Chapter 9: Opportunities Arise
The poppy seed pastries arrived, and Clarissa set them on the table before hurrying downstairs. Customers were entering the tavern at an alarming rate.
Cesaro unbuttoned a pocket on the inside of his coat, and Herald hopped out, fluttering onto the table. The bird cocked its head, examining the pastries, then began eating the sunflower seeds on top, stopping only to drink some of the condensation on the outside of Cesaro’s second beer. Jessica continued staring below, maintaining silence.
Since the transformation, six of the more wealthy customers had purchased rounds for the entire floor. A tight circle had formed around the winged performer, people ushering close to stroke his wings, a well known source of luck and fortune. Word quickly spread outside the tavern, drawing people in from the street and giving Gemini’s it’s most successful night in years.
The circle around the performer broke only to let a woman pass, her back bent with age and placing her well below the average height of the crowd. She slowly pressed her way through the crowd, escorted by one of the female performers.
“Mother!” shouted the performer when he saw her. He spread his arms wide and picked her up, fresh tears on his cheeks.
“My son,” she whispered, then yelled louder for the bar to hear, louder than Jessica thought possible for her frame. “My son!”
The tavern cheered, the applause deafening, and two more customers stepped forward to empty and distribute their stock of beer.
“You’ll teach me how to do that?” asked Jessica, still watching the mass below.
“That, and so much more,” said Cesaro with a slow nod.
“Why me? Why not someone else?”
“Half of the difficulty in creating a team is finding the right players, Jessica. I only recruit the best. And you, dear, you can become the best. I have ears, ears like Herald in every city of Corpia. Ears listening for talent like your own.”
“What exactly will I do as your apprentice?”
“All sorts of things, dear. Each task geared at your own personal development—an investment in your growth. You’ll be one of my personal agents, compensated handsomely I assure you. Compensated to help people, in return for their payment or favors. And sometimes for the good of the deed itself.”
“Like that?” she said, gesturing below.
“Precisely like that.”
They were interrupted as a man climbed to the level of their platform, his full black suit made from fine silk and reflecting the candlelight. He bowed low to Cesaro, then Jessica, exposing the top of his balding head.
“Cesaro! How could you not tell me you were coming to my establishment? I had hoped you would check in after the, erm, trouble six years ago. We cannot express our full gratitude.”
“Please, Migu, it was nothing. A mere extension of friendship,” said Cesaro, with a smile.
“Again, we cannot thank you enough. Tonight is free for you and the lady—anything you would like, food or drink or service. Clarissa has been assigned to your table alone to account for your needs. And of course your position at the high nest is compensated.”
“Your generosity speaks over your words, Migu. And if you should ever fall into trouble again, you know how to reach me.”
“Of course, Cesaro. Of course. I’ll be off now, I wouldn’t want to interrupt your evening any further. And we are having quite a busy night.”
He bowed again, leaving a rose on the table in front of Jessica, and turned to walk back down to the floor below.
“What was that about?” asked Jessica, watching him leave.
“An old favor,” said Cesaro.
Jessica fell silent again, sensing Cesaro would not be elaborating on the subject, and watched the performer twitch the muscles in his back, slowly flapping his wings.
“And what about him? What will he do now? Go to Laddergate?”
“I suppose he’ll continue living his life. His path is open before him. But no, dear,” he laughed, “I doubt he’ll be going to Laddergate. His magical ability has not been increased, rather he has just become more attuned to it. And he won’t be going at his age and social position. You do know the Laddergate admission process, correct?”
“You mean, their tests?”
“No, not the test. Their payment. It’s not a cheap school. In my opinion it’s nearly robbery. Although I suppose they are the best. They do offer a secondary form of payment for those of less fortunate upbringings. They can join the magical guard, owing a time debt for their education from the school. I believe ten years is standard. So unless he happens to find a wealthy sponsor, or our performer is cut out to be a soldier, he will not be attending Laddergate.”
“Oh,” said Jessica, frowning. Surely her father would have paid for Alina to attend Laddergate instead of enlisting her in the guard.
“Yes, I do not anticipate that he would attend Laddergate,” said Cesaro as the performer spread his wings and walked to the center of the semicircle, the crowd around him stepping backward. He crouched, then launched himself upward, his wings catching the air as he strained his newfound muscles and propelled himself upwards. His voice carried over the city as he whooped, soaring through the hole where the roof should have been, and joined the stars.
“But you, my dear, you will.”
Chapter 10: The Proposal
“Thank you, thank you most kindly for your invitation to dinner. You truly run an impressive estate, Scott. The gardens rival those of Adrea in their beauty, which, as you know, is no small accomplishment. And Mary, the food is simply delectable,” Cesaro said, and he took another bite of the pheasant on his plate, smeared with a candied apple glaze. In typical Liseran fashion, a mountain of bread adorned the center of the table, several of the loaves and pastries from Lisera’s own bakeries while others were creations from Mary’s own kitchen.
“Thank you for your politeness, Cesaro,” said Jessica’s father. “Now Jessica mentioned you had a sort of proposal for us—a proposal concerning my daughter?”
“Indeed I do,” said Cesaro. “Your daughter, well, she is simply one of the most talented individuals I have ever met.”
“Is she?” asked Jessica’s father, his brow furrowing. From across the table, Alina stopped eating, and turned her attention to Cesaro.
“Indeed. I was quite stunned when I noticed her in the marketplace, and now, well, I feel it is my interest, no, my obligation, to see her further educated. To allow a skill like that to lie fallow would be just short of a crime.”
“And what, exactly, is this gift of hers?”
“I didn’t know that you were one for jokes, Scott,” Cesaro laughed, looking around the table as Alina’s eyes narrowed and Jessica’s mother’s and father’s faces turned blank, then let his laugh die into silence. “Oh, you truly don’t know? It has been under your noses all this time, and I, a mere stranger, noticed? Fate is fickle indeed. Scott, your daughter is magnificently skilled in sums. The best I’ve ever seen.”
Across the table, Alina choked on her roll, almost spitting it out onto the table while trying to contain her laughter.
