The Dueling Club
Characters: Kroenen and OCs
Rating: PG-13 for violence and self-injury
Summary: after WWI, Kroenen is frustrated in Berlin. Prequel to The Hand and A Deal with the Devil.
Author's note: Apollo Bund and mensur are real. It was actually engaged in by young German men after WWI, and was too strange and a propos for Kroenen not to work it into a fic.
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The invitation came on fine bond paper, slipped under the door of Karl Kroenen's tiny garret apartment. He had been expecting it, but not so soon. He had not yet made all the connections he intended to make, had not even fully demonstrated his fencing prowess at the school's gymnasium, but someone had heard of him, and sent him this request to join the Apollo Bund, the pre-eminent dueling fraternity in Berlin. This first invitation was merely to view a mensur, but the next would be to participate, and then he would join the ranks of young German men who had proved their mettle in the ring of combat, and in the surgery after. Many of his superiors in the Great War bore the scars of mensur on their faces. The goal of the duel was to cut one's opponent's face with calm and precision, and after, to endure the surgeon's needle without flinching. They used razor-sharp epees, so the cuts were small, and healed cleanly, but after, a man bore the faint lines his whole life. Apollo Bund had an excellent reputation, and membership was near compulsory for advancement within the government bureaucracy, but Kroenen sneered, thinking on the once-rich youths who had never seen action in the war, and now itched to prove themselves. The prescience that sometimes favored Kroenen showed him that these men, hungry for honor, would be clay in the hands of his gods, and his sneer turned into a hungry smile. He had no need to prove his courage under fire. During the war he had been promoted quickly within his unit, for he was always first over the wall, always first to silently dispatch enemy sentries with his knives. Interrogations of prisoners fell within his purview near the end of the war, and he gained notoriety as an efficient interviewer. Kroenen remembered the first time. Killing men in the dark was easy, and no one could see his exultation to condemn him for it. In the dark he gathered power from spilled blood. In the dark no one questioned how each death made him stronger, when most of his comrades grew weak and weary during a long night action. But he must walk a fine line when doing his torture and killing in the full light of day, under the eyes of men who felt themselves moral. He must betray no enjoyment, merely the civic pride of a German doing a distasteful duty.
That was the first time he wore his mask other than when going into battle. The sight of the polished metal and gleaming enamel, the harsh sound of his breathing both terrified the prisoner and hid Kroenen's face. The prisoner yielded up his information quickly—Karl had but to reveal his knives, twirl one over his fingers like a magician, and the man told everything he knew. It was almost disappointing, but at least Kroenen got the kill, and after that, his superiors never questioned the mask. Now, in peacetime, he could only hide his face in comfort while at the gymnasium, with the mesh fencing mask obscuring his features. He wore the masks for his night errands too, but he did that less often now. He could feel a great harvest of death waiting for him in the future, which he would be unable to enjoy if he were locked up or hanged for some few deaths now. The first mensur he observed was on a Saturday night. "Heinrich Neiblund," the young man at the door named himself. His face was pudgy and sweaty. "I'm the one who invited you," he continued, puffing his chest out. Kroenen had learned to use silence as a weapon, first against punitive teachers and cruel classmates, and later against French and English soldiers in battle. He used it now, looking blankly at Heinrich until the boy's eyes fell, and he nodded and laughed nervously. "Well come in. You're just here to observe tonight. And me too. "You remember me, don't you?" Heinrich asked as they descended the wood-paneled stairs. Karl heard the low talking of men behind the door, sensed its desperation, and hid a smile. "My father was in the same unit as you, in 1918. We met once. Everyone said how fearsome you were." Karl kept his silence, but nodded when the boy looked at him for confirmation. Within the salle stood perhaps ten men in their mid-twenties. The studio at the Apollo Bund was underground. Busts and coats of arms from great German families decorated the walls; families now foundering under the weight of the reparations imposed after the end of the war. This is all they have left, he thought, all the pride that is left; but it will be restored. Kroenen noted with approval that not all of them were the simpering milquetoasts this Neiblund seemed to be. The atmosphere changed when Kroenen and Heinrich entered. A few men tittered at Heinrich, who glowered unthreateningly back at them. A tall blonde man, one of the youngest but still clearly the leader, came over and shook Kroenen's hand. "Honored," he said, and Kroenen inclined his head, acknowledging the accolade. "I'm Leon Strasser. Perhaps you will take a glass of wine before we begin the evening." Strasser took Karl's elbow, and he had to fight his urge to jump back. He had always abhorred the casual, comradely backslapping in the army, as he hated the assault of alcohol on his senses, but for these connections he could pretend. "You should know that Heinrich failed in his last mensur," said Strasser. "If he fails again, he's out.» "Do you want him out?" asked Kroenen.
