This week we're back with Kirelon in the Lower City. As I read through and did some line editing on the chapter before putting it into this post, I realized that it's one of my favorite chapters. I'm proud of this piece of writing. I'm proud of the characterization, the dialogue, the foreshadowing, and the feeling of tension I create. And I hope you do too.
You can find the Google Doc version here. Please feel free to comment and tell me what you think of the chapter!
The time spent recovering at Nast's establishment in the Lower City was one of the simplest and most restful times of Kirelon's life. Ever before, Kirelon had looked down from the Clouds, experiencing the Lower City through his lenses and the shared senses of those that he linked with. There was something so different, however, about actually being here. He felt more connected to the people he was sworn to serve in the few days he spent in a simple tavern than he had in years of formal service as a Speaker. He often wondered how drastically the attitude of the Upper City nobility would change if they could spend just one day in this place. Maybe they would see these people for who they were━people. Nothing more, nothing less. Human beings ust like them. And then maybe they would think twice before senselessly destroying families and tearing apart entire neighborhoods with their precious social engineering.
Part of him wanted to believe that that was all it would take━a single day in the Lower City to change the minds of the nobility: Speakers, priests, aristocrats, and monarchs alike. The bigger part of him knew that it had gone much too far for that.
"What are you thinking about?" Matri's gentle chiding broke him from his musings. They sat together in the common room of Nast's tavern, drinking mugs of beer as dusk engulfed the Lower City. They were taking a break after a busy rush of patrons had come wandering in after the evening shift. Several of the men and women were still around, nursing their own mugs and unwinding from a long day’s labor in a routine as old as Argosson itself.
Kirelon shook himself out of his reverie, reaching out and taking a deep drink from the mug in front of him. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to be distant,” he said, smiling faintly.
"You always have such a serious look on your face when you daydream like that,” Matri continued, her eyes intent. “ What's going on in that head of yours, my friend?"
Kirelon met her gaze. Matri had been watching him since that very first day, diligently by his side in every moment of his recovery, and she had truly become a friend to him through this time they had spent together. She was strong-willed, but in a half-joking kind of way that made her less about getting her way and more about making sure everyone was having a good time. Kirelon rather liked her. Unfortunately, due to no fault of her own, Matri had become a major annoyance to him. He was sure that she was with him simply so she could spy on him for Nast, and that made him wary. It also made him restless and frustrated, and he wondered if he would ever have the chance to be out of Matri's line of sight. Given how close they always were to each other at any given moment, it almost felt like they were Linked. That state would probably be more preferable, since it would give him more clues into her state of mind. But he didn’t dare.
Kirelon sighed. "Nothing you'd be interested in, I'm sure," Kirelon said, then immediately regretted it. Matri frowned, and Kirelon held up a hand. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean that. I'm just tired."
Matri nodded, but she still seemed confused. "It's been a long day," she agreed.
It definitely had. Ever since he had been fit enough to get out of bed, Nast had put him to work, doing minor chores around the tavern━scrubbing, dusting, and organizing, mostly, but also helping Matri serve patrons as they came. It had helped Kirelon get his strength back rather quickly, and it was never strenuous enough to hinder his recovery, but it was definitely something he was not used to. He hated to admit it, but he had lived a very privileged life in the Clouds. Not just as a member of the nobility, but as a Speaker. He had been given anything he could ever need. And it felt odd to him to do with his own hands what he had always allowed servants to do in his stead.
He had been realizing the hypocrisy of that mindset lately. All his life, he had never thought the lowborn were treated fairly. He had fought for their rights, he had championed them in a way no one else had in the Upper City, but he had never gotten on his knees and joined in their work. Not that the servants in the Clouds, people he probably could have helped more directly, were lowborn━of course, they weren't━but that just made it worse. It wasn't just about a race of people being victimized, it was about people being victimized. Prejudice was everywhere, and race and social class were only two of many excuses people used to look down on others. It made Kirelon sick to think that he had passed by those nameless servants in the same way everyone did not spare a second thought for the lowborn.
