Flammia and the painfully limping priest, pointedly ignoring each other, were out of sight ahead. Only a distant flicker of reflected lights showed the peevish pair’s position. It wasn’t a good pairing. Would either fight to save the other? It didn’t seem likely.
But Prentyze had more immediate worries. He slouched, head lowered, staring at the ground without seeing.
Father dawdled, widening the distance to the others. In the Credits column, the slower pace allowed Prentyze’s leg to recover, but there was a major liability under Debits: Father’s impending ‘dressing down’ neared with every cautious step.
Really? Here, on the verge of tackling the impossible: attacking and killing a cornered dragon? While increasingly incapacitated with heat and cramp?
Bloody wonderful – not.
“Ahem.” Edrei Brassard harrumphed, a familiar prelude to a speech, or in this case a reprimand. His voice was muffled by the helm’s inner padding, but his anger was unimpeded. “Prentyze Talyb Brassard, I have told you before: I do not approve of you pursuing a silly quest to become a scholar!”
“But Father, it’s –”
“Did I say you could speak? Be quiet, boy, and listen!”
“Yes, Father. Sorry, Father.” O, Gods! How long was this going to last?
“The young woman you drool over is the third child of a Younger House – a tiny business, compared to House Brassard – and their board has no seat for her. Her parents likely spent most of their Temple loan to afford her military commission, otherwise she’d be making a living as a musician or artist, what? But she’s lucky – she can choose which service to join. You, however, have no choice in your future: as my only heir, your inescapable destiny is to become the next Design Master of House Brassard when I return to Dust. I’ve invested too much in your technical education to let you waste it in pointless, aimless reading.”
Making tea and sharpening graphite markers constituted a technical education? Prentyze fought to keep this particular resentment off his face.
“Whether you see it or not, you’re in a privileged position compared to her, what? Unlikely though it appears now, if you hone your wits you might become Master of the House one day and thus occupy the Brassard seat on the Council of Waldemar. You’d have power and influence across the entire city state by virtue of thousands of votes at your command to use, buy or sell. In preparation for this, you need to wise-up about politics; she does not. House Brassard’s influence over the Council is expensive to maintain – votes don’t buy themselves, what? Councillors from Younger Houses, like House Anluan, are wetting themselves in their eagerness to see it broken, or at least weakened. They aren’t the cuddly puppies you’d like Flammia Anluan to be. They are vicious terriers snapping at our heels, ready to tear us apart if we falter. Now, I’ve done what I can today to pull one of those terrier’s teeth, but one day they’ll be circling you, and you need to learn how to deal with that.”
So the old bastard had destroyed Flammia to keep Prentyze trapped? He would never forgive his father for this.
“Get it into your dreamy head that working with House Anluan today is business, nothing else. They are not our friends, what?
“And stop slobbering after little Miss Hero-with-tits. Your mother and I would never sanction a match with that girl. First: hers is a Younger House, so she is hardly a catch; second: she is now a society outcast. And don’t make the mistake of thinking House Anluan would sanction your marriage because, thanks to their debt, they must keep the Aloysian Temple sweet. Their priestly masters would take a dim view of her marrying into any atheist Founder House, let alone an active enemy like House Brassard.
“But this is academic anyway. She’s really bought into the Aloysian mumbo-jumbo and, for now, she thinks you’re signing up with the enemy religion. I don’t think she will ever forgive you for that.
“Face it. An inter-House marriage with her exists solely in your lurid, wet-dream fantasies. Wake up, boy!
“Count yourself lucky that she has even less political sense than you, or she could have played you for a complete fool, what?”
Edrei Brassard paused for breath, as if daring his son to speak. But Prentyze knew better than to provoke his father when he was in one of these moods. The only consolation was that Father thought she was a clumsy game player too.
The silence grew, punctuated by the squeaking of their boot soles and the clank as his father shifted his dragon-lance to the other shoulder.
Was it over? So soon? Had he got off so lightly?
“Ahem.” Edrei harrumphed once more, and Prentyze’s frame slumped further. Oh Gods, here came a second volume. It would be terrible; sequels always were.
“Now listen carefully, boy. The blasted Temples are pushing for all Houses to declare their faith-allegiance but, as a Founder, House Brassard opposes this division of society. The Founding Houses existed before the Temples were even built. Before! That makes us religiously neutral, and neutral we’ll stay! Be proud of that, boy, what? These Younger Houses lack history and experience, so they haven’t realised priests and industry don’t mix. As a condition of that fat loan, House Anluan had no alternative but to declare for Aloysia the day it incorporated – I’ll bet you didn’t know that, what? As a result, Flammia’s parents ceded some control over their financial and Family affairs and they’ll regret their lack of independence, one day – when it’s too late.”
