Duel Ch.5

Official statement of intent, Worthington-Greytower

Let it be known that the signatories of this document, Arthur Tiberius Worthington, and Nicholas of Greytower, do enter into legal and honorable combat. Both parties hereby swear to abide by the tenants of City Law and agree that all dispute at issue shall be settled by its conclusion. Both signatories do enter into this agreement knowingly and of their own free will.

Thus is it written, thus it shall be.

*

“This can’t be serious?” Nic said.

“Looks fairly standard,” Master Orlin replied, not looking up from his work.

“But, I mean, thus it is written? Really?”

Master Orlin shrugged, “Central Administration is like that.”

Nic tried to summon another argument but found he only had protests left. He’d been hoping that this was all some hyper-realistic dream from which he would snap awake at any second and return to blessed normality. A desperate hope he knew, but also the only one he’d had left. Had being the operative word in that sentence. The document in his hands was the final nail in that particular coffin, its words, however ridiculous, proof that he’d gotten in way over his head.

It hadn’t even been a day since the faithful exchange at the Worthington estate. What felt like half the city had descended upon him in its immediate aftermath, the stares and whispers growing somehow even worse, switching from passive to very active interest. They discussed everything from what had happened, to why it had happened, to the nature of his “character”, whatever the hells that meant. All that with zero care for the fact that Nic was standing right there and well within earshot.

His choice of company certainly hadn’t helped matters. Isabella refused to utter so much as a word once the circus had arrived, settling into the picture of grace and civility. Nic had marveled at the ability to remain calm as wild speculations had flown about, even as most centered around her. If anything, she seemed to almost enjoy it, thriving in her element like a mighty ship in a storming sea.

Nic, by contrast, had sunk like a stone. In retrospect the best thing to do would have been to simply shut up, let the gossip burn itself out and duck out at the earliest possible opportunity. Nic had not done this. Instead, he had devolved into a sputtering wreck, trying to answer dozens of questions at once, even though he’d lacked so much as a single answer. He’d probably done nothing but make the whole thing worse, still stuck on figuring out the ‘what just happened’ part of the situation.

He might still be going like that had Master Orlin not stepped in. Showing considerably more wisdom than Nic, his teacher had curtly declared that they were leaving, the look on his face indicating it was not a request. Strangely, he had given Isabella a respectful nod before they departed, one that she returned with a polite smile and half curtsy. Something had been exchanged there, though Nic had not the slightest idea what.

They’d taken the direct route out, the crowd parting in their wake, continuing to stare but going oddly silent as they scurried out of Master Orlin’s way. The one exception had been Lord Worthington himself, meeting the two just as they reached the front door.

“Quite an excitable evening, wouldn’t you say Grey?”

“Not now Julius,” Master Orlin had shot back, his voice like ice.

“Alright, alright. You go see to the lad and we’ll discuss this later.” He gestured wide towards the open door. “Have a lovely evening you two.”

Nic had been sorely tempted to say something but a tight grip on his shoulder had indicated that was a bad idea. Instead, both climbed into the car, sharing only tense silence for much of the drive back to Greytower. Master Orlin was the one to break it.

“What happened?”

Nic had told him everything, briefly trying to omit certain details but relenting under his teacher’s harsh glare. Saying it all out loud, Nic quickly realized that the whole thing sounded just a touch juvenile. Why exactly had he thought hitting Arthur had been a good idea? Even without the whole accidentally challenging a duel, punching the son of a major techne family wasn’t the kind of thing that was just forgotten. Certainly not something that could be easily forgiven.

When the entire story had been told, Nic had braced for a scolding lecture only to find that none was forthcoming. Instead, they had returned to silence for quite some time, Master Orlin considering Nic with a strange look. When he had finally spoken, his voice had been tight and even more controlled than Nic had ever before heard.

“I see.”

