It was cold in Riverside, as it was always cold there, and vicious breezes snaked down the side alleys, searching for unsuspecting citizens with open cuffs and lacings for it to crawl up inside and slither whisperingly through. Richard, on his way home, heard three separate groups of muggers swear and call the night off, and when he kicked open the door to his rooms, one of those breezes slipped inside to deposit a flurry of snowflakes onto the staircase. Not that there was much snow in the air; but what was on the ground had chosen today to travel. Richard blinked the snow off his eyelashes and considered how pleased Alec would be to see he’d brought fresh wood home with him. He’d probably be curled up in bed with all their blankets wrapped around him, one clever tunnel left to turn the pages of his book, and he’d glare at Richard for letting a draught in.
When he clomped up the stairs, stomping his feet to knock the snow loose, Alec was standing in the front room with his cloak pulled around him, and not even hovering by the fire. He looked peevish, but he held off from haranguing Richard long enough to ask, with drawling interest, “Did you kill anyone yet?”
“Not tonight,” Richard said.
“Well, there’s still time. Why did you get so many pesky splinters in your cloak? Did you forget we’re going out tonight?”
“It comes of carrying wood,” said Richard, setting his burden down by the fire. “And I didn’t forget. You never told me.”
“I’m telling you now.”
“Then you can hardly expect me to have remembered,” said Richard, and Alec came close to pluck the splinters from the wool.
“I’ll just have to pick you clean myself,” he said.
“We could stay in,” said Richard, sliding his hands down Alec’s forearms.
Alec huffed. “No. I’ve been looking forward to this for weeks.”
“Really? You should have told me sooner. I could have been looking forward to it myself.”
“It’s better this way,” said Alec. “Come on, we’re going out.”
Richard reluctantly followed him back into the cold, and watched affectionately as Alec recoiled from it and led him swearing through the night. He walked half a pace behind, flanked him really, because it emphasized that he was guarding Alec, and because this way people saw Alec first when he went somewhere. Alec liked watching them see him and look for St Vier, and Richard liked watching Alec.
The theater they went to had probably been someone’s drawing room once, or a private playhouse where nobles long since dead had entertained each other with amateur theatrics. Now that it was in Riverside the theatrics remained, with an entirely different definition of amateur. Alec took them up the stairs and paid their entrance with a few bits that Richard hadn’t yet been diligent enough to squander, while Richard stood and stared at the theater entrance, which had been done up in swathes of bright organza meant to wave dramatically. In the winter flurries, they just looked cold.
“Alec,” Richard said, “why have you taken me to a tuppeny fortune teller?”
“Don’t you want to know the future?” Alec asked.
“I know the future. Anyone could tell me my future. It doesn’t matter.”
“But not everyone,” said Alec, with a grand gesture that swept aside the filmy curtains, “can do it with knives.”
It was an anticlimactic reveal. This was Riverside, not the Hill, and they’d spent the best drapes on the entrance; inside, they had made do with older cloths that looked like they had been gathered from thinning bedspreads. It remained an impressive feat of organization; Richard did not know where he would have found so many bedspreads. Perhaps they had inquired at Glinley’s.
Alec was looking about appreciatively, in the same way a gem merchant would have appreciated every jewel in a museum. Richard took a step deeper into the room to remind him they had seats to find amid the gathering crowd. When he found the seats - backs to the wall, thoughtful of Alec - Richard’s had quilting over it. Alec opened his mouth.
“What do they do with the knives?” Richard asked quickly.
“I don’t know. What do people normally do with knives?” Alec returned, and then relented. “It’s more of a show than a reading. They were up by the University earlier, but I thought it would be more fun to see them here.”
He had some sort of plan. Richard sat back and waited for it to unfold.
“Do you think they’re normal knives?” Alec asked. Richard looked at him. “Well, do you? Or are they all carved with occult symbols?” He waggled his fingers.
“I hope not,” said Richard. “It would ruin the grip.”
