Ever since we were girls in Miss Harbidan’s Finishing School, Lillian Traskedor and I were bosom chums. She invited me to spend summer holidays on her family’s estates in the lake country, and I, in turn, would have her to my family’s lovely town house in the season, so that we could attend balls together. Lillian and I shared a love of quadrilles and of riding apart from the hunt; we liked the same poets and the same novelists but never the same men, and we could borrow each other’s clothing without a stitch of alteration.
Of course we each had our own interests, and she would never feel about silky-eared spaniel breeding the way I did, nor would I ever understand her fascination with the details of hedge magic. But this never altered our friendship a particle.
Until the incident of the duel.
The season was in full swing, so we were in town rather than in the country. My mother knew well that the best way to get me to dig my heels in was to push me forward, so instead of harping on eligible matches, she held dinners and seated me next to young men who bred hounds and who incidentally had lovely profiles. A few well-placed words from Lady Traskedor got Lillian placed next to broad-shouldered bachelors who knew their way through a labyrinth without having to count the Seven Essential Steps on their fingers.
But Lillian languished. And when Lillian languished, the rest of us held our breath.
After one particularly long dinner, she flung herself backwards on my bed in her petticoat. “Oh, Syth, I’m so bored. None of these fellows has the slightest bit of spark, of character, of oomph!”
“I don’t think you should make a noise like oomph where your mother can hear,” I said. “It sounds like a sick badger. And I thought that fellow tonight was nice. What was his name, Chesterton, Chesteran, Chestington?”
“You make him sound like an unmentionables store,” said Lillian flatly. “And that is just how I would feel if I was Lady Chestiwick.”
“Chestiwick, yes,” I said, but I could tell that having the right name was not going to change her mind.
Lillian looked up at me from under the elaborate coiffure she had mussed into her eyes. “I have had it, Syth,” she said. “Has your mother introduced you to a reasonable gentleman all season?”
“They all seem to be reasonable,” I said.
She leapt to her feet. Her mussed hair, half its pins dislodged past the point of utility, teetered alarmingly as she paced. “But could you happily look at any of them across the breakfast table for the rest of your life? Are any of them anything beyond reasonable? No, Forsythia, no, I say again, no. They are not. And I have tired of it. There must be somewhere in this city—or its outlying environs—some gentlemen who would make our hearts beat fast, and yet do our mothers find them?”
“It’s a long season, Lillian,” I said, pulling the pins out of my own hair rather more carefully. “There’s no great hurry.”
“I hate to waste my time,” she said. “And I am through, Syth, through. Mama had better start improving this situation, or she will vastly regret it.”
I laughed. “Oh, Lillian, you are tired and peevish. Take to your bed. It will be better in the morning.”
She repaired to my guest room, the same one she always used, with the fashionable mauve flowered paper, but in the morning she still had that grim little smile I had come to know from many a school exploit. I let her go home—how could I stop her?—but I had an uneasy feeling.
Nor was my long experience of Lillian wrong in this matter. Late in Lady Katherine’s next soiree, she swept up to me with a man I did not know trailing behind her. She looked triumphant, her cheeks becomingly flushed. The man was distinctly less pleased, drooping in both his shoulders and his moustaches. I hoped she had not decided to take over my mother’s role, as he had a horsey smell about him and was just the sort of fellow everyone believed the athletic Miss Elwyrm—that is myself—might find congenial.
“May I present my dearest friend, Miss Forsythia Elwyrm,” said Lillian.
“Your servant, miss,” said the swell.
“I doubt that very much,” I said sharply, “but I’m pleased to meet you all the same. Lillian, what are you about?”
“This is Sir Graham Phelps,” she said. “He is the second to Lord Benderskeith. You and Sir Graham will be coordinating the terms of my duel with Lord Benderskeith.”
“The terms,” I said weakly. “Of yourduel. With Lord Benderskeith.”
Lillian’s face looked confident, but her eyes pled with me. I gave in.
“Of course,” I said. “Naturally, Sir Graham, I will be glad to work out the details as needed.”
Sir Graham bowed again. His moustaches stayed down longer than he did. Lillian said, “You need to know, of course, that I am resolved to go forward with this, regardless of what Lord Benderskeith may say to attempt to slither out of it. My honor is at stake.”
“Lord Benderskeith,” said Sir Graham with an unhappy stiffness, “is not by nature a slitherer.”
“So you say,” said Lillian, and for a moment I thought Sir Graham might challenge her himself, leaving me to arrange two duels when I would prefer none. “Very well. Go on with it, Syth.”
