Richard had dragged himself out of bed to show up at the duel, something Leonard was eternally grateful for. He was jittery that morning, and he had barely slept a wink the previous night. It was absurd, since he’d fought duels before, and the idea of him dying in any meaningful way from a mortal gun was preposterous. He was a much better shot than Janson was, anyway, and he had spent the evening before practicing with Serena. There was nothing to fear from this duel, that much was true, so why was he so nervous?
Leonard cracked as many bones in his hand as was possible for the fiftieth time that morning, and looked down at the paper bearing the address.
“Are you sure this is it?” Serena asked.
They stood in front of an abandoned factory, which was falling apart but was completely empty. Richard was loitering outside, and Titania had jogged up a few minutes ago and gone inside.
“Why would both of them be here if it wasn’t?” asked Leonard.
“That’s a fair point.”
“Well, I suppose we should go inside.” Leonard shoved the paper in his pocket and called out, “Richy Richard!”
Richard looked up. “Oh! I’m so glad you’re here. They’re beginning to think that you’re not showing up.”
“Here we are,” Serena said.
They followed Richard into the factory shell. A boulder coming up to Leonard’s knee had been placed in the middle, with two lines sloppily painted in the dirt on either side. Duke Janson stood with his wife and sons behind one of the lines, berating Duchess Janson about something. Clarissa stood off to one side with Oberon, Titania, and some other girl, who Oberon was flirting with.
On the other side was Johann, Deirdre, Richard, and Camilla. Leonard had told the bare minimum of people about this duel, so that he hopefully wouldn’t be smeared by the press. There had already been an obviously untrue scandal last year accusing him of having an affair with Camilla, and he wasn’t eager for a repeat, especially since this time he was doing something to cause him shame.
Oberon and Johann approached the rock in the center.
“Doctor Faust,” Oberon said.
“King Oberon,” said Johann.
“Has Duke Mephisto apologized or backed down from the challenge?”
“He has not. Has Duke Janson apologized or backed down from the challenge?”
“He has not.”
“In that case, I suppose we should go on with the duel. Who’s officiating?”
Richard came forward. “I am.”
“Very impartial,” Camilla said.
“Why is that woman here?” Janson asked. “Everyone here knows she’s-”
“I will also fight you, if you insult anything so shallow about Camilla Chambers again,” Serena said. “And don’t think I’ll have you in some honor bound duel, either. I’ll jump you in the middle of the street, and you won’t come out of it unchanged, I promise you that much.”
Janson tried to look like he wasn’t bothered, but Leonard drew great satisfaction from seeing how he moved away from them, and that he didn’t finish his accusation.
“Are we going to do this?” Richard asked.
“We’ve come this far,” Leonard said. He tried to crack his hands again, but he’d done it so many times that he only hurt himself. “Who has the pistols?”
Oberon came forward and placed two duelling pistols on the rock. “Loaded with one bullet each. You each have one shot, and you can shoot at any point, but you may not cross the lines in the dirt.”
Leonard and Janson took their pistols and went back to stand in their places. Their respective supporters stood well back, and Richard himself also took several steps backward. “Alright, load your guns, now. On my count.”
Leonard loaded his gun and cocked it. He lined it up with Janson’s face, and put his finger on the trigger. Janson had done the same, and there was an awkward pause of several seconds while they waited for Richard to count.
“One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten.”
Janson fired his gun immediately. Leonard had a split second to think about what a stupid move that was before he became aware of a hot wetness at the top of his leg, and he realized that the shot had struck.
The blinding pain hit him several seconds afterward, and he realized what an idiot he must have seemed, standing there with his gun in the air and a bullet in his leg. His hands were beginning to shake, and the chance was slipping away from him. He centered his gun again, and pulled the trigger.
Janson’s head rocked backwards, and Leonard realized that he must have got him, too. At least both of them would die of infected wounds, and not just him.
Leonard slid to the ground, gritting his teeth against the pain. There was blood everywhere, and people were yelling around him, though it seemed to him strangely calm. He peeled a strip of bloody fabric off of his bullet wound, and saw that the bone beneath it was probably shattered.
Serena was leaning over him, talking faster than he could keep up with in his current state. Leonard nodded along with her, acting like he understood exactly what she was saying, and took her hand when she held it out to him. The edges of his vision darkened, and he felt her touch his face as he slipped away.
The next thing he was aware of was being on a stretcher, and that he was deathly thirsty. He reached up, but saw a surgeon above him and realized that he was about to be operated on, so he rested his head back on the straw pillow beneath it.
“Duke Mephisto?” the surgeon asked.
“Water,” he groaned. “Duke Janson?”
“Duke Janson sustained severe injuries, including several broken ribs. He is being operated on as we speak.”