“What if they were throwing knives?” asked Alec. He had, despite himself, managed to learn there was a difference between fighting knives and throwing knives, if only because he could not use the latter to toast cheese.
“Then it would throw off the balance,” said Richard.
“What about paint?” Alec suggested. “Or gilt?”
Richard did not answer. He thought they were starting.
Their patter was quite good, but not as good as the plays Alec kept taking him to. And it lacked the flavor of Riverside in some way that Richard couldn’t quite place - was it the speed of the consonants? Or the lyricism that was lost in knowing no one was going to try to kill you?
“And in addition to diviners trained in the ancient arts, we have this evening - knives blessed by the king himself! Preserved in secret hideaways, revealed now for your contentment: blades bound by the king and his wizards to bring messages in blood from the future to the present. Witness!”
They had a slip of a boy to carry the case around the stage. It was a nice box. Richard couldn’t tell the balance of the knives from where they were sitting.
“Didn’t I see one of those at the Old Market just yesterday?” Alec asked.
“Which one?” Richard replied, but the knives and their scowling bearer were gone already.
The patter-man carried on telling them in no certain terms exactly how blessed the knives were while a wheel was carefully erected directly in front of Richard and Alec. Alec leaned forward to read the front, but he did not seem inclined to share what he found there, so Richard contented himself with watching the fortune tellers check that their burden was sufficiently secured.
Richard nudged Alec. “What are they going to do with that?” he asked, gesturing to the wheel. “It looks un-wheel-dy.”
Alec glanced at him, and recognized that Richard was up to something, recognized the pun, and backpedaled furiously trying not to show that he’d noticed anything at all. His condescension was slightly strangled as he said, “I think they’re going to throw knives at it. Did you miss that part?”
“I wasn’t paying attention,” Richard admitted. “How does the wheel help?”
“It’s supposed to make things random,” said Alec scathingly. “Oh, sorry, I meant ‘put them in the hands of fate.’ Of course, if you know the angular velocity of the wheel and the force on the knife, you could calculate where it will land.”
“Or if you just throw it right,” said Richard. He was not surprised that it was rigged. He just liked knowing how. “Why is everyone raising their hands?”
“I don’t know, I was talking to you,” said Alec, which was how they lost their chance to volunteer. The patter-man called up a boy just a few years older than Nimble Willie and asked him if he knew how to throw a knife.
“Why did everyone just laugh?” Alec asked. Richard smiled.
“That’s Sharp Ollie,” he said. “He’s the reigning champion at mumblety-peg. It’s a knife-throwing game.”
“I knew that,” said Alec, who had forgotten.
“Step right up here, young Oliver,” said the patter-man, who had gotten the boy’s name while they were talking, “and state your question good and loud so everyone can hear.”
Sharp Ollie blushed to the tip of his nose, but he said clearly enough, if in a thick Riverside accent, “Does Marta love me?”
“We have a lover!” cried the patter-man, which did not help stem the spread of Sharp Ollie’s blush at all. He ducked his head and rubbed a hand across his nose to hide his face, but it only lasted a moment. “All right, Oliver, you see that wheel? My comrades are going to set it spinning, and you take your time and throw when you’re ready. Can you read?”
“Well, then what you need to know is that that green box says yes on it, and that’s the one you’re hoping for. Are you ready?”
“All right, then.” The patter-man turned back to the audience. “Give young Oliver some encouragement!”
There was a chorus of applause, and one deep-voiced cry of, “Give ‘im the twenty-three, Ollie!”
Ollie made a rude gesture at the speaker and turned to the wheel. The patter-man nodded to his confederate, who gave the wheel a gentle spin and then ducked quickly behind it. Ollie leaned back and stuck his tongue out with concentration.
“He’s not half trying,” said Alec.
“He’s putting on a show. He’s been fleecing over the Bridge for the past two weeks,” said Richard. He liked to know who knew how to use a knife.
