Author's Note: This story was written years and years ago as a contribution to the Freedom City Labor Day event. That year the theme was the seven deadly virtues. This is my interpretation of them.
Like "The One Shot" this story was published in Neil Faulkner's excellent print zine, "Trooper Orac's Fantastic Plastic Army" which came out in 2001 but is still available through Judith Proctor's fantastic web site. I know a URL will be blocked if I list it here, but suffice to say if you search on Judith Proctor and Blakes 7 you will find a URL that contains both hermit and org in it, otherwise knows as the Holy Grail for outstanding B7 writing.
Though the zine is still available, it's been 8 years so I hope Neil will forgive me for posting this online, which I am doing at the request of glenavon.
Oh, and for those of you who catch spelling mistakes, this was deliberately written with UK English spelling since Blakes 7 is a British fandom and the zine was a British publication.
Had I known what the duties entailed, I would have refused the position, however honoured it was. At the time it appeared largely academic. We have a teleport and the situation seemed to warrant its use. Of course he thought otherwise. Honour and reputation at stake, you know. The very epitome of chivalry, Blake missed his true period by thousands of years.
Parrish was an unimportant planet in a small and unimportant star system. Federation interest and a stated desire to convert it to a supply depot for the Ninth Fleet was likely the recommendation of some mid-level bureaucrat with an interest in history, ancient Earth history. Blake professes an interest in history as well; the convergence of his two passions into one planet was predictably irresistible. Parrish assumed an importance to the Resistance unworthy of its true attributes.
The technology was Pre-Atomic, the necessity for my participation was clearly an invention of Blake's. I made a respectable protest and naturally accompanied him. Anything unknown bears an element of danger. We teleported just outside the major city of Kamir.
It was architecturally stunning, a walled city that rose up the slope of a small mountain. It seemed a step backward in time to an Earth unknown but for the descriptions of scholars. Stone towers, fortresses, castles soared upward inside an immense fortified wall at least three metres thick and fifteen metres in height. I'd estimate that it covered hundreds, quite possibly thousands of kilometres, but I've no objective point of measure.
If I was entranced, and admittedly I was, Blake was euphoric, Cally dazzled. We had materialised in a small meadow not far from the entrance to the city and set off at once for the imposing arch.
"I suppose they actually close."
Blake was almost childlike in his admiration. I do not consider Blake a small man but he was dwarfed by the doors, at least ten metres in height and constructed of some metal. They were solid; no ornamental gates with gaps between iron rods, but a solid door the width of my shoulder span. At one time they might have been guarded; we passed without challenge into the city.
Neither the aforementioned scholars nor Orac had prepared us for Parrish's state of sanitation. Stone towers and thick walls might be aesthetically pleasing but Kamir smelled of raw sewage. I had hoped the foul odour I detected outside the walls was that of a rotting animal carcass or spoilt food. Inside, at the very entrance of this jewel of a city, I was fighting to contain my nausea. So, I noted, was Cally, and even Blake seemed a bit green.
"Put that away," Blake whispered fiercely.
I ignored him and continued to press my handkerchief to my nose. I suppose if I were in the least bit gallant, I would have offered it to Cally. I'm not; she should have brought her own. No one seemed to notice or to mind. They hurried past with their baskets of grain or food, their bundles of rags, their overflowing bags. It might have been the Delta levels in an Earth Domed City. Their garments were unremarkable: tunics in simple grays or earth tones, covering trousers or skirts of a similar material. The primary difference was that the cloth here seemed rougher than that on Earth. I imagined that I could rub it between finger and thumb, separating the weave, isolating each rough fibre. Flax perhaps, or hemp, not softened by any means but sturdy and long lasting.
Their footwear was astonishing and here we clearly announced ourselves as strangers. Most were barefoot, others wore sandals, few wore boots of any kind. Their feet and legs were filthy; dirt so ingrained into skin that it might never wash clean. It came to me then that the odour that pervaded this city was not purely sewage, but of its inhabitants as well. I took pity upon Cally and tore my handkerchief in two.
We followed Blake as he carved a passage through the crowd. It was fortunate Vila stayed aboard; the narrow streets were commonly lined with four-storey buildings, each abutting the other. The tall buildings shaded the stone street and permitted little sunlight to penetrate. It was claustrophobic and noisy, and of course there was the ever-pervasive odour. Small waterways bisected the city. I supposed at first they were used for fresh water but I was promptly disabused of that notion.
"How can people live this way?"
Cally's whisper was probably unnecessary. In Blake's wake, we had a small zone of privacy. It is remarkable how he does that. People simply give way as if he possesses some innate right to their space.
