The Spark – Snippet 41
CHAPTER 17: Making Friends
The same clerk was on duty in the Aspirants’ Hall as the first time I applied. I doubt she recognized me in my new suit. I took out my shield and weapon as I entered.
Guntram said, “Mistress? I vouch for the quality of his arms.”
The clerk looked past me and saw him. “Oh!” she said. “Well, that’s good enough for me.”
When I started to put the equipment back in my pockets, she frowned and said, “Sir? I’ve admitted you, but could I look at that shield anyway? Just for myself?”
I set my weapon and shield before her on the counter. She switched on the shield and made a couple quick turns with it, then set it back down.
“Master Guntram?” she asked. “Does he have a waiver from the Leader or Lord Clain? You know I’d like to exempt him on your say-so, but I can’t.”
“Pal will go through the usual process,” Guntram said. “And I’ll get out of your way. Pal, if you need me, I’ll be in and out of my room in my usual fashion. You know where to find me.”
“Thank you, sir,” I said. “For everything.”
In truth, I didn’t think I could find Guntram’s room on my own, though I suppose I could get somebody to guide me. I didn’t plan to do that. I wasn’t asking for favors.
“Ma’am,” I said, “I’m Pal of Beune.”
Instead of responding to me, she jotted information down in a ledger. Turning her head toward the open door behind her, she called, “Heckert? Has Room Twelve been cleared yet?”
A middle-aged man came out. He was missing his left arm from above the elbow. “That’s done,” he said. “We like to get on those first thing, you know.”
“Well, take Lord Pal up and introduce him to his roommates,” the clerk said. She looked at me again as I put my shield and weapon away. “Where’s your gear, Lord Pal?”
“It’s in my boat with my man,” I said. I guess I’d become Lord Pal without saying anything. If the clerk was making a mistake, it was in the safe direction. “Ah, and his wife. I don’t have much.”
“After you’ve dropped him off,” the clerk said to Heckert, “go find his servants and show them their quarters. All right?”
Heckert bowed slightly. “If you’ll follow me, sir.”
Room Twelve was on the next floor up. One of the doors off the Aspirants’ Hall was to a staircase. It led down as well as up which surprised me, but a building as massive as this one must have foundations like nothing we dreamed of back home.
There were four doors off the landing, three with brass plaques–9, 10, and 12–and a discolored patch on the center of what I supposed was Room Eleven. Heckert tapped lightly, then opened the door of Twelve.
A man in a robe was in what seemed to be a common room; there were three doors opening into it, two of them now open. Heckert said, “Good morning, Master Welsh. This is Lord Pal of Beune, who’s taking the empty room in this suite.”
“Empty?” said Welsh. He was a squat man with black hair whose moustache flared into his beard. “Bloody hell, I meant to watch Daniello’s trial but I really tied one on last night. He passed, then?”
The door opened behind us and a large red-haired man strode in. He looked angry.
“Hey Garrett!” Welsh called. “Daniello passed!”
“Like hell he did!” the red-head said. “He got cut down in the first minute. I was bloody watching, wasn’t I?”
“Well, why are they…?” Welsh said, turning his head toward one of the open doors. The bed within had been stripped.
“I believe Lord Daniello withdrew from Aspirants’ Hall after injuries in his admissions joust, Master Welsh,” Heckert said. I wondered how he’d lost his arm, though I suppose it didn’t matter.
“Withdrew!” said Garrett. “He took a hard one on the side of the knee and you kicked him out on his ass, you mean!”
“Does it matter, sir?” said Heckert calmly. “This is Lord Pal of Beune, who is taking Lord Daniello’s place. Lord Pal, I’ll see that your servants are informed.”
He was quickly out the door of the suite, closing it behind him.
Garrett and Welsh were both looking at me with grim expressions. I said, “Gentlemen, I’m sorry about your friend. I just arrived here today and don’t know anything.”
Clearing my throat, I added, “And look, that ‘Lord Pal,’ stuff is crap and I didn’t start it. There’s nobody in Beune that’s noble, and if there was it wouldn’t be me.”
They looked at each other. “Well, it’s not your fault,” Welsh said. “I wouldn’t call Daniello a friend, but the three of us shared this room for the best part of a year. I’d really hoped that one of us was going to make Champion.”
“Hell, Daniello maybe dropped out on his own,” Garrett said, sounding depressed. “The admissions joust is at 40%. I could hear the snap from the sideline when the cut landed. He’ll limp for the rest of his life.”
“Bloody hell,” Welsh muttered. Then he straightened and faced me squarely. “All right, Pal,” he said. “Let’s see your gear. Or did you leave it with your man?”
“No, it’s right here,” I said. I took the shield and weapon out of my pockets and set them on top of a table projecting from the wall beside the door. I had to push half a dozen empty bottles together to make room.
Garrett and Welsh bent close. “Dainty little things, aren’t they?” Welsh said. “You get them on Beune, wherever that is?”
I kept my voice calm. “They work pretty well,” I said. “The shield is from here, I’m told, but the weapon comes from Beune. I helped make it myself.”
“You’re a Maker?” Garrett said, frowning.
“I’m a Maker also,” I said. “But I’m here to join the Company of Champions.”
“Well, fair enough,” said Welsh. “So do Garrett and me. Why don’t we all go over to the practice room and see how you and the hardware perform, hey?”
