The Central Chamber Part 1
“What do we do?” The air in the room twanged with tension. Aki could smell stale sweat and real fear.
The leaders of the committee had gathered on the request of the Don. Knowing his plans, Aki could not very well say no, and she had come along like everyone else. But when she arrived there had been Lothar, Sephina, and the other Committee leaders, as well as some various members of the Resistance, but no Don. She had been sad to see that Darius was missing, too, and she hadn’t recognized any of the Resistance members. The whole situation made her feel very uneasy, like a tickle at the back of her neck she couldn’t reach. Now, it seemed she had been right to be worried.
They had waited, not quite patiently, for the Don to arrive. The minutes lengthened in grumbling discontent until a frantic knocking snapped everyone’s heads around. The door opened to reveal Ora, clad in one of Maz’s suits. She went straight to Aki and whispered in her ear.
Aki stared at her in shock. “What?” Their meeting places shifted constantly to avoid detection, this one was in the middle of an old tenement near the city’s edge that connected to the tunnel network. For them to be surrounded meant…
“Above and below?”
“We caught glimpses of teams moving into positions on the rooftops and the streets. We barricaded the tunnel entrances, just in case. There must be hundreds of guards out there.”
“Now see here,” Lothar called loudly from across the room. “What’s this about?”
Aki ignored him. The world seem to whirl, her thoughts swirling about as they coalesced into action. She looked around to identify the other Engineers in the room, there wasn’t time for anything fancy. She barked orders.
“Padraig, take a team and make sure the doors are barricaded. Ora, do the same on the roof. Maz, with me.” She stood up. The other Engineers scattered from the room.
“Aki, what’s going on?” Sephina asked, worried.
“We’re in trouble,” Aki said. “The Choisant found us. They’re here.”
The room erupted into pandemonium. One of the academics fainted. Sephina’s face turned into an anxious frown, while Lothar’s paled until it had the complexion of congealed porridge.
He kept repeating “what? Impossible!” to himself. Aki turned on her heel and left the room, Maz right behind her. Aki noticed that the Resistance members looked worried, too. Interesting, perhaps they hadn’t known ahead of time. Whatever the case, she needed more information. The meeting room opened up onto a dim, narrow hallway, lit at either end by fading sunlight through cramped windows. Aki hurried down the corridor to the window, and peered out. Ora had been right. The window looked onto a narrow, cobbled street, but Aki could hardly see it, covered as it was with rows upon rows of Stripies.
“dar-Alos, it must be the whole guard,” Maz breathed from her position next to Aki. Something clicked in Aki’s mind.
“It’s a diversion,” she said back, her voice barely a whisper. Maz shot her a sharp look, and Aki completed her thought.
“It’s a diversion,” she repeated, more firmly. “With the Stripies here, the Don has a free shot at the central crystal. We have to warn Roshan!”
Maz nodded. “I’ll send a bird.”
She turned and hurried back the way she had come. The meeting room was still in the throes of chaos, with no one making an effort to calm down people down. Aki thought it an apt metaphor for their whole movement.
“QUIET!” She bellowed. The room hushed, many of the committee members freezing in an absurd tableau. Aki wished she’d had time to have a picture painted.
Dropping her voice to a more conversational tone, she said “Good news, everyone. We’re surrounded.” The chaos started up again. Aki shouted for quiet several more times and eventually had to resort to banging on the table top before everyone settled down again.
“We’ve been betrayed!” was the last thing she heard before the room subsided, and she smiled.
“Maybe, maybe not.” She started to pace, warming up to her speech and tapping on the table for emphasis. “I do know a few things though. One,” pace, turn, tap, “I know the Don isn’t here.” Tap. Turn. Pace. “I know that we are here, along with all the Stripies in the City. But, I also know that they’re outside, and we’re inside.” She stopped suddenly, and grinned like a hungry wolf at the rapt faces staring back at her, “And I know that as long as we have breath in our bodies, it’ll stay that way. This building is old and strong, and we have the entrances covered. This is our time, and the longer we make a fight of it, the better our chances of changing this city and this country for the better.” Aki ended the speech with her palms flat, staring back at the crowd.
