J U S T I C E
“The journey to justice, begins first with the truth.”
The Secret Corps Mandate, Section X, Article V
The air smelled of rot and decaying feces. Water dripped down continuously into small puddles that pooled between the alleys. Crowds of people sheltered amongst the sloping roofs of the dilapidated buildings lining the main street. The towers of the Royal Palace could be seen in the distance, its majestic structure at odds with the rundown buildings of the slums. Steam hissed from vents leading down through deep labyrinths of pipes that tunneled under the city to the massive generators that churned and provided power to the city. Merchants and vendors shouted their wares, their voices rising as they competed to be heard over each other. Steel-shod hooves churned through the muddy streets, pulling wagons bearing nobles, their cloth curtains closed tightly to keep out the filth of the slums, their drivers’ heads lifted proudly, as if they too were above the filth and despair of the slums.
A man hid in the shadows, a thick cloak wrapped tightly around his frame. His eyes watched nothing but saw everything. He barely gave the passing carriage a cursory notice, merely noted its presence and focused on more important tasks. He was here on official business, looking for a man. The Imperial Inquisitor, himself, declared that this man’s removal be of the utmost importance. One did not question the Imperial Inquisitor, regardless of the fact that he, himself, were of a rank far removed from the Inquisitor’s power. He knew not the man’s crime; but, he knew that he could not condemn the man before first learning the truth. He was the last of a dying breed, a warden against the darkness that threatened to engulf the very hearts of the men he sometimes questioned and often served. He gave another subtle glance around at his surroundings, adjusted the scabbard on his belt, swirled the cloak to hide the markings and began crossing.
The hooded man merely gave a subtle wave of a callused palm, earning him a reproving glare from the wagon’s driver. The man flicked the reins and gave a brief set of clicks, to which his horse responded with a neigh and flick of its mane before resuming walking. The driver gave a glance around, trying to discern the location of the hooded man. Failing to spot him, he gave a soft shrug and focused back on his task with another flick of the reins, urging his horse to a gentle cantor.
The hooded man approached one of the many run-down, dilapidated doorways and reached up a white-gloved knuckle and rapped, loudly, three times. It was a subtle signal; but, it was one the people of the slums had become accustomed to. There was the sound of dressers being moved, their wooden legs making rough scraping noises as they left trails of their passage on the wooden floors. There was the sound of a crash, silverware this time, amidst the mumbling of a man and finally the click as a lock was undone. The door swung open a crack, an intelligent, blue eye peering out. The eye traced the knuckle up the arm and stared curiously at the face, slowly widening and raising his bushy eyebrows as it dawned on him who called upon him. The door slammed shut so quickly that the hooded figure was left standing awkwardly before lifting his knuckle to rap gently again.
The door flew open and the hooded man was greeted by an old, wizened fellow of short stature whose hair seemed unable to decide whether to lie down against his balding scalp or stick up a dizzying array of spikes; but, seemed to have settled for something more in between. The old man reached into one of the many pockets of his robes and pulled out a pair of broken bifocals, which he lifted to rest gently on the bridge of his nose.
“Are you going to continue staring at me like I’m sort of unique, old goat or are you going to come in?” The old man’s voice was deep and yet pleasant, his blue eyes twinkling with a hidden mirth.
The hooded man gave a soft nod and took a step forward, his cloak flapping gently against his side and revealing the decorated scabbard resting against his thigh. The man’s eyes narrowed suspiciously, attempting to read the raised runes along the dark surface. Before he could glean more than a few words, the cloak was adjusted to hide them. A gloved finger rested upon the older man’s chin and lifted his gaze to meet his own penetrating blue-gray and gave a soft shake of his head and pulled the finger back to rest in a ‘shh’ gesture against his lips. He motioned for the man to have a seat in one of the free chairs not covered in clutter. The old man’s entire abode seemed to speak of librarian. Countless scrolls laid with a loving hand on desks, chairs, in buckets, on tables and even stuffed down the pockets of several waistcoats hanging on a nearby coat rack.
The old man’s gaze twinkled again as he leaned forward to whisper. “Like it, do you?”
“It is impressive, yes; but, I am not here to admire your collection.”
“No, no. I can see that.” He leaned back with a sigh, as if his age had finally caught up with him. “What brings a-“
“Speak not of my title.” The hooded man commanded in a threatening whisper, his hand caressing the familiar touch of the jeweled pommel. “I do not wish….others…to know we have spoken this evening.”
“Fair enough, my child. What do you ask of me?”
“Do the rumors bear truth?”
“You have to be more specific.” The old replied with a knowing sigh, he had a feeling he knew where this discussion was going to go. “Men of my ‘habits’ accumulate many rumors on a weekly basis. If you wish for me to truly be of service, you’ll have to be a tad more exact in your questioning.”
The man sighed, a tight-lipped smile playing across his lips. “Has anyone told you that you’re too smart for your own good sometimes?”
“A few, why?”