If only you knew, thought Jessica, biting the inside of her lip as her sister’s face reddened. For a moment, she almost blurted out the secret, almost bleached the smirk straight off Alina’s face. But then she remembered Cesaro’s words just before they left Gemini’s.
“It appears the pastries were not as good as Clarissa promised,” said Cesaro, as Herald returned to his coat pocket. The bird had eaten all the sunflower and poppy seeds from the top of the dish, but had left the grain portion untouched. “Herald is quite the picky connoisseur. His taste is a little too pretentious if you ask me, but the bird knows his breads.” From the inside of Cesaro’s pocket, Herald chirped.
“So if I do decide to become your apprentice – I’m not saying I am, I’m just saying if – you’ll cover the cost of my entire education? And in return, I’ll have to serve you? How long will I have to be one of your agents?”
“My dear, you don’t have to do anything. I will supply the necessary funds for you to attend Laddergate, and at the end of your education, you will be given the option to become an agent. I would feel it necessary to forbid you from serving another entity, such as the magical guard, but I sincerely doubt that temptation would arise.”
“So you’re saying,” said Jessica slowly, making sure she framed her words correctly, “that I can attend Laddergate, entirely at your expense, and I owe you nothing?”
“And there’s no catch? No contract that I have to sign?”
“None at all, my dear. Except, actually, there is one, but I doubt you will find it disagreeable. Your family shall not know of your education. And you shall go by another name, another identity at Laddergate.”
“Why?” asked Jessica.
“There are those who find the work I do contrary to their own motives, Jessica. Those who would take pleasure in finding a way to hurt me, or those close to me, through any means possible. I assure you, however, that with the proper precautions they will be rendered powerless through their ignorance.”
“So it’s for my own safety? And the safety of my family?”
“Yes, dear. A nonexistent risk so long as you play by the rules. And rest assured, you will never be in a position where you will be in danger without your knowledge and consent.”
“Father will never agree to it,” she said, “and I’m not leaving them without saying an adequate goodbye.”
“Leave that to me, dear. I can be quite persuasive.”
Jessica paused, feeling her heart beat, aware of Cesaro watching her. Waiting.
She thought of her home, of her mother and father, of Alina. She would be leaving them behind, and despite their disproportionate pride in Alina, they had treated her well. She loved them, even Alina, though sometimes she found it hard to admit it. But from behind those estate walls, she would forever be hiding in Alina’s shadow, and her future blindly dependent upon suitors that may not be interested in an ungifted wife.
And she spoke two words, words that changed her life forever.
Back at the dinner table, Jessica’s mother shot a look at her father, and he spoke.
“Sums, Cesaro? Surely that is not the life of a noble lady.”
“Not here in Lorai, perhaps. But in Lisera they are in high demand, and it is a most respectable profession for a noble woman without, well, without the higher gifts. The courts are run by women working the abacus, and suitors will come from miles around to seek your daughter’s hand. Suitors from influential families that, if you will pardon me for saying so, outstrip the potential that Jessica would have here in Lorai.”
“You wish to take her to Lisera then? I have family there, who can adequately house and care for her while she is educated.”
“Lord no, Scott. No, no, no. Liseran schools, if you will pardon me saying so, are not up to the standard that your daughter deserves. No, I simply will not allow it. Your daughter is destined for Cardinia, the blended city.”
“That’s where Laddergate is!” shouted Alina from the other end of the table, suddenly returning to the conversation.
“Oh, I suppose it is,” replied Cesaro. “I believe they have a high reputation as well, if I recall correctly.”
“I don’t know,” said Jessica’s father, her mother squeezing his hand. “Cardinia is far, and the expense will be great. And I could go years without seeing my daughter, while she is in your care, a man who I have just met.”
“I assure you, Scott, that I am who I say I am. A merchant regulator, sent here by the king of Lisera himself to ensure Lorai is following the customs. I can provide documentation and I urge you to reach out to your contacts in Lisera to confirm my identity. Additionally, I will fund her entire education, upon the stipulation that Jessica will spend two years as my personal apprentice. The networking opportunities and the chances for her to integrate into Liseran nobility during this time period will be greatly accelerated.”
Jessica’s father paused, and Cesaro continued speaking, his voice lowered.
“Scott, I urge you to consider your daughter’s future. One of your daughters is quite gifted, Scott, while the other is at risk of becoming eclipsed. Jessica has potential, and by keeping her here, you will only stunt it. I plead, I implore you, that you release her into my care.”
“What do you have to say about this?” Jessica’s father asked, his gaze now resting on her.
“I want to go,” said Jessica. “You would have let Alina go to Laddergate. It’s only fair.”
“Yes, but Laddergate isn’t a school for summing,” interjected Alina, but Jessica’s father silenced her with harsh look. He sighed, then raised his hands.
“On the condition that your credentials are correct, I concede.”
Cesaro clapped his hands, standing from the table.
“I will be back first thing in the morning with my papers, Scott. I assure you, you have every reason to be proud of your daughter.”
Then he bowed and went to leave the estate, his coattails fluttering in the same way they had when he and Jessica had left their table at Gemini’s. They had stepped outside, and he had wished Jessica farewell, leaving her alone on the street. Then she felt a touch on her elbow and turned to see Migu, his eyes following Cesaro as he meshed into the night.
“Young lady, a word of caution,” said Migu, his voice a whisper before he receded back into the bustling tavern, “make no mistake. Cesaro is a great man, and I believe him to be a good one. But he’s also the most dangerous that I have ever met.”
Chapter 11: A Race for Life
**5 Years Later**
Jessica collapsed on her bed, sinking into the down-stuffed mattress and neglecting to close her door, leaving it open to the hallway. Her thighs ached from hours of riding, and she longed for the hot bath that Mariel, one of the many house servants, was preparing in the room next door. She shivered, still wet from the rain that had poured from the sky for the last two hours of her journey, and sighed as she felt moisture seeping into the quilt beneath her.
