The Favored Son: Part Two

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Part One

“What do you mean?” Inol raised an eyebrow.

Reis clasped his hands and paced back and forth, as if giving a lecture. “There is a new era coming. We all know this. The mentors train up the next generation, then must pass on and leave things to the next. The Order becomes the sole possession of the new, and they are not to be anchored by the follies of the past generation. They reinstate what laws they find worthy and they abandon the ones that are now antiquated. I think we all know…that time is coming soon. The elders have made it very clear that the Trials are nearly upon us, and it would be wise for us to consider how we will make the transition after they have passed.”

“The elders are not gone yet,” Tharol frowned. “It doesn’t feel right to talk of sweeping away their laws even while we’re under them.”

“Of course I’m not suggesting an insurrection,” Reis rolled his eyes. “We will be nothing but loyal servants so long as they are our elders. But my concern is that we might fracture ourselves after they are gone. Suppose we haven’t already worked out our philosophies beforehand, here and now, when it’s all just theory. Today it would be nothing more than competing ideals, but after we come into power it might be civil war!”

Tharol’s eyes narrowed. “Why? Did you have something controversial to propose?”

Reis matched the narrowing of the eyes. “I would think that you of all people should see the need for reform. Aren’t you always coming on the wrong side of Master Palthio?”

Tharol shrugged. “I don’t see what that has to do with this.”

“I know that there are reforms that you’ve considered. Things that you would like to change about how we do things in the Order. Like have a more proactive defense against the Invasion.”

“Curious. Even I don’t know what I want.”

“But we all heard you in Master Valthyia’s instruction the other day…”

“I was asking questions. Perhaps there are flaws in our current system, I don’t know, but I also don’t know for sure what I would replace it with.”

Reis shook his head, realizing that he was quickly descending into yet another debate with Tharol, and that was not what he wanted here and now. This was supposed to be about him.

“Never mind all that,” he said. “The point is that now is the time for us to start raising our own banner. Of course we’re going to obey our elders,” he shot Tharol a dirty look, “but we can do that and start drawing lines for the future.”

“Like…lines of allegiance?” Bovik asked.

“Yes. Why not?”

“I don’t know,” Bovik looked sheepishly to the rest of his peers. “Aren’t we all on the same side already?”

“Of course we are,” Reis said shortly. “That’s the point. We’re already aligned to each other, and that gives us a solid foundation to formally unite under a common cause. Well why not make our pledge to that here and now? Why not give a solemn oath to continuing our cause and protecting our people?”

“Oh, well that’s alright then,” Bovik said with relief. “I thought you had meant electing a leader or something like that.”

“Bovik, I’m not sure that you’re bright enough to be here,” Reis let his irritation show. “Of course we would have a leader. Not a person, though, our leader would be our cause! However it may also be wise to elect one to safeguard that cause. Someone we could trust as a steward of its principles.”

“Well of course that would be you, Reis,” Marvi said sweetly. “And I’d be more than happy to give you my oath of loyalty right here and now!”

“Well how about it then?” Reis said to the others, leaping on top of a small, broken column. “Every order has its Senior Master, doesn’t it? The last thing I want to see is the elders pass on and we’re left with a mad scrabble for power. But if you’ll pledge your loyalty to me today, I’ll pledge my loyalty to governing rightly. Together we can make the future be what it should be.”

Marvi crowed her approval, and barely had she started than Inol echoed it, too. Bovik shouted his agreement quite loudly, no doubt to make up for any hesitancy he had shown earlier. One after another all of the youth shouted their assent.

Except for Tharol.

Reis pretended to not notice the one outlier, and leaped down to the ground, extending his hand, palm upwards.

“Let’s just make it official then, and after that I’ll be able to take you into my trust and show you another of Raystahn’s secrets.”

One-by-one the youth gathered in a circle, extending their hands to rest them, palm-downwards, on Reis’s. This time, Reis could not ignore the singular absence.

