Author Topic: Chapter 46  (Read 8329 times)

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Offline Daen

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Chapter 46
« on: April 12, 2022, 01:41:11 AM »
Chapter 46

Jaas and Arico stepped out of the threads into what looked like an abandoned stone dwelling. Dust and cobwebs had accumulated in the old building, giving the place a somewhat sad but not particularly creepy feeling. Jaas had to suppress the urge to start cleaning the place up. At the Academy she’d been known as a chronic straightener and neatener. She’d even researched several spells specifically for that purpose.

It had been a day and a half since her ‘conversation’ with Halseus, and it appeared that he’d accepted her terms. There had been no sign that he was moving against them—no chatter among the Sustained, at least that they could hear. No unusual movements within the Ascendants. He probably knew that if he did try to kill them to keep his secret, he’d be unable to do so before they told others. Jaas smiled. Here in the city, Halseus was effectively a god, and she’d gone toe-to-toe with him! It was exhilarating.

Arico had been quite understanding of the whole thing. Jaas suspected that it was partially out of relief upon learning she hadn’t meant anything in the letter. He also seemed to understand the importance of both Halseus’ links and the fact that they now knew just what those links could and couldn’t tell him.

Then this morning he’d gotten a missive through the threads, and immediately made his way here. He’d brought her along, but didn’t tell her why. It was possible that he was going to meet with his sister, actually.

They’d crossed a redline upon leaving the threads, which in itself was strange. The dwarves didn’t use redlines, and the stra’tchi rarely did either, so she hadn’t seen one since her early days in Patchwork. That seemed like ages ago, now. When Arico saw her looking at the line curiously, he explained in an undertone. “Redlines usually only exist in Sustained territory, because the Sustained are constantly moving from one patch to another. Stra’tchi patches don’t use them because they don’t have the ability to leave on their own, and everyone learns early on where their own threads are.”

“Where are we, anyway?” Jaas asked, just as quietly.

“Prikkin patch,” he said with a grimace, carefully arranging his tunic to hide his shoulder brand. “That’s why we had to dress up. It’s a wealthy merchant patch almost in the middle ground of Sustained territory. We should blend in, as long as we look the part.”

Jaas shook her head. “I still don’t know why you brought me along, Arico,” she said curiously. “If you do meet up with your sister, I’ll just get in the way. I doubt she’ll want to talk to me. That is, if she’s interested in talking at all.” Jaas rubbed the scab on her palm gingerly.

She understood why it had happened. Intellectually, she didn’t even blame Heartbane anymore. The assassin had probably been ordered to take the Harbinger alive and bring her back. Still… emotionally she wasn’t looking forward to seeing the woman again. At least here in a public place, she was unlikely to do anything rash.

“Oh, we’re not here to see my sister,” Arico said softly, looking out one of the broken windows. “We’re here for someone else.” Before she could ask who, he grabbed her uninjured hand and pulled her out into the street.

Jaas was usually happy to dress up and to see another patch with Arico, but this time it seemed like a pretty big risk. He hadn’t let her bring her pack along, either. That meant she wasn’t here for her historical knowledge. Whatever the reason, Jaas got the impression he wasn’t looking forward to it. This entire trip he’d seemed uncomfortable, and it was only getting worse.

It was a cold and damp morning here, just like it had been in the Fishbowl. The threads definitely interfered with rainfall, but apparently the same wasn’t true of dew or mist. Following Arico’s lead, she strolled down the bustling street with him, arm in arm. As she tried not to be too conspicuous, Jaas also took in the vastly different colors, styles of dress, and body language. She’d met Sustained before, but Alzhi barely counted, and Velya and the other Thornes had been understandably secretive about their origins. Now she could see these people at their ease.

They moved freely in great masses, bustling up and down the streets that ran parallel to the riverbank in the distance. Jaas could even see the straight line in the water that represented the threads cutting their way through the river. The interaction of air, water, and threads created a visual disturbance in the water that could be seen from a distance. It was almost as if a thin line in the river was boiling while the rest was left undisturbed.

As for the people, they were wearing the entire range of colors in silk and linen. Some wore fur with leather shoes, and others had elaborate hairstyles shaped like ornate towers. She could hear a lot of people speaking, but it was all business. Shopkeepers were hawking their wares, and a penet here or there was reminding people about an upcoming service or sermon. She even thought she saw a duel with swords taking place around one corner, as Arico escorted her past one of the alleyways.

