Tharol barely slept that night. He lay motionless in bed, turning matters over in his mind, silently wondering if Reis was laying awake as well.
He had intentionally laid down with his face pointed at Reis’s cot so that he could watch him all night long. It was incredible to think that he had slept every night just a few feet away from Reis, totally vulnerable to any attack of the night. All of the boys had. All of them had shared that one room together every single night, and they had just blindly trusted each other to not stab them in their sleep.
That had always been taken for granted. None of them had ever actually questioned whether their lives were at risk in their own home. But now Tharol couldn’t repress a rush of questions that terrified him. Just how many threats had he slumbered peacefully through? How many times had he almost lost his breath and didn’t even know it? How close had he been to his own end?
Tharol believed he would not get any sleep that night. He certainly didn’t intend to. Being the only boy awake to the realities of their danger it was his duty to stay alert and watch over them all.
But somewhere through the night he failed in that endeavor. He didn’t even know when he fell asleep, he wasn’t ever aware of having stopped staring at Reis’s bed. But he must have, for the next thing he knew a hand was shaking his shoulder and he startled back awake.
“Tharol, didn’t you hear the bell?” Reis was looking down at him with a bemused smile. “You almost missed dinner last night and now you’ll miss breakfast?”
Tharol blinked rapidly. At the sight of Reis so near he instantly tensed up, but then he played that off as the shock of being awoken.
“Reis, you scared me,” he laughed. He was relieved to hear that the laugh sounded decently natural. “I guess I had trouble sleeping last night.”
“Well you’d better get yourself ready. You don’t want to come to morning practice on an empty stomach.”
Tharol quickly shot his eyes around. No one else was there. Here in the morning light a fresh idea occurred to him. Reis’s behavior suggested that he didn’t think Tharol suspected him. Or he wasn’t sure what Tharol thought, and he didn’t want to do anything hasty until he was certain. So this meant Tharol had a chance to assuage any fears that Reis had. He could make Reis believe that Tharol thought they were still friends.
“Reis,” he hissed, “there’s something I need to tell you about last night.”
“Yeah? What is it?”
“I stole one of the notes Beesk and Inol got from the statue lady last night. She left it on the wall and I grabbed it before they got there!”
“Where is it?”
“I burned it.”
“Why would you do that?!”
“I don’t know…I panicked. Didn’t want them to find it on me, I guess. I’m sorry, I should have brought it to you.”
“Yes, you should have. But never mind that now. What did it say?”
“It said she knew I was a traitor and that I had messed up their plan and they needed to get rid of me!”
“And I was late to dinner last night because I went to check the wine and someone actually had changed the wine! The poison is gone out of it.”
“Oh no!… And you didn’t swap it yourself?”
“No. You said we should leave it.”
“I know, but I also know that you didn’t like that idea.”
“Well I left it. I swear I did.”
“Alright…well…who would have swapped it then?”
Tharol sighed heavily. “I think you were right. I figure it had to have been one of Beesk or Inol. They’re probably trying to rub me out so they don’t have split their reward three ways.”
“Yes,” Reis mused thoughtfully, “you’re right. That has to be it.”
“But I don’t know which one.”
“Well which one was coming up on the ramparts to check for the note that day?”
“So probably Inol planted it earlier for Beesk’s benefit, don’t you think?”
“Good point. Inol is the more intelligent of them, too. That fits. And I’m sure Beesk told him he didn’t find any paper, so he’s got to be suspecting me right now.”
“Though, on the other hand, he might just assume that the wind ripped the note off of the wall…”
“No. Don’t assume he assumes that. Maybe he does, but you don’t do yourself any favors by letting your guard down.”
“You’ve got to be careful moving forward now. Whether there’s a threat or not, you’ve got to believe that there is one and you’ve got to protect yourself from it.”
Tharol stiffened his lips and exhaled bracingly. “Alright, Reis, I will…. Thank goodness this all ends tonight, though.”