“Are you against us, then?” he shot viciously at Tharol.

Tharol shook his head. “It’s not like that Reis. It’s too early to be drawing lines for or against. We can have this conversation when the time is actually upon us, but this is premature.”

Reis opened his mouth, intending to shout something about how Tharol wasn’t welcome in this place anymore, but before he could the youth had already turned his back and started walking away.

“Hmm, never mind him,” Reis tried to shake off the slight to what was supposed to have been his unanimous coronation. “If the rest of you are ready…”

They all bowed their heads and recited in unison. “We place our strength upon you.” And then pressed slightly on his hand.

“I feel the weight of responsibility,” he replied, holding his own arm firm.

*

Tharol had barely stepped across the stone entryway of the monastery than Master Palthio approached him from an adjoining hallway.

“Ah, young Tharol, what a pleasant surprise,” the old man smiled. Tharol didn’t believe it for a moment. There was never any coincidence when it came to a meeting from Master Palthio, of this he was convinced.

“There is something you wanted to discuss with me?” he asked.

Master Palthio chuckled softly. “Ever the one for business, young Tharol. Walk with me.”

The two of them strode to the end of the entrance hall, then Master Palthio steered them towards the garden path.

“You truly are the most vigilant and attentive student I have ever seen, Tharol,” Master Palthio began.

Then why are you wasting time on opening pleasantries? Tharol thought to himself. He verbally said nothing. He found it was the best way to get people to move on to the actual purpose of their conversation.

“But I see you don’t care to discuss that,” Master Palthio nodded. “Tell me, Tharol, do you always feel a great impatience with the rest of us? That we take so long to come around to things of substance?”

It wasn’t the first time that Tharol wondered if Master Palthio was reading his thoughts, even though such was strictly forbidden.

“I just feel…” he paused, struggling to find the words. “I feel there isn’t enough time as it is already.”

“Mmm. You are weighed by a great deal, then. And afraid of what will be lost by our laxness?”

“Well…yes. I mean, I know that we ought to embrace the moment to its fullest, ought to be able to find the significance in all things.”

“You are just reciting canon now. You don’t believe these in your heart, do you?”

“Perhaps not. I think luxury and casual enjoyment are fine things…but we’re members of the Order, we’re the guard set to watch, aren’t we?”

“To watch what?”

“Why for the Invasion, of course?!”

“Mmm,” Master Palthio nodded, then continued in silence.

Tharol kept waiting for Master Palthio to resume speaking…but he did not. The old man just kept walking along as if he had no other intention than to enjoy this walk in silence with his pupil.

“Master, didn’t you–” Tharol finally ventured. “Surely, you had something else to talk to me about, Master?”

Master Palthio smiled softly. “You really don’t believe it possible that I just wanted to spend some time in your air, Tharol?”

“Well, I thought for sure you would be here to do something important.”

“And sharing your company could not have been what was important?” Master Palthio shook his head sadly. “When I speak of your vigilance and attentiveness, must that only be a segue to things of importance, and not the matter of importance itself? You are waiting for significance to come to this moment…and don’t consider that the moment itself was already significant.”

Tharol felt both touched and ashamed. He concerned himself with the study of his feet, not knowing what else he could possibly say to such a pronouncement.

“That is all the business I had Tharol. But if there is anything else that you wished to discuss with me, the rest of our walk is all yours.”

Tharol looked back up to his Master. An open invitation to discuss anything at all? One idea chased another through his mind. The strange creature growing in the maze, Reis trying to draw lines of loyalty among the students, Tharol’s struggle to find ‘the center inside him’ that his teachers spoke of, the impending Trials that the elders always spoke so gravely of. But above them all, there was one concern that arrested his mind more than all the others.

“Well…there is something, Master.”

Master Palthio smiled broadly. “I hardly assumed there wouldn’t be.”

