City of Whispers - Chapter 2

By all measures, Myron Wreath has proven to be a moderate and even-tempered man. Aware of his powers' bounds, he has rarely, if ever, strayed into dangerous waters. In his twenty-two year reign, he has done much to preserve the traditions and state of the nation, and despite his efforts having a negligent effect on decreasing belief in the Eidola, he has done well in improving the commercial state of Oedija…

I find that few, if any, are opposed to his continued reign for many years to come.

- A Modern Account of the Wreaths; by Acadian Helene, Master Historian; 1170 SLP

In the turns after the shell horns blew, I flitted through the streets, dredging up every contact I knew. Some of the lights from the festival still glowed, but many had been extinguished. People had fled to their homes, waiting to see what would come in the wake of the Despot's death. 

I could not have slept had I tried. I didn't know what was behind Myron's death, or what it meant. But this represented change, more change than Oedija had seen in a century, and I needed to follow the threads.

Most of my contacts were missing, but a few were still around. I squeezed them for information, shelling out copper cullets and nickel magnes for whispers, and clung to their every word.

All agreed that the Despot had died within the Laurel Palace itself. His manner of death, however, was disputed. Some speculated it had been an assassination. Others suspected a natural death. Considering I had seen Myron Wreath alive and well earlier that evening, I guessed the former more likely. 

But who would want the Despot dead? The Despot had been well-liked and inoffensive. He'd been seen as strong but had done little to provoke either a foreign power or the true rulers of Oedija. The Conclave had always seemed content with ruling from the Laurel Palace's shadow.

But maybe the reasons were more personal than that. Myron's daughter, Asileia Wreath, had just returned from her governance of the Peninsula, the most northern lands within Oedijan territory. And from the whispers I heard that night, her rule had been exactly as Xaron expected: autocratic and brutal. She was said to have founded a sect of the Eidolan religion centered around herself, and to execute oracles who had not acknowledged her supremacy. Had it become so embarrassing for the Conclave that they recalled her? Or had Myron done so himself? Either way, Asileia did not lack for ambition, nor the will to achieve what she desired. Perhaps, if she truly wanted the Evergreen Wreath, she would not blanch at murdering her father.

Of foreign insurgency, Avvad was the most likely suspect. The Avvadin Imperium, led by a priest-king known as the Kahin-Shah, was ever in a state of war and expansion. Their focus had been on their southern neighbors for the last several decades, but it was only a matter of time before they turned their attention northward. Whispers told of increased activity around the Valemish temples, the seed of Avvad's religion in Oedija, which had grown to include nearly a fourth of the population. It might not mean anything; adherents might be particularly inclined to seek comfort during trying times. But why now, after all these years, would they strike? Perhaps they, too, suffered the drought and needed war to distract and cull the hungry and desperate.

Gray twilight edged into the sky by the time I let off my search. Though I needed rest, I only stopped to reconvene with Xaron and Nomusa, who I assumed had left to dredge up whispers of their own. I'd bolted from Canopy without waiting for them, fire already coursing through my veins. I hoped that between the three of us, we could find a clear path forward.

Weary as my body was, my mind still turned. Inside me burned a thrill that I had not felt in a long time, reminding me why I'd first become a Finch.

I slowly ascended the eleven circles of our derelict tower to Canopy. Reaching the door, I turned the handle. It was unlocked. Hesitating, I cracked it open and peered inside. A single pyr lamp lit the shadowed room. It was just enough to detect the silhouette sitting in a chair, a goblet held in its hand. Only when I saw the gleam of the figure's golden hair did I let out my breath.

Entering, I latched the door behind me and crossed the room. "Linos. What are you doing here? And don't tell me you've tapped our festival wine."

The boy glanced up from the chair with a grin, then took another drink from his goblet. "Nomusa let me in and told me to make myself comfortable, so blame her. What, you think this is my first taste? Please, Sasa. You're not Pata. You know what I am."

"A scoundrel? I've known that since you were born." I held out my hand. "Give it here. You'll do whatever you please on the streets, but here, you don't drink."

