Uncalled For Actions (15/?)
Days 99 – 105 of the experiment.
“Not taking the bait, huh?” he continued, eyes sparkling with amusement. “Aren’t you just a dedicated little thing? I wonder how dedicated, though.” He stood, rifling in his coat while his companions–probably the same idiots from yesterday–snickered at his side.
There was a swish of metal on metal that made all of the hairs on Violetta’s arms stand up and then a dagger landed ten centimeters from her left pinky. She didn’t flinch–just glared at the knife. More feet entered her field of view while interest grew in the confrontation. She was sure some people were taking bets, and she didn’t like her odds at the moment.
Another knife landed with a thunk between her hands, setting off additional rounds of betting. She never hated anyone more than she hated Martellus at this moment–him and his stupid games and always trying to make Violetta look bad.
What is his problem? She very nearly gave in to the urge to blurt the question but bit her tongue instead to keep quiet.
A moment, later, a third knife dropped past her face, wedging in the ground between her thumb and forefinger on her right hand, getting the tiniest twitch in her fingers. Sweat coated her skin and dripped into her eyes, forcing her to blink to clear them. She wet her chapped lips, tasting the salt then swallowed hard.
Martellus disappeared behind her where a knife skimmed her leg, landing near her knee. Another settled near her left boot while a third suddenly appeared next to her wrist–this time drawing a trickle of blood.
“Oops,” Martellus said, “did that hurt?”
Violetta called on every training exercise she normally despised to keep still and control her breathing. She wasn’t too worried about Martellus right now–he wouldn’t do anything to seriously injure her with all of these witnesses, but he would enjoy humiliating her which just fueled her need to show him a fool.
“Damn, I’m out of knives,” Martellus called. “Anyone got a spare or three.” He laughed at his own lame joke as the other kids clamored to appease his request.
Violetta focused on her reflection in the large dagger directly ahead of her and prepared for the next knife to drop, but Martellus decided to change things up. The knife he dangled before her was more of a small sword. He pressed the flat side to her forehead–the steel feeling cool to her clammy skin then slowly he slid it up then over the top of her head and across her back.
He settled it between her shoulder blades, hilt resting against her tailbone and the tip scraping her collar.
Martellus pressed his mouth to her ear–his breath hot and heavy. “You should really learn to mind your own business, Violetta.”
The implied threat froze her insides, setting off panic alarms in her head.
“Let’s see how still you can be,” he said loud enough the crowd could hear. “That point is sitting a millimeter from your brain stem–the smallest tremor could move it which would be very, very bad for you, little dumpling.”
Violetta’s arms ached as she fought to keep still and the knife was heavy enough to throw her balance off–nevermind all of the blood that had been pooling in her head the last half hour. Worse than the physical pain was the edge of panic wedging into her subconscious. She had no idea how she was going to get out of this short of Martellus showing mercy which was a hell of a long shot.
Her only option was to hope she could hold out long enough that he just got bored because she knew no one was going to take her side over Martellus–not even her own brothers who were somewhere in the cavern already doing nothing.
If Tarvek were here…
But he wasn’t, and she had told him she didn’t need him to protect her. She almost laughed at the irony and redoubled her efforts because she didn’t want Tarvek finding out about this and proving him right. It would go right to his already-fat head.
Martellus squatted down in front of her again and tapped her nose. “How you doing, Violetta? Ready to admit defeat–you just have to say the words.”
Not a chance in hell, she thought but kept her jaw clamped tight. Somewhere to her right, a boy shouted then a scuffle broke out, forcing the crowd to shift away from them. Violetta watched a boot come precariously close to stepping on her fingers. She still refused to move.
“Sounds like the natives are getting restless; you could get trampled. Just say the words and you’re free to go. ‘Martellus, you are so much better than me in every way, and I bow to your superiority.’ Of course, you’ll have to actually bow, too–it’s only right.”
Violetta rolled her eyes–he was so full of himself, and she bowed to no one except maybe Tarvek, but she worked for him, and there would need to be circumstances.
Someone suddenly bumped her side, causing the knife to slide down her back, the point now pricking her skin. A trickle of something slid over her neck, but she couldn’t tell if it was sweat or blood.
