TRANSCRIPT: Joe Johnson is a fourth year resident in the city of Chicago and an original cast member of Improvised Dungeons and Dragons performing at Otherworld. His love for science fiction and fantasy began with Star Wars and Marvel and has grown to include such authors as Timothy Zahn, Ray Bradbury, Ann Leckie, and many more. While writing has always been a passion for Joe, Most of his energy goes to performing comedy or experimenting in the kitchen. He is incredibly honored to be chosen for Gateways reading a second time and hopes you all enjoy his short story: Meske’s Duel About Nothing.
The air above the Grothe’s (Grow-they) courtyard took on a golden hue as the setting sun of Sorthis cast its bronze rays into the dispersed flakes and seeds of the tall Yellow Fe’leonarie (Fey-leo-nar-ee) Maize that grew along the western bank of the property. Dozens of little sparrows and finches flit along the ramparts and towers in search of food, love, and survival from the predatory Fel Dragons; indigenious flying reptiles with flesh-eating saliva and about the size of a domesticated cat. The smaller birds can be heard chirping greetings or squawking warnings while the Fel Dragons release their shrill shriek after catching their kill. Below the birds two figures are seen darting back and forth, close together and then apart; when they close the gap, the snap of wood against metal is carried up to the lightly manned walls. Pairs of bored guards and their apprentices gather to place bets or criticize with an air of unwarranted authority over the potential outcome of the bout.
Other than the birds, dragons, and guards the only audience members were four six-gun raptors with the Bourgen family crest, a winking lightning bolt, on each tail fin. Each handcrafted warbird painted a deep green with an outline of a bow with an arrow pulled back done in copper paint under each wingtip, while individual markings for the Skies that piloted them were displayed besides the cockpits. The canopies rested shut and shielded the interior from the sticky maize flakes, giving them all a golden chariot look that Meske found irritatingly intoxicating. Ground crews were unusually absent from the courtyard, still off celebrating the end of the Baron’s Games, so the two had no one to interfere in their match. Though the two opponents are now drenched with sweat and panting heavily, both refuse to call the match; much to the joy of the guards who knew better than to report ever seeing the match.
Meske’s (Mess-kah) arms shook from the force of blocking another of her opponent’s attempted strikes to her shoulder, but she gave no ground as her legs were still strong. As she swung her spear to push away the other’s lance, Meske pivoted on her right leg and sent a round kick into her opponent’s ribcage. The kick connected with a spear shaft that got there far too fast, but still had enough power to take them both off balance and the two rolled away while swinging their long spears in swift circles as a shield. A silence descended on the courtyard as the recognition of the technique stilled the two warriors, letting the echoes reverberate into nothing. Two figures with their weight on the back leg, their front knee bent, and their spears held forward towards the other’s head looking for a moment to the two guards as mirror images to each other: one in the lavender and gray of Baron Grothe, the other in the green and copper of the Copper Bow Order.
Questions rebounded within Meske’s mind: Who trained this woman? Why didn’t she fight yesterday? Why can’t I knock that smirk off her face? And the most frustrating: Why am I enjoying this? A toothy grin broke across Meske’s face as she prepared to charge again.
“Oh you do have nice white teeth!” the other woman called out with great glee. “I knew you weren’t a pilot.”
“Because I take good care of my teeth?” Meske shouted back confused and stopped her charge to covere her lips with her teeth.
Meske cursed herself for covering her teeth in shame, but it still took a few moments to relax her lips. The other woman laughed in a high pitched giggle that reminded Meske of the rhythmic chirping of the Baron’s pet birds whenever they get excited.
“I’ve never heard a pilot laugh like a pair of Dorwynn Finches in heat,” Meske held no pride for her insult, but made a show of smiling wide to reveal her teeth; the other woman barely shook her head in response before she continued.
“Because a plane’s rebreather stains the teeth,” she curled back her lips to show her pristine teeth marred only by the faint blueness of the entire set.
Meske shrugged, she had wanted to fight the bratty woman since the 3rd day of the Games when she yawned at Meske’s match and Baron Grothe’s new warbird demonstration; so the new insult amounted to kindling upon a fire.. Meske was not yet a pilot, but Society be damned, she thought as she gripped tight her wooden spear; I will best this pilot and prove I have nothing left to learn of the spear. Baron Grothe will have to let me apprentice, then.
“Really I shouldn’t bother continuing with the match,” the other woman continued, letting her speartip droop towards the ground. “Seeing as how there’s no gain for me.”
“You want to quit? While there’s an audience to hear you called coward?,” Meske gestured to the distant tower guards as the lancer stood her spear on her left to lean on with in air of aloofness as if her arms and knees were not shaking and needed rest.
