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Silvertongue - Prologue (Ends and Beginnings)

Author: 
Shrike
Old Vault Category: 
fanfiction
Old Vault ID: 
206

1


"...and I tell you again, my research is not in error; it is an exerpt from the hidden writings of King Ryalin II. I recognize the Church's ardor over preserving their doctrine; that Ryalin saved us when he drank from the godswell, from which only a man of Purity and Goodness might partake and live. The following events as described leave us with three choices: Ryalin did not drink from the godswell, or the godswell does not exist, or the godswell does not hold to the properties described of it by this Church. In any case, I urge this hearing to consider the implications of these words. We must remember that Truth can be both beautiful and ugly; to deny one side of the coin is to deny the coin itself..."



-from the hearing of Father Abel Dunston, accused of heresy against the Church; these are some of his last words before the burning...






Evenstar, 4th day, sunset



When Ariel was nine she killed her first dragon. I remember watching it try in vain to take flight, flapping undeveloped wings as she approached with the longspear. There was a fire in its eyes that no simple prey could have; an intelligence that would one day have far surpassed my own�and I sensed above all a magic of sorts eminating from the beast. Perhaps it was the fancy of the young, as was the case when I told Nana earlier that year that I could see people on the far moon, waving back at me. Perhaps I truly took in that peculiar smell of things beyond my normal ken. The dragon was a baby, and - as I later learned - the last of its kind on the mainland. The awe of what she had done was quickly replaced in my heart by fear, as my father beat Ariel with his hardwood cane and threw her in the dungeons for a fortnight. She had broken his Law, and no bloodties would keep her from punishment; although they certainly saved her from an execution.



Those bloodties were, of course, mine. Even then, when I was a boy-prince who carried his blanket instead of a greatsword, I was smitten. I bawled, and begged, and did many other things that made my father ashamed, and I knew full well that I did so. It mattered not; my poor, desperate, beautiful Ariel was going to die, and I knew even then what things were worth fighting for - worth shaming oneself for, even. I couldn't stop the caning, but after three hours of my piercing screams that kept the entire keep awake and on nerves, father relented; the dungeons would be punishment enough.



Do you know what the Elves call her now? Elenariel - "maiden crowned with starfire". That mop of red was more carrot-orange when she entered the dungeons so long ago, and dirt-covered brown as she left them. The welts from her caning were still there too, although she tried her best to keep anyone from seeing them; despite the heat of high summer, she took to wearing long, heavy garments that covered any marks which might otherwise speak her shame. It was Rary the ironsmith's boy who had told her to do it, and her stiff-necked pride left little room for negotiation; I saw her pause only once, when the dragon looked into her eyes. I like to think that she sensed the magic too, although she told me later that it was simply her shoe being caught in the rocks. She cried when it was done, and swore that she would kill Rary, and would never make bets with him or anyone else again. That oath held; she never diced while working the caravan routes, and Rary died three years later to the day. He was seventeen when it happened, and the magistrate could find no clue as to how the smith's son had passed; my father was forced to rule the matter closed, although his memory was long and he suspected Ariel of complicity. If he had known then what I know now, she would have been put to fire.



Two murders before she turned thirteen; you would think she travelled a dark road indeed. My councilors urge me to include any such tales in the official charges; they say anything I remember from our youth that might blacken her image should be added. I tell them nothing; I am old enough to know what must be done, but I also know what place honor has in this. The Histories will record this as a simple beheading, and when the monks look back upon Ariel's life, they will never know of her crimes. Father hid the one, and I hide the other; her honor will remain intact, even as her head is severed.



It is almost time. My presence is needed; I am the youngest king to ever hold the throne, and many look for signs of weakness. They will find none - I signed the order for Ariel's death, and I will swing the sword myself, as should be done. Even as she killed that beautiful creature eleven years ago, doing what she thought had to be done even as her soul recoiled, so will I kill that which I find beautiful, that I might save the one thing I am charged above all to protect - my people�

 

2


"The Bank is large; no single power could have toppled it even seventy years ago, before Jansen first tied the nobles to him with chains of gold and whisperings of power over their king. Today, it pumps coin through the realms of man as a heart moves blood through the body. No one - not even our king, not even the Technomages - can extricate themselves from our institution; no one wants to. With the flow of money comes profit; staunch the flow, and they are left gasping for air�"



-lecture to incoming scholars from the University of Mercantile Relations





"Who knows the hidden heart of a Dwarf? They are builders, and secretive folk; the one brings them among Men, but the other shapes them into an unknown being - and like all unknown beings, we men have taken that incomplete image and filled in the gaps. Dwarves are 'somber, moody, prone to violence, good with numbers, emotionally stunted, and mechanically brilliant', says Polany in what may be the only written text on these People by a human scholar; commoners often tell me that dwarves 'don't bathe, eat slugs, roll around in dirt, and mate with animals'. I ask you, are these terrible things likely to come from the minds of those who have build the Airships? Do the monsters we speak of accurately portray the dwarven race, or do they instead reflect a fear that lies within our own hearts?"



