The first five years were difficult, being confined to the compound, forced to endure the petty jealousies and derision of his fellow students, who saw his single-minded dedication and lack of interest in joining in their diversions and clever repartee as being too pretentious. He had heard the talk of many of them behind his back, the whispers that he was nothing but a spoiled noble playing at being a warrior. Yet he ignored the mocking voices, the cold stares, and the inevitable attempts at intimidation and even assassination. More than a few times, he woke to find fellow students creeping up beside his bunk, dagger or garrote in hand, or even a poisoned needle or cloth. He always managed to foil the attempts, however, for he had long since perfected his use of illusions to make himself appear to be sleeping in his bed when in fact he was under it. Because he often stayed hidden from his would-be murderers, he was never able to see who was behind the attacks, though he had his suspicions. There were plenty of students who would have been more than happy to reduce the competition by one over-achieving noble.
Nymvayas and the other bodyguards kept to their own parts, of course. He never even knew about half of the attempts on his life, for the three would quietly dispatch those who were foolish enough to do so within their sight. After the first two years had passed, many students even began to whisper that he was somehow protected or blessed, for they had noticed how those who moved against him simply turned up dead or missing a short time later, leaving the prince unharmed. Even more baffling were the stories of those who claimed that he was some sort of ghost who could not be touched. Some speculated that he had a demon or other fell creature aiding him, and so they gave him a wide berth, watching warily whenever he was near.
For his part, Lothir was indifferent to most of his fellow students, feeling neither hate nor goodwill toward them. In truth, he simply didn’t care. He was surrounded by his peers, yet he felt more alone than ever, having no one that he felt he could trust. He continued to pursue his lessons with a tenacious devotion to duty, as well as to his promise to Ravyn. He knew that if either of them was ever to be free from the harsh world around them, it would take all his courage and skill. So he built a wall around his heart, keeping it hidden from those who might seek to take advantage of it. He locked it away behind a door as strong as stone. Only one living soul held the key to that door, or ever would, he believed.
Even so, he sometimes wished there was someone to confide in. What he wanted most was a friend. Never mind that the idea of friendship was virtually incomprehensible to most drow; the closest thing most of them ever came to true friendship could best be described as an amicable association. In a society built on deceit and betrayal, alliances were broken as often as they were made, and a friend one day could become a deadly enemy the next, simply out of greed, envy, or a rivalry between Houses. Such thoughts left the young drow feeling cold inside. Each night, as he retired to his bunk after a day of hard practice and exercise, as well as the daily tasks assigned to him, he would find himself wishing for a friendly voice, a warm smile, or even just a pleasant conversation with anyone at all.
Then came a day- shortly after his class had been promoted to the Apprentice Tower- when he returned to his bunk, only to find that one of his classmates was sitting on it. He gave the intruder an annoyed grimace, and stared right at him as the interloper looked up at him with a smirk, as if daring Lothir to object to his presence there.
“Well, if it isn’t the spoiled little Prince. My friends say you think you’re too good to associate with the rest of us. They also say you spend all your time practicing because you’re trying to suck up to the instructors.” He said, casually twirling a thin lock of his long yellow-white hair around a finger.
“What do I care what they say?” Lothir replied with a shrug. “Your name is Taztran, right? Get off my bed.”
The other only grinned at him. “Make me.”
Lothir let out an exasperated sigh. “Is there a point to this? Or are you simply being a we’ha?” The last bit got a dark glare from the larger youth.
“Well, is it true? Is your nose too high up to look at us, First House?” Taztran asked, rising up to stand in front of him. He had insulted Lothir intentionally, hoping to provoke some response to his accusation. His amber eyes dared the young prince to deny it, as he tried to stare him down.
“I don’t concern myself with anyone here one way or the other. I’m just here to train- nothing else. So you can tell your friends that if they think I give a damn what they say, then they obviously don’t know anything about me. So back off, and find someone else to annoy.” He glared back at the other coolly. He knew very well what Taztran was doing, but he really didn’t care. Let them think what they would. It was nothing to him.
His reply only seemed to anger the sneering young tough. He was no older than Lothir himself, but seemed to feel the need to dominate him, perhaps out of jealousy. The prince recalled that Taztran was from some minor House, not even a noble. Arabana, he thought it was. A merchant House, of middle size, but no real power. If he had not been sent to the Academy, he would most likely have never even come in contact with a drow of Taztran’s station. The Arabana youth was being trained as a House soldier, which meant that he was little better than a common servant to his House, even if he was a member of the family itself. Secondboy, at best.
