Fantasy where heroes don't follow the rules
Paragon Forgotten Chapter 6
How to spot a counterfeit:
Link specifications are noted by three categories: size, thickness, and blueing. Any link fabricator novice can copy the size and thickness, but only the Blue Hierarch knows the technique to blue the steel links. The proper blueing technique will touch ever spot on the link in one, even, specific color. An easy visual to test if the link is counterfeit is to look for spotting and varied shades…
"Think you Know the Link?” by Gerbogen Fire Forge Banker Hierarch, Published in 2,859
Image by Angela Cutler
Cohthel walked into the classroom, straight at Qualci who lifted her head.
“I’m going to carpentry today.”
“Oh, Evermore! I knew you’d find something you liked.”
Cohthel forced a grin back, nodded once, and sat in his chair. Just in time because Thaen thundered through the door in his heavy, oversized boots.
“Brother, you’re coming with me again today.”
“Nope. I’ve already told Qualci I’m going to carpentry.”
“About time you made a decision all your own.” Thaen scowled at Neleci standing with other government apprentices. She’d put some shiny fluid on her lips that caught the light of the R’th quartz hanging from a sconce center of the ceiling. She must have sensed Cohthel looking because she lifted her wheat-colored eyes and smiled.
Thaen scowled at her, but Cohthel rubbed his chin and looked away. Because Cohthel needed girl advice, he told Mianda his woes last night about the kiss. Unhelpful, she combined the kiss with Neleci acting like she was cold so Cohthel would share his blanket, thus affirming Cohthel’s newest fear:
Neleci was attracted to him.
But why? Cohthel whined to her.
Might be she thinks you’re somehow destined to be together because you can turn invisible and she can see through invisibility.
Most romances are petty at sixteen.
Cohthel was not in the mood to have the word “romance” attached to any dialogue so close to his name.
Burgand walked behind Mianda who was digging in her bag she’d set on the seat of her chair. Burgand waved a hand in front of his nose. “Wow, you stink.”
Mianda turned to face him. “Don’t say that about yourself. You smell good today. Is that cologne from Yl Elyuon?”
Emotions filled small Burgand quickly and expanded in outward expressions, so everyone watched his flapping arms as he stomped to his chair.
“That poor kid.” Mianda shook her head and slung a bag over her shoulder. She stopped by Cohthel on her way out. “Thanks for letting me stay last night.”
She must not have noticed her snoring kept him awake. Mother too. Mianda snuck out his window and Mother came in after, offering Cohthel natural remedies to combat snoring.
“It worked for your father,” Mother had said and Cohthel, now feeling sliced and bladed, walked out of the house without breakfast. There was nothing to bury. I thought you knew, son. It was a while ago. I’m very sorry. You’ve been going all this time thinking he had a grave in the cemetery. We can erect a symbolic one in the family plot to help you feel better.
Then why did he feel worse?
The manufactured chunk of missing wall above the schoolroom door admitted a falkon. He spread his wings back out once he cleared inside and grasped the sconce hanging from the ceiling with large talons.
A tiny leather vest strapped his black-feathered body, the small pocket on the back between his black wings holding links and other small valuables. On his chest blazed the Trading Cycle’s symbol of twelve tiny handprints in a circle — the handprints representing each Eloshonian race.
Once the falkon had everyone’s attention, he said, “The Trading Cycle Caravan will be here in one hour.”
The students and mentors erupted in pleasure. The falkon flew out.
“Well, have a happy Holiday.” Qualci stood, removing her glasses. “We’ll resume class tomorrow.”
Cohthel grinned. He wouldn’t have to apprentice anywhere today.
“But,” Thaen said, “can I still go apprentice?”
Neleci stood and walked toward Cohthel.
Cohthel didn’t stay to find out Thaen’s answer. He ran out the door, turning invisible as soon as he crossed the threshold. He never used invisibility in public, but this was an emergency.
“Oh! You can turn invisible.” She laughed, though he had no idea how since she was running and should be out of breath like he was. “And I can still see you.” Her small feet pounded in the grass behind him, her wheat-colored eyes piercing his invisibility, chasing as if to meet a prerequisite of government to literally run against the competition, helped by her large lung capacity she proved last night even if her heavy hips and bosom should have slowed her down.
