Uncalled For Actions (14/?)
Days 92 – 98 of the experiment.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m not sure what you mean,” Tarvek said without looking up from the paper.
“You know exactly what I mean–you’re done with your work.”
Gil wanted to throttle him. “I didn’t ask for your help.”
Tarvek took another paper that Gil snatched away from him, tearing it nearly in half. “Let me rephrase that in a way your small brain will understand–I don’t want your help.
Taking another sheet, Tarvek snorted. “You don’t want it, but you definitely need it if you plan to eat any time today.”
Gil growled–hating Tarvek even more for being right. “Now all of a sudden you care about my well-being,” he said as he quickly translated–ironically–a page of lunch menus.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You know exactly what it means,” Gil spat, slamming the finished page onto his pile.
“I really don’t.”
Across the table, the twins had paused to watch the exchanged then pressed their heads together to whisper in what sort of sounded like Gerrman but not quite, reminding Gil of a paper he read about secret twin languages used to send coded messages during wars. Whey they noticed Gil glaring they suddenly gathered their piles and relocated to a now empty table across the room.
“You’re really good at that,” the girl next to him said.
“What?” Gil asked, face scrunched in confusion.
Tarvek leaned past him to see the girl, a little smirk on his face. “I think she means being a loser.”
Gil turned his glare back at Tarvek. “Nobody was talking to you.”
Tarvek laughed as he pulled another sheet to translate towards him. “That’s okay: I’m too busy doing your job for you anyway.”
Gil really wanted to know what the girl had meant, but he wanted, even more, to put Tarvek in his place so he grabbed the paper, leaving a streak of ink across it from where Tarvek had been writing.”
“I told you I don’t need any help–go be a royal pain somewhere else.”
The girl giggled, getting their attention again. “Maybe he wants to show off, too, huh?”
Gil sighed. “He does like to do that so it wouldn’t surprise me.”
“Oh shut up, Holzfäller and let me help you.”
Gil opened his mouth, but his stomach grumbled loudly in answer first getting a snort from Tarvek.
“See, your gut agrees with me. The quicker we finish, the quicker we can both go to lunch.”
“Like any of this means anything to you,” Gil told him, sliding a paper over. “They’re not going to keep you from eating if you want to.”
Tarvek huffed. “You don’t know my father–he delights in using me as an example for, well, everything.”
“That’s true,” said the girl as she gathered her pen and files, leaving without elaborating.
Gil shook his head, sending the ache ricocheting around his brain and down his neck. “Whatever–I’m too tired to argue since I was up all night fighting off those drugs.”
“Again with the drugs,” Tarvek said through gritted teeth. “I hate to break it to you, Holzfäller, but you’re not important enough for anyone to drug.”
Ha! Gil thought.
“It was probably something you ate like Anevka said.”
“Ah, but you already said I didn’t eat anything.”
“Then we’re back to you being a lousy drunk.”
Gil growled under his breath–he couldn’t be this dense for real, could he? “I wasn’t drunk.”
Tarvek huffed. “How could you tell?”
Gil slammed his hand down, rattling the ink wells and fluttering several papers from the top of the pile to the floor. “Because I wasn’t stumbling around the castle attacking random, innocent people.”
Once again, everyone was staring at Gil–everyone except Tarvek who sat very still until a drop of ink from his poised pen splattered his otherwise immaculate sheet of paper.
Gil could feel the other translators, including the twins, waiting for one of them to explode. They’d probably heard the rumors and knew exactly what Gil was talking about and wanted to see a repeat with their own eyes. It wasn’t until they got bored and went back to work that Tarvek finally moved, uselessly blotting the now-dry ink spot then continuing his translation.
When he didn’t say anything, Gil sighed, picked up the fallen sheets and set back to work.
Several minutes passed before Tarvek finally spoke, voice low and even. “I wasn’t stumbling, it wasn’t random, and we both know you’re not innocent.”
Gil rolled his eyes nearly out of his head. “Seriously? Five years and you’re still on about that? The Baron did say no one can hold a grudge like royalty.”
* * *
Gil paused in his writing. ”Of course, he was mostly talking about princesses, but the thought still applies.”
And then he turned that stupid, vibrant smile at Tarvek making his skin crawl–or maybe that was a tingle. Either way, Tarvek hated it and that smile. Should have knocked a couple of his teeth out; that would have fixed the problem. Tarvek directed his anger at his paper, tearing several small holes with his pen tip before he calmed himself with breathing exercises.
Letting Holzfäller have this kind of effect on him only made things, worse and the fact that Gil was right about him acting like a spoiled brat only added to his foul mood. He needed to get back the upper hand in this conversation.