He realized suddenly that Matri was still looking at him. He had gone back into his thoughts. He scolded himself mentally and tried as hard as he could to give Matri a genuine smile. He must have succeeded, for she smiled back.
"You're a strange man, do you know that?" she said, shaking her head in mock frustration. "I can't get you out of your own head for two minutes before you're back daydreaming again."
Kirelon sighed again, resigning himself to his fate. "I really am sorry, Matri. As you said, it's been a long day. I don't mean to ignore you."
"And there you go again," she said, waving her hand dismissively. "Giving me those sad eyes. You know I can't stand it."
Kirelon chuckled softly. "I can't help it," he shrugged. "It's who I am━sentimental to a fault."
"You still haven't answered my question," Matri said pointedly, blowing a strand of her brown hair out of her face as it cascaded down her forehead. "What were you thinking about?
"I..." He really didn't want to lie to her. Well, Nast was in the back, organizing inventory, so he would be busy for some time yet. He took a breath and leaned in. "I'm sorry if this seems a little forward, but I get the feeling that Nast doesn't completely trust me."
Matri snorted as she took a swig of her beer, and she set the mug down before she full-out inhaled the stuff, coughing slightly. "I'm not sure Nast completely trusts anyone. Except for...well, no, probably not even her." She grunted. "Yeah, he's a bit of a skeptic. He can't trust people he doesn't feel like he knows, or things he doesn't understand. I've always thought it was a bit short-sighted of him, but it keeps him alive, so I guess that's all that matters. Especially in this crazy world."
Kirelon frowned at the words. "Did I do anything to make him suspicious of me? I've tried to be nothing but thankful for all the help he's given me, but..."
"To be honest, I don't really have a clear idea of why Nast does anything." Matri glanced around at the common room. Almost everyone else was gone now, the last group of laborers just standing to leave. "He keeps plenty of secrets from me too. For example, I still don't know where he keeps his underclothes, despite having asked him several times. A very private man." Kirelon glanced at Matri with a raised eyebrow. She winked at him. Well, she's starting to get drunk, Kirelon thought. Matri always got rather talkative in some very...interesting ways when she had been drinking.
A rumble of thunder vibrating through the walls sent a shiver up Kirelon's spine. He still remembered that night vividly. Each streak of lightning, each drop of rain, each terrified step he had taken in his frantic flight seemed etched on his memory as if it was happening right in front of him. Kirelon watched over Matri's shoulder as a flash of electricity illuminated the darkness beyond the open door of the tavern. He was so intent watching the flashes and listening for the booms that he almost jumped out of his own skin in fright when a group of burly miners crashed through the door, cursing loudly and demanding drink.
Matri blinked once, and then shouted with a slurred voice at Nast in the back. "Customers, Nast! It looks like they'll want meals!" She drained her mug and stood up, hiccuping in the process. She went over to the miners, who were seating themselves noisily at a table near the front counter of the tavern. "Well, boys, what do you want?"
Kirelon took a last drink from his own mug, though he still had half of his beer left━it was rich, Lower City stuff, much different than the spiced wine he usually enjoyed in the Upper City━and stood up himself, hurrying behind the counter to start getting out mugs for the men. Nast appeared a moment later, and Kirelon tried not to look at him as he started filling the mugs with beer at a request from Matri. The three of them worked with clockwork precision, setting out beer, slices of goat cheese, buttered bread, and slabs of meat in what might have been record time. After the ravenous miners had grunted their appreciation and handed Matri a sack of coins, the three of them glanced at each other and nodded with satisfaction.
"We make a good team," Matri said, smiling, and obviously still drunk. She jerked her head towards Kirelon. "We should keep him around. Less work for me, anyway."
