The Death of the Duke
By Ellen Kushner
30 July 2012
(See also the introduction to this story by this week's reprint curator, Jed Hartman.)
Originally published in Starlight 2, 1998.
The Duke was an old man, and his young wife had never known him when his hair grew dark and heavy, and lay across the breasts of his many lovers like a mantle.
She was a foreigner, and so she did not understand, when he'd come home to his city to die, and the nursing of him through his final illness began to tax her strength, why his relations were so concerned to help her in the choosing of a manservant to attend him.
"Let him be pretty," said gentle Anne with a blush.
"But not too pretty." Sharp Katherine flashed her a look.
"By all means," the young wife said, "why not let him be as pretty as may be, if it will please my husband, so long as he is strong and careful?"
And since neither one would answer her, nor even look at her nor at each other, she chose a lovely young man whose name was Anselm. She did not know how badly he had wanted the job.
Anselm had a steady hand and clear eyes. He could fold linen and pour medicine, slip a shirt on and off with a minimum of fuss, and wield a razor quickly and efficiently. The Duke insisted on being presentable at all times, although he was no longer able to go anywhere. In his youth, the Duke's cuffs had foamed with lace, breaking like waves over the backs of his hands. His hands had been thin then, but they were thinner now.
Now the old Duke lay in the bed he had not lain in for twenty years, in the house he had built, furnished and decorated and then abandoned. In a time when today's young lovers were not yet born, the Duke had left his city and his rights and his duties to follow his lover, the first and oldest and best, to a far island where they might live at last for love, although the word was never spoken.
Sitting by him on the bed, his young wife said to the Duke, "There was an old woman outside, waiting for me in the doorway of your house. She took me by the wrist; quite strong, her fingers. 'Is he in there?' she asked me. 'Is he? They say he's come back home. They say that he is in there dying.'"
The Duke's smile had always been thin as a whip. "I hope you told her they were right."
His wife pressed his hand. She loved him helplessly and entirely. She was to be the last of his loves. Knowing it comforted her only a little; sometimes, not at all.
"Go and dress," he told her. "It will take you longer than you think to dress for the sort of party you are going to tonight."
She hated to leave him. "My maid can lace me up in no time."
"There's still your hair, and the jewels and the shoes. . . . You'll be surprised."
"I want to stay with you." She snuggled into the bony hollow of his shoulder. "Suppose you're hungry, or the pain starts up again?"
"Anselm will bring me what I need." The Duke twined his fingers in her hair, stroking her scalp. "Besides, I want to see if they fitted it properly."
"I don't care. I'm sure it's a beautiful gown; you chose it."
The stroking stilled. "You must care. They must learn to know you, and to respect you."
She said, "At home, no one could respect a wife who left her husband to go to a party when he was—when he was ill."
"Well, things are different here. I told you they would be."
It was true. But she would come with him. Five years ago, she had married a stranger, a man wandering her island half-crazed with the loss of his lover, the oldest and the best. In her village, she was past the age of being wed. But it was only that she had been waiting for him: a man who saw her when he looked at her. He surprised her with her own desires, and how they could be satisfied.
That he had once been a duke in a foreign country was a surprise he'd saved for the end. The rings on his hands, which he'd never removed, not even in his grief, he wanted to return to his family himself. She had begged to come with him on this final journey, although they both knew that it would end with him leaving her there alone. She wanted to see his people, to visit the places he had known; to hear him remember them there. She wanted his child to be born in the house of his fathers.
The last jewel was set in place on his wife's gown, the last curl pinned, the last flower arranged to suit the Duke's discerning eye. Exotic and stylish, livid and bright, the Duke's foreign wife went off in the carriage in a clatter of hooves and outriders, a blazon of flambeaux.
Candles were lit by the Duke's bed. Anselm sat quietly in a shadowed corner of the room.
