Chapter 3, 10: Enemies Weeping, Being Crushed, You Know, That Kind of Stuff
It was hot out on the lake. Through a break in the trees, Charlotte could see the bright afternoon sun glinting off the west side of the lake, so bright that she had to squint to see it.
Here, in a little glade overlooking the cliffs on the western side of Paradise Island, a good safe distance from the camp and the clearings where the camp expansions were planned, Charlotte was cool.
She had to be. She was dancing on crossed wires, seven feet off the ground. Above her in the branches, she could hear Ginger settling herself on a branch, and holding back a caw so long that it almost sounded like a coo. Easy for you to say, Charlotte thought. You have wings. Charlotte did a backflip, coming up en garde, the Pearl Harmony held before her in the classic fencing posture. So, okay, actually this was easy, she thought. Time to make it hard. “Phone? Play the training app.”
“Good afternoon, Charlotte,” her phone said, in her uncle’s voice.
“How did you know it was afternoon?” Charlotte asked.
“Your aunt and I spent days on this programme doing dialogue branches, thinking about what you’d need, Char-Char. Including afternoon training sessions, because you tend to procrastinate in the morning.”
“I fought someone with a spear yesterday. You said I should do wire work for that.”
“Crossed wires. There’s nothing like tightrope work to focus your attention on footwork, and that’s what you need for spears. Sidestep-left-tumble-cross!”
Charlotte made the move, but ended up awkwardly perched, sword out for balance rather than to parry. You’d be skewered, right now, she thought to herself, critically.
“Are you fighting Eve, of the Paradigm Pirates?”
“I . . . yes. How did you know?”
“You have unfinished business with that girl, Charlotte. She is very angry with you.”
“Well, I’m angry at her! She’s a total backstabber!”
“And she thinks that you and your brother backstabbed her. Flying roundhouse kick, land on your left foot!”
Once again, Charlotte found herself flailing for balance.
“You think that it’s not fair that I’m making you screw up by favouring your weak side.”
“You’re just a dialogue tree! How did you know that I blew the move?”
“You’d be sassing me right now if you had.”
Charlotte found her centre and stood free, her sword extended en garde again. “This isn’t fair. I can do all these moves off my right foot. It’s not my fault that I’m right handed.”
“Excuses are hateful to a lady, Char-Char.”
“’Lady?’ You’re quoting Confucius, aren’t you, Uncle?” For some reason, she was calling the stupid app ‘Uncle.’
“When a lord speaks of his wife, he calls her ‘lady.’ When she speaks of herself, she calls herself the handmaid.”
“Oh, come on!”
“Of course I’m quoting the Sage. You wouldn’t have to ask if you kept up with your readings. We do not get stronger by ignoring our weaknesses, Char-Char. We get stronger by focussing on them.”
The voice of her uncle paused for a long moment. Charlotte was close enough to pick up the phone to see if the app had crashed, but the screen just showed her uncle staring back at her. “When you fight people who deny their own weaknesses, you win fights. When you show that person their mistakes, you learn wisdom. Think of yourself as weak; work to be stronger; teach what you learn.” His voice hardened: “Right snap kick, pivot left, land right, tumble left, hand stand left!”
The ground, Charlotte thought, comes up very quickly when you’re falling. She flipped as she plummeted, coming down with a rapid breakfall slap and roll. A cloud of pine needles spread around her, filling the air with sharp scent. The grass, still green in the shade of the trees, smelled very much like grass when you crushed it with your head.
Instead of climbing back up onto her perch, Charlotte sat on a log and took a moment to clear the needles and moss out of her hair. “Are we talking about drilling my off hand and foot, or Eve?”
“Both, Char-Char,” her phone answered. “Eve lacks insight. It’s not an uncommon problem. It comes from not wanting to see her own weaknesses. I’m going to pull up a lesson plan for you, now. You should spend at least two hours on it.”
Charlotte pulled up the lesson plan, memorised it, and then put the phone down and wrapped a neckerchief over her wrist com so that she couldn’t see the time. This didn’t seem like something that should be rushed.