Sharp Ollie snapped upright, abruptly looking much more professional, and the knife whizzed across the stage, smacking firmly into the green square. The patter-man yelled congratulations to Ollie and moved to shake his hand, gesturing to the audience for a cheer.
“Best two out of three?” the boy asked, refusing the patter-man’s hand, and Alec began to chuckle.
“It’s like sheep shearing the shepherds,” he said, and together they watched the boy get a hat trick in the little green box. The patter-man called for another volunteer. “At least he had the sense not to bet on it. You should volunteer, Richard,” he said suddenly.
“You could get me one of those knives.”
“They’re nothing special,” said Richard. “I’ve got better ones at home.”
“But these were blessed by the king,” said Alec. “And they’ve got such good aim. Look, this one hit the ‘yes’ too.”
“They’re starting to spin the wheel faster,” said Richard.
“The gods are spinning it faster,” Alec corrected severely, neglecting to mention which gods. “How long are you going to wait before you take a turn?”
Richard shook his head. Alec kept prodding him, but Richard continued to demur as the wheel spun faster and faster. At some point the patter-man realized he was not going to regain control of the act and cheerfully converted it to an honest competition, calling for volunteers to beat the last competitor until the audience began to grow wary of their ability to hit the mark and thereby avoid the jeers of their companions if they missed. The patter-man called a halt then, and Richard wondered whether it was because he had seen an opportunity to reclaim control of the situation, or if he was just ending the game before it stopped being fun.
“My thanks to everyone who came out to make this a vivid event tonight,” he said. “I think we can certainly say good things for young Oliver’s love life. But before the sun rises we do have one more event to get through: the most ancient and historic of macharomantic traditions - the Duel of Divining.”
He was saying something more about lost arts restored for their benefit, but Alec had leaned sideways to whisper in Richard’s ear, “Is he actually inviting Riverside toughs to attack him on stage?”
“There are probably rules,” said Richard.
“I’m sure,” said Alec, clearly not believing that rules would protect the poor sod.
Richard, who was listening closely, thought that there was one rule that would protect him, and that was that knife-dancers only fought each other. It was a noble and most ancient et cetera, practiced by commoners under the king, when there had even been a loose sort of structure to the affair, and one could get licensed as a knife-dancer. Well - a woman could. Under the king, men were never knife-dancers.
Richard tried to imagine what that was like, swordsmen and knife-dancers together, and heard Alec’s snicker in the back of his head. The real Alec listened to the whole speech waiting for the mockery of the Court of Honor to become evident, and was sarcastically disappointed. Richard listened to hear that the greatest rule for knife-dancing was that you couldn’t inflict anything deeper than a scratch, and the match was over at the first pause between the combatants. Richard wondered which one of them would be in charge and how she decided to administer that pause.
While they cleared the wheel off the stage and set up a bench for the Court of Hours to judge from, the patter-man invited questions from the audience to pose to the fates, and judged by the volume of cheers which answers would be fought over. The five knife-dancers stood on display behind him, mostly men, with exaggerated reverence for the old woman who had taught them the Old Ways and now led the Court of Hours. She was waited upon by the scowling knife-dancer who, with the added historical context, Richard was no longer certain was a beardless boy.
“Richard,” Alec drawled, “do you think they’ve noticed that you can’t divide five by two?”
Whether or not they had, they got the stage cleared and the patter-man flourished the names of the brave duelists who would fight to determine whether Sétana or Alcides would win in a fight. The crowd guffawed, two of the remaining knife-dancers joined the old woman in the Court of Hours, and the extra dancer brought forward a great black box. Richard leaned forward to see the knives revealed when the lid was flipped open, while Alec questioned whether the fifth dancer was just there to carry heavy things.
The knives looked quite ordinary, but were apparently even more blessed by the king than the previous set. The knife-dancers took their time choosing knives from the selection, one for each hand. One of them tried to sneak an extra into his boot, was scolded by the patter-man, and nearly had the box shut on his fingers by the extra knife-dancer, who whirled away with it afterward and stalked angrily across the stage. That was the one who had brought the chair for the old woman, Richard remembered, and in watching he missed the moment the knife-dancers shucked their capes and stood before an audience in clothes that fit tight as a corn husk from top to bottom. Lucie, who was sitting behind them, hummed appreciatively.
