A tale of artists, intrigue, and the magical renaissance

3.7 – Artis et Pugna {Art and Combat}

The footsteps of Elena and the servant sent to fetch her were quiet in the wide halls, but Ele’s, as usual, were silent. It was no different than normal, but they highlighted how quiet the Echo himself was.

Elena tilted her head worriedly. “Are you okay, Ele? You’ve been quiet ever since this morning.”

The servant glanced over his shoulder, but had clearly been in service to Stormtouched for long enough that he didn’t mistake her words as being directed towards him.

“I’m okay,” Ele replied, his expression was thoughtful. “You know, I had always wondered what it would be like to have parents. I never expected I’d find out. Or that my parent would be the personification of a system of magic that forever changed the country.”

“I’d be a bit worried about you if you had expected that,” Elena smiled, and to her relief, Ele smiled back. “You probably don’t remember what it was like…the place that the Storm pulled you from. But I’m glad you’re here instead, where you can be safe.”

“I’m glad as well,” Ele shuddered. Elena watched him with narrowed eyes. It was clear he did remember the horrid “home” that the Storm plucked his children away from, and that the memory wasn’t a good one. She decided not to pry. The servant came to a stop near a relatively humble door and bowed, and Elena thanked him and stepped through.

The room was large, though there were larger in the palace. It was taken up by a huge table in its center, around which sat almost fifty men and women in Milian uniforms, each with grave and serious expressions on their faces. Behind many of them, another figure in matching military uniform stood, Echoes, Elena assumed. Principessa Rodiano sat at the head of the table with his hands steepled in front of him, while Prince Langone standing beside him.

Elena had only been expecting the Prince and Principessa, and the sudden attention of an entire roomful of dour-faced and grim military men and women was so intimidating that Elena took a step back involuntarily.

“Thank you for joining us, Miss Lucciano,” Principessa Rodiano said formally, “we requested your presence in the light of the burgeoning rebellion within Milia. It is the belief of the crown that you may provide even more assistance than you already have, if you are amenable to the idea.”

“O-of course,” Elena shook herself and took a deep breath, focusing on the trick that had helped carry her through several months of court life. Act like the Master Hephaestus that Master Apollo thinks you are. “I am happy to provide service to my city however I can.”

“Excellent,” Rodiano indicated the empty seat next to him, and Elena hurried down the length of the table, forcing herself to ignore the stares of the roomful of people. She settled into the seat carefully, adjusting her ivory dress so that it wouldn’t catch on the seat as she sat. Ele took up a position behind her, mirroring the Echoes of the military members at the table. Elena was glad

“Your Principessa, if I may, before we start,” Elena had to all but force the words out. Principessa Rodiano looked surprised, but gestured for her to continue. “Little One, the leader of the rebels, she’ll know who my friends are, and she has a lot of cause to hate me right now. Is there any way you could…?”

“We are not new to these sorts of intrigue,” Rodiano nodded with the hint of a smile, “we’ve already stationed guards to protect your retinue, last night just after your ambush caught up rebel lieutenants. You’re not wrong, in fact. This morning we received a message from the Guardhouse, and it seems that the rebel Rhetor, Domenico, has tried to accuse your attendant Emerald of being a Rhetor in turn.”

Elena’s blood turned to ice in her veins. It was bad enough that she was responsible for Domenico’s death, bad enough that she felt so guilty that his name was like a punch in the gut, but to be responsible for Emerald’s as well was too much to bear the thought. “Oh…I don’t think she…I mean, I doubt-”

“Don’t worry,” Rodiano chuckled, “it’s an urban legend that an accusation of being a Rhetor is enough to ruin your life. Given the source of the accusation, I wouldn’t have even bothered checking, but you know the Guardhouse, they’re nothing if not thorough. There was no ‘Emerald’ in their registries, but there was a ‘Domenico’.”

Elena nodded wordlessly, trying to breathe again, relaxing the steel grip on the armrests of the chair. Too close. Even with guards, I’ll have to keep an eye on my friends…I need to keep in mind what Little One is capable of. Rodiano turned and raised his voice to address the entire assembled group.

“Captains, this is Elena Lucciano, or ‘Journeyman Cog’ as some of you might know her.”

Elena’s head snapped in Rodiano’s direction. She was only sixteen autumns old! She had a whole three and a half years apprenticed as a garzona before her apprenticeship was over. Did he think she was a journeyman? Or was he lying so that the captains would accept her help?

