Observations of the Empire: Duels

Posted by John Meagher John Meagher
Observations of the Empire: Excerpts from the journal of Jacques Talloy. (Compiled and edited by Mariette Talloy)

(Vendurel merchant Jacques Talloy had occasion to travel deep into the Sabre Empire, eventually residing in the capital city of Locus for over three months before his unexpected death. It has taken some time for his personal effects, including his notes, to be returned to his family in Vendurel, and his sister Mariette has devoted her life to publishing her late brother’s observations as his legacy. This series begins with an exploration of one of the more unique Imperial customs.)


 “Keep your eyes on your opponent, hands on your blades, and your ears on the crowd.” – the most common advice given by Sabrian dueling instructors

Duels are, of course, nothing new in the Frees, and every island has their own tradition as to the proper manner of handling conflicts of honor, but these all stem from mainland practices, principally the dueling tradition of Malachi. Sabrian dueling, by contrast, has several elements which will seem incomprehensible to us, most notably the large crowds that gather to witness such events, and the addition of verbal argument to what would otherwise be a simple contest of arms.

The first thing that the reader must understand is that in the Empire, duels are formal and public affairs. Two nobles settling their differences in a private courtyard is no more a duel than gang of sailors brawling in a back alley. Duels are intended to resolve a disagreement when all other options have failed, and at the very least, they require a minimum number of four people: the duelists and their respective seconds. But it is expected to have at least one unbiased witness present as well, both to corroborate the participants’ accounts of the contest and to spread the word that the duel has taken place and the disagreement has been formally settled. Duels are generally scheduled at least a day or two in advance and are held in public spaces with ample seating for witnesses. Most cities in the Empire have at least one pacemarium (place of peace), a small amphitheater built specifically to host duels, but for some contests, particularly between two prominent individuals, a larger venue is required to accommodate the number of spectators. The largest duel I ever witnessed, the details I shall relate presently, took place in the central square of one of Locus’s larger islands, and in addition to wooden stands being built to accommodate more witnesses, there were people crowding every window and rooftop of the surrounding buildings.

It is probably the crowds that gather around duels that confused me the most upon my arrival in Locus. The crowd outside a pacemarium may gleefully indulge in gossiping about the events that made this duel inevitable, and may even take bets on the outcome, and to me there seemed little difference between duels and other popular attractions such as sporting events or plays. However, I soon learned that Sabrians take great offense at the implication that duels are just another form of public entertainment, but it was not until my command of their tongue improved that I discovered a particular quirk of the Sabrian language which treats the events very differently: one may “attend” a play or a game, but one “witnesses” a duel. This distinction is taken very seriously; while the crowd outside may gossip and bet, once they have entered the pacemarium they comport themselves with far greater solemnity. During the duel itself, witnesses do not cheer for either side, but at most may quietly applaud to show their appreciation for a well-phrased verbal argument or a display of physical skill.

A duel begins with both combatants standing out of each other’s reach with their weapons sheathed, and once the duel begins, the combatants’ lives are in their hands alone. It is the custom for the challenged party to choose which form of sparring the duel will begin with: physical or verbal.

The physical aspect of a duel is rather straightforward and the part we would be most familiar with: the combatants draw their blades and face each other in single combat. That said, duels to the death are actually the exception rather than the rule. Most often, combatants fight to first blood or until one of the two is so badly wounded they cannot continue the fight. When death does occur, it is most often between two opponents of roughly equal skill who batter away at each other until exhausted and prone to make mistakes. If the duelists are of unequal skill, then it is expected that the more skilled fighter will offer quarter once it is clear to all who is going to win. However, it is important to note that while quarter may be offered or requested by either party, there is no law in the Empire that requires the other party to accept. This took a long time for me to understand until my good friend Dalacia Verus explained to me that from a legal standpoint, once the duel has begun, both participants are considered to already be dead and thus free from Imperial law. “And when the duel is over?” I asked her. She replied that if one or both survive the duel, they are alive once more in the eyes of the law. She added that in some portions of the Empire, their family and friends of the survivor will have a party to celebrate the duelist’s return from the land of the dead, whether the duel was won or lost.

