A soldier reined up beside Mavick and thumped a hand to his chest just beneath the right shoulder. “How’s the ol’ wound holding up, cap’n?”
“Feeling stronger all the time, Lucius.”
“I go by Luke now that I’m knighted,” Lucius reminded him. He laid his lance sideways across the saddle and began to remove his kid-skin gloves by pulling off one finger at a time. “Anyway, I was worried it might have opened up on you again. Remember what happened to ol’ Warbug?”
“Werberg,” Mavick corrected.
“War—Were—Whatever. So this Werberg fellow goes and gets himself skewered in the belly. The wound closes up and he carries on for years like nothing happened, then one day he goes to break wind and instead of a second navel, he finds himself with a second bunghole instead. Poor bastard, what a terrible way to go.” He laughed at his own joke.
Mavick bit back his reply. Lucius may have been a niggling jackass, but he happened to be the Lord Commander’s beloved nephew, and the slightest snub was sure to reach his ears. Werberg. Now there was a soldier. While Lucius was cutting his baby-teeth on boiled carrots, Werberg was whetting his blade on the flesh of vicious Horggen. “It’s tempting fate to speak ill of the dead.”
“Even the dead can appreciate a jest, I should think,” Lucius said by way of apology. “Speaking of the dead, I thought you were about to buy it yourself this morning. If you don’t mind me asking…” His voice dropped to a whisper. “Just what did happen back there in the sparring ring?”
“What’s there to tell?” Mavick fought to keep the edge out of his voice. “I took a glancing blow behind the ear. Next thing I know I’m staring up at the sky.”
Lucius stroked his downy chin. “That’s odd. I don’t recall you getting struck. Way I remember it, you had taken a breather so Targal could re-wrap that hand of his. Now there was a nasty cut, a real bleeder too. Looked like it was covered in crushed raspberries.”
Mavick’s stomach gave a warning lurch at the mental image.
“And to think he got it from a fish,” Lucius went on. “I say a soldier should stick to what he does best. You won’t catch me touching raw fish, no sir. Hands like these were meant for pleasing the ladies.” Lucius gave a wink that would have been vulgar if it wasn’t so comical. For all his bragging, the only sort of lady-pleasing the commander’s nephew was likely to engage in was the weaving of their hair into a spiral-loop braid, a skill he kept honed by practicing on his horse’s mane. “One moment he’s wrapping that bloody hand of his and the next moment—blam! You’re laid out flat as a board on the ground. It was the damnedest thing. Almost like you—I don’t know—fainted or something.”
“I did not faint,” Mavick said emphatically, which was not a lie, strictly speaking. Having never fainted prior to the incident, he could not be certain what he had experienced was indeed a faint and not some other less malignant form of spontaneous paralysis accompanied by loss of consciousness. After all, he really had taken a glancing blow to the head. “The blow came earlier. You probably missed it. Caught me right back here.” He rubbed the spot.
“You’re right, I must have missed that.” Lucius produced a pumice stone from his saddlebag and began to file around the edges of his fingernails. “Not that anyone would blame you, if you had fainted that is, even though you didn’t. I mean, after what you’ve been through, it would be completely understandable. Not many people spring back from a wound like that. A wretched piece of luck, I have to say. A stray arrow falling from the sky and just happening to find a chink in your armor. How’s the saying go—ain’t war a bastard?”
“It sure is,” Mavick agreed. “Maybe one day, should the Lord Commander permit it, you’ll get to see just how much of a bastard it can be.”
Cold hatred flared in Lucius’ eyes, but the next moment he was all cool nonchalance. He blew across the tips of his fingernails and held them up for scrutiny. “Seeing as you’re such the expert on warfare, cap’n, perhaps you could answer a little question that’s been bugging at me. How come you never joust anymore? I hear you used to be quite the legend in your day. What was it they used to call you?”
“Oh, that’s right. I knew it had something to do with women’s work. Hey, now that gives me an idea. Maybe you could give ‘er a tilt for old time’s sake, show us young pole piddlers how it’s done. If you still remember how, that is.”
“Thank you, but no.” Mavick said. “I haven’t jousted since—” No sooner were the words out of his mouth than he realized how neatly he had fallen into the trap. Lucius had already gone so far as to call him a coward to his face. If he refused to take up the lance now, it would be seen as a further sign of weakness. It wasn’t just the commander’s upstart nephew he was worried about. Ever since his injury almost a year ago, a gulf had opened up between him and the other soldiers of his regiment. They treated him civilly enough, too civil in fact, as if they suspected him of having come down with the pox but not yet showing any outward signs. Their concern was not entirely unfounded. If Lucius had been right about anything, it was that many a knight never recovered from a near mortal wound. But Mavick was not just any knight. He was Sir Mavick of Erin Vale, the Hero of Dansing Downs. The incident in the training ring had been a fluke, nothing more. And here was a golden chance to prove it, to his doubters as well as to himself. “On second thought, maybe I will give it a go.”
“That’s the spirit. Here, you can use my lance.” Lucius tossed it over to him.
Suspicious of a trick, Mavick sighted along the haft to check for warping. Still not satisfied, he gave it a solid thump against the ground. So far as he could tell, it was a standard training lance and had not been tampered with.
Meanwhile, Lucius inserted two fingers into his mouth and let out a shrill whistle that attracted the attention of those nearby. As if on cue, a great number of soldiers left off their drills and headed toward the jousting pitch, collecting others as they went along. Mavick thought he caught the wink of coins surreptitiously changing hands.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
“I had this strange hunch you might take to jousting today,” Lucius said. “So I invited a few friends to come watch.”
“A few friends? To watch a practice joust? It looks like half the regiment is headed over there.”
“Well, you know how word gets around.”