“…and this night the watch over the gate will be assigned to…” Master Palthio paused and squinted at his gathered disciples, “me.” At his last word all the youth gave a collective groan of disappointment.

Watching over the gate at night was the single most important responsibility in their small order. The most important responsibility that any boy from the inner fields could ever aspire to. Watching over the seventeenth gate was, of course, the shared responsibility of them all, but to be the solitary watchman over the most dangerous hours was something special.

To hold that watch meant that you had been elected by the Order, and the Order was elected by the District, and the District was elected by the City Core.

But tonight, as with every other night, it was old Master Palthio who was elected, not one of his acolytes.

“Do not be so dismayed,” Master Palthio shook his head at their reaction. “Yes, the night watch is considered a great honor…but you are acolytes, you are expected to have to learn and grow. Your time will come.”

“It’s just means you don’t trust us,” impetuous Bovik could not withhold his frustration.

Master Palthio cocked an eyebrow. “That is one way you could view it, I suppose: as a shameful punishment. Or you could believe what I have just said, that growth is part of every journey. Does a child carry his father’s sword until he is strong enough to bear it? No. But that is not because he is being punished, it is simply because he must strengthen over the years.”

“So…you would entrust it to any of us now?” Bovik asked. “But you’re just waiting for us to grow a little more first?”

“Well…except for you, Bovik. You I just don’t trust.”

All the boys laughed, even Bovik after he realized it was only a joke.

Of course, the significance of the night watch was mostly symbolic. All of them defended the keep together, no matter who was standing watch. That was the entire duty of their order, after all. The night guardsman was simply to raise the alarm.

And it wasn’t as if there was only the one night guardsman in all their district, either. There was only one for their gate and for their order, but every mile along the perimeter wall was another gate, another order, and another watchman. Seven in all for their district. Neither was theirs the only district. There were fifteen fringe-districts in all, which were collectively responsible for guarding the many different passageways to the City Core. Though the boys liked to pretend that the night guardsman was the solitary protector of the entire realm, it simply wasn’t true.

And it didn’t seem that the realm needed much protecting either. Yes, there had been the ancient wars, but then King Eidoron had driven the barbarian hordes back to their caves many generations ago. So soundly had the victory been, that even after the barbarians spread back out over the Waving Plains, they did not dare muster another attack against the City. They instead contented themselves with warring amongst themselves, fighting for scraps of land instead of kingdoms. So it had been for three hundred years. So it would surely be forever.

And so the boys shrugged off their disappointment when they left Master Palthio that evening. They would have their turn in the evening watch someday, and when that day came they would crow for finally being trusted as real men…but also when that day came they would know that the responsibility didn’t really matter.

*

“Swords ready?” Reis asked, marching back-and-forth in front of the other boys like a general on inspection.

“Uh, yeah,” Inol shrugged, looking to his side to be sure that his scabbard wasn’t empty.

“Oh?” Reis sneered, not at all appreciative of the indifference in Inol’s tone. “So if I ordered you to pull it out for inspection I would find it sharpened and rust free? Polished so that my face shines in it, as per Standard Regulation?”

“If you ordered me?” Inol furrowed his brow. “Just who do you think you are?”

Reis stammered in confounded rage. “I’m Marshall!” He exclaimed. “Today is the Fourth Drop? I am Marshall!”

“Sure, it’s your turn to play Marshall,” Inol rolled his eyes. “But you don’t see the rest of us becoming so serious when it’s our turn for it.”

“Tharol does,” Golu corrected from the side.

“Well yeah, Tharol does take everything seriously, too,” Inol agreed. “But he doesn’t become a self-adore about it all.”

“Fifteen hauls!” Reis spat.

“You’re joking!”

Fif-teen hauls,” Reis emphasized every syllable while pointing to a round boulder against the far wall. He looked Inol firmly in the eye, daring him to defy Standard Regulation once more. “Tell me I don’t have the right,” he whispered.

Inol shot him a dark look, but then walked over to the stone and pulled the leather straps that wrapped around it onto his shoulders. The other boys sighed and fell into more relaxed poses, idly waiting for Inol to finish running fifteen laps around the wall, the heavy boulder slung to his back. After he took his place back in line they fastened their swords back on and were ready for their patrol.

The patrols, like all of the rituals they performed at the keep, were mostly symbolic. Yes, it was obviously an important duty to sweep the surrounding area and identify any nearby threats. How could they hope to protect the City Core if they didn’t have a basic awareness of what they might be have to protect it against?

But the outcome of every patrol was always the same: nothing. Again, it had been generations since the barbarian hordes had mounted an attack, and so it had also been generations since there was evidence of an upcoming attack. So now each patrol simply served the purpose of reaffirming that the current status was still the status quo.

Thus the boys were known to be quite lax about it, idly strolling up and down the fields and lazily poking through the cave networks, looking for some entertaining diversion more than for signs of a threat.

Except when they went with Reis. Whenever it was his turn as Marshall he divided the boys into proper squads and ordered them to march in formation. He expected them to round each corner with swords drawn, to sweep every corner of an enclosed space, to dive for cover at any unexpected sound.

And it just so happened that there was one of those unexpected sounds on this day, right as the boys came to the cove of trees that graced the Western Slopes. It was only a rustle of leaves and a cracking of a twig, but it suggested that something was moving on the other side of the tree-line.

“Front line down!” Reis shouted and dove for the dirt. Inol and Golu slowly followed.

“Bolts up!” Reis ordered next and Bovik and Janeao lazily lifted their crossbows to their shoulders from behind.

“Who goes there?!” Reis demanded, though the other boys figured it was probably just a fox.

Much to the other boys’ surprise, though, it wasn’t. There was an actual person there, and that person spoke to them!

“I come in peace! I come in peace!” the raspy voice called out from behind the largest of the trees. Two hands emerged from either side of the trunk, hands open to show that they wielded no weapon. “If I had meant you any harm I would have already had you shot.”

“Had us–shot?” Reis asked slowly.

The left hand pointed to the boys’ right. They turned that way and saw a large, fifteen-foot boulder resting in the soft grass. Seated at the top of it was a soldier in dark armor, silently aiming his spread-fire crossbow at all the youth!

“Cover him!” Reis shrieked to Bovik and Janeao at the exact same moment that the two of them dropped their crossbows on the ground and raised their hands in surrender.

“Gentlemen, gentlemen, please,” the voice behind the tree placated. “As I said, I have come in peace…so long as you are willing to not be so hasty!”

“Why are you hiding yourself back there?” Reis shot back. “It’s hard to believe a man’s words when you cannot see his eyes!”

“I am not a man,” the voice said, and for the first time the boys noticed that the hands and arms had a more feminine quality to them. The voice had simply been too raspy to tell its gender. “And I am deprived a peaceful face. However…”

The hands dropped to the woman’s sides and slowly she stepped out from behind the tree. The boys frowned in confusion, unable to make sense of what it was that they saw. She slowly strode towards them, and only gradually did they come to realize that her face was stone! It appeared like a gray sculpture, etched many years ago, rubbed smooth by years of erosion, with deep cracks running from crown to neck.

That neck was where the stone finally transformed back to ordinary flesh, and as she spoke the throat bulged, vocal cords standing out, red and swollen from the strain of trying to resonate words through such stiff housing. Her face was permanently held in an expression of having just seen something alarming, with her eyes wide open, lips curled back, and teeth bared in a snarl.

“What?!” Golu exclaimed before Reis could hush him.

“Yes,” the woman sighed heavily, and it sounded like wind rushing through a canyon. “I am a person trapped betwixt.”

“Have you…always been like this?”

“I don’t know that I can recall.”

“How can you not–“

At the exact same moment Reis held up his hand and the woman spoke, both of them to cut Golu off.

“I don’t believe this is pertinent,” she scolded.

“Well what are you here for?” Reis asked. And he spoke he rose to his feet, sword still held in a defensive position. “You are very near to guarded realms, you know.”