“It’s a matter that I discussed briefly in Master Valthyia’s instruction the other day. Perhaps you heard of our conversation?”

“Even if I did, I would rather we speak freshly from your perspective, not from some other, biased, second-hand account.”

“Oh yes…well…the conversation happened to be around the Imminence of Invasion, of how futile it is to try and prevent it, because the nature of man is to relent to it sooner or later. He was teaching how any semblance of control must be surrendered, and simply vigilance maintained instead.”

“You don’t sound particularly favorable towards that notion?”

“Well the thought occurred to me, that if the Invasion is not withstood, if it is a sure thing to come in its cycles, then what is there to prevent it from breaking out among those that are supposed to be vigilant?”

“You mean what if it began within our own Order.”

“I just think that if I were the Corrupt Mind, our monastery is the very first place I would focus all my efforts. Especially if I knew that our Order will do nothing to prevent it.”

“Do we not train minds?”

“Yes…but–“

“But you see that as only a defense, and you would rather we take a more aggressive stance?”

“I know that is contrary to everything the Order stands for. But wars cannot be won by only defending, can they? At some time or another one must attack!”

“Hmm, you make an excellent point. I suppose the Order must be wrong.”

“What?!”

“I thought you’d be relieved. Don’t you feel a great burden lifted?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Because–I don’t mean to destroy the Order. Obviously I wasn’t arguing for that!”

“What if the Order should be destroyed? What if it’s entirely wrong?”

“I can’t accept that.”

“Why not?”

“It’s–it’s the only foundation we have.”

“Mmm,” Master Palthio said again. “Quite a conundrum. Our Order is your foundation, but you find yourself at issue with some of its foundations.”

Tharol bit his lip uncomfortably.

“No, don’t feel that you must hide such misgivings. There is no shame in this. If each of the Masters was being honest with you, you would learn that we all have our difficulties with one of the Order’s precepts or another.”

“You have? Well…what do you do about that?”

“Oh dear, you have struck upon the question, now haven’t you? Let me see if I can provide a coherent answer. Give me a moment…”

They continued on in silence. An awkwardly long silence, one where Tharol began to wonder if Master Palthio had entirely forgotten their conversation. Just as Tharol was about to speak up Master Palthio answered.

"When I continue along my way
And I come across a rock that I can push
Then I push it
And continue along my way.

When I continue along my way
And come to a rock that I cannot push
Then I go around it
And continue along my way."

Whatever reaction Master Palthio expected, he evidently had not anticipated the utterly confounded look that Tharol now gave him. The old man’s face split into a wide grin and he laughed out loud.

“I’m sorry, I suppose that sounds like a riddle to you. But honestly I can’t think of a more complex answer that I can give to help you.”

“Complex?! I’m looking for something simple!”

“No, you’re not. You’re trying to tie yourself in a knot, connecting two competing beliefs together in one. You wanted me to give such a profoundly intricate solution that you could do just that. But I didn’t give you that. I gave you something too simple for you to abide. And I am sorry, but that it is still my answer. It is the only one I have to offer.”

“I–” Tharol shrugged his shoulders helplessly. “I can’t.”

“No, I see that. To be fair, there are few who can. And tell me, do you feel that this conversation has been fruitless?”

“I’m even more muddled than when we began!”

“I am not surprised. Forgive me for being so blunt, but you do not understand because you are not ready to. You have a notion in your head of what form the answers to your questions must take, and so long as you hold to those preconceptions, nothing that I can say to you will mean a thing. You will never find the words to make sense of a paradox.”

“Well what am I supposed to do then?” Tharol could not keep the frustration out of his voice.

“Stop being the paradox.”

And with that Master Palthio turned and walked away.

Part Three
Part Four

On Monday I spoke about how some stories began with an extended introduction, before they get to their main arcs. I suggested that my previous section in The Favored Son was just such an introduction, where we became acquainted with the world and characters, but really don’t have a catalyst to drive them forward.

