Originally written 1/14/2015. Last updated 3/22/2020.
13th of Ocdeork, 740AP
“The latest insight in modern biological understanding is being referred to by members of the Akarian Scholaria as the Lifespan Conundrum. Although it is currently only proposed as a theory, the past half century has seen a widespread increase in naturally occurring deaths under the expected lifespan of 150 years. Scholars and record keepers alike are claiming we may be seeing a sudden drop of nearly 30 years off the average human life cycle, and they have as yet reached no conclusions as to why this would be occurring. On average it appears women live roughly 3-4 years longer than men. One Akar (who has asked to remain anonymous) states that the diminishing lifespan may not be an entirely new concept. Some, including our source, believe it likely that those who experienced the Purge could have lived as long as 200 years or more.”
Ashayr Cannifury Brite shook his head and chuckled as he finally understood. He dropped the tabloid onto his nightstand. ‘The Strand is finally taking potshots at those paradox addled fools at the Scholaria.’ For such self proclamation of collegiate prowess, Ashayr couldn’t fathom how the Akarians could still profess their belief in a Purge ever actually happening. ‘Absolutely no proof!’
He looked about him, rising. The previous night was an unbelievable success, both as parties go and as a fundraising event. Scattered about him was dishevelment in the extreme. Ashayr was extremely proud of himself. As a minor Lord, this project would forever stamp his name on the annals of history, but more importantly it would bring water more readily to the people. Lord Sarnichor and his wife had promised a generous loan, and old Lady Marley Crondy is officially recognizing a portion of her will towards the financing of the, tentatively titled, Brite Aqueduct. ‘She’s over 150, she’ll have passed soon enough, surely,’ he thought, but quickly dismissed the thought as a twinge of guilt grew in place of his pride.
He left the bedroom, silently bidding the two youthful beauties unbothered rest under the sheets. The hallways seemed intact, ferns unruffled and paintings leveled. He ascended the stairway, several goblets and a bottle of 20-year Marnvalley Red empty and abandoned on the bottom step. ‘They found their way into my cellar,’ he thought with exasperation.
Ashayr stopped when he hit the next floor, staring at the open door in front of him. Exasperation drained from him, anxiety filling the gaps. ‘No, no no… No, the room was locked. Locked? Surely, I locked it.’ He moved forward, entering his workspace. It was remarkably clean juxtaposed to the rest of the manor’s appearance. No party entered through here. The papers on his table sat untouched. Precious heirlooms, weapons, and other valuables remained where they had been positioned. Maps of Atelinor draped magnificently on the wall, each town and city marked, each river and stream veined into lakes or the ocean.
And then he realized, looking back to his worktable. “Where is it,” he asked in a low fury. “Where is the blueprint!?” He had shown nobody the most updated layout. ‘If this gets into the wrong hands…’ He collapsed to the floor, peering beneath his table, beneath the chairs, his fingernails scraping the grout between stone as his hands curled into fists. The document contained more than a few confidential details he hoped would remain a secret, including how much he would personally pocket from the project’s proceeds. ‘If this gets into the wrong hands, this whole project could collapse before it’s even begun!’
– – – – –
Aelin kept the rolled up blueprint hidden beneath the folds of her cloak, anger and determination warming her from the inside out. From Brite’s boastful speech last night she had realized the location of the water duct system to be dubious. It was worse than dubious though. “Oh, how papa needs to see this,” she mumbled under the cloak, which she tied close to her face. She hastened her step.
It had begun snowing on her way home. It was so sudden. ‘No snow all season long and now I can barely see!’ She furiously blew the snowy hair out of her eyes, unwilling to tuck it back inside her hood for fear of numbing her fingertips. Her walk seemed endless and lonely. All had shuffled their way indoors at the onset of the snowfall, and she walked the streets alone. The noon sky was ominously dark; relentless.
The overwhelming silence would have been considered soothing. The white flakes falling slow and deliberate could have been inspiration for song. The soft crunch under her boots should have reminded Aelin of her youth. But she was upset and her mind was elsewhere. The sketched plans under her cloak foretold the doom of her father’s house, as well as their livelihood.
Wind picked up, buffeting more snow against her course. The layers of snow under her feet piled higher, each inch making it harder and harder to budge forward. ‘What I’d give for a horse right now,’ she thought grudgingly. Aelin hugged to the walls at her left, where the snow fell less feverishly. It was becoming increasingly dangerous. ‘I’ll have to stop at Duree’s Harper, until I warm.’
She turned under a wooden archway, accented by a hanging plank with an embossed harp, and pulled open the heavy door. It was a breath of fresh air, entering the building. Not quite the breath she hoped for though. Duree’s Harper Tavern was an old establishment, and Aelin had been coming here for some time. Her father’s line of work wasn’t something she could follow in the footsteps of exactly; that’s what her brother was for. She had been training under a minstrel, coming here twice a week generally. Her tutor, a reclusive master, would be absent today, she was sure.
Since she set out to earn her minstrel certificates, Aelin found that she quite enjoyed being mistaken for a bard or even a mere singer. Master Davad’s first lesson stuck with her after all these long months. “The road to becoming a celebrated minstrel is elusive. If you ever find it, let me know. And make no mistake, being celebrated and being successful are two very different things. There are many celebrated bards with more poems to their name than coin. There are many successful singers or musicians with more coin to their name than talent. As a minstrel, you must blend deft fingers, a trained voice, and a honed wit if you ever plan on attaining success. Once you attain that, celebrate. I know I will.” But still, her skills were lacking. Any acknowledgement for her music was appreciated, whether others mislabeled her a bard or not.
