Chapter 14 of
The Nightmare Rider
Sir Belvin saw Vaan Arento and Fiona Doucet walking together. That was nothing new. As they drew closer he heard their conversation.
"Vaan I don't think its such a good idea," Fiona remarked.
The Prince laughed, "oh Fiona don't be so boring! I think its a MARVELOUS idea. I really could do with the practice. I know your style too well now. Hiring a Solo for sword practice is brilliant idea."
Sir Belvin cleared his throat and both turned to see him.
"Sir Belvin! Please talk some sense in the Prince," Fiona asked.
The jousting instructor glanced at them both and sighed, "from the beginning."
Prince Vaan smiled broadly, "its been some time since I've done some proper sword training. The problem is that Fiona and I have sparred so many times, we know each other's style too well. I think hiring a Solo to spar with would be good training."
"Well all dueling has been suspended but training is another matter. Hiring a Solo actually makes sense, it removes all doubts. Very well Prince Arento. But this training will have to be supervised. I'll watch over it," Sir Belvin stated.
"Excellent! See Fiona? Now to find a Solo that would be accommodating," Vaan said then looked around. Suddenly he smiled even bigger, "SOLO FOTENS! WHAT TIMING!"
Patrick turned around, "Arento."
Vaan Arento practically bounded over to the Solo, "Solo Fotens I have a wonderful proposal for you!"
"Arento it doesn't matter how much money you pay; I can't get you pregnant," Patrick commented with a deadpan expression.
The flamboyant prince froze, "URK!"
The Jousting instructor pressed his lips together and squeezed his eyes shut to maintain some semblance of composure. Fiona snorted then fell to the floor laughing.
After a couple of moments Vaan looked at him, "I really walked right into that one. Didn't I?"
Sir Belvin could help it anymore and laughed, "no you BARRELED into it!"
"I did. Solo Fotens if being a Solo ever goes in the toilet, you'll make a fortune in comedy," Vaan admitted.
Patrick shook his head, "never happen. I don't the talent for it. I only have road wit. That's what they call the humorous remark one thinks of after everybody leaves and your on your way home. I supposed you royals call it carriage wit."
Vaan perked up, "you mean there's actually a name for THAT?"
Fiona had calmed down some and was now trying to salvage her make-up, "I've never laughed so hard! That was PERFECT!"
The Prince did his best to recover, "let me rephrase; I'd like to hire you as a sparring partner for some sword training."
"That is possible. When," Patrick asked.
Vaan searched his jacket pocket and took out a few coins then handed them to him, "Sir Belvin said he would referee. How about now?"
"I have a few minutes," Patrick replied and took the coins.
Patrick used his thumb to flick the sword from the scabbard then pulled it free. Done so fast, the sword appeared to literally jump to his hand. The prince drew his own sword and edged back in surprise. Even the Jousting instructor was startled.
"This is sparring only. There are to be no injuries. Disarmed or yield. If an injury occurs, I will stop the session. You may proceed," Sir Belvin stated then backed away.
Jessica looked up, "what?"
"Prince Vaan and Patrick Fotens are about to duel! Hurry up," Aruna Moning called from the doorway then ran off.
Jessica and Lamia both jumped up and chased after the Duchess. Moments later they heard a clash of swords and turned the corner. There they found a crowd forming fast.
Jessica saw Fiona Doucet and went over to her, "what happened Countess?"
"What do you mean? The Prince bought some training time from Solo Fotens," Fiona stated.
Jessica watched intently. It didn't take but a few seconds to discern between the two. Vaan was highly agile and moved like the proficient dancer he was to parry or evade the Solo's sword. His attacks were direct and focused, aiming for the chest area. In short, a picture of graceful classic sword teachings. Precisely what one would expect of a royal or high noble.
Patrick on the other hand was something else entirely. His attack was pure kinetic transfer. It started from the ground and worked its way up his body to join the movement of his sword, adding leverage to the momentum and increasing the force. His body lowered to move into position then exploded into attack.
"That's pure Solo combat. He can fight for hours without tiring," Fiona whispered quietly to Jessica.
Jessica softly asked, "really? It looks like he's using his whole body."
