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CHAPTER SEVENTEEN: Chiefly about Swordplay

 

Ambros dropped in to the courtyard at Canada Prison in the Guatemalan countryside. It was just sunrise, full light perhaps fifteen minutes away. Arrenji and Voukli appeared moments after he did. A quick glance at the other two, then Ambros Shifted into the corridor where their spycam was hanging out.

He heard a series of explosions and a rattle of gunfire from out in the yard: Voukli and Arrenji beginning their combination distraction and destruction plan for the prison proper. He looked up and down the hall; he stood alone, for the moment: “So far, so good.”

He started his part of the operation: ‘This is a simple plan. One, two, three. Hit fast, get out.’ He had his Commando sidearm out, preset for microwave projection. He fried the mundane security cameras at either end of the hallway and put the pistol away. He dropped a marker on the floor where he was standing, then ran down the corridor, counting cells.

‘Simple plan, part two,” he said, deploying his APS. “Cut my way into Jaime’s cell...’

 

 

 

 

 

 

The sword cut through concrete and hardened steel, barely slowing as it passed through. The door fell inward with a crash and Jaime leapt off his bed and cowered in the corner of the cell.

“Jaime! Soy Carlo. Vamanos, amigo. Ahora!”

“Dios mio,” said Jaime. He ran for the door and out into the hallway. He limped noticeably as he followed Ambros to the mark.

Alarms started blaring, and they could hear the sound of big doors slamming shut at either end of the hall. Jaime cursed, but Ambros just grinned at him through the clear faceplate of his Commando helm: “Simple plan, part three,” he said: “Stand here, amigo.”

He gave a sign to the spycam, and Jaime vanished with a pop. Ambros stepped onto the marker and raised his hand to sign for his own evacuation. It was not to be: the spycam, with its link to Alcatraz, exploded into shards of ceramic, metal, and superfine wire, with the sickening visual distortion that came with the destruction of seven-dimensional matrices. He looked over his shoulder and saw a prison guard diving back around the corner.

Ambros cursed, using several words in Spanish that had recently become part of his vocabulary, thanks to RNA language lessons.

He could hear guards tramping towards his position; the sound echoed off the walls at either end of the hall. “Ah hell, I didn’t want to kill anybody today.” He drew his pistol and deployed the plasma sword.

The guards came around the nearest corner first. They stopped in confusion, staring at him in his futuristic Hellenic-style armor, and the sword: ’Surely they have no idea what it is, but it looks dangerous…’

He spoke to them in Spanish: “I don’t suppose I can convince y’all to just let me walk out of here? Then I wouldn’t have to kill any of you…Ah, I thought not.”

They started firing at him, advancing slowly from both ends of the hall. The bullets hurt like hard punches when they hit on his tunic; he felt no impact on his scale armor. ‘Not from small caliber slugs like these,’ he thought.

He stepped back against the wall, sending a hail of slugs into the mass of guards at the left end of the corridor and cutting with his plasma sword in his right hand. He used a pattern called “X and eight” that he’d mastered at his last Red Warrior training session.

After about five seconds of that, the survivors backed out of the hallway at each end, screaming and wailing in distress. The bodies of their comrades they left behind, smoking.

A grenade rolled along the hallway, stopping near his feet. He moved with the blinding speed that his training and physical improvements now allowed him: he dropped the sword, snatched the thing up and threw it back, bouncing it off the wall and in among the group who’d sent it his way. It went off before it cleared the corner, and shrapnel splattered all around him. The debris made no impression on his harness, though it stung like bees wherever it struck his Kevloid. He grabbed his sword and reached for the backup spycam in his pocket…

“Oh, bleep,” he said: “Another one...It’s a good day to die.” He tried to reach it, but knew he couldn’t.

Arrenji dropped in between Ambros and the bomb, and kicked it down the hall. She fired ten slugs after it and tossed a new spycam into the air.

Then they were standing on the landing pad at Alcatraz, in the Quiet Timeline named for that island. The spycam fell, and Arrenji snatched it from the air.

Ambros took off his helm and nodded at Arrenji: “Thanks, Magistri.”

She grinned: “Dipota. No plan...”

“...survives contact with the enemy.” Ambros sighed.

Voukli had her helmet off, speaking quietly to Jaime where he sat, looking stunned. “Dizzy,” he said, shaking his head and groaning.

“Yeah,” Ambros said, recalling his first multi-stage Jump: “It never gets to be fun, but you do get used to it, or so I was told after my first experience.”

 Arrenji laughed, and headed for the landing pad: “I have stuff to do. See you on the other side.”

Arrenji left the room with a ‘pop’; Jaime happened to be staring at her and saw her vanish. He boggled.

The Meds who had staged in the room waiting for their return swarmed over the injured man, and Voukli was gently pressed aside. Ambros sat on one of the sofas over in the conversation pit by the main door.

He listened, sickened more by the minute, as the Meds described Jaime’s injuries: “...broken fingers...four nails pulled...this thigh is bruised to the femur...elbow dislocated...sleep deprivation...punctured eardrum, probably from a blow...a blow also caused this kidney damage…” At some point they put Jaime under. He lay like a dead man as they continued their work.

One of the Meds got Ambros’ attention and made a handsign that meant ‘three days’. He nodded.

They went on for some time, detailing more minor injuries like abrasions and contusions.

Voukli walked over and sat down beside him.

“They only had him for about thirty hours,” Ambros said: “I was feeling a little bit guilty about all of those dead guards and all.”

Voukli nodded: “I was, too. But that’s the job, right? Those guards thought that they were doing the right thing. We think we are.’

“Who is correct?” Ambros asked with a quirk of his eyebrow.

Voukli tipped her head toward the group of Meds, who had raised Jaime up with the ‘invisible gurney’ trick. She said: “On the evidence...?”

“Point taken. You have a heads-up on the coup in ATL Prime?”

“Yes. We should Jump back to Commonwealth Prime. The main monitors are all there, in the War Room.”

“Okay. I got an hour for that. Then…I have another task...and then the duel.” He sighed.

“I hear you,” she said: “Wait till you have these belts around your waist.”

He shook his head, not wanting to contemplate it.

They stepped onto the pad and Voukli nodded to the operator, who sent them off.