It was a very different experience. The stra’tchi (and the dwarves as well, to a lesser extent) seemed to share a bond with each other, no doubt forged by the fact that they were stuck with each other most of the year. Their conversations were much more intimate, and much less… commercial. It was obvious that gold coins meant less to the stra’tchi than they did here. These people were much more removed from the prospect of physical hardship or death, and apparently that meant they were removed from each other as well.

Arico made a beeline through the street to a fruit vendor stall a few hundred paces north of their arrival building. Jaas could sense some of his tension fade away from his movement when he saw a girl sitting on the end of the fruit cart, dangling her feet over the cobblestones below.

For her part, the girl’s face brightened when she saw him as well. “Timot!” She slipped off the cart just in time for Arico to scoop her up in a brief hug. Timot. That was the fake name Arico had used for years, up until his speech at the Laentana. It wasn’t safe to use anymore, though.

Arico clearly knew that as well. He looked side to side nervously before setting the girl down on the cart again. “Hi, Trania.” He gestured towards Jaas. “This is my friend Elina.”

“Hi,” Trania waved up at Jaas, before turning her attention back to Arico. “I haven’t seen you in a long time,” she said with a slight note of accusation in her tone.

“I know. I’m sorry,” he said with what looked like genuine regret. “I had… business all over the city.”

“My uncle said you were in trouble… or something?” Trania guessed slowly. “I don’t really remember what he said. Just that I shouldn’t talk to you.”

Arico again glanced around nervously. “Trania, I just need to borrow Sleek for a bit. May I? It won’t take long, I promise.”

She shrugged trustingly. “Sure.” Putting her fingers to her lips, she gave a piercing whistle, and a long-haired dog came trotting out from behind the nearby home. Grabbing a leash from behind the stand, the little girl attached it to the little dog’s collar.

Jaas had never seen a breed like that before. It had wiry black hair almost completely obscuring its face and nose, extending right down to the ground. Briefly, she remembered Durhu telling her about animals here in the city that were bred for different qualities. In this case it looked like this animal’s ‘quality’ was a lot of useless shedding.

Arico thanked Trania and took ahold of Sleek’s leash. They made their way up the street again with the dog obediently keeping pace. Based on the architectural changes, it looked like they were heading into this patch’s banking district. Or what it had used to be, anyway. This particular area looked mostly empty. They stopped in another abandoned building, and Jaas could make out another redline inside.

Arico handed the leash to Jaas. “Make sure he has a chance to smell your hands. He’s pretty trusting, but I just want to make sure.”

Jaas nodded and extended her hands to the little furball. “Why did you ask for him, anyway?”

He only gave a slight smile in return. “I might need him to send a message,” he said cryptically. “Listen, I’m going over to that brown building across the way,” he pointed it out through the door. “Stay here for now, but if Sleek starts barking and tries to run away, just let him go and follow me to the same door.”

Jaas shrugged. She’d long since stopped questioning Arico’s tactics. “Good luck with… whatever it is you’re doing,” she said encouragingly, before brushing off a space on the bank’s stairs to sit and wait.

-.-

Arico approached the old brown building feeling a hint of the old apprehension. It was strange, after all the dangers he’d faced in the last few months that he’d be frightened now. Or not frightened, really. More… uncomfortable.

He knocked on the door briefly, and the slot opened for a few seconds, eyes staring out at him. “Who is it?”

Arico smiled and shook his head. They hadn’t changed a bit. “It’s Huun’s long-lost cousin, here to pay her a visit!” He teased, and the door opened.

Just as before, Punek waited until he stepped inside and then searched him for weapons. He’d barely remembered to stash his weapons in the Enclave before coming here. Wearing them had become second nature, to his surprise and not so mild dismay. He’d always felt that fighting (outside of the Deathwatch patch of course) should be a last resort, but he’d had fight and draw blood more than once since the last time he’d visited Terres. Hopefully that would be ending soon.

It seemed that Terres had done well for herself. From what Arico could see while being escorted upstairs, she’d purchased both adjoining buildings. It looked like she’d knocked down the intervening walls and expanded operations into them. Being an information dealer hadn’t taken up much space, but it looked like she’d also expanded her smuggling operation. Judging by the faint smells he could pick up, one of the things she was smuggling was sparkpowder. Now that was interesting.

“Well, well,” Huun spoke from the top of the stairs. She’d changed her hairstyle, and her dress wasn’t the sort she’d once worn. Apparently booming business required a new look. She waved a hand and Punek left them alone. “It’s been months. You don’t write; you don’t visit. What’s a girl to think?”

“Come on, Terres,” Arico responded, slowly ascending towards her. “You of all people know how busy I’ve been.”

