The Favored Son: Alternate- Part Seven

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

There wasn’t much for Tharol to gain from ruminating on Master Palthio’s words, but he couldn’t help himself from turning them over and over in his mind. What had his master meant by saying he had made sure of Tharol’s failure in the contest? Had he formed the land such that the jump was impossible? Had he been involved in the deceit that Reis played on him?

If Master Palthio had simply meant to express a lack of faith in Tharol’s abilities he could have just said that. But he didn’t. He said he had made the missed jump happen. And he had told Tharol as much to put this worm in the boy’s mind, to make him irritated to understand the reason why. To make him ask himself all these exact questions!

When Tharol realized that he spat on the ground, right in the middle of the battlements as he marched his morning watch.

If that’s what Master Palthio wanted then Tharol wouldn’t waste another second on it. Let the old fool keep his secrets. The man was likely a traitor to the city anyway. Getting too close to his mind could only corrupt him. Better to keep his own counsel.

Not that he had much choice in the matter. Master Palthio stopped looking for audiences with the boy, even stopped making eye contact with him during lessons and training. He just cut off all connection at once and that suited Tharol just fine.

In spite of his professed indifference, though, Tharol couldn’t help but feel a twinge of jealousy when Master Palthio showed a special favor to Reis.

It occurred the morning after the competition while all the boys were gathered with Master Palthio for their morning lessons. At the end of the lecture Master Palthio shifted to the plans for the day, and when he came to the assignment for the night watch gave the same phrase the boys had always dreaded:

“…and this night the watch over the gate will be assigned to me.”

The boys sighed and looked down.

“However…” Master Palthio continued and all the boys’ heads shot back up in an instant! “I have decided that in one fortnight the night watch will fall to…Reis.”

The boys gasped. All of them congratulated Reis warmly, and most of them expressed the feeling that he really did deserve to be the one to break that barrier for them all. Even Tharol made himself smile and offered a kind word.

Inside, though, he couldn’t help but feel disappointed. The fact that this decision came immediately after their last competition made it likely to Tharol that the two events were connected. Reis had won the competition and Tharol had lost. Reis was chosen to take the night watch and Tharol was not. Well, perhaps Tharol deserved the snub, but it was still a hard thing to accept.

None of the other students seemed to feel that Tharol had been looked over, though. Or if they did they never expressed it to him. In fact, much like Master Palthio, Tharol found that most of the other students didn’t want anything to do with him at all. A couple of them remained indifferent, but he could feel a strange shift in how most of them were perceiving him. There was a cold silence that started to fall when he entered a room, a refusal to meet his eyes in conversation, a series of extremely curt replies. Somehow he had been made into the most detested boy in their order and he didn’t have any idea why.

Or rather he didn’t have any idea until the next week when it was his turn to be Marshall over the next patrol. He had just come out of the armory and was crossing the road to where the line of boys were awaiting his instructions: Reis, Bovik, Janeao, and Avro.

“Everybody ready?” he asked nonchalantly, looking down at his waist as he buckled his sword on.

There wasn’t a response. Normally Tharol would have thought nothing of it. It had almost been a rhetorical question, after all, a mere formality. But once again he could sense a bitterness in the quiet. He looked upwards and all of the boys were staring firmly back at him…just not saying anything at all.

“I said is everybody ready?” He strained.

The boys nodded idly.

“I said is everybody ready?!”

“Yes, sir,” they returned sullenly.

“If any you are feeling discontent with the situation then I’m sure you’d agree we should resolve it before proceeding further,” he said officiously. “So what’s going on?”

A moment of heavy silence, then Bovik spoke up.

“I think we’d be more comfortable if someone else took command today, Tharol.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Why don’t you assign an acting Marshall? You have that right.”

“Maybe if I was wounded, but I’m perfectly capable of carrying out my responsibilities as is!”

“Bovik’s right,” Janeao spoke up. “Why don’t you let Reis take charge?”

“Is this because I beat you out of the last competition?” Tharol shot back, deciding that as long as they were having this argument they might as well be honest about where it started. “Still sore on that?”

But to his surprise Janeao only chuckled and shook his head.

“What about you?” Tharol rounded on Bovik. “Would you be alright with Reis taking command?”

“Sure.”

“Even though he knocked you out last competition?”

“He didn’t.”

“What?”

“Once I saw you making an alliance with Beesk and Inol it was clear how things were. Sure enough, you sent them straight away to bully Avro into joining your little regime, too. Reis and I figured our only chance was to infiltrate your crew from the inside. So Reis told me his plan to trick you into throwing away your crown and I happily laid down to a count of four and let him take my crystal!”

