Samples: Peer 1
“So much effort devoted to worshipping nobody in particular,” Caspar murmured.
Below the balcony, the Allchoir’s song echoed through the temple, the deep voices of men and beats of drums mingling with the high, sweet voices of children. Around the stage, six deep alcoves held the priests and followers of a dozen religions, still but for the movements of their singing. They were dressed up, gaudy in ornamentation, masks, robes and costume. No expense had been spared. One even wore a mask of gold, molded to the appearance of a man’s face, with narrow, foot-long spikes radiating out from the edges.
“Subversive words,” a voice responded.
Caspar stood from where he’d been leaning on the railing, surprised but not startled. “Lord Juris, sir.”
Lord Juris was taller than most, going prematurely gray in a way that didn’t match his unlined face. His eyes were sharp and dark against his pale skin, his light gray hair had been slicked back with pomade, but curls had torn free in an artful way that didn’t make the man look any worse for it. The tall collar and the straight, narrow lines of the ankle-length garment he wore made him look even taller than he was. He carried a funny stone rod with blunted spikes running along the four sides, out of place and too short to be his cane.
The Lord of Letters. In appearance, he was almost Caspar’s opposite.
The man that kept Juris company was close to Caspar in age, but otherwise just as dissimilar. He had bearing, with a sharp chin, a black jerkin and leggings with cloth shoes that were more decorative than anything. He had a pronounced widow’s peak to match a sharp chin, and narrow eyes that flickered over Caspar in harsh judgement. Darios Nath. He knew Darios, in passing.
Caspar glanced between the two, trying not to stare too much, while at the same time working to keep from looking furtive. It was a balance he’d never learned to strike. His hands… it was hard to know what to do with his hands. There was nothing to hold, and he couldn’t clasp them in front of him without his arms framing his prodigious stomach. He settled for folding his hands behind his back, trying not to look like he was trying to sort himself out.
“Some would take offense, hearing you talk about their religion in such a manner,” Juris rebuked him.
“Yes, you’re right. I’m… used to spending time with only myself for company. It was uncharitable and inaccurate.”
Juris smiled, then chuckled.
Caspar waited. As much as Juris was displaying sudden warmth, Darios wasn’t. The young man’s eyes were almost colder and angrier, as Juris finished.
“Not to worry. We intruded, after all. I’m not offended. I just finished speaking with your parents, they’re waiting outside. I’d hoped to talk to you.”
Caspar felt an uneasy feeling stirring in his gut, butterflies giving birth to more butterflies. He’d anticipated this would happen sooner or later. No escaping it. But to have no warning, and to have it be the work of the Lord of Letters, it was the nightmare of just about any young noble.
“Of course,” was all he could say in response.
“Is here alright?” Juris indicated the balcony. Curtains kept the balcony out of sight and out of earshot of the balconies on either side, and the height and position of the balcony kept it out of sight of the rows of seats below.
Someone who didn’t know better might think the balcony was a place of prominence.
The singing was dying down. In moments, figures would be stepping out of the alcoves to make their own entreaties.
“If the noise doesn’t bother you. Would you like to sit?” Caspar indicated a chair.
“I’ll stand, if you don’t mind. I’ve spent too much time lately hunched over my desk, writing to this foreign lord and that one. My back is a ruin.”
Caspar nodded. He would have preferred to sit, but he couldn’t when the Lord had deigned to stand.
“Do you have plans, Caspar?”
Did he? His father had plans for him, but they were vague. “No, sir.”
Caspar felt his stomach plunge, the butterflies doubling in number.
“No. No prospects.”
“Then I would like to make you an offer. Your father says you’re well read in a variety of areas.”
“A result of spending so much time on your own, as you said earlier. That’s good. Then you’ll know more of other countries and cultures?”
“Yes,” Caspar replied. He could feel the pressure closing around his throat.
“I would offer you a temporary position, then.”
It took Caspar a moment to process the words. He coughed, half laughter and half sputter. The singing had stopped below, and the sound felt painfully loud, in the silence as one of the religious leaders made their way up to the front of the stage.
For a moment, Juris’ composure failed him, confusion and concern marking his otherwise serene face.
“Are you alright, Caspar?” Juris asked, lowering his voice out of respect for the man on the stage who was now speaking, a song that was spoken like prose, or poetry set to music. Something between the two.
“Beg pardon. I thought you were going to marry me to someone,” Caspar admitted, matching Juris’ tone.
He didn’t miss the look of disgust on Darios’ face. He ignored it.
Juris smiled as the pieces came together. “Is that so bad?”
“To marry someone far away? I know I’m not a catch. A token marriage, to someone I don’t know…” Caspar trailed off before he could self-depreciate too much. Knowing that I wouldn’t be any woman’s ideal, and that it would be a marriage of suppressed resentment. If there was even any chance of anything to begin with.
I’d rather be alone.
“Well, not to worry. What do you know of the Kith?”
“There are a number of types. Can I ask which?”
“We’re concerning ourselves with two. Ogden and Aiah.”
“I know some,” Caspar replied. He stopped before he could say anything more. As if speaking the names were permission enough, two people approached, accompanied by Caspar’s parents.
He’d glimpsed the young woman that morning, but she hadn’t been dressed like this. Kith of Ogden. She had her arm around Caspar’s father’s. She’d been given someone’s old gown, one that was now two years out of date, judging by the green color with silver trim. The fashion of wearing weapons had been new, then, and the dress was made to accentuate a dagger at the waist. Someone had altered it to put a scroll case there instead. Whatever the case, it fit her well in both color and style, and it didn’t billow much below the hips, while still being floor length. The dress showed off her decolletage, only to join back together into a high collar. Her pale blond hair had been styled, pinned out of her face by a modest tiara. In that, she was every inch the young lady looking for a suitor. A foreign princess, even.