“Very near to guarded realms,” she repeated with a shake of the head. “This is the attitude behind every conquest. Make your walls, define your boundaries, but then protect the outside of them until you feel you own those fringes as well. And so on and so on…. I care little for your petty border disputes.”

“Then what are you here for?” Reis repeated irritably.

“I have business within your walls. My companion and I have come to meet with a man who resides in your district.”

“Who?”

“You would not know him. He is an outsider.”

“There are no outsiders within the walls.”

“Oh really?” and though her mouth could not curl into a smile, there was an unmistakable amusement to her tone. “And here I thought I heard the accent of a Waylan in your voice.”

“The Waylans are officially recognized as a satellite contingent of the City Core!” Reis said defensively. “I’m as much a part of the communal as any of these others, it doesn’t matter where I was raised!”

“I truly meant no insult,” she placated, seeing she had struck a nerve. “My point is that you know full well that there are thousands of citizens living outside the walls, which enter and exit from the city every year. So do not pretend it is impossible for a pretender to have slipped in among the masses.”

“But we have a system. Precautions and–“

“And many other imperfect systems which can be broken or corrupted. I can see that you are too close-minded to hold a rational conversation with. Never mind. I will have to reserve my petition for someone that is more enlightened.”

And with that she turned to walk away. Without a word her bodyguard dropped down from his perch and started to recede into the trees with her.

“Should we…go after her?” Bovik asked Reis.

Reis frowned, then slowly sheathed his sword. “I shouldn’t have interrupted her. She had not yet requested anything illegal. If she had, yes, we ought to have taken her in.”

“Well even then ought we?” Janeao queried. “It seems that that was exactly what she wanted.”

“Hmm…” Reis nodded. “Who’s on patrol next?”

“We are,” Bovik pointed to himself and Inol. “Along with Tharol, Beesk, and Avro.”

“Good, good. You two did not say anything to upset her like Golu and I did. You should watch for her then and find out more of what she intends. We’ll wait to report the matter to Master Palthio until we get to the bottom of this.”

“Shouldn’t he be informed about it now? Wouldn’t that be Standard Regulation?” Inol sneered.

“No…” Reis shook his head. “What is the injunction of the daily patrol? ‘To assess and handle,’ and we still have some assessing left to do.”

“But–“

“Remember what Master Palthio said this morning? It’s time for us to grow up. It’s time we show him that we’re worthy of the night watch by taking the responsibility that’s been give us. This is what he’s waiting for. For us to prove that we’re men. We’ll take care of this one on our own.”

*

“…and the inverted task will be building and destroying a tower with those wooden beams,” Master Palthio extended his arms and pointed to each side of the field. On the right-hand-side there was a pile of tree trunks laid about haphazardly. At the opposite end they had been stacked into a four-tiered tower.

“Who is building?” Reis asked.

“You and yours. Any other questions?”

There weren’t, and so the eight students divided into two teams of four. They gathered their weapons–staffs padded on each end, iron helmets, and wooden shields–and then marched off to their respective sides of the field.

Every week they had a contest against each other, the rules of which were slightly altered each time. They were to play as two militias, each trying to earn their victory in the field.

The paths to victory were multiple.

First was through brute strength. Whenever a youth was knocked to the ground, he had four seconds to return to his feet. If he failed to then he was pronounced dead, and if all of one side was pronounced dead then the other side won.

Secondly was to carry all five stones at the end of your own field to the other field’s end. They were very large, and required both hands to manage.

And thirdly was to fulfill a special task. This was the part that changed each week, but what never changed was that the task was always inverted from one side to the other. Thus in this case Tharol, Bovik, Janeao, and Avro had to protect their tower from being toppled until all the sand ran out in Palthio’s timer, while Reis, Inol, Golu, and Beesk had to build their tower before that same timer ran out.

Tharol and the rest of his team waited until they were out or earshot of the others, then immediately launched into strategy.

“We would have a hard time of it trading blows,” Tharol observed. “Reis and Golu are too dangerous.”

“You and I would have a chance with them,” Avro countered.

“Maybe one time out of three,” Tharol shook his head. He knew it was important to be practical about one’s strengths and weaknesses. Over-confidence in these practices was what usually doomed the losing team. “But we could at least hold them off while getting the rocks over. You feeling like carrying stones, Janeao?”

“No, actually. I twisted my ankle coming down the ladder this morning.”

“Who else knows about that?”

“Golu was there.”

They all looked sideways to where Reis and his team were similarly huddled in strategy.

“Well they all know about it now,” Bovik sighed. “Looks like we go for their tower. Press in on all sides and keep them distracted so they can’t finish it in time?”

“Or play defensively,” Tharol suggested. “Protect our own half and hope they make a mistake.”

There was a moment of silence as each boy thought the options over on his own. Then each of them slowly looked to Tharol to make the final call.

Tharol looked up from the rest of them, over to where the other team was still having their own deliberation. For a brief moment Reis looked up from that group and made eye contact with him.

“I would say defensive…” Tharol turned back to his own team, “and Reis knows that. So let’s go aggressive!”

Master Palthio finished his ascent up the small tower that stood at the edge of the field. He paused to watch as the boys finished their council, then nodded to them and struck the gong.

“Janeao, you defend the tower!” Tharol ordered hurriedly as he and the others began streaking across the field.

Ahead of them Reis and his team were retreating towards the back of their field, either on their way to build the tower or start carrying stones.

So now they’re the ones playing defensively? Tharol thought to himself. That was unusual for Reis. “Don’t strain yourselves,” he called to Bovik and Avro. “Let them fatigue themselves.”

They slowed down to a jog, which allowed them an opportunity to see exactly what the other side’s strategy was. As soon as Reis’s team reached the back end of their field they split into two pairs. Inol and Golu went off to the stones, while Reis and Beesk made for their wooden beams.

“Do we follow both groups?” Bovik turned to Tharol.

“No, don’t worry about the first stone. They can have that one.” Tharol felt a rush of excitement. Reis and Golu might have been the best fighters of them all, but they had just split themselves apart from each other. Tharol, Bovik, and Avro would be able to overwhelm Reis and Beesk, get them pronounced dead, and then turn around and do the same with Inol and Golu. They were going to win!

“Fan out,” Tharol ordered. “We’ll trap Reis between ourselves and get him down as quickly as possible.”

Tharol kept the center, his comrades on either side. By now they were right on top of Reis and Beesk at the wooden beams.

“Ho!” Reis called, and Beesk dropped the beam he had been carrying. Both of the boys drew their staffs from their backs and raised their shields.

Tharol was closest to Beesk, and saw an opportunity to temporarily take him out so that they could focus on Reis. With a grunt of exertion, he thrust his staff forward like a javelin. Beesk barely managed to catch the blow with his shield, and the force of it made him take a step back, tripping right over the wooden beam he had just laid at his own feet.

Reis exclaimed in disgust before Tharol, Bovik, and Avro all rushed him together. He took a strong defensive stance, keeping his back to the mess of wooden beams sprawled on the ground so that none of them could get behind him without losing their footing.

They didn’t need to, though. A direct three-way assault was too great to be denied. Reis couldn’t block three swinging weapons with one staff and one shield. Though he tried to dodge about, tried to block two of their weapons and sidestep the third, his stamina and focus could only be sustained at such a high level for so long. Before long he took a blow. Then he took another. Pain and disorientation started to dull his reflexes. His movements began to be heavy and slow. He was quickly waning.

Tharol suddenly realized that Beesk must have returned to his feet by now, and he whirled around to ensure that the youth wouldn’t sneak up on him from behind. Coincidentally, Beesk had been sneaking up on him, and Tharol’s swinging staff caught him fully in the head, knocking him to the ground, unconscious!

“Oh Beesk,” Reis groaned.

Tharol spun back around and raised his staff for a mighty blow.

“Wait, wait wait!” Reis stammered, lowering his own weapon and shield. “I surrender.”

“What?” Tharol asked.