“Oh my, yes. My dear cousin Timot, who turned out to really be Arico, leader of the dastardly rebels bent on returning this city to chaos! Or if you believe things from the other side, the heroic Arico, fighting the good fight for stra’tchi rights and equality. Yes, you have been busy,” she said with a pouting expression on her lips. “That doesn’t mean I forgive you.”

“Who said I was asking for forgiveness?” He countered, mimicking her tone of voice. “You’ve probably heard enough propaganda by now to know that the real truth about me lies somewhere in the middle of both stories. But then,” he fished out a tiny emerald from his pocket, “I came here on business.”

It seemed so long ago when he’d come here looking for information on Jaas. Before he’d even known it had been Jaas, actually. Rebel movements were expensive, too. This was one of the last gems from his original stash. All the rest had gone one by one to buy favors, silence, or supplies for the stra’tchi and dwarves. Arico was not at all sure the favor she owed him would cover his current request, which was why he’d brought payment.

Terres eyed the gem briefly. “Ahh, Timot—Arico, I mean. Times have changed.” She waved a hand out the window as he reached the top of the stairs, and he could see a dozen buildings to the north. “I’m not a small-time operator anymore. I’m in big business now. You can’t just buy my affections anymore.”

Arico grimaced. “Yes, I know. It’s admirable, all you’ve been able to do in just a few short months. How much of the credit goes to me, though, I wonder?”

Her expression darkened and she gave him a sharp glance. He hurried to explain. “All I mean is, chaos is wonderful for your business, isn’t it? I’ve been stirring up trouble all over the city. How many of the smaller Sustained Houses have come to you for weapons and information, anyway? How many of the wealthier stra’tchi patches have reached out to you trying to predict the next Beast attack? Face it, Terres. I’ve been good for your business!”

“Perhaps,” she sniffed, and took his arm. Coyly leading him into her old office, she turned to face the old map of the city on the wall. “Well, I suppose I can hear you out anyway. For old times’ sake.”

The map had been redrawn again and again. No doubt another result of his activities. It felt weird to take so much credit for what was definitely a team effort, but Terres would expect him to. Her uncomfortable fixation on him demanded that he act as arrogant as she was. He shook his head to clear it. “I need to get a message to Heartbane,” he said bluntly.

If he hadn’t been watching for it, he might have missed the slight stiffening of her shoulders. Anyone who didn’t know her might have missed it anyway. “Oh, no no no, dear one,” she said, wagging a finger in his direction. “I steer clear of cold-blooded killers like that. This job requires finesse and the ability to stay unobtrusive, and Heartbane has neither of those things.”

“I know she’s a woman,” Arico said confidently, but he held his breath all the same. He was gambling that Terres was Hazra’s contact outside of Sevvas patch. She’d been able to hide her activities for years, from everyone. That suggested she had outside help, and Terres Huun was the only real option as a business partner. Still, he wasn’t sure of that.

Not until now, anyway. Terres’ reaction was all the confirmation he needed. She took in a sharp breath and looked at him in surprise. “How in the Many did you-?”

“I have my sources too, Terres,” he continued with false confidence. “I also know she was injured recently, and is on the mend. She’ll be contacting you again soon, and when she does, I want you to tell her that I’ll be waiting for her at the cabin, at noon every day for a few minutes. I’ll come alone, and I expect the same from her.”

Terres had no way of knowing, but the ‘cabin’ was of course the out-of-the way building where Hazra had woken up and almost strangled him. It was in an abandoned patch and out of sight of the threads. He hoped that curiosity, if nothing else, would compel his sister to go there alone.

The Hauld hadn’t been too keen on getting in bed with Huun’s smuggling operation. When Arico had come to him with this idea, the Hauld had balked at first. He’d even suggested that Arico find his way back into Sevvas patch and speak to Hazra directly. Eventually though, Arico had convinced him. Not only could he reach out to his sister this way, but it was an excellent opportunity to sound out Terres herself. Traditionally, information brokers and smugglers tried to stay as neutral as possible in situations like this, but it didn’t hurt to check.

There was another incentive for smugglers like Huun as well. Arico knew for a fact that Terres had long been unhappy with the Sustained taxes levied on her and her business. Because most of her revenue was technically illegal, that meant the bribes and payoffs necessary to keep her in business were getting bigger and bigger. It wasn’t as though she could go to the law for help, either.

Terres looked at him, suspicion melting away to admiration. “You have changed, haven’t you? Not just in name, either!” Sidling closer to him, she ran a hand along his chest. He was wearing leather armor under his tunic, thankfully. “I’ve missed you, Arico. And I really like this new you very much.”

He endured her proximity for a few seconds. When she tried to slip her hand under his armor though, he gently caught her wrist. “Do we have a deal?”

