Author Topic: Chapter 42  (Read 10634 times)

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Offline Daen

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Chapter 42
« on: April 12, 2022, 01:41:47 AM »
Chapter 42

The next morning Jaas found herself and Arico strolling through a massive hedge maze on the other side of the city. Tonnok patch was home to some of the most unusually and immaculately cut topiaries she had ever seen. House Grover was in charge, so somehow that made sense, but it was still an impressive sight.

There were smaller sections of shrubs near the threads that seemed to have been cut into many different shapes, including one that was obviously a mimicry of the Spire itself. However, the main theme, further inside the patch, was animals. There were hundreds of them, all facing towards the center of the patch, and the further in they got, the bigger the ‘statues’ became. Dog and pony-sized plants near the edge of the patch became elephants as they continued inwards.

That was strange. Most of these animals didn’t live inside the city, and it was doubtful any of them had come close enough to the outside to be observed by anyone inside. Perhaps it was like Arico’s kingfisher form in the threads. Perhaps the people here had just carved these animal likenesses from images recorded in books. Regardless, it was an impressive display of landscaping.

Arico led the way between green-lined buildings and down an alley on the north side of the patch. “This is Grover’s home patch, but he leased a few buildings to Cartwright years ago when Lord Edon was forced to sell his family estate.”

“I thought they were enemies,” Jaas said softly. It was still early in the day, and people were just starting to get up and move around, but they could be listening.

“They are,” Arico said, also looking around, “but there’s an old saying: keep your friends close and your enemies closer. No doubt Grover wanted Cartwright here, where he could keep an eye on the old man. He just had no idea how powerful Cartwright really was at the time. Now, he can’t risk evicting Cartwright without incurring his wrath. Not that any of us really know what that would look like. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of him being angry about anything.”

They reached the end of the alley, and Arico took one last look around before raising his hand to knock on the door. Before he could touch it though, it cracked open and light shone through from inside. Arico took a step back, obviously surprised. Jaas could relate.

“Do come in,” a woman’s voice said from inside, “quickly, please.”

Jaas felt misgivings about this, and it must have shown on her face because Arico took her hand reassuringly. “Come on,” he said confidently. “If Cartwright wanted to hurt us, he could have done so long before now.”

Inside was a tree of an entirely different sort. Even before she got a look at their hostess, Jaas’ eyes were drawn to the massive lines on every wall in sight. Branches labeled with names had been carved into the walls, intertwining and intersecting all over the place, extending out of sight into the other rooms. With effort, Jaas focused on the woman instead, as she introduced herself.

“I’m Belaya Cartwright. I’ve been looking forward to meeting you.” Her gaze lingered on Arico for a moment more, as she extended a hand to each of them. “Especially you, Arico. Please come with me.”

She was short, even shorter than Jaas, but she had brilliant blonde hair and blue eyes, along with a friendly smile. Her ancestry was undoubtedly Paleqi, which meant her father probably was as well. Ever since Arico’s cryptic descriptions of his abilities, Jaas had tried to uncover as much information as she could about this enigmatic Cartwright, but she kept on running into walls on the way. Almost every account she’d dug up back in the Enclave was just conjecture: people spinning theory after theory to explain Cartwright’s history and abilities. There was nothing solid or confirmed about any of it.

Their host led them into the modest living room, and two tall figures stepped up beside them as they walked. Jaas nearly jumped in surprise. Not only were they very intimidating, but they moved almost completely silently. Both were covered in bandages, head to toe. Not even their eyes were fully visible between the wrappings.

The way they moved reminded Jaas of the dwarven combat training she’d been put through. They took in all entrances as they moved, assessing threats and subtly changing positions accordingly. It was clear they were thinking like bodyguards, which meant they could probably handle themselves in a fight. At least they weren’t armed, as far as Jaas could see.

“They’re Lord Cartwright’s acolytes,” Arico explained reassuringly. “They serve as guards, usually, protecting his family. They wear those bandages to honor him and his injuries. And they never speak. Like, ever. Don’t worry, though—they won’t hurt us unless we give them a reason.”

