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Phobos VII [NaNoWriMo]

Discussion in 'Creative Writing' started by HypoSoc, Nov 3, 2019.

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  1. Artful Lounger

    Artful Lounger Experienced.

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    Rebel faction, I had a feeling. A little bigger than what I expected, but far too few to hope to effect change on a caste-based society of four or five million.

    The real question, in my mind, is how much they know about the Princeps. Admittedly, we know very little about Von Graft as a person. We know he set up this whole society to increase his own power perpetually and he's got a massive murder-boner for Charlemagne for some reason. That's about it. But from what we know I don't think there's any hope of this man stepping down from power in the gladiator farm he set up. The fact that he decided to set up a new society to empower himself like this demonstrates a great deal of patience.

    I think these rebels are doomed to fail. They can try to corrupt the guard and the Senate and all the rest, but it doesn't matter because the Princeps himself holds sufficient power to balance the books all by himself. Even in the worst case scenario for him, where the entire city turns on him, he can destroy it all with his own two hands and start over. Unless Von Graft is of a temperament where forcing him to abdicate his position is a possibility, or they can uncover some means of killing him or detaining him, they have zero chance of doing this.

    But they've only referred to Von Graft in the sense of a political enemy. A bureaucratic and borderline religious figure of authority. Not a military power in and of himself. So that means that the Princeps' personal power is either unknown or is relegated to myth as something like 'the protector of the city', assuming the power behind such a title refers to the Watchers and other troops at his command. I don't think they'll realize what kind of force they're up against until its too late.
     
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  2. HypoSoc

    HypoSoc Time, once consumed, has no meaning

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    The "allies" mentioned are probably more expansive than you are thinking, as it it is an extensive network. The people at the hideout are only the ones who are fully aware of the group.
    But you are correct that this isn't 10% of the population waiting in the wings to revolt at the crack of dawn.

    That's a spot on analysis. And I'm glad the "borderline religious" concept is coming through.
     
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  3. Artful Lounger

    Artful Lounger Experienced.

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    Oh, it certainly is. Although how they refer to him convinces me they don't have a clue what the man is capable of on a personal level. So the whole movement is doomed to fail as it stands, since they are acting like the Princeps is an ordinary man. A plain old coup won't really work when your enemy has the personal ability to destroy the city and everything in it at will. Not to mention the disparity in magical knowledge.

    I mean, from what we know Von Graft's government is in a cold war with Kroll's Hydromancy Division. The fact that someone can engage in such a conflict with Kroll at all points to a certain, not inconsiderable amount of expertise. And Von Graft certainly has a, for lack of a better term, First World knowledge of magical theory and how it works, compared to the rest of his world's relative Third World understanding of it.

    I don't doubt that he has a group of agents who know how magic really works and are considerably skilled in its use. He wouldn't be able to avoid getting rolled by Kroll otherwise. So yeah, Libertas is doomed. They'll survive only so long as they remain beneath notice. The moment Von Graft actually notices them and considers it worth the time of his real enforcers to root them out, its game over for them.
     
  4. Threadmarks: Fourteen
    HypoSoc

    HypoSoc Time, once consumed, has no meaning

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    Stas quickly realized that locating a specific individual individual was a difficult task. Especially in a city as large as this. Especially at night. Especially when he had only seen the man once, only when he was wearing a mask, and when he knew nothing about him.

    It was far more difficult than merely heading back to the scene of the assassin’s previous crime and hoping he would be there again.

    Stas wished that he had had the foresight to ask Henri or Sanson where they had found that corpse. Sure, he didn’t know for certain that the Masked Man had been the killer, and sure, he would have been long gone from the scene even for an attack that happened more frequently than a week ago. But it would have given him something to go on.

    As it stood, Stas found himself on the ground by the building he had confronted the Masked Man. Watchers had resumed their posts, and he did not feel like confronting them by going on the roof, so he stood away from the actual scene. Everything had been cleaned up, for the most part, in the past week. But, if Sas looked, he thought he could see signs of blood splatter where the watcher’s corpse had landed. It was hard to make out in the dark.

    But, really, it was a dead end. There was nothing here that he could use to learn about the Masked Man more than he already knew. The evidence of his location, if it had ever existed, was gone, and out of date at that.

    But Stas refused to give up so quickly. He was determined in this, in finding his self-appointed instructor and coercing tuition out of him. Ludo wouldn’t relent on his punishment, so he was locked out of training from the normal means through the normal channels. But a criminal was near the opposite of a normal channel, so it represented an actual option. And it would go differently this time. After all, this time Stas was in a position where he actually needed the man’s services. He wasn’t just possessed by a casual interest to acquire the man’s skills as he had been before.

    But he actually needed to find the man first.

    Stas dearly hoped that the man would just appear once again, as he had before, but it was not to be. No guard got their throat cut, no matter how much he watched for it to happen.

    With little recourse to turn to from the uncooperative world, Stas decided to try with his magic.

    As he had explained to Eponine, his magic was not just teleportation. It was the knowledge of the reflections of the worlds, the ability to see the mirrors of reality. The information was a constant hum in his mind, an awareness he could never truly extinguish. But he could focus on it, pull his mind and senses into the world.

    It was a difficult task. The sheer scope of the world and its endless reflections was something better suited for the subconscious mind. It was hard not to be overwhelmed when every slice of the world cast its reflection, a kaleidoscope of images and objects just as real as the ground he walked on.

    But he could do it, as he often did when he was experimenting with his powers.

    It was a fact that, so long as the Masked Man still existed, there was some mirror that would cast his reflection to be near Stas. Likely, the reflection would be occluded. The city’s buildings did not make for an easy view of things. But the reflection for that mirror would be there, even if he could not see it.

    Stas reached out as he could, searching for that mirror, searching for any reflection of that distinctive blue mask in the expanse that was the world.

    His head throbbed, aching as it did whenever he tried to do something like this, tried to expand his magic to do anything new. He could not keep up concentration for long, not for this task. And, he found himself failing.

    But he did not allow himself to quit yet. The buildings were in the way, he knew. In the same way they would be in the way if he tried to teleport to the other side of them. If he were more skilled in his magic, he knew that he would be able to step into those occluded reflections as much as he could currently step into the reflections he could see. But it was not a technique he had practiced. After all, the arena was an open space. He would always be able to see wherever he wanted to go there.

    So, to alleviate his problem, Stas made for a rooftop. He took care to move a distance away from any Watcher, somewhere none of them would be present to interfere. He found a good, tall building with a nice, steady tiling, and planted himself in its center.

    Then he closed his eyes and looked.

    It was a slow, tedious processes, scanning across the city, bit by bit, searching for a single fragment that, for all he knew, might be inside and out of his reach. He could only hope that the Masked Man was operating in the same manner as he was the time before, out and about at this time of night doing whatever murderous thing he did on an average day.
    Stas’s head pounded, and, for some reason, his muscles started to ache, despite standing perfectly still. This was definitely not something he had done before.

    To his joy, he found success within the hour. A reflection of a man, wearing a mask with the mark of a single eye, was cast into the space beside him. It was to his luck, the man was outside and at a similar elevation, likely traversing the roof tops as he had before. He still did not know where the Masked Man was, but he had his reflection, for a mere moment.

    The view was lost quickly, moving out of his perimeter far too quickly, but Stas did not fret. It took far less time to find the Masked Man a second time, and this time he locked the view in sight.

    Following a bit of inspiration, Stas decided he would try to mock the reflection, to step into it as well as he could and to let it guide his actions. Perhaps, if he could know what the Masked Man was doing, could ape it himself, he might be in a better position to find him.

    So Stas folded himself into the reflection, and marched in lockstep with its movements.

    He had not been aware that this was possible before.

    The first issue made itself known when he, following the movements of the Masked Man in perfect mirror, made a step near off the roof he was standing on. Stas quickly threw himself out of the motion, catching himself before he could fall. The reflection got lost in the confusion, but he managed to keep himself safe.

    When he found the reflection again, Stas decided to pay more attention to his own surroundings. Whenever he might encounter an obstacle, he would weaken the hold on the reflection, keep it tightly in mind so that he wouldn’t lose it, and move somewhere where he had more space. This kept him from any accidents.

    Luckily, the man was moving in a somewhat regular fashion. If he were fighting, then Stas might have not been able to mimic the reflection well enough, and lost track of it far too easily.

    As it stood, he was able to follow along, moving through the city, carefully, in the hopes that he would eventually be able to locate the man. It was a near mindless rhythm. Stas did not have the mental fortitude to concentrate on anything else.
    To his surprise, he found himself on a rooftop, crouched over, a masked face glaring at him.

    “Why are you following me?” The man glowered. “Are you that determined to get me to kill you?”

    Stas jolted out of the reflection. The pain in his head was near unbearable, and his skin itched intently. But he forced himself to respond. “Ah, you remember me.”

    “I’m old, not senile. I’m not going to forget something from so recently.”

    “Are you killing more watchers tonight?” Stas inquired. “I heard they are changing their patrol schedules soon in some parts of the city.”

    “What do you know about that?” The man grumbled. “And it doesn’t matter to you what I am doing. You are interrupting me all the same.”

    “I want you to train me, Masked Man.”

    The Masked Man put his hand to his forehead. “Brat, there is being stubborn and there’s just being obnoxious. I already told you no.”

    Stas held himself firm. “No. You said that I had nothing you wanted. But that’s not true.” He forced his voice calm and attempted to project a level of professionalism. “You want elixirs. The fact you went out of your way to take them off the guard’s corpses proves it. And not just to sell, because you refused my offer of money. Well, I have elixirs.”

    The Masked Man said nothing. Stas took it as a positive sign.

    “I’m a gladiator,” he explained. “My school supplies me with elixirs both for training, and for my matches. But my magic does not require them to function. I would be able to acquire a good number of them without issue.” That he never disabused other people of their belief he too used elixirs would work in his favor. Ludo might have cut off his access to training, but the commissar’s services were still open to him. “If you train me, I will provide them all to you. You wouldn’t have to kill watchers to get your hands on them.”

    Still the Masked Man said nothing.

    Thinking back to the conversations with Eponine and Enjolras, Stas continued. “Plus, I’m a gladiator. That puts me in a position that not many others can claim. I have free access to the palatial estates. In the foreseeable future, I will have the ear of some important individuals through whit of fame. I would be able to provide favors to you.”

    Again, the Masked Man was quiet, refusing to answer him.

    Stas grit his teeth in frustration. The man seemed to refuse to treat him properly. If he had a problem with the offer he should just come out and say what it was so it could be fixed rather than stew in silence.

    Before he began to bark out his disapproval, the man finally opted to speak.

    “The elixirs. What quality are they? How many do you have access to?”

    Stas paused and reassessed the situation. Perhaps the Masked Man had just been considering his offer. “They seem to be the same as any you would find in the arena.” He explained. “A drink in a glass bottle, not a bit of dust in snuff box.” He didn’t really know of any levels of quality beyond that, but gladiators were granted access to the best equipment, so it only stood to reason that would be the same with elixirs.

    “As for the amount...” he paused, thinking. There was no official, hard limit to it. The commissar would grant him elixirs as long as he asked, but she had the power to deny him if she felt his requests were spurious. He made a quick estimate based on what he had seen from the other gladiators in the yards. “I am known to use magic heavily in my style of fighting. So it wouldn’t be strange for me to request… three vials a day to practice with. On the days of my matches, I could get away with requesting more.” It was a conservative estimate, to ensure he avoided suspicion. In reality he would need to spread it across multiple days, taking six on one and nothing on another, to correspond to magical practice and rest days and so on.

    Come to think of it, he would need to pretend to drink them, otherwise people would catch onto the plot. Perhaps he could fill empty bottles with water and drink that for practices. And matches as well. Ludo had gone off at him for ‘drinking his elixir before the match started,’ a fact that, if true, did indicate bad sportsmanship. It was like beginning a match with your bow already pulled back.

    While Stas knew he was innocent of such, anyone in the audience wouldn’t be in a position to realize the truth. So, for the sake of his career, he should begin faking elixir consumption for reasons entirely separate from this endeavor.

    The Masked Man made a sound of sucking in a breath through his teeth. “You are aware that I am not an instructor, correct? I have no practice in pedagogy or any of that shit.”

    “I don’t care.” Stas asserted. “You are skilled enough. I’m a good enough student that I’ll be able to pick things up even if you do a bad job explaining.” He wasn’t in a position to pick and chose his instructors. Anything would do at this point.

    The Masked Man clenched his fists, before sighing deeply. “Fine, brat. I’ll be your instructor.”

    Stas grinned. “Excellent!” This evening was going swimmingly. Far better than last week. “I’d like to start with...”

    The assassin held up a hand. “No. Not tonight, brat. I’m busy tonight.”

    Stas glared. “Fine, not tonight. But if I am going to be your student, you cannot refer to me as ‘brat.’ My name is Stas, Masked Man.”

    “If I’m going to be your teacher, I will call you whatever I damn please. And it is Phobos, not ‘Masked Man.’”

    “Phobos, then,” Stas acknowledged. The man was looking to be abrasive, but Stas could work with unpleasant people if it meant getting stronger for it. “If not tonight, then when shall we begin?”

    “In a week’s time. At the Trajan Bell Tower in the north of the city. Bring a week’s worth of elixirs with you.”

    “Unacceptable.” Stas asserted. He had lost too much time already, losing another week was almost as bad at losing out the entire rest of the month. “A week is far too long away. We meet tomorrow.”

    From behind the single eye hole, Phobos glared. “Fine, tomorrow, same place. But you still need to bring a week’s worth of elixirs.”

    Stas considered. It would be difficult, but he could likely convince the commissar to give him so many at once, if he worded the request properly, and refrained from asking for much else for the remained of the week. “Fine. But if I am bringing you a week’s worth of elixirs, I expect a week’s worth of lessons for the payment. You will teach me every night, and I will pay you on a weekly basis.”

    “I’m not wasting every single night on you, brat.” Phobos spat. “I’ll give you a lesson every three nights. No more than that. First payment will be good for two lessons. We’ll discuss further payment afterwards.”

    Stas frowned. It was not ideal, but he could take the time between lessons to practice what he had learned, so it was not too much of a loss. Still… “If I am only getting two lessons out of the first payment, then I will only be paying ten elixirs.” That number would be far easier to acquire from the commissar.

    “You are vastly overestimating how much I want elixirs. You need this more than me. Twenty elixirs.”

    “I don’t think I am,” Stas asserted, mimicking the haggling he had seen in the marketplace. “You fought a number of watchers and got away with, what, eight or nine vials? I don’t imagine you can do that too often or else the guards would change their patrol schedules and make it harder. I’m offering an easy source with no risk. Twelve elixirs. Six for a lesson.”

    “I have other means,” Phobos grumbled, but he didn’t seem as invested in the argument. “Fifteen vials. Six a lesson and three as an initial show of good faith.”

    Stas nodded. “Deal.” The first fifteen elixirs would be harder to get, but acquiring six per future lesson would be almost trivial. “You mentioned the Trajan Bell Tower, but I don’t know where it is. How can I find it?”

    “It’s the tallest building in the north of the city this side of the Tiber Gorge,” Phobos grunted, “near the Fabrician Bridge. I will meet you on the rooftop there, an hour after sunset. You will bring the elixirs. If you waste my time, I will make you regret it.”

    “And if you waste mine, I will do the same,” Stas retorted.

    Phobos did not seem to be concerned by the threat, ignoring it entirely.

    He turned to away. “You’ve taken up enough of my time tonight. Don’t follow me any further.”

    Stas shrugged. He had achieved his goal already. Moreover, the mere thought of maintaining the magics he had used to track Phobos made his stomach churn. His brain was already near beating out of his skull if his headache was anything to go by.

    But he didn’t let any of that show on his face. He had felt worse pain before in training. He merely grunted in affirmation.

    Stas watched as the man leaped off the roof for a railing on a building opposite the wide street, clinging to it with the dexterity of a cat. He then pulled himself up to the roof top and returned to running.

    The man was very skilled, Stas confirmed. And fit as well. He had made the correct choice in seeking him out.

    Now though, he would have to make his way back to the forum and return to his room. Hopefully he wouldn’t have any issues with the watchers there. And more hopefully still, he hoped his decoy had been sufficient to keep him from getting caught once again.
     
  5. HypoSoc

    HypoSoc Time, once consumed, has no meaning

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    So... that is about it for NaNoWriMo. I have about 1600 words remaining, which will be unlikely to finish up chapter fifteen. I do not know when I will get around to finishing and posting chapter fifteen as I won't have the same impetus as I did for the first fourteen chapters. But I do plan on finishing this story, as I have already plotted it out from start to finish. It will no longer be to the exclusion of Polyhistor, though. I am thinking about trying to get one chapter of this done a week, or thereabouts.

    As far as plot progress, chapter fourteen marks the end of act two, of about ten planned acts. The other acts aren't necessarily as long as this one, but I have come to learn that I am terrible at estimating length.

    They probably won't be as bloated as these ones were, as I don't have word count goals any more. NaNoWriMo provides a perverse incentive towards being verbose, but forcing me to sit down and write things far more than makes up for it in terms of plot written per month.

    If anyone wants to be spoiled, I am open to answering questions as to planned direction. Or you can keep on reading at the much slower pace from now on.

    Hopefully this entire thing will be done before next November, but that may be ambitious.
     
  6. Artful Lounger

    Artful Lounger Experienced.

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    Well, if you're okay with spoilers, how does Phobos tie in with the stories of Phobos II and others we learned of in Polyhistor? And will Von Graft actually appear as a character at any point or will he remain a distant figure in the background?
     
  7. TrueNameArchFrenemy

    TrueNameArchFrenemy Not too sore, are you?

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    Can Von Graft assimilate Aeromancy to a certain degree? If I recall correctly, I think a comment was made to that effect at one point, I’m just surprised he hasn’t encouraged aeromantic lore to a certain degree if it’s the case. If he has trouble with hydromancy, or simply an intense dislike/distrust/complications with it because of Kroll, I’m surprised he’s stuck to purely geomancy so far in terms of his “farm”.
     
  8. HypoSoc

    HypoSoc Time, once consumed, has no meaning

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    It's the same mask, and the same lineage of Phoba.

    But since every single Phobos took the mask after the previous Phobos died, and without their permission, you could argue the stories don't relate.

    Von Graft does appear in this story, and will get personally involved in at least one fight. But the story isn't about the Princeps, so closer to 'a distant figure in the background' than 'a charchter of the novel.'

    Von Graft's Aeromancy explicitly allows for the assimilation of Aeromancy. Hydromancy is the problem branch.
    Magic in Von Graft's world is supremely fucked up, for reasons the story will explain. This makes Aeromancy farming inordinately difficult.
     
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  9. Artful Lounger

    Artful Lounger Experienced.

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    Huh. So, what exactly is Von Graft's Concept?
     
  10. HypoSoc

    HypoSoc Time, once consumed, has no meaning

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    Grafting.
     
  11. Artful Lounger

    Artful Lounger Experienced.

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    Well, that's rather on the nose.

    Okay, the big one. Why does this guy want to kill Charlemagne so bad? Did the old guy steal his girlfriend or something? Or is it just a matter of challenging a worthy foe?
     
  12. HypoSoc

    HypoSoc Time, once consumed, has no meaning

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    It's a chosen name.

    This is something I want to keep a spoiler because I am interested if people figure it out.

    But I will give a hint since I have given conflicting information at some point way early on when I hadn't fully settled on things:
    Von Graft and Charlemagne knew each other in childhood. The animus is personal, and one sided, mostly because Charlemagne does not know who Von Graft is.
     
  13. Artful Lounger

    Artful Lounger Experienced.

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    Um, wow. I figured that the two of them knew each other since you said they were contemporaries. So I figured whatever caused the feud had to happen way back when. But the guy's got to have a few screws loose if he spends centuries building an entire civilization for the sake of farming top tier fighters. All so Sempai will notice him.
     
  14. Threadmarks: Fifteen
    HypoSoc

    HypoSoc Time, once consumed, has no meaning

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    The rooftop of the Trajan Bell Tower was a small, precarious location, perhaps the side of Stas’s room. It was inclined steeply, barely enough for his feet to keep a grip when he was standing still. When he moved, it seemed like he would slip and fall at the slightest provocation, down, down into the street below. Perhaps even into the gorge. The empty river bed was carded deep into the earth, like a gaping wound in the city. The bridges that crossed it’s mass might even be seen as stitches.