Today we started to tease at those main arcs, as we explored Tharol’s struggle to understand his Order’s dogma, which suggests an arc that will resolve his dilemma. And, ultimately, the story will, but not in the way that he anticipates.

But we’re not fully into the meat of the story even now. We still have our great inciting incident yet to come, which will occur when we reach the Trials that turn pupils into masters.

Before we get to that, though, I want to take a look at my characterization of Master Palthio. The elder is written to be kindly, even-keeled, and assured. Whether or not the audience is not able to make sense of what he is saying, my hope is that they will feel like they should agree with him. Because he seems good-natured, we naturally assume that he is right. Just as we tend to take the advice of real-life people when we perceive them as having our own interests at heart.

There is a particular trick that I used to give Master Palthio the voice of truth, though. He calls out Tharol’s status as being exactly what we, the audience, have likely determined ourselves: the boy likable but conflicted. By having Palthio speak aloud the same notion as is in the reader’s mind, we trust him as having sound judgment.

With my next post I’d like to further examine this technique of setting up the reader to think something, echoing that thought in your story, and how this builds a connection between reader and writer. Come back on Monday to see how that turns out.

Slow and Easy, Then Sudden: Part Two

man fixing vehicle engine
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Part One

Next door to the motel was the auto repair shop, exactly the place that Howie needed. He lazily steered his car into the neighboring parking lot, gave his horn two toots, then settled back until the shop owner came out to greet him.

“Well good afternoon, stranger,” the man smiled as he strode up to Howie’s open window. He was wearing the familiar uniform of blue coveralls stained in oil, and was wiping his hands on a yellow rag.

“Good afternoon,” Howie returned, then extended his hand to show he wasn’t afraid of a little dirt. The workman took hold and each gave a solid shake.

“Trouble with your car?” the mechanic asked.

“Mmm, not sure. It’s been making a noise I’m not used to, though, and figured I ought to check it out before continuing down the highway.”

“Good for you. I’ll pop open the door, you just go ahead and wheel her right in.”

Three minutes later the mechanic was buried up to his elbows in the car’s engine, while Howie rested his folded arms on the open driver’s-side door, watching the man work.

“A sort of, repeating popping noise you said?” the mechanic clarified.

“That’s right. That’s the one I don’t know. There’s also a chugging sort of sound, but I know what that is. Things get caught up in my exhaust all the time, I just don’t have my tools to fix it myself right now. Say what was your name?”

“Oh I’m sorry. I’m Andy.”

“Andy–?”

“Andy…Griffith,” the man smiled slightly.

“Well I’ll be!” Howie chortled. “That a joke?”

“No sir! Course when I was born that name didn’t mean anything at all.”

“No, of course not. I take it you never fancied work as a police man?”

“Fact is, I did! My old man was an officer during the Great Depression, and I always wanted to be one, too. But then he died on the job, and I couldn’t stand to follow that path anymore.”

“He was shot?” Howie’s eyes grow wide.

“No, silliest thing actually. Some delivery truck got a flat and he was helping change the tire. Jack broke and–well–he was underneath.”

“Huh,” Howie thought for a little. “Seems a little strange, though. You couldn’t see yourself becoming a police officer, but you don’t mind working with cars? Even though it was one of them what killed your daddy?”

Andy gave a grim little smile. “When you put it like that I guess it is a little strange. Can’t account for it. Just never blamed the machine I guess. At that point you might as well be swearing off jacks, and tools, and even gravity at that point. Can’t live that way.”

“No I guess not.”

“Well, and now that I think about it, might be I just used the sad story to explain my career change because it tasted better than telling people that I just didn’t like the idea of policing any more. Kinda became disillusioned with the force after I got stopped a time or two for silly things like breaking curfew. Made the profession lose its gloss for me, I guess.”