“Can he do that?” Bovik wondered aloud.

“Here, look,” Reis dropped his weapons to the ground, then lay down beside them. “One… two… three… four… I’m out, right? It’s official.”

“But–why would you do that?!” Avro demanded.

“Is it really so strange to not want to be clobbered in the head?”

“For you…yes,” Tharol asserted. Reis would never take a loss willingly, no matter what the cost was.

“Ah well…you see…”

Suddenly it started to dawn on Tharol. Reis wasn’t surrendering to spare himself pain, he was wasting their time. And at the same time that he realized this, his ears started to pick up on the sound of distant shouting, so faint he hadn’t noticed it before.

Tharol turned sharply about, eyes racing to the other end of the field. And there he saw that Inol and Golu had abandoned their stone as soon as they were out of sight of Tharol, Bovik, and Avro. They had sprinted down the field to where Janeao defended their tower alone. Janeao was valiantly trying to thwart their assault, propping back up the fallen beams that had already been knocked over and shouting for assistance. But he wouldn’t be able to hold out for much longer. Already, it might be too late.

“Run!” Tharol ordered, then thundered down the field towards the battle. He didn’t check to see if Avro and Bovik were following behind, he just raced faster and faster. He dropped his weapons to the ground, let his arms pump at his side unhindered. He threw off his helmet, stretched his legs for every inch possible.

He wasn’t going to make it in time. Janeao had permanently taken the place of one of the fallen beams, helping to hold the entire structure up by sheer strength. Given that he couldn’t move from that place, Inol and Golu had resorted to taking out the other supports until the weight or imbalance would force the whole thing down on him.

“JANEAO, GET OUT OF THERE!” Tharol roared.

Janeao looked to him in confusion.

“DON’T TRY TO BE A HERO!” Tharol pleaded. “IT’S OVER!”

Janeao winced as another support was knocked away, suddenly increasing the burden on his shoulders. He flexed his arms and legs, trying to correct for the shift of balance.

At last Tharol reached the scene and flung his arm around Janeao, jerking the boy out from under the tower, tumbling with him to the hard soil as the entire tower came crashing down all around. One or two of the beams ricocheted into them, scraping them as they passed overhead, but then all was still.

“What did you–” Janeao panted as he rose to palms and knees. “Why did you– Why did you do that, Tharol?!”

“It was over, Janeao. It was coming down.”

“I could have held it! You were already here…you should have fought with them and let me do my own job!”

Tharol couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “I just–I just saved you, Janeao.”

“I didn’t come here to be saved, Tharol! I came here to win a battle. It’s time to be men and start taking care of things.”

“What are you talking about?”

“What was it you were shouting? ‘Don’t be a hero?!’ You think that’s how a warrior prevails?”

And with that he rose to his feet and stomped away in a fury.

Tharol looked around in confusion. Inol and Golu were leaping up and down, rejoicing in their victory. Bovik and Avro stood off to the side, shrugging at Tharol, neither approving or condemning his actions. Reis was pulling a dazed Beesk back to his feet, and then the two of them came over to join their team in celebration.

“Did you get hit?”

Tharol was snapped out of his reverie and turned to see Master Palthio, approaching from behind.

“What?”

“You seem dazed. Did one of those wooden beams hit you?”

“No sir…I was just…thinking.”

“Ah, I can imagine. Come walk with me.”

Master Palthio didn’t wait for the boy, but turned and strode off so that their conversation could be private. Tharol quickly scrambled to his feet and caught up with his mentor.

“Yes, Master?”

“So why are you so troubled today? You’ve lost at these competitions before, haven’t you?”

“Yes, but…I really thought we had this one. One moment we seemed so close to victory, and the next…we had lost.”

“Mmm. Reis definitely stepped up his performance today, didn’t he? I hope you don’t mind me saying so, but you boys had been getting downright silly in these practices: beating on each other with brute force over and over, with never a thought for strategy. I’m pleased to see someone finally deciding to take it seriously.”

“Well we were trying to be strategic, too. We figured they would expect us to take a more defensive stance, and so we flipped it to catch them off guard. But…”

“But Reis knew you would do that, and he put together his trap? Yes. So why are you so confused?”

“How did he even know that we would do that?”

“Ah…well exactly how I couldn’t say. But to be sure, Reis is a trickster…and you are not. So if you’re trying to come up with something cunning, you might as well assume that he’ll see it coming from a mile away, and already be two tricks into his own plan.”

“What do I do then?”

“You’ll have to find the way that you overcome a trickster,” Master Palthio said simply, then turned from Tharol and walked away.

*

“Alright, and that just leaves the fabric, firewood and mangos. Which do you want to get?” Tharol glanced up from the list of needed supplies.

“Fabric,” Bovik said first.

“Mangos,” Beesk smiled. “Of course.”

“That’s fine,” Tharol shrugged. “I don’t mind carrying the wood.”

“Alright, well I’ll meet you back here in half an hour,” Beesk grinned and started to walk away.

“Wait! Aren’t you forgetting something?”

Beesk narrowed his eyes, unsure of what Tharol meant.

“The money?” Tharol reached into his side-pocket and drew out the cloth bag that Master Palthio had also entrusted to them.

“Oh…right…no, don’t worry about it Tharol. I’m alright.”

“But…you have to pay…”

“Yes, I know. I have my own means.”

“From where? We don’t have an allowance or anything.”

“You know, you’re right. And I’ve never liked that, have you?” He looked sympathetically to Tharol, then to Bovik.

“I guess I never really thought about that,” Bovik shrugged.

“The other guard posts pay their acolytes, you know.”

“They do?”

“Yes. And tell you what,” Beesk clapped each of the others on the shoulder like a considerate, big brother, “you let me take care of the mangos and you go pay for the wood. Then you can keep the rest of the money for yourselves. If anyone deserves it, it’s you two.”

Tharol and Bovik were stunned into silence, which gave Beesk just enough opportunity to slip away through the crowds.

“Well what was that all about?” Tharol asked incredulously.

“I don’t know,” Bovik shook his head. “And since when does Beesk talk like that?”

“What do you mean?”

“Like–it was like he was talking down to us!”

That was unusual for Beesk. He was both one of the youngest in the order, and also one of its biggest fools. Generally he was a hapless follower, not a condescending master.

“Oh well,” Bovik shook his head. “I guess we can worry about it later. I’ll take my money, Tharol.”

“Of course,” Tharol brought himself back to the matter at hand. “Just enough for the fabric, you understand?”

“I know!” Bovik shot back indignantly. He took the money and walked off in a huff.

Tharol stared after him, feeling guilty for having said that, wondering if he should call out an apology. And it was that moment of distraction which made it all too easy for a young pickpocket to reach up, snatch the dangling money purse out of Tharol’s hands, and dash for the nearest alley!

“Hey!” Tharol cried, and immediately snapped himself out of his reverie to give chase!

He pitched himself forward, so far forward that he nearly fell on his face! His legs made up for it by accelerating to their maximum speed as quickly as possible. Tharol kept his eyes locked on the thief’s curly, brown hair bobbing through the crowd up ahead, never losing his focus on it as he wove around the mass of bodies with practiced skill, inch-by-inch gaining on his quarry.

The youth turned into a nearby alley and Tharol thundered right behind. His stamping feet echoed loudly off the nearby walls, alerting the thief to how near the pursuit was.

The thief gave a single look over his shoulder as he reached the end of the alley, then made a sharp right turn onto the next.

He looked back to see if he had time to hide after making that turn Tharol thought to himself. He’s hoping I’ll go barreling down the next alley and pass him by.

And so Tharol wasn’t surprised when he took the same sharp right turn found no curly, brown head running ahead of him. Tharol slowed to a stop, and instead regarded the sacks stacked against the nearby wall. They appeared to be filled with grain, and stood over four feet tall, more than enough to cover a crouching youth.