“Uh-oh,” Martellus said with a laugh that made her want to punch him.
Of course, most things he said and did made her want to punch him.
“What is the meaning of this,” a voice boomed, echoing around the chamber.
The other students scrambled back to their stations, giving Violetta her first clear view of things. Several kids had stayed in their positions like Violetta, but most had given up and were now trying to decide if it was worth the effort to fake it.
Next to her, Misha lifted himself back onto his hands, but Viktor just stood at attention behind her. Martellus hopped to his feet, snatching the daggers from around her as he turned to the front of the room.
Herr Delmeck strolled purposefully through the chaotic lines. “Martellus von Blitzengaard, why am I not surprised? I was under the impression you graduated from my class already, but perhaps you’ve realized the sad conclusion that you don’t know as much as you think you do.”
“I’ve missed you, too, sir,” Martellus answered smoothly.
“Then perhaps you’d care to join us.”
Martellus started to walk away, the knives nowhere to be seen. “I’d love to, Herr Delmeck, but I’m needed at the summit.”
“That wasn’t a request, von Blitzengaard–in formation now.”
Several kids snickered as Martellus cringed then slowly turned to take up the ready position next to Violetta.
Delmeck studied them a moment before returning to the head of the room. “Maybe you can help us in our lesson today.”
“Which is?” asked Martellus sounding more bored than anything.
“We’re having a discussion on the merits of routine versus spontaneity in the field. Half of the class believes in following routines because it’s as it always has been while the other half responds to sudden changes because that’s what was demanded. What are your opinions?”
Martellus thought it over a moment. “Routines, training, dedication-” he side-eyed Violetta “-are good starting points in any engagement. It’s what you know and can keep you safe by reacting without thinking but being able to change based on circumstances is how you win because real life is nothing like training–it’s unpredictable.
“On the other hand, following orders just because someone yells them could get you killed–you have to learn to trust your instincts.”
“Very good, Herr von Blitzengaard,” Delmeck said with a nod.
“What?” Viktor shouted, his voice cracking in his apparent anger.
“Wait,” said Misha, now sitting, “you mean there’s no right answer. It didn’t even matter if we followed the routine or did the flip?”
Delmeck stopped in front of Misha. “Ah, but you did neither, Herr Dohvoshki–you are dead.”
“What was even the point?” asked Viktor.
“The point was to make you think. Training can take you only so far; you must learn to react to sudden changes, and as Martellus said, trust your instincts.”
“Well, my instincts told me to be confused,” Misha muttered.
“Yes, and that’s why you are dead–your instincts need to be worth listening to before you act on them.”
This got laughs from the other kids.
“Your instincts told you to follow my commands,” he said to Violetta,” because you trust me.”
“Yes, sir,” she whispered, ashamed of the way her voice quivered with exhaustion.
“And you stayed in this position because?”
Violetta swallowed hard, hoping her voice less croaky this time. “Because you didn’t dismiss us yet.”
Delmeck didn’t respond right away, just strolled off.
“Such a suck up,” Martellus said under his breath. “You learn that from Tarvek or does it come naturally?”
Violetta growled as her patience wore dangerously thin, but before she could give in to the urge to react, Delmeck returned to the front of the cavern.
“Class,” he shouted, “at attention.”
Despite her aching muscles, Violetta shot upright, back straight, arms at her side. Martellus and the others did the same without hesitation either.
“Violetta, Carmine, Delia, Warner, and Sanjay,” Herr Delmeck called, “the five of you remained at your commanded positions even after I left and von Blitzengaard commandeered my class. I commend your dedication and your instinct to obey your trainer. You are al free to go.”
Violetta let out a sigh of relief, her shoulders relaxing.
“The rest of you obviously need more lessons.”
Not waiting to see what lessons the trainer had n mind, Violetta darted for the exit, snatching one of Martellus’ daggers still in the floor near her foot. She bypassed the Smoke Knight dorms and didn’t stop until she was on the other side of the castle.
Again, her instinct was to find Tarvek to tell him what happened so maybe Delmeck was wrong about her. She ignored the urge, instead, creeping through passages until she found her way to Tarvek’s empty lab.