“Mmm,” Howie nodded. “Yeah, I know exactly what you mean. I have all sort of respect for a real man of honor, someone like who your daddy sounds to have been, what with helping people through some of the hardest times, but I can’t stand some of these young upstarts when the power goes to their head. They don’t even know what they’re out policing for, or what rules matter and which one’s don’t, and forget that taking care of others is supposed to be their first calling.”

“That’s the truth. Now what did your daddy do?”

“Oh he was a bank robber.”

Andy gave a start, “That a joke?”

“No sir! Well I figure your daddy and mine wouldn’t have gotten along too well, now would they?” Howie laughed at the thought. “Course those were simpler times where you didn’t have all these security features and silent alarms and all that. So it was pretty easy for him to walk in with a tommy gun and a handkerchief over his face.”

“Was he famous for it?”

“Nah…tell you the truth he only ever did it once or twice. I just like to introduce him that way because it was just about the only notable thing he ever did do. Otherwise he was a professional drunk.”

“Ah. Well I’ll tell you, robbing a bank even once sounds like a lot to me!”

“Does it? I mean back then it wasn’t much heavier than holding up a really big convenience store, really. Like robbing a Macy’s today.”

“Well I still don’t intend to hold up any Macy’s” Andy laughed. “Now…was that popping noise happening mostly when you were making turns? I’m thinking its about down to the CV joint to be our culprit now.”

“Might be. Can’t really say I paid enough attention to notice.”

“Yeah, pretty sure. This’ll just be a minute. Say, did you serve in any war?”

“I was too young for World War 2 by a little, but yeah, in Korea.”

“Same for me on both.”

“Why do you ask?”

“Oh, just what you were saying about robbing a bank being like holding up a convenience store. I guess to men like us who have gone to war a lot of crimes seem a whole lot less horrifying.”

“Mm-hmm. Can be hard to tell yourself killing is different in a war than at home.”

“Well you just come right out and say it, don’t you?! I’ve talked with a lot of vets, but never heard any of us admit to that idea before.”

“But we all know that we’ve thought it,” Howie said in a carefree manner. “I mean at the time, no. At the time we had to keep the two separated very neat and fine, didn’t we?”

“Only way to stay sane,” Andy agreed, but his face was starting to look terse.

“But after a while the mind starts to wonder. Like when you come home and someone got murdered in the papers and everyone around you is so shocked but you’re thinking ‘yeah, what of it?’ Someone always dies, and probably the latest poor sap isn’t as great a loss to the world as some of the other fellas who died beside you. Maybe even you already killed some men what was better.”

“I…I’m not so sure I know what you mean there,” Andy said slowly.

“No? Sure, I guess you can’t stay in thoughts like that. What can come of it? You just gotta shrug it off and say ‘I probably got a little mixed up.’ No shame in that, plenty of boys came back from the war mixed up even worse. So you just stifle down those mixed-up parts because society has to go on or else–well or else what’s the point to it all?”

“Mmm,” Andy nodded vaguely. “Well hey, it was definitely your CV joint. Got it all fixed out now. Give me just a second and I’ll have your exhaust unclogged as well.”

Howie had the good sense to see that this conversation had drifted uncomfortably close to the other man’s more private feelings, and so he didn’t try to make any more conversation for the next ten minutes. They had each seen one another a little more plainly than suited Andy, and probably he’d be in a foul mood that night because of it. Howie was much less fazed by it all, he had walked down the halls of his broken nature, and had found his own to way to make peace with it. But even so, it wasn’t like he would put the pressure on a fellow vet, so he sat and drummed out a rhythm on his knees, and when Andy told him the car was all set he thanked him, paid him, and left from that place.

He started down the road leading away from the highway, intending to follow its rugged path out into the desert. There were some nearby rock formations that he thought might be interesting to take a stroll around, not to mention that he had already shown his face to more than enough people in town today.

