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Challenges of the Deeps: Chapter Three

       Last updated: Wednesday, October 5, 2016 19:07 EDT



    Wu bounced along in front of Ariane, watching in all directions at once. The Grand Arcade, that gigantic area of open-air markets, stalls, covered collections of shops like mini-malls, was a constant whirl of activity that never stopped – ideal for both an ambush and an escape. He turned periodically, seeing that Ariane was just behind him, that no threats loomed nearby. Then he could return for a few moments to the enjoyment of the moment.

    The Arcade was one of the most wonderful places Wu had ever been, and seeing and smelling this maelstrom of a thousand species and a million scents lifted his spirits, helped him … not forget, really, but push back the loss that still ached, perhaps always would ache, behind his heart. All gone. They haven’t said it, but I can tell by the glances, the words not spoken… if there is anything to be salvaged, it will not be all. It will not be most. A few small things, remnants of my world… a world of lies, but they were my lies to live with.

    But the Arcade was another world, a real world of wonders perhaps surpassing the imaginations of the Hyperion designers, a world within another world within an endless sky of worlds. DuQuesne said it was made for us. Maybe he was right, after all. I shouldn’t have doubted; he usually is right.

    “You’re looking better, Wu,” Ariane said.

    “Better? Better than what?” He was momentarily puzzled.

    “Than you have for the last couple of weeks. Happier. There’s more of a bounce in your step.”

    Wow. He couldn’t keep from staring at her for a moment. “You could see that? I thought I was good at hiding my pain.”

    “You are,” she said, with a gentle smile – one so different from the smile she wore in competition or battle. “But as the Captain with three Hyperions in my crew, I’ve gotten used to watching for subtleties that I probably would’ve missed a year ago.”

    “Ha! Of course you have.” He tried to ignore the fact that when she smiled like that and looked at him with sympathy and worry, with those eyes and hair of blue, she looked very much like someone else. “I do not like being sad. I don’t like remembering sadness and loss. But… I cannot forget, either.”

    “You shouldn’t forget. They were your life. Your world. Like you said to Mr. Fenelon, if you don’t remember them, who will?”

    He nodded, looking around again. They were moving down one of the many rows of food vendors; that made the expected movement of the crowds fairly predictable, which was good. “I know. But I know that S… Sanzo,” it was astonishing how hard it was to say her name now, “… Sanzo wouldn’t want me to be sad. If there was nothing I could do, then she would want me to do what I could here.”

    For a moment, he allowed his heart to go black, his voice to drop to a near snarl. “But I will not forget the one who did this.”

    Instead of backing away at the sight of the monster within – as almost everyone, even his old friends, used to – Ariane put her hand on his shoulder, and her touch was warm. “No, Wu. None of us will. And I promise you,” her voice was for an instant as level and cold as his, “we will find him – or her – one day.”

    She’s STRONG, he thought, one of the highest compliments he could pay anyone. No wonder DuQuesne and Dr. Sandrisson like her so much. “Thank you.” He glanced around again. “So we are shopping for food?”

    “I want to get a good assortment of, well, pretty much everything to take with us. If we’re going to be gone for months, I don’t want a boring repetitive diet.”

    “I will agree there!”

    For the next hour or so, they did exactly that; Ariane selected multiple foods – meats, unusual grains of purple and green, a dazzling selection of fruits, snacks and alien tubers, all to be sent to the Embassy for packing.

    A movement caught his eye and he grinned. “Captain, can we go talk to an old friend?”

    “Who are you -” she followed his gaze, and her smile answered his. “Of course we can. As long as you promise not to get in trouble this time.”

    “I’m on duty this time,” he pointed out.

    The tiny – even shorter than Wu Kung – white-and-purple figure turned, tail raised halfway, as they approached. “Captain Ariane Austin of Humanity, greetings,” said Tunuvun, bowing with wide-spread arms.

    “Tunuvun of the Genasi, greetings,” Ariane said, bowing.

    He turned to Wu. “And my brother warrior, Wu Kung, I am pleased to see you again as well.”

    “Me too!” He stepped in and clasped hands with the smaller being, feeling the strength of the three-fingered grip. “How are you and your people?”

    “Very well, and I thank you for asking. In fact…” A scent of trepidation and decisions. “My meeting you here is not entirely accident,” he said, looking at Ariane. “I had hoped to meet you in such circumstances – unofficially, where I might ask you a favor without possibly embarrassing us both.”

    “A favor?” One of Ariane’s brows lifted. “I can’t imagine anything you might ask being embarrassing. What is the favor?”

    “Refusal could be an embarrassment, at least for me, if done in an official setting,” he said. “And could reflect upon you. I wished to ask… would you – and my brother Wu, of course – accompany me to deliver our Challenge?”

    “What?” Ariane’s scent showed her startlement and gratification. “Tunuvun, we would be honored to be present at that event. When would you like to do this?”

    “Well… now, if it would not be overly presumptuous.”

    The sharp scent, like lemons and ozone, was clear. “You’re nervous, Tunuvun!”

    The tail twitched. “Of course I am nervous! I go to Challenge for my entire people’s right to be people – to be Citizens of the Arena, to be part of the Arena as you are, and we are not. All will rest on my back.”

    “I don’t blame you, Tunuvun,” Ariane said, and her smile showed she did understand. “And so you want to get that out of the way as soon as possible, so you can just focus on winning the Challenge – whatever it ends up being.”

    “You are a competitor as well, Captain. Yes, you understand perfectly. So…?”

