Author Topic: Chapter 10  (Read 5283 times)

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Online Daen

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Chapter 10
« on: April 08, 2022, 02:02:20 AM »
Chapter 10

Hazra’s heels echoed through the marble halls of the Spire’s lower levels. She tried to hurry without making it look like a run. She was a lady, after all.

For as long as she could remember, Hazra had been lady of House Fisher. Even as a child she’d carried that title and its accompanying burdens. She had friends from other Sustained Houses: ladies of station and power in their own right. In the end though, her peers would go home, and she would be alone with her responsibilities again. Such was the life of the Lord Ascendant’s only daughter, with a mother who’d died in childbirth and a father who jealously kept her extended family away from his seat of power.

She’d heard stories about her mother Ethelle. How she had practically carried her House through difficult times, when the men around her had utterly failed to do so. How Ethelle had come here and married the Lord Ascendant himself! Hazra hoped her mother would have been proud, almost as much as she wished she’d known the woman.

Servants bowed or curtsied as she passed, as always, and then scurried on with their work. Some of them were pretty sharp, actually. Unlike her peers, Hazra had learned that the servants within a great House often had a deeper understanding of what was going on than the masters did.

There it was. Even though she was running late, Hazra came to a stop at the door and bowed her head in reverence. Appearances had to be maintained for anyone watching. She’d be a fool if she didn’t assume someone was watching.

The inside of the room was just as she’d requested. It was small: barely larger than a broom closet, actually. On the floor in the middle was a small pedestal for her elbows to lean on, and a cushion on the floor in front of it for her knees and feet. On the wall across from the door hung a portrait of her mother.

The church of Aquun was technically Patchwork’s state religion, but there were still some people in the city who followed spiritism. Over the years the church’s penets had tried to integrate the two, absorbing those who prayed to the spirits of their ancestors into the church with everyone else. They claimed that the spirits were now one with Aquun, and that they spoke through her. It hadn’t worked at all, though. Spiritists were a small but stubborn group.

Her mother’s family had also been part of that group. Hazra had eventually insisted on this room being added to the Spire's ground floor so that she could have a place to worship as well. Before construction, she’d been quite clear: it had to be this spot exactly, where her mother could reach through the veil and commune with her. All of that was complete stupidity, of course. Hazra didn’t believe in the spirits of the dead any more than she believed in the mythic goddess of the Waters watching over them all. She’d chosen this particular spot for a much more faithless reason.

A faint crack of light from underneath the door was all she could see, but she didn’t need much. Striking the tinder twig on the pedestal, she ignited the candles mounted on the walls and knelt on the cushion in front of the portrait. Even though she would never be devout, she did have to admit to herself, it was good to look at her mother’s face now and then.

The meeting had already begun, so Hazra wasted no time finding the knothole in the wall and removing it so she could listen in. Voices filtered in through the hole from the Council chamber upstairs. The sound was amplified by copper pipes in the walls, enough to reach her even down here. Ironically, those pipes had been mandated by the very Council she was now spying on.

Of course spying on anyone, much less the Sustained Council itself, was unconscionable for a lady of her status. Perhaps that was why no one had ever suspected her. At first Hazra had done so only tentatively, curiously. But her mother had done much worse during her own time, and nowadays Hazra didn’t let a single meeting pass without listening in. The manor’s guards had tell-tale signs in shift changes and patrols that signaled such a meeting, usually giving her enough time to get to the Spire so she could listen in. It was just a matter of knowing what to look for.

Thankfully, it seemed Hazra hadn’t missed much so far. She slid the cushion up against the wall to hear better and sat on it so she could massage her feet. It was never easy walking in those narrow pointed shoes, and she often longed for the soft-soled shoes she could wear in private. Lord Weaver had just finished his report on the recent census, and her father started speaking.

“Very well. Lord Miller, I believe you have some explaining to do before this Council.” Her father’s voice was even, but she could tell he was disappointed. She’d heard that tone often enough before.

“Y-yes, my liege.” The voice carried a tremble to it. Adelar Miller was not a brave man, but he was clever enough in his own way. As his surname suggested, his family controlled the various mills on the north end of the city, powered by the Waters themselves. Without those mills, flour, lumber, paper, even cloth production across the entire city would ‘grind’ to a stop.

“I first wish to thank this Council for your patience and understanding during this census. Your generosity continues to impress me, as I’m sure it impresses the common people as-”

“Get to the point, my lord!” A harsh voice cut in. That was her half-brother, Tenlor. “Tell everyone what you told me this morning.”

Tenlor had only been a child when his mother died of illness. His father had remarried almost immediately (a common thing among the Sustained Houses) and she’d been born a year later. Despite growing up together, the two of them had never been close. Even if women could be allowed on the Council, Hazra probably would have considered spying anyway, just so she wouldn’t have to share a room with him.

Hazra knew she was supposed to love her brother, but that had never been easy. He had bullied her often as a child, and then had taken to ignoring her. He had very little respect for women, even family members. She did have sha’haln dreams about them as children from time to time. In the dreams, though, they were the same age as they played together.

