Template: A Novel of the Archonate
Chapter One

The tall skinny one and the one with the shaved head kept circling to Conn Labro’s right. When they came at him their attack was well coordinated, the points of their epiniards darting in at different angles, aimed at different parts of his body. Now they came again and Conn timed the double parry exactly, riposted against the skinny one so that he had to block the thrust in a way that hindered his partner’s recovery.

But it was the third opponent who bothered him. The fat one kept circling widdershins to the others only to leap into the fight seemingly at random, not thrusting but flailing with the long thin epiniard while shouting what sounded like nonsense syllables. Conn would have to duck or leap back in an ungainly manner. Then the other two would come smoothly in and he would have to flick and click, parry and thrust again, trying to find their rhythm then turn it against them.

He soon realized that there was no rhythm to be found. The fat one was actually very good. He was capable, as very few are, of a truly asymmetrical attack, able to resist the unconscious urge to find a rhythm with his partners.

It was turning out to be an interesting contest. Conn surmised that the three must have practiced against a simulation based on some of his past fights. He knew that his employer, the impresario Ovam Horder, sold such artificial experiences to those who could never afford the fee required to meet Conn in the flesh or by remote connection. The trio must have augmented the simulation by factoring in other matches recorded from public performances, then using sophisticated means to meld all into one.

Now here came the two coordinated attackers once more, but this time there was a tiny disharmony to their movements. The skinny one was a quarter-beat behind his partner, meaning Conn must extend his parry an equally small interval of time past perfection before binding the skinny one’s blade and sliding the point of Conn’s epiniard over the wrist guard.

As he executed the move, he expected the fat one to come in swinging and burbling from his blind side. Instead, as Conn turned his head enough to bring the third man into his peripheral vision, he found the rotund attacker silently sliding toward him, crossing the smooth floor on his plump belly, the point of his weapon aimed at Conn’s ankle.

Again, Conn had to make a less than graceful escape, leaping clear over the supine swordster, only to find the other two rushing at him once more. But they came on two different tangents this time, their flexible blades whipping and thrusting from all angles, so that Conn must exert near maximum speed to beat off the attack. And meanwhile, the fat one was coming in between the others, but this time he was actually on his knees, again aiming for Conn’s ankles.

Conn felt a flash of irritation and automatically summoned the mental exercise that dissipated the feeling. He heard Hallis Tharp’s voice speaking from his memory: He who loses his temper loses all, and again he spoke within his mind the syllables of the Lho-tso mantra that restored calm.

He flicked his point at the fat one’s eyes, knocked away the bald man’s thrust and sidestepped a slash from the thin one. He had to give the three of them credit for a novel strategy: they had known they could not win on skills — they were adequate swordsters, but even three of them were no match for one of Bay City’s premier house players — so they had instead closely analyzed Conn’s temperament. They must have thought that if they could annoy him enough, if they could bring him to anger…

The three were preparing for another attempt. He saw their eyes signal to each other as they readied themselves, and he looked closely at the fat one. And there it was, plain to be seen: the calculation behind the seeming randomness, and the way the man looked at Conn from the corner of his eye, weighing up the results so far.

Conn realized how the bets must be laid. That was why their attacks lacked true brio and why the fat one behaved like a clown. They were not out to win, nor even to draw, which would have been the best they might expect. Instead, they were intent on annoying and frustrating him to the point where he departed from his legendary equanimity.

He smiled. The moment his lips showed his amusement he read the signs in the others’ faces and knew he had won. They stepped back and lowered their epiniards. “Will you continue?” Conn asked.

“To what point?” said the fat one.

“It was a good attempt,” Conn said, lowering his weapon and officially signaling to the house integrator that the match was over. The three contestants had chosen for the setting of their duel a deserted stretch of Bay City’s docks at night, and now the warehouses and wharves disappeared. He stood in one of the private rooms of Horder’s Unparalleled Gaming Emporium.

“Where did we err?” said the skinny one.

Conn thought for a moment. “Too much foofaraw in his style,” he said, indicating the fat one. “Or too much deliberation behind the zaniness. The incongruity was just a little too sharp to be convincing.”

The skinny one spoke to his plump colleague, “I told you it would not be so easy.”

The fat one shrugged. “Still, we have gained an important insight and we have a fine tale to tell over ale at the tavern tonight.”

“But the insight has come at no small cost,” said the thin pessimist. “I said we were wagering more than we could afford to lose.”

“But you agreed the plan was sound.”

“No, I said any plan appears sound until it leaves its creator’s desk and confronts the tap-tip-and-tup of phenomenality.”

The plump man’s brows contracted. “I remember a different set of remarks altogether.”

“I take no responsibility for your memories,” said the thin man. “In any case, we did not lose so much that we now face indenture.”

