more entertaining….”

Richard’s lips quirked downward, unsuccessfully hiding a smile. “Loved only for my sword,” he said.

Alec said carefully, “If I were the sort of person who makes crude jokes, you would be very embarrassed now.”

Richard, who was never embarrassed, said, “What a good thing you’re not. What do you want for dinner?”

#

They went to Rosalie’s, where they ate stew in the cool underground tavern and talked business with their friends. It was the usual hodgepodge of fact and rumor: A new swordsman had appeared across town claiming to be a foreign champion, but someone’s cousin in service had recognized him as Lord Averil’s old valet, with fencing lessons and a dyed mustache…. Hugo Seville had finally gotten so low as to take a job offing some noble’s wife … or maybe he’d only been offered it, or someone wished he had.

Nobles with jobs for St. Vier sent their messages to Rosalie’s. But today there was nothing. “Just some nervous jerk looking for an heiress.”

“Aren’t we all?”

“Sorry, Reg, this one’s taken; run off with some swordsman.”

“Anyone we know?”

“Naw … fairy-tale swordsman—they say all girls have run off with one, when it’s really their father’s clerk.”

Big Missy, who worked the mattress trade at Glinley’s, put her arm around Richard. “I could run off with a swordsman.” Seated, he came up only to her bosom, which he leaned back into, smiling across to Alec, eyebrows raised a little provocatively.

Alec took the bait: “Careful,” the tall scholar told her; “he bites.”

“Oh?” Missy leered becomingly at him. “Don’t you, pretty baby?”

Alec tried to hide a flush of pure delight. No one had ever called him “pretty baby” before, especially not women other people paid to get into.

“Of course I do,” he said with all the brittle superciliousness he was master of. “Hard.”

Missy released St. Vier, advancing on his tall young friend. “Oh good . . . ,” she breathed huskily. “I like ’em rough.” Her huge arms pointed like weather vanes into the rising wind. “Come to me lover.”

The old-time crowd at Rosalie’s was ecstatic. “Missy, don’t leave me for that bag of bones!” “So long, then, Alec; let us know how it comes out!” “Try it, boy; you just might like it!”

Alec looked like he wanted to sink into the floor. He held his ground, but his hauteur, already badly applied, was slipping treacherously.

At the last minute, Richard took pity on him. “I saw a wedding today,” he said to the room at large.

“Oh yeah,” said Lucie; “we heard you killed one of the guards. Finally made them earn their pay, huh?”

“Thought you didn’t do weddings, Master St. Vier.” Sam Bonner looked around for approval of his wit. Everyone knew that St. Vier disdained guard work.

“I don’t,” Richard said. “This was after. And I didn’t kill him. Tim somebody.”

“No lie! Tim Porker? Half-grown mustache, big ears? Said he hurt himself falling down some stairs. Dirty liar.”

“No weddings for Richard,” Alec said. He’d regained his aplomb, but was still eyeing Missy warily from across the room. “He is morally opposed to the buying and selling of heiresses.”

“No, I’m not. It’s just not interesting work, being a wedding guard. It doesn’t mean anything anymore, just rich people showing they can afford swordsmen to make their procession look pretty. It’s no—”

“Challenge,” Alec finished for him. “You know, we could set that to music, you say it so often, and hawk it on the street as a ballad. What a good thing for the rich that other swordsmen aren’t too proud to take their money, or we’d never see an heiress safely bedded down. What’s the reward offered for the runaway? Is there one? Or is she damaged goods already?”

“There’s a reward for information. But you have to go Uptown to get it.”

“I’m not above going Uptown,” said Lucie haughtily; “I’ve been there before. But I don’t know as I’d turn in a girl that’s run away for love….”

“Ohh,” bawled Rosalie across the tavern; “is that what you call it?”

“Speaking of money,” Alec said, rattling the dicebox, “is anyone interested in a small bet on whether I can roll multiples of three three times running?”

Richard got up to go. When Alec had drunk enough to become interested in mathematical odds, the evening’s entertainment was over for him. St. Vier was not a gambling man.

The Riverside streets were dark, but St. Vier knew his way between the close-set houses, past the place where the broken gutter overflowed, around the potholes of pried-up cobbles, through the back alleys and home. His own lodgings were in a cul-de-sac off the main street; part of an old townhouse, a discarded veteran of grander days. Richard lived on the second story, in what had once been the music rooms.

On the ground floor, Marie’s rooms were dark. He stopped before the front door; in the recessed entryway, there was a flash of white. Cautiously St. Vier drew his sword and advanced.

A small woman practically flung herself onto his blade. “Oh help!” she cried shrilly. “You must help me!”

“Back off,” said St. Vier. It was too dark to see much but her shape. She was wearing a heavy cloak, and something about her was very young. “What’s the matter?”

