The Favored Son: Alternate- Part Fourteen

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Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven
Part Eight
Part Nine
Part Ten
Part Eleven
Part Twelve
Part Thirteen

Tharol tried vainly to communicate to the other boys.

“Stop,” he mumbled, still half-dazed. “It’s a trap– it’s all a trap…. You have to stop Reis–I don’t know what he’s doing…but you have to stop him–“

Either they couldn’t understand his fragmented speech or they just didn’t care. They didn’t respond to him the whole way to Master Palthio’s quarters, and Tharol was nearly back to his full senses when they knocked on the Master’s door.

The door opened and Master Palthio’s voice came out weakly from the darkness. “Yes?”

“Sorry, Master,” Bovik said. “We know you need your rest, but we found out who poisoned you. We thought you’d want to know.”

“Oh…of course. Come in.”

They shuffled into the room as Master Palthio lit his lamps.

“What is this?” Master Palthio said in surprise as they placed Tharol in the middle of the room, wrists still firmly tied together.

“It was Tharol,” Bovik declared. “Tharol poisoned your dinner.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Well for one thing he cooked dinner,” Golu spoke up. “He demanded to do it. I didn’t think anything of it at the time, but it gave him the perfect opportunity to poison your plate.”

“I see.”

Tharol kicked himself inwardly. Once again he was his own worst enemy, making himself look suspicious to the boys that should have been his friends. Why did he keep doing that?

“But that’s not all,” Avro added. “Yesterday Tharol came to dinner late, said he had to patch a hole in his tunic or something. But Golu and I passed him rushing toward the cellar right before.”

Of course, Tharol thought, right after I saw the note about the wine being sabotaged. Avro wasn’t finished laying out evidence though.

“And last week when we did the combat practice Tharol was last to come to dinner again. Bovik, Reis, and I had just left the barracks and I looked back and saw him still inside, standing on a chest and looking at something over the door.”

This one took Tharol a moment to recollect. Then he realized Avro was talking about when he had investigated how Reis beat Golu in their duel. “I was just looking at the shield over the doorway,” he explained.

“That’s right,” Bovik said. “And guess where we found the wine?”

Ah, Tharol thought, so that was where Reis had planted it. He assumed Avro must have said something to Bovik and Reis on that day about seeing Tharol mess around with the shield, so Reis had known that hiding the bottle there would get Avro to connect it with him.

“And last time we brought in wine was when Tharol went to market,” Janeao chimed in.

“Hmm,” Master Palthio nodded thoughtfully. “Well that’s certainly quite the array of evidence. In fact it seems to me that you’ve all been keeping an unusually close eye on Tharol these past few weeks…”

“Yeah, Reis told us he thought something was up,” Janeao answered. “Told us we should keep tabs on him whenever we could. And clearly he was right.”

“Clearly,” Master Palthio repeated. “And where is young Reis now?”

“He took over the evening watch so the rest of us could bring Tharol to you,” Bovik explained.

“Yes, very sensible. Well alright, you all run along. I’ll take things from here.”

“What? Leave you alone with him?” Avro said in bewilderment.

“Yes.”

“But he’s dangerous!”

“And I am a Master of the Order. Don’t fret yourselves, I really am feeling much better now. Our district needs you out there. Go now.”

There was a finality to his tone that quelled the unspoken protests in the boys’ eyes. Reluctantly they all shuffled out of the room and Master Palthio closed the door behind them.

“Master I know this doesn’t look good, but you’ve got to believe me!” Tharol blurted out. He still didn’t know whether Palthio was to be trusted, but frankly he didn’t have any other choice but to take his chances. “Reis is a traitor and he’s planning something very dangerous!”

Tharol braced himself for one of two reactions. Would Master Palthio be completely shocked, aghast that Tharol could make such a claim against his best student? Or would he round on Tharol in a rage, furious with him for having figured out his and Reis’s scheme?

The one reaction Tharol did not expect from Master Palthio, though, was annoyed indifference.

“Yes, yes, of course he is,” Palthio waved his hand dismissively, turning to his desk and rummaging through its drawers. “He has been since the first day he joined our order.”

Tharol’s mouth dropped. Was Master Palthio making fun of him?

“I’m serious!” he said hotly.

“So am I,” Master Palthio looked sharply up and Tharol could see that he meant it. “And I was serious when I told you to stop playing other peoples’ games, too. But you’ve gone and got yourself really mixed up in it now.”

He drew a long dagger from the drawers and came towards Tharol.

“Forgive me, but my extremities don’t have all their feeling back. I wouldn’t be able to untie that knot.” So saying he gripped Tharol’s wrists and quickly sawed through the rope. It fell to the ground and Tharol was free.

“You know?!” Tharol could still hardly believe it. “You’ve always known? Well come on then, we’ve got to go stop him.” He bounded for the door, but Master Palthio raised his hand behind Tharol and the door locked itself fast.

“Tharol…there is no stopping him,” Master Palthio said sadly. “Don’t you think that I would have already done something about it if there was?”

Tharol turned around, confusion etched all across his face. “You’ve got to let me out, Master. I have a plan. Reis isn’t going to get his way tonight.”

“Reis is the least of your problems, Tharol. Please take a seat,” Master Palthio gestured to the seat behind his desk. Tharol didn’t budge. “Tharol, I am going to let you out of here…but not until you hear what I have to tell you. Take. A. Seat.”

It was the last thing Tharol felt like doing, but there wasn’t any other choice. He marched over to the chair and perched on the corner of it, foot tapping impatiently.

“Thank you,” Master Palthio said, lowering himself into a seated position on his bed. “I’ll try to be brief.”

*

The sun had seemed to set extra quickly that evening, what with all the commotion that had occurred.

“Maybe we should stay up with you,” Avro offered Reis when it was time for the Night Watch to begin. “None of us are going to get much sleep anyway.”

“No, no,” Reis said. “We’ve had a ruffle, but we’ll carry on as we had intended, business as usual. Best way forward is to stick to our duties.”

Reluctantly the other boys retired to their barracks, leaving Reis alone on the wall. With hands on the ramparts he eagerly watched the sun fading behind the rolling hills, waiting for his moment of triumph. Already the first stars were appearing up above, and soon the moon would take over the realm. How fitting a symbol, Reis thought, for the power changes that were about to take place.

*

“Tharol, this district has been dying for a long while now,” Master Palthio began his explanation. “There was still the shadow of honor when Lord Oraliah–that’s Lord Amathur’s father–reigned over the district. There was still a great deal of corruption all around him, but he was mighty enough to keep it at bay. Then, once he died, he left a vacuum that was immediately filled by all those opportunistic, unprincipled vultures! The only reason we didn’t have a civil war was because his own son was the worst of the lot, willing to make every concession to keep the dukes and senators happy. I won’t go into all of the politics of it, but I believe even you have seen the effects of it. Order and decorum are a joke, scheming and underhanded deals are the norm, and no one has any sense of duty. All they care about is their own agenda.”

Tharol stopped tapping his foot so impatiently. He nodded sadly, but then added, “Well not all of us have lost our sense of duty.”

Master Palthio smiled. “No, you are correct. Forgive my cynicism. That, of course, is the other sickness that has pervaded our streets. A sense of hopelessness, a belief that we are beyond repair. That cynicism has been my own vice, and I have not fought against it as well as I ought to have. It has compromised me as much as if I had been another of the selfish opportunists. That cynicism has paved the way for even more dangerous enemies to the city.”

*

Reis heard a noise behind him and turned to see Inol mounting the stairs, large cup in hand.

“What’s this?” he asked in pretend surprise.

“Master Palthio’s orders,” Inol smiled. “The Night Watchman is to have a chalice of wine to keep him company through the night!”

Reis met the smile and took the cup. “Well that’s very thoughtful! Thank you, Inol.”

Inol nodded and stepped backwards, but his face fell slightly as Reis placed the cup down on the wall.

“You’re not going to take a drink from it?” he asked.

“No, not yet. I’ll save it.”

“Well…at the very least I had thought we should toast your commission.”

“Thank you, Inol, that’s very thoughtful. Wait here a moment and I will.”

*

“Reis is cynical, isn’t he?” Tharol asked.

“Yes. Extremely so. He hates the opportunists, the Beesks and Inols of this city. He wants to burn them to the ground and build a stronger, stricter order on top of it all. And he is not the only one that does. There has been a growing tide both within our walls and without that want to destroy this city for its weakness. And these revolutionaries know that they can manipulate the opportunistic fools into opening the doors for them. Offer them something that they value and they’ll let you get close enough to drive a dagger through their hearts.”

“But…you knew all about this and haven’t done anything?!”

