Astyanax de Tolometto sipped the small cup of liquid that he swore was tea, and frowned. “So…” he stated at length. “All for nothing.”
Porone Belltower sighed. “I’m afraid so, Friend Astyanax.”
The old man sniffled, choked back a tear, and then took a gulp of his drink. “I… loved that boy, you know, Friend Porone. As a son.” He raised a grimy hand and scratched his wild, greasy mane of hair. “My children--do not acknowledge I exist. But Friend Marcolf…” He sighed and glanced at one of the tattered, slightly decayed maps on the wall. “Ah, well. Foolish to weep. He’s finished now. Nothing I can do.”
“Not foolish,” said Porone quietly. “I wept myself, when I heard. I always admired Friend Marcolf, and his dedication to our glorious cause.” He shook his head. “To die like that…”
“Yes, yes,” said Astyanax. “So… like a Magnate. They thought they could make him betray the Necklace’s secrets, so he battered his own brains in.” A slightly off smile came to his face. “An inspiration to us all.”
It occurred to Porone that “the General’s” choice of words was rather poor. But he kept this to himself, as he rose to his feet. “I must be off, Friend Astyanax. My business you know… It eats into my time.”
“Mmm,” murmured the old man. Like many Magnates, he viewed ‘business’ as a distasteful pastime kept by individuals of poor breeding and character, who tended to treat it with unwarranted respect, and insist it held equal importance with the vital things in life, such as hunting, or keeping track of one’s genealogical tree. “Well,” declared Astyanax, after a long moment’s consideration, “you should be off then. Yes. You certainly should. Indeed.”
Porone nodded in agreement, again taking in the squalor of the old man’s apartment. “You know--Friend Astyanax--I think I will bring you--some new cups, when I arrive next week,” he announced.
“The General” grew haughty. “I am a Magnate, Friend Porone!” Astyanax proclaimed. “I need no charity!”
“Not charity,” said Porone. “Tribute! For how can the Necklace endure without our strong Second Link, the irreplaceable General, Astyanax de Tolometto?”
Astyanax smiled, despite himself. “A… yes. A… tribute. Yes. That would be… acceptable.” He nodded idly, and looked out his window--a pointless action, as said window was covered in grime. “I must say, Friend Porone for a man of low breeding you are most worthy.”
Porone bowed low. “I am honored, Friend Astyanax. Honored, and incapable of describing to you the emotion that your words fill me with.” And with that he slipped out Astyanax’s room, and breathed a great sigh of relief. Porone had much experience of the Mumblety Pegs, and he’d never thought a day would come when he be relieved to be breathing the air there. And yet anything was better than the atmosphere in Astyanax’s chambers, with its distinctive odor that combined the scents of mold, piss, cheap liquor, and failure into something new, and very unpleasant.
The slightly heavyset, newly-minted Third Link of the Necklace turned into a slightly better section of Marsilion’s Folly--but only slightly better. A huge crowd stood there before the balcony of a large hostel, as the massive figure of Corin Latheawl regaled them with a speech. Near him stood six gentlemen--some respectable-looking, others slightly wild, and yet all united by the quiet intensity with which they regarded Latheawl. “…Been called a rabble!” declared the Hand leader thunderously. “We’ve been told that we are beyond contempt! And yet the fortunes of the Caps and Hats who have ruled this city for too long--too, TOO long--were built by our labor, our sweat, and our blood. The Caps gave us the vote because they thought we’d just let them stomp us, instead of the Hats. Because none of them--not Hat, not Cap--thought we had the brains to realize we were being cheated! But we’ve always been a bit keener than they thought, haven’t we people?” The crowd gave a mighty yell. Corin gestured to the men behind him. “That’s right! And that’s why when the jars are opened, they’ll put into power the first Thing this city has seen that shall look to the interests of those who earn their bread by their own hands!”
Porone felt a vague wave of unease as he watched the crowd cheer. A young girl stepped up to him, and smiled. “Broadsheet, sir?” She raised a packet of papers, and waved them hopefully. “It has all the important news in it! Three copper marks!” Porone regarded the girl for a while. She was young, and the heavy clothes she wore were on the threshold of being ragged. She regarded the merchant with the most hopeful expression imaginable. He took the broadsheet, and handed her six copper marks. She smiled enthusiastically, and raised her fist. “Thank you, sir! Stand together! The Hands shall be the city!” As she walked away, humming to herself, Porone glanced at the broadsheet, which it appeared was called The Work of Our Hands, the image of a raised fist next to this title. “The Scandal of the Workhouse!” declared the leading article.
Shaking his head, Porone walked down the street, glancing briefly at a vegetable stand, offering the last of this year’s local squash, and some oranges transported from the fringes of the Heath. Picking up an orange, he paid the vendor, and began to peel it.
“You are late, Friend Porone,” said a soft voice he knew well.
Porone turned and bowed. “Friend Tisiphone,” he said, offering the blind woman his arm. “I was detained by… the General.”
Tisiphone smiled as she took Porone’s arm. “I see? And how is that mighty champion of the Magnates?”