But she wasn’t human, not wholly. Her nose was upturned beyond the point of being a snub nose. The wrinkles and folds along the length of it were all the more pronounced with the addition of what must have been wishbone-shaped forks of metal, penetrating the folds with only a short spike each of the four folds. Her upper lip, joining the bottom in a firm line without any color, had a cleft in it, surrounded by faint scars of varying age. Her rounded ears had no rigidity, and folded over, though attempts had been made to hide them with her hair.
The second of the two Kith had made no attempts to dress in the local style. He was shirtless, but wore a scarf and a complicated arrangement of a dun brown cape with a collection of wooden rods and feathers. The idea was to give the illusion of wings, neatly folded behind his back. His bare chest was muscular, but the arrangement of muscle and bone alike were different.
The man looked like Darios, with that casual arrogance, but more like a warrior than an aristocrat. His brown hair was cut short, and his nose was as broad as two of Caspar’s fingers put together. It was so flat and vertical it seemed more more an extension of the forehead than a protrusion. His mouth was a thin line, but it wasn’t a matter of expression so much as a lack of lips.
His eyes, though, had enough expression to make up for his otherwise featureless face. The expression wasn’t so different from Darios’, but the disgust and judgement weren’t directed solely at Caspar.
“Haeg Mora,” Lord Juris said, indicating the young woman. He gestured to the shirtless Kith, “And Klaros, son of First Wing Vodan. Please allow me to introduce Caspar Thorbay. I do believe I’ve already introduced Lord Rolf and Lady Lizbeth Thorbay.”
No ‘lord‘ for me, Caspar noted.
When Mora spoke, it was with surprisingly good diction, “You are son of the brute?”
The question elicited just a little bit of shock from Juris and Darios both, as well as a small chuckle from Caspar’s father.
“I think I like her,” Rolf said, smiling a touch.
The brute. Caspar glanced at his father. His father didn’t fit the nickname. Shorter than Caspar, just as heavy, he had a pencil thin mustache and a line of beard drawn from lip to chin. His dark hair was unruly, standing out, and he wore an outfit similar to Darios’s, if somewhat heavier. The only nod his father paid to the old title was the rapier he wore, a year after wearing blades had gone out of fashion.
The woman on his arm, Caspar’s mother, was tall, dressed in the black and red that was the style, with the scrolls and scroll cases that were so popular, conversation pieces as well as a kind of frail affectation, easily damaged by anyone who wasn’t careful. She had sandy brown hair, and wore a great deal of color on her lips, painting them a startling crimson.
The brute and his wife.
“I believe you’ve picked up on an unkind rumor,” Lord Juris said, as gently as he was able.
“Unkind?” Mora asked. It was hard to read her gaze, the black orbs giving away nothing in terms of where she was looking.
“To call someone a brute, well, it might make you enemies here,” Juris said.
“Where Mora comes from, brutes are… proud?”
“Respected,” Caspar offered. “The word comes from your Kith in the first place. Bute, I think?”
“Bute,” Mora responded, nodding. She turned her head Caspar’s way, “Someone who can be proud and feared as a ferocious warrior and leader. You know these words? Boor, shob, ohv?”
“We have very similar words, but those words aren’t compliments here, either,” Caspar said. He had to avert his gaze, and he saw his parents looking on intently. It was just as bad as meeting her gaze. As if to try to get things back on track, he added, “They’ve been twisted in meaning over the years.”
“A line of discussion that could lead to hurt feelings,” Juris cut in, interrupting. “Though I’m glad you seem to have some grounding, Caspar. Perhaps this will work out after all.”
“This? The job you mentioned.”
“The Kith tend to appreciate honesty, if in different ways, so I’ll be blunt,” Juris said. “We invited Haeg Mora here because we’re hoping she will call off the bandit raids her people are launching against our traders at the southeastern pass. It’s custom that one never deal with one group of Kith, unless the dealing is very personal, so we invited Klaros here as well. The Kith of Aiah occupy a great deal of territory to the west, and while there is no animosity, the Lord of Trade thought we could open discussion about sharing between the groups. It was my hope that we could…”
He paused, searching for a phrase, then settled for, “…Solve two problems with one stroke.”
Klaros didn’t react in the slightest. Silent, he only watched, his eyes darting from one person to the next. From the way he held himself at attention, there was no doubt he was a soldier.
“Can I ask where I come into the picture?” Caspar asked.
“I’d hoped to leave the duties of welcoming them to Darios, but there was friction between him and Klaros. I assume, Klaros, that you’re not offended if I say this?”
The shirtless Kith shook his head.
“I would ask you to please look after the pair for the next week or two. Keep them entertained, ensure they’re comfortable, show them what we have to offer, and maintain an open dialogue on the issues I mentioned. If you need more grounding in those issues, I could put you in touch with the Lords of Trade and Treasury and the Lord of Banners, and take over while you talk. I would handle this myself, but I’m afraid I can’t make it a full time thing, with my other responsibilities.”
If there’s a failure, I take the fall. If there’s a success, it’s your success.
“I’m… unsure,” Caspar admitted.
Juris raised his eyebrows, clearly surprised. “I didn’t think you had any other obligations.”
“I don’t. But…” he trailed off.
“But?” Juris asked, archly. “I’d hoped my relationship to your father would be good enough.”
