Author Topic: Chapter 4  (Read 12613 times)

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Offline Daen

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Chapter 4
« on: April 08, 2022, 02:03:33 AM »
Chapter 4

They sloshed their way to shore, standing up as soon as possible, and followed a discreet distance behind her. Both were the same height, although one of them stood tall while the other looked around with clear apprehension. He glanced back at his companion. “Sir, this is a very bad idea. We really shouldn’t be here!”

Though heavily layered in cloth, they could see each other perfectly well. The other turned back to him briefly and wrapped an arm around him comfortingly. “It’s all right, Untos. I linked with her the moment she arrived. She won’t see us, I promise you.”

Untos shook his head, and shrugged off Halseus’ arm. “If you linked with her, sir, then why are we even here? You know people come here from time to time. Even if she doesn’t spot us, someone else could!”

Halseus nodded. “It’s a risk, yes, but one I’m willing to take. This could be the most important development in this city’s history, Untos! The first visitor we’ve ever had, right in front of us! I couldn’t pass that up. I had to see her for myself. We’re just lucky she showed up using the river. Otherwise we wouldn’t have been able to get anywhere near her in time.” He chuckled softly to himself. “Whoever she is, she certainly threw off my plans just by coming here,” he added.

Untos didn’t respond at first, and Halseus looked back at him, tilting his head slightly. “If you want, you can go back home and wait for me there.”

His tone was light and his features, obscured though they were, betrayed a mild expression of humor. Untos grunted in response. “You know I can’t do that, sir. I’m here to protect you, and that’s what I’m going to do.”

“Then quit whining and come on. We’re witnessing momentous history here, and I don’t want to miss anything.”

He hurried after the newcomer. Untos reluctantly followed.

-.-

It took most of the night, but Jaas finally confirmed her original speculation. The barriers formed a square, about a league on a side. As the sun’s light slowly rose over the wall, Jaas studied one of the corners, perplexed.

All the houses Jaas had seen so far were of Vasiri architecture. Despite the economic differences throughout the ancient city, the Vasiri Empire maintained that its people were superior, and presented that image to visitors in the capital.

Apparently that stance hadn’t changed over the past few hundred years. Those who had painted the red lines had either kept true to the original architecture, or hadn’t lived here at all since painting the lines. A subtle feeling of menace seemed to radiate from the buildings, although she was sure they were all abandoned.

She continued dictating her notes into the sphere, documenting as much as she could. Just after dawn, she was leaning close to the barriers once more, when a man appeared in front of her, stepping right out of the barrier!

Jaas felt like her heart leapt into her throat as she jumped back away from him. As she stopped and tried to calm herself, two more men stepped out of the barrier behind him, one on each side.

Jaas was no stranger to shock and surprise. As part of her training at the Academy, she’d gone through rigorous testing under extreme circumstances. At times she’d even started to lose track of what was reality, and what was just another test. That had been years ago, though.

All three men were big and heavily muscled. They had bald heads except for tight topknots. The middle one was wearing leather boots, a strange metal club on his belt, and armor emblazoned with what looked like a wheel in gold and red on his chest. The other two wore simple red robes and sandals. They glanced at each other and the middle one said something she didn’t understand.

“I’m Jaas Senneco,” she said clearly as they slowly approached. Hesitantly, she reached into her bag and pulled out her sigil, showing it to them. “I’m a scholar from Satacha.”

They didn’t stop; not that she’d expected them to. It was doubtful they even knew where Satacha was. It was possible they didn’t even understand her. Who knew what kind of language changes had happened here in the past few centuries?

“Ne hasta Satachalishe,” she tried again in Patali.

“Szaaha sahn’vs izesha ulas?” This time in Vasaro, as she backed away from them, still getting no response.

Enough was enough. “I’m warning you. Stay back!”

Jaas realized that she sounded pathetic, no matter what language they spoke. Regardless, her power was real enough. She put away the sigil and pulled out her arcane focus. She took a deep breath and pointed the carved twig at them. Symbols had been carved across its surface, and she concentrated on calling forth its power.

Nothing happened.

Jaas felt her jaw drop in surprise. She quickly tried again, but still nothing happened! It was impossible. Nothing could negate a focus like that!