Being free from legal persecution for one’s actions in a duel, however, has no bearing on the social repercussions of those actions, and this is perhaps the most important reason duels are conducted publicly. In the eyes of the witnesses, a duelist who ignores a plea for quarter or toys with a weaker opponent like a cat with a mouse is, quite simply, a murderer. And as the witnesses’ judgment spreads through the community, the duelist’s reputation will be damaged, perhaps even crippled if enough of the onlookers have condemned his actions. Opportunities for advancing their career or securing a good marriage quickly vanish, and the shame is shared among the duelist’s family as well. If family’s reputation risks permanent damage, the duelist may be struck from their rolls, becoming a nonperson, permanently relegated to the lowest rung of society.

Dalacia told me the tale of Eugenius, a crippled man who entered into a duel with Phillipus, his most hated enemy. The outcome is never is doubt; Phillipus is a deadly swordsman, but Eugenius refuses to ask for quarter, and so through his death dooms Phillipus to social exile. Dalacia added that the tale is popular but likely apocryphal, and is most often told by fencing instructors to remind their students not to repeat the mistake of Phillipus. “The lesson,” she told me, “is that if you are in a duel against a weaker opponent, offer quarter. If quarter is refused, then preserve your honor and end the fight swiftly.”

The second aspect of Sabrian duels that confused me was the verbal aspect. Sabrians have a great love for all manner of oratory, and although they may appreciate reading a well-written turn of phrase, they absolutely adore listening to those same words from a trained speaker, especially if it is the author herself. At night, the city of Locus is full of the spoken word: poetry readings, plays, debates and duels.

Soon after my arrival to Locus, Dalacia brought me to see my first duel, which turned out to be entirely verbal. The entire affair was so confusing to me that I had to know more (which ultimately led to this essay you are now reading). Two armed men entered the pacemarium, their faces tight, their hands flexing at the hilts of their blades. Then instead of drawing steel and hurling themselves at each other, one of them asked the other a question and a rustle of interest swirled through the witnesses. The entire contest consisted of the men throwing statements back and forth at each other, and I wish my command of Sabrian had been greater then, for I could make little sense of what they were saying to each other. Then after ten minutes or so, one of the duelists hung his head in defeat and said “Pacem,” requesting quarter, which his opponent granted. After a long round of quiet applause, both men bowed to each other and left by the doors they had come through.

I told Dalacia that aside from the two men wearing swords, the affair seemed more a debate than a duel, which my friend found extremely amusing. Not long after this, she took me to see an actual debate to show me the differences. The subject of a debate is most often some aspect of historical analysis or philosophical interpretation. Competitors prepare beforehand and often bring books or large collections of notes to support their claims. They are not limited to two participants (I have seen a debate with no less than seven competitors) and are conducted as a series of prepared speeches, with opportunities for questions coming from the opposing speakers or the host of the debate. The crowd that “attends” a debate shows their support for one speaker or another through applause and shouts, and they vote for a winner by a show of hands.

A verbal duel, on the other hand, has no single historical topic or great question being argued here. Contestants use their wits instead of facts, posing logic puzzles and riddles to each other, hoping to leave their opponent unable to answer. While each opponent may have a starting set of “attacks” to begin with, a longer duel quickly becomes an improvisation, the duelists trying to twist each other’s words back on themselves. These sorts of duels are far more common between older citizens and attract a different set of witnesses than the more physical duels between younger contestants, with an appreciative audience hanging on every word, a susurrus of analysis and appreciation swirling around the pacemarium throughout the contest. And even if one’s grasp of Sabrian is not strong enough to keep up with the rapid exchange, one can sense who the stronger opponent is by the crowd’s reaction. This affects the duelists as well; “losing the crowd” can distract a duelist, keeping him from formulating an answer in a timely manner and falling further behind.

