Swamped Chapter 19 Page 5

“Well, I can’t accept without knowing your price.”

You have a pretty good idea of it, though, and Grey-maw confirms your suspicions when she holds up her arm.

“Arm-wrestling. Beat me and I’ll tell you what I know. Lose, and you’ll be taking orders from me tomorrow. So, are you up for it, or are you too afraid?”

Dammit. You walked right into her trap. If you turn it down now, even if you’ve got a good excuse, she’ll spread word that you’re a coward. Your chances of making the Council are already bad enough.

But if you accept… well, there’s a good chance she’ll break your arm, and there goes any chance of winning a combat trial. Not to mention whatever unpleasantness she puts you through tomorrow.

On the other hand, if you actually won, or at least forced a draw, that would be a major boon to your reputation. And you have been working out since your capture a few days ago.

Best bet is to play for a draw. You can use the time pressure as an excuse, without sounding like you’re backing down.

“I’m already keeping the rest of my squad waiting,” you say. “So we’ll make this quick. If neither of us is down in one minute, we just stop the match there and call it even. Fair?”

Grey-maw sneers. She’s confident you’ll go down in less than a minute.

“Fair. Hey, short stuff, you’re timekeeper.” She tosses Shorty a pocket watch. “And don’t try to end it early, I’ll know if you do.”

“Boss, have you lost it?” Shorty asks. “This is Grey-maw!”

“Let me worry about that, Shorty. You just keep an eye on that timer.”

You hold up your arm and get in position.

“Start us whenever, Shorty.”

“Three… two… one… Go!”

Grey-maw starts putting the pressure on immediately. That’s her style. You feel your arm giving way, but you were prepared for it. Still, fighting back is a struggle. About ten seconds in, you feel your arm starting to give way.

“Not bad,” Grey-maw says, sneering. “I didn’t think you’d last this long.”

That was a mistake on her part. Stopping to taunt you made her lose concentration, just a bit. Enough that you can start pushing back.

It doesn’t take her long to catch on, though. She starts pressing again. You managed to gain a slight advantage before she noticed, but she’s even better on defense than on offense.

In fact, you don’t think she’s even trying to win right now; just get you to tire yourself out holding her down. She figures she has time.

So you start holding back, just when she least expects it. She’s not quite ready to go back on offense, so it takes her a bit of time to push again. By then, you’ve braced yourself.

“Thirty seconds left,” Shorty says. You try not to think about it.

But Grey-maw seems thrown off. She expected to win by now. You feel just a bit of pressure lightening again, and you seize the chance. You push with all your strength, and…

It’s not enough. You’ve got her arm down about halfway, but she’s caught herself. And you’re going to strain your arm keeping this up.

You should have played it safe. You’ve extended yourself too much going for a win that was clearly beyond you. Now you’ll be lucky to make the timer.

You don’t think pulling back will work this time, either. She wasn’t taking you seriously at first, but now that’s changed.

Still, if you keep the pressure on, one more distraction could be enough to pull through this.

“Fifteen seconds,” Shorty calls out. You’re both too focused to notice.

You feel like you’ll give way soon. And once you do, it’s over. If only…

“Grey-maw, what are you doing?”

You don’t even have time to process Razor’s voice, only the fact that Grey-maw’s distracted by it. Now’s your chance. You push down, hard.

“What the… I lost?”

“I don’t care,” Razor growls. “I gave you an important task. I can’t have you wasting your time arm-wrestling. Get back to it!”

“But Razor, this is the guy you…”

“I made my recommendation, Grey-maw. I would appreciate not being forced to revoke it because you can’t prioritize properly. Do I make myself clear?”

“Yeah, got it,” she grumbles. She gives you a glare. “I’ve already checked out the roost, couldn’t find anything there. I’m heading for Rider’s stable next.”

“Don’t talk to me about it, just go and do it!”

“Yes, sir.”

Grey-maw runs off, more than a little deflated, and Razor turns to you.

“Corvus. What’s this business I’m hearing about desert fever?”

How did he hear about it so quickly? You’ve never known Crosswinds to tell Razor anything before it was absolutely necessary, and you don’t know who else might have brought it up.

And how are you going to answer?

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Suggestions:

It’s like murderfly toxin but slow-acting. Back before I came here, I was part of… well, let’s call it an organization. An organization that sometimes had business in the desert. I never went myself, but the couriers who did go there… several of them came back, and they weren’t in good shape. Called it desert fever. And I just realized, it’s the exact same thing we’ve been seeing here.

Author’s Note:

The arm-wrestling match is one of those moments I really like to reread. On the surface, the stakes aren’t especially high, but what it’s really about is whether Corvus is worth taking seriously.

You could say Corvus got lucky by having Razor interrupt – but you could also say he made the most of an opportunity. He could easily have lost well before Razor noticed what was going on, or lost his focus the same way Grey-maw did.

More importantly, Razor immediately moves to reinforce the dynamics. Grey-maw has lost status, and Corvus has gained it. In fact, Grey-maw gets reprimanded for getting distracted – the same reason she lost the match.

Also, I have trouble spelling Grey-maw’s name consistently. I have the same problem with Stacy, who sometimes gets an e in her name and sometimes doesn’t.