Caspar drew in a breath, not so deep that his chest and belly would swell, but deep enough that he could center himself and say what he needed to say. “If my father asks me to, I will.”
Juris glanced at Lord Rolf.
“I won’t ask him to,” Rolf said.
“I thought we had a good working relationship, Black.”
“We do. Making a good offer to my son would be a good way to maintaining that relationship,” Rolf said.
Juris nodded slowly, as if considering the idea. He turned back to Caspar, “I could make you my third, if everything went well. There wouldn’t be many responsibilities, but you would draw a modest pay. You could expect periodic travel, likely at the most inconvenient times for your romantic and social life, and more than a fair bit of researching old documents. When it came time for Darios to succeed me as Lord of Letters, the natural progression would be for you to become his second.”
The idea was a heady one. The inner court was insular one, and there was a penchant for the magistrates to give their seats to sons and family members. Excluding Lord Juris, there were only one or two individuals who didn’t have children, and who would be reaching out to other families and nobles to assign their seconds and thirds.
Caspar glanced at his father. His father had a seat, as well, but it wasn’t one he was free to pass on.
He shook his head just a little. “To be frank, Darios doesn’t like me. It’s generous, even kind, but the appointment doesn’t get me any further in the grand scheme of things. He’ll dismiss me the first chance he gets.”
Juris glanced at Darios, who nodded just a little. Acknowledging that Caspar was on target.
“What would you want, then?” Juris asked, with a measure of exasperation. “And maintain eye contact, please. You look like a kicked dog.”
Caspar met Juris’ eyes. “That same modest pay, a job as a clerk or researcher, and Darios’ word that he wouldn’t dismiss me.”
Darios spoke for the first time. “My word?”
Caspar nodded. “You don’t like me, fine. Put me somewhere you don’t have to see me, a tower would be preferable to a basement. Give me something to do, and we won’t need to interact. I’m not looking for confrontation or status. I’m more interested in security.”
“You’re not putting yourself in a good light here, in front of our guests,” Darios observed.
“I was asked what I want, and this is it.” I think.
“And if I say no?” Darios asked. When Juris shifted his weight, Darios added a somewhat reluctant, “In theory?”
“Then I’ll ask Lord Juris to make me his third, and you’ll see me every day,” Caspar answered. As much as he wanted to stare Darios down, he was the one to break eye contact first, glancing down at the stage.
Darios frowned just a little, a line appearing between his eyebrows. “Doesn’t matter to me. I have no objection to the clerk job, provided you do a passable job here, and you have my word I won’t interfere with the station.”
“Excellent!” Juris said, clapping his hands together. “Haeg Mora, Klaros, I’m leaving you in the care of Caspar here, unless you object?”
Klaros shook his head.
Mora, for her part, ignored him. She let go of Lord Rolf’s arm and reached for the railing. One step, then a hobbling limp forward, and she caught the railing for balance. She made her way forward, one step, one more step that looked like it might fail her.
Haeg. ‘Hag’ in common parlance. An unkind word to use when referring to a teenage girl, but the Kith of Ogden could be brutal when they needed to be. Many Haeg were the unmarried, old with nothing to occupy their time. They became ritualists and lorekeepers, to mask what they really were. Outcasts.
Mora would be the other kind of Haeg. She was a cripple, and while she still had time to find a husband, there was no expectation she would. She was the unmarriable.
Even so, Mora’s back was straight and her jaw set as she looked down at the noble lords and ladies, dressed in their tenthday finest for the Allchoir. There was a girl on the stage singing, but her voice didn’t carry well. Once or twice, she faltered. Probably a peasant with a good voice, recruited by one of the smaller churches who now found herself out of her depth.
Juris extended the stone cane for Caspar to take. The thing was heavier than it looked.
“I’ll be in my office this evening. Bring them to me, and I’ll show you where their rooms are, and you won’t need me as a middleman thereafter.”
With that said and done, Juris and Darios left, passing through the curtains to the hallway behind the balconies.
Caspar could see his parents. His mother was smiling, sincerely happy. His father…
The look was one of disappointment.
He had different aspirations for himself than his father had for him. Caspar deliberately looked away, turning to Klaros, “Would you like to join us?”
Klaros shook his head, still rigid, standing by the curtain that Juris and Darios had passed through.
Figuring him out would be an issue.
With nowhere else to go, Caspar joined Mora at the railing.
“So much effort, for nobody particular?” she asked, her voice quiet.
He startled a bit at that. “You heard?”
She raised one hand, to flick the tip of her ear where it flopped over, angled horizontally. It wobbled momentarily at the impact. “We hear better than you.”
“It was only an idle thought.”
“Explain this idle thought?”
He watched the young singer on the stage struggle. Nobody offered her any assurance, and the result was that the scene was more painful than it needed to be. A part of him ached to whisk the girl off the stage. Except it would only make matters worse, an awkward interruption, doubly so if it was him. Because he didn’t fit here, and he looked ridiculous.
He had little choice but to watch.
She was supposed to speak for her god, and now she’s kind of a sacrifice.
Caspar explained, “The Allchoir is an entreaty to the gods, an attempt to maintain a connection to them. An invitation to partnership, if you want to call it that.”
“Partnership? To spirits, perhaps, but we are mortal, they are gods.”
He couldn’t agree, pointing out the flaw in the idea, so he said, “It’s how things work here. The gods we worship change from year to year, and there are a great many small churches, so the Allchoir is a compromise, for all worshipers, to all gods. No two entreaties are permitted to be the same, so they invent new songs and rituals for every tenthday. For the churches in small villages, they’ll usually play music to some recitation of the week’s events or something tame like that. The idea is that some element in the works will strike a chord with some god and they’ll accept the entreaty with a big display.”