Master Palthio sighed and looked downward heavily. “Tharol…I have tried. In quiet ways, I admit, but I really have tried. Maybe I could have done more, I don’t know, but I have tried. You have no idea how outnumbered we honest folk are. Every gate has been compromised. Every district. The very city core! Speaking up for principle has become a dangerous vocation. Sounding alarms that no one wants to hear gets you stifled. I know what Reis was came to our order for. I know what Beesk and Inol are doing behind our backs. But if I removed any of them there would just be more cynics and opportunists to take their place. If I kept weeding out the likes of Beesk and Inol Lord Amathur would have had me removed for cutting into his side ventures. If I kept weeding out the likes of Reis I would be assassinated! You can try to fight the inevitable but it will happen anyway. There is no stopping the coming tide.”

*

Inol shifted uncomfortably next to Reis. The statue lady was supposed to show up any moment now and the boy still hadn’t taken his drink. Inol would have to think of something fast or Reis would see her approaching!

“Well…I should really be getting to bed,” he said. “Why don’t we do that toast now and then I’ll get my rest.”

“Very soon, Inol. Very soon.” The last of the daylight had faded, leaving the sky a murky, navy blue. Reis kept his eyes fixated on the horizon, trying to still make out the line of hills in the dark. Suddenly he became aware of a thousand pinpricks of fire lining the most distant ridge. “Oh,” he breathed excitedly. “Come over here, Inol, I think the time for that toast has come!”

Reis’s back and arms were tensed in excitement. He didn’t turn a single degree as Inol stepped beside him and followed his gaze out to the rolling hills beyond. At first Inol couldn’t make out anything in the moonlight. The only movement was the tall grass waving in the wind upon the distant hills. But then, with a shock, Inol remembered that grass didn’t even grow on those rocky crests. And there was no wind. What he actually saw was a mass of people, an entire army silently marching towards the city wall. With a gasp he looked left and right, and he saw that the line continued as far as he could see in each direction. Thousands upon thousands quickly approaching, billowing out to meet each of the district’s gates!

And in all that empty air there was not a single sound of warning. No alerting bugle. No clash of swords. All the other gates must be seeing the approaching horde just as he did…but none of them were doing anything to stop it!

“Drink with me, Inol,” Reis smiled broadly. He lifted the goblet and looked over its rim in a salute to the coming masses. “My triumph has arrived!” Then he raised the cup to lips and took a long and deep draught. He was so flushed with success he didn’t even notice the unusual warmth of the liquid, the bitterness that was mingled with its rich flavor. “What’s the matter, Inol?” he said with a laugh at his comrade’s wide stare. “Aren’t you feeling well?”

Then, without warning, Reis’s whole body trembled violently. His eyes expanded in shock and he flung the goblet to the ground, clutching to the nearest brazier for support. He convulsed again, and fell the rest of the way to the ground, fingers scrabbling madly against the wood. He opened his mouth in agony and let out a single, long scream!

On Monday I compared my current version of The Favored Son to my first attempt at writing the story and I considered the elements that were stronger in each. From my freshman effort I specifically called out the greater creativity and heightened drama, and I stated that I would attempt to incorporate some of those elements here at the climax of my second version.

We got the first example of that in this highly dramatic scene of the army approaching and Reis being poisoned. The tension of that moment was built up more than any other scene in the story. It felt more on the level of that dramatic moment in the first story when the teachers suddenly assaulted their own students.

Here at the climax of this story it feels particularly fitting to cut loose in a loud moment of catharsis. Reis has been smugly pulling the strings on all the other boys for the entirety of the story. Now we finally get to see his mastery of the situation burst into pieces, and it works well for it to be a highly dramatic moment. With the next chapter of the story we will also see more magic coming to bear.

It’s certainly been a long time getting to this finale. There’s still two more chapters left to go, making this the longest tale I’ve published by a significant margin. We are finally coming to the end, though, and that means it’s time to take a step back and review all the lessons we’ve been learning along the way. Come back on Monday as we look back at it all, and then come on Thursday to see how the story continues.

The Favored Son: Alternate- Part Thirteen

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Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven
Part Eight
Part Nine
Part Ten
Part Eleven
Part Twelve

After finishing he finished the preparations for dinner, Tharol returned the poisoned bottle of wine, seal firmly reattached, back to the cellar. Then he carried the pots and pans out of the kitchen and to the scullery to help Golu finish with the cleaning.

The hardest thing to do now was keep a calm demeanor. He had to act as if today was just like any other. He couldn’t start acting jittery, that would make Inol and Beesk suspcious, and Reis, and Master Palthio. He had to pretend that he was totally duped, completely unaware of all the other threads being pulled around him.

Fortunately, cleaning the pots was a good way for him to get his anxieties out in a not-so-obvious way. He scrubbed at them as vigorously as he could, letting the jitters work out through his fingers as he went. In no time at all he and Golu had the task done and made their way up to the main hall to ring the bell for dinner.

A few minutes later and all of the boys were gathered together at the table. As before, Tharol avoided making eye contact with anyone, too afraid of what he might betray if his gaze was held for too long.

“Golu, I hope you don’t mind my saying, but this dinner is beneath your usual standard,” Master Palthio said as he took a bite with his fork and a little sip of wine. Tharol tried to hide his anxiety deep down. “I’m not sure what it is,” Master Palthio continued, “just everything is a little off-taste.”

“Oh…” Golu said blankly. “Sorry.”

Tharol breathed an inward sigh of relief. He didn’t want Reis to hear that he had swapped chores. That would be unusual for Tharol, and the last thing he wanted was for Reis to know he had been behaving unusually.

Master Palthio shrugged. “Just an observation, Golu. Don’t worry too much about it.”

He then turned to address the boys as a whole. “Well, I suppose we had better get things ready for the evening, don’t you? Golu, Bovik, you’re on evening watch, go relieve Janeao and Avro so that they may have their meal. Then we’ll–“

A strange expression fluttered over Master Palthio’s face and he leaned back again. He looked up to the ceiling, as if waiting for something to pass. Then small spasms started to pass over his face, symptoms of an irritating, recurring pain.

“Master?” Bovik asked, concern in his voice. “Is everything alright?”

“I–well–I’m not so sure.” Master Palthio brought his head downwards and kneaded his brow with his hands. “I have these strange spasms coming over me. I thought they would pass after a moment, but–” he winced sharply as the pain spiked.

“Master!” several of the boys cried as they leaped to their feet.

Palthio’s quivering hands clutched at his stomach and his face contorted into a painful grimace.

“Golu, you’ve given him food poisoning!” Bovik cried.

“But I didn’t even–“

“Don’t be stupid, Bovik!” Tharol sharply interjected. “We’ve all been having the same meal. This looks worse than food poisoning to me. We need to get a doctor!”

“No, I–” Master Palthio began, then suddenly lurched his head back away from the table and retched violently onto the floor.

“Get him a bucket!” Reis cried.

A few more heaves and Master Palthio had deposited his entire meal on the floor. He slumped back in his chair, exhausted, but he looked like he finally had some reprieve from the pain.

“I’m alright, boys,” he said faintly. “I’m alright. I’m just going to–going to need some rest. If a couple of you could support me back to my chambers I think I’ll turn in.”

All the boys moved forward to help, but Bovik and Golu reached him first. Each of them took an arm around their shoulders and the three of them ambled towards the Southern Wing where Master Palthio’s chambers waited.

Tharol turned to the remaining boys: Beesk, Inol, and Reis. The very last people he wanted to be alone in a room with right now. Inol and Beesk were nearest to him, and the two of them turned to face him, each bearing the same stupefied stare. Behind them Reis also made eye contact with Tharol, silently gesturing to the other boys with a cocked eyebrow.

Tharol would have liked nothing more than to lunge at him. Now he knew exactly what Reis had done with the wine he stole!

“Reis, did you want to clean up the mess,” he said, his voice came out strangely high-pitched from the anger he was trying to suppress. “Why don’t the rest of us circle round? Do a sweep of the area and make sure everything is secure? We can’t afford to have any vulnerabilities while our Master is unwell.”

It was a thin excuse, but everyone present saw it as a cover-up for different reasons. Reis would assume that Tharol was suspicious of Beesk and Inol and wanted a moment alone with them to get to the bottom of things. Beesk and Inol would assume Tharol wanted to check whether anyone had accidentally brought their poisoned wine to the table. As such, everyone nodded in agreement and Tharol, Beesk, and Inol made their way out to the courtyard.

“To the cellar,” Inol hissed as soon as they were out of earshot of Reis.

The three of them took the long way around the barracks, and soon they were crouched down among the bottles, swinging lamps overhead.

“Look at this!” Beesk exclaimed. “One of the bottles is broken. The other’s still here though.”

“Have the seals been tampered with?” Inol asked.

“Let me see…no…they’re both still secure.”

Each of them looked quizzically back to Tharol to see what he thought.

He paused for a fraction of a second, debating whether he should play this off as if he were relieved. He could just say that whatever had happened to Master Palthio…it didn’t look like it could be related to their poisoned wine. But no, he decided. That was not what they would expect from him.

“So what if the seals aren’t broken?” he demanded. “All that proves is that no one else used the wine. So it had to be one of us! And why’s that one bottle broken? Someone poured out a glass and then shattered it to hide the fact it was running low?!”

