A tale of artists, intrigue, and the magical renaissance

4.6 – Rubrum ad Nigrum {Red to Black}

Elena sat cross-legged on her cot, watching her Echo sleep. Masters Athena and Aphrodite were silent, seemingly content to let her think for a while before beginning their conversation.

“What is it that you do, Master Aphrodite?” Elena asked.

“Nothing particularly sinister or intricate,” Master Aphrodite said, “my Storm weaves into one’s connections to others, and gives my voice the benefit of those connections. If I want you to feel relaxed, for instance, the meter and cadence changes ever-so-slightly to match that of a person who makes you feel relaxed. They’re very small changes, often small enough that you couldn’t hear them unless you were looking for them, but they’re enough to work.”

That would probably be why Master Aphrodite’s voice reminded her of her friends in ways she couldn’t quite put her finger on. Elena frowned,

“You’re a member of the Eye, you work for so many people who should want to keep you in a mask…His Majesty, the Guardhouse, Master Zeus, none of them mind a Rhetor without a mask? Let alone giving so much authority to her?”

“His Majesty allows the Eye of the Storm certain leeway, Journeyman Cog,” Master Athena said. “His trust of Master Zeus is absolute, and that Master Zeus vouched for her was…well, almost enough. I’ll grant, it took some convincing.”

“Doesn’t seem fair, is all,” Elena mumbled, “I’m sure you are a lovely person, Master Aphrodite, but there are other Rhetors who are probably just as lovely and won’t get special treatment.”

“I wish there was more I could do to help them,” Master Aphrodite nodded, “and perhaps, someday, there will be. I keep a hopeful eye to the future.”

“Our concerns right now should be for the slightly-closer-future,” Master Athena said. “I hate to be abrupt, but Elena…a group with the Rebel Queen? That must be quite a story, I have to admit it stretches my curiosity by quite a bit.”

Elena bit her lip. She valued the respect of the Eye of the Storm, but she also valued the respect of the Twisted.

“I…I can’t give them up,” she faltered. “I’m sorry, and I know that hurts my chances at joining the Eye.”

“Not necessarily,” Master Aphrodite said gently, “the Eye hardly demands its members’ exclusive loyalty.”

“And yet…” Master Athena frowned, “the Eye was under the impression that we had detailed knowledge of the Rebel Queen’s whereabouts for the past forty or so years. It’s worrisome to know that she’s been eluding us to slip away and meet with people. It bothers me more that our information was faulty.”

“It wasn’t faulty, I only met her in person one time, the time I told His Princeps about,” Elena said, grateful to be able to supply at least some information, “the group has a…a secret way of communicating with each other.”

“We suspected she was using some Machinator-made device,” Master Athena nodded, “although her residence and person had been searched, she always knew a bit more information than she should’ve had access to.”

“Returning to you, Elena, you’ll be safe, won’t you?” Master Aphrodite asked, her face touched with concern, “this group won’t try to hurt you if they discover that you’ve said what you’ve said?”

“They would never hurt me,” Elena said confidently, “when they found out that Little One was threatening me, they…” she bit back her words suddenly. They had locked her in a cell in the Dream World to keep her from causing any harm, but the Twisted definitely wouldn’t appreciate her talking about the Dream World. “…they sort of revoked her membership,” she finished weakly.

“Well then, the group seems sensible, at least,” Master Aphrodite smiled.

“Well, if the group has no plans to harm either you or Italoza, I am inclined to let it slide. You should know, however, that should you have plans for joining the Eye, there may be a day when we require more information. The Eye needs information to function, and I’m sure I’m not the only one liable to be worried about a group capable of causing damage who we don’t know.”

“This is a group capable of initiating the Rebel Queen while she remained in captivity,” Master Aphrodite said quietly, “so physical location means little, it may not be Milian. We might know of them, but not of Journeyman Cog’s membership.”

