For my friend Rich Magahiz, who gave me the idea during a particularly hilarious version of #SciFiChat. Please note this is the first draft. I think the universe is interesting, but I don’t know that I want to go any further with this particular story. Very special thanks to my friend, artist/dancer/sabre fencer Neno Villamor, who helped me keep the duel realistic.
As he worked to calm himself, Champion knew the trouble he was in was his own damn fault. He had ignored his dear mother’s advice: “If it seems too good to be true, it likely is.”
He stepped back quickly, though not quickly enough to avoid hearing his opponent’s saber cut through the air near his left ear. But what was worse than knowing he could have lost an earlobe was the pang in his groin as he blocked the stroke. He needed to get this fight over with and soon, before he completely lost both heads.
When he had ridden into town, he had not been looking for a fight. He had been on the road for two weeks and was looking forward to a hot meal that was not pre-spelled food or his own cooking, and a soft bed.
He had gotten both at the town’s best hotel and enjoyed them and a bath to the fullest. It was not until the next day, when he strolled about, satisfying his curiosity, that he had fallen into difficulty.
Bartlesby was a small place, just a water stop on the railway, so it got few visitors. It was the kind of place Champion usually enjoyed in contrast to the noisy rough-and-tumble of San Francisco. The streets were relatively quiet during the day and nearly deserted at night, most men did not bother to carry a blade, and no one knew who he was, so he was rarely challenged.
After leaving his last employment, he had looked forward to leisurely travel back to the San Francisco Bay, choosing to ride all the way back rather than take a train for most of the journey. He valued his solitude, the time to really think, to savor the countryside, and it all made coming into a town more pleasurable.
Unless something like this happened.
He stepped back quickly, maintaining balance, but avoiding making contact with his opponent’s blade. The man flashily waved his sabre in the manner of someone looking to make a name for himself as a professional duelist and grinned. Probably thinking that his skill worried Champion. But what was really worrying Champion was the erection he could feel that seemed to grow harder with every meeting of the blades. This had never happened to him before, and it was extremely distracting. This duelist was no match for him in skill, but Champion’s difficulty getting himself under control gave the man an advantage.
He looked hard at his opponent: a young dandy outfitted in what was probably the latest bladeslinger fashion imagined in the rotogravure. Stripped of his peacock’s feathers, he was just a skinny brunette whose face had not quite met adulthood. Nothing there for Champion, even had he been inclined that way.
It could not be the duel itself, either. Champion made his living hiring out his skill. He was rational, professional, analytical. His sabre was a tool of his trade, not an advertisement.
But this was not his sabre. It was Hickok’s.
* * *
After finishing his breakfast, Champion had decided to take a walk around the town, just to see what was there. He left his blade in his room – no need for it in Bartlesby.
At the railway/telegraph office, he sent a telegram to his man in San Francisco – might as well take the opportunity to let Lan Min know where he was in case something came up – then continued his walk.
It had been a surprise to see the storefront with its neat lettering of “Jms. Dire – Blades Sold & Repaired.” Champion would not have thought that Bartlesby could support a bladesmith. Out of curiosity, he stepped in and was rewarded with the sight of a lovely woman polishing the glass cases behind which ranks of sabres stood at attention.
She seemed quite refined; her manner and bearing bespoke careful upbringing and he had a sense of a quick mind behind her dark eyes in the glance that she gave him as he entered the shop.
She greeted him with a small smile which was personable, yet not too inviting. It was precisely done. She intrigued him.
“Ah,” she said. “A visitor to our town. Perhaps waiting for a train and desirous of passing the time?”
Champion smiled in return. “Are the merely curious not conducive to good commerce?”
Her smile became somewhat more genuine. “Nice parry.”
“What? No riposte?”
She laughed. It was a light sound. Enjoyable. “That would not be conducive to good commerce, sir.”
It was his turn to laugh.
“What can our little shop have to show a gentleman of experience and refinement, such as I judge you to be?”
“Oh, there’s the riposte. And a hit as well.”
“Are you a collector, perhaps? We have a few oddities that might hold some interest.”
She went to a cabinet, and donning white gloves, removed a sabre from a shallow, wide drawer with velvet lining. She laid it carefully atop a leather square placed on the countertop for Champion to examine.
He found his attention piqued by the pattern of wavy lines in the carbon steel. “Is this Damascus steel?”
“It is, indeed. My brother James, who is the smith, imported some of the Wootz steel from the orient, but he did not make this particular blade. It was given us by the merchant from whom he purchased the steel. He told us it had been created for Mr. William Hickok to his specifications, but as you know, Mr. Tutt killed Mr. Hickok a few years ago, so it was never delivered.”
“It’s a fine looking blade with an interesting provenance.”
“Yes, there is a letter from the merchant and a letter from Mr. Hickok to the swordsmith who made the blade in Damascus that come with it. The merchant bought the sword from the smith after Mr. Hickok’s unfortunate duel.”
“And what are you asking for this interesting piece of history, Miss Dire?”
She smiled at him again. “I’ll put on some tea for the negotiations.”
* * *
They had just settled on the price, when a man who looked to be in his thirties came through the curtains that led into the back of the shop. He had leather guards over his shirtsleeves and blackened dust on his long leather apron. He was introduced to Champion as the smith, James Dire.
“Brother, Mr. Champion here is purchasing the Hickok sabre.”
Mr. Dire, who seemed a little distracted, smiled ruefully and rubbed his head – a practice that must have been habitual, since his hair was already disarranged.
“Oh well,” he said. “I knew it would have to leave us one day, but I shall still be a little sorry to see it go.” He turned to Champion. “Are you a collector, sir?”
