Speak Easy

Jul. 2nd, 2012 01:48 pm
talonkarrde: (color)
For [livejournal.com profile] yachiru

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I hear that you are on your way to visit our glorious capital city of Donoln, yes? You must visit the Hall of Legends, where tall, thirty foot bronze statues line the sides of the great corridor, each depicting a figure who made our Meridia the center of the world that it is today. Most of them you have read about in the schoolbooks — there is Qwistan the Inventor, and Tinkerer Boam, and the Mechapilot General twins Jonasth and Alistan, and even the foreigners Nao’ot the Alchemist and Tzao-tzao the Magician, who distinguished themselves in their services to the empire. You can ask the court historian of all of these figures, and he will be able to recite every important date in their lives.

But the newest figure there is one that does not have a golden plate detailing his life and accomplishments, one figure for whom the historian will apologetically say that he has no solid information about, only that he was monumental to creating the just and prosperous society we have today. This figure stands at the end of the hall, with a wide-brimmed hat drawn low over his face and a long trenchcoat hiding his figure; you can see no details of his face for there were none carved.

I was the proud owner of the tavern and inn, the Burnt Powder Keg, where this man started and finished his crusade, and I saw his acts firsthand as they spread across the country and changed the empire forever.

This is his story.

#

It all started during the Winter of '14, when the failure in the harvest meant that many were to go hungry. Belts were notched tight and what little we had was drawn out for as long as possible; the Keg was barely able to set food on the table for the few guests who were travelling. I had built a reputation for catering to soldiers and officers, which meant that we were not quite scraping the bottom of the barrel as some of the resthouses were, but it also brought its share of complications, chief among them that my staff and I had to continuously exercise good judgment in dealing with some of the rougher, more distasteful elements of the military forces.

This was years ago, before the reign of the Illustrious Charles the Sixth, who plays a direct part in this story. But he comes in later — at that time, we were still serving under the whims of King Geppet, which should tell you something of the circumstances of the time. The soldiers that had fought in the war against the Trinitan Conglomerate had mostly grown fat and lazy without any enemies and the King's narcissism was a poor example for them, and those who were promoted to officers were more often cruel and mean-spirited thugs than the defenders of the citizens of Meridia and downtrodden poor that they had sworn to be.

Things had gotten particularly bad that winter, and rumors had been coming through the few travelers we saw that there were reports of Lieutenants and Mechamasters who had been abusing their authority and demanding a tithe of food and supplies to them personally, above and beyond what the good people had paid in taxes. I hadn't experienced any personally, but there were more than a few officers who had stopped by who were a bit more demanding than I would've liked or thought appropriate; they certainly knew how much everyone had been rationing but apparently didn't care.

It must have been around the first night of the Frostage when Captain Balzir came to stay. I remember that the lights were lit outside my inn and others for those in need to stay without needing to pay, as the benevolent Master Malchiem had done all those centuries ago for our first King. More had always chosen to travel on those days over others, for good reason, but there were still fewer out and about this year — I remember only five or six who had shown up that night, all good folk who had worked in the fields or in various crafts, and not a layabout between them.

Around eight at night, Captain Balzir strode in with one of the most imperious attitudes I had ever seen (and I had served Dukes and Crown Engineers) and demanded that we serve him a feast of boar, immediately. We had only a single hog left, and it needed to last the week before the hunters came back to the market to sell their wares, but he made it plain that either he would have the boar or there would be trouble.

Serving officers often takes judgment, patience, and a willingness to bear burdens that other patrons hardly ever demand; in this case, the harm would have been greater if I did not listen, so I acquiesced and had the entire boar prepared for the captain by our cook, Dharnel,h and had Lusina, the serving girl, personally attend to the Captain.

That was only the beginning of the night; after the boar, he started interrogating the others and by the end, he was haranguing them for any coin that they had — completely sober, mind you — as if he had a right to every gold coin out of their pockets simply because he was in the military. When the others rightfully expressed their displeasure, he stood up, smashed his mug of ale upon the ground, and roared at them that he would send his entire regiment of Steamtanks and Striders after their families, and hunt down their villages if they did not comply.

