A routine emerged at Greytower over the next several days. Nic would wake to an array of bruises and aching joints from the day before. Some days were worse than others but a quick shower was usually sufficient to cure them, leaving him free to return to his rig. A good hour or so of work would pass before Zephyr would put in his appearance, allegedly to bring him food but usually more interested in making a nuisance of himself. Nic would do his best to ignore him, and Zephyr would usually get bored and zip off to find something else to do.
Once that was taken care of, Nic would work steadily through the morning. Polishing code, refining design, finishing up little alterations to the layout of circuits or mechanisms. Anything that wouldn’t require him to disassemble anything or ruin a stable operating system. He needed to be able to switch it back to full operation when his “teacher” showed up.
Nic could never pick out a pattern for when Isabella would arrive. It would be some time before noon, that was the only limitation. Outside that, she could arrive at any time. One day she arrived just after he’d finished eating while on another it was barely a minute to spare before lunch. She seemed to relish in her own unpredictability, always greeting him with a pleasant hello and a dangerous smile. Nic had learned to simply accept that his mornings were on her timetable rather than his own. It made what came next easier.
Whatever the time, her arrival marked the beginning of practice for the day. Together they would walk down to the yard to where the Arbiter awaited them. They would both don their rigs, share a few words of encouragement and then Isabella would proceed to beat Nic senseless for a couple hours.
Nic tried. He really, really tried. He moved components, he altered interfaces, he added, removed, and optimized spells in search of the best possible results. Once he even tried redoing the entire operating system, hacking it down to the bone and building it back from scratch to try and make it work better. All for naught as Isabella defeated him handily every single time. For every trick he tried, Isabella always seemed to have the perfect counter for it. Focus on speed? Her wards became impenetrable. Turtle up with maximum defense? She would simply drain his power supply with focused strikes of her own. Even meeting her on equal footing, throwing attacks and defense in tandem always ended in failure. Nic might know the steps, but it was Isabella who knew how to dance.
“How are you so good at this?” Nic had once demanded after yet another defeat.
“I’m a natural of course.”
Nic almost believed her before noticing the smirk playing at the corners of her mouth. He cast her a withering glare and the expression bloomed full and beautiful.
“Practice,” she said. “And lots of it.”
“Yeah well, I have a week.”
“Then I guess we should go again, shouldn’t we?”
They could go until Isabella declared they’d had enough, usually when Nic was too battered to continue. Together the two of them would retire to the workshop for lunch, Zephyr often joining them to buzz around Isabella like a loyal pet. Nic would have been annoyed with that had it not assured peace and quiet as he started on the real meat of the day.
He usually had at least a few ideas after each sparring session, new angles from which to approach old problems. The afternoons were the time to put that data into practice, taking the time to disassemble and modify things much more extensively. It was a slow, gradual process, little changes to be iterated and built atop one another to form superior methods overall.
The result looked entirely unlike what he had started with. Every extraneous part on the rig’s frame had been stripped away, leaving it with two power cells sitting low on his back and the lighter data core sitting atop them. It kept the weight balanced while allowing the cooling systems to vent heat to the sides, away from delicate flesh or electronics. Nic still had the burns from learning that lesson the hard way.
The actual casting was no longer handled by keyboard, that method being far too slow and cumbersome. Instead, he’d wired pressure sensors into a pair of gloves, tuned to detect when his fingers were bent down to the individual knuckles. Combined with some custom code, it allowed him to use various hand gestures to trigger spells with only a few flicks of his fingers. Not a perfect solution, as it required him to hold his hands very still when he didn’t want to cast but bending one finger was significantly faster than typing several characters in rapid succession.
Still there was always more to refine and he never ran short of items on his task list. He was still having problems with glitches in the glove sensors, causing them to misread his intentions far too often to be reliable. A few of his spells also still had a notable delay, speaking to inefficiencies in the code slowing the processors. Also he couldn’t get one of the pressure gauges wouldn’t sit level and that was just driving Nic insane.
Day after day he sat hunched over a desk, tinkering, typing, and muttering in equal measure as he ground away at the problem. Oft times Isabella would make her excuses and leave but sometimes she would stick around. Never helping of course, that would be too easy, but instead amusing herself on the net or indulging Zephyr’s antics. Nic honestly didn’t mind the company, for a couple of reasons, most of which he kept to himself. He just tried to keep focused on his work, knowing that soon enough he would be off to bed to start the whole process over again.
Today Isabella had chosen to stay for the afternoon, taking over her usual chair near one of the rediscovered windows. For several hours things progressed as routine demanded, both parties firmly in their own world, focused on their respective tasks. It was broken when Isabella suddenly chuckled to herself in a way that for some reason terrified Nic to his core.
“What?” he asked, pausing mid-solder.
“Nothing, some of these bets are just amusing.”
Isabella looked up, mild confusion on her face. “Yeah, the bets on you and Arthur. Some big wagers are getting thrown into the pot.”
