This week we're back with Danas in the Middle City as she tries to build a case against The Ring. And as I read through this chapter, I realized again how much I love this book. This chapter is powerful and it's what I want from a book. I hope you feel the same.
As always, here's the Google Docs version. Please feel free to comment on there or on this post and tell me what you think of the chapter and the story so far!
"That went well," Danas' prisoner said as she led him down the dim hallway towards the holding cells. "Right at the end there I think you two were really making a connection."
"Do you ever stop talking?" Danas snapped, scowling at the back of the man's head as if her eyes could bore holes through them. She grasped the rope tying the man's hands togeecther tightly with her left hand as she opened the door before them with her right. The chamber beyond was dark and smelled of mold. There were no criminals inside at the moment━there hadn't been for some time, and even when the cells did have prisoners they weren't there for very long. Myrtion liked to keep the barracks free of anyone but his soldiers if at all possible. Given the utter corruption and insolence within the walls of the compound, that made perfect sense.
"I mean, I don't usually talk when I eat," the thief said as Danas left him in the center of the dark room while she lit the ensconced torch on the wall with flint and iron. "Eating with your mouth full is just bad manners. Of course, so it stealing, but you pick and choose your manners in this tier."
"So I've noticed," Danas said. Though she didn't really care for the man, she had to admit that she did want to hear the sound of someone's voice right now. Being left to her own thoughts in a quiet room did not sound enjoyable. There was too much to worry about for that. She took out a key and unlocked one of the cell doors, swinging the iron-barred gate open with a grinding sound. Rusty. Of course.
"I also don't talk when I'm asleep," the thief said contemplatively. "Unless I'm having a particularly bad dream. Oh, and when I'm relieving myself."
"Are you done?" Danas said, taking a deep breath and motioning to the open cell door. She felt like she should be angry with this arrogant, selfish man, but she couldn't muster up the energy to feel more than mild annoyance.
The man, for once, didn't say anything. He walked into the cell, which consisted of a five by five foot square of cold stone surrounded by barred walls of iron. A simple cot was the only piece of furniture in the cell, plus one small bucket in the corner for waste removal. The thief sat on the cot in silence and looked up at Danas as she closed and locked the door behind him. "I'll be out of here in no time," he said, nodding almost to himself. It was remarkable to see the change in his demeanor from the time of his capture until now. He had become less and less irritable and more and more casual every moment. He scratched at his beard vigorously and sighed. "The name's Jaspan, by the way."
"I really don't care what your name is, thief," Danas said, too tired to put any vehemence behind the words. "I'm going to see that you and every member of this ‘Ring’ you work for get exactly what they deserve. I promise you that." She turned away and went to the door leading back to the hallway.
"You seem pretty sure about that," Jaspan said. "I'm actually kinda sorry that it's not gonna happen that way. Good day, Danas."
Danas closed the door and left without looking back.
Danas tried to ignore the gazes of the others as she went back to the common room. What were they thinking of her? What did they know about what had just happened? She was sure that Tereni had started spreading rumors the moment she got back. Why do I care? she asked herself. She unbelted her sword, got out of her uniform, and crawled under her blankets on her cot, trying to tune out the coarse whispers of gossip surrounding her. Now that she was on an official investigation, she would have a little more freedom. Freedom that included napping. She was grateful for that, at least. She soon fell into a deep sleep.
When she awoke, it was well into the evening, and most of the soldiers were out drinking and carousing in various parts of the Fifth Tier. Only her and a few of the more unlucky soldiers forced to stay on watch milled about the common room, polishing their weapons and armor halfheartedly or chatting with one another. They looked to be on the lower rung of the social hierarchy of the barracks, the new blood that got stuck with the worst jobs. After a second glance, Danas noted that there were actually a few of them who were on their hands and knees scrubbing a stain off the floor. She caught one of the soldiers eyeing her with unconcealable malice. Now that she had military jurisdiction over a crime, that was to be her primary focus. Which meant no cleaning. Oh, that probably went over well, Danas thought, throwing off her blankets and gathering up her equipment and uniform. I'm sure those soldiers love being lower than a lowborn right now.
