Nathan had known that day was coming long before it occurred. Everyone did. Every other week some general or senator would show up, claiming to be the voice of the White House, and delivering a totally different set of orders than the last “representative.” Gradually everyone came to understand there was no central authority anymore. Somewhere along the way it had dissolved until every national power was an island of its own.
Nathan’s team stopped accepting oversight. They worked night and day to complete their prototype. For what purpose they didn’t know. No purpose if they didn’t get it finished, though.
Against all odds, they managed to scrap something together that they thought might work. But they couldn’t turn the tide with just one prototype, and they didn’t have resources to make any more. It wasn’t fully tested, either. It might not even work.
No. It had to work. When his colleagues’ faith waned Nathan held constant. Fate had chosen to let them complete this for a reason. This prototype had a purpose, a great calling to fulfill. He didn’t know how, but it was going to turn the tide of things. All that was required of him was to keep seeking until he found out how.
And so he stole it.
Any moment a sand striker worm might smash through their facility, or a mob might come marching into the building, or one of the other researchers might hand it over to one of those useless senators. He had to act before any of that happened.
It wasn’t hard to steal it. He waited for one of those rare times when all the other researchers took a break for a few hours of sleep. He left with them, but then doubled back, got his handgun out of his locker, and marched up to the guard.
This was no trained soldier, just some local former sheriff turned mercenary, and he gladly kicked away his weapon and laid down on the floor rather than get a bullet in the head. Nathan took the prototype, stole the sheriff’s truck, and sped off into the night.
“It was decided we should take the prototype weapon and bring it out west,” Nathan looked Samuel Iverson squarely in the eye. “I was entrusted to bring it here.”
“Why here?” the elderly woman further down the table asked.
“Well, as you know, the giant sand striker worm population is much denser in the eastern states than it is out here.”
“Because of the higher human populations,” Doctor Hogue added.
“That’s right. You don’t have anything nearly so populous out here until you get right on the western coast. So L.A. and Seattle and Portland were hammered, but here in the central west we were detecting less than one worm for every twenty thousand square miles.”
“So wasn’t the need for your weapon greater out east?” the elderly woman suggested.
Nathan shrugged. “I mean what difference would it make? This prototype should be able to clear out one adult and its nest, but then it’s used up. It would be like firing a single bullet into a horde of ants. But out here…it could actually make a difference.”
“It could?” Samuel Iverson still looked skeptical.
“Yes, at least that’s what I’ve always trusted in. I didn’t know what I would find out here when I first set out. I didn’t know anything about your outfit here at the edge of humanity. Basically I had no idea what it was I was looking for…but I knew I would recognize it when I saw it. Some opportunity, some special situation, some perfect place that this weapon had been made for.”
“I’m still unclear as to the nature of this weapon,” a large, black man seated next to Nathan spoke up.
“Ah, yes,” Nathan removed the shoulder straps of his backpack and put it on his lap. “Nothing too extravagant. Tried and true methods of killing were the best option.” He unzipped the bag and reached inside, pulling out a plastic tray that was divided into ten equal sections, each covered by its own lid. He popped open the first section and pulled out a compacted pill powder, about the size and shape of an egg. “Promethyia,” he pronounced, “a poison specifically engineered to disrupt the giant sand striker worm’s digestive system.”
“How, specifically?” Doctor Hogue leaned close and squinted at the pellet.
“There are three layers. The first is eroded by the highly potent acids in a sand striker worm’s gut. It’s a tough layer to get through, and any other creature that swallowed this pellet would pass it without ever unsheathing the second and third layers.”
“The second layer is a carefully engineered acid, one that is specially designed to perforate the intestine wall of the sand striker worm, creating openings to the rest of the body. Then the third layer is a bacteria that naturally occurs in the sand striker worm. Usually it is dormant and does no harm to them, but we found some worms that died from a mutated strain. We were able to preserve and hybridize that bacteria variation, and through the intestine perforations we release them into the creature’s bloodstream.”
“How quickly does it work?”
“The worm will die within a month.”
