on the appeal of paired villains

A seriocomic dialogue. To be prepended to THE EIGHTH KING, if I ever work on THE EIGHTH KING again. Apologies for any lingering LaTeX markup. I try.

“Did you ever notice,” said the swordsman with the cat’s step, “that all the best villains come in twos?”

It took the woman with the quill a moment to respond; she was making a note of something in a script too perfect to be handwriting, yet too expressive to be print. “You know I don’t read that sort of trash,” she said, putting no particular inflection on the word “trash” but rather uttering it as she might a perfectly inoffensive noun, like “bowl” or “pagoda.”

“You should. You really should.” The cat-walking swordsman stretched both arms out wide and arched his back, and though his yawn was not needle-fanged it gave the impression that perhaps it might once have been, or one day be so. “It gives you a sense of your place in things. There’s nothing new, you know. It behooves you to learn from your forebears.”

“I never seem to grasp the thrust of these discussions,” said the perfect-script woman. “My duties are clear enough without literary referents.”

The crossroads nudged up over the horizon, a rare enough sight in this land of mountains. The sun was sinking in the west; a late-spring dusk was gathering, pleasant enough but beginning to ripen with heavy summer night-heat. It perhaps need not be mentioned that neither the cat-walking swordsman nor the perfect-script woman was so much as misted with sweat.

“I’m not sure I much like being called a villain, though,” the perfect-script woman said at last.

“Heroes don’t scheme,” said the cat-walking swordsman.

“We are agents of law.”

“We’re agents of the Judge.”

“Don’t split hairs,” murmured the perfect-script woman, touching the tip of the quill’s plume to the corner of her mouth.

“Don’t make spurious elisions.”

The perfect-script woman looked up from her note-taking at that. Her gaze met the swordsman’s in an old dance, amusement wrapped in skepticism intertwined with waggishness concealing eagerness to please. They had the good sense to cut that dance off after a few bars, as they always did.

“I will always regret schooling you in letters,” said the perfect-script woman, returning to her work. “You have no sense for the turn of phrase. It’s like a village fireworks show–so ill-sequenced that even the flashes of brilliance seem awkward.”

“Consistency is a virtue in writing, Secretary, but not in all things.” The cat-walking swordsman made no special flourish to provoke his companion, as he might; but here a mortal observer would have found his gaze drawn to the hilt of the swordsman’s straight blade, which was filigreed with the stylized body of a rat; the weapon’s blade met the hilt where the rat’s head would have begun. (I use the male pronoun non-generically, for no woman would have wasted her time watching these two when she could have been running. Or few women in any case. I suppose I am aware of exceptions.) “Some of us rely on volatility. Another example of what makes us a good pair. Your power lies in complementarity and suasion, mine in opposition and brute force.”

“In my records,” said the perfect-script woman, “I have summaries of at least three but no more than seven philosophies of the fence, issued by you in various altered states of mind, to which you have been adherent for intervals ranging from three weeks to the better part of a century. All espouse notions of redirection, suasion, and deception, specifically highlighting their superiority to the tactics of opposition and brute force to which you claim to subscribe.”

“The Lotus,” said the swordsman, “it is impossible to converse when one’s interlocutor exhumes every lapse in inference or judgment in a lifetime’s catalogue. Do I hector you so?”

“You have not the prehensility of recall that I have cultivated.”

“Which accounts for my ability to take my pleasure out of life. In any case, have I not just given short shrift to consistency?”

“You have,” said the perfect-script woman, “but, given a few minutes, you are likely to retract it.”

The cat-walking swordsman thought on his rejoinder until the moment for rejoinders had passed, then shrugged in acknowledgement of its passing. They walked in a companionable silence, a pace apart, and although their strides seemed neither stretched nor rushed, they drew up on the crossroads rather faster than a trotting horse might have managed.

“Complementarity is key, of course,” said the cat-walking swordsman. “I refer here not to your powers, but rather our own complementarity to one another, and its efficacy in promoting our collective villainy, which I have already described. But I think what I will miss most is the dread that an appropriately menacing dialogue can inspire. There is something sinister in the first and third person that vanishes with direct apostrophe. How many good men have we brought to their knees merely by discussing veiled hypotheticals?”

“If by `good men’ you refer to scofflaws and other undesirables,” said the perfect-script woman, “thirty have kneeled to beg clemency after such discussions, and seven have gone past their knees to abase themselves entirely. Of the seventeen who have fainted, six fell forward, bringing their knees in contact with the ground by physiological and kinematic necessity–”

“This grandstanding ill suits you, Secretary.”

“I have not yet spoken of the two legless men,” said the perfect-script woman, “or the dragon.”

“These incidents are graven in my mind and do not require rehearsal,” said the cat-walking swordsman.

“In answer to your question, though: The three good men who knelt before us were laboring under a misapprehension.”

The swordsman made a noise of disgust or disbelief. “You forget, Secretary! We had the entire village of G___ worshipping us as gods!”

“That was a misapprehension,” said the perfect-script woman, “and G___ was not rich with men of quality.”

The cat-walking swordsman sighed with considerable pathos. “I would say your standards are too high,” he said, “but I fear to invite the obvious riposte.”

“Riposte?” said the perfect-script woman. “Is it not timid, Retainer, to apply such terrifying metaphors to an innocuous conversation?”

The swordsman grinned as men do to stanch the pain of wounds. “And you, Secretary,” said the swordsman, “rarely do the obvious. Which I should have remembered.”

The perfect-script woman nodded in acknowledgement of her due. (I will not say “as if.” Why should I?)

