Author Topic: Chapter 40  (Read 1588 times)

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Offline Daen

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Chapter 40
« on: April 11, 2022, 11:42:26 PM »
Chapter 40

Jaas looked up from her manuscripts as Arico came plodding down the stairs atop the Fishbowl. “Hey. How did it go?”

He shrugged. “Well, she didn’t try to kill me again. I suppose that’s progress.” He put his pack down, and sat heavily in one of her room’s larger chairs. “I told her everything. Our mother’s plan to save us, Durhu and Toria’s involvement, all the circumstances of our birth except the specifics about the dwarves. I doubt any Sustained is ready for the truth about that just yet. As for the rest of it, she took it well, for the most part.”

He sighed. “At least she went home peacefully. She’s probably back in her room in Sevvas patch by now.”

Jaas gave him a concerned look. “What if she tracked you back here? Do you think she might try again?”

“I doubt it,” he shook his head. “Now that people know who she really is, she won’t be very eager to put herself in danger again. I think she went back home, at least for the time being.”

Jaas stood slowly, and stepped over to him. “This isn’t easy; I get that. You want to reach out to your sister, but don’t forget who she is, and who her father is.” She reddened slightly as she realized the obvious extent of that. She still wasn’t used to thinking of Arico, rebel leader and gentle soul, as the only remaining son of Berilo Fisher, tyrant and monster. “I mean who raised her. Do you really think you can get through to her?”

Arico shrugged again. “I don’t know. Maybe. The Hauld said the same thing when I gave my report to him. He’s worried that I’m wasting my time, but I told him it’s my time to waste. And if I can reach her, well, the things she could tell us could make quite a difference.” Jaas didn’t say anything, but didn’t bother to hide her skepticism.

“I owe her, Jaas!” Arico’s voice took on a note of desperation, and he turned away to look down into the rest of the Fishbowl. “When I look at her, I see myself! Or rather, who I could have very easily been, if I’d been born just a few minutes earlier. I’m living the life that she deserves, don’t you see? The very least I can do is try and heal some of the harm my father has done to her. If that means risking my life in the process, then so be it!”

Jaas shook her head. She’d always had a good relationship with her brother. He could be overbearing at times, and a little condescending, but she did love him. They were far enough apart in age that there was no competition between them, and had different enough interests that they’d never had any need to interfere in each other’s lives.

She’d pitied Arico for being an only child, but now that she knew he had an estranged sister, who was also a vicious murderer, Jaas didn’t know what to think. She could only guess as to what was going through his head right now.

Arico sighed. “I found it very strange talking to her. I don’t know exactly what I expected, but it wasn’t that. There’s something not quite right about her; something I couldn’t put my finger on. Not that assassins are known for being the sanest of people, I admit. But then I’m a traitor and a heretic to most of the city. I should be a raging maniac according to them.” He shook his head. “I’m just lucky she bought it when I said I could vanish whenever I wanted.”

Jaas pulled out a blank parchment and reached for her quill again. “About that. What happened back there, anyway? In all the fuss with your, uh, sister, it kinda got pushed aside. How did we get into the threads? We were more than a dozen spans away from the edge!”

He shrugged helplessly. “I have no idea! It shouldn’t have been possible. But then, Hazra being able to track us through the threads shouldn’t have been possible either. I don’t know what to make of any of this. I told the Hauld what happened, but he thinks I’m still in shock and that I’m remembering things that couldn’t have happened. Not that I blame him, really. It is a crazy story.”

Jaas frowned, trying to think of possible explanations. “You’ve had navigators in this city for hundreds of years. Have you ever heard of anything like this before? Any stories of people being able to do tricks with the threads that most people didn’t believe?”

Arico didn’t respond at first, and Jaas thought back to her time outside the city. There were plenty of myths and legends out there, about people performing super-human tricks and stunts. However, those were all explained away by the use of magic. She was much more inclined to believe stories like that in here, where magic was of no use.

“The first Council trained navigators in a specific way,” he said slowly, apparently still mulling it over. “The dwarves had their own training methods for their navigators, too, but the actual methods for both sides haven’t really changed in centuries. There’s only one person who might know of a way to develop skills beyond what we would consider normal navigating, but he’s off limits to us.”

“Who is it?”

Arico sat heavily next to her. His normally steady breathing was labored, and his skin was noticeably paler than usual. Jaas recognized them as signs of tiredness, though, not of fear. Still, if he was willing to indulge her curiosity right now, she wasn’t about to argue. “Have you heard of Lord Edon Cartwright?”

