By N. O. Sweat-Mann
Petiil strode through the crowd and pretended he wasn’t there. Perfectly casual and keeping his mind blank. Previously excited to be involved with the planning, and thrilling to be trusted, it was logical his elder had chosen him for the job. Identical twins were highly unusual and if he was noticed his brother Rewook was busy taking the entrance exam to join the Holy Order of the First Traditionalist Church, a rock solid alibi. Eben had a plan ‘B’ and even a plan ‘C’, truth be told the man possibly had other plans if things went went wrong, it was just what he did. Life was full of uncertainty, but they needed information, desperately, and this manuscript may hold the key. It was an honour and a measure of the trust his elder were putting in him to be used. So no pressure.
Petiil resisted the urge to brush his hand over his fringe and keep his eyes averted from the throngs perusing the busy market place stalls. Next rotation he would be a man and be able to wear a headband to keep hair from his face, but for now his predominately yellow streaked hair had been dyed a mundane brown. Nothing about his garments or person stood out. Average height, neither tall or short he was still growing and would soon lose that aspect of normality. The dominate skin tone in First City was brown, he was the perfect mix of his parents Major House dark skin, and his mothers Woman of the Trades lighter skin tone. Commonplace. Not ugly enough to draw attention, nor possessing striking good looks. Mediocre. Ordinary, in every physical way possible.
“I come.” Uncle Euwaad Sent.
Petiil had been expecting the communication and hoped no-one had noticed his slight startle. It was no surprise he had inherited his parents speed and quick mind. But it was discovering the twins had inherited talents from their mother’s side of the family that had prompted his elders dangerous actions and the daring plan. They usually wouldn’t abide by theft, well not this sort of theft. His great paternal parent had not even been told of the days escapades, but critical situations required desperate measures.
Making sure not to look in the direction his uncle would be approaching Petiil yawned. A man in the crowd cried out sharply as he was jostled, people focused on his colourful out-burst. Leaning slightly forward Petiil’s modified oversized cowl gaped at the back, he felt the weight of a small package settle into hidden pocket. Didn’t look, surreptitiously made an adjustment to the fount and continued moving with the crowd. Scratched his arm, indicating the manuscript was secure.
A good few body-lengths behind him a ruck ass started. A loud, aggressively angry voice declaring a theft. Previously identified guards or observers sprang into action and a couple they had missed. Petiil kept his emotions in check, breathing even, mind unconcerned. It had nothing to do with him. Beneath his consideration. A couple of obvious Traditionalist’s, blue robes flapping, hurried past, back to the scene of the crime.
So his elders had been correct. The manuscript was bait. A lure for those who suspected they may have talents, or were foolish enough to be curious about them. Pity, as bait the information it contained would be suspect. Traditionalist, hunted and killed people with inherited talents. They would not be providing them with information about their use. If the situation became dangerous he was to dump it. Nothing could be tied back to the family.
Mooching unhurriedly and intentionally thinking of styles of skirts after a decent distance he allowed of his mind to admire fabric samples on display and approached a stall. Selecting a bolt of cloth Petiil let his long fingers brush the smooth weave, enjoyed the texture. Gave the fabric the cursory sniff, no stench of the mordant remained. A weaver who knew his trade. The yellow was a pleasant shade, imagining what it would look like on him. Not bad, he selected another tone.
“Can I be assisting you sir?” The slave behind the stall respectfully inquired.
“I am asked to select a colour, payment will come later. This one I think will do.” He gestured to a brighter tone. Kept his face bland, dull, bored. His tone and words simple. The slave glanced behind him. Petiil allowed his gaze to follow, just a beggar, shuffling on crippled Hail Fire scorched limbs.
“Do you have braid?” Petiil thought of some that may match, a green or perhaps one of the new loose woven laces in a navy would be a good contrast. His eyes were a hazel mix but if he wore blue it picked out the similar tones.
“No sir. Three stalls down there be a nice selection. I will set this aside until the mother of you comes.”