The three women fell silent for a moment, and Elena shifted uncomfortably. She had given away more about the Twisted than she’d meant to. When Ele woke up, she would have to discuss with him to see if there had been anything else she’d accidentally revealed. She hoped he would wake up soon, he would have a much better idea of how to answer the Eye’s curiosity without betraying the Twisteds’ trust.

“We’re not-” Master Athena began, but she was interrupted by the door of the dungeons opening. Both Masters turned, and Elena rose to see who had entered.

“Hm, I’m in trouble, and there’s Cog. Words can’t express my surprise,” Arturo’s sarcastic tone sounded hollow, but that might’ve been due to the dungeon’s damp stone walls. Several guards, two to a person, escorted Elena’s friends wordlessly to the cells up and down the room, and the worried feeling that had been gnawing at her stomach grew tight.

“Is this Journeyman Cog’s retinue? Who’s in charge here?” Master Aphrodite’s voice had changed in timbre, and although she couldn’t tell what exactly had changed, Elena knew that the Rhetor’s Storm was no longer directed at her.

“I am, your Ladyship,” one of the guards spoke up. “His Princeps has ordered Journeyman Cog’s associates locked up while their rooms and workshops are searched, Miss.”

“What is going through his head?” Master Aphrodite said.

“Couldn’t rightly say, ma’am,” the guard replied.

“I had thought our words with him had assuaged most of his worries…curious.” Master Athena’s brow was furrowed, but Elena was more worried about her friends than about the Prince’s paranoia. She leaned against the bars to watch the guards putting Belloza, Arturo, Frederica and Owl into cells. At least they didn’t look too scared, and they were cooperating with the guards. Owl gave her his customary sad smile and a wave, and Elena gave a weak wave back.

“Hey Elena,” Belloza said as her door slammed shut, “any idea-”

“No, no, stop that!” the man in charge snapped at a few of the others, “each of the sculptures go in different cages, come on now, use your heads!”

The row of cells side-by-side obscured Elena’s vision somewhat, but sure enough, she could see Freja being led to her own cell, and they even dragged the garzoni’s current project, the hollow man, into his own cell, the one next to Elena’s. The man was still unyielding wood, either not finished or not Touched by the Storm, but the guards locked the door of its cell nonetheless.

“Any idea what all of this is about?” Belloza finished when the guard fell silent again.

“That’s what the two of us are about to find out,” Master Athena said, “I understand that under threat of rebellion His Princeps is under stress and feeling mistrustful, but this seems extreme. Elena, we will speak again.” The two Masters departed at a quick pace, but their worried faces didn’t exactly fill Elena with confidence. Perhaps it was time for her to talk to the Twisted about sending her help, if things were getting so bad.

One final guard carried in a birdcage, in which Elena’s little wooden ermine Frell paced back and forth worriedly.

“Is that really necessary?” Frederica snapped, “how much damage is an ermine going to cause?”

“Not my call, I’m afraid, Miss Maple,” the guard said politely, setting the birdcage down halfway between the two rows of cells, well out of reach, “confiscate all tools, nothing Touched allowed in a cell with you, everyone in a different cell, those are my orders.”

“Can you at least tell us-” Elena began.

“I’m not even supposed to talk to you, Journeyman Cog,” the guard said, then covered his mouth. He ordered his men out with a hand signal, but at the door he turned, “we’re leaving two guards standing outside, and one of them is a Stormtouched with his Echo, so don’t none of your invisible friends try to escape. In fact, Tito, why don’t you stand guard inside the door. I don’t want the Echoes plotting.”

One of the guards nodded and leaned against the door instead of following the rest out, and when another stayed as well, Elena realized it was his Echo.

Why does his Echo wear a guard’s uniform when only Stormtouched can see it? Elena thought distractedly. The door closed with a heavy report that bounced off of the stone walls.

“Are we allowed to talk to each other?” Arta asked.

The guard Tito shrugged, “don’t care as long as you aren’t talking about escape or insulting me,” he said.