“Have I any choice?” I said.
She frowned and hovered at my shoulder, leaving me to stare rather blankly at Sir Graham. “A duel, then.”
“Sorcerous, naturally,” he said. “Unless your rather hot-tempered friend here—” Lillian sniffed haughtily. “—is in the habit of challenging strange men to all sorts of duels, which at this point—”
“Sorcerous,” I agreed. “A witches’ duel, which means midnight, sunset, or dawn. Midnight is out because we are unmarried ladies. Does Lord Benderskeith have a preference between dawn and sunset?”
“Dawn is usual for young ladies, isn’t it?”
I gave a little bow. “Dawn it shall be, then.”
We went through the rest of the arrangements briskly—I did not care to spend more time than necessary on the matter—and then I took Lillian away in some dudgeon. I steered her into a private corner, holding her firmly by the elbow. Uncharacteristically, she did not protest. “Lillian, what have you done?”
“My mother is wasting my time, Syth,” she said. “And I won’t have it. I won’t. So I decided that the next eligible man she introduced me to who offended my sensibilities would get challenged to a duel. And the next, and the next, until she manages to do better for herself.”
“Or until word gets out that you are a madwoman who is completely unmarriageable,” I said. “And possibly that I am, too, as I am your bosom chum.”
Lillian sniffed. “I am dreadfully sorry if it ends up splashing on you, Syth, but we must show them we do not mean to have our time wasted by this endless stream of pathetic ne’er-do-wells.”
“I hardly think that—”
“Lil,” I said. “You will have it that your mother is trying to marry you off to every bandit and horse-thief this side of the Channel, but I cannot think that she deserves it. You are merely too nice in your tastes.”
She sniffed. “Is that so? Tell me, then, why you have not announced your own engagement yet this season?”
I faltered. “The young men my mother puts forth are not—”
“You see!” she said triumphantly. “You are with me in spirit, you know you are.”
I sighed. The problem was that by naming me her second, she had demanded that I would have to be with her in body as well.
While Lillian was off buying herself supplies, I took myself to Lord Benderskeith’s family’s town house to see if there was any way I could talk him into a graceful exit. I was waiting in the parlor when he entered. It was the first chance I’d had to get a good look at him. He had very dark eyes, and his clothing was more reserved than one might expect of a gentleman whose hobby was magic. He also lacked any such odd odor as, one must be honest, even my dearest bosom chum Lillian sometimes finds to pervade her person after magic workings. Instead he smelled of toast. I suppose given the hour of the morning, he hadn’t had much opportunity for anything but breakfast.
“Your servant, Miss Elwyrm,” said Lord Benderskeith, bowing over my hand, “but isn’t it more usual for the seconds in a duel to see each other, rather than the principals?”
“It is, I know,” I said. “But I came here hoping—”
I broke off when the parlor door opened to admit Sir Graham, drooping mustaches aquiver.
“It’s you again,” he said. “What is it this time? Come to pile insult upon insult? Going to add another challenge to your friend’s?”
“Graham,” said Lord Benderskeith sharply. “There’s no call to make yourself unpleasant.”
“Quite enough people have done that in this little contretemps already, I suppose,” said Sir Graham. He did not bow over my hand, and he continued to look at me as though I might at any moment pull a pistol and demand satisfaction. It almost made me regret that I was not so equipped.
“I have come,” I started again, with considerably less self-assurance, “to find whether you might be persuaded to—that is, I hope you might let this matter go.”
“Huh!” said Sir Graham unpleasantly.
Lord Benderskeith gave me a pleasant but regretful smile. “But you see, it was not I who issued the challenge. Are you saying that your... ah... rather spirited friend has decided that she will be glad to call the thing off by mutual consent?”
“Noooo,” I admitted.
“Told you,” Sir Graham muttered. I glared at him.
“Really, Graham,” said Lord Benderskeith. He turned back to me with true gentlemanly courtesy. “But you were hoping that I would find some excuse to spare her the ordeal?”
“To spare both of us,” I said. “Yes.”
“Alas, I cannot,” said Lord Benderskeith. “Or rather: I will not. This Lady, ah—”
“Lillian,” supplied Sir Graham and I at the same time.
Lord Benderskeith blushed. “I’m terribly sorry, I don’t know what’s come over me. I haven’t such hordes of young ladies challenging me to duels that I ought to forget their names, but something put it right out of my head. Lady Lillian has behaved in a manner that I do not think should go unchecked. Do you believe it ought, Miss Elwyrm?”