He took a careful step careful towards them, but kept his legs on tight springs, ready to give chase once more if the thief suddenly darted out. He took another step. He reached the nearest pile of sacks, and rocked back and forth on his toes, as if preparing to spring up and look over the top of them to the other side.

But in the air he changed it up, tucked his knees to his chest, and kicked out against the wall of grain. He connected with a heavy impact and the whole wall started to collapse backwards! There came a shout of surprise from the other side and the brown, curly-haired thief emerged.

It was a boy about two years younger than Tharol, with a roving, slightly manic look in his eyes. He fixed his unblinking eyes on Tharol, stolen moneybag clutched tightly in fist.

“Give it over,” Tharol demanded. “And I’ll let things go this time.”

The boy lunged at him, swinging the bag of money like a small mace. Tharol flinched backwards, dodging out of the way, then gave a push to the boy’s wrist as it passed him by. The combined momentum spun the boy round and Tharol gave the back a firm kick so that the boy was went sprawling into the toppled sacks of grain.

“I said–” Tharol began authoritatively, but in an instant the boy was on his feet, facing back the right direction, and charging into the fray once more! This time he swung out with his other hand, and Tharol saw a flash of metal in the boy’s grip. A knife!

“Oh, come on–” Tharol sighed.

The boy swung the blade wildly back and forth with no technique at all. Tharol waited patiently, watched for the next time that the boy lashed outwards, leaving his front entirely unguarded. Then Tharol casually stepped into that space and gave a slight punch to the throat. The boy recoiled in shock, hands clasped to his neck.

“Now see here,” Tharol took a step forward, but the boy jabbed out yet again with the knife. Tharol easily grabbed the limb between his hands and gave it a sharp twist. The boy gave a sharp cry of pain and dropped the weapon, though Tharol had been careful not to dislocate the shoulder.

The boy was sprawled out in submission now, and Tharol easily grabbed the money bag and yanked it free. Finally he released the thief, who started to scuttle away, muttering dark oaths under his breath.

“Not so fast,” Tharol said, reaching into the money bag and quickly counting out the coins that had been meant for purchasing the mangos. “Take these.” He threw the gold out onto the ground.

The boy hesitated, as if expecting a trap.

“Go on, take it! And maybe think to ask for help next time, instead of stealing!”

The boy hesitated a few moments more, eyes still locked on Tharol in distrust. But all at once he scrabbled in the dirt, picked up each coin, then ran down the alley, disappearing into its murky shadows.

Tharol watched the dark corner that the boy had disappeared into for a few moments more, shaking his head back and forth. He took a deep breath, turned, and started to make his way back to the market. He hadn’t gone more than five steps, though, when he heard a voice tsk-tsking behind him.

Startled, he spun around and saw a tall, lanky man nestled into the corner where the two alleys ran together. There was no other entrance by which he could have entered without Tharol seeing, so…

“You’ve been there the whole time?” Tharol demanded incredulously.

The man shrugged. “Found a nice corner for my afternoon nap…’til you two come along and noisy the place up.”

Tharol slid his money bag back into his side pocket, uncomfortable with the notion that a stranger had just seen him throwing a handful of gold around.

“That was a mighty strange thing you just did there,” the man squinted, “giving that boy half of your money after working him over!”

“I don’t care if it was strange,” Tharol huffed, not in the mood for idle conversation. “Anyway, it’s none of your business and I’ll be off now.” And so saying he turned to go sulk down the alley.

“Especially strange for a guardsman I would say.”

“Well why did you say that now?” Tharol spun right back around.

“Oh, hello again. I thought you were heading off.”

“I am. Just tell me what you meant by that,” Tharol demanded.

“I don’t think I meant anything by that. Don’t be so touchy.”

“Because it sounded like there was a derision in it, and if there was one you might as well say it plainly to my face.”

“No derision at all! Believe me, I can understand the desire as much as anyone else to get ahead. Your sort have a lot on your plate ‘protecting’ all the rest of us. So I suppose you’ve earned the right to–shall we say–flex your advantage now and again. No one says you’ve done wrong.”

Tharol legitimately had no clue what the man was saying, but was still pretty sure there was a lot of insinuation in it all.

“Do you mean–do you mean to say that guardsmen are being dishonest? Taking advantage of their station somehow?”

“Ehhhh…now this is getting curious. If you don’t mind my asking, are you new to your order?”

“Two years in.”

“Ah. And you haven’t noticed–well, never mind, forget I said anything.”

“No! That’s it, isn’t it? You’re saying you know guardsmen that are somehow using their office for gain, aren’t you? What is it, then?”

“You really don’t know? You’re really that innocent and naïve? You’ve really been two years in your order and haven’t already seen?… Haven’t taken any of the opportunities yourself?” With that last question the man raised a single eyebrow in a highly skeptical manner.

“No! Of course not! How dare you! Why–not that it’s any concern of yours–but the reason I gave those coins to that boy was because they were meant as a bribe and I wanted nothing to do with that!”

“So you say you haven’t seen anything suspicious at your order…but here you were carrying bribe money?”

The man had a point. Indeed, this was a large part of why Tharol was feeling so agitated. The man was hitting directly on the discomfort he had already been feeling from Beesk’s behavior.

Five minutes later and Tharol was hidden in the upper alcoves of the marketplace, watching Beesk joking around with the merchants. They talked like old friends as Beesk helped himself to their wares without ever a coin exchanged between them. He not only filled his satchel with the assigned mangos, but also selected a fine quill, a brass button, and a fried pastry, securing these prizes in his cloak’s inner pocket.

“They know each other,” Tharol observed. “This isn’t him exercising some advantage over them it’s…an arrangement.”

“That’s right,” the slender stranger nodded next to Tharol. “And you really didn’t know?”

“I had no idea. But what is the arrangement?”

“Think, boy. What’s the only thing a guardsman has to offer?”

Tharol frowned in confusion. Guardsmen had no valuable possessions, no influence or power. All they dealt with was watching the gates and keeping them…closed.

“These are outsiders?!” Tharol said so loudly that the thin man frantically moved his finger to his lips. “Sorry,” Tharol hushed his voice. “The other guardsmen are letting outsider merchants in?”

“The market is so weak outside of the City, barely any more than crude bartering. There simply has not been any sovereignty that has prevailed long enough to bring stability to the economy.”

“So bribe a guardsman? Tell him that he can have free wares if he’ll let you pass into the city?”

“A mutually beneficial arrangement, wouldn’t you say?”

“But what about the risk of invasion? It’s rumored that there are still enemies to the city out there!”

The thin man laughed. “Oh it is not merely rumors. Trust me. There are many enemies. Why that is the one banner that the outside hordes can still rally behind. And you can be sure there have are a number of spies that have slipped in among the merchants.”

Tharol stared down at Beesk in shock. How could the youth be so selfish? So willing to advance himself at the expense of the entire populace? Well, Beesk would be held accountable for it, that much was sure! Just wait until the other boys–

Tharol’s eyes went wide with a revelation. “But…none of us guardsmen watch the gate alone. We always watch in groups of three or four.”

“Yeah…so?”

So were they all in on it? Was there not a single honest guardsman at their post? At any post?

“And what of the Masters over the towers? Surely they should have started detecting what was going on by now?”

“Um…yeah,” the thin man said as if this was obvious. “You think it’s only the acolytes that do this?”

Then…perhaps even Master Palthio?

*

“Ah, Tharol! Come in, come in,” Master Palthio smiled, waving the youth into his personal office.

Tharol entered, and as he did the man that had been speaking with Master Palthio looked at him with utmost disdain.

Tharol knew the man. It was Master Olayo of the Fourteenth Gate. Like Master Palthio he maintained an Order and trained his acolytes in the arts of warfare and protection. All of the Guardmasters in this district met with one another from time-to-time, though each was solely responsible for the methods they employed at their own tower.

“Master Palthio–” Olayo didn’t try to hide the irritation in his voice– “I wasn’t finished speaking with you yet.”