 

 

 

Ambros strode along the Themistoclean Wall, on the street called Leoforo Themistocla. That avenue made a circuit of the inner side of the Wall; when he came to the first Gate in the Wall, he turned left and passed through.

‘That’s the least complex action one can take at such a gate,’ he thought. He still didn’t understand the system of rights of way that governed the various gates in the Walls of the City. ‘They seem to all be different. Each gate has its own customs.’ He was happy to have the program on his MPS that led him across any intersection he might need to negotiate.

‘Today, I gotta get to the Arena, and I don’t have the option of late.’

He turned left as soon as he got to the walking path, beside the boulevard that circled the outer side of that Wall. He glanced back at his companions, walking along behind him. Voukli and Arrenji were there as his seconds, and Marie had come along. Neither Kim nor Luisa was willing to watch what he had to do that day.

They crossed the River Illysos on a footbridge, and approached the Arena. He saw Regulos coming from the other direction. He slowed and Reg walked a little faster, so they arrived at the entrance together. “He has no second with him,” Ambros muttered.

“Maybe no one would agree to serve,” said Voukli.

“So the rumor has it,” said Arrenji.

Regulos wore an arming coat of the usual Commonwealth Kevloid, and carried a pair of gloves of the same material; he also wore riveted mail and a lightweight leather helm.

Ambros stopped and stared, sarcastic: “You didn’t specify the helm and mail when you chose the form of this duel.”

Regulos shrugged: “Back out, if you want. It would show your true colors.”

“Really?” Ambros held his arm out, preventing Voukli from stepping forward. He continued: “You are the one who insisted on a duel. You chose the weapons and armor. Now you appear to be cheating. Whose true colors are we seeing here?”

Regulos put his hand to the hilt of the steel sword he was wearing on his belt. Ambros stood waiting: ‘Will he really draw while we are still outside the Arena?’

Voukli and Arrenji both put their hands to the hilts of their swords, also steel, and razor sharp. Regulos, seeing that, and also their steely faces, took his hand away from his weapon and said: “Let’s get this done, barbarian.”

Ambros shook his head: “Sure, whatever.” They turned and walked into the Arena side by side, but out of one another’s sword range.

Ambros and his small band of supporters sat together at one spot near the center of the Arena; Regulos walked past them and sat by himself about twenty ells away. There was a small crowd in the seats above them, and no one at all in the stands across the field.

One not-very-large group of Regulos’ friends sat in the area directly behind him. Most of them wore grim faces; Tantalos, Reg’s best friend, sat there looking worried.

Laborers worked in front of Ambros, putting the finishing touches on their preparations for the duel. They slotted the corners of a heavy wooden fence together: such marked the boundaries of the fighting field. It created a space about fifty feet square.

“There’s some room to maneuver,” said Voukli, speaking very quietly in his ear, “but no room to escape for even a lepto from a determined opponent. What’s your battle plan?”

“Easy,” he said. “I’m going to clearly demonstrate my superiority, then throw the fight.”

“What?” Marie was appalled: “You said this was a ‘first blood’ duel!”

“Yup. I’m gonna own him, show that he can’t penetrate my defense. Then I’m gonna let him cut me, a little bit. Then we’ll be done.”

Marie started to protest, but Voukli interrupted her: “Very clever. If it works.” She put her hand on Marie’s shoulder: “There are Medical Guild Magistrae right over there,” she pointed. “We always have them here for a duel of any kind. You should trust your Twine. This may end the fight with minimal damage to both parties.”

Arrenji said: “I hope Regulos goes along with your plan. He’s not smart enough to be predictable.”

Ambros shrugged: “I’ll burn that bridge if it’s in front of me. He insisted on this duel. He knows he is no match for me. I don’t understand it at all.” He waited until Regulos walked out onto the dueling ground, still in helm and mail. He grinned.

Voukli opened the canvas bag she had carried, and removed an identical set of armor. She put a steel helm and arm guards aside: they’d come prepared.

Ambros rose from his seat and donned the mail, then the helm. The rig left his forearms bare, where the Kevloid gloves didn’t reach, and he had no protection for his legs beyond a pair of trousers of stiff cloth.

Voukli drew Ambros’ sword from its sheath. She whistled as she hefted it: “That’s a nice piece of steel there.”

“It is,” he said:

“The patterning is beautiful.”

“Sure is. Old Nick always made the best Damascus. I won it in an SCA tournament twenty-five years ago. It will remind me what I am capable of, in case my attention wanders. Or...in case Regulos doesn’t go along with my plan...”

Marie shook her head, dubious.

Ambros strolled onto the field. He displayed an arrogant confidence. He couldn’t help it. Regulos snarled at him.

Regulos drew his steel and tossed the sheath out of the ring.

Magistros Megálos came to the edge of the field: “I am Kritos Hexadroménos, called Megálos. I am a Master in the Sacred Band. I call upon each of you: consider your course carefully. Regulos, Spathos second degree in Red Warrior Guild, and the Challenger: will you withdraw your challenge and make peace with your foe?”

“Not a chance.”

“Ambros, Spathos fourth degree in the Sacred Band, and the Defender, will you concede to your foe and make peace?”

“He refused my concession. Let him accept it now, and I will make peace.”

Regulos stood silent.

Megálos drew his own sword, then raised it above his head: “Then upon my command, begin: Archizete!”

Ambros took his longsword in two hands and assumed the Posta: “Dente di Zhengiaro, the Boar’s Tooth,” from Fiore. Regulos also went two-handed and drew his weapon back over his right shoulder, his hands high and the sword across his back.

‘Posta di Donna, high,’ thought Ambros. He waited for Regulos to attack. He stayed relaxed, knowing that such relaxation would make his reactions quicker.

Regulos stood a long time, waiting, tense. At length, he spoke: “What? Will you just stand there?”

“I am on guard,” said Ambros: “You are the Challenger, this duel was your idea.” He flipped the tip of his sword up and down, quickly: “Leave at your leisure, or begin, I don’t care.”

Regulos began to circle Ambros, who turned in place rather than accept his foe’s invitation. This went on for some time: ‘Regulos wants to counter rather than attack.’

Finally Regulos stepped forward; instead of cutting at Ambros, which his stance and guard suggested, he raised his hands and thrust at Ambros’ face.