But just before he passed the last fringe businesses of town his eyes settled on a vagrant standing on the corner of the post office, holding a sign that said “Ashamed, but hopeful. Please help.” Howie frowned at that, then spun his car into the parking lot. As he exited the vehicle and stepped out the vagrant nodded to him slowly, clearly hoping that he was about to receive a hand-out.

The man was rail-thin, with his elbows protruding so far through the skin that it seemed they might burst out at any moment. His complexion was deeply tanned from spending so long in the hot sun, and his head and chin were covered in a scraggly, gray mess of hair. His sunken face made it appear as though his eyes were unnaturally large, and they peered out, a clear and piercing blue.

“What sort of man begs in a sleepy, little town like this?” Howie demanded with a scowl.

“If I could get a ride to the city I would happily beg there instead.” The vagrant’s voice was cracked and unnaturally high, but the words he chose proved that his mind still functioned properly.

“Now I’ve spent a day here, and these are good folks in this town. If they haven’t taken care of you, then they must have something against you.”

“Even a bad man still needs to eat.”

“No, see, that’s your problem. You call yourself a ‘bad man’ and of course no one’s going to let you eat. People don’t have pity on a ‘bad man.’ Look at you! You’re literally wearing a big sign asking everyone to hate you. ‘Ashamed but hopeful?’ Why I’ve never heard of anything so foolish.” There was a real vehemence in Howie’s voice, as though he found something genuinely offensive about the man’s demeanor, as though he would like nothing more than to grab him and break him right there in broad daylight for being so stupid. “Let me explain it to you plain and simple, everyone is a bad man. You got no monopoly there. But it all comes down to marketing. Every bad man is good once he presents himself like he is!”

The vagrant could feel the dry heat in Howie’s words and his eyes turned moist and intense and some loose spittle flew from his lips as he spoke. “Don’t I know it! But I wasn’t the one that called me bad first. They’ve done branded me now, and people don’t really change their opinion once they’ve made up who you are.”

Howie’s scowl broke into a cold, mean smile. “Well that much is true. You already done ruined yourself here, haven’t you?”

“So what am I supposed to do then? Doesn’t matter what I call myself now, I’m already known for what I am.”

“No, you’re still wrong. Cuz brands don’t stick to a man, they stick to a place. The new man in town is…a new man. You want a chance in life? You gotta get out of here, brother. Get to someplace where no one knows you and start calling yourself a ‘good man’ there.”

“If I could get a ride to the city I would happily beg there instead,” the man repeated longingly.

“That would probably be best…but not with me,” Howie turned back around and started walking to his car. “I don’t trust you.”

“I’m a withering, old crumb!” the vagrant called after him “I couldn’t do anything to you!”

“No,” Howie laughed as he extended his foot into the vehicle. “No you couldn’t. Let’s say I just don’t like you then.” And he slammed the door closed and drove away.

Part Three

 

On Monday I talked about stories that suspend the plot in order to lean into character development. This section’s conversations ultimately have nothing to do with the greater plot of the story, but all the moments that follow will make far more sense because I took the time to reveal this side of Howie Stuggs.

Because the fact is, Howie is not entirely the same man in this section that he appeared to be in the first. As with getting to meet a new person in real life, the facade we first get to know if often very different from the actual human who lurks beneath. With the start of the story we introduced Howie the same way he introduces himself: warm, playful, and pleasant. But with today’s entry we start to see that there are strong currents of anger and nihilism coursing through him.

A character that changes over the course of their story can be a delicate thing to manage. On the one hand, an evolving personality is one of the hallmarks of good story-writing, and can many times will feel more believable and interesting than a character who forever remains the same.

But at the same time, any change has to feel warranted, has to feel grounded in what we already know. The character can change, but only in a way that makes sense. With my next post I would like to examine some great characters from stories, and specifically how they or the perspective of them changed over time. I will look at examples of how this has been done subtly, and how it has been done dramatically. Come back on Monday to read about that, and then next week we will see the final evolution of my character Howie Stuggs.