Arturo flopped down onto his cot, “you mean how your mother’s a-” he began.

“What’s going on, Elena?” Owl cut the Artifex off, adjusting the spectacles on his face, “I’m making the assumption that whatever His Princeps thinks you’re up to is incorrect, but I think we’d all appreciate knowing what’s happening.”

Elena bit her lip and glanced at Tito and his Echo. She wanted to tell her friends at least something about why they were in this mess, but didn’t know how much she wanted to say in front of the guard.

“I can’t exactly say right now, but yes, his worries are nothing to be worried about,” Elena said. “After he searches our things, I’m sure he’ll realize that I’m loyal to Milia.”

“That’s all you can give us?” Arturo asked from a few cells down.

“It’s enough,” Frederica said shortly. Elena was grateful to her friend, but the tension in her stomach hadn’t lessened at all.

“I’m sorry, all of you,” she said, “I’m sorry for getting you into this mess. I should’ve known my luck would’ve rubbed off on you.”

“I’m not sorry,” Belloza said, “I’ve been having a blast with the soldiers. If it only means sitting in a cell for a night while they make sure we’re not spies or whatever, it was still definitely worth it.”

“And she could use an enforced night of sobriety,” Bello, Belloza’s large burly Echo chimed in.

“Oh please, you act as if I get black-out drunk every night,” Belloza laughed, “really it’s more like…slightly tipsy, that’s all.”

“As I say, I’m not bothered that she has to take the night off.”

“I also don’t particularly mind taking a night off,” Owl lay on his cot with his hands folded on his chest, looking as content as if he was sleeping in his own bed. “I’m a bit stuck with my project to make a lock that anyone can assemble and install, perhaps it’s good that I’m taking a break.”

“Well I’m not ‘fine’ with being locked up in a dungeon cell,” Arturo pouted, “if anyone cared about my opinion, which no one does.”

“I’ve been enjoying myself,” Arta said quietly, playing with the paintbrush behind her ear.

“Me too. I met a guy,” Frederica said.

Elena stared, her mouth dropping open. “What?” she asked. “Since when did- Who did- Frederica that’s wonderful!”

“It’s alright,” Frederica said, “he’s nice, I like him, he likes me. It’s no big deal.”

“It is a big deal! I’m so excited for you!” For the first time all night, Elena smiled. “What’s he like?”

Frederica only shrugged, and Fred spoke up. “He’s one of the courtiers, Lord Curti, a Caelator. His Echo is pretty nice, a little snooty.”

“They’re disgustingly cute together,” Freja interjected from her cell, “they’ve been studying in the library a lot, going over old Caelator masters.”

“Quiet, you,” Frederica said, cracking one of her rare smiles. “You’re not supposed to tell tales about your creator.”

“Do we get to meet him?” Arta asked, and Belloza rubbed her hands together.

“I’ll have to think about that,” Frederica said.

“What’s the matter,” Owl said from his cot, “afraid we’ll accidentally embarrass you?”

“Accidentally? No, not at all,” Frederica said.

The thick oak door and heavy stones were so solid that when a thud sounded from the hall outside, it caught the attention of everyone inside, including the guard. He turned to face the door, hand on the hilt of his sword, but no further sounds emerged. The longer the silence stretched, the more tense the man became, and after a few seconds Tito drew his sword, the muscles on his neck standing out.

“Ti, would you mind?” he asked. The Echo approached the wall cautiously, but before he could pass through, the heavy oak door opened. From her cell, Elena couldn’t see the hallway, or what the guard was looking at that made him pause for a moment. She couldn’t see what had made him stiffen, so she didn’t identify the sharp wooden slap for a few moments.

The tableau seemed frozen for a few seconds, Tito still as stone except for a slow wobble. It finally clicked into place in Elena’s head just as he dropped his sword to clatter on the ground, just as his Echo began unravelling from the middle, just as the man began to fall. He hit the ground hard on his back, the arrow sticking straight up out of his chest.