“Be careful in the future.” The man’s voice was filled with an undertone of subtle caution. “There are some who would not be so forgiving of such a retort, some of ‘darker’ desires.”
“I will heed the warning with due caution, proceed.”
“The rumors circulating about the lands below.”
“You fear rumors of the world below the clouds? The one we left behind countless years ago when a few among us held enough wisdom to leave before the oceans rose and covered the land?”
“No, I fear nothing.”
“I am well aware of your kind and their lack of fears. Regardless, what do you wish to know?”
The man took a deep breath and let it out, slowly, as if the question weighed heavily upon his consciousness. “Do you think they bear any truth?”
“Truth?!?” The old man cackled, his thin frame shaking with the effort, until he was reduced to a coughing fit. He managed to bring himself under control enough to continue. “You, of all people? Ask me the validity of the truth of something?” He laughed again. “I find that very amusing. I do.”
The hooded man’s knuckles curled dangerously around the pommel of the blade. “I do not jest sir, I ask that you do not interpret it as such.”
“Calm down, calm down.” He chuckled again, adjusting himself on the large chair to be more comfortable. “I meant no offense, young one. I merely found the concept of this situation humorous is all, that’s all, I swear.”
“Very well.” The knuckles released their caress upon the pommel, his fingertips playing lovingly across the smooth, polished surface. “Continue.”
“Ah yes, as you wish. One second, let me get something.” The old man climbed to his feet with the help of the armrests and shuffled over to one of the numerous shelves adorning his wall. He ran his finger across the rough surface of the parchment, muttering incoherently to himself as he did so, until with an ‘Ah-hah!’, he withdrew a parchment that looked no different from the innumerable others adorning the study. He shuffled back over to his lounge chair and settled back against it with a pleased sigh. “Here we are.”
The hooded man was unable to hide brow raised in curiosity. “And…what is that exactly?”
“You asked for the rumor, correct?”
“This is it.”
“And what does it say.”
The old man cleared his throat and rapped his knuckles roughly against his chest a few times before replying. “Listen one, listen all! The stories that the Imperial Palace feed us about the world below the clouds are nothing more than lies. We have been. We know the truth. If you wish to know the same, join us! – The Earthists.”
“What is?” The old man had noted the curious tone of the hooded man and was hoping to glean some of what lay behind the inquisitive blue-gray gaze.
“Good try; but, this is something that is better if you don’t know.”
The old man shrugged. “Fair enough.”
“Thank you for your assistance, ‘we’ will not forget.” The hooded man climbed to his feet, adjusted his cloak about his frame and carefully navigated his way to the door, pushed it open and made his way out, allowing the door to slowly swing shut.
“We?” The old man questioned, his gaze turning soft, sorrowful. “You are all that remains of that once great age, young one. A time when the power was balanced and all feared the Seven Blades. It’s trying times we live in now though, tread carefully when following the scent for the truth.”
- - -
The hooded man paused just outside the door, glancing around at the milling crowds on the roads. Satisfied that no one had noticed his exiting the old man’s place, he fixed his hood and stepped out on the road. He knew that in order to get to the truth of the matter, he needed to find one of these meetings of this radical group and infiltrate them. He had some questions that needed answering and he believed that the only ones who could grace him with answers were the leaders of this group. First, he needed to try to determine where exactly one of these meetings might be held. He summoned a mental image of the slums in his mind, a technique that was drilled mercilessly into him during his trainings, and tried to imagine where a sizable group of individuals could gather in relative secrecy from prying Imperial eyes. He managed to narrow the list down to a measly five locations that matched the description. The first was but a few blocks away.
Feeling the desire to walk, he paced along one of the walking paths lining the road, the once smooth, polished marble now cracked and weathered. There had once been tales carved in masterful pictographs that entertained him as a child for hours. He paused, crouching down to glance at a familiar picture on the worn, marble surface. His mind traced back the years, the months, the days until the memory grew clear, became reality. He’d been walking along the path, watching as the story unfolded on each square as he progressed down the main street of the slums. His imagination breathed life into the images until the scene was unfolding in his mind. So lost was he in his story that he failed to realize his senses had been trying to warn him of something. His head smacked into something sturdy and solid. There was a grunt and he glanced up, nearly fainting when he realized who his unsuspecting victim had been. He had given a startled expression only children were capable of and had attempted to flee for the safety of one of the nearby hovels. A hand reached out and snatched his shirt collar and slowly turned him back around to face a kind, gentle, weathered face.
“What’s the matter young one?”
“Sir?” The man chuckled, a merry sound and pinched his cheek. “I’m no sir. You, you can call me Keegan. Sir was my father.”
“Yes sir, I mean Keegan.” The young boy looked at his bare, dirty feet before mumbling a hasty. “Sorry sir.”
“It’s okay….” He paused, reaching up to stroke at the curled mustache hanging beneath his nose.
“I’m afraid I don’t know your name child.”
“My mother named me Neal, sir. I mean Keegan.”
