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10-16-2019, 06:06 PM
The Liar of Partinel
Chapter One

“Never forget, my son, that men are not fools.” The old master coughed, raising his handkerchief to his lips. It came back stained with bloody spittle. After long months of fighting, the old man was finally losing his battle with the poison.
“Please,” Midius said, laying a hand on Hoid’s arm, trying to make him lay back in bed. The old jesk, however, shrugged off the touch and shot Midius a stern look.
Midius sighed and sat back on his stool. The one-room hut was lit only by a single lamp, running low on oil. Even in the uncertain light, Midius could see the tendrils of black poison beneath the skin of his master’s face.
“Never forget it!” Hoid said, voice surprisingly strong. “You must have faith in people, Midius. I worry about you still.”
Midius met the old man’s eyes. “Men are quick to believe lies. How do I have faith in those who are so foolish?”
Hoid sat up a little bit more. Midius knew from experience how uncomfortable that bunk of a bed was; he had slept on it while the master jesk was out on long forays. Yet, it was all they had. Midius’ own sleeping spot was a simple rug on the corner of the dirt floor.
“Lad,” Hoid said, “son. If a man believes a lie, it is rarely because of stupidity. It is because of hope. If he falls for a thief’s tricks, it is because he hopes for great returns. Take advantage of him, and it is because he hopes that you are a man of honesty.
“Men seek for that which is beyond themselves, even when they know that it is too good to be real. This is our most noble of attributes! Our ability to believe that which is false does not make us fools, but kings.”
He began coughing again, and Midius had to look away. He turned back when he felt a hand on his shoulder.
“They will believe your lies,” Hoid said. “For lies are precious to us. Tell them of beauty when all they see is dirt, and they will love you for it.”
The old jesk fell silent. He glanced across the room, and Midius turned. Upon a peg on the wall hung a large overcoat, covered with pockets. It was a deep brown.
“You are not like any apprentice I’ve ever had,” Hoid said. “Take it.”
Midius stood.
“My other students were afraid of the coat,” Hoid said, coughing. “Or, at least, what it represented.”
Midius took the coat off its hook, then carried it back to the stool. He sat down.
“You know what you will do next?” Theus asked.
“I will go to Partinel,” Midius said firmly.
“Good,” Hoid said. “You will go answer the summons.”
Midius frowned. “The summons? No. I go for. . .other reasons.”
“You will find no joy in revenge, my son,” Midius whispered.
Midius shook his head, looking at his master. “I have no need for revenge. The one who poisoned you is already dead.”
“Then take the summons,” Hoid said. “And answer the king’s request. The people of Partinel, they need you.”
Midius opened his mouth to object again, but looking at his master’s dying eyes, he could not do it. “Fine,” he said. “I will do as you ask. But I will also confront the king about what he has done to you.”
Hoid laughed, but it turned to a cough. Midius laid another hand on Hoid’s arm, watching, growing increasingly frustrated.
“I should have--” Midius began.
Hoid squeezed his arm. “This was not your fault, lad.”
Midius turned away.
“Be sure to bury the bodies before you go,” Hoid said. “Mine, and the assassin’s.”
Midius couldn’t look back. He clenched his jaw.
“You are the Liar now,” Hoid whispered. “Serve well.” And then, he fell silent. No words. No movement. No breathing.
Midius bowed his head and let himself cry.
#
Midius didn’t bury the bodies. He burned them. Skullmoss could infest even the dirt, and he didn’t want to think of it creeping across his master’s corpse, growing white, alien fuzz.
He stood for a long time, watching the flames consume his master. His master, and another. The assassin who had carried simple letter, from the king of Partinel, demanding that the old jesk--last of his kind, only known Lightweaver--report to the city. Hoid had refused.
And had died for it.
Part of Midius felt it a betrayal of his master to go, now, and do the king’s bidding. Why had Hoid asked it of him? Why demand that his apprentice go where Hoid himself would have been able to serve much better?
I don’t know that I’ll ever understand you, Midius thought, watching the flames trickle away. Only when they were still did he finally throw on the coat. It was almost more like a robe than a true coat, but it was lighter than he had expected it to be.
Hesitantly, he reached into a pocket and pulled out a handful of dust. Then, he threw it into the air, imagining his master’s face.
It appeared in front of him. Aged, wise, beardless. That had always been so odd. Only warriors kept their faces clean-shaven. Had his master considered himself a warrior? Midius had never asked.
Midius reached out, almost believing his own illusion for a moment. However, as soon as he touched the face, it shattered back to dust and sprinkled down to the ground. Midius had only just begun to learn how to Lightweave. Not a week had passed since Hoid had revealed its greatest secret and key.
And now, Midius was the last jesk. Lightweaver. He felt as if he should think himself unprepared, but that wasn’t really his way. He faced what came to him, had always lived day by day, focusing on the now and not the future. Hoid had tried to change that in him.
A man who did not plan for the future told very poor lies.
Midius watched the smoldering ashes, feeling frustrated and sorrowful. The Cluster, and its struggling settlements of human life, had lost a great asset this day. And many would never know. Midius bowed his head, closing his eyes for a moment.
Then went back into the hut and prepared a small pack of food. He set it aside, then picked up a reflective ceramic plate and inspected his beard. Hoid had always called him ‘lad’ or ‘son,’ words that hadn’t been applied to Midius for years. Being the old man’s apprentice had been a surreal experience for him, a man in his late twenties.
He shaved off the beard with his master’s bronze knife--the most valuable, at least monetarily, of Hoid’s possessions. Finished, he regarded himself in its polished blade. He looked so different.
No. No he didn’t. This was him. He told himself that forcefully.
On his way out, he took the rolled parchment summons off the table and slid it into his pack along with the bronze knife. And then, he left the hut--smoldering pyre and all--behind. He wouldn’t be returning. Fainlife was getting too close; living outside the protection of a trune ring was dangerous, and most homes had to be temporary.
I may not understand you, Midius thought, bidding silent farewell to his master, and I might not be able to have faith in people as you did.
But I can try to do as you wish.
If he could help the people of Partinel, he would. Despite the fact that they had assassinated the greatest man Midius had ever known.



The Liar of Partinel
Chapter Two


It’s a bad day to kill, Theus thought. Too cloudy. A man should be able to see the sun when he dies, feel the warmth on his skin one last time.
He marched down the dusty path, crops to his right and left, guards behind him. The men of his personal guard wore woolen cloaks over bronze breastplates; the expensive, polished metal was a symbol of their station. Several pulled their cloaks tight against the morning’s spring chill, their breath puffing.
Behind them towered the grand city state of Partinel, circled entirely--lake and all--by a rough stone wall reaching some fifteen feet high. The wall had been commissioned, then finished, by the previous king--the man Theus had eventually killed in order to take the throne. Crops grew close to the wall, but that was a necessity. Partinel’s trune ring was one of the largest in the Cluster, but it still provided a relatively small area in which to grow food.
Theus finally emerged from the fields, walking out onto a road that circled the city, its earth packed flat by constant guard patrols. On the other side of the road, the land became white.
This was it. The border, the edge of Partinel’s trune ring and the beginning of fainlands. Theus stopped, looking out at the hostile, bleached landscape. When he had first taken Partinel, the city had been surrounded by a good mile of lush, trune forest. Now, those trees--once brown and green--had become a bone white. Fain. Claimed by the alien wilderness. And in beneath those trees, covering the ground, lay the skullmoss. The simple, mold-like fuzz was the herald of all fain life. It died off just before it reached the road.
The fainlands hadn’t advanced in years. After claiming the forest, they had fallen dormant. Until recently.
Theus turned to where a group of soldiers--with leather vests and skirts--stood guarding a few huddled people: one man, his wife, and two children kneeling in the dirt, their linen smocks tied with sashes. The father looked up as Theus approached, and his eyes widened.
Theus’s reputation preceded him, and he was apparently recognizable by sight. The Bear of Partinel, some called him: a burly, clean-shaven man who wore no cloak against the chill. He stepped up to the kneeling father, then knelt down on one knee, regarding the man.
The peasant had a face covered in dirt, but his sandaled feet were a dusty white. Skullmoss. It wasn’t really a danger, now that it was within the influence of Partinel’s trune ring, though Theus avoided touching the dust anyway.
“Everyone has a place,” Theus finally said.
The outsider looked up at him.
“The people of this city,” Theus continued, “they belong here. They work these crops, hauling water from the stormsea to the troughs. Their fathers bled to build and defend that wall. They were born here. They will die here.”
“I can work, lord,” the man whispered. “I can grow food, build walls, and fight.”
Theus shook his head. “That’s not your place. Men wait upon drawn lots for the right to work what land we have and gain a little extra for their families. There is no room for you. You know this. This land isn’t yours.”
“Please,” the man said. He tried to move forward, but one of the soldiers had his hand on the man’s shoulder, holding him down.
Theus stood. Jend, his lead guard, handed him a small sack. Theus judged the weight, feeling the kernels of grain through the canvas, then tossed it to the ground before the outsider. The man looked confused.
“Take it,” Theus said. “Go find a spot of ground the fainlands have relinquished, try to live there as a chance cropper.”
“The moss is everywhere,” the man whispered. “If clearings open up, they are gone before the next season begins.”
“Then boil the grain and use it to sustain you as you find your way to Rens,” Theus said. “They take in outsiders. I don’t care. Just take the sack and go.”
The man reached out a careful hand, accepting the grain. His family watched, silent, yet obviously confused. This was the Bear of Partinel? A man giving away free grain to those who tried to sneak into his city?
“Thank you, lord,” the man whispered.
Theus nodded, then looked to Jend. “Kill the woman.”
“Wha--” the outsider got halfway through the word before Jend unsheathed his bronze gladius and rammed it into the stomach of the kneeling woman. She gasped in shock, and her husband screamed, trying to get to her. The guards held him firmly as Jend pulled the sword free, then he cut at the woman’s neck. The weapon got lodged in the vertebrae, and it took him three hacks to get the head free. Even so, it was over in just a few heartbeats.
The outsider continued to scream. Theus stooped down again, just out of the man’s reach, blood trickling across the packed earth. Theus nodded, and one of the guards slapped the outsider, interrupting his yells.
“Everyone has a place,” Theus repeated. “My place is to look after the people of this city.”
“Bastard,” the outsider hissed. His children--the boy a young teen, the girl perhaps a few years younger--were sobbing at the sight of their mother’s death.
“You knew the penalty for trying to sneak into my city,” Theus said. “Everyone does. Try it again, and my men will find the rest of your family--wherever you’ve left them--and kill them.”
Theus stood, leaving the screaming peasant behind to yell himself ragged as he cursed. Theus’s guard moved behind him as he returned to the corridor through the wheat, Jend cleaning his gladius and sheathing it. Over the tops of the green spring plants, Theus could see a man waiting for him before the city.