When she snapped out of her focus, Charlotte found herself balancing on her left foot on the cross wires, doing left-handed parries in the round. It was almost like waking up from sleep, only with the burning feeling of sore muscles where her feet were gripping the crosswires. For a moment, she tried to regain her focus. Was it really two hours later? Or four, as the late afternoon sun flickering behind her where it came filtering down through the waving branches, and her own empty stomach suggested? It didn’t matter. She wasn’t going to be pulled out of this session by. . . .
There, Charlotte thought. That sound. That was what had interrupted her. The sound of a muted caw. Only, was it a sound? Or was it like the telephone ring that you always thought you heard in the shower. She strained to hear as she kept the Pearl Harmony moving through its stations. No, no, it wasn’t a sound. It was something, something that interrupted her. The fact, she realised, that there was no wind.
Panic clutched Charlotte’s stomach as she spun around to face her rear. But now that her eyes were full on the dappled pattern of sun falling on the forest floor, the branches stopped waving, if they had been waving, and the dapples refused to move.
Once again, she caught a flickering of light on dark out of the corner of her eyes. Charlotte pivoted again. Now the back of her neck was prickling. Something was watching her. And where was Ginger? She looked up.
Ginger was on a branch right above her, beak wide open, clearly in the middle of as loud and raucous a call as a crow her size could produce. Yet Charlotte couldn’t hear anything.
Spooky, Charlotte thought. The Pearl Harmony blazed into light, its usually perlescent brightness gone to a white as bright as the sun glinting off the lake earlier. The magic sword’s purifying light drove the afternoon shadows back, but, right in the middle of the blade, in the runnel, a splash of shadow persisted. And the green jadestone of the pommel began to glow red.
Something made Charlotte glance over her shoulder at the lake. A ripple was moving sinuously through the water towards the island.
“Oh, crap,” Charlotte muttered. Red was for the Scarlet Gods that the Pearl Harmony was made to fight. That was crazy, she thought. The Red Gods hadn’t walked the Earth in tens of thousands of years.
But, then, she thought, sabretooths had been gone for ten thousand years, too.
“Well, well. Look whose day just got a whole lot better!”
Charlotte looked at the corner of the glade closest to the trail to camp. Mr. Diavolo had just picked his way through the brush. The creepy feeling on Charlotte’s neck disappeared, and the Pearl Harmony’s light winked out. Ginger’s caw echoed off the trees.
He was still wearing his outrageous hat and even more outrageous jeans, but, somehow, his facial hair had changed again. Now he was wearing fuzzy sideburn-to-moustache arrangement. The fact that they had to be fake just made it weirder.
Charlotte scowled. “This is a private session.” Ginger squatted to bring her beak that much closer to Mr. Diavolo’s ear and let out another caw.
“Was a private sesson. Was. You have nice footwork, but a weak grasp of the obvious, kung fu girl. Kung Fu Girl! I like it! It’s simple. And now I know where your moves come from. I didn’t think you were the dancer type. Too quick.”
Charlotte jumped down from the wire. “You can’t call me Kung Fu Girl.” She almost added that that was what her brother’s boyfriend called him. Well, Kung Fu Boy, but still. It was disrespectful of her brother. Or respectful of that awful Kumi. Either way, it was off the table!
“So what’s your superhero name? Peach Queen? Because that’s what you’re going to be!”
Charlotte blanched. This conversation was getting out of control. “I’m not a superhero!”
“What? You’re a supervillain? Awesome. ‘What is best in life?’ I can totally work with that.”
“I’m not either!” Charlotte protested.
“Oh, pish-tosh, girlie-girl. You’re one of those Earther supers everyone’s been talking about.”
“Everyone?” Charlotte asked, appalled.
“Everyone important in this valley. So, me. Oh, and that CBI agent that I invited over to my place for my dinner party last night with his boyfriend.”
Charlotte stared at Mr. Diavolo until he deigned to explain. “We’re a community, you know. Us flamboyant types.”
“John isn’t flamboyant!”
“True, and a pity. Those abs. Ah, well. There’s better on Malva.”
Charlotte stared at Mr. Diavolo. A Malvan? She didn’t want to go off and fight in gladiatorial battles on a faraway planet!
As if reading her mind, Mr Diavolo patted her hand. “Malva is best for a lot of things, girl, but not beauty pageants.”
