It was a crisp fall day with a slight breeze and clouds overhead that rolled and boiled in the gray sky, threatening rain as Captain Tamas prepared for the duel.
The field of honor was an hour’s ride outside of Adopest, the capital of Adro. The wheat had been harvested and the ground lay bare but for the chaff and trampled stalk. In the distance, a farmer and his wife stood outside their stone-walled hovel and watched as Tamas’s second, and the second of his opponent, paced off the points for the duel.
Tamas’s second was a man named Matin. He was only an officer cadet preparing to enter the army at the rank of lieutenant, but it had been the best Tamas could do at such short notice. Few commissioned officers wanted anything to do with him.
Tamas checked his pistol for the third time. His powder was dry, the pan primed, and bullet loaded. The seconds had inspected both pistols but Tamas would rather be confident in his weapon and have his opponent think him nervous than suffer a misfire.
The ground was paced out, the center marked, and the swords stuck point-first into the ground where the opponents would turn and fire. Matin spoke quietly to his opposite number and then approached Tamas.
“Sir, I beg you to reconsider.”
“Has he apologized?” Tamas asked.
“No, sir.” Matin rushed on before Tamas could respond. “But this is a mistake, if you don’t mind me saying.”
“And why is that?” Tamas stared at the cadet, forcing the young officer to look up and meet his eye.
Matin swallowed hard, and Tamas was secretly pleased he could have that effect on a man. At twenty-one, Matin was six years younger than Tamas, the third son of a baron and already engaged to be married. While Tamas had nothing but his name.
“It’s just,” Matin said slowly. “It doesn’t seem wise. You’ll risk your rank! Captain Linz’s father is a duke and, uh, well you’re a …”
“A commoner? I’m aware, Matin. You don’t have to stutter.” Tamas had fought over two dozen duels in the last ten years, almost exclusively against nobles, and he’d even killed a few of his opponents. But he’d never challenged the son of a duke before. Even if he was a second son. “If you would rather not be involved, I will understand. I just ask that you speak to my opponent and schedule a new date for the duel.”
Matin visibly steeled himself, straightening his back. “I gave my word I would second for you, sir.”
“And I’ll remember that when I’m your commanding officer.”
Matin smiled as if Tamas had made a joke. Tamas ignored that, turning to eye his opponent from across the field. Captain Linz was a tall man, broad in the chest with gold hair like a lion—a natural-born grenadier if Tamas had ever seen one. He was grateful that Linz had not demanded sabers, as he would have likely defeated Tamas.
“I am not without mercy,” Tamas said. “Would you please remind the captain that I am a powder mage? I’ll accept his apology for the slur against my parentage and the parentage of my hounds, and we can part as friends.” Tamas caught Linz’s eye and gave him a wan smile.
Matin looked at him as if he were mad.
“Well, go on,” Tamas said.
“Yes, sir.” Matin headed across the field to meet Linz’s second.
Tamas used the time to check his pistol yet again, and wonder about his own wisdom in pursuing this duel. If he were wounded, he had no funds for a Privileged healer and his recovery would keep him from leaving on the next campaign. If he won and wounded or killed his opponent, he would gain the enmity of a duke.
Absently, Tamas tore the end off a powder charge and sprinkled the granules on his tongue. He could feel the effect immediately. His vision and hearing sharpened, his blood pounded in his ears and everything else in the world seemed sluggish. The powder trance would give him increased strength, agility, and speed, but he had no intention of using any of those for this duel.
No, he just needed focus.
Matin spoke with Linz’s second, who relayed Tamas’s message to Linz. The big captain threw his head back and gave a booming laugh. Even without the benefit of a powder trance Tamas could have heard his reply.
“Tell that son of a whore that I don’t believe in fairy tales. He can shoot at me with whatever powder sorcery he thinks he has.”
Tamas sighed and waited for Matin to return.
“He said,” Matin began.
“I heard him,” Tamas responded. “Bloody fool has a third cousin in the royal cabal. He’s fought beside Privileged sorcerers, and he thinks the idea of powder magic is a fairy tale?”
“I’ve killed men at a mile and a quarter. Pit, I’ve killed Gurlish Privileged at that distance. There is no rule that keeps me from using my powers in a duel, so long as my opponent knows about them.” Tamas could feel his ire rising and forced himself to take a deep breath. Bloody nobles. Arrogant and ignorant, every one of them, he thought. After a second deep breath, he said, “Shall we?”
The seconds accompanied both opponents to the middle point, and Tamas and Linz took up a stance back to back.
“Damned peasant,” Linz said in a low voice.
Tamas didn’t respond.
“Gentlemen,” Matin said. “You will each proceed to the furthest point at a measured pace, at which time you will both turn and fire one pistol. Upon firing both parties will consider the matter closed and honor satisfied. Do we agree?”
“Yes,” Linz said.
“Of course,” Tamas said.
“Very well. Begin!”
Tamas took slow steps until he reached his marker and turned sharply on his heel. Linz did the same, his pistol coming up in one quick motion. Tamas could tell that Linz had pulled the trigger prematurely, and his preternatural senses heard the bullet smack into the ground just in front of his feet.
Tamas watched Linz for a moment. He could sense Linz’s uneasiness begin to grow as he realized he had missed, could see Linz pull the trigger again and again, as if willing out a second bullet.
Tamas turned toward his opponent sidelong and slowly raised his pistol. He took a long, steady breath, leveling his weapon. Linz glanced at his second as the moments ticked by, and Tamas briefly wondered if he’d shout out an apology in hopes of a reprieve.
Tamas pulled the trigger. He could have willed the bullet along a straight path with the strength of his sorcery, taking it through Linz’s heart with surgical precision. At thirty paces, however, he didn’t have to. The bullet flew from the smoothbore barrel of Tamas’s pistol and took off Linz’s right earlobe.
Linz immediately clutched at the side of his face. “Bloody pit!” he screamed, dancing about, nearly tripping over the sword that marked the end of the dueling ground. Blood streamed through his fingers and his second rushed to help him, brandishing a handkerchief.
Tamas turned away from the swearing officer and savored the sulfur smell of spent powder, his mind already moving to other things. “You may tell Captain Linz that I am satisfied.”
“Did you aim for his face?” Matin asked, mouth agape.
“No, my good man. That would not have been gentlemanly. I aimed for his earlobe.”
“You’re that good?”
“It may have been safer to kill him, sir.”
Tamas cocked an eyebrow at his second. “And why is that?”
“He’ll either think you were showing off or that you meant to aim at his face. One is an insult, and the other, as you said, is ungentlemanly.”