"Walled cities were considered an effective example of urban planning. It is the plumbing that is wanting."
We arrived at a major square, bright with sunlight and sectored into quadrants, each of which held a fountain that spewed water. Here, at least, the stench abated, the water seemed clean, though likely rampant with bacteria. Groups of people ringed the fountains. Correction: groups of men ringed the fountains; I saw no women present. The men wore clothing finer that that we'd seen previously and were uniformly wearing colours of black, burgundy, navy, or a rich green. That partially explained Blake's insistence upon specific attire. I wore black, Cally a dress of all four colours, Blake something greenish, but more olive, as is his want.
Grand villas and palaces bordered this square. Sunlight glittered from their faces; some Parrish versions of marble, alabaster, or granite? Here was the beauty of Kamir, and apparently its wealth. Beyond the square, the streets widened and I saw the transportation of the wealthy: horse-drawn carriages. Pre-Atomic indeed, this planet is nearly pre-historic.
Blake hesitated briefly inside the square and then consulted some notes he had not shared. Naturally.
"It's that building, third to the right." Blake pointed at it with his chin. I suppose that was his instruction to follow or a set of directions if we were separated in the crowded square. Cally and I exchanged glances and strode onward as our Fearless Leader had already surged into the crowd.
The entrance seemed to mirror that of the Parthenon, a picture that had caught my attention when perusing my father's collection of historical images. It was imposing in height and a wasteful use of resources; I found it utterly pretentious. Servalan would like it; it seemed as over-the-top and modest as the woman herself.
Introductions were made. Following Blake's lead, I bowed to each of the four Princes and then observed the reaction of our hosts to Cally. Eyes darted from Cally to Blake and then from Cally to me, as if she was necessarily a mate to one of us. She inclined her head gravely and projected that image of serenity that she does so well. They took no further notice of her and directed every word to Blake or to me.
It was a fool's errand. These people were in no condition to oppose the Federation. A laser cannon would obliterate those lovely doors Blake had admired, and take out a good portion of the wall as well. These villas would be used to house troop commanders or store supplies. At best, they might negotiate to have their city left intact and permit the Federation to build its base in the meadows and farms outside the city. Were the Federation to learn of any leanings towards the Resistance, they'd level Parrish's cities.
For once, Blake and I were – marginally – in agreement. Outright opposition would be suicidal; subterfuge was a superior strategy. Orac and I had developed a solution that I considered a work of genius and Blake was now proposing it to the four Princes who ruled most of Parrish. A supply depot can be located in any number of environments. Assuming it is pressurised and sealed, the atmosphere is negligible. What is important is tectonic stability. Parrish was an ideal candidate for a supply depot; my invention would indicate otherwise to Federation surveyors.
As Blake provided the details of how it would simulate tremors and fault lines, my attention wandered. The chamber, like the building, was over-sized and designed to intimidate. Tapestries covered two walls, a third contained bookshelves topped by clerestory windows, the fourth wall was, in actuality, an archway, through which it was possible to view other chambers.
Raised voices pulled my attention back to the discussion. Two of the Princes were clearly in opposition to the plan. Prince Arvet of the Tilestian provinces was outraged.
"You have no idea of what you suggest; it violates every code of behaviour. Rather than meet our enemy in honourable combat, you suggest deceit and trickery. You mock our way of life!"
Blake was clearly losing patience. "As we've discussed, the Federation does not embrace your code of honour. In fact, their actions consistently violate any recognised set of ethics. As leaders of your people, you must rise above convention and make decisions that recognise both your standards and that of your enemy."
"Not at the expense of our way of life!"
Blake's fist crashed on tabletop.
"If you do not, that is exactly what you will sacrifice! Your way of life and the means in which to continue it."
Arvet stood, as did Prince Verge of Velosian.
"You come to us suggesting artifice and treachery. You know nothing of the soul of Parrish."
As the two men swept from the room, I bit back a sigh of sympathy: sympathy for Blake and sympathy for them, not that any of them really deserved it. Sympathy for Blake because he was pursuing a logical and reasonable argument against mulish men who believed in foolish traditions. To be frank, he had assumed my usual role. Sympathy for these two ridiculous Princes in their outlandish wardrobes and outdated beliefs because they were arguing against Blake. They hadn't realised that this was only round one.
The remaining men, our host Prince Garven of Apavia, and Prince Leyos of Fouleev, appeared momentarily at a loss. Garven recovered quickly.
"You must be tired. I will have you shown to your rooms so that you may refresh yourselves. We will meet again this afternoon."
