Saturday, June 18, 2011

Journeyman, Part Two: Angelfall

In the Shining Cities, no one put a particularly high value on discretion; that was the first thing Aron had learned when he started exploring. Every visible surface, every house, every street was coated with so much river-sheen it reflected the sun. The people, too, were covered in the eye-catching paint; women drew delicate spirals around their eyes and cheeks, while the men marked their foreheads with family symbols.

Not for nothing did foreigners call them "glitter-folk."

Aron had only been outside for a few seconds, but already his eyes had begun to water. He squinted at his little sister and grinned.

"Happy anniversary, by the way."

"Hmm?" Laera didn't stop moving, but pushed faster through the crowd, pulling Aron along behind her.

"Happy anniversary. Remember? Five years ago, we died."

All in a manner of speaking, of course. As far as any law-keeper in the Copper Cities would ever know, they had died the same day their father did, half a decade ago. It was simpler to assume that raiders had invaded and murdered the family rather than consider the alternative.

Gray Seekers, and Artisans.

"I can't believe you're still keeping track of that," Laera said, laughing a little. "It seems like five years is enough time to get over that."

Get over my father being murdered by the Gray Men? Get over being kidnapped so the Artisans could bring me to a city of arrogant, narrow-minded sparklers to run their errands and recopy their books while they pretend to teach me magic? 

But he didn't say it. Laera wouldn't have minded, anyway; she had long ago learned to ignore his thoughts on their living situation. It wasn't surprising. Laera loved this city—although love was a peculiar word for it. Laera knew better than to love.

"Perhaps it is," Aron mused. "Regardless. Where are we going, little sister? Why have you pulled me from the hallowed halls of the Artisans, abandoning my oh-so-sacred duties of scribbling copies of the old books?"

"There's something I want to show you," she replied. "You know Reil, right?"

"Reil? It sounds familiar. But, then again, the Reil I'm thinking of was an idiot and a cad who got thrown out of the University because he tried to sleep with an Artisan's woman."

Laera kept walking without a word.

"But it couldn't be that Reil, little Laera. My sister would never be so stupid as to listen to the desperate pleas of the sexually frustrated, would she? Surely not...."

Laera turned and flashed her dazzling smile, bright against her tanned skin. The color of her teeth matched the curlicues of river-sheen on her cheeks, though her eyes flashed even brighter. In the sun, they looked almost white—but perhaps that was only the lighting. Sunlight always flattered Laera now; she'd learned under the glitter-women. Even now, her hair was twisted into an intricate knot, her ears twinkled with glass stars, and daubs of river-sheen glistened on her neck.

She had grown into a proper glitter-lady so quickly and naturally it worried him sometimes.

"Sexually frustrated? Hardly," she taunted.

Aron's eyes widened a little, but he didn't respond. What was he supposed to say?

Laera led him down a side street, out of the crushing crowds. It was surprisingly empty and uncommonly dim; Aron glanced around, but couldn't see even a speck of river-sheen.

"Do you remember what Reil was always looking for, Aron? In the annals?"

"Besides girls? I recall it being something about the Angels."

"Yes. The Angels. Do you remember the story you told me about the Angels? That some people said they made the world?"

"And humans," Aron continued. "And the Folk, and the Gray Men, and all the beasts that crawl on the ground and fly in the air and swarm in the seas."

Laera smiled, and turned toward a door to one of the houses that lined the street. "Good. I'll let Reil do the rest of the explaining."

Aron followed his little sister into the house and nearly gagged. It stank of treal, and sweat, and ashes and elm.

Reil was sitting just beyond the front room, expecting them. He hadn't changed since being thrown unceremoniously from the University: still gaunt, with hollow cheeks and an artless tangle of blond curls. He gestured expansively when they entered.

"Old friends," he croaked. His treal addiction had scorched his vocal chords so much that his voice sounded almost frothy. "Welcome to my humble castle." Laera danced over to him without hesitation, landing in his lap, where she pressed her lips against his papery cheek. Hot anger flashed through Aron's breast, but he didn't let it past his mouth. Trapped, it seethed in his belly, spreading through him like slow poison.

"Skip your merchant talk," Aron snapped. "And tell me exactly why I am here."

Reil grinned. His teeth were pale yellow. "I have a business proposition for you. Laera has told me you work in the annals. I require access to them. For...research."

"Your research seems to be of a rather more carnal variety, rotmouth," Aron snarled.

