Online Exclusive: “This Sword for Hire” by Gregg Chamberlain

A blonde whirlwind came crashing through the door into my office.

I was whetting the blade of my favorite dagger at the time. The next thing I knew, there was this young woman, arms braced on top of my desk blotter, her eyes burning a hole through me.

“Mr. Jude, I need your help,” she said.

Talmid’s cards had said I would have a visitor today. No great trick of fortune-telling, given my occupation. I set the whetstone and dagger down on the desk. “Have a seat.” I gestured to the nearest of two straight-backed chairs which, besides the old chesterfield set against the opposite wall and my own desk with its worn-but-still- comfortable Morris chair, were the only pieces of real furniture in my office. Unless you included two battered file cabinets in one corner and the weapons-closet in another.

She sat, took a handkerchief out of her shoulder bag, and dabbed at her eyes. While she did, I took good measure of her.

Her eyes were dry now but I could see traces of redness, even though her kohl wasn’t streaked. She hadn’t had her crying fit too long ago, but she was in firm control of herself now. Firm enough to have made sure her face was presentable before barreling through the door. I liked that.

I liked her face, too. She had a nice face. Not drop-dead gorgeous by any stretch, but pretty to look at. A blonde, like I said. Ash-blonde. No dark roots. Slim build. Dressed well but not well-dressed, if you know what I mean. She was dressed with an eye to common-sense, which included wearing sensible flat-soled shoes, which sat side by side on the office carpeting. And her shoulder bag was no dinky thing on a rhinestone spaghetti strap that would snap at the first good yank. Not from the street and definitely not a deb, but she also didn’t look like a career girl waiting around in the secretarial pool for Mr. Right. More like respectable upper-lower class or maybe lower-middle class.

I let a few more sand grains drop, then asked her what the trouble was.

“My name is Colene Darmid,” she said. “I’m supposed to be getting married next week. But if you don’t help me, Jimmy’s going to get himself killed.”

Big sigh. Me, not her. The glass on the door reads Ashur Jude, Duelist-at-Law. My license states that my sword is for hire for justice and that, as an officer of the court, I am also obligated to uphold the law. But I hate it when someone, whether by accident or by design, tries to guilt me into taking a job before I’ve even heard what they want.

“Calm down, Miss Darmid,” I said. “Suppose you back up a bit and tell me what the problem is. Maybe it’s not as bad as you think.”

Actually, it was that bad. Colene Darmid worked as a barmaid at the Shield and Dragon over in the Darrow district. Her betrothed, Jimmy, worked there too, part-time. He sometimes sat in with the house band, and Gus, the Shield’s owner, let him strum solo now and again during the day for whatever the customers would toss into his cap. Jimmy was a music student, taking Bardic Studies at Taliesin College. The tavern butts onto the university district, and its nightly clientele often includes students who like to go slumming among the common folk but without any real risk to their dainty selves.

Which is how Jimmy got into the fix he was in now. Seems that last night a few upperclassmen from over at Sumner University came into the tavern, already several sheets to the wind, and proceeded to hoist their sails even higher. Colene was serving their table and had to fend off crude suggestions and sly fingers.

“Things were okay,” she told me in a matter-of-fact tone. “I mean, I can handle myself pretty well most times. If a customer really gets bad, all I have to do is call for Oscar and he pretty much settles them down.” Oscar was the assistant barkeep, who also doubled as the Shield and Dragon’s bouncer.

But that night Oscar must have been looking the wrong way when she tried to give him the nod. Or else Jimmy may have just been keeping a pretty close eye on her that evening. All she knew was that one of the university guys grabbed her buttocks with his hand, and then Jimmy’s fist was bouncing off the guy’s chin.

“Jimmy told him to keep his hands to himself, if he knew what was good for him.” I heard a note of pride in Colene’s voice. “The fellow didn’t really seem to be hurt anyways. I mean, I don’t think Jimmy tried to hit him really hard. Just enough to make him stop and think, you know?”

I nodded. I hoped Jimmy hadn’t damaged any of his fingers when he’d hit the guy. Bardic colleges don’t usually include combat courses in their curricula. Anyway, like Colene said, the guy Jimmy had pegged wasn’t hurt all that much. He just grinned and picked himself up off the floor. By which time, of course, Oscar had arrived, which gave both the lout and his buddies pause.

The guy then said something. Colene wouldn’t repeat it to me but her cheeks crimsoned. “Jimmy got mad and demanded he apologize to me or else.”

Which seemed to be just what the guy wanted Jimmy to say. The upshot was that before Oscar had a chance to escort Master Charm and his friends outside, or even suggest that they leave before he called the nightwatch, Jimmy had challenged the jerk to a duel. Combat to take place Saturday, the day after tomorrow, at dawn.

“After they’d gone, I talked to Jimmy, tried to get him to change his mind, take back the challenge. But he wouldn’t.” Colene looked down at her clasped hands resting in her lap. “I went over this morning to where he boards but Mrs. Gillian, his landlady, said he’d left the house already. So I came to see you.” She’d gotten my name from a friend who waited tables over at the Rose and Crown, and who had a friend who’d known a friend that had a cousin or something who’d been in trouble once. Apparently I’d helped out whoever it was without skinning him in the bargain.

I picked up the dagger and the whetstone and put them away in the top right-hand drawer of the desk. Opening the top left-hand drawer, I took out a business pad, an ink bottle, and my old quill tip.

“First things first, Miss Darmid,” I said, dipping the quill-tip and scratching out the date in the space provided on the topmost sheet of the pad. “Does your fiancé know that you’re seeing me?” She shook her head. “Okay then, I need the correct spelling for your name.” She gave it and I wrote that down in the “client” space, then put a question mark in the space marked “method of payment,” since I wasn’t sure how this was going to work out. I was going to take the case, I knew that. If needs must, well, I was due for a stint of pro bono.

I had her go over the circumstances again, took down a few more details, including her address and exchange number, and Jimmy’s address and his exchange number. She had a miniature of Jimmy, which she parted with very reluctantly when I asked for it. I needed to know what Jimmy looked like if I was going to protect him but, for the sake of client confidentiality, I didn’t want her pointing him out to me.

It was a cheap street artist’s palm-sized sketch of an earnest-looking young man. His hair was a trifle long, which could have been either the current bardic style or that he couldn’t afford to go to the barber that often. I rather thought it might be the latter, seeing as he was working part-time at a tavern while attending college.

I asked her for a more detailed description of the fellow Jimmy had challenged, and made a mental note to check with Oscar about it too. Bouncers have to have good memories for the names and faces of the people they throw out.

“About your fee, Mr. Jude—” She looked embarrassed.