“Whatever,” said the tall one, reaching into his pouch and producing a card. “We will pay what we owe.”

“Not to me,” said Conn, waving away the card. “Your debt is to Ovam Horder. I am not empowered to receive for him, only to game as he directs.”

“I apologize,” said the man, putting the card away. “But we will include a gratuity to express our thanks for the experience.”

Conn bowed. Then he pressed a control at his waist. The three men disappeared. Somewhere, the skinny man was inserting his card into a reader which would conduct one end of a long-distance financial transaction with Conn’s employer. The details were no concern of his.

The three hunters might be anywhere on the planet or even in one of the orbital communities that glittered in the night sky of Thrais, a modest sized planet midway along the arm of the galaxy known as The Spray. Conn was where he almost always was during working hours: in a small room whose walls were densely packed with percepts and sensors that connected to the main integrator of Horder’s Gaming Emporium.

Horder’s enterprise was among the foremost of the many sporting houses along high-arching Blue Sky Concourse, a hill-climbing thoroughfare that rose to the commercial acropolis of Bay City, the planet’s commercial capital. Gaming was the most significant industry on Thrais, where the citizens shared a passion for risking sums large and small on contests of skill or turns of chance.

The gaming business also drew contestants from other worlds, even sometimes from Old Earth far down The Spray. Some contestants came with their brains packed with elaborate systems they believed would overcome house odds in games of luck, others brought finely honed skills to try against house players like Conn.

Most went away with their purses lightened. A few risk-addicted plungers bet more than they could afford, gaming on credit extended by Ovam Horder and his ilk. These unfortunates never departed the planet again. On Thrais, said the law, if your purse could not settle a debt, your person would. The most unsavory tasks, such as the removal of street waste, were performed by indentured bankrupts. On some mornings, the waste would include the body of a plunger who had chosen to “stand out” from one of Bay City’s tall buildings rather than face a life of indentured service.

Not all indentures led to insalubrious occupations. Many of Thrais’s professionals — physicians, intercessors, organo-architects — had come to the planet driven by a pathological need to fling themselves into games of chance in which they lacked the skill or judgment that brought victory. They exchanged the grip of a gambling addiction for the grasp of an indenture contract, their debt being sold to whichever of the planet’s several autonomies needed practitioners of their vocations. Free Thraisians supported the system wholeheartedly. They acquired many of the skilled professionals a developed society needed without the expense of educating them.

Occasionally, a bankrupt whose talents were almost, yet not quite, good enough to best the top house players would see his losses translated into indenture to Horder or one of the other sporting house owners. The new house player would spend the rest of his days contending against gamesters whose abilities were adjudged to be beneath his own. Each new indentee began his service clutching a fragile hope of amassing from gratuities the funds to regain freeman’s rank; but as the days wore into years the scant hope would grow ever thinner, until one day its bearer would notice that it had evaporated, leaving only a faint mark on his inner being.

Conn was not one of those forcibly recruited from the ranks of the failed; he had been delivered as an unwanted infant to the doorstep of Horder’s Gaming Emporium. A scan of his still developing synaptic articulation promised that he might, with training, become an exceptional house player. An account was opened in his name and regularly debited through the years of his upbringing until, by the time he was ready to begin his career in the games rooms, he was irredeemably obligated to Ovam Horder.

In theory, the sums he had won for his employer had long since repaid the debt. But on Thrais theory ran a distant second to practice. As soon as Conn had begun to win substantial purposes — remarkably early in his career — Horder had taken advantage of a loophole in Thraisian law which allowed employers to use the debited funds indentees owed them to bet against their own house players. Every time Conn won for Horder, he lost for himself. But he could not offset those paper losses by betting on his own performance. Another cynical wrinkle in the planet’s jurisprudence forbade it.

Stripping off the head-to-toe suit of pliofilm that he had worn to be chased by the three hunters, Conn dressed in modest tunic and britches and pulled on knee hose and half boots. He adjusted the house player’s insignia he wore at his collar, straightening the several hanging beads that testified to his proficiency, then spoke to the wall beside him. “I will go now to the Capricotte Salon and play paduay with the old man.”

“Hallis Tharp has not come today,” replied the emporium’s integrator.

Conn was surprised. “He always comes the first day of the week.”

“Today he has not come.”

“Have you contacted him to find out why not? Perhaps he is ill.”

“Yes. There was no reply.”

“Did you contact any of his neighbors?”

“What would be the point of that?”

The house integrator exactly reflected the views of its proprietor. Horder stood to gain nothing from inquiring after the welfare of an old man, therefore no inquiries would be made. Likewise, there was nothing to be gained by Conn in seeking to know what had befallen his regular partner — opponent was not quite an accurate term — at the gentle game of paduay. Yet he felt an unaccountable urge to find out.

“Summon an aircar,” he said. “Charge it to my account.”