The Changing of the Guard – Eighth Watch

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Warning // Expert Advice

Gray was jolted out of her zone when someone knocked on the office door.

She looked down at the pile of tools to her right, at the inscrutable mass of charred masonry to her left. Then she looked to the door.

“Who is it?”

“Me.”

“Warn! Come in,” said Gray.

She pulled off her gloves and adjusted her curls as the door swung inward. Warn slipped in and closed the door behind him. He was breathless.

“I don’t know what you’ve discovered so far, but this might shed some light on things.”

He handed Gray a scroll.

What she had discovered so far: nothing of any use. The masonry contained all the materials usually contained in masonry—various minerals commonly found in stone—and it was blackened with soot. There were faint traces of some organic compounds, but they registered below all of the tests Gray had run. Whatever reagents had been used, they had either been used sparingly or they had consumed themselves in the blast.

Gray unfurled the scroll and scanned it.

“Where did you get this?” she asked.

“One of Jenna North’s boys brought it to Citadel.” Warn frowned. “I wondered if it wasn’t a forgery, but there’s no motivation for North to pretend it’s dustfolk attacking us. I cross-examined the kid. He said a big black monster with wings and a sharp face carried this here.”

“Ravens,” said Gray. “The dustfolk have them. How old was this ‘kid?'”

“Couldn’t have been more than fifteen.”

Gray nodded. It was improbable that anyone in the city would be able to invent that. The last bird sightings were generations ago. The story explained a lot, though it of course opened room for more questions. Maybe the Dusk Knights were in cahoots with the dustfolk. But neither the DK nor the dustfolk should have been able to develop alchemy. She didn’t see how it was possible.

“Why did he come to you?”

“Said North was dead, and after a lot of thinking he decided to come to the authorities about this.” Warn paused and chuckled. “Apparently Watch is still the authorities.”

“Have you told anyone else?”

“You’re the first.”

Gray handed the message back to the Watch commander.

“What do you plan to do with it?”

“I was actually hoping you’d have some insights, Gray. If this thing’s real, we’re going to be fighting dustfolk! Only a handful of contacts in my entire lifetime, Gray. We don’t know their tactics, their weapons. Nor their culture—if the brutes have such a thing. We don’t even know how to communicate with them! We’re going to need someone who knows the dustfolk. And no one in the city knows them better than you.”

Gray didn’t respond immediately. She had her hands full with running the labs and figuring out the nature of the explosion; she didn’t have time to serve as an advisor on top of that. Besides, she didn’t know whom she could advise. Neith, with his bizarre order for her capture? Warn, whose remaining forces could barely hold Citadel against the DK? Or the Dusk Knights themselves, as the new rulers of the city? Finally: who was Warn’s “we?”

“What time is it?” she asked.

“Late afternoon,” said Warn.

“And this North kid came directly to you?”

“I had just risen, and I was pacing the perimeter with my swordsmen.” Warn frowned. “Good thing, too. Neith’s been acting strange, as you know, and—”

“Enough, Warn. I’m sorry, but I can’t help you with this one.”

Warn looked stupefied.

“What?”

“There are too many unknowns,” she said. “What can you—what can anyone do in the face of this? If the dustfolk have this kind of destructive alchemy, the city stands no chance.”

“Watch was formed to keep the dustfolk out.”

Gray glared at the commander. It was a saying that circulated through the city with the same cachet as the stories about the dustfolk being cannibals, and the same truthfulness. She wasn’t sure which worried her more: that Warn was so lost in the face of the dustfolks’ warning that canned phrases had replaced more meaningful objections, or that he seemed to earnestly believe what he’d just said.

“That’s nonsense, Warn.”

Warn bristled.

“No more than your ‘eat up’ propaganda.”

“No…” Gray sighed. Literally. But it wasn’t time for a lecture. “In any event, Warn, if your legitimacy was predicated upon keeping the dustfolk out, you might as well disband. Your men let dustfolk in last night.”

“What?”

“Are you serious?”

“What are you talking about?”

“Your men in the Three-Four watchwall let a dustman through the gatehouse. Did no one tell you? He was unarmed, wanted an audience with Neith. I couldn’t imagine that there was a connection between the visitor and the explosion, but thanks to your North kid it’s become clear: the dustman they let in caused the explosion. I was summoned to the audience, but took my time getting there. Lucky me, right?”

“And lucky me…” Warn seemed stunned. “They acted without my authorization and without alerting me.”

“You would have died,” said Gray.

Warn stamped his foot.

“This is unbelievable,” he said. “I was just sitting in my office in the Two-Five watchwall the whole time. Why wouldn’t they so much as tell me?”

Gray resisted pointing out how little control Warn seemed to have over his forces. She felt the lack of control was mutual. “Like I said, too many unknowns.”

“No,” said Warn, “everything is clear. Letting in that dustman was a tragic mistake. Our duty was and is to prevent the dustfolk from further disrupting the city. I’m going to do my damnedest to make sure we don’t budge another inch.”

Gray shook her head.

“You and what army?”

