The Soldier – pt.5

Previously: Part 1Part 2, Part 3, Part 4


A loud knock sounded.

“You in or out, Benny?” Linhander said with a voice that was sharper than the sound of his knuckles on the old, oak table.

Bentwhistle looked at the wooden cards in his hand, but his mind dwelled on another game entirely – one whose stakes were more than the pile of tabers in the center of the table. His eyes drifted up to the men who sat around him – loyalists all. Not long ago, they would have died for the man that they’d only recently sent floating away into oblivion.

Likely, some of them felt proud about what they’d done.

He put two of his cards down – Rook and Sparrow – two of the men let out huffs while Linhander slammed his own cards down. “I’d almost call you a damn cheat if I didn’t know any better,” he said – clearly annoyed.

“Glad you know better, then,” Ben said as he scraped the tabers towards himself. “And now, if you’ll excuse me…”

“Take the money and run, eh? That’s how it is?” Tenpick said. “Like a fuckin’ cutpurse, this one.”

Vimmer took a sip from his cup. “Gotta go console the sad mistress,” he said while he wiped the swill from his lips.

Ben put his hands on the table and stared at Vimmer.

The room was quiet as a morgue.

“Stars, Benny,” Vimmer said as he shrank back like a cat from water, “just fuckin’ with you is all.”

“Show some fucking respect, Vim,” Bentwhistle said.

No one moved as he put his winnings in his satchel and began to turn.

“Spilled fuckin’ milk if you asked me,” Vim said under his breath.

Ben looked back. Tenpick and Linhander slid away from the table. Vimmer looked back and forth like a man in his cups trying to figure out which way was left or right.

“That’s two,” Ben said, his fingers extended on the gauntlet that was his false hand. “Don’t make it three, Vim. You won’t get a fourth.”

They sat quietly as Ben strode away. The hallways flickered with the glow of Cinder Lamps that cast shadows that always seemed oddly circular. Out in the oceanic void, the darkness swam eternal while the myriad dots of light floated in the beyond like celestial fireflies in the devil’s abyss.

He hadn’t liked sending Tes to the Amber district. He knew what it was. Everyone knew what it was. Even royalty walked cautiously there. Too many people drunk, or stupid, or both. Too many people poor or greedy, or both. That it kept the darker appetites of a world grown too hungry was the only reason it was allowed to linger.

It was like a stitch wurm grown fat around a man’s heart. Too dangerous to cut it out, the medic says. So they feed it just enough poison to slow its growth. But it’s enough that it’s still poison. And it’s never enough to kill it.

He had to believe she’d be safe. She was strong. Grieving? Sure. Betrayed? Absolutely. But Tes would limp out of the Amber with a man’s balls in her pocket before they let her bury her there.

Ben put it from mind while he wound around the staircase that separated the decks of Silvervale. He took to the lower half and wound through the sprawl of shops and houses. The avenues dotted with homes he could never afford; lived in by people he would end up dying to protect.

At the southern ridge where the glass kissed the lips of eternity beyond, he took the spiral stairs lower still into a little cul de sac of stacked domiciles.

When he reached the door, it was already partially opened. A voice, raspy as if it were coming from a throat made of old parchment spoke:

“Men they do go swimming, just
I jest, oh just you wait there, grinning
Lest you now come crawling, sinning,
Cawing like some crow who’s calling
Now, for naught, are new beginnings…”

Ben entered the room that looked tiny compared to how much space it surely had. Cloaked in shadow like a man high on thistle-sap and paranoia. He was a worn and wrinkled creature of a man. Stooped back with a neck that seemed too long and perpetually rounded down. A nose both too short and too sharp, and eyes that seemed both too large and too far apart.

Ben walked over to him and stared at the balding head that was craned so hard that the man must only see wood grain. “You didn’t say it would come to this,” Ben said as he entered. “You never said he’d die.”

“Why, oh why? They do or die, or don’t they? Ben, oh little Ben, they won’t stay buried – no – for long – oh yes – you guess and guess by much distress and then again like Tes – oh, Tes, such travesty I must confess, I weep for thee – and you and she but Ben, oh little Ben, I must digress again…”

Ben slammed his hand on the table, the gauntlet sent cracks through the wood. “I need answers. Something real. Not these…these…these fucking riddles.”

He reached out faster than any old man should be able to and grabbed Bentwhistle’s false hand. “I gave you this and more, boy,” he said, his words no longer a song. He raised his head to meet Ben’s eyes – they had the look of milk and fire swirled together. “Now,” he said as he released Ben’s hand, “what do you need and why to you need it? What can you pay and why should I heed it? Offer you bounty or blood or a soul? The heavens or hell or a lump made of coal?”

