“Master,” Tharol panted, “I–I didn’t see you there–“
“No, you were more intent on getting to your perch to spy on young Beesk, weren’t you?”
Tharol fidgeted uncomfortably.
“As you have been every day for the past week…when you’re not too busy spending time with Reis.”
“Very different sets of company, wouldn’t you say?”
“Well–we’re all members of the same order, aren’t we?”
Master Palthio smiled and shook his head. “No. And you know that.”
Tharol’s could feel the initial rush of adrenalin dissipating. He wasn’t feeling so startled anymore, and as it passed he found anger underneath.
“Is there something you want to say to me, Master?” even he was surprised to hear how much sarcasm dripped from that last word. There was no way Master Palthio had missed the slight…but he chose not to regard it.
“Very well. I won’t be coy with you anymore, Tharol. I know you, of all my students, crave directness. As I said, you seem to be spending your time in two very different circles. I can only assume this is for your own personal purposes that you wish to keep secret, and don’t worry, I won’t be prying.”
“But I will offer you a word of caution. If you’re acting as the pawn for both sides, you’re likely to be played against yourself.”
Tharol’s eyes narrowed as he processed that.
“And believe me,” Master Palthio continued with a sigh, “I know a great deal about being another person’s pawn. I’ve tried to play by the rules of others, doing things I didn’t agree with, been manipulated against my will. And all because I hoped to sneak in something good along the way…. Things don’t work that way, Tharol.”
“Manipulated against your will?” The heat was coming back into Tharol’s voice. “Like me in the last competition! You set me up to fall off the ledge and break my leg!”
Master Palthio looked sadly at Tharol. “I was sorry to teach that lesson.”
“What did you do? Make the gap too large for me to clear on purpose?”
“Just the opposite. I specifically crafted that gap to be exactly one yard less than your record in our bounding exercises.”
Tharol blinked in surprise at that. “But…what did you mean when you said you ensured I would fail that jump then? How did you make sure of that?”
“Oh…I told you that you would. And you believed me.”
Tharol was stunned.
Master Palthio sighed and turned to go, but he stopped at the hatch for a parting word. “Stop playing by other peoples’ rules, Tharol. Be your own piece in the game. Better yet…don’t even play the game any longer.”
Tharol leaned back against the wall and tried to make sense of Master Palthio was saying. There was a lot to it…but he couldn’t parse it out. He shook his head and brought himself back to the matters at hand: the correspondence he had just stolen. He moved over to the hanging lantern and by its light read the contents of his pilfered note.
Change of plans. I have it on excellent authority that the third boy you recruited is a traitor to our cause! Check if he has sabotaged your plans, and if so remove him.
Tharol read through it twice, just to be sure he hadn’t misunderstood. The third boy? That had to mean him. A traitor? Sabotaging plans? What was this?! He crumpled the paper into a ball, knuckles white with anger. Remove him?! As in…kill?! And where did she get into her head that he had sabotaged anything? Yes, of course he was attempting to subvert their plans, but he had no idea how she would have caught wind of that. And he certainly hadn’t actually sabotaged anything. What even was there to sabotage? The wine in the cellar?
A sudden fear passed through Tharol’s mind. What if the wine had been tampered with and now he was being set up to take the fall? He couldn’t see why or how…but now that the thought had passed through his mind he had to check on things. He shoved the crumpled letter into his robes and strode out of the tower. The dinner bell was ringing but he ignored it entirely. He’d be a few minutes late again today.
Golu and Avro passed him as he made his way to the cellar, but they didn’t say a word to him, nor he to them. All the other boys were already gone to the main hall and that was just as well. He’d come up with an excuse for his delayed arrival later.
Tharol reached his destination and stepped down through the hatch. He went with the lantern to the back of the room and began moving the jugs until he had unburied the two poisoned vessels. He grabbed the first one and spun it under the light until he found its wax seal.
The seal was broken.
Tharol lifted the stopper and took a deep waft of its contents. Perfectly good wine, not so much as a hint of bitter Tinstin. The poisoned wine had been replaced, just as the letter from the statue woman suggested.
“What is this?” Tharol asked aloud. Someone was trying to set him up. It was the only conclusion that made sense. He couldn’t accept it was a coincidence that the bottle had been tampered with and then this note arrived. The same person was behind both. They had changed the wine and then told the woman to write the note. Actually, Tharol thought it highly unlikely that the statue woman had written the letter. Anyone who knew Beesk and Inol’s system could have easily planted the note in her place.
So did that mean it was one of them? Was Beesk or Inol trying to muscle him out, just as Reis had suggested they might do?
“Look at this, Inol,” Tharol imagined Beesk saying. “Got this note and the wine’s been replaced! Tharol’s a no-good traitor and you’ve got to help me get rid of him!”
But no sooner did Tharol picture that scene then he rejected it.
“I don’t know,” pretend-Inol responded. “The wax seal’s been broken and Tharol knew all about that. He was here when we put it on….If he was the one who replaced the wine wouldn’t he have had the sense to put it back?”
If it had been Inol or Beesk trying to frame Tharol they would have known to put the wax seal back. So that could only mean…
“Reis,” Tharol whispered.
Reis was the only other person that Tharol had told about the poisoned wine. Reis had even asked exactly where it was located in the cellar. The only thing Tharol hadn’t mentioned to Reis was the wax seal, it hadn’t seemed like an important piece of information. And the seal was so small that Reis wouldn’t noticed it when making the swap.
Tharol realized there was one other piece of information that he hadn’t mentioned to Reis either. Tharol grabbed the bottle that had been resting beside the first and turned it around to examine its wax seal.