“My rates are very reasonable. We’ll work something out,” I assured her. “Right now, let’s just concentrate on making sure Jimmy’s in shape to make good on the banns, okay?” I smiled at her and was rewarded with a hopeful little smile in return. I escorted her out through the door and into the hallway.

“Thank you, Mr. Jude,” she said, turning around suddenly and taking my mahogany-brown hand in both of hers. Then she dropped it, about-faced, and strode down the hall. She disappeared down the stairwell without a single glance back.

All of my clients should be so confident. I stepped back inside the office long enough to grab my dagger from the desk drawer and slide it into my belt, stick a pencil stub under my shirt cuff, then wrap my old grey cloak about me and set a plain-looking tam o’shanter on my head. I decided against taking a sword this time, since all I had planned for the moment was a quick trot a few blocks over to the Hall of Records. By now, Jimmy’s challenge and the other fellow’s acceptance would be legally recorded and on display for public view. I’d have a better idea of what my next move would be once I knew who Jimmy’s opponent was.

* * *

The week’s list of scheduled duels was long, as usual. The section devoted to those posted for the Darrow district was very brief, though. There was just the one: James Baird (challenger) and Myrrdin Anthony Howell (challenged), Ilford Downs, dawn, Saturday. Cause: Lady’s honor.

I noticed that the section for weapons had “combatants’ choice (hand-held, non-missile),” which excluded dueling pistols or any other type of firearm as well as pistol-bows, throwing knives, ‘hawks, and anything else that would put some distance between the two. I didn’t know what kind of arms, if any, Jimmy might be familiar with but I figured that a university student like Myrddin Anthony Howell would be at ease with a sword, at least, and would likely choose that for his weapon. The “non-missile” stipulation made me frown, though. A spear with an armored haft, while an unusual choice, could have been an acceptable weapon. I knew of at least one case involving a duel between a swordsman and a spearman. A spear would have also offered someone unfamiliar with weapons a bit of protective distance. Legal hair-splitters, though, could argue that a spear can be thrown, which would make it a “missile weapon” and thus ineligible for use under the terms of the duel. I wondered who had filed the dueling notice.

The duty clerk glanced at my license, took the official form with my scribbled request to see Howell’s dueling record, and ambled off to pull the file.

It did not look good for Jimmy, it seemed. Howell had been the winner in six previous duels. All to the death. I did a quick re-check of the public list, which left me more puzzled. The victory condition space was blank.

That itself was unusual but not illegal. Certainly nothing I could use to argue against the duel going ahead. The Proper Witness would make certain at the time of the duel that the victory condition was stated and agreed to before either Jimmy or the other fellow so much as saluted, never mind crossed swords.

I examined Howell’s dueling record again. I didn’t recognize the names of any of his opponents. Which meant nothing by itself. Even a duelist-at-law like myself can’t be expected to know everyone who straps on a sword-belt. But there was no mention in the record that any one of Howell’s past duels had involved fighting a designated second. Which likely meant that all six had, like Jimmy, chosen to fight their own battles. But in the end each had died as a result. Something I hoped to change in Jimmy’s case.

On a hunch I put in a request for a check of the morgue records of the six men who had dueled, and lost, against Howell. While waiting for the clerk to find and pull those out, I glanced at the chalkboard posting of the day’s duels, automatically looking for any familiar names, while a part of my mind reviewed what information I now had about the case.

One: while drinking with his friends, Myrrdin Anthony Howell, a university student, made a crude pass at Colene Darmid, the barmaid serving their table.

Two: Jimmy Baird, a bardic student and Miss Darmid’s fiancé, observed Howell and leaped to the defense of his betrothed.

Three: Baird warned Howell to leave Darmid alone. Howell asked, “Or else what?” and was then challenged to a duel.

A thought struck me. I checked the public list sheet again. The challenge had been registered with the Darrow district office of the Hall of Records this morning, soon after the place had opened.

Jimmy? Miss Darmid said his landlady had reported that he’d left early in the morning. If so, then he seemed to be a very single-minded young man and as direct as a crossbow bolt at point-blank range. Impulsive too, given that he’d challenged a total stranger to a duel. I just hoped that he wasn’t too impulsive. He might have decided to hell with waiting for Saturday and set off to seek Howell out early, before I had a chance to finish my investigation and figure out a way to legally intervene. The “non-missile weapon” condition still bothered me, though. A check with the Darrow district records office might be worthwhile.

The clerk returned with half a dozen folders. I took them over to a carrel, sat down, and leafed through them. I frowned as I read over the coroner’s report in the first file. By the time I’d finished the last one, there were enough furrows in my forehead for planting a garden.

Not a single one of Howell’s previous kills had anything even remotely resembling a dueling record. Only by the loosest definition could they have even been called “dueling opponents.” I doubt any one of them had ever come within reaching distance of a sword before, never mind held one. A shopkeeper’s assistant, an apprentice carpenter, and an office clerk. Then there were two who’d been fishermen, so they might have had some experience in knife-fighting from working around the docks—not that that had helped them much against Howell’s sword skill. The last one had been a student, like Baird, but at the university, not the college. Each one of them had faced Howell “on the field of honor,” as the saying goes, and each one of them had died. Three for “personal honor,” two for “family honor,” and one—the shopkeeper’s boy—for “a lady’s honor.”

Other than being tyros on the dueling ground, I noticed the six also had one other thing in common, besides dying on Howell’s blade. In each case the dueling conditions had called for non-missile weapons.

I grabbed some sheets of the cheap paper the records hall keeps on hand for public use. Pausing once to re-sharpen the pencil tip with my pen-knife, I jotted down a few notes from the files, then returned the folders to the clerk.

The sky to the west was turning dark with storm clouds when I left the Hall of Records. For a moment I considered walking back to the office and getting my leather cloak. I decided no. Instead I strode to the neighborhood roundabout where the cabbies parked their rigs, made sure the one I settled on had no holes in its roof before I got in, and told the driver to head for the Shield and Dragon in Darrow.

The clip-clop rhythm of the cab horse was soothing. During the quarter-hour ride, I read over my notes from the records hall and pondered.

I still wondered who had actually filed the dueling notice. Given the non-missile weapon clause I didn’t think it had been young Jimmy. Not unless he’d been doing some extra-curricular study of the Code Duello. An experienced duelist like Howell, with six kills to his credit, would be a more likely choice. The only choice, really, given the fact that his previous challenges had all included the same condition.

A set-up. That was obvious. What I couldn’t figure out yet was why. Perhaps Oscar, the Shield and Dragon’s bouncer, could provide some light in that dark corner.

