The Secret Art of Mercy 1: Wasted Youth

H. B. Kurtzwilde

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Apprentice Sebastian has long cherished his love for his master. For years, Master D'arcy Qyn has respected Sebastian's right to choose whom he embraces in the sexual arts known to the Fellowship of Servitors. But when the fashion...
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Apprentice Sebastian has long cherished his love for his master. For years, Master D'arcy Qyn has respected Sebastian's right to choose whom he embraces in the sexual arts known to the Fellowship of Servitors. But when the fashions and opinions of other Servitors are no longer enough to keep them apart, they rely wholeheartedly on the vows that have made them student and teacher.

Abiding dutifully by the formal roles prescribed for so taboo a relationship, each must find his way with desires and pleasures they would not otherwise enjoy. Together they must prove their love in all its expressions without shame and eternally beyond reproach.

  • Note:Although this book is set in the same universe as The Secret Art of Failure, it is the beginning of a new standalone series.
Ugly Victory

Sitting still had become less and less possible for Sebastian over the past few hours. The Arata was fast approaching its quarry. The vessel Kitgorian had failed to comply with Commonwealth inspection standards, then bolted from port as soon as the authorities began to make noises about it. If the smugglers had known whom to bribe, this whole mess could have been avoided.

Instead Sebastian found himself getting a serious case of the jitters. His concentration was splintering piece by piece as their quarry lost its head start on them. Sebastian forced himself to breathe deeply, focus carefully, and hold himself correctly as his training allowed him to do. Finding his balance took no effort if he did it right.

There, in the fine strands of the Telsma that made up everything in the universe, something was not quite right. He almost asked if D’arcy sensed it as well. One look and he didn’t need to ask. D’arcy narrowed his eyes then relaxed them over and over, a dead giveaway that he was trying to see something as Sebastian had tried.

“What was that?” Sebastian whispered.

“Focus object blew out,” D’arcy answered. “Unshielded. It wasn’t in a university. That happened in the field.”

Then Sebastian understood what he was seeing. The Telsma was boundless, but nonetheless had patterns within its energy. Planets and stars, the light they emitted and refracted, down to each individual person, all had their own shape in the Telsma. Every day new patterns started and old patterns stopped in the natural order of the universe. Those lives and deaths were as predictable as the shape of a raindrop. This mass of endings was laced with the fundamental underlying energy of the universe echoing to him through his sense of the Telsma.

Sebastian wondered how a focus object could have failed without a Servitor there to contain the damage. Little traces of energy in the Telsma were merely fleeting. Sebastian made them happen all the time when he practiced his lessons. A focus object held a permanent Trace and could make Servitor tricks happen if the user could only hold his focus properly. They were rare beyond describing outside the Fellowship, but Sebastian knew where there were lots of them.

He rested his hand on his lightslate and coded a request for proof of life and location to Professor Vanni. That fellow was loaded bone-deep with focus objects, but usually stayed close to Trine Ria. Centrally located, he acted as steward and kept tabs on the rest of the lineage. He replied promptly and confirmed that others had also sensed the event.

Sebastian relaxed, confident that wiser heads would concern themselves with so strange a moment. He focused instead on himself, relaxing into the early stages of adrenaline burn. He found it more comfortable to work up his levels ahead of the need, rather than risking the nausea that came with an uncontrolled spike.

The captain ordered boarding parties to vessels. Sebastian reached out respectfully to touch his master’s hand. Qyn squeezed back, his smile giving Sebastian the only encouragement he needed.

Sebastian felt a connection in this strangeness between him and his master, and whatever was happening so far away from them. Unfortunately there wasn’t much opportunity for him to study the event more closely. One of the Guardians strapped Sebastian in like he couldn’t have managed on his own. Sebastian let him, seeking his Trigger discipline and putting this other puzzle aside.

The boarding went pretty close to the plan. The Arata attacked while the shuttles dodged through the exchange. Guardians shouted curses and lost lunches, insulted the pilot, and generally carried on like vicious, bloodthirsty soldiers fighting for a just cause.

The assault craft locked on to the exterior of the cargo-bay doors. The Guardians went silent and looked at the Servitor. Sebastian popped his straps and floated out of his seat. “Would any here care to receive Grace of me?”

Gloves were instantly stripped off, hands held out, so Sebastian reached for Grace discipline as well and let his hands touch theirs as he drifted serenely into the airlock. He saw how his inner peace affected them, making them able to focus and think instead of worry and wait.