The knife fight was short, but not dirty. Richard was a little disappointed in it. The dancers moved around each other, flashed their blades showily, and then closed and stepped in a circling sort of choreography, blades clashing up and down, quick parries turned away. It was nice enough, but the novelty was in seeing a back alley brawl done under full illumination.
The moment they drew away from each other, the fight was over; the pause was supposed to mean the fates had finished speaking. The knife-dancers ambled over to the Court of Hours, one patting the other on the back companionably. They turned to the audience, bowed, and as one man they stripped their shirts off.
“Ooh,” said Lucie. “Didn’t know this was going to be that kind of a show.” Richard glanced at Alec, who was looking back at him and smirking.
The two dancers turned around to face the Court, and their posture shrank dramatically as they saw the old woman’s face. They rallied, and one of them turned around, gesturing expansively to each scratch on his opponent’s back, his arms, his chest. There were not many of them, and none of them were deep.
“Bit of a disappointment, that,” said Nimble Willie thoughtfully from next to Lucie. “It’s not a real fight, is it?”
“Weren’t you listening?” asked Lucie. “They don’t do it every night. Only every two weeks, so the spirits’ messages don’t get confused.”
More like so the near-sighted old women of the Court of Hours did not get confused, Richard thought. He had not been paying much attention when the patter-man talked about the mystical parts; it was more fun to listen to Alec’s commentary.
“They do demonstrations in between,” Lucie was explaining. “They were up by the market two weeks ago, and now they’ve come to us. My Nell…”
“Oh hush, they’re starting,” said Willie.
The first two duelists had reclaimed their shirts and were sitting in the Court of Hours, looking rather chastised for their dramatics; the two in the middle of the stage, one tossing a knife up to test its balance and catching it again, looked more serious. The knife-bearer, scurrying away from them, looked grimly satisfied.
The second duel was shorter and sharper. Richard hadn’t caught what they were fighting to determine. The two men picked their knives without ceremony, shook hands before they began, and lost all hint of drama the moment the blades began to flash. They weren’t as serious as a Riverside back alley, but something made them spin against each other faster and closer - perhaps they were just differently serious. Richard leaned forward, watching the openings appear and vanish, and wondered how much of the rest of the audience was judging them critically.
The fight ended abruptly when one of them ducked under a flailing knife, came up with his hands rising in a double slash, and found his friend’s knife pointed directly at his jugular. They both seemed surprised by this, and froze instantly. The one with the threatening knife pulled it sharply away and began to stammer an apology to his shocked companion. The patter-man intervened to herd them over to the Court of Hours, although - as he put it - “I think that last frieze might just answer the question on its own!”
“What was the question?” Richard asked Alec, who had been paying attention.
“What Rosalie wants in a husband,” said Alec absently. “It got a good laugh, you must have heard.”
“I was watching,” said Richard, and watched the two men push up their sleeves to reveal mostly immaculate skin.
“All right, ladies and gentlemen,” said the patter-man when they were finished with the formalities. “For our final act of the evening, I give you - Thalassa!”
The scowling extra knife-dancer stepped forward, dropped her cloak. She was certainly a woman under the cloak, tall and not particularly attractive, but her bare arms were a fighter’s, wiry and muscled.
“Thalassa, my left thumb,” Lucie grumbled. “She’s a Bette like any of us.”
“It’s indecent, having a woman stand bare-skinned like that,” said Alec. Richard shot him a glance.
“You don’t mind at the theater,” he said. “Or at Lenny’s.”
“Yes, but that’s the theater,” said Alec.
“Usually,” said the patter-man, cutting across the chatter that had spread throughout the theater, “we would have her do a solo for your enjoyment, but given what we’ve seen of Riverside’s prowess with knives…”
A cheer swept the room, loud enough to make Richard’s head ache.