* * *

The rain, which had threatened when I left the Old Town district and my office, at last decided to drop just as I climbed down out of the cab in front of the Shield and Dragon. After paying off the cabbie, I dashed through the door as huge drops splattered against the cobblestones.

Inside, the rain drummed a loud tattoo on the tavern’s roof. I didn’t bother to doff either my cloak or my tam. Despite the downpour outside, I didn’t expect to stay too long.

The midday crowd hadn’t arrived yet though the tavern staff was preparing for their coming. A big fellow, who I thought might be Oscar, was busy setting up extra tables and chairs. A barmaid, not Colene—this one was a pleasingly-plump redhead—was lining up ranks of cups and leather drinking jacks on a counter behind the bar. I could also see and smell a delicious-looking, good-sized roast turning on a spit in the hearth at the far end of the common room. A short, dumpy man, with gray-haired temples and a shiny pate, used a small knife to cut off a sample of the meat for tasting. He nodded in satisfaction and said something to the lad in charge of turning the spit before he turned around and spotted me.

“Welcome, sir, to the Shield and Dragon,” he said, marching across the room. He wiped his hands on a short towel tucked into his apron tie, then extended one hand for me to shake. “You’re just in time for the first cut of today’s lunch special, roast beef and dip.”

Well, it did smell good. “A tempting offer,” I said, returning his smile. “If there’s a good, cold ale to go with it.”

He grinned. “No finer homebrew in all Darrow, if I do say so.” He turned and gestured towards the bar. “Molly, pull a cup for the gentleman.” To me, he said, “I’ll just nip into the kitchen and give the gravy a couple stirs before slicing up your meat, then.” He was away with a “Won’t be a minute” tossed over his shoulder, disappearing through a set of swinging half-doors off to the right of the big hearth.

I settled myself at the nearest table, slipping off my cloak and hanging it over the back of the chair. The tam I left on my head. Molly the redheaded barmaid was beside the table a moment later with a jack of ale. She set it down with a smile and a wink for me, then bustled back behind the bar to resume lining up her rows of drinking vessels.

The ale tasted as fine and smooth as promised. The man, who I presumed was Gus, appeared again by the hearth and, with sure, swift cuts, sliced off several strips of meat from the roast onto a small platter. He went back through the swinging doors but re-emerged soon after with the meat slices now sandwiched inside a long roll. His other hand carried a folded cloth and a small bowl. He set the whole works down on the table, then took the cloth from under the bowl, which contained a brown gravy, and snapped the linen out to a square that he placed beside the bowl.

“There you go. How’s the ale? Good, eh?”

I was in the middle of taking another pull at my jack so all I could do was nod and give him a thumbs-up, which seemed to satisfy him for he grinned again and headed back into the kitchen. I picked up the meat-filled roll, which was still warm from the oven, dipped an end into the gravy, and took a bite. The tender pieces of meat almost melted in my mouth. I decided to concentrate on eating for a bit before having my chat with Oscar.

In the end, I waited until he was setting another table in place nearby. I called him over. Close up he looked a good hand or two taller than me, and I am thought a tall man. He was bigger than me in other ways too. Even relaxed, his arm muscles still seemed to ripple. He carried himself with a certain confidence that didn’t come with just being bigger than most everyone else. Oscar was the sort who was tough and knew it but saw no need to swagger about. He probably talked more drunks into leaving the tavern than he had to throw out.

“My name’s Ashur Jude,” I said, introducing myself and handing him one of my professional plaques. “I’ve been asked to see if I might be able to help James Baird.”

He looked up from reading the plaque when I said that. “Colene hire you?” he asked. There was a note of suspicion in his voice. Maybe he wondered how Miss Darmid was paying for my services. Barmaids don’t usually make the kind of money that can pay for a professional duelist and Oscar seemed like the protective sort who would consider those he worked with as family.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “but I can’t really say who my client is. But she has explained the situation to me and I want to help her with her problem. I was hoping you might be able to help me help her too.”

He caught the emphasis I kept putting on “help”. He looked at the plaque again, grunted, then nodded his head and hooked a chair from the table with his foot so he could sit down. Arms folded on the back of the chair, he looked at me and said, “So, what can I tell you?”

I pulled out my sheaf of notes and my pencil stub. “Tell me what happened last night,” I said, setting down the remains of my beef-and-bun.

It wasn’t much different from what Miss Darmid had told me earlier that morning. A trio of young bloods had wandered in, sat down, and started drinking. Oscar had watched them come in, watched them sit down, watched them drink. And he’d noticed something that had escaped Colene.

“They wasn’t that drunk to begin with,” he told me. His index finger gave the table top a solid tap. “I knows drunk.”

I made a note. “I was told they were pretty slicked.”

Oscar shook his head. “They wasn’t even close, though they did make a fair show of pretending. Most fellows gets drunk, they gets loud, sure. But these three was too loud. They wanted you to know they was there. That’s why I kept a watch on them. I knew they was up to something.”

I stopped scribbling and took a pull at my ale. “So how come James beat you to the table when this Howell guy made a grab on Colene?”

He looked shamefaced about that. “I lets myself get busy at the bar. Then I hears a fist smack and I looks up and sees Jimmy standing over at the table with Colene behind him and the pule on his arse on the floor. I hustles over there right when Jimmy up and calls the coll out and the guy says okay.” Oscar shook his head again. “Dumb, dumb, dumb. I knew right then that was what those pukes wanted.”

I thought a moment. “You kept an eye on them pretty much from the moment they walked in. Did you know them?”

He shook his head. “Might have seen any one of them somewhere else around Darrow. I dunno. We gets a lot of students wandering around this part of town.”

I nodded. “What about other taverns? Any of your fellow bouncers maybe know them?”

Oscar shrugged. “Couldn’t tell you. I haven’t exactly had time to ask around.” A dark frown clouded his face. “Seems like, maybe, now that I thinks about it some, I might have seen one or other of them come in here before. Aye, with some other students sportin’ one of those fancy-looking badges on their fronts. Right here.” A maul-sized fist patted the left side of his chest, just above the heart.

“A monogram?” I asked, scribbling away. “What sort of monogram?”

He shrugged again. “Wasn’t all that much. A seven done up the old way in red.” He sketched in the air with a finger the letter V followed by a double I. Then Gus called out for him to bring in an extra cask for behind the bar. “Be anything else?” he asked, getting up from his chair.

“Just one more question,” I said. “Jimmy left his lodgings pretty early this morning. You know anything about where he might have gone and why?”

Oscar hesitated, as if debating with himself whether to answer. “Ilford Downs,” he said then. “Had ourselves a look at the grounds.” He glared down at me. “I served in the Pats. I shows him how to hold a sword proper, along with a couple tricks might help. Left him my old service blade for practice. He oughter have at least a chance.”