Elena screamed. Someone was yelling something, and there were people entering, but she couldn’t look at anything but Tito, laying on his back, staring at the ceiling with blank eyes. When she looked up, there was another arrow pointed at her face.

“I said stop screaming or I’ll shoot,” the archer repeated. Elena clamped her mouth shut, although it was still hard to string together thoughts. Her friends were on their feet in their cells, watching silently as a few more men and women entered. They wore dark clothes, but no hoods or masks, and each of them carried bows, sharp arrows nocked. There were seven, altogether, and Elena didn’t recognize a one of them.

“The walls are thick, but we should be quick, just to be safe. I don’t want that scream bringing someone down here.”

Elena recognized the elderly voice from the first word, and she gripped the bars of her cell so tightly that her knuckles turned white. Little One leaned on a cane as she walked, and the archers parted to let her pass down the middle of the two rows of cells. She stopped in front of Elena’s, searching her face as if looking for a sign.

“You’ll-” Elena began.

“Please,” Little One spoke over her with an air of utter weariness, “you have no idea how many times I’ve been told that I’ll ‘never get away with this’, or ‘suffer for what you’ve done’, or ‘will have your just deserts. Grow as old as I have and the amusement tends to drain from playing out the same conversations over and over again.’”

“I’m assuming this isn’t a rescue, then,” Owl spoke up from his cell.

“A rescue?” Little One said, “hardly. This is an execution.”

Elena’s blood turned to ice.

My friends.

Without a moment’s delay Elena’s Storm slammed through her mind, pain and prickles stabbing her temples. She wouldn’t let her friends be hurt, she wouldn’t allow it. She would…she would…

There was nothing to do.

Information about her cell poured through her, from the dimensions to the amount of heat it would take to melt the bars, but there was nothing inside the cell that could help her, nothing she could construct with archers watching her, nothing she could reach that could stop this.

“Do you call it ‘execution’ to make yourself feel better?” Ele spoke from behind her, “or is it because your friends here would balk at a term like ‘cold-blooded murder’?”

“She’s calling it an ‘execution’,” said another familiar voice, “because that’s what it’s called when the Prince of a city orders his subject’s deaths.”

Of all of the voices Elena hadn’t expected in that cold room, of all the people she didn’t expect to see, Prince Langone was at the top of the list.

“I’d worried you’d gotten lost, Princeps,” Little One croaked, still not taking her eyes off of Elena.

“I don’t tend to get lost in my own palace,” Prince Langone said, “surprising as you may find it, I don’t much care for this.”

“Y…Your Princeps?” Elena faltered, “but…but why?”

“Why? Why, Cog? It’s quite simple-” Prince Langone began, but Little One raised a single withered hand to cut him off.

“Don’t explain stratagems to enemies, Your Princeps, no matter how much you wish to justify yourself,” she said simply, then turned to the archers. “Kill them.”

“FREBIO!” Frederica shouted at the same time.

Elena’s entire body buzzed with the Storm, and her mind kicked into high speed, processing the myriad things that all seemed to happen all at once.

The stiff wooden man in the cell next to Elena sprang to his feet, a series of clicks from his chest as the internal locks fell away.

The archers drew, so many of them, so many bows with sharp arrows already nocked.

Someone, it might’ve been Arta, screamed.

The wooden rats and wooden birds sprang from Frebio’s chest, brightly colored with Arturo’s Stormtouched art.

There was more screaming now, from everyone locked in the cells but also from the archers, as the doubly-Stormtouched creatures brushed skin scurried and scuttled and flew, transferring sensations of burning and drowning and dying with every contact.

Arrows were firing, wildly and poorly aimed. Even in all of the chaos, Elena could hear the clicks of arrows bouncing and snapping on the stone walls, which meant she could also hear the sound of a few hitting flesh.