The inner doors closed behind them. Then the outer doors opened to reveal the naked hull of the smugglers’ vessel. He glanced back and saw a whole squad of Guardians waiting to be impressed. He used his Touch discipline to grip the floor and hold his feet to it, as if he’d suddenly conjured gravity out of empty space. He focused, found his balance, and moved so fast he doubted anyone could really tell what he was doing just by looking at him.

It wasn’t that he would not—or could not—use his hotguns. That wasn’t the point, and he was surprised at his master for thinking otherwise. Hotguns had many practical uses beyond the Trigger discipline. He considered the hull before him and chose a demonstration of that point.

Sebastian drew his hotguns and held them at his sides in subdued pose, pointed at the floor. He released his breath and focused on the Trigger discipline, Telsma energy burning in him and making him more than he ever could be alone. The hot crystals came active, humming confidently in his palms. A heartbeat later he felt the clip of hot bullets activate.

He raised his arms in perfectly controlled lines, body hardly jerking under the massive recoil of the 40x40s. The hot bullets fluoresced pure white in the air. Sebastian kept his mental command of his weapons, stopping the slugs when they came to the center of the hull.

That was discipline, hitting what he intended when he intended with perfect accuracy. Sebastian brought his hands together, weapons still leveled at the target before him. He holstered his weapons and drew in a calm, focused breath, then exhaled to protect his lungs in case he fucked up and decompressed the airlock.

The hot bullets fractured violently and blew the hull. Sebastian stepped back in the shift of air pressure, turned away from the flying debris. He took another breath.

He glanced back again and saw stark shock on every face. He kicked the center of the newly created door loose. The space beyond was crammed with cargo crates that would need to be climbed or moved for them to go through.

He bowed politely to the Guardian Wing, inviting them to precede him. For most of the trip through the lower cargo hold he ended up playing rearguard. Not that there was all that much to guard against. They made it to the ladder that led to the next deck up and emerged into hell

This was the deck the smugglers were using to hold the prisoners. Rows and lines of sling-bunks stood from one side to the other. Individuals were webbed in place, apparently under some sort of sedation for the journey. The hold was bitterly cold. Every surface seemed to be frosted over from the breathing of the humanoids imprisoned in their own bodies. The air was not the only thing that made Sebastian shiver.

One end of the room was a swarm of laser blasts and screams of pain. The catwalks above were thick with smuggler crew blasting into the hold.

The Guardians with him spread out and began mounting a defense for the helpless souls around them. Sebastian could see that the combatants on the catwalk were now concentrating on a single target. He made out a flash of green, then blue, down one of the rows and ran toward the stranger.

He called to her, hotguns at the ready, but not offering an attack. A figure in green rags, a face with pale-blue fur, turned, nodded once and gestured with a long silver-colored staff. He directed his focus toward one of the catwalk supports. The other support was swaying crazily but went unnoticed as it was supporting a path unused by the enemy. A quick volley, and Sebastian cut through the other support.

The catwalk swayed under its own weight, twisting as it tumbled, arcing from the floor up to the remaining pathway and back down to the floor. Avoiding the slow and easily manipulated laser fire as he ran, Sebastian dashed to the near end.

His new ally made it to the other side of the twisted arch and began climbing up. Her agility and speed were astounding and would have shocked anyone who didn’t spend all the livelong day with Servitors. Sebastian couldn’t tell what she was up to, but knew it was something beyond natural ability.

He might have climbed up, but pride pricked at him. He had only to grasp the catwalk above with his Touch and yank hard even as he leaped. Stepping on air, he rose fast and descended softly, finding firm footing on the metal grating.

He could see his coconspirator coming up the other side. It was she who acted shocked when she found him standing there to help her. At this distance Sebastian could see she was bleeding but had no time to tend the wounds.

They stood back-to-back, Sebastian finding that calm place within his focus once more. The blaster fire and its avoidance became the only reality. He found his balance, even as the whole catwalk system began to sway under him.

There was no time for style. No matter how he felt about his weapons, the time had come to put his personal motivations aside. He drew his hotguns and turned to his Trigger discipline. He killed precisely, viciously, choosing targets in the chaos around him and making them stop fighting back. Limbs were severed and lives snuffed. Somewhere below him he caught the brilliant light of D’arcy’s hotgun rounds.

