Schism’s End, Take Two

This sequence of three scenes originally lived in Chapter 22. It was our attempt to dispose of the Ordo Apis, followed by our second attempt to (semi-)resolve the schism in the Stadnem Anduske — we may also post the first attempt later on. (The “semi” is there because this was never meant to be the whole end of that plotline; it was just Andrejek finally making his move to publicly accuse Branek of treachery and get part of the Anduske on his side.)

But the reason we took two separate runs at that idea and neither of them wound up in the final product was . . . there just wasn’t room to give it the depth and detail it deserved. We finally decided that bit of plot needed to be booted into Labyrinth’s Heart, where it would have space to breathe (and to take a wildly different form, as it shook out, which is why we don’t mind sharing this version here). Removing it meant also taking out the downfall of the Ordo Apis — which was, in the grand scheme of things not that important; it went in because we needed to explain how Andrejek was able to make his move without their interference. Lopping this out let us put in something far more important: the downfall of the Illius Praeteri. That let us get in a rather critical plot beat with Vargo and Grey, so it was a win all around.

Not without cost, though! All these scenes we’re posting have at least one thing in them we were very sad to lose. Here, above all, we regretted losing the very first scene: the one that’s the least load-bearing, but the most randomly satisfying to us. Read on to find out why . . .

* * *

Floodwatch: Canilun 15

“I seen you once, you know,” Sedge said, trying — and failing — to keep the excitement from his voice. The result ended up sounding like a boy breaking into manhood. Which was fair; Sedge had been about that age when he saw the Rook.

If anyone had told him back then that one day he’d be skulking along dark streets at the Rook’s side, he might have died for real, no need for Ondrakja to beat him and leave him for dead.

The Rook said nothing, sinking into the shadows of a doorway to check the street beyond, before slipping out and motioning Sedge to follow once more.

“Was in Suncross during Veiled Waters, seven years back. You remember the Bell March?”

The Rook glanced at him. At Sedge! “You were there?”

“Naw.” And a good thing, too. The following riot had been a bloody mess. “I was on my way, but saw you dashing off toward Duskgate and tried to follow. Tripped over a drunk, though, and dislocated my shoulder.”

“Not a good decision, then.”

“You kidding? Best night of my life. I saw the Rook! I mean, you. Cause you know… you’re the Rook.” Seriously, how did Ren keep herself together, spending so much time with him? Sedge had only been following the Rook for two bells, and he’d spewed so much excitement that his grand-nippers would still bear the shame.

The Rook gestured him to silence before he could babble more, peering around a corner. Sedge tugged at his collar, wishing it weren’t so tight. How did cuffs dress like this all the time? All these layers and buttons, and there was already grime on one silk sleeve where he’d brushed up against a building. Floodwatch wasn’t filthy like some parts of Nadežra, but nothing in a delta stayed clean for long.

But Sedge would gladly have dressed up like a dancing monkey if it meant having a chance to help the Rook. And Ren, sure, and Vargo, too, but he helped them all the time.

A flick of the Rook’s gloved hand brought Sedge up to his side. Leaning to glance past the black-coated shoulder, Sedge saw three people in Vraszenian clothing hurrying through the gate of the Isarnah compound. “You know what to do from here?” the Rook asked softly.

“Yeah, Ren told me. You en’t coming in?”

“Not unless things go very off course.”

If they did, the ones responsible would answer to Varuni first. Sedge straightened his coat, hoping she wouldn’t think he looked like a complete fool. Bad enough the Rook probably thought he was. But even that couldn’t stop Sedge from pausing at the mouth of the alleyway.

“That was the best night of my life,” he said, then grinned. “But this one’s better.”

With a rookery salute for his hero, Sedge strode off to play bait.

 

Floodwatch: Canilun 15

A rueful chuckle preceded the Rook’s arrival on the rooftop where Ren crouched. “Poor Sedge. I didn’t have the heart to tell him it was Ryvček he saw, all those years ago.”

She grinned beneath the lace of her mask. “I mean, Sedge isn’t wrong. It’s the Rook he’s a fan of, not Grey Serrado. Though he’ll like the latter more now that you aren’t a hawk.”

Instead of an amused reply, she got silence. Concerned, Ren glanced over. He noticed and shook his head. “Not anything you did. I . . .” His gloved hands tensed against the roof tiles. “I’m not keeping the two as separate as I used to. As I should.”

She thought of her own blurred boundaries, the difficulty of thinking only Renata’s thoughts or Arenza’s when she was in each role. And that was just play-acting: he had a literal spirit to deal with, something that had grown to be more than the men and women who gave it life.

Her own life had gotten harder when she started encountering Grey as Arenza and Renata both. Maybe I made it harder for him when I learned his secret.