“As most of you know,” Miller continued nervously, “I requested the unscheduled census in order to find a pair of fugitives from Krellik patch. It was urgent because at least one of these fugitives is a navigator.”

There was a soft murmur from the group, barely audible to her. “And?” Tenlor insisted, probably giving one of his usual glares.

“And the other is possibly from… the Outside.”

Hazra flinched away from the knothole as the room on the other side erupted in noise. The entire room seemed to have responded at once, in either disbelief or anger, and Hazra knew how they felt. Someone from the Outside? The Harbinger was here? That couldn’t be right. A rogue navigator was one thing, but this was just ludicrous.

She abruptly yawned, and covered her mouth. She’d been tired for weeks on end, now, despite getting ample sleep. Hazra had figured it was the cold weather at first, but that was finally waning. Perhaps she’d have more energy soon. And she’d been intermittently sore across her back and arms, as well.

“Peace, everyone,” her father’s voice cut through the group, and the voices quieted as Hazra leaned close again. “Lord Miller, what makes you think your fugitive could be from the Outside?”

She heard the rustle of paper. “At first my people thought she was a Sustained citizen, but she didn’t seem to speak any Vasrah. She had no stra’tchi mark, and she is definitely not in the Registry. In addition, she was carrying stacks of papers like this one, describing a multitude of subjects in a dozen different languages. My people have examined them thoroughly and only been able to read a few so far, but even those make no sense. I suspect they’re written in code.”

Hazra heard a snort from further away in the room. “How do you know this isn’t a hoax, my lord? An elaborate prank perhaps, honoring your long history of falling victim to such jokes?”

There was a rustle of laughter from the room, which cut off immediately. No doubt her father had raised a hand to quiet them all. “Do you have anything else to add, Lord Miller?” His deep, steady voice echoed through the pipes.

“Yes, my liege. Three of my guards were there when she was apprehended, and all of them clearly heard the word ‘Satacha’.”

There was a long pause, during which more undertones filtered down through the pipes. Hazra had to think back to her lessons as a child. Satacha… yes. It was a city to the south, across the ocean. Only a few people were still trained in Outside geography. It certainly had no use to the stra’tchi, or even to the Sustained population in general.

Apparently that fact was sinking in on the Council as well. “Only a handful of people would know what Satacha is, my liege,” Miller continued, a note of self-satisfaction entering his voice. “I don’t know if she is from the Outside or not, but I think it would be in all of our best interests to find out. Don’t you?”

Another moment of silence inundated the room. Such quiet was rare in these meetings. Apparently they were starting to take this matter seriously. “Lord Miller,” her father finally continued in a stern tone, “there are specific rules in place to govern a possible Outside contact. Those rules apply even to this Council. Under the circumstances, I’m willing to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you were planning on informing us of these developments. However, if I discover you’ve held anything else back, there will be unpleasant consequences. As for the census, what are the results? Did you find your fugitives?” So that was why her father had ordered an unscheduled census the other day. It was a significant drain on resources, but this explained it.

Hazra could barely make out Miller’s sigh. “No, my liege. We detained five men with wounds similar to the one my men inflicted, and more than a dozen women matching her description, but I’m reasonably certain none of them are the fugitives. I plan on investigating my own people next,” he said hastily into the silence. “To find out how this navigator knew she was even there.”

“I think not,” another voice cut in, and Hazra felt herself smile involuntarily. That was the Clarion.

By tradition, the Clarion was connected to the Lord Ascendant’s family. Not through marriage of course, because the Clarion had no property, no possessions, or even a name. A nameless man couldn’t get married, naturally. No, the Clarion was traditionally the consort of a family member. Specifically, the eldest daughter of the reigning Lord Ascendant.

At first Hazra had been terrified when she’d heard there was a new Clarion about to be inducted into the Council. She’d wondered what kind of man he would be, and how she would cope. After all, she had a very limited understanding of men in the city. Aside from the guards and servants, who were naturally very reserved around her, the only men she’d even known were her brother and father. Tenlor was an arrogant and selfish brat who’d never really grown up as far as she was concerned. As for her father, she loved him deeply, but she’d never been able to earn his respect. Or even his notice, really. It was something she’d learned to live with.

However when the Clarion had been made her consort, he was nothing at all like she feared. He dressed like a servant, ate like them, and even talked like them, but he treated her like a queen. He was gentle and kind in almost everything he did. His thoughts were always on the people of the city—when they weren’t on her.

In retrospect, such behavior shouldn’t have been a surprise. He was raised to love everyone else more than he loved himself, and to inspire people with his actions and words. Even his darker side, the training he’d received to investigate and punish evildoers, was itself meant to better everyone. But to her, the Clarion had been a gift such that she hadn’t even dreamed possible.