My behavior at the time was... not honorable. I did not speak up, for I did not want to risk this officer's wrath, even if he conducted himself in a way that did not befit his station. But when Marlene — one of our guests — protested that she had nothing at all to give, that she was here in the city to work as a housekeeper and had not been paid yet, Captain Balzir called her a whore and struck her across the face. That I could not stand, especially on this night of all nights, when we innkeepers give hospitality to all, and I did then offer to pay for her, which of course he took as his right.

Another stranger — Jacques, it was, another innkeeper who had taken Frostage as a good time to visit his family — laid his arm upon the Captain's shoulder and apologized to him for the behavior of the other guests, and offered him another share of gold, which seemed to calm Balzir down.

I comforted Marlene after he had gone to his quarters, and she thanked me quietly, though I only felt more shame that I did not stand up to him before he had struck her. She simply shook her head, though, and told me that it had not been the first time — in the outlands, on the edges of the empire, the soldiers were worse, she told me, though she wouldn't explain more, though I asked. Jacques talked with her much more that night, in a private corner, and it seemed that he cheered her up, for which I pulled him aside and thanked him as they both retired.

After that, there was little other action in the tavern. Certainly nothing that I could remember that stood out, nothing that would have prompted me to think that there would be a murder later that night.

I knew by name and face and figure all the guests present that night and all the staff, and there was no one who was unaccounted for, who I had not personally seen to their room — and as I reported to the police, there was nothing stirring. But there must have been something, for after all had retired, around eleven, there was a loud scream.

It came from Lusina, which meant that... well, Lusina was one who would earn a bit on the side (though only at her preference) and so she had keys to all the rooms. It was her choice, and she had never caused any trouble, so I had let it be; if I am to be honest, I will say that it helped that she even bought some extra supplies with her earnings sometimes, which helped us all out.

It seemed that she had made arrangements with this Captain Balzir at some point, and had climbed onto the bed that night, thinking of surprising him in a rather novel way, when she felt wetness and realized that it was not, rather gruesomely, the wetness that she was hoping for.

When she turned on the lights, her scream was instinctive, and brought the rest of us running. The ancient torture of 'death by a thousand cuts' is the best way to describe what happened; the man had cuts all over his body, through his clothes and around them, and had died by bleeding out through every one. He was, quite literally, little more than a mass of oozing blood; his clothes looked like they had been dipped in a vat of blood and then draped on him, such was the carnage. And his face — I hope he had died before the killer started on his face, for there was little left to recognize as a man.

I reported it immediately, of course; despite disliking the man I still operated a lawful establishment and had no interest in murder — especially not the shame that it would bring upon my inn. The district Minders sent two Prognosticators to investigate, and having never seen them work, I was quite interested in what they did. The main observation seemed to be that they had an endless assortment of tools that seemed to telescope out of their vests — by simply touching an area of their chests, a looking glass would telescope out the top, or a brush would deposit itself in their hands, or a bag; if it were not for the gruesome scene, I would have found their vestments quite interesting.

Their conclusions were quick: the dust on the floor (yes, I admit there was some in the Captain's room that I had rather neglected to clean) had been undisturbed except for Lusina's footprints, and she had clearly not had the time to murder the captain so messily. The window had been open, but it was just a crack and there were no signs on the hinges that it had been open wider, and there were no other ways into the room; certainly no vent that went to an adjoining room, as one one of the Progs mentioned as a possibility. As for the body, it had indeed been cut many times, very quickly; the blood had all congealed around the same time and so it was necessary that whoever — or whatever — had done the act to be quite efficient. A mystery, they declared, one that they would bring more resources to bear on, the next day.

#

It was a quiet week after that — the military investigators had come and found nothing as well, and essentially declared it unsolved, though they posted a reward and welcomed clues from anyone that had information. A few people claimed that there were eastern shadowmasters floating through walls, but those were treated the with the contempt that they rightfully deserved for spreading such nonsense.

I came upon Shiel on the last night of Frostage sitting at the corner table he had taken to frequenting since he had been staying with us; unlike most of the other patrons who had mostly moved on, he had business in the city and used the Burnt Powder Keg as a place to stay for free for two weeks. He was playing, curiously, with a small mechanspider, a miniature version of the ones that patrol our borders. I had seen small, less complex toys like it for children, but this was a remarkable little thing — one that he had constructed himself, apparently — and it could roll up into a solid ball and roll forward to move, and then open itself up and skitter around.