“Now you hang on just a second!” Inol fired back. “Are you trying to suggest one of us poisoned Master Palthio?!”

“Perhaps I am!”

“Why would we do that?” Beesk protested. “That doesn’t help us at all.”

“Makes him that much less likely to get involved in things tonight, doesn’t it?”

Inol sighed. “Alright…I see your point Tharol. But I don’t know what to tell you. I didn’t poison it, I trust that you two didn’t, so what else is there to say?”

“Yeah,” Beesk chimed in. “I thought you were more trusting than this Tharol.”

Tharol sighed and made as if he were taking their arguments in. That was good enough. “Alright,” he finally said. “I guess it doesn’t matter anyway. What’s done is done…I’m just going saying there better not be any more surprises tonight!”

“We’re all on the same page there,” Inol reassured.

“We should get back before Reis starts getting suspicious,” Beesk said. The other two agreed and they quickly returned to the main hall. Reis wasn’t there, though, and Tharol didn’t like that. He hadn’t considered when he left with Beesk and Inol that he was leaving Reis alone to do whatever he pleased yet again.

“Well…you two make sure everything’s ready for tonight,” Tharol said. “I’m going to check on Master Palthio.”

As soon as he was apart from the other two Tharol started sweeping the grounds, glancing through each window and round ever corner for any sign of Reis. He scolded himself for having not realized that Reis would have had some nefarious intent for the poisoned wine he stole. He wondered if there were any other poisonings likely to occur. At first he thought no, because no one else at the table had become sick, but maybe Reis had figured that would look too suspicious. Maybe Reis had other traps meant for all the rest of the order. One thing was for sure, Tharol wouldn’t be taking a drink of anything for the rest of the night, nor indeed leaving himself alone in a corner.

With that thought Tharol took in his current surroundings and realized he had already done exactly that! During his search he had ambled into the corner where the barracks met the storage. He turned himself around, just as the barracks door flung open in front of him and Avro, Bovik, and Janeao came storming out.

“There he is!” Bovik cried and the other two boys spread out so that the three of them could move at him in a pincer movement.

“Hey, what is this?!” Tharol exclaimed.

“Come with us,” Avro ordered. As he spoke each of the boys drew knives out of their cloaks. “Just come with us and you won’t come to any harm.”

Tharol backed up until he hit the wall. “Are you guys crazy! Put those knives away!”

“It’s alright, Tharol,” Bovik soothed. “We don’t want to use them. We will if we have to, but we don’t want to.” He turned to Janeao. “Throw him the rope.”

The three boys halted their advance, but remained in an alert, defensive stance. Janeao stowed his blade, reached into his tunic, pulled out a length of rope, and flung it through the air to Tharol’s feet.

“Tie your hands,” Bovik instructed. “We won’t come any closer while you do. After that we’ll put away the knives and all go to Master Palthio. Nice and simple, see?”

Tharol picked up the rope. It was coarse and rough.

“What is this, Bovik?” he asked quietly. “What’s going on?”

“We know what you did, Tharol,” Bovik sad softly, even sadly. “The game’s over, alright? We know all about the poison.”

For the first time Tharol noticed the jug of wine fastened to Avro’s belt. He wasn’t near enough to see the broken wax seal, but he was sure it was the one Reis had taken, the one that had been used to poison Master Palthio. No doubt it had been planted somewhere that would incriminate Tharol.

Reis was taking care of two birds with one stone.

“Alright,” he said, then twisted his hand around the end of the rope and swung it out like whip! The other boys ducked to the ground just in time to dodge the flail, and while they were down Tharol surged forward, leaped over Bovik’s crouched form, and sprinted for the courtyard.

Just as he passed the edge of the barracks a dark blur rushed at him. Golu slammed in from the side and threw Tharol to the ground! For a moment Tharol lost consciousness, then awareness came back slowly. He remained dazed for a few minutes, only vaguely aware of the other boys binding his wrists with the rope and carrying him off to Master Palthio. He was in for it now!

Part Fourteen

On Monday I spoke about the use of suspense in a story, and how it is brought about by letting the audience anticipate a dramatic fallout that the characters, themselves, are oblivious to.

Thus at the end of my last chapter I had Tharol increase the toxicity of the wine to a point that it might be lethal for Reis. I realize that today’s chapter might feel like it then distracts from that element of suspense by focusing more on Reis’s schemes, and how he is removing Master Palthio and Tharol out of the picture, but I have a specific reason for having spent some time here.

In the next section Tharol will remain incapacitated. He is the only one that can prevent Reis from drinking that poisoned wine and now he will be physically incapable of doing so. The wheel has been set in motion and the only one that can call out a warning has been removed. I believe that this will accentuate the tension in the moment where Reis finally does take that wine, but setting up for it required me to briefly shift the focus elsewhere.

In the next section I will ramp the tension back up around the poisoned cup, by pausing around his moment of actually drinking it, making the audience wonder if he will go through with it or not.

I promise that we’ll get to this moment of catharsis soon. This story has extended much longer than I had originally anticipated, but now I am down to the last three chapters. At this point I would say I am close enough to the end to compare it to the original version of The Favored Son, the version that strayed into a different path than I had originally intended. I want to share how well this current attempt has done at meeting my original vision, and how I feel about the two stories compared against one another. I also want to identify why I feel the first one went off into such different waters to begin with.

Come back on Monday as we dig into all of that, and then again of Thursday to finally see the fuse reach the bomb in The Favored Son!

The Favored Son: Alternate- Part Twelve

Photo by Devon Rockola on Pexels.com

Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven
Part Eight
Part Nine
Part Ten
Part Eleven

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!”

“What?!”

“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?”

“Beesk.”

“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.”

“For sure.”

“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.”

“Right, right.”

“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?”

“Sir?”

“We haven’t ever had special provisions to get out of duties just because we were tired have we?”

“Well…no, sir.”

“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.”

“I suppose.”

“So you will take care of scrubbing the pots this afternoon. Understood?”

“Yes, sir.”

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.”

Part Thirteen
Part Fourteen

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.

The Favored Son: Alternate- Part Eleven

Photo by Krish Chaitu on Pexels.com

Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven
Part Eight
Part Nine
Part Ten

“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.”

“I–“

“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.”

“Okay…”

“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.

Unbroken.

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.

There.

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.

Part Twelve
Part Thirteen
Part Fourteen

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.

The Favored Son: Alternate- Part Ten

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Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven
Part Eight
Part Nine

“How are Beesk and Inol behaving?” Reis asked as he and Tharol chopped firewood behind the main hall.

“Jittery.”

“Hmm…think they’re plotting something?”

“No…I hadn’t really considered that. The Night Watch is right around the corner, isn’t it? Obviously they’d be nervous about that, right?”

“Yes, that could be. But I have to ask, why don’t you suspect that they’re up to something.”

“I don’t know, I just–I don’t have any reason to distrust them.”

“Really? I mean you certainly don’t have reason to trust them.”

“No, I guess I don’t. I just–I just don’t think that way.”

“Yes, and that’s why you’re so easy to beat in our competitions,” Reis grinned.

“…I know.”

“Oh, so you’ve noticed. Well that’s good. Maybe there’s hope for you yet.”

“Have you personally seen anything extra suspicious from Beesk and Inol, Reis? Or do you just generally think they’re likely to be up to something?”

“I haven’t seen anything. I just know what you tell me. So you say they’re acting jittery. Well yeah, maybe it’s just nerves about the Night Watch…or maybe they’re getting ready to stab you in the back. Whether or not that’s actually the case don’t you think it would be prudent to protect yourself from that possibility?”

“That’s a good point. Maybe I should start wearing a breastplate backwards under my shirt?”

Reis laughed. “So the rest of you finally caught on?”

“Just me I think.”

“Well it took you long enough! I was starting to think I’d be able to get away with it forever.”

“Well I have to say, it kind of ruined your duel with Golu for me. Once I realized you weren’t actually putting yourself at risk…”

“Of course it was a risk!” there was genuine offense in Reis’s tone. “You think that’s an easy blow to take, even through a sheet of metal?! And suppose he hadn’t happened to strike on it? I had no guarantee things would turn out as well as they did.”

“Yeah but–“

“Shhh,” Reis hushed Tharol as Master Palthio passed overhead on the main hall’s parapet. Reis watched him all the way until he reached the end of the parapet and disappeared down the trapdoor to the apothecary. “More than winning duels with you lot I want to see how long I can keep the old man in the dark,” Reis said. “It amazes me how oblivious he can be.”

“Or just turning a blind eye.”

“Yeah, or that. Probably taking a cut of whatever Beesk and Inol haul in, don’t you think?”

Tharol didn’t answer. He actually didn’t think that that was very likely anymore. If Master Palthio had been in on Beesk and Inol’s little scheme then wouldn’t he have just put one of them over the Night Watch instead? Tharol hadn’t wanted to appear too pushy by asking Beesk and Inol what they knew about Palthio’s loyalties, but everything they had done so far suggested that they didn’t want him to know what they were doing. So if Master Palthio was corrupt it was in his own way. And if he wasn’t corrupt, then he must be a fool, just another lazy pawn for Lord Amathur.