Jaas didn’t find that particularly comforting, but soon enough her attention was pulled away from the mummy-like guards. The walls in this room were also carved with lines from apparently the same tree, and led into another room next door. Ahead of them, Belaya gestured to chairs surrounding a table. There were three glasses set out, and a bowl of fruit between them. Filled with ralash, a kind of dried citrus that Jaas had always liked. Come to think of it, her glass smelled of ginger tea, and Arico’s looked like it was filled with that q’rish brandy that he and Durhu liked.

Belaya took their coats and hung them by the entryway. “You must be thirsty after your trip into Tonnok patch,” she said graciously. “Father asked me to prepare this for you, before you have a chance to meet him.” She looked from them to the acolytes and back. “Oh, don’t let them bother you. Just think of them as part of the scenery. It’s how I deal with them.”

Jaas shared a glance with Arico, who just shrugged with an I-told-you-so expression on his face. He took a sip and nodded to Belaya approvingly. “Thank you.”

Belaya grinned brilliantly. “Excuse me. The stew should be just about done by now.” She glided past them, her white gown billowing as she made her way into the other room.

The surprises were coming too fast for Jaas. For one thing, Arico had insisted she come along. For reasons that remained a mystery, Cartwright would not speak to any navigator other than his daughter, so he’d brought her along in case she was also needed as a go-between. Not that she had a problem with that—it was precisely what she’d been doing between the Enclave and the Thornes for weeks now.

But Cartwright hadn’t just been expecting them. He knew their favorite food and drink. He’d known exactly when they’d arrive, down to the second! Did he already know what they were going to ask?

Arico seemed fine with all of this, though. He looked around at the tree carved into the walls. A family tree, apparently, so far-reaching it had to be displayed in multiple rooms. Jaas couldn’t see the base of the tree yet, but she assumed it led down to Edon, or perhaps Belaya.

“I’ve always had a lot of respect for Cartwright,” Arico said as he followed the branches with his eyes. “With this kind of power, he could have done what almost any other man would have. He could have used it to leverage his own House into leadership. He could have put down his enemies one by one. Most likely he could have made himself Lord Ascendant without much difficulty, but he chose a higher path.”

Jaas thought for a moment about what he was trying to say. “You mean by trying to explore the threads and what they’re made of?”

“I mean by exploring enlightenment,” Arico explained. “The threads are part of that, sure, but Cartwright clearly doesn’t care about money or power. In that way he’s no different than the Clarion. He’s trying to figure out the meaning of things, instead of just trying to control them. He’s tapped into a simple truth that none of the other Sustained seems to have grasped just yet.”

He smiled slowly. “As a wise man once said: the very substance of the ambitious is merely the shadow of a dream.”

It did seem unusual for a Sustained Lord to have that kind of power and not use it to get more power. “Well, he was nearly burned to death,” Jaas speculated slowly. “Maybe that gave him a perspective he didn’t have before.”

Arico shook his head. “No, Cartwright was like this before the fire. There’s a reason he only advised the Lord Asc—my father. He was always an advisor, and never a ruler. I think he believed that knowledge wasn’t just the same as power, but it was even better. Because it could be used for more than just power!”

Jaas wasn’t sure she could agree. Sure, Cartwright was unusual for a Sustained Lord, but that didn’t mean he’d tapped into some kind of enlightenment. “Actually from what you’ve told me, it sounds like Cartwright is a diviner.”

Arico looked back at her. “You mean he uses magic? How is that possible?”

“I don’t know,” she admitted. “Divination is a form of magic, yes, and the threads should negate it just like all other magic. I don’t know how else to explain how he knows the things he knows, though. I mean, look at this table! I don’t remember telling anyone I liked ralash, other than you when you first gave me some. I certainly didn’t write it down anywhere—it’s too insignificant for my notes or my letters to the Outside. So unless he was scrying on me, or using another form of remote viewing, how could he know?”

