Episode 7 Chapter 27

There was no need to draw a ring. The two sides stood in wide crescents on edges of the market, almost but not quite meeting in the middle. All eyes were on the two men, and Theodore drew his sword.

“Theo.” Oboe hovered behind his shoulder. “Are you sure? Are you ready to fight him?”

He had to be. “It won’t be like last time.”

“I want to fight with you,” she said.

Conrad flicked his wrist into the air. “This is a duel, faun. No one is allowed to interfere. Perhaps it is foreign to you, but this is a matter of honor.”

Oboe did not pay any attention to him. “We’re a team. I should help you.”

 Theodore couldn’t stop himself from smiling. “You’ve helped me more than anyone. You’re the reason I know I can do this. Trust me.”

She lingered another moment. The things she’d done, the example she’d set, all seemed a mystery to her. Nodding, she drifted toward the crowd. There was no doubt in her eyes, just a sorrow to part.

His sword scraped against Conrad’s as they held them up high in the air. Both held a fist to their chest as a show of respect and then stepped two paces back.

Eleven years ago, Lance Grayweather dragged his only son up into the Upside Hills to camp. The two slept on bedrolls on the rocky cliffs. Theodore remembered how the freezing wind cut right through his clothes, and how his father forced him to eat wild game for breakfast. Roast rabbit on a spit. It made him cry to know the animal was alive and happy before they came.

“You have to eat,” Lance told him. “If you’re going to be a knight, you need protein.”

Conrad came out swinging, hurling his whole being into a string of relentless slashes that Theodore watched and noted. The ox charged, but he stepped out of the way. The tail whipped, but he jumped away. The plow drove forward, hoping to tear his throat, but Theodore knew it was coming. One slash weaved into another, hungry to taste blood, but Theodore answered each strike with the counter his father had taught him.

“Why do I have to be a knight?!” Little Theo said, again and again and again.

Lance’s response changed each time, searching for the one his son would accept. This was the answer that came back to him now, the one his father had given him after an endless day of sword drills and over a burnt haunch of meat.

“People need protecting.” Lance stoked the fire. “Not everyone can be strong. Not everyone gets their voice heard. There needs to be good knights. That way it’s better for everyone.”

Conrad’s sword zigged when it should’ve zagged, and he spun to attack from the other side. Theodore fumbled to block the attack, the blades shrieking against each other as he tried to keep the edge of the detective’s blade from cutting his face.

“Are you done playing games?!” Conrad said, and kicked Theodore hard in the stomach. Staggered, Theodore found his footing in time to sidestep a piercing thrust. “I won’t let you threaten Laien! It’s not your toy! I will not let chaos reign!”

Theodore pushed forward a barrage from the roof stance. “I am not your enemy!” He said. “These creatures are not your enemy! We are all part of Laien!”

“Illegal weapons!” Conrad shouted, lunging. “The prince abducted! The duke enchanted! A Feymire invasion! Spies! The Fair Lady assassinated!”

Sweat trickled down Theodore’s face as the two danced around each other’s attacks. The indictments hung in the air, thickening it like tar and slowing Theodore’s movement.

“You were never a knight,” Conrad said, and sliced a red graze across Theodore’s cheek. He stumbled back, and Conrad pointed a cocksure sword. “Just one more lie. If Lance were alive to see what you’ve become, he would die from disgrace.”

Theodore felt the blood run down his face. His legs stiffened. He had made many mistakes as Ranger Deputy, and he couldn’t afford to be reminded of them now.

“Theo!” Oboe shouted from the edge of the crowd. “Don’t give up! You can do it!”

A cheer rose up behind her. The creatures erupted, calling Theodore’s name, an echo of Oboe that grew louder.

“I hate this,” Little Theo said to his father. “I don’t want to be strong. I don’t want to fight or hurt anyone. There’s lots of other people. Why does it have to be me?”

The fog was clearing around the campsite as the sun came out, eleven years ago. Lance sat next to his son on a rain-worn rock and admired something he saw but Theo didn’t. “Knights should care about what they’re protecting. They ought to be sharp, ready to learn, should know the cost of their actions. I think you’d be good at it.”

Theodore lowered his sword, and Conrad charged. The fool stance tore a bloody scar across Conrad’s face from brow to ear and kept his ear lobe. Conrad did not stop to react, knocking Theodore’s sword back with a clang. The detective hurled himself forward with the plow, aiming to skewer Theodore, but Theodore took better aim. Conrad charged into Theodore’s sword, and was pierced through a chink in his armor. Blood spurt from the joint as he pulled away. Conrad’s sword clattered to the ground.

“Devil damn you,” he said, pulling a shard of magic from his belt. “I won’t lose to a traitor!”

The magic pulsed. Conrad thrust his arm and Theodore rolled away as a jet of flame shot from his palm. Feathery wreaths of flame reached for Theodore and scorched the arena. The crowd on both sides scrambled back in panic. Theodore leapt to escape but the flames chased him.

There was only place Conrad would not shoot fire, and that was right on top of himself. Dropping his sword, Theodore tackled Conrad to the ground and held his wrists back as flames continued to streak out, until the magic depleted and the two were left lying on the ground with the market smoldering around them.

Conrad coughed, spent. Blood pooled around his waist. “There it is, then.” His voice was a rasp. “Finish this.”

Theodore stood. His sword was within arm’s reach. The knights and the creatures all looked on, none permitted to interfere. Conrad’s eyes were still full of anger, but it was tinted by the grudge of defeat. The detective was his father’s pupil, and perhaps Lance had seen the same thing he saw in Theo. The difference between them was only a matter of experience.

“Nobody needs to die,” Theodore said, and offered his hand.

“You have to,” Conrad strained to say. “On your honor as a knight.”

“I thought you said I wasn’t a knight,” Theodore said.

A painful laugh made Conrad wince.

“We’re done here,” Theodore said. “Come on. It’s time to talk things out.”

Conrad looked confused by the offer of mercy. Whatever the detective thought Theodore was, it was not this. Theodore kept his hand held out until his opponent finally took it.

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