The two in robes lunged forward and grabbed her by the arms. The third gave her a curious look before eyeing the twig in her hands. Then he moved quick as thinking—his fist struck her cheekbone, and Jaas’ world went black.

-.-

When the men carried her away with them, Halseus finally gave into Untos’ ever-more-insistent demands, and regretfully made his way back to the river. He would have to use the links to observe her from now on.

-.-

Arico took a quick look around, right at the edge of the threads. He was hesitant to take another trip so soon after his visit to the market, but no one here knew anything about the quake that had struck last night. Even Durhu was in the dark as to what it meant. It hadn’t taken much for Arico to convince him that they needed more information.

Taking a deep breath, he stepped into the threads and let them carry him along.

Navigating the threads was very different than simply walking through them. Any navigator could pass from one patch into its neighbor without any effort at all, but moving farther than that could be tricky. Arico smiled as he remembered his first time actually trying to choose exactly where he arrived. When he’d begun training himself it had been scary in the beginning; the vast emptiness inside the threads was a terrifying sight to be sure. Plus, it had been perhaps the one thing Durhu couldn’t teach him.

Eventually, once Arico learned how to exert his will on the threads, and then to move along them, it had gotten easier. At first navigating had been like tumbling, weightless, through an endless empty void with no escape in sight. Now it was somewhat comforting to enter the private silence of the threads. Years of practice had made navigating almost second nature.

Durhu had told him that people could adjust to almost anything, given time.

The white lines that made up the edge of the threads moved through and around him in an infinite, ever-changing pattern. They were harmless, but mesmerizing to look at. Arico paid them no mind. Here in the threads, movement was more a matter of thought than of physical effort, so he concentrated on his destination alone.

Familiarity made it much easier, of course. Arico had been here many times before, so it only took a few seconds for him to find the right patch and check for any onlookers. No one was looking in his direction, so he stepped out of the threads and immediately felt his own weight again, as though a load of bricks had suddenly appeared on his back.

He quickly removed his farmer’s clothing, revealing the fancy outfit underneath. Prikkin was a high-class patch for a market. He had to blend in if he didn’t want to get caught. During his first visit, he’d come very close to being discovered, and the memory still caused his chest to tighten in fear.

Speaking of blending in, Arico reached to his left shoulder and began to peel away at the mark there. The fake marks that he and Durhu wore were absolutely essential for life in Tellek patch, but here it could only get him in trouble. With a little bit of effort, he managed to remove the ‘scar’ from his arm, and dropped it into his pack.

There, that was better. He had to remove and reapply the mark several times a week, usually, but it never got any easier. At least Durhu could just leave his on.

Glues that could stick to the skin for long periods of time like that were rare at best, certainly impossible for any normal stra’tchi to get their hands on. Thankfully they had some powerful people backing them, so Arico and Durhu always had what they needed to maintain their disguises. Arico was especially grateful for that; he didn’t want to think of what his life would be like if he’d been raised somewhere else.

Despite the isolated nature of the patches, the local Sustained House guards, and the Ascendants who watched over them all, there were simply too many people in this patch to keep track of all at once. That made Prikkin patch perfect for his use. Any tradesmen or vendors who saw him simply assumed he was just another citizen, and treated him as they would any other customer.

Naturally, he kept a set of papers with him at all times. They were forgeries, but good ones; enough to stand up to some scrutiny. The Sustained guards did periodic checks on travelers; more for show than necessity. Arico suspected it was just a way for them to pass the time. As far as they were concerned, he was Timot Brower from Exxos patch. The only son of the now-retired craftsman and builder, Qintos Brower.

It was important that Arico have a chance to learn how the Sustained lived. Not just so that he could blend in with them, but so he could eventually influence them as well. That was why the Hauld had insisted Arico come up with a fake identity in the first place, and why he had provided the documentation to back up that identity.

Together, Arico and Durhu had puzzled out the details that Timot had experienced during his life. And then made sure none of those details were in conflict with any others. Timot was fond of drinking and gambling most evenings, but had never been in serious trouble over it. He had even loved a young woman from a neighboring patch, but had ended up losing her to his own foolishness.

