This is one of the four chapters I mentioned in my previous post. I had written this before I started to iron out a decent timeline with proper motives and villains. I just thought I would post this, since it might give you a better feel for my writing style. I’ve also shared this with a few friends. Since the general situation will be largely unchanged in the final product, critiques are definitely most welcome. (For that matter, critiques are always welcome here.)
Matar had flown long enough. He just … somehow … knew he had. He changed his wing pattern to ‘Up, Down, and Close‘. When he broke free of the clouds, he could clearly see every detail of the dense city buildings, even in the dying light. He didn’t think of it as ‘Shiira’. In his head, it was more like, ‘Lonely Circled Group with Even Layers‘.
~ ~ ~
Whenever Shanung was doing someone else’s job, he usually paced. Back and forth he went; the wood beneath his feet creaking with each step. High above the city, the wind would occasionally gust. So, to break up the monotony, he would lean against any of several support beams, stemmed from the surrounding parapets, and rap his aki pipe against the iron rail guard, making a distinct ‘dinging’ sound until the embers stirred up inside. If he timed it just right, he would get to watch the wind catch a few of the embers so they could ‘dance’, glowing and twirling over the cityscape. Peering over the edge of the tower, he noticed the Shiirati were finally flocking south in droves. Turning to Marrow, he spoke loudly in his rough, leathery voice. “I know this is boring, but you’ll need to wake up, boy.”
Marrow immediately recovered from his slumber and leapt up to a crouched position. He already had a knife at the ready and was darting his eyes all around. But all that came into vision was Master Shanung leaning on the iron banister; a trail of smoke floating up from his pipe, only to get trapped in the coffer above until a strong wind wandered by to claim it. His head felt groggy, but he managed to recall where he was – and that he was supposed to be on watch duty. He only felt mildly guilty for falling asleep; nothing important ever seemed to happen during the watches, anyway.
Marrow was almost as skilled at accurately throwing knives as he was at falling asleep just about anywhere. The latter got him fired from many jobs all throughout Shiira, which recently led him to the Shiirati Tartaros chapterhouse. Luckily, the same level of energy exhibited by him when he had to wake up at a moment’s notice always seemed present while he was working on a job for the guild … unless he was doing something boring. “Eh? What’s goin’ on? Did I miss something?”
“You could say that.”
Marrow yawned out, “All right … All right. Sorry, these watches make me bored out of my skull. So what do you wanna talk about?” He started digging at the sleep in his eyes.
Shanung nodded his head toward the streets below.
Marrow peered over the ledge. “So, they’re finally on the move, eh? Look at ‘em. They’re like sheep. Peh! If it were me bein’ forced to go to the coronation, I would kill off every guard in the city first.”
Shanung seemed to force the semblance of a smile on his stony face. “We were both told to go to the coronation. To the ceremony. By order of Prince Gaitan.”
Marrow smirked and snatched a throwing knife from out of his belt. “Oh yeah … so it goes without sayin’. I should kill me some guards!” He leaned over the ledge and acted like he was aiming for one stationed on the street, six stories below.
Shanung’s smile fell flat, leaving the hard, experienced look he always seemed to wear. “What I suggest we do is stay out of sight and mind of the guards for the rest of the night – before they start puzzling out what we’re up to.”
Marrow’s smile vanished almost as thoroughly as Shanung’s; his posture improving under the commanding gaze. “Yeah, all -” Suddenly, a loud ‘ding’ hit the iron banister which gave them both a start. They quickly turned to find a large falcon staring right back at them. “What the Hell!?” He didn’t even have time to draw a knife.
Even Shanung was unmistakably shocked. He muttered, “That’s … Lord Gazic’s private avian messenger … the one he always sends to royalty.”
Marrow spat, “Peh. That could be any falcon. How do you know that’s bloody Matar?” The animal shifted its black gaze to Marrow and tilted its head, as if it understood.
Shanung had begun to unfasten the message. “I’ve seen him before. Matar is the only falcon I know of with every other feather black like that, alternating with the brown, you see? And that message … look at the seal. Recognize it?”
