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Faint Praise

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"Two good things I can tell you of Maspero," Istvan said, at last, with great reluctance, as if I had been badgering him for weeks on end, rather than asking him a mere three times during the past two hours - and that only because he had refused to answer me.

"Firstly, I suppose his art was not without a certain merit."

Not, I assumed, an admission he had ever made to Maspero himself. It fell to me, then, to accept this lukewarm praise as his due. "Thank you," I said.

Istvan looked at me with an expression I chose not to interpret as unfriendly. "Secondly, if he ever spoke ill of the Queen, it was never within my hearing, nor within the hearing of anyone who would have reported his words to me."

"So what you're saying is: he didn't want to give you cause to challenge him to a fight." A trait Maspero had probably shared with most members of the court, given Istvan's reputation. It hardly seemed like any kind of virtue.

"You are right," he said. "I apologize. It seems I only have one good thing to say of the man after all."