“You sound just like him, you know–the Baron? He must be so proud–his little despot-in-training.”
Gil slapped his finished paper onto the stack with enough force to tip it, compelling Tarvek to catch them before the papers went everywhere.
“The Baron brought peace to Europa,” Gil said under his breath, “just like everyone wanted.”
“At the cost of our freedom,” Tarvek countered.
“Oh, please. Freedom to overtax your kingdoms and start pointless wars over petty issues like… who gets to claim purple as their official state color? You lost so much,” Gil said, rolling his eyes. “The Baron charges a very reasonable tax, and in return, maintains the roads, keeps the air safe from pirates, and settles your ridiculous disputes fairly, and you get to maintain rule over your own territories. What more do you want?”
Tarvek blinked at him in surprise and a touch of admiration at his poise and dedication then pulled himself together with a shake of his head. “You know, I was joking about you sounding like the Baron,” he said, “but you really do sound like him. You swallowed the Empire line hook, line and sinker, huh?”
Gil smiled. “You’re just mad I’m right. You know this summit and all of the meetings are pointless because the Baron saved your asses and keeps them safe–fairly.”
Tarvek tossed his pen to the side before he snapped it in half in frustration. “What do you know about it? You don’t have family or lands-”
“Wow,” Gil interrupted, “I don’t remember you being this stuck up, but you do love to remind me of my place in society don’t you?”
Tarvek frowned and ducked his head. For once, he hadn’t meant it as a jab at Gil’s status, he’d just been trying to make a point that Gil wouldn’t understand because he lives on the Baron’s flying city.
Across the table, someone cleared their throat. “Begging your pardon, Master Tarvek, but the afternoon meeting will begin shortly.” The young man in a Sturmhalten clerk’s uniform wrung his hands as he glanced everywhere but at the boys.
“We’re not done,” Gil said lamely as his stomach gurgled in protest loud enough for everyone to hear.
Tarvek sighed and stood. “I’m sure it will still be here tonight to finish.”
Gil looked up, eyes wide and tired. “You think they’ll make us do this again?”
Tarvek cocked his head. “Did you miss the part where I said my father loves to make an example of me?” He glanced around the room as the other translators hurried to finish or cleaned up then back to the clerk. “Everyone else is returning later, yes?”
The man nodded grimly like he hated confirming this information.
“Then my father will make me come back too and I’m sure the Baron-”
“Won’t want to look soft and let me off the hood,” Gil finished, leaning back with a groan.
Just then a horn sounded, signaling the beginning of the afternoon meetings, throwing the room into a flurry of activity as people gathered their notes and darted about.
Gil slowly stacked his pile, righting the edges repeatedly for no reason except to stall. Well, Tarvek wasn’t wasting any more time or getting into any more trouble over Gilgamesh Holzfäller; it was his own fault for trying to show off. Leaving Gil to pout or whatever it was he was doing, Tarvek joined the exodus into the hall and tried to ignore his own growling stomach which had thankfully remained quiet in the library.
He passed a group of maids who immediately averted their gaze even as they mumbled a proper if hollow greeting, but then they started giggling as he passed. Tarvek tried to ignore them and everyone else that kept staring just like he ignored his stomach, but he couldn’t help but notice the inordinate amount of staring.
Maybe he’d become jaded over his life, but he swore they were all pointing and laughing more than usual. He nodded at several of the other apprentices standing at the entrance of the summit room.
They returned polite nods, but as soon as he passed they burst into laughter fueling his growing paranoia. Whatever–let them laugh, he told himself like he always did when things got to him. They’re just jealous. Not that he really believed that because there really wasn’t anything to be jealous of.
He held his head high as he crossed the room, leaving a wake of whispers behind that he tried to convince himself he was imagining. The head table was empty, but he took his seat anyway, straightening his supplies and going over his notes from earlier.
He ran his fingers over a post of splattered ink with a frown. It was only the second day of the summit and his first day working with Holzfäller and already things were a mess–figuratively and literally. They would only get worse unless Tarvek figured out a way to deal with the situation.
He figured he had one of two options–suck it up and get along with Gil for the rest of the week or expose him for the fraud he was and get him fired and out of Tarvek’s house. “A” was shaping up to be the easier plan considering Gil didn’t seem to be in any trouble despite the fight and his abhorrent, drunken behavior last night.
There had to be some logical reason the Baron would choose a nobody like Holzfäller as his apprentice–Tarvek just couldn’t see it. Gil had to have gotten into a lot of trouble after the vault break in. Tarvek assumed the only reason Gil wasn’t kicked out, too, was he had nowhere else to go although it was still odd that the Baron kept him around at all when he usually sent orphans to live with loyalists he trusted.
