Saturday, November 3, 2007

3. Spears, Swords, and Spoons

The trainer was a tiny man, four feet tall at the most, with a livid, pulpy mishmash of scars where his face should have been. He was bald as an egg, had two clockwork arms and at least one leg that seemed to have been sewn on from someone else entirely, and perhaps five teeth at the very most. He had survived the latter half of the battle campaigns of the Second Galactic Conflict, and the entirety of the Third. And if he occasionally muttered and snapped at thin air, he was only talking back to the innumerable ghosts of the men he’d slain in battle. He did not haunt easily.

One might expect a man of this pedigree to be called “Killer,” or in a more ironic sense, “Lucky.” But no. His name was Maurice.

“Just this last one, Your Highness,” Maurice slurred, in a gooey but authoritative fashion, to the young man at his side. “Then you got free time for the afternoon.” He tapped a small button on his right wrist, and across the circular vastness of the arena, chains groaned, and a heavy, blood-rusted portcullis began to rise. In the shadows beyond, something very large and very hungry howled.

The beast that trundled in heavy armored steps into the arena was formally known as a Mordecairn, after the great cryptozoologist Wilhelm Mordecairn, who had discovered it. It was more popularly known as an Ogodsno, for the sound Mordecairn made immediately following what would prove to be his last great discovery. The Ogodsno roared like a badly tuned pipe organ at full steam, baring a mouthful of serrated teeth the size of fat children, and charged forward on prickly clawed feet.

Pugio Magnificus, eldest heir and Minister of Violence to the Grand Galactic Imperium, shifted his weight between fifty pounds of nautilus-plate armor. With the back of one hand, he smeared away the blood from his eyes — none of it his own.

“Sure thing, Coach,” he rumbled, hefted his trusty spear, and flung it with all his considerable might.

The spear flew straight and true, directly into the Ogodsno’s heat-sensing third eye. The sudden shock and pain tore a screech from the beast, and it slowly tilted sideways in mid-charge, collapsing in a flail of massive feet and rising dust. Even before it had skidded to a stop, Pugio was on the move, scaling the creature’s snout, reversing his grip on his four-foot jeweled sword in an easy, fluid motion. He found the soft, unarmored joint in the creature’s neck and plunged his blade home.

The rest was spectacularly messy, and disappointngly brief. It ended with a sputtering Pugio shaking himself like a dog, blue-green circulatory fluid rising in arcs in every direction, and Maurice tossing him a towel.

“Not bad, Your Highness,” the trainer gummed. “A little slow, maybe.”

“I know, I know,” Pugio grunted, shaking creature blood out from his ear canal. “Get me another one for tomorrow. I’ll do it better.”

“You kidding?” the trainer snorted. “You’re getting two. Adults, this time.”

Dent, stretched out on one of the crisscrossing catwalks high above the arena, wrote himself a note to most definitely come back tomorrow.

Twenty clicks later, freshly powerwashed by pressurized jets of ice-cold deepwater, Pugio Magnificus — Pug for short — padded from his bath into his private chambers. The servants had come and gone, cleaning and restoring his weapons to their racks along the black, stone-paneled walls. In the guttering light of the torches ringing the room, Pug’s room resembled a cave; the square slab of marble he’d slept on for the past fifteen years did nothing to counteract the effect.

Pug stretched out a well-muscled arm to a nearby fruit bowl. An apple disappeared entirely into his fist; it was gone in three bites. The Minister of Violence tightened the cinch on his robe and strode to the far side of the room, near the door, to the alcove where the busts of the Empire’s greatest warriors stared eyelessly back at him.

He cast his eyes furtively toward the door, and then into the shadowy corners of the room, searching for intruders. And then, swiftly, almost shamefully, he began to take each bust off the shelf.

Pug arranged them in a triangle on the cold marble tile of the floor: Valerion the Bold, who led the charge at Mangrove Heights; Unkillable Kell of the legendary Howling Badger Battalion; and his own grandfather, Emperor Deciduous IV, who had won the Second Galactic Conflict only to perish at the outset of the Third.

When they were all assembled, Pug slipped soundlessly to the far corner of the room and lifted up a tile. From a hiding place beneath, he drew forth his most prized possession — an ornate, inlaid wooden box.

He set it down before the three eyeless heads of great men and opened it gingerly. Hands that had only hours before dispatched an entire flock of razorbirds now gently and precisely laid out the cups, the saucers, and the delicate cast-iron kettle. Pug shut the box, set it aside, and cleared his throat.

“Gentlemen,” he said in a low, even voice, the way he imagined cultured people did. “I am so very glad you could come to my tea party today.”

“Thank you, Pugio!” said Unkillable Kell, in a slightly lower version of Pugio’s voice.

“Everything looks delicious!” said Valerion the Bold, in a slightly higher version of Pugio’s voice.

“Are those finger sandwiches?” said Deciduous IV, in a more or less decent imitation of the voice Pug remembered from his childhood. “They look very proper and orderly.”

“They are very proper and orderly,” Pug said, picking up a china saucer full of imaginary finger sandwiches. “Would you like some?”