-from Egril Komney's "Axes of Power"






"So you have come, at last," whispered a coarse Voice out of the darkness.



The tall hooded man turned at once, shivering as he did so; the fat one with his cowl pulled back laid a restraining hand on the younger one's shoulder, and Jeric knew then who was in charge. From the shadows, he watched the exchange - two men, talking to the air.



"We have the item you requested, and are authorized to deal with you, should the price be sufficient," said Fat Man. He had a bald pate, and spoke with a slight stutter, but Jeric felt a sense of composure about the man. The Bank had chosen well for this transaction, certainly. Jeric wondered who he was.



The Voice from nowhere spoke again: "I don't trust you types; can't trust any of you to tell a Xyn Stone from bird poop. You have Shudders there show me what you've brought, and then perhaps I'll show gold." Jeric's long-honed instincts should have made it easy to identify the Voice's location, but the caves held a strong echo, and perhaps it was enough to keep a secret. Perhaps - Jeric wasn't sure.



"Proceed," commanded Fat Man, and Shudders (Jeric had to admit, the Voice had named this one well - he looked ready to soil his pants) reached into the folds of his cloak. After a moment's pause, a hand withdrew, holding a small, unremarkable pouch which was promptly given over to Fat Man. Another pause - this one likely for effect - and the contents of the pouch was removed by two pudgy fingers. The Voice gasped, softly, perhaps with longing.



"Give it here!" the Voice moaned.



"Not until we have our coin," retorted Fat Man. "I'll want sixty thousand if you make the trade now; the price goes up ten thousand for every two minutes that you remain undecided." Jeric suppressed a smile; this fellow should have been with the Brotherhood. Well, he had his own group of fellow thieves, after all; the Bank just wasn't usually this good in its choice of members. A smell caught his nose, drifting slowly from the west; probably a dung ogre, maybe more than one. The Voice's owner knew it too; Jeric could hear a distorted rustling sound, almost as someone were shifting restlessly. Two prizes, he reminded himself. The coin alone would have normally been a nice treat, but Jeric had promised his guildleader to keep his hands off the gold. The stone was his target, and soon would be the property of his employer. Jeric could have done it earlier; the Bankers were no threat to him - but another prize awaited him, and he couldn't afford to let it sneak by. Dung ogri or no, he would wait.



"Ar, alright, you'll get yer coin," the Voice gruffed, although Jeric detected a hint of relief - perhaps the outrageous sum was reasonable to this fellow? Maybe he just wanted to get the damn stone and be away from here. The smell of nasty things grew stronger, even as a bag skidded along the ground, to land at Fat Man's feet. The Banker undid the pouch, and raised an eyebrow in seeming surprise - Jeric did so as well when he saw the glitter of diamonds. This buyer is desperate, to pay in that kind of medium, he mused. What was so important about that stone? Jeric didn't know, but the price of ignorance - his second prize - suited him just fine.



And so the transaction was made. Fat Man gave his pouch back to Shudders, who placed it on a nearby rock, and then the two Bankers drifted away into the darkness. For a while, silence. The Voice's owner might have been suspicious, but the smell of dung and steel was growing ever stronger, and at last Jeric heard a click, as a dwarf materialized out of thin air.



Jeric had never seen a dwarf before, but he knew what he was looking at. The man stood not over four feet tall, with a stocky build - a well-muscled frame, indeed. The much-rumored beard was just as impressive as the stories said; the hair was thin and fine, done up in elaborate braids, and Jeric had to admit that he was impressed. The little man wore dull brown trousers and a matching tunic that Jeric could barely make out in the dim light of the cave; there was also a silver belt around his waste, and an exquisitely-crafted breastplate.



