Randidly’s spine stiffened at Ophelia’s words, but before he could decide how to respond Shal had cut in.
“Is there truly a need, Ophelia? My student has business elsewhere. I am more than willing to share his story.”
Ophelia spared Shal an amused glance. “Oh? Are you done avoiding me? These days I have felt less like your superior and more like your jealous wife as you have spent so much time flirting with that girl. Fine then, I’ll expect you for dinner.”
She too disappeared, but she left the soft flutter of wings in her wake.
Randidly gave Shal a knowing look. “To keep two suitors happy is a hard thing.”
“Hmph, foolish boy,” Shal said while unceremoniously shoving Randidly backward. To his surprise, Randidly noticed that he was still slightly weaker than Shal. “Do you not go to both Azriel and Helen? Both are strong women. Their children will kill many. Choosing one to share a life with will ground you.”
“A single crush and you become a life guru, huh…” Randidly said. He opened his mouth then to shift the conversation, to talk about how he still carried the spirit of Shal’s mother in his chest. But ultimately, the words died on his lips. Although they hadn’t actually been rather expressive, Randidly had spent quite a bit of time with Lucretia. And he knew that she wouldn’t leave her current role as friend and protector to Alta until she was satisfied. To tell him before she was available… it seemed cruel.
So Randidly just shook his head. But he stopped when he noticed Shal’s serious gaze.
“It is no crush,” Shal announced. “It is fate. Us two could not avoid coming together. We were made for each other.”
To hear such platitudes from Shal was sickening in one way. But in another, there was strangely stirring. Because in his solemn expression there was a legitimacy that Randidly had never seen in twenty odd years of old-Earth rom-coms. So he kept quiet. Instead, Randidly asked another question that had been on his mind before he departed.
“Shal… what Level are you?”
Shal’s grin was wicked. “I have reached 97. Perhaps someday you will be half as lucky. Now go; your friend needs all the help she can get.”
With this bit of information, Randidly left the rubble-filled streets and traveled across Hastam to the Hall of Stances. Halfway there, he belatedly remembered telling that manipulative slime to bring himself to the Hall of Stances ahead of him. Although he had previously been somewhat amused by making the man struggle, Randidly now felt rather exhausted by the whole thing.
Hopefully, the guy hadn’t even made it through security into the Hall of Stances.
Because of this, Randidly felt a great deal of relief when he arrived at the Hall of Stances and saw hide nor hair of him. There was a crowd around the door which Randidly cut through with a pulse of his Crown and the guards let him past. In passing, Randidly had asked whether Darrune had arrived and the guards hadn’t seen him.
From there, he proceeded directly to Azriel’s room, which he found empty, and then Helen’s, which was also empty. Next stop was the training area between the two rooms. Although neither Helen and Azriel was there, Randidly found an acolyte of the Hall of Stances who was able to direct Randidly to their current location.
Helen was sitting at one of the low benches in the feasting hall, resting her forehead on her bowl of goulash. Azriel was next to her, talking intently to Helen. Aside from the two of them, the long room was empty as it was between the acolyte's scheduled meals. Both straightened when Randidly entered into the room.
“Ah, you haven’t died. I’m surprised how relieved I am,” Azriel said with a smile.
Wanly, Randidly smiled back. “Right back at you. And Helen… why do you look so depressed? You didn’t end up losing in the tournament after I gave you my slot, right?”
For a second Helen’s face scrunched up into a tight fist that made Randidly tense for a biting response. But instead, Helen surprised him by leaping up from the bench crying fat tears. She tackled him like a linebacker, spearing him in the midsection with enough force to stagger him. Then she latched on, sobbing and trembling with her face buried in his worn shirt.
The sudden guilty realization that he hadn’t washed his clothes since before being trapped in the prison surfaced. But he couldn’t be blamed for that, right…?
“So…?” Randidly said slowly. He looked down at the top of Helen’s head, then over to Azriel.
Azriel shrugged. “Well, she has not lost yet. But she faces Skarch, likely one of the most powerful individuals in the tournament. She would have even given you a hard time. Maybe even beat you. Over the course of the last several hours, we’ve been discussing strategy. It has not been productive.”
After hesitating for several seconds, Randidly reached down and squeezed Helen’s shoulder. “It’s fine. I have a plan.”
An hour later, Helen sat in one corner of her room with perfectly neutral and emotionally stable eyes and stared daggers at Azriel. The other woman confidently kept her chin high, refusing to acknowledge the projected animosity.
Helen spared a glance for Randidly. He as rubbing his forehead, looking disappointed. Her guilt and shame formed two wiggling wobbling towers of emotions in her head that threatened at any point to keel over and cause another display of waterworks. Which of course caused her shame to become even more aggravated. Helen forced herself to breath.
“It wasn’t my fault,” Azriel protested. “I couldn’t have caused Helen’s emotional outburst; I am not an emotional witch. She is the only one in charge of her emotions.”
Helen’s hands clenched into fists. But Randidly glanced toward her, so she forced her expression from murderous to aggrieved.
“Well…” Randidly sighed. “It was a little overkill to talk about how she is hopeless and will lose brutally for four hours. Wouldn’t you stop after just twenty minutes to move on to more productive matters?”
“Although it is unlikely, we could have missed something,” Azriel said sternly. “Therefore, we meticulously went over each and every one of Helen’s strengths. Unfortunately, Skarch is simply superior in most areas. With such a difference in ability, I wasn’t able to come up with any countermeasures.”
“How is Skarch better?” Randidly asked with a frown. “She was rock solid, but I don’t remember being overly impressed with her during the preliminaries.”
Helen hung her head. A sense of foreboding came over her. Not this conversation.
“Ah, well, you are truly the one to blame, Randidly.” Azriel said. “You repaired her spear, did you not? Ever since she has been… transcendental. Although she uses simple moves, they are variable and fluid. There seems to be no point where there is a difference between herself and the spear. They are one being. It is an aspect of being from the Spear School, I suppose.”
“Randidly-” Helen began, meaning to transition the conversation into another. Anything would be better than listening to the staggering abilities of her opponent once more. But Randidly held up a hand.
“I can tell you are angry at me. But I swear on my crown that I’ll get you through this. I caused this, I owe you that much. Continue, Azriel. But give me the short version.”
On your CROWN?!?! Helen fumed and sobbed mentally at the same time. She was torn between attempting to strangle Randidly and putting her head in his lap and sobbing for hours. I don’t hold you responsible! It’s my own weakness that led me here. I just… I just want another distraction…
Inwardly, Helen chided herself for her emotional behavior, but this was… this was it. For years, she had dreamed of seizing the chance to become one of the powerful leaders of Styles. Of being able to control her own marriage. Of having the personal strength to not be locked into things by family and circumstances.
In a lot of ways, she had accomplished it. But she had made it this far by a long string of wins, on the front lines and in the tournament.
With the very real possibility of losing, Helen couldn’t help but worry that a single loss here would unravel everything she had built. After leaving the under 25 Tournament, her top 8 finish would become just another way of saying that she hadn’t won. Her mother's long fingers seemed to close around her shoulders. Her hands were so hard and suffocating. Helen felt like a naughty child again.
As Azriel continued to speak, Helen crossed her fingers and hoped that her mother hadn’t yet found a way to squirrel herself into Hastam for the match.