    Down in the rocky walls he could make out some structures, desolate wooden buildings that people had put up for some unknown reason. He thought he could even see some people moving down there.

    But from up here, they were ants, blurry shapes in the dimming world under the dusk sky. Even at this height, the last vestiges of the sun were disappearing over the horizon.

    Phobos did not have the same problem. His feet were secure on the rooftop, his stance sure. He seemed as though the location were as pleasant in the park.

    The wind was growing, and Stas was concerned it might make things even more difficult for him. But Phobos seemed to bask in the wind.

    “This doesn’t seem like good place to train.” Stas murmured. “Are you moving somewhere else soon?”
    “It’s a safe spot from the guards.” Phobos declared. “Out of sight and out of hearing. The few of them that could make it up here are unlikely to think to bother.”

    “If I didn’t have my magic, I’d have to scale the side.” Stas groused. “Even with my magic I had to climb a lot.” His line of sight could not see so high up so easily, so he had to reflect a number of times to get here.

    “Hrm. I could say getting here could be a form of training on its own, but I won’t. Hand me the vials now.” He stated, holding out his hand.

    Stas removed the bandoleer of elixirs and passed it to the man. “What if they had gotten damaged in the climb? What would you have done?” While the glass vials used to store elixirs were very sturdy, he did not believe they would survive a fall from this height if they fell away from him. And it would be easy to lose them if you slipped through his fingers.

    Phobos shrugged. “That would be your problem, not mine.” He took a vial from the middle, and examined it. Uncorking it, he examined the contents within. He dipped his finger into the vial, extracted a drop, and dragged it across his skin. His skin reddened, irritated.

    He nodded, resealed the vial, and put it back on the bandoleer.

    “The strap isn’t yours.” Stas reminded him. “It's just to help me get it to you. I wouldn’t be able to explain losing it.”

    Phobos grunted, and took each vial one by one, securing them somewhere on his person. He tossed the empty sash back to Stas, who caught it.

    “There. Payment met. So, where are we going now that we can start?”

    “We’re staying here. The height makes it a good vantage point. I’m going to be training your perception and observation skills.”

    Stas scoffed. “Yeah, no. I’m paying for this. We are going to do something real. I may not have money, but I know how valuable an elixir is. Don’t pretend I am not paying you an outrageous sum for your time.”

    The masked man seemed to glare, but the mask got in the way of it. “There are two things you can train from up this high: observation skills, or getting shoved off from this height and seeing how you land. Which of those do you prefer?” he growled.

    “The second, obviously.” Stas nodded to himself. “I imagine there is a magical component to the technique, as a roll would not be enough to survive from this height. Some sort of hardening technique, or a way to reduce impact damage to a manageable level. Doubtless, such a technique would be beneficial.” Not every gladiator used a sword or magical fire. Being able to reduce blunt force trauma akin to falling a great height could only be useful.

    Phobos smacked his mask, rubbing his hand against the forehead area. “Brat, I don’t know a technique like that. I’m not going to teach it to you.”

    Stas blinked. “Then why did you offer?”

    “You...” he grit his teeth. He seemed to want to say something, but held back. “Look, I don’t offer observational lessons because I am trying to fob off teaching you. They are important. Very important. Enough to be the first lesson.”

    Stas rolled his eyes. “I know that. You need to be paying attention to all sorts of things to avoid being lured into a trap. But I am observant enough already. We can skip onto a different lesson.”

    “Observant enough, you say? Fine. Tell me, since you are so observant, how many wagons passed within three blocks of this building since you arrived?”

    “What?”

    “It’s not a hard question. The wagons are all lit with torches, so it’s not even a question of eyesight. How many have passed as we have been talking?”

    Stas frowned. “That’s not fair. I didn’t know to pay attention.”

    Phobos flicked him in the forehead. “That’s the point. Being observant is not just being on the lookout for particular things. It’s being aware of absolutely everything. Even if you don’t think it matters. You need to be aware of every little thing. Otherwise you’ll miss the crossbows being pointed at you.”

    Phobos gestured, and Stas whirled around.

    On the spine in the center of the bell towers roof was a loaded crossbow, aiming in his general direction. Some mechanism was attached to the trigger, but in the fading darkness he could not really make it out.
    Phobos raised a hand, letting him see the thread that connected to it.

    Stas swallowed, and stepped to the side, out of the weapon’s path.

    “Not everything is the arena.” Phobos intoned, moving towards the crossbow. “Not every fight is clean.” He moved to the weapon and removed it from its perch. The bolt was removed, and the weighted lever was released, firing blank and loudly.

    Stas inhaled. “Fine. I will admit that I may not be as observant as I had assumed. But it’s the arena I am training for, not every fight. I don’t need to learn how to be an assassin, just how to improve my own skills.”
    The masked man took a deep breath. “Perhaps then, we shall start with a discussion of your weaknesses, then. Are you aware of why I was able to defeat you?”

    Stas shrugged. “You are better at hand to hand than me. I was unable to utilize my magic properly against an opponent of higher skill without a weapon to aid me. It is a deficiency in my training, and, now that I am aware, I can work to correct it.” Stas did not plan on shifting focus to becoming an unarmed fighter, the sword and shield represented a viable path forwards, and held a major advantage over one’s fists. But he could ensure that he practiced his hand to hand more, as it was always possible he would be disarmed. Or without a weapon, as his excursions had shown.

    “No.” Phobos grunted. “That’s not why you lost. If you had a sword, I’d still beat you.”

    Stas narrowed his eyes. “I assure you, that, while I might have not acquitted myself well with my fists alone, I am far more practiced with a blade. I can demonstrate, if you wish. Perhaps it would allow you to have a better appraisal of me. But do not underestimate me.”

    “You could be a perfect sword master and it still wouldn’t matter. I would beat you because of the manner at which you fight, not the skill with which you employ.”

    Stas bit back a retort. The man was acting as his teacher, so he would listen. If it was nonsense, he would refuse future lessons. Or force him onto proper topics. He had few options at this point.

    “We fought for less than a minute. In that tiny amount of time, everything about you became clear to me. You are used to winning, aren’t you? Used to being stronger, faster, more skilled than your opponent. Used to your magic being a decisive factor in a fight. Tell me if I am wrong.”

    “You are not wrong.” Stas was aware of his accomplishments, and took pride in them. He had forced himself into training every aspect of himself, putting in the grueling hours far beyond what was required. Even if one considered his magic to be an unfair advantage, he had made it is own. It had not started out combat viable in the slightest, but he had persevered, day by day, for years, to make it into something he could use in the heat of battle.

    He won because he worked for it. Because he earned it.

    “It’s given you terrible habits.” Phobos stated. “You fight, expecting to be able to overwhelm your opponent. You use your magic, relying on your opponents to be idiots about handling it, or simply incapable of working around it. When you clash with your opponent, you simply assume your forms are smoother, your reflexes faster, and your body stronger. Your path to victory relies entirely on being better than your opponent.”

    “But I am!” Stas insisted. “If not at this instant, than in the future. So long as I can train and learn, I will always achieve victory.”

    “It doesn’t matter if you are better than almost everyone. There is always somebody beyond you. The current best, the strongest. Do you expect them to sit on their laurels and allow you to catch up? Or do you want to be able to fight them, to be able to beat them. Because if they are worth a damn, they won’t be simply overwhelmed by your skill or your magic, no matter how much you train.”

    Stas grit his teeth. He acknowledged that the best gladiators were certain to train as much as he did. Otherwise they wouldn’t be the best.

    “What are you suggesting, then?”

    “You are familiar with chess, right?” The masked man questioned in lieue of an answer.

    “No? What is it?”

    Phobos cursed under his breath. “Never mind that. Okay, consider this. Suppose you summon a ring of fire around your opponent, but there’s a gap in it...”

    “If I could summon a ring of fire, why would I leave a gap in it? Shouldn’t I just train until it is flawless?” Stas interrupted.

    Despite the mask, Stas got the impression Phobos was glaring. “Don’t interrupt me, brat. This is a hypothetical. You summon a ring of fire, but there is a gap in it. What do you think your opponent would do?”

    Stas paused, and contemplated.

    “This isn’t a trick question, brat.” Phobos spat. “Just answer it.”

    “He would escape through the gap.”

    Phobos nodded. “Good. Now, knowing that, what should you do?”

    “I could attack him there? Or set a trap to errupt in flame when he moved in that direction?” Stas didn’t know if his teacher would care for him granting himself additional abilities, but this hypothetical him already could form rings of fire, so why not launch fire from the ground?

    Again Phobos nodded. “Right. Now, switch this around. You have just been surrounded by a ring of fire, but there is a gap in it. What should you do?”

    Stas frowned. “Go through the fire instead?”

    “And get your fool self burned? Are you fire proof?”

    Stas shook his head.

    “Then don’t act like you are fire proof.” Phobos grunted. “Try again.”

    “I would reflect through the gap in the fire, past where any traps might be set up.”

    Phobos nodded again. “Good. This,” he gestured vaguely, “is what I am getting at. Winning a fight is not about getting a decisive blow in. That’s just the last step. It’s about controlling the flow, forcing your opponent to act like you want them to; and preventing them from doing the opposite. Limit their options, maximize your own. Do you understand?”

    It sounded pretty obvious to Stas, but he nodded.

    Phobos held up a finger. “The first step is observation. If you fail to notice something, your planning will be useless. You need to be able to take in everything quickly, effectively, and accurately. That’s what tonight is for.”

    He held up a second finger. “Step two is working on your agility. The more ways your can move, the more options you have to control the battlefield. Push your flexibility to the limits. Get your balance to a flawless level. I’m not going to bother teaching you how to swing a sword, you already know how, but it’s obvious your body is too stiff.”

    Stas narrowed his eyes. “I’m not that type of fighter.” There were many gladiators who prided themselves on their acrobatic ability, their finesse, their ability to weave and dodge beyond anything else. But Stas was not one of them. “I need strength in my muscles, not limberness.”

    “Tough. Because that’s what I’m teaching. Strength is worthless after a point. Either you are strong enough to break your opponent’s guard or you are not. Flexibility grants you options. If you run out of options you will die.”

    Stas grit his teeth, but didn’t argue.

    “Third, working on your magic. Again, your goal is to have as many options as possible. Flexibility over power.”

    “Are you an arcanum instructor?”

    “I’m not an instructor at all, remember? But since you are forcing me to teach, I’d see about getting you to use magic properly. Not just fling it about carelessly, like you have been. There’s a reason I put it last.”

    The monomaniacal focus on breadth over depth was clear. But every instructor had their quirks. It was certain to be different, at the very least. But a part of the explanation stuck out to him.

    Stas frowned. “Last? Are you not going to teach me weapon skills? Your abilities with your sling and your hook chain are what really drew my eye.”

    “Slings are literally the simplest weapon imaginable.” Phobos retorted. “Not much to teach you there. And there’s nothing I can teach you about using a chain. My style depends entirely on the particular hook.”

    Stas’s eyes widened. “You have a magic weapon?”

    “No.” The response was immediate. “I have a magic hook. I just happen to use it as a weapon.”

    Stas didn’t really see the importance of the distinction. “What can it do?”

    “You saw me fight back then. What do you think it can do? Consider this part of your observation training.”
    “More memory game than observation.” Stas grumbled, but he did as instructed and thought back to the fight. “I saw it grab hold of a man, before you pulled him in. The watcher attempted to resist with arcanum. One would imagine that the force of arcanum would be enough to turn it into a contest of strength, and yet it was worthless. Does the hook disrupt arcanum?” Stas shook his head. “No, the acid wielder was able to destroy the chain even after being snared. Does the hook ensure that any it catches can be pulled in?”

    Phobos nodded. “Anything else?”

    More confident from the approval, Stas continued. “I know I saw the hook change course mid flight. I imagine it can fix your aim as well.”

    Phobos nodded again. “Seems you aren’t horrendous at observation. You just need to work on avoiding tunnel vision. To answer your question, the hook does three things, or one, depending on how you count it. It attaches itself to any target as best it can, it remains embedded until I choose to remove it, and it allows me to reel in the target. Essentially, everything you would want out of a fishhook. That’s what it is supposed to be after all.”

    Stas blanched. “A magic fishhook? What sort of madman would put so much effort into crafting such a thing?” So much time and effort on a trivial implement. Wouldn’t it be far better spent on near anything else?

    Phobos shrugged. “I wouldn’t know. As it turns out, the perfect fishhook makes for a decent weapon, so it works out for me. And, no. I am not selling it. So there is no reason for me to teach you to use it.”

    “But there is a reason to learn about slings.” Stas reiterated. “You say it is the simplest weapon, but there is still skill involved. And it would give me ‘options’ as you say.”

    Phobos exhaled. “Fine. You are the one paying. But I’m not going to waste time teaching you about it until I am certain you are good enough at observation, and flexible enough.”

    Stas sighed. The man was far too caught up on ‘observation skills.’ But the promise of weapon training was enticing enough, and his other options for training lacking enough, that he would suffer it.

    “If that is your lesson plan, fine. Can we start now?”

    “Of course. Take a good look around the city, because I am going to be quizzing you on it.” Phobos takes out a piece of cloth from somewhere on his person. “I hope you paid attention while climbing up here, because you are going to be going back down blindfolded.”

    Stas grit his teeth. At least this wasn’t as boring as simply counting wagons.
     
    VerBlinkel, prandom, Songaro and 7 others like this.
  15. Threadmarks: Sixteen
    HypoSoc

    HypoSoc Time, once consumed, has no meaning

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    The sands of the Stellar Arena were the same as any other Stas had encountered. And the view of the crowds was near identical. His fellows had claimed that, in the heat of battle, they often mixed up which Arena they were gracing that day. The designers had apparently striven to ensure the experience would be consistent for the competitors.

    As this was his first match outside the Lunar, Stas found himself searching for all the tiny differences. The stands, for one, were of a different design. There were more proper seats for the Plebeians, with few standing only zones. The Patrician boxes were also fewer in number. Apparently the limited tickets for the Stellar Arena fetched a small premium. Its clientele tended to be older, more established. Ludo had emphasized the matter, in one of his lectures about presenting oneself properly to the audience.

    But the sands themselves were the same, and the entrance ways to the arena proper were identical. After leaving the comfort of the arena’s personal changing rooms (and wasn’t that a great comfort compared to the cramped Lunar?), the stairway might as well have been the same.

    Stas waited patiently for the announcer to declare him, watching the attendants finish up sweeping in a new layer of sand. He listened to the rumblings of the crowd and steadied himself in wait.

    This was to be his fourth match of his career. He had enjoyed victory in the previous three and did not wish for his perfect streak to end here.

    The bands intermission music calmed. Stats prepared to emerge.

    “Presenting!” the loud voice of the announcer echoed through the entrance hall. “Of the Ludo School of the Forum! The Undefeated Provincial! Stas the Blink!” The music of the band drummed him forth, and Stas stepped into the light, arm raised in greeting.

    Cheers greeted him, far greater in scope than the first pathetic turnout of his first showing. Most, as he had learned to expect, were wordless and nameless. Simple cries of anticipation and excitement more than anything else. But among the roaring throng, Stas could make out the distinctive rallies of his name, “Stas! Stas! Stas!” In equal number, some patrons erupted with his nickname: “Blink! Blink! Blink!”

    From the stands, Stas was pretty sure they would not be able to see his grimace. As far as nicknames went, “Blink,” might not be the absolute worst, but it ranked pretty low in his mind. If he had the chance, he would deck the clever announcer that came up with it in the face. But trying to control for nicknames was a fool's game. Hopefully it was still early enough in his career that some other title might displace this odious one.

    For the moment, he could enjoy the fact that some small bit of the audience was cheering it all the same. He wondered if Enjolras was watching, cheering him on in his match. With so very many people in the stands, somebody from Libertas must be among them, some recognizable visage in the faceless throng.

    It would be easy to tell if some drunk brought up his stupid nickname the next time they met. Stas shook the thoughts from his head. He needed to focus on the here and now.

    The band changed its tone and the crowd quieted a tad, allowing the announcer to resume his duties.

    “And Presenting!” The voice bellowed, carrying even more now that Stas was no longer protected by the entryway, “Also of the Ludo School of the Forum! Usurper of the Lion’s Beard! Thrice Victorious this Year! Zola the Tigress!”

    And with such proclaimed, Zola entered the arena from the entrance opposite him. She was bedecked in her armor, helmet held in her arms, as she proudly marched in. On her back, a long flowing cape proclaimed some cart repair shop to be the best in the city.

    The cheers at her entrance were louder than his own. The calls of “Zola” and “Tigress” were more prevalent as well. Stas did not begrudge Zola her fans. She had been establishing her career for at least three times as long as he had. He was, however, envious of her nickname.

    With a flourish, Zola unclipped the cape from her shoulders and wiped it around, allowing everyone in the audience to read its bold lettering. She let it fall to the ground behind her, allowing an attendant to quickly dash up and take it back where it would no longer be in the way.

    This was her second match with the sponsorship, and she had handily won the first. Stas wondered if the shop would pursue his endorsement if he proved victorious today.

    After ensuring everyone had a chance to see her face, Zola secured her helmet to her head. Stas took a moment to appraise her equipment. Her armor was heavier than his own, offering full coverage as opposed to his simple padding. She sported two short swords, sheathed at her hips, again contrasting his choice of sword and shield par. She wore a belt of three elixirs, matching the leather bandoleer of three bottles Stas had across his shoulder.

    The two of them stepped forwards to meet in the center.

    Zola grinned at him. “Well, well, well. Seeing us matched up like this. You’ve had such a nice streak going too. Shame I have to be the one to ruin it for you.”

    There was no heat in her words, just playful banter. Stas gave a smirk in return. “I’m just happy to not have to say the same. After all, you don’t have a real streak for me to break.”

    “Hah.” Zola barked out a short laugh, before unsheathing her blades. “Well, we’ll see who comes out on top. You better not hold anything back, Stas.”

    “So long as you do the same, Zola.” He retorted, grasping his silver hilt and unsheathing his own sword.

    Now that he had a good look at them, he was more inclined to call them large knives. They were definitely designed for getting within a larger sword’s guard. The edges were serrated, more for the appearance of lethality than anything that would actually matter in a match. Far more pertinently, they were notched at the end, some small hook that she would no doubt try to employ to catch his blade.

    He would have to watch out for that.

    In their readied stances, they both turned to the Aedile, awaiting his command.

    The signal was delivered, and the band roared into action.

    Immediately Zola tossed her left knife into the air, sending it spinning. Stas recognized the action for what it was immediately, having seen her practice the maneuver over and over again in the courtyard.

    As expected, Zola used the moment to reach for an elixir from her belt and, in a single smooth motion brought it to her lips, just as Radek had done in the first match he had seen in the city.

    The spectacle of a spinning blade is always a great crowd-pleaser, as proven by the roars and cheers of “Zola” and “Tigress” her action resulted in. After so many weeks with Phobos, however, Stas could not see it as anything but a blatant opening. The obvious move was to restrict her arcanum usage by preventing her from finishing the drink.

    And yet, that would be terrible sportsmanship. So, instead, he waited. Letting Zola show off the move she spent so much time practicing. As the knife spun back down, Zola expertly caught it by the grip with hardly a glance. As expected, the crowd loved the maneuver.

    Zola struck her knives together, grinning wildly at Stas. “I hope you are ready, Stas, because I developed this little trick just for you.”

    Yellow sparks jolted from the tips of her blades, jumping from one to the other in a vibrant bolt of lightning. The magic expanded outwards, arcing around the woman, surrounding every side of her with an erratic field.

    The accompanying sound was as loud as thunder, overwhelming the crowd for just an instant. The lightning faded just as quickly as it arrived, a single bolt to surround her, for but a single moment. He could see the slagged bits of sand where some of the bolt had diverted.

    “Careful, Stas.” She cheered. “I don’t know if you’ll be able to survive if you get hit by it.” And to demonstrate, the pulsed her arcanum once more, launching the arc of lightning in another quick instant.

    Clearly trying to teleport behind the woman to strike would be a fool’s endeavor. Stas would be liable to be shocked before his sword could reach her back. The obvious play would be to, instead, simply wait Zola out. She had only brought three elixirs to the fight and something so visibly powerful would require quite a bit out of each bottle. Compared to him, who could just keep going with his magic, she would run out very quickly.

    But that was unsatisfying. A coward’s method. It would be the same as admitting that he was incapable of dealing with Zola’s strength.

    No, he would do this properly, honor Zola properly as she had requested, and defeat her by his own merits. Stas shifted his stance to get ready to move.

