Disclaimer: Characters from thebook Swordspoint are owned by Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman, to whom no nsult is meant by the writing of this piece of fanfiction. Judicium Dei was written for Cija in Yuletide 2007.
Sunlight lay warm across the bed, and below the window children who had never seen a Yule log or a Harvest King crowned were counting out Blind Man's Buff. 'Come tanner, tailor, cast your crowns: what's in your way? A jouster's quoint, a swordsman's point ...'
The air smelled of beeswax and woodsmoke, which meant that the chimney needed sweeping again and that Alec was home. Richard, lazy and warm, opened his eyes and looked over the covers, past the points of his knees and toes, to the fireplace. In front of it his scholar, his noble, sat in a puddle of black robes and tangled hair, elbows bent sharp as a fighting cock's spurs over the letter he fed to the flames.
The fire in passing noted cream vellum and the flare of a wax seal. Richard's eyes were on the elflocks of Alec's hair and the sharp, tender curve of his shoulders. He stretched under the coverlet, and let one hand slide down over the smooth skin of his belly to the crisp curl of hair under it, the quickening rise of his flesh.
"Alec, come to bed," Richard said, and knew his voice was already heavy.
It was a beautiful morning.
On the hill, the Duchess of Tremontaine was dying.
The city mourned her death two weeks later, swept into winter with a kirtle of snow that fell flecked with soot and grey over the gardens on the hill and the sagging roofs of Riverside with calm impartiality. A woman froze to death in front of an empty grate on Lackland Street and three cartloads of coal arrived for the Hartsholt greenhouse. Alec went to the funeral in crimson velvet and rubies, and acquired a pair of fingerless gloves with a stain on the palm as black as blood in firelight, and Richard, easing cold-stiff limbs out of bed, took his time warming up for practice.
"You're stiff this morning," Alec said, cool.
"So would you be," Richard said, stretching, "if you'd been hit by the backside of a Three Keys barstool last night. Did you have to win?" There was no rancor in his voice.
Alec shrugged, long fingers still and clasped across his drawn-up knees. "He was a fool, and I didn't like the cut of his waistcoat."
"There's little to be said for puce." Richard said. "Or was it the tassels you objected to?" He reached for the sword by the side of the bed.
Alec said nothing, which was unusual enough for Richard to peer over his shoulder at his lover's face. But Alec was watching the fire hiss through the morning's greenwood, unreadable as a book to which Richard had no key. He chased form against shadows instead, dueling his own weakness.
"When was the last time you fought?" Alec said, looking up, as if half a candlelength's silence was no more than a heartbeat.
"Two weeks ago. Two weeks and two days. Davin." Alec had arranged the thing: first blood, on his lordship's lawn. It was before the snow and they'd made love in the morning, he and Alec, tumbling across the bed in drifts of sunlight and eider feathers. He'd been paid royally for that, no more than he deserved, although it had been a pretty match of sweetmeats and gilt-edged swords. The Lord's Lady's birthing day.
"Would you fight for me?" Alec asked.
"Would you fight for me? If I asked?" He was serious, hands clenched tight across the rack of his knees.
"I fought for you last night," Richard said blankly. He hadn't had to for a while: Riverside had learned to shrug aside his barbed scholar's wit, if not for Alec's own sake then for Richard's and his sword behind.
"With a sword," Alec said. He was pale.
Richard let the tip of his second-best rapier drop to rest against the toes of his boots, and rubbed his fingers against the threat of a headache.
"I can pay you," Alec said.
It was the nobility who turned to a swordsman's point. Sometimes he forgot that Alec was noble: Alec with his ragged hair and the quill's callous on his fingers and his arrogant, dangerous wit. But Alec had fought battles Richard would never see or understand, on the hill.
"Should I be worried?" the swordsman asked.
Tremontaine's rubies glinted red in the soft snow-light when Alec ran a hand through his hair. "No." His eyes said otherwise.