Arico shrugged. “He could have dwarves working for him as well. Anything’s possible, I suppose. I’ve never really cared about the how, so much as the why. Either way, we do need his help, unless I want to be tied to Tarith every night for the rest of my life,” he added dryly.

At least that plan had worked. Arico had gotten a solid, what? Four hours of sleep, more or less? In time he’d grow more comfortable with it, she was sure. Jaas couldn’t be that casual about all of this. She was a researcher. She was also a scientist, though that word didn’t exist outside the city. She had to know; it was that simple.

Belaya swept back into the room with a bowl and placed it down next to Arico’s drink. Steam was rising from it, along with the stomach-rumbling smell of beef stew. “Please eat, Arico. There’s a bowl for you as well, Jaas, but my father wanted to speak with you first.” She gestured to the back door on the other side of the kitchen.

Arico opened his mouth, apparently to object, but then closed it again. “His house, his rules,” he reminded Jaas. Reminding herself that in all of her research on Cartwright, the only times he’d ever been known to hurt anyone had been in self-defense, Jaas took a deep breath and followed Belaya.

-.-

Halseus ceased pacing abruptly. She was here. He couldn’t feel the physical sensation of nausea, but his anxiety spiked again. He was about to meet Jaas! Even after the arrangements had been made, it still felt unreal to him. He crossed the room in a hurry and grabbed his walking stick. Hurriedly checking his bandages in the mirror to make sure they were all in place, he turned again just in time for the door to open. In walked Belaya, followed by… the Harbinger.

“Father,” Belaya said politely, reaching out and taking his hand. “The Harbinger is here to see you.” She gently placed his bandaged hand in her smaller, darker-skinned one.

Halseus was at a loss for words. He had so many questions, so many theories. But they were all still stuck inside his head, unable to get past his anxiety.

“I’ll leave you be,” Belaya added, after a moment of silence. “You told me Arico almost never eats alone, so I don’t want to break the trend.” She gave a deferential nod to Jaas, who seemed almost as spellbound, before retreating and closing the door behind her.

The sound of the door closing seemed to snap Halseus back to reality. He pulled his hand away abruptly, and took a step back, remembering to hobble as he did so. “Well. This meeting has been a long time coming, hasn’t it? Lady Senneco, or simply Jaas, which you seem to prefer. Welcome to Tonnok patch.”

Jaas remained silent for a while as he carefully maneuvered his way back to his chair and sat. He gave a loud sigh at the end, simulating fatigue, and extended a hand to the other chair. The viewing room didn’t have much of a view because the garden trees outside hadn’t quite started to bloom yet, but it was comfortable enough for now. They were several blocks away from Belaya’s home, where Arico was waiting.

Jaas moved to sit down as well—reluctantly, he thought. “Thank you, Lord Cartwright, for meeting with me. I’m here on behalf of Arico, to find out-”

“To find out how he’s able to manipulate the threads, yes. I know.” Halseus said impatiently. “I heard your breath catch when I first spoke to you. I can see, despite these bandages, the wonder in your eyes when you stare at me. The way you carefully followed my progress as I sat down. You have a much more pressing question now, don’t you? Something you’re just dying to ask?”

“Not a question, really,” she answered slowly. “More of an accusation.”

Halseus raised his arms invitingly. “Please, accuse me. I’m all ears.” He paused. “Well, so to speak. I’ll confirm whatever accusations I can, as you make them.”

Jaas smiled. He’d seen her smile countless times before, and he knew this smile. This was a smile of triumph. She had her theories, and he was giving credence to them already. “You’re not Edon Cartwright, are you?”

“Ah, so we’re getting the obvious stuff out of the way first, then? Very well,” he leaned forward in his chair. “What would make you say such a thing?”

“Because Edon Cartwright is a human, and you’re not.”

“How rude!” Halseus put indignation in his voice, but tempered it with a chuckle. “What gave you that impression, I wonder?”

“I’ve never seen burn victims before. Never heard them speak. I don’t know what a scorched throat sounds like, but I have heard voices like yours before.”

Halseus froze. Now that the moment had arrived, his agitation was back. He forced himself to continue, knowing his tone was much more serious now. “And what does my voice sound like, to you?”