"If he fails, he's out," Strasser repeated. "I don't think we have to worry about you going easy on him." Strasser smirked, and Kroenen regarded him blankly; he could tell he was being baited. Strasser searched his face for some reaction for a moment and then continued. "Tonight I fight Gormann," Strasser said. "He's new, but he has a good reputation." Strasser fingered his face absently, and Kroenen saw the scars left by previous night's duels, thin red seams in the pale skin. His breath quickened slightly.
Strasser wrapped his neck in a white silk cloth to protect it during the dueling, and Gormann did likewise. Strasser approached the field with an insouciant arrogance while Gormann stomped into the ring; his short, blocky figure looked comical next to Strasser's. He knew how to hold his epee, however, more delicately than Kroenen would have credited. The duel was evenly matched, and by the rules of the club if both men acquitted themselves honorably, keeping their composure during the cutting and after, they were both winners. Strasser was taken aback at first at Gormann's aggressive style, but after ten minutes, both men had three or four cuts on their faces, and the surgeon called time. They toasted each other with wine as red as blood as the surgeon draped their shoulders in white to protect their suits from blood. Both men's eyes shone with the thrill of combat. Strasser graciously allowed Gormann to be stitched up first. Kroenen watched as the surgeon sutured the first cut, and the deepest, that had nearly punctured Gormann's cheek. The surgeon's hands were big and clumsy, and Kroenen finally said to Strasser, "I've done this work many times, with better stitches than him. If you would allow me . . ." Strasser looked at him oddly, but nodded, and Kroenen took out a curved suturing needle and thread from his jacket pocket. "I'm nearly done with my medical schooling," Kroenen said by way of explanation, and Strasser relaxed visibly. Strasser's face spasmed slightly when Kroenen first pierced it with his needle, but after that he started joking with Gormann. "Heh, I have more to lose than you," Strasser said to Gormann. The surgeon had finished stitching up his face, and now the saturnine young man looked at the stitches in a mirror. "Next time you can sew me up," he said to Kroenen, still scowling. Kroenen sighed happily as he placed a line of neat even stitches. He missed the feeling of skin under his hands. Medical school was all study, with so few opportunities to touch living flesh and cause blood to flow. Sooner than he wished, he was finished, and handed Strasser the mirror. The blonde man nodded and shook Kroenen's hand. "Truly, you are a man of many talents," he said. "Next time we will see you fight."
Karl stayed up late that night, listening to Die Walkure with a single light burning. He wondered, was Strasser like him, did he gain power and pleasure from his prowess in the ring. His instinct told him that Strasser was merely a political animal, but there would still be a place for him in the coming darkness. A more immediate problem was the upcoming duel with Heinrich. He would be shamed if he allowed any hint of weakness to show when he was cut. He had escaped injury during the war, through luck or his gods' protection, and now he wondered if he could truly take the cuts as well as he supposed. Experimentation was the answer to all of his questions, here in the night, with the opera playing, and a deaf old lady living below, no one would hear him even in the unlikely event of him screaming. He went into the small bathroom with a scalpel, intent on cutting his face, just a little, but then he realized that would show during the duel, and they would think he was trying to fake his participation. Perhaps the arm? That would not be as sensitive the face, but if he struck deeper it might hurt as much. He assembled his suturing kit and some iodine, and spread a clean rag over his desk. He knew a spells that would quell the pain perfectly during the mensur and now, but that would defeat the purpose. He did the first cut slowly on his inner arm. The pain felt light and sweet and the sight of blood welling out transfixed him. The second cut bit deeper and sharper but he knew enough to avoid hitting an artery both from his schooling and the interrogation tent. His breath came faster as he cut deeper, and his whole being was focused on the feel of the blade slipping through flesh. It was better than sex, better even than killing. It was a revelation. He wondered how far he could go, how much blood and skin he could remove before it became too much. Could he cut to the bone? On the next incision he did. Reluctantly he came back to himself after that. It would be too easy to lose control, and control was his highest ideal. The cuts on his arm were deep and bleeding freely. He cleaned them and sutured them closed. That was enjoyable too, and he made the stitches very small and slowly to draw out the experience. Kroenen cleaned up his bench carefully and paced his apartment to the strains of a German aria. He certainly had nothing to fear from Heinrich except the possibility that this new perversion would be exposed. Perhaps he should try cutting again to make sure he could control his reaction. The pagan ancients advised that we should know ourselves, Kroenen told himself when he walked to the Apollo Bund the next Saturday. And he now knew he could take more pain than anyone in Apollo would deliver, and hide his pleasure at it. His left arm was heavily bandaged, but he had been able to resist wounding his right arm as well. He might have trouble if the duel required him to switch hands. Heinrich was sweating heavily by the time they took their places opposite each other in the salle. The sweat stained the silk at his neck an ugly yellow hue. Kroenen had chosen a black scarf. When the match started, Kroenen made a quick experimental slash at Heinrich, and was rewarded with a welling of blood from the other man's face. Kroenen frowned; he had expected the duel to be a little more difficult than this. It became aparent that Heinrich lacked skill as well as stomach and before two minutes had elapsed Kroenen had given Heinrich three cuts on the face. The assembled men began chanting "Five cuts! Five cuts!" If Kroenen gave Heinrich five cuts before the ten minutes were up, without receiving any himself, Heinrich was the clear loser. It was child's play--Kroenen barely had to move to penetrate the boy's defense. Heinrich started sobbing and rushed out of the studio when Kroenen made his final cut. The men clapped diffidently and Kroenen bowed with an ironic smirk. "How will I show off my scars?" he asked the crowd.