Danas ignored the soldiers eyeing her with contempt and focused on what was ahead of her. She was nearly giddy with anticipation. The first step was to go find her witnesses. The merchant would be the place to start, but hopefully she could find other merchants or members of the crowd that had seen the robbery. She probably should have gone out immediately after receiving the assignment, but she had been incredibly weary and she wanted her mind to be at its finest capacity as she was preparing for her appeal to the court.
When she was once again dressed and armed, she strode out of the barracks into the deepening twilight, pushing all her worries away from her and feeling them dissipate like spirath seeds into the wind blowing across her face. What did she even really have to be worried about? Finally, she was going to be able to do something about her situation. She gripped her sword's hilt in a determined grip as she walked, keeping the sheathed weapon from bouncing around at her leg as she started increasing her pace through the mostly empty streets. Where the Middle City was incredibly crowded during the day, at night it seemed the traffic was little more than a trickle of drunks and other disreputable-looking people. She kept herself wary as she jogged, eyes always paying attention to the shadows in case some mugger decided to make a move. Not that she was afraid━even if there was much more crime than there should be in this tier, from what Tereni and Myrtion had told her, she didn't think that a military officer would be bothered, despite it being this late at night. And if they mistook her for someone else? Well, she had a sword and she did know how to use it.
It wasn't long before she had reached the main market square, which was mostly deserted by now, except for a few desperate vendors trying their luck with the drunks and the prostitutes that roamed the streets at this hour. Though the sun was little more than a purplish coloring on the western horizon, Anillend still hung high and cast a slightly emerald glow on the stone city about her. As Danas approached the stall of the merchant Jaspan had stolen from, she was surprised to find that the man was still there, hawking his wares exactly as he had done several hours ago. He drew away slightly as she approached, but then he seemed to recognize her and a he took a hesitant step forward, bracing himself on the stall in front of him. "Hello, there, soldier," he said humbly, making a little bow of his head. "Can I interest you in some fruit or vegetables? Seeds for a garden?"
She almost told him no, but then she realized how incredibly hungry she actually was. She hadn't even thought about food since this morning, it seemed. "Do you happen to have a bit of sike?" It was a succulent. tangy red fruit that had always been one of her favorites. She recalled the many times her father had surprised her with a piece of sike when he got home from a hard day's labor. Sometimes Danas ate it just to remind her of him.
The merchant reached below the stall to grab a piece of the fruit and set it on top of the stall. "No charge, of course," he said, nodding nervously. "I wouldn't think of charging you, no, no." He seemed just as wary as she had been a moment ago, walking through the dark streets towards the market.
"Is everything alright?" she asked kindly, trying to put him at ease. "You seem out of sorts."
The man looked like a cornered beast. "Yes, yes, everything is just fine. Are you sure there's nothing else you want? Bread, grain, or maybe some money for what you did? Please, take it!" He reached under the stall again and took out a small strongbox that clinked with the sound of coins. "Just don't hurt me." He bowed his head low.
What in the world? "Why would I hurt you, good merchant? I did not do what I did to scam you out of your money."
"You didn't?" the man said, glancing up. "But that doesn't make any sense. No one does that. They always want something. Everyone always wants something." It was only then that Danas realized the full extent of the decadence of this tier. If the military was so corrupt that they worked alongside the gangs of the streets in extortion and fear tactics, than this place was, in some ways, even worse than most parts of the Lower City. The thought made her feel a little ashamed of herself. These people needed saving just as much as her precious lowborn did. Maybe more so. It was a thought she didn't want to dwell on.
"I'm different," she said with determination, looking the man in the eyes. And then she did something foolish and reckless. "I'm here to change this place. I'm going to fight against this crime and corruption that you all seem to accept as a part of life. Well, I don't accept it. I will never accept it. And I want you tell other people that. Give them hope. Things are going to be different. I'll make sure of it."
It took a while for the man to soak that in. When he finally seemed to grasp the enormity of what she had just promised, his eyes widened and he took another step back from her. "I...I will. I'll tell them."