“…I thought we might let her duel one of you! What do you say, one last question for the spirits? If we can all agree on one…”
Richard almost let them argue. He could feel it coming, the hubbub and excitement, and then some inane question that made everyone laugh. But he wanted to fight, he wanted to try this, and he had stood up before he realized he was doing it.
“I have a question that will entertain everyone,” he said, and his voice was quiet but it spread across the room, or perhaps people quietened when they saw Richard standing. “When will the swordsman St Vier die?”
The patter-man looked at him from across the stage. “And are you prepared to fight for this question?” he asked.
The patter-man turned to the audience and thrust his fist in the air. “And is this the question you want answered?”
There was a roar of sound as Richard climbed up onto the stage. His knee caught on his cloak, and he wriggled out of it as he stood up, letting it fall to the floor. This close, he could see the lacing on Thalassa’s shirt, the carving on her buttons.
“It seems the crowd is with you,” the patter-man said, turning to Richard. “And who might you be?”
Richard’s mouth quirked. “The swordsman,” he said, “St Vier.”
“Ah,” said the patter-man. “Everyone wants to know when he’ll die. Be sure to drink enough before then, eh? And why are the good people of Riverside so eager to know about your death, Mr St Vier?”
Richard shrugged. “They’re hoping they can watch,” he said. “May I see the knives?”
They brought him the knives. They were a pretty tool, Richard thought. Up close, they were unexceptionable - just knives, a surprisingly good quality for a traveling show. He picked a couple up, checked the balance, and nodded to the knife-dancer offering them, a bearded man with a scratch on his face.
“Remember the rules,” said the patter-man, a little nervously. They clearly didn’t invite audience members often, or perhaps he didn’t trust this audience as much as he would like them to think. “No more than scratches. Stop everything the first time one of you pauses.”
“I won’t pause first,” Richard promised. The girl seemed to like that. She raised her knives, one out, one arced over her head. Richard held his at his waist, each hilt guarding the arm behind it and ready to dice his opponent’s gut, and waited for the signal to begin.
The instant it did she closed with him, pressing even closer than knife-range demanded, too close for knives to make sense. Richard saw her fold one back so the dull edge lay against her wrist, raising a slap with a bright edge, brought his own knife up to block, and after that he lost track of individual moves.
She wasn’t testing him, as swordsmen tested each other; and he wasn’t in control of the fight, the way he was in duels. That was all right at first; these weren’t swords, it wasn’t his territory. Richard was merely excellent with knives. But he shortly realized, to his astonishment, that he was outmatched. It wasn’t a question of aptitude, of course; it was that knives, in Richard’s world, were for short, dirty work, and he had never trained to use them with skill. This girl moved like a dancer - like Richard with a sword - and, dually hindered by this shift in paradigm and the constraint that he could not harm her, he was crippled.
He could have maimed or killed her in an instant. Given leave to do his trademark cut to the heart, or the Riverside slice across the gut, or even to just dig a knife into a forearm, Richard could have ended the fight instantly. But he didn’t have that leave.
And she was moving too fast. She wasn’t moving too fast for him, she was moving too fast for herself. Every movement was not quite under control, a little overbalanced, and spilled into the next. It was sloppy. It was… a challenge.
Richard tried to smile, and found he already was.
There was no reading her weaknesses because every movement was a weakness, open enough to kill but not open enough to scratch. And she was fast. If he thought about her weaknesses he couldn’t keep up. If he was thinking, he was too slow.
So he didn’t. He let his eyes bypass his brain and tell his feet where to move, and they… danced. Curled and spun around each other. He heard the beat of their feet on the boards, felt streaks like music across his arms, saw her twirl behind him and stepped to occupy the space she’d just vacated.
The room gasped as she stuck her foot out and the swordsman St Vier was sent spinning across the floor by a dancing girl.
