2nd of Faquar, the Fall Quarter of year 901
One dim crystal lit the shabby room in a flickering yellow light. Shelves lined the walls, filled with boxes of dried foods and bottles of liquor. A table with two chairs, one of which was occupied, was underneath the light. This was the backroom of The Red Roost, a pub in Old City. Currently, it was housing a young teenager and an old balding man. The young man in question burst into the room, slamming the newspaper down onto the table with a slap.
“They’re gonna kill Dad.” Harvey said to the balding man sitting at the rickety table. The man said nothing, nursing his beer.
“Did you hear me? I said they’re gonna kill him!”
“I heard you. Now, stop hollerin’ about it.” Bennett said.
Harvey sat down, staring at Bennett intensely. He lowered his voice conspiratorially. “So, how are we gonna get him out?”
Bennett looked up from his beer.
“We’re doing what?” He said sharply.
“Saving him.” Said Harvey, with one of his most determined looks. Lothar was like a father to him, like family. He would never let the man die. Not ever.
“Are you out of your mind?” Hissed Bennett. “They’re gonna kill him and there’s nothing you or anyone can do about it, so shut up and let me mourn in peace.”
“But he’s not dead yet, and he doesn’t have to die if you’d just—”
“Just what? Just what am I supposed to do?” Said the old man with a fierce glare.
“I don’t know, fight! You always came up with the plans. Just think of one and save him.” He gripped the table with whitened knuckles. He didn’t get it. How could Bennett treat this like it was nothing. Bennett and Lothar were friends for years before Harvey met him.
“Kid, you need to get this through your head. You can’t win. They’ve got Watchguards all over the city. And even if you did manage to get Lothar out of prison- which you won’t- how are you getting away? There are Watchmirrors on every corner. They’d be able to see you wherever you go. They’d find you and they’d kill you both. There is nothing you can do.”
“But I have to try. I have to do something.”
“No, you don’t. You need to listen to me. If you go out there, you’ll die. You won’t save Lothar, you won’t accomplish anything. You’ll just die. Now, I’ve watched too many fools die to allow you to do the same. So we’re going to stay here and keep our heads down. We’ll figure out a way to get out of the city tomorrow, head up to Harkow or Panhurst, get out of the country.”
Harvey stood up, knocking the chair back with a bang. “You useless old coward.” He hissed, and walked out of the backroom of The Red Roost, slamming the door behind him. Fine. If Bennett wouldn’t help him, he’d find someone who would.
He stormed down the hallway and made a sharp turn to the right, up two flights of stairs, and burst out onto the roof. He wanted fresh air, but he couldn’t walk on the streets. The watchguards probably had a sketch of his face, and would be spying on Old City through the Watchmirrors. He couldn’t rescue his dad from inside a jail cell.
Lothar wasn’t his real dad. His parents died when he was a kid and Lothar took him in. He didn’t have to, but he did it anyway. Harvey loved his real parents, but he loved Lothar, too.
The last light of dusk was fading, blurring the harsh cracks in the bricks of the adjacent buildings, and Old City looked almost warm, with little flickering lights from every window tricking the mind into believing this city was well.
The cobblestone roads of Old City were narrow and winding, the buildings all shoved together, dilapidated and worn. It was in this city he’d grown, suffering under the yoke of the Noble Houses. There were maybe 167 Noble Houses in the country of Jaborre, and all of them were filthy rich. They owned the factories, the paper, and even the government.
Harvey wasn’t a real Black Mage. He’d learned some things from Lothar, but nothing powerful. He knew he couldn’t do it on his own. And Harvey couldn’t just ask their friends. They were being watched, and he doubted they’d know how, either. He’d need real mages, real practitioners of the arts, people who knew how the watchguards worked, people who could do more than him.
Harvey thought. Lothar used to have a contact in the Free Mage Armament. Bennett didn’t like dealing with them, said they were too violent. But power was what they needed right now. They needed power and information to get Lothar out of jail. Harvey allowed himself to imagine an army come to save Lothar, charging at the fat lazy nobles. He laughed bitterly.
There was a way to contact them, Harvey knew. Lothar and Bennett had talked about it while they thought he was sleeping. Something about folded papers in an envelope, extra drop locations that Lothar hadn’t seen and so couldn’t give away when under Compulsion. Problem was, any papers or envelopes would be back at the apartment or maybe even confiscated by the watchguards.
And he’d have to cross half of Old City to get there, unseen.
