Nic had decided that he didn’t mind some parties.
The celebration had begun as soon as the duel had formally concluded. Food and drink materialized from nowhere, carted about by the automatons. Nic barely had time to get his rig off before the crowd swarmed him, dozens of people, everyone who had been in attendance it seemed crowding around him to offer their congratulations. Some were loud and enthusiastic, giving many claps on shoulders and boisterous adulations while others were terse and quiet, an unspoken “you cost me a lot of money” woven into their words.
To Nic’s great surprise, he found himself returning the smiles, even remembering a few names. That didn’t stop him from getting overwhelmed of course, but it was nice to be the positive center of attention for once. Eventually the crowd dispersed, wandering off to entertain themselves elsewhere. Isabella chose that moment to reappear, sidling up to Nic with a pleased look on her face.
“Enjoying your adoring public?” she asked.
Nic shook his head. “Not a bit, how do you do it?”
“You do remember I was hiding in a tree when we first met, right?”
“Touché,” Nic said.
Together they chased down an automaton and commandeered its snack tray, retreating to a quieter corner of the garden. For a time, they simply sat and ate, chatting as they watched the crowd mingle. Eventually the latter parted to reveal Lord Worthington, looking about until his gaze settled on the two of them. He strode across the yard towards them, still wearing his big, boisterous persona, though Nic noticed he seemed a bit deflated. Like a balloon that had a bit of the air let out. Arthur followed at his heel, making no secret of the fact he did not want to be there. Master Orlin followed close behind them both, showing no opinion either way.
“Congratulations young man,” Lord Worthington said, affecting a more subdued tone than usual. “A fine display out there.”
“Thank you, my lord,” Nic replied.
An awkward silence fell over the group, the only movement Master Orlin as he settled into a casual stance nearby. Worthington turned to his son, expression expectant. When Arthur said nothing, he reached out and cuff him on the ear. Arthur grunted in pain, hesitating only a moment before raising his head to look at Nic. His expression was pure venom, but his words were calm.
“Well fought, Greytower.”
“You as well, Worthington.”
Arthur looked ready to say something more but a stern look from his father kept him quiet. With a final grumble, he turned away and vanished back into the crowd.
“Feel free to enjoy my hospitality,” Lord Worthington said, turning to leave as well.
“Julius?” Master Orlin said, surprising everyone present.
Lord Worthington turned to look at his fellow, an unhappy edge in his eye. Master Orlin said nothing, instead simply holding out a hand, palm up. A battle of emotions played across Lord Worthington’s face before settling on a cold politeness and he pulled something from his pocket and slapped it into Master Orlin’s hand. He did not look happy in the slightest.
“Have a good evening you three,” he said before vanishing back into the crowd. Nic turned a questioning look to his master but the techne declined to provide any answer.
“Are you ready to go?” Master Orlin asked.
“Actually,” Nic said, glancing over where Isabella sipped her drink. “I was kind of hoping that I could, you know, stay a while?”
Master Orlin followed his gaze, giving a small chuckle before turning away.
“Call when you’re ready, and I’ll send a car. Try to be home for dinner. You have a week’s worth of lessons to catch up on.”
Nic nodded his understanding, watching Master Orlin walk away before turning back to eagerly tuck into his food. Isabella considered him as he ate, amused by something.
“Surprised you resisted,” she said.
“Calling him Worthy. Would have gotten right under his skin.”
Nic shrugged, picking up another pastry. “He’s suffered enough.”
“I prefer to think of it as gentlemanly,” Nic shot back.
Isabella laughed. “Whatever you say.”
“…thanks, by the way.”
“Helping me practice. Don’t think I would have won without the ass kicking.”
“Probably not,” she said matter of fact. “You were pretty hopeless at the beginning there.”
“Hey,” Nic said in mock offense. “Who just won a duel on whose behalf?”
Isabella gave him a deeply amused look, her dagger smile going in for the kill.
“I didn’t need your help.”
Isabella swirled her drink, never breaking eye contact with Nic. “I’ve been dealing with Worthy’s crap since I was seven years old. Gotten quite good at politely telling him to piss off.”
“Meaning, what exactly?”
“That I had it handled until you butted in.”
“Sorry, I’m confused, why did you let me do this then?”
She shrugged. “It was funny.”
Nic sat, stunned, half eaten pastry forgotten in his hand as he looked Isabella over in an entirely new light. She sat entirely unbothered by his gaze, instead calmly finishing the last of her drink. Somehow, she made the action feel threatening.
“…you’re scary, you know that?”
She smiled her Cheshire smile. “I am a Hemlock.”
Nic had no idea what that meant but he made a mental note to never get on this woman’s bad side if at all physically possible.
“Besides,” Isabella continued, putting her empty glass down and gesturing to where Nic’s rig sat on its frame. “If I had to bank on that pile of scrap for anything, I’d be truly desperate.”
“Hey, it worked didn’t it?” Nic countered, defensive. “And you didn’t say anything when I was building it.”
“Yeah, because I thought you’d fix some of the problems,” Isabella reached over and began pushing straps aside. “I mean look at this mess. Why is the main conduit running under the cast projectors?”
“Because it wouldn’t fit anywhere else,” Nic pointed at a transistor panel. “Not unless I wanted to blow that out every time I switch it on.”
“So run it parallel to the grounds and down with the rest of the main circuit. Keeps it safe and saves on space.”
“And burns a hole through my neck. There’d be way too much charge.” Nic stopped, ideas beginning to bubble up in his mind. “Unless I put in a capacitor to handle the excess. Maybe use it to power the display?”
Isabella nodded, a finger on her chin. “Could work, depends on how you wired it. You got a kit on you?”
Nic produced the tools from a nearby box and the two set to work picking the rig apart, bickering over the best ways to improve it. They stayed like that for hours, stopping only when a car came to take Nic home, dinner long since past. He had learned three things in the meantime. First, he was far less skilled at soldering circuitry than he’d thought. Second, he was hopelessly addicted to a brand of pastry that was, quote, “literally too rich for your blood”.
And third, he had made in Isabella Hemlock the closest of friends. This, he felt, was the most important of the three.
She must have agreed, as she would only ever mildly tease him about it.
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