The two nodded reassuringly at one another, then set off to their breakfast.
The day that followed was the strangest that Tharol had ever lived through. He was hyper-aware of everything that occurred around him. Every time someone entered a room, every time someone left. Every ordinary behavior seemed somehow suspicious now, as if everyone else was part of a conspiracy, play-acting the entire day’s events just to deceive him.
There were only a few short hours remaining until that night, and he felt that he absolutely had to do something in preparation for that. But as to what he didn’t know. He felt paralyzed by all of the different possibilities, none of which seemed quite right.
First he wondered if he should go to Master Palthio with everything he knew. He was long past wondering whether Master Palthio was in on Beesk and Inol’s plot, but the question now was whether the man was part of Reis’s. And while it wasn’t a definitive sign of guilt, there was the fact that Master Palthio had chosen Reis for the Night Watch. It could very well have been an innocent decision because Reis was the best student, in which case Master Palthio probably wouldn’t even believe Tharol anyway. Or if Master Palthio was not so innocent, if he was in on whatever Reis was plotting, then he would get in Tharol’s way all the more! Either way Tharol couldn’t speak with him.
So next he wondered about tipping off Beesk and Inol. What if he told them that Reis was plotting something, that Reis was trying to use all three of them as an accessory to his own motives and they had to stop him? But how would Tharol convince them of that? By telling them the truth? That he had been working with Reis as a mole to try and get them expelled from the order? Going to them for help would quickly backfire on him!
What about Avro, Janeao, Bovik, and Golu? Could he tell everything that had happened, win back their trust, and get their help? No. If he had been coming to tell them about a plot uncovered about Beesk or Inol they might accept it, but about Reis? Reis was the most stainless boy in the whole order. They would see his accusations as nothing more than a desperate ploy to make himself look better by slinging mud at their hero.
The simple fact was that Tharol remained safest so long as the only person who knew what he knew was himself. Anyone that he opened himself up to just introduced that much more chance for things to go wrong.
So whatever Tharol did it would have to be alone. But that brought up the same, old question: just what was he supposed to do? Reis had tried to have Inol and Beesk get rid of him once, and following their morning conversation he must be looking for another way to still do that. If Tharol didn’t try to counter that move he was a fool.
But how to counter a move he didn’t know? He racked his brain trying to think of what Reis’s play would be. There were too many possibilities, including ones as simple as Reis just hitting him over the head at the next opportune moment!
It wouldn’t work to play defensively. He would have to take an offensive stance. He would have to forcibly remove Reis, just as how Reis had tried to forcibly remove him.
That was another point that was aggravating Tharol. Why had Reis tried to have Beesk and Inol get rid of him? He remembered how upset Reis had been about Tharol’s insistence to be out on the grounds during the Night Watch. Did that make him a loose end that had to be tied off?
But why? What was Reis planning? If all Reis wanted was to let the statue lady come in then he wouldn’t have been interfering with Beesk and Inol. He would have just let them do what they already planned to do and he’d have what he wanted. So that couldn’t be his objective. To say nothing of the fact that Tharol still couldn’t believe Reis would be swayed by anything as petty as money. Whatever he was trying to do it was for deeply held ideological reasons. And those reasons he had felt he couldn’t share with Tharol, not even in private. And that meant they were extreme and dangerous.
“As I am sure you all recall, this evening Reis will stand over the Night Watch,” Master Palthio’s words snapped Tharol out of his thoughts. All of the boys were assembled in the main hall at the end of their early afternoon lesson. “And as such, he shall be excused from his duties this afternoon and allowed to get a little extra rest. I’m sure you’re very excited for your duties tonight, but do try to get some sleep if you can.”
“Of course, Master,” Reis nodded.
“And what had been your duties for this afternoon?”
“I was supposed to scrub pots.”
“And Tharol, you were on dinner preparation, correct?”
“Yes, with Golu.”
