This short story is based off the backstory of one Dolphus Gorov, a character in the Boards RP Tales of Glory and Valour. I would highly recommend joining if you like to write.
“The greatest lie you tell yourself is that you have no more to learn.”
The cold steps of the swordmaster held none of the fear of his colleagues, as each was bound by the purse of the Gorovs. His step carried true, however, for threat or no threat, his greatest obligation was the fulfillment of his tutoring, the instruction of one Dolphus Gorov, who had stayed on after the other students had completed their studies and moved on to the military.
Part of the reason for Dolphus staying behind and rising further and further was his uncanny talent for the blade. Whereas most of his pupils had an expected period of learning not to swing their rapiers like sticks, Dolphus had struck with accuracy and precision which threatened to bypass even the thick outfits protecting the students from their tools of combat.
Through no examination of Dolphus’ character or thought process could the swordmaster discern why he was so knowledgeable on the matter - his motor skills seemed unremarkable, and his attitude was cold and uncaring, his temper only ever ruffling at the mention of his mother. No chiding towards the trainee could evoke any other response than a cold acceptance. The fault was his, he had to improve.
Another part for Dolphus remaining while his peers left for combat service may have been him being thirteen. His father, Gregor Gorov, was often on trips to the surrounding islands to break the hand of some incompetent extension of his will, or to choke the last bit of life out of a crippled widow and bleed some witless investor out of every cent he had for the widow’s property. With no mother at home, Dolphus had no one to look after him during these excursions, and it was impossible to tell what Dolphus agreed or disagreed with, as his reaction was always a cold silence to every occurrence.
His father, however, had insisted on the training being completed to the highest degree physically possible for his age. Several swordmasters had tried and failed in spite of threats made by Gregor, who proceeded to enact those threats when the less skilled instructors had failed to rise to the task. But the old, wizened eye of the harshest swordmaster in the Southern Isles saw the black-haired recluse as lightning in a bottle. Although clearly devoid of people skills, Dolphus’ cold demeanor was the perfect balance of impassioned response and calculated action to make him the ultimate swordsman.
“As you can clearly see, there are no other pupils here.” The swordmaster extended his arms as he walked, calmly gesturing about to the emptiness of the room. Dolphus stared directly forwards, at attention, knowing full well the swordmaster only lapsed into a casual attitude when a test of skill had been prepared. These tests had been constructed in the past to attack weak points in the techniques of his pupils, testing the group and pouncing on the first one that faltered. So calculated were these tests that many of the students would often fail at the same time. However, Dolphus failed the least often, and when the tests were tailored towards him, the others were never allowed to participate.
“You have only ever trained against pupils and against myself.” The swordmaster gestured towards the corner of the room closest to the door, the one place Dolphus would not have looked as he walked in. There was a series of clicking steps, and a young woman with flaming red hair walked past him, standing next to the swordmaster with a confident smirk.
“So today, we will have you train against one of my former pupils. Lieutenant Alsen Saltator of his Majesty’s Navy, who, like many of her fellow officers, still holds an immense respect for his Majesty’s wishes. You will face her, and you will outperform her.”
“Or you will still have much to learn.” The swordmaster dipped his arm downwards, and Lieutenant Alsen Saltator drew her sword. The tip of Dolphus’ raised to meet it.
“Listen, yer majesty, I understand yer a cripple but ye can’t muck about in th’ one spot the whole darn day!” The sailor spat an incessant torrent of saliva in Dolphus’ direction. “Ye’ll have t’ mop in the direcshin of the rest of the vessel. Go on, get movin’!” The greasy man shoved Dolphus, mop and all, towards the back of the boat. At sea there was very little else to do besides carve the heads off of fish and get swore at by the unkind men on board, and no man preferred to take it out on him more than Sickle Setroth.
The sinister Sickle Setroth was a man who liked to dance with death, kiss the reaper, and make off with tomorrow under his belt - as he would put it, that is. He was a wanted ex-convict suspected of a number of petty thefts all along the coast, and to avoid the vengeful arm of the law had applied to work on a fishing boat sitting comfortably in the water. Dolphus had applied as well, and with his fancier attire stuffed in a moisture-free hideaway back on land, he was free to wear proper work attire and not have his status as the son of the greediest man on the planet come up in conversation.
Sickle Setroth was waiting with a malicious grin at the other end of the ship with a handful of fish heads he had clearly swiped off the deck before Dolphus could mop. “You missed these!” He jeered, swiping his thin hand to fake a throw and then, after Dolphus had ducked the fake hit, landed one right in his eye. The preserving salt was rough and stung, dropping Dolphus to the ground as he covered his eyes with his arm as the jeering Setroth pelted him with fish head after fish head.