The words were like a cold slap. Nic almost would have preferred getting yelled at. Or indeed any further interaction for the remainder of the night. Master Orlin had not said anything else for the entire trip back to the tower. He’d broken his peace only to suggest Nic go to bed, offering no further assurances or criticisms. It had been a fitful night, to say the least, followed by one of the most awkward breakfasts Nic had ever sat through. The arrival of the Worthington automaton had almost been a relief, at least until it had handed over the official contract the young techne now held in trembling hands.

“So, what happens now?” Nic asked.

“That’s not my concern.”

Nic blinked, needing a minute to process the statement, then another when the first one didn’t work.

“What do you mean it’s not your concern?”

“I’m not the one that issued the challenge.”

“I didn’t know I was challenging him!”

“And what would you call hitting someone?”

Nic went to counter that before realizing anything he might say would sound childish. Instead, he looked back down at the contract, eyes falling at the bottom where a dotted line awaited his signature. Arthur’s was already inscribed on an adjoining line, written in flowing script and accompanied by an actual wax seal. Nic could almost feel the smugness radiating off it.

“Okay, what happens if I sign this then?” Nic asked.

“You meet in the agreed place, then fight until one of you wins,” Master Orlin supplied, waving a hand. “Presumably proving something in the process.”

“…you’re not a fan of these, are you?”

Master Orlin closed one of his screens. “Whatever gave you that impression?”

Silence fell between them again, the reality of the situation rapidly settling on Nic. He’d heard of duels before of course, what person living within Ronteele hadn’t? Ritual battles between techne to resolve conflicts that didn’t run afoul of the more serious city laws. They were fought over everything from love to money to the classic honor, the grandest of them becoming the stuff of legend. Nic had grown up on the stories, read the accounts, watched the videos. He’d even seen one in person once, albeit from very far away.

It had done nothing to diminish the spectacle. Great gouts of flame, the crack of lightning, a thousand different kinds of light as elementary forces battled one another for supremacy. The sheer power of the spells had reached across the distance to dazzle young Nic like nothing else ever had. That same amazement was working against Nic now as he realized that he was pledged to stand on the receiving end of it.

“I don’t know what to do here,” Nic said, mostly to himself.

“So yield,” Master Orlin replied.

Nic blinked. “Yield?”

His teacher gestured to the document. “Send it back unsigned and you can put this nonsense to rest.”

“…but it will be like he won, won’t it?”

Master Orlin let out a long, tired breath. “That is the definition of yielding, yes.”

Nic considered this new information, eyes scanning over the contract again without reading it. The only thing that really made an impact was the glitter of Worthington’s signature and the memory of the smile that came attached to it. He glanced at Master Orlin, searching for guidance, still finding none.

Then he took up a pen and signed.

The letters briefly pulsed with light as he finished, sealing themselves into an ink far darker than the simple blue he’d used. Once it had faded, the Worthington automaton reached forward and took the paper from the table, placing it securely in a metal lockbox that popped out from its chest cavity. With a mechanical farewell, it turned from the room and headed for the door.

Nic and Master Orlin were left alone in the kitchen, the latter finally looking his student in the eyes. Nic couldn’t quite tell what the man was thinking, only that it was somewhere between disappointment and weary calculation. It was all Nic could do to hold his nerve, trying to convince himself he hadn’t just made a horrible, horrible mistake. Eventually, Master Orlin gave another small sigh and moved to stand from his chair.

“As you wish. Follow.”

“Follow?” Nic asked, baffled. “Where?”

“You’ll see.”

Without another word, Master Orlin left the room, leaving Nic scrambling to catch up. Together they began to climb the tower, moving up past the kitchens, the living areas and even past the main workshop and well into the tantalizing unknowns that lurked above. Despite living in it for years, there were many places in Greytower Nic had never been. Not for lack of trying on his part, his explorations being both thorough and appropriately transgressive whenever he could get away with it. He’d long ago pressed up against his limits, even managing to slip past it here and there. He counted every instance of the latter among his personal accomplishments. Still, there were many doors that just flatly would not open to him. Entire levels sealed tight or random single chambers sat in the middle of otherwise permitted areas. They would not budge, no matter what tricks, hacks or force he brought to bear upon them.