With a groan she sat up, removing her outer coat, which contained the majority of the water, and dropping it to the hardwood floor where it fell with a plop, generating a puddle around itself. She shook out her hair, creating her own miniature rainstorm, flinging droplets around the room. She flicked her right hand behind her ear and a warm breeze started to flow behind her, starting to dry the hair still plastered to her scalp. She held it for a moment, feeling the heat start to permeate into her neck, before there was a rustling at her desk across the room and several letters blew to the floor.
“Seriously?” asked Jessica to the empty room, and released her hold on the breeze, standing to collect the fallen letters. She knew the breeze had not been worth it—it would be more trouble to maintain than it would have been useful, but she could have ignored that in another moment of indulgence.
Picking up the letters from the floor, she checked for any new ones among those that had followed her in the five years since leaving Lorai. So far, nothing. As was to be expected, considering the tone of her father’s recent letters when she had refused to return home permanently.
She set them back on her desk next to a small statue of a falcon in flight, the only remaining artifact she had from home, given to her by her father as she bade him farewell outside the family estate.
“Remember, Jessica,” he said, pushing the stone figure into her hand, “above all else, you are a Falcon, and we will always be proud of you for that.”
“Thank you, Father,” she said, embracing him then turning away before he could see her eyes water. Then she buried her face in her mother, who held the back of her head, and let the tears fall into her dress. She turned, unable to say any more goodbyes, and followed Cesaro down the street.
Just before the road split, she whipped around, taking in her estate one last time.
“I’ll make you proud, Father!” she shouted. Just before she turned from the estate one last time, she saw Alina waving goodbye from her upstairs window, though her sister had not come downstairs for the farewells. Raising her hand slowly, she waved back.
Back in her room, Jessica picked up the falcon, shining it with the corner of a tissue she kept on the desk for that purpose.
“Would you be proud, if you knew?” she whispered, placing the falcon back in its place and using the same tissue to dust the honorary Laddergate diploma that she had framed beside it.
“Miss,” said a voice from behind her, and Jessica jumped, nearly dropping the frame to the floor.
“Sorry, miss,” said Mariel, “I didn’t mean to surprise you.”
Surprised from behind—I must truly be exhausted, thought Jessica, and then looked back to the Falcon, or distracted.
“It’s fine, Mariel,” she said, facing the servant, a girl only a few years younger than herself armed with an apron and feather duster. “I take it my bath is ready?”
“No, miss,” she answered. “And I would have dusted those for you, had you allowed it. It’s no extra work for me, miss. But no, the master calls.”
“Already?” said Jessica, her shoulders falling. “Can’t it wait? I just got back.”
“He says it’s most urgent, miss, otherwise he wouldn’t have summoned you back here.”
“Alright, I’m coming,” said Jessica, “but he can at least wait for me to put on dry clothes.”
She stripped then opened her closet doors, where fifteen separate outfits awaited her, each pressed, stainless, and awaiting her touch. Selecting a green dress that fell to her knees, she threw it over her head, unaware of Mariel’s look of dismay as the as the dress became soaked by the rest of her body. No shoes, she decided—if she was going to be summoned in this rude of a fashion, she would forego the formality.
She strode into the hallway, leaving Mariel to her room, and taking the red velvet staircase barefooted down to the ground floor. She crossed the tiles that made up the foyer, the black-and-white-swirled marble like icicles against her feet, took a side door to shortcut through the kitchens, and arrived in the study.
In the five years since she had accepted Cesaro’s apprenticeship, she had failed to see signs of aging upon him. gray hairs had not yet managed to take an inch of territory from the black ones, and no new wrinkles dug trenches across his face. He still carried his cane, and he still limped, age having neither cured nor cursed the ailment that plagued his leg.
He was standing when she entered, behind a rack of sixteen candles on his desk. She felt the magic around them, cords of force lines surrounding each like a knot of metal wire ready to explode outward, embedding themselves deep into the wax and containing a touch of each element, but a backbone of Life.
“Jessica, please, take a seat,” he said, gesturing to an empty chair.
“Is this necessary, Cesaro? Can’t it wait until morning?”
“No, it cannot wait. In fact, it has already waited. I have stalled too long to inform you of the gravity of the matter at hand, and I can only hope that it is not too late.”
“Apparently not, because I’m still wet from walking in the gate.”
“Jessica,” said Cesaro, his voice low and his eyes flashing, “had I not deemed it necessary, I would not have summoned you. Return to your room if you wish to act childish.”
He waited, watching her stiffen before his gaze, then continued.
“Twenty years ago, Jessica, one of my agents died intercepting a list. This list contained sixteen names, names which I did not recognize, and I feared he may have given his life in vain. For the last eighteen years, I kept the list, forgetting about it until just two years ago. You’re familiar with Princess Amelia, correct?”
“The Boulderer princess who died two years back? I remember her. Other students at Laddergate knew her—they even held a small funeral. Tragic.”
“Tragic indeed. She was in a carriage accident: a crazed horse ran straight off a bridge through a reinforced steel guardrail, and she plummeted two hundred feet to her death. The horse had been bred in a pure line for several hundred years for its obedience, and was in the service of the royal family for years without so much as a nervous tick. Amelia died in an accident, that most surely, was no accident. And her full name, dear, was the first name on my precious list.”
“So you think that someone killed her on purpose?”
“I know someone killed her on purpose. Look here, Jessica, to the candles before you. Each one of these candles represents a human life. I constructed these candles with the utmost care two years ago, enchanting each with the name, the identity, of a specific person on that list. I set each one alight, and they burned. So long as each life they represented lived, the flame would not go out. Tell me, Jessica, how many of these candles are lit?”
“None,” she answered, and her eyes widened. “They all died in the last two years? Every one of them?”
“Exactly, dear. One by one, whether by supposed accident or brutal murder,” he blew where the candle flames used to be, extinguishing an invisible flame, “their owners all perished.”
“So someone had a vengeance list? They wanted to settle a score?”
“A logical conclusion,” said Cesaro, “except for one important fact.”
“None of the people on the list were born twenty years ago. They were marked for death before they existed.”
“How was the list formed then? Revenge can’t be the motive, at least not against the named people themselves. You’re sure they didn’t deserve to die from some wrong in the past?”
