It wasn’t until later that evening that it truly hit Tharol what he had done. He had assisted in treason. He had improved on the plan that Beesk and Inol had put together. Had shown them the mistakes in it and prevented them from an obvious error. He had pushed them one step closer to sneaking a dangerous outsider into the Great City.
Of course his ultimate objective was to prevent their betrayal and by helping them he had prevented anyone from accidentally taking a fatal dose of poison! His intentions were pure. But it still felt wrong. He just didn’t like being a part of this world. It made him feel tainted by association.
Well, so what if it did taint him? Maybe that was just the sacrifice he bore to do what was right. If someone had to dirty their hands, why not he?
Reis certainly didn’t have any qualms with what Tharol had done.
“So were you guys able to get the poison?”
“Yeah,” Tharol said somberly. “Already in the wine, in fact.”
“Excellent! Where is it?”
“Tucked away in the corner of the cellar.”
“Fine, that’s perfectly fine! So they’ve got everything set up how they want. They must be feeling pretty pleased with themselves!”
“Reis, I helped them. They were likely to make a mistake and get themselves caught but I’ve been making their hairbrained idea an actual possibility! And I’m not at all comfortable with the fact that there’s poison just sitting around in the keep!”
“Why? I already told you, I won’t drink any that night. Just a little sleight of hand and they’ll be none the wiser.”
“That’s taking an unnecessary risk. Also an unnecessary risk for if one of the other boys sneaks into the cellar and chooses the wrong bottle!”
“But you said it was tucked away. I assume the back line and bottom row?”
“Yeah, of course.”
“North or south side?”
“North,” Tharol furrowed his brow, not seeing why this really mattered.
“Yeah, no one’s going to come across it there.”
“Let’s just pour it out in the trough now and put some fresh wine in there. Beesk and Inol probably won’t even notice.”
“No, I want to hold onto it as evidence. I want to be able to show everyone exactly what they were trying to do. And you just let me take care of myself that night. Okay? You’ve told me what to watch out for and now it’s my responsibility to take care of it, not yours.”
Tharol sighed. “Fine.”
With that the two of them left for their afternoon training with Master Palthio. As they arrived at the central courtyard they found it equipped with blocks of wood set in a large circle and wooden staffs littered across the ground.
“Combat training,” Beesk groaned, softly enough that Master Palthio wouldn’t hear.
“How can you be surprised by that?” Janeao asked. “It’s at least once every week!”
“I always hope it’ll be the last day of the week. Master Palthio is less demanding when he knows we’re tired. Anyway, what’s the point of my practicing? I’m the worst and I always will be.”
“Well that’s exactly why you should practice,” Tharol pointed out.
Their conversation was cut short as Master Palthio clapped his hands for the boys to begin their exercises. Each of them picked up a staff and chose a pair of wooden blocks to stand on top of, quavering back and forth until they settled into their sense of balance.
“Now,” Master Palthio began, “let us start with Mora-Long.”
Each of the boys turned to a neighbor and assumed the stance for Mora-Long, which was a slow, powerful form, one of Master Palthio’s favorites for warming them up.
The clatter of colliding staffs rang through the courtyard. There was always one or two boys that lost their balance here at the beginning. They grunted in frustration, got back on their blocks, and Master Palthio told them to begin again. After a few false starts they finally came into rhythm.
Tharol was facing against Janeao and he was having a hard time of it. The measured, powerful stances of Mora-Long were perfectly suited to Janeao’s greater strength. Whenever Tharol blocked one of Janeao’s blows there was so much extra energy that he would have to give a little hop to dispel it, hoping that his feet would be able to feel their way back onto the blocks as he came back down. Better to keep up the attack, then, and make Janeao block instead. Thus Tharol increased his aggression, but Janeao merely scowled and moved to keep pace.
“Easy, easy,” Master Palthio said as the din of Tharol and Janeao’s crossing staffs doubled the cadence of every other duel. “This is a warm-up, boys, not a competition.”
Janeao slowed, then grinned and let out a powerful, wild swing. Tharol didn’t even try to catch it, he ducked downward, barely in time. Then he popped back up, flicked his wrist forward, and brought his own staff right beside Janeao’s face. He did not strike him, but he hoped the message to calm down would come across.
“Swap sides,” Master Palthio instructed as he continued pacing around the boys’ circle.
Tharol turned to his other side and faced Inol.
“Feto stance,” Master Palthio ordered.
Feto was a tricky form, particularly when one was limited on balance. You spent half the time on a single foot, moving your staff through long, looping arcs. Paradoxically, though, it was also the best form when on poor footing…if you were a master at it. Then your constantly shifting balance spilled into the momentum of each swing, causing you to bound and cavort like a mad top, whirling out crushing blows with every leap.
Tharol paused for a moment before crossing staffs. As an overall fighter Inol was on the same level as Tharol. They each had their preferred forms, though, and Feto was definitely one of Inol’s. So Tharol decided to wait and see how Inol would approach.
Inol smiled as he understood Tharol’s hesitation, then swung his staff down to his side and leaped high into the sky. Tharol’s eyes went wide, bracing himself for the blow that would follow. He would have to catch it on the end of his stick and let its force spin him through a complete circle.
Inol reached his apex and came rushing downward, staff spinning wildly. Tharol tried to predict where the blow was coming from, thrust his own staff out to meet it, and began to spin his body to catch the excess momentum.
But at the very last second Inol pulled his staff back, drove its end deep into the dirt behind, and used it as a prop to help steady himself as he landed back on the wooden blocks. Tharol, meanwhile, thrown off by the complete absence of a blow, lost his balance and tumbled to the ground.