"I'll give you some scars, if you wish," Strasser offered, and stepped into the ring. Someone flung him a scarf and an epee. They were more evenly matched. Strasser had just taken out the stitches from last week and the scars shone wetly on his face. He had the reach on Kroenen, but Kroenen was more skilled. They circled each other for a few minutes. The technique for the mensur were different than traditional epee sparring: usually the fencer would jab with the point, but this required delicate wrist control to make a slashing strike at the face. This would be an excellent way to bait a man into doing something stupid, Kroenen thought, in another circumstance. The timekeeper started counting down the final minute as still they feinted at each other. Finally Strasser lunged too far and Kroenen disarmed him with a cut to the other man's wrist. Kroenen hesitated for a moment, unsure of whether he could, within the rules of this contest, strike a man he had disarmed when time was called. He helped Strasser to his feet, and Strasser grinned. "We should have a rematch sometime, if you'll stitch up my hand." Kroenen smiled tightly and nodded. A mist filled the streets when Kroenen walked home, and after a time he heard muffled footsteps behind him. He retreated into the deep shadows under the eaves of a building and waited for his follower to come by. Kroenen was unsurprised to see that it was Heinrich, coming close on his tail like a dog. As he passed, Kroenen jumped out and pulled Heinrich back with a knife at his throat. Heinrich squeaked as he felt the cool metal of the blade against his neck. "What is it you want?" Kroenen whispered. Heinrich swallowed convulsively. "You shamed me," said Heinrich. "I want a real duel. To the death." Kroenen licked his lips. He saw the blood still seeping from Heinrich's face gleam blackly in the night.
"Death can be arranged," Kroenen said.
"I brought pistols," said Heinrich. He pulled them out of his coat pocket. Kroenen pulled out his own, and the boy nodded and licked his lips. "No second?" Kroenen asked, and before Heinrich could respond, said, "I thought not. Thirty paces?" Heinrich nodded again, and they began to pace off. Kroenen knew Heinrich would turn early. He felt the whisper of wind and swish of the boy's coat as he pivoted. Heinrich was a good shot, at least, and Kroenen had turn and block the bullet with the thick knife still in his hand. The next bullet hit Kroenen in the upper arm. It almost made him lose his balance, but he blocked the next two successfully. Heinrich's eyes went wide with terror as Kroenen continued stalking toward him.
"You don't have any honor, Heinrich," Kroenen said when he was close. "Neither do I, but if you have no honor, you must never ever lose." He put the knife under Heinrich's neck and cradled his head with his hand and their faces were only a few inches apart. Kroenen said nothing as he pushed the blade in. Warm blood flowed over Kroenen's hand and arm as Heinrich choked his last breath.
He sighed. If only they were still at war, he could make this last much longer, but this way was better. It would just look like a robbery; or perhaps even, with the gun in Heinrich's hand, like self-defense. Kroenen dragged the body into an alleyway between two buildings. He felt oddly cheated on the rest of the walk. He put his hand to his lips and tasted the blood. He felt the dark power course through him, but softly, and it told him he must wait much longer before he would be called upon to kill the way he wanted to.
The bullet burned in his arm, but he could tell it had not hit bone. He could dig it out this night. He wondered how that would feel.
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