And when she’d taken back Tricat.

“I’m sorry,” she said quietly.

“It might not be a concern for much longer.” His laugh curled around her like an embrace. “I’m closer than I’ve ever been to seeing this done, thanks to you.”

That thawed the chill enough for her to shift closer to his side. As she did so, the low thunder of approaching boots reached her ears.

“Game’s begun,” he murmured, and she could hear the grin in his voice.

The vantage point Ren had chosen let them see both the approach to the Isarnah compound and a good portion of the public yard inside. The back of the place was like the courtyard houses she knew, but the front had a large open area for carts and riders. Right now that held feasting tables, with a crowd of people milling around them. Snatches of Vraszenian rose from the general hubbub, until someone called out, “Enough! Time for us to begin. Please, take your places.”

Everyone began shuffling themselves onto the benches flanking the long tables — just as the Ordo Apis slammed their heavy door-breaker into the front gates.

“Not even an order to open in the name of Caerulet? Bad form.” Shaking his head, the Rook produced a bottle and two fluted glasses that must have come from some noble’s collection. Handing them to Ren, he poured while below a complement of three score stingers bulled their way into the Isarnah compound — their entire force, Ren suspected.

Their shouted cries carried easily to her ears. “In the name of His Mercy, Ghiscolo Acrenix, we hereby arrest all members of the Stadnem Anduske!”

Only to be answered by a surprisingly powerful bellow from Scaperto Quientis: “What under the Lumen’s light is the meaning of this?”

Ren wondered how much Quientis had pieced together. The Black Rose had suggested to him that joining Cibrial Destaelio for a diplomatic feast with the Isarnah ambassador might be useful in undercutting Caerulet’s stingers, whose overreach he unsurprisingly loathed. So he must have known something was afoot. By now the Isarnah had all changed out of Vraszenian clothing and into their own finery, but he would have seen them trickling in, and heard them conversing in Vraszenian. The former could be explained by the Starfire Festival underway, but the latter, they had no particular reason to do.

Unless the whole point was to make the stingers think the Anduske meeting was happening in the Isarnah compound.

Ren clinked her glass against the Rook’s as Destaelio’s voice also rang out. Not quite as clearly — Ren couldn’t make out her words — but it was easy to fill in. How dare the Ordo Apis barge into the residence of a foreign dignitary and interrupt a meal meant to celebrate new trade agreements and the long-overdue removal of sanctions?

“Mmm. I’m usually not fond of grape wine, but this isn’t bad.” The Rook took another sip.

From the courtyard came another shout. “Rimbon Beldipassi! We saw the Rook bring you here, and –”

It withered and died as one of the figures stood up. “Me?” Sedge said, tugging at his coat. “I en’t no Beldiponzo or whatever you just said. I’m just a humble laborer, here as a personal guest of –”

“Of Seri ni Kro Varuni Sambacchean tou Laithnau, First Daughter of the Seri Koase.” That accented voice must be the Isarnah ambassador speaking. From her place between him and Sedge, Varuni rose to her feet. Despite the chill autumn air, she wore an intricately-patterned and folded robe that left her impressive shoulders bare.

“I also assumed this to be a new beginning for relations between our people.” Varuni spoke like someone used to having others listen. Ren wondered if that was why she didn’t often feel the need to speak at all. “But perhaps I should tell my sacred mother that the Cinquerat only wishes more retaliation.”

While Cibrial hurried to assure Varuni that wasn’t the case, the Rook said, “Do you think all the Seri Koase’s daughters are trained to use chain whips, or only the ones sent to make my life difficult?” He rubbed at his ankle as though it still pained him.

“I have no idea what the Seri Koase is,” Ren replied. It was getting harder to contain her laughter. Varuni was certainly making things difficult for the stingers. Mezzan, shoving his way to the front, had made the mistake of calling her Vargo’s dog, and now half the Isarnah were calling for his blood. The other half looked ready to take it without asking.

The Rook drained the last of his wine. “I don’t think we’ll be needed to lead them off. They’ve managed to trip themselves up very nicely, and this way they’ve got no grounds for accusing the Isarnah of harboring me. Or you, for that matter.”

“Oh, I can only aspire to the scale of the bounty on your head.”

As a clock-tower chimed third earth, Kaineto’s despairing yell cut through the noise. “Where the fuck is Koszar Andrejek?”

“Good question,” Ren said, and offered her hand to the Rook. “Shall we go see how Vargo fares?”

 

Nightpeace Gardens, Eastbridge: Canilun 15

Apparently Branek still didn’t trust Vargo. His people, not the man himself, met Vargo’s crew at the gates of Nightpeace Gardens, now closed for the season.