“Hey, come on guys,” Reis started to speak up. “Tharol’s Marshall today. We’ve always followed the schedule for patrol.”

But Tharol wasn’t about to let things go. “So I played to win,” he countered. “So what? That’s what we’re supposed to do. Is that why you don’t want me to be Marshall?”

“No, that’s not even close to why,” Bovik sighed.

Tharol held up his hands in defeat. “Then what is it?”

“You let Beesk have private conversations with outsiders even though it’s against Standard Procedure. And you took a bribe from him when we went to marketplace.”

Tharol was taken aback, completely bewildered at what Bovik said. But then it dawned on him that he had never told Bovik about the street thief he had left the money to at the market. All Bovik had seen was Tharol hand an empty money bag back to Master Palthio when they had returned that afternoon. And of course Bovik didn’t know anything about how he was trying to win Beesk’s friendship to learn more of his plot.

Tharol looked down, his anger slowly dissipating. He finally realized how bad he must have made himself look to all of them. “You guys–” he said softly, “it’s not like that. It’s not like that at all.”

A heavy silence followed. All the other boys expected him to try and explain himself, but Tharol realized that would mean showing a hand he was ashamed of. He would have to admit to them that he had been suspicious of them, that his reason for getting close to Beesk and Inol was to find out who else might be a traitor in their midst. He couldn’t say it.

*

Tharol moved through the next few days feeling completely detached from himself, numbly drifting from moment to moment. The hateful feeling of the other boys was only a small part of his hurt. Far more was that he agreed with them.

How had he come to distrust his friends so? Where had he learned to assume the worst in them? Yes, they had always been undisciplined, but to assume that they were traitors? How had he given up faith in them so easily? They deserved better.

If anyone had been corrupted or tainted, it felt like it was him. He had let himself become cynical and pessimistic.

There was only one bright spot that remained for Tharol. Reis still supported him, even if only in private.

“The other boys wouldn’t understand if we were seen together,” he said during one of their secret conversations.

“I get it,” Tharol sighed. Reis wasn’t compromised in the eyes of the other boys and it was better to keep things that way.

“And while I’m sorry about your reputation, the fact is we found out exactly what we needed to. Avro, Janeao, and Bovik are sincere. I think we can be certain of that now.”

Tharol nodded numbly.

“And I’m still on good terms with them…and you’re still on good terms with Beesk and Inol. Look, I know it’s a terrible thing to ask, but we’ve just got to play the hands we’ve been dealt. Eventually everything will come out right. We’ll set a trap for Beesk and Inol, and once we spring it we’ll be able to explain to everyone your real role in all this. You’ll be welcomed back a hero! Think of this as your sacrifice for a greater cause!”

Tharol nodded. Reis was right, he still had a role to fill. Since he already looked guilty to the rest of the boys he might as well lean into that. He would keep tabs on the dishonest side of the order, Reis on the honest.

Now he moved forward with a singular purpose: to get to the bottom of Inol and Beesk’s plot. He kept watching for a moment where the two of them were isolated from the rest of the group, and he didn’t have to wait long. Just the next afternoon he spied them chatting together behind the lumber stash. He approached them and they looked up expectantly.

“Hey…can we talk…openly?” he asked.

They looked to each other. The same look they had made just before leaving him to defend their crystals in the competition.

“Yeah…” Inol said finally. “I think we can.”

“Alright well–I want in,” Tharol shrugged.

“Yeah, you can be in,” Beesk nodded and Tharol was surprised at how smoothly this was going!

“I want–I want to be part of whatever’s going on with that lady we met out on patrol.”

They smiled.

“Funny you should say that,” Beesk said. “Because we just received permission from her to bring a third member into our party.” He tapped a piece of parchment hanging out of his front pocket.

“Beesk, you have that out for everyone to see?!” Inol shrieked. “Get that put away!”

Beesk rolled his eyes, but he folded the paper again so that it was hidden entirely from view.

“You’re in communication with her?” Tharol asked.

“She leaves us notes in a notch along the outer wall. Honestly don’t have a clue how she gets them up there, but we check it every day. Send her our own messages in the same way.”

“Okay. And you asked about bringing me on board?”

“That’s right. Actually we made the request earlier because we were hoping you would be given the first Night Watch. Guess that didn’t pan out.”

“You want to bring her in during the night?”

“Yeah, it would be more secure. Everyone else is asleep then, right?”

“Sure, but…well, how have you brought all the other merchants in?”

“Just left a rope hanging over the wall during the competitions. No one’s keeping watch then.”

“There’s still the guard golems then.”

“Yeah, and Inol and I always be sure to set up our two side-by-side, slightly rotated opposite directions so there’s a blind spot in between.”

