This week we're back with Kirelon in the Lower City, watching him recover. You can find the Google Doc version here. Thanks for reading!
Kirelon hadn't expected to be laying on something so soft. The last thing he could remember was his dreadful plunge into the cold and dark of the void, a descent that he had been sure would lead him to death's embrace. He no longer felt the cold, and even though his eyes were closed, which made it impossible for his world to be anything but dark, there was a subtle difference in even that. Beyond his eyelids there was a muted yellow glow--light of some sort. Maybe the sun? He didn't really feel like opening his eyes to find out. He was enveloped in softness, and though he was certain that if he had been fully awake, he would know why that was, at the moment he was content to lay in a dreamy doze, completely unaware of anything but the warmth and comfort he was enjoying.
The sound filled his ears slowly, as if coming towards him from a great distance. The murmur of voices. At first it was little more than a drone that contributed nicely to his half-sleeping state, but it soon began to grow in volume, until it became almost intelligible. At that point, it stopped being a lullaby, and became the stairs upon which he slowly ascended towards reality. Finally, when the noise had reached its crescendo, and Kirelon could no longer pretend to be anything but awake, he opened his eyes.
There were wooden boards above him. A ceiling. And there was a lantern hanging from it on a hook. The light was coming from that, not the sun. He was in a room. His thoughts were brought sharply into focus, and the situation became clear. He was laying in a bed, with soft pillows supporting his head and a warm blanket drawn over his body. He began to glance around, moving his head to one side to take in the room and get some idea of where exactly he was, when he was suddenly hit with a wave of aching pain. All at once he realized how sore he was. Every muscle burned him with a numbing fire that seemed to spread in flares with every slight movement. After he had gotten over the initial shock of the pain, Kirelon noticed with some trepidation that the floor was made of solid stone. He was not in the Clouds. After a moment, as memories of the past few days--or at least, the last days that he could remember; who knew how long he had been unconscious?--came flooding back, Kirelon realized that being in the Clouds would have been the odd thing. That would mean he was back where he started, surrounded by people who he called his friends--or at least his allies--but who could have been waiting for another chance to kill him. He could be in the Upper City...maybe his parents had found him? Or his grandfather? But no, Kirelon thought, dismissing the idea. I fell into the Lower City. And no one there could know who I was. They would have just found a broken man lying next to the cliff, needing saving. Kirelon said a silent prayer thanking both Chridius and whoever had found him for being alive.
Kirelon struggled with that line of thinking for a moment. How had he survived? He had fallen for an awfully long time...long enough--far enough--for any man to be killed instantly by the force of the impact. Maybe this prayer thing actually works. Or maybe I'm just lucky. He almost laughed, but his lungs ached too. Not like any of the situations I've been in lately have been any sort of good fortune.
"Do you know if he's awake yet?" the clearly audible words broke through the random murmur of people and almost jolted Kirelon right out of bed. The speaker had been a man, though the voice was nasal, almost wheedling, and with a quick turn of his head towards the sound, it was obvious that the man was right outside Kirelon's door. Kirelon's mind began to whirl with possibility, speculating on the speaker's identity, the identity of the person he was speaking to, and a dozen other things pertaining to the current situation. Nothing he came up with made any sense--he was still too tired to think very coherently.
"I haven't checked in about half-an-hour," a woman's voice returned. "He might be."
"Well, let's go see, shall we?"
Kirelon stiffened, closing his eyes on reflex. The door creaked open, and he heard a few tentative, booted steps across the stone of the floor.
"Looks like he's still out," the woman said. A single step echoed--back towards the door, Kirelon guessed, but then there was a pause.
"Wait," the man with the nasal voice said. "Be quiet."
There was a long moment of silence. Kirelon's heart began to beat faster, though he wasn't really sure why he was continuing to pretend to be asleep. He had a feeling, though, that the man would want to talk with him, and he really didn't feel like talking to anyone right now.
"I can tell you're awake," the man said finally, and Kirelon felt his stomach drop. "Your breathing isn't regular anymore."
