Friday, March 22, 2013

The Guest Speaker

            The central chamber of the Royal Arcane Society was a large circular amphitheater, where the few hundred sorcerers, wizards, arcane physicists, and theoretical magicians squeezed past one another to get to their assigned seats. Some of the men (and it was mostly men, even these days) had held their seats for over fifty years. Doctor Oberon Müller was the current senior member, having sat on the Governing Council for seventy-seven years. Despite his profound age, he still sat perfectly upright, and wore a stern, unimpressed expression at all times.
            Seamus Kerry was only thirty-six, making him one of the society’s youngest members. Twice annually, members of the society were called to appear at the headquarters, to discuss new advances in the field and how best to apply their talents to current events.
            Last year’s meeting had been almost entirely devoted to the fog that had isolated Retrein from the rest of the world. Despite all the wonderful crafting of theories surrounding the mysterious fog and its equally mysterious dissipation, Kerry knew that its true impact was on the economy, and that in the long run, it had not done much to shake up the field of arcane studies.
            One lecturer spoke on the subject of the bombing in Entraht over two years earlier – a subject that Kerry wished would go away. It had descended into the pantheon of obsessions for the bored and the paranoid. Next, there was an engineer who spoke on the use of solid-state xenogravity fields to create more fuel-efficient airships.
            Kerry had grown to dread these tedious meetings. Many of these men had made their greatest contributions half a century earlier. The few youthful, energetic members of the society were generally relegated to Listeners, like Kerry himself,
            Yet every time he heard one of his cotemporaries spout off about shaking things up, creating a new society or traveling down to Narcia to work at the University of Carathon, he reminded his esteemed colleague that the Society had been around longer than even Queen Elona had, and would persist long after they had gone from stuffy old men to simple names engraved on the walls for future arcanists to ignore as they made their own complaints.
            Kerry shifted in his chair. He had grown too accustomed to his own office, with a modern chair composed of soft fibers and squishy foam cushioning. The chairs here were old, nearly flat pieces of wood. Some of the older members – the Speakers, who were allowed to give lectures – had customized their assigned seats, even building makeshift offices within their opera-box-like spaces, but to do so required a degree of status within the society that Listeners usually lacked. Kerry had only gotten his assigned seat a year earlier; before then, he had been forced to jostle for a good position with his fellow Listeners.
            While there was no explicit requirement that a member attend the meetings, it was seen, as the Hesaians would put it, to be a faux pas. Circumstances could arise, certainly, and if there was a decent excuse to be had, a member’s absence would be met only with gruff disapproval and not humiliating shaming.
            So it was quite a scandal that Sir Roderick Candel was nowhere to be seen. A man who somehow managed to be mysterious yet warm and friendly at the same time, Candel was a prominent Speaker and sat on the Governing Council. All Kerry knew about the man was that he wore six coins, slipped into his shoes and sewn into his coat and pants. Kerry imagined the coins had some sort of warding or protective property, but Candel would, of course, never speak on them, seemingly pretending that the coins were not there.
            After the airship lecture, Kerry saw a young aid, perhaps an intern, jog over to the Council table and whisper something into Doctor Müller’s ear. The ancient man, whose eyes had sunken and seemed like two tiny black spots, and whose mustache was the only hair that seemed to grow on his head anymore, appeared surprised, and when the intern leaned away, he shakily rose to his feet and banged his gavel as hard as he could on the table.