    Just as Stas had witnessed in the training yards, Zola clanged her knives together, each sparking threateningly before releasing a far more traditional bolt of arcanum. The magic lightning shot towards him.

    Stas twisted to the side, letting his shield block the stray fringes of the branching bolt. The leather handle offered him a matter of protection from the magical lightning. His grip clasped around the hilt of his sword, feeling the cool touch of the silver plating.

    Ironic. If he were using a cheaper, less ostentatious sword, with a wood or bone hilt, he would be in a better position to use it against Zola. The bits of decorative silver made the weapon more of a liability than an aid. Stas did not hesitate, dropping the sword to the sands below, letting his shield cover more of his body. He adjusted his stance, sidestepping away from the fallen implement, and keeping his eye locked to Zola’s grinning form.

    He clanged his fist against his shield in a provocative motion, to better demonstrate to the obvious that dropping the sword was a choice, not a concession. Using his newly freed hand, he reached for one of the elixir bottles on his bandoleer, bringing the water to his lips.

    The crowd jeered and cheered in equal measure. The musicians picked up in tempo.

    Zola tensed, and unleashed a salvo of lightning once again. Stas pulled his arm back, winding up for a throw. For a moment he considered leaving his shield arm slack, to make a better show of his plan, but thought better of it. It was an unnecessary risk for little gain. Few in the audience would even see to make the distinction. So he sets his shield to intercept just in case.

    At the last possible moment, right before the lighting would have struck his shield, Stas found a position behind Zola and teleported to it, arm set to throw.

    As soon as he arrived, he released the empty glass bottle.

    Zola, ready for the action, twisted about face to where he had directed his gaze. First, she unleashed an arc of arcanum behind her, in case he had been foolish enough to close the distance. In the same motion, her knives swung out to knock away the impromptu projectile. If it were a cheaper material, the glass would have shattered in her face, to Stas’s great advantage. But the glass vials used in Gladiatorial matches were designed to protect their valuable contents despite vigorous exertion, so it cracked in place and bounced away, scattering safely into the sand instead. Once again, Stas was forced to consider the irony, as the bottle was knocked harmlessly away.

    All told, his attack was quite obvious. Zola knew just as much as Stas did that her arcanum brought her a great advantage in close range where the speed and spread of her magic denied Stas any attack. That he would try to throw something at her was more a question of when than one of if. Tossing an elixir vial was hardly an unorthodox move, even if it was very rarely successful.

    Following up on the logic, Zola immediately followed through by dashing to close the distance, sending another bolt of lightning as her vanguard.

    Again, Stas was able to dodge the brunt of the attack, twisting to the side, and allowing his shield to catch the fringes. As Zola approached, he leaped back into with a small hope, eyes peeled for a location behind and to the side of the woman.

    Zola’s eyes darted to follow his gaze, one of her knives slashing out towards it, releasing a bolt in the same instant Stas teleported.

    Momentum from his jump carried him even further from his target, safely out of the way of the lightning that so accurately sought his new position. In the same motion Zola whipped around, reevaluating.

    This was a dodging game now, and the music reflected it. Reflection followed reflection, oftentimes at the tail of a bolt of magic, though sometimes at an idle moment. At one point, Zola consumed out her second bottle of elixir, with far less flair to it as she was forced to surround herself with her arc of lightning, lest Stas take advantage of the moment. And so the game continued.

    Stas had to take care not to fall into the rhythm of the band’s beats. It was an amateur mistake, and any proper gladiator knew how to exploit it if their opponent was foolish enough to fall for it. Rather, it was the band’s purpose to match their tempo to the conflict.

    Stas did not plan on making their job easy.

    Stas takes a breath and plans his moves. Wasting time with flippant evasion was not his plan, he reminds himself. Every move needed a purpose, a step towards his goal.

    Zola too, must be of the same mindset. Stas could see her evaluating the field, determining vantage points. She was not standing still or mindlessly charging for his position. She was determining how to best deny him area, if not outright restrict his movements.

    Teleportation made for a lot of freedom on his part. Stas did not envy Zola’s frustrating position.

    She needed to keep herself positioned on the arena’s edge. Not close enough to the wall that she would have no mobility, but just far enough that Stas would be a fool to teleport between her and it. From such a vantage, she could pepper him with magic with little worry. Better still if she could position herself in the shade so that the sun would be on her side in disabling him. Based on when and how she chose to dash forward and when she locked in place, she had gathered some sense for such.

    Stas did not want her considering the matter too much. He banged his shield once again, the challenge clear. It did its job prodding the woman into action as she unleashed two scattered bolts of arcanum, one from each knife.

    The magical attacks were individually less impressive than those she had accomplished earlier, but they covered a far greater area. He would be hard pressed to dodge such a distance, and his shield could only protect so much.

    So, took the one action left to him, staring at a somewhat ambiguous position away from Zola and reflected to it in an instant.

    Zola, as one could expect, was quick to twist around and force him back in view. What she did not expect was the bottle flying at her face.

    The crowd roared in approval at his choice of action. Throwing an empty bottle was common enough to be expected. But a full one? No gladiator was insane enough to waste such a powerful and valuable resource on an attack that was seen as a distraction at best. Even Stas, despite having no reliance on the substance, did not believe he could ever let himself be so wasteful.

    But the liquid in the ornate bottle was simple water. As such, Stas had no compunctions.

    Zola seemed just as flabbergasted by the move as the audience witnessing it, her reaction delayed, likely through sheer disbelief. Instinct must have take over at some point, as Zola ducked out of the way of the projectile in the nick of time, albeit with far less grace than her previous maneuvers.

    With her view obstructed, Stas reflected once more, tossing out his third and final bottle at Zola’s head. Through sheer luck or battle-honed instinct, Zola threw herself out of the way blindly, avoiding the bottle’s trajectory. Safety secured, she swung her sword, deflecting the container, cracking it into the sand, spilling the disguised liquid to be evaporated by the blaring sun.

    With that, Stas was officially out of projectiles. There seemed to be only one option available to him, and Zola realized it immediately.

    When Stas reflected, Zola did not react, but anticipated. She charged up her arcanum and launched it. Stas arrived at the location of the second bottle, the sole intact one that Zola hadn’t broken with her knife, and did not have time to dodge. Rather, he was forced to crouch down, knee on the ground, and braced his shield against the sand, to allow it to block the full mass of the attack.

    From this semi-prone position, he could not properly move.

    And yet, this was exactly the position he had aimed to be in from the start.

    With the large shield positioned to obscure Zola’s view of him, Stas released his grip on the handle, and reflected, leaving the implement behind to draw her eye.

    He arrived exactly where he planned, right next to Zola, arm in position to grab his sword exactly where he had dropped it: in the shade of the arena wall, where the vantage point would be best.

    Zola lost precious moments staring at the shield fall to the ground, as Stas rose, sword in hand, to strike upwards with the full force of his body.

    But Zola was trained and Stas was only to her side, so she reacted quickly in her confusion, bringing her knives down to meet his blow, lightning crackling dangerously on each.

    Sword met twin knives, and the lightning conducted violently. But the empty leather bandoleer Stas had wrapped around his sword’s silver-engraved hilt made all the difference. Stas hooked his sword through both of Zola’s knives’ notches and twisted with all his might.

    To her credit, even distracted, Zola managed to keep her grip on one of the blades. Her left knife, however, fell out of her hand to the sand below. Even so, she was not prepared when Stas’s arm-guard slammed into her helmeted face.

    With Zola disoriented by the unexpected blow, Stas forced the other knife out of her hand. He kicked both knives away quickly, sword raised. Zola exhaled sharply and signaled her acceptance of defeat with a nod. She allowed him to push her to the floor with his sword in the manner they had been taught for such purposes. Even after being disarmed, surrendering while standing tended to be viewed far more harshly by the crowd than being forced to surrender while prone.

    Stas pressed his foot against Zola’s stomach lightly, ostensibly to hold her in place, and directed his sword at her throat. And ending like this was clear for even the worst seats in the arena, and was far more in line with expectations.

    The crowd erupted in cheers, louder and greater than any Stas had garnered before. The roared in triumph, reciting his name, “Stas! Stas! Stas!” It rang in his ears nicely.

    The complimentary chants of “Blink! Blink! Blink!” did not sound as sweet.

    Through the gaps in her helmet, Stas could see Zola smile.

    “Hah...” she groaned, good humor in her affectation. “Seems like you got me.”

    “Seems like,” Stas agreed with a grin. “Good match.”

    The Aedile signaled the match’s end, allowing the white and black masked officials for the event to enter the arena. The two professionals quickly made their examinations and signaled the lack of injuries to cheering audience.

    At that, Stas was free to offer his hand. Zola accepted it and he pulled her to her feet.

    The two clasped each others backs in friendship and turned to face the audience.

    “Stas! Stas! Stas!” the cheers continued, intermingled with cries of “Zola” and “Tigress.” Eponine was was likely among the crowd, though whose name she’d be cheering Stas didn’t know. If she had managed to get Enjolras to attend though, Stas imagined the man would be cheering his name after that grand showing. He dearly hoped his friend wasn’t one of those misguided spectators cheering for “Blink.” He’d be forced to question the man’s taste.

    “They really liked this match.” Zola grinned.

    Stas nodded in agreement. This was far and beyond his previous experience. It was still a pale shadow compared to the praise Radek and Daxton and Horatio Undaunted had earned, but it was a treasure in itself.

    He would have to thank his teacher for it. As much as Phobos claimed his tactics were for fighting not sport, they definitely garnered a more invested audience. Another bit of irony.

    “Don’t count on having the same luck next time.” Zola cheered next to him. “Once I figure out how to imbue my whole armor without killing myself, there will be nothing you can do about it.”

    “I’ll look forward to it.” Stas admitted, truthfully.

    The Aedile let them bask in the glory for a bit more time, before the pressures of the schedule forced them off the stage. They would need to make way for the next act.

    Zola and Stas allowed the attendants to collect their weapons and shields as they walked back, arm clasped in arm, to the arena entrance. From there, Stas would be forced to make the tough choice between staying to watch further matches or going home to wash the sweat off. The heat had been so brutal today and he was certain he smelled just as bad as Zola did.
     
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  16. HypoSoc

    HypoSoc Time, once consumed, has no meaning

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    So, just a minor point. I know in this thread that I used the word Princeps for the Emperor, as an explicit nod to Antonine Golden Age Rome.

    I have since change my mind, and edited accordingly. The Title "Dominus" used by Diocletian era Rome is far more accurate, as the "Princepate" of Rome was a period where the Emperor put on aspirations of being an approachable everyman, to pretned at still being a continuation of the Republic.

    Comparatively, the "Dominate" period was marked in part by the Emperor acting as an unapproachable divine figure, separate from and beyond the citizenry of the period, guarded from public access by both a wall of bureaucracy and cultural norms, and seen as invested with the ultimate power of god.

    This isn't about Tyranny (as you had very tyrannical emperors and the Principate and very enlightened emperors in the Dominate), but about Pretentions.

    The Princeps is the best person for the job that needs to be done, and you are a fool to think otherwise because there is no one better.
    The Dominus is utterly perfect and you are committing treason/blaspheme by casting aspersions on their character.

    The latter is far more accurate in describing Von Graft's role in this society.
     
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  17. prandom

    prandom Definitely Trustworthy

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    Hey, it's back! I'm glad, I really enjoyed this story.
     
  18. Threadmarks: Seventeen
    HypoSoc

    HypoSoc Time, once consumed, has no meaning

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    Over his months in residence at Ludo’s school, Stas had gotten adept at sneaking out. While some of his excursions into the city could be achieved openly, he often found himself skirting against the inconvenience of Ludo’s curfew. For the many time he knew his dealings with Phobos or Libertas would see him on the wrong side on it, Stas was forced to sneak out. And with practice came proficiency.

    His unjust punishment detail among the servants after his first match had turned into an unexpected boon, giving him a better sense of where the school’s staff, made their rounds. And, more importantly, it let him know where the workers who served as Ludo’s eyes and ears did not have such a watchful gaze.

    Stas likely would have struggled to find a good hiding place for the elixirs he needed to stockpile had he not been introduced to the ventilation shafts hidden in the walls of the rooms. And, more pertinently, the access points that allowed for their maintenance. He had managed to secure for himself quite a cache of elixirs by this point, enough that he would be able to handle a sudden jump in price should Phobos turn unexpectedly mercenary. Hidden among them was a simple dagger he had purloined from the armory, of cheap enough quality that its absence had gone unnoticed, as well as a simple cloth ace covering he had torn from some tattered rags.

    Moreover, Stats had established a habit of retiring early oftentimes, making a point to do so even on nights he did not plan on sneaking out. It had resulted in some playful mocking by his fellows, but they generally respected his desire for good sleep health. Sometimes he took advantage of the early nights to practice with his reflection, or to work on simply calisthenics if he thought he could be quiet enough. Other times he slept in truth, depending on how vigorous Phobos’s lessons had been the night before.

    For the act of exiting itself, Stas could confidently state that the reflection he left behind in his bed would hold up to great scrutiny, having learned to make it appear to breathe in the slow, steady rumble of sleep. It would collapse if anyone was as so crass to touch the arcane form, but Stas did not expect that to be an issue any time soon. Not when his modification no longer had the stillness of death.

    He had long since found the best angle for reflecting out of his room to a spot out of sight of any that wandered the palatial estate the school sat within. From there, he could make his way in secret through the estate to the city proper.
    As it turned out, reflecting through the gate to the forum was not the best way to get past the tall walls that surrounded the palace and its expanded estate. After taking a chance to explore the area, as was his privilege as a gladiator living upon them, he managed to find a statue garden tucked away behind another Lanista’s school. The garden was filled with strange and ugly works, from a half-man, half-horse monstrosity punctured with arrows, to a large slab of black stone carved in the shape of a mirror that cast no reflection, to a stone child cowering from a massive raptor. In the center of it all was a fountain which, though it seemed perfectly capable of expelling water should any be introduced, had been perennially dry in these dreadfully hot days. Likely it had all long since evaporated and no maintenance worker had seen fit to replace it.

    Which did not particularly surprise Stas. He had yet to see a single person, estate worker or visiting dignitary, wander anywhere near this tucked away garden. It was one of the advantages of the location. More importantly, one of the statues was tall and sinuous which, if he climbed up it, gave him the vantage point to reflect to and from the roof of another building beyond the walls of the estate in the city proper. A building which, thankfully, was not the nest of a bird-masked watcher like so many other rooftops in the forum that he might have otherwise been able to reflect to.
    From there, it was a simple matter to find his way to the ground and make his way through the city to one of the underground hideout’s few entrances.

    Months in the city had done well in inuring Stas to the pressure of crowds. While he definitely felt more comfortable on the palatial estate where spaces were wide and visitors were few, he no longer found himself boggled by the massive throng of people that suffused the city in the sunset hours. There was discomfort still, to be sure. The ostentatious and elaborate get-ups of some of the forum-goers always brought him some anxiety, that he might trip over some fabric or run into a coattail, ruining some dress that a senator’s wife had spent far too much money on. Though he was certain it was an exaggeration, his fellow students had warned of a hapless peer who had the misfortune of tearing a particularly offensive garment, and was forced to work off the debt as a body guard for the senator’s estate.

    Stas did not believe he was actually at risk of that sort of debacle, but he definitely did not want to deal with the hassle. He had already lost too much of Ludo’s good will.

    But that sort of risk was short lived, only possible in the forum central or in the dazzling streets that led to the arenas and hippodromes, or the districts that directly bordered the palatial walls in the city center, where the wealthy strutted themselves out for all to see. That golden corridor, carved between the hill estates of the patricians and the palatial promenade where the Senate was held in session and the Dominus made his residence, where the bird-faced watchers nested and swarmed at every corner, was but a minuscule fraction of this overflowing city, and not one Stas had much impetus to remain in more than necessary.

    No, the crowds and bustle of the city at large were a different sort of discomfort. The further Stas traveled from the dedicated districts, the more cloying, a watchful sort, unwashed in the heat of the oppressive sun. It was a strange trip when a beggar did not accost him, where a drunkard did not stumble into his path, where a pickpocket did not eye him up as a mark. Before Phobos’s training, Stas had been unaware of just how many urchins and scoundrels were considering robbing him. If he had a habit of keeping money on his person, he surely would have lost it by now, or found himself in an unfortunate confrontation with thugs over the matter.

    It was his clothes, he was well aware, freshly laundered and of decent quality, which made him stand out to the dregs and beggars. If there were some way he could acquire a poor plebeian's garb, he would have no issue in these far flung alleyways. But that was not an option. He could hardly make such a strange request to Ludo’s servants. And more besides, any anonymity he would gain in the attempt would have been lost in trying to travel the forum and promenade in said rags.

    It was a consequence he simply had to accept, one that required he keep his posture deliberate and strong to avoid any issues in those times he was forced to travel the back streets. As of yet, he had avoided any true trouble.
    In truth, the result was that his circuitous routes through the city, both to Phobos’s lessons and Libertas’s hideout entrances were designed to keep to the better kept middle parts of the city sectors, where more plebeians had homes and shops than not. These arteries of compromise were prevalent and accessible in Stas’s routing. But it was too easy to fall into the worse off areas when one tried to keep an oblique route.

    In theory, the purpose to Stas’s strange route was to avoid being followed. Eponine had drilled the matter into his head, stating it was a particular concern for those that came from the wealthier distracts like himself. That said, a handful of timely reflections in opportune locations more than covered the matter. In truth he was trying to waste time. It was important that he leave the school when the crowds were greatest so that he could best slip in among their numbers, but that made it far too easy to get to the hideout.

    Enjolras, always busy and always taking time to discuss matters with anyone on the street, was never one of the first to arrive for the meeting nights. And, though the rest of Libertas was friendly, he felt awkward among their number. The thought that he might be forced to confront Sanson, who never seemed to leave the hideout except to sample the alcohol of other bars in the city, without the support of Eponine or Enjolras was a worrying one.

    It was hard enough to keep from decking the ugly, pockmarked drunkard in the best of times. Lacking support to divert the argumentative man’s attention would all but guarantee a confrontation.

    Stas would win, obviously, but Enjolras would be upset that he had stooped to the pig’s level.

    But, as the sun set behind the buildings and the evening crowds thinned as dusk fell upon the city, Stas found himself close to one of the hideout’s entrances and would not delay longer. He made his way into the store as surreptitiously as he could manage, and descended down the ladder in the back room, to the cellar below.

    He placed his hand upon a brass figure, and watched as the bricks slid into themselves silently, revealing the secret passage. From there, he simply passed through the tunnel, the lamp light providing more illumination than the storefront had at this time of night. The brick wall closed up behind him in a silent dance.

    Reaching the metal door at the end, Stas rapped his knuckles against it. Two slow knocks, a pause, and two more rapid ones: the code of the day.

    Locks disengaged with their regular steadiness. The door slid open to reveal the door guard.

    “Maria,” Stas greeted with a respectful nod towards the older woman.

    Maria’s lips turned upwards. “Stas.” She returned, in her quiet, raspy voice. She stood back, opening the door to allow him through.

    “And here he is!” Lucian’s voice proclaimed loudly. “The undefeated champion of Libertas! The man whose matches have paid for the good wines! Our very own Blink!” The proclamation was met with cheers from the usual suspects, the Libertas members that enjoyed the games or the drinks or just enjoyed cheering. Which was most all of them, as it turned out.

    And that answered the question of whether someone from the group had been in the audience of yesterday’s match.
    Stas sighed. “Oh, piss on that name.” The stepped forward to allow Maria to close and lock the door behind him. “There will be a new one next month if I have any say in it.”

    His declaration was met with a good-natured laughter.

    “Hm… I don’t know.” Eponine mused from her side of the table. “I think it is appropriate for you. Easy to remember. Rolls well off the tongue. Stas the Blink. I’m sure everyone here agrees.” She held up her mug high. “So, let’s give another cheer for Stas the Blink.”

    Again, more laughter and cheering. Stas resigned himself to the ribbing. If he fought them on this, they would simply use the name more. So instead he took his beats, sat himself down, and accepted the glass of sweet wine from the serving boy who was so quick to serve him. The drink went smoothly down his throat.