As we left the Great Hall --to use their terminology -- I caught a glimpse into an adjoining chamber. There was a circle of women sitting together. By the upward pull of each woman's right arm, I presume they were performing some type of embroidery, perhaps another tapestry. The women were young, covered from neck to toe with layers of clothing designed to hide any feminine attributes. Most were pretty but one was quite stunning, with dark hair and bright eyes. Regretfully, I turned away and followed the others. With those garments and head coverings it seemed as if women in the wealthier grades were consigned to a lesser role. Something to note for future relations with Parrish.
As Blake was our leader, they had assumed Cally was his mate or his mistress and quartered her in his bedroom. Explanations were given, apologies made, and puzzled glances exchanged. In his pursuit to achieve freedom for the common man, Blake often overlooks the blatant chauvinism of so many of our "allies." At the scheduled hour to reconvene, I collected Cally and sought Blake.
Blake had found an audience for his cause and was radiating charisma like a bitch in heat. In this case, it had drawn the admiration of that stunning young woman who had earlier caught my eye. Crafty bastard. He slipped down to the main rooms while the rest of us were bathing. I suppose once he professed that Cally was not his mate, he felt required to prove his availability. It was nearly his undoing.
Cally and I approached from one end of an endlessly long marble corridor, Arvet appeared at the other. I saw Arvet's shoulders stiffen and his eyes narrow. My hand slipped to the gun that was not there. I swore quietly and Cally and I broke into a hurried jog. Blake sat obliviously on a settee, beguiling the young woman with what I assume was tales of Federation effrontery or his past; they overlap. Arvet reached Blake first and the sound of the slap echoed throughout the high ceilings and stone walls of the corridor.
Blake stood immediately, one hand pressed to the side of his face, the red imprint of a hand radiantly clear beneath his fingers. The sound alone had acted as a signal; the remaining Princes and a number of attendants appeared, as if summoned. I really have no idea how I ended up between Arvet and Blake.
"That was a mistake."
I felt Blake's affronted glare on my neck until the fool realised I was addressing Arvet. I meant of, course, that Blake had most likely deserved it but there was a long line and Arvet should wait his turn.
"You have no honour!" Arvet's words were aimed at Blake and flew over my right shoulder. "You have shamed my house and my people. I demand satisfaction!"
"And I demand an apology," Blake bellowed. "How dare you strike me!"
Garven and a number of his attendants intervened, drawing Arvet in one direction, Blake in another. I noted that the young woman Blake had been addressing had disappeared during the verbal blows. In a small chamber off the main corridor, Blake was pacing, rubbing his chin, and shaking his head. I hesitated in the doorway until Cally pushed me into the room.
"That was stupid. I'm a fool. Arvet's an ass. I overreacted to their customs." On and on he prattled, a nonsensical barrage of words siphoning his frustration and anger. I simply waited. I have learned that interrupting at any point will only redirect the barrage, typically in my direction.
When he had drained the wound, he finally turned to Cally and to me. "What now?"
"Remember that we are here to provide voluntary assistance. They need us. We do not need them."
I thought the matter perfectly clear but Blake now rubbed at his eyebrow, which meant he was now growing uncomfortable regarding his role in what had happened. A bit late, really. He lapsed into silence, which forecasted a brood.
"A lovely young woman," I interrupted. "I don't suppose you caught her name?"
"Mirea, Lady Mirea," Garven answered as he entered the room. "She is betrothed to Prince Arvet."
"I simply spoke to her, I didn't seduce her!"
Garven seemed rather put out by the entire episode. I suppose as host – host to both Blake and to Arvet, who had travelled from his home province specifically to meet with Blake – he was required to remedy the matter.
"Custom dictates that a young, unmarried woman speaks only with men of her own household or to her betrothed after he is chosen. I am aware that your customs differ in this," Garven gave a pointed look at Cally, "but I must insist that you make every attempt to comply with our customs while you are my guest."
Cally murmured something about barbarism, or perhaps she sent it; it was low enough that Garven did not respond.
"I was unaware of that particular custom." Blake had regained his composure and a bit of his authority. "I apologise for my actions and regret that they affronted Prince Arvet's honour. I meant no disrespect. Can we consider the matter settled?"
Garven rubbed his hands together a bit nervously. Suddenly his princely aura seemed to dissipate and he was simply a dark-haired man in a purple robe.
"Despite my attempts to dissuade him, Prince Arvet has insisted upon satisfying his honour."
"You'll have to be more specific. Is it necessary for a public apology?"
"No, I'm afraid it's not that simple. Prince Arvet has challenged you to a duel."
