The promised downhill stroll proved much more arduous than anticipated. Even Father admitted –grudungly– this was uncharacteristically steep for a dragon’s lair. The party had slipped and shuffled downslope at an ever-slower rate, with leg cramps and sweat blurring their vision. Even battle-fit Flammia showed signs of tiredness. How long had they toiled? Half an hour? An hour? It seemed like an eternity of exhaustion before Father had at last called a halt for a rest.
A sour stench of body odours accumulated in the still air where they sat but no one had relieved their bladder yet, for which Prentyze's already overwhelmed sense of smell was thankful.
The tunnel’s utter blackness oppressed him. It made everything uncertain and, along with the frigid air chilling his wet cheeks, it all sapped his spirit. A mere pinprick of bright, white daylight, so far above and behind them, hinted at the distant entrance and proved how monotonously straight was the tunnel. How far had they come with such effort? It felt like kilometres but it was more likely measured in hundreds of metres.
The dragon-lance beams, reflecting off the uneven, 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.
They had arranged themselves in pairs, two each side of the tunnel, reclining far back into the curving walls. Everyone was stretching or flexing their legs, though Prentyze observed a difference, suggesting that young legs burned from the long descent while old legs suffered from cramps.
Despite this, conversations had started on both sides. On the far side, the two elders grumbled about their various pains and the heat rising inside their stuffed armour, but Prentyze paid no attention. At last, he was sitting next 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 –”
The more interesting question? WHY was Flammia talking to him now, and not earlier? It didn’t feel right. Her chatter felt a little … off? Artificial?
Ah, she was acting. Badly. If she thought she was convincing then she clearly needed to attend the theatre more.
But still … why?
The older men kept glancing in their direction, and Prentyze studied them back as Flammia chatted.
“... 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 and then–”
Both the elders, when they glanced in his direction, were showing increasing signs of concern … like Prentyze was getting into trouble.
Ah. Got it.
She was playing on his previous sympathy, back in the airship. If she was ‘going down’, being ostracised from Polite Society, then she would take Prentyze with her. It was an attempt to get revenge on Father. She couldn’t touch him, but his son was fair game.
Well, thank you Flammia. After all adoration and, yes, sympathy, this was how she was paying him back?
Why did everyone play these games? Father played, and destroyed, Flammia. The priest tried to tempt Prentyze, for some unfathomable reason. Now Flammia was trying to tear down the one who adored her, albeit she had far less skill.
A saying from his much hated martial arts lessons came into Prentyze’s mind: Don’t be a target! Not being in the way when the blow landed was more effective than armour. If he did nothing, then he was a big, fat target. He had to dodge. The only way out was to … to play the same game.
But who should he pick as a target?
“... and I don’t know what they’ll say about 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.”
Flammia paused to take a deep breath, as if for another gushing tirade.
Now or never! This was his opening to make his play, and he knew just who to pick.
“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 and swivelled to glare at Zubin, who turned away in white-faced embarrassment.
Prentyze flinched at this outburst. It hadn’t come from the two men opposite but from Flammia, next to him.
She surged to her feet in fury, everyone’s eyes on her in shock. Her flaring nostrils and flaming weals now resembled the demonic expression of an ancestral shaman mask, repelling Prentyze as if he were the malevolent spirit against 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. “You know what? You .. you can choke on your dusty papers, for all I care. I hope your evil cult’s scholars … name a … a smelly weed after you!”
As insults went it wasn’t the best, but her passion delivered it with force. He recoiled as she pulled her helm over her head and slammed 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 crown-light ignited like a dazzling third eye which skewered Prentyze and obscured her reproachful expression. She snatched up her lance and stormed off further down-slope, slipping once, then stopped after a few paces, shoulders heaving.
What had he done?
What had just happened?
She hadn’t been his target. Why had she slammed him down so hard? He hadn’t guessed what his play might stir up, but it wasn’t this.
Prentyze watched as she stood with her back towards them all, at attention yet relaxed, dragon-lance at her side, its beam illuminating the ceiling directly above. She took three deliberate breaths, deep and slow, then began stepping slowly and sweeping her lance around in languid and fluid motions. She was performing the ‘Way of The Spear’. Its meditative, balanced and gliding transitions flowed into each other, punctuated with occasional rapid thrusts, swings, jumps and stamps. To Prentyze’s eye her Way was a thing of beauty, graceful and expressive, despite the limited room, the ground’s slope and slippery footwear.
But she was over-doing the fast thrusts, unbalancing her Way with far too much aggression.
In her mind, who was she impaling? Father? The priest?
Father got to his feet. “Argh!” He leant with one hand against the tunnel wall, balancing on one leg while he futilely tried to massage his lifted thigh through steel plate. His jowls quivered with rage, and anger paled his brown face as he let go of the wall and stood gingerly on both feet. “Right,” he snapped. “That’s more than enough conversation, what? Helms on, everyone. The chamber must be near. Zubin and Flammia, take the lead.”
Zubin shot a disgusted glance in Flammia’s direction, then an angry one at Prentyze, before struggling to his feet with a groan.
Edrei glared at his son, his scorn for his pathetic offspring was clear for all to see.
“And as for you, Prentyze Talyb Brassard, you’re with me!”
Prentyze’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, like the older men, his leg also spasmed with a severe cramp and his balance faltered.
No! He mustn’t topple 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, reaching for non-existent support.
In an endless, shameful moment, he tilted slowly and crumpled onto the floor with a loud cacophony of metal on stone.
He lay on his back, clutching his spasming leg to his body, but otherwise paralysed by fear. With Flammia’s helm light illuminating him, his embarrassment was stage-centre in her 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 poses of disdain. United in this, if nothing else. After long aeons, or mere seconds, they turned away from him in silent disgust, letting him whimper alone in relative darkness.
Prentyze had played their game.
He had thrown his dice.