"My wife," the Duke said, his eyes shut, white face against white pillow, "was the daughter of a great physician. He taught her all he knew, passed on to her his philtres and potions. She was justly proud, and healed a king with them. She loved a boy, a nobleman, but he was haughty, and did not return her love, nor could she make him. There are no philtres for that, whatever anyone may tell you." His own laugh made him catch his breath in pain. "Nor for this. It vexes her. And me."
Anselm said, "I wish it could be otherwise."
The Duke said dryly, "You're very kind. So do I. I suppose, being old, I should be graceful about it, and pretend not to mind much. But I have never lived to gratify others."
"No," said the lovely servant, whose loveliness went unnoticed. The Duke's eyelids were thin, almost blue, stretched over his eyes. His mouth was stiff with pain. "You caused some trouble in your time. "
The taut face softened for a moment. "I did."
Anselm approached him with a drink poured into a silver cup. The cup was engraved with the Duke's family crest, a swan. There was no telling how old it was.
The Duke was tall, long-boned. There was not much flesh left on him and his skin was dry and parchment-thin. Anselm held him while he took the drink. It was like holding the mirror of a shadow: light instead of dark, edged instead of flat.
"Thank you," said the Duke. "That ought to help, for awhile. I will sleep, I think. When she comes home, I want to hear what happened at the party. Something is bound to have, her first time out."
"You want to cause some trouble now, do you?" his servant gently teased.
The thin lips smiled. "Maybe." Then, "No. Not now. What would be the use?"
"What was the use then?"
"I wanted . . . to be amused."
Closer now, the planes of his own face gilded by candlelight, Anselm said, "Men died for you."
"Not for me. For him."
"He killed them for you."
"Yesss . . ." a long breath of satisfaction.
Anselm leaned closer. "And you remember. I know you do. You were there. You saw it all. How they were good, but he was the best." His strong hand was dark against the linen sheet. "There is no swordsman like him now."
"But there never was." The Duke's voice was stretched so thin that Anselm, bending close, must hold his breath to hear. "There never was anyone like him."
"And will not be again, I think." Anselm said as softly, and as much to himself.
The Duke lay back, his color gone, and the pillow engulfed him, welcoming him back to his new world, the world of brief strengths and long weaknesses.
Still glittering with finery, and the kiss of wine and rich company, the Duke's wife returned to him, to find out whether he slept, or whether he waited for her in the darkness.
From the huge bed his thin, dry voice said, "You smell of revelry."
She struck a light, revealing herself in splendor. The flowers were only a little withered at her breast. Despite the scratch of lace and the weight of gold, she settled herself beside him on the bed. "Ah! That's good, now I no longer need to be held up." She sighed as he slowly unlaced her stays. "I pretended—" She stopped, then went on, shyly, determined not to be afraid of him, "I told myself they are your hands, keeping my back straight before them all."
He chuckled. "And were people so hard on you?"
"They stare so! It is not polite. And they say things I do not understand. About each other, about you . . ."
"What about me?"
"I don't know. I don't understand it. Empty, pointless things that are supposed to mean more than they say. How you must find the city changed, and old friends gone."
"All true. I hope you were not too bored."
She pinched his shoulder. "Now you sound like them! No, I was not bored. I even got a compliment. An old man with diamonds and bad teeth said I was a great improvement on your first wife. He had very poor color—liver, I should think," she added hurriedly, having spoken of something she had intended not to.
"Yes," her husband said, impervious. "They can forgive me a foreigner better than they can an actress. Or maybe I finally merit pity, not censure, because I am sicker than any of them would like to be. Maybe that's all it is." His ruminations gave way to a story, more disjointed than he intended, a tale of past insult, of revenge. A lover spurned, the Duke's first wife publicly hissed; a young man's anger and the answer of money and steel. Blood and no healing, only scars closing over a dirty wound.
These were not stories that she had heard before, on the sunny island where they had been wed among the bees' hum and the thyme. They did not even describe a man she knew.