"Good," she said, reaching into her coinpurse and palming a few pieces. She set them next to the sike. "This is for the fruit. I wish I could give you more, but I'm going to need everything I can to fight these people. And, my friend?"
"Yes?" the merchant said as he snatched the coins up.
"I need to ask one more thing of you: Will you submit to being a witness when I bring the thief that wronged you before the court? Will you tell them what's been going on in this city? Will you help me with this thing I am trying to do?"
The man immediately shook his head and started to gather up his fruits and vegetables. "I'm sorry," he said, starting to tremble. "I can't do that. They would kill me. Testifying is nothing but trouble. They'll find me. They'll know me. Even telling others of what you plan on doing is dangerous, but I can do that much. I'm sorry." He threw his armload of food into a nearby wheelbarrow and starting to roll it away.
"Wait!" Danas said, a bit more forceful than she had intended. "Are you that much of a coward? You'll let people do horrible things to you and your fellow citizens and just sit here and take it? Even when I give you a chance to fight back?"
"You don't understand, soldier," the man said, his eyes still wide. "We can't fight back. We don't have swords." And without another word, he rolled his wares off into the night.
Danas stood there for a long time, staring after him. The night deepened around her, and clouds began to cover the glow of Anillend and fill in over the canvas of stars. It was only when the first few drops of rain fell that she was shaken out of her reverie. She shook her head and started to turn away, but glanced one more time down the alley into which the man had fled. This was all on her. She wouldn't be able to change these people until she showed them what it was like to be changed. Danas left the square as the few drops she had felt became a shower.
And then she realized that she had never learned the man's name.
Danas entered the smoky interior of the tavern with her mind full of doubt. The place was full of people━this was where most of the street's crowd had gone, after all. Candles sat in sconces riddled across the room and a fireplace set into the western wall of the commons gave light and heat to an otherwise tempestuous night. Rain pattered softly on the roof, but soon it became a shadow of the noise it had been, drowned out by the chatter of the patrons inside. The place was called the Priestess and the Fox, off a rather lewd folktale common among midborn. Danas had heard several different variations of it already in her short time here. Such a common name was one of the reasons she had chosen this place━it might give her the naked impression of the people of the Fifth Tier she needed to be able to carry out the decision she had made before the nameless merchant. The tavern was large and popular, filled with midborn trying to immerse themselves in drink and companionship long enough to forget that they'd likely be robbed tomorrow.
Since her encounter with the merchant, the things around her in the Fifth Tier had suddenly been cast in a different, meaner light. Bawdy jokes told by drunkards were no longer just an annoyance to scowl at, they were symptoms of a larger problem. Not that the Lower City had been perfect━of course it hadn't━but there was no such decadence there; no such horrid poverty and shameless crime as she had started seeing here. On her way to the tavern, Danas had been accosted by three different beggars pleading with her to spare her cloak so they would not freeze in the biting rain. She had finally given it to the last beggar, a scrawny girl of little more than fourteen years of age. She wasn't sure why━she needed a cloak too and she didn't have that much money to spend on a new one. She had to save everything she could for bribes and equipment in the right places if she needed them.
Somehow, the look on the merchant's face as he had packed up his fruit in a tiny wheelbarrow and left at a flat run was still an image that was fixated in Danas' mind. There was terror and hopelessness in that gaze, but also chagrin, as she had realized after seeing the detail in the man's eyes over and over again in her head. He knew that he was being a coward when he ran from something that could help bring justice. He was embarrassed by that cowardice. Danas could use that. As heartless as that thought sounded, she could use the grief and the terror and the hopelessness to her advantage if she could say the right things in the right places. She could start things moving in the Fifth Tier, now that she had some more freedom to do what she wished and be where she wanted. She was no longer that angry woman mopping a floor stained with blood.