Ambros shifted his weight to the left, bending his left knee; he let the point of the blade pass over his right shoulder, then rotated his entire upper body and struck at Regulos’ sword. ‘Rebattemiento!’ he thought. Reg’s weapon moved sideways by a good two feet, so that it was (temporarily) out of distance from Ambros’ head.

“I know that trick,” said Ambros, just loud enough for Regulos to hear. Ambros pursued his opponent’s blade with his own, binding it until it was parallel to the ground. Then he used a 17th century fencing technique; he ‘enveloped’ the other man’s sword, and took it completely out of Regulos’ hands. It flew over to the side of the field, banged off the fence, and fell.

Reg backpedaled as fast as he could towards his sword. Ambros pursued, smacking Reg repeatedly with the flat of his blade, and cutting lightly at his helm. Then he backed off, a bit, and let Regulos pick up his sword.

Ambros laughed. Reg snarled, and attacked forcefully, making repeated brutal cuts at Ambros’ helm and legs. Ambros disarmed him again, and again.

‘Okay,’ he thought: ‘everyone here, except maybe Regulos, can see that I am the superior swordsman. Time to end this charade.’

He left a small gap in his defense, inviting an attack. It didn’t come. He made the opening more obvious; Regulos seemed not to see it.

Ambros frowned. He waited for Reg’s next series of attacks to begin, covered the first six cuts, and then, when his foe was nearly spent, put his left arm in front of the blade.

“Ahh!” he cried, acting a little. “That’s a cut!”

      ‘Dammit, that hurts,’ he thought. ‘Worth it though, if it ends this duel.”

Megalos took a single step into the field: “First blood, Spathos Regulos. Are you satisfied?”

For answer, Regulos attacked again. He rained blows on Ambros, and thrust repeatedly at his foe’s left side, where Ambros’ blood dripped onto the sandy turf.

Ambros covered or evaded all of the attacks, gradually getting angry: very angry.

Regulos stopped for a moment, breathing hard.

“Last chance, Regulos. You’ve got the win, if you’ll just take it,” Ambros said, letting his anger show.

Reg growled, and said, hissing: “You let me have that cut, jerk. That was stupid. I’m gonna wait till you bleed a bunch more, then I’m gonna cut you within a lepta of your life.”

“Okay,” Ambros said, seemingly icy calm and amused: “That’s it, then.”

He let his shoulders slump. He relaxed his body from the inside out; he could still feel tension in his hips, but ignored that. His left forearm burned like fire, but he gripped his sword firmly anyway.

He strode towards Regulos, swatted his foe’s sword casually aside, and cut at Reg’s face. He kept up a steady attack, in broken rhythm, getting closer to Regulos’ head or body with each cut.

He got the opening he wanted, and struck. He cut Regulos’ left leg, outside in, then reached a little deeper and nicked the right leg, executing a push cut and getting the femoral artery. He twisted and parried, hands high, driving Reg’s counter offline, then cut viciously at his head. The blow landed: it split the leather helm in two, and cut into the man’s scalp, briefly exposing the bone.

Regulos swayed and then fell; blood gouted from his head and from his leg. He hit the ground with a decisive thud, mail rattling.

Ambros walked from the field cursing in multiple languages. He glared over at Regulos’ friends, who were muttering and grumbling among themselves. “Hey, you folks!” he called out, getting their attention: “Any of you have anything to say to me about this? Anybody want to take Reg’s part? Any of you want to take the field and try to avenge him?”

They looked around at one another, variously angry, dismayed, shedding tears, or terrified.

“Come on,” he said, gesturing with his bloodied sword: “I invoke the Duello Code, right now. Speak, or forever remain silent.”

After a bit, Tantalos spoke: “Nobody wants to fight you, sir. Regulos is a friend of ours, but he brought this on himself.” There came a mutter of reluctant agreement from the others.

Ambros bowed slightly, then saluted them. He continued his march to the stands.

He sat down on a bench in front of the lowest tier of seats and stripped off his gloves. He pulled the helmet off of his head and tossed it to the ground in disgust. He examined the wound in his left forearm, which by then was barely bleeding. He continued cursing.

He saw that medical staff surrounded his foe, and that they had stopped his bleeding. Marie was waving at the Meds. One of them, an Apprentice by her garb, came over to him.

She examined his wound, ran a handheld device over it, wiped it clean with a sterilizer and glued it shut. She stared at him, apparently angry. Then she stalked off, back to tend the supine Red Warrior Guildsman.

‘Probably a Pacifist,’ he thought. The wound throbbed, getting more painful. ‘That’s the blood vessels forcibly re-attaching…Commonwealth Med tech.”

After a bit more work, the Meds raised Regulos up horizontally, until he was waist high; they hustled him away.

Marie stood in front of Ambros. Her hands were on her hips, arms akimbo, and she looked fiercely angry: “What in the name of common sense did you think you were doing? You could have been badly hurt, or even killed! I...”

“Highly unlikely,” said Arrenji. “Regulos is not that good a swordsman.”

“He looked pretty damn good to me!”

Voukli shook her head: “I saw no moment during that fight when Ambros was in real danger.”

Ambros intervened: “I was in danger. Anytime there are steel blades in play, never mind live steel, everyone concerned is in danger. And yes, Marie, Reg is ‘pretty good’ with a sword. He’s a Red Warrior Spathos, Grade Two. But I’m SB Spathos Four. I’m way better than he is. And I’m so pissed off at myself right now, I could just spit.”

Marie frowned and subsided.

Voukli said: “I thought you handled the situation as well as possible, considering. It’s not like Reg gave you any way out, at any time.”

Ambros shook his head: “I repeatedly under-and-over-estimated him.”

“Explain,” said Arrenji, terse, as she often was.

He made a face, then said: “First, I really hoped he’d back out of the duel before today. I know all of his friends were leaning on him to do just that. I overestimated his smarts, and underplayed his resistance to their influence. I wasn’t happy about that, from the beginning of the fight.

“Then, for my first fallback, I overestimated his skill. I thought that if I got him riled, if he got adrenalized, that he’d be quick enough and accurate enough to land a decent blow. It didn’t work. He was so poor a swordsman—not objectively, but compared to me, right?—that I realized that it would be impossible to make anyone, even Reg himself, think that he’d got a fair hit on me.