Marrow gazed at the strange emblem. It seemed to tickle the back of his mind. He concentrated, trying to search his memories. Several seconds later, it became obvious nothing was going to come to him. Glancing at Matar, it seemed to look wholly unimpressed, if that were even possible. “How should I recognize it? What are you gettin’ at?”
Shanung spoke while breaking the seal; his eyes stared off, as if he could envision what he was speaking about far off in the sky beyond the city. With his thumb, he traced imagery as he spoke, “A horizontal line, to represent the horizon. And three-quarters of a circle beneath it, to represent the sun. It is called the ‘Reverse Sunset’.”
“Eh … Wouldn’t that make it a … sunrise, Master Shanung?”
Shanung grimaced and shook his head. “It’s like when a sunset is reflected in the water. Tartaros is an underground society, and likewise, the name for the deepest part of Hell. So the Reverse Sunset is used as the symbol for our guild. You’ll start noticing it more and more now that I told you, like right here.” He gestured with his pipe toward the recessed panel just above them.
Sure enough, one giant Reverse Sunset was the design broadly displayed right above their heads. How the heck did I never notice that before? Marrow glared at the seemingly condescending avian. Frustration was creeping up on him more and more, making him feel ignorant; few things in this world could get him so angry so quickly. “Stupid Matar is gettin’ on my nerves, staring at me like that.” He shook a knife threateningly and, with a sudden gust of wind, the avian fell backwards and dove – dove down the side of the sheer tower’s drop an impressive fifty steps away before spreading its wings, where it intricately laced and weaved around the protruding canopies at break-neck speeds, twisting and darting around the jungle of criss-crossing stairwells before finally vanishing at a narrow passage between two buildings. He shouted after Matar in anger.
“Hey! Out of sight and mind, remember? I don’t want to have to be your babysitter. Learn to control your damn temper.”
Marrow finally turned around, glaring at the floorboards. “Well, next time I see Matar, I’m gonna run a knife straight through its skull.”
“Try to remember he’s just an avian, boy. And I’m not so sure Lord Gazic himself wouldn’t have just slit your throat for even thinking such a thing.” Shanung rolled up the letter and sighed. “Let’s go downstairs. I need you to gather the others in the planning room.”
~ ~ ~
With his arms crossed and his ivory pipe secured firmly between his teeth, Shanung sat, patiently waiting at the head of the large, circular planning room table. Carved into its surface was the Starburst of the Shiirati, pointing in eight directions to each of the surrounding stained leather chairs. Each of its eight points represented a ‘seat’ in the Shiirati Council; the southmost chair, the ‘head seat’, representative of the High Chancellor. The northernmost chair was considered bad luck to sit in, but also bad luck for a household to not furnish. The beautiful starburst design was barely visible at best; a disarray of half-torn maps and rolled-up blueprints obscurred most of it. Adding to the chaos was the numerous half-toppled stacks of books shoved against the walls.
Shanung’s hard, unyielding stare merely lent to his overall appearance. He was unusually tall and muscular, giving him a presence that was hard to ignore. He had been shaving his head bald ever since he moved from Aydomar to Shiira in an attempt to keep cool in the heat, and grew to like the look. Despite where he originally hailed from, he was dressed just like a typical Shiirati. On either side of his belt, scabbards housed a pair of scimitars. Shanung found himself wondering if he was gradually losing his old self by readily subscribing to Shiirati customs. He finally shrugged it off, pushed aside some papers, and carefully spread out Gazic’s letter in front of him.
The door swung open and in walked Mourn, a young woman who was slight of frame, but her imposing nature easily made up for it. She had long, shock white hair and thin, tattered bangs that covered, but did little to conceal, her razor-thin dark eyebrows which traced the curvature of her oceanic blue eyes. Around her neck was a choker thick with short, white feathers. She wore a thin, white hoodless robe that split midriff to reveal a pierced navel. She was wearing black shorts, that left little to the imagination, coupled with a pair of laced, white ankle-high boots. Within the passing of a few moments, she managed to traverse the room and kick a chair into place, sat down, and planted her elbows on the table. She cradled her face in her hands and blew upwards at her bangs like she was bored.