“Okay, fine. So why aren’t you bringing the woman in that same way? Why wait for night?”

Inol and Beesk shrugged their shoulders.

“It’s her requirement,” Beesk said. “She insists she’s got to walk in through the gates. Don’t know why. Probably afraid of falling off the rope with that big, stone head of hers or something!”

Tharol smiled at the joke, but was secretly mortified at how nonchalant Inol and Beesk were about leaving the entire gates open to a stranger. Their carelessness really was more dangerous than malevolence.

“So are you planning to wait for Master Palthio to choose one of us three to be over the Night Watch?” he asked.

“No, she’s impatient,” Inol said. “We want to move forward with when Reis takes the Night Watch. That’s when security will be the weakest.”

“But Reis is such a stickler for the rules,” Tharol pointed out. “I don’t think we can win him over.”

“Yeah, well, that’s why we’re going to poison him instead.”

Part Eight
Part Nine

On Monday I spoke of heroes who face their challenges alone. I pointed out how in the last competition Tharol’s support slowly dwindled away until he eventually he had no one. Then he was forced to make a desperate jump as his only chance for saving face. In that particular moment he failed, proving that he didn’t have what it takes. And that theme carried through in today’s chapter. Tharol is dejected and ashamed, abandoned by all of his authentic friends, forced to pretend an alliance with the more unsavory ones.

In short I am taking my time in bringing Tharol to his moment of total isolation. While it is a lengthy process overall, it has featured some dramatic shifts, such as in today’s scene where Avro, Bovik, and Janeao suddenly reveal how Tharol has made himself look to them. I was excited by the opportunity to take him from lofty and confident to far more friendless and depressed in a single, fell swoop.

It was a very dramatic transition to make, and I feel that that flair was exactly what was required at this point in the story. For some stories this wouldn’t be the correct choice. Some stories need characters that slowly push towards change until all at once they make a sharp turn. Others should go through several swings, back and forth, before coming to rest somewhere along that pendulum. And still others should remain constant in an otherwise changing world.

I’d like to spend some time exploring these different styles of character arc with my next post. I’ll look at examples of each type in other stories and consider the strengths of each. Come back on Monday to read about that.

Raise the Black Sun: Part Eight

black and white black and white branches cloudy
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Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven

The next day, when we awoke, we briefly discussed how if the theories of these people were correct, then this was to be the last normal day of our lives. One full, ordinary day, and then, on the next, everything would change.

And as I have suggested before, it wasn’t as though we us doubted the theories of these people. Even before they had disclosed their plot, we had already felt the gist of it. Felt it when we were still back at Peyrock plantation and read our charter. Felt it every step of our journey. Felt it when we saw the void and stepped within these strange walls.

If the locals here had tried to keep the purpose for summoning us a secret, still we would have requested to stay in the Coventry for a few days. And if they had denied that, we would have taken camp just without the walls. For we would have felt the electricity in the air, would have sensed the cloud of doom, would have felt our lives rushing to meet their apex. It would have been like when a great beast stalks you, and you do not perceive it by your eyes or ears, yet you can feel that it is there.

So what were we to do with one final day in the world as we knew it? Each of us felt it was only right to spend the moment apart from one other. Let each man go and find his own private shrine, his own method of solace, his own way to connect to life and bid it farewell. We had never truly parted ways the day prior, after diverging we had then converged right back together at the Slab Altar. This time each path would truly be our own.

When I left I did not know what I was looking for. I wandered the streets aimlessly, trying to find something that would call to me, something that would feel right in my soul. I say I wandered aimlessly, but there was one intentionality: I tried to follow the most barren streets that I could. Each road was more desolate than the prior, and so I meant to slip further and further into my solitude.

Presently I wasn’t walking across roads at all, for I was beyond any structure that required them. My way opened into an open field, dotted here and there by clumps of fine, gray grass. I was coming quite near to the walls, at a section that I had not seen previously. To my surprise, the walls on either side of me sloped steeply down into nothing, leaving a wide and intentional opening in the place’s fortifications. Perhaps these walls were not for protection? But for what, then?

Mulling that over I passed through the portal and continue with the field as it gently sloped up to a small crest, upon which stood a solitary tree. I had seen a few of these trees as we journeyed here. They were very sparse, interrupting the otherwise unbroken landscape perhaps once every square mile. Each of them appeared to be dead, entirely blackened in their branches and featuring absolutely no leaves whatsoever. Their limbs stood out naked and at irregular angles, giving the illusion of a creature frozen in pain.

