The Hero's Shadow
A week passed quietly, or at least without incident. The fervor which had been ignited by the duel between Manfred and Siegfried died out within a few days, returning the students to the usual level of tension which existed between the cliques from different levels of the upper class. Much of the most vehement sentiment was drained away during the night of feasting following Manfred’s victory. He had certainly used the opportunity to re-bury the bitterness he felt toward the rest of the Fehl family.
Manfred was finally relieved of the curse of being matched against dire opponents for the fourth duel, receiving a peer whom he was able to defeat with little difficulty. Even though he dueled two strong students, Roland remained undefeated at the end of their first month at the academy. Though a few other first years maintained a four win record, the consensus that Roland stood at the top of their class was almost unanimous. No one else had been able to beat Augustus.
Naturally, his roommate was selected as the school’s challenger for the first exhibition duel to be held in concert with the Women’s Academy. Each month, the paired schools set up a spectacle fight and the first such match every year was given to the top rated first year students. The second years would be tapped for the duel at the end of the second month and so on in rotation for the six month term.
Camilla was chosen to represent the first years at their sister school. He had heard that her performance in her duels was even more dominant than Roland’s, delivering such overwhelming displays of power that the fourth girl she was to face had simply forfeited. Thus, it was now set that Roland and Camilla would meet within the Women’s Academy arena at midday Saturday.
But before that, the Verona heiress had set Roland, Manfred, and Volta to an errand. They had returned once more to her mansion under cover of darkness where, after a pleasant chat, she asked that they escort a certain young lady who was to arrive in the city Friday morning. This was a mob boss’s daughter who was coming to meet with another mafia outfit’s leaders as a sort of diplomatic mission.
She desired that the woman receive protection to ensure that nothing happened which might stir up a war among the organized criminals, even though there was no particular reason to suspect her life was in danger. Camilla’s stance was to take every precaution to maintain peace in the city.
Manfred began to get a better understanding of the exiled princess’s place in the world. She had all sorts of connections throughout the nation and within the city. There were Loyalists within the government, among the police, in the mafia, and all over every sort of industry. She was a nexus point for information coming and going through a sort of underground society. With such connections at her disposal, she sometimes meddled with the flow of events, creating beneficial associations between people who would otherwise never meet and empowering individuals to prevent crimes and catastrophes before they occurred.
Sending Volta to take care of some minor task turned out to be a common enough thing, which went toward explaining why she was considered anti-social at the academy. She simply spent most of her time focused on other things, although she certainly wasn't friendly toward other students. At least, not while disguised. In the company of Camilla, she became another person, a bright and mischievous tomboy.
He did not care very much about Camilla’s clandestine activities, but he decided to help out this one time as repayment for borrowing a rather valuable spear from the Verona family’s armory. Besides, it seemed an easy enough job if all they had to do was follow around someone who was unlikely to come under attack anyway.
And that is how Manfred found himself sitting in a cafe near Grand Central Station on Friday morning, drinking coffee with Roland and Volta while they waited for their charge to arrive. Roland, who stoically sipped at the dark drink with which he was still unfamiliar, started up a conversation to keep the others from drifting into solitary silence.
“Are you sure Camilla wasn’t informed of some threat to this lady’s life? It seems rather excessive to have all three of us act as her bodyguards.”
Annoyed from the very moment they had met up that morning, Volta sighed and replied, “Use that brain of yours a bit. She is using this as an excuse to try to get us to become more friendly.”
“Well, you and Roland specifically. I’m not sure why she wanted me to come along.”
“She mentioned something about you being perfect for the job since you’re from Chicago as well.”
Manfred felt a spark of concern, his sense for imminent bad luck triggering like a thorn in his heel. He asked warily, “Do you mean that this girl is from Chicago? A mob boss’s daughter from Chicago?”
“Yes, not that I think it matters. You aren’t really the charming sort to put someone at ease just because you come from the same city,” Volta said dismissively.
Now his heart started to beat faster. He quickly tried to estimate how many mob bosses there might be back home and how many of them had daughters. Screw the odds, I know what my luck is like, he thought as a start to his panic. Looking at his watch he realized he had no time to spare. Manfred quickly addressed the others.