He remembered my name completely unprompted both times. Curious. “I don’t,” I had to admit. “But if she wins—”
“She will be yet more obstreperous?” he said, and somehow it did not anger me as it would have from Sir Graham. “I do see your point, and I will endeavor to prevent that occurrence.”
I hardly knew what to say there—one can scarcely thank a man for promising to thrash one’s best friend in a duel, and yet Lillian would be a frightful bore if she won the thing. Still worse if we had to go through it all again. I muddled my way through a graceful parting, and I hoped it was the worst I would have to deal with as Lillian’s second.
It was not.
Dog breeders have to be willing to put up with a certain amount of muck and nastiness, and of the things my pups have gotten on my stable skirts, least said, soonest mended. But it is nothing, nothing whatever, to the things one is expected to hold when one agrees to serve as a witch’s second. Lillian is my best friend, but I say to you now: sorcerers. Witches. Those people are vile.
I have been a second before, in an ordinary duel, for my brother Rupert. It is nothing compared to half a dozen other, nastier things I have done for Rupert. I checked the swords over, I affirmed that he would not be satisfied unless the duel was fought and ascertained that the other fellow would not either, and I made sure that the field was fair and the proceedings just.
(Then I put the salve on his cheek that I make for my spaniels’ feet when they get into briars, and I called him an idiot. This is all, I feel, part of the service. One cannot encourage the behavior too much.)
But for Lillian, checking blades was just the beginning. The blades were silver, and their points had to be dipped and tested for two or three spells as well as for sharpness. In tandem with Sir Graham, I had to sniff vials of black hen’s blood to ensure that it was fermented; I had to stick an index finger and a twig of hazel into the squid ink to verify that it dripped the same off each. I bent the baleen staves carefully—other media were less flexible and more likely to hold spells that would do serious unintentional damage. The vitreous and aqueous humors had to be checked, the seal entrails and the polar bear liver poked and smelled and generally examined.
It took upwards of an hour and a half, very little of it pleasant. This sort of thing is not why I wasn’t a witch, but I can’t say it wouldn’t have been a contributing factor. If I’m going to deal with something that unpleasant, I want there to be a well-trained hound at the end of it, or at least a sweet-natured pup gnawing my fingers.
At the end of it, we needed both ritual and non-ritual cleansing. I kept my chin very high and did not look at Sir Graham, Lord Benderskeith, the doctor, or the judge. Sometimes an inviolate sense of personal dignity is the only thing that stands between oneself and the chaos of the world.
This is even more true with a best friend like Lillian.
Rather than counting off paces for a sorcerous duel, the principals pace out their circles. We as the seconds watched carefully, making sure that the protective elements were laid down to the judge’s satisfaction; Lillian in no wise intended this to be a duel to the death, and Lord Benderskeith was not inclined to push the issue. Sir Graham and I took up our posts, the combatants bowed to each other, and the duel was joined.
I half-expected Lord Benderskeith to allow Lillian a first courtesy attack, which would have been foolhardy on his part, but men often are foolhardy in duels with women, I have found. But milord was apparently not such a fool; he began immediately by splashing the contents of a silver flask at Lillian. I had examined the liquid myself—it was water—but could not decipher the runes on the flask. As he threw it, it turned into a sharp-edged silver wall, like an undulating set of knife blades.
Lillian toed some extra protection into her circle at the last minute and countered by flinging a particular spelled spice blend of her own about her in five spots. I couldn’t tell what it was supposed to do, other than make me want roast chicken for luncheon, but Lord Benderskeith fell to his knees and had some trouble getting up again. Lillian took advantage of his moment of weakness to reach for some of her more complicated equipment: a round jar, a knife, and some of the fermented entrails. But Lord Benderskeith rallied astonishingly, summoning an ugly little imp to wreak havoc with Lillian’s work.
They went on in that vein all morning. Sir Graham was resolutely not meeting my eyes, but luckily for me the judge was not so foolish and called a stoppage for all of us to have luncheon. We ate from prepared hampers, eyeing each other from across the dueling field, but the principals could at least leave their circles for the time being.
“How are you holding up?” I asked Lillian in low tones.
“Don’t worry about me,” she said around a mouthful of the cold chicken her spell had made me long for. I took a piece myself and pulled a face at her. “He’s good, but I knew he would be. Possibly weak in transformations. Did you see how he favored the mammalian implements over the avian and reptilian? I can use that.”
I sighed and took the last scone; she did not deserve it. “No, I did not see that. Of course I didn’t see that. Lil, if you wanted an expert witch for your second, there were five in our class at Miss Harbidan’s alone. You could have asked them.”
