“So you let Beesk go and speak to her on his own?” Reis raised an eyebrow.
“Yes…well…I figured that way we’d see Beesk’s true colors,” Tharol explained. “Based on whether he gave an honest report or not.”
“Well of course he didn’t.”
“No, you’re right. He didn’t. When he came back to us he said the woman had made a passionate speech about being an outcast from a far-off nation, who needed to meet with our district lord to see if he could aid her in a campaign of reclamation. She asked whether Beesk could set up an audience for her with Lord Amathur, but Beesk told her he couldn’t. He suggested that Master Palthio might be able to do so, though, and if she wanted she could call at the gate and speak with him. She sighed like she didn’t think much of that, which he thought was strange, and then just went on her way.”
Reis laughed derisively. “Beesk expects us to believe she wanted to speak privately with him just to give a sob story?”
“I don’t think he cares if we believe him or not. Just so long as we can’t prove what really happened. Unless…”
“Unless he confides in me. That’s the other reason I let him go off. To try and win his trust. That and to give him one last chance to be honest.”
“Why would he be, Tharol? We already know that he’s letting other merchants in behind our backs.”
“I don’t think these are merchants. They didn’t carry themselves like merchants.”
“Who do you think they are?”
“That woman…she’s someone important. And she’s someone dangerous. I’d say they’re spies at the very least, quite possibly worse.”
Reis nodded. “You know, I think I got the same sense from her myself.”
“Everyone did! I’m sure of it. Making a deal with foreign merchants is one thing, but I needed to know if Beesk was willing to be an out-and-out traitor. I mean–to be frank–I already know that the other boys here are lazy about procedure, but I needed to know if Beesk is actually dangerous.”
“Laziness is dangerous,” Reis sighed. “I had thought you would understand that. The other boys don’t think there’s any real threat out there, so they ignore all the signs of it. And that lazy, foolish, willful blindness can easily be manipulated into them doing something very dangerous.”
“Yes, I could see that.”
“You said Bovik spoke up for Standard Procedure though?”
“He did. I was–surprised. But I think he can be trusted as well.”
“Excellent. If we’re going to catch Beesk red-handed, we’re going to need as many eyes as we can trust.”
“You still want to handle this ourselves? Not go to Master Palthio?”
“Do you trust him now?”
“Exactly. And given that we are his pupils, I don’t know that we’ll ever be certain about him. I’m never sure when he’s being sincere about his opinions, and when he’s just trying to make a point.”
“He’s an enigma,” Tharol agreed.
“So we keep it to ourselves for now. You see if you can find out Beesk’s plans and both of us keep looking for signs of where the other boys’ loyalties are. Inol doesn’t give a single thought for protocol, so at the very least he’s a fool, quite probably in cahoots with Beesk. But Avro, Golu, and Janeao I still want us to get closer to. Maybe some of them have an honest streak like Bovik.”
Tharol nodded, the two boys looked to each side to ensure they weren’t being seen, then silently parted ways.
“…this time each of you will be on your own team,” Master Palthio was explaining the rules for the next competition to the gathered youth. “You may temporarily align yourselves as you see fit, but there will only be one victor in the end.”
The boys all looked to each other in surprise. This was a first!
“If you look out on the field you will notice that there is a tower for each of you, and on each tower a crystal. You must defend your crystal. Once another boy takes it you are now their vassal, and you must follow their instructions. A youth that is incapacitated to a count of four is still out of the match entirely and their crystal is forfeit. Are there any other questions?”
“Then let me prepare the field…” Master Palthio raised his hands and turned to the battle arena. The ground began to ripple, as if it was made of water. Certain areas pitched higher than others, deep valleys formed in between. Faster and faster it churned, then at the height of tumult it began to slow and solidify. Master Palthio lowered his hands and the field stabilized in its complicated topology. It looked like an entire mountain range in miniature, with peaks of exaggerated steepness, almost like maze walls.
“Each tower has a banner, and on it is written one of your names. Retrieve your weapons, get to your towers, and wait for the gong.”
Tharol started to follow the boys to the weapon rack, but Master Palthio stepped up to him and tutted.
“Yes?” Tharol asked.
“Do you see where Golu’s tower is?”
Tharol scanned the field until he saw the boy’s name on one of the tower-banners. It was in the middle of a large valley, its only access points were at the base, and perhaps from a narrow shelf that raised parallel to the tower’s top some eight feet away.
“Golu is the best swordsman in the order,” Master Palthio said, “and a very defensive fighter. He won’t stray from his tower’s base and no one will be able to break past him on their own. The only way anyone will capture him will be by jumping from that neighboring shelf.”
“Yes,” Tharol nodded, still unsure why Master Palthio was bothering to tell him all this.
“And you will attempt that jump, Tharol….And you will fail.”
Tharol snapped his head from looking at the tower to Master Palthio so quickly that it hurt his neck. But the mentor was already walking away without another word.
“Why would he say that?” Tharol muttered to himself, but there wasn’t time to ruminate on the matter. He was already lagging behind the other boys and needed to hurry to the weapon rack for his gear. He secured his shield, staff, and helmet, then turned towards the maze. Before he could enter, though, he found himself face-to-face with Beesk and Inol.
“So…” Beesk said slowly. “Master Palthio said we could have alliances.”
“And let’s face it,” Inol sighed, “Golu or Reis will win in an all-against-all fight. Our only chance is to overwhelm them with superior numbers.”
Tharol nodded, though he couldn’t help but remember how pathetic Beesk’s performance was in the last competition. The boy would probably be more of a hindrance than a help…but he did want to remain on Beesk’s good side.
“Three of us is good,” Tharol agreed. “But we should get another. How about Janeao?”
“You want us to get him?” Inol asked pointedly.
“Sure, why not?”