The courtyard wall loomed ahead of him. Past trials proved he could reach the top with two vertical steps up the sheer face. Then what? Run home (she knew where he lived), or jump off the cliff and swim away to the Lands of the Two Moons?
Distracted by indecision, she caught him. Cringing, sweating, and wishing he would die in the next five seconds, he stopped. Underrealm-deep anxiety soured his blood.
She barely panted. “Take it off so kindred don’t think I’m crazy talking to you.”
He looked around the grassy complex inside the school grounds for anyone giving them attention, and pulled his veil off.
She laughed. “Why were you running?”
“Why were you chasing me?”
“Oh, Evermore, you tease.” She leaned to kiss him as if the one she stole last night pre-purchased future kisses for her spontaneous indulging.
He stuck out both arms and caught her shoulders. Her lips formed a sultry pucker.
“Neleci…” Cohthel’s armpits swamped, so hot he could’ve been standing in Deep Winter in the winter month of Gods and still wanting more air. “I…” He swallowed this awkward moment down. “I don’t want to kiss you.” But Undergod’s knuckles if her snug pants and long, slim shirt didn’t outline her curves with a beckon to summon a future husband.
He watched her tiny little heart twist behind her eyes — a young girl dreaming of romance and heroes with the same fervor Cohthel dreamed of wishing he had a father.
Her face teetered on the verge of either shattering into heartache or brightening in victory, all pending on his correctly chosen words. “But you stood in the kissing line last night.”
Cohthel pulled the corner of his mouth back. Not a smile: a grim, flat line. “Thaen wrote his name on all three slips.”
Little hearts popped out of her wheat-colored eyes. “But I wanted to kiss you for my first time.”
Her. First. Kiss? Undergod’s knuckles! “Yes, I stood in the kissing line for the dare and left my name out of the draw pile.”
“Okay…” Undeterred, she stepped closer as if convinced her proximity would convince him to kiss her, proven when she fluttered her eyelashes. “So you don’t want to kiss me right now?” She looked at the other students leaving their school rooms rimming the courtyard as if he only resisted because they stood in public.
“No, like…” His gut hurt. “I… mean I don’t like you like…like that.”
“What do you mean?”
“I just… don’t.”
She slumped both shoulders and tucked her chin. “You… you don’t?” He braced himself, waiting for her to cry. Instead, she shuffled in her ankle boots as if confused about how she missed this catalyst in her careful deception last night. “But I like you.”
Compressed breath escaped Cohthel in a heavy exhale. He didn’t find her physically attractive. Girthy hips and bosom were Thaen’s to admire.
“Cohthel, this must be why Fate gave me unveiling eyes and must be why she gave you invisibility.”
“Your eyes are a rare deformity in the human gene, not one given by Fate. You said so yourself. And she never explained why she gave me invisibility.”
“Why don’t you like me?” Her pretty pouting, the perfect timing of her hair-toss, and small burnt-gold hands steepled under her chin bespoke specific engineering of her training to buckle anyone she wanted.
“I do like you. Just not like that.” Cohthel hated himself for breaking her heart, for being thrust into the situation where he had to. Earlier he wanted to run away, now he didn’t want to leave. Not while her hopeful heart crashed to pieces in front of him. “I’m sorry Neleci.”
“I don’t want a relationship, but I would love to be your friend.”
“What good would that do me?”
“Friends can keep your secrets with the same fervor they tell you when you’re wrong. They understand you on a level family cannot, and will follow you in a bad decision so they can make sure you don’t hurt yourself. I’m sure you’ve fellowshiped castle servants and Knightlords, but you would never tell them your forbidden heart’s desire because they might tell your father and that would get you in trouble. I don’t want a relationship, Neleci,” he stressed, making sure she wouldn’t lazily confuse the term friend with suitor, “but I will keep your secrets and tell you when you’re wrong. I’ll make sure you don’t hurt yourself. I’ll go further; I’ll protect you, rescue you when you’re in trouble. And I promise, not even if tortured, will I betray to your father your heart’s forbidden desires. How does that sound? You want any of that?”
