There wasn’t much for Tharol to gain from ruminating on Master Palthio’s words, but he couldn’t help himself from turning them over and over in his mind. What had his master meant by saying he had made sure of Tharol’s failure in the contest? Had he formed the land such that the jump was impossible? Had he been involved in the deceit that Reis played on him?
If Master Palthio had simply meant to express a lack of faith in Tharol’s abilities he could have just said that. But he didn’t. He said he had made the missed jump happen. And he had told Tharol as much to put this worm in the boy’s mind, to make him irritated to understand the reason why. To make him ask himself all these exact questions!
When Tharol realized that he spat on the ground, right in the middle of the battlements as he marched his morning watch.
If that’s what Master Palthio wanted then Tharol wouldn’t waste another second on it. Let the old fool keep his secrets. The man was likely a traitor to the city anyway. Getting too close to his mind could only corrupt him. Better to keep his own counsel.
Not that he had much choice in the matter. Master Palthio stopped looking for audiences with the boy, even stopped making eye contact with him during lessons and training. He just cut off all connection at once and that suited Tharol just fine.
In spite of his professed indifference, though, Tharol couldn’t help but feel a twinge of jealousy when Master Palthio showed a special favor to Reis.
It occurred the morning after the competition while all the boys were gathered with Master Palthio for their morning lessons. At the end of the lecture Master Palthio shifted to the plans for the day, and when he came to the assignment for the night watch gave the same phrase the boys had always dreaded:
“…and this night the watch over the gate will be assigned to me.”
The boys sighed and looked down.
“However…” Master Palthio continued and all the boys’ heads shot back up in an instant! “I have decided that in one fortnight the night watch will fall to…Reis.”
The boys gasped. All of them congratulated Reis warmly, and most of them expressed the feeling that he really did deserve to be the one to break that barrier for them all. Even Tharol made himself smile and offered a kind word.
Inside, though, he couldn’t help but feel disappointed. The fact that this decision came immediately after their last competition made it likely to Tharol that the two events were connected. Reis had won the competition and Tharol had lost. Reis was chosen to take the night watch and Tharol was not. Well, perhaps Tharol deserved the snub, but it was still a hard thing to accept.
None of the other students seemed to feel that Tharol had been looked over, though. Or if they did they never expressed it to him. In fact, much like Master Palthio, Tharol found that most of the other students didn’t want anything to do with him at all. A couple of them remained indifferent, but he could feel a strange shift in how most of them were perceiving him. There was a cold silence that started to fall when he entered a room, a refusal to meet his eyes in conversation, a series of extremely curt replies. Somehow he had been made into the most detested boy in their order and he didn’t have any idea why.
Or rather he didn’t have any idea until the next week when it was his turn to be Marshall over the next patrol. He had just come out of the armory and was crossing the road to where the line of boys were awaiting his instructions: Reis, Bovik, Janeao, and Avro.
“Everybody ready?” he asked nonchalantly, looking down at his waist as he buckled his sword on.
There wasn’t a response. Normally Tharol would have thought nothing of it. It had almost been a rhetorical question, after all, a mere formality. But once again he could sense a bitterness in the quiet. He looked upwards and all of the boys were staring firmly back at him…just not saying anything at all.
“I said is everybody ready?” He strained.
The boys nodded idly.
“I said is everybody ready?!”
“Yes, sir,” they returned sullenly.
“If any you are feeling discontent with the situation then I’m sure you’d agree we should resolve it before proceeding further,” he said officiously. “So what’s going on?”
A moment of heavy silence, then Bovik spoke up.
“I think we’d be more comfortable if someone else took command today, Tharol.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Why don’t you assign an acting Marshall? You have that right.”
“Maybe if I was wounded, but I’m perfectly capable of carrying out my responsibilities as is!”
“Bovik’s right,” Janeao spoke up. “Why don’t you let Reis take charge?”
“Is this because I beat you out of the last competition?” Tharol shot back, deciding that as long as they were having this argument they might as well be honest about where it started. “Still sore on that?”
But to his surprise Janeao only chuckled and shook his head.
“What about you?” Tharol rounded on Bovik. “Would you be alright with Reis taking command?”
“Even though he knocked you out last competition?”
“Once I saw you making an alliance with Beesk and Inol it was clear how things were. Sure enough, you sent them straight away to bully Avro into joining your little regime, too. Reis and I figured our only chance was to infiltrate your crew from the inside. So Reis told me his plan to trick you into throwing away your crown and I happily laid down to a count of four and let him take my crystal!”
“Hey, come on guys,” Reis started to speak up. “Tharol’s Marshall today. We’ve always followed the schedule for patrol.”
But Tharol wasn’t about to let things go. “So I played to win,” he countered. “So what? That’s what we’re supposed to do. Is that why you don’t want me to be Marshall?”
“No, that’s not even close to why,” Bovik sighed.
Tharol held up his hands in defeat. “Then what is it?”
“You let Beesk have private conversations with outsiders even though it’s against Standard Procedure. And you took a bribe from him when we went to marketplace.”
Tharol was taken aback, completely bewildered at what Bovik said. But then it dawned on him that he had never told Bovik about the street thief he had left the money to at the market. All Bovik had seen was Tharol hand an empty money bag back to Master Palthio when they had returned that afternoon. And of course Bovik didn’t know anything about how he was trying to win Beesk’s friendship to learn more of his plot.
Tharol looked down, his anger slowly dissipating. He finally realized how bad he must have made himself look to all of them. “You guys–” he said softly, “it’s not like that. It’s not like that at all.”