I nodded and he left the table to tend to his work. I finished the rest of my lunch, though the gravy had gone cool and the ale warm. The noon crowd was just pushing through the doors out of the wet when I left the Shield and Dragon. Luckily one of the tavern’s customers had come in a cab, which I was able to hire to take me back to Old Town.

The cabbie waited outside the building while I went upstairs for my leather weather-proof with its hood. I also unlocked the weapons-closet and took out a plain-looking but very serviceable short sword. Slipping that into the concealed sheath inside the lining of the weather-proof, I trotted back downstairs and jumped back into the cab.

“Ilford Downs,” I told the driver and then settled back against the seat as the horse cantered down the street. It was time for me to meet my client’s betrothed.

* * *

Ilford Downs is a rolling stretch of old pastureland cleaved by Cotters Creek. Cattle no longer graze there since Old Man Ilford deeded the site over to the First Folk for their Gatherings. His heirs wisely chose not to contest that particular section of the will. Since then, with the consent of the Folk, the city of York has surrounded the Downs with little neighborhoods of two-story stucco houses, tiny kirks, and corner shops. The delicate arch of a wee fairy bridge over the river joins one side of the Downs with the other. Children love to see how many of them can crowd onto the bridge. The tiny thing has taken on dozens of kids at a time without ever filling up or its glamour showing sign of strain.

Nature has reclaimed the downs for Her own again. Rushes grow thick and green along the banks of the creek; stands of willow, birch, beech, and young oak crowd the far side of the Downs, with maples along the walls which surround its edges. Groundskeepers no one ever sees keep the grass trimmed fairly short in several open spaces, including the large one the Folk use for Gatherings and along the paths where people like to walk. Ilford Downs is popular with families for picnics during the summer afternoon.

In the early morning, though, Ilford Downs belongs to those who choose to settle their arguments by the sword or whatever weapon they fancy. This too is with the consent of the Folk, who enjoy the spectacle of mortal combat. By an unspoken agreement, all duels are held on the far side of the Downs in a small clearing in the middle of a copse of birch.

However, it was mid-afternoon when I went there looking for one James “Jimmy” Baird just as the rain was easing up. The park was empty of casual visitors. Not even the street conjurors, jongleurs, palmreaders, jugglers, and the like had come back out of their shelters yet to ply their trades. Crossing over the bridge, I sauntered downstream along the creek bank whistling an old ballad, as if I were an ordinary sort out for a ramble in the woods.

Finding Jimmy was no great trick. He was right where I expected he’d be: at the dueling ground. When I came upon him, he was sitting at the edge of the clearing where it slopes down towards the creek. He sat with his back against a tree, staring into space. Oscar’s sword, unsheathed, and its scabbard lay across his knees.

I hailed him in a casual manner and angled my way across the clearing towards where he sat as though that was the direction I’d had in mind all along. He paid me no mind, which was fine by me. I fetched up beside him and peered between the birches towards the creek.

“Beg pardon, but have you seen anyone else here?” I pulled out a chronometer and made a show of looking at the time. “I’m supposed to meet a friend here between noon and the first hour.” I snapped the chronometer shut and glanced up at the still-leaden sky. “At least, I think it’s supposed to be here.”

I looked down at Jimmy, who still sat staring at nothing. He must have been sitting there all through the rain. His hair was plastered down flat, with wet strands hanging limp over his coat collar.

“Excuse me,” I said a little louder. “Have you seen anyone else come through here?” I got a single slow shake of the head in answer. Well, I hadn’t really come here planning to question Jimmy anyway, just to make sure that he was still alive and hadn’t gone tearing off after Howell before Saturday. But I didn’t like the way he just sat there with that army pig-sticker across his lap.

I lifted a foot and pointed with it. “Waiting for someone yourself, are you?” No answer, not even a head movement. “Not here for a duel at this hour, are you?”

A shrug of the shoulders. Well, at least he was still listening, not gone wandering off somewhere in his mind again. The reality of what he’d gotten himself into must have sunk through at last. The question now was whether he’d be in any fit condition mentally to show up here again the day after tomorrow or if he’d die of the grippe first after sitting all morning out in the rain. Or whether he might take the notion of following the tradition of every tragic hero in those lousy romances and throw himself on his borrowed sword.

I took hold of the sword’s handle and that’s when Jimmy came back to life. He made to grab it from me but I already had it in my two hands, sighting down along the blade. “Looks to be a good edge,” I commented, shifting the sword to one hand and swinging it, point lowered, back and forth in front of me. “Good weight.” I slashed the air before me a couple of times. “Decent balance.”

Grasping it around the blunt section where the tang goes into the handle, I presented the sword hilt to Jimmy, who had gotten to his feet and stood watching me putting his weapon through its paces. “Military issue, yes?” I commented. “Belong to your father?”

He took hold of the hilt. “No, a friend lent it to me.” Even depressed as he seemed, his voice still held a certain lilt due to his bardic training.

“Must be an awfully good friend to lend you his sword,” I said.

He looked down at the ground. “I suppose,” he said, then added, muttering, “Much good may it do me.”

I took out the chronometer again and looked at it. “Yes, well, I guess my appointment isn’t going to show. You’re sure you’ve seen no one?” Jimmy was just sliding the sword back into its scabbard as I asked. He looked up at me as though he’d forgotten I was there, then said, “No, no one’s been here except for me and I think I’m going to go home. I’m done here. For now.”

“Right then.” I nodded. “Perhaps I’ll find the person I’m hunting somewhere else.” I quickmarched back the way I’d come, pausing at the edge of the clearing just long enough to look back over my shoulder. Jimmy was slowly trudging across the dueling ground behind me to the path that led back along the creek towards the bridge.

I was satisfied that I’d stirred up his melancholy enough to dislodge any thoughts of suicide from his mind. Still, after leaving the park and letting him pass me by, I trailed along behind him at a far enough distance not to be noticed, until I saw him climb up the stairs of a large old two-story residence on the edge of the Darrow district. The hand-painted sign hanging from the verandah roof read Mrs. Gillian’s Guest House.

Satisfied that he’d be fine at least for the rest of the day and tomorrow, unless he took sick, I headed off in search of a cab. I stopped by the Shield and Dragon and left a message with Oscar for Miss Darmid that she ought to pay a visit to Jimmy at his lodging, preferably with a bowl of hot chicken soup in hand.

After a brief stop at the Darrow district records hall, I had the cabbie turn his horse back towards the Old Town district and my office. I had a case report to write up for another client.