“Well,” Dire turned back to his sister. “I just came in to tell you that the order from St. Louis has arrived by wagon and I shall need your help in tallying the goods. Please excuse me, Mr. Champion, and congratulations on your purchase.”
“I shall be with you directly, brother,” Miss Dire told him. “As soon as Mr. Champion and I have concluded the transaction.”
* * *
And that was how Champion had found himself on the street shortly before 11 in the morning, possessed of a dueling sabre in a new scabbard and being accosted by this pale stick of a bladeslinger.
Champion’s opponent went into a feint, and when that did not provoke a reaction, he moved to an advancing lunge, which he executed in a mediocre way. Still, Champion was forced to respond and the resulting chime of steel on steel sent a rhythm of shocks through his genitals that threw off his breathing and ended with the two duelists going corps à corps, from which both men pulled quickly back.
Exercise took blood – the erection should not be there. Dueling took focus – the erection should not be there. But it was there, and despite Champion’s best efforts, every bit of phrasing resulted in heightened sensuality. Should there be a prolonged exchange, or god forbid – a coulé – he would be doomed. The glissando’s sliding action of blade along blade would be likely to send him straight to a mortifying defeat, if not actual, physical death or disfigurement.
It had to be the sword. Hickok’s sabre. There was something wrong with it. And that something had to be magickal in origin. But why would this blade be be-spelled? What gain would be had from it? It made little sense. Hickok himself was not known as a ladies’ man. Further, he had never even actually taken possession of the sabre. Assuming the blade was actually Hickok’s. Assuming the blade…was…what it was supposed to… Damn.
Bamboozled. Like a tyro. Like a hick in the big city for the first time. What an ass.
The clang of blade on blade brought Champion back to the fight. He had parried the blow out of experience, not focus. He paid for it now with the feeling of a gentle hand tugging at him until he felt his face flush and perspiration that had nothing to do with combat running in a rivulet down his belly and below his belt line. The tugging became a rhythmic urging that teased and pulled like that most skilled of demimondes he had met in Paris last year. Gently, firmly, squeezing a little. Coaxing, coaxing, coaxing.
Then the invisible hand ceased its ministrations, and just in time. Champion could think of little worse than explaining to Saint Peter how he had come to die in the middle of the street while in the grip of le petit mort.
This was ludicrous. He made his living as a sword for hire. For him to be nonplussed simply because some invisible hand…
At that moment, Champion’s adversary chose to smirk. His upper lip pulled back toward one ear, displaying his teeth in what was almost a sneer. He was anticipating the victory.
Champion felt his anxiety and uncertainty give way to anger and then to an emotion-crushing calm. He pulled back his blade and breathed out, falling into a split-second stillness. Then he stepped forward; his sabre flicked out and Champion’s wrist barely twisted. In the next moment, the dandy was collapsed in the street, howling for all he was worth, his blade in the dust. One hand held tight to the side of his head, the other was scrabbling about to find the ear Champion had shorn off.
“My honour, I believe,” Champion said to him in passing. He sheathed his sabre quickly and headed off at a quick pace for the bladesmith’s shop. But when he arrived, he found the door was locked and a sign hung in the window: Gone Out of Business.
* * *
So many questions and no answers.
In a gesture unusual for him, Champion rubbed the back of his neck in a bid to get the muscles to loosen and perhaps diminish the headache he was experiencing.
Bartlesby did not have a full-time lawman. The part-timer was mending fence at his ranch and the district sheriff would not be in town until next week. No help there.
None of the local business people he talked to had noticed that a bladesmith’s shop had opened, or if they had, they had just noted it and moved on. Very few of them had any need for, or even interest in, sabres. No help there.
He had just about decided on a late night burglary to see if there were any clues left in the shop and was passing time with a drink before dinner in the hotel when the telegram came. Lan Min’s concise message had nearly set him to swearing. A friend in Seattle needed him. Quickly. Min was not given to drama, but had included the word URGENT. So now Champion was in the railway station, his horse and tack being loaded onto the northbound train. Dinner and a sleeping compartment awaited him.
The vexing problem had been what he should do with the alleged Hickok sabre? What he knew of its magickk proved its danger and what he did not know could likely kill him. Yet, he could not entrust it to anyone else, putting them at risk. His solution had been quick and simple: the sabre, wrapped in brown paper, now occupied a cubbyhole in the railroad’s freight office. It would sit there until he came to claim it. And he did intend to claim it. The solution of this mystery of the blade, the disappearing smith and his lovely sister were only postponed. Champion put the claim ticket into the back of his pocket watch and clicked the case shut, and boarded his train. He would be back.
* * *
“That was a clever idea.” James Dire, erstwhile bladesmith, indicated the long, narrow bundle wrapped in brown paper that he held in one hand.
“Indeed,” the lady with him replied. “And clever of us to have someone keep an eye on Mr. Champion. It made recovering the blade easy.”
“Shall we go back to the laboratory and analyze the data, do you think?”
“I was thinking about that, my dear. I would like to have a little more data to work with.”
“Ah. Then we’ll be traveling in the other direction.”
“Well, Mr. Champion is a blade for hire and he left in a well-organized hurry, so it’s simple to assume—”
“Actually, I discovered he’s traveling to Sacramento with connections further north to Seattle.”
“How simply brilliant of you.” The lady patted Dire’s arm. “If I were a believer in Fate, I’d think making Mr. Champion’s acquaintance was foreordained. He was a marvelous test subject and he’s no doubt heading into a situation where there will be more opportunities to capture data on the sabre’s more interesting features.”
“But not directly from Mr. Champion.”
The lady made a moue. “He’s much too wary, now. But it might be interesting to put the sabre to work against him.”
Mr. Dire smiled. “I’ll go and purchase the tickets.”