Rather than open it he pressed his nose against the stopper and inhaled. Through the cork and clay he could just barely make out the scent of wine inside…and also the faintest traces of the poison. This one had been left untouched.
He hadn’t thought it necessary to mention to Reis the issue of the first batch of poisoned wine being too potent and how they had diluted it across two bottles. So Reis had only known to replace the bottle directly in the corner and not the one next to it.
Tharol paused for a moment, thinking things through. There were many problems to sort out, but first and foremost was what to do with these bottles and the letter. He quickly determined that it was best to keep Beesk and Inol in the dark about it all. He was pretty sure they weren’t so corrupt that they would actually try to kill him, but he wouldn’t put it past them to hit him over the head and leave him trussed up in the cellar tomorrow night.
To that end he opened the lantern and stuffed the letter inside, letting it reduce to harmless ash. Then he tipped the lantern sideways and drippled wax on the altered bottle until the broken seal was mended. He found a loose rock on the ground and carefully tapped at the bottom of the bottle with increasing force until a shard broke off and the wine started dribbling out. He quickly placed it back in its corner, returned the unaltered bottle beside it, then covered them up with all the other bottles that had been concealing them from view.
Now he would proceed with Beesk and Inol like nothing had happened. When they found the broken bottle he would be just as dumbfounded as them. He would simply suppose that they must have hit it too hard against the wall when they placed it in the corner, but fortunately they had a backup with the other bottle. Things would proceed just as planned.
Now that that was taken care of Tharol moved on to the next problem. Would Reis realize that his plan hadn’t worked out?
Probably. He would have known that Tharol was going up in the tower to spy on Beesk and Inol, and now Reis was sitting at the dinner table, silently wondering why Tharol was arriving late. And Reis would be paying special attention to Beesk and Inol at that same table, trying to gauge whether they were behaving like they had just been rattled by a note with some shocking news. And they wouldn’t be. They would be laughing and joking like there wasn’t a care in the world. And then Reis would start to piece it all together.
Tharol took a deep, bracing breath. Well he certainly was in it now.
Three minutes later Tharol finally came to dinner, prepared with an excuse of having discovered a hole in his tunic that needed patching. He entered the room, offered his apology to Master Palthio, and took his seat at the table. Through all this he steadfastly avoided making eye contact with Reis. Tharol couldn’t trust himself to keep his face unemotional if he did. He felt his skin hot and sensitive, as if he could sense Reis sneaking suspicious glares down the table at him.
In reality he was sure Reis was making no glares whatsoever. That would have been too revealing. He was sure that Reis was perfectly playing the part of an unconcerned pupil without a care in the world. He was sure Reis was eating his food with a steady hand and a tranquil expression, even as the wheels would be churning in his mind.
Tharol’s eyes instinctively flicked upwards against his will, finally making eye contact with Reis. And to his great amazement, Reis turned and met his stare with perfectly neutral eyes.
“Hey, Tharol, could you pass the salt?” the boy drawled.
It was so nonchalant that Tharol started to wonder whether his suspicions were entirely misplaced! Was it possible that he had drawn the wrong conclusions? That someone else had swapped the poison? That Tharol had diluted it more than he thought? Maybe he was just being paranoid again.
But no. Even though a part of him really wished that this was the case, in his heart Tharol knew it wasn’t true. It wasn’t his reasoning that convinced him either, it was his instincts. Reis had seemed the last true friend he had left at the order, and it hurt him to call the boy a traitor, but he was sure of it. It simply fit.
To what end…Tharol still did not know. He couldn’t fathom what Reis’s game was and he wouldn’t be able to until the next night. But the fact that it was Reis who was pulling the strings made him certain that this situation was even more serious than he had ever imagined. There was no chance that Reis would be extending himself like this for anything trivial. This wasn’t about money like with Beesk and Inol. Indeed, there now settled on Tharol’s heart a realization that they were all in very grave danger.
On Monday I spoke of stories that have scenes the reader can immediately relate to. Whether by simulating a typical life experience or by connecting to the private fantasies in us all, these stories are able to spark an immediate connection in their reader.
Today I decided to try something a bit different from this, though. I specifically incorporated a scene that was would not be relatable to most audience members. Certainly all of us have experienced betrayal at some point or another, but I would imagine most of us have never had our lives being threatened by a traitor!
Of course this is a common scenario in stories: describing an experience that the user has never encountered before. This is a large reason of why we seek out stories, to explore situations that are exciting or interesting, but impossible or undesirable in real life.
And so here we find a little bit of a conundrum. Our stories will have scenes that are impossible for the reader to directly relate to, but we still want them to feel connected to the experience. This means the writer needs to use to have a healthy enough imagination to present an experience that the reader will feel is authentic. Perhaps we haven’t had our lives threatened by an act of betrayal, but we can try to imagine “what that sort of situation would probably feel like.”
As I tried to imagine what such an experience would be like the overwhelming emotion that came to the surface was numbing shock. There would be anger and hurt eventually, but I really think if I were in Tharol’s shoes those emotions would be too large to register initially, resulting in a sort of hollow emptiness instead. Hopefully my interpretation will ring true to the reader as well.
While we’re on the subject of betrayal, though, I want to point out how this has long been a staple of literature. I’d like to look at a few examples of this in famous stories and consider why we have a fascination with such a somber theme. Come back on Monday as I’ll do exactly this, and then join me on Thursday as we experience Tharol’s betrayal further in the next chapter of The Favored Son.