I saw Shiel release one and saw it skitter under a table — clinging onto the underside with its claws — and then go down the center pillar and up the nearest wall; when he whistled, it abruptly dropped into a ball and rolled back to him. I clapped in wonderment, and he started, having not seen me come in, and clutched the toys rather possessively.

"A neat toy," I remembered saying, trying to break the tension that had suddenly appeared.

"Quite," he allowed, and then waited a beat longer, and asked me if I remembered the night that the captain had been killed, if I remembered hearing anything.

I hadn't, I responded. Or, more accurately, I said, "I don't recall hearing anyone, and I do know that I put everyone to bed. There might have been mice moving around, but the kettle was on at the same time and I didn't think it was worth mentioning to the police."

I'm sure you've made the logical jump by now, as had I, but it seemed unlikely — Shiel was the very sort of introverted type of tinkerer, and was very drawn into his work. He had hardly spoken three words to anyone else in all his time at the inn, even Jacques, who he came in with, and didn't even raise his head over his meal the night the captain died. It couldn’t have been him, though those spiders were most certainly a marvel and were certain to sell well.

With that, our conversation concluded and I bid him a good night. I hear he makes his living in Kadath nowadays, though I haven't been able to keep up with him, unfortunately; such is the life of an innkeeper.

#

It was a few weeks after that, near the end of winter when the captain's uncle — himself a colonel in the army — came to pay us a visit. Lusina, Dharnel, and I learned quickly where the younger officer had gotten his rougher personality traits from. This time around, we discussed things beforehand and tolerated a little less than we had before; while we would not openly confront him and bring the wrath of the empire down on us, we were also a bit less interested in being puppets to his whim.

We did set up the feast his messenger had requested, and made sure that it was up to his standards, and it seemed that all was going to be well. But of course, lest we forget the Goddess Miranda's teachings and count our blessings before they come to pass, the night was not over. Before the colonel was even done, he had noticed the looks from some of our other patrons at the resplendent feast he was going through, and sneered openly at them.

"Just you wait," he said, in between bites on a chicken leg, "After this is done, it's time to pay your taxes. And don't think of running — taxes will be double for anyone who leaves the tavern between now and when I'm done eating."

"Master Dhavin—" I started.

"That is Colonel Dhavin, innkeeper," he corrected, without missing a beat.

"Very well. Colonel Dhavin, I don't particularly think it just for you to collect taxes from my patrons, in my tavern, where they are enjoying my hospitality as my guests, as you are." I said, strongly. I had not forgotten that these soldiers and officers were the lifeblood of my tavern, but I could also not let them behave unchecked, as I had failed Marlene.

"I think you forget your station," he snarled, standing up, his face flushed and food forgotten.

"My station is that of an innkeeper and of a loyal citizen of Meridia, sir. I beg your pardon, but I believe my station allows me to state my grievances to you." I ended, with a bow of my head — hopefully one he'd take for respect, but not adulation.

Hoping, I found, is often a fool's habit.

"Consider them stated," he said, with the sneer returning to his face, as he walked around the table and came to me. "In fact, you appear to be correct; I should not be taxing these citizens. Instead, I will be taking my share of your tax, which is payable right now — it will be 500 coins."

500 coins! That was more than I made in a month, and while I just barely had enough to pay it, the 'tax' would have set us back to the worst of Frostage. It was not a burden that I should be asked to bear, and both the colonel and I knew it. When I opened my mouth to protest, he acted first, knocking me to the floor with a gauntlet across the face. I heard Lusina gasp, but she wisely didn't come forward. As I lay there, the colonel kicked me savagely in the side, and then turned to address everyone else.

"We are here to protect you, but this means that you must obey us. When we ask for supplies, it is necessary for the continued protection, and when you do not immediately obey, you are endangering yourself, as this innkeeper has. And when you do so, you may be robbed by the rougher elements who do not respect you, like we do." He drew his leg back and kicked me again, brutally, and I curled up, gasping in pain but not daring to protest.

And just as he aimed another kick, this time at my head, a lilting voice called out.

"Colonel, why waste your time with that fool when there's still a feast to be had — perhaps one you'd be inclined to share with someone who appreciates your actions?"