He was ready for the punch that came at his jaw; in fact, he had expected it. As the would-be bully drove his fist at Lothir, he calmly evaded it, flicking the small silver dagger from his belt as he did so to hold it just above Taztran’s navel. “If I were you,” he said evenly, “I would step back and walk away before things get- messy.”
He was bluffing, of course, but the young thug had no way of knowing that. He was no doubt used to threats being carried out, and probably assumed the prince meant it, especially considering the rumors that had been tossed around regarding him. He paused, glancing down at the dagger, and swallowed. He drew back slowly, his golden eyes never leaving the blade.
“Huh. Maybe you’re not as weak as you look, after all.” He said after a moment. Lothir shrugged, taking a step back to sit on his bed, still casually flipping the dagger end over end in his hand.
“Would you just leave me alone?” he said, annoyed. “People like you are the reason I don’t talk to anyone here. It just proves that there’s no one in this place worth my time.” He was getting bored with the other’s puffed-up sense of power and bravado. He had faced a dragon- a dragon, of all things! And this bigheaded, muscle-bound oaf thought he could intimidate him, when Taztran had probably never slain anything worse than a rebellious goblin? It was almost laughable.
“And what the Hells is that supposed to mean?” asked Taztran, glaring at him angrily. He knew he was being insulted, even if he didn’t quite grasp how.
“It’s simple. You come over here, try to start a fight, and the minute I show a pair of calesset, you back down. Clearly, there’s no reason I should waste time on a coward like you. And if all the others are anything like you, then it’s pointless to associate with any of them. It has nothing to do with breeding- just simple respect. And I see no reason to show any to any of you.” He stared at the bigger drow impassively, waiting for him to respond, though he was certain the result would not be pleasant.
“You’ve got a lot of nerve, First House,” Taztran replied, though he refrained from making a move.
“I have a name.” Lothir answered icily. “Pray use it, if you don’t mind. Just because I had to obey people treating me like iblith at home, doesn’t mean I’m going to put up with it here. So just go away, and go find a goblin to bully.”
“Oh yeah?” shot back the other. “What would a pampered little runt like you know about being treated like dung? You probably had slaves to do everything for you.” He sneered back. His tone was bitter with envy, which didn’t surprise the young prince in the least.
“More than you do, I’d bet,” he said simply. “And no, I didn’t. My family hardly ever even noticed I existed, when I saw them at all. The rest of the time, my mother was just like every other Matron in this city- she treated me like a slave because she was annoyed that she didn’t give birth to a daughter. So there’s your ‘pampered’ life, ruzzo’iso-t’zarreth (dumb-a$$).”
That made Taztran pause a moment. He obviously had not considered that the young Noble-born might have had anything but a life of luxury and comfort.
“But- yours is a male-ruled House, isn’t it?” he finally asked, as if confused by the reference to Matrons.
“You obviously don’t know much about my family,” Lothir replied sourly.
“Your Patron went and named himself king, I know that much. Your Highness.” Taztran spat with mocking rancor, bowing sarcastically. That did it- the young prince suddenly burst out laughing at the irony of the commoner’s retort.
“Oh, yes! The King of Thieves! And pirates, don’t forget that. Yet he doesn’t even know half of what goes on in his own House! Some king,” he said acidly. “As if I’d ever want to lay claim to that crown! He can keep it, for all I care.”
Apparently, that was not the response Taztran had expected, for he suddenly gave Lothir a puzzled look. “You’re saying you don’t want to rule? You could have more power than most of us ever dream of, and you don’t care?”
“In a word- no.” That answer only seemed to confuse the bigger youth further, for he sat down on the next bunk, staring at the prince incredulously.
“Now I see why you never talk to anyone here. You’re insane.” he said after a long moment.
Lothir just shrugged. “So what if I am? Does it really matter?”
Taztran had no answer to that. Several minutes passed, while the two eyed each other warily. At last, the bigger youth held out a hand in a gesture of truce. Lothir eyed it warily for hidden weapons, then finally clasped it cautiously.
“So, why did you come here, then, if you don’t want to rule? I would have thought someone like you could do whatever he pleased.” Taztran asked at last.
