Dubiously, Shal lifted the knitted hat and put it on his head. The bright red cotton ball at the top could be felt even through the fluffy material of the cap and made him profoundly uncomfortable. Woodenly, Shal turned to Rumi.
“You look ridiculous. Like a training spear that uses a droopy pillow as a blade.” Rumi said critically, rubbing her chin. “But I bet if they could make a doll version of you, thousands of young women spear users would snap it up. Your glower makes you seem unapproachable and distant, yet hyper-competent. That’s catnip for young women. I would know.”
Shal snorted. As if to prove that she had a legitimate point, Rumi held up another small doll. The two were currently standing in one of the larger C Corporation pop-ups, selling memorabilia for the under 25 tournament. The doll that Rumi proffered for Shal’s study was the Helen doll. Shal had no doubt that this was the most enthusiastically made doll of the eight; although there were other women in the final eight, they lacked some of Helen’s… charms.
“Such things are unnecessary. I am a spearman; I move with a purpose. These things… they simply distract.” Shal said bluntly.
Surreptitiously, Rumi squeezed the Helen doll’s stuffed bosom. “Mmm. Perhaps. Or are you perhaps worried that your spear skills aren’t advanced enough to satisfy thousands of young women…? Although some might just buy you for collector’s sake, others might take you to bed with them…”
Shal shook his head. “Your ribald humor does not dissuade me. I have made up my mind. You will be my woman.”
Rumi contorted the dolls limbs. “I’m not seeking the boyfriend at the moment, but thank you for your inquiries. Believe me, you would be on the short life of candidates.”
“There is no need for a list. It will be me.” Shal flashed his teeth. “Give me these other names. I will demonstrate my superiority as a mate by dueling them. Out of respect for you, I shall let them keep their meaningless lives.”
“Arrogance isn’t attractive,” Rumi said, but Shal noticed her quick smile as she attempted to turn away and hide it. “Besides, we are getting ahead of ourselves. We are here for the tournament. What are relationships but dressing around our god, the spear? Who do you think will pretend to kill the best in this tournament?”
Grandly, Rumi spread her arms to indicate the four bins of the final eight contestants. Shal pointed confidently.
Rumi’s eyebrow quirked up. “Really? Azriel Blanche? If you are right, you can make good money on such a bet. Although her half of the bracket is definitely the weakest…”
Leaning forward, Rumi picked up a male doll from one of the bins. As she straightened, Shal’s eyes flicked up from admiring her long legs to meet her gaze. “If you ask most people… they would say this man. Althumber Veir. Heir to some Style or other here in the capital. Beyond that, the people’s favorite… well…”
With a disgusted shake of the head, she gestured to Helen’s buxom doll. Shal rubbed the back of his neck. The amount of detail that went into these dolls was somewhat disturbing to him. Although he didn’t want to admit it, he acknowledged that certain foolish young men would take the doll for… less than savory reasons.
“But if you ask me…” With two long and slow steps, Rumi crossed over to the far bin. This bin, out of them all, had the most dolls remaining. Of them all, this was obviously the least popular. The slim male figure looked washed out and pale in Rumi’s figure as she gently lifted up the doll. Her lips were thin and bloodless as she forced a smile. “Silo will win. I just can’t… picture my brother losing.”
Shal had spent the past few weeks avoiding the topic of Rumi’s brother. As he delighted in the lovely young woman he had encountered randomly on a farm, Shal was only too happen to leave the subject untouched. After all, after she returned to Hastam, Shal had made the connection between Silo Rune and been disappointed that she would depart to meet her brother. But she hadn’t.
“Why have you not seen him?” Shal knew this wasn’t the best way to deal with the issue, but this was his way of dealing with it. He was like the spear he had spent so long handling. A direct approach was often the best.
Rumi tilted her head to the side and gave Shal a twisted smile. “I wonder. A woman’s intuition, I guess…? Well anyway, care for a bet?”
“A bet,” Shal said, cracking his knuckles absently. “On the tournament.”
“Just so.” Rumi waved away a C Corp employee that had begun approaching and leaned close to Shal conspiratorially. “But first, a question: Shal, why do you wield a spear under that woman from a foreign School?”
“I am a spear-user. I have given promises and now I fulfill them.” Shal grunted. “Responsibility is the weight behind my spear. It is my geas and my strength. Until my promise is fulfilled, I will follow Ophelia’s orders.”
