Author Topic: Chapter 49  (Read 1469 times)

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Offline Daen

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Chapter 49
« on: April 11, 2022, 11:40:32 PM »
Chapter 49

Berilo felt his lips tighten in frustration as he looked down at the mess before him. He was standing on the north wall of the city, right next to the threads. The Millers’ tower was in front of him, torn open and barely standing. Lying on the railing connected to the tower were at least three bodies, and spread out beneath it were dozens of green-stained flagstones.

Ascendants were everywhere. The ones on the tower were wearing heavy protective gear, including some masks for the more apprehensive of them. There was no need for that—nethrit couldn’t really be inhaled—but they were being cautious anyway. The rest of the Ascendants were spread out on his order, forcibly keeping the Sustained onlookers from coming any closer. They’d formed a perimeter a few hundred spans out, and it looked like it was holding for now.

“What do we know?” He asked Prenim, who as usual was standing dutifully at his side.

“Not much, my liege,” Prenim said almost apologetically. Not for what happened of course, but for not knowing as much as he should. “The bodies up there are definitely stra’tchi. They each have a genuine mark. They’re all from Rennil patch, on the other side of the city. One of them has been tentatively identified as Ta’anu Bladescar, that patch’s Boss. We’re trying to identify the others.”

“Did they die from exposure?” Berilo asked softly, clamping down on his rage. These stra’tchi scum had just tried to poison half the city. In the middle of the Aquunsaya of all times! By all the Shemra, his entire extended family had been down there, celebrating in the Waters with the rest of their Sustained friends! They would have died slowly, and painfully, if these… assassins had succeeded.

“Yes, my liege,” Prenim confirmed, “but there’s more to it than that. All three had been shot or at least grazed with crossbow bolts. That fits with what the eyewitnesses said—that there was some kind of struggle, and that the heretic was here for it.”

“And the giant,” Berilo bit out angrily. “He was definitely here too?”

“So they claim.”

Yet another thing Hazra had messed up. She had assured him that despite her failure to kill that Endu bitch, or the heretic, or to apprehend the Harbinger, she had at least eliminated the giant.

Actually, Berilo had only himself to blame for this, he reflected grimly. He should never have sent a woman—even a woman with his daughter’s impressive history—to do a man’s job. Well, he wouldn’t make that mistake again. He climbed down the ladder to the ground and walked a small circle around what was left of the tower. It should be safe to walk on the flagstones—only bare skin would be at risk.

Prenim continued talking as he followed. “From what the Ascendants have been able to piece together, the heretic, giant and possibly the Harbinger too, confronted Bladescar and the others on the tower. They managed to incapacitate them, but then the tower began to come apart and Bladescar and his friends were splashed with the liquid. Based on the position of their bodies, it looks like they died without waking up, which suggests they were drugged. We know that Rennil patch has a natural sedative plant that they cultivate and sell to other patches."

Well, he’d have ample time to deal with Rennil patch for this outrage. For now there were more pressing matters to consider. “What about the one who escaped?”

“Ah, well, the Ascendants weren’t sure on that part. Apparently one of Bladescar’s men jumped off of the tower and into the Waters just as they arrived. He must have been lucky and avoided getting any of the liquid on his skin, because he swam south and into the threads.”

“A stra’tchi navigator?” Berilo said harshly. “Like the heretic himself?”

“It appears so, my liege.”

That was troubling, but it would also have to wait. Berilo gave orders to keep Rennil patch under close observation. If any of them tried to leave, they were to be stopped and arrested. It was looking more and more like this had been some kind of power struggle within the heretic’s movement. Bladescar must have been part of the movement as well. Just within the last hour or so, Berilo had gotten word from some of his spies inside the threads that the dwarves had started stockpiling the Waters in the Enclave. For what reason, they had no idea. However now, seeing just how close the Waters had come to being completely poisoned, it made perfect sense to him.

This couldn’t have been part of the Hauld’s plans. If it had been, there would have been no need for a fight. No need to stockpile the Waters at the last instant, and certainly no dead stra’tchi here.

Berilo came to a stop at the base of the tower, where the pair of hands had been left behind. They had been severed cleanly, and obviously intentionally. It was possible to use the threads to amputate limbs—it had been done before, if only rarely. If a navigator chose to leave a part of his body behind, he could do that, though Berilo had never seen the results with his own eyes before. This situation was unprecedented for other reasons as well. “Are you sure these haven’t been touched?” He continued to stare down at them.