“As if I ever had a choice?!” Lothir scoffed. “My family is like every other, at least in that respect. If I don’t prove myself useful in one way or another, I’m likely to end up on Lothrenya’s altar. Just because he doesn’t follow that bitch-goddess, doesn’t mean the rest of them don’t. My mother is a high priestess, and she would like nothing better than to have a reason to be rid of me. It’s fortunate my dear father hasn’t yet sired any daughters, or she might have had reason enough already.”
Taztran cocked his head, trying to take all of that in. “So they sent you here to become a warrior. You don’t act much like a fighter, though- you‘re always reading when you’re not in the practice room. Sure you’re not in the wrong school?” he queried, smirking as he implied that the son of the First House should have gone to Telamurin’s sister academy, Magthere D’ Faer (School of Magic).
His veiled insult was ignored; instead, the young Noble shrugged, rolling his eyes. “Humph. And you said I was stuck-up! You think I’m not good enough to be here? I’d wager I can best just about anyone in our class. Including you. I’m not afraid to fight, and I’ve faced creatures you can’t even begin to imagine. I spent a lot of time practicing out in the Wilds, back home. So don’t even think you can intimidate me- not when I’ve killed everything from cave-fishers to hook horrors.” He stared back at the bigger boy, smiling at him smugly. He was rewarded by a look of open-mouthed awe and disbelief from Taztran.
“Liar,” the other said, thinking he was trying to impress him. “Where’s the proof? And how did you go out on your own? No Noble ever goes anywhere without guards.”
“Proof? Here’s your proof,” Lothir answered, pulling a small pouch from around his neck. Most drow carried their House insignia in such pouches, but his contained something else entirely. He opened it to reveal a three-inch ivory tooth, and a handful of small silvery scales, along with a large claw and a piece of some sort of chitinous plate. Souvenirs of past battles, all.
Taztran stared down at the small trophies, and slowly took one of the scales from Lothir’s hand. “What is that?” he asked, holding it up in the light as he turned it one way, then another to examine it.
“Dragon scale. I took it off its owner after my Blooding.” Let him chew on that, he thought smugly.
He was rewarded with a look of utter astonishment from the hulking young dark elf. “Dragon? But this- it looks like silver…” Taztran said, awed. “You- you fought a silver dragon?!”
Lothir merely folded his arms over his chest, and smiled. It hardly mattered that he had cheated on his Blooding- Taztran did not need to know that any more than his family did. Better to let them all think he had killed the wyrm, and keep the secret of Sivestrik’s existence to himself.
“Maybe there’s more to you than meets the eye, First House. Would you like to go out with us tonight? A group of us are going to the Spider’s Den for some- entertainment, if you catch my meaning. They have the best wines and slave-girls in the city. The food is not bad, either. We were going to play a few rounds of Eight-Legs and maybe have some Queen’s Venom while we enjoy a nice massage in the steam room. I would be pleased if you came. Interested?” Taztran asked hopefully. He had decided that the young Noble was not such a bad sort, after all. Aloof and cautious, perhaps, but not as arrogant as the other students had all claimed.
There did seem to be something peculiar about the quiet prince of E’Terrin’dar, but he shrugged it off as a simple lack of ambition. What need did the heir of the self-proclaimed king have for seeking more power and wealth when he already had everything a male could ever wish for, right in his own lap? In spite of what the soft-spoken boy had said, Taztran did not believe that his life had been at all hard. Even the least privileged of nobles had more rights and choices than a commoner. If the prince had been sent to the Academy, it was only so that his House could claim another skilled warrior in its ranks. He was likely being groomed for the eventual position of Weapons-Master, or even to become captain of his own warship. The burly drow youth was envious of his classmate’s rank and wealth, for it far outstripped anything he could ever hope for, unless he managed to acquire a ship of his own and establish his own House, as King Aldan had done.
“Why do you want me to go? I thought you said my nose was too high,” Lothir asked suspiciously. He could not help being wary of such an offer, coming from one who had already professed himself to be jealous of his status as a noble. Still, the chance for companionship was tempting, and he was lonely. Besides, it would give him an excuse to get out and see the city, something he still had yet to do. He recalled seeing the place Taztran spoke of on his first day in Terrillis, on his way to the Academy. He was eager to learn more about city life, and this was probably as good an opportunity as any.