“Is there an echo in here? Besides that stupid crow? Who should watch it with the Malvan technology and all? Because at some point I’m going to get annoyed.”
Mr. Diavolo looked up. “That’s right, I can understand why you’d be jealous of sharing your little island with me. I am a man in full, and you’re just a silly little bird. But don’t push your luck.”
Ginger shut up, and Mr. Diavolo turned back to Charlotte, picking up both of her wrists and staring deep into her eyes. “Beauty pageants. On Malva it’s all lust, decadence and seduction. On this little backwater, it’s all so, so repressed. Oh, the little girls. How they want to bust out and wind men around their fingers and steal boyfriends and break hearts. But they can’t. They have to be good girls.”
He let go of Charlotte’s hands, and spread his own wide. “Until they get onto that stage. Until they used their style and their sexy and they take those judges by their hem-hems and crush them until they say, ‘That right there, up on that stage? That’s a hell of a girl.’”
“Judges?” Charlotte asked.
“Mr. Picquette, manager of the Valley Inn; Mr. Hernandez, of Hernandez Hardware; and Mrs. Kaeo, of Kaeio’s Dry Cleaning. She’s the tough one. But the real judges are the other contestants, you know. Those are the ones you want to break.”
“I don’t want to beak anyone!”
“You know why we kidnap people to fight in the Malvan arena? Because sometimes it’s delicious. The kidnapped person gives the champion her best fight, for some reason. I think it’s because they can’t allow themselves to truly enjoy crushing their enemies until they have no choice.”
“Or maybe they don’t enjoy it at all,” Charlotte suggested.
“Oh, what fun the champion has. And the paladin, too. Well, right up until the moment that the Phazor pronounces, and the champion gives the mercy blow. Okay, until a moment or two before that, or it wouldn’t be a mercy blow.”
“Oh,” Charlotte said, as she realised what was going on here. “You want me to enter so that Brittany can have someone to crush!”
“You have quite the self-esteem issue for a kung-fu-fighting super hero,” Mr. Diavolo said, completely straight-faced.
“Oh, seriously,” Charlotte answered. “Like a brunette is ever going to beat a blonde in a beauty contest.”
Mr. Diavolo’s face broke into a smirk. “Well, it certainly would be a novelty. Still, if Brittany doesn’t step up her game, you could win. You’ve got those kung fu moves. Put them in the right dress and the right bikini, and we could see an upset.”
“There’s a swimsuit component?”
“Of course there is, girl. We’re in the backwoods, here.”
“I am not strutting around on a stage in a bathing suit. No way, no how.”
“As I say: the best part is when you force the true hearted and brave to fight. Have you ever thought what’s likely to happen to your ride home if you piss off a guy who owns a Malvan battlecruiser?”
Charlotte gasped. Rosa!
“Isn’t it tedious the way they always call warships battlecruisers? I mean, technically, my yacht is a converted corvette. Even Malvan battlecruisers can’t be crewed by a single menial. But let’s think of it as a battlecruiser, just so you don’t get the idea that the dinky little tub you’re hiding up on that asteroid has a chance if I decide to have it stomped.”
“You can’t blow up our starship! Rosa’s nice!”
Anger flashed across Mr. Diavolo’s face. “Can’t isn’t something you say to a Malvan. Agree to enter the Peach Festival Queen contest, or I send my driver to blow up your precious Rosa right now!”
He paused for a moment. “Oh, and if you win the contest, not only will it be the highlight of your stone age life, but I’ll owe you a favour, and my favours are as magnificent as I am.”
Charlotte looked at Mr. Diavolo, wondering what her uncle would make of him, before, finally, she gave in. “Okay.”
“Brilliant. So you’re agreed that this will be fun! I will send my driver tomorrow night for your first coaching session.” Mr. Diavolo got up, turned around, and began picking his way out of the glade, back towards the dock.
“I didn’t say,” Charlotte began, speaking to his retreating back, but then she gave up. Mr. Diavolo wasn’t listening. Briefly, she wondered just what she would have to say to make him listen. Then she picked up her phone and her sword, stood up, and surveyed the little glade one more time. In the glow of the evening, red light picked out a pattern in the leaves that had seemed to wave behind her. The pattern was of a green face with pointed ears and eyes, just like the creature she had followed the previous night.