“Will you stop fidgeting?”
Isabella’s words were annoyed more than anything else, though she didn’t let it show on her face. To any onlooker, she was the picture of grace.
“Oh, trust me, I’m trying,” Nic said.
For the second time in as many weeks, the young techne found himself back at the Worthington estate, standing at the very dead center of attention. Both were places he did not want to be, but he was well past the point of having any say in that.
Specifically, Nic stood in the same biosphere where this little adventure had started. The thing had turned out to be even larger than he’d thought, concealing an entire amphitheatre with seating for dozens of people and standing room for even more. Crowds so thick that it was like the party all over again, complete with the creepy automatons serving refreshments. Yet somehow it was even worse than that night had been. No fewer than twenty people had approached Nic since his arrival, offering him advice, well wishes, preemptive sympathy and, in two cases, requests that he lose on purpose. It still baffled Nic to no end that such a circus had sprung up around this whole thing, or how his master had managed to shield him so completely from its influence. That one would bear some thinking about later. Right now, he was too busy worrying about making a fool of himself.
The same could not be said for his opponent. Across the field, Nic watched as Arthur conversed with a dense cluster of people. Fans from the look of it, each of them hanging off every word he uttered. The young Worthington reveled in the attention, casting smiles and gladhands with the easy grace of long practice, a true son of the Worthington name.
He certainly looked the part, dressed in a neat tunic of silk and leather, flowing easily over his body, and leaving him with complete freedom of movement. It meshed seamlessly with his rig, the latter’s broad profile following the contours of his torso with tailored precision. Just looking at it, Nic could tell that it was built from top-of-the-line parts, sporting larger processing units and an expanded power cell at least twice the capacity of his own. The whole thing shone brightly, cosmetic lights highlighting details, glittering plates of polished metal, some of which Nic suspected were actual gold. Like everything else with the Worthington’s, the thing had been built by and with money.
“Bit of a showboat, isn’t he?” Isabella asked.
Nic didn’t disagree but only because the effect was working as intended. Compared to his opponent, Nic was a hot mess. Wild, hastily dried hair, water and sweat soaking into his shirt, the remnants of sleep still stubbornly clinging to his eyes. His rig did not help matters, even this refined version looking like a scrap heap compared to Arthur’s. For some reason Nic kept hyper fixating on a loose thread on his left arm, picking at it with some idle thought of pulling it free and succeeding only in making it worse. It did not help in the slightest with his “fidgeting”.
A hand smacked him gently on the side of the head, shocking Nic back to the world.
“Hey, focus,” Isabella scolded. “I didn’t spend my week training your sorry ass just for you to freeze.”
“I’m aware, I still have the bruises.”
“Oh, don’t be a baby.”
Nic grumbled but let the topic drop, turning his focus to the task at hand. With a flick of his finger, he brought his eyepiece to life and began reviewing his spell lists. He scanned each item, trying to burn the shortcuts into memory. He’d still have the list for reference during the duel of course but bruises had taught him the benefits of knowing things off by heart. A few seconds could be the difference between close call and too late and he needed every advantage he could get right now.
A low gong sounded, reverberating through the air with commanding authority. Conversation melted away in its wake, all eyes turning towards the field as the atmosphere grew heavy with anticipation. From his seat next to the field Lord Worthington stood, hand raised for attention. He looked more like his son than ever before, boisterous smile and expansive presence like a shout in human form. It was so loud that Nic almost didn’t see his master sitting next to him, looking almost bored.
“Friends, I do believe the hour is upon us!” Worthington bellowed. “If you could all find your seats!”
It distressed Nic how cheery the man sounded about this, as if he were introducing a play rather than a fight. The crowd didn’t seem to mind, all of them moving towards seats or standing room, jostling for good positions to watch. Isabella leaned close to his ear to be heard over the shuffle.
“Good luck. Don’t make me regret sticking my neck out.”
“Has anyone ever told you you’re a wonderful person?”
Isabella smiled. “Nope, not a soul.”
She slipped away before he could retort, taking her seat in the place of honor next to Lord Worthington. Once all had settled, the man continued in his booming tones.
“Now I know we’re all eager to get to the event, but rules must be followed and all that. Sharpe forbid we upset Central Administration.”
There was a peel of laughter from the crowd, in which Arthur shared and Nic did not.
“So, with that in mind, do any among you contest the validity of this pact?”
No one did. After a moment of silence, Lord Worthington turned to the field, looking between Nic and his son.
“Challengers, have you any objections?”
“I do not,” Arthur said with smirk and bravado.
“Nu-” Nic began, the word stumbling on its way past his throat. He cleared it hastily, painfully aware of the stares, before trying again. “No. Neither do I.”
For as stupid as awkward as they had sounded, Lord Worthington accepted the words, throwing his arms wide.
“Then by the authority of Sharpe and the Law of Ronteele, I declare this duel true and valid!”
He pressed a button on his tablet and Nic felt the familiar tingle of the Arbiter wash across his skin. Code streamed across his display, interfacing as needed before settling into final standby. The last thing standing between him and the consequences of his stupid, stupid decision.
“Techne, approach and salute!”
Keeping his legs ramrod stiff to avoid stumbling, Nic crossed the field to the middle, meeting Arthur over the invisible line drawn between them. Arthur flashed him a smirk, giving a shallow tilt of the waist that technically qualified as salute. Nic returned the gesture much the same, though swapped the smirk for a glare.
“I’m impressed you’re here,” Arthur said. “Though, foolishness and bravery are hard to tell apart.”
Nic intensified his glare. With great effort, he kept himself in check this time, considering his opponent for a moment before striking back with a simple taunt of his own.
“How’s your face?”
That clearly wasn’t the reaction Arthur had been expecting, his smirk slipping ever so slightly as they retreated to their respective corners. Right on cue, Lord Worthington raised arm.
For long seconds, the tension was palpable. Nic’s fingers twitched at his controls, silence ringing loud in his ears, heart hammering away as he fought to control his breath. His eyes never left Arthur, nor Arthur’s Nic, both sizing the other up, waiting. Waiting. Wait-
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