The Favored Son: Alternate- Part Eleven

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

“Master,” Tharol panted, “I–I didn’t see you there–“

“No, you were more intent on getting to your perch to spy on young Beesk, weren’t you?”

Tharol fidgeted uncomfortably.

“As you have been every day for the past week…when you’re not too busy spending time with Reis.”

“I–“

“Very different sets of company, wouldn’t you say?”

“Well–we’re all members of the same order, aren’t we?”

Master Palthio smiled and shook his head. “No. And you know that.”

Tharol’s could feel the initial rush of adrenalin dissipating. He wasn’t feeling so startled anymore, and as it passed he found anger underneath.

“Is there something you want to say to me, Master?” even he was surprised to hear how much sarcasm dripped from that last word. There was no way Master Palthio had missed the slight…but he chose not to regard it.

“Very well. I won’t be coy with you anymore, Tharol. I know you, of all my students, crave directness. As I said, you seem to be spending your time in two very different circles. I can only assume this is for your own personal purposes that you wish to keep secret, and don’t worry, I won’t be prying.”

“Okay…”

“But I will offer you a word of caution. If you’re acting as the pawn for both sides, you’re likely to be played against yourself.”

Tharol’s eyes narrowed as he processed that.

“And believe me,” Master Palthio continued with a sigh, “I know a great deal about being another person’s pawn. I’ve tried to play by the rules of others, doing things I didn’t agree with, been manipulated against my will. And all because I hoped to sneak in something good along the way…. Things don’t work that way, Tharol.”

“Manipulated against your will?” The heat was coming back into Tharol’s voice. “Like me in the last competition! You set me up to fall off the ledge and break my leg!”

Master Palthio looked sadly at Tharol. “I was sorry to teach that lesson.”

“What did you do? Make the gap too large for me to clear on purpose?”

“Just the opposite. I specifically crafted that gap to be exactly one yard less than your record in our bounding exercises.”

Tharol blinked in surprise at that. “But…what did you mean when you said you ensured I would fail that jump then? How did you make sure of that?”

“Oh…I told you that you would. And you believed me.”

Tharol was stunned.

Master Palthio sighed and turned to go, but he stopped at the hatch for a parting word. “Stop playing by other peoples’ rules, Tharol. Be your own piece in the game. Better yet…don’t even play the game any longer.”

Tharol leaned back against the wall and tried to make sense of Master Palthio was saying. There was a lot to it…but he couldn’t parse it out. He shook his head and brought himself back to the matters at hand: the correspondence he had just stolen. He moved over to the hanging lantern and by its light read the contents of his pilfered note.

Change of plans. I have it on excellent authority that the third boy you recruited is a traitor to our cause! Check if he has sabotaged your plans, and if so remove him.

Tharol read through it twice, just to be sure he hadn’t misunderstood. The third boy? That had to mean him. A traitor? Sabotaging plans? What was this?! He crumpled the paper into a ball, knuckles white with anger. Remove him?! As in…kill?! And where did she get into her head that he had sabotaged anything? Yes, of course he was attempting to subvert their plans, but he had no idea how she would have caught wind of that. And he certainly hadn’t actually sabotaged anything. What even was there to sabotage? The wine in the cellar?

A sudden fear passed through Tharol’s mind. What if the wine had been tampered with and now he was being set up to take the fall? He couldn’t see why or how…but now that the thought had passed through his mind he had to check on things. He shoved the crumpled letter into his robes and strode out of the tower. The dinner bell was ringing but he ignored it entirely. He’d be a few minutes late again today.

Golu and Avro passed him as he made his way to the cellar, but they didn’t say a word to him, nor he to them. All the other boys were already gone to the main hall and that was just as well. He’d come up with an excuse for his delayed arrival later.

Tharol reached his destination and stepped down through the hatch. He went with the lantern to the back of the room and began moving the jugs until he had unburied the two poisoned vessels. He grabbed the first one and spun it under the light until he found its wax seal.

The seal was broken.