How do the Rensmen get that blue so pure? Theus wondered, not for the first time, as he walked up to the visitor. The man’s dark robe was colored so evenly, and so deeply, that it frustrated Partinel’s dymakers. Of course, Theus didn’t allow many of those to work in the city--who had time or resources for dyes when the bubbles of human life were growing so small?
Who had time and resources? Apparently, the Rens people did.
“Interesting show,” the man said as Theus passed him.
“Jesks give ‘shows,’ Naysho,” Theus said. “I just do what is necessary.”
“And you aren’t worried?” Naysho asked calmly, walking beside Theus. “That man hates you. Have you not just driven him to return and seek revenge?”
“He still has his children,” Theus said. “He’ll realize that, and go. Others he meets will hear his story and know to stay away.”
“And the woman?” Naysho asked. “You feel no guilt for her death, I assume?”
Theus hesitated, stopping amidst the swaying grain, looking back at the sobbing man, who was now holding his children. Beyond him, the white forest waited, deceptively still and peaceful. Guilt, Theus thought. Do I feel guilt?
Yes. Just enough of it to be dangerous.
“He has a better chance of surviving without her,” Theus said. “The children are old enough to work a plot of land, and without a wife, he won’t be foolish enough to spawn more mouths to feed. Maybe they’ll survive.”
Maybe. From the look on Naysho’s face, he didn’t believe it much more than Theus did. Living outside the cities--outside of a stable trune ring--was dangerous and unpredictable. One never knew when one would wake up and find one’s entire crops--indeed, one’s entire house--covered in skullmoss.
Beyond that, of course, there were the Corrupted. Out there, somewhere, slinking through the bone-white trees. Perhaps it would have been more merciful of Theus to simply kill the children and be done with it.
“Interesting,” Naysho said, walking with his customary smooth gait, hair stark red, skin slightly darker than that of a man from Partinel. “I noticed that you suggested Rens to that man. A good thought. We can always use more hands to work.”
How do they do it? Theus thought. The rest of us shrink. We burn the land around our cities, line the borders with dead fain creatures, everything lore says will keep the skullmoss away. And still, my city dies.
Yet Renz has food to spare?
Naysho, ambassador of the city state of Rens, gave no clue to his motives for being in the city, nor hint toward why his homeland could thrive like it did. He simply walked, eyes forward, smiling slightly to himself.
“Your city is in danger, you know,” finally said.
Theus didn’t answer.
“I could offer help, should you desire it,” Naysho continued. They reached the walls, then followed the path toward the gates. “An Aetherlin, perhaps, to help with the certain. . .troubles that have been occurring lately in Partinel?”
“I don’t need your help,” Theus snapped. Or the strings that come attached to it.
“Is that so?” Naysho said. “Are you certain?”
Theus turned to respond, but stopped as he noticed soldiers leaving the gate. They looked about a bit, spotted Theus, then rushed toward him, their bronze breastplates glistening.
Theus glanced immediately at Naysho. The ambassador simply let his smile deepen, his eyes satisfied. Whatever network of spies he had in the city, it kept him informed of things far better than even Theus’s own city watch.
Theus would get nothing from the man. He knew that by now. Instead, he hustled forward to meet with the messengers. “What is it?” he demanded.
“Another. . .disturbance,” one of the soldiers said. “In the city.”
“Where?”
“East court,” the man said. “Cooper’s row.”
“Show me.”
They entered through the city gates, and the soldiers quickly retrieved Theus’ chariot, and brought another for Naysho. As usual, Jend stepped up to drive Theus’ chariot--Theus liked to have his guard captain close. The rest of the soldiers formed out in front and behind the vehicles. The chariots weren’t for speed, in this case, but for presentation. They were terribly expensive--requiring both wood and bronze, not to mention feed enough to keep horses. However, the advantage provided should he need to flee was simply too great to pass up.
“What do you think?” Theus asked as Jend whipped the horse, and the chariot began to roll down the muddy street.
“About?”
“The family.”
“There’s nothing else you could have done, Theus.”
Theus scowled. “I don’t care about the morality of the decision, Jend. I’m annoyed that they tried to sneak into the city. How many do I have to kill before they stop trying to get through our borders?”
“The skullmoss kills too, Theus,” Jend said, eyes forward. “They’re just trying to do the best for their families, Theus. Just like we have to do.” Cousin to Theus, Jend was thinner of both face and frame. His answers were soft-spoken, and lacked his normal jovialness.
Jend made good points, and Theus knew the guard captain didn’t like having to execute people who tried to sneak in. Still, the fact remained that Theus had barely managed to stabilize the population of his city. He couldn’t afford to feed outsiders. He needed those outside to fear trying to get in even more than they feared the fainlands.
Everyone had their place. Theus’s place was to care for his people. Even if that meant doing things that were wildly unpopular. He knew what the people said of him. He didn’t care. He would not let Partinel become like Muns, a city so overcrowded and full of filth that great plagues claimed its population at regular intervals. Muns ate itself to starvation every fourth or fifth year. Partinel would be different, even if it required sacrifice.
In five days, the new year would start. A Year of Sacrifice, the fifth one since the beginning of his reign. During this year, if a woman gave birth, she was given a choice. Either she could give up the child to be killed, or she--and her family--could leave the city and abdicate their citizenship.
It was a law that Theus enforced strictly, even for his guards and immediate family. Across the Cluster--the some twenty city states in the area--he was known as Theus, the Bear of Partinel, the man with the blood of a thousand children on his hands.
But Partinel survived. And would continue to do so, as long as he was in control. It was a fine city. The streets were narrow, of course--not just because the city had to hold as many people as possible, but because more room for buildings meant more roof space. And more roof space meant more gardens--and there were thousands of these. Every available space, rooftops, windowsills, plots between homes--everything grew food.
Brown and green. They were the colors of trune life, symbols of virility and health. The homes reflected this in their mud-brick walls: square, straight, even, most reaching two stories. The nicer sections of city--such as where his palace stood--were stone, rather than brick, but his workers kept the stone dobbed with mud. Theus would never admit superstition, but the truth was that white--even white stone--bothered him. Even gray was a little too near to fain colorings. He preferred the mudwash.
The chariots rolled past flocks of people about their daily business. Women walking to the Stormsea for water, jugs on their heads, clothing a spring linen, most of it various shades of healthy brown. Potters selling their wares--ceramics, made from the muds of the river, were a specialty of Partinel. They passed some pens for livestock, mostly goats for cheese and wool.
In all, the city was a bustling, packed place, even with many of the men out working the fields. Theus would have liked to have the city walls themselves extend far enough out to surround the fields as well as the city, but he realized the wisdom in the way it was. If the skullmoss were to advance any further, he would not want to risk losing his fortifications to it. Though they’d still be able to use the wall, of course, it would be terrible for morale to send the soldiers into the fainlands each day to patrol atop it.
The busy streets meant that his soldiers had to sometimes force a way for him through. It wasn’t that the people didn’t respect him--indeed, the Bear of Partinel was known to be a man one did not offend. Most bowed their heads when they saw his chariot. There were just so many of them that it made moving difficult.
So many. Too many. I may have to extend this year of Sacrifice, Theus realized as Jend yelled at a herdsman who was too slow moving his flock across the street from one pen to the other.
Extend the year of Sacrifice. It would be an unpopular move--many people remained celibate during the first half of such years, only to pursue childbearing with vigor during the latter half. The result was a boom in births the following spring, just after the new year began--a practice that somewhat undermined the purpose of the year in the first place.
He had long suspected that he would have to begin surprising the people with extended months of sacrifice, slaughtering children that everyone had assumed were safe. It was either that, or begin killing slaves. And yet, slaves were his people too--men who were working off debts, or the children of men captured in battle years ago. Begin slaughtering them, and the economy--including the city’s ability to produce food--would suffer.
Common problems, and Theus seemed to have fewer and fewer options. With the fainlands on his borders, there was no place to expand. He had sent settlements down the river, where a few more pockets of trune life had sprung up, but they were now as full as the city--and anything too much further away would be far enough outside his jurisdiction to be autonomous.
His procession rounded the city, the stormsea just barely visible through the line of buildings to his right. The east court looked much like the rest of Partinel, and Theus stepped down from the carriage, pulling his goatskin gloves tight as his soldiers led him to a box-like, brown-bricked building at the end of the way. The engravings on the dob facing of the outside wall depicted a barrel.
People had gathered. It was difficult to keep secrets in a city as packed as Partinel. Theus made his way inside, accompanied by Jend and Naysho. A worried man in an apron waited in the room, his family locked and guarded in a room nearby.
“This is the man who saw them?” Theus asked, turning to his soldier.
The man nodded. “But. . .there is something you should see up above first, Lord.”
Theus frowned, but nodded. He ignored the soldier and his family, instead following the soldier up the steps, past a second story home, also occupied, and onto the roof.
The garden was well-maintained, likely worked by the second family. They would be freemen or slaves, kept and fed by the cooper. The men he would rent out to work the fields, the women would care for his garden. He got to keep twenty percent of whatever his garden grew; the rest went to Theus. After all, Theus was the one who provided the dirt and the seed.
The offending patch was near the center of the rooftop. Theus crossed packed soil, sprouting with vegetables, herbs, and even a patch of barley. Two soldiers stood guarding a section twisting tomato vines curled around sticks.
One of them was covered in a white fuzz.
Theus cursed quietly, kneeling beside the plant. It was skullmoss for certain: those little spines, sticking up almost too perfectly, that puff of white dust that showered down when one tapped the plant. This was no common mold.
Skullmoss. In the middle of the gods-forsaken city.
He looked up at his soldier. “The man sighted a Corrupted, too?”
The soldier nodded. “It took one of the cooper’s children, a five year old boy. The cooper says he woke to a sound, and sat up to see a Corrupted floating on the far side of the sleeping chamber. He claims to have been frozen with fear, and could only watch as the Corrupted fled with the child. The cooper’s description of the thing matches what we’ve heard before.”
“Is he lying?”
“Possibly. Not likely, though.”
Theus looked down at the patch of skullmoss. It wasn’t supposed to be possible. Partinel’s trune ring had stood solid for hundreds of years. True, the fainlands had crept forward, claiming the forest--but nothing fain had ever grown in the city. That wasn’t supposed to be possible. Cities like Partinel thrived because they existed where the skullmoss and the fainlands could not.
It was the way that humankind survived. Fain plants were poisonous to humans and trunelife that ate them, and skullmoss twisted anything it grew on, changing it to become fain. Breathing the moss, stepping in it, even living among it did nothing to a man. Yet, eating plants that it had tainted was deadly.
Sometimes, Theus wished the skullmoss just killed people on contact. Then they wouldn’t have to deal with this wasting away. This choking suffocation of trune life.
“The dirt,” he said. “Where did it come from?”