It wasn’t impossible. People regularly defaced and broke the watchmirrors in Old City, so there was typically a clear path to anywhere you wanted to go. It just took time. The real problem was getting into the apartment. Bennett hid the envelope, no doubt. But Harvey knew Bennett, and could guess where he’d hide it.
He slipped back inside, drawing a cloak over his shoulders, hood up. Bennett was in the back room, drinking himself into a stupor. He didn’t notice when Harvey left.
The streets were crowded. Harvey kept his hands in his pockets to ward off thieves. Those were the things you learned growing up in Old City. You learned to avoid the old warehouses by the docks, because everyone knew that’s where the gangsters and organized crime lords were, and they’d shoot you as soon as look at you. If you stepped off the side roads, you’d find hookers and opium dealers, and probably a few more gangsters, too.
He knew that little chalk arrow graffiti scrawled onto the sides of buildings meant that the watchmirror was broken on this road, so it was safe. That the pipes on the side of those apartment buildings he was walking past were exposed because the tenant had futzed with the pipes. Most people couldn’t afford the water bill, so neighbors just pitched in and made sure one apartment always had water, and then they’d go fill up jugs from that house.
Some didn’t have the money to do that.
Bennett’s apartment was eerily empty. Watchmirrors were working at the front entrance and the fire escape leading to Bennett’s apartment, so he went two doors down and used theirs, balancing precariously two floors up, jumping to his next door neighbor’s apartment, and then towards Bennett’s.
He figured it wouldn’t be enough to evade the watchguards. They probably had some way of figuring out if someone entered, so he quickly opened the window, snuck in, and looked around the dark room. It was home. It was where he’d grown up after his parents died. His dad died when he was six in a factory accident. His mother only lasted for two more years, dying from tuberculosis. Bennett and Lothar were family, next-door neighbors who took him in when his mother died, and became like parents.
Harvey went to the grouting running along the back wall, and loosened it. The letter was right where he thought it would be. Harvey then left the apartment for the last time.
He was halfway down the street when he heard the shouts of watchguards.
He ran for his life, down side alleys faster than he’d ever run before. He ducked under produce carts, around people’s little stands in front of their homes, and into alleys. It took him only six minutes to lose them, but it felt like the longest six minutes of his life.
He opened the letter in the dim light outside someone’s apartment. There was an address, with the instructions to drop the request in a small bucket resting on that house’s windowsill. There were also instructions to only use this method of contacting them if someone was in dire need of help. Harvey thought Lothar’s situation qualified.
He made his way to the street, knocking on doors as he went until someone opened up and lent him a pen. He wrote on the back of the paper.
Dear Free Mage Armament; I need help. My family is in danger. We want weapons and power to defend ourselves. -HK
He folded the paper and dropped it in the bin, then walked back to The Red Roost.
Harvey was blindfolded, hands bound. Two men on either side held him down in the chair. There were footsteps on the wooden floor, the thud of heavy boots.
“This is the boy?” Spoke a female voice. There was the click of a door shutting behind her, and the sound of her boots. She was walking around him and the guards in a slow circle.
“This is him, ma’am. Found him down by the wharf, like he said he’d be.” The gruff voice to his left replied.
Harvey had found a note the next morning tucked under the backdoor of the Red Roost, addressed to HK. It told him to meet them at the wharf, but when he got there, two men came up behind him and shoved a bag over his head. He was dumped in a wagon and dragged somewhere. He was scared.
She came to a halt in front of him. “Well, why do you seek us out?”
“I need your help. The Council has my friend, Lothar. He was arrested and they’re going to kill him. I know you guys do stuff like this, so please, help me get him free.” His fists clenched in their bonds. They had to help him. The woman walked to the left and her steps were getting slightly fainter, like she was walking away from him.
There was silence, then the click of a drawer opening and a shuffling sound, like someone was rustling up papers, and the scrape of a chair. He realized he must be sitting in front of a desk, and the woman was sitting behind it.
“Lothar Czako, the man who is to be publicly executed in two days?” Her voice was soft, almost velvety, with sharp undertones.
“Yes.” He gulped. The two men on either side of him were still pressing down on his shoulders, and it hurt. Harvey was starting to wonder if this was a good idea. This was nothing like the stories he’d grown up hearing about the Free Mage Armament.
The woman hummed in response, flipping through what Harvey assumed was the newspaper. “Why was he arrested?” He wasn’t sure answering that was a good idea. The papers made Lothar look like a monster, exaggerating, twisting, and outright lying about the crimes he committed. If the woman wanted an ally out of Lothar, she might prefer the fiction to the reality. But the Free Mage Armament were the good guys, they wouldn’t want a crazy murderer on the loose. She might side with the Council and say he should be killed if he said that the papers were accurate. If he told the truth, then he did not run the risk of alienating her by mentions of gratuitous violence and bloodshed, but did run the risk that she would think Lothar wasn’t worth saving.