“Oh, how awkward,” Master Palthio smiled, “because I was finished speaking with you.”

Tharol quickly looked to the ground, wishing he wasn’t present to see such an embarrassing scene. Eyes locked on the stone floor, he heard the frustrated huff from Master Olayo and the clattering of the man’s shoes as he stormed out of the room. Tharol waited a few moments more, then looked up to Master Palthio’s twinkling eyes.

“Thank you for coming, Tharol. I was in need of an excuse to end that conversation.”

“You’re–um–welcome, Master. I–“

“I do say, Tharol, you had a great deal to say during my procedure lesson this morning, didn’t you?”

Tharol bit back what he had been about to say. He had been going to mention the first half of what had transpired in the marketplace, the part about Beesk turning down funds for buying the mangos. He had intended to see how Master Palthio responded to that, before deciding whether to proceed with the rest of the story.

But now he was caught off guard by Master Palthio’s question. “Did I?” he asked. “I only interjected a few times, I thought.”

“Six. And I couldn’t help but notice a common theme to them all. You recommended…” he raised a piece of paper to his eyes, “counting-gears affixed to the gates to track how many times they are opened, guardsmen retaining a signed log for every entry and departure, a weekly audit of those records, issuing licenses to admitted merchants, and petitioning Lord Amathur to form a Marketplace Regulations department in his Court.”

Tharol looked sheepishly to the ground. “Today’s lesson was on security measures and how they could be improved, was it not?”

“Yes, it was. But there is a point where security becomes paranoia.”

“I wouldn’t say that it’s paranoia, Master. I’m not sure if you recall, but I pointed out that there are numerous ways our current processes could be abused–“

“Oh yes, Tharol, I recall. And I might add that I don’t appreciate you detailing them out loud for any boys who hadn’t ever considered those weaknesses!”

“Oh–yes…I see what you mean.”

“So you see flaws in our system. Do you know where our system comes from?”

“No.”

“These are the proscribed measures given by Lord Amathur himself.”

“I had always assumed you came up with them?”

“I did when Lord Amathur’s father oversaw the district, but things changed when Amathur took the stewardship. Now all I have control of is how I conduct my training.”

“Well perhaps we should point out to him the flaws in his plan.”

“You’ve never seen the man, have you?”

“Well…no.”

“Well if you ever get the chance I would not recommend you critique his own plan to him. Ever.”

“Why not?”

Master Palthio looked very meaningfully at Tharol, as if he wanted to say something that he couldn’t, but wanted Tharol to understand it without him saying the words.

“Because he–” Tharol began slowly.

“Because it isn’t your place,” Master Palthio moved on from the moment. “Because as everyone in this district will tell you, it isn’t your right to tell the man to put an Marketplace Regulations department in his own court! That is not our function, Tharol. Our function is to do as we are instructed.”

Master Palthio was quite agitated now, and Tharol knew he ought to be silent and mutter a ‘yes, sir.’ But somehow he couldn’t. Instead he felt himself growing angry, and his face grew flushed.

“Even if what we’re instructed to do is wrong!” he shot back.

Master Palthio fixed Tharol with fierce eyes. “You are part of an Order, Tharol! An Order under the Lord, for the Lord, and by the Lord. And as a member of that Order his will is your command. That is how this process works. If you’re not comfortable with that, then perhaps you should be relieved from the Order?”

Tharol bit back his first response and worked his anger out through trembling fists instead. “No, Master. I do not wish to be relieved.” To himself he added because then there wouldn’t be anyone honest keeping watching.

Master Palthio excused Tharol and he left the room with a storm raging around his head. His feet plodded heavily across the wooden floorboards and his hands were clenched in tight fists. His eyes were fixed on the ground in front of him, so that he didn’t notice anyone nearby until his name was called out.

“Tharol, you headed out for patrol?”

Tharol turned in the hallway and saw Reis approaching. The boy was coming from the Western Lookout, the pet falcon that belonged to their order perched on his shoulder.

“Yes,” he answered.

“And you’re Marshall today?”

“No, Beesk is.”

“Okay, well Bovik told you about the statue woman we met last time we were out there?”

“Yes. He said you wanted to find out more about what she wanted.”

“I mean I can’t imagine it’s something good. Otherwise she would just petition for entry by normal means, right?”

“It does sound suspect.”

“I’m glad you see it the same way,” Reis smiled, but then it turned to a frown. “But, uh…you said it was Beesk who’s Marshall today?”

“Yes…why?”

“Oh, no reason.”

They stood a moment in silence, each looking long and hard at each other, as if evaluating how much to confide.

“Do you suspect Beesk of something?” Tharol finally asked.

“I…might…”

“I might, too.”

“It might even be more than just ‘might suspect.'”

“Me, too.”

They nodded to each other.

“He has a deal with the merchants,” Tharol blurted out. “He’s been letting outsiders enter in exchange for their goods.”

Reis sighed. “I thought it was something like that. Does Master Palthio know?”

“Well…no. I had actually been about to tell him about it. But–I guess I got distracted.”

Reis squinted. “Are you not sure you can trust him?”

“Um, well…I don’t know….”

“Yes. It’s very hard to tell, isn’t it. Can’t be too careful after all.”

“Do you have your doubts, then? Is that why you didn’t tell Master Palthio about the statue woman yet?”

“Exactly. Only I can’t handle these threats by myself, either. We can’t do our job here without a team, and we can’t operate as a team if we don’t know whom we can trust.”

“What did you think of the ideas I was raising in class this morning?”

“Oh, excellent! All of them. A system of checks to help weed out the bad, it’s exactly what we need! Unfortunately, we don’t get to call the shots in those areas, do we?”

“Master Palthio just got done telling me the exact same thing.”

“Right. So I’m all for the order, but really there’s got to be an order within the order. A secret brotherhood that’s built on trust, that’s committed to actually doing the things that keep us safe. And Tharol, you’ve been honest with me, and I trust you. And you can trust me.”

Tharol nodded solemnly. How strange that it felt like agreeing to treason. A treason to be honest in protecting the City, though.

“So what do we do?” Tharol asked.

“I don’t know. Still trying to figure things out. But I do know that the first step is to figure out who can be trusted and who can’t. You and me are on the right side, and Beesk is obviously not. But what about the others?”

Tharol shrugged.

“Okay, so that’s what we work on figuring out. And listen, maybe today with the statue woman is a good opportunity for you to see where the other boys’ loyalties are. Try and give them a chance to show their true colors, whether for good or for bad. Find out what she wants, but also see how the others are taking it in.”

Tharol nodded. “I’ll do my best.” And for the first time since the trip to the marketplace with Beesk he felt a small rise of hope. Maybe he wasn’t so alone in this after all!

*

“Alright, so she was just up beyond there,” Bovik nodded inconspicuously to the tree line.

Bovik, Inol, Tharol, Beesk, and Avro were out on their patrol. They had spoken of little else but the statue lady.

“Easy boys,” Beesk said to the others. “We just act like this is any other patrol. If they’re going to speak to us, they’ll start it on their own. And whatever they say, we act like we’re going along with it, okay? See what it is we’re really dealing with.”

They were drawing very near to the line of trees now and each of the boys kept flitting their eyes from left to right, trying to be the first to catch any sign of the strange woman and her guard.

“Are you all looking for me?”

The boys jumped and whirled around, looking for where the voice was coming from. There, seated in the tall grass behind them was the woman. Only her head was high enough to be seen properly and it was blending in with the rocky outcropping that she had been laying against.

The boys continued to look left and right, trying to see where her guard was hiding.

“It is only me today,” she said softly, gliding up to her feet. “You need not fear any ambush.”

“Why were you hiding though?” Tharol demanded.

“I had to ascertain first whether you intended to ambush me. Suffice it to say that after our last meeting I wasn’t sure what your intentions would be.” She quickly rotated her head to examine each boy. “But when I saw that you didn’t have the ‘angry one’ among you my hopes for a reasonable conversation greatly improved.”