“Do you think he’ll even do anything when we expose Beesk and Inol?” Tharol asked. “Anything of substance?”

“He’ll probably just expel them, then continue like it’s business as usual.”

“Yeah, that’s what I’m afraid of.”

“Like I said, we can’t rely on the order as it is today. We’re the order within the order now. If he won’t put the safety measures in place we’ll do it ourselves. I don’t mind telling you I’ve been waiting quite some time for this. The old order is broken and needs to fall so something stronger can take it’s place. That’s exactly what we’re laying the groundwork for here today!”

Reis was holding his hands out wide, face shining with the excitement of the moment. Tharol could tell that this was a speech Reis had been wanting to give for a long time.

“It sounds nice Reis,” Tharol sighed, “but I don’t know that our little operation here is going to make much of a difference in the larger scheme of things. We might stop Beesk and Inol this time, but the whole district is corrupt.”

“Oh yes, this whole area is filthy! Even up to Lord Amathur!”

It was a bold statement but Tharol didn’t hesitate to nod his agreement. “It’s true. And so what can you and I ever do about that? It would take forever to try and reform this place one step at a time.”

“That would never work, the tide against us is too strong faster than that. There needs to be dramatic change. Immediate change.”

“How?”

Reis looked very earnestly at Tharol, as if burning to tell him something, but after a moment’s pause he shook his head and said “Let’s worry about Beesk and Inol today, and see about the rest later. We have to focus on what’s immediate.”

“Alright. And so long as we’re on the subject, we need to figure out our plan during the Night Watch?”

“I thought we already had that all figured. I’ll pretend to be sick, head to the latrine, then come rushing back in time to catch Beesk and Inol before they unfasten the gates. I’ll make an almighty ruckus and everyone will come running.”

“But where am I?”

“You? You’re in the barracks with the other boys, waiting alertly to hear an almighty ruckus and come running.”

“No. We can’t leave you out there alone with the two of them, all the more so if you’re ducking out to the latrine. What if they already have her in before you doubled back?”

“I can manage this. Trust me.”

“It’s not a question of trust. It’s just an unnecessarily risky strategy. Having a second pair of eyes will always be better.”

“They told you not to be there! They told you they were supposed to bring her in themselves! Now you’re going to risk that they’ll see you, realize something is up, and call the whole thing off!”

“I can manage this. Trust me.”

Reis bit his lip furiously. Tharol wasn’t sure why this seemed to matter to him so much. Could Reis really be so vain that he had to catch the perpetrators all by himself? That seemed so petty after all the ideals he had just been gushing about.

“I’m sorry Tharol, I don’t trust you” Reis finally said. “I mean I know your heart’s in the right place, but I can’t risk you messing this up.”

Tharol’s eyes narrowed as he swung his axe and halved the last piece of firewood. “I’m sorry Reis, but that’s your problem then,” and he left the chopping block.

*

After his conversation with Reis, Tharol started to be more observant of Inol and Beesk’s behavior. Even outside of his private pow-wows with them he would follow their routines whenever he could, observing if they were having other conversations without him, doing anything to suggest an upcoming betrayal.

He learned the patterns of their daily movements, the ways they ducked out of work they didn’t want to do, and where they each kept their stash of goods from the bribed merchants. He picked up on particular waifs who would occasionally bring them notes from the market. Tharol managed to get ahold of a few of these and learned that most of the illegal merchants Beesk and Inol brought in were referrals from ones they had already helped in the past. They didn’t have to go out of their walls to find new clients, the business came to them.

He also learned their routine for getting notes from the statue woman. Each evening one of them would stroll across the battlements, hand gliding idly over the rough stone of the outer wall. It appeared completely innocuous, but he understood that this was them feeling for the new letters. He wasn’t sure how the woman was able to get notes up on the wall without being noticed, but apparently she did have a way.

Tharol very much wanted to find one of those letters. He was sure there would be some final correspondence between them and the woman just before Reis’s Night Watch and he yearned to intercept it. But he was also sure that Beesk and Inol would notice if he took to walking the battlements each afternoon, so he contented himself with watching them from afar.

He had a system for accomplishing that. He would excuse himself after afternoon practice and rush up the Western Tower. If he was quick, he could survey the entire stretch of stone wall below while Beesk or Inol began their walk at the other side of the battlements.

And he did this routine every day, though nothing came of it, until at last his diligence payed off on the day before the Night Watch. Afternoon practice had just concluded and he left the courtyard, rounded the barracks, bounded for the perimeter wall, and stormed up the steps to the battlements. He passed Reis along the way, who was just on his way down from the Afternoon Watch.

“No time to talk,” Tharol called over his shoulder as he reached the top of the steps, coming out onto the long walkway that Beesk and Inol strolled each afternoon.

The Western Tower was immediately to his right and in a moment he had passed through its door and was racing up the spiral staircase. He ascended the first level and before going up the next flight he quickly glanced out the rampart-side window, checking to see if Beesk had arrived on the walkway yet.

And then he saw it.

There, fluttering in the breeze, was a piece of paper stuck against the outside of the wall, one block down from the very top.

Tharol froze, suspended between two conflicting desires: one to grab that paper and see what it said before Beesk and Inol could hide its information from him, and another to remain covert and careful, not risking being seen by the two boys.

He snapped suddenly into action, bounding back down the steps three-at-a-time until he banged out of the tower door and rushed along the ramparts. In one, smooth arc he swung his hand around the top of the wall, snagged the paper, turned on the spot, and sprinted back for the tower.

Every step he expected to hear an accusing voice call from behind or for another boy to come up the steps ahead and block his way. But nothing of the sort occurred. He cleared the door into the tower and flung it behind him, closing off the outside world. Before it shut completely, though, he spun around and looked through the narrowing opening of the doorway, just in time to see Beesk mounting the steps at the opposite end of the ramparts. Then the door clicked shut and Tharol found himself alone in the dark.

He had made it!

“See something interesting, Tharol?”

Tharol jumped a full foot into the air as he spun around in shock.

He had to blink a few times in the dark before he was even able to make out the silhouette of the figure before him. That figure reached up a hand and lit the overhead lamp. There before him stood Master Palthio, silently watching from the far side of the room. He must have been there the whole time, quietly observing all of Tharol’s bold behavior.

Part Eleven
Part Twelve
Part Thirteen
Part Fourteen

On Monday I shared how I had originally written a very different final act for this story, one that I wasn’t satisfied with, but which I couldn’t think of a better alternative to for a long while.

I’m a few posts into this revised final act now, and I’m pleased to say that I am very much liking how it is turning out. There were a lot of wrinkles to sort out and more loose ends than I’d realized, but I believe I have my road clear to the finish now.

It is worth saying that there were elements of the original final act which I did enjoy and which I was sorry to see get cut as a result of this change. While the central twist of it felt particularly weak to me it was then followed by an interesting game of cat and mouse that I had a lot of fun writing.

Fortunately I was able to translate many of those elements into my new work. For example, in the old version Tharol had a period of weeks where he knew about Reis’s treachery and he tried to trail that boy’s every move. This is partially represented in today’s post where Tharol tails Beesk and Inol, though it is in less detail here.

Also, similar to today’s chapter, Tharol observed that Reis walked along the battlements every afternoon to receive letters and he managed to steal one of them. That letter informed him that Reis was planning to meet with the statue woman outside of the keep that very night.

Then came a little twist. Tharol was sure that this was a red herring. He was certain the boy had been too shrewd to not notice Tharol tailing him. Tharol was therefore convinced that the letter was a ruse meant to mislead him, getting him out of the way at the convenient time, and so now he needed to feint like he had fallen for it, but then double back to see what was really going on. As you’ll see in my next entry, however, the contents of the letter have changed a great deal from the original version and will thrust the story down a very different path.

Before we get to that, though, I wanted to consider another aspect of today’s chapter. It’s the moment near the end where Tharol sees the paper waiting on the ramparts and hesitates, wondering to himself whether he should try dashing out to retrieve it, or else be cautious and wait inside.

I believe that describes a moment that many of us can relate to, the moment of indecision between boldness and safety. Whether it be debating if we should hold a crush’s hand or steal home plate, we all have that moment on the precipice between daring and shrinking. I’d like to take a look at examples from other stories that describe an experience that is immediately relatable to readers. Come back on Monday as we consider that, and then again on Thursday for the next entry in The Favored Son.

The Favored Son: Alternate- Part Nine

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Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven
Part Eight

It wasn’t until later that evening that it truly hit Tharol what he had done. He had assisted in treason. He had improved on the plan that Beesk and Inol had put together. Had shown them the mistakes in it and prevented them from an obvious error. He had pushed them one step closer to sneaking a dangerous outsider into the Great City.

Of course his ultimate objective was to prevent their betrayal and by helping them he had prevented anyone from accidentally taking a fatal dose of poison! His intentions were pure. But it still felt wrong. He just didn’t like being a part of this world. It made him feel tainted by association.