She had no idea why Myrtion had given her this opportunity, but she would not waste it. Not that she wasn't still wary of the man. If he thought that anything she did would jeopardize his comfort or position, she was positive he would not hesitate to get rid of her, even if it had to be messy. From the looks of the Fifth Tier, he probably wasn't afraid of messy. Then what is holding him back? she thought for the hundredth time. Why doesn't he get rid of me already if he doesn't want me here? The only thing she could think of, the thing she kept coming back to, was that he was being forced to keep her on by a superior. One that had some sort of interest in seeing her succeed here━or at least owed a favor to her commander back in the Lower City. She thanked whatever god was listening that she had not been thrown out of the barracks yet. Maybe that was it. Divine providence of some sort. She wanted to laugh out loud at that thought. Now she was just clawing at crevices.
She took a seat at the bar and ordered a beer. None of the other patrons at the bar paid her any attention, lost in their own gossip and their own miseries. Danas slicked her hair back from her face and thanked the bartender as he set a mug of beer in front of her. She took a sip, ignoring the drops of water that fell from her hair into the mug. It was actually surprisingly good━maybe she just had low expectations from being forced to drink the beer back at the barracks for too long. She had never liked the taste━too bitter━but when she had gone to get some for herself from one of the casks in the storage room, she had found three dead rats floating inside like potato chunks in a stew. That was when she had stopped drinking it all together. To taste a simple, fresh drink like this was refreshing, to say the least. She took a long drink and felt her muscles relax as the liquid burned down her throat with a comfortable warmth. Maybe her father wouldn't have approved━he had never liked alcohol himself, said it was the worst thing to ever come into the world behind men with power. Maybe her fond memories of her father only influenced her actions so far. Maybe she hadn't given any of this a single thought before now.
Maybe she was thinking too much.
She forced her mind to get back to the problem at hand. Where was she going to find the witnesses she needed to prove that this robbery even happened? The court needed at least two witnesses to provide credibility, preferably three or four. There wasn't much else in the way of evidence after witnesses, though. This wasn't a murder━she didn't need to present a weapon. A sack of fruit wouldn't prove much beyond that the merchant did indeed sell fruit, which wasn't exactly helpful to the case she was trying to present.
She needed reliable witnesses that would tell the whole truth and not back down out of fear of retaliation from The Ring. She had suspected that there would be some reservations about testifying in court about this, especially after what Myrtion and Tereni had told her about the corruption in the tier, but she had thought that at least the merchant would speak on his own behalf. Without him, the case was in trouble━if the man who was wronged refuses to call out the man who wronged him, what did that say about the credibility of her argument? Nothing useful. What she was beginning to be afraid of was the possibility that the merchant would come right out and say that he had never been stolen from. This might be harder than I thought, she said, putting her face in her hands.
"...a lowborn girl messing with The Ring."
The snippet of conversation caught her ears above the white noise of the common room. She lifted her head cautiously and glanced in the direction she thought it had come from. A group of midborn workers sat at the far left end of the bar, waving their drinks about and getting louder with their gossip with every drink. Danas thought of simply leaving and not chancing an awkward encounter with these drunks. But then she decided against it. She wanted to know what they were saying about her. Were they positive comments, could she find an ally? Or was she in more trouble than she thought? Her curiosity rooted her to her stool.
"She wants to mess with the big guys. Who are we to stop her?" one of the men was saying, grinning. He had dark hair with a trickle of grey and jowls that swung ponderously with each twitch of his muscles. "Let her shake up a few things. As long as the rest of us don't get involved, it'll be fine. Just don't give the big guys a reason to come after ya, and they'll just beat you and take all your money, like they always do. Nothing changes."
The rest of the men laughed, one so emphatically that he seemed for a moment to choke on his beer. Another man slapped the table with one hand and rocked back and forth on his chair in what was almost a wholehearted demonstration on falling over. Danas sighed and went back to her drink. This was depressing. At least no one had recognized her.
She winced even as she had the thought. A shout broke through the thick smoke and stench of the common room and one of the men at the end of the bar was pointing at her. "That's 'er," he slurred. The same paunchy man that she had seen first. "The lowborn soldier woman!"