“I’ve heard the name,” she said distractedly, quickly trying to find her initial notes on him. “From what I could piece together, he’s some kind of Sustained spymaster?”

Arico nodded. “I suppose that’s what he’s become, but it wasn’t always so. Most people don’t know the full story, either.” He went silent and looked around for a few moments, as if looking for anyone eavesdropping on them. They were in a safe enough place, though. They were on the top level of the Fishbowl, on a sort of bench outside Sabra’s quarters. He was out at the moment, trying to strengthen his chest after getting stabbed. No one else was in sight, and their voices were unlikely to filter down to the rest of the Bowl, as long as they kept quiet.

“Cartwright’s story is a little unusual,” Arico went on. “His family was powerful and rich—not wealthy enough to buy a seat on the Council, but still influential enough. He was on the fast track to power too, like forty years ago or more. He was even friends with Berilo Fisher. They advised each other informally, even after my father became Lord Ascendant. But he never really cared about joining the Council. Cartwright was much more interested in the threads themselves. How they worked, and why.”

He waited for her to scribble down the basics before continuing. “When he inherited control of House Cartwright from his father, Edon threw everything into studying the threads. He squandered his entire family fortune in just a few years. He came up with experiment after experiment, each more elaborate than the last, to figure out everything he could about them. Then, maybe ten years later, he made a public announcement in the courtyard in Sevvas patch. He claimed that the threads themselves were alive! That he’d discovered this, and that the threads actually spoke to him!”

Jaas stopped writing, and turned that idea over in her head. On the surface, the idea had merit. After all, the threads were unlike anything she’d ever studied before. Therefore, the possibility that they might be some kind of life form had to be considered. The evidence didn’t back that up, though. She’d been through them many, many times, with at least five different navigators. The streams of light inside the threads didn’t appear to react to any stimulus she’d seen… and the threads themselves didn’t seem to need sustenance of any kind, as all life does. They had remained static for centuries, while even the trees inside the city had spread seeds to propagate themselves. The threads hadn’t shown any signs of life that she could tell, and she’d studied them probably more than anyone else in the city. Except possibly this Cartwright person. “I take it people didn’t believe him?”

Arico grimaced. “He was laughed off the stage. Not even the other Sustained nobles could get behind the idea. After that, most people just assumed he’d lost his mind, and stopped taking him seriously altogether.”

There was something in his voice though. It was more than just sadness that people thought Cartwright was some kind of madman. To Jaas, it sounded like suspicion. “You don’t think he was wrong, though, do you?” She asked, realizing a second too late that her statement sounded like an accusation.

“I don’t think the threads are alive, or can talk to people,” he said defensively, “but clearly he was on to something. After his public disgrace, he went into a kind of self-imposed exile. He spoke to no one except his daughter Belaya, and he stopped giving public audiences. But he also suddenly had this, well, insight of sorts. He could just tell what his rivals were about to do, or had done. He seemed to be able to outmaneuver any other Sustained with ease. Politically, or even physically at times, when they tried to confront him in person.”

Jaas pondered that for a bit. “Well, he is a spymaster,” she rationalized aloud. “Isn’t it possible he’s using his contacts to make it seem like he’s tapped into some kind of thread-based power beyond our understanding?”

Arico nodded. “That’s what I thought too, at first. Now I’m not so sure. It’s possible he was able to hide his status as a spymaster up until that point, but then just used the story about the threads being alive to increase his reputation, but what would he gain by all of that? Spies are at their best when no one even notices them! By coming out with that information publicly, he made sure that everyone noticed him. It’s hardly the masterstroke you’d expect from a lifelong spy, is it?”

She’d never really had any experience in statecraft, so Jaas couldn’t really tell. But from a logical viewpoint… no, it didn’t make much sense. She scanned over her earlier notes, and then remembered what she’d meant to ask. “You said he was off limits. Why is that? Is it because he’s friends with the Fishers?” She almost stuttered at that last name, but it was pretty clear by now that Arico was intent on becoming used to talking about them as family. Even if he wasn’t happy about it.

“Actually, he’s not close to them anymore,” he said, his voice more puzzled now than before. “When Cartwright started to make his predictions, and it became clear just how powerful he really was, the other House heads began to fear him. My father’s family was the only one that stood by him, as he made fools out of everyone else who came after him. Either Cartwright would reveal information about their own families that embarrassed them, or tricked their allies into betraying them, or just responded with the exact force necessary to stop them in whatever assault they were planning. He could do no wrong! But then, just over thirty years ago, something unexpected happened.