Right behind her was her boyfriend, Cyronil. He usually had no shirt on at night – because Mourn liked him that way – and she loved the pair of tattoos; crows flying outward from the center of his chest, as if they were bursting from his heart. His actual physique was comparable to Shanung’s, though his face wasn’t nearly as aged or angular. He had short, tussled brown hair, and a goatee with a silver spike piercing emerging from the center. Covering his lower stomach was an orange wrap of fabric that went under the waistline of his baggy white pants, which were both held in place by two black double-looped belts. He took care laying his quarterstaff over a nearby group of stacked books before taking his seat to Mourn’s right.
Marrow’s skinny body managed to swiftly slip between the door and the frame before it had time to click shut again. His hair was short, black, and spiky. A large nose, fairly long neck, small eyes, and perpetually angry eyebrows all helped make his poses look more full of swagger than he usually intended. His white robe was unfastened, revealing a baldric glistening with throwing-knives. It rested over a dirty white shirt, slightly torn at the neck, and a pair of tan trousers. And on his feet were the most typical Shiirati footwear: corded sandals. Despite being the newest member of the chapterhouse, his usual air of arrogance was clearly present. He stabbed a knife into a nearby stack of books and, with a deliberate spin, sat down in a chair, letting it rattle in a circle before coming to a stop. From there, he craned his neck, trying to focus on the distanced words scrawled on the scroll Matar had delivered.
And finally, the door clicked open one last time to reveal Eth, who said in his low, fluid, almost humming voice, “So … what’s this I hear about a message from the illustrious avian Matar?” He had dark, thick eyebrows and sideburns, but he was otherwise bald. He was far from bulky, but his arms were certainly well-defined. Almost as tall as Shanung, he had intense, dark eyes and wore metal gauntlets. But he seemed otherwise unarmed. He wore a sleeveless robe open at the front over a dark red shirt, with loose hunter green shorts and corded sandals. Eth chose to stand by the door, leaving the other four seats in the planning room empty; including the northern one, of course. He usually preferred to stand and pace, claiming it helped him think.
“Peh – I don’t think Matar’s as illustrious as you say. The stupid avian probably missed the palace and delivered the scroll to us by mistake.”
Some light laughter followed, but Mourn’s voice sliced it into ribbons. “Shut up for a minute – so Master Shanung can talk.” There was something about Marrow’s personality that had a bad habit of creeping under Mourn’s skin at any given moment.
Everyone complied with Mourn, though it seemed Shanung was still reading … or perhaps just thinking. Eth peered around the room. He almost always volunteered himself to break such awkward silences; it was like an itch he had to scratch. This time was no exception. He decidedly announced, “Keep in mind, His Lordship has sent a message with his fastest avian. Clearly this message must be of utmost importance. And he sent it to us.” He was already pacing.
“You’re right. But I will state it clearly right now – It won’t be easy, by any measure, for us to deliver on what Lord Gazic is asking. I can only say at this point … I will do what I can for him.”
The tips of Cyronil’s extended fingers and thumbs were symmetrically met. He held this ‘cage’ of fingers in front of his mouth, where it seemed to emanate deep thought. It was true he usually didn’t speak unless he had put a lot of thought into what he was going to say, first. He reluctantly spoke up. His voice always seemed serious and had a low intonation.“I think – we’d all do what we can for our leader – naturally – even if it sometimes feels as if he’s on the other side of the world.” The ‘bursting’ crows on his chest were often representative of his emotions.
Marrow, who perhaps had not yet fully weighed the seriousness in the air, said, “So – what does he think he wants us to do on the same night as the coronation? Kill the prince or somethin’?” He laughed, but found himself laughing alone. Somehow, to the rest of the room, that notion didn’t seem too far outside of the realm of possibilities.