My younger brother slowly gave over the goblet, his sneering smile telling me what he thought of my rules. As I took it, I glimpsed his hand in the pyr light. His knuckles were red and scraped. I quickly turned away and set down the goblet. My hand had begun shaking so that I thought it would spill.

When I had control of myself again, I turned back. Studying his face closer, I saw purple bruises beginning to form along his jaw. 

"You've been fighting again."

His smile slipped away. "Someone was ruining our festival fun. I took care of it."

"And what about when someone takes care of you?"

Linos snorted and turned to the bay window. "That won't happen."

I looked him up and down. His clothes were dirty and torn. It might have been excusable when he was eight-years-old, but at fifteen, he should have been past this.

"Why did you come here, Linos? You should go home, clean up, put on a change of clothes. You reek, you know that?"

"And let Mother harp on me? I'd rather not. Besides, can't I visit my sister?"

"I don't like seeing you like this. You know that."

"Why? Because you think you can protect me?" His eyes were bright with drink. "You should know better by now. I don't need anyone's protection."

I didn't try arguing. Quarreling with Linos had never worked. "At least eat something. Knowing you, you've had nothing but wine all day."

"You're getting as sour as Mother. I didn't come here for a free meal, Sasa. I came on business. Or don't you want to know about the smuggler's markets?"

"I'm done with smugglers for the moment. Something else has my attention."

Linos raised an eyebrow. "And what's that?"

I hesitated. The last thing I wanted was not to trust my brother. He was the only member of my family whom I saw regularly, and we even worked together on occasion, though I cringed at how he learned his information. But he was neither wise nor reliable. If there was someone behind the Despot's disappearance and they caught wind of my hunt, it could put the whole venture at risk. 

I found myself speaking anyway. "I'm trying to figure out what happened to Myron Wreath last night."

He stared at me for a moment before a slow grin spread across his face. "You can't be serious."

I gave him a flat stare. "As serious as ever."

His smile faltered. "Sasa, this is crazy even for you."

"How? I'm a Finch. Parsing fact from rumor is what I do best."

"But not something like this. This is way beyond you."

I felt my temper rising. "You think I should abandon it."

"Of course!"

Something in his voice cooled my anger. There was real concern there, as well as something else. I searched my younger brother's face. What could cause him to worry? I didn't know he was capable of it.

As quickly as it had come, it was gone. Linos rose with a smile, not meeting my eyes. "If you want to waste your time, far be it from me to stop you. Just let me know if you want to hear about the Valemish arks — I hear the contraband inside them is fascinating."

"Don't get in any more fights," I said to his back.

He flashed me one last smile over his shoulder, then slipped out of the door.

Locking it behind him, I walked to the bay window and stared out over the palely lit cityscape. Did Linos know something that I didn't? I wondered if I should have pressed him for it. But pressure rarely worked with Linos; that he preferred living on the streets like a vagabond to living under Mother's rules was evidence of that. If he wanted me to know something, he'd tell me in his own time. More likely, it was his boyish arrogance at play.

I turned away from the window and entered my bedchamber, hoping for sleep that I doubted would come.

* * *

I dreamed briefly. Colors shifted within a fog, light refracting as if through glass, an effect I'd often seen in Maesos's shop. From that fog came a face, reptilian and malevolent. I looked up, and instead of the sky above me, the ground reflected back to me as if I stared at a mirror.

When I awoke, sunlight streamed in through the open ceiling. Groggy, I remembered the night's dream for a moment before all that had happened the night before returned to me. Despot Myron was dead.

I sat bolt upright, heart pounding. From the noises outside my room, Nomusa and Xaron were up and about. Despite the late hour of the morning, evident from the bright sunlight on the ceiling, they were still here. Perhaps they'd been waiting to confer with me before they made a day of it. 

Rising, I entered the main living space. Xaron had his feet kicked up on the back of our well-loved divan, idly playing with wisps of radiance between his fingers, weaving them in and out of each other and cursing when he messed up the pattern. When we were alone, he didn't bother to hide his greatest and most dangerous gift: that he was a warden, one of those touched by gods and given access to the energies of the Pyrthae. He was a fool ever to use it. If discovered, he'd be hunted down and either killed or put into the Acadium, where he might as well be dead for all the freedom he'd be afforded.