There was straw down on the cobbles outside Tremontaine House, mixed with slush and grit. The windows were shuttered still and blind, and on the door the great seal of the Council of Lords forbade entry to all but the City Guard. Richard, uncertain for what he searched, went in through the terrace windows to the library where he had once taken tea with the Duchess and walked through the house in silence. At night, Tremontaine held its secrets close. Nothing moved but the rustle of a mouse in the skirting boards, the trace of scent amongst the silk and damask of the Lady's closet and ash drifting in an empty fireplace. Richard shivered, pinched out his candle and stood in darkness, but here were no answers, only emptiness held in waiting. He left the candlesticks where they stood and kept his fingers off the silver: Alec might think he had a right to it, but Richard disdained theft from the dead.
He went home over the bridge in a skirl of fresh snow; cold knifing through the wool of his cloak, and stopped at Rosalie's in case Alec was there. He wasn't. Richard asked for beer.
"We'll not be seeing you here, then," Rosalie said, quiet under clamour. "After you move up the hill."
"Eh?" Richard said.
"The Duchess died, didn't she? They say the clocks stopped on Cathedral Square."
Riversiders knew everything, true or false.
But Alec had come from the hill. Alec was slumming, in Riverside, and Richard knew it. He walked home slow and sure-footed through the unlit alleyways, and when he got home Alec was still there, frowning over a new book, fingers arched over the pages and barring the text with shadow. His shoulders were hunched, and he did not speak.
In the night, he sat bolt upright and said, "They won't let me-"
"What is it?" Richard asked, but all he got in reply was the bruising grip of Alec's hands on his. 'Make me forget,' said Alec's body.
Richard's messages went to Rosalie's, but Alec's came to him, black-coated clerks and fastidious lawyers picking their way through Riverside's debris. They arrived with bundles of paper that drifted over the couch and muddied the rug. Alec read far into the night, turning the rings on his fingers and muttering under his breath. Richard took to practicing in the old stables and barred the window against the audience of noisy brats. It was cold. He tried to imagine living on the hill, and failed. He was a swordsman, not a noble, his world narrowed to the tip of a point, straight as a rapier's blade, comforting as the wrapped leather of a favourite hilt.
The new Duke had yet to arrive. The hill was febrile with rumour and careless with cold: Nimble Willie brought back a broadsheet with a woodcut that impugned the man's legitimacy with half the city's peers. Richard, who had never seen the point of his own parentage, added it to the pile of kindling and found two days later that Alec had smoothed it out and tucked it under Tremontaine's candlesticks. 'If Alec went up the hill with the new Duke - what was he, cousin, uncle?' - Richard thought, 'would the candlesticks go with him?'
Someone sent him a message about an honour duel, country-rough and insulting. "Tell them I'm busy," Richard said. There was a second message, more flattering. Richard did not reply.
When the new Duke did arrive half of Riverside went up the hill to see him home, more for the coin than the spectacle. Richard spent the day at Rosalie's and came home, not sober, to an empty bed. But in the morning Alec was there, remote and graceful in black velvet and lace. "I'll be back this evening," he said.
Alec never said when he would be back. If he would be back. Richard cursed his headache and sat up in bed so swiftly his eyesight blurred to black, and when it had cleared Alec was gone. The Council of Lords was meeting.
to make a clean break now, Richard thought. He bought a new dagger,
lean and lithe with an uncut emerald on the pommel, and did not think
of how it would look in Alec's hands.
Richard swore for both of them.
Pinned on the door, grey fur stiff and splayed in death, someone had crucified Marie's cat.
Alec did not move. It was Richard, cursing, who pried out the nails and let the dead thing fall.
"Any enemies I don't know about?"
"Hundreds," said Alec. He was shivering. Richard sat him in front of the fire and opened the good brandy. A man's death had never hit Alec this hard.
"What did you do with it?"
"Got rid of it. Not short of stew, are we?"
"That could have been you," Alec said.
