Author Topic: Chapter 7  (Read 9256 times)

0 Members and 2 Guests are viewing this topic.

Offline Daen

  • Administrator
  • We Don't Care
  • *****
  • Posts: 525
  • Karma: +1/-0
Chapter 7
« on: April 08, 2022, 02:02:57 AM »
Chapter 7

The air was hot and heavy, thick with blood and sweat. The cries of the wounded—of the women and children who were stuck here, resonated in Tenlor’s ears. He sat on horseback with his squad, all eight of them wearing Ascendant colors. Their orders were strict: observe the conflict but do not get involved. None of the sides within this Tumult would dare attack an Ascendant patrol, not when they had each other to kill first.

Tenlor guided his horse forward into the streets, slowly and purposefully past the bodies. Despite the protected status of his people, he didn’t want anyone to think they were under attack. Even Ascendants could be killed by mistake in this fight. Lord Grover’s soldiers were trained to be brutal and unhesitating in combat, and Tenlor didn’t want to test their limited self-control. Tanner’s forces were no better, really, but they were on the defensive here. Lord Grover had ordered all Tanner loyalists in this patch to be hunted down and killed; what a waste.

Tenlor caught sight of movement out of the corner of his eye, and raised a fist to his men at first. He lowered it quickly enough when he could see them more clearly, though. There were half a dozen or so young men wearing simple brown robes and sandals. Each had close-cropped hair and were clean shaven. Initiates.

Like Tenlor’s Ascendants, the Clarion initiates were off limits to any and all sides in this Tumult. They were pathetic pacifists, known for tending the wounded and administering last rites to the fallen. Ever since the fighting broke out, Tenlor had seen them in at least a dozen patches throughout the city, always where the fighting was worst. Pacifists they were, maybe, but he had to admit they were brave.

These particular initiates were standing side by side, between a Grover patrol and four children huddled together in a corner. Tenlor smiled. No doubt the Grover Captain considered them to be sympathizers, but the initiates wouldn’t let him kill them. As far as standoffs were concerned, this was a predictable one. The Grovers would back down soon enough. Then the Captain pulled his blade in one swift motion and cut down the center initiate!

Tenlor gaped at him briefly, as the other Grovers set upon the remaining initiates. The kids screamed in fear as their protectors fell. Tenlor kicked his horse into motion, charging down the street as fast as he could. He didn’t particularly care if the initiates or the children died, but any breach of the peace was his to address, and Tenlor had standing orders to make sure these men paid for overstepping their bounds.

Even as they approached, it was already too late. All five initiates were down, and the children were running away as fast as their little legs could carry them. The Grover Captain looked up in surprise just in time to be trampled under Tenlor’s horse. The other Grovers—those who weren’t similarly crushed—tried to flee, and Tenlor quickly ordered his troops after them.

Tenlor dismounted, drove his sword through the throat of the still-struggling Captain, and then turned to the initiate corpses. The Council would require proof of this violation, which meant he needed to bring back all the bodies, Grover and initiate alike.

But one of the initiates was still moving. The one the Captain had cut down, in fact. His right arm and chest had been slashed open, but it had been the impact that had felled him, not the wounds themselves. Tenlor reached down to pull him to his feet. As they clasped hands, their eyes met, and Tenlor felt a shiver run down his spine.

Of course there was pain in the man’s eyes—not even initiate training could block that completely. But there was also no trace of fear or anger. Tenlor knew right then and there that this man didn’t care if he lived or died. He might as well have tripped and fallen for all the concern in his expression.

Tenlor knew a little about Clarion training—about how children were selected for their kindness, empathy, and courage. But this man was different. This one was also dangerous. He looked around briefly. His men might object, but they were still distracted with hunting down the rest of the Grover patrol. Confident that he was doing the right thing, Tenlor pulled the dagger from his belt and stabbed swiftly and surely.

The initiate’s expression didn’t change at all, and they both looked down together, at the dagger sticking out of Tenlor’s belly-

-With a shuddering gasp, Tenlor woke up, clutching at his gut. He was covered in a cold sweat, just as he had been that day during the Tumult. Of course there was no dagger sticking out of him, but he could still feel it: a foreign object sliding into his intestines. He could taste the blood in the air, even if it was just the product of a dream.