"Oh, I'm sure you like that," Nast winked. His eyes fell on Kirelon and he pursed his lips. The man was all angles and bones, with a hawkish nose, lean body, and the shrewdness of twenty men. Kirelon definitely respected the man, even if he felt uncomfortable around him. And it really didn’t help when he gave him a look like he was doing just now. "Thank you, Melos. I've been short on workers lately, and your help has been invaluable. I know you sort of owe it to me for saving your life, but still..." He grinned. Trust Nast to not take anything too seriously.
"No problem," Kirelon nodded, feeling a pang at the name 'Melos.' He hated lying to people, even more than he hated violence, and it felt wrong to give this man a false name, even if the man was already suspicious of him. Probably because of that fact. "I have learned well from the master of cleanliness." Kirelon began to give a mocking bow to Nast, but suddenly turned and bowed to Matri instead. "No offense," he winked at Nast. "The concept of bathing seems to have a much better relationship with Matri here than with you."
Nast chuckled. "None taken. I personally feel that it is unhealthy to bathe too often. Makes you too soft, inside and out. Not that I never bathe, mind you." He held up a hand to Matri with the last statement as she started to snicker. "I just take all things in moderation."
"Of course, mighty one," Kirelon said, bowing once more to Matri. "Whatever you say."
Matri burst out laughing. Kirelon couldn't help but grin foolishly. He was growing to like this place more and more every day. Despite the wariness he felt at Nast's distrust and Matri's obvious spying, he couldn't help but feel at home when the three of them joked around like this. It reminded him of nights in a cafe in the Upper City with his old friends. It seemed like it had been forever since he had felt like he had a friend.
"I hear that Listener Sentena is leading a search party in the Lower City, at the command of the monarchs themselves!" One the miners was whispering furtively, though he obviously intended the statement to be heard by everyone in the room. The man was tall and broad-chested, and as he leaned in and spoke, Kirelon saw a smile that was missing a few teeth flash in the center of his face. "They say they're looking for the prince. That he's gone missing!"
"That's rubbish," one of the other miners said. "Why would the prince be down here?"
"They say he went missing in the night, they do." The man had everyone's attention now, even if he didn't have everyone's belief in his story just yet. Kirelon could feel a trickle of sweat begin at the base of his spine. "That his airship was gone and everything, vanished without a trace. That is, until they found some of the wreckage floating about. That's when everyone started thinking he fell down in the Lower City."
Nast was frowning as he washed a mug and set it back on the shelf. "How in the world did a miner hear a story like that?"
Matri squinted at the man as he continued telling his story, captivating his audience with a broad hand gesture as he told them of the all-or-nothing search Listener Sentena was making. "Ah," she said after a moment's hesitation, and with that word some of her drunkenness fell away. Kirelon wasn't surprised. He hadn't thought she'd had that much to drink. "That's the brother of Listener Anno. He probably heard it from him. Listeners like to talk as much as they like to listen, I've found. At least, if it makes them look better."
Kirelon tried to make himself look as calm as possible as the three of them cleaned up after the miners, gathering up the plates and washing them. The miners lingered over their beer as their mess was cleaned up after them, still chatting about Listeners and princes. Kirelon strained to listen to every word, trying to gain as much information as he could without seeming too interested. His mind raced as he scrubbed one particularly stubborn plate, wondering what would happen if Listener Sentena's search found him. From the miners' talk, it seemed as if his parents had called for the search, which wasn't surprising. Kirelon had no doubt that if the Listener found him and brought him back to the Upper City, there would be a great formal rejoicing among the nobility, and life would go somewhat back to normal. What Kirelon feared was what would happen if the person who had ordered his death tried again.
Part of him wanted to just go to the Listener and tell her who he was. Get it over with. The bigger part of him never wanted to go back to the Upper City again, at least not without the freedom of the lowborn secure. He wasn't wanted or needed back in the Upper City or the Clouds. He was a redundancy at best, a liability at worst. His parents would most likely have an easier time of managing the city without him trying to change legislation so frequently.