“We don’t need the full force. Shell is intact, Gray. I’ll appeal to Neith. If we give Citadel to the brigands and divert our forces to Shell, we can do this. A couple dozen good archers, no explosives will get close to the city, the dustfolk won’t be able to enter… there’s just one problem.” Warn sighed. “You won’t believe this. Neil—the North kid—says the Dusk Knights are opening the Bay.”

Gray could believe it.

“Earl’s a madman. The Bay has no walls. It’s practically defenseless. Hopefully, he’ll relent when I bring him the news. The Dusk Knight headquarters are in Two, not far from your place. I’ll escort you home when you’re done for the day—make sure that captain doesn’t snatch you—and then I’ll pay the DK a visit.”

“Wait,” said Gray, suddenly dizzy.

What if the DK and the dustfolk were, in fact, working together? What if the DK were trying to surrender the city to the dustfolk? She didn’t want Warn ambushed by Earl’s halberdiers, slain amidst the mocking laughs of brigands. Not to mention that she had no plans to go home at the end of the day.

“I didn’t mean right now,” said Warn.

Gray paused.

“I’m not going home tonight,” she said. “All-nighter in the lab.”

“Are you sure that’s a good idea? You barely slept last night.”

She knew. But she also knew that she couldn’t let Warn know what had happened last night, the real reason she’d gotten so little sleep. She surprised herself: she cared more about concealing that than about Warn’s safety. Maybe it was his invocation of Watch’s false genesis, maybe it was something else.

“I’ll be fine, Warn. Why don’t you just go ahead and talk to Earl about the Bay?”

Warn’s eyes narrowed. He studied Gray, and then he turned to leave.

“Be safe.”

“You too.”

#

Gray took her supper in her office. The bowl of slop passed like so much air to her, filling her stomach as an afterthought. What little taste the concoction had was as familiar to her as the feel of her own skin, as room temperature. Citadel kept a dwindling stock of swine and sheep, and, as one of the highest-ranking members of Neith’s court, Gray had always been entitled to dining on meat with the nobles’ families. She rarely partook. It wasn’t just that she was loathe to spend time entertaining the salacious grins of adulterous noblemen. Eating the slop made her feel less bad about the propaganda posters Neith had commissioned.

Now the noblemen were dead, and maybe the pigs and sheep too—Gray hadn’t investigated the underground pastures. This was the first night that Gray had not had an option in taking her meal. While she’d never enjoyed the lavish Citadel banquets, she felt a pang of regret.

But then the slop was gone and she returned her attention to her work.

Her worries from Warn’s visit had mostly dispersed. She saw things unfolding in one of two ways: either Earl and the Dusk Knights had formed an alliance with the dustfolk, in which case the city would be taken, or Earl was unaware of the dustfolk plan, in which case he would cooperate with Warn. In the former case, the DK’s strength would enable the dustfolk to enter unopposed. The conquest could afford to be nigh bloodless, and maybe if Gray asked Earl for it the remaining gangs—Watch included—could be disbanded or incorporated rather than slaughtered. In the latter case, Watch and the Dusk Knights would keep the Bay closed, take to Shell, fend off the dustfolk, and secure the city and the status quo.

Gray didn’t expect alchemy to come up again in the conflict with the dustfolk. It was most likely a heavy-handed opening shot meant to instill fear in the citizens, that they might pressure Neith into abdicating.

After all, if the dustfolk continued to resort to it, there wouldn’t be a city left to take.

So her interest in the sample on her worktable was now primarily an issue of curiosity. There didn’t seem to be any pressing military need to figure out how the dustfolk alchemy worked. The secrets behind the tremendous explosion might aid in future research, however. Her thoughts drifted back to those two scenarios. Her preference was clear.

Gray did some cursory organization of her workspace and then left her office. Most of her assistants were still there. Normally only a few of the alchemists would linger this late, Gray and Jon and whichever two were on fire duty. Tonight, however, those who lived in Citadel had no homes to which to return and those who lived in Two didn’t feel like running the DK gauntlet. Gray had authorized them all to spend the night in the labs, and several had already crawled into warm corners and curled up. No one had gotten much sleep the night before.

The chief alchemist didn’t feel particularly guilty for lying to Warn about her evening plans. Just as her work had been unfair, so too had it been wrought with deceptions. Her entire lifetime had been a string of lies, lies dating all the way back from the “eat up” posters to the time Queen Joans had asked her about gold.

“We can make it,” she’d said.

Gray kicked herself for figuring it so incriminatingly in her memories. It hadn’t been a plain lie. She’d genuinely believed that they were on the cusp of mastering the process. And maybe they had been. But then the land had dried and Joans had created Watch and sent them out, and Gray’s team had been relegated to food duty.

“How are the diagnostics?” asked Jon, snapping Gray out of her reverie.

“Still cryptic,” she replied.

“I have the list of explosive reagents.”

“Great,” said Gray. “Leave it on my desk. I’m going back.”

“Is that a good idea?” asked Jon. “It sounded like Neith’s been hounding you. We can hide you down here.”

“I appreciate the thought, Jon.”

“Be safe.”