    “It is a memorable name.” Henri nodded in agreement. “I mean, I understand why would you want something more awe-inspiring or glorious. But it’s unique and, as Eponine said, rolls off the tongue. It’s a short name and that’s kind of special on its own.” More confident at not being interrupted, Henri continued. “Plus, it’s unique. There have been a handful of ‘Lionhearts’ over the years, a dozen ‘Braves,’ or ‘Immortals.’ Even Heracles Ever Triumphant might have his title stolen if someone manages to repeat his record. But you are probably the first ‘Blink’ to fight in the arenas, and may just be the last.”

    Stas paused in consideration, taking another sip. “If you put it that way, I suppose it isn’t so bad.” Stas had never put much thought to his legacy. He saw little value in glory if you weren’t around to enjoy it. But he understood the matter in an abstract manner. Better for a name emerging from someone’s lips to be unquestionably his own than to be shared with the fallen of the past. And, he supposed, if he had to make a choice he would rather be remembered on his own than as one of many, or forgotten.

    “Hah.” Sanson’s large meaty hand slapped onto his back, jostling him. If Stas hadn’t drunken so quickly, he would have spilled his wine from the force. “I’m sure we can come up with a better name for our little gladiator. Stas the Swatter? Stas of the Sweetwine?” Sanson’s rancid breath were a perfect match for his rancid words. “Do you think you’ll brave a real brew today, Sweetwine, or are you sticking with the watery piss once again.”

    Stas rankled. “Unlike some, I am not content to making a drunken fool of myself. I drink to suit my palette, not to forget about my miserable life.”

    Sanson roared in laughter, and slapped Stas’s back again, this time with enough force to shake a mass of it free. It fell on his shirt, likely to leave a stain. Stas would be greatly annoyed if Ludo’s staff noticed it in the laundry and made a big deal out of the matter. The last thing he needed was the Lanista or his dietitian going into another lecture on the need for moderation.

    Henri beside him winced.

    “Oops.” Sanson shrugged, though he didn’t seem that contrite. “Sorry about that, Blinky Boy. I’ll go get you a towel.” And he tromped off.

    Eponine snickered. “Perhaps you should be the Sweetwine. It would be the best smelling of all gladiators.”

    “That title would still belong to Secunda the Lavender.” Henri interjected. “But I’m sure Stas will earn a much better title he can enjoy, should ‘Blink’ not be to his satisfaction.”

    “Well, if not ‘Blink,’ why not ‘Ever Triumphant?’” Lucian prompted. “If anyone can take the title from Heracles, it would be Stas. It has been… what, one hundred years?”

    “One hundred and eighty-seven since Heracles Ever Triumphant ascension by the Dominus.” Henri supplied. “After a perfect career of forty-seven matches.”

    “More than enough time for someone else to earn the title.” Romeo agreed. “Four matches, four victories, he’s certainly on track. If he never loses, never ties, then I will die a very rich man.” A grin etched itself on the mans face. “So, what do you think, Stas? Will you make me a fortune?”

    Stas agreed that would be an achievement worthy of praise but he could hardly claim to be so deluded. If he had ever been so unreasonably arrogant, his complete failure in spars against Phobos would have knocked the sense back into him. “Unfortunately unlikely.” Stas admitted. “Being undefeated at this point of my career… it is unusual, but not so unexpected. As a fresh Gladiator, the Aediles will not agree to schedule matches for me against the fiercest of competitors, not until I have proven my worth properly. Against the likes of Horatio Undaunted or Radek Twinblade…” Stas swirled the remaining wine in his cup, letting the scent waft from it more than from his shirt. “I could only beat them nine times in ten.”

    Lucian and Romeo roared in laughter, loud and free. Some others in the bar laughed in turn, though they likely hadn’t even heard the joke.

    “You are far too humble, Stas.” Lucian declared. “I’m certain you could trounce the two with both your arms behind your back.”

    “Defeat them both in the blink of an eye.” Eponine teased.

    “Get them drunk off your sweet wine.” Sanson rumbled as he approached. He tossed a dry rag out for Stas to catch, which he did without a word, proceeding to dab at his rapidly staining shirt. “I will say one thing, Blink. Your recent matches have been good for our funds, if nothing else.”

    Stas tilted his head in confusion. “You bet on me? You?”

    “Me, bet?” Sanson belted out a short laugh. “What do you take me for? A moron like Romeo over there? Gambling’s a fool’s game. No. I help make funds by running the games. Setting the odds, taking the cut… knowing what I know lets me make the odds in my favor. The stories you tell, well, bookies earn their keep by being in the know. Means you aren’t a complete waste of space sitting there drinking our expensive wines.”

    “You’re wasting a lot more space than Stas, you fat tub of lard.” Eponine grinned. “Blinky here has a chance to actually make a difference for us. Imagine, two, three years from now, if he manages to get picked by the Dominus. Having a spy holding the ear of the government. Nothing could compare.”

    Sanson’s jovial cheer turned sour. “Oh fuck that shit.” He spat. “If this brat comes anywhere even near to having that much attention on him, we cut him loose. Nothing, absolutely nothing you could learn would be worth that much damn scrutiny.”

    “Bit paranoid, aren’t you Sanson.” Romeo interjected. “Worrying like that. Stas here is a great guy. We don’t need to be so concerned about this point.”

    “Psh. This isn’t even about the bastard.” Sanson grunted. “I don’t trust anyone, not you, not me, not even Enjolras himself to spend time around the Dominus. Magic and spies and who knows what.” Sanson’s mug cracked in his hand. “You think Eponine here is unique? You think the Dominus doesn’t have a dozen Eponines in the wing waiting to root through the minds of anyone he requests? Some way to make anyone blab their secrets whether they want to or not?!” Sanson slams his meaty fist on the table. “And where the fuck fo you get off making judgments so quickly? Drinking with someone, making a few bits and bobs from betting on them. That’s not the basis of trust. That’s just wishful thinking. That’s just begging to get all of us killed!”

    The conversation, though about Stas, seemed to have turned away from him, back to some regular argument that had long predated him.

    Eponine scoffed. “You seem to think that you are the only one considering these matters, acting as if refusing to take any risks would somehow lead to success. Staying back, doing nothing...”

    Sanson spat, interrupting. “There’s a big difference between doing nothing and...”

    Stas felt a hand tap on his shoulder.

    “Ah, yeah, this happens every once in a while.” Henri explained, letting the loud and belligerent conversation continue. “Sanson gets argumentative when drunk and, well, Eponine likes to argue back, and, it gets kind of loud. Enjolras can settle it down when he’s here, but until then it can get pretty distracting.” Henri scratches the back of his neck. “There’s a quiet place I go when this happens. Do you want to join me?”

    Stas looked around as the various member of Libertas, in various states of cheer and inebriation, began to direct their attention to the growing argument. Nobody really seemed to be paying attention to anything else at this point, other than Maria who seemed to be keeping half an ear on the door.

    Perhaps a bit of quiet away from people would be for the best.

    Stas nodded, and Henri gave a weak smile. “Right,” the short, brown-haired man nodded, rising to his feet. “Follow me.”

    Ducking away from the crowd, Henri led Stas to one of the backrooms, and knelt down to grasp at the rung of a trap door situated within. The room situated even further in the ground than the already underground hideout was pitch dark, with a ladder leading down.

    “It’s not a long ladder.” Henri explained as he started to descend. “Ah, can you close the door behind you? And the trap door too? The two of them together can cancel out the sound.”

    Stas didn’t see a reason not to, shutting the door back to the main area behind him softly, before stepping on the ladder to follow. He shut the trap door, leaving them in complete darkness for a moment.

    He heard the sound of Henri shuffling and a small, red light flickered from on the walls. It was a flame-less torch like those lining the tunnels to the hideout, but it was far dimmer. It was also the only source of illumination in the room.

    Stas could only just make out the outline of Henri’s face. He could also see a large tarp situated over something.

    “Sorry it’s so dark. The light down here is broken, but nobody cares about fixing it. Let me...” Henri stumbled a bit, hugging against the wall. He procured some small thing Stas couldn’t make out, and pulled back the lid, which caused a small flame to jut forth. The piddling fire was only a small improvement. “It’s a bit damp, but I like how cool it gets down here. And the quiet.”

    It was indeed quiet. Stas could only barely make out the barest muffles of shouting. “What’s that? A sort of magic candle?” he questioned.

    Henri nodded, his face flickering with his flame’s dim light. “Er, sort of. It’s more for lighting candles than for being one, but it’s a substitute. I, ah, keep it on me for times like this.”

    Henri seemed a bit more awkward and nervous than usual, but Stas did not have much of a sense as to why.

    “Seems useful.” Something small enough to presumably fit in Henri’s pockets but able to make a fire so easily. It sounded like a convenient trinket to have on hand, assuming its magic lasted long enough to make the device worth while. “So, what is this room? A storage room?”

    “Yeah,” Henri acknowledged. “Something like that. It’s a stockpile for supplies, but we hardly ever touch them, so I just use it as a place to get away sometimes. Mostly for the quiet. I’ve thought of bringing a chair or two down here. If I did that and fixed up the light, it would be pretty comfortable.”

    Stas nodded, but realized Henri probably couldn’t see him so well in the dark, so he spoke aloud. “I see.”

    And conversation halted from there. Henri, it seemed, didn’t really have anything to say to him. And Stas didn’t have much to say in turn. Henri, Stas had learned, was quite passive by nature. He eagerly contributed when those around him laid the groundwork, but he did not try to direct anything if he could help it. There really wasn’t much between the two of them.

    Stas did appreciate the break from Sanson’s bellowing for a turn.

    A few minutes passed in idleness, with no noise but for the sound of their breathing. Stas had somewhat expected that Henri had dragged him here with the intention of saying something private, but it seemed he rather just wished to share the silence.

    Stas didn’t really know what to make of it.

    He frowned. “How long do you usually stay down here?”

    “Ah, a few minutes. Maybe longer if I need a break. I’ve napped down here once or twice. But the worst of it blows over quickly enough. You can head back up whenever you like.”

    “Perhaps.” Stas ventured. The muffled sounds from above changed in cadence, before getting much louder for a moment and quieting again. Stas could here the tread of feet above.

    A foot knocked against the trap door. “Henri? You down there?” A muffled, older woman’s voice, whose name Stas believed might be Odette, called down. The trap door opened up, letting the noise and light in freely. “Sanson was looking for...” the woman stopped abruptly, face aghast. “Henri, you blithering imbecile! Are you insane! Put that fire out instantly! Are you trying to kill us all?!”

    Henri jumped in place, and struggled for a moment, fumbling with the lighter in his hand before shutting it to kill the flame.

    “And Stas.” The woman’s glare turned to him. “I can understand Henri being so thoughtless, but I would have thought you would be too sensible for this nonsense.”

    “What are you talking about?” Stas demanded, holding stiff against the unexpected antagonism.

    “You don’t know?” Odette queried. “This is one of our supply arsenals. Pitches, tars, powders, fuels, combustibles, flammables. Everything we might need to destroy a building. And everything we need to keep away from fools gallivanting about, especially with an open flame!” The woman shook her hands in exasperation. Stas found himself flinching with every word.

    “It’s a small fire.” Henri meekly defended himself. “And I was keeping to the far side. If we just fixed the light...”

    “None of those excuses.” Odette grumbled. “Out! Out! Both of you! I’ll keep this foolishness quiet this time, Henri, but if I ever catch you doing anything so monumentally stupid again, I’ll hold you in place myself so Sanson can skin your hide.”

    Chastised and despondent, Henri climbed up the ladder to leave the cool storage room. Stas himself followed with perhaps more haste than strictly required.

    Odette stood, hands on her hips, ready for them at the top. “Sanson was looking for you, Henri. So don’t keep him waiting.” She shooed him to the backroom door, and exhaled sharply.

    The older woman turned to Stas with a shake of her head. “Honestly, that boy. He’s harmless most of the time, but then he goes and pulls stunts like this. We all have to keep an eye on his foolishness.”

    Stas didn’t really know what to say to that. Odette was not really someone he had dealings with, this being the most words the woman had spoken to him. Nor did he really have much dealings with Henri. But, thankfully the woman didn’t seem to expect anything from him, rather she simply held the door open for him so he could return to the bar at large.

    Nothing had been broken during the argument between Sanson and Eponine, so it couldn’t have been that bad. A few patrons of the hideout bar gave him a side glance as he reentered the room from the side, his re-entrance not as unnoticed as his initial exit. But, once again, no one cared to comment.

    Stas took his seat once again, surrounding himself with the ongoing conversation of a chariot races, which he had no opinions on, and gladiator fights, which he offered his educated views for happily, as he waited for Enjolras to arrive. The serving boy brought him another glass of wine in short order.
     
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  19. TrueNameArchFrenemy

    TrueNameArchFrenemy Not too sore, are you?

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    Ooh, I wonder where Henri got a modern lighter. Phobos perhaps?
     
  20. HypoSoc

    HypoSoc Time, once consumed, has no meaning

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    Henri is just super rich, being the son of a Patrician. And the upper class have access to luxuries the commoners have no concept of.
     
  21. Threadmarks: Eighteen
    HypoSoc

    HypoSoc Time, once consumed, has no meaning

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    Stas did not end up waiting long. Enjolras, along with a handful of other, less notable, members trickled into the underground hideout over the course of the next fifteen minutes. As usually happened, Enjolras was swarmed by the already present members as soon as he entered, each eager to blather about whatever it was they felt the need to say.

    Many would be giving their unofficial reports in this time, some rumor monger’s determination here, some after action statement for a middling operation there. Many more clamored in the opposite direction, demanding an update from the unquestioned leader of the bunch. Many more still simply offered greetings, regaling Enjolras with the day’s arguments and the trivial conclusions they had arrived at while in their cups.

    As always, Enjolras glided through the conversations, taking each in turn, making sense from the cacophony of sound he was always subjected to, never letting anyone feel unheard.

    Stas kept himself away from it all, unwilling to be just another voice in the crowd the begged for the man’s attention.
    Through the throng of people, Enjolras’s silver eyes caught Stas’s own, and Stas found himself the recipient of one of the unflappable man’s smiles. Stas averted his eyes, letting them fall into his wine cup. It was always good to know that he was not forgotten; that his patience was rewarded.

    Stas took another sip. The sweet, sparkling wine danced on his tongue.

    The crowds fell apart as Sanson barreled through them, the heavy stock man sparing no dignity as he literally pushed others aside. Enjolras offered the ugly man a nod, and allowed himself to be pulled towards one of the back rooms where he and Sanson would no doubt discuss matters that were too sensitive for the general membership. Matters Stas himself would not be allowed to hear.

    But, as they passed Stas’s table, Enjolras pulled aside.

    “Stas,” he greeted, with his everpresent smile. “I am glad you could make it.”

    Stas nodded in turn. “You did ask me to be here tonight.”

    “That I did,” Enjolras nodded. “But it does not escape me that the trip is more difficult for you than for anyone else. I appreciate you making the time.”

    “It really isn’t a problem.” Stas insisted. He enjoyed coming to Enjolras’s hideout. Enjoyed the atmosphere, his budding fandom. He couldn’t think of it as an imposition.

    “Even so, I must apologize as I am certain to be requesting even more of you tonight. Something not as simple, in the aid of Libertas.”

    Sanson grumbled loudly. “You can talk about that later, Enjolras. We need to sort this business out.”

    “Of course.” Enjolras nodded to the pock-marked man. He turned back to Stas. “I will get back to you as soon as this urgent matter is settled. Duty calls.” And with that, he turned away.

    Stas watched him follow Sanson through the side door, which closed behind them both. His eyes tracked them until it shut firmly, obscuring his view.

    Here off to the side, with the rest of those present off in their own conversations from Enjolras’s wake, and no Sanson or Enjolras to draw attention, it was quiet. Nobody cared to pay attention, enjoying their own conversations. Stas had had his fill of this idle musings for the time being. He would take his silence until Enjolras had finished with his conversation.
    For a moment he considered going back to the store room Henri had shown him. He dismissed the thought instantly. If only it weren’t full of such volatile materials. The option of quiet was enjoyable.

    Eponine plopped down beside him, mug settling on the table, disturbing his thoughts.

    Stas raised an eyebrow at her. “Are you not part of that meeting?” He inquired, directing a finger to the door behind which Sanson and Enjolras resided.

    While Enjolras was loathe to dole out official ranks, going so far as to refuse to call himself the group’s leader despite his obvious assumption of the role, the realities of organization left decision-making powers in the hands of only a few individuals. Sanson was one of them. Eponine was another.

    Eponine shrugged. “Enjolras doesn’t keep me abreast of every little thing. Nor do I particularly care to involve myself in everything. If Sanson is speaking with him alone, it probably has something to do with finances, or supplies, neither of which I care to think about or have much to contribute to. Since Maria is not back with them, it probably doesn’t have anything to do with training or stocking the armory. So, money matters most likely. Or perhaps setting up a back up hideout for if we ever have reason to abandon this one. I don’t involve myself in that sort of discussion either until almost everything has been decided.” Eponine took a large gulp of her bitter-smelling drink. “Or, perhaps, Sanson simply wants to discuss something without me being around to explain why it’s a terrible idea. He does that some times.” She shook her head. “Really it’s nothing major or urgent. If it were, I’d be there too. Unless of course he’s got it in his head that you or I am a traitor to the cause and need to be killed while we are none the wiser.”

    Stas frowned into his drink. “Why is Sanson so distrusting?” Stas could sort of understand that a somewhat rebellious organization valued loyalty and the need for secrecy, but everyone here was relaxed and trusting, for the most part. Only abrasive, smelly Sanson would get into shouting matches over the matter. Everyone else seemed calm and welcoming.
    Eponine chuckled. “Sanson was in a group before this one. More aggressive, less intelligent. They got found out by the watchers and rooted out near to a man. He claims it was a betrayal, but I’m pretty sure some drunken thrug just bragged to the wrong person. Enjolras fished him out of the burning wreckage Sanson’s old group found themselves in. Now Sanson is convinced that this group is doomed to fail just because his last group made stupid decisions. Ever heard of a ‘self-fulfilling prophesy?’ That’s what Sanson would bring about if we followed up on his every accusation. As if I hadn’t rooted through the memories of everyone here to check for that risk.”

    Eponine finished her assessment with a wry grin.

    Stas found himself uncomfortable. “You checked everyone’s memories? In the whole organization?”

    “Everyone in the room’s.” Eponine clarified. “Not everyone who acts in our name. My time is far more valuable than that. But for everyone permitted to be here, from Maria’s brat serving you wine to Enjolras himself, I’ve given a once over to clear them.”

    Stas bit his tongue, and the first words that threatened to emerge. Inhaling he took another sip before trying to put the strange, uncomfortable sensation he now felt into words. “When?” he inquired, bereft of any other coming to mind.

    “Hm?” Eponine tilted her head, in a manner reminiscent of one of the many cats Stas had known back in the provinces. “When what? When did I sift through your memories?”

    Stas grunted, not willing to say more.

    “When do you think I did?” She prodded with a grin, her elbow jutting into his side.

    Stas exhaled.

    “Don’t worry so much, Stas.” Eponine chuckled. “Your embarrassing memories can’t compare to the miserable situations Henri put himself in in his younger days. Or the nonsense Romeo got up to. You’ve lived a surprisingly boring life from what I was able to tell.”

    “But you spent the night at the Bell looking through my memories. Was Sanson just there to distract me so you could? Do you read the memories of everyone the day you meet them?”

    “Sanson… something like that, yes. I assumed you had realized that by now. But no, I don’t read everyone’s memories. It would be a waste of elixirs. Usually Sanson bullies people around for a month or so before I am called in to verify. You should be flattered, Stas, since I was so happy to fast track you.”

    “You could have asked.” The words helped Stas understand what he was feeling. He didn’t have particular attachment to his memories or embarrassment. He was proud of his life and stood by all the decisions he made.

    Most of the decisions he made, he corrected himself. He had made mistakes. But based on what he knew at the time, he stood by his actions for each moment.

    No, what brought on this strange discomfort was that Eponine had looked through them without his knowledge. And that he had no ability to stop her. He had assumed that Eponine’s arcanum would have been as blatant and visible as anything he had witnessed in the arena. He had imagined some sort of silvery fog, or glowing beam he could dodge would mark her memory modification. The black smoke she had produced the night they met had seemed a proper hallmark.

    The thought she could be using her magic at any time with him none the wiser, bothered Stas greatly.