The old bastard stopped to stretch a leg that was cramping up, but he continued talking.
“Don’t let Zubin dupe you. The temples hate our neutral, atheist stance which makes every priest your enemy, what? Zubin doesn’t care what you want – he was playing you to get influence over our House. His game was to snag a Brassard inner-family member as a follower, giving the Temple of Barys a hostage and consequent leverage over our House. Yes, I said ‘hostage’; that’s all you would’ve been, and your ignorant selfishness gave him the perfect opening! By the Gods, what? Did you never question why he would waive the Temple Acolyte’s commission fee? That’s not cheap, you know. The Temples make a killing selling commissions – almost as much as military services which have greater costs.
“Didn’t the sacrifice of such a large fee strike you as suspicious? When will you learn that if the bait is irresistible then you’re the catch, what? If someone offers you something valuable, for free, it’s for their advantage – theirs – never yours.”
As they continued hobbling down the steep tunnel, a beam of light from Edrei’s helm lit up Prentyze’s armour for a brief moment. He could imagine the look of disgust his father had just shot him, having experienced it so often.
“Look here. Suppose you do join the Barys Temple, what then, what? Don’t think for a minute you’d be able to study anything that interested you! Oh, you’d study and read alright, but as a Temple Acolyte, you’d read nothing but their religious claptrap. Acolytes and priests may rank as scholars, but they study only theology, you fool!
“Anyway. You would struggle as an Acolyte, knowing so little about the cult of Barys – what? That ignorance would hold you back, keeping you in a dead-end junior commission. Forget advancing to become a ‘Chosen’, like Zubin. People who reach the clergy’s upper echelons have wallowed in this bilge from conception. You couldn’t even compete for middle ranks like Leader or Commander. You’d remain an Acolyte for the rest of your life. At the very best, you might set a record as the oldest ever Junior Assistant Parish Administrator.”
“Ahem.” Father harrumphed for a third time, though with less enthusiasm. His helm’s beam flicked left and right across the floor as he shook his head in disappointment – a frequent reaction to his son.
“This is not over, boy! You put House Brassard at grave risk today, what? When we get back, your mother and I will reassess your House privileges. Your only chance of leniency is to stop slouching and shape up.
“When we prove today that absolutely anyone –even a pathetic boy like you– with the right equipment can kill a dragon, for sport, we can name our own terms. We’ll have a bright future, what? That is today’s business – only that – nothing else matters. So concentrate, boy!”
Edrei Brassard made a fourth and obviously concluding harrumph, and fell silent.
The reprimand was over.
Prentyze’s face burned, feeling as if it could shine visibly through his visor, beaming additional illumination to the floor. His ears throbbed and his eyes stung.
He mumbled the time-worn mantra. “Yes, Father. Sorry, Father.”
It was so unfair! Why did this always happen when ...
His foot slipped out from under him on the glassy surface.
He wobbled, flapping his free arm for balance, recovered and suffered a second leg cramp in the process. What was up with this stupid floor? Dust eddied like thin liquid or thick smoke around their feet, and disturbed clouds curled upwards into his helm light, turning its white light yellow. A thick layer oozed clung to the floor yet, disturbed by their passage, clouds of dust billowed behind them. A pair of wide, choppy furrows in the dust ahead, somewhat like ship wakes, recorded Flammia’s and Zubin’s earlier progress, as did a thick veil of airborne dust, drifting downwards after their passing. How slowly it drifted in the still air.
His boots waded through this stuff with almost no resistance though, with his soles seemingly losing all traction, it was now more like skating. And why were his supposedly non-slip soles totally failing to grip the shiny floor?
Prentyze halted as if he had hit an invisible wall. His eyes widened and his mouth gaped. Previously elusive thoughts slotted together like a heavy door bolt slamming home.
This had to be Elemental Dust – pure Atomic Particulate. AP. This form of dust was rare and costly to produce in a lab. Complex and costly chemical reactions could produce only tiny quantities, rendering it nothing more than a scientific curiosity. Yet, here it was, in astonishing quantity and getting deeper. It was coating the undersides of their boot soles, completely negating their stickiness. In fact, it must have been traces of AP that had been giving them problems all the way down.
Where was it all coming from?
Father was turning with an angry posture to see why his son had stopped. To deflect father’s temper, Prentyze said the first thing he thought of.
“Um, Father? What’s with all this Atomic Particulate? I’ve never seen so much in all – ”
With a roar of fury, his father threw his dragon-lance down with a clatter and a spray of dust. His shiny, gauntleted fist materialised so close to Prentyze’s face that it reflected the boy’s helm light, blinding him for a moment.
“That’s it! That is absolutely enough! Honestly boy, do you never listen, what? What have I been saying to you?” Edrei Brassard’s passion filled the shaft with echoes, and his submerged lance underlit the thick dust with an eerie, smoky orange glow.
