Samples: Peer 3
Author’s notes: At this juncture I’m fairly certain I won’t move ahead with Peer, barring a lot of sudden good feedback and/or a burst of inspiration on several fronts. In the interest of not rushing, however, and for the sake of rounding off this particular sample properly, I’m moving ahead with the third chapter regardless.
This would probably be closer to chapter four in the story, and I’d rewrite some bits of the prior chapters if I were moving ahead, but I’m skipping ahead just a little bit. Three would be introducing more characters we’re not going to see anything of at this juncture, as well as establishing more behind the scenes.
“Can I offer you a drink?” Juris asked. “I assume you’re drinking during the fast?”
And eating, Caspar thought. “Yes.”
“Hot broth? Ale? Wine? I have some melchek from our Barlus neighbors. I know your dad enjoys it.”
“Melcheck leaves a sour taste in my mouth for the remainder of the day,” Caspar said. “I can never shake the feeling that my breath stinks of it. No thank you. I’m fine without anything to drink.”
And my stomach is still a mess of bruises. Eating and drinking anything was painful.
“It’s never as bad as you imagine it will be. Well, I’ll keep that in mind,” Juris said. “If we’re going to continue our working relationship, I’d like to know what to keep on hand for our meetings. What’s your usual drink?”
“Wine it is. Red, black, white?”
“Good, good. Easy enough to keep some on hand. Now, you’ve had a few days. Have you established a rapport with our guests?”
“With Haeg Mora, I think. With Klaros…” Caspar trailed off. He glanced in the direction of the door.
“The Kith of Aiah are xenophobic. He doesn’t despise you or see you as an enemy, which is enough for now. In a matter of days, we’ll see them off. You and I can talk at some length, then, about your position in my offices, and at the same time, if you had any insights to share on Klaros’ interests and possible approaches to take in proposing trade, I’d appreciate it.”
Caspar nodded, even as he turned Lord Juris’ words over in his head. His lessons with his father had taught him the techniques people used to hide deception in truth. People’s memories caught on the beginnings and endings. Were someone to rattle off a string of numbers, listeners would inevitably recall the first and last ones best.
In a similar vein, when a liar did not want someone to focus on a particular thing, they tended to wedge it between two other ideas. People would recall what came before and what came after. The Aiah are xenophobic, we will talk about your position later, I would like insights on the Aiah.
Caspar suspected Juris wasn’t wholly genuine about the job he’d offered. Had Darios, Juris’ second, said something? Had others pressured him? Or had he been misleading Caspar from the beginning?
“Agreeable?” Juris prodded Caspar, smiling a little.
“I can tell you now. He’s ascetic, though that might be the wrong word, because I do not think it is spiritual. In terms of companionship, in food, dress and other creature comforts, he abstains. He would rather be underdressed and suffer through the cold than take the time to fold the cloth of those false wings around himself.”
“I have thoughts on the matter, but I’ll hold my tongue to hear your thoughts. What do you think lies at the heart of this behavior?”
“I don’t think it’s because he doesn’t want to accept what we offer. Well, he does, but there’s more to it. If I had to put it simply, I would argue it’s about pride. Proving something to himself, that he won’t bow to outside forces… be they weather or other cultures.”
“You think there’s more to the fact that he doesn’t want to accept more than the very basics of what we offer?”
“He doesn’t wear the clothes we offer, he eats the bare minimum, and the servants say he sleeps on the floor.”
“The Aiah who are born without wings of their own wear ornamental ones. Perhaps he doesn’t want to wear the clothes we offer because he would have to be wingless. Perhaps he eats so little because the tastes are alien to him. He might well sleep on the floor because the false wings he wears are heavy and his back grows sore. A hard flat surface can help.”
“Maybe. Maybe you’re right on every count. But, well, I don’t think any of us are pretending he isn’t spying on us.”
The Lord of Letters answered that with a gesture and a small shrug, “Eh. I wouldn’t say spying.”
“He’s doing it openly. Taking in every piece of information he can. Watching, as he puts it.”
“Yes. Well, we knew he would. You received my message this morning?” Lord Juris asked.
“Yes, I got the-” Caspar stopped.
The door opened, and Klaros entered. He was still shirtless, still wearing the complicated arrangement of fabric, rods and heavy feathers. If anything, his features were more severe than when he’d first arrived. His thin, straight eyebrows had settled into a kind of suspicious glower, his eyes narrowed slightly. His nose was flat, broad and angular, his mouth a thin line, never curving into a smile or frown. It would be wholly possible, if an artist were to sit down with ink and a pen, to draw the young man with nothing but straight lines and severe angles. The Kith’s thin-fingered hands were busy tying the longer portions of his hair back into a bristling tail.
He was underweight, a result of not eating enough.
“Klaros, welcome,” Juris said. “A drink?”
Klaros shook his head.
“We were just talking about you,” Caspar said.
Juris gave Caspar a sidelong glance. The fat young man shrugged by way of response, “Kith value honesty, don’t they?”