“Hmmm…” Rumi’s expression seemed to flash sour as she stepped away from Shal as the worker took the hint and avoided them. Shal’s hands twitched as the impulse to pull the girl close to him rose in his chest, but suppressed it. There was no meaning to such things if she did not come willingly.
“You might find this surprising,” Rumi said seriously, “But I want to be powerful. An ultimate warrior capable of controlling the fate of entire Schools… so I say we bet the reasons we wield our spears on the tournament. But since there are only two of us, we only lose if the other person’s choice wins. If Silo wins, for example, you must agree to give up your precious duty; you will cast aside your spear. As a show of generosity, I will agree to accompany you on a date. Which would be our first day, just so we are clear.”
Snorting, Shal shook his head. “What woman would want to date I, should I be spearless?”
Rumi snorted right back at him. “Now who is making ribald jokes?”
“I am being honest,” Shal rumbled. “My drive comes from the spear and the future it grants me. There are many things I want to accomplish, and without the spear, I am incapable of reaching the heights I pursue. I cannot help but wonder… Why do you covet the weight behind my spear?”
“Think about it,” Rumi said softly. With her fingers, she delicately brushed the Silo doll’s hair to the side. It was pure gold and caught the light well even in doll form. “What happens after you reach the end of this road? Are you yourself any longer...? The rivers of blood that flow to the pinnacle of Tellus have tolls. Perhaps… I don’t want to see you pay them.”
“Because I am your man, you worry for me. It is unnecessary,” Shal drawled.
Rolling her eyes, Rumi tossed the Silo doll back into its wooden bin. “If you aren’t going to even listen to me, I will go find our seats alone.”
“The fight will not be for a bit yet. And besides, I have not yet learned what I will win, should Azriel prove victorious in this tournament.” Shal’s gaze remained fixated on Rumi’s shoulders as she marched away from him. It was a habit from reading an opponent’s bone structure in fights to the death, but Shal was shocked to find how much he delighted Rumi’s musculoskeletal system in smooth motion.
There was an uncommon grace and lightness to her movements. She walked like morning mist arriving, all silent approach and cool tingling. She seemed so small and so slight, and from the moment that Shal saw her, he felt a deep longing in his heart to protect her. Of all the people that he had encountered in his life, even Randidly, this young woman was by far the most bright and delightful soul he had met.
Rumi spun around and caught him staring. Putting her hands on his hips, she tsked lightly and said. “Don’t look at me like I am a cut of meat when you ask what you will win. This isn’t a scenario where I offer you my hand in marriage. Besides, the bet you are putting up is a weighty thing; I must even the scales with something of equal value-”
“And as you are already my woman-”
“THEREFORE,” Rumi said with a glare. “Therefore, to stand opposite your deep dutiful spear… I offer my vast potential in spear work. Should Azriel Blanche prove the superior spear user, I will willingly pass to you my infinite amount of possible power.”
Shal blinked, opened his mouth, then frowned. Of all the things he expected her to offer, this was… most unexpected. “This…”
“Ha, you don’t believe me? Let me prove it to you.” Rumi turned around and walked smoothly toward Shal. She was perhaps only two thirds as tall as him, a slender and slight thing. And when she stood before Shal, he once again felt the urge to grip her and wrap his arms around her.
His right pointer finger twitched.
Very slowly, Rumi raised her arm and drew the back of her hand across his cheek. The short stubble of his face caught on the tender skin of her hand. While Shal stood shocked by the sensation, he couldn’t help but notice that she was standing on tiptoes to so casually reach his face. Then she twisted her hand and with fingertips traced the line of his jaw to his neck. From his neck, she followed the thick veins of his shoulders down to his collarbone. She tapped his collarbone three times and then allowed her hand to drop.
“There,” Rumi announced, beaming up at him. “Would you not be dead, had I done that with a spear instead of a hand? Perhaps next time I will show you the secret of my moves.”
Shal chuckled, in spite of himself. “You cheated. This proves nothing.”
“You know what they say. There is no such thing as unfair to a man holding a spear.” Very pleased with herself, Rumi spun in a circle, then hopped up and planted her feet to stop herself. “Ooooo, okay. Let’s go. I want to get a good seat, so let’s go early.”
“Are you worried?” Shal asked as he moved to her side. “Your brother is facing the favorite today.”
“Of course I’m worried,” Rumi said. And as she spoke, she seemed to pale. “But it is not for my brother that I worry.”