She sighed and started to get up, leaving a coin on the counter for the drink. Someone grabbed her shoulder from behind and she spun on instinct, knocking the man's hand away and chopping at his throat with a sharp jab. The man spun away and crashed into a heap on the floor. There was a moment of stillness in the room as everyone turned their eyes to Danas. She took a cautious step forward, but no one challenged her. The man on the floor groaned. She took another step, and the jowled man growled from his corner of the bar.
"What are you going to do, lowborn?" he said. Everyone seemed to hang on that one question like they were on the edge of a cliff looking down at oblivion. "Are you gonna take down The Ring?"
Danas groaned inwardly. And now I'm trapped. I have to make some sort of statement. But am I ready to commit to something like that? I want to change this place, sure, but is now the time to start? Not for the first time, her mind went back to something her father had once told her. It was as if he was right there next to her, answering her unspoken question. Today is always the time for change. he said. Tomorrow might never come.
"Well, what of it?" another member of her captive audience barked from somewhere to Danas' right. "Are you just gonna stand there or are you gonna say something?"
And before she knew what she was doing, Danas started speaking. "I want to change things," she said. Stop. You're going too fast. This is not going to end well. Reign yourself in. She kept going. "I want to make the Fifth Tier into something we can all be proud of. I see the corruption and I ache for you all. I want it to stop."
"So?" Mr. Jowls said, crossing his arms over his chest. A few other workers at a different table nodded and murmured in agreement, lifting their mugs. "We all want it to stop━at least those of us who can't make a profit off of it." There was a hoot of laughter over that. A curling tendril of smoke rose in the air from someone's pipe.
"I am new here," Danas said, trying to sound confident and in control of the situation. "And that is a disadvantage. I don't know you as a people as well as I wish I did, and I don't know the first thing of how to go about changing things. I need help." It was a naked, vulnerable plea, one that she hoped would stir something in some of these men. Instead, there was a roar of laughter and glasses being clinked together in amusement.
"And what? You're asking us for help? Trying to make a big speech in the tavern, change the people's minds and all?" Mr. Jowls said, walking over and leaving his mug behind on the counter. When he stood in front of her, he pointed a chubby finger in her face. "You're pathetic, little soldier girl. Who do you think you are, talking to us of changing everything like this? It's the way things are and it ain't gonna go away just because you want it to. Now bugger off, we've got some drinking to do." He stalked off back towards the bar and garnered a few jeers and claps on the back as he passed.
"Coward," Danas said underneath her breath. She started to turn towards the door. Time to cut her losses.
"What'd you say?" a scarred man near her sitting at a table said, raising an eyebrow. He was old and wiry, with long grey hair and one milky eye. He had been the one with the pipe. Danas came to a halt.
"What do you mean?"
"You called him a coward, didn't ya?" The scarred man said it much louder than he needed to. Mr. Jowls turned back and glared at her.
"Who are you calling a coward?" the paunchy man yelled from across the room. "What does that mean, you scrawny little girl?"
Danas straightened and met his gaze, hand resting lightly on the sword strapped to her waist. "The good pipe-smoker over here has good ears. I did indeed insult your courage. Would you like me to slander your manhood as well?" Stupid, stupid. Shut up. Why do you keep saying these things? she was yelling at herself now, to no avail. She kept walking straight into the confrontation.
The jowled man swore at her and shoved his way back to stand threateningly in front of her. Danas could smell the alcohol on the man's breath. He was roaring drunk by now. Great. "You don't know who you're talking to, girl," he said, grinning sickly. "I am Arok and I am in charge at the Priestess and the Fox. Who are you to call me a coward?"
"I am Danas, daughter of Vatos," she said, loud enough so the entire crowd could hear. "A man who was better than all of you here combined. He believed in change. He believed that we all could choose to change. To be better. And I believe that as well. I call you a coward, Arok, because you are so comfortable in your prison cell that you haven't even noticed that you have the key." She looked out over the crowd as Arok fumed, noting that they all seemed to be rapt with attention. "Tell me I'm wrong," she asked them. "Tell me that you're not comfortable with the corruption. Tell me that you don't look the other way when your neighbor is beaten for for a single piece by The Ring. Tell me that you don't say to yourself, 'at least it wasn't me' and then go on living your life like nothing had ever happened. Tell me I'm wrong!"