Kirelon opened his eyes, and saw a tall, thin man with black hair pulled back into a tail. Flanking him was a young woman, no more than twenty, with light brown hair and a nose pierced with a large silver ring. Both of them were sizing him up, looking him up and down with a careful efficiency that sent a shiver down Kirelon's spine. "Who are you? Where am I?" Kirelon couldn't think of anything else to say.
"My name is Nast," the man said, coming beside the bed. The woman hesitated a moment, then followed. Nast looked down at him and smiled. It was a genuine smile, and even though there remained about the man a sense of wariness, Kirelon could tell it was not really directed at him, but at anything and everything all at once. This was a man who was cautious by nature...and yet Kirelon still got the feeling that his smile was real and friendly, without alterior motives. The Speaker had a gut instinct that he should trust this man, though he had no idea why. "You're at my establishment--a place to get food, drink, and lodging. I think they normally call those inns, but I just call this one 'Nast's place', and leave it at that."
Kirelon smiled in spite of himself at the man's warm tone. "Did you..." He wasn't sure how to phrase it. "Were you the one who found me?"
Nast's face betrayed a flicker of some sort... Fear? Doubt? Apprehension? Kirelon wasn't sure. The moment passed as quickly as it came, and Nast nodded, though his smile seemed more subdued. "Yes, that was me. You'd fallen off a cliff. That was three days ago. Do you remember anything?"
Kirelon had to be careful here. He wasn't sure how this man would react to any knowledge of him being a member of the nobility, or especially being a Speaker. Best to keep that a secret--for now, at least. He would learn far more by blending in than by standing out. "I remember climbing," he said, shaking his head as if to ward off a bad dream. "I'm...I like climbing. It's a...pastime of mine." He almost winced at how stupid that sounded, but Nast didn't seem to think anything of it, so Kirelon continued. "I wanted to challenge myself, reach a part of the cliff I had never been to before, but I shouldn't have bothered. It was getting dark, and climbing is dangerous enough when you can actually see where you're putting your hands and feet."
Nast should have been at least a little skeptical at the story, yet he seemed to take it all in stride, nodding solemnly at the dangers of night climbing. "Can I ask your name?"
Kirelon thought for a long moment. Though he was pretty sure no one in the Lower City knew his name--since his latest Listener had recently died and he'd yet to replace the man--the moment any of the Speakers heard a lowborn reference the name Kirelon, they would instantly know where he was, and he didn't want that. Not yet, anyway. Besides, the name was very obviously of Upper City origin. "Melos," he said. "My name is Melos."
Nast nodded, though he seemed to be thinking of something else. "You were lucky," he said. "A fall like that should have killed you. There's hardly even a scratch on you. How do you feel?"
"Like I'm in recovery for climbing eight hours down a cliff. My whole body aches. But...there aren't any bruises or cuts that I can feel..." Kirelon started to shift around, to work some of the stiffness out of his aching muscles. He gritted his teeth at once at the pain and stopped moving. "Oh, yes. Still hurts though."
Nast grinned. "You still have some recovering to do, I think." He glanced at the woman who had been standing next to him throughout the conversation. "Matri, go get the man some food. He's bound to be hungry."
Matri, who had said nothing and moved less during the entire time she had been standing beside Nast, raised an eyebrow at the man, but left the room anyway.
"You just can't find good help these days," Nast said to Kirelon, winking.
"Your servant?" Kirelon asked. It was a guess based on his knowledge of Lower City culture. Nast seemed like a well-to-do man, since he apparently owned his own business, which was uncommon, but not unheard of in the Lower City. And that meant he had the money to delegate many daily tasks to hired servants of some sort. That was also uncommon, but it happened. As much as the nobility and the Speakers wanted to believe that they could control every facet of labor and economics in their perfect society, ambitious people always found a way to make ends meet working for themselves instead of the government. Not that it was easy--there were all sorts of restrictions on that sort of thing--but many lowborn preferred trying to go that route than to be delegated to work in a mine or on a hunting party.
