Lieder was still enamored with his meal as he and Ronald walked out of the Cool-‘N-Airy-Diner. The Cheesaucer was essentially a miniature pizza with one fundamental difference: instead of a tomato-based pizza sauce, a thin layer of mashed potato served to separate the cheese from the thin, crisp crust.
Any spices or seasonings within the potatoes had been mild, and the concept was something a child could have invented, but something about the dish had resonated with Lieder. Perhaps it was actually the simplicity that had won his affection.
“Before we part, Lord Lieder, I insist that you allow me to facilitate your acquisition of an expander.”
“I’m sure you’ve seen one or two of these since you woke up.” Ronald pulled a small, plastic object from a pocket on the inner side of his robes, which Lieder immediately recognized. Ronald made a slight squeezing motion on one corner of the small box, and the device expanded into a tablet similar to the ones he’d seen his nurse and Percius Tombs using.
“Oh, those. Yeah, they seem pretty fancy.
“This is the one item I can’t imagine you could hope to succeed without. Please allow me to procure a proper model for you.”
Lieder looked at Ronald from the corner of his eyes. He had already gathered that this item was probably a hybrid cellular phone and tablet computer. While its usefulness was apparent, he wasn’t about to incur a debt of any form at this early stage of his new life. Even when only a trivial monetary sacrifice was involved, salesmen tended to exaggerate the value of the ‘generosity’ they displayed in these sorts of situations.
Lieder could already picture Ronald attempting to coerce him into something, claiming that Lieder owed him for his kindness on this day.
“Is it not something I can get for free from a sapient establishment?” Lieder was reluctant to abuse the privileges of his title, but was willing to do what was necessary.
“You could get a foundation model, but it wouldn’t have the features you’d want. Please, allow me this honor.”
“I appreciate the gesture, but can I look at what’s available before we decide on anything?”
“How DARE you?!” A shout came from somewhere behind Lieder.
Lieder and Ronald turned towards the source of the commotion. A teenage boy was pulling at an adult woman by the handful of her hair he had clasped in his right hand. The woman, inferably a Sapient, had been bowing to the boy, but had been forced her hands and knees, her forehead now being held to the ground.
“Even after salvage, you wouldn’t be worth the damage you’ve done!” The boy practically spat each word, and as he finished the statement, he swung his left hand to slap against the side of her head.
“A spattering? Honestly, even by the low standards of attention addicts, it’s despicable…” Ronald stopped when he noticed that Lieder was no longer at his side.
Lieder strode towards the boy, silent but swift. He hadn’t seen the weapon that caused it, but the flash of crimson had been unmistakable. Drops of it were visible on the floor.
Violence was never a justifiable solution to any problem; at times, it was even an inappropriate response to another’s violence. Still, to use violence was to declare war, and since this boy had declared war, he’d relinquished his right to a fair response.
Even through the shroud of his rage, Lieder noted that the boy’s clothing was unusual. It consisted of a single piece, yet covered his entire body, including the head. It hugged his skull and clung to every exposed portion, even his eyelids, nose, and outer lips.
“Even a Sapient should know better!” The boy shouted, ignorant to the fact that the shrillness of his voice lacked any intimidating quality. “Especially a Sapient should know better! What use is your education, if you’re still capable of this kind of stupidity?!”
Lieder positioned himself two steps behind and to the side of the boy. He still couldn’t see the weapon, but knowing it had to be some kind of blade, this approach would be sufficient.
“I’m so sorry, sir, I deserve and accept any punishment you administer!” Her attempt to mask the terror in her voice was failing.
“Yes, you do.” The rage was gone from the boy’s voice, its absence indicative of a faked tantrum. The atmosphere around him was one of sadism as he released his grip on her hair, bringing both arms back to build momentum for his coming attack.
Before the boy could even turn his head, Lieder swung his left hand towards the boy’s throat. With the momentum he’d built, Lieder planted his left foot in between the boy’s legs and pivoted.
The limb that was planted between his feet prevented the boy from resisting the throw. His upper back made first contact with the ground, but his head still smacked loudly against the floor.
His eyelids fluttered and his body went limp as he slipped into unconsciousness.
Lieder inspected the boy’s hands. The gloves had small blades protruding all along each finger; there was no way that the digits could bend while like this, so he was sure there must be some mechanism to retract them.
Now that he was incapacitated, Lieder took a moment to marvel at the boy’s clothing. The fabric was beautiful, somehow reminiscent of both a peacock’s feathers and prismatic fish scales. Though the vast majority was colored deep crimson, the parts that had been speckled with the girls blood had turned a light, creamy beige. The portions of neck and arm that had come into contact with Lieder were marked with obsidian.
Apparently, the cloth reacted and changed color when touched by other people.
As the tension faded, Lieder became aware of the murmuring that had been taking place around him. Specific phrases were becoming coherent.
“Are you sure he’s not a Peer?”
“How could he be? Look at him!”
“He could easily be a Martial. They’re known for dressing informally. Besides, who would be irresponsible enough to teach that kind of technique to a Sapient?”