“It’s pure city dirt,” the soldier said. “The cooper swears by this, and our records agree. Sifted and purified in the waters of the Stormsea itself.”
Theus stood. “Fire the building,” he said. “Burn the garden and everything inside of it, including the clothing of the people who live here--as well as your own clothing, and my own. Set up a changing station on the street and have soldiers who haven’t entered the building fetch us new clothing. Then, take the cooper, his family, and his slaves to the dungeons and make certain that what they’re telling you is true.”
The soldiers nodded. Theus left hurriedly, but stopped at the stairwell as he saw Naysho standing on the steps down.
“You knew about this,” Theus accused.
“Perhaps.”
“You caused it.”
Naysho snorted. “Hardly, your majesty. In truth, Lord Aronack--king of Renz--is as worried as you are about what is happening in your city. He does not like the thought of his friends being in danger”
Theus snorted.
“Think what you will, Theus,” Naysho said. “However, his majesty knows of your problems. Skullmoss growing inside the boundaries of your trune ring? Corrupted passing into the city, somehow ignoring wards and protections?”
Theus looked back as his soldiers knelt, removing flasks of oil and pouring them on the contaminated plant.
“You need an Aetherlin to investigate these happenings, your majesty,” Naysho said. “A real Aetherlin. My Lord Aronack has been training a group of dedicated men with fresh Aether slivers. They have a skill in digging out information, and their Aethers are sharp-minded and understanding of fain life. They can tell you things that you will not be able to learn with regular men.”
Theus glanced down at his hand, but felt almost nothing from the tiny Duskr sliver beneath his glove, attached to his wrist. It had been years since he’d felt even an emotion from it, and it had trouble putting out even a small puff of Aether pulp.
Skullmoss in the city. His population bursting, eating up all of his food, approaching starvation. His crops weak because of cramped confines and poor rotation schedules. Corrupted stealing children out from beneath his nose.
“I will accept your help,” he said, meeting Naysho’s eyes.
The ambassador smiled. “Good. Because I’ve already sent for it.”



The Liar of Partinel
Chapter Three

In order to reach Partinel, Midius had to travel through fainlands.
He traipsed along the road, trying not to focus on the too-still white forest around him. A forest that--like all fainlife--seemed too quiet, too still. Occasionally, he would see a bird or small fox among the white. The trune creatures searched through the forest for patches of life like their own. Animals knew instinctively not to eat fain plants, and trune predators knew not to feed on a corpse that had begun growing skullmoss.
The forest road before Midius was black and dusty. Someone had passed this way during the previous year, laying down dead fain plants, then burning them away to leave the ground seared. That would have been followed by salting the soil. Otherwise, the road--rarely used--would have been claimed by the fain wilds, for fainplants grew much more quickly than trune ones.
The road maintenance was probably the work of king Theus. No city-state really had claim on anything outside of its borders, but it was in his interest to keep roads open, if only to encourage the arrival of Chan tradesman. Roads also proved useful if one wanted to sent assassins out to kill old men living in the forest.
Midius grimaced. Why send me to Partinel? he wondered. Why did you deny the king’s will by not answering the summons, thereby getting yourself killed? Why do all this, only to then ask me to do the very thing you were unwilling to?
Surely Hoid hadn’t expected Midius to go and become court pet to the Bear of Parinel? A jesk to provide entertainment, after the old tradition? From what Midius knew of King Theusin, the man would not look favorably upon there being a Lightweaver in the city. He--
Midius froze. Something was standing in front of him on the road. It looked somewhat like a stag, though the legs were too long, and there were six of them. A head set with glistening pink eyes watched him. It had no visible mouth. And its body was a pure white.
Fain.
Midius’s breath caught in his throat. The not-stag stared at him, its head bearing antlers that were somehow too rounded and bulbous. They were covered with a whitish fuzz. Skullmoss. The rest of the creature’s body seemed slick, almost scaly.
It took off into the forest, bounding on six legs, and for some reason, Midius found himself charging after it. He had rarely seen fain creatures; they tended to stay away from the edges of trune lands. Even living with Hoid, deep within the forest, Midius had rarely seen fainlife other than plants. He had begun to wonder if reports of larger creatures were simply exaggerations.
The not-stag, however, proved differently. There was a majesty about it, something transfixing. Midius followed for a short time, but the creature was far faster than he. It bounded through the white forest, sending up puffs of skullmoss dust, disappearing into the distance. Midius slowed, puffing, white ferns and brush rustling as they brushed against his jesk’s coat.
He was surrounded by whiteness.
He hesitated, then turned back toward the road. He knew that he shouldn’t feel odd being among the fainlife. Back on the road, he’d been surrounded as well. Though burned and scarred, it wasn’t trune land. Not really.
And yet, being away from it left him anxious. He felt enveloped by the strange, surreal landscape. It wasn’t quite right, and not just because of the colors. The trees nearer the road had looked like trees should, despite the whiteness. Here, just a little distance in, they were. . .different. Their bark had mostly fallen free, and other bits of life were beginning to sprout out. Trees, growing out of other trees.
These new sprouts were unnatural in a way he couldn’t quite explain. The grain seemed to twist in contorted ways, and the places where branch met trunk were too fluid, too smooth. The leaves bent in long, oval shapes, like drops of water. The trees almost seemed to be melting.
Midius stepped backward. The general stillness only seemed to highlight the occasional sound. To his right, something cracked, and he spun. There was nothing--nothing he could see, at least. Fain creatures were white. He could be surrounded and not be able to pick them out from the foliage.
Another crack, distant, yet ominous. He felt a thousand eyes on him, and suddenly the forest seemed a dangerous, foreign place. Almost as if it were conscious and hateful. Why were the trees near the road more normal, while the ones here--just a few yards in--were so alien?
Midius dug in a pocket and threw out a handful of dust. A pair of spear-holdings soldiers--wearing gleaming bronze breastplates and leather sandals--formed from the dust beside him. The illusions would be meaningless if he got attacked, of course, but their presence might serve to ward away predators.
Or, at the very least, make him feel a little less nervous. “Come on,” he said to the soldiers, retreating back toward the road. They followed, figures fuzzing slightly--glowing dust shimmering to the ground from their forms--as they passed through plants. Yet, they stabilized as they reached the road, and even began talking to each other as they followed Midius along the road.
Company did make him feel better. He was able to turn his mind back to his problems, a comfortable chatting coming from behind, as he continued his way toward Partinel.
#
After a solemn night spent beside the road--his soldiers taking turns on watch--Midius finally reached the end of the road and stepped from forest. The fields of Partinel extended before him.
For a moment, his eyes were shocked by the colors of dirt, crops, and the brown, mud-dobbed city wall. And the scents. . .dunged soil, pollen in the air, not to mention the sound of workers yelling to each other. They were all so different from the sterile fain forest.
Soldiers ran up to him almost immediately. They eyed his guards, apparently taking him for someone important. However, the Partinel guards were still hostile as they cut off his approach to the city.
“Are you a merchant?” one of them asked. “Where are your goods?”
Midius held out the rolled parchment summons. One of the soldiers accepted it--but, of course, couldn’t read it. Still, he was apparently literate enough to recognize the king’s mark painted on the bottom. The soldier glanced at his companion, spear in one hand, parchment in the other.
“Get the king.”
“You sure?” his companion asked. “Fetch him twice in three days. . . ?”
At that moment, Midius released his illusionary guards, and they shattered. No longer necessary, they broke back into dust, which sparkled slightly as it floated down to the ground.
Both guards paled.
“Go!” the lead man said, handing the parchment to his companion. The man needed no further prompting.
Midius sat down on the dirt to wait. “What is wrong in the city?” he asked the nervous soldier, who was urgently waving several of his companions over to join him.
“The king summoned me,” Midius continued. “But he didn’t tell me why. The summons only mentioned that I was needed to help Partinel with a problem it was having.”
The soldier gave him no response. So, Midius simply sat, thinking, waiting, until a large group of soldiers left the gates up ahead. These wore the bronze of the official king’s guard, and so Midius stood, dusting off his coat.
The troop of soldiers arrived. A lean soldier at the front sized up Midius. “Come with us,” he said.
“We are going to the king?” Midius asked.
The man gave no response.
Midius shoved down his annoyance. You’re going to have to get used to being treated like this, he reminded himself. You’re not an important person here. Hoid had tried to work on his patience, and Midius liked to think that he’d learned something. So, as the soldiers surrounded him, he made no further complaint, instead following them down a corridor in the crops toward the city.
Partinel. One of the most successful cities in the Nambrian Cluster. Only Rens, to the north, held more influence and reputation. The two cities had never been to war. Many people found that very odd, considering their respective influences.
Midius knew this. He knew many things, not just what he’d learned during his time with Master Hoid. He knew that Partinel thrived off the brutality of its king. Every third year, all infants born within the city were slaughtered. It made brutal, effective, sense. That was how the Bear of Partinel worked.
As the soldiers led him into the city, Midius saw other signs of the Bear’s brutal efficiency. Men hung in rope cages along the walls outside the gate. Midius stopped, looking up at them. Most of the wretches were naked, though one poor man wore the tattered remnants of a guard’s uniform. They swung in the afternoon heat, hands tied above them, bodies wrapped in the rope caging. Some of the rope cages held only corpses--or, at least, the pieces of those corpses which hadn’t fallen free to form rotting piles at the base of the wall.
The soldiers prodded him to continue, and they passed through the gates, entering the bustling city of Partinel. Midius walked with his escort, watching the crowds, seeing--as if--with new eyes. Hoid’s training had changed him. Once, Midius would have looked only at the money changing hands, the goods being sold, the number of people on the streets. He would have been satisfied with the thriving economy. Now, he looked at the faces.
He wasn’t as practiced as his master had been. Midius couldn’t read expressions as easily, and couldn’t decide the thoughts of a man by the look in his eyes. Yet, he could sense the feeling of desperation about the shoppers. The edge of worry, and of fear.
“Something is wrong,” he found himself whispering.
The guards ignored the comment. A the next intersection, they led him right, along another street lined by mud-brick houses and carefully maintained gardens. That road ended at the banks of the Stormsea.
More a lake than a real ‘sea,’ the body of water was wide enough to look daunting, but not so large that you couldn’t see the other side. Boats worked the waters, scouring for fish in the depths. Though it was narrow, by water-body standards, the Stormsea was incredibly deep. Its sheer sides led straight down, like an enormous god had cut a long cylinder out of the rock, then filled it with water.
And, perhaps that was exactly what had happened. Maybe, before they died, one of the gods had cut the Stormsea out and shaped it like it was. Midius’s mind began working, searching myths, stories, tales, and legends. He was a jesk now, a purveyor of stories, a teller of tales. Lies and hopes. So often, they were the same thing. It was different from what he had once been.