“Um. I don’t-” He took a deep breath. “I won’t put anyone else in danger. For all I know, one of you could be a kojite. He’s a good person, and he doesn’t deserve to die. Please, you got to help him.” It was a good feint, maybe even believable. The Kojites were a branch of the Council, and hired people to infiltrate The Free Mage Armament and other Anti-government organizations. They were saboteurs, and Harvey knew he was at a risk. There was no guarantee he had contacted the real Free Mage Armament. They still weren’t sure how Lothar had been caught.
“So there are others working for Lothar Czako.” Harvey opened his mouth to argue then shut it. Bennett didn’t work for them, but Harvey didn’t want to bring Bennett into this at all. He was a spineless old coward, but he was also like family. If Harvey was wrong, if these people weren’t the real Free Mage Armament, he didn’t want to put Bennett in any danger.
One of the guards, the one of the left who spoke before, let go of him and walked to what Harvey assumed was the left side of the room. There was the sound of another drawer opening, and more papers being shuffled. The room wasn’t that big, then. Only about five steps to the left, and assuming the desk was in the middle of the room, five steps to the right.
“I apologise for this.” Said the woman. “It is a necessary precaution.” There was the sound of a scraping chair, and the thumps of the woman’s boots. He heard her take something from the man’s hand.
“Hold him down.” The man pressed his hand against the back of Harvey’s head, forcing him to lean forwards. His chin was pressed to his chest painfully. Harvey started to panic.
“What are you doi-” Cool paper was pressed to the back of his neck, and he heard –
Harvey gasped, blinking his eyes rapidly. His muscles felt stiff, like he’d been sitting there for hours, when he’d only been here for minutes, and nobody was holding his shoulders down. Where did the two men go? And there had been paper being pressed to the back of his neck. What happened? That was just a second ago and now –
“I think,” said the woman, “we can come to an accord, Harvey Kane.” She wasn’t behind him anymore. It sounded like she was sitting back at her desk in front of him. When did she move? He hadn’t heard – What had he heard? Right before, when the man held his head down, he’d heard… what? He couldn’t remember.
“I never said my name.”
“Yes, like I said, necessary precaution.” She was rustling with more papers. He wiggled his shoulders, hands still bound. He didn’t hear the two men. Where had they gone? Something had happened, something to do with the paper she pressed to his neck. She used magic on him, Black Magic. It could have been a ritual. He shuddered, the fine hairs on his arms raising. It could be anything, from a spell to force him to tell the truth, to one that slowly killed him should he not comply to her demands.
“What did you do to me?”
“A Compulsion. We made you tell the truth for an hour. Side effects include memory loss of said hour.” And Harvey became incredibly afraid. Because that was what the Kojites did. They made you tell the truth, and then they’d find your family and your friends and they’d make them tell the truth, unwittingly betray everyone they loved. Then they would arrest all of them and execute them. They figured it was safer if the family members of the deceased weren’t alive to get angry and swear revenge.
“Don’t worry. I didn’t make you murder anyone or anything else so distasteful, and neither you nor Bennett are in any danger from us.”
“What are you going to do?” His voice trembled. She knew about Bennett. She probably knew everything about him. Every secret, every fear. She knew about every person he loved. And she probably mentioned Bennett’s name just so he’d know that she held all the cards.
“Help you, of course. We only had to make sure you were trustworthy. That drop had been compromised. We worried you were a Kojite spy.”
He sagged in relief. “You’ll help me save Lothar?”
“Yes. We’ll provide you with everything you need. I require only one thing from you in return.”
“What do you want?”
She chuckled, a soft little laugh. “What do I want? I want the Council out of Port Drebon, out of Jaborre. I want to see them humiliated and burning. I want revenge for everything they’ve done and more. And I won’t stop there. I’ll kill every one of their children, their husbands and wives, their parents, if they have any. I won’t stop until every Noble is dead.”
He trembled in his seat. He’d been looking for heroes and instead he’d found someone dangerous, really dangerous. How foolish was he to still believe in heroes.
“A-and what does that have to do with me?” To his embarrassment, his voice cracked.
“Well, contingent upon you surviving your little rescue attempt, you’ll become one of us.” Harvey didn’t know what to say. He grew up idolizing the Free Mage Armament for fighting back against the Noble Houses and their tyranny, but he was no Black Mage. He knew a bit from following Lothar, but it was just hat tricks, nothing impressive, nothing the Free Mage Armament could use.