“Once I let him cut me, I realized that I had, even still, underestimated his anger, and also his cunning.”

Marie frowned. “I thought you said he’s not very smart...”

“He is not smart,” said Voukli: “But he’s cunning. He figured to let Ambros bleed, and take him down once he was weak. It was a clever, sneaky, cunning, thing to do, once Ambros allowed him to get the cut in.”

Ambros said: “But he failed to account for a couple things: the cut was painful—still is, damn it—and impressively bloody. But I made sure he cut long ways on my arm, so as to do minimal muscle damage. I could still wield my sword at full speed.”

“And then there’s Sacred Band Med tech.” Ambros grinned wryly: “We clot a lot faster when our blood is exposed to the air; it’s one of the advantages SB has over the enemy.”

“Oh,” Marie frowned: “That’s what, genetic engineering?”

“Yep,” said Ambros.

“Like my dreads,” said Arrenji: “Easy stuff for our Medical establishment to handle.”

Voukli cleaned and oiled Ambros’ sword, very efficiently. She sheathed it and grinned.

He got up and stripped off the mail, then the arming coat. He donned his red Spathos belt over the sweat-stained tunic he’d worn beneath the armor. He attached his sheath to the belt.

He pulled his cup out and began assembling all of the gear into the canvas bag. When it was shut he made as if to lift it onto his shoulder.

Voukli intervened: “I am Dhefterí,” she said, assertively. “I carry this back to your locker.” She grinned: “After that, I am once again Magistri, and you are Spathos.”

“Thank you, Magistri Dhefterí.”

“You are welcome, Spathos...do you want to do it, or should I?” Voukli spoke the second part to Arrenji.

“Your trainee, Voukli.”

“You recruited him, Magistri.” Voukli was grinning wickedly. “And I think he’s ready for your full attention.”

Arrenji took Ambros by the shoulders and turned him to face her. She kept hold of him, and held his eye, as well.

She said: “Soon after we first met, I put your training in Voukli’s capable hands. I said at that time that she would be a key trainer for you, until such time as you became worth my while. It has come to my attention that you now are so. If you consent, I will take a greater part in your preparations for all Sacred Band operations. Do you consent?”

Ambros was trembling, but managed not to let it show. “Yes, Magistri,” he said: “I look forward to your insights and I believe I have the fortitude to face your critiques.”

“Excellent!” She reached into a bag that was attached to her waist: “Spathos Fifth Ambros Rothakis: send me your calendar, and we’ll work out a schedule.” She put a decal onto the end of his belt; it burned the fifth chevron into the leather.

‘That’s one step below Mastery,’ he thought, disturbed.

They all trudged off toward the City.

Ambros, for the first time, allowed himself to contemplate what it would mean to wear the twin white and black belts of a Sacred Band Magistros. ‘’Ridiculous, in a way...How long, exactly, has it been since that day at the Country Fair, when I knew nothing of this whole civilization? Not even five months...’

Marie moved to walk beside him, took his hand. She squeezed it and he returned the gesture.

 

 

 

He dropped in to the Wayback room at his studio at about one the same day: ‘Sunday, the sixteenth,’ he reminded himself.

‘Been short on sleep for weeks, it feels like. I need a break. Class first.’

He ran through the class he’d planned, mentally and with small gestures. Then he did a careful inventory of the Commonwealth tech he had on hand, checking every piece for power levels.

He yawned as he finished. He made sure to close the door behind him, firmly. He felt the palm lock engage.

He awoke at two-thirty when his MPS buzzed him.

He yawned a couple more times as he prepared for the class.

He opened the main door on time, and welcomed the students as they arrived: “We’re working with schlagers and bucklers today; warm up hard and put on maximum armor. I had an injury, so I won’t swing today, but I’m going to yell a lot. Nothing personal, but you need this class, and you are all ready for it.”

He pushed the pace much harder than usual. ‘Partly that’s to shake off my own sleepiness. But also...’

“I want you all to fight harder, today. Each one of you, try to end each match as quickly as you can.”

“Tell us why,” said Allie.

“This is practice for the day when you cannot avoid the fight. Your opponent, your enemy, has you where you cannot escape, or call for help, or maneuver. The essence of the fight is then: inner calm, technique, and fighting spirit. Find those things in yourselves, and show them to me.

“First two...Again! Next two...faster, quicker! Gustav, block high and attack low...Again! Allie, set-asides against the stronger opponent! Fight like this means something! If you lose you die, or worse! Kick it, Robert...No rules people...Randy, well done...Allie, inside move! There, that’s it! Cut him...Use your pommel, use your cup hilt! From the hip, finish here...fight dirty!”

In spite of his resolve, he stepped in to demonstrate various techniques. His arm ached.

He kept them at it right up till quitting time: “Excellent work today, each one of you. I’m pleased and proud of you all.”

The teenaged boys were dragging, exhausted. Gustav actually trembled as he disarmed, and dropped some pieces of his gear as he tried to rack it. Allie sat in the middle of the fighting floor, her helm between her knees, tears on her face.

“You did well, Allie.”

“I lost an awful lot of fights.” She sniffled.

“No more than the others.”

“Really?”

He showed her the little notebook he’d been using to record the wins and losses: “You dominated Gustav. Randy beat you 12-10. But you beat Robert by the same, and you were even with the other two.”

“Really?”

“I wouldn’t lie.”

“Why can’t I stop crying?”

He smiled gently: “It’s normal for girls your age to have this reaction. Boys are allowed to compete: to hit, to tackle, to wrestle; to engage in various kinds of mock violence, and to shake hands afterwards. Our culture doesn’t encourage that kind of honest competition among girls. Plus I harassed you extra hard about ‘dead or worse’…’cuz of the extra bad stuff that can happen to girls. Right? ”

“I guess,” she said, after a pause. She got up and began disarming herself. When she finished, Ambros took her aside.

“I’d like you to write me an essay about this. Look up the writings of Toni Booker...” He wrote the name on a page from the notebook and tore it out: “Write about how you feel, and where those feelings come from.”

“Okay.”

She and Gustav joined Randy and they all saluted out the door.

