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The Duel

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Two figures were duelling, fleet footed and agile as cats. The way they moved with their swords, striking, parrying, dodging was so well matched as to be a kind of dance. Back and forth, twisting and thrusting but always conscious of the salt ring that encircled their space. Outside the ring, toes against the line, the court watched rapt, a mass garden of colourful robes. Though they were equal in skill, each fighter had his own style and the fight drew on breath by breath heartbeat by heartbeat. The elder was swift, attacked sharply and moved easily as the wind. His young opponent on the other hand, struck out with his sword like a wild creature, grunting as he leapt clear of the strikes. Even their clothing set them apart though they came from the same court. The young man, the challenger, was draped in the skin of a great striped cat. The rest of his form was a slim black blur, golden sheaf of hair swinging as he moved. The king, his opponent, was a bright gossamer blur of pink and jewel-like drops of dew. His hair caught the light as it whirled out behind him, bound in an intricate plait. There was no fear of it being caught and used against him, their kind did not fight in that way. They had honour and respect.

The air around them was thick with anticipation, every member of the court watched each blow and step like hungry hawks after prey. No one made a sound, not even to breathe lest they might miss the result. The only sound was the occasional clink of metal or the harsh grunt of a blow quickly parried. There were however some in the crowd who watched, not hungry for a victor but afraid.

Yuuri was one such man, white faced, toes a breath away from breaching the salt boundary of the ring. His hand clutched the front of his blue printed robes in the white knuckled grip of fear. Even if the crowd encircling the ring had been screaming and cheering, he wouldn’t have heard it. The pounding of his heart flooded his ears. The third finger on his right hand was burning with the weight of a little gold ring, it’s match pressed tight against the leather wrapped pommel of a sword. His husband was in the ring, fighting not only for his pride but for the position he’d worked over the millenia to earn and fulfill. It was hard to watch from outside the sacred boundary as the young fae they had both taken under their wing attempted to rip all his husband’s efforts to shreds with tenacious eyes, green like faerie fire.

The match wore on, with neither showing signs of faltering or fading, merely adapting a new fighting style. There were no clumsy signs of desperation or rage, their eyes locked determinedly on the other’s form. Neither did any of the crowd waver, time meant little to them and they weighed each movement of the fight as if it could be the last. Rarely did anything so radical happen in their lives that they savoured this new spark, wondering, almost indolently if it might catch fire. Across the circle from Yuuri, dressed in the finely made garb of a knight was Yuri’s right hand man. As ever, he was utterly stony faced and immobile, save for his sharp eyes that followed each movement.

Then, it was all over. First blood.

With a harsh cry, Yuri’s blade swung right across the king’s shoulders, slicing his head clean off. The bloody tip of his sword dented the sand as he dipped it, victorious, panting harshly. His eyes never left the defeated king, even as his hair swooped in over one of his eyes.

The king’s body fell like a tree in an empty forest, silently with a sense of deep finality. His head fell to the left of his empty shoulders, expression slack, blue eyes open wide to mirror the colour of the sky. His silver hair had been cut by the fatal swipe and the short strands fanned out around his skull like spilled silver or shards of mica, the ends flecked in blood.

For a time, nothing moved and no sound was heard, all eyes were on the fallen king and the boy standing over him, still gripping the planted sword.

Then Yuuri screamed. The beloved name ripped bloody from the back of his throat like a thousand gulls screaming, pure pain. His already pale skin was bleached like bone and he set both hands against his mouth, tears dripping thickly over his fingers. He couldn’t look away from the headless body but all he could see were Vitya’s bright eyes before the match, bright with energy, his single kiss reassuring. The circle was not yet broken so he could not go to his husband. He was unsure if his feet would carry him, or if he was even still standing.

The new king, the new victor, stood equally transfixed as he took in the man he’d felled, how still he was. Yuri had been waiting all day, all year, for the rush he would feel as the adrenaline condensed to pure success thrumming through him. He felt none, though it was reflected back at him from all around the ring, the court had evidently been pleased by the show their new king had provided for them. The air buzzed in anticipation of applause but Yuri felt only chilled. He had killed before, he was no stranger to the glassy eyed stare of death but…

“I didn’t mean to…” he whispered to the old man’s decapitated corpse. Tradition held that only first blood need end the match. He looked desperately from resolute Otabek to Yuuri, whose face was flooded with tears. He dropped to his knees, feeling weak. “I didn’t mean to , I-” He’d only wanted to win, to show the King that he was capable of doing something more . He’d lost himself to the fight, given it everything he had.

Yuuri wailed again on his left, startling him. He still couldn’t move. There were hundreds of eyes on him, waiting for his next act as the new king of the winter court and he couldn’t move. He sat like a child, looking at his own shaking hands, his sword between him and the corpse.

Someone began to laugh, the sound of pure joyful humour jarring. When Yuri looked up, the old king was sitting, his laughing head hanging by the shorn hair from his hand. He could only stare as he put his head on remnants of his neck and screwed it back on. The watching court rippled in delighted applause as he rose, twisting his neck as if to shake out a crick. The skin was completely healed. His shorn hair the only visible sign that anything had just occurred.

He walked over to Yuri, a fond smile on his face and held out a hand to help him up. Yuri took it.

“What the fuck was that?” He snarled at him and the silver haired man merely smiled, taking the knee as was his place.

“Ah, my Liege. You didn’t think that was all it took did you?” He chuckled again, bowing briefly. “We are not so easily killed.” When he stood up, the knees of his loose black trousers were marked in sand.

Yuri’s felt his blood boiling but he suppressed the urge to shout when he noticed that all of the court had also kneeled before him, acknowledging his new place in the world. Otabek caught his eye as he glanced around and gave him what he knew was a small smile.

The rest of the court rose at the old man’s gesture, he and lifted Yuri’s sword arm above his head. “I, Vitya, present to you your new victor, the King.”

A loud chorus of cheers drowned out Yuri’s snort at Vitya’s new choice of name. He’d been king so long that of course the only name he knew was the pet-name his husband had given him, itself a diminutive of his old title.

“If you would like to make amends, my lord, ” Vitya said lowly to him as they waved out at the crowd of gathered fey. He had heard him, even dead, the bastard. “You might consider apologizing to my husband for the awful fright you gave him. He’s paler than ever.”

Yuri bit back the urge to remind Vitya that he was the one to blame for that corpse act when he saw the little furrow between Vitya’s brows, watching his husband cry into his friends surprisingly rodent-free shoulder. The trees on Yuuri’s robes had all shed their flowers.

“I’ll consider it,” he muttered, turning to remove his sword from the sand and sheathing it. It was regrettably easy to make Yuuri cry, he’d learned. It didn’t make him feel any less guilty though. “For now, you may break the circle and go to him.”

He need not have bothered speaking at all as when he looked up, Vitya was already scattering the salt, sweeping his husband up into his arms and rocking him as he cried. Yuri rolled his eyes. A hand on his shoulder made him jump but when he looked up, it was Otabek.

“Congratulations, my lord.” He gave another unnecessary bow and then smiled. “You did it.”

Yuri smiled back at him, deaf to the clatter of the court departing, already buzzing with new gossip. “I did, didn’t I?”