            “There has been…” his jaw shook as he pondered his next words,” a change. We have an unexpected…” another jaw-shake. “There is a guest lecturer... that we are to hear.” Müller nodded to himself, satisfied, and lowered himself carefully back into his chair.
            The man who walked in was dressed in a black frock coat, with a pair of round spectacles and a wild beard to match his hair.
            “Esteemed masters, gentlemen, and ladies,” the man began. There was a strange air to him, as if he was not alone in the center of the amphitheater. “I am Richard Airbright.”
            The room erupted with chatter. The Airbrights were as infamous a family as any of them had heard of. It was Paul Airbright, down in Narcia in the Royal Era, who had invented necromancy as it was known today. No Airbright had ever been allowed to join the Royal Arcane Society. To have one speak here today was an insult to everyone present.
            “By your reaction to my presence, I take it that I am not a welcome face in these hallowed halls, but nevertheless, propriety and convention are small prices that you must pay for what I am about to tell you. First, so that you should see I do not hide any truth from you, I will reveal my familiar. Whispering Jim, make yourself seen.”
            With those words, a cloud of smoke seemed to appear out of the air next to him. Yet upon taking a closer look, the smoke actually had the form of a man – approximate and distorted, but this being was clearly alive in some manner.
            “This is a demon, who I entrapped using ancient and forbidden methods. I humbly apologize if his presence in this hall goes against your ways, but he is a tool. A means to and end, and this end is one that I expect most of you will agree is imperative.”
            Already, some members began to get up from their seats, walking out of the room in disgust. Kerry considered doing it himself, though less out of disgust and more out of a practical fear. Demonic magic was a most dangerous endeavor, and even a bound demon could be a real hazard. Still, he was far from the floor, and he reassured himself that if the demon were to get loose, it would be the crusty old Speakers who would take the first blows.
            “Gentlemen, there is a man named Henry Thall, though he is not a man in the strictest sense anymore. Thirty years ago, Henry nearly destroyed this very building, and the final tally of his rampage left forty dead. It was only with great effort that this being was defeated and exiled from our realm. Henry was held, incorporeal, in Faewatch, a small town on the northern coast that most of you, I expect, will not have heard of. Six months ago, the Tomb of Eschalesh, to which Henry Thall had been bound, was destroyed, and erased from the world through means I have as of yet been unable to discern.”
            “He has escaped. Consider yourself warned.”
            Airbright took off his glasses and wiped them with a handkerchief. Smiling, he looked up. “Questions?”
            A Listener whose name Kerry could not recall stood. “How do you know of this man and his imprisonment?”
            “I was among the practitioners who bound him there.”
            A Speaker, one Sir Lyle Marbury, rose. “You spoke of an imperative end, Mr. Airbright. What end is that?”
            “To kill him, of course,” he responded, and moved on to the next question without a moment’s hesitation.
            Lady Morgana Clarke, a junior member on the Governing Council, rose. “Why have your brought this to our attention? Did you not, first, go to the Enforcement Ministry?”
            Airbright nodded. “I intend to do so immediately after I have finished here.”
            “Why did you come to us first?” she followed.
            “Because I believe that the very first thing Henry will do when he is ready to make himself known to the world is to kill every last one of you.”