He watched the kids take off, one car at a time. The rain came even harder: it pelted on the pavement and some of the drops bounced from the hood of Randy’s old Chevy beater. In the polarized amber light of the streetlamps it had an eerie effect, like something out of Lovecraft.

‘Tears of the Old Gods,’ he thought: ‘Falling hard from another world...’

As he stood watching the downpour he saw another vehicle approaching: ‘Cop,’ he thought, immediately: ‘The black Lincoln Town Cars are a dead giveaway.’

The beast slowed and stopped, on the other side of the street, half a block away. The driver got out and jogged over into the shelter of the awning. He wore civvies and had a big hat, so Ambros didn’t recognize him until they stood face to face.

“Chief Black,” he said: “What a pleasant surprise.” He kept his tone neutral, but the irony would have been obvious even to Riggles.

“Mr Rothakis. May I come in?”

“You sober this time?”

“Sober as a judge.”

Ambros narrowed his eyes: “I am not consenting to a search. That said, sure. We’ll go to the office.”

He led the way, leaving all of the lights on.

“Tea?” he asked, intending to disarm his guest.

“No thanks. I’m here to ask you a few questions. I hope you can help me out.”

Ambros remained silent.

After a bit, Black said: “I have a puzzle on my hands. I got a dozen and a half missing persons, all men, and a vehicle accident site out Greenbrier Road that makes no sense at all.”

“What’s that got to do with me?”

“I’m not sure. You drive that way, a lot. This lady, Kim Mallory...”

Ambros interrupted: “Yes. Her sister Sarah lives out Greenbrier. Married into the Orenhauser clan.”

Black looked uncomfortable: “Yes, well, we don’t want to trouble the Orenhausers.”

Ambros suppressed his grin: “Old money got some privileges, huh?” Chief Black practically squirmed in embarrassment.

There followed a long silence. After perhaps two minutes, Ambros took pity on Black: ”Suppose you tell me about this wreck.”

“Yeah. Okay. I got five trucks, belonging to Brad Dillon and some of his buddies. I also got mysterious tracks and a disappeared vehicle, probably another pickup. You know Mr Dillon?”

“No,” Ambros said curtly.

“Ah. Well he’s a bit of a trouble-maker and...”

Ambros interrupted: “Posse Comitatus.”

“I...what?”

“I don’t know Mr Dillon. But I’ve heard of him. He’s the local rep for the Posse.”

“And you know that how?” Chief Black asked sarcastically.

“I hacked his home computer.” Ambros leaned over and extracted a thumb drive from his desk drawer. He rubbed it on his shirt, polishing the outside to a fine gloss. Then he tossed it to Black: “Officers Miller and Thompson are on the membership list, as is Hannah d’Angelo.”

What? Fuck her!” Black said, apparently willing to accept Ambros’ accusations.

“I’d rather not, actually. Never cared for Nazis, neo- or otherwise.”

“No, me neither.”

“Of course, you can’t use that information in a court of law...”

Black dismissed that: “I got a multiple missing persons case, and leaving the scene of an accident, and a couple other things. I’ll subpoena the SOB’s computer is what I’ll do.”

Ambros nodded: “The ‘secret file’ is called ‘Ragnarok’ and the password is ‘Thor-asterisk-one-two-three’.”

“Okay...I got one other missing person: a guy named Masters. We know you’ve had a couple run-ins with him.”

“So?”

“So...we figured you might know where he is...”

“And you figured I’d tell you if I did?”

Black leaned back in the chair, waving a finger at Ambros: “Look: I’m morally certain that you had something to do with the temporary disappearance of Riggles and Morley. Ditto that amazing fuck-up out at the Country Fair site. And twice in the last six months I’ve had cops go down with mysterious amnesia; the first time it was forty people all at once! And I think you were there both times!

“We never got a lick of evidence, nothing close to anything that would stand up in court. And I’m more certain than ever,” Here he waved the thumb drive at Ambros: “that you are the one who hacked my computers and wiped out three months’ worth of research...and stole some confidential personnel files! Again, I got no proof. But shit swirls around you constantly, even though none of it ever sticks. So...I don’t expect you to admit to anything. But I got the Mayor on my back about Masters. Anything you tell me that I can use to shift the weight a bit would be appreciated.”

Ambros leaned forward, and his hands closed into fists. Black flinched a little at his expression.

“I’ll tell you one thing, maybe two; but I have my price.”

“I’ll buy, if the price is right.”

“Call off the dogs. From now on your department’s official policy is that I’m a legitimate entrepreneur. No more attempted drug entrapments, no more spying. Stop trying to subvert my identity. Settle my lawsuits. Stop following me around. Stop following Kim around. Is that good?”

“You knew about our operation on Ms Mallory, huh?”

“Of course I did. She doesn’t. Just back off.”

Black sat there a while, looking incredibly sour. Then he said: “Okay, deal.”

They shook hands.

 Ambros said: “Okay: keep in mind: I am not an asset of yours. Not a source. Don’t ever attribute anything to me...

“Last time I saw Masters, he was in Seattle. He won’t be easy to find.” Both statements were true; both were useless to Chief Black.

“He got something to hide?” Black seemed doubtful.

“He has a lot to hide. I’m not sure how much, but it’s a lot.”

Black nodded slowly: “Right. For the record, I wasn’t here.”

Ambros raised his eyebrows, looking innocent: “What? Who? Never saw you. Silly idea...

“C’mon, I’ll show you out.”

 

 

 

Ambros was cleaning up at the Salon, putting away books that he’d used during the lesson, and doing a little cobweb chasing with the dust sucker.

He felt the fatigue clear through him: “I’ll set no alarm, I’ll sleep here, I’ll block all my incoming lines, I’ll...”

He heard a tap on the glass of the entry door. He’d finally got around to replacing the glass just the previous week.

He saw Randy standing outside the door. He wore no coat or jacket; his shirt and hair dripped rainwater.

Ambros’ fatigue vanished and he went to the door as quickly as possible. He keyed the deadbolt open. Randy staggered in, shaking and coughing.

“What the hell happened, Randy? Where’s your coat?” He led the young man back into the office, sat him in the guest chair, and put the teakettle on the hot plate.

He slipped back into the bedroom behind the office and got a wool robe and some towels. “Out of those wet clothes, dry off, wear this.” He used his ‘command voice’, which he’d been developing under the auspices of his Hellenic mentors. At the bottom of his range, in the upper baritone, urgent and really hard to disobey: ‘Which is the point, of course...’