“And you have enough here to poison ten of them?”
“No. One worm needs to consume all ten pellets.”
“Can the bacteria spread from one worm to another?”
“Theoretically, perhaps. But it only lives in the blood, and sand striker worms do not generally encounter one another’s blood. They don’t even eat one another’s corpses.”
“A month?” Iverson said.
“You said a month for the worm to die?”
“Yes, it should be about that long, give or take a week.”
“But this was your first prototype?”
“So it’s never been tested.”
“Yes, but the science is solid. It will work.”
Samuel Iverson folded his arms and shook his head in disappointment.
“It will work!”
“But what effect will it have on the worm during that month?”
“Gradual deterioration of its functions. Increased temperatures, swelling of the glands–“
“It’s behavior!” Iverson pressed, “What will it’s behavior be like during that month?”
“I–don’t know. Like you said, we haven’t tested it yet, so–“
“So it might go into a rampage! It might thrash about in agony and destroy anything in its vicinity!”
“Ah, I see,” Nathan said quietly.
“Now you do. But you’re not used to looking after a community, are you? You don’t have their lives weighing on you like we do! You’re not used to thinking through all the possible side effects, picking out the ways a plan might backfire and spill the blood of others.”
Nathan took that in for a moment, then replied in a low and steady voice. “I have not had to care for a community like you have, sir, but absolutely I have had to endure the weight of my creation. I have faced consequence and side-effect every step of the way from Virginia to this room. I have made difficult choices, and I have had to endure the spilling of blood.”
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.”
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.
“But he’s dangerous!”
“And I am a Master of the Order. Don’t fret yourselves, I really am feeling much better now. Our district needs you out there. Go now.”
There was a finality to his tone that quelled the unspoken protests in the boys’ eyes. Reluctantly they all shuffled out of the room and Master Palthio closed the door behind them.
“Master I know this doesn’t look good, but you’ve got to believe me!” Tharol blurted out. He still didn’t know whether Palthio was to be trusted, but frankly he didn’t have any other choice but to take his chances. “Reis is a traitor and he’s planning something very dangerous!”
Tharol braced himself for one of two reactions. Would Master Palthio be completely shocked, aghast that Tharol could make such a claim against his best student? Or would he round on Tharol in a rage, furious with him for having figured out his and Reis’s scheme?
The one reaction Tharol did not expect from Master Palthio, though, was annoyed indifference.
“Yes, yes, of course he is,” Palthio waved his hand dismissively, turning to his desk and rummaging through its drawers. “He has been since the first day he joined our order.”
Tharol’s mouth dropped. Was Master Palthio making fun of him?
“I’m serious!” he said hotly.
“So am I,” Master Palthio looked sharply up and Tharol could see that he meant it. “And I was serious when I told you to stop playing other peoples’ games, too. But you’ve gone and got yourself really mixed up in it now.”
He drew a long dagger from the drawers and came towards Tharol.
“Forgive me, but my extremities don’t have all their feeling back. I wouldn’t be able to untie that knot.” So saying he gripped Tharol’s wrists and quickly sawed through the rope. It fell to the ground and Tharol was free.
“You know?!” Tharol could still hardly believe it. “You’ve always known? Well come on then, we’ve got to go stop him.” He bounded for the door, but Master Palthio raised his hand behind Tharol and the door locked itself fast.
“Tharol…there is no stopping him,” Master Palthio said sadly. “Don’t you think that I would have already done something about it if there was?”
Tharol turned around, confusion etched all across his face. “You’ve got to let me out, Master. I have a plan. Reis isn’t going to get his way tonight.”
“Reis is the least of your problems, Tharol. Please take a seat,” Master Palthio gestured to the seat behind his desk. Tharol didn’t budge. “Tharol, I am going to let you out of here…but not until you hear what I have to tell you. Take. A. Seat.”
It was the last thing Tharol felt like doing, but there wasn’t any other choice. He marched over to the chair and perched on the corner of it, foot tapping impatiently.