“I am desperate,” she gasped. “I am in terrible danger. Only you can help me! My enemies are everywhere. You must hide me.”

“You’re drunk,” said Richard, although her accent wasn’t Riverside. “Go away before you get hurt.”

The woman fell back against the door. “No, please. It means my life.”

“You had better go home,” Richard said. To speed her on her way, he said, “Do you need me to escort you somewhere? Or shall I hire you a torch?”

“No!” It sounded more annoyed than desperate, but quickly turned back to pleading: “I dare not go home. Please listen to me. I am—a Lady of Quality. My parents want to marry me to a man I hate—an old miser with bad breath and groping hands.”

“That’s too bad,” Richard said politely, amused in spite of the inconvenience. “What do you want me to do about it? Do you want him killed?”

“Oh! Oh. No. Thank you. That is, I just need a place to stay. Until they stop looking for me.”

Richard said, “Did you know there’s a reward out for you?”

“There is?” she squeaked. “But—oh. How gratifying. How … like them.”

“Come upstairs.” St. Vier held the door open. “Mind the third step; it’s broken. When Marie gets back, you can stay with her. She’s a, she takes in customers, but I think propriety says you’re better off with her than with me.”

“But I’d rather stay with you, sir!”

In the pitch-black of the stairs, Richard halted. The girl almost stumbled into him. “No,” St. Vier said. “If you’re going to start that, you’re not coming any farther.”

“I didn’t—” she squeaked, and began again: “That’s not what I meant at all. Honestly.”

Upstairs, he pushed open the door and lit a few candles. “Oh!” the girl gasped. “Is this—is this where you—”

“I practice in this room,” he said. “The walls are wrecked. You can sit on that chaise, if you want—it’s not as rickety as it looks.” But the girl went over to the wall, touching the pockmarks where his practice sword had chipped holes in the old plaster. Her fingertips were gentle, almost reverent.

It was an old room, with traces of its former grandeur clinging about the edges in the form of gilded laurel-leaf molding and occasional pieces of cherub. The person who had last seen fresh paint there had long since turned to dust. The only efforts that its present occupants had made to decorate it were an expensive tapestry hung over the fireplace, and a couple of very detailed silver candlesticks, a few leather-bound books, and an enamel vase, scattered about the room in no discernible order.

“I’d offer you the bed,” said Richard, “but it would annoy Alec. Just make yourself comfortable in here.”

With the pleasantly light feeling of well-earned tiredness, the swordsman drifted into the room that held his big carven bed and his chests for clothes and swords, undoing the accoutrements of his trade: unbuckling the straps of his sword belt, slipping the knife sheath out of his vest. He paced the room, laying them down, unlacing and unpeeling his clothes, and got into bed. He was just falling asleep when he heard Alec’s voice in the other room:

“Richard! You’ve found us a servant after all—how enterprising of you!”

“No—” he started to explain, and then thought he’d better get up to do it.

The girl was hunched up at the back of the chaise longue, looking awed and defenseless, her cloak still wrapped tight around her. Alec loomed over her, his usual untoward clutter of unruly limbs. Sometimes drinking made him graceful, but not tonight.

“Well,” the girl was offering hopefully, “I can cook. Make up the fire. Carry water.”

Richard thought, That’s the second time I’ve heard that today. He started to say, “We couldn’t ask a Lady of Quality—”

“Can you do boots?” Alec asked with interest.

“No,” Richard stated firmly before she could say yes. “No servants.”

“Well,” Alec asked peevishly, “then what’s she doing here? Not the obvious, I hope.”

“Alec. Since when am I obvious?”

“Oh, never mind.” Alec turned clumsily on his heel. “I’m going to bed. Have fun. See that there’s hot shaving water in the morning.”

Richard shrugged apologetically at the girl, who was staring after them in fascination. It was a shrug meaning, Don’t pay any attention to him; but he couldn’t help wondering if there would be hot water to shave with. Meanwhile, he meant to pay attention to Alec himself.

#

Alec woke up unable to tell where his limbs left off and Richard’s began. He heard Richard say, “This is embarrassing. Don’t move, Alec, all right?”

A third person was in the room with them, standing over the bed with a drawn sword. “How did you get in here?” Richard asked.

The pug-faced boy said, “It was easy. Don’t you recognize me? My enemies are everywhere. I think I should, you know, get some kind of prize for that, don’t you? I mean, I tricked you, didn’t I?”

St. Vier eased himself onto his elbows. “Which are you, an heiress disguised as a snotty brat, or a brat disguised as an heiress?”

“Or,” Alec couldn’t resist adding, “a boy disguised as a girl disguised as a boy?”

“It doesn’t matter,” St. Vier said. “Your grip is too tight.”

“Oh—sorry.” Still keeping the sword’s point on target, the kid eased his grip. “Sorry—I’ll work on it. I knew I’d never get in like this. And girls are safe with you; everyone knows you don’t like girls.”