He looked up and flashed me a grin as I emerged, then narrowed his eyes again at the wisps of light twisting above his fingertips.

Nomusa was also before the window, moving smoothly from one form to the next in her people's martial art, Ixolo. Dressed in tight underwraps and glistening with sweat, she didn't even glance over at me.

An unpleasant realization slowly dawned on me.

When I hadn't shifted or spoken for a minute, Xaron glanced at me again. "Something wrong?"

"What are you doing here?" I tried to keep the edge of annoyance from my voice.

Nomusa and Xaron exchanged a look. 

"Didn't I tell you?" he said to her smugly, then returned to his light weaving.

Nomusa just shook her head and continued her movements. She whipped herself into the air with a spin, then landed with splayed limbs like a prowling cat.

I finally found the words. "You heard the horns. You know what's going on. But you're not out trying to find out anything. You're up here. Practicing."

"And you were sleeping," Nomusa observed, barely out of breath despite her exertions.

The magic disappeared from Xaron's fingertips. "Look, Aire. The Despot's death is a shock and all that. But it isn't something we can do anything about."

"No?"

"No," Nomusa affirmed. "It's ridiculous even to consider investigating."

I looked from one to the other. My initial surprise had faded, leaving me perplexed. "This is what we became Finches for. We'll never get another chance like this. How can you not want to know what's going on?"

"Many reasons." Xaron ticked them off on his hand. "One, it's dangerous. Two, it's pointless. Three, we're hungover."

"You're hungover," Nomusa corrected.

"There's just no profit to it," he continued, rising from the divan with a groan. "Besides, I have somewhere to be later, and I want to be fresh as a summer daisy."

"Again?" I said, exasperated. "And I assume you still won't tell us where you've been going this past season?"

"Perhaps a lady's house?" Nomusa asked, a smile quirking her lips.

"Perhaps," Xaron hedged as he strolled up to me and looked imploringly into my eyes. "Leave off this Myron business, Aire. Nothing good can come of poking your nose into it. Besides, we have the Zotikos job to finish up."

"I'll leave off this job like you'll leave off channeling."

He chuckled. "Point taken." 

I looked at him, then Nomusa. "But I don't know that I can do this without you. Will you help me? Foolish as it is?"

Xaron hesitated, then dropped his gaze.

I sighed. "I'll be back sometime later." I strode to the door, strapped on my sandals, and left.

I went slowly down the eleven circles of our tower, hoping one or both of my companions would come hurrying after me. But as I emerged from the tower onto the street, no one followed. I shook my head and started walking. Despite their lack of support, my resolve had not wavered. I would see what events had unfolded throughout the night no matter their apathy.

I visited each of my contacts as quickly as I could. Little had come in while I slept, but a few points of interest rose to the top. 

Kyros Brighteyed, the Archmaster of the Acadium, and Tribune Vusumuzi, one of the highest officials of justice, had visited the Laurel Palace soon after the shell horns had blown, and hadn't yet left. It was particularly interesting because both were heavily involved with wardens and penning them in. It was also said that by way of the glowing gaze for which the Archmaster received his epithet, Kyros could see where channeling had recently occurred. It could mean a warden had assassinated the Despot. Or, if Talan was to be believed in that Oedija was ripe for an Avvadin invasion, one of the Imperium's bound pyrs, known as Silks, could be responsible. Or it could have nothing to do with channeling, and Vusumuzi and Kyros were just there to eliminate the chance that it did. Still, the implications were intriguing.

Feiyan, the Low Consul with whom I'd had misdealings in the past, had also visited the palace, but to confer with Asileia Wreath. Uneasily, I wondered what the Low Consul and the soon-to-be Despoina had to discuss. With those two women involved, it was best to assume the worst.

By two turns past noon, I'd gathered all the whispers I could but still had no path forward. Still, I had to commit to this hunt, and more importantly, commit Xaron and Nomusa to it as well. That meant tying up loose ends.