“Thank you,” Master Palthio said, lowering himself into a seated position on his bed. “I’ll try to be brief.”
The sun had seemed to set extra quickly that evening, what with all the commotion that had occurred.
“Maybe we should stay up with you,” Avro offered Reis when it was time for the Night Watch to begin. “None of us are going to get much sleep anyway.”
“No, no,” Reis said. “We’ve had a ruffle, but we’ll carry on as we had intended, business as usual. Best way forward is to stick to our duties.”
Reluctantly the other boys retired to their barracks, leaving Reis alone on the wall. With hands on the ramparts he eagerly watched the sun fading behind the rolling hills, waiting for his moment of triumph. Already the first stars were appearing up above, and soon the moon would take over the realm. How fitting a symbol, Reis thought, for the power changes that were about to take place.
“Tharol, this district has been dying for a long while now,” Master Palthio began his explanation. “There was still the shadow of honor when Lord Oraliah–that’s Lord Amathur’s father–reigned over the district. There was still a great deal of corruption all around him, but he was mighty enough to keep it at bay. Then, once he died, he left a vacuum that was immediately filled by all those opportunistic, unprincipled vultures! The only reason we didn’t have a civil war was because his own son was the worst of the lot, willing to make every concession to keep the dukes and senators happy. I won’t go into all of the politics of it, but I believe even you have seen the effects of it. Order and decorum are a joke, scheming and underhanded deals are the norm, and no one has any sense of duty. All they care about is their own agenda.”
Tharol stopped tapping his foot so impatiently. He nodded sadly, but then added, “Well not all of us have lost our sense of duty.”
Master Palthio smiled. “No, you are correct. Forgive my cynicism. That, of course, is the other sickness that has pervaded our streets. A sense of hopelessness, a belief that we are beyond repair. That cynicism has been my own vice, and I have not fought against it as well as I ought to have. It has compromised me as much as if I had been another of the selfish opportunists. That cynicism has paved the way for even more dangerous enemies to the city.”
Reis heard a noise behind him and turned to see Inol mounting the stairs, large cup in hand.
“What’s this?” he asked in pretend surprise.
“Master Palthio’s orders,” Inol smiled. “The Night Watchman is to have a chalice of wine to keep him company through the night!”
Reis met the smile and took the cup. “Well that’s very thoughtful! Thank you, Inol.”
Inol nodded and stepped backwards, but his face fell slightly as Reis placed the cup down on the wall.
“You’re not going to take a drink from it?” he asked.
“No, not yet. I’ll save it.”
“Well…at the very least I had thought we should toast your commission.”
“Thank you, Inol, that’s very thoughtful. Wait here a moment and I will.”
“Reis is cynical, isn’t he?” Tharol asked.
“Yes. Extremely so. He hates the opportunists, the Beesks and Inols of this city. He wants to burn them to the ground and build a stronger, stricter order on top of it all. And he is not the only one that does. There has been a growing tide both within our walls and without that want to destroy this city for its weakness. And these revolutionaries know that they can manipulate the opportunistic fools into opening the doors for them. Offer them something that they value and they’ll let you get close enough to drive a dagger through their hearts.”
“But…you knew all about this and haven’t done anything?!”
Master Palthio sighed and looked downward heavily. “Tharol…I have tried. In quiet ways, I admit, but I really have tried. Maybe I could have done more, I don’t know, but I have tried. You have no idea how outnumbered we honest folk are. Every gate has been compromised. Every district. The very city core! Speaking up for principle has become a dangerous vocation. Sounding alarms that no one wants to hear gets you stifled. I know what Reis was came to our order for. I know what Beesk and Inol are doing behind our backs. But if I removed any of them there would just be more cynics and opportunists to take their place. If I kept weeding out the likes of Beesk and Inol Lord Amathur would have had me removed for cutting into his side ventures. If I kept weeding out the likes of Reis I would be assassinated! You can try to fight the inevitable but it will happen anyway. There is no stopping the coming tide.”