And they have good hearing, if Haeg Mora is any indication. He likely already knew.
“We do value truth,” Klaros said. “You talk of me now, and I will talk about you when I return to my people. This is what we are doing.”
“No arguments from me,” Caspar said.
“Haeg Mora is in the company of the Lord of Trade and his three daughters,” Lord Juris said. “If you’ll accept Caspar’s company, at least for this afternoon, he can show you our gallery, and then the map room in the Lord of Banner’s offices.”
Caspar added, “Thus far, you’ve shown more interest in military affairs. The gallery has an interesting collection of weapons and armor. As far as the map room goes, Lord Juris sent me some messages last night and this morning. We were hoping that, if we don’t open up trade on other fronts, you might consider sharing maps?”
“I cannot imagine we need your help,” Klaros said.
Caspar hesitated. He glanced at Juris, who remained silent. “If you’re not interested, I don’t know how we’re going to fill the afternoon.”
“We can look at this gallery. I am content to be on my own for the remainder of the afternoon.”
Still, Juris wasn’t saying anything. Caspar struggled. “Surely you don’t want to visit a foreign kingdom and then ignore that kingdom for most of your stay?”
“I watch, I look. This is enough.”
“Then watch and look as we visit the map room,” Caspar said. “Maybe you’ll be surprised.”
Klaros only nodded a little.
“Good,” Juris said, smiling. “Then I’ll leave you to it. I’ve left word with the librarian, Caspar, she’ll see you any time. If you make your way to the map room after, the Lord of Banners can meet you then.”
“The weather could be better,” Caspar said. “Can we maybe get you a cloak, Klaros?”
The Kith shook his head.
Caspar donned his cloak, aware of how it stretched across his stomach.
They stepped outside, into the hallway and around a corner to a path beneath a shingled overhang. A drizzle of rain filled the air, so fine that there were no individual droplets. The ornate ‘lace’ of stone that decorated the points where the pillars met the overhang above and the railing below collected the water, and dripped down in fat droplets.
“You are still hurt,” Klaros observed.
“Yes. I’m sure anyone with sparring experience could laugh this off, but I’m finding that hard to do.”
“I would not laugh that off. But I do not know that the members of my Kith would fare much better,” Klaros said. Water was beading his bare chest. The overcast sky afforded little light, and the overhang obscured it even further. He looked even more grim than he had before, but his eyes caught the light, oddly bright in the gloom.
“I’m surprised,” Caspar said.
“We find it best to avoid getting hurt in the first place.”
“Quickness. Picking the right moments to strike, then disappearing.”
“Some of your Kith fly. Easy enough for them to do. I can’t help but wonder what you would do?”
“I would take great offense to someone who told me that I couldn’t fly, Caspar Thorbay.”
“Yet your kind values honesty.”
“An insult is still an insult, honest or otherwise.”
Caspar nodded. “I see.”
I can understand that.
They ascended a set of stairs, entering a tunnel between two narrow stone buildings. Channels carved in the stone fed water into potted plants at the entrance and exit of the short tunnel.
Caspar found himself lagging behind the Kith. Even as he worked to match the taller man’s stride, his stomach ached, and his attempts to measure his breathing and suppress the pain only left him more out of breath.
“May-” he started, pausing as he winced in pain. “May I suggest we visit the map room first? I know Lord Juris said to wait, but it would be more on our way, and less walking.”
“I believe the Lord of Banners is expecting us later?”
“He’s usually around,” Caspar said.
Klaros didn’t say anything more, so Caspar took the lead.
He opened the door to the map room, then stopped short.
The Lord of Banners, his second, Gared, four commanders and no less than six sergeants were gathered around a table in the center of the room. A map had been unrolled across the table, longer and wider than Caspar was tall. All across the surface, painted wooden pieces had been laid out, spread across various regions. Figurines of army men with spears, arrows and horses. Surd stood at the center, in a narrow valley with only a small handful of passages leading out, the pieces painted in varying shades of red. Colored figurines marked the positions of other kingdoms, while figurines in white, gray, brown and black marked the neighboring Kith. Winged men and giant birds painted black were spread out at the far west, with figurines representing the Ogden’s boors and bandits in brown at the southeast, and a handful of sheep in white in the valley itself.
Klaros entered the room, his eyes falling on the table. Caspar watched the young man’s eyes flash, dancing over the table before Caspar stepped in his way. But Klaros was tall, and Caspar wasn’t.
Caspar flinched at the sound of a crash. He turned to look, and saw one of the lieutenants standing by the table, sword in hand, still in its scabbard, extended as he’d swept it across the table. The pieces he’d struck from the center of the table continued to clatter to the floor. Many of the soldier pieces were cylindrical, and they rolled in broad circles as they traveled across the table, before reaching the edge and falling off.
Caspar fixed his eyes on the ground, watching as more pieces continued to rain down.