“Does a four-year-old girl, poisoned by the bar of soap in her bath, screaming in pain for four hours while her parents can do nothing to save her, deserve to die?” asked Cesaro.
“Oh God,” said Jessica. “I didn’t realize—”
“You judged,” interrupted Cesaro, his voice rising. “Just two days ago her candle went out, Jessica. A lone flame among the extinguished candles, with fifteen of my agents dedicated to protecting her, and it was snuffed out by an imaginary wind as if they weren’t even there. Just yesterday I heard of this event, and my fears were confirmed. If you look closely, you can still see the smoke rising from the candle. It does that until the body is buried.”
She didn’t look, but she picked up the faint scent of smoke in the air.
“But who’s doing this?” asked Jessica.
“I’ll share details with you as we ride,” said Cesaro, “but for now, only one thing is important. Look here, Jessica, as I dim the lights. What do you see?”
Jessica peered at the candle he indicated in the darkness, and she barely, just barely, made out a red glow.
“An ember,” she said.
“An ember,” he breathed. “One last life out of sixteen left to save. That is your mission, Jessica. To save that life. I was never able to get that candle to light, even in the beginning when I first enchanted them, which means one of two things. Either the person behind that candle has been precariously toppling between life and death for two years, at which point it they may already be beyond saving, or one other option. Think, Jessica. What would that be?”
“Your magic can’t reach them,” she said, recalling her lessons on enchantments. “There’s something blocking it, preventing your magic from telling if they are alive or dead, and it’s only picking up a weak life signal.”
“Precisely. And unless our mystery life has been wearing a collar made of vrael or has some enchantments of his own, where exactly would that person be? Think, Jessica.”
“Somewhere magic would be blocked. Oh God,” she said, taking a sharp breath, “Querkus. Who, exactly, was this list intercepted from Cesaro?”
“Yes, I believe him to be in Querkus. The neutral city, where vrael dust is sown into the very ground for miles, muffling all forms of magic so my spell would not be able to reach him.”
“Cesaro, who did you intercept the list from?”
“As I was saying, he must be in the the neutral city, where magic is prohibited not only by nature but by law as well, for the intention of keeping the peace.”
“Cesaro, answer my question.”
Cesaro’s showed no expression as he spoke.
“From the Shadows, the wielders of Darkness and Death. Who, should they kill an innocent in the neutral city, would spark a war that has remained dormant for a hundred years. And who, should we become exposed in fighting them, would likely declare war themselves. Fetch your coat, Jessica. We’ve spoken enough—it’s time to ride. For if they want him dead, we surely want him alive.”
Chapter 12: Querkus
The roots of Querkus stretched deep. Deep below the almost-too-carefully planned grid of streets, below the taverns, the whorehouses, and the palace, under the layers of grime accumulated from centuries of use and millennia of disuse, the roots smashed through the bedrock in a dizzying array of corridors and catacombs waiting to trap even the most careful of explorers. Where these tunnels stretched their fingers toward the surface, their entryways were boarded up and sealed, only to have the cement barring their holes crack within weeks, and the wood splinter within the year.
It wasn’t the noise that drove the citizens of Querkus to close the tunnels, though with each autumn the wind whipped through the them like a howling instrument, issuing undulating notes onto the street. Nor was it the way small possessions seemed to disappear when the mouth of a tunnel was open too long, or the occasional child that went missing, only to find their tiny footsteps leading into the depths. Rather it was the light the walls of the tunnels gave off—a light whose color wavered through the spectrum like a visual birdsong, a light that cast no shadow from anything alive.
To speak of the tunnels was to draw ill will from the spirits below. Only with several stiff drinks could information be pried away from the city inhabitants, and even then only in the brightest of daylight and on the clearest of summer days. Some said the tunnels extended a mile, others that they reached out to the sea, and some claimed that there was no end—that they mirrored the sky, and found no limit under the ground. But no law abiding citizen would speak of it, and certainly no one would reach the insanity, the outright audacity, to travel them.
Except, that is, for a single boy.
One that was sprinting downward at his top speed, wrapping a hand around marble pillars as he whipped around corners, nearly stumbling as he slid to a stop, a fork in the path ahead of him. He cocked his head, his legs trembling and lungs heaving, the light emanating from the walls playing across his face in shimmering, wavelike patterns as he listened for the singing voice that drew him deeper into the tunnels.
Then he heard it on his left, just at the edge of his perception, and he was running again. Right turn, left turn, left turn, right turn—he rushed with no heed to his direction, nor concern to how he would return, only fixation. Fixation on the voice he heard, the voice that was like a wisp in the wind, its distant singing reaching out to him through the gilded walls with words too faint to be understood. Life sized mosaics flashed over his shoulders as he ran, shattered scenes of days long past, while statues watched him go by with looks of stony contempt.
He gasped for air as he neared the source, spurring his legs forward with the newfound energy he always felt when he descended deeper than he had before, an adrenaline-like electricity that only ebbed when he returned to the surface. The voice increased in volume, like an opera singer in another language, the words intelligible yet beautiful. Then, as he reached another turn the voice crescendoed, his entire body vibrated with the sheer force of it as he took a final turn, and he ran with a will not his own.
The voice died, instantly extinguished like a fireball cast into the sea.
“Damn it!” he shouted, the words exploding from his throat with the last of his breath, leaning with his palm against the wall, the light curling about his fingers.
“Twelve times,” he shouted, still panting, and kicked the wall. “Twelve times I’ve tried to find you. Twelve times you’ve lured me down here. Well that’s the last time I come running!”
He yelled now down the deserted hallway, his hands clenched at his side, as he repeated the words he knew to be a lie.
“You hear that?! Next time I hear the singing, I’m not coming!”
And he began his stalk back to the surface.
This far underground, the halls were perfectly preserved. Thieves rarely risked descending to these levels, and those that did rarely returned. The gems laid into the wall art were untouched, with no chisel marks and miniature potholes like the ones that characterized the upper floors. The statues were whole, unlike their mostly toppled and crumbled counterparts above, and the floor untouched by the dirt and dust that blew down the tunnels but never seemed to permeate into the core.