Arico paused and squinted up at the sun through the open roof of this abandoned building. It wasn’t yet midday, and no one was expecting him anywhere for at least a few hours. Slipping back into the threads, he made his way to the east side of Barros patch, to another location he was all-too-familiar with.

It took only a few moments to reach the clerk’s office in Barros patch. Arico’s merchant disguise was just as suitable in both locations, thankfully. Arico asked for the report he’d requested several weeks ago, and slipped a few coins across the desk as was customary. After a minute or two of perusing in the back, the clerk returned and placed a single, folded page on the table.

Confused, Arico picked it up. “Is that it? The report is supposed to be several pages at least.”

The clerk only shrugged. “That’s what I was given. If you have a problem with it, I suggest you talk to the issuer.” At that he turned away, clearly unwilling to talk any further.

Arico had to smile at that. The hallmark of any society that had grown big enough was apathy. Patchwork had plenty of bureaucrats and functionaries after all this time, and this guy was a clear example of indifference to anything outside his assigned function in society. Arico opened the page, and written in clear black ink was a simple sentence.

You and I need to have a conversation.

It was signed with only the letter C, but even that was unnecessary. Arico knew the handwriting quite well. Arico grimaced as he read it again. He really didn’t want to have the conversation, especially about this, but it wasn’t like he had a choice. Chanul was not someone you could easily ignore. Sighing, he made his way back to the threads and navigated to the other side of the city.

-.-

Visiting the dwarves unannounced always required some special security precautions, but they were second nature to him by now. At this time of day, Chanul was most likely in the Enclave’s core, just underneath the keep. The tunnels were bustling with dwarves, but they barely gave him a second glance. Arico was well-known here.

Chanul was a creature of habit. If he’d been born to a different father, he no doubt would have a strict daily routine which was almost never changed. Unfortunately for him, the duties of a ruler’s son required more… flexibility. He was actually in the keep’s storeroom when Arico found him, talking to the quartermaster over bags of potatoes. His eyebrows raised fractionally when he caught sight of Arico, and he waved a hand, dismissing the older dwarf.

Arico didn’t bother with the pleasantries he might have used with any other dwarf. He merely raised the parchment as he approached. “What exactly do we need to discuss?” He asked nonchalantly, hoping against hope that Chanul hadn’t discovered the full truth.

His friend gave him a sad smile in response. He sat on one of the squat chairs along the wall, and gestured for Arico to do the same. Though he always had to look up at Arico, somehow Chanul had always felt like the larger person. Even though they were basically the same age.

“When I heard that you were investigating Lord Hooper, it rang a few bells for me, you know,” he said softly. From the bag next to his chair, he drew out a vellum container, marked with the sign of the Barros Clerk’s office. That must have been the report.

Arico reached for it, but Chanul held it back. “It took a while, but I eventually remembered you doing this before, years ago. This isn’t the first time you used my father’s money to investigate this man. Back then, I assumed you were scouting him for a possible alliance. You did that with a lot of minor nobles, if I recall.”

His stomach turning sour, Arico nodded. “But I didn’t contact him. I only reached out to three of those nobles, and none of them were receptive. If you’ve read that, you know that Hooper recently set up some business dealings with Lord Weaver. Given Weaver’s history, and his position on the Council, I felt it necessary to investigate Hooper again.”

Chanul only stared at him for a few seconds. “Well, the details of his business dealings are in here,” he finally said, flipping through the pages. “As well as his holdings and property around the city, details of how long he’s had his title, and how he got it,” he paused briefly, “and the details of his family.”

Arico let out a breath. So that was it. He knew the whole story.

“Did you think I wouldn’t recognize the name, Arico?” Chanul went on, a little more intensely. “Nouma?” He sighed raggedly. “It wasn’t Hooper’s business dealings you cared about, or even the man himself. You were just using them as an excuse to investigate his wife!”

“I had to be sure she was safe.” Arico said stubbornly. “She married a Sustained Lord. You know how much risk there is in that!”

“You didn’t have to do anything, Arico,” Chanul said wearily. “You’re using our resources for personal reasons. To keep tabs on your former lover! Do you have any idea how inappropriate that is?”

