Authors: Eric Van Lustbader
He had never given much thought to the art one way or another, he was a Student because he had been told to be a Student, therefore he was at best mediocre. Often his mind would wander and his opponent would easily disarm him. This never appeared to bother him, but for the Instructor it was a different matter entirely. Ronin’s indifference infuriated him, and it would not be uncommon for the Student to bear the brunt of his wrath in front of the assembled Class.
During one practice, Ronin observed a heavy man, almost gross-looking, stride easily into the Hall. ‘Students,’ called the Instructor, and the sounds of iron striking iron ceased immediately. He turned to the newcomer, and with a flourish of his hand introduced him. ‘Students, the Salamander.’ There was a buzz of excited whispering amongst the boys, which the Instructor contrived to ignore. ‘As you know—’ He waited impatiently for silence. ‘As you know, the Salamander is the Sensii of Arms of the Freehold. He is here to observe your progress.’ There was more whispering, and the Instructor was forced to cover another pause by clearing his throat. He looked sternly around the Hall. ‘
of you may be lucky enough to be chosen to study with the Salamander himself.’
Ronin was aware of the undercurrent of envy that ran now through the Instructor’s voice, and he turned to look at the Salamander, but his face, with its heavy jowls, oddly high cheekbones and glossy black eyes, remained impassive. At this moment, the Salamander raised one hand, encrusted with flashing jewels, and in a rich, slightly nasal voice said, ‘Pray continue your practising, boys; do let me see what you are made of.’
‘Come, come, Students,’ called the Instructor nervously, clapping his hands, ‘on with it now.’ Almost as one, they turned each to his partner, and once again the walls rang with the clash of metal.
Out of the corner of his eye, Ronin tried as best he could to keep the Salamander in sight as he commenced his round of the Hall, the Instructor a pace behind him.
‘Listen, you,’ growled his practice partner, a huge, brutish Student of mean temperament, ‘it was just my ill fortune to be paired with you this Cycle.’ He grunted as he swung his sword in a vicious arc at Ronin’s stomach. Ronin stepped back, took the brunt of the blow on the edge of his own blade, the force turning it, and there was a sharp scraping sound. A shiver raced up his arm and his fingers went momentarily numb.
‘But you will give me a good fight,’ the Student said menacingly, ‘when the Salamander comes our way. I have been waiting—unngh!’ he grunted again as he swung, ‘for this chance for a long time.’
Ronin, who had been thinking also of the Salamander, said, ‘Korlik, is that his real name?’
Korlik snorted, as close to a laugh as he could come. ‘Fool!—unhg!—no one knows.’ The blade came whistling at him once again. ‘Why don’t you ask him—unngh!—when he passes by?’ Ronin continued to defend himself against Korlik’s pressing attack.
‘Haw!—ungh!—I will tell why you won’t—unngh!—because you are going to be flat on your back, looking at the bottom—ungh!—of my boot. I mean for him to see me and—uhnn!—take me Upshaft. Understand?’
But Ronin’s attention was focused on the approaching figure of the Salamander; only part of himself was given over to the automatic defence of his person. The Sensii was a mountain of flesh garbed in cloth of jet and crimson. How much was muscle, he wondered. And what of his reflexes? His weight must be enormous. Still, he was the Sensii. The Master of Combat.
Korlik growled at him. ‘He is coming this way. Chill take you, have you heard what I said?—unhg! Put on a good show, Ronin, I’m warning you—uhnn!’
The two figures were almost abreast of them as Ronin turned his full attention to the Combat. ‘Show?’ he said. ‘There will be no show. Not for you, not for the Salamander.’
Cursing, Korlik bore down upon him and, seeing the Salamander and the Instructor reach them, began to hammer Ronin with blows.
‘Now this one, Sensii,’ said the Instructor obsequiously, ‘is Korlik. Big and strong and he shows fine potential. Unfortunately, he is paired this practice with an inferior Stu—’
‘Pray cease,’ said the Salamander, lifting a jewelled hand, ‘your useless chatter. Do not presume to make judgements for me.’ Ronin was pleased to see the Instructor’s eyes bulge in his narrow face and his tongue working in his open mouth as he fought to control himself.
During this time Korlik had not lessened his attack upon Ronin, who neither put up a concerted defence in any of the prescribed ways nor counterattacked. He preferred to move, using his own blade only when absolutely necessary to turn aside his opponent’s sword.