Lying undressed in the dark, next to his thin and burning body, she wondered for the first time if they had been right to come here to this place of his past.
His hand moved, half-aware, to her shoulder blade, cupping it like a breast. Her whole body flushed with memory. She desired him suddenly, wanted her strong lover back. But she knew the disease, she knew its course, and clenched her heart around the knowledge that that would not happen. All that had passed between their bodies was done, now, and was growing in her belly. In the future it would comfort her, but not now.
"People do not forget," he said. She'd thought he was asleep, his breathing was so quiet.
"You," she said tenderly. "They do not forget you."
"Not me. Themselves. I was important only for what I made them feel. Remember that." His fingers tightened on her, urgent and unalluring. "And do not trust anyone from my past. They have no cause to love me."
"I love you."
A little later, he sighed in his sleep, and spoke the name of his first wife, while he held her. She felt her heart twist and turn over, close to the child she carried, so that there was room for little inside her but pain and love.
Physicians hoping to make their fame and fortunes came to bleed him.
"There isn't enough left of me as is," said the Duke. He sent his wife down to chase them all away, knowing it would give her satisfaction to have someone else to be angry with.
Anselm was shaving him, gently and carefully. "In the old days," Anselm said, "you would have had them skewered."
The Duke did not even smile. "No. He did not kill unarmed men. There was no challenge in it."
"How did you find challenges for him? Did you have a good eye?"
Now the old lips quirked. "You know—I must have. I never thought of it. But there was a certain kind of bully I delighted in provoking: the swaggering cocksure idiot who pushed everyone out of the way, and beat up on the girl who worked to keep him in funds. That sort generally carried a sword."
"And would you know now?" Anselm busied himself with cleaning the brushes. "Would you know a decent swordsman if you saw one—by the swagger, say, or by the stance?"
"Only," said the Duke, "if he were being particularly annoying. May I see that?"
When Anselm offered the brush for inspection, close, so the weak eyes could focus on it, the Duke closed his fingers around the young man's wrist. His touch was paper-dry. Anselm kept his arm steady, although his eyelids trembled, a fringe of dark lashes surrounding blue eyes so dark as to be almost violet.
"You have a good wrist," the Duke observed. "When do you practice?"
"In my room." Anselm swallowed. His skin was burning where the bony fingers barely touched it.
"Have you killed anyone?"
"They don't kill much, nowadays, I hear. Demonstration bouts, a little blood on the sleeve."
The Duke's wife came in at the door without knocking, full of her achievement. But the Duke held his servant's wrist for one moment more, and looked at his face, and saw that he was beautiful.
Visitors sometimes were allowed, although not the ones who promised a miracle cure. The pain came and went; the Duke took to asking his wife two and three times a day whether there were enough poppy juice in the house laid by. The medicine made his mind wander, so that he talked with ghosts, and she learned more of his past than sometimes she wanted to hear. When visitors came, people who were still alive, she often sat quietly in a corner of the room, willing herself invisible, to learn more. Other old men, more robust than her husband, she still found not half as beautiful. She wondered how he ever could have touched them, and tried to imagine them young and blooming.
Lord Sansome came to gloat, her husband said, or maybe to apologize; either way, it would be amusing to see what time had done with him. She thought admitting such a man unwise, but he made a nice change from the ghosts.
Sansome had bad teeth and a poor color, but he took the glass of wine that Anselm offered. The nobleman approved the young servant up and down. He settled by the bed with his gold-headed stick upright between his knees.
The Duke watched his visitor through half-lidded eyes; he was tired, but wanted no drugs until he'd gone.
Sansome uttered no commonplaces, nor was he offered any. And so there was silence until the Duke said, "Whatever you are thinking is probably true. Thank you for coming. It is prodigious kind."
His foreign wife didn't know what prodigious meant. It sounded like an insult; she readied herself for action. But Lord Sansome continued to sit.
The Duke closed his eyes but kept on talking: "I do not think that I am going to die while you sit there. Though I know it would please you greatly."