Well, so what if it did taint him? Maybe that was just the sacrifice he bore to do what was right. If someone had to dirty their hands, why not he?

Reis certainly didn’t have any qualms with what Tharol had done.

“So were you guys able to get the poison?”

“Yeah,” Tharol said somberly. “Already in the wine, in fact.”

“Excellent! Where is it?”

“Tucked away in the corner of the cellar.”

“Fine, that’s perfectly fine! So they’ve got everything set up how they want. They must be feeling pretty pleased with themselves!”

“Reis, I helped them. They were likely to make a mistake and get themselves caught but I’ve been making their hairbrained idea an actual possibility! And I’m not at all comfortable with the fact that there’s poison just sitting around in the keep!”

“Why? I already told you, I won’t drink any that night. Just a little sleight of hand and they’ll be none the wiser.”

“That’s taking an unnecessary risk. Also an unnecessary risk for if one of the other boys sneaks into the cellar and chooses the wrong bottle!”

“But you said it was tucked away. I assume the back line and bottom row?”

“Yeah, of course.”

“North or south side?”

“North,” Tharol furrowed his brow, not seeing why this really mattered.

“Yeah, no one’s going to come across it there.”

“Let’s just pour it out in the trough now and put some fresh wine in there. Beesk and Inol probably won’t even notice.”

“No, I want to hold onto it as evidence. I want to be able to show everyone exactly what they were trying to do. And you just let me take care of myself that night. Okay? You’ve told me what to watch out for and now it’s my responsibility to take care of it, not yours.”

Tharol sighed. “Fine.”

With that the two of them left for their afternoon training with Master Palthio. As they arrived at the central courtyard they found it equipped with blocks of wood set in a large circle and wooden staffs littered across the ground.

“Combat training,” Beesk groaned, softly enough that Master Palthio wouldn’t hear.

“How can you be surprised by that?” Janeao asked. “It’s at least once every week!”

“I always hope it’ll be the last day of the week. Master Palthio is less demanding when he knows we’re tired. Anyway, what’s the point of my practicing? I’m the worst and I always will be.”

“Well that’s exactly why you should practice,” Tharol pointed out.

Their conversation was cut short as Master Palthio clapped his hands for the boys to begin their exercises. Each of them picked up a staff and chose a pair of wooden blocks to stand on top of, quavering back and forth until they settled into their sense of balance.

“Now,” Master Palthio began, “let us start with Mora-Long.”

Each of the boys turned to a neighbor and assumed the stance for Mora-Long, which was a slow, powerful form, one of Master Palthio’s favorites for warming them up.

“Begin!”

The clatter of colliding staffs rang through the courtyard. There was always one or two boys that lost their balance here at the beginning. They grunted in frustration, got back on their blocks, and Master Palthio told them to begin again. After a few false starts they finally came into rhythm.

Tharol was facing against Janeao and he was having a hard time of it. The measured, powerful stances of Mora-Long were perfectly suited to Janeao’s greater strength. Whenever Tharol blocked one of Janeao’s blows there was so much extra energy that he would have to give a little hop to dispel it, hoping that his feet would be able to feel their way back onto the blocks as he came back down. Better to keep up the attack, then, and make Janeao block instead. Thus Tharol increased his aggression, but Janeao merely scowled and moved to keep pace.

“Easy, easy,” Master Palthio said as the din of Tharol and Janeao’s crossing staffs doubled the cadence of every other duel. “This is a warm-up, boys, not a competition.”

Janeao slowed, then grinned and let out a powerful, wild swing. Tharol didn’t even try to catch it, he ducked downward, barely in time. Then he popped back up, flicked his wrist forward, and brought his own staff right beside Janeao’s face. He did not strike him, but he hoped the message to calm down would come across.

“Swap sides,” Master Palthio instructed as he continued pacing around the boys’ circle.

Tharol turned to his other side and faced Inol.

“Feto stance,” Master Palthio ordered.

Feto was a tricky form, particularly when one was limited on balance. You spent half the time on a single foot, moving your staff through long, looping arcs. Paradoxically, though, it was also the best form when on poor footing…if you were a master at it. Then your constantly shifting balance spilled into the momentum of each swing, causing you to bound and cavort like a mad top, whirling out crushing blows with every leap.

Tharol paused for a moment before crossing staffs. As an overall fighter Inol was on the same level as Tharol. They each had their preferred forms, though, and Feto was definitely one of Inol’s. So Tharol decided to wait and see how Inol would approach.

Inol smiled as he understood Tharol’s hesitation, then swung his staff down to his side and leaped high into the sky. Tharol’s eyes went wide, bracing himself for the blow that would follow. He would have to catch it on the end of his stick and let its force spin him through a complete circle.

Inol reached his apex and came rushing downward, staff spinning wildly. Tharol tried to predict where the blow was coming from, thrust his own staff out to meet it, and began to spin his body to catch the excess momentum.

But at the very last second Inol pulled his staff back, drove its end deep into the dirt behind, and used it as a prop to help steady himself as he landed back on the wooden blocks. Tharol, meanwhile, thrown off by the complete absence of a blow, lost his balance and tumbled to the ground.

Tharol rose back to his feet and gave Inol an approving nod. It had been an excellent feint.

Tharol dusted off his tunic and returned back to his fighting stance, but Inol wasn’t ready to spar again. He was staring off to the side where Reis and Golu were dueling. In fact all of the boys were slowly pausing their own scuffles to see the match between the order’s two grandmasters.

Each of the boys were leaping and spinning at a breakneck pace, staffs colliding like thunder, then whirling a full 360 degrees to crash on the other side. They moved in staccato, each attempting to break cadence and catch the other off guard. It was impossible to state which of them was attacking and which was defending, rather it seemed each was doing both at the same time.

“How did they get that good?” Tharol wondered aloud. “They’ve only had the same training as the rest of us.”

“I don’t think either of them would have managed it alone,” Inol responded. “They each needed the other to push them.”

Perhaps the best evidence of what Inol said was in how well the two understood the other’s style. By now they were spinning so quickly that they spent half the time with their backs to each other, not even seeing the blows careening at them, but still able to land every block, knowing by sheer familiarity where the other boy was sure to strike.

“I think of late Reis has been edging ahead of Golu,” Beesk said from the other side of Inol.

“You’re crazy,” Inol countered. “Golu’s form is clearly better.”

“Yes, but Reis has stopped trying to beat him on form. He’s going to win because he’s more willing to sacrifice.”

No sooner had Beesk said the words than they proved perfectly true. For Golu had just made a round, swinging attack aimed at Reis’s side. Reis swung his own staff as if to meet it, but at the last moment turned his wrist so that the two weapons missed each other by a mere fraction of an inch.

Everyone watched in shock as Golu’s staff, unhindered, closed the gap to Reis’s body. Reis didn’t seem to regard it at all, though. He kept moving with the momentum of his last swing, twisting his body until he faced away from Golu. Golu’s staff made contact and broke across Reis’s unguarded back! All of the boys flinched and Reis gave a loud grunt of pain, but he did not lose his focus. He was now three-quarters of the way through his turn, staff whistling through its murderous arc. Golu’s own weapon was in splinters, and even if it wasn’t he would never be able to get it around to block Reis’s staff in time. Golu tried to dodge, but was still caught full on the shoulder and sent flying through the air to the ground.

Reis had won.

“How did you know he would do that?” Tharol looked past Inol to Beesk.

“He did something very similar during the last competition. You probably missed it while you were holding your broken foot. It was how he won. He’s been taking all the standard forms and modifying them with intentional mistakes to lure his opponent in.”

“And since when did you become such an expert on fighting?” Inol raised an eyebrow at Beesk.

“Just because I can’t move properly through a fight doesn’t mean I can’t read one!”

“What’s everyone standing around for,” Master Palthio rounded on the students, only just now noticing that they had become as engrossed in Reis and Golu’s battle as he had been. “Get back to practice!”

The boys scrambled back into position and proceeded with their fights. Tharol’s mind was only half on his duel with Inol, though. He kept replaying that last maneuver Reis had used in his head, unable to believe what he had seen.

He had always known that Reis was willing to take a risk to win, he had witnessed that in the competition where Reis used himself as bait while his teammates overwhelmed Janeao at the tower, but this was something else. It was a wonder he hadn’t had his ribs broken taking that blow full on from Golu! But crazy as it had seemed, it had worked.

Tharol got a good parry in and Inol was sent revolving off his block. He smiled in satisfaction, then used the moment’s respite to look over at Golu and Reis. Reis was lifting his staff high overhead to deliver a powerful blow, arms coiling like springs, shirt bunching up behind him.

And it was bunching up in a very distinctive square shape. A distinctive, unusually well-defined square.

Tharol frowned and a thought occurred to him, one that he couldn’t shake. He dwelled on it all through the rest of practice and also while they changed back to fresh clothes before dinner.