I nearly laughed – it seemed that absurd -- and saw Cally clap a hand over her mouth. Blake's question might have echoed throughout the palace.
"It is his right, and it is the customary manner in which to defend one's honour."
"That's ridiculous. Our purpose here is to help protect you from Federation invasion, not to participate in archaic means of ego satisfaction." I would have continued but Blake was signalling me to desist.
Garven ignored my protest and continued speaking directly to Blake. "Of course, once the challenge is made and delivered, you have the option of accepting it or refusing it."
Blake's face was still, his eyes wary. His voice was soft and low, his most dangerous tone. "Prince Garven, you are my host. What is your recommendation?"
Garven widened his eyes and raised his eyebrows dramatically. I suppose that was designed to signal deep thought but it was obvious that his opinion was already decided.
"If you refuse the challenge, you will be considered a man with no honour."
Oh hell. I knew the answer now. Were Orac there, I would have given the order to research all known rules and regulations of duelling on the planet Parrish. Blake's image must remain unsullied.
"Then I accept."
Garven seemed pleased. "You are required to name a Second."
Blake nodded. "Avon, of course."
That was decided without a single glance in my direction. I might have been infuriated if I had not already anticipated it.
There was a subtle aura of excitement that pervaded the palace after that. Despite Blake's intentions to continue discussions about the tectonic simulator, it was apparent that the duel took precedence. Arvet had named Prince Verge as his Second and he and I met to decide all of the details, including time, location, weapons, and other minutia. Blake's instructions were to get it over with as quickly as possible and not to agree to anything outlandish. It was a remarkable display of confidence from him, particularly in light of my frequently stated desire for Liberator and the knowledge that Prince Arvet and Prince Verge were bred for these occasions. I am convinced that he expected Arvet to rescind the challenge.
"The rapier, foil and sabre are the weapons of choice of gentlemen."
"They are not weapons of our world and are therefore unsuitable." I smiled. "I propose laser pistols or plasma bolt handguns."
Verge frowned but he was obviously accustomed to negotiation. He never questioned what they were. "As those weapons are not in use on the planet Parrish, I am afraid they are also unsuitable. I propose the use of duelling pistols." He produced one for my examination.
It was apparently an early projectile weapon. The trigger created a spark and the gunpowder explosion propelled a small metal ball. Sarkoff would have been ecstatic. Blake was not a crack shot with our Liberator handguns and I doubted he could even load this weapon but its properties were like enough to a handgun to be deemed acceptable.
"I regret that these pistols are also unknown in our world. However, I am prepared to accept them as the weapon of choice given sufficient time for Blake to familiarise himself with them."
"I imagine one day would be sufficient."
I smiled again. "Two."
"It is customary for duels to be fought at dawn."
Blake is habitually an early riser. I am not. It was fortunate that it was he duelling and not I. I agreed.
We debated the wisdom of holding the duel in the main square. It appeared obvious to me that the palaces would block any light from a rising sun. Holding a duel in the dark bordered on the ridiculous. Verge was uncertain enough to agree to a stipulation: arrival would be at dawn; Verge and I would decide the actual starting time based on the amount of light in the square on the day of the duel.
"I propose a distance of fifteen paces."
Blake is a large man with a long stride. "Would that be fifteen paces of each of the duellists?"
"Yes, we start them at a central point and each takes fifteen paces away from the other."
That might be a total distance of twenty metres. I wondered how far that little metal ball would fly. I'd have two days to work out the exact calculations and proper angles.
We agreed that Garven would both load the pistols and give the signal to fire and that each man would fire one shot at Garven's signal.
Finally, he sniffed. "In pistol duels, it is customary for the Seconds to fight each other at ninety degree angles to the duellists' firing line."
I had learned that from Orac, naturally, but had hoped it was an arcane bit of knowledge, not something normally utilised.
"So I understand," I answered carefully.
"Then I presume you agree to the same conditions we've set for the primary duellists."
"Three days from today, at dawn, duelling pistols. Here is one. Familiarise yourself with it."
I damn near threw the pistol at him as I entered his bedroom. The bastard! Creates an interplanetary incident because he's incapable of remaining sans audience and then accepts the possibility of death rather than a smear against his reputation.
"Avon, how the hell am I supposed to load this thing?" His tone announced that he had been wronged, his trust in me misplaced.
"We'll have two full days to practice and I've arranged for tutoring lessons beginning in the morning. With Orac, we'll be able to measure the precise angles required."
Blake was staring at the pistol, turning it over in his hands and rubbing the smooth metal of its long barrel. It was lovely in its own way, far more beautiful than our Liberator handguns but certainly less accurate.