Grunting in frustration, Tenlor rolled out of bed and to his feet. One look outside told him that it was almost time. He was probably already late, in fact. At least he was dressed for the meeting, and his wife wasn’t here to nag him about it. The dream stuck with him, though. As first meetings could go, it was… memorable. He couldn’t help thinking of the old saying: In war, events of importance are the results of trivial causes.

It took him a few minutes to get over to the Spire, and even longer to climb the long circular staircase up to them. Even this far down though, Tenlor could hear a lot of noise. The angry voices of the bickering delegates echoed up and down the stairwell like a buzzing beehive. Tenlor sighed as he made his way up the final steps and opened the Council Chamber door. He hated these meetings. As his father’s only son, he wasn’t required to attend any of the Council meetings. As the commander of the Ascendant Guard though, his attendance was mandatory.

His father, the Lord Ascendant Berilo, head of House Fisher, First Navigator of the Sustained, etcetera, etcetera, and so on and so forth was in there with them. No doubt keeping calm amidst the constant crossfire of insults from House to House. Each meeting was basically the same.

Resisting the urge to just keep climbing the Spire stairs and bypass the meeting entirely, Tenlor slipped into the room as quietly as he could manage. Though based on the tone of the man currently speaking, Tenlor doubted anyone would notice even if he slammed the door behind him.

“This is unacceptable, my liege!” That was Echio, head of House Tanner, a man known as much for his bluster and exaggeration as he was for his expanding waistline. “My family has obviously been slandered in this matter, and I demand recompense and retaliation! House Weaver has clearly set this… rabid dog on us intentionally. I ask that you do the only reasonable thing and see to it they’re punished!”

“That’s a lie!” Gereho Weaver, the aging patriarch of his rather small family, responded vehemently. “You’re blaming us for your troubles as you always do. There is no proof that we were involved, except that which you obviously created yourself!”

“Why, you little—I should have your head for even saying that!” Echio sputtered out.

“Enough.”

The word wasn’t shouted, or even spoken loudly, but it seemed to resound through the Council chamber. Both of the idiots shut up. At least it had only been the two of them this time. The Lord Ascendant shook his head slowly. Tenlor’s father had always been able to cut through the bickering, and he often wondered how.

“Peace, my friends,” another, softer voice spoke up from the opposite side of the table. A young man in simple brown robes rose from his seat and extended both hands to the room. “It’s been barely a year since the latest Tumult ended. Since blood and violence stained virtually every street in our fair city. Are we so willing to dive right back into that conflict? Over something as trivial as a rumor?”

“A rumor that has caused harm to me and mine!” Tanner objected, standing up suddenly. “My honor has been besmirched, and I will make sure the guilty party is punished accordingly!”

The Clarion smiled at him softly. “Come now, my lord. You say that as if no one in this room knows you have spread similar rumors about your rivals for years. Surely you can admit that regardless of who did this, they were likely provoked?”

Tenlor had heard some of those rumors himself. There was a soft murmur of assent throughout the room, and Tanner glowered briefly before retaking his seat. Tenlor grimaced privately, turning his face away from the table. If his father had a gift for ending arguments, the Clarion had the complementary gift of glossing over the harm they caused. That didn’t stop Tenlor’s skin from crawling every time he looked at the Clarion, though.

Yes, it was the very same man Tenlor had remembered in his dream. Though the sha’haln got a few details wrong, as usual. Tenlor hadn’t stabbed anyone that day. The young man, known to the other initiates only as ‘Gerit’, had given a full report of how the Grovers had attacked them, and how Tenlor had saved him. Technically true, if repulsive.

Gerit had been named Clarion and inducted into the Sustained Council barely two months later, just after the Tumult had ended. Now he was one of the most respected men in the city—both because of his title and the works he and the others had undertaken during the fighting.

