28. SOME LEARNING ABOUT SWORDS

Syannis watched Berren and Lilissa start to run up the Avenue of Emperors. Not fast enough. With a sigh, he turned to face the four swordsmen who’d come out of the Captain’s Rest. This wasn’t what he’d expected, not even half-guessed. VenDormen wasn’t supposed to do this, wasn’t supposed to be so bold, wasn’t supposed to even have any part of this. Gods! The Bloody Dag, in the end, hadn’t had a name to give. He’d come here fishing, looking to see what he might catch and he’d accidentally caught a shark.

Oh well. He drew his short sword and raised his guard. At least now I know who it is. Pity I couldn’t have somehow found that out a few hours earlier.

The Avenue of Emperors, even at night, was about the most public place in the city, short of the docks themselves. People were already stopping to watch – from a careful distance, of course – and the four swordsmen hadn’t even reached him yet. Syannis gritted his teeth. We should charge them. Sell tickets. A penny apiece. He took a few deep breaths. Four against one. Not good odds. Likely as not he was going to die. Lilissa and Berren would be safe, and that would be his legacy. Marvellous. Hardly a fitting end for someone who should have been a king.

There wasn’t any subtlety here. The four swordsmen drew their blades and started to spread out as they approached him. Their swords were long and curved. Cavalry swords. Half the snuffers in the city carried those, all left over from Khrozus’ army a generation ago. Fenris steel from Neja. The best in the empire. Held an edge like nothing else. Light and long and good for slashing. Fine weapon if you’re on a horse. Not so good on foot. Heh, and I have a nasty surprise waiting for you under my shirt.

But he couldn’t be having them surround him either. They were still half a dozen yards away when he ran at them. It wasn’t what they were expecting. Thought we’d circle each other for a while, eh? So you could come at me from all directions at once? I don’t think so. He launched himself towards the end of their line, at the one furthest out into the street. That one jumped back hastily into a high guard. At the last moment, Syannis ignored him completely and went for the one next to him. They all had their guards up but the switch earned him a moment of surprise. He stepped inside the man’s blade and drove his own short sword up into the man’s guts. One gone. Still three left. And I won’t fool them with that again. He kept moving, through them, wrenching his sword free. The man he’d stabbed groaned, fell over and lay still.

No time to think about that. Somehow he’d gone right through the middle of them and no one had been quick enough to land a blow on him. See. That’s what you get for carrying the wrong sword to a street-fight. His off-hand pulled a knife out of his belt. He spun around to face the three that were left. They were closer together now. Hesitant. Nervous. All good. He didn’t wait to see what they’d do next, but threw the knife straight at the one in the middle. It was supposed to take him in the neck, but his aim was a bit high and it caught the man in the head instead, glancing off his temple. The man shrieked and dropped his sword. There was a lot of blood. Good enough. With a bit of luck that’s an eyeball gone.

Which left two. They had quite a crowd now. Just as well the Avenue of Emperors is so wide, eh? Wouldn’t want to be stopping the traffic. Still, he took a moment to glance around for places to run. The docks’ militiamen could hardly ignore something like this, and the coins in their pockets came from the harbour-masters. There wasn’t much doubting which side they’d be on. Go on you two. You’ve seen your friends go down and I’m all out of tricks. Run away, damn you! He could hope. They didn’t look old enough to have actually fought in the war. With a bit of luck they’d never actually fought anyone who might kill them. With a bit of luck they were all for show…

They launched themselves at him, both of them at once. They were good, too, in a schoolyard sort of way. Held their swords just so, good footwork, that sort of thing. Not a clue how a real fight actually worked though; what they ought to have done was danced out of his reach and pricked him to death. Presumably whatever sword-school had spawned them didn’t teach that sort of thing. While he’d been taught by Shalari, the best swords-woman in the small kingdoms, who’d probably killed pushing a hundred men on the battlefield and whose famous first rule of sword-fighting had always been don’t get stabbed.

He parried the first sword and deliberately left himself open to the second. The swordsman obligingly lunged and stabbed him in the chest. His sword bent and the impact hurt like a kick from a horse, but the thin ringmail vest under Syannis’ coat didn’t give. Syannis grinned at him. Time seemed to freeze for a moment.

‘Oops,’ he said. He could see the dismay in his enemy’s eyes. This was more like it. This is what we should have been doing years and years ago. This, not running away. He drove his own sword into the man’s throat and that was that.

Except it wasn’t. Blood sprayed straight at his face. He turned his head, screwed his eyes shut, jumped away from where the last swordsman had been, but for a moment he was blind. A moment too long. He felt a horrible stabbing pain in his armpit, just above the line of his mail. He gasped. That was deep. That was bad. Not his sword-arm though. Stabbed. By a cavalry sword. How utterly mortifying. He spun around, keeping his wounded arm close but not hugging it tight. Don’t let him see how bad it is. Never let them see how bad it is. He gripped his sword tight and set his face for murder. Sometimes when they cut you and you don’t go down, they run. Go on, run!

He bared his teeth and stepped slowly towards the last swordsman. ‘Go on!’ he screamed. ‘Stand and fight! I want to play!’

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