A sharp, audible crack sounded as a flawless face struck the concrete railing.
“Marl…” I tried on a warning voice.
Another crack. The heavily made-up face hung down, limp, straight blond hair slipping from one shoulder to obscure my view.
“You do not get to call me Marl. My parents called me Marl, and I hated it then.”
“Okay,” I said, “That’s fair. That’s fine. I’m going to ask you to please stop doing that, before you damage the doll.”
Or damage it further.
Marlene only glared at me.
She was good at looking angry. At twelve, she was young enough that I could see where her parents might have felt odd about taking her to a beautician, but old enough that her thicker eyebrows drew notice. They made the glower all the more pronounced.
I could bet she saw a haircutter and not a hair stylist, judging by the state of her hair, blond hair going brown, the cut more utilitarian than pretty. Her clothing seemed like a desperate grasp at femininity from a girl who had little idea what she was doing. Leggings and a short skirt, a black top with a flowery collar and a denim coat I wouldn’t have recommended.
Well, not my place to say, not really.
She held the doll by the ankles, and extended her arm, touching the foot-thick concrete railing that separated the walkway from the three-story drop to the city street. A series of apartment doors faced the railing and the gap where it looked out on the city. Tall buildings, many of them old buildings, as well as periodic advertisements that flickered over flat spaces, covering the sprawling graffiti at the street level.
She knew she was getting to me. She knew I was keenly aware of the damp on the wall where the melting snow and rain had left the concrete damp, that I was eyeing the texture of the concrete, where it was rougher in spots. Even a single scuff mark-
“Your mother gave you that doll,” I said, as gently as I could.
“Do not talk about my mother.” I could see the pain on her face. It caught me a little off guard. A normal twelve year old hadn’t had her heart broken, been faced with reality to the point she’d built up some emotional callus, or learned how to hide those feelings. I needed to study up on what normal twelve year olds were like. I’d never been one.
“Marlene,” Leo said, in a small voice. His hand gripped the edge of his sister’s jacket, and she used her free hand to pull her younger brother into a half-hug. He was a wisp of a kid, tiny even bundled up in a winter jacket, with a perpetually worried expression. I wasn’t sure if that was his regular face or if it was just the circumstances of our meeting, and everything that had followed.
I’d have to learn about normal eight year olds, too.
“Can we not get off to a bad start?” I asked, putting a little bit of effort into masking my fatigue. Too many hours spent tending to affairs, traveling, and dealing with these two. “I get that you’re angry. I get that you’re upset. It’s allowed. But if you break that doll, you’re going to look back on it a few months or years from now and you’ll hate yourself for it.”
“It’s fucking ugly,” she said. She turned it around to look at it, her face twisting with a kind of revulsion, and I could see a mark across the forehead. I kept my expression placid. The peculiarities of the style and the craftsmanship had left it with fairly… distinct features, including a flattened nose and eyes that didn’t fit the face. It looked more like a troll doll than a little girl.
“It really is,” I agreed. “It’s hideous. But it’s a hideous doll that would probably go for four thousand or more. It’s an exceptional gift for your mother to give you, and even if you don’t want to keep it, you could sell it to buy a used car when-”
She let her arm drop. The doll’s head banged against her leg with enough force that I could hear it.
“Fine,” I said. “If it makes you feel better, go for it.”
Marlene was doing it to needle me. The sooner we got inside, the sooner she would be distracted. I turned around, grabbed the handles of two wheeled suitcases and hurried to the end of the walkway. The two kids pulled two more suitcases, but Marlene was holding it with one hand, and it kept bumping into Leo’s, slowing the pair down.
The door lock winked into existence as I approached the door. My eye traced a lopsided hourglass figure across the dots, my gaze leaving a brief trail of light behind it. The keypad disappeared and the door popped open.
A man’s home is his castle. Depending on where he lives, however, sometimes a man has to settle for an apartment.
“Welcome home, I guess,” I said.
Marlene dropped the handle of her suitcase, very deliberately bumping my arm as she walked past me, into the apartment. She threw the doll to one side.
▲ (Ascent): He has kids?
☼ (Sunny): Kids are a problem.
▲ (Ascent): They’re a complication.
♥ (Heart): He’s complicated. We knew that going in.
▲ (Ascent): We need to do something about this.
♥ (Heart): That’s my call, not yours. We should wait, assess the situation, then we decide how to approach it.
☼ (Sunny): Agreed.
▲ (Ascent): Fine.
♥ (Heart): I’ve gotta say, he’s a hell of a good looking guy in person.
▲ (Ascent): Don’t be weird, Heart.
“Your door is different,” Leo observed. “All the other ones were the same, but yours is flat.”
“Benefits of being a long-term resident,” I said, not looking back. My eyes were on the boxes that were stacked along one side of the hallway. They were divided by delivery service, each with a piece of paper taped to it. Stuff coming in I needed to look at, stuff going out. I glanced back at the kid. “I get to change stuff up a bit.”
“Oh,” he said. His expression told me it wasn’t the answer he’d wanted. Or maybe it wasn’t an answer at all, to his perception.
“Leave it open. We can use some fresh air in here, and it isn’t too cold out.”
He nodded, then pushed his oversized lenses up his nose.
I pulled off my shoes and sat them on the rack beside the other outdoor pairs, then made my way to the bedroom, bringing one of the suitcases I’d been dragging behind me. The room was spartan, but there was a bunk bed and sets of drawers, lamps and a single alarm clock. “I had friends come by and set up the room for you two. I owe someone a drink.”
“One room for two of us?” Marlene asked. “We had separate rooms back home.”
“You have one here,” I said. I sighed a little. “Can we just take it easy? We’ll just roll with the situation for tonight, I’ll order some food you guys like, we’ll get you unpacked and comfortable, and I can answer any questions you guys have while we eat.”
“What if I have questions now?” Marlene asked. “What’s with the boxes? Why do you have more shoes than my entire family put together? You dress like a sissy. Are you a fag? Why the fuck do we have to go with a fag instead of Uncle Peter? What’s with all the shit in the living room?”
“If you’d give me a chance to answer-”
“Answer this, because it’s the only question I want an answer to,” Marlene said. “What the fuck?”
Translated: make this world make sense for me again.
“In order,” I said, and I made my tone firm. “You can ask questions now, the boxes are for my work, I like shoes, because they look good and we spent most of our days wearing them, Uncle Peter has his hands full, I rather like women, and the stuff in the living room is, again, my work. I would appreciate it if you left it alone, I’ll get it out of the way soon and you guys can hang out there.”
“So, what, we’re supposed to just stay in this room, until you get around to it?”
“Please. Look,” I said. I extended my hand, thumb and first two fingers each at right angles to one another, in the direction of the bedroom. The room briefly filled with barely visible white and black static. I pointed at each of the kids, then selected from the array of words that filled the empty space around them. I changed permissions. “You can decorate it.”
“Decorate our prison, you mean. That’s fucked,” Marlene said. She stalked off in the direction of the living room.
I followed her. “Marlene.”
Okay, there was a bit more in the living room than I’d remembered leaving behind. Four couches, two coffee tables, bookshelves and an entertainment system were all spread out in the open space. Two more armchairs and a loveseat were arranged somewhat haphazardly in two corners, a computer desk in a third. Every flat surface, the seating area and the floor included, had boxes piled on them. Two dozen or so in total, all open. The contents were laid out, meticulously placed within the confines of the box lids, along with individual parts and whatever materials I had been using at the time.
A pair of dollhouses on one coffee table, along with the varnish I’d been using on one and the paint for another. A picture frame leaned against the side of the table, having been touched up just a fix by the nearby bottle of varnish and brushes. Beer bottles, too, left over from the friends who’d set up the bunk bed and other furniture. More boxes sat on the couch nearest that table, the lids housing the furniture and dolls that went with the respective houses.
Teapots, more picture frames, candlesticks, jewelry boxes, and more than a few wooden and tin toys sprawled through the rest of that general area.
Twenty watches, six mantel clocks, three cuckoo clocks and the disassembled head of a tower clock sat on the other end of the room, and the ones that worked ticked and tocked in near-unison. The ones that didn’t work had been dismantled, the individual components carefully removed and set out within the safe confines of box lids.
She spun around, gesturing around her. “What. The. Fuck.”
“Can we at least tone down on the swearing?”
“Fuck you,” Marlene said. “What are you going to do? Ground me? Spank me? Yell at me? Hit me? You aren’t my dad! You aren’t my mom! You’re some fucking thirty year old knob who thinks they can look good wearing a vest and fucking parts his hair and owns fifty fucking pairs of shoes and paints dollhouses! It’s weird! You’re weird! I don’t fucking know you! I don’t know you and I’m supposed to live with you!?”
Her voice pitched with emotion towards the end. She had tears in her eyes, and I felt sympathetic tears welling in my own.
“For now,” I said. “Maybe until Uncle Peter is ready.”
And I’m twenty-five, not thirty.
“Fuck you!” She screamed. She turned around and shoved a dollhouse to the floor.
I felt guilty, thinking of it before I thought of her feelings, but I couldn’t help but see the profit margin on that particular piece shrink dramatically.
She kicked it.
I mentally revised my previous estimate to selling at a loss.
What could I do? She was right. She was right to feel disjointed and weirded out. More to the point, I didn’t have the slightest clue on how to discipline her. There was no bond, no attachment, nothing I could leverage. There was nothing I could threaten to take away because she’d already lost it all.
Well, everything except her little brother, and I wasn’t willing to force her to separate from him.
I most definitely couldn’t grab her, hauling her off to her bedroom. If I left one bruise, I had no doubt she’d go straight to the nearest authority figure, and then things would be messed up on a number of levels.
I tried reasoning. “Hey, Marlene, listen-”
In her rampage, she’d hurled the box of dollhouse accessories across the floor. As I made my appeal, she threw a music box, hard. Okay. Not so painful as the dollhouse.
“-can you think about Leo?”
She smashed a wooden train. That one was something of a loss. I’d spent nearly three hours at one point, trying to fix the internal mechanism without taking the outer shell apart.
“Leo’s in the next room, and he needs you to hold it together. Support him? He’s going to get stressed out, seeing you st-”
“Fucking shut up!” Her voice hit the highest pitch yet, to the point I wouldn’t have thought it possible if I hadn’t overheard teenage girls screaming for some teen idol in a mall appearance.
She stalked across the room, apparently after the one place where she could do the most damage.
“Marlene!” I raised my voice.
Television. Go for the nice big sixty inch television.
She went after the clocks and watches.
I watched as the meticulously laid out watches and watch parts sailed into the air. Dials, springs, levers, wheels and hammers were cast out across the room, landing among the other items, beside books on the bookshelves, on and between cushions and in the carpet. One even landed in her hair.
I suppressed a groan, placing my hands in the pockets of my slacks, because it was better than anything else I might do with them. Not that I would throttle her, but… I wanted to throttle her, in that moment.
Then I smiled a little. “Alright, then. You need to vent? Vent. Go nuts. I needed to tidy up anyways, and maybe that’s-”
She threw a box lid at me, and I batted it aside.
I turned and left the living room. Something crunched, and I did myself the favor of not looking back to see what that something was.
I stopped in to check on Leo.
“Hey, little man.”
He looked up at me. He seemed just a little scared. The room had monsters littering it, digitally painted.
I lowered myself to his level. “Better art than I could manage at your age. I was always more of an actor.”
“I know,” he said. “They didn’t have lenses when you were my age, did they?”
