portrait of a swordsman as a young man

The first time St Vier saw Alec was in the fall, when the wind sang between the houses of Riverside and the cold rain reduced everything in the world to mud and wet. He was heading home from the Hill, cloak tightly closed to hide the spray of blood on his shirt. He walked neither fast nor slow, past the University -- a dark mass of chimneys and peaks and little squares of flickering light. The country boy he used to be had been all but burned away by the city by this time, and he knew now how to avoid the guards, a particularly important skill now that he no longer could count on his moneyed patron. The University was mostly silent, the weather bad enough to keep all but the most dedicated of drinkers out of the student bars. But, from here and there, the sound of young scholars having their revelry echoed out against the stone walls and off the bricked walks.

It was from one such establishment that Alec appeared in a burst of light and noise. He stumbled out of the tavern orating loudly, or possibly just complaining, to a small group of fellow students. He moved inelegantly, with erratic steps, and St Vier took a step back, wanting to increase the distance and avoid any unnecessary interactions. His sword was uncommon enough to make him suspicious and it wouldn't do to be stopped by the Watch with blood fresh on his clothes. Then Alec passed into a pool of flickering torchlight and St Vier stopped moving. Leaf-brown hair and a student's robe and a pale face that floated in between. It struck St Vier; not like a sword, but like the soft brush of a feather across his nerves. He could feel the danger that crackled from the young man, the jagged bolts scorching the air. It was almost like the first time he'd seen a proper swordfight, and yet it was entirely different as well.

The students moved further into the hulking shadows of the University and St Vier continued back to Riverside. He looked back at the darkness that had swallowed the inelegant man, then continued on his way home. There would be money tomorrow and Jessamyn tonight, and no reason to think upon that pale face, that brown hair.


Jessamyn had hair like fire, and sometimes Richard thought that her sharp temper was merely for show, that she was just living up to her hair. She was still awake when he came in, and she had a dagger in her hand.

"You took your sweet time," she said, and she flipped the dagger in her hand, the blade shinning in the candlelight. "I've been back for a good hour. Did you get lost?"

"I got caught by the nobles." Richard shrugged out of his wet clothes and put them in front of the fire where they steamed and hissed. He stretched carefully and came to their bed. Jessamyn welcomed him with the sweet smile that had lured him here, and kissed him gently, tasting the wine and spices on his lips. "You had a good night, then?"

Jessamyn's smile turned proud and she produced her swag as if by magic, conjuring up the bright baubles from seemingly empty air. "You do provide a wonderful distraction, Master Swordsman."

Richard kissed her again and pressed her down onto the bed, and he thought about brown hair and flat planes.


The second time St Vier saw Alec it was an actual meeting and not just a passing in rain soaked darkness. It was at the University again, on a sullen day of diffused light. St Vier had been heading home once more, his purse heavy with payment, when Alec called out to him.

"You there."

The tone was Hill and St Vier stopped. It brought back pleasant memories of a past that was not so very distant and he turned, expecting a different face. It was Alec who approached him instead, striding forth like a molting stork, shabby black robe flapping in the autumn wind. Another student followed him, and St Vier briefly entertained the thought of turning back around and going his way. But Alec was already at his shoulder, and he spoke in the cultured Hill tones so St Vier stayed.

"You're Richard St Vier," he said.

St Vier nodded curtly and Alec smiled.

"I thought so. Pay up, Wills." The second student grudgingly counted out a silver piece and some bronze into Alec's hand. Alec tipped an imaginary hat and pocketed the coins with a quick, efficient gesture. His mouth smiled but his eyes were serious. "Much obliged."

He turned back to St Vier and clapped him on the shoulder with a thin, elegant hand. It was curiosity that kept St Vier from drawing; curiosity at this arrogance that let Alec touch him so familiarly, a wondering if it was arrogance in truth or something as equally dangerous and far more stupid. "Well, Master St Vier," he drawled. "As it was your presence that earned me this coin, I fell it only fair to offer you thanks." He turned and headed to the nearest tavern, pulling St Vier behind him.

Inside the tavern it was hot and loud. Alec pushed straight to the bar, and rapped loudly on the scarred wood. "Two of your cheapest meat pies. And beer! Bring us beer!"

The man behind the bar grunted and Alec turned back to St Vier, who'd followed slightly more serenely in Alec's wake. "I shall call you Richard," he said grandly.

"Very well," Richard replied.

"And you may call me Alec." Alec smiled here, and something genuine seeped through the layers of arrogant pomp he'd wrapped himself in. Richard found himself smiling back in response, and he was almost glad for the beer that was suddenly thrust into his hands. But this was a challenge, of sorts, and it was the best one he'd had yet.

"Very well," he replied once more, and that was, more or less, that.


"You're never around anymore," Jessamyn complained to him, some time later; Richard stopped his imaginary sword fight. "You're always out."

"You don't expect me to stay here, waiting for another commission, do you?" He stretched his muscles and rotated his wrist.

"But where do you go? Rosalie says she hasn't seen you in ages." She rose from the chaise and draped herself on Richard's shoulder. She stroked his hair and her lithe body pressed hotly against his.

"I just go out." St Vier shrugged his lover off and raised the tip of his sword and began his drills again. He shook the plaster down with his rhythmic thudding, drowning out any further attempt at conversation.