The voice sounded familiar, and when I opened my eyes and blinked away the tears, I saw a figure dressed in red silk, in the eastern style with legs covered but arms bare, with her hair teased high. It was Marlene, of all people, who was clearly not any sort of a housekeeper, unless she kept house by sating the owner’s more lecherous desires whenever he wished.

I could only watch in shock as the colonel looked her up and down and decided that being with a beautiful woman was indeed more worthwhile than kicking someone who was already down.

"You, and you," he said, pointing to two of his soldiers. "Go through his belongings, and find the gold to collect. If he doesn't have it, destroy everything he has." The colonel said, and I heard the thugs head up the stairs. They would find it, of course — I kept it in my chest at the end of my bed, usually secure in the knowledge that the soldiers that came would protect against thievery; I never imagined that good soldiers would participate in it.

Now, finally, Lusina and Dharnel came to help me up as the colonel turned back to his feast, with Marlene on his arm and more or less pressing herself against him. I drew myself up to a stool and could only watch, shocked, as she spent the rest of his meal entertaining him in just about every way short of taking her dress off, though repeated lewd comments made it obvious that it was just a matter of time and privacy.

I couldn't understand why — this was Marlene, and it was impossible that she would have forgotten Balzir striking her across the face, an assault that might have been physically lighter than the one I received but was no less demeaning. She had gone over to the enemy, in the worst way, and I could only watch in disgust as she threw herself upon him.

With half the food still untouched, he stated that he was finished, and commanded us to clean up, while he stood and made ready to retire. He told his two soldiers — who had come down with all the coin that I had — to guard his door, and then turned to point at me.

"This better be the best sleep I've ever had, innkeeper, or we might find that arsonists have burned your inn to the ground in the morning," he threatened, and finally I understood. I wasn't going to make it out of this, as the colonel had taken it upon himself to avenge his nephew's death through whatever means he saw fit. There was nothing I could do, except, perhaps, run away.

Once, I think I might have done such a thing, but after tonight, I found that there were injustices I could not tolerate, and this was one of them. I started thinking, plotting, even as I humbly bowed as low as I could. He smirked, and then beckoned for Marlene to head up the stairs with him, to 'entertain' him for a while.

Surprisingly, she declined, even as she planted a kiss on his cheek and offered a placating excuse. She said she'd join him shortly, but she wanted to surprise him with an outfit she was sure he would appreciate. He leered at her, grabbed her breast, and said that the outfit he'd like to see most was absolutely nothing on her, but she simply leaned into his touch and promised he'd enjoy it, and he let her go.

He headed up the stairs, along with his guards, and Marlene simply stood there waiting, listening to their boots on the stairs and footsteps in the room above us. And then, for a moment, she met my eyes, and left without another word.

What I saw in her eyes wasn't emptiness, or lust, or greed — it was a determination, a fire that you see in the eyes of great leaders who men die for. It was rare that I had seen it someone not in the military, and it was the first time I had seen it for more than a year, but it would not be the last.

I still didn't know why, though, she was behaving as she did; I only had the hint that there was another explanation for her actions. When she came back, ten minutes later, she ignored everyone else and headed up the stairs. She stopped outside of the colonel's door and asked one of the soldiers to enter. To their credit — as soldiers, at least, though not as citizens of Meridia — they knew their job well and rapped on the door, announcing her entry, even though she probably asked for them to keep it a surprise.

And then, of course, she opened the door and screamed, and I'm sure you can figure out the rest. I won't describe it here, as it was just as gruesome as the first killing, except that this one was even more precise — only the face had been multilated, with the rest of his body untouched.

This time, though, my feelings were more ambivalent; I still valued keeping a lawful establishment, but I also understood that the law and those who were tasked in upholding it were not always the same. This may have been wrong, but Captain Dhavin wasn't a sterling example of humanity. Perhaps it was better that he died, but was it really my call?

This time, the reporting was done for me, by the soldiers who were his bodyguards. The Prognosticators were called in again, and came up with just as much of an explanation as they had the first time, which was to say, nothing. It was a different room, even, and they found no sign of foul play — except for the corpse itself, which was clearly a sign of foul play. But there was no forced entry, no windows ajar, nothing at all that they could find.