“Now that a shame, you’ll have to scrape all these up an’ toss 'em overboard.” Setroth jeered, sounding a long, wheezing laugh, his slender face contorting into a hateful grin. “Well lad, don’t just sit there whining abou’ it, get yer rear in gear!” He grabbed Dolphus by his curly locks and dragged him to standing height, prompting a cry of pain from the boy.
“You about to cry? I think I’d love to see it.” Setroth sneered, bringing his pointed nose in close before a creaking sound drew his attention with startled eyes. It was the Skipper, a dark man with a feather in his hat and a pointed black beard, his rather penniless appearance conflicting with the three gold earrings he had in his remaining ear. His eyes suspiciously traveled about, but before they could land on Setroth he was brushing out the grime his hands had placed in Dolphus’ hair, only adding more through his efforts.
“See now, you wouldn’t want to be cryin’ front of the Captain,” Setroth pretended to console, intentionally referring to the Skipper as Captain in an attempt to elevate the significance of the moment. He patted Dolphus on the left arm, and then looked in surprise at the limb - Dolphus had worn a tarp over the left side of his body to hide what he claimed was a missing limb; in actuality, a terrible thing had come to replace it through circumstances beyond his control. Now Setroth had become aware there was something hiding under the decorative cloth piece, and Dolphus had no reservations over what would happen next.
Two metal edges clashed with a ring. The superior sword of the Liutenant was having a thorough challenge keeping up with the delicate rapier Dolphus wielded. Despite having the full protective gear on, Dolphus had taken the helmet off to hear the sounds the two blades produced, as he often did during these sorts of duels. The swordmaster smiled at the action, remembering his own experiences with the audible whizzes and hums the air produced when steel passed through at violent speeds.
The left arm was involuntarily moved behind the back on both opponents. Their eyes did not meet often, although Dolphus had locked his onto hers, only acting on what the peripheral vision offered. Both opponents were undoubtedly skilled, both opponents were undoubtedly dedicated to their craft, and both were undoubtedly holding back to keep the other from getting hurt.
Yet something about this conflict seemed out of place. The swordmaster watched with suspicious eyes, certain he had finally found a way to crack the iron armor in Dolphus’ resolve. Alsen Saltator had not been informed of his suspicions, however, and she had her own methods of breaking an opponent.
“You don’t seem to hold your line very well.” Alsen spoke, her voice carrying over the sound of the steel. “Every blow you parry yo give up some of your ground. In three minutes you’ll be at the wall.”
“You are right.” The answer carried no emotion. Dolphus rarely ever spoke on his own initiative, and when he did it was in response to prompting or to callously chide his fellow students for a duel lost. But now it was neutral, calmly accepting the statement as an understandable fact that he ultimately agreed with. No conflict, no retaliation against the concept of inevitable loss.
Alsen was confused by the response, but decided it was an attempt to shut her down. She would retaliate by pressing harder. “Your father teach you to give up ground so readily? I thought he was known for ruthlessness, not withdrawing from a conflict.”
Her sword pinned the rapier on the ground, the point touching the floor, but Dolphus drew it up along the flat towards her fingers, forcing her to push the rapier out of the way and strike again. Still Dolphus remained completely accepting and open of the situation; in fact, his body language indicated he was fighting with less precision and more errors continued to appear - a shrewd Dolphus would never let his sword be trapped, even for a moment. The swordmaster continued to act suspicious of his behavior, but Dolphus knew why his resolve was slipping. He had tender memories, scattered with the past and smudged with guilt, of another young woman with a voice like silk and eyes that reflected the infinite cosmos he had known when he was very, very young.
“Maybe your mother, then?”
There was a flash in Dolphus’ eyes. The moment had passed; the dancer in the sun had managed to crack the iron shell. The rapier seemed to grow faster than before, the attacks were aggressive and repeated, always redirecting any counterattack into yet another vicious stab at some chink in her armor. Alsen had touched a nerve, a very delicate nerve.
He missed her.
The mop splintered with a sickening crunch, the head of the mop falling to the ground as Dolphus wielded the handle like his rapier, striking Sickle Setroth twice lightly on the cheeks, moving him back. The sailor snarled and produced a wicked-looking shortsword from his boot, muttering some unidentifiable words of contempt as he darted forwards, trying to drive it under his ribcage. But he was not dealing with any old errand boy on a ship; he was dealing with the Southern Isles’ finest in single-blade combat. Magic could and often did add to the battle, but for the blade alone, none under working age could hope to hold a candle to the last Gorov.
