Satori did not entertain them with her presence.
As like as not, this was her own choosing rather than effect of his efforts, but full as certain she had forgone this early meal, Garion was thankful. Utsuho, on the flipside, had been ravenous. The company of Angel balked her only for a moment ere she took seat by the great set table. The winged one was indeed truer to her stomach than her pride, though the boy did often catch her knit her brows at Angel as if struggling to recall. A yellowing bruise stained still her freckled nose, but she herself seemed in possession of but the merest memory why it had been hurt. The cat-maid had been no-place to be found, nor was there sight of her nor trace nowhere they had looked. Half through the course only she had come and nipped at this food and that, but near as soon she baffled Garion with a cryptic wink and eft departed. Thence, she had not returned.
The passing of the challenge went smoother than he might wish. As quick as to fill her belly, the winged one was wont to play after, and an offer of bout was met with a sprightly grin (and a bemused frown right next). They filed out the hallways and the front door (leaving the dishes for later) and marched past the red garden for the bridge over the fire-lake. The volcanic winds caught in their faces and the black mighty wings unfurled with a sibilant whoosh when they felt their touch. Angel fought for breath in awe, but husbanded her thoughts for a later time.
The boy and his once-lover flounced, marshalled by those great wings, until they halted near to the mid-point of the bridge.
“Ah. Ah yes.” Utsuho stood and arched her body and arms with a delightful sound. The feathered tips of her wings fluttered but whether of anticipation, the torrid current, or of some else a thing, one knew not. “There’s room enough here for flight and fight,” she announced, a good bright voice. “The house’s in the way a whit but we’ll be watchful, oh yes. The house is nothing. We can have field here.”
“How many?” Angel inquired vaguely.
“As many as there is. As you’ve got.” The winged one giddied. “There is time, oh yes there is.”
Angel tittered: ah-haha, a nervous sound, cowed by the enthusiasm.
“Ah, why do we not, say, settle for a starter?” she bargained. “A best-of-three to begin. That should be enough, just.”
“A three!” Utsuho exclaimed. “That’s not a lot. I had thought there’d be more fun.”
“I say for starters.”
“Ah, well,” she floundered, “that, yes... Good, have it! A three for starters. That’s enough to start.”
She steadied her wings as though for flight, but Angel prayed her stop.
“I’ll need warm up first, I will,” she said. “I have not flown for days. A minute, no more. Won’t you stay?”
Utsuho pondered on it.
At length she said, “A minute, no more,” and went back to catching wind.
Angel nodded in thanks, drew a ways to the side, and began to stretch her limbs and back.
The silent Garion stalked after her without hurry. Almost casually he waited till she was mid-bend, when in turn he pushed his knuckles down twixt her shoulder blades, that she bent even lower and her spine popped. He asked coolly if she’d been shirking exercise since they’d parted ways. The grin she gave him was as much pained as tempting.
“Have no illusions,” he told her surely, “you are tasked and the task you will do.”
She stuck her tongue out at him and started at her squats.
“She scares me, that one does,” she said between wheezes. “Without she goes easy on me I see myself poor after this.”
“Are you saying to forfeit?” Garion asked.
“No. I say she scares me, that she does—but I will fight her anyway since you say to.” She rose and twirled her arms a short while. “Ha-ah. There’ll be hell, oh yes there’ll be hell if I forget to hold my air in the heat of it. I mislike the underground—here, especially. I would bring it all down on their heads and seal the way in if it were for me to say.” She turned her upper body left and right, hands on hips and feet apart. “I should do after we’ve done with them, I should—as a prize for your finished adventure, if nothing else. What say you?”
Garion was patient. “We shall see.”
She clasped her hands and cracked her fingers.
“All right,” she breathed, “I’m all ready—”
“Then let us—”
“—but for one thing,” she rode over him. She climbed on her toes and pouted her paper-cream lips. “A kiss,” she said, “for good luck.”
You have no need of luck, Garion went inly, only to do as I say.
All the same he spied back at Utsuho; but the winged one was close-eyed and warming her face on the hot wind. The boy leaned down and curtly brushed his lips on hers. The tear where she’d bit them to blood ached. Angel smiled fitly to her name when once more he straightened. She squeezed his cold hand once; then she flitted past his side and called to the winged one, “Let us go!”
And the winged one took to the air with a gust, and Angel went in pursuit.
Garion released a harsh breath. The day tired him already.
He lumbered to the edge of the bridge and propped himself on the limestone balusters. The two flying hammered out the finer points of their match far aloft, as far as not for him to hear the words. The boy watched how the winged one beat her great wings again and again and again and how Angel’s long hair tossed on their wind. He stifled a sudden yawn with the back of his fist. This was not the time to doze. There was an agreement, and the girls put a wide distance ‘tween one and tother, twenty-pace or thirty or more. Angel called the start. Utsuho’s wiry arm shot up, hand opened.