One-by-one the boys left in their new tunics. Reis was the last to leave their dormitories, but he ran to catch up with Avro and Bovik on their way to the main hall. Behind them Tharol emerged from the shadows and dodged back into the now-vacant dormitories.

He made his way directly to Reis’s cot and rapidly searched it. He lifted the pillow, prodded across the mattress, looked between the boards…every nook and cranny he could find. Nothing.

He turned to leave, disappointed. But just as he made his way towards the exit he saw it! Hanging over the barracks door was one of the antiques of their order: an old breastplate that had belonged to an ancient warrior. It was an old-fashioned piece, a small square with wiry ropes attached at each corner for fastening in the back.

Or, if you had no one to help you put it on, fasten the ropes in the front with the breastplate covering the back.

Tharol lifted himself up to look at the breastplate more closely. It was a relic of actual battles, and as such was extremely battered. Among all the centuries-old dings and cracks there was one dent across them all that must have been made more recently. It was just the right width for Golu’s staff.

Part Ten
Part Eleven
Part Twelve
Part Thirteen
Part Fourteen

On Monday I shared about my desire to avoid clichés in my writing and to put in the necessary effort for originality.

Now to be perfectly frank, the idea of a mole who gradually learns that his handler is a traitor isn’t entirely original. It has most famously been played out in films like Internal Affairs and The Departed. But while the theme is not entirely new, I do strive to make the implementation of it be original. Just as how West Side Story is based on Romeo and Juliet but is also an extremely fresh take on that idea. And if I do say so myself, I believe this story also stands apart.

But being original is difficult and prone to running into corners. In fact I had written this final act once before, then scrapped the whole thing because it wasn’t coming together the way I wanted.

I’ve enjoyed pulling back the curtain on my process in the past, and I’ve decided to do it again here. Come back on Monday where I’ll share a little more about what originally went down in this part of the story and why I decided to change it. In the meantime have a wonderful weekend!

The Favored Son: Alternate- Part Eight

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Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven

“You want to poison Reis?!” Tharol asked in shock.

“Well not lethally,” Beesk said quickly. “Just enough to make him sick that night. We’ll get some Tinstin next time we go to market. A couple grams in his dinner cup and two hours later he’ll be bolting for the latrine. He’ll be busy retching a few minutes, long enough for us to have the gates opened and closed like nothing every happened.”

“You’ve thought this through.”

“Well of course we have!” Inol exclaimed. “This isn’t exactly the sort of thing you leave up to chance, now is it?”

“Alright. So what’s our plan from here on.”

“I’ll get the Tinstin,” Inol offered. “I know just the apothecary that’ll have it in the backroom.”

“And I’m going to stash everything we need on the barracks over the next couple weeks,” Beesk added. “Two barrels of oil to make sure the gates don’t make any noise that night, a rope in case we need to improvise, and a couple bird-whistles for us to signal each other if anything goes wrong.”

“Alright,” Tharol nodded. “And me?”

“You’re pretty close to Reis aren’t you?”

“Sure, we’re friends I guess.”

“Great. Keep close to him and see what if he suspects anything. He was there when the statue lady first met us and he’d roast us all if he knew what was going on. You have to let us know if he so much as catches of a whiff of what we’re doing.”

Tharol nodded. “I’ll see what I can do. And where are each of us during the night of the entry?”

“One of Beesk and I will be opening the gates and getting payment,” Inol recited. “The other will be watching Reis and running distraction if he starts to come back early. And you will be waiting in the barracks, watching for if any of the boys try to come out for any reason. You start blowing on that bird whistle if they do.”

“I want to be out on the field with you.”

“No,” Inol shook his head firmly.

“It was very clear requirement of the statue lady,” Beesk added. “We can bring a third in to help with setup, but she only trusts the two of us to greet her at the entrance.”

“Alright,” Tharol tried to wave it off like he didn’t care. “I’ll make sure Reis stays in the dark in the meantime.”

“Excellent!” Reis smiled when Tharol told him the entire scheme. “We’ll do it!”

“We will?!”

“Of course, we’ll make sure that absolutely everything plays exactly the way they want.”

“But they’re going to poison you!”

Reis waved that away. “They’re going to think that they poison me. I’ll fake a drink at dinner and then make like I’m sick during the first hour of watch. We have to make them believe that everything is going according to plan. We can’t catch them red-handed if they’re not confident enough to expose themselves.”

“I suppose not…”

And so Tharol found himself helping cover for Inol at the market just a few days later. Golu was with them, and so it fell on Tharol to keep the boy distracted while Inol obtained the Tinstin.

“We could have Inol grab the salt and wine if you want to help me with the whetstones, Golu,” he proposed.

“Sure,” Golu shrugged.

“Yep, works for me,” Inol said brightly. “Got my money?”

Tharol counted out the appropriate amount and sent him on his way.

“Well I guess we’d better–” Tharol started to say to Golu, but he was interrupted by a large commotion coming from behind them. For some reason the marketplace throng was pushing itself backwards into the two boys. They spun around and saw that the crowd was clearing a column in their middle, making a wide pathway down the throng.

“What’s this?” Tharol asked.

“It’s Lord Amathur,” Golu answered.

Tharol looked back to the clearing and sure enough a procession of guards now moved down it. They were soon followed by a man wearing brightly colored silks and a three-foot feather sticking out of his cap. This was the closest Tharol had even been to Lord Amathur, near enough to make out the features of his round, boyish face. He was all smiles and joviality, waving at the merchants and calling many of them by name. They responded in kind and several of them held out samples of their wares as gifts. He waved his hand at that and tutted, but still seemed charmed by their gesture.

“He seems a popular man,” Tharol observed.

“Mmm.”

As Tharol continued to watch a strange gravelly noise started to rise, though, growing and growing until it became a tremendous cacophony, drowning out all the sounds of mirth and frivolity. Craning his head to the side Tharol finally saw the cause of the noise. A hundred feet behind Lord Amathur, but still a part of his procession, there came into view thirty slaves, stripped to their loincloths, straining with all their might against powerful ropes set around their shoulders. And all of those ropes ran back to the same singular stone, a massive boulder, shaped like a low cylinder, at least twelve feet across. It must have weighed thousands of pounds! All those slaves dug their heels into the cobbled road in unison and lurched the burden forward inch-by-inch. The flat underside of the millstone scraped horribly across the cobblestones and gouged the road in places. It would take weeks to repair.

“It’s like–it’s like when we have to do our hauls with the stone,” Tharol observed, though obviously on a much larger scale. “This is a punishment?”

Golu shrugged.

None of the rest of the crowd appeared particularly surprised by the display, though many of them covered their ears and took a step back from the road. Some of them even started returning to their usual business now that Lord Amathur was advancing out of view.

The scene wasn’t quite over yet, though. All of a sudden a group of merchants began to scream as four horsemen charged through the crowd!

“Out of the way!” the riders roared, then left it to the rabble to clear out before being trampled. Before long they had entered the roadway and skidded to a halt before the slaves bearing the stone. All four of them drew their swords, eliciting more screams from the crowd, but they only used them to hack at the ropes binding the slaves to their stone. As soon as four of the prisoners had been freed they they reached their hands down and offered them an escape. Three of them shrunk back immediately, hands held up in pleading, as if begging to not be liberated. The last slave looked hesitantly to his fellows, then back to his would-be emancipators.

“Quickly!” the forefront rider strained, glancing up the road to where Lord Amathur and his guardsmen were sprinting back down the route, charging to the disruption!

With one more look to his fellows the hesitant slave leaped up, took his savior’s arm, and was carried onto the steed. As one the other slaves howled in a fury and flung themselves at him, scrabbling madly to pull him back down, in pieces if necessary.

With a click of his spurs the horseman lurched out of their grasp, just as Lord Amathur’s guards arrived on the scene. Rather than trade blows the group of riders thundered back through the throng of merchants and down the same back alley from which they had appeared, the royal guards in hot pursuit.

“Do you think they’ll catch them?” Tharol asked Golu breathlessly.

Golu didn’t answer, though. His eyes were locked on another scene, and Tharol realized that all the crowd had just gone deathly silent. Following Golu’s gaze Tharol saw that Lord Amathur had not joined his guards in the chase, he had slowed his run to a bracing walk instead, and was only now approaching the mass of huddled slaves. His smile was long gone, his face was steel.

“One?” he turned to the taskmasters standing silently on either side of the cowering prisoners. They nodded.

Lord Amathur reached down a hand and pulled one of the slaves up to his feet. The other hand drew his sword and in one motion and plunged it through the slave! All the other slaves wailed, but the price had been paid, no more of them had to be slain that day. Lord Amathur ripped off the dead man’s loincloth, used it to clean his sword, then turned and left without another word, leaving nothing but heavy, silent air behind him.

Tharol turned to Golu in utter shock and saw that the boy was just as dumbfounded as he was.

“What was that?” Tharol askedin horror, not really expecting an answer.

“It was something terrible, Tharol. That’s all it was.”