“A Kavdi calling someone a coward?” The burgundy haired woman raised an eyebrow and gestured towards the two dots tattooed below Meske’s right eye to mark her as an Indebted and the Mark of Clout under her left eye to mark her as Kavidi.
The slur was noticed, but it was the audacious casualness the other woman treated her lance, a tool of war and a weapon of honor, that bothered Meske. She set her jaw and grew more determined to best this pale dainty aprentice with her disrespect to the Baron’s planes, the Kavidi people, and her spear. She might be an apprentice pilot, judging from her lack of wings on her copper and green scarf; but that did not put her in a different social class. Lancers were lancers, whether they could pilot or not; this match was about pride.
The word was not so much spoken as it rolled out of Meske’s mouth and tumbled across the several feet separating her from her opponent. The woman’s eyes flared with such loathing that Meske worried the glare would burn through her skull. The pilot uniformed in copper and green charged forward with a feint to the left, followed by a hard swing to Meske’s right sight. Meske barely got her spear back in time to block the strike partway, still managing to catch Meske in her upper right arm. The block to Meske’s left fared little better as her opponent’s follow-up swipe sent vibrations through her entire body. A feint to her knees with the tip of the spear preceded a powerful downward swing towards Meske’s head.
This was Meske’s gamble. She knew the other woman was flashy and had hoped she couldn’t resist this strike, and so Meske raised her spear to redirect the slash by angling her own spear. Riding the momentum of her opponents strike, Meske let her spear slide down until her left hand gripped just behind the speartip. The redirect left her opponent open for just an instant, which was all Meske needed. She stepped forward with her left foot, put her spear into her opponents armored chest and pushed.
Meske knew such thrusts were against most match rules, but Meske knew how not to puncture armor as well as stab right through. The push continued as Meske brought her right foot forward and swung on her hips, pushing her opponent off her feet and onto her backside a few feet back. Meske closed the distance in a single long step, stopping her spear just as it nicked her opponent’s cheek. In the distance, a pair of Fel Dragons caught their evening meals at the same time; Meske gasped at the omen.
“Meske!” the Baron’s voice boomed across the courtyard sending a small flock of pheasants from their hiding spots in the maize.
Meske leapt backwards and snapped to attention, acutely aware she’d left her helmet near her opponent’s over by the planes as she stared straight ahead. She heard more than saw the Baron approach with Skies Harnots and Jubienne in tow and accompanied by the pilots of Lady Arrigrave’s Copper Bow. Lady Arrigrave, a full head taller than the Baron, stood just inside Meske’s field of vision and frowned when she saw the small trickle of blood on her lancer’s cheek.
“Getting beaten by the help, I see?” The pilot and lady of the Forge Courts could not have sounded more condescending if she had tried. “I’ll leave you to deal with you lancer, Artone (Ar-ton-ee), mine will have much to think upon while journeying home. I’ll send along a knight with the writs absolving your debts. Farewell, Baron. Sky Harnot, Sky Jubienne.”
Lady Arrigrave left without any acknowledgement to Meske’s existence; while the Baron remained quietly seething where he stood. She would get in trouble for this match. Meske had not known that woman was an apprentice to the Lady Arrigrave herself; and that definitely could hurt Meske’s chances of becoming a pilot. Meske felt a painful pit grow in the center of her stomach at the thought of losing her dream while it was just within her grasp. After all, she was the only lancer of the Baron’s to win all her matches. As Meske, the Baron, and his escort waited in silence for Arrigrave’s skies to check their planes with the ground crews that seemed to appear out of nowhere, the apprentice pilot jogged back across the field with Meske’s helmet in hand.
“Here,” she said as she held out Meske’s helmet while wearing a genuine smile. “I want to know that was the most fun I’ve had this whole trip.”
Meske was shocked by the change in tone as she accepted her helmet. Fun?, Meske thought to herself. My arm is growing a welt the size of a baby’s head and my lungs are on fire! While the match was exciting, Meske wondered again who was this woman who called such a grueling duel that she lost: “fun”.
“I know you’re Meske,” The woman paused as if on the edge of telling a terrible secret to a stranger. “I’m Dyonella.”
She kept one hand out to shake Meske’s and as she raised her finger to her lips in a gesture for silence, Meske saw the face through the hair. The hair was a different color and she lacked the makeup from the portraits; Meske’s eyes widened as she realized who this was. With a single handshake and another chirping chuckle, Dyonella rushed back to her waiting squadron and took off with the setting sun lighting the copper so their planes looked like golden raptors in the sky. All the while Meske watched dumbly with a single thought sending icy dread down her spine: Shit. I just cut a princess.
Kim Fukawa has been seen all around Chicago. Most recently she has worked with The House Theatre, Lifeline Theatre, and Babes With Blades Theatre Company. She is an artistic affiliate and occasional fight choreographer with Babes With Blades.