A tale of artists, intrigue, and the magical renaissance

2.09 – Patet {Plain}

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***

“At least we have Belloza in the kitchens,” Fred broke the silence in the little group, “it’s better than nothing, we have our ‘in’.”

“And if they’re really hiring Rhetors, we might have two separate ‘in’s, in two separate places,” Ele said, “that’s even better than-“

“Why didn’t your Storm work?” Owl interrupted Ele to ask Emerald. He dropped his voice to a murmur, but even so Elena glanced over her shoulder, but she needn’t have bothered. In contrast to the bustling halls of the castle downstairs, the hallway that the cook had directed them toward was entirely empty, and eerily quiet.

“I don’t know,” Emerald folded her arms, “it’s not an Artifex Storm, Rhetor’s Storm just work.”

Elena tried to open her mouth to speak, out of habit, but the mask locked it closed. Instead, she waved her hand through Ele’s shoulder to get his attention, then pointed at herself.

“Maybe…like Elena, your Storm works differently than you thought it did?” Ele asked, and Elena nodded. It was annoying, having to speak through her Echo, she couldn’t imagine how much worse it would be to not have an Echo at all.

Or rather, to be an Echo herself, she mentally corrected. She wanted to ask how long it had taken before Emerald got used to the stuffy mask, or if there was a trick to not being overwhelmed with the smell of leather, and for a moment she was gripped with the urge to reach up and try to yank the mask off her face.

“My Storm has worked the same way for my entire life,” Emerald folded her arms across her chest, frowning, “it sounds pleasant to everyone, and when I make a suggestion in a certain kind of way, people follow that suggestion, unless they have deep, ingrained objection.”

“Like a cook with her kitchen?” Frederica asked.

“More ingrained than that,” Emerald shook her head, “more ingrained than should ever be possible with a normal person. I convinced Rolf to give up his life’s work and then his entire life, if that tells you the intensity I’m talking about. I’ve only encountered one other person my Storm hasn’t worked on.”

Elena tilted her head to one side, plainly curious.

“I tried to talk the Guardhouse captain into letting me go,” Emerald answered Elena’s unspoken question.

Elena looked around, waiting for someone to ask for more information, but the rest of the group seemed content to let her get away with the vague answer. It was infuriating, and again Elena was almost overwhelmed with the urge to rip the mask off. It was too tight around her neck, it locked her chin in an iron grip, and although she could technically breathe it felt as if that ability would be cut off the second she moved her head too far in one direction or another.

Elena’s fingers flew to her face, and she tugged on the mask, trying to pull it away far enough to take just one breath of clean air, but the lock behind her neck held fast, and the claustrophobic feeling started to give way to a kind of panic.

“Elena,” Frederica lay a gauntleted hand on her shoulder, in a motion that in theory should’ve made the feeling worse, but her voice was steady as ever, and it kept Elena calm. “You’re not actually trapped in there. As soon as we get back to the room, we’ll take the mask off.”

“You can survive it,” Emerald seemed to shake herself out of her reverie, “if thousands of Rhetors can survive worse, you can survive it.”

Elena nodded, trying to ignore how the motion felt where the metal rubbed against her skin, and indicated the door at the end of the hall.

“Rhetors and Rhetorguards don’t have a lot of friends,” Emerald said, “better if it’s just Frederica and Elena. Fred and Ele, you two should stay out of sight as well, as much as you can. Rhetors don’t have Echoes, and Stormtouched rarely become Rhetorguards.”

“Emerald and I will see what prospects we can scrounge up around the city,” Owl said, “we’re not as sociable as Belloza, but we’ll find something.”

“That seems all I’m good for right now anyway,” Emerald agreed bitterly.

“We’ll see you back at the inn, then,” Frederica said. Elena wanted to say something encouraging to her friends who looked so dour, but her mouth was locked closed, and they had already turned and were leaving, so she couldn’t even make an encouraging gesture. Frederica gave her shoulder a small friendly squeeze, and knocked on the door.

“No need to knock, the damn thing should be open anyway,” a very old voice called.

