Friday, 21 November 2014

Chapter fourteen

Pyrrho found himself in another small room.  Except this one was not in the hospitable confines of a favourite drinking establishment.  Nor did it have a convenient grate to the sewers,  or an unlocked door as means of exit.  No,  this was a cell,  somewhere deep inside the administrative headquarters of Fortunestone's head of state,  Congressman Virius. 
The cell consisted of a perimeter of thick iron pillars,  each a handsbredth wide,  firmly embedded in the floor and ceiling forming a square around him.  This construction was itself in a stone walled room with a wooden door the only entry or exit.  Light,  what meagre amount there was,  filtered through a small viewing window towards the top of the door. 
Pyrrho sat amid the scratchy sacking that had served as his bedding on the hard floor these three days past.  Or was it four days? The passage of time was hard to calculate,  other than by the periodic visits of a guard -  mute to Pyrrho's enquiries -  with scraps of food and a small cup of water. 
While not exactly seeking out experiences of incarceration,  this was far from an unknown predicament for a man of Pyrrho’s pursuits.  He wasn't relaxed, but nor was he agitatedly pacing, or screaming his innocence.  That he was still alive was a plus point;  the elaborate nature of the trap spoke of his value as a prisoner, as did the style and location of his cell,  well away from the cramped gaol down the hill in the peasant's quarter.  What actual value he had remained to be seen. Would it be enough to bargain or threaten with, or instead enough to warrant a special kind of torture?
Torture. The thought made him reflect for a moment or two. It wasn’t uncommon at time of war, in fact it was often demanded for instances of espionage and Pyrrho had sometimes run afoul of this. However, Pyrrho’s experiences went back before then. To his childhood. But now was not the time for reminiscences, footsteps were approaching, echoing around the confines of his small room. Pyrrho stood, attempted to adopt a pose of aloof indifference, couldn’t quite get it, so went for brooding nonchalance instead.
The door opened, three figures walked in and all pretences were forgotten, Pyrrho’s mouth dropped open.
“Amazing the size of the rats in the city sewers these days” the first figure remarked. She looked different without makeup and in the uniform of the palace guard, but the woman from the floor of the drunks dungeon was still recognisable. However, she wasn’t the reason for Pyrrho’s surprise. That was the second figure.
“M-Marcia?” Pyrrho stammered
“Ah yes, I forgot you knew my chief of intelligence” it was the third figure that spoke, an elderly man, slightly humpbacked, bald aside from a thin crop that encircled the crown of his head. Ornate robes spilled from his shoulders, finishing a few centimetres from the ground to show off his extremely rare and vastly expensive leather shoes. “She has excelled herself once again, don’t you think?” a grey eyebrow arched in Pyrrho’s direction.
“Greetings, Congressman” Pyrrho bowed ornately, buying himself a little time to regain composure, a tactic he’d once seen Aesara adopt to some effect.
Congressman Virius smiled to himself and continued “I had insisted on closing all ways into and out of the town. But the ever inventive Marcia said we should keep one route open, see what we snare. And my, what a catch this is” he rubbed his hands together “working for the insurrection I presume? Sowing dissent amid the walls of my fine city?” he was beginning to get agitated, came close to the bars, eyes wide.
If Pyrrho was of a mind he could have leapt forward and snapped the Congressman’s neck in an instant. Part of his brain was screaming for such a course of action, but as was normally the case, the more pragmatic part won out. He did, however, take a step forward, not to strike at Virius, but to test his retinue. The woman in the guard’s uniform reacted quickly, putting herself between Virius and the bars with a snarl at Pyrrho.
Marcia stayed still in the background, but was smiling. That unnerved Pyrrho further and he backed away.
“Congressman, may I suggest that you leave the messy business of the interrogation to me?” Marcia’s spoken voice was quiet, but the tone carried like an icy dagger through hot flesh. It was certainly enough to halt the Congressman’s rising anger.
“Y…yes, you are right, dealing with such, such sewer detritus is below my calling” he stepped away from the cage, towards the doors. “But mark my words, I want answers and I want them soon” and with a swish of robes he had turned and was striding away, guard in toe.
“We all desire answers my liege” Marcia remained, as some unseen jailer outside slammed and bolted the door shut. She stared at Pyrrho, thin smile still evident, but said nothing more.     
“Chief of intelligence?” Pyrrho felt compounded to break the silence. “I always said you’d do well”. Marcia did not look like responding, so he continued, “But for Virius? Really?” Still nothing from Marcia, Pyrrho pressed on “Were you behind the downfall of his brother? Florus was far from perfect, but he was not cruel”
“You know about cruelty” the statement hung in the air between them. It was not said with malice, more the aloof indifference that Pyrrho had so failed to manage at the start of this meeting. Marcia tilted her head slightly, appraisingly.
“Marcia…” Pyrrho moved forward to hold onto the iron bars, head resting between them.
“Save your doe-eyed pleading for someone who is not so familiar with your manipulation” she turned to pace in front of him. “Instead enlighten me as to just why exactly you were crawling back into Fortunestone”
“I hoped to find friends”
“Well you failed at that task. What was your second objective?”
“You are not the only one in search of answers”
“But I am the only one that will be getting them today. What information were you seeking? Fortunestone’s weaknesses? Guard rosters? Poisoning our wells maybe?” Marcia briefly paused her slow placing to glance at Pyrrho.
“If you believe that then you have spent too much time in that cretin Virius’ company”
“Two minutes is too much time in his company. But we all make compromises to get ahead. Some even turn to betrayal if it solicits and advantage”. The pacing resumed. “So what are you doing here?”
“The Drakhan, they have accessed some new, well old, technology. I seek to find out why” Pyrrho decided that if he were to get anywhere with Marcia, it would be through truth. She knew his little tricks too well for another course of action to work.
“I have heard many tall tales of what the Drakhan are now capable of”
“I would say you don’t know half of it, but I learnt from a young age not to underestimate you”
“You also learnt that flattery curries little favour with me.”
“Indeed. But I mean it. Given that I am unlikely to be among friends any time soon, how about you fill me in on what you have learnt of the Drakhan ascendance?”
“Just who is doing the questioning here?” Marcia looked amused, but her disposition soon hardened. “Some waffle about a quest to track down some long dead magic will not satisfy the Congressman. I need more. Tell me what you know of the insurrection.”
“I know that people keep saying that word and I’m not entirely sure what they are talking about”
“You have spent some days amongst the hordes at our walls, you and your band of mercenaries. Who hired you?”
“No one hired me”
“But you have recently fought. Your man at arms bore fresh wounds”
“You are remarkably well informed” a sinking feeling had emerged in Pyrrho’s stomach. It is worse to look guilty than be guilty, from the point of view of his future prospects in any case.
“You are not the only one who roams the camp, looking for information, for plots and intrigue” Marcia came to a halt in front of Pyrrho, whose head was not so much resting against the bars as slumped against them. “I ask again whose cause you are paid to fight for”.
“The Steed was last, but I am unlikely to receive that final particular payment”
“The Drakhan made him a difficult offer, it is true”
Pyrrho was no longer surprised at how well informed Marcia was.
“Just like they do us” she continued, then stopped. Pyrrho blinked, then looked up, at her.
“They call for your surrender? Are their forces near?” he asked urgently
“There you go with the questioning again, you really don't understand the prisoner / inquisitor relationship do you?”
Pyrrho ignored the chiding “If they are near then you'd be best preparing than asking me about phantom insurrections. Your walls are thick, but I am not sure if that will be enough.”
“You witnessed their move against the Steed?”
“Uh-huh, watched as he sent an entire battalion to break the Drakhan line. Watched as the Drakhan made them disappear”