Water flooded Leonard’s mouth, and he nearly choked. He licked his parched lips, and tried to sit up.
The surgeon pushed him back down. “Not right now, Duke Mephisto. We have to operate quickly, or your condition will worsen.”
“Okay,” he said. “Okay.” Something was put over his face, and everything went black once again.
After that, he slipped in and out of consciousness for what might have been hours, or days, or weeks. There was always blinding pain when he awoke, and worried faces, and the rank smell of sickness in his room. He was feverish, and often delirious when he woke, but mostly he slept.
His fever dreams were incredibly vivid. The only one that he could remember was a memory of swimming in a lake as a boy, with some of his friends. It was deep water, and a young Oswald Janson was tossing coins in for the other children to dive for.
One of his other friends, Lavinia Avnas, managed to get a rather large coin of solid gold after jumping off the rock into the deepest part of the lake. John Amon climbed up on the same rock, but when he tried to jump, he slipped, screamed, and fell face-first into the water. Leonard and Lavinia were certainly laughing when they pulled him out, and John himself took it like a massive joke. That was how he took everything in those days, after all.
“Let’s see what Allocer can do,” Janson said. “A gold coin, into the deepest part of the lake. If the handmaiden can do it, so can you.” ‘Handmaiden’ being his teasing nickname for Lavinia, in the same way that ‘the drunk’ was what he called John later in life.
He tossed in the coin and Leonard dove in after it. He was a strong swimmer, due to the broiling hot summers where one only went outside to go swimming that he’d lived through his whole life in his dukedom. He slipped through the water like a knife, making hardly a splash, and kicked his way down to the bottom. Twelve feet down, Leonard’s ears began to hurt, fourteen and his lungs felt as if they would burst. He pushed some bubbles out his nose and kept going, down to the bottom where the coin glinted in the mud. He scooped it up and swam for dear life toward the surface. His lungs burned, but he struggled to keep calm, knowing that panic would just make it worse. Leonard’s ears made an odd noise like they were letting out bubbles, and his head broke the surface.
He climbed out onto the rock, held up the coin to Janson, and shoved it in his pocket.
A crafty smile came onto Janson’s face. “Alright, very good, Allocer. Let’s see if he can do it.”
He tossed another coin into the water, in the part where the bottom was rocky and uneven, then pointed to another boy, who Leonard didn’t recognize. The boy plunked himself in the water and began to swim towards where the coin had landed, slowly, like he had all the time in the world. He went under when he got to the point where the coin was, and Leonard expected him to come up a few seconds after.
“Where is he?” John Amon asked, after a few more seconds of the boy being under.
Janson shrugged. “There’s turtles in that water. I don’t want to jump in to get him.”
Always eager to outdo his rival, Leonard catapulted himself into the water. He swam over to where he’d seen the boy go under, confused as to why so much of the red mud at the bottom of the lake had been stirred up in this particular area. He got his answer moments later, when he saw what had become of the boy.
A snapping turtle had seized the boy’s foot in its jaws, and was holding him underwater. Leonard, who knew next to nothing about turtles, reacted in the same way young boys react to everything – he slammed his fist into the turtle’s jaw. It released the boy’s foot, and Leonard managed to pull him to the surface. The turtle whipped around, and crunched into his toes, which made him scream, flooding his mouth with water. He and the boy went back under, the dead weight of the boy dragging Leonard down. He kicked, and knocked the turtle off.
He swam for the shore, coming up to breathe not nearly often enough, with the boy dragging behind him. Leonard was mere meters away from the shore when he sank down, unable to keep going.
Three more pairs of arms reached down into the water and pulled him up. Leonard was thrown onto the grass, where he coughed for a long time before being able to speak.
The other three children were silent, standing around the unknown boy, whose wet, bloated body was splayed out by the lake.
“He’s, erm,” Lavinia said. “He’s dead.”
“How do you know?” Leonard asked.
“Not breathing?” Leonard had heard that there was something or another that you could do when someone wasn’t breathing. He crawled towards the boy, and put his hands on his chest. He pumped once, twice, three times, then stopped for a moment. He repeated the process several times, but there was no change.
Leonard stood up, and joined the other children in staring silently at the boy’s corpse.
John Amon was crying. Well, he was the youngest there, that was to be expected.
“Did anyone know his name?” Lavinia Avnas asked.
No one did.
“Where did he come from?” Lavinia Avnas asked. “Did anyone know him?”
“No,” Janson said. “He was just some village kid.”
Just like that, the dream ended, and Leonard was awake, and no longer a child.