    “I couldn’t have, no.” Eponine rejected instantly. “If you knew it was happening it wouldn’t have been as effective. You might have been able to hide the sorts of things we were looking for… been able to pretend to be innocent.” The dark haired woman stopped, her expression softened. “You know, it’s almost certainly not like you are imagining it. It’s not like I can just step into someone’s head and see their entire life. It’s more like I am able to search for some specific things and see if you have any memories of the like. Contact with watchers or the Dominus’s guard giving you orders… anything that would mark you as a spy. Other than that, I just really got the broad stokes of matters to see if anything was suspicious.” Eponine frowned suddenly. “But don’t bring that up with Sanson. He already doubts my abilities too much. My magic is just as good for finding what we need as anything you could imagine.”

    The qualification didn’t exactly make Stas feel better. “You aren’t going to do it again, are you?”

    “What? Waste elixirs checking what I already know? Why would I bother with that. You’re one of us, now, Stas. And you’re going to help us do great things. No need to sour anything by acting like Sanson.”

    “Do you swear?” Stas pressed. “To not use your arcanum on me ever again?”

    Eponine shrugged. “I mean, as I said, I don’t have much reason to. But it isn’t up to me, you know? If something comes up and Enjolras asks me to, then I’m going to do it. It’s not like it hurts you at all.”

    Stas narrowed his eyes. “Something come up? What would that even mean?”

    Eponine exhaled sharply. “You really want me to come up with random reasons? Fine. Besides the obvious one of proving you aren’t a traitor if we suspect treachery...” Eponine pops her lips in thought. “Say you see something important, but get knocked out. Better for me to grab it from your memories than just let you lie there. Or say you got a concussion or blackout drunk and managed to forget something. I can’t help you if I can’t use magic. Or maybe Enjolras needs something to be kept a secret from everyone until the right moment, but you learn about it. Easier to make you forget the details than to keep you locked up.” Her lips quirk into a frown. “Why do you care about this? It’s no big deal.”

    “If it is no big deal, you can swear to not do it.” Stas argued. He hadn’t drunken much tonight, but his head seemed to be spinning. “Don’t use your magic on me. Or at least, don’t do it without telling me.” Because that was the real problem, in the end.

    Reading memories, changing them, messing about with the mind. It wasn’t something he had been concerned about for the longest time. But near every lesson with Phobos focused on imagining how some magic or skill might be employed in combat, how to best employ it, how to get around it. So often Stas was asked to put on the shoes of some hypothetical foe and describe how he would defeat himself. And how he, in turn, could turn the tables and win.

    It was an endless chain of back and forth between the optimal moves Stas could make and the worst traps he could find himself overcome by, one that only ceased when Phobos found satisfaction.

    And here and now, he found himself imagining he were Eponine, on a mission to kill and subvert his gladiator self. And he did not like how easy it would be.

    Could she make him forget all his training? Could she switch friend and foe in his mind, trick him into walking into a lion’s den by implanting memories of him doing so many times before? Could she make him her friend by tweaking every memory of his displeasure, inserting many of amicable conversation?

    It was ludicrous, he knew, and ran well into the trap of overestimating a foe, which Phobos had also ruthlessly drilled him against doing. And that was nothing compared to his lifetime of training which cautioned against being overly cautious.

    But it did bother him. And more, her refusal to swear against it bothered him more.

    Eponine sighed. “Does this really matter that much to you. Fine. I swear.”

    “Swear it explicitly.” Stas doubled down.

    Eponine, in a show of mock seriousness, placed her hand upon her heart. “I swear to never use my magic upon you without asking first, and may chimeras rip me apart if I am lying.” Her voice echoed with exaggerated solemnity.
    She rolled her eyes. “Does that work for you, Stas?”

    Stas swallowed. Did it work for him? He would have preferred if she were solemn about the matter. But he couldn’t force her to be sincere. She either meant it or she didn’t, and not amount of him badgering would change the fact.

    He would just have to live with it. That’s what a good man would do.

    “It’s as much as I could ask for. Thank you.”

    “Feh.” Eponine popped her lips, eyes rolling. “What’s got you so bothered about that now? It’s not like I make a secret of what I can do. Is it because of Sanson being a paranoid prick?”

    “You did say his last organization was rooted out and killed.” Stas deflected.

    “Honestly. Even calling what Sanson was in an ‘organization’ is three steps too far. From what I’ve been able to gather they were a bunch of disgruntled thugs and drunkards that barely had a unifying purpose, only anger and violence to keep them associated. Other than being technically outside the Dominus’s law, we don’t have anything alike.

    “Sanson’s old group press-ganged everyone they could get their hands on in. We have a small, tight inner core of competent individuals that we vet thoroughly, surrounded by a massive network of support that only knows as much as they need to. Sanson’s old group staged big, obvious mobs against whatever target had earned their ire. We spend most of our time picking and choosing where, when, and if the strike, and only do so if it turns out to be worth the risk. Sanson’s old group had no money, and no backing, so they spent their time mugging and stealing from their own communities in order to make up the difference. And I really shouldn’t tell you how moronic that was. We, on the other hand, have people like Enjolras and Henri who can fund us directly, and that massive network I mentioned before to generate revenue. The fact that Sanson migrates his concerns for his old group onto us is frankly speaking, a fucking insult of such mind-boggling proportions that I just want to sock the bloated tub of booze and stench in his pox-filled face every time he goes on a paranoid rant.” Eponine’s eyes burned in a contained rage, before calming. “Sadly, Sanson is actually good at his job, so we have to deal with him.”

    “Hm.” Stas sipped at his drink, parsing it all. Even after these months, he didn’t have such a sense of what Libertas did or how it compared to other groups. He hadn’t even really been aware that there were other groups to compare them to.

    He had gathered that Lucian was well-regarded wine merchant who often traveled to Patrician’s estates in order to sell and deliver his high quality wares. And he knew Katriane was well placed among the city’s bread lines, where she helped manage the flow of free grain for a significant portion of the city. And Stas believed he had heard that Romeo’s brother was a master armor smith with connections to other parts of the metal trade. And, of course, everyone joked about Henri’s rich and powerful father, and how much Henri was able to siphon away without the Patrician noticing or caring.

    Stas supposed that the rest of the dozens of people he saw down here in the underground hideout must also be specially chosen in some way. It was hard to imagine, though, seeing as he only knew them in the context of drinking and carousing and arguing about how the most recent chariot race was complete sham and the officials should be executed for presiding over such a mockery of justice.

    Enjolras’s biweekly meetings of revolutionary business did not and could not override Stas’s impressions.

    But, Stas supposed, he never actually saw all these people on the job or acting on missions. Only in their leisure time enjoying the largess of free wine and beer.

    Perhaps it was that juxtaposition that bothered him about Eponine. Seeing her most often in this relaxed environment dulled his sense of what her purpose in the group was.

    He should probably pull the matter back to lighter topics. “So,” he spoke suddenly, to force the awkward discussion away, “were you able to catch my match yesterday? You were speaking about it, but I could not tell if you had acquired a ticket or only heard of it second hand.”

    “You mean the match you threw your sword away and spent cowering back and forth?” Eponine grinned. “Because Lucian was singing praises about your heroic feats, and that could not possibly have been the same as the match I saw.”

    “Hah.” Stas chuckled. “Everything in that match was part of my plan. There was no cowering, only herding and positioning. I had The Tigress dancing to my tune from the very start.” He boasted, letting is well-justified pride surface for all to see. “As for removing my sword, I wouldn’t expect you to know this, as you have little reason to be so well versed in arcanum, but when faced with lightning, metal is not your friend. It is but another source of vulnerability, unless you can interpose some proper shield in between.”

    “Interesting.” Eponine mused. “Is that what they teach at your Gladiator schools?”

    “That and much more.” Stas asserted with a nod. “It is a vigorous curriculum, for both mind and body, to ensure our survival on the treacherous sands of the arena. Fools who fail to take to the lessons will find themselves dead even before the Aedile can make their judgment.”

    “With only four matches to your name,” Eponine mused, “it might take some more time before you prove to be a fool.”

    “I invite you to come watch me, then, to prove myself again and again, until you are forced to admit to my might, in body and mind.”

    “I don’t know...” Eponine demurred with a grin. “So often your matches coincide with the chariot races. I might be interested in watching a superior show.”

    “Hah! Chariot races. Where the horses do most of the work and the riders ineffectually batter against one another from their moving platforms. If watching animals race is your preference, than there is no saving your bad taste. But anything and everything the charioteers do in their miserable moving battles is better done by gladiators in the arena, or even the Venatio.” Stas nodded to himself. “And that is another benefit of the arena. The hippodrome is too specialized, what with its moving platforms and obstacles, for much else in entertainment. But in the arena you can enjoy the gladiators, and the acrobats, and the Venatio.”

    “And the executions.” Eponine cut in.

    Stas frowned. “And the executions. They mark more of a scene break. But don’t pretend prisoners aren’t also trampled in the hippodrome. At least in the arena there is a performance to the act.”

    “The costumes and set pieces are nicer, I will grant. But the unwilling actors are the same.”

    “That may be true.” Stas granted. In truth he often wished the executions could be segregated from the other entertainment. They were a distraction from the skillful displays. Even the charioteers practiced for their sub par events. Executions were simply forced in with nothing by a series of looping story lines to keep the audience from noticing how uninspired they whole productions were.

    “For all that you nag about charioteers, I’m wondering if you have ever been to the hippodrome. I doubt they have any in the provinces.”

    “Of course I have been to a race.” Stas grumbled in affront. “Yes, it is true there are no races in the province. But I have been here for months now. I have had ample opportunity to witness the spectacle.” His peers had dragged him to a few events by this point. His opinions were founded in fact and experience, not bias for his own craft.

    “Oh, so do you have enough experience to have an opinion of the teams?”

    “If you must know,” Stas sniffed, “it appeared to me, quite consistently, that the Blue team had the most skill with their arcanum.”

    “The Blues?” Eponine asked with a tilt of her head. “Not the Reds or the Greens, but the Blues? What a day this is, to find someone who is a fan of the worst team of the three. You a truly a unique specimen, Stas.”

    Stas scowled. “They are not the worst. The Aedile is just biased against them in favor of the Reds. As are the crowds for the Greens.”

    “There’s no need for bias when the team is terrible. Ah, Katriane, come here!” Eponine called out to the woman walking by. “Stas here has admitted to being a fan of the Blues.”

    “What?” Katriane stopped, eyes widened. “That’s adorable. How can you suffer to be a fan of the team that loses all the time? Are you a masochist? A practicing stoic?”

    “I never said I was a fan.” Stas rejected. “I simply said that I believed they were most skilled at using arcanum. And their aim was most on point. Besides, I had heard that they took a championship six years ago.” Alain had been insistent on the point.

    “Six years ago is forever ago. The Blue Team of today is not a contender. Now the Reds...” Katriane began before being interrupted.

    “Enough about your silly Reds, Katriane!” Romeo called from across the room. “It is the year of the Greens! The Greens! I have money on it!”

    And so the room once again erupted in arguments over the chariot teams, much to Eponine’s visible amusement. The eternal conversation lasted for minutes this time, drowning near everything else out. It served as a decent distraction until Enjolras finally emerged from his backroom conversation with Sanson along with said man.

    He took immediate note of the ongoing argument. “Ah, it seems like everyone is quite lively this evening.” There was some satisfaction in his words. “Stas, perhaps we can converse in the backroom where it is a bit quieter. Eponine, if you would come as well?”

    Sanson rolled his eyes, before charging into the room, declaring his undying support for which ever team happened to be on the losing side of the argument today, which turned out to be the Greens today.

    Stas left his empty wine glass on the table and got up to meet with the silver-eyed man. Eponine followed suit. The two of them found their way to the backroom with Enjolras, who closed the door behind him. The drunken argument muffled greatly by the door. It was still audible, but it would not distract them.

    “Thank you, again, for coming, Stas.” Enjolras began. “And I apologize once again for making you wait. Ah, no need to stand, please, sit down. I can have Dion bring you some wine if you would like.”

    Stas shook his head. “I’ve had enough for the moment.” He moved to take a seat but found Eponine had stolen the nearest chair for herself. Offering her a frown, Stas moved the the next chair over and sat. Enjolras joined them after. “What did you wish to see me about?”

    Enjolras nodded solemnly. “Indeed. To say it simply, I have a mission for you, if you are willing.”

    “A mission?” Stas questioned. He had been dutifully attending meetings these past months, but he had yet to participate in any matters of importance. Every time he volunteered Enjolras or Eponine would be quick to state that there were better people for the matter, or that it would be a waste of his time, or an unnecessary risk for a public figure such as himself to be involved in such and such a venture. Enjolras had been quick to assure him that simply keeping an ear out for news from his unique position was already a great boon for the group. Stas could not say he felt the same. He had yet to deliver anything important. No overheard secrets. Nothing that he believed would make any difference. His reports to Enjolras were but rumors and jokes and summaries of the daily drudgeries of training his peers got up to. Nothing of value. Though, from how the silver-eyed man listened in rapt attention to his every word, he might have been tricked otherwise.

    To actually have a mission, Stas felt his excitement growing.

    “It is completely optional,” Enjolras was quick to assert. “I understand if you are not willing to risk your public figure, especially now that your renown is growing. We can find a suitable substitute if necessary.”

    “No.” Stas quickly interjected. “No need for a substitute. I am more than happy to do the mission.”

    “Perhaps,” Eponine offered wryly, “you should wait until you hear the details before you agree so readily? You don’t want to be too eager, after all.”

    Stas offered her a soft glare, which was met by an innocent smile from the dark-haired woman.

    “Indeed,” Enjolras agreed. “I would not ask you to make a decision until you have heard the details. After all, this comes at quite the short notice.” Enjolras coughs lightly. “I won’t waste your time further, so let me explain.

    “I do not know if you were aware, but recently, one of our partner organizations was caught by the watchers. We learned of the watcher’s intention with very little time to spare, and were able to provide warning in time as well as divert enough of the watcher’s attention on the night of the planned assault. Most of our partners were able to survive.”

    Stas had indeed heard bit of this. The specific details had escaped him, but quite a few individuals had been patting themselves on the back for a job well done last month.

    Enjolras continued. “Unfortunately, while we managed to save lives, the organization itself is not in any position to continue acting. The surviving members have been driven underground, their hideout destroyed, and their operations complete dismantled. And that is not going into the impact of those we were unable to rescue in time. This represents a particular problem for us, as this group was the source of a vast majority of our Elixirs.”

    Stas frowned. “I can see why that is a problem.”

    Enjolras nodded solemnly. “Indeed. It is a painful blow, beyond the deaths alone.”

    Eponine cut in. “Obviously, we’ve been searching for an alternative. It’s not like we can put our friends back in working order or continue operations without Elixirs. Even with money, that’s not something you can just buy, you know? So we have been looking into alternative sourcing.”

    Enjolras continued. “We believe we have found a possible partner, and we are looking to meet with them this very evening, to start the process of securing a deal. Usually, this would be a matter I would handle on my own. Meeting with partner organizations and arranging deals is a big part of my day to day. But those in the black market Elixir trade tends towards… a more cutthroat inclination.”

    “Violent, immoral criminals.” Eponine asserts. “Scum of the street. If their product wasn’t so necessary they’d find themselves thrown out of the slums.”

    Enjolras frowned. “I wish I could object to that description, but that is the tendency. I have made efforts to find a group that is less objectionable but...” He sighed. “The realities of our needs preclude hoping for the best. It is my hope that any arrangement we broker would curtail the worst offenses. But I am rambling.” He turned back to Stas. “Simply put, I would ask for you to be my bodyguard for this meeting tonight.”

    Stas frowned. “You expect trouble.”

    “Expect it? I have no particular reason to. Even businesses of violence are still businesses in the end. They will not get far by attacking every potential customer. But I do acknowledge it is a possibility. More than that, it is expected. If I were to arrive without a visible guard, I would be signal that I am either naive or that I am not taking them seriously. Both of which portent badly for any deals.”

    “And having a slab of beef like you as a guard might make everything easier.” Eponine added with a smile. “A trained fighter with a proper physique like you is far more intimidating than whatever back alley thug these criminals would use as muscle.”

    “More than that,” Enjolras interjected. “Should something go wrong, and again, I don’t believe it will, nobody would be more suited to all three of us safely delivered from harm. I would have nobody else at my back for this, if the choice were mine alone.”

    Stas swallowed. The amount of trust this man so casually showed was uncomfortable. Did Enjolras know what he could do? He must, by word of mouth or direct witness. Stas wondered if Enjolras had been watching his matches, to be so confident. He found himself hoping it were the case. He did not wish to ask, for fear of disappointment.

    But his mind caught on the particular word choice. “All three of us?” he inquired, eyes darting to Eponine.

    “Correct. I am permitted, though expected might be the more accurate word, to bring two others. So, if you are both amenable, it would be the three of us tonight.”

    “Enjolras to talk, you to stand around menacingly, and me to be the eye candy.” Eponine added, idly inspecting her nails.
    “To ensure matters go smoothly.” Enjolras interjected. “Far more valuable than simple eye candy.”

    “Of course, of course.” Eponine nodded her head sagely. “I can do that as well. I’ll make the most of losing out on my beauty sleep.” She turned to Stas. “I had already agreed, if you couldn’t tell.”

    Enjolras continues. “You would not be expected to speak, unless addressed, nor to act, unless you believe there to be any danger. In such a case, you would act as you see fit, based on your own judgment, no need to ask permission. The meeting is scheduled for late tonight, in some hours time. Do you believe you are up for the task? Will you join us?”
    Stas nodded. “Of course. I will ensure your safety.”

    “Excellent.” Enjolras clapped. “As I said, the meeting is not for hours yet, so please, occupy yourself as you can. I would recommend you avoid drink in the mean time, perhaps enjoy some water and bread to sober up, but I trust you to know your limits better than I would. Unless you have any questions, let us get back to the group. I have a few more meetings to get through before then. We will meet up when it is time to head out. I look forward to working with you, Stas.”
    Stas nodded, and swallowed, unsure of what else to say. Eponine did not waste time heading out of the room, likely to join back into the ongoing argument.

    “Ah, but a moment, Stas.” Enjolras called as he was up to leave. “As a public figure, I know it is important to keep your identity concealed, lest you be recognized. For tonight, I have something for you.” Enjolras moved towards a chest against the wall. He opened it and claimed an item that had clearly been sitting on the top of it.

    “This is for you, Stas. I hope it makes matters easier. Do with it what you wish. Bring it home or store it here when you are not using it, whatever you believe to be more convenient.”

    He handed the item over, allowing Stas to appraise it. It was a mask, ornate, and decorated. The front a mixture of gold and silver, stylized with the simple symbol of Libertas, the same insignia that marked the shield. On the back smooth cloth and padding promised a comfortable fit, the sash to secure it silken.

    Stas tested it against his face. It rested comfortably, without adjustment. It was built for him.

    “It is a shame to gift someone with a tool for the work you make them do, but I hope it is helpful.”

    “Ah...” Stas, once again, was left speechless. “Thank you.” How much money had such an item cost? How long did it take to make? When had Enjolras commissioned it? Stas did not know the answers to these questions, nor could he vocalize them.

    Enjolras offered a soft smile. “Let our first mission together be just as fine.” And, with a nod, he left the room.

    Stas followed shortly after, mask grasped tightly in hand.
     
  22. Threadmarks: Nineteen
    HypoSoc

    HypoSoc Time, once consumed, has no meaning

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    Stas, Eponine, and Enjolras wound their way out of the hideout’s tunnels, following a path Stas had neither followed before nor had any indication of its existence. The quieting laughter of a dying party echoed behind them. Few remained in the hideout bar this late. The necessities of sleep had made their call for all who worked an honest labor. And the dying crowd held lesser sway for those who remained. Stas would feel the consequences in the morning, should this moonlit meeting last long into the night.

    They walked in silence and with purpose, lit only by the dim lights of the flame-less torches that lined the underground passageway.

    Stas wondered if the torches were built into the wall or if they could be moved. Perhaps one could be transplanted to the arsenal Henri frequented. A bit of darkness in the tunnels would be more than made up for by the added safety of the skittish young man no longer using his magic lighter in the volatile area.

    Stas did not voice his thoughts. Stas was sure Henri would have brought the matter up before if it were feasible.
    So, he walked in silence, his new mask sitting comfortably on his face. The weight required a small matter of adjustment, but he had quickly learned to compensate for it. Rather, his attention was focused on trying to track his location with the veiled city above. It was a difficult task, as disorienting as spending hours below ground made it to be, but he did feel he had some sense of the matter, if only compared to the few exits he knew existed. Such informed him that they were heading to the east. If he was not mistaken, that is. It did seem to be a part of the city he was unfamiliar with, and the tunnel itself longer than the others he knew of.

