Duel Ch.3

Never in his life had Nic felt so aggressively out of place.

He stood just inside the front door of the manor house, staring at the grandest room he’d even seen. Sweeping and grand in its construction, the main floor alone large enough to contain the entirety of lesser buildings. Multiple staircases ran up the walls, some so wide that they were like small stages, connecting three stories of tiered balconies, each disappearing into further unseen depths. Decorations hung thick upon every surface, curtains and banners bearing a now familiar sigil alongside abstract tapestries and intricate paintings depicting scenes that Nic did not recognize. From the ceiling there hung a chandelier that spanned two entire stories, bedecked with lengths of cut crystal the size of his hand, all dancing with ethereal, multi-coloured light.

And yet despite its scale, the room was still packed. A vast crowd filled the chamber, flowing from center stage to the most distant corner. The din of conversation echoed everywhere, voices fusing together to devour words and leave only a dull roar of noise in its wake. Nic quickly felt himself getting overwhelmed at the sheer weight of people present.

It only got worse when he tried to pick out individuals. His suit and tie combo turned out to be downright basic compared to the outfits present. Everywhere he looked, Nic saw impossibly vibrant clothes the likes of which he never knew existed. Dresses and suits in every cut and style imaginable. More unique ensembles that combined elements of two and yet others that sought to move away such basic designs altogether. They lay adorned in decorations, from simple embroidery to great chains of precious gems, highlighted with equally precious metals and artfully composed plastics that shone like tiny stars. 

And those were somehow the most subdued offerings. Here and there, Nic spotted outfits for which the word exotic could have been invented. He saw a man wearing lengths of live flowers, the delicate petals wafting as they gently shifted colour. Another woman wore overlapping layers of holographic projections, producing the image of an intricate suit of silver armor. Nic even saw a human-lizard hybrid, scales meshing seamlessly with skin and artfully sculpted into ridges. That one had to be a glamor, or possibly surgical modification. No simple costume could ever hope to produce the same effect.

Nic swallowed past the lump in his throat, feeling a cold sweat breaking out on the back of his neck. All the anxieties of the past week came crashing back with a vengeance as he stood on the threshold of his last chance to back out. The sudden uncertainty left him flailing, searching for any solid thing he could grab hold of in this strange new world.

As he continued watching, Nic’s eyes were drawn to a small cluster of people standing on the main floor. He had no idea why, the little island of persons seemed no different from any other in the vast sea that surrounded them. Maybe it was the particular mix of colours in that spot that drew his eyes. Maybe it was some sudden movement or sound that cut through the noise to draw his eye. Or maybe it was just random chance that had him looking at precisely the right place to notice the Lady.

She didn’t stand out at first, right at home amongst the others standing nearest to her. It was only by a chance shift in the crowd that her silhouette emerged from the background, sharpening into full view. She was young, probably about Nic’s own age so far as he could tell such things but carried herself like someone far older. Elegant and refined, her dress leaning towards what a plebeian like Nic would call classic, complete with a simple silver necklace and long silk gloves. An aura hung about her, one that defied explanation or understanding but which Nic could not deny. Mysterious, was the closet word he could conjure to describe it.

Though perhaps enthralling would be better, as he realized too late that she was looking straight at him. Even from halfway across the room, Nic was sure he could feel her sharp eyes piercing straight through him. Embarrassment replaced fear and he quickly looked away, trying and failing to assure himself that he hadn’t just been caught staring at a pretty girl. He imagined that would be a bad start to the night.

“Your invitation sir?”

The question came from a suited butler standing next to the door. His attention was focused solely on Master Orlin, expression neutral and open palm held out. Master Orlin wordlessly produced the requested card and handed it over, earning a polite nod before the butler turned towards the crowd.

“Presenting his lordship, Orlin of Greytower, and apprentice, Nicholas of Greytower.”

The butler’s voice had boomed through the space, amplified loud enough to be heard in the further corner. The din of conversation vanished and what felt like every eye in the room was suddenly fixed intently upon the two of them. Nic swallowed heavily, the uncomfortable sensation of being assessed washing over him, though he had idea what for.

After what could only have been seconds, but which felt like hours, the din resumed, and the scene returned to the way it had been. Unfazed, Master Orlin advanced into the room, leaving Nic scrambling to keep pace.

“What was that?” Nic asked.

“What was what?”

“The, you know,” Nic gestured at the room. “The whole sudden silence thing.”

Master Orlin made a dismissive sound. “People in need of something better to do with their time.”

Nic was about to ask more when a new voice shouldered its way into the conversation.

“Well as I live and breathe, has the elusive Grey finally returned to grace my halls?!”