I found my way through Port to Maesos' shop. People had begun to return to the streets after a night spent in fear, and I walked through men and women peddling skewers of unknown meats from carts and stands, and traders spreading small trinkets from faraway places on rugs. Bali wood carvings from their trees rumored to grow as big around as Pillars and nearly as tall. Qao Fu silver workings with agate from their desert caves. Intricate bead workings and finely woven rugs from Avvad. All of the Four Realms were present in Oedija. A Wreath might be dead, but life went on.

Arriving at the glassblower's door, I knocked and waited impatiently. Moments later, Maesos cautiously cracked open the door. Seeing me, a smile spread across his face, and he fully opened the door. "Airene! Glad to have one pleasant thing happen today. Don't be shy — come in!"

"I can only stay a moment," I warned him as I stepped inside his dark shop. The only light came from the glass pieces displayed on platforms across the shop. It was Maesos' signature: incorporating pyrkin into his glassware in shifting designs that mesmerized his clientele. The old artisan had never had more success, though he did need to call in a Finch every once in a while to take care of problems that cropped up. Like a certain smuggler I'd stalked the day before.

"You heard the horns, of course," Maesos said as he wiped ashy hands on his dirty apron. As usual, his clothes were a mess and his hair singed. "Terrible thing. Myron Wreath always seemed a decent sort."

"Yes. I thought the same thing. Which is why his death is all the more surprising. Did you hear that the Council declared it a natural death?"

"A natural death?" Maesos bellowed a laugh. "That old bull? I doubt it! What did they say he died of?"

"Foul humors of the heart. He's supposed to have dropped dead in the palace's banquet hall."

"A man of his size wouldn't let anyone stand in the way of his meal. I should know." He slapped his belly with a grin.

"That's actually what I wanted to talk about, more or less."

"Myron's gut?"

I gave him an indulgent smile. "About his unnatural death. This might be the job of a lifetime for me. If I prove it was an assassination and discover who was behind Myron's death…" I shook my head, unable to voice my hopes. 

Maesos gave me a fond smile. "Oh, Airene. You haven't changed since you were a girl pretending to apprentice at my shop while you snuck around and took care of my competitors. That same fire fills you after, what has it been? Ten years already?"

I grimaced at the memory. When I had declared myself a Finch at my Calling, I had learned just how profitless naming yourself a Verifier of Truth was. Though I continued to believe myself a Finch incarnate, I had bowed to reality and become the clerk to a certain eccentric glassblower. Maesos, a recent widower then, had needed someone to attend to his accounts and the storefront while he devoted more time to his craft. Either he was desperate enough to take on a willful, inexperienced girl, or he saw something in me others did not, but he took me under his wing.

Though I'd lamented the necessity of helping the odd man and loathed the menial task of counting beads on an abacus, there was one place I truly excelled: undercutting Maesos' competitors. The glass smith finally became curious when his profits had doubled in the second season of my employment. When put to the question, I succumbed to his gentle urging and revealed the truth: that my evenings had been spent on excursions to the other glass shops in the surrounding demes, investigating their offerings for flaws, understanding their competitive advantages — and, where possible, digging up the dirty secrets of their practices. Thus Maesos had become the first of many clients.

"Ten years," I affirmed. "Ten long years."

The glass smith smiled. "If anyone deserves a break, it's you. Follow this dream, then. But you don't need me to tell you that."

"No. But you can still help me. Did that rat Zotikos come by here today?"

Maesos frowned. "No. Should he have?"

I sighed. "Let's just say he was warned. I should follow through and ensure he delivers it, but…"

His eyes lit in understanding. "Leave it for later, Airene. It's not immediate. I was eager to get my hands on those new strains of pyrkin because I had one to show you — a strain said to dampen a warden's channeling."

I raised an eyebrow. "And you believed whoever told you that?"

He smiled sheepishly and shrugged. "Ridiculous, I know. But after that warden Iela tried to kill you three years ago…" He shook his head. "It was my fault you got mixed up in all that. I owe you something."

"You don't owe me anything," I said firmly. "But if you're alright waiting…"

"Yes, yes." He waved me toward the door. "Best get on with it. I know how you are when you catch wind of a mystery."