Slowly I crept up to it. It seemed so delicate that I felt if I made too much noise it might just wither into dust and blow away. Presently I stepped into its shadow, and as I did so I discovered a most strange phenomenon. Most prominent in that shadow was the outline of the tree and its branches, just as one would expect, but then there was also a sort of soft haze–a partial shadow–in between the sections cast by the branches, and this half-shadow answered to no form of the tree that I could see. Nor was it stationary, rather it sort of shimmered and overlapped, growing thicker at some places and thinner at others, like smoke that billows into itself and apart again.

With a frown I stared up at the spaces between the branches of the tree, and presently came to see that there was a haze between them as well. Was it a heat haze? Perhaps the branches of this tree focused the sun’s radiation in some way?

I extended my hand, reached into the haze, and felt something so slight that I almost missed it entirely. It felt as if I was pressing my fingers through a curtain that only half-existed. I pinched my fingers together and it was like holding the finest paper imaginable, one so frail that it remained in my grasp for only a moment, then disintegrated into nothingness.

“It is leaves,” I said. “Leaves that are thinner than anything I know…. So the tree is alive.”

I smiled and scanned over it with my eyes. I gazed over tortured limbs, knobbly joints, bark as black as onyx, and a woman’s face right beneath my outstretched arm: youthful, beautiful, and staring back at me in utter amusement.

“Oh!” I cried in surprise.

“I’m sorry,” she said quickly, but was unable to suppress her laugh. “I didn’t mean to frighten you, I really thought you would have noticed me before!”

“You–you’ve been standing there this whole time?” I asked in disbelief, clutching at my heart.

“The whole time,” she nodded. “To tell you the truth, you were so enraptured in this tree, and so oblivious to me, that I was half wondering if I hadn’t turned invisible, or become a ghost!”

“You thought you had become a ghost?”

“Well…of course not really. But you must know how it is, when you get so lost in your fancies that they almost seem to be real?”

“But why didn’t you say something?”

“I wanted to see what would happen,” she shrugged playfully. “I half expected you were going to turn and walk away without seeing me at all. Then I would have known for sure that I was a ghost!”

My heart was still racing, but the more she spoke, the more I couldn’t help but be soothed by her soft and fervent voice. Her eyes had a tremendous earnestness to them, and I could tell she was never far from seeing hidden wonders in the world, beauty in things that others would consider mundane. Thus I couldn’t help but release my frustration, and instead felt an intense desire to know this young woman better.

“Who are you?” I finally asked.

“Mira. And who are you?”

“My name is Graye. I’m one of–”

“You’re one of those boys from so far away. You came in the caravan that delivered the scrying sticks to us. Of course, I know.”

“And you’re–you’re a member of the Coventry.”

“Naturally. Specifically I am of the seventh house, given the charge of caretaking for all the other houses.”

“Oh, I don’t know anything about that.”

“The Coventry is composed of seven great houses, and each one has a different responsibility. The first house is the Priests of Oolant, who actually perform all of our ceremonies. The second house is the Scribes, who keep careful ledgers of every action and cycle-fulfillment. The third is the Researchers. The fourth is the  Rememberers. The fifth is the Populaters. The sixth is the Growers. And we, of the seventh, are the Caretakers.”

“I see,” and inwardly I thought that surely each house was numbered according to its importance, hence why the first house was reserved for the priests. What a pity it must be for her to be of the seventh.

“No, that isn’t true at all!” Mira piped up. “I know the greater world can be petty and rank one group of people over another, but really things are not like that here. We Caretakers are considered just as essential in our role as the priests.”

“What?” I said defensively. “I didn’t say otherwise!”

Her eyes narrowed. I tried to hold the gaze, but finally my eyes turned down to my feet. “Do you know everything of my mind?” I asked bashfully.

“Only what you wear on the surface….

“Like clothing,” I said at the exact same moment as her. I smiled at that, but of course she was very familiar with such things, being a native of this place.

“Is anyone ever able to know another’s mind any deeper?” I asked.

“Yes, individuals can grow quite intimate with one another’s mind.”

“And…have you ever?”

“That is considered a rude question,” she said, but smirked playfully as she did so.

I looked away bashfully, and then felt all the more bashful for knowing that she could still sense my mind. She didn’t appear offended in the least.

“So…do you enjoy being a caretaker?” I asked, trying to change the subject.

“I do. I find it very satisfying. Obviously there are pleasantries to some of the other houses that we do not enjoy. But if one enjoys the work of caring for the old and sick, for keeping things clean and orderly, for fixing and building anew, then one can be happy. And I do. I find it very satisfying.”

“What pleasantries are afforded to the other houses?”