The other boys slowly looked up to Beesk. As Marshall it was his responsibility to negotiate with any potential threats encountered on the patrol.

“We were told you are looking for access to the city?” he asked.

“That is correct. Just for me and my bodyguard.”

“You know that there are already methods in place to petition for access, don’t you? Any citizen need only present–“

“But I am not a citizen.”

“You aren’t?”

“No. And as I’m sure you know, there is no method for a non-citizen to sue for admission. That is the whole reason why I am here speaking to you and not your master.”

All the youth looked sideways to Beesk again. That was essentially an admission of illegal intent! Beesk thought for a moment, licking his lips as he considered what to say next.

“I see…” he began slowly. “Well of course…that makes things difficult…”

“I don’t think so. I think we have only to come to an understanding with each other. Perhaps you and I could have a word in private?”

“Standard Procedure states that no patrolman is to ever venture out alone, for fear of ambush,” Bovik quickly recited.

Tharol stared at him in awe, surprised that Bovik even knew the Standard Procedure, let alone would recite it.

“Yes, of course, usually that would mean my Sub-Marshall,” Beesk looked to Tharol, regarding him with raised eyebrows. “Unless…you didn’t think that was necessary?”

Tharol understood. Beesk wanted Tharol for a friend. He had been making an overture in the marketplace, slightly showing his dishonest hand, just to see what Tharol would do with that. Tharol hadn’t reported or confronted him, and so Beesk thought Tharol might be condoning him. Here was another test.

“Well,” Tharol waved dismissively. “You could just give us a report about it later, and that would be basically the same. Perhaps I could ask that each of you leave your weapons behind though?”

“Gladly,” the woman nodded, unclasping a dagger from her waist and handing it over. Beesk nodded to Tharol and turned over his sword as well.

There you go Beesk, Tharol thought to himself, enough rope to hang yourself with. Let’s see where your loyalties really lie.

He took the two weapons in hand and turned to lead the rest of the patrol off to a safe distance. For a moment his eyes met Bovik’s, and he found the boy was looking to him with an expression of confused hurt.

*

“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.

“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.”

*

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.”

“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.”

*

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.

*

“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.

“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.

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.”

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!

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!

*

Tharol heard the scream ringing from the barracks and stood up with a start. After a moment he realized what it was and he looked down somberly.

“Well maybe you couldn’t do anything about all these plots, but I did,” he told Master Palthio defiantly. “That’s the sound of Reis’s schemes being snuffed out. I did it myself because no one else was going to lift a finger to stop him!”

Master Palthio smiled sadly. “I applaud your initiative, Tharol, but you haven’t stopped anything. Reis was but the tip of an iceberg.”

*

Inol frantically backed away from Reis’s twitching form, spun around, and leaned for support against the rampart railing.

“ATTACK! ATTACK!” he shouted in the direction of the barracks. “THERE’S AN ARMY OUTSIDE THE GATES!”

Beesk came racing up the staircase and onto the ramparts.

“What do you think you’re doing? Do you want everyone to–” he stopped speaking as he came into view of the army approaching below. They were near enough now to see them in detail. They were a strangely cobbled force, a mixture of elite soldiers in armor, peasants bearing wooden clubs, and a third class that was…made of stone! Some had only a rocky or head, while others were entirely composed of rock except for a single patch of flesh. They hobbled forward awkwardly on their heavy joints, shaking the ramparts with the collective force of their boulder feet.

“Seventeenth Gate!” the woman at the forefront of the army called. “Why are your doors not open?”

“It’s her,” Beesk mumbled to Inol, stepping back from the ramparts’ edge in fear. “It’s the statue lady…. This was all a trap!”

“I know!”

“Seventeenth Gate!” the statue lady called again. “Is anyone there? Answer me or face the consequences!”

Reis turned on his side and retched violently. The chills washed over his body in waves and he fell back to the rampart trembling uncontrollably. Even though he didn’t have the strength to even raise himself his eyes were steeling with anger and resolve. He knew what had happened to him and he knew who had done it. He wasn’t sure how, but Tharol had known more than he had let on, and he had poisoned Reis with a lethal dose. But Reis hadn’t been killed. Not yet. And now Tharol would have to deal with the consequences of that fact!

*

“What do you mean you did your part to resist what’s coming?” Tharol demanded of Master Palthio. “You say you couldn’t put a stop to Beesk, or Inol, or Reis, or any of the things they represent, so what were you doing? What was the point?!”

“What I was doing was teaching,” Master Palthio said simply. “I’ve been training the lot of you, hoping to instill some sense of duty and principle in you all. Preparing your minds and bodies for the coming fight. Teaching you how to operate as individuals and as a group. Yes I knew we had corruptors in our bunch, but the rest of you I tried to keep apart from all that.”

Teaching?!

“Yes, and Tharol you were the brightest of them all, and the most capable. I saw that if there was going to be any hope for these boys it would be through you. And that’s why I have been pushing you so hard of late.”

“Felt more like you were trying to get rid of me!”

“Well, in a sense, yes, but for your own good. I was trying to take away the order as your crutch. Trying to wean you off of this sick, decaying body. There’s no future for you here. Your destiny needs to be apart from the city, the order, and Gate Seventeen.”

“A destiny for what? To hear you go on there isn’t anything left for us to save!”

“Just each other.”

Tharol blinked.

“Avro, Janeao, Bovik, Golu, and others like them,” Master Palthio continued. “Maybe those like Beesk and Inol after their schemes have fallen to pieces and they’re humbled. But don’t waste any time trying to save our order or nation. Just take care of the individuals who still have their spark of duty. Do it by your own means. Take your own counsel. Don’t rely on any part of our dead system, not even on me.”

Tharol paused to take it in. He had just had his whole world disrupted and he felt like he needed to sit down and think it over for a long while. But, of course, there was no time for that.

“I really do need to go,” he said softly, stepping towards the door.

“Yes, you do,” Master Palthio waved his hand and the door was unfastened. “And I have my final work to do as well.”

*

All the other boys had rushed out into the courtyard now and were halfway up the stairs to the ramparts.

“What’s going on?” Avro demanded.

“We’re doomed!” Inol came down to meet them, face ashen. Beesk followed behind, trembling like a leaf. “Reis betrayed us. They’re going to kill us!”

The pronouncement was immediately followed by the sound of death shouts off in the distance. Inol and Beesk cowered even lower behind the wall, but Avro poked his head up high enough to see where the noises were coming from. He looked to Gate Eighteen to the right and Gate Sixteen to the left. There the great doors had been opened from within and the army was filing through uncontested. And no sooner had the army been admitted into the keep than they had apparently begun murdering the gatekeepers there!

“Never mind,” the statue lady scoffed in disgust down on the plains. It was clear to her that their accomplice wouldn’t be opening the gate for them. “Break this door down!”

Her stone soldiers had only been waiting for the order! Like dogs freed from the leash they gave a shout and charged forward at full speed, built up their momentum, then flung their bodies against the gate like a hundred different battering rams! The entire keep shook from the impact, the wood of the doors splintered, and the iron lattice bent inwards. Meanwhile the peasant soldiers picked up their ladders, sprinted to place them against the walls, and began their ascent. Several of the armored soldiers lifted crossbows and fired them along the ramparts in case any guards were concealed in the dark.

The boys inside flung themselves to the ground, faces looking to one another in horror. For a moment they were paralyzed into inaction, but then Golu broke the silence with a sudden thought.

“The breaching charges!” he said, then rose to his feet and began crawling back up the stairs to the ramparts, careful to keep his head beneath the bolts sailing overhead. Avro and Janeao followed behind, while the other boys dashed to the weapon rack and grabbed their swords and bows and arrows. The three boys up top crawled across the ramparts, lighting the fuses that ran along the top of the wall as they went.

What they were lighting was a series of explosives that had been mixed into the rock all along the top of the wall. No sooner did the first of the peasants reach the top of the wall than the explosives went off, spraying fire and rocky shrapnel, slaying the first of the offenders and blasting their ladders backwards off the wall!