Fiona nodded subtly, "he is. Instead of working only one part to exhaustion, he uses his whole body. That spreads the exertion out. Each part of his body moves a little, by the end of the motion the whole body has moved. That makes it look like a big movement. I hate to say it but Prince Vaan is going to be in big trouble soon. Vaan is everywhere, Fotens controls a small space."
Patrick diverted a thrust then used his blade to pull the sword further past before turning and driving the pommel into the prince's chest. Vaan let go of a whoosh of breath and quickly pulled his sword back to block Patrick's slash off of a backspin. Vaan leaped back then took two sliding steps forward as he slashed diagonally up then horizontally across. Patrick deflected the first and lowered himself to move in and catch the second flat. With the end braced to his forearm, Patrick moved in; again the sword was pulled past. Patrick now held his position.
"I have you," Patrick said flatly.
The prince quickly studied the positions of them both and sighed, "damn. You do. Point to Fotens."
The crowd members looked at each other, mostly in confusion, as the two slowly edged back from each other. Patrick had sheathed his sword then flexed his fingers. Vaan switched hands, flexed then switched back.
"Ready," the Prince nodded to Sir Belvin.
The instructor could tell by Patrick's casual stance that he too, was ready.
"Proceed," Sir Belvin called out.
Vaan bolted forward, leading with his sword. Once again Patrick thumbed the sword up then snatched it into a downward arc and deflected the thrust. Patrick crouched, turned into the deflection then leaned forward and pushed with his outer elbow. Arento found himself directed away from his opponent and now very vulnerable. Quickly he back-slashed to recover but Patrick was already there to capture the blade again. A slight shift and Vaan found himself off balanced. He dove to the side to escape the next attack and came up from a roll.
The desperate move took him out of Patrick's range. That was the upside. The downside was that it took him outside his out own attack range. He would have to move in again. Slowly the prince advanced. Patrick held his position; knees flexed, feet almost shoulder-width apart and right foot slightly angled onto the ball of the foot. Elbows tucked in close and blade upright at a diagonal with a back-tilt. Vaan came in, slip-changed his grip to drag-slash off a turn. The speed was good and his turn was firm. However it seemed that Patrick had read the intent to cross-step in. The Solo used the clash to provoke his own spin during which he turned his wrists over then extended himself at the locking of the finished turn.
Vaan watched in horror as Patrick had ended up swinging inside Vaan's sword then performed a slip-change grip then pull the sword back and stop just in front of the Prince's throat.
In a steady voice Patrick stated, "I have you."
Vaan slowly nodded, "I yield."
Slowly the swords withdrew again. Patrick sheathed his own.
"Time is up Arento," Patrick said then walked away. "You got what you paid for."
Vaan Arento sheathed his sword to mutter, "apparently I did. I'm going to fire my sword teacher back home."
"Go hit a shower Highness. He gave you a real workout," Sir Belvin said then walked off.
Vaan chuckled, "I'll do just that! Until later Fiona."
The prince left, leaving only Fiona and Jessica in the corridor.
"Let me get this right; Prince Vaan hired Solo Fotens for a duel that was actually training? Why would he do that," Jessica asked.
Fiona steered Jessica to walk down the corridor, "before you came here; how many times did you lose a sword match? A joust? Strike that. In the year leading up to you coming here, how many times?"
Jessica answered immediately, "none. Why do you mention it?"
"And in your first year here, how many times did you lose," Fiona asked.
"A lot," Jessica blinked then comprehension hit her. "You mean to tell me that that last year my teachers were losing intentionally?"
Fiona sighed, "its called currying Princess. The higher your status, the more it happens. Some do that here too. Sometimes its on their own, others because they have been instructed to."
"Solos don't do that. They can not be paid to fail. Gods, I am so stupid! Did I even actually earn my place in Selection," Jessica asked.
Fiona patted her shoulder, "relax. You earned your place, you aren't popular enough to be curried to. For once, being a bitch helped you. I am not encouraging you to revert back to it though."
"I felt so humiliated I didn't tell my parents how many times I was losing. I thought I would be shaming them and my teachers," Jessica admitted.
The Countess sighed, "you aren't the first and you definitely won't be the last. My parents taught me themselves. I never had that issue until I came here. When I came here I faced a lot of challenges. Some in your class are familiar with them. Pretty girls get challenged. I think you can figure out why."
Jessica nodded, "intimate reward."
