I’ve been missing my weekly dose of Tremontaine, so it was with mingled delight and horror that I recalled I hadn’t yet treated myself to Tessa Gratton’s prequel story Nine Duels. Welcome to the heartache of smoking hot swordsman Vincent Applethorpe’s foreign adventures.

Like Kelly Robson’s deft reworking of the youthful Duchess in The Eye of the Swan, this ‘accidental novelette’ by Tessa ‘I was just fleshing out the back story’ Gratton takes us back in time tell us things we theoretically know in a way we simply can’t resist.

We meet Vincent Applethorpe astride his master’s body (no, not like that), making his first kill. But Riverside has rules, and allowing yourself to be provoked into avenging your master’s death falls outside them. This is Vincent: he could be raging that his master is dead; instead he’s furious at making an unclean, unsanctioned first kill. Well hello, Vincent. I’ve missed you and your ridiculous notions.

A cameo from the delightful Madeline – here merely the shopkeeper’s assistant, not yet the lady of the shop – shows that the women of Riverside are still blessed with abundant common sense, and a willingness to help a lover in need. She’ll cover for him as long as she can, but if he stays in the City, someone will come after him for killing Severun.

We never really find out why. Severun appears to be a common sword, much like Vincent and his master; albeit one with a lordly patron. But in the past I’ve never had the sense that the Hill much cared who lived and who died on the streets of Riverside – the fights a man picks are his own, and unless his blood is noble, nobody will care where it spills. Severun’s death might be an inconvenience, but I doubt his patron would be looking for his killer – and Riverside certainly wouldn’t give up one of their own.

…so we must assume that Vincent – a boy from the country, after all, only two years in the City – doesn’t (yet) count as a Riversider, and that Severun does. Presumably it is Severun’s friends or family who will come to settle the score.

None of which really matters, as a chance-glimpsed sail and a reluctance to go home put our Vincent on the next boat to Chartil. And our narrative becomes lush in every sense: Chartil glitters under a burning sun with it’s jewel-toned clothing, bright ceramics, white walls, dark skins. It’s all dressed up to be exotic and alluring. After Riverside, it feels clean and civilised – but for Vincent to find himself a place as a swordsman, he’ll have to fight to the death.

Vincent is reluctant to execute a defeated foe, but it’s clear that if he refuses, he’ll be executed instead. It puts a whole new slant on his future refusal to let Kaab walk away from a fight to the death. He has learnt to kill when required, and to kill on command. He only enjoys one of the two. It’s not the only foreshadowing: when the Companions go to war, Vincent holds down a fellow soldier after a battle while the physician amputates an arm. Tessa Gratton is the most delicious monster.

…and she is at her absolute best as Vincent and his new commander Far-Reza ko Arezu ko Shirin-sa Chartili circle one another. The seeds of their destruction are sown before they ever do more than spar, Reza taking a shell-shocked Vincent to his tent after a battle (no, not like that)

“That’s not what honor is… I don’t know what it was, but not honor. Not one sword against another. It was being someone else’s sword, not my own man. There is no choice in this. I have to be my own man to have honor.”

 

Being a warrior is a world away from being a swordsman, and it doesn’t suit Vincent’s temperament at all. But it’s not yet time to go south, so we get a moment of flirtatious humour before Reza settles into the slow and deliberate seduction of this barbaric foreigner in his entourage. The sexual tension sizzles as the two men become close but not quite close enough. When they do, it’s just wonderful.

“I’m less experienced with this sort of duel”

It never occurred to me that Reza was Vincent’s first (or, I’m guessing, only) male lover. I’m so used to everyone in the City being bisexual; which I guess still holds true, given enough time. It’s not a popular development with everyone – such as Vincent’s captain in Reza’s guard, or Reza’s fiancée and her family – and it’s a foregone conclusion that the clock on their happiness is ticking away. It’s still heartbreaking to watch. Thankfully, there are moments of ludicrously over-the-top dialogue of the More Honourable Than Thou Sir sort to lighten the mood.

“I am Vincent Applethorpe, and I challenge you to fight, for the many ways you have not respected me and my sword.”

But the real problem isn’t that they aren’t in love. It isn’t that Reza can’t bear to watch Vincent risk his life (although he’s clearly a bit irked that Vincent cut his guard captain to ribbons, if not for the sake of the captain). It isn’t that Vincent can’t bear for Reza to risk his life (the poisons never get to him, and he handily dispatches his fiancée’s brother in a duel). The problem is that Vincent is only at peace when he’s killing another man. The problem is that Vincent can’t permit himself to relax and be happy.

But Vincent was a swordsman; forever was unsustainable.

There was too much future, not enough challenge

GAAAAAAAAAH. VINCENT. WHY. Ahem. I don’t get it. I never have. I didn’t get it when they faced off in Tremontaine. I don’t get it here. I mean, I do get it – to a point – but not to the extreme that Vincent takes it. If it had been purely about feeling trapped or constrained; sure. If it had been about the anxiety (or not being able to cope with Reza’s anxiety): no problem. But the fine lines of a swordsman’s honour? Not so much. I said it at the start: ridiculous notions.

But I admire that he can hold himself to them so faithfully from start to finish.

And it still breaks my heart.

As a completely random aside, as we glimpse it only through the most peripheral world-building – sucks to be a woman in Chartil, eh? Although I’ll go one further – I’d like to see Chartil fleshed out, as we only glimpse any of it through the most peripheral world-building.

****

Nine Duels can be read online at SerialBox.com (as can the glory that is Tremontaine)