Marlene did something that started a cascade of destruction. Maybe knocking books off the bookshelf and onto the boxes below.
I winced a little. “They didn’t. Smart phones were about as far as it went.”
“Yeah,” he said. He pushed his glasses up his nose again. “Is… that okay?”
“Are we going to get in trouble?”
“You? You’ve been good. Marlene… well, way I figure it, you guys have a free pass for the time being. She’s angry at this situation, and she’s frustrated, and it’s probably been building up for a while now. I guess I’m the most obvious available target, someone she can go after without any fear of repercussion, and I guess it’s an awful lot of anger. It’s a lousy situation, and I figure you’re free to do and say whatever you need to do or say, to deal with it. Fair?”
I waited for him to expand on the thought. When he didn’t, I prompted him, “Um?”
“If I’m not going to get in trouble…”
“For a little while,” I stressed. I did my utmost to keep my expression calm as Marlene continued her rampage elsewhere.
“Can I say something?”
His eyes dropped down to his lap, where an image of a three-eyed monster stood in his hands, looking around. “I don’t like it here.”
“Okay,” I said, though I was a little hurt. “That’s allowed.”
“Wes!” A shout from outside.
Not Marlene. A little too abrasive.
“Do me a favor and sit tight, Leo.”
I stood and hurried out to the front door of the apartment.
“Hey, tit-for-brains.” The girl standing outside my door was tall, her hair cut into a boyish style. Her long sleeves were rolled up, and her arms had blobs of paint on them. House paint, not canvas paint, judging at a glance. She held a package in her arms.
She shoved the box into my hands. “I told you, no packages left on the walkway. You bring them inside, or the delivery guy takes them away. I’m not burning to death because you blocked the fire escape.”
“No burning to death. Gotcha. Sorry. I thought I timed everything so nothing would arrive while I was gone.”
There a muffled series of thuds. Had the kid already tipped over everything she could tip over? Working on the remains?
“Your fault or hers?”
“The ongoing disaster at your place. Or did it stop?”
“It stopped,” I said. Just in time for Marlene to start up again. Well, I was still technically right.
“Need me to step in? I can get away with knocking a bitch out.” She smiled, wry.
“Wouldn’t be a fair fight,” I said, smiling.
I smiled wider.
With my smile, Roxanne’s face fell. “You’re doing it again, Wes.”
“Faking. Acting. Bottling it all in.”
Her eyes narrowed suspiciously. When she spoke, her voice was quiet. “This one really got to you, huh?”
“This one’s a little different.”
“Oh?” Roxanne glanced at the empty hallway. “Now, is she going to murder me if I get a little jealous and try to reassert my claim?”
“You could take her. Should you? Probably not.”
She placed her wrists against my shoulders. A moment later, her fingers folded behind my neck. I couldn’t reciprocate, as I held the package.
“Now is probably not the best time. Not that I’m not tempted.”
“Later? You’ve been gone for a week.”
“Pooh. Chris needs some paperwork done.”
“Chris can get real.”
She didn’t respond, but I could see her eyes travel over my shoulder. Towards the apartment interior.
Her hands shifted position to surround my throat.
“They’re family,” I said, when I realized why. Someone had peeked down the length of the hallway, and revealed themselves.
The grip on my throat tightened. “You don’t have family.”
“I do now,” I said. She wasn’t really strangling me.
“You got fucking married on me, Wes?”
“No marriage. Their… our parents died.”
“You don’t have parents.”
“You’re right. I don’t. I wasn’t always Wesley. I used to go by a different name. I was in a few movies as a kid, dad pushed it too far, made me and everyone I worked with miserable. Someone offered me a way out, and I disappeared. I guess… I just reappeared.”
She stared at me. “Jesus. You’re completely insane.”
“Okay, let me put this into terms your atrophied brain can handle. You cannot take these kids. You have to give them back.”
“There’s nowhere for them to go. Here or foster care.”
“Here isn’t viable, Wes. For a number of reasons. Sidestepping the biggest ones, when’s the last time you stuck with a project for more than two months?”
“I’ve been working on the refurbishing for nearly six years.”
“That’s a wad of little projects, you douche canoe, and it’s not the point. Look, name one relationship you’ve maintained for three months.”
“I’m your neighbor. And we go months without talking. Someone you aren’t stuck with.”
I raised my finger to stop her, held it there for a second, and then dropped it. “Point.”
“There’s your whole… thing, here.” She gestured at my head.
“Oh, like how you’re entirely willing to trust complete strangers, blithely walking through life like you expect everything to be handed to you. At times you verge on… whatever the opposite of paranoia is.”
“Pronoia. But things are handed over to me. Very frequently. It isn’t pronoia if the world’s your oyster. Catch is, you have to be open to these things before it’s possible. A long series of leaps of faith. You believe enough, and other people do too.”
“But you need a solid steel security door?” she retorted.
I shrugged one shoulder. “We live in Toronto, I have nice things. There’s a fine line between confident and being stupid.”
“You’re incapable of seeing how fucked you are in the head.”
“I see it, I have a handle on it. It’s all under control.”
She backed away, folding her arms. “Fuck me. You’re really doing this. You’re making me do this.”
“You don’t have to do anything.”
She looked genuinely distressed for the first time. “Shit, Wes. Do you believe everything you’re saying?”
“Sure. Like I said, confidence. Gotta have a little faith. Marlene will come around, the kid’s wounds will heal, we’ll figure it out.”
“There’s no take-backs on this one. Fuck. Have you even thought about how your other work factors in?”
“The refurbishing? I just realized I could rent the next apartment over, so the kids have two rooms and I have some workshop space.”
“I’m talking about the the reason you’re able to afford the next apartment over.”
Oh. The other other jobs. Like Chris and his paperwork. Less than legal things.
“You’ve got a good thing going. Don’t fuck it up like this. There’s no reason for it.”
“There’s them. The kids. Family.”
“It’s all going to come crashing down, Wes. When it happens, it’s going to happen fast, it’s going to be ugly, and those kids are going to be worse off than before.”
“Have faith? If not in life, then in me?” I moved the box under one arm, then reached out.
She shied away from my hand. I let it drop.
“You’re a good friend and coworker. With benefits, even,” she said. “But I can’t get on board with this. Not with kids. You’re flying too close to the sun here, Icarus.”
“And you’re getting more sophisticated in the insults. You’re serious,” I said. I sighed.
“You’re still at a point where you can walk away,” she said.
“Send them back, trust that things will work out, and pack it all up. Move. Because one of these cards you’ve played is going to slip, and the whole house is going to fold.”
“They’re family, Rox.”
She stared at me. “Fuck. Fuck.”
“Roxanne,” I said.
“I gotta think on this one. I’ll be in touch.”
“I’m good. You know I’m good. I haven’t been caught yet.”
“What if you get caught now? The only things at stake up to now have been money and you. But now there’s two kids.”
I shook my head.
“Later, Wes,” she said.
“Later,” I said.
♥ (Heart): Okay, gut feeling? Kids are here to stay. Can’t remove them from the equation at this point without fucking him up. Nosy neighbor has got to go.
▲ (Ascent): Agreed.
☼ (Sunny): We need him isolated. Priority one. Kids are controllable.
▲ (Ascent): They’re leverage. Expendable.
♥ (Heart): I don’t think we should go there. Gut feeling, and we agreed this was my department.
▲ (Ascent): Your call, hon. We eliminate the neighbor, at least. Consensus?
♥ (Heart): Agreed.
☼ (Sunny): Yeah.
◘ (Box): Consensus.
I stepped out of my room, buttoning up another shirt. A thin trickle of blood welled from under one fingernail, where I’d stabbed myself reaching between couch cushions. A thin wheel, and I had no idea which pocketwatch it went with. I now had a thousand puzzle pieces from innumerable different puzzles, all exceptionally similar. Some pieces matched, but the vintage and make had to be put with the right watch. I might well be at it for months, figuring it out.
“You dress like that all the time?” Marlene asked. “I thought you dressed like that for the funeral and forgot to pack regular clothes.”
She was standing outside the other bathroom, the one that now belonged to the two kids and any guests I had over.
A button up shirt and narrow-leg dress pants were unusual?
“I dress like this all the time,” I said. “Go to sleep. If we’re lucky, every day is going to suck less than the day that came before. Maybe a very little, but less. Sleep is your friend, because it takes you further down that road.”
“And you?” she asked.
“You don’t even care, do you? You don’t feel bad, you don’t miss them, you didn’t cry.”
“I feel bad that you feel upset. Really,” I said. Complete and total honesty.
“But you don’t care.”
“No. I don’t have any fond memories of those days.”
She frowned. She wasn’t swearing and demolishing my place, which meant maybe the venting had helped.
An apology would be nice, but I could wait a few weeks, months or years for that.
“Dad changed,” she said. “He regretted what happened, that you felt like you had to run away.”
“I believe you,” I said. “But that doesn’t change the fact that I don’t have any fond memories of them. I forgive him, as much as it matters, but that’s where it stops. I can’t bring myself to feel bad about it. I’m sorry.”
She stared at me for a few long seconds, then turned her back to me, walking away.
A moment later, her bedroom door slammed shut.
Maybe being entirely honest was a mistake.
I’d cleaned up a third of the mess, roughly. I’d left my conversation with Roxanne to look after Marlene, once she’d burnt all of her energy. I’d hoped I could be a shoulder for her to cry on or a listening ear, but she hadn’t been willing to reach out.
The kids had their pizza for dinner, with Leo briefly breaking into silent tears that had taken me far too long to notice. He had wanted homecooked food instead. I’d suggested that I could call their aunt to get a recipe, which had only given Marlene some bait for another fight, insisting that no matter how closely I followed the recipe, it wouldn’t match the one she was used to. She said it would be worse than not having homecooked meals at all, because it would be an insult.
She might have been right, but it had been one exhausting moment in another exhausting day.
I was dealing with two kids who weren’t interested in pizza. When someone woke up shivering, drenched in sweat, that was a sign that something was terribly wrong, on a physical level, and that person was liable to find out they had cancer at their next doctor’s appointment. Two key elements in their makeup not jibing. When kids didn’t want pizza, that was a mental and emotional equivalent of the same.
I wasn’t sure what to do, besides give it time and work on forming a bond over time.
One day, one step at a time. Figure them out, help them, make them more comfortable here.
I had work to do, and no energy to do it.
Compromise. I collected some of the boxes from the front hall.
Once I assessed what needed to be done, then figure out how to pace my work over the next few days and weeks.
Keep it simple.
A Toby mug with a face on it, a fisherman, some scuff marks, a number of chips on the handle. A doll needing restuffing, with an eyelid that didn’t close anymore. Easy fixes. A cane with a secret compartment. I knew a few people who might buy it for the novelty value alone, and a handful of people who would buy it for practical use. It didn’t screw together properly. A problem with the threading.
I worked my way through the boxes. It was interesting work, requiring just a little bit of knowledge in every discipline. Old things had an honesty to them, their stories plain enough to anyone who wanted to look. Yet people were willing to throw them away.
I came to the last box. I’d put it off, if only to give myself a reason to work through to the end before hitting the hay. I debated calling Roxanne first. Same principle. I was pretty sure I would be done for the day once I got through the last box.
No. Too tired, and dealing with Roxanne was bound to be tiring. Maybe even a little heart-wrenching, depending on the decision she came to. I opted to open the box.
It wasn’t one of mine.