Chemistry wasn’t her strong suit, but Tarvek had tutored her extensively for her last exam. That with the textbooks and equipment here she could try to analyze her potions to figure out what went wrong with her interrogation.
She laid her vials on a table then gathered her supplies using the lists Tarvek had her memorize for the tests then she stood there staring at the mess.
“I can do this,” she said out loud but didn’t feel much convinced. Before she could dwell further on her sure-to-be-failure, she forced herself to set up the burners and prepare samples like Tarvek showed her.
“I can do this,” she repeated with more force. “I don’t need Tarvek to hold my hand through everything.” She still didn’t sound too convincing but the longer she messed with the equipment, the more confident she felt
While the first test did its thing, Violetta finally allowed herself to relax, tossing her cloak onto a chair and stretching her sore shoulders. When her fingers brushed over a raised spot at the base of her skull, she vowed to make Martellus pay, and for that, she might have to ask Tarvek for help.
* * *
The afternoon meeting got off to a slow start. Gil skirted through the door just as the guards closed it, but the Baron and Prince weren’t at the table. He took his seat beside Tarvek but neither acknowledged the other.
A servant arrived to fill the ink wells and deposit extra stacks of parchment then disappeared without a sound. Gil nearly asked the boy if he could get a snack–a piece of bread would do–but managed to hold his tongue. Minutes passed with nothing happening which gave Gil too much time to think about everything that had happened the last two days and wonder at what catastrophes lay ahead.
He opened the folder in front of him and found his schedule for the week. Today’s meeting was to end at six in the evening. According to the clock on the wall, it was half-past two–three and a half hours to go then no doubt countless more hours finishing his translations Tarvek had so kindly volunteered him for. Supper was to be served at seven in the guest dining hall or private quarters.
The next morning, smaller workshops were scheduled on various topics, but it looked like the Baron would be having private meetings. Gil didn’t know what that meant for him–maybe more translating. More workshops and more meetings filled the afternoon with Thursday being more of the same.
Friday was another day of long meetings in the summit room with presentations by various apprentices. He groaned when he saw his own name penciled in at three–he had no idea what to do his presentation about. His father hadn’t given him a choice when he made Gil an apprentice, but he’d thought it would be at least more exciting than school.
He was wrong.
With a sigh, he slipped the schedule behind his other papers and tapped the folder with his pen. Why weren’t they starting yet?
Having nothing to do was almost worse than having too much except he had things he could be doing like translating or eating or sleeping off the growing headache. His other fingers joined the rhythmless beat of his pen while his grumbling stomach offered a counterpoint.
Tarvek suddenly grabbed both his hands, crushing all of his fingers together then signaled with his other hand to a guard. “Do you have any idea what the delay is?” he asked the older man.
“Apparently several apprentices are missing–they’re attempting to track them down.”
“Who’s missing?” Gil asked, struggling to free himself from Tarvek’s grasp.
“I do not know, sir.”
“Thank you, sergeant,” Tarvek told him, waiting until he returned to his station before releasing Gil.
Gil swiped half-heartedly with his pen, but Tarvek easily deflected.
“Any idea who’s not here?” he asked.
Tarvek glanced around the room–people were milling about, obviously curious of the delay and bored. “No.”
“There’s only like fifty of us and aren’t you related to half of these people?”
Tarvek sighed like the teachers often did with the younger students on Castle Wulfenbach. “There are actually fifty-six including you and me, and I may be related to many of them, but I’m not their keepers.”
Gil frowned at his folder. “Wait, there’s fifty-five apprentices for the Fifty Families? Do you people even know how to count?”
“It’s complicated,” Tarvek said with another sigh.
“Family always is,” Gil muttered then quickly added, “or so I’ve heard.” A couple minutes passed before Gil found himself tapping again. “But weren’t some of them sick?” he asked suddenly, remembering that detail from yesterday morning. “That would narrow the field.”
“Holzfäller, let it go–I have no idea who isn’t here.”
“I’m bored,” Gil protested, “work with me here.”
Tarvek pinched the bridge of his nose. “How are you even here? Of all the people, why did the Baron choose you when you can’t even sit still?” He grabbed Gil’s tapping fingers again and squeezed. “I can’t figure out his angle. Seventy-five percent of politics is tedium, and the rest is schmoozing and you can’t handle either. All of your fumbling around just looks bad on him and the Empire, so why you?