Nast shrugged. "I suppose you could say that. She helps me out around the place, fetching me things and helping clean the floors and such. I wouldn't really call her a servant, though, especially not to her face. She's violently opposed to any sort of humility. I think its against her religion or something."
Kirelon laughed weakly, and Nast grinned at him, then laughed himself. Matri reentered the room a moment later as they continued to snicker, holding a bowl with some sort of stew. "What's so funny?" she said, raising an eyebrow again.
"Nothing," Nast said, a twinkle in his eye. "Just gossipping about you."
Matri rolled her eyes and set down the bowl on an endtable next to the bed. "There's your food," she said to Kirelon, nodding her head slightly. "Hope you like it." Kirelon thanked her, and she turned to Nast. "Well? Anything else?"
Nast frowned and seemed to consider that for a moment. Matri gave him a look. Finally Nast burst out laughing again. "Ah, I wouldn't be able to say it with a straight face anyway. No, Matri, that's fine. Could you just wait outside the door and make sure no one interrupts? I think I want to talk to our guest here for a while."
Matri nodded and withdrew.
Nast turned back to Kirelon and sat down on the bed, his face taking on an expression of curiosity. "So, Melos," he trailed off, and for a split second, Kirelon completely forgot about his chosen alias. Luckily, he caught himself before he said anything to give himself away, but he chided himself silently. He needed to be focused here. He needed his story to be consistent. He was a lowborn citizen who liked climbing as a hobby. That was strange enough already--the story needed some more to make it believeable. Kirelon began to construct the man known as Melos in his mind, his thoughts racing.
Nast finally seemed to find his trail of thought, and continued. "Melos, do you remember anything more from the night you fell?"
Kirelon continued to construct his fictional alias in his head as he turned part of his attention to Nast. "I...remember climbing, of course. And it was getting dark, as I mentioned. Then I misstepped and fell. It felt as if I was falling for a long, long time...deeper and deeper into blackness. And then everything, even my thoughts and my sensations were darkened. And...I don't remember anything else." Kirelon started to slip deeper into the person that was Melos. Melos was a poet at heart. He loved words, and the imagery he could evoke through them. He was... What is his job? he thought, trying to come up with something he could realistically portray. This was the problem. Lowborn didn't have a whole lot of options when it came to occupations, and most of the things a lowborn would be skilled in Kirelon knew nothing about. He couldn't pass off as a miner, because he wouldn't know the first thing about structural support or rocks or the tools required. He wasn't good enough with a weapon to be a hunter or a soldier.
Nast was frowning. After a moment, he opened his mouth to speak, and Kirelon snapped his focus back towards him. "Are you sure that's all you remember? You spoke to me just after you fell. You came awake for a few moments before fading back into unconsciousness. You don't remember that?"
Kirelon shook his head, and that made Nast look even more troubled. Kirelon couldn't imagine why. They were silent for a moment. Kirelon shifted in his bed while Nast seemed to struggle with a thought.
"What do you do for a living, Melos?" Nast asked, seeming to partially shrug off his previous distraction.
This was it. Kirelon had to choose something. "Nothing special," he replied after the briefest moment of hesitation. "I'm a laborer. I carry things. Dig ditches. Serve. That sort of thing."
Nast smiled slightly. "Ah, I see. I thought you were going to say that you were a hunter. Your skin being as tan as it is, and all."
Kirelon winced inwardly. He hadn't thought of that. Most citizens of the Lower City spent their entire lives with little to no sunlight. That was one of the easiest ways to pick out a lowborn from another Argo--the pale skin that they all seemed to share. Except for the hunters, of course, because they were taken outside of the valley and into the sunlight for weeks, if not months at a time. Think, Kirelon. Why are you so tan? "I've been on a lot of hunts. Not as a hunter, mind you, I can't shoot a bow or carry or spear or anything like that. I just carry things for other people, help set up camp every night, that sort of thing." He hoped it sounded convincing. He was doing everything he could to fall into the persona of the man known as Melos. At least he already knew a considerable amount about lowborn society--that made this much easier. Kirelon had lived half of his life among them--he felt like he knew them.