Of course Golu, Avro, and Janeao had not been able to reach all the sections of the wall, and so in other places the peasant soldiers mounted the ramparts unscathed. But these were met by the arrows of the other boys down below. Bovik, Beesk, and Inol fired with practiced skill, cutting the infiltrators down easily, due to their lack of proper armor.

“We’ve got to fall back!” Inol roared as the stone warriors flung themselves once again the at the gate, buckling it to the point that wide gaps were starting to appear. One more dash and they would have the whole thing down.

“They’ll just chase us down,” Bovik shook his head sadly.

“No, they’ve got bigger matters to attend to,” Inol offered hopefully. “They probably don’t even care about us.”

“Up above!” Beesk pointed to a wave of armored soldiers that had just mounted the ladders. The boys fired a fresh volley, but only half of the arrows were able to find weak parts in the armor, such as around the joints, while the rest clattered harmlessly off the plate. The surviving men charged undeterred towards Golu, Avro, and Janeao, while yet another wave of armored soldiers mounted the ladders behind them.

“We’ve got to go!” Inol repeated, then turned and ran, not waiting to see if the others followed him.

“We can’t just leave the other boys!” Bovik protested. But also Beesk turned and ran, proving that he most certainly could!

“Let’s go get them, Bovik.”

Bovik turned back and saw Tharol quickly approaching.

“But–” Bovik’s misgivings towards Tharol were clear on his face.

“I just want to help you,” Tharol said earnestly, pulling sword and shield from the weapon rack then coming back to his ally. “Let’s go get them.”

Bovik exhaled deeply, gave a nod, and the two boys began sprinting for the staircase. Along the way they passed by the gate, just as it shook from a third battering by the stone warriors. The hinges ripped out of the stone and the entire door fell inwards! The boys instinctively lifted their arms to protect themselves from the crashing rubble…but it never hit them.

Master Palthio stepped forward, hands outstretched to the broken door, magically keeping it pinned to its proper place. His eyes shone brightly and he sent out a great shockwave. It coursed through the wide gaps that had been broken in the door, breaking into the stone soldiers on the other side, and bursting them into pebbles! The remaining stone warriors pulled back in surprise.

“Well…” the statue lady mused from behind, “that’s interesting. While the last of the retreating stone soldiers passed by her she strode forward confidently, closing on the door with her own arms stretched out wide. “I don’t know who you are,” she panted as she felt the full force of Palthio’s powers bearing down. “But these walls are mine.” She matched the words my placing her outstretched hands on the stone barrier that framed the door, closed her eyes, and imbued her powers into the lifeless rock.

Meanwhile, Tharol and Bovik mounted the staircase up above and bowled into the front-most ranks of the armored soldiers, flinging them right over the ramparts and off the wall! Then the two boys spun on the spot and met the next line of enemies with swords flashing. They lunged at the foes with an aggressiveness that belied their inferior numbers.

There were too many of the soldiers to keep them permanently at bay, but the two boys made a controlled retreat backwards until Golu, Avro, and Janeao were able to join the fray. Then the retreat slowed and came to a standstill. Though they were still fewer than their foes, and not nearly so well armored, the boys had far greater synergy as a team. Each armored soldier was trained only as an individual, occasionally stumbling over each other as they all sought their own best line forward. The boys, however, naturally fell into a shared rhythm.

To begin with Janeao took the front, using his greater size to shield the other boys and swinging his sword like a windmill, clearing enough room for the others to operate within. Golu was to Janeao’s side and slightly behind, watching for the openings that Janeao’s blustering opened up and then used his superior techniques to administer one finishing blow after another. He was the surgical precision behind Janeao’s thundering hammer. Avro and Bovik meanwhile filled in all the gaps. As efficient as Janeao and Golu were, they couldn’t cover everything at once. So Avro and Bovik drove their swords like spears through the openings, sometimes to counter a missed attack, sometimes to increase their own side’s aggression.

Tharol helped Avro and Bovik in that work as well, but his primary contribution was at the back, directing their troupe in its lethal dance.

“Bovik, on the right!” he shouted. “Six more behind this set, boys, pace yourselves. Perhaps Mora-Long? Was that a cut on you, Janeao?”

“I’m fine!”

“Avro, two steps to the right, I need to move that body!” He pulled the corpse back and flung it over the edge, clearing up the ground for Golu’s footing.

“Watch that sword, Avro, don’t tangle it in Janeao’s swings. Golu, watch the ground, he’s getting back up!”

Every now and then Tharol swept his eyes around the area, making sure that he was ever aware of their surroundings. They had managed to hold their ground thus far, and on occasion had even advanced a foot or two forward. But they were still twelve feet back from the top of the stairs, which was the nearest exit out of this place.

There was a sound of clattering behind them and Tharol turned to see an extra-long ladder being placed against the Northern Tower. The peasants had bound two of their shorter ladders together in order to reach the lowest window of that tower, and were now ascending to enter it. They were going to come into the tower on its second floor, race down its staircase, onto the ramparts from behind, and hit the boys from the rear!

“Alright, we’ve got trouble!” Tharol announced. “They’re going to cut us off from behind! But if we move now I think we can get through the tower before they do it.” It was the the boys’ only option. Not would this keep them from being sandwiched between two walls of enemies, there was also a second staircase down to the courtyard on the other side of the tower. The only problems were…

“But that’s away from Master Palthio!” Avro said.

” And they’ll cut us down as soon as our backs are turned!” Bovik added.

“I don’t think Master Palthio is coming with us,” Tharol addressed Avro’s concern. The man was reinforcing the gates to give the boys more time…but even he wouldn’t be holding back the tide for long. The enemies would break through before long, and then they would be right upon him and he would have nowhere to run. Palthio had known that when he went there.

More serious was the second concern. Even now a set of crossbowmen was mounting the ladders behind the armored soldiers. They weren’t firing on Tharol and the other boys because they were too enmeshed with the soldiers. But soon the assaulting forces would be called back, clearing the way for the arrows to cut the boys down.

“Go!” Janeao shouted, panting from the physical demands of being the bulwark of their little army. “You all get out of here. I’ll hold them back.”

“We didn’t come save you lot just to leave you behind!” Tharol returned hotly.

“Well I didn’t come up here to be saved, Tharol! I came here to take care of what needs to be taken care of.”

“But you can’t–“

“I can hold this, Tharol. Trust me for once.”

And with that Janeao gave a great cry then surged forward. He dropped his sword and wrapped his arms around the nearest soldiers, tackling them down to the ground. Further behind the crossbowmen raised their eyes in surprise, then scrambled to load their weapons.

“Everyone go!” Tharol shouted. He gave one parting glance at Janeao down on the ground, punching and throwing with all his might, then turned around and darted after the others towards the tower!

There was a shout from behind as the soldiers tried to push past Janeao, around the boys crossbow bolts ricocheted wildly, ahead of them soldiers climbed the ladder, sneaking into the tower window above. Danger lurked on every side.

*

Down below, the stone soldiers had started creeping cautiously back towards the gate. The shockwaves from Master Palthio had ceased streaming through the holes, now suppressed by the magical aura of the statue lady. Her right hand still rested on the massive, stone bricks of the wall, and she was muttering something under her breath as the rock began to glow and quiver.

One of the stone soldiers came up to her side and pressed his hand against the wall-block nearest to him. It quivered even more rapidly, then all at once it turned in its recess. The soldier continued stepping forward and the separate stones of his arm began similarly rotating and folding, rearranging themselves to fill the cavity left by the rotated wall-block. He kept on pushing forward, and the sections of the wall and the sections of his body continued rotating, sliding, folding, reassembling. Eventually his entirety had passed into the churning knot of rocks, like the pieces of a puzzle tumbling together.

And now the churning continued on the other side of the wall, on the inside of the keep. The blocks there shifted and turned and rearranged until a stone arm started to emerge from their folds, then a head and a chest.