A few moments later and the crowd of merchants began moving again, but with a very subdued atmosphere now. No one dared to even speak above a low mutter. Tharol and Golu finished their business as quickly as possible and kept their silence the whole way back to the keep. Inol had been in a different wing of the marketplace and missed the entire drama, but after hearing a brief recounting of it he had the good sense to keep his silence as well.

Tharol was lost in his own thoughts, trying to even fathom what sort of reasons could be behind the scene he had just witnessed. He also kept wondering what sort of man Lord Amathur must be. He kept picturing him in that moment of advancing with such a cold and precise malice. He had never known someone could be so firm and so cruel.

Tharol was so lost in his thoughts that he even forgot about Inol’s plot to secure the Tinstin. It was only when they came to the keep’s courtyard and Beesk approached them, eyebrows raised in an unspoken query, that he remembered about the plan.

“Hey Beesk,” Inol greeted. “Help us carry the wine down to the cellar?”

Tharol and Beesk understood the cue, and together the three of them filled their arms with the clay pitchers and made their way into the dark underbelly of the keep.

“So? Did you get it?” Beesk demanded as soon as the cellar door was safely shut behind them.

“Yeah, I got it,” Inol replied.

“Well where is it?”

“Didn’t exactly want to be seen coming into camp carrying a whole sack of toxic compounds, now did I? I hid it.”

“A whole sack?! We don’t need that much.”

“Well that’s how much I was given.”

“So where did you put it?”

Inol nodded his head downward, towards the jug of wine he was carrying.

“In there?” Tharol asked.

“That’s right. All ready to pour out for Reis at the Night Watch!”

“An entire sack of poison in there?! That’ll kill him for sure!”

“Not all. As soon as I had enough in the jug I discarded the rest in an alley.”

“How much did you put in then?”

“I don’t know. Half?”

“Half?!”

“I don’t know. Maybe a bit less?”

“Let me see that.”

Tharol grabbed the pitcher and jerked off the stopper. He gave it a deep inhale and immediately perceived a strong, bitter aroma mixed with the scent of wine.

“No, this won’t do,” Tharol said. “Beesk, hand me that empty pitcher. He took the vessel and poured the poisoned wine into it until each jug was only half full. “Now some fresh wine,” he ordered. This he used to fill the second half of each jug, then gave both another whiff. The bitter aroma was still there, but faint enough that you wouldn’t notice if you weren’t looking for it. “There,” he said. “That’s more about the potency we want. Let’s hope that Master Palthio doesn’t take inventory anytime soon.”

“But what if you made it too weak?” Beesk asked.

“I seriously doubt that…. Honestly I’m still not sure that this is diluted enough.”

“And we don’t need two jugs. We don’t even need one! Just a single cup. Suppose one of these jugs gets brought up tonight at dinner and we all get sick!”

“Good point. Let’s stow these in the back where no one will grab them for a while. We’ll have to get rid of them at some point after.”

“Aren’t you afraid of forgetting which ones are the right ones?”

Tharol paused. That was a good point. “We need some way to mark these, a way to be sure that they hadn’t been handled. And marked in a way that would be inconspicuous to all the other boys.”

“I’ve got it,” Inol said, and reaching up he lowered one of the lanterns from the ceiling. “Let me see those jugs, Tharol.”

Tharol handed them over and Inol tipped the lantern sideways over them, dribbling a few drops of wax between the stopper and the body of the jug.

“There!” he proclaimed. “A little seal. So small no one will notice but us.”

“Yes, well done,” Beesk approved. “And if we ever notice that the seal is broken…trouble.”

“I think if anyone opens either of these jugs we’ll know about it anyway,” Tharol sighed, laying the jugs in the back corner of the cellar and stacking safe jugs in front of them. “I’ll tell you the truth, I don’t like this setup. There’s still too much chance that we’ll get the whole order poisoned!”

Inol and Beesk’s eyes narrowed.

“But I guess it’s the best plan we’ve got. I’ll go along with it.”

Part Nine
Part Ten
Part Eleven
Part Twelve
Part Thirteen
Part Fourteen

On Monday I spoke about a few of the different shapes that a character’s arc might take. I observed that I had Tharol slowly pursuing a path of suspicion and doubt when suddenly the rug was pulled out from underneath and he realized that everyone else was coming to be suspicious of him instead. Then he went from curious to dejected, numbly going through his days with as little feeling as possible.

Now he has entered a new arc, leaning much more heavily into his relationship with the order’s more unsavory characters. Of course he cannot really rely on these pretend friends. As previously implied, he will only grow more and more isolated until he is totally alone.

For now, though, I want to turn my attention to a particular scene in this chapter, the one where Tharol and Golu witness Lord Amathur’s procession and the riders coming to free the slaves.

I got so far in the scene as Lord Amathur walking through the crowd and saluting the merchants, but then came to a dead stop. I knew the second half of this scene needed something that would portray Lord Amathur in a villainous light, but each time I tried to write it I kept running it into the most bland of clichés. Usually some variation of an innocent passerby crossing Lord Amathur on something trivial and Amathur letting out his rage on them in a moment of disproportionate violence. A thoroughly overused and unimaginative scene if there ever was one.

All too often writers fall back on clichés like these instead of putting in the work for ingenuity. They craft a story through tropes instead of through original ideas. And as I just shared, I can certainly understand the temptation to write a story this way. I have experience that temptation firsthand.

Even so, I couldn’t bring myself to publish something so cheap, and I did dig deeper until I found something more imaginative. With my next post I would like to examine why it is that we fall back on cliché, and what we can do to fight the pull of it. Come back on Thursday to read about that.

The Favored Son: Alternate- Part Seven

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Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six

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?”

“Sure.”

“Even though he knocked you out last competition?”

“He didn’t.”

“What?”

“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.”

They smiled.

“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.”

Part Eight
Part Nine
Part Ten
Part Eleven
Part Twelve
Part Thirteen
Part Fourteen

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.

The Favored Son: Alternate- Part Six

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Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five

“Very good,” Reis said. “We’re each the other’s master, so equal partners. Are Beesk and Inol’s stones still up in their towers?”

“Yes. But like I said, I’m in an alliance with them already.”

“So what’s your plan? Topple everyone else first and then the three of you fight to see who wins?”

“Something like that.”

“You don’t really expect them to be that honest, do you? They’re expecting you to be loyal, so that just incentives them to get the jump on you early.”

“Good thing I’ll have you to protect me then.”

Reis rolled his eyes. “Whatever, we’re wasting time. You want to leave them for later, fine. They’re not the real threat anyway.”

“Golu.”

Reis nodded. “Come on.”

The two boys turned towards the heart of the maze and made their way forward. They ran while stooped down low, so as to not be seen by the others. At every junction they paused and scouted all of the paths for any ongoing battles.

“Shouldn’t we have come across some of them by now?” Tharol hissed after they passed their third turn without hearing so much as a distant footfall.

“This is a unique contest,” Reis muttered. “Everyone’s scheming. We had a few scuffles at the very start–I knocked out Bovik–but otherwise I think everyone is scrapping for the best alliance they can manage.”

“Strange that we haven’t even seen Beesk and Inol coming back for me yet.”

“Yes, very strange,” Reis didn’t try to hide the sarcasm in his voice. “Alright, Golu’s tower is just down from here: past the next two junctions, take a right, and it’s right in front of us. I think we sprint the rest of the way. You still have my crystal tucked away somewhere safe?”

“Of course.”

“Alright. Go!”

They stopped crouching and ran at full speed. Down one narrow passage, past the first junction, down the next narrow passage, abreast the second junction…

Wham!

Tharol only saw a blur rushing at him from the side, then was reeling heels over head, side throbbing from a powerful blow. He came to a rest, belly down in the dirt.

“Up! Up! Up!” Reis shouted, grabbing Tharol’s shoulders and giving a tug. He had to let go all of a sudden, though, ducking away from another vicious swing!

Tharol numbly rolled to the side, then laboriously pushed himself back to his feet. Avro, Janeao, and Inol were rushing at them from each direction, staffs whirling dangerously. Beesk was nowhere to be seen, he must have already been knocked down.

The three assailants put all of their focus on Reis, systematically pushing him back towards the nearest wall. As with the last contest, the youth made a valiant effort to block, parry, and dodge each jab, but of course there was only so much he could do.

“Tharol…” he muttered through grit teeth. “Any time you feel like helping…”

Tharol shook himself out of his daze and lunged forward. Janeao saw the motion and turned to cross staffs.

Janeao was the largest and the strongest of all the boys. Even if he didn’t have the finesse of a swordsman, he was still able to brute-strength his way through most encounters. Not only that, but he could see that Tharol was compromised, crouching slightly to protect his tender side. So Janeao launched into a quick flurry of attacks, forcing Tharol to retreat, further and further, until he was also backed into a wall.

Janeao stepped into Tharol’s space, crowding out any room to manuever. He lifted his staff high and swung down with all his might. Without room to dodge or parry Tharol could only block, and he didn’t have enough power to fully stop the blow, only to absorb some of its strength before it still came crashing down on his shoulder. Janeao immediately drew his staff back out and thrust with all his strength from the side. Again Tharol blocked half of the blow, but still took a powerful knock in his ribs. He couldn’t take much more of this. He would have to do something bold.

