Copyright © DW Brownlaw 2020-2022. All rights reserved.
The tunnel’s total darkness oppressed Prentyse. The utter blackness made everything uncertain and, along with the frigid air, sapped his spirit. A mere pinprick of bright, white daylight, so far above and behind them, hinted at the distant entrance. The dragon-lance beams reflected off the rippled, glassy surface of the straight tunnel, supplied the sole illumination. The darkness yielded to this probing and slicing but healed as the beams moved on, entirely unaffected and mocking of their technology.
The sour stench of body odours was bad enough but no one had relieved their bladder yet, for which Prentyse's keen sense of smell was thankful. They sat in pairs, two each side of the tunnel, with their backs to the walls and legs out straight. Young thighs burned from the long descent while old thighs recovered from recent cramps. On the far side, the two elders grumbled about pains and the heat rising inside their stuffed armour, but Prentyse paid no attention. At last, he was sitting close to Flammia Anluan.
And she was actually talking to him.
“... so that’s how Abi still gets a position in the Anluan lighting business while Mummy and Daddy have to buy me a military commission, and –”
It hadn’t been so hard to get Flammia to sit with him; it had happened quite naturally. Father and Zubin, immersed in a discussion about heat build-up, had sat on one side of the tunnel together, leaving the other side ‘for the youngsters’. The older men kept glancing in their direction, and Prentyse studied them back, biding his time.
“... not that they ever call it a purchase, of course, because that would be crass, they only ask that I decide between the Cavalry or Rangers–”
He was torn. He wanted to pay Flammia more attention. Her presence tugged at his attention and it would so pleasant to listen to her melodious voice all day. But by the Gods! Why were his hands shaking so much? Why wouldn’t they stop? Perhaps if, casually, he dropped them between his knees and squeezed? ... Yes, much better. Flammia hadn’t noticed, being too absorbed in talking, and the two bastards opposite continued their discussion.
“... and I don’t know what they’ll say to me being interested in the Air Corps, although I guess Mummy won’t be keen as she is afraid of heights and gets dizzy just thinking about how far an airship could fall.”
Having finished her first interminable sentence, she took a deep breath for another.
Now or never! This was his opening to play Father and Zubin off each other!
“It’s the same for me,” he said, intentionally loud, voice quavering a little. “Father wants me to stay in weapons design and learn the business side, but I’ve got my heart set on scholarship, and Zubin says he can help me without Father having to pay any money for the commission.”
It was done. It wasn’t his best speech: his voice had wobbled and it had come out in a rush; but it was out in the open. It was time to observe the experiment’s result. Like they were reagents mixing in a retort, he studied Zubin and Father minutely for their reactions.
Father hissed with a sudden intake of air and swivelled to glare at Zubin, who turned away in white-faced embarrassment.
“By Aloysia!” Prentyse flinched at Flammia’s outburst as she surged to her feet, everyone’s eyes on her in shock. Her flaring nostrils and flaming weals twisted her beautiful face into the demonic expression of an ancestral shaman mask, repelling him as if he were the malevolent spirit which it warded. He wanted to crawl under his writing desk to escape her withering scowl.
The sharp edge was back in her voice; she was almost shouting. “You’re even more pathetic than I thought. So that would make you a bookworm AND a Barys cultist?”
She backed away from him as if repelled by his presence. “You know what? You can choke on your dusty papers, for all I care. I hope your evil cult’s scholars … name a smelly weed after you!”
As insults went it wasn’t the best, but her passion delivered it with force. He recoiled in the bright pain of rejection as she pulled her helm over her head, slamming it down into place. He caught a last glimpse of her eyes through the helm’s lenses; they accused him, but of what? As the helm locked into the suit’s swivelling seal, its brow-mounted light ignited like a dazzling third eye which skewered Prentyse and obscured her reproachful expression. She snatched up her lance and stormed off further down-slope, stopping after a few paces, chest heaving.
What had he done?
What had just happened?
They had been getting on so well, albeit their conversation had been one-sided. Why had she slammed him down so hard?
He hadn’t guessed what his play might stir up, but it wasn’t this.
For a moment, she stood with her back towards them, at attention yet relaxed, dragon-lance upright at her side. She took three deliberate breaths, deep and slow, then began moving in the slow and fluid motions of the Way Of The Spear. Its meditative, gliding transitions flowed into each other, punctuated with occasional rapid thrusts, swings, jumps and stamps. To Prentyse’s eye her Way was a thing of beauty, graceful and expressive despite the limited room and the ground’s slope.
But she was over-doing the fast moves, unbalancing her Way with far too much aggression.
In her mind, was she impaling Father? Or him?
Father shot to his feet as if his leg pains were forgotten, anger whitening his face. “Right. I think that’s more than enough conversation, what? Helms on, everyone, the chamber is near. Zubin and Flammia, take the lead.”
Zubin shot a disgusted glance in Flammia’s direction, then an angry one at Prentyse, before struggling to his feet with a suffering groan.
Edrei glared at his son, his disgust over his pathetic offspring clear for all to see.
“And as for you, Prentyse Talyb Brassard, you’re with me!”
Prentyse’s stomach clenched. Oh, Gods. Father only ever used his full, stupid name when he was in full, stupid trouble.
He tried to rise from the ground in a hurry, but his leg spasmed with a severe cramp and his balance faltered.
No! He mustn’t fall over and damage the armour! Not in front of the old bastard; he was already in deep enough trouble.
He flapped his arms in panic.
In an endless, shameful moment, he toppled slowly and crumpled onto the floor with a loud cacophony of metal on stone.
He lay on his back, limbs spread-eagled, paralysed by fear. With Flamia’s helm lighting the scene, his embarrassment was centred in the spotlight. What would be his audience’s reactions?
The echoes died away and no one spoke. No one helped him up. The three of them stood still, looking down at him in matching disdain – united in this, if nothing else.
Prentyse had played their game.
He had thrown his dice.
Copyright © DW Brownlaw 2020-2022. All rights reserved.