tagMind ControlTristan's Tale Pt. 11

Tristan's Tale Pt. 11

byIncomingPornDuck©

The saga continues! This is a big one; we've been building to it since part 7!

Many thanks to my editor, John Smith, for his eye for continuity, tone, and good grammar.

-IPD

~
I cracked open a new book and stuck my nose into the pages. "Ahh. Nothing like the smell of a freshly opened book."

Kolani groaned. "I swear, if you say that one more time..."

We'd been nested in the Royal Library for five days, and I'd opened a thousand books by now. It was either bug my fellow scribes, or shit myself from boredom. I flipped to the summary page of the book. "That sounds like a threat," I said innocently.

"Believe me, it is," she promised.

This latest book chronicled the early development of irrigation systems in the low plains surrounding Cammes. Normally I'm a sucker for that stuff. How does this giant city support itself? What's the standard of living for an average farmhand? If metal in this world only comes from animals, do chickens lay metal eggs?

But five days of reading and cataloging had ground my curiosity to dust. I could tell, because when I found an illustrated book of church-sanctioned sex positions, I just skimmed a couple pages before cataloging it as "Unimaginative Kama Sutra" and added it to the pile of books waiting to be shipped out.

Yeah, my work ethic may or may not have been slacking...All this work was supposed to get me closer to the Liberator's tomb, but I had yet to so much as pick up the trail of it. Merlin was stringing me along, suggesting book after useless book while I spent over ten hours a day doing his work for him.

I picked up the next book, a thin brown volume titled Why The Dragons Died: Cynicism in an Awakened Society. I opened the book, and glanced at Kaloni. Her pale blue bandana kept her thick hair back, beneath which she watched me with dark eyes.

I dug my nose into the pages.

"Don't do it," she warned.

I inhaled. "Ahh. Nothing like the smell of-ow!"

She'd smacked me upside the head. "We're almost done," she said, glancing ahead of us. "Stay focused."

"Stay focused?" I said, feigning indignation. "You just hit me!"

Merlin cleared his throat. "How is the sorting coming along?"

I started, and turned. The guy came from nowhere, I swear. Despite the long gray beard and the wrinkled saggy skin you'd expect of a guy of that name, he snuck up on me all the time. Kaloni was used to it, and smiled pleasantly. "It's going great. We should be finished by tomorrow."

"We'd probably finish faster if someone wasn't slapping me all the time," I said, rubbing the back of my head.

Kaloni rolled her eyes. Merlin just said, "The city will be sieged tomorrow. Our last shipment leaves at day's end."

I blinked. "You're kidding. The city's going to be attacked tomorrow?" I looked around at the thoughtful, nodding faces of the other scribes. "This is the part where we start freaking out, right?"

"Sieged," corrected Merlin, "not attacked. The King's spies tell us that the Jassanese have pushed themselves to their limit to get here this fast. Days of forced marching. They won't be looking for a fight quite yet."

Grant came over from packing boxes. The muscles of his forearms were veined and bulging, and he wiped the sweat from his brow. "Sounds like the perfect time to attack. Show them what the Knights are made of."

Merlin snorted. "We're outnumbered ten to one. The walls of Cammes are our best hope. If General Tzu has any sense in him, we won't let a single soldier past them. Work hard, scholars. We are running out of time."

I cleared my throat. "Merlin, can I-"

"Not now, Tristan," said Merlin. "Let's get this done. We'll have plenty of time for questions then."

His announcement changed the mood significantly. We turned back to our books with diligence. Merlin spent an hour sullenly parsing the last remaining boxes of books yet to be sorted, stroking his long beard and setting aside the ones he felt were less important.

It must have been hard for him. The amount of work going into this project was huge—we were working around the clock, the tail-end of a weeks long process to clear out the library before the invaders arrived. He clearly loved these books.

But I couldn't bring myself to empathize. I was working for the guy, but I had settled into a dark mood.

Kaloni picked up on it. "Ahh," she said, smelling a new book. "Nothing like the smell of...What's gotten into you?"

I sighed. "I don't know. I guess we just have to get this done."

"But this isn't why you came here," she said. "You were looking for a specific book, weren't you? Did you find it?"

I shut Why the Dragons Died, jotted down its title and summary, and placed it in the box for Grant to come get. "I must have read a hundred and fifty books about the Liberator, but not a single one gave me what I was looking for."