And he realized suddenly that he had made his decision. He would do whatever necessary to stay here in the Lower City, even if that meant running from every Listener he came across. If they did manage to catch him, the worst they could do was give him into his parent's hands. It's not like he could actually be arrested━if they verified who he was, no lowborn would dare touch him. Kirelon finished washing the dishes and set them back on the shelves behind the counter where they belonged. Now his only problem would be finding a way to stay hidden from Sentena's search. He shook his head. A problem for another day. She wouldn't be coming here tonight. The miner's story seemed to indicate that she was beginning the search on the other side of the Lower City. He doubted she would delegate the task to anyone else━she was the Master Speaker's Listener, and tended to shove that authority into people's faces whenever she could. Kirelon had Linked to her a few times, and though he could appreciate her tenacity, she was undoubtedly prideful. With only her and her forces leading the search, it would take some time to do a thorough search. Kirelon relaxed and went back to grab his half-finished mug of beer. It was then that he felt Nast's eyes on him.
How long had the bartender been staring at him? How much had Kirelon given away in his facial expressions and his bearing? No, stop it, he chided himself. You're being too paranoid. Nast doesn't know who you are. Stop acting like you have something to hide and maybe he'll leave you alone.
Kirelon sat down at the table he and Matri had been at before the commotion had begun, sipping his beer and going back to watching the partially open door, ignoring Nast's piercing eyes. The flashes of lightning were few and far between now, as the storm seemed to have passed by them and moved in a different directions, but they still send shivers down the length of his body. He hoped that the assassin would be too important to send down into the Lower City after him. If not, Kirelon would most likely be dead as soon as Sentena caught an inkling of where her wayward prince was. Oh, well, Kirelon thought. There's nothing I could do about that. I'll just have to make sure I'm careful. He sighed inwardly. He wasn't used to this constant looking over his shoulder at invisible enemies, waiting for one of them to materialize and claim him. He was probably just being too paranoid. Maybe he wasn't important enough to have an assassin sent after him again. Hopefully that was the case.
Eventually, the miners left for their homes and Matri sat down next to him, full mug in hand. "You're not going to escape me that easily, Melos," she said pointedly. "You can't just go back to your daydream and leave me here by myself."
Kirelon smiled slightly. "Of course not. That would be unchivalrous of me, wouldn't it? And as you know, I am always the perfect gentleman."
She winked and nodded towards the counter. "Nast went back to inventory, so it's just you and me again. Anything you'd like to talk about?"
It was an invitation back into their previous conversation. Kirelon wasn't sure he wanted to take it. How did Matri feel about being the spy? She had always been genuine with him, that was true, but he could see in her eyes that she had unquestionable loyalty to Nast. Almost as if he had raised her or he was her commanding officer or something. He had seen similar looks in the faces of young soldiers in the military police of the Upper City or the more patriotically zealous members of noble houses. "What does Nast want from me?" Kirelon finally said, bluntly stepping back into the old conversation. "He seems to have some sort of plan that he's waiting to enact, but I can't figure out what."
"He's testing you," Matri said, sipping at her beer. "He wants to know what skills you have, what kind of man you are, if he can trust you, that sort of thing."
"Why? Does he have some sort of special job for me?" Kirelon couldn't imagine what. "I doubt you need to know much of a man's character to decide to hire him on as a permanent dishwasher."
Matri shook her head. "I can't really say anymore. I've probably said too much as it is. Talk to him if you want answers." She looked around, took another swallow of her beer, and looked back at him. "For the record, I think you're more than enough." And she left without another word.
"Goodnight," Kirelon said as she left. He turned and watched after her as she went towards her room in the back. That girl was something else.
