“I, Valeri Mikhailov, cannot be beaten in even combat! I am a master of the blade!”

The street vendor looked with dull interest. “Yes, sir. But do you want a turkey leg?”

Valeri sighed. He looked back at the dueling ground, where he had just bested a young Vodacce noble. “Didn’t you see?”

The vendor smiled weakly. “Yes, sir. You’re good. And do you want a turkey leg?”

Valeri smiled. “Well, now that I have these hundred florins, absolutely!” He handed the vendor three coins. The vendor took a roasted turkey leg off the hot-coal grill in front of the tavern attached to the dueling ground. Valeri sank his teeth into the crispy flesh of the bird, and immediately coughed as his eyes watered. The vendor pointed towards the door.

“Yes, they’re fresh off the grill. Beer is inside.”

Valeri quickly moved inside, leaving the vendor alone on the street. An assistant from the tavern’s kitchen came out with two more fresh legs for the grill. The vendor took them, chuckling with delight as he put them down on the iron latticework.

“Dmtri owes me five rubles? It’s even money when that man wins a duel that he forgets the turkey legs are hot. And he does win a lot of duels.” He jingled his coin purse. “I love that man.”

Inside the tavern, Valeri waved to Yevgeni, who sat at a table nursing his own beer. The burly Ussaran leader greeted him with a snarl. “Get your beer, sit down.”

Valeri strode quickly to the bar and picked up the stein already waiting for him. He immediately took two large gulps and wiped his neat beard on the edge of his cape.

Da, Yev. Thank you for meeting me here. I’m sorry to be delayed – the bravo was still a puppy, but one with a puppy’s ability to not be where you want him.” Valeri placed his stein on the table and swung over the chair, adroitly seating himself. “So – we must talk of this newcomer. This Eisen. That such a man would bring sorcerous tricks onto the field of honor… I will not let him sully my shirt!”

Yev chortled. “Ari, you’ve thrown a handful of shot into your opponent’s face. He threw down his sword only to try to keep some teeth in his head.” He shook his head. “Your honor lasts only as long as the first slash that tears your cloak.”

Valeri – who never went by Ari to anyone but Yev, but not because he liked the name – squirmed in his seat and took another drink. “The threat of steel is palpable in any combat, single or mixed. If you can’t defend yourself against battlefield circumstances, you lack skill in self-defense.”

Yev sighed. “I guess.”

Valeri relaxed back in his chair, and smiled. “Now – will be waiting long?” But then he yelped and jumped forward, holding his hand to his back. The old woman Ved’ma, clothed only in her long and twisted hair, pulled back her thorned wooden rod and walked to the third seat at the table. “You won’t be waiting at all, young cub.” She turned to glare at Yevgeni. “You call me here to talk to this brash upstart? What does he do for Mother Ussura?”

Yevgeni sighed. “There are many in Ussura with fists and with shot.” He glared at Valeri. “But we have few, and fewer here in Five Sails, who can match with the blades of Montaigne and Vodacce and give them grief.”

Ved’ma looked at Valeri – who averted his eyes and went back to his beer. “At least one piece for every game board, I suppose. Very well. So we wish to learn more of this Eisen.”

Valeri snorted. “Yes – Mathieu is good on his own, and might have become great on his own. He is but a child, though. He has taken young and foolish money and bought himself the help of a…” Valeri struggled with the word sorcier. “…a saucier.”

Yev shook his head, and Ved’ma cackled brightly – but neither disabused him of his error. Valeri continued, facing Ved’ma. “Normally, I would not bring the burden of my own affairs into your world, Mama.” The title was not belittling, but acknowledged that Ved’ma held ancient power and wisdom. She offered no recognition, though, and an awkward silence dragged out for a few seconds. “But for someone as him to defeat me would carry much weight in the alleys and streets of our district.”

Ved’ma nodded. “Perhaps – though not as you see it. That this duelist has the feet of a cat and the talon of the eagle is one thing. But he is a channel for the wounds of the world that Porte’ brings. The slashes and gashes do not heal well, and those sorcier fiends never deign to worry for the land they injure.” Ved’ma spat on the floor – and the wood in the floorboard curled slightly, the burnished brown turning a greenish tinge.

Yev scowled as he stood near the doorway that led into the dance hall in the heart of the Ussuran District. “You had best hope your foe takes the bait soon, Valeri. I try not to be here more often than needed.”