    They were not underground for very long. It had been perhaps six city blocks all told. At the end of the tunnel was not a magical staircase as Stas had been accustomed, but a simple rope ladder, dangling from the tunnels ceiling. Its swaying shadow in the flickering lights drew his attention. The ceiling was dark, and Stas could not see how far of a climb the rope represented.

    It could not be a long one. They were not so far underground, nor had their travel through this tunnel been sloped downwards.

    Enjolras took the rope with no hesitation, climbing up with as steady a pace as they had traveled. Eponine followed, leaving Stas with the rear. When Enjolras reached the top, not even fifteen rungs up, he pressed his hand upon the ceiling. It slid away from his palm, silently, allowing the silver-eyed man to climb through.

    Once situated, he extended his hand for Eponine, and helped pull her up. After she had moved out of the way, his hand extended once more.

    Stas hesitated, the flickering lights barely illuminating the man’s smooth skin. Stas’s eyes tracked it, wondering, foolishly, if Enjolras would think less of him for accepting.

    And it was foolish, Stas knew. Enjolras was well aware that Stas would have no difficulties climbing the rest of the way on his own. It was hardly more difficult than the ladder climb itself. If anything, refusing the offer freely given would be the worse option.

    So Stas extended his own hand and found it clasped in Enjolras’s firm grip. Enjolras did not possess the callouses of a farmhand or a trained fighter. It was obvious from anyone who saw him. But his grip was firm and sure, reassuring and supportive. His hands were warm against Stas’s clammy skin. He worried, for a moment, if his hands were too cold, or his palms too sweaty. Again, it was nonsense.

    Supported by Enjolras, Stas pushed himself up the last few steps, ensuring to never put too much weight on his supporter’s offered arm. Once out, he was able to make his observations of the room they found themselves in.
    Or rather, he failed to. The building was completely unlit, darker still than those dim tunnels below. Eponine was but a silhouette in front of him, as was the man whose hand he was grasping.

    He let go immediately, stepping aside to recover a polite distance.

    He heard more than he saw Enjolras kick at something, and the trap door slid shut, blocking off the last vestiges of light.
    Despite the dark, the silhouette of Enjolras fearlessly made his way across the pitch dark room, and pulled on what must be the door. There cool outside air pressed onto them, and the torch-lit and starlit night provided a modicum of illumination. Stas allowed his eyes to adjust, before following Eponine and Enjolras outside.

    He did not recognize this part of the city. With the little light, he did not know if he should. But the cobblestone was well paved, not ramshackle and the building outlines stood proud, not decrepit. This was not the high rise of the Patrician’s district, but neither was it the slums.

    From the east down the road, a horse-drawn cart cantered onward. It’s driver held his reins in one hand and lantern in the other. With such a bright light near his eyes, he would not be able to make out their three faces, but still Stas felt the need to duck away. He remembered his mask after a moment, and found relief in its presence, but the inclination did not pass.

    What stayed his feet though, was Enjolras. Rather than duck back, the man boldly stepped forth, into the cast light of the teamster’s lantern. The horses slowed, as the driver bid them the halt.

    “Rupert,” Enjolras greeted softly, with a slight bow of his head.

    “Enjolras.” The gruff man replied in a whisper, a nod in return. His eyes flickered from Enjolras to Eponine to himself, catching for a moment on his mask. His attention returned to Enjolras without further delay. “Get in the back now, quickly if you would. Don’t want to be seen stopping.” His whispered voice did not carry much, almost inaudible compared to the horses’ shuffling.

    Enjolras nodded, and waved Stas and Eponine over. “Our gracious ride is here.” He explained, pulling at the tarp that covered the back of the cart. Unlike the usual tower of goods these vehicles tended to cart back and forth, there was a gap in the center. It would be room enough for the three of them, if a tight fit.

    Stas climbed on first this time, with a quick heave to get up and over the large gab. He offered his hand to Eponine to follow. She allowed him to pull her up, perhaps requiring it given the awkwardness of the arrangement.

    When he offered his hand once more, Enjolras did not hesitate to grab it. And so Stas found himself on the opposite side of the moment he had experienced just before, himself supporting the silver-eyed man. In many ways he preferred it.
    Enjolras released his hand quickly, calling out to the driver that they were all secured. He brought the tarp back over all of them. The cart started moving. It picked up speed in short order.

    By silent consensus, the two men allowed the smaller woman to have some bit of the cramped space to herself. That, of course, resulted in Stas and Enjolras being pressed together, almost touching. Every jostle of the rapidly accelerating cart forced them into contact.

    Stas found himself stiffening every time. He could not see how Enjolras was reacting.

    Nobody spoke in the carriage. Nor did the cart driver provide commentary. Under the tarp there was nothing to see. The only sounds were the creaks of the cart and the exertion of the horses, interspersed with the rattled of what must be other carts.

    Stas’s hands fidgeted in the idleness. He tried to follow their path by feeling for their speed, trying to examine each jostle to sense if it marked a turn on the often narrow streets of the city. Sometimes it was obvious, and the rapid change in bumpiness a sure sign of a new road of lesser quality. Other times he found it impossible to tell.

    His mental map failed him very quickly, and he found himself with nothing to do but wait.

    Patience is difficult as anticipation grew, but Stas found himself able to manage. The experience was akin to waiting for a match.

    A particularly large shake of the cart saw the back of his head slam into the crate he was leaning against.

    He quickly amended his thought. It was far more annoying than any pre-battle waiting. Even so, he could handle it. He focused himself inward, listening to his breathing.

    Some time later, after covering what must have been a good fourth of the sprawling city, the cart halted. And, unlike the last for times where the horses stuttered and the cart shook wildly as the driver was forced to wait for another cart to pass, it was accompanied by a gentle tap on the tarp.

    Enjolras wasted no time in pulling the covering away, allowing them to see once again.

    “You’re here.” The driver announced with a whisper. “Out quickly, now.”

    “Thank you, Rupert.” Enjolras offered with a nod. He grabbed something from the back of the cart, which garnered no comment from the driver. He jumped down from the cart, the item secured in his hand. With the small bit of lighting, Stas realized it was an unlit lantern much like the one the driver was using. “I’ll ensure the rest of your payment makes its way to you in the next few days.”

    “I’ll hold you to it.” The man replied, but there was no hostility in his voice. Nor did the man comment on the purloined lantern despite having a clear view of it. Stas realized Enjolras must have arranged for the device as well.

    Stas jumped down next, before helping Eponine to the ground.

    Enjolras helped the driver reset his tarp and, with a final, mutual nod, the man drove off.

    Enjolras took a deep breath. “We are still a few blocks from the meeting place, but we are set to arrive right on time. It should be good to stretch our legs, I would think.”

    Eponine rolled her shoulders. “I’ll say.” She turned to Stas. “This part of the city doesn’t have much Watcher presence, so we don’t need to worry so much about being spotted. We’re more likely to run into muggers. But do keep an eye out for them, just in case.”

    “For muggers too?” Stas questioned, eyes peeling around. This part of the city was definitely more run down than where they had started the trip. Though hard to see in the moonlight, the buildings seemed to be rotten in parts. Off to the side he could clearly see the dozing form of a homeless man on the ground, back up against a wall.

    “No lone mugger would target a group of three.” Eponine asserts. “And the people we are meeting are the muggers who would work together. This is their territory.”

    Stas frowned, but accepted the words. He would assure their safety regardless. This was his first mission and he wouldn’t dare mess it up.

    “Try to keep such assertions to yourself when we meet.” Enjolras chided. “They are making a show of civility in meeting with us, so we should respect it.”

    “Respect it, right,” Stas imagined Eponine was rolling her eyes, but he could not see well enough be confident in his judgment. “Well, I suppose it is inaccurate to call them muggers. If they are moving into Elixir manufacturing and distribution then they would be a little more organized than that base rabble.” She exhaled loudly. “If there is one big disappointment in my life, it was learning how much of a bore common criminals are. They definitely fail to live up to the stories.” She offered what Stas believed to be a grin in his direction. “Thankfully Gladiators might be living up to the hype. But it is hard to say for certain.”

    “We can’t dawdle forever.” Enjolras asserted, though his eyes seemed to be locked to the homeless man. “While showing up too early is a problem, showing up late can cause even bigger issues. So let’s head to the meeting point.”

    As he said it, he headed towards the alleyway, right past the homeless man. As he passed, he quietly knelt down and left a handful of coins, which he hid from obvious view. The man would be well positioned to see them when he woke up.

    Stas regretted his lack of money. He could not contribute to this exchange. A good man would have contributed without comment, as Enjolras so deftly demonstrated.

    Eponine huffed at his display, walking past, further to the alley. Enjolras asserted his lead quickly, leaving Stas to scope out any potential threats. Only after they had made their way past the sleeping man did Enjolras light the lantern.
    The hooded device shown forth, lighting their way.

    “Is a light necessary?” Stas questioned quietly. It did make traveling on the uneven street less treacherous, but it would make them very easy to spot.

    “As Eponine mentioned, there are few Watchers in this part of the city. And, more than that, there is no curfew to be concerned about this far from the central districts.” Enjolras answered, voice low but clear. “If anything, we want to be seen. Those that would notice us are likely to be associated with our potential supplier. Arriving openly is polite in these circumstances. Though polite might not be the best word for it. Perhaps it would better be considered as ensuring we aren’t raising tensions, compared to the alternative.”

    Stas caught the sound of rustling clothes, and saw in the corner of his eye a small shadow darting away. He tracked it as it fled down an alleyway but made no move to pursue.

    Enjolras nodded in the direction of the fleeing shadow. “Indeed, I suspect they will be amply forewarned of our arrival.”
    “Good. I’d hate to be stuck waiting for them.” Eponine grumbled. “I wonder if they even have a clock.”

    “I doubt they would be comfortable arranging a night hour of appointment if they did not have some way to tell the time. A water clock at the very least.” Enjolras swung his lantern out to examine a building, some warehouse that seemed near identical to all the others, in Stas’s eye at least. But there must have been something to distinguish it for Enjolras, as he nodded at it. “Ah, here we are, I believe.”

    Enjolras moved to open the door, but Stas intercepted. He interposed himself first and made to examine the situation. After determining it was safe, he checked inside the building.

    There was no one there.

    “It is empty. Should they not be here waiting for us?” He questioned.

    “No, this is supposed to be some facsimile of neutral ground. I imagine they were not keen on having us learn of their headquarters's precise location. I cannot say I would be keen to visit regardless.” Enjolras entered the near empty building, and sat himself fearlessly on a pile of straw, keeping the lantern on his lap. He removed its hood, letting it shine freely across the open area. “I do not expect to be kept waiting for long.”

    Stas and Eponine situated themselves near him. Eponine took a seat herself, imperiously leaning back to stare at the ceiling. Stas himself remained standing, eyes peeled around the room.

    It was a simple warehouse, filled with straw, a single, broken cart, and not much else. It reminded him greatly of the first entrance he had visited when going to Libertas’ hideout. He wondered if this warehouse, too, had a secret entrance concealed within.

    In consideration, partially buildings like this must be common around the city. Otherwise the entrance would stick out for its unusual nature. Stas considered for a moment why the homeless individuals were not making use of the free space and relative comfort of straw. Something must be keeping them out.

    He considered asking why that would be, but given the silence of his two companions, he did not feel comfortable talking. He was to be a bodyguard for this mission. It was more important to ask the part than to sate his idle curiosity.
    So, he waited.

    As Enjolras predicted, the doors slammed open soon after their arrival. Three men entered the building, two burly men in ragged clothes holding a lantern and an ugly wooden club between them, followed by a taller, thinned man whose eyes appraised the room.

    The weapon was pitiful, almost inconsequential in Stas’s eyes. From the men’s builds, it was obvious they were laborers, not fighters, lowering Stas’s estimate of them further. Perhaps in a context of stacking crates he might be concerned about their hulking masses, but in any real fight they were irrelevant. If conflict emerged, the only thing Stas would need to worry about was preventing the lanterns from setting a fire.

    Any actual danger would come in the form of an ambush. Stas focused his attention on staying on the lookout for such.
    Enjolras rose to greet them. “Mister Sartre, I am glad you found the time to meet with us.” He steeped forth, hand extended.

    The club-wielding man interposed, glaring menacingly. Stas himself stepped forward to meet the thug, but Eponine’s hand on his shoulder stopped him. Stas allowed himself to be pushed back, Enjolras himself stopping in place. The thug stopped as well when Enjolras halted.

    “Feh.” The taller man rolled his eyes and spat to the straw. “Save the niceties for Patricians, brat. And don’t have any misconceptions about this meeting. I don’t want anything to do with the sort of nonsense you represent, the sort of trouble people like you might bring for me and mine. In any other circumstances, this wouldn’t be happening. But my nephew vouches for you, so I can at least hear you out before slamming the door in your face.”

    Stas bristled, but Enjolras held firm. “Ah, how is Quentin doing?” Enjolras offered warmly. “It has been some weeks since we have had the chance to converse. Last, I heard, his wife had graced him with a little girl. Gabrielle, was it?”
    “He’s fine,” the man, Sartre, huffed. “And I’d tell you to keep your nose out of it if I thought it would do any good. People like you, organizations like yours, it’s bad business all around.”

    “I wonder if you may have some misconceptions as to our group and our aims. I am happy to address them if you believe it necessary.” Enjolras offered with a smile. “Or, as you indicated, we can skip to the meat of the business, if that is your preference.”

    “I don’t have any misconceptions,” the man’s eyes narrowed. “I know exactly who you are, and exactly what you want. You think I don’t have access to that information? You think I’m some sort of small time who can’t keep track of who my competitors were talking to? Who got them wiped out?” He spat again, and the man wielding the wooden club palmed at it. “Let me make this clear. I’m not some moron like Varne was. I’m not going to be swayed by some whimsical cause, or pitiful calls to aid my fellow man. I am not going to end up dead like him, and you can bet your ass that I am not going to divert my hard earned money and product into donations for your little group. If that is what you are looking for, you can get the fuck out of my territory.”

    This time, Stas couldn’t hold himself back. “I fail to see why you would agree to this meeting if you are so dead set on refusing everything. Is your time so worthless that you think nothing of wasting ours? You talk about money, but we all heard how your breath hitched when talking about your competitor. Are you just a coward afraid that the Watchers might seek you out for the crimes you already commit?”

    “You shut your fucking mouth, brat.” The man with the club rumbled, brandishing his weapon high. The lantern holding man stood back, silent, observing. Stas updated his appraisal. In a fight, the one with the lantern would be the greater threat.

    “Your form is pathetic.” Stas spat at the man. “Have you ever held a club in your life? Is your plan to just hide behind the thing and flail it around wildly in the hope you might actually hit something? It’s just going to fly out from your fingers as soon as you swing it. Worthless. A coward guarding a coward.”

    Stas held himself strong, and found silent joy when the club-wielder flinched under his glare. He really would be easy to demolish. Stas wouldn’t even need to use his knife. His fists alone would make for a quick victory.

    He moved to step forward, to capitalize on the weakness, but found a hand placed once again on his shoulder.

    Rationality reasserted itself, as did shame. He was supposed to stay silent, but he had allowed himself to make a scene of himself.

    It was the wine, he wanted to blame, and the late night. But deflecting blame didn’t change the fact that he had acted against his instructions. But did those instructions even matter when this insolent criminal was refusing to even discuss matters?

    Sartre took a deep breath, eyes locked with Enjolras. “Your guard has quite the mouth on him. Quite a whiny little dog you have. Not that I would expect more from little kids playing dress up, pretending they are heroes.”

    Enjolras remained serene in the face of the insults, from what Stas could see from this poor angle at least. Was he intentionally letting him speak?

    “Your masked dog is correct on one matter. This is a waste of time. But I made a promise to my dear nephew that I would hear you out, so here we are. I’ll hear you out, then I will have to escorted out of my territory. Easy enough.”

    The situation was too frustrating. Seeing his first mission failed for no reason but for a stubborn thug. Stas had already spoken his tongue. He did not hold it back again. “Setting up a meeting in bad faith, I can hardly understand why you even care to pretend to keep your promise.”

    This time, Sartre’s eyes left Enjolras’s. His glare turned to focus on Stas’s masked form. “Deluded kids like yourself only care about what sounds nice, but in the business world, a man’s word is his everything. Nothing, absolutely nothing, is more important than keeping your word once given. In this shitty world you can’t trust anything or anyone. Not a single fucking thing can be relied on. All a man can do is ensure his will is followed and his promised are kept no matter what, lest he drown in all the shit.” Sartre spat, an ugly, hawking bit of phlegm fell to the straw below. “Fuck you for implying my word isn’t gold. I promised I would hear and consider what you want. But when what you want is something I am never going to give, I don’t need to consider it for long before making up my mind. I’m a business man. I will always put my business first.”

    It was here that Enjolras asserted himself, with all the calm of a man whose plans were proceeding as smoothly as he liked. “Of course, Mister Sartre. That is a perfectly reasonable position to take. I understand if you have no desire for indulging in acts of charity or something as ephemeral and abstract as arbitrary cooperation agreements. While I would gladly enjoy such a relationship, it was not my intention tonight to request such from you. Rather, my hope was, and is, to form a business partnership. Not only between ourselves, but also with some other parties you might be interested in.”
    Sartre did not seem convinced by the words in the slightest, but he did not interrupt.

    Enjolras took the tacit permission to continue. “Like with your nephew, I make a point to try to make friends of all sorts in this grand city, from those in position of great privilege, like yourself, to those in troubled times. In my correspondence, I am often in a position to identify problems and opportunities in equal turn. After learning of your new business expansion from Quentin, I realized that another friend of mine might be in a position to help you.”

    “Cut to the chase.” Sartre grumbled.

    “Ah, yes. To put it bluntly, one of my friends holds a position of executive control over an unofficial sewage treatment facility in the far south of the city, one with, admittedly, only minor throughput, but, consequentially, even less oversight from the city’s government.”

    The criminal rolled his eyes. “You think we have a problem with raw materials? Really? That’s your proposal? I may be new to this aspect of the business, but I am practically rolling in untreated product. Everywhere you go, people are jumping at the chance to sell, and even if they weren’t I can harvest myself as a part of normal operations.”

    Enjolras remained undeterred. “I do not claim that you have trouble securing your supply line. You wouldn’t be expanding into the elixir trade if you were not in a secure position. But, as a businessman, clearly you are able to see the advantages of such an arrangement. Working with my contact would provide you with a supply that is safer, more secure, and subject to far less scrutiny. To say nothing of it being cheaper that some of your usual sources would be. I am aware of the underground market. From a pure profit margin perspective, having access to sewage is objectively superior, if you have the proper contacts.”

    Sartre paused, seemingly in deep thought. He exhaled sharply. “Fine. I’ll grant that would potentially be helpful. But you aren’t the treatment manager, you’re just a middleman. And organizing a meeting is barely more than nothing. It is definitely not worth free elixirs. It is not even worth a discount. Not when I can figure this out for myself.”

    Enjolras held up a hand in a placating gesture. “Of course, of course. I wouldn’t dream of assuming something so momentary would be worth anything tangible.” The continued show of humility bothered Stas greatly, but he refused to make matters worse by interrupting again. Not now that Enjolras had managed to get matters back on track. “No, Mister Sartre. What I wish is to secure the right of first purchase of your elixirs from you.”

    Sartre blinks. “What?” The simple lack of comprehension painted the word with a long brush.

    “Ah, allow me to elaborate.” Enjolras struck, employing the calm he had engendered this whole conversation. “You wish to sell your product. And we are in the market to buy Elixirs in bulk. Allow us to be your primary customer, then. Whenever you are able to produce a batch, all that we ask is that you let us know, so that we can purchase them from you. At the full price you set. No discount or donation involved. I can assure you our need is great and our coffers are not empty as of yet. If, at a time, we do not elect to purchase your wares, you would be perfectly free to sell your product to someone else. We simply wish for the opportunity to buy them first.”

    The criminal paused, lips pursed. He seemed to be considering the matter. “That’s what your offer, then? In exchange for setting my group up with that sewer treatment manager of yours?” There seemed to be a simple lack of comprehension in the man’s eyes, fueled by distrust. He was looking for an angle, Stas believed. The man seemed to be convinced that Enjolras was trying to make a fool of him, and was bothered by the fact that he could not, for the life of him, figure out the method.

