The attack that afternoon seemed to come out of nowhere, a sword where no sword had been, hissing with impossible speed through the air toward the nape of her neck, finally piercing it through and through, letting the warm blood bubble merrily out down both her front and her back, bringing the glorious life of Tess the Hand to an end befitting the truest of Riversiders.
Or it would have done so, had the blade wielded by the hand of the Ambassador Plenipotentiary of the Holy Empire of Chartil not swept in to parry it.
The Three Dogs was not nearly as full as it would grow toward evening, when the crack of the kindling on the stubborn hearth fire would vie with the sound of mugs clinking, dice rolling, lies crossing lips that would end the night warm with a lover’s breath, perhaps, or lifeless and cold in the street. As a result, the Chartil lord’s path between the tables was clear as he took a single nimble step to find a stronger position.
His opponent was a man of middling height, with a blurred, bland face marked only by its sneer.
“You will come,” said Reza as he shifted his balance, judging the right angle for an attack, “to regret that.”
“That’s as may be,” said the other. “But I’ll bet your pretty flesh bleeds as easily as mine.”
Reza kept his gaze on the man’s face, twisted, parried, leapt forward to slash, skipped back. His opponent had obviously never fought a man armed with a tach before. Reza pushed toward the fire, slashed, smacked the other sword aside, slashed again. “That,” he said, forcing the man back, “is not at all”—slash—“a bet”—slash—“I”—slash—“would take.”
A dull thud.
After a moment, the conversations that had ceased with the first thrust of steel slowly resumed their course. Reza, meanwhile, turned to go back to the table where he had been sitting with Tess, only to find it empty.
He left without a word. She was halfway down the street already, and he had to hurry through the snow to reach her. “You are wise to have—”
“I don’t want it!” She had whirled to face him, her mouth twisted, her eyes wide, her breast heaving. He said nothing. He knew how to wait. Finally, she continued. “I don’t know who decided I was somehow important”—her voice throbbed with self-mocking scorn—“but whoever it was, I don’t want it. Even if this,” she said, gesturing vaguely in the direction of the Three Dogs, “didn’t come with it, I still wouldn’t want it!”
Oh, how the truth of her words throbbed in him! The image of his bedchamber in Chartil flashed before his eyes, the fat roses, the cool breeze, Vincent’s tan skin.
He set it firmly aside.
“I have often felt the same,” he said carefully. “More than you could know. You may not, however—as I do not—have a choice.”
“Oh?” Her head reared back. “Watch me.” She turned to go.
“Run as far and as fast as you like, Tess Hocking,” he said, his voice softer than the snow at their feet. “What you flee will outpace you still.” She stopped. He walked around to face her again. “Let me accompany you to wherever you are going.”
“After that mess? I’m only going home. Maybe I’ll stay there forever.”
“I will not offer you platitudes,” he said as they began walking, “about how those who least desire power are those who most deserve it. But there is, in platitudes, a grain of truth.” The street was as quiet as a night in the Chartili desert. “Many—perhaps most—who strive for power are unable, or unwilling, to use it well. When it settles on those who wish to avoid it, however, it generally chooses to do so because they are, of all possibilities, the ones best suited to wear it.”
They reached the corner and turned into a wide avenue, passed three men dicing, a swordsman leaning against the wall watching. Tess gave a heavy sigh. As they made their way along the avenue, she seemed several times as if she were about to speak. She did not.
“What is it you wish to say but keep thinking better of?”
She took a long time to answer. “A lot of things that would have sounded false because they were false.”
To smile would have been cruel. “The fact that something is true does not create in us an obligation to be pleased about it.”
“I just—what power do I have? The Salamander terrifies most of Riverside. Too many stories of people who disappear until you find books bound in leather marked with their tattoos. Or delicious stew with tiny shreds of their clothing in it.”
Now he could smile. “Terrifying tales, indeed.”