I sat in the lobby the entire time, under guard, wondering if my tavern would be burned to the ground and myself strung up to hang for the murder of these two officers, even though I myself had done nothing wrong and could explain none of this. But this couldn’t be a coincidence; even I had to admit that.

It was one of the Prognosticators himself that saved me, as he came down from the stairs and collapsed his tools back into his vest. “Just like the others...” he muttered, shaking his head.

Others? There were...others? I stood, unsteadily, ignoring the warning glance my guard gave me.

“This...this isn’t the only place this has happened?” I asked, with the hope no doubt evident in voice.

“Indeed not, barkeep. It started around Frostage, around here, I believe, but it’s spread since then. This is the ninth or tenth, and there doesn’t seem to be anything that ties them together, except, perhaps...”

“Perhaps...?” I asked, curious at his rather reserved tone.

“It’s not my place,” he commented in a curt tone, ending the conversation and leaving me alone, once more, to clean up the mess. Once more, though, an officer was dead, and I was still alive.

#

It was a week after this before I saw Marlene again; this time, though, she looked much like she had when she first came in, dressed plainly but not poorly. She came in when there was no one else in the tavern — Dharnel had gone home for the night and Lusina was upstairs — and stepped right up to me, stopping with a curtsy.

I almost screamed at her to get out of the tavern, given what had happened and the way she was hanging over the officer, but she stopped me with a single movement, a simple presentation of a small, round, spherical toy.

Shiel’s toy.

As the gears began to click together in my head, Marlene took out a small tube with a shimmering powder inside and shook some out onto a table, being careful not to get any on herself, and then wound the toy once, twice, three times, and let it go.

It unfolded, skittered to the powder, and promptly started stabbing the table. It did no damage to the wood, but I understood instantly, and turned back to Marlene, where she was holding up a small tube of lipstick, and last week’s events became clear.

Only then did she speak.

“I’m sorry for what happened, but I needed to know first that you wouldn't support them any longer,” she started. “We have been watching. I can't tell you everything, so you won't be able to betray anyone. If you think hard, you will know who recruited me, and how we have gotten our tools; that’s all I can say.”

I objected at this point, because I had no intention of joining anything, but she simply shook her head, anticipating my protest.

“I’m not here to demand you join— I’m simply here to tell you of another option, one that doesn't mean either staying silent while crimes are committed against Meridia’s citizens or having your livelihood taken away from you for speaking up against the corrupt. You may not ever need this option, but I wanted to offer you it.”

She took four more small spheres out of her satchel and set them on the bar, along with the one that had rolled back to her, and the tube of powder.

“Counter-clockwise, three turns, they’ll return to you after a minute. If you don’t press on the top of the ball after picking them up, they’ll come apart in your hands. Wash or burn anything that’s had the powder on it.”

And with that, she turned andd headed for the door, stopping only briefly.

"And...thank you. For offering to pay for me. For stopping him."

Then she was gone and I could only stare at the weapons that I had been given, and the choice that was now in front of me.

#

From then, I started to pay very careful attention to the news, and saw that there was something going on. Reports here and there from wanderers who had heard from others, or from soldiers who were a bit chattier than they should be, painted a picture of a movement.

Not a rebellion, and certainly not a war, but something undeniable, nonetheless — enough that if you looked for it, and put the pieces together, you'd see that there was a web of incidents with officers that suffered accidents which were unusual and occasionally fatal. And the rumor was that there was one person linked to all of the recent ones, a person with a hat slung low and a trenchcoat, and that he — or she — was the sign that something would happen.

Only a few were as bloody as the one that we had seen, but all of them had changed something. I started to pay attention to my own visitors, and slowly, I saw my own opportunities to entice certain officers to my inn, and to get close to them without raising undue alarm. It was something I had never done before, but I learned, in the course of a few months, how to put myself in a position where I could use the gifts I was given.

I never did pull the trigger though — at least partially because I didn't find anyone else who deserved it as the Captain and his uncle did. Even if I had, though, I didn't know if I was truly able to do such a thing, even if I was beginning to see that it had to be done.