At last, the pair set foot where the roads met. Signs indicated the direction from which they had come: Pongyo Gorge, and where, had they continued, they would have gone: Rassha. A man slept at the south corner under a cabbage-cart. The swordsman made a noise of disgust at this. “Sleeping at a crossroads,” he said with great scorn. “At dusk, no less? He begs to be menaced.”

“This is a secular age,” said the perfect-script woman, “and not everyone has time to read ghost stories at their leisure. In any case, we are not ghosts.”

“Well, I know a few.”

“Your necromancies are inapposite and of questionable efficacy,” said the perfect-script woman. “You must learn to discipline yourself in the weeks to come, Retainer. I cannot do it for you.”

“She says `weeks’ and thinks she does a mercy,” said the cat-walking swordsman. “But the cat knows better. It will be more than weeks, my dear. The Judge spoke bravely, as great men know they must–but he is not ready.” His body undulated with a supple shrug. “And neither are we. This king was well loved, and the mice whisper that he mastered the Reflecting Pool Mind before his death.”

“He is dead, though,” said the perfect-script woman, “which hampers its application.”

“Its application is immaterial.”

“I know.”

The cat-walking swordsman gave her an annoyed glare. “Your japes are harelipped and incongruous. I mean to say it is irrelevant. It is the whispers that are of concern. They only strengthen his grip on the people’s fancy.”

The perfect-script woman looked long and level at the cat-walking swordsman. “You forget, Retainer. We had the entire village of G___ worshipping us as gods.”

“It is easier to be worshipped for an hour than believed for a day,” said the swordsman. “And in any case, G___ was not rich with men of quality.”

“And these provinces are?” said the perfect-script woman. “Not a moment ago you pronounced them full of mice.”

“I do grow bored with all this talk of consistency,” said the swordsman, “though doubtless it will amuse me again in moments.”

“I will not wait for those moments to elapse,” said the perfect-script woman. “We must part.”

The swordsman grinned a familiar grin. “You go,” he said. “I shall conjure a balm for your departure by terrifying this cabbage-monger until his hair goes white.”

“No,” said the perfect-script woman. “I have said you must learn to do without this nonsense. You will leave the crossroads first, and I will protect this worthy peasant from your depredations.”

“Bah,” said the swordsman. “He is of no account.”

“And we no longer have the leisure of sporting with men of no account. Our lazy centuries are done, Retainer. We can no longer be spendthrift of decades; we must attune ourselves to the rhythms of men’s lives again.”

“To call them `rhythms’ is a surfeit of euphemism,” said the swordsman, with a gesticulation that wrapped the entire plain in scorn; prey-rodents hid in their holes, and two starving vultures took to the air, heckling, from some bear’s abandoned kill. “Men’s lives are sordid, frantic things, no more rhythmic than the thrashings of rats scrabbling at the walls of a marble basin–”

“Enough,” said the perfect-script woman, allowing into her voice a minim of reverberation that silenced the swordsman most effectually. “Such gassy metaphor ill becomes the Judge’s right-hand man, and it is always gratuitous to terrorize animals. Will you force me to record yet more of this bootless prolixity and display?”

“Of course not,” said the swordsman; and, with no more apparent effort than it took to raise himself on tiptoe, he leapt perhaps a quarter-mile into the air. The perfect-script woman watched him trace an elegant arc through the darkening sky, then land a tiny, perfect silhouette before the descending sun. Her eyes were good enough to see his sword flash red in a far-off salute, and to see him turn and strut down that branching dirt road for a moment before it turned behind a hill.

She was put off balance for a moment by the suddenness of the cat-walking swordsman’s exit. When she had regained her composure, which did not take long, she spent a few minutes composing a report of the evening’s events; in this, as usual, she was entirely accurate in her portrayal of the cat-walking swordsman but lavished no especial detail on his more egregious trespasses. That accomplished, she arranged her quill and ink, her papers, and the good wood slate on which she flattened those papers when she wrote, placing them all in a pocketed strip of leather which she had fashioned for that purpose. She folded it closed and tied it with a thong, as she often did–but this time she bound it tight and tied a good, strong knot that would not fall open at a pull. She looked once more down the road that the swordsman had taken, waiting patiently for a minute to make sure he would not return. When she was confident that he had truly left, she dug in a pocket of her dress and drew out two small, bright things, rather smaller than her smallest finger’s tip, which she quickly secured, one each, to the trailing ends of the thong that constricted her writing implements.

With all in order, she closed her eyes, drew a deep breath through her nose, and opened her eyes again. She then walked over to the cart and kicked it over, opening a great ragged hole in its floor as though some great beast had bitten it and filling the sky with a geyser of splinters and shredded cabbage. Needless to say, the perfect-script woman’s swift violence resulted in a fearsome rending sound, and the cabbage-monger sat bolt upright for a few terrified moments before the plummeting rear axle of his wagon robbed him of all consciousness. When he awoke, he would remember seeing a woman of considerable symmetry and polish, dressed in an elegant but faintly unfashionable qipao, although the details of her aspect would never return to his memory, not even in his deathbed-dreams; even the color of her silks would evade him. But never, for some reason, would that cabbage-monger forget the glinting ornaments that tipped the thong around the leather satchel that she held in her arms, ornaments whose style was typical of cheap brass baubles but whose weight and luster belied the true gold of their substance: a mouse, whose carved face held terror admixed with a dissonant trace of exultation, and on the other end of the thong, with exultation and terror in opposite proportions, a cat.


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