While Lance stifled a childish snort and Dante creased his face in a mix of both confusion and embarrassment, the audience gasped.
“Least I ain’t called Brian,” the beast replied. “Not that I mean any disrespect, of course. I mean, you’re the bookies’ favourite—favourite to die first that is!” Its gwa-ha-ha rumbled through the arena. “Maybe we should call you Die-an!”
Judging from the wave of hysterics, this was the funniest thing the people of Bolventor had heard in years. The people of Bolventor, that was, and Lance Algar. “Die-an!” he spluttered. “That’s a classic!”
Byron placed his hat back on his head. “Now, now, let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” he said. “Your visage would not be the first I have skewered on this most unpredictable of sojourns, though it would certainly be a contender for the ugliest. I wonder, have you always resembled such a hideous beast, or were you caught putting your hands where they did not belong?”
“These ‘ands o’ mine’ve been in more places than you’ve seen, I bet! Ain’t that right, ladies?” With a hideous chuckle, the creature rolled its eyes to the audience, where several voices squealed their affections across the arena. “Best thing about ‘aving eight of ‘em, if ya know what I mean!”
“Quite,” replied Byron with an air of disbelief—or perhaps a wince of nausea at the thought. Dante, certainly, didn’t want to dwell on the image. “Then again, there are plentiful drugs out there that can convince even the most stalwart of minds that beauty and beast are one and the same. Perhaps you could recommend me your dealer?”
They continued on like this, jousting with childish putdowns as the crowd roared in appreciation, each blow more popular than the last, each witticism drawing the beast further from its watery lair and pulling Byron towards it, until at last they stood within striking distance of one another.
“I gotta say, it’s been fun, kiddo,” it said, “but, unless you’ve got some trick up yer sleeve, I’m afraid this is where you check out.”
“As if I would come this far only to lose a battle of wits to some lecherous octopian oaf.” With a flick of his wrist, Byron produced a sword, its blade slender and long, and raised it in salute. “They say a razor sharp wit demands a razor-sharp blade, and mine shall pluck out those meandering eyes of yours and roast them upon an open fire.”
His bravado did not last. The beast outnumbered him, at least in limbs, and a quick feint with its tentacles was enough to put the poet on his back. Pinning down his arms and legs with half his limbs, the monster raised the rest over its head, priming them for a killer blow. Dante, sweat dripping down the sides of his face, looked to the audience stalls. Ms Espinosa said Seelie would be there if things did not go to plan—but then Seelie had also abandoned his mother, that night she surrendered herself to Arided…
The creature’s tentacles quivered, ready to rain down upon Byron and beat his body to a bloody pulp. The audience, many on the edge of their seats, fell silent in anticipation. Even the commentators held their breath.
And then the stalls echoed with laughter. Byron’s laughter.
“You have my sympathies,” he said. “I can feel the murderous intent flowing through your limbs. However, we both know my untimely death shall only drive Emily further from your grasp.”
“You what?” said the octopus. “Emily? Who the bleedin’ ‘ell‘s Emily?” It flapped an exasperated tentacle over its forehead. “Don’t tell me they’ve brought me the wrong bloody geezers.”
I regret there was no way I could have Byron exclaim “You fight like a dairy farmer!”