Randy responded automatically, stripping, drying and dressing fairly quickly. Ambros watched him, seeing bruises on his ribs and thighs; when Randy sat again, Ambros could see a black eye forming, and his young friend’s lips were swollen.

“Okay, dude, out with it. Who busted you up like this?” Ambros waved at Randy’s face.

“My dad.”

“Your father did this...” Ambros mouth was tight, his brows lowered. “That…is entirely unacceptable.”

“Yeah, well, it won’t happen again. He threw me out, wouldn’t even let me get my coat. Took my keys, so I had to walk. I don’t know what I’m gonna do.”

“What was the impetus for his bad behavior? Did you screw up somehow? Not that any teenaged screw-up excuses such an assault, but what would your father tax you with, if I approached him?”

“Don’t do that, Sir, please. My dad is an ass, but I don’t want him dead!”

Ambros showed his palms to indicate acquiescence: “I wouldn’t kill him.” Then he waited.

Finally Randy spoke: “Dad might force you to...I don’t know what he’d do. He doesn’t like my swordplay thing. I mean, before swordplay, he hated my RPG friends, and before that he was always complaining about how much time I spent playing basketball.”

“So you started to feel like you couldn’t do anything right, huh?”

“Yeah.” Randy was looking at the floor between his feet. His not-quite-kinky hair hung in damp ringlets from his head; his nose, aquiline and fairly large, was running a little.

After a bit he went on: “When I was playing ball, I should have been studying.” He looked at Ambros, his green eyes showing the expression of a fellow who was seeing something clearly for the first time: “When I was role-playing I should have been exercising. Then when I started working out with shinai, before we all met you, I should have been spending time at home, with him and mom. He always said I’d just grow out of it, at least he hoped so. But when I started to study with you, he just got madder and madder about it.

“He’d been pushing me around a bit, but he hadn’t actually whipped me in a couple years. Tonight he just went nuts, though.”

“Had he been drinking?” Ambros kept his expression neutral, but he was starting to seethe inside. He got up and turned his back, busying himself with tea and boiling water. He could hear Randy sobbing, and worked deliberately slowly, to give the young man some space.

After a while, Randy said: “Yeah, he was kinda drunk. How’d ya know?”

He handed Randy a steaming cup of chamomile: “Old story. Long story. Let’s stay focused on you.”

“Okay. What am I gonna do? Sir?”

“I’ve told you before, you don’t have to call me ‘sir’ outside of class.”

“I’ve told you before, I know that. Sir.”

Ambros waved dismissively: “Fine. I accept the accolade.”

“Took you long enough.”

Ambros nodded: “Yeah. As far as what are you going to do...I have an extra mattress that I bought before my SCA trailer arrived in town. It’s back in that cubby by the washer and dryer. You can sleep here tonight.”

Randy started to say thanks, but Ambros spoke over him: “I have also been thinking: I should have a caretaker for this building. I live across town, and I travel a lot, you know?”

“Um...wow. Could I really stay here? For a while, I mean?”

“I’d actually appreciate it if you would.”

“Really?”

“Yes.” Ambros held up a hand: “We could frame a small room back there by the laundry area, to give you the kind of privacy a fellow your age needs. But I have to fill you in on a couple possible complications before you accept my offer.”

Randy sat up straighter, and ran his hands through his hair. He rubbed his damp palms on the skirt of the robe, then nodded: “Okay, Sir. Fire away.”

“You already know that there is a faction of the Eugene Police Department that distinctly dislikes me...just let me talk, here, okay?”

Randy nodded, waited.

“I am getting increasingly involved in some shady, shaky, subversive sorts of things.”

“The anarchist stuff, right.” Randy grinned: “We all read those essays at your Webz-site, Sir. Not just the Sword Manual, all of them. And that e-Zine!”

Ambros laughed: “Well, if you read those, and didn’t flee screaming from my politics, then you are a good fit for night watchman here at the Salon Spathena.”

“I think maybe I am. Except...if the cops hate you now, won’t it just get worse if you have a black kid for caretaker?”

“Do you think of yourself as black?”

“Well, it’s complicated.”

“Yeah? It usually is.”

“Uh-huh. My skin’s pretty dark cause my dad’s black...my mom’s grandad was an Arab, so I got the beak and the hair from that side, and I guess the eyes, too.”

Ambros was nodding: “So you’re a mixed bag, but black enough to be black, to people with a black-and-white view of things. Whatever you think, cops treat you as black. As a lesser person.” Ambros leaned forward, caught Randy’s eye: “I don’t like that. But it may be in me, unconsciously. So call me on it if you see me doing it. Okay?”

“Okay.”

Ambros sat quiet for a minute or so; Randy was trembling, but he remained upright, looking his mentor in the eye.

Then Ambros said: “Okay. Here’s the real skinny: I will come and go at random times, and the technology I’ll be using will be kinda out there, from your point of view.”

Randy lifted his head higher yet, looking quizzical.

“I’m not gonna explain where it comes from. Not yet. Maybe someday. But if you stay here, you’ll occasionally see some of it. I’d appreciate it if you’d just ignore anything weird that you happen to see.”

“I can do that.”

“Good. I think you can. Last hitch: if you think the EPD are a pain in the ass, consider the FBI. Some of what my friends and I are doing will probably, eventually, attract the attention of ‘higher’,” Ambros made air quotes around the word, “parts of the law enforcement hierarchy.” Ambros grinned: “I would especially appreciate it if you took the Fifth around them.”

“If you don’t tell me, I can’t tell them...I’m just the caretaker. Sir.”

Ambros laughed: “Okay. Terms. You’re sixteen, right?”

“Seventeen in a couple weeks.”

“Good, that makes this easier. My lawyer will call your cell, tomorrow, about Emancipated Minor status. Once you are free, I’ll set up two debit card accounts, one for emergency expenditure to the building if I’m out of...reach, and one for you. I’ll set it to drop three hundred a week into your account, as salary. You stay here free; you don’t stay anywhere else without notifying me. So I know when there’s no eye on the property.