Her drawn brows did not relax for a long moment, the schoolyard almost empty. Finally, the wisdom bestowed upon her young age broke through and her face softened. Even — to Cohthel’s pleasure — rose in a smile.
“Friend,” she said as if she didn’t know the word. “Yes. I think I will use that.”
Cohthel sighed, weary with emotions lingering in the corners of his heart. The chaotic absurdness of his life.
Her smile wavered, tears of grief morphed into tears of joy. She embraced him before he could defend himself, but he let her linger on the embrace for as long as she needed. He let her because she needed to know what friendship felt like, needed to trust and relax into its foundation.
“How long can we be friends?” she whispered.
“As long as you want.”
She squeezed one last time.
Cohthel ran home, unsure if he came out on top, but at least he wouldn’t face her teary eyes the rest of the year. Teary-eyed, at least, until they turned into tears of fury. Relationships during school always crumbled. Thaen still managed at least one every year.
He reached home. The coming caravan lifting his debilitating mood, he got to work in the kitchen preparing lunch. The arriving caravan triggered an impromptu Realm-wide Holiday, the falkons working in the caravan’s employ announcing its arrival. Mother’s work would release her as well.
Sure enough, Mother came into the house while Cohthel cooked his mashed tomato soup seasoned with his special blend of gathered herbs.
“Jumpy, that smells great. Are you making lunch?”
“Yes, Mother. It’s almost ready. Put your feet up while I finish.”
“Oh, you are such a blessing.”
Cohthel looked to make sure she obeyed and brought her a soup bowl.
They finished with excited haste and headed outside together, all the way to the main road cutting straight through Malandore. Mingled with the humans lining both sides of the road stood seadwellers in common-form.
The two Paragons, who created the world and all life inhabiting it, granted the common-form to all races with social coherency. All those not already in the common-form – humans, dwarves, and elves having natural common-form – the Paragons gifted the ability to change from their original body to one walking upright on two legs, having two arms, with a mouth and hands enabling them to share the same meal with everyone at the table.
But those in the common-form still looked nothing like a human, dwarf, or elf.
The seadwellers natural form had no legs, but a slick, giant, scaly tail instead. For the common-form, this translated into legs with webbed feet and fins running down their backs, along their arms, and smaller ones rimming eyes and throats. Their long hair — both males and females — were often dyed in wild, bright colors they created from seaweed.
Mother and Cohthel struggled to find a spot along the main thoroughfare to stand. Pressing shoulder to shoulder, he and Mother stood behind a short woman with brown hair touching the back of her heels. Cohthel looked over her head. Mother stretched up on her toes. When Father was off cycle, he’d set Cohthel on his strong shoulders to see over everyone’s heads as the caravan came into town. Six-year-old Cohthel had never felt so powerful.
The first caravan horse appeared around the bend.
A raucous cheer burst out of every mouth, every hand clapping. Cohthel punched his fist into the air.
The Caravan Master sat rigid in her saddle. Proud. Black hair braided tight behind her head, swaying along her back like a pennon in the wind, gray eyes ever watchful. Her dancing horse complimented the rider, head pulled back, knees bending high and hooves landing a sharp clack clack clack with every step on the cobble in a learned, patterned dance.
The horse pranced sideways, right, then left, and kicked front hooves up in a vicious display of power. Then the horse’s giant hooves slammed back onto the cobble, and the road erupted in fluttering, frenzied light.
A gold disk of light spread out from the point of impact, morphing into insubstantial ocean waves crashing through the delighted crowd. Kitannia’s horse bent a foreleg and bowed.
The cheering never took a break. Behind Kitannia rolled the first wagon. To rival temples and shrines, the sides of the wagons had been scroll-worked and stained with a color-changing chromatic paint to depict scenery from the realm sponsoring their merchandise in the wagon. Impossibly colored tarps draped each wagon, keeping secret unique pleasures beneath. The biggest horses bred on Eloshonna pulled each wagon, dancing in sync with the Caravan Master’s horse, harnesses jangling. Disks of light rippled out from each hoof crashing against the cobble, different colors every time.