“Worshiping nobody particular,” Mora said. “I see your meaning now.”
I don’t know that you do, Caspar thought, but he didn’t elaborate.
He couldn’t stand to look at the girl on the stage, who had at least managed to avoid breaking into tears, despite the increasing number of mistakes and the pressure of two or three hundred members of the upper class staring at her, but he didn’t want to turn around and face down his father. He wasn’t sure what to say to Mora, and Klaros wasn’t up to conversation.
It was a little daunting, to think that the next one or two weeks would be like this.
“You waste your time,” Mora said.
“With?” he asked.
“With me. Your ambassador sends a man to my people’s camp, and he asks for a guest to come here. When they send me, it is… chortleg?”
“Chortleg?” Caspar asked.
She affected an attitude, acting, “Ho, ho, ho, thirteenth people now feed and shelter our Haeg with bad foot, bow and scrape.”
“Yes. Joking you. I am Haeg. We have power. If our Kith fights other Kith, enemy hold their weapons back rather than strike us, will wait quiet while we hobble here or there, old women and a cripple like me. We tend to the hurt and hold hands of the dead, carry last words for wives or mothers. But we are not proud. Not big in the eyes of others. If I tell the great chiefs to stop stealing your wagons, they will nod, they will tell me they will consider it-”
Caspar finished. “-and the raids will continue. You have power, but not status.”
“Yes. You take job, but you can not make me stop them because I cannot stop them. You agree to get Klaros to accept trade for Aiah art and goods, but Kith of Aiah are above dealing with others.”
When Klaros spoke, his voice was imperious. He had a strong accent, the ‘s’ sounds almost whistling, though sharp enough to not be a lisp, and his vocabulary was stronger. “Piglets should not speak of things they do not understand.”
“I was not speaking ill. Only truth,” Mora said, her tone terse. “And I am too old to be considered a piglet, even if you are joking me.”
“Would you prefer swine?” Klaros asked. Mora bristled. “I might call you a sow, but swine that will never breed-”
“Enough,” Caspar cut in.
The pair fell silent.
At least they listen. Caspar exhaled slowly.
“I am done with this,” Klaros said. “I will be outside.”
Caspar frowned. “You’ll stay close by?”
“Yes. I will.”
The young soldier from the Kith of Aiah stalked out.
“You took this job, and you are doomed to fail,” Mora repeated herself for emphasis, very deliberately turning herself away from the door.
“Probably,” Caspar admitted.
“You do not sound surprised.”
“I’m not, not really.”
“But you took the job.”
Caspar nodded. He gazed out at the assembled crowd. The young girl had finished, but she seemed so flustered she wasn’t sure where to go. It was the priest in the golden mask with the rays that approached her, ushering her off the stage.
One more performance. He knew this one was typically shorter.
“From what I said before, you might have realized I don’t have an overabundance of faith.”
“Surely, seeing Kith in person, you recognize that spirits and gods have some power,” she said. “Or do you think that boars with the faces of men and men with the faces of boars are made by accident? That there are reptiles with the torsos of men sprouting from the neckhole because of sheer fortune?”
I would not call it fortune, whatever the case, he thought. He bit his tongue.
“I understand that there are powers out there,” he lied. “But I don’t ascribe to any one in particular.”
She mused on that for a few seconds. “I see.”
“Then the question remains, why am I here? I attend service every tenthday, I do not sing.”
“You have nothing to do with your time,” she said. “You’re a layabout.”
He was almost offended, but he was able to stop and tell himself that the Kith were honest to a fault, and the Kith of Ogden were especially prone to bluntness.
“I work for my father most days. Odd jobs, he doesn’t like paperwork and I have a good writing hand. No, the reason I come here is to watch people. Can I trust you to be discreet? I’m not ashamed of what I’m observing, but others might take offense.”
“I do not like to lie.”
“I’m not asking you to lie. Only to hold your tongue rather than speak of this to another.”
She paused. “The Kith of Ogden understand a lie can still be a lie if it is silence. Better to speak, let it be known.”
They’re going to eat you alive here if I’m not careful.
“You’re not only Ogden’s kith. There’s human in you.”
“I am Ogden’s. One drop of his blood makes me a member of his Kith, and I have more than one drop,” she said. Her dark eyes settled on Caspar.
“What if the truth does more harm than a white lie?”
“It does not do this often enough,” she responded.
He nodded. Have to be careful what I say, then. “Alright. Look. Just in front of the stage, the benches just past the aisle. An empty space.”
“I see it.”
“More powerful people sit closer to the front. Right there, that’s the Lord of the Capitol. The empty space is reserved for his daughter. Others note her absence, and they make up scandals involving her and her bodyguard. I try to pay more attention to the pattern.”
“Are you not sure what the word means, or are you asking what it is?”
“I can’t divulge all my secrets, because you won’t respect them, but I don’t think the scandals are right. I think it has more to do with context.”
She frowned, but he couldn’t be sure if it was at the ‘respect’ comment or just confusion.
She finally said, “This ‘context’ is a word I don’t know.”
“The situation, Haeg Mora. The surroundings, and the other people involved.”
Mora nodded. “It is not what most people think it is, that makes her seat so often empty.”
“I don’t think so. Now, because I’m pretty sure I know what that reason is that she doesn’t show up to service, I can figure out that this ‘reason’ might be afoot anytime I see her seat empty. It works both ways.”