It was my turn to smile sheepishly. He knew me all too well.

* * *

Two turns later, I found myself in a dirty back alley tavern.

The Ignorant Intellectual was far from my usual choice of drinking holes. Not only was it on the opposite side of the city in deme Bazaar, but its clientele were a rough sort. The place stank of cheap spirits and uncleanly patrons who hadn't made it to the chamberpots. A goblet of wine rested before me, but I hadn't dared drink from it, not trusting the dirty rag the bartender had wiped it with. I suspected he'd sold me leftover festival wine. But then again, when I ordered "a chalice of unrequited intoxication," I wasn't looking for drink.

"You'll wear out your pretty teeth, grinding them like that."

I startled and looked around at the man standing next to me. "You know I hate when you do that."

Talan wore his usual half-smile as he slid down next to me. His dark, shoulder-length hair was barely restrained by a greasy leather strap. He wore a once cream-color tunic underneath a sky-blue open vest, and dark trousers tucked into worn boots. But cleanliness wasn't what I expected from the Guilder. One of the agents of Oedija's predominate crime syndicate, he had become a contact and a friend in the three years I'd known and worked with him. 

He stole my goblet of wine and sniffed it, wrinkling his nose. "How does that barkeep ruin festival wine?"

"I assumed he would. But you know why I'm here."

"Yes, I suspect I do." He studied me critically. "But don't you think sniffing around the Despot's death is a bit extravagant even for you?"

"Don't try and talk me out of it. I just want to know what you've heard."

His smirk didn't dissipate as he leaned back into the hard booth, hands folding behind his head. "I think you might require something more than talk. How about we take a walk instead?" 

He rose smoothly and offered a hand to me. Perplexed, I took it and let him lead me out of the tavern.

"Where are we going?" I asked as I followed him opposite the way I'd come.

The Guilder turned back with his usual half-smile. "Do you trust me?"

"Not in the slightest."

"Good." He turned and started down the alley.

Shaking my head, I followed.

After a series of back alleys, Talan finally stopped at the end of one opening into a forum. From the position of the Pillars looming above us, I knew we'd crossed from Bazaar into the neighboring deme Sandglass. The forum was laid out as a square, with a small moat separating a courtyard from the surrounding buildings, and delicate bridges crossing over.  On the island formed by the canal, there was a single building, an ugly, black pyramid barely illuminated by blazing braziers and twice as tall as the surrounding buildings.

"Interesting activities have been occurring here," Talan said softly. "Activities some might believe less than legal were they in a different line of work than myself."

"I assume you're referring to the arks? Linos mentioned something about smuggling things through them."

"Perhaps. More to the point, I refer to what I believe they harbor in the heart of the temples." His eyes bore into the dark stone as if he might see through it.

"And what's that?"

He flashed me a mischievous smile. "I can't tell you everything right away, can I? I know you, Airene. You're in this for the intrigue."

I smiled despite myself. "Come on, Talan. I'm in the middle of the biggest job of my career. I need to know if I'm wasting my time on more Avvadin conspiracies of yours."

The Guilder's smile slipped. "We'll find out soon enough. For you and I are going to investigate within."

I stared at him. "You're not serious."

He raised an eyebrow. "Oh? Am I not? Me, the most famous vault-breaker to come out of Erimis, isn't serious about breaking into a simple Valemish temple?"

"Yes. Because that same famed vault-breaker knows that a certain Finch isn't fond of house-breaks."

He cast me a wink. "We'll see who prevails."

I already knew. Since the last exception I'd made two years before, I'd held to my resolution. It'd be simple to resist this wild pyr chase as well.

I turned away. "Thanks for the brief diversion. But it's time to get back to the real work."

Talan halted me with a touch to my arm, his touch burning, as it always did. I shivered, as I inevitably would.

"Consider it," he implored.

As I met his eyes, they burned with something else, a fervor I couldn't understand. Even knowing his stories, his hate for the Valemish and Avvad was beyond what I understood of him.

"I will," I lied, and I left him there in the dark alley.