After I was so nice and gave him Dmatsos as a peace offering, Vargo through wryly at Alsius. In Branek’s shoes, he would have done the same: one last precaution, just in case this all turned out to be some elaborate double-cross.

If he were in Branek’s shoes, actually, it wouldn’t be one last precaution. Which Vargo bore in mind as a quintet of Anduske melted out of the shadows, looking carefully at the new arrivals. They made no comment about the weapons Vargo’s people carried; even with the Night Moths providing these grounds as a neutral meeting place, neither Vargo’s turf nor Branek’s, nobody expected the other side to show up unarmed.

But the hard-faced woman who stepped forward jerked her chin at the hooded man Nikory held. “Show us.”

Vargo nodded, and Nikory pulled the hood off to reveal Andrejek, his hands bound behind his back.

The woman spat on the ground. “Not even gagged? Prežomir, take care of that.”

Before Prežomir could do more than step forward, Vargo held up one hand. “Gags can be spat out. I took . . . more thorough precautions.” Nikory pried Andrejek’s jaw open, and the flickering light of the torches showed the tongue stump inside, blackened from cauterization and gummy with blood and pus. “Unless you wanted to give him a chance to defend his actions?”

The Anduske were too tough to flinch back from the ugly sight; the woman even nodded in grudging approval. “All right. Bring him.”

Vargo muttered to Nikory, “Keep him close. We don’t hand him over without Branek’s word.” Low enough to sound tense, loud enough that their escort could hear that tension. Nikory yanked Andrejek’s hood back down and nodded.

The Anduske led them deeper into the deserted gardens, to a clearing so well-hidden that Vargo wondered if anyone but the thieves knew about it.

Plenty knew now. Branek was already waiting, with at least three times the people as Vargo had brought. But the Night Moths made up for the numbers he didn’t have, with their boss Mažylo watching over the meeting. His look said he’d knife the first person who tarnished his reputation for neutrality by starting something.

The crowd didn’t surprise Vargo. Gathering this many of the Anduske in one place was a risk, even in the shelter of Nightpeace . . . but there was one thing that would induce Branek to take that risk.

The chance to execute the traitor Andrejek in front of all his people.

Branek didn’t waste time. A murmur rose as Vargo and his people entered, but Branek quelled it with his hands raised. “Faithful children of the dreamweaver,” he said in Vraszenian. “Many of you know Derossi Vargo as a rival to our people on the Lower Bank, as the spider whose webs have entangled even the nobility of Nadežra. Why comes he here now? To strike a deal with us.

“Tonight, that rivalry ends.” His gaze swept the crowd. “You will tell your kin: Vargo is to be fought no more. Our ally he will be against the Cinquerat, and with his aid, our plans for the future become even stronger.”

Vargo heard a few dissenting grumbles, and so did Branek. A smile flickered in the depths of the man’s beard. “You doubt. That is wise. But here is his proof of goodwill.”

Nikory knew his cue even before Branek nodded.

As Andrejek’s face was revealed, Branek projected his voice even above the crowd’s snarls. “Last spring, Koszar Yureski Andrejek betrayed us. He had a plan to destroy the Tyrant’s amphitheatre, which profanes Ažerais’ sacred wellspring — but he never intended to follow through. For him, that righteous goal was nothing more than a way to get what he truly wanted.”

That last word sent queasiness through Vargo. There was no world in which Branek was inscribed in the register of someone with a medallion . . . but right now, any talk of desire rasped like a file over Vargo’s nerves.

“He sold us out, then cut himself out!” Branek shouted. One hand brandished a severed mass of intricately knotted string. “He abandoned the plan not because of Mettore Indestor. He did it in exchange for a Cinquerat pardon, and money enough to leave Nadežra forever. Like those chalk-faced invaders, his profit he put above his own people. And tonight, we show him how we deal with traitors!”

A spitting sound came from behind Vargo — followed by Andrejek’s voice, rough with passion and righteousness. “Your tongue it is that should be cut out, for spreading such lies.”

In the moment of stunned silence that followed, Vargo’s crew moved into a semi-circle around Branek and Andrejek. Branek went for a knife, but Nikory twisted it out of his hand. “Didn’t spend an hour describing what a new-severed tongue should look like just so you could cut it out for real,” Nikory said softly.

Andrejek took the kerchief Vargo handed him and wiped the remains of spittle and blood jelly from his mouth. Shaking off his untied bonds, he spoke for the stunned Anduske to hear. “Much I have to tell you, but first I ask you this. In Nadežra I remain, poor and hunted by the Cinquerat. My life I risk to speak to you, and my knot charm I still wear, uncut.” He yanked down his collar, showing the braided cords of all the bosses who’d come before him. “So how am I the traitor, when everything Branek has told you of what happened that night is proven false?”