“I don’t know how exactly,” Arico said as he traced his finger along Jaas’ map, “but somehow my father was able to surprise his friend, despite his newfound insight. According to the Hauld’s spies, he went to visit Cartwright in the evening, and about half an hour later a mysterious blaze started up in his manor. It consumed everything, killing at least a dozen servants and badly burning Cartwright himself. Belaya wasn’t there at the time, thankfully. Still, he’s never been the same since. He’s been spotted, maybe three times in public since then? And each time he was bandaged head to toe, and walked feebly, with cane. Belaya’s almost the only person who he’s willing to talk to, and she deals with other people on his behalf.”

Jaas leaned forward with interest. “Do you know for sure if the Lord Ascendant set the fire?”

“No, but there’s been no contact between them ever since. It makes sense that there was some kind of falling out between the Fishers and the Cartwrights. If my father didn’t set the blaze himself, he definitely knows who did.”

“But how does that put him off limits to us? I mean, if only a handful of people know you’re related to the Fishers, do you think Cartwright knows too?”

Arico sighed. “I’m not sure. Even if he does know, the Hauld has forbidden anyone in the movement from seeking him out. See, ever since he struck out on his own, Cartwright has been selling his information to people. Even to common people who have no connection to the Council or the penets or anyone else of importance. Basically, if you have a question, you can ask him. If he does respond, which is rare, he always demands a favor in payment. It’s never money or influence, though. He doesn’t seem to care about those things any more now than he used to.”

“What kind of favors does he ask for?” Jaas asked suspiciously. The whole situation sounded uncomfortably close to the kind of arrangement a crime lord might make. Someone like Kurkennis, that thug who’d killed Codi’s niece.

“That’s the weirdest part,” he said softly. “I only know of a few of the deals he’s made for sure, but he always demands something to do with marriage or children. Take this for example. One of Lord Weaver’s children fell sick about eight years ago. None of the healers knew what was wrong with the boy, and over time he just got worse and worse. In desperation, Lady Weaver went to Cartwright and asked him if he knew anything that could help. Using his daughter as an intermediary, Cartwright told Lady Weaver exactly what kind of medicine would do the trick. It worked beautifully, and the boy recovered quickly. However in exchange, Cartwright demanded that she marry the boy off to a specific girl in Barros patch when he came of age. And she’s not even a Sustained noblewoman! She’s just some merchant’s daughter. It made no sense, at least from a nobleman’s perspective.”

This was fascinating. “Did she uphold her end of the deal?” Jaas followed up.

“Oh yes. She did, and the two of them are happily married now. Or at least I assume they are; I haven’t heard anything to the contrary. Anyway, all of his demands are like that. Who to marry, and when. Where to send a child to school, and for how long. I haven’t found any connection between any of his clients so far, or the favors they’ve been asked to do!” He said it with obvious frustration. “I can’t piece it together! And I really don’t like mysteries like that, especially since the Hauld won’t let me investigate.”

“Why won’t he?” Jaas asked curiously. “I mean, if Cartwright really is never wrong, and he’s obviously not on speaking terms with the Fishers, then why not tap into what he knows?”

Arico shook his head. “The Hauld is convinced that the fight they had was staged. That they never stopped working together. He’s sure that if we make contact with Cartwright, it’ll get back to the Fishers immediately, and he’s right to be concerned. The Sustained have a long history of pulling stunts like that to get any advantage over each other.”

He grunted irritably. “No, right now it doesn’t matter if Cartwright has some mystical connection to the threads or not. We have to do without him either way.”

“Just the same,” Jaas said smoothly. “You don’t mind if I go over your research, do you? Even if we can’t make contact with him, I’d still like to figure him out.”

“Be my guest,” Arico responded, standing up with a grimace. “I’ll bring the papers over to your dwelling right away, but then I need to get some sleep before I just keel over or something. Maybe you can see something I missed.”


Night had fallen on Patchwork, blanketing the entire city in a quiet darkness. It was a bit early in the year for crickets, but a few had started their nightly noisemaking. The politics of the Ascendants and the dwarves, the quake that had signaled the arrival from the Outside, even the presence of the threads themselves, meant nothing to them. All that mattered was the song, and the search for a mate. And the possible presence of predators, of course. The crickets instinctively silenced themselves and scurried away as uneven footsteps crashed down nearby.