The Lord of Banners, an ex-soldier with an impressive cape, a beard lining his jaw and a stylized padded vest and leather skirt for everyday wear, maintained his composure. “Caspar Thorbay. Kith Klaros. We expected you later.”
“This was on our way,” Caspar said, his voice quiet, almost meek.
“As you can see, we are presently in the middle of a meeting. Discussing affairs and logistics that we’d rather not allow a foreigner to see.”
“The Kith of Aiah aren’t our enemies,” Caspar said, still avoiding eye contact.
“The Kith of Aiah are mercenaries when they see fit to be mercenary,” the Lord of Banners said. “They have a penchant for attacking weakness, and they sell information. I would rather we didn’t give them any vital information, nor any weaknesses to target.”
Klaros spoke. “You didn’t seem weak, from what I saw.”
“You only saw the board for a moment,” a lieutenant said, his voice sharp.
“I could recreate what I saw from memory,” Klaros said. He glanced at Caspar. “Like I said, we have no need for maps.”
“A word, Caspar Thorbay,” the Lord of Banners said. He approached Caspar, setting a hand on his shoulder, then led him to the end of the map room opposite the entrance. A man in armor opened the glass doors.
Caspar was almost thrust out into the cold and damp. His knees buckled with pain as his arms failed to stop his forward momentum and his already abused stomach hit the stone railing.
The glass doors shut behind them.
The Lord of Banners cuffed Caspar across the head. “Imbecile!”
“He can see,” Caspar grunted out the words. He added, “And hear, I suspect.”
The Lord of Banners turned, looking through the glass doors at the cleared table, some figurines still rocking back and forth, at the silent commanders and lieutenants, and at Klaros, who remained in the doorway.
The commander of all of Surd’s armies closed the shutters.
“There,” the Lord of Banners said. “That’s done.”
Caspar nodded, still leaning over the railing, trying to catch his breath.
“I didn’t shove you that hard, did I?”
“I’ve been abused these past few days.”
The Lord of Banners approached Caspar, and leaned over the railing just beside him. he clapped Caspar on the back with one hand. His eyes stared over the horizon. “Not a bad act, Caspar Thorbay. You’re not useless.”
“I’d like to think so. Or think not? Either way, I want to be useful.”
“Was this your idea or Juris’?”
“He knew he wanted to do something. It’s part of why he invited Klaros. I think he arranged that with you?”
“But the how of it was my idea, with some feedback from Juris along the way, to supplement. It snapped into place when I was reading up on the Kith, and the Aiah’s keen attention to detail came up. Speaking of these details, the figurines you added to Surd’s armies have different shades of paint.”
“We had to paint over other colors to have enough pieces, and we were rushed, doing so much since last night,” the Lord of Banners said. He frowned. “Will he notice?”
Caspar wasn’t sure of the answer. Was Klaros capable of noticing? Almost definitely, if Caspar could notice. But was it the sort of thing he would pay attention to? Hard to say. The Kith had a different manner of thinking. They didn’t deceive, by nature, and perhaps that meant they weren’t well versed in keeping an eye out for deception. He could hope. He took his time answering, “If it helps, I think he might say it outright if he sees through the ruse.”
“You think? You’re not certain?”
“The other possibility is that he takes some time to think about it, and it doesn’t come up.”
The Lord of Banners scowled momentarily. “Petty and stupid, this business. I wish I weren’t good at it. Leading a pretend army. Convincing other nations, even convincing our own people that we have armies we don’t.”
Caspar didn’t answer.
“You did a good thing, helping sell the ruse. It helps me, and it helps Surd. Know that I have no quarrel with you, that your parentage means nothing to me until you make it mean something. I owe you, for acting the part of the bumbling moron.”
“Sacrificing my pride and reputation is easy to do when I have so little. But if you owe me a favor, I’ll gladly take advantage of that. I only want security. I have no aspirations.”
“Never easy. Even unwashed peasants have a certain manner of pride, don’t hurry to devalue your own.” the Lord of Banners said. “Come. You’re wet and miserable looking enough, now. We’ll resume the playacting, and you can get yourself on your way.”
The man ran his hand up the side of Caspar’s head, then gave him a light push towards the doors. Caspar drew in a deep breath, then opened the shutters. He could glimpse himself in the reflections of the glass, a distorted image where the glass was inconsistent in thickness, his damp blond curls sticking up on one side of his head, cheeks and face red.
He opened the glass doors, the Lord of Banners following right behind him, looming and ominous.
Caspar didn’t meet anyone’s eyes as he crossed the room, carefully stepping through the fallen wooden pieces before reaching Klaros’ side. He opened the door and walked through, trusting Klaros to follow.
“I believe I was right,” Klaros said. “Arriving later would have been better.”
“If you’ll excuse me being undiplomatic, I don’t care to hear it,” Caspar’s voice was thin. Moving had made his stomach hurt, and he channeled that into the sound of his voice, a quiet rasp. He avoided Klaros’ eyes. “Would it be acceptable if we skipped the gallery? You’ll be fine spending your time on your own?”