“Maybe if you ever bothered to come out of the practice room, people wouldn’t think that way. Surely there must be something you enjoy?” Taztran said slyly, hoping to persuade him.
The young prince fixed him with a sharp gaze, wondering if he should trust the offer, or if it was merely the prelude to some trick. He was already familiar with betrayal, and had no wish to become the victim of some elaborate prank or trap. At last he nodded slowly, his need for a friend, no matter how untrustworthy, winning out over suspicion.
“No one’s ever asked me what I like, before. Perhaps I will go. But one question- what is ‘Eight-Legs’?” he said, utterly baffled. Taztran stared at him blankly for a moment, then suddenly laughed.
“You really do need to get out of that practice room once in a while!” he said, clapping the young noble on the back. “Let’s go- I think you’ll like what I have in mind.…” He laughed, and led Lothir from the barracks, grinning.
Several minutes later, the two had joined up with a small group of students who were waiting at the gates of the compound, all of them chatting jovially, though there was clearly an undercurrent of competition and distrust among them. They all turned at the pair’s approach, and suddenly Lothir found himself the recipient of several openly hostile stares, as the entire group ceased their chatter. It was obvious from their angry glares that he was unwelcome among them.
There were five youths in the group; one was a small, wiry lad with a long, narrow face that resembled a weasel, with tiny red eyes that gleamed with keen intelligence. He seemed to continually shift his gaze about, as if paranoid that one of his companions might be planning to attack him- which they might very well have been. He kept fidgeting with some small metal object, flipping it over and under his fingers, occasionally switching hands or tossing it up and catching it again. Lothir watched for a moment, and soon realized the object was a small, flat piece of steel in the shape of a jagged-edged star. A small pouch at the other drow’s belt apparently carried more of the unusual weapons. He had seen a few of the tiny throwing weapons before, but he was surprised to discover that one of his fellow students used them. He made a note to keep an eye on the small rodent-faced lad.
The second was an average-sized drow, who wore his hair in a multitude of long, thin braids, with one on either side of his face dyed blood-red; his face, arms, and hands were heavily tattooed in strange white markings that the young prince quickly recognized as arcane symbols. He carried only a pair of daggers at his waist, and two more in sheaths strapped to his forearms. Lothir’s brows shot up as he realized that the tattooed youth was a Nightblade, a rare combination of mage and assassin that used his own body as the focus for deadly arcane power to infuse into his blades.
The next two were mirror images of each other, both tall and stocky, with their pale blue-white hair cut short and spiked on top. Each had a short sword and a crossbow at his hips, and both had green eyes the shade of sea-foam. Lothir decided they must be twins, for even their movements seemed to mimic each other. The overall effect was of observing someone standing before a mirror.
The last youth was short and slender, his hair dyed as black as his skin, so that his red eyes seemed to stare out from a shadow. He was dressed all in black, his simple tunic and trousers of close-fitting silk. The young Noble found himself wary of that one, as well; anyone who was trying that hard to make himself blend with the shadows had something to hide.
“What in the Nine Hells is he doing here?!” asked the one with the black-dyed hair. Lothir scowled, struggling to remember whether he had ever heard the speaker’s name. Nymtyr? Of House Hlarret? He thought that was it, but as he had paid little attention to the doings of others in the Academy, he could not be certain. He knew that House Hlarret was mainly a house of oyster-divers, who made their living pulling the valuable shellfish from the sea.
“Relax, Nym- I invited him. He’s not such a stuffy lout after all. Come lads, we’re wasting time! The Spider’s Den awaits!”
“You invited him? Whatever for? The last thing we need is some stupid noble lording it over us. Especially from the First House. Lot of useless squabbling fools if you ask me.” This came from the tattooed lad, as he gazed at the newcomer scornfully. The others nodded their assent, the twins sneering at him as if he was some sort of vermin.
“I am standing right here. Did your Matrons teach you such manners? Or would they flog you for insolence toward a superior?” Lothir asked pointedly, staring at the tattooed boy with a look that said he thought such behavior to be disgraceful.
“What are you going to do about it, high-born? You certainly don’t look like a Matron to me,” shot back the weasel-faced boy with a cold glare. Lothir remembered his name- G’eldreth Teken’ghym. Another minor common House, as were all of them, apparently.