The title was a unique one, to be sure. In order to even be considered for the post, a man needed to have been raised a strict ascetic. Only the simplest clothing and food. Intensive training from childhood to consider the morality of every decision they made, and every decision they observed, too. And worst of all, the complete stripping of all identity. The Clarion was just that: a title. Gerit may have been his birth name or just a nickname, but now he had neither, and no recorded history either. No land or titles other than his position advising the Council.

Tenlor couldn’t live like that. What was the point of dedicating your life to something, if you couldn’t at least enjoy the perks of it? The Clarion had never even killed a man! Still, Tenlor had to admit the Clarion was brave enough. He’d seen the proof with his own eyes. Even after his actions during the last conflict, inducting him as Clarion had still been a controversial decision on the Lord Ascendant’s part. And it was clear why. What group of leaders could tolerate having this… sanctimonious, self-righteous peasant looking over their decisions and watch-dogging their meetings? This Council was certainly no exception.

His father had insisted on it, though. He’d sold the idea to the Council by convincing them of the necessity of having a Clarion publicly aligned with them. The First Council, hundreds of years ago, had a Clarion advising them as well, and that extra voice had given them legitimacy in the eyes of the people. A legitimacy that this Council desperately needed right now, he’d argued. Especially with the Tumult still fresh in everyone’s minds.

Tenlor still wasn’t convinced though, even after a year of relative peace. People didn’t need to love their rulers, or even respect them. Obedience and fear were the only things needed, no matter what the current Lord Ascendant believed. As if spurred on by Tenlor’s thoughts, his father rose from his chair to address the room. “I hear your concerns, Lord Tanner, and as it happens,” he nodded to one of the servants at the service door, “I’ve already acted upon them.”

Two servants entered quietly, keeping their gaze down and carrying a man on a stretcher between them. Tenlor gave a slow smile as he recognized the man. Turez Glasser, a cousin of the Lord Weaver.

Glasser was clearly dead; his body was white and unnaturally still. Though the cause of his death was not evident, its ramifications were clear. A solemn silence pervaded the room, as each of the Councilors looked at the body. The Clarion left his seat as well, and approached the body with a quiet reverence.

“Here is your traitor, Lord Tanner,” his father said quietly. “My agents found his body in the square in Barros patch a few hours after you told me. There was no indication of who killed him, but the papers he was carrying tell a very interesting story.”

His father accepted a parchment from the servants and unrolled it before his lords. “This document will be made available to all of you, after it has been authenticated. It clearly details Glasser’s plans to sabotage Tanner facilities, and includes his method of payment. Gold, as it happens, with Mason printing on it.”

There was a collective rustle of surprise through the group. All eyes quickly shifted to Aron Mason, the uncle of the infant Lord Mason and current guardian of their family. As the Head of House Mason, Aron had a place here in the Council, but he wasn’t a navigator. As such he would be replaced as soon as his nephew came of age.

“Preposterous,” he sniffed in an admirable display of disdain. “A forgery, no doubt, meant to implicate my House. It’s clear the perpetrators are seeking to take advantage of us after my brother’s death.”

There was another rustle through the room, this time more amusement than expectation. It was funny to hear Aron Mason speak as the leader of his family, because everyone here knew he wasn’t just a substitute for his brother, but also a figurehead for the true leader of House Mason. Not that anyone here would publicly admit a woman was leading a Sustained House, but it was common knowledge that Aron’s mother, the Lady Kunesa, was calling the shots for him. Despite his embarrassing situation, Tenlor admired how well he could cover it up.

“We will see.” The Lord Ascendant rolled up the parchment. “My scribes will examine the document in detail. I believe that addresses your concerns, my Lord?” He looked mildly over at Tanner.

“Of course, my liege.” Tanner looked a little pale. “As always your skill in these matters is beyond compare.” The others all nodded their agreement in turn.

There was an awkward pause before Weaver spoke up. “As he is one of mine, my liege, the shame is upon me. With your permission, I will take his body and have it burned as all traitors deserve.”

“No.” The Clarion interjected, his voice as close to harshness as it could get. “Whatever else Glasser was, he was a member of a noble Sustained House. His remains will be returned to the threads with honor, in the eyes of Aquun and the people themselves. The people need to see a unified front among the Council, and burning the body of one of your own would hardly show that, would it?” He looked around at them, one by one.