“I would prefer to be on my own,” Klaros said.
“I’ll take you back to Lord Juris, then. He’ll look after you.”
They retraced their steps.
The only light in his room was candlelight. It was dusk, and the overcast sky blocked out all moonlight and starlight. Looking at himself in the mirror, Caspar found the orange-yellow light of the candles deceptive. Was the candlelight obscuring the bruising on his stomach? Was it accentuating it? The greens, purples and blacks spread from one flank to the other.
Nothing rigid, so at least blood wasn’t feeding into something vital. He was fairly sure.
He took his time dressing. A heavy black coat and gray tunic, black trousers and soft shoes.
Caspar drew in a deep breath, suppressing a wince at the tightness in his stomach, and then exhaled. He studied himself in the mirror for as long as he dared, before averting his eyes.
“My young lord,” Lizbeth Thorbay said, from the door.
He was mildly surprised to see her there, but it wasn’t unusual. She drifted here and there, an apparition.
“I’m not a lord.”
“You’re my son. Close enough. You should dress up. A ring with a jewel, perhaps. Or maybe an amulet.”
“I don’t want to draw more attention than I have to,” Caspar said. He neglected to mention that his mother’s taste in fashion was more… how to even put it to words? Startling? Crimson paint on her lips, bright colors, and ostentatious jewelry. It didn’t help her eccentric reputation.
He looked at himself in the mirror. Many men could and did wear jewelry, but he wasn’t one of them. His face was too soft, his cheeks red when the temperature was even a little cold or a little warm. He didn’t need to look more womanly.
“That’s fine,” she said. She laid a hand on his cheek to turn his head and kissed him on the other. “Is this what you want to do?”
“This? Looking after foreigners? I don’t mind, but I don’t think I could tolerate it for long.” Too much abuse in too little time.
“This research appointment.”
“I think so. It’s just about the only thing I can imagine myself doing.”
“Your father was upset, saying you were settling. I admit I can imagine you doing more. Your father is exceedingly good at getting what he wants. It takes an amazing kind of strength, to claw your way up from where he started. From a child without parents to a street rat capable of living on his own, an enforcer, and then the Brute.”
She smiled, which Caspar couldn’t understand. She’d heard the stories. Her perspective wasn’t so different from Caspar’s own. Rolf had been a fat man, shorter than average, enacting protection rackets in his neighborhood, managing a kind of peace with other local criminals because his habit of buying debts from other loaners and thugs had everyone running scared, going out of their way to pay their debts, regardless of whether those debts were Rolf’s or someone else’s. He had been merciless, cruel and creative in going after his victims.
Yet Lizbeth Thorbay didn’t seem to mind.
“As for me, I’d like to think I’m better versed in the esoteric.”
She smiled. “Yes. You could have the best of both of us.”
Or the worst of you two. Mild insanity and a slimy reputation.
“Yes,” he said, lying, “Maybe.”
“See to your duties, Caspar,” she said. “We can talk when you return. Perhaps I could sacrifice some manner of livestock, tonight, to help you on your way.”
He stood, then hugged her. “Worshiping blood gods is dangerous.”
She smiled, “I know my way around these things. I won’t inadvertently curse myself or my bloodline, don’t worry.”
“I meant it’s dangerous in terms of the wrong people finding out. It’s against the law.”
She cocked her head a little to one side. “Is it? I lose track.”
“It’s always been against the law, mother. We’ve talked about this before. Blood gods, pain gods, death gods, and a few others are out of bounds. Too many people have opened veins and offered a little bit too much of themselves, or whipped themselves until they lost the use of their legs.”
“Well, I’ll have to keep that in mind.”
As you did the last three times we’ve talked about it.
He kissed her on the cheek. “Just don’t do anything unless father or I are here. And if you want books or anything like that, we can get them for you. Don’t go looking.”
“Of course. Yes,” she said, as if she was just now remembering the rules.
He double checked himself in the mirror, trying to tell himself that the dark circles around his eyes were the candlelight. Then he left his room, stopping by the little servant girl. “Cynn.”
“I’m having a special dinner tonight. I might be able to bring back a treat for you, as thanks. Can I ask you to watch Lady Thorbay, in exchange? If she starts with something, distract her?”
“I think so. I can try.”
“Good. I can’t promise the treat will be any good, maybe I’ll grab a few. An acceptable bargain?”
“I’m a servant now. I shouldn’t bargain with my betters.”
He was reminded of the Lord of Banners’ words from earlier in the day. “A good attitude to have, but don’t sell yourself short. Knowing my father, he’s liable to train you as a spy, and you’ll need to learn to negotiate sooner than later.”
“I’m not sure I understand.”
“It doesn’t matter. I should go.”
Cynn nodded. “Goodbye, sir.”
He left the house, locking the door behind him.
He was careful not to rush as he made his way up to the keep. He didn’t want to sweat, and he didn’t want to aggravate his injured stomach.