Kaloni smiled, kind of pitifully. "What were you looking for?"

I scratched my head. "For some kind of agreement among the books. But nobody knows where he went."

"What, you want to meet the guy and shake his hand?" she joked. "Hey, Mr. Liberator sir. Thanks for giving us free will." The scribe next to her chuckled.

It made sense why she and everyone else had been so skeptical. The Liberator was just a story to them. Not so much ancient history as a tale your grandma's grandma had thrown around.

"I was just hoping for something authoritative," I said. "A primary source. Not these large-scale, sweeping historiographies." I grasped for an example. "Something like the source text of Liberationism, you know? An early version, thousands of years old, dusted with time. That kind of thing."

Kaloni closed her volume and stacked it on top of mine. "Well of course you wouldn't find anything like that here," she said. "The Foundation was shipped out a while ago."

I blinked. "What?"

"Yeah. That's what Merlin called all the books that were absolutely critical to restarting Aarturian civilization. They were gone before you even showed up," she said. She paused, looking at me with surprise. "Do you really think Merlin would leave his most precious books until the last day before the Jassanese invade?"

I cursed my own stupidity. "Damn." I can't believe I had hoped to find the location of the Liberator's grave here. This was the dregs of the Library. Only the least important stuff was left. Non-essential irrigation techniques, shitty Kama Sutras.

And Merlin, always with the same answer. Later. We'll have time for you later.

I pushed away from the table and stood up.

"Where are you going?" she asked.

"Grant looks like he could use a hand," I said, pointing to where Grant was nailing shut a large wooden box.

I'd agreed to play by Merlin's rules in order to get access to this place. But days of work had gotten me nowhere. There were promises and assurances, but never anything concrete. I was supposed to stick to the cataloging unless told otherwise...

It would have been easier to keep doing that. To keep believing Merlin. Just get this done. There will be time for questions later. The way was clear ahead of me: finish today's work, and then learn the information I needed.

It's so seductive, having a path put in front of you. Safe.

But I couldn't trust it any more.

Meaning, what? That I had to rely on myself, I guess. It's hard to act alone. I probably would have never left my table, never started any of what followed if I hadn't been so pissed at Merlin.

But sometimes anger is a lifeline. Sometimes you get so fucking fed up with the way things are that it lets you break the mold and do your own thing. It's useful to be pissed off, because you're too busy being angry to think about how things could go to shit.

And they really could. I was going to help Grant, but I hadn't yet helped ship out the books. What if Kaloni got suspicious? What if Merlin snapped at me, or kicked me out of the library for going against the grain?

Whatever. I was starting to learn that if I felt nervous about something, it usually meant it was worth doing. It meant I was vulnerable. In the Eastern army I had fled from the fear of acting with my own agency. I'd chosen to become a monster rather than start the war myself.

But now I leaned into that fear. Because I could trust it. It wasn't fear of doing something awful. It was a reminder that I was deciding what's right.

Kaloni wasn't encouraging. "Tristan, you should really talk to Merlin about this. He would help you out, I'm sure."

Uh huh. I had been very clear that I was looking into the Liberator's disappearance, but he had neglected to mention that all the relevant books were long gone. I'm sure he would "help me out" by wasting even more of my time.

"That might be a good idea, thanks," I said to Kaloni. Sometimes your friends mean well, and you have to ignore them anyway.

I navigated through the piles of books. Ironically, the more we'd organized and shipped out books, the more the Royal Library had come to look like the Jassanese had already ransacked the place.

For a man of learning, Merlin was weirdly ignorant when it came to the Easterners. He seemed to think they'd pour through the place, burning and pillaging every page they saw. To that effect, he'd encouraged us to treat the discarded books like garbage. They were already burnt in his eyes. So we'd left them strewn across the floor, pushed to the side only in the paths we frequented, so that our comings and goings were visible like deer trails through the forest of abandoned literature.

Grant hammered the last nail into a crate and slapped it twice, a habit of his. The "nails" -- wood pieces filed like wedges that you could hammer into roughly matching slots—ingeniously replaced metal ones. Kind of IKEA-ish.

"How's the cataloging coming?" he asked, seeing me approach.