“I’m sure that Golu will be able to manage that himself. You will take over scrubbing the pots for Reis. Understood?”
“Yes–I mean–actually Master, I didn’t sleep very well last night and I had been going to ask whether I could have some extra rest, too.”
“Well that’s an unusual request, isn’t it?”
“We haven’t ever had special provisions to get out of duties just because we were tired have we?”
“And I’m sure you can understand why not. That could be abused by any boy who just didn’t want to do his fair share.”
“So you will take care of scrubbing the pots this afternoon. Understood?”
It took all of Tharol’s composure to hide his anxiety. So Reis was going to be absolutely free this afternoon, conveniently able to do whatever he needed to get Tharol out of the way that night? More than ever, Tharol couldn’t help but feel that Master Palthio was clearing the way for Reis intentionally. The man had already expressed a deep resentment for being a pawn of his superiors and Reis had spoken about their system being flawed and unchangeable. Well perhaps tonight Palthio, Reis, and that statue woman would have their revenge. Perhaps on the Masters of the other gates? Perhaps on Lord Amathur himself?
Tharol didn’t know and it didn’t matter. Reis was going to be free to do as he pleased and that meant Tharol couldn’t hold back in his own strategies. It was time to take that offensive stance.
Tharol waited until all of the other boys had left the main hall for their different duties, then he approached Golu as he was getting the flour out in preparation for making dinner.
“Golu,” Tharol said. “I hate scrubbing pots. I’d rather cook. What do you want? I’ll give you anything you ask for.”
Golu shrugged in a carefree manner. “I like scrubbing,” he said, tipped the sack of flour into Tharol’s empty hands and left without another word.
Tharol set the flour on the counter and started the preparations for their meal. He soon had a pot bubbling over the fire, the counter littered with all manner of chopped vegetables, and a stack of pans on the floor. Anyone who walked in now would see a busy kitchen, one that was too chaotic to notice a single pan simmering in the back corner. Tharol went back to that pan and gave it another stir.
It was filled with wine. The wine. He had brought up the last bottle of poisoned wine, peeled off its wax seal, and poured it into the hot pan. Tharol was no chemist, but he knew from stories that Tinstin had been popular for assassinations because it could be cooked into meals. Apparently the heat involved did not cause it to break down and lose its lethality. He therefore assumed he could evaporate the wine and still leave the poison behind.
Fifteen minutes later Tharol lifted the pan of wine and carefully poured it back into its original vessel. There was only enough wine to half-fill the jug now. Half the wine, but the same amount of poison inside, a double distribution. It was back to the same level that Inol had initially prepared in the market. A very dangerous level. Possibly a lethal level.
“Give me a reason, Reis, and I’ll gladly shout out a warning not to drink it,” he murmured. “What happens next is up to you.”
On Monday I mentioned how betrayal is an extremely prominent theme in storytelling. Often the actual act of betrayal occurs in a sudden and surprising way, as a twist meant to catch both protagonist and audience off guard.
But with The Favored Son I wanted to go a different route. I wanted Reis’s coming betrayal to be signaled well in advance. I didn’t want there to be any surprise when it finally came to fruition. That allows me to ramp up the anticipation of it and create suspense. And this is exactly what I have been showing in today’s chapter. Tharol is stewing in his anxiety and he is becoming increasingly frazzled by it.
Of course that does mean there is a sort prolonged amount of time between our knowing that something bad is going to happen and our seeing it come to fruition. Delaying catharsis can build suspense for a while, but delaying it for too long eventually causes the tension to dissipate.
This is something I have to be careful with these chapters of my story. I am anxious about slowing things down too much before the end. In preparation for the next sequence I would like to dig into the concept of suspense and see what I can learn. How do great thrillers keep you waiting but not bored?
Come back on Monday as I consider exactly this. I will look at a few examples of great suspense stories and try to learn the lessons that they teach. Then we’ll see how well I can apply those concepts to my story on Thursday. See you then.