Caravan Master Kitannia paid a lot to secure complete ownership of this breed of horse. Cohthel barely looked over their stooped curved backs, white skin and hair unmarred by anything darker than bone. Kitannia wanted them white to spot injuries easier, especially where the harnesses chafed. Despite the aggressiveness she kept over the militaristic function of her caravan, no one faulted her for not caring about the animals who pulled her empire around Eloshonna.
The cheering continued as wagon after wagon curved the bend, parading through Malandore. The well-groomed, well-dressed, grinning attendants did not look like they’d been on the road three months.
Kitannia — despite the intense controversy — employed a droog, dusutri, and Dark Elf. Though human, Kitannia did not claim citizenship in the Kingdom. No one sponsored her caravan. Though most of her attendants claimed status in the Kingdom, she ran the entire caravan by herself how she wanted: to employ as many different races of kindred as possible, inside or outside the Kingdom. Because trade with them proved her highest lucrative investment.
The caravan marched through Malandore, the crowd following, all the way to the other side where it turned onto a wide-open spot of dirt cleared of trees where the wagons circled, dust clotting the air. Finally, wagon wheels stopped turning, the tail wagon — a miniature house on wheels — parked in the center of them all. The caravan used this last wagon as a mobile hospice for the sick and injured. The attendants moved to the outside of their wagons, hands clasped in front of them, feet spread as if they stood in some military formation.
Kindred with money came to buy merchandise collected from all over Eloshonna. Those without money came for the hype and executions worthy of any traveling show. But everyone came for the R’th display not found anywhere else in the Kingdom.
Cohthel did not know whether the only Dark Elf in the caravan manipulated the R’th or if the Sovereign Astral god granted favors to the caravan cleric Kitannia employed especial for these shows.
Kitannia galloped her horse outside the massive circle, stirring more dust. Completed, she pulled her horse to a walk and nudged it between two wagons, riding to the center of the circle and stopped. “Uncover!”
As one in perfect time, every attendant spun, grabbed the tarp on their wagon, and flung them high into the air like a dancer ribbon. The tarps unfolded, unfolded, unfolded…until all twenty-three tarps stretched and joined — ten feet high — forming a dome. Insubstantial, glittering R’th orbs dropped from the dome and drifted through the air like bloated fireflies.
The attendants dropped the hinged wagon sides — merchandise popping into delicious colors and textures — and like iron shavings to a lodestone, kindred pressed against the wagons to see tangibles from each of the twelve realms. Some kindred wore the blued steel links — Kingdom currency — like necklaces, bracelets, or filtered down the long pocket on their pants reaching waist to foot. Dwarves held the Kingdom bank in Fire Forge. They held the only apprenticeships for creating the links.
The end of the show cued, and a local troupe strung to life a lively tune with fiddles, drums, and concussive plates. Vendors flowered outside the caravan circle with tables they brought to display crunchy snacks, sugary sweets, and variable drinks with either milk, water, or tea bases. Families laid blankets over grassy patches between the trees, children grouping for mischief.
Mother pulled Cohthel’s sleeve to a cart, her gaze ricocheting on everything within until she must have accounted for every swirl in the wood; merchandise from the Pegasi Realm, by tell of the winged, horse-like body standing next to it. Nothing interested Cohthel and he moved on, though the hoof polish, glue-on hoof jewelry, curry brushes, and saddles would vanish come the caravan’s stop at the Pegasi Realm.
He lost sight of Mother who stopped at the ecthore wagon to secure her purchase of soillfiu. Ecthore sniffed out a dense brown fungus growing in their forest which made a delightful treat when mashed into milk.
He stopped by the elven wagon, fingering the cloth slipping like water. He loved the craftsmanship of their swords, knuckles, and bows, though they looked more fashionable than useful. Like pieces you’d hang on the wall. Plus, he didn’t have anyone to teach him how to use them.
That sting brought the inner nagging he could not silence to the surface: why was Father close enough to a cliff’s edge to fall off? And a shark happened to be right there before he could swim to safety or cry out for help?
