Written by Aaron McQueen
Illustrated by Rachel Mrotek
Copyright December 27th, 2017
This story is dedicated to my family, my friends, and my most generous subscribers, whom I have listed below. Without their help, support, and contributions, this production would not be possible.
Azarelle rolled the paper out on the table.
“This is it.”
She nodded. Polly looked at the drawing. It was some kind of jewellery made from silver and bone.
“What is it?”
“You mean what are they?”
“There’s more than one?”
“They’re enchanted medallions that allow the clerics of Tormar to control their undead soldiers. The Jaspers have been stealing them all year, using their connections to smuggle them out of the city-state. Supposedly they have about a dozen, kept safe in a vault hidden somewhere in the house, just in case Tormar ever became a problem. They plan to use them to disrupt the enemy army. Valis wants us to steal them.”
“So he can use them?”
She shook her head.
“He doesn’t need them. Tormar has plenty of their own. He just doesn’t want the Jaspers using them during the fight.”
Polly regarded the sketch of the amulet. It certainly looked like other enchanted objects she’d stolen in her time.
“Wait. If the Jaspers have got these…things, can’t they win? Doesn’t this mean we should turn Valis in?”
Azarelle sat back.
“Sadly not. Their army is large enough to win either way. Doing this will just minimize Tormar’s losses during the invasion. He also said that if the losses are low enough, Tormar will be able to maintain order during the long night. Helping them might actually save lives. Of course, he might have been saying that for my benefit.”
“I don’t trust him.”
“You’re right. We need a backup plan of our own. Otherwise we could get to the end of this and discover we have no friends at all.”
Polly picked up the paper.
“The Jaspers never mentioned having anything like this.”
“Well, it’s not exactly the sort of thing you’d talk about.”
“So how does Valis know about it?”
“I don’t know. He’s a spy. I guess it’s his job.”
“Seems pretty fishy.”
Azarelle got up from the table and went to the window. It was already dark out. Lately the days were over in a flash. Rumour around the house was that Tormar had moved into the farmland surrounding the city. The invasion could come any day.
“It’s our only choice. The only other option is to tell Lon, pray he and his brothers forgive us, and leave our fate in their hands.”
Polly looked down at the drawing. She wasn’t sure she liked that idea either.
“What about those people who showed up the other day? You said they were supposed to help us. Do you think it was about this?”
She held up the sketch. Azarelle shook her head.
“I don’t know. But we are going to need. The Jaspers are all on edge. I think they know something’s going on.”
Polly suppressed a chuckle.
“And what if they tell Lon what we’re up to.”
Azarelle looked out. Shadows moved from alley to alley, flitting across the darkened street. Only her elven eyes picked up the movement. There was no light anymore. In the distance she heard a scream in the murk. She answered.
“Then we’re dead.”
Ellyn sat in the main hall. It was as good a place as any to attract attention. The household staff came and went at regular intervals, on their way to and from the kitchen, the bunks, the storage rooms, and the armoury. It was a busy place, not unlike the noble house she’d served back home, only quite as clean. She played whatever came to mind. The people listened as they passed. Now and then they would grab a seat when they took a break to drink or nibble on hard bread.
There were certainly worse ways to spend the winter.
And then of course, there was her other task. So far nobody was saying much. She’d managed to get a little scuttlebutt out of the kitchen staff when she’d slipped away to the back for a drink and a biscuit. The cook had given her beer. He trusted it more than the water. According to him, the invasion had already begun. Tormar was advancing west from their territory and into the outlying farmland that fed Selapak in the summer. It was only a matter of time before they made a final push toward the city.
No good. Nathanius would already know all that, and the house’s internal politics were proving far more elusive. The only thing she’d been able to determine was that the Jaspers were fairly certain that someone in the house was working for the enemy, and they already had a few ideas about who it was.
A door opened and Asterious stepped inside. He’d returned in the afternoon, having spent the whole night and most of the day out in the city accomplishing…something. He didn’t say what it was.