Tomorrow I would visit my old alma mater, Sumner University. I had found the flamboyant signature of one Myrrdin Anthony Howell at the bottom of the original duel registration paper. As with Jimmy Baird, I now wanted to see what the other major player in this case looked like.

* * *

Friday morning began with my usual visit to Talmid’s corner booth down the block from York’s main Hall of Records. The old card reader had just finished setting up her table when I arrived. I dropped a silver bit in her hand. She pocketed it and handed me a slim deck of cards, which she’d given a quick shuffle.

“Swords,” she said. “As always.”

Smiling, I cut the deck three times and handed it back to Talmid. As I was one of her regulars, she always had a deck ready just for my use. But since all I ever asked from her were quick readings dealing with my legal cases, the other suits never saw the light of day from their box.

She dealt off four cards face down to the four compass points. Then she picked up another deck, the Major Arcana, shuffled it and handed it over to me to cut once. She spread the deck out face down, had me select three cards, then set one each face down at the points of an inverted triangle inside the compass of the Minor cards.

She turned the cards over, starting in order with the compass cards.

“Eight of Swords. It began with a woman, a good woman.” Another card flipped over. “Ten of Swords, reversed. Obstacles, of course. Failure if care is not taken but still a small chance at success.”

Talmid’s features then went slack. Her eyes got that “oracle stare” as her hand hovered over the next card she turned. “Four of Swords, reversed. There is little sympathy for you or your cause where you go. Beware the one who stands behind your target.”

The hand turned the last of the four cards over. Talmid didn’t even glance at it. “Ace of Swords, reversed. There is a difficulty but success is possible, given prudence on your part.”

She moved on to the Major Arcana, starting with the upper-left point of the inverted triangle. “The Magician, reversed. It is you, alone as always and at odds with the world.”

The next card. “The Hermit, again you must exercise prudence and wisdom to succeed. But do not worry overmuch about the foe you see before you. Beware rather of the one you do not see.”

Last card. “The Moon. Deception, a murky, unsatisfactory state of affairs. There is a feyness about your hidden enemy that may obscure his true intent.”

Talmid blinked and shook herself. I left a couple more silver bits on her table. Pondering her last trance-spoken words, I strode off towards the roundabout and the waiting cabbies.

* * *

While Sumner University abuts onto Darrow district, the actual university buildings themselves were a good ten-minute ride along the broad, divided boulevard that starts from the old entrance gate at Pierce Street. The arched gateway is all that remains of the original university wall. Shops, taverns, and boarding houses catering to the less affluent students attending either Sumner or Taliesin College line the street. The paved boulevard, which shows traces of its old cobblestone predecessor in a few places, stretches in a straight, unbroken, tree-shrouded line from the gateway to the main quadrangle and the university’s main administrative building.

As the horse pulled us along in a quick trot, the cab passed by students, in groups, in pairs, and alone. Some walked along the boulevard, focused on their own affairs, while others stood and watched the cab go by. Several were gathered at the base of Meredith’s statue, listening to an open-air lecture by one of the instructors.

The Old Man still kept his tiny corner office overlooking the small dueling practice quadrangle located between Osgoode Hall and the main building. The cramped little space retained its usual state of organized clutter. Beneath the bay window overlooking the quad sat a desk shoved up against the wall, piled high with legal texts and student papers awaiting grading. Crammed shelves overflowed with books of statutes, law codes, and legal biographies.

In the center, in a small space of old carpet clear of papers and books, Solon stood en garde, a light foil gripped in one hand, the other holding up a slim manual which he was flipping through. Out of habit I had knocked at the open door before entering. Solon looked up from his book, beetled eyebrows frowning, until he recognized me.

“Young Ashur. Well, come in, lad, come in.” He glanced around at the clutter, then strode towards his desk. “Clear yourself a place to sit. Mind where you put anything, though. I’ll want to find whatever you move later.” He settled himself in his chair, laid the foil down on top of the desk, and gestured at me with the slim volume he still held in one hand. “The Book of Five Rings. A sort of philosophical advisory for Nihon warriors. Written in Ybrian, unfortunately, as they’re still the only country the Shōgun allows trade with for now. Perhaps someone will get around to doing an Anglic translation. Still interesting, though, especially the hints I’ve gleaned about Nihonese swordsmanship.”

I listened to him ramble while I removed a pile of term papers from the only other chair, an old hardback Highlander that Solon kept in his office. He rarely entertained visitors, other than students who came to ask for help either in interpreting a legal precedent or mastering a particular dueling technique. The Highlander chair, with its stiff back and narrow seat, encouraged most visits to be brief.

“Now then, young Ashur,” Solon said once I’d gotten myself perched, “what brings you back here? You were never the sort to indulge in gratuitous socializing. It’s been seven years since graduation. From what I’ve read, both in the law reports and in the penny dreadful newsheets, you’ve done well for yourself. No need for recourse to me for advice or aid. Unless.” He flicked a thumbnail against his front teeth, a familiar gesture of his when pondering. “Unless you’ve a case now that has some tie with Sumner.”

He darted a look my way. “Well then, what is it? Quick now, the gauntlet’s dropped.”

I raised my hands in surrender. “Touché, magister,” I said, grinning. “I need some information and I was hoping you might be able to help.” I outlined the case, with all pertinent circumstances, but excluding Miss Darmid’s and Jimmy’s names, while including the description that Oscar had given me of the curious monogram he’d seen, finishing with my own suspicions so far.

Solon’s eyebrows puckered. “A red seven in the old style of numbering?”

I nodded. “Sound familiar?”

The Old Man frowned. He began flicking his thumbnail against his teeth again. “The Group of Seven,” he said at last.

* * *

I stood at the far end of the dueling quad, watching a match in progress.

Myrrdin Anthony Howell was one of the combatants. The Old Man had pointed him out to me from the office window as Howell and his opponent walked over to one of the dueling circles, saluted each other, and crossed swords. I’d made my way quickly downstairs and out to observe the “champion” in action.

He was adequate. Technique fair. Action stiff. He’d come out the winner of this little practice match. His opponent had even less skill than he did.

On my worst day I could take Howell. Using my weak hand and with the other tied behind my back. James Baird was another matter, though. Bad as Howell seemed, he was a seasoned pro compared to the young bardic student.

I wasn’t the only one watching the match. A small group of men and two women stood to one side. Not all of them were paying heed to the dueling pair, however. Several of the men and both of the women were giving all their attention to one fellow with long hair that was so blond it gleamed white in the afternoon sun. He stood head and shoulders above everyone else in the group. He was watching the match, but not with his full attention.

One of the women said something and he turned to favor her with a slight smile. I caught a glimpse of a pointed ear tip through tresses that I realized were the silver-white of the Folk.

