The Spark – Snippet 42

That wouldn’t have done me any good, of course. I worked to divert each of his strokes with my own weapon. This was easiest when we were using our dogs–Welsh had a black and white collie, a nice dog–and I could use Buck’s movement tracking sense, but doing that a lot taught me what a dog looks for. That didn’t give me the quickness that I had when Buck’s brain was in charge, but I still had an edge on the warriors I was fighting.

I tried to teach my roommates to do the same thing, but they didn’t understand what I was talking about. I wondered if maybe it had something to do with me being a Maker too, though I didn’t see any connection myself.

One afternoon the three of us had finished our series of bouts and were about ready to go in and shower, when a large troupe came down from the castle. They weren’t just warriors; there were attendants and also women dressed as fancy as the ones I’d seen in the Lady’s Court.

When I squinted, I was pretty sure that Lady Jolene herself was among them. She was on the arm of the black-haired warrior who’d spoken to me when Guntram introduced me to the Consort.

“Say, let’s watch,” Welsh said. “The Champions don’t often spar where such as we can see them.”

“God, what I’d give to be one of them,” Garrett said reverently. I was about to agree when he turned to me added, “If you’re a Champion, you can have any woman you see, you know? You just point your finger and she follows you right into bed.”

“Surely not!” I said.

“It’s the truth, kid,” Welsh said. “I’m not saying that’s what all Champions do, but all of ’em could do it.”

“Bloody few don’t!” Garrett said. “I mean, it stands to reason, doesn’t it? I mean, the women want it, don’t they? It gives them bragging rights to be sleeping with a Champion.”

“Look, let’s stop talking about this, can we?” I said. “We’re talking about the men that law and civilization rest on and about ladies!”

“Kid, there’s a big difference between a hero and a saint,” said Garrett. “There’s some Champions just as chaste as you are, I grant you. But not all by a long way.”

“Even Lord Clain out there,” Welsh said, gesturing to the warriors pairing off on the field. “He’s the one in red. You saw who he was with when they came down?”

He meant the black-haired man I’d seen in the Lady’s Court, the one who’d impressed me. “That was Lord Clain?” I said. “I believe he escorted the Consort herself, didn’t he?”

“You’re bloody well told he did,” Garrett said. “Well, he’s with her in private too. Everybody knows, but nobody says anything because Jon doesn’t say anything.”

“The husband’s always the last to know,” said Welsh.

“Naw, it’s not that,” said Garrett. “He knows, but he doesn’t dare to say anything. Clain’s as much the rock of the Commonwealth as Jon himself is–or Louis. They started this together, reuniting Here under one leader. Jon’d be lost without Clain’s arm to steady him.”

“Come on, Buck,” I said. He and I headed back to the castle. My roommates didn’t follow, though I heard Garrett call Welsh back. That was the right thing to do.

I’d really wanted to watch the Champions joust, but I needed to settle my head now. Settle my stomach, really. What I’d heard made me sick.

I put Buck in the stables and found an attendant–it was Heckert, as it chanced–to guide me to Guntram’s room. Guntram didn’t ask questions but he found me a piece–the image projector that’d been in my pile–to work on to my heart’s content.

The artifact completely soaked up all my concentration; I even made a little headway. I was tired enough to fall asleep right there on Guntram’s floor if I’d let myself, but I went down to Room Twelve.

My roommates didn’t say anything about the discussion the next morning–or later. And I sure didn’t.

CHAPTER 18: Proper Behavior

Me and my roommates came out the south passage from the castle, heading to the jousting ground with our dogs. Welsh had been telling us about an officer in the army who might be willing to sell his weapon.

I didn’t figure gear owned by a soldier was going to be much of a step up from what Welsh already had, but I kept my mouth shut. If it made Welsh happy to think that there was a practical way out of his problem, I didn’t see any benefit–to me, him, or the world–in dashing his hopes.

There were benches along the path here. The woman sitting on one stood up as we approached, stroking the tortoise-shell cat in the crook of the other arm.

It was–she was–Lady May.

“Lord Pal?” May called. “I wonder if I might borrow you for the afternoon?”

“Ah…?” I said, looking from Garrett to Welsh.

“Go ahead, kid,” Welsh said, clapping me on the shoulder. “We can get along without you knocking us black and blue for an afternoon, and you sure don’t need the practice.”

“If you turn your back on luck like that,” Garrett said, “we’ll throw your traps out into the hall. Even if it takes both of us to do it.”

“Thanks, guys,” I said. I clucked to Buck as I peeled off toward May.

“Hello, May,” I said. “Is there anything you want?”

“I was hoping you’d carry flowers back for me after we visit the Lady’s garden,” May said. “It’s not far up the Road from here. And–”

She looked sidelong at me.

“–I was hoping you’d be a little more enthusiastic when you saw me.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, ma’am,” I said as we walked through the trees on the way to landing place. “It’s just that the Aspirants’ Tournament starts in two days and that’s all any of us have been thinking of for the past week. Us Aspirants.”

“So,” May said. “Are you worried about your chances, then?”

We’d reached landing place and were heading toward the Road. The hawkers ignored us, but Maggie was standing in the hatch of my boat. I waved but broke eye contact by looking toward May again. She was in pale blue today with rings of honeysuckle in bloom embroidered around the throat, sleeves, and hem of the frock.