Richard jumped to his feet and laughed. “A point!” he cried, gesturing to the thin scratches on her feet. “A point!”
The girl dropped her guard, and Richard let his own knives fall. He saw that she was scowling and wondered how she could be.
“You’re blind, Richard St Vier,” she said, in a thick Northern accent. “You don’t see what’s in front of you, and you don’t fight like a diviner.”
“I fought just fine,” said Richard, stung; he thought he had adapted pretty well.
“You laugh at the gods,” she said, and turned her back on him, dropping her knives onto the stage. Or casting them; they stuck like mumblety-pegs as she stalked away from him across the stage to the Court of Hours. She tugged the lacings free with a single tug each and then in one gesture pulled the whole shirt off over her head.
She stood bare-breasted before the audience, fierce and distant and as unaware of the stares of the crowd as a tree is unaware of its barren trunk in winter, and gestured stiffly first to a red line on one arm, then to a scratch along the bottom of her rib cage on the other side. Richard had not realized he had hit her there.
“Here, and here,” she said, and then, with a deepening of her scowl that Richard could hear in her voice even with her face turned away from him, she lifted one foot and added, “and the mark on the ankle that the idiot pointed out.”
Past her hip, Richard could see Alec start at the insult, and begin to rise from his chair. He held a hand out, surprised that it was even necessary.
He could tell that his own shirt was in tatters, and he tugged gently at the sleeves to get them off in one piece. He wasn’t as efficient or as ruthless as the knife-dancer, but he got the shirt off all right, and it made his point. Alec sat down. Other people shut up. What mattered, here and now, was that the duel wasn’t over.
Richard held out his arms, the crisscrossing lines of shallow scratches betraying all the places the knife-dancer had swirled close to him and snuck around his guard - mostly places Richard hadn’t needed to guard because he could see the knife would do no damage. Except, of course, that that was not the game they had been playing.
“You asked how long you have to live,” said one of the knife-dancers. “That’s an awful lot of tallies.”
“And what about hers?” Richard asked.
“There’s the cuts you made, and the cuts you took,” said the old woman. Richard considered asking if she meant he’d live longer than he expected or shorter, and then decided he didn’t care. He bowed to her, one of the fancy court bows from up the Hill, and returned to Alec, who had just about recovered from his shock when Richard climbed off the stage.
“If you keep throwing your clothes away, you’re going to die of cold,” he drawled. “Was the challenge worth it?”
“Of course,” said Richard, and had a go at putting his ruined shirt back on, just enough cover so that he could pull his cloak over it. Around him everyone was gathering their things and chattering about the fight. Richard recognized most of the voices.
Alec said, “You made a lovely scene. All of Riverside will be talking about it for weeks.”
“Lucie will be talking about it, anyway,” said Richard. “I think the rest of Riverside will be talking about Ginnie Vandall.”
“Ginnie Vandall? You think taking your shirt off in public is going to make people talk about Ginnie Vandall?” Alec asked, winding their way toward the exit.
“She wants to recreate it,” said Richard. “This is good business. People liked the knife demonstrations. People loved the mock Court. She’s going to set up one of our own, just you watch.”
“Ginnie Vandall.” Alec sniffed. “I could come up with much better spectacles than Ginnie Vandall.”
“You’ve already staged a better play than Ginnie will imagine in her entire life,” Richard agreed, thinking of his sentence in a different Court. If Alec picked up on that, he refused to follow it; he pushed the door open and set off into the night without hesitation, expounding on the spectacles he would put on if he were the sort of man who went about arranging spectacles, and expecting Richard to tag behind and protect him.
Richard paused in the doorway, blinking into the darkness as Alec disappeared into the blurred shapes of the alley. His eyes were still adjusted for the bright interior, but losing sight of Alec looked a little like going blind.
“Are you coming?” Alec asked, the inflection in his voice saying both that he had turned and that he resented being made to stand in this freezing, filthy alley.
“Of course,” said Richard, and the light-blindness faded, and he could see.