"That doesn't seem exactly fair."
"Fair?" I suppose I was not truly angry until that moment. "Explain to me your concept of fairness, Blake. Does it include the fact that Prince Arvet has spent his life firing these weapons while you've made speeches and led failed resistance parties? You'd rather die in a pathetic little duel on an unimportant planet than besmirch your reputation. You volunteered me as your Second without the courtesy of requesting my concurrence! Did you know that in pistol duels the Seconds customarily fight each other? Don't speak to me about fairness. I am evening the odds in any way possible."
"It's your fault we're fighting with pistols!"
I was breathing hard but deliberately harnessed my voice into control. "Yes, it is, isn't it. Foolish in retrospect, really. Were you duelling with a rapier, a foil, or a sabre, my role would be less risky. Perhaps I should renegotiate; I like the image of you with a sabre."
"Don't be an ass."
Blake turned away and placed the pistol on the fireplace mantel. A small fire that burned steadily was the only heat for the room. It was a reminder that this place, this time, was considerably different than our own.
"Blake, there's gunpowder in that pistol. I recommend that you locate it elsewhere."
It wasn't of course but he snatched it up as if it would bite and moved it to a bedside table. Sitting on the bed, he seemed chastened, suddenly aware that this was not the amusing game he had imagined.
"What else should I know?"
There was a small settee before the fireplace; completely inadequate for a full-grown man to sit comfortably but it would have to do. I sprawled on it and took a savage delight in resting my boots on its needlepoint cover.
"We'll start you in the centre of the square, back to back. Garven, or one of his men, will load the pistols as Prince Verge and I observe. I'll hand you your pistol and then each of you takes fifteen paces. Garven will give the signal to fire at which point you turn and fire at each other. You each only have the one shot. If Arvet shoots you, he wins. If you shoot Arvet, you win. If you both shoot each other or you both miss, the outcome of the duel is decided by the Seconds."
Blake was sitting up against the headboard, eyes very alert, expression guarded.
"So if either Arvet or I win, you don't fight."
"Unfortunately, that's not the case. It's possible to cause a draw if, for example, Arvet shoots you, and then I shoot Verge. All we need to remember is that we both fight and that we both better shoot the other bastards."
I closed my eyes and listened to the popping sounds emanating from burning wood. The warmth was tentative; it flowed from the fireplace but was easily banished by a draft from the window.
"Cally went back up to the ship."
"Wise of her," I responded. "We should follow her example and then depart. They don't want our help, Blake. It's foolish to go through with this."
"If I have to explain it to you, I doubt you'll understand. It's about honour. It's something I value."
"More than your life? Then more fool you."
My bedroom was stuffy and I slept poorly on the lumpy, musty mattress. I was unaccustomed to the intensity of smells, had never been aware of my sensitivity to particular odours until this visit to Parrish. My bedchamber appeared clean but had a mouldy odour. The bed linens wore the scent of harsh detergent combined with dried herbs that had been spread under the blankets. Each item encountered was more pungent, more intense than any I had previously experienced.
When she crawled into my bed, I thought at first I was dreaming. I opened my eyes and immediately recognised her bright eyes, her dark hair, the beautiful countenance. I froze.
"Do I frighten you, my lord?"
"Lady Mirea, I am fighting in a duel because Blake simply spoke to you. What would happen if Arvet knew you were here?"
If speaking to her was grounds for a duel, I expected that her intentions might generate a penalty of proportionate severity.
"He would kill us both, but he does not know I am here. I saw you earlier. I am very curious. Will you help me satisfy my curiosity?"
What a charming request. How could I refuse?
"Does Arvet expect…what I mean to say is, on your wedding night, won't he expect you to be…inexperienced?"
She laughed and it was a lovely laugh. "Of course, but men are so easily deceived about such things."
It was appealing, in its own tawdry way: a delicious revenge upon Prince Arvet for his challenge and a refreshing view of Parrish's morality. For all of its protestations, it varied little from a more familiar time and place.
I supposed myself her instructor in this art. I found she possessed a natural talent for it.
Vila teleported down in the morning. He brought Orac and a number of paper targets along with the crew's consensus that Blake was insane and we should break orbit today, this hour if not sooner.
Target practice and tutoring in the use of these archaic weapons was ghastly. Garven had sent his sons' instructor, a stout man of my own approximate age. He had a bit of an accent; it took me nearly the entire day to realise that his name was Wallace and not Walrus.