Heartbane reached down with difficulty and retrieved a pebble from the dry streambed. The Waters had flowed through Sevvas patch once upon a time, but no more. They’d been diverted around the patch not long ago for security reasons. Ironically, it had been done in response to her own actions.

She caught sight of a few Ascendants rounding the corner of the manor, and flattened herself painfully against the wall. Thankfully they didn’t look in her direction. They must have been following a standard patrol. It seemed they didn’t know she was missing, or they’d have kept a much closer watch. There. She was in sight of the balcony, and the glass doors were closed. She winced with effort as she tossed the pebble up there, and it rattled against the door.

Heartbane grimaced and gripped at her side, at the very tight bandages on her ribs. She could barely throw a pebble right now. What madness had gripped her earlier, making her think she could kill the heretic? It would be weeks, maybe months, before she was in fighting form again.

The door opened and a familiar face looked down. He spotted her almost immediately and his face transformed with relief, and with newfound concern. Heartbane gave him a pre-arranged hand signal, and he nodded with understanding.

It seemed like a small eternity, as she waited with little or no cover. She had little choice, though. There was no way she could climb the rope up into the balcony, not in her current condition. For now all she could do was stay here and hope not to be noticed. Finally, the scullery door opened and the Clarion reached out, wrapping his arms around her.

It took virtually all her control not to pull a dagger on him. Her instincts screamed as he embraced her. And she nearly did too, as her cracked ribs protested under the grip. Fortunately the Clarion let go quickly, ushering her inside.

Hazra had the luxury of physical contact. She could enjoy the simple sensation of running a hand along someone else’s skin. She could enjoy the shudder as she made love to her consort. To Heartbane, it was nothing but vulnerability. Even lying down on her stomach as the Clarion stitched up her back was a weakened position. Being hugged was no different. But she needed the Clarion, and he was obviously distraught, so she put up with it for now.

“Where have you been?” He whispered fiercely, pulling some clothes out of a bag for her. “You’ve been missing for more than a day! And what in Aquun’s name happened to you?” He eyed the bandages peeking out from underneath her armor.

“It’s a long story,” she admitted, as he helped her put the dress on over her armor. “Just help me get upstairs unseen, and I’ll fill you in.”

This early, there were still servants in the hallways. The Clarion looked around corners and led the way when it was clear. For a diplomat, he was surprisingly adept at being sneaky. Sometimes Heartbane could forget that he had trained as a soldier—or at least the nonviolent aspects of one—and served in many patches during the last Tumult, back before he’d been named Clarion.

Her new maidservant was apparently still in the servants’ quarters as well. She was young—perhaps fourteen—and eager. Ever since Toria had disappeared, Heartbane had never really been at ease here in the manor. Hazra didn’t really like the new girl either.

At least she now knew what had happened to Toria. Whether she believed the heretic’s wild story was another matter. A story she told to the Clarion, once they were safely in their room again, and the door was closed and locked.

“He… said he was your brother?” The Clarion asked evenly, but with a hint of disbelief slipping through his careful control.

“My twin brother,” Heartbane corrected, nodding. The story hadn’t taken long to tell after all, but it was certainly a stretch to believe.

The Clarion said nothing at first, as he continued to examine her injuries, or rather how they’d been dressed. So far he hadn’t said much about them, which generally meant approval. “How do you feel about that?”

Heartbane almost smiled. True to form, the Clarion’s top priority was her. The political ramifications of her statements meant nothing by comparison. She could have announced that the sky itself was falling, and the first thing he would have asked is if he should put his coat above her head. No wonder Hazra loved him so.

She shook her head. “I don’t know how to feel about it. His story is plausible, but there’s no proof! He claims Toria is there, in the Enclave with the dwarves, but he could be lying about that. Without her, I can’t be sure of any of his claims. For all I know, everything he told me was a lie, or was misinformation given to him, as part of some plan to discredit my father!”

“But some part of you wonders if it is true?”

She paused. There was part of the story she’d left out. Still, if anyone could be trusted, it was the Clarion. He already knew everything else, whether she liked it or not. “There’s something else I saw. Something even more incredible than his story. When I first attacked them, the heretic pulled on the threads. Just like I can. That’s how he and the Harbinger escaped me at first.”

The Clarion’s jaw dropped fractionally. “How is that even possible? Your gifts are unique! Or at least I thought they were!”