“My only conclusions are he picked your name from a hat and is unfortunately stuck with you or he’s completely lost his mind.”
Gil tugged his hands free, glaring. “I’m sitting right here.”
“I know, and it’s totally baffling. You should quit.”
Tarvek continued to watch the room, avoiding Gil’s gaze. “I’m not trying to be rude, but you’re not cut out for this life–being a ruler is-”
Gil crossed his arms over his chest. “I’m not here to be a ruler.”
“Then why are you here?” Tarvek asked, finally looking at Gil.
Because I’m going to lead this Empire some day. He didn’t say it out loud, though, and before he could formulate an acceptable answer, the door behind them opened and their fathers took their seats, bringing the meeting to order.
The afternoon progressed with little time to dwell on Tarvek’s veiled insults or the fact that he sort of agreed with the weasel–Gil wasn’t sure he was made to be a leader. It’s a thought that haunted him at every meeting he was dragged to.
Finally, four hours later, recess was called for the evening and Gil was dismissed. He didn’t wait around to be hauled back to the library to translate but had no idea where else to go so he followed the other delegates back to the guest quarters where they were preparing the dining hall for supper.
“Hey, Holzfäller,” someone called, running up behind Gil. “You going to the party, right?”
“Party?” Gil frowned, racking his brain for a memory of a party listed on his itinerary.
“Yeah, a bunch of us are getting together tonight–strictly invite only.”
A momentary thrill shot through Gil at the thought of being included–how often had he wished for that as a kid? “Sure,” he answered without really thinking, “I’m in.”
The kid clapped his shoulder then headed for his next invite just as a little sense cleared Gil’s head. “Hey,” he called after him, hesitating slightly until a name popped into his head, “Erik, is Sturmvoraus a part of this?”
“Prince Stick-Up-His-Butt-” Erik said with a laugh, “hell, no.” Then he winked. “But his sister is.”
“Okay,” Gil said not sure if he felt relieved or disappointed, and the fact that he couldn’t decide worried him almost as much as the sudden flare of anger over Erik’s insult of Tarvek.
Why do I care what the other kids think of him? Plus, they’re right–he’s a stick in the mud. No one wants him around. Except a tiny part of him kind of did, and he hated it. He shook his head, veering towards his room to change–after all Anevka would be there. The thought made him smile as he snagged a buttered roll from a wheeled cart outside the dining room.
Maybe the day could be salvaged after all.
* * *
Gil waited for Barkley to go on his midnight walk before slipping out of their suite and following the barely legible directions scribbled on a scrap of paper he’d found after his shower. His heart raced as he snuck around the castle, reminding him of all the adventures he had as a kid–funny how Tarvek had been there for those, but now that they were in his house, he was nowhere to be found.
Which was for the best Gil reminded himself because Tarvek would probably ruin the fun somehow.
Taking a left, Gil found himself in a large sitting room with an entire wall of windows looking out onto a dark patio. According to the directions, he needed to cross the patio to a mirror sitting room. At least he thought that’s what it said–he was worried about the literacy of whoever wrote the note.
He’d made it three steps into the room before someone grabbed his arm, yanking him to the floor behind a sofa, a hand slapped over his mouth as someone else shushed him just as a guard stomped through the room.
“That was close,” said a girl–Celeste he remembered from a meeting last month.
“There’s still two more,” said the girl that shushed him.
Gil pulled away from the hand over his mouth to get a better look at the familiar voice. “Zulenna? What are you doing here? You’re not an apprentice.”
Zulenna scoffed. “I should think not, but my father and brother are here so the Baron allowed a pass to visit our families. Theo is here, too,” she said, nodding past Gil.
Gil squinted over his shoulder just making out the glowing white eyes and teeth of his friend in the darkness.
“Hey, Gil,” Teho whispered.
“Aren’t you kind of young to be going to parties?”
Theo crossed his arms over his chest, eyes narrowing. “I’m twelve… and a half.”
Gil snorted. You sound just like Seffie.”