“Absolutely sure, my liege,” Prenim said confidently. “The Sustained witnesses were too shocked to do anything about them, and the Ascendants who arrived after were smart enough to leave everything as it was.”

“So these hands belonged to the heretic?”

“That’s what the witnesses said, sir. Though I don’t see how it’s possible,” Prenim continued with a note of doubt in his voice. “The nearest threads are a dozen spans away, at the top of a wall! He must have detached them there, and had someone drop them here, for some grisly reason.”

Prenim thrived on facts. On reliable data and repeatable processes. That made him an astounding adjutant and a clear source of sound advice. He clearly didn’t believe what he’d been told by the Sustained who’d watched this happen. But then… he didn’t know what Berilo did.

Had Hazra been telling the truth after all? The witnesses had claimed Arico had vanished after jumping off the tower. Before he hit the ground. If Hazra was right, the heretic was able to pull the threads to himself. That certainly would have allowed him to navigate away from the tower safely, and to leave his hands behind if necessary.

If she’d been right about that… was she also right about Arico himself? She hadn’t offered any proof—just a feeling, she’d said. Berilo shook his head. It was something to ponder, anyway.

“This should be easy enough to explain away,” Prenim continued unabated. “We tell the Sustained that the heretic and his minions planned this from the start. That they wanted to take advantage of the Aquunsaya to murder thousands of innocent people, but that they were also in a hurry because the Ascendants had learned of their plans. Because of that hurry, they accidentally exposed themselves to this horrific poison that they had created. Three of them died, and the heretic himself was mutilated. There are only a few witnesses to the real events—I’m sure they can be persuaded to support that story.”


“My liege?” Prenim asked uncertainly. “What do you mean?”

“I mean no. We don’t tell the Sustained anything. Have the Ascendants clean up this entire area, and demolish the tower itself. Have the hands taken back to Sevvas patch for study. But as for the onlookers out there, tell them nothing.”

“Sir, if we don’t control this story, the rumors will be-”

“Just do as I’ve said!” Berilo said sharply, and Prenim bowed in fear. He immediately stepped back and began issuing the appropriate orders.

He was right, of course. Rumors and stories about these events would spread far and wide. In retrospect, Berilo wasn’t sure why he’d given that order. Perhaps he felt the rumors couldn’t be contained—not with so many witnesses. Uncharacteristically, Prenim seemed to be overly optimistic about how easily the truth could be controlled. For some reason though, Berilo felt right about letting this story into the wild. Let the people talk, and whisper, and ruminate. Let them spread whatever stories they wanted to about this.

Berilo could make use of it all.


It was only a few minutes until noon, and even this early into spring the sun was already beating down on Arico from above. He strained with effort as he slowly made his way up the hill. Sweat had trickled its way onto his hands, threatening to loosen his grip on the stretcher behind him. Arico stopped briefly to dry them on his tunic before continuing.

Hazra was still unconscious—though by now it was probably because of the drugs Endu had used and not the impact that had knocked her out in the first place. She would likely remain so until well in the afternoon, but that was all right. Arico could wait.

At the top of the hill stood the cabin Arico had been told about. He relaxed slightly as the steep incline eased a bit, and rolled her inside. He nodded at Odjes, who was already seated at the table inside.

For an instant pain lanced through both of his wrists and Arico choked out a cry. But then it was gone. “Are you all right?” Odjes looked back at him with concern.

“I’m fine,” Arico said suspiciously, massaging his wrists. That had been weird.

With Odjes’ help, Arico lifted Hazra up off the stretcher and onto the bunk in the corner. He draped her armor over a nearby chair as well. Her weapons were here too, in a box on the stretcher, but he wasn’t about to hand those over. Not at first, anyway. He still couldn’t believe his sister was the legendary assassin everyone was afraid of. How had she come to this? If only he could ask her.

Hazra sat bolt upright in bed. Arico jumped backwards in startlement, before trying to at least appear calm and composed. She looked puzzled. Disoriented. But not in any pain as she should be. “Arico?” She asked, standing up easily. “Is it really you, brother?”

“It… is,” he said suspiciously. “Were you expecting someone else? And come to think of it, how did you know I’m your brother?”

“You told me,” Hazra said dismissively, brushing off her armor and putting it on. “Don’t you remember?”

