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jumped out of his seat at every unexpected noise. Blade was glad to see that
someone else in Castle Ranit was also on edge!
As Chenosh finished eating, the trumpets and drums sounded to summon everyone
to the dueling field.
Duke Padro's numerous enemies all admitted that he had at least one skill. He
was an expert with the
Feathered Ones, so much so that he hardly needed a Master of the Feathers. It
was Duke Padro of
Gualdar himself who strode forward onto the dueling field, carrying Gualdar's
chosen champion. His
Master of the Feathers followed at a respectful distance.
Padro set down the silk-covered cage, removed the cover, and let out Gualdar's
champion, Posass.
Posass was smaller than Cheeky, but beautifully groomed, with a silk vest and
a belt of gold links. He was sleek and almost fat compared to Cheeky, but he
moved well. Blade could also pick out the scars under the elegant feathers.
Posass hadn't become the champion of a demanding master by sitting in his
Now Blade strode forward, Cheeky riding casually on his shoulder. When they
reached the center of the field, the monkey jumped down.
Duke Padro pulled at his mustache and stared at him.
"That is your champion?"
"Do you doubt the word of Duke Cyron of Nainan?" said Blade.
"No, I-" Padro's olive skin turned darker. "This isn't a joke?"
"No, it's a Feathered One," said Blade. Padro's confusion was understandable.
Cheeky's feathers looked even worse than they had when Blade found him, and
skilled makeup by Chenosh made him look not only half-starved but diseased. He
sat quietly at his master's feet, listlessly picking at a bald spot just above
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one knee.
"As you wish," said Padro. "But if there is any joke today, it will not be one
the men of Nainan will find amusing. I want to double the Duke's wager, and
give odds of three to one."
Blade did quick mental arithmetic. The Duke's wager on a duel of champion
Feathered Ones was two thousand gold marks. That was a respectable sum for
even Duke Cyron to find, and it would cripple
Padro. Four thousand marks would nearly cripple Cyron if Cheeky lost. To be
sure, Padro could never pay twelve thousand if he lost. Cyron would own him
body and soul. Still, the duel had suddenly become more dangerous for Nainan
than Blade liked.
He was turning to look at Cyron when a harsh voice shouted from the other side
of the field. "Three to one, with that to fight? What's wrong with Posass,
Padro? Or is it something wrong with your heart?"
Blade recognized the voice, and wanted to cheer. It was Duke Garon of Ney, who
openly despised
Padro as unworthy of his rank. He couldn't have picked better words to drive
his young rival into doing something stupid, or a better time to say them.
Padro's smooth, carefully manicured fingers writhed like snakes. They were
itching for a sword, or perhaps Garon's throat. Then Padro took a deep breath.
"Well, Lord Blade. Have you the power to agree? Eight to one it will be, if
you'll raise the stake to six thousand marks."
Losing six thousand marks would hardly leave Duke Cyron with two brass coins
to rub together. On the other hand, forty-eight thousand marks was more money
than any three Duchies in the Crimson River could pay. If Cheeky won, Duke
Cyron would own not just Gualdar but everything in it, down to the
Lords' underclothing and the newest-born lamb on the poorest peasant's
Blade didn't want to agree to something like this without consulting Cyron.
But he felt Padro's eyes on him, and from across the field Duke Garon's as
well. Delay might look suspicious, at a time when the
smallest suspicion could spoil everything. There was nothing to do but agree.
"I speak for my Duke," he said. "He will pay six thousand marks if your
champion lives up to his name. You, of course, will pay eight times that if
our Cheeky is better than he looks."
Padro's only reply was a snort of laughter which told Blade clearly what he
thought of that possibility.
The necessary oaths were taken quickly, with Cyron, Blade, and Breeder Romiss
swearing for Nainan.
Padro, his Master of the Feathers, and Duke Garon swore for Gualdar. Blade
couldn't understand why
Garon would join in an oath taking on the side of an enemy, until Alsin
"Garon has no love for Padro, but he also has little gold of his own. As an
oath sharer, he will profit by
Padro's victory."
"And lose by his defeat?"
"Yes." Alsin grinned unpleasantly.
By now it was another of the Crimson River's hot summer days. Blade stepped
aside and held a final
"talk" with Cheeky. Don't take too many risks, was the message he tried to
Thank you, but I have my pride, too, was how Blade understood the reply. He
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