Inol shifted uncomfortably next to Reis. The statue lady was supposed to show up any moment now and the boy still hadn’t taken his drink. Inol would have to think of something fast or Reis would see her approaching!
“Well…I should really be getting to bed,” he said. “Why don’t we do that toast now and then I’ll get my rest.”
“Very soon, Inol. Very soon.” The last of the daylight had faded, leaving the sky a murky, navy blue. Reis kept his eyes fixated on the horizon, trying to still make out the line of hills in the dark. Suddenly he became aware of a thousand pinpricks of fire lining the most distant ridge. “Oh,” he breathed excitedly. “Come over here, Inol, I think the time for that toast has come!”
Reis’s back and arms were tensed in excitement. He didn’t turn a single degree as Inol stepped beside him and followed his gaze out to the rolling hills beyond. At first Inol couldn’t make out anything in the moonlight. The only movement was the tall grass waving in the wind upon the distant hills. But then, with a shock, Inol remembered that grass didn’t even grow on those rocky crests. And there was no wind. What he actually saw was a mass of people, an entire army silently marching towards the city wall. With a gasp he looked left and right, and he saw that the line continued as far as he could see in each direction. Thousands upon thousands quickly approaching, billowing out to meet each of the district’s gates!
And in all that empty air there was not a single sound of warning. No alerting bugle. No clash of swords. All the other gates must be seeing the approaching horde just as he did…but none of them were doing anything to stop it!
“Drink with me, Inol,” Reis smiled broadly. He lifted the goblet and looked over its rim in a salute to the coming masses. “My triumph has arrived!” Then he raised the cup to lips and took a long and deep draught. He was so flushed with success he didn’t even notice the unusual warmth of the liquid, the bitterness that was mingled with its rich flavor. “What’s the matter, Inol?” he said with a laugh at his comrade’s wide stare. “Aren’t you feeling well?”
Then, without warning, Reis’s whole body trembled violently. His eyes expanded in shock and he flung the goblet to the ground, clutching to the nearest brazier for support. He convulsed again, and fell the rest of the way to the ground, fingers scrabbling madly against the wood. He opened his mouth in agony and let out a single, long scream!
On Monday I compared my current version of The Favored Son to my first attempt at writing the story and I considered the elements that were stronger in each. From my freshman effort I specifically called out the greater creativity and heightened drama, and I stated that I would attempt to incorporate some of those elements here at the climax of my second version.
We got the first example of that in this highly dramatic scene of the army approaching and Reis being poisoned. The tension of that moment was built up more than any other scene in the story. It felt more on the level of that dramatic moment in the first story when the teachers suddenly assaulted their own students.
Here at the climax of this story it feels particularly fitting to cut loose in a loud moment of catharsis. Reis has been smugly pulling the strings on all the other boys for the entirety of the story. Now we finally get to see his mastery of the situation burst into pieces, and it works well for it to be a highly dramatic moment. With the next chapter of the story we will also see more magic coming to bear.
It’s certainly been a long time getting to this finale. There’s still two more chapters left to go, making this the longest tale I’ve published by a significant margin. We are finally coming to the end, though, and that means it’s time to take a step back and review all the lessons we’ve been learning along the way. Come back on Monday as we look back at it all, and then come on Thursday to see how the story continues.
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!
Thus at the end of my last chapter I had Tharol increase the toxicity of the wine to a point that it might be lethal for Reis. I realize that today’s chapter might feel like it then distracts from that element of suspense by focusing more on Reis’s schemes, and how he is removing Master Palthio and Tharol out of the picture, but I have a specific reason for having spent some time here.
In the next section Tharol will remain incapacitated. He is the only one that can prevent Reis from drinking that poisoned wine and now he will be physically incapable of doing so. The wheel has been set in motion and the only one that can call out a warning has been removed. I believe that this will accentuate the tension in the moment where Reis finally does take that wine, but setting up for it required me to briefly shift the focus elsewhere.
In the next section I will ramp the tension back up around the poisoned cup, by pausing around his moment of actually drinking it, making the audience wonder if he will go through with it or not.