He continued to climb, taking another path entirely than the one he had descended through, trusting his feet as they walked on the golden stone. He wondered how the others had become lost in these tunnels. Tunnels which, with a little practice, were so easily interpreted by following the contours of light that stretched before him. He supposed that fear held the people back from seeing that which was obvious to him.
He barely glanced up as he reached an intersection—by now, the swirling colors were instinct to him, and even with his eyes closed he could almost feel them pulling him forward. With his face set into a frown, he trudged on and soon caught a scent of the city air—air that seemed to grow staler instead of fresher with each breath.
Ahead sunshine peeked around a bend, its steady glow drastically contrasting the glow of the hallway and prompting the return of his shadow. Here the walls had been pillaged bare by scavengers, and even the sparkling floor tiles were removed to be polished into jewelry. Soon the tunnel collapsed and a wooden ladder led upward through a grate, behind which several barrels marked the territory of a local brew house. Scaling the ladder and removing the protective grating, he emerged into an empty courtyard.
Standing straight, he hastily brushed dust out of his chestnut hair, blinking his already squinting gray eyes to become accustomed to the sun. He shifted his belt, where two knives shifted in their hiding places underneath, and patted down his light brown clothes that signified a member of the common working class. Then he replaced the grating, but whispered into the deep before he left.
“You hear me? I’m not coming back. Sing all you want, but I won’t return.”
But he would. He always would. For that voice was Cinis’ earliest memory.
Chapter 13: A Lesson in History
Cinis began walking west at a quick pace, for he was already late, and held his face in the direction of the sun. Far ahead of him reared the city wall, rumored to be as old as the city roots themselves, stretching into the sky as the rays of the sun flowed just above its ramparts. For a moment, he forgot if it was daybreak or nightfall, and it seemed up to the sun itself, hovering just over the horizon, to decide whether it would rise or set.
Cinis dodged through a back alleyway and reached the door of a tavern. A sign high above proudly displayed “Horsekick’s,” and a small award for the best beer in Querkus was tucked behind a window.
“Cinis! You’re late!” fumed the old man when he entered. The door of his study was ajar and a wizened head with patchy gray hair glared over a sheet of yellowed parchment at Cinis. Wrinkles cut into his skin and a scar laced along the contour of his right eyebrow, accentuating two bright eyes that age had failed to weather.
“Sorry Uncle Rearden. I hadn’t noticed the time,” Cinis answered, walking into the study.
“Time doesn’t wait, and neither will your lessons. Hurry on, take a seat. Today is History.”
Cinis groaned audibly. It was his least favorite subject, and he had hoped they might forego it with his late arrival, but his uncle always insisted on pounding it into his head.
“But Uncle, can we not practice unarmed defense today? You promised we would this week.”
“So I did, and so we will. But one does not become accomplished through fighting alone. A man with a weak mind is an open target to all. Besides, today we begin a new set of lessons.” He lowered his voice to a whisper and leaned in close. “Today we learn about the history beyond the Wall. Go, fetch me the book on the shelf behind you, the fat one to the left.”
Instantly Cinis’ ears perked. Such talk was forbidden, but he had heard snippets deep at night, when travelers conversed in hushed voices around the tavern’s warm fire with even warmer spirits.
He turned to the shelf, where dozens of books were lined against the wall, each of varying colors and states of decay.
“The light one? or the dark one?” Cinis asked, his hand resting atop both.
“They’re the same color to me, but the one on the left,” said Rearden, and Cinis gently pried the book free of its companions, taking care not to scratch the cover. Though his uncle never mentioned the price of the books, Cinis knew that even just a fraction of the dusty volumes could raise more than enough money to buy them a brand new tavern.
He handed the book to his uncle, who rubbed the spine before cracking the pages open and exposing the cover, “Querkian Brews: A History and Recipes,” which was entirely misleading. From his vantage point, Cinis could see that the words were written with golden ink that seemed to sparkle in the dim room, shimmering with colors that reminded him of the passageways below.
“Since you inquired about physical defense, we’ll incorporate that into your lesson. You’ll be practicing your forms as I teach. Move the chair—you can perform there. First one is waves lapping against the beach,” commanded Rearden, and Cinis struck the pose, his left foot in front of his right in a half crouch, his fist gliding a parallel to the floor as he held his chin upwards. At full extension of his arm he shifted his weight backward, then replaced his right fist with his left.
“Uncle, I feel like these forms have nothing to do with actual fighting. They’re just for show. Don’t you think it would be better for me to learn knife-work or sparring?”
“Theory comes first, Cinis. You must practice the basics first, and hold them dear. Besides, these old bones of mine are not meant for sparring. One day in the future you’ll think back to me and be happy I taught you in this way.”
“Alright, Uncle, as you say,” said Cinis, though he lacked sincerity behind the words.
“Look at the map here.” Rearden gestured to a worn and curling poster, folded into quarters, that had been placed in the book’s center. Animated colors and illustrations decorated the map, while elegant, curving handwriting proclaimed the names of each kingdom, with dotted borders sectioning off their appropriate territories. Some Cinis recognized from the tales often told in the tavern, such as Rymenia, with its insignia of a sea serpent entwined around a teardrop, commonly known as home to the water folk. Others were less familiar, though his uncle had forced him to memorize their names and locations—those like Lorai and Lisera, off in the far western corner. A title sprawled across the top of the map, claiming all the lands underneath—“Corpia.” And there, on the far right of the map, was Cryson, where the lines ended and were replaced by a general blur, the mere mention of which often sent shivers through grown men on dark winter nights.
“Once, all the lands that you see on this map had been one. These dotted borders were just that—dotted, with little significance, where neighbors were brothers. Surely you have heard the legends, that the high kings of old ruled in harmony, that they commissioned great cities built, that even Cryson shed no shadows. And surely you have heard of the great wars, and how the borders strengthened, and the lands splintered into the kingdoms they now are. Those are common facts, but few men here know the origin of the dirt on which you now stand, though it is well known outside the wall. Next form, a warm breeze on a summer day.”
Cinis straightened, putting his weight on his toes and standing tall, raising his hands like flat boards that he swept in swirling arcs about himself.