“Just because I ended things doesn’t mean I stopped caring for her,” Arico said defensively. “You of all people should understand. When Sath’randa broke things off with you, did you suddenly stop thinking about her, overnight? No—you were devastated for weeks! You were inconsolable, remember?”

“There’s a difference between caring for someone and stalking them, though!” Chanul said, with that same intensity from before. “I went to Hooper’s house on the edge of Barros patch. I saw that chair you set up overlooking the place. You were watching her. Spying on her! Or are you going to claim that it was someone else doing that?”

Beneath his defensiveness, Arico knew that Chanul was right. Traditionally, men and dwarves had always treated their women differently. Human families—especially Sustained noble families—had viewed women as prizes to be won, or property to be traded. That was simply the way it had always been.

For the dwarves though, it was very different. Power passed from dwarf to dwarf based on heredity, not gender. The Hauld could have very easily been born female, and still be in charge of the entire Enclave regardless. And if anything were to happen to Chanul, his little sister would become Hauld-Issuant in his place.

“Have you told your father about any of this?” Arico asked, after they’d both taken a moment.

Chanul shook his head. “I thought about it, but I wanted to talk to you first. If there is any good news in this sorry business, it’s that the chair you were using in that abandoned house in Barros patch was covered with dust. Clearly you haven’t been back there in a long time. But this isn’t finished either.” He leveled a finger at Arico. “You chose to leave Nouma behind, Arico. She’s moved on, and you need to respect that. Besides, very soon now we’ll all be extremely busy. We won’t have time for any of this personal nonsense if we’re going to survive. The movement will need you focused, with your mind—all of your mind—on task.” He sighed, and leaned back again in his chair. “I won’t tell Father about this, provided that this ends here and now. If I hear even a rumor that you’ve started up again-”

“You won’t,” Arico said hastily. “I promise that.”

Chanul sounded angry, but Arico could tell there was sympathy there too. Chanul had been in a similar situation after all.

“How’s Durhu?” He asked after a moment.

Grateful for the reprieve, Arico relaxed a bit. “He’s well enough. No one at home was hurt in the quake. Were you all right here?”

Chanul nodded. “A few bruises here and there. One youngster broke an arm. There was no structural damage, though. We know how to reinforce tunnels,” he added proudly.

That was something of an understatement. If the histories were true, dwarves had been tunnel-dwellers for thousands of years, all over the world. “Any idea what caused it, though?”

“No,” Chanul said grimly. “Even the goti priests are in the dark about it. For once I hope the Sustained know more than we do.”

They continued small-talk for a while afterwards, both of them bleeding tension after their earlier conversation. Arico felt gratitude though, and not just because he’d been raised with such a steadfast people. He was grateful that Chanul—and any other dwarf he’d met, really—would never hesitate to call him out on his wrongdoings. As a race they were gruff, stubborn, unforgiving and quite often overly calculating. But one thing they were not was afraid to confront evil, regardless of what shape it took.

-.-

The market in Prikkin patch was bustling with activity when he returned. Making sure he could still pass for a local, Arico slipped out of the building and looked around. The various stalls and shops were open as usual, but Arico could sense a… disquiet in the crowd itself. Even the Sustained guards seemed uneasy, whispering to each other.

Arico had some friends he could go to, friends who might know what was going on, but he couldn’t just drop in on them without warning. Besides, if they wanted to contact him, they’d use proper channels. For his safety, and for theirs.

He asked around casually, but none of the vendors he spoke to seemed to know anything more about the earthquake than Chanul had. An ill omen, some of them called it, while others laughed at them. Most agreed, though, that the Sustained Council would know what to do about it.

Most people believed that all navigators were magic beings, blessed by Aquun, and that the Council were the most learned and wise among the navigators. Arico knew better. Aquun herself was divine of course, and Arico certainly couldn’t explain why the navigators could do what they could do. Still, Arico had seen what else the Council had done, and how they behaved like bickering, mule-headed children. The Councilors were just people; no greater or more intelligent than anyone else, and soon enough he would help prove it to everyone.

“Timot! Over here!” The cheerful voice cut through his thoughts.

Arico looked over and grinned. Sitting on one end of an apple cart, Trania was waving excitedly at him. She was young—only six, but already had a keen insight into bargaining, no doubt gained from watching her uncle at work.