Now that she mentioned it, Arico did remember it vaguely. He’d been sitting in the chair, and she’d approached him from behind… Pain seared its way through his hands again, and again Arico winced. At least this time he hadn’t made any noise. Hazra was still putting on the armor, and apparently didn’t notice. Odjes was nowhere to be seen, either.

“Well,” she continued in a muffled tone. “You got a message to me, asking me to meet you here in the cabin at noon.” The armor slipped on, and she gestured out the window. “It’s noon. And here I am.”

Yes, that was right. He had asked Terres to send that message. Before all that mess with Ta’anu and the tower—he shook his head. Focus. Hazra was looking at him, a little puzzled, and then her expression shifted to disappointment. “Wait. This is just a memory. I’m in the sha’haln.” She sighed. “Which means you’re not real. You’re just a version of the Arico I know in the waking world.” She didn’t know!

Of course she didn’t know. Cartwright had told Jaas the specifics of how the links worked, and she had told Arico. But no one else but the three of them knew for now.

“No, Hazra, it’s me. This is real… well, as real as real can get in a sha’haln dream,” he assured her. “It’s called linking. Navigators do it all the time without knowing it. Because we’re both powerful navigators, not to mention twins, we’re linked to each other right now!”

Her expression was disbelieving at first, and she reached out a hand slowly. Arico’s impulse was to back away, knowing how quickly she could kill him, but he wasn’t in danger here. Not in a dream. Although… people had been known to die in their sleep, hadn’t they?

“Most people link to each other without even knowing it,” he continued as she slowly walked a circle around him. “They dismiss what they learned in the dream because they think it’s not real, but for us, it is. We’re talking to each other, even though both of us are asleep right now, in different patches!”

“I just took a nap,” she said softly, almost mercurially. “Something happened yesterday, and father has tightened security all over the manor. I couldn’t get free to see you at noon, because he won’t let me leave Sevvas patch, so I dreamed my way here instead!”

“And I’m heavily sedated,” Arico said ruefully. “For pretty much the same reason. Otherwise I wouldn’t dream of sleeping at this hour. Literally, as it turns out,” he added wryly.

Hazra smiled slightly. “It is real, isn’t it? You’re actually here!” Suddenly she grabbed him tightly in a bear hug, lifting him partly off the ground and squeezing the breath out of him.

The sheer surprise of it took him off guard, but when she put him back down he returned the embrace. He remembered everything now, including losing his hands. But here they were just fine. Here he could put his hands on her shoulders and smile at her.

That wasn’t the only weird thing about this situation. For one thing, she seemed very different than the last time they’d spoken. “Tell me everything about yourself, Arico. Where you were raised, what you did for fun, what friends you had. I want to know it all!”

Arico didn’t know what to say at first. “Uh, that would take some time, and you’re only napping. You could wake up at any time!”

She nodded. “You’re right. We’ve got more important stuff to talk about. Sorry. It’s just ever since I found out I have another brother, I’ve been dying to know more. I bet you have a few questions yourself, but that can wait. If we really can communicate through the sha’haln, we can do this whenever we want!”

He had studied Hazra’s past, for a while. As a noblewoman and the closest thing this city had to a princess, she really did have no secrets. Well, other than the big secret. As a result he already knew a great deal about her. He nodded, slowly. “As long as we set a time and place in advance, we can meet up in our dreams.”

“Anyway,” she said, sitting down at the table and gesturing for him to join her, “I’ve made arrangements with Huun. She’s already getting the paperwork ready for you. A new identity, in a Sustained patch. A whole history is being written up as we speak! As for me, I’ve already been there, and checked out the place. It should be safe enough for you. Provided you don’t do anything stupid.”

Arico stared at her from across the table. “Wait… what are you talking about? Why would I need another identity?”

She looked surprised. “Why, to get out, of course.”

“Out? Out of what?”

“The movement! The conflict, the coming Tumult. The involvement with the dwarves. All of it!”

He didn’t know what to say, again. This was starting to become a theme. Would it always be this way, talking with her? A note of suspicion had entered Hazra’s voice. “Isn’t that why you contacted me in the first place? So that I could help you escape all of this? I can protect you, Arico. I already lost one brother; I’m not about to lose another!”

“That’s not why I reached out to you, though. I’m… grateful you offered, but I don’t need your protection.”

“Yes, you do!” She insisted, leaning forward. “This is dangerous stuff you’re mixed up in, Arico! The dwarves are using you for their own ends, the stra’tchi can’t protect you if you get in trouble, and my father—our father—will kill you if he has to! I have to keep you safe. You’re my little brother—I have to look out for you!”