“You’re a g’laam, aren’t you?” Jaas said, barely above a whisper.

And it was out, finally. The first human in over three hundred years to recognize him for what he really was. At last. “Very good, Harbinger!” He said approvingly. “Very good indeed. Not that I’d expect anything less from you, though. No one in this city knows a thing about g’laam, sadly. I had to be sure you would understand, and I’m very grateful you have experience with my people.”

“But… how is this possible?” She asked with obvious amazement. “How could you have stayed hidden all this time? And come to think of it, how are you able to even exist here at all, here in Patchwork? You shouldn’t even be able to move, much less walk and talk!”

“Ah,” he leaned back. “Now we come to the payment part of our conversation. I suggest we do what you and Arico did shortly after you first met. I’ll ask a question, and then you ask a question, and so forth. You’re not the only one who has questions burning holes in their mind, you know.”

Jaas was silent for a few moments. “You’re no spymaster. This proves it! Either this is the most elaborate practical joke that has ever been played, and Arico told you everything about me…” she trailed off briefly, “or you do have divination powers after all! You are able to scry on people inside the city! Very well. I agree to your terms. Ask your question, and I’ll answer it as best I can.”

Halseus felt a thudding noise in his chest—analogous to a heartbeat, he supposed. It was a human response he’d developed over the years. “You said that you’d heard g’laam voices before. That means you’ve spoken with some of my people.” He carefully avoided asking the question just yet. “Just before the Threading, my people were in danger. A large percentage of the human Vasiri citizens had come to fear g’laam. Some had even come to think of us as a threat to their very existence! There are records of it, here in Patchwork.”

He paused for a moment. “Come to think of it, you’ve studied Vasiri history very closely. You probably know all of that already. My question is this: did your ancestors carry out their threat, and annihilate my people? Just how many g’laam are left,” he gestured to the sky, “out there?”

She smiled widely. “You don’t need to worry about that, Cartw—uh, whoever you really are. The extermination plan ended at the same time the Vasiri Empire collapsed. Everyone was too busy fighting each other to care about wiping out the g’laam. Some of them were even conscripted as soldiers, I believe. When the dust settled, and my Imbued superiors took control of this area, no one even remembered the plan in the first place. No, there are thousands of your people spread across this continent, and many more than that overseas. I’ve met several dozen myself, back in Satacha. They have the same rights as any other citizen, in fact.”

Halseus slumped forward, letting out a noise of relief. He reached out to her and gripped her hand briefly. “Thank you, Harbinger. Thank you so much. For so long I’ve wondered, but could never know for sure. I thought that I might be the last one alive in the whole world! Thousands.” He laughed abruptly, his anxiety completely gone. He stopped just as suddenly, though. His voice was grating and abrasive enough already. His laugh was probably painful for human ears to hear.

She didn’t seem to mind, though. Her joy at his newfound status and relief seemed genuine. “I’m glad for you. But what is your real name, anyway?”

Right. There was still work to do here. He cocked his head sideways. “Really? You want that to be one of your questions?”

“Well, apparently you want that one to be one of yours,” Jaas pointed out with a chuckle, and Halseus suddenly realized he’d asked one unintentionally. “But yes,” she went on forcefully. “As curious as I am, I can’t ignore basic courtesy. Introductions are important, after all.”

“You are correct, of course,” Halseus realized aloud. “I should have told you as soon as you knew I wasn’t Cartwright. My name is Halseus. I won’t count that as one of your questions, but if you want to know more about me and how I got my name, that will count.”

“Fair enough.” Her smile faded as she reached for her side and found nothing.

“If you’re looking for writing utensils,” Halseus predicted, “there’s a quill and inkwell in the drawer to your left, along with plenty of parchment.”

She gave him another incredulous glance. “You really do know everything, don’t you? You know what—nevermind. We can get to that later.” She retrieved the quill and parchment.

“My only request is that you write your notes in Uatoni script, as you have before,” Halseus added. “No one here reads that, not even Belaya, and I don’t want what we are about to discuss to become public knowledge. I’m taking a big risk just telling you.”

