Duel Ch.2

“Stop fidgeting.”

Master Orlin’s words were sharp and pointed, spearing straight through the air to where Nic sat opposite him in the car. The young techne made a noise somewhere between frustration and dismay, hand lingering over the buttoned collar of his shirt. He so very much wanted to pull at, maybe loosen it just ever so much, but his master’s stern looked held him at bay.

Over the course of the last day or so, Nic had decided he was not a fan of “formal attire”. It was hot and itchy, the jacket and pants constricting even the slightest of movements. He’d been able to unbutton the former at least but somehow the shirt underneath was just as bad, so stiff that he could feel his chest pushing up against it with every breath he took.

The necktie was the worst of it, wrapping around his neck like a snake and squeezing just hard enough to be noticed but not tight enough to do actual harm. How humanity had ever concluded that an actual noose qualified as fashion Nic could not even begin to fathom.

“It itches,” Nic whined.

“I’m aware, now leave it alone.”

Suppressing a bout of grumbling, Nic sat back in a huff, crossing his arms to pin them in place. Master Orlin let the silence drag on for long moments before blowing out a long, measured breath.

“Would you like me to fix it?” he asked.

Tempted as he was to snap, a calmer voice prevailed in his mind, and he shook his head. Truthfully, Nic didn’t really care that much about the suit. Wasn’t even really that uncomfortable taken overall, though he certainly wouldn’t be in a hurry to wear it again. No, if he was being honest with himself, he was only being like this because the last week had been a rather trying time in his life.

Not externally perhaps, that had looked much the same as ever. Lessons, chores, meals, a few scraps of free time, the completely normal banalities that was life as an apprentice techne. Once or twice, he might have even convinced himself that all was normal, able to lose himself in work or distraction for a few blissful moments.

For the rest of it though, Nic was an absolute mess. Every minute of every day he had bubbled with a heady mixture of excited anticipation and yawning dread. If someone had told him even a few years ago that he’d one day be attending a high society party, he probably would have thought that person insane. Granted he would have had the same reaction to the news of being under the tutelage of a master techne, but he’d at least had time to get used to that.

This by contrast was completely unknown territory. Like all things techne, their parties were the things of rumor and hearsay, as much embellishment as fact. The very mention of them evoked images of stately halls and expensive finery, dripping with elegance and intrigue at every turn. Entire novels, fiction or otherwise, had been written on the events of just a single event, with rumors persisting for months or even years afterwards. Careers had been built off them, reputations made and destroyed over even the slightest exchange of words. They were in short, a big deal.

And Nic was due to be dropped right in the middle of it.

On the one hand, this prospect was exhilarating. Right in the middle of a capital E “Event”, with all the glitz, glamour and mystery that brought with it. More than once he caught himself imagining the kind of adventures he might get swept up in over the course of the evening. He was downright giddy at the thought.

But very much on the other hand, Nic was petrified beyond the ken of mortal men. He had not the first clue what to expect from this thing, or what was to be expected of him in turn. Were there rules he had to follow, a written protocol? Or was it all just unspoken understandings that everyone was expected to know?  And that didn’t even get into the fact he could count on one finger the number of people he would know. A simple task since that number was zero. He understood that was kind of the point, meeting people and all, but that did nothing to soothe Nic’s anxieties. What was he supposed to do? Just walk up to people and say “hey, you look cool, want to be friends”? That seemed unlikely to be met well but then Nic had no idea because again, he had not the slightest clue about anything here.

Gods help him, would he be expected to dance?

Back and forth this had gone for seven days, Nic swinging wildly between the two at the drop of a hat. Time seemed to change along with them, some days flying past like a runaway freight train, others with a painful, mocking crawl. Nic had never managed to work out which was worse.

He’d been so caught up in the dichotomy that the actual day had managed to sneak up on him. It had arrived almost without ceremony, little more than an offhand remark from Master Orlin over breakfast about needing to launder his dresswear. A quick calculation had confirmed that, yes, today was indeed the fateful day over which so much worrying had been spent. Nic still hadn’t quite internalized the fact, not even now as they sat in the back of the auto-car driving to the thing.

They’d been on the road for just over an hour now, gliding silently along country roads with vast expanses of trees standing tall on either side. Nic hesitated to call it a forest in the strictest sense of the word, something about it feeling off. Everything looked too sparse, branches and undergrowth present but trimmed of any wild edge. They reminded Nic more of statues than plants.

“What’s going on with the trees?” Nic asked.

“The Worthington’s influence I expect,” Master Orlin said. “We’ve been on their property for the last ten minutes.”

Nic started, overwhelmed by the implications of that single sentence. Ten minutes had taken them past literal miles of forest and more than one turn off the main road. Even a conservative estimate placed the amount of real estate involved in the mind-boggling range, all apparently owned by a single family. Even if parts of it had been given over to more practical uses, that was still a lot of land to account for. Nic could scarcely imagine the number of people and material it would take to maintain so much. It spoke to the kind of money which the phrase “dizzying wealth” had been invented for.