“No time like the present,” I said, putting the shield and weapon back in my pockets. My mouth was so dry that I’d been afraid that I was going to gag getting out those few words, but it was the truth. If I couldn’t cut it in Dun Add, it was best to learn now.
The practice room was an arched wooden extension built out the north side of the palace. The ground floor room we entered through had probably been the whole business before more machines were added. There must be fifty of them now, ranked against the right and left walls. Only about half were in use at the moment, a few of them by warriors with dogs by their sides.
I wondered if Guntram had borrowed the machine I’d trained on from here. They might not all be the same.
“Where do you want me?” I said, speaking to Welsh since it had been his idea. I couldn’t quarrel with my roommates wanting to know how I stacked up, but it was still a challenge. Anybody–any animal–reacts to a challenge.
“The one on the end here has plenty of room for us to watch,” Garrett said. He’d been wearing his gear to watch Daniello fight, and Welsh had strapped on his harness as we left Room Twelve.
I walked over to the machine and switched it on. For the time being I left it set wherever the last guy had used it. I brought my gear live.
I was actually tenser about this than I had been to fight Walters and Camm for real. I guess that was because I’d had more time to think about this than I had when Camm’s boat suddenly landed beside me on Dewbranch.
The first opponent was a hairy man wearing roughly stitched sheepskins and rushing me with a club over his head. The unit must have been set on the bottom level. I stepped forward and thrust the image through the top of his breastbone before the club could land. He–it–vanished.
Garrett adjusted the level at the side of the machine. This time I faced a man in orange, his face concealed in a tight-fitting mask of the same color. I guided its first overhand stroke into the ground with my own weapon, but I felt the shock up the length of my arm.
I remembered what had happened to Daniello and cut backhand at the image’s ankles. It jumped back but not quickly enough. I’d have taken the heel off a real human opponent. The image toppled backward and vanished.
“He hasn’t used his shield yet,” Welsh grumbled. Garrett made another adjustment.
I was facing a red warrior with a short-haired black and tan dog, rangy and dangerous looking. Buck was still in the stables. This wasn’t anything like a fair fight, but that wasn’t the point: Garrett and Welsh wanted to learn how good my equipment was–and how good I was as well. There was no guarantee that in a real fight I’d have Buck along or that he wouldn’t be injured in the course of it.
Instead of rushing, I held myself ready. As I’d expected, my opponent used its dog’s agility to shift suddenly to my right and drive home. If my shield hadn’t been so handy I could never have presented it in time.
The shock jolted me backward, but I didn’t go down. I cut at the image but its shield was too good for me to accomplish anything from off-balance.
The image came at me three more times, circling to my right before each rush. We’d almost made a full circle when the image made its fourth rush–this time shifting left.
I didn’t have to turn much to bring my shield into position, and I thrust–not slashing–before the shock of contact. The image’s shield sparkled brightly. It didn’t fail completely, but the bottom third of its shimmering coverage went black.
The image fell back. Its cut hadn’t made it through my shield any better than the previous three had done. I crouched forward a little, gasping through my mouth. My lungs were on fire. I waited for the image to attack again.
Garrett touched the practice machine again, this time switching it off. I continued to gasp where I was.
“I guess your kit’ll do,” Garrett said.
“Bloody hell,” said Welsh. Then he said, “Let’s go get something to eat. And drink. I definitely need a drink.”
Welsh was the second son of a big landowner on Richter, a place not a lot fancier than Beune was. His father had mortgaged the estate with the elder brother’s agreement for the money to buy Welsh his equipment.
In exchange Welsh agreed never to come back to Richter. His brother already had three children, so the deal avoided a fight over succession rights whenever the landowner died.
Garrett’s father was a wealthy merchant on Stahlfeld. He’d read the romances, same as I had, and he was just as set on being a Champion as I was. Garrett saw himself as being the center of a band of adoring women.
They were both solid fellows, guys I got along with and was glad to know. Given that I was on closer terms with them than anybody before except my mom and dad, I was really lucky in my roommates.
Welsh drank more than I thought was good for him. Garrett had a woman back to his room more nights than he didn’t, and it was always a different woman. I’d have rather that neither of those things had happened, but I wasn’t a priest or their mother. Dun Add was a big place with other customs than I’d learned on Beune. And if it came to that, Beune had its drunks and tomcats too.
I practiced on the machines in the morning. Then in the afternoon, I went out to the jousting ground–either with a roommate if one of them was up for it, or I’d just take Buck out myself and see what I could pick up on the field. There was usually another aspirant who’d give me a match.
The practice machines were supposed to be exactly like a real fight, but of course they weren’t. People were random. They sometimes did dumb stuff which a machine never would. I was pressing one fellow when he shut his eyes and charged with a roundhouse swing; he was a lefty, too, and he’d have rung my bell good if I hadn’t flopped on my belly. I grabbed his ankle and tripped him as he went by. I had my weapon in his face when he rolled over.
Welsh and Garrett were pretty good. Welsh was really better than that, but his equipment was an anchor around his neck. Not near as bad as the gear I’d brought to Dun Add the first time, but the best he could find on Richter wasn’t good enough for the Hall of Champions. His shield was decent, but his weapon couldn’t have damaged my shield if I’d simply stood there and let him hack at it.