Across the room, Anselm made a noise that in a less well-bred servant would have been a snort. He busied himself with the brushes, so that all they could hear was their hush-hush-hush as he cleaned.
At last, Sansome spoke. "I thought you gone years ago. No one knew where you were. I thought you'd died of a broken heart."
"You told me you didn't have one."
"Wishful thinking. I see that yours beats on."
"Oh, yes." Sansome's thick-veined hands opened and closed on the gold ball of his stick. "Mine does. Though we never know what's around the corner, do we?"
"I believe I do."
"Perhaps something may yet surprise you." Unexpectedly, Lord Sansome smiled warmly at the Duke's manservant. Anselm looked annoyed.
"He's good with a blade," Sansome observed.
"You've had the pleasure?"
"Once or twice. A nice, close shave."
"Oh." The old Duke laughed, and kept on laughing at a joke no one else could see, until his breath drew in pain, and wife and servant shut him off from view while they held and gave him drink to ease him.
When Lord Sansome was gone, "People do not forget," the Duke said dreamily. "I think this pleases me. Or why would I have come back?"
"My references came from somewhere." Anselm was curt with the Duke, who had been goading him with revelations. They were alone together. "I never would have gotten in to you without them. Your family checked; and I do know how to valet. Now tell me again. Tell me about how he held his hands."
"They were never empty. He was always doing something: gripping bars to strengthen his wrists, squeezing balls, tossing a knife . . . and other things." The Duke smiled most annoyingly to himself. Anselm was coming to know that smile, and knew that there was no coaxing out of the Duke whatever memories it hid.
The old man's face clouded, and he began to swear, inelegantly, with pain. Anselm wiped his sweating face with a cold cloth, and kept on this way until the Duke could speak again: "As an adventure, this is beginning to pall. Life grows dull when all I have to wonder about is how long my shirt will stay dry, and whether I am going to swallow soup or vomit it up. I would say, let's have it over and done with, but my wife will not like that. Of course," he bared his teeth in a painful grin, "she doesn't like me in this condition, either. There really is no pleasing some people."
"You must take comfort in the child that is to come."
"Not really. That was only to please my wife. I do not want posterity. I was a great disappointment to my parents."
Anselm shrugged. "Aren't we all?"
"But when I am dead, it will keep her from doing something stupid. That is important."
Anselm was good at catching hints. "Shall I fetch your lady?"
"No." The Duke's hand was cold on his. "Let us talk."
"I'm not like you," Anselm said hopelessly. "Words are not my tools. All I can do is ask questions. You are the one who knows things, sir, not I. What I want to know, even you cannot show me."
"Annoying for you," the sick man said; "since sometimes I do see him, yet—in the corners of the room. But it's only the drugs, since he never answers when I speak."
"He was the greatest swordsman who ever lived. If taking drugs would let me see him, I'd do it." Anselm paced the room, his measured valet's demeanor given way to an athlete's ardent stride. "I wonder, sometimes, if there is any point even in trying. He took his secrets with him. If only I could have watched how he did what he did!" The sick man made no reply. "You were there. You saw. What did you see? Can't you tell me? What did you see?"
The Duke slowly smiled, his vision turned inward. "It was beautiful; not like this. He killed them quickly, with one blow, straight to the heart."
"How?" Anselm demanded, fists clenched. "No one offers his heart to the sword."
With every one of his fighter's senses, he felt the Duke's regard full upon him, unclouded by dream or pain. It drew him back to the bed, as though to close with an opponent, or a partner.
"No one?" the Duke whispered. Anselm knelt to hear him. "Not no one, boy."
The Duke's hand drifted down into his dark and springy hair.
Anselm said, "You are a terrible man." He seized the fingers, tangled in his hair with his own, and pulled them through his curls down to his mouth.
Lying by him in the dark, the Duke's wife said, "I have seen so many women through childbirth, I should be more afraid. But I am not. I know this will be a good child. I hope that you will see him."