Why was Holzfäller different? The eternal question that had haunted him since that night.
He supposed he could solve the mystery right now by just asking, but he doubted he’d get a straight answer from anyone–the Baron’s people were far too secretive and afraid of him to reveal any useful information. So he couldn’t ask outright, but he could do a little snooping of his own into the matter, and he had just the person to help.
* * *
“Again,” commanded the trainer as he wandered among the lines of Smoke Knights in a cavern deep below Sturmhalten Castle.
Violetta concentrated on her technique and let the routine take over: lunge, jab, duck, roll, kick, retreat, side-step, kick. She swung in a graceful arc, her leg slicing through the air silently, getting an approving nod from the trainer as he passed.
Her pride was only fleeting as her foot caught on her cloak a moment later, sending her off balance and dancing to the right to stay on her feet just as everyone else dodged left. She slammed into Misha–a dark, lanky Knight she actually wasn’t related to in any way.
He hissed, baring physically pointed teeth that gave him a monstrous, otherworldly appearance. From behind, someone smacked her head, toppling her completely over, but she managed to roll with her momentum and pop back onto her feet.
“Back to your station, runt,” Viktor, one of her many cousins, said with a sneer.
Violetta growled but hurried to her spot in line and fell back into the routine. Lunge, jab, duck, roll, kick, retreat, side-step, kick, backflip.
She’d been doing this routine daily for five years and knew there was no backflip yet that’s what the trainer called. She processed it all in a matter of seconds, her body responding out of instinct as she hopped back, bending at the waist to land on her hands and bounce effortlessly over onto her feet again in the ready position.
The room filled with groans and muttered curses. It looked like only about a quarter of the class actually followed the trainer’s instructions, causing the half that continued the drilled routine to run into them while the other fourth were caught completely off guard and just stopped in confusion.
“Halt,” the trainer shouted, ending the various disputes erupting over wounded egos more than physical injuries. “What just happened?”
The students returned to their positions in silence, but the trainer obviously wanted an answer. He walked the lines, frowning at anyone even a centimeter out of place and stopping in front of Viktor. “Well?”
Viktor raised his chin. “I’m not sure, Herr Delmeck–it appears some people messed up their training.”
He side-eyed Violetta in front of him with a smirk directing the trainer’s attention to her. She grit her teeth, eyes snapping forward again as she straightened to her full, miserably tiny height that barely came above Herr Delmeck’s waist.
“What do you have to say about this Miss Mondarev?”
Violetta swallowed hard–she hated having unwanted attention on her, but she was so good at attracting it. “The routine changed,” she said with almost no nervous wobble to her voice.
Delmeck rested his hands behind his back and cocked his head. “By definition, routines don’t change,”
“This one did.”
Delmeck’s eyebrow shot up as Viktor and his friends barely smothered their laughter.
Violetta took a deep breath and let it out slowly–someday she’d learn to keep her mouth shut. “You said, ‘backflip,’ Herr Delmeck, but there isn’t a backflip in the routine.”
“Interesting–are you sure?”
“Yes, sir, very sure.”
Viktor stilled, his snickering tapering off as he must have realized his mistake.
“And how did you respond to the change in routine, Miss Mondarev?”
“I back-flipped,” she said, holding her head high.
“And you, Reinstein, what did you do?”
Viktor bit his lip hard before finally answering. “I spun left.”
“Because that’s how the routine goes, and you just said routines don’t change by definition, sir.” There was the faintest bit of a question in his tone.
“Miss Mondarev, why did you do the backflip?”
Violetta frowned–was this a trick question? Tarvek said they were always trying to shake the students up–to keep them on their toes so to speak. There was no point in second-guessing herself now. “Because that’s what you said to do so I did it.”
Delmeck nodded thoughtfully then strolled back to the front of the room. “Ready position,” he called getting a groan from some of the younger trainees.
Violetta settled into the position–a half crouch, weight on the balls of your feet, elbows at ninety degrees.
“How many of you heard me call for the flip?” Delmeck now asked, turning to face them. About half the class raised their hands. “Position three, if you will.”
As a group, the sixteen of them rolled forward and balanced on their right foot, left leg extended, arms behind them. Delmeck slowly paced the perimeter of the squad as if they had all the time in the world.
Violetta guessed from his perspective they did, but right now she couldn’t see it through the trickle of sweat that slid down her forehead, into her eye, and dripped from her cheek as she fought her own muscles to stay balanced.