As they approached the end of the road, the Stormsea lit up, lightning crackling deep within its depths, illuminating the boats from beneath. People along the docks paused, some of them looking to see if danger would follow. However, the surface of the water body remained still and quiet. It always seemed more calm than a lake its size should, the surface almost mirror-like.
The guards turned, leading him south. Midius stopped in the road. South. That wasn’t the way to the palace.
“You’re taking me to the dungeons,” he realized.
He shouldn’t have said it out loud.
The guard just to his right immediately swung the butt of his spear for Midius’s head. Midius snapped his hand up, catching the butt, shocking both the soldier and Midius himself.
No, he thought.
The next spear butt--wielded by the guard captain--took Midius on the back of the head. He fell, dizzy, and blacked out.
#
Not surprisingly, Midius awoke in the dungeons. He sat up, holding his head. He felt sick to his stomach from the blow, and a bit dizzy. He groaned, leaning against the side of the earthen wall. He was in a dug out pit in the ground, a wicker cage door on the top. It was dark, and had a dirty, earthen smell. There was a room above, constructed from the ubiquitous clay bricks.
He leaned with his back against the side of the pit. His jesk’s coat had been taken from him, leaving him in his smock and sash. He touched his hands to his head, breathing in and out, calming himself. Then, he reached to the ground and pulled up a handful of dirt powder.
He tossed it in front of him, weaving the light. Dust fell in a shower, forming into an image of his master.
“Why?” Midius asked.
Hoid sat down. The old jesk wore his brown, many-pocketed jesk’s coat. Clean shaven, wise. Dead.
Only an image, true, but even lies could provide truth.
“Why what, son?” the aged jesk asked.
“Why send me here?” Midius said.
“You were coming anyway.”
“Not to this,” Midius said, waving his arm toward the cage above. “I came for my own reasons, not to answer that summons. You know it was only sent to bring you into the city, where you could be executed.”
“The people of Partinel need you,” Hoid said.
“Well, they can need me all they want,” Midius replied. “If their king beheads me for being a Lightweaver, then I won’t be able to do much.”
“The people of Partinel need you,” Hoid repeated.
“They can get their stories from someone else,” Midius snapped, rubbing the back of his head.
“Ah, son,” Hoid said. “This isn’t about stories.”
“What is it about, then?” Midius asked.
But, the illusion couldn’t answer. It knew nothing more than Midius himself did. As he considered that, the image shattered, flakes of dust showering back down to the earthen floor.
“Gods dead and gone,” Midius cursed to himself, resting back against the side of the pit.
“Hello?” A voice echoed in the room above.
Midius sat upright.
“He. . .hello?” the voice repeated. “Is someone there?”
“I’m in the pit,” Midius said.
“I’m in a different one,” the voice said. “I heard them put you in. There are two of you?”
Midius hesitated. Hoid’s voice. “Yes,” he said.
“You are fortunate,” the voice said. “They left me here alone. My family. . .I. . .I don’t know where they are.”
“Who are you?”
“Delides,” the man said. “Cooper. Do you know what day it is?”
“Tevent” Midius said, naming the day of the week.
“By the Betrayer,” the cooper said softly. “Only two days have passed? I felt it to be a week.”
“What did you do?” Midius asked.
Silence.
“Nothing,” the man said.
Of course not. And yet, what had Midius himself done to earn himself a place in prison? He glanced at the fallen dust, the illusion’s corpse. Never forget, my son, that men are not fools.
“I believe you,” Midius said.
“You don’t even know me,” the voice snapped.
“You seem honest enough,” Midius said, though the comment sounded flat, even to him. Delides gave no response.
“Delides?”
Again, no response.
What does it matter to me? Midius thought, thumping his head against the back of the wall--an action he immediately regretted, as it still hurt from the blow he’d taken. He rubbed it, shooting a glare through the dirt in the direction of the voice.
Delides didn’t say anything further, and Midius didn’t really care. What was another prisoner to him? Unimportant. Midius had to worry about himself.
And yet. . . .
Never forget, my son, Hoid seemed to whisper. Become better than you were. . . .
“I’m sure your family is all right, Delides,” Midius found himself saying.
No response.
“You know, there is a story, often told to children,” Midius said out-loud. “Of rabbits and wolves.”
His words echoed in the clay room up above.
“Now,” Midius continued, “many men have not seen either of these beasts. They are trune animals, rabbits and wolves both. It is important to remember about them, for they are a piece of our past.
“The rabbit is a furry little thing, large of feet and quick to flee from a wolf. And yet, the story is told of a rabbit who had no mind for fleeing. A warrior among rabbits, he was. Though the other rabbits called him a fool, he decided one day that he would not flee when the predators appeared. This rabbit planned to fight, to resist, and to prove that not all of his kind would scurry to their holes the moment danger appeared.”
He fell silent, and waited. He left the ending untold. Hoid had promised that. . . .
“And what happened?” the cooper’s voice came.
Nobody could resist a story.
“He won,” Midius said, smiling as he stood up. “Not because he was stronger than the wolf. Not because he was more clever. But, the story says, because the wolf was so surprised. The shock of being resisted by a mere rabbit was too much for the wolf’s mind, and he sat there, staring, even as the rabbit beat him down with a rock.”
The small chamber fell silent once again.
I just told my first story, Midius realized. Such a small thing, a simple morality tale without much drama or involvement. And yet, even that had an effect. Lies, Hoid’s voice seemed to remind him. We love them. Not because we are fools. But because of the opposite.
“What does it mean?” the cooper asked. “Why tell me this?”
“Not all rabbits will die without a fight,” Midius said, staring up though the wooden bars. “And not all men who you find in a prison are there for a good reason. I will withhold judgment on you, my friend, for I’d rather not be the wolf who finds himself dead, simply because of his biases.”
The cooper snorted softly, the sound amplified by the room’s acoustics. And yet, he did speak. “I am here, storyteller, because I told the truth. I am here because I’m cursed, apparently. The Corrupted took my youngest child three nights back. My little Ulede.”
“You live outside the city?”
“Of course not.”
“But Corrupted--”
“Can’t enter a trune ring,” the man snapped. “Yes, I know. And skullmoss can’t grow in Partinel. If that’s true, I’d like to know why I found a patch of white fuzz of it in my own garden. And, I’d like to know why the king was so scared of it that he burned the entire building.
“Everyone tells me it can’t be true. They claim I must have brought the moss in, and that I must have made up the story of my son’s disappearance in order to distract from what I’d done. They throw me in here, waiting for me to break. And so I sit, trying to decide if I should just lie and chance execution for bringing skullmoss into the city, or if I should wait until they torture me.”
The cooper fell silent again, and this time, Midius couldn’t blame him.
Midius rested back against the side of his pit. Corrupted, in the city? It couldn’t be. Corrupted Aethers, like fainlife, couldn’t enter a trune ring. Everyone knew that. This man had to be lying.
Or perhaps the poor man had simply been deceived.
Something is going on, Midius thought. But Hoid couldn’t have known of it. He’d been gone from Partinel for decades when I met him. We had no contact with the city during my training, save for the assassin.
And yet. . .he said that the city needed me. That it was urgent.
And it had to do with the summons. The reason that the Bear of Partinel had sent for, then killed, Hoid the jesk. Why?
Midius sat back against the wall of the pit. As Hoid had been so fond of telling him, some answers simply wouldn’t come until one waited long enough for them.



The Liar of Partinel
Chapter Four

Theus grunted, ducking away from the blow. He brought his shield up, taking the backhand and shoving. His opponent stumbled away. The man wore long hair with a scruffy beard, and sweat glistened on his bare chest. He bellowed, hurling himself forward, swinging his gladuis for Theus.
Theus stepped back, taking the blow on his shield. The wood groaned, chips flying. Even the finest shields could take only so much punishment. There were stories of his fathers going through three or four in a single battle.
Theus grunted, hand firm on the hilt of his gladius. His soldiers and guards watched in silence. Everyone stopped their own matches when the king chose to spar. That was, of course, because the king’s ‘sparring’ often involved a fight to the death.
Theus threw his opponent back again, then moved in to attack. Gladius fighting was brutal, close-combat work. Not like a spearfight, where you often had two friends at your side and where you killed in formation. No, with the sword, you got in close. Theus could smell his opponent’s sweat as he shoved aside a barrage of blows, throwing himself bodily against the other man, counting on his extra weight--augmented by bronze helm and breastplate--to give him the advantage.
And it did. His opponent stumbled, and Theus struck, sheering the man’s arm free at the elbow. It wasn’t the sword arm--his opponent had been smart enough to pull that arm back. But, it was good enough. The sliced arm spit blood, and Theus backed away to let the man bleed out. Then, however, Theus hesitated.
He deserves better, Theus thought.
So, as his opponent stumbled, Theus moved in again and stuck the man through the stomach. Theus pulled his sword free and stepped away. His bare-chested opponent fell to the dirty ground, twitching a bit as he died.
Theus dropped his shield, feeling the familiar let down--mixed with exultation of the win--that came at the end of a fight. He wiped his brow, then threw his sword down so that it stuck point-first into the flesh of his fallen foe. He walked away, accepting a cup of mead from one attendant and a fresh, clean sword from his armoring boy. Theus drank the mead, then slammed the new sword into his sheath.
Jend was waiting at the back of the courtyard. He dropped a bit of charcoal as Theus joined him.
“That was well done,” Jend said. He’d been scratching on the stones beside him. A charcoal sketch of the contest. It was, Theus noted, rather good. You’ve missed your calling as an artist, my old friend. But, the two of them had missed out on a lot by taking over the city as they had. Hopefully, Partinel would be the better for it.
“The man died well,” Jend continued.
Theus glanced backward. The event had taken place in the eastern courtyard of his palace--which was one of the most well-guarded sections of the city. The wealth of swords, spearheads, and armor held in the eastern ward was a larger prize than any king’s coffer.
The dead man lay in the dust, Theus’s weapon sprouting from his back. His name had been Xeol. He had once been a member of Theus’s guard, before he’d joined with a faction planning to assassinate him.
Regular criminals, Theus hung from the cages outside the wall. Military men, however, deserved something better--even the ones who had tried to form a coup against the king. To men such as Xeol, Theus gave a choice--either they could go to the cages, or they could fight him to the death.
It was terribly unfair. Theus wore a bronze breastplate, matching helm, and a leather skirt. He carried a shield, and his sword was of the finest quality. The prisoner was only given a simple gladius. However, the fight offered them a chance. A slight one, true, but still an opportunity.
It was dangerous, perhaps foolhardy. Theus recognized that. Yet, what he did gained him some measure of respect, even from those who would oust him. Plus, it not only gave him a chance to practice his swordsmanship in a deadly combat situation, it gave him a chance to show that--despite age--he was still a dangerous opponent. It was an important reminder. There were always a dozen factions in the city planning to kill and replace their king. Theus himself had been part of one such group, years ago.