Which made sense, given the people who owned it. The Worthington’s, at least according to Greytower’s archives, was one of the oldest families in Ronteele. They descended directly from the seven original founders, the people who had raised the walls and founded the city centuries ago. Which one was a matter of some speculation, but what they lacked in lineage they more than made up for in money.

Old money, as the legend went. Won when their ancestor, one Ulrich Worthington, had faced a dragon in single combat. Under most circumstances, this would have been suicide, the might of the dragon being well beyond that of puny mortals. Between their natural magics, crushing physical prowess and the whole fire breathing thing, humans tended to fare poorly whenever they were around. At absolute best, they were a source of shiny things for the dragon’s horde, left alone so long as tribute kept flowing. At worst, they were snacks simply in need of a bit of barbequing. Humans rarely experienced the best around dragons.

And yet off Ulrich had gone, driven by the suffering of the settlements the dragon had claimed for its own. Details on the battle were scarce but by all accounts, it had been spectacular. A day and a night they had fought, throwing around the kinds of magic that Nic could only dream of. Some of the more outlandish ones described the earth cracking asunder and the skies rending apart on bolts of fire and rage, from man or drake, none could tell.

When at last the battle ended, against all odds, it was Ulrich who stood, the dragon laying dead upon the ashen battlefield. He’d claimed the creature’s treasure hoard for himself, minus what had been stolen from the people of course, and that alone formed the foundation of the Worthingtons that existed to this day.

Nic had no idea if it was true or not, but it certainly didn’t make the prospect of meeting them any less terrifying. How exactly was a midtown nobody supposed to measure up to a family of dragon slayers?

A bump in the road drew Nic’s attention from his thoughts to more immediate concerns. The car was passing over a stone bridge, both sides lined with wrought iron posts that either were gas lamps or built specifically to imitate them. They continued past the bridge, the roadway changing from pavement to a strange kind of dirt, so bright that it almost looked painted. The forest fell away, replaced by expanses of jewel green that rolled away over nearby hills. There seemed to be no other point to it other than scale, showing off just how much space they could waste on grass.

But in all honesty, Nic barely even noticed the lawns. His attention was focused solely on the house.

Though calling it a house struck Nic as someone’s idea of a bad joke. The “house” in question was of the sort of building that had multiple wings, each of those in turn large enough to comfortably be called mansions by themselves. It was an ancient structure, built of brick and wood worn smooth by age. Ivy covered its face, dotted with bright flowers of every shape and colour, all framing large glass windows that would have looked equally at home on a cathedral. Ancestral, was the only word Nic could think of to describe it, a shrine dedicated to the glorious history of itself and those who dwelled there.

The car rolled on, approaching along a circular drive to the largest central structure. Several other vehicles were present ahead of them, each waiting their turn to pull up to the imposing set of double doors that served as front entrance. Other auto-cars like their own, mixed in with much more exotic vehicles. Nic saw everything from horse-drawn carriages to hovering glass bubbles that carried entire sitting parlors within. He stared in shock as a small grove of trees passed them going the opposite direction, their roots growing and shrinking in sequence to propel them along the ground. Nic even swore he saw an entire house moving along on robotic chicken legs, though he lost sight of it before he could be certain.

The line advanced slowly, mired by the need for passengers to disembark. It left plenty of time for Nic to continue admiring the scene, his eyes inevitably drawn to the statue. It sat in the center of the circle drive, taking up most of the available space. A single marble pillar rose from its heart, water cascading over the sides, sparkling with a multicoloured rainbow of light. Unseen hands manipulated the water, twisting the liquid into elaborate, repeating patterns that could only possibly be achieved by magic.

Atop the pillar sat the sculpture proper. It portrayed a meticulous reproduction of Ulrich Worthington, garbed in an ancient suit of techne armor. His apocryphal opponent stood above him, wings wide and encompassing, a jet of flame spewing from parted jaws to envelop the ancient techne. The entire thing was enormous, Ulrich towering tall over the crowds even without the pillar, the dragon built to match in scale. Both were cast in the purest of gleaming gold, the metal somehow animated to move in ways beyond the real. Flame flickered, armour shifted, the very air shimmering from the intensity of the forces exchanged. A moment of history captured forever and brought to life for all to see.

“How much money do these people have again?” Nic asked.

“Enough,” Master Orlin replied. He looked bored, ignoring the view out the window in favor of his screens.

Eventually the line of vehicles cleared away and their car rolled a halt at the entrance. Master Orlin rose from his seat as the doors slid open, letting out a sharp breath as he stepped outside.

“Come Nicholas. Let us see what nonsense they’re subjecting everyone to this time.”


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