The dwarf wagon contained axes and heavy armor. Brushes, shampoos, hair dyes, shell jewelry, and seaweed touted to be healthy from the seadweller wagon. Dragon scales polished and carved into plates, silverware, and wall hangings came in many different colors. And dragon-made swords. Falkons and gryphons sold their feathers as quills, fans, hats, and hair ornaments.
He stopped at the single “outside realm” wagon Malandore citizens named the Forbidden Wagon. A Dark Elf, dusutri, and droog guarded the wagon. The droog walked with hunched back on short legs and long arms. Boys surrounded the wagon, not afraid to admit they liked the R’th-infused garments and trinkets from the Dark Elves, though some adults hovered at the edges, too.
“…’weny years ago. ‘Weny! And she s’ill holds her ax over my head.” The dusutri guarding the wagon rubbed his tattooed head. Dusutri shared direct ancestry with the humans, though refused to join the Kingdom. They spoke an accented form of Eloshian, developed over their eight hundred years of isolation on Forever Ice southwest of Eloshonna. This accent omitted most ‘t’s, and anthropologists speculated this happened because dusutri nurtured relations with Dark Elves and droogs who spoke a language that prevented the tongue from touching the roof of their mouths.
This same isolation directed their selective breeding which birthed a stronger, bigger human, averaging six and a half feet and bulked with muscle, even the females. “I ‘old her, ‘Ki’annia, you shouldn’ be a Caravan Mas’er, you should be a judge because even a fly who ‘shit’ on the window wouldn’ escape your grudge or your memory’.”
The other two roared with laughter, the Dark Elf tossing his high ponytail side-to-side so the white hair swished across his cloaked back like a horse’s tail.
Cohthel looked in the wagon: a self-turning hourglass, invisibility cloak, a self-sweeping broom.
He browsed the carts and put his purse away, still far away from saving enough to buy the dragon-made knife. But again, he didn’t have anyone teaching him to use it.
The nagging clustered in his chest, muffling the glorious afternoon and the caravan. His gaze lifted to the Caravan Master, riding her horse along the inside edge of her wagon circle, phasing through the bloated R’th orbs.
A shoulder bumped into his. “You should ask her if she remembers your father.”
“Thaen, a shark ate my father. There is no mystery.”
Thaen checked over his shoulder — for Mother — before diving into repetitious dialogue every nuanced question and theory he has so far already said at least twice to date.
“…only suggested you place the grave marker because you caught her in her lie.”
“Undergod’s knuckles, let it go or I’ll point out every day that you lost the dare.”
“I didn’t lose because she cheated. And I can’t let your father go because his death and lack of a burial or funeral doesn’t make sense, and the good friend I am will not allow kindred to lie to you.”
“If I prove he’s dead will you stop?”
“Depends on where your proof comes from. I will not count your mother as a valid source.”
“Is the city archive office proof enough?”
“Only if your mother doesn’t work there.”
It wasn’t subterfuge. But if he didn’t get Thaen off his back soon, he’d drown him. “If I can prove he’s dead, will you stop talking about his death, burial, and funeral?”
“Or lack thereof.”
“I swear I will forever stop talking about your father’s death, burial, and funeral, or lack thereof.”
Cohthel marched away from the bustling caravan, breaking into a jog back to Malandore main. They passed many others walking and riding away from the caravan, satisfied with the show and perusal of the wares.
Storefront windows glowed with the thin afternoon light of autumn. Rangers patrolled on horseback, nodding their heads in greeting as Cohthel and Thaen passed. Thaen greeted them by name. They passed the textile factory where Mother worked. If Cohthel never chose an apprenticeship, he would still never work manufacturing because he didn’t want to work next to Mother ever ever ever.
Two more blocks brought him to the City Archival office, gasping for air next to Thaen whose breathing didn’t increase with the strain. Catching his breath — Thaen demonstrating impatience with his patented eye-spike — Cohthel turned the knob and entered. The man at the receiving desk looked up, an enormous nose somehow handsome on his middle-aged face. “Hiya, son, how can I help you?”
Glaring at Thaen, Cohthel approached the desk. “I’m looking for a Writ of Death on someone.”
“No problem.” The man pushed a slip of paper and a sharpened grease pencil across the desktop toward him. “Write the first and family name and day of death.”