“When you look at the rows further back from the stage, you get the lords and ladies of lower status. Merchant nobles who bought their nobility with coin, the disgraced, and the ones who have little left but their names. Less powerful individuals. Do you see the tallest man there?”
“The fat one?” she asked, blithely.
Caspar winced a little, but he didn’t comment. “Lord Mansel. Unmarried, he’s… looking lonely.”
He’s spending a lot of time staring at the young ladies in the rows in front of him.
Caspar continued, “I know which district I can probably find him if I want to catch him tomorrow. It’s just a question of having someone let me know when he leaves town. I can maybe call in a favor or buy him a drank, and get some perspective on your Kith’s bandit activity that the Lord of Trade and the Lord of Treasury wouldn’t necessarily give me.”
“You watch all these things. You seek advantages.”
“I watch,” Caspar said, closing his eyes for a moment. “Taking this job, I don’t expect to succeed, though I’ll certainly try. But it gives me another perspective. Conversely, I don’t have anything to lose, in terms of status. Because up here, on the balconies, we’re separated from all the rest. We’re lower than even the penniless lords and the disgraced. You cannot fall when you are on the bottom rung.”
“Who are you, then?”
“My father is the brute,” he answered. He glanced back and saw his father’s eyes on him. The man was listening in, though not interjecting.
“I do not understand.”
“It’s an explanation for another place and another time. I’m thinking we should go. The service is wrapping up, and the hallways will be crowded.” And there isn’t always a lot of love for Kith, here, especially among the merchants nobles who your people have been inconveniencing.
“As you wish,” she said.
He stopped to bend down and give his mother a kiss on the cheek. Still sitting, she took his hand and squeezed it.
“Best fortunes,” she said. She smiled.
“Thank you,” he responded.
His father, though, looked more pensive. Lord Rolf Thorbay made eye contact with his son.
“There’s no need to get into it. I know what you’re going to say,” Caspar said.
“Those things you know I’m going to say can wait,” his father answered. The short, fat man glanced at the Kith woman, “Haeg Mora, could I beg a moment’s privacy with my son?”
“You could,” the young woman said.
“I’ll join you,” Lizbeth said. She offered Caspar a little smile. “Mustn’t leave our guests without any company. We’ll take a bit of a walk, maybe we’ll bring Klaros.”
Caspar smiled back, watching as his mother led the young Kith woman away.
When they were alone, his father spoke, “For now, a question, a brief explanation, and maybe a bit of a riddle.”
His father was in a mood, Caspar observed. “Sure.”
“Question. You don’t think you have anything to lose?”
“Admittedly, I have a lot to lose. I’m fond of my health and my life. But no, I don’t think I’m going to lose either, looking after the Kith.”
“Let’s hope. Fine. You don’t think you’re at risk, here. Our status is low, we have no friends to speak of in the nobility. Just the opposite. But the Lord of Letters knows this. Why didn’t he admit this outright? You have nothing to lose, it could have been a bargaining chip for him, not only that you lack any obligations beyond the assistance you give me, but he could argue you stand to gain a fair amount and you don’t have very far to fall if you fail.”
“I can’t say I’m too worried on that front,” Caspar responded. “Given the choice between telling the truth and lying, nineteen out of twenty people in this court will lie, and the remainder are children and lunatics. The Lord of Letters let that detail slide because he could. Besides, I didn’t ask for very much. Why leverage a bargaining chip and risk offending me when he could just give me what I want?”
“Your compromise with Lord Juris is something we can most definitely talk about tonight. Will you at least acknowledge that this may be more of a challenge and more of a danger than it appears to be on the surface?”
“You told me to assume that in every dealing in court. Yes, of course.”
“Good. Now for the explanation. How much do you know about the Lord of Banner’s activities?”
Caspar thought back. The magistrate hadn’t been at the last two Tenthday assemblies. Given that he was tasked with overseeing the army… he felt a moment’s fear. “He’s been busy. Imminent war?”
“Possible imminent war. Nothing too serious, but Eter’s armies have been seen moving eastward and westward south of the passes. Nothing indicating they’re coming in our direction. Still, armies at our borders are armies at our borders, and there’s a reason the Lord of Letters is as tired as he is, with his sore back.”
“He doesn’t know what’s going on, not fully.”
“On any other day, he would be looking after the Kith. Failing to reach terms with the Kith of Ogden means one less avenue to bring in supplies and break sieges. We’re rooted in a narrow valley with only so many exits. The boars are blocking one. If it comes to war…”
“The stakes are higher than it first seems.”
“There’s my boy. Now for the riddle. Why you?”
“Why did he pawn this job off on me? Because I’m available?” Caspar suggested.
The Allchoir finished the final hymn. The Alltemple started to fill with noise as people rose from their seats, breaking into conversation.
“I said it was a riddle, not a question. What’s the difference between the two?”
“The question demands an answer, the riddle demands thought,” Caspar said. A line from a lesson with his father, years ago.
“Think about it.”
Caspar turned to leave.
There were any number of potential nobles who would be fit as an ambassador.
The things that set Caspar apart were unflattering. For one thing, he was expendable, one of the few individuals that could be turned into a scapegoat without making any meaningful enemies.
He passed through the curtains and entered the hallway on the outside edge of the Alltemple. Tall panes of glass were protected by meshes of iron, set between elaborate pillars, with shutters folded back at set distances. Beyond, the morning sun cut through the mist that had settled on the mountains. smatterings of white dots in the distance marked the goats that littered the landscape.