“Listen, you’ve gotta go on without me. Just meet up with her as planned and do whatever you have to do to make it as if I was never here. Tell her the third guy had to drop out. Whatever you do, don’t mention my name.”
As they watched in confusion, he picked up his cup and scraped the crumbs from his place at the table. He stood up, pushed in his chair, and prepared to flee the cafe.
“Hey wait, what’s going on? Roland called after him. “Do you know this woman or something?”
“Or something!” Manfred shouted in a whisper. “I’ll tell you all about it later, but I have to get out of here. Now!” But it was too late, outside the shop’s window, he saw doom approaching the front door. His escape cut off, he ducked into an empty chair at a nearby table where a young couple were seated.
“What are you doing?”
He shushed them and demanded, “Pretend like I belong here. For Mithras’ sake, if you want to survive, just play along with me being a friend of yours.” Then he hurried to snatch a newspaper from another nearby table and raise it up in front of himself as a barrier.
The couple glared at him, but were cowed by his forceful pleading. A few seconds later, he heard the door to the street open, admitting a burst of the sounds of motor traffic, then close again. He hid behind his paper wall, hoping for the best.
“Are the two of you here to meet me?” asked a familiar voice originating near the table he had just vacated.
Volta calmly replied, “So long as you are Roisin O’Donnell, then we are.”
“Great! Father made sure to arrange for my luggage to be taken to the hotel, so there’s no need for us to rush off anywhere,” said Roisin. He heard a chair slide across the floor, then she went on to ask that his compatriots introduce themselves. Manfred waited nervously, not daring to peek out around the edge of the paper.
“Nice to meet the two of you. Sorry you have to waste your day watching over me, but Ms. Verona is doing her usual paranoiac act and I happened to want to come out here without being tailed by some of father’s men.”
“It’s no problem, we’ll make sure you get to where you need to go safe and sound,” said Roland.
Roisin’s voice began to shift, a condensation of another mood forming on her words. “Still, as thanks I made sure to secure some extra tickets to the opera tonight. I’ll treat you all since I want to go anyway.”
“The symphony?” asked Volta with an arched eyebrow.
“Yes, the time of my meeting is tomorrow evening, so for today I can truly enjoy a vacation from all the nonsense going on at home! Say, didn’t Camilla mention that she was sending three reliable lads to meet me? I hardly think three of you are necessary given how strong the two of you seem to be, but I arranged for three extra tickets.”
“Ah, him. Unfortunately he had something else to take care of,” Roland uttered shakily.
“Oh well...but, I suppose maybe another set of eyes would have been good after all,” Roisin remarked with growing tension.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, it’s just that you seem to have missed that suspicious character over there. That couple sure look worried about something.”
Manfred’s blood ran cold.
“I don’t think that’s anything more than a man reading a newspaper,” Roland said, unable to sell a lie.
“Is that so? Why don’t we check just to be safe!” The mob boss’s daughter growled as she shaped a burst of virya into a thick, thorny vine. Her whip snapped across the lengths of two tables to wrap around the paper Manfred held aloft, then tore the thing to shreds in his hands.
“Look, let me explain-” he started as the flurry of pulp snow fell around him.
“My word, what a coincidence, this suspicious character is wearing the same uniform as you. Could it be that the third musketeer was here all along?” she asked rhetorically. She appeared much as he remembered her, wild orange hair framing an expressive face which was lit by two emerald gemstones. As usual, she wore a rather plain dress tailored with just enough accents to make one realize that she was more than an ordinary maiden, but which was not so extravagant as a high society lady’s.
Volta interceded by saying, “Mr. Fehl has been acting strange since he deduced your identity. Is there some connection between the two of you of which we aren’t aware?”
“Hmm, could that be, could that be? What say you, Manfred, is there some connection between us?” Roisin questioned by cutting to the heart of the matter with a blade dripping crimson sarcasm.