“I’m gonna train you harder, give you extra lessons; you’ll soon be able to cover for me if I’m absent for a lesson day. I’ll start writing and printing more detailed lesson plans, for such a contingency.”

Ambros smiled gently: “How does that sound?”

Randy was nodding: “All good, as far as it goes. I think it’s fair to both of us. Three hundred a week is beyond fair, but I’ll take it. But...I want one more thing.”

“Shoot.”

“I want to start doing that SCA thing you do. I want real armor, and a chance to fight all-out. Maybe I could be your squire?”

Ambros nodded: “I usually take a student as my ‘man-at-arms’ for a year and a day. If that works out, you can become Squire. Those titles are also jobs, though. You’d be taking on some duties in exchange for my patronage.”

“You teach me to fight like a knight and I’ll do whatever you need me to do.”

“Sounds good. I will not abuse the privilege.” He held out his hand; Randy took it, and shook it vigorously.

“Deal?” Ambros grinned.

“Done!”

Once he got Randy settled in, Ambros felt the load he’d been carrying settle down onto him again. He staggered as he dragged himself through a final inspection of the building, checking all of the doors, then activating the palm locks on his bedroom and office. He sat on the edge of the bed and closed his eyes: some unknown time later he awoke, still sitting up. He dragged himself into the bed, without removing so much as his boots. He fell into a veritable Singularity of sleep, and neither saw nor heard a thing for eighteen hours.

 

 

 

He woke to a call on the MPS: “Hey Spathos,” came Voukli’s voice: “Magistri Arrenji wants a session with you. Reedswords and leather armor, at Magistri Anni’s training field. You able?” The holo of her head sitting above his wrist wore a sarcastic expression.

He shrugged, letting her see his muzziness: “Need a couple hours to get my head on straight. It was a wild week.”

“Endaxi. One point five Commonwealth hours, be ready to swing then. How’s your arm?”

He rubbed the rapidly healing wound on his left forearm and winced: “Skin is looking good. The glue is holding, there shouldn’t be an issue there. It hurts deep inside, starting to itch. Deep in, near the bone.”

“Good, that means it’s healing. Maybe...think twice next time you fight to first blood. Next time...”

He interrupted: “Next time I just win. I learned the lesson, okay?”

“Kala. See you soon.”

He rang off, thinking: ‘I guess she’ll be there. She’s still acting like a Chief Assistant...I wonder when Arrenji’s gonna replace her?” He mused for a while on the difficulties involved in replacing an operative of Voukli’s skill and discretion.

“Guess I’ll cut her some slack on that score,” he muttered. He used the Shifter to access the message machine at Rose House and left an update on his afternoon plans, then noted the anticipated lesson in his calendar, in case anyone checked there.

He took a long shower and then dressed in workout clothes. He warmed up and stretched well, then hit the heavy bag for a few minutes, straightening out his thought processes. Such as he could: he was still worrying about what Arrenji might do. Her previous beat-down of him sat in the back of his mind, jeering.

He sat for a while in meditation, then changed clothes again, into a Sacred Band brick-red jumpsuit and his Spathos’ belt. He drew a deep breath and Saltated to his usual place in the War Room.

He lingered for a few minutes in the seating area by the main exit, watching and listening and attending to a few details. He braided his topknot and tied it out of the way, and checked the edges of the wound again, finding no problems: “I hope it doesn’t interfere with my fighting. I hardly noticed it during the lesson last night, but...”

He checked the time and got up. He walked slowly, chanting under his breath: “...watch the sword hand...calm...keep your feet moving...relax...stay neutral...cut when in range...calm...” He saluted when needed, absently; it had become a reflex for him, like waving at friends on the street.

He paced through the Hall and out the door; the wind hit him hard, blowing sleet sideways into his face. He lowered his head and continued his meditations as he crossed to the Door and through.

He arrived at Anni’s. Sheltered from the storm by wicker baffles, wooden walls, and a force field to keep out the rain, he armed himself in his usual suit of leather scale and clamshell gauntlets. He warmed up some more with a reedsword, concentrating on precise movement and all of the speed he could muster.

Voukli arrived carrying a duffelbag. She nodded to him, and armored herself.

Arrenji strolled in, half-armored. Voukli jumped to assist her, getting Arrenji’s harness and helmet on her. Ambros donned his helmet and waited.

Arrenji stood looking at him for a while. Then she raised her reedsword to guard and ran at him, silently.

He panicked and backpedaled as quickly as he could, avoiding her attack by dint of that and a couple of wild swings of his own sword. She caught up to him, disarmed him and threw him to the ground, in much less time than it takes to say or read those words. She laughed and pulled him to his feet, handing him the sword back. She took a guard position of sorts, which resembled a hybrid of ‘iron gate’ and ‘bréve’. She appeared to be utterly relaxed but also intensely threatening. Her arms wobbled and she rocked back and forth on her heels and toes.

‘The last time we fought...she was still holding back, even then!’

He began to draw his sword back to ‘Posta di Donna’ but she smacked him three times before he could assume that guard. She stepped back a bit, and said: “Do that again.”

She resumed her previous guard and he lowered his. When he moved that time, he snapped the weapon up to the Posta, hands at his right shoulder, the blade pointing straight up. He cut down and drove her sword to the ground; she disengaged and cut to his head.

He caught that cut on his gauntlet. She stepped back.

“Faster.” She attacked again, and again, each time faster and quicker.

She was like water, except when she struck. Then she seemed to be an iron rod, for a nanosecond. She moved even more unpredictably than she had at his first lesson with her.

He couldn’t cope: “I’m at my limit, here,” he said.

She nodded, a satisfied expression on her face: “Take that guard again.”

He did. She used the point of her reedsword to move his left foot, adjusting the angle by about two degrees outward: “It’s not that you are too slow. You are slower than me, but you can still block at this speed. Again!”

They did that drill over and over. She’d smack his toe when it was out of line, until he winced from the impact. Eventually his foot automatically assumed the necessary angle.

She worked him over in several ways, demanding more speed, more accuracy, and better footwork. Each drill had a step, and a parry or deflection, and a counter-attack.

“Take a break,” she said. She went over by the racks of gear and called up her MPS, quickly riffling through a dozen messages, securing meetings and changing plans.

He refused to sit down, but stood taking deep breaths and moving his shoulders slightly as he considered the lessons she’d taught.