“Ignore G’eldreth- he suffers from permanent celibacy, seeing how his Matron had him castrated when he broke a sacred statue.” Taztran turned to the wiry G’eldreth with a nasty grin. The other took a step toward him, a throwing star in hand, but paused when he remembered there were others watching, and backed down with a dark glare.
“I’d sleep with my eyes open if I were you, Taz- you never know when you might find yourself choking from a wire around your neck in the middle of the night.” G’eldeth’s open threat brought gaping stares from the others; it was considered rude and arrogant to so blatantly reveal one’s intent to slay a rival.
“Guess that means we all know who to stick our knives in, now don’t we, boys?” commented the tattooed male. The two green-eyed drow exchanged looks and grinned wickedly.
“Right as usual, Durnozz,” they replied in unison. Lothir found it oddly disturbing that they seemed to mimic one another so completely. All he knew of Durnozz was that he was the son of a minor priestess, and that Maemtor was a small but relatively wealthy merchant house, but had never met him before today.
“And the two parrots there are Kethan and Filas,” said Taztran, turning to Lothir, unconcerned by the threat from his companion. The young noble-born tried to think of their House name, and finally dredged it up from his memory. Zaundar, a house of lizard-breeders. “They’re a little creepy at first, but you get used to it after a while. It’s easier if you just remember that they only have one brain between them. So, are we going, or what?”
The twins glared at him, exchanging another glance, before they finally shrugged and nodded. Only Durnozz and G’eldreth seemed to balk.
“I’m not dragging some spoiled noble brat along,” protested Durnozz. He stood unmoving, arms folded over his chest, and shot the newcomer a look as if daring him to argue the point. Lothir looked from him to Taztran and back, trying to decide if it was truly worth seeking their company. They clearly thought little of him, and he did not really blame them. After all, most of them were from minor Houses that had no noble blood and little status. He knew they were jealous of his high rank and the assumed privileges that went with it, but he wondered just how they would feel if they knew what his life had been before entering the Academy. Still, he was lonely, and this seemed the closest he might ever get to having friends. But he knew he would have to prove he was one of them first.
“Very well- Durnozz, was it? How about a wager? If I win, I get to join your little outing. If I lose, I’ll do all your duties for a week. Fair enough?” The young prince stepped in front of the scornful Durnozz, standing straight with his head high in defiance. His sky-blue eyes bored determinedly into the ruby orbs of the other drow, knowing he could not reject the challenge without loosing face.
Durnozz eyed him warily, no doubt believing his wager was a trap of some kind. “What do you have in mind?” he asked after a long moment, his crimson orbs narrowed dangerously.
“A simple contest- we go down to the docks, dive off the end of a pier, and swim out to the first buoy and back. First one to touch the pier wins. Oh- you can swim, can’t you?” he said, giving the tattooed drow a smirk. The others all glanced at each other, as if confused. From the looks on their faces, they had been expecting a fight or weaponry skill match.
“Swimming? You’re joking, right? What kind of contest is that?” Durnozz replied dismissively. Lothir only smiled, and shrugged.
“Why not? Every sailor on the docks can swim- are you saying you aren’t better than a sailor? Or are you afraid to try?” he gave the boy a taunting smirk; the proud look in the tattooed lad’s eyes told him that Durnozz had taken the bait. Lothir stared him in the face as the other finally put his hand out to confirm the wager with a clasped arm.
“I’m going to make you regret this, high-born. I hope you like scrubbing floors- that’s the duty I pulled for next week,” replied Durnozz, smirking.
“We’ll see,” was all the young noble said as they all headed for the gates.
They had gone only a few feet, however, when they were stopped by an authorative bark from behind.
“Halt! Where are ye’ lads off ta, now? No Initiates beyond the gates!” All seven students whirled at the order; Lothir saw Nymvayas and the other two bodyguards striding purposefully toward them, and stifled a groan. He had hoped to avoid running into them, but now it was a lost cause.
Taztran stepped forward, bowing slightly to the three guardsmen, but with a haughty look of annoyance. “We’re not Initiates, we’re all Sixth Year. Apprentice Tower, which means we’re allowed to go out on leave after work duty.” He smiled with satisfaction as he saw the three stop short. They ignored him, however, instead staring past him at Lothir. He sighed, realizing that the expedition might be shorter than he had expected. There was no way he would ever get a chance to go with the others if the three idiots decided to tag along. He would be humiliated in front of the others, and they would never allow him to join them then.
