By Paul Smith.
To Walk the Path 3: Beneath the Precinct
Copyright 2014 Paul Smith
This is a work of fiction. Any similarity to people, places or events is purely coincidental, and bears no malicious intent.
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‘For your inner Goth.’
To Walk the Path is the final instalment in my cyber-fantasy series The Star Plague Journals. Anyone who enjoys this chapter and wants to keep up to date on future releases (or who fancies trying some of my other work) should check out my galleries on Shakespir or DeviantART:
Kelsaro regarded Tomen levelly. “You’re certain about this?”
“You trust this person?”
She glanced at Rina, who shrugged eloquently. The slight, waspish woman had come to be a firm friend, something that Kelsaro had never come by easily. Even less so since she’d undergone the reforging the Efljos’ bite had worked on her, almost eight years ago now.
Banishing the nostalgia for those early years proved harder than she’d have expected when she first started down this road. But she made a champion effort, shelving the emotion for a time when there was less at stake.
Sure Kelsaro, time to yourself. Like that’s going to happen…
Sighing, she shook her head. She still found it strange to think of the time that had passed since she’d taken up the Wraethi’s cause as her own. It seemed an eternity sometimes. As for her old life? It might as well be that of a divorced stranger, for all the connection she felt with that woman. Yet there were still moments where it would intrude, like the unwanted attentions of a former lover.
A chance word, the smell of food from a street cafe, and suddenly the continuum was whole.
It was a subject she’d broached only once, with Rivan of all people. Something in the Consort’s easy manner seemed to encourage the bearing of the soul. His reassurance had been as simple, and as freely given, as she’d come to expect from the handsome young man.
I felt similar when I first came to the Manse, he’d explained, mobile lips twisting into that smile that she’d no doubt had caused more than its share of hearts to quicken in expectation. It took a while before I was able to reconcile who I’d become with who I used to be. To realise I’m still that same person, and everything I felt and experienced during that previous time is still as relevant. Should I abandon lessons learned because they did not occur during the current chapter of my life? No. Because it’s those lessons that brought me here. And their wisdom can help carry me forward to the next page.
As then, so now. We look to the past to help shape the future.
“Such a wise young man.”
She glanced at Tomen, who was doing his best not to smile. “Oh do shut up. You’ll talk to yourself too, when you get to my age.”
“But you’re only four years older than me.”
“Well then, better get used to the idea quick.” She rolled her eyes, nodding to Rina. “I suppose we’d better get on with this, if you would?”
Now was the moment of truth. The test of whether Tomen’s source was good. They were stood, the three of them, in one of the many underground culverts that riddled the city. Some were part of the sewage system that serviced the capital, whilst others (such as this one) provided water access for trade barges to areas off the regular canal network. It had taken some digging to get hold of the map that led them to this particular portal. Unsurprising, given what lay on the far side.
Reaching out a cautious hand, Rina cautiously touched the metal grill that stood across the inlet.
The corner of it swung free.
An exhalation of relief escaped their lips as one, and Kel discreetly put away the nifty little parasol Grifarne had given her, stowing the seferik back amongst the rest of her arsenal. She still found it difficult getting used to the whole fire wielding thing, had always felt personally that such tricks were best left to the Daiku. But there was no denying that some of the toys were fun.
Glancing at the others, Kelsaro led the way in beneath the Imperial Precinct.
Only the Wraethi would decorate their sewers.
Irreverent and (technically) inaccurate here, given the passage they traversed was still part of the canal network, but Kel was prepared to bet the sewage network’s larger tunnels featured a similar attention to detail.
Won’t change how dead we’ll be if anyone catches us.
But they had deemed it worth the risk. Where they walked now was dangerous enough, yes, but they needed more for the coming plan to work. They needed access to the Precinct itself. That and a guide they could trust.
Tomen’s contact (a small time wine merchant from the Vale who apparently possessed contacts with the Summer Residence) had promised to deliver them both. His only price that he and his family be spared from any reprisals. A concession Kel had cheerfully granted without having any real idea whether she could in fact guarantee it.
She was just glad not everyone was dancing to the tune being played by the new regime.
You’ve got to take your hat off to the woman, Kel mused as she picked her way carefully along the tow path that ran down the canal’s length. Though carved directly from the same rock that formed the wall it was as smooth as the intricate relief-work gracing the curving walls was sharp.
Ariana’s campaign for power had been flawless, from her considered social wooing of key members of the League Families to the alleged affair with the head of the Myson’s spy network that was the talk of every servant who serviced the Precinct itself. Every ounce of intelligence they’d managed to acquire suggested she’d done nothing so low as sully herself with actual murder, simply bided her time whilst her brother’s illness ran its inevitable course.
Now she stood behind a seat on the Privy Council, the might of the Soone Dynasty at her back. The fact she’d lost her son into the bargain had been quietly overlooked, his absence written off as a tragic accident at sea. That the story had been given credence with the actual scuppering of the Maiden’s Tears by one of the Maw spoke volumes on both the woman’s lack of conscience and her political clout.
Kelsaro still had nightmares about that last snippet of info, waking in the wee hours of the afternoon to the screams of the despairing crew as they floundered amidst the burning wreckage, wondering what they’d done to deserve such a fate.