Fiona leaned close and whispered, "one guy in the Tournament is going to challenge me for a kiss. Another wants my panties. So you see, even I still get them. Actually the ones I get are more brazen now."
"I feel so inept now," Jessica confided.
Fiona sighed, "if you want a real evaluation; ask Sir Belvin."
Jessica nodded and left.
Patrick saw Doril Hunley and Danze Marow standing outside the Solo Registrar waving to him. He brought Daemon to a stop by them.
"Waiting for me," Patrick asked.
The First Regiment Solo nodded, "come inside."
Patrick followed them in. Inside were seven Regimental Commanders. He recognized one immediately. The Commander of the Seventy-Fifth Regiment; Len Cardoon. Insignia's showed Commanders of the First, Fourth, Sixth, Tenth, Nineteenth, Fifty-Fifth and Eleventh Regiments. In short, the bulk of the Council plus one.
The group filed upstairs to a table and sat down.
"Solo Fotens. I understand you found the location that all enrolled Solos are currently using to secure their mounts. We've already been to speak with the owner. She has accepted the offer. Officially she is still the owner of the property, unofficially she is now in service to the Council itself," The Commander of First Regiment stated.
The Commander of the Fifth-Fifth Regiment was a woman that smiled, "you get a finders' fee. We also understand you paid a deposit. Add those together and you get a hundred coins. Payable immediately."
Patrick took out his ledger and brought up the contract. He sent it to the Council ledger, held by the First Regiment commander then accepted the small bag of coins.
The Commander of the Fourth Regiment spoke next, "it is our understanding that you are maintaining the Eighty-Sixth Regiment alone."
Patrick nodded, "that's correct."
"You are being officially listed as Commander of the Eighty-Sixth. There will be only two platoons. First Platoon consists of Yourself and whomever you wish to recruit. Second Platoon will consist of all unaffiliated Solos enrolled in the Academy until graduation. Essentially a training platoon. You will only be responsible for First Platoon. Second Platoon will be the responsibility of the Council," the Commander of the Nineteenth stated.
The Commander of the Fifty-Fifth amended, "however next year you will be in command of the enrolled Solos. As Hunley is this year."
Patrick looked as if he was about to dispute them.
The Tenth Regiment Commander held up his hand, "you are going to state that your fellow Third year, Hensee Rassan, would be the better choice due to academics."
Patrick nodded, "correct. His marks are higher."
"That is true but to discount your battle record would be to discredit you professionally. In full aspect, you stand above," the Sixth Regiment commander stated.
Doril Hunley agreed, "in truth you are the highest ranking Solo in the Academy. Your record surpasses all others, including my own. I know that the Solos will be in proper care after my graduation, with you in command. Care better than what I've provided."
"The title will be new but the position is the same. Actually it is a paid position. Not much but then its more of an administrative position. The downside to any command," Len Cardoon chuckled. It was agreed and chuckled to by the rest of the commanders.
Patrick reached over and took the commander's insignia and pinned it to his uniform.
"Starting next year all Solos will wear their Regimental uniforms. Those unaffiliated will wear those of the Eighty-Sixth Regiment, Second Platoon. We've already spoken with the Headmaster and it will be accepted. He even seemed to think that to do so may solve some problems in the future. He is more concerned with the present. As are we," The First Regiment commander stated.
The Nineteenth spoke up, "all signs are pointing to an element within the Academy making an attempt to influence Tournament results. All Solos will need shields that can use water-wrap. If any don't have, obtain them immediately through your regiments."
"Another thing. All the reports of this Nightmare Rider are in. She is a minor Goddess. From what we've been able to determine, she is the daughter of the God of Nightmares and Goddess of Punishment. She has appeared on our plane and is accumulating power. Her reasons are unknown. Any battle contracts taken will now have a stipulation that excludes engaging her. So far she has shown that she will not engage hired troops if they withdraw," the Commander of the Fourth Regiment stated. "this may go against norm, but you do encounter her, withdraw. If she demands any contact, be respectful. Her true name is Phoebe."
The First Regiment commander asked, "is there anything else? No? Then we adjourn. Commander Fotens."
All the other Commanders nodded and acknowledged his new rank then left. Doril and Danze both saluted him as well.
"I think it would be better to keep this confidential until after Tournament," Patrick suggested.
