The banquet seemed to drag for hours. Never before had Dallion witnessed such a combination of luxury and boredom. The first ten minutes were exceptional, spent in looking at everything and everyone. Everything was new and magnificent. Once that time had passed, Dallion noticed that all events tended to repeat each other as if in an invisible loop. The conversations, the way people approached each other, even the manner in which they ate. After a while, the only thing he could do was join March and Eury far away from everyone else.
The food, too, was far from what he expected. While undoubtedly exotic, and rather tasty, it was served in such small quantities, that in order to have enough for one meal, Dallion would have to grab an entire tray—a huge faux pas, as Nil had made sure to explain.
Several hours in, the only question in Dallion’s head was, “why were they invited here at all?” None of the servants approached them with instructions about what to do, and as for the Archduke and the other members of his family present. They had remained seated on their throne-like chairs at the head of the main hall, a short distance from the rest, having other nobles approach them. One person of particular interest was the current mage that was protecting the city. To Dallion’s relief, she didn’t turn out to be Katka. Rather, she was a lot older—in her late forties, at the very least—dressed in a green variation of the robe Katka had worn when attacking Jiroh and the rest in the cloud citadel.
Naturally, Dallion asked Nil how strong that made her only to receive the answer that it depended on the field. While weaker than Katka in pure combat potential, the current mage was far superior when it came to protection spells, suggesting that she would be far more difficult to defeat in a fight.
The overseer had also been invited. No one was sure where and how he had arrived, but he was impossible to miss moving about in his black clothes and platinum blonde hair. Interestingly enough, he spent a significant time with Gloria, discussing matters that Dallion couldn’t overhear. It seemed that the saying that blondes stuck together was true.
As March took another glass of water, Dallion felt like asking how much longer they’d have to be at the event. He was on the verge of doing so when someone called his name.
“Dallion Darude!” a voice sounded through the halls, putting an end to all other conversations. “I think we have unfinished business.”
Having something of the sort that wasn’t good in any circumstances. Having it happen in the Archduke’s palace was significantly worse, especially when it became clear who had issued the challenge.
Itella, Dallion thought.
The young noble seemed a lot more muscular since the last time Dallion had seen him, not to mention far higher in level. If Dallion had to guess, he put him somewhere in the fifties. Wearing the weirdest example of luxurious combat wear, Itella clearly had planned his challenge to be part of the event. The worst part was that it obviously was with the approval of the Archduke himself. It hardly was a coincidence that all the people in the mail hall had moved to the walls, leaving a vast open space in the middle.
“I challenge you to a duel!” Itella pointed to Dallion.
Damn it! “What do I do?” he whispered so that only March and Eury could hear.
“Amuse him,” March said.
“Try not to lose,” Eury added.
Some more practical advice would have been better, but since no one was eager to give it, Dallion made his way towards the main hall. Upon reaching the invisible line that separated the two halls, he stopped—despite the challenge; he hadn’t been formally invited to enter the area.
“Come, come.” The Archduke waved Dallion in.
There was no emotion Dallion could sense. It was as if the man was wearing a blocking item. His face had a relaxed expression that conveyed absolutely nothing. The only thing that emanated from the man was a sense of pure power.
“My youngest son seems to have become obsessed with you ever since his loss in Nerosal,” the Archduke said, stressing the words “son” and “loss.” This was meant as a double warning: Dallion was not to harm Itella, and also Itella was not to expect he could win this.
Was this why I was invited here? Dallion wondered.
It definitely seemed like a very noble-like thing to do, creating an amusing spectacle, as well as putting an uppity child in its place. The only issue was that Dallion didn’t at all appreciate being mixed up in this.
“Do you prefer weapons or hand to hand?” Dallion asked his opponent.
“Weapons,” Itella replied, nodding at one of the servants.
The man disappeared for a moment, then returned with the exotic-looking axes Dallion had seen during the arena fights. Each of the weapons had the ability to change form freely by bending and holding, however its owner wished. The only thing it couldn’t do was tear and merge.
Sorry about the wound, Dallion said to the item. I’ll try not to hurt you this time.
It’s part of the job, Itella’s weapon guardian replied. By the specific intonation, Dallion gathered that it was a nymph. I won’t apologize if I cut you up.
Without warning, Itella burst into instances. Dallion could see twenty of them, all charging at him, weapon in hand. In each instance, the weapon had a completely different shape.
Grabbing the harpsisword on his back, Dalliion burst into three dozen instances of his own. It was at that point that his opponent attempted to force the worst possible outcome on Dallion. Some point in the past that would have worked. Now, though, Dallion knew everything about combat splitting, so he imposed his own version of outcomes. Both wills clashed, each striving for a specific outcome. Not used to anyone opposing his combat forcing, Itella didn’t have any real strength to support his change. In contrast, Dallion had learned the skill while fighting dragonlets, so he pressed on with full force. Reality seemed to snap. One moment, everyone in the hall saw dozens of potential outcomes; the next only one remained in which the Archduke’s son was on the floor.