He noticed me staring at him. An eyebrow lifted slightly before his attention returned to the duel. A number seven in the old style was embroidered in blood-red on the shoulder of his cloak.

The Group of Seven. A new dueling club different from other “brotherhoods of the blade” from my own university days. “Originated on the Continent,” Solon had said. “Rather like those Gothic-style organizations. Stürm und Drang, that sort of thing.”

With one difference, the Old Man had added. Gothics have a Blut und Bein tradition of initiation by ordeal where a would-be member runs a gauntlet of selected club veterans. If he survives, he’s in with a nice scar to give his face “character” and something for ladies to tingle over during dances. The Seven, though, demand would-be followers find their duels outside of the club’s ranks.

The Old Man knew of only a few belonging to the local chapter. They were all the younger spawn of old families. Old and powerful families.

The match was at an end. Howell had the blunted tip of his foil against the throat of his opponent. Judging by the other man’s face, the tip was pressing hard enough to wound had the point been sharp.

“Enough, Myrddin,” said the aelfling, turning away from the dueling circle. “You’ve won the match.” Silver-grey eyes regarded me.

Howell flicked his foil away from his victim’s throat, sketched a salute to the other man, and stepped out of the circle. He made a show of brushing the bit of perspiration from his brow while nodding and smiling at the congratulations from the human members of his little audience.

“Your thoughts?” I had just begun to turn to leave when the aelfling caught me with his question. Surrounded by the clique of humans, which included an ignored and now-frowning Myrddin Anthony Howell, he awaited my answer.

I took up the gauntlet. “Overall, not bad.” A loud gasping of breath from everyone else followed fast on the heels of my left-handed compliment. Howell pushed past one of the women, his foil whipping up in front of him.

“Not bad? Not bad? I’ll show you, whoever you are, a point or two about swords that you’ll not soon forget.” He might have elaborated on his threats but he’d found it suddenly difficult to continue speaking. My second-best short sword had blocked his weak backhand at the hilt and rested its unblunted point against his throat.

With my left hand I held up a plaque. At a gesture from the aelfling one of the others crept close enough to take the plaque and bring it back to him. He glanced at it. Pale lips twitched in what might have been a brief smile.

“Best have a care there, Myrrdin. The gentleman is a professional. Your purpose, Master Jude?”

“Simple curiosity,” I replied, watching Howell. “I attended Sumner.” My sword tip remained at his throat, the wings of the hilt holding his foil locked. I had no intention of letting go until I was certain I wouldn’t get struck off-guard.

“I see. Myrddin, if you were to let go of your foil, the gentleman might consider letting you step away.” The aelfling looked at me. I nodded.

Howell’s fingers slowly uncurled from the hilt. He took a step back. A flick of the wrist and his foil flipped away to clatter against the stones of the quadrangle. He glared at me. I slipped my sword back into its scabbard, nodded towards the aelfling, and walked away.

“Myrrdin! Leave be!”

I’d heard behind me Howell’s quick steps towards his foil. My sword hilt was still in hand, hidden under the cloak. I kept walking, not looking back until after rounding a corner, when I turned to see that no one was following.

* * *

I stopped in again for a brief talk with Solon about a clause in the Code Duello, then made a quick trip to the medical studies wing to speak with one of the anatomy instructors. The noon bell was tolling when I climbed back into my waiting cab and left the grounds of Sumner behind me.

Things had fallen together now. Howell’s challenge of Baird was just the latest and last easy victory he needed for acceptance into a new dueling club. A club which seemed to have Folk influence, if the presence of an aelfling laird among Howell’s clique was any indication. I was pretty sure the aelfling was at least Folk nobility, though likely not of the First Family.

Which both explained Talmid’s reading and raised another question. Why was he involved? Most people are fascinated by anything to do with the Folk. Bards and the like find them enchanting. Me, when I think of dealings with the Folk, the expression “count your fingers after shaking hands” springs to mind.

I’ve handled a few cases involving the Folk, directly and indirectly, over the years. They can keep their word to the letter of the law, if they choose, which has meant misery for those who’ve crossed them. They can also be generous to an extreme fault, when the mood strikes, to those few they favor. But that kind of rewarding relationship always carries a price.

The Folk are alien, sly, deceptive, and inhuman. And those are their good points. But I could be prejudiced.

None of which mattered in the end. Whatever reason this particular aelfling had for involving himself in human affairs, my concern was with keeping my client’s love from getting himself skewered on the field of honor. I had an idea how to do so and also see to it that one Myrddin Anthony Howell didn’t stick him from behind later.

Back at the office, I caught up on paperwork until evening, when I took a cab back to the Darrow district and the Shield and Dragon. Miss Darmid was there, working the tables. Oscar was behind the bar, filling tankards. No sign of Jimmy.

I settled myself down on a bar stool. Oscar came over with an already full tankard. I thanked him, laid down a couple of coins, and asked if I could talk to him and Miss Darmid for a bit. Drink orders kept them both busy for a while but when a lull finally came, they joined me at the bar.

Miss Darmid said that Jimmy was home at his lodgings with the beginnings of what looked like a murderous head cold. She’d gone with the soup like I’d suggested, and thanked me for the message I’d left, but it seemed Jimmy was still determined to show up, coughing and sneezing if needs be, at Ilford Downs tomorrow at dawn.

“I can’t stop a duel from happening,” I said and bulled on before she could argue the point. “I wouldn’t, even if I thought I could, which I can’t. Howell’s not the sort who likes being cheated of his ‘fun’ and he might take out his frustration on Jimmy some other way later.”

That stopped her. Oscar rested his folded arms on top of the bar. “So what can you do?” he demanded.

I looked him in the eye. “Like I said, I can’t stop a duel from taking place. There will be ‘a duel’ at Ilford Downs tomorrow at dawn. Just maybe not the duel that Howell has in mind. I have an idea. What I need you two to do is to be at Ilford Downs tomorrow with Jimmy.”

Miss Darmid shook her head. “I’ve already tried talking to him but Jimmy won’t listen, he—”

“I’m not asking you to persuade him to give up the idea of dueling. Just be there and be ready to act on my lead. That’s all I can tell you.”

She frowned then nodded. “All right. I’ll be there.”

Oscar nodded too. “And me. Like another chance at them pukes.”

I smiled. “If things go the way I hope, I’m the only one who’ll be doing any fighting. What I want you there for is to look after Miss Darmid and Jimmy.”

One meaty hand closed over a fist with a loud cracking of knuckles. “If aught goes wrong—”

“If something goes wrong,” I said, pointing a finger, “you get them out of there.”