Death, fighting, fear. That was the way to maintain power. Part of him mourned such realities. He knew that the philosophers down in the understreet tavern spoke of theories and promises, dreaming of peace. Midius knew that the new king in Rens spoke of uniting the Cluster, making one big kingdom that spanned multiple cities.
Theus didn’t see that either philosophy was feasible. As long as there was ambition, there would be fighting. And a kingdom that covered more than one city? Theus had enough trouble controlling, feeding, and ruling one. How would any man keep more than that?
Theus turned away from the dead corpse, and sat down on a stool, holding up his arms so his armoring boy could untie the back clasps of his breastplate.
“You verified the identity of the prisoner?” Theus asked. “This supposed jesk Lightweaver?”
“It’s not the master,” Jend said. “An apprentice, but I believe him to be authentic. He carried your summons, and men I trust spoke of him making images in the air.”
What of the master, then? Theus thought. And what of Teraxos? If the old Lightweaver didn’t answer the summons immediately, Teraxos was supposed to kill him.
The armoring boy got the breastplate off, then carried it. The piece of armor was almost too heavy for him. Jend watched fondly; the boy was his eldest.
“He’s a good lad, Jend,” Theus said. “Quick to do his duty, even quicker to learn. He’ll be a good soldier. A guard to my own sons, I hope. You should be proud.”
Jend turned away from the boy. “I am.” That was all the affection he ever showed the boy, and Theus hoped the lad was clever enough to see it for what it was. Good natured though he was, Jend couldn’t be seen giving too much favoritism to his son, lest it undermine his authority with the other soldiers.
“Theus,” Jend said, stepping closer, speaking quietly. “I don’t like this. First we invite a foreign Aetherlin to the city, and now one of those Lightweavers is here. Apprentice or no, that man is dangerous. Why did he come? He had to know that we’d imprison him.”
Theus didn’t respond. Instead, he tried to look thoughtful as he sat. The truth was, now that the thrill of the fight was wearing off, he simply felt exhausted. Exhausted, sore, and old.
“I don’t like this, old friend,” Jend whispered. “Magics and curses. Maybe that’s why these spirits in the night kill our people.”
Theus met Jend’s eyes. “That’s foolishness,” he said. “Don’t let the men hear you say things like that. The Corrupted started taking our children long before I sent for the jesk. Besides, you know as well as I do that Aetherlins aren’t cursed. I am one myself.”
Jend fell silent, then turned away. Theus tried to shrug off his fatigue and focus on the danger at hand. At least he was out of the sun, sitting in the clay-brick courtyard arming room as he was.
Superstition. He taught against it, tried to get his people to embrace the ideas popular in the north. There was one thing Rens did right: it focused people on what was tangible and real. As long he feared fain ghosts and dark mysteries, man would remain oppressed. If Theus couldn’t feel it, if he couldn’t taste it, touch it, or kill it, then he couldn’t afford to base policy on it.
But what to do about Corrupted who came, consistently, in the night? What of skullmoss that grew where it should not? He couldn’t keep every man who saw such things locked in dungeons.
Theus stood up, sending Jend to prepare his chariot. Theus left the arming room, walking out through the gate. He glanced back at his place. Once, he had thought the building to be among the finest of structures; much of it was made of stone, well dobbed with mud. It was spacious and ornamented, with majestic pillars and open courtyards.
And yet, he was beginning to see it in a more and more critical light. Yes, it had a lot of room--two courtyards, three wings, and a massive rooftop garden. And yet, it was in a crowded section of town, with no real fortifications of its own. All of those open rooms and pillared courtyards were difficult to defend. Perhaps if Theus’ predecessor had spent more time fortifying his palace, rather than the city itself, he would still rule Partinel.
Theus didn’t intend to make that mistake. Hence the construction of the new palace keep, complete with stone walls of its own, twenty-five feet high, with its back to the stormsea and its front facing down a slope. It would provide an excellent fortress of retreat, should the city itself be breached. Theus would feel a lot more secure when it was finished.
Assuming that day ever came. Cursed stonemasons and their excuses, he thought. Betrayer take them.
Jend arrived with the chariot, and Theus stepped on. His customary guard of soldiers formed around the vehicle as it began to move.
“I don’t see why you sent for that jesk,” Jend said. “I never liked them in the city, Theus. Banishing them was the right thing to do.”
Theus kept his thoughts to himself. Why had he sent for the Jesk? I can’t fight Corrupted, he thought. Monsters from stories and legends. It had seemed to him that a person who knew those legends and stories might know how to combat the creatures. And so, he had sent for old Hoid, half out of desperation.
He couldn’t speak those things out-loud, not even to Jend. Theus, the Bear of Partinel? The man who denounced even the Eddau and their religion, calling for aid from a storyteller? It would undermine his reputation.
And Theus, more than anyone, understood that a king such as himself ruled solely through force of reputation.
So he’d sent, then waited, and stewed. Finally, a jesk had arrived. Perhaps if the man had come a few days earlier, Theus wouldn’t have been forced to accept aid from Naysho and his foreign Aetherlin. Of course, did he really want to rely on the jesk any more than he did Naysho and his Rens Aetherlin?
Could he risk the future of his city on not relying on them?
#
Naysho, not surprisingly, was waiting at the dungeon building. The ambassador stood in his deep blue robe, self satisfied.
Yes, we both know you have the better spy network, Naysho, Theus thought, climbing down from the chariot. “Come to ask the jesk for a performance?” he asked out-loud.
“I would see this. . .Lightweaver, Lord,” the man said. “Assuming I am allowed.”
Theus waved indifferently, stomping into the prison chamber. A half dozen pits lay in the ground, covered in wicker traps. They were enclosed by a building--partially because that allowed for yet another garden on the top, partially because the shade kept his prisoners from dying before he wanted them to.
“Fourth pit, Theus,” Jend said.
Theus walked over, eyes adjusting to the shaded interior. He squatted down, peering into the pit. The ‘apprentice’ was far older than he had expected--at least in his twenties. Dark hair, with a lean face that might have made the man seem older than he was. He wore no beard.
“You think you’re a soldier, do you boy?” Theus said, amused at the lack of facial hair.
The young man looked up. Then, he raised a hand and tossed a handful of dust into the air. Immediately, the bits of dirt shimmered, forming into an image of a face. A man’s face, burning in fires, the eyes dead. A familiar face. . . .
It was the face of Teraxos. The assassin who had been sent to either retrieve the jesk or kill him. Teraxos: Theus’s son.
“Lies,” Theus said. “Your tricks won’t fool me, Lightweaver.”
“He poisoned my master,” the apprentice said, hidden behind the image. “But my master killed him. Both are dead. I burned the bodies myself.”
The image faded, seeming to break, the individual bits of dust showering back down on top of the apprentice. He stared up at Theus; few people had looked on him with such defiance and lived.
This apprentice would not be one of them. In a moment of decisiveness, Theus decided that sending for the jesk had been a bad move. Naysho’s Aetherlin would be able to help, but this youth--not even the master, just a base apprentice--would be of no use to him other than to undermine his rule.
“Kill him,” Theus said, turning away from the pit. He stopped up short, face to face with Naysho.
“Lord, Theus,” Naysho said smoothly. “If I might have a word.”
Theus paused, then waved a hand, stilling Jend, who had pulled out his gladius to kill the jesk. Theus turned back, and the two of them stepped to the side.
“Lord,” Naysho said quietly, “I have a boon to request of you. Call it. . .a favor we would like in exchange for the time of our Aetherlin agent.”
“Who has yet to arrive.”
“The Aetherlin will be here soon, do not fear. However, in the mean time, I will need something of you--lest our lord, the king of Rens, feel that his willingness to send you aid is not duly appreciated.”
Leaving me facing the ‘righteous’ anger of a king with a far superior army to my own, Theus thought. A king who still has the twisted idea that all of the cities of the Cluster should join together. Under his banner, of course.
“What is your boon?” Theus said through gritted teeth.
“Leave the Lightweaver alive,” Naysho asked. “At least until our Aetherlin arrives to study him.”
“What would be the purpose?”
Naysho spoke even more quietly. “Don’t you see, Lord Theus? These jesks do unnatural things. They hold no Aether upon their arm, yet they create magics. Unpredictable, false magics, true--but magics no Aether can replicate. This is something we must understand.”
Theus folded his arms. “I thought your king denounced all magics that do not come from Aethers.”
“He does. Lord Theus, the. . .thing you have in the pit there is not a human. It is fain, I promise you. Otherwise, it could not do as it does. Does that not indicate even further why we should study its powers?”
Theus glanced to the side.
“I make but a request,” Naysho said. “You need not consider it a demand, of course.”
I’m sure. “Very well,” Theus said. “It will be as you ask.”
Naysho smiled. “Excellent. We will return here to inspect the Lightweaver once our Aetherlin arrives. We are most interested in this opportunity.”
Naysho smiled disarmingly toward Theus, obviously working hard to look thankful. He must have realized how little Theus liked being shoved around, and was trying to soften the blow.
What will happen when that Aetherlin of yours comes, Naysho? Theus thought. What if your agent does discover the source of our problems? What will it cost me to get the answer from you?
Or have you been the problem all along? Have you been faking the appearance of the Corrupted? Yet another string, twisting about me, trying to make me stumble and fall?
Naysho apparently took his silence as a dismissal, and the ambassador retreated from the building. Theus clenched his fists in frustration at the manipulation. He glanced at the pit, then walked over.
The jesk still stared up at him, arrogant. Does the boy wish to die, or is he just ignorant?
The boy’s claims about Teraxos were, obviously, lies. Theus’s son was more than skilled enough to deal with an old man and his storytelling apprentice.
And yet, Hoid had proven surprising on more than one occasion. Theus leaned down. “What really happened to the assassin, boy?”
“I tell you the truth. My master killed him.”
“Truth?” Theus said. “You are a jesk, a self-proclaimed liar.”
“Sometimes, even the liar must speak true. Otherwise, his lies hold no weight.”
His instincts told Midius to kill the young man. Right then. Be done with it, to earn Rens’ ire, to abandon use of their Aetherlin and let Partinel rest upon its own resources.
But he did not. As he’d said, he had just enough of a conscience to be dangerous. The city would not fall while he was king. He might have taken the throne through lies, bloodshed, and treachery. But he would not fail its people. Not if there were a way to save it. Not if there were a way to wiggle out of Naysho’s ploys.
Gods dead and gone, he thought to himself in annoyance. It really is the best way.
“Do you know why I summoned your master here, jesk?” he asked.
“To kill him, I assume.”
“To offer him a chance to redeem himself,” Theus said. “My friend from Rens claims that you know things of fain creatures and their magics--that you work by their power to create your images.”
The apprentice didn’t reply.
“I would know more of this,” Theus said.
Again, no reply.