There is nothing light-hearted about a verbal duel; the participants are not two witty friends bantering over their wine cups, they are embittered enemies seeking to demonstrate complete mastery over their opponent before witnesses. Their reasons for entering the pacemarium are no less serious than two young nobles who draw their blades at the first moment without saying a single word. I asked Dalacia if there had ever been a duel where one opponent was “talked to death”; that is, the duel remained entirely verbal and yet one of the two opponents died without the blades ever being drawn. She told me that such an event is a popular story in the Empire, but friends of hers who are scholars of dueling tradition have never found any documented proof of such a thing taking place. Her theory is that if such a thing ever took place, it would have been in the case of two elderly duelists, both of whom refrained from using their blades to avoid the embarrassment of revealing how much their physical skills had atrophied. Then, in the stress of the verbal exchange, the heart of one duelist gave out in the middle of the contest.

These are extremes, however; most duels involve some mix of the verbal and physical aspects, though it is a general rule that as the age of the duelists rises and their physical endurance wanes, the percentage of verbal dueling increases. The custom for switching from one aspect to the other is during a lull in the contest, such as when both duelists break apart to catch their breath after a particularly exhausting exchange of blades, or when one opponent “runs out of words” and draws his blades in final response to his opponent’s latest riddle. It is expected that the other opponent will respect this change of aspect (and in the case of verbal turning physical, it would be dangerous to do otherwise) and shift to the other form of combat.

I have not said anything about the role played by the duelists’ seconds, those two individuals who accompany their respective contestant into the pacemarium. In the duels that I witnessed, they had very small parts to play, which Dalacia confirmed is the norm. She believes that in the earliest years of the Empire, duels were less public affairs, and the seconds were originally witnesses the duelists brought to the contest. However, it quickly became apparent that these friends were biased in their observation of the duel, and so the duels became more public, inviting more impartial witnesses to see the proceedings. But the tradition of entering a duel with a second remained, and today seconds have two functions: to provide immediate medical care for a duelist who is critically wounded and to step in if the protocols of the duel are blatantly violated. If one duelist, for example, changes the aspect of the duel from verbal to physical, but the other duelist refuses to lower his blades and instead presses his attack, it is expected for the second to intercede and protect his friend. Dalacia informed me that the latter situation almost never happens; a duelist who violated such a protocol would receive the full scorn of the assembled witnesses, and their reputation would be crippled in short order.

I promised earlier to relate the tale of the greatest duel I ever witnessed, a contest that drew such a large crowd that no pacemarium could contain it. The men were Caius Grivus and Mavo Argillius. Both were public figures, naval officers who had retired with high honors and had led exemplary careers. No doubt, dear reader, you will be as amazed as I was to learn that these men had each commanded ships in the final battle against the notorious pirate Praeditorus Rex, a name certainly well known to you! Furthermore, Captain Grivus was the the man who actually killed the pirate, earning the Empire’s greatest accolade, the Tactus Aurus, while Argillius was scarcely less decorated for his actions in that battle. At some point, however, the two former comrades became estranged, and this led to ever greater intrigues and accusations directed at each other. Dalacia gleefully sifted through the gossip raging through the city, sharing with me every nugget she deemed to hold a measure of truth. Grivus, as the recipient of the Tactus Aurus, should have been the one of higher status and beyond Argillius’ reproach, but he had given up field command to become an instructor at the Academy, and so retired at a lower rank than Argillius. Another rumor regarding Grivus that had damaged his reputation was that Grivus had become obsessed with matters improper for the recipient of the Tactus Aurus. This left the two men roughly equal in social standing, allowing both of them to use all means at their disposal to attack each other through innuendo and intrigue.

It was, Dalacia assured me, a story as rich with passion as could be found in any of the classic Sabrian tragedies, and the citizens of Locus had been watching the feud fester for years, anticipating the day when things would at last come to a head. And nearly three months after I arrived in Locus, it did. Argillius, perhaps driven to a fury by Grivus’s latest intrigue, publicly insulted his fellow captain, using a word so abhorrent to Sabrians that Dalacia would not speak it aloud except in the quietest whisper, well out of the hearing of any of her countrymen. Out of respect for my friend I will not repeat the word here, save to say that is without a doubt the deadliest insult in the Empire, a word that no citizen of any standing will allow themselves to be called. And Captain Grivus, naturally, challenged Argillius to a duel on the spot. For her part, Dalacia sided with Grivus, believing the rumors about him to be lies spread by Argillius, but others believed that perhaps Argillius was not wholly unjustified in making the insult which prompted Grivus into making the challenge.