I promise that we’ll get to this moment of catharsis soon. This story has extended much longer than I had originally anticipated, but now I am down to the last three chapters. At this point I would say I am close enough to the end to compare it to the original version of The Favored Son, the version that strayed into a different path than I had originally intended. I want to share how well this current attempt has done at meeting my original vision, and how I feel about the two stories compared against one another. I also want to identify why I feel the first one went off into such different waters to begin with.
Last summer was the first time my son appreciated holiday fireworks. Before then the suddenness and the loudness of them were just too overwhelming. During those earlier years I noticed that there was a particular part of setting off a firework that filled him with the most dread, and it was not the explosion at the end. It was the fuse fizzling before the boom.
Once the actual eruption occurred he was usually fine. Then he could see that it was only a small shower of sparks coming out, and he knew there wouldn’t be anything too overwhelming. But before that moment of realization, to his young mind anything might come out of that small cardboard tube. No matter how many assurances we gave him that we had only bought “small ones,” he remained unconvinced until he could see it for himself. Thus at the lighting of the fuse he wasn’t sure if he was safe, but now it was too late to halt the process!
The master of suspense in cinema, Alfred Hitchcock, hit on this very same point. He once said “there is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.” There is an excellent example of this in his movie Rear Window. In this film’s nearly two-hour runtime there is almost no action from beginning to end. But there is plenty of burning fuse.
Our main character, Jeff, is stuck at home with a broken leg, snooping on the neighbors in the apartment across the courtyard. A certain one of those neighbors starts showing a series of suspicious behaviors, leading Jeff to believe that the man has killed his wife. At one point he sees an opportunity to uncover incriminating evidence, but as he is stuck at home with a broken leg his girlfriend (Lisa) decides to carry out the mission for him. The fuse is lit.
Jeff makes an anonymous call to the neighbor, telling him he knows what he did and organizes a blackmail meeting. Jeff has no intention of actually meeting the man, but it gets him out of the house while Lisa breaks into his apartment and finds a damning piece of evidence. But of course she discovers it just as the man returns back home!
The fuse is very hot now. We’re all anxious for the explosion that is about to follow. At this moment that fallout might hold anything, including a second murder. We watch helplessly as Lisa hides, the man finds her handbag, searches for, and finds her! He starts drilling her with questions and she tries to make a break for it, but he grabs her and turns off the lights! All the way to this moment nothing decisive has happened, but we are withering at the burning of the fuse! As before, so long as it continues to burn, any gruesome outburst is still on the table.
But then the explosion doesn’t happen. Jeff called the police at the first sign of the man returning home and they arrive just before Lisa can meet a violent end. At this point violence didn’t really have anything more to add to the film. The terror had already been maximized by the long suspense.
I have tried to implement this same idea of the burning fuse with the most recent post of my story. In it we already know that Reis is planning to betray the order, but we are left wondering as to how. Any outcome is possible right now, and we have to wait to see it.
How To Wait)
Alfred Hitchcock also said that “suspense is when the spectator knows more than the characters in the movie.” And this is true of that same scene in Rear Window, for we see the man coming up the stairs to his apartment before Lisa knows that he has returned home. That, in fact, is the moment where the suspense burns the brightest, even more so than when he is actually having his altercation with her. She is ignorantly wasting her last possible seconds for escape because she doesn’t know what’s about to come through that door and we don’t have any way to warn her.
But how to include this ingredient of suspense in The Favored Son? The most obvious choice would be to reveal Reis’s plot to the audience before Tharol uncovers it. Then Tharol could ignorantly walk into the snare, all while the audience squirms in anticipation. But I didn’t want to go that route. Thus far Tharol and the audience have uncovered each piece of the truth together, and I didn’t want to break that balance.
What I realized I could do, though, was invert the element of suspense in this story. Instead of the audience knowing about Reis’s trap, and Tharol being oblivious, I could make the audience aware of Tharol’s trap, and Reis would be oblivious. And thus I wrote the scene of Tharol increasing the dose of poison in the wine.