It was through one such door that Master Orlin led, the portal sliding open without protest. Nic almost felt disappointed at being denied the chance to defeat it himself, but that quickly morphed into excitement as he followed his teacher through. Thick shadows waited for them on the far side, perfumed with a musk of abandonment and neglect. Almost none of the room could be seen, save the small square of light that cut in from the door they’d just entered.

“What is this place?” Nic asked.

Master Orlin said nothing as he pressed a button on one of his screens. Flares of light flooded the chamber, chasing away the shadows in an instant, replacing them instead with the sight of a workshop. It looked just like the many others scattered throughout the tower, a vast space filled to bursting with the tools of the techne trade. Computers, machines, devices to assemble both and the many technical documents required to understand each. A thin layer of dust sat over everything, long undisturbed but already beginning to rise into the air at their intrusion. Nic felt a shudder run up his spine at the sight, accompanied by the sudden urge to sneeze.

It passed as he caught sight of what lay in the center of the room. Rather than the customary summoning grid for containing magical forces, there instead sat what looked like the unholy union of an industrial lift and a display mannequin. Draped over its shoulders there lay a strange device which at first glance looked like a harness. Nic could clearly make out straps meant to secure to the torso, studded at irregular intervals with metal and clustered circuitry. Much of its construction was without rhyme or reason, Nic being particularly thrown by a strange length of metal and wire hanging from what would be the right shoulder. It was only when he noticed a matching object sitting on a nearby workbench that he finally put together what he was looking at.

“Is that a casting rig?”

“The start of one,” Master Orlin said. “I never got around to finishing it.”

Excitement overcame anxiety as Nic closed the distance to examine the device further. One of the key drawbacks of techne magic compared to the classical kind was the amount of equipment it required. Computers to run the code, electricity to power it, interfaces to read and control the spell once it had been cast. Even the simplest cantrip required something to run on and those requirements only increased as spells grew in complexity and strength. And all that assumed you didn’t need to physically move the whole setup, which added an entire host of additional issues. The cable wrangling alone was an art that even seasoned masters struggled with.

Casting rigs were the blanket solution to all these problems. At the core, they were nothing more than wearable computers, carrying the same basic elements as larger setups but far more comfortable and many times more portable. Their exact designs varied widely, each shaped to the needs and sensibilities of its user, brimming with custom code and gleaming flourishes of engineering. They were both the greatest weapon and the most closely guarded secret that a techne would ever possess.

This one was a far cry from such heights. Most of it wasn’t even assembled, its mechanisms lying open to expose unsoldered circuitry and empty component sockets. The unfinished arm notably lacked most of its parts, only the bare bones of an exoskeleton sitting limply against the frame. Nic couldn’t even see a power source, just the half-finished mounting on the back where one might one day go.

“Needs some work,” Nic mused.

“Indeed, it does,” Master Orlin agreed. “Good luck with it.”

“Wait what?” Nic said, snapping awake from his ogling. He stood on the far side of the display rack, having wandered around to get a better look. It gave him a prime view of Master Orlin turning to leave the room.

“You’ll need a rig for the fight,” he gestured to the rack. “Here is your rig.”

“But, but the duel’s in a week! How am I supposed to finish this in a week!?”

Master Orlin shrugged. “I’m sure you’ll figure it out. You know what you’re doing after all.” He paused, remembering something. “Oh, and you’ll probably need this.”

He summoned a screen and swiped it through the air, producing a soft chime from Nic’s tablet. He pulled it out in a daze, finding a new file sitting in his inbox.

Code Duello – Simplified.     

“Don’t worry about your lessons,” Master Orlin said as he left the room. “I think we can take a bit of a break. See you at dinner.”

*

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