Shanung shook his head. “It seems we need to keep an eye on a few run-aways, tonight. Morikel, Tresnor, and Cirellio. The problem is, Lord Gazic believes they will not be at the coronation – but somewhere in the city.” When Shanung glanced up from the letter, he was met with panicked eyes. Coldly, he began passing around a few black and white photographs.
Right away, Marrow protested. “If the guards see us tonight, they’ll attack. There’s no doubt! I was bloody kidding about killin’ ‘em earlier.”
Eth nodded in agreement, ruefully adding, “This is a bad idea – Any way I puzzle it out in my head, we lose. If they see us – which they probably will – we will either A: Get browbeaten and hauled off to jail. B: Stand and fight until we seriously wound or kill a guard, which means we will all be made examples of by daybreak. C: Stand and fight and be slaughtered. Or D: Run away, and then the royal guards will immediately report spotting us to the newly coronated King Gaitan, who will forcefully exhile us from our city – and that’s if we are lucky. I’ve heard bad things about Gaitan. The Shiirati council would certainly never vouch for us, either. Tragically, our fates would be solely in Lord Gazic’s hands – And I doubt he would be pleased to learn he lost his only foothold in the Shiirat.”
When Marrow seemed to agree, Mourn spoke up. “’Doubt he would be pleased’? If Lord Gazic loses his foothold here, it will be his own damn fault. Does he even realize the coronation is tonight and the city is crawling with guards?”
Shanung nodded grimly. “But if four of us are together, and we run into one or two guards, we might be able to avoid bloodshed if we calmly tell them we are going straight to the coronation.”
Mourn coldly laughed out, “This is ridiculous. You can’t tell me you’re actually considering going through with all of this.” She slammed her elbows against the table and, impassioned, continued, “We can’t be sure these people are even in Shiira! For all we know, they are as far away as shipwrecked on the Tilman Islands. Or hiding in some random cave. Or drownin’ in the forsakened Nareth somewhere. If they are smart, they already are. No thief in their position escapes the debtors and fugitive hunters. Runaways shouldn’t have any reason to come into a big city like Shiira, anyway. So I say we stay right here. Our solution is obvious: We simply send a message back, telling him they aren’t here. I will not have us risking our lives for a few strangers that irresponsibly wandered too far off their leash just because Gazic was drunk one night when giving orders!” Her voice rang in the rafters moments after she was done.
During her speech, Shanung’s eyes were squinting hard. In the flickering light, it was hard to tell if he was angry or not. But his response came out mostly unperturbed. “Gazic is our lord. Address him as such. I will not have you disrespect his position of authority.” Then his voice developed an edge as he continued, “And I assure you, miss, that his letter was written with a steady hand.”
“… It’s no secret he drinks.”
“… Why do you feel like our lives cannot be risked? Is it not because we are like a family to you?”
Mourn glared at him. “Don’t you dare say it.”
Staring down Mourn for a while, Shanung’s eyes returned back to normal. Casually puffing at the burning aki sitting in his pipe, he continued, “All members of Tartaros are your family. Just because we are remote from northern Erthai doesn’t mean we are free from the sworn bonds holding us to the Thieves’ Code.”
She groaned in frustration.
He pointed the end of his pipe towards the wall behind him, where a hanging scroll detailed each rule. Without actually looking at it, he said, “’By joining, you have abandoned your old family for new.‘” Then he said, “’Help other family members who are in need.’”
She hissed, “Do you think I didn’t know that?! I don’t need a textbook explanation – Don’t you see? We don’t need to throw away our lives when Lord Gazic doesn’t even have to know about any of this!” Flustered, a single tear escaped her eye.
Cyronil thought quickly on what to say during the exchange. He needed to decide on something that would both serve as mediation and defend Mourn. He settled on, “What Mourn is suggesting may sound like sedition – and we all hold the code in the highest regard – but common sense is telling us we are most likely facing a suicide mission. Her plan is probably far better than us senselessly throwin’ our lives away – or, at best, permanently losing our home. But that doesn’t mean we still can’t help out Lord Gazic. Why don’t we just … search for them after the coronation has ended?” He folded his hands conclusively.