She shoved my shoulder lightly. “Don’t be a goose, of course I wanted you. Now, come on, let’s get back to it.”
As Lillian paced out her new circle, I looked over to Lord Benderskeith and Sir Graham, conferring glumly. They did not look to be enjoying the situation, nor did I blame them. Bad enough to be challenged to a duel out of the blue, but worse still to find that you were evenly matched and would have to take some time at it.
And “some time” was not the half of it. Though Lillian leaned hard on the weakness she thought she saw in the area of transformations, it looked as though Lord Benderskeith had found some similar failing in her. She tried to push him into the wrong sort of transformations, and from what I could tell he was trying to get her to do more in the line of demon summonings.
Lillian has never been very good at demon summonings, which is how she nearly got us both expelled from Miss Harbidan’s, but I digress. She managed to use elementals to parry when even I could see that a demon would be more usual, and she even used up the last of her goat saliva on a particularly nasty rain of biting flies that Lord Benderskeith fended off with a mist-fine silver net.
When the sun set, the judge called time and offered a postponement of the duel.
“I don’t need to stop,” said Lillian.
“Shut up, Lil,” I whispered. Lord Benderskeith was bending his head in weariness, and in the late dusk shadows I saw that his profile was very fine. “You can use the rest.”
“So can he,” Lillian whispered back, but I silenced her. Sir Graham and I conferred with the judge, and we all agreed that the next day at dawn would be an admirable time to continue. The doctor could not join us for a second day, but he recommended a colleague, and the judge agreed to settle the matter before dawn. He swept up the remaining magical supplies into his care and supervision for the evening, greatly relieving my mind about the next morning.
Lillian and I went back to my parents’ town home in silence. Despite her protests, we were both too weary to talk much—and I was wondering how long she would stretch my patience with this duel.
It is no good to expect Lillian to quit when she has started something. It simply will not happen. Either Lord Benderskeith would have to concede, or we would be here until one of them won.
The thought filled me with trepidation the next morning when we took our places once more on the dueling ground. And as they threw firestorms and basilisks at each other, I stifled a yawn, Sir Graham began to look as though he had sat upon something deeply awkward, and the two were still incredibly evenly matched. Not a touch for either of them.
At the inevitable lunch break, I ignored Lillian completely and marched over to Lord Benderskeith’s party.
“If you bring terms—” said Sir Graham.
“I do not,” I said. “Look at her. Does she look ready to offer terms?”
“Of course neither are we,” said Sir Graham hastily.
“Of course,” added Lord Benderskeith in a voice so dry it would turn grapes to raisins in a heartbeat.
I cocked my head and looked at him. Forthrightness would be my best asset here. “What exactly did you say to her?”
Lord Benderskeith looked flustered. He apparently had a great deal of practice at it; when he raked his hand through his hair, it stood up in peaks that looked as though they’d been there daily since he was a boy. “I don’t even recall what it was, honestly. It seemed so commonplace to me, just making conversation about what I’d been told was an interest we shared. And for some reason she took it as a slur on her abilities, and the next thing I knew—here we are.”
“It likely was a commonplace thing to say,” I said. “That was almost certainly the problem.”
He sighed. “I cannot think that I would have been able to avoid this, then. I have very little conversation with those I don’t know, which puts me in a tight spot when it comes to the sort of marriage market affairs at which I met your Miss Traskedor.”
“Lady Lillian,” Sir Graham corrected him almost absently.
“Yes, I see,” I said. “You are talking to me readily enough.”
“You have made your purpose clear, for which I am grateful, and I need not rely upon platitudes.”
“I do strive to be purposeful in all things.”
He smiled at me. It was a nice smile, but he looked as though he wanted to go away and shut himself up with his spellbooks for a week. It’s a shame when a man like that has to go around and around making himself pleasant to the young women his mother has picked out.
“And Lady Lillian?” asked Sir Graham. I did not like the sharpness in his tone.
“Lillian is also purposeful in all things,” I said, “but her purposes and those of the rest of us... well. We cannot always find ourselves clearly aligned.”
Lord Benderskeith laughed, but Sir Graham glared at me. I do not care whether he thought me disloyal. There is the loyalty of a friend, and then there is foolish insistence that one’s friend must be always right, and I hope that I am a good enough friend to Lillian not to be a fool.
“I don’t suppose you’d concede the duel,” I said to Lord Benderskeith, ignoring Sir Graham completely.
“Not concede, no,” he said. “I could see my way to calling the thing off, but conceding says that I lost, and if I’m to do that, I’m afraid I’ll have to do it outright.”