He ordered a new suit and sharpened his blades every morning. In daylight, Alec walked, wandering unmolested through Riverside and along the wharves. Richard set Willie to watch him, but after the third time Alec took them both to the Lord's cenotaphs outside the wall Willie, superstitious, swore off. After that Richard spoke to the children and kept his own eyes open. Alec's back disappearing into the law chambers; Alec watching a blind fiddler and his dancing dog; face set and pale, Alec stumbling home with his arms full of papers and a rush basket with fishcakes. Richard spent too much time on the hill, following Alec. Like rotten wood only standing for the gilt on it: he preferred Riverside's honesty to the stink of power games and money. Even the servants scrutinised each other's livery in the street and fought over their masters' names. Richard, who owed his allegiance to none but himself, curled his lip and kept his fingers on the hilt of his sword.
He saw the new Duke, once, stepping out of a confectioner's on Lassiter's Row, with two lackeys to hold his parcels and one with a lambswool rug. The man looked tired, not like someone who held the city's richest Dukedom in the palm of his hand, and not even the wooden country patterns he wore had saved his silk stockings from snowmelt mud. Richard brought home little iced cakes, that day, but Alec threw them into the fire, a waste.
The river froze.
At first, ice drifted slow and grey, liquid with the rise of the tide. Around the boats and the edges of the bridge palings, by the banks, it froze, white ice cracked and puddled with river water. Then there were slabs of ice, brought downstream from the hills sharp-sided and gleaming in the pale winter sun, swept to rest against the glazed banks of the pleasure gardens and the staves of the wharf. Then the river froze over, crackling stone grey under snow and whitening with depth, until the ice was strong enough to bear the weight of a lowered cat; a child; a man with a hodful of stolen coal; a pair of apprentices with a curling stone. A hot chestnut stall. A vendor with a hogshead of mulled wine, a noble's daughter in furs; a dancing bear; two swordsmen Richard did not know and did not care to scoring points from each other on an old wooden scaffold. The city pulled on its gloves and buckled its skates. There was a midnight picnic, with braziers, and an ice ball, a popinjay Richard avoided and a fete got up in four days by the Merchant's Guild taking the old luckenbooths out of storage. After a week and no sign of thaw, they built a proper stage with curtains and the Tyrseian Players, blue with cold in their doublets and low-cut dresses, put on "Beggar's Banquet" and a twelfth night masque with thirteen frozen maidens and a real Turk in feathers, dark-skinned and tongueless.
The Council of Lords met again. No one threw a ball for Tremontaine, which was telling in itself, and the House servants were as close-mouthed as the Turk. It was said that the new Duke had paid off most of Diane's household and replaced them with his own retainers from where-ever it was in the country he came from: the City did not care. Alec lost weight, and in the night his hands moved restlessly over Richard's skin as if it were the pages of a book he had yet to read.
Richard had the dead cat burnt. The ground was frozen solid, and they were stacking corpses in the cellars of the old monastery. Even Riversiders would not disturb the naked dead. Alec came home bone white and so tense he might as well have been frozen down to the fine line of his bones, but alive. After dark, after the icicle that missed him by a handbreadth and the runaway cart, Richard would not cross the ice and walked in the middle of the road. The skin between his shoulder blades itched. He thought he was being followed, then discovered he was: Rosalie's cousin Mad Tom in a new jerkin tidy enough to pass on the hill for a country squire's livery and a sharpened axe thrust through his belt. Alec was paying well over the odds for protection. Richard did not know whether to laugh or be insulted and in the end didn't mention it at all.
He meant to. It was time to talk.
'Alec,' he would ask. 'Alec -'
'Come away with me.'
He could taste the words in his mouth, was rolling them round his tongue as he went up the stairs two at a time. He had never locked the door to his rooms and anyway, Alec was there, sitting on the couch in black velvet again - he would look good in burgundy, Richard thought, a sharp image among the words -
Alec stood up and came towards him. In firelight his hair glinted red and gold among the chestnut brown, and his skin was the palest white gold.