“-hoping that we can avoid outright civil unrest.” Elena had missed part of Rodiano’s speech, and she struggled to catch up. “Given the reach of Miss Cog’s Storm, it seems to me there is no contest. There is a chance that we can quite definitively test the integrity of our entire army within this room. Captain Benevento, if you could begin?”

Across from Elena, a man with thick sideburns cleared his throat. “Miss Lucciano, I hereby transfer authority of the Second Battalion over to you in entirety.”

Elena gripped the table and closed her eyes, taking a deep breath as the Storm rushed through her temples like a biting wind. She could feel the data, a full roster of the Second Battalion’s troops, a history of their engagements stretching back to their formation, the little quibbles and in-politics, every commendation, every demerit, every infraction. Elena was careful not to think too hard about any of them, waiting until the stream of data finally calmed. When the information stopped, she sucked in a breath she hadn’t realized she had been holding.

“You didn’t faint,” Principessa Rodiano said encouragingly, “we were worried that you might.”

Elena shuddered at the thought. “No…no, I’m fine.”

“If you don’t wish to do this, Miss Lucciano, you are allowed to tell us,” Prince Langone spoke for the first time since she’d entered the room, “there are plenty of other ways Milia can make use of you.”

“Thank you, your Princeps, but really, I’m okay,” Elena said, “I’m happy to help!”

“Very well,” Prince Langone frowned.

The push and pull between the fighters and the artists, just like Master Apollo said, Elena thought, I wonder if I should be more careful not to look as if I’m picking sides…

“Well?” Captain Benevento asked, “any rebels among my men?”

“Among Miss Lucciano’s men,” Principessa Rodiano corrected.

Carefully, Elena turned her thoughts towards the squadrons of troops that made up the Second Battalion. The troops were mostly good men and women, with a few lazy slackers, a few cruel and vicious, a few stupid and whitless. None of them were rebels, as far as Elena could discern, although a handful of them were actively breaking rules and regulations set by their captain.

“You look concerned,” Principessa Rodiano prodded.

“I don’t…” Elena paused, frowning. Was it fair to turn in soldiers for disobeying regulations, to use her Storm to get them in trouble? On the other hand, was it fair to Captain Benevento to know of the infractions and not tell him? The question weighed on her heart, and she wished she could ask Ele what he thought about the problem. “No rebels in the Second Battalion,” she finally said. There was only one soldier whose rulebreaking she felt bad about hiding. “Um…Quinziano Grippo, one of the newer recruits, he’s been volunteering to move the tax money to the treasury, and he takes a few florins each time. Not much, but…” she trailed off at the surprise on Captain Benevento’s face.

“But this is outstanding!” One of the captains halfway down the table burst out, “we need only hold one of these meetings monthly, and we could catch any wrongdoer or sedition in the whole of the army!”

A murmur of excited conversation ran up and down the table, but Elena gave a pleading look in Rodiano’s direction. She couldn’t articulate it to the captains, but the very thought of telling tales every month, of turning in the men and women who served Milia for the slightest of infractions to be punished, was horrifying to her.

But I was fine with turning Little One in… she thought.

Luckily, the Principessa seemed to understand the meaning behind Elena’s near-panicked look.

“Captains,” he said, and at the sound of his voice all other conversation came to a sudden respectful silence, “let us focus on the matter at hand first, and worry about the future in the future. Captain Cecchetti, if you please?”

 

***

 

Her head had started to pound after taking Captain Cecchetti’s troops, and by the time Elena took on the fifth company her eyes were starting to water.

“Gloria Grassi, she brings messages from the outside into the barracks,” Elena rubbed her temples as she reported, her eyes closed, “she puts them under her boots at night, and in the morning they’re gone.”

“Gloria Grassi is my niece!” Captain Zanetti cried, “she wouldn’t be mixed up in all of this!” Elena winced at the raised volume, but otherwise didn’t know what to do. She was only reporting the rebels her Storm told her, and her head hurt so bad she could barely think anymore.

“I’m sorry, Captain,” Rodiano said, “if you would like, one of the others can bring Grassi in for questioning.”

“That’s…no, I’ll do it,” Captain Zanetti squared his shoulders, and made a note down on the paper in front of him, “it’s my squadron, my responsibility.”

“Very well. Miss Lucciano, are there any others?”

Elena shook her head wordlessly, squeezing her eyes tight for a moment.

“Do you need to take a break?”