“They didn't disappear”
“Whole bodies were there one second, bits of bodies were spread over the area the next second. No other trace remained, I looked” Pyrrho bent his head down once more, grisly images of his reconnaissance flashing across his mind.
“They didn't disappear though. They were blown up”
“It's dark technology at play either way”
“The distinction is important. For weeks I had reports of Drakhan mining two counties over. Talk of a new tin discovery. Naturally Virius was intrigued as to a possibly lucrative new opportunity close at hand, so I investigated.”
“What did you find out?”
Marcia decided to humour the question this time “Not much. Certainly no tin ore. If anything they were putting items back into the mine.”
“Barrels. Of what I could discover not at the time, but black powder later analysis revealed. An old Elder explosive”
“Where did they get that from?”
“I suspect you already know. You and your ferocious older sister. But what I wanted to know is whether you were involved in its usage. If you intend to use it against us”
“And me sneaking into Fortunestone would look pretty bad on that front?” Pyrrho grimaced; for once a mess not of his own doing threatened to be his undoing.
“Indeed, it would look bad to a simpleton like Virius” Marcia raised an eyebrow “But to me it proves your innocence”
Pyrrho's head snapped back up “How so? I mean, er, good, as I am innocent”
Marcia sniggered, then took a small piece of paper from the ornate belt that encircled her ample figure. She unfolded it and held it up towards Pyrrho, albeit out of hands reach. “The Drakhan don't need to test their black powder against our walls. They don't need to commit their men to a siege. They don't need insurrection. Even if they did, you would be a poor choice of leader. Plus they hate you. No, all the Drakhan need to do is....” she paused, always one for the dramatic moment  “...wait”
Pyrrho wasn't really one for the drama, instead he was squinting at the note. Strangely spelt words, others unintelligible, littered with numbers and symbols. “It’s that odd Previous hand that the Drakhan have begun using” he said.
“It is. Took our best code-breakers a week to untangle”
“And it calls for your surrender?”
“To start with we thought so, but it turns out that was not strictly correct”
Pyrrho just frowned, so Marcia continued.
“They merely wish us the enjoyment of our new guests”
“Guests?” then Pyrrho realised, “the refugees”. The reason the Drakhan had been at pains to herd the refugee caravans towards Fortunestone. Why lay a time consuming siege when others will do it for you? Fortunestone can not support so many new arrivals, and its ample guard would be preoccupied keeping them out rather than taking to the battlefield against the Drakhan. Eventually supplies would dwindle and the town would fall. “Oh my” Pyrrho said meekly as the puzzle fell into place.
“Oh my indeed. Unless we do something about it”
The “we” part of that sentence caused Pyrrho's frown to deepen further “We as in the people of Fortunestone, or is that a “we” that involves me?” he wondered aloud
“Would I be standing here telling you all this if it were the former?”
“What do you propose then?”
“I do not propose. I instruct” she waited a second for Pyrrho to nod his acquiescence before continuing. “You see the reason the honourable Congressman and I deigned to visit you this morning was not because of the note from the Drakhan, rather it was another note. This one” she took out a second note from her belt, more crumpled than the first, and passed it to Pyrrho. He unscrunched it as best he could and began to read.
Dere Fortunston
Relesse our Pyhrro or feel ore raff
We has your supplys and can smash your gates
a misterius avenger