This particular view was both a benefit and drawback of being up in the balconies. The other nobles were treated to a more awe-inspiring view of the temple’s south, overlooking the deepest valley from the vantage point of one of the structures set highest in the hills. There were no sheep or fields, but an abundance of mountains and a precipitous drop.
He’d assumed that Klaros would be here and his mother would be somewhere with Haeg Mora, or that they’d all be absent. He hadn’t anticipated that Klaros would be gone, the two women a distance away.
“Where is he?” he asked.
“He wasn’t here when we arrived,” his mother said.
He’d already lost one of them. “He said he’d stay put.”
Mora spoke up, “Some of Aiah’s children have different ideas of place. You ask him to wait here, but here can vary in size from one pair of eyes to next.”
“You tell me this now?” He glanced around. “Mother-”
“I’ll continue my conversation with Haeg Mora.”
Well, ‘run’ was the wrong word. His ‘running’ was another man’s ‘march’. In terms of the effect it had on him though, the result was the same.
The Kith of Aiah were supposedly touched by the greater bird spirits. It was a long shot, but he made his way up the nearest flight of stairs.
He arrived on the roof the moment before the bells started to ring. Sending off the nobles. In moments, his mother and Haeg Mora would be indunated by a tide of nobles in fine dress.
This was inconvenient.
He’d found Klaros.
Klaros spoke in that odd accent of his, his voice a growl, “It is inane. All of it. I will lose my mind before this time tomorrow.”
“We can find a solution,” Caspar said.
“I do not need your help.”
“Okay,” Caspar said. He paused for a moment. “If you want solitude-”
“-This is not the way to give it to me.”
“Leave, bastard son of Ogden.”
Son of a pig, Caspar thought. There was a reason he avoided people as a whole. The Kith were honest and open as a rule, holding little back. Every barb that they casually threw in his face had more weight because he could easily imagine that each insult the Kith were willing to say was evidence of ten or a hundred that they didn’t.
But he held firm. He didn’t want much, in the grand scheme of it all, but he was willing to endure this much to achieve it. He stared out at the horizon, in the same general direction Klaros was looking. “I’m leaving. You’re coming with me. If you want quiet-”
The bell rang. Caspar flinched, while Klaros remained upright, unmoving.
“-If you want quiet, we can find a better place for it, until I take you back to Lord Juris, tonight.”
Klaros stared at him. He turned his head to meet Klaros’ eyes for a moment.
“Thank you,” Caspar said. Please was too much.
Thank you worked. The Kith nodded assent.
When evening did fall, Caspar staggered back to his father’s house. In the capitol, there were neighborhoods where the houses were available to those of noble birth only. Moats and walls separated each section of the castle from the next, meaning the gently curved path to the house was a nice one, shaded by trees with a river running along one side.
If this keeps up, I might actually lose weight, he thought.
Too many nights had been spent with a book or his father’s paperwork, his food catered to him. It was more comfortable indoors than going out where he had to deal with people.
Home was where he could let his guard down.
Not always, but often.
Tonight, it seemed, wasn’t one of those nights.
He unlocked and opened the door to find the Brute in the middle of a conversation with two others. A man and a woman.
They tensed at the sound of the door opening, then relaxed when they saw him.
“Fume, Hatch,” he said. Too tired for politeness, he settled for acknowledging them, using the only names he had.
Fume was tall, her hair pulled back into a ponytail that was perhaps a little too lowbrow for the quality of the fabric and the cut of the clothes she wore. As disguises went, it was a bad fit, and her obvious discomfort in wearing it was even more telling.
The man, Hatch, didn’t even try. He was dressed like a laborer, and his knuckles were the scabrous ruin of someone who got in a lot of fights. His hair was long and greasy, his cheeks covered in scruff, his eyes heavily lidded. Simultaneously dangerous and someone who could get disappear on a crowded street in any other neighborhood.
Cynn, Hatch’s daughter, was on the other side of the room, stoking the fire. She’d been brought into the household as a favor to his father’s old friend. Even as a servant, it was a better life than she’d stood to have otherwise. She was just old enough to have had a taste for life on the streets, not quite old enough to be even starting on her road to womanhood. Beyond that, Caspar couldn’t begin to guess her age. Malnutrition had stunted her growth from the outset, and she was thin even now.
“It’s not a problem with the pressure,” Rolf told Fume. “It’s a question of the people who are buying the meat. Take my word for it, back off, hunt in pastures that aren’t so green.”
Fume’s lips twisted into something resembling a scowl, but she didn’t respond.
“So that’s all?” Hatch asked. His voice was gravelly.
“This is more than enough,” Rolf said, his voice calm. “I told you. Days where I give you a little tidbit should be few and far between. But you show up one month, you ask a question, I give an answer. You show up the next month, two favors this time, and I answer. Six months later, I do you three favors, risk a good thing to throw you a bone every time I do it, and oh, Rolf’s slacking now. Rolf’s being a greedy old bastard.”
“Didn’t mean it to sound like that,” Hatch said.
“I know you didn’t, but sometimes we all need a dose of perspective,” Rolf said. “Stop by sometime, maybe, and consider sharing a drink, instead of all the other nonsense. I’ll bring the drink, you just bring yourself. Yeah?”
“Yeah,” Hatch said. He clenched a fist, then rubbed at the back of his damaged knuckles. It wasn’t an aggressive gesture. More contemplative.
“Same goes for you, Fume. This isn’t a one way relationship,” Rolf said.
Fume nodded, looking more than a little sullen.
“Cynn! Here!” Hatch ordered the girl like she was a dog.