With exaggerated slowness, he plodded towards her and leaned on the cart with both elbows, looking up at her. “Your highness-ness.” The motion was only partly for her benefit. It wasn’t always easy for him to talk without also using his hands to make signs at her. Arico spoke in both ways out of habit, but his fake identity Timot did not.

Trania gave him a grave look, before nodding. “You may rise, my lord.”

She giggled as he kissed her hand. Trania had always been a good-tempered child. Arico fished out a coin and laid it on the table before looking over her selection of apples. Most of them were a bit too green for his liking, but he finally picked one out and bit into it. “Sho.” He mumbled over the mouthful. “Any big newsh today? About the quake, I mean.”

Trania jumped down off the cart. “I wasn’t afraid when it started,” she said with just a little too much emphasis in her voice to be truthful, “but Caddic was.” She looked across the street at another fruit vendor stall, where a boy about her age was glaring sullenly back at her. “He screamed when it started.”

“Did he now?” Arico shook his head. “Well, you shouldn’t hold that against him. After all, not all of us can be as brave as Queen Trania, can we?”

Trania took his hand and led him to the large building behind the fruit stand where she lived with her uncle. She traced her hand across a crack in the door’s frame. “What does it mean, Timot? Even Uncle Daril looked scared when he saw this.”

“I don’t know, highness-ness. But your uncle’s a good man. You should trust him when stuff like this happens.” He shook his head. “I noticed the Sustained guards talking about something up the street. Do you know what that was about?”

Trania shook her head. “Not really. I heard something about Krellik patch. But that was hours ago.”

Now that was interesting. Krellik was one of the northernmost patches in the city. The patch belonged to House Miller, one of the most powerful families in the city, but most people here didn’t know much about it. Krellik patch was on the outskirts of Miller territory—not particularly valuable land to them, and therefore not that heavily guarded. He’d been there a few times over the years, and had seen the metal grate protecting the sacred Waters.

Daril would know more about this, Arico surmised. He was a well-connected merchant, respected by his peers and rivals alike.

About half an hour later, Daril came around the corner. “Now what’s this?”

Arico was supporting Trania over his head with both hands. She had her arms out, a bit unsteadily, and was giggling as he moved her back and forth. It wasn’t that easy. She was getting a bit big for this kind of playtime.

“I’m a Sky Rider!” Trania announced proudly, as she ‘swerved’ to the side and back again.

“Oh? Where are you flying to, then?” Daril smiled openly.

“All the way up to the Twin Suns,” she said confidently.

“Well you’re a bit early for that, highness-ness. Or should I say lowness-ness!” Arico grunted with some effort, as he lowered her back to the ground. He stood back up and stretched briefly, before shaking Daril’s hand.

Daril eyed his niece critically. “You’re all dirty, aren’t you? Go inside and wash up. And put a pot over the fire. I’ll be in to make lunch in a few minutes.”

Arico maintained his smile as she waved goodbye and sprinted inside, despite the sour feeling in his gut. It was such a shame. Like any child, Trania had grand dreams about what she would be and do when she grew up. Her particular goal of being a Sky Rider depended on her being a navigator, though. She’d been tested at age three like any other child, but Arico had never asked Daril what the results were. Only one in ten Sustained was born a navigator, and even if she had beaten the odds, it was unlikely that a woman would ever be allowed up there painting with the others.

Daril seemed to sense his mood. “Shall we talk business, Timot?”

Arico nodded, grateful for the distraction, and opened his coin purse. “I’ll need a dozen for now. I’ll probably be back tomorrow, too.” Of course he’d already done his shopping, but it only made sense that Daril would share information more easily if he was selling something in the process. Apples were as good an icebreaker as any.

“Suits me,” Daril said easily.

Arico perused the selection quickly, and picked out the best-looking ones before haggling over price. He wasn’t a merchant himself, but he knew a thing or two about quality assurance. That was why he’d started buying from Daril in the first place.

“Oh, your cousin wanted to talk to you.” Daril added offhandedly, after they’d reached a price. “She found me this morning and said you should meet her as soon as you can.”

