“ONE HOUR, LORDSHIP,” THE driver said. He was from the urban prefects’ office, as were the two guards who accompanied me on my mission from the palace to ensure I did not try to flee town. We might have walked, but my minders seemed to think that would only allow me greater opportunity for mischief, and so I’d allowed myself to be shuttled across the plaza from Castle Borosevo to the coliseum. We left the driver in the flier as the other two frog-marched me past the douleters and arena security and into the hypogeum.
The concrete vaults hung low overhead, posters and cheap prints taped to them above aluminum bedsteads strewn with the untidy possessions of the fighting poor. The bed that had been Erdro’s was already filled, and my own was gone entirely—stripped, I didn’t doubt, by the count’s soldiers
after my . . . discovery. One of my escort cleared his throat, reminding me that time was wasting. The truth was that I was dreading the next moments.
I had declared war on a man, a formal challenge to monomachy. I had
stirred up the count’s court, revealed my nobile blood, insulted the Chantry, assaulted the Chantry, and just possibly alienated Valka in the process.
And yet . . . and yet I stood on the edge of making one thing right. That terrified me more than the rest together. As someone once said, to go to war is easy. It is peace that is hard.
Switch was sitting at one of the small tables in the sitting area at the far end of the dormitory near the old food and hygiene dispensaries. He was
alone, idly turning the pages of an illustrated novel. My guards had fallen back, so my approach was quieter than it might have been. Some of the few others in the room noticed me first, and a stillness settled over them. It was their quietude that alerted the younger man to my presence.
I am not sure if it is possible for a face to brighten and darken at the same time, but if it is, then his did. His eyes widened, but the surprise
curdled instantly to suspicion, and he half stood, his mouth compressed to a thin, white line. He sat back down quickly, shutting his book with a soft thump. “What are you doing here?”
I’d rehearsed a dozen versions of this confrontation the night before.
None was quite right. I believed I had been protecting my friends by hiding my right name. Fear and pride had moved me to a place I had neither meant nor wanted to go, and whatever else I might have said, one thing needed
saying. “I’m sorry, Switch.” I did not bow, did not kneel. I did not even hang my head.
Switch looked at me, nodding. “Pallino said you were holed up in the castle.” He looked pointedly at my guards. “That they weren’t letting you out?”
“Yes.” I glanced back over my shoulder at the two stony prefects in their khaki uniforms. I was conscious suddenly that I’d drawn a deep breath. My secret was out, traded for the bruise I’d put on Gilliam’s jaw and my desperate circumstances. There was no longer a need for the concealment I had practiced since those first days on Emesh. I would face whatever punishment my father, my house, and the Chantry chose for me, but I would face it after this duel. First I needed Switch, needed someone to stand in
support of my challenge legally.
I might have asked Pallino, but if I was to die, I did not want to do so without making things right with Switch. I had so few friends in all the
universe that I could hardly stand to do without a one of them. And so I told him everything. I spoke quickly, mindful of the time limit the prefects’ office had imposed on this venture of mine. It was not hard. There was much I did not wish to recall or recount.
I told him about Gibson and the Chantry school on Vesperad, how I had fled, how I had beaten my brother almost to death. I told him how my mother had saved me and how it was for her sake and safety that I had not cried my blood and status to the authorities or admitted it to him. I am not
ashamed to say I wept as I spoke of this, fearing for her safety anew in light of what I’d done.
Next I spoke of my time on the canals, though I did not speak of Cat, the beatings, or that moonless night in the alley. Some things should remain unremembered and unspoken. I explained how I had come to be in the
fighting pits, and he understood and accepted my stupid reason for breaking into the gaol. He laughed, and when that telling was done, I said, “I need your help, Switch.”
He blinked, taken aback but not offended. “With what?”
“I hit that intus priest,” I said simply. “That’s why none of this is a secret anymore. He would have me executed if I weren’t . . .”
“A palatine?” Switch said the word like he was spitting poison from a wound.
“A palatine,” I agreed, and looked away. “I know it’s a lot to ask, and I’ve no right to ask it, but I’m to duel him in two days’ time. I was hoping you’d—”
“Yes,” Switch said, standing.
For a moment I must have looked a great fool. I’d frozen mid-word, my mouth open, hands spread in supplication. When I found myself again, I
stammered, “You will? You’ll . . . stand with me?”
“As your second?” He set his jaw, nodding. “Of course I will, Had. I wouldn’t have made it this far without you.” I have never forgotten that. Had, not Hadrian. The myrmidon’s name and not the palatine’s. “Doesn’t mean I’m not still mad as hell at you.”
I felt my teeth grind and just managed to conceal the gesture with a nod. “Switch, whatever . . .” I shook my head, squared my shoulders. My hair fell across my face, but I let it hang there. “Those other palatines. That
The younger man looked down at his graphic novel, eyes lensing shut. “I know. I know, Had. You just don’t know what it’s like. You . . . You
people . . .” He shook his head. “You can’t see us; you never see us. We’re just part of the furniture. You treat us like homunculi, and we’re not. We’re as human as you.” Switch hadn’t looked at me during any of this, only tucked his chin and raised his shoulders as if in anticipation of a blow.
“I am not those men.” His argument cut both ways, but that didn’t make him wrong. “I don’t think there’s any such thing as a kind of people,” I said, “just people.” He didn’t respond to that, just kept looking down at the table before him, hands in his lap. Now was not the time. I let it drop. The chair legs ground against the enameled concrete as I drew it out, turned it around, and straddled it across the table from Switch. The other myrmidons had long since ceased to hover, returning to their lives. Still he did not look at me until I spoke again, saying, “Thank you, Switch.”
