Corthos could feel it. The weight that pressed against him, that hung just outside of view. A massive, almost obscenely large darkness that seemed to be just a few feet above him, even within the bright day of Kintargo. A sense of dread and foreboding that seemed to be omnipresent, flecked with just the tiniest traces of fear. He looked at the paper in front of him again. As a younger man, and a Tanassen, he had known the rules of dueling by heart – and, he supposed, he still did. But he had only had his challenge accepted once before. And in that instance, Rexus – acting as his second – had ended the dispute early and no blades were drawn. This time, that solution could not do. Which meant that Rexus could not act as his second – although, truth be told, he felt Rexus would have refused if he had known of the plan at all. He tapped his pen repeatedly against the paper, hesitant to write anything for once. If he brought any of the others into this, he put them all at risk. Lena was too young to handle negotiations when a life may be on the line, Isabelle too impulsive, Jules too passive. That left only one real option, even if it was someone he hardly felt comfortable trusting with these negotiations – the boy had been disinterested during his first encounter with Charmaine, and his eyes had nearly popped from his head at the numbers discussed. He wrote slowly, taking his time, an unseen weight resting on his shoulders.
Maxwell – I ask you today for a favor, something you have likely never dealt with. I intend to enter into a duel with Fabian Vasari shortly, and I find myself without a Second to act in my stead and to negotiate the argument. He is represented by Hendrick Rodier, another minor noble and Chelish enthusiast. As I am certain you are not accustomed to the rules, I have summarized the idea for you.
You will meet with Hendrick, and you will handle a negotiation. I am willing to agree to the following terms – We will duel until one man yield, gives, or dies. Should I lose, I will print a retraction of my words against house Delronge, and Aldo Mondragon will leave Kintargo. However, should I win, I aim for ten thousand gold pieces as a prize. The negotiation lies on you. Once that is completed, you and Hendrick will set a time and place, somewhere that is unlikely to be interrupted. You will make certain that we have a cleric on site to provide last rites and healings as needed, but they are not to watch what happens, so as not to be involved.
On the morning that we will meet, you and Hendrick will have one last negotiation before we are both handed our blades. You know what I am looking to achieve. I must ask that you keep the terms of this quiet. If I win, I can make a final movement to pay off the debt I offered to buy, and then I can fall in line with what Rexus wants and be a good little soldier.
I do not expect you to fully understand the actions that I take. I only ask that you accept that I am a man who finds himself possessed by a great passion, and I have to act. I am trusting you with this, Maxwell – I very well may be trusting you with my life.
He sealed the letter and slumped forward, burying his head into his hands. He had to make this happen. He was so, so close. To fail now would be inexcusable. Roland Tanassen had once stated that ‘in any duel, there is no foe greater than one’s self-doubt.’ As a youth, he had thought the idea ludicrous. But now…he felt the weight of his own potential for failure in each step, felt it slowing his striking arm and blurring his vision, numbing his hearing and dragging his feet. He felt the eyes on him again, and for once, Corthos felt terror. Not of the swords, or the duel, or of dying, but a much more stark and abject terror. He felt the fear of everything crumbling, the sensation of standing atop a great tower as the foundation itself gave way, and he fought to remain standing.
He would outlast.
He had no other choice.