Speculation raged through Locus for four days before the duel took place, and betting was heavy on whether the contest would be primarily verbal or physical. “It will be settled with steel,” Dalacia assured me. Grivus and Argillius were past their prime, it was true, but they also hated each other with a passion that had been stoking for decades, and all the gossip we heard agreed that both men maintained a daily practice with their blades. “Two grey lions who have kept their claws sharp,” Dalacia said to me. “This can only be settled with steel.”

By good fortune Dalacia had a friend whose apartment overlooked the square where the duel would take place. Arriving in the morning, we marveled at the view that we would have of the spectacle, and as the wooden stands below were being erected we settled ourselves in and waited, chatting about the duel, enjoying our host’s food and drink, the sound of hammers floating through the open windows. As the day lengthened, the stands rose around the square, the benches filling with citizens as quickly as they were built. The noise grew steadily until it had reached a constant roar, the excitement building with every passing minute. Leaning out the window to take in the size of the crowd, which I daresay was larger than the population of several so-called “cities” in the Frees, I asked Dalacia if perhaps the Emperor himself would be here. “I am sure of it,” she replied, “though I daresay only in disguise. It was his father, you see, who gave Grivus the Tactus Aurus; to bear witness to the duel in an official capacity would be unseemly, and a dishonor to the men who should be the center of attention tonight.”

At sunset, tall torches were lit around the center of the square, and the crowd noise dropped away to hushed expectation as the duelists entered from opposite directions. They were cut from the same cloth: Two older Sabrian gentlemen, their heads shaved and polished, walking with a poise that bespoke decades of military service. Though my vantage point from the window gave me an unobstructed view, the distance was great enough that I doubt I could have told the men apart, save by their clothing. Captain Argillius had dressed in his old uniform, a sash heavy with decorations crossing his chest. Captain Grivus, on the other hand, wore simple, loose clothes: a tunic and trousers of pale tan, with a simple dark vest that bore but a single badge: the Tactus Aurus. Each was accompanied by a second: Argillius had another uniformed senior officer at his side, a man Dalacia informed me was Captain Verasus, another former colleague and rival of Captain Grivus. The man at Grivus’s side Dalacia did not know. He was a younger man, dressed in a similar manner to Grivus, and she supposed that this was one of Grivus’s two sons.

A priest of Hashema, the chief deity of the Sabrians, spoke to each man for a moment before leaving the arena to the duelists. Argillius removed his jacket and sash, handing them to Verasus, while Grivus took off his vest, folding it carefully to ensure the golden badge was tucked inside the cloth, then set it on the ground rather than hand it to his own second. Then, speaking briefly to his younger companion, he stepped forward, Argillius mirroring him.

You could have heard a pin drop in that square; the crackle of the torches in the evening breeze the only sound that reached our window. I had imagined that Grivus, as the one who had been insulted, would choose how to begin the duel, but Dalacia reminded me that it was Grivus who had initiated the challenge in response to Argillius’ insult, so it was Argillius’s choice to begin with words or blades.

A whisper of conversation rippled through the crowd as Verasus drew his swords, Grivus doing the same. The demonstration of swordplay was breathtaking. Both men had remained in constant practice since their retirement and their years of experience were a fine trade for the limitations of age. The bout began slowly, each making careful explorations of the other, taking the full measure of their opponent. Then the pace of the duel increased; their explorations turning into tests, lures for the other to make a mistake. More than once a stumble that I thought was a pulled muscle or aged knee giving way turned out to be yet another feint, but neither man fell for these parlor tricks; they knew each other too well.

Risking a glance at Dalacia, I saw that my friend’s eyes were wide, taking in every detail of the struggle, her breath sliding between clenched teeth, and this expression was shared by dozen or so others in this apartment who crowded the windows. Then, first blood: Argillius overextended a thrust and Grivus drew a line across his arm! The sound of over a thousand people gasping as one was unlike anything I have ever heard before. In other duels I had seen, this is where quarter was commonly offered or requested, but neither man spoke. Argillius spun away and the two men resumed their steady circling.