At this point Reis doesn’t believe that there is any poisoned wine remaining. He has no reason not to drink the cup that Beesk and Inol will bring to him. And as he toys with that cup I think the audience will enjoy a sense of anticipation for what it about to follow.
Because anticipation is the positive counterpart to suspense. Where my son used to see the fuse burn and was filled with dread of the unknown, now he bounces excitedly, anticipating that same unknown. It’s the same basic idea, it’s just inverted from fear to excitement.
Suspense is a powerful tool in how it keeps the audience on the edge of their seat. It works best by suggesting to the audience that something dramatic will happen, something that the characters involved are unaware of, but while still leaving an air of mystery as to what exactly the coming fallout will look like.
With my next post I won’t get to the payoff for all this suspense, though. First I’m going to ratchet up the tension with a twist that will be as surprising to the audience as it is to Tharol. My hope is that this will make the anticipation of the poisoned cup raise even higher in the chapter after that. Come back on Thursday to see what you think.
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!”
“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?”
“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.”
“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.”
“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?”
“We haven’t ever had special provisions to get out of duties just because we were tired have we?”
“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.”
“So you will take care of scrubbing the pots this afternoon. Understood?”
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.”
On Monday I mentioned how betrayal is an extremely prominent theme in storytelling. Often the actual act of betrayal occurs in a sudden and surprising way, as a twist meant to catch both protagonist and audience off guard.
But with The Favored Son I wanted to go a different route. I wanted Reis’s coming betrayal to be signaled well in advance. I didn’t want there to be any surprise when it finally came to fruition. That allows me to ramp up the anticipation of it and create suspense. And this is exactly what I have been showing in today’s chapter. Tharol is stewing in his anxiety and he is becoming increasingly frazzled by it.
Of course that does mean there is a sort prolonged amount of time between our knowing that something bad is going to happen and our seeing it come to fruition. Delaying catharsis can build suspense for a while, but delaying it for too long eventually causes the tension to dissipate.
This is something I have to be careful with these chapters of my story. I am anxious about slowing things down too much before the end. In preparation for the next sequence I would like to dig into the concept of suspense and see what I can learn. How do great thrillers keep you waiting but not bored?
Come back on Monday as I consider exactly this. I will look at a few examples of great suspense stories and try to learn the lessons that they teach. Then we’ll see how well I can apply those concepts to my story on Thursday. See you then.
“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.”
“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.”
“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.
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.
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.
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.
“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!”
“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.
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?”
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?”
“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.”
On Monday I spoke about a few of the different shapes that a character’s arc might take. I observed that I had Tharol slowly pursuing a path of suspicion and doubt when suddenly the rug was pulled out from underneath and he realized that everyone else was coming to be suspicious of him instead. Then he went from curious to dejected, numbly going through his days with as little feeling as possible.
Now he has entered a new arc, leaning much more heavily into his relationship with the order’s more unsavory characters. Of course he cannot really rely on these pretend friends. As previously implied, he will only grow more and more isolated until he is totally alone.
For now, though, I want to turn my attention to a particular scene in this chapter, the one where Tharol and Golu witness Lord Amathur’s procession and the riders coming to free the slaves.
I got so far in the scene as Lord Amathur walking through the crowd and saluting the merchants, but then came to a dead stop. I knew the second half of this scene needed something that would portray Lord Amathur in a villainous light, but each time I tried to write it I kept running it into the most bland of clichés. Usually some variation of an innocent passerby crossing Lord Amathur on something trivial and Amathur letting out his rage on them in a moment of disproportionate violence. A thoroughly overused and unimaginative scene if there ever was one.
All too often writers fall back on clichés like these instead of putting in the work for ingenuity. They craft a story through tropes instead of through original ideas. And as I just shared, I can certainly understand the temptation to write a story this way. I have experience that temptation firsthand.
Even so, I couldn’t bring myself to publish something so cheap, and I did dig deeper until I found something more imaginative. With my next post I would like to examine why it is that we fall back on cliché, and what we can do to fight the pull of it. Come back on Thursday to read about that.