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2013)

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

A Traditional Sort of Man

            Tarson had settled down a bit, now that they were back on Retron soil. Nascine imagined that he would be a little less eager, a little less ambitious now, having seen how bad a Rookery Expedition could go. She still could not understand why they had sent such a novice with her, and she could still not get herself to think of him by his real name, which was Chris Thatch.
            Valerie Justinian had evaporated the moment they left Narcia. Nascine had taken on a few aliases in her years with the Rookery, and so the practice of shedding identities as a snake sheds its skin was second-nature.
            The Rookery was a large enough organization that it was not that strange she had not seen
            Thatch – his name is Thatch.
him before their mission. She had told him the basics of the note that Yasik had left her back in Omlos – that he had double-crossed them, stealing Jaroka for himself. She had not yet told him to be on the lookout for a House Agent.
            In that sense, she envied him. Yasik’s note had been a dead weight around her neck since she had read it.
            Nascine had put together a map of the Rookery’s organization, to the extent that she knew. Queen Elona had provided a little extra information, explaining a few things Nascine had always wondered about. For starters, she had never realized quite how many people worked directly under the Lord or Lady Crow. Systematically, she would work her way from the top to the bottom. Elona herself had vouched for the trustworthiness of Lady Crow – Nascine supposed such a job would require the most stringent of screenings. That put Renford Harren as the first person to clear.
            Harren was a wiry man, tall and thin, with black hair that was salted with strands of white and skin like beaten leather. He looked the part of a thief, which, Nascine supposed, was intentional.
            Harren did not much leave the country these days, except to occasionally visit Entraht to take part in the annual Public Theft. The Public Theft was a tradition dating back centuries as a celebration of Narcian-Retron relations. The Thiefmaster of the Rookery would come to “steal” a tribute from the Narcians, who offered it as a show of friendship. It was strange enough for the Retrons, and Nascine imagined the Narcians found it even more bizarre, but tradition was tradition.
            And Harren was a traditional sort of man. Married for twenty-five years, with teenaged children. Nascine, even in her line of work, had always considered the Agents of the House to be something quite different than that. She imagined them as lonely individuals, with nothing to tie them down, nothing to lose should they have to break off and disappear. She had never thought of them as being real people, with real lives.
            The problem was that up until her conversation with Yasik, she had been on the side of those who considered the House to be a myth, or at best a minor, distant historical entity who had achieved legendary status through the feedback loop of popular imagination.
            It would not be an easy thing to speak to Harren directly. Nascine was a veteran thief, certainly, but that hardly put her on a first name basis with the head of the Rookery.
            Harren was not first on the list, though. Elona had told her to look into Tartin. Nascine could not believe that Tartin was an Agent. After the Offices, she knew he was exposed. She had seen him at his weakest and most vulnerable.
            It was raining when Nascine knocked on Tartin’s door. She waited for a while, thinking she should have called when she was getting near, but soon the door opened.
            “Emily, come in,” said Natalie. “And do take off that jacket before you get the carpet all wet.” Tartin and Natalie had been together for many years now. She was about his age, and worked one of those important-sounding jobs for a manufacturing firm. Tartin could have lived well enough with his salary, but Natalie provided the two of them with a degree of luxury, albeit with a tasteful sense of restraint.
            “It’s been far too long,” said Nascine. Natalie led her into a sort of front living room that overlooked the street. This was one of a number of venues for entertaining guests, and had great bay windows to allow as much sun in as possible.
            “Emily, I’m brewing a new tea I picked up at the market earlier. Would you… what am I thinking? Of course you’d like a cup. I’ll fetch one.” She stole back into the kitchen. Nascine looked around the room in the meantime. There were a few new features – a grandfather clock, set against the wall opposite the windows, and a mounted set of stag’s antlers. Nascine wondered what Rosanna Jaroka would think of that particular piece of décor. Natalie had a house out in the country as well, but she did not skimp on the decorations here. She did not like to flaunt it, but it was not hard to tell that she was of aristocratic stock. Natalie came back in with a steaming cup.
            “How is your work, Emily?”
            Nascine accepted the cup, sipping a little. “Fine. Gil is out?”
            Natalie nodded, sitting in a comfortable chair. “Yes. Wandering, as I like to say.”
            Nascine sat on the sofa. “Whereabouts?” she asked, attempting to make it seem as innocent as she could.
            “You know, I think he sometimes goes to the Finger’s Market. He says he likes to see all the fresh fish.”
            “It’s a charming enough part of town,” said Nascine. That was where she would track him. It would, of course, be quite difficult to follow a friend as old as Gilbert Tartin without being noticed, but Elona told her to start with him, and at the very least she would do her due diligence before moving on to Harren.