“Er, I don’t have an exact day, just that it happened ten years ago.”
“I can work with that.”
In crisp letters, he wrote Father’s name and pushed the paper back to the man who took it with a smile and nod. “Give me a moment.” He pushed open a double-swinging door behind the desk, exposing a massive shelved room beyond holding an organized ensemble of folders and boxes before it swung closed.
Thaen turned and leaned his back against the edge of the desk, the bottom of his large boot anchored against the tall wooden side. “Neleci isn’t planning on playing with us anymore, is she?”
“Why, is it because she didn’t kiss you or because you lost the dare game to her?”
“She kissed you in pity because you’re so knuckling ugly her bleeding heart took pity knowing no one else would ever kiss you.”
“So you’re jealous that I’m more ugly than you.”
“I am not jealous of your looks.”
“You obviously wanted that kiss.”
“I wanted no such thing.”
“So you didn’t write your name on all three slips of paper last night?”
“Her cheating back-dated any attraction I previously had toward her.”
“You mean her winning?”
“If you feel that way, we’ll have a re-dare tonight. If you beat her, then we’ll all agree she cheated.”
Thaen folded his arms and stretched his neck side to side.
The clerk returned with a folder.
Cohthel slapped the desktop, pointing. “There it is Thaen. Now let it rest.”
“That’s a folder. I want to read the Writ of Death.
The clerk opened the folder on the counter. It held two slips of paper. The clerk lifted the first one and laid it out. “Writ of Birth.” He laid out the second. “And Writ of Marriage to Shiana Tefell.”
Cohthel stared, mouth gaped as if struck on the back of his head. “Where’s the Writ of Death?”
“If it’s not in this folder, we don’t have a copy.”
“I knew it!” Thaen punched a fist into an open palm.
“Now hold on.” Cohthel glared at Thaen, then turned back to the clerk. “So this means no one provided you a copy of his Writ of Death. Who would have the original?”
The clerk raised an eyebrow. “Young son, we are the original creator and holders for all Writs. If we do not have a Writ on file it means no one came to us to have one created. By law, our office must record every human birth, marriage, and death.”
“But someone could forget to file with you.”
“Evermore! Listen to yourself!”
“It’s not likely. Filing with us is the only way to receive death benefits, remarry, readjust taxes, make funeral arrangements, map burial plots, and provide authorization for the city mason to craft a headstone.”
Nausea hot-washed prickling heat through Cohthel’s scalp, chest, and belly, melting both leg muscles into soup. He leaned forward to support his collapsing weight on the desk. “So if my father doesn’t have a Writ of Death…”
“Then he must still be alive. Unless, of course, no one did file for it, but that’s a bad idea because they remain maritally and financially bound to the dead party until they do file and, again, are not authorized to remarry.”
Cohthel swallowed vomit bubbling up his throat. “Tha—thank you.”
He spun toward the door, dark pin-pricks needling his vision, equilibrium lost so he swayed side-to-side as he walked.
Thaen’s voice blasted down the street like shrilling warning bells. “I told you—”
“SHUT UP! SHUT UP! It’s not subterfuge! My mother forgot to file! My father is dead, DEAD, do you hear? Just shut up! Shut up!” Cohthel sprinted away from the office, the buildings he passed doubling in his blurring vision.
He sprinted all the way home, heart thundering so hard his chest ached and he suspected serious heart trouble. Hot feet paced the backyard, but far enough away Mother wouldn’t hear his melt-down. Shaking hands grabbed a deadwood branch and wailed on a tree, crack, crack, crack, over and over, pain radiating through his knuckles, arms, into both shoulders, and bloomed into a headache at the base of his skull.
“Mother forgot to file!”
“He’s dead!” He threw his deadwood and landed on both knees, screaming into the earth, gripping both ears.
Mother didn’t forget to file.
You can’t file an event that didn’t happen.
Dirty-kneed, tears burning salt stains into both cheeks, he stormed toward the woodpile and picked up the ax. He slammed it home, splitting the log clean through with one stroke. Another log. And another.
Mother came outside. “Jumpy, I’m working on dinner. What would you—”
“Get away from me!”