    “So let us go issue your Challenge, Tunuvun of the Genasi!”

    He bowed again, very low indeed, and then turned and began striding briskly away. “Then follow. It is not too far, and I would rather walk, unless you have an objection.”

    “None at all. Nothing wrong with exercise.” As they began walking, Ariane continued, “So who’s the lucky target of your Challenge?”

    “I will be issuing Challenge to the Vengeance,” Tunuvun replied.

    Wu saw Ariane stop in her tracks, and her scent shifted to surprised concern. “Tunuvun, you’re going to Challenge one of the Great Factions?” Ariane said slowly.

    “Of course he is,” Wu answered; it had been so obvious to him that he hadn’t realized it would surprise Ariane. “The rules said they had to choose one with enough Spheres that the loss would not be great, and honor dictates that such a solemn and important Challenge must be given to one truly worthy.”

    “Wu Kung sees truly,” Tunuvun said. “This Challenge must leave none in doubt of who we are, or what our worth is.”

    A few minutes later, they stopped before the doorway of one building that thrust itself like a dagger into the sky, pointing towards the distant ceiling of Nexus Arena.

    “This will be interesting,” muttered Ariane.

    “Selpa A’At of the Vengeance, come forth!” Tunuvun said, and one of the green comm-spheres appeared before him as he spoke. “I, Tunuvun of the Genasi, must speak with you here, before my companions.”

    A moment passed, then the sphere brightened. “With such formality I am called; I answer you, Tunuvun and say to you, wait, then, and I will be there in moments.”

    Wu waited, tense. I really hope Maria-Susanna isn’t with him. He missed the golden-haired woman terribly, but he now knew what she had become, and seeing her so hurt and changed was a fresh pain he did not need.

    But Selpa ‘A’At emerged alone, to Wu’s great relief, spherical body seeming to float level between its spidery legs. “I am here, Tunuvun of the Genasi. What is so urgent and so public that you must call me here, before my own Faction House?”

    Tunuvun drew himself up, somehow looking tall and proud. “In the name of my people, I Challenge you, Selpa ‘A’At of the Vengeance, by the right and power of the Arena itself; you must accept, there is no refusal for this Challenge.”

    The globe of a body rose and fell. “So. Before I respond, might I ask why you have chosen the Vengeance?”

    “I offer you a chance to best me, who won a Challenge for the Powerbrokers against you under circumstances that I know did not entirely please you. It is an honorable chance for you, and an honorable Challenge for me.”

    Selpa chuckled; the actual sound, which Wu could hear underneath the translation of mirth, was a rasp as of wood on wood. “So. The Vengeance accepts your Challenge, then. More, it is our right to select the nature of the Challenge.”

    Tunuvun tensed. “It is,” he agreed.

    Wu Kung felt himself tensing as well, for along with the sharp smell of the Genasi’s trepidation he could detect the far more worrisome scent of amusement and confidence. Selpa knows something or has thought of something Tunuvun won’t like, I’ll bet.

    “We could select many contests that would be ill-suited to Genasi; still, you could then select a Champion who was skilled in such areas. Instead, we will select one that has aspects appropriate to both sides. It will be Racing Chance, with the race an obstacle course.”

    Instantly Tunuvun began to relax. “This is an acceptable selection,” he said.

    No! Wu didn’t know what, but that smell of triumph told him a trap had closed.

    “And our Champion,” Selpa A’At said, his voice smooth as silk, “for the racing portion, at least, will be Tunuvun of the Genasi.”

    Wu found his mouth had dropped open, as had Ariane’s. “Wh… what?

    Tunuvun had gone rigid as a statue, and Wu began to realize just how artful a trap Selpa had laid.

    “You… you can’t do that!” Ariane snapped.

    “Captain Austin of Humanity, you are I am afraid completely incorrect,” Selpa said. “Not only is the general rule clear that I can select any Champion; it is also the fact that following the loss to which he refers, the Vengeance immediately made a contract with him and his people to provide us with at least one such Champion at our discretion. This was, in a way, our recognition of his performance in that Challenge.”

    Ariane shook her head. “Well… fine, then. But all he has to do in that case is sit down at the start line and let the other guy win.”

    “No, he can’t do that,” Wu said, seeing Tunuvun turning towards Ariane with outrage writ large in his posture. “Ariane, this is his profession. If he ever is seen as doing less than he could, he’d lose face – lose tremendous face.”

    “My brother understands,” Tunuvun said, his voice filled with leashed anger and chagrin. “In fact, to forestall any accusations that I might lose the match on purpose, I will have to run this race better than any I have ever run, with no reserve held back at all, so that there is no doubt I was running to win for my patrons.”

    But then Tunuvun’s scent changed, and though his face looked little different, Wu Kung sensed a broad smile. “But the same rules apply to me. Whoever is to race against me – and who must beat me, if the Genasi are to win their citizenship in the Arena – will have to be my equal, or perhaps even my better, and though I have, rarely, lost, I have met only one such. So I ask you, Sun Wu Kung of Humanity: will you be our Champion?”

    Selpa stiffened, all six legs locking.

    Wu Kung glanced uncertainly at Ariane, but then saw the savage grin spreading over her face and felt a burst of gratitude. “Wu Kung, as Leader of the Faction of Humanity, I give you full permission to accept this request.”

    “Then I will gladly race against you, Tunuvun!” he said, and grasped the smaller creature’s hands again. “If you’ll forgive me for beating you!”

    “My brother in combat,” Tunuvun said, and that sense of a smile was all around him, “I will only not forgive you if you lose.”

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