            It was early morning now, and the fog was thick, making everything seem to dissolve into the distance. Nascine had learned at a very young age that fog was a friend. Not only did it obscure, but it could also dull and flatten what fell in a person’s field of vision.
            She had climbed up the old Harley’s Electric building, which still bore its sign, though the paint had faded and so the sign was textured with the underlying bricks. From the rooftop, it was quite easy to see the entire market.
            Tartin was right there, walking with purpose toward a store called “Thompson & Son’s Salvage and Tinker.” When he reached the door, he clearly had found it locked, shaking the handle in frustration.
            Tartin moved around the store, eventually walking down into an alleyway where Nascine could not see him. She peered around the building, trying to see if there was an angle at which she could see him. Suddenly, he was there on the roof, pulling himself over the ledge.
            Nascine ducked down, allowing the ledge of her own roof to obscure her.
            The man has not lost his touch, she thought. He may have scaled his building faster than she had hers.
            Tartin leaned over the ledge facing the alleyway and dexterously reached down to the window below. Nascine watched in admiration as her former mentor pried the window open and swung down from the ledge and into the building. It was only after he had gone out of view that she thought to be concerned about just what he was doing in there.
            “Emily Nascine, I presume?” came a voice behind her.
            Nascine spun around, looking up at the wiry man standing in front of her.
            “Mr. Harren… I…”
            “You were watching our dear Gilbert. I must say, the man may have put on some weight, but he is still an exemplary thief.”
            Harren was wearing a simple grey jumper and loose, comfortable-looking trousers.
            “Sir, what are you…?”
            “Doing here? I was looking for you.”
            “I… I was…” she considered pretending she was simply practicing, keeping her skills sharp, but she was too shocked to come up with the right words.
            “It’s all right. I know why you’re here. And I know that Queen Elona was the one to send you.”
            Harren looked down at her. She realized now that he did not blink. “Sir, the Queen?”
            “I know, Nascine. And I know about the House mole. We can talk about it.”
            “The Queen told you?”
            Harren gave a strange half-smile. “No.”
            Nascine looked Harren over, attempting to assess if he had any weapons, but it seemed he was unarmed. “Why are you here, Mr. Harren?”
            “Because I need your help, Emily. You’re the only one I can trust.”
            “I’ve never met you before.”
            Harren smiled – again, only halfway, as if it was painful to do so. “Yes.”
            “What is it you need me to do?”
            Harren crouched down and looked directly into Nascine’s eyes. “I need you to help me expose Elona as an Agent of the House.”

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2013)