Arico hesitated briefly. Daril and Trania knew nothing about his true family, and for good reason. They knew all about Timot’s family, though. Or at least the people who would claim they were his family for a price. Here in Prikkin patch, that would be Terres Huun. A smuggler, of sorts. Arico paid for the apples, thanked Daril, and headed back into the market.

Because almost every navigator in the city was loyal to one of the Sustained Houses, or was a member of the Ascendant Guard, independent smuggling across patches was a practical impossibility. Just the same, a kind of subculture of smugglers and information dealers had sprung up inside many of them. They greased the palms of various navigators in exchange for discreet transportation of goods. They sometimes transported people as well, if those people didn’t have the money for a Transit Pass, or didn’t want to leave a paper trail.

Of course the Council claimed that such ‘degenerates’ were routinely hunted down and imprisoned for breaking the laws, but in practice they often looked the other way. After all, the Houses themselves sometimes wanted things taken care of quietly, and so found these people to be useful.

Terres didn’t know who he really was or where he came from, but she knew enough truth about him to grossly overcharge him for information. Aside from Cartwright himself, she was basically the only independent spymaster in the entire city, and as such she was quite careful to stay out of the conflicts between the Houses. Arico trusted that she wouldn’t reach out to him unless she had information she knew he’d want.

The meager coins he’d brought with him certainly wouldn’t be enough for her, and there was no way the Hauld would be willing to pay for a wild goose chase like this one. For this, Arico would have to dip into his savings. He slipped out of the crowd behind one of the red-lined structures, checked to make sure no one was looking, and then stepped into the threads. With practiced ease he navigated past the roiling chaotic streams of light, found his destination, and then stepped back out next to a pile of rubble. Arico had been here so often he was able to make the trip in just a few seconds.

A dozen or so buildings lined the streets; all of them collapsed from age or the elements. The air was dead quiet here. This patch had no name that Arico had heard, as it had been abandoned shortly after the Threading. Any and all valuables had been taken away, but some skeletons could still be seen on the road. There had been a great deal of confusion back then, and many people had died of thirst or starvation… and other causes. Most likely the descendants of the escapees had come back when they could, found no survivors, and just moved on. They’d left the remains here, but it was dry enough that the bones were still here even after hundreds of years.

Arico simply called this place the Hideaway. He’d been here many times before with Durhu, tunneling and moving debris. It was kind of a pet project they’d been working on for the past few years, during what spare time they could find.

He took a moment to look around for anyone else, and then headed to his stash. Back before the Threading, Patchwork had been home to so many people that the streets had actually been made to go over each other, much as they went over the Waters themselves. Such bridges had been common in this patch. Durhu had taught him that the keystone, or just underneath it, was the safest place on a bridge. Arico climbed up the side of the rubble next to the larger of these two bridges and carefully removed a loose brick from just under the keystone.

Reaching in, he felt around for a moment and then pulled out a bag of gemstones. They weren’t very large, but they had been precisely polished by a master jeweler, most likely before the Threading had even happened. Since Patchwork had no gem mines within the city, the only precious stones here were the ones that had started here, which made them even more precious. Arico had lifted these from a Sustained nobleman’s house, years before. He gingerly separated two from the others and put the bag back inside. For a moment he hesitated, looking down at them.

On one hand, they were nothing but rocks. Completely worthless to anyone who’d ever had to till the ground or raise animals for a living. On the other hand… these two emeralds were worth more than his father’s farm. Possibly all the Tellek farms put together. He’d taken a big gamble by stealing them. Most of the Sustained would have been caught immediately, but he’d been able to get into the threads before anyone saw him. A big risk for him to take, given that these things only had value because people said they had value. It hadn’t been exactly… moral of him. Durhu had taught him not to steal. Still, before long he would have to do a lot worse things than stealing.

Arico had to admit they were pretty to look at. He’d taken one back to show to Balter and Veles once, and now he could understand why people would fight and kill over something so small. Patchwork had many people who were struggling to live, starving and freezing their way through the harshest months. But to kill for something that you couldn’t eat or use to keep warm? Initially, that had seemed very strange to him.

Shrugging, he headed back towards the nearest threads. Time to buy some information.
« Last Edit: April 08, 2022, 03:05:25 AM by Daen »