Again, Tenlor felt the hair rise on his skin. He’d always considered himself religious—at least he followed Aquun’s teachings well enough to fit in among the nobility—but the Clarion was something else indeed.

True zealotry—true belief—were his, and everyone in the room knew it. There was no artifice, no pretense in the Clarion’s eyes. He had no use for lying, and no tolerance for it either. No matter how annoyed they were with him, and no matter how much they wished they’d never brought him into the Council, each and every lord here recognized what he was. A man who couldn’t be bought, influenced, or dismissed. He was the Council’s very conscience made flesh, and he was empowered to remind them that they weren’t here to just lead, but to serve their people as well.

Even worse, the Clarion was also an investigator. Since everyone knew that he was incorruptible, he had near absolute authority to root out whatever dirty little secrets he caught wind of. No doubt everyone here had things they were desperate to keep out of the Clarion’s sight, for fear he would relentlessly and ruthlessly expose them for everyone to see. Tenlor would have found that amusing, especially in Tanner’s case, but he was subject to this self-righteous… non-person as well.

In deference to the Clarion’s statements, the Lord Ascendant adopted a more caring appearance as he changed the subject. “I know we’re all concerned about the quake that happened two days ago. We’ve confirmed that it did happen throughout the city, apparently even in the dwarven Enclave, from what the Hauld has told me. I’ve also been in contact with the High Penet, and he assures me there’s no cause for alarm. It was a message, he said, one of good fortune from Aquun.”

There was a rustle of conversation among the Councilors. Some seemed encouraged by this, while others didn’t look convinced. Tenlor knew how they felt. As members of the Council, they were all obligated to listen to the High Penet and his gaggle of religion-spouting morons, or at least they were in public. The relationship between the Aquunites and the Council was a long and complicated one. They both relied on each other to maintain control of the city, but Tenlor knew that they were little more than glorified demagogues, pandering to the fears and hopes of the stra’tchi, and any Sustained foolish enough to listen to them. The real power was in blood, and in that regard the Aquunites were quite powerless.

Naturally, the High Penet had lodged an official protest after the Clarion was inducted. After all, how could he pretend to follow his religion if he was always bumping into a true believer? “Very well,” the Lord Ascendant continued briskly. “I am sure I will see you all at the Laentana celebration, if not before. Until then, health and happiness to you all.” His father tapped a small bell to signal the end of the session, and the Councilors, a score or so in total, began filing out of the room. Tenlor started to follow them, but his father raised a hand at him, bidding him to stay.

-.-

The room was a stark contrast to its usual state once they’d gone. So quiet and peaceful, a few floors up from the base of the Spire. His father had even dismissed the servants as well. One of them had been moving a bit too slowly, so Tenlor kicked him through the door before closing it.

“That was undignified,” his father commented, a little dryly.

Tenlor only shrugged. “Sometimes you have to kick a dog to make it learn.” He peered down at Glasser’s body, still on its stretcher by the door. “I don’t see any wounds. How did he die?”

His father answered by lifting the breastplate. Glasser wasn’t wearing anything beneath it. Clearly evident, on the left side of his chest, was a single stab wound. There was very little blood, and no other injuries that Tenlor could see. The body had probably been cleaned up a bit, but the wound itself meant only one person was likely responsible.

Tenlor gave his father a slow smile. “Someday you’ll have to tell me who Heartbane is, and how you got him to work for you.”

His father only shook his head. “Even now, I’m not sure myself. He’s been very careful to protect his identity, and if I forced the issue I’d most certainly lose his services.”

About a year ago, just after the Tumult had ended, this assassin had started making his mark. He’d started with criminals mostly, dispatching them quickly with a single stab to the heart, hence his nickname. It hadn’t taken long for him to branch out, though. Before long he was targeting soldiers and agents from the Sustained Houses: people who had done terrible things but whose money and family connections had protected them.