A mask, matte white, oval, with what looked like screwholes at the one, eleven, three and nine o’clock positions. No mouth, no nose, no raises or bumps. Only a gentle convex, with two eyeholes.
A mount? For hanging something else on a wall?
It wasn’t old, either. It was new.
I set it down on the table and rubbed my face. I’d taken out the lenses, leaving my apartment free of the little cosmetic touches I’d given it. Images on the walls no longer displayed, gilt vine patterns on the coffee table no longer crawled along the surface in slow motion. Everything was very dull and static, which matched my current mental state.
I raised my head.
My television was on. The screen had a tiny crack in it, but the crack didn’t obscure the image. A heart, on the screen, black against white.
My computer was on, too, in the corner. Rather, the monitor was on. The computer itself was rarely shut down. An arrow, pointing up.
I had to look for the third. My music player, on the bookshelf. A sun with rays extended.
That raised any number of questions. If I was seeing things, it wasn’t the lenses.
“Or should I call you Soren Ellis?” The heart on the television screen pulsed in time with the words. The voice was masked, digitized.
This guy knows?
“I prefer Wesley,” I said. Act calm, smile. Look confident, even when you aren’t sure who these guys are and how they’re pulling this off.
Cool as a cucumber.
“We’re going by Heart, Ascent, and Sunny.”
“Right now, we’re your best friends in the world. I need you to understand that, whatever happens next,” Heart said.
“I know how this goes. Establish a rapport. Once you’ve done that, you need to create a deadline, rush me.”
There was a pause, then laughter. The speakers… the sun was pulsing in time with the laughter.
“He’s got you there, Heart,” Sunny said. The voice was digitized, but the pitch was different enough to make it distinct.
“I’ve been around the block a few times,” I said. I tried to watch all three screens at once, but couldn’t. “I’ve dealt with some unsavory people.”
“You are an unsavory person,” the arrow spoke. What had the heart called it? Ascent?
“Now you’re insulting me,” I said. “This isn’t a good start, guys. You’re new to this.”
“No,” Ascent said.
“He’s kind of right,” Sunny pointed out.
“Wesley,” the heart told me. “We need you on board here. Put on the mask, and we’ll explain.”
I stood and stretched. It wasn’t like the machines could hurt me. It was good if I showed I was comfortable in my own skin.
“I remain thoroughly unconvinced,” I said. “Hold up for a minute. I’m going to get something to drink.
“This is important,” the Heart said, but I was already leaving. “Wesley.”
Take control of the situation.
They were flustered. Even with masked voices and no expressions to go by, I could tell I’d set them back a little.
A little more and I could turn things around. Maybe even figure out how they got access to my belongings.
The microwave bleeped. A sun. Images appeared on the displays of the stove and refrigerator. Heart and arrow.
The fridge started talking to me. “Your life is at stake.”
I opened the fridge door, fetching a beer.
Maybe not the best idea, to dull my brain, with these guys here, but I was tired, and I wasn’t about to face down another crisis without a creature comfort.
“If you don’t listen, you could die in the next few hours.”
“I could die anyways,” I said. “Any number of things could happen.”
Take the power away from them. So far, all they had were words and vague threats. If I stripped those things of their meaning, then the advantage was mine.
“The kids-” Ascent started talking.
“No,” Heart said.
With those incremental advantages, as my self-imposed adversaries got more flustered, I got information.
One was willing to go after the kids, the other wasn’t.
Was the hesitation because of compassion?
“The kids,” Ascent went on, “Could theoretically be in danger. Their lives could be at risk.”
Or was the hesitation because Heart suspected they would be playing their cards too early?
Because they were. Another advantage to me.
“Listen, Wesley. Put on the mask,” Heart said. “Work with us on this, and we’ll fix everything.”
“I have everything I could want,” I said. Beer in hand, I left the kitchen.
They were waiting for me in the living room. Heart said, “Your legal situation, we have access to every single document relating to you. We can smooth things over, ensure it’s even sailing from here on out.”
Hard to imagine, but it was hard to imagine they could bypass the building security as well as my own. I wasn’t tech savvy, I preferred old things, but I could manage, and I had enough money to hire smart men and women to put protection in place.
Were one of these people one of those smart men and women?
“If you have that kind of power, I find it hard to believe you need me. Or if you do need me, it can’t be for anything good. I’ll pass.”
“We could destroy you too,” Ascent said. “Pass documents to the right people.”
I turned around, facing the computer screen. “Do it. You have the ability to do that? You have what you say you have? Do it.”
“I’m not sure you comprehend exactly what I’m threatening here.”
“I understand. However, I also understand that if you do have the ability to follow through, to utterly destroy my life, then I’d be your puppet for the rest of my life if I acknowledged it, and I really am fond of free will. If you don’t, then I’m calling your bluff. Your move, arrowhead.”
“We’ll start small. Start with the kids, regarding-”
I dropped to my stomach by the bookshelves. I reached behind, and found the power bar. I clicked it to ‘off’.
By the time I stood up, the ‘sun’ had migrated to the computer monitor.
Heart was speaking from the cracked television, “You’re making a mistake. Depending on how things go tonight-”
I unplugged the TV with no small measure of satisfaction.
“We can take everything from you,” Ascent said.
“Then stop talking and do it.”
I unplugged the computer.
Then I grabbed the mask, opened the balcony window, and hurled it out into the street.
▲ (Ascent): Fuck.
☼ (Sunny): Hahahahahahahahahaha
▲ (Ascent): Fuck. Damn it, Heart.
♥ (Heart): Me?
▲ (Ascent): You picked him.
♥ (Heart): You guys agreed to the pick. I am not taking the blame for this.
☼ (Sunny): Hahahaha.
▲ (Ascent): You could have helped, Sun.
☼ (Sunny): You guys were doing so well, though! I’m more a behind the scenes guy.
♥ (Heart): We’re running out of time. I wanted to keep some in reserve, in case someone else tried to pull something, but…
▲ (Ascent): It’s not a good situation. What do you think?
♥ (Heart): Drag him kicking and screaming.
☼ (Sunny): Probably have to. Pretty temporary solution. We only get to make three plays, and we’ve already made one for the neighbor.
♥ (Heart): We figure it out tomorrow.
▲ (Ascent): Alright. Force him to come along. Consensus?
♥ (Heart): Damn it. Yes.
☼ (Sunny): Not really off to a good start, are we? Yes.
◘ (Box): Consensus.
I woke up to see six men striding into my bedroom. They didn’t make a sound. Their boots were silent. No eyeholes in their masks. Only black, head to toe, complete with vests and leather gloves.
I reached for my drawer, hauling it open.
It was empty. I’d moved the gun because the kids were moving in.
Firm hands seized my arm, and an elbow forced me back down onto the bed.
Strong. Stronger than me.
One of them for each of my limbs, pressing them down against the mattress so hard I thought something might dislocate. A hand went over my mouth.
Not that I was going to scream, if I could help it. Bringing the kids into this wouldn’t help.
That left two. One held the mask, and a black medicine bag.
The other took hold of my head, climbing onto the bed and pressing down on my collarbone and shoulders with one shin and virtually all of his body weight.
He took the mask and set it in place. I could smell something medicinal, thick and cloying to the point that I felt like I couldn’t breathe. Gorge rose in my throat as spit flooded into my mouth, and my consciousness swam.
But I wasn’t knocked out right away. If it was meant to, it had faded in effect. I did slip away, but not before I heard a power tool start up with a shrill whine and felt something poke me in the forehead, just above the hairline.
Someone was screaming. A frantic kind of scream that kept trying to restart all over again, even as he didn’t have the breath. His voice was hoarse, as if it had been going on for a little while.
I sat up, tried to look around.
My vision wouldn’t focus. Double vision, the opposite of being cross-eyed.
I could make out a jail cell. With a metal cot, a thin mattress and pillow, and a toilet. Lit by a skylight. There were iron-bar doors at two opposite sides.
I was disoriented, my breath hot against my face. I tried to climb to my feet, and nearly fell, cracking my face against the toilet.
Pausing to catch my breath, I looked down.
I was dressed, and not in pyjamas. Slacks, outdoor shoes, no belt, a dress shirt and vest, with a gold pocket watch in the vest pocket. I couldn’t make out the colors in the dim. I removed the pocket watch and hit the button to open it, but it didn’t cooperate. Decorative.
Which bothered me more than it should have. Being dressed by other people, by the men who had assaulted me.
The screaming continued.
“I can make out another one.” A woman said.
“Hello!” I called out. I lurched over to the bars, gripping them to catch myself. “Hello!”
“Ah, he’s a-“
“Shh. Don’t be an idiot. You think we’re separated like this because we’re buddy buddy? Don’t tell him anything he doesn’t need to know.”
I squinted, but that only made the vision problem worse.
Instead, I used my hands to shield my eyes from the skylight above. There were people. People wearing masks, standing a distance away. They were blurry blotches.
I moved my face closer, and there was a hard impact.
I was wearing the mask. My hands moved to my face.
Not the same mask. Or they had added to it. There was a protrusion in the middle, conical.
I tried to pull it off, and I couldn’t. I fumbled for straps.
The lights came on. Each one was accompanied by the sound of a large breaker being thrown. Spotlights spilled light into cells, one by one, traveling clockwise around the circle. I shielded my eyes.
Cells, arranged in a circle, so one set of doors formed a loose ring where the lights didn’t reach.
I couldn’t make the inhabitants out. The angle of the cell I was in and the fact that some weren’t standing by the door meant most were out of my view.
The light came on in my cell, and it was so bright it hurt.
The last of the lights came on. Still, the man in the other cell screamed, urgent, frantic. By contrast, I was utterly still.
The lights went on at the opposite end of the ring.
A woman, dressed in a black tank top and yoga pants, with running shoes, wearing a gray wolf’s mask. The eyes were black circles. If I’d seen it in a cartoon Leo was watching, I wouldn’t have been surprised.
A girl, in a rabbit mask, complete with ears that arced over her head. She was wearing yoga pants and a sports bra, her arms covering her chest. The same vague, minimalistic cartoon look was apparent, with the round, unblinking eyes.
A man, a rat mask, wearing a leather jacket.
A kid, not much older than Marlene, probably a boy, wearing a black sweatshirt, jeans, and a mask of a… lizard? Snake?
And then, finally, the cell where the man was screaming. A shirtless old man. His mask had too many eyes. A spider. He thrashed, occasionally kicking his legs.
My hands moved up to my face. The distorted vision… I touched the slight convex bulges where my ‘eyes’ were.
I was looking through the eyes of my mask, set further apart than my own eyes were.
If that were true, then was he seeing through eight eyes at once? Was that even possible?
It was the sort of thing that would require surgery. The thought made me recall a memory, the whine of the power tool.
My hands traveled back up to the mask. I tried to wedge them underneath the hard surface, but the places where I could were limited.
But there… Below my temples, spearing into the very rightmost and leftmost edges of my cheekbones, metal rods.
The ringing echo of the last breaker sang through the area, taking far too long to go completely away.
Twelve in total.
Thirteen. The final light came on, filling the center of the circle. A computer, with screens facing each of us.
Day 0 Over.
Night 0 begin.
Twelve cunning beasts prey on one another.
Each with talents, natural and given.
Bloody festivity at night. Rest during the daylight hours?
Which one deserves to live?
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.
Haeg Mora stood before him, dressed in only a silk slip and an unbelted robe. One of her hands gripped the heavy wooden door, the other held the doorframe. With the way she was leaning forward, she was inadvertently treating him to a view down the front.