Petiil nodded. His mother wouldn’t come of course, she was long dead. He hadn’t said she would, but people in general most often remembered words they expected. Keep to the truth, make sure you don’t lie, keep it simple, do the things people expect you to do. Even a lazy first-born of the highest status did not wonder through a market without purpose. In the meantime the colour selection let his elders watching servants know everything was going to plan.
Ambling to the counter displaying woven braids a couple of Inspectors strode by, heading the direction of the manuscript store. Not in a great rush. The crowd deferred to them. Pinched faced slaves lowered their heads in respect. A couple of women with their drones, too early in the day for most Ladies, were given pleasant hand signals of acknowledgement as they passed by. Young boys carting parcels stepped aside and a couple of slave’s who had been arguing about whose load was heaviest fell silent. Petiil made sure not to frown. Slaves arguing. Not a good sign. He recognised one as Eben. His cue to indicate he was being watched or followed. Traditionalists were pedantically thorough. Unfortunately.
A very attractive navy lace caught his eye, interesting pattern, he held it against his skin, imagined how it would look with his fabric. Asked the price, allowed himself a frown, compared a couple of others, before going back to the first. The slave in this stall was more intelligent than most. Must have been fed and treated well all his life. Just the right amount of flattery and humility, not a young man, his arms were forest scared. Petiil asked for the lace to be set aside and moved on.
Focusing on thinking about food, always a pleasurable topic, Petiil rummaged in the pocket in his skirt, found the package of boiled treats, popped one in his mouth. Not bad. Next time he would experiment by adding more sweetener, and something fresh. A sharp minty taste perhaps?
“May I have a word please sir.”
Petiil jumped. Where had the man come from?
“You startled me good sir. Didn’t see you.” Petiil resorted to his blandest, bored and most vacant expression typical of many youth when addressed by people they considered below their station. The man’s cloths were appalling. The fringe of his cowl didn’t match his skirt, and his headband contained both the colours in his outfit but too many additional ones. Garish. It all clashed. No style. Respectable first-born of his peers would not be seen dead in that combination.
The man sneered. “There has been a theft, you were close at the time, wondering if you have seen anything interesting?”
“A theft? How terribly droll. Seen a couple of Inspectors. They went that way. I should say you would be better off asking them, I haven’t noticed anything unexpected.” Except your cloths, he added to himself.
Around them people with a sixth sense for something not quite right edged away. The area grew quieter, not silent, but stilted, paused, holding it’s breath.
“So you would have no objections to me searching your person?” The man had shrewd eyes and an almost casual manor. Fractals gleamed on both shoulders, exposed, being shown off. Enhanced Speed and Endurance. So not just a Traditionalist fanatic, but a Commander. Politically and religiously dangerous and proud of it. But alone, with out his team he could not insist Petiil do any thing.
“Excuse me. I most certainly will not let a random stranger search my person. You have not even been properly introduced. Who do you think you are?” Petiil looked haughtily down his nose, which was difficult as the man was taller, turned on his heels and stalked off.
The drop off was only a couple more stalls down the market, he couldn’t make it now. Not with the very real possibility the man was still looking at him. He thought offended, and haughty thoughts. A man of no taste and a creep. Possibly some sort of pervert. His parent had warned him about men like that. Plan ‘B’ would have to do. He strode purposefully past the drop off with out a glance and around the corner into a tunnel where the stalls sold various household furnishings.
Passed a group of slaves lugging wooden stools. The scent of freshly carved wood filled his senses. They were a mottled crew favouring the slack-jawed and stony-stares of deprivation. He may have let a little anger and disgust slip through his mental control, but a first-born son of a Major House would think that after being questioned as he had been. Petiil’s steps took him from the up-market section of the tunnel system where only coin was accepted and cut through to a tunnel where people of lower status bartered for goods and services. A far more rackety, smelly and chaotic merging of people and activity.
Men yelled, extolling the virtue of their wares, loud bartering and numerous buskers. A group of boys played boisterously in front of their parents stalls. An epic hero tale unfolding with the aid of childish imagination. One pretended to possess the Strength to destroy an invading army with a single blow. Another, on the opposing side, was Flying, yelling to his friends he was Invisible and so he could not be seen to be attacked. Petiil didn’t linger to guess at others’ super powers.