#

As the summer rolled around and the attacks kept occurring, King Geppet finally started to realize that something was happening, but by then, the entire population did too. Those in power who overstepped their bounds were no longer quietly obeyed, but instead, often openly defied; any further injustice was likely to bring a sighting of the Wanderer, as he came to be known, in his trench coat and long brimmed hat, and an 'incident' would happen shortly thereafter.

Sometimes, the Wanderer would show up in different cities in, if the reports were to be believed, the same day, and other times, not be seen for a week or more. But eventually, he was seen in every corner of Meridia, and his reputation grew, much as the reward for information leading to his capture did.

It was then that the later King Charles cames to the Burnt Powder Keg; he was a lieutenant at the time, and showcased every bit the officer that we needed. There were many tangible things, from how he treated Lusina to how much he asked for, but in the end, it was a simple presence that we felt, a trust and respect that we had for him.

He had a quiet dinner and chatted with some of the other guests, though all avoided the stories of what the Wanderer had done. But then, the Wanderer showed up at the door, and the conversation died instantly.

The brim of his hat was pulled low, as the stories always held, and the trench coat did indeed hide his figure rather completely. He could have been anyone — man or woman — of any height, and the only fact that could be discerned was that he was about average height — which helped absolutely none to identify him.

Charles spoke first.

"Why are you here, Wanderer?" It was a simple question, without malice or anger.

"To ask if you will defend the citizens of the empire against those that would take away their rightful lives, possessions, and liberties." He said — and we knew at least that it was a man. His voice was deep, but not overly so, and most of all, it was familiar, though I could not place where I had heard him.

"It is what I have sworn," Charles said.

"And yet, those others which have sworn such have burned down houses and attacked citizens for not submitting to them personally, when they were owed no such fealty." The Wanderer countered.

"Those, if found, would be punished for their actions."

"And they have been, but it has taken the citizens to punish them, instead of the law. The reason for this seems to be that the law currently only serves those who represent it, instead of all."

At this, Charles paused for a long time.

"You say that there are high elements who support this behavior."

"I do." The Wanderer stated.

"Are you responsible for killing the officers?" Charles asked.

"I am," The Wanderer responded, without hesitation.

"Then you are guilty of murder, regardless of your contentions."

The Wanderer nodded at this, as if he had been expecting it. And then, to everyone's surprise, he took off the hat and tossed it aside.

"My name is Jacques," he said, and the last pieces came together.

"How curious," Charles said, "as that is my name as well."

The two men eyed each other, until Lieutenant Jacques Charles indicated a seat opposite him at the table, which the former innkeeper Jacques took. The innkeeper told his story, then, and I still remember every word.

"I was a humble innkeeper once. For ten years I tended to my inn, on the outskirts of the empire, and did everything I could to make all of the travelers who passed through as comfortable as possible. But last fall, my inn, the Wanderer's Respite, was burned down by a sargeant and his group of men who had found my food not worthy for their tastes. They deprived me of my livelihood, and claimed I was lucky to escape with my life. When I reported it to their commanding officer, he simply sneered at me and told me that I should have served better food, and then kicked me out."

"It was then that I started to wander, myself, to see if this was a poison that only afflicted a few of those who had sworn to defend us, or if it was something that had spread across all of the units of Meridia. And through months of trailing officers on deployments and trying to meet as many different officers as possible, I found that it was an attitude that was growing — not every officer shared it, but those who did seem to be promoted over those who knew their responsibilities and followed them."

"The ones who did not, though — it wasn't just a bit of petty greed, but the corruption of the entire service. I saw those who were beaten for not paying a personal tax that would have made their summers very hard indeed, and young girls who were coerced into relationships for fear of their families lives, to be available at the officer's request or suffer harsh consequences. The officers were setting examples for those under them, and promoting those who shared their behavior, and the citizens suffered for it."

"On my travels, I met Shiel, who was an brilliant tinkerer, and soon struck up a friendship with him — his story is not mine to tell, but he had suffered as well. The two of us first created the tools that we would use to fight this corruption, and understood that we would have to do whatever it took. Along our journeys, we quickly found others who had been hurt and had nowhere to turn to, and we created a network of men and women who understood how Meridia had fallen and what should be done. In fact, one of the earlier recruits was done here, in this tavern," Jacques said, and looked over at me.

Marlene, of course.