His hand was on her gently rounded belly. "I hope he will not be too unhappy."
"As you were?" she answered sadly. "No, my darling. This one will know that he is loved, I promise you!" She gripped his fragile hand; fading, like the rest of him, even in the dark. "And he will know all about his father, that I promise, too."
"No," the man said; "not if it makes him unhappy. "
"He will be happy."
"You promise that, do you?" She heard his smile. "Will you take him back to the island, then, to run with the goats?"
"Certainly not!" Sometimes the things he assumed amazed her. "He will stay here, with his family. He must be raised in your city, among people who know you."
"I think he would be more happy on the island." The Duke sighed. "I wish I could go back there, after, and rest on a hill above the sea. But I suppose it is impossible."
In a small voice she said, "I suppose it is. Where will you go, then?"
"I shall lie in the Stone City: ranks and ranks of tombs like houses, with all my ancestors, my family—that should please your sense of decorum. They are not the company I would have chosen, but I suppose I will not care then."
"I will bring him there. To visit you."
He pulled his hand away. "By no means. I forbid it."
"But I want him to know you."
"If you insist on telling the child stories about me, do it somewhere nice, with a fire, and bread and milk. . . ." She had given him poppy syrup; soon he would sleep. "I hope he will be beautiful. Not like me. Beautiful as you are. As he was."
Some of the time, he spoke of people she did not know. But she knew this one well, this loved ghost from his past, the beautiful, the rare, first love and best. She willed her breath to evenness, her arms to softness. A memory, nothing, against a living child.
"I wanted him to kill me. Years ago. But he never got round to it."
"Hush, love, hush."
"No, but he promised! And so I hold him to it. In the end he failed me, he left me. But he will come for me. Long ago he promised to come for me. He is my death."
She held him tightly to her, hoping he was too far gone to notice her sobbing breath, and the tears that fell on both their skins.
Lord Sansome did not come again, though he sent the Duke's bodyservant, Anselm, a gift of money.
"What will you spend it on?" the Duke inquired; "swords or sweethearts?"
His servant frowned. "I feel I should return it. It isn't right for me to take what I do not intend to earn."
"Oh, re-eally?" Weariness drew out the old man's drawl. "But surely my old friend can be nothing but pleased that you care for me so thoroughly? It is his right to tip you if he wishes."
Anselm drew back. "Do you want to be shaved or don't you?"
"Is anyone expected?"
"No one but Her Ladyship, and that not until noon."
"She will not mind. The way I look, I mean. Put that thing down, Anselm. It is the wrong blade for you. Lord Sansome doesn't know it, but I do. I do."
The hours when he knew her grew farther apart. At last, she was uncovering every thing that he had kept from her—promises to his first wife, quarrels with his lovers, games with his sister—she heard a young man's voice, disputing with a tutor, and murmuring provocation so sweet it could only be to his old lover, the first and best. Did she give him more poppy than she should, to keep the voices coming, and to shield him from the pain? She tried, but in the end she had to fail, as even love could not appease the author of the play that he was in. He did not eat, he barely spoke. The old tart who had known him young came back to the door. His lady would not let her in to see him now, but, seeking her own comfort, went down to sit a moment with this relic of his past.
In the shadowed room, the Duke's patient servant waited.
The old Duke opened his eyes wide and looked at him.
"Oh," he said. "I didn't think it would be now."
"When else?" said the swordsman. "I promised, didn't I?"
"You did. I thought you had forgotten."
"No. Not this."
"I always wanted you to."
"Of course you did. But that wasn't the time."
"How bright it is! Do it quickly. I'm afraid of pain."
The other end of the bright blade laughed. "You can't breathe properly. You can't even feel your feet. This will be quick. Open your arms, now."
"Oh," said the old Duke again; "I knew you'd come."
Reprinted by permission of the author.
Originally published in Starlight 2, 1998.