It was an inconvenient distance, not so long a trip that he could lose himself in thought, but long enough that it was tiresome. Into the keep, past the guards, and up the first staircase to the left. The guest quarters.
A bitter, mad kind of joke, that it required a trip up four staircases to get here. He wondered if Lord Juris had done it for a reason.
He reached the door and knocked.
Haeg Mora opened it.
As had been the case the last time he had come here, he found her underdressed. She wore the same silk slip, but she also wore elements of her native dress. Dyed red cloth, varying wildly in hue as the light caught it from different directions, wrapped around her chest and one shoulder. One edge of the cloth was sewn with a series of a hundred or more silvery ornaments. Each was a three-pronged spike, attached by a knot of fabric, tracing and tickling the skin of her collarbone and arm as her movements made them shift.
Similar cloth had been wrapped around her waist, just long enough that it hung below the shift. Which wasn’t necessarily that long. The same silvery ornaments tickled her thighs.
He looked, and then felt abashed that he had. He didn’t miss that a wrapping of cloth covered her one twisted half-foot. She was beaded with sweat from recent exertion and the rain from a recent trip outside, her blond hair sticking to her neck and shoulders where it made contact with the wet skin and cloth.
Aromatic steam billowed behind her, and a heavy smoke made the light of the candles all the more evident. For a moment, he could see how her people might see her as a shaman and witch.
She smiled, and the smile touched her black eyes. “Inside. Come. Some small man was yapped about smells. I don’t want to give him reason for more.”
He accepted the invitation, joining her in her quarters. He looked around, and found the room, with its stone floors and walls, otherwise empty. “Your servant?”
“I banished her. She fretted and fussed, and made my head hurt. Come. The food is hot. I have partaken of your culture, you take of mine.”
“Juris? Is he not coming?”
“He is not invited. You look after me, now I look after you. It is… the trader’s scales balance?”
“Yes!” she seemed more animated than before. She moved about the room without her cane, seizing furniture for balance, lurching just a little as she crossed to the table, then stalked around it just a bit, keeping one hand on it at all times, until she was standing at the far side. She stopped, hands on the table, and in that moment of stillness, a droplet of sweat or rainwater traced a trail down the bare skin of her arm.
He averted his eyes, looking down. The foods were familiar enough, but they were caked in spice, virtually every dish sitting in a sea of what looked to be butter and oils. Chickens, tubers, vegetables, both the familiar ones that grew in gardens here and foreign ones that were traded for.
“Sit. Eat,” she said.
With a vague feeling of dread, he sat down in the indicated chair.
“My people’s food. We like to eat. It is good.”
“Eat,” she urged.
At her bidding, he ate.
On the first mouthful, he found himself coughing. The taste was pungent, the spices filling his mouth and absorbing all of the moisture.
Tears in his eyes, he drank some of the proffered wine, glanced at her to see her peering intently at him, then tried again.
Once he found his stride, he ate with enthusiasm.
“I have only ever cooked for myself,” she said. Her hands were empty and still. “For us, gathering and sharing of food very important. Most collect their own food, and we set time aside every day to do this. Proud individuals are given food gifts, for work. A young, successful trader or smith might have others bring meals while he works, and this means something.”
“Are you going to eat?”
“I eat while cooking. I share some, too, with cooks who loaned me my kitchen, and with others who carry the table and the heating box I use to keep the food warm. This is not my culture, but it is yours?”
“Close enough. I’m sure they appreciated it,” Caspar said. He looked down at the table. The table sat six. Dishes occupied the surface. Enough to feed four people. All of this is for me.
Would she be offended if he didn’t eat it all?
Could he eat it all?
“Our women court men by bringing them food. A bond begins with respect. A gift of prepared food shows this. The man rewards her with with attentions, and eventually marriage,” Haeg Mora said.
“I think I’ve heard of something like this,” Caspar said.
“The man grows fat on food gifts, if the wife is good enough at the hunt, or if he belongs to a warrior clan where a man takes many wives. He teaches her trade, and they become a force within their clan. You look at one of Ogden’s people and know status by their size. It is men who are faces of the clan, you can insult and argue with them, and they do everything they can to gain more presence,” Mora said. She smiled a little, “It is the women that are fearsome, who you must negotiate with once the bluster is done. The Ogden women know what they are doing, they accept no insult. Once they have learned their husband’s trade and added their own knowledge to it, they are better than him. This is accepted.”
“You know the story of my parents?” Caspar asked.
“My mother has the status, and it is her last name that my father took.”
“But he sits in the Black Chair.”
“If it was just that, he wouldn’t have lasted long. He got a foothold here only because of my mother’s name. People talk about her, they always have. She was eccentric as a child, more interested in odd things than dolls and dresses. I think she married my father as a way of repaying that. And because she’s genuinely fond of him, for some reason.”