“After the great wars, Corpia stood broken. There were two sides to the war, both powerful—those of the Light and those of Darkness, the Brights and the Shadows, who rallied the forces of Corpia and whose great power decimated the land. The last battle, the greatest battle, took place where we are now. At the end of the battle, this city was won. However, it then stood in ruin, and its remains became buried deep underground in the abandoned shafts you so often visit. What remained of the Darkness was pushed back and exiled into Cryson, and this city was rebuilt between Cryson and the rest of Corpia—not in the splendor that it once was, but as a fortress, a neutral ground with the Wall. This is important, for to the north stand the Alesi mountains, where the only pass for an army is this city. And to the south are the marshes, where invasion is madness. Next form, pebble upholding the boulder.”
Cinis changed again, spreading his hands to the left and right with the palms upwards, crouching in a sitting position until his legs began to shake and strain appeared upon his face.
“Good, now hold, arch your back a little more, and crouch a little lower. This city separates the once great forces of Light and Darkness like oil and water, ceasing the wars. But I assure you, they fester and ferment, each pushing at this city like a cork in a bottleneck until, one day, that bottle pops, and the Wall falls. When that moment comes, Cinis, you will need to be ready.”
Cinis almost lost his footing, and he stared, surprised, at his uncle. Greater men had been sentenced to years of the dungeons for uttering the same words. The law decreed the statement treason.
“But Uncle,” he whispered, “it is said the Wall will never fall. And the…” he paused, “the things in Cryson have not been seen for centuries; if they ever existed at all, that is. And it’s not like I can do anything.”
“What I would give for you to be right. But the tides are changing, Cinis. And there is always something you can do.”
With that last statement, his uncle snapped the book closed and placed it back on the shelf, next to “A history of the Lannion Wines,” which Cinis now strongly felt had no mention of wine between its covers.
“Next form, the burning of dry leaves. Hold it for three minutes. Then prepare yourself, for there are hungry guests to feed, and I would rather have the Wall itself fall than this tavern’s reputation of the best beer in all the city. Or Corpia, for that matter.”
That night, between serving pints and dishes to the tavern’s many loyal guests, Cinis listened with renewed interest to the tales being told around him. Tonight he was a server boy: he cleaned the tables and counted coppers, tended to the modest fire, and entertained the guests. Nothing more. Still, he could not shake his uncle’s ominous words.The tides are changing.
Chapter 14: Extortion
The tax collector arrived at Horsekick’s Tavern on the third of the month, rapping his bony knuckles against the door just prior to dinner in the late afternoon.
Cinis was sitting at the bar, Rearden peering over his shoulder and nodding as he added up the columns of nightly earnings on parchment. A few patrons were scattered about the tavern, nursing their hangovers as well as their beers in the dim lighting. Behind them, the door to Rearden’s study was locked, the thick oak door shielding the inner contents.
“Come in,” shouted Rearden, and the door opened, a beam of outside light carving into the dim interior. The tax collector stepped inside and, with a flourish, removed his hat, a purple, baggy blob sporting a maroon feather on one side. From his right and left stepped two palace guards through the doorway, their own cloaks a deep purple, towering over him in a protective entourage. They were men chosen for their physical stature, with broad shoulders, square chins, and hands designed for clubbing and throttling. One spit on the ground as the tax collector removed a scroll from a small bag at his waist, and began to read aloud.
“By declaration of the King of Querkus, I, Avalinious, collector of the sale of liquors, spirits, and brews, summon Rearden, the tavern master, to pay his duties to the Crown.”
“Avalinious, you come here every month, is such formality truly necessary?” piped Rearden with a smile, walking to the collector who stiffened as he came close. “I have what is due. Here, take it, along with the documentation.”
Avalinious accepted the pouch of coins and parchment, his brow furrowing as he read over it.
“It appears that you are underpaying,” he said, eyes on Rearden, squinting.
“Twenty-eight percent, just like last month. Please, count them up. Would you or your accomplices care for a drink as you work?”
“Is that a bribe? Do you dare try to soften my tongue with spirits?” Avalinious’ face turned red as he spat out the sentence, and the guards on either side of him crossed their arms across their chests.
“Of course not, of course not. Avalinious, we have been loyal to the king for years, why would we try to short hand him now? Come, what do I owe you?”
“Thirty-three percent,” he said, his nose in the air.
“Thirty-three?!” exclaimed Cinis from behind the bar. “That’s ridiculous! That’s up five percent since last month, and ten percent three months before that! And the street outside the tavern hasn’t been repaired in years!”
Rearden looked back to Cinis to silence him with a raised eyebrow, but Avalinious’ face was already shifting from red to a light shade of purple.
“Is this treason? Do you think that you, a lowly servant boy, would have a greater use for that five percent than our king? Do you presume that he wastes your share? that he squanders it? I’ll have you arrested” he shouted, his finger pointed at Cinis, “for questioning the word of the king himself! For suggesting that he indulges in the fruits of your work.”
The two guards started to move forward, their eyes tracking Cinis as he stood behind the bar and felt the two knives hidden beneath his shirt, at his belt. The fight would not be a fair one, but he might be able to buy enough time to run. Before he could move, before he could draw his knives and the guards their short swords, there was the sound of a scraping in the back of the bar, as a chair’s legs grated against the floor and a figure stood, a dark cloak about him, four finished beers on the table, and his stature just over that of the guards.
“The boy didn’t say that, but I do,” he said through gritted teeth, and pointed at Avalinious, “thief.”
“Come now, come now,” pleaded Rearden, but the guards already were advancing on the man in the back of the tavern.
The tax collector’s voice rose to a crescendo. “Arrest him then! And I want my money, Rearden. I want it now, or you too will be arrested.”
“Guards of the king,” the man said, stepping forward to meet the guards, speaking in a whisper, just six inches from their faces, “no matter what happens in the next few minutes, three of us will be walking out that door. Unfortunately that weasel of a tax collector will be one of them. If you arrest me, I will be one of them, and one of you the third. But if you both hope to leave, I suggest you conduct your business here and be gone.”