The room beyond the door was as small as the kitchen had been large, half of it occupied by the large desk, at which sat a cleanshaven man with silver hair and strangely colorless eyes. The man took in Frederica and Elena with a single glance, and then pulled a sheet of paper toward him. As perfunctory as that glance seemed, Elena thought it seemed more knowing than it had to be, and she was already nervous.

“Not that we do enough business here to keep the door open,” he added, “if you have business here chances are a closed door won’t stop you. What are your names?”

“My name is Fre-Fabiola,” Frederica said, stumbling on the name. Elena’s heart stopped for a moment, searching the man’s face for a reaction. “We don’t know the name of the Rhetor.” Frederica continued.

“As is so often the case with them,” the old man said regretfully, “it’s a pleasure to meet you Frefabiola, my name is Gennaro Mazzioti, but everyone calls me the quartermaster, and you may do the same.” He let the silence drag on for a few moments, then turned to the paper he had just retrieved and resumed writing, humming tunelessly.

Say something, Elena willed Frederica to read her mind, but she didn’t dare make any motion now that there was a third party in the room. Frederica was used to moving smoothly and confidently, and Elena didn’t know how much the mistake with her name would’ve rattled her.

Frederica glanced at Elena, but seemed to sense her reluctance to give guidance. “Fiammetta sent us. From the kitchens.”

“Did she indeed?” the quartermaster said, his voice interested but his attention still on the paper. “She is quite a lovely woman, I admire her greatly. I like to think I respect her as one quartermaster to the other, eh?” He smiled at his metaphor, and lifted his eyes to lock them on Elena’s.

He knows, the non-specific but paralysing thought shot through her spine, but Elena forced herself to remain calm. He probably didn’t know a thing, he was just zeroing in on the fact that she was so nervous. But shouldn’t a Rhetor be nervous? How did a Rhetor act in this situation? Elena opted to fold her hands in front of her and stare at the front of the desk, not quite looking down at her shoes, but not meeting his gaze either.

“We heard that you were looking to hire Rhetors,” Frederica soldiered on.

“The council of Rimi is looking to hire Rhetors, yes, to serve them,” the Quartermaster said, “I’m just the one who decides which Rhetors to hire.”

The council itself! Elena very carefully didn’t let the surge of excitement show.

“I…I was given to understand we would be working somewhere called the ‘pit scullery’,” Frederica said.

“Mmm,” the Quartermaster tapped his quill thoughtfully on his chin, then made another notation, “that would be the first hurdle. Look for work somewhere called the ‘pit scullery’ and I know you’re willing to work hard.”

“Seems a haphazard way of narrowing down prospects,” Frederica said. Elena would’ve elbowed her friend if she could’ve.

It’s a good thing for us! Don’t argue with him!

“My methods lead me to learn things about those who come to me,” the Quartermaster said, seemingly unoffended, “and thus to results.”

“What sorts of things?” Frederica asked.

The Quartermaster finally put down the quill and gave the two girls his full attention, “the Rhetor is timid. Trying to look more timid than she is and appear non-threatening, but I’m not threatened. That girl won’t hurt anyone unless she feels she has to. The two of you are very new.”

“How could you know that?” Frederica asked.

“You’ve been watching me. Like a hawk.” The Quartermaster replied. “It’s good to be observant, but you don’t glance at your Rhetor every now and then, to see if she’s fiddling with her mask or signing me. New guards reason they can see a Rhetor well enough in their peripheral vision. Old guards have made their first or second mistakes, and they don’t risk it.”

“I’m new, but I’m a good Rhetorguard,” Frederica bristled.
“You’re new to this, and new to the town, and newly escaped whatever it was you’re running from,” the Quartermaster said. He impatiently gestured aside Frederica’s answer, “the fake name doesn’t flow smoothly enough to have been used for long. More importantly than that, you’re either desperate for a job or you’re desperate for this one, and if you went to the kitchen first it means you’ll take any job you can get.”

Frederica cast another glance at Elena, who resolutely continued to stare at the desk. She went to bite her lip fretfully, but the mask kept her mouth clamped shut.

“I don’t know if you think of those as good or bad qualities,” Frederica finally said. “I don’t know where we stand in your estimation. Are you looking for more information?”

“It’s far more information, than I needed,” the Quartermaster said, “I made my decision in the first few seconds.”