She made a low, guttural sound, and then hung her head, sagging a little.
A servant girl hurried to her side, ducking under Mora’s arm to put herself between Caspar and Mora, closing Mora’s robe and tying the belt. She was quick and efficient, even with a wooden bowl tucked under one arm.
The servant girl gave Caspar a sharp look, and he turned his back.
He hadn’t quite expected Haeg Mora to be the one to open the door, much less in that state of dress.
“An empty bowl? You joke me?”
“In case you need to… if you’re ill, madam.”
“I will not be ill.”
There was a pause. “Yes ma’am. We’re well behind in getting ready for the morning. If master Thorbay would be willing to wait, I think we can get you respectable.”
“I will get myself respectable. I paid attention as I was dressed yesterday, I will dress myself today.”
She’s in a mood, Caspar observed, but he kept his back turned. “I can wait. Take your time.”
There was a clatter, and Caspar momentarily thought Mora had fallen. When he turned, however, he saw that she’d taken a chair and was using it as a makeshift cane, crossing to her bedside to get her stone cane. She crossed to the other corner of the room where clothes had been hung up.
His eye fell on her right foot. It wasn’t a human foot, but a cleft hoof, twisted with nubs of flesh partway up. She leaned on the cane not because the foot wasn’t strong enough, but because the limb was bent at a right angle, towards her left foot, with nothing to set firmly on the ground.
The servant girl got in his way once more, protecting the modesty of her charge. “My apologies, Master Thorbay,” she said, not sounding terribly apologetic. He could forgive her the attitude. She couldn’t have had the most pleasant morning.
“May I have a word?” he asked her.
“With you. She doesn’t seem in particular need of assistance just this moment. Please?”
The girl frowned, but she stepped out of the room and closed the door behind her. He made sure to lead her a distance down the hallway, to be sure they were out of earshot.
“She’s ill?” He asked.
“The Lords and Ladies are fasting, the kitchen was closed to everyone but servants, and the Lady Mora-”
“Haeg Mora. They don’t have lords and ladies.”
“Haeg Mora was hungry. I asked around, and Lady Theda’s maid suggested I take her to the kitchen and see what she wanted.”
“The servants were curious, and she was friendly enough, answering questions and asking them in turn. We invited her to eat with us, it was something of a celebration for us anyhow, with the lords and ladies fasting and the kitchen staff free to make something for themselves. A spread,” the girl said, smiling. She seemed to recall who she was talking to and added, “Modest, I assure you. We wouldn’t rob the Lords and Ladies who employ us.”
“I’m not interested in getting anyone in trouble, I only want answers.”
“She ate until she was ill. It was grim,” the servant girl said, whispering that last word, “seeing her slowly and steadily eat well past the point of being full or enjoying the food. I thought she might injure or wound herself, even. Once we realized, we weren’t sure what to do. We couldn’t take the plates away without upsetting her, but she ate because the food was there. We thought of sending for the Lord of Letters, but he was in council the moment the day started.”
You could have sent for me.
“It’s not your fault. I should have left better instructions, or the Lord of Letters should have.”
The girl seemed to be upset and relieved at the same time. “La- Haeg Mora looked as though she might be… suddenly ill, and I walked her over to the stairwell by the kitchens, just in case. The staff that hadn’t already fled the table saw fit to clear the table while I had her distracted. When we returned, I thought she might club me with that cane of hers, seeing the food gone.”
The girl shook her head. “But she has been irritable since.”
“You’ve done well. Next time, send for me if you can’t get the Lord of Letters.”
The girl looked just a touch sullen as she nodded.
A sad reality, Caspar thought to himself, that anyone who knew who he was had no love or respect for him, by virtue of his background alone. This young servant knew he was the son of Rolf Thorbay, and even after he’d left her the order, he couldn’t be sure she would hurry to follow his instruction. Or would she sabotage him, even?
“It would be appreciated,” he said, for emphasis. He held her gaze, waiting, hoping she would look away before he had to.
She nodded, her eyes dropping. “Yes, of course.”
She turned to leave. He remained at the end of the hallway, waiting, while Haeg Mora finished dressing.
She emerged, surprisingly put together. Her hair was combed, though with a laurel of wrought silver to pin her hair back around her ears. Her dress was a simpler one than she’d worn the day before, in green with a short cape of silver covering one shoulder and a thin belt of metal leaves that matched the laurel, more decorative than supportive. It was perhaps not the best choice of belts, making her swollen stomach more apparent rather than less.
He habitually averted his eyes. Rude, for one thing, to stare at a young lady. Problematic for other reasons, as well. He’d woken to find the half-armored knight who wore his father’s face was gone, which was a burden off his shoulders. He didn’t want to slip and invite another vision to follow him for the day.
“Good morning, Caspar Thorbay,” she said.
“Good morning, Haeg Mora. Can I compliment you on how well and quickly you’ve put yourself together?”
“You can,” she said. There was no smile or curtsy to accompany the statement, nothing demure in her body language. It put him off guard, just a touch.
He found his bearings quickly enough, “Would you prefer to walk with the cane or my arm?”
“The cane,” she said. “Which way?”
He extended a hand, then fell in step beside her.
“Did the servant help you with the final touches?” he asked, conversationally.
She frowned. “I need no help. Talking and eating with these servant people, I keep getting feelings that you all think Ogden’s Kith are savage. We are stupid, we are clumsy, we dress in skins.”
“Cultural differences, nothing more.”
“Anyone can make themselves pleasing to look at if they know the rules. Failure in knowing and following these rules means any can be ugly and undesirable. You know this.”
She gave him a pointed look, her cane striking the stone underfoot. He declined to respond to the casual insult.
“We worked metal before you did. During the War of Tears, we had the greatest towers and thickest fortresses. When the thirteenth people fought us, they would steal the weapons of the fallen because they preferred them to their own.”
He held his tongue.
“No?” She asked. “You frown, Caspar Thorbay. What would you say?”
“Better to avoid diplomatic incident,” he said. “The Lord of Letters would be a better one to discuss this with. Rest assured, I don’t think you are savage.”
They made their way to the gardens in the center of the keep. The buildings had been arranged to frame open walkways and a series of fountains, trees and flower beds, growing more ostentatious, exotic and elaborate towards the center, where the shade was heavier and secluded benches more common.
“If you insist on being silent, I will insist on thinking you want to say the rudest, most offensive things I can imagine. Do you think I am the daughter of a beggar?”
“You accuse me of rutting with all manner of dumb beasts?” she asked, raising her voice.
He could see other nobles in the gardens were glancing their way. “No. Please, be quieter.”
“I take time to learn Surd language, am tutored from moment I join Haeg, I come here and dress like you dress, follow custom. Yet you do not meet me anywhere. I say honesty is important, but you lie with your silence.”
“Because saying the wrong thing can be worse than whatever you’re imagining I might say.”
“Ah. I heard your father once made a man blind himself in one eye, because he failed to pay debt. Perhaps you seethe with this kind of malice for me?” she pressed. “My imagination is good. I have heard other stories. Do you wish to scalp Haeg Mora and wipe your-”
“Enough,” he said. “Please, Haeg Mora. I am not my father.”
“You have his blood, as I have Ogden’s.”
He sought to change the subject, knowing he was bowing to her manipulations. “What I was going to say was that the War of Tears was two hundred years ago. Some things have changed since then.”
“Ah!” She smiled, and he could see how one of the teeth on the bottom row was longer than the others, sharp, positioned below where she had the scarred cleft in her lip. “You butt heads with me?”
“Different connotations, Haeg.”
“That turn of phrase means different things to the Kith than it means to us. We borrowed some terms from your language, in the past, but turned it to different meanings in times of war. To butt heads is to stubbornly argue to the point of being stupid.”
“It is to contest with each other, your thoughts against mine, bludgeoning each other with them until the other submits.”
“Debate would be a better way of putting it.”
“The…” she said. “How do you say?”
“Debate,” he repeated, for clarity.
“Two hundred years ago, we were better in many ways. We were made better, each Kith with different knowledges. That was then. Now we are still better at things. Our cloth, our oils, our rich desserts. We were better then, we are better some ways now.”
“Yet your army is little more than common thugs, carrying out the bandit raids without care. When people here think of the Kith of Ogden, they think of unwashed men in bloodstained armor, robbing our wagons and carrying off anyone young to enslave. So long as the raids continue, it will always be this image that appears first in our minds. Thieves and slavers.”
“We sell our own as slaves too. Our stupidest, slowest and weakest give back to the tribe that raised them by bringing in this slave coin. My tutor in all things Haeg was a slave once, released when she was too old. There is… the weights are even in this. We give, we take.”
“Dealing in buying or selling slaves is seen as savage, here. There isn’t a balancing of the scales to make it right.”
“But you buy slaves.”
“The underclass buys slaves. Those of us here in the court discourage it, for the most part. It makes for too much coin passing through the wrong sorts of hands.”
“Like the hands of your father.”
“If you want to, as you put it, bludgeon me into submission with your words, bringing things back to my father over and over again is a good start,” Caspar said. “If you want to discuss and learn, even be friendly, perhaps we could avoid that topic.”
He led the way onto a different path. The gardens had buildings on three sides, and a complicated arrangement of stone stairs spilling down from the fourth. They now made their way towards an overlarge set of double doors in the narrowest building, the middle of the three.
“Yes. We can avoid this.”
“Thank you,” he said.
He was about to launch into fresh conversation, to pave over the awkwardness, but a figure caught his eye. Between the building to his right and the court where the magistrates gathered, there was a gap, and he could see a young lady striding away. Her hair was black and piled high, held in place with bands that had been painted red, her neck and arms were long and thin, her ankle-length dress deceptively simple, black silk belted behind her neck and waist, leaving the whole of her back bared.
A massive three-fingered hand rested momentarily on the small of her back as she approached the stairwell that would lead her down and out of Caspar’s sight. As the young servant had tried to obscure Caspar’s view of Mora, another figure obscured his vision of the young lady. Half again as tall as the tallest man, he nonetheless stooped over, a slouch encouraged by years spent in buildings built too small for him. His skin was dark brown, his eyes pale, and where an ordinary man might have body hair, he had thick auburn wool. When he walked, thanks to his disproportionately large arms and small legs and the slouch that bent him forward, he had to periodically use one hand for balance. His curling horns seemed large and heavy, forcing his head lower.
“Kith of Barlus,” Mora observed, following his gaze.
“Yes,” Caspar said. He watched as the gigantic Kith made his way down the stairs, his shoulders bobbing with each careful step.
“Rare, to see one outside of his family. They are clever and strong and fearsome as a group, craven and stupid when alone.”
“So the texts say,” Caspar said.
“Rarer, too, to see one of Barlus’ children with that color, here. Red wool?”
“He’s not from here,” Caspar said, simply. He stepped forward to open the double doors.
There was no time for further conversation, their destination too close. They passed statues and walked to one side of a forked staircase that branched around a great stone statue. A naked man, twenty feet tall, bristled with muscles, leaning over one end of a great maul, a shaft of wood with an oversized gauntlet lashed to one end. The base was an inarticulate but artful mass of flesh from any number of different beasts, with an opening in the middle for the magistrates to pass through, leading to the inner chambers.
Slaying the mad god, Caspar thought, as he and Mora laboriously made their way up the curved staircase.
The statue had originally had a base, complete with assorted members of Sur’s retinue at the edges. In time, as the court had been remodeled, the individual statues had been removed, the various members finding homes in alcoves in the library. Only one had remained as part of the base, and that had been removed by one of the previous individuals to sit on the black chair.