“Aye, then, we’d best provide an escort- the streets be dangerous, eh, boys?” said Nymvayas, as Dorl’avin and Sezvyll quietly took up flanking positions behind him. The burly Dorl’avin gave Lothir a slight nod, but said nothing; apparently, he understood his concern, and seemed content to pretend their only purpose was to perform their duties as members of the Darkswords. Evidently, Nymvayas seemed to realize the delicacy of the situation, as well, for he had said nothing to the young prince, nor had he brought any unwanted attention to his young charge yet.
“That- won’t be necessary, sir. We all know our way around. We’ve been out before.” G’eldreth spoke up, once again idly playing with one of his small metal stars. It seemed to be a nervous habit with him. He stared pointedly at the leader of the three guardsmen, as if daring him to protest. Then Taztran stepped up, turned to the others with a shrug, and grinned.
“You know, it couldn’t hurt to have a little extra muscle with us in case of gangs. They’re thick around the docks, and even down near the Spider’s Den. Besides, these three might be able to show us a few diversions we haven’t tried yet. I say we take them.”
The others glanced about at one another, but having no other objections, they all simply nodded agreement. Lothir alone seemed hesitant to include them, but could not truly voice his opinion without bringing attention to himself. That was, of course, the last thing he wanted with this bunch. His position among them was tenuous enough already.
“Fine, we take them, but if we’re going down to the docks, we’d better hurry. I don’t want to spend the whole evening showing this spoiled gol’ssinss how much of a lame lizard he is.” Durnozz tossed back over his shoulder as he headed for out of the gates. The others followed behind, with Lothir sticking close to Taztran, for he had already decided that Taz was the one most likely to support him in the contest- which was to say, he was the least likely to try to stab him in the back. The three guardsmen came last, following along at a short distance.
It took nearly fifteen minutes to reach the docks, for they had to weave their way through the ever-bustling area of the Bazaar. At last they found a pier that was unoccupied by any ship, and stopped at the end of it. Lothir looked out over the murky water, noting the small waves that rolled up to the shore, and the height of the piers above the water. He smiled to himself, for though the small harbor was fairly choppy, he was well used to the sort of currents and eddies that were common in deep water.
“There,” he said, pointing out to a buoy nearly a hundred yards out. “We swim to that, and back. Fair enough?”
He saw the others all glance nervously at each other, and knew he had them. Even Durnozz looked uncertain now, eyeing the distance warily. For all his bluster, it was clear that he had little experience swimming, if any. The young noble wondered briefly if he truly even knew how. The only one he was worried about in the group was Nymtyr, who might be a more adept swimmer than the others, due to the profession of his house.
“Fine, but I say we all do it. Just so there’s no question when you lose that you were fairly beaten. Right, boys?” Durnozz turned to the others, grinning wickedly. “If you lose, you do the chores of whoever wins.”
“Agreed. But if I win, then whoever comes in last does my chores for a week,” Lothir shot back, before any of the others had a chance to protest. He knew that if he sealed the deal, they would have no choice but to go along, or else be thought weak for backing out. So much the better for me, he thought. Now they will know just how tough and smart I am when they discover that they’ve all been played for fools. His main concern was still Nymtyr, though had he known that the Hlarret youth had a minor phobia of swimming due to an unfortunate encounter with an aggressive moray eel when he had been very young, and had barely gone into the water since, he might not have worried so much.
Just to show that there was no doubt he intended to go through with the deal, he moved to the edge of the pier and tugged off his boots, then swiftly removed the rest of his clothes. Then he turned to the others, waiting for them to do the same. “I’m ready,” he said smugly, with a little smirk. The others glanced at each other again, and quickly began to strip down as well. Only when all seven youths had undressed and moved up to the edge of the platform, did anyone pause.
“Wait, who’s going to be the judge?” asked G’eldreth suddenly. “Someone needs to watch in case of a close finish.”
“”Ere, lads- we’ll watch.” Nymvayas replied, stepping up. He had been listening to the conversation, and seemed to understand that there was some sort of competition going on. More to the point, he realized that it had something to do with his charge gaining the respect and acceptance of the others. If it would prevent a few attacks on the boy’s life, he had no qualms about allowing the game to play out.