Tharol lifted the stopper and took a deep waft of its contents. Perfectly good wine, not so much as a hint of bitter Tinstin. The poisoned wine had been replaced, just as the letter from the statue woman suggested.

“What is this?” Tharol asked aloud. Someone was trying to set him up. It was the only conclusion that made sense. He couldn’t accept it was a coincidence that the bottle had been tampered with and then this note arrived. The same person was behind both. They had changed the wine and then told the woman to write the note. Actually, Tharol thought it highly unlikely that the statue woman had written the letter. Anyone who knew Beesk and Inol’s system could have easily planted the note in her place.

So did that mean it was one of them? Was Beesk or Inol trying to muscle him out, just as Reis had suggested they might do?

“Look at this, Inol,” Tharol imagined Beesk saying. “Got this note and the wine’s been replaced! Tharol’s a no-good traitor and you’ve got to help me get rid of him!”

But no sooner did Tharol picture that scene then he rejected it.

“I don’t know,” pretend-Inol responded. “The wax seal’s been broken and Tharol knew all about that. He was here when we put it on….If he was the one who replaced the wine wouldn’t he have had the sense to put it back?”

If it had been Inol or Beesk trying to frame Tharol they would have known to put the wax seal back. So that could only mean…

“Reis,” Tharol whispered.

Reis was the only other person that Tharol had told about the poisoned wine. Reis had even asked exactly where it was located in the cellar. The only thing Tharol hadn’t mentioned to Reis was the wax seal, it hadn’t seemed like an important piece of information. And the seal was so small that Reis wouldn’t noticed it when making the swap.

Tharol realized there was one other piece of information that he hadn’t mentioned to Reis either. Tharol grabbed the bottle that had been resting beside the first and turned it around to examine its wax seal.

Unbroken.

Rather than open it he pressed his nose against the stopper and inhaled. Through the cork and clay he could just barely make out the scent of wine inside…and also the faintest traces of the poison. This one had been left untouched.

He hadn’t thought it necessary to mention to Reis the issue of the first batch of poisoned wine being too potent and how they had diluted it across two bottles. So Reis had only known to replace the bottle directly in the corner and not the one next to it.

Tharol paused for a moment, thinking things through. There were many problems to sort out, but first and foremost was what to do with these bottles and the letter. He quickly determined that it was best to keep Beesk and Inol in the dark about it all. He was pretty sure they weren’t so corrupt that they would actually try to kill him, but he wouldn’t put it past them to hit him over the head and leave him trussed up in the cellar tomorrow night.

To that end he opened the lantern and stuffed the letter inside, letting it reduce to harmless ash. Then he tipped the lantern sideways and drippled wax on the altered bottle until the broken seal was mended. He found a loose rock on the ground and carefully tapped at the bottom of the bottle with increasing force until a shard broke off and the wine started dribbling out. He quickly placed it back in its corner, returned the unaltered bottle beside it, then covered them up with all the other bottles that had been concealing them from view.

There.

Now he would proceed with Beesk and Inol like nothing had happened. When they found the broken bottle he would be just as dumbfounded as them. He would simply suppose that they must have hit it too hard against the wall when they placed it in the corner, but fortunately they had a backup with the other bottle. Things would proceed just as planned.

Now that that was taken care of Tharol moved on to the next problem. Would Reis realize that his plan hadn’t worked out?

Probably. He would have known that Tharol was going up in the tower to spy on Beesk and Inol, and now Reis was sitting at the dinner table, silently wondering why Tharol was arriving late. And Reis would be paying special attention to Beesk and Inol at that same table, trying to gauge whether they were behaving like they had just been rattled by a note with some shocking news. And they wouldn’t be. They would be laughing and joking like there wasn’t a care in the world. And then Reis would start to piece it all together.

Tharol took a deep, bracing breath. Well he certainly was in it now.