"Richard," Alec breathed, and kissed him.
Then someone hit him hard over the back of his head. He saw stars, Alec's face, at a very odd angle. Then nothing.
He woke up in a small stone room with a window too high up to see outside. There was a fire, and more than enough blankets, and a jug of warmed wine by the hearth. They had left him a chestful of his own clothes and his two best blades, carefully wrapped: his good winter cloak and a pair of books he could not read with Alec's writing in the margins.
His head hurt, and every so often there were little black spots in front of his eyes like marsh-flies in summer.
They brought him food, and later a small, fussy, dark-haired man who prodded his head and looked in his eyes, both of which came with an escort of far more guardsmen than he cared to count and no explanation.
On the second day they brought his practice swords and his new brown velvet suit with the silver lace, the one he had yet to duel in, and Richard knew then that whatever else happened there was a fight in it and probably Alec too. He rolled the carpet up and practiced, hard, showy enough to bring the guards to the door.
"Their Lordships are meeting again. Tremontaine's all bluster - they say he threw his wineglass at the wall, yesterday."
"Your boy's doing well."
"They're setting up the stage on the ice. No sign of a thaw yet."
He had already worked out that he was probably safer here than anywhere else in the city, unless the place went up in flames and he with it, but captivity irked.
"The Lords called it for tomorrow. Give us something to shout about, eh, swordsman?"
But none of them would explain, even for gold, which at least explained where the gate tax was going.
They sounded the trumpets for him when dusk fell, and when they came for him it was in a blaze of glory. Gold-threaded tunics with the Great Seal embroidered on the back, crimson tabards and gleaming steel, in silence but for the beating of the drum and the high notes of the silver horns. There was a pretty boy to carry his sword for him on a velvet cushion, which on any other day would make him laugh, but not today. They went out through the river gates, in torchlight under stone arches set by kings centuries dead. Traitor's Gate; the King's Last Hope; but the gilded barges with their tasseled awnings were gone downstream with the river and what remained was ice. Ice, and people. The city itself, it seemed to Richard, was waiting on the ice. Rich, poor; merchant, sailor, whore, swordsman, joker, thief; light-fingered children and burgher's wives in winter worsted; beggars, guildsmen, apprentices, dogs, cats ...
He walked looking straight ahead to the beat of the drum. The boy carried his sword in front of him, and the path was swept clean and marked by an avenue of torches. There was a stand, and flags, and a stage, and on it the nobles of the Council of Lords whom Richard had hoped never to face again. And Alec, white-faced, wearing ermine as if he had a right to it. Alec, who would not look him in the eyes and had his hands resting on a book Richard, squinting, thought he recognised.
The trumpets sounded for him one last time.
There was a swordsman's dueling stage in front of the Lords, but a stage like none Richard had seen before. It was higher, and built of oak as if to carry a giant's weight, and surrounding it were not wooden railings but a cage of iron forged into place. Scarlet silk swathed the wood, but the iron was bare, and the torches set far enough back not to distract the eye. There were steps, up to the stage, and the boy with his sword knelt. Richard let his cloak fall from his shoulders, and his rapier's hilt came as sweetly to his hand as any lover. The blade was bare. In torchlight, it ran red and gold. King's colours.
He walked up the steps and stood in the centre of the stage, facing the Council of Lords.
Then he heard the crowd. Behind him, a sigh breathed like the sound of a timber baulk giving way. The Lords were impassive. Alec's hands tightened on the book, but he would not turn.
Richard did turn. Had to. He did it with grace, with a swordsman's pride: with a bow to the Lords that was as clean and sharp as it would before any other patron. Then he turned, and saw what he fought.
Later, much later, in a place where the only four-footed creatures bigger than they were short-furred and bovine, Alec said, "They starved him, before the fight. Fasting. To prove his innocence before God."