"And now we have been fixing the problem, as we must because no one else will fix the problem for us. To leave it in the hands of the law is to be given no recourse at all; instead, as I'm sure you've noticed, there have been changes — perhaps due to fear, but those who used to flaunt their power are now quite meek about it. But I know — and I think you know, Lieutenant Charles, as we've been watching you — that fear can only last for so long, and these officers go out each time with more guards and it becomes harder to make a difference."

"To kill them, you mean," Charles observed, speaking for the first time.

"To stop them from killing and hurting others, yes, much like what a soldier does, except we act on those inside our borders who injure us instead of outside of our borders." Jacques responded.

"To continue this, we need someone who will stand up for the citizens once again, an officer who will tolerate no disrespect or injustice. you're highly regarded inside the armed forces, and I think you can make the changes that make our actions unnecessary."

Both of them were silent for a long time, until Charles spoke again, and I saw why he would become king.

"We are sworn to the citizens of Meridia, not the King or ourselves, and we are sworn to protect the weak and the poor, not take from them. This is the code, and anyone that deviates from it is not fit to be an officer. But the law is still the law, and murder is something that can not be allowed either, as these were not actions on a field of war, even if they are actions that are taken against those who would harm you. And so, I will pursue these crimes that you say have occurred, and I will not rest until all are held accountable for their actions — but this includes you, Jacques."

And Jacques, who clearly saw this coming, nodded and placed his hands on the table. "I know what the punishment would be, and I would do nothing different if given this choice a thousand times."

#

They killed him, of course, hung him from the the gallows in the central square of Donoln. But Jacques had planned for that too, and that night, in many taverns across the Empire, other wanderers in a low-brimmed hat and a trench coat strode through the streets in a sign that the citizens were not cowed, that one person might died but that the ideas he stood for were more than alive.

The Burnt Powder Keg was one of them, I'm proud to say.

After that, changes came swiftly. The Lieutenant kept to his word in rooting out those who were abusing their power, with help from Jacques' observers, and in three months, the purges were complete — including the King Geppet, who it was learned had been taking liberties that were not his to take, which encouraged certain members of the military in behaving as they did. With the backing of the military behind him, then-General Charles was able to convince the King to step down, and was made the next King by acclamation of the people, who saw what he had been doing.

King Charles' first order of business was to construct another statue in the Hall of Legends, one of a man who had everything taken from him by those who should have defended him, a citizen of Meridia who was willing to sacrifice his life for the ideal that we will always have the right to fight back against those who oppress us, whether they come from outside our borders or inside them.

#

Now, I think, you see why the story is one that is not very often told — but I think should be told in the right circumstances, to the right people. Justice is not always handed out by the law, but each citizen has a right to it. We often think of assassins and murderers as those who are cowardly and strike at the weak, but they can also strike at the strong as no one else can, and so change the course of empires, as they did with Meridia.

I know the look in your eye well; you are thinking of those who forced your sister out from her house, and those who have stripped your father of his land, no? If only you had the resources that Jacques had, no? Unfortunately, we can not all change empires — I, for example, do not have it in me to do such things, even if I know in my heart of hearts it is the right thing to do.

But if you are to make your petition to the King for aid in your country of Sanscara, I do believe it may be time for you to be on your way, if you are to catch the traveling carriage that heads to the capitol. Before you go, though, I do have a small gift for you, something I've picked up in my travels. These are five small spider toys, fit only for children to play with. They need to be wound up before being they will move around, of course. Do take care that you wind them up the right way; it is always clockwise, never counter-clockwise. And if you find that your children need more because a few of these break, there may be a tinkerer in Kadath that may assist you. And I think you'll find it rather cold outside as you head up north; may I recommend Taggert's Tailoring in Jonasthtown for you on your way to the capitol?

No, there is no need to thank me for this; I am but a humble innkeeper and I only hope that you will have a pleasant journey, wherever it takes you, and perhaps you will be able to tell me a story if circumstances take you back here one day.



--

A/N: I think this may be the longest piece I've ever written. I like it, though I think there's still some work to be done, but I certainly put more than the usual two-hours-before-it's-due effort into this one. There may be some spelling/grammar mistakes from rearranging things and cutting things out (and let me tell you, there was a lot cut out), but I thought I'd put it up anyway.

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