A sound ahead brought her back from the flaming surf. She shook herself, taking in their surroundings afresh.
Cool stone. The quiet lap of water.
A hooded figure, limned in the light from a grate overhead.
Rina offered her a questioning look but Kelsaro held up a hand. Continued forward on her own, noting as she did the side passage from which the figure must have emerged. It in turn held up a forestalling hand as she neared, head cocked expectantly beneath its hood.
“It had limes,” Kelsaro intoned woodenly, feeling like a fool.
The figure nodded. “The cook is obsessed,” she finished, completing the coded phrase. Reaching up a hand she pulled her hood back and Kelsaro felt her eyes grow wide.
Caitlin smiled. “You were expecting someone else?”
It should be noted at this point that Kelsaro and her compatriots were well aware of Cailtin Durz’s presence in the Precinct. Railu Soone had carted the former Consort about with him like this season’s must have accessory since his return to the capital, and the establishment had made no secret of her continued presence here since the regime change.
No doubt hoping someone will try something stupid like a rescue mission, Kelsaro mused, eyeing the woman stood before her.
Ascertaining her whereabouts and the fact she was still breathing had of course been one of her priorities, given Cat’s connection to Rivan. Galairel had been clear on this during their last brief tête-à-tête on the hotline.
“She’s too valuable to loose sight of,” he’d admonished her, the tongues of their synchronised circle of fire casting odd patterns of illumination across his wintry skin. “If not to assure Rivan’s continued loyalty, then as a tool when bargaining with the Myson spy.”
Kel had raised an eyebrow at that. “You honestly think he’d go rogue for her?”
Galairel’s lips had gone thin in distaste. “I’m… honestly not certain.” He shook his head, for once letting some of the weight he bore show. In the flickering light it made him look like some sort of religious martyr. “Theirs was a strong bond,” he continued, “let us simply say I wouldn’t like to test its strength.”
So they’d kept an ear to the ground, surreptitiously gathering what information they could as it seeped out of the Precinct, buying second hand if necessary to try and keep their interest as low key as possible. Information was power, which in the Congregate generally translated into money. A fact most of the servile working class were still very much aware of thankfully. It had been easy enough to loosen tongues with a bribe here, a round of drinks there, and they’d even come across a few extra tip bits into the bargain.
Now here the woman stood, a shuttered lantern in her hand and a set of keys tied to her belt.
“You look… well?”
The former Consort smiled tightly. “What were you expecting?”
Kelsaro licked her lips. “There were rumours… gossip… about Jaecon Daeon.”
Caitlin sighed tiredly. “Ariana gave me to him shortly after her and her cronies seized power.”
Caitlin rolled her eyes. “If there’s one thing my time at the Heart taught me, it’s how to deal with egotistical old men.”
“…Yes, I suppose it would.” Kelsaro shook her head, offered the other woman a weak smile. Caitlin grinned, winking, though the grim look did not entirely leave her eyes. Good, she’s taking things seriously. “So, you’ve the situation… in hand? So to speak.”
“Actually he likes it between the breasts or in front of a mirror, but yes it’s under control. Tell Rivan I’ve had to resort to Fashion Week. He’ll get what I mean.”
It was brief, but Kelsaro caught the flicker of hope cross the woman’s face, though she was quick to school her features to decorum.
“I will,” Kel assured her, debating and then quickly discarding the idea of touching the other woman. Instead she offered: “He’ll be pleased to have actual confirmation you’re alive.”
Cat nodded, some of the ice melting from her demeanour. “So, you want in to the Precinct. Got a date in mind?”
Caitlin grinned. “Of course. She won’t be here then, you realise? None of them will.”
Kelsaro nodded. “Oh we know, don’t worry. But its far easier to take an installation when its unoccupied.” Well, as unoccupied as a seat of power ever is…
“As you say. How will they be gaining access?”
The former Consort raised an eyebrow. “Interesting. I wasn’t aware they had any link to the rest of the city. Surely you’d be better coming in here, via the canals.”
“Not big enough.”
Cat lifted her chin. “Planning to smuggle an entire army in are we? Well…” Kel decided not to correct the other woman’s assumptions, watched as Cat thought “…It ought to be possible. I’ll have to speak to my people, see what we can organise. The Myson hold the keys to the ‘combs, so it’ll be tricky, but there’s a couple of avenues we might pursue…” her slow nodding became more decisive as met Kelsaro’s gaze “…Yes. It should be possible. I’ll contact you via the normal channels in the next few days with a definitive answer.”
Kel nodded, her shoulders easing. “Thank you. And don’t worry too much about the Myson.” She caught the warring tension on the other woman’s face. “What is it?”
“I understand you probably can’t say, compartmentalised information and all that but: will he be coming?”
Kel’s expression softened, even as she shook her head. “I’m sorry.”
Cat nodded, visibly settling her resolve. “It’s okay. It’s enough to know this will all be over soon.”
Kelsaro nodded. “Aye. One way or another.”
With grim smiles they touched wrists, parting on the brief homily.
'Beneath the Precinct' is the third chapter of 'To Walk the Path', the fourth and final volume of the 'Star Plague Journals'.