“I thank you very much,” Deciduous IV replied. “Mmm. Entirely delicious.”

“So, gentlemen,” Pugio said, pouring the imaginary tea. “What is your opinion of the politics of the day?”

“I like politics,” Unkillable Kell offered. “Politics are a fine and sensible thing.”

“Politics are boring,” Valerion retorted. He was always the troublemaker. “I much prefer diplomacy.”

“Diplomacy is stupid!” Kell shot back, his temper getting the better of him. “Politics is much better than diplomacy!”

“You take that back, you lying dog!” Valerion said. “If I weren’t missing everything but my head, I would carve out your stupid eyes with this silver teaspoon!”

“I like etiquette,” Deciduous IV chimed in, “but only on occasion.”

Pug felt it was time for him to step in. “Gentlemen, gentlemen!” he said, raising his hands to placate them. “I think we can agree that politics and diplomacy are both interesting.”

There was some reluctant, cowed mumbling from Kell and Valerion.

“Now say you’re sorry,” Pug scolded. “No one is carving out anyone’s eyes with a silver teaspoon at this sore-eeh.” He had read the word “soiree” once, secretly, off an invitation he’d found on the floor in the corridor and hidden in his boot, but he was a little unclear on the pronunciation.

Apologies were offered all around, except for Deciduous, who felt no need to be sorry for liking occasional etiquette.

“Can I have some?” Dent asked, from the doorway, unwisely.

Reflex guided Pug to his feet, and placed a sword in his hand, in a matter of instants. “Get out!” he howled.

“Are you having a tea party?” Dent asked, not unkindly.

“It’s a training exercise,” Pug spat, his voice somewhat higher than usual, “and if you tell Mom or Dad I will murder you in your sleep!”

“It looks like a tea party,” Dent shrugged. It took a certain caliber of death threat to actually make him afraid, and Pug hadn’t quite reached that yet.

“It’s a serious exercise for grown-ups,” Pug said, calling on his seventeen-year chronological advantage over Dent. “Not for stupid little baby kids.” He wished he’d picked up a bigger sword.

“I’m not going to tell,” Dent said. In fact, he’d known about his brother’s habit for more than a year now. It had taken him this long to work up the courage to ask to take part. No one invited Dent to tea parties. No one invited Dent to anything. “I just want to listen.”

“You swear?” asked Pug, wavering. His stupid little brother was annoying, but Unkillable Kell did tend to dominate the conversation a lot, and Pug was getting tired of hearing Valerion’s same joke about the walrus and the shuttle full of nuns.

“I swear on a sextant,” Dent said, and did the customary hop-in-a-circle to make it official.

Slowly, Pug lowered his blade. “All right,” he grunted at last. “But you can’t have any finger sandwiches. They’re for the guests.”

“Okay,” Dent nodded. He approached slowly, and sat down safely outside the reach of Pug’s arm, between Valerion and Kell.

“And you don’t get any tea,” Pug said, sitting down slowly. He kept the sword within easy reach.

“Can I pour the tea?” Dent asked.

“No,” Pug said. “Stop asking. You can sit there and listen. And only just this once.”

“Okay,” Dent said. “Do you want to hear about what I learned this morning?”

“I would like to hear about it,” Unkillable Kell chimed in. Pug groaned. He had to stop inviting Kell to his sore-eehs.

“Is it about etiquette?” asked Deciduous.

So Pug poured the tea, and ate imaginary finger sandwiches which were orderly and proper, and listened to Dent tell his guests all about plankton and how strange they looked under a microscope. Kell and Valerion behaved themselves in front of company, which was nice, since they tended to get unruly otherwise.

At two bells evenside, when Pug had to go review the garrisons, he let Dent help him put away the tea set.

“Where did you find this?” Dent asked him, laying the the condiment spoons in velvet niches inside the case.

“I didn’t steal it,” Pug mumbled. It was a lie.

“Can I come back and have tea with you again sometime?” Dent asked.

“Don’t you have stuff to do with your robot?” Pug shot back, suspicious.

“He tries to kill me in the afternoons,” Dent frowned. “Remember?”

“Oh, yeah,” Pug nodded, putting Unkillable Kell back up in his alcove. “Ask me some other time. I don’t know.”

This was another lie; Pug did know. He just didn’t like the answer he had already decided on, because it meant he might actually want to spend time with his stupid baby brother. That was weird in ways Pug was not even remotely trained to articulate.

“Okay,” Dent shrugged. “I guess I’ll see you at dinner, if Story doesn’t kill me.”

“Yeah, okay,” Pug grunted, shaking out the clean uniform the servants had left on the sleeping-slab for him. “Whatever. Hey, Dent?”

“Uh huh?” Dent nodded, halfway out the door.

Pug made a fist, and narrowed his eyes in a way that would surely have made anyone not related to him lose all hope of bladder control.

“Murder you,” he growled. “In your sleep.”

Dent stuck out his tongue and ran. One of his brother’s silver teaspoons jangled in his side pouch. Dent felt much less bad now about having stolen it.

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