Distant flashes appeared down-slope. Had Zubin and Flammia turned to investigate the clamour?
“It’s a dragon tunnel, boy, and dragon tunnels get dusty! That’s a fact. It doesn’t matter why, and no one cares! Now, grow up! For one afternoon – just one! – stop playing the scholar and behave like a noble of House Brassard!”
Edrei gave another roar of frustration and despair. He retrieved his lance and stormed away down-slope, harrumphing like a mill engine, slipping and sliding in his haste. He soon disappeared in a violent dust storm of his own making.
Airborne dust glowed enigmatically from his father’s lights, then dimmed.
Prentyze stood alone.
Roiling dust filled the tunnel, hiding his companions from sight.
No. He had no companions – everyone here was an enemy to everyone else. Himself included. He understood this now.
His head and shoulders drooped, as far as the constricting padding, harness and metal allowed. Tears leaked into his helm’s cheek padding, already sodden with sweat.
Prentyze had fallen very far behind the others, and the gap was growing.
Perhaps … distance gave him an opportunity or, more accurately, presented him a choice?
His head jerked upright with the thought. Yes. For once in his life he would choose his future, right now, simply by deciding which direction to walk from this spot. He could continue down his father’s ordained path as a noble: part warrior, part businessman, part politician, completely miserable. Or he could reject his father’s wishes, retrace his steps up to the daylight, and attempt to become the scholar he’d always wanted to be.
He would instantly become an outcast from his family, but that now seemed attractive.
Which was it to be?
The gold-paved avenue of a noble, though suffering from depression?
Or the paper trail of a contented scholar, though forever alone?
He knew what lay ahead of him if he continued down-slope. His father had made that clear.
He turned up-slope. Could he escape fate in that direction? The option of walking away, getting out of the dust-filled mountain and leaving the others to their fortune was ... tempting. But was it as easy as that? Was it merely a matter of walking back to the daylight?
No. Somehow he would have to get down from this mountain.
Depending on where one observed it from, this obstacle was either a seemingly sheer rock face almost ten kilometres high, or a half-day’s walk down a long slope. In his current physical state, neither were possible. Either way, the only practical way back to Rimtown involved using Zubin’s airship.
And only the priest could summon it.
Anyway, what would be the price of a ride back to Rimtown? His father’s punishment for desertion would be far more terrible than the mere loss of House privileges: he could be expelled to face starvation on the streets. There was no love lost between the classes of Waldemar City; the poor would not be kind to him. He would need a safe haven immediately, otherwise he could die in a mugging, his throat slit swiftly from behind ... if he was lucky. It was more likely that a mob would simply club or stone him to death.
He crumpled to his hands and knees.
Huh! This was a prayer posture for temple worshippers. Who would deliver Prentyze Talyb Brassard from his dilemma? The uncaring Gods? There was no salvation from them for a teen at odds with his family, his House and his city.
His eyes welled up and his chest tried to heave, but resistance from the tightly constricting padding discouraged him from sobbing.
The tunnel was an allegory of his life: he was alone, on a slippery slope to a dangerous future; his path was predetermined; his only choice was to go forwards or back, and both led to despair and an uncertain – and possibly short-lived – future.
It was so unfair!
His situation crashed down on him, overwhelming him. He surrendered to a bout of weeping, angry at himself for reacting like a child, yet unable to prevent it. But the padding limited the expansion of his heaving chest and his tear ducts quickly ran out of tears. Prolonged crying was impossible. Besides, just trying to cry had turned a throbbing headache into a pounding one.
He waited for his vision to clear, both from the tears and his headache, then lifted one knee and set a boot on the dusty, rippled ground. Like the gradual opening of a fern, he unfurled his wretched body into its accustomed slouch. He peered up-slope, seeking the pin-prick of daylight, seeking a sign to aid his choice.
He saw only dust. The dust pool at his feet glowed in shades of orange from the submerged light of the dragon-lance. The airborne dust reflected the white light of his helm back into his eyes with a yellow stain.
His distant star of hope was obscured by clouds. The mountain had extinguished it.
And that was his sign.
There was no hope for him, no way out. Perhaps, like flipping a fake coin with two tails, the choice had only been illusory.
No. Forget the way of the scholar, it was unattainable. He must follow his father down into a destiny not of his choosing. A predetermined doom.
Assuming he survived this day.
He retrieved his dragon-lance from the murky, glowing depths of dust and checked its operation with a practised familiarity; light: off, on; harpoon: half twist to release, out, in, half twist to lock.
Checks done, he paused to gather himself mentally, then turned unwillingly down-slope to follow those who despised him. He resumed his shuffling, sliding, limping pace, descending into dust and darkness, down towards a dragon’s lair and danger.