Bah, he thought, standing up straight. Let him wait for a few days in here, then we’ll see how silent he is. Theus began to walk away.
“You want me to do something about the Corrupted in the city,” the apprentice said from his hole.
Theus froze. “So you do know of them.”
“I know they are taking your children.”
Theus returned to the pit. “You can stop them?”
“I don’t know,” the apprentice said. “I certainly can’t do anything inside this pit.”
Theus knelt down. “You stop them, and I will give you your life, boy. If you don’t, I will execute you.”
The apprentice met his eyes, then nodded. “It is a deal.”
“You run,” Theus said, “and I will find you. And I will kill you.”
“I will not run,” the apprentice said. “You have my word.”
“The word of a liar? No, I think not. One of my soldiers will accompany you at all times.”
“I pick him.”
Theus raised an eyebrow, amused. “This isn’t a negotiation, jesk. You do as I say.”
“I pick my guard,” the apprentice said, “from among your men, any one I wish. And, when this is done--whether I solve your problem or whether you decide to execute me--and I promise to tell you what really happened to your son. No lies. No hidden shadows or illusions. Only the truth.”
Theus felt a chill. He knows. The identity of the assassin. Of course Hoid would know.
Why hasn’t Teraxos returned home? Is he still working on Hoid? It shouldn’t have taken so long.
Could he really trust a jesk to make a promise?
Yes, he thought. Yes, I can, unfortunately. There was one thing that had seemed true of Hoid, no matter what. He’d lie, tell wild exaggerations, make up whatever stories he wished. But he never broke a promise. Even if that promise had been to help Theus overthrow a king and take control of Partinel.
Even, apparently, a promise vowing never to return from his exile.
“Very well,” Theus said, standing. “We have an arrangement, jesk.”
“Theus,” Jend said, taking his arm. “What are you doing?”
“Saving our city, Jend,” Theus said, slapping the hand away. “You trusted me to take the throne when we overthrew Hollistar. You’ll have to trust me on this as well.”
Jend hesitated, then nodded. “I do trust you, Theus. But. . .this is asking a lot.”
“I didn’t ask,” Theus said. “Now, get him out so we can get on with letting him choose his bodyguard.”


The Liar of Partinel
Chapter Five


“They’ve been attacking fairly consistently for the last three years,” Theus said quietly. “We dismissed the first reports as nonsense. We spent months scouring the city, setting traps, looking for a murderer who was dressing up like a ‘Corrupted’ as cover.”
Midius walked quietly. No mention was made of the hours he’d spent in the prison pit, and the king gave no offer of food or drink. Midius was expected to keep up, walking beside the king’s chariot as they made their way to the city gates.
At least they returned my coat, he thought, though he wasn’t looking forward to wearing the heavy garment in the growing afternoon heat.
“We have kept the disappearances quiet,” the king continued. “But there are rumors. And, we still can’t even confirm that Corrupted really are getting into the city. It could be a hoax by any number of forces.” He hesitated. “Yet, I’ve seen skullmoss growing within the boundaries of our trune ring.”
Impossible, Midius thought immediately. Then, however, he forced himself to be open-minded. Hadn’t he just given a story about the rabbit and the wolf? Just because it hadn’t ever happened before didn’t mean it couldn’t happen.
Theus was frightened. He didn’t show it, of course, but Midius could think of no other explanation as to why the Bear of Partinel would have spared him. As ridiculous as it sounded, it seemed that the king really was worried about the rumors of Corrupted in the city. Worried enough to work with a jesk, despite the fact that he had exiled Hoid--and all of his kind--some fifteen years earlier.
That exile had, essentially, meant death. Midius’s treaties and influence across the Cluster had gained the jesks exile from every major city in the region. Finding food outside of a city--outside of its trune ring--was nearly impossible, particularly for a group of aging storytellers and jesters. Only Hoid had survived.
Is that what this is all about? Midius thought. Hoid trains me, then sends me back to the city because of the opportunity it presents? Save Theus’s throne, and earn the jesks a life in society again?
Then why not come himself? Why die, and send his apprentice?
“The kidnappings are becoming more and more frequent,” the king said from his chariot. “This is the second one this month. They’re also penetrating further and further into the city.”
“And somehow I’m supposed to do something about this?” Midius asked.
The king’s chariot pulled to a stop as they reached the gates. Theus glanced at Midius, then pointed. Five heartbeats later, two of Theus’s soldiers had Midius slammed up against the rough, patchwork stone city wall. Theus walked up a few moments later.
“Listen, jesk,” he hissed. “I sent for your master against my better judgment. Before I cast them out, the jesks nearly overthrew my rule with their talk of stories and legends.”
Stones from the wall dug into Midius’s back. He blinked against the pain.
“But,” the king continued, holding up a finger. “One thing I will admit about the Jesks. They know things. Half of what we understand about the Corrupted come from those blasted stories your master told. I doubt you’ll be of much help to me. I doubt this city needs you. I highly suspect that, whatever is wrong, my. . .other agents will be able to fix it long before you.”
He fell silent, Midius still held up against the wall. Midius met the king’s eyes, reading the implication in them. But you can’t pass up the opportunity, he realized. If there are Corrupted in the city, if the Skullmoss is growing inside, that means your trune ring is failing.
And if that happens, the entire city will fall. Thousands will die, and you will lose your throne. You can’t take that chance, even if it means letting a jesk help you.
Theus waved, and the soldiers let Midius down.
“We’re here,” Theus said. “Guard station is over there. You can pick your soldier from among them.”
Midius turned, glancing toward a brick hut beside the inside wall of the city. However, instead of heading toward it, he walked through the gates themselves.
A solder, at Theus’s command, grabbed Midius’ arm a few moments later. Behind, Theus chuckled. “Fleeing, little jesk?”
Midius turned. “You agreed that I could pick any soldier I wanted.”
“You want one of the ones on patrol outside the city?” Theus asked, frowning.
Midius shook his head, then pointed upward. Toward the rope cages hanging from the top of the city wall. “Him,” he said.
“What?” Theus snapped, pushing his way through his soldiers, looking up. There, in one of the cages, was the man Midius had seen earlier. Everyone else being held in the cages wore rags. One person, however, wore a ragged brown soldier’s uniform.
“You can’t pick that one,” the king said.
“Any soldier I want. You gave me your word.”
“I did nothing of the sort.”
“You implied it,” Midius said, stepping up to the king. “We had a deal. You let me live, assuming I can find out how those Corrupted are getting into your city. I keep a soldier with me to keep an eye on me--but only one of my choosing. You want to back out on our deal, fine. Kill me now and be done with it.”
The king stared him down. “You realize I’ve already killed one man today.”
“I don’t doubt your ruthlessness, king,” Midius said. “Trust me. I’m well aware of how careless you are with human life.”
“That man isn’t what you think,” the king said. “You expect that by taking a prisoner as your guard, you’ll gain an ally. Someone bitter at me for imprisoning him.”
“I think any person you thought worthy of hanging from one of those cages is likely to be a better man than the ones you keep close by you.”
The king snorted. “Fine. He’s yours. One condition.”
Midius raised an eyebrow.
“Tell me where you learned to be so bold. Did that fool Hoid teach you to act like this? Meet the eyes of men who are your betters? Provoking kings, instead of begging for your life?”
“I haven’t always lived in the forest, king,” Midius said. He turned away. “Cut him down.”
The king wave a hand, and a couple of guards ran for the wall. Midius watched in silence as they worked.
Where did you learn to be so bold?
Hoid had chastised him for that. A storyteller was supposed to be a man of humility, the master had taught. Make people hate you, particularly important people, and your stories and lies would find no ground to grow.
Midius clenched his fists. I’m trying, master, he thought. But it’s difficult, around a man like Theus. When he looks at me, I’d rather die than look down.
But could he really continue to feel that way? Enraging the Bear of Partinel himself? What good would that do? Men like Theus did not respond well to being bullied.
I should never have come to this city.
The soldiers returned a few minutes later, bearing a weak, scraggly prisoner between them. His uniform was nothing more than the brown tunic soldiers wore beneath their leather and breastplates, sewn with the symbol of Partinel on the shoulder. The guards dropped their prisoner before Midius and their king. The man slumped down, his beard thick, eyes downcast as if in parody of Midius’s own refusal to humble himself earlier.
Fortunately, there appeared still be a taughtness to the man’s muscles. He knelt, but he did not fall over. His skin was burned, but he was not emaciated. He hadn’t been up there for too long. A few weeks, perhaps, assuming rains had fallen to give him drink.
“My king. . . .” the man whispered.
Midius started. He hadn’t expected to hear respect in the man’s voice.
“Kail,” the king said. “I have a duty for you.”
“I deserve it not, my king,” the man said, voice ragged. “Return me to my prison and let me die.”
“No,” Theus snapped. “I need you to guard this man.”
The prisoner, Kail, looked up. His lips were parched, yet his eyes were keen as he regarded Midius.
“If he tries to leave the city’s trune ring,” Theus said. “Kill him. If you think he is working to overthrow me, kill him. Stay with him, no matter where he goes, and be prepared to report on his activities.”
“It will be done, my king,” Kail said, coughing slightly.
Theus unstrapped his own sword and threw it to the dust before the kneeling soldier. “Serve well, and I may just forgive you enough to let you die on my blade, Kail.”
“Even the walls were too good for me,” Kail whispered.
Theus looked at Midius, looking self-satisfied. Dead gods, Midius cursed to himself. That wasn’t how this was supposed to go.
Theus nodded to his soldiers, leaving Midius standing alone on the field with the kneeling prisoner.
#
“So, Kail,” Midius said, walking through the dusty Partinel streets. “What is your story?”
The tall soldier walked beside him, king’s gladius held in one hand. He didn’t answer.
“You went up on the wall voluntarily?” Midius asked. “I thought that condemned soldiers were allowed to fight Theus to the death?”
“I would not harm my king,” Kail said, staring ahead. “Fighting him would have risked causing him harm.”
Great, Midius thought. He had thought himself clever for picking the soldier off the wall--he’d assumed that any soldier unfortunate enough to end up in the wall cages would be bitter against Theus.
They stopped in an intersection, Midius putting his hands into the pockets of his coat. To the side, Kail rested one hand against the wall of a nearby building, wobbling slightly and putting the other to his forehead.
“Kail?” Midius asked.
“I’m sorry,” the man said, voice cracking.
I need to get him some food and water, Midius thought.
He looked across the square, one of the many marketplaces in Partinel. The day wasn’t particularly busy, but in Partinel, that still meant that a lot of traffic moved back and forth through streets, stalls, and buildings. Merchants stood squabbling, arguing over the value of certain pieces of barter. Much of the food they traded had originally come from the king’s store, out of which soldiers and farmers were paid each day. Some few carried writs of value given by merchants.
Midius, however, had neither writ nor barter. He took a deep breath, staring at the shifting crowds, his heart beginning to pound.