Manfred moved back to their table, mumbling an apology to the couple upon whom he had intruded. When he had sat down again, he fixed the Irish rose with a sincere stare and said, “I didn’t figure out who we were going to be protecting until just now. I was just trying to keep out of your hair to avoid upsetting you while you’re here.”
“You’re rather good at staying out of my hair.”
Roland broke into their conversation with a small voice. “Excuse me, do you think you could explain what’s going on? I’m rather confused.”
She broke out a mean grin. “Why don’t you explain to your friends what’s going on?”
He could only sigh. There was definitely no way to avoid losing face at this point. If he tried to hide the details, he’d probably be lashed and then have to abide by whatever way she wanted to portray what had happened.
Manfred recounted his version of events: “Last year, in the final months of summer and the start of fall, things were getting heated back in Chicago. The blue bloods with whom I had a rivalry and I were taking our little brawls to another level. People were going to get hurt for real, not just some cuts and bruises, if we kept it up. So I developed a plan to become untouchable, at least until I left town in the winter.
“I tricked Roisin here into going out with me on some dates. Enough to get rumors circulating that we were an item, so that way no one would dare to come after me for petty skirmishes. I manipulated her for my own purposes,” he finished with head hung in penance.
Volta and Roland alternated their gazes between the two, trying to make sense of his confession. They then alternated questions.
“I don’t get what the trick is, didn’t you just date for a bit?”
“But, you left Chicago without saying anything, right?”
Roisin hummed in admiration. “It’s interesting that you can be so bold while being so wrong.”
“I realize what I did was despicable, that’s why I figured it would be for the best if you didn’t find me here today. I apologize for what I did, for as much as those words count.”
Volta cut in, “Is it going to be a problem? He’s not needed if you want to send him away after a punch or two.”
“Oh no, this is perfect. I was going to go shopping after we were finished here, so now I know who will accompany me. The two of you can tail us at a distance, keep watch over our backs. Manfred, you’re coming with me today.”
When he opened his mouth to argue, she placed her coiled whip on the table, smiling broadly at him. He looked to the others who merely shrugged and accepted their guest’s order without protest. They finished their drinks, Roisin picking up the tab, and then migrated toward Fifth Avenue. As they walked the few blocks, Roland and Volta dropped back several yards to shadow the other pair.
She first led him to the Saks department store. The facade of Grecian columns stretched out over the massive, many-windowed building gave it the look of a strange fractal temple. Stepping into the cavernous ground floor filled with a myriad of sales desks, he was overtaken by the smell of many perfumes and the opulent sight of cases filled with jewelry.
Roisin took him by the arm and pulled him along through the maze of branded shops. Every now and again, she stopped at this or that booth to sample the scents on offer. When she asked for his reaction to them, all he could do was to shrug. They were all potent concoctions, but he had no nose for what was supposed to be pleasant.
“Hey, what sort of jewelry do you think is most attractive on a girl? Rings, necklaces, or earrings?
He tilted his head and considered the question.
“Are you listening?”
“Sorry, I was giving it some thought. Never bothered to develop an opinion on that before.”
“Is it really something you have to think about? When a lady catches your eye, what sort of accessories does she tend to have?”
He could not say what came to mind though. What appeared from his memories was the sight of the black marks tracing along Volta’s flesh lit by an enchanting moon. Instead, he tried, “Well I’d say earrings. When you’re looking around, you don’t really check out what rings people are wearing, right? And pendants seem to be either too small to notice or so big that they’re gaudy. But you notice earrings pretty easily when you look at someone’s face, so even a cute little pair can be appreciated.”
She laughed. “What a charmless response, but your analysis is convincing. Okay, what from this case do you recommend I get?” His eyes wandered over the dazzling array of ornaments, eventually settling on a set of small green stones set onto slight silver posts. “Well, I can’t fault you other than to say you have simple tastes.”
“Don’t make me go on about preferring natural beauty or some honeyed cliche like that.”
“I wouldn’t mind if you did, again,” she said before paying for the earrings he had selected. Satisfied with her treasure from the first floor, she led him up to the second where the vast space was filled with clothing stores.
