Being Put in My Place
Easton walked out of the hall, straightening as he moved. I kept watching. It wouldn’t have surprised me if he’d turned and belted me if I gave him a chance to do that.
“Come on, let’s get out of here,” May said. She started for the door, then paused and bent, making a basket of her left arm. The three-colored cat leaped up; she hadn’t as much as mewed since I first saw her, even when May carried her into the stables.
I grabbed my pack in my left hand and the pitcher of flowers in my right. I just left the bowls on the table because I didn’t know what else to do.
“That bloody man!” May said. “That bloody man.”
“Ah, May, should I get Buck?” I asked as she started off across the courtyard.
“It’s not normal for sparring,” May said. She looked over at me and said, snarled really, “You could’ve kept out of this, you know! There was no reason for you to get involved!”
“Ma’am,” I said, as calm as I could. “I did have to get involved. He was going to hit you. And anyway, I didn’t like listening to him.”
“That bloody man,” May repeated, but this time she just seemed tired. She forced a smile and said, “And you brought the flowers. My God, what am I going to do with you?”
“Well, if you can tell me how fights are run on Dun Add, I’d appreciate it,” I said. We were going back through the passage we’d entered the castle by, so I figured we were heading for the jousting ground that I’d seen when I arrived. “I think the rest is on me, now.”
“I’ll find somebody to take you in hand at the grounds,” May said. She looked at me hard again. I thought she was angry.
“Now you listen to me!” she said. “Sparring’s usually done at 20% power. There’s no reason for a squabble like this to be any more than that. Do you understand? Insist on 20% power!”
We were heading down the slope again. I didn’t even remember seeing the doorman.
“Yes, ma’am,” I said. “But ma’am? I’m not afraid. If Easton beats me, then that’s something I needed to learn.”
“Pal, listen to me,” May said. “Easton’s father was one of the Champions. Easton didn’t apply for a seat in the hall, he’s in the purser’s office; but he’s got top equipment. It’s not if he beats you, it’s how badly you’ll be hurt when he beats you.”
I figured that if Easton hadn’t tried to join the Company of Champions, he didn’t have the balls to take a knocking around. It was just a matter of sticking with the job until he decided he’d had enough.
I felt my lips smiling, though they were sure dry. I was due for a bad morning, like enough, but I ought to have a better chance than May was saying.
“He wouldn’t really have hit me, you know,” she said. “He wouldn’t dare! There’s a dozen Champions who would challenge him if he did.”
I took a deep breath of air scented by the flowering trees. There was a lot to like about Dun Add, more than I’d been afraid when I left Beune for the capital.
“Ma’am,” I said, “I think you’re wrong there. Easton was awful mad. I don’t doubt he’d have regretted it afterwards, but he was really going to hit you.”
I knew Easton was going to hit her. I’d been hauling back on his back on his arm, and his fist was clenched. He was a nasty fellow, no mistake, and he might well be a coward; but his temper had got away from him this time. I guessed there was a history there that I didn’t know.
May had taken me by a different path through the woods than before. We came out onto the jousting ground, not the landing place. I could see a broad, straight path that led down from the far wing of the castle.
A dozen pairs of warriors were sparring, including three who were globes of shattered light. Those pairs were with their dogs. They’d gone higher out of Here than you could follow without polarized lenses.
Besides the fighters, there were thirty or forty spectators. Several were women, but I guessed most were the attendants of those on the field. One old man didn’t fit in either category. He wore a gray tunic and full-length trousers.
May strode down the sidelines, pausing beside a group of attendants who chatted as they watched their principals. “Rikard, isn’t it?” she said. “Is that Lord Morseth out there?”
“Yes, mum,” said the man she’d spoken to. “He’s out with Lord Reaves. They’re just getting some exercise.”
Another of the attendants nodded enthusiastically. I figured he was Reaves’ man.
“Can you call him in?” May said. “No, don’t bother. They’re breaking up now.”
The nearest two warriors were trudging together off the field. They were big men in their early thirties. One was as tall as I am, and they both were a lot huskier.
“Hey, May!” the taller one called. “What brings you out here? I thought you were too soft-hearted for all this.”
“If it’s soft-hearted not to like watching men beat each other bloody, then that’s me,” May said sharply. “I’m here because I want a favor, Morseth.”
“You got it, May,” Morseth said, his voice suddenly grimmer. He’d caught the undertone in her voice.
“That goes for me too, May,” said the warrior who must be Reaves. “What d’ ye need?”
“My friend Pal here is on his first visit to Dun Add,” May said, nodding toward me. I felt my lips tighten and I hoped I wasn’t blushing. “He’s gotten challenged by Easton, who was being a prick.”
“When is Easton not a prick?” Morseth said.
“I want one of you to attend Pal,” May said. “I told him that it has to be fought at 20%. Can you make that stick with Easton?”
“I guess we can,” said Reaves. He was smiling in a way that was scary where bluster wouldn’t have been.
“Well, do it for me, then,” said May. “Easton was more of a prick than usual, and Pal got into it because he’s a good kid. All right?”
The two warriors looked me up and down. I realized I was holding a pitcher of tulips. I started to put them down, then froze because I didn’t want to look like I didn’t care if they got knocked over.
May took the pitcher from me. “Morseth, Reaves?” she said. “Do what you can, all right?”
She turned to me and said, “Pal, I’m sorry you got into this and I’m really sorry you got into it for me. These boys will keep things straight. Just do what they tell you.”
She swallowed and said, “I’m going back to the Consort’s suite now. Jolene is probably worried about how long I’ve been gone. And I really don’t have a taste–”
May turned quickly and trotted off by the broad path. I could just hear her final words: “–for this sort of thing.”
“Quite a lady, May is,” Morseth said musingly as he watched her go. He eyed me: “Known her long?”
“No sir,” I said, standing straight. “I just met her today and she was showing me around. Easton started hassling her and, well, I asked him to stop.”
Morseth’s smile was very slight, but I thought there was a little warmth in it for the first time. “Did you?” he said mildly.
“Let’s see your hardware,” said Reaves.
I unhooked my weapon and shield and handed them over, one to either man. They turned them over, then traded and repeated the process. Their faces had gotten as blank as stone walls.
“I made them myself on Beune,” I said. The silence was weighing on me.
They handed back my shield and weapon. “I guess he knows his own mind,” Reaves said to Morseth.
“There comes Easton,” Morseth said. He turned to me and added, “We’ll do the best we can for you, kid.”
“Yeah,” said Reaves over his shoulder. “But with Easton, don’t hold your breath.”
They sauntered toward Easton, who’d come with three attendants. He’d changed into a red outfit with reflective stripes up and down both tunic and breeches, and his modular shield and weapon had gilded highlights. Somebody’d spent time on the case, and that probably meant they hadn’t skimped on the insides either.
For all that, Easton looked like somebody’s lap dog facing a pair of Rottweilers as Morseth and Reaves approached him. He wouldn’t be fighting Morseth and Reaves, though.
I wasn’t afraid, really: I’ve gotten thumped in the past, especially before I got my full growth. Odds were I was going to get thumped again, is all.