Wallace first taught the proper way to clean the pistol and then load the pistol. It would seem a simple matter for a self-proclaimed engineer and a brilliant electronics expert to pour a specific amount of gunpowder into a narrow barrel. Co-ordinating the powder and the ball was a bit more difficult than drawing a laser pistol from one's holster and firing. It took damn near the entire morning before it seemed second nature. When Wallace left to have his midday meal, I again reminded Blake that we were fools and should teleport to Liberator now.
Target practice in the afternoon was relatively the same. Hideous embarrassment as the ball fell short, soared past, or missed the target completely. Wallace's small sons joined us in Garven's courtyard for this piece. As we finished each round, they gathered the metal balls to be melted down and recast. Eventually, our aim improved as we adjusted to the physics of this ancient weapon. Orac monitored everything with the scanners I had set and grumbled loudly at the imposition upon his research until I questioned why a computer of its self-proclaimed ability was unable to do both simultaneously.
Garven's courtyard was only ten metres in depth. He apologised with lovely manners. What can one do in the middle of the city, his shoulders signalled as he shrugged. The next day's practice would be outside the city.
Mirea came to my bed again that night. She tasted of ripe plums.
"I think you're enjoying this," Blake complained. "You're a slave-driver, Avon."
"Tomorrow morning, at an inhuman hour, two men will try to kill us with these damn pistols." I stopped before I continued with my belief that Blake should shut the hell up and concentrate on the targets.
It was hot. Our clothing was beginning to share many of the qualities of Kamir, none of which were desirable. My shirt stuck to my back. Blake was a better rebel than he was a shot and though I wanted Liberator, this seemed an ignoble method of achieving my goal. I might have suggested verbal jousting at five paces but I'm fairly certain Verge would have rejected the choice of weaponry.
"Pay attention! You're letting your wrist droop before firing. Keep the muzzle angled upward!"
"Fuck off, Avon," Blake said as he fired.
Dead on target, close to perfect.
"I thought of you as I fired."
"Just thought of that now, have you? I've had you in mind since we began yesterday. We need a break. I suggest that we teleport up to Liberator."
I watched him as he cleaned his duelling pistol. The tip of his tongue was gripped in between his teeth in concentration, a charming characteristic. I only wished he'd apply half that deliberation to some of our activities.
"We've discussed it already. I will not be considered a man without honour. Since you've none in the first place, feel free to leave. I'll do this without you."
Blake carefully, very carefully, reloaded the pistol and sighted it at the target.
"Don't be more of a fool than necessary. I am suggesting teleporting to Liberator to have a decent shower and a change of clothes."
I heard him mutter 'Fuck off, Avon' as he fired. Practically a bulls-eye.
While Blake showered, I held a hurried consultation with Jenna, Cally, and Vila. I explained my plan and achieved the impossible aboard Liberator: a united crew. Jenna was still in favour of tranquillising Blake and allowing him to wake when we were in another sector. I found myself in the rather frustrating position of arguing against my preferred course of action.
Liberator's showers had never before satisfied my taste in bathing. The water pressure was far too weak and the shower head too small. This shower was blissful and I let the water stream over my body, onto my face and through my hair for a very long time, each bead of water a blessing as it kissed my skin. Garven had provided us with a basin and a pitcher of water, enough to achieve the bare minimum of cleanliness, but not enough to scrub the smell of Mirea from my body. Unfortunately she had been buried under Kamir's other, less tantalising scents.
Scrubbed and shaved, I was a man reborn. I chose my clothing with care, a high collared black leather jacket over smoky grey trousers. In deference to Parrish's heat, a light cotton shirt with banded collar was far better than the poloneck I had originally worn.
Arriving on the flight deck, I noted Vila's absence. Everything appeared to be on schedule. Jenna was attempting to persuade Blake to change his mind using an approach uniquely her own. I wandered about, checking monitors, and requesting unnecessary status reports from Zen. Finally Vila appeared and his nod satisfied me.
"Blake, I recommend continuing target practice. Up until this point, we've taken the time to sight and fire. Tomorrow morning, we will be facing away from the target. We need to practice turning, sighting quickly and firing."
Blake's eyes were suspicious and then resentful. "I don't recall that the rules of duelling stating that the Second is required to harass the primary duellist."
"If you'd taken the time to read them, you'd see that it does when the primary duellist is not a lifelong resident of Parrish or a student of swordplay." Or a beefy rebel unaccustomed to archaic weapons.
Jenna swatted him. It was rather a nice sensation to have Jenna in alignment with me; unusual, I could develop a taste for it.
"Go on, Blake. Get this foolishness over with. Oh Lord, you're not wearing that jacket are you?"
Blake recoiled, he actually physically recoiled. "What's wrong with it?"