The Instructor, seeing potential disaster for himself in Ronin’s refusal to conform to the lessons, made noises for the Salamander to move on. But the Sensii graced him with a momentary glance, frosty and disdainful, and he was silenced.
‘Boys,’ the Salamander said, ‘desist for the moment.’ Korlik, sweat rolling down his arms, soaking his shirt, dropped his sword with great reluctance and glowered at Ronin.
The Salamander stroked the end of his long nose between thumb and forefinger, his dark eyes fixed on Ronin. ‘And what is your name, dear boy?’
,’ corrected the Instructor.
The Salamander’s eyes rolled up briefly towards the ceiling. ‘Kindly be good enough to take your person across the Hall so that I will not be obliged to suffer your presence.’ He said it with a sighing exhalation of breath, not at all forcefully, Ronin thought. Nevertheless, the Instructor stalked off without another word, the muscles at the sides of his jaw working spasmodically.
Around them, the din of practice continued unabated, crashing off the walls and echoing back upon the ear. The acrid stench of sweat and fear hung in the vast Hall, staining the air.
‘Sensii,’ said Korlik. ‘I have waited for this time, working long and hard in the hope that I would please you. It is my greatest wish to be taught by you.’
The eyes of the Salamander, black and hard as chips of stone, turned upon Korlik. ‘My boy,’ he drawled, ‘only the most
Students, those who exhibit extraordinary merit, work with me.’ The eyes flicked up and down his body. ‘Rest assured that you are not one of those. Now pray be still.’ Korlik strangled a gasp and ground his teeth in fury, but he remained silent.
The Salamander turned to Ronin and said as if they were in a room alone, ‘Tell me why you do Combat in such a manner.’
He wondered what the Salamander wanted; wondered what sort of answer would be best to give. In the end, he told the truth. ‘Combat bores me,’ he said evenly.
‘Then why do you bother with it?’
‘I do it because I have to.’
The Salamander rubbed his nose again, the rings on his fingers catching the light. ‘Hmm, yes, I suppose you do.’ Abruptly he said: ‘You think of other matters.’
‘Sir?’ He was startled.
‘When you do Combat,’ the Salamander expounded patiently, as if explaining an obvious fact to a child, ‘your mind is thinking of other things.’
‘Why, yes,’ he replied, somewhat surprised. ‘Yes, my mind is often elsewhere when I fight.’
‘Please.’ A pained expression muddied his features momentarily. ‘To do Combat is
to “fight”, dear boy. “Fighting” is done by animals. Combat is a ritualistic art performed by civilized men.’
‘I never gave it much thought,’ Ronin said snidely. Because he was growing interested in spite of himself and this perplexed him.
The Salamander was not at all ruffled. ‘Ah well, motivation is everything, dear boy. You have natural ability, as any halfwit can see. But motivation—ah!—now that is another matter entirely. What can we do to elicit your interest, hmm? We shall have to attend to that.’ So saying, he retreated a pace. His long sword hung at his side, encased in its ornate jet-and-scarlet-lacquered scabbard. ‘Yes, we must work on that. Defend yourself, dear boy.’
His hand went not to the hilt of his sword but to the folds of his wide scarlet sash, producing a burnished-metal fan. Ronin could not believe his eyes, but still he put up his sword. The fan wove complex patterns in the air, opening and closing.
The Salamander’s attack was over almost before it had commenced, or so it seemed to Ronin. At its swift completion, he was left weaponless, the extended top edge of the fan a bright arc at his throat.
‘Hawhawhaw!’ Korlik bellowed at his humiliation, but Ronin’s thoughts were elsewhere, on the fan’s mysterious dances.
Observing the inwardness of Ronin’s colourless eyes, the Salamander smiled slightly. He folded the fan and replaced it within his sash. ‘Report to my Level in three Cycles’ time,’ he said briskly. ‘Do not bring any personal items.’
He turned on his heel and strode powerfully across the crowded Hall to advise the Instructor of the Students he had chosen, and disappeared down the Corridor in a swirl of jet and crimson, like some elegant and untouchable bird.
He reached the cool Corridor without passing anyone; visitors were rare this far Upshaft. The tan walls arched away from him clean and empty. Here the usual cement floor had been covered in resilient wood planking, enamelled a rich deep brown.