Gray nodded and left the laboratory. The gargantuan column of smoke still lingered over Citadel, slowly dispersing in the still air. Gray moved through its shadow, finding her way only with the light from her eyes. She went undetected through Citadel’s ruins and slipped past the line of Watch guards on the Two edge of the castle with little difficulty. She was light, and her desire to see Earl gave her both the energy and the patience to move stealthily.

When she arrived at Earl’s compound she noticed that the doormen had been replaced.

“Doctor Valence,” said the swordswoman in mail—half chain, half scale— “Lord Ruler Earl awaits you.”

The other guard, a thin man in clothing identical to the woman’s, nodded. The two opened the door and made room for Gray to pass. As the chief alchemist entered, her spirits dropped. If Earl was calling himself the Lord Ruler, he probably wasn’t paving the way for a dustfolk takeover.

“Are you out of your mind?” he asked when she explained her thinking on the issue of the dustfolk.

Gray felt stupid.

Earl was leering at her, half deriding her idea and half just laughing. There was no point to any of this if he wasn’t the ruler, he explained pedantically. No, he wasn’t going to let the dustfolk in! He’d made a deal with that buffoon Watch commander. Poor sap didn’t suspect anything. Of course, of course, Earl didn’t call himself the Lord Ruler in Warn’s presence. But once the dustfolk had been dealt with, the truth would emerge.

“What if we lose?” asked Gray, at a loss.

Earl suddenly stopped laughing. His face twisted into a sad mask of anguish momentarily, and then he just looked calm.

“I’m living on borrowed time already. If the city burns, so be it.”

Though she had no idea to what Earl was referring, Gray felt her heart stop. His sad face lingered in her mind’s eye for minutes after he returned to mocking her for wanting to let the dustfolk in.

“So what if they have these ‘ravens?’ We’ll just shoot them down.”

“The birds have nothing to do with their military tactics,” Gray retorted, finding herself giggling as she spoke.

Earl wiped a tear of mirth from Gray’s cheek.

She laughed harder, and harder, and soon she found herself pressed against Earl, sobbing into his chest. His warmth raged through his body, through his arms, replenishing the energy she lost to her crying.

“Hush,” he whispered.

Shuddering catharsis swept through her as she reunited with the memories of the previous night. She felt so stupid. Of course the dustfolk weren’t going to take the city. Earl and Warn had allied and they were going to protect the city against the barbarians, just as she’d predicted. A faint voice in her head was saying something, some kind of objection, but she couldn’t make it out. Gray only had to worry about three things: continuing the production of slop, staying safe, and staying pretty.

Earl put his thumb under her chin, the tip of his index finger brushing her neck, and tilted her face toward his.

“Everything will be okay,” he said softly.

And then their lips met.

Gray’s thoughts swam, lighter than air and dazzlingly gorgeous. Then contact was broken off. Earl stepped back. Gray was chilly. She thought for a moment that she would die from the cold. Earl smiled and patted her on the shoulder. Her other shoulder cried in loneliness.

“I’m not going to reverse the decision to clear the Bay,” he said. “We don’t need a wall—we have the cliff. We’ll put archers in the gap. They can rain arrows down on any attackers. And once we show the dustfolk who the true rulers of the city are, we’ll initiate trade as planned, with favorable terms for us as the victors.”

Gray shivered.

“I’m going to need you to keep making your slop a while longer.”

She nodded.

“I didn’t stop.”

“Good girl.”

The word jarred her. She was not a girl by any reckoning. The one mental objection led to others. Had Earl not said she would be one of his top advisors? But he had dismissed her so quickly when she had come to him about the dustfolk. It was Warn. He’d gotten there first. He’d taken her place.

Someone behind Gray cleared his throat, and she spun around.

A man in a green gown adorned with metal flower petals and orange embroidery stood in the middle of the hall. He beheld the chief alchemist and the Dusk Knight commander with a stern gaze.

“If you will, Earl,” he said, strained cordiality apparent in his voice, “You’re needed elsewhere.”

Gray turned back to Earl. She thought she caught a flicker of displeasure before he smiled wide.

“What’s the matter, Trent?”

“Like I said, elsewhere.”

“Can it wait?”

“I’m afraid not.” Trent shrugged. “Lonn Mink sent an envoy. I’ve assembled the others in the study, but we’re missing you.”

“Alright, alright.” Earl straightened his outfit where Gray’s body had wrinkled it. “I’ll be there in a second.”

Trent stalked off, and Earl stepped around Gray to follow him.

“Do what you need to do,” he said.

Gray nodded, as though her course of action were now clear, and watched him disappear around a corner, outfit jangling. She was alone. Deep in the headquarters of the Dusk Knights, she was unobserved, unwatched, unguarded. The cold of the stone floor and walls seeped into her. Her surroundings had faded out in Earl’s presence, and now they reasserted themselves. The soft moonlight dripping through ceiling apertures and the starkness of the decor amplified the draining feeling of loneliness.

She had no idea what she needed to do.

"The Changing of the Guard – Eighth Watch" was posted by on Sunday, April 29th 2012. This post is categorized Changing of the Guard and tagged , , .

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