“Shh,” Celeste hissed, ducking further behind the sofa and squishing Zulenna into Gil who fell against Theo. Another guard entered the room, looked around then exited onto the patio.
“What are we doing?” Gil whispered.
Celeste peeked over the back of the sofa. “We need to get across there, but the guards are changing shifts.”
“They’re very unpredictable–Uncle Aaronev says it keeps people on their toes.”
Of course, she’s a cousin, Gil thought. “Guess we know where Tarvek gets his sneakiness from,” he muttered.
“We need a distraction,” Theo said excitedly, eyes sparkling as he started snatching things from around the room. “I could totally make a misdirection gun from this and this-”
Gil slapped his hand over Theo’s mouth as his voice pitched up an octave. “Calm down, Sparky,” he said.
Theo mumbled something into his hand so Gil slowly pulled it away. “I just want to help.”
“I know, but the solution doesn’t always have to be so complicated. Watch and learn.” Gil picked up a small solid glass orb from a dish on the side table then tossed it over the sofa towards the open patio door.
The four of them peeked over the sofa as the orb smacked the door frame, bounced across the room and into a large wall clock, setting it off then ricocheted off of a bookshelf into a lamp that wobbled precariously but didn’t fall, and finally crashed into the patio door, spreading spiderweb cracks across the glass.
The guards, attracted by the noise, came running just as the large pane shattered.
“Oops,” Gil mumbled.
“I’m watching, Gil,” Theo said, “and learning so much.”
“Stuff it, both of you,” Celeste hissed then shoved them towards the patio where a window sat slightly ajar.
They crawled behind the guards’ backs as they argued and discussed the broken door then one-by-one left out the window and scurried through the potted plants and mostly leafless trees. Back inside the castle, Celeste guided them out of the sitting room.
“How do you know?” Gil asked. “Do you have a map or something?” He twisted his written instructions sideways and upside-down but they still made little sense.
Celeste grabbed the paper, crumpling it. “I memorized it, simpleton. Now let’s go before the next guard rotation comes through here.” She marched off, leaving Gil blinking after her.
“I like her,” Zulenna said, hurrying after Celeste.
Gil sighed and followed.
“I’m still learning so much,” Theo said with a grin.
“Oh, shut up.”
“Both of you shut up,” Celeste said without slowing. “How the guard hasn’t caught the two of you with as much noise as you make is beyond me–no grace at all.” The last part was said to Zulenna who nodded.
“You have no idea. On Castle Wulfenbach, I’ve been trying to get them to implement much-needed poise and etiquette lessons, but they don’t listen.”
“Not everyone can be as brilliant-” Gil said catching up to the girls.
“Or perfect,” added Theo.
“-As you, Zulenna. You should definitely keep pressing the issue.”
Gil nodded vigorously, Theo mimicking the move. “Oh yes–the Baron always wants to know how things are running on the ship, and who better to tell him about the school’s shortcomings than the brightest student.”
His father would kill him if he ever found out Gil’s part in this, but he couldn’t help himself–Zulenna was such an obnoxious brat, she deserved the Baron’s personal attention.
“This way,” Celeste commanded at the next intersection, turning right.
“What happened to being quiet,” Gil asked.
“This part of the castle isn’t used in the winter,” she stated confidently.
No sooner were the words out of her mouth when a guard shouted, “You kids, halt!”
Celeste froze, color draining from her face. Zulenna looked between her friend and Gil with wide, frightened eyes that made him wonder if she ever stepped out of line and got caught. Well, Gil wasn’t waiting to find out.
“Scatter,” he yelled, grabbing Theo’s arm and darting down the hall, taking a left not knowing where he was going but anywhere away from the guards was good with him–he was in enough trouble with the Prince already.
The two boys made it halfway down the hall when two guards appeared at the other end. Gil shot through an open door, Theo on his heels. The room appeared to be some kind of storage for the castle servants–filled with cleaning and maintenance supplies and no exit.
Great. Gil’s eyes darted around, looking for any way out, anything to keep them from being caught.
“Now what?” asked Theo.
Heavy booted feet stomped down the hall as Gil’s gaze landed on some barrels just inside the door. He used all his strength to swing a barrel around, tipping it on its side as he did.
“Now you get ready to run.”
[ Part 16 ]