“That’s enough, Libus!” shouted Rearden, but the man continued to face the guards, his chest thrust out to almost touch theirs. Rearden counted out six coins in his left hand, then pressed them into Avalinious’ palm, “That settles the debt. Please, Avalinious, should there be changes in the tax code, report it to us earlier, so that we can make the proper accommodations. Now, I believe the transaction is finished. There is much to do here, and I wouldn’t want to keep you from attending your other duties.”
“Come,” hissed Avalinious, and the guards turned, heading back to the door, then pausing in front of Rearden.
“A tip,” said one, a grin forming slowly across his face, “for the trouble, and to ensure that none should befall the tavern in the near future.”
The scar on Rearden’s right eyebrow twitched, but he matched the smile, and reached into his purse.
“Of course, of course gentlemen,” he said, placing a coin in each of their hands, then a second one when they failed to move. “I pray that no trouble befalls any of us.”
Chapter 15: Knives and Scars
“Uncle, how could you let them do that to you?” asked Cinis after they’d left, wringing a dishrag in his hands and imagining it was Avalinious’ neck.
Rearden sighed, and cast him a tired look.
“Cinis, there are things more important than money. Should you have fought them, you would have been locked away. I value your life over my possessions. Plus the tavern would be raided by the guard, and I would rather pay their petty tax then have them looking through my possessions. It will pass, Cinis. We must bear the weight for the time being.”
“But Uncle—” started Cinis, but his uncle cut him off.
“No, Cinis. There are things that I, as an old man, have come to know that you have not. Do not question me in this matter. No go, there is tidying to be done before the evening rush, and I have work to do. I do not wish to hear about this again.” He departed, ducking into his study and locking the door behind him, leaving Cinis to clean the bar.
He frowned, then wet the cloth and scrubbed at the wood surface, attacking it with a vigor. There was a coat of paint atop the wood that prevented the stains from reaching its center, but he always felt that it was out of place and wished they had left the bar bare. It would look better that way, and Cinis scrubbed at it as if to remove the paint itself.
“He wasn’t always that way,” mumbled Libus from a table beside the bar, talking into the half-empty mug in his hand. “Scars like that don’t come from running taverns and tucking your tail between your legs every time someone comes knocking.”
Cinis stopped his scrubbing and looked down at Libus, remembering when the man had first come to their tavern. It had been two years before, and he had marked his territory near the back, at a six-person table that seemed to blend into the shadows. On occasion, he would receive visitors to that table—men and women who would would whisper in the darkness, who ordered less beer than was typical for the tavern during their discussions.
And he was one of the few people that Cinis knew from beyond the wall.
“How drab and dreary it is in this wasteland,” he had said to Cinis the first time he had met him, as Cinis brought two brews to his table. “No magic to speak of. No one to froth my beer or put an Ember’s char to my meat. A spiceless place indeed.”
“Excuse me?” Cinis had said, when Libus waited for his response, “What do you mean?”
“No magic, boy,” he had answered, drinking half his first beer in a single pull, spilling no liquid down his clean-shaven face. “It makes the world dull. Even the interesting rumors seem to get quashed out here. Which is a shame, because the ones I do hear are most interesting.”
Cinis laughed, taking the now empty beer and leaving Libus with the full one. “Surely you don’t believe those rumors. Ha! Magic? It’s all tricks and illusions, I hear. The stuff of stories.”
Libus eyed him until Cinis shifted, then spoke. “I’ve seen it, boy, and trust me, outside the wall you would be the stuff of stories. One as ignorant as you would make a good fool in them.”
Cinis frowned, then turned his back on Libus to return to the bar.
“Come back here, boy. Should you ever want to learn what the world is really like, all you have to do is ask. I’d make a most excellent educator. But for now, take these for your service over the next few weeks. I have no use for them, and they’re but trinkets in the outside world, but I’d suggest you learn to use them. The way things are going, you might need to, soon.”
He placed two knives on the table, spinning them on the wood. Their blades were silver, skinnier than Cinis was used to seeing, with edges on both sides. They reached a serration near the hilt, which was wrapped in inky black leather that tapered toward the center to fit the palm and capped with a small stone at the end. Golden ink was etched into that stone, a symbol that Cinis failed to recognize—a swirling that reminded him of a fingerprint.
“Expertly balanced,” said Libus, “well crafted. They’re meant for throwing, boy, so don’t go around trying to stab with them. I’d suggest you toss them to kill and run, should you ever get into a skirmish.”
Cinis picked up the knives, his mouth slightly open as he ran a thumb along the blade’s edge. It was rough, catching at his skin—the sign of the sharpest knives, with no nicks or chips from past use.
“There’s no way these are trinkets,” he said, and Libus shrugged.
“Perhaps they aren’t. Accept them for your service, boy. And more importantly, as you serve my table, accept them for your silence.”
Cinis had taken them, and now, two years later, they were still in his belt. They had yet to be used, except for the small target he had set up in his room and practiced on, and they still looked new—the metal had so far failed to rust or tarnish. He had even gotten caught outside in a storm, and the knives had been drenched.
Libus continued speaking, his eyes still on his beer, as Cinis looked toward him from behind the bar.
“Outside the Wall, that tax collector would watch his tongue. It wouldn’t be tolerated.”
“Well, we’re not outside the Wall,” said Cinis.
“Don’t remind me,” said Libus with a sigh. “Listen here, boy. I don’t intend to let him, to let them, the guards, walk on us forever. And I don’t intend to bear by the order of that insufferable king, and neither should you.”
Then Libus stood, walking over to the bar, and placed a coin on the countertop.
“A tip,” he said, his voice mocking, “for the trouble. Should you ever wish to have another chance at those guards, then follow this.”
Then he left the bar, his cloak shifting as he walked, his long, black hair spilling over the edge. Cinis picked up the coin, realizing it was no form of currency used in Querkus. Instead, it had a symbol on it—a symbol of a beetle-like bug.