Nic turned to find a man approaching them from the crowd. He was tall, broad shouldered and sharp featured, smiling widely in a way that showed off all his sparkling teeth. He looked as extravagant as everything else in this place, beard and hair trimmed just so, suit impeccably tailored to his imposing frame, complete with cape and truly bizarre neck wrapping that Nic supposed counted as a tie. If there was any doubt left as to who this was, the sigil embroidered over his left breast removed it.

“Worthington,” Master Orlin said. “You’re looking well.”

The man gave a deep laugh, genuinely amused. 

“Looking well he says. First time out of his tower all year and I’m looking well. Outrageous! Outrageous I say!”

Master Orlin shrugged. “I’ve been busy.”

“Ah, of course, of course!” He turned from Orlin, giving her full attention to Nic. “Something to do with this fine young lad standing at your heel I imagine, hm?”

This time Master Orlin didn’t even bother hiding his sigh before gesturing for his student to step forward.

“Lord Worthington, if I may introduce my apprentice, Nicholas. Nicholas, meet Julius Worthington.”

“H-hello…” Nic attempted, a cold ball of dread forming in his stomach. Lord Worthington gave him no time to dwell on it, reaching out to clap Nic on the shoulder whilst the other reached out to crush one of Nic’s own.

“Pleasure’s all mine lad, pleasure’s all mine!”

Master Orlin said nothing, leaving Lord Worthington to focus all his attention on Nic.

“So, tell me Nicholas, what is it like being under our dear Grey’s tutelage? Quite the adventure I shouldn’t wonder.”

“I…yes?” Nic ventured, glancing at Master Orlin for guidance. It was not forthcoming. “I’ve learned a lot.”

Lord Worthington gave a booming laugh and clapped him on the back again, Nic starting to lose feeling in his ensnared hand

“Indeed, indeed! Just remember that life’s more than learning hm?” He cast a pointed look at Master Orlin, who refused to meet it. Lord Worthington barely seemed to notice as he gestured at the nearby crowd.

“Speaking of which, Arthur! Arthur come here and greet your guests!”

A second figure emerged from the crowd; a teenager the spitting image of the elder Worthington, if a touch shorter and less broad in the shoulders. Also like his father, he wore an expertly tailored suit that dripped with wealth, ornate in its clashing hues of purple, red and gold. Even among the crowd’s menagerie of style and statement, he stood out, a fact he seemed very much aware of going by the way he carried himself through the crowd. Lord Worthington did not comment on that, instead finally releasing Nic to instead clap his hands over the newcomer’s shoulder.

“Grey, you remember my son, Arthur?”

“I do,” Orlin said. “Hello Arthur.”

The teen inclined his head in acknowledgement. “Good to see you again, Master Greytower. Thank you for coming.”

“Bit younger back then he was, you remember that, Arthur? Must have been, what, your eleventh year?”

“Twelfth, father.”

“Ah, yes, yes, quite the party that one was,” Without missing a beat, Lord Worthington bodily turned his son to face Nic. “Didn’t have this one either. Nic, this is my boy, Arthur. He’s the one we’re throwing this little get together for.”

“Good evening,” Arthur said, offering Nic a nod as well, albeit a smaller one.

“Hello.”

“Ah, none of that now boys, none of that!” Lord Worthington said with an abundance of enthusiasm. “Why don’t the two of you run along and find something to amuse yourselves. Grey, join me to catch up with some of the old crowd?”

“If I must,” Master Orlin turned to Nic. “Try and keep out of trouble, yes?” 

Nic was about to speak up in his defence before thinking better of it and simply nodding his agreement. Orlin nodded in return, turning back towards the crowd as Worthington placed an arm over his shoulders.

“Lovely, lovely, getting along thick as thieves already! Now Grey, do you remember that chap from Paldir? The one who sneezed that villa down?”

His words faded as the two men moved away, vanishing from sight as they melded into the crowd. Nic was left alone with Arthur, a fact he suddenly felt very aware of despite the number of people around. He had no idea what the elder Worthington was going on about. Nic didn’t even know what to say, let alone whatever “thick as thieves” was.

“Your house is cool,” Nic offered, trying what he hoped was safe ground.

In reply, Arthur turned a truly sour glare upon him, as if Nic were an especially foul stain on his shoe. The even tempered, polite person who’d approached was gone, replaced by what Nic could only describe as a sneer in human form.

“Yes, it is. I suggest you enjoy it while you can.”

Without waiting for a reply, Arthur turned on his heel and walked away into the crowd, leaving Nic standing baffled and confused.

Was it something he’d said?

*

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