Roisin moved from shop to shop, picking through their collections of dresses, hats, scarves, shoes, and every other article. The flame-haired woman twirled about him with the items she considered held up to her body for him to critique, an exhausting exercise for someone who had no strong opinions on fashion. The whole time, she showed no sign of tension and instead smiled often, apparently enjoying the hour she spent modeling clothes.
Slowly, he was laden with an increasing number of boxes and bags containing her purchases. Finally, he remarked, “This stuff is all pretty pricey, how much are you gonna spend today?”
“I charged father quite a price for sending me out here on this stupid mission.”
“Why are you here, anyway?”
“Roisin Dubh, of course.” This was the name of her ergaleion, the barbed whip. She was one of the few people he had told of his Heldengeist’s ability, and in turn she had revealed her own power by allowing him to copy Roisin Dubh. It had the staggering capability of transferring wounds to or from the wielder upon striking a target.
“Wait, what has that father of yours sent you out here to do? Don’t tell me…”
“Indeed. There’s a mafioso from an outfit with which we have a sort of alliance. He’s a real important guy, real old too apparently. I’m here to take an illness off his hands.”
Manfred shook his head and said, disgusted, “What a distasteful task to set for you.”
“It’s not so bad. Should just be a minor cold that’s kicking his butt because he’s old. I can just pass it on to someone else if it’s too annoying for me.”
She poked at his cheek and asked, “Why are you so worked up? It’s not as though you care for me.”
He kept his mouth shut. Already resigned to accept whatever barbs she was going to stab him with, he could do nothing but accept the vitriol he deserved. Roisin grew bored of Saks and headed for the Lord & Taylor store. Together they plunged into another labyrinth of shops.
Roisin drifted between the clothes boutiques.
“Which of these do you think suits me more?” she asked while holding up a black silk dress in one hand and a long, flowing red dress in the other.
“I’m not sure, they’re both nice, but maybe I don’t quite see you as one for dresses. They don’t really match your rough personality”
“Rough personality? Don’t make me slug you.”
“I mean, you’re still going to that knight academy in Chicago, right?”
“And crushing people in duels for the third year running!” she exclaimed while thrusting an arm in the air and flexing her muscles.
“See what I mean? Whatever uniform you’re wearing over there probably suits you better than these.”
She scrutinized him closely and said, “Has hanging around that girl awakened some uniform fetish for you?”
“What girl?” he inquired in a panic.
“Do you not know?”
“What do you know!?”
Roisin giggled and motioned toward where Roland and Volta stood in the distance. “I’m surprised she can fool anyone, but I guess seeing your uniform is enough for most people to overlook what she really is.”
Manfred painstakingly extracted a promise of secrecy from the amused young lady. After filling his arms with purchases, Roisin led him up to a tea shop on a higher floor.
“I don’t know why you insisted on this arrangement. I figured you’d never want to see me again, unless you were going to thrash me. Surely your day would have been more enjoyable without me.”
“I was surprised by how honest you were in laying out our history for your friends. But it seems you don’t really understand what the score is,” she said, fiddling with her teacup. “You didn’t trick me into going on dates with you. You aren’t clever enough to pretend to be someone that you aren’t.
“I’m not mad because you came up with some idiotic scheme; I’m mad because I actually liked you and you took off without a word.” He froze, unsure if apologizing again was appropriate or just a waste of breath that would come off as insincere.
Her mouth turned upward in an almost indiscernible, lonely smile. After a pause, she explained, “This was my revenge. Getting one more date out of you and watching you panic all afternoon that I was going to destroy you. But don’t think me so petty a person that I’d actually do that.”
He looked over to the table on the other side of the court of tea shops and bakeries where the other two watched them idly. At the time, he had thought nothing of the plan he’d concocted involving Roisin. Now he cursed himself for being so conniving.
“I realize what I did was...bad. I won’t make any excuses for how I acted then.”
“You came close to getting a beating when you started talking about why you came up with that stupid plot.”
“Oh shut up, you!” she cried out while laughing freely. “I was just about to say that we were done with these dreary department stores, but I think you can carry a few more things.”