The dwarf quickly ran to the pouch, peering in, shaking it, and at last pulling the drawstring to get at his stone. After a moment's inspection, he was apparently satisfied; his hand reached to the belt, and Jeric chose then to strike. Two darts, and then two more, flew through the air to encircle the little man's skull; dwarf and pouch dropped like a rock. Jeric slipped out of his hiding place, and hurried to the body. Yes, the stone seemed fine - the thief took it, pouch and all, along with the dwarf's silver belt. He scanned the cave for a moment before reaching for a hand-sized rock; a few bashes to the head will fool most into the more plausible story - that this poor sod was caught by ogri with his pants down. With a triumphant smile, Jeric slipped the pouch into a fold in his cloak, and then sped off down the eastern passageway. He thought for a moment about heading west - the ogri had probably made short work of the Bankers at this point, and that was a lot of diamonds to ignore - but a promise was a promise, and the thief continued on his way, soundless. After a time, his curiosity led him to run his hands along the silver belt he had taken from the dwarf; there were runes etched in diamond dust, and intricate designs, but Jeric paid these no mind, feeling instead for something else, something that did not belong on a normal belt. At last, success - as Jeric pushed a small bump and his image faded from view, he let forth a chortle of delight; this prize would gain him ten times the diamonds from the Bankers - twenty times! What luck that his employer needed the stone so badly; Jeric would have paid sixty thousand gold just to learn the location of a Dwarven Refractor Belt, and his buyer had let the knowledge slip like so much garbage. All for the stone, which Jeric could care less about. All, according to his employer, because some girl had been born. Thanks, little one, whoever you are, he cooed to himself, little knowing he would curse her years later...

 

3



"...at which point the former responded: 'The monks of the Order of Jalen are never called by their honorifics - always "Death Monks" for them. I don't blame the name-callers; leave it to a human to take an elven gift of light and beauty and make it into something dark and morbid...'"



-from Curdan Pook's controversial oratory "Eavesdropping on Elves: What I Heard"






The baby had been left by the doorstep of the Shroud Monastary of the Order of Jalen, which is the fancy way of saying "the graveyard out beyond Ranseytown". The Monastary had been founded only three years before, and the residents of Ranseytown didn't much care for the arrangement. None had yet gained the stomach to evict their new neighbors, however, and a proposal had even been made to the mayor of Ranseytwon that a new cemetary be built on the other side of town. Nonetheless, babies were occasionally deposited on the monastary's "doorstep" by parents who felt incapable of doing the job themselves, for whatever reason. It was whispered that the monks sacrificed the babies to their Death God; nothing could be further from the truth. Since a monk could not have children of his own upon donning the Order's robes of grey, these orphans were one of the only means of sustaining membership.



This particular baby was being rather troublesome; the list of casualties on the first day included:



-one pair grey robes (ruined by a puddle of pee)

-one pair trousers (the baby had to poop somewhere)

-one crystal statue of Jalen himself (shattered upon impact from the twelve foot drop)

-the Abbott's personal cowl (stained from contact with what was once chicken soup)



In spite of these misfortunes, the monks were delighted by their newest arrival. The Abbott named her Bessie, but he was old, and as the old are prone to do he forgot what he was thinking moments later; a younger monk named her Ariel later that day.



All knowledge worth knowing has death at its center, so the monks say. Death lends a power to ideas, to events. Initiates are taught to hold this thought in their minds - death is always moments away, and it is the one sure and true element of the cosmos. Death is feared by the old, ignored by the young, misunderstood by the masses�but a Monk of the Order learns to acknowledge death in his mind as a tangible force, as a friend, a teacher, an advisor, and above all, a touchstone. When the Abbott first spied Ariel, he felt a tingle down his spine. As all good monks are prone to do, he immediately consulted his death:



"Who is she?"

Someone special.



The Abbott nodded, sagely. "Does she have a name?"

Ariel.



He had already forgotten, but nodded sagely once more. "What does her appearance mean to our Order?"

Knowledge. Death. Prophecy.



The Abbott shrugged off the first; knowledge was an individual affair, that came slowly, hovered for a while, and often passed on before long. The second - Death - was nothing new to him. The final word was an interesting one, and deserved a closer look. Intrigued, he continued: "What is her name?"

Ariel.



The monk at his side tentatively asked, "Has your death given you a glimpse of enlightenment, Eminence?"



The old Abbott gave an indulging smile, and replied, "We shall name her...oh, what was it - the goat's name...Jessie? No..."



Ariel it was - and for the next eight years, she roamed the countless crypts of the Monastary with the other children of the Order, playing Faeries-and-Ogres, and Hidengoseke, with occasional forays into Ranseytown. Life was uncomplicated, if a bit odd, and Ariel never doubted for a moment that she would always be an explorer of tombs; her highest ambition was to excel as a Treasure Hunter (although the monks always frowned upon graverobbing, and scolded her severly when they caught her). It so happened, however, that a real Treasure Hunter made her acquaintance, and thereby led her path inextricably onward, away from the monks and the crypts and Ranseytown, into danger, and magic, and dragons.





Silvertongue - Prologue: Ends and Beginnings © Shrike

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