“Oh no,” Richard protested, surprised. “I like girls very much.”

“Richard,” drawled Alec, whose left leg was beginning to cramp, “you’re breaking my heart.”

“But you like him better.”

“Well, yes, I do.”

“Jealous?” Alec snarled sweetly. “Please die and go away. I’m going to have the world’s worst hangover if I don’t get back to sleep soon.”

Richard said, “I don’t teach. I can’t explain how I do what I do.”

“Please,” said the boy with the sword. “Can’t you just take a look at me? Tell me if I’m any good. If you say I’m good, I’ll know.”

“What if I say you’re not?”

“I’m good,” the kid said stiffly. “I’ve got to be.”

Richard slid out of bed, in one fluid motion regathering his limbs to himself. Alec admired that—like watching a chess expert solve a check in one simple move. Richard was naked, polished as a sculpture in the moonlight. In his hand was the sword that had been there from the start.

“Defend yourself,” St. Vier said, and the boy fell back in cautious garde.

“If you kill him,” said Alec, hands comfortably behind his head, “try not to make it one of the messy ones.”

“I’m not—going to—kill—him.” With what was, for him, atypical flashiness, Richard punctuated each word with a blow of steel on steel. At his words the boy rallied and returned the strokes. “Again,” snapped the swordsman, still attacking. There was no kindness in his voice. “We’re going to repeat the whole sequence, if you can remember it. Parry all my thrusts this time.”

Sometimes the boy caught the quick-darting strokes, and sometimes his eye or his memory failed, and the blade stopped an inch from his heart, death suspended by the swordsman’s will.

“New sequence,” Richard rapped out. “Learn it.”

They repeated the moves. Alec thought the boy was getting better, more assured. Then the swordsman struck hard on the boy’s blade, and the sword flew out of his pupil’s hand, clanging on the floor, rolled into a corner. “I told you your grip was too tight. Go get it.”

The boy retrieved his sword, and the lesson resumed. Alex began to be bored by the endless repetition. “Your arm’s getting tired,” St. Vier observed. “Don’t you practice with weights?”

“Don’t have—any weights.”

“Get some. No, don’t stop. In a real fight, you can’t stop.”

“A real fight—wouldn’t go on this long.”

“How do you know? Been in any?”

“Yes. One. —Two.”

“You won both,” Richard said coldly, his arm never resting, his feet never still. “Makes you think you’re a hero of the field. Pay attention.” He rapped sharply on the blade. “Keep going.” The boy countered with a fancy double riposte, changing the line of attack with the lightest pressure of his fingers. Richard St. Vier deflected the other’s point, and brought his own clean past the boy’s defenses.

The boy cried out at the light kiss of steel. But the swordsman did not stop the movements of the play. “It’s a nick,” he said. “Never mind the blood.”

“Oh. But—”

“You wanted a lesson. Take it. All right, fine, you’re scared now. You can’t let it make a difference.”

But it did make a difference. The boy’s defense turned fierce, began to take on the air of desperate attack. Richard let it. They were fighting silently now, and really fighting, although the swordsman kept himself always from doing real damage. He began to play with the boy, leaving tiny openings just long enough to see if he would take advantage of them. The boy took about half—either his eye missed the others, or his body was too slow to act on them. Whatever he did, Richard parried his attacks, and kept him on the defensive.

“Now—” the swordsman said harshly—”Do you want to kill me, or just take me out?”

“I—don’t know–”

“For death”—Richard’s blade flew in—”straight to the heart. Always the heart.”

The boy froze. His death was cold against his burning skin. Richard St. Vier dropped the point, raised it to resume the fight. The boy was sweating, panting, from fear as much as exertion. “A good touch—can be anywhere. As light as you like—or as deep.”

The pug-nosed boy stood still. His nose was running. He still held his sword, while blood welled onto his skin and clothing from five different places.

“You’re good,” Richard St. Vier said, “but you can be better. Now get out of here.”

“Richard, he’s bleeding,” Alec said quietly.

“I know he’s bleeding. People do when they fight.”

“It’s night,” Alec said, “in Riverside. People are out. You said you didn’t want to kill him.”

“Hand me that sheet.” Sweat was cooling on Richard’s body; he wrapped the linen around himself.

“There’s brandy,” Alec said. “I’ll get it.”

“I’m sorry I’m bleeding on your floor,” the boy said. He wiped his nose with his sleeve. “I’m crying from shock, that’s all. Not really crying.”

He did not examine his own wounds. Alec did it for him, dabbing them with brandy. “You’re remarkable,” he told the boy. “I’ve been trying to get Richard to lose his temper forever.” He handed the flask to St. Vier. “You can drink the rest.”