“Sounds good to me. You call the start!” Lothir shouted back to the bodyguard, his relief evident. He had noticed the guardsman’s quick response, which had forestalled any thoughts of backing out from any of his peers. He had raced against others many times before, but rarely against so many at one time. This was a challenge that he was eager to take on, for he knew he would have to get ahead of them quickly to avoid being crowded and possibly losing valuable advantage.
All seven drow stood on the last plank, tensed and ready. Lothir took several deep, slow breaths to prepare- then Nymvayas let out a sharp shout to start, and seven naked drow bodies launched into the air before slicing down into the dark water below. Almost at once, five of them rose back to the surface, and began stroking their way toward the buoy. G’eldreth came up last, for he was the least experienced swimmer of the group. Yet the young noble was nowhere to be seen, as he had not resurfaced with the rest.
From his vantage on the pier, Nymvayas frowned, wondering what had happened to the boy. He was even more worried when the lad still had not come up several seconds later. He was about to call a halt to the race, when he saw- unbelievably- a small spot of white pop up several lengths ahead of all the others, and realized that the young prince had not only been swimming beneath the waves, but had easily taken the lead in doing so.
Lothir came up for a breath, already well ahead of the others, and dove back down a few feet below the surface, where the water was less turbulent, and the waves would not drag at him. He knew how to use the currents to aid him, both in using less energy, and in increasing his speed. By the time he came up for his next breath, he was far ahead of all six of his opponents. Even Durnozz, who had been leading the pack, was more than ten lengths behind now. He paused to watch them, and chuckled at their obvious lack of knowledge of what, to him, was pure instinct. At last he dove below again, moving as easily as a fish toward the goal.
Several breaths later, his hand slapped against the buoy, and he pulled himself up, shimmying onto its side to sit for a moment, while he waited for the others to get there. Already he could see that G’eldreth was tiring, and Nymtyr and Taztran were trailing far behind Durnozz. Only Filas and Kethan came close to keeping up with the tattooed youth. After a few seconds, G’eldreth stopped, looking up to see the slender form of the noble sitting casually on the buoy, and gaped. He glanced at the others, and shook his head, turning to go back to the pier, for he realized he had already lost.
Lothir waited a few seconds more, then shouted out over the waves. “Hey, slugs! What’s taking so long? See you back at the pier!” He laughed, then filled his lungs again, and dove back into the brine. He grinned to himself as he passed beneath Durnozz going the other way, and startled both twins when he popped up for air right in front of them, waving as he continued back to the pier. Already Taztran and Nymtyr were slowing, but they continued on, finally nearing the buoy even as Durnozz finally started back toward the docks. He passed them by, and heard the curses of the twins as they paused at the buoy to look back. He smiled to himself again, knowing there was no way he could lose now.
By the time he finally came up again, touching one of the posts holding up the pier, he was panting from the effort of what had been his longest race ever. G’eldreth was already back on the pier, heaving and staring at him in disbelief. Lothir let a small wave carry him to the ladder on the side of the dock, and scrambled up it to tumble onto his back, dripping and exhausted, but laughing happily. The three guardsmen looked down at the two drenched boys, shaking their heads.
“’Ere now, that was quite a swim, lad.” Nymvayas made a low whistle, impressed by the speed and endurance of the young prince.
“Yeah, tell me about it. First time I ever tried it that far. That was fun!” He laughed, still panting hard. He looked back out at the others; Nymtyr and Taz were finally catching up to Durnozz and the twins, who had all slowed as fatigue began to take its toll. Lothir watched for a few moments, dangling his feet over the end of the pier, and saw the tattooed youth now being passed by the twins, who were still determined to finish. He smirked, realizing that the Maemtor boy had used up most of his energy early in the race, in his determination to beat him.
Then he was passed by Taz and Nymtyr, and Lothir began to sense something amiss. While the two had been tiring, they were still going at a steady pace, and seemed to have found a second wind. Durnozz, on the other hand, was beginning to flounder, his strokes weaker. He made a few more yards- now less than twenty yards from the finish- and suddenly seemed to lose all strength. His head sank under the water, and the young noble suddenly realized the tattooed boy had become too exhausted to stay afloat. In a flash, he leapt up, taking a deep breath as he dove back in after the other drow. It never occurred to him not to go after him- in his mind, it was the only choice.
