Rating: Great Fun! Nothing pulls you out of the story. The shamelessly selfish medieval sense of honour infuses all the characters, places, and events with a refreshing credibility. It’s a fictional world that feels very real, and very weird. I like it a lot. Thoroughly enjoyed this book.
----------------Obir Magazine (R. Graeme Cameron)
Cuialfil's career received another boost less than a month before the end of his contract. Kuopniun fo Saeiwo, his client, called him aside one morning just before he left for business.
"You know Baegoet fo Yiicoel, the shipping magnate? He has been spreading slanderous statements about my honesty."
Cuialfil quickly reviewed what he knew of Baegoet's three Acceptors. He was certain he could take two of them, and had a good chance against Zian fo Flobwu, the senior. A duel just before the Abode opened the bidding on his next contract would be excellent advertising.
He smiled. "That's what I'm here for, Your Magnificence."
Nothing more need be said, although in fact Cuialfil was not as confident as he was pretending. The theory behind the duelling was that Strife, as god of battle and justice, would rule in favour of the righteous, and Kuopniun fo Saeiwo's own dealings did have some shady corners. But that would make the game interesting.
So when Kuopniun strode into the Commercial Plaza that morning, Cuialfil fo Benirern was right at his heels. It was obvious that word of a possible challenge had already spread, and Baegoet fo Yiicoel had brought his chief Acceptor, Zian fo Flobwu. Five or six years ago, Zian had been one of the best, but he was plumper now and his eyes narrowed when he saw Cuialfil grinning at him. The test of nerves had begun.
Kuopniun halted about twenty paces short of Baegoet and the crowd between them melted back to watch.
"Baegoet fo Yiicoel, you have been telling lies about me."
Zian stepped forward. "Upon my blood I deny that statement."
Cuialfil went for the crown. "And I will defend the charge with my life." Smile--great, big smile!
Zian turned white, but he did not back down. "Now, brother?"
"Now," Cuialfil agreed.
The fight was fast and very furious. Zian kept recovering, the spectators backing away to give him room, and Cuialfil following after him, right on his toes. Their blades rang like a carillon, and then Cuialfil's lunge ripped Zian's sleeve and the flesh inside it, causing Zian to drop his sword. He looked down at his bleeding arm, then at Cuialfil's rapier, whose point was at his throat. He could still have begged for mercy, but if he did that his career would be over and his client condemned anyway. He chose to rip open his tunic, and Cuialfil skewered his heart.
The crowd cheered and then set upon the wretched Baegoet like a pack of dogs.
Cuialfil sheathed his blade at the third attempt. He could feel reaction setting in, but Kuopniun clapped him on the shoulder.
"Well done, lad," he said. "Usual bonus."
The usual bonus for a kill was twice the hiring fee.
Cuialfil bowed. "Your Magnificence is most generous."
Fortune favours the brave, as the saying goes.
* * *
The day after he delisted Zian fo Flobwu, Cuialfil dropped in at the Abode of Honour to accept congratulations on his match, but also to consult with Rector Quadliaz. He thought his third-cousin-twice-removed was aging more than the lapse of time warranted, but this had been a hard year for him. The Cuialfil-Zian match had been the fourth mortal duel that year, so the rector had been learning how it felt to train young men to kill and be killed.
He brightened at the sight of Cuialfil, though, congratulated him heartily, and brought out the wine flask, a welcome sign of respect. No standing-before-the-throne nonsense now.
"Even before your triumph yesterday, Acceptor, I was about to send for you," he said when they had dealt with the gossip and settled down to business. "I have received a very unusual request, and thought of you at once. Your latest success and your youth have brought you to a difficult point in your career. You can now command very high retainer fees, but few clients are wealthy enough to pay such prices, and I don't know of any needing to hire a chief Acceptor in the near future--none, that is, whose character you would want to defend. However, a certain honourable gentleman, who insists on remaining anonymous, is willing to pay very well to have a small package delivered to the Home of the Mother, in the Eastern Shores."
Cuialfil needed a moment to take that in. With the Eastern Shores lying on the far side of the continent, this would be no mean journey. Acceptors like to think of themselves as warriors, dedicated to Strife, but they also pray to the God's other aspects--Skamp for good fortune and Smugg for wealth--and they certainly do not neglect aspects of the Mother, especially the Matron as goddess of healing, knowing that some day they may have need of her attention. And of course all young men offer nightly appeals to the Maiden to send them loving partners.
"He offers," Quadliaz said with a smile, "ten thousand obbeng when you depart and ten thousand more when you return with a receipt from the Mother's priestesses."
"By sea?" Cuialfil knew the smell of salt water but had no wish to travel on it. It was dangerous stuff.
"By land. This is hurricane season and no ships are sailing, but the matter is urgent. You may return by sea if you wish, but the outward journey must be by land. You will go upstream as far as Thicon, and then up the Fest to Festant, which is the main starting point for the Desolation Road. There you will join a caravan. The package must remain sealed and guarded with your life. Your expenses will be covered. He insists on absolute secrecy."
Months of hardship, mountains, desert, jungle, brigands, fevers, savage tribes, and wild beasts? But twenty thousand obbeng for a one-year jaunt? It was a momentous, life-threatening decision and Cuialfil needed only a few seconds to make it.
"My present contract ends in three weeks. I'll need a day to invest the lucre. After that I'm his man."