A cutthroat and con artist who hadn’t liked entering the hall and seeing the high priest in the throes of despair as his patron god had its head caved in. She’d taken a hammer to it, and she’d hung from the gallows for the offense.
He imagined it, the statue, as crested the top of the stairs. He’d seen illustrations in books, and similar images in art. One strike, to end one reign and begin a new one.
He pushed the door open so Haeg Mora could pass through.
The meeting took place on a lower level. Each of the Magistrates sat in pairs and trios at various tables. One table for the Lords of City and Capitol, one for the three Lords of Sun, Moon, and Star, respectively, and so it went.
Lord Rolf Thorbay sat alone, at a table smaller than the desk in Caspar’s bedroom, no papers on his desk, but for a small leather-bound book, a pen and ink.
A small audience had gathered in seats around them, beneath where Caspar and the other seconds had gathered. They stood looking down on the floor, behind a series of railings that roughly matched the width of the tables below. Behind each of the seconds were tables where books, papers, scrolls and maps had been laid out.
The Lords of Sun, Moon and Star had the floor, and their respective seconds were listening intently. The religious leaders of the three religions that had the majority of the public backing them.
The priest with the golden mask and blades extending from the edges was talking. Though his mask might have made him a better fit for the sun chair, the empty chair behind him was engraved with a crescent moon.
He was saying something about ceremony and the limits on tithing, and hearing him speak, Caspar realized he recognized the man. Bardolf Wickim.
“…If I may take a moment to reference my records of tithes received,” Bardolf paused. His second turned, moving one book to seize another, and swiftly descended the staircase that led down to the floor, bringing him the tome. She placed it deliberately in his hands. She remained at his side.
He did not open the tome, however, but tapped it for effect, “I’d like to illustrate that the upswing on days of good tithing counterbalance period of drought.”
“When you speak of your records,” the elderly Lord of Trade said, “Do you speak of the religion you presently head, or is it one of the other five you’ve put to rest in recent years? Six religions total, in the last twenty years, hasn’t it been?”
“I confess I do not know what you’re talking about,” Bardolf Wickim replied. “What a crass idea.”
Emerick Suvain, the Lord of Capitol, was very similar in stature when compared to the musclebound hero who was showcased in the court’s lobby. Though armor made up the bulk of that, he had the natural strength to wear it. He was arguably the most powerful man in Surd. When he spoke, everyone listened. “You want the limits released, arguing the averages will put your earnings at an even keel with respectable businesses, even if the exceptional periods of growth seem… grandiose.”
He wasn’t restating the obvious for the benefit of argument or for Bardolf, but for the people in the benches around the floor, who would be reporting the details of the meeting to others. Laying it out in simple terms.
“That is the thrust of the matter,” Bardolf said.
Emerick’s voice was deep as he spoke, “We founded this nation on the death of a god. The people have a certain attachment to the idea, perhaps we even romanticize it. Every few years, a church closes its doors, there is fanfare, celebration, a brief-lived mythology comes to a close. A god dies, a messiah perishes, hope is offered or taken away. Surely you acknowledge this occurs.”
“I do,” Bardolf said.
“My question is, if we removed the limits, how many more gods and religions would die in the next twenty years? More than six?”
“The rise and fall of gods is the province of gods and the godly, nothing more,” Bardolf said. “Not of coin.”
“Yet coin can be the province of the godly as well? Or have you changed your mind about why you are addressing us, High Priest of Larva?”
“No need to be specious, Lord Emerick. We all need coin to feed ourselves and keep up the churches.”
“I’ll abstain from voting,” Emerick said. “You’re right. But consider… if we encourage the charlatans in robes to raise and slay false gods, will the people not tire of it? Will the balance be upset?”
“You lack faith,” the man in the golden mask said. “The gods will make it right.”
“I have changed my vote,” A woman in a black robe said. The Lord of Stars. “I am sorry, High Priest of Larva, but there are gods of ugliness and darkness out there. I do not trust them to keep a balance. What we have serves.”
“Agreed,” a man with a painted face said. The Lord of Sun. “Let’s put the matter to rest.”
Bardolf let the tome drop to the table with an impact, then found his chair. The other two lords of religion removed themselves from the floor as well, sitting in their respective seats.
Emerick spoke, “The next matter on the docket is marked as the woodsbridge dead stag concern. I would suggest Capitol and Bludgeon for the floor. Objection?”
The various lords at the tables held out hands, flat and parallel to the table.
Only Rolf didn’t.
“I would take the floor,” Caspar’s father said.
Emerick didn’t look particularly surprised. “Objections?”
There were none.
The lords of Capitol, Bludgeon and Black made their way to the open space inside the broken ring of tables.
Caspar was distracted by the approach of three others, who were keeping far enough away from the railing to be out of sight of the assembly that had gathered to watch proceedings.
Darios and Gared, seconds of Letters and Bludgeon, respectively, leaned over the railing. Glances were cast in Caspar’s direction. Klaros, in the company of the second of banners, didn’t even try to be surreptitious about it.
“-no less than twelve times,” Emerick said. “This is a subject for concern. The woods are reserved for the nobility, and even there the hunting is strictly controlled. Should illness, incident or drought bring a particular species to the point of extinction, the woodsbridge is a means of carefully replenishing it. Not possible when it is being overhunted.”
Rolf spoke. “I became aware of the matter when it was entered on the docket. I’ve seen to it.”
“So easily?” the Lord of Bludgeons asked. “Too easily?”
“Do we have to undertake this charade every time?” Rolf asked. “Many of the people in the audience have seen it often enough. Yes. You are exceedingly surprised that I still have contacts from my less than illustrious past. We must repeatedly hammer in the idea that I do not truly belong here, and every criminal act that occurs must somehow be my fault.”
“If you are restless, Black, we can give your chair to another.”
“If you do that, the reserve will be hunted to extinction. I passed on word to wholly legitimate individuals, who passed on word to less legitimate businessmen, who passed on word through the low streets and gutters.”
“You warned the poachers,” the Lord of Bludgeons said.
“I told them I was aware and I would be displeased if it continued, and my reputation did the rest,” Rolf said. “It’s done.”
“Except,” Lord Emerick said, “You forget the matter of the stags that have already died, and the poachers escape without paying for their crime.”
“Not to mention,” the Lord of Bludgeons spoke up, “The woodsbridge is guarded on both ends, and the poachers somehow found their way through. This is worrisome, and demands investigation.”
“A security threat to our castle and nation, even,” the Lord of Banners joined in, from the sidelines.
Rolf bowed his head a little, as if the pressure the others were applying was a physical force.
Caspar could imagine what the shadow his father had cast might look like, if he could see it now. However calm Rolf Thorbay appeared to be, his real attitude could vary. Was he just barely suppressing his rage?
Was he laughing at them?
The man straightened, raising his head, brushing at a lock of dark curl to get it away from his eyes. He spread his arms.
Caspar didn’t get to hear. Gared, son of the Lord of Bludgeons, spoke to Darios, his voice low, but somehow audible. A trick of the acoustics in the room, with every part of the layout encouraging sounds to travel and reach? “One day, the brute is going to hang. My father says he will be the one to personally see to it. He has a rope that needs stretching.”
“I know,” Darios said, his voice calm, sounding more disinterested than anything. “I’ve eaten at your table often enough. He’s made the joke so many times I’ve gotten sick of it. I can’t imagine how you feel.”
“I see the stretched rope in my sleep,” Gared said. He grimaced. He looked at Caspar, but Caspar was already averting his eyes, trying not to be obvious that he was overhearing.
“I said I would not bring up the subject again,” Mora said. “But…”
“I know,” Caspar said. “They’re speaking about my father.”
Gared went on, “I feel sorry for his wife. Born a little spotty, according to my aunt, and she gets taken advantage of by a thug twice her age. When the brute dangles from the gallows, what happens to her? She has no nobility worth speaking of, no coin, no stipend from the black chair, and none would be the one who takes the brute’s wife to bed… She winds up in the low streets? Mad enough to be unable to look after herself, sane enough to know how bad her situation is?”
“Caspar is seeking employment with the Lord of Letters,” Darios said. “As a lowly researcher. He could look after her.”
“No. That won’t do. I mean, I don’t wish the woman ill. She can’t be faulted for her frailty, but you’ll have to fire him.” Gared asked, eyebrows raised. “It isn’t right, that the black chair leaves any permanent marks in the court.”
Darios shrugged, noncommittal.
Gared frowned. He looked at Caspar, but Caspar was watching only through his peripheral vision. “Fat Caspar can’t be too clean, if he interacts with his father. My father could bring him in on suspicions of conspiracy, and I’m sure we’d find something.”
Caspar was suspicious they could. If they searched the house, they’d likely find any number of incriminating details. Worship of blood gods was technically forbidden, after a spate of cults had sprung up here and there, and there hadn’t been two straight days where the house had been utterly clean of anything suspicious. Letters to the wrong people, texts on poisons that wouldn’t be found in the library here, for teaching Caspar, Caspar’s juvenile ideas from when he’d been a child and hadn’t yet seen his father’s madness for what it was. Were some still around? Did his father keep them as mementos?
Rolf was smiling a little as he debated matters with Gared’s father, the Lord of Bludgeons. Criminal and judge, opposing one another on the floor. Was part of that arrogance because he was envisioning Caspar’s note, tucked away in some secret drawer somewhere, an eight year old’s crude ideas on how to systematically murder the various magistrates?
Darios leaned forward, and his voice was barely audible. “Perhaps we can discuss this later, over a drink? Some of us don’t have positions guaranteed by blood. I’d hate to lose my appointment because Klaros got the wrong impression.”
Klaros, a distance away, glanced at Darios, but didn’t reply.
“Ah well,” Gared said. “Soon enough. My father has taken to appointing guards on the brute, and he hasn’t said anything about why. He must anticipate something. The criminals always get more restless when they know their turn at the gallows approaches.”
“Do you hear what this boy says?” Mora asked.
“Yes,” Caspar answered. He pointed down at the floor, where the Lord of Trade was taking the floor, along with the Lord of Banners. “But I think you should listen. Ignore this and pay attention to the discussion of trade. It’s at least part of the reason you came, isn’t it?”
“I understand you better, now,” Mora said, her voice quiet. “We have warlords take power, sometimes, and they do not have the ability to keep power. They rarely go silently. I see it in him, and I think you see it to. You seek security, but you fear it is already too late. It probably is.”
“This isn’t what a diplomat should be talking about with a guest,” Caspar said, his voice more tight than he would have liked.
“Take it from one who has watched this play out again and again. Few find that security, when they desperately search for it as the water runs down the glass. You must take a risk.”
Caspar sighed, relenting. He met her eyes for a moment, then looked away, turning his eyes back to the floor. “A risk? What do you think I could do?”
An axe for one, a poison for another, to make him shit himself to death. Bleed another in their bathtub. So on and so on, down the list.
The scrawlings of a boy with the characteristic unquestioning adoration for their father, too young to know better.
Had it ever been more than that? Or were they just pretendings, for his father to cling to as he knew his time would run out. He would become too restless, push something too far. Or he would grow too comfortable and predictable, and he would no longer have a role in things.
“You know this world better than I do. But I do not think you should go quietly,” Mora said. “I have ideas, but-”
“Forgive me,” he said, interrupting her. He had a sick feeling in his gut, knowing he was burning a bridge, setting himself back in this feeble attempt at rescuing himself from the doom that was about to befall his father. “I… don’t feel well. My breakfast didn’t sit well. I need a moment’s fresh air.”