Shanung’s face grew darker. He bit off his words. “We would do Lord Gazic honor by at least trying. He is a member of Tartaros just like the lot of us are. And he is in need. You wouldn’t force me to raise a convocation of inquiry, would you?” And with that … his subordinates seemed significantly cowled. Such a convocation would involve all of them in a very serious internal investigation and trial, all done within the Tartaros Guildhouse in Aydomar. Some trials ended in public executions, apparently a function of the heavily rumoured ‘Game of Regulations’. The thought of their own master reporting them to Gazic … had apparently never occurred to them.
Eth nervously laughed out, “But – surely tomorrow would work out just as well, right Master Shanung?”
He shook his head. “If we don’t make our move tonight, it will be too late. Lord Gazic isn’t certain of their circumstances, but he is quite certain the three men are all right here – right now. He is also certain they are planning on doing something during the coronation, and it’s supposed to be our job to find out what that something is. That means by tomorrow, if they are smart, they will be as far away from Shiira as possible. But by then, they could very well be in a random cave like Mourn suggested. If we don’t discover their motives – right now – tonight – Lord Tarendel will be forced to issue bounties on them. Tonight is their last chance.”
Marrow rapped on the table for attention. “Okay, so there’s no question: They are here. In Shiira. Right now. And I, for one, am not lettin’ Master Shanung go out there all by himself. So here’s another outcome for ya to chew on: We go. We aren’t spotted. We get back here safely and send off this … information … Lord Gazic wants. Now, I’m sayin’ this because I know we’re good enough thieves to sneak our way through the whole damn city undetected, no matter how many royal guards might be lurkin’ about.” A couple of smiles flashed across the table. Marrow’s grin widened. “And here’s another outcome for ya: We are spotted, but we’re all so damned great at smooth-talkin’, they end up giving each of us a pat on the back and a few gold shardir – and that’s before lettin’ us carry on with our business.” The room erupted with laughter. Even Mourn and Shanung were smiling.
“Yeah – that’ll be the day,” Cyronil laughed.
The immense change in the atmosphere could literally be felt. Shanung stood up and placed his hands on the table. Once the laughter died out, he loudly said, “Okay then! So what I need to know then – Are all of you in on this?”
Marrow gave a nod.
Eth, who had just stopped pacing, also reluctantly nodded.
Cyronil gestured with his hands like he wasn’t sure and looked over at Mourn.
She pressed her fingers against her left eyebrow and directed a vapid stare at a small crack in the wall, while slowly nodding her head as if she was trying to come to an understanding against her own reasoning. “I … suppose … so, then …” She was surprised it came out in a brighter intonation than she was accustomed to.
Cyronil held Mourn’s hand and nodded as well.
Shanung clapped his hands together. “Alright! So now that that’s settled, listen up! The plan is – we go, but we stay out of sight and mind of the guards at all costs. If being spotted otherwise cannot be helped, we will talk our way out of the situation. And if we do somehow end up being reported to King Gaitan, I’ll take the full burden of responsibility upon myself. I owe at least that much to yourselves and Lord Gazic. Is that acceptable terms?”
Everyone but Eth either said “Yes,” or nodded slowly.
Eth muttered, “So … the captain plans to go down with his ship? An honorable death, to be sure. But I’m not so certain we would want you to-”
Shanung briskly arced his arm through the air and cut him off. “I assure you that won’t happen.” He paused and scanned across the room, as if he was checking everyone’s eyes for any sign of fear before continuing. “Even if it may not seem like it sometimes, I have faith in the lot of you.”
Eth sat down and tapped his fingers on the table.