A heavy silence followed. All the other boys expected him to try and explain himself, but Tharol realized that would mean showing a hand he was ashamed of. He would have to admit to them that he had been suspicious of them, that his reason for getting close to Beesk and Inol was to find out who else might be a traitor in their midst. He couldn’t say it.
Tharol moved through the next few days feeling completely detached from himself, numbly drifting from moment to moment. The hateful feeling of the other boys was only a small part of his hurt. Far more was that he agreed with them.
How had he come to distrust his friends so? Where had he learned to assume the worst in them? Yes, they had always been undisciplined, but to assume that they were traitors? How had he given up faith in them so easily? They deserved better.
If anyone had been corrupted or tainted, it felt like it was him. He had let himself become cynical and pessimistic.
There was only one bright spot that remained for Tharol. Reis still supported him, even if only in private.
“The other boys wouldn’t understand if we were seen together,” he said during one of their secret conversations.
“I get it,” Tharol sighed. Reis wasn’t compromised in the eyes of the other boys and it was better to keep things that way.
“And while I’m sorry about your reputation, the fact is we found out exactly what we needed to. Avro, Janeao, and Bovik are sincere. I think we can be certain of that now.”
Tharol nodded numbly.
“And I’m still on good terms with them…and you’re still on good terms with Beesk and Inol. Look, I know it’s a terrible thing to ask, but we’ve just got to play the hands we’ve been dealt. Eventually everything will come out right. We’ll set a trap for Beesk and Inol, and once we spring it we’ll be able to explain to everyone your real role in all this. You’ll be welcomed back a hero! Think of this as your sacrifice for a greater cause!”
Tharol nodded. Reis was right, he still had a role to fill. Since he already looked guilty to the rest of the boys he might as well lean into that. He would keep tabs on the dishonest side of the order, Reis on the honest.
Now he moved forward with a singular purpose: to get to the bottom of Inol and Beesk’s plot. He kept watching for a moment where the two of them were isolated from the rest of the group, and he didn’t have to wait long. Just the next afternoon he spied them chatting together behind the lumber stash. He approached them and they looked up expectantly.
“Hey…can we talk…openly?” he asked.
They looked to each other. The same look they had made just before leaving him to defend their crystals in the competition.
“Yeah…” Inol said finally. “I think we can.”
“Alright well–I want in,” Tharol shrugged.
“Yeah, you can be in,” Beesk nodded and Tharol was surprised at how smoothly this was going!
“I want–I want to be part of whatever’s going on with that lady we met out on patrol.”
“Funny you should say that,” Beesk said. “Because we just received permission from her to bring a third member into our party.” He tapped a piece of parchment hanging out of his front pocket.
“Beesk, you have that out for everyone to see?!” Inol shrieked. “Get that put away!”
Beesk rolled his eyes, but he folded the paper again so that it was hidden entirely from view.
“You’re in communication with her?” Tharol asked.
“She leaves us notes in a notch along the outer wall. Honestly don’t have a clue how she gets them up there, but we check it every day. Send her our own messages in the same way.”
“Okay. And you asked about bringing me on board?”
“That’s right. Actually we made the request earlier because we were hoping you would be given the first Night Watch. Guess that didn’t pan out.”
“You want to bring her in during the night?”
“Yeah, it would be more secure. Everyone else is asleep then, right?”
“Sure, but…well, how have you brought all the other merchants in?”
“Just left a rope hanging over the wall during the competitions. No one’s keeping watch then.”
“There’s still the guard golems then.”
“Yeah, and Inol and I always be sure to set up our two side-by-side, slightly rotated opposite directions so there’s a blind spot in between.”
“Okay, fine. So why aren’t you bringing the woman in that same way? Why wait for night?”
Inol and Beesk shrugged their shoulders.
“It’s her requirement,” Beesk said. “She insists she’s got to walk in through the gates. Don’t know why. Probably afraid of falling off the rope with that big, stone head of hers or something!”
Tharol smiled at the joke, but was secretly mortified at how nonchalant Inol and Beesk were about leaving the entire gates open to a stranger. Their carelessness really was more dangerous than malevolence.
“So are you planning to wait for Master Palthio to choose one of us three to be over the Night Watch?” he asked.
“No, she’s impatient,” Inol said. “We want to move forward with when Reis takes the Night Watch. That’s when security will be the weakest.”
“But Reis is such a stickler for the rules,” Tharol pointed out. “I don’t think we can win him over.”
“Yeah, well, that’s why we’re going to poison him instead.”
On Monday I spoke of heroes who face their challenges alone. I pointed out how in the last competition Tharol’s support slowly dwindled away until he eventually he had no one. Then he was forced to make a desperate jump as his only chance for saving face. In that particular moment he failed, proving that he didn’t have what it takes. And that theme carried through in today’s chapter. Tharol is dejected and ashamed, abandoned by all of his authentic friends, forced to pretend an alliance with the more unsavory ones.
In short I am taking my time in bringing Tharol to his moment of total isolation. While it is a lengthy process overall, it has featured some dramatic shifts, such as in today’s scene where Avro, Bovik, and Janeao suddenly reveal how Tharol has made himself look to them. I was excited by the opportunity to take him from lofty and confident to far more friendless and depressed in a single, fell swoop.
It was a very dramatic transition to make, and I feel that that flair was exactly what was required at this point in the story. For some stories this wouldn’t be the correct choice. Some stories need characters that slowly push towards change until all at once they make a sharp turn. Others should go through several swings, back and forth, before coming to rest somewhere along that pendulum. And still others should remain constant in an otherwise changing world.
I’d like to spend some time exploring these different styles of character arc with my next post. I’ll look at examples of each type in other stories and consider the strengths of each. Come back on Monday to read about that.