He stroked hard, diving deep as he shot through the murky water to search for Durnozz. He was vaguely aware of the other four shouting at him as they finally reached the pier, but the water muffled the sound, and he ignored them. He could barely see more than ten feet ahead, but he forged on, knowing that a life was at stake. Several frantic seconds passed when he thought he had lost Durnozz completely; then his hand touched something solid, and he grasped onto the other boy’s wrist. He pulled hard, and kicked for the surface, his lungs ready to explode for need of air. The Maemtor youth was heavy, but he struggled on, desperate to save him.
At last he broke the surface, and slipped one shoulder under the other boy’s arm, holding his head above the waves as he awkwardly paddled back toward the pier. By then, all the others had climbed up, and were shouting at him to hurry.
“I could use a little help here!” he shouted back, huffing from the strain. Durnozz looked unnaturally pale, his skin gone a worrisome shade of gray. Finally, Taztran threw out a rope, and he grabbed hold of it and slipped it around the other boy’s chest, then tied it, and held the unconscious boy’s head above water as Taz and G’eldreth towed them in.
When they were up on the pier, he rolled Durnozz onto his stomach and began to pound on his back hard, while he slid one arm under him and pressed upward, to try to push the water from his lungs. A small amount came out, but the other drow lay still. Desperate, he rolled him back onto his back, and pushed down on his chest; then he opened the other’s mouth and tried blowing into it. He didn’t know how he knew to do that, but after several breaths, and more frantic pounding, Durnozz suddenly coughed, and spit out a mouthful of water in his face as he was about to blow into him again. The others all stood staring in disbelief, for they had been certain their companion was dead.
After a long silence, Taztran spoke. “Where did you learn to swim like that?” he asked. Five pairs of eyes looked to him expectantly, while Durnozz still sputtered and heaved, trying to recover from his near-drowning.
“What did you expect?” the noble-born said simply. “My House controls the most powerful fleet in Argonia, and my father commands the largest ship of any House, and we have our own private cove, and you have to ask me that?” he laughed, grinning smugly. “Guess you lads forgot who you were dealing with.”
By this time, Durnozz had finally staggered to his feet, and now he glared at the young noble angrily. “You set us up,” he growled, baring his teeth. “You knew none of us could keep up for that long! You tried to kill me! You intentionally made the race too long!” He yelled, and bulled into Lothir furiously, knocking him to the planks and coming down atop him to slam his fists into the smaller drow.
In an instant, he found himself fighting the tattooed youth in a savage bout of punching and kicking, rolling about on the dock in what had become a contest of who could take the most hits before surrendering. He gave as good as he got, of course, though he soon had a bloody nose, his left eye swollen shut, and a split lip before Nymvayas and Dorl’avin finally broke up the fight.
When at last the three guardsmen had managed to calm the two struggling boys to a semi-rational state, he looked over at Durnozz, and stared him straight in the eyes as he spoke. “You’re wrong. If I had wanted you dead, I would have let you drown, mal’ai. I did make the race long on purpose, but only to prove you couldn‘t beat me. It’s not my fault you over-exerted yourself trying to win. In case you didn‘t notice, I just saved your life.” He folded his arms across his chest, blood still trickling from his nose and lip, and stared Durnozz down defiantly. The tattooed youth glared at him silently for a long moment, then slowly nodded.
“You’ve got a lot of nerve doing that, high-born. But you tricked us all squarely. You’re more cunning than I would have given you credit for.” He stepped toward him, one arm held out, and gave Lothir a long look. His own mouth was swollen, and he had several small scrapes and cuts on his face from the other lad’s fists. At last he grinned. “You’re pretty tough for a spoiled noble brat.”
“Next time you throw a punch at me like that, I’ll show you just how tough,” the young prince grinned back, and clasped his arm. “And since I had to go back out and save your sorry hide, I’d say that means you get to do all my chores for the next week. Hope you like privy-duty. Compared to that, doing your chores would have been an improvement! Now, where were we headed again? Taztran mentioned some place called the Spider’s Den.” He cocked his head, nodding toward Taz, and the other youth nodded with a chuckle. Lothir tossed a quick look at the three guardsmen; Nymvayas turned to wink at him, a slight smile playing at the corner of his mouth. He knew the lad had just won more than a bet- he had won their respect and acceptance.