Three minutes later Tharol finally came to dinner, prepared with an excuse of having discovered a hole in his tunic that needed patching. He entered the room, offered his apology to Master Palthio, and took his seat at the table. Through all this he steadfastly avoided making eye contact with Reis. Tharol couldn’t trust himself to keep his face unemotional if he did. He felt his skin hot and sensitive, as if he could sense Reis sneaking suspicious glares down the table at him.

In reality he was sure Reis was making no glares whatsoever. That would have been too revealing. He was sure that Reis was perfectly playing the part of an unconcerned pupil without a care in the world. He was sure Reis was eating his food with a steady hand and a tranquil expression, even as the wheels would be churning in his mind.

Tharol’s eyes instinctively flicked upwards against his will, finally making eye contact with Reis. And to his great amazement, Reis turned and met his stare with perfectly neutral eyes.

“Hey, Tharol, could you pass the salt?” the boy drawled.

It was so nonchalant that Tharol started to wonder whether his suspicions were entirely misplaced! Was it possible that he had drawn the wrong conclusions? That someone else had swapped the poison? That Tharol had diluted it more than he thought? Maybe he was just being paranoid again.

But no. Even though a part of him really wished that this was the case, in his heart Tharol knew it wasn’t true. It wasn’t his reasoning that convinced him either, it was his instincts. Reis had seemed the last true friend he had left at the order, and it hurt him to call the boy a traitor, but he was sure of it. It simply fit.

To what end…Tharol still did not know. He couldn’t fathom what Reis’s game was and he wouldn’t be able to until the next night. But the fact that it was Reis who was pulling the strings made him certain that this situation was even more serious than he had ever imagined. There was no chance that Reis would be extending himself like this for anything trivial. This wasn’t about money like with Beesk and Inol. Indeed, there now settled on Tharol’s heart a realization that they were all in very grave danger.

Part Twelve
Part Thirteen
Part Fourteen
Part Fifteen

On Monday I spoke of stories that have scenes the reader can immediately relate to. Whether by simulating a typical life experience or by connecting to the private fantasies in us all, these stories are able to spark an immediate connection in their reader.

Today I decided to try something a bit different from this, though. I specifically incorporated a scene that was would not be relatable to most audience members. Certainly all of us have experienced betrayal at some point or another, but I would imagine most of us have never had our lives being threatened by a traitor!

Of course this is a common scenario in stories: describing an experience that the user has never encountered before. This is a large reason of why we seek out stories, to explore situations that are exciting or interesting, but impossible or undesirable in real life.

And so here we find a little bit of a conundrum. Our stories will have scenes that are impossible for the reader to directly relate to, but we still want them to feel connected to the experience. This means the writer needs to use to have a healthy enough imagination to present an experience that the reader will feel is authentic. Perhaps we haven’t had our lives threatened by an act of betrayal, but we can try to imagine “what that sort of situation would probably feel like.”

As I tried to imagine what such an experience would be like the overwhelming emotion that came to the surface was numbing shock. There would be anger and hurt eventually, but I really think if I were in Tharol’s shoes those emotions would be too large to register initially, resulting in a sort of hollow emptiness instead. Hopefully my interpretation will ring true to the reader as well.

While we’re on the subject of betrayal, though, I want to point out how this has long been a staple of literature. I’d like to look at a few examples of this in famous stories and consider why we have a fascination with such a somber theme. Come back on Monday as I’ll do exactly this, and then join me on Thursday as we experience Tharol’s betrayal further in the next chapter of The Favored Son.

The Favored Son: Alternate- Part Ten

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

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

“Jittery.”

“Hmm…think they’re plotting something?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“…I know.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Just me I think.”

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

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

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

“Yeah but–“

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

“Or just turning a blind eye.”

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, that’s what I’m afraid of.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How?”

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

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

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

“But where am I?”

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

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

“I can manage this. Trust me.”

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

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

“I can manage this. Trust me.”

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then he saw it.

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

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

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

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

He had made it!

“See something interesting, Tharol?”

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

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

Part Eleven
Part Twelve
Part Thirteen
Part Fourteen
Part Fifteen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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