The room applauded. It was much less than she expected, but still more than a smattering of individuals. The support seemed to be coming from the remaining Engineers, Theorists, and the now-orphaned Resistance members. The merchants were silent. Predictable, Aki thought.
“We should discuss this further,” Lothar said. Several of the wealthier merchants nodded in agreement.
“What’s there to talk about?” Sephina said, scorn dripping from her voice. “We’ve been rebelling against the Prime for weeks, and now he’s sent his people to shut us up. I don’t think talking,” she spat the word, “will solve the problem.”
Lothar flushed, his face florid and angry. “Do we know what they want? Maybe we can send them on their way?”
“They’re not here to shake your hand, Lothar,” Darius drawled from the doorway. Aki jerked her head around in surprise.
“Darius!” She exclaimed. She felt happy and surprised to see him. She’d thought for sure he’d be with the Don, and she hadn’t realized how that had been weighing on her.
“The Don’s not with me, I’m afraid,” he said, stepping into the room. “I bring grave tidings.”
Aki could guess what those might be. “Later,” she said, and when he cocked an eyebrow at her, she added, “we have to agree on a course of action and see to our defenses, first.”
He nodded in puzzled acquiescence.
Lothar was still sputtering. “But…” he started to say, but Aki whirled, and snapped.
“Silence!” She started him down, pinning his eyes with her own. Lothar looked away after only a moment, and Aki spoke, her voice filled with deadly intent.
“You wanted a rebellion, Lothar, and now you’ve got one. You’re either with us, or I’ll throw you out on the street with the Stripies. From the roof.”
After she had seen to the disposition of their meager forces, the next thing Aki did was catch Darius alone. The first words out of her mouth were:
“I know what the Don has planned.”
He started a bit, and looked a bit off balance. “How do you know that?” Before Aki could answer, Darius seemed to regain a little of his equilibrium.
He frowned and said, “Wait, what do you think his plans are?” They were back in the now empty meeting room. The central table had been pushed to the side and stood ready to block the doorway. If the guards broke in, they would make them fight for every inch of space. In the meantime, it was the perfect spot for a whispered conversation.
Aki frowned herself and stepped closer to him, “Well what did you think his plans were?”
Darius smiled, “This is a bit circular, isn’t it?”
Aki grinned back, as always, she was put at ease by the man’s wide grin. The feeling only lasted a moment though, as she returned to her business-like tone.
“Let’s say that I think his goals will lead to a negative impact for everyone in this city.”
Darius nodded. “I see,” He sighed. “You’re better informed than I thought.”
“How did you find out?” Aki asked. “For that matter, how did you get here?”
“Through the tunnels before they were sealed off. I wouldn’t want to leave that way though.”
“Lots of Stripies, eh? That’s fine, I wasn’t planning on leaving, anyway.”
Darius’s eyes narrowed. “You want a siege,” he accused. “You know the Don is using us as a distraction, you know what he has planned, and you’re just going to go along with it?”
Aki put a finger to his lips. “Hush. Have faith.” She took her finger away and smiled. “There’s a third player in this game. Keeping the Stripies and the Choisant occupied benefits them, too.”
Darius eyed her skeptically. Aki stared back, a note of challenge in her eyes. He held her gaze for several moments, and then showed his white teeth in a wide grin.
“Alright, then. I’ll trust you.”
Aki nodded. “Thank you.” They looked awkwardly at one another for a beat, then Maz knocked on the door frame.
“The Stripies want to talk.”
Aki surveyed the scene from the second story window of the tenement. The street below was packed with rows of regimented city guards, with the occasional black and red cloaked Choisant solider to break up the striped monotony. She had to admit the sight was intimidating, to herself if to no one else, but she was determined to ignore that effect.
Besides, the street itself was quite narrow, it wouldn’t take many people to fill it end to end. Aki’s tenement occupied part of the winding stretch of buildings that made up the laborer’s neighborhood of Cliff’s Edge, and, worryingly, she could see people looking out the windows in the buildings opposite. The risk to innocents if a confrontation took place here was high, but it wasn’t her that had chosen to make a fight here.