A feeble lie, drawing inspiration from the one he was lying to, of all people. Someone who detested lies, no less. Her expression, as cryptic as her eyes might be, left no doubt she knew he’d told a falsehood.
He might have made excuses, tried to shore it up, but he stepped away, instead, abandoning her and his duties.
The gods had brought him this far. A whim, a chair for a criminal, because it recurred in the myths enough times. But as the gods died, so did this whimsy. Maybe Gared was wrong, and Caspar’s father would occupy the Black Chair for years to come. Maybe war wouldn’t break out, necessitating that Rolf vacate the position so a warlord might occupy it.
But time would pass, and it would all come crumbling down.
He made his way down the stairs, then strode through the double doors into the gardens.
The air was crisp, even though it was summer, a result of the keep being based in the mountains. Vertical distances marked the paths between cities and settlements as much or more than the horizontal distances, roads zig-zagging down the cliff faces, framed by the aqueducts that controlled the flows of cold mountain water.
He turned left, passing between the court and the archives that framed the gardens. Stairs and patios were laid out along the cliff’s edge.
He traced the path, heading down, below the foot of the archives building, and around the corner.
Clusters of trees offered privacy here. It was an out of the way spot, originally a place for Lords and Ladies who worked in the court and the archives to share meals, it had fallen out of favor as new areas were set up and a wing was added to the archives, casting the patios in darkness at any time beyond early morning. Here and there, stairs were cracked, and weeds grew up and out of the way. Trees were tended, but leaned toward the overgrown.
The Lady with the open-backed robe and the Kith companion was on one patio, sitting in deep shade.
Caspar felt his heart thud in his chest.
“Lady Esmenet,” he said.
She turned her head, surprised. The surprise wasn’t diminished with recognition. If anything, she looked more confused. “Caspar Thorbay?”
He nodded. “May I approach?”
“I was enjoying a moment’s quiet,” she said.
He approached a step, and the Kith moved, his arm catching a railing, helping to shift his position.
Every step of the way, people bar my path, try to keep me from seeing.
“I’d hoped to talk with you,” he said.
“I can’t imagine we have any reason to talk, Caspar.”
“If you could ask your Kith to leave-”
“A silly notion,” she said. “My father bought him for me on the day I was born, so I’d never be without protection. You want me to dismiss him?”
Caspar glanced at the Kith. The man glowered at him, in turn. An ex-slave. But he’d been a child when he’d been ‘freed’, no connection to a distant clan that had been wiped out and enslaved in entirety, no coin, no means of acquiring food or shelter, beyond the basest options. He’d been offered a position, food and shelter, a bodyguard.
A slave, only without any obvious collar or shackles.
Caspar approached, and he raised a hand, placing it against the Kith’s forearm. “Rest assured, I don’t think I could hurt her if I tried.”
The Kith didn’t budge.
“Let him through, Linos. He’s no threat to me. If he insists on disturbing the quiet, we might as well get it over with.”
Linos backed off, and Caspar advanced, approaching the railing, so Lady Esmenet was behind him. “You abandoned your post.”
“My father doesn’t trust me to actually carry out the duties of a second,” she said. “His third sees to the job. I’m expected to stand there, be regal, and learn.”
He gazed out at the valley below. “You’re absent from the Alltemple, you’re absent from the court meetings and your duties as second. The only person in your company is Linos. People wonder.”
“They wonder what you do. I found myself wondering why. I think we’re kindred spirits, in a way.”
There was no reply. When he glanced over his shoulder, he saw Lady Esmenet exchanging a glance with her bodyguard.
“Sorry,” Caspar said, “If that’s taken as an insult. But… you let your reputation degrade, you skip events. I think we’re very similar in our feelings towards all of this. The ambition, the lies, the deception, the way the board keeps on shifting, one player or one piece being exchanged for another, but nothing ever changes. So much hinges on appearances, and there’s so very little substance.”
Still, there was no response.
“I despise it all. I loathe it, and I think you do too. Your father is Lord of Capitol, the highest position in the court, if someone wanted to argue there was one. My father is the Lord of Black. The lowest position, undeniably. Generations go by without one proposal being acknowledged or accepted from the Black Chair. My father has played along, so some of them humor him, but others wait for the day they can remove him from the chair and finally get around to hanging him. We stand at opposite ends of all this, and we’re the same.”
“So?” she asked. “I’m not saying that I agree, but what does it matter? We might be soulmates, destined for each other, or we could be mortal enemies tomorrow. What does it matter? What would you have me do about it?”
“Every day, it seems, you try to escape this. You seek refuges like this one, abandon your duties. I… I suppose I seek my own refuge. A stupid notion of being a researcher for little pay. I want your help. I want to ally. We want the same things, we can help each other accomplish them.”
“I’m to help you become a researcher?” she asked.
“No,” Caspar said. He clenched his fists. He was talking too fast, stumbling over his words. There was so much he wanted to say, but he couldn’t get it out in the right way. The more he tried, the worse it got. “In other things. Getting to the heart of the matter.”
“We can shake things up,” she said. “Undermine the court, force a change.”
They were the sort of words that he had wanted to hear. But the tone…
He turned around, and he could see how her expression mocked him. Sarcasm.
His gaze dropped to his toes.
“Where’s your fire, Caspar?” she asked, and the tone was too similar. “What do you really want?”
He didn’t dare answer the question.
“Fancy words, about me being your soulmate, about the stagnant disease at the heart of the court, the lies and masks we all wear so comfortably. And you frame it all like you want to rescue me.”
“You can’t deny that you hate this. That being in the court is like being in a cage. You dress a certain way, you act a certain way, and every time you do, you know you’re shoring up a system that you can’t stand.”
“Perhaps you’re right,” she said. She stood from the bench and brushed at the petals that had settled on her dress. “Shall I buck the system? Try to shake free of the restraints?”
He sensed a trap, but he’d walked into it. “As you wish.”
“A lady must be dainty, you understand,” she said. “Linos, come closer.”
The Kith approached.
“A lady must be demure,” Esmenet said.
“Yes,” Caspar said.
“Every week, I entertain suitors. Every time, I must find a way to deflect their advances. Over and over. I must be polite, sparing their feelings, and I can never be forceful.”
She pushed a branch out of the way as she approached Caspar. It swung, and emerald petals showered down behind her.
“So I can never refuse a suitor entirely. I deflect, they advance again and again. It’s a farce.”
“So I was right,” Caspar said. “You hate this.”
“And yet you’re going to reject me now, like you could never deflect your suitors.”
“Yes. Rest assured, Caspar Thorbay, the idea of befriending you or joining you in this inochate venture of yours makes the gorge rise in my throat. The idea of being associated with you, with being similar to you, it makes my skin crawl.” She extended an arm. “Look!”
He looked away. She was too close.
“No, look! Really! Goosebumps. I don’t have any little hairs on my arms, because my servants wax my arms and legs, but they would be standing on end.”
“I understand,” Caspar said, just a little disgusted, unsure if that disgust was with himself or with her. “A no would suffice.”
“Ah, but I feel so much better! You’ve interrupted my peace, tonight, and I’ll shudder when I recall the comparisons you drew, but I finally got to act.”
There was a note of anger in his voice, when he spoke, “Where do you wind up, five years from now? Still unable to act? Doing the same thing?”
“Where will you be, Caspar? It won’t be in a position as researcher or anything like that. There are rules. If you’ve moved one step from where you are, it’ll be to the gutters or the gallows.”
He would have responded, even retorted with an angry word or two of his own, but Linos loomed close, fully capable of dismantling Caspar if he had a mind to.
He let himself meet Lady Esmenet’s eyes. They were dark, glittering with anger. Her features, flawless, were so tight that it looked like she wore a mask.
“Fine,” Caspar said. “Fine. Then I’d like to make a request.”
“A request?” Esmenet asked.
“There are other terms for it, but I’m going to keep to the politest one. Your family has been investing in the merchant nobles. Your father will have given you some papers, teaching you the accounting and the details of investment. Patron’s notes, I imagine.”
“What does it matter to you?” she asked.
“You’ll give me some. Not many. Five papers will do. For any of the businesses your family is overseeing. Sign them over to me.”
“I think you’ve gone mad,” she said.
“Or I’ll let slip that I saw you and your bodyguard fucking,” Caspar said.
Linos tensed. He spoke in a low rumble, his words clumsy. “I can throw him over the edge.”
“They’ll wonder why you were willing to kill,” Caspar said, speaking just a little too fast. His eyes darted between them, so he couldn’t start to see things. “I imagine they’ll take it to the most obvious conclusion.”
“Many people have raised the idea,” Esmenet said. “It’s a scandal that’s never borne fruit, and people are tired of it.”
“People saw you leave the court, people saw me leave. One of those people was Haeg Mora. Kith don’t lie. If I or someone else ask her for the details, Haeg Mora will give a definitive answer. That she saw you going this way with your bodyguard. It only takes a nugget of truth to get them thinking, and the Haeg can offer that truth.”
“So you’re just as slimy as everyone thinks you are, Caspar,” Esmenet said. “But perhaps you’re right. Perhaps I loathe the court. I haven’t cared about the scandal now, why should I care if it comes to life?”
Caspar glanced between the two, “That scandal, given enough fuel, would separate you from your bodyguard. You grew up together. He must be like a brother to you, I imagine.”
“I could break him,” Linos said.
“Same issue as killing me. It’ll get people thinking.”
“As blackmail goes, this is flimsy at best,” Esmenet said.
“You could maneuver around it,” Caspar said. “Turn things back on me, even. But you won’t. Because I’m right. You want peace and quiet, before you’re married off to someone to further your father’s interests or keep the inner court in the hands of the inner court. It’s easier to sign over the notes.”
“Giving you an escape route, if things go sour?”
“It’s something,” he said.
“Linos?” she asked. She gestured, but he was too slow to see what the gesture was.
Linos struck him. A fist larger than Caspar’s head sank into his broad stomach. He doubled over, and Linos caught him before he could fall.
“I suppose I have to accept,” Esmenet said. “Again.”
He flinched, but it did no good. Putting his arms in the way of the incoming strike only served to get his arms bruised, very nearly getting them broken.
“You showed your hand. You’re desperate enough you can’t leverage your threat against me in retaliation. Again, Linos.”
Caspar managed a choked scream before Linos hit in a third time.
“I’ll send the notes to you by courier tonight,” she said. “Is that fine?”
Caspar nodded quickly.
“Very good,” Lady Esmenet said.
Linos propped him up against the railing, then used a large thumb to wipe at the dribble of spit that had leaked from the corner Caspar’s mouth.
Caspar hadn’t even caught his breath when Linos hit him again. He doubled over and tumbled to the ground, in too much pain to even groan.
“I didn’t order that one,” Esmenet said. She sounded further away. She was leaving.
“That one was mine,” Linos commented.
Caspar picked himself up. Twice, in the process of getting to his feet, he was utterly frozen by the wrenching pain that gripped him.
He did what he could to dust himself off, moving with a glacial speed, and then made his way up the stairs. He couldn’t bring himself to move at a regular pace, leading him to raise one foot to a stair, then raising the other foot to that same stair.
He was halfway up when he saw Klaros.
“Advice for you,” Caspar managed, huffing. “If you’re going to spy, you don’t want to be seen by the one you’re spying on.”
“I do not spy. I watch.”