"Makes sense," Nast said, nodding. The man pointed to the stew on the endtable. "Go ahead and eat, Melos. Don't let my questions make you starve."
Kirelon tentatively grabbed the bowl of stew and started sipping at it. His mind continued to work, keenly aware that Nast wasn't taking his eyes off of him. There was something about the man that made Kirelon uneasy. Not really the man himself--Nast seemed like a very likeable and friendly person--but the subtle way in which Nast was obviously uncomfortable with this whole situation. Almost as if the man were afraid of Kirelon somehow. Did Nast know about his identity as a Speaker? That would probably make the man cautious. Kirelon couldn't be positive, though, and he wasn't going to try to pry into it. Then he'd be discovered for sure.
After a few minutes of calmly slurping his stew, Kirelon looked up. Nast, who had been staring at him quite intently, looked away. Kirelon's eyes narrowed. What is going on in this man's mind? Why do I make him so uneasy? Kirelon went back to sipping his stew. You make me uneasy, Nast, he silently projected towards the thin man.
"Would you mind if I asked you another question?" Nast said, turning away from what had been a fine act of examining the wood grains of the wall. "I don't mean to interrupt, but I am curious..." He left it hanging.
Kirelon set his stew back down on the endtable and nodded. "I'm all yours," he said, trying be disarming. He smiled, hoping it all looked genuine. "You did, after all, save my life. I think I owe you a few questions, and probably a whole lot more."
Nast's aura of uneasiness didn't change, but the man did nod in return. "I appreciate that, Melos." He sighed, and looked away again. After a moment, he spoke. "Do you want a job?"
Kirelon blinked. He hadn't been expecting that. The Speaker stuttered for a moment, trying to think of a suitable response. "Yes, I suppose. Are you offering one?"
Nast stood. "I think I am. I need some help around the inn, and you say you're a laborer...lifting things, cleaning up, would that fall under your line of expertise?"
Kirelon thought about that for a moment. Then he smiled. "Yes, I think it would."
Nast smiled back. "Good. Glad to have you. Obviously I won't make you work until you're up and about, but after that, you'll start by giving this place a thorough cleaning. It's been a while since I was motivated enough--or had enough time--to do that. The pay will be the standard, of course, but room and board will be included. Does that sound fair?"
It did. Kirelon wasn't entirely sure why he was accepting the job, but the more he thought about it, the more he liked the idea. This was what he needed. Some time away from the Upper City, not having to worry about the politics, not having to stress about being the son of the monarchy, not having to deal with someone trying to kill him. He could just be a simple man with a simple job. And maybe in the meantime he could figure out a way to save this place, to win for these people the freedom that they so deserved. At the very least, he could drown himself in mindless labor and forget about his life, if only for a short time. Kirelon determined to enjoy that time as much as he could. He was Melos, the simple worker. For now, anyway.
"That sounds more than fair," Kirelon said. "Thank you. I would love to work for you. You seem like an honest and kind man, and the world doesn't have enough of those."
Nast grunted. "Neither of those words describe me, Melos. But I'll take the compliment anyway." He stood. "Enjoy your stew, my friend."
"I will," Kirelon said. "It's quite good stew, really. Who made it?"
Nast smiled ever so slightly and chuckled. "I did. I make all the food that we serve here--or at least most of it. I have a few helpers, but I try to have my hand in everything. The food always tastes better when I add a little touch to it myself." His smile turned into a grin. "Did I tell you I'm humble, too?"
Kirelon looked at him with fake solemnity. "No, you failed to mention that."
Nast swore. "Oh, well, now you know. Though I'm sure you would have discovered it sooner or later anyway. Humility practically seeps through my very pores. It's impossible to miss."
"Oh, quite," Kirelon agreed. Then he thought of something. "To repay you for bringing me back to health, I'll have to insist that I go without pay for the first two weeks. You didn't have to care for me, but you did anyway, and you shouldn't lose hard-earned money on that."