“I understand,” I said.
When I rejoined Lillian, she said, “Well? Reconnaissance?”
“No, Lil,” I said, helping myself to an egg sandwich. “No reconnaissance here. Just trying to see a way out of this for either of us.”
“You could have a little faith in me,” she protested.
“Lil,” I said around my mouthful of egg and bread. “You had exactly the same size energy dragons. Exactly. They battled to a complete standstill. We are in the middle of day two of what is supposed to be an hour or two worth of duel at most. And now you want me to say, blithely, ‘oh, well, you’ll crush him, dear’? No. I can’t. You should never have gotten us into this.”
She didn’t answer, which in Lillian mostly means she sees that I am right and does not want to admit it.
She was particularly ferocious after the lunch break, hurling spell after spell with a grim determination that would have impressed the servants, if we’d brought any. But Lord Benderskeith parried them coolly and sent her scrambling for her own defenses.
Again we stopped at dusk.
The next morning Mama took me aside as we broke our fasts before dawn, weary and silent. “Darling,” she said, “where is she getting with all this?”
“I have no idea,” I admitted.
Mama sighed. “Well, her opponent has sent a very kind note asking after your health in this difficult situation. I call that considerate.”
I tried not to betray my surprise. So did I.
The third day caused me to retreat to higher ground. There were ankle-high tides bearing grasping nixie fingers, and there were waves of orange goo bearing heavens knew what. The higher ground was no protection for me and the other observers, however, when Lillian summoned swarms of battle fairies from above, and Lord Benderskeith responded by raining treacle upon them to foul their wings—and my dress and hair. It was intended that duels should affect only the participants, but both of ours seemed to have forgotten that in their desperation to get the whole thing over with—or to win. I didn’t know which preoccupied Lord Benderskeith’s mind more.
But before the judge could call time again for a third day’s dusk, I marched through the damp and gooey grass to very deliberately rub out part of Lillian’s circle with my shoe.
“Honor has been satisfied on our side,” I said loudly.
“It has not!” said Lillian.
“With three days of dueling, it is utterly clear that neither is a superior wizard to the other,” I continued. “If we kept at this, it would only prove that one or the other of them had gotten in a lucky shot. If Milord finds himself satisfied, we are also.”
“Quite, utterly satisfied,” said Lord Benderskeith. “From the beginning I swear to you, I meant no insult, Lady Lillian.”
She sniffed and turned her head away.
“Lillian,” I growled.
She glared at me.
“Shake his hand and call pax,” I said. “Truly. Do it. Or you’ll have to find another second for your next scheme. I mean it.”
Lillian shook hands with Lord Benderskeith, unbending a bit when she got to the judge, the doctor, and Sir Graham. I also shook hands all around, lingering where I saw fit despite Lillian’s glares.
“Would that I had met you under more pleasant circumstances, Miss Elwrym,” said Lord Benderskeith. “Perhaps in future, we will find a way to spend time together that does not, ah....”
“Do quite such damage to my coiffure?” I said, gesturing at my treacly hair. He had the grace to blush. “I look forward to more pleasant circumstances with you, my lord.”
He blushed again. I admit I was rather taken with how handsome he looked when he blushed; so much so that I almost didn’t notice that Lil was talking to Sir Graham rather animatedly. I caught Lord Benderskeith’s eye and nodded in their direction; he put a finger to his lips.
“That’s a perfectly ridiculous way to arrange a garden,” Sir Graham was saying. “It wants for even the very rudiments of taste.”
“Nonsense!” Lil retorted, tossing her head in a manner that managed to be fetching despite the duel’s effects upon her person. “There is no reason a functional sorcery garden cannot be perfectly charming. Why, I’ve half a mind to show you my cousin’s, just to prove you wrong!”
Lord Benderskeith quirked a smile at me, and I murmured, “More pleasant circumstances may be forthcoming more quickly than we had dared to hope.”
I am not at all sure I was meant to hear him say, “I dare to hope quite a bit.”
Lord Benderskeith’s first name turned out to be Jack. Lillian would have taken longer to forgive me, but she was distracted by the attentions of Sir Graham. His horses are under the tender care of their groom for the moment, and he spends a great deal of time in our parlor, much to my annoyance.
Jack is not the least bit annoyed, so I am learning to tolerate Sir Graham with goodwill. This probably also does a great deal towards Lillian’s forgiveness of me. As for me forgiving her for putting me through the whole ordeal—well. Lillian and I have been friends since we were girls at school, and I am accustomed to forgiving a great deal from her.
Especially when it got me so cordially introduced to Jack.