It had driven him mad. That, and the torchlight in his weak eyes, and the pin-pricks of the spears herding him to the stage, and the lack of the one voice that had cajoled him since he was a cub, and the chain on his hind leg that weighted and galled his strength.
"He came from the mountains," Alec said, later. "The Lords paid fair for him, but there was no choice in it."
This was no swordsman's duel.
They had brought him a bear.
It was half his height again in torchlight, with claws that could rip the heart from his body in one careless swipe. Mad, and angry.
Richard stayed on his feet. With deliberation, he took off his gloves, casting them well away from the stage. Wiped the cold sweat from the palms of his hands and hefted his sword: light as a kiss, his rapier, meant for the elegant forms of a nobleman's sport with a blade fine as the note of a lute. No cutting edge: no weight to it but that of his sword arm, and no guard on the hilt against claws or teeth.
They would tell this story from Land's End to the Northern Wall, but he would not hear it. All swordsmen die young.
All the great ones.
They had got the bear onto the stage. There were more bars to block the stairs, and they fell into place with a thud that shook the beams and sent the bear plunging against the sound, reaching out into darkness with a single great paw. Torchlight flinched from the claws.
Then the bear stilled, and turned, lumbering slow.
There was space enough to run, if Richard had a mind to it, and to fight if not.
He fought. Fought half-blinded with his own sweat and with his breath searing his lungs, a fight like no fight he had ever fought before and never would again, brutal and merciless and cruel. With a fellow swordsman, one danced. With a bear, it was a thing of thrust and run, duck and crawl and pray for one more moment; a thing of learning the reach of a paw longer than the length of his blade and the shambling pattern of its footsteps on wood. Learning, too late for the flesh struck from his right arm, that faced into torchlight the bear was blind, that it favoured its left leg and would always turn to that side if it could, that when it charged it was too powerful to stop until stopped, crashing against iron with a force that shook the stage.
At the end of it, he had only one choice. Cornered and caught, with the bear's bulk blocking out the light and the rank stench of its breath warm on his skin, knowing that this strike was his last, Richard as he had done all his life thrust straight to the heart.
This last embrace. He could feel the weight of its arm before the claws tore his flesh, before in mercy the torchlight dazzled into darkness.
He was alone, and warm. He had not known death would be warm. Or that it would hurt: he ached, his right arm stung, he was stiff in every limb and his very thoughts came to him through a head stuffed with wet cotton pounded by a fuller's hammer.
Then someone said, "He is awake", and it was not a voice he recognised although he did know the voice of the doctor they had sent him before the fight, who this time did not just look but poked and prodded and cleaned until Richard was nearly sick. His eyes must have been bandaged, for he could not see. Alec was not there, but then Alec had no patience with weakness.
The bear was dead. Later, they told him, its keeper had wept over the body.
They gave him gruel, and then cordial, so he slid in and out of sleep waking only when they changed the dressings on his arm. Someone tried to talk to him and was sent away: he heard, once, the brazen of the trumpets, but this salute was not for him.
He slept, and woke, and slept again, and this time when he woke it was to the sound of Alec's footsteps coming light and unsteady to the bed. He would recognise that footfall in his dreams. Had done.
Alec was drunk. Not stumbling drunk, but befuddled enough for an endearing clumsiness, Alec whose every move was of studied, ungainly grace. He smelt of sweetmeats and brandy and spiced wine with cloves in it, and he was laughing under his breath.
"Richard ... Richard." He was by the bed, and then sitting on it, heavily. The mattress tipped and swayed. "We are rich."
He was laughing again, and Richard could hear the clunking chatter of coins. Alec must have let them fall over the bed. His fee, Richard thought, although he was wrong.
He wished he could see. He shifted under the bedclothes, and a coin ran down to lie cold against his skin.
"Light the candles," Richard said, to Alec's voice.
He could hear Alec's breath catch.
"Richard," Alec said. "Richard ... it is morning."