“I can see how she could be. He reminds me of uncles and others I have been fond of, in the past,” Haeg Mora said. Her cane scraped against the edge of the table as she fiddled with it, turning it around in her hands. “I have fallen in love, when I was younger. Short falls but still falls. Yes? I am saying this right?”
“Very poetic,” Caspar said. He continued eating. The spices kept it interesting all the way through, rather than numbing his palate or letting his mouth grow bored. “What I was saying about my parents… it’s the sort of thing I think about when I think of the court, and the nobility, and everything else. I can’t help but wonder why? My parents went against tradition, in more ways than one. My mother had the status in the first place. I wonder why the court is like it is, and why things don’t change. I wonder about all of it… and I wonder about your traditions.”
“I like my traditions, though I would like them better if they were better for a woman that needs cane to walk. It is good. Men work hard to learn from their fathers and handle their own trades, women work hard to get their husbands, the husband becomes the teacher, the roles exchange.”
“You don’t question them? The traditions?”
“I wonder. I have had dark moods, among the Haeg. But I would not change them. I accept them.”
“Do you like them? Could you accept them, do you think?”
“I accept your traditions, of course. I wonder, but I accept them. It’s your culture, and I don’t know enough about it to say if it’s right or wrong.”
“You miss my meaning. I am asking, Caspar Thorbay, if you would take me for your wife.”
He choked a little on his food.
“I am a cripple, but you have money, and you have… substance?”
“Substance?” he asked.
She indicated his stomach. “You are fat. I have brought this up several times in past days.”
“I’m… not sure I follow.”
“Then I will explain better. With your money, your natural status, and your knowledge, me at your side, I think we can take position in clan. As you are ambassador here, you would be ambassador there. I cannot hunt or collect food, but wealthy members of clan have servants, as you do, and slaves. Instead, I would teach you what you need to know about clan, my lifetime of knowledge.”
“Oh. That’s a… staggering offer,” Caspar said.
“You have reason for concern about your position here, the others say. I can offer you the security you seek. Wealth, comfort, me.”
He froze, eyes on the table.
“I have seen you glance. You know we are blunt. So I will tell you I know. You can reply, to tell me you are not interested, if it is so.”
“Do not be too quick to answer,” she said, and she met his eyes. “I will be offended if you are. I am a cripple. I know this. Others thought it impossible I would marry, so I became Haeg. If you agree with them, then say so. Be honest, Caspar Thorbay, and I will be fine.”
An insult is still an insult, honest or otherwise.
How could he say it? That it wasn’t the disability that held him back, but her appearance? That he didn’t want to even be that superficial, but she wasn’t wholly human.
She was being blunt, firm, intense. Bold. But he had too much experience with people who lied, and she had so very little experience in deception, for her to sell the lie. And it was a lie, however much she tried to convince herself she believed it. She wouldn’t be fine, not necessarily.
“I know every member of a Kith supposedly varies,” he said, carefully. “In terms of the features they have. Some are almost entirely like the named spirit animal that gave them life. Others are almost indistinguishable from human. But always with intelligence. It breeds a tolerance among your kind that is… harder to find here. Even in me.”
“You would make this a question of appearances, Caspar Thorbay?” she asked.
“I don’t know. You told me to think about it, and I’m thinking. In the interest of being honest, I could do with some cool air. Would you mind accompanying me to the balcony?”
“You don’t wish to finish?” she asked. She looked disappointed.
“I do. Believe me, I do, but…” he hesitated. Then he stood from the seat. He pulled up his doublet, showing her his bruised stomach.
“Injury. Your father?”
“No. Another. Eating hurts.”
“Imbecile, not saying so,” she said. She stood from her seat. “It is raining out there.”
“I don’t mind if you don’t. I could do with cooling off.”
She nodded. “My skin feels tight. I ache. Too much back and forth from kitchens. Feeling the rain would be nice.”
They stepped outside. The rain was a light patter around them.
“To return to conversation,” she said, her voice quiet. “You were refusing me.”
“You were saying that for all your talk about questioning the things that are, you would let my appearance hold you back here?”
“I-” he started. “Find that an exceedingly good point.”
“Tell me. Can you question this, see in a new light? Is my being member of the Kith something you never learn to look past? Would this bother you every moment of every day? Or would you change, until days it crossed your mind were strange days?”
“I’m not entirely sure. I may need a minute to think about it.”
“Then let me fill that minute with ideas of my own. I desire you, Caspar Thorbay. You caught my eye when I first arrived, and when Klaros chafed in dealing with this second ambassador, Darios, I suggested you. I desired you and pursued you, as is the usual for my Kith. Then I grew to like you more, as I spent this little time with you and heard stories. You are the son of the brute, and I think perhaps you could understand the Kith of Ogden’s Boors and Brutes, too. Warriors who are loud and smelly and fat because it makes them bigger in all of an enemy’s senses. I would like nothing more than to spend my days feeding you succulent dishes, take you to bed to slather oils on that broad stomach of yours, and whisper of strategy and politics so your mind is as fully stated as your body.”