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Tall Man's Note

            The Deep Field Observatory sat nestled between two large jagged, rocky hills, just shy of being mountains. The road leading to the observatory was a narrow path, like a causeway above the sand. The hum of the car’s electric motor was the only sound. It was after midnight, and Jack had fallen asleep, his head resting on the window. Tessa could not hear him breathe, no matter how hard she listened. She still had Tall Man's note in her pocket. She would have to destroy it soon, but she had not yet had an opportunity.
            She wondered how difficult it had been to sleep when he was underground in that facility. The torturers had gone insane. Tessa wondered why Jack had not. Tall Man had emphasized how important it was to get Jack to join the House, and Tessa had gotten the impression that the order was coming from somewhere above him.
            Tessa turned onto the road that led up the hill. The observatory was only a mile away now, as the crow flies, but they would have to wind their way up the side of the hill, and that would take several more minutes.
            They’d talked it over as they left Towatki. Jack was her boyfriend, but his name was Jack Cart – probably one of the most common names in Narcia. The story would go that Jack was a fellow grad student, working on a criminology degree (Jack already had a master’s in the subject, so it would not be terribly hard to bullshit) but taking an extended leave to be with her.
            There were a few scattered trees on the lower parts of the hill, though they grew quite thick as one approached the observatory itself. There was some strange quality to the Arizradnan soil – naturally it would appear to be dry, rocky desert soil, but nearly anything could grow in it. Many decades earlier, several redwoods were transplanted from Sardok by a wealthy businessman, along with other plants native to his homeland, so as you got to the top of the hill, it was as if you were in a thick woodland.
            The unfortunate result was that the road grew quite dark.
            The car lurched as the front right tire sunk into the ditch next to the road. Jack awoke with a jump.
            “Shit!” yelled Tessa.
            “What happened?” asked Jack.
            There was a hissing sound. Tessa unbuckled her seat belt and got out of the car. “Damn it, damn it, please let the tire be…” she came around to the other side of the car and her shoulders sunk. “Shit.”
            “Popped a tire?”
            “Yeah.” Tessa growled in frustration. “That damned turn does it to me all the time.”
            From deep in the woods, a woman yelled out. “Tessa, was that you?”
            Tessa looked up. “Freya?”
            Freya walked out of the trees, but her appearance was a big surprise. She was tall and athletic, with long, golden blonde hair tied back into a waist-length ponytail. She was dressed in a buckskin loincloth and nothing else. Along her cheeks and down her chest there was a great deal of blood,  smeared on in decorative patterns. In her right hand, she held an enormous steel greatsword.
            “Car trouble?” asked Freya.
            “Freya, what the hell is… what is… Explain.”
            “It’s Varhall. The Sardok spring festival.”
            “You’re naked.”
            “No, I’ve got this,” she said, and pointed at her loincloth.
            Jack stepped out of the car. “Hi,” he said. Tessa could see he was making a great effort to look Freya in the eyes.
            “I might have a sweatshirt in the back of my car, if you want one,” said Tessa.
            “No, I’m good,” said Freya.
            Tessa stood there for a second. “Jack, this is Freya Jorgensen. She’s here with the Sinret Project. Freya, this is Jack Cart, my boyfriend.”
            “Oh, great, hi!” said Freya. She switched the sword to her left hand and extended hers to shake Jack’s.
            “Nice to meet you,” said Jack. He then attempted to rub off some of the blood that had gotten on his hand.
            Tessa turned to Freya. “So Varhall means you go into the woods mostly naked, covered in blood with a sword? And what kind of blood is that?”
            Freya laughed. “It’s cow’s blood. I picked up some beef at the butchers and drained the blood for the ceremony. Incidentally, I’m cooking some hølstorn tomorrow if you’d like some.”
            “What’s that?”
            “Traditional Sardok stew. Barley and onions with steak cooked separately, and I like to throw in some janaños berries for a bit of a kick. Also there’s going to be a lot of beer.”
            “Count me in,” said Tessa.
            “You’re welcome too, of course, Jack.”
            Jack nodded, and Tessa burst out laughing when she noticed how hard he was trying not to look at Freya’s breasts. “Freya, could you put on a shirt? You’re making Jack uncomfortable.”
            Freya sighed. “Fine, I’ll go get it.” She then thrust the sword down into the ground and ran back into the trees.
            Jack smiled. “Well, she seems nice.”
            “She usually wears more clothing.”
            “I had assumed.”
            It took twenty minutes for them to replace the tire, lifting the car up from the corner and then slowly driving up the hill.
            The main observatory itself was an enormous building, but unlike any Jack had seen before. It was a square building, with a sort of upside-down trapezoid projecting up into the night sky.
            “Don’t people usually put telescopes in big domes?” asked Jack.
            “Yes, but this is the observatory, not the telescope,” said Tessa. She held his shoulder and pointed far up into the night sky. “Do you see that tiny speck directly above us? It’s easier to see during the daytime, but sometimes if the Watcher is bright…”
            “The Watcher?”
            Tessa paused. “Sorry, Redlander term. The moon. If the moon is bright, you can sometimes see it at night time. Anyway, the telescope’s up there.”
            “How do you…?”
            “Arizradna witchcraft,” said Freya. “If my dad ever got a good look at this place he’d want to burn it to the ground.”
            “The telescope is suspended magically?”
            Tessa nodded. “Something about arcane tethering. You’ll have to talk to Azjar.”
            “Who’s that?”
            “He’s our Arizradna witch,” said Freya.
            They settled in at the dormitory – a large wooden lodge where the dozen scientists and technicians could live comfortably. There were extra rooms, but Tessa recommended to Jack that they share a room to keep up the appearance they were a couple.
            As Jack slept on the bed, Tessa changed into her night clothes. The drive had been long, but it was good to be back at the observatory. She had not yet told Jack about the rumors floating around. As his superior, it was her call to warn him or not. So far, she had decided that there was little they could do.
            Tall Man had passed her a note that morning when she and Jack were at breakfast in the Stargazer Café. Something had happened in Harisha. One of Tall Man’s other subordinates – an Agent named The Flatfoot – had been found in a public restaurant with his throat slit. Tall Man would not give her any other details, but it appeared there was a pattern.
            Tall Man was going silent until things died down, but someone was killing off their chain.
            “What the hell are we getting you mixed up in?” she asked herself quietly.

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2013)