Friday, February 21, 2014

Chapter 3, 43: Blood In the Water

Chapter 3, 43: Blood In the Water

The scene, Charlotte thought, crazily: the stage of the gym-auditorium of Long Lake Regional High School. On it, one girl, in a sweet, white, kung-fu princess gown, with a sword that she’s just willing not to glow, so as o salvage some small fragment of her secret identity. And, opposite her, a Malvan, crazy as practically any Malvan, wearing his glowing armour, and holding his burning sword. And he is mad as hell, and, when you get right down to it, Charlotte thought a little more, it is my fault.

Because as weird as he is, he was basically harmless. He took off from the most advanced planet in all the galaxy, maybe the universe, and brought all his technology to this dinky little backwater planet, and all he wanted was there to be a beauty contest, where he would coach a girl, and she would win. Yes, he wanted there to be a lot of Mean Girls-type catfighting, and, when the possibility came up, he wanted a superhero girl from 2012 to be forced to participate and maybe have conflicted feelings about it. And, sure, those last parts were all cruel and stuff, but not in a really serious way.

I need a moment, Charlotte thought about saying. Time for one of those long, dramatic pauses that happen right before the heroine puts it all together.

But, Charlotte went on to herself, I’m not a heroine in a story. I’m just a girl, doing the best I can. Well, okay, I’m a girl who has been taught the inner secrets of Eight Spirit Dragon Kung Fu, and I have a magic sword and a crow as a spirit guide, and, most importantly awesome friends. But I’m still just a girl, and, right now, Char-Char, you have screwed the pooch. 

Screaming in some language that Charlotte did not understand, Mr. Diavolo rushed across the stage, artlessly stamping forward, blade arcing down in an overhead strike. 

It would have been easy. If he weren’t fast as a machine, and probably ten times as strong. Charlotte had to anticipate the angle of cut to even hope to parry as she slipped to the left.

She was right, of course, even through the armour, Mr. Diavolo was easy to read. The Pearl Harmony Sword took the glowing blade at the perfect angle, and the blade exploded in shards of light.

Unfortunately, that was not the only explosive thing happening on stage. Pain went through Charlotte’s body as though every bit of her had been turned into a sensitive tooth just touched by a dentist’s probe. The force of the blow threatened to turn her sword out of her hand, and beneath her white-slippered feet, the polished pine floorboards splinted and shattered. 

Charlotte dropped through the floor, flipping as she fell to come to rest on three points, hand-knee-side-of-foot, sword up. Underneath the stage, the floor was a wilderness of rough joists and a surprising amount of dust and long cloth bundles of stuff that had been pushed in from the front for storage. Light streamed down from the hole in the floor above, and spread from the Pearl Harmony Sword. 

Mr. Diavolo walked to the edge of the stage and looked down. “You ruined my pageant! Now get up here and fight!”

“But I didn’t! I contested it fair and square,” Charlotte pointed out. “I’m not the one who ruined it. You’re the one who ruined it!”

Mr. Diavolo screamed again, jumping down into the pit that the impact of his sword had made, his reconstituted energy blade raised over his head for another sweeping cut.

Of course, once he was juming, he was letting gravity do the work. Charlotte had all the time that she needed to launch herself into a spin around her left hand, bringing her legs around to sweep Mr. Diavolo’s feet out from under him as he landed. Before he had half-finished landing, Charlotte had spun up and out of the hole, back onto the stage. “Oh, yeah,” Charlotte muttered. “Gravity is my homeboy.”

Still hoping that Mr. Diavolo would see reason, Charlotte looked down at the Malvan impresario. “Can’t I just withdraw from the pageant and we can forget this ever happened?”

Metal discs popped out from underneath Mr. Diavolo’s feet. With a move like a speed skater starting out, he slid into the air, gliding to rest high above the stage, his head haloed by the long, hanging lights just above him. “It’s too late,” he screamed. “You’ve already won.”

Charlotte blushed. She’d been kind of hoping that she had won, but it was incredibly exciting to hear that Mr. Diavolo thought so too. Then, on second thought, she tried to focus. “But if I withdraw, Brittany will still be Peach Harvest Festival Queen.”

Mr. Diavolo, not making the same mistakes again, slid on his antigravity discs, rushing at Charlotte high and from the right, his energy sword held to his left like a scythe. 

Charlotte guessed the angle and jumped over it. Even clearing the blade by a foot, she could still feel the lash of its massive energy field. This time, she couldn’t hope to land on her feet, and the best she could do was roll to a stop, flat on her back, her head over the edge of the stage, so that she could see the audience. As well as feel the mother of all head rushes getting started.

They were sitting, very, very still, and making not a sound at all, even though Bruce was talking a mile a minute. He looked, Charlotte thought, very scared. In fact, so did Rose and Dora. Although it was a little weird that Bruce was clapping. 