Janeao lifted his staff higher than ever, twisting the rough wood between his palms, readying for a finishing blow. But before he could swing down Tharol dropped his own staff, let it clatter to his feet, and shot his bare hand forward, administering a single, controlled punch to the throat.

Janeao coughed and clutched his hands to his neck, dropping his staff as well. Tharol grabbed the length out of the air and administered a quick blow to the side of the Janeao’s helmet. Janeao obligingly dropped to the ground, out for the rest of the competition.

Tharol moved forward to help Reis, but apparently just being relieved of Janeao’s attacks had been enough for Reis to handle the others. He was drawing his staff back from a blow to Avro’s belly, who doubled up and fell to the ground beside Inol.

“Oh wow,” Tharol breathed.

“You took Janeao down on your own?” Reis grinned. “Nice job!”

“Don’t patronize me.”

“No, really. I thought you’d be out for sure!”

“Let’s just take care of Golu,” Tharol strode past, not even dignifying Reis’s backhanded compliment with a response. “He should be the only one left now.”

“And then what do you think will happen?”

Tharol paused, then slowly turned back to face Reis.

“Then you and I fight.”

“Or I could just take you out now and then Golu…. Saves me from having to worry that you’ll hit me in the back of the head somewhere along the way.”

“I wouldn’t do that.”

“Well maybe you should, Tharol. No wonder you always lose these competitions!”

“Golu’s the best fencer of us all. Even better than you, slightly.”

Reis winced, but didn’t disagree.

“So your best chance is for the two of us to take him together,” Tharol continued. “And then settle things between us. And while it’s a long shot that’s my best chance, too. We’re united by a common interest, to say nothing of the fact that we’ve got each other’s crystal. I order you to not attack me until Golu is down.”

“And I order you to rescind that order,” Reis rolled his eyes, strolling down the path and towards Golu’s tower. “Come on. I’ll show you my plan, it’s better.”

Together the two of them reached the edge of the narrow passage and crouched at the mouth of the miniature valley beyond. Golu’s tower was nestled in the center of the clearing.

“Alright, there he is standing guard,” Reis observed. “I guess he figured he’d just wait out all the rest of the fighting and deal with any survivors at the end.”

“Not a bad idea.”

“No it’s not. He’s fresh and rested while we’ve been exerting ourselves for the last quarter hour. That–combined with the fact that I’m still worried you’ll get wise and hitting me in the back of the head during our battle–has got me thinking we’re better off splitting up.”

“What do you mean?”

“Look at that shelf running up the side there. The lip of it is near enough to his tower that you should be able to jump the gap while I keep him preoccupied down below.”

Tharol felt his heart sink.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Looks a bit far to me.”

“Well I might be the better swordsman, but you’ve always been the acrobat. So it needs to be you.”

“No. I don’t like this plan.”

“It’s perfect. A pincer movement. It’ll make Golu distracted between two threats, giving me a fighting chance against him. If I knock him out then we win, if you make it to the crystal we win.”

“Unless I miss the jump and fall.”

“Yeah, well…don’t do that. And think of it this way. If you manage to get the crystal before I knock him out then he’s under your command. The two of you together will easily overpower me and you’ll win. This is the best chance you have to win the whole thing.”

Tharol hadn’t considered that. It was a very good point…. Too good of a point.

“What are you playing at?” he asked suspiciously.

“Huh?”

“There’s some trick you’re not telling me.”

“Come on, Tharol, you can trust me.”

“No. There’s something that you’ve done. What is it?!”

Reis couldn’t hide a slight smile.

“What? The crystal swap?” Tharol reached to his side and drew out the stone that Reis had surrendered to him. He turned it over and over in his hands, and as he did felt something rough pass under his fingers. He moved his hand away and looked closely.

Apparently Master Palthio had inscribed each of the crystals with the name of the boy who owned it. And the one Tharol held said “Bovik.”

So that was it.

Reis had knocked Bovik out at the start of the match and given that boy’s crystal to Tharol instead. Reis’s own crystal must still be perfectly safe back at his own tower. Tharol kicked himself inwardly, wondering why he hadn’t followed his instincts! He shouldn’t have ever made any bargain with Reis! Should have fought him as soon as he saw him. But now…

“Well now you see, Tharol,” Reis sighed. “You’ve already lost and you don’t have any choice in the matter. I order you to go and jump for that crystal. Capture it and bring it to me…or at the very least provide a good enough distraction that I can lay Golu flat on his back.”

Tharol grit his teeth…but there was nothing he could do anymore. He had been defeated and he would have to jump.

Together the two boys turned to face down the valley again. Golu had spotted them now and was spinning his staff menacingly. Reis counted down from three and then each boy rushed forward, split apart, and began their pincer movement.

Tharol’s side burned from the blows he had received in the previous scuffle. He knew it would be a hard jump, even on a good day, let alone now that he was weary and hurt. There wasn’t any way that he could make this.

But then Reis would win. Not in the sense of the competition, Tharol was already been beaten there, but in the sense of totally humiliating Tharol. Tharol wasn’t sure why, but he was certain Reis had sent him up here as a taunt, to force him to do something that he would fail at. Tharol wasn’t about to let him have that satisfaction.

He picked up his pace, raced up the ledge, each step propelling him higher and higher, closer and closer to the edge. He saw the lip directly ahead now, saw Reis and Golu fighting twenty feet below, Golu glancing from the corner of his eye to see what Tharol was doing.

Just as Tharol’s foot reached the lip he heard Master Palthio’s voice in his head.

“And you will attempt that jump…and you will fail.”

Tharol sprang out into the void. Immediately he knew he wasn’t going to make it. In fact he only made it halfway before he was already dropping too low to clear the tower’s edge. He crashed into the side of the tower instead, flailed his arms wildly, then dropped all the way to the earth. A sickening crack rang out and he knew that his foot had broken. Overcome by pain he dropped to his back and groaned long and loud through clasped teeth.

For a moment all was pain and embarrassment. Yet somehow, even amidst the flood of pain and shame, he was cognizant enough to hear the thud of Golu being dropped to the ground. Reis had got in a concussive blow thanks to Tharol’s distraction.

“Auuuuuugh!” Tharol opened his mouth and shouted out, slamming his fists into the ground. Hot tears splashed across his cheeks. His agony actually had much less to do with the pain and much more to do with the humiliation. He had been played. Hard. And he had had no way to prevent it, even when he had been watching for it. He hated to lose to Reis again. Hated to be so foolishly dragged into his own demise. It didn’t seem to matter how careful or clever he tried to be, Reis was always two steps ahead, just as Master Palthio had said.

Speaking of Master Palthio, the master now approached, having rushed all the way from his tower to see if his students were alright. He drew near to Tharol and raised both hands over him, closed his eyes in concentration, and magically repaired the broken foot. Tharol’s fists unclenched and he gave a sigh of relief. The dull ache still persisted, but at least the spikes of pain shooting up his leg had subsided.

“I didn’t make the jump, Master,” Tharol said bitterly.

“No…. I made sure you wouldn’t.”

Part Seven
Part Eight
Part Nine
Part Ten
Part Eleven
Part Twelve
Part Thirteen
Part Fourteen

On Monday I spoke of different forms of communication in a story and emphasized how even scenes of action can convey character development and plot. With today’s chapter I tried to showcase this by dragging Tharol through a gauntlet of one setback after another. Where the previous competition felt relatively lighthearted and fun, this one has blows that land with more earnestness.

For example, last time Tharol knocked out Beesk entirely by accident when he happened to spin around at exactly the right moment. Though that was technically a violent act, it was played off in a way that was meant to feel comical, even slapstick. Today, though, Janeao rains one blow on Tharol after another with genuine, vicious intent. This isn’t a game anymore. Janeao is trying to hurt him.

And last time Reis laid out a trap that Tharol happily stepped into, losing the match for himself and his team. This time Reis actually takes control over Tharol, maneuvers him against his will, and leads him into breaking his own leg. It feels a lot more personal.

It is apparent that there is a lot of ill will seething underneath the surface. The boys are playing out their very real frustrations against each other and drawing very real lines in the sand. As we will see in the next scene, the hostility that broke out in this competition remains in full force off of the field, too.

Before we get to that, though, I want to examine the reason why I am isolating Tharol here before the end. As it turns out, this is a very common pattern in stories: the hero who loses all of their support, requiring them to walk the final chapter on their own. On Monday I’ll take a look at a few of the many, many examples of this and consider why it is so effective as a plot device. Come back to read about it then.

The Favored Son: Alternate- Part Five

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Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four

“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 what?”

“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?”

“I…don’t know.”

“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?”

There weren’t.

“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?”

“That’s right.”

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.”

“What?!”

“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.

Part Six
Part Seven
Part Eight
Part Nine
Part Ten
Part Eleven
Part Twelve
Part Thirteen
Part Fourteen

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!