“I understand,” she said, scribbling away already. “I was going to anyway. So,” she said after a moment. “What to ask, what to ask, what to ask… first. We’ve gotten the obvious out of the way, so now we should do the important stuff. As a g’laam, you need magic to live, but magic doesn’t work here. How are you able to function inside Patchwork?”

“Alas,” Halseus shook his head. “One of the first questions you asked, and I cannot answer it—not yet, anyway. Still, you are a highly intelligent woman. You’ve already uncovered secret after secret inside this city. At the rate you’re going, I’m sure you’ll figure it out yourself, soon enough.” He started unwrapping his head. “I guess I don’t need this anymore, now that you know I’m not really a human being.”

She stared intently as layer after layer fell away. Halseus felt a little self-conscious, actually. Aside from Untos and the others, no one had ever seen him this way, not even Belaya. This must be what being naked felt like. Without the cold, of course.

He paused for a moment, though. Through the links, he could feel the foot traffic outside this house on the street. They weren’t aware of them, but were close enough to rush in and see him before he could escape or get his disguise back on. Despite that possibility though, he did feel somewhat liberated to be, well, himself in front of her.

“You can speculate, though,” he offered as a consolation prize. “I mean, the exterior barrier to the city is supposed to be impenetrable, but you were able to skirt the rules and get in using polymorphic magic. Is it so unbelievable to think I could as well?”

“So… you found a loophole, just like I did,” she said slowly, apparently careful not to phrase it as a question. “But you can’t tell me what that loophole is. Well, if you can’t tell me, then I think it’s only fair I get another question,” she persisted.

He chuckled in response. “I’d agree with that. Ask your question.”

“Edon Cartwright—the real one. Is he still alive somewhere?”

Halseus shook his head. “I’m afraid not. He perished years ago, in that fire that Arico described to you, and I assumed his identity shortly afterwards. Before you ask-” he said as she opened her mouth, “yes, it was Berilo Fisher who struck him down, and then set the fire to cover his tracks. Though to this day, I’m still not sure why. He never talks about it, to anyone.”

He sighed as he thought back on his past with Edon. “Lord Cartwright was… one of a kind. He had a calculating, hungry mind. He wanted to know everything. To understand everything. That’s partly why I chose him in the first place. I figured if anyone deserved to experience the benefits of untold knowledge within the city itself, to know of the threads and how they work, it was him. How could I know that knowledge would get him killed?” Jaas said nothing, though her expression sobered a little. Her quill came to a stop, as she waited.

“You want specifics, I know. I’ll explain what I can. Just be careful, Harbinger. This knowledge is still as dangerous today as it was thirty years ago. Berilo was Edon’s closest friend, and for these secrets he cracked Edon’s skull open and left him to burn to death!” He grimaced, the expression stretching his non-human features. “Or at least I assume that’s why he did it.”

Halseus had come here prepared to tell her everything. It had been one of the many possible outcomes of this conversation, and he thought he was all right with it. Now that it was really happening though, he also felt exhilarated. She was the first human ever, who he could talk to—really talk to—as himself. Not even Edon or Belaya had known him for who he truly was!

He needed time though, to sort his thoughts. “My turn. Tell me about the g’laam you’ve encountered on the Outside. Are they shaped as I am? Two arms, two legs, with a basically human size? The information on my people I’ve been able to dig up here inside the city has been severely limited to say the least.”

“Well, most of your people are shaped like you, yes,” she said, raising her quill. “Some of them—especially those who are in military groups—are larger and heavier, but most are human-sized. None of them have your divination powers, though. I’m sure of that much.”

She smiled broadly. “The fact is, most people don’t even give g’laam a second glance these days. The Vasiri hatred for your people is mostly extinct. That’s one of the upsides to the end of a civilization, I guess. The bad stuff usually goes away along with the good stuff.” That was comforting. If he ever did get out of the city, at least he’d fit in among his people.
« Last Edit: April 12, 2022, 02:53:54 AM by Daen »