    Obviously Enjolras had no angle. Anyone with eyes could see that the man preferred honest deals in good faith. Stas found himself pitying the scum, who seemed incapable of believing that others might choose to act with common decency.

    “Indeed.” Enjolras confirmed. “You would secure a consistent customer. We enjoy a consistent supplier. And my friend gets to benefit from the fruits of whatever deal you strike with them. It is a good deal for everyone involved.”
    Sartre grunted, eyes narrowing. “And that’s all you want? Not a speck more?”

    “Ah,” Enjolras scratched the back of his neck, in a little show of embarrassment. And it was a show, Stas knew, as the man had nothing to be embarrassed about. Not compered to the slime he deigned to deal with. “I will admit that I have some additional hopes for the benefits of dealing with a group in your position. As you might imagine, we sometimes find ourselves in possession of… raw Elixir materials, as it were. Not often, nor lightly, but it occurs enough that it would be helpful to have a proper disposal process. With Mister Varne’s group no longer in the picture, we no longer have clean arrangements.”

    “We are not a fucking clean up crew.” Sartre spat. “And I’ll be fucking damned if you treat us like one. We aren’t taking any of your fucking heat. We aren’t going to accept any of your shitty residue.” Despite the clear anger in his voice, he seemed calmer now. Likely he was satisfied for having caught Enjolras’s ‘ploy,’ even if Stas didn’t understand what the man assumed was happening.

    Again, Enjolras raised his hands. “Of course, of course. We would not dream in requesting anything of you that you raise your profile. Despite what you may have been led to believe, we are perfectly capable of discretion. In our arrangements with Mister Varne, we took great strides to assure there was no additional scrutiny due to our… materials. Their unfortunate discovery was not caused by our relationship, I can assure you. It truly is no different than the sort of deals you manage with your own suppliers. You could simply consider us another seller in this matter, if an inconsistent one. We would not even require money in the exchange, as we would be immediately placing it towards the purchase of your final product.”

    “I’m not going to discuss this right now.” Sartre asserted. “Nothing like this is even close to being on the table tonight.”
    “I understand. Such would only be a possibility after our partnership, should we develop one, is well-established. But if I may ask about the larger arrangement?”

    “I am not making any deals tonight.” Sartre placed the full weight of his words on the ‘not.’ “I am not making any promises. What I will do is look into that ‘friend’ of yours. If I don’t like what I see, that is the end of this. Done. If I think it might be useful to my business, I will consider matters. Consider them.” He reemphasized. “I am making the decision that is best for me and mine. None of your wants compare to it.”

    “I would ask for nothing more. Shall I inform my friend to get in contact with your group? It would be more convenient, I imagine, if you were able to meet in your own territory.”

    Sartre chewed his lip. “Do so. Before the end of the week.” He ordered. As if he had the right to make demands. “And now that you’ve said your piece, get the fuck out of my territory. My man will escort you out.” He snapped, and the lantern man stepped forth.

    Enjolras bowed his head once more. “We will not tarry. Thank you, once again for seeing to us.”

    Sartre grunted, turning away and out the building door, the club-wielding man following after, his eyes locked on Stas searching for any movement. The lantern man himself kept his watchful eyes peeled on the three of them. Only after the sound of Sartre and his lumbering thug’s footsteps faded away did he make for the door, motioning for the three of them to follow.

    They did so, and allowed themselves to be led by the man some number of blocks down. Once again they found themselves near the homeless man.

    The lumbering man grunted, and gestured vaguely.

    “We appreciate the escort, sir.” Enjolras offered. “And bid you good evening.”

    The man said nothing in return. He simply turned back and lumbered onward.

    After he had left, Enjolras exhaled with a nod. “I believe that went well. Come. Rupert should be circling around in thirty minute increments. We would be best served to make it to our meeting point before we miss the next one.” He set his lantern forth, to shine the way. “We can talk on the way there. I don’t believe we will disturb anyone.”

    Stas frowned. “Was that it? I was expecting...” he did not know what he was expecting, exactly. But suffice to say if he were forced to predict his first mission, he would have been imagining something far more eventful.

    He steeled himself in an instant. The night was not over yet, and he would be a fool to lower his guard at the last minute. But no matter where he searched, the night seemed devoid of danger.

    “Something more exciting?” Eponine offered. “I’m with you. That would be far more interesting than watching fools pretend to know what they are doing. Sadly, a vast majority of missions go smoothly. That’s why we take the time to plan them out.”

    “I just feel as if I didn’t do anything…” Stas uttered. More than that, he was concerned he had made matter worse for his presence. It didn’t matter that Enjolras had managed to speak his piece by the end, Stas might have made the task more difficult by speaking up.

    “Have no worries, my friend.” Enjolras spoke with a soft shake of his head. “Just because you were not forced to employ your skills did not mean you weren’t necessary. The risk existed regardless of the results. And, more than that, I believe that your words served our aims in the end, so do not feel ashamed for having spoken up.”

    Stas swallowed. Of course Enjolras had been aware of his actual concerned. He was the sort to see through people quickly. But Stas could not take the words to heart, as Enjolras was also a man who saw the best in everything, no matter what. He was too kind to scold Stas for his failure.

    “It did keep there eyes off of me,” Eponine added, “which definitely helped. I doubt those wastes of space had any sense of what I was doing, but distracting them made it easier.”

    Stas blinked. “What were you doing?”

    “Ensuring everything worked smoothly.” Eponine shrugged. “Messing with their memories. Changing up what they remember happened. The three of us know what really happened, and, thanks to you, I didn’t need to mess with club and lantern much at all. But that wanna-be crime boss was mine from the start. By tomorrow, he will be positively convinced that he managed to pull a big one over a bunch of naive Patrician brats. He’ll be positively giddy over how much he thinks he’ll be fleecing us for.”

    Stas couldn’t imagine why she would want that outcome. “Why would you do that?” he decided to inquire.

    “People who think they won are less likely to go back on a deal,” she explained. “That goes double for criminals. They assume there is only ever one winner in every deal. If they believe they managed to swindle the other person, they will be quite happy to ensure everything goes smoothly. But if they are worried they might have lost somehow, they will squirm and fight it every step of the way. We can’t trust jerks like Sartre to keep to anything, but we can trust them to act in a particular way under particular circumstances.”

    “I greatly prefer to deal honestly.” Enjolras added. “And the deal, despite what Mister Sartre might believe of it, is a fair one. But for matters like this, it is safer to take advantage of our skills to ensure matters move apace.” Enjolras shook his head. “It really is a shame that Mister Varne is no longer with us. If this were near anything but Elixirs, I would take the time to find a partner that we know would treat with us fairly, without Eponine’s prompting. But I am not so foolish to believe someone like that could be found in the time span we require. Not when it comes to elixirs.”

    Stas frowned in thought. “What is so special about elixirs anyway? I know that the city controls its production, and trying to make your own is an executable offense. But why are black market elixir makers worse than the thieves or back alley bookies we work with?” And another matter occurred to him. “And what does it have to do with sewage treatment?”

    “You don’t know?” Eponine asked with honest surprise. “I know the city goes out of its way to prevent plebeians from learning about it. But I assumed gladiators like you were in on the secret. After all, you actually work with the stuff.”

    “No. I do not know.” Stas asserted. “We are only taught to make use of them. Not how they are produced.”

    “Ah...” Enjolras frowned deeply. “Well, there is no value in keeping it a secret. Though there are many ingredients involved in the process, most of which are known only to the official production centers, the primary component is human remains.”

    “What.”

    “I am not perfectly familiar with the mechanics myself,” Enjolras continued. “The black market keeps their processes a secret as much as the city government does. But I am aware that human corpses are required for primary production. Human excrement, in vast quantities, can serve as a partial substitute. The result is, apparently, much lower in quality, but for the imperfect recipes that the black market has recreated, it is not much a potency loss.

    “So, at the absolute least, anyone that produces elixirs is in the corpse trade. This usually involves predatory loan schemes with their victim’s bodies placed as collateral. In most cases, the gangs will… source their own corpses, as it were, through their regular violent dealings. And that is to say nothing of the harm done to communities when the destitute are incentivized to turn on one another in exchange for a temporary windfall.”

    Enjolras sighed. “One of my hopes for this deal is to ensure that Mister Sartre’s group has an alternative to their usual trade. Even if they do not sell us a single vial, if they can convert to using waste rather than the more obvious material, even in part, it could lead to some good for the community. But I don’t delude myself into ignoring the nature of the beast.

    “That is perhaps, one of the greatest crimes of the Senate. To have not put their all into discovering an alternative to the elixir. To simply accepting its ghastly cost. To not addressing the horrific impacts its offshoots have had on the community.”

    Enjolras had been speaking for a while, but Stas did not have the will to pay attention. “It’s corpses and shit?” He uttered in disbelief. “Corpses and shit?”

    “Don’t worry, Stas.” Eponine patted him on the back in reassurance. “The official stuff you would have imbibed wouldn’t have the excrement, and is refined beyond belief. Very clean, unlike the dredge the black market makes. You’re fine.”

    “It doesn’t matter how much they clean it,” Stas squawked. “That doesn’t change what it is?” Never in his life had Stas been so grateful that he did not require elixirs for his magic. Never in his life had he been so regretful for trying out ‘normal’ arcanum in the past. If he had even had the barest hint of what the elixirs actually were…

    Eponine tutted. “You aren’t the first to have that sort of reaction. If you want, I can make you forget about it. Do you think that would help?”

    Would it help? Stas considered for a moment. In some ways he wanted nothing more than to go back to simple ignorance, when elixirs just were potions that happened to exist, and where his entire industry wasn’t based on magical cannibalism.

    Except, more than that, he was worried that if he did forget somehow, he might make the mistake of actually drinking an elixir in the future. And that was unacceptable.

    He vowed to himself that he would never drink an elixir ever again. And the only way to ensure he would keep that vow would be to make sure he knew why he made it.

    “No.” He decided, without giving further explanation.

    “Suit yourself.” Eponine shrugged. “Believe me, I find it as distasteful as you do, but you just have to deal with the world that we live in.”

    “We are here.” Enjolras announced at a street corner, forcing the subject to a halt. “Rupert should arrive shortly.”

    Stas looked forward to putting this far too long night behind him. Perhaps, once he got back to his bed, his thoughts would no longer be consumed by corpses and shit.
     
  23. HypoSoc

    HypoSoc Time, once consumed, has no meaning

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    Trying to write for word count definitely leads to bulked up chapters. The last three chapters probably could have been one or two given the actual plot content.

    But that's fine. It is a process, to write down literally everything and only remove the most egregious, and I am making more progress than I would otherwise.

    When I am actually finished with it all, I will go back with a hatchet is put the word count in the shredder. Actually typing the words out is only half the work of writing. Editing is the other half. I will leave that half to future me.
     
  24. HypoSoc

    HypoSoc Time, once consumed, has no meaning

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    Question to the few readers: I think the nature of elixirs was one I didn't advertise before this, so, after reading about it, how predictable was it in retrospect?

    As far as setting details, this isn't really meant to be some big, thematic "soylent green is people" situation. I am pretty much following genre conventions, I would say (whatever you might call this particular genre), so if you could predict the "twist" with time to spare, then that is a good sign that I am writing the setting correctly.

    If it was an honest surprise, that would be a fine reaction as well, since it works with the character's point of view.

    The only really "bad" reaction, from my perspective would be if A) it seemed to come completely out of left field, and B) it came across as being gross and grim for pure shock value rather than a matter of the setting being what it was.

    I am interested in what anyone has to say about it, or any other part of the setting/story. Please, feel free to comment.
     
    prandom likes this.
  25. TrueNameArchFrenemy

    TrueNameArchFrenemy Not too sore, are you?

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    I personally had a thought it might be a soylent green situation if only because Von Graft’s whole world is a soylent green situation for himself, and his whole “Consume”/“Graft” aeromancy concept, what with the “ascending”, but that relies a little on polyhistor-verse knowledge that’s perhaps “spoilery” or at least outside this writing’s scope at this point. Didn’t know if it was even secret though, thought maybe it could be a cover for what happens to the bodies of gladiators - “No, No, the Dominus doesn’t /eat/ people, don’t be ridiculous, those people are recycled into magic elixirs, of course”.

    Gonna take a wild stab in the dark as to why they need to use human bodies and guess that it’s necessary to “attune” stuff from the world von graft is using closer to Gaia, under the assumption that for a “universal” magic like geomancy to function partially, as opposed to the normal binary status of yes/no, Von Graft’s world must be right on the border of Gaia, and because the seed humans of von graft’s world are from Gaia, via whatever hydromancy and/or aeromancy Von Graft has, they can be used to shift closer.
     
    Last edited: Nov 20, 2020
  26. VerBlinkel

    VerBlinkel Getting sticky.

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    It seemed pretty "out of left field" to me. Looking back, I can kind of see that if it weren't something like this, the world would look different. Human remains are an effective bottleneck for elixir production. That being said, I don't know what genre conventions you'd be following to have this be expected, but perhaps I merely thought we were in a very different genre. I though this was a character piece with in realistic roman setting and some magic for flavoring. Not the magical cannibalism club.

    I've read all your other work, so I'm aware of the universe that this takes place in. I don't understand how human remains works as a magic potion ingredient effective enough that it's the most widely used source of magic on this world. Von Graft has that one sided rivalry with Kroll right? So he knows about hydromancy and geomancy. I'm assuming that he's not having the people he'll end up grafting learn them because he can't, as some aspect of the world/universe Phobos takes place in. There's been some "hydromancy is weird here" in the story, but I don't think we know why yet.

    So with hydromancy and geomancy out, we have runes and potions left. I suppose runes are hydromantic and geomantic, so they might be out as well. So I see that we're left with only potions, and that's definitely matches up with what we've seen in the writing. I just don't see how human corpses fit into the potions.

    At this point, I know that it's not just because of the grim dark, but only really because I trust you as an author so much. As a reader, I'd want to be able to look back at the story so far and see that this fits in with how the magic has been shown to work and how the society functions. It should be able to explain little mysteries that we've seen along the way, like a puzzle piece that was missing. Maybe it has and I'm just not seeing it, but I don't feel that this explains anything or fleshes out our understanding of why things are the way they are.

    An alternate way of looking at it; if you'd given an alternate bottleneck to elixir production, I think the story so far would have made just as much sense. Everything's terrible because it's ancient Rome (and the god-dictator/head of government that only cares about eating people), not because elixirs incentivize anti-social behavior.

    Overall, I'm really enjoying the story and the writing, but I'm only not in the "bad reaction" for the human remains part because I've read all your other work and trust you.

    Also, I when I was thinking about this, I considered the possibility that this was the universe Von Graft's aeromancy came from. I don't think it's likely, but it raised the question of if people can go to the universe their aeromancy comes from, or does that raise some kind of error in how they function?
     
    Last edited: Nov 20, 2020
  27. HypoSoc

    HypoSoc Time, once consumed, has no meaning

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    This isn't correct, but it's not entirely on the wrong track.

    Well, that is what it is pretending to be on the surface.

    That's not precisely true. Von Graft has zero incentive to let magic be well known. A form of magic that is bottlenecked by state control is beneficial.

    You are correct in your assessment, the elixirs aren't meant to excuse or justify antisocial behavior. It's the other way around: antisocial behavior justifies elixirs.


    I'm wondering if having read my other works might be detrimental to the story. This is meant to be entirely stand alone, even if it does take place in the shared literary world.

    My take away is that, when I go back to edit, I should be more blunt with my hints. This was not the first time the corpse trade has come upm nor the state's desire for execution as their go to punishment.
     
  28. Threadmarks: Twenty
    HypoSoc

    HypoSoc Time, once consumed, has no meaning

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    The days that followed Stas’s first mission with Libertas were uneventful. He kept an ear out for the news, waiting with baited breath for some sign of anything. Sometimes he imagined Sartre’s group becoming obstinate, and needing to be convinced at knife-point to follow through with the deal Enjolras desired. Other times, he imagined the criminal somehow discovering Eponine’s manipulation and going on a warpath, which in turn would see Stas deployed to deal with the issue violently.

    It was only after he thought to actually ask Enjolras that he learned the result: Sartre had agreed to a deal. The group’s elixir supply had been secured once again. The process had been so smooth and uneventful that Stas had been completely unaware of it. Then again, he did not make use of Libertas’s limited supply of sub par elixirs, nor would he ever in the future, so it made some sense that he hadn’t noticed its original disruption or its return to normalcy.

    It did leave him feeling a bit dissatisfied, almost like he was cheated. He couldn’t put a words onto why he felt that way though, as, by all accounts everything had worked out as planned. He had yet to receive another mission from Enjolras, to his immense disappointment, nor did he have any indication that he might be assigned another any time soon.

    He worried that was because he had proven his inability to follow orders in the mission, no matter how much Enjolras had seemed unperturbed. But, thinking of it rationally, he did know that the group simply didn’t require him that often. His month long stint before his first mission was veritable proof. So, he was back to the routine of simply showing up and reporting what little he managed to see and hear.

    His regular life was also continuing apace. Those first few days had been a small struggle. The first time he had seen Alain drinking an elixir in the school’s courtyard, he had to prevent himself from visibly gagging in revulsion. More distressingly, he felt compelled, both by honesty and growing disgust, to let his fellows know exactly what it was they were drinking.
    Rationality stayed his tongue. This was not knowledge he could explain knowing. Moreover, what could actually be done about it? Despite the unsettling nature of the solutions, elixirs and the arcanum they enabled, were an integral part of all of their careers. They could hardly forgo the substances even if they turned out to be a slow-acting poison.

    So, he hid his disgust, shut out the knowledge, and, eventually, found himself able to push the thoughts away. What was a human corpse but a different form of meat, akin to those protein-filled dishes their dietitians served every week and enjoyed with relish. They, like elixirs, were properly prepared to accomplish their goals and remove the possibility of rancid results. It was a helpful rationalization.

    He still would not drink them. Never again.

    His stockpiling of the innocuous glass bottles for the purpose of paying his teacher was a more difficult prospect, but he persevered. Stas wondered if Phobos was aware of the fact. He didn’t know enough about the man to make the judgment. Stas believed, perhaps without reason, that Phobos was a disenfranchised member of a Patrician family, like Enjolras. Plebeians didn’t have access to weapon training, outside of the very few chosen for gladiator schools, like himself, or those inducted into the city’s guard.

    He resolved to ask the man, if only because he didn’t want Phobos to be drinking the substance without proper warning.
    No… other than his ongoing training, his mandated visits to the physician and dietitian, and general day to day mingling with his peers, there really wasn’t much going on, more of a mixed bag than decidedly positive or negative.

    His physician had prescribed him a strange ointment treatment for the persistent soreness in his back, which left his skin feeling itchy and the irritating pain unaffected, which was a source of ongoing annoyance. In contrast the dietitian had set him on a temporary diet of additional fruit and meat portions, which he was enjoying greatly. His next match was scheduled for a week’s time, against an opponent who he did not have reason to believe would be a challenge for him compared to Zola. On the one hand, he was dissatisfied that he would not be permitted a proper challenge from the match. On the other, his undefeated streak would continue, and he was certain to win acclaim against a foe who, from what he understood, was by no means a weakling. His next opponent simply had the misfortune of having no great arcanum that could handle Stas’s magic.

    Perhaps the man would surprise him with his skill. Stas would treat the match with all the seriousness it deserved, but he did not have high expectations.

    So, with such a middling week ongoing, Stas headed out for his scheduled lesson with Phobos, in what would certainly be the tipping point as to whether the week was good or bad on the whole. With a bandoleer of elixirs secured on his person for payment, as well as his knife and the Libertas mask hidden among his effects, he made his way to the statue garden as the sun began to set.

    To his great surprise and even greater annoyance, it seemed like today would be the first day someone else was making use of the area.

    He heard the voices before he saw them, a dry, humorless tone that Stas somewhat recognized, but could not place.

    “The political will exists. I am certain of it. In terms of absolute numbers, those that favor the reforms package outnumber those that are directly opposed.”

    “And those that are ambivalent or apathetic to the issue vastly outnumber either party,” responded another, equally dry, equally humorless voice, near indistinguishable from the first but for a minor distortion in the echoes he could hear, placing it as coming from a different location. “It seems to be a common problem with the Senate as of late. Willful ignorance, mixed with lethargy. Such is the influence of Marcellus and Gratidianus on their respective blocks. Unless and until they make their views known, their followers will not show support for any initiative.”