Valeri sighed. “My friend, you know this place does not just raise our spirits. We band together to raise money and resources for the Motherland. For Ilya!”  Yev drank as well. Valeri nodded to him, and then turned to scan the crowd. “Let us stay on vigil for Mathieu. The devil is sure to be here.”

Yev spat again, squirming in his leather vest with inlays of stitched silver brocade. “I wait only to see if you shame our country. Someone will die tonight.”

Valeri almost turned to respond – but then a commotion at the back of the hall drew their attention.

“I face the challenge to Eisen honor.” The voice was clear, confident – and the word curled with the sneer only a brash young idealist could nurture.

Valeri stepped forward. “You – you have no honor. You are using trickery to win your contests. Face me without your friend.” He briefly leaned on the last word. “And we shall all see a true champion of skill with the blade. We shall see him best you in a naked contest of precise control.”

Yev rolled his eyes briefly, and turned to Pavel Ivanov. “I find you tonight, I ram that quill of yours up your arse. I’m tired of your stupid words coming out of Ussuran teeth.” Pavel withered under Yevgeni’s glare and fled the hall.

Mathieu hadn’t even noticed the exchange, continuing only to address Valeri. “Feel free to use rumor and scapegoating as a shield. It will serve you no better than any other fool I’ve embarrassed. I’ve always thought the words ‘Ussuran duelist’ didn’t really belong together.” He looked briefly at Yev. “Much like silver on mud-brown.”

Valeri moved forward, hand on hilt. “My friend Yevgeni – I stand for you, and for Ussura herself.”

Yev took a glass of wine from a side table nearby and slugged it down in one gulp. “Get on with it already.”

Valeri lunged forward, and brought his saber down towards Mathieu’s sword hand, which nimbly moved out of the way. Mathieu swung at Valeri’s leg, who leapt upwards in a spinning jump, landing neatly to Mathieu’s left. Valeri then drew his second saber and smiled. “Your choice of Aldana method has served you well enough – especially against the Sabat forms you see on the street these days. I still favor Mireli – of the many styles I know, it’s the most fun.” He swung both sabers in sequence, almost scissoring Mathieu’s front leg before the latter bounded to the right. Valeri took advantage of Mathieu’s Aldana form – off hand held behind for balance – and brought a saber tip up to Mathieu’s tan-white lapel. Blood from this light cut into Mathieu’s coat sprayed out onto both the Eisen’s garment and Valeri’s sword-arm sleeve.

Yev nodded at the ‘wound’. He raised his empty cup to his lips, whispering under his breath. “This blockhead actually did figure it out. Dawnlight eventually gets all the way to Cathay.”

Mathieu smiled as Valeri circled. “What? I would have thought you’d celebrate first blood?”

Valeri swiped at Mathieu – who expertly anticipated each lunge and pivoted neatly out of harm’s way. “Part of dueling is the honor of first blood, true.” Valeri slowly circled while keeping a saber in a defensive line to ward off a slash by Mathieu. “But I’ve heard tell of your early victories. You give that honor to almost everyone you meet.” Again, Valeri pressed Mathieu – but each time, Mathieu’s arm and torso simply failed to be where Valeri’s blade moved. “In fact, Signore Camaci felt you seemed positively giddy to sully your own coat. I find myself in agreement.”

Mathieu timed a lunge for Valeri’s nod, and Valeri almost didn’t get his eyes up in time. But with a hearty laugh, Valeri executed a neat backflip that kept him from harm – and put him close to where he began the encounter, next to Yev. Valeri smirked. “I, on the other hand, care very much about the cleanliness of my garments. Yev, my friend – might you raise a glass to Ussura’s honor?”

Mathieu’s brow furrowed – then his eyes widened as he saw the glass Yev had drained seemed to now overflow with cold and clear water, sloshing over the rim. Mathieu pushed forward and attempted to intervene, but his legs acknowledged Yev’s upraised and massive off-hand fist and rolled sideways.

Yev swung his glass like a mace, and cold frothy water flew onto Valeri’s sleeve, washing away the bloodstains. The Ussuran duelist shivered – and laughed. He pointed at Mathieu’s ear, which held a ruby earring. “So what will the foul sorcier tell you now? If he is as wise as he is cunning, he will tell you to run.”