Then the spectacle began.
At once an orb of furious gold light burst with an ear-splitting crack at the tips of her fingers. At once the vast air filled, filled with its many children, each golden-white and luminous as a miniature sun. Angel whisked back out the way of the incandescent barrage. The first bombs flew and fell, popping and sizzling on the stone of the bridge like soap bubbles come aflame. The boy shielded his face with a tail of his coat. The orbs rapped and ruptured on the rough-sewn fabric, yet left no damage in their wake. As fierce as brilliant, the battle was but make-pretend still.
A misplaced curiosity led him to seize one descending orb in his hand.
The glowing matter burst on his palm, leaving him to clutch at the meat of his arm, a hundred daggers of pain prickling the skin, the muscle beneath. The fight was a play; the pain was real enough. The boy swallowed an oath and clenched his teeth on the stiffening flesh.
He had scarce heed to pay the ceasing of this monstrous first barrage, but still the next had him give all the heed he may muster.
The orbs aglow vanished each in snakes of dark smoke, and Utsuho raised her other arm, to join to the first. A great blare came forth, like the blast of a great horn or some mad beast yet unknown to man, and a brand-new star flared to life in the winged one’s hands, brighter, mightier, even than all the previous. Angel whipped her skirts behind the knee, her unflinching ruby-red eyes set on that dreadful glow. And Garion did hide again his grey face, for the light was a wondrous blazing white.
The star throbbed and shattered with a thunderclap. Its burnt-red outer shell shed in great flaming chunks and sailed majestically for the far magmatic bed of the cavern. Again the expiring core flashed and belched forth: a broadening rim of energy this time, ice-blue, round and razor-edged. A thousand like-coloured orbs came gushing after it: nothing if not chaos given many a pale-blue little life. They went and went in each and all direction, spattering around the blond man with no rhythm, nor pattern, every which way racing: left, right, down, ceiling-ward, same all. Angel danced in the fearsome hail, spun this way and that and again, her dress swirling. The orbs hissed and perished on her flapping sleeves and skirts, but missed always someway the thin nimble body. The seething rain raged on, the girl caged in it, though unscathed.
And Garion might have seen all through this awesome dance, except for the pat of slippers on the stone, nearing.
A voice cried, “Garion!” He. “What’s going on?”
The boy turned on a heel.
The small hostess plainly had dressed in a rush. The shoulders of her smock were askew. A sash of half-translucent peach satin was wound many times round her white neck. The socks on her feet were mismatched. She held up the folds of her skirt as she hurried toward him.
“You were to remain in your chambers,” said Garion, a dry remark.
Satori bristled. “Am I your ward now,” she demanded, “for you to say what I’m ought to do and not? Aren’t you rising above your station a bit?” She threw down her skirt and slapped her hands on her hips. “Your kissing and touching me in places does not grant you command of me, counter to what you’d think, so do not you go and presume to order me around only since you’re allowed in my bed. Now, what is this, Garion?”
“A match,” he said simply. “A challenge was issued, hence it is.”
“And you let that to pass?”
“Children must play.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Children? Is that what you think her as? A child?”
“As it is, she is one way or another.”
“That’s some very round-about reasoning. There was nothing else to it then, you are sure—no quarrel or nothing? They’re at it for the fun?”
She let out her air. “That’s better, I guess,” she surrendered, “if little. Oh, bothered well; let them have their play, if they must.” She looked on up to the incessant orb-fall overhead. “There’s a sight though,” she murmured, “and what a sight. It’s been some while since I saw Okuu have at it so intensely. She isn’t being the most forgiving, even for this stripe of opponent.” She studied Angel as she wound through an intricate stream of orbs. “You’ve a passing limber... child... though, I’ll give you that. She’s bending awful lots to slip those bullets. What moves! She might bend all the way backwards to her heels if she wanted, I suspect... or have you perhaps noticed?”
Garion ignored the stab.
Here he stood, yes he did, stilly, the grey stare bored into the small woman before. The fight glittered reflected in her eyes, but for him, it may well be gone and lost.
The part-pellucid sash annoyed him. He felt a stray wish to grasp it, tear it from her neck: to see, ascertain, be sure—but of what, he mightn’t say. He knew still the taste of her skin, oh yes: salty from the lack of bath the night before. A meet taste, he thought. She was his life, his salt, now even as ever. The fact tickled his tautly chained choler.
With never a glance, he swung out his coat’s tail to screen her from a random spurt of azure orbs. They crashed on the cloth, whistling and snarling as they died. The small hostess gave him a look. They held it: him cool, her insolent.
“I don’t need you to knight for me, Garion,” she chided him after the quiet. “I could have well taken that.”
He let the tail fall defiantly along his side.