Stop that, he told himself. There’s no reason to be nervous. You’ve faced things far worse than a square full of people.
And yet, he’d never really been in front of people before. Hoid had trained him in the privacy of the forest hut, teaching him to memorize stories and tales in rapid succession, giving him lessons in the art of the storyteller. All so that he could stand up and make his way as a jesk.
They’ll welcome my stories, Midius told himself. That’s what Hoid said. No man is more loved than the goodly liar.
He picked a corner, out of the way enough to not be in anyone’s way, and began to speak in a humble voice.
“Tales are diverse regarding the founding of Partinel,” he said. “Ancient city, older than our grandfathers and their grandfathers. Home to thousands, haven from the fain. Most agree that in the Cluster, Partinel is the eldest of the cities. Only Rens, high atop its plateau, can claim a history as long.”
Some few stopped to listen, though they looked more confused than they did anything else. Midius bowed to them, setting a cloth handkerchief on the ground before him as he did so--a place for gifts of food.
“Of these stories about Partinel, one stands out. In other cities, it is obvious why trune life can survive. These cities exist in places where the landscape is harsh, and growing food is difficult. All know that fain life is less hardy than trune life--even the skullmoss cannot live at too high an elevation, or where water is scarce. Most cities in the Cluster exist in such places.
“And yet, Partinel shows none of these signs. The land here is relatively fertile, water plentiful because of the Stormsea. Yet, fain life will not approach. It dies out if it gets too close. When men first discovered the trune ring here, they assumed--like many--that the ring would fade over time, and that fain life would encroach.
“Yet, that did not happen. Decades, then centuries, passed, and this area was always safe. It became a haven for humans, their plants, their animals. A city began to grow. Other locations have since been discovered with similar attributes--land where fain life refuses to grow for no explainable reason--but Partinel was the first. The first known stable trune ring. In this way, we knew it was blessed. Even the Aethers themselves agree on this point.”
The people who had been watching began to trail away. Midius reached for them, surprised, feeling his courage falter--for which he felt ashamed. Why in the world should something as simple as being in front of an audience be so nerve-wracking? He forced himself onward, stumbling slightly.
“Well. . .um. . .Partinel. It has a trune ring.”
Where had he been going? There were so many stories about Partinel, and its origin. Which should he use? The more fanciful ones, or the more truthful ones?
He reached into a pocket, pulling out a handful of colored dust. He threw it in front of himself and used Lightweaving to make an image of a group of men in foreign clothing, bearing dark black Aether Slivers upon their forearms. This drew some attention.
“Partinel,” Midius said. “And Aethers. They say the first men who lived here were among the very first Aetherlins upon the land. Back then, just after the Gods died and nearly took the world with them, these men had very little to rely upon. They were cast out from other men because of their Aether, which was called dark and evil. The men of Duskr were led to this trune ring.
“All know that Duskr Aethers are among the most clever and the most intelligent. They helped their men found this place.”
“You contradict yourself, storyteller,” a voice said from behind.
Midius glanced to the side. Kail was watching him, seated on the dust, king’s sword across his lap.
“Earlier,” Kail said, “you claimed that when men first found the Partinel trune ring, they expected it to disappear. Yet, now you claim that the Duskr Aethers led man here, and presumably told them that there was a stable trune ring. Which is it?”
Midius turned away, back toward the people, his confidence wavering and his Illusionary Aetherlins shattering. Part of him was amused. What of all his training? He’d been able to tell the stories smoothly to Hoid, but now that he had to give an actual performance, he can’t get them out without tripping over his own tongue.
None of them are paying attention anyway, he thought, stilling his nerves. Focus.
He closed his eyes.
“Partinel,” he said, starting for a third time. “What must men have first thought, discovering it? A sea of glass in the center of a patch of vibrant trune life? A sea that sparks with lightning, and a wide ring of soil ready for crops.”
He threw out dust, creating an illusionary image of Partinel from above, showing images of men standing on the banks of the Stormsea when no buildings had yet been made. I crafted illusions, imaging them in his mind, forming a grand swath of vibrant green growing around the perimeter of the lake.
“Partinel!” he said. “The word means paradise. Across the land, men stumbled, they die, they starve. But here, there is life. Here, we fight. For we know that the land was not always fain.
“Hear! Listen! Have hope!” He threw out another handful of dust, weaving the light to form an enormous vast landscape, full of trees, plants, and animals. “Listen when I tell you of the coming of fain life. It was long ago, before the founding of Partinel. During those days, when the gods watched over men, humans could live anywhere they wanted. Any soil would grow trune life.
“Men lived in great tribes, moving about where they wished, like the Chan people still do. Life was not hard, but peaceful. There was no war, for if men offended others, they could simply move. There was no fighting over land, for men could live upon any bit they wished!
He pulled from another pocket a third handful of dust. He wove light into the form of tribes moving across the landscape, living in peace, feeding off the land.
“And then, the Gods died,” he said, softening his voice as Hoid had taught him, his illusion showed a tempest in the sky, followed by a wave of creeping white covering the landscape. “And with their death was born the Skullmoss, crawling from their corpses, slinking across the land. Men tried to fight it, to burn it away. And yet, fain creatures began to grow from it. Strange, twisted creatures.
“Men fought, and men lost. The skullmoss grew too quickly, and it fed off of the fallen corpses of the dead, sprouting on them even when no fainlife was near. Men fled back, and humans were pushed further and further to the west. All was despair, for they knew fain would soon claim all. And when it did, their families would die.”
He stopped, letting the words hang, then changed his illusion back to an image of Partinel, a lone ring of life in the middle of the white. “And then, they found this city.”
He opened his eyes. Some few had stopped to watch, mostly children.
“This, this is what Partinel means. That is why they named it paradise. That is why it--why you--are so important. This land, here, meant life to our ancestors. It meant hope. They could not fight fainlife, and could not live amongst it, for its plants were poisonous to man. But here was a place where mankind won. A place where he could survive, where he could thrive, where he could live.”
Midius smiled to the people before him. The children stared up at his illusion, captivated by the image that hung above Midius in the air. He knelt down to continue. However, as he did, several adults noticed him and shooed the children away. They shot him scowling looks, and soon he was--once again--left without an audience. In the distance, people grumbled, expressions dark. They did not at all look like Hoid had promised they would.
Midius stood up, frowning.
“They won’t listen to you, my godless friend,” a voice said.
Midius turned, frowning toward Kail. However, Kail wasn’t the one who had spoken. Watching from behind was a small figure.
Perhaps three feet tall, the figure was stooped, leaning forward like a very old man. Yet, Midius was familiar enough with Eddau to know that the creatures all walked that way--halfway between walking on two legs and walking on four. Like all other Eddau Midius had met, this one was wrapped completely in gray cloth--mouth, nose, arms, body. Only its black, pupiless eyes were visible beneath the cloth, and it wore a yellow, hooded robe.
“I thought your kind were forbidden in the city,” Midius said.
“Not forbidden,” the Eddau said, moving forward in a shuffling gait. It had a harsh, raspy voice, muffled by the cloth covering its mouth. “Just despised. Like your kind, actually.”
“My kind?”
“The king looks down on stories of the past,” the creature said. “Particularly ones that sound whimsical or fantastical. You want an audience? Tell them about taxes, or farming techniques, or where to fish. Don’t tell them about gods, though. They don’t like that.”
“You are a godspeaker?”
“Most of us are, these days,” the Eddau said. “Our population responds to shifts in belief among the godless. Come, storyteller. Your friend needs food, and you need to leave this place. Those merchants will not react well to your Lightweaving scaring away their customers.”
“Come?” Midius asked. “Where?”
“Where I take you, of course,” the creature said. “The jesks were friends to my kind once, and we have long memories. Let us go.”
The little creature began to waddle away, its back showing a small, cloth wrapped tail poking out beneath the back of the robe. Midius stood thoughtfully for a time, then nodded to Kail. The soldier stood--with some effort--and followed as they trailed the Eddau into the city.



The Liar of Partinel
Chapter Six


Theus wasn’t certain what to expect from the Rens Aetherlin. He’d heard, of course, about King Aronack’s training program. Already, news of the skill and wisdom of the Rens Aetherlins had reached Partinel, traveling on the wings of visiting merchants and Chan traders.
The Order of Amberite, they were being called. Theus stood atop the brick tower just inside his city walls, watching out over the fields. The Aetherlin had sent a messenger ahead. He would arrive soon.
The Order of Amberite, a group of soldiers made up entirely of Aetherlins. Where had King Aronack found enough Aether Slivers for such an endeavor? In Partinel, bearing an Aether was a sign of nobility. Theus had pried his own Duskr sliver from the wrist of the dying king before him. Aethers, however, lost something each time they were moved from one human to another. Theus’s own had been moved so many times that it barely seemed sentient any more.
The Order of Amberite, however, were said to be extremely powerful warriors, with vibrant, deadly Aethers. The order wore black, reports said, and were dreadful to cross. They could twist the truth out of those they met, and knew the secrets within the hearts of all men. Their Aethers gave them a distinct advantage when it came to understanding others or spying on them. The Order was said to be barely human any more, their bodies and minds twisted by the Aethers they bore.
And I’ve invited one into the city, he thought, feeling a breeze play with his cloak. The wind carried the scent of fain life. Sterile, inhuman. The bone white forest circled his city, extending in all directions, cut only occasionally by the black scar of a road.
The wooden tower ladder groaned, and Jend crested the tower lip a few moments later. He climbed up onto the top, and Theus’s other guards made room for him.
“The jesk tried preaching stories in a market square,” Jend reported. “He used his powers, but the people rejected him. Then was contacted by an Eddau and traveled with him to a local tavern.”
“Which tavern?”
“Flaxen’s place.”
Figures. “Did you identify the Eddau?”
“Those creatures all look the same,” Jend said, shaking his head. “We have men watching the tavern to see what the Lightweaver does next.”
Theus nodded.
“There is more,” Jend said. “The cooper finally broke down and admitted to fabricating the story about the Corrupted.”
“Do you believe him?”
Jend shook his head. “He’s just trying to get out of prison.”
Theus nodded, still looking out over the forests. “Put him in one of the wall cages for five days as punishment for lying, make certain everyone knows of the crime, then let him go and give him a new shop.”
Jend was silent.
“What?” Theus asked.
“Theus. . .I’m sorry. In his confession, the cooper admitted to drowning his child in the Stormsea. The soldiers heard--a lot of people did. He started screaming it from his pit, trying to get someone’s attention.”
Theus closed his eyes. Idiot fool, he thought. The Cooper was, of courses, lying. His story about a Corrupted stealing his child was too authentic to have been fabricated--it fit in exactly with the abductions over the years. And yet, the cooper had obviously assumed that--when making things up--he had to justify the child’s disappearance.