Her registered shock turned her somber eyes into fearful rounds, flashing briefly through Cohthel’s rage before burning to ash in his roaring chest.
She retreated beyond the corner of the house.
He chopped and chopped until his rage burned all his energy so he couldn’t lift the ax even one more time, a headache so blinding he trusted he would break nothing in the house.
He walked inside on knees refusing to bend.
Mother straightened with a start when he slammed the door behind him, back erect, staring unblinking at him, hands clutching her knitting.
Cohthel inhaled. Three times. “Mother.” Once more. “I went to the city archive office and asked for Father’s Writ of Death. The clerk said there wasn’t one. Can you tell me why you didn’t file one?”
As if sucked of life, Mother fell back into her chair, hands dropping into her lap. After a beat too long, she locked her jaw and shook both fists. “Oh, that atrocious city office wouldn’t let me file a Writ of Death because no one recovered your father’s body, and because of it, I had no proof of death. Without proof, they wouldn’t let me file. Is that what got you upset outside? Oh, Jumpy, you should have come to me straight away. I would have saved you a lot of anxiety.”
As usual, Cohthel overreacted before asking questions.
He deflated, his rage and uncertainty draining out of him, his episode of earlier filling him with embarrassment and shame. “Yes, that was why. I’m so sorry.”
She relaxed back in her chair. “It’s alright, Jumpy. I understand the hope you must have felt. I’m glad we worked it out. I know it’s a troubling time for you without your father right now, what with you growing into a man and figuring out your apprenticeship…” She drove on, linking his changing emotions and puberty to support his reactions, and, in an instant, everything shifted back to normal.
Is that why he bought, however briefly, into Thaen’s theory? Desperate for loopholes so he could finally have a father in his life?
Mother talked while Cohthel stood there aching, new emotions tearing through him; a morphed form of disappointment. But disappointment for what? The common knowledge that Father wasn’t alive? Ridiculous.
Ridiculous, and Mother suffered it when Cohthel roared at her while he chopped wood.
He shoved both hands deep inside the pockets of his too-small pants. Mother finished dressing him with sympathy. He apologized again and shuffled outside.
He walked toward Thaen’s house, head down, keeping to the edge of the road as a dwarf-made mechanical wagon rumbled past him, bearing fruit rinds and leafy vegetable garnishes in its giant barrel. The wagon must be on its way to Solnast — the main farming community responsible for feeding the Human Realm. In keeping with Sovereign Earth’s decree, kindred must return unused food to the earth as payment so the god will continue allowing more food to grow. Same with unused animal parts like bones.
Cohthel didn’t raise his head once, not even when he reached Thaen’s porch. Having walked to his house hundreds of times, his instincts knew the way better than his eyes.
He knocked on the door.
Seconds passed and the door opened to an eight-year-old boy with the same hair, eyes, and deliberate tone of voice as Thaen. “Hiya, Evermore.”
“Thaen is in his room.” The youngest brother in the family opened the door wider and Cohthel stepped in. A staircase on his left reached the second story of their five-bedroom house. The right opened into the large living room and enough furniture to seat four children, parents, and guests. Thaen’s mother and father stood in the attached kitchen, playfully arguing about who cooks the better lamb sauce.
Thaen’s father stood a head taller than his mother. A full black beard, broad shoulders, and enormous hands reminded Cohthel of a bear. No wonder Thaen knew what he wanted in his future. Even eight-year-old Vril announced to Cohthel two months ago he was going to become an Apprentice Medic to, as he put it, “Help all those poor kindred Thaen will hurt as an Apprentice Ranger.”
Thaen’s father looked at Cohthel over his shoulder. “Hiya, Evermore,” he said in that deep baritone.
Hungry jealousy heated in Cohthel’s blood until his head spun, a sensation unearthed ever since he lost closure discovering his father’s grave-less grave. “Hiya.” Suddenly out of breath, he didn’t know if he made any sound. Numb, he reached Thaen’s bedroom door, tapping on the wood with his fingertips instead of knocking, but Thaen’s growing skills as a ranger still alerted him. “Come in!”
Living with three siblings, Thaen’s parents deemed him responsible and gave him a bottom-floor room. The younger ones lived on the second floor to deter them from sneaking out at night because Thaen never did that himself.