Oscar looked for a moment as if he now wanted to argue the point with me. Then he nodded. “Right.”

* * *

The false dawn had long faded and the twilight was just beginning to lighten with the true dawn as I crossed over the fairy bridge at Ilford Downs. Wisps of morning mist drifted along the surface of the creek. The cloudless sky promised a scorching early summer’s day by noontime.

They were all gathered at the lower end of the dueling ground, near the birches. My client, her betrothed, and Oscar stood with their backs to me as I quickmarched down towards them. Howell and the aelfling, along with several humans and a few more of the Folk, stood a few paces away. Between the two groups stood the Proper Witness, a middle-aged ex-duelist, draped in his gold-edged white cloak with its gold-stitched scales of justice monogram on the left shoulder. A young woman, wearing the white cloak with black trim of a Recorder, stood to the side and a bit behind the Witness. She held a writing slate with a parchment scroll fastened to it and an inkhorn/quill combination hung from her belt.

The Recorder noticed my arrival first and brought me to the Witness’ attention. He frowned and said something that got everyone else’s attention. Howell and his bunch watched me making my way down the slope. Howell was surprised to see me again. Not the aelfling, though, it seemed.

Jimmy, Miss Darmid, and Oscar had to turn around to see me. Miss Darmid looked relieved and hopeful. Oscar nodded. Jimmy had a puzzled look. Maybe he recognized me, maybe not. I passed by them and presented myself to the Witness.

He glanced at my plaque and handed it over to the Recorder. “Have you some interest in these proceedings, Master Jude?” His tone implied that I had better have good reason to be there.

“Miss Darmid, the lady whose honor is the reason for the duel, is my client. I am here on her behalf.”

Jimmy gave a start, then marched forward, both hands clenched, Oscar’s scabbarded sword slapping at his side. “I don’t need anyone to fight in my place, I—” A sudden, explosive sneeze interrupted him.

I held up a hand. “I am here on my client’s behalf,” I said, “not to prevent any duel from taking place. If Master Baird wishes to go ahead with the challenge, then that is his concern.”

The Witness pursed his lips, then nodded. “Be it so. Make a note of the late addition to the plaintiff’s side, Belinda,” he said to the Recorder. “Present: Ashur Jude, duelist-at-law, for client, Colene Darmid, subject of the duel.”

“Please also note,” I said, as the Recorder scribbled on her parchment, “that Master Baird has expressed his refusal to the use of a second.”

The Witness nodded. “Right. So noted. Well then, Master Jude, if you would please take your place over there with the rest of Master Baird’s party, we can continue.”

Baird beat me to the others. “What is this all about, Colene?” he demanded, jerking a thumb in my direction. “Who is he?” His severe look was ruined by the twisting of his nose as he tried to hold back another sneeze.

“Gentlemen,” announced the Witness, “the dawn is almost upon us. Take your places, please.”

Howell stepped forward, smirking. The smirk died when he glanced my way. Likely he remembered our encounter yesterday and wondered what my being here meant. Jimmy began to step towards Howell and the Witness—until I grabbed his shoulder.

“One thing, Master Baird.” In a voice loud enough for all to hear, I asked, “Do you love the lady?”

He stared at me. “Of course I love her.” He twisted out from under my hand, hitched the sword hilt around, and wiped at his nose. “It’s why I’m here,” he said, turning away.

“That’s all I wanted to hear,” I said. Before he could take another step, my right arm wrapped around his throat. My fist took a tight grip on his collar. My left arm came up and settled like a bar across the back of his neck to finish the choke hold.

He struggled for a moment but my right bicep and forearm muscles already had his carotids squeezed shut. His eyes rolled up and he sagged. I broke the choke off and eased him down onto the grass. I checked his neck pulse. Good and strong and his breathing was fine. Miss Darmid took my place beside Jimmy as I stood up.

“Master Jude, what reason do you have for interfering in a sanctioned duel?” The Witness was livid. Understandable. First I’d dropped in, unexpected, on a scheduled duel and now I had just put one of the combatants to sleep.

I glanced back. Oscar had taken his sword out of its scabbard on Jimmy’s belt. Holding it at port arms, he stood on the other side of the unconscious student bard. He nodded to me.

Satisfied that my client and her fiancé were in good hands, I turned to face the Witness. “The young man,” I said, indicating Jimmy, “is unable to continue despite having expressed his intention to do so, which is part of the official record.”

“Because you knocked him out!” cried Howell, starting to charge forward. He stopped when my right hand slipped beneath my cloak.

The Witness frowned, whether at my behavior or at Howell’s interruption was a toss-up. Probably both. “Your actions, Master Jude,” the Witness intoned, “have interfered with the plaintiff’s ability to continue.”

“The Code Duello,” I replied in my best courtroom manner, “does not distinguish between any reasonable excuse resulting in a combatant’s inability to engage in a duel, whether the reason be due to illness, injury, misfortune, or even inadvertent death, so long as the occurrence takes place before the scheduled combat begins. Case law defines the beginning of a duel as the moment when the combatants begin an actual exchange of blows, which, in the case of swords, is when the blades first come into contact.

“I am acting on behalf of my client, Miss Darmid, which may thus be considered an act of misfortune as far as Master Baird’s intentions were towards fulfilling his part of the dueling contract. He had stated more than once, prior to this day, his honest intent to fight the match himself and, as you will have noted, had appeared as arranged with the purpose of doing so, even though he was not in the best health at the time. Therefore he cannot be found at fault if he is now unable to carry on for some other reason.”

Howell opened his mouth to argue, but then the aelfling stepped past him with a hand raised. “Is there to be no duel, then?” he asked, looking at me even though his question was directed to the Witness.

Before the Witness could reply, I answered. “There is still the matter of the honor of Miss Darmid,” I said, “the subject of the duel as stated in the official record. Inasmuch as Master Baird, the challenger, is unable to continue to act on her behalf in this matter, she is entitled, under Article E of the Code Duello, to choose for herself a champion to fight for her.”

The Witness pursed his lips as he considered my argument, then nodded.

“Be it so. Miss Darmid,” he said, turning to where my client knelt beside a still-unconscious Jimmy, “do you wish to choose a champion?”

She had been listening while I argued. At the Witness’ question, she looked at me. I nodded.

“Yes,” she answered. “I do. I choose Ashur Jude.”

“Now wait just a moment—” Howell began, but stopped when the aelfling again raised a hand. The other murmured something to the young rakehell, who looked like he wanted to argue, but didn’t at a shake of his patron’s head.

“Very well,” said the Witness, motioning towards us. “Belinda, make a note of the changes to the combatants’ list. Gentlemen, to your stations.”