"It's not particularly suitable for gallantry," Jenna said carefully. "Why don't you wear that jacket with the puffy sleeves. It seems more appropriate."
Blake was frowning now and looking down at his attire.
"Yes," Cally added. "I have a very positive feeling about that other jacket, Blake. I think Jenna's right."
"It's a jacket," I spat with exaggerated exasperation. "What does it matter?"
That did it. Blake departed to fetch the jacket with the puffy sleeves.
Blake was pensive that evening after dinner. It seemed one of those times that he wanted me in close proximity for no apparent reason and without request. Fortunately, I am a student of his moods. I filched a bottle of Garven's best brandy, a wonderfully warm, deep flavour with only the slightest burn as it slipped down one's throat. I considered it recompense for the aggravation of his customs.
I sipped at my brandy while Blake paced round his bedchamber, rotating his glass in the palm of his hand, periodically glancing into it as if he'd find the answers he sought.
"You needn't stay, you know. You've made it clear that you consider me a fool for participating in this. Teleport back to Liberator, but don't pack up my cabin just yet."
I smiled into my brandy, which promptly infuriated him.
"Go ahead, mock me! Mock my morals, my standards! You've the ethics of a guttersnipe yet you rarely pass up an opportunity to deplore your betters."
I smiled. "I've slept with Lady Mirea the last two nights."
"Oh Fuck!" Blake was speechless, his brandy glass dangling from the balls of two fingertips. I gently removed it from his hand and placed in on the mantle.
"If she so chooses, I will do so again tonight." I stood before him, open, my voice quiet.
"Why? Why, Avon? Are you mad? Are you suicidal?"
"I thought I'd get our money's worth for the risk we're taking tomorrow. It seemed out of proportion for a mere conversation."
"Do you have any idea…he'd kill you outright if he knew!"
"So I've been told." I gave him the tight smile, the one that's not really a smile, more a way of laughing at myself for my own foolishness, my own arrogance.
Blake stalked away, shaking his head, shaken from his moodiness.
"I'm wasting my breath speaking to you of honour. What could you possibly understand of honour, or fidelity, or courage?"
"Just what I've read."
Blake was near the windows. He turned slowly and stared at me as if he had never seen me before. "They mean nothing to you, do they? They're just words."
"Words? No, they mean nothing at all to me. Only actions matter."
Our rooms were adjoined. I left the connecting door slightly open so that he could hear Mirea moan when I was inside her.
Rising was no burden as I slept only brief minutes after each coupling with Mirea. She departed earlier than previously and kissed me for luck. Dawn came to Kamir at approximately 05:30 in this season. I collected Blake shortly before that time and walked through the quiet, echoing hallways of the Palace.
The square was still dark, the air so full of moisture that walking into it seemed a cool and gentle shower. I breathed in the moisture as Garven's men scattered the beggars who occupy the square at night. As I had predicted, it was far too dark to proceed with the duel. Prince Verge and I met, exchanged wry smiles and opinions that Garven's men should fetch us coffee and keep the gunpowder inside until the rays of the sun burned the moisture away.
Sipping at the blistering hot coffee, I walked with Prince Verge to the middle of the square, the central point, equidistant from each of the four fountains. Verge stood in the very centre, and then we stood back to back. We paced off fifteen steps and I tried to emulate Blake's stride. There was sufficient room for the duel. Each of the participants would walk towards a fountain, each member of the set to the opposite corner.
Garven's household servants arranged tables upon the palace's massive portico. They wielded silver pitchers of black coffee and thick cream. Platters of fruit and pastry were served to the gentleman standing on the entry steps. I noted that none of the participants chose to partake.
Day servants and early workers scurried through the square, few of them stopping to wonder at the endless amount of candelabras that bathed the front of Prince Garven's palace in light. Sunlight finally crept towards the square. It was summer in this province and once the first rays of light struck the grey mist, it was minutes only before the mist had been obliterated. Verge caught my eye and something in my chest became hard and frozen. I nodded.
Blake and I had not spoken since our quarrel the previous night. I sensed his nervousness by the rapid movement of his eyes around the square; they lingered over each fountain and then moved on. I thought it better to avoid him rather than increase his anxiety.
Garven and his sons emerged from the Palace, carrying four duelling pistols, a canister of gunpowder and a small leather bag full of the metal balls. He called it shot. He passed down the stairs and we followed him, quietly, without ceremony. It was simply a task to accomplish.
