Prentyze slouched over to the others grouped in the shade of the tunnel’s enormous mouth. His breathing was easing and his headache was receding; perhaps the potion was working at last? But it was getting ever hotter in the armour, despite the thin, frigid air, the chill of the tunnel’s stone surfaces and the sudden absence of the sun’s warmth.
How was it possible to overheat in such conditions?
Thick padding, that was how.
All these fire-retardant layers were going to cook him from the inside out. He could feel his sweat soaking his silks, and one simply did not treat silks like that! It would ruin them, making them fit only for burning. But, typical of Father’s work, his designs were wondrously effective but pity the unlucky dope who had to wield it or wear it. House Brassard’s Master Weapons Designer did not care how users suffered; his interest stopped at the prototype. Once proven to work, it was up to House product engineers to ‘get the wrinkles out’ and deal with insignificant issues like comfort and usability.
These suits were, of course, prototypes and Father would no doubt dismiss the heat build-up as merely one such wrinkle. But mere wrinkles had been known to injoure volunteers during tests.
The inconsiderate bastard cleared his throat and pointed at assembled helms and dragon-lances laid in rows on the ground. “Remember to take only what has your name on it. House Brassard made every item to fit the exact measurements I took back in Spring. So it’s a good job Prentyze didn’t grow any taller and Miss Anluan didn’t let herself get pregnant, what?”
What a bastard, rubbing it in like that. Why couldn’t Prentyze get his height from Mother? Why was he cursed to be such an exact copy of his father?
Smiling at Flammia’s compressed lips, weals that flushed a deeper red, and her indignant glare, Father handed out large, white, ceramic flasks; one to each.
“This is only water, I’m afraid. Forgive the mineral taste – the additives will help you deal with heat build-up in the suits. We have hot work ahead, what? Drink it all and leave the empties in this crate. No sense in carrying additional bulk; the weight will ride more comfortably inside us, what? Take one each, there’s more waiting here for our return.”
Flammia snatched her flask from his hand, tipped it up and poured the contents down her gullet in one continuous swallow, brash and ballsy compared to the old men sipping at their drinks. He tipped his flask up in a like manner and spilled it over his face. He choked. The damned stuff had gone down the wrong way. His father, of course, reacted with the inevitable rolling of eyes and sigh of disappointment. Bastard.
Finishing his drink, Father dropped his flask into an empty case. “Have you all finished drinking? And spluttering? This formulation won’t keep you cool by magic; it works by promoting sweating. So I advise you to carry your helms for now. You will shed more heat from your scalps if you leave them uncovered. Oh.” He hesitated, frowning and looking away for an instant. “And if you need to – ah – evacuate any liquid before we get back, you have no choice but to do so inside the armour. The groin is sealed to avoid a weak point in a rather – ah – vital location, what?”
Flammia blanched and Zubin choked, spitting his drink onto the rock floor. It was clear both of them had missed this design feature.
Oh. Stupid! Prentyze should not have worn silks today. He would have to piss through them into the suit’s padding.
There had to be a better word than ‘bastard’ for what his father was putting them all through today!
“Fine. Whatever.” Flammia sounded as irritated with Edrei Brassard as Prentyze felt. “Can we get started now?”
“Haste is ever the hallmark of a lesser House, Miss Anluan. Be patient. I must brief Zubin on the weapon if he is to wield it effectively, what?”
Her eyes shot bolts of hatred at Brassard Senior, her weals flushing again. A quiet metallic squeal came from her gauntleted hand as she tightened her grip on her helm’s long ‘peak’.
If only Prentyze could show her he sympathised. But, with elders watching, he didn’t dare sigh. Besides, he would likely choke again on what remained of his drink.
Why had she ignored him? Was it because of their difference in ages? So what if she was near her stupid coming-of-age? What was that – three, four years older than him? That was nothing. Aunt Arika, and ‘baby-face’ Uncle Raj had twelve years between them, and nothing in common. In that last respect, Prentyze was off to a better start with Flammia – his father annoyed her as much as he annoyed him. They had that in common, at least.
It was something to build on, right?
The last to finish, he tossed his empty flask into the case and lingered again on Flammia’s imagined curves. It was better than listening while Father droned on about the dragon-lance. He knew it almost as well, having assisted him during the design of both the armour and weapon. Although, in fact ‘assisting’ meant sharpening graphite markers, stacking parchments, listening to Father’s unceasing commentaries, and brewing White Bud tea which the old man drank in copious quantities. What Prentyze understood of the design, he learnt by reading the design notes for himself.
The briefing dragged on.