Satori summoned up a shadow of a smile. “It was nice of you though,” she said softly, “... if uncalled.”
“... Be welcome.”
“I am... or so I should like to think.” She drew the hairs from her forehead behind her ear. Her eyes smiled cunningly and her tiny brow lifted. “Garion,” she said, “say, what-ever happened to your lip? It seems cut.”
“I bit it,” he grated, “on the meal.”
“What a clumsy thing to do. And how unlike you. Well, I won’t stoop to rub it in your face. Only do try not to do that too much often, if you’d please. I dislike blood. Yours... principally. Yours makes me squeamish.”
“I won’t say. As a matter of fact, this isn’t something I’m the most partial to talk about. I don’t enjoy... the sight of your blood, that’s all. I’d be glad of it if you shouldn’t show it to me when you needn’t. Would you try that, Garion—for my sake?”
“... As you wish,” he said.
Yet she sighed. “You’re soon to make promises,” she said as one that likes not what is replied, “and I fear here you’re the keenest on those you won’t likely keep. I have to wonder: how many such promises have you made to me before this morning? Are you planning to keep even one? And how many like sweet vows have you made to that silly child up there?”
The point of her stare drifted up to the fighting two.
And then her eyes widened and she blanched in dawning horror.
“Garion! What are they doing?”
The boy traced her terror-struck gaze.
The two fought no more.
Nay, they did—yet altogether unlike was this fight: fists and knees and teeth in place of bright magicks. They had not marked the barrage end—neither the hostess nor her boy—yet it must have sometime; for the angel and the bird were laying savagely into one another like to scuffling beasts, and the brilliant show truly was no more. The winged one crashed a mighty blow into Angel’s belly and the foolish girl toppled downward as a rock; but a moment hence and she flew once more; and she charged Utsuho with a bloody cry; ripped a hand of coal-black feathers from the batting wings.
The feathers fell and wafted, dancing on the air as dry leaves on the wind.
“What are they doing?” again Satori gasped, fretting at his side. “Stop it! Garion!”
The boy sensed he’d felt a touch on his hand; but when he went and looked, Satori’s were well far from his, twined worriedly on her chest.
Mayhap he’d imagined it.
She caught his look.
“Stop them!” she begged him despairingly. “Garion!”
“... As you wish,” he said.
And drew he in a mighty breath, the name clear on his mind...
... Yet when came there the utmost moment, the mind changed inexplicably and his tongue twisted, and he roared:
at the highest top of his lungs. The shout left a ring in his own ears.
The winged one heard the call.
And when she faced them, then Angel shot at her from the flank; but the single-minded Utsuho brushed the girl aside with one wing and dove for the bridge and her master. Angel was soon to follow, but where the winged one fell in behind her master’s back, Angel swooped behind Garion’s. They were painted both with blood and scratch, and bruise as purple as plums, and trace of spittle and torn hair.
“She, she!” Utsuho whined, accusing with a finger, “she started! She did!”
Angel countered: “Cheat! Cheat! I’ll show you to play it dirty, I will! I’ll pull the rock down on your black head! I’ll—”
Satori silenced her with a glower. Angel whimpered and hid.
The pale hostess gave her eye to Garion. “Would you perhaps like a leash with that collar she’s got?” she asked him, icy-calm. “She’d give you less trouble if you kept her tied to your hand at all times and jerked when she acts wayward.”
Garion bowed. “I apologise. Angel!” he barked. “On your knees.”
“I don’t know that will be necessary,” Satori said. “A dishonest apology is as well as none. And you,” she told the growling Utsuho, “you were as quick to exchange punches, weren’t you?”
“Quiet! Sit!” The hostess crossed her arms. “What a farce! I hadn’t even intended on leaving my room today but you must drag me out into your foolishness. What in the world were you thinking? As a matter of fact, you needn’t crowd to answer; I could do without knowing. Garion. You won’t accomplish anything by this, neither of you. Take her back in, patch her hurts. She’ll leak dry at this rate—not to mention she’ll stain the carpets. And tell her, I beseech you, this is nothing but stupidity. Go, now. You be still, Okuu. I won’t hear who started it again; let them pass.”
The boy once more inclined his head. He pinched Angel by the scruff and shoved her squirming toward the mansion. The girl snapped her teeth at Utsuho as they went by, but this was all he allowed. The elsewise and there should be another fight—belike with a sad end to them both. The blond man pushed her on.
The wind picked up and howled, throwing their clothes.
“Garion,” Satori called from behind.
He halted; turned.
“This really is foolishness,” she said.
For you, mayhap, he thought.
She answered not.
Garion turned back and resumed for the house.
Satori stared after them, after him, Utsuho fuming under her hand, she stared: till he was well gone from her deep violet eyes’ sight.
※ ※ ※