He sat up in bed, feeling feverish and weak, but better than he had for however long he’d been ill. He was in a guest room that had large windows on the wall of his right, alone in a queen sized bed. Leonard picked up a bell on his nightstand and rang it, assuming it would summon a servant.
Instead, it summoned Serena, who came in and threw her arms around him.
“We thought you were going to die,” she said.
“How long has it been?” Leonard asked.
“You’ve been in a fever for two weeks,” said Serena. “Your leg’s healing well, though, they say that much. You probably won’t even have a limp.”
“That’s good.” He’d limped for much of his boyhood, thanks to his cloven right foot, but a brace and much practice walking in a certain style had made it so that his limp was hardly detectable.
“There’s further good news, too. You won the duel, and I do believe you’ve gained a supporter in Titania.”
“Oberon never shows up to anything.”
“That’s a fair point. Has anything else of note happened while I’ve been ill?”
“You shot Duke Janson in the side, and he’s been recovering badly. Albert Janson’s condition has also worsened, to the point that he’s locked himself in his rooms. He’s composed music, though, and seems to have become instantly famous. Do you know who else has become instantly famous? Two people, actually. Cesare Sabia and Camilla Chambers, almost at the same time. They’ve been trying to out-do each other in terms of… fame, I think? It’s not clear, but they’ve become vastly more competitive, as if such a thing were possible.”
A servant came in, and said, “your grace, you mustn’t lay so close to Duke Mephisto. You’ll catch his fever.”
“Sorry,” Serena said. She moved away, though Leonard wanted her to stay pressed against him. He needed the physical contact badly after so many days alone.
The servant put down a breakfast tray in front of him. “How are you feeling, your grace?”
His head had begun to pound again. “Not well, but much better. I’m not hallucinating Satan, or rather, my boss, in the corner anymore, but I feel like hell.”
“That’s good. The doctor recommends that you stay in bed until you’re completely better.”
“I will gladly do so.”
Serena stood up. “I should go. I hope you feel better, my love.” She kissed him and left the room.
Leonard was only able to eat part of his breakfast before his headache became so bad that he had to lie down in darkness and put a wet towel over his eyes just to bring it to a bearable level. He shivered and sweated simultaneously, and began to hear things that weren’t there. He could hear his mother, asking him if his foot felt alright, and when he tried to answer he found his tongue so thick from dehydration that he could hardly speak. He heard people moving about the room, as if he were trapped in a crowd that he desperately wanted to escape, but when he tried to sit up his arms were so weak he couldn’t push himself into a sitting position.
The commotion grew, and Leonard pulled a pillow over his head to drown it out. Someone removed it, saying, “you’ll suffocate yourself like that, your grace.”
“Let me suffocate, then!” he said. “I have to stop this damned noise.”
“There’s no noise, your grace.”
“Yes, there is. Can’t you hear it?”
The person left the room, and a few minutes later a thermometer was being stuffed into his mouth, and someone he assumed was a doctor was going about the room, propping him up with pillows and lighting a fire.
“Get him out of that nightshirt,” the man suspected of being a doctor said. “Has he been eating? Drinking regularly? Make him some tea out of willow bark, that helps. Quickly, now!”
Leonard groaned at being jostled into a sitting position. He felt like he had been run over by a train. Suddenly he remembered Dominic Sapping, and what poor taste the comparison was in, and he laughed.
Someone peeled the wet rag away from his eyes, and he brought up an arm to block the light. The man in front of him was indeed a doctor, the man who worked as his personal physician, whose name he couldn’t remember at the moment.
“Let me sleep,” he hissed. “Please.”
The doctor held up a cup. “Here, your grace, drink this.”
Leonard grabbed the cup and took a deep drink, if only to get the man off his back. He immediately spat it out. “This is broth!”
“Yes,” the doctor said.
“You could have warned me.”
“My apologies, your grace. Drink the broth, please. It’ll help you feel better, I promise.”
Leonard drank as much as he could before he started to feel sick to his stomach. The doctor urged him to continue, but Leonard didn’t want to throw up all over himself in front of… anyone, really, but especially not a doctor. He put the cup of broth down, and picked up a tin cup of water. He’d heard that water would help settle the stomach.
A servant brought him a cup of tea, which he accepted. Another servant brought him a stack of newspapers, which all had his duel with Janson as the front page story. Leonard sighed and began to read the first one.
“Your grace, should you not rest?” The doctor asked. “Can’t the media wait?”
“It can never wait, I’m afraid, and I’ll have to get better as soon as possible so that I can deal with it.”
The doctor pulled the newspaper out of his hands. “No, you must rest.”
Leonard sighed and leaned back against the pillows. His leg throbbed and his head pounded. He curled up into a ball and wished for all the pain and fever to disappear. Moments later, he was asleep.