Out in front of the mass of guards, near the now barricaded entrance to the building, a smaller knot of black cloaked figures stood. Aki recognized one of them.
“Oi, Magnus,” she called down. “Missing your valet? It must be a struggle to dress yourself after I blew a hole through him.”
“Why hello, Aki. I’m shocked to find you here causing trouble.” Striech’s voice was as controlled and inflectionless as always, but Aki thought she heard a hint of anger underneath.
“What do you want, Striech? I’m late for an appointment.”
“Your unconditional surrender. If the leaders of your little group give yourselves up, we’ll let the rest go free.”
Aki laughed. “Am I really supposed to believe that?”
“Believe what you like. I’m simply trying to save myself some trouble.”
“I’ll bet.” She let her gaze drift sideways towards the window next to her. Behind a tattered curtain, Maz, Padraig, and Ora were laboring over a massive, mechanical contraption. It had a great curved bow of polished wood at the front, and an intricate system of pulleys and gears behind it to draw it back.
“A few more moments,” Maz said in response to Aki’s glance. She kept her voice very low.
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Darius asked from behind her.
“We needed a diversion. I can’t imagine anything more distracting than this.” Aki retorted. Raising her voice, she called “Let’s hear some guarantees.”
“On my honor,” Striech started to say, but Aki cut him off.
“Let’s try swearing by something more believable.”
Aki saw Striech take a deep breath and then exhale it slowly. “You could have avoided all this if you had simply listened to me months ago.”
“And you could have avoided all this if you and the man you serve weren’t fatuous, greedy bastards.” Aki was enjoying the back and forth. Perhaps it was unwise to use the Magnus as a scratching post for her frustrations, but what was he going to do, kill her?
Striech seemed to be deriving no such enjoyment. “Give yourselves over, and I swear by the Two Moons that you’ll have a quick death, and your followers will go free. If they divest themselves of their weapons and Fòrsic equipment.”
“What’s the matter, don’t feel like killing all of us?”
Even from far away, Magnus’s shark smile sent shivers up her spine. “I have every desire to kill all of you,” he said. “But it is politically expedient to show mercy at this time.”
“Now that I believe.” She glanced at Maz again. The woman nodded back. Aki looked to her left this time, where Jos had stabilized a stolen Fòrsic lance on top of a tripod. He made a ‘ready’ gesture in response to Aki’s attention.
“On my mark,” she whispered. Aki turned back out the window. “I’m afraid I am going to have to decline your generous offer, Magnus.” He frowned up at her, and she continued, “you see, you are an untrustworthy snake, a poisonous serpent, and it’s high time you were treated like one. FIRE.”
Jos’s Fòrsic lance flamed outwards, blowing the window pane outwards in a shatter of sparkling glass fragments. The blast slammed into Striech, and dissipated into a puff of smoke as it met a glowing-blue shield.
“Do you think anything you do is surprising?” He called up. “Your Fòrsic gadgets won’t work on me.” Then the ballista Maz had been working on fired. The sound was a deep, reverberating THUNG that rattled Aki’s teeth. The bolt punched through the window and arrowed straight down into the crowd of guards. It slammed into the man to the Magnus’s left, slicing through his neck and into the chest of the woman behind him before it struck, shivering, into the cobbles. Blood and viscera flew, and both were dead before they hit the ground.
Aki cursed. They’d missed. At the last possible second, the Magnus had thrown himself to the side and out of harm’s way.
“Keep firing,” she ordered, and Ora and Padraig rushed to load another bolt.
Meanwhile, Striech had regained his feet. “Forward!” He shouted at the guards. As the great mass of men and woman moved towards the barricades on the first floor doors and windows. He paused a moment to look back at Aki.
“Too bad,” he shouted. “You could have been reasonable. Lives could have been saved.”
“Too many lives have already been ruined by you and yours,” Aki called back. “Now stand still so that I can skewer you.” The Magnus shook his head and disappeared into the crowd of guards rushing the door. Other ballista and various Fòrsic weapons began firing from the windows and roof. Guards and the back and sides of the mass began to return fire with their own Fòrsic lances, and Darius pulled Aki away from the window.