Then it was gone, and there was only motion and the moment and the feel of a stranger guarding his back. His breathing came less easily, but the nearest fighters were down. Taking a step toward the others, Sebastian let his training control him.

He avoided the oncoming fire and cut down his targets one by one. He traveled forward, through them, shooting them down even as they passed behind him. His steps were confident, even on that gore-slicked metal under his boots. When the last one was down, he turned, looking for his comrade. He had cleared the catwalk of danger. She was simply gone. Like many other strangers she hadn’t bothered to speak to Sebastian and would probably never find a reason to wonder who her Servitor rescuer was.

Swinging over the side, Sebastian dropped to the floor below and rejoined his group as they made their way through the ship.

Master Qyn had moved forward, leaving his apprentice to mop up and secure the devastation he’d left. Sebastian found a way to start the long process of warming the hold so the survivors could wake in some level of comfort. He sent an inquiry to Professor Vanni about how to revive the prisoners, then waited impatiently for what he knew would be a correct reply. What he got back was a program and instructions on how to make the life support and medical equipment do the job for him.

Sebastian noted the number of dead, the number of wounded, and the sheer level of hopelessness that any real help could be rendered to them. D’arcy Qyn was a Master Healer, that much was true. D’arcy might could save one precious life, but he would have to choose. Sebastian had no doubt that his master would do it. It was more than Sebastian himself could offer.

Securing the vessel and taking any surviving criminals into custody was outside of Sebastian’s duties. That fell squarely on the Guardian Wing. Sebastian couldn’t even give advice unless somebody thought to ask him. D’arcy had instructed Sebastian to go in and kill all the baddies. With that task complete, Sebastian’s normal duty of observing his master resumed as if nothing had come before. Sebastian clung to the far edge of calm, struggling to suppress his delighted reaction to victory, just as he usually did.

Master Qyn quietly advised the commander of the assault team. The wounded of the Guardian Wing watched anxiously as their medic hustled through the triage routine. When she straightened, she pointed to a woman who had gone from a healthy-looking scarlet to a frightening pale pink.

“I can’t do anything more for her,” the medic said.

Master Qyn stepped forward quickly and rested his hand on hers. His eyes went unfocused for a long moment. “I can do it slow and easy, over days. Or once hard, and it will hurt like a bastard.”

“Once,” the Guardian said.

Her strong comrades held her still for the moment when her spine bowed and all her breath rushed out in a helpless scream. Master Qyn sagged at the knee, but Sebastian was there to catch him when he stumbled. They both corrected their balance and turned as one.

“Was that all?” Master Qyn asked the Wing commander.

“Yes, thank you,” the commander said. “We will have you back to your university as fast as we can.”

Sebastian matched pace with his master, keeping calm and serene until they were crawling back through the cargo hold and into the vessel to wait for the others. Once they were alone, Sebastian could finally let out the gales of laughter that had been near to choking him. Master Qyn wrapped an arm around Sebastian’s shoulders and patted him until the spell had passed.

“Was it good?” Master Qyn asked, smiling indulgently.

“I felt so alive,” Sebastian confided. “I ought not to be like this. Killing is a terrible thing.”

“Choosing to kill is terrible,” Qyn agreed. “Once the choice is made, or it’s been made for you, then it’s best to do it well.”

“I do,” Sebastian whispered. “But I think I like it too much.”

“As long as you’re alive to enjoy yourself, I don’t care,” Qyn said. “But don’t get giggly around these Guardians. They’re broody types at the best of times. I wouldn’t stop you if they weren’t our only source of beer for the trip home.”

“I’ll behave,” Sebastian promised as he stretched, testing his body for strains or wounds. “Soon. Before they get back.”

Master Qyn laughed as merrily as Sebastian had. “Just get it out of your system before the Guardian Wing sees you. I don’t think that’s much to ask.”

“No, Master,” Sebastian agreed. He went on snickering just the same.

The sharp edges of the fight were already wearing off. Soon he would only remember the pulse of his blood, the rising power of his discipline, and the way his body sang with the feel of total control. This quality of disciplined combat worried him. After all, his kind of resilience to extreme violence should have required heavy drugs, not a few cold beers in the aftermath.

The trouble with fights was that they made him high. Winning any kind of battle came with this kind of buzz. He stuck to his preferred vices of alcohol, sugar, and fat in all its forms when possible. The blood lust was all kinds of fun but not one he could trust himself to enjoy very often.

Copyright © H. B. Kurtzwilde


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