Master Palthio’s eyes shot sideways to the intruder. Sweat beaded his brow, but he pulled one hand away from the crumbled gate and sent a fresh shockwave to the side, blasting that stone warrior into dust. Then he turned his head to the other side. Two other stone soldiers were already emerging out of the wall over there!

*

An arrow sliced through the air and lodged itself in Avro’s shoulder. The force of it spun him around and he fell to the ground. Tharol was bringing up the rear and reached down and pulled the boy back to his feet without so much as a break in his stride.

“Unnngh!” Avro moaned as Tharol hadn’t had the time to be sensitive to the wounded shoulder. Together the two of them kept racing forward after the other boys.

Golu was in the lead and had just reached the door to the tower. He burst through it, raising his sword to be ready for whatever lay on the other side. It was a single, round room, with a spiral staircase in the center ascending to the next floor. Already the enemy peasants were filing down that staircase, coming to cut off the boys’ exit.

Golu sprang forward with a cry and swung his sword with practiced precision. Each of his blows was efficient and lethal. While he held the horde at bay the other boys scrambled around the staircase and out the other door.

“Come on, Golu!” Tharol shouted after all the others had exited.

Golu sprang after Tharol and through the opening. Tharol slammed the door closed and Golu thrust his sword into the gap between door and frame, wedging it as tightly between the two as he could. It would take the soldier’s a moment to break through that bond. In a line the boys rushed down the staircase at the other end of the tower and into the courtyard. Tharol could hardly believe that they had made it this far!

Then there came a shout from above and Tharol saw the crossbowmen standing in a line on top of the ramparts. They had realized the boys’ game, and had simply moved to a position where they would have an excellent view of the entire courtyard. Tharol and the other boys might dodge and weave as best they could, but there was no way they could avoid all of the bolts that were about to rain down on them!

The leader of the crossbowmen stood at the center of their firing line. He raised his arm and shouted “Aim!” All of the snipers raised their weapons to their cheeks. “Fire!”

“NO!” came a shout from down below. A wave of light streaked across the courtyard, intercepting the volley of arrows and bursting them into dust.

Master Palthio drew his hands away from the gate, finally letting its splinters crumble to the ground. It didn’t matter anyway. Though he had tried to cut down the stone soldiers pressing through the wall, he hadn’t been able to keep up in his weakened state. Slowly their numbers had grown until they were now crowding around him a dozen strong, spears lowered for the killing blow.

There was only one thing left to do.

Even as the weapons pierced through his body Master Palthio lifted his hands wide and sent a final shockwave right into the epicenter of the wall. The stones nearest to him disintegrated into dust, ripples of force rocked to the left and right as if the wall had been made of water, and then the entire line began cascading inwards like a line of dominos! Master Palthio had obliterated the central support, and now gravity would do the rest.

The eyes of the crossbowmen and armored soldiers went wide as the ramparts fell out from beneath them. They fell all the way to the fields below, joining the cascading rock and metal and wood that poured into the front lines of the army still waiting to enter the keep.

“MOVE!” Tharol shouted, lunging forward and physically pushing the other boys in front of him. Master Palthio may have just cleared the line, but there was still rank upon rank of soldiers who now had no barrier to slow their advance!

And at the front of that army there still stood the statue lady. Having been at the epicenter of Master Palthio’s blast, all the cobblestone had been reduced to harmless dust around her. Now she strode angrily over the shambles of the gate. She glanced down to the ground where Master Palthio gave out his last breath, surrounded by the pebbles that had moments before been his killers.

“Who were you?” she whispered curiously.

“What was that, Madam?” her bodyguard, who was also her Lieutenant, stepped to her side.

“Never mind.” She brought herself back to the matters at hand and pointed her arm out to Tharol and the others’ retreating forms. “Shoot them!”

“Crossbows!” the Lieutenant called and four nearby archers hurried forward and raised weapons alongside of him.

The boys were nearly to the end of the courtyard, nearly through the arch and onto the main street that led towards the district marketplace.

“Fire!” the Lieutenant called, and four bolts whistled through the air.

Up ahead the boys moved single file to the the narrow arch. And at their back was Tharol. The whole way he had deliberately remained in the rear, urging the other boys on ahead of him.

Without warning all four of the bolts struck Tharol, each between the shoulder blades. Their combined force lifted him into the air and threw him to the ground. He gave a cry of surprise, then slammed into the dirt. The other boys turned in shock, eyes shifting from their fallen comrade to the crossbowmen hurriedly reloading their weapons in the distance.

“Don’t worry about it, just go,” Tharol grunted as he pushed back up to his feet and continued dashing forward. The boys stared at him in bewilderment, but he gave them a shove and they continued their escape. All of them made it out the arch before the crossbowmen could fire again, and once they were clear Tharol tore off his outer tunic and shrugged off the shield he had strapped to his back. He had thought it a prudent addition for the unknown dangers of the night, and had put it on when he had left Master Palthio’s quarters.

Back at the gate the statue lady scoffed at her inability to have anything go according to plan this night.

“Arcuse, set aside a medical unit and get all the wounded there as quickly as possible,” she directed her Lieutenant. “Have everyone else ready to march at a moment’s notice.”

“Yes, Lady Sawk. And apparently they’ve found the boy.”

“The boy?”

“The spy that was here. Reis.”

“Ah. Reis Antine. Where is he?”

She was led to a section of the courtyard where several soldiers were tending to the poisoned lad. He had crawled his way off of the ramparts before they had fallen to pieces, but had not made it much further before the soldiers found him.

Lady Sawk kneeled at his side and turned his face to look at her.

“You failed,” she pronounced.

“My Lady,” Reis wheezed faintly. “I’m sorry. I was tricked. They poisoned me.”

“They weren’t supposed to know that you needed poisoning. You were elected because of your ability to remain subtle.”

“I tried. I did my best. I don’t know how–“

“I do. You tried to be clever. That’s always been your weakness, Reis. You can’t ever just finish the job, you have to make it a masterpiece. And with complexity comes mistakes.”

“I’m–I’m sorry.”

“All you had to do was kill them in their sleep. Nothing more. You toyed with them, didn’t you.”

Reis’s silence was answer enough.

“And now your blunder has cost us time. And in that time Lord Amathur will have heard about the forces we brought today. He will know that he’s been tricked and what it is we are really here for. And that means he’ll be shut up in his castle and we’re only going to have him out of there through a great deal of trouble and blood.”

The woman paused and cocked her head as she regarded a thought.

“Well, that’s not entirely your fault, is it? I assume you did not know the master of this keep was an Old Guardian, did you?”

“No,” Reis shook his head slowly.

“No, none of us did. Very curious. Well he would have given us trouble regardless then. I wonder how he came to hide at such a lowly station…. What was his name?”

“Palthio.”

“Never heard of him.”

Reis was thoroughly exhausted from the strain of crawling down from the wall, the chaos of the battle, and the fear of Lady Sawk’s disapproval. He face was pale and shining with sweat and he was having a harder and harder time getting each word out of his throat. Even so, he balled his fists and forced himself to push through the next sentences.

“There was a boy with Palthio, too. The one commanding the others. He might know more about the master.”

“So?”

“I will hunt him down. I will bring him to you. Please, my Lady, I know that I let you down, but I will atone for it. Let me find him!”

“What, did you think I was going to kill you?”

No answer.

“Oh dear,” she shook her head and tutted. “Just what sort of tales are they telling about me?”

With that she concluded Reis’s audience, raised back to her feet, and turned to her bodyguard.

“Alright, Arcuse. Have him taken with the rest of the wounded and give the order to move forward.”

She found herself momentarily alone and she took the opportunity to stare into the dark in quiet repose. She touched a hand to her hard, cold face, and tipped her head upwards to the sky. Cloudless, star-scattered, and bathed in a full moon. A perfect night for conquest. A perfect night for turning fate. A perfect night to raise the New Order!