He spun the paper he had been writing on around so that it was facing the pair and pushed it forward. Elena leaned forward so that she could read the slanted handwriting.

“This looks like a writ of employment,” Frederica voiced Elena’s thoughts.

“You’ll note I wrote ‘Fabiola’ there,” the Quartermaster said, “this is for our records. If you require another with your real name to provide to the Guardhouse, I can provide that as well. Some do, some don’t.”

Elena felt like dancing. If it wasn’t a trap, it meant the two of them would have direct access to Lucrezia, at least being in the same room as the Twisted ruler.

“What’s this here?” Frederica asked, stabbing a finger at the contract, her voice sharp. “The Rhetor serves the council alone? Without a guard? Are you mad?”

Elena was happy that Frederica was getting into her role as a Rhetorguard, but wished she would stop arguing with the man who was giving them what they wanted.

“It is a very unusual arrangement,” the Quartermaster withdrew another piece of paper, much more worn than the first, “and I’m told considerable effort went into obtaining permission from the Guardhouse. However, as you can see here, permission was obtained. The Guardhouse seal should be intact.”

He handed the paper to Frederica, and Elena waited on edge as she scanned the page.

“This does seem in order,” Frederica begrudgingly admitted, after an amount of time Elena thought excessive.

“Then, if the two of you will come with me,” the Quartermaster said, rising with a smile, “I’ll take you two as far as the councilroom, and then escort the Rhetor in to meet the Lords and Ladies that she’ll be serving.”

***

At first glance, the councilroom of Rimi seemed too subtle and understated to be the seat of power for such a huge and ostentatious city. It was large, but not particularly lavish or grand, furnished with simple materials, and the only real display of extravagance was the stained glass in the windows that lined the room, and the council table.

The table was a huge ring, large enough for all thirteen members of the council to sit around it. It was only an arm’s width wide, leaving a large area of space in the center, revealing a huge silver sun laid out along the smooth stone of the floor.

It took a second look before Elena began to realize that the room wasn’t actually as humble as it seemed. Indeed, for all its subtlety, it may have been even more arrogant, in an even more fundamental way.

The councilroom of Rimi didn’t need to be furnished expensively when the entire room was structured to draw one’s eye to the thirteen points at which the council members sat. The seats were more like thrones, and the height of the table meant each member would be looking down at anyone who stood in the center.

The columns and torches and windows set about the room meant that the table was bathed in light from every angle, while the rest of the room was dim. It wasn’t until Elena, Frederica, and the Quartermaster reached the edge of the table itself that Elena realized the stained glass windows depicted the council members themselves, like breathtaking angels made of light and color watching over the council in their seats.

When they reached the center of ring, it became clear that each ray of the silver sun on the floor pointed in the direction of one of the council’s thrones.

“My Lords and Ladies of the Council,” the Quartermaster said with a bow, “might I present for your consideration the newest servant for your number.”

“We’ve been needing new servers,” a man just behind her spoke from one of the thrones.

“Our policies on who serves make it difficult to find them easily,” said a woman on Elena’s other side.

“Our policies on who serves make us more impressive,” someone else said, “and our power feeds from our impression.”

Elena had risen from her bow, and she took the opportunity to glance in between the thrones. The table was bright enough that it took a second glance to make out the people among the columns beyond, but when she did it was a frightening sight.

The dark clothes were hard to make out, so it seemed as if only the silver symbols embossed on the masks shone out from the darkness, dim and grim shapes who silently watched the proceedings. Elena imagined someone looking up from a meeting with the council, imagined them suddenly realizing that they were being watched by a mass of quiet, unguarded Rhetors.

Impressive? It would be terrified. I’M terrified, and I have an unmasked Rhetor for a friend, she thought.

“Do you give us your endorsement, Quartermaster?” on of the men on the thrones asked.

“She’s a strange one, my Lord, but her reasons for coming to you are good. She’ll do her best.”

“Very well. You may introduce us. Listen carefully, girl, we don’t expect you to need another round.”

Elena had been so concerned with the room that she’d given the council itself only a cursory glance, but the Quartermaster turned her gently to face the voice that had just spoken, on the very edge of the ring behind her. He gestured to the council members one by one as he introduced them.