Arico sighed. Yes, she was different than last time. Now that she knew the truth, she’d graduated from being a lone predator to a predator with scary maternal instincts. And she didn’t know how right she was. He looked down at his hands again. He was involved in more danger than she knew.

“Hazra… I’m willing to die for this. If my speech at the Laentana wasn’t proof enough of that, surely the stuff I’ve done since has proven it. I love that you’re trying to help me, I really do, but this is who I am. You can’t protect me from myself.”

They sat in silence for a few moments, gauging each other’s expressions. Eventually Hazra sat back, concern mixed with respect in her eyes. “If you’re really set on staying with this suicidal movement, then why did you reach out to me? Why take the risk?”

Arico chuckled. “The same reason you had at first. I want to get to know you. The real you, not the princess or the mask you put on. And I wanted your help too. You tracked me through the threads! That should have been impossible, but you did it. If you show me how you did that, I think I can show you how to jump into the threads like I do. We can exchange information, at least. If not straight-up teach each other new navigating techniques!”

She was already shaking her head. “Arico, I already know how to jump into the threads. How to pull them to where I am, just like you do. I learned it pretty early on during my career as Heartbane.”

His disappointment must have shown, because Hazra reached across the table and gripped his ‘hand’. “Don’t worry, little brother. I’ll teach you how to track through the threads, and whatever else I can, too. If you’re going to survive, you’ll need all the help you can get.”

It was so strange to be ‘mothered’ by this woman, who was at first a meek noblewoman, then a cold-blooded killer, and now a devoted, caring sister. It was as if she was multiple people at once! Arico shook his head to clear it. “How did you first figure out you could pull on the threads?”

Hazra grimaced. “I was afraid you were going to ask that. I’ll tell you, but you have to keep it between us. The only other person who knows is the Clarion, for reasons you’ll understand soon enough.”

Arico considered that for a moment. So far he’d had no luck teaching others how to move the threads like he, and now apparently his sister, could. If what she told him could help, he had to do whatever he could to learn. Besides, it would be an easy secret to keep. He could always share his own story, if that helped others learn. He let out a slow breath. “Of course. I swear I’ll keep it between the three of us.”

She leaned back in the chair for a few seconds, breathing slowly. “It was just over three years ago, in Sevvas patch. The Clarion and I… well, we’d just had our second miscarriage,” she said darkly. “I assume you know about that?”

Arico nodded curtly. “I heard. Everyone heard. I suppose that’s one of the downsides of being the Lord Ascendant’s daughter. Everyone knows everything about you, almost as soon as it happens.”

“Well, not everything,” she qualified wryly, “but enough. After we threaded the baby’s remains… I just stopped doing anything. I couldn’t bring myself to eat, or sleep. I spoke to no one, not even the Clarion. Life didn’t matter anymore. How could it?”

As she described it, the dreamscape around them changed. Suddenly they were there at the threading ceremony. Hazra was dressed in black, weeping, and the Clarion was behind her, holding her shoulders tightly.

She focused on his face again, and her voice gained urgency. “You know what kind of pressure we live under, Arico! If we don’t produce children, if we don’t further the line, we’re useless! At least you men can get into a duel and die with honor or some nonsense like that, but what option do we have?”

Arico winced in sympathy. He also couldn’t father children—though he was keeping that to himself for now. As he thought about it, the scene started to change again—to the home he’d shared with Nouma. He hurriedly stopped it though, and they were again at the threading ceremony. This was about her, not him.

She was completely correct. A barren woman had very little place in Sustained society. If only she’d been the sibling who’d been raised a stra’tchi. She could have taken in someone from the Rejoining. At least been able to care for a child, even if it wasn’t her own! He’d had that impulse himself, and might have even acted on it, if not for the movement.

“After that, my whole life seemed completely pointless. Not even my reputation as Heartbane was enough to keep me going. I didn’t want to be a burden on my family, or on the Clarion. He was already sworn to our family, so he would be protected no matter what happened to me.” Hazra looked out the window, to the south. They couldn’t see it from here, but the city wall was about twenty leagues away, with towers lining it. “I navigated my way to the tallest tower down there. I used to go there when I was a child, just to take in the view.” Again the scene changed. This time they were standing atop the tallest tower on the south wall.

“I do the same, from time to time,” Arico put in, feeling the familiarity of this place. It was in fact the same tower he’d taken Jaas to, just after her arrival. The view had allowed him to not just explain the city to her, but to show her.