Alec undid what the sword had left of the boy’s jacket, and began pulling out the shirt. “It’s a girl,” he said abruptly, unsuspecting midwife to unnatural birth.

The girl said something rude. She’d stopped crying.

“So are you,” Alec retorted. His hand darted into her breast pocket, pulled out the small book that had rested there, its soft leather cover warm and sweaty. He flipped it open, snapped it shut.

“Don’t you know how to read?” the girl asked nastily.

“I don’t read this kind of trash. The Swordsman Whose Name Was Not Death. My sister had it; they all do. It’s about some Noble girl who comes home from a ball and finds a swordsman waiting in her room for her. He doesn’t kill her; he fucks her instead. She loves it. The End.”

“No—” she said, her face flushed—”You’ve got it wrong. You’re stupid. You don’t know anything about it.”

“Hey,” said Alec, “you’re cute with your nose running, sweetheart—you know that?”

“You’re stupid!” she said again fiercely. “Stupid bastard.” Harsh and precise, as though the words were new in her mouth. “What do you know about anything?”

“I know more than you think. I may not have your exceptional skill with steel, but I know about your other tricks. I know what works for you.”

“Oh,” she flared, “so it’s come down to that.” Furious, she was starting to cry again, against her will, furious about that, too. “The sword doesn’t matter to you; the book doesn’t matter—that’s all you can understand. You don’t know anything—anything at all!”

“Oh, don’t I?” Alec breathed. His eyes were bright, a spot of color high on each cheek. “You think I don’t know all about it? With my sister, it was horses—both real and imaginary.” He mastered himself enough to assume his usual sneer, passionless and obnoxious. “Mares in the stable, golden stallions in the orchard. She told me their names. I used to eat the apples she picked for them, to make it seem more real. I know about it,” he said bitterly. “My sister’s magic horses were powerful; she rode them across sea and land; she loved them and gave them names. But in the end they failed her, didn’t they? In the end they took her nowhere, brought her nothing at all.”

Richard sat on the edge of the bed, brandy forgotten in his hand. Alec never spoke of his family. Richard didn’t know he had a sister. He listened.

“My sister was married—to a man chosen for her, a man she didn’t like, a man she was afraid of. Those goddamned horses waited for her in the orchard, waited all night for her to come to them. They would have borne her anywhere, for love of her—but she never came … and then it was her wedding day.” Alec lifted the book high, slammed it against the far wall. “I know all about it.”

The girl was looking at Alec, not at her broken book. “And where were you?” she said. “Where were you when this forced marriage took place—waiting in the orchard with them? Oh, I know, too—You took them and you escaped.” Holding herself stiffly against her cuts, she bent over, picked up the book, smoothed it back into shape. “You don’t know. You don’t know at all. And you don’t want to. Either of you.”

“Alec,” Richard said, “come to bed.”

“Thank you for the lesson,” she said to the swordsman. “I’ll remember.”

“It wouldn’t have made a difference,” he told her. “You’ll have to find someone else. That’s the way it is. Be careful, though.”

“Thank you,” she said again. “I will be careful, now that there’s something to be careful for. You meant what you said, didn’t you?”

“Yes,” Richard said. “I don’t usually get that angry. I meant it.”

“Good.” She turned in the doorway, asked in the same flat, cold tone, “What’s your sister’s name?”

Alec was still where he’d been when he threw the book, standing still and pale. Richard knew that his reaction, when it hit, would be violent.

“I said, what’s her name?”

Alec told her.

“Good. I’m going to find her. I’ll give her this”—the book, now fingerprinted with dried blood—”and your love.”

She stopped again, opened the book, and read: “‘I was a girl until tonight. I am a woman now.’ That’s how it ends. But you never read it, so you’ll never know what comes in between.” She smiled a steel-biting smile. “I have, and I do. I’ll be all right out there, won’t I?”

“Come to bed, Alec,” Richard said again; “you’re shaking.”

#

© 1991 Ellen Kushner.
Originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.
Reprinted by permission of the author.

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Ellen Kushner

Ellen KushnerEllen Kushner’s first novel, Swordspoint, introduced readers to the city to which she has since returned in The Privilege of the Sword (Locus Award& Nebula nominee), The Fall of the Kings (written with Delia Sherman), and a handful of short stories, most recently “The Duke of Riverside” in Ellen Datlow’s Naked City. Her second novel, Thomas the Rhymer, won the Mythopoeic and World Fantasy Awards. Kushner has taught writing at the Clarion and Odyssey workshops, and is a co-founder of the Interstitial Arts Foundation.  In 2011 she co-edited Welcome to Bordertown with Holly Black.  Kushner is also the longtime host of the public radio show Sound & Spirit. She has just finished recording the audiobook of Swordspoint for Audible. Kushner lives in New York City with author & editor, Delia Sherman, and no cats whatsoever.  It is all clearly explained at www.EllenKushner.com.