The book should be out now, so this is the last snippet.
The Spark – Snippet 44
“Sir, I was White 1,” I said. “I was Green 4 the first time.”
“You’re in Red Group now,” the Champion said, gesturing. “And fighting Green.”
“C’mon, Buck,” I said. We set out for the tent he’d pointed to.
Welsh was in this tent, waiting for his second bout. We nodded but didn’t speak as I got a round red 1.
I wondered if Welsh had won his bout. His shield wasn’t as good as Krause’s, but he didn’t look beat up. He was really good when he was on, and maybe the guy he’d met didn’t have any better equipment than Welsh did.
A gong rang. “Red 1,” the Champion called. “You’re up.”
It hadn’t seemed very long, but it must’ve been: the sun was at mid-sky when I walked out of the tent. I saw why the Champions had started as early as they could.
I wondered what would’ve happened if I’d dumped a pitcher of water over me to soak my tunic before I went out. I guess I could’ve asked, but I was afraid to do anything that might turn out to disqualify me after I’d come this far.
Buck and I reached the circle. The fellow walking kitty-corner toward us across the field had a black tunic. When he stepped into the circle I rushed him, same as I’d done the other times.
Black took a wild roundhouse swing while we were still too far apart. I let the stroke pass in front of me and gave him a thump across the shoulder-blades. He shouted and sprawled forward on his nose.
I backed away, horrified that I might’ve killed him even at 20%. I swear I think he may have come at me with his eyes shut. I’d cut across his tunic and blood was welling up from the flesh beneath.
The Champion refereeing the bout reached down and switched off the screaming Black’s shield and weapon. “Bloody hell!” I heard the referee mutter.
Attendants ran up from the sidelines carrying a stretcher. Black had left himself completely wide open. How in God’s name had he managed to get this far in the process?
“To the sidelines,” the referee told me. He watched Black going off, lying on his face, and shook his head.
There were lots of spectators by now, many of them watching from under parasols and sitting on collapsible chairs and benches. Traders were selling snacks and drinks. Aspirant tournaments must be the major entertainment on Dun Add, even though the fighters’ forms were shimmering blurs to those who didn’t have viewing equipment.
There were even more people on the north side, nearer the palace, and many of those had shields or similar devices which allowed them to view the details of action while it was going on. Some were women of the court.
At the edge if the clump of bright tunics and pastel frocks was a tall figure in gray. I felt better knowing Guntram was watching. He’d helped me so much, and not for any reason I could imagine.
I happened to recognize the Champion at the sideline this time as Lord Gismonde, but we’d never so much as exchanged words. Besides Morseth and Reaves, the only Champion I’d spoken to was Lord Clain–in the Consort’s Chamber. I hadn’t known his name when Guntram was showing me around.
“Number?” said Gismonde.
“Red 1,” I said, and he jotted it down.
“Okay, kid,” Gismonde said. “You’re Pal of Beune, right? You’re to go back to the Red tent this time. They’re restructuring because of the casualties. Tell Hopper you’re to be Red 12 and you’ll meet the fellow coming from Blue Group. Got it?”
“Yes sir,” I said, walking along the sidelines toward the tent I’d come from. I could see somebody from there slanting across the field to the chalked circle. He must be the next number of the group I’d started with, but I couldn’t remember what he looked like.
I entered at the back of the tent and said, “I’m to be Red 12.”
The tent manager turned when I spoke. “Are you indeed?” he said. “Did they tell you who you’d be fighting?”
“Somebody from Blue,” I said. “There’s been a lot of casualties, Lord Gismonde said.”
“That’s the truth if I ever heard it!” Hopper said. “There’s been more crips this run than there was the past two together.”
If I’d been more alert I’d have worried about what was obviously an unusual situation. As it was, I just felt flat. I hadn’t taken a single hard blow, and none of the three bouts had even taken very long.
Buck was doing fine. He slurped water from the tub beside the back entrance, then flopped down by my side when I sat in the first empty seat I came to.
“Red 12!” the manager called. “That’s you, Pal.”
I hopped up. Gismonde and now Hopper both knew my name.
“Blue group is straight opposite,” Hopper said from the doorway, pointing. “This is your last bout, so make it good.”
“Yessir,” I said. I was looking forward to the tournament being over. I sure hoped that my last opponent was as puny as the third one had been, but I knew I couldn’t expect that.
The big fellow coming toward me with his shield on wore white. His dog was a red setter. He was so clean that I wondered if he’d changed his tunic in the course of the tournament: that white would show any contact with the ground, let alone a blow.
Of course nobody had hit me either. Well, each bout was a separate test.
White and I reached the circle at the same time. I rushed as usual. White swung down from my left. He didn’t rush, but he stepped into the blow. I saw it coming and met it with my own weapon.