Was Father talking in a slow and pedantic manner to Zubin as a deliberate ploy to needle Flammia? It seemed to be working: she was trying to crush her helm one-handed.
Despite the weals, blisters and receding hairline, her furious blush was adorable. Even lacking eyebrows, some hair, and with a disfigured face, she was still –somehow– beautiful. Perhaps it was her bronze-gold eyes?
Father was waving a dragonlance around. “... once these barbs lodge securely in the dragon’s flesh, give the stock a quarter twist, like this. That will detach the harpoon,” he said, pulling the bronze coloured harpoon out of the stock, “and leave it in the beast, what? Its blood will drain through these holes into the hollow shaft, coming out … here. Retrieve another head from your quiver – it holds three – fit it, twist to lock it …” He fitted back in the stock. “Like so, and thrust again. Repeat until you have embedded all four heads, then stand clear. It matters not if we miss its vital organs. It’s already wearied by this morning’s ambush and blood loss will finish it off quickly, what?”
“If I may, Design Master Brassard,” said the priest, making Prentyze groan to himself in frustration at the further delay. “Copper? Really? It’s such a soft metal. Surely, a copper harpoon can never puncture dragon hide?”
Flammia’s damaged face glowed redder. She was fit to explode over the lengthening delay.
He knew how she felt; they were of one mind about the old bastard.
But the heat in her cheeks revived memories of the blushing bed-mate of his dreams, and he looked away, back to Father.
“Indeed,” Father continued, unperturbed, “the harpoon’s point would collapse if it were made only of copper. Look here. Use your dagger to scrape the surface … no, back and forth, like this … and you will observe the shaft is solid steel of the highest quality with only a microscopic sheath of copper plating, just a few atoms thick. It’s a new sputtering technique pioneered by House Brassard, what? Tests on captured dracs have shown that even such minute amounts of copper acts as a catalyst on an oily component of dragon blood, producing a toxin which –”
Like illustrations of volcanoes in Prentyze’s books, Flammia erupted. “For the love of Aloysia, Brassard! If you don’t end this now, I’m going in by myself! And may She damn you all to the Underplane for wasting time!”
Prentyze gasped. Her outburst was long overdue and expected by everyone, but her breaches of polite behaviour were shocking. That she had dropped all pretence at civility by invoking her God in mixed company was … It was a scandal. An affront to polite society.
He glanced at the older men to assess their reactions.
Zubin was rigid, nostrils flared, lips curled, incandescent at Flammia’s outburst. “Kindly keep your blasphemous devotion to a lesser God to yourself, young lady!” He was now every bit a Commander of the Faith, defending Barys’ faithful against an attack by a worshipper of Aloysia, the false god from his perspective.
Father’s mouth, similar to Prentyze’s initial reaction, hung open at such effrontery.
But it was a sham.
There was a recognisable gleam in the old bastard’s eye, the one he always adopted before declaring the winning move in a game of Knights of Waldemar.
The cunning bastard was only feigning his shock. He had been playing for this, all along.
Flammia was finished in Polite Society.
Twice, she had scorched her society reputation in front of witnesses, and the priest would complete its combustion when they got back. There was no role for her now as a player in Waldemarian power politics. She had lost it before she had even started, and House Anluan was now the weaker for it.
It was all part of the game that Prentyze detested. Why did nobles have to play ‘measuring pricks’? By the Gods, this game of ‘my House is better than yours’ was senseless. Useless. Wasteful. Couldn’t people drop this sham? What was wrong with members of House Brassard and House Anluan being friends?
But he could not dare to say this aloud, or his own future would be at risk.
Edrei Brassard, though a little shorter than Flammia, drew himself erect for an impressive display of mock indignation. “The impetuosity of a lesser House will get you killed, my dear Miss Anluan. But, if that is what you wish, you go right ahead. Drop in on the dragon, by all means. We can join you later to sweep up the pieces … or your ashes, what?”
By the Gods, Father was twirling his moustache while he smirked. He actually twirled it. Didn’t he know how stupid he looked?
Edrei snorted at his own joke and Zubin gloated. Flammia stomped a few paces down the tunnel’s descent and halted with an angry crash and a loud explosion of breath. The bright sky behind them glittered off her heaving, armoured back.
Edrei resumed his briefing as if nothing had happened.
“Actually, I need to point out, Zubin, that the stock has two fairings, one protecting each hand-grip from the dragon’s breath. If it directs its flame in your direction, it is vitally important to keep the lance pointed into the jet, otherwise … ”
The girl remained facing away, shoulders heaving. There was only a few metres between them, but Prentyze could not cross the gap to comfort her. It was as unbridgeable as the widest chasm.