Hazra had always known she would end up with some noble or other. She’d seen her friends married off one by one. Most of them claimed to be content in their new lives, and Hazra believed that they were, to a degree. Some of them even said they loved their husbands after a while. But none of them loved their husbands as Hazra had fallen for the Clarion—almost from the first moment she’d seen him! None of them felt their cheeks warming just at the sound of his voice, as hers were right now.

It was so strange! Hazra had wanted to be like her mother for as long as she could remember. A strong, capable woman who could handle anything thrown her way. Married, of course, but not dependent on her husband. She hadn’t expected to turn into some kind of lovesick girl over something as commonplace as a man! And yet, she was happy. Even now, after everything, she was still happy just thinking about him.

Unfortunately, the Clarion himself was a bit harder to read. Perhaps it was because of his training, but Hazra kept on feeling like a child in his presence. He had a focus of sorts: a kind of self-awareness and calm that she’d never seen in anyone else. Unfortunately, she’d never seen any real passion in his face, or heard it in his voice. As such, sometimes she couldn’t be sure if he loved her back.

He cared for her deeply—that much was clear in his actions. He always put her needs above his own, and he listened to her when she had advice he could use on how to handle the Council. Recently though, he’d seemed concerned about her, without reason. As if she were suddenly made of glass and might break. No, that wasn’t quite right. It was more like he was afraid of her for some reason.

“You will do no such thing,” the Clarion continued, cutting through her reverie. “The Ascendants will handle the investigation, to make sure that it is carried out impartially. I assume you can make the arrangements for that, Commander?”

“I’d be thrilled to,” her brother responded, his tone just a hair short of being openly insulting. He’d always disliked the Clarion, though Hazra had never been able to figure out why.

Her father spoke up again. If he was upset at being cut off by the Clarion, it certainly didn’t show in his voice. “As for this navigator and alleged new arrival, I am hereby posting a bounty on them. Spread the word throughout your patches: any man who can bring them to us, or lead us to them, will be given ten thousand gold as well as a permanent Transit Pass. And this Council’s lasting gratitude, of course. Oh, and any information as to who these people are will be worth an additional five thousand, should it prove to be true. I’ll have it put in writing and posted in Sustained territory. Inform the magistrates to read it in each of the stra’tchi patches as well.”

Hazra let out a low whistle. That was a tidy sum for anyone living inside Sustained territory, and a fortune for the stra’tchi outside. The Transit Pass was a nice touch, too. If the stra’tchi knew they could go to other patches to spend their reward money, they were much more likely to try to earn it. Once the word got out, these fugitives would have a very hard time hiding.

As for the Outsider, Hazra didn’t know what to think of her. The prophecy said the Harbinger would bring an end to Patchwork itself, or so most people believed. It had been years since the prophecy had been dug up, though, and the words had been translated and re-translated many times. The original crystal fragment was stored in the Library in Penntu patch, accessible only by the Lord Ascendant himself, and select scribes who lived there. Her father certainly wasn’t about to take it out and show it to people, though.

Her father dismissed the Councilors and the Clarion, and as usual had a few words with Tenlor afterwards. She couldn’t quite make out what they were saying, but he was probably giving his oh-so-favorite child more instructions on how to keep the other Houses in line.

Hazra sat in the darkness for a few moments, considering. Obviously her father was taking this threat seriously, so she probably should as well. With some effort, she pulled herself up and winced as a spasm of pain shot through her left shoulder. Hazra massaged it slowly with her right hand. There was a bruise there, which she didn’t remember getting. According to the Clarion, she’d fallen out of bed last night and landed on that shoulder. Hazra was just grateful it was in a location she could easily hide.

Carefully plugging up the knothole again, she put her torture-shoes back on and slid the cushion back to its place before leaving the shrine. “Milady.” Toria curtsied briefly, from right beside her.

Hazra nearly jumped out of her skin, and then glared daggers. “Toria! What are you doing here?”

The older woman respectfully took a step back. “Attending my lady, of course. If I had known you were going to prayers, I would have been here sooner.” She glanced past Hazra for a moment, at the portrait on the wall and the still-lit candles.

Feeling a moment of awkwardness, Hazra leaned back into the shrine for a moment and blew them out. It wouldn’t be very ladylike of her to bite someone’s head off, just for covering for her. “Carry on, then.”

“Yes milady.” Toria curtsied again and quietly left.

As she walked away, Hazra shook her head. Toria was partially deaf, like many of the servants on her mother’s side of the family, not that it showed in her voice. The poor woman must have spent years practicing speech with the other servants so she could sound more ‘normal’.

Toria was a potential complication to Hazra’s plans. She trusted the servant completely, of course. Toria had been there at Hazra’s birth, and had watched over her ever since. But she was bright, too. It was possible she knew about the shrine’s usefulness for spying on the Council meetings—Hazra still wasn’t sure. Regardless, if she did know anything, she could be trusted to keep it a secret. Hazra made her way out of the Spire and back to her chambers in the manor. She had a lot of thinking to do.
« Last Edit: April 08, 2022, 03:40:32 AM by Daen »