Tharol rose back to his feet and gave Inol an approving nod. It had been an excellent feint.
Tharol dusted off his tunic and returned back to his fighting stance, but Inol wasn’t ready to spar again. He was staring off to the side where Reis and Golu were dueling. In fact all of the boys were slowly pausing their own scuffles to see the match between the order’s two grandmasters.
Each of the boys were leaping and spinning at a breakneck pace, staffs colliding like thunder, then whirling a full 360 degrees to crash on the other side. They moved in staccato, each attempting to break cadence and catch the other off guard. It was impossible to state which of them was attacking and which was defending, rather it seemed each was doing both at the same time.
“How did they get that good?” Tharol wondered aloud. “They’ve only had the same training as the rest of us.”
“I don’t think either of them would have managed it alone,” Inol responded. “They each needed the other to push them.”
Perhaps the best evidence of what Inol said was in how well the two understood the other’s style. By now they were spinning so quickly that they spent half the time with their backs to each other, not even seeing the blows careening at them, but still able to land every block, knowing by sheer familiarity where the other boy was sure to strike.
“I think of late Reis has been edging ahead of Golu,” Beesk said from the other side of Inol.
“You’re crazy,” Inol countered. “Golu’s form is clearly better.”
“Yes, but Reis has stopped trying to beat him on form. He’s going to win because he’s more willing to sacrifice.”
No sooner had Beesk said the words than they proved perfectly true. For Golu had just made a round, swinging attack aimed at Reis’s side. Reis swung his own staff as if to meet it, but at the last moment turned his wrist so that the two weapons missed each other by a mere fraction of an inch.
Everyone watched in shock as Golu’s staff, unhindered, closed the gap to Reis’s body. Reis didn’t seem to regard it at all, though. He kept moving with the momentum of his last swing, twisting his body until he faced away from Golu. Golu’s staff made contact and broke across Reis’s unguarded back! All of the boys flinched and Reis gave a loud grunt of pain, but he did not lose his focus. He was now three-quarters of the way through his turn, staff whistling through its murderous arc. Golu’s own weapon was in splinters, and even if it wasn’t he would never be able to get it around to block Reis’s staff in time. Golu tried to dodge, but was still caught full on the shoulder and sent flying through the air to the ground.
Reis had won.
“How did you know he would do that?” Tharol looked past Inol to Beesk.
“He did something very similar during the last competition. You probably missed it while you were holding your broken foot. It was how he won. He’s been taking all the standard forms and modifying them with intentional mistakes to lure his opponent in.”
“And since when did you become such an expert on fighting?” Inol raised an eyebrow at Beesk.
“Just because I can’t move properly through a fight doesn’t mean I can’t read one!”
“What’s everyone standing around for,” Master Palthio rounded on the students, only just now noticing that they had become as engrossed in Reis and Golu’s battle as he had been. “Get back to practice!”
The boys scrambled back into position and proceeded with their fights. Tharol’s mind was only half on his duel with Inol, though. He kept replaying that last maneuver Reis had used in his head, unable to believe what he had seen.
He had always known that Reis was willing to take a risk to win, he had witnessed that in the competition where Reis used himself as bait while his teammates overwhelmed Janeao at the tower, but this was something else. It was a wonder he hadn’t had his ribs broken taking that blow full on from Golu! But crazy as it had seemed, it had worked.
Tharol got a good parry in and Inol was sent revolving off his block. He smiled in satisfaction, then used the moment’s respite to look over at Golu and Reis. Reis was lifting his staff high overhead to deliver a powerful blow, arms coiling like springs, shirt bunching up behind him.
And it was bunching up in a very distinctive square shape. A distinctive, unusually well-defined square.
Tharol frowned and a thought occurred to him, one that he couldn’t shake. He dwelled on it all through the rest of practice and also while they changed back to fresh clothes before dinner.
One-by-one the boys left in their new tunics. Reis was the last to leave their dormitories, but he ran to catch up with Avro and Bovik on their way to the main hall. Behind them Tharol emerged from the shadows and dodged back into the now-vacant dormitories.
He made his way directly to Reis’s cot and rapidly searched it. He lifted the pillow, prodded across the mattress, looked between the boards…every nook and cranny he could find. Nothing.
He turned to leave, disappointed. But just as he made his way towards the exit he saw it! Hanging over the barracks door was one of the antiques of their order: an old breastplate that had belonged to an ancient warrior. It was an old-fashioned piece, a small square with wiry ropes attached at each corner for fastening in the back.
Or, if you had no one to help you put it on, fasten the ropes in the front with the breastplate covering the back.
Tharol lifted himself up to look at the breastplate more closely. It was a relic of actual battles, and as such was extremely battered. Among all the centuries-old dings and cracks there was one dent across them all that must have been made more recently. It was just the right width for Golu’s staff.
On Monday I shared about my desire to avoid clichés in my writing and to put in the necessary effort for originality.
Now to be perfectly frank, the idea of a mole who gradually learns that his handler is a traitor isn’t entirely original. It has most famously been played out in films like Internal Affairs and The Departed. But while the theme is not entirely new, I do strive to make the implementation of it be original. Just as how West Side Story is based on Romeo and Juliet but is also an extremely fresh take on that idea. And if I do say so myself, I believe this story also stands apart.
But being original is difficult and prone to running into corners. In fact I had written this final act once before, then scrapped the whole thing because it wasn’t coming together the way I wanted.
I’ve enjoyed pulling back the curtain on my process in the past, and I’ve decided to do it again here. Come back on Monday where I’ll share a little more about what originally went down in this part of the story and why I decided to change it. In the meantime have a wonderful weekend!