I felt like I’d been hit by a building. I knew how good my shield was, but that stroke would have blown the shield’s circuits if it’d hit squarely.
I shifted to my right, making sure that my right arm hadn’t gone numb. Bloody hell!
White came after me. Well, I’d come to fight, not run away. I stepped forward and swung down just like we were each other’s mirror.
White took the stroke with his weapon, spewing sparks in all directions. I’d hit as hard as I could and it didn’t seem like his arm and weapon had given at all.
He thrust at my face but I ducked below the edge of my shield. I’d seen the thrust coming–Buck had; it was like each of my opponents shouted what they were planning before they did it–but I hadn’t tried to turn it with my weapon. Instead I cut at White’s ankles the way I had with my first opponent today.
White got the edge of his shield in the way of my stroke. There was a great blast of sparks, but nothing like what happened where he stabbed at mine. I hadn’t been worried about a short thrust with the two of us standing close together, but he nearly penetrated my shield.
I backed, raising my shield slightly. It might have taken permanent damage from that thrust. When White stepped toward me, I thought he wobbled–I’d come very close when I went for his ankle before. Maybe even contact, I thought.
I hacked low at his shield, then slid my weapon down for the real stroke–again at his left foot. White went up in the air–dunno if there was anything wrong with his left foot, but it sure didn’t keep him from jumping with it. I carved a smoldering gouge in the sod while trying to throw myself backward and getting my shield still higher to cover me from his down-slash in response.
This time the sparks as his weapon met the edge of my shield weren’t as gorgeous as they’d been before–because I blacked out. He’d rung my bell good.
I was seeing figures dancing. They were reddish, and I wasn’t sure they were human.
I closed my eyes and groaned. I wondered if I was dead and in Purgatory. I hadn’t lived a bad life, but I couldn’t claim it’d been a really good one either. I hadn’t paid much attention to the life I was living–I’d just lived it and left religion to the priest.
“Good evening, Pal,” Guntram said. “I hope you’re feeling better.”
I sat up faster than I should have, but after a moment of wanting to throw up it was all right. “I’ve got a ways better to go,” I croaked. I needed something to drink. “That was quite a crack I took.”
I was in Guntram’s workroom. I’d been lying on his healing bed. The light in the room came from figures of light dancing in the air in the middle of the room.
“This is the projector you and I have been working on,” Guntram said, following my eyes. “I thought it would be a mild illumination and better than something brighter while you were recovering. Would you like something more now?”
“No, this is fine,” I said. “But do you have anything to drink?”
“Oh, sorry, of course,” Guntram said. He turned to a side-table where a carafe and cups sat. There were also covered dishes and, to my amazement, a bud vase with a white rose in it.
Guntram returned with a cup of what turned out to be wine. That was fine. If it put me to sleep now, so much the better. I slurped a mouthful in sloshed it around my cheeks and tongue before swallowing.
“There’s…,” Guntram said as he lifted the cover of the larger dish. “A chicken also.”
“Maybe in a bit,” I said. I touched my scalp; it was tender, but there wasn’t matted blood as I’d expected. “Ah, Guntram?”
“I don’t want to sound like I’m making excuses, but is there any chance the fellow I fought in the last round had his weapon set higher than 20% power? Because I know how good my own gear is and he just, well….”
I touched my scalp again.
“No, Pal,” Guntram said, moving directly in front of me and meeting my eyes. “Your opponent’s equipment was set at 20%. He had very good equipment, however, probably the best there is Here. You were fighting Lord Clain.”
I shouldn’t have shouted. At least I hadn’t jumped to my feet, the way I’d started to do. I drank more wine, holding the cup with both hands.
“You’d already been approved for the Admissions Tournament in the basis of your first three wins,” Guntram said. “Clain wanted to see if you were really as good as you’d appeared to be from where he was watching. He changed into a neutral tunic and borrowed the dog of an injured competitor to determine that himself.”
A realization hit me harder than Clain’s weapon had. “Then I’ve already had my Admissions bout with a Champion,” I said. “And I lost.”
“Scarcely,” said Guntram. “When you’re completely recovered, you’ll have an ordinary Admissions bout. The leading Champions never fight in those; you’ll be facing someone newly admitted.”
He smiled. “From what Lord Clain says,” he added, “you shouldn’t have much trouble. And he apologizes. He says that if he’d known how good you were, he wouldn’t have put himself in a position where he might have to seriously injure you to avoid injury himself.”
I didn’t know what to think, let alone say. I swallowed more wine, then said, “I guess I’ll have some of that chicken now, Guntram.”
I ate, thinking about the rose in the bud vase.