Bentwhistle sighed as he sat at the table. “Whatever it takes,” he said, knowing he wouldn’t know until it was far too late what that would cost him.


INFORMATION:

This is a collaboration with Michael of Afterwards. We have no idea where we’re going with this. Only thing you can count on is that I’m doing even numbered posts, and he’s doing odd numbered posts.

Link for Part 6 will eventually be here

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Part 3 – The Soldier

Previously…
Part 1
Part 2
Additional information about what the hell is going on here is at the bottom.


She stood at the small circular window, the one that peered out into the oceanic void of the beyond. For all that she’d craned her neck, she’d never seen him.

Had she even wanted to? Would that have done her any favors? To see his body drift away, hung in strange suspension like a fly stuck in some illusive spider’s web.

In the throne room, many and most would be in the cold revelry of a cruelty left unpunished and she was glad for knowing that her absence would be seen as normal. She wouldn’t be able to hold back her tears, and one does not cry for traitors. To do so would condemn her as a sympathizer.

It didn’t matter that he was no traitor. It didn’t matter that almost no one would have believed he’d been one. It mattered what the king believed, for royalty held more in power than just fancy names and titles. They held keys of less metaphorical implication. Keys that were the life or death of all those bound to these lands that, even now, swam through the inky black oblivion of eternal midnight.

The tap at her door made her start. Heart raced. Her hand came up quickly and wiped away whatever tears might have still remained. She took stock of her room like a wisp addict making sure their tubes and needles were well hidden.

She moved to the door with something resembling regal grace and stopped. Looking down, she pulled the white veil that she’d clasped to her right wrist – the sign of one who mourns for…

She gritted her teeth and pushed back the tears that threatened to come forth; pulled the veil from her wrist and quickly tucked it behind the obsidian and silver vase that sat by the door where ven stalks grew tall like ghostly soldiers standing watch.

The tap came again just as she meant to open the door, giving her another short scare.

“Tes?” a whisper came.

She opened the door, but just a sliver, to see Bentwhistle standing at the other side. She opened the door a bit wider as he looked up and down the hallway.

“Ben,” she said, “if you’re seen here…”

“I know,” he said, his whisper rising in volume. He caught himself, scrunched his face at having done so. As a man who wore his age with only slightly less grace than he wore his many scars, the action did him no favors.

She almost thought to tell him to come in, but stopped. Being seen together at all would be a problem, but if he were seen leaving her room…

“I didn’t have much choice,” he said as he pulled his left hand free of the old, faded gauntlet. Behind it, only a stump remained. Tes looked away from it as best she could, but some wounds were always hard not to stare at.

He held the gauntlet toward her to show a small folded piece of paper sitting at the edge that sealed around his wrist.

“You mind?” he whispered, “my hand is full…”

“I…” she looked down the hall briefly and took the note. “Ben…”

“Someone’s coming,” he cut her off. He put the gauntlet back in place and flexed the fingers; in the quiet of the hall, Tes could hear the sound of the mechanisms within like a series of tiny strings being rubbed with a wet finger. “Amber district,” he said.

“Ben…”

“I’m…” he looked at her. His eyes hazed like glass. She could see him tighten his jaw. “They can’t know I’m gone and I still have to see…” he stopped speaking, the look of a man who had said too much. “I’m sorry,” he said and walked away from the sound of oncoming feet.

Tes closed the door, locked it and sat on her bed.

She could feel her heart beating like a hammer in her chest.

She knew very well who he was going to see and the very thought of it burned like she’d swallowed a hot coal.

She tried to put it from mind as she idly flipped the note around in her hands.

The amber district. Low in the layers, where the lights cast the world in red to remind everyone that it was a place of both lust and murder.

“Murder just begets more murder,” Hal had always said. “But sadly, there are times when it’s the only option.”

He’d been right. More right than he’d known. Someone close to the king knew as well, and they’d known it faster than Hal. Known it well enough to see him cast into oblivion…hanging suspended in the endless stretch of dots that flared like distant candles at the banquet table of the gods. Dead like a fly held securely in some terrible and illusive web.


INFORMATION:

I recently hit up Michael of Afterwards about collaborating on a back and forth story. There are no rules to this story. There is no fixed genre. Neither of us is beholden to any specific vision or end game. Whoever holds the proverbial pen is lord and master of the story. Any characters can be followed. New characters can be added. Maybe there’ll be a “Five Years Ago” entry to try to tie things together, or maybe this will end up on some distant world filled with cowboys, werewolves, and vampiric hummingbirds.

Next part is here: Part 4

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