“… forward fairing features a built-in instrument providing high-intensity light to illuminate your target. It is identical to the light in your helm’s brow. These … ha! … trivial details … were supplied by House Anluan as part of their … ”
He just had to use that tone of voice, implying their contribution wasn’t worth much. The chemistry involved in making such an astonishing amount of light from these small instruments could have been as complex and challenging as designing the telescoping joints of their fireproof armour. Conceivably, more-so. But, oh no. The bastard had to denigrate their addition as mere toys. Anyway, Zubin was by far the biggest investor in the consortium, having contributed a whole Partition of militia and a fast courier-class airship. House Brassard and House Anluan had only provided the technical know-how and prototypes.
“… your helm has thick, temperature resistant lenses to protect your eyes and a long, fixed ‘peak-style’ visor to protect the lenses. Your body’s natural tendency to flinch will lower the peak to protect them, what? In the same manner, the same flinch will close all the armour’s weak points and position the fairings to deflect ...”
Prentyze glanced in Flammia’s direction. She was still facing into the tunnel, breathing heavily. If only he dared say something to her.
Zubin leant forwards with a frown, making a downwards-sweeping and cutting motion with one hand. He spoke with obvious impatience. “Yes, yes, I understand, but you’re not saying anything about heat. The inside of this suit is getting hotter than a steam room – and I have sampled some of the finest in the Old Town. But what I feel now can only be called ‘excessive’. Dangerous, possibly. I am sweating profusely, I am thirsty and a slight cramp has started in my calf muscle.”
Zubin frowned, flexed a leg and continued. “Unlike our young blasphemer over there, I have not yet exerted myself. If the mere act of sitting on a bench can give me this much cramp, I seriously doubt I can manage an extended walk. Especially on a possibly long and slippery slope.”
Like a hawk’s swift and plunging strike, he skewered Edrei with a sharp glance. “Did you take body heat into account, Design Master Brassard?”
Prentyze scrutinised his father. Zubin was speaking for all of them and it demanded an answer. What would Father say about this? The bastard never once mentioned heat in the designs office. Yet, here they were, sweating like street-corner fountains into their clothes and padding.
“A certain build-up of heat was anticipated, yes. I, for one, am developing a head-ache in addition to a minor leg cramp. Another reason for using a fast airship to get us up here quickly, what?”
Father rubbed a temple and continued. “But I must remind you we will soon be in the depths of this mountain. The air is already chilly and it will only become colder still as we penetrate deeper into the lair. This will help cool us of course, but we have recently quaffed a specially formulated drink that should help us cope with the worst symptoms of heat.”
Zubin grunted. “Very well, we will try walking –or slipping– in these expensive fancy-dress ovens and see how far we get.”
He did not seem convinced.
“But I have another pressing concern. Did you not say that the ambush we lured the dragon into had depleted its breath? Did you not also say it has returned to its lair, to rest and recharge its supply of fire? Well, forgive me, but I fail to see why all these expensive and incommodious precautions are necessary. Surely, normal battle armour and weapons would be far more comfortable and still suffice to kill a weakened dragon – especially one that is recuperating and hopefully sleeping! Otherwise, what was the point of our ambush? Which, may I add, was exorbitantly expensive in manpower, mounts and equipment.”
Zubin was referring to the bloody casualties his militia took and the damage inflicted on his personal airship. But which of the two did he rate higher?
Prentyze looked back to Father.
The old bastard preened. He actually preened!
He had expected this objection all along.
And here it came: his prepared answer: “Then, why has no one already killed a sleeping dragon, what? You agree dragons are smart, even intelligent to a degree, yes? I grant you, your airship fulfilled a vital role in this morning’s ambush to keep the dracs occupied, as any thinking being would have noted. If you were that dragon, you would surely keep back a sensible reserve of fire in case we planned to use said airship to follow it back to its lair, right? As indeed we did, what? It’s airship science. No, my dear Zubin, we must expect to test the armour in dragon flame, even if only for one strike. Normal battle armour will not suffice.”
The old bastard twirled his moustache again, looking around for dramatic effect. Let the curtain fall to loud applause! He was so enjoying directing this show. Bastard. And now he would step in front of the tabs to recite the narrator’s meaningful epilogue ...
“Very well. Everyone, don your gauntlets and non-slip boots, but leave the helms off for now to allow cooling. Follow my lead: Clip a bag of harpoon heads to the ring provided on your suit. Collect your lance stock. Fit the first harpoon – in case the dragon decides to surprise us in the tunnel, what? And trigger the light in the stock, like this.”
Father paused for dramatic effect and to assess his hunting party.
“Then, as House Anluan is so eager to fall on a dragon, let us proceed, what?”