Howell resumed his place with noticeable reluctance. I took a moment to unclasp my cloak and let it drop behind me. My second-best rapier wobbled a bit in its bandolier until I settled it with my left hand. I checked with my right to make sure my dagger was loose in its sheath for a quick draw, then stepped forward to stand at the Witness’ left hand, facing Howell.

The Witness glanced at each of us in turn. “There remains the conditions of victory to be decided,” he said.

I spoke before Howell could say anything. “Inasmuch as this is now a matter between a lady’s champion and her accuser, the settling of the victory conditions belongs to the plaintiff. Miss Darmid is within her rights to demand death as the condition.” Howell became noticeably paler. “However, I am confident my client will settle for first blood as a signal to end the duel.”

The Witness looked at Miss Darmid. She nodded and he instructed the Recorder to note the agreed-upon victory condition. He had us present our swords for examination. Satisfied that the blades were clean, he gave us the final, traditional instruction to conduct ourselves with honor and courtesy, then stepped back. His arm lifted up, then dropped.

Howell rushed forward, perhaps thinking to catch me off-guard. He hadn’t learned much from our encounter yesterday. My dagger caught his blade close to the hilt in a sweeping parry as I took a half-circling step to his left. My rapier stood en garde but I made no attempt to take advantage of such an easy opening.

I would have had first blood, true, but ending the duel was not my sole aim. No, I wanted to put an end to this young turk’s dreams of membership in an exclusive club at the cost of others’ lives. But not by killing him. His own family or even his friends, if he had any real ones and if they truly cared, might feel obliged to avenge his death. On me, if they could, or on young Jimmy and Miss Darmid as alternatives. The two of them could also be Howell’s targets at some later moment if I defeated him now without somehow putting the fear of me into him.

A thrust. His blade screeched half its length along steel before my rapier flicked it off. We circled. He feinted, half-jabs in full retreat before they barely began their charge. I replied, at need, with block and parry.

If I had my way, Howell would be an object lesson for any other would-be hellraisers, be they human or Folk. Especially Folk. Giving him a mere scratch would do nothing for my purpose. What I needed was a blow that would finish him as a would-be duelist but without killing him or allowing him to justify future vengeance.

That meant my having to wait for the right moment, the perfect opening in which to strike. A single drop of blood, his or mine, would be grounds for calling an end to the duel and allowing him to escape me. Howell was bound by no such limitations.

Steel clashed against steel. Howell grimaced at me over our crossed blades. We broke off. I dodged another clumsy thrust, rapier and dagger held low to ward against a possible backslash. We circled, Howell now grinning behind his upraised sword. Thinking how much better a bladesman he must be to have survived this long. Maybe even starting to believe he might best me.

Circling left now, I let my rapier point drop a bit. Howell thrust. My rapier batted his sword away. Still circling left. My rapier dropped again. Again the thrust. Again my slim blade parried his heavier steel. Not quite so hard this time. We circled. The rapier tip sank—

Now!

“Hah!” shouted Howell as he thrust home. His cry of triumph changed to a shriek of pain even as my rapier twisted around, up and over, pushing his sword down, its tip stabbing the ground. My dagger rose up, its edge crimson. A stream of blood welled up and out of the long, deep cut across the inside of Howell’s forearm. His sword arm’s forearm.

“First blood!” cried the Proper Witness. “The duel is over!”

Kneeling where he had collapsed onto the ground, Howell held his sword arm clasped tight against his chest. He watched the blood stream out from between his fingers, soaking the fine silk of his shirt.

From a neutral position, I watched as a couple of the humans in the aelfling‘s entourage, friends of Howell’s, perhaps, bandaged his sliced forearm. I turned and caught Oscar’s eye. “Take Miss Darmid and Jimmy home. Now. I’ll handle the rest of things.”

Oscar didn’t argue. He just nodded and began leading the other two away from the dueling ground. Jimmy had regained consciousness but was still wobbly in the legs. Oscar and Miss Darmid supported him as they walked up the slope towards the path.

The Recorder presented me with the dueling record to sign while the Proper Witness watched. The aelfling approached just as I finished. He waited until Witness and Recorder had both left to join the little group of humans around Howell.

“A most excellent demonstration,” the aelfling remarked. “You merit congratulations.” He gestured towards Howell who, with some supporting hands, was staggering to his feet.

“There will be no reprisals against either Miss Darmid or Master Baird,” I said.

His head inclined in a slight nod. “Of course not.” A faint smile ghosted across pale lips. “It would not be proper.”

Having bestowed that assurance, the aelfling laird sketched a bow before rejoining his fellow Folk where they stood apart from all others. They turned towards the woods, vanishing into a patch of mist drifting off of the creek.

* * *

Between the aelfling‘s guarantee and the cut I’d given Howell, I had no worries about further trouble from Howell. A good chirurgeon would be able to stitch up the flexor muscles well enough to let him write with his hand or use a fork. But those muscles would never have strength enough to let him grip a sword again. If he wanted to continue duping victims into duels, he’d have to learn to fight using his left hand.

As for the aelfling, I still had no clear idea what purpose he’d had in becoming involved in human affairs among Sumner’s rakehells. I suspected the Group of Seven club, with its murderous entry requirements, was a result of his or some other member of the Folk’s influence. For what reason I don’t know. Maybe it was just a passing amusement. A letter in the post from Solon later mentioned that the club’s blood-red monogram had become less noticeable around the campus. At least for now.

Monday morning Miss Darmid and Master Baird came into my office to settle her account. He apologized to me for his “churlish rudeness” at the Downs. I apologized to him for the sleeper hold.

They insisted on paying me something. I murmured how it had been a long time since I’d enjoyed attending anybody’s wedding.

Which is how I came to spend the next Saturday helping Oscar usher guests to their pews inside the Church of St. Stephen the Martyr, on the occasion of the wedding of one Miss Colene Darmid and one Master James Baird. After which, at the reception, I collected the remainder of my fee when I took my turn at kissing the beaming bride.


Gregg Chamberlain is a community newspaper reporter, four decades in the trade, and soon-to-be-retired (he hopes). He and his missus, Anne, live in rural Canada with their clowder of cats, who allow the humans to believe they rule the household. A long-time fan of speculative fiction and mystery, he now enjoys an active fiction-writing life, with about four dozen credits, ranging from microfic to novelette, in venues including Daily Science Fiction, Apex, Weirdbook, and Pulp Literature magazines, and various original anthologies. “This Sword for Hire” is the debut of Gregg’s Ashur Jude stories. It is his slipstream tribute to the hardboiled detective genre of Raymond Chandler, Sara Paretsky, and others, and also honors a friend who has since passed over to the Grand Dueling Quad.

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