“Rhetor,” he said, “it is my honor to present to you Lord Ulderico the Wise.”

The man was magnificent, with a huge black beard and eyes that seemed to pierce through Elena, but the Quartermaster was turning even as she tried to take in the awe-inspiring figure.

“Lord Prisco the Terrible, his Lordship Cassiano the Just, and Lord Dionigi recently returned from the wars…”

Elena couldn’t keep up. They were all so awe-inspiring, they all exuded such raw power, and as Elena slowly spun to follow the Quartermaster’s introductions she felt her head begin to spin as well.

“And Lord Tirone of the Greater District completes the list of Lords of the council.”

They were handsome, they were fearsome, and Elena was having a hard time remembering what she was doing there. Did she really imagine she could accomplish anything with this much power in the room?

“Among the Ladies,” the Quartermaster continued turning, “there is Lady Catena the General, Lady Rosa, Fourth of her name…”

As handsome as the men were, the women of the council were just as beautiful, and they too carried themselves in a way that made clear they knew the power they bore.

“Lady Quartilla who commands the Standarders, Lady Adalberta known as ‘Lady Swan’, Lady Lucente…”

Elena’s eyes skipped past the incredibly plain woman and locked on to the next figure, a pale beauty with one of the few crowns the council members wore.

“Lady Beatrice the Maid, and Lady Di Pirro who of course needs no introduction.”

Elena felt as if she was drunk, as if so much influence and stature had soaked into her bloodstream and made her tipsy.

“With your permission, Lords and Ladies, I will take the new Rhetor to learn her duties,” the Quartermaster said with a bow.

“You are dismissed,” Lady Adalberta said, “the council has other matters to attend to.”

The feeling of intoxication lasted Elena until the pair of them left the council chamber, and it was only when Frederica put a heavy hand on her shoulder that Elena truly snapped out of it. The effect was like ice-water. Elena quickly reviewed the past few minutes in her head, going over the introduction over and over again while she followed the Quartermaster and Frederica.

She had met Lucrezia, but could remember almost nothing about her. The woman had been…plain? Elena couldn’t recall what her expression had been, couldn’t even recall what color her hair had been. Frederica gave her shoulder a reassuring squeeze, but Elena had an icy pit in her stomach that wouldn’t go away.

How do we kill her when her Storm makes her so easy to ignore?

***

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***

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7 responses

  1. A double-sized (almost 3x) chapter tonight, lovely readers (and a new Beta Key chapter for you readers of Beta Key)! I thought about splitting it up and posting one Thursday, but if I have it written, why wait, right?

    Like

    2016-06-19 at 11:44 pm

    • I think you cut off something here at the end:
      “The council of Rimi is looking to hire Rhetors, yes, to serve them,” the Quartermaster said, “I’m just the one who decides which Rhetors to hire.”

      The council itself! Elena very carefully didn’t let the surge of excitement show. What determined

      Thank you for the extra extra chapter tonight <3!

      Like

      2016-06-20 at 5:38 am

      • Alright, I’ve let this sit here for a couple of days trying to remember, and I cannot for the life of me figure out where I was going with that. Thanks for the catch, hopefully I recall when I go back to edit!

        Like

        2016-06-23 at 9:10 pm

  2. Bart

    So they can command Rhetors somehow. Everyone in their employ has already been spoken to.

    “You will serve in capacity X and will not follow any other Rhetor commands given to you save mine. Should another Rhetor attempt to speak to you, you will come tell one of us immediately upon finishing your assigned shift.”

    Like

    2016-06-20 at 4:09 am

  3. eduardo

    This is quite possible Bart. Likely even.

    Like

    2016-06-20 at 5:26 pm

    • maybe owl will come up with this scheme and have emerald innoculate their team against other rhetors.

      Like

      2016-07-29 at 2:33 pm

  4. Well that’s a clever way to avoid spies. Only hire people who can’t communicate in any way. Also I assume Lucrezia is a Rhetor who’s Storm basically makes her a Stranger. Clever if the urge to ignore her also causes it to seem like things she suggests are your idea because you can’t remember who suggested it.

    Like

    2016-09-21 at 9:32 am

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