The warmth of the Tavern was jolting. Fire licked up from the large rectangular pit in the center of the room. Aelin moved towards the fire, allowing her hands to heat up, feeling the ache in her bones slowly return as she thawed. The room smelled of roasted pork and ale, and its scattered attendants joined the crackling fire with idle chatter and mirth.
She needed to look at it again. She sat at the nearest empty table, fumbling the flattened roll out of her cloak. A key dropped out of the cloak with it. Despite it all, it rolled out easily. The parchment was likely a fine goatskin, not coiling back up as most scrolls would.
She traced where the water system led, a gigantic snake across the page. She did not question that the people would need the water, or doubt that this would make it easier for them. It was a brilliant plan. ‘But there. Just there.’ Her finger traced where her home would be. Several piers and walls would need to come down directly on the people of her neighborhood. If Lord Brite gets the funding to go through with this… Her home. Her father’s shop. Neighbors she had known all her life. ‘All will be uprooted for this… Brite Aqueduct.’ The words were stained across the top of the thin parchment.
At the time she stole the plans from Brite she knew she had to stop him any way she could, but just now she had no idea how to go about such a daunting task. What would her father think, being sacrificed to the wellbeing of the future? What was she thinking, even attempting to interfere in the games of lords?
A harpist and a lutist began to play on the raised platform closest to the window. Aelin recognized it as a private class, the harpist being the less experienced of the two.
– – – – –
“What the hyll is that?” Stann stood over a young woman’s shoulder looking down upon the parchment on the table.
“Oh,” the girl exclaimed, clearly flustered. She was very pretty. Olive skin. Brown hair. But the parchment was… “I’m sorry, I didn’t see you standing there.” She noticed Stann’s eyes scanning the map of sorts. “It’s nothing. None of your business.”
She attempted to half-heartedly cover up the page before her, outstretching her palms across it. “Doesn’ look like noffin’, love. Wha’s that say then? Briiite Aqueeeduct…” Stann knew his letters. Not well. But he knew them. He took the seat beside her and she recoiled. Whether she drew back because of the intimacy or the smell of alcohol wasn’t certain. He studied the parchment. The map in front of him detailed plans to build a monumental structure. A blueprint. To the right people this would be worth its weight. And it didn’t belong to the beauty that sat beside him, that was certain.
Recognition hit the girl’s face and she quirked her features. “I know you,” she said. “You’re in A Journey of Storms, aren’t you?” He hated himself at that moment for not skinmasking before confronting her. ‘Course she knows who I am.’
“The name’s Stann. An’ yeah, part of the company.” He pointed over his shoulder at the table near the alley exit. “There’s the rest of em.” Several members raised their mugs at the gesture. “Now. This wouldn’ be little Lordling Brite’s would it?” The color drained from her face. “I thought it might be. He had that big party of his last night, didn’ he? Suppose’ to unveil some big project of his.” She said nothing, but guilt and fear weighed heavy on her features. “Why don’ you hand that over, I slide a little coin your way, and our Lordling never finds out who took it?”
She stammered her words out. “N-no. It was given to me by Lord Brite himself. A message to vacate our neighborhood in Low Hill.” Her lies were as large as her eyes. “I do not think he would much appreciate a band of thieving troubadours intercepting it for their own gain.” She found her courage and rolled up the blueprint, tucking it under her cloak. She got up and stood by the fire.
“Eh, we’ll see,” Stann mumbled, returning to his table. He recounted what he’d seen to the others present. They were 8 in total.
One of them, a woman named Jaspona piped in. “We need that Parchment, Stann. You know the pale one will pay. She’s always looking to keep informed with Velundane. If they are plannin’ an aqueduct like in Maradane she’ll want to know.”
He shot her a glance. He knew whom they would sell it to. He did not need reminding. “I’ll skinmask and exit out the side door,” he stated, pointing at the alley.
“Well, get on with it then! That one looks ready to leave.” Jaspona pointed at the girl, tapping her boots rhythmically by the fire. “Jus’ be quiet this time!”
Stann glanced about the tavern making sure no eyes were watching, took a deep swig from the mug in front of him, and let all the air in his lungs fall out. The man sitting next to him scooted out of elbow range. Stann opened his mind to impossible things, and felt the unnatural comfort of life never lived.
– – – – –
A harp string broke and Jorl swore under his breath. The B string swatted his finger. He shouldn’t have been plucking as hard as he was, but it wasn’t nearly the same as playing the lute. It took his tutor some time to realize that he had stopped playing. Carin frowned and placed her palm over the strings of the lute. “You’re plucking too hard.” Carin was his betrothed, as well as his tutor. Even her rebukes were soft-edged. Even so, it shamed him that she so outstripped him in age and skill.
“I know. I know.” Jorl proffered the harp out to her, letting his disappointment hide the jealousy. “The lute is my instrument, dear. Can I not work with that tonight?”
Carin sighed. “Of course, but you’ll have to learn the harp eventually.” They traded instruments. “Same tune?”
Jorl nodded, and as he settled back into his seat he noticed a women with brown hair exit out the way she had come. But then he noticed a young girl, no older than eleven years of age leave out the side-alley exit. ‘Odd. I don’t remember seeing any children here.’ He shrugged the thought away as his betrothed began to strum on her harp. He too fell back into the rhythm.