Doril nodded, "agreed. If it were revealed now it would paint a bigger target on you. Only the three of us and the Headmaster will know. However armor and shields need to be ordered. I have all the sizes. I'll order them in the Eighty-Sixth's colors and have them delivered here. The armor will be owned by the Second Platoon for use by the enrolled Solos with no affiliation. All shields will be able to use water-wrap."
"Good," Patrick said. "I'll be on my way."
Both nodded and watched him go.
Daalumos looked over as Phoebe stepped into their hidden room, "you seem to be out of sorts. Has your princess reconsidered that contract? The one about conceiving your child?"
"No. I had a meeting with the majority of the Council of Regiments. I've been named Commander of the Eighty-Sixth," Phoebe informed him then relayed the rest of the meeting.
The BloodLust chuckled, "so; after all your hard work to remain aloof and detached. You've managed to be saddled with responsibility for the younger ones. Amusing. If they consisted of all girls and fawned over you constantly, it would be laughable! Pity."
"Only Doucet would enjoy something like that. Or Arento," Phoebe remarked.
Daalumos chuckled, "ah yes. Those two. I do find them amusing. They put on quite the elaborate displays. I am surprised they are not intimate. Many of the young ones have remarked that the two would make a fine pairing."
"If they are intending to become a couple, they've been keeping it a secret. Even from the staff. She may be in an arrangement that she dislikes," Phoebe speculated.
"The trials and tribulations of mortals! Sometimes its detestable and other times its highly entertaining," Daalumos laughed.
Phoebe sighed, "I suppose so. Much different from the workings of the Underworld. Its fairly straight forward there, fight to claim and fight to keep. No allies, everyone for themselves."
Daalumos tossed his head in agreement, " true. But there is no worship in Underworld. Without worship there is not enough power. Without power one will not have enough strength to claim anything."
Phoebe frowned, "true. I have bad news for us. There has been an cease of mortal hostilities for the immediate time. Everyone is focusing on Tournament. I recall the same thing happened the past two years. We'll rest and relax for now."
"I could venture back into the Underworld and investigate. We've been away for a while without any contact. We should be more aware of the actions," Daalumos suggested.
Phoebe considered it then nodded, "yes. You may go for a few mortal days. While you are there you may assume whatever form you think will go unnoticed. Return as my steed in a few days."
The bound demon disappeared in a rush of flame.
"That deals with his boredom. He'll be able to find plenty to feed upon there for a while. I do need the information though. Being here on the mortal plane hides me from awareness. By staying out of actual dreams my father ignores me. Reacting to offences, instead of actively pursuing, allows me to go unnoticed by my mother," Phoebe stated to herself.
Slowly she let her eyes drift closed and soon slept.
It has come to my attention that some nobles and especially some royals are entering the Academy with false expectations of themselves. To be more specific; they have suffered courtly favoring. These unfortunate and unsuspecting victims are being convinced of a false standard. I myself was subjected to such. I came to the Academy with a false sense of superiority. When I met with those held to higher standards I felt disheartened and ashamed. I hid that from my family out of embarrassment. This affected me in other ways as well. I became spiteful and belligerent towards my peers. I now am fully aware of the wrongness of that. Could there be some form of evaluation upon admittance to the Academy? I believe the adjustment would be more acceptable if reality was faced on Day One, rather than enduring confusion and dismay continually. I also believe that parents, of any class, would much rather hear of constant improvement instead of bland remarks to mask misunderstood failure by their children. I regret not being forthcoming with my own. Please do whatever you are able to prevent the repetition of a mistake I myself made. Thank you for your time.
H.R.H. Jessica Weyden
Crowned Princess of Lurbourg
Jessica read the letter then carefully folded and tucked it into an envelope. She used her seal on the flap then sat back. Several crumpled attempts littered the desk. She gathered them up and tossed into the wastebasket. A knock at her door interrupted any other thoughts before they began.
"Come in," Jessica called out.
Lamia Tuala entered, "you disappeared. I was worried."
Jessica glanced out the window, "you missed dinner didn't you?"
"Yes. I was looking for you," Lamia admitted.
Jessica nodded, "run go change and I'll meet you downstairs. Don't wear anything that immediately identifies you and use the back stairs. I'll call for our horses."