Belloza was on her knees, an arrow jutting out from her hip.

Prince Langone was screaming, clawing at a flame-colored bird that scrabbled at his face.

Elena couldn’t breathe, it felt as if there was no air in her lungs, there was too much screaming, too much chaos.

Frederica was on the ground, but it didn’t look like she had been hit.

Arta was screaming again, or had she never stopped?

She saw the arrows hit Owl, one in his shoulder and another in his stomach, the force enough to spin him, so hard that his spectacles flew off of his face.

“-guards coming, too loud, get out now, get out, get out!” Little One was screaming, and people were moving and screaming, and Elena was screaming but no sound was coming out.

It was so hard to breathe, why was it so hard to breathe?

Elena looked down.

A hundred thousand years ago, in the halls of Studio De Luca, Belloza had shot Elena with a safety arrow, a harmless fang injecting paralysis and a knockout drug. It had been terrifying, and her heart had hammered in her chest for the few seconds she’d stayed awake.

Strangely, there was no terror this time.

Elena reached up to gently touch the arrow in her chest, her finger brushing through the feathered fletching a few inches from her chest. A deep crimson bloom was growing around the arrow, staining her ivory shirt red, but only for a few moments before the whole world faded to black.

***

Previous Chapter | Next Chapter

***

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13 responses

  1. A huge thank you to my lovely Patrons, to my amazing commenters, to the awesome people who have been sharing Twisted Cogs on Reddit and by word of mouth, and the wonderful folks who vote for Twisted Cogs on TopWebFiction, and just all of my lovely readers in general!

    I’d also plead for said group to not hate me for this chapter, but I’m not sure how well that would go :D

    Like

    2015-11-02 at 12:15 am

  2. dogripper

    Argh the cliffhangers!

    Like

    2015-11-02 at 12:30 am

  3. Soronel Haetir

    Just so long as next week’s chapter is not delayed.

    Like

    2015-11-02 at 12:31 am

  4. AceOfSpade

    You are evil.

    Liked by 1 person

    2015-11-02 at 3:17 am

  5. Diabolical!

    Liked by 1 person

    2015-11-02 at 8:59 am

  6. Unmaker

    Ooookay. Twist. And really, Prince, WTF?

    Liked by 1 person

    2015-11-02 at 9:36 am

  7. EchoStep

    Owl! No! Plz don’t let him die ;_; D;

    Like

    2015-11-02 at 1:10 pm

  8. Typo for the Typo God:
    I’m making the assume -> assumption

    My thoughts before reaching the end:
    Do echoes have a sense of comfort? Do they just sleep in their clothes, even if it’s a full metal armour?

    I wonder if it should be a machinator and not a fabera to make the locks, since it’s machinators that do new things.

    I actually feel bad for Arturo. Poor guy; this is pretty mean to him, even if he was a horrible person. I don’t expect him to grow softer x3

    “OOOH! Surely the guards locked up Elena’s friends because Little One misdirected them!” NOPE.

    At the very least, I hope Elena gets to tell the Twisted about the Prince, even though I am not sure they are better anyway.

    And yes, I hate you Maddi ;~; I hope no one dies ;~; No one died, right? Right? I love the new banner, by the way.

    Like

    2015-11-02 at 9:36 pm

    • I actually wonder what’s the Prince’s plan here. Without a doubt he would be part of the investigation from the Eye; no way the King would let that slip and no way the Eye would not pursue that.

      Like

      2015-11-03 at 12:48 am

      • Diarmuid

        Maybe the Prince is being influenced by rhetor?

        Like

        2015-11-06 at 10:05 am

        • Diarmuid

          a rhetor

          Like

          2015-11-06 at 10:06 am

    • Thank you for the typo checks, and for the hatred which sustains the bitter lump of coal which is my heart!

      I’m glad you like the banner, it’s a one-week-only treat for people who read along as I update :D

      Like

      2015-11-08 at 8:16 pm

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