The knife carved against the wooden handle as the tip bruised ribs and jabbed intestines, causing the mariner to growl with each blow landed. Drawing back, Dolphus positioned himself and let his inept opponent vengefully swing at his face, pulling his head back just enough to see the blade pass by his eyes and sever the lowest lock of hair on his head. Satisfied with his maneuver, Dolphus struck out, slamming the rounded tip of the handle into Setroth’s throat, crushing his windpipe with precision far beyond what any of the crew were expected to encounter.
The bony man collapsed on the floor with an inaudible cough, looking up at his frightened peers as his hands traveled across the sky, looking for some way to un-crush his throat. Dolphus watched him die with a callous eye, turning a blank expression upon the skipper - it had never been personal, but it was necessitated by details he could not divulge.
The skipper returned the stare with one of dangerous resolution. Dolphus gave no response, picking up the head of his mop and returning to the bow.
Alsen could not keep up this level of defense without hurting the boy attacking her. He was too swift and too violent with his assault, and in order to avoid being wounded she had to backpedal away from the advancing attacks. She had now lost more ground in the last twenty seconds than Dolphus had in the entire duel.
Her retaliation was simple: Make a clear and dangerous attack appear from the side to force Dolphus back, and from there work to regain lost ground, assuming Dolphus didn’t slip up again and leave some unprotected portion she could leverage. Raising across her body, she swung her arm across towards Dolphus’ face, with him leaning slightly backwards to avoid the blade, the very tip severing his lowest lock of hair.
His blade was raised before this, horizontal, prepared to take advantage of the attack to threaten her throat and win the duel. As her blade swung back across her body, however, his emotional response to her callous remark about his mother and the conflict he felt about her limited resemblances blinded him to the momentum of the swing being carried into the sword turning, curving up from below his own, and smacking it out of the way just as he lunged forwards.
He could feel a point against the skin of his throat. The smallest trickle of blood ran down his neck, staining the uniform. He had lost the match.
“Enough.” The swordmaster approached and made a motion with his arm. Both blades were returned to their sheaths. “Alsen, you left your guard open fifteen times. Any military commander would have cut you to shreds and left you in the sun to fester. Your pride nearly cost you the match against a boy, and you expect to ever become a competent duelist with that kind of ego slowing you down?”
The swordmaster continued to berate Alsen with a gravity of age that made his temper not as verbally abrasive as it must have been in the past, but more than once Dolphus’ hand quivered as he fought against the urge to speak up and combat some of the swormaster’s rebuke. Despite what had occurred he still felt some connection with the Liutenant, and to see her berated in this way hurt to watch. She stood at attention, not responding to any of the comments as she looked past the swordmaster and into the wall.
“Dolphus,” The swordmaster calmly spoke after what seemed like an eternity, his voice losing its reproving undertones and filling the void with a kindly weariness. “The greatest lie we tell ourselves is that we have no more to learn. There is a time and a place for everything; you just need to find it."
Dolphus hurried away from that awful boat and the men it carried, who all silently unloaded their cargo with an uneasy air as the skipper presented to the local authorities a body he had found as he pulled into harbor of a waterlogged man by the alias Sickle Setroth, with his throat crushed in and his skin bleached by twenty-four hours in the brink. No one knew how he got that way, but everyone knew that shiphand Dolphus Smith had nothing to do with it.
Returning to his private hole in the alleys winding through the old brick buildings far too close together, Dolphus cradled himself in the shadow of his private alcove. He had never killed a man before, and thanks to his actions he had to abandon all hopes of payment for his diligence in slaving away for an unbearable week doing all sorts of unthinkable chores like cleaning and tidying and getting hit upside the head by whatever Setroth had handy to chuck at him. This was it, he promised himself. If this is the end result of manual labor, there would be no more of it. He was a Gorov; he deserved better and he would ensure he received better in whatever else he did.
His next employment would be focusing on his greatest gift: unparalleled mastery of cartography in the employ of one of the dukes, provided he would be able to work under a full alias and never meet the duke in person. He was a Gorov; anyone with anything to do with money knew and hated the Gorovs. Hopefully this upcoming position would give him the means to find some better way to survive on the streets.
But something told him it wouldn’t last. He needed more than simple wealth, he needed…
He missed her.