He should have made something up that didn’t imply he was a murderer.
“Execute him, then,” Theus said, gritting his teeth.
Jend looked away, but nodded.
He makes me give the order, Theus thought. Even though he knows what needs to be done just as well as I do. That’s always the way it had been. Jend and Theus had overthrown the city together, but the younger cousin had never wanted the throne. He couldn’t make the difficult decisions.
“Anyway,” Jend said, “Naysho is waiting for you down below. He’s. . .not very happy.”
Theus gritted his teeth, half tempted to let Naysho sit below and stew. However, it didn’t seem a good idea to antagonize them man when his Aetherlin was so close to arriving. With a sigh, Theus nodded to Jend, then walked over and climbed down the latter.
Naysho waited below, arms folded. “Lord Theus,” he said, even before Theus’s feet were on the ground. “I find this unacceptable.”
“Oh?” Theus said.
“You let the Lightweaver free,” the ambassador continued. “Did we not have an understanding? You were to keep the thing prisoner for me.”
“Actually,” Theus said, “you made me promise not to kill the jesk, not keep it in prison for you.”
“You understood exactly what I meant, your majesty,” Naysho said. “I can only conclude that you deliberately tried to aggravate me, which is entirely unacceptable.”
Theus dropped to the dirt, then gave the ambassador a direct stare. The ambassador started, as if realizing that his previous comment had crossed an unseen line.
“Of course,” Naysho said, “I could be mistaken about your intentions.”
“You are,” Theus said. “You know how worried I am about. . .events in the city. I released the jesk to see if he could provide any assistance to me in this matter.”
“You already have assistance,” Naysho said. “Our Aetherlin is about to arrive.”
“One can never have too much in the way of help,” Theus said. “Perhaps the spirit of competition between the jesk and your man will keep them both focused. The jesk works for his life. If he fails, I’ll give him to you.”
“And if he succeeds in finding the secret?” Naysho asked.
Theus turned away. “I’ll probably still give him to you. After all, I’ll still be in your debt for bringing in the Aetherlin.” Just not as much in debt as if that Aetherlin had solved my problems.
“Lord,” a voice called from the tower above. “Chariots approaching!”
Theus nodded, walking over to the city gates. He left them open most of the time to accommodate farmers moving in and out of the fields--the real city border was the edge of the trune ring, which his patrols watched with care.
As soon as Theus reached the gate opening, he could see a cloud of dust rising in the distance. He stood, arms folded, watching as three chariots--two horses each--burst from the forest and road down the road through the fields.
Farmers stood up, watching. While two of the three chariots bore four people each, the one in the middle had only one rider. A person in black, with a cloth wrapped about the face to protect from the dust and wind of riding.
And so, we welcome the asp in through our front door, Theus thought as the riders approached. Hoping that it will kill our pests, but not grow hungry for our own flesh.
The chariots pulled to a stop, throwing up dust in a cloud around them. The horses were larger than any Theus had seen before. Horses in general were small, weak things, without the strength of an ox or bull cow. Their only real use was pulling chariots--they couldn’t even carry a rider on their backs without risking harm.
Yet, these Rens beasts were more impressive than the average. Taller by a hand than any horse Theus had seen before, with dark black coats and wide hooves. The rider in black leaped from his chariot, then pulled free the head wrap. A head full of bright red hair spilled out. Sweat-slickened and tangled from the extended ride, it was long enough to reach all the way down the rider’s back
The hair had a bright blue bow in it. The Aetherlin, it appeared, was female.
“Well,” the woman said. “Partinel at last. I assume you’re the king?”
Theus nodded.
“Delightful! You’ll have to invite me to the palace for dinner. How’s tomorrow?”
“Uh. . .that would be acceptable,” Theus said, frowning. The woman had brown Rens skin and a fine-featured almond face. She had a strong--if slightly short--figure, indicating that she might be a warrior of the reputation Theus had expected.
Yet, he’d never met a warrior who seemed as. . .bubbly as she was.
“I’ve wanted to come visit here for ages,” the woman continued, pulling off her gloves. “Everyone has such nice things to say about Partinel. An ocean inside a city. Quite marvelous. Then, of course, there’s the Bear of Partinel.” She hesitated, glancing at Theus. “I expected more hair. Ah, well. Naysho, where’s the embassy? I’m beat!”
Naysho raised a hesitant hand. “I. . .will lead you, lady Aetherlin.”
Not what you were expecting either, eh Naysho? Theus thought. For some reason, that made the woman’s arrival even more odd.
“Are you certain you wouldn’t like to talk with the king some more?” Naysho asked. “Discover more about his problem?”
“Of course I’ll talk to him more,” the woman said. “That’s what dinner is for. Honestly, Naysho, you should try harder to pay attention to what people are saying. Anyway, if I’m forced to chat any longer, I’ll likely die of starvation, thirst, fatigue, and sore feet.”
“Sore feet?” Theus asked. “Didn’t your horses bear you here?”
“Yes, but I’m very empathetic,” the woman said, climbing back onto her chariot. “Coming, Naysho?”
The ambassador sighed audibly, then moved to comply. He paused beside Theus, then leaned in. “I was hoping for someone else, your majesty, but do not let Lady Yunmi’s personality distract you. She is very good at what she does.”
And what is that? Theus thought. Annoy people?
However, he said nothing further as Naysho climbed onto the chariot and led the Aetherlin away.
#
The embassy was a three-story brick building with a garden on top. Yunmi eyed it critically as she climbed from the chariot. “Rather drab.”
Naysho flushed.
Yunmi just smiled, laying a hand on his shoulder. “Oh, I’m just being silly, Naysho. Relax. King Aronack sends you commendations--he’s very pleased with the work you’ve been doing here.”
Naysho nodding. He was a bit stiff for her tastes, but he was well regarded back in Rens.
. . .Aether. . . a voice said in her mind. It was light and airy, like a voice carried on the breeze, and felt lethargic. . . .king. . .
Yunmi glanced down at the rose-colored crystal embedded into her forearm just above her wrist. King Theus? She thought.
Aether. . . the voice responded, dull, slow, like a large boulder shifting in place.
So Theus does have one. Did you speak to it?
. . .not. . .respond. . . her Aether replied. . . .is too old. . .should be allowed. . .death. . .
Yunmi considered that, then hopped off her chariot, waving to her attendants. “Xasho, make certain to secure the area. Go check those buildings across the street--three of them have a good view into windows of the embassy, and I want to know who is living in them and if they’ve ever allowed people in to spy on the embassy. Tanman, Crednah, Shaikan, hit the markets. I want to know anything and everything people are saying about the kidnappings and the Corrupted. The rest of you, begin setting up my things inside the embassy.”
“Lady Yunmi?” Naysho asked as her men began to move. “Don’t you want to rest, like you told the king?”
“I’m feeling remarkably invigorated,” she said, striding into the building. “Must be your exciting conversation, Naysho.”
He flushed again.
. . .why. . .taunt him. . . ? Glimmer said from her hand. You. . like him. . .you said. . .
It’s a human thing, she replied.
Ah. . .
The interior of the building was as she had expected. Partinel was a powerful city, but one that--like many in the Cluster--existed by balancing on the very edge of collapse. There wasn’t room for things like ornamentation and frivolity in Partinel, for every space had to be used for growing food. Even in the small embassy, there were garden boxes hanging from each of the windows, and the corners of the rooms held pots growing small fruit trees. Yunmi climbed the clay brick steps, moving to the second floor. Naysho followed.
“Lady,” he said. “There is more that I didn’t disclose, not even in my letter to the king.”
She turned, reaching the second floor and raising an eyebrow.
“Skullmoss,” he said. “In the city. I saw it growing myself. I inspected it before King Theus even heard of its existence, and do not think it was fake.”
Naysho stepped forward, excited. “We have a perfect opportunity. If you can discover the reasons for these disturbances, then we will have a powerful grip on Theus and his people. Assuming things grow bad enough in the city, we will be able to force them to accept Lord Aronack’s rule as a subject city within the kingdom.”
Yunmi raised an eyebrow, then hopped up on a windowsill, sitting down, swinging her legs as her men inspected the building, checking for suspicious hollows or doors that Theus’s agents may be using to spy on Naysho.
“You don’t really understand what is going on here, do you, Naysho?” she asked idly.
“Excuse me, Lady?”
“This isn’t about dominating Partinel,” she said.
Wait, Glimmer asked. It. . .isn’t. . .?
Well, not completely, she said. Hush now. I’m making a speech.
“What is it about, then?” Naysho asked.
“Do you know anything of the city Tshor?”
“Certainly,” he said. “It used to lie down the river from here, a wealthy and reputable place.”
“Used to?” Yunmi asked.
Naysho fell silent for a moment. “It fell to the fainlands some years back.”
Yunmi tapped her fingers against the clay windowsill. She felt an empathetic question from Glimmer, a question if she was all right. Not words--he was weak at those right now--but just a feeling.
I’m fine, she told him. Why wouldn’t I be?
Tshor. . . he said. Makes you. . .sad. . .
Don’t be ridiculous. I barely even remember the place.
Glimmer didn’t reply.
“Lady?” Naysho asked.
“I’m talking to my Aether, Naysho. Don’t interrupt--he’s twice as interesting as you are, if far less attractive. Comes from not having arms, legs, a head, or. . .well, even a body.”
Joke. . .? Glimmer asked. I. . .don’t understand. . .human humor.
I can still dream, Yunmi said to him. “Anyway, his highness--King Aronack--is quite worried about what happened in Tshor.”
“But that’s many years past!”
“And before it fell,” Yunmi said, “there were reports of Corrupted infiltration and fain beasts prowling the streets.”
Naysho fell silent.
“Human beings are a dying breed, Naysho,” she said. “It’s like we’re foreigners in our own land--flowers in a field growing only weeds. The fainlands continue to choke us out, one at a time. Partinel might not be our city, but every human settlement that falls to the fain is one less potential ally. It’s time we stopped squabbling among ourselves and focused on the real danger.”
“But, Lady,” Naysho said. “We can’t fight the fainlands or the skullmoss. There’s simply no way. If we burn and salt the land, we can’t grow anything on it either. If we kill fain beasts, skullmoss simply grows out of them and pollutes everything nearby.”
He lies, Glimmer said. They can. . .be beaten.
He isn’t lying, Yunmi replied. That’s simply what he thinks.
He. . thinks wrong.
It wasn’t a new argument. Aethers always maintained that defeating the fainlands was possible. Unfortunately, they didn’t seem to know how. Nobody did.
Yunmi had been sent to change that. If there were any place to learn the secrets of how the fainlands, and the Corrupted, were infiltrating trune rings, it was in Partinel.
However, before she got down to saving the world, there was something she needed to do. She stood up, causing Naysho to jump slightly.
“And now,” she declared, holding up a hand dramatically. “I shall take a nap.”