Arok, Mr. Jowls, was still staring at her with the confused and misdirected malice of a drunkard. "You're a pretty girl, Danas. It would be a shame to see that pretty face slashed down the middle when The Ring comes for you. Just shut your mouth and leave things as they are. You're just going to get yourself killed."
"It's awfully surprising to me how forward you're being," Danas said, meeting Arok's gaze with a level one of her own. "I am still an officer of the law, and from the looks of it━" She looked around the room once with hard eyes before settling them back on Arok. "━you all seem to still fear officers of the law. At least this tier has done something right, however skewed it comes across." Danas drew her short, flat-bladed sword with a deft jerk of her arm. Arok jumped back in fright, holding his arms before him as if to ward off a blow. A collective gasp went up among the crowd. She held the sword before them, her eyes as deadly as her weapon. "Didn't you want to fight, Arok?" she asked. "Well, let's settle this now. Blood for blood. I have challenged you, it's true. And I would have your loyalty. But I will settle for your head."
"Don't be stupid," the man said, though he had paled considerably. "You won't kill me right here in cold blood."
"I don't want any fighting in here!" the bartender yelled from across the room. "Take it outside if you're gonna be waving swords around." Danas locked eyes with the man, and for a moment she wondered if she should continue the intimidation game she was playing. But then she sighed and her eyes softened. She sheathed her sword and started to turn away.
"I'm sorry for disturbing your evening," she apologized to everyone. "Think about what I've said, please. I want to help you. But I can't do that if you don't help yourselves. Goodnight." Danas walked to the door and creaked it open. She could feel everyone's eyes on her, but no one spoke. The moment before she was about to leave for good and walk out into the rainy night, she paused and looked back. Everyone was still staring at her like hawks. She still had their attention. She shouldn't just leave like this. She had to be more than just a woman who threatened and cajoled and then left.
"The Priestess and the Fox," she said simply, naming the story and not the establishment. "It begins with a woman in love, does it not? Pledged to be married to her childhood sweetheart and pledged to the god she served. But then the Fox steals her heart away from both with promises of sweet, secret pleasures." Normally the men would be jeering at a telling of this story, especially by a woman, but Danas spoke it as if to a child. No one moved. "We are all that priestess. We once had a love for each other that was noble and true and good. Now someone has stolen away our hearts with promises. Promises of power and security that were once sweet, but now have a sickening edge to them that we try so desperately to ignore. This is what I want to change."
She opened the door and went out into the rain.
Sinda sat in the deafening silence following Danas' departure, heart pounding in his chest. How did she always seem to make him feel so guilty? The sound of the door closing behind her had been like the clanging of a prison door. He felt trapped in an existence that she had created for him. All around him, smoke danced and the patrons of The Priestess and the Fox were quiet. Did they all feel the same heaviness that he did?
After that shocking moment of stillness, Arok made an obscene gesture towards the door which sent up a roar of laughter. And everything was back to normal. Serving girls brought out more beer and the bartender yelled at a group of men who started pawing one of the wenches. Sinda slouched in his chair and retreated deeper into the shadows of the corner of the room, lost in his thoughts even among the reverie. What had possessed him to come to The Priestess and the Fox tonight? Why did he happen to be here right when that sky-cursed lowborn decided to give a speech about change? And why, by the Skyman's beard, was he actually feeling guilty about what she had said?
None of it made any sense to him. He sipped his beer and tried to forget the words ringing in his head. What did he really have to lose, though? It's not like he had any sort of position or prestige that he had to care about? The Ring had just finished shaking him down earlier today and he had spent his last piece on the beer he was drinking. Now he wasn't even really a pieceman.
He was a nobody.
Sinda the nobody sat in the corner of the Priestess and the Fox, drowning himself in alcohol until the guilt went away.