Nast shook his head. "Oh, no, Melos. That's not how I work. I gave you hospitality. Anything you do for me deserves compensation, and I won't hear any arguments about it." He wagged a finger to get that point across. "Standard wage every day, no matter what. It is the law, after all."
And it was. Lowborn workers were required to be paid at least one half-piece a day, no matter what the task or how long they worked. There were all sorts of laws about proper compensation, labor, drafting, and other things that directly influnced lowborn society, but that one rule had remained rock solid throughout the years. Lowborn had to be paid the standard wage. Nothing less. Of course, volunteer work was something altogether different, with its own rules and regulations, and there were lots of loopholes in what a volunteer technically was, but for the most part, everyone in the Lower City was fairly compensated, at least enough to live by. Of course, there were numerous kitchens around the city that prepared and distributed food to anyone with the proper documents proving that they were a citizen, and so no one ever really went hungry, but it really wasn't that much food a day, and with the amount of work most lowborn were put through, many times it just wasn't enough.
Kirelon chuckled and nodded. "That much is true. Alright then, Nast, I graciously accept both your hospitality and your offer of employment."
"My, my," Nast said, raising an eyebrow. "That was a pretty speech for someone who works with his hands all day."
Kirelon mock-bowed--at least, as best he could while sitting in a bed. "You have lots of time to formulate perfect sentences when you spend your days lugging around heavy objects."
Nast chuckled, smiled, and then left.
Kirelon picked up his stew again and sipped. It was cooling off rather quickly, and so the Speaker ended up slurping up the entire bowl in only a minute or two. After he finished, he sighed. This was a good idea--he knew that. Time away from the Upper City was always a good idea, though he had never really been down in this part of Argosson. Part of him was still wary, however. There was still something about the way that Nast had been acting that made him feel as if the man feared him. Kirelon shook his head. But why would the man give him a job if he was afraid the Speaker would do something to harm him? It didn't make any sense. Nast was cautious, suspicious, even, but it didn't really seem like he thought Kirelon would try to harm him in any way. The fact that he was letting the Speaker live in his home and work for his establishment said that much. It was something else.
Kirelon was still thinking about it when he fell back asleep.
"Keep an eye on him," Nast said to Matri several steps down the hall from where the man who had called himself Melos slept. "I want to know the minute he does anything out of the ordinary. That man is not what he says he is. I know it."
Matri frowned. The girl was always frowning. One of these days her face would just stay like that. Or, at least, that's what Nast's mother had always said. But his mother was crazy, so that didn't prove much. "Well, who do you think he is, then?" Matri asked. "He's not some sort of criminal or something, is he? That's the last thing we need--the military here."
Nast shook his head. "I don't really think he's dangerous. He doesn't have the feel of a man like that. I doubt he's ever really hurt someone physically, let alone killed anyone or set fire to anything."
"You wouldn't believe me if I told you."
Matri stuck her tongue out at him. "You're no fun. You know that?"
Nast winked. "I only get like this when I'm around you, my dear. Your stingy aura forces me to become a stodgy, secretive old man." As he spoke the words, he began to stoop over and slur his words, as if he were an elderly man giving a moralistic speech to his granddaughter.
Matri rolled her eyes. "You're ridiculous." She turned away and went back to stand watch by the door to the guest room.
Nast turned away and headed back towards the common room of the inn. He wasn't entirely sure why he had offered Melos a job. It had just felt right. He needed to know more about the man. He had to know how Melos survived his fall. The man should have died, and yet somehow he didn't. Nast had to understand why. This was a good way. He could keep an eye on Melos, check for any more strange behavior. Maybe it was a bad idea. Maybe Melos really was dangerous, and was good at fooling people. Maybe he was cursed or something. Maybe Nast was making another stupid mistake.
But...this time, he didn't think so.
Nast reached the common room and opened the door. The noise of the people crowding around the bar or the numerous tables scattered around flooded his senses, and he went back to being Nast, the bartender, instead of this other part of himself that always had annoying questions that demanded answers. Nast liked the bartender guy better anyway. He could drink more, if nothing else.