Hazra smiled at him. “Somehow I knew you would understand. I wonder…” she trailed off briefly, her gaze suddenly more evaluative than reflective. “If this is a shared dream—if we’re both in this same shared sha’haln experience together, then maybe I can do this!” She grabbed his head in both her hands, gripping his skull tightly.

Arico wasn’t exactly sure what she was trying to do at first. Then his back arched and he let out a shuddering gasp within the dream. It felt as if someone had poured ice-cold Waters down his body, from his head down to his toes!

Suddenly he was no longer just standing there with his sister, overlooking the city. He was her. He was the one still weeping from a loss, so recent and raw! He was the one crouched on the edge of the tower, looking down and feeling sick with loss and despair. What point was there in continuing this farce of a life? The Clarion had been encouraging and supportive. “We will try again, that’s all,” he’d said, in that damn soft voice of his.

But there could be no justification. Arico knew that the next time would be no different. That it could only bring more suffering into their lives. Straightening up, he closed his tear-stained eyes. His breathing slowed, and his mind calmed. This was the right thing to do: he was sure of it. Not just for himself, but for the Clarion, too.

Without any hesitation, Arico stepped forward off the tower.

Again, the feeling of ice-cold Waters flowed past him, and he was himself again. Hazra let go of him at the same moment, her eyes tearing up all over again. “What was that?” He demanded, taking a step away from her. “What did you just do?”

“Did it work?” She asked quickly. After a moment, Hazra smiled. “Good. I wasn’t sure it would. I heard stories when I was a child, about people using the sha’haln for more than just dreams. I figured, if we were twins, we could connect in a deeper way than just talking.” She was silent for a moment, and knelt down on the tower’s edge, looking down. “In the sha’haln we can become each other, if we wish. I showed you who I was, and what I was feeling when I tried to kill myself.”

It had felt so real! He could still taste the bile in his mouth, from when she’d thrown up after losing the baby. He could still feel his heart pounding against his chest from when she’d been standing on the tower’s edge!

But he didn’t get much of a chance to process those feelings before his own memories intruded again. Unbidden, an image flashed through Arico’s mind. His hands, stained with green poison, slowly killing him. A crowd below, looking up at him. A jump he’d taken off of the tower. Just before- “You navigated into the threads in midair, didn’t you?” He said suddenly.

Her eyes widened a bit. “Yes. That’s it, exactly. I had no idea how it happened, or why. Suddenly I was just inside the threads! I remember feeling despair, at the top of that tower. A fear of death on my way down. But at the end there, just before I hit, I was…” She trailed off, her thoughts apparently lost in the past.

“Angry.” Arico whispered. The ‘forced’ memories she’d made him experience were making more sense now. After all, what could be more basic to human beings, than just wanting to be understood? It had been a violation, to be sure, especially since she’d done it without any warning. Thankfully, he now knew why she’d done it, and he could sympathize with that.

Again, she focused on him. “You understand,” she exclaimed with a smile. “Yes, I was angry. Not just at myself for failing my father and my consort. I was angry at my child for dying. I was angry at the Clarion for being so calm, and not for yelling at me in rage and grief, as I knew he wanted to. Angry at the Sustained for having such requirements. Angry at Aquun herself for letting the Shemra torture me so!”

“It’s exactly how I felt, too,” Arico said softly. “Just when you shot at me. That was the first time I’d ever jumped. And then later on, I jumped in my sleep, possibly because I was angry in my dreams!”

“I knew you were lying!” She accused him, though her tone was light. In the blink of an eye, they were back in the cabin again, sitting across from each other at the table. “When you said you could vanish whenever you wanted to! You had no idea if you could jump away or not, did you?”

Arico shook his head. “I am sorry about that, but I had to find some way of reaching out to you. Like it or not, you can be damn scary when you want to be! Besides,” he added quickly. “It’s true now though, isn’t it? Apparently we both can vanish from anywhere in the city, whenever we want.”

“That’s just the tip of the spear, brother,” she said, and suddenly they were back in Yeggin patch, at the ruins next to the threads. The real Yeggin patch where she’d tried to kill him, not the mock-up Jaas had built.

“You may have been practicing for a few weeks now,” she said with a mischievous smile, “but I’ve been doing this for more than a year! Come on, I’ve got a lot to show you!”
« Last Edit: April 12, 2022, 01:33:31 AM by Daen »