“Happy?” He asked her.
“Disappointed we missed,” she said. “Are you ready?”
Like her, Darius had donned one of Maz’s remaining suits. Now, he flexed his fingers and Fòrsic fire glimmered in the palm of his hand.
“Let them come.”
Two days after Trentor’s revelation, Rika still wasn’t sure if they had a satisfactory answer to the question he had posed at the end of their all-night discussion. To be sure, keeping the Don from killing everyone was high on the list of things to do, but the how was proving difficult.
“Aki’s late.” Roshan was pacing back and forth in their room above the Turtle. The room wasn’t wide, so he had to turn often. “She should have checked in by now.”
Isa shrugged. “It’s not like we have a lot of progress to tell her. We might have the replacement Foinse-rod working, but there’s still a lot more of them than us. On both sides.”
“Dear heart, sit down.” Eithne deftly snagged one of Roshan’s hands as he passed by the bed she was sitting on and pulled him down next to her. “You’re making the rest of us crazy.”
“Sorry,” Roshan muttered. Rika noticed his foot start to tap, but she smiled her thanks at Eithne anyway.
“We have been going around in circles about all of this,” Eithne said. She rubbed Roshan’s back with one of her hands. “I think we need to take break.”
“There’s no time!” Roshan said. His tone sounded pleading.
“Make time,” Eithne’s reply was sympathetic, but firm. “We need a plan, and all of us are no good to anyone if we fly off into a panic.” She leaned his head against hers. “You’ve been hitting your head against this wall ever since Trentor left. Take a deep breath and try to relax for a bit. Here, have a biscuit.” She passed him one from a plate on one of the end tables.
Roshan let out a deep sigh and took the proffered biscuit, but he didn’t it. He didn’t protest either, though, so Rika thought maybe Eithne had gotten through to him.
“I still think that if we can disable his way off the city, the Don will see reason,” Isa said.
“You’re assuming he’s not a fanatic,” Roshan replied, and Rika sighed as they started around on another cyclical argument. From her place next to Roshan, Eithne shot Rika a commiserating glance. This same back and forth, or similar, had been happening constantly over the last few days. Roshan argued that they needed to move against the Don directly, while Isa remained convinced that they could still persuade him to call off the attack. Rika wasn’t sure which side she fell into, Isa had always been more devoted to goals of the Resistance, and to the Don personally, than she had been, but she wasn’t ready to take up arms against her former colleagues, either. Eithne had been quiet too, but she generally kept the arguments between Roshan and Isa from getting out of hand.
A knock on the door interrupted Roshan and Isa’s back and forth, and Rika sprang up to answer it. She cracked the door a tiny bit, and peered through into the dim hallway.
“Mistress Reira,” Rika said with surprise, “What can we do for you?
The woman held up a slip of parchment. “A clockwork bird pecked at my window until I could get this off it,” she sounded grumpy and bored, but Rika caught the glint of interest in her eyes.
Roshan perked his head up at the word ‘clockwork.’ “Aki!” he exclaimed, and jumped to his feet. “She’s used a bird as a messenger before.” He hurried to the door and plucked the note from Reira with a “Thanks!”
Reira turned to go, but Roshan held up a hand as he scanned the note, “Wait!”
“What is it?” Reira asked.
“What did the note say?” Rika said.
Roshan passed the note to Rika, “Was this the only note?” He asked Reira.
She shrugged. “Only one I saw. Why do you ask?”
Rika stared at the note, her heart sinking. Her stomach twisted itself up into a knot. The writing was simple, terse.
The Committee’s the bait. Go at once. Find the Don.
“Aki’s in trouble,” Roshan said.
“I think we all are,” Rika said. She passed the note to Isa. Isa glanced at the note herself, and then looked up.
“What do we do?” Eithne asked.
“What the note said to do.” Isa crumpled the paper in her hand, and let it fall to the floor. “We find the Don.”
Chapter30 can be found here.