After watching the distant flashes of lightning fade to nearly nothing, Kirelon finally sighed and got up. He washed his now empty mug, put it in it's place, and walked to the back rooms where Nast was taking inventory. The lean man was measuring out the amount of beer they had left in stock, taking note on a simple piece of parchment.
"Can I ask you a question, Nast?" Kirelon asked. Nast turned around and gave him one of his eyebrow raises, but Kirelon pressed on. "Do you trust me?"
"That's an interesting question," Nast said with an amusing lilt of his voice, putting the top back on the cask of beer and then leaning against one of the shelves in the pantry. "Any particular reason why you're asking it?"
"You're always watching me," Kirelon said. "As if you're just waiting for me to do something wrong so that you can catch me in the act."
Nast shook his head. "More like waiting for you to do something virtuous or miraculous so I can finally get something more than talk from you." He sighed and brushed past Kirelon, exiting the pantry and heading back towards the bar. He motioned Kirelon to follow. Reluctantly, Kirelon did so, and when they got back in the common room, Nast started closing up the tavern for the night, shutting doors, closing cupboards, and shuttering windows. Kirelon waited only a moment before moving to help the man. Soon he felt Nast's eyes on him again. And we're back to the beginning, Kirelon thought.
"See," Nast said as he locked the front door and jiggled it to make sure it was tight. "You're doing it again. Helping without reservation. Filling a need as you see it. Any normal person couldn't help but like you. But, silly old me... I can't find it in myself to trust you, not completely."
Kirelon looked at him, even more confused than he had been before he had started this conversation. "I don't understand," he said, sighing as he straightened a chair. "Matri said you were trying to test me or something."
"Matri should know when something is none of her business," Nast said with a snort. "But I suppose I should have expected this. She's never been one for subtlety or sneaking about. She wants to get in, get out, job done."
"You keep trying to divert the conversation, Nast," Kirelon said, stopping his cleaning and turning to look the other man square in the face. "What's going on? Why do you keep watching me all of the time? What do you want me to do? I'll help you any way I can. I just need to know what you're thinking."
Nast paused. "Fair enough," he said. "I suppose I haven't been very talkative over the past few days, have I? Mysterious glances, vague hints of my true purpose... Sounds like a story a group of hunters would tell each other around the fire at night."
"And you're still doing it," Kirelon pointed out. Now it was his turn to raise an eyebrow.
Nast chuckled. "Alright, you want me to be straight forward? I'll be straight forward. I think you're a good man. I think you might be a valuable asset to a...project I'm working on. But I can't tell you the details unless I know I can trust you. And it's hard to trust someone when you're terrified of them."
It took a moment for that to sink in. "You're...scared of me?" Kirelon asked, perplexed. "Why? What have I done to make you think that way?"
"You didn't die," Nast said, seeming distant for a moment. "You should have broken your neck in that fall, Melos. But you didn't. You survived something that should have killed you and you recovered in almost no time at all and I can't explain either of those things. And things I can't explain terrify me. I'm a man with a simple view of the world. If I can understand something, I take advantage of it. If I can't? I avoid it at all costs. I can't avoid you, now can I? And I would be a fool to try, in my present situation. I need more men for my project, as I said."
It all came out as a rockslide, and Kirelon found himself trapped by it. He didn't know what to say. The two men just stared at each other for a long moment. Kirelon didn't understand. That night had been a blur━he had barely thought about the events preceding the fall, and so he hadn't thought to wonder about his recovery time. Thinking back now, however, made him realize that Nast was probably right. He should have died. Even if there hadn't been that much distance between him and the ground when he had fallen, the fact that it was pitch black and he had been spiraling out of control when he had finally lost his grip should have been enough to finish him off. He had already been half-dead.
"I don't have any answers," Kirelon finally said. "I don't know how I miraculously survived that night. I didn't even know there had been a miracle until now."
Nast shook his head as if trying to break free of a bad dream. "Of course, you don't. Why would you?" He sighed. "I'm sorry, Melos. I've been on edge lately. Too many things going on, not enough control over any of it."