She scrambled to get things set aside so the fire wouldn’t escape the fireplace, then hurried to her father’s side.
He placed a filthy hand on top of her head, moving her head back so he could see her face, first one side, then the other, like he was appraising an animal.
“They good for you?”
She nodded, silent.
“You can tell the truth if they aren’t.”
She ducked her head. “Used to be, maybe there was something to look forward to once a week. Apples from the orchard on the way back from the temple at the crossroad.”
“Yeah? Happy memory?” Hatch asked. He smiled a little, showing bad teeth. “I’m glad.”
“Every day, now, there’s a couple things. I like every meal, just ’bout, and the tidbits we get summa the time, and after everyone’s had their baths and I can have mine, I can dry off and climb into the softest bed ever, I think that’s the best part.”
She spoke like she was almost ashamed of it, as though there was a bigger, meaner person waiting just behind her to snatch it away just because she’d admitted it.
“That’s good,” Hatch said.
“I feel-” she started. Then she looked up into his eyes and changed her mind mid-sentence. She fell silent. “It’s good.”
Hatch nodded. He looked at Rolf, then put a hand on Fume’s shoulder and led the woman out.
The door shut. Caspar locked it.
His father frowned. “Just old friends needing a little guidance. Go see to the fire, Cynn.”
The girl hurried over to finish her task.
“So. Your new task,” Rolf said.
“Things got a lot easier when we started meeting people. Klaros could talk to two of the Lord of Banner’s newphews, and Mora was open to talking to anyone, even if her speech is a little clumsy. The day went quickly. I watched, I answered some questions, and I made excuses when Klaros got fed up with people and stalked out.”
“Just Klaros that got fed up? Most time you’ve spent around people in the last ten years, easy.”
His mother chose that moment to enter the room. Caspar had to look twice to verify what he was seeing, then wished he hadn’t.
Naked from the waist up, the woman stood in the doorway to the cellar, her posture ajar, arms limp at her side. A wildcat’s skull sat on her head, strapped in place with leather thongs, and she, the skull and the simple cotton dress she wore were drenched in blood.
“Lizbeth,” Caspar’s father said. He sounded exceedingly unsurprised.
“Perhaps too much in too short a time,” his mother said, her voice dreamy.
“My dear,” Rolf said. “You’re dripping blood everywhere. Into the bathroom with you. I had Cynn draw you a bath.”
“I’m not sure I can walk,” she said. “Hold me.”
Rolf did. He didn’t flinch at the blood that was smeared on his doublet and head.
Shielding his eyes, Caspar crossed the room, approaching Cynn. The waif stared, slack-jawed, even as he barred her view of his parents.
“Cynn?” Rolf called out. “See to it that the floor is mopped up. Leave the carcass for me to dispose of.”
With that, the bathroom door closed.
Cynn looked up at Caspar.
“Mother has peculiar interests. It seems the latest trend is blood magic or blood gods.”
Cynn’s eyes went wider.
“Rest assured, she’s done nothing except amuse herself. No gods invoked, no spells worked. I promise,” Caspar said. Nor have any of the priests or priestesses we’ve seen in the last year, the last decade or the last few centuries, but I can’t quibble.
The girl hadn’t moved.
“Do you want help?”
“My job, ‘sn’t it?” Cynn asked, but doubt was clear on her face.
“Good girl,” Caspar said. “I wouldn’t be much use anyways.”
He collected a burning taper, abandoned her to the task of scrubbing the floor and retreated to his room.
Gods and lunacy.
Yet he couldn’t hate it as much as he wanted to. It was the reason they were here, and not in the gutters with Hatch and Cynn.
The room was dark, and smelled of old smoke and dust. The book he’d picked up on the War of Tears found its place on his desk, while he settled into the chair. His candle was already lit, and had been waiting for him for an hour, placed beneath a cover that let the air in and the smoke out.
He used it to light another, taller candle, and opened the book. The alleged origins of the Kith, insights into their natures and peculiarities, and-
The knock on the door interrupted him before he’d found the first page.
Rolf entered without waiting for a response.
“Do we have to?” Caspar asked. “I have a headache.”
“I think we should. I’ve been slacking, and so have you,” his father responded.
“It’s cliche. When something’s so common and obvious that people joke about it from the gutters of the city to the highest office, I don’t think the obvious path is to make that joke a reality.”
“No?” Rolf asked. He drew a dirk from his belt, then turned it over, letting it catch the candlelight. Short and heavy as he was, he made for an imposing figure, sitting on the edge of the desk, lit only by candlelight from below. “They joke because they worry. That worry is a good thing. I like to think it’s a reason the Black Chair exists. Because they need some doubt.”
The black chair. When the magistrates met to elect consuls and discuss matters of governance, there were eleven chairs with titles, the backs worked with icons for each of the respective appointments. City and Capitol, Treasury and Trade, Letters and Lore, Bludgeon and Banners, Sun Moon and Star. So it had been, according to myth, since the beginning. A hero had slain a mad god, then founded a kingdom on the bloodstained land. He’d granted one appointment to each of the people who had fought alongside him or helped him along the way, ten seats in total, then took the seat as the first Consul and ruler of Surd for himself.
And one seat, not titled, but painted black so others would know what it was, had been given to his enemy, the high priest of the mad god. In other stories, in history, the seat had been filled by villains, by murderers and raiders.
In myth, it had been at the god’s whim. The annals of history described others in a different light. Some were set up to be poisoned. Others were pacified by a life of luxury until their old allies were disposed of.
Others, like Caspar’s father, had played along, being inoffensive enough that the magistrates were content to keep them in place rather than worry about the bad luck that struck when the seat was left empty.