He was good at it, too. No one had ever survived an encounter with Heartbane. No one had even gotten a good look at him. The best description Tenlor had heard was of a short figure wearing a skull mask and carrying a pair of daggers. He could move quickly and quietly where needed, and was apparently a navigator as well, or at least was friends with one. Tenlor also suspected that he’d been active even longer than a year. It would have been easy for Heartbane to kill people during the Tumult, taking advantage of the chaos and death to hone his skills.

Just about the same time the Clarion had been inducted into the Council, Tenlor had also gained command of the Ascendant Guard. Upon gaining his new title, Tenlor had taken it upon himself to track down Heartbane, using the Ascendants as a search force. He’d even caught a glimpse of the assassin himself once, fleeing the scene of yet another murder he’d committed.

Then for some unknown reason, Heartbane had just… stopped. About six months after the Tumult ended, the bodies stopped dropping. At first Tenlor had assumed Heartbane was picking targets more carefully now that he didn’t have a large war covering his tracks. But then nearly two months passed without a single kill, and Tenlor seriously doubted it was because of his Ascendants. A man as cocky and skilled as Heartbane must have had another reason for putting up his daggers. It had been only recently that he’d finally resurfaced, with Glasser being the eighth target since.

Eventually, Tenlor had put it all together. Whoever this Heartbane was, he worked for the Lord Ascendant. The only way the killer could have evaded capture so many times was with inside help, and only members of this very Council had known exactly where Tenlor had been sending his forces each time. Since every House but their own had been hit… it was becoming more and more obvious that Heartbane was on his father’s side.

In addition, his father had forbidden Tenlor from leaning on the local black market. Terres Huun probably knew who the assassin was, or at least she knew how to find out, but his father had been quite adamant that Tenlor leave her alone. At first he’d assumed it was because the other Houses didn’t want to lose access to Huun’s little network of smugglers. Asking for help from the various spymasters in the city wouldn’t work either, as most were in the pockets of rival Houses. As for Cartwright, his father had straight-up forbidden him from asking the old man. Probably because he didn’t want to owe another favor. Cartwright’s favors were often difficult to repay.

And finally, Glasser hadn’t been a murderer or rapist like most of Heartbane’s early victims. He wasn’t violent or hateful. He’d just been a pawn in the many games between the Houses, and now he was dead. Displayed like a trophy by House Fisher as further proof of their right to rule. No doubt that was why his father hadn’t objected when the Clarion insisted on having the body threaded, despite Glasser’s apparent status as a traitor. If House Weaver examined the body, they would find the stab wound and know exactly who had killed him.

In one quick motion, his father pulled the knife from Tenlor’s belt and put the tip down on the table. “He always uses a blade like this one. One thrust, right to the heart, and nothing else. In some of the previous murders he used other weapons—once even a gun—but only when it was clear the victim was putting up a fight. If Heartbane has the upper hand, he uses his daggers. I suspect…” he trailed off, spinning the knife and digging the tip into the table, “I suspect he’s one of the Councilors, actually.”

Tenlor sniffed in disbelief. “I seriously doubt that. Have you taken a good look at any of your faithful Councilors recently, father? Half of them have one foot in the grave already! I doubt Lord Mason could sneeze without his chest collapsing, and the rest of them are almost as frail.”

In the blink of an eye his father grabbed his left hand, slammed it down on the table, and plunged the knife straight down into it. Tenlor flinched away, but his father held him there with an iron grip, keeping his hand on the table.

There was no pain, though. He looked down and saw that knife was expertly positioned between two fingers—fingers which were still touching each other. The knife was still quivering slightly after the old man had let go of it.

His father finally let go and Tenlor pulled his hand away gingerly, looking for any cuts. “What was that for?” He demanded.

“These people are expert liars, Tenlor!” His father’s voice was intense and ragged, unlike his usual careful moderation. “Old and fragile mean nothing in this room, do you hear me? I’m an old man, and you’re a seasoned warrior in your prime, but I still could have easily pinned you to this table, with your own knife! They’re no different than anyone else in the city: the great ones eat up the little ones. Do not make the same mistake with them. Don’t ever make that mistake, understood?”