A heavy foot clumped down on the edge of the stage, with a metal ring. Mr. Diavolo’s helmeted head came into sight. “Do you have any idea who you are dealing with, you perky little jumped up baboon? I am Malvan, a lord of creation. Maybe if this was the arena, I would forgive you for besting my champion, but…”

The sound of a single clap interrupted the Malvan’s rant. “This pageant is the best!” Bruce said. 

Mr Diavolo looked around. “I see that I missed one of your drones, boy.”

“Actually, I put it on Charlotte. Figured your hunter killers would steer clear of her. But now I’m worried that something will happen and that I won’t get a chance to tell you how awesome it’s all been.”

Above her, Mr. Diavolo visibly relaxed. “I don’t think so. It’s been a screw-up from day one.”

“Why? Because you backed a normal girl against a wuxia superhero? Have you seen House of Flying Daggers? It’s amazing that Brittany was even competitive. I doubt even a professional Miss America coach could get results like that. If Brittany hadn’t been such a bitch about it, she would probably have won!”

“Oh, well, it’s nice of you to say that,” Mr. Diavolo answered. His shoulders visibly relaxed as he answered. Charlotte could not believe that he was buying it.

“In fact…” Bruce began.

“You think that I have been wasting my time here in the bush leagues?”

“That’s pretty obvious, sir.”

“It’s awfully late to put together a bid for the Miss America pageant this year,” Mr. Diavolo said, as though talking to himself.

“There’s always Miss Universe, sir.”

“Even that… Well, Miss Wong, I hate to miss your crowning, but there’s really not a moment for me to waste if I am to take my act to the next level! But, before I go, there’s just one thing. ” Mr. Diavolo reached down, took Charlotte’s hand, and lifted her to her feet. And then, in front of the still trapped audience, sang “Here She Is,” to Charlotte. Then he soared up into the rafters again, this time blowing a hole right through the ceiling with a wave of his hand and ascending into the night sky. Through the hole, Charlotte could see his space yacht, waiting in mid-air to pick him up. 

Mr. Diavolo had, Charlotte thought, a great singing voice. Which didn’ t make it any less weird.

It also made the actual crowning seem pretty anticlimactic, as the remaining judges handed Charlotte her bouquet and crowned her with a shiny tiara with a surprising amount of real gold in It, thanks to the vast mines of Geithner’s Strike.

Vast mines. Oh my God, Charlotte thought. I know where the mother lode is! Not that it mattered to her very much, unless someone had opened up a Western Union in Landing City so that she could wire money home to Philadelphia on Earth!

Charlotte was so distracted that it took her a moment to realise that Dora and Rose were standing around her. Dora put her hand on Charlotte’s shoulder and leaned in to whisper. “Your mother would be so proud of you, Char-Char.”

And that was it. All the emotion, all the tears that she thought that the weird fight with Mr. Diavolo had banished welled out of Charlotte while the other contestants surrounded her, crying, too. Even Brittany had the grace to congratulate her. Oh, Brittany, Charlotte wanted to say. This has cost you so much. But Charlotte couldn’t find the words to say it without reminding her rival that her boy (girl-)friend had dumped her for Ken during the contest, and all Charlotte could do was take Brittany by the arm and lean in and give her the kindest, warmest hug that she could.

Finally, the ceremony was over. Clutching the certificate that said that Charlotte was the proud recipient of a two thousand Colonial Dollars scholarship to Landing College (enough for tuition and the first semester dorm fees, on the ice-cold day in Hell when Auntie Ma would let her go to anything but Ivy League), Charlotte and her friends headed down the aisle of the gym, between the strewn and skewed folding chairs. Just inside the entrance, Bruce was leaning against a wall, looking uncomfortable.

Charlotte led Dora and Rose over to him. “II can’t believe you talked Mr. Diavolo down,” she said.

Bruce shrugged. “I’ve had a lot of practice.” His voice was cold and empty and sad, letting Charlotte know that he didn’t want to talk about it. Charlotte didn’t press. She knew that he was talking about his Dad.

Outside the gym, in the warm evening air, they could hear the vast sound of water. This was the week that the mine released its sluices, letting Long Lake fill up and flooding the Narrows. Already, barges loaded with boxes of fruit and booms of logs were headed down the river for the main valley. Tomorrow, Colonial gunboats would come up the river against the flood to escort the year’s gold down. It was the end of another beautiful summer in Long Lake.

Well, beautiful except for the fire that suddenly flared in front of them, and the sound of the Civil Defence sirens sounding on the Colonial Building.

“Fear, Fire, Foes!” Bruce yelled.

“What?” Charlotte asked.

“It’s from the Lord of the Rings,” Rose explained. “Mr. Diavolo is gone, and Sovereign is attacking!”

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