Fifteen minutes later Lamia did a double-take. Jessica was wearing a plain black jacket with a green blouse and skirt with black pumps. Her sword had no ornament. Again she wore barely any make-up and no nail polish with her hair loose and barely styled. Before Lamia could say anything Jessica brought her finger up to lips and shook her head.
"Let's go," Jessica said quietly.
They mounted their horses and rode out through a side gate. It took longer but Jessica directed them to the village further away. The one they rarely went to. Lamia was confused but followed her friend's lead and found herself taken down a side street to a tavern with a sign merely depicting a cup and a plate. Inside there were a few people, None looked to be knights or infantry of any kind. In fact, none wore any swords. Jessica led them over to a table toward the back and sat down.
"What's going on," Lamia whispered.
Jessica frowned, "I don't want to be me right now. Don't use any titles."
"Alright. Jess. Is something going on," Lamia asked.
They were interrupted by a young barmaid that gave a half smile, "what can I get you?"
Jessica looked up, "two dinners. Juice for the drinks."
The barmaid nodded and left, "back in a minute."
"You're pretending to be a Solo," Lamia whispered.
Jessica nodded slightly, "sort of. I don't have a crest so nobody will know for sure if I am or not."
The barmaid came back and set the plates down and glasses.
Jessica pulled out some coins and set them on the table toward her, "that about right?"
"Yes Ma'am! Let me know when you're ready for dessert. Its chocolate cake," The barmaid told them with a smile.
"We'll do that," Jessica said then turned back to Lamia after the barmaid happily went back to the bar. "I was a horrible person Lamia. When I came to the Academy I thought I was invincible. My sword and jousting tutors faked my abilities. I was nowhere near what I needed to be when I was admitted."
Lamia blinked, "they were currying favor?"
"That's how it seems. Vaan dueled Fotens. Fotens won. I mean he practically walked all over him. That happened to me when I first came. It was like, they took enjoyment at bringing me down. Even more at keeping me down. I know a lot have been holding back this year. They want to be underestimated at Tournament. It gives them an edge," Jessica explained.
Lamia thought about that for moment, "you think you'll be at a big disadvantage?"
Jessica sighed, "I'm thinking that I'm incredibly lucky my mother allowed the contract with Fotens to be bought out."
"Well that's obvious," Lamia said then looked apologetic. "No offense, but he did take you down very hard. Twice. I don't see you winning against him. In fact, I don't remember seeing him lose."
"Fotens wins because he is better. He's very experienced. Vaan isn't taking him lightly," Jessica confided.
Lamia sipped her juice thoughtfully then asked, "have you noticed that all the Solos are acting strange? They took all their horses out, they aren't going into the Wardroom at all anymore. Even in the corridors they're not talking. They just look at each other. I saw one nod to the other and got a nod back. Not like they were saying hello to each other. More like they were trying to say something without anybody knowing they did."
"Lamia don't take this the wrong way, but I think it might be a good thing that you didn't make selection this year. I think some people are going to get hurt. People like me. Especially people like the Solos," Jessica speculated.
Lamia Tuala leaned forward, "that doesn't explain why we're here like this."
"Fiona and Vaan are nervous. The Solos are more guarded than usual. Lamia, everyone is acting strange now. I brought us here like this to have a moment to ourselves. Just a little while to relax," Jessica said.
The barmaid came over and picked up their finished dinner plates while setting out the slices of cake for them along with fresh glasses of juice. When they finished Jessica caught the barmaid's attention and set three more coins on the table with a nod of approval then she and Lamia left.
After clearing the village border Lamia asked, "when you went with Solo Fotens; did something happen between you two?"
Jessica nodded, "not what you think. He showed me reality. Things aren't as simple as I thought they were. I couldn't be a Solo. I'd go crazy. Lamia I want you to be one of my squires. I'll send home for another. I have a really bad feeling."
Sometime later they re-entered through the same side gate then dropped off the horses at the stables then went inside. Jessica soon had a letter composed to her mother and dropped in the out-going slot. She dropped the letter to the Headmaster in his office slot.
Meanwhile in the dimly lit Royals' Wardroom, Fiona Doucet held up a torso plate.
"Its been weakened. Someone applied a chemical to it. This Armor will fail on contact," the Headmaster stated while inspecting it closely. "Check the others. NOW! Prince Vaan, you will have to obtain new armor. I suggest you contract Solo Hunley about that in the morning."
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