“But I don’t -” He started to say, but was cut off.
“Think of it this way, if you escape, you’ll need people on your side. You won’t be able to go to your friends. They’re letting you hide in the backroom of their pub now, but only because you’re an orphaned kid and an old man. They know the Kojites are not devoting time or energy to finding you and Bennett because you’re nobodies. But if you save Lothar, you’ll either die or you’ll be on the run. You’ll be infamous. We can protect you and offer you support, as long as you do occasional jobs for us.” Her voice was steady, calming. Harvey couldn’t help but wonder if it was somehow a trap. It sounded like too good a deal. No one was that altruistic. And it dawned on him just then, with her blunt words, that he had no home to go back to, ever.
“If you know everything, then you know what Lothar, Bennett and I did. We ferried people out of the country, refugees. Our contacts- some of them- might have escaped. We could get out of the country that way.” His voice shook, but he had to say it. He had to be sure it wasn’t a trick.
“They might still be alive, but would you risk your life on it?” She asked.
“What kind of help will you give us?” He had to know. He couldn’t make a decision without that information.
“You must understand, I cannot give you any of my people. What I can provide you with is weapons and information.”
“You want me to charge in there with a pistol?” Did she think he was suicidal?
“No, of course not.” She sighed, almost condescendingly. “I meant that I can give you explosives. You plant them somewhere and release Lothar in the confusion.”
“What’s the information?”
“The exact location of the Watchmirrors along the alleys, which ones are working and which aren’t. Where the Watchguards will be, what kind of security will be set up around the prisoner’s carriage, and more.” This was good. It might be everything he needed. But, he didn’t know. It was feeling real now, like it was something he could actually do, and not just something he wanted to do. And with that came the realization that this was really really dangerous, and that he could actually be dead in a day.
“And the weapons?”
“We’ll review the maps, but right now I am assuming we’ll use an explosive as a diversion. You can use the chaos to move Lothar out of the prisoner’s carriage and into the alleyways. We’ve managed to damage Watchmirrors across the city, creating cracks in their surveillance. Run down the right alleys, and no one will ever see you.”
“Why are you telling me this?” If he got captured, they’d use a Compulsion on him and the Watchguards would know all about the Free Mage Armament’s plans.
“They already know. Breaking them in such a fashion is rather hard to hide.” She said dryly. “Now, will you accept my offer?”
“Can I think about it?” He asked, almost hoping she wouldn’t. If he rejected her offer, then Lothar was as good as dead. But he didn’t know if he could risk Bennett’s or his lives doing this.
“I’ll give you fifteen minutes.” She said, and the chair scraped back. He heard footsteps, and the door opening and shutting. He knew he might not actually be alone. Just because he hadn’t heard the two men didn’t mean they weren’t in the room, standing perfectly still.
Harvey didn’t want to die. He wasn’t stupid. He knew the outcome of jumping in to save Lothar wasn’t good, even with the help of the Free Mage Armament. He wanted so much more from life. He wanted to help people, really help people. But Lothar was like his dad. He took in Harvey when Harvey’s parents died. Lothar didn’t even flinch at the cost of caring for a child. He just did it, because it was the right thing to do. That was just the kind of person Lothar was. He helped people. He helped them cross the border from Jaborre to Sutanni, acting as a middleman between different parties of people who wanted to help mages get out of Jaborre.
Harvey couldn’t let those bastards parade Lothar around the city, call him a monster and kill him. He could not sit still at home knowing his protector, mentor, father was being murdered. It wasn’t something a good person would stand, or even could stand.
He realized, then, that he’d already made his decision.
When he returned to the Red Roost, Bennett was waiting for him.
“Where have you been?”
“Don’t do anything stupid.”
“I’m not.” Harvey started making his way to the beds, when Bennett slapped a letter into his chest.
“What is it?” Harvey asked, fearing that it was something from the Free Mage Armament, that somehow, Bennett knew.
“That is a client. There’s a girl wanting to get out of the country. She, and all the people after her, are the reasons why we can’t rescue Lothar. We’re needed here. If we die, then no one may pick up our work. All those people trying to get out of the country will have nowhere to go. They’ll die.”
Harvey suddenly felt guilty. He was inadvertently killing those people. He knew he probably wouldn’t get out alive.
“What is it? What did you do?” Bennett asked, frowning.
“Nothing.” Harvey turned around and went to bed.