“I was there,” she insisted. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, at first. At least I was able to track them. It seems that he’s just like me—when he vanished into the threads, it was to the nearest edge. Otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to follow them at all.”

“So you’re not the only one after all,” he said, sounding a bit dazed. “You know, I always wondered why you were different. I mean, I always knew you were special—both sides of you, that is—but I also wondered just what made you able to pull the threads like that.”

“So have I,” she said somberly, as she laid down on the feather bed. On her side, and carefully, with her bandages towards the ceiling. “The heretic’s abilities give his ‘long-lost brother’ story a certain credence. We know that navigational skills are passed on through bloodlines, and if he can do what I can…” she trailed off.

They both stayed silent for a while, listening to the crickets outside. Down below, they could hear the servants cleaning up in preparation for sleep, and the rest of the staff had already retired for the night.

“What will you tell your father?” The Clarion finally asked. He already knew of the deal she’d made with the Lord Ascendant: revenge in exchange for her being named House Fisher’s heir.

“How can I face him, Clarion?” She asked desperately. “I failed in my mission! He gave me the list of locations, and which one they’d most likely visit next. He practically handed them to me, and they slipped through my fingers all the same. I couldn't bring back one of them, and I didn’t even get a glimpse of my target!”

“You can’t blame yourself for that,” he put in serenely. “There’s no way you could have predicted the heretic’s abilities. Remember, you did track them down. And kill their giant. You won't be going back to your father empty-handed.”

“He won’t let me try again, though,” Heartbane grumbled. “Now that they know who I am, I’m at more risk than ever. If I tell him the truth, he’ll lock me up in here like some kind of porcelain doll! Plus there’s a complication now, where there wasn’t before.”

The Clarion nodded. “Because Tenlor wasn’t his only son. If he believes the heretic’s story, you’ll suddenly have a rival to House Fisher’s power.”

Blood was everything to the Sustained. A man’s heritage—or a woman’s—meant everything here. The Clarion may have been raised ascetic: may have been insulated from that fact for most of his life, but he did understand it as well as anyone else. Even the dreaded heretic—the Lord Ascendant’s most hated enemy, would suddenly become a possible ally if the truth were known.

“How can I tell him?” Heartbane persisted, uncomfortably aware that right now she sounded more like Hazra than herself. “It could undermine everything!”

“I can’t tell you what to do,” the Clarion countered, and then snorted at the irony. “Nor would I be foolish enough to try. Remember though, your father has meant everything to you for a very long time. I saw how cut up you were the last time,” he swallowed, a bitter expression appearing on his face. “The last time we failed to give him a grandchild. Each time, really. And yes, I know that was Hazra, not you, but you remember what it felt like all the same, don’t you? That’s why you started your ‘career’ as Heartbane in the first place. To prove yourself to him, and to earn his respect! You always intended to tell him eventually.”

He took her hand in his, and for once she didn’t pull away. “Ask yourself this: if the heretic really is telling the truth, wouldn’t your father want to know as soon as possible? And wouldn’t he want to hear it from you, rather than from some stranger, or from Arico himself?”

Heartbane thought about it. The Clarion was right, but there was a wrinkle in his suggestion. “Still, I have no proof! Not without telling my father about my other abilities, anyway. He knows I’m Heartbane, but he has no idea what else I can do.”

“Then leave that part out,” the Clarion put in immediately. “If he asks how you know, just tell him… it’s intuition. Tell him a sister just knows. Make something up! Even if he doesn’t believe you at first, at least you will have told him what he needs to know. And if he ends up trying to reach out to Arico, if he wants to make this heretic into his heir, then you’ll know the truth about him, won’t you?”

That was an exciting thought. To test her father, rather than be tested by him. Heartbane shifted in bed, and winced. “What about Hazra?” She asked despondently, as she strained against the tightness of her wrappings. “This was my longest disappearance yet. How will you keep the truth from her?”

The Clarion sighed and then coughed a couple of times. His cough had been getting worse recently. Hopefully when the weather warmed, he would recover quickly. “I’ll tell her that she was sleepwalking again,” he said after a moment. “That she injured herself, possibly falling down the stairs, and has been recovering for the past day or so.” At her surprised look, he just shrugged. “I’ve had some experience keeping the truth of her existence from her. I can handle her, don’t worry.”
« Last Edit: April 12, 2022, 12:46:14 AM by Daen »