“…please tell me you’re joking.”
“Nope,” she slid her screen over to him. “See for yourself.”
Nic quickly read through the page, his stomach sinking a bit further with each passing word. The article was from some gossip rag that played up the pending duel as some clash of the century. Isabella was mentioned, though not by name, identified only as “a maiden of highest standing”.
Said maiden, for lack of a better word, had been telling the truth about the bets. Though the article seemed to be intentionally listing the more outlandish ones, some of the entries still bordered on parody. Works of art and literature, artifacts and artificer technologies of all shapes and sizes. Six figures seemed the starting level for monetary wagers and one man was even staking the better part of his personal estate. Wagered against him, Nic noted.
“How long has this been going on?” Nic asked.
“Pretty much the whole time,” Isabella replied. “You’ve been the talk of the town.”
“Orry’s been turning away a whole bunch of people all week!” Zephyr chimed in. “I got to chase a few!”
“Oh gods…” Nic groaned in dismay, burying his face in a hand.
“You seriously didn’t know?” Isabella asked, bemused.
“No, I didn’t, because I’ve been holed up in here for-” He stopped, doing some quick math in his head. “A week…”
“You okay?” Isabella asked when he didn’t continue.
“Oh, you know, just realizing that tomorrow I’m fighting one of the richest people in the city with a rig cobbled together from spare parts and exactly zero experience. Just a mild panic attack, you know how it is.”
“Glad to know my tutelage is so appreciated.”
“You know what I mean!” Nic snapped, mostly out of roiling panic. “The hells did I let myself get dragged into this?”
“If you’re so worried, you can still yield.”
Nic looked over at her, finding her questioning eyes looking back.
“Yeah, you’re not the first one to say that.”
“You don’t agree?”
“No, no I get why it’s a good idea. I’m not that much of an idiot.”
“So why bother?” Isabella pointed at the screen. “That whole circus will die out the second they get bored of it. No one will even remember it happened this time next week.”
These were all very good points. Nic had come to most of them on his own, Isabella and Master Orlin only adding to his collection of reasons to just take the damn forfeit.
“You’re not wrong,” Nic conceded.
“…but?” Isabella said, sensing his hesitation.
“But I don’t like bullies,” Nic said, surprising himself with such a frank admission.
“…are you serious?” she asked.
Nic nodded. “I think so, yeah.”
Of all the reactions he expected from her, an amused smile had not even made the long list. If nothing else, it was at least not cruel or dismissive. He took that as a win
“You’re a strange creature, Nicholas Greytower.”
Isabella stood without preamble, pulling something from her pocket and holding it out to him.
“Here, install this in your aux ports. Should help you with those input glitches you’ve been having.”
Nic accepted the object, an electrical component he didn’t recognize but could instantly tell was far better than anything else he had to work with. The Hemlock sigil stamped on the side was testament enough to that. Before Nic could question her further, Isabella patted him on the shoulder and turned towards the door.
“I wish you luck tomorrow Greytower. Good day.”
She left without another word, leaving Nic alone, confused and happier than he’d been all week.
Nic worked late into the night, completing the last few alterations and double checking everything else. There would be no time for it tomorrow, not unless he wanted to risk destabilizing the entire setup. If nothing else, this pile of junk worked and if he’d absorbed anything from Master Orlin’s tutelage, it was that you never broke a stable build if you didn’t have time to fix it. The wise techne thought before they executed, and all that.
Still there was plenty he could do that didn’t touch the core code. Isabella’s little gadget worked wonders, whatever subroutine it held immediately solving most if not all the issues he’d been having with his gloves. He’d been very tempted to crack it open and see what it was running under the hood but that would have eaten up too much time. He’d just have to trust that Isabella wasn’t pulling an eleventh-hour sabotage. Not that he really thought she would but then he hadn’t exactly been making the best decisions recently.
Other than that, the rest was mostly just crossing and dotting. Cleaning up those last few welds, tying off all the cables to make them neat and tidy. He risked just a little code work to ensure all his hotkeys were in order, testing that each hand gesture would trigger the correct program. They did for the most part, with only one terrifying incident involving a runaway gout of flame spicing up an otherwise quiet evening. Typos were dangerous things in spellcode.
Nic didn’t remember falling asleep. One minute he was working, the next he was face down at his workbench being shaken awake. A mild panic shot through him as his brain worked to catch up with what was going on, calming when he spotted Master Orlin standing over him, the man’s expression as unbothered as ever.
“Master?” Nic said, his voice groggy.
“Good morning,” his teacher said.
Nic paused again, slowly adding awareness back into consciousness. Not much but just enough to parse the one small, crucial detail.
“Wait, morning?” he pushed away from the bench, trying to blink away the last vestiges of sleep. “What time is it?”
“I’ll skip to the end,” Master Orlin said. “You’re due at the Worthington’s in an hour.”
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