Chapter 16: The Blind Seer
The seer tapped his walking stick on the ground in front of him, tapping the pebbles that had meshed together to form larger, patchy cobblestones as his vision began to fade. To his left and right, passersby blurred into shapeless colors as they rushed past, hurrying to make it to the Querkus gates before they closed for nightfall. But it wasn’t the sinking sun that darkened his sight; rather, it was the city approaching in the distance, and the vrael that thickened in the soil below.
Almost unconsciously, he quickened his pace, as if to offset his deteriorating vision, but it was fruitless—he was going blind, a process that would only be completed in a more rapid fashion with his increased walking speed. He looked upward, hoping for one last clear glimpse of Querkus.
The city before him was black as the night sky, with small, faint pinpricks of light shining out from its encircling wall. Or, rather, through the wall, their brightness dampened only by the vrael and untouched by mortar and stone, a brightness he knew to be bits of the atriel present in the city. As he approached, these faint stars became the only light he could still see, and the looming darkness expanded. It was into that darkness he was headed, deep into the darkness to find the light.
By nightfall he had reached the gates. Thanks to what little glowing atriel remained, he could barely make out the name written on the city’s weathered doors, chipped and broken from years of negligence: Querkus.
He had arrived.
As the invisible sun descended beyond the horizon, a coolness surrounded his travel-hardened, stooped body. Ahead, he could hear the shuffling of other travelers mingling with the intermittent thudding of his walking stick, a staff that he now relied upon to move. Behind, he heard nothing, and knew he would be the last of the travelers to enter by gate. From within the wall, there were the muffled sounds of the city, like the first round of mead-induced songs beginning, vendors shouting their wares, and a low, scratchy creaking that made his ears shiver.
“Wait!” he shouted, his voice raspy in the night air. “Hold the gates!“
Before him the creaking slowed, and a voice cried out from above, “The gates close at nightfall. What business have you here?”
“I am but an old man, seeking shelter and a fire to warm my weary feet. Forgive me, my bones are weak and I cannot travel as fast as I once could.” He stumbled on an oversized rock, catching himself on his staff.
He heard laughter trickling down from above, and a sneering voice shouted, “He’s blind! What use have we of another beggar?”
Another mocking voice called, accompanying the first. “Old man, tell us, can you not see the sun set?”
“I felt it leave just as I have smelt your rotting breath,” the seer responded, and was rewarded with a chorus of guffaws.
“Do you even know what city you are standing before, tramp? You’ll watch your tongue or I’ll have it cut out,” came the retort, and a stone landed at the seer’s feet, bouncing upward to open a gash on his shin. He rapped the staff on the ground, clearing the rasp from his voice, and spoke with all the authority he could muster.
“Do all Querkians meet their elders with such disrespect? Or is it only the lowly guards who are unfit for all tasks but watch duty. I demand, by your king and by your honor, little as it is, to be let through.”
“You demand nothing! Close the gates, let him meet the wolves.” Another stone bounced against the gravel, glancing off the seer’s knee this time, and a second trail of blood joined the first.
“Not just disrespectful, but a coward, too? Can you only throw rocks at an old man?”
“Stop the gates!” ordered the guard. He lowered his voice. “I’m in the mood for some sport, and for teaching a lesson.”
Three sets of footsteps echoed down the guardhouse stairs and settled before the seer, blocking his path to the gate.
“What’s your name, tramp? I like to know my vermin before I clean them off the streets.”
The speaker remained invisible to the seer, but the men to his right and left shimmered with dark red cords. Almost imperceptibly, his hands tightened on the staff and he planted his feet slightly farther apart. He had not been expecting this—had not expected a magical resistance in here of all places—but the vrael would have the same weakening effect on them as it did on him.
“Dyrius. It would be in your best interest to remember that, boy, for when you have to explain to your superiors how an old man managed to best you and your two pets.”
“Pets? You call them pets?” The guard laughed. “Even when you had eyes, you would have never seen anything like them. Now you surely never will. Listos, Calist, make him scream.”
The attack came without warning.
The figure on the left raised its hands as the seer sidestepped, more agile than his age would indicate, allowing the fiery inferno to blow harmlessly past him. The air where he had been standing moments before radiated with heat, crackling and smelling strongly of ozone and sulfur. The seer whirled, holding his staff in both hands, and connected the end with the figure’s torso. It doubled over, a grunt sounding disturbingly too deep rushing from its throat, and the seer pulled a silver dagger from his belt and drove it through the back, piercing through the chest to the heart. An inhuman scream escaped its lips, chilling the night, and the glowing red cords extinguished themselves before it reached the ground.
The seer cried out as a sharp, piercing pain exploded from his back, and he felt the second figure readying itself for a second blow. He cursed and spun, cracking his walking stick in half with a deft blow to the figure’s head. It stumbled and raised both hands, fire erupting from its palms toward the injured seer, catching him in the hip as he drove the dagger downward, past the hands spewing fire, where it cut through the breastplate and entered its chest. Like the first it fell, the red cords unweaving themselves and dissipating into the air as Dyrius lunged forward, groping at where the guardsman had been standing.
His hands found a rough cloak and gripped it tight, lifting upward underneath the guard’s throat, nearly lifting him from the ground.
“Dyrius. Never forget that, boy. Do you wish to live?” he whispered to the guard’s shocked breathing. Words failed the guard, mainly due to his rapidly closing windpipe.
“Do you have any more pets at your gate?”
“No! Just two!” said the guard, barely able to manage those few words.
“Good. My quarrel is not with you.” He whipped the broken half of his walking stick against the guard’s temple, dropping him to the ground, an unconscious heap. The seer moaned, noticing just how rapidly his breaths were coming. With two fingers, he felt the burned cut just below his ribcage. The blood was flowing much too fast for his comfort, exiting the wound in rapid spurts where claws had ripped into his skin—claws that were each as sharp and long as his own dagger. Reaching down, he tore the guard’s cloak into strips and tied a hasty bandage to staunch the flow before stealing inside the gate.
Demons, he thought, infesting the city guard itself. I fear I may be too late.
He hurried down the street, keeping a hand to the wall and tapping his way along with a broom handle he had happened upon outside of a closed bakery. Behind him, small drops of blood trailed among his footprints.
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