Mathieu backed frantically, clutching at his jacket lapel. Valeri smiled. “Oh, if you have another bladderful of the villain’s blood, be my guest. However, you will face at least my next several strikes without his whispering of my heart’s intent.” Mathieu’s hand found the small pouch stitched into his own jacket – one that had held someone else’s blood to spray at his opponent. Valeri took advantage of the moment and threaded a saber point into Mathieu’s hilt. He levered it up and the sword flew sideways, skittering between the legs of the encircling crowd and out of sight.

Mathieu jumped up and took several steps backwards. “You fought well, Ussuran blunderer.” While he never took his eyes off Valeri, Mathieu angled his head upwards – and towards the open windows high upon the walls of the hall. Ordinarily, they served to make known the patriotic merriment within. Mathieu’s eyes suggested a different intent. “But like the stone of your country – you are too dense, and too slow by half.” Valeri winced at how Mathieu shouted the word.

Yev watched, smiling quietly. “This too, we expected. Now it’s your turn.”

Outside the hall, a cloaked man stared upward with intent at the window, his eyes half-closed and visible only under a hood. He seemed not to have noticed, or perhaps relished, that the Ussuran street guards had cleared the area. But at the word stone yelled from the hall, the cloaked man moved into action. He took from his pocket a large smooth rock, long stained with blood. His other hand drew a dagger to his arm, and the stone was wet with blood once more. He hurled the stone up through the windows, and it sailed through with no difficulty. The cloaked man then moved the knife in front of him, and he opened a swirled and bloody slice in the air itself. The man spoke quietly into the slashed air.

“Come, Mathieu. We will best the bears tomorrow.” And from within the slash emerged the sound of echoing footsteps. The man beckoned – but froze as another voice whispered from behind him.

“You fool Montaigne brats, who only know the fair winds of Charouse. Meet what Ussura offers you.”

The man turned – and Ved’ma stood not a foot away, a gnarled rod of white ash in her hands. “Pozvol’te zime vzyat’ vas.” As Ved’ma raised her rod, a biting north wind whooshed into the square. The cloaked man gave an involuntary shiver. Ved’ma, on the other hand, cackled with delight as her hair billowed outwards to meet Winter’s cold embrace.

The man’s hand moved downwards again, but Ved’ma’s rod shot forth with a blast of icy water and wind. A thick glaze of icy muck wreathed him from head to boot, and he howled in pain as cracks in his skin snaked all through his hands and face. The torn gash in the air sealed immediately, with only a faint cry of alarm to echo in the empty space where Mathieu had just disappeared. Ved’ma smiled as she continued her assault.

Ice does not bleed.”

The man had already stopped moving, and in another moment stopped shrieking. Wide cracks opened in the flesh of his arms and legs, splaying his limbs at odd angles. Ved’ma, clothed only in the misty vapors of fog already trailing off the man’s body, relented for only a moment, before bringing the rod up and swinging it down on top of the man. A loud crack echoed through the square as the twisted and wrecked form shattered into black ice shards and cloth scraps. Ved’ma laughed and cackled as the cold breeze swept the remains into the street gutters, and turned away as she started her walk home.

Valeri smiled as he quaffed another vodka, standing next to the table of drinks at the dance hall. “I am happy to have defeated that cocky Eisen, and helped to sniff out the foul sorcier assisting him. I wish only to have forced him to surrender in front of all assembled.”

Yevgeni took another strong gulp of his beer and laughed. “Rabbits like that will never give us the satisfaction of being beaten in the day. Even in the wilds, every hunter knows that you must trap them in their warrens. And that’s all the Montaigne magic has ever been – the flailing of rabbits as they are drawn towards the butcher’s block and the cook’s pot.” Yev rose to his feet. “This was a fun hunt, but now the deed is done, and there are many things still to do tonight.” Yevgeni waved goodbye to Valeri, who was on his fifth drink and blearily waved in return. Yevgeni then strode out of the dance hall, but hadn’t walked more than twenty feet before a glint caught his eye. He reached down and picked up a small ice encrusted object. It was black, a bit slick, and crackled the air around it with its unnatural chill. Yev rolled the chunk between his thick fingers.

“I don’t know whether to mount you into a knife handle or throw you into a pot to cook. Will decide on my way home.” He pocketed the object and walked on into the evening streets of the Ussuran district, humming a folk tune of Winter Fest.

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