“No,” Elena took a deep breath, “this is important, we’ve already found two. I can keep going.”

“Very well then. Captain Ianna?”

“I offer my squadron to you, Miss Lucciano,” Captain Ianna said, her voice clipped and official, “they and I are yours to do with as you please.”

Elena grit her teeth to wait for the influx of information about Captain Ianna’s squadron. She was getting more and more used to relaxing her mind as the information came in, but it was still uncomfortable to be overwhelmed by so much in such rapid progression.

Her temples didn’t buzz. Elena waited for several long moments, half relieved at the lack of overwhelming sensation, but she couldn’t say the first thing about Captain Ianna’s troops.

No, my troops, Elena corrected herself, realizing the problem. If she didn’t have ownership of them, her Storm wouldn’t tell her anything about them.

But, she realized against her will, she really didn’t have ownership of them, not really. It wasn’t as if she could give them orders or direct their movements…when the Captains gave her these battalions they were hers only on paper, and only for as long as it took to check for rebels.

The Captains were staring at her expectantly. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I’m trying, but…the squadron isn’t really mine.”

“It is,” Captain Ianna insisted, “we are entirely under your authority.”

“But that’s not really…” Elena struggled to find the words to explain.

“It’s alright, Elena,” Prince Langone broke in, “we expected that this might occur.”

“You did?”

“You told us, months back, that your Storm could tell the difference between true authority and lip service,” Captain Vecelio was sitting far enough down the table that Elena had to strain to see her. She hadn’t noticed the woman in the sea of new faces, and her presence made Elena feel a little more comfortable. “I informed His Principessa of the fact.”

“I’m surprised we were able to get as much information as we did,” Rodiano said, “but now it’s time to move to the next portion of the task. True authority.”

Captain Ianna shifted uncomfortably in her seat, “what do you mean by that, your Principessa?”

“We will have that discussion soon,” the Principessa waved his hand, “but for now, you are dismissed, Captains. Elena, please stay, His Princeps and I have arrangements to discuss with you.” After a few moments and exchanged glances, the Captains began to rise and shuffle their way out of the large room. The low murmur of conversation seemed particularly worrisome to Elena, but Rodiano didn’t seem bothered in the slightest. When the room finally cleared, the Principessa gestured silently for Ele to take a seat next to Elena, and Prince Langone sat across from her.

“If you remember, Lucciano, we assigned you the task of weeding out smugglers as a way to gauge your abilities,” Prince Langone said, “since you used that task to instead discover and capture several leaders of a rebellion we had only suspected existed, I would say that test has been a rousing success.”

“I’m just glad I was able to help the city of Milia, your Priceps,” Elena said carefully. It was strange, sitting alone with the rulers of Milia, talking casually as if they were peers. She was sure that it was in order to make her feel more connected to them, but it was having the opposite effect, making her nervous and jittery.

“You have perhaps been wondering why your invitation to the courts has lasted so long,” Prince Langone spoke as if he was choosing each word meticulously, “as I’m sure you know, typically we extend an invitation to the master of a studio, and typically only for a handful of weeks. You have been here for three months.”

“I had wondered, your Princeps,” Elena lied. She’d assumed the influence of the Twisted had been brought to bear, someone pulling strings to keep her there.

“I’m sure that you’re familiar with the journey from garzona to Master?”

“Yes, your Princeps…four years of apprenticeship at a Studio, then years as a journeyman until you’ve amassed enough reputation to be known as a Master…” Elena was confused by the sudden shift in subject.

“That is the typical path, yes, but for some…” the Prince watched her carefully, gauging her reaction, “if they are highly recommended, if they have demonstrated a capacity to assist the City…would you be interested, Elena, in continuing your apprenticeship here, in the courts of Milia?”

Elena’s heart leapt in her throat, even though Lord Waldren and the Twisted had all but guaranteed that she would find a permanent place in the court.

“You would be taking on projects of a much higher difficulty, tasks much like your most recent,” Prince Langone continued, “but your reputation as a journeyman would be similarly advanced as compared to going back to the Studio.”

“I would love to stay on in the courts,” Elena couldn’t hide her grin, “I would love it more than anything.”

Prince Langone nodded, “that is precisely the answer we expected of you. So much, so, that we have your next project already prepared.”

“The army,” Elena guessed, “I have to go through each squadron and take it over for real, don’t I?”