“Now we have an interesting dilemma,” Delmeck continued. “Two competing theories of instruction have been exposed by the insertion of a new command. Some of you continued the routine despite the new direction because that’s the way it’s always been done–position four.”
Three kids swept their outstretched foot around to the back and switched their weight to their arms, now resting in a lowered push-up. Viktor remained in the ready position, his legs shaking with the effort to maintain the stance as he apparently hadn’t even heard the change in routine to begin with.
“Some of you immediately reacted, changing your routine to match the commands–position seven.”
Violetta forced her muscles into action, rolling back over her head and into a handstand before lowering her toes to just barely touch the ground–her body in a reverse “v.” Her nearly numb right leg thanked her even as her arms began to strain.
Delmeck passed her to stand in front of Misha, eyes narrowed. “And some of you heard the command and froze like confused field mice first hearing the owl’s eerie cry in the night–position nine.”
When Misha didn’t immediately move, Delmeck shoved his forehead sending him onto his back. “You’re dead, Herr Dohvoshki–the owl has eaten you in your foolish hesitation.”
Misha sighed and reluctantly got into position–flat as a board balanced on just his hands under him.
“The question now for you to ponder is which reaction was correct, and I’ll be clear from the start that Herr Dohvoshki was not correct. In the field which would be beneficial–following routine or following orders?”
Violetta wasn’t sure Delmeck actually expected an answer and wished Tarvek was here because he was always five steps ahead of everyone and always knew what to say or do. He would have already worked out the answer instead of sitting there watching the sweat pool beneath his face.
It was a long time before Violetta realized Delmeck wasn’t waiting for an answer because he wasn’t even in the room anymore. Now what? she wondered, sure only that this was some kind of test.
Slowly, the other students realized the same thing. Violetta could hear hushed conversations around the cavern about what to do–did they hold the poses or give up? She didn’t care what the others did because she wasn’t moving until her muscles gave out.
Through her legs, she watched Viktor let out a long breath, blowing a fringe of damp bangs from his red face before collapsing onto his back to stretch out his trembling legs.
He lifted his head enough to see her then scowled. “This is your fault, runt.”
How did he figure that? She didn’t ask out loud, though, because Delmeck hadn’t given them permission to speak any more than he had to move before disappearing. For all they knew, he was watching from a dark corner.
No, Violetta wouldn’t give up that easily like Misha who set himself on the ground and twisted his sore wrists at his side while muttering curses. She decided to use the time to go over her other recent failures which seemed to be the theme of the week.
The argument with Tarvek weighed heavily on her mind and heart which just made her angry because she wasn’t supposed to care what the idiot thought of her. Her training was to keep him alive any means necessary and that didn’t include being his friend. She hated that she cared what he thought–that he made her hurt this much, but she didn’t know how to stop; she couldn’t turn her feelings off like Tarvek could.
Then she’d somehow exposed her position to Martellus so he caught her spying. It was like he had a sixth sense about those things which was even more reason to dislike him. She had almost gotten away if it wasn’t for Tarvek and that fight. Now she had to figure out what Martellus was up to while he was on to her. Not impossible but considerably trickier.
Then there was Holzfäller.
She frowned at the spot of darkened stone directly beneath her face. The potion should have worked on him–she even gave him a double dose, but she couldn’t get him to tell her anything. Her instinct was to go to Tarvek because he’d be able to figure out where she went wrong without making her feel like a dumb child. Not being on speaking terms was hard on more levels than she anticipated.
Her vials weren’t labeled because that gave too much potential information to the enemy, but she was sure she used the correct one. That left two possible scenarios–there was something wrong with the potion or Holzfäller had a high resistance to mind control which sounded ridiculous.
Smoke Knights trained for decades to withstand their own drugs–Holzfäller was just some kid who didn’t even know what Smoke Knights were. Violetta reluctantly had to conclude that the error was hers.
The truth serum worked by loosening the victim’s inhibitions and resistance so they can’t help but answer, but it worked best when the interrogator was seen as authoritative, and it was hard to be taken seriously when she was so small.
So, as usual, the answer is I suck.
The room was suddenly abuzz with activity, making Violetta wonder how long she’d been lost in thought. She tried to find the source of the commotion without moving too much but didn’t need to struggle much as a pair of legs in white trousers appeared before her.
“Well, what do we have here?” Martellus asked, squatting down to see her face. “What have you gotten yourself into this time, little dumpling?”
It took every ounce of will power not to nail him in his family jewels just for using their grandmother’s nickname for her. He laughed and patted her head like a dog knowing how she hated to be patronized. Her muscles quivered with barely contained rage, but she still refused to move until Herr Delmeck gave his consent–this was now a battle of wills.
[ Part 15 ]