Armsman Szabo weighed the various responsibilities of his position – specifically, young Richars Vorrutyer’s need of a good thrashing against his smaller cousin’s need for tea, a sympathetic witness, and some quick lessons in self-defense. The latter won out. He wasn’t sure it was more important, in the grand scheme of things, but it seemed more likely to make a difference, as well as less likely to bring down Count Vorrutyer’s wrath on a very junior armsman.
“I don’t like high places very much,” confided Byerly, once he had been settled in a corner of the kitchen. It was obvious that this was an understatement: he hadn’t cried at all, but he was visibly shaken.
“I would stay away from them in the future if I were you,” said Szabo.
He’d tried not to make his tone imply anything, but the boy looked up, all the same. He was an alarmingly perceptive child – also rather fussy, and oddly effeminate in his mannerisms. His own father, the Count’s youngest brother, seemed to regard him with a mixture of distaste and, more unusually, fear. Having heard certain ... hints ... from the senior armsmen, Szabo thought the fear was the legacy of another brother, the next-to-oldest, who had been killed during the Escobar War. He also thought it was patently misplaced. Richars was the one they should all be afraid of.
“Do you want a pastry?”
“I’m not hungry.” This was an alarming symptom; usually, By would have been trying to scam as many pastries as possible.
“Do you want to know what to do next time you’ve got to fight someone much bigger than you?”
“Right. The first thing you’ve got to understand is that the biggest advantage you have has to do with centers of gravity. He’s got to lean over to get at you, and that makes him unstable. What you need to do is catch him while he’s off balance, and hit low.”
“Kick him in the balls, you mean?” asked By, in such a surpassingly sweet child-voice that Szabo did a double take, and noticed there was a wicked gleam in the long-lashed brown eyes. Good, he was starting to recover. Szabo moved the plate of pastries a little closer.
“Actually, no. He’ll be expecting that, and he’ll defend against it. Go for the knees instead. It’ll catch him by surprise, and you can do enough damage with a good kick there to slow him down. Then run. Toward any place where other people are, not anywhere he can corner you. He’s stronger than you are, and you’re not going to be able to take him on if you stay in one place and have it out with him, but you can be faster than he is. Got all that?”
“Yes.” Still not touching the pastries.
“Is there something else I ought to know?”
Byerly took a sip of tea. “Richars told you he was just playing around,” he said, “but it isn’t true. It was an attempted defenestration.”
Under other circumstances, those words would sound comic coming from a smallish eleven-year-old. Szabo did not feel inclined to laugh.
The child’s eyes widened. “You believe me, don’t you?”
This was not the first time Szabo had heard those words from one of the young Vorrutyers. They always responded with wonder and relief when they were believed.
Byerly bit into a pastry, chewed, and swallowed. “The part that I don’t understand,” he said meditatively, “is why Richars wants to defenestrate me. He’s hated me ever since I called him a liar one time, but nobody listened to me except my sister, so he can’t want to kill me just for that...”
I’m listening, Szabo thought, and then, with a small chill of fear, he wondered if things would get worse for the child once Richars noticed there was an adult listening.
“... And his da is older than mine. Doesn’t he know about primogeniture?” He pronounced the last word carefully, but correctly.
Szabo drew in his breath. He had made the same calculation, but it was heartbreaking to hear an eleven-year-old make it, especially in such an utterly matter-of-fact voice.
“Of course, he could have just been using me for practice,” the boy went on in a tone that suggested this was a normal and sufficient motive for Richars, “but I don’t think he would be able to defenestrate Uncle Charles, or Pierre. They’re corpulent.” He caught Szabo’s eye, and smiled. Szabo forced himself to smile back.
Szabo thought hard before he said anything, but – it would be better if the boy understood Richars’s motivations. He was old enough, and all too clearly bright enough to have gotten most of the way there already. “I’ll give you a hint. First of all, primogeniture isn’t everything. Sometimes the Count’s choice matters more, particularly if he has no sons of his own. Now, what else do you know about your cousin Pierre?”
“He doesn’t like people very much,” said Byerly, now sufficiently recovered from his experience to talk as much as usual, “so he stays in his room most of the time and doesn’t go out, and he’s slovenly, and he never opens the windows, and he doesn’t take a shower or change his underwear often enough. Whenever he does change his clothes, he throws the old ones on the floor, and I found mice nesting in them one time. The mother mouse ate a hole in one of his shirts, and he put it right back on without even washing it. And he was supposed to marry Lord Vorholland’s sister, only now he isn’t, and ever since that happened, he likes people even less. And now Uncle Charles wants Donna to marry Lord Vorholland instead after she finishes school, even though she doesn’t want to, and I don't think it's right to make her...”
Szabo was about to interrupt, torn between amusement at just how much gossip the child had absorbed and the impulse to steer him back toward the relevant point –
“... which means Uncle Charles has given up on Pierre.”
Oh. Szabo realized, abruptly, how very precise a picture of Pierre’s matrimonial prospects had emerged from this seemingly random assortment of details.
“Also, he’s sick, isn’t he? He lies down an awful lot.”
“Your uncle the Count, or Pierre?”
“Everyone knows Uncle Charles is sick. I meant Pierre.”
“Very good.” Scarily good. “What else have you noticed about Pierre?”
“He really hates Richars and his brothers, so they’re not allowed in his room at all. He doesn’t mind me so much because I’m not boisterous, except he thinks I talk too much.” Byerly reached for another pastry, having already eaten more than he would ordinarily have been allowed before dinner. He looked up, with a glint of normal-little-boy mischief, and added, slyly, “I could try talking a lot more around Pierre, and being really obnoxious, and I could make sure Richars sees him get mad at me. Do you think that would be a good plan?”
“It’s an excellent plan. I have full confidence in your ability to make yourself obnoxious.”
The boy grinned and absconded with yet another pastry. Szabo went back to his lonely duty of watching.