The day of the duel finally arrives.
A beautiful dawn met me on the morning of the duel. Scattered, fluffy clouds glowed orange as the sun rose above the horizon, gradually brightening the sky from deep black to beautiful blue.
Sensing I didn’t feel like talking, Pete quietly accompanied me to the mess hall for breakfast. All talk ceased as soon as we entered the room. Every head swiveled, following me while I made my way to the serving line. A few of my fellow lost colonists raised hands in greeting and I nodded in return, but everyone else just stared.
I scanned the crowd for Berela, but he and his minions weren’t there. Pete and I sat separate from everyone else, and everyone else respected our choice. Everyone except Jade and Joy, who arrived a minute after we did.
Joy gave me a hug before settling down next to Pete. She gave him a quick kiss on the lips. Jade sat down, wrapped her arms around me, and gave me a long, loving kiss. Without a word, she tucked into her breakfast while I poked at mine.
After half a minute, Jade glanced my way. “Eat.”
“I’m not particularly hungry.”
“So what. Eat.”
Lifting a slice of bacon, I replied, “Yes, Mom.”
Once I took my first bite, I suddenly rediscovered my appetite. I finished eating before my companions and found myself considering seconds. Jade either read my mind or caught me staring longingly at the food on her plate.
“No seconds, Chris. You ate enough to keep your strength up. Anything else will just slow you down in the duel.”
Nodding, I turned my attention to our roommates. They ate holding hands, which was awkward for Pete, since the hand Joy held was his right one. I felt the sudden desire to talk.
Nodding toward our friends’ clasped hands, I said, “You should always be on a lady’s right side, Pete.”
“Why?” Joy asked. “So I can be the one eating awkwardly with my left hand? That’s not very gentlemanly.”
“No, so Pete’s sword arm is free. Should you be set upon by criminals, his sword arm must be free so he can draw his sword and defend you.”
Jade nodded, “You should also always walk so the gentleman is closer to the road.”
Pete cocked his head, “Is that so I can flag down a taxi or something?”
“No,” Jade said, “it’s so your lady will have a building behind her, so her gentleman doesn’t have to worry that more criminals will sneak up from behind and grab her.”
I caught Jade’s eye. “You forgot about the mud.”
She smacked her forehead. “Good God, how could I forget about that?”
Pete’s face dissolved into confusion. “Mud?”
“Few streets on Aashla are paved,” I explained. “After it rains, they turn into seas of mud. Passing carriages splash mud in all directions, including toward the sidewalks. Assuming there are sidewalks, of course.”
“A true gentleman stands between his lady and the mud, so his clothes get dirty rather than hers.” Jade grimaced, perhaps remembering some of the muddy streets we’d walked down in the past year. “In truth, the lady’s clothes get dirty, too, just not as dirty.”
I added, “Which is a why a smart gentleman always wears a cloak. If he’s alert and moves quickly, he can use the cloak to shield his lady entirely while also mostly keeping his own clothes free of mud.”
“Except for the cloak,” Jade added. “That gets caked in the stuff.”
“That goes without saying,” I agreed.
Pete looked at us, nonplussed. “I’ll…remember that—especially the next time I’m escorting Joy down a muddy street.”
“In a city full of criminals,” Joy added.
Pete nodded. “That goes without saying, m’lady.”
The four of us suddenly dissolved into laughter. Everyone looked our way, no doubt curious what was so funny. They probably also wondered how we could be so carefree, with only a few hours left before my duel. Let them wonder. After the tension of the last week, it felt good to let go.
We kept Joy and Pete with us for the rest of the morning. Sitting in my dorm room, Jade, Joy, and I began swapping stories of home and friends. Pete said little while we three lost colonists regaled each other with tales of our childhood.
After a couple of hours, Joy leaned against my roommate. “You’re being awfully quiet, Pete.”
He shrugged, “That’s because my childhood was dead boring. I’ve never flown on an airship or battled raiders. I’ve never fought at the side of a legendary hero. No gorgeous princess has given me an award for valor. And I’ve definitely never risked my life to rescue a girl!”
“I’ve never done any of those things, either,” Joy said.
“Maybe not, but you’ve been there when chemical rockets blasted off for space and you’ve piloted an…airplane? Is that the right word?”
Joy nodded. “But you’ve piloted an aircar, haven’t you?”
“Yeah, but any idiot can fly one of those. They’re almost impossible to crash. Flying an airplane takes skill and courage—just like flying an airship.” Pete shook his head, “You’ve all done exciting stuff. I haven’t.”
I punched Pete in the arm. “Hey, don’t you talk like that about my friend! He joined the Scout Corps. That takes a lot of guts, all by itself.”
Jade caught Pete’s gaze. “Would it make you feel better if the three of us promised to take you with us the next time we head off on a big barbarian adventure? One with lots of danger, so you’ll have exciting stories to tell your grandchildren? Assuming you survive, I mean?”
Pete cocked his head and considered Jade’s offer a few seconds before grinning. “That will do. You’d better not break your promise!”
Jade straightened her back and, in a haughty voice, said, “We barbarians never break our promises!”
That’s when a knock sounded on the door. Martin called, “Chris? It’s time.”
The light mood vanished as if someone had flicked a switch. We followed Martin towards the Academy’s courtyard and the first duel in Scout Academy history.
Will Chris survive the duel? Find out in Chapter 30, coming Monday.