The man nodded, still not really looking at me. At length he asked, “Why me?”
“Why not Pallino? He’s a better fighter.”
“I don’t need a fighter,” I said. “I need my friend back. You’re the best friend I’ve got.”
A wicked grin broke across the myrmidon’s face. “And what’s that say about you, then?” I made a rude gesture with my thumb, and the grin
“I wouldn’t ask if I were putting you in danger. You don’t have to fight.
The law requires I have a second, and if it goes badly . . .” “It won’t go badly.”
“If it goes badly,” I insisted, “I didn’t want this unsaid.” I broke off, and it was my turn to look away. “I really am sorry, you know.”
My friend dismissed the apology with a wave. “What did the priest do to piss you off so bad?”
“What?” For the briefest instant, I’d managed to forget why I was in the hypogeum in the first place.
“Why’d you punch him?”
In all the scrambling since that day in the warehouse district, since I’d punched Gilliam, Switch was the first person not to challenge me or reprimand me for what I’d done. He was, as I have said, the very best kind of friend. It was my turn to grin. “He insulted a lady.”
Switch clapped his hands together. He rubbed his palms, nodding.
“Classic, classic.” Still he did not criticize and acted as if I’d said the most reasonable thing in the world.
All the while I heard Gibson in my mind murmuring, Melodramatic. Damned melodramatic. Flushing, I smiled. Switch smiled. I pressed my forehead against the back of my chair, and before long we were laughing.
For a moment Gilliam was banished like the demon he was, and Valka, and the count, and Vesperad. And my father. They would all keep for another time, be it one of the next three nights before the duel or until word was handed down by quantum telegraph from Delos or the Chantry. In that instant, all that mattered was that I had my friend back and that we had ever been friends at all.
“She wouldn’t want me to kill him. I don’t want to either. Not anymore.” With the heat of the moment cooled into entropic collapse, I felt none of the
desire for Gilliam’s blood that had possessed me the day before. But I had struck the blow and sealed my fate. By Imperial law I could not withdraw my challenge, as it is only proper that such brashness be punished by the consequences of that brashness. “I’m going to need your help, Switch. It’s been months since I used a sword. Reckon as I’m out of practice.”
“You’re saying you need someone to knock you around?” A look of positive glee stole over my friend’s face, and I felt a knot in the pit of my stomach even as I matched his toothy smile with my crooked one.
Where had he come from, this young myrmidon before me? It was as if someone had spirited my friend Switch away and replaced him with some fey changeling like in the stories my mother used to share with me. The indentured catamite was gone, eclipsed by the myrmidon before me. How he’d grown in those few years! Had I done this to him? But no. Those were his own legs he stood on. I had only pulled him to his feet.
“Had?” Switch was looking at me, brows knitting together. “You all right?”
I’d been staring. Not at him, but at the book on the tabletop with its darkly shadowed image of a young couple menaced by distorted caricatures of the Cielcin. Their shadows fell all around the human couple, the woman cowering, the man pale with terror. There was a single large rose in the foreground, the only spot of color against that chiaroscuro nightmare of a
cover, red as arterial blood. There was a hand beside it, the fingers oddly twisted, broken, straining as if to grasp the rose. Though I have forgotten the name of the book, I have never forgotten that hand, nor that rose.
“What?” I looked Switch squarely in the eye. “Yes, I—I think so.” That was not the moment to come apart, to spill all my trepidations out upon the table between us. I could feel the eyes of my escort on me, hard and unsympathetic, and the weight of all that concrete close above my head like the cathar’s White Sword. “I could die on Thursday.”
“You won’t, though.” Switch didn’t sound conciliatory or even friendly.
He said the words like he was stating a fact. “I’ve seen that priest. He’s a mute, that one. All twisted up. But it’s like you say: You don’t want to kill him. You just cut him once well and good and have done.”
First blood. I could have laughed. First blood, and I could call the duel there. No one had to die, the law would be satisfied, and I would say that I was too. Switch’s manner turned suddenly cheerful. “Might turn this lady of yours onto you too, gallantry like that. I’ve seen it happen.”
“Not this lady,” I countered, resting my chin on my arms. “Too proud?”
“Too . . .” I could not find the word. “She’s Tavrosi.” Switch’s eyebrows shot up. “A Demarchist? Really?”
One of the guards cleared his throat. “That’s time, Lord Marlowe!”
Raising a hand in acknowledgment, I rose to my feet and said, “If you come to the palace by the main gate, I’ll meet you in the public barbican.
Pallino knows the way.” I wanted to add that Pallino and I were talking
again about the ship, wanted to make use of this opportunity to talk without the omnipresent palace cameras, but it was not meant to be. Anyhow it
would have been wrong to push the issue that had divided us so soon after our reconciliation. I rapped the tabletop with my knuckles in polite
applause. “Thank you, Switch.”
Not knowing what else to say, I shoved my hands into the pockets of my trousers and slouched toward the door and the palace. And the future. And the duel.
Switch called after me. “I’m just wondering—what’s your name? Your real one?”
I smiled, and it was as classic a crooked smile as my knife-edged excuse for a face had ever worn. “Oh, it is Hadrian,” I said. “Hadrian of House
Marlowe. Of Delos.”
Though it was significant to me to name myself for true again, Switch took this in with only a shrugging motion of his lips. “Sounds right and proper.”
A hollow laugh broke from me, and I half turned back to my guards. “It is proper. You know?”
“Yeah,” Switch replied. “Guess it is.” “I’ll see you tomorrow, then?”
“Tomorrow.” He ducked his head. “Later, Had.”