As he walked, the walls lightened until they had reached a cream colour, and he stopped in front of huge double doors with thickly carved panels along their edges. Heavy metal knockers in the likeness of a thin twisting lizard, needle tongue exposed, flames writhing at its feet, were hung in the centre of each door. Tiny ruby eyes glinted in the strong light of the Overheads. He stood in front of the doors and did not touch the knockers.
‘Yes?’ a flat filtered voice said from nowhere.
He did not stir: he knew the routine. He pronounced his name clearly.
There was nothing for a moment, then the disembodied voice said: ‘Former Student?’
A crackle. A brief hum.
‘Enter,’ the voice said.
It was large and gave the appearance of being light and airy and open without actually being so; no room in the Freehold could, by definition.
The deliberately rough-finished walls were painted a light blue, the ceiling a soft white. The planking on the floor was lacquered a deep lustrous blue. Low chairs were scattered about the front part of the room. The walls were devoid of any ornamentation. Double doors, the twins of the ones he had just come through, broke up the far wall.
He went across the room and stood in front of a desk that appeared to be very old. Behind it sat a woman with light wavy hair, and a face broad and flat enough to make it interesting. She wore a robe the same colour as the walls.
He looked into her disinterested grey eyes.
‘You wished—?’ The cool question hung in the air like a beaded curtain.
‘To see the Salamander’ he said.
‘Ah.’ She said it as if it were a word with meaning. She gazed at him and let the silence stretch itself like a yawn. Her small neat hands fluttered over the desktop, the lacquered nails glistening in the light.
Eventually she said, ‘I am afraid he is unavailable at the moment.’ There was no trace of regret in her voice.
‘Just give him my name, please.’
‘Perhaps if you returned during a later Spell.’
‘Have you given him my name? Have you told him that I am here?’
The nails scratched their way along the wood. ‘He is extremely busy and—’
He leaned over, captured her hands in his, pressed them down. She stared at them as if fascinated, and raised her eyes to his.
‘Tell him,’ he said softly.
‘Still—’ She continued to look at him, searching his face. Her tongue showed briefly between her white teeth like a coral snake.
He released her and she got up and went out through the doors behind her. She left a soft humming and a breeze wafting from a sudden source. Borne upon it was a gentle hint of cloves, and if he had not spent so much time on this Level, he would have supposed that it came from the woman.
She took her time coming back and when she emerged her grey eyes were round, as if she were a bit startled. She held one door open.
‘You may go in now,’ she said a little breathlessly.
Ronin smiled to himself and, as he passed her, he saw something moving in her eyes, an ambiguous emotion. She stared after him.
‘The last door on the right,’ she called as if it were an afterthought.
The hallway was painted the lightest blue imaginable over the same rough-textured base. The floor repeated the dark blue. He passed doors on either side at regular intervals.
It ended in a blank wall. Doors to right and left. He rapped with his knuckles. It opened.
The odour of cloves was sharper now. A young man stood in the doorway so that Ronin could not see beyond him. He wore close-fitting breeches and a shirt of a soft tan colour and short dark gleaming boots. He was slim and had unnaturally red cheeks, as if he had just spent a full Spell scrubbing his face. His lips were full and pink. His short curly blond hair shone. Over his heart he wore a jewel-hiked dagger in a scabbard of blood-red leather; another rode on his right hip. He had the appearance of never having done anything in his life.
He stared hard at Ronin and his lips parted slightly. They remained that way for a long moment and then, abruptly, he stood aside and Ronin entered.
It was darker than in the hallway and it took him a moment to adjust. He was in a huge room, panelled in wood. Thick carpets of dark swirling patterns covered the floor. One wall was lined from floor to ceiling with books. Functional leather chairs were grouped casually. A long plush couch was set against one half of the back wall. Open double doors with separate iron-grillwork gates took up the other half. The sounds of water flowing came to him and the scent of cloves came heavily to his nostrils.
There were many men in the room, all dressed, as far as Ronin could tell in the uncertain light, similarly to the man with the red cheeks. They contrived to ignore him with an affected languor.
‘Drink?’ the red-cheeked man asked, and when Ronin shook his head, he drifted off, looking rather pleased.
Ronin was very interested in the wall of books and he went over to look at them. He ran his fingertips along the rows of spines and thought of G’fand. They were all extremely old, of course, with worn leather bindings. Some, he saw, had required repairs. He opened one at random. The characters were unfamiliar and he tried another. Glyphs: still unreadable. Ah, G’fand, how you would revel in this: an entire world for you. Books! And all they had Downshaft were fragments. A sudden sadness gripped him.