At the very centre of the square, one of Garven's servants placed a small table. The pistols were deposited there so that Prince Verge and I could oversee the loading of each pistol. The four were nearly identical, pieces of two matched sets. When they were finished I lifted each, tested its weight in my hand, and selected the two I liked best. That was my right according to the rules on Parrish. Prince Verge accepted the other two pistols.
As the Second for the one challenged, I also had the right of placement. I directed Blake to face the fountain in the top left corner of the square. The sun was nearly up but rays would still break into the square. They would be to Blake's right when he turned to fire and perhaps in Prince Arvet's eyes.
I stood next to Blake. I would face the top right corner of the square. As I handed him his pistol, he grabbed my left wrist.
"I am sorry for what I said."
"Don't be. I told you that words mean nothing to me. Curse me when you fire."
I checked to see that each pistol was ready for firing and then pushed Blake into his position. The puffy sleeves on his jacket shifted gently in the early morning breeze, which almost brought a smile. His body armour was light, he should not even feel it inside the lining of his jacket. I turned to face my fountain and listened to Garven's final instructions.
"When I shout the command to 'Commence,' each of you will take fifteen paces and then halt. I will then shout 'Fire.' At that command, Prince Arvet and Blake will turn and fire. When I shout 'Fire' the second time, Prince Verge and Avon will turn and fire. Have you any questions? You are all men of honour."
This last did bring a smile and I imagined that Blake was biting back a smile as well. I heard Garven's footsteps scurrying away. He wanted to be well out of the line of fire.
As I trod across that cobblestoned square, I decided that this was the single most foolish act I had chosen to perform in my life. I'd worked the calculations and projected every possible scenario with Orac but there were simply too many factors out of my direct control. I've never engaged in anything without a minimum of two contingency plans. Here, I expected a steady aim achieved through determined practice and hoped for a lack of wind and an opponent's missed shot.
Fifteen. I halted, as directed and waited. It had simply never crossed my mind that waiting might be the most anxiety producing moment of the entire experience. At this stage, there was only one contingency plan. Somewhere in the square, Vila waited. Both Blake and I wore our teleport bracelets. Should the worst happen, he would order immediate teleport. It was acceptable to lose the duel as long as there was no loss of life.
I heard one shot. From my right? It echoed about the square making it impossible to determine whether it came from Arvet or Blake. This, this was worse than waiting. I heard the second shot, long seconds after the first. Why the delay? Who had fired first? Were either of them hit?
I spun to my left, planted my feet firmly and sighted as I raised the gun. All in one swift motion as we had practised endlessly yesterday afternoon. Don't look for Blake. Concentrate on the target. I saw the flash as Verge fired milliseconds before I did.
I heard Vila's voice behind me as I sank to my knees in exhaustion and relief. I was alive. It was over. I saw Blake walking slowly in my direction and I even spared him a weak smile. He towered above me, glowering.
"Avon, you've been shot."
I had. Until that moment I hadn't been aware of the blood streaming down my right arm. I poked at it curiously and then it began to throb. I began fishing for one of the handkerchiefs I had brought from Liberator yesterday and pressed it against the hole in my upper arm.
"So I have. Does that constitute a loss?"
"No." He sounded gruff. "Can you walk?"
Can I walk? Of course I can walk. I stood up abruptly, swayed, and stayed on my feet only through the timely intervention of Vila behind me. Once he steadied me, I was fine.
I followed Blake, with Vila beside me chattering away.
"Did you curse me when you fired?"
Blake ignored me but I saw by the stiffening of his neck that he had heard my question. Not worth the bother, I turned my attention to Vila.
"Had a spectator's view, didn't you, Vila?"
Being the wise fool he is, he interpreted my question as a request for details, which it was.
"Arvet fired first, and missed. Then Blake -- I don't understand this part, Avon, especially after all the practising you made him do – Blake fired up in the air."
Oh, I'm not surprised, Vila. That's exactly what I thought he might do.
"The two of them just stood there looking at each other until that guy, you know, the one in charge, yelled 'Fire' again. When you two spun, it was clear that both of you were serious."
Blake stopped. As I trailed behind him, I had paid no attention at all to the direction in which we were walking. I moved forward slowly and stood at Blake's side. Arvet was kneeling next to Verge, an apparently dead Verge. There was little blood, just the hole in his jacket and a small amount of blood on his shirt. What an incredible waste.
Parrish's duelling rules approximated a card game in their complexity with wild cards and increased stakes. Arvet and Blake had both missed, allowing the Seconds to settle the duel. As we were both hit, it might seem a draw but in this instance I had fired the wild card. Arvet's death broke the draw. My shot through his heart automatically won the duel. I swore very quietly and very vehemently and headed for the Palace.