“Very good,” Caspar said. “How much did you see?”
“You love this girl.”
“In the spirit of Kith honesty,” Caspar grunted, “I do and have. For far too long.”
“Yet you coerce her? Threaten her?”
Caspar shook his head. He couldn’t explain, because it hurt too much to talk, and because he wasn’t sure he could explain it.
He’d blackmailed her because he cared. The note went both ways. If she signed it over, it made it clear a transaction had taken place. He could leverage it, both the date she signed it and the date he received the courier’s scrip, to show that he’d been in Esmenet’s company.
It took a note of truth to get a scandal going. A note of truth could stop one. There were enough days where Lady Esmenet wasn’t where she was supposed to be, where he’d been absent too. When she wasn’t at the Alltemple, he was on the balcony, placed well out of sight.
He had evidence they’d met and interacted, the rest of a fiction could be spun from there. If someone leveled slander at her, accusing her of an affair with her Kith bodyguard, Caspar could refute it.
More would need to be done, to make it more solid, and to ensure it worked, but he was quietly confident.
He couldn’t get her out of the cage that trapped them both, but he could maybe act to save her nonetheless.
Stupid, reckless, when he couldn’t necessarily save himself. When she didn’t want to be saved. But he’d once believed in what he saw when he looked at someone too hard, and as a young boy in love for the first time, he’d turned it on Esmenet.
He’d stopped believing, that day. If only because he didn’t want there to be any truth in what he’d seen.
“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.
Note: I went ahead and started Pact. Click the link to visit the next story.
Fade to black. Roll credits.
Alright, that sounds pretty damn pretentious. But Worm is over. It’s been in motion for two and a half years, two updates a week. Readers have joined, hopping on from forums, wiki-walking their way in from TV tropes, getting recommendations from other authors. For most, for many, reading Worm became something of a routine. As serials go, there’s been a lot of material released at a fast pace.
For me, well, I’m a little spooked at the idea of what happens when you’re at the helm of something like this and it stops.
This isn’t about me, though. There’s room for talking about that later. It’s about you, the reader, and the continuation of the reading experience, and it’s about Worm, and the continuation of that.
The Reading Experience
The Tuesday-Sat Schedule continues. I went into this in the FAQ, but not many read that, and the plan has changed just a smidge.
For the coming few weeks, I’ll be previewing the works I’m thinking about writing. I listed a wad in Worm’s FAQ, and I’ve pared down the list to the ones I feel most confident about. Keeping in mind these are placeholder titles, the stories are:
Body Boil (Biopunk)
Pact (Horror/Modern Supernatural)
With 1-3 chapters previewed of each (I’m aiming for 2, but will go for 3 if pacing demands it, and will stop at 1 if the reaction is negative enough), I can expect to wrap up around the New Year. If it’s required, I’ll take an update day to get the site for the new story set up. For the most part, however, I want to keep to my schedule (acknowledging the family difficulties that make writing hardest around Christmas). It’s just how I function best.
Stories will be previewed here, to keep Worm sacrosanct and unpolluted. The next story will be set up on a different site altogether, once it gets underway.
Pay attention to this blog to see the previews.
So let me start out by saying I have no idea what happens in the coming few weeks. This is subject to change. This is a beast of a thing, really, considering Worm is ~22 conventional books in length and the degree of support/involvement from outside parties can really determine how this might go.
To put it succinctly, there are a few hurdles here.
Editing is the big one. I’ve never done anything like this, so I hesitate to make promises. This is all estimation.
I’m estimating that Worm will take two and a half years to edit. That’s perhaps a little conservative. I know how much free time I have, I know I want to keep writing instead of stopping to go back and fix stuff up (people who’ve read about why I started serializing in the first place may understand this), and I know from being in a writer’s circle roughly how long editing takes me. I did editing for the first third of a circle-member’s book, and it’s surprising just how difficult it can be. I’m a fast reader and a prolific writer, but editing is a different beast altogether.
Two years and six months, but that will change depending on the amount of free time I have. I don’t want this to sound manipulative or greedy, because I don’t think I am manipulative or greedy like that… I’m more interested in putting all of the cards on the table; the amount of donations I have received and will receive will affect how long it takes to get a published version of Worm out there, because it makes the difference in my being able to write and my having to go find/do work in another job (and consequently having less days to write).
The estimate presumes I can find roughly two days a week to go over old material, to read comments and refresh myself on what people thought, find typos I missed, restructure and rewrite. I would be aiming for roughly an arc a month. That’s on top of 2-3 days a week spent on the actual writing.
There are three major areas where I feel like I want to rewrite and restructure in a major way, and there are a few underlying problems I want to fix.
- The Timeskip – I’m thinking I’ll rewrite it wholesale. Events will remain the same, but Taylor’s story really demands more focus on this point in time. The fundamental problem with the story arc was that we jumped ahead 1.5 years and it was rushed. It was jarring due to the switch from a day-to-day focus to skipping months and weeks over the course of six or so chapters. I’m thinking I’ll break it up into two new arcs. One would likely consist of interludes (many of the same events of Taylor’s story, from the perspective of her teammates/superiors), to help the timeskip segue. More involvement with her new team, and more focus on her and her changes (or lack of change). This would mandate some time being set aside to put the new chapters together.
- The Beginning – I was a different author when I started Worm, with less experience and knowledge. Worm is widely seen as having an ‘ok’ start and a ‘great’ middle (and end? Feedback is mixed on that). I want to pick up the pace and address some of the issues people have had where they got turned off very early on.
- The Bumps – Writing a serial, you have good days and bad. A few bad days in a row, and you get a piece of the story that you look back on and you cringe. I won’t get too into this here, but there are chapters people have grumbled about, ones they didn’t think were as good as they could’ve been. I’m hoping to redo these things.
- Outside of the topic of individual chapters/arcs that didn’t ‘take’, I’m hoping to reconcile the tempo of the story. Too much happens in too short a span of time, and I’d like to make it so that the story covers a wider span of time without breaking up the events or the tension. If that makes the story a bit longer, maybe I can cut out redundant stuff to compensate. If it allows for just a bit more time focused on Taylor’s time in Brockton Bay, just before she leaves, then that isn’t bad either – I’d like to explore that just a little bit more.
There’s a lot to do. Worm is first-draft stuff, and thinking I can get away with only a second draft may be reckless. I’d rather do it right than do it fast.
If there’s interest, I’d be open to play-by-plays; using this blog, perhaps, to reopen discussion on a particular arc, revisit it with fans and discuss the weak points and strong points, so I don’t lose sight of the core of it. I can’t promise to show off the polished chapters as they go up, but if people want to get involved, I can show snippets to those individuals to get feedback on the rewrites.
Beyond the editing, there are other questions in terms of where to end books (which is sort of editing) and in terms of finances (which isn’t). On the former front, I have ideas, but that’s a tricky thing to hammer out. On the latter, it comes down to reader support, outside parties and possibly kickstarters to get stuff going.
There will, barring exceptional circumstance, be an ebook.
Print books are harder, in the order of tens of thousands of dollars to get stuff going. But I had ten thousand readers at Worm’s peak , roughly, so perhaps that’s doable.
A special limited-edition run is, if enough interest is shown, very possible.
Worm, Follow-up Works
I’m hoping and planning to do a Worm sequel down the road. I can’t say much more than that. I want to take a break from it, so the original Worm can have an end, and so the sequel can have a beginning. Too close together, and they start to blend into one another.
That said, it’s very possible that I could offer bonus material, side stories and chapters, depending on what happens with the next book(s) I write. Feedback matters, here.
I can’t say much more than that at this point, because that’s about all I know.
Staying in Touch
With that, we’ve pretty much covered the bases. Maybe you won’t like the genre or focus of the next work. Maybe you were dissatisfied at the end, and you were just holding out until the last chapter to be able to say you finished it. Hopefully that isn’t the case.
I’m spooked at the idea that some of my readers are going to walk away, and my next story won’t have quite the same number. I accept it, though, and I can only do my best and hope that I keep getting support and recommendations. Thank you, to my critics and fans alike, for sticking with the story this far.
If you do want to keep following along, then that starts with checking out the sample chapters. Thank you, and I look forward to seeing you in the comment section.
If you don’t aim to keep following my work, but you remain interested in what happens with Worm, note the subject line below and email me at Wildbowpig [at] gmail [dot] com, filling in the symbol & punctuation mark appropriately. (I have to write it that way to help confuse the bots that trawl WordPress for emails to spam).
Include the subject line ‘WormSequelNews’ (all one word) if you want to be notified when things are underway with the sequel.
Include the subject line ‘WormPublishNews’ (all one word) if you want to be emailed when the ebook/print books are out, for kickstarters or anything of the sort.
Include the subject line ‘WormNews’ (again, one word) for both.
I’ll also have any news and updates on this blog and in the comments of my new stories.
End of an era, it feels like.
I can’t think of a graceful way to wrap this up, so let me say thank you. Thank you for your support. Thank you for reading. I never could’ve done this without you.
This chapter is also a milestone on a metafictional level. […] Wildbow, you mention that the average length of a chapter is around 1800-2800 words. Compare that to Interlude 24, which is many times the length. It’s also, I think, better quality. You also talk a lot less about your writing process now than you did here. It seems like putting out content is less of an ordeal now, or at least more mundane.
I don’t know how often you reflect on how far you’ve progressed as a writer, but, if I may be so bold, now might be a good time to take a moment.
The length of a Worm chapter, as of the time of this writing, ranges from 6k to 10k words. For comparison, a shortish (240 page) novel is about 60,000 words. At 2.6 chapters a week, I’m just about writing a book every month. A monthly NaNoWriMo, for those familiar with the event.
When I started, I was looking at the other web serials out there, I checked the average word count and then tried to fit myself to it. I was probably doing myself more harm than good. To fit those wordcounts, I had to force the cliffhangers, I had to twist my own arm to make the chapter end at the ‘appropriate’ times.
Having longer chapters takes time, but it also gives me elbow room for plot twists, characterization, themes and atmosphere. It’s less confining. Some of that stuff comes much more naturally to me now than it did. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s easier to get chapters done now, but I’m a hell of a lot happier with what I’m producing, and a hell of a lot happier with where I’m at as a whole.
The key thing at the heart of that? The underlying paradigm has changed.
Here’s the thing – in December 2011, I was in school. Still in school, I should say. I was pretty miserable, to put it lightly. I had zero idea where I wanted to go in life, I hadn’t found the passion that my dad (founder of a small business), mom (speech and listening therapist) and brother (human rights advocate, now aspiring lawyer and a father/homeowner) have found. It’s a hard thing, to be surrounded by people who want me to have what they have, and I’d been looking fruitlessly for years, trying different courses for years in hopes of finding that one vocation that spoke to me. I’d found what interested me (Applied Language and Discourse Studies), but I couldn’t even conceive myself working a nine-to-five at any particular job, whether it was in that field or otherwise.
My writing, at that point, was little more than an experiment. Worm was a way to break a bad habit in my writing, where I’d keep going back to revise something until I burned out on it. The idea was for the serial/blog format to keep me moving forward, my expectation was for a small audience, 15-20 comments on a chapter was a good day. At the time, I was only getting about 200 daily views on average, a far cry from where I am now:
My goal, then, was a simple one. I thought maybe I’d work a dead-end job I was miserable at, and maybe I’d have the time to do the things I enjoyed on the side. It meant I’d work full time at being a filing clerk or janitor or stockboy or housepainter, and then go home to play video games and write. Except I wasn’t even there, because finding a job was proving fruitless.