"You should have seen Merlin's face when he was deciding which books to toss," I said. "You would have thought he was picking which of his kids to kill."

Grant grimaced. "I don't envy him. He's worked hard to make this library what it is." Grant sent his gaze up the long columned shelves. They were beautifully carved, and bare of all but dust, now. "Did you need something?"

"Merlin was a bit overzealous with the amount of books he marked for 'burning,'" I said. "Cataloging's in good shape, so I figured I'd lend a hand. Can I bring this out for shipping?"

Grant looked at me warily. "Do you know where to go?"

"No," I admitted, "but you'd assemble boxes quicker than me, and anyone can push a crate down a hall."

"Fair," he acknowledged after a moment's thought. "It's pretty simple, actually." He helped me load the heavy crate onto an ingenious little dolly, and gave me directions to a storage bay. I opened a service door in the back of the library and pushed the dolly through the maze of corridors.

Freedom!

It turned out that finding the storage bay was not "pretty simple, actually." I got lost and had to retrace my steps a few times, but Grant's vague directions got me there in the end, and I finally got the box through a curtain of beads, down a short hallway, and into the great outdoors, where I promptly stepped in something squishy. I looked down.

Ugh. You know, with any huge building complex, you got your main entrances, your servant's entrances...and this. The place they carted off the royal shit and piss; a dump, foul-smelling and overrun with trash. It might have once been well kept...but not with the Jassanese so close. I had to wheel the dolly through semi-navigable piles of broken furniture and junk.

A little ways out I was met by an Ifrit that was all business. A bigger guy for his kind whose head came up to my lower ribs. He squinted at me, nodded, and put his hands on the crate. "Thanks, boss. You a new guy?" He dragged the dolly out of my hands and then pushed it over to a large, vibrantly decorated cart. Very un-sneaky, incongruous with the dirty setting.

"I've been with Merlin for five tedious days," I said. "The reading was driving me nuts, so Grant let me push the cart."

The Ifrit chuckled. "Can't blame you. Books ain't good for your eyes. Letters all small-like."

Sweat beaded the Ifrit's wrinkled skin. It was day out, and the kind of muggy hot that comes when a blanket of clouds traps in the sun's leftover heat. The cloud cover obscured the entire sky, but there was this weird thing happening where the light streaming through seemed to fluctuate. Like someone was playing with the dimming switch of the world. The Ifrit didn't seem to notice, so I figured I was just seeing things from being cooped up for so long.

Two burly humans came over and hefted the crate into the back of the colorful covered cart. I caught a glimpse inside the cover—there were several other crates I recognized that contained books, but padding those crates were small barrels with long sticks in them and baskets of festive colored strips of paper. And wafting from the cart was unmistakably the smell of something sweet and fried.

Was this cart a freaking food truck or something? This was not the way I would have sent out my secret stash of books, personally. The Jassanese army would see this cart from a mile away. Not many bright purple and red things out in the wild.

I watched as the humans packed the miscellaneous goods in front of the books, and then closed the cart. They looked at me like they were wondering what I was still doing here.

The Ifrit coughed. "That's it for now. We'll be back later for the last shipment."

I hesitated. Man, how useful would it be if I could lie? "I was hoping to come with you," I said. "I want to check to see that everything's all there." Not technically untrue...but kind of a stretch.

The Ifrit gave me a suspicious look, like I had just said something very dumb. "It's taken care of, don't worry about it. Gotta make sure we throw 'em off our tail, right?" he added, as if to explain to me something I should have already known.

I wanted to push the issue, but it didn't seem like I could without blowing my cover. So I just nodded. "Yeah, yeah. Right. Safe travels."

The three of them hopped into the driver's side of the cart. There was a whipcrack, and the horses trundled toward a side gate leading out of the palace grounds. The gate was shut, presumably to be opened at the cart's approach...meaning I couldn't follow without being seen.

But, well. Did I even want to follow?

If I left now, without warning, I was likely cutting ties with Merlin. I'd been helping at the library for five days now. I'd shown up under somewhat suspicious circumstances—only allowed in because I could read and write—so I didn't have much room to play with.

So I had to ask myself: how much did I care about Merlin's help?

Or, a better question. If this cart led me to the Liberator's tomb, would I ever see Merlin again? Probably not. So how much did I care about angering him?