“It’s a nice, strong name, Neal. I like it.” He reached out a rough, callused hand to rest on the young boy’s shoulder, giving it a gentle squeeze. “Do you have a home to return to Neal?”
The young boy could merely shake his head ‘no’ and to make the situation even more embarrassing for the young lad, his stomach chose that moment to make its hunger known with a mighty rumble. The young boy reached a hand down to massage his belly, giving a hasty ‘Sorry sir.’
“There’s no need to apologize Neal. Why, you’re a starving boy!” Keegan rose to his feet, his cloak flowing with the motion, revealing an ornately decorated scabbard. He did not fail to notice the boy’s widening eyes or the way they darted to and fro around the street, as if he were a cornered, wild animal seeking escape. He quickly readjusted the cloak. “There’s no need to fear lad, I mean you no harm.”
“But..but you’re one of them!” The young boy whispered, eyes growing wide.
“One of them?” He chuckled. “Oh, if I had a crown for every time I heard that. I’d be a rich man. Now, enough about me lad, what do you say we do something about that growling stomach of yours?”
The boy’s eyes could only widen as he swallowed his adam’s apple and nodded.
“That’s a good lad.” He rested a guiding hand on the young lad’s bad and gave him a gentle nudge to get him moving. “Now what sort of food do you have an inkling for this fine afternoon?”
“I could go for some fresh baked bread, sir.” The boy cowered for a moment, fearing a beating for his continued mistake and when there none coming, glanced nervously up at the smiling, fatherly face. “I mean Kerrigan, sir. Sorry, sir.”
“Do not trouble your young mind so, young Neal.” The man’s face broke into a warm smile, his soft, brown eyes lighting with some inner mirth. “To err is to be human. Remember that lad and you’ll go far in this world.”
The young boy merely nodded as he was ushered along toward food and eventually, a family. Something an orphan such as himself had never experienced.
The now grown man shook his head, dismissing the vivid memory from his mind as his gloved fingers finished tracing the carved picture and he rose slowly to his feet. A small smile had played across his handsome features at the memory of his mentor and savior. The man who had rescued him from a life of filth and destitution. The smile faded, the stony expression rising to the surface once more. He felt a pair of eyes on him and out of habit, his hand moved as fast as a coiled snake, his fingers curling around the hilt of his sheathed blade. His fingers relaxed and he gave a small smile when he found the eyes’ owner, a young boy, who caused a brief flash of grief as he reminded him so much of himself at that age. He wished he held the power to do something about the state of the orphans of the city.
He paused as an idea flashed to the front of his mind. He motioned the young lad forward and the boy responded albeit cautiously, as if approaching a predator, a very dangerous predator at that. Neal flashed another smile and relieved some of the tension in his body to try to appear less frightening to the boy. For what he had in mind, he would need the boy’s complete attention.
“Boy,” He inquired, his tone soft and friendly. “What is your name?”
The boy tilted his head sideways, gifting him with a curious expression as if unused to being asked for his name by a stranger, an apparently wealthy one at that. He couldn’t blame the boy, he’d been much the same at that age. “Sam, sir.”
“Sir was my father, you may call me Neal.”
“Neal?” The boy seemed to roll the name around in his mouth as if tasting the sound of it. Satisfied, he gave a subtle nod. “Alright, Neal.”
Neal chuckled at how easy the young lad accepted his request, it gave him hope for what he would do next. “Sam, lad, how would you like to earn a silver crown?”
“A silver crown? For what?” The boy’s eyes narrowed suspiciously, all too aware of the age-old trick.
Neal smiled gently. “For doing me a service.” He paused, considering something for a moment before continuing. “I’ll give you one silver crown now as proof of my goodwill and another when you return.”
“Two?!?” The boy was all smiles as he nodded vigorously. “What do you wish of me sir?”
“Do you know of the posters hanging around the Slums. They’re red and black and have an image of a man standing on a mound of dirt, his hands together with a flower growing. Know of it?”
“You mean the Earthists poster?”
Neal smiled, this one of victory. “Yes, that’s the one.”
“What about it?”
“Do you know where they meet?”
“Why?” The boy’s gaze grew suspicious again.
“Why, I wish to join them lad!” He gave the boy a soft nudge with a clenched fist. “They have the right of it. The royal family has been lying to us surely, there has to be something down below, else why have they not sent another search craft below?”
The boy gave a soft shrug of his slender shoulders. “I don’t know about all that sir, I mean Neal; but, you seem to be an alright fellow.” The boy’s gaze clouded over for a few minutes as he considered something. “Alright, I’ll help you.”
“That’s a lad.” He reached into one of his voluminous pockets and pulled out a silver crown as promised and placed it in the young boy’s hand. The boy’s eyes widened before his fingers curled possessively around the coin.
“Wait here.” The boy whispered before disappearing as only orphans could amongst the crowd. He rose to his feet and leaned back against the wall, fighting the memories that threatened to rise up inside of him of his own past.