"It's alright," Kirelon said. "I know the feeling. And I would probably be unnerved too after witnessing what must have looked like a miracle. I don't know how to ease your mind, but I hope that we can be friends, anyway. I hope that you can trust me. You've been nothing but kind to me, you and Matri both, and I'd like to repay that back any way I can. I understand if you have reservations, but if you feel like I could be a valuable part of whatever your project is, I'd be happy to help." Kirelon nodded succinctly and went back to straightening chairs. This entire situation made him decidedly uncomfortable. Nast seemed overly paranoid, and he obviously wasn't telling Kirelon everything. This project of his smacked of something illegal, but Kirelon sincerely hoped that wasn't it. He seemed to feel as if that wasn't it. This was something more.
Nast stood still for over a minute as Kirelon continued to clean up the common room. As the Speaker finished up straightening the chairs at the last table, Nast strode up to him and put a hand on his shoulder. "Meet me near the Lake, tomorrow at sunrise. Down by the abandoned fishing village on the inlet off the southernmost island. Do you know the place?"
Kirelon nodded. Where was this going?
"Good," Nast said. "We'll talk more then. I'll explain to you as best as I can my feelings about you joining my little project and what you might expect. If everything goes well, you'll not only be making a difference in the Lower City, but in the entirety of Argosson. This project is about justice, above all. I trust you might have an understanding as to what that might mean."
He did. And suddenly Kirelon was sweating. It was common among the lowborn to hear of justice thrown around as a catch-all phrase for anything that favored lowborn "equality". This, unfortunately, often included many illegal practices such as smuggling, gambling, and prostitution, strictly forbidden in the Lower City. Everything about this was pointing to something outside the law. If it came to that, Kirelon would have to step out of the situation as quickly and quietly as possible. Hopefully, it wouldn't cause a stir.
Nast caught the look in his eye and nodded. "Meet me there," he said. "We'll talk about it again tomorrow. Matri will keep things running here."
"I'll do that, Nast," Kirelon said, trying to keep his tone as neutral as possible. "Is this goodnight, then?"
Nast looked around at the spotless common room. "Looks that way. Goodnight, Melos. See you tomorrow."
Though Kirelon's mind was still troubled by the secrets and the danger and the uncertainty he felt from all around him, he fell asleep instantly.
Nast did not sleep. This had to be a mistake. Why was he even considering inviting Melos into the revolution's ranks? He had barely known the man four days, and now he was going to just allow Melos to waltz into the secretive part of Nast's life and hope he didn't make a mess of it. Something about Melos made him want to trust the man with no inhibition whatsoever. The carefree, relaxed attitude. The kind smile and the helping hands. The tender heart. Melos was undoubtedly a good man.
In Nast's experience, good men could be the most dangerous of men.
It wasn't even that, however, but the fact that Melos was obviously hiding something from Nast. Not as if Nast expected the newcomer to suddenly spill of his darkest secrets if he was asked to━everyone had their right to a private life━but Nast had survived by being cautious, and he wasn't about to disregard that now.
It was definitely true that the revolution needed more men. Two days ago a group smuggling weapons from Isthus had been ambushed and slaughtered, leaving thirty capable soldiers incapacitated indefinitely. They still didn't know who had attacked them or why, but Mikis had gravely told them of the effect the loss would have on their schedule. Things would start getting desperate soon.
But was it desperate enough to hire a complete stranger on a whim? He supposed he would find out tomorrow.
Nast shuddered and pulled the blanket tighter over his shoulders as he remembered the night when he had found Melos broken and bleeding at the bottom of a cliff. He remembered the way the man's wounds had stitched themselves back together. He remembered every moment of it. And he doubted he would ever forget. Something was different about Melos, something that most likely Melos himself didn't understand. But Nast was determined to find out what it was and how he could use it.
Yes, Nast admitted. We're that desperate.