She was breathing just a little harder, now.
He wondered, momentarily, if he could tell her of his peculiar sight and his visions. If it would end this right here and now, or if it would only draw further interest from her.
“Every woman in the kith would desire you just as you are, they would find you compelling as a foreigner, and if appearances matter so much to you, you could find some that are almost human. I would insist on being your wife, but you could bring slaves and servants to bed as well, if you wanted. Decorate our home with the naked and nubile, if you wish it.”
And there, in the midst of that, he could see that vulnerability again. Perhaps not something she really wanted to concede to him, but she was making the offer earnestly, and Kith didn’t lie.
That was the moment he realized that she genuinely wanted this. He’d received the offer, but years of telling himself he would live and die unwanted had been hard to shake off.
He met her eyes, unable to find the words to respond.
She was the one who looked away, this time. She rubbed at the corner of one eye, turning her head so he couldn’t see.
Below them, the bells in the Alltemple began ringing. He didn’t look to see why.
His eyes didn’t leave Haeg Mora. He could see her image distorting.
In a matter of seconds, he could see the specter that loomed behind her.
It was her, younger, smaller, without all of the majesty of her Haeg persona. Wholly human. Not the prettiest girl, but not unattractive either. The image was dressed in a slip like the one Haeg Mora wore, her hair and clothing clean and dry.
It was only when the image knelt on the floor of the balcony that he saw the rest of the image. The figure draped herself over the back of a large female boar. The beast was young, but ugly, gnarled, and covered in the scars of years of abuse and mistreatment. Scratches, scuffs, scrapes and scabs were still healing. When the girl shifted her weight, hugging the beast, it nearly lost its balance, moving one forelimb aside to maintain it. It was missing a leg, with only a red, puckered, infected looking wound where the hind limb was supposed to be.
He looked away, feeling as though he was seeing something he shouldn’t.
Yes, he wanted this.
Yes, he was willing to make this leap of faith, to throw himself after this possibility, to find something beyond mere security.
Yes, Mora. Yes, yes, yes. You don’t have to be Haeg anymore. I don’t have to be the son of the brute anymore.
But the words wouldn’t leave his mouth.
The bells continued to ring. He glanced away, only to see people running from the keep to the alltemple, carrying torches.
Something was happening.
Did it matter, compared to this?
He had every reason to say yes, but he couldn’t bring himself to say it. His reasons for refusal were all reasons he could work around. His mother, he could find a place for her. Even his father, with some cleverness, could be escorted from the city. If Haeg Mora was right, then he could be successful enough to look after them.
Why couldn’t he bring himself to agree?
Yet when he thought about refusing, the words spilled forth from his mouth. “I’m sorry.”
Haeg Mora lowered her hand. There was blood on the fingertips.
“Mora,” he said.
She turned her head, and he could see the look in her eyes, completely unrelated to the tear in the skin by her eye.
Unrelated to the gash that appeared in the side of her neck as she turned her head.
“No,” he said, numb, confused. “What?”
He reached out, to place one hand over the wound.
She raised her hand to hold it over his own, and he could see more gashes appearing in the skin.
“Stop moving,” he said. “You’re-“
She saw the blood, and she reacted, drawing back, a momentary look of accusation in her eyes. The movement of her legs opened up more wounds, blood running down bare skin.
Then, a moment’s realization, and she reached out to him, gashes continuing to appear, across shoulders and elbow, and down the lengths of her arms. She opened her mouth, and blood poured out.
She collapsed, and he caught her.
He tore off his coat, trying to use it to staunch the flow of blood, but it only opened more wounds.
Her skin was like the driest parchment. It only took the lightest abuse before it was as good as dust.
The specters of the pig and the girl faded. Not so unusual. He knew in his heart that she was gone.
The bells continued tolling.
It was only then that he realized the meaning of it. It wasn’t just the Haeg.
Numb, he found his feet, his stomach aching as he stumbled away from the balcony.
Time seemed to pass excruciatingly slowly and with a surprising suddenness. He found his way to the hallway, with no memory of passing through the Haeg’s living quarters.
Darios appeared, running, knees and shins of his hose slick with another’s blood, his hands and arms soaked up to the elbows. He stopped when he saw Caspar.
“The Haeg is dead,” Caspar managed.
“So is the Lord of Letters.”
No sooner were the words out of Darios’ mouth than the young man had fled, making his way to the staircase. By the time Caspar reached the top, Darios was far enough down that he was out of sight.
He ran, as best as he was able, even as the pain in his stomach reached a fever pitch. He ignored it, ignored the way it jiggled so much it hurt. The warm memory of the Haeg’s promise was gone, now. He couldn’t even conceive of this world where everything was warm and safe.
Here, it was cold, dark, wet, and bloody. A chill had settled in the core of his body and mind both, leaving him disoriented.
