The walkway was too narrow. Only one of us could face him at any one time, and I was the nearer. The time to worry about blood on robes was over, and I released my blade, stepping back a little myself and taking a stance ready to meet him. Implacably, he advanced, all the time holding my gaze. There was something fearsome about him, something I couldn’t put my finger on at first, but then I realized what it was: he did something no opponent had ever done: as my old nursemaid Edith would have said, he gave me the creeps. It was knowing what he’d been through, the procedure to make him a eunuch. Living through that, nothing held any fear for him, least of all me, a clumsy oaf who couldn’t even sneak up on him successfully.
He knew it, too. He knew he gave me the creeps and he used it. It was all there in his eyes, which didn’t register an emotion as the sword in his right hand slashed towards me. I was forced to block with the blade and only just twisted to avoid the following move, which came from his left as he tried and almost succeeded in shoving the broken jug into my face.
He gave me no time to rest, perhaps realizing that the only way to beat both me and Holden was to keep driving us back along the narrow walkway. Again the sword flashed, this time underarm, and again I defended with the blade, grimacing with pain as I used my forearm to stop a secondary strike from the jug then replying with an offensive move of my own, jogging slightly to my right and driving my blade towards his sternum. He used the jug as a shield, and my blade smashed into it, sprinkling earthenware to the stone beneath us, splish-splashing into the pool. My blade was going to need sharpening after this.
If I got out of this.
And damn the man. He was the first eunuch we’d met and already we were struggling. I motioned Holden to stand back and keep from under my feet as I retreated, trying to give myself some space and reorganize myself internally at the same time.
The eunuch was beating me—not just with skill, but because I feared him. And fear is what a warrior fears most.
I crouched low, brought the blades to bear and met his eye. For a moment we stood motionless, engaged in a silent but ferocious battle of will. A battle I won. Somehow his hold over me broke, and all it took was a flicker of his eyes to tell me that he knew it, too, that the psychological victory was no longer his.
I stepped forward, blade flashing, and now it was his turn to edge back, defending well and steadily but no longer with the upper hand. At one point, he even grunted, his lips pulled back from his teeth, and I saw the beginnings of a sweat glow dully on his forehead. My blade moved quickly. And now that I had him retreating, I began to think afresh about keeping his robes free of blood. The battle had turned; it was mine now, and he was swinging wildly with his sword, his attacks becoming more disorganized until I saw my chance, dropped almost to my knees and thrust upwards with the blade, punching up into his jaw.
His body spasmed and his arms stretched out as though crucified. His sword dropped, and when his lips stretched wide in a silent scream I saw the silver of my impaling blade inside his mouth. Then his body dropped.
I’d driven him all the way back to the foot of the steps and the hatch was open. Any moment now, another eunuch would be along to wonder where the jug of water had got to. Sure enough, I heard footsteps from above us and a shadow passed across the hatch. I ducked back, grabbed at the ankles of the dead man and dragged him with me, snatching off his hat and jamming it on my own head.
The next thing I saw was the bare feet of a eunuch as he descended the steps and angled his head to peer down into the pool chamber. The sight of me in the white hat was enough to disorientate him for one precious second, and I lunged, grabbed his robes in my fists and yanked him down the steps towards me, slamming my forehead into the bridge of his nose before he could scream. The bones crunched and broke, and I held his head up to stop blood leaking to his robes as his eyes rolled up and he slouched, dazed, against the wall. In moments he’d recover his senses and shout for help, and I couldn’t allow that. So I rammed the flat of my hand hard into his mashed nose, driving splinters of broken bone into his brain and killing him instantly.
Seconds later I’d scampered up the steps and, very carefully, very gently, closed the hatch, giving us at least a few moments of concealment before reinforcements arrived. Somewhere, presumably, a concubine was expecting a jug of water to be delivered.
We said nothing, just slipped into the eunuchs’ robes and pulled on our kalpaks. How glad I was to get rid of those blasted sandals. And then we looked at one another. Holden had spots of blood on the front of his gown, from where I had smashed the nose of the robe’s previous wearer. I scratched at it with a nail but, instead of it flaking off as I’d hoped, it was still wet and smeared a little. In the end, using a complicated series of pained facial expressions and furious nods, we decided by mutual consent to leave the bloodstain and risk it. Next, I carefully opened the hatch and let myself out into the room above, which was empty. It was a dark, cool room, tiled in marble that seemed luminescent, thanks to a pool that covered most of the floor space, its surface smooth, silent yet somehow alive.
With the coast clear I turned and motioned to Holden, who followed me through the hatch into the room. We stood there for a moment or so taking in our surroundings, giving each other cautiously triumphant looks before moving to the door, opening it and letting ourselves out into the courtyard beyond.
Not knowing what lay on the other side, I’d been flexing my fingers, ready to release my blade at a moment’s notice, while Holden had no doubt been set to reach for his sword, both of us poised to fight should we be greeted by a squad of snarling eunuchs, a huddle of howling concubines.
Instead what we saw was a scene straight out of heaven, an afterlife filled with peace and serenity and beautiful women. It was a large courtyard paved in black-and-white stone, with a trickling fountain at its centre and a surround of ornate columned porticos shaded by overhanging vines and trees. A restful place, devoted to beauty, serenity, tranquillity and thought. The trickle and burble of the fountain was the only sound, despite all the people there. Concubines in flowing white silk either sat on stone benches, meditative or doing needlework, or crossed the courtyard, bare feet padding silently on the stone, impossibly proud and erect, nodding courteously to one another as they passed; while among them moved servant girls, dressed similarly but easy to spot because they were younger or older, or not as beautiful as the women they served.
There was an equal number of men, most of whom stood around the edges of the courtyard, watchful and waiting to be called forward to serve: the eunuchs. None looked our way, I was relieved to see; the rules around eye contact were as elaborate as the mosaics. And as two unfamiliar-looking eunuchs trying to negotiate our way around a strange place, that suited us down to the ground.