Reil grinned ever wider in response, showing the blackened remains of his gums. “Carnal studies, cardinal studies…how’s a man to choose?” His smile slid from his face then, leaving behind a severe, skeletal expression. "Do you remember the story about the Angel who fell to the swords of men?"

Aron thought for a moment, remembering, as Laera spoke. "You remember, brother. The bards called it 'The Felling of the Feller.' A companion piece to the epic of Elrael."

"Yes," Reil said, and his grin widened, "except that in The Felling, Elrael is able to murder the Angel because his sword is enchanted with Death's own charms."

"I fail to see what the Angel-Killer has to do with you," Aron said, but as he spoke he felt the anger in his gut turn very, very cold. His fingers trembled. A dull ache bloomed between his eyes.

"Pay attention for one forsaken moment, Aron," Laera said huskily. "What if Elrael's sword exists?"

Silence fell in the room. Aron took a deep breath—taking care not to choke on the fumes coming from Reil's mouth—and then said, "Laera, may I speak with you outside for a moment?"

He didn't wait for an answer, but pulled his sister bodily from the room. She followed, if reluctantly, and yanked her arm back as soon as his grip loosened.

"Why aren't you answering, Aron?" Laera demanded. "What if Elrael's sword is real? Can you imagine what we could do? If the Angels weren't above us, grinding us under their heels—"

"It's not particularly likely, as he happens to be a fable."

"But all fables have some basis in truth. The kingdom of Arluin existed. Why not its hero?"

"Because he didn't! Because the entire story is about him killing Death! Because Reil is only telling you this so he can get in between your—"

"Reil hasn't laid a finger on me," Laera snarled. "And he won't unless I want him to. You're not the only one here who can kick a man between the legs, Aron. And I've been studying under the Artisans, too."

"Studying, yes," Aron snarled. "Learning? As you would say...hardly."

Aron stormed past his sister, leaving her alone in the entry room. Reil saw him coming and assumed it was good—until Aron grabbed him by the throat and thrust him against the wall.

"You say you think Elrael's sword is real," Aron said calmly. "Tell me why, and where it is."

"Books!" Reil gasped. "In the annals!"

"There's the why," Aron said. His eyes darkened, and smoke began to rise from his fingers—or from Reil's throat. It was difficult to be sure. "Would you be so kind as to tell me where it is?"

"I don't know!" Reil gasped. His eyes had begun to bulge.

Laera had come running, and she was screeching something about letting Reil go, but Aron didn't hear it. He pushed harder against Reil's throat.

"I am a patient man, Reil," Aron told him, "but you have dishonored my sister, and you are withholding information from me. That is not the way to treat a patient man, Reil."

"The king!" Reil shrieked. "The books say the Weeping Kings have it still!"

Aron grinned and let Reil fall to the floor. "Oh, Reil. See? That was not hard at all."

Laera rushed to Reil's side, comforting him, cooing sweet words into his ear. Reil was not paying attention to her, though; the livid red burns on his throat were more insistent.

Aron stood silently while his sister worried over Reil's twitching body, waiting. Eventually, she rounded on him.

"What have you done?!"

"I have paid him back in kind," Aron said. His eyes were gleaming, the Stars shone inside the depths of his pupils, and his voice had lost all emotion.

Laera stared at him as if she'd never seen him before. "What you just did. It was not Artisan work."

"No," Aron replied, still emotionless. "It was artificing."

"You nearly killed him! He might die anyway!"

"He was already dead," the Artificer said. "The only real question is whether you will show him mercy or not."


"He will die, little Laera. The question is whether it is painful or not."

"I'm not going to—to—to kill him! I won't!"

"Pity. The pleasure's mine, then," the Artificer said, and lifted his hand. The Stars gleamed on his palm for a moment, and Reil's eyes turned black as burned river-sheen. He began to scream.

"No! No! Stop!"

"I cannot stop, little Laera," the Artificer said. "I cannot prevent what is to come."

After a moment, Reil's body sagged. The Artificer turned to his younger sister.

"If you are wise, you will not seek the Felling Sword," he said, his flat voice deepening with every word. "But you are not wise."

"What...what has happened to you?"

"Nothing. Everything. Someday I will tell you, little Laera. Until then, live in blessed, blissful ignorance. It is better for you, and for us all."

And the Artificer left the house. Laera didn't follow.

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