But I had a talk with my dad on New Years. A great talk. He’s often raised the idea of finding the kind of career in something you’d be doing for free anyways. That night, we talked about it from a different angle. What would I get paid for, if I could get paid to do something I enjoy?
“Writing,” I eventually answered.
My follow-up protest, then, was about the fact that the bar was set so high. Only 1% of people who write books really ‘make it’. It’s very similar for artists, for actors, for musicians.
He asked me, if I’m recalling correctly, “So?”
It was a good talk, covering that and a lot of other points, including school. It wasn’t the easiest talk, probably not for either of us, but it meant the world to me. Still does.
And the end result was that I threw myself into the writing. Once I got my feet under me, I steadily raised my expectations for myself, started paying more attention to the core of the story, reading about writing, and more.
I started to write as though I already had that full-time job as a writer.
A few months after that discussion with my dad, I set a minimum of 4k words for my chapters. I also set up the donation meter, which has been my primary source of income.
My fundamental beliefs haven’t changed, as far as writing. I still like being surprised by the work. To have that moment in the midst of writing a sentence where you get an idea you’d never have had if your fingers weren’t at the keyboard, pen on the page. A character concept, a turn of phrase, a brilliant maneuver. Approaching the end, I know what happens, but I don’t know how the protagonist will get out of it.
If anything’s changed, really, it’s my focus as a writer, my expectations of myself.
I note, in the comments of Hive 5.10, that I was considering a vanity publisher like Lulu.com. I realized vanity publishers were something of a rip-off. A little while after that, I thought about a small publisher like 1889 labs instead. Good guys, they did Jim Zoeteway’s Legion of Nothing book(s).
Except now I’m thinking more about going a harder road, with higher expectations. I’m aware that Captive Prince, another popular and well reviewed serial, was approached and acquired by Penguin Books, and have wondered if there are publishers lurking in the wings and waiting for Worm to conclude before they decide if they want to do the same. A reader (who has sponsored a short story anthology before) has talked about donating the money needed for a print run of the series.
Will I stake my hopes and dreams on those possibilities? No. Would I snap up those deals in a heartbeat? Even then, probably not. I’d have to give it some thought, and be very careful.
It’d be nice, though.
The thing is, I’m confident enough that I think I could manage on my own, that I might get something off the ground with the money I’ve earned from donations (even if it means postponing moving to a quieter, more comfortable spot), even try a kickstarter (or, more likely, a series of kickstarters) to make the print run happen. It’s expensive, even mind boggling, but the confidence is there.
That’s the big stuff. Spooky stuff in terms of scope and all that.
Setting expectations lower, maybe I just end up releasing an ebook and it barely sells, but I can continue writing and hopefully drawing in enough donations to keep writing.
On a simpler level, I’m clearing my schedule two or three times a week, sitting down for 12-14 hour days and plugging away at a keyboard to produce a series of chapters that are 6-10k words long. There’s ups and downs, I have good days and bad, some chapters need revising, but I’m slowly inching towards that end goal – to make a (very) modest living off the writing alone.
I think I’m already at a point above the average self-published author. The average earning for an author on a 60-130k word book is about $500. Yes. I’m writing about 50k words every month, and I’m making more than that. My readers make that possible, and I’m insanely, incredibly grateful. I hope I never lose that gratitude, lose sight of the fact that my readers make it possible. Just the other day, someone who’d posted in a forum to recommend Worm to people (drawing in 20+ people to check out the story) was thanking me for poking my head in to comment and answer questions.
It’s like, are you crazy? I owe you guys.
That confidence, as anyone who chats with me in the minutes before a chapter goes live knows, isn’t universal. I’ve lost objectivity, over time. It’s harder to gauge the quality of my own work or the audience expectation, now. The work is bigger, the range of opinions broader, the material is rooted in more previous stuff. Every arc, it seems, I get a small handful of readers who decide that that chapter with dialogue is the straw that broke the camel’s back in a story they view as having too much dialogue. That chapter is just too much action when the story should be moving forward. Most often, that chapter is the breaking point in terms of the story and the setting getting too dark. They announce their dissatisfaction and walk away.
Maybe the story got just a little too long for its own good. A smaller work, it ends before people reach their limit in any department. I like that Worm sprawls. But long works have their issues, like a protagonist that looks like she has plot armor, because the fact that she’s alive when she’s faced so many difficulties strains belief, just a little.
Logically? I know I’ve built something, and it would take something more dramatic to destroy it. But I spent a long, long time with very little confidence in myself, and I can’t help but feel that I’m sitting on a soap bubble. Is this chapter the one that has my audience realize I’m nothing special? Is this where my audience disappears on me?
So I sort of bite my nails, in a way, any time a chapter goes live. Every word of praise, every review and donation and mention on another site rebuilds that confidence I’ve so masterfully reduced to shreds in the 45 minutes between the point I finish proofreading and the point the readers first comment.
A running theme in Worm is that the sheer power that superpowers bring to the world has made the brights brighter and the darks darker. I kind of feel like that, now. Big scale or small, and it’s only going to get more dramatic: I’m on the precipice of entering the story’s conclusion, with chapters I’ve been nervous about releasing since 2011. There’s a billion loose ends to tie up, and it’s daunting, as I’m on the precipice of finishing Worm and seeing if the story passes muster. That’s without even touching on the subject of starting the next series and facing all of the doubts and concerns and more that come with releasing a new chapter, magnified a thousand times over.
The peaks are higher, the valleys lower, the lights are brighter, the shadows deeper. I’m terrified and excited and hopeful and pessimistic all at once. But I feel alive, and this little experiment/troubleshooting exercise has become something I’m definitely passionate about.
A post of mine from Reddit just got showcased on Shutupandwrite.net. Nothing too major.
I doubt there’s any new information for my followers in there – much of it’s fairly intuitive. It’s just me talking about the serial genre, introducing it to authors looking to get some motivation. Serial writing, as I say in the latter half of the post, was what broke me out of a ten year writer’s block (though I’ve since come to see it as an issue with my process than a true block).
Also, I submitted a tidbit to Epiguide, who’re doing a podcast on web serials. It’s not much (a recap), but there’s a bit of a preview for what’s coming down the road, depending on what they decide to use. They’re recording this weekend, editing over the following week, and expect to release something on the 10th or 11th.
Edit: Link here.
No idea where to begin, so I’m going to jump in the deep end here.
Cause and effect. Action, reaction. It’s something I’ve seen discussed in some depth in a number of visual mediums, but less so with prose.
An action prompts an equal and opposite reaction.
A dissonance in that simple, central dynamic can be either a powerful tool or a horrific flaw in the writing.
Let’s talk about the issues first. Without getting into too much detail (which would be a breach of implied confidentiality) something came up recently in a work I was critiquing. I went over a chapter, where a character was assaulted in the street, mugged, their possessions scattered on the ground. The character was hurt, abused and humiliated, but bystanders didn’t step forward to help them. In the wake of the event, the character argued with someone, collected their scattered belongings and made their way to the nearest phone, where they explained that they were mugged.
The cause and effect don’t line up. Being mugged, fearing for one’s life, being injured, there should be a degree of shock, but cogent arguments and an explanation of what happened hint at a fairly firm mental footing, where the character would be justified in being mentally and emotionally off-kilter. This was a character that had probably never been in a real fight, facing an assault that was unexpected and brutal.
Is that kind of reaction always a bad thing? No. Consider the same scenario, but add context. The character might be a veteran or a spy, unruffled by something that’s comparatively minor to the risks to their life they face every day. It could be a powerful device, or a framing for a chapter where the character is abused by bystanders, only to turn around and get revenge in a cold, calculating way.
One shouldn’t forget that the action can (or should!) prompt both a mental and physical reaction.
The flip side of the issue is something that came up in a piece of fanfiction that was sent my way for me to check over. Based on my ‘Worm’ web novel series, it included a famous, respected and feared character within the setting crossing paths with the protagonist. The protagonist runs, manages to slip away briefly, then gets cornered. My complaint was simple – for someone held to this degree of esteem, powerful in every sense of the word, it didn’t fit.
A ‘how to draw comics’ book I read as a teenager covered this issue in a very simple way. You depict one character punching another. Assuming they’re ordinary people, a simple punch generates an appropriate reaction; the person on the receiving end staggers, his face contorting in pain, arms spreading out for balance. If the one delivering the punch is particularly strong, the reaction is out of sync with the blow delivered: the puncher doesn’t even adopt a particular stance, they thrust out one fist, their back straight, eyes not even focused on their target, and the reaction is the same, with the stagger, a face contorted in pain, arms spreading out for balance. Scale up the strength of the attacker to an extreme, and you have someone flicking their finger at a subject, only to generate a geyser of blood, shattered bone and muscle.
The flip side is equally true. A punch, with the puncher in a typical fighting stance, their body drawn in such a way as to show the flow of the movement, the sheer force behind the swing, and the punchee flinches, but doesn’t show pain, doesn’t lose their balance. At the extreme end, you have the weapon hitting harder and the punchee not even blinking. An early scene in Superman Returns film employs this technique, with Superman taking a bullet to the ball of his eye and not even reacting.
In prose, the visual impact is lost, but there’s still room to employ the technique. Maybe more room, in a sense.
People with power can generate the same big effects with small actions, and it’s not limited to beating people up. As a flick of a finger from a person of incredible physical power might do devastating damage, a single word from a person with political power could crush a kingdom. A person with social power could ostracise or doom someone with a gesture or body language. A person with skill can achieve more with less effort. This applies on a number of levels.
Imagine the effect when a person entering a room is enough to quiet arguments, to cow the more bullheaded and stubborn people present, and take the fight out of his or her potential opponents. Simply by being there, they express their innate power.
The inherent power of the character can also be expressed through the medium of the work. For those who don’t know, I studied Applied Language and Discourse in university. I love the moments when I can talk about how the author interacts with the work (the process of writing) or the audience (the cues in the writing that communicate something to the audience without spelling it out in the text), and how the work interacts with the audience in indirect ways. I could go on about this for days, but I’ll throw out one example instead: imagine if, instead of the simple appearance of a character simply bringing conversation and interaction in a room to a screeching halt, their arrival end the chapter?
Or the entire story arc?
Action: making an appearance. Reaction: the entire story stops, for however long it takes the reader to turn the next (or next few) pages.
One has to keep in mind that this implication of power is a fragile thing. The moment the joke character Squirrel Girl gets the better of Thanos, the big bad of the setting, Thanos’ carefully constructed aura of power is shattered. The illusion is broken, the spell ended.
If this happens too often, you get what TV Tropes calls the Worf Effect. In Star Trek:TNG, Commander Worf was depicted as a big, strong Klingon, a crew member on board the Enterprise. But when the time comes for someone to show off their sheer strength, it’s invariably by beating up Worf (typically throwing him ten feet, whereupon he collapses to the ground, unconscious). The idea is an expression of what I described above. If you hit the toughest person in the room once and he’s out cold, you must be strong!
But poor Worf’s durability and toughness are simultaneously worn down by this repeated abuse.
And such was my problem with the fanfiction I mentioned above. Every little thing counts when you’re building that aura of power. The established powerhouse comes across as just a little less stoic if they’re wounded by the new character’s rapier wit, a little less durable if they reel from a blow, a little stupider if the new character successfully eludes them, if even for a while.
In brief: keep in mind that anything that can be used to build an atmosphere of power simultaneously does the opposite when reversed.