“You’re not quite as slow as you sometimes seem,” Principessa Rodiano said, in the tone of one who didn’t realize he had insulted her. “Without their forces in the military, it’s hard to fathom the rebellion gaining any ground when they come out into the open.”

“I don’t know much about the military…” Elena said uncertainly.

“There is an alternative,” Prince Langone cut in. Principessa frowned, but leaned back and stayed silent. “I have a task in mind, one that I’m particularly curious about and that you are particularly suited to provide an answer for. I would like you to explore the nature of many Storms working in concert, the creation of an object on which a variety of Stormtouched have worked. Given your particularly diverse retinue, I believe you’re in a prime position to succeed.” He spread his hands, “either task is available to you, Miss Lucciano, the choice is yours.”

“In a time of rebellion, the choice seems obvious to me,” Principessa Rodiano said.

Prince Langone shot him a look. “There will always be some pressing reason for more military spending, more Stormtouched siphoned towards fighting. I would consider both options carefully, Elena.”

“I could do both,” Elena hurried to say, before the two actually began arguing in front of her. “I would only have to organize my friends’ project, that’s all the work I’d have to do, and that would leave me enough time to work with the army to root out rebels!”

The Prince and Principessa looked nothing alike, one with dark skin and a round face, the other pale and gaunt, but the look they both gave her was similar; cautious, calculating, but otherwise unreadable.

“I think that will serve quite nicely,” Prince Langone said.

“An excellent solution,” Principessa Rodiano added.

Elena smiled, but inside a knot of worry began to grow. Master Apollo and Artemis had said that the push and pull between fighter and artist was in every city, every court.

If she was to finish her garzonaship here, Elena couldn’t help but feel that she wouldn’t be able to avoid picking one for very much longer.

***

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***

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19 responses

  1. Still feeling a bit under the weather I’m afraid, so hopefully this chapter makes sense to other, non-drugged-up-on-meds minds as well as mine!

    Like

    2015-09-07 at 10:06 pm

  2. I’m glad to see the Princepessa using Elena’s power properly. Oh, I know she’s going to be send out to fight again, but she is way more valuable as a mastermind of sorts.

    Thank you for the chapter! I didn’t have any troubles with it. Feel better soon :<

    Like

    2015-09-08 at 12:06 am

    • I’m glad it turned out legible! Thanks for the well-wishes

      Like

      2015-09-08 at 3:59 pm

  3. Even in a medical induced daze ;) your story is clear and well presented. It continues to be a favourite of mine.

    Like

    2015-09-08 at 12:39 am

  4. Hi! I have just caught up to the latest chapter of Twisted Cogs. I like the whole idea of the studio system and the animation of art, though I struggle a lot with irritation caused by Elena’s naiveté in the first few arcs. She seems to be wising up though, so the story’s getting much more interesting now. Thanks for writing!

    Like

    2015-09-08 at 9:24 am

    • I’m really glad to hear you’re enjoying it! Frustration with Elena’s naiveté is the complaint I receive most by far, so you’re in good company there (and you are much more polite than several other ways I’ve heard it).

      When starting Twisted Cogs, I actually worried that people would complain that Elena was too *smart* for a sixteen year old girl raised in a sheltered life in a small-town by an abusive and restrictive helicopter mom, and actually contemplated sacrificing some of the story to make her more realistic…but given that many people have told me they refuse to read (or have stopped reading) Twisted Cogs because Elena is ‘too stupid to live’, I’m glad I didn’t go that route!

      Like

      2015-09-08 at 4:07 pm

      • To be honest, I actually thought to stop reading halfway because sometimes, I really do feel that Elena is ‘too stupid to live’, and its just overwhelmingly frustrating for a reader to know the protagonist is doing something she should not do. It’s like the audience screaming at the screen in a horror flick at the soon-to-be-murdered girl to not let the suspicious man into her home. I think this is partly due to the way things that are terribly transparent to the reader do not even seem to pass through Elena’s mind at all.
        The other elements of your story are interesting enough for me to continue reading, though I honestly dislike Elena as a protagonist. It’s not only due to the naivete but her clinginess; the way she demands to know Ele’s secret and gets mad at him when he doesn’t share is emotionally manipulative, much like how her mother is. I get that some of Elena’s character flaws are intended to move the story along, but I think that a too smart protagonist would still be better than one that is terribly obtuse.
        Please don’t take this too harshly, I really do enjoy your story for the magic system and imagery, especially more so now that Elena is shaping up :)

        Like

        2015-09-08 at 10:23 pm

        • Oh I definitely don’t take it harshly at all! It would be pretty egotistical of me to think that a single story I wrote would appeal equally to everyone in the world, I knew from the beginning that there would be loads of people who feel that Twisted Cogs is just not their cup of tea…and that’s okay!
          I’m just happy that for some people, there are some aspects that appeal to them enough to keep reading, even if they don’t like other aspects, I certainly count that as a win!