He continued, “Now – for what we are up against. First of all, there’s Tresnor – He’s young, but he’s apparently been getting good with longbows and crossbows. Since he’s a sniper – green as he is – we had better make damn well sure we see him before he sees us. So, folks, that means we take to the rooftops. There’s not likely to be many guards up there; it should make life a whole lot easier for us, for tracking, too. Tresnor is apprenticed to Morikel – and him – I knew him from way back in Aydomar. As far as I remember, Morikel was a selfish bastard, but he was formidable enough a marksman to win many tavern bets. Good with swords, too. Really good. And I’m sure he’s improved a scratch or two in the last ten years. Lord Gazic reported the pair left Aydomar at roughly the same time. And they have been spotted traveling together by various contacts. The third one, however, is more of an enigma. He’s from Bastin, and he either joined up with them at some point, or he is actually in pursuit of them – possibly for the interest of the guild – possibly for some personal reason. But this ‘Cirellio’ is possibly the most dangerous and unpredictable of the three; he’s out of debt.”
Marrow exclaimed, “Eh!? Out of debt with the guild? He’s not a forsakin’ debtor, is he?”
“Cut it out. Marrow – the few thieves who do manage to pay off their debt,” Shanung said, “and decide, for whatever crazy reason, that they want to stick around are automatically promoted – And don’t let their ‘elite’ status scare any of you. Debtors bleed just the same as anybody else.”
Eth tsked. His regal voice compiled, “It doesn’t add up. A debtor could have easily gotten permission to leave Bastin, or even leave the guild altogether if he wanted to, and live – quite comfortably, I might add – off the dividends alone. There has to be an unseen reason – An unusual reason …” Eth suddenly felt spell-bindingly intrigued as various scenarios flooded into his mind. “But surely, he would have known he’d be in danger if he just … up and left without so much as mentioning it to a single soul. Maybe he actually wanted to be chased? Maybe … Come to think of it, the reasons could run the gamut from kidnapping to blackmail! Of course, we must also consider he may have been given a falsified document – a forgery seemingly from Lord Gazic – requesting him … maybe … to help the other two? Or to assassinate them? But if not from Lord Gazic, then who-”
Marrow managed to interrupt Eth’s train of thought by slipping in, “I’ll put five silver shardir on the assassination of the prince! Anybody else wanna make bets on the motive?”
Shanung’s fist hit the table with a loud thump. “No! No more stalling. The sooner we leave – the sooner we know the truth of the matter – the sooner we get back. One of us is going to have to stay behind and keep watch on the chapterhouse. I want experience on the field tonight … so Marrow, I’m asking you to stay behind. Everyone else – let’s go.”
Mourn shook her head. “He’ll fall asleep, you know.”
“Yeah – I’ll bloody fall asleep. I want to come anyway – Master Shanung, I stood up for you a few minutes ago when everybody else was at your throat! Look at me. I’m tremblin’ with excitement here. ‘Sides, why can’t the lovely lady stay behind instead – You know, chivalry – and all that?”
Mourn shot an icy glare at Marrow.
Shanung shook his head and grumbled.
Cyronil stood up from his chair. “Because – Mourn would never let me go off on a mission like this without her. And because – if guards start breaking down the doors, the noise will wake you. And you’ll be able to defend this place better than any of us.”
“Hmm … I never thought of that,” Eth mused, “A guard’s most glaring weakness is fatigue; falling asleep. But Marrow gets around that weakness. It’s like he’s the perfect guard, save guards that actually have to spot things from a distance, of course.” He smirked.
Marrow grunted. “Well … I don’t wanna spend the rest of my life as a stupid guard dog. A nice sleep may be what I usually want, but a nice adventure’s always better.”
Shanung directed his usual hard stare squarely at Marrow. “All I can tell you is, if you want to build respect and gain responsibility, you must first complete the tasks placed before you.”
Marrow tried to ignore Shanung’s pressuring look. Sighing, he unsheathed his knife from the now damaged book and idly started shaving the edges of random pages into thin, curly strips. “Who said anything about wantin’ to gain responsibility? Pff … Fine. I’ll stay. Just hurry back and tell me what’s going on – and don’t die.” He shook his knife at the group. “I don’t wanna have to run this whole damn place by myself.”