There was that pouting look again. Terres stepped back, businesslike expression and all. “We do, but I have one condition,” she said ominously. “I want to meet her. The Harbinger.” Arico was surprised to hear Terres call her that. Granted, it was the common name for Jaas, but the Huun family had always been quite practical, and ‘Harbinger’ was a very superstitious title.

Still, he’d planned for this. Giving Terres a sideways wink, he fished out a small whistle from his pocket and blew on it. The sound would carry through the open window, far enough to reach where it needed to go. Most likely Jaas wouldn’t hear it, but Sleek definitely would. Sure enough it wasn’t long before Arico could make out distant barking, and a grey-black streak of dog went shooting down the market path, yipping madly and trailing a leash on his way back to his beloved mistress.

That was why he’d borrowed the dog in the first place. He could have just gone to a window and waved for Jaas to see him, but it was better that she stay completely out of sight. Especially since he wasn’t entirely sure how long he would need here with Terres before calling for Jaas.

Terres gave him a curious glance, before understanding washed over her face. “You mean she’s here??” She made her way over to the window, moving slightly too fast to be graceful, and peered down at the street. She glanced back at him with a smile. “You knew I’d want to meet her. You know me too well.”

Arico shrugged as he joined her at the window. It hadn’t been much more than a lucky guess, really. If he’d been wrong, at least Jaas would have had a chance to see more of the city. Terres had always been predictable when it came to him, though.

Through the window he could see Jaas make her way up to the front door. She pulled back her hood and knocked tentatively, looking nervous. For a moment Arico was concerned that Terres might want to hurt her. If push came to shove, he could probably get past Punek and get away with Jaas. Hopefully. For all he knew, he might be able to jump into the threads again. It had happened when Jaas was in danger before.

That’s the other woman?” Terres demanded, aghast. “She’s… she looks like a scared little lamb!”

“You should probably go easy on her,” Arico suggested mildly. “She’s not as pretty as you, after all. Not everyone can be.”

He was teasing her and it was clear she knew that, but after a moment she nodded anyway. “Send her up,” she called down to Punek.

-.-

Back at her dwelling in the Fishbowl, Jaas leaned over her notes again. She’d packed up the information concerning Halseus and stored it away. It was no longer needed now that she’d figured him out. Also, she’d had her conversation with Terres Huun, and now she had a whole new puzzle to solve. Her mind kept drifting back to her one-sided conversation with Halseus, though. She wasn’t upset about that, really. It was more Arico’s expression when he’d first come in with that letter.

She hadn’t wanted to write that letter in secret, but if she’d told him, Halseus would have heard it. It had been an operational necessity to deceive him. Arico ought to understand that better than most—he’d taught it to her—but his look of betrayal and confusion was still rattling around her head now, even days later. It was identical to the look he’d had when she’d first agreed to keep the Thornes a secret. When she’d come back and couldn’t say a word about where she’d been, or who had taken her.

Was this how it would always be? Friends keeping secrets from friends for the benefit of the movement? Distrust and suspicion growing in every crack because of it? How could real-life spies live like that? She wasn’t even an amateur and she was already having a hard time dealing with all the deception. Jaas shook her head and tried to focus again on her notes.

It appears that Terres Huun and Arico have a long history together, despite the Hauld’s obvious disdain for smugglers. I could perceive definite interest on her part back during our brief chat. And jealousy as well. That’s probably why she was so hostile to me at first.


Jaas sighed. It’s amazing how even smart, rational people like Huun can be completely sideswiped by their emotions. I get the feeling that she’s actually better off when Arico’s not around. She can probably concentrate more easily without the distraction. I’ll include more information concerning her when I get it. Obviously she keeps a low profile so her business can thrive. I would do the same.

As for Halseus, she added with a smile, there has been no word. I’m going to assume, for now, that it means he’s accepted my offer. Unfortunately, it also means we have to figure out how to help Arico without his input. I have a few ideas, but I’m not sure how effective they’ll be.

In almost perfect timing, there was a knock on the door just as she was finishing up. She capped the inkwell and went over to let Arico in. “Good, you got my message. Come with me. There’s something I want to show you.” She pulled him back outside and closed the door behind them.

He groaned as she led him back downstairs and to one of the underground thread-tunnels. “Can it wait? I’ve gotten all of… two hours of sleep in the last two days. Even Tarith said I shouldn’t have gotten up yet, and he never sleeps more than he has to.”

“No, it can’t,” she said curtly. “Trust me, this is important.”
« Last Edit: April 12, 2022, 03:10:26 AM by Daen »