Porone sighed. “I do not know whether to hate the old fool, or to pity him.”
“Indeed.” Tisiphone nodded, as they walked towards Armida’s. “You continue to rise in the Chain of Bronze, then?”
“Of course,” said Porone. “In Gold, and Silver, and Bronze, and Copper, and Lead--Agate has sent me, and I obey.” He frowned. “Though I’ve begun to wonder… why?”
“Our cause is noble,” said Tisiphone. “You know this.”
“Do I?” said Porone. “Perhaps, I did--once--but now it seems that the Necklace spends as much time warring among itself as it does trying to unseat the Pretenders. If that is what we’re trying to do.” He looked at Tisiphone gravely. “Why allow this… foolish plot to go forward? Why, knowing that it was going forward, endanger yourselves by attending the Council? And why--why kill that poor, ruined fool Marcolf?”
Tisiphone regarded Porone calmly. “The ways of the Necklace are like an intricate chain, so subtly done, that only a master craftsman can see how it is fitted together. It is not given to you to know exactly how, Friend Porone.” She smiled a very slight, very cold smile. “Simply know--Opal was rising, and now is falling, due to this failure. And that though this failure was thus… useful to Agate, there was a need to be certain… the Necklace was… protected.”
Porone gave a single nod, his frown somewhat deeper than before. “And that was what Marcolf’s death was, eh?”
Tisiphone was silent for a moment. “Tell me, Friend Porone, do you wish to leave our employ?”
The merchant gave a sharp laugh. “I’m not such a fool as that, Friend Tisiphone. This affair simply leaves me feeling… sullied. That is all.”
The blind woman was silent. “He was a very wicked person, Friend Porone. Very wicked indeed.”
“So am I,” said Porone. “So are you.” He sighed and shrugged. “I pitied that man. For all that he despised me--he was simply so… lost.”
“So am I,” said Tisiphone quietly. “So are you.”
“Perhaps,” agreed Porone. “But I--do not have to fool myself about what I am.”
The pair went on in silence, until they reached Armida’s. Then Tisiphone detached herself from the merchant. As she reached the familiar doorway, she turned and seemed to regard him. “Never forget, Friend Porone--Agate, and the true Dark Lord of the Plains appreciate all your efforts, even if they cause you doubts. Perhaps especially if they do.” Porone watched the blind hostess retreat into her social house, her bearing straight. There was a woman who never doubted or wavered. Much as Marcolf had never doubted or wavered.
Until, perhaps, he was killed.
Porone Belltower could not make such a boast. It seemed madness at times, the life he’d plunged into, a life where he answered to the likes of Tisiphone and Marcolf, all for the indirect pat on the head from people he’d never seen, and only knew by pseudonyms. Marcolf had known what he fought for. And Tisiphone had never said what it was--but she radiated such faith in her cause that he didn’t doubt that she knew, or at least thought she did. But Porone--Porone had stumbled into the world of the Necklace, and was only kept afloat by a natural talent for intrigue and treachery that had guided him in his life so far.
He took a bite of his orange. The clock tower began to chime six bells. Porone nodded to himself. Time to get home. It grew dark early as winter approached. As the bells rang, it occurred to Porone that his cousins were probably working them, as the Belltowers had done for generations, worked the bells to tell the hour ‘til they went deaf and couldn’t hear them anymore, and then kept on working them. His father had done it--until the day he slipped on a wet stair and couldn’t do it anymore--or anything else for that matter. But not Porone. No, he’d broken free of that. Made his mark on the world. A small mark, but--still a mark. Perhaps that was why he’d joined the Necklace. A desire to make his mark--bigger somehow. Porone sighed, and spat out his orange pips. He glanced at the broadsheet he purchased. The Hands--how quickly they’d spread--were offended. The city ealdermen, it seemed, had been paying a stipend to the workhouses for years for ‘maintenance and upkeep’. Most of which, instead of going into maintaining the workhouses, had gone into the pockets of the workhouse owners. Who, in the piece de resistance, happened to be either the city ealdermen or relatives thereof. ‘And so a rich race of sluggards grow fat off the public good’ declared the broadsheet, ‘while those who earn their living struggle and strive, and are told it is for their own benefit.’ A snowflake landed on the paper, and then another. Porone glanced up at the sky. The first snow of the year. In a few days, it would be Frimaire, and winter would truly begin.
Porone’s gaze lowered until it reached Castle Terribel. The Hands were another thing that worried him these days. They were so--different from the Caps and Hats. Those were just clubs, with a few agreed on tenets, who mostly competed for the Thing as a hobby. The Hands… had a philosophy. And they looked like they might gain control of the Thing--or at least a voice in it. And he had no idea what that meant. But the Cthoniques--seemed to be for it. The old Cthoniques, the rock of the Plains of Dread--stood behind a movement that was under a month old. The future was coming, and the past was helping it along the way. Porone shook his head. Perhaps this was another reason he supported the Necklace--a man needed a place to stand, when everything was changing, when every day brought another innovation. Where would it end? Where?
He pulled his clothes around himself for warmth and headed down the street, hoping to get away from the cold.