Voukli stepped up behind him: “You okay?”

He grinned self-deprecatingly: “Chastened, but unbowed.”

She laughed: “Arrenji has that effect.”

He nodded: “I once opined that you were her equal with a sword. I take that back.”

“I let it pass at the time. But nobody that I have ever seen, or crossed swords with, is Arrenji’s equal.” Voukli pointed: “She’s coming back. Experience suggests that she’ll completely dominate you now, so be ready.”

“I’m ready.”

“I doubt it...”

 

 

 

Ten minutes later Ambros sat beside the field, tears running down his face. He had bruises developing in places that he’d never have believed that a sword could hit. ‘She’s just so appallingly strong,’ he thought: ‘Even as light as these swords are, and as protective as the armor is, she can sting you right through it. Some of those rib shots...’

He rubbed his now throbbing left forearm, where Arrenji had struck him repeatedly. Each time she struck him there—‘At least eight times,’ he thought, dismayed—she’d followed with a finishing blow to the head or body.

Only during the last minute or so of the set had he matched her for speed and impact; at no time had he matched her for skill or accuracy.

Arrenji sat down beside him. She handed him a rag and he wiped off his face.

“Not too bad,” she said, diffidently.

He gazed at her in disbelief: “Don’t kid me. Not even on the square. I got a lotta work to do, and only Commonwealth med tech is gonna make it possible for me do that work.”

She waved dismissively at the last statement: “That’s true for all of us. You have fought with a sword off and on for what? Thirty some years? I started training eighty-five years ago, and my health has been maintained at a much higher level than you have yet reached. We’ve talked about this stuff already.”

“Given,” he agreed.

“Your inquiries into the nature of being must be going well. I could feel that in your responses.”

“Thanks,” he said, dubiously. 

“Tell me what you think I was teaching, there in that last set.”

“Okay.” He raised the wounded left arm: “If your opponent has a known-to-you injury or deficit, take advantage of it ruthlessly.” He ticked off another point on a finger: “Touches don’t kill, even with a plasma sword, especially against armor. I should train the way I’m going to have to fight, hard hits and form that allows for really penetrating cuts.” Another finger: “I am nowhere near accurate enough to get past your guard at full speed, even when an opening appears...or seems to. I need to double down on my drills to increase that accuracy.”

After a moment’s silence, she nodded: “Okay, that will do to go on with. Practice at that level whenever you can.” She grinned: “Don’t break any of the Red Warrior Spathae, though.”

“No permanent injuries,” he agreed.

Arrenji got up, tossed all her armor into the duffel, and saluted. He returned the salute from his spot on the ground.

Voukli came over and offered a hand: “Don’t sit on the cold ground, you have to fight in Anni’s tourney later today.”

He groaned, then said: “At least I have some new techniques to try...” She pulled him to his feet.

She said: “You want some pain killer for that toe?”

“Not yet,” he said: “I want to let it remind me for a couple hours, I’ll treat it after Anni’s lesson.”

“Okay,” she said. “Let’s play, shall we?”

They hit the field and began without any ceremony. Back and forth across the field they fought; he concentrated on her hands as never before. He drove his sword at her—no, through her—as though she threatened his very life. ‘She’s strong, and fast, and accurate...but she’s in reach of my skills, at this point,’ he thought, as they swaggered swords and rested for a bit.

‘Here she comes again...keep your feet moving...watch the hands...don’t let her get you off-balance...strike when you are in range...no draw cuts!’

Very gradually, he began to do better. After perhaps twenty minutes, he slipped into his battle form, relaxed, and stopped thinking altogether. Sweat ran into his eyes; he ignored that, attacking. He controlled more of the fight, never remaining in range unless he had a cut to make. He began retreating a little when she attacked, ‘stepping back a little circularly’ and then winding her sword. From that, he got a couple of thrusts in, and he drove them hard, like he’d have to in order to penetrate armor.

He had an idea—or rather, a kinesthetic image—and pursued that without further thought. ‘She’s still quicker than I am; let’s bind and envelope that sword...’

“Everybody HOLD!” That voice came from Anni. Ambros came down a bit from his ‘fighting high’ and looked around.

The students all stood around the boundary fence, applauding. Voukli had one knee on the ground, her sword in a high guard, a big grin on her face.

He lowered his sword and pulled off his helmet. He offered a hand to his mentor, and drew her to her feet.

“You once said something about knowing that you could have been even better,” said Anni: “I see what you mean.”

She turned away and called out: “Tourney day! Archarae in full armor, prepare for pairings! Skolarae, begin your warm-ups. Spathae, armor and report for marshaling...that includes you, Ambros.”

He marshaled the fights on one of the practice fields, helping the newbies through the ceremonial beginnings and endings when necessary. The victor in the finals of the Archarae tournament won the dubious privilege of a spot in the Skolarae version, and the winner there entered the field against the Spathae.

Ambros put his helm back on, and listened for the pairings. He was still at the edge of that fighting high he’d reached when practicing with his mentors. He paid no heed to the fact that Anni had paired him with Skolari Liesli, indicating his status as first seed. He waited silently, breathing deeply, his mind clear.

‘Close to empty.’ He mused.

The ceremonies complete, he said, quietly: “Empty the bowl...”

Liesli attacked aggressively and he defended for a couple of blows. He disposed of her with hard fast cuts to her head and body.

With only three more fights in that round, he was soon in his next fight. He dealt with each opponent in swift and deadly fashion, almost absently.

Magistri Anni put on her helm and took the field. Two of the Spathae stepped in to marshal, and one of them said: “Archizete!”

Then it was over: Anni raised her sword in her left hand to concede defeat.

He shook his head, slowly. Applause from the other students washed over him, and he acknowledged it with a salute.

He started stripping out of the armor: his clothes dripped from sweat. He could feel the adrenaline leaving his body, like energy draining through the soles of his boots and into the ground. His muscles slack, his mind waking up, he contemplated the ravages of such hard training on his body:

“I’d best be sure to fight at this level for a few minutes tomorrow,” he muttered: “Every day, at least a little bit of this insanity.”

He accepted congratulations from all and sundry, then begged for their understanding: “I need to get home. I have a lot to think about.”

He headed for the locker room, a hot shower on his mind.

 

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