As a child his parent had delighted them with stories of the ancient Heroes. Stories little boys dreamed of at night and enacted with friends by day. Most religions of the world believed the heroes would return. Some thought they would save, and others held the view they would bring retribution and destruction. Interpretations of Prophecies were as varied as people themselves. It wouldn’t have mattered except a particularly zealous group of Traditionalist though any non-fractal enhanced talents, anything inherited, clearly identified the individual as anti-hero. Discovery lead to a speedy and gruesome death, the individual and his family. Petiil became oblivious, let his mind wonder to think of training with friends later in the day. Noticed a servant with a basket with bright red fabric.
The hair on the back of Petiil’s neck rose. So, he was still being followed, but could make the drop. Dodging a wobbling cart, heard it crash behind him. Not his problem, side stepped behind a convenient tapestry. One step, he whipped his cowl over his head, second step placed it the basket, third step swiped another cowl, forth step had it over his head, fifth step back on the walk way.
Only reached the next intersection before the sound of feet, running in formation with the characteristic clink of blades, reached his ear’s. A team of Commanders. For him? Not completely unexpected. The crowed stopped milling, drew to the side of the tunnel, Petiil let his mind wander to curiosity. Whatever could they want? Nothing to do with him.
The Hail Fire burned cripple he had noticed earlier miraculously recovered. Joined the group of Commanders and walked directly up to him.
“By the authority of the high council you will be searched.” The order was barked and the man gestured to another to instigate a body frisk.
Petiil mixed indignation, humiliation, confusion and dread. He had never experienced a Commander’s search. It was uncomfortably thorough and the Commander assigned the duty had the decency to look embarrassed.
“Am I allowed to know what this is about?” His voice was higher pitched all on its own.
“Suspected heretics don’t get to ask question.” Was the sneered reply.
“There is nothing sir.”
The crippled eyes narrowed, became black. Petiil gasped. What? Had anyone else seen that? It sent a shiver up his spine and filled his mind with dread. Petiil shook his head, the man’s eyes were back to normal, washed out lilac. Their were rumours about lilac, every one had heard them. His own family had flex of lilac in their eyes.
“I demand an apology.” Petiil didn’t put a lot of conviction into his voice.
He was ignored. The Commanders turned and harassed a random stranger before leaving. Excitement over, people returned to the days activities. Incidents involving Commanders were best dismissed as promptly as possible. Petiil didn’t return directly home. Was picked up by a friend he chanced to meet after a drink at a local cavern. What would anyone expect after his harrowing experience?
“You did well son.” Uncle Euwaad met him in his office, his Sending was laced with gratitude and pride.
“Thank you sir. Did we have any other trouble?” Petiil let his mental control drop away, reciprocated, adding warmth and appreciation.
“No, they became focused on you. Do you want to see the manuscripts?” Euwaad grinned and passed one over to his eager hands.
“It feels heavier than I remember.” Petiil flicked through the leaves. A book of legends, his parent would love it, but hardly worth the risk. Or maybe not, understanding their talents from the stories was potentially more educational than believing anything Traditionalist could tell you. And these were not stories he was familiar with.
“This is the manuscript you carried. I kept that one. Divided our opponents.” Euwaad passed him another, illustrations of historic art. “We now know Traditionalist, who kill talented people, are using people with Invisibility and other talents to set traps. I didn’t let the other Invisible person realise I could see him, pretended to be a common thief stealing random manuscripts. Reading the other Invisible man confirmed our suspicions the manuscript we were interested in was a plant. It’s a pity, but I know you like art, your parents like legends, so enjoy.”
Uncle Euwaad pulled a bolt of yellow fabric and length of navy lace. “And have one of our tailors make this up for you. Nice choice.”
Petiil grinned. He had an awesome family, and it was nothing to do with them being talented.
Information. To survive they needed more information. He could be being Read, followed by someone with Invisibility, or any number of talents they knew nothing about.