Pyrrho dropped the note so as to massage his temples against a building headache. “That idiot” he muttered
“A familiar scrawl, is it?” Marcia was smiling again. It unnerved Pyrrho.
“What has he done?”
“Yesterday evening Virius sent a contingent of his guard to escort a supply convey into Fortunestone. His troops were overwhelmed by a large crowd of refugees led by a man of imposing stature. Although the guard were allowed to return to Fortunestone, the supply convey was not.”
Pyrrho couldn't help it. He laughed. It felt good. The tension building in his skull ebbed away and the tight knot in his stomach relaxed. Marcia just stared at him.
“Have you quite finished?” she asked after a while, head again tilted to one side.
“My man, Volk, is far from subtle, but he is effective. So when are you going to release me?”
“Virius favours releasing you off the top of the highest wall, intestines wrapped around your throat”
Pyrrho instinctively reached for his neck “But I hope you, er, advised him towards another path of action?” he squirmed a little.
“It was tempting to let him have his way. But perhaps not the best course of long term action” she had started to pace the perimeter of the cell. “Instead we will leave through a side gate and your Volk shall release the supplies”
“There you go with the unclear use of 'we' again” pointed out Pyrrho, tracking the pace of Marcia with his eyes.
“You, myself, and some trusted aides”
“Where are we going”
“You already know the answer to that”
“Then we need an army rather than some trusted aides”
“Such brute force is not my style. It was never yours either. Has that changed in the intervening years?”
Pyrrho shook his head slowly “But I need to meet up with Aesara first” then another thought struck him “And Volk will release half the supplies”
Marcia stopped, turned towards him “If you start trying to call the shots I will reconsider Virius' preferred course of action”
“Think about it. Volk releases all the supplies just for me, the crowd will rip us apart. We, as in all of us, need to sweeten the deal. Half the supplies and you take in the most ill of the refugees into your hospitals. You can't break the siege without compromise”
“A good compromise leaves everyone equally unhappy” sniffed Marcia
“But a good compromise is less likely to tear Fortunestone apart, as desired by the Drakhan”
“Your slogan is less catchy than mine. But it has merit. I will return later, Virius will take some persuading” and this that she was gone, the door swinging open at some unspoken command.

Pyrrho turned and lent on the bars, breathing slightly erratic. He was leaving one cell to head back to another. That of his early childhood. 

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