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The Coward's Tale Part One

If, as many people believe, there is a portion of humanity that can be called saved, and a portion that can be called damned, it is likely the latter that is worth the most interesting study, as a way to understand to the mistakes we may be lead to. If, on the other hand, all are damned, the most interesting are those who were most deserving of salvation. The ones who, through will and the grace of God (if such a being exists, which in this case it may not), were able to navigate towards the highest possible levels before plunging into the pit, and burning for their crimes

It is not clear which of these our story will be. The hero’s fate is not in question. He will die like the rest- perhaps worse than the rest, because both the world and I demand it. He will burn, but for what reason? Perhaps it will have been for the blood he shed, or the lies he told. Perhaps the fate of his brother-in-arms will chain him to the fiery rocks. The promise he made and broke with the Keeper of Wells. The man whose heart’s sorrow he drank from. The hate that he carried. We can find any number of proofs that this man deserved the pit. Can we find any contrary? We shall see.

It is us who must decide for ourselves the justice of this fate. No great truth will spring from this. We will leave this story with nothing that can put food in our bellies. I tell it because, whether God is there or not, the reckoning is nigh, and the course of justice will be swift.

With that in mind we will begin at the story of his exile from Reien.

He worked as an enforcer for the city in the guard of Song of Ash. Most of his time off-duty was spent with a drink in hand, and on-duty slinking from house to store, drawing bribes from which citizens he could and, assisted by his partner, giving those he found disagreeable a firm reminder of what the Song’s justice felt like. When shit inevitably came down from the higher ups, he passed on responsibility with a deftness that at times seemed like demonic cooperation, though his rank was low, a place he didn’t have enough guile to scramble out of. Three promotions had all been knocked back down quickly. He had stopped trying to achieve another. Sometimes, in his free time, he read.

Today the tall, brown-haired man strode the streets with his head high. He wore the purple insignia of Song of Ash pinned to his cheap black clothing, and a knife strapped to his belt. Though his shift had ended, he often didn’t remove the blade and insignia for hours after. This time, he was using it to make a trip to the gambling den.

In his own district, there were few criminals who didn’t know him, so he had to travel deep into other territories of Reien for his searches. For three months he had been working his way through the Keylen Ward. He didn’t expect to stay there much longer – the likelihood of recognition felt like it was starting to grow – but it still had a few more jobs left in it.

The Ward was a civilized part of Reien. Everyone there lived in a house. The houses often were decorated in rich carvings and jewels. The merchants did not do business on the streets, but in private residences, which you could enter only by appointment. Craftsmen did not live there. And the Song of Ash had chosen to take it as one of her protected realms in the city. But like all civilizations, it still had criminals. The type that kept their business classy.

Veyk enjoyed this type. They were not less dangerous than the street lords he often interacted with, but their danger was more predictable and avoidable. There was little chance a ten year old girl would try to slice through your Achilles tendon, and the rewards reaped were far greater. Sometimes he wondered why he didn’t request a transfer.

The den which he was visiting was in a mansion that belonged to a rich merchant, Onugetsu. He had spent much time observing the men and women who entered the place, much time watching Onugetsu. The merchant was convinced he could get away with almost anything.

An Almidi guard stood at the entrance of Onugetsu’s property. He stared at Veyk aggressively, then his eyes fell to the Song’s insignia. His hand moved away from the hilt of his weapon. The words he spoke were carefully considered.

“It is an honor to have a servant of the Song want to join us tonight; however, I believe you are not one of the people to be let in.”

“It’s an honor to kiss my ass,” said Veyk. “If I don’t get inside, I’ll come back with a few buddies and a search order.” It was a bluff. There was no one he could turn to for assistance. If the man realized he was not acting in an official capacity, Veyk’s future at his hands would be slow and bloody.

“I was not clear. There is a list I have, with the names of the people that Mister Onugetsu wishes to see tonight. I have been commanded not to allow anyone in unless they are on this list. It is an important occasion to him, and he does not wish to be disturbed. I’m sure your senior officers in your guard would agree with this.” The Almidi’s four eyes blinked in sequence.

“Onugetsu’s not the boss. The Song is, and I’m one of her official hands. Right now our eyes are on him. Don’t get cute and catch her attention too.”

The Almidi rubbed its claws together behind its back absent-mindedly. A common nervous tick among the species. Turning, it said, “Very well. Please wait here.” It scurried through the gate, carried by six insectoid legs. The entrance thudded shut and locked behind him. Veyk took a step back and considered the property. Black marble walls, taller than any being but the most well-grown Eruvians, surrounded the 45 acres. Words were engraved, a hallmark of the architect Errant Way. He knew from the information he gathered that it was a poet retelling of Onugetsu’s lineage leading back to before the Shifting periods. The purpose was contemplation. The master of the house, as he walked around the perimeter of his ownings in silent meditation, could stop to read the stories and reflect on the benevolent nature of his fate. A devoted learner could spend an entire walk with an eye towards the wall. He would find himself absorbed into the words, until his surroundings melted away, and the rhythm of his footsteps reified the carved pulse of history.

Onugetsu had rarely been seen on such walks. The incense-lord of Reien preferred to stay in the safety of his walls, and particularly the safety of the gold-colored mansion that towered inside of them. Ten stories high, it was the sixth tallest residential building within Reien, along with an unknown number of basement levels. The above-ground floors were, proportionally to Onugestsu’s wealth, small, no more than a few rooms each. Each floor was carefully designed to envelop a resident in a single purpose- a workspace for contemplating the subtleties of scent, a bedroom floor that triggered the body’s need for sleep as soon as one entered, a guest room on the top that gave all who entered a sense of openness and the satisfaction that their troubles were fading a room. This room was Veyk’s goal. He watched it and waited. There was some activity in the windows, but nothing identifiable.

The Almidi guard returned. His hands were practically knives digging into each other behind his back. Another escort, a tall woman with short black hair, wearing well-oiled leather armor and a sword on her back, arrived with him.

“This is Shayna,” said the Almidi. “Onugetsu says he is quite pleased that a messenger of the Song would come personally to see him. He will of course speak with you. She will take you to him.”

“Glad someone important is finally stepping in.” Veyk bowed. If they understood the sarcasm of the gesture, neither commented on it.

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