“He hates you. Ever since you made your team lose last contest.”
“Oh? I guess it’s hard to tell with him. He’s just naturally sort of surly already, you know?”
“Yes, well, he talks pretty poorly about you behind your back, so I don’t think he’d be interested.”
“Alright, how about Avro then?”
“Sure,” Inol shrugged and Beesk nodded. “What if he doesn’t want to join though?”
“Then we take his crystal and he joins us anyway.”
Master Palthio rang the gong from his tower.
“Um, we should get in there!” Beesk swiveled around to see if his tower was still safe.
The other two didn’t need any further encouragement. Together they ran into the maze and hurried to their towers. All of them were clustered near enough that they could stand at the base of their own and still see and call out to each other.
“But what do we do about protecting our crystals?” Inol shouted to the other two. “If we go out attacking, someone else might slip in and take them.”
“One of us has to stand guard,” Tharol determined.
“I could do that,” Beesk offered, a little too quickly.
“It should be Tharol,” Inol countered. “He’s the most honest. I trust him not to steal mine until Reis and Golu are down.”
“Fine,” Beesk relented.
“Yeah, alright,” Tharol shrugged. He was starting to see how complex of a situation Master Palthio had made for them.
The other two boys paused for a moment, each giving a long look at Tharol. For a split-second Tharol wondered if they were debating rushing him together. He started to tighten his grip on his staff, but then both of them turned at the same instant and ran off for Avro’s tower.
Tharol relaxed his grip and tried to calm himself. He was being too cynical. They couldn’t accomplish anything together if they kept second-guessing each other like this. He needed to trust them to deal with Avro, and they needed to trust him to keep their crystals safe.
Of course…he really could go and take each of their crystals right now…
Tharol shook himself. What was he doing thinking like that? They were already helping him out, there wasn’t anything to be gained by forcing their loyalty. Well…except for the fact that eventually they would have to face off against each other anyway. So this would just get him ahead.
Tharol shook himself again. Apparently he couldn’t be trusted to his own thoughts! So he kept himself busy, marching back and forth between the three towers, watching the action unfold across the rest of the field as he went.
It was tricky to make sense of what was happening out there, though. The raised terrain cut off his view at multiple points. He could see Inol and Beesk approach Avro, and after a few moments discussion the three of them went off together to…somewhere. But while they were gone Janeao stealthily approached Avro’s tower and ran up it to capture the boy’s crystal!
Tharol started hopping up and down, shouting to get his comrades’ attention. “HEY! COME BACK HERE! HE’S TAKING THE STONE!”
But they were too far away to hear.
“What are you doing?”
Tharol spun around, startled by the appearance of Reis behind him. The youth must have approached from behind a fin of raised earth.
“Here for a fight?” Tharol asked, hands flying to his staff.
“If I was here for a fight I’d already be fighting you…and you would lose.”
“What then?… An alliance?”
Tharol bit his lip. He remembered what Master Palthio had said about Reis being a trickster. Where was the trick in this?
“Well–” Tharol began slowly, “I was already in an alliance with Beesk and Inol.”
“Alright, we can go back to the fighting option,” Reis shrugged, beginning to draw out his staff.
“No, wait!” Tharol really didn’t stand a chance in a one-on-one fight with Reis and Reis knew it. There wasn’t any option but to hear what Reis had to say. And maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t a trick either. If he had wanted, Reis could have easily knocked Tharol out from behind, but he hadn’t.
“You can trust me, Tharol.”
“Alright…I’m willing to listen.”
“Good. Go get your stone.”
“Look, I’ve brought mine,” Reis drew his hand from behind his back and revealed a crystal. “At the same moment we’ll swap them. So you’ll have control over me and I over you. That way we’re square and can’t cheat each other.”
Tharol blinked in surprise. It was ingenious! He dashed up his tower and grabbed the crystal off of its pedestal. As he came back down he felt another wave of suspicion, though. What if Reis didn’t let go of his own crystal and just took Tharol’s?
“Let’s each set ours on the ground,” Tharol said quickly. “And walk in a wide circle to each other’s.”
“Sure,” Reis said without a care. He dropped the stone opposite Tharol’s and the two wheeled around until they had traded places. Each of them picked up the other’s stone.
Tharol still didn’t feel at ease about the whole thing…but what was done was done.
On Monday I spoke of stories that are examples of subtlety and nuance. Stories where characters say one thing but imply others. Stories that still manage to communicate the complexities of human expression, even when stripped of all the visual elements.
Today I wanted to communicate a sneakiness in how Reis approached Tharol. I wanted the audience to know that something is probably up, even though each of Reis’s arguments makes sense.
Now obviously I part of accomplishing this was by voicing those exact concerns through Tharol. Tharol expects Reis to trick him after the last competition and he believes that he is overlooking something, even though he can’t be sure of what.
But even before Tharol shared those concerns, I already did something to put the audience at unease. Something simple, but which I think makes a real impact on how the entire scene is perceived.
I had Reis sneak up on Tharol.
I believe that that one decision puts a deep air of suspicion on everything that follows. If I wanted the scene to play out as innocuous I would have had Reis approach from the front and be seen far before his arrival. But instead I had him emerge from behind, and that sneakiness casts a shadow over everything else he says.
Another interesting element from this piece was the transition from Reis and Tharol talking in the first scene to the action-centric drama of the second scene. And while the feel of these two scenes might be very different, each remains a part of a single, ongoing conversation. In the first scene our characters are exchanging information and influencing each another with their words only, while in the second they are doing the same, but now with actions combined with words.
And the fact is, at their core, virtually every story boils down to this simple idea of “characters exchanging information and influencing one another.” Discourse is at the heart of every tale, though it occurs in many varied forms. Let’s take a closer look at this with my next post on Monday. See you there!