“Well, the Researchers get to explore and discover, of course. And everyone envies the Scribes for being the the voice of information. The Populaters…well I’m sure you can imagine what for them.”

I wasn’t sure, and I cocked my eyebrow in confusion. Then I saw how she blushed and I didn’t need a shared-mind to understand why.

“Oh!” I exclaimed. “The artificially inflated populations, yes I see! Back home they–well they tell stories about that.” Privately I thought to myself that I was quite glad Mira did not belong to the House of Populaters. But of course it was not a private thought, and before I could hide it Mira smiled coyly.

It was a very awkward, very vulnerable place to be. I had the sense that Mira was more attuned to understanding the mind than any of the others I had met in this land, and that meant feeling perpetually exposed in ways that I was naturally uncomfortable with. Yet in spite of all that, I didn’t want to go. I was enjoying her presence, and I hoped that she did not regret being in mine.

“It’s alright. I like talking to you,” she offered sweetly.

“Why?”

She shrugged. “I just do. Why do you like being with me?”

“You’re very sincere…and beautiful.”

“Well, you seem to know yourself quite well, don’t you? Most people are not so aware of themselves, and why they want what they do.”

“Including you?”

“I suppose I’m too much in wonder of other things to properly understand myself. They tell me I’m a daydreamer.”

“What were you doing here under the tree before I came?”

“Daydreaming.”

“Yes, but what of?”

“Of tomorrow.”

“The completing of the cycle, and all that happens next?”

“No, I care very little about that.”

“You what?! But what could matter more?”

She shrugged. “Nothing. Yet I just don’t care. It has everything to do with the world, but nothing to do with me.”

I furrowed my brow and she glanced away.

“I know that’s a strange thing to say, but it just doesn’t. I far prefer, for example, talking with you than thinking about that. That has to do with me.”

“Then what were you thinking about of tomorrow, if not of the cycle?”

“Oh, just of my day, my comings and goings, the little things that I must do.”

For the first time she sounded just like everyone else, talking about things that were only surface-deep, and clearly concealing something else.

“Please,” she said softly. “Could we speak about us?”

I nodded slowly, and let my unsaid questions dissipate.

“Tell me, then, what does it mean to be a Graye?”

“Well,” I said, “I am from a small hamlet called Omayo. I was born in the third year of the worst famine that region has ever known. I was the seventh child, but I never knew of my brothers and sisters. All of them died before I was aware of anything.”

“Was there an eighth?”

“No. I was alone.”

“So…you were one of seven, and alone.”

“That’s right.”

“And when you entered our village you were one of seven of forty, and yet just as alone.”

“Forty?”

“There were forty Treksmen assigned to this campaign, were there not?”

“Yes, but one of them died before we left, and three more refused to accompany us.”

“Perhaps they were not with you on the road, but I assure you that they have each wandered this quest in their own ways. We are all called, and even if we try to run from the calling, we inadvertently fulfill it. The one who died before the journey even began, that was what he was called to do.”

“You know him?”

“I sense him through you.”

“So I and my companions who survived? We did so because that was our fate?”

“At that point, yes. But your fates do diverge. I knew it from when I first watched you arrive. As I said, you entered with seven, but already you were marked alone.”

“Marked for what?”

“The same for which you were marked among your seven siblings: to be the only one to survive.”

“My companions…are going to die?”

“A great many of us are about to die. Almost all. Surely you have felt that? Everyone here can feel that. It is so sure that it may as well have already occurred.”

“But not me,” I breathed.

“You know it. I can tell. You have always known that you were marked to be a survivor. Though you did not know what lay before you on the road, you always knew that your fate was beyond it. To what, you do not know. There is a saying here, that one is not known until they are all known. Meaning you have told me where you came from, and normally I would say that is insufficient until you can also tell me where you are going. But in your case, matters are different, aren’t they? For you are endless.”

“And, if endless…” I began slowly.

“Then there is nowhere to which I can belong.” We said it in unison.

Part Nine
Part Ten
Part Eleven

 

On Monday I spoke about introducing a character at the end of a tale, and how they can still feel significant to the story by making them an extension of arcs that are already in play. That was the approach I took with Mira, allowing her to be the voice of the themes that have permeated the story ever since it began. The hope is that even though her name is new, she will feel like someone we have already known for a long while.

But this was not the only trick I tried to utilize to make her stick in the reader’s mind. I made a special effort to write her in a flirtatious, fun, and dreamy manner. Romance has not been an element of the story thus far, and hopefully this unique conversation will make the moment all the more impactful on the reader.

I’d like to examine this more with my next post. On Monday we will review the idea of creating a memorable character, and then we will continue with our story on Thursday.