Rolf ‘the brute’ had complicated matters further by surreptitiously romancing and then marrying an eccentric young woman from the nobility.
Superstition, mad faith. It rankled, but Caspar could accept it.
What his father spoke of was something else entirely.
The man moved the knife between his fat fingers with a surprising dexterity. He stabbed it into Caspar’s desk. The candles rocked back and forth for a moment.
Caspar removed the knife from the desk, then rubbed at the gouge, picking away a loose bit of wood.
“Consider this a thought exercise,” Rolf said. The angle of his head made the divide between candlelight and shadow even starker. “What if you had to? What if you wanted to?”
“Killing a magistrate.”
“Or supplanting them. Or ruining them,” Rolf said.
“I’d make a godawful assassin,” Caspar said. “I’d be just as bad as a turncoat or a saboteur.”
“Which means they aren’t expecting you,” Rolf said. “They’re expecting me, so it would fall on your shoulders. Aren’t you angry at the state of things?”
Caspar leaned back. He considered. “Not angry enough.”
“One day you’ll have a child, and you’ll want more for him. For him or her. You won’t be able to give that child what you crave to give them if you’re a clerk or researcher. Status, power, self respect. That’s all I ask of you. To keep your eyes open for an opportunity. Ten or fifteen years from now. A dagger through the ribs, one act, clean and untraceable, from someone nobody expects. Poison their wine. One magistrate and their second are removed from the picture, and things change.”
“I go to the gallows.”
“Not if you’re clever, and you do have a cleverness about you, my Caspar.”
Caspar sighed. He moved the knife between his fingers, sliding it into his sleeve with one hand. He extended his hand, turning it over with fingers splayed, and then reversed the gesture to draw the knife.
“I know you intended that for dramatic effect,” Rolf said, “But you used to be twice as fast.”
“I used to care, because I didn’t know any better.”
“I’m asking you to keep an eye out for opportunity, nothing more.”
“You’re asking me to be amoral. To gamble everything I have, everything we have, on a chance at climbing one step up a ladder.”
“Your mother and I have given you everything we can. I would like to think my grandchildren will be better off than my children were, and my great-grandchildren better than them.”
Caspar clenched his fist. He met his father’s eyes, and this time, he didn’t look away. He knew the reputation he got, being furtive, not making eye contact. It was a simple thing, but it made all the difference in conveying attitude, in forming a rapport with others.
“You took away as much as you gave me,”
Rolf didn’t respond, staring into his son’s eyes.
Caspar could see a shadow behind his father. It distorted the longer he looked, like the air shimmering above a hot flame.
Ten seconds of eye contact, and he could see it. A reflection of his father, a man that was tall, partially dressed in uneven, lopsided armor adorned with wicked spikes. The features were the same, if far leaner, but the other Rolf looked wilder, more restless, unshaven, barely repressing his anger. Blood flecked his face and covered his gauntlets, a testament to the many times he hadn’t repressed his anger.
The visual of the gauntlet being clenched was so clear he could imagine the metal-on-metal sound.
“You’re seeing something,” Rolf said.
“I see nothing,” Caspar said. He looked away and blinked a few times, trying to banish the visual. Some blinks seemed to reinforce it, while more made it fade. It resisted, remaining in place.
“Nothing.” Rolf watched as Caspar’s eyes tracked the figure’s pacings.
“Mother dragged me into the woods and poisoned me until my mind broke.”
“She would say your mind opened. Her intentions were good.”
“I don’t see much of a difference. Her intentions might have been good, but we both know she’s imbibed a few too many experimental poisons herself. It was up to you to protect me, and you stood by while she did this. You had Fume stake me down so I couldn’t get away.”
“I got your mother and her title, the cost is indulging her fancies from time to time.”
“Then you need to accept that this little indulgence cost me something. I don’t think I can ever be around people. Marriage and these children you want are impossible. I used to think I saw people’s inner selves, then I realized I really don’t want that to be true. It’s insanity, and that’s sad and scary in its own right.”
“Your mother says you could train it.”
“Train what? It’s my eyes making up moving pictures when I let them idle. A form of madness bestowed on me when the poisons riddled my brain with holes or ulcers or some other sickness. Hardly a second sight or power.”
“Then train the madness,” Rolf said, his voice low.
Speaking from experience?
“If I let myself start seeing things, it’s hard to stop. I’m content to avoid starting. A glance here and there, nothing more.”
“Yet you accepted the job.”
“Because it’s how I can get what I really want. And because I needed to test myself, to see if I can really endure people on any level.”
“Yet if you succeed, your reward will be the freedom to lock yourself away from everything. Your failure… it leaves you right back where you started.”
Caspar lowered his eyes. His fists clenched. “I wanted two things. I was in a rush to take them. Nothing more.”
“I’ve taught you much of what I know. You had good teachers, and a good enough mind to find out what the couldn’t teach you,” Rolf said. He stood from the desk’s edge. The afterimage of the half-armored thug glimmered behind him. “Your mother’s gifts to you were her blood, and this, I suppose.”
Rolf gestured in the general direction of Caspar’s head.
“If you want something out of all of this, then take it. Understand? But I don’t expect you to settle.”
With that said, Rolf left the room. The door closed with more force than necessary
The other Rolf remained behind, chest heaving with anger and frustration, the blood still dripping. More unsettling, still, were the tears that streaked his face, as he snarled, white teeth bared.
Caspar disrobed and climbed beneath the bedcovers, turning his back on the specter, hoping it would be gone when he woke.