Knowing his place, Dallion didn’t continue with an attack, but took several steps back. The thought of letting out a sarcastic insult crossed his mind, but he decided against it. There was no need to further worsen the situation by humiliating a powerful opponent.
“You can start now,” the Archduke said, making the insult himself.
Whispers filled the hall. They, too, were pre-calculated. The nobles making them were fully aware they would be clearly heard in a room of awakened. Of course, that was the point. Interestingly enough, Dallion also heard a number of guardians—mostly dryads—comment on the first move of the fight as well. By the sound of it, all of them were members of imprisoned races who had seen quite a bit of combat in their time. Without exception, they criticized Itella’s poor performance. At the same time, the vast majority weren’t impressed with Dallion’s performance, either.
“No combat splitting,” the Archduke added, giving a clear advantage to his son. “No familiars or independent weapons,” he added, aware of the whip blade’s capabilities. “We’re here to witness a display of skills.”
That didn’t make full sense. Being able to control familiars was also a skill. The only reason it was forbidden was because Itella didn’t have it.
“Ruby, go to Eury,” Dallion said, loud enough to be heard. There was a bit of spite in his motivation, though for the most part it was to illustrate he was following the Archduke’s order. “What about music skills, your grace?” he asked.
If there was a political power move on Dallion’s part, that was it. Personally, he didn’t care if the skill was allowed or not. His real goal was to make it clear that he had those skills. A new round of whispers followed. The fact that they were half as many suggested that at least a number of nobles were taking him seriously.
“No music, either.” The archduke’s lips curved into a faint smile for the first time since the start of the banquet. “Let my son at least have a chance of winning.”
Anger and shame emanated from Itella. Both he and Dallion were aware of who was favored to win, and to a noble with an ego that wasn’t pleasing.
Do I lose? Dallion asked. I’ve technically won twice already.
When it comes to politics, relying on other people's advice is a sure way to fail, Nil replied. That said, I’d advise against it. As much as you’ve improved, you’re not at the level to fake a loss. And even if you were, many here would still think you had and feel insulted by your action.
Was hoping you’d say that, Dallion smiled, then charged forward.
Itella’s reaction was immediate. With a reaction speed exceeding Dallion’s, he leapt up, making a roll spin in the air, while his weapons unfolded and folded again into the shape of large sickles.
Fully aware that in a fight of this caliber, one weapon against two was a certain path to defeat, Dallion drew his whip blade.
Don’t get involved in this, Gleam, he said.
Yeah, yeah, the familiar grumbled. Have your fun.
Blades clashed, then kept clashing dozens of times in the course of a few seconds. Both opponents were able to perform multiple series of attacks, both attacking and blocking each other. The tempo slowly increased, up to the moment when both pulled back. This was the evaluation phase in which the opponents measured out each other’s skills, looking for flaws or weaknesses. Several things became immediately clear to all observing. Itella was slightly superior when it came to overall speed and reaction, while Dallion’s perception and mind traits were much better. With splitting banned, though, there was no way to take advantage of the mind trait.
The styles of fighting were also considerably different. Itella fought like a sheltered awakened would, relying on cleanness of form and strategy. There was a time when Dallion did so as well, but after spending so much time in the wilderness, where efficiency was everything, looking at it was like watching ballet. In contrast, Dallion did everything possible to conserve as much energy as possible and focus on short, quick movements.
A few seconds later, Itella dashed forward, initiating the next round of attacks. The sound of metal striking metal was everywhere.
He’s got a bit to learn, Harp said.
At first, Dallion thought she was talking to him. However, he was mistaken.
He’s getting there, one of the ax guardians replied. He’s got the skills and some of the training, but is overly confident. That’s why his father organized all this. Your owner has terrible form, though.
He’s a late bloomer, the harpsisword replied.
Never before had Dallion seen weapons discussing the skill of their owners in combat. Harp would often tell him where he did right and wrong, but that was only in training or after a battle. Having it happen in a fight felt outright strange, making Dallion feel as if Itella and himself were little more than weapon appendages.
Leaping back, Dallion thrust his whip blade forward. Used to wilderness battles, he was about to do a point attack. Itella’s weapons must have too, for no sooner had he started the action that they unwrapped, changing from their current state into two wide parts of metal that interlocked in a massive shield.
Stop! Nil shouted in Dallion’s realm.
Suddenly aware of what he was doing, Dallion held back from finishing the action. His arm strained as the power built up but didn’t get to be released, causing his muscles to become unresponsive.
The whip blade stopped, slightly trembling, but did nothing more.
Damn it! Dallion cursed in his mind. That was too close.