There was a crowd at the entrance to the keep, as time seemed to pass too quickly, and he found himself on the ground floor. The numbness that permeated him dulled the pain, made him feel stronger than he knew he was. With it came a kind of frantic alertness, the knowledge that this momentary strength would fade and he would be unable to do anything when it passed.
“Lord Emerick is dead,” a man pronounced. “Dark magics.”
“A prayer reached the wrong god,” someone else said.
“The Lords of Banners and Bludgeons are dead,” someone else said.
“Stay inside the keep’s gates!” a guard roared. A spear blocked the crowd from passing.
Chaos, disorientation, confusion. It wasn’t just him.
“The High Priests-“
The high voice stirred him from a daze he hadn’t realized he was in.
“Cynn!” he called out. He pushed through the crowd. People recoiled when they saw the blood, and he used his weight to force his way. He only stopped when a spear touched the fabric of his tunic. He dimly realized he’d left his coat behind.
Cynn was behind the guards, being held at bay as much as he was.
He only had to see her to know.
He saw the indecision and fear on her face.
“Both?” he asked.
“All the Magistrates,” someone said, behind him. “Even the Black Chair?”
“I… they just died,” Cynn said. Tears streaked her face. “They started bleeding.”
He opened his mouth, and then closed it. So short a time ago, things had been normal.
“I don’t know what to do,” Cynn said. “They won’t let me in.”
He found his voice. “Is mother presentable?”
“What?” Cynn asked. Shock had her too.
“Is the house in order? Or is it a mess like it was the other night?”
“It’s… a mess,” Cynn said. He could see the thoughts turning over in her head, as she realized his meaning.
“Look after it. Put her books away, I think there’s one on the stand. Get it presentable, so that it’s all proper for when people come to examine the body. My parents would want it that way.”
“I don’t, I don’t think I know what to do.”
“I’ll be along shortly,” he said. “As soon as they let us by. Go.”
She ran, like she must have run to get from the house to here so quickly.
Others were forcing their way past him, to confront the guards. He let them, and stumbled backwards out of the small crowd.
He didn’t want to be a part of this crowd. He wanted to be alone…
A thought connected. He thought of something.
Darios. Where was Darios?
There, at the far end of the crowd.
“Darios!” he hollered.
The young man turned around.
“Where is Klaros?”
“He’s in the keep. In his quarters.”
“Is he alive or dead?” Caspar said.
“He was alive when I stopped by, on my way down,” Darios said.
“Did you lock him in?” Caspar asked.
Darios only gave him a funny look.
“We can’t let him slip out! If he passes on word-“
“He’s in his quarters,” Darios said, again, maybe not aware he was repeating himself.
Caspar ran, ascending the stairs with nearly the same speed he’d descended. Up one floor only…
He entered the hallway, and he could see Klaros at the end of the hallway, walking.
He ran, and his footsteps made noise. Klaros turned to see him, then bolted.
The young Kith soldier was fast.
Caspar wasn’t, but he had a short-lived strength born of desperation. He followed, pausing at each floor to check the hallway and make sure Klaros hadn’t tried to disappear down one hallway or another.
No, he could hear footsteps above.
By the time he reached the top of the tower, the strength was fading and his legs were giving out.
Klaros wasn’t at the top of the tower. He’d crossed the length of the keep’s roof, where it peaked, and walked on the cold shingles with bare feet.
“Klaros!” Caspar bellowed.
The Kith spun around.
Then the Kith reached back, gripping the complicated cape he wore on his back. He thrust his arms out, and the rigging of rods and cloth extended to either side. Not just decorative wings for a bird Kith that couldn’t fly.
Before Caspar could move, Klaros was sliding down the slope of the roof with his bare feet. The false wings were extended to either side, catching the wind, and Klaros ran, feet barely touching the roof, then not touching at all. He slipped into a nosedive, spiraling viciously for a moment before he righted himself, this time with his legs on a part of the rigging.
He rose, catching the wind, no longer falling.
The lack of diet, the low body weight, they were something Klaros maintained so he could do this. So he could fly by false means.
The propensity for injury he’d talked about – did the Kith of Aiah have hollow bones like a bird, to make this sort of thing easier?
Caspar hurled himself at the side of the tower, searching. There, on another tower, across the roof, lower, soldiers.
“Shoot him!” Caspar screamed the words.
Heads turned, but they didn’t raise their bows.
Caspar pointed. Again, he screamed, “Shoot him!”
One cadet raised a bow, but his superior pushed the weapon down, and the cadet relaxed the string.
“Shoot! Assassin!” He said. He wasn’t sure. He was pretty sure the Kith wasn’t the assassin, but it was the only way to stir them to action.
Or not. “If we shoot, arrows will land in the city!”
“Shoot! Or we all die!”
The Kith of Aiah prey on weakness.
They were weak.
And the flying soldier passed out of a bow’s reach.
Evil magics? A dark god?
Did it matter? The kingdom had been built on lies and deception, and now the world would know the truth. They wouldn’t survive the year.