Some time after their second meeting but before their final one, Richard met Alec in a Riverside tavern. It came as quite the shock to Richard, this sudden appearance of the student in his world. It made Alec seem realer and less like a waking succubus who lived only in the ivy choked world of the University.

"Hello Richard," Alec said, and the dice he held in his hand clattered against each other.

"Alec." Richard stood close by the table and touched Alec's arm. The fool was entirely unarmed and Richard found that he didn't want to see Alec's blood soaking into the sawdust scattered on the tavern's floor. He had been safe so far, the Riversiders having sniffed out his madness; they were sensible folk who knew when to back away from something as brittle and jagged as Alec. But it was only a matter of time before Alec's cloak of protective madness was shown to be nothing more than gossamer light, and he became just another dead body. "Come on. I'll take you home."

"I'd rather stay." Alec pulled his arm away and rolled the dice, cursing rather crudely as they came up ones. Richard tightened his grip on sword but backed away. He sat down nearby and watched Alec gamble until he had lost all the coin he'd come with and some of Richard's too.

Alec drained the last of his cheap beer and stood rather unsteadily, knocking his knee against the bottom of the table. "Well," he said. "I suppose as I have nothing left to lose I'll be going. Come on, Richard." He walked erratically away and Richard followed. They walked past the decaying facades of the once proud houses and through the narrow streets that wound about. Night had come on and the torches were few.

Richard walked the streets confidently, secure in his skills; those on the Hill might not yet know him to be the best, but those who lived in Riverside knew the truth. Only a fool would attack Richard St Vier. But Alec was a fool in many ways and in the gloom of the near-winter's night he made his move, unexpected and devastating.

Richard lost his footing in his surprise at the feel of Alec in his arms, of the pressure of Alec's lips against his. He brought his hands up, clutching at Alec's shabby robe, wanting first to steady them; but Alec would have none of that. He forced Richard back, back, until they hit a crumbling wall hard enough to jar, to hurt. Richard brought his hands up to Alec's head, tangled his fingers in the hair that had worked its way free from the old ribbon that kept it tied back. He could feel Alec's fingers digging into his sides. It was painful, but he didn't want to stop because this was so very different from how he'd thought it would be. Alec tasted nothing of the Hill, and nothing of the University; there was nothing charming or civilized in his kiss, no hint of godly arrogance. There was only wildness, madness, danger as sharp and keen as the edge of Richard's sword, the thin tautness of his nerves in the midst of battle. Richard hungered for that danger. He wanted more, wanted to know if all of Alec tasted like this or just his mouth, to know if sex would be like a battle.

Richard pushed back into the kiss and Alec broke away, stepping clear with a grace he had heretofore lacked. Richard blinked and then readjusted his thinking and calmed himself, subsuming the thrill of the fight until it just purred inside his head instead of roared. He smoothed his clothing and tweaked his sword belt back into place.

"Come on. I'll take you home," he said.

Alec was flushed and kept his distance the entire way.


Jessamyn was well into a rage by the time St Vier got back. Broken pottery littered the floor in front of their door, and St Vier barely managed to dodge a ceramic missile.

"Jessa," he began, using the tone of voice that normally placated her.

"I know your tricks now, Master St Vier." Jessamyn's chest heaved as she panted out her anger, her fiery hair wild and tangled. "I know where you've been spending your nights."

"Now Jessa." St Vier approached with his hands held up carefully before him, voice still soothing. "What are you talking about?"

"Oh don't play the ignorant with me, Richard!" Jessa's voice rose operatically, and she snatched up a knife, having run out of missiles. "I saw you with that boy! All of Riverside saw you two!" She lunged for him and he dodged out of her way, twisting his body clear. She turned just as deftly and began to circle him, seeking an opening. "Is he your new sheath? Do you enjoy thrusting into him, penetrating him? Is he soft beneath you? Does he sigh your name?"

She lunged again and once more St Vier turned aside. His eyes had gone opaque and he loosened his sword in its sheath. He was still off-balance from Alec, his composure slightly off-kilter. He found himself wanting to answer Jessamyn's thrusts with his own, to let loose everything that Alec had raised within him.

"Stop this, Jessa," he said instead. "It's not like that."

"Not like that? Oh ho." Jessa laughed, low and derisive. "I see. That's how it is, then. You've become his sheath. Are you so desperate to be penetrated by a sword that you'll lie back and take it from a useless twit like that boy? Are you the one begging on his hands and knees?"

She held the dagger up and breathed raggedly. "Perhaps I should go to Hugo. Maybe he can protect me from useless, stupid boys like you. He wouldn't think having a girl to warm his bed was an excuse to go out and flirt with mad boys. He surely knows what honor is!"

"Stop it, Jessa," Richard said, quietly, and when Jessamyn lunged again he didn't avoid her but met her head on. It wasn't much of a fight, and it ended quickly with no time for grand speeches or final words. Just with Jessamyn, dead, on the floor. Her blood was as red as her hair and Richard supposed he should feel regret; he had loved her, after all, loved this girl who had fought with him. But he felt a strange coldness instead, the same coldness that filled him whenever he saw the bodies of the swordsmen who hadn't been good enough.

He rented a set of rooms from Marie the next day.


It was the smell that awoke him, that day in the middle of spring. It made him feel slightly ill, and it came from his front room. He sprang from his bed, sword as naked as his body and rushed through the door.

Alec looked up from the fish that he was frying and smiled. "Hello Richard. I've brought some fish."

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