As the fight progressed, it became clear that Grivus’s cut had been deeper than it appeared; drops of fallen blood glistened around Argillius’s feet and the tips of his blades wavered as he sought to maintain his posture. A younger man might have pressed his advantage more aggressively, seeking a quick end to the battle, but Grivus lacked the impatience of youth. He fought as he had before, drawing the struggle out, forcing Argillius to defend himself against repeated feints, expending his enemy’s waning strength.

Whispers rustled through the crowd as the outcome became clear to all. I thought that Argillius must ask for quarter soon, but the stubborn old man said nothing, his movements now jerky and desperate. Grivus circled him like a shark, darting in for another cut, then another.

“Finish it,” muttered one person near me, but Dalacia shook her head. “Argillius could still be holding one final reserve of strength; Grivus is not taking any chances.”

Dalacia’s observation proved correct: Argillius launched himself at Grivus in a furious attack, hoping to catch him off-guard, but Grivus was ready for it. A moment later, as the duelists parted, Argillius stumbled, and it was not a feint this time. Grivus pounced, slashing the man’s side open and springing away before Argillius’s counterstroke came around. Argillius struggled to rise, then making some sound, sank to one knee, dropping his short blade to support himself with a hand. The two men’s eyes were locked on each other as Grivus came forward for the last time, finishing the job with a single thrust to the heart.

The crowd gave a cry that was split evenly between alarm and acclaim. Argillius’s second, Captain Verasus, suddenly raced forward, drawing his own blades, screaming “Pacem! He said pacem!” Grivus’s second leapt forward as well, defending the victor from this new attack, and any shred of decorum in the square was lost. The argument in the apartment mirrored the uproar throughout the crowd.

“Argillius called for quarter and Grivus refused him!” shouted one witness.

“He said nothing!” Dalacia disagreed. “It was a shout of pain, nothing more!”

The priest of Hashema who had spoken to each duelist at the beginning of the bout rushed into the square, separating the two seconds before they crossed blades. Grivus himself said nothing, but simply took a cloth from his pocket, cleaning his blades as if nothing was amiss. Then he sheathed his weapons and put his vest back on, taking a moment to ensure that the Tactus Aurus was in place. He paid no heed to Verasus, ignoring the man’s shouts, but simply put a hand on his own second’s shoulder and drew him away from the confrontation.

I lost sight of Grivus as he walked out of the torchlight, disappearing into the milling crowd, but the talk on everyone’s lips for the next several days was on nothing but the last moment of the duel. Did Argillius ask for quarter, and if so, did Grivus ignore it? Was this a modern retelling of the Eugenius myth, with Argillius getting his revenge by asking for mercy from the one man who would never give it to him? Or, as others believed, had Argillius said nothing, merely giving a wordless shout of pain and rage as his strength gave out?

The gossip continued to swirl, with those who believed Grivus had committed murder now muttering more openly that Argillius had been right to insult Grivus in the first place and his murder of Argillius only proved his lack of character.

As I write this, it has been ten days since the duel, and there has been no sign of Captain Grivus anywhere in the city. Early rumors flew about, claiming that he boarded this ship or that, bound for some exotic location, but recently a new rumor has eclipsed all others. It claims that the day after the duel, Captain Grivus was seen alone in a small boat, sailing out of Locus into the sunset. “He has gone to wrestle Verado,” Dalacia explained to me, nodding in somber approval. (For those who are unfamiliar with Sabrian beliefs, Verado is their god of storms, second only to Hashema in importance). This rumor, that Captain Grivus exiled himself to brave the seas alone until his death, has quelled the furor over the duel, for regardless of which side of the argument each citizen came down on, they can agree that by making this choice, Captain Grivus has ended the controversy surrounding himself. Though his own honor may be forever tarnished, his family’s honor remains intact. Perhaps one day the tale of Captain Grivus will be as famous as that of Eugenius, though what lesson future fencing instructors take from it to pass on to their students, I cannot guess.

And here, dear readers, I set down my pen.