Even though Thaen had been dreaming of apprenticing as a ranger his entire life, he dove deeper and made it into his hobby.
He made his bed with lock-tight corners, clothes hanging in his closet with all the long sleeves angled the same way. Boots side-by-side with toes level. Drawings of prominent ranger men and women held overwatch on his walls.
The nine realms had not battled each other for hundreds of years. The problem came from the three Outside Realms: the Dark Elves, droogs, and dusutri. Mostly leaving the Kingdom alone, they held no scruples plucking those who wandered too far from the road, hunted in the wrong land. Torc Thoraus sent his rangers to curtail this problem, dispatching them out as escorts for travelers and caravans between realms.
Thaen had changed into a pair of linen shorts showing off defined calves, and a sleeveless summer shirt. He sat at his desk with a thick book opened on its dark wood surface. “Brother!” He grinned as he spun in his seat to face him. “Did you ask your mother about the Writ?”
Cohthel slumped on Thaen’s bed, hands still in his pockets. “Ya. She explained it.”
Thaen quirked an already-too-high eyebrow. “Explained?”
“Ya. Because no one recovered his body, my mother had no proof of his death so the city office wouldn’t issue her a Writ of Death…why are you laughing?” Cohthel watched with gritting agitation as his best friend slapped his naked knees and guffawed. “This isn’t funny. I embarrassed myself in front of my mother because instead of asking questions, I lashed out.”
“The truth punched you in the face, sprawled on a plate, and screamed that it was all yours for the eating, and you still claim you can neither feel, see, hear, or have any desire for it? You’re knuckling stupid. Your mother said it herself. She. Has. No. Proof.”
“Exactly. Which is why the city office wouldn’t provide her with a Writ of Death.”
Thaen smacked his forehead. “She has no proof that he’s dead.”
“Exactly. Which is why—”
Thaen shot his hand up. Cohthel silenced. “Brother,” he said in his version of a dark and mysterious actor, “she has no proof that he’s dead, so how does she know he is?”
“She knows because…because…”
Thaen laughed again, quieter, but the sound splayed Cohthel opened, naked and raw. So frustrated he almost cried, he ground his teeth instead. “Thaen, I beg of you, drop it. You have made my misery worse by your nagging and digging for ulterior motives. I am drained. I already can’t figure out what I want to do with my life, don’t yet trust myself to manage a relationship, and you can’t bother to see the hurt you are causing me by stabbing me over and over—”
“Oh, knuckling stop it, Evermore. I’m doing this to you because of how atrociously despondent you looked when your mother did her prime best to introduce you on the first day of school. You’re stuck thinking you need a father to help you pick an apprenticeship when deciding what you want in a future is instinctive. You fighting those instincts is what’s draining me. I would much rather you get upset with my nagging about your father than dragging me down with your heavy poor-me attitude. It’s knuckling tiring, is what it is. And also because I believe your mother is lying to you.”
Cohthel looked out Thaen’s open window to the cool autumn breeze, the slanted sun bringing out an almost hollow light on the trees and walls of the houses. His head hurt. Emotions spent.
Thaen hooked an elbow over the back of his chair. “Why don’t you do something on your own instead of expecting others to rescue you? Plan your own marching order, develop your own opinion, and not go running to anyone to give you answers. That’s why you’re struggling with the truth about your father. You’ve been going to your biased mother. You need to speak to someone who has proof. Go to the source. Always. Like, Caravan Master Kitannia. You know she doesn’t trust the bank in any realm and so hides her money caches all over Eloshonna? If you can remember where you’ve put them all, then you can knuckling bet she remembers a death in her caravan. I still maintain my promise. Prove to me your father is dead — from a source that is not your mother — and I’ll forever drop the subject about him. I swear on the Undergod’s knuckles.”
Thaen often flouted his promises through loopholes and misunderstandings, but when he invoked the Undergod’s very knuckles, it sealed more honesty than a knightlord’s oath to serve the Human Realm.
Cohthel would prove Father was dead. He needed to shut Thaen up. Even more important, he needed to know Mother wasn’t lying to him.