“Not exactly worried, ma’am,” I said. “But unless I finish in the top quarter, I won’t be allowed to challenge for a place in the Hall of Champions.”

“What are your scores on the machines, Pal?” May said. “Fifty percent is required to enter the tournament, I believe.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I said.

“Yes, May,” she said. “Unless you want me to go back to calling you Lord Pal.”

“I don’t want that, May,” I said. I decided it wasn’t bragging if I just answered her question. “I’m averaging about 85% on foot, 97% if I’m with Buck. But the machines aren’t the same as fighting real people.”

We stepped onto the Road. I switched my perceptions to Buck’s and the russet stems–the brush fringing the Road here looked like a stand of sumac to me–went gray-brown but became a lot sharper.

“I’m sure they’re not,” May said. We were so close together that I didn’t have any problem hearing her. “But I’m also sure that you’re not in serious risk of not qualifying.”

I laughed. “May, I’m likely worrying too much,” I said, “but that’s the better way to be. Anyhow, it’s probably a good idea for me to take a break this afternoon.”

We took a narrow branching to the right–so narrow that I hadn’t noticed it when Buck and me had first hiked to Dun Add. Parts of the Road narrowed where they weren’t used and could even just about close up, though a dog could always find where the Road had been. Squeezing through a crack, which I’d done a lot of times while hunting for artifacts, was uncomfortable but you didn’t take your life in your hands the way you did when you ventured into the Waste.

This was just a short branching before May led me out into a garden facing the sea. The flowers–poppies and hollyhocks that I recognized–were in beds bordered by pieces of the gray limestone that made up the bare rocks of the headlands to left and right. The water of the bay beneath us was blue-white with choppy little waves.

I could see the edge of the Waste forming the horizon to left and ahead of us. It was about the prettiest place I’d seen since I’d left home, so I said so.

May beamed, making her even prettier than she was other times. “You like it, then?” she said. “Here, let’s sit down and you can tell me about your home.”

I hadn’t more than noticed the six-sided gazebo to the right of where we’d left the Road. There were wicker couches on each side so that you could always be in the sun or in the shade, depending on how warm a day it was.

May sat in the shade; from her floppy hat and how white her skin was, she didn’t like the sun. I do, so I sat two angles away where the light fell on me but I could face her without it being in my eyes.

“Do you take care of all this yourself?” I asked. Buck was sniffing about the flower beds and occasionally lifting his leg at a border; I hoped that was all right.

“No, there’re a gardener and his assistant,” May said, “but they won’t be here today. Nobody will but us. I asked Jolene’s permission to bring you here. It’s really her private place, you see.”

“Well, it’s a nice one,” I said. I thought about what my roommates had said about the Consort and Lord Clain.

I guess that showed on my face, because May said, “Pal, is something wrong?”

“No, no,” I said. “I was just thinking, well, of home.” Which was kinda true, since I’d been thinking about how different customs in Beune were from what I was learning about Dun Add.

“Tell me about your parents,” May said, leaning toward me just a little. Her cat was curled up on a bench across from her. Buck wandered back to me and lay down.

“Well, they weren’t exactly my parents,” I said. This wasn’t something I talked about much but, well, I did with May. “I always thought they were, but five years ago mom told me I’d come to her and dad when I was just a couple weeks old. They’d had a boy but he was stillborn, so they took me as a gift from God.”

I shrugged. “They couldn’t have been better parents to me,” I said. “They just couldn’t. I never knew who my real parents were, and I don’t care.”

“You are a romantic fellow!” May said. I thought for a flash that she was laughing at me, but I wasn’t being fair. She just thought about the world that way.

“I don’t know about that,” I said. “I’m still a farmer from Beune.”

And a Maker,” May said. “And a warrior.”

“Well, those things too, I guess,” I said. I got up and walked to the nearest flower bed. It was full of red poppies. “What are you thinking of carrying back to the Consort, May?”

“Nobody’s expecting us back any time soon,” May said. “Come and sit by me. You need to relax, Pal.”

She patted the couch beside her. Then, grinning, she tugged the scooped neckline of her dress down to bare her left breast.

I turned around, feeling my face color. “May, I’d really rather not!” I said toward the empty sea.

I heard the couch squeak as May hopped to her feet. Her cat gave a little squeak.

“Well, you’re a fine man!” she said in a voice that cut like a drill. “Is it boys you want? I think Rene in the wine warehouse handles that sort of thing!”

“May, please don’t,” I said. I’d squeezed my eyes shut. “Please.”

“Or you’re a farm boy, aren’t you?” she said. “If I threw on a sheepskin and went ‘Baa’ would you like me better?”

This was such a small node that there really wasn’t any place I could go to get away from that voice, but I walked down the slope toward the headland beyond the gardens. The Consort must’ve had topsoil carried in for the planting beds. Buck whined beside me, wondering what was going on.

After May stopped shrilling at me, I waited for a moment and looked around. She and her cat were gone.  I waited a little longer, then clucked to Buck and headed back.

I thought of taking an armload of flowers but decided not to. I didn’t want to see May again; at least not any time soon.