          Like

          2015-09-08 at 11:50 pm

        • I don’t really agree. :/ Smart protagonists, over-wiss teens in particular, are thick on the ground. Sure, they can be justified in-world, but it makes a nice change to have a girl act like, well, a girl. She won’t stay inexperienced, and I’m rather looming forward to seeing how she grows. :)

          Like

          2015-09-09 at 6:13 am

          • Hmm, I get that the depiction of a naive girl is deliberate because the author shows that she actually can do characterizations well (e.g. the Auturo and Patchwork interlude), I just don’t like her as a viewpoint protagonist because we are experiencing the world through her eyes. Viewpoint characters usually have something special that make them interesting enough to tell a story about, but Elena is special because of her Storm, which is not due to her own efforts or own brains or personality. It’s like a bumpkin who picks up a magic stone and become king of the world by chance. This is not necessarily a bad thing, just frustrating for readers who stay one step ahead of the protagonist and just hope and hope that she catches on.

            Like

            2015-09-09 at 7:42 am

            • What can I say? I like variety. And, am also one of these “readers” you talk about. :) We’re not hive-mind clones with a single template of wants when it comes to protagonist voices and viewpoints. ;)

              Like

              2015-09-09 at 7:46 am

              • I do respect your opinion, and I agree that the market is over-saturated with wiseass characters, so a naive one is a breath of fresh air. Different characters induce different types of reactions in different readers, so my original reply to the author was to let her get an understanding of why Elena does not appeal to all readers. And as I said, its getting better as the story goes on because she learns from her mistakes.

                Like

                2015-09-09 at 8:50 am

          • I think it isn’t a choice between “smart-ass, wise-cracking character” and “daft, naive character”. I think you can have a naive character that doesn’t go as far as Elena. I understand her background, really, and she doesn’t strike me as unrealistic. However, she does strike me as a bit of a tool, in the sense that she goes through life following the wills of others without much of a question. Only now is she starting to gain her own voice, but even then, she is following other people’s steps. Be it Little One’s or Master Artemis’s(?).

            It isn’t fair to say that Elena doesn’t deserve what she has achieved in life. In the same manner that it isn’t fair to say that someone who is born smart and wealthy doesn’t deserve their achievements. Elena’s achievements are thanks to her storm, but it’s her and no one else who has been able to use that storm to do great things. But she is where she is in life uniquely because certain people have found an interest or use for her. As things currently are, I can only imagine a tonne of bad, terrible things will happen to Elena in order for her to grow up to a character that can handle the even worse situations that we know are ahead of her.

            To give an example of a perhaps less frustrating naive archetype; the fool-hardy character, stubborn as a mule character, but who forges their own path. They’d be the kind who would fail to take up on opportunities and the readers would hit their foreheads and scream at them for being stupid, but at least they’d be in control of their life.

            Like

            2015-09-10 at 1:43 am

  5. Bart

    I binge read this during this past weekend. Wow, what a trip. I’m excited to see what happens now.

    By the way, how often do updates occur?

    Like

    2015-09-13 at 10:09 pm

    • Glad you’re liking it! I update Twisted Cogs every Sunday and Beta Key every Thursday, both at 11:59pm CST. If I can’t post on schedule for whatever reason, I try to drop a quick post to let people know when they can expect the next chapter, and there’s also usually a “Next Chapter Available” date at the end of each chapter

      Like

      2015-09-13 at 11:36 pm

      • Bart

        What’s beta key mean?

        Like

        2015-09-14 at 12:04 am

        • Beta Key is another story that I write! It’s about what happens after our world is transformed into a video game. You can find a summary (and the free first three chapters) right here!

          Like

          2015-09-14 at 7:20 am

  6. Byzantine

    Looking at it, Elena is wrong. It’s not that her storm can’t be tricked, it’s that she can’t be the one to trick it. She has to honestly believe it is hers. That doesn’t mean someone else can’t trick her into that belief.

    Like

    2017-04-02 at 8:23 pm

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