A hundred different answers sprang up in reply. The surprise of Andrejek’s revelation rocked people back on their heels, but some of them didn’t take well to the suggestion that they’d been following the true traitor. They’d rather cling to what they knew, even in the face of evidence to the contrary, than admit they’d erred.

If enough of them swung that way, this could get ugly very fast.

Branek was sputtering, trying to find a convincing angle from which to keep selling his lie. Andrejek took swift advantage of that. “He has no answer for me. In that, you see your truth!”

“Fuck that!” Vargo didn’t know the name of the woman who’d led the group at the gates, but now he mentally christened her ‘Trouble.’ “And fuck you, Andrejek! Your charm you may wear, but you spit upon what it means. Under your leadership we print pamphlets and do nothing of use. It took the manipulation of the enemy to make you do what you should — and even then, you lost your courage! You betray the Anduske with your spinelessness!”

“Such courage it takes, to break an oath. Almost as much courage as it takes to knowingly support those who do.” Andrejek stalked out of the protective ring of Vargo’s people to spit his response into Trouble’s face. “If with my decisions you disagree, you cut your own knot, or you face me publicly. Not strike from behind and beat me to the ground. Not lie about it afterwards. If that is what you wish our people to become, how are you better than those who took Nadežra? Than those who hold it still?”

Murmurs of support rose at that. Andrejek played to them like an actor on a stage. “You use the weapon of the enemy and call yourself hero? Then you are no child of the dreamweaver — and no knotmate of mine.”

Seizing Trouble’s wrist, he tore her bracelet off and threw it at her feet. While she snarled in fury, he cast his gaze outward. “I am still your leader, no matter what that liar claims. Who else wishes to be cut out?”

This was the most dangerous moment, when everything teetered on the edge of a knife. The balance might tip toward Andrejek, toward Branek, or simply toward violence, the Anduske staining themselves forever with the blood of their fellows.

Before that last could happen, the Night Moths stepped forward.

Mažylo said, “Here’s what’s gonna happen. Andrejek, Vargo, and anybody who wants to go with them are gonna leave. Then, one bell later, Branek and anybody who wants to go with him are gonna leave. And whoever throws the first punch or knife is gonna die for it.”

Branek finally found words. “Vargo broke his word!” he snarled at Mažylo. “You promised your people –”

“Would keep the peace of Nightpeace. And that’s what we’re doing.”

There was more left unsaid in Mažylo’s glance at Vargo, in the silent nod Vargo gave in response. It was only a matter of time before the news spread that Vargo had tied another knot into his web, that the Night Moths answered to him now. He’d scribed Mažylo into Tiama Capenni’s register this afternoon as her main husband, with Era Cleoter smiling on the union like it was her idea — after some gentle bribery from Vargo. But right now, Branek didn’t know that.

“Any who follow will hear the truths I tell,” Andrejek was saying. “If they satisfy you not, I will not make you stay or begrudge your leaving. For those who wish not to hear the truth…” Setting his foot on the broken knot charm, he ground it into the dirt. “You are free.”

With that, he deliberately turned his back on Branek and walked away, with Vargo’s people guarding him against any sudden rush. Like fabric unraveling, the crowd began to pull apart: some following Andrejek, others staying. Vargo stayed braced for one last assault, but nothing came. When they passed out through the gates of Nightpeace, he took a deep breath for the first time in what felt like hours.

::About half came with us,:: Alsius said. ::Rather good, all things considering.::

Vargo nodded. “Could have –”

A sudden shout brought his head around. Someone near Andrejek was on the ground, and kneeling atop his back was a familiar shadow. Vargo grinned. I guess things in Floodwatch went fast and well.

“Now that’s just rude,” the Black Rose said. She twisted the man’s hand up behind his back and wrenched two things from it: a knife, and a snapped charm. “At least you cut this before you tried to knife him — but even so. Pretending to follow him, only to betray him? If you wanted to prove Ča Andrejek’s point, well done.”

She climbed off the would-be assassin, and several of the returned Anduske hauled him to his feet. Andrejek said coldly, “Take him with us. He too will hear my tale — and then we’ll see about justice.”

Then he turned and touched his heart to the Black Rose. “Once again, I owe you my life.”

She touched her own heart in response. “You can repay me by not making me a liar. I told Ča Korzetsu you’d be willing to talk to the ziemetse, if they met you halfway. I have this mad vision, you see, of Vraszenians actually working together.”

Vargo nodded back at the gardens. “It’s a nice idea, and one we can discuss elsewhere. Before we have Branek breathing up our asses.”

“Yes,” Andrejek said. “To Seven Knots we will return, and I will deal with my people. After that . . . we will see, Lady Rose.”