“Yes, father,” Tenlor answered cautiously, still tentatively holding one hand with the other.

He knew his father had been an expert with knives in his youth. Tenlor had assumed he’d lost those skills with age, but clearly he hadn’t. But what had possessed him to just stab away like that? If he’d missed, even by a hair… “The killer knows things,” his father continued conversationally, the fire of his previous words completely gone again. It was as if it had never happened. “Things only discussed in this room. Either Heartbane is one of the Councilors, or he works for one.”

His brief tantrum seemed to have passed. Very well. If he wanted to pretend things were all normal again, Tenlor could play along. “If you don’t know who he is, how can you trust him?” Still, Tenlor moved to the other side of the table. There was no point in tempting fate.

“I don’t,” his father’s voice was direct and blunt, unlike his usual tone with the Council. “All the same, I don’t need to trust him to use him. I make requests through Huun’s network, under an assumed name of course, and Heartbane takes care of it quickly and efficiently. I only know that he’s loyal to me because the ones I don’t request have all been enemies of mine, and because he’s never charged me for his work. Inquiring further would just be a waste of time.”

From his tone, it was clear his father would say no more on the subject, so Tenlor decided to change topics. “So Glasser was working for you in secret, then?”

“Actually no. Surprisingly, for once I didn’t need to fake anything. The document is real, and Lord Mason will have some explaining to do when it’s verified. Unless he makes it worth my while, of course.”

“Of course.” Tenlor smiled.

“So what did the High Penet tell you about the quake?” Tenlor asked again after a moment, trying to change the subject to something less murderous. “Did he have any idea what caused it?”

His father waved a hand dismissively. “He filled my ears with the usual platitudes and religious language, but I got the distinct impression he was rattled. I don’t think he knows any more than we do.” He looked up, and Tenlor thought he could see traces of concern in that lined face. “Despite that, we know there was no damage, and no Sustained deaths we know of. The Laentana celebration should help even the stra’tchi forget about it. Only time will tell if it happens again, though.”

So no one knew anything. If Tenlor believed in omens, he might be concerned right now. “Oh, I nearly forgot. I heard back from House Miller. Officially they’re denying everything, but according to my sources they really did suffer some kind of attack yesterday, somewhere in Shaggan patch.

He traced his fingers over the stab wound on Glasser’s body. “No one was killed, strangely, so I know you didn’t order it. I did hear that they were holding someone, though. Someone who they aren’t holding anymore.”

His father turned to face the open window, staring down at the rest of Sevvas patch. The view was truly spectacular, by design. The Spire had been built right into the middle of the patch, both as a symbol of the enduring power of the Sustained, and to serve as chambers for the Council to meet every so often. From this room alone, they could see all the way to the threads on the north and west edges of Sevvas.

“Hm. Keep digging on this. There’s more going on here than the Millers are letting on. Don’t hesitate to put some pressure on them. That is your area of expertise, isn’t it?”

Tenlor gave a cool look at his back. “Yes, father.” It was clearly a dismissal, and after that knife incident Tenlor wasn’t inclined to push his luck trying to get more information. He snatched the knife from the table and gave a brief bow to his military superior before heading out.

He was very different from his father, and they both knew it. His father could have very easily drawn blood back there just to make a point, but he didn’t. Tenlor wouldn’t use the word afraid, but his father disliked using force.

The man had been a visionary during his time. A genius when it came to dealing with the other Houses. He’d taken House Fisher from the edge of ruin to the most powerful position in the city, in just a few years. Tenlor would always admire his father for that, even though he’d been too young to remember it happening himself.

Still, his father’s diplomatic and political skills were needed less and less these days. The Patchwork of this era needed someone who wasn’t afraid to use dominance displays and harsh actions. To twist arms, or break them if the need arose.

When father dies, Tenlor promised himself, there won’t be a Choosing. No Sustained Council, no High Penet, and definitely no Clarion meddling in our affairs. I’ll make sure of it. This city will be ruled by one family, forever. My family.
« Last Edit: April 08, 2022, 03:25:34 AM by Daen »