I resolved my mind: I needed to go where that cart was heading. I couldn't follow directly behind it, but maybe I could run out a different gate, and then loop around.

The scene played out in my mind: me on the rooftops, frantically scanning the surrounding streets for a trace of the cart. Right before all hope is lost, I catch the barest glimpse of it disappearing around a corner. The camera zooms in on the last edge of it, then on my face. Quick! I follow it into an alleyway in the nick of time.

But I checked myself. That's not how life works. Looping around would take me at best five or six minutes. I didn't know these rooftops or these streets. Five minutes was time enough that the cart may as well have turned invisible by then.

I squinted at it leaving. The décor of the cart—it had to mean something. The purple tarp covering it, its red embroidered symbols...I'd seen that color scheme before, recently, hadn't I?

Yeah, I had. Shit. It was on the tip of my tongue.

I concentrated hard, and then it hit me—the lantern. Merlin's elemental lantern was inlaid with red and purple at the bottom. He'd won it...

At a carnival.

A loose thread, purple and red, but the theory re-contextualized the cart's other contents. The strips of paper—either for decoration, or maybe some kind of confetti? The food I'd smelled was greasy and sweet, exactly the type of food you find at a fair. And those sticks poking out of the bucket...some kind of small firework, maybe?

I couldn't fathom a place big enough to hold a proper fair in this cramped, dirty city, but I also couldn't pretend to know it well at all. I needed more information.

I didn't have the time to go back to The Ten Thousand Things and ask the innkeep, so I improvised. Even in times of war, palaces have workers, right? And workers take breaks, right?

It took me five minutes of speedwalking the circumference of the outer palace to find a pair of cooks sitting outside the entrance to the kitchens. Their aprons were spattered with oil and blood and both had long hair slicked with sweat.

I'd expected them to be smoking—they did work the restaurant industry, after all—but I found them both drinking tea at a small table, sitting in companionable silence.

I edited my image of Cammes: not just a medieval San Francisco, but one with a serious monastic foundation. I made some quick assessments and judged the best way to approach the cooks. Friendly greeting? Play the nervous, lost scholar?

In the end I thought their vibe was more peaceful than conversational, so I took a risk and just sat down next to them in the shade cast by the building's high walls. My back rested against the cool stone. I watched the thick clouds, and found myself enjoying these few seconds of quiet.

I mean, when you think about it...I hadn't had a real break since leaving Caer'Aton.

Ugh.

I breathed. I'd been inside so long that I hadn't noticed how windy this city could get. It whistled through every crack and crevice. Even inside the palace walls, it pushed a chill into my body.

I watched the sky. The thing with overcast skies is you don't think to watch them in the same way you do a sky of patchwork clouds. You can't pick something to look at, and it's too big to get a sense of the movement. But watching with some stillness I saw that the gray tapestry was moving. Not sideways, but up and down. It shifted and murmured, in turn rising and falling as if breathing. Kind of psychadelic.

"Tea?" The cook sitting on the stool next to me offered me his cup.

I hesitated, but then accepted gratefully. I took a sip, and was caught completely off guard by the flavor. Not some magical amazing mixture of seventeen fruits—quite the opposite. The tea tasted like someone had scraped the chalk off a chalkboard and dumped it into tepid water.

"Thanks," I said, forcing myself to swallow.

"You look like you need it," said the cook. "Where are you working?"

"The library," I said.

The other cook whistled. "I heard it's been non-stop over there. Sorry to hear that, friend."

These were maybe the most chilled out people in all of Haerth. It was kind of a relief just to see two people relaxing. I'd been drowning in tension and near-death experiences, and here were two people happy to share tea and sympathize.

"I appreciate you saying that," I said. Nice as this was, though, I didn't have time to enjoy it. Onwards and upwards...I changed the conversation's direction. "I'm glad to be taking a break. I was thinking of maybe popping over to the carnival." I prayed that my guess was right, that there even was one.

"Oh yeah?" The one beside me shook his head. "They're crazy to stay so long with the Easterners just over the hill."

His friend disagreed. "Everyone knows it's bad luck to mess with carnies. The Jassanese don't want things crawling from the other side to snack on their dreams. All the same...if it's true we'll be sieged tomorrow, I'm sure the carnival will be out before the soft bell."

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