He sat down. There was a melancholy air about him when he finally spoke.
“What’s the oldest song you know?”
Ellyn thought it over.
“Why do you ask?”
He leaned on the table.
She smiled. He always seemed to be up to something. The only reason he got away with it was the fact that his mischief generally worked out.
She picked up her guitar.
“It’s a church piece. I don’t know the name.”
“A church piece?”
“I learned it my third week in the chora. It was given to me by a…friend.”
“I thought church music was banned.”
“It’s not banned. It’s just not very fashionable.”
He came to a nearer seat.
“Can I hear it?”
“If you like.”
He waited quietly while she adjusted the tuning on her guitar. The song used an older scale. The masters hardly taught it anymore.
She started playing.
Like most of the old church pieces, the song began on a low and sombre note. The tempo was slow and lamenting. There were no words, but nonetheless the melody told of the loss of something precious that could never be regained. The notes were a family in mourning.
Asterious listened intently, eyes half-closed. As the piece progressed the movements changed, becoming slowly glad, until by the final movement the instrument in her hands practically cried out with joy. It was only in the final coda that the composition returned to its original aspect, remembering its sadness at the last moment before passing into silence.
Asterious took a long breath and sighed.
“Thank you. That was beautiful.”
Ellyn set the guitar aside.
“It sounds like you’ve heard it before.”
“I did. A long time ago.”
Ellyn sat back.
“You know, for someone so young, you talk an awful lot about the good-old days.”
“Trust me. There was nothing good about them.”
She lifted an eyebrow.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
He went to the door. About to answer, he appeared to catch himself before he responded.
“Nothing. Forget it. Thank you for the music.”
They met up that night. Lon still had them cooped up in the outbuilding around the corner from the house. Nathanius hated the walk back from the mansion. It was pitch black, carrying a light only made you more of a target, and the authority of the syndicate only extended so far into the dark.
The others were already back. Asterious was in the corner, cleaning his fingernails with a knife. Ellyn rested on her pillow, leaning against the wall. She had a sheet of paper in her hands.
Nathanius looked over.
She looked up.
“Just some music.”
He raised an eyebrow.
“You’re composing now?”
She nodded absently.
“I used to do it all the time. Now that we’ve got a place to stay, I thought I might pick it back up.”
Nathanius sat down and pulled off his boots.
“Did you learn anything today?”
She told him. It lined up broadly with what he’d already managed to gather. He frowned.
“I don’t like this.”
“You’ve said that already.”
Nathanius sighed and lay on the floor.
“Well, it hasn’t changed.”
Ellyn looked over.
“Did you find out anything?”
“About the same as you. Lon thinks they’ve got a mole. So do the others. Rias thinks he knows who it is already, but the two of them don’t exactly see eye-to-eye.”
Ellyn set her papers aside and lay down.
“I guess we’ll keep looking.”
Nathanius shook his head.
“We’ll have to do more than that.”
Asterious looked up.
“How do you figure?”
“Everything we’ve done so far is based on the assumption that Lon and his brothers are the best bet to get us through the winter. If their position isn’t as solid as we thought—”
“You mean you thought.”
A fair jab. He nodded.
“We’ll need a backup plan.”
Ellyn leaned up onto her elbows.
“Do you have one?”
Nathanius shook his head.
Ellyn rolled back over.
A board creaked down the hall outsidel. Asterious looked up and reached for his weapons. Nathanius heard it too and turned. The sound drew closer, making a poor effort to be silent. Asterious held up a hand, switching back and forth between one and two fingers.
Nathanius shut his eyes and listened. He held up one. Whoever it was, they were alone.
Asterious nodded and crept to one side of the door. Nathanius went to the other, waiting for the crash.
It never came. No one kicked in the door. There was no ambush.
Whoever it was, they knocked.
They all looked at each other in puzzlement. Asterious lifted his eyebrows and shrugged. Nathanius shrugged back.
They opened the door.
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