    “Gratidianus has been attempting to make inroads with Hirtius, though she has, as of yet, rebuffed him out of spite for his stymieing of her research. And Marcellus will not treat with her, as her greatest detractors are among his ranks. My inclination is to advise her to accept Gratidianus’s offers, if for expediency alone. She is well aware of the urgency of her self-appointed mission.”

    “In the short term, that may be a prudent move, but allowing Hirtius to fall into the Antiquiae might lead to her estrangement from our purposes. Moreover, it is unlikely that, even should Gratidianus adopt the reform cause, it will pass with the speed required. The Antiquiae would rather the matter be adopted over the course of a generation, for something of this magnitude. Gratidianus does not have such a stranglehold on his party to overturn their longstanding doctrines.”

    “The Honorae are more prepared to act with the swiftness demanded by circumstances.” The first voice agreed. “And Marcellus is in a better position to corral his detractors. I am, however, hesitant to seek them out in this venture as the first step would be to annihilate any chance of Antiquiae support. Marcellus is fickle enough to make relying on his party a risk, and, as we would be forced to expunge Hirtius’s detractors from the Honorae, they would be less well positioned to fight off the Antiquiae opposition.”

    Stas edged closer, making sure to keep out of sight. He attempted to get a view of the speakers.

    Strictly speaking, he was permitted to be here at this time, but he did not want to be associated with his exit location. Perhaps, if he could determined precisely where among the many bizarre statues the echoing voices were emerging from, he might be able to climb up and get out unseen.

    “It is not sufficient to solve the current crisis if it leaves us in even more dire straits for the next, as you are fully aware. Allowing Hirtius to establish an independent voting block for herself would be ideal.”

    “And yet, the political realities of the Senate preclude such. Both Marcellus and Gratidianus would oppose the emergence of any truly organized opposition to their stranglehold of the Senate. They are content to allow the unaffiliated Senators to act as deciding votes in their feuds, but should they ever properly organize… it would take someone with far greater political prowess than Hirtius to accomplish such. Perhaps this will require direct intervention.”

    Stas took care to reflect to a better vantage point, that he might remain hidden, but see who the speakers were.

    “Direct intervention is always tempting, but does not constitute a stable outcome. External dependencies are akin to a fail state. To say nothing of risking the Dominus’s attention. The city must be self-sufficient and capable of self-governance.”
    Peeking from behind a statue of an elephant cowering from its trainer, Stas was able to see the occupants… or rather the sole occupant. It was quite easy to recognize the flimsy man with strange garb, the Dominus’s Mad Monk. He stood before the statue of the mirror that did not cast a reflection.

    Standing alone in a garden of outrageous statues, arguing with himself. If Stas had held any confusion as to why this man was considered mad, this would quell all doubts. That he would do it alone with no one to witness… it proved he wasn’t just a charlatan living off of the Dominus’s amusement, but someone whose affectation of derangement must have seeped into their mind.

    “Indeed, lest it be incapable of warding off the next.” The monk agreed with himself. “Perhaps it is acceptable to accept this Senate failure, that other investments might succeed. Though I will, all the same attempt to garner the cooperation of either Gratidianus or Marcellus. As for determining which… perhaps an impacted individual might provide some insight.”
    The monk exhaled, and closed his eyes. “Stas, correct? I would ask for your opinion on this matter, from your view as a citizen of the city.”

    Stas froze, bewildered at being called out. The man had not even been looking in his direction, had not shown even a hint that he knew he was being watched.

    The monk turned around, to face Stas’s hiding spot. “Come now, no need to hide. No need to feel concerned about eavesdropping. I was not making an effort to conceal my words.”

    Stas debated simply reflecting away from the garden, to refuse to acknowledge the monk’s words. While the statue garden was the superior exit from the estate, he could always sneak through the forum.

    Except, the monk had called him out directly, by name. He did not know how the monk knew he was present, nor why the monk even remembered his name after their solitary meeting months ago. Stas wondered for a moment if the man was a fan of gladiators enough to know all their names, or if he had a particular reason to recall his name specifically. A man in the Dominus’s court would not have any trouble attending as many matches as he wished.

    And suddenly Stas remembered that the monk was a member of the Dominus’s court, and that his matter of conversation had been about Senate dealings. He owed it to Enjolras to at least attempt to learn something of the court’s ongoing events. This was exactly the sort of matter Enjolras and Eponine claimed he was well positioned for.

    Stas stepped out, looking down. “Greetings,” and he stumbled, realizing that he didn’t know the monk’s name. “Ah, Greetings.” He repeated awkwardly. “I didn’t mean to interrupt your deliberations. I didn’t know anyone visited this statue garden.”

    “Hm. I often come here to speak to myself, when dealing with particular issues. It helps to put my thoughts in order when decisions need to be made.”

    Stas frowned, glancing at the stone mirror statue. “You might want to use an actual mirror if you are speaking with your reflection. Or a pool of water.”

    The mad monk gave a wry grin. “Ah, but I am not trying to speak to my reflection. I am speaking with myself. A reflection is not good for much intellectual debate, though I do understand why you in particular might be of a different opinion.”

    Stas forced himself to remember that the man was possibly mad. Or pretending to be such. All his words needed to be viewed within that context.

    “But that is not a concern at this moment,” the monk continued. “You have yet to answer my question.”

    “I am uncertain what your question is,” Stas replied.

    “Perhaps I should make a habit of speaking to myself more loudly,” the monk mused, “for the benefit of any onlookers. But I shall clarify. A member of the senate has identified a potential crisis in the works and, being a practical woman, has devised a solution to said crisis in the form of a package of legislation. However, the necessary components of her solution involve many proposals that would be unpopular among the Senatorial body, for various reasons for various individuals. As such, even if the nature of the crisis, if not its imminence, is acknowledged by most of the body, she necessarily requires the support of one of the major power blocs if she wishes to see her reforms passed. Her options are to work with the Antiquitae or the Honorae. Which would she be best served in approaching? Lord Gratidianus or Lord Marcellus?”

    “Ah...” Stas floundered under the question, baffled by it. “I do not know enough to make the decision. The matters of the Senate do not concern me, so I do not keep myself informed about them. I am not a Patrician.”

    “Hm,” the monk frowned deeply. “Matters of the Senate impact everyone, not just the Patricians. You, as a citizen, would best be served by keeping abreast of their actions and the politics that move the membership. But for the moment the particulars of the political blocs are unimportant to the dilemma. What you must know is that in choosing the Antiquitae, you would near ensure the crisis not being addressed adequately or in the time required, to the detriment of the populace. In choosing the Honorae, you risk failing completely, and, should you succeed, you would leave the Senate more divided and less capable of addressing future disasters. Which is preferable? A guaranteed inadequate solution or one that risks losing it all now or later?”

    “That… I do not believe I am the one to ask about these sorts of lofty matters. The only analogous situation I know is that it is wise to accept pain in training in the present to ensure victory for the future, and it is similarly wise to accept a blow if it means opening future victory. But...” Stas broached the matter delicately, “does the solution need to come from the Senate?”

    “No,” the monk agreed. “It does not. If the Senate fails to address the crisis, then perhaps the Dominus might step in. Or perhaps the citizenry might handle matters on their own. There are efforts the Plebians can take, to minimize the damage. But ultimately the power for change lies in the hands of the Patricians in this matter. The impacts of overpopulation and famine are difficult for the individual to address, even in large numbers.”

    “Famine?”

    “It’s not secret that the price of grain is rising. That the bread lines are becoming more restricted. At the moment, matters are stable, but one only needs to have a little foresight to consider what would happen if matters got a little worse. Nothing in life is guaranteed. Perhaps the crops will bloom and we will reenter a fertile period. But we must acknowledge possibilities while we still have time to address them.”

    As a matter of fact, Stas had not been aware of rising grain prices. He had no need to buy food for himself, nor did he have money to spend should the fancy somehow take him. And he absolutely had no reason to take advantage of the bread lines.
    Those he met with in the Libertas hideout were similarly well off. If they had been making complaints about the price of food, he had missed them among the regular rabble. Though, if Stas understood the dilemma it wasn’t actually a problem yet, only a potential one?

    It was hard to take the monk seriously, when it seemed the man jumped back and forth between sanity and not. Though his voice remained calm in this discussion, this was the man who had just been talking to himself. And Stas could not forget about his magical claims, which, in the best case were but irrelevant drivel and philosophy, if not outright fraudulent. It really depended on whether the man himself believed in the matter.

    That he would think to ask the opinion of a gladiator for matters of state was not a great sign for the monk’s sanity.

    “You don’t not seem to share my concerns,” the monk mused. “Though I understand that they are abstract from your perspective. You have not immersed yourself in the data as I have. Nor have you felt the pains of hunger, or suffered the indignities of the grain dole. This is not to your detriment. It simply is.” The man’s words were as dry as any other he had spoken. Stas did not have a sense as to what he was driving at. “No matter. I have asked my question and you have answered to your ability. It is only fair that I offer the same in reciprocity. What is your question for me?”

    Stas blinked. The turns of this man were sudden and without any warning. “My question regarding?”

    The monk waved his hand vaguely. “About whatever you wish. In whatever direction your curiosity may direct you. If you have reconsidered my offer about learning how to wield arcanum without elixirs, I am more than happy to offer instruction. Or if there is some other matter that piques your interest?”

    Stas absolutely had no desire to be caught up in the Mad Monk’s act. It remained as much a waste of time now as it was when the man first made an offer. Between his regular training, his matches, his work with Libertas, and his additional training with Phobos, which he really needed to be getting to, his schedule was stretched thin enough already. He doubted any information he might learn through regular proximity with the monk would be worth the time commitment.

    Perhaps he might bring the matter up with Enjolras, to see if he believed it a valuable use of his time. But unless and until he was given a reason to, Stas had no desire to spend time with the man.

    Though, the monk’s declaration of his magical ability did bring a question to mind, about elixirs and how they truly worked. Except, that was supposed to be a secret. Either the man would lie, or Stas might be forced to explain how and why he learned about the source of magic.

    No. It was best to keep this to himself once again.

    But he needed to ask something, if only because it might be the best way to get the monk to leave him be. He considered asking about politics, for the purposes of learning something to bring back to the hideout, but he had no idea as to what to even ask. It was not like he could simply inquire as to what secrets the Senate had going on which would be of particular interest to a revolutionary group.

    Realizing that he was taking too long to answer, Stas jumped to the first thing to come to mind.

    “Where can one acquire magic weapons?” And the first thing to come to mind was a pretty good question. Getting a hold of a magic weapon like Radek’s Sword, or Enjolras’s Shield, or Phobos’s Fishing Hook would be a major boon for his career. If it were iconic enough, it would add to his renown, and help forge his public persona. It would help supplant his title of ‘Blink’ with something better, too. Of course, that assumed the weapon in question was heroic enough. Knowing that a fish hook of all things could be magic did mean there was some unlucky chance he might get a name worse than ‘Blink’ if he just adopted the first one to fall into his hands.

    “Magic weapons?” the monk mused. “If your goal is a weapon that uses elixirs, I imagine the novelty makers in the forum might be able to help you with something along that line. The toy smiths or the artificers will accept commissions. A golem craftsman could possibly put their expertise to use for that purpose. They would be far more expensive to employ but if you sought an apprentice of an amateur, you might find something to your satisfaction. But there is a reason most don’t seek to use such frivolities. Generally, it is far more efficient to imbibe an elixir directly than to feed it to a device, if your purpose is damage and destruction. Those same devices are better served for repetitive tasks of magic that do not require much power.”

    Stas shook his head. “I don’t mean weapons that use elixirs. I mean weapons that are themselves magic.” No rumor about Radek’s sword mentioned elixir use, nor had Enjolras’s shield employed the liquids. And Phobos’s fish hook did not have any room in which you could fit the magic substance. “I have heard of weapons that are perfect to a supernatural degree, whose abilities defy normal arcanum usage. That is what I am interested in acquiring.”

    “Ah,” the monk nodded in understanding. “You speak of Soul Craft.”

    That was reminiscent of how Enjolras had described the unbreakable shield. “That may be the name for it, yes. I do not know much on the topic.”

    “If a Soul Crafted weapon is something you seek, you may never be satisfied,” the monk spoke solemnly. “No one in the city, no one in the history of mankind is skilled enough to intentionally create such an item. It would be better to consider Soul Crafting to be a unique phenomena than a form of craft, a particularly fascinating one at that. If you would allow me to explain...” the monk trailed off.

    Stas realized he was waiting for his approval for some reason, so he gave a nod.

    “The nature of Soul Crafted items is one that very few in this world would have knowledge of. I myself have made an investigation into their nature, but said nature makes for a great difficulty of study. Not just the extreme rarity of the items, but for the circumstances of their creation. Nonetheless, you may consider me to be as much of an expert on the matter as is possible for anyone to be. Much that I seek to describe is, unfortunately conjecture, but it is my best understanding of the facts available.”

    The monk cleared his throat. “When an artisan makes a work… any work, be it a sword or knife as you might seek, or armor, or a cart, or even a toy, when they truly strive for excellence, for making a masterpiece, they put a bit of themselves in their product for their toil. This is mostly metaphorical, though through my studies I have come to believe it may be literal in some sense as well. That is simply the practice of craftsmanship. However, it is possible, in very unusual circumstances, for a craftsman, perhaps struck by a great and powerful inspiration, to put too much of themselves in. They would be struck by a mania, an all-consuming need to make this one work their greatest. Every waking moment would be spent upon it, shunning food or sleep, allowing their mortal shell to waste away for as long as it takes to bring their masterpiece to fruition. They have no choice in the matter, neither in choosing to begin, nor in allowing themselves to stop. And the result is a Soul Crafted work, a perfect example, a masterpiece beyond masterpieces. All at the cost of the craftsman.”

    It all sounded rather fantastical to Stas, but he seemed to follow along with what the mad monk was saying, even if he didn’t put too much stock in trusting its accuracy. “So the craftsman dies at the end?”

    Assuming the monk was speaking the truth, which required both that he knew what he was talking about and that he was not lying about it, and neither of those prospects were strict guarantees, the explanation sort of fit with what he had learned about Elixirs. Perhaps ‘Soul Craft’ was akin to Elixir creation at its core; the source of arcanum derived through human sacrifice. Stas still wasn’t sure what about human corpses allowed normal individuals to perform magical feats, but it stood to reason that the same factor could be employed for magic weaponry.

    “No,” the monk denied, cutting out Stas’s theory by the root. “The craftsman does not die. The soul is not some component of the body, like blood or innards, that its absence is the death of the person. The soul is the person, their fact of existence, their history, their ontology. One’s past, present, and future all reside in the immortal soul. So, to lose it is to erase one’s self from ever having existed. If a Soul Crafted item exists, then its crafter was never born to have created it. The craftsman is not simply removed from the memories of the world. Every action they took, every cascading impact of theirs on the world, every difference that showed they ever existed, is wiped clean from reality, but for the masterwork that now entraps their soul. It is an acausal paradox. From the perspective of the observer, it is as though the item has simply come into existence without explanation. Perhaps the item had always existed, from the observer’s perspective.” The monk offered a small smile. “As I said, it is quite a fascinating phenomena.”

    Stas was not a fool to miss the weakness of the theory. “If Soul Crafted items seem to come out of nowhere with no creator, then how do you explain knowing about the process?”

    The monk’s smile only grew. “Of course, that is the great difficulty of this subject, and why my explanation will forever remain in the realm of conjecture. As a simple necessity of the theory, you would never be able to observe the Soul Crafted item’s creation, never be able to find any evidence, never be able to satisfactorily find proof. Indeed, any proof would serve to disprove the theory. Quite the conundrum.”

    Stas very much held his tongue on commenting about how convenient that explanation was, for ensuring that the monk would never be asked to provide proof for his mad theory.

    “We can, of course, observe the properties of Soul Crafted items, extremely few as they may be, in order to make our guess of their nature. I have had the chance to examine three, myself, from which I was able to ascertain more evidence for their conjecture. For each, as one could have supposed from my theory, their creators were all unknown, which is rather strange in it of itself, as for more ordinary works of great quality, their workmanship alone would attract renown for their creators. Similarly, the history of acquisition is muddled. Though those in possession of the artifacts could explain how they acquired them, tracing matters back further was of great difficulty, despite the ample effort I put into the process. Some of this is but matters of record keeping, as individuals seldom keep track of an item’s history once it has been sold off, but it did lead some minor additional credence to my beliefs.

    “Finally, along with being perfect examples of their nature, the ideal tools for their tasks, to an outright supernatural degree, as you had stated yourself, they are all universally indestructible. No force I could bring to bear was capable of denting or damaging any of the items I examined. Though one might consider this to be a simple consequence of being the perfect tool. If it could break, it would fail to accomplish its task, disrupting the perfection.

    “It is in this observation that I would have the greatest evidence for my theory. After all, what in this world is truly impervious, unchanging, eternal? No simple material has these properties. Arcanum might allow one to mimic them for a time, but always at a consistent cost. And it cannot be something as simple as a human life. Life is fragile. Life is cheap. Life bleeds away in the sands of time. But the soul? The proof of existence? You can end a man’s life with ease, stab them, burn them, bleed them, abuse the tools of war to bring destruction. But there is nothing you can do, though the mundane, nor the arcanum, to make it so that they had never been. Ontology is indestructible, and that is why I am certain it is the source of Soul Craft.”

    The contents of the speech felt like the ravings of a mad man, and yet the dry tone was more reminiscent of discussing the weather. It was a strange juxtaposition. And a time consuming one at that. The weight of the elixirs on Stas’s bandoleer almost burned against him, reminding him that he really did need to go.

    “But all of that is theorycraft,” the monk continued. “As you are likely more interested in the practicalities, I will summarize them. You will not be able to commission a Soul Crafted weapon, because it is extremely unlikely that anyone is able to make one by intention. And, if anyone achieves the skill required, they would only ever be able to create the one, and would never be able to pass the skill on to anyone else. Soul Craft is a technological dead end, more a miracle of circumstance than anything else. These factors make for inordinate rarity, and the items you have already had the fortune to encounter are likely to be the only examples you encounter in your lifetime, unless, like myself, you expend great resources to seek them out and study them. I would advise pursuing the ones you have already discovered, rather than looking to find more.”

    That… Stas considered for a moment. Was there a circumstance where Stas would be able to use Enjolras’s shield? To let the item serve him in the arena. He had idly considered the matter in the past, more for the shield’s possibilities than any real intention of making use of it, but perhaps it was an option for him after all. And he was already trained with a shield.
    Would ‘Stas the Shieldwall’ be superior to ‘Stas the Blink?’ It parsed better in his mind, and felt less embarrassing to hear. From the perspective of his career, it would be an ideal accompaniment.

    But Stas discarded the thought almost as quickly as he considered it. As he had determined before, he could make due with a defense that was good enough more than he needed one that was perfect. Anything that could puncture a mundane shield of quality would be better addressed with a dodge than a block.

    More than that, it felt… dirty… somehow to use Enjolras’s shield in the arena. It was a symbol, the silver-eyed main had claimed, of defending the weak and the exploited. Using it for anything but its stated purpose might tarnish its eternally polished sheen.

    Stas would be more than happy to wield it as a part of a mission for the resistance group. And he would be more than happy to be given a mission that would necessitate the shield. But he did not want to ask for it for personal use.

    “Hm. I believe I have used up more than enough of your time,” the monk droned without warning. “I will allow you to use the garden for yourself. I thank you for your time.”

    “Ah, thank you for the explanation.” Stas managed to speak in time. The whole scenario was decidedly something, though Stas did not know what to make of it. At the moment he simply felt joy that the monk was deciding to leave. He wouldn’t have to use a worse exit point after all.

    And with that, the monk began walking away down the path, eyes shut, humming some strange, mad tune softly, closing himself off from the world. Despite the man’s clear show of distraction, and the statues blocking their view of one another, Stas waited for a good bit for the man to properly leave.

    Once he was satisfied with his caution, he climbed up the tall and sinuous statue and reflected across to the opposite rooftop. Liberal teleportation would see him at the meeting point in time.
     
  29. PocketRikimaru

    PocketRikimaru Versed in the lewd.

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    Seems like every so often a craftsman accidentally does a weird soul/maxwp ritual.
     
  30. HypoSoc

    HypoSoc Time, once consumed, has no meaning

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    Pretty darn rare, but yep. That's what happens.

    It doesn't really matter as much from the story's perspective, but you can consider the soul craft explanation to be pretty much WoG for my settings.
     
    PocketRikimaru likes this.
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