“Lord Lieder!” Ronald’s voice cut through the hushed voices as he jogged towards him. “Lord Lieder, are you harmed?”
“I’m the one doing the harming.” Lieder glanced around warily as the onlookers reacted to the revelation that he was a Lord. “So no, I’m fine.”
“Ho ho, so very bold!” Ronald chuckled, clapping his hands together in a gesture of approval. “If his parents rate the label, they’d have done no less.”
“Perhaps.” A nearby Peer was scowling at Lieder.
“There’s no question about it,” yet another onlooker asserted. “That boy was immeasurably far out of line. I’m almost certain he engineered that collision. Did you know that some children do that sort of thing for sport? They call it ‘Spattering.’”
Lieder was barely listening to the conversation around him. His attention was on the victim, who had climbed to her feet and assumed a respectful bow. Despite her intentions, she was quaking too violently to hide her trauma.
He tried to keep his voice low enough to avoid upsetting the assaulted woman further, but loud enough to be heard over the Peers’ yammering.
“Are you ok, sweetheart?” Lieder’s question felt awkward; this was a task he had been accustomed to in his youth, but many years had passed since he’d last put the skill to practice. “Please look up, let me see if you need medical attention.”
“I’m very sorry,” she sobbed, nervously raising her head while trying to maintain a bowing posture. The blades on the boy’s gloves had left four clean, parallel cuts along her check, curving erratically upon reaching her right temple. That side of her face was drenched in blood, a problem exacerbated by the blades’ apparent sharpness and her own insistence on bowing to the Peers gathered around her. “I accept all the fault for this…”
“But the fault isn’t yours,” Lieder insisted, a hint of annoyance mixing with his concern. “Please, you’ve suffered enough, you don’t need to add guilt to that.”
“Just what proof do you have that he is a Lord?” The conversation between the Peers continued loudly, and though Lieder was its subject, he did his best to ignore them.
“We could follow him into a shop, or perhaps the port.” Ronald replied, remaining patient despite the apprehensive atmosphere. “Maybe you should also listen for my name when we pass through, since I apparently need to prove my credentials.”
“There’s no need to go that far.” The dissenter seemed to be caught off his guard. “I mean, with him in that attire, you must understand my skepticism.”
“He’s clearly not on his way to the Assembly. Is there some other reason he should feel compelled to dress formally? Perhaps this is what he’s most comfortable in.”
“Sapient vigilantism is so rare that it might as well not exist,” another voice offered. “I think it’s safe to assume that this is between Peers, at this point.”
“Excuse me,” Lieder interrupted, his patience thinning. “Isn’t there a need for some form of medical personnel?”
“Ah, yes, apologies, “Ronald replied, his face turning a slight shade of red. He opened his expander and began browsing its menus. “I’ll get the nearest Triage here immediately.”
“How very merciful, that you would be concerned for the boy you attacked.” Lieder finally turned to face the man whose tone had always been critical of his behavior. “Perhaps it would have been easier to restrain yourself beforehand.”
Lieder stared at him, considering the ways he might put his perspective into words.
“Oh please, there’s only one person who acted inappropriately here, and he got what he deserved,” the second of Ronald’s most vocal correspondents replied. “Didn’t you see the whole thing? He waited around the side of that door and ran into her on purpose. I’m telling you, this is a trend among Peers of their age: they manufacture a situation wherein they can publicly paint their Quintessence in drops of innocent Sapient blood. Even if that’s not what was happening here, for all we know this young Lord was simply protecting his own property.”
Lieder continued to say nothing. The reason for the boy’s behavior, the circumstances that caused the attack, the repercussions of his intervention; he didn’t care about any of it. Nothing would make Lieder regret his actions, nor would anything have stopped him from protecting this girl. Even if he’d been awakened as a Sapient, and harming a Peer would have meant his death, he’d have acted identically.
“If that were the case, I’d have no complaint, but if not, I think he should have left it to someone of a more appropriate age. That’s for someone that’s been around long enough to know how to discipline properly.”
“It looked like proper procedure to me.” The other stranger shrugged.
“Yes, I have started broadcasting my location, send the team here. Remember, an unconscious Peer boy and a Sapient woman with facial lacerations. I’ll see you in a moment.” Ronald spoke into his tablet, ending the call before the face on its screen could respond to his last statement.
He wasted no time in rejoining the conversation. “Rest assured, sir, that Lord Lieder bears the right to his title and happens to be much older than he looks. May I recommend that, until Triage or the family of this boy requests it, you keep your testimony against him to yourself?”
“Reasonable enough.” The belligerent man was withdrawing in a manner that suggested he felt outnumbered.
“Please, be at ease already,” Lieder pleaded with the injured Sapient, who was still locked in a rigid bow. “If it helps, I insist that you relax and be casual, as if you were talking to another Sapient.”
She looked back at him uneasily, slowly standing up straight but glancing between the other Peers as she did.
“It’s alright, I’ll take responsibility should anyone get offended. Tell me, what were you doing before all this happened?”
“I-…” she started, interrupted by a resurgent tremor. “I was on an errand for my mistress, here in Hobby’s Humor. I guess I wasn’t paying enough attention on my way out, because I bumped into him. I know that’s really bad, especially ‘cause some of my skin is showing and he was wearing his Quintessence…”
“This was no accident, and you’re not the perpetrator here, kitten,” the amicable stranger consoled. “Even if it was accidental, and I’ll swear to the Assembly that it wasn’t, he’s asking for it by wearing that in a place like this.”
“I must admit, it really isn’t wise to wear Quintessence here.” Even the dissenting man conceded this point.
“Do you have an expander or any other way to contact your mistress?” Lieder remained focused, despite the Peers’ continuing distractions.
The woman nodded, but before she could speak, Ronald interjected.
“Don’t worry, Triage can handle all that. In the meantime, we should see about getting you an expander of your own.”
“I’m in no hurry, and more than anything, I want to make sure I’m consulted if the boy or his family comes looking for retribution.” Lieder looked sternly at Ronald as he spoke. “If they have an issue with this woman or her mistress, then they have an issue with me, as well.”
“Brave,” the Peer that had been siding with the Sapient approved.
“Risky,” Ronald added, visibly uneasy. “I feel like there’s a lot you should know before you advertise your involvement in this.”
“Call it a Winkle’s eccentricity,” Lieder replied nonchalantly. “Besides, wouldn’t I cause more trouble for myself if I were to flee the scene?”
“Would you?” Ronald seemed genuinely confused. “How so?”
“Winkle?” A thus-far silent Peer broke her silent observation. “What’s a Winkle? The Lexicon doesn’t register that one.”
“We may need to petition its addition,” Ronald sympathized. “That’s the term they use for those people that were in digital stasis. You know, the Tombs are in charge of them.”
The lingering crowd murmured in excitement.
“Oh, that’s right!”
“My word, he’s a Winkle?!”
“Regardless,” Lieder interrupted. He hated this chronic attention. “I insist that the Triage or whomever it is that mediates this kind of conflict knows of my involvement.”
“I’m obligated to acquiesce,” a new voice called. “Forgive my boldness, masters, but the nature of Triage work leaves little time for formalities.”
Those present turned to look at the newcomer and his entourage, clothed in identical black uniforms with a red cross emblazoned over the left breast. Two of his four companions were directing a sleek, expensive-looking gurney towards the unconscious Peer while the remainder went about ascertaining the nature of all parties’ injuries.
“I understand,” Lieder replied first. “Condone, even.”
“Appreciations,” the presumed leader replied humbly. “First, may I get your name, sir?”
“Carl Orionne Lieder,” he responded without hesitation.
“Lord Carl Orionne Lieder,” Ronald added.
“Ah, apologies, my Lord.” The medic seemed to have contracted some of Ronald’s nervousness after hearing that Lieder was a Peer. “May I record your account of what happened here?”
“Certainly.” Lieder nodded. “Just let me know when you’re ready.”
The man pulled an expander from his uniform pocket, tapped a couple icons, and carefully adjusted its positioning. Lieder could see his own face projected on the screen.
“All set. Lord Lieder, would you please recount what happened here?”
“As I was leaving the Cool N’ Airy Diner, I heard an altercation happening behind me. I turned around to find a young Peer assaulting a submissive, apologetic, and respectful woman.”
Lieder’s face contorted into a determined glare. The cartoon on his shirt stood at its full height, puffed out its chest, and began beating on it in a manner reminiscent of a gorilla.
“I immediately incapacitated the boy, and I dare say that I would do it again. To anyone concerned, know that I believe he deserves any injury he incurred, and refuse to allow the victim of this boy’s attack, her mistress, or the family to which she belongs to be blamed for this incident. If any conflict remains to be resolved, it’s between this boy’s family and myself. That is all.”
“Before you stop recording,” Ronald placed his hand on Lieder’s shoulder and gently leaned his way into frame. “Viscount Ronald Broker would like to express his support of Lord Lieder’s testimony.”
“Thanks for your input, masters,” the Triage lead seemed relieved. “Is there anyone who saw anything that may have provoked the boy?”
“If I may offer my own testimony?” The unfamiliar Peer that had supported Lieder’s interference grinned as he spoke. “I believe it will complete this rendering.”
Lieder offered an appreciative smile to the man, who returned it with a dismissive wave. With some reluctance, Lieder turned to Ronald.
“I appreciate your support, but forgive me if my gratitude is contrived for the moment. I’ve never been known for my love of these situations.”
“And yet you sought it out despite my council.” Ronald’s tone was of admiration. “I’m afraid I haven’t figured out how to ignore how young you look, Lord Lieder; forgive me if I’m surprised over your understanding that necessary and desirable are rarely used to describe the same thing.”
“I can’t expect any different, given the circumstances.” Lieder knew that Ronald had misunderstood him. It was not the atmosphere that dulled Lieder’s gratitude, but the fact that he